Early buzz on Joker made frequent mention of a guy named Martin Scorsese, a film director you may have heard of, though not one who’s ever actually directed any films called Joker. Partly the comparison stems from the aesthetic of this new grimdark pseudo-origin for Batman’s nemesis, which is set in the ballpark of 1981 in a Gotham that looks suspiciously like the New York of Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. Partly it’s the theme, too, I suppose, as Scorsese’s obvious preoccupation with insecure males and violence fits Joker‘s bill pretty well. And partly people simply love saying “it’s just like ______!” when a new movie comes out. Heck, the last Joaquin Phoenix movie we reviewed (the phenomenal You Were Never Really Here) discussed exactly that: people said it was “just like Taxi Driver!”
It wasn’t, of course, and Joker isn’t really like Taxi Driver, either. But I’m willing to bet Todd Phillips — Joker‘s actual director — isn’t exactly bummed at the comparison. If anything he’s consciously invited it, crafting Joker as a rip-off spiritual offspring of Marty’s in more ways than one. We might jump to Taxi Driver because of the interchangeable logline — unstable loner is shunned by society and devolves into madness as a result — but the shout-outs to Scorsese’s King of Comedy are even more explicit. Robert De Niro was in Phoenix’s shoes for that one, playing the failed comedian obsessed with Jerry Lewis’s talk show host, but in Joker he fills the exact seat Lewis filled in King. Now may be a good time to note that subtlety is not one of Joker‘s strengths.
What’s the worst thing that can happen in sports? That’s the question voiced by the title character as the curtain goes up on Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut and latest produced screenplay since 2015’s Steve Jobs. The wording immediately conjures another Sorkin sports project, Moneyball, which followed Billy Beane’s seemingly-miraculous turnaround of the flailing Oakland A’s baseball club. That film was directed by Bennett Miller (sidebar: where’d Bennett Miller disappear to?) and contained a brilliant sequence dubbed The Streak: a quick-cut montage of the A’s unprecedented run of winning, winning, winning. We may never lose again, reads a poster in the stadium stands. Winning, you may have heard, is basically the best thing that can happen in sports.
The worst thing is more varied, more subjective, and far more interesting, at least as a concept for a narrative feature. It’s easy to see why Sorkin thought so, and easy to see why the writer was drawn to Molly Bloom’s account of her time hosting high-stakes underground poker games in L.A. and New York. Molly’s Game allows Sorkin to tap into the fast-paced verve of a sport (poker being “a game of skill,” as Molly asserts) that just so happens to require players to gather, seated, around a tense table. Molly herself is a quintessential Sorkin character in that she talks fast, has daddy issues, and is often the smartest person in the room by a longshot. Above all, the fact that Molly’s Game is a true story makes it all the more fitting for this writer’s wheelhouse.
Bob De Niro always gets invited to the best weddings. Alongside all of the countless things young brides concern themselves with in the months leading up to their marriage — what if it rains? Can Trudy and Greta get along if we sit them together? Chocolate or vanilla? — there’s incredible solace to be had in the fact that De Niro will be there, in attendance and in approval. The guy clearly loves weddings. One of his first starring roles was in Brian De Palma’s The Wedding Party and one of his most recent was The Big Wedding, followed by the pre-wedding bachelor party shenanigans of Last Vegas; jury’s out on whether those movies are any good or not (wait — jury’s back — they’re not) but still, the weddings in those movies rock. Come on: Robin Williams is the presiding priest in The Big Wedding. This could be an all-divas-on-deck Kardashian wedding or some other unfathomably incestuous socialite caucus and you’d still attend if Robin Williams was the priest. So too would De Niro, apparently.
One of the better ones is the wedding from Goodfellas, in which the goodwill wishes come in a drunken torrent and the prerequisite for inclusion on the guestlist is being named Peter, Paul, or Marie. Just look at Henry and Karen — they’re perfect together. De Niro’s here, he’s having a pretty good time. But there’s something else on his mind, maybe, like whether the salami on that antipasto platter is fresh or whether he should just go ahead and whack Morrie Kessler already. Remember how he cut loose at Steven and Angela’s wedding down in Pennsylvania? That was a blast! He almost fought that Green Beret at the bar. Then he took his clothes off and ran down the street! Really, when we all invite De Niro to our weddings, the Hammered Brawling Run-Naked-Through-the-Streets De Niro is the one we want to RSVP.
