“Joker” Film Review

A truly phenomenal motion picture with a tour de force lead performance and relevant social commentary for today’s audience. Warner Bros’ highly anticipated Joker opens everywhere this week. Once again, we get an origin story of Batman’s favorite nemesis. Only this time, it’s told through an extremely heavy film that is less about the violence, that so many seem to be fixated on, and more about the unapologetic character study of someone whom has suffered egregious psychological and physiological trauma at the hands of those whom are supposed to be loving caregivers, friends, or mental health professionals. Prepare yourself to go down the rabbit hole of the mind of a madman in this no holds barred exploration of the far reaching effects of untreated trauma, grief, and schizophrenia. From a critical perspective of analyzing this as a motion picture, I find there is so much to admire! If I was to grade this film on a 1 to 10 scale, it would honestly be 8s, 9s, and 10s across the board. But you know what, if I am to be perfectly candid with my readers, I did not particularly care for the story, lack of likable characters, or even this iteration of The Joker. While I cannot deny the critical achievement of this motion picture (or film), as a movie, I did not care for it. I know some may use the terms film and movie interchangeably, but I often differentiate between them when drawing a distinction between art and entertainment. Some movies are both. For example, since we are in the Batman universe for this one, I will point out that my favorite Batman movie is equal parts film and movie, an “arthouse film masquerading around as a superhero movie,” and that would be Batman Returns. Even after watching Joker, my favorite iteration of the iconic character is still Jack Nicholson’s in Batman (89). That being said, Joaquin Phoenix is acting circles around Jack in this film and blows us away with his spectacular performance as this version of 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. (IMDb)

This film is extremely heavy. Usually I don’t make it a point to mention that element of a film; but in the case of this one, it is important that you go in knowing what’s in store for you. Joker is both a character study and an exploration of our present day society as viewed through a 1980s lens. It also sets up Batman, but that is only a small part of this film. Prior to reviewing the performance of Phoenix, I feel it’s important for me to mention that I don’t see him as portraying The Joker as much as I do an authentic, genuine, terrifying madman. It’s no surprise to my readers that I prefer the Burtonverse to the Nolanverse when talking Batman, so my Bat-par is set by 89 and Returns. Nicholson is the standard against which I measure up all other iterations of Joker. And suffice it to say, Joaquin Phoenix’ Joker is not Joker. A brilliant performance as a sociopath, a psychopath, or just plain crazed serial killer with a sordid past brought on by unimaginable trauma, YES; but “Joker,” he is not. Joker is not just a madman, he’s an intelligent, calculating, organized crime boss with a penchant for murder and mayhem that is told through exemplary, if not sinister, showmanship! At the end of the day, Joker is an entertainer. We love to watch him on screen, and even root for him sometimes. There is little reason to root for this Joker. He may start out as an underdog who kills two men in defense; but then starting with the third victim, he is just interested in killing, anarchy, and watching the world burn. He lacks what we love about this iconic villain, and for that reason, I do not feel that this he IS Joker.

While I may not see Phoenix as portraying The Joker (and this has much more to do with the screenplay than his performance), his performance as this madman is off-the-charts great and could possibly be the best performance delivered by Phoenix ever. There is an unapologetic, candidness about this performance that feels incredibly genuine–no pretense about it. Phoenix is 110% committed to this character and stays true to Arthur Fleck the entire time. He is vulnerable and terrifying all at the same time. When analyzing the performance of Phoenix, I am reminded of Norma Desmond’s lines from Sunset Boulevard when she states “my eyes, I can say anything with my eyes” and “we didn’t need dialogue, we had faces.” Phoenix could have played a mute Arthur Fleck, and we would still have known precisely what he was thinking and more importantly feeling. He embodies the sage screenwriting words of “dramatize, don’t tell.” Phoenix is consistently committed to the character of Arthur Fleck from beginning to end. And I say “Arthur Fleck” because I don’t believe him to be portraying The Joker. In an exchange on Twitter with my friend Jeremiah that I had (as I was writing), I was reminded of what I learned in geometry, “every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square.” From that we can extrapolate that a theory could be “every Joker is a madman, but not every madman is The Joker.” I’ve seen a lot of great performances over the decades, but I can honestly say that this lead performance by a male actor is among the best I’ve ever witnessed. Perhaps Nicholson is still my favorite Joker, but Phoenix’ Joker is certainly the most realistic portrait of the descent from slightly crazy to utter destructive madness to the point that one laughs as the world implodes around them.

