A very notable artistic accomplishment by both Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix
Phoenix’s work is easier to tackle but I still feel like you could easily write 2000 words on it alone. The physical transformation (he shed 50+ lbs and shapes his body to accent his disorientation- he’s like a one man canted-angle), the manic laugh (when others don’t, and when they do, he doesn’t), the sympathy he earns, the timing (he is off a beat in every interaction)—it’s a very special performance. It matches Phillips vision- it’s big, bold, unsubtle and quite brilliant. His face is a canvas- large, long features– Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” painting in real life. De Niro is past his prime and Joaquin in the middle of his—but in their scenes together I found that it almost hurt the film how much Phoenix blows De Niro off the screen (and for the record I think De Niro is cinema’s greatest single actor of all-time). They are in two different films. I’m not ready to compare Phoenix’s work with Ledger’s but it’s a major achievement for Phoenix
Phillips’ achievement is tougher to reckon with. First off, the film is absolutely beautiful in a shadowy, dystopian nightmare sort of way. It is an inarguable achievement in mise-en-scene and production design from Phillips and Mark Friedberg—Friedberg worked on Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002), Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), Wes Anderson’s Life Aquatic (2004), Darjeeling Limited (2007) and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008)— really marvelous films in terms of production design and this film is on that level with its detail (the shot of Phoenix laying in the alley) with the graffiti garbage art visual motif. It’s designed.
Again – Phillips isn’t subtle—but art doesn’t have to be subtle and I’d love to ask any critic with that as a criteria (and uses that against this film) what they think of Kubrick or Scorsese- the two greatest American auteurs of all-time— and two big, bold, and definitely unsubtle filmmakers. Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (there’s a fair amount in common here with Joker) isn’t subtle. Subtlety is a choice, often a description- not a critique. Phillips is not on this level- don’t mistake my point- but art does not have to be understated- this is intentionally expressionistic (matching the larger than life Phoenix performance and achievement in production design).
We get a lot of late 1970’s early 1980’s colors—Arkham asylum’s yellow interior may be the most easy example to isolate and praise (that yellow also the preferred color of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver– clearing a driving influence on the film)
I don’t see how you could write a review on this film without discussing Scorsese, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. De Niro here is clearly a connecting factor and a deliberate casting choice. There are a dozen actors that would have been more suited for his role (and better—how about like Michael Shannon, Gyllenhaal or maybe Alec Baldwin or James Franco?) but he’s a casting homage. The problem is, unlike say Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck cast in Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear– here- De Niro’s role is too large to cast in The Joker out of homage. Other Scorseseisms’ are those mean streets of New York. There’s the porno theater in the background in the heart of NYC like Taxi Driver, we get Phoenix pointing a finger at his temple like Travis Bickle.
It definitely feels unburdened with being part of a larger comic universe.
Strong, hard grindhouse score by Hildur Guðnadóttir — many great original scores in 2019 but it is deserving of the Oscar win– it drops, with those heavy strings, when he’s beaten in the alley with the big bold titles– stunning
I’m not sold on the climax and conclusion of the film. I felt that Phoenix’s monologue (too much telling, not enough showing here) and appearance with De Niro was too on the nose- that the writing is stating the thesis (the “nobody is civil anymore” speech) and it isn’t needed (or connected to the rest of the film).
