Tag Archives: psychopath

JOKER: A Special Presentation at the 57th New York Film Festival

Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker. [image from CNET]

JOKER: Country: US / Canada. Director: Todd Phillips. Screenwriters: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver. Language: English. Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Marc Maron, Hannah Gross. A 57th New York Film Festival Special Presentation. Release Date: October 4, 2019. Runtime: 122 minutes.

Mostly Indies rating: A+

This review contains spoilers.

There’s been much publicity about Joker, now playing in theaters. Some of it is good (all involving Joaquin Phoenix’s performance where he slowly morphs from an ineffectual man disconnected from the world into a monster in clown attire). Some of it, however, delves into the truly ridiculous, and I refuse to give into what the movie is not about — namely, the excessive depiction and/or ideation of violence, of which this picture has not one scene. It would be a waste of time, and Joker is too good a movie, too keen a character study to reduce it to a mess of gore and mayhem. Frankly, and I’ll say it, whoever saw Joker and walked out so horrified because it was disturbingly violent that they had to go on and write that this picture may lead to repeat incidents like the one in a certain theater in Colorado probably needed views on his or her page or wanted to stir up some trouble. This, dear reader, is what sensationalism is based on and it’s as old as time. Exaggeration sells. Tabloids have perfected embellishment to an art form. If I’m a rising movie blogger and I need to go viral I’m definitely going to make sure my posts are so out there, so filled with vitriol, that you have no chance but to see it and gape. That is what has happened with Joker, and to be fair. while there are some violent moments in its narrative, nothing in it approximates anything you won’t see in the news, Discovery ID, or any slasher / horror movie for that matter. Even Joker’s inspiration, Taxi Driver, blows it out of the water, and today, is considered a de facto classic.

Without further ado, here is what Joker is about. It depicts an alternative origin story of Batman’s arch nemesis, and that story centers on the sad spiral into darkness of one Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who, safe to say, probably never had a chance to co-exist peacefully in the modern world. His introduction is that of a victim of theft in the middle of Gotham City, a man with a disorder that makes him laugh inappropriately, as he tries to scrape a living as a party clown who wishes to make people laugh as a stand-up comic. If that isn’t pathetic enough, he still gets blamed by his boss for allowing the theft to happen. A meeting with his therapist sheds some light into his state of mind, which is very negative. Adding to that is his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who seems immersed in her own world of fantasy, frail and unable to fend for herself. A coworker later gives Arthur a gun for self-defense, an act that will backfire badly later on once Arthur gets fired from his job for bringing that very same gun to a children’s hospital. Arthur, in short, has no friends, no social life, nothing to lighten up the burden. The sole glimmer of hope comes in the form of a neighbor, the beautiful Sophie (Zazie Beetz), who he meets fleetingly in the elevator as they exchange awkward pleasantries and whom he invites to watch him perform a comedy routine.

[image from the LA Times]

Sophie’s presence alone may have been a saving grace for Arthur, but he seems to be a magnet for events that seek to diminish him as a person. Funding for his medical therapy has ceased, leaving him a ticking time bomb. His dream at the start of the movie is to be a guest on Late Night with Murray Franklin; that dream will take a disastrous, defining turn when Franklin (Robert De Niro) openly mocks Arthur’s attempt to tell a joke during a failed comedy act (which has gone viral). It’s only when three corporate drones who happen to be from Thomas Wayne’s (Brett Cullen) firm show up on the subway one night to taunt a woman, when all of that inner rage that has been testing inside becomes unleashed in one fell swoop. Arthur’s laughing disorder kicks into overdrive, which attracts the attention of the three goons who decide to take matters into their own hands. Just when it seems as though once again, life and fate have descended on Arthur like a ton of bricks, he surprisingly reacts, injuring two fo the men in self-defense. The third man runs away, terrified, into the dark subway station, with Arthur in calm pursuit. Arthur then corners the third guy, and coldly executes him, vanishing into the night.

We now start to see a darker version of Arthur Fleck emerge as he starts to feel more “confident”. While Wayne condemns the shootings and makes light of those at the bottom of the social pile, calling them clowns, protests emerge from the woodwork with people now donning clown faces to resemble the mysterious killer. Arthur is starting to enjoy this newfound status. However, this sense of having some power, some control, comes to a crashing halt once Arthur intercepts a letter written by Penny to Wayne claiming Arthur is his long-lost son, the fruit of an illicit affair she had. Arthur attempts to visit the Wayne mansion and has an all-too-brief encounter with Bruce Wayne before Alfred comes between them. This leads Arthur to a confrontation with Wayne himself who reveals some unexpected information which Arthur confirms when he visits Arkham State Hospital. The information, alongside Wayne’s own rejection, is so crushing one can’t but wait for the inevitable. What little Arthur had tethering him to humanity has now been effectively severed. Arthur is less than the clown he projects; he is no one, nothing, and almost like a bookend to Joaquin Phoenix’s last movie, he was never really there to begin with. He never mattered.

