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Movie Review: “Joker”

Among all comic book villains, none is as iconic as the Joker. The character has come a long way since his Cesar Romero incarnation: Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, and Jared Leto have all taken their respective turns as the Clown Prince of Crime. This time around, Joaquin Phoenix (perhaps best known for his appearance as evil emperor Commodus in “Gladiator”) dons the clown makeup and purple suit, in a drama that plenty of critics have already denounced as the stuff of mass shootings.

For a variety of reasons, I tend to think this says more about the critics than about the film.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a fortysomething loner in Gotham City who scrapes by at a rent-a-clown agency while caring for his aging mother. Fleck dreams of being a standup comedian, but suffers from severe depression and a neurological condition that causes fits of uncontrollable laughing. Day by day, Fleck’s life goes steadily downhill: he is assaulted by street toughs, fired from his job after acquiring a gun to protect himself, abandoned by his caseworker following social-services cuts, and mocked on national television after an unfortunate comedy club appearance. When a knot of young financiers attacks him (purely for kicks and giggles) on a late-night train, Fleck finally snaps. Out comes the gun, and a legendary villain is born.

As should be clear, director Todd Phillips’ Joker bears little resemblance—beyond the most superficial aesthetic one—to the classic comic-book character. Whether appearing as the pure nihilist of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” the lascivious tactician of Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke,” the quasi-demonic specter of Grant Morrison’s “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth,” or the Ed Gein-influenced psychopath of DC’s “New 52” comics, the Joker has always been an agent of chaos rather than its product. This Joker is Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” run through the filter of Chris Arnade’s recent book “Dignity”—the American “forgotten man” turned vengeful.

In light of this, the political valence of “Joker” is not readily characterized as left-wing or right-wing. To be sure, the film can be read as a straightforward tale of class struggle (there’s plenty of Occupy-inflected imagery to go around). But in mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne’s denunciations of the angry and disadvantaged as “clowns,” it’s not hard to hear him calling them a “basket of deplorables,” or see his retinue as a mass of prosperous elites sneering at those who struggle with unemployment, mental health, drugs, and broken communities. The movie, in short, is the most curious of things: a genuinely populist take on the Batman mythology.

Certainly it’s not the first to float these questions. After all, both “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home” feature villains who are, in some sense, casualties of Tony Stark’s industrial empire. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” traces its central conflict—must power always be accountable to the masses?—back to the massive carnage that closed out “Man of Steel.” And Amazon Prime’s television series “The Boys” is built around the vindictive victims of superheroes’ casually destructive escapades. But none of those projects are truly willing to interrogate the questions they raise: Tony Stark remains a hero who never has to say he’s sorry.

By contrast, “Joker” actually commits to its populist premise rather than simply flirting with it.  The film isn’t forced to abandon its ethos in favor of a fiery superhero smackdown designed to appeal to global audiences: rather, its climax is a chillingly plausible crescendo of mass madness, an upsurge of merciless violence directed against a coddled elite. If “The Dark Knight Rises” raised the specter of the French Revolution, “Joker” evokes the Russian.

And yet none of this ever amounts to a glorification or celebration of violence. “Joker” is instead an interrogation of the roots of violence, the abuse and drugs and family breakdown and other conditions that might lead someone to conclude that they have nothing left to lose. I tend to think that the “Joker” backlash is rooted less in fear of “copycat killings” (nothing about the movie glamorizes murder) than in the fact that the film unflinchingly depicts these conditions, and asks the audience whether, under the right circumstances, mightn’t they go a little crazy, too?

This is not a question easily answered, because deep down, one knows that the breakdown on display here isn’t strictly attributable to an uncaring government or an untreated illness. That’s because what Fleck clearly craves, more than anything else, is dignity—to be seen as a person of value despite his weaknesses. In the wake of his first killing, Fleck muses, “In my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do. And people are starting to notice.” Only in blood, and in the awful maelstrom of the mob, can Fleck find the actualization and community he craves. Nothing else in his life offers hope.

Here, more than any ambient creepiness or startling moments of violence, is where the real power of “Joker” lies: in its haunting study of true alienation, and how easily those of us who live fortunate lives overlook the ones who don’t fit our narrow standards of propriety. Indeed, the film left me with a question that has troubled me ever since: If Arthur Fleck walked into my church—unsettling laugh, strange behaviors, and all—would I look on him with kindness? Would I see, in the Joker himself, the image of God?

I’d like to say yes. I hope I can say yes. But I don’t know. Nor, I suspect, do most of us.