Joker is rich with poignant thought-provoking social commentary on our current state of affairs (albeit exaggerated) as the divide between the rich and poor is growing ever so rapidly. Just as American Psycho used the self-centered, consumer-centric, self-indulgent late 1980s to comment on the late 90s//early 2000s, this film also uses the early 1980s lens to comment on the late 2010s/early 2020s. The choice to use the early 1980s as the setting isn’t only because 80s is popular right now, what with Stranger ThingsAmerican Horror Story 1984IT, and more, it’s because it was a highly transitional time in the country. The 1960s was pretty much peaceful, the 1970s was experimental that turned chaotic, and everything came to a head in the early 80s before the economy turned around and the late 80s ushered in the bountiful, progressive 1990s. So the choice to set this film in the inner city of the early 1980s allows it to comment on similar issues that are plaguing us today. Perhaps not to this extreme, but we encounter conflicts that parallel the ones outlined in the film. Instead of treating mental illness, often our society masks it with medication or hides it from view to deal with it later (only later never comes). The rich just keep getting richer, and the poor just keep getting poorer, all while the rich blame the poor for their circumstances and standby and watch the lower rungs on the ladder just fall off; survival of the fittest, one might say. Self-centeredness runs rampant throughout the streets of Gotham as it does in our own cities and towns today. Everyone is so concerned with themselves that they stop to think about building a community that builds up one another to construct a society that is just as much about the quality of life for its citizens as it is the produces and services it can crank out. How do you view our world? As a factory or as a community?

I wish I had known just how heavy this film was going to be before I watched it, as I was not prepared for how dark it was. There are no moments of levity in this film, which I find to be particularly dangerous for audiences. As a screenwriting lecturer, I remind my students that it’s important to use levity strategically even in dark dramas or horror movies. It serves the purpose of not leaving the audience in a depressed state and allows for the writer to deliver an impactful punch when the audience least expects it. Levity relieves negative stress and resets the emotional barometer. I was feeling so oppressed by the tone of this film that I nearly left the cinema because I couldn’t’ take the darkness anymore. And that says a lot, considering that I watch a lot of dark movies and TV shows. Beyond the absence of levity, there aren’t any likable characters. To put it bluntly, everyone is an asshole. The treatment of everyone’s fellow man is despicable. It’s important for a film to establish one or more characters that the audience can identify with and even root for, but I find that everyone is so unlikable that I cannot connect with any of them. Yes, those whom have experienced trauma will likely identify with Arthur, but even he offers nothing redeeming or endearing. Unfortunately, Joker is a film that I may never watch again, despite praising it for its critical achievement as a motion picture.

If you are searching for a film that offers a prolific amount of content for purposes of a character study or cinematic study, then this is an excellent one to put on your list. Personally, I did not care for the story even though by all measurable accounts it’s a great film. But I suppose sometimes there comes along films that we acknowledge for their artistic and critical achievement but do not necessarily need to see again.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“The LEGO Batman Movie” movie review

legobatmanNonstop antics, action, and thrills! Warner Bros. and Ratpac Dune present a movie that is equally one-hundred percent Batman whilst still completely LEGO. From the moment the opening title sequence of logos appears under the voiceover of a self-aware Batman, this brilliant animated film will take captive your attention and draw you in with a batarang of perfectly choreographed fight scenes and incredibly well timed self-reflexive humor. The LEGO Batman Movie is an entertaining combination of a contemporary story on the backdrop of Batman nostalgia. Whether you are a fan of the show from the 1960s, the Burton universe (as I am), the dark world of Nolan, or Snyder’s, you will find strategically placed references that fit exceptionally well into this LEGO universe. While the film is aimed at a younger audience, there are humor, easter eggs, and allusions to the various Batman shows and movies for adults to appreciate. Underscoring the over-the-top high concept plot, is a heartwarming story of love, family, and friends. This Batman movie pulls out all the stops as most, if not all, Batman’s villains receive screen time as well as other members of the Justice League with Batgirl and Robin. Oh yeah, the Joker IS actually in this Batman movie! With a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.1 on IMDb, this film is sure to be a huge success this weekend.

When after a failed attempt at a takeover of Gotham by the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) and his henchmen, Batman (Will Arnett) is all too happy to accept all the credit for stopping the squad of villains. However, this time is different. The Joker and his henchmen give themselves up to the new Commissioner [Barbara] Gordon (Rosario Dawson). When the law enforcement and people of Gotham conclude that there is no longer a need for a masked vigilante, Batman finds himself having an identity crisis. Meanwhile, at a party, Bruce Wayne accidentally adopts young Richard Greyson (Michael Cera), and now is faced with the challenge of balancing his newfound role as a parent with Batman’s penchant for crime fighting. With pressures from Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) and Barbara Gordon mourning in Batman’s personal and professional lives, he must work through these challenges in order to save the city. Only this time, he may not be able to do it on his own.

What’s not to like??? The LEGO Batman Movie is one of those animated films that is perfect for (1) the whole family and groups of friends, as well as (2) legacy and new Batman fans. Just the animation and production design are positively mind blowing. With few exceptions, every design in the film from people to buildings and vehicles can be created with those iconic plastic building blocks. Much like with the previous LEGO movie, other LEGO universes get screen time as well (some of which are mentioned by name and others are implied), such as Lord of the RingsHarry PotterJurassic ParkKing Kong and more. With all the characters in the film, the focus is never shifted from Batman and Joker. There are many rabbit trails the film could have gone down, but it always stays true to the central characters. Overstimulation is another risk in a film like this one; but, for all the action sequences and ensemble casts, never once does the film feel that it is way too much to take in and enjoy. On top of the brilliant animation and design, is solid writing with excellent character development. Crafting the vision is director Chris McKay. Selecting the right director to handle all the elements of a LEGO movie is no short order. And Warner Bros and Ratpac Dune made a killer choice in McKay who brought us Robot Chicken: Star Wars: Episode III.

One of my personal favorite elements from the movie is the nostalgia meticulously and strategically woven into the plot. If you grew up watching the show from the 1960s or even reruns with your parents, you will be surprised with the echoes of the past and how they fit in perfectly with this Batman world written by Seth Grahame-Smith et al. Even the pow, bam, zap sound effect bubbles make a cameo appearance. The LEGO Batman Movie offers the best of all the Batman stories over the years. As I am not familiar with the Batman comics, I imagine that there are comic book references in the film for the enjoyment of that audience as well. Not as self-aware as Deadpool, this film does contain a hint of self-awareness, but never takes the place of the foreground action; however, it supports the main story nicely. Even the costumes are representative of many Batman universes. For the most part, Batman’s costume is rooted in the one worn by Michael Keaton in Batman and Batman Returns, but Batgirl and Robin’s costumes, respectively, are more reminiscent of the show from the 1960s. Joker is an excellent combination of the, in my opinion, definitive Joker: Jack Nicholson but hints of the more recent Jared Leto and Heath Ledger Jokers are in his costume, makeup, and behavior. We even get a more accurate representation of Harley Quinn in this film. There is quite literally something for everyone in LEGO Batman.

Looking for a great film to watch this weekend that doesn’t involve some sappy victimized Stockholm Syndrome-esque warped love story? Then head to your local theatre to catch The LEGO Batman Movie on the big screen! What better way to spend the weekend leading up to Valentine’s Day than laughing with your date??? Even if you’re spending Valentine’s Batman style–flying solo–you will still have a great time at this movie.

The Art of “Batman Returns” (1992): a retrospective movie review

BatmanReturnsBy far, still the sexiest Batman movie! With the reviews from fans and critics alike regarding this weekend’s release of the highly anticipated Suicide Squad ranging anywhere from horrible to moderately enjoyable, I decided to rewatch and review the Batman movie that is still considered by many, and yours truly, to be the most Batman out of all of them. Released in 1992, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns boasts a star-studded cast complete with the German expressionistic filmmaking style and gothic production design often associated with this iconic superhero franchise. The brilliance of Batman Returns can be witnessed in recognizing that Tim Burton provided audiences with an art house film masquerading around as a superhero Hollywood blockbuster. From the architecture to the costumes and cinematography, this Batman movie has more in common with art than a movie. Not that movies lack artistic appeal, quite the contrary–after all cinema is the art of visual storytelling; but there is a certain artistic charm that surrounds Batman Returns uncommon in other superhero movies. In other words, the focus was more on the art of a Batman story than the plot. Many comic book enthusiasts also regard this installment (as well as its predecessor) as very close to the comics in plot and visual design. Furthermore, hands down, the most memorable element of the movie is Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, and with good reason. Incredibly sexy, seductive, slightly psycho, playful, and conniving. Juxtaposed against Danny DeVito’s monstrous Penguin, Michael Keaton’s timeless Bruce Wayne/Batman, throw in the self-centered and ruthless Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck, and you have a brilliant cast bringing to life iconic characters under the direction of a then-visionary director before he became a parody of himself.

