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.
Continue reading Joker (2019) →
There were a number of factors that prevented me from rushing out to see You Were Never Really Here on opening night. First was the weather, which is not really an excuse at all if you’re a New Englander like me. The second factor was the review snippet plastered on the poster that referred to the film as “Taxi Driver for a new century.” Do I enjoy Taxi Driver? I do. Do I enjoy “modern updates” to ’70s classics like Westworld, for example? Occasionally, yes, I do. But this kind of explicit tailcoat-riding is either lazy marketing or inadequate criticism or, likely, both. I don’t think I saw Interstellar because people said “it’s 2001 for a new generation!” and I didn’t see Annihilation because people said “it’s 2001 for a new generation!“, but I do know that I enjoyed those movies primarily for how not-2001 they both were.
But this, too, is a weak excuse. Two big preventatives: firstly, in a move most unforgivable and piteously ironic for someone who purports to point out “inadequate criticism” in the first paragraph of this very review, I had never before seen anything directed by Lynne Ramsay. People had gently suggested this oversight as something I should reconcile tout suite. “Start with Ratcatcher,” they said, recommending Ramsay’s feature debut. “Start with We Need to Talk About Kevin,” they said, recommending her 2011 effort. I’m a bit of a completist in this regard, watching one movie by the Coen Brothers and then suddenly finding myself rewatching them all. Maybe my appreciation of You Were Never Really Here would be heightened if I first paid my dues to Ramsay’s previous films, no?
Continue reading You Were Never Really Here (2018) →
Parenthood might be the first time Ron Howard really showed his talent as a director. Grand Theft Auto and Night Shift were passable as Howard found his directorial voice, and Gung Ho and Willow were larger productions that achieved different levels of success as Howard matured. I’d entertain an argument for Cocoon as the first glimpse of the great director Howard would one day become, mostly for the subtle mix of fantasy, sentimentality, humor and drama. But Parenthood, although admittedly very different, is the better film. With a burgeoning cast that can only be described as an ensemble, Howard’s brilliance lies in making that ensemble feel more like — oh no, he’s going to say it — a family.
There are the young ones — Kevin, Taylor, Justin, Patty, “Cool” and Garry (a pipsqueak Joaquin Phoenix) — each content in their kid ways to run around with head-in-bucket (in Justin’s case) or figure out the square root of 8,649 (in Patty’s case [it’s 93]). There’s Garry’s older sister Julie and her boyfriend/husband Tod. There’s the next generation, the brunt of the Buckman clan led by Steve Martin’s Gil, and the spouses of each Buckman sibling. And then there’s the patriarchal generation, with Grandpa Frank played by the great Jason Robards, utterer of the greatest line in cinema history (from Once Upon a Time in the West — either ya knowhadimean or ya don’t).
Continue reading Parenthood (1989) →
There are obvious similarities between James Gray’s third film We Own the Night and his first two features Little Odessa and The Yards, and they’re mostly positive points. All three are New York crime dramas that focus on families straddling the moral wires of right and wrong, all have strong supporting characters, and all have a good handful of unique and intense action scenes. Considered side-by-side We Own the Night might be the “glossiest” of the three, lacking some of the grit of Odessa and Yards but also lacking some of the exciting virility Gray brought to those films. Still, the result is a more-than-passable NYC crime story.
The premise is highly familiar, and that alone may relegate Night to the rung below the likes of the arrestingly deviant Little Odessa. Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg play Bobby and Joey, brothers on opposite sides of the law, the former owner of a seedy drug-fueled nightclub and the latter a golden boy NYPD officer. The events that bring them together aren’t altogether unfamiliar either. The big bad Russian drug dealer Vadim frequents Bobby’s place, so Joey (for some strange reason) believes his estranged brother to be the only person in the entire packed nightclub who can inform on him. Vadim (for some strange reason) suddenly puts an inordinate amount of trust in Bobby, letting him in on a secret to which only his most trusted henchmen are privy. If this all sounds disappointingly typical for an opposite-sides-of-the-law drama, that’s because it is.
Continue reading We Own the Night (2007) →
On the surface, The Yards isn’t a whole lot different than James Gray’s debut feature Little Odessa. Both follow a young man with a rough past returning to his hometown after a long time away. Both explore the family dynamic in the wake of that return. Both watch as man and family alike are sucked back into old ways as if the place in which they all grew up would hold a dark fate regardless of how loudly they all raged against it. Both Little Odessa and The Yards, tragic movies about reluctant criminals, are criminally underseen as well (although they’re both now streaming on Netflix).
In Gray’s sophomore effort Mark Wahlberg is Leo, recent ex-con out on parole and returned to his ailing mother and his seedy extended family in Brooklyn. His good friend Willie is happiest to see him again, eager to reintroduce him to “the way things work”. Charlize Theron, James Caan and Faye Dunaway round out the impressive cast, but Joaquin Phoenix as Willie is the only one who mines his character for all he’s worth. If there’s anything that separates this feature from Little Odessa, it’s that the potential of The Yards is greater than the final result.
Continue reading The Yards (2000) →
Doc Sportello ain’t a do-gooder, as one of the trailer lines for Inherent Vice sings, but he’s done good. Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh movie doesn’t seem to match up with anything else he’s done, tempting though it may be to shove it in the same category with Boogie Nights simply because they’re both comedies. There’s a little Boogie in there, for sure – there’s also mid-’80s Leslie Nielsen zaniness, a bit of Robert Altman, a bit of early Guy Ritchie, a bit of everything. Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc, a sofa-riding P.I. suddenly embroiled in a kidnapping/murder case that’s way, way over his head. The moving parts of the case are as perplexing to Doc as those of the film proper might be to us, and when Doc gives up trying to make sense of it all is about the time we do the same.
So, yeah: Inherent Vice has Jewish real estate moguls, ex-convicts, flat-topped cops, Japanese drug cartels, the Aryan Brotherhood, doped-up dentists, maritime lawyers and an increasingly large cross-section of people known from San Fran to San Diego with clear disdain or clear indifference as hippies. There are loan sharks, FBI agents, tenor sax players. There’s a big boat which might be called The Golden Fang, might not. How could these disparate agencies possibly be connected?
Continue reading Inherent Vice (2014) →