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Posted by on October 6, 2019 in Thrillers


Movie Review: “It: Chapter Two”

I’m quite aware that many of the people who will read this have no intention of watching “that scary clown movie.” Yes, those creepy red balloons are back, and yes, there are plenty of jump scares and gooey CGI creations. But honestly,  “It” and its sequel are not really horror movies on the level of, say, this summer’s “Crawl”—products churned out for a few million dollars and calculated to make some quick cash thanks to the genre’s massive multiplier effect. Instead, I’d classify them as those rarest of cinematic things: big-budget adventure stories for adults, which have more going on beneath the surface than merely a hunger for fast profits.

Picking up 27 years after the first film, “Chapter Two” follows the members of the Losers’ Club (Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, and Andy Bean), who all moved away during the years following the first film, as they reconvene in their hometown of Derry, Maine. Strange killings have begun again, signaling that the eponymous clown-demon (Bill Skarsgård) is once more on the prowl. This time, the Losers must vanquish it once and for all—by recovering “tokens” of their past that, when joined together, offer a chance of defeating the evil creature.

The film clocks in at almost three hours—and, to be fair, it does sag at a few points (the “token hunts” follow a formulaic pattern: buildup —> Pennywise attack —> resolution). But the storytelling pieces come together at last, and all the stray plot points resolve in an extended and intense climax, one that serves as a satisfying payoff of all the themes that’ve been built up across both films. There aren’t many films that still feel like cathartic experiences, but “It: Chapter Two” is one of them. 

There’s lots more I could write about the film itself, but what’s been especially interesting to me is the film’s mixed reception from certain critics—many of whom seem to be writing about a different movie than the one that played onscreen. Perhaps the most obvious example is a particularly atrocious review of the film by Vox’s Aja Romano, which contains the following remarks:

“The story always reminds you that Pennywise is born out of the rotting putrefaction of small-town America, specifically Derry itself. . . . [The film] wants us to know that the real evil in Derry is Derry itself and that Derry is every small American town. It delivers a few pointed establishing shots of the waning factory town completely covered in American flags. But despite the clearly political overtones of the adaptation, It doesn’t evince much self-knowledge about what its own politics are. In fact, if anything, it reifies rather than deconstructs the societal factors that cyclically make America evil again.”

Virtually everything in this is wrong. For one thing, the film takes pains to establish that Pennywise, the clown-demon, is a kind of cosmic extraterrestrial invader (the film’s final conflict even takes place at the site of its initial impact)—not a kind of avatar of rural rage. It makes no sense at all to treat Pennywise as a metaphor for American Deplorables, because it’s not as if our heroes become existentially fulfilled as soon as they leave the town. Their urbane post-Derry lives lives have plenty of dark edges of their own. Whatever Pennywise represents or symbolizes, it’s not something that maps seamlessly onto the contemporary political landscape.

Moreover, Romano’s take totally misses the genius of Stephen King’s original work. The film’s entire moral core is built on the juxtaposition of “good” elements of small-town life (friendship, tradition, bicycles, paper boats, swimming holes) with the “bad” (bullying, failure to reckon with the past, and so on). That is consistent with the broader body of King’s works: their lingering power comes from the intersection of the universal (common human experiences, such as coming-of-age, first love, marriage, parenthood, and so on) and the particular (the distinctive features of any individual life, which no one else can share). There is little room in this storytelling paradigm for “structural” critique—that which inherently blurs messy particularities in favor of a motif of unified struggle. And when King has attempted to get “political,” as in 2017’s “Sleeping Beauties,” the results are…not satisfying.

In short, “It” is simply not a story about America as a whole or about universal patterns of oppression. It is an irreducibly localist narrative, one that cannot really be understood or appreciated apart from affinity with a particular place and a particular set of childhood memories. If King’s “The Stand” is an urbanist’s vision of horror—massive, apocalyptic-scale destruction resulting in the collapse of civilization and the emergence of new political communities—“It” is the mirror image, a story that captures the anxieties specific to smaller communities.

The film adaptation—as glossy and viscerally satisfying as it is—doesn’t perfectly capture that sensibility (most notably, the unforgettable weirdness of the novel’s Ritual of Chüd, a ceremony capable of banishing Pennywise, doesn’t really come through on film). But the DNA of the story remains intact, and that’s something to celebrate. 

For plenty of audiences, “It: Chapter Two” (and its predecessor) will always just be “the scary clown movie”—no more, no less. But happily, the soul of the novel—or at least its best parts—is still there, reminding viewers the humblest and most mundane things in life (one’s town, one’s memories, one’s childhood promises) are worth fighting for. Indeed, they may be the things most worth fighting for.

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Posted by on September 7, 2019 in Thrillers

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