Joker (2019) lashes out against the ruling elite

Does Joaquin Pheonix’s Joker live up to expectations?

5 stars

JOKER – final trailer

Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019) is the story of Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Pheonix), his mental decline, and his underdog rise as an anarchist-extremist.

No doubt fans of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of Batman’s long-standing antagonist went into a screening of Joker prepared to compare the two portrayals. Even I, despite not being a massive fan of the character or even the franchise, bought into the idea that Pheonix’s Joker must somehow pale in comparison. I assumed that Phillips would take some cues from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012) in creating his new version of The Joker, but he surprised me by how absolutely he managed to transform the character and my perception of him.

 

In outlining Joker’s past, his motivations, and his desires, Phillips succeeds in creating a realistic backstory that portrays Arthur as a vulnerable man who, as the rising action mounts, becomes more and more disillusioned by a society that has rejected him every step of the way.  In the beginning, it is hard not to see Arthur’s outbursts as him simply standing up for himself against the elitist bullies that dominate Gotham City and who see a disabled, unprotected man like Arthur as an easy target.

Having found his defence in the cold grip of a gun, Arthur’s newfound confidence creates previously unimaginable opportunities to extend his social reach and express his rage against the capitalist machine in Gotham

Joker 4

Joker is the proletariat uprising that Marx always dreamed of. The archetypal bourgeoise/proletariat narrative is blindingly obvious within the film, which, I think, does not detract from the narrative at all. The characters that represent the bourgeoisie, such as Thomas Wayne (played by Brett Cullen) are somewhat two-dimensional in that they do not stray far from their purpose of spurring Arthur’s evolution on; in one memorable scene, memorable because it was almost laughable in that the opposition could not have been any clearer, Arthur asks Thomas for ‘a bit of warmth’ and Thomas, brace yourself, punches him in the face.

Then again, Joker is told from Arthur’s unreliable perspective. Perhaps extremists, or those with extremist beginnings, are apt to only see the bad. Maybe it is a given that Arthur would turn the TV on just as Thomas who, at this time, declares his intention to run for Major, calls the working class people of Gotham City ‘clowns’.

Joker clown costume
Arthur at work

Critical reception to Joker is split, with half of the reviewers labelling the film as a disappointing flop. I wonder whether this is because the film focusses much more on the underbelly of sensationalism, the step-by-step disenchantment Arthur experiences, rather than rash actions with no reason attached that TV News plasters across every platform.

I think that some people do not want to see Joker as just a man, or, more specifically, a man with a disability, and would instead prefer to believe that extremism grows from something us normal people cannot understand or counteract. Whilst Arthur’s triumph at the end of the film does not make me want to cheer for him, I do see the ending as the beginning of a revolution which, however needlessly violent and incendiary, is a reaction to poor living conditions and the desire for a more level playing field.

Joker without makeup
Arthur Fleck, sans mask

 My heart ached for Arthur. Joker is so compelling because the audience is welcomed, for what feels like the first time in the history of mainstream box office action films, into the world of the mentally ill. Pheonix and Phillips take the vaudeville-esque mask away from the previous, more cartoonish depictions of The Joker, and align him more with the superhero; in movies like The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Iron Man (2008), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) the audience sees the loses, the betrayals, and the ultimate rise to power as the protagonists evolve and become more self-assured. This is all paralleled within Joker, and serves to show the fine-line balance between good and evil, especially when we see how mistreated Arthur is.

Much critical debate has surrounded what the film could cause. Could it cause extremism in young men? Could we see a rise in gun violence? Critical thought about Joker seems to forget that Arthur was lashing out against the system; cuts in mental health funding, long hours for low wages, abuse, to name just a few among a long list of other inequalities between the rich and the poor. Instead of rejecting art that clearly displays the ways in which these inequalities can create rebellious movements, perhaps critics should take a look at their own government and how it works to help the poor and vulnerable.

A Psychological Thriller To Sink Your Teeth Into: Panic Room (2002)

Panic Room (2002) is a psychological thriller you can really sink your teeth into.

Jodie Foster is my go-to for psychological horror. Since finding fame as Iris in Taxi Driver (1971), Jodie Foster has been pegged as the gritty female lead for a number of psychological movies like The Accused (1988), The Silence of The Lambs (1991) and Flight Plan (2005).

Directed by David Fincher, Panic Room (2002) had the benefit of Se7en (1995), The Game (1997), and Fight Club (1999). Hot on the tail of Fight Club, Fincher uses a lot of the same camera angles- the rapid zooming in and across the brownstone house to give an idea of its enormity- which show the playground these robbers have to run around in. Fede Alvarez might have been influenced by Fincher in his creation of Don’t Breathe (2016), another psychological thriller which relies on unusual shots to move the audience around the house.

Fincher was quick to distance Panic Room from his other, more critically acclaimed movies by hailing it ‘popcorn movie-making […] good B-movie stuff.’

Newly divorced Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) view a house on Manhattan’s upper West side to start their life afresh, away from Meg’s cheating ex. The estate agent sweeps into the master bedroom on the uppermost floor of the house and Meg’s forehead wrinkles.

‘That’s strange. Is this room smaller than it should be?’ she says.

The panic room nestled behind a secret door in the master bedroom doesn’t seem to be much of a selling point, really.

