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‘Joker,’ and Judging Movies Before You See Them



Todd Phillips’ Joker has probably been the most controversial, argued about, and think-pieced movie of 2019 to date. Some of that discussion has been illuminating at times, but much more of it has been something else entirely. 

There have been several different flavors of strange Joker discourse from several different corners, including those of varying political viewpoints and even different opinions about the film itself. We’ve had over-the-top praise and derision. We’ve had hand-wringing about both the film’s on-screen violence and the potential for it to inspire bloodshed in real life — including a warning from the U.S. government. We’ve had worries that the film was validating the views of “incels,” or possibly the specific persecution fantasies of white male stand-up comedians. There have even been (as is often the case) baseless conspiracy theories about film critics supposedly acting to undermine the film and its Rotten Tomatoes score.

But there’s one faction voicing opinions of Joker that’s particularly indefensible: those who have written pieces about their refusal to see it. 


This trend began with a widely shared series of social media posts in early August — weeks before the author or anyone else had seen the film — about why Joker was “problematic.” Closer to Joker‘s release came the think pieces. There was one in Vogue (“Why I Won’t Be Seeing the New Joker Movie”), and others in No Film School (“I won’t see Joker. Not this weekend. Not ever.”) and WV News (“I assure you that I will never, as in ever, see “Joker.” I won’t see it at a theater or on TV, not on a porch or in a tree. That’s the way it’s going to be.”) 

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with someone choosing not to see Joker, or any other movie. If one finds comic book movies, violent movies, clowns, or the work of Todd Phillips something not to their taste, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Which movies one goes to see are their personal choice, and no one should be forced to see anything. 

However, it’s practically an insult to film discourse for someone to write a piece — and get paid money for it — simply declaring their desire to not see something, dragging that particular film through the mud without giving it the benefit of actually watching it. The tendency sends a clear message to critics: why should you actually go see movies when you can just write about your refusal to do so? At a time when the economics of digital journalism are making it harder and harder for movie writers to get work, it’s absolutely unconscionable for any outlet to assign this sort of piece. 

For one, these think pieces seem mostly based on the understanding that emerged about Joker from its trailers and marketing campaign — much of which are not borne out by the actual movie. No, the Joker character is not depicted as an “incel,” and his rejection by women has little to do with his motivations. No, the film does not treat him as a hero, or even an antihero (he’s a villain.) The freakout about violence at the cinema not only hasn’t come to pass, but seems largely inspired by incorrect initial media reports (and repeated in the above tweetstorm) that Aurora theater shooter James Holmes had either claimed to be the Joker, or had dressed as the character while he killed 12 people on opening night of The Dark Knight Rises in July 2012. 

Also, while Joker is certainly violent, isn’t uncommonly so by the standards of modern-day R-rated movies. And the comedian aspect has more to do with Phillips’ desire to pay homage to Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy than anything having to do with modern-day comedy club politics. 

This kind of sight-unseen critique, with writers snidely pontificating about specific movies without the benefit of seeing them first, isn’t a new phenomenon . There was last year’s freakout about the nonexistent “lack of American flags” in First Man, which could only have been launched by those who hadn’t seen the film.  Many of us remember Glenn Greenwald trashing Zero Dark Thirty before he saw it, or the review of American Sniper in The New Republic that mentioned in the fifth paragraph that the author had not seen it. 

The purpose of this essay is not to defend the Joker film itself. In fact, this reviewer mostly disliked Joker, finding it an overwrought exercise that depicted a not-particularly-interesting incarnation of the famous villain. While the production design is impressive, the film’s primary innovation was in pulling its Scorsese mimicry from Taxi Driver and King of Comedy rather than Goodfellas and Casino. That conclusion, however, was gleaned from actually going to the theater and viewing a screening of the movie. 

But the “I refuse to see this movie” essays are a symptom of another phenomenon: Joker seems to have broken people’s brains, and made them stupid. 

As the sad sack Arthur becomes a force of nature over the course of the film, the audience grows conflicted but remains enraptured.

I think there’s a reason for this. Joker — both the real movie and the pretend one imagined by those who haven’t seen it — touches on a virtual laundry list of subjects that are controversial in 2019 America: violence, guns, racism, fears of urban civil unrest, mental illness, the plight of disaffected and lonely men, “cancel culture,” scary clowns, bitter and long-running feuds between both Marvel and DCEU loyalists and critics and fanboys, and the persecution complex held by too many male nerds who aren’t quite satisfied with the vast majority of mass popular culture being pitched directly at them.

Joker‘s politics are also something of a muddle, meaning that a lot of viewers — and, yes, non-viewers — seemed content to cherry-pick from them, and to extract a political message. The director jumping in with an interview days before Joker‘s release to denounce the “woke” turn comedy has taken added even more fuel to the fire. 

All of this has led to a great deal of strong and passionate opinions about Joker, its various aspects, and even ancillary stuff like critical reaction and how hypothetical filmgoers might react. And a lot of people, it seems, have seen it fit to graft their existing opinions and prejudices about those subjects onto the film — an action that doesn’t require them to have actually seen it. 

Argument and disagreement are a healthy thing for cinema culture. But it’s not too much to ask that those participating in these arguments actually see the film in question before deigning to write about it. 

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.



  1. Mike Worby

    October 14, 2019 at 4:53 pm

    Fantastic write-up The controversy surrounding the film was almost wholesale invented, and was totally absurd.

  2. Ricky Fernandes da Conceição

    October 17, 2019 at 9:48 pm

    This is one of my favourite articles on the site in quite a while. I agree with everything you say. I can’t stand articles written by people judging a movie before they watch it.

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Tom Hanks Soars in ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’

TIFF 2019



A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Every film about a famous person needs a journalist as a way into their private lives; at least, that’s what the last few years’ worth of biopics might have one believe. Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood follows this now-tired convention, but her film is miraculously the rare one that actually benefits from this peek into her subject’s life. She’s created a comforting yet complicated portrait of Fred Rogers that gets at the essence of his unshakable kindness, while also examining how such an unimpeachable figure impacted the lives of others.

Rather than with starting with Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood begins with burnt-out journalist Lloyd Vogel (The Americans’ Matthew Rhys, playing a version of the writer Tom Junod). He’s encountered great success and has a position at Esquire in 1998 — when print is riding high, and the internet hasn’t yet devoured most of the media ecosystem. But his unvarnished and aggressive investigative pieces have made him plenty of enemies, even if they did garner him awards. Looking to help him out, Lloyd’s editor assigns him a 400-word smidgen of a profile of Mr. Rogers (a magnificent Tom Hanks), who is about as far as possible from the kinds of people he usually writes about.

Tom Hanks looks nothing like Mr. Rogers, but he’ll charm even the most cynical in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

After some grumblings, Lloyd dutifully sets up the interview, only to get a call from Rogers himself, who is happy to start talking right over the phone. Once the journalist arrives on set in Pittsburgh, the television host puts the latest episode’s shoot on hold just to greet Lloyd and spend some time getting to know him, even though he’s working on a tight deadline. We don’t actually learn much of the back story about Rogers (viewers looking for that should seek out Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? [2018]), but Hanks has the remarkable ability to give us far more valuable insights into his inner workings.

Though he looks absolutely nothing like Rogers, and barely even sounds like him, Hanks manages to affect the same cadences that made his on-screen delivery so mellifluous. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, presents a version of Mr. Rogers who is delicately and empathetically attuned with everyone around him. He’s a seemingly selfless person who takes more time out of his days for others than anyone could be expected to, and Hanks has a way of asking leading questions that present radically simple ways of living in harmony with those around us. I’m not exactly a movie crier, and even I found myself misting up when Hanks reminded Lloyd (and the audience) just how easy it is to be kind. Rhys’ Lloyd can’t understand this, and is initially convinced that there must be a darker inner-Rogers. However, anyone who has seen the documentary will know that what you saw was what you got with Mr. Rogers.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

This is why the choice to use the journalist angle actually works for It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. A more conventional summation of his life from childhood to death would have been trapped by the constancy of Fred Rogers; the whole point of his existence is that he was always good and kind, and never deviated from that script. By focusing on a fictionalized Junod, we get to see how Rogers ingratiated himself into a single person’s life, which is more interesting than a never-ending list of his good deeds.

Hemingway’s style in most of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is fairly dry and reserved, which perfectly captures the aggressively unglamorous nature of Mr. Rogers’ show. She adds in a fun departure from her previous work by creating a fictional framing device that treats the entire film as if it were an extended segment on the TV show. She also borrows the series’ charming miniature neighborhoods, and uses them for all of her establishing shots and transitions. When Lloyd flies off to Pittsburgh, we see a little model jet zoom away from New York City as model cars shuffle through traffic. But it’s her ability to coax great performances out of her actors that is her defining strength. Hanks is excellent (as expected), but she even draws a compelling performance from Rhys, who’s stuck playing the movie’s most difficult role. He could easily have been seen as merely a distraction from Mr. Rogers, but (most of the time) his solo scenes still have plenty of depth.

