Joker review

For F*** Magazine

JOKER

Director: Todd Phillips
Cast : Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Dante Pereira-Olson
Genre : Crime/Drama
Run Time : 122 mins
Opens : 3 October 2019
Rating : NC16

This standalone movie takes inspiration from the pages of DC Comics, focusing on arguably the company’s best-known supervillain, the Joker. Director Todd Phillips, best known for the Hangover films, has modelled this film on Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, creating a portrait of a twisted man lost in a cruel and uncaring world, eventually turning violent. This film is unconnected to the films set in the DC Extended Universe, or to the upcoming Batman film that will be released in 2021.

It is 1981, and Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is one of the faceless masses trying to eke out a living in the increasingly inhospitable Gotham City. Arthur cares for his ill mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and dreams of being a stand-up comedian. He is beaten down on all sides, unable to seek help for his deteriorating mental health after state funding for health programs is cut, and his fired from his job as a clown. Only his neighbour Sophie (Zazie Beetz) seems to understand him. Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a talk show host whom Arthur idolises, airs footage of Arthur’s disastrous stand-up act and mocks him. Resentment among the hoi polloi mounts against Gotham’s wealthy elite, embodied by Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), a billionaire planning a run for mayor. Arthur unleashes violence and chaos, reinventing himself as the costumed criminal called ‘Joker’.

There are many ways to make a movie based on a comic book. Lately, we’ve seen the Marvel Cinematic Universe method produce considerable success, but there are many types of stories told in the medium of comics and therefore many possible big screen interpretations. Joker is a valid take on the character – traditionally, he isn’t a character who needs a definitive back-story, and has said “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” This is a ‘man unravels’ character study – certainly not the first in the history of cinema but marrying that archetype to a well-known pop culture property is novel to a degree.

This is a movie that wears its Scorsese inspirations on its sleeve and emulates them with style, Lawrence Sher’s cinematography displaying Gotham in all its grimy, rat-ridden glory. Hildur Guðnadóttir score is creepy without overdoing it. Robert De Niro shines in a textbook star supporting role, while Frances Conroy is thoroughly convincing as a frail, delusional and pitiful woman. Then of course, there’s the central performance, which we will get to in a bit.

Joker was always going to be controversial, and the studio and the filmmakers know this. This is a great character study about someone who winds up doing horrible things – there’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, but it is worth remembering that films do not exist in a vacuum.

Disaffected, disenfranchised people have committed horrific crimes, something that has arguably intensified given the current political climate. There is a discussion to be had about how responsible movies are for that – one would say never directly, but it is possible that certain media could push those already predisposed to abhorrent behaviour to committing said behaviour. Given how John Hinckley Jr. strongly identified with Travis Bickle, protagonist of the afore-mentioned Taxi Driver, and attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan to impress Jodie Foster, this is not idle handwringing. Both Phillips and Phoenix have handled reasonable questions about the possible real-life implications of the movie very poorly.

Of course, it is reductive to say that this movie should not exist because of the chance that someone could emulate its protagonist, but considering how many people valourised the Joker when he was portrayed as a villain in The Dark Knight, it’s not a stretch to think many more will valourise him since he’s portrayed here as a hero. There is a difference between idealising a fictional character and actively emulating their actions, something which can get lost in this conversation.

While the film is generally restrained when it comes to Easter Eggs and references to the source material, a few nods to the comics are rather clumsy, with one that happens towards the end of the film coming off as forced.

Joaquin Phoenix is a big get and probably the film’s greatest asset. Marvel Studios sought Phoenix to play Doctor Strange, but he turned the part down, not wanting to sign on for multiple films. Joker’s status as a one-off (at least, that’s how it was intended) gives Phoenix the chance to play this iteration of the character with no extensive commitment. It’s the kind of role any thespian would love to sink their teeth into: a tragic, compelling figure who is not okay in the slightest. It’s the type of performance that the Academy loves too – Phoenix underwent a drastic physical transformation, which usually helps with the Oscar buzz. There still are critics who find it hard to accept movies based on comic books as legitimate cinema, but the performance Phoenix gives here is hard to ignore or diminish.

