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?

The Aeronauts (UK-US, 2019) – LFF4

Invisible CGI

I tend to choose my films ‘blind’ at film festivals: i.e. I pack as many as I can in the time available. So I was a bit dismayed to see I’d chosen a mainstream film that will be in ‘cinemas everywhere’ in a couple of weeks. Add to that it is a period drama, not my favourite, and reliant on CGI for much of its running time, I could have been in for a stinker. I wasn’t.

There’s barely a film made without CGI (Bait is one) but the question is whether the audience notices it. It’s always been the case that there are two types of special effects: invisible and visible. The visible ones show us impossible scenes so Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts (UK-US, 1963) are visible as are all the superheroes in Marvel movies. Invisible special effects are those that simulate what happens in the real world but are too expensive to stage – as such they are easily not perceived as special effects. One example of a ‘visible’ ‘invisible’ special effect would be the ‘in orbit’ location of Gravity because we know the actors were not filmed in space. The same is true of the brilliant staging of the balloon journey in The Aeronauts because we know that Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne could not be filmed in that location. I’m not arguing against visible special effects, only against films that rely upon them for their dramatic effect. There’s been a Twitter debate lately about whether Marvel films are cinema (Scorsese and Loach say ‘no’) and although The Aeronauts is CGI heavy the thrill of the narrative is such that it is very easy to forget that these special effects are visible.

The film is based on a ‘true story’, the highest balloon ascent to date in 1862, I’ve no idea the degree of truth contained in the narrative. That’s not the point of the film: it’s clear the gender politics, Jones is the action hero, are today’s. The narrative covers the 90 minute flight with numerous flashbacks to give context and it is the human drama, of Victorian adventurism and female repression, that roots the film in a believable world thus allowing us to truly care (well, I did) for the protagonists in peril.

Tom Harper directs the action sequences very well and credit is due to Michael Dawson and his team for the special effects. The suspension of disbelief is still required for the appreciation of film, I think, which is why most CGI-heavy movies leave me cold as I don’t believe them. It’s as because they look convincing, yes I can see the Hulk exists, that I don’t believe in them and they usually fail to engage me either intellectually or emotionally. In The Aeronauts I knew the actors were ‘green screening’ but was so engrossed I forgot.

Defence of the Realm (UK, 1985)

When the fourth estate meant something

As I remember it, Defence of the Realm was well-received when it was released; I certainly enjoyed it at the time. The film follows investigative journalist Nick Mullen (Gabriel Byrne) as he digs into a politician compromised as a possible spy. What’s striking now is how naive the film seems (or is it me?), although the idea that the security services use the press to disseminate propaganda wasn’t new it seems to suggest it is surprising (The Sunday Times‘ ‘death on the rock’ story rubbishing witnesses to the state-approved assassination of IRA members in Gibraltar was just around the corner). I suppose you could take Mullen’s naiveté to be a narrative device, though the ‘world weariness’ of Byrne’s persona makes it difficult to believe he would be so gullible, to lead the unsuspecting in the audience through to the ‘horrific’ realisation about the corruption of the British Establishment.

The film is an effective thriller, though the newsroom and printing presses are oddly ‘unbusy’ too often. Denhom Elliott is excellent as the ‘shabby malcontent’ who has seen it all but now observes the world through the bottom of a glass. Another aspect that dates the film is the marginalisation of women: Greta Scacchi doesn’t get much to do.

Are people more aware nowadays about how the press is both compromised by proprietors’ commercial interests (noted in the film) and their links to the security services? Whilst social media has facilitated the expulsion of bile into the ‘public sphere’ it has also served as a tool of education. Media Lens‘ analysis, for example, must surely have lifted the scales from many people’s eyes about the corruption of the fourth estate (which is meant to hold those in power to account) and Mark Curtis is always informative on foreign policy.

It’s easy to assume that things were better in the past but I find it hard to believe any newspaper would have had the front to suggest that Boris Johnson is fit to be Prime Minister before the ‘post-truth’ age. Fake news is not new but brazen lying by politicians, and not getting held to account for it, is a curse of our times. Part of the problem we have in the UK is the complete failure of the BBC as a news organisation (Tom Mills is an excellent commentator on this); whilst it’s always been an Establishment mouthpiece (one Director General who tried to fulfil the BBC’s news role, Alisdair Milne, was forced to resign by a Thatcher appointee) its editorial decisions have shifted so far to the right that it can no longer be considered centrist (there are too many examples: giving a platform to the ‘far right’; not only the failure to investigate Leave.EU’s criminality but inviting them to spin their version whilst ignoring their accusers; the vilification of Julian Assange; hit jobs on Corbyn and so on.

