Joker (2019): Can More Batman Rogues Get This Treatment?

Image result for joker poster

        “Joker” is a film that has received both a lot of hate and love. I can understand both perspectives but find myself on the liking side. I’m a huge fan of the Batman Rogues gallery and how different they all are psychologically is what makes them so compelling. Hell, they are more compelling than Batman. It is one reason Warner Brothers always casts big name celebrities in the roles. There is so much to do, even if we only get a glimpse into their psyche. This film is a deep dive into the Joker and it works.

The film was directed and written by Todd Phillips who co-wrote it with Scott Silver.

The story follows Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill clown for hire in Gotham City. As his life falls further apart he aspires to be a stand up comedian. Secrets tied to his past combined with social collapse in Gotham forever change him.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

Gotham – Gotham is so wonderfully portrayed in this film. The city is dark and grimy and you see the build up of trash (from the garbage men strike going on at the beginning of the film) contrasted with the Wayne’s version of Gotham where you have fundraisers at beautiful hotels and Wayne Manor, which is so far away from the city that they feel barely connected. You also get taste of the everyday life from the comedy clubs to Robert De Niro’s talk show host Murray. This is a version of Gotham I hope we see more of as it makes that it is a city where unless you are wealthy you will get eaten up and spit out. Which does help explain the rise of Joker and all the Batman rogues to come.

Isolation – One thing the film portrays will is isolation. Arthur Fleck doesn’t have any friends and the film follows his point of view. We see how alone he is with his mother, when he’s working and any large social event he is invisible, except for at the end when he’s embraced his new identity as the Joker.

Joker / Arthur Fleck – This is a story told from the perspective of Arthur Fleck. We don’t really see any of Gotham besides what we see from his point of view. This is great as we come to see how isolated, alone and ill he is. He’s medicated, has a tick where he laughs uncontrollably, lives with his mom who is also mentally unstable and is in a job he hates where he has no job protection or security. I wish there’d been more of a push for him to become a killer. This version of Joker is already broken and unstable and when he does kill for the first time in self-defense has no regret, but loves the attention it is getting him in the revolution taking place in Gotham. Joaquin Phoenix portrays this sociopath really well. From his dancing when he feels freedom and his lost within himself and delusions that we see through the film. This is a character completely alone and that combined with everything else just makes this character’s already unstable mind, so much worse to the point that he adopts the Joker identity.

Dreams, Delusions and the Unreliable Narrator – One of the reasons I think this film works as a Joker film is because it still gives us the unreliable mind of the Joker. Throughout the film Arthur has visions of being with his neighbor and to him they are real until reality comes crashing down on him. This brings up the possibility of this being all a lie told by the Joker at the hospital, as the final scene is him being interviewed before he kills the person interviewing him. This film is his justification, his life where he abused and bullied, the inequalities in Gotham and self-defense, in the case of his first murders. The versions of the Joker from the comic would tell some version of this, as the Joker is never responsible for anything. It is how he gaslit Harley Quinn. For me this is what works even though the writing had a lot of tell when it needed more show.

The Cons:

Themes Needed to go Deeper – There are a few themes the film touches upon, but isn’t willing to go deeper. We see wealth inequality and the detachment of the wealthy like Thomas Wayne and how insulated the rich are from the poor even as they cut their resources. Again, it is touched upon but there was so much they could have done with this. How was Arthur and his mother affording their apartment? What were some of the policies that Thomas Wayne wanted to enact? What is the history of the Waynes to Gotham? Who are the people protesting? These are all questions that would have enriched this theme. Same with lack of mental health care, Arthur loses his social worker but we never see him interact with others in his state or hear about her other clients. These are all great ideas that exist and the film briefly touches, but it needed so much more to elevate the film and better flesh out the world.

Too Much Tell, Needed More Show – This film has some dialogue that isn’t great. Joker literally blames “society” on the talk show, which is a living meme at this point given how Disney and other studios have used the vagueness of society to try and make their films appear more progressive, without actually addressing any issues. The dialogue at times feels unnatural, which is one reason why the best scenes are simply Joaquin Phoenix quietly acting. The guy truly deserves an Oscar for this role as he elevated a film with his performance. The telling rather than showing was easily my biggest issue with this film and I wish we had gotten more show.

