Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Joker and other recent movies

"Clowns to the left of me / Jokers to the right..."

2019 has been a year where jokers and clowns have been seemingly all around us, from the ones cavorting on the silver screen to the ones who ( allegedly ) run our countries and institutions. And this feeling of the lunatics having taken over the asylum very much feeds into the first film I'm going to talk about here in my quick rundown of recent big screen fare:

Joker ( Dir. Todd Phillips )

Strangely enough, this origin story for DC's Clown Prince Of Crime has turned out to be the most controversial film of the year, even if its content doesn't really warrant all the hysteria. I guess you've heard all the hype, Dear Reader, from the ridiculous warnings that certain misfits could identify with the central character and go out and do Bad Things, to the director's confession that he planned to sneak an "indie" film into the DC cinematic universe, to the spectacle of elder statesmen of film slagging off super hero movies. So, does the movie justify all that uproar? Well, not really.
In its subject matter, Joker is basically an amalgam of two Martin Scorsese movies, Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy  -  and the fact that the latter film's Rupert Pupkin, Robert De Niro himself, turns up as a supporting character only pushes the cross-referencing envelope. The problem is Todd Phillips ain't no Scorsese. The movie seems confused to me and its pretensions to making Big Political Statements are, well, just pretensions. If you really want to talk about such subjects as the banality of violence, class war and the madness of crowds then using an old Batman villain will only get you so far.
Having said all that, the film certainly delivers in terms of the visuals ( the grimy, grainy, 1970s New York vibe is superbly evoked here ), the deliciously mournful score by Hildur Guonadottir and, of course, the central performance by Joachin Phoenix. Barely off-screen for a moment, Phoenix is compellingly, frighteningly believable as mentally unstable outcast Arthur Fleck, whose pitiful attempts at fitting into society are obviously doomed to fail. It's a towering performance, brave both emotionally and physically ( the actor must have really put himself through the wringer to achieve this ), and probably far better than the film deserves. Hopefully there won't be a Joker 2 or an attempt to shoehorn the character into the next Bat-pic ( although Hollywood bean-counters would surely love that ) because that could only detract from Phoenix's utter ownership of this Joker and his world.

It: Chapter Two ( Dir: Andy Muschietti )

Hopping in ridiculously oversized shoes from one clown to another we come to what was probably my most anticipated film of the year. The first chapter of this Stephen King adaptation was a delight, a wonderful mix of horror, humour and nostalgia that did a damn good job of catching King's unique "voice" and brought the world yet another memorable circus-themed monster. This second part of the story is fun but, for me, lacks the magic of the first. It starts off promisingly with some very nasty scenes of brutality as the Pennywise character reincorporates 27 years after the Losers had thought they'd beaten him, but it all becomes more generic as the story progresses. As with the Tim Curry-led TV mini-series, the adult versions of the Losers are far less interesting than their teenage counterparts. There's some fine work here from James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain and Bill Hader but none of it really catches fire, something which is only highlighted when their younger selves pop up in flashbacks. There are admittedly some creepy scenes here but the atmosphere is often punctured by ill-judged humour and probably the freakiest scene in the film ( the Bit With The Old Lady ) was available in truncated form online before the movie came out, so is completely spoiled. Muschietti piles on more and more supernatural shenanigans as the film winds down, proving yet again that more is often less in horror movies. I still think King's novel would have benefited from being made as a 12-part Netflix show or some such which would have given the mammoth story room to breathe.

Blinded By The Light ( Dir. Gurinder Chadha )

In complete contrast to the previous two movies, Blinded By The Light is a warm-hearted and exuberant story of the growing pains of a British Pakistani in the 1980s who happens to be a Bruce Springsteen fan. Based on Greetings From Bury Park, the autobiography of journalist and broadcaster Sarfraz Manzoor, this is the definition of the "feelgood Summer movie" but one mostly free of the saccharine touch of the likes of Richard Curtis. The main character, Javed, comes of age in the late '80s, living in the seemingly nowhere town of Luton, dreaming of breaking free and becoming a writer but feeling constricted by the weight of his family's expectations. A friend at college introduces Javed to the music of Bruce Springsteen and he finds a deep connection to Bruce's songs of loners, outcasts and dreamers which he struggles to explain to his friends and family.
The push and pull between East and West, and between Javed's and his father's dreams, drive the story whilst Springsteen's songs underscore or counterpoint the narrative.
Gurinder Chadha's assured direction imbues what seems on the surface to be a light and frothy movie with some darker undertones as racism rears its ugly head and poverty bites at the characters. There are also some fascinating insights into Pakistani culture which you barely see in mainstream movies. Mostly, though, it's just huge fun as Javed finds the music of the Boss helping him get through his growing pains, often breaking out into song, Bollywood-style, or finding the song lyrics whirling around him on screen as they comment on his life. The film is unashamedly, cheekily cheesy and emotional, wearing its heart on its denim sleeve, and is all the better for that.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood ( Dir. Quentin Tarantino )

Tarantino's latest is, for want of a better description, 100% Tarantino. A lovingly recreated Hollywood past is the playground for a cast of characters, some fictional, some real, all trying to survive turbulent times and maybe make a buck or two. The story ( or what story there is ) revolves around fading '50s movie star Rick Dalton ( DiCaprio ) and his stunt-man / buddy / gopher Cliff Booth ( Pitt ) as they hang out, drive around LA, go to parties, drive around LA, try to hang on to their careers, and drive around LA some more. Versions of the likes of Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate drift in and out of the film, some making more of an impression than others. Margot Robbie is conspicuously under-served by the script, having little to do except look gorgeous and ( you've guessed it! ) drive around LA, whilst most attention is lavished on Leo and Brad whose combined charisma is the real engine of the movie. The film is slooooow even by QT's standards, without much of his standard violence to break up the general sluggishness
( although there is one typically ultra-tense stand-off scene and the old ultra-violence does put in a controversial appearance near the end ) but it all gets by on the star power of the two leads and the gorgeous visuals. Just.
A love letter to the movies in general and late '60s / early '70s Hollywood in particular, it's probably the most self-indulgent film yet from a consistently self-indulgent film-maker. QT here re-imagines a pivotal time in Hollywood  -  as the Studio system gives way to the era of the Movie Brats and darker forces are at work behind the scenes and in the dust of the Californian desert, Quentin audaciously attempts to right wrongs and give some people the happy endings they never received in real life. I'm still not sure if he really succeeds ( or even should have attempted it ) but it's brave and foolhardy at the same time and is pure Tarantino.

( Sarah, James and I also went to a revived screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the good ol' Gloucester Guildhall. James and I last saw this on the big screen only last year but it was still great to see it again and it didn't lose its power on the smaller screen. Still the Ultimate Trip. )

Soundtrack: various obscure Vaporwave artists

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