Defence of the Realm reminds us of the controversy of nuclear weapons on British soil that precipitated the Greenham Women protests. How they were vilified by the press at the time, just as Extinction Rebellion is now! There’s a, not particularly good, exhibition on at Manchester Art Gallery, Get Together and Get Things Done, that shows us what the Establishment vilifies as an unacceptable attack on the status quo, is often later eulogised (co-opted) if the protest succeeds.

Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð, Iceland-France-Ukraine, 2018)

Close to nature

We have Revolution Extinction to thank for raising the profile of immanent climate catastrophe and films like co-writer and director Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War can only help, if it gets seen. Kermode points out that the protagonist, Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), has much in common with the Mission: Impossible‘s resourceful Ethan Hunt; and this film is more thrilling because it deals with a potent threat to our existence.

Erlingsson’s previous feature, Of Horses and Men, was an affectionately surreal portrait of Iceland, and it is that country that is the focus of Woman at War; but here it’s land that stands in for the Earth as it is the planet that is under threat. If only we had a sense of the fragility of the ecosystems, as the astronauts of High Life do, serious action would have been taken years ago to ameliorate climate change. Like the folks of Extinction Rebellion, Halla decides to take responsibility for protecting the planet.

The script, co-written with Ólafur Egilsson, is superbly constructed and seamlessly integrates allegorical elements into the narrative; Halla wishes to adopt a Ukrainian 4 year-old, representing hope for the future. The non-diegetic music transpires to be diegetic as the folksy three piece, and Ukrainian trio of voices, often appear in the scene. I can’t recall a non-comedy being so Brechtian with the music and while it serves to remind us we are watching a film, I think it also serves to remind us that the issues raised are real. Incidentally, the music (particularly the singers) is fabulous.

The final image is truly chilling that caps an entertaining thriller with a dose of reality that might even give climate change deniers pause for thought (actually, it won’t as they live in an ideological landscape that denies reality).

Obviously Geirharðsdóttir’s performance is key to the success of the film and her 49 year-old protagonist reminds us that we need unconventional heroes to save us; take a bow Greta Thunberg. Geirharðsdóttir also seamlessly plays her twin sister.

I can’t recommend the film enough because it was both immensely entertaining and up front in portraying the risks that face us. This isn’t an ‘infinity war’ because the battle isn’t going to go on much longer unless we start wining it very soon.

Greta (Ireland-US, 2018)

Not Greta Thunberg

I really enjoyed this classy piece of schlock. Classy not only because of the presence of Isabelle Huppert, but also Neil Jordan’s direction. In addition, the sound design by Stefan Henrix is outstanding. Added to these, Seamus McGarvey’s sumptuous cinematography ensures we know that this film oozes class whilst delving into Grand Guignol narrative.

One Guardian reviewer complained the film wasn’t about anything however the intergenerational clash seemed to me to chime perfectly with the current one being played out regarding the lack of action on climate change. In the UK we have been regaled by middle aged news anchors patronising youngsters as they take part in Extinction Rebellion protests. There couldn’t be a better illustration of the necessity that young people take action to sort out the response to climate change because the old fellows have failed.

Huppert plays a lonely woman and Chloë Grace Moretz the youngster who mistakenly befriends her. We know it’s a mistake when the music goes all ‘sinister’ when Huppert’s Greta is seen googling the young woman. Such obviousness places the film in the thriller mode that was popular in the 1990s; Single White Female (1992) sprang to mind. There is a danger when treading well-trodden ground that little surprises but Jordan, and co-scriptwriter Ray Wright, insert enough difference to ensure this is a genre piece that isn’t too ‘samey’.

Excellent as Moretz is, and Maika Monroe as her friend is great too, the film belongs to Huppert whose performance is such that when the psycho-woman appears there is no sense that this isn’t also the sweet older lady we met at the start of the film. I particularly liked the denouement, which I won’t spoil, that not only wrong-footed me but ensured, ideologically, the film was progressive.

Despite all this it was probably the sound design that impressed me the most. Presumably because of technological developments, sound in film is (well it seems to me) becoming more detailed. mother! was a case in point but as that was an expressionist inferno the foregrounding of sound was entirely appropriate. Sound isn’t used in the same way in Greta but the interplay between diegetic (in the narrative world) and non-diegetic music is exceptionally effective. Writing about sound in film is much harder than images because there’s usually more than one layer in the mix at any one time and, of course, it can’t be pictured in visual memory.