What’s your favorite shot from Goodfellas? I know, I know. It’s like asking which of your children you love the most. The sheer rewatchability of the seminal mafia film is largely due to the intimate composition of each shot, the flow of one into the next, the exhilarating pace of it all. Goodfellas arguably has more flashy camerawork than any other Martin Scorsese film, but it never feels out of place or discordant with the story. It helped that the Director of Photography was the legendary Michael Ballhaus, a cinematographer who worked frequently with Scorsese. In fact, it helped that pretty much everyone on the production was at the top of their game.
So the time has come: the pick of the litter, the crème de la crème, the nonpareil of Goodfellas shots. There’s the slow-mo Tommy Gun shot, the red-lit trunk shot, the explosion as Young Henry dashes into the foreground. There’s The One Where Samuel L. Jackson’s Stacks Gets Shot Out of Nowhere. Guns are pointed directly at the camera twice, and either time could qualify for short odds in this cinematography round robin.
There’s the Vertigo shot, one of the more drawn-out examples of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous camera trick:
A Most Violent Year is set in New York City in 1981, the most violent and murderous time in the history of the city. Oscar Isaac plays ambitious immigrant Abel Morales, manager of a successful oil enterprise, and Jessica Chastain plays his beautiful wife/accountant. On the eve of a major business deal, Abel must simultaneously contend with a federal investigation into his practice and a band of hijackers attacking his drivers.
Things fall apart fast for Abel, A Serious Man style, with pretty much everyone turning against him, and it’s in this set-up that A Most Violent Year seems like it’s going to be a pretty great gangster film. Abel is beaten down but never defeated, constantly levelheaded and rarely unprideful. In one scene he speaks to three new employees about business procedure, and though we know he should probably be frantically dealing with everything that’s happened to him in the past week we find him here instead, describing sales tactics with such gusto that Jordan Belfort would buy oil from him. In scenes like this Isaac’s Abel recalls Pacino’s Michael Corleone more fully than any character you care to name, stonefaced as he looks people directly in the eye, staunch in his beliefs.
In America you’re on your own. One of the most criminally overlooked movies of 2012 was Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, a rough-and-tumble tale of petty holdup artists, mob enforcers and the suit-and-ties that control them (or think they control them). Dominik’s follow-up to his excellent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford retains some of the same cast and makes a few substitutions, and Killing Them Softly is a very different movie from Dominik’s earlier film and from most American crime dramas on the whole.
When two smalltime down-and-outers (played with hilarious gusto by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) hold up a mob-protected card game (run by Ray Liotta’s Markie), the local criminal economy crumbles into chaos. It’s not so much that the robbery is botched as the criminals themselves are botched, making it a fairly simple procedure for Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan to arrive in town and put the pieces together. His systematic deconstruction of the situation provides the rest of the drive for Killing Them Softly, but Domnik and Co. enhance the subtleties of every punch and gunshot along the way.
An interesting feature of Killing Them Softly is the way the 2008 presidential election campaign – focused largely on the recession and the floundering economy – plays into the story. Unlike a lot of modern crime dramas, this one is very “bottom-up” – the players we watch are the lowest rungs on the ladder, broke and struggling men desperate to make any kind of score. This isn’t American Gangster or Goodfellas. The highest we go up the totem pole is a glorified messenger played by Richard Jenkins (who is fittingly out-of-place among the rest of the cast), and other than that it’s junkies, drunken hitmen, and enforcers who don’t think twice about shooting a guy. Even Dillon, a world-famous-all-over-New-England enforcer mentioned time and again by nearly every character, appears only once (and happens to be played by Sam Shepard). Addresses from Obama and McCain reach this subfloor of humanity nonetheless, but the blanket statements made by presidential candidates don’t exactly apply way down here.