There are a pair of shots connected—the 1). shot of the young Bruce Wayne with his parents struck down and 2). the shot of a beaten Phoenix in the alley towards the beginning. These are both in overhead slanted angle shots. It is visually making the connection between the two through framing and shot design- really well done
Many shots of that detailed production design, the subways, alleys, the stairs… repetition and form
The Phillips as Scorsese (he even uses the old Warners logo used from 1972 to 1984 so the red one you see was used in say Mean Streets) discussion with other artists and art is fascinating and worth discussion. Is Phillips aping his style? Or is it a well-done (I think that’s inarguable) discourse or discussion with other art and artists? I mean Scorsese himself isn’t free of influence by any means and even Taxi Driver takes massive chunks of its film from Ford’s The Searchers and other works (say the Bresson influence of screenwriter Paul Schrader). It’s worth noting that Phillips has done this before with Scorsese- most notably in War Dogs and The Hangover (think of the driving across the desert in the glasses from Casino and the reverse POV shot of Ed Helms hungover like the “Rubber Biscuit” scene in Mean Streets
from the beginning the tone is set as I said with the Warners emblem and the state of emergency, rats, epidemic on the radio
multiple moments of surrealism– the Murray show as a guest, and then the relationship with Zazie Beetz
Again, Phoenix carries the load– an artistically transcendent performance- when hunched over his bones are almost protruding, bruised, jittery, rib cage exposed- think of Christian Bale in The Machinist but in a stronger film— maybe closer to Michael Fassbender in Hunger (and not as strong a film in this case)
he’s derailing, spiraling– in another alley shot he beats up a pile of trash, stairs repeated
I couldn’t find it here- but there is a jaw-dropper of a frame at the 82 minute mark after the murder of his mother– framed by the green curtains
I’m calling it a Highly Recommend film — top of the year quality film
I think that you are absolutely right. The film is overrated from general audiences and underrated by some critics. The truth is somewhere in the middle for me. It’s not an OK movie but not a masterpiece either ( if you click some videos in yt, in the comments you will see many people saying things like BEST FILM OF THE DECADE which is a laughable statement). I think it’s a very good movie with a tour-de-force performance from Phoenix but the whole social commentary thing felt a little off and I think that the film payed so much homage to Taxi Driver to the point of copying. I agree with most of your choices and I want to congratulate you with the whole thing you’re doing with this incredible website! I have one question. What is your opinion about The Irishman, I now you didn’t see it yet but from all the things you’ve heard and see you think that the film has chances of being a Masterpiece?
Sorry for my bad English and again continue with what you’re doing with this fantastic site!
@Antonio Antonino– thank you very much for visiting the site and the comment here. Your English here is great- better than mine. Yep- “Joker” is much better than the 59/100 metacritic score and it’s certainly not the best film of the decade like some fans are declaring it.
As for “The Irishman”. I’m hesitant to project whether a film is going to be a masterpiece or not but certainly when you have a film with a perfect Rotten Tomatoes score and a metacritic score of 90+ from one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time… it absolutely has a chance of being a masterpiece- but i’m not setting my expectations that high- that would be unfair to any film.
I was skeptical when the project/film was announced. These guys are just so old and their best work is decades ago. But, again, the reviews are some of the best of their careers.
Thank you for replying. My only concerns when it was announced was of course 1) the age of these guys, I mean how a 75 year old will move and act like a 30 year old. 2) The whole De-aging process and 3) the film being on Netflix. Other than that, we have the greatest living filmmaker return with a mob movie and three legends ( 4 with Scorsese, 5 with Keitel) in one epic film. Honestly this feels like a swan song.
@Antonio Antonio– yep- we’re on the same page except for the Netflix thing. Maybe when it was first announced I had a concern— but whatever Netflix concerns I had went away last year with Cuaron’s “Roma”- thanks again for visiting the site and commenting.
I saw the film…… masterpiece for me and I’m not a guy who throws this word so easy. When are you going to see it ? I can’t wait to hear your thoughts.
@cinephile– Thanks for visiting the site and the comment here. Much appreciated. So I saw it- these are my notes/ramblings/thoughts from the first viewing (above). I do plan to see it again — just not sure when. What did you think of the ending from the talk show with De Niro on? I loved the film but had some reservations on the end.
I need to see it again because the more I think of it the word masterpiece is not right. Maybe must-see or maybe you hit the point with the Highly Recommend. I agree with the guy saying that the homage to Taxi Driver, King of Comedy was too much. The big issue is the social commentary. The ending is a little cliche for me. The guy who revolutionizes against the cruel society and the people treat him like the big hero. We all are aware that we live in a crazy world, this has been said to movies from the start of cinema. In the end of Taxi Driver, Travis is treated like a hero, the same happens here. And again the movie wants to have a spectacular climax ( like Taxi Driver ) but it felt off. The movie tries to be important with the comment about society but it’s the weakest part. Click on yt the video Taxi Driver Joker-Style Trailer you actually see so many parts feel the same. When I walked out of the cinema i thought that we have a masterpiece ( not perfect, a 9+/10 ) but the more i think about it, a 8-/10 sticks more.
As for The Irishman ( because I witnessed the conversation you had with Antonio Antonino ) I saw it……… mind-blowing, the best Scorsese film since Goodfellas. Just don’t expect something like Goodfellas, this is a more mature take. It takes 1 hour to introduce you to the tone and atmosphere, then Pacino comes in and electrifies the film, from there the film builds tension. The Main Story ends and you now you have a masterpiece. But the cherry on top comes after. The last half hour….. my god, is like a short film separate from the other ( like the last half hour of Goodfellas ). It is top tier Scorsese. Of course the big three are Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Taxi Driver but The Irishman and Mean Streets come close at #4 and #5 for me.
@Cinephile — really exciting stuff on “The Irishman”- I cannot wait! If it’s Scorsese’s 5th best film of all-time and another masterpiece would be amazing
I will chip in as well. I agree with the posters above, I think the film never develops it’s own identity. The worst was the Wayne Murder (Batman Begins). After he kills in his home, the monologue with Murphy does not make sense.
I am not one who obsesses over Realism but it’s like the film exists in a parallel universe in the last 20 minutes (doesn’t help that he imagined the woman). It’s like they don’t want you to take anything seriously. Ends up hurting the film. Also, no performance matches up to Phoenix. When you build a one man show, you need a stronger narrative. The film lacks that.
@AP- thanks for the comment but I think we’re getting lost in the weeds here— nit-picking and looking for flaws. The film has brilliance in it. I can’t defend everything about it but we have a cinematic achievement in the world Phillips and the production design team creates visually (their Gotham is a character in the film bearing down on Phoenix’s character, every piece of trash and graffiti placed designed). You pair that with a tour-de-force from Phoenix and an engaging narrative– I don’t see how you have anything worse than one of the best 10 films of the year.
Yup, I agree. We thought this has nothing to do with the Batman Story but they throw it inside. As I said the film wants a devastating climax but keeps repeating itself to the point it hurts the film. Certainly not the best film of the year,maybe not top 5 either.
@Drake- Of course we have a top 10 material maybe top 5 and of course it’s an excellent film (although I need to see Parasite, Marriage Story, The Lighthouse and others to say for sure) A little flawed but mind blowing at times. A very good year I think to end the decade.
@Cinephile– So true on the good year to end the decade. It is shaping up that way- I’m extremely pumped for Parasite, Marriage Story, The Lighthouse— Uncut Gems would be another, Pain and Glory, The Irishman– should be a really good few months and I already feel like i have a really strong 4-6 films from 2019
this film, the joker, is a masterpiece. i was surprised, i think a lot of people were. i was expecting (i am a fan of comics and comic movies) a cliche work of low art, not a high art film. i saw this as a tragedy that personally grew on me a lot in retrospect since seeing it. every second was entertaining. the script was good, and phillips was really good with the visuals. as for the critique that it copies too much taxi driver, i felt it went its own way, stealing from the best is more of an homage. every director does this, tarantino, scorsese himself (goodfellas is 1903’s great train robbery) etc.
ad astra, another masterpiece, is second best this year.
@M — thanks for the comment. I’m an admirer and defender of Joker as well. I’m very excited to see you praise this and Ad Astra. I’m starting to see the critics top 10 and some of the year-end awards and I’m not seeing enough of either movie.
This one’s a weird one for me. I rewatched it yesterday and, whilst one first watch I gave it a 9.5/10, this time I found it being more of an 8/10 (essentially HR – what you gave it). I think the biggest problem with the movie is the hyperbole that general audiences have spun it into. It’s an extremely good movie – don’t get me wrong, but I think it can be easy to get involved too much with the cultural impact + implications. Still, the performance is mesmerising – it might be Joaquin’s best work, and he gave one of the best performances in any movie ever made in The Master. I really enjoyed it and it’s easy to get caught up into its world – but, when I watched it, I feel like it is missing a certain je ne sais quoi that stops it from being on par with, say, The Irishman or 1917. Granted, I’d still put it on my Top 10 of the year.
EDIT: Also, I completely agree with your point on DeNiro – it’s not that he’s bad, it’s just that (outside of the first scene) his acting is tonally jarring in its composed and relaxed attitude when compared to Joaquin’s intense acting style, plus the intense music, plus the claustrophobic cinematography – it almost took me out of the famous “You Get What You Deserve” scene, if it were’t for Joaquin’s total command of the scene.
@Jeff— excellent work here. Thank you for sharing. It certainly sounds like we’re on the same page. I think I’ll get to it for a second time in the next month or so.
Watched twice this week, this is a strange one for me, I enjoyed tremendously but I am not entirely sure why ha. I read through a number of reviews both positive and negative and found myself agreeing with many of the critiques. While I do not care about the “controversial” aspects of the film since I thought # 1 they were severely overblown and # 2 that is not really the aspects of film I care much about even if I did find the arguments legit. But even the critiques regarding the fact that the film pushes the boundary of homage of Scorsese vs straight up stealing from without offering a unique take a la Tarantino. Also, Joker does seem to try to offer a sort of half baked philosophy on social issues including crime, poverty, and mental health but does not really make a cohesive statement. And to be clear I am not at all suggesting that films need to “make statements” but it seemed like Joker was and it was unconvincing. Even the criticism that it somewhat falls apart at the end is probably valid, basically everything after Joker kills Murray. And yet…
Like Joker’s boss says to him early in the movie (before firing him) “I like you Arthur, I don’t even really know why I like you.”
Well, perhaps I do know some reasons.
1. Joaquin Phoenix is incredible, even his laughing is amazing. Some people criticized it as
being repetitive but it is really not, he uses that maniacal laugh to express his emotions.
2. I was really impressed with Todd Phillips who creates a beautiful film and as noted on this
page some great expressionist work.
3. Even if Joker does shamelessly pilfer from Scorsese it does work at some level. I am not
suggesting this film is anything near Taxi Driver obviously (my # 17 all time) but it does work
in a way that I am having trouble explaining.
All in all a fascinating film even if I am not entirely sure why. Does anyone else feel this way?
@Drake-I didn’t have much problems with the movie. But I would say the main flow I saw in this film especially given it has so much similarities with Taxi Driver is the lack of character development of the Cybill Shepherd character here played by Zazie Beetz. I mean surely you can do better than just being the caring mom of a daughter who you met in the elevator. When you compare it to Cybill’s role the difference is stark. Scorcese I feel like gave much more importance, meaning and screen time to this character. Actually maybe this character could have been cut out from the movie altogether. If they weren’t keen on giving much importance and screen time. Plus the interactions between Phoenix and Beetz felt a bit odd to me. Like they came out of nowhere. Sure at the end we learned most of them were surreal in Phoenix’s mind but still the character wasn’t that important or developed enough to make me care.
@Malith – I think that’s a fair critique/observation. I don’t think anyone is putting this on or near the level of Taxi Driver, right? And I never thought that Cybill’s character having that much development- but yeah- I agree that aspect (one of many) is certainly stronger in Scorsese’s masterpiece.
Must see but not a masterpiece. The triumph here is the Phoenix performance and the incredible production design. Phillips is not a great writer/storyteller even with the jacking of the King of Comedy premise he struggles to really sink his teeth into the story the way Scorsese did with Travis Bickle. Joker to me after repeated viewing becomes a film with great moments but ultimately flat due to the directors limitations.