Joker: films V movies

Joker.

Joker is a deeply depressing work that disappoints on numerous levels. But the most dispiriting aspect about the whole, yawn, phenomenon, is how willingly so many people have been led by the nose to dutifully sit down and watch it. And then, despite having seen it, how obediently they then insist on telling the world how thrilled they were with it, describing it, even, and astonishingly, as daring.

Remarkably, this malaise went so far as to infect the jury at the traditionally reliable Venice Film Festival, where it won their top prize.

We all know the broad outline of the story. A professional clown and would-be comedian feels so unloved and under-appreciated that he decides to take his revenge on a society gone wrong, by turning to random violence. What Joker does do more than anything else is to highlight the difference between films and movies.

De Nero as The King of Comedy.

It could, had it chosen to, have been a small, independent film that explored the plight of an ordinary individual, as he struggles to come to terms with a society that seems to have degenerated so completely, that trying to live in it, to merely exist, has become more than his crushed spirit can bear. And his only means of coping is to blur the reality of the world that he lives in, and the world of his imagination, so completely, that they merge into one.  

That was the film that Martin Scorsese made with Taxi Driver (’76), and then with The King of Comedy (’83), both of which are minor masterpieces – Raging Bull (’80) is his unqualified triumph. And both of which starred Robert de Nero, who also reappears here in the Jerry Lewis role. 

Taxi Driver.

As a matter of fact, Joker has almost every single element that went into the making of those two films, except for one thing; ideas. It makes absolutely no attempt to in any way explore those elements or to investigate the world it presents. 

Well okay, then, so it’s not a small, thought-provoking portrait of a small man with big dreams finding it increasingly hard to cope. We’re in the world of comic book heroes, and we should have known that from the title. So we’re dealing with one-dimensional archetypes, and this is just the back-story for a figure who will become one of Batman’s arch enemies. But if that’s what it’s supposed to be, then it fails abjectly. 

It’s so grim, and humourless, and mean-spirited, and just plain nasty. Comic book films, when they work, have an energy and a joie de vivre that at the very least diverts and on occasion thrills. Joker is just so unremittingly unpleasant that all it ends up being is un-watchably dull. So it fails as much as a movie as it does as a film.

As Sam Fuller so memorably opined in Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (’65), films, more than anything else, are about emotion*. The reason the stakes are so terribly high in the cinema is because it deals with real, live, flesh and blood human beings. Because they are the things we get emotional about. That’s what Scorsese was getting at when he made those comments about Marvel movies that so irritated the rabble: 

It isn’t the cinema of human beings.” 

How could it be? They are not, by definition, human. They’re super heroes. That’s their whole point. And that’s why so many of us find it impossible to care one way or the other what ever happens to them. 

But that doesn’t matter, because movies aren’t about emotion. They are solely concerned with percentage points, gross, territories, platforms, outlay, merch, net profits and all the other elements that go to make up the world of marketing. And that’s the level, and the only level that Joker succeeds on. But that’s the only thing that anyone involved with the project was evidently interested in.

*What he actually says, if you watch the clip here, is emotions, which seriously undercuts what ought to have been his point. But that’s a whole other blog post in of itself.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month, on All the very best and worst in film, television and music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

Bo Burnham’s glorious “Eighth Grade”

Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade.

For all the disruption and chaos unleashed by the digital revolution and the brand new medium it spawned, the Internet, the media landscape that has emerged is, at least thus far, stubbornly traditional. Nobody in publishing, cinema or television dreams of being on the Internet. And nobody on the web is perfectly happy where they are. 

All of them dream, with a desperation that is palpable, of landing that publishing, TV and or cinema deal. Hitherto however, none of them had seemed to offer anything other than a pale facsimile of the kind of talent on view in the more traditional media. Most Youtubers and influencers have come across as diaphanously transparent and guilelessly unsophisticated.

So Eighth Grade will be one of two things. The exception that goes to prove an otherwise golden rule. Or the first of what will prove to be an increasingly common phenomenon. The work of a crossover artist who successfully straddles both the new and the old.

Elsie Fisher as Kayla in Eighth Grade.

Eighth Grade isn’t merely good, it’s stunning. Comfortably the film of the year, and one of the top six or seven films of the decade. And there are so many different ways it could have been a complete disaster. 

The film follows Kayla, a 12 year old who’s recently turned 13 and is moving from what we call primary into secondary school. So, unlike any other girl of her age, she is unimaginably insecure, cripplingly shy and hopelessly socially awkward. So she disappears into her screen, investing all of her care and attention in her digital persona, resigned to be forever friendless and impossibly alone in the real world beyond the pixels. 

Bo Burnham.

It could so easily have been cloyingly sentimental, or patronising or sanitized, or, most obviously of all, Hollywoodized – i.e. a sickly concoction of all of the above. Remarkably, not to say impressively, it is instead a beautifully nuanced, subtle and grown-up portrait of a girl, as she moves from childhood into that brief, intermediate state before emerging as a fully-fledged adult. 

It’s hard to know which is more note-worthy, Bo Burnham’s writing, his direction, or Elsie Fisher’s performance as Kayla. All the performances are impeccable, and Josh Hamilton is especially good as her well meaning but generationally clumsy father. But Fisher is outstanding in the lead. Yet it is ultimately Burnham who emerges as the real star. Because Eighth Grade is that rare thing, a serious film. And Burnham is verily a man to watch.

You can see the trailer to Eighth Grade here.

Sign up for a subscription right of below, and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

“Never Look Away”, new film from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

Never Look Away.

The Lives of OthersFlorian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s feature debut from 2006,was one of the standout films of the last decade. His follow-up, The Tourist from 2010, starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, and costing over 100 million dollars, wasn’t merely disappointing, it managed somehow to pass everyone by, going completely un-noticed. 

The Lives of Others.

Which was quite a feat given its cast and cost. So was that debut a chance accident of converging talents, or did it genuinely herald the arrival of a serious film maker?  

In his new film, Never Look Away, Tom Schilling plays Kurt, an artist struggling under the restrictions of life in post-war East Germany. Married to the daughter of a former SS officer, who does everything he possibly can to sabotage their union, they flee to freedom in the West. 

There’s little enough to get excited about in cinema these days, so when you do seem to have stumbled upon an actual find, you cross your fingers that whoever it is turns out to be the genuine article. So I desperately wanted to be wowed by Never Look Away. But it’s felled, alas, by two fatal flaws.

Sirk’s Imitation of Life.

First, it’s a melodrama. Personally, I love melodrama, it’s probably my favourite genre, being to cinema what country is to music. And Germany has a proud tradition of brilliant melodrama. 

On the one hand, there are those glorious, Technicolor weepies that Douglas Sirk made in Hollywood in the 1950s; All That Heaven Allows (’55), Written on the Wind (’56) and Imitation of Life (‘59). Gloriously over the top, unashamedly mannered and defiantly theatrical. “You don’t believe in the happy ending,” Sirk said of that last named, “and you’re not supposed to(!)


Fassbinder’s the Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.

And on the other, there are those flurry of do-it-yourself, handmade films that Rainer Werner Fassbinder produced in the 70s, before burning so spectacularly out at the tender age of 37. Films like Fear Eats the Soul (’74), Despair (’78) and the peerless the Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (’72). Archetypally art house, brazenly intellectual and comfortably, almost casually avant garde. 

The problem with Never Look Away is that it is neither fish nor fowl, falling midway between those two twin poles. Much of it is gloriously silly, but how intentional that is, is impossible to say. What, for instance, are we to make of the fact that the artists Kurt meets on his arrival in the West look like they’ve stepped out of one of those paintings produced back in the Communist East, that they are supposed to be critiquing? And what about that ending – no spoilers -? Are we meant to smile knowingly, à la Sirk, or are we supposed to take it seriously? In short, it’s a film that desperately wants to be taken seriously, but devotes its entire energy into merely looking wondrously pretty.

David Lynch’s Dune, which is every bit as bad as that poster suggests.

It’s not hard to see where the project went wrong. Donnersmarck befriended the great German artist Gerhard Richter, interviewing him at length, which you can read about in the New Yorker profile here. But with what in mind? That intimacy meant that he was then incapable of producing a distanced, warts and all biopic of the man. So instead, he made a fictionalised film about someone quite like, but not actually, Richter. The result is polite, well mannered and extremely dull. It’s not even the sort of spectacular failure that we got with Dune. Which somehow makes it even more of a disappointment. 

Hopefully, just as David Lynch did after Dune, Donnersmarck will go back to the sort of small, intimate film that he began with. But as of now, so far as his gifts as a film maker go, the jury is very much out. He seems, at least for the moment, to be more of a Darren Aronofsky than he does an Asghar Farhadi.

You can see the trailer for Never Look Away here.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you updated every month, on All the very Best and Worst in film, television and music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

The Columbian film, Birds of Passage.

Birds of Passage.

Ciro Guerro’s Embrace of the Serpent was the stand out film of 2015 (reviewed earlier here), so his follow up was much anticipated. On the face of it, Birds of Passage, which he directed with his production partner and former wife Cristina Gallego, couldn’t possibly be more different.

Over the course of two decades, we watch as the decease of narcotics comes to infect the whole of Columbian society. It begins innocuously enough, with the arrival in 1968 of a ragbag of hippies in search of a better class of high. But very quickly, every corner of the countryside has been laid low by the kind of blind greed that only ready cash can produce. And before long, the whole country has descended into a very modern hell.

