Who’s the Joker now?

Joker has evoked tons of media coverage and criticism, those flames fanned when Joaquin Phoenix stated that a movie is not responsible for teaching right and wrong. He’s right. A Times writer felt he needed to explain how the movie accidentally makes a big statement about being a white anti-hero vs. a black one. There’s truth in what he’s saying, but so what — you could write that about any movie with a white male lead.

So yes, it’s annoying that critics have to complain about the perceived social ills of Joker. Because it’s a good movie. And, in fact, something that it would seem only I am saying is the societal impact is exactly the opposite of its criticism. Joker does a great service by showing what a plain old revolver can inflict on the flesh and bone of a human being.  All the do-gooders out there should be more concerned about a fake war movie that shows a bazooka hitting a vehicle A-Team style, causing it to flip over but then everyone exits unscathed. Or lame superhero/Fast & Furious movies in which no one ever gets hurt.


Joker contains something much better than all the societal messages the critics wish it did: grand cinematic vision. The story is not the strongest I’ve ever seen by a long shot, so I did not love the movie. But I dug it. It’s entertaining. And just like a Lynch film, or any film, it needs to be judged by what it is, not what it is not.

And if you’re concerned about gun violence, there’s a simple solution: make guns a lot harder to obtain.

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Two big positives: Joker features a great look and setting, perhaps my favorite “Gotham City” yet.  And, best of all, a perfectly-cast Joaquin Phoenix. He delivers a spirited performance in a role he was meant to play. Joaquin Phoenix is, like Ryan Gosling, an actor who’s always fascinating to watch. There’s something always under the surface that you just can’t quite figure. A character that moves in unexpected and explosive ways. And it’s nice to see him getting paid… a stalwart indie/small film actor for years and years who finally got to see a payday.

You wouldn’t guess this is Todd Phillips, the same director as Due Date and The Hangover franchise. I don’t think the direction is utter genius, but’s it’s good and a league above The Hangover. There’s a sense throughout that we’re doing something different here. This is not just another comic book movie. Hardly.

About on par with last year’s Upgrade and a peg or two below Midsommar; on the low end of 8/10

Comparison Notes: Taxi Driver, all Batman movies, Streets of Fire, Natural Born Killers, Gorky Park, Punch-Drunk Love, The Master (which I definitely need to revisit at some point – every time I think of it my opinion rises.)

Film Brief: The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers features a great, rich, and seemingly accurate visual representation of the burgeoning frontier west, but the language didn’t seem so authentic, oft filled with anachronisms — though I wonder if that was intentional.  A character-driven story, the plot could have been beefed up.  Still, I was entertained as I followed these rapscallions.  6/10

Comparison Notes: Dead Man, Django Unchained, all westerns

Film Brief: Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Gus Van Sant has been an important figure in Hollywood going back nearly 30 years to Drugstore Cowboy, and made the Cinematic Greats Good Will Hunting and Elephant.  Two Cinematic Greats by one director is quite an accomplishment.  His latest movie, the biopic Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, contains some touching moments, but misses some obvious opportunities in telling its story — like focusing more on making the comics.  The performances are terrific and spirited.  A marginal recommendation with an extra helping of caveats, as this movie borders on being a slog and contains significant factual lapses that could only have improved the picture had they been correctly dealt with.  6/10

Claim You Were Never Really Here. I wish I could.

You Were Never Really Here reminds me of Good Time from last year: a little indie that, with the first scenes and through the intro title, I thought: YES!  This is GOOD… often you know immediately when a movie is going to be good.   But with one punch then another and another, a left hook and a right jab, you realize how bad it’s going to be.

Not showing every last detail and letting the imagination fill in the gaps can be a very effective means of storytelling.  The best examples are Fargo and American Psycho.  But when that’s the whole film — random dead people left and right, real and imagined, it just goes to show how little an idea the filmmaker has.  Of how little a story there is.  Of trying to substitute style for substance.

It all goes back to a theme I keep pounding away at: the power of linear storytelling.  More often than not, when a filmmaker goes highly non-linear, they are compensating for the lack of a good story.   Not that You Were… is all that nonlinear.  It’s just bad.  I blame it on Amazon.  3/10

Comparison Notes: The infinitely better Thelma comes to mind.  When the movie resorts to bodies floating in water for no good reason whatsoever, you realize you’ve hit bottom.