As alluded to earlier, a problem that arises when making a movie about a supervillain with no superhero to counteract him is that said supervillain winds up looking heroic, even if that wasn’t the intention. We see Gotham from Arthur’s point of view. As such, the typically noble Thomas Wayne is instead depicted as a callous, condescending son of privilege, crushing the masses beneath his heel. There’s been a lot of back-and-forth about whether the film appears to condone the Joker’s action or state clearly that they are wrong – “condone” is a strong word, but Arthur certainly is drawn in a sympathetic manner. In a way, the film serves as a cautionary tale, because Arthur would have never become the Joker if the right support systems were in place to grant him the help he desperately needed, and if it were harder for him to gain access to the tools that he uses to wreak his havoc.

It is entirely plausible that the worst people will relate to the character and hold this version of the character up as an ideal, so hopefully the people who see this movie will be able to compartmentalise, and walk away from this going “that was an interesting portrayal of a supervillain and a sobering warning” rather than “Joker has it all figured out!”

Summary: There is a boldness to the way Joker interprets its comic book source material that makes it stand out from the usual crop of comic book movies, and Phoenix’s titular performance is impressive, but the controversy surrounding the film shouldn’t merely be swept under a rug. It’s intense, gripping and disturbing. We don’t necessarily want to see more comic book movies exactly like this, but if nothing else, Joker shows that comic book movies can take many strange, compelling forms.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

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Cold Pursuit movie review

COLD PURSUIT

Director : Hans Petter Moland
Cast : Liam Neeson, Laura Dern, Tom Bateman, Emmy Rossum, William Forsythe, Julia Jones, Domenick Lombardozzi, Raoul Trujillo, Tom Jackson
Genre : Thriller/Crime/Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 59 mins
Opens : 21 February 2019
Rating : M18

           When the 2014 Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance was released, comparisons to Taken were immediately made. It’s only fitting that Liam Neeson star in the American remake of that movie.

Neeson plays Nelson “Nels” Coxman, a snowplough driver in the ski resort town of Kehoe, Colorado. The death of his son Kyle (Micheál Richardson) leads to a rift between Nels and his wife Grace (Laura Dern). Nels grows suspicious of the circumstances surrounding his son’s death, soon convinced it was murder. Nels embarks upon a bloody path of vengeance that will eventually lead him to drug lord Viking (Tom Bateman). Nels calls upon his brother Brock (William Forsythe), who has previously had dealings with underworld figures. Local cop Kim (Emmy Rossum) begins investigating a string of violent occurrences, as Nels unwittingly incites a war between Viking and rival drug lord White Bull (Tom Jackson).

Cold Pursuit is directed by Hans Petter Moland, who also helmed In Order of Disappearance. This is a faithful remake that benefits from preserving the darkly comedic tone of the original. The film’s screenplay by Frank Baldwin also does a fine job of recontextualising the plot, substituting the rival Serbian gang from the Norwegian movie with a Native American one. There are also copious references to Colorado’s legalisation of marijuana and some the race-related humour is irreverent but not wildly offensive.

We’ve become accustomed to seeing Liam Neeson star in gritty revenge thrillers, so the snowy ski resort setting and the tongue-in-cheek tone help to switch things up. Not all the jokes land and the humour is sometimes a little too broad, especially compared with the original, but there’s an admiral tonal consistency. The grim violence is leavened with humour, not entirely unlike how the Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino would handle it. While the film’s dark devil-may-care attitude brings a degree of unpredictability to the proceedings, the standard crime movie dealings and double-crosses can be a touch tedious. While the movie isn’t boring, it feels awkwardly-paced at times.

It’s hard to discuss this movie without Liam Neeson’s comments during a promotional interview overshadowing it. Whatever your take on the actor’s shocking admission, it’s fair to say that a promotional interview for a revenge comedy wasn’t the right time or place for that to be aired, but as hurtful as it is to hear those comments, this reviewer also feels the resulting aftermath needs to be viewed in context and not blown out of proportion.

Putting that aside for the moment, Neeson is a great choice for the lead, since he embodies the ‘everyman badass’ type like few other actors can. The movie riffs on his Taken reputation – while it is a black comedy, Neeson plays his role largely straight. There is more than a whiff of ridiculousness to the notion of a snowplough driver-turned avenging angel and nemesis of the criminal underbelly, which the film leans into just enough.

Tom Bateman scowls and sneers his way through the role of drug lord Viking, going the right amount of over-the-top. The supporting characters in Viking’s gang are given tiny bits of personality, Domenick Lombardozzi’s Mustang being the most likeable. Nicholas Holmes is endearing as Viking’s son Ryan, who has the misfortune of having a criminal father.

Emmy Rossum’s detective character isn’t too interesting, and Laura Dern is almost completely wasted in what is almost a non-existent role. Raoul Trujillio is equal parts funny and intimidating – one of the film’s funniest moments is when Thorpe threatens a hotel receptionist with a devastating review on Yelp.

Tom Jackson lends gravitas to White Bull. One of the film’s best scenes has White Bull silently walk through a hotel gift shop selling Native American souvenirs that are really made in China, observing how his culture has been commodified for tourists. The film does tread on somewhat uncomfortable territory with its afore-mentioned racial humour, but it never feels mean-spirited.

Cold Pursuit benefits from a wicked sense of humour and Liam Neeson’s finely-calibrated performance. There’s novelty factor of a director remaking his own foreign-language film in English, like Michael Haneke did with Funny Games or Takashi Shimizu with The Grudge. Audiences who are expecting a non-stop action-oriented movie like some of Neeson’s other late-career efforts might be disappointed, but there will be an audience for this movie’s blend of stark violence and bitter wit.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Mule review

THE MULE

Director : Clint Eastwood
Cast : Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña, Laurence Fishburne, Allison Eastwood, Taissa Farmiga, Dianne Wiest, Andy García, Clifton Collins Jr., Eugene Cordero, Noel Gugliemi
Genre : Crime/Drama/Mystery
Run Time : 1 h 56 mins
Opens : 10 January 2019
Rating : M18

Clint Eastwood is 88-years-old and has been working steadily since the 50s, so it makes sense that some of his recent films deal with aging. In this drama, his character’s old age is an asset, because it makes him less suspicious – as a drug mule.

Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a nonagenarian horticulturist and Vietnam War veteran who has fallen on hard times after his house and farm is foreclosed upon. Earl is estranged from his family, including his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest), his daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood) and his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). Earl comes across what he thinks will be a one-off opportunity as a drug runner for a Mexican cartel. Because the work is easy and pays extremely well, Earl finds himself coming back, unexpectedly becoming one of the cartel’s top mules.

DEA Agents Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (Michael Peña) learn through an informant about a mule the cartel refers to as “Tata”, Spanish for “grandfather”. The deliveries are being brought into Chicago, with the agents closing in on the elusive mule. Back in Mexico, cartel kingpin Laton (Andy García) is pleased with Earl’s performance, but his lieutenants are spooked by the increasing DEA activity, taking issue with Earl’s penchant for unscheduled stops. Earl knows his successful run working for the cartel cannot last forever and faces the inevitable: he will either be killed by cartel enforcers or captured by the DEA.

The Mule is based on an article in The New York Times by Sam Dolnick, entitled The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule. Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk, who got his big break penning Eastwood’s Gran Torino, have taken loose inspiration from the life of Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran who became a drug runner for the cartel run by El Chapo. Eastwood’s presence as director, producer and star means that it’s obvious that he has projected himself onto the Earl Stone character, who is drawn as a well-meaning, good-hearted man who just isn’t properly appreciated by his family and winds up doing bad things even though he is not a bad person.

Eastwood is too in love with the character, who functions as an avatar of himself, for the movie to accomplish very much. Having directed 34 movies, Eastwood more than knows what he’s doing on the technical front and draws out good performances from his talented cast. However, he is squarely the centre of attention. Earl berates younger people for constantly being on their smartphones and functions as a stubborn guardian of a bygone age, an old-fashioned stalwart who doesn’t get the respect he deserves. He also has at least two threesomes with prostitutes, scenes which one imagines Eastwood doing multiple takes of just to be sure.

Cooper and Peña are given underwritten roles, but Cooper does get one good scene set in a Waffle House in which he gets to do a bit more than chase after Clint Eastwood. Dianne Wiest is the standout in the cast as Earl’s ex-wife, who harbours less ill-will towards Earl than his daughter Iris (played by Eastwood’s real daughter Alison) but who still wishes things could’ve been different. The skill with which Wiest conveys quiet sadness ensures the relationship is not overly treacly.

The scenes in which Earl is friendly towards the cartel members lower on the ladder who warm to him are quite endearing. Both Andy García and Laurence Fishburne are on hand to lend additional gravitas in relatively small roles as a cartel boss and a senior DEA agent respectively.

