Film Review: JOKER (USA 2019) ****

Joker Poster

In Gotham City, mentally-troubled comedian Arthur Fleck is disregarded and mistreated by society. He then embarks on a downward spiral of revolution and bloody crime. This path brings him face-to-face with his alter-ego: “The Joker”.


Todd Phillips

It seems unlikely that the director of mostly comedies like WAR DOGS, THE HANGOVER movies and OLD SCHOOL be the one to create this odd but original DC comic Batman villain JOKER.  But is this really the JOKER villain that challenges Batman so many times, or is he the inspiration for the real villain.  The age difference between this joker and  Bruce Wayne appears so, but director Phillips leaves the answer ambiguous.  As such, JOKER is an intelligent enough alternative Marvel Universe movie that concentrates on a villain as the protagonist.  The graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) was the basis for the premise.

The joker is a real loser in life.  Born poor with a mental disability, this sorrowful soul (Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck/Joker) is a mentally ill, impoverished stand-up comedian disregarded by society, whose history of abuse causes him to become a nihilistic criminal.  The illness causes Arthur to occasionally break out into uncontrollable laughter.

Phoenix has starred before in movies with a similar character, a loser as in YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE and INHERENT VICE, films that did not make great money but with this character immersed in a Marvel Universe, JOKER has made Warner Bros. an unexpected amount of money.  Arthur’s inspiration is talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) who allows Arthur on his show though later berates him causing Arthur to take immense offence and revenge.  De Niro is superb here.  When De Niro and Phenix appear together, De Niro steals the scene from Phoenix ( as evident in the first scene together, showing him to be what can be classified as a great actor.  The script takes De Niro from an early character in Martin Scorcese’s THE KING OF COMEDY where De Niro plays an upcoming comedian stalking successful comedian star played by Jerry Lewis.

JOKER is not a pleasant watch, since the often disturbing film deals with mental illness, depression, violence and the underworld of Gotham City (the film is shot in New York).  But it is a superbly crafted film going deep into the recesses of Arthur’s demise.

The camera work is nothing short of stunning.  Arthur’s chase of the young hooligans who steal his sign down the streets of the city is expertly shot.  The segment where the ambulance carrying Arthur’s mother Penny (Frances Conroy) screeches through a tunnel with the shearing lights doubles up on the madness of the situation and Arthur’s mental state.

Director Phillips gets the audience on Arthur’s side when he kills three yuppie criminals who beat him up on the subway train.  The audience feels sorry for Arthur, a vigilante at this point, but his behaviour also prevents the audience to feel sorry any further.

JOKER won the Golden Lion when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival.  It is also the number 1 R-rated box-office champion of all time.  JOKER is a film that demands to be seen, especially for cineastes.  The film should come away with a few Academy Awards in 2020.


WAR DOGS (USA 2016) ****

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wardogs.jpgWAR DOGS (USA 2016) ****
Directed by Todd Phillips

Starring: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Steve Lantz

Review by Gilbert Seah

If you enjoyed the hectic style championed by Scorsese’s THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and David O. Russell’s AMERICAN HUSTLE and JOY, then you can expect more of the same in Todd Phillips’ (ROAD TRIP, THE HANGOVER films) WAR DOGS. WAR DOGS is a black hilarious no holds-barred type comedy, farcical, loud and into-ones-face. Not every topic is suited to this kind of treatment. The hectic pace of Wall Street traders, the madness of the falling real estate market and the rise in fame of an inventive mop heiress made perfect subjects. WAR DOGS deals with two 20-somethings striking it rich with arms dealing through the internet with dangerous wheeling and dealing – again a perfect subject. Director Phillips graduates to his first serious comedy after apprenticeship in madcap nonsense comedies like THE HANGOVER. And WAR DOGS, surprisingly is both a fantastic entertaining comedy and a farce on the American military arms sourcing.

The film is aided by the performances of two terrific young actors – Jonah Hill, twice Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actor (MONEYBALL and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) and Miles Teller, best known for THE DIVERGENT series and who has proven his acting mettle in WHIPLASH. Hill is expert as portraying smart and crazy while making his dislikable character likeable and one to be somewhat admired. Not many actors can achieve this feat. Teller carries the other lead role confidently, proving himself to be one of the the hottest actors with talent. The film is told from David’s point of view, with him narrating the entire film.

The film follows two arms dealers, Efraim Diveroli (Hill) and David Packouz (Teller), who get a government contract to supply weapons for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The film is heavily fictionalized and dramatized.
The story is based on true events, but events so crazy, they have to be seen to be believed. But a key segment, the drive through Iraq (the triangle of death) depicted in the film never actually happened. Their first major job runs into trouble when the guns are stuck in Jordan. They solve their problem while Teller keeps the arms dealing a secret from his wife Iz (Ana de Armas). When this problem is solved, they hit another huge project. They enlist the aid of a mysterious American, Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper, who co-produced the film). The family scenes with David and Iz tone down the madness and put all the mayhem into perspective.
It is difficult to imagine how the film would have gone if the original actors Jesse Eisenberg and Shia LaBeouf were hired. But I would rather see Teller than Eisenberg who is now over-exposed with too many films already (CAFE SOCIETY, NOW YOU SEE ME). LaBeouf is too crazy and Hill brings a needed maturity to the role.

The company formed is called AEY, the letters not meaning anything. When told that IBM stands for International Business Machine by an employee, Effraim fires the guy in disgust claiming that only geeks know this fact. Phillips sets up this entire scene (running 5 – 10 minutes) for this one joke. But he funniest scene is the one where the two attend a military meeting totally stoned out of their minds, Phillips intersperses the film with titles/sayings and there are about 5 of them. (Examples: When does telling the truth ever helped anybody? God bless Dick Cheney’s America.) The neat thing is that a character would ultimately utter the exact saying out in the segment.

A puzzling point in the film is Henry Girard thanking David for not exposing him in the Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson. If that is true, how come his character exists in the movie?

WAR DOGS is smart, funny and edgy entertainment. It marks a brilliant debut from Todd Phillips who now proves himself a talented director to watch.


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