Beneath the streets of Gotham City lies a world of water, waste, and The Penguin. Abandoned by his wealthy parents, Oswald Cobblepot is raised by the Penguins of the former Gotham City Zoo. He grows to resent the world above and the blue bloods of society that cast aside those who they deem as undesirable. High above the sewers, Selina Kyle is nervously tending to her boss’ every need. Not the most meticulous secretary–oh sorry, assistant–she has failed her ruthless boss Max Shreck for the last time, and gets shoved out a window to be nursed back to life by cats. Both abandoned and left to die, but return to life with revenge and warped justice on the mind. During the annual tree lighting ceremony, The Penguin and his henchmen thwart the celebratory atmosphere with gunfire, looting, chaos, and violence. Valiantly defending the good citizens of Gotham, Batman fights off the havoc that The Penguin with which The Penguin is enveloping the city. However, all the public knows is the good, kindhearted Penguin with a love of public service? Although initially setting out to kill Batman, in an ironic twist of fate, sparks begin to fly between Batman and Catwoman AND Bruce and Selina. Revenge, love, violence, and trademark gadgets. This Batman movie has it all.

Even the most dedicated Batman fans will admit that this film certainly has cinematic problems. But why are the flaws in this movie somehow forgiven but the flaws in Batman v Superman or this weekend’s Suicide Squad held against them respectively? Rewatching this Batman movie reveals that it is likely held is such high regard by superhero movie buffs and fans of the comics alike due to of the A-list talent and the artistic or stylistic approach to this story. Because the focus of the film is definitely on the art versus the plot, narrative flaws can easily be overlooked as the experience of this film rests upon the feel and look of everything more so than the plot in and of itself. It is rare for a superhero film to also be so incredibly artistic. And that is why this particular Batman movie stands unique amongst all the others that have been produced over the decades. The passion for visual design is seen in every shot, every costume, and in the sexiness of the interpersonal relationships between the characters. Just like with interpretive art, various interpretations of tone, feel, message, and impression can be found throughout Batman Returns. Regarding the tone of the film, it repeatedly switches from a campy melodrama to tragic love story to action/adventure. In many ways, this film is representative or even self-reflexive of cinema from the 1930s to the 1950s. Paralleling the film’s repeated switches of tone and pace, the characters also change personalities, demeanors, and motives. Moreover, control over situations constantly changes hands throughout the movie. Whether as the audience or a bystander in the movie, it is difficult, at times, to discern the villain from the hero. The magic of this Batman movie is that it bridges the boundaries of so many different interpretations of the Batman universe over the years into a film that embodies the art of filmmaking.

Not a direct follow up to the successful 1989 Batman, this installment is often celebrated as the most Batman of the Batman movies; it’s the one that somehow manages to reflect more about the hero and his world than any other on-screen representation he’d enjoyed before or since. It’s a celebration of the Dark Knight that succeeds, in large part, by its refusal to go too dark, but remains off-kilter and uncomfortable, just enough, all the way through. Likewise, the villains are psychotic, larger than life, and legendary. From the tragic character of The Penguin thrown into the river in a warped Moses fashion on Christmas to the beaten down mousy secretary turned bondage clad 1990s feminist Catwoman, Batman Returns is a quintessential Tim Burton film before he just went way too bizarre in recent years. Both The Penguin and Catwoman can be seen as two different mirrors for our caped crusader. Penguin represents a child of wealth who was abandoned by his parents (not unlike our Bruce Wayne) and Catwoman represents the sensual side of Batman that we seldom get to see but we know it’s there because he is human. The combination of characters, settings, and behaviors makes this film a fun, erotic, and entertaining Batman movie. The stratified emotions, experiences, and interpretations provides audiences with a dynamic story that plays out beautifully on screen. In fact, the film is so entertaining to watch that you will likely forget that the pacing, plot, and structure of the film lacks critical value.

If you are leery about spending money to watch Suicide Squad this weekend, I suggest rewatching–or for some of you watching for the first time–Tim Burton’s artistic masterpiece Batman Returns. If for no other reason, you will enjoy the brilliantly sexy Catwoman, tragic monstrous Penguin, and the definitive Batman/Bruce Wayne as played by Michael Keaton. Such fantastic actors and characters!

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry