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Spoiler Free Joker + Loads of Good Movies

Hope Madden Hope Madden Spoiler Free Joker + Loads of Good MoviesPhoto via IMDb
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It’s here: the most talked about, pearl clutched about, pre-viewing dissected movie of the year. Can it stand up to the scrutiny? Will Joker outlast its backlash? One thing is for sure: don’t take your kids!

Joker

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Todd Phillips, director of the Hangover trilogy among other comedies, recently told Vanity Fair that he had to get out of comedy because woke culture made it impossible to be funny.

That sounds like a butthurt white guy nobody thinks is funny. Doesn’t that actually make him the perfect person to reimagine Joker?

Directing and co-writing with Scott Silver (The Fighter), Phillips offers an origin story that sees mental illness, childhood trauma, adult alienation and societal disregard as the ingredients that form a singular villain—a man who cannot come into his own until he embraces his inner sinister clown.

It’s a dangerous idea and a dangerous film, but that doesn’t make it a bad movie. In many respects—though not all—it is a great movie. This is partly thanks to an ambitious screenplay, Lawrence Sher’s intense cinematography, solid directorial instincts with some beautifully staged violence and constant (indeed, fanboy-esque) nods to Scorsese.

But let’s be honest, it’s mainly because Joaquin Phoenix is a god among actors. His scenes of transformation, his scenes alone, his mesmerizing command of physicality, and in particular his unerringly unnerving chemistry with other actors are haunting.

Phoenix is Arthur Fleck, (or Afleck, if you were giving points for Batman references) wannabe standup comic and put upon outcast in 1981 Gotham City. The garbage strike has everyone testy. Rich, entitled Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s dad) isn’t helping matters with his bid for the mayor’s office and his disdain for those who are struggling.

Since Phillips genuflects to both Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, it is appropriate that Robert DeNiro, with some snazzy new teeth, participates as Murray Franklin, the late night legend that Arthur and his mother (Frances Conroy) watch every night.

More than once, Phillips does not trust his audience to stay with the direction he’s taken, and it’s unfortunate. These “look what I’m doing here” scenes drag the film, but as long as you never take your eyes off Phoenix (and who could?), you’re not likely to notice.

A pivotal moment where Arthur crashes a posh screening of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is Phillips’ less-than-subtle reminder that it has always been the clowns in this world who reflect society’s reality back to us. It’s a wise move to make this an alienated-to-the-point-of-violence white guy who takes his frustrations out not on the powerless, but on those with power, thus becoming a kind of hero himself.

Of course, the inclusion of Chaplin could also be read as a direct admission that Joker is a comment on our modern times. Superhero universe? Fanatical throngs blindly following a sociopath? Checks out.

But similar to Phillips’ approach with War Dogs three years ago, an uneven tone lessens the intended impact. Alongside the straightforward Scorsese homages are left turns into Oliver Stone territory a la Natural Born Killers. That black comedic satire is a tough nut regardless, even more so if comes in fits and starts.

Credit Phillips for a damn the torpedoes vision that’s damn near palpable, but it’s impossible to imagine this all meshing as well as it does without Phoenix. His presence is completely transfixing, always convincing you that he is here to fulfill this legendary character’s destiny.

Remember when we thought Nicholson could never be topped? Then Ledger did it. And now Phoenix makes this the darkest, most in-the-moment Joker we’ve seen.

And it’s chilling.

So, Phillips succeeded in making an anti-comedy and anti-comic book movie because bro culture totally rules and comedy is dead and that’s not a privileged cop out at all. But then, it is possible to separate art and the artist.

We all still love Rosemary’s Baby, right?

Grade: A-

Memory: The Origins of Alien

by Hope Madden

“The reek of human blood smiles out at me.”

It’s an unusual opening line for a documentary about that icon of SciFi horror, Alien. And yet, Memory: The Origins of Alien is an unusual documentary.

Alexandre O. Philippe takes you deep into our collective psyche, our “cauldron of stories,” to explore the alchemy behind the lingering success and haunting nature of Ridley Scott’s film. Though the story starts long before Scott’s involvement.

Philippe begins by mining writer Dan O’Bannon’s influences and preoccupations.

“I didn’t steal from anyone,” he said. “I stole from everyone.”

A Nebraskan whose father once staged an alien landing, O’Bannon’s out of the ordinary young life and preoccupation with comics fueled his short screenplay, “Memory.” But it was his battle with Crohn’s disease that inspired that pivotal scene that moved the tale from short to feature.

Then came H. R. Giger, whose “mythology of the future” offered visual entryway to the world the film would imagine. Scott eventually joined, seeing their genius and raising it. Philippe’s joy at displaying the way these three imaginations coalesce to form the greater vision spills off the screen.

But why, after 40 years, is Alien still a heart-pounding success?

If you buy the film’s thesis—and Philippe does make a good case—we basically had no choice.

Alien is both the lovechild of H.R. Giger, Dan O’Bannon and Ridley Scott—each as seemingly necessary for this product as the next—and the culmination of primal images and ideas mined from the collective unconscious.

This is more than undulating fandom aimed at the object of adoration. It’s a deep, immersive dive into how Alien evolved to become the  masterpiece that it is and why the film remains as haunting today as it was when John Hurt’s chest first burst in 1979.

Grade: A-

Low Tide

by George Wolf

If you’ve been waiting for the perfect time to pitch your idea of re-making The Town as a coming of age drama, too late.

Writer/director Kevin McMullin beat ya to it with his first feature Low Tide, a nifty debut that leans on plenty of heist tropes cleverly downsized for teenage conspirators.

