So much has already been said about Todd Philips’ take on the inexplicably popular Batman villain that I sort of felt that I had seen Joker already when I sat down to watch it. It’s a feeling I couldn’t shake throughout the viewing because I had seen it — only it was called Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy or Network at the time. Phillips promised us a gritty ’70s movie and, to his credit, he did his due diligence and borrowed as much as he could from the classics of the period. Joker is an unrelentingly dark film in a way that’s unusual for a film of its ilk, but it’s also an adolescent darkness that doesn’t quite belong to it.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) works as a street clown, twirling signs for stores going out of business. He lives alone with his sickly mother (Frances Conroy), and it’s quite clear that Arthur is severely disturbed. He takes seven kinds of medications, none of which can stop him from having hysterical laughing fits in public or stifle a general, perpetual malaise that haunts him at all corners. Arthur is obsessed with becoming a stand-up comedian and making it on the Murray Franklin show, a late night talk show hosted by the titular Murray Franklin (a mostly asleep Robert De Niro). When Arthur is given a gun by a coworker to protect himself from being jumped, it only takes a couple of days before he has to use it — while in full clown makeup, which awakens something in him that he had been kicking down all these years.
For as much as Joker has been touted as a standalone film that “isn’t really a comic book movie,” it remains severely indebted to comic books and makes several transparent passes at relevance either by including stuff from the comic books or deliberately ignoring it and then pointing out how much ignoring it does. It’s been a while since mere violence could be seen as transgressive, but that seems to be the majority of what Phillips brings to the table. When I saw Taxi Driver at 13 or so, I was disappointed that it wasn’t nearly as violent and gnarly as it suggested; I would have been very happy with Joker in that regard. Still, it’s not a complete wash — Phoenix is predictably great and the film is visually gorgeous, but most of it is just adolescent posturing and approximation being passed off as depth. (Alex Rose)
Joker opens in theatres on Oct. 4.
Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) has a problem — well, in fact, he has almost nothing but problems. A jeweler in New York’s diamond district, he routinely furnishes celebrities with heavy duty pieces through middleman Demany (Lakeith Stanfield). But Howard is almost pathologically incapable of not being on the make; with every piece he touches, he sees an opportunity to make money. Considering how much money he seems to owe around town, it doesn’t appear as though Howard is particularly good at this aspect of his job, but it really goes to shit when a chunk of uncut opals from Ethiopia comes his way. Howard’s supposed to auction it off a few days later, but basketball player Kevin Garnett (playing himself) becomes obsessed with the lucky properties of the stone. Howard agrees to lend it to Garnett, which sets off a never-ending series of cataclysms of Howard’s own doing.
The Safdie brothers follow up the electric Good Time with a film that has even more chaotic scumbag energy, if that’s even possible. Uncut Gems is 135 minutes of gritty bedlam that pulsates with an anger and an energy that seems impossible to sustain on the surface but seeps into every crevice. There’s nary a moment where Ratner isn’t yelling or cussing someone out; if it’s not him, it’s someone else, and if no one’s talking, Oneohtrix Point Never’s synth score burbles and pulsates. No one makes movies like the Safdies: bleak character studies in the Fat City or The King of Marvin Gardens vein about unlucky-yet-obsessive losers that never let up for even a second.
A lot of Uncut Gems hinges on sports betting, a concept that is admittedly completely alien to me, and yet they manage to keep it both completely incomprehensible and riveting. Sandler is incredible in a role that employs much more of the anger and less of the melancholy of his usual dramatic roles, and the film is peopled with an assortment of bizarre characters brought up from New York’s underbelly. I said it when Good Time came out and I’ll say it again: the Safdies more or less killed any desire I had to make movies myself, because they already make the movies I most want to see. (AR)
Uncut Gems opens in theatre on Dec. 13.
It’s almost become the standard for directors to follow up critically acclaimed box-office successes with smaller, weirder passion projects. Steven Soderbergh has spent an entire career doing this back and forth. “One for them, one for me,” as they say. Ema, Pablo Larraín’s follow-up to Jackie, is certainly not bound for Oscar glory or record-breaking ticket sales. A film with a lot of ideas and not a lot of coherence, it begins after married couple Ema and Gaston (Mariana Di Girolamo and Gael García Bernal) give back their adopted son to Child Services following his pyromaniac outburst — he burned down their house and set his aunt’s face on fire. This doesn’t exactly light fire in their marriage. Ema meets with a lawyer to file for a divorce, but having no money to cover the expenses, she pays for her services in friendship. She does the lawyer’s nails, gets her hair done and, well, has sex with her. Meanwhile, as Ema becomes more and more passionate about dancing to reggaetón, tensions rise in Ema and Gaston’s dance troupe for which Gaston is the choreographer.