Embrace of the Serpent.

Where Embrace of the Serpent was a meditation on colonialism in measured blacks and whites, the new film is a riot of colour and awash with noise. But that colour palette aside, the two films share remarkably similar concerns. It’s just that they are looking at the world through opposite ends of the telescope.

This time around, we are embedded in the Wayuu group, tribes of native Americans who live to the very north, on either side of the border between Columbia and Venezuela. And it is through the prism of their concerns and their traditions that we witness the havoc wreaked by the spread of the international drug trade. So once again, we are looking at ethnicity, ethnography and the discordant clash as age-old traditions come up against the progress offered by the modern world. 

It’s ravishing to look at, and sumptuous to behold, sonically speaking. And I desperately wanted it to lift off and take flight. But it doesn’t.

The Wayuu people.

The film’s problems can be traced to its casting. Not the cast, who all do their best, but to the ethos behind the casting. For the film makers insisted on casting actual Wayuu tribespeople in a third of the roles, and deliberately avoided any “named” actors throughout – the only name is Natalia Reyes, soon to star in the latest Terminator reboot. Yes, that’s what the world needs, a n other instalment from yet another CGI, green screen Hollywood franchise. 

She plays the wife of the protagonist, Rapayet. He himself is played by the Cuban baseball star Jose Acosta. So, unsurprisingly, with so many inexperienced performers, there is a decided dearth of passion to the telling of the tale. And this is further exacerbated by the script. Reyes, for instance, who is so strikingly central to the film’s opening half an hour, tamely disappears from view for much of the rest of the film. And without that core relationship to root for, and given the bloodless, one-dimentional nature of so many of the other performances, it’s impossible to care very much about what happens to the various characters as they make their way inevitably down.

(L-R) – José Acosta and Natalia Reyes in Birds of Passage

In short, the film is weighed down by its lofty ambitions and its sense of moral rectitude. It’s too ethnographically concerned to allow the drama catch fire, but not sufficiently to qualify as a documentary. It looks and sounds amazing, and it’s definitely not a bad film. It’s just nowhere near as good as it might have been.

You can see the trailer to Birds of Passage here

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month, on All the very Best and Worst in film, television and music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

A cult classic road movie from the 70s.

Two-Lane Blacktop.

Two-Lane Blacktop is exactly the sort of film everyone expected there to be hundreds of after the global success that Easy Rider enjoyed in 1969.

Easy Rider starred and was written by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, together with Terry Southern, who’d previously worked on the script for Dr. Strangelove and was credited by Tom Wolfe as having pioneered New Journalism. It cost just $400,000, but went on to gross over 60 million dollars. 

Both a commercial and a critical sensation, it ushered in the New Hollywood era that blossomed throughout the 70s with the likes of Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese, Francis (ex of Ford) Coppola and Paul Schrader.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider.

Surprisingly, Easy Rider has aged remarkably well and is definitely worth a look if you haven’t already seen it. As is this, its spiritual sequel.

Two-Lane Blacktop, the blacktop being the open road on which our latter day cowboys face up to one another on, came out in 1971 and was directed by Monte Hellman

A driver and a mechanic prowl the open road looking for likeminded loaners to race, living off of the proceeds. Inevitably, they pick up a girl looking for a, ahem, ride, and what plot there is revolves around their pursuit of her, and their confrontation with the older outrider they square off against on their respective steel steeds.

But neither the film nor its principle characters seem terribly interested in pursuing their objects of desire. Instead, it’s the spirit of Antonioni that reigns supreme. His regal Zabriskie Pointe (reviewed by me earlier here) had come out the previous year, and, as there, the predominant mood is one of existential ennui. 

Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point.

This is further accentuated by the casting. The two male leads are played by James Taylor and Dennis Wilson. The former went on to establish himself as the archetypal 70s singer songwriter, while Wilson was the least naturally gifted of the three Beach Boy brothers, musically speaking. And was so insanely young when the whole Beach Boys thing happened – he was 23 when Pet Sounds came out at the endof their heyday – that inevitably, he spent most of his thirties in a drug-addled haze, before drowning tragically at just 39.

Harry Dean Stanton, in a brief cameo in Two-Lane Blacktop.

So instead of the sort of performances with a capital P that you would have expected from a Dennis Hopper or a Jack Nicholson, they amble they way through the film in exactly the right state of disinterest, not so much by design as by default. Pleasingly, you suspect that their casting was similarly happenstance. They just happened to be there when that particular joint got passed around.

It doesn’t quite give the heady hit that Easy Rider produces. But it is a curio well worth investigating and is a pleasing antidote to all that green screen nonsense. 

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very Best and Worst in film, television and music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.