Review | JOKER | Arthur's Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Life

Hyperbole be damned, this wasn't too bad

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It was in my college days, the mid-2000s, when I first watched the GG Allin documentary Hated, directed by one Todd Phillips. It was quite the spectacle for a wide-eyed early twenty-something to watch, especially in the early discovery days of youtube, where videos of the obscure and the extraordinary were blossoming. For all of the antics shown, the grime and the poop throwing, the yelling and the cutting, there was also this… tenderness and sweet vibes that radiated from this man of punk, for whom true freedom was, in his mind, achieved. Phillips has, since then, done mostly boner comedies, but here and there will offer up some subversive - sometimes dude-bro-ish, sometimes truly dark - filmmaking within the business of Hollywood goofiness.

So, of course, he would do a standalone take on the origins of Batman’s arch-nemesis, Joker.

And, of course, it would be highly divisive.

And, of course, it would be a “problem”. So much so, that police are going undercover at screenings opening weekend.

This movie won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion this year, so there must be something to it, huh?

Indeed, Joker is a rarity, and I don’t just mean for a major studio to bankroll. It’s a movie that pretty openly finds common ground with its central character, never once having to sell its own soul to do so, but genuinely invites him in any way. While not a documentary, there is a similar Hated approach here, where the filmmaker teeters between fly on the wall fascination and joining in on the chaos directly. In one scene, where Arthur Fleck - the mentally and emotionally unstable party clown/wannabe comedian (Joaquin Pheonix) - in full Joker makeup, with a pretty heavy plan laid out for him to execute, dances and stomps his way down a long and steep set of street stairs. It’s creepy, it’s crawly, and yet somehow freeing to watch as someone unhinged reaches a moment of zen.

Make no bones about it, Joaquin Phoenix isn’t really playing a comic book character here. This is as if Combat Shock had a comic book spinoff planted onto it. Or if someone found a way to take the video diaries of Ricardo Lopez (the Bjork stalker) and adapt a “villain” tale onto it. I wrapped quotes around “villain” because it’s quite “easy” to make a mentally ill or insufficiently cared for individual into a “monster”. Sometimes, the problem really is society. Sometimes, the problem really is in the lack of social services. Sometimes, a person is tossed through the cracks. Does this make for a fun superhero-ish story? And fun for who?

Phoenix is a revelation in this film and absolutely reminds me of people I’ve met in life (even recently) that have been abused, neglected, and left to fend for themselves. For Fleck, a murderous moment that could’ve happened to anyone ends by way of triumph when he gets the courage to kiss a girl. Before that, he runs away, takes a deep breath, and does a kind of waltz. There are many instances like this where our understanding of morality is upended by the very tone of Fleck’s actions and what it all means for and to him. Does this make Joker inappropriate or vile in some way?

I think Phillips - a most woke to woke culture guy - is trying to depict a tragi-comedy in such a bending manner that people across the political and philosophical spectrums don’t know how to react other than to express disgust. And, really, rightfully so. It’s totally understandable, especially when turning perspective and expectation on their heads on a global stage. Joker, at least through Phoenix, is a disturbing but somewhat courageous portrait of someone who loses everything but somehow wins most victoriously - at least, in his mind. Think Brazil, sort of.

The message(s) within the off-kilter tone can be distracting to the character piece, especially when you consider that the event that creates Batman in this film might turn him into a Punisher than a caped crusader. Maybe in these fits and starts, Phillips injects too much to play with. “Kill the rich!” reads a protest sign during a near riot. “They’re clowns!” a wealthy guy says on tv. Is it reductive to place people into only these two categories? Or is it that, amidst the noise and the fury of these battling ideas and ideals, those in the middle must make their own way through it all? Like a gallery of rogues or a league of sorts.

Joker, minus the controversy and the poor statements, by itself, is mostly a one-man show from Phoenix, with a touch more going on than expected. It’s uncomfortable, it’s righteous, and likely deserves most of its accolades. Will I be joining the Best Picture campaigning, in a year when Avengers: Endgame might be considered for top Oscars?

No, I don’t think I will.

What a weird timeline we’re in, right?

RATING: 3.5 / 5

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The kids are alright, mostly.

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You treat girls like shit.

Perhaps not a horror in the “traditional” sense (or even slasher way as the title suggests), Knives and Skin - which screened at The Overlook Film Fest a few months back - somehow fits well under the umbrella of this genre. It’s a noir, but not really a mystery (less whodunnit and more whenwilltheshoedrop). It’s dramatic, but too tense and awkward-ish to be a drama ever so simply. It’s Lynchian, but more distinct and tapped into something more personal than borrowed. Horror feels right, but not in the “what’s lurking around the corner” way. Rather, this is a daymare of secrets and sordid details, of leftover emotions often unchecked and non-deliverable.

No jump scares, just ourselves and those around us, flawed as ever.

Director Jennifer Reeder (whose work is highly admired by The Eyeslicer) has culled together something haunting and ghostly, without the haunts or the ghosts. It’s a tale of a missing high schooler and the friends and family left to absorb her disappearance into their lives and environment. What exactly does an event like this do to people? To children still growing and maturing? How does it feel among our already complicated lives? The missing girl, Carolyn Harper, becomes background to the tale of a community that moves on, no matter the struggle and ignorance involved. Some, like her Mother, can’t do that so easily. Often, she is seen wearing her daughter’s clothes over her adult clothes, with wet mascara running down her face. She seeks anything - a smell, a clue, a memory - that could bring her a step closer to Carolyn.

Meanwhile, ex-friends and other high schoolers are preparing for a dance coming up. We see their interactions with one another, we understand their individual personalities, their goals, desires, doubts, lusts. Rarely do they ever speak of Carolyn directly, and yet her disappearance is clearly on their minds. The families of these kids all have interconnected, sometimes resolved sometimes left open issues of their own, but the focus is always on this set of teens and how they’re dealing with what they’re not talking about.

Reeder imbues musical elements into the story, moments that each resonates at different clips, fitting the contextual dressings of their moments. The two I was most drawn towards were renditions of “Our Lips are Sealed” and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”, one sung at their music teacher/mother of Carolyn in a matter of factly/mild shrug kind of manner, the other sung to her in a most comforting way. “Sealed” was around the beginning, and I suspect was chosen to express the tragic nature of the Mother’s fruitless efforts in searching and the temporary unwavering attitude from the other female students. Temporary, of course. Time has a way of breaking down walls and revealing a truth hidden.

Knives and Skin may be a female-heavy story, one that goes from trauma and sadness and grief to maturity and encouragement and victory for the girls and women at play, but to single-out its strong feminism might detract from the growth that every character undergoes, specifically the impotent and immature jock who kicks things off. All throughout, he hides shame and other deep feelings with brute bullying and typical chauvinism. Still, he’s just a developing kid, and Reeder gets that. By the end, after being dealt a blow from his mistreated girlfriend (the quote that began this review), he continues to cover, cower, and hide what he’s really experiencing, usually with his letterman jacket - now adorned with an everlasting statement of how he treats the opposite sex.

Absolutely, Jennifer Reeder has mixed together in a cauldron made just for this movie, quite the colorful, bright, and dense concoction of offbeat soap opera-ish teenage pathos, all without that schmaltzy tear-jerkiness. Knives and Skin bends genre to its will and brings up emotions that were subtly held deep inside us all, to the goosebumps that cover our arms.

My eyes were watered down some multiple times, and I only noticed when catching my image in the glare off the screen. I could attribute this to allergies, but I’d like to think this movie achieved something grander than a scare, and probably more shocking. After all, this is a horror.

RATING: 5 / 5

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What Keeps Cinema Alive?

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Indeed, my fickle self is back on Substack and appearing in your various inboxes!

No matter what, movies are a progressive medium. Whether I write reviews from that particular edge or move on to something else, it remains a potentially empathetic and forward-feeling form.

“An invention without a future,” The Lumiere Brothers were quoted as having said about cinema. A novelty, basically. Certainly, elements like 3D make it appear very gimmicky, but I believe very much that film, filmmaking, and moviegoing all have legs. All have more days ahead.

Looking at how we define cinema, where it’s been, and what it is now - through commentary on topical news blasts, information on upcoming events, new styles, and business models, interviews, etc - it is my goal to, every Wednesday, explore just who and what is making the very heart of cinema beat, and learn why some are saying R.I.P. so soon.

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Til next week…



Don't be afraid to watch. Don't be afraid to feel. Don't be.

I’m not usually nervous going into a movie, but I was with The Nightingale. No, it wasn’t because of what I had heard would be featured and depicted. No, it wasn’t because of The Babadook. What spurred my anxiety was the anticipation of having to review something that bent so powerfully on themes of race, gender, trauma, and revenge. It’s quite the personal responsibility to get right with yourself and with your readers on such subject matter and subtext. Indeed, dear audience, this was not an easy watch. It never goes the route of A Serbian Film for certain - a movie that kept upping the vile and bile all the way til the dirty conclusion for the sake of some pretentious nonsense - as everything in Nightingale, the ugly and the beautiful, is at least honest, no matter how brutally so. 

Interestingly, in my mind at least, I compare this to the Paul Haggis Best Picture winning Crash, which I suppose no film should be contrasted with in good measure. Nightingale never panders or reassures its white privileged viewers with scenes of reconciliation so sappy it’d make a tree melt and buckle, even when showcasing the worst of white male dominated humanity and power. Instead, what begins as a simple revenge tale quickly turns itself on its head, revealing just how in over her head our lead is, and just how much more she must learn for the sake of her soul. 

Our lead is Clare, played by Aisling Franciosi in what is assuredly a heartbreakingly vulnerable, positively aggressive turned assertive, and absolutely invincible performance. She works in what is essentially an indentured servitude type labor camp in early 1800s Tasmania, now almost fully under British control. She’s Irish and, with her husband and baby, seeks her freedom, but is under the ruling thumb of a petty and mad Lieutenant. This “man” wields his power much like a demolition firm uses its wrecking ball, or in how massively endowed adult performers are requested to behave for the camera. That is to say, while his evil shows more than Snidely Whiplash, it’s vastly more believable than in that cartoon way, probably because 1) We’ve all heard of it and 2) Some have felt all too much of it. 

It feels true because it IS true.  

Tragedy strikes early and hard, in a fashion I dare not describe in specifics or spoil a ghastly. Immediately, Clare demands justice, going so far as to wander into the unknown wilderness with a young aboriginal guide named Billy, played with straight fire, disdain for “authority”, and ever escalating self-confidence by Baykali Ganambarr. She calls him “boy” often and harshly, as that’s what she’s used to and all she understands. He shrugs it off, even as the word stings. Sooner than later though, both will bond over mutual hatred for the British Army - who have taken equally from Clare and Billy - and this bond will go from being based on hate to being based on what’s righteous and right. 

The Nightingale deals in the horror of murder and pillaging, of taking and taking some more with no remorse whatsoever. In one haunting scene early on, when Clare is being abused, she looks upon a fire that cackles and burns with calming rage, somehow giving her a moment to breathe. In another, there’s a shared moment between her and a local villager despite the fact that they didn’t and will never meet. Both are experiencing traumatic events in different ways, but look up at the night sky, and see the bright stars and immense heavens. There may be an indifference that the universe has to our suffering, but we don’t have to be indifferent to each other. 

We could draw lines from this film to our current society, of course, but I would argue that Nightingale is a bit broader than that. At least, in some respects. Certainly, President Trump comes to mind when we think of encouraging an environment that breeds aggression towards those seen as minorities, but that may be too simplified. Even within all the rhetoric, there’s some nance missing from the punditry conversations. Nightingale understands this, Jennifer Kent gets this, and goes for the throat with complications, with contradictions, with changes of heart, with motivation, with it all. People are imperfect, you know.  

This is a film rich and complex in humanity, specifically what we are ultimately boiled down to when stripped of everything, and what lengths any of us will go to take and/or to make right. For this, it is breathtaking and astounding, harsh but real, and open to any and all criticisms. Just when you think The Nightingale won’t go any further, it does, but only in so far as the characters are. And you’ll be surprised just what lurks inside a person’s very spirit. 

This is, for now, my pick for favorite film of 2019. Grave, stark, but important. Never looks away from anything. 

Aboriginal villagers here don’t speak English, but are subtitled. When speaking out, crying out for their families and for safety, all the while the men in power smiled in smugness and behaved in and with disgust, I nearly threw up in anger and true shock. 

We’re better than this, aren’t we? 

Then why repeat? 

RATING: 5 / 5

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The Gulf South is awfully bleak, you know. Is there room for anything else?

While many members of the Gulf South black community are featured in What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, from single mothers to small business owners and Mardi Gras Indians, perhaps the most loudly spoken are from The New Black Panthers for Self-Defense organization. Director Roberto Minervini’s film is surprisingly given front row access to such a militant and aggressive group, capturing indoctrination meetings, community outreach, armed investigations, and of course protesting. It was after my viewing of the movie that I looked them up on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website, where I confirmed for myself some not so great suspicions about their mission statement. 

World’s on Fire? Isn’t at all about agreeing or disagreeing with anyone. In fact, the camera crew maintains a strong “fly on the wall” type angle towards who and what is being documented. It comes strikingly close to tipping its own scale and flat-out endorsing solidarity with the extremists, but is able to achieve a balancing act that works for the best. For the most part, I was nodding my head with those shouting “black power!”, but when the word “zionist” came up, and when a citizen’s inquiry into a neighborhood murder involves live machine guns meant to intimidate, I grew curious as to Minervini’s thesis. 

In the times of Trump, white supremacy has been indirectly and most overtly encouraged, running rampant across the country in dangerous and ever-increasing numbers. This is a world on fire most assuredly. And how does a class and race of people act and live in such a burning environment? We see, through a few side stories in 2017, set mostly in the New Orleans region, the harsh realities that are reconciled with and heartbreakingly understood, not to mention the lengths individuals and masses go to just to survive, thrive, and grasp onto some form of justice. The New Black Panthers are but a small portion of the story, but the piece they inhabit represents a potential future for my two favorite characters.

There’s a child and a bar owner, followed separately, who caught my attention is a way most resonant. The child, an older brother, does his best to avoid trouble in and around his home, while obeying the words of his mother. However, the dangling carrot-like curse of his formerly incarcerated father looms overhead, as troubles in school crop about. It’s clear that his younger brother looks up to him, but what isn’t is just how the older one is able to handle such great and influential responsibility. When he says “kids your age don’t shoot,” it’s a devastating but honest observation. The sheer weight of this world lays heavy on his shoulders. 

The woman, who runs a bar on the brink of closing, does her best to keep her family and friends close and out of the cold embrace of a region that’s indifferent to them at best, and awfully violent to them at worst. Almost everyone she meets gets a personal story from her, some philosophical and inspiring anecdote on life and morality that always rings true and always comes from a genuine heart. She too wears stress, but in her case it all comes out through teardrops, cracks in her voice, and awkward smiles during painful recollections. Normally, she’s pretty stoic, but it’s in these climactic moments that her vulnerability shows a strength in overcoming the tragic. 

World’s on Fire isn’t as lyrical or as well-composed as Hale County This Morning, This Evening - the vastly superior documentary narrative hybrid - in fact, I was wishing for more of an editorial voice in this picture, but despite needing some trims in the runtime, the film accomplishes a story more interesting than others of the genre. Perhaps in being too plain, Minervini and crew stripped themselves of power and gave it back to the subjects. Or maybe they were flexing a vision of sorts, one that mimics naturalism within documentation, by way of just floating in and out of conversation and revelation. 

On this, I’m confounded.

The New Black Panthers of Self-Defense are indeed troubling, especially in what Minervini chooses and doesn’t choose to show us, from that one glimpse of a machine gun and that one utterance of a Jewish slur, almost forcing emotional reactions and connections from the audience. Context would’ve been nice, but honestly, we already know the condition of things as of late. Just look out your window. What do you see? People trying to get by, but being put down in one form or another. Down the block might be their past, up the street their future. What will determine the direction they go?

This film doesn’t know nor does it choose to. What does World’s on Fire go for instead? A convenience in being a spectator and an anxiety in observation. They’re afraid. We’re afraid, too. The subjects? No time to be.

RATING: 3 / 5

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