Film Review: “Joker”

Joker

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro and Zazie Beetz
Directed by: Todd Phillips
Rated: R
Running Time: 122 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

Much like the Joker’s origin in “The Killing Joke,” Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is an aspiring stand-up comedian. Before he can reach that pie in the sky dream, he makes ends meet as a clown-for-hire, takes care of his ailing mother in a rat-infested apartment, and attempts to deal with several mental illnesses. There’s actually nothing particularly extraordinary about Arthur, and that seems to be casually ingrained into him by his co-workers, passersby on the street and even his own mother. But if the title of the film wasn’t a big enough clue, there’s a lot in life that’s in store for Arthur.

It’d be disingenuous to try and rank all those who’ve portrayed the Joker (minus Jared Leto) because of the drastically different material they were given. However, “Joker” stands tall in its own category because it’s surrounded by subpar films. Villain origin stories aren’t great fodder, just look at “Venom” and “Hannibal.” But “Joker” isn’t just an origin story for the clown prince of crime, it’s a character study, something that’s never been done before on screen. Breaking down the Joker is a tricky task and there’s really no right way to do it, but there’s definitely a wrong way to do it. While Phoenix does it magically nuanced way, director/writer Todd Phillips handles it in ham-fisted fashion.

Phillips is more well-known for his “Hangover” trilogy or juvenile 2000 film, “Road Trip.” Behind the camera, Phillips is more than capable of telling a gritty crime story, drawing from what I can only assume is movies he grew up on and influenced him to become a filmmaker in the first place, “Taxi Driver,” “Kings of Comedy” and “Network.” He encapsulates that late 70s/early 80s glow well, emulating its style, color palette and nihilism. Where he falls remarkably short is writing a script that’s on par with those classics. Phillips makes a lot of leaps in logic, despite grounding the main character in a very realistic Gotham.

There’s nothing supernatural or superhuman about Fleck’s life. There’s no vat of chemicals to fall in or scars that he’s telling conflicting stories about. Everything that makes Fleck the hero and villain of his own story, is inside. So what makes a lot of the “Joker” work is the acting and not Phillips. That’s because the director gives away several mid, and late, storytelling reveals by relying on clichés early on. Anyone familiar with the Batman lore or movies involving psychosis will be able to spot plot twists and turns involving characters or the plot. Phillips’ maturity with his hands behind the camera unfortunately doesn’t translate when the pen meets the paper.

I’ll give credit to Phillips for one aspect, and that’s at least using one of the film’s tropes to set-up discussion about the ending of the film. Since Phillips has noted this is a stand-alone film (meaning it doesn’t fit into the DC Cinematic Universe and won’t have a sequel), there’s a lot to take away from the final 15 minutes. That’s where I assume a lot of the pre-release controversy stems from. Several people have weighed in on what they believe Phillips is intending to say, but I’m in the minority because I’m not sure Phillips is actually trying to say anything in particular. I believe he structured it in such a neutral fashion, that the discussion will simply be guided by the ideology of the viewer.

But for all the hype, controversy, praise, condemnation and mystery, the only thing worthy of discussion for years to come is the performance by Phoenix; everything else feels like contemporary background noise. Phoenix, as he’s done in nearly every role he’s been given, is absolutely magnetic. Despite the derivative nature of the script, Phoenix keeps his character wildly unpredictable while combining antihero elements and sociopathic tendencies. We’re not just witnessing the birth of a supervillain, we’re watching a true descent into madness.

Film Review: “Suicide Squad”

Starring: Will Smith, Jared Leto and Margot Robbie
Directed By: David Ayer
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 130 minutes
Warner Bros.

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

The Suicide Squad is a generally unheard force in the DC Universe. They’re a group of underdog villains attempting to do good, drawing comparisons from some that this is Warner Bros. attempt at their own version of “Guardians of the Galaxy”. While the comparison is fair, “Suicide Squad” is a far more sinister beast. While Marvel’s Peter Quill and Rocket Raccoon are likable thieves and thugs, the members of the Suicide Squad are a terrifying ragtag bunch of assassins, murderers and sociopaths.

The Suicide Squad is made up of the smooth talking Deadshot (Smith), Joker’s squeeze Harley Quinn (Robbie), the beer drinking Boomerang (Jai Courtney), the gang banger El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and the hulking monster Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). They’re all led by the self-righteous Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman). The founder of this group is Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who may as well be the villain of the movie. She’s an unsympathetic, calculating, and murderous government official who abides by her own rules.

Her basis for creating the Suicide Squad is so that the U.S. military has an controllable force that can stop the next Superman (spoilers if you didn’t see the disappointing “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice”). Waller has a working knowledge of nearly every villain on the planet, and seemingly every superhero, which gives pause as to why she thinks this would ever be a good idea. Despite the rather large nature of the cast working under Waller’s character, director and writer David Ayer wisely chose to focus the movie’s attention on the best actors, Davis, Smith and Robbie.

While the media lead-up to “Suicide Squad” has been about Leto’s disturbing antics off-screen, his on-screen Joker portrayal is underwhelming. It’s not because it comes on the heels of Ledger’s performance back in 2008, but because I still can’t imagine the Joker having the patience to get a tattoo or ever concerning himself with fashionable bling-bling. Despite the disappointment of Leto’s Joker, Robbie wows as the stunning lover of Mr. J, Harley Quinn. While we’ve never had a theatrical version of the Clown Prince of Crime’s murderous hunny, Robbie has set the bar, and it’s pretty damn high.

Robbie displays a natural ability to blend Quinn’s flirtatious, deadly, and juvenile nature seamlessly. She manages to convey her as a trashy, demented high school cheerleader most of the time, while displaying a softer, human side to the villain in brief glances. Matching her scene-by-scene is Smith, who’s back to his action movie roots as the assassin that never misses, Deadshot. Both of them provide most of the back story and emotional depth amongst the Suicide Squad, and rightfully so.

El Diablo has a heart breaking backstory, but Hernandez isn’t a strong enough actor or given enough dialogue to feed into his tragic past. Killer Croc is simply a grunting brute covered in scales and Boomerang is the wisecracking comic relief, minus the comic relief. The movie also finds time to wedge in Ben Affleck’s Batman, Ezra Miller’s Flash, and a brief nod to the future “Justice League” movie. Sometimes it’s a visual buffet that finds the right balance without making you too nauseous, as long as you know what the hell the movie’s talking about.

The characters are what make “Suicide Squad”, not the story, which clearly came second. When David Ayer needs to introduce the characters, he establishes a pecking order and focuses on the most relatable. As for the plot, it’s a mess involving the mysterious Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), who’s never explained, possibly angering those unfamiliar with comic books, and maybe even those familiar with them. The exact reasoning behind the Suicide Squad’s pact is a little iffy and the movie doesn’t find a satisfying conclusion after the bombastic finale.

“Suicide Squad” is a wham-bam action punch with enough exuberant and unique performances to help overshadow the lacking plot structure. You’ll be talking about Robbie’s Harley Quinn more than you will about Leto’s Joker. And that’s not a bad thing when DC is trying to establish some girl power. If DC wants to start working on a solo Deadshot or Harley Quinn movie, go ahead and buy my tickets right now.