Whatever its pretensions, this is undeniably a comic-book movie; moreover it’s directed by the brazenly low-brow Todd Phillips, known for a string of willfully tasteless comedies such as The Hangover.
Phillips says he doesn’t see Joker as a major departure, and it’s clear what he means: he has made a career out of manchild movies and here is another.
The manchild here is a mentally ill sadsack named Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), who works as a children’s entertainer, dreams of success as a stand-up comedian and is apparently destined to metamorphose into the Clown Prince of Crime.
Gotham City as envisaged here is modelled on the New York of 1970s films like Dog Day Afternoon and Taxi Driver – overpopulated, crime-ridden and grimy in a manner that has since become a shorthand for cinematic integrity.
Even more conspicuously, Joker takes many of its plot cues from Martin Scorsese’s prescient 1982 satire The King of Comedy, with Robert de Niro as a nut who idolises yet longs to supplant a talk-show host played by Jerry Lewis.
Arthur similarly looks up to a talk-show host played by De Niro himself, whose authoritative performance is the best thing in the film; a homage to the era when showbusiness as a whole aspired to a respectability it did not quite possess.
But the film pins most of its artistic hopes on Phoenix, playing yet another variant on the established Joaquin Phoenix Character: morose, potentially violent, inarticulate yet with glimmers of sensitivity.
Phoenix is the kind of actor who has to work hard to be uninteresting. But he never manages to make Arthur into a coherent person, partly because it’s hard to see this schmuck as any kind of future arch-villain and partly because the film’s thesis is kept broad and vague; sidestepping the moments where the character might forfeit our sympathy for good.
Birds Of Passage ★★★★½
Birds of Passage or Pájaros de verano, is an epic crime film about the early Colombian marijuana trade which opened at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and has been compared favourably to The Godfather, Scarface and TV series The Sopranos. The film is about the desert clans, known as the Wayuu, who are traditional goat and cattle herders but in resisting Spanish colonisation during the 18th century came to be feared as “barbarians and horse thieves”. Maternal authority is strong among the clans and girls can spend up to two years in seclusion learning life skills once they reach puberty. The film begins with a beautiful teenager, Zaida (Natalia Reyes), emerging from a year of isolation and being promised to a young man, Rapayet, from a mountain clan who goes into drug trafficking to afford his dowry and thus sets the scene for tragedy. “This description gives no sense of the poetry of the imagery,’ writes reviewer Paul Byrnes.
“There are ethnographic films and there are crime films. I can’t recall a film before this that does both successfully – but wait, there’s more. Birds of Passage is also an epic tragedy, a consuming and gripping tale of what happened when the drug trade took hold in an indigenous group in north-eastern Colombia in the late 1960s. It’s a breathtaking, moody, elegiac piece of work, from the directors who made Embrace of the Serpent four years ago.
Ciro Guerra and (his now ex-wife) Cristina Gallego put modern Colombian film on the map in 2015 with their haunting black and white debut Embrace of the Serpent. This new one is in colour and where the first was a river film, Birds of Passage is about the dust of the plains. The Guajira peninsula is barren, flat, hot. Guerra gives us dramatically stark compositions, emphasising the power of this landscape and particularly the women in it. His shots of characters framed by doorways are a direct echo of John Ford’s classic western The Searchers, but that’s appropriate. Birds of Passage is just as much about the clash of two cultures and just as wrenching. Where the two films differ is in the way they use violence: Guerra and Gallego never use it to gratify the audience. That was usually the point in an American western.
The film took several years to research. It’s based on true stories and was made with the full co-operation of the Wayuu. Most of the actors are Wayuu, speaking their own language, not Spanish. It builds to a shattering conclusion that shows us, more powerfully than any film I can remember, the terrible consequences of the drug trade for those at the other end of the supply line. It should offer no comfort for those at the distribution end either.”
Paw Patrol: Ready, Race, Rescue ★★
At only 45 minutes long, the latest Paw Patrol movie is designed expressly for its target audience of under-five fans, already familiar with all the characters. Ready, Race, Rescue, sees the rescue dogs take to a race track as pit crew for “the Whoosh”, a champion rally driver, as he races against “the Cheetah”. But when the Whoosh is forced out of the race with a sprained elbow, Marshall (the Dalmatian firefighter) is persuaded to abandon his fire truck and take his place behind the wheel. For reviewer Sandra Hall, the filmmakers hardly pushed themselves and “the cartooning shows little originality – just a generic cuteness”.
Justin Trudeau and his kids are fans of Paw Patrol, the Canadian animation franchise about a team of CGI rescue dogs possessed of unparalleled resourcefulness, endless energy and a comprehensive knowledge of light engineering.
Others see them differently. The Irish Times reviewer went for one of their recent movies, battering it with an armoury of arguments borrowed from two French gods of post-structural theory: Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard.
At the time, the pups were preventing the world from being hit by a meteorite but the Times critic saw a more sinister plot at work. They were behaving as lackeys of the bourgeoisie and their life-saving efforts could be read as a fascist defence of the status quo.
I doubt the critic will be any happier about their latest… Even worse for a series frequently criticised about gender inequality, the villain is a woman. Determined to win at all costs, she drives a car equipped with an array of gadgets cunningly designed to send the opposition careering off the track.
The result is a dizzying display of primary colours dancing around at high speed, accompanied by a lot of very loud noises… I can’t say that I saw any right-wing conspiracy at work in the plot, apart from the fact that it doesn’t do much for environmental awareness.
The film’s main sins lie in the screenwriters’ fondness for execrable puns and the producers’ indifference to the idea of scaling up the narrative to suit the move from television episode to the big screen.”
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Paul Byrnes is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Sandra Hall is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.