“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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“Get Out” movie review

getoutThe epitome of the American horror film. Jordan Peele’s Get Out is an outstanding work of horror cinema, in that the American horror film is the best genre for creatively commentating on the various social, economic, and psychological constructs of life in such a way that can be visually thought-provoking. And the best part about this film is Peele does not pull out any of the usual horror tropes or clichés until the showdown. Before you begin to think that Universal Pictures and Blumhouse are pulling a bait-n-switch–selling you a psychological thriller when the film is really a heavy drama–think again. Get Out is every bit a horror film as its more traditional counterparts. In terms of its contribution to the library of horror films, the movie is flawless. From the writing to directing to acting and even the score, editing, and cinematography, Get Out is a film that you should definitely “get out” to watch. With a current 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, this film is certain to grab prolific attention from movie patrons, film studies, and social studies professors alike. It’s a brilliant film to discuss in future American horror film classes. Never before has a film been used in such a creative and visceral way to comment on how one culture appropriates the best of another for purposes of exploitation or simply because it has something that you want, and then attempt to change, assimilate, or remove altogether because that which you want is seen as wasted on the originator. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

Most romantic relationships between two people enter the anxious “meet the parents” stage, and Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose’s (Allison Williams) 5-month relationship is no different. Rose takes Chris out of the city to visit her parents’ lavish country home along a peaceful lake. Rose’s parents Missy (Catherine Keener) and Dean (Bradley Whitford) are eager to meet their daughter’s boyfriend and welcome them with open arms, hugs, and tea. When her parents begin to be overly accommodating, Chris begins to think that there is a little more than meets the eye at Rose’s parents’ place. Whereas Chris’ first impression of Rose’s family and friends was just their nervous attempt to work through Chris and Rose’s interracial relationship, now he dreads that there is something unsettling going on. After encountering an old acquaintance of his who has changed to be quite peculiar, Chris’ goal is to get himself and his girlfriend to safety. During his investigation into her family and the uncomfortable actions of the hired help, Chris could never have imagined what he comes to find out. Truth can be scarier than fiction.

It is difficult to explore some of the themes and subtext of this film without giving too much away, but I’m going to try my best to analyze what I can without spoiling anything for those who plan to see the movie. The first element I took note of in the film was the choice of music. Not so much a score (although, there is a score to the film), the music selections in the film serve as an allusion to the overall message and theme in the film. For those who know a little something about music history, you may pick up on the strategic selection and placement of the various songs and musical scores used throughout the film. There are moments in which the music does not seem to match up with the mood or tone of the film–at least, at face value. However, as you delve deeper into the film, you will realize that the music fits in all too well with the plot. I’ll give you this: think about the origins of the music in the film when you watch it. Before music, such as jazz and hiphop, became popular amongst a predominantly white society, it originated amongst the black community.

Another aspect of the film that hints at the big reveal in the turning point just before the third act is the physique, athletic talent, and sexual stereotypes of black males. You’ll notice that clues are dropped here and there, albeit subtly, at the relationship between Rose’s family & friends and members of the black community. The worship of Chris’ body by many of Rose’s family friends makes for an incredibly uncomfortable sequence of encounters at the outdoor picnic. The unsettling weird encounters between Chris and all the people he meets at Rose’s family home each work to grow the level of tension and terror in the film–the fear of something dreadful looming on the horizon. Without relying upon a proliferation of jump scares and visceral horror, Peele successfully increases the level of anxiety to terrifying levels in the film. Reminiscent in the ways that Hitchcock or Kubrick may have directed this film–in terms of relying upon the fear of something not visible to the naked eye–Peele incorporates the feeling of uneasiness every moment he can without over saturating the plot. Perfect amount of all the elements that make up the American horror film can be found in this deeply disturbing narrative.

