Joker *** 2019

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Once the hubris created by ranks of combustible film-festival critics has dissipated, a press screening of Todd Phillips’ Joker reveals it as a somewhat unexceptional piece of work, a rather flat, by-the-numbers origin story held together by a strong production design and a manic central performance from Joaquin Phoenix. Doubling down on the deadly edge that Heath Ledger brought to the role in The Dark Knight, Phoenix locates the Joker’s heart in poverty, being downtrodden and humiliated; a decent enough conceit, but not a particularly interesting or involving one to watch.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) lives with his ailing mother in a tiny apartment in Gotham City; he’s a professional clown, but an encounter with some street thugs encourages him to start packing heat, his gun falls out of his costume during a performance at a children’s hospital, and Fleck is fired. Things spiral downhill in the patented Death Wish/Taxi Driver model, and Fleck’s fascination with an amoral talk show host (Robert De Niro) eventually leads to the formation of the character we know as Joker.

And that’s it, really, the trailer said it all in much more style, and there’s the usual rote staging of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, which looks pretty much the same as it did in every movie since the Tim Burton one. For a film so sensitive to the main character’s obsessions, the attitudes to mental health issues are not particularly helpful either; Fleck is portrayed as suffering from a ‘brain injury’ and carries a card that explains to curious strangers that he has a medical condition. Those who carry such cards in real life may well find such scenes unhelpful. Similarly, superhero movies have made a virtue of avoiding guns and real-life violence; having the Joker shoot unarmed people with a handgun, yet remain the film’s most sympathetic character, is somewhat problematic.

All that said, Joker’s feel for a gritty, grimy city, rife with porn and violence circa 1981, is accomplished, and Phoenix is terrific in the central role, bringing the same intensity he brought to the little-seen You Were Never Really Here. Joker is the kind of super-serious venture that lacks comedy, tragedy or humanity; it’s an exploitation of a well-loved but ancient IP that should work for fan-boys, but may well elicit shrugs from the rest of the audience.

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Judy 2019 ****

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There’s now a substantial awards season sub-genre of evocations of the lives of the rich and famous. Usually with the BBC logo on the front, these films are cheaply made, with a few period locations, and have the feeling of vanity projects for the stars. So from Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool to Stan and Ollie via My Week With Marilyn, these impersonations usually feel like they’ve been created to generate some awards traction; Rupert Goold’s Judy is easily the pick of the bunch so far.

The key factor here is Renee Zellweger, who has had plenty of snippy articles written about her appearance in the past, and seems to have been able to channel that negative energy into a remarkable, heartfelt portrait of a star in decline. With ex-husbands Sidney Lufts (Rufus Sewell) and new lover Mickey Deans (Finn Witrock) in tow, Judy Garland and her kids arrive in London cica 1968 to play a series of shows under the auspices of entrepreneur Lord Delfont (Michael Gambon). The shows are a risk, and Lonnie Donnegan waits backstage ready to fill in if Garland can’t continue with her act.

Booze and pills both enable and disable Garland’s performance, and triumph and disaster seem to be interlinked as the performances go from hit to miss. Of course, those in the audience for these London shows knew all about the star’s reputation, and there’s an element of a bear-pit here that partially explains how quickly the audience’s ire rises. Garland herself took advantage of the tension, tailoring her stage-act to deliberately raise questions about her fitness to perform. Tom Edge’s screenplay, taken from Peter Quilter’s stage-play, makes no bones about Garland having been abused from an early age in various ways, but what makes this incarnation fly is that Garland is portrayed, not as a victim, but as someone who is able to understand and articulate her own experiences and fight back

The musical scenes are very strong, with Zellweger’s voice up to scratch, and a real edge as we, like the audience, wait to see if Garland will be on song or not. There’s a few show-biz cliches here, but as Zellweger knocks it out of the park as a heart-breaking, self-aware middle-aged heroine, this is about as good as a film on this subject can be.

The Boy Next Door 2015 ***

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Hustlers has set Jennifer Lopez back on her feet as a movie star in 2019; back in 2015, her career took something of a down-turn with this strangely undernourished domestic horror film from the Blumhouse label. The Boy Next Door took a fair chunk out of the box-office, but it’s a strange Fatal Attraction rehash that probably soured Lopez’s audience on her for a while.

She plays Clare Peterson, a classics teacher who is in an unsatisfying relationship with her husband (John Corbett) and dreams of meeting a man who can not only share her love of Homer’s The Illiad, but fix her garage door. Step forward Ryan Guzman as Noah, quite literally the boy next door, who takes an understandable shine to Clare and gifts her a ‘first edition’ of The Illiad, presumably signed by the author himself. Disappointingly, that’s about as far as Rob Cohen goes with the literature theme as Clare unwisely goes to bed with Noah, only to find herself blackmailed and then subjected to various indignities as Noah takes over her life.

This is an absurdly melodramatic film that has very little going for it but Lopez, who manages to make it watchable as a happy centre to a miserable story. Golden Raspberry nominations aside, Lopez is an iconic figure whose talents are misapplied here, but as a real movie star can, she just about papers over the gaping cracks in this risible, yet amusing pot-boiler.


Hitman Redemption 2018 ***

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Do you love the Hitman video game? Did you like Timothy Olyphant’s performance in 2007’s Hitman, or did you prefer Rupert Friend’s incarnation in the recent Hitman; Agent 47? Whatever your knowledge of the Hitman IP, you’ll be utterly bamboozled when a film called Hitman Redemption turns up on Netflix UK. Why? Because it is absolutely nothing to do with the Hitman series, and why they should be masquerading as such is anyone’s guess.

This movie was released as Asher during a US release last year, and it stars the always personable Ron Perlman as an aging hit-man who has a crisis when a job goes wrong. Whatever this film’s merits, giving the film the title of a different and far better known IP is a recipe for unsatisfied customers.

Having got all that out of the way, Hitman Redemption aka Asher is a decent little B movie that has a few points of genuine interest. Firstly, director Michael Caton-Jones is a very safe pair of hands, with a few notable successes (Memphis Belle, Scandal, Rob Roy) and an ability to get difficult films over the line (Basic Instinct 2). He uses a bluesy score here to give atmosphere to some fairly rote professional assassin shenanigans, with Asher finding his relationship with his handler (Richard Dreyfuss) under pressure. But there’s a sub-plot involving Asher’s fading abilities, and his relationship with a neighbour Sophie (Famke Janssen) that nearly turns the film on it’s head.

Viewers expecting video-game antics are going to be profoundly mystified by watching Sophie struggling to deal with her mother’s dementia and incontinence, and the contrast between her problems and Asher’s is interesting. And the mother character is played with surprising depth by Jacqueline Bisset, who makes something moving and memorable of her scenes. The action is short and not particularly distinguished, but there’s just enough meat on the bones to suggest why such a strong cast was attracted to this project.

Death Wish 3 1985 ***

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Third sequels go off fast, like milk left out of the fridge, particularly if the second entry in the franchise is as vile as Death Wish 2. Presumably feeling that there was no more mileage in terms of gritty hatefulness, exploitation and misogyny, Winner goes off in a silly post-Rambo new direction with the third turgid chapter of the continuing adventures of taciturn vigilante Paul Kersey, played with minimal effort and no application whatsoever by Charles Bronson. Kersey is back in New York, and Winner opens his film with a typical lack of flair by showcasing the side of a bus that Kersey is travelling on through the opening credits. After a few decent location shots in Port Authority bus station, the action shifts to a strange post-apocalyptic landscape; for one reason or another, presumably cheapness, Winner elects to shoot his NYC drama in what looks like an old schoolyard in England, and the cognitive dissonance is mind-blowing in an Inception-type way. With three American cars and a couple of Victorian buildings, Winner and his team abjectly fail to conjure up the idea that we’re in NYC for a split second, and watching Bronson, Martin Balsam and Ed Lauter bumble around dull English street-corners gives Death Wish 3 the unprofessional air of an amateur/student film. Kersey arrives in NYC to spend time with a friend, but the attentions of various thugs including Bill and Ted’s not incredibly intimidating Alex Winter, set him on a Energiser-bunny rampage with one predictable take-away; ‘Blow the scum away.’ But rather than shocking the neighborhood, Kersey’s kill-fest delights various pensioners in the area, who are goey-eyed at his gift for constructing lethal man-traps and cheer from the windows as he mows down an army of thugs to create a kill-count that goes into double figures. Mourning widows break out ear-to-ear grins at the thought of impending violence, families share a smile like it’s Christmas Day when they hear of Kersey’s murderous sprees, while Jimmy Page contributes a raft of inappropriate music that sounds like a particularly jocular game-show theme. The mark of a truly terrible film is that, even on a third or fourth viewing, there are layers of awfulness to be discovered, and Death Wish 3 is a very rich text indeed.

Late Night 2019 ***

emma 2Late Night looks at the modern phenomenon of late-night talk shows; from Johnny Carson to Jay Leno, with Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon two of today’s best known. Seth Meyers even makes an appearance here, seemingly uneasy at playing himself. What’s notable is that all of these examples are male; in setting out a story about a woman fighting to find her place in a touch NYC writers room, it seems strange that Mindy Kaling’s script should position a female tyrant at the top of the tree.

Played by Emma Thompson, Katherine Newberry is a fading star of the small screen, a Norma Desmond whose writers are terrified to admit that she’s not as funny as she used to be. Molly (Kaling) comes to NYC from a chemical plant, and is not attuned to the competitive atmosphere she encounters, or to the whims of her boss. But Newberry has issues, from an ill partner (John Lithgow) to a secret workplace romance, and Molly strikes up an unconventional alliance with her; Newberry provides the platform, while Molly brings the funny.

Expect for a film about comedy, there’s not much that’s funny about Late Night; a film about Tina Fey’s experience of the SNL writers room would be more direct. And Newberry would make more sense as a man than a woman; perhaps Kaling’s point is that women hold each other back, but side-lining issues of sexism and glass ceilings robs the film of agency. Like The Clapper, it seems bizarre that someone with such experience of show-business would write a story that seems tone-deaf to the realities of the work.

That said, late Night is a passable, appealing film with likeable performances and brisk direction by Nisha Gantata. Better films about women in the workplace will follow; Late Night makes a decent fist, but fails to pack enough punch to be more than disposable.

The Naked Face 1984 ***

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Sidney Sheldon was one of the bestselling novelists of the 20th century; a couple of decades later, and his work has largely been forgotten. The Naked Face was something of a breakthrough novel when published in 1969, with a prescient theme involving psychological profiling in murder cases. By 1984, Sheldon has considered more to be a writer of trashy blockbusters like Masters of the Game rather than a mystery writer, but The Naked Face is a well-plotted thriller, carefully adapted by writer/director Bryan Forbes.

Roger Moore plays Judd Stevens, a Chicago psychiatrist who gets an unpleasant visitation from two cops (Rod Steiger and Elliot Gould). They’re investigating the murder of one of Judd’s patience, and there’s bad blood from a previous encounter when Judd’s testimony got a cop-killer out of a potential jail sentence. Judd refuses to let the police see his confidential files, which only further antagonises them, and turns to an eccentric private detective (Art Carney) to clear his name.

The Naked Face was part of Cannon’s attempts to move from distribution to high-end film-making, and it found few takers on release, perhaps due to a lack of advertising spend. Steiger shouts a lot, while More underplays, and yet the result is quite compelling in places; there’s enough red herrings and plot-twists to divert the mind from Moore’s awful raincoats, smoking jackets and elbow patches. It’s an old-fashioned, dialogue-heavy thriller with good location work; forgotten now, it’s worth exhuming for fans of the mystery genre. The appearance of John Kapelos, the janitor from The Breakfast Club, should be a clincher for cult-movie fans attracted by the Oscar-heavy cast.