Joker – Todd Philips

Joaquin Phoenix stars in Joker, a Warner Bros. picture

Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Robert DeNiro.
Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Entertainment

Joker has been making headline after headline after surpassing 1 billion dollars at the box office this past week, so it only makes sense to share the ReelDecisions movie review while it is still top of mind. Joker has done something that has never been done before; it became the first R-rated movie to cross the billion-dollar mark – all without being released in China. It’s a jaw-dropping achievement, especially for a movie based on a comic book character that is not part of a series (and made with a modest budget). Billion-dollar movies are usually made with huge budgets, not something as little as $55M-70M. But as Joker shows, a well-crafted film mixed with controversy and a character virtually everyone is curious about makes a perfect combination to drive people to the theatre.

Joker’s feat is both surprising and telling. It means there is a huge market for well-crafted, dark films that deal with topical (and polarizing) themes – namely, mental illness and the struggle between rich and poor. Its unparalleled success also may have had something to do with the fact that it was an origin-story for one of the most notorious villains in the DC universe. And not just any origin story either, a gritty and violent one with, arguably, one of the most talented actors at the center of it – Joaquin Phoenix.

Despite the rawness in which it deals with its contents, and the remarkable performance by Joaquin Phoenix, it’s still a tough film to recommend to anyone. At the same time, there are people who have seen this movie 7-10 times in the theatre. But it must be said, Joker will only appeal to a “certain” type of moviegoer, and it is certainly not something that will be universally enjoyed by all. It is not your typical run-of-the-mill comic book movie. It’s not funny, it’s not action-packed, there is virtually no hard-core CG imagery, and the focus is more on believability rather than outrageous otherworldly powers. In other words, it’s more of the “cinema” that Martin Scorsese was talking about rather than more Marvel drivel.

Joker is the origin story for Batman’s arch nemesis, a tale that has never been shown before on the big screen, and one that audiences have been waiting for. Sure, The Joker has been portrayed by a number of Oscar-winning actors on screen (Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto), but how The Joker came to be and the troubles he faced in order to morph into one of the best-known villains of all time has never been done. We got a glimpse of how good a Joker arc could be with The Dark Knight (hell, Heath Ledger won an Oscar for it!), but Todd Phillips takes it to another level entirely. He should probably send a big ‘Thank You’ note to Christopher Nolan for successfully priming the market for dark origin storytelling though. At least people had an idea of what to expect with this one.

Joaquin Phoenix stars in Joker

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a part-time clown who eventually becomes “The Joker”.
Photo credit: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Entertainment

Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled individual who really got the short end of the stick in life. He has a terrible job, is constantly mistreated by others, has fits of uncontrollable laughter in the worst possible situations, and has ultimately been left behind by the system. Things slowly unravel after finding himself in a number of unfortunate circumstances – including brutal, unprovoked beatings; finding out new truths about his loved ones; being forced to stop medications; and generally feeling rejected and irrelevant. The whole thing is a slow burn and mostly a gritty, dark character study. If that doesn’t appeal to you right off the bat, or if seeing Joaquin at his absolute best isn’t enough to sell it, steer clear.

Even as everything is happening, you feel close to Arthur, you truly understand why he is spiralling out of control and you just wish someone would help him. You can’t really blame him for the criminal things that he does – including murder (hence the controversy before the movie was widely released). From feeling like the scum of the earth to experiencing the feeling of immense power and adrenaline that accompanies his crimes, Arthur slowly transforms into someone else. People were concerned that it glorified gun violence and would inspire it in others, especially in America where everyone is afraid of another movie theatre shooting. Couple all that with corrupt authority figures and depictions of violent protesters reacting to a David (poor) vs. Goliath (rich) type of crime story in Gotham City, you begin to understand why Joker was not even released in China. Yes, there is violence. Yes, there are riots. Yes, the rich get away with terrible things. Is this anything new? Aren’t good movies supposed to get you to draw similarities between real life and fiction?

