1/1, American Woman, Arthur Fleck, Black Swan, Brad Pitt, Castaway, Cesar Romero, Charlize Theron, Crown Prince of Crime, Guillermo del Toro, Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson, Jared Leto, Joaquin Phoenix, Joker, Julia Butters, Kill Bill, Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Collins, Lindsey Shaw, Margaret Qualley, Margot Robbie, Monster, Natalie Portman, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, Pan's Labyrinth, Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino, Sienna Miller, The Shape of Water, To the Bone, Todd Philips, Tom Hanks
It’s some time since I posted a review about a movie so here goes with some comments on two recent movies, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and Joker. Be warned. My comments below were written after I watched each movie. As such, they contain spoilers, of sorts. If you’ve not yet watched either movie but plan to do so, read no further.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019)
This movie, directed by Quentin Tarantino, was released last year to rapturous applause by the critics (85% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 7.8/10 on IMDB). The story, loosely based on the murder of film starlet Sharon Tate and others by followers of Charles Manson, starred Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio plus an ensemble of other big-name movie stars with cameo roles. Now, I like Tarantino’s movies. They are always fresh with great set-piece action scenes (as in Kill Bill, for example) and a story line that hums along maintaining the viewer’s interest combining humour with violence (as in Pulp Fiction, for example) but Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was, for me, a Tarantino dud. Here’s what I wrote in an email to my son, Mark, also a keen cineaste.
I watched Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood yesterday. Hmm. To be honest, I was glad when it finished. I found most of the movie to be self-indulgent and, at times, quite boring. And, at 2 hours 41 minutes runtime, it was also way too long. Some of the set pieces were entertaining – the sparring contest between stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh); Booth’s encounter and car drive with the hippy girl Pussycat (Margaret Qualley, Andie MacDowell’s daughter and one to watch out for in future movies); the subsequent visit to the ranch and tyre-slashing episode; Rick Dalton’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) lunchtime break with the young girl actor Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters, very good for her age); the final fight between the two heroes and the Manson hippies – but I can’t say I was impressed with the rest of the film. The scene where Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) went to the cinema to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew was cringeworthy, as was the scene when Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) had his meltdown after forgetting his lines. Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio played well together. I didn’t get a sense that they were trying to outdo each other as actors and Pitt, especially, did wonders with his quiet ruminative ums and ahs. I enjoyed his final scene with Tex the hippy (Austin Butler) when Brad Pitt’s character was stoned.
Overall however, I don’t rate this movie as Tarantino’s best. It was clearly a very personal film and he’s certainly earned the right to make it and employ many first-class actors and their offspring but it’s not on my 50 Greatest Movies list.
So, even though the movie won lots of awards, it didn’t impress me. What about Joker, another highly-acclaimed movie that has been nominated for a number of 2020 BAFTA awards?
Joker (Todd Philips, 2019)
Batman, and his sidekick, Robin, is a well-known superhero, both in comics and in a series of television shows and movies, fighting the bad guys in the fictional city of Gotham (which looks suspiciously like New York). In many, but not all Batman movies, Batman is often pitted against the Crown Prince of Crime known as the Joker, a supervillain with a smile, evil intent and maniacal laugh. Cesar Romero (Batman, 1960s TV show), Jack Nicholson (Batman, 1989), Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight, 2008) and Jared Leto (Suicide Squad, 2016) have all played the Joker in past Batman movies and each actor has superimposed his own interpretation of the character – Romero was an energetic and impish extrovert, Nicholson brought his own brand of maniacal behaviour to the role but with hints of malevolence, Ledger added dark overtones to the introverted character that eventually earned him a posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and Leto played him as a pure slicked-back-green-haired stand-alone villain in a film that did not feature Batman. And now we come to Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal in Joker. Here again, are the comments I sent to Mark.
I watched the movie Joker today. I was underwhelmed. I don’t understand why this has become such a cult movie. Joaquin Phoenix did a good job as an actor (but so he should; he’s an actor!) and I understand he lost a lot of weight to play the part but he’s not the first actor or actress to do so. Look at Tom Hanks in Castaway; or Natalie Portman in Black Swan; or Lily Collins (Phil Collins’ daughter) in the astonishing 2017 movie about anorexia, To the Bone (highly recommended); Charlize Theron and the weight she put on to play the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster; and so on. I also appreciated that Phoenix spent a lot of time perfecting the various types of laughs but so what? I had no reference point to judge how well he succeeded and, to be honest, his laughs grated on me.
The card Arthur Fleck handed to an irate mother in a bus who accused him of harrassing her young son (Fleck was pulling funny faces at the boy) and then didn’t understand why Fleck started laughing uncontrollably.
Phoenix also portrayed a variety of emotions but I think Sienna Miller showed a much greater range in her 2018 movie, American Woman (also highly recommended). Similarly, Lindsey Shaw in the 2018 family drama movie, 1/1, a terrific character study.
As for the story – the backstory and creation of Batman’s arch-opponent, the Joker – well, yes, it was plausible. The Joker has figured in almost all the Batman movies and in the earlier comics on which the movies are loosely based, and it is fitting that, at some point, a movie should be made about his origin but what story there was was both limited and flimsy and there were too many unanswered questions. Was he adopted or was Thomas Wayne his father, and therefore Bruce Wayne (Batman to be) his step brother? Was he abused as a small child? If so, by whom and what damage did it cause that would later contribute to his rebirth as the Joker? Did he partner up with the African-American woman down the hall, or was that an illusion plus a ploy to get a black African-American woman into the movie to stem any criticism that it was essentially an all-white-actor movie? (A similar question arises with the other two minor-role black women in the movie, the social worker and the psychiatrist.) What was the medical basis for his uncontrollable hysterical laughs and when did the underlying neurological damage occur? Why did he murder his ailing mother when, previously, he had showed concern and affection for her? These, and many other questions were not answered and the whole movie came across as a possible fantasy with no substance or basis in reality. Maybe that was the intention in which case I would argue that the movie should not have been about the Joker character. The story should have been told more in the style of Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water) i.e. where the whole premise is fantasy, the characters are made up, and we enjoy the immersion in what is clearly a fantastical setting.
I got the bit about the Joker’s descent into madness caused, in part, by his rejection by just about everybody he mixed with and, in part, by the ‘them and us’ rich-versus-poor divide but that didn’t really explain why, ultimately, the Joker would become the anti-hero in Batman movies. And, in any case, Arthur Fleck/Joker appears to be around 40 years old to Bruce Wayne’s small boy age of around 10 (the encounter at the gates of Wayne Mansion). This would make the Joker more like 60 or 70 years old by the time Bruce Wayne metamorphosed into Batman 20 to 30 years later. That age difference just didn’t fit with all the depictions of the Joker in any of the Batman movies.
Overall, as I said, I was not enamoured by the movie. It was interesting but it did not really provide a backstory of how Fleck became the Joker. It was an isolated slice through his adult life where, finally, the murderous and criminal Crown Prince of Crime emerged but there was insufficient evidence to support why the change happened and, ultimately, the movie was less a story, more a vehicle for Phoenix’ s considerable acting skills. It didn’t work for me.
Well, there you have it. Two big-budget Hollywood movies highly rated by the critics but which I found to be disappointing. Ah well, there’s always Laurel and Hardy to fall back on if I want comedy, or pretty much any movie coming out of South Korea if drama and action is required, or France if horror rears its head, or…
Enjoy your movies.