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Joker - Film Review

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I love the moment the lights dim, the curtain widens and the movie starts. Going to the cinema is one of life's great activities and should be enjoyed as much as possible. https://fifty2ndstreet.wixsite.com/beardedreviews
Published October 3rd 2019
Why so serious? Because its serious business
oaquin Phoenix in Joker. Photograph: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros

Joker has hit the screens and created a storm around the world. Audiences have become somewhat numbed by a series of fluffy comic book CGI 'fun' fests, and a seemingly endless supply of Disney live-action remakes of old cartoons, people don't seem to be quite ready for what director Todd Philips has done. This is a film that truly harks back to the gritty 1970s style of movie and reminds everyone that DC is at its best when it's dark and gritty.

Joker is a dark character study of arguably the most famous villain in comic books. For this outing, he is minus the Batman, so the film is solely focused on him and how he becomes the clown prince of crime. It's a real slow burn too, taking its time to build the tension and drag our character, Arthur Fleck through the mud and then dig a hole and throw him in it, before he eventually rises up through the muck and ascends as a full madman. It's a long journey and one so worth taking.

The Joker has appeared in live-action films five times, as well as many animated movies as well. Each time he has graced the screen, he has been vastly different from the previous incarnation, something of a testimony of how good a character he is, that he can be reinvented so effectively.

His first appearance in a film was in the 1966 Batman movie, based on the campy TV show. There he was played by Cesar Romero, who most famously refused to shave his moustache off, and instead just covered it up with the white makeup, somewhat unsuccessfully (but somehow better than the CGI moustache removal of Henry Cavill in 2017's Justice League). Romero is fondly remembered, but his performance is very over the top and campy, which of course fit the 1966 'groovy' TV show, but bears little resemblance to the character we know as the Joker now.

In 1989, Jack Nicholson brought the character to life in the first 'serious' take, with the Tim Burton directed Batman. Nicholson very much brought his own personality to the role, but due to the fact that it was Jack Nicholson, his presence was enough to create a compelling and certainly entertaining version of the character. The fact that Nicholson was getting paid mostly through a percentage of the profits, he was highly motivated to give a great performance.

Heath Ledger followed Nicholson in 2008 in The Dark Knight, the most serious take on Batman at the time and Ledger's Joker was a game-changer and still regarded as one of the best, if not the best, comic book movie villains of all time. From the moment Ledger's Joker made a pencil disappear, audiences were captivated by his grounded, ferocious and wildly energetic performance that earned Ledger an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

In 2016, Jared Leto brought the punk rock gangster Joker to the screen in Suicide Squad. This was the most left-field version of the character released to date, however, major edits to the film during post-production chaos as a reaction to the negative reviews of Batman v Superman, which had been released earlier in the year, saw Suicide Squad given a serious overhaul, changing up the tone of the film dramatically, resulting in Leto's dark, violent and almost animalistic Joker being left mostly on the cutting room floor. This makes Leto's performance hard to judge, as we never really saw what he was going for.

And that brings us to now, with an all-new Joker that is not tied to anything in the current DC universe. If you're confused, the Jared Leto from Suicide Squad is in a totally different universe (and is the one mentioned in the Birds of Prey trailer that was just released). Confused? Well, don't be. This is a standalone movie, and so even if you've never seen a DC movie before, or know nothing about the Batman universe, don't worry. This works as a completely self-contained movie. There are no 'Superheroes' in this world. But boy do they need themů

Joaquin Phoenix is in the role of Arthur Fleck/ Joker. Arthur is a troubled man who has grown up with a lot of abuse and mental illness. In a society that is falling apart due to the wealthy having a complete stranglehold on society (sound familiar?) Arthur is just one of many stuck at the bottom as the city cuts funding to social programs whilst the rich get together to watch classic movies and 'fundraise' for their political dreams, whilst no one seems too worried about the real people at the bottom. When mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (yes, that Thomas Wayne) offhandedly calls some of the people causing social unrest 'clowns', a movement starts that threatens to tip Gotham City upside down.

This plotline about Gotham City is fascinating and works as the second character of the movie alongside Arthur. The sets are brilliantly bleak, with terrible colour schemes and a dim lighting in every building. Nothing is well designed for living in and the city feels old and neglected. The city looks the same as Arthur, malnourished and thin. It's got some knotted muscle there but formed through a series of hard knocks.

Arthur strives to be good and to make people laugh. Despite all his issues and his endless negative thoughts, he strives to bring laughter to the world. However, as he slowly learns more about the world around him, and more about who he is, his already fragile world starts to crumble and eventually, when those who can bring light to the world won't, eventually you have to embrace the darkness.

The movie uses a brilliant score from classical cellist Hildur Guonadottir. Her score keeps up with DC's usually high standard scores. He use of the cello (the deep opening perfect 5th did remind me occasionally of Han Zimmer's Man of Steel, before it ventured off into more minor territories), and she also used the slow rising strings to great effect in creating tension throughout. The score was very rich and given a prominent place in the sound mix. Great stories need great music, and these two have found each other here.

Phoenix is already getting Oscar buzz for his role and could very well take home the trophy. It would be extremely well deserved as his performance was captivating throughout, bringing a fragile and troubled humanity, whilst still becoming the madman he needed to be. This would be a second Oscar for the Joker in a world where no other comic book character has ever won an Academy Award, so that would be something.

Robert De Niro also gives a great supporting performance as the slimy and condescending late-night TV host, who is full of judgement and ridicule. He doesn't have a lot of screen time, but De Niro, perhaps feeling very comfortable in this type of movie, gives a standout performance in a fairly small, but pivotal role. This film does feel like a film from De Niro's peak days of the 1970s.

Frances Conroy and Zazie Beetz also give good performances as the women in Arthurs life.

Joker is confronting, tense and quite violent in key scenes, but is not a bloodfest. Whilst the film has received some negative press, mostly from people who probably haven't actually seen the film, the movie does not lead you to sympathise with the villain. It does, however, ask you to question societies mechanisms that lead to people becoming monsters. It shines a light on how people left with fewer and fewer options will eventually have to choose one. It doesn't excuse those choices, but it does remind us that a system built on exclusion may eventually get what it deserves. Director Todd Philips doesn't pull in any punches and the film is a welcome breath of fresh air in a crowded theatre of superhero movies. Some will love it, some will hate it. But, that's life. Send in the clowns.

Five Stars
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