Movie reviews: 'Joker' reinvents the DC villain for a new generation
Richard Crouse, Special to CTV News
Published Friday, October 4, 2019 7:30AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, October 4, 2019 12:23PM EDT
JOKER: 4 STARS
We will never know what Cesar Romero, the first actor to wear the Joker’s scary clown make up, would think about his old alter ego as interpreted by Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker,” but one thing is for sure, he wouldn’t recognize the nihilistic new take on the character.
Set in a rat-infested Gotham City, the story sees Arthur Fleck, an unstable man doing the best he can with state sponsored therapy and medication. By day he performs as a clown, dancing at children’s hospitals or holding “Going Out of Business” signs on Gotham’s mean streets. At night, when not day dreaming of becoming a stand-up comic, he’s tending to his infirm mother (Frances Conroy). Late at night they cozy up and watch their favorite TV show, a talk show hosted by Merv Griffin wannabe Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Sometimes Arthur even daydreams that Murray is a warm and loving father figure.
In the real-world things have a grimmer shade. Arthur is constantly harassed by co-workers and, worse, abused by complete strangers. On the day he is fired from his job he fights back, shooting and killing three businessmen who tried to beat him on his subway ride home. When news of the Clown Killer circulates, he becomes the anonymous figurehead of a populist resistance movement. Protesters riot in the streets, wearing clown masks and with signs emblazoned with slogans like "We are all clowns" and "Down with money."
Not that Arthur notices. “I’m not political,” he says. With no job, and, after his therapy program is cancelled, no medication, his extreme behavior escalates. “I’ve got nothing to lose,” he says. “Nothing can hurt me anymore.”
Although ripe with elements from older movies like “Death Wish,” the God’s lonely man favorites “Mean Streets” and Taxi Driver” and echoes from real-life forgotten names like Bernard Goetz, “Joker” is no period piece. It’s as timely as yesterday’s headlines. A study of everything from alienation and disappointment to the failure of social safety nets and access to weapons, it’s a character study not just of the Joker but of a troubled time. “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society who abandoned him?” Joker asks. “You get what you deserve.”
This isn’t a superhero film, there are links and connections to the Batman and Joker stories that came before but this is a horror movie, a look into what happens when the chaos in Arthur’s head becomes manifest. “For my whole life I didn’t know if I existed,” he says, “but now I know I do and people are noticing.” He’s the result of a broken system that turns their back on the mentally ill and underprivileged.
Phoenix, who dropped fifty-two pounds to play the role, displays not just a wasted body, but also spirit in a haunting performance that reinvents the character for a new generation. His take on Arthur finds its roots in marginalized people. It is a harrowing performance, not always easy to watch, that almost generates sympathy for a broken man who becomes an agent of chaos and one of the DC Comics’ greatest villains.
“Joker” drags in its middle section, unpleasantly luxuriating in Arthur’s grim collapse into anarchy, but is held afloat by Phoenix. It may not be a deep or realistic study of mental illness but it showcases Arthur’s weariness at being treated as the cigarette butt under society’s heel.
The message of finding control through vigilante violence is a disturbing one, but IRL it’s one that plays out on the news with disturbing frequency. “Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?” Arthur asks.
SOMETIMES ALWAYS NEVER: 3 ½ STARS
“Sometimes Always Never,” a new dramedy starring Bill Nighy and Sam Riley, applies a light touch to some heavy topics.
Adapted from Frank Cottrell Boyce's short story, "Triple Word Score," the film sees Nighy play Alan, a widowed tailor with a fractured family. He has a strained relationship with his ice cream van painter son Peter (Riley) stemming from an incident decades before when his son Michael disappeared after an argument over a game of Scrabble. Alan is still a Scrabble fanatic—he’s a walking dictionary of obscure, high-scoring words like scopone and muzhik—but these days he mostly plays online. It’s there he comes across a competitor whose word choice and style of play reminds him of his AWOL son. Could it be Michael? “The only thing I am scared of is ding before I sort this thing out,” he says.
There’s more. Alan cheats a couple out of £200 bending the rules to his favor, and hips his grandson to the joys of Scrabble over first-person-shooter games but the heart of the movie has little to do with the word game. It’s a father and son story about a tormented man who is a master of words but could never find the right thing to say to either of his sons.
“Sometimes Always Never” plays on director Carl Hunter’s background in graphic design—he has designed record sleeves for The Clash and his own band, The Farm—to create the movie’s stylized, quirky look. Visual echoes of Aki Kaurismaki and Wes Anderson resonate throughout, lending a kind of magic realism to a story that is grounded in basic humanity—a search for the missing piece of the family’s puzzle.
This is another of Nighy’s gently eccentric characters, a man touched with sadness but hopeful enough to pursue an answer to the mystery that has plagued him for years. Nighy is always immensely watchable but here he brings an easy, elegant charm to Alan, despite the character’s emotional handicap.
“Sometimes Always Never” is a small film about big topics that balances an overarching feel of sorrow with heavy doses of whimsy. Eloquent both visually and emotionally, it speaks volumes about heartbreak even when the characters can’t quite find the words to do so themselves.
ROBBERY: 3 ½ STARS
Just because the movie has a generic title doesn’t mean it has a run-of-the-mill story. “Robbery,” a new crime film starring Jeremy Ferdman and Art Hindle, is, indeed, the story of a theft, but not just of goods. It’s also about how dementia robbed a man of his memories.
Ferdman plays Richie, a small-time crook with big-time debt to a hard-nosed casino owner (Jennifer Dale). She means business. “Your sticky fingers,” she says to the thief, “I need to take them.” To raise the cash Richie needs to stop knocking off convenience stores and step up his game. To pull off the robberies he needs the help of his father Frank (Hindle) to teach him the ins-and-outs of a large-scale criminal operation. Frank spent five decades on the wrong side of the law but the clock is ticking. Frank has been diagnosed with dementia. Soon his years of underworld knowledge will disappear and with them Richie’s chances of getting out of the hole.
When recovering gambling addict Winona (Sera-Lys McArthur) offers to orchestrate an elaborate casino heist it tests the bonds of loyalty between father and son.
Writer and director Corey Stanton takes the been-there-done-that premise of a young thief and mentor pulling off a job to avert some very dire consequences and breathes new life into it by adding in unexpected twists and turns along with characters that, while flawed, are compelling. The finale amps up the melodrama but until then Stanton does a great job of laying out the puzzle pieces, building tension with good pacing and layers of tricky plotting. Most importantly Frank’s illness is never used as a gimmick or plot point. His dementia is part of the overarching plot devices used to fuel the narrative engine, and it pays off thematically and dramatically.
Stanton is aided by his actors. Ferdman and the supporting actors, including McArthur and Tara Spencer-Nairn, make the most of characters who live on the edge and yet bring humanity and interest to each of them. For my money, however, this is Hindle’s show. He has terrific chemistry with Ferdman and convincingly flip-flops between hardened criminal and bewildered older man. If you don’t buy into the character of Frank you won’t buy into the movie but Hindle gives him dimension and even garners our sympathy.
“Robbery” has more heart than most heist films and more intrigue than most family dramas. It’s a tightrope walk but Stanton and his cast pull it off nicely.
THE LAUNDROMAT: 2 ½ STARS
Based on “Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite” by Jake Bernstein, “The Laundromat” chronicles the rot that festers on the corrupt body of our financial institutions.
Divided into chapters with names like “Secret Number One: The Meek Are Screwed,” “The Laundromat” is a funny, star-studded portmanteau of thematically linked stories involving tax loopholes, exploitation and financial malfeasance. “All these stories are about money,” says Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), “the secret lives of money.” Like “The Big Short” it takes the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down approach to telling a story so dripping with bile you have to laugh to stop from crying.
Meryl Streep is at the helm of this cinematic op-ed playing Ellen Martin, a steely woman whose husband’s death leads her by the nose into the world of fake insurance policies and a shady Panama City law firm run by slicksters Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Fonseca. The flamboyant represent “drug lords, sex traffickers and destroyers of the planet” and also colourfully narrate the action. “Tax avoidance and tax evasion,” says Mossack. “The line between them is as thin as a jailhouse wall.” They’re more interested in the shell companies they control that help line the pockets of their very wealthy clients than the regular Joes affected by their actions. “Bad is such a big word for such a small word.”
As the story splinters into chapters, cameos from Jeffrey Wright (as a secretive insurance broker), Nonso Anozie (as a billionaire who tries to buy his way out of trouble) and David Schwimmer (as a business person screwed by his insurance company) pile up, revealing personal aspects of the dirty business of money laundering. The story wanders here and there but Streep stays on course, lending this ragged movie a strong emotional core.
“The Laundromat” features lively performances—I’m looking at you Oldman and Banderas—timely commentary about whistleblowers and fraud and a rousing fourth wall breaking ending and yet, feels like less than the sum of its parts. Director Steven Soderbergh provides some well-crafted big moments but the stories are too far flung and too brief to inspire any real interest in the characters. They come and go with little development (save for Martin), often representing ideas rather than fully formed characters.
Streep plays a double role, an ill-advised choice that feels like a stunt and doesn’t lend much to the telling of the tale, but wraps things up with a wake-up call, asking basic questions—Who is accountable? Where and how do you get justice?—that put a period on this story but should be a starting point for more discussion and thought.