MOVIE BUFF-ET: Phoenix carries ‘Joker’ uncomfortably well

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker / Warner Bros. Studios

“Joker” is a stunning movie with a bravura performance by Joaquin Phoenix that details how Batman’s arch-nemesis became the fiend we know and love to hate on the big and small screens, and the comics, but the R-rated psychological thriller is not the type of thrill ride that leaves you pumped up at the end.

It made me wish Batman actually appeared in the movie to take this Joker out.

By the end of the movie, Joker’s atrocities basically set Gotham City aflame before a sinister epilogue set in Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane allows the movie to fade to black.

New In Local Movie Theaters

  • Joker(R) 2 hr. 2 min. (watch trailer)
    Playing at: AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Rogers Towne, Malco Pinnacle Hills, Bentonville Skylight
  • Judy(PG-13) 1 hr. 58 min. (watch trailer)
    Playing at: AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle Hills
  • War(NR) 2 hr. 36 min. (watch trailer)
    Playing at: AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Pinnacle Hills

I left the the theater being thankful for the good start in life I had and that our world isn’t quite as off kilter as the one director Todd Phillips imagined with his co-writer Scott Silver.

The movie is an unsettling brew of violence, abuse, bullying, revenge, murder, lies, deception, and corruption with inspirational roots taken from films like “Psycho,” “Seven,” “The King of Comedy,” and “Taxi Driver” as well as key comic-book stories featuring Joker like “The Killing Joke,” “The Dark Knight Returns,” and “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge.”

The screen-writing duo also drew upon history in crafting their story, borrowing from such real-life incidents as the Bernhard Goetz subway shootings in 1984, the repeal of the Mental Health Systems Act in 1981, and the New York City garbage strike of 1968.

Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is an awkward, mentally ill man who developed a cackling laugh as a coping mechanism for when he is uncomfortable, anxious, or scared, which is much of the time.

The rail-thin Fleck’s illness leaves him struggling in all areas of his life, including caring for his elderly mother, who also isn’t all there. Fleck visits a social services counselor weekly until funding cuts off the sessions as well as his meds.

Fleck, an aspiring standup comedian, loses his job as a party clown after taking a gun, given to him by one of his fellow workers, to a children’s hospital. The gun falls from his pocket onto the hospital floor while Fleck is dancing and singing “If You Are Happy and You Know It” to the children.

Fleck’s life continues to spiral following an inciting event on a subway that flies out of control.

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker / Warner Bros. Studios

The violent incident makes the news and frightens the populace until businessman and mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) — yes the father of young Bruce — speaks out against the perpetrator. However, rather than rallying support, Wayne incites the angry commoners of Gotham to wear clown masks and protest against the city’s upper crust.

All the while Fleck continues to grow angrier and more unstable as he discovers connections and secrets his mother had kept from him for years as well as uncovering numerous lies she told him to cover up the tragic and formative circumstances of his childhood.

When video of Fleck’s stand-up routine is noticed by and made fun of by a Johnny Carson-type talkshow host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), the bit gains some traction, and Murray, who happens to be Fleck’s hero, invites him on the show. Fleck, though, is too far gone to take advantage of it. He’s about three steps away from being the maniacal madman we know as Joker.

Not enough can be said about Phoenix’s performance which completely carries the film. He reportedly lost 52 pounds to play the role which is unlike any other in his career. The journey Phoenix’s Fleck traverses begins at achingly awkward and ends in stone-cold madness.

Early in the film, Fleck trudges up several steep flights of outdoor steps to his apartment, but once he has fully become the Joker after a number of gruesome crimes, he fleetly dances down the steps in a bawdy, vaudevillian manner that denotes he has transformed entirely into a different character.

I enjoyed the movie, but I’m not exactly proud to admit it. The movie depicts a level of nastiness that’s not easy to stomach.

Robert De Niro and Joaquin Phoenix in Joker / Warner Bros. Studios

Though the film’s Joker deviates from the villain I grew up reading in Batman comics, the core of the character remains vividly the Joker, just a great deal more graphic and realistic then we’ve seen him before.

Phoenix’s performance does draw some sympathy early, but there is a point for no return with the character’s evil actions. That point may come at different times for different viewers.

It’s funny, the more atrocious Joker’s actions became the better I was able to deal with them. Phoenix’s performance in the outset is just too achingly real for me to comfortably take.

I can see why the movie was honored with the Golden Lion award at the Venice International Film Festival and was also well received at the Toronto International Film Festival. I imagine it will receive Best picture, director, and actor nominations for Phillips and Phoenix come Oscar season, but it’s certainly too early to be predicting a winner.

As strong as the film is, I’m not so sure such an off-putting character will pull enough votes for it to get a win in any of the categories.

The movie earns its R rating for extreme graphic violence and language. “Joker” is a comic-book movie, but it’s not a kiddie show or a comedy. There’s really nothing funny about it.

(R) 2 hr. 2 min.
Grade: A

Classic Corner – Ghostbusters (Malco Razorback)

Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson in Ghostbusters / Columbia Pictures

“Ghostbusters” originally hit the big screen as a summer blockbuster in 1984, but in terms of aesthetics, there’s hardly a better movie to kick off the spookiest month of the year than director Ivan Reitman’s classic paranormal comedy.

The Malco Razorback Cinema is offering two showings of the film at 4 p.m. Sunday and at 7 p.m. Thursday to get everyone in the mood for a frightfully fun Halloween season.

Bill Murray, Sigourney Weaver and Dan Aykroyd were already stars when the movie debuted, but this colossal hit that combined fast-talking, gonzo humor with PG-level thrills and chills cemented their popularity with an all-ages audience that just couldn’t get enough of their super-natural hijinks.

Aykroyd, a paranormal true-believer originally envisioned the film as another vehicle for himself and old “Saturday Night Live” partner John Belushi after their success with “The Blues Brothers” in 1980, but concerns about the cost and Belushi’s tragic drug overdose in 1982 sent Aykroyd and writer-partner and co-star Harold Ramis back to the drawing board.

What they came up with was box-office gold. Essentially, the film is a big-budget, modern, high-concept take on a Three Stooges, Marx Brothers, or Abbott and Costello-like comedy played out on a grand scale. They just traded whipped-cream pies for gooey, green ectoplasm.

Everything fell into place with the movie including a hyper-appealing and recognizable logo and oh-so-catchy theme song by Ray Parker Jr. that had fans shouting “Who Ya Gonna Call? Ghostbusters!” all summer long.

Bustin’ certainly did make everyone feel good.

Murray’s Peter Venkman is basically the same character he crafted for films like “Meatballs” and “Stripes” with Aykroyd’s Ray and Ramis’ Egon falling into Hollywood scientific stereotypes, who were fired from Columbia University for wasting research money on investigating the paranormal.

With their credibility as academics in question and the need for cash primary, the trio creates “The Ghostbusters,” a paranormal investigation and elimination service.

At first times are hard, but after messily dispatching a ghost from the Sedgwick Hotel, business begins to boom. Weaver plays Dana, one of their customers. Her refrigerator just happens to be a gateway into a hellish dimension ruled by Gozer the Gozerian. She’s possessed by a demigod named Zuul, who is seeking her mat Vinz who has possessed her meek and mild neighbor Louis, played impeccably by Rick Moranis.

A hilarious battle of biblical proportions plays out all over New York City between the Ghostbusters and a number of super-natural entities, including a gigantic and angry “Stay Puft” marshmallow demon.

The film, which spawned a multi-million dollar franchise of video games, cartoons, and every other licensed product you can imagine, has held up well over the years despite the advances in special effects.

If you have a hankering to see “Ghostbusters” again or to introduce it your kids, seeing it on the big screen is a great way to do it.