Film Review: ‘Joker’

Joaquin Phoenix is the man beneath the clown make-up in Tod Phillip’s Scorsese inspired reinvention of DC’s iconic villain…

Joker (a)

Joaquin Phoenix delivers a powerful performance in Warner Bros. Pictures’ ‘Joker’ (credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Douglas Hodge, Dante Pereira-Olson

Directed by:  Todd Phillips / written by:  Todd Phillips & Scott Silver / 122 minutes

What’s it about?

Grappling with mental illness amidst the crumbling society of Gotham City, a victimised and broken man walks a dark path as he adopts a deranged persona known as ‘Joker’…

In review

After riding a wave of festival focused critical plaudits and finding itself subject to some pre-release controversy (cancelled screenings and increased police presence rising from concerns that the film may incite acts of violence), Warner Bros. Pictures’ Joker, based on the iconic Batman villain, has landed in cinemas.  Featuring an intense and Oscar-worthy performance from Joaquin Phoenix, Joker is much less a traditional “comic book” interpretation of DC’s Clown Prince of Crime and far more a bleak, at times disturbing and often unnerving character study of a man cast aside by society, broken and pushed to the limit and through violent means – pushes back.  As has already been suggested since the film’s inception, Joker finds its roots within the celebrated works of director Martin Scorsese (who at one point was attached to produce) – specifically Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.

Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a loner struggling with mental illness and afflicted by a condition which leads to uncontrollable bouts of laughter (something that may sound silly on the surface but is realised painfully by a startlingly gaunt Phoenix).  Caring for his mother (played by Frances Conroy) and making a meagre living as a sign twirling street clown, Fleck looks to pursue a career in stand-up comedy…but one bad day too many sees the tragic figure consumed by his demons as he transforms himself into the deranged and homicidal persona of ‘Joker’.

Joker is certainly a good piece of filmmaking (captured beautifully by cinematographer Lawrence Sher) and in many ways compelling, unshackled from its comic book origins and unburdened by any requirement to connect to a wider universe, favouring it’s Scorsese inspirations – the character of Fleck very much informed by Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin, perhaps more so than he is by the Joker as we’ve seen in previous iterations.  Director Todd Phillips (who also co-writes) takes these influences and runs with them, proving his capabilities beyond the crowd-pleasing comedy fare of The Hangover trilogy.  It does, admittedly, make it a tad derivative and adds an element of predictability to proceedings, but at least provides a viable approach to this reinterpretation of a classic comic book foe.  Joker also benefits further from a small but key role for acting legend Robert De Niro (as talk show host Murray Franklin, who Fleck idolises), who certainly brings a heap of gravitas to the project – yet, the film unmistakably thrives on Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal.

RME205.2531.tif

Joaquin Phoenix as the haggard and troubled Arthur Fleck (credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Despite some of its creative laudability, the film is not exactly “fun” in any sense, but nor does it aim to be given the themes it explores (the societal tensions and spiralling crime rate sadly all too relevant) and Fleck’s descent into madness can make for a difficult viewing experience.  Truth be told, Joker cannot match itself to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight which was able to depict a satisfyingly dark and dangerous version of the Joker whilst offering some semblance of hope via Bruce Wayne’s war against crime.  It’s also arguable that the Joker is very much defined by his ‘relationship’ with Batman which makes the approach of Joker, although invigorating, ultimately lacks something without that counterbalance.

Joker does however maintain its links to the comics, the Wayne family playing an important role within the story and the (seemingly early 1980s) Gotham City setting, though a more grounded extrapolation of a crime-ridden New York of the 1970s, a familiar placing.  Fleck’s failure as a comedian is also, of course, an identifiable homage to Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke.

Joker leaves itself open to the interpretation of viewers and is likely to provoke fierce debates about not only the film itself but in its world-view and subjects it doesn’t take lightly – it may not be “entertaining” in a manner most would expect and the Joker is arguably better presented in his battles with the Batman but this is still a bold take on a particular, standalone, version of the character.

The bottom line:  ‘Dark’ in every sense of the word, Joker pulls no punches in its depiction of crime, violence and a society in decline, driven by Joaquin Phoenix’s powerful and mesmerising performance.

Joker is in cinemas now.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Flashback: ‘Man of Steel’

DC’s cinematic universe began with a fresh take on the world’s first superhero…

Man of Steel flight

Superman takes flight in ‘Man of Steel’ (c. Warner Bros).

 

Year: 2013

Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Antje Traue, Henry Lennix, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne

Directed by: Zack Snyder / written by: David S. Goyer (story by David S. Goyer & Christopher Nolan)

What’s it about?

Transported to Earth as his home world is destroyed, the infant Kal-El is raised as Clark Kent by a kind farmer and his wife. As an adult, Clark struggles to find his place in the world until he discovers his true heritage and sets on mastering his amazing powers…

Retrospective/review

With Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns failing to connect with audiences and plans for a sequel abandoned, the summer of 2013 saw the release of Man of Steel – arriving just in time for Superman’s 75th Anniversary. Whilst Superman Returns sought to be a spiritual successor to Richard Donner’s seminal Superman: The Movie, Man of Steel would take a slightly edgier and more modern approach in an effort to make the iconic superhero more relatable. The film would also be seen by Warner Bros. Pictures as the first entry in a Marvel-style shared universe (once unofficially referred to as the DC Extended Universe, or DCEU, but now officially branded as ‘Worlds of DC’) featuring DC’s stable of comic book characters.

Enlisting The Dark Knight trilogy director Christopher Nolan as a producer and to craft a story with screenwriter David S. Goyer (who previously worked with Nolan on his Batman films), Man of Steel was built from an intriguing premise – what if Superman existed in the real world, today? How would humanity react and what would a man with incredible abilities choose to do with them? Given the critical and commercial success of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Warner Bros. naturally felt a similar take was needed for Man of Steel in order to make Superman a more identifiable and dramatically engaging character for a contemporary audience without intentionally alienating existing fans.

Directed by Watchmen’s Zack Snyder, Man of Steel is a Superman film for more complex and troubled times whilst still conveying an underlying sense of hope and providing the blockbuster spectacle viewers had come to expect in the wake of The Dark Knight and The Avengers. It may have become divisive, but it works rather well and favours that Nolan ‘heightened reality’ over the family-friendly fantasy of Superman: The Movie.

The story is solid – there’s the traditional opening on Krypton (depicted as a more organic Star Wars-esque world in comparison to the cool crystalline aesthetic of Donner’s Superman), its ultimate destruction and the baby Kal-El escaping doom to arrive on Earth. Shifting to some thirty years later, Kal-El is now Clark Kent, a drifter who finds himself lost and without purpose but often faced with the urge to help those in need. Through a series of flashbacks we learn of Clark’s struggles to reconcile his abilities with the life of a normal person. Searching for answers, Clark ultimately discovers his origins and embarks on a journey to master his gifts and utilise them for good, but the arrival of Kryptonian survivors, led by the militant General Zod presents an unexpected threat to Earth and its people and throws an inexperienced Superman into a dangerous conflict.

Man of Steel Zod

General Zod: a formidable foe.

The cast is equally as good. Henry Cavill has a firm grasp of the central role and provides a grounded and very human portrayal of the man who will become Superman. Amy Adams is impeccably cast as the Daily Planet’s star reporter Lois Lane, bringing dramatic weight to the requisite qualities of professional drive and personal strength. As General Zod, Michael Shannon delivers a powerful and formidable antagonist whose threat is further enhanced by Antje Traue’s Faora-Ul. The casting is made all the more impressive by the inclusion of Russell Crowe, who succeeds Marlon Brando in the role of Jor-El, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Jonathan and Martha Kent, respectively and Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet editor Perry White.

The action is exciting, especially during the film’s final act. Some have found themselves at odds with the level of destruction in Man of Steel, but it both shocks and enthrals in a way that’s realistic and entertaining. It’s also seemingly a response to the reception of Superman Returns which many felt was too slow and lacked action and physical conflict. Zod’s death has also proven controversial, yet it’s arguably one of the film’s most emotionally effective and powerfully acted scenes. Henry Cavill’s performance in that particular moment is gripping – his gut-churning yell grabbing the viewer and making you feel all the anguish, frustration and regret of the situation.

Man of Steel Lois & Perry

Laurence Fishburne joins Amy Adams’ Lois Lane as Daily Planet Editor Perry White  (c. Warner Bros).

The production design is accomplished (particularly in respect of Krypton), the costuming superlative and the effects are great, all captured beautifully via Amir Mokri’s cinematography and Zack Snyder’s kinetic direction. A real highlight of Man of Steel is Hanz Zimmer’s wonderful score – atmospheric, emotional and exciting it’s one of Zimmer’s finest providing themes that enhance the visuals greatly (especially during Superman’s exhilarating first flight). As classic and unforgettable as John Williams’ Superman theme is it would feel out of place here and not fit the world of Man of Steel.

Ultimately, Man of Steel establishes hope as Superman makes it known that he’s here to help. The events of the film would end up driving the titanic clash of 2016 sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice but as it stands, Man of Steel is highly underrated and a superbly executed redefinition of Superman for modern times.

Geek fact!

Man of Steel cleverly incorporates a Christopher Reeve cameo with a brief glimpse of the actor’s face inserted into Henry Cavill’s performance during Superman’s battle with Zod’s Kryptonian World Engine.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

Film Review: ‘Interstellar’ (spoiler-free)

Far beyond the stars…

Starring:  Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Cain

Directed by:  Christopher Nolan / Written by: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan / 169 minutes

What’s it about?

As humanity faces extinction on an Earth ravaged by environmental catastrophe, former NASA pilot Cooper’s discovery of a scientific anomaly leads him on a journey that will take him to the stars…

In review

In 1968, Stanley Kubrick (with Arthur C. Clarke) took audiences on “The Ultimate Trip” with 2001: A Space Odyssey – a cinematic experience widely considered as the apex of cerebral and imaginative science fiction.  It proved triumphantly that science fiction cinema could be realised in a serious, thought provoking and technically proficient manner – a world away from the plethora of cheap (though in many cases, still enjoyable) ‘popcorn’ B-movies of the 1950s.  With Christopher Nolan at the helm, Interstellar follows Kubrick’s lead and melds the expansive imaginings of 2001 with human drama and exploration of modern scientific theory.

Nolan’s first post-Batman work is more Inception than The Dark Knight Rises, offering more of the reality altering and mind-bending imagery achieved in the former than the intense comic book action of the latter – though that’s not to say that Interstellar doesn’t include a fair share of edge-of-the-seat moments, it simply balances them against its other diverse elements.

Interstellar introduces an Earth that has been environmentally decimated, with humanity having turned its back on technological and other pioneering pursuits in favour of sustaining a desperate existence.  McConaughey plays Cooper, a widowed father of two and a former NASA pilot who once pondered about humanity’s place in the universe and forced to give up his dreams to take up a life as a humble farmer – dreams that have sparked the imagination of his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy).  Unexplained events lead Cooper and Murph to a chance meeting with Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and the hard, but necessary decision Cooper decides to take by leaving his family to join an interstellar mission through a recently discovered wormhole to find humanity a new home – before it’s too late.

Whilst Interstellar generally takes the ‘hard SF’ route of 2001, there’s actually a surprising amount of emotional depth to proceedings played primarily via Cooper’s relationship with his daughter and her despair at her father’s decision to leave her (and her bother) behind to embark on a journey from which he may never return.  At turns heart-wrenching and heart-warming it provides the story with a resonance and a humanity that sets Nolan’s film apart from 2001 and ventures closer to the likes of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Naturally, Interstellar presents us with Nolan’s customary ‘heightened reality’ and the hard SF route is taken via the scientific theories of wormhole and space-time postulated by physicist Kip Thorne and as a result there is some heavy exposition that may leave traditional blockbuster audiences jaded and perhaps threatens to distract the more learned viewer, therefore it is the afore-mentioned emotional core that Nolan employs deftly to seek a balance between the intellectual moments and the human drama.

Nolan has once again assembled a fine cast of actors who successfully infuse their roles with the awe and wonder that the journey of Interstellar demands of them, juxtaposed against that human drama and presenting high stakes and challenges for their characters to dare to overcome.  McConaughey continues his resurgence of recent years, bringing a likeable and relatable quality to Cooper who is both a striving pioneer straight out of The Right Stuff and loving father struggling to reconcile with the anguish of leaving his family behind for the ‘greater good’.  Similarly, Hathaway puts in another strong performance as scientist Amelia Brand, who also has her own personal grief to bear.  Among other casting highlights are the ever reliable (and Nolan regular) Michael Caine who makes good use of his relatively small screen time as Amelia’s father, Professor Brand, some well-placed levity from droid ‘crewmember’ TARS, voiced by comedian Bill Irwin and a surprise cameo from…a well-known actor.

2001 aside, Nolan has cited a variety of influences that are present throughout Interstellar – from the world-building of Star Wars to the worn ‘lived-in’ aesthetics of Ridley Scott’s Alien, enriched by a commitment to practical elements of set design and location shooting (boasting some striking photography by Hoyte Van Hoytema which demands the extra cost of an IMAX ticket).  It’s an ode to the genre and the overall possibilities of good, practical, film making in the digital age.

Hans Zimmer complements the visual and emotional elements with another wonderful, wondrous, score (can he do any wrong after his incredible compositions for Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and the Nolan-produced Man of Steel?), although there are moments where the sound mix seems to be out of balance as Zimmer’s music threatens to muffle some of the dialog – hopefully this will be rectified for the home video release.

Despite grand intellectual themes and incredible imagery, Interstellar provides a decent measure of excitement with a number of set-pieces to rival Inception, with the colossal tidal wives and ice clouds of the worlds the film’s characters voyage to and a particularly tense, edge-of-the-seat orbital docking sequence among the highlights.  True, some may find the near three hour running time challenging (and at times it does verge on that feeling) and those not familiar with Nolan’s previous works or appreciative of the cerebral SF of 2001 might be baffled by the mind-bending final act but for fans of such things, Interstellar is bound to delight and inspire.

The bottom line:  As strong as any of his previous works, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is visually arresting, imaginatively expansive and emotionally resonant.  Prepare for a thrilling journey that Messrs. Kubrick and Clarke would envy…

Interstellar is in cinemas now.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) embarks on a journey to save the human race in Christopher Nolan's 'Interstellar'.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) embarks on a journey to save the human race in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’.

What did you think of Interstellar?  Share your spoiler-free thoughts below!

Have Yourselves a GEEKY Little Christmas…

Hey folks!  With Christmas well and truly upon us, I thought I would drop you all a (fairly) quick note wishing you the very best for Christmas, the New Year and beyond!

I’d also like to thank you all for your support over the last few months and for taking the time to check out this little blog of mine.  I’m humbled and forever grateful and must apologise for the lack of updates over the recent weeks, stay tuned for some fresh geekery in the New Year (I’ll also do some catching up with your wonderful blogs).

2014 looks set to be (at least potentially) a phenomenal year for geek fandom, with some tantalising treats in store.  Prepare to empty your wallets and purses, declare bankruptcy and form orderly queues for the likes of highly anticipated big screen releases including Robocop (please be good), Godzilla (have you seen that trailer?), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (CANNOT wait for that), The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past (Stewart! McKellen! Jackman! McAvoy! Fassbender! Oh my!), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the first post-Bat offering from Christopher Nolan, Interstellar.

On the small screen we’ll have the continuation of current seasons of Arrow (and a pilot for the impending Flash series), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (hopefully we’ll see some improvement) and RevolutionSherlock will live again and the time-hopping (profanity lacking) adventures of Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor shall commence in Doctor Who.  Hopefully it won’t be too long until the UK television premiere of the J.J. Abrams produced, Karl Urban starring Almost Human which I’m hearing good things about and the next season of Under the Dome will intrigue without ‘jumping the shark’ (that first season finale was a little worrying) and Falling Skies will continue to excite.

Plus there’ll be ongoing geekery in the world of comic books and gaming as Sony and Microsoft plough ahead with the new generation (I’ve waited long enough, just give me Metal Gear Solid V now) but I’ll leave it there, come up for air and just sign off by saying wherever you are and whatever you do (hopefully playing on your PS4’s and X-Box One’s in between bites of turkey, sips of wine and viewings of many a Christmas classic), eat, drink, be merry and most of all – be safe!

See you in 2014…

Hopefully you won't catch this guy in the act on Christmas Eve...

Hopefully you won’t catch this guy in the act on Christmas Eve…

GBUK film classics: ‘Batman Begins’

Looking at some all-time film favourites…

 

“It’s not who I am underneath but what I do that defines me…”

Year:  2005

Starring:  Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Katie Holmes

Director:  Christopher Nolan / Written by:  Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer

What’s it about?

After a seven year absence (and being declared dead), Bruce Wayne, orphaned as a young boy when his parents were murdered before his eyes, returns to Gotham City with a mission: to turn fear onto those who prey on the fearful.  To do this he must cultivate a symbol, a legend and bring about change to return Gotham to its once proud glory.  He will become…the Batman.

In review

After enduring the hell of Joel Schumacher’s woefully camp Batman Forever and (shudder) Batman and Robin, in 2005 Batman fans (and audiences in general) were treated to the film they deserved thanks to the efforts of Memento and Insomnia director Christopher Nolan and his production team.

With a screenplay from Man of Steel’s David S. Goyer (fully versed in Batman mythology, drawing on elements of classic stories such as Frank Miller’s seminal Batman: Year One), Batman Begins takes us to the very beginning of the Batman legend and presents us with a psychological examination of Bruce Wayne’s journey to becoming Batman, handled in a grounded and relatable manner.

One of the strongest elements of Batman Begins is its cast, most good films would normally have two or three great actors but here we have several phenomenal actors.  Christian Bale gives a nuanced and (I hasten to use that word again) relatable performance as Bruce Wayne and is supported by Michael Caine as (a more Cockney) Alfred, the Wayne’s ever loyal butler – who also serves as Bruce’s conscience – and Gary Oldman (one of the finest actors ever) filling the role of Gotham Police Lt. James Gordon.  Their portrayal of their respective characters evokes the spirit of their comic book counterparts, nailing effectively the key relationships between Bruce Wayne and Alfred and Batman and Jim Gordon.

Special mention should also of course go to Morgan Freeman who takes on the role of Wayne Enterprise’s Applied Sciences caretaker (and Bruce Wayne’s very own ‘Q’) Lucius Fox, who falls foul of CEO William Earl (the ever superb Rutger Hauer).

The villains of the piece are Henri Ducard/Ra’s Al Ghul (neatly combining the two comic book characters) and Dr. Jonathan Crane (Scarecrow), played by Liam Neeson and Cillian Murphy respectively, serving the story well and providing plenty of conflict for our protagonist…but as most will agree – the best is to come!

Amongst the grand locations, Gotham City is realised on an epic scale – the Chicago City location is complemented by a CGI monorail network and impressive, elaborate physical sets creating the slums which provide the decaying gothic aesthetic of the city as we know it from the comics.

A strong A-list cast and layered and poetic screenplay aside, none of the expected excitement (albeit without any onscreen ‘Zzaps’ or ‘Pows’, for that you need the 1966 Adam West movie) and action of a comic book film is lost.  There are chases across (and many a leap from) rooftops, high octane Batmobile (aka the ‘Tumbler’ – an interesting reinvention of the most iconic piece of Batman’s arsenal) chases and mixed martial arts fisticuffs aplenty!

Overall, Batman Begins is a testament to quality film-making and craftsmanship – from the strong cast performances to the screenplay and direction, all topped off nicely by a thrilling and emotional score from Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard.  It gets to the heart of Bruce Wayne’s character and the world of Gotham City, offering the viewer a deeper understanding and legitimacy to the Batman’s purpose.

Standout moment

Bruce Wayne makes an excursion into the cave below the foundations of Wayne Manor where, unyielding to his fears, he stands and faces a swarm of Bats…the legend is born!

Three reasons it’s a classic…

  1. It takes Batman seriously and provides a grounded and relatable interpretation of the character and the world he inhabits without sacrificing the key elements of the mythology.
  2. As well as a phenomenal cast Batman Begins benefits greatly from a rich and layered screenplay.
  3. It features beautiful (and Oscar nominated) cinematography from Wally Pfister.

Did you know?

Cillian Murphy originally tested for the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman.

If you like this then watch…

Batman (1989):  Tim Burton’s gothic fantasy followed the lead of the darker and more adult comic book tales of the Eighties and presented us with a serious and brooding Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), grappling with his own demons as he faces the threat of Jack Nicholson’s Joker.

Man of Steel:  With a story developed by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer (Nolan also serving as producer), the recent smash-hit Superman reboot takes the Batman Begins approach of grounding (not literally) the character and making Krypton’s Last Son more relatable to modern audiences.

Batman (an intense Christian Bale) confronts Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) .

Batman (an intense Christian Bale) confronts Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) .