Saturday, October 19, 2019


Ever since Christopher Nolan completed his final installment of The Dark Knight trilogy, cinematic adaptations of DC comics have failed to capture the zeitgeist in contemporary film culture. While the rival Marvel Cinematic Universe has soared to unprecedented heights, the DCEU has been criticized for their super-serious, dark aesthetic which turned even the squeaky clean Superman into an agent of chaos. Rather than embrace the "comic" nature of their origins, however, DC films have instead doubled down on their dark, gritty house style. Indeed DC has even dedicated entire films to villains, including "Suicide Squad" and now, "Joker". As directed by Todd Phillips, this bleak character study is the first under the proposed DC Black banner and it is arguably the most accomplished - and most problematic - DC film of the post-Nolan era.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a lonely and mentally ill resident of a decaying Gotham city. His days are filled with caring for his ailing mother, going to therapy sessions and making a living as a party clown. But his big dream is to become a standup comedian. While he aspires to be like the successful talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a disorder that causes him to laugh uncontrollably attracts the ridicule of his intolerant society. Unable to cope with the fading possibilities of fulfilling his dreams and suffering the abuse from various sources, Arthur turns to a life of crime and embraces the alias of Joker.

As Arthur "breaks bad", both actor and director fully commit to the film's unsettling premise. In one of the most striking performances of the year, Joaquin Phoenix is at once grotesque and sympathetic. As he breaks into spontaneous laughter and contorts his emaciated body, he strikes fear into the audience long before he turns to violence. But what makes the performance so compelling - and a surefire Best Actor contender - is its vulnerability. Phoenix conveys a deep pain in his quest for acceptance, thereby humanizing this iconic villain like never before.

Indeed, Phillips and Scott Silver's script works overtime to generate audience sympathy for its protagonist. Arthur receives virtually no kindness from any of the named supporting characters, and the world created is oppressively bleak. You can practically smell the conspicuous garbage on the streets, while almost every surface seems to be covered in graffiti. In crafting this palpable atmosphere, there's no denying that this version of Gotham city is a stand-in for 1980s New York City.

The "Taxi Driver" inspirations are therefore obvious, but unfortunately, the film's social commentary is too broad to truly add a fresh perspective. Despite its best attempts - such as the inclusion of a pompous, Trump-like Thomas Wayne character - the script lacks the nuance of Hildur Guðnadóttir's evocative score as it charts Arthur Fleck's disturbing transformation. As such, the implications that the Joker's violent acts are part of a larger, justified revolution fail to ring true.

Ultimately, "Joker" won't be winning any prizes for original storytelling. But in its strongest moments, this likely contender for Best Picture and Best Director touches on some important issues surrounding mental health, conveyed through a central performance that's hard to shake. In our contemporary landscape of formulaic superhero films, this challenging cinematic vision is definitely worth your consideration.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

TIFF: Wrap-up

After 11 days of screenings and other film industry-related activities, the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival has come to an end. And as the curtains came down on Sunday, it was Taika Waititi‘s irreverent, anti-hate satire “Jojo Rabbit” that nabbed the coveted Grolsch People’s Choice Award. The announcement came as a surprise to many who favored more universally beloved contenders such as “Marriage Story” and “Parasite.” In retrospect, its victory was a perfect reflection of the 2019 edition of the festival, where many directors challenged audiences with their risky themes and filmmaking approaches.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: Harriet

As much as Hollywood tries to convince us otherwise, the world doesn’t need another biopic. But with a subject as underappreciated and vital to history as Harriet Tubman, a cinematic tribute is certainly justified. With Kasi Lemmons’ “Harriet,” that long overdue biopic of the legendary freedom fighter has finally arrived. But this underwhelming drama fails to truly capture the awe-inspiring efforts of its extraordinary heroine.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: The Cave & Adam

Issues of women’s rights have long been a subject of heated debate in the Arab world. While situations vary considerably throughout the region, women are still fighting against culturally and religiously imposed restrictions rarely faced by their counterparts in the rest of the world. At TIFF 2019, a pair of films stand out in this regard, in the form of the documentary, “The Cave,” and the narrative feature, “Adam.” Though set in drastically different environments, both highlight issues surrounding women’s rights through affecting stories about the power of female solidarity.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: Blackbird

It is never easy to accept the impending death of a loved one. Even more troubling is the knowledge that they have chosen to die. Following in the vein of award-winning films such as “The Sea Inside” and “Million Dollar Baby,” the controversial topic of euthanasia features prominently in “Blackbird.” A remake of a Danish film, this formulaic drama from Roger Michell likely won’t garner many accolades. But the tender performances from its gifted cast elevate it to something worth seeing.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: Instinct

People have long claimed that women prefer bad boys. Whether this is true or not, this widespread belief has formed the basis for many of the most popular films in history. With her daring directorial debut “Instinct,” Halina Reijn attempts to explore this phenomenon through the eyes of a trained psychologist. The result is a film that is at once challenging, frustrating, perplexing, and thoroughly fascinating.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: Jojo Rabbit

With a filmography that includes such heartwarming comic gems as “Thor: Ragnorak” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”, Taika Waititi is hardly a director who comes to mind when you think of Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. The traumatic genocide of Jews certainly doesn’t lend itself to his trademark offbeat sense of humor. Yet in one of the year’s most daring directorial achievements, Waititi keeps his distinctive voice in tact with “Jojo Rabbit,” a poignant anti-war satire that is also his funniest film to date.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

“It’s not really about Mister Rogers.” So remarks a character in Marielle Heller’s new film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” in response to the profile of the iconic children’s TV host that forms the basis of the narrative. For better or worse, that statement is true of the film itself, which eschews traditional biopic expectations for an endearing tribute to Mister Rogers’ legacy of kindness and empathy.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: Synchronic

If you ever wondered what a gritty cable drama about paramedics would look like, it would probably be something like “Synchronic,” directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Featuring a duo of tough guys responding to a mysterious series of gruesome deaths under dim lighting, it might cause you to wonder if “True Detective” had been remade as “True Paramedic.” Indeed, “Synchronic” captures the brooding aesthetic of recent HBO miniseries, but with an intriguing sci-fi twist that almost elevates its otherwise dreary filmmaking.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: Just Mercy

When a director gets an inherently powerful story, it doesn’t take a herculean effort to make a film that will resonate with audiences. With “Just Mercy,” director Destin Daniel Cretton accomplishes just that. Channeling the classic legal dramas, Cretton delivers a genuine crowd-pleaser by trusting in the power of the film’s story and the ability of his actors to convey its essential message.

Read more at The Awards Circuit