Again, a lot is packed into 100 minutes, but no ideas fully come to fruition. Ema, with her bleached hair and rotating outfit of track pants and long-sleeved crop tops, is played with reckless detachment by Di Girolamo. Apathy is an understandable response to tragedy, but it’s not terribly interesting to watch for 100 minutes. Weighted symbols of Latin-American millennial culture, the characters in Ema feel like embodied ideas rather than people. The excellent Nicolas Jaar score and deftly choreographed dance sequences (although filmed like a high budget music video) has enough there to keep you watching and wondering, but with a weak lead performance and a scatter-brained script, Ema might make you get up on your feet for the wrong reasons. (Sarah Foulkes)
Ema does not yet have a release date.
Proxima is a space film only by categorization. Shot on location in training facilities in Germany, Russia and Kazakhstan, Alice Winocour’s third feature is an exercise in detailed realism and mother-daughter bonds. The film is centered around Sarah (Eva Green), an astronaut training for her first mission (and hopefully not last) into space. She’s replacing an astronaut on a year-long mission to Mars. Sarah is overjoyed and humbled by the opportunity, but also knows that it’ll come at a cost. Her young daughter Stella (the unsettlingly mature Zélie Boulant-Lemesle) is struggling in school and anxious about her mother’s upcoming space travel. “Will you die before me?” she asks her mother as she washes her hair in the bathtub. Sarah’s grueling training schedule and eventual pre-blastoff quarantine will test her resilience and her ability to simultaneously raise her daughter.
To much relief, the film never questions her ability as a mother nor as an astronaut; it’s not a film in which a mother has to make a choice between either. The scenes between Sarah and Stella are tender and yet unsentimental, displaying a softness that we haven’t seen from Eva Green yet. Green excels at juggling her stoicism during the arduous training scenes with her motherly devotion in her scenes with Stella. It’s this relationship that puts her in a double bind: Stella keeps her going, but also pulls her back. The personal and the professional are not so easily separated, Winocour suggests. And perhaps they shouldn’t be. (SF)
Proxima does not yet have a release date.
There’s nothing quite as uncomfortable or embarrassing to me as misguided yet obvious social commentary. All creative expression is social commentary, in some way, since it inevitably depicts some sort of society — but the works that go out of their way to create an elaborate way of saying something blindingly obvious strike me as particularly cringe-inducing. I always think of washed-up rock bands or members who branch off of popular bands to make something that “speaks of society’s ills” as the best example of this: ambitious ways to say extremely non-transgressive, obvious things about society. When it’s music, it usually boils down to chugging modern rock with prog ambitions; when it comes to film, it’s usually high concept genre films that run in circles around their message like Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s The Platform.
In a dystopian society of the future, citizens can be rewarded if they voluntarily submit themselves to incarceration in the Pit, a detention facility that’s several hundred stories high and houses two prisoners (some of which are actual criminals, some of which are not) per level. The concept is fairly simple: every day, a platform is filled with a delicious assortment of food. Everyone can eat to their heart’s content as long as the platform stays on their floor, but each subsequent storey can only feast on your leftovers, which means that the people at the lowest levels are more likely to starve to death while those at the top eat more than their fair share.
The Platform mainly concerns a newcomer (Ivan Massagué) who immediately susses out the inhumane and torturous process and attempts to right the wrongs. If he can just convince everyone to eat their fill and consider the less fortunate, then life in the Pit can become tenable. But, of course, as in real life, everyone in the world is an unrepentant asshole who can only think of themselves. Gaztelu-Urrutia seems to have backed into his concept, building it backwards to fit his needs, which leads to a plot and exposition-heavy movie that nevertheless never quite convinces us of its own relevance. The social commentary is as broad as they come, and the harsh, neon-backed aesthetics recalls nu-metal videos from the turn of the century — in a bad way. (AR)
The Platform does not yet have a release date, but Netflix has purchased the distribution rights.