Of all the origin stories, this one is the story that I have to say gets me the most. It is profoundly nihilistic, dripping in agony, a movie that dares you to feel sorry for this character (and you find that at times, you do). Superheroes often have traumatic entries into their new personas, but Joker, as a standalone origin story, is well apart from the rest because it almost makes his rebirth into something that was fated. However, this time, the man inside isn’t a courageous hero but an emasculated incel. Joker presents an origin story about pain disguised as a smile or an attempt at a laugh, and nothing can be more schizophrenic and pay more homage to the two masks of comedy and tragedy than Arthur Fleck’s descent. Throughout the entire movie Joaquin Phoenix moves around as if even movement itself causes him misery; there isn’t a moment when the character seems to be at ease. His world is deeply diseased and has no door to escape. His laughing disorder comes through as a gasp of pain and desperation. This is a man constantly crying out for help, and no one seems to be paying attention. No one comes to his aid.

Take away the superhero / comic book facade and you have a tragedy of epic proportions, plain and simple. I can see this character with eyes of compassion because how many of these lone, crazy killers have come forth after having somehow slipped through the cracks? How many of these walking wounded continue to fail to find any solace and live in constant fear and self-hatred and delusions? It even makes me wonder, can madness then not only be genetic but environmental? We now know Arthur Fleck has no family to speak of but an unstable mother; can lack of nurture, abuse, and manical delusions indeed be responsible for shaping a psyche like the man who slowly transforms into the Joker?

The answer, quite simply, is yes… and no. There are horror stories of horribly abused people who come out to the surface; this is clearly not that story. Arthur has made his choice because quite literally he has never been given a chance to be anything else but a failure. When he stands up on top of the vehicle towards the end of the movie and paints his Glasgow smile, I found it to be probably the most horrific moment in the entire film and I admit that this is where I wept, not in sadness, but in horror. It is the proverbial awakening of a monster in full force, aware, omnipresent, and capable of incredible savagery. This is, by far, Joaquin Phoenix’s best performance so far and one that elevates a pulp character based on a silent movie (The Man Who Laughs from 1924) into something terrifying. It’s a fitting entry for a character like Joker, and one that may divide audiences alike or bring people together to discuss. I personally think that Joker takes the concept of a man driven mad and completely runs with it, even hinting that perhaps he might be related to the Batman himself — a conceit I would have gladly accepted since it raises the question of the good within evil and evil within the good, split into two different people pushing against each other perpetually.

Now, onto the more technical aspects of Joker. I’m pretty happy with the way Todd Phillips presented his story. Period. I can’t fault him for having used Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy as templates to find a platform for Arthur Fleck’s story, and to be honest, I have to disagree with critics who accuse Joker of following both stories a bit too on the nose. Joker is its own story of despair told in vivid colors and gritty detail, one that will ask a second viewing to get the nuances of the character study. The use of music is truly a stand-out: Stephen Sondheim;s Send in the Clowns, and Jimmy Durante’s Smile get incredible mileage, and the use of a stairway (most likely the kind found in the 200s in uptown Manhattan) depicts the fall and rise of the Joker like nothing I’ve ever seen before. In the first scene, we see a defeated Arthur dwindled into nothing agsainst the looming apartment buildings that frame the stairway. He seems almost unable to climb one more step… and yet, he does. The next time we see Arthur, he’s almost channeling Gene Kelly, dancing and shimmying down like he were in his own musical as he goes for his grand entrance at Murray Franklin’s show.

I guess I could go on and on but I will leave it up to you to go see this incredible movie, and don’t read too much of what the media wants to instill: a fear of controversial, high quality motion pictures in which sometimes, a bad guy is born because he was born to be bad.

BRIGHTBURN: Good concept, but a bit too eager to go nuts.

[Image from IO9]

BRIGHTBURN. Country: USA. Director: David Yarovesky. Screenwriters: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn. Language: English. Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Matt Jones, Runtime, 90 minutes. Release, May 24, 2019. Home Release: August 20, 2019.

Mostly Indies rating: B–

Earlier in May, a little movie called Brightburn suddenly showed up in several multiplexes (mainly AMC) and with next to no promotion, no commercials, nothing. It went to score rather respectably in the box office, making back its budget in its opening weekend and emerging quite the winner despite a lack of back up of seasoned critics. I will admit that I sometimes tend to avoid pictures like these because there is a risk that they will either be truly terrible and go straight to video merely a month later, and who wants to waste even 90 minutes plus promos to sit back and watch an atrocity play in front of you? Yeah, me neither. [It’s why there will be a conspicuous lack of Fs and barely some D ratings here at Mostly Indies because… well… I just won’t.]

