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Joaquin Phoenix Thrills in the Otherwise Empty ‘Joker’

TIFF 2019

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Joaquin Phoenix gave the best performance of this decade in 2012 for Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master; it’s worth getting out of the way the fact that he is one of our greatest living actors. Even when not working with the best directors, Phoenix can still give a memorable performance that eclipses the rest of a film. Unfortunately, that’s the case in Joker, a revisionist take on the iconic Batman villain. This is a comic book movie that fancies itself a trenchant social critique of our chaotic times, but it’s all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

But back to that performance. Phoenix is introduced as a clown named Arthur Fleck, who is rented out by various businesses to debase himself and twirl signs out front. When we first see him he’s already cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, and his mental state only falls apart further from there. This an unfortunate choice, as it’s hard to understand what makes Arthur tick when he practically lives on another planet. Phoenix, sporting a terrible pageboy haircut and looking even gaunter than he did in The Master, oozes unbridled menace, even when he’s in the relatively calming domain of his social worker. Arthur sees her once a week, part of the aftermath of a past commitment to Arkham Asylum, though it’s unclear what precipitated the stay. He’s also supposedly on multiple psychiatric medicines, though it’s unclear if he’s even taking them by the time the film opens.

Joaquin Phoenix is at the top of his game in the brutal origin story Joker, but the film and its lazy screenplay aren’t up to his standards.

Arthur bemoans the state of Gotham, which is shuddering under the weight of rampant inequality and poverty. Amid the turmoil, gangs of teens go wilding out; one group beats him up and steals his sign, getting him into hot water at the clown agency. When he’s not writing homicidal/suicidal thoughts in his journal that masquerade as “jokes” for his “stand-up act,” he sets his attention on Sophie (Zazie Beetz, woefully underused), a woman living in his building with her young daughter. Outside of his rent-a-clown work, Arthur spends his days in his filthy apartment (so basically, a regular New York City flat) with his mother (a similarly underused Frances Conroy), where they regularly watch a late-night talk show starring Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, acting by numbers).

Joker

Martin Scorsese was originally slated to produce the film, but he backed out early in production due to the time requirements of The Irishman. Without Scorsese as a creative participant, director Todd Phillips and co-screenwriter Scott Silver do the next best thing: they crib shamelessly from some of his best work, particularly Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983). But the re-purpose feels neutered and inessential. Arthur seethes with rage at the people who don’t like him because he’s a creep, but he doesn’t really have any thoughts on society the way Travis Bickle did. The King of Comedy’s Rupert ends up looking like a hard-working comic-in-the-making compared to Phoenix’s Arthur, whose first attempt at an open-mic night is marred when he can’t stop his wretched (and retching) laughs. Scorsese’s film was a disturbing commentary on the way we deify celebrities, but Joker doesn’t have any grand thoughts on celebrity or envy. Arthur just wants to tell jokes and have people like him.

Phillips and his cinematographer, Lawrence Sher, film Joker with a constantly moving handheld camera that’s a clear departure from nearly every comic book movie to date. Occasionally the camera work is thrilling, but it’s also often tedious, and there are moments where the camera starts to shake in an otherwise still scene, as if the operator was trying to remind the audience that the movie is edgy. Everything is shot with a sickly yellow sheen — a lazy signifier of a ‘serious movie’ and ‘something in 1970s-era New York (or Gotham, whatever).’ Viewers living in certain big cities will get the chance to see Joker’s nauseating color scheme in all its glory with special 70mm engagements.

Joker

Still, though he’s often over the top, it’s hard to look away from Phoenix’s performance. He can be insufferable in the first hour, but winds up a more compelling actor in the second hour when everything starts to fall apart. He’s closer to the Joker as we know him at that point — a chaotic force for evil, rather than a self-pitying weirdo with mommy issues. The maudlin sentimentality that occasionally interrupts Phoenix’s bursts of looniness is completely eradicated at that point, and despite the film’s cynical adoption of contemporary politics, it’s refreshing in stretches to see this material treated in such a diametrically opposite way from most comic book films. There’s no hint of Marvel’s Tradition of Quality, and even the sheen of other DC movies is absent; for better or worse, Joker has a look and feel all its own. It’s tempting to celebrate the film as the first of a recent spate of comic book movies that subverts the now-standard template, but Joker’s many failings outweigh an intriguing performance from Phoenix. He may be the best we have now, but even he can’t prop up this stinker.

