Jul 232019
three reels

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally ill for-hire-clown attempting to become a stand-up comic. At night he cares for his elderly mother. He lives in Gotham City (no relation to any Gotham City you may have heard of) which is falling apart, with garbage in the streets, rats running rampant, and crime rising. Arthur is attacked multiple times, loses his job, his identity, and is insulted by TV personality Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). He loses what little he had, pushing him to find a new identity for himself, and to find hope in the form of homicidal mania.

In this sequel to Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy…
What? It’s not a sequel?

OK, in this remake of The King of Comedy…
Really? Not a remake.

One more time. In this theft of Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, combined with chunks stolen from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, director Tod Phillips effectively conveys the grim reality of the poor in America, and the hopelessness of their lives in the present system. Phoenix is solid, believable as a man whose minor connection to sanity is being torn away. I could feel Arthur’s pain, frustration, loss, and longing. Yes, this is Taxi Driver filtered through The King of Comedy, but that’s good material. The building strain between the social classes is clearly displayed. This is a film with a message, one that is front and center at all times, but somehow didn’t feel obnoxious to me.

And the connection to the Batman world works. This is not the Joker from the comics or TV or other films. It isn’t a new interpretation. It is a different character, just as this is a different Gotham and a different Thomas and Bruce Wayne. But that connection helps to throw some light on this world. I know those other Waynes—rich, powerful, and privileged—so show me only a second of Thomas’s arrogance and lack of empathy, and I have a complete picture of who and what he is. Joker’s world, the world of this film which is not the world of the comics, becomes full and complex.

So, for a rip-off cash grab, Joker isn’t bad. It’s actually surprisingly—shockingly—good. So much of it works. There are some emotional moments that hit hard, and here and there a shot that should become iconic.

But Tod Phillips is not Martin Scorsese. Phillips is the man behind Starsky & Hutch: The Movie and the excruciatingly unfunny School For Scoundrels. He doesn’t understand how to use color in a drama ( for God’s sake, the world is not teal). He has no idea how to edit a serious film. And he didn’t get the help he needed behind the camera as he brought along his cinematographer and editor from his previous projects, so we’re talking The Hangover Part III quality. They are out of their league. Over and over I could see how a scene would work better if the camera was shifted over, the lights were brightened, or a second was trimmed. Much of the dialog needed to be punched up. And the entire climactic talk show scene needed to be rewritten and shortened—this is a visual medium; everything doesn’t have to be explained in a speech. This is a good film, that could have been a great one if it had a few better filmmakers involved. Hey, you know who they should have called? Martin Scorsese. I bet he would have done a great job.

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Jul 092019
four reels

After the events of End Game, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) wants a break from being a superhero, and more, the idea that he is supposed to replace Tony Stark, so he heads to Europe on a school field trip, along with best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) and potential girlfriend MJ (Zendaya). But there’s no escaping his job. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) show up with Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) in tow, wanting him to join in their fight against mysterious elemental monsters that are attacking the world. The only other superhero on hand is Quentin Beck, aka Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has come from a different Earth that has already been destroyed by the elementals. Fury also hands him Tony Stark’s last gift: a pair of glasses that gives him control over a powerful world-wide surveillance and defense system, one that Peter doesn’t feel he’s ready for.

The MCU course-corrects in a big way with the best Spider-Man film to date. The action and adventure are a step up from Homecoming, the angst a touch lower, the comedy even better, and it all fits together effortlessly. Holland continues as the #1 Spider-Man, and the only one in a live-action film that’s pulled off appearing to be a teenager. Zendaya is likable and fun and has substantial chemistry with Holland, elevating the teen comedy parts of the film, though the best bits in those sections belong to Ned and his sudden relationship with queen-bee Betty Brant (Angourie Rice), one that’s both amusing and refreshing.

Things get even better when we aren’t in high school mode. It’s not just the special effects and fabulous action scenes, but Spidey mixing it up with an irritable Nick Fury, dealing with Fury’s rough looking henchman turned tour-bus driver, and having some moving moments with Mysterio. Gyllenhaal is extremely effective, taking a very comicbook-y character and making him believable. I’ve never seen him better.

This is a smarter film than a pair of recent MCU entries. Here, if something doesn’t seem right, if there’s apparent inconsistencies in the story or in the characters, there’s an underlying reason; it isn’t just a mistake. Feel free to dig deep into what things mean. You’ll be rewarded. You’ll need to wait till a post-credit scene to see if you’re right in one case. It’s smart in another way. It doesn’t try to look at the after effects of Infinity War/Endgame on a world-wide scale. Instead, we see things only through the eyes and priorities of high school students. That makes it complete, in a narrow view, without giving us hours of melodrama. Economic volatility isn’t going to mean as much as a little brother now being a class ahead.

This is a careful review as it’s a hard film to discuss without touching on some major spoilers and while you’ll figure out a few things before they happen (if you haven’t already), it’s more fun figuring it as you go along. So staying vague, Far From Home is yet another success for the MCU. Everyone is good, and I haven’t even touched on great stuff from Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) with his best appearance in the series.  It doesn’t have the heights of The Avengers or Ragnorak, but there’s never a slip, never a fault, and it’s always a lot of fun.

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