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Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: Joker

 

Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix showcases a villain in the making in Joker.

“I thought my life was a tragedy. Turns out it’s a comedy.”

At first you’ll think a film like Joker is yet another popcorn movie. I mean the film about the eventual making of Batman’s most legendary villain. what more can you expect? Actually it goes beyond what you’d expect.

This film is interesting, and I don’t mean interesting in a negative way. We live in a time where superhero movies are the call of the day. We love heroes. We even consider anti-heroes like Deadpool a guilty pleasure. Very rarely do we get a movie of the origins of the villain. Before this film, I’m sure there were all sorts of ideas for a villain film, including a few ideas in the past for a Joker film, but it never came to full fruition. I always felt that if there was to be a first major ‘origin of a villain’ film for a superhero franchise, there would be a Lex Luthor movie before any Joker movie. I was wrong!

One thing about the Joker is that there have been several stories of the original of the Joker from DC Comics. Actually the original story of how the Joker came to be is in 1940 that the Joker fell into a vat of chemicals which left his skin and appearance the way it is., as well as the chemicals making him insane. Another 1951 story is that the Joker was a normal person until Batman interfered with him and he fell into a chemical vat. Interesting to know that Jerry Robinson who created the Joker never paid too much focus to his origin, just the villain he became.

This is one story of the evolution of the Joker that’s like no other. The film presents Gotham City as a big city full of crime and being run as a plutocracy in which mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne supports, but wants to take to higher levels. It seems like their one escape from the hell is through watching The Murray Franklin Show. Meanwhile Arthur Fleck is one of the marginalized people. He’s mentally ill, possibly from a head injury from his abusive childhood, but he just wants to make people smile and laugh. Whatever attempts to do so backfires and it seems like he’s dragged down by them. He tries to get a girlfriend with a mother in his own apartment but that falls apart. The mental illness consumes his mind and it interferes with his life. On top of it, his mental illness made him look like a fool with a clip run on a late night show. However it’s right after receiving an answer for what he dug for about his mother that he loses it. He threw in the towel for what he wanted to be and just explodes. He already got a good sense that he was good at revenge by that subway shooting. Following the revenge shooting he gave on a fellow clown of his, he got a sense that he was actually destined to be a person of revenge. However his biggest act was yet to come on the Murray Franklin show. He had an act that was an act of entertainment mixed with an act of revenge on Franklin. That started the wave of anarchy and mayhem in Gotham City  which would pave the way for the Joker to be king and would lead to the murders of Thomas and Mrs. Wayne in front of Bruce.

The thing about this story about the Joker is that it’s obvious the Joker story is meant to be dark just by the way it starts. It presents Gotham of a place of doom and gloom and Arthur as one of it’s many casualties. His mental illness is also portrayed in a dark manner with its symptoms and how he’s dealt with by the government. Actually mental illness has to be the biggest theme of the film. I don’t know if there’s a specific mental illness that is exactly like what Arthur has. I’m sure it’s possible because I remember the son in Parasite is left with a mental illness that has him laughing at the wrong times since his skull fracture. Whatever the situation, Fleck lives in what appears to be a prison of his mind that is common with a lot of people. Fleck’s mental illness has him write down statements of truth rather than statements of humor for his comedy routine. Those statements seem to echo that of many other people with mental illness. I think that’s the biggest thing that grabs people about the film, about how Fleck’s struggle is a common struggle with many.

The ending becomes an ending one should expect as Arthur Fleck is supposed to end as the Joker in the movie, right? However we get a lot more. The marginalization of the majority of Gotham City is reflected well inside Arthur Fleck. Recently he snapped. He’s already committed revenge against his mother and his coworker by shooting them. However it becomes obvious those two were all dress rehearsals and that he was planning for his biggest act on Murray Franklin. You could tell something was up by the way he walks to the Franklin studios in his Joker outfit and dances around. However even if you did anticipate Arthur would get his revenge on Franklin on live TV or not, I’m sure most did not expect the mayhem of a Gotham City riot to happen and this anarchy to happen either just after the Joker’s appearance on the show. Also some might not have expected the ending to be a case of both the Joker arriving and the legend of Batman just starting.

Now there was some talk when the movie first came out that there was fear there would be some copycat violent incidents. When you look at the film, it’s a film that features a lot of disturbing things like mental illness, marginalization, incels and vigilantism. There’s even that line just before Arthur shoots Murray: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you fucking deserve!” No violent incidents have come of it. And even if one did, I believe it is not the responsibility of the filmmakers. I learned a long time ago in the 1990’s that you can say all you want how influential entertainment is on certain people or society, In the end, it;s not responsible. People are responsible for their own actions.

First off, the biggest accolades have to go to Joaquin Phoenix. This was a captivating character to play, but also a complex character to play as well. To portray this version of the Joker on the big screen was not an easy thing, especially since the character lives in both a fictional world of chaos and a mental world of chaos. Joaquin made it work, and in a way that keeps one in their seat. Also this may make history as the first-ever performance of a superhero character to win an Oscar. Additional accolades have to go to Todd Phillips. This movie he directed and co-wrote with Scott Silver worked beyond anyone’s expectations and even won moviegoers in the process.

For acting, it appeared Phoenix had the most developed role of the film while the other roles lacked dimension in comparison. However the performances did a lot to show their presence and add to the film rather than just be something for Phoenix to work off of. There was Frances Conroy who played Arthur’s mother and she did a good job of portraying her character’s own mental illness. There was Robert de Niro who did a good job as the host that’s friendly one minute, mean the next. There was Zazie Beetz who plays Arthur’s love interest. Technical efforts in the film were also excellent. There’s the cinematography by Lawrence Sher, the costuming by Mark Bridges, the makeup work, the production design, and of course the musical score by Hildur Guðnadóttir. I’m a fan of film scores and Hildur was excellent in delivering a score to fit a dark and disturbing world as well as the chaos in Arthur’s mind.

Joker does present a unique story of how one of DC Comics’ most legendary villains came to be. However it’s a lot more as it takes us into the character’s mind and into the world of mayhem he lives in. And it connects with you in a surprising way.

Christmas Movie Review: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

wonderfullife

George Bailey (played by James Steward) learns that life is worth living in It’s A Wonderful Life.

This is something new I thought I would try. I thought I would try reviewing a few Christmas movies around this time. The first movie I thought I would do is It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s a Christmas staple, but I finally saw it in its entirety last year! Here are my thoughts.

It begins as Heaven is alerted of prayers for a George Bailey from Bedford Falls, New York. As it reaches Heaven, the angel assigned to save George is Clarence Odbody. Clarence is a second-class angel who needs to earn his wings. George is about to commit suicide and it’s up for Clarence to save him to earn his wings. Clarence needs to learn about George, so he learns more about his life. He learns that George saved his younger brother Harry from drowning in a sledding accident, but lost hearing in his left ear. Also in George’s younger years, he prevented a druggist Mr. Gower from giving away a prescription after it was accidentally poisoned.

As George enters adulthood, he plans to travel the world and visit college. He is re-introduced to Mary Hatch, his childhood crush, by Harry at his graduation party and the two hit it off. However his plans have to be put on hold after his father Peter suffers a stroke and dies. Peter was head of Bailey Brothers’ Building And Loan. George agrees to continue it, mainly to keep it from being overrun by the ruthlessly hypercompetitive banker Henry Potter.

George wants to keep the Building And Loan business a family business as he promises brother Harry a job after college, and even resorts to hiring his incompetent uncle Billy. The times pass and George is successful in keeping the Building And Loan active, but not without his challenges. He had competition from Potter to face, including a tempting deal from Potter himself, although he knew Potter’s true attempt was to shut him down. He is understand when Harry receives a bigger job offer from another place. He build Bailey Park: a neighborhood of housing for low-income people while Potter made apartments of overpriced slums. He fell in love with Mary and married, eventually fathering four children.

World War II happens. George can’t fight because of his deaf ear, but Harry joins the Navy and earns a medal of honor by shooting down a kamikaze plane. Uncle Billy causes a big blunder on the day Harry is to receive his heroes’ welcome. Billy taunts Potter with the newspaper honoring Harry. Billy places $8000 to be deposited in a newspaper only to pick up the wrong paper to give to the teller. Potter knows what happened but says nothing and sees it as a chance to get the Building And Loan once and for all.

George most feels the heat. He learns that this will face scandal and that the Building And Loan will crumble. George even faces an arrest from Potter. All George does is take out his frustration on the family and on others. Then George gets drunk at the bar and receives a punch from the husband of the woman he told off over the phone. George feels he’s worthless and he needs to kill himself. As George is about to jump, he notices a man who has landed in the river. He goes to help. He learns the man is Clarence and Clarence introduces him as his guardian angel. At first George doesn’t believe him. Clarence tries to find ways to convince George not to commit suicide but they appear to be going nowhere.

Finally George says “I wish I was hadn’t been born.” That’s the perfect opportunity for Clarence; show George life if he had never been born. He shows him that Bedford Falls would be Potterville: a dark and corrupt town with amoral people. Mr. Gower was just released from prison for manslaughter, because George wasn’t there to stop him from poisoning. The Building And Loan closed down because George was not there to take over after his father’s death. George’s mother doesn’t recognize him and says Uncle Billy was institutionalized after the Building And Loan failed. The area that was Bailey Park is a cemetery and Harry Bailey is buried there; drowned from the sledding accident because no George to save him. I addition, the soldiers from the transport ship died because Harry wasn’t there to save them. Finally he learns Mary is an unmarried librarian and screams for the police as she sees George a stranger.

It’s after seeing life had he not existed that George decides not to commit suicide. He’s finally convinced Clarence is his guardian angel and begs for his life back. Back in the full present, George goes back to his house, grateful to see Mary and his children and unafraid to face arrest. He’s happy to see his family and Uncle Billy was able to get the towns people to pay the missing $8000. Right as the sheriff is about to arrest George, he sees the amount of money raised and rips up the arrest warrant. Harry returns and toasts George as the ‘richest man in town.’ In the pile of money, George sees a novel Clarence carried. Inside the novel is an inscription from Clarence: “Remember no man is a failure who has friends.” The daughter notices the sign that an angel has earned his wings. George knows it’s Clarence.

This is a film that gets replayed Christmas after Christmas. Hard to believe when it first came out, it did not do so hot at the box office. Over time, it would become beloved for many reasons such as its Christmas setting or even how it related to how people sometimes see themselves as failures. That feeling can often trigger around Christmas time. The film shows one example of a person who sees themselves around Christmas as a failure. George Bailey did a lot of great things throughout his life and meant a lot to a lot of people, especially people who feared the mere idea of the town being overrun by Henry Potter. Then a mistake happens and Henry sees it as the perfect opportunity to get George. George actually had it good for most of his life. Some people could even argue he’s the angel of Bedford Falls. But now that George fears arrest, all of that doesn’t matter anymore and George wants to take his own life. It’s Clarence who shows him the world had he not existed that changes George.

Sometimes it leaves you thinking there would be less suicides if people saw all the accomplishments they did in their lifetime and knew how many people loved them. It’s so easy to get caught and brought down in the ‘now’ of things.

The film’s ‘beloved’ status was not immediate. It didn’t do so hot at the box office. It would be relay on television around Christmas that would lead it to become one of the most beloved Christmas movies ever. The film was nominated for five competitive Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director for Frank Capra and Best Actor for James Stewart. It was given an honorary Oscar for technical achievement for the  effect of simulating falling snow. There have been numerous depictions and versions of the story redone in media from a Married With Children episode to a cartoon of The Smurfs to the Billy Joel video of “You’re Only Human.” There have been dozens and dozens of adaptations. There have even been spoofs such as one sitcom, one ‘guardian angel’ shows an oafish male how life would be if he didn’t exist… and it’s better for everyone! That’s comedy for you!

Looking back, it’s better that the film was made in 1946 than today. 1946 would be more welcoming of a story like this. Stories of people starting as down and out only to end on a happy note were quite common and quite welcome at the time. If It’s A Wonderful Life was released today, some people would think of it having a corny premise. A lot of people don’t buy into guardian angels today. Some would find the ending of the film too hokey. Even that ending where people actually give money to keep George Bailey from being arrested would seem too farfetched for today’s people to buy. Even I don’t think you’d see the same monetary support for a fallen person if what happened to George would happen to someone else today. It’s a film that came out at the right time and had what it took to go the distance all these years. Plus it’s a good reminder of past great talents and stars like James Steward, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Henry Travers. Interesting enough, Travers would retire from acting three years after the movie was released!

It’s easy to see why It’s A Wonderful Life is one Christmas movie that stands the test of time. Even if the ending seems too farfetched to happen in today’s world, it’s good it came out when it did and grew in its legendary status over the years.

 

Oscars 2017 Best Picture Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards

Frances McDormand faces off against Woody Harrelson in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film that has got a lot of people talking since its release. Talk is of its unique story line, but also of its themes.

The film begins seven months after a teenager from Ebbing, Missouri named Angela Hayes was brutally raped and murdered. The case remains unsolved. Mother Mildred Hayes goes to the office of businessman Red Welby to rent three billboards outside her home and unused for 30 years to post a message directed to the police of Ebbing, especially officer Willoughby, advertising what she sees of a lack of action. She isn’t even afraid to be interviewed by the media where she doesn’t hesitate to mention the negative treatment of African Americans by the police.

This hits the police hard. Chief Willoughby is angry about this, but sympathetic to her situation as DNA tests failed to result in a lead. Officer Jason Dixon is a lot more hostile as he goes about angrily arguing with Mildred, threatening Red, and even arresting Mildred’s African American co-worker from her shop on suspicious marijuana charges. Dixon is the cop in ebbing who has been acting the most hostile to African Americans.

Outside the police, the hype surrounding the billboards creates a lot of heated discussion throughout the town. Many throughout the town find it insensitive as Willoughby is battling terminal pancreas cancer. Robbie is upset about it, especially since it made him a victim of harassment at school. Her ex-husband Charlie, who’s currently dating a 19 year-old named Penelope, even visits and violently blames her for Angela’s death.

Nevertheless Mildred stays firm, even despite knowing she can expect violence any minute. Mildred even receives a surprise when she learned an anonymous person gave her money to keep the signs active for another month. Her dentist makes mention that he heard the story, but she impulsively reacts by using his dental drill on his fingernail. Chief Willoughby brings her into questioning after the incident, but accidentally coughs up blood on her. It’s obvious his cancer is getting worse and he will die very soon. Willoughby is to be in the hospital for a set period of time, but leaves early despite doctor’s demands. Willoughby sets out to the lake to have an idyllic day with his wife Anne and two daughters. The next day, he commits suicide, leaving behind suicide notes for Anne, Mildred and Jason.

The police react with hurt over Willoughby’s death. A male customer in Mildred’s store reacts angrily over his death and even threatens her. Jason reacts to his death by assaulting Red in his office and even throwing him out of the window. This is all witnessed by Ebbing’s new chief of police, who happens to be black. On his first day, the new Chief fires Dixon. Dixon however does not return his badge, claiming it’s missing. Right after Anne reads her suicide note, she angrily hands Mildred her note. Willoughby tells her she’s not responsible for his death and he’s the one who paid for the extra month, admiring her stunt and wishing her justice in the future. Shortly after, the billboards are set ablaze.

Jason learns he has a note from Willoughby waiting at the police office. He goes during a night during the closed hours. Willoughby writes he thinks Dixon would make a great detective as long as he learns to slow down, think and not react so hostile. Mildred reacts to the sign burning by burning the police office, believing it to be closed and no one there. Right in the blaze, Dixon comes falling out of the building in from of Mildred with the suicide note and the Angela Hayes case in his hands. Dixon is hospitalized for his burns in the same room as Red, recovering from Dixon’s assault. Dixon apologizes.

After Dixon is released, he goes into a bar. He comes across the male customer who threatened Mildred. What catches his ear is that he brags about an incident similar to the Angela Hayes murder. Dixon gets into a brawl with him, but only to use the brawl as opportunity to gather DNA evidence for the Angela Hayes case, as well as his Idaho license place number. He even phones Mildred to inform her. However the DNA results prove unsuccessful and that the man was an armed forces officer overseas at the time. To which, Dixon returns his badge.

After an unsuccessful date with James, who witnessed Mildred torch the police officer and cover her up, Mildred sees Charlie on a date with Penelope and even learned he was the one who burned the signs. Mildred gives him a bottle of champagne and tells him to treat her well. The film ends in a way one doesn’t expect and even leaves one questioning.

The thing about this film is that the audience will expect the film to be about something and for it to end in a certain way, but it doesn’t. Most of you probably expect this film to be like a crime story where those billboards succeed in bringing Angela Hayes’ killer to justice, but it ends in a completely different way. The film may be about the themes you think it’s about, but its main theme appears to be something else. Yes, there’s the theme of racism in there. We see that even in the name of racist officer Jason Dixon; possibly a reference to the Mason/Dixon line under which Missouri was a ‘slave state.’ Sure, there’s the theme of police brutality and how they sometimes act before they think, especially in Ebbing as we witness. However the film is a lot more. The film has themes about stories and truths. There are the stories we hear, the ‘truths’ we assume, and what is the real story. We see that in the town of Ebbing, Missouri, we see it in the individual residents, we see it in people’s family members, we see it in their police force, and we see that in the media team filming story after story.

I feel the biggest theme of the film had to be about two people who were polar opposites that somehow found themselves coming together at the end as they’re both fighting their personal demons: demons they both had in common and their own personal demons.

The first demon is their impulsiveness. Mildred Hayes is a mother angry because of what she sees as justice denied. She wants her daughter’s murder solved and hopes those three billboards will be the trick to do it. She appears ignorant towards how her son Robbie feels about the issue and is ignorant over his hurt and depression. Mildred is a woman fast on the draw with what she says and fast on the draw for the way she reacts. We learn how impulsive a person she is when she impulsively attacks her dentist just by simply mentioning he learned of the story. He didn’t voice support for it or show anger for it. He just mentioned it and that’s all it took for her to drill that hole in his fingernail. We also see her impulsiveness as the billboards are set ablaze right after Chief Willoughby’s death and she rushes out to put out the flames. The sign company would later fix the signs as it was part of her policy. Jason Dixon’s impulsiveness and acting before he thinks is also a problem. He feels that using brute force or use arrests to look menacing would get justice done. His violence even becomes a case of revenge on Red Welby. He doesn’t hesitate to use his racism when carrying out his police ‘efforts.’ This all makes the police unit of Ebbing look bad.

Both also had their own separate demons. Jason had his racism problem. It’s evident as he lives with his mother who also has a racist attitude. It’s obvious where he learned to be bigoted. Mildred also had her problem with her family life. She had just gone through a divorce with her abusive husband and is trying to live life again despite everything. Her ex-husband has not lost his abusive ways despite the divorce and even while he’s dating a woman half his age. There’s even the memory of the last words she said to her daughter. Words of anger: “I hope you get raped!” And it happened as she was murdered. Maybe it’s her own personal blame.

The most bizarre thing is that Chief Willoughby eventually ends up being the mediator between the two and hit was his suicide that would lead the two onto their meeting and their eventual road to healing. However it was not without its friction immediately after. First came the hate from the male customer to Mildred , then Jason assaulting Red Welby  witnessed by the new Chief of Police, then Jason’s firing and finally the billboards being torched. It was through the suicide notes to Mildred and Jason that we all learn what really happened despite what everyone else thought. It’s that scene when Jason comes out of the burning police building in from of Mildred holding the Angela Hayes file for protection that it was a turning point for the behavior of both.  The film does a very good job of placement of both the main characters and the events. That scene where Jason is in the hospital recovering from his burns in the same room as Red especially serves as a scene of the main characters knowing they need to change.

One of the top qualities of a film is delivering an ending of a film that the audience doesn’t expect or anticipate, but turns out to be right. We all thought that Mildred’s hopeless date with James would end up in a brawl with Charlie just after Mildred buys the bottle of champagne. Admit it! We all thought she’d smash it across his head! Instead she gives it to him and tells him to treat Penelope well. A sign of her personal changes. Most of us all thought that Jason’s evidence he collected from the brawl with that customer would lead to Angela Hayes’ killer being identified, but it doesn’t. It shows how Jason has become a person who now thinks before he acts, but not the result we hoped for. Even that common plotline in police movies where a cop saves the day after losing his job gets defeated there too.

SPOILER ALERT – Do Not Read This Paragraph If You Don’t Want To Know The Ending: That end-scene where we see Mildred and Jason in the same car on their vigilante mission against that man will surprise a lot of people and even ask “That’s it?” I even thought that too. However it does seem appropriate as it’s a case of two impulsive people who were two polar opposites and even at each other’s throats find themselves together as allies. It even makes one wonder if the ‘abrupt’ ending was the right decision. However I constantly remind myself of what Sean Penn said many years ago: “Movies should leave people asking questions rather than give the answers.” Maybe that’s the quality of the ending; get the audience to decide for themselves what happens next.

This film is the best work of writer/director Martin McDonagh. Dark comedies appear to be McDonagh’s expertise as he has delivered before with In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Here, McDonagh delivers something I thought would be impossible. I was surprised to learn this is a drama-comedy of a mother trying to get justice for the rape-murder of her daughter. I find nothing funny at all about rape and murder, or even the hurt family members go through. However McDonagh achieved it through clever plotting of the story and the events as well as placing of the humorous dialogue without compromising the drama behind it. He delivers a story that’s very thematic and gets people thinking.

The acting performances definitely boosted the film’s excellence. Frances McDormand’s performance as the protagonist was an excellent mix of both drama and humor. For those who saw her in Fargo, you’ll know she knows how to make that work. That’s where she won her Best Actress Oscar. Her ability in handling a character that’s both dramatic and humorous again shines here and could win her another Oscar. Also Oscar-worthy is Sam Rockwell who plays what first appears to be a stock character of a redneck cop, but later shows his dimension after the later chain of events. Also a standout is Woody Harrelson. He delivers an excellent performance as the cop under fire who handles the billboard situation cooler than Dixon and even uses his suicide as the event to start the resolve. His character even makes the words in his suicide notes sound like poetry. There were also minor supporting performances that stood out and owned the film like Lucas Hedges as the son hurting inside, Caleb Landry Jones as the well-meaning businessman, Peter Dinklage as the man trying to win Mildred despite his hopeless chances, Abbie Cornish as the wife of the chief, and John Hawkes as the abusive ex-husband trying to change.

The film also features a lot of standout technical aspects too. There’s the cinematography from Ben Davis that add to the power of the story. There’s the editing from Jon Gregory that places the chain of events and plotlines together in a creative way. There’s also the addition of music from the mix of classic songs from the 60’s and 70’s to the blending of Carter Burwell’s score in between scenes

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film whose best qualities are delivering a story different from what you thought it would end up being. You will appreciate it for being just that.