So I did the logical and decided to wait for its release. Now that I’ve seen it in the middle of an insane film festival I can say that this one’s not that bad, not even close. Brightburn tells the story of Superman — or at least, it uses the blueprint of the Superman mythos — and flips it like an omelette. Let me explain. So at the start of the movie we get Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elisabeth Banks and David Denman), a married couple living in rural Kansas. Right from the start their lives are upended when a meteor crashes onto their property. Curious to see what it is, they go out, and soon we learn through home video that they’ve become the parents of a baby boy named Brandon (Jackson A, Dunn). Brandon is whom they found in the ruins outside their house.

Flash forward a few years, however, and Brandon, who’s at the threshold of puberty, starts to sleepwalk around the house and is attracted by something locked behind closed doors in the shed. Elements of violence start to emerge from nowhere in his personality and he begins to display unusual feats of strength. A crush on a schoolgirl yields incredibly creepy results, found drawings underneath Brandon’s bed paint a picture of emerging, disturbing attractions, and before you know it, Brandon seems to be morphing into a rather scary psychopathic young boy bent on getting what he wants and at any cost and he has the nascent superpowers to use them at will.

Much of the success at Brightburn depends on the fact that it is extremely economical and makes use of its budget rather well, to the point that you would think a lot more money had gone into it. [It only cost a little north of 6 million to make.] Its pacing is on the faster side, but not too much that you miss any character development. Banks and Denman create a believable couple facing something straight out of a nightmare and their reaction, from denial even at the face of evidence to eventual recognition works because most parents often believe their children, monsters or not, are the best. [And if you don’t believe me, take a look into another couple facing a son they soon start to realize they don’t recognize anymore in the outstanding movie Luce (now on home video). And in that one, the mother, played by Naomi Watts, actually hinders an investigation by hiding crucial evidence, a thing that comes to haunt her in the end.]

I just wish that Yarovesky would have allowed his movie to create a little more suspense in its scenes involving Brandon, once he starts stalking his neighbors. Some of the scenes happen in a manner that look a bit too flat and don’t leave for much tension. An early confrontation in a diner between Brandon and the mother of a girl he’s attracted to feels rushed (despite some gore). Yet another sequence, while unbelievably gory, also fails to have any build up but just “happens”. See, to me, horror movies in general should invoke a creepy buildup that places its characters in an increasingly arena of danger. The deeper they wade in, the more we realize they are in for a nasty surprise. Here, much of what happens does so in a prompt, efficient manner, and it made me feel a bit flat.

Other than that, Brightburn is a slick little horror film that can stand on its own without the Superman lore. If you took that away you’d have The Bad Seed with the gender flipped to male. Its just a bit too eager to get to the gore and that is what may take from its impact of a boy gone wrong.

INGRID GOES WEST

INGRID GOES WEST

USA
Director: Matt Spicer
Runtime: 95 minutes
Language: English

Mostlyindies’ grading: B+

Everything  you need to know about Ingrid Thornburg, the anti-heroine of Matt Soler’s movie, gets summed up in that excellent opening montage of social media screenshots of an impossibly happy woman going through life while we slowly see Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza), wide-eyed, staring at her phone for what seems hours and hours, clicking on every picture, liking everything she sees whether she really grasps its meaning or not, and then paying the girl a surprise visit. It doesn’t end very well, needless to say, and her slow recovery to a semblance of normalcy leads her away from the object of her unrequited friendship to another one, the sunny Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), who sells merch on Instagram.

You probably know where this is heading.

And despite that the story does move in a predictable manner in template only, bringing Ingrid across the country and into plastic LA where everyone is a social media star, you keep expecting for the moment that Ingrid and Taylor will cross paths, because now that we’ve been given a preamble, we have to now see the whole train wreck in slow motion. Soler does not disappoint, bringing these complete polar opposites closer until Ingrid’s quick thinking lands her basically at Taylor’s home for dinner. Just like that, she’s basically hanging with her new friend, sharing secrets while pilfering through her place and reading everything about her in order to emulate her new fixation, not knowing that eventually, the high must reach a ceiling, the mirror will start to show its cracks, and things will be bound to get ugly.

Now, as for the ugly part, I do wish Soler had decided to take his tale into Fatal Attraction/Single White Female territory. Let me explain: it’s not that it doesn’t go there — just when you thought Ingrid couldn’t cross That One Line, she goes and crosses yet another (if she even sees a line, which I believe her character’s disorder doesn’t), the movie goes soft. It’s as if the movie, already at the edge of insanity, would prefer to keep it light and sunny. In turn, Ingrid’s crucial scene involving a phone comes off almost mawkish. Also a bit insincere was the attempt to somewhat bring Taylor down a couple of notches: while her character from the word go is as flighty and insecure as they come — who can live up to the pressure of so much popularity and sunshine without feeling that unless they are what they convey, they’re actually meaningles — she’s not even remotely operating on the same cylinders as Ingrid.

Whatever you make of it, Ingrid Goes West is solid entertainment and a showcase for Aubrey Plaza who has the difficult task of making a hideous psychopath likeable. Also pleasing on the eyes, a small performance by Billy Magnussen who shows off quite a bit and operates as the audience’s surrogate.