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

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        “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 Neon Demon (2016): Better Writing and Exploration of Characters Could Have Made This a Classic

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    “The Neon Demon” is a horror film that could have been a great classic. It had so much going for it in the themes, ideas and even the characters…but due to lack of development of the characters really failed to deliver on it’s intriguing premise making it more of a film akin to “The Lobster” rather than John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” It’s a film I’d still recommend as it is good, but it fails where it has to and that is what keeps it from being great…for my non-spoiler thoughts.

     The film was directed, co-written and co-produced by Nicolas Winding Refn, co-written by Mary Laws and Polly Stenham and co-produced by Lene Borglum.

     The story involves aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) moving from a small town in Georgia to Los Angeles to get a start in the modeling business. All is not as it appears to be though as rivals have plans for her that go far deeper than she can ever realize.

Spoilers ahead

The Pros: The Premise – The premise is cool! The modeling industry in L.A. is such a great place to have the threat of confined spaces and the city and since modeling…body horror or all the different ways people try to fit in by changing their bodies…within horror and thrillers there is so much that can be done with that.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is picturesque and had so many beautiful images. Even if the images themselves were often beautiful for the sake of beauty or symbolic for the sake of symbolism, they were still stunning.

The Soundtrack – Cliff Martinez created an amazing synth heavy soundtrack that gave a sci. fi. horror feel to the film that sadly was never delivered on. I was expecting to see actual demons rather than implied demon models and some sort of real body horror or at least deep psychological horror…and while there are disturbing scenes the music was far better at tension than the story was.

Christina Hendricks and Keanu Reeves – These two play characters whose stories I wish we could have gotten! Hendricks plays the Manager of a modeling agency who has Jesse lie about her age to get the job (What lead her to be that way? How did she become head of the agency? I wanted to know!) and Keanu Reeves plays a corrupt owner of a motel who uses runaways for sex and exploits models. He’s an evil dude who I wanted to know on how a person could get that way…instead they are side characters who only act as motivation or threat…

The Cons: The Demons – The motivation of the demons seems to be power and destruction but I never got why. They merely existed to exist and exist as symbols of how an industry and being so focused on self can consume you and lead you to consume others. That is cool but even that idea isn’t fully explored because the characters feel unfinished. They exist as half-formed ideas which is a shame as the actress are at least decent at their roles.

Characters Never More Than Symbols Who Aren’t Fully Explored as Symbol or Character – It isn’t just the demons who have the problem of never becoming full characters, Jesse has the same problem too. Everyone exists as threat or motivation for Jesse or I guess the Demons at the end so in the end the story is not fully formed as those who inhabit it never fully become characters and are stuck existing as concepts and ideas.

     If the characters had been fully fleshed out and we had fully explored the depths of the evil of the demons and the industry as it is presented in this film this is a horror film that could have been one of the greats and truly a classic. Because it failed in execution I can only say it is really good but not great though. Lack of character exploration can bring any story down whether it is film or book and this film really suffers from that. I’d still recommend it though and I hope to see more of Refn’s work.

Final Score: 8.4 / 10