Joker (2019)

Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?
Arthur Fleck

That definitely feels true. Joker is set in the early 80s and is loosely based on the origin of the Joker (DC Comic character and arch rival of Batman). This version is written and directed by Todd Phillips (the director of The Hangover films…yep) and stars Joaquin Phoenix in the title role.

Almost everyone has their opinion of the film and how they feel about it, so take what you can from them, but, this is what I thought of it.

The Joker is a gritty hard hitting study of a man’s decline into madness. Arthur Fleck is a lonely troubled man, who between caring for his ill mother and performing for kids as a clown, dreams of being a stand up comedian – his only problem, he isn’t very funny.

This sounds familiar and fans of Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese will recall King of Comedy (1982) and the painful Rupert Pupkin having the same dilemma (incidentally De Niro plays the chat show host Murray Franklin whom Arthur adores). Unfortunately Arthur or ‘happy’ as his mother calls him is living in a world that just doesn’t understand him, again sound familiar? Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (1976). Clearly these two films have influenced Phillips and he borrows seamlessly from them, but this is not in the same calibre as these, it stands alone.

The central performance from Joaquin Phoenix delivers the punchlines (sorry). His lean skeleton holds the meat of the film (sorry again). He is mesmerising, he portrays sadness, depression, anger, loneliness and happiness brilliantly. It’s a masterclass on acting, he lives and breathes the character.

The supporting cast is good, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz and Frances Conroy to name, watch out for Glenn Fleshler (Remus from Boardwalk Empire) and Brian Tyree Henry (Paper Boi from Atlanta).

The music is standout, Icelandic Hildur Gudnadottir sets the right tone and style to the film (to be noted she did the music for this and Chernobyl at around the same time). There has been some subject of debate for one music choice and I don’t why that particular piece of music was used when others could have been selected, perhaps Phillips was wanting the reaction? (jerk). The cinematography is good and adds grittiness to the screen, the makeup is good too, I like how Phoenix has adopted a different clown paint – slightly reminiscent of Doink the Clown from WWE though).

The film is rated R so be prepared to see violence, however there are probably less deaths in here than in most of the Marvel films, yep, and when it happens you can feel the magnitude of it.

I would still recommend seeing this (unless you have coulrophobia) and making your own mind up on how you feel about it, one thing is for certain you will be talking about it for some time, which is what Phillips probably wanted – ‘send in the clowns…they are already here’.

Rating 3.5/5

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was published in 1968 Ridley Scott made ground breaking Blade Runner (1982) (one of my favourite films) from it which went on to inspire a host of filmmakers and created a cult following. But the film was an interpretation of the book and having read it I found the experience rewarding.

The book focuses on Rick Deckard a bounty hunter, who has the task of retiring andys (androids) because they are considered dangerous to society. The androids the Nexus-6 a more advanced android have the ability to assimilate themselves into society. Deckard accepts the job and the money associated with it as he dreams of owning an animal that he can show off to his neighbours, he has a sheep but it is electric, a fact he has failed to inform his neighbours of, due to the embarrassment. Deckard is obsessed with owing a real animal as real animals are hard to come by since World War Terminus.

In order to tell androids apart from humans, Deckard administers the Voigt-Kampff test, a test that focuses on empathy, the conclusion of which is that androids lack empathy. The test is usually effective, but an android Rachel Rosen nearly beats it. This leads Deckard to question his actions and whether what he is doing is right.

I would recommend both the book and film, but each as individual standalone works, as Scott’s Blade Runner does reimagine the book in its own way – though the heart is still there. The heart being what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have an identity? How do we all interact with each other?

These are interesting questions particularly in current times, are we humans becoming less empathetic? If so why? Is it because of circumstances or inherited design? The scapegoating of a group sounds familiar.

Is our identity defined by who we are or is it by what we do? Does it matter to have an identity? Do we need to make something great again when it didn’t stop being great?
The androids believe in their implanted memories more than humans in their real memories, this might be because we remember things differently each time.

Has the growth of social media led us to function more like robots and less like humans? Are we being programmed or controlled by machines rather than the other way round? Deckard gradually falls for Rachel, but is she trustable as she is an android?