It’s Jordan’s first film for seven years and he’s too classy a filmmaker for such a hiatus. Greta isn’t going to rank amongst his highest achievements but it is well worth seeing.

 

Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben, Spain-France-Italy, 2018)

Not knowing

Asghar Farhadi is one of the few arthouse auteurs whose films are almost guaranteed to be distributed in the UK; possibly because he’s won two ‘best foreigner’ Oscars. Everybody Knows showcases his command of film language, his ability to bend genre and boasts a great cast including Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz and Ricardo Darín.

It also revisits About Elly (Darbareye Elly, Iran-France, 2009) that used the thriller genre trope of a missing person to unravel familial and societal mores of middle class Iranian society. Some reviewers have suggested that Everybody Knows isn’t quite as successful because Farhadi (he wrote and directed) is in a foreign landscape. I don’t know Spain well enough to comment though little of the milieux didn’t ring true and I got a clear sense of the traditional importance of ‘land’ to the locals. What didn’t quite convince me was the use of genre: readers of the blog will know I love melodrama but when a particularly ‘soapy’ narrative development occurs in the film I didn’t feel it worked. It was too generic because, whereas in About Elly we always knew we were in an ‘arthouse’ film, the development centralises melodrama as the defining discourse. That’s not to say the film isn’t gripping and interesting and that’s not simply because Cruz, Bardem and Darín are in the cast. In fact the whole ensemble, the narrative is built around a family wedding, are superb. The early scenes convey with vigour the excitement of a family get together as the camera and editing are almost a whirlwind as the numerous characters are introduced. It is bravura filmmaking.

Another reservation was the conclusion that felt rather abrupt. Sure, Farhadi makes clear the repercussions of the events of the film will continue after the last reel but the psychological trauma of ‘missing’ isn’t addressed. This could be Farhadi using genre to set up an expectation and then not delivering upon it. However, I don’t think my dissatisfaction was caused by its ‘failure’ as a genre film, but the ending didn’t ‘ring’ psychologically true.

I don’t want to end on a negative note because I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Apparently it has been in gestation for some time but Farhadi was waiting for Cruz and Bardem to be available. It was worth the wait and the film is worth seeing if only for the charismatic ease with which these two stars operate. Add Ricardo Darín, the great Argentinean actor who carries the weight of a less flashy role superbly, and you have an unmissable film.

Divines (France-Qatar, 2016)

Friends

Divines is a banlieue film and the expected ingredients of feisty youth being crushed by the forces of the state whilst living in poverty are present. However, there’s enough difference in the film to make it stand out and I preferred it to the similar Girlhood (France, 2014): they both boast female directors and highlight the female experience. Camera d’Or winning debutant, Houda Benyamina who also scripted, has directed a bravura film that welds melodrama to social realism.

Key to the film’s success is the performances of the protagonists, Dounia (Oulaya Amamra, sister of the director) and Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena), as teenagers full of life but who are compromised by poverty. Dounia lives in a shack on a Roma camp and Maimouna’s father who is the local Imam. In a great scene the pair imagine they’re driving a Ferrari around the estate and, in a Spike Lee ‘double dolly’, they move with the camera with added sound effects. In an uncomfortable scene for an ex-teacher, Dounia demolishes her teacher who’s trying to get her to role play the a receptionist. The youngsters are seen, by society, as nothing more than low paid workers so a life in crime is a sensible option. The local drug kingpin is female, a suitably scary Jisca Kalvanda, who takes Dounia on because she’s got ‘clitoris’ (ie not balls). In another scene that feminises the genre, Dounia voyeuristically gazes at the naked body of a male dancer she fancies.

Unsurprisingly in a first feature the film loses its momentum at points, particularly toward the end. However, the incendiary finale wrenches back the drama. The vicious cycle of living in the world of the underclass is illustrated when Dounia, in a fit of youthful mischievousness, throws a bottle at a fire engine crew so later they refuse to enter the estate without a police escort. The audience is encouraged to understand why such things happen but, as a melodrama, is not offering answers (and there’s no reason why it should).

Benyamina seems to be suffering from the difficulty of getting a second film funded, not withstanding her Cannes award. According to imdb.com she’s directed the pilot of Tell Me Your Secrets, an American TV series and an episode of The Eddy (UK) – both 2019. Of course television is not the ghetto it was and these could be interesting. Divines was snapped up by Netflix, after it played the festival circuit, rather than being distributed beyond France. I guess the money on the table is irresistible to filmmakers when faced with the vagaries of international film distribution for a non-Hollywood film.