Joker (US-Canada, 2019)

It’s not funny

Superhero films no longer interest me but, fortunately, this isn’t a superhero film. I saw the teaser trailer about six months ago and couldn’t place what type of cinema it was. The grim mise en scene, and disturbing characterisation, suggested arthouse-indie so it was a major surprise to see it was a Warner Bros. film. It’s done superhero level box office, despite its tangential relationship to the Batman franchise; in fact Joker‘s at its weakest when it hints at it being a Joker origin story. Of course, it is set in Gotham City but the film is successful because it focuses on Arthur Fleck’s mental illness. One of the conditions he suffers from is uncontrollable inappropriate laughter; if only for the way Joaquin Phoenix performs that, his is a great performance.

Phoenix doesn’t have to carry the whole film because the production design (Mark Friedberg), cinematography (Lawrence Sher) and direction (Todd Phillips) are all excellent. That Phillips has managed to make, for him, such an uncharacteristic film is surprising as he’s known for comedy (principally the Hangover series, 2009-13); Dave Holmes summarised the reasons behind the genre switch in Esquire:

In a new Vanity Fair cover profile of Joaquin Phoenix, Phillips explains why he left comedy to direct his new dark comic book drama Joker: “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture.” And then, having said those words out loud in a room where other people could hear him, I swear to God he kept talking: “There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore—I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’ It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right?”

I’m surprised that anyone stupid enough to use the ‘political correctness gone mad’ argument could then make (he also co-scripted) such an intelligent film. It is one of the highest grossing R-rated movies in North America but the gross-out violence is restricted to one scene and there’s an interesting under-current that maybe tapping into the growing realisation that billionaires are a problem and not role models. Phillips wisely channels Scorsese; when watching I assumed the setting was representative of New York in the 1970s but apparently it is 1981. Regardless, there’s no doubt that we are seeing the ‘mean streets’ of Taxi Driver (1976) and celebrity culture is skewered in the same way as Scorsese did in The King of Comedy (1982). Joker shares the latter’s of casting of Robert De Niro and whilst such homages don’t normally work for me, here the combination was perfect: De Niro now playing the Jerry Lewis role.

Beyond the bravura of performance and mise en scene, the focus on mental illness humanises the film. Fleck scrawls notes in his book including ‘the problem is normal people expect the mentally ill to act normal’ (I paraphrase). Phoenix brings pathos to the role of a ‘loser’ who never had a chance; though I think the idea that he  represents ‘incels’ is wide of the mark. While he clearly is a lonely single male who fancies and fantasises about his beautiful neighbour (Zazie Beetz), that isn’t shown to be the cause of his inability to function in society. Obviously it depends on how you read the film and I guess wingnuts on the right might think that Fleck is a role model rather than someone who needs serious help (budget cuts curtail his social worker support).

And Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score is brilliant; it has sufficient bombast for the chase sequences but it is its use of plangent strings, channeling bleak Icelandic folk, that elevates it out of the routine. Its otherworldliness is a perfect emblem of Fleck’s disordered mind.

A Holllywood blockbuster likely to be one of my film’s of the year; who’d’ve thought it?

Inuyashiki (Japan, 2018) – LIFF4

A bad day at the office

Sato Shinsuke’s adaptation of Oku Hiroya’s manga utilises modern CGI to render the ‘impossible’ but the visuals rarely engross. The ‘underdog bites back’ is a well trodden narrative but there can be fewer lower canines that Kinashi Noritake’s titular salaryman who his family hates and for whom unemployment looms. There’s some pleasure in seeing ‘old dads as superheroes’ but it is a film of missed opportunities.

An unknown, presumably extraterrestrial, encounter transforms Inuyashiki into a sort of Tetsuo (a trilogy directed by Tsukamoto Shin’ya) with the iron bits built in; however there’s no body horror. Alienated teen, Shishigami Hiro (Satô Takeru), experiences the same transformation but decides to use his powers for evil whilst Inuyashiki frequents hospital corridors saving the terminally ill. A perfect set up to consider ‘evil’ and ‘good’ I thought but this is dispensed with in the pyrotechnics that follow an overlong set up. It’s not that the film isn’t enjoyable, but the potential of the narrative was unrealised.

Satô is brilliant as the cold-eyed killer but Kinashi is a little one-note as the turning worm. In fact, he doesn’t turn very much, he remains meek throughout and his reconciliation with his daughter was (to my western eyes) mawkish.

There’s a slightly ridiculous coda that’s intended to set up a sequel (apparently there are two in the works) and hopefully they offer something for the mind and not just the eye.

Wonder Woman (US, 2017)

Game changer?

The top three movies at the North American box office last year all featured female protagonists (the others were the latest Star Wars and Beauty and the Beast). Whether Hollywood, which tends to follow the money, will at last conclude that female centred films are winners remains to be seen. Director Patty Jenkins has explained (here) how she feminised the action movie and she’s produced a witty, occasionally thrilling, convincing riposte to any fanboys who think women shouldn’t have a prominent role in action cinema. Mad Max: Fury Road  was one film that drew the ire of boys who feel women don’t belong in the ‘genre’ – for example.

Chris Pratt is excellent support and plays the (slightly) punctured male ego with skill whilst Gal Gadot has old school charisma and would be interesting to see in civvies. Incidentally the scene where she has to try on women’s clothing from the early 20th century is very funny.

I’m not very interested in superhero films but was glad to enjoy this one.

Lucy (France-Taiwan-Canada, 2014)

An American superhero made in France

An American superhero made in France

In the film ‘corner’ of cyberspace, amongst liberal circles at least, there’s much debate about when Disney/Marvel are going to produce a female superhero. This is when Russia is invading Ukraine; an apocalyptic cult is enforcing Middle Age justice on anyone they can; Ebola is devastating western Africa; citizens can’t feed and house themselves, not new I know but increasingly a problem in the UK. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is the only high profile female superhero in recent films and she only plays a supporting role in The Avengers and Iron Man 3. Yet here she is playing Lucy, a woman who acquires superhero powers blitzing the box office; she’s currently taken nearly three times as much as the ageing males of The Expendables 3 in North America.

Writer-director Luc Besson has a reputation for producing female protagonists, though I found La Femme Nikita (France-Italy, 1990) misogynist, and he’s scored with Lucy. It’s not strictly a superhero film, there’s no costume, but there are superpowers. In this sequel-driven industry it’ll be a surprise if she doesn’t come back and it would be a welcome return even though the film isn’t anything special.

Johansson, as usual, is excellent, particularly as the scatty student inveigled into giving a Korean gangster a suitcase. The gangster is played by the great Korean actor Choi Min-sik and his characterisation will have to down as another example of EuropaCorp’s (Besson’s company) xenophobia – see here; there are no positive East Asian characters. Once Lucy becomes ‘super’ she becomes less interesting but there’s plenty of cod philosophy, and physics, to keep audiences distracted. I liked Besson’s use of Eisensteinean montage in the early scenes when shots of wildlife hunters and prey and cut into the scene when Lucy is the prey of the Koreans.

As far as I remember, Johansson’s body is only objectified once; a shot at the airport that moves up her body from behind. There’s far more of her body on show in Under the Skin a film that probably won’t titillate much given its disturbing qualities. This is an important issue because patriarchy tries use women’s body as a way of controlling females – see the recent ‘hacking’ of nude, personal pictures of female ‘celebrities’. That is as absurd as Seth McFarlane’s ‘We saw your boobs’ song at last year’s Oscars and parades male stupidity to anyone with a maturity beyond adolescence. As Jennifer Lawrence, one of the victims of the release of the images, parody account tweeted today:

‘If a man stands in the middle of the forest speaking, and there is no woman around to hear him, is he still wrong?’

It’s a fair comment even if those of us who do not feel the need to prove they are men are categorised with the idiots who deal with their own inadequacies by trolling women that have the audacity to speak their mind and/or have a high profile.

Lucy is a film with a powerful female protagonist and I particularly like Amr Waked’s cop who can do nothing but get out of Lucy’s way in order to help her.

X-Men: First Class (US, 2011)

Reinvigorating a franchise

I enjoyed Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies as they combined pyrotechnics with a thoughtful presentation on the effects of being different. The openly-gay Singer celebrated getting a ‘coming out’ scene (ie the mutant telling his parents) into a mainstream movie. By the third of the trilogy there were more yawns to the buck than excitement so it was reboot time. Like JJ Abrams’ reworking of Star Trek First Class takes us back to when the crew were first put together and so is set during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

It repeats Singer’s success with a terrific group of younger actors; Michael Fassbender’s Magneto is particularly compelling. I’ll be surprised if there’s a better superhero movie about this summer and there’s a marvellous cameo by Wolverine (who has his own movies now).