What does it actually mean to be human?
The character of Mercer tells Deckard;
‘You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe’

But Deckard is a bounty hunter, so perhaps we shouldn’t listen to Mercer wholeheartedly, however, it raises an interesting point, what if it the ends justify the means? Hmmm, think I’d rather stick with being empathetic so I can sleep better at night.

Rating 5/5 for book and film

A Quiet Place (2018)

It’s oh so quiet, Shh shh, being quiet is what you need to be to thoroughly enjoy this film, it stars real-life couple Emily Blunt and John Krasinski (who also directs) as the Abbotts who are doing their best to protect their children from alien like creatures who hunt based entirely on noise. The family seem to be doing well and understanding sign language (their eldest daughter is deaf) has helped them, how long can they remain safe is the question.

If you leave some of your logic behind, then you will enjoy this film, it is a good horror film. Logic? Well there are bits which you will question and find strange, hence the leaving it behind. The good thing is the film makes you sit up and pay attention, the lack of sound and dialogue draws you into the claustrophobic and paranoid world the Abbotts are living in. There is no human contact with others, everything has to be considered, no microwave, no music, down to even the toys the children can play with, but, they do manage to conceive a child as Blunts character is pregnant (leave the logic behind). So, this is difficult time for the family to pull and stay together, but it is not easy and mistakes can happen.

I really liked the atmospheric sound and music that was used (incidentally the sound editing was rightly nominated for an Oscar). It creates a tense edge of the seat feeling – exactly what is required of a good horror. I first noticed Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau (2011) and have followed her roles since, particularly Looper (2012), Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and Sicario (2015), she is brilliant in this, she is supported well by Krasinski and child actors Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe and Cade Woodward.

An interesting fact, abbots in Catholicism usually live in monasteries, living self-sufficient lives, sometimes in silence. I was fully engrossed with this film from start to finish, I would recommend it purely for the experience, sometimes silence is golden.

Rating 3.5/5

First Reformed (2017)

‘Courage is the solution to despair, reason provides no answers. I can’t know what the future will bring; we have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously, Hope and Despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself’

Yep, that makes you ponder and pondering is what First Reformed does. The film centres on 46 year-old Reverend Ernst Toller, who is the pastor of First Reformed Church, a small church with a small congregation which is seen as a tourist spot more than a church. Ernst has just started a journal, specifically a handwritten one, in which he tries to write down his thoughts into everyday. He also has a simple mobile phone, one with no social media apps or Internet – just a simple messages and call phone – like a phone used to be, he sleeps in a modest room with modest furnishings.

Ernst has had some sadness in his life, he lost his son Joseph to an unjust war, subsequently his marriage soon feel apart. He now preaches, but he is on a downward spiral, he drinks heavily and is passing blood. He meets Mary, a young woman who is concerned about her husband Michael an environmentalist who has recently home after a stint in prison for his activities. Mary is pregnant but Michael is concerned about bringing a baby into the world which he believes is doomed.

Ernst tries his best to council Michael, but, he stumbles as he is at a crisis himself about his beliefs and thoughts. The more Ernst learns about Michael and his belief about the world the more he spirals. Even with all the people around him, Ernst is still lonely, he in fact embraces it as some sort of badge of honour,

‘Some are called for their gregariousness, some are called for their suffering. Others are called for their loneliness’

But deep down, he knows he needs emotion but where will he find?
‘The desire to pray itself is a type of prayer. How often we ask for genuine experience when all we really want is emotion’

It is no surprise First Reformed screenplay has been nominated for an Oscar, it is excellent. Similarities have been made to Taxi Driver (also written by Paul Schrader) and to some extent it is rightly so, I would also say there are elements of David Lynch with its dark tones, the cinematography is also quite soft and reserved and the film is shot on a 1:37:1 aspect which is an old style of filming allowing for more focus.

Ethan Hawke is very good, he delivers a restraint and emotional performance as Ernst, (not sure why he didn’t get an Oscar Nod for it). He supported by Amanda Seyfried and Cedric Kyles. I have not mentioned the ending, as, it is interesting one, I will leave it up to you to decide, I just hope you don’t despair.

Rating 4/5

Isle of Dogs (2018)

What ever happened?
To man’s best friend
Falling – Spring – Blossom

The above haiku is read by 12 year old Atari (the adopted son of Mayor Kobayashi) to the people of Megasaki in an attempt to save all dogs from being killed.