The Mule is not an instant classic the way some of Eastwood’s films are, and it is more obviously a vanity project than several other late-period Eastwood movies. There are moments when it’s charming and the Earl Stone character is not the worst person to spend a couple of hours with, but the movie fundamentally lacks any urgency or drive. The moments of tension, when it feels like Earl’s Faustian bargain is catching up to him, are too few and far between. It is ultimately saved by the compelling nature of the true story and Eastwood’s unquestionable competence as a director but is not one of the more essential entries in his oeuvre.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Death Wish (2018) movie review

For inSing

DEATH WISH (2018)

Director : Eli Roth
Cast : Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Elisabeth Shue, Camila Morrone, Dean Norris
Genre : Action, Crime, Drama
Run Time : 1h 44m
Opens : 1 March 2018
Rating : NC16 (Coarse Language And Violence)

Charles Bronson had a death wish all those years ago, and now Bruce Willis has one too. Willis picks up the mantle of Paul Kersey, Bronson’s most iconic character, in this remake of the 1974 film.

Bronson’s Paul Kersey was an architect; in this remake, the character is an emergency room surgeon instead. The good doctor’s world is torn apart when a brutal break-in to his house while he’s in the hospital leaves his wife Lucy Rose (Elizabeth Shue) dead, and their daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone) in a coma. Taking matters into his own hands, Paul tracks down the perpetrators, leaving a bloody trail through Chicago. He becomes known as the ‘Grim Reaper’, attracting the attention of Detectives Rains (Dean Norris) and Jackson (Kimberly Elise). As Paul enacts his brand of vigilante justice, he becomes blind to the further consequences his actions might have.

The first Death Wish film was based on the 1972 novel of the same name by Brian Garfield. A Death Wish remake has been in the works for a while – Sylvester Stallone first announced his intention to star in it in 2006. Joe Carnahan was attached to the project and wrote the script, but had an acrimonious falling out with the studio and disagreed vehemently with the choice of Bruce Willis as star. Gerardo Naranjo and the duo of Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado then came and went, with Eli Roth finally taking the director’s seat.

This turns out to be a whole lot of trouble for nothing. The 2018 iteration of Death Wish is underwhelming and unintentionally funny. While the 1974 original was gritty and nasty, this remake doesn’t have much to say. In an attempt to update the premise, we get things like people posting memes of the Grim Reaper online. It’s all rote and pointless.

It’s not like there haven’t been any other vigilante revenge thrillers between the release of Death Wish V and now. Nearly every action star has been in a similar film, with Liam Neeson’s Taken series coming to mind. Then there are direct-to-DVD films like the John Travolta-starring I Am Wrath and the Antonio Banderas-starring Acts of Vengeance. There are hints that Death Wish might delve into the socio-political implications of modern day vigilante justice, but it treads no new ground.

Bruce Willis is a big part of why this doesn’t work. He’s appeared in mostly straight-to-video action films in recent years, and seems so checked out. The character’s extreme grief and rage never crystallises, and while Willis still has the residual action hero cred from the Die Hard films, Paul Kersey never registers as a real person.

Vincent D’Onofrio, who can be downright intimidating in the right roles, is awful as Paul’s younger brother Frank, coming off mostly as whiny and annoying. The two police detectives appear laughably incompetent, missing the most obvious clues to the Grim Reaper’s identity. The villains are generic thugs, and the female characters exist only to have horrible things happen to them to motivate the hero, just as in the source material.

Director Eli Roth is strongly associated with the horror genre, having helmed Hostel and its sequel. Roth loves his gore, and there are plenty of messy headshots and a particularly painful-looking DIY surgery scene. However, there’s a surprising lack of tension, and the film never generates real intensity. Perhaps this is a result of him being hired as a replacement, hence this feeling like work for hire.

Death Wish is the culmination of a huge amount of behind-the-scenes fuss that adds up to nothing much. While the involvement of cinematographer Rogier Stoffers ensures the film doesn’t look as cheap as Death Wish’s numerous direct-to-DVD brethren, both star Willis and director Roth seem like bad fits for this unnecessary reboot.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

All the Money in the World movie review

For inSing

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD

Director : Ridley Scott
Cast : Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Charlie Plummer, Romain Duris, Marco Leonardi, Andrew Buchan, Timothy Hutton
Genre : Crime/Historical/Drama
Run Time : 2 h 12 min
Opens : 25 January 2018
Rating : NC16

The grandson of the richest man in the world is kidnapped by an Italian crime organisation and as he refuses to pay the ransom, the boy’s mother goes to great lengths to free her son. It’s a story that almost too dramatic, too sensational to be true, and yet, it is.

It is 1973, and J.P. “Paul” Getty III (Charlie Plummer) is abducted on the streets of Rome. Paul’s parents are divorced: his father John Paul Getty Jr. (Andrew Buchan) is the son of the oil tycoon J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer). Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) tries desperately to free her son, but her ex-father-in-law refuses to pay the $17 million ransom – despite being worth over $2 billion himself.

In the meantime, one of Paul’s kidnappers, Cinquanta (Romain Duris), develops sympathy for the teenager, and cannot fathom why Paul’s family refuses to pay for his freedom. The eldest Getty assigns Fletcher Case (Mark Wahlberg), a negotiator and former CIA operative, to investigate and secure Paul’s freedom, for as little money as possible. Despite being at odds, Gail works together with Fletcher to ensure her son gets out alive, as every passing hour puts Paul in greater danger.

All the Money in the World could have been just another awards season prestige flick based on a true story, but the behind-the-scenes drama has almost overshadowed the plot of the film itself. Kevin Spacey was originally cast as J. Paul Getty, but in the light of sexual assault allegations levelled against Spacey that came to light last October, director Ridley Scott elected to excise Spacey from the film. Christopher Plummer was cast at the last minute, and Scott scrambled to reshoot the movie with just over a month until its planned release date.

The results are seamless, with Plummer slotted into the film in a manner that’s barely noticeable. All the Money in the World is a slickly-made film – Scott is a seasoned filmmaker and several key crew members, including cinematographer Dariusz Wolsk, costume designer Janty Yates and production designer Arthur Max, are frequent collaborators of his. However, its efficiency means it feels like a less-than-personal work.

The film is based on the nonfiction book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty, by John Pearson. The film is a little heavy-handed in its approach, and David Scarpa’s screenplay contains multiple pithy lines musing on the meaning (or meaninglessness) of money and other possessions. “Everything has a price,” the eldest Getty proclaims. “The great struggle in life is coming to grips with what the price is.” There are more than a few moments in which All the Money in the World is a little too on-the-nose.

Williams does the most legwork, delivering a fine, moving performance. Gail is someone who has lived on the fringes of great wealth, but cannot count herself as rich. She embodies a mother’s love: Williams never over-plays Gail’s anguish at the prospect of never seeing her son again, and in addition to the expected desperation, there’s temerity and resolve. Gail is pressed on all sides, constantly thronged by the paparazzi, drawn into a spectacle she wants no part of. Placing Gail front and centre and emphasising her prominent role in fighting for her son’s release was the right narrative approach.

The 88-year-old Plummer continues to be a class act. Getty is not a likeable character, since he is wholly consumed by his fortune and has dedicated his existence to maintaining, growing and protecting said fortune. However, Plummer has a knowing twinkle in his eye, and brings considerable charm to the part. He paints a portrait of a shrewd, quietly megalomaniacal tycoon, delivering a commanding performance without exerting much effort. While some of Getty’s lines are clunkers, Plummer makes the dialogue work.

Wahlberg is far and away the film’s weak link. Fletcher Case is presented as Getty’s go-to fixer, a smooth-talking man of mystery with a covert past. It’s difficult to take Wahlberg seriously, as he can sometimes lapse into whininess. Late in the film, when Fletcher has a heated confrontation with Getty, Wahlberg struggles to hold his own opposite Plummer.

The news that Wahlberg demanded a $1.5 million fee for reshoots and held up the production until he got paid that amount doesn’t help. It’s a consolation that since this was exposed, Wahlberg donated his reshoot pay to the Time’s Up Initiative in co-star Williams’ name.

The dynamic that develops between Paul and his captor Cinquanta is an interesting element of the story, since Cinquanta winds up being sympathetic to Paul, almost caring towards his prisoner. Duris imbues Cinquanta with a believable level of humanity, while Charlie Plummer (no relation to Christopher) is serviceable as a scared, somewhat spoiled teenager. Paul does display unexpected resourcefulness when he needs to, making for some of the film’s most thrilling sequences.

All the Money in the World is a little too manicured and workmanlike to be truly affecting, save for one genuinely wince-inducing, gory scene. However, it is well-paced and there’s an urgency to the proceedings, with enough tension to keep audiences engaged. Williams carries the show, with Plummer stealing it at key points. Shame that Wahlberg had to be there too.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong