Joker (2019)

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Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?  Former psych hospital inmate, children’s party clown and wannabe standup Arthur ‘Happy’ Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives with his sick mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and dreams of appearing on Murray Franklin’s (Robert De Niro) cheesy nightly TV show which they watch together. Gotham City is rife with crime and unemployment, leaving segments of the population disenfranchised and impoverished with billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) in the running for Mayor. Penny was a former employee in the Wayne household and repeatedly writes him letters asking for money. Arthur suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, and depends on social services for medication and weekly meetings with a social worker. After a gang attacks him in an alley, Arthur’s co-worker, Randall (Glenn Fleshler) gives him a gun for self-defence. Arthur invites his neighbour, cynical single mother Sophie (Zazie Beetz), to his stand-up comedy show, and they begin dating. When he witnesses three Wall Street guys harassing a woman on the subway train he opens fire and kills them and the city is suddenly awash in a movement of men in clown masks that threatens violent disorder in copycat clown costumes  … I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realise, it’s a comedy. A perverse DC origins story written by director Todd Phillips with Scott Silver, this owes much to its setting – 1981, a city on its haunches, with human filth and institutional grime, and cinematic influences: Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and of course Taxi Driver (Paul Schrader’s real-life inspiration was Arthur Bremer) which is interesting in the light of the maestro’s recent (highly derogatory) comments on superhero movies. And there’s Travis Bickle/Rupert Pupkin himself, De Niro, as the Jerry Lewis-type prism for Arthur’s fantasies of celebrity. And it’s modelled on classic psychodrama, up to a point. It hedges its bets by flailing determinedly in all directions ticking the usual boxes – sociological, pathological, neurological, daddy issues, a mad mother, illegitimacy, until its second hour descends into predictable ultraviolence (after that first exhibition at 30 minutes) albeit with this raft of reasons the wind at his back, you can’t blame Arthur, which is of course the whole point of this graphic novel brought to life. He’s a product of everything around him as well as the noises in his head so there’s no mystery left unturned. That neurological condition that makes him laugh long and loud and inappropriately turns into an unwelcome noise in the audience’s collective head too because we can see as he cannot that his talent lies not in comedy but in killing. Gotham City is no longer a pretend New York because the first three victims of Arthur’s vigilanteism are Wall Street employees of his all-powerful putative father, which is how the Wayne story is woven into this tapestry of excuses as if someone had written an elaborate series of backstories and decided to use every single one of them:  Oedipus writ large in a realist portrait of Bernhard Goetz-era NYC. There is literally nothing left to chance or ponder about this ugly individual and as we all know, bastards always blame other people and seek revenge for their no-name status. In this amorality tale he murders his mother to attempt to get close to his alleged father. And we all know what happens to Thomas Wayne because the Batman universe is ours.  It’s difficult to fault Phoenix’s bravura performance but much hinges on his harelip and innate ugliness which he just accentuates into unpleasant anorectic thinness to manufacture an urban monster. This Joker isn’t funny any more. How bizarre that the wonderful River Phoenix died 26 years ago today and it’s his brother Leaf who’s making the headlines. I feel like I know you – I’ve been watching you forever

 

Circus of Fear (1966)

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Aka Psycho-CircusCircus of Terror/ Das Rätsel des silbernen Dreieck / Mystery of the Silver Triangle/ Scotland Yard auf heißer Spur. I wonder if we have something in common with the murderer.  We’re both looking for the same thing. In the aftermath of a daring armoured car heist on London’s Tower Bridge that ends with the murder of a security guard, police detective Jim Elliott (Leo Genn) follows a trail of clues to the travelling Barberini Circus, which has just passed through the city. Though he suspects a conspiracy under the big top, he discovers strained relations between the disfigured lion tamer Gregor (Christopher Lee) and his associates and colleagues who include owner Barberini (Anthony Newlands), ringmaster Carl (Heinz Drache), bookkeeper and wannabe clown Eddie (Eddi Arent), knife-thrower Mario (Maurice Kaufmann) and a dwarf called Mr Big (Skip Martin). Elliot struggles to find his man – and recover the stolen cash – in a maze of blackmail and deceit that concludes in a sharp-edged dénouement courtesy of Mario …  Why must these things always happen at the weekend? Written by producer Harry Alan Towers (as Peter Welbeck) and based on Again The Three Just Men by Edgar Wallace, whose prolific work had just spawned another series of adaptations at Merton Park Studios, this is a British take on the German krimi genre and happily has Klaus Kinski as the mysterious Manfred among a terrific cast numbering Suzy Kendall as Gregor’s niece Natasha, Cecil Parker as Sir John of the Yard, and Victor Maddern as Mason the unfortunate who uses a gun, with Lee in a mask rather defeating his key role but leading to a key unveiling in the third act. Genn is a bit of a PC Plod rather than an intuitive ‘tec but his role winds up anchoring the narrative and he’s nicely sardonic if secondary to the overly complex and twisty plot of the circus crowd’s behind the scenes antics with red herrings and dead ends dangling everywhere. Mostly nicely handled by cinematographer Ernest Steward with some interesting shot setups and well paced by director John [Llewellyn] Moxey. The opening scene is smartly achieved without dialogue and the final summing up scene is a high wire act quite different from what you’d see in Agatha Christie. Werner Jacobs directed the German version which has an alternative ending and was released in black and white. I do like to respect a man’s privacy but in a criminal case there’s really no such thing

IT Chapter Two (2019)

It Chapter Two

I can smell the stink of fear on you.  Defeated by members of the Losers’ Club, the evil clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) returns 27 years later to terrorise the town of Derry, Maine, once again and children start disappearing. Now adults, the childhood friends have long since gone their separate ways and are scattered over the US. Town librarian Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) calls the others home for one final stand. Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) is a successful mystery novelist in Los Angeles married to successful actress Audra Phillips (Jess Weixler). Like the others he is haunted by what happened but mostly because he has forgotten or blocked things from his mind – he sought revenge for the loss of his little brother Georgie. His on-set issues with the director (Peter Bogdanovich) of and adaptation of one of his novels arise from the ending which nobody likes, not even his wife, who’s been lying to him for years. Bespectacled and foul-mouthed Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) has become a successful stand-up comic in Los Angeles.  The overweight little boy Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan) is now a handsome successful architect living in Nebraska. Hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) is a risk assessor in NYC and his marriage to Myra seems to mirror his relationship with his mother. Georgia accountant Stanley Uris (Andy Bean) cannot bear the idea of a return to the town because he is simply too afraid. The group’s only girl Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain) is a successful fashion designer whose violent marriage replicates the bullying she endured as a child. Damaged by scars from the past, the united Losers must conquer their deepest fears to destroy the shape-shifting Pennywise – now more powerful than ever… You know what they say about Derry. No one who dies here ever really dies. The second half of Stephen King’s IT has a lot to overcome 2 years after the first instalment and 29 years after it was brought to the TV screen in a mini series. Burdened by over-expectation, hype, and a (mis)cast lacking chemistry, this sequel to the beloved and hugely successful first film aspires to the condition of Guillermo Del Toro movies for some percentage of its incredibly extended running time and wastes a lot of it delving into the past in several rather unnecessary flashback sequences in which some transitions work brilliantly, others not so much. However the mosaic of personal history and occasional flashes of insight accompanied by some black humour restore the narrative equilibrium somewhat even if we all know this is not really about some clown-spider hybrid living in the sewer beneath a small town in Maine. Bill’s arc with his writing is a metaphor for the need to find an ending to a lifetime of latent fear for all the protagonists (it hasn’t stopped him being a bestseller). Grappling with the psychological impact of trauma, child abuse and guilt, this movie is all about burying their root cause:  way to avoid therapy, dude. Surely Pennywise is the ultimate recidivist in a movie where home is a word not just to strike fear but actually has to be carved into someone’s chest rather than being uttered aloud. This is a group of adults who notably have not reproduced.  In the attempt to join up all their experiences coherently there is a ragged logic but it tests the viewer’s patience getting there and after a protracted standoff with Pennywise there is a partly satisfying conclusion where the past has to be physically revisited and replayed, even if the film never reaches the emotional depths or charm one would expect, perhaps because the reality of Pennywise is not more artfully probed:  those character threads are left fraying at the edges. A delight lies in seeing author King playing the pawnbroker selling Bill his old bike and refusing Bill’s offer to sign his novel  – because he doesn’t like Bill’s endings. It could be King’s comment on half the films he’s seen adapted from his own books, especially relevant in a movie that quotes The ShiningAdapted by Gary Dauberman and directed by Andy Muschietti.  You haven’t changed anything yet. You haven’t changed their futures. You-you haven’t saved any of them

La Strada (1954)

La Strada

What a funny face! Are you a woman, really? Or an artichoke? Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) is a simple-minded young woman whose mother accepts 10,000 lire from brutish itinerant strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) to take her on the road after her older sister Rosa has died doing the same job. He bullies her and she takes up with high-wire performer Il Matto/Fool (Richard Basehart) who is with a travelling circus which she then joins with Zampanò when he finds her. The men’s rivalry culminates in a death … Here we have a piece of chain that is a quarter of an inch thick. It is made of crude iron, stronger than steel. With the simple expansion of my pectoral muscles, or chest, that is, I’ll break the hook.Written by Fellini and Tulio Pinelli with Ennio Flaiano, this is the first of the maestro’s world hits and one of the classics of cinema. It is a tragedy told with immense humanity and vivid melancholy and is a tribute to the performing brilliance of Masina, Fellini’s wife and the inspiration for the central character, a waif of Chaplinesque attractiveness. Much of the film was shot around dawn, imbuing this picaresque of poverty with its unique tone of fatality. This marks a break with the director’s neorealist cinematic roots,  yet it is an unvarnished picture of post-war Italy, a stark contrast with the American Technicolor tourist romcoms being produced on location. However it embraces the vitality and symbolism of the circus and brings a distinctive worldview to global attention. Quinn seems unbearably tough while Basehart does well as a kind of trickster in this allegorical play on the fairytale.  Nino Rota provides the evocative score and the song which is repeated to such urgent effect. A devastating portrait of the destruction of innocence with the overwhelming power of melodrama. Once you lose your eyes, you are finished. If there’s any delicate person in the audience, I would advise him to look away ’cause there could be blood

It (2017)

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Aka It:  Chapter One. Go blow your dad you mullet-wearing asshole. Stephen King’s 1986 novel gets the big screen treatment here after a 1990 TV two-parter that has a fond place in many people’s memories.  It sticks with the first part of the novel – the kids’ experiences, and moves them forward, to the late Eighties. In 1988 Derry, Maine, little Georgie sails his  paper boat and it floats down a drain in a rainstorm and he is pulled in by Pennywise the Clown, becoming one of the town’s many missing kids. When school’s out next summer his older brother Bill sets out to find him with a bunch of other kids who all have their issues:  big mouth Richie, hypochondriac Eddie, germophobe Stan, overweight newbie Ben, pretty Bev (the subject of false sex rumours) and black home-schooled Mike.  They are the Losers Club and have various problems with the parental figures in their lives. Ben’s research in the library proves that Derry has a very high mortality rate particularly when it comes to kids and every 27 years this demonic shapeshifting character manifests through their fears when he reappears to feed. But in the midst of their search they have to avoid the Bowers Gang, horrible greasers who violently terrorise them as they search the area’s sewers to find the centre of Pennywise’s hellish underground activities … Part of why this works so well is that the kids are taken seriously and their problems in the world are immense:  we’re talking child abuse and Munchausen by proxy, to name but two. We feel for them because they are fully rounded characters who have legitimate reason to fear grown ups. A clown in the sewers is as nothing compared to Dad waiting in the hallway to feel you up. It’s a perfectly judged drama. Another reason this works is because it inhabits familiar territory for many of us who recall Spielberg films of the era – the sight of a squad of boys on bikes recalls ET – and the King drama Stand By Me which was so iconic and one that also treats its protagonists respectfully. We also think about The Goonies:  the spirit of adventure is overwhelmingly attractive despite the dangers to this bunch of nerds and scaredy cats.  The Netflix show Stranger Things is an overt homage to all of these, mixing up the paranormal, horror and nostalgia for thirty years ago and the presence of cool girl Winona Ryder is such a plus.  Adapted by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman;  directed by Andy Muschietti who gives the scenes equal weight and doesn’t give into the massive temptation to exaggerate the horror element, allowing each character to fully blossom. This is a coming of age story with panache and clowns and a wonderful ensemble of wholly believable kids and Bill Skarsgard donning the whiteface. Personally I can’t wait for part two set 27 years from 1989 when It reappears: wouldn’t it be really meta to cast Molly Ringwald as the adult incarnation of the Molly Ringwald lookalike? Awesome idea!