This is the second animated film by Wes Anderson (the first being Fantastic Mr. Fox) and it is just as exquisite and delightful as the first. The film starts with a brief background of the plight of dogs from being free and independent to being hunted, tamed and eventually domesticated. We are then hit with thudding drumming and credits appearing – the music by Alexandre Desplat in this is excellent by the way.

We are then thrown straight into the near future in Japan where a dog flu outbreak has occurred with the risk of it spreading to humans. To save humans the Mayor Kenji Kobayashi signs a decree to banish all dogs to ‘Trash Island’ a place where all the city’s rubbish is sent, Atari’s dog Spots, a white and black speckled pink nosed dog, is the first to go and is sent in his cage across in a cable cart, soon more and more dogs are sent across.

Six months later, we are then shown a pack of dogs who march over to a fallen rubbish bag, the pack is lead by Chief a stray dog (voiced by Bryan Cranston) who has never had a master, and includes Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and Boss (Bill Murray). The dogs are met with another group and battle ensues over the pile of rubbish. This scene sets the tone that this is a Wes Anderson film, it is funny, dry and quirky. Chiefs group wins. As the group is enjoying the ‘taste of victory’ (soz) they spot a plane crash land on the island. They investigate, it is Atari, he has come to find Spots.

The dogs are happy to see a human or a master, all except for Chief who is sceptical, ‘I’m a stray’ he says, ‘we are alpha dogs’ and do not need humans. But the dogs rally round Atari and help him. Soon the Mayor finds out that Atari is alive and sends forces in to retrieve him. But Atari does not want to leave and the dogs help him once more and save him. Then begins a journey with to find Spots.

All the while a enthused group of students lead by foreign exchange student Tracey are finding the truth about the Kobayashi regime. There is an amazing scene featuring sushi being prepared which leaves you quite enthralled. In the end do we care if Atari finds Spots? The answer is yes we do.

This a good film, it is split into parts, the stop motion style animation is amazing, the way the dogs hairs move is pretty cool, and the plasticine humans are good too. But it is not the great film it could be have been, I like the way it can interpreted into different meanings, for example, the plight of the dogs can be seen as the way immigrants are treated – used as a scapegoat and fear mongering, there is also the way a regime controls propaganda and news. But the story doesn’t touch into this too much, and it sort of becomes a film that starts a conversation but leaves before engaging. I feel Anderson has aimed at the younger audience whereas his previous effort was more of a older one, which gives us a mixed bag.

The heart of the story is about the relationship between a boy and his dog and the lengths both will go to look after each other – something we can all appreciate and do more of.

Rating 3.5/5

The Post (2017)

Remember when journalism was about real matters and issues and you didn’t have to double check everything that was written or published and what those in power told us? Well those days are almost over – perhaps due to the very reasons discussed in films such as All the President’s Men (1976) and more recently Spotlight (2015). Well The Post starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks is more of the same vein – in fact Hanks plays Ben Bradlee who was played by Jason Robards in All the President’s Men (for which Robards won an Oscar) and co-written by Josh Singer who wrote Spotlight.

The film is based on an interesting period of time which the Washington Post was going through, it was losing revenue so was considering floating with an initial public offering (IPO) and the ownership had transferred to Katharine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) who took over after her husband committed suicide – who had taken over from Graham’s father. It was at this time the Pentagon Papers were leaked by an internal source stating that the government had been lying to the the public about the Vietnam war – it was a damming statement which said that the government had known that they could not win the war in Vietnam but to save humiliation carried on sending young men to their deaths.

The leaked source originally sent the papers to the New York Times but when they published, President Nixon ordered a judge to stop the paper publishing anymore as it was against national security. It was then the Post editor Bradlee asked his staff Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) to get something which he did when he got most of the papers from Daniel Ellsberg. We then see Bradlee push to get the papers published but there is the threat of all those involved going to prison if they do so. It is at the point we see Katharine having to make a decision that could jeopardise everyone involved.