With the purchase made, the mother and daughter sit down over a glass of wine and cola respectively. Watching her mother pick at a sad salad, Sarah says, ‘Fuck him. Fuck her too.’

They toast to that.

The pair are asleep by the early hours of the morning, Sarah comforted by her night light, and her mother by the glass of wine which follows her from shot to shot. As night falls Burnham (Forest Whitaker), Raoul (Dwight Yoakam), and Junior (Jared Leto) enter the house just loud enough, of course, to wake Meg.

panic room leto and whitaker
Junior (Jared Leto) and Burnham (Forest Whitaker)

When Burnham has no luck with the front door key (rookie mistake) he enters the house through a hatch in the roof. The audience no doubt wonders why a house with a security system worth what must be thousands of dollars has such a weak point.

Whitaker fans will be happy to know that Burnham is the thief with a heart, the thug with a conscience. His eyes widens as he sees the night light, and when he lets the other two thugs in downstairs he says the job’s off. That’s it- he’s done. He wasn’t counting on a woman and child being there.

But of course he isn’t. Despite his reservations about Raoul- who increases the stakes by carrying a gun- Burnham grudgingly agrees to continue with the job, just as long as he gets his hands on the millions supposedly hid in the panic room.

Meg spots the thieves on her security cameras.

Panic Room sets everything you need to know up in the first fifteen minutes. A lot like Don’t Breathe in this respect, it dedicates most of the film to the psychological nightmare Meg and Sarah have to overcome, with little preamble about the specifics of their situation. Panic Room has been criticised as having a bare-bones sort of script, but what would be added to the film by seeing Meg’s husband cheat? What can be gained form seeing the messy divorce, custody battle and all? Would the movie have the same effect if, half way through, the plot was still plodding through Meg crying in the bath?

Panic Room is a psychological thriller you can really sink your teeth into. And I love the gender imbalance. Burnham is worried about continuing with the job because his conscience rails against hurting a woman and a child. He does not consider that he will be chased, fought against, defeated. He assumed that the woman and child will defer to his plan, screaming hysterically, arms in the air.

Panic Room is a B-movie which defies all over B-movies: the carefully crafted cat and mouse game makes for an intense watch. It’s more nail biting than popcorn biting.

panic room 2

 

 

 

Ocean’s Eight: Transcends Gender Bias

Far too many critics focus on the gender-swapped cast

After reading some reviews for the new installment in the Ocean’s franchise, I was worried that this highly anticipated film would be another case of Ghostbusters (2016), a film that tries to emulate the original and fails horribly, dragging the gender-swapped female cast down along with it.

After seeing Ocean’s Eight (2018), I am convinced that too many reviewers focus on the cast being all female, as opposed to the original all male case in the Steven Soderbergh directed movies. Gary Ross takes on the role of director for the 2018 installment, and his style of directing brings a different dynamic to the films.

The Soderbergh directed Ocean’s films all follow a pattern: lovable rogue Danny Ocean assembles a team of talented misfits and relieves an unlikable antagonist of their most prized possession. Ocean’s Eight follows much the same premise.

Debbie Oceans (Sandra Bullock) has just been released from jail after serving five years after a con went wrong. Her then boyfriend Claude Becker (Richard Armitage) handed her over to the police to secure his own freedom.

lou and debbie

Out of jail, Debbie contacts her long time partner in crime Lou (Cate Blanchett) and the pair find a bunch of A to Z list celebrities to abet them in their goal of stealing a £150,000,000 Cartier necklace from around Daphne Kluger’s (Anne Hathaway’s) neck at a gala. This is where the similarities to the Soderbergh directed films end.

Blanchett is not used to her full potential. The audience (and critics alike) are disappointed as an actress whose repertoire ranges from Elizabeth 1st to Bob Dylan functions mainly as a plot device. She gives Debbie a place to live, she warns Debbie that her desire for revenge against Becker will lead her right back to prison. It seems that Ross’ chief focus for Lou is to wear gregarious clothing.

lou

Bullock plays the cool and collected Ocean masterfully, and when she tells Lou that she is not going back to prison the audience is sure she has a trick up her sleeve.

Many of the star cast did not get enough screen time. All of the individual characters come across as almost fully formed people in their own right. The time constraint means that the audience is left wanting more. Nine Ball (Rihanna) is seen furiously tapping away at her keyboard, but not much else.

Nine Ball

Amita’s (Mindy Kaling’s) relationship with her mother is an interesting one, but the audience only ever sees this dynamic as a motivation for Amita to become a criminal. Tammy (Sarah Paulson) portrays herself as the clean-cut mother, but her shed stocked full of stolen goods says otherwise. Snippets of personalities are typical of the Ocean’s franchise, and are perhaps representative of a world where people work together for a month to make a quick buck.

And of course there are moments where the audience has to suspend their disbelief. Why would eight women, some of them entirely straight-laced, agree to steal a necklace worth £150,000,000? Why does Cartier agree to loan the necklace to Kluger for a gala event? Why does the fraud investigator in charge of finding the stolen necklace (James Corden) meet with Debbie and agree to frame Becker?

All in all, Ocean’s Eight stays true to the Ocean’s franchise. In typical Ocean fashion Debbie outsmarts her ex-boyfriend, steals the jewels, and splits the money between her partners.

Being a criminal has never looked so good.