This was a controversial film and I have friends who loved it and hated it. I really liked it and it was a film I’d highly recommend to any Scorsese fan (Phillips clearly takes inspiration from a lot of his work in how he frames Gotham and presents characters). I hope more of Batman’s rogues get this treatment as Scarecrow, Riddler, Penguin, Bane and countless others have stories worthy of the big screen. They are much more compelling than Batman (as Batman’s rogues usually are) and I hope this film inspires more of their stories to be told. This film didn’t achieve its full potential, but I appreciate what it did accomplish.

9.3 / 10. I really enjoyed this flawed film and I hope more Batman rogues get this treatment.

The Master (2012): A Critique of Cults and an Exploration of an Anarchistic and Tyrannical Mind

The Master 2012

      This film was a trip, but I would not expect any less from Paul Thomas Anderson. He is one of those writers and directors who have really good quality films but none of them are really favorites. I think a big reason for this is the actors do a great job but the characters they inhabit are so horrible it is hard to have sympathy for the plights they face. This is very true of this film as well where we follow a Cult Leader and Drunk as the primary characters of the narrative.

   “The Master,” was directed, written and co-produced by Paul Thomas Anderson with the other producers being JoAnne Seller, Daniel Lupi and Megan Ellison.

     The story follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who is a drunk drifter who makes special liquor with paint thinner as he alienates every environment after World War 2 ends. He starts out as a photographer, loses the job after he fights a client, a laborer until he accidentally poisons an old man and ends up hopping on the boat that the Cult Leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is on. From here is taken in by “The Cause” as he tries to be a part of it while dealing with his rebellion against any form of authority over him as the drama of the Cult unfolds through the story.

The Pros: The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is beautiful. There are elements of 50’s Jazz and the instrumentals are great as well. It really captures the desolation of the characters too and how they all feel alone.  Jonny Greenwood did a good job.

The Cinematography – The movie was filmed in 70mm which ended up giving it some great wide shots and making the film feel large, even if most of the seasons were very personal scenes. It allowed glimpses into the characters’ minds. Mihai Malaimare jr. did great work.

The Themes – The big themes of it are that power corrupts (The Master Lancaster is always using people to his own end and ego), humans have a need for leaders and are lost without them (the drifter Freddie never changes and never finds purpose except when he was taking photos with “The Cause”), and to not believe those who claim things that cannot be proven (The most reasonable characters are those that are yelled at by Lancaster or beaten up by Freddie for questioning Lancaster Dodd).

The Message – There are few messages that the themes explored. The human need for authority and how those in authority, especially religious authority often use it to their own ends and that authority unchecked is dangerous. Within this is the theme that authority should be questioned, especially when it makes claims it cannot prove. There is also the importance of direction as Freddie has none and never finds peace which seems to be something he’s trying to find throughout the film.

The Actors – Amy Adams does a great job playing the manipulative “girl next door” type character, Hoffman was masterful as the demagogue who had a calm confidence that was lost whenever he was questioned and Phoenix played the drifter really well as he contorted his body and murmured every line like he wasn’t ever fully present in anything. These performances were great, but I couldn’t stand the characters.

The Cons: The Characters – The Master and his family are only out for themselves and believe they are saving the world and are therefore entitled to others wealth. You see this constantly in how they turn on those who question their claims and try to shout over them rather than answering the questions. They claim science without actually using it. Freddie isn’t any better as he is always picking fights, poisoning himself and others and never committing to anything. He is the drifter in a nutshell in the worst way as he never grows and has no arc. He like the Master is the same person he was when they met. Because I couldn’t like any of the characters it’s a major con for me as characters are what keep me interested in the story and caring about what happens.

     Paul Thomas Anderson is a director whose movies may grow on me with time. For now though, the unlikability of his characters is a major con that keeps his films I have watched (including this one) from being favorites. It was good, it was well made,had relevant and great themes that were shown and not told, well filmed and acted…but if I’m not invested in the characters than I’m not invested enough in the plot and what happens to the characters. This is a major problem for me and what made the film good and not great.

Final Score: 8 / 10.