Well with “Joker” dominating theaters, not to mention the news cycle, this past weekend, it looks like we have another single movie weekend on our hands.
And you know what that means. Time to dip into the well of recent movies that were never released theatrically in our area.
This time around it’s a Netflix Original romantic comedy starring Ali Wong, released way back in May.
So without further ado, let’s get into it.
First up is “Joker.”
Forever alone in a crowd, failed comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) seeks connection as he walks the streets of Gotham City. Arthur wears two masks. The one he paints for his day job as a clown, and the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel like he’s part of the world around him.
Isolated, bullied and disregarded by society, Fleck begins a slow descent into madness as he transforms into the criminal mastermind known as the Joker.
This is the most controversial movie I’ve reviewed in a while.
From its premiere, where the film received an eight-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival, plus breathless praise for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance.
To countless news stories concerned about the potential for an outbreak of violence surrounding the movie’s opening weekend, and even a warning to law enforcement issued by the FBI due to the number of threats calling for mass shootings at showings of the film.
It’s crazy. Even people who don’t normally care for comic book movies have been asking me about this movie for one reason or another.
Fortunately, it seems none of these threats have come to pass. But I imagine many of you are still wondering, was all the unease surrounding this film’s release even warranted?
Last week, I myself speculated that it was all much ado about nothing. However, after watching the film, I can definitely see where some of these concerns spawned from.
I could imagine this version of the Joker being a symbol to those who wish to make a name for themselves through violent means.
Sure, the Joker as a character has been around forever, and has appeared in many films and TV shows over the years.
From Cesar Romero in the campy 1960s “Batman” television series, to Jack Nicholson in “Batman” 1989, there also Mark Hamill’s iconic version of the clown prince of crime in numerous voice acting roles, most notably “Batman: The Animated Series,” and of course Heath Ledger’s unforgettable portrayal of the character in “The Dark Knight.”
But through all of these depictions, the Joker has always been a villain. A constant foil to Batman.
Yes, he’s been a likeable villain at times. He’s even had enviable qualities. Especially Heath Ledger’s version of the character, who’s scheming abilities and cleverness seem to know no bounds.
The Joker has never really been sympathetic though, and that’s what really makes Joaquin Phoenix’s version of the character different. It’s also what I think ended up worrying law enforcement so much.
Arthur Fleck in “Joker” is a socially awkward man plagued by mental illness. Plus he has a nervous tick that manifests itself as uncontrollable laughter.
He’s a working schlub who dresses as a clown to make ends meet, plus he’s also the sole caregiver for his elderly mother. Sure, he has his issues, but at the end of the day the guy just wants to make people laugh.
Despite this, Arthur is an outcast from society. Admonished by all, not to mention brutally beaten multiple times by those who find his presence bothersome.
I could see some young men relating to this downtrodden character. Afterall, who hasn’t felt like an outcast at times.
And what makes this somewhat disturbing to me, many critics, and even the FBI, is that this character ends up finding validation in brutal and highly publicized acts of violence.
So, will this film directly lead to an outbreak of mass shootings? Most likely not, but I could definitely see someone mentally unstable, and inclined to violence, finding solace in the character of Arthur Fleck. And the thought of that does make me a little uncomfortable.
But enough about the controversy, justified though it may be.
Outside of that, how is the actual movie itself?
Well, I hate to say it, but I have very mixed feelings about this movie.
But let’s start with the good.
Regardless of what you think of the character of Arthur Fleck, Joaquin Phoenix did an absolutely fantastic job portraying him.
He is equal parts fascinating and disturbing to watch. Even at his most manic, he’s impossible to look away from.
Joaquin completely disappeared into the role, and despite all the controversy surrounding the film, I could easily see this performance landing him an Oscar nomination. He’s that good here.
This is also a very well shot movie, with the cinematography doing a fantastic job showcasing the dirt and decay that Gotham City has become.
The soundtrack is almost perfect too. It does a fantastic job setting the tone for the film, at least for the most part.
I have to say though, I thought there was one incredibly out of place track that played right before the movie’s climax. Which, coincidentally, has added even more to the film’s controversy.
Not for the tone of the that one piece of music, which I’ll repeat, felt incredibly jarring during the scene, but because the song, “Rock and Roll Part 2,” was written by convicted pedophile Gary Glitter.
A man who’s currently serving 16 years in prison for attempted rape, four counts of indecent assault, and one for having sex with a girl under the age of 13. To top it all off, Gary will likely receive royalties thanks to the track’s inclusion in the film.
I’ll even play devil’s advocate here. I could see a controversial song like this placed alongside the Joker as some kind of subtle message, because both him and the artist are criminals. And if Gary was a murder or anarchist like Arthur, it might just fit, disturbing though it would be.
But he’s not. Gary’s a pedophile in prison for having sex with a child. The song is just an obviously poor choice all around, because like I said, it doesn’t even fit the dang scene in the first place.
But I’m getting sidetracked.
While I do appreciate many of the aspects of this film, there was one thing that was impossible for me to overlook. The story itself.
It’s been widely publicized that this version of the Joker is heavily inspired by the filmmaking of legendary director Martin Scorsese. Most notably 1976’s “Taxi Driver” and 1982’s “The King of Comedy.”