**Spoiler Alert** (you can skip to the last paragraph to avoid it)

In an effort to truly appreciate this brilliance of this film, it is necessary to disclose information that could potentially spoil the big reveal. Early in the film when Chris asked Rose if she ever dated a black guy before, she said that he was her first. This was in preparations for the trip to meet Rose’s parents. While on the tour of the home, Rose’s father mentioned a story of his dad losing in the Berlin Olympics to now famous Jesse Owens and commenting on how a black man beat a white man. Chris finds the commentary a little peculiar. Furthermore, during the first night there, Rose’s mom hypnotizes Chris to quit smoking–this sets up a plot device used later. Just before the third act, as tensions are extremely high (oh but don’t worry, they get higher), Chris stumbles across a box of photos of what look to be Rose and previous people she dated. He was not the first black guy she dated. Piecing together the fact that one of the picnic guests was an acquaintance of his from back in Brooklyn who no longer looked or acted the same way–much more white now–Chris urges Rose to leave with him.

Skipping ahead. Chris finds himself strapped to a chair and watching a video that is clearly meant to brainwash him. Many years ago, Rose’s family discovered a way to neurologically alter individuals to take what they want and leave that which was undesirable: malicious appropriation of bodies in order to serve as a vessel for individuals who saw themselves as elite. This is social commentary on how back males are often exploited for economic gain in areas such as football, basketball, track, and even music and fashion too. So, Peele was using this horror film to comment on how many in the white community have stolen from or appropriated elements from the black community in order to further their own gain or develop ways of entertaining the masses without proper acknowledgement, formal recognition, or even payment. For example, the jazz music at the beginning of the film. That style of music came out of black culture before it was rebranded high class white music for nightclubs, shows, and weddings. Further evidence of this social commentary can be found in other areas of talent that many want to steel for their own and then reprimand the black community or not being ‘more white.’ I could go on and on. Fascinating stuff!

**End Spoiler Info**

If you enjoy psychological thrillers that do not rely upon the usual tropes found in horror films similar to this one–on the surface level anyway–then “get out” to see Get Out this weekend. Although the runtime is a little longer than typical horror films (2hr 10min), the time will fly right by as you are glued to the seat and mesmerized at the combination of horror and deep sociological theming. Thought provoking, this film will prompt hours of discussions between friends and family who choose to go to the film together. As it is a horror film, do not plan to see it alone. Horror is the one genre that is best experienced in a group setting.

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead

“A Dog’s Purpose” movie review

adogspurposeYou’re going to need tissues! Ever wonder what your dog was thinking? You’ll find out in Universal, Amblin Entertainment, and Walden Media’s glorified Hallmark movie that follows the soul of a loving dog. As such, A Dog’s Purpose is one of those films that is so simple yet emotionally touching. Based on the novel written by W. Bruce Cameron, this movie will tug at even the toughest of hearts. Although the film does not follow a traditional diegetic arc, three-act structure, and is filled with constant verbal exposition in the form of a voiceover, it is still enjoyable and works as a great date movie. No critical thinking required. Still, the author’s tagline “a novel for humans” can be seen in the social commentary on primarily human relationship dynamics followed by the relationship between a pet and his or her owner. Filled with moments of laughter and tears, A Dog’s Purpose is a film that everyone who either has or has ever had a dog should see. If you’re a cat person like me, then there isn’t much here for you–sorry. However, I was moved to tears during a scene in which the focus was on a human romantic relationship getting rekindled. You will never look at your dog the same way again and will likely go home and hug him or her just as a friend of mine did after she screened the film with me.

A Dog’s Purpose is about a dog who discovers the purpose for his existence as he is reincarnated into different dogs over the course of his life. Finding himself part of different families–or as he likes to refer to them–as packs, Bailey does his best to affect humans by influencing their respective needs to laugh and love.

Despite the rather two dimensional nature of A Dog’s Purpose, there is a deeper theme within the mostly shallow story if you examine the film closely enough. Not shallow in that there lacks emotional appeal or enjoyment, but shallow in that there is very little that is complex and dynamic in the narrative. Although Bailey spends most of his on screen life with Ethan (K.J. Apa), Bailey’s soul finds itself in other dogs who are part of their own respective family. Doing a close reading of the film reveals that each family unit represents a different kind of relationship dynamic or lack thereof. I won’t spoil it by describing each type of relationship, but knowing that there is social commentary on human and pet relationships could likely increase the appeal and enjoyment of the film for those who prefer movies with a more cerebral plot. Interestingly, the movie includes families/human relationships that represent a good cross-section of the types of relationship dynamics that exist in our lives.

For those who typically enjoy Hallmark movies, then you’ll definitely enjoy this one. Last January we had glorified Lifetime movies and this year it must be Hallmark’s turn. As I have not read the novel, I cannot comment on differences between the book and the film adaptation.

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead

“Arrival” movie review

arrivalposterYou’ll want to see it again. Prepare yourself for an extraordinary cinematic journey in this science-fiction thriller complete with commentary on the human condition. From the exhilarating cinematography to the incredible awe-inspiring visual effects, Arrival will have you hooked from the very beginning. Based on the book Story of Your Life and Directed by Denis Villeneuve (SicarioPrisoners), Arrival boasts an outstanding cinematic experience that is as much cerebral as it is visceral. Your very perceptions of time and memory will be questioned and force you to open your mind to endless possibilities. Poignantly, this film takes you on a journey that will show you that we need to change and that we can change. On the verge of avant-garde, Arrival pushes the limits of traditional visual storytelling and creates an innovative method for conveying social commentary within the science-fiction genre. Following the final fade to black, you’ll want to discuss this film with your friends. Reignite your sense of wonder. Arrival is more than a story; it’s an experience!

After twelve egg-like unidentified objects land on earth, the U.S. Government calls upon expert linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to crack the mystery and develop a means of communication with the homogenous alien species. While much of the world is on the brink of an all-out assault on the aliens, Banks is determined to establish a rapport and open communications with the species. Starting with basic words and working up to complex sentences, Banks knows she has to learn the aliens’ language in order to better understand why they have come. When things take a turn for the worst, Banks and Donnelly have precious little time to stop countries from engaging in battle with risk of war. With so little time to unravel the mystery of why the aliens are here and what they want, Banks will find herself on a mind-blowing journey of her own.

You’ve just got to see it. There is so much that I want to talk about, but it would spoil so much of the film. I’ve mentioned before that there are great ‘movies’ that are mediocre ‘films,’ but this is a prime example of an excellent movie AND brilliant film. The brilliance of this film is not in the stunning visuals, although that is certainly part of it; the brilliance lies within the cinematic and experiential storytelling. During the big reveal at the end of the film, your mind will be blown. You’ll find yourself wanting to watch it again to more clearly understand the strategic placement of the pieces of the puzzle. During a time in which the country appears so incredibly fractured, this film will provide audiences with a renewed sense of wonder and appreciation for that which one may not fully understand. Making the tough calls and putting one’s life at risk of what is right is also woven throughout this story. The theme of Arrival is not fully realized until the latter half of the film. More than a surface-level story about that which I cannot mention without giving it away, this film possesses a dynamic range of themes just beckoning for interpretation. As this film bares much similarity to avant-garde cinema in the reimagining of traditional storytelling, it will evoke a powerful emotional response.

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner deliver outstanding performances in the lead roles. Taking center stage for most of the film, Adams breaks new ground as an actor in this role that is nearly a complete departure from most of her other roles. Both Adams and Renner display excellent chemistry in their respective characters. Although Adams is the central character and responsible for the drive of the plot, Renner is strategically placed to reinforce the affects Adams’ character has upon the plot. Forest Whitaker also plays a strong colonel and was an excellent choice for his role as well. The success of the cast can be attributed to both the outstanding direction from Villeneuve and the incredible screenplay by Eric Heisserer. Bradford Young’s cinematography is so simple but yet so beautiful and profound. It is of no surprise that this film is being touted as one of the best movies of the year and has a nearly unprecedented 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Whether you are a linguist yourself or just enjoy an exhilarating cinematic journey, Arrival is definitely the film to catch this weekend. For the Star Trek TNG or Voyager fans out there, you will find that Arrival possesses some of the same great content that sets Star Trek apart from other science-fiction shows due to the human condition being central to the overall plot. If you enjoy movies that prompt you to revisit how you perceive your life, time, or space, then you will not be disappointed. There are so many levels to this film. You’ll likely find yourself wanting to see it again after fully realizing the innovative plot. Hopefully this film receives some Oscar noms in the upcoming award season.