Joaquin Phoenix stars in Joker, a Warner Bros. picture

Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Robert DeNiro.
Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Entertainment

This whole film is a very unique experience, crafted by Todd Phillips who is better known for his R-rated comedies (The Hangover series, Due Date, and Old School). It’s very edgy, fairly long, gritty, and takes acting to the next level. Calling Joaquin’s performance Oscar-worthy is actually an understatement. Plenty of questionable actors have won Oscars; but this, this is a performance that should be studied in the years to come. He wouldn’t even be the first actor to take home the prize after portraying the Joker (Heath Ledger won posthumously for The Dark Knight).

Just because it has grossed over 1 billion dollars doesn’t mean everyone who saw it liked it, or would even see it again. It is a guarantee that some people even hated it. But those who liked it loved it enough to see it multiple times in theatres, contributing to its huge success. Oscar buzz also helps. But a lot of people will actually find it too dark and too violent to be truly enjoyable. It’s something you should see, but something you might not actually like – if that makes any sense. Just be prepared for something you’ve never seen before and to be challenged mentally (perhaps even emotionally).

If film festivals mean anything to you (admittedly, this moviegoer doesn’t always “understand” the big winners at these events), you’ll be happy to hear that the movie received an 8-minute standing ovation at it’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival this year. Whether it takes home any golden statues this year is up for debate, but there’s no denying you’ll be hearing a lot about it for the next 4 months.

The movie may not be funny (at all), but you can bet that Todd Philips and Warner Bros. are laughing all the way to the bank with this one.

Joker was released on October 4, 2019 and has grossed over 1 billion dollars in less than 6 weeks.

Rotten Tomatoes score for Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix

Watch the official trailer here:

Blade Runner 2049 – Denis Villeneuve

Blade Runner 2049 starring Ryan Gosling, Jared Leto, Harrison Ford, and Robin Wright.
Photo Credit: Stephen Vaughan/Warner Bros Pictures

When the executive producer of a movie openly admits the movie is too long, and that executive producer is also a director notorious for making movies with 150 min runtimes, you have to believe him when he says it. Blade Runner 2049 is many things: visually stunning, intriguing, artistic, and, as Ridley Scott so delicately put it, “f***ing way too long“. Even if it takes more than one sitting, even if you need a couple bathroom breaks in the 2hrs and 44mins; if you’re a fan of quality sci-fi drama (think Arrival), Blade Runner 2049 is a must-see.

Just like the original Blade Runner (directed by Ridley Scott 35 years ago), it’s not for everyone. If you have no patience for slow films and for scenes that are easily 2 minutes longer than they have to be, avoid this sequel like the plague. If you are the DC/Marvel type who needs humour and constant action, avoid this movie like the plague. If you are the other type of movie watcher, sit back and get completely sucked into a new (or not so new) world.

Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Prisoners, Sicario) took a 35-year-old movie and made it fresh and relevant. A very serious Ryan Gosling plays “K”, a young “blade runner” for the L.A. Police Department. Blade runners are tasked with hunting down and retiring old Replicant models, a type of bioengineered android that looks identical to a human. Apparently older Replicants rose up against humans at some point, but that’s not really important. The important thing to know is that Replicants look and act like humans; older models are not wanted and are hunted and killed; and there is a giant, powerful corporation that is experimenting with new models and new features that make it even more difficult to tell the difference. During a routine stop, K stumbles on something strange that requires further investigation. His boss (Robin Wright) tasks him with getting to the bottom of the strange events surrounding the death of an old model, all while trying to stay ahead of the CEO of the corporation (Jared Leto), who wants answers for a very different reason. The story is fairly complex, and although it doesn’t require one to see the original, it probably helps one understand the world a little better.

Lucky for fans of the original film, K’s investigation leads him to former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). It’s been 30 years and he’s a little older, but there’s still a lot of fight (and heartache) left in his character, not to mention Mr. Ford himself (see video ‘Ryan Gosling Nearly Knocked Out by Harrison Ford‘).

The main features of the movie are the cinematography, production design, and the music/sound – all things that Blade Runner 2049 has been nominated for. The dusty, dirty, futuristic dystopia is breathtaking in almost every scene. If camera work and set design are not things you typically notice in a film, you will surely notice them in this one. They make the ugly future strangely beautiful. The score is eerily similar to Arrival, so much so that it is hard to believe that Jóhann Jóhannsson had no part in it; in fact, he was replaced by Hans Zimmer (Dunkirk, Interstellar, Inception) and Benjamin Wallfisch (IT) shortly into filming. For a film with fairly limited dialogue, the music is quite noticeable and gives the sweeping landscapes more “oomph”.

To sum up, although Blade Runner 2049 is an acquired taste just like the original, it will surely satisfy those who enjoy a science fiction drama with spectacular visuals. Denis Villeneuve brings his typical darker style to the film as well as his talent for perfect endings.

Blade Runner 2049 brought in just under $260M worldwide and has been nominated for five Oscars at the upcoming 90th Academy Awards, including:
Best Achievement in Cinematography
Best Achievement in Visual Effects
Best Achievement in Sound Editing
Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
Best Achievement in Production Design

Watch the official Warner Bros. trailer here:

Room – Lenny Abrahamson

Room starring Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay.
Photo Credit: George Kraychyk/A24 Films

Lenny Abrahamson is an Irishman you’ve probably never heard of before, but you’ll be hearing a lot more of him after this year. With only 4 other feature films under his belt (none that would have played outside of film festivals), Lenny Abrahamson has done something extraordinary with Room. This little film won the Grolsch People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and had an audience of critics and movie lovers on their feet applauding with fresh tears in their eyes. Since then, it has been one of the most talked about movies to snag three Oscars nominations for movies in 2015.

The majority of the movie is a mother and young son confined to a small room, with very minimal supplies and not much hope for a better future. Brie Larson puts in a powerful performance as the young mother who was kidnapped as a teenager and repeatedly raped by her captor while she was forced to live in a small space with a few amenities. Her son Jack, played by Canadian newcomer Jacob Tremblay, has lived his entire life without seeing the outdoors, other than through a small skylight. His reality is “Room” – the generic name they have given their tiny home; not the room, not a room, but just simply Room.

Instead of a completely devastating film, what you get with Room is a bit of a roller coaster ride. At first you just watch them live their day-to-day life and begin to understand their relationship and Jack’s lack of understanding of what life is really like outside. When they decide to escape, you hold your breath, hope they succeed, and likely hold back some tears. As expected, Jack handles their homecoming and his new reality better than his Mom, but it is a slow process as he adjusts to the other people in his life. It is difficult to watch the young mother struggle with her emotions, the unwelcome fame, and with her parents – who are also having a tough time – but the whole thing is incredibly intriguing. At the back of your mind is always the thought that this has actually happened to people, so coupling that thought with the fact that the acting is absolutely flawless, you truly feel for the characters in the movie. Supporting cast includes Joan Allen (The Bourne Series, The Upside of Anger, The Notebook) and William H. Macy (Fargo, The Lincoln Lawyer, Wild Hogs).

Brie Larson (Don Jon, 21 Jump Street) deservingly won both the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Actress and it’s a real shame that Jacob Tremblay did not receive an acting nomination because he was the other half of the movie and essentially made her performance better. Seeing such range from an 8-year old is incredible and he was certainly more deserving than the winner of Best Supporting Actor category in 2016 (Mark Rylance) and at the very least on par with the other nominees (Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Mark Ruffalo, Sylvester Stallone).

Room is both unforgettable and rewarding. You may not watch it more than once, but you’ll be better for having seen it. It is based on the book “Room” by Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue.

Room was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2015 and was released to an increasing number of theatres in Canada and the U.S from October 2015 to January 2016.

Watch the official trailer for Room here:

The Judge – David Dobkin

The Judge starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall.

The Judge starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall.

This is a movie that the average movie-goer will enjoy more than the critics. Most of the reviews for The Judge say that the movie is riddled with clichés and that the characters were weak. The reality is, if you have/had a father, you will find this movie moving and will likely be brought to tears on more than one occasion. Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall play father and son in this courtroom drama that takes place in a small Indiana town that, in the words of Robert Downey Jr.’s character Henry “Hank” Palmer, everyone “just wants to leave”. Upon hearing that his mother passed away, Hank, a big-shot defence attorney in the city, makes the trip to his home town where he must face “The Judge”, his father Joe Palmer. It is obvious before they even meet face to face that their relationship is strained, to say the least. When The Judge is suddenly faced with a manslaughter charge in the wake of his wife’s funeral, Hank is forced to stick around and deal with the siltation, much to his father’s dismay. The two characters clash all the way down to their basic ideals, Judge Joe Palmer has been the town judge for over 40 years and firmly believes in justice and the law’s part in it, while Hank operates under a somewhat different principle, summed up in this perfect line: “Innocent people can’t afford me.”

The Judge has been labelled as a courtroom drama but most of the movie actually takes place outside of the courthouse and deals with the intense family dynamic and Hank trying to cope with his old demons rather than the trial itself. The acting is superb, with a great supporting cast that includes Vera Farmiga and Billy Bob Thornton, and there are just enough quick-witted one-liners to lighten up the mood when things get a little dark. And they definitely do. You’ll find yourself more interested in the family and how they are going to get through it, than finding out the details about the hit-and-run that started the whole thing.

Watching this movie, it is hard to believe it is directed by the same person who brought audiences Wedding Crashers and The Change-Up. Upon further inspection, it appears that the screenplay was written by Nick Shenk, who also wrote Gran Torino. Suddenly things seem to make a little more sense. The Judge has a hefty runtime of 2 hours and 20 minutes which some critics have complained about, but there is enough suspense (in terms of the trial), unanswered questions (in terms of the relationships), and impending re-conciliations to retain the audience’s interest. The argument that the movie is “something we’ve all seen before” sounds like its coming from all the people who thought Avatar was “just a Pocahontas rip-off”. Sure, there is a formula (there usually is), but that doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t worth watching, because it certainly is worth it.

The best advice is to stop reading reviews and just go see it for yourself. You’ll laugh, you’ll probably cry, and at the end you’ll be happy you saw it.

The Drop – Michaël R. Roskam

The Drop starring the late James Gandolfini,  Tom Hardy, and Noomi Rapace

Dennis Lehane, the author of  Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone that were famously adapted into award-winning films with amazing ensemble casts, brings us another adaptation of one of his short stories called The Drop. Teaming up with Director Michaël R. Roskam, they deliver a film that in many ways has the same feel to it as those other crime dramas but is significantly less disturbing than the two mentioned above.

The film takes place in a gritty part of Brooklyn where the local watering hole doubles as the occasional “drop bar” for the city’s thugs and their money. Tom Hardy plays bartender “Bob” who just tries to keep his head down and his nose out of everyone’s business but his own. The late great James Gandolfini, in his final role before his unfortunate death, plays “Cousin Marv” the bar’s acting manager who now answers to some mean Chechens after losing ownership of the bar some years ago. Things start going wrong when the pair are robbed early on in the film, and the rest just follows from there.

There isn’t much to the film in terms of plot but it never feels that way. We follow Bob as he rescues a Pitbull puppy and takes on the responsibility of being a dog owner with the help of a woman played by Noomi Rapace (Prometheus, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). As usual, Tom Hardy all but disappears into the character. He’s quiet, calculating, maybe a little naive, and yet it always seems like there’s something else hiding behind his sad puppy dog eyes and small smirk that makes a very rare appearance on screen. Noomi Rapace is equally as good as a woman with her own secrets.

It’s a slow-burning film but it never loses your interest as you try to piece everything together. The odd scene will actually generate some laughs, or at least some chuckles, and are mostly brought on by Bob’s tell-it-like-it-is attitude, which also makes him the only truly loveable character in the film, next to Rocco the puppy of course.

The Drop is a drama through and through but there is enough intrigue and there are enough moments that lighten the mood in order to sustain most viewers, even those who typically prefer more action to dialogue. It is possible, however, that some will find it a little too dull and seriously lacking in the shoot-em-up department. So those people looking for a lot of action and a true crime thriller will be a little disappointed but will likely still enjoy the film because as a viewer you really do want to find out where the story is going and how everything turns out for each character. Whether you notice it or not, you’re invested.