Tag: Joaquin Phoenix

Joker

jkWhat a luxury to have Joaquin Phoenix, an actor of such immense scope, to hang your film on. Especially when that film is about one of the most iconic (and dare I say it, celebrated) fictional villains in history. His turn as the Clown Prince of Crime will most likely draw comparisons to those who have gone before (Ledger, Nicholson, et al). But it needn’t. This film is a different beast and Phoenix occupies quite a different period in the Joker story.

Set within the bowels of Gotham City (stylised as an all-but-in-name early eighties New York City), Joker introduces Arthur Fleck; a heavily medicated clown-for-hire with a neurological compulsive laughing disorder. Living with his mother (Frances Conroy), with whom he spends evenings watching the Late Night show with Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), Arthur cuts a desperately lonely figure. Bullied, alienated, and fast becoming bitter towards the people around him, Arthur succumbs to his darker leanings.

It’s easy to forget that this is yet another film set within the DC universe. Instead of the usual bombastic bluster, Joker gives us an introspective character study that belies its comic-book origins. Dark, gritty and full of rage, this deep-dive into Fleck’s psychological descent is undeniably an eye-opener. But, as absorbing as it is, the pained misunderstood anti-hero shtick does have a very familiar ring to it, with Fleck’s character clearly cribbing from roles such as Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle (De Niro providing yet further connective tissue). Even Phoenix’s role in last year’s You Were Never Really Here—as Joe, another sociopathic loner on whom we were encouraged to cast our sympathies—could easily be considered a “Fleck practice run”. Certainly, the similarities are there.

Joker’s director/co-writer Todd Phillips’ (The Hangover trilogy) pathos-filled characterisation of Fleck is considerably unsettling—a dark vision that walks a tenuous tightrope between empathy towards Fleck’s brokenness and revulsion at the Joker’s psychopathic tendencies. It’s a wobbly moral compass that occasionally leaves you unsure of who you should root for. Despite this, Joker still elevates itself from the pack, thanks in main to Phoenix’s remarkably embodied performance.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

You Were Never Really Here

ywnrhSeven years ago Scottish director Lynne Ramsay ushered us, along with a very tired looking Tilda Swinton, into the disturbing world of Kevin. Among other themes, We Need to Talk About Kevin was a cold hard look at the warped mind of a killer. Ramsay’s damming statement on America’s weaponised culture was curiously (and perhaps more strikingly) made with the absence of guns. You Were Never Really Here is no different as it follows a “hired gun”, who plies his trade with a ball-peen hammer. Although one should know never to take a hammer to a gun fight, Joe who is played by a very beefy looking Joaquin Phoenix certainly knows how to swing one.

When a senator’s daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) goes missing, Joe finds himself embroiled in a twisted ring of underage sex trafficking. Nina’s traumatic upbringing holds a mirror to Joe’s own, elevating his mission into a vigilante cause. 

Living with his frail mum, Joe keeps to himself and one of the film’s lighter moments humorously acknowledges his similarity to Psycho’s Norman Bates. Indeed, Ramsey’s psycho-dramatic take on crime does in many ways resemble a modern-day Hitchcock as she dives deep into Joe’s subconscious. 

Actually, the film owes a lot to its predecessors, markedly paying homage to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. But what it seems to furiously batter its long eyelashes at is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Those who were mesmerised by the latter’s intense, monosyllabic, and heavily stylised violence will find appeal here.

It’s a rich blend of brutal beauty cut to a hypnotising electronic score, all wonderfully balanced by Joaquin’s physical performance — it’s spellbinding stuff and Ramsay’s sensual style of story-telling is undeniably compelling.

Although the simple narrative suggests style over substance, Ramsay has laced this tale with ample subtext. Most notably it mercilessly swings a bag of bloody hammers at one of ​humanity’s most urgent sins, human trafficking. Thankfully, it doesn’t let you leave the cinema without a relieving sense of hope.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Mary Magdalene

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The history of the Christian church is one fraught with systemic fault-lines, brought about by a long line of fallible decision-makers pushing male-centric agendas of the age. One particular victim of the church’s patriarchal institutional flaws has been Mary Magdalene. In his latest movie, Director Garth Davis (Lion) has set about straightening some historical distortions of a woman who, only recently, has been recognised by the Catholic Church as an “Apostle to the Apostles”.

Most notably, the film does not depict Mary as a former prostitute—a tenuous claim introduced by Pope Gregory in 591, that Davis was keen to dispel. Instead, Davis’s Mary appears to be a corrective to many previous depictions, aided by the quiet potency of Rooney Mara who plays her. She is shown here to be a woman whose strength and agency becomes an affront to many men around her.

The film begins in Mary’s family home and recounts her journey from elopement to a life of discipleship. Following Jesus (played by a very measured Joaquin Phoenix) up to the time of his death and resurrection, she learns that some of his teachings may be at odds with the interpretations of the disciples around her.  In particular, Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who voices his discomfort at her understanding of selflessness and her brash claims that revolution and change comes from within, rather than, as another disciple declares, a physical revolution of “fire and blood”.

Mary Magdalene does not push the artifice of film in any groundbreaking direction, Davis opting to keep his sophomore outing aesthetically safe. However, this conservative approach only serves to highlight the film’s introspective calling, ensuring that one doesn’t get caught up in a sensory light-show, but rather, inwardly contemplate the gravity of what the film is revealing.  It seems appropriate, in this current age of feminine resurgence, that this film has been made and while Mary Magdalene might not be everyone’s cup of tea, it remains a thought-provoking and timely story.
  
See more of my NZME reviews here.