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.

Spoilers: Interactive Movie Bandersnatch Breaks the Fourth Wall

Interactive movie Bandersnatch boasts five different endings

 

Bandersnatch     def

/ˈbandəsnatʃ/

noun

a fierce mythical creature immune to bribery and capable of moving very fast

Meta isn’t the word for Charlie Brooker’s newest Black Mirror creation: Bandersnatch is the interactive story of Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), a coder who attempts to adapt his favourite book (also Bandersnatch) into a game. Set in the 1980s, this nostalgia filled flick is a collision of flashbacks and turning points, all of which we see in quick succession when it is revealed we have picked the wrong option, and have to go back to point A, or B, or C.

Bandersnatch Book

Until Brooker releases a tell all interview about Bandersnatch, there is really no way of telling how many twists and turns there are. In the beginning Brooker lulls us into a false sense of security by asking us to choose between two cereals. The difficulty increases from there on out.

At first the nail-biting wait to see what effect my choices would have on Stefan’s life added some tension to Bandersnatch, but the resulting brutal violence wore away at the suspense. The audience can only watch Stefan beat his father (Craig Parkinson) to death so many times before a sense of deja vu sets in.

The consensus appears to be that there are five alternate endings, which range from prison for Stefan to tekkenesque fight scenes. The ending does not mean you are finished. When you have reached an ending or chosen the ‘wrong’ choice you can circle back and discover a new ending. Bandersnatch is about the illusion of freewill, both for Stefan and the viewer.

Bandersnatch Metal Head Easter Egg
Metal Head Easter Egg

Bandersnatch cannot be compared to any of Brooker’s other Black Mirror creations. Unlike the vibrant colours in the U. S. S. Callister, Bandersnatch paints a pallid picture. Far from the undeserved sympathy that the murderer Mia evokes in Crocodile, in Bandersnatch we see Stefan under a microscope, which means we cannot step back and see the bigger picture. Bandersnatch is a bit too much of everything at once. How can we sympathise with Stefan when we have seen it all played out before? And unlike the protagonist in Crocodile, whose motivations are laid bare, the Bandersnatch book that began Stefan’s decent into insanity is hovering somewhere off in our peripheral vision, a bit too blurry to make out.

The Bandersnatch book separates this movie from the Black Mirror theme: while Stefan’s deterioration is linked to the stress of creating his multi-choice game, Bandersnatch is much more widely linked to mental health, trauma, and obsession than it is tech. The latter is incidental to the overwhelming idea that free will is just that, an idea.

Bandersnatch

Blink and you might miss it, but Bandersnatch is also about legacy. After we have experienced each ending, we watch a game reviewer gives his verdict on Stefan’s creation. In one variation he gives it 0/5. For me, the reviewer only gave Bandersnatch 5/5 when Stefan murdered his father and chopped him into little pieces. In this timeline Stefan later told his therapist that his father was away visiting friends, and that with the house to himself he finally feels free to focus on coding. Like the murderers who want to make their mark, we go back in time and find the ending that makes Bandersnatch a critical success.

Bandersnatch breaks the fourth wall for me a bit too much. One option is to tell Stefan we are watching him on Netflix and admit that we are choosing his next move. Although this was no doubt a tongue in cheek choice meant to stir up conversation more than anything else, I still find it unnerving.

With Netflix being the perfect medium for your average couch potato, hopefully the interactive format will stay within the realm of subversive programmes like Black Mirror, and will not be rolled out across whole genres.While Bandersnatch is a masterpiece of planning and editing, I do not want to interact with the characters, and I am looking forward to the next season of Black Mirror, which I will have absolutely no input in.

 

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

 

 

 

The Best Suspense Movie of The Decade: Don’t Breathe

In the 2013 suspense horror Don’t Breathe the lines of good and bad are blurred

The new Netflix release Don’t Breathe (2016) opens with Rocky’s (Jane Levy’s) bloody body being dragged down the street. This does nothing to dissipate the tension that runs throughout the movie.

Far from the stereotypical horror, Don’t Breathe blurs the lines of good and bad. Director Fede Alvarez does not rely on supernatural horrors, instead he shows us that the most frightening things exist in real life.

Reunited with Levy, who also played the protagonist in his 2013 movie Evil Dead (a contender for the best horror movie of the decade), Alvarez creates a complicated relationship between desire, crime, and ultimately, the will to survive.

Don’t Breathe follows three thieves: Rocky, Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) as they enter the home of an Iraq veteran (Stephen Lang) and attempt to steal his money.

three thieves

 

The thieves are surprisingly easy to sympathise with bar the paper gangster Money, who complicates the robbery by bringing a gun. Alvarez uses Alex to depict the moralistic burglar: he is outraged that Money has brought a weapon, and wonders aloud how it will effect their jail sentence if caught.

Rocky’s home life is less than desirable. She needs to steal from the veteran to take her sister away from her alcoholic mother. This desire leads her to travel further and further into the depths of the man’s house, and discover more horrors along the way.

Alex is more of a mystery. His main motivation appears to be quick cash, and the crush he is harboring for Rocky, which Money quickly shoots down.

‘You think just because you jerk off to her Instagram selfies, that makes you a Romeo?’

In Alvarez’ world everything comes together. At least at first.

Alex father works for a home security company, so they can break into the man’s house without a sound. The man is a reclusive veteran who lives on a street full of abandoned houses meaning the three thieves can enter undetected. Coincidentally, the man is blind.

Any hope of a quick burglary unravels when the trio enter the house.

Money gases the old man to sleep in his own bed. Minutes later the old man appears in the living room, asking, ‘Who, who’s there?’

money pulls gun
Money pulls a gun on the veteran

The audience is almost fooled into thinking the man is a feeble pensioner. Until he attacks Money.

Don’t Breathe is heavy on the visuals and the sound effects. There is scarcely any dialogue as the tables turn on the thieves and it becomes clear that they exist within the blind man’s world. Every movement, every breath, is a step closer to death.

The most memorable scene is one in which the vet flips the electricity switch. He then uses objects he has placed around the basement (a fan here, a piece of wood there) to maneuver around, while Rocky and Alex are running scared. In the darkness their eyes are wide with fright.

 

 

Stephen Lang is perhaps better known for his stage work, but might be recognised for his role in Avatar (2009). His role in Don’t Breathe is certainly a delicate one: his clouded eyes and tense shoulders make him look haunted, and as his backstory unravels, they become representative of the monster he is.

Jane Levy is the perfect counterpart to Lang. When his character is horrific, she is horrified. Ultimately, Don’t Breathe is a battle of wits between Rocky and the veteran, with the audience backing Rocky. Her desire for the better life for herself and her sister urges her forward, much to the dismay of Alex.

‘Rocky. The door’s right fucking there. We can leave right now.’

In the moment where she could leave, Rocky stays and shows herself to be a moralistic person worthy of the audience’s respect. As the movie progresses, the blind veteran falls further from the idealised picture of the victimised elderly man, and becomes a villain in his own right.

‘There’s nothing a man cannot do when he accepts the fact that there is no God.’

 

What is most interesting about Don’t Breathe is the power balance between the two opposing forces. It is a fresh take on the prototypical horror movie, in which the death of the protagonist is a foregone conclusion.

 

 

 

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.