This article was published as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Ricky Fernandes da Conceição

    September 10, 2019 at 8:24 pm

    Dude, you are breaking my heart. There is just no way this film can be as lazy as you say. There’s just no way.

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TIFF

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

TIFF 2019

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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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‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood

A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.

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Ford v Ferrari

Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.

When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.

Ford v Ferrari

Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.

Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.

Ford v Ferrari

Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.

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‘Motherless Brooklyn’ Is a Twisting Homage to Classic Detective Films

TIFF 2019

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Motherless Brooklyn

Edward Norton writes, directs, and stars in this meditative and absorbing adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s neo-noir novel.

In 1999, Jonathan Lethem published his fifth novel, Motherless Brooklyn, and went from being an under-read but respected postmodernist with a science-fiction bent to a writer with a growing mainstream audience. The book was an odd choice to suddenly get people’s attention — a tribute to the classic detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, but featuring a detective with Tourette’s syndrome, and taking place in the 1990s. But Lethem’s flair for language, along with the novel’s equal portions of humor and sincere longing, made it a striking success. Back in the early 2000s, Edward Norton began developing the film, shortly after making his directorial debut. It took almost 19 years, but miraculously, Norton has made a version of Motherless Brooklyn that’s fun, engaging, and a tribute to classic detective films of the past.

Norton takes the lead as Lionel Essrog, a member of a shady detective agency that mainly takes on cases for organized crime rather than regular citizens. He has worked there for years after being rescued from a brutal Catholic school for orphans by Frank Minna (an asleep-at-the-wheel Bruce Willis), the head of the detective agency and a major contact to underworld figures. Lionel suffers from Tourette’s, as well as a smidgen of obsessive-compulsive disorder. His speech is interrupted at varying times with shards of curse words, nonsense phrases, and plays on words (he says the condition is like having “glass in my brain”). The Maryland-raised Norton isn’t an obvious choice for someone who grew up in the outer boroughs, but he brings dueling amounts of chagrin and decency. These qualities are necessary following his ticks and outbursts, which would seem obnoxious from nearly anyone else.

Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn opens on Lionel surveilling his own boss. Frank is meeting with an unnamed group of men, and he’s having Lionel keep tabs on the meeting so that he can burst in should anything go wrong. Of course, something does go wrong, and Frank is left with a bullet in his belly and no answers to give. In the wake of the shooting, Lionel makes it his personal quest to find out who shot his boss. The twisting plot, which grows exponentially more labyrinthine over time, pulls the burgeoning detective into a tangled web involving New York City’s development. Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), a power-hungry figure modeled after Robert Moses, seems to have some connection to Frank, as does Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young assistant to a Jane Jacobs-like figure who opposes everything Randolph stands for.

The convoluted plot will surely turn off some viewers, as did the more gonzo plot of last year’s Under the Silver Lake, but it’s a key component of all noir-inflected mysteries. The core books in the genre were written around WWII through the Cold War, and they illustrated a world gone mad — where the protagonist could never trust the word of another, and there was always more crucial information being hidden than he could ever real. The sense of disorientation that accompanies prime noir novels and films is a feature, not a bug.

Norton loses some of the wonderful strangeness of the novels ‘90s settings by setting it in the ‘50s, but it fits the story well, and some of the New York development details make more sense in mid-century. There are perhaps some tangents that could have been pruned involving various jazz clubs, and Bruce Willis’ phoned-in turn as Lionel’s mentor is an utter shame, robbing the film of some much-needed emotional moments, but Norton’s own performance makes up for many of the shortcomings, and he strikes up a charming rapport with Raw. Motherless Brooklyn can’t come close to topping its source material, but it’s still a lively mystery that might make you wish they still made this kind of detective story.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 11 as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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