In 2019, a figure like Fred Rogers seems like something we dreamed as a society, rather than a real human being. His focus on forgiveness and understanding seems at odds with the moral certitude that affects certain corners of the internet. The Mr. Rogers of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a memory of simpler times, but also a call to arms to bring back some of his unbridled kindness. It may not seduce the most cynical among us, but it’s worth a try.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 10, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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‘The Kingmaker’ is a Probing Look at the Wife of a Despot



Imelda Marcos in The Kingmaker

The Queen of Versailles, released back in 2012, was one of the best documentaries of the decade. Directed by Lauren Greenfield, it followed Jackie Siegel, the trophy wife of David Siegel, founder of the timeshare company Westgate Resorts. The film depicted the family’s construction of what was to be the largest residential home in the United States, which quickly went awry once the 2008 financial crisis hit their business hard. The documentary showed that Greenfield has a unique gift for understanding the lives and pathologies of the super-wealthy. Seven years later, Greenfield is back with The Kingmaker, another documentary portrait of a rich lady — one who, like Jackie Siegel, also had a cartoonishly evil husband and a weakness for both opulent residences and rare exotic animals.

The Kingmaker is a portrait of Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines from the 1960s to the ’80s. Imelda is known in the popular imagination as the supportive wife of that country’s dictator Ferdinand Marcos, for frequently meeting with world leaders, and for her extensive collection of thousands of pairs of shoes. This one is set on the other side of the world, but is just as instructive, not to mention entertaining.

The Kingmaker Imelda

Greenfield’s film catches up with the now 90-year-old Imelda, and depicts her life today as she luxuriates around her various estates, reminisces about late husband, tells stories about meeting with leaders from Reagan to Mao to Saddam, and pushes the political career of her son, known as Bongbong, who ran for vice president of the Philippines in 2016. 

For the first half hour or so, The Kingmaker looks like an attempt to humanize and even rehabilitate Imelda’s image. She opens up about her mother’s death and her husband’s serial infidelities; he claimed he was constantly sending her around the world because he feared a coup, but really it was so he could conduct extramarital affairs.

We start to think this is, if not a puff piece, the equivalent of one of Errol Morris’ docs, where he gives a controversial political figure a chance to have their say while also challenging them. 

But eventually things turn, and The Kingmaker lays out that the Marcos family had in fact engaged in massive human rights improprieties, from torturing political dissidents to rigging elections, to a scheme that entailed razing an entire residential area in order to build a zoo of exotic animals which were imported from Africa via bribes. Perhaps it was a clue early on when Imelda revealed how well she got along with the likes of Richard Nixon, Moammar Khadafy, Mao Tse-Tung, and Saddam Hussein. 

The Marcos family also plundered billions from their own people, which paid for real estate all over the world, priceless art, as well as that famous shoe collection (The Kingmaker shows, among other things, that the Philippines could really use an Emoluments Clause.) What Imelda has to say now (she only ever refers to her husband as “Marcos”) makes it clear that she was not only complicit in the dictator’s crimes, but continues to defend and profit from them to this day. 

And from what we see of the Marcos’ son, Bongbong, he’s a uniquely untalented and uninspiring politician who has inherited all of his father’s corruption, but none of his charisma. The Kingmaker also ties in with the modern-day politics of the country, as its current president, Rodrigo Dutarte, is shown as the true heir to the Marcos tradition, depicted as a Trump to Bongbong’s Jeb Bush.

The Kingmaker also recalls Joshua Oppenheimer’s great 2013 documentary The Act of Killing in the way it demonstrates how national myths are established and carried through the generations. We see schoolchildren reciting why the imposition of martial law was actually a moment of national glory. 

Greenfield’s last film, last year’s Generation Wealth, was a big step down, lacking any focus and for some reason concentrating a great deal on people from the porn industry. But The Kingmaker is a return to form for the filmmaker, as it shows she’s honest enough to speak ill of her own subject. 

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‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past



Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.

Rojo vacation

After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.

The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.

Rojo locker room

The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.

However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.

A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.

Rojo teens

Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?

The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.

‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.

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