The film is a pretty good breakdown of the various social situations and views at the time, for example Katharine is the only woman in the boardroom and has difficulty adjusting to work as she has never worked because she has been expected to stay at home to raise the children and host parties. We see a fragile and doubting Streep – who is good in this, but she has never really been bad in anything – well perhaps her singing in Mama Mia? Anyway, the transformation in her is subtle but not too forced, and she does deliver a good line,

‘It’s my decision, and I am going to bed’

Hanks like Streep is good as always, and there is nothing wrong with Spielberg’s directing, but all in all I sort of felt this was more of a made for TV affair rather than cinema hence why I initially hesitated at seeing it in the cinema and saw it now on DVD. Everyone does their job (including John Williams doing music) but it feels like a timid piece, one that sort of becomes forgettable – unfortunately. I felt it was almost pushed and done in expedited fashion to combat the actions of the Trump administration.

Nevertheless I felt it was relevant especially in comparison to today’s fast moving pace of news, the dying print media where facts are probably checked after they are put out or not put out at all due to injunctions, in the age of fake news where everything is questioned and refuted, perhaps we need more good journalists being backed by strong editors who are willing to take a risk in order to bring those in power to account, and less sensationalised drivel and gossip. It is perhaps then the public can start to build trust in its media and politicians – perhaps.

Rating 3/5

Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987) Nice

Remember when people used to be nice? I quipped to a colleague days before our office broke up for the holidays (I can’t remember what it was that made me ask that) anyway it was a rhetorical remark, but my colleague went on to mention a host of reasons why people are no longer nice – politics and the ongoing effects of the recession being two – I agreed with her on the reasons but I wondered if the reasons were just an excuse for people to express their true colours.

Anyway I thought about films in which people have changed their views, luckily there are a few, but the one that stuck in my mind was John Hughes ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’

The film stars Steve Martin (as Neal) and John Candy (as Del) who play two characters who could not be more different, they meet accidentally when Martins plane is cancelled he decides to travel with Candy to get home in time for Thanksgiving, but he keeps running into problems and gets more and more antagonistic and rude, luckily Candy is there to soothe things over (or make them worse). It is essentially a buddy film, but as with all Hughes films there is an underlying message.

The film features a number of hilarious encounters and memorable conversations, the most memorable, most imitated and probably one of the most powerful happens when they row and Candy delivers his best performance:

Del: You wanna hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I’m an easy target. Yeah, you’re right, I talk too much. I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you… but I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings. Well, you think what you want about me; I’m not changing. I like… I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. ‘Cause I’m the real article. What you see is what you get.

This is a particularly poignant scene and definitely gives a gulp moment. We then see a change in Martins character and his opinion of others. He realises that he has been unfair to Candy, just because Candy is a larger than life character and can be annoying at times, he is still a human being and he should not be judged after all he does not know his background or life.

Strangely I am reminded of a time when a former colleague told me that as a finance person I shouldn’t smile (not sure why – are finance people expected to be dull and somber?) anyway I gave (a Cheshire Cat) smile at every opportunity I found at him for the rest of the time we worked together – I think I won him over. (By the way I am not always a smiley smile face in case you expect it when you see me, it does depend on who you are and how I feel!)

Anyway I like the idea of being nice to each other and treating each with respect and humility, even when it feels like the world pretty much sucks – (I don’t mean go overboard Stepford Wives way) after all if we don’t be nice then people might start to forget what nice is, and then you are left with a world of hate, animosity and confusion. I don’t like hate and have never hated anyone, yes there have been times when I have been disappointed with people and their behaviour/actions but I have always tried to look past it, to find some decency in them, even when at times it felt like I have hit a brick wall I have never judged, instead I have reached out, anyway I think I have digressed here.

Ok, I will not go into the ending of the film as it is pivotal to the story, but it definitely leaves a tear in your eye, and a rendition of the Paul Young song Everytime You Go Away is pretty cool. I thoroughly recommend the film, I think it is Hughes best film. The acting is top notch and both actors are given enough material to chew through and flex their skills.

The film is a good example of redemption, friendship and more importantly helping each other. Candy does not have to do anything for Martin, but he goes out of his way to help him (a good Samaritan) because it is in him and his character to do it. Martin returns the favour as he sees his generosity and he learns about Candys life. It is testament of Candys character that even with all the things in his life he is still jovial and upbeat – he doesn’t have to be – but everyone handles things differently, just as long as we all get on and along.

Rating 5/5