Wednesday, 2 October 2019


Rating: 5/5

There are few villains more iconic than the Joker. He occupies a place on the totem pole of pop culture bad guys somewhere around Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter, each as dastardly as the next.

The character's threads are, of course, well worn, the Joker’s status as Batman’s decades-old nemesis augmented by a slew of differing portrayals. Cesar Romero played it naughty and knavish during the campy sixties Batman TV series, while Jack Nicholson chewed scenery with wild abandon – “Never rub another man’s rhubard!” – for Tim Burton, and a massive cheque, in the 1989 adaptation.

More recently, Jared Leto offered up a particularly grotesque display in David Ayer’s risible Suicide Squad and Christopher Nolan, famously, captured lightning in a bottle when he cast the late Heath Ledger as his primary antagonist in The Dark Knight. The latter’s Oscar-winning performance was truly something to behold, a relentless demonstration of unhinged nihilism that would make even the average Brexiter reach for the smelling salts.

What made Ledger so darkly unnerving was his anonymity: His reasons, roots and identity remained undiscovered. He was a blank page, an unknowable tribune of chaos, more than content to watch us all burn in the flames of our own absurdities. 

Thus, it is in this earthier vein, rather than any of the more arch incarnations, that Joaquin Phoenix delivers his take on the Clown Prince of Crime in Todd Phillips’s Joker, a searingly powerful origin tale that will captivate audiences and reboot their expectations of the humble comic book movie. 

Phoenix occupies ground far beyond the familiar motifs of cartoonish tailoring and pantomime wickedness. He is defined, instead, by depths and motives. His Arthur Fleck is an outsider, a fringe presence replete with insecurities and deep-rooted issues that trap him inside a vicious, constricting circle and drive him in the direction of the villainy to come. This is a remarkable depiction of a life lived both on the edges of society and within the creaking systems that underpin it. 

A ghost-like, put-upon and frequently victimised husk of a human (witness his learned acquiescence to an early beating), Fleck is a product of cultural neglect and several strains of medication, a man unacquainted with even the smallest of breaks. Nor is he a match for his environment: Gotham City, 1981, a fetid, roiling hellscape of gutted public services and hopeless denizens, all subject to the whims of a caste of gilded and largely unseen overlords – a Tory midnight fantasy given form.

Fleck toils away in a grotty alley of clowns for hire. He spins ‘Closing Down’ signs outside failed stores and amuses sick kids with his generic act, punctuated by sessions with an aloof social worker and the routine of tending to an ailing shut-in mother (the always delicate Frances Conroy). He aspires to a career in stand-up comedy but is prone to sustained delusions – one of which centres on acerbic late-night TV comic Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro in dentures and pancake makeup) – and struggles with a hideous neurological condition that sees him burst out in fits of laughter at inappropriate moments, instantly repelling the already unsympathetic citizens around him. Phoenix’s work, overall, is extraordinary, though he exhibits a truly impactful mix of embarrassment and despair when besieged by this wretched malady.

There is only so far a man may be pushed, however, and in the wake of one especially violent incident, Fleck is set on a path from which there is no escape. His existence, already delicate, is shaken horribly before he consents to the descent and surrenders to the power of fate.

The slow-burn thrills are palpable throughout and Phillips, removed from the bro-comedy populism of the Hangover trilogy and Old School, steers them all with masterful confidence. He crafts a rich yarn, drawing upon Lawrence Sher's grimy cinematography – all mouldy greens and mottled browns – that paints the faded, down-at-heel milieu in which Fleck ekes out his subsistence. 

Perhaps most fascinating is Joker's central conceit. It represents a fable of the little people, those populating the background of a fictional landscape usually reserved for its celebrated caped hero. In focusing on a random nobody, even one who will go on to occupy a special place in this world, Phillips enlivens Gotham's bleakest corners; this is the story behind the face in the crowd. It is a novel spin, elegantly executed, on the very concept of the expanded cinematic universe. 

And what, then, of the Dark Knight himself? He may not loom large, such is Phillips's desire to build the film on fresh foundations, but the director is not ignorant of his picture's heritage. The Wayne family is prominently featured, Thomas (Brett Cullen), the patriarch, presenting as a patronising asshole plutocrat sporting a faintly Trumpian disdain for poor people.

Indeed, it is in the context of the wider source material that Phillips pulls off a smooth second-half twist and ratchets up the tension. The stately pace of the narrative suddenly quickens and hurtles towards a conclusion that feels infinitely more recognisable. Fleck finally unleashes his inner anarchist, fuelling pandemonium for its own sake and luxuriating in the destruction of those not grasping the joke. There is even time to build in a nod to seminal events from the Batman mythos; nascent links between rivals are forged in blood and murder. 

A strong supporting cast, including De Niro and Zazie Beetz (who appears alongside a cameoing Brian Tyree Henry, her Atlanta co-star), undergirds the drama. Yet, at its centre, Phoenix comes alive. 

Armed with the Joker's spindly staccato movements, and his unmistakeable wardrobe, Fleck can, at last, bask in the adoration he craves and the turmoil he conjures. Even at this point, beneath the strut and the leering war paint, the pain that drips from his mocking, insolent, sing-song intonation is real and, perhaps, wholly necessary. You will feel every bit of it.

Friday, 6 September 2019

It Chapter Two

Rating: 4/5

Two years on from It, Andrés Muschietti returns with a conclusion to that terrifying opener,  a chilling, dazzling and genuinely innovative take on the first half of Stephen King’s seminal tome. 

It Chapter Two, striving to touch a high bar, comes complete with grander stakes and a starry cast, the Losers’ Club trading in its precocious tween crusaders for a slate of wearied adults that includes Jessica Chastain (the lead in Muschietti’s 2013 feral child chiller, Mama), James McAvoy and Bill Hader. 

The results are impressive. Chapter Two is a layered, ambitious beast that will shock and unsettle in equal measures. Stripped of its predecessor’s coming-of-age stylings due to the sustained absence of the original players' infectious dynamism, it nonetheless succeeds thanks to a series of genuinely frightening set pieces – large and small – and some whip-smart, emotionally resonant, regularly hilarious writing. 

Indeed, woven into the fabric is an extended and deeper understanding of the events depicted in film one, played out via extended flashbacks. The device melds the movies together as a single work, rather than two distinct entities. Chapter Two feels like a fluid and natural evolution of the story, Muschietti moulding a tale that stands as far more than a simple sequel.

The plot closely follows the route set down by the source material. Convening after the eponymous demon emerges from a 27-year hibernation, ripe with loathing for the kids who vanquished him last time out, the Losers are reunited in their native Derry, Maine, by damaged orphan Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), the only member of the gang to stay put into adulthood.  

Obsessed with a vengeful It’s inevitable resurrection, he has quietly appointed himself the local monster beacon and calls on an old oath when things start going horribly awry. 

Repressed trauma is the prevalent theme here. Having reassembled, each must undergo a series of trials inspired by their own fear-flecked neuroses. They burrow into their haunted and repressed memories before driving their gathered strength towards a reckoning. Painting in fairly broad strokes, the finale – nearly identical in concept to that staged in the previous film – even calls on them to descend into murky depths of their tormentor's lair.

The group interplay maintains its charm, in spite of the changing line-up. Their sweary ribbing is still funny and raucous; their mutual affection has lost none of its sincerity or warmth. They seem like the surest of friends, their bonds unruptured by the travails of life. 

Their distinct personalities round out the unit. McAvoy’s Bill, now a successful author (an avatar for the cameoing King), remains plagued by the loss of his kid brother; Bev (Jessica Chastain), meanwhile, has shaken neither the shadow of her father’s clammy abuses nor her instinct for survival. Mike’s dedication has morphed into possible delusion and Ben (Jay Ryan) is now a buff architect who may have conquered his weight but not his affection for a boyhood crush.  

However, it is Bill Hader, as foul-mouthed comic Richie and James Ransone, as skittish risk assessor Eddie, who come close to stealing the show. The former’s relentless sarcasm blends with the latter’s hysterical hypochondria to produce a profane and incredibly likeable double act that goes some way to lightening the prevailing horrors. 

Remarkably, all capture the spirit of their younger selves – Ryan, in particular, looks stunningly similar to Jeremy Raymond Taylor's youthful, chubby version of Ben – and in Derry they revert to their assumed roles, be it leader or thinker, comic or carer. The delicate Bill soon climbs back on his childhood bicycle, zooming around town as if he were a 12-year-old in an early Amblin feature. 

As before, they are harried by It and, as before, It can occupy forms and conjure scenarios closely linked to the Losers' various anxieties: a one-eyed, disease-ridden leper; a witch-like old woman; a long-murdered sibling. At the head of this posse, of course, is Pennywise the Dancing Clown, the demon's most common incarnation. 

Pennywise, a singularly wicked tribune of evil, is the stuff of nightmares. Utterly chilling to behold, he is a watchful and cunning foe who revels in the terror of his prey and carries with him more than a whiff of savage charisma, in or out of the shadows.  

The sly manner in which he first slinks to the fore as a riverbank saviour for a drowning man, all glowing eyes and helping hands, is laced with menace and sudden, gleeful violence. Slaughtering children left and right, manipulating their innocence, Pennywise lurks over everything, his presence detectable in dark corners and dank sewers. He claws at the Losers' traumas, his brutality psychological as well as physical; he peers inside their emotional baggage and immolates the contents. 

Behind the whiteface, Bill Skarsgård dazzles once again. He imbues his harlequin with an otherworldly disdain for weakness and a quavering sing-song voice that pitches high and low, dripping nastiness. At one point, he is glimpsed bare faced, a Victorian carnie-cum-mass-murderer, babbling and leering, his gaze askew. The performance is a thing of joyful, terrible wonder.  

There are, no doubt, weaknesses. Chapter Two is in danger of dragging before the end and an extended sequence that separates the group into individual sub-plots robs it of the strongest element at its disposal. The picture suffers for want of the dollops of 80s nostalgia that made its predecessor so charming, while the reappearance of another antagonist from It is little more than a pointless, if occasionally amusing, distraction in an already crowded space.  

Furthermore, one unexpected character development is heavily hinted at without being fully explored, a fleeting nod to subjects more topical than demonic murder. 

Fortunately, Muschietti, saving his vision from devouring itself, turns in a grand climax. This is a cacophonous spectacle of spiralling madness and heroic endeavour, evil hammering hard against the forces of good. It reminds us of how strong collectives can resist the predations of bullies and that, if we hold fast, the bad times, too, will pass.

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Godzilla: King of Monsters

Rating: 2/5

It may lack the hysteria and acclaim associated with the Marvel juggernaut but the Legendary-Warner Bros MonsterVerse series, which draws on the startling destructive power of stop-motion veterans Godzilla, King Kong and their fellow travellers, does not want for for glitz or budget.

In 2014, the latest Hollywood reboot of Toho's Godzilla franchise (following 1998's turgid effort) hit screens courtesy of Monsters and Rogue One director Gareth Edwards. Predictably grand, aesthetically impressive and blessed with a fine cast, the film was a box office success. That said, its unremarkable plotting did not linger long in the memory; nor did the finale's obligatory epic-level urban devastation, courtesy of expensive effects  all as common now as Nigel Farage on Question Time.

Kong's time in the sun arrived three years later, his star vehicle a silly, over-engineered retro piece that imagined itself far cooler than it actually was while ably capturing the power, fury and majesty of its central player.

The third volume, Godzilla: King of Monsters, now hits the summer season in the wake churned up by the final Avengers instalment. Given the state of what's on offer here, it is in those foamy waters that this movie is likely to sink. 

A globe-trotting plot, veering from theme to theme, comes replete with expository dialogue and absent the merest drop of emotional investment in any single character, real or digital. Michael Dougherty's expensively assembled behemoth bowl may occasionally dazzle with some startling visuals, pulling no punches with its often relentless kaiju-on-kaiju combat, but beneath that cacophony there exists little to recommend it. Hollow, boring and, even for a picture centred on massive CGI beasts trying to kill us all, increasingly silly, there is little here worth recommending. 

The story picks up in the debris of the eponymous lizard's march through San Francisco in film one, an episode that decimated the lives of scientists Mark and Emma Russell (played by Kyle Chandler and Verma Farmiga, respectively). Now divorced, Mark lives in the American wilderness, photographing wolves, while Emma and their daughter, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown, of Stranger Things fame), are holed up in China. Emma works for global monster-hunting outfit Monarch (the common thread in this particular cinematic universe), which oversees a stash of hibernating giants — or Titans, to use the film's parlance  and seeks to control their behaviour, through bioacoustics, using Emma's new gadget, the Orca.

Funnily enough, none of this goes to plan and Emma, along with Madison, falls into the clutches of Charles Dance's gimlet-eyed 'eco-terrorist', whose goal of wreaking global havoc and restoring nature's dominance is funded by trafficking in Titan DNA.

Mark is recruited by Monarch to help in its quest to reclaim the Orca and retrieve his family, all while glowering ruefully in the direction Godzilla, whose perceived benevolence is a constant, cack-handed question throughout, every time the mighty colossus appears on screen. 

Aiding him in this endeavour is a seemingly endless assortment of dull allies. There's the all-action, no-space-for-details warrior bods (O'Shea Jackson, Aisha Hinds, David Strathairn), as well as a collection of movie-scientist stereotypes. Bradley Whitford plays it cool and cracks wise as a silver-haired crypto-sonographer; Sally Hawkins is a sensitive zoologist. Thomas Middleditch phones it in as the awkward-comedy foil and Zhang Ziyi, an ethereal mythologist who counters global catastrophes with photos of cave drawings, is revealed, clumsily and for no apparent reason, to be one of two twins floating around the edges of the tale. Only Ken Watanabe, a survivor, like Hawkins, of Godzilla, makes much of an impression, his sage presence an antidote to the thundering din around him. Indeed, his trip into the depths of Godzilla's Atlantis-like lair — a casually bonkers sub-plot — serves as a rare standout moment. 

Across continents and oceans, this band of mostly forgettable heroes zips to and fro, all with the help of some swish kit, including a flying aircraft carrier — courtesy, surely, of the military-industrial complex — that handles like a Spitfire, and just-ask access to an entire armada of American war machines. Late on, they're even handed a stray nuke because, as Donald Trump says, there's no point in having these things if you're unwilling to use them.

A mid-point twist, of sorts, complicates an overwrought family drama that threatens to obliterate everything around it, such as the awakening of various world-ending demons that lie dormant in Monarch's network of strangely insecure secret facilities. It feeds into a nefarious scheme to deliver Earth back to Gaia by unleashing the Titans, and their associated regenerative radiation, on the planet. 

If it all sounds slightly anarchic, worry not. Dance and friends are suddenly jettisoned long before the end, their villainy replaced by King Ghidorah, a three-headed dragon bearing the moniker 'Monster Zero' and Godzilla's rival for the alpha slot atop the super-species hierarchy. Yet, by the time these two go head to head, nobody will be watching anything they haven't seen before. 

Buildings fall, fires rage and leviathans brawl. Granted, as a spectacle, its vaguely thrilling, and Dougherty does not scrimp when it comes to conveying a sense of scale and impact. Equally, it accomplishes nothing new. Instead, in its money-shot moments, King of the Monsters, represents a mere retread of what's gone before. There may be traditions to observe but this film seems skittish about reaching beyond its familiar genre tropes in particular and those of the modern-day blockbusters more generally.

Sure, Godzilla himself, beautifully rendered, retains a certain air of mystery and depth — is he friend or foe, tyrant or leader? — but that's where the nuance ends. Do yourself a favour and skip over this in the listings.