Scorsese was even attached to produce during the film’s pre-production, but left early on due to other obligations. And heck, they even made Robert De Niro a late night comedy host, which is a direct reference to his character in “The King of Comedy.”
But to me, this movie seemed to take much more than simply inspiration from Scorsese’s work. Many aspects felt wholesale copied, to the point that I think if you’ve seen “The King of Comedy,” you’ll have very good vision to how events in “Joker” will unfold.
This was showcased most notably with how the story treats Zazie Beetz’s character of Sophie Dumond.
Not to explicitly spoil what happens, but to my eyes it seemed so painfully obvious what was going to happen with her character from her third scene in the film. To the point that I thought the filmmakers must be going a different direction than what I suspected, because surely they couldn’t be setting up for something this glaring.
But no. Not only did it all go exactly as I suspected, the filmmakers ended up explicitly spelling everything out for the audience to show how clever they think they are.
This kind of storytelling, with a main character that can’t tell fantasy from reality, can be done well. And in fact it was in “The King of Comedy.” “Joker” just felt like a poor imitation in comparison.
This movie also attempts to insert many themes, especially ones surrounding class division and strife between the haves and have-nots. I think it also tries to have a message about society’s treatment of the mentally ill. I’m not convinced any of these ideas really came together into something meaningful though, and in the end all these attempts at subtext felt half baked.
But to be frank, I don’t think general audiences are going to care about blatantly copying a Scorsese film from the 80s, nor will themes be on the forefront of most viewers’ minds.
This movie does a wonderful job enthralling anyone watching with shock and violence, not to mention a captivating, and often uncomfortable, performance from Joaquin Phoenix.
So, I suppose the million dollar question is this. Should you go watch this film? I’d say yes, if nothing else for Phoenix alone.
This is far from the perfect movie I’ve seen it lauded as in some circles. But nor do I think it’s as terrible as some critics may say.
I can see both viewpoints, and I find it impossible to dismiss praise or criticism from either side.
I suppose, for a movie starring a comic book villain, it is certainly unique. And despite all the many controversies surrounding it, I’d say it’s well worth the price of admission.
“Joker” is rated R.
The other movie this week is “Always Be My Maybe.”
After childhood sweethearts have a falling out, leading to them both not speaking for 15 years, the pair end up reconnecting as adults when Sasha (Ali Wong) runs into Marcus (Randall Park) in San Francisco.
But even though the old sparks are still there, the two of them live in vastly different worlds.
Seeing as this movie was released on Netflix all the way back in May, I’m definitely more than a little late to the party on this film.
It’s just that I don’t usually have time to check out movies from Netflix or Hulu or wherever.
In fact, I doubt I’d even be watching this movie if it wasn’t for the numerous recommendations I’ve gotten from friends.
So with that said, it makes me very sad to say that I really didn’t enjoy this film all that much.
That’s not to say I hated the movie or anything. But at the end of the day, this is a comedy. One that simply didn’t make me laugh very much.
Sure, there were some scenes that fared better than others, and there were even a few moments I thought were legitimately hilarious.
But for every laugh, there was at least one or two awkward gags that didn’t land for me. The worst was when the movie would screech to a halt and pause for five seconds, giving me the opportunity to laugh at a joke I just didn’t find funny.
On the positive side of things though, I did like Ali Wong here.
Over the past couple months I’ve heard great things about her comedy specials, and I do see why she’s garnered such praise. She has a fantastic wit and genuinely great comedic timing. I’d be shocked if I didn’t see her in many more films in the future, and frankly I’m looking forward to it.
Unfortunately, I didn’t feel any chemistry between her and her co-star Randall Park.
The two of them are supposed to be childhood sweethearts, but I wouldn’t even peg them as casual acquaintances. Even when they do become close again, they’re just so awkward together.
I know that’s part of the humor, but come on. This is a romantic comedy, not just a comedy. We’re supposed to believe they like each other eventually, right?
Honestly, I think part of my problem here is that I’m not a huge fan of Randall Park. And I don’t think I realized it until I watched this film.
The man’s appeared in a slew of movies over the past decade or so, usually as a minor comedic character. He even showed up in a Marvel movie as the FBI agent assigned to Paul Rudd’s character in last year’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp.”
I’m sure he’s a fine person, and I’m happy for him that he’s seen success over the years, but I just don’t find him all that funny. To me he always seems constantly awkward and that’s it.
If you like him, more power to ya, but his style of comedy just doesn’t work for me. Especially in a lead role.
I would have called this movie a complete wash for me, if it wasn’t for the film featuring a very special guest appearance from one unforgettable actor.
If you’ve watched the movie, you know exactly who I’m talking about. I hate to even say who it is, even though the movie’s own trailer and marketing spoil it, because it’s such a funny reveal.
This man absolutely stole the show. And he did it by basically playing an ultra exaggerated version of himself. Every second he was on screen was perfect, and my only complaint is I’m sad he was around more. This mystery actor was easily the best part of the movie.
Overall, I seem to be in the minority about this film.
Most people I’ve talked to seem to love it. I really wish I felt the same, but I just don’t.
Either way, I wouldn’t say the movie’s worth a subscription to Netflix on its own. However, if you’re already subscribed, you could certainly do worse as far as comedies go. I just hope you enjoy it more than I did.
“Always Be My Maybe” is rated PG-13.