The Great Expectations of an Irrational Man

Irrational Man - poster med

Sometimes critics just don’t get fun films.  With a lame title — that I’ve now warmed to, equally lame poster art, and a Tomatometer score of 39%, I was expecting to be bored or annoyed with Irrational Man.  But Joaquin Phoenix intrigues me, and so does Woody Allen, and Emma Stone doesn’t hurt the cause — so I decided to give it a shot.

The Rotten Tomatoes consensus could not be more wrong:

Irrational Man may prove rewarding for the most ardent Joaquin Phoenix fans or Woody Allen apologists, but all others most likely need not apply

Malarkey!  Irrational Man is not Woody Allen’s best effort, but this is a delightful, fun film.  A little clunkiness hampers the early going, and throughout there is a light air of contrivance that encumbers even his better films of late, such as Blue Jasmine.  That didn’t prevent Blue Jasmine from being one of the best films of 2013; Irrational Man is not up to Blue Jasmine’s level, but it is still quite entertaining, and Woody Allen deserves credit for making a very different movie here.  He may not knock it out of the park every time, but his pictures prove fresh and inventive from one to the next.  7/10  Irrational Man - text block

Inherent Vice: Not a P.T. Anderson Pic

Inherent Vice - poster landscape

Just as “Wes Anderson” has become an adjective, so too has “Paul Thomas Anderson.”  So when I say that I mostly hated Inherent Vice, do not take that as a disparagement against the PT Anderson brand.  For Inherent Vice was completely Inherent Vice - text block 2unrecognizable as a PT Anderson film.  And it will remain so as long as PT Anderson returns to making PT Anderson pics.

Joe Morgenstern, WSJ:

Since most of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” was meant to be impenetrable, the best approach, as you watch it drift by, is to savor the dreamy images and druggy jokes—the action is set in the stoner precincts of Los Angeles in 1970—and forget about penetrating the plot.

That’s how most critics took the film.  Just sit back and go with the groove.  Forget about the story.  Hey I’m hip, baby.  But 2 1/2 hours of vibe gets tedious.  By the end, even the humorous parts wear thin.  What great films do is put you in their world, but then use that world as a backdrop to the story.  Think Fargo, Gattaca, Pulp Fiction, Donnie Darko, and After Dark, My Sweet.  So when a world of critics tell me to slip into the world of Inherent Vice and forget about story I say no.  That doesn’t work for me.  Story matters.

Other critics have pointed out that Inherent Vice does a good job of remaining faithful to the novel.  On this point I don’t care.  Apparently that was the downfall of Wild.  If you can stay faithful to the book and make a good movie, more power to you.  But first you need to make a good movie.

Something else occurred to me scanning the reviews.  Lately it seems critics are instantly enamored with whatever junk a filmmaker puts out there, as long as it’s set in the ’70s.  That was the explanation I gave for all the praise American Hustle received.  Here we go again.

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Inherent Vice - text blockInherent Vice is a scattershot mess, a train wreck disguised as an ingenious labyrinth.  A series of conversations with little to no action never works in a movie.  It’s trying to be some type of latter-day Chinatown or Big Sleep or Jackie Brown.   But those movies focus on story first, then on atmosphere.

The Big Lebowski is the other obvious comparison.  I’m a fan of Joaquin Phoenix, and his “Dude” is great here.  As much as I disliked this movie, the funny scenes mostly worked for me.  And there are other good parts; a rather brilliant sex scene stands out.  But mostly, PT Anderson’s attempt at some crazy cross of David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers utterly fails.  He needs to stick to being PT Anderson.  3/10

Oscar Wins for 12 Years and Spike Jonze

12 Years a Slave, easily the best film of the year and one of the most powerful stories ever told on film, won the Academy Award tonight for Best Picture.  Congratulations to the Academy for getting it right this year.

Congratulations too to Spike Jonze, a much deserved win for Best Original Screenplay — just when the 2nd-best movie of the year Her was looking like it would get shut out.

Also — what was with all the shots to Joseph Gordon-Levitt?  Why was he even there?  Was the Academy trying to compensate for its snub of Don Jon?