Alan (Keean Johnson) and Peter (IT‘s Jaeden Martell) are New Jersey brothers with roots in the fishing district. Mom has passed on, so while Dad’s away working a boat, Alan breaks into houses with his goofy friend Smitty (Daniel Zolghadri from Eighth Grade) and scary pal Red (Alex Neustaedter).

The gang ropes young Peter in for his first job as lookout, but somebody snitched. Sergeant Kent (the always reliable Shea Wigham) gives chase just as they’re leaving the latest B&E, and not everyone gets away.

Not everyone knows about the very valuable score some of the boys found in that house, either, which leads to plenty of suspicion among thieves.

Plus, one honest to goodness buried treasure.

McMullin blends his genres well, creating an ambiguous time stamp that can resonate with various demographics, and indulging in some noir fun without collapsing into full Bugsy Malone territory.

We’ve been watching the talented Martell grow up since his St.Vincent breakout five years ago, and his thoughtful turn as the smart, cautious Peter shows his transition into adult roles should be a smooth one. The kid’s just a natural.

And it’s not just Martell. There’s not a weak link in this ensemble, giving McMullin plenty of room to pursue his vision with inspired confidence.

If you’ve seen even a few heist dramas, the only things that may surprise you are the age of these bandits and how little you fault the film for its familiarity.

Attempting to define the moment when a young life chooses the path it will follow is not exactly a new idea. By wrapping his teen characters in recognizably adult archetypes, McMullin keeps the drama just a hair off-kilter, rewarding our continued investment.

As Sergeant Kent tells one of the boys, “This is your origin story. You gonna be the good guy, or the bad guy?”

Low Tide makes it fun finding out.

Grade: B+

Wrinkles the Clown

by Hope Madden

It’s fun to scare kids.

Oh, wait, is that illegal?

Documentarian Michael Beach Nichols (Welcome to Leith) looks at just about every side of that unusual argument with his sly documentary Wrinkles the Clown.

Ostensibly, Beach Nichols digs into the story of the man behind Wrinkles, a shady older gentleman living in a van in Fort Myers who failed as a traditional clown, so he improvised. Placing stickers around town with his masked face, clown name and phone number, Wrinkles offered to frighten your misbehaving children for a fee.

Yes, it is sort of genius.

As we ride around the beach town for the aged in a lived-in conversion van, we’re privy to the voicemails recorded at the Wrinkles number. Reprobate that he seems to be, Wrinkles is still considerably less frightening than the parents hoping to take advantage of his behavioral services.

Says one father, his child wailing in the background, “I want you to eat her.”

Wrinkles’s response? “My favorite kind of scares are the ones that pay the most.”

This kind of dry, deadpan humor fuels a film that explores the most peculiar sociological experiment.

Who would call? How will their children react? Why are clowns so effing scary in the first place? A solid documentarian, Beach Nichols understands that these are the deeper questions to be addressed. Admittedly, continually flashing the image of a grampa-faced clown holding balloons and peeking into your sliding glass door late at night is his excellent way to keep your interest as he digs into these concerns.

We hear from folklorists (with still-packaged action figures mounted to their office walls, so  you know they’re legit), child psychologists, pro-Wrinkles parents, anti-Wrinkles parents and one traditional clown.

Poor Funky. “There’s a whole generation growing up with no positive image of a clown whatsoever,” he laments, happy face in place.

It’s a fascinating look at the function clowns have served since their medieval beginnings, as well as the internet’s way of amplifying folk tales.

And while Beach Nichols, like the great showmen, performs his own sleight of hand, the film itself is more interested in the primal, collective unconscious tapped by those Wrinkles wrinkles.

Grade: B+

Harpoon

by Hope Madden

There are a limited number of reasons people become and remain friends. Some of those reasons are just nonsense. And yet, three friends of dubious worth to one another gather to repeat their familiar patterns, which land them on a yacht for an apology daytrip.

Richard (Christopher Gray) —  brash, spoiled and quick to anger— is apologizing. Jonah (Munro Chambers – Turbo Kid!) —bruised and bloody—is probably too quick to forgive. Sasha (Emily Tyra) has plenty of reason to be tired of both boyfriend Richard and bestie Jonah.

The fact that Jonah and Sasha bring along Richard’s birthday gift clarifies how little anyone in this triangle has learned.

And so, Sasha, Jonah, Richard and Richard’s new harpoon set off on an unplanned, ill-advised, seafaring jaunt.

Drinks all around!

Co-writer/director Rob Grant keeps events snarky with a voice-of-God narration (assuming God’s a sailor) performed by a brilliantly deadpan Brett Gelman. As far as this nameless narrator who inexplicably sees all is concerned, the dangers facing this volatile threesome have less to do with their pathological history and more to do with the sailing omens they ignorantly flout.

Give an irrational drunk prone to fits of rage the gift of a pointy projectile weapon? Meh. But bring bananas on board—now that’s really pushing things.

The darkly silly commentary adds some tang to the friends’ foolhardy adventure, but Grant’s themes are not entirely comedic. He strands the trio at sea for days on end, their survival instincts overtaking their petty sniping as they find a new reason for friendship: the common good.

Grant offers a nice balance here between dark humor and genuine tension born of realistic performances. Chambers, Tyra and Gray offer frustratingly recognizable characters, the kind that make idiotic choices, less because it forwards the action of the script (although it does) and more because people are stupid and they fall into familiar roles.

The film makes more than a few convenient moves, but it packs a lot of surprises and showcases very solid performances.

Who knew redheads were bad luck?

Grade: B+

Also opening in Columbus:
Asuran (NR)
Chenakya (NR)
The Day Shall Come (NR)
Desolation Center (NR)
Dilili in Paris (PG)

Read more from Hope and crew at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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