drama

REVIEW: Joker (2019)

In Gotham City, wannabe comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is disregarded and mistreated by those around him. As he embarks on a downward spiral of violence and crime, he comes face-to-face with his alter-ego – “Joker”.

There’s been much debate and “controversy” surrounding Joker long before it was released to the general public, and to be honest it wasn’t high on my list of films I wanted to watch. But when a friend from work said he wanted to see it, and I’m not someone who needs much of a push to go to the cinema, I said “Sure let’s go.”

Joker is the origin story of perhaps the most famous comic book villain. But really, it’s more of a character deconstruction than just an origin story. You see Arthur get beaten up multiple times and he’s lied to and made fun of – it’s tough to see a character being ground down so much and so often. Slowly, Arthur is pushed to the edge, and when he finally puts on the Joker makeup (which is different to the clown make up he wears for work) he becomes a whole new person.

Joaquin Phoenix gives a fantastic performance. His whole physicality changes bit by bit as he becomes closer to the persona of the Joker. The camera lingers on Phoenix’s body when he’s half-dressed, making his unhealthy skinny body on full display and an uncomfortable image. Phoenix’s “Joker” laugh is different to a lot of the iterations that have come before it. It’s unsettling as it goes on far longer than you’d expect, and it’s an uncontrollable and almost painful thing for him.

This film doesn’t have much action with the Arthur going crazy and causing chaos, instead the moments of action and violence are used sparingly which amps up the tension and makes the whole experience more uncomfortable as you’re never sure when Arthur is going to snap next.

Arthur is an interesting and flawed character and as everything in Joker is from Arthur’s point of view, pretty much all the other characters and their actions are window-dressing to the downward spiral of his life. The same can be said for the films setting. There’s brief mentions of the huge divide between the rich and the poor, and the cutting to funding for mental health and social services, that’s present in this Gotham City and how it affects Arthur and the city’s population. However, these themes are never fleshed out fully, and are instead a backdrop and a potential reason for Arthur’s issues.

Joker leaves you a lot to think about, but upon reflection, it might not say as much as it thinks it does. It’s an uncomfortable viewing experience and for the most part that is down to Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. He is great, but the film he’s a part of is perhaps not as deep as it thought it was. 3/5.

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REVIEW: The Seventh Seal (1957)

As the Knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) return home from the crusades, they find their country in the grip of the Black Death. As the Knight seeks answers about life, death, and the existence of God, he plays a game of chess against Death (Bengt Ekerot) in order to prolong his time on Earth.

The Seventh Seal is a classic film that opens with the iconic imagery of a man, sat across from Death, playing chess on a beach. It’s an image that’s been replicated in media over the years, and it was the only thing I knew about this film before watching it.

The Seventh Seal is about more than a chess match though. As Antonius and Jöns travel across the country to Antonius’s home, they meet different characters along the way that join them in their journey in the hope to avoid the plague. There’s Jof (Mils Poppe) and his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), two performers who with their young son are looking to earn money and keep safe. Jof and Mia symbolise the goodness that Antonius is looking for proof of.

The image of Death is so unsettling in The Seventh Seal not only because of the black cloak that covers Death from head to toe, but because of Ekerot’s performance. It’s so measured as he verbally spars with Antonius who tries to bargain for more time. It’s also how Death appears when you least expect it, in a shadowy corner unseen by everyone but Antonius. There becomes a sense of foreboding as you realise that moments of light-heartedness Antonius as with Jof and Mia cannot last long with the presence of Death looming over him.

There are moments of humour in The Seventh Seal, most of which comes from Jöns. He has seen a lot and is equal parts cruel and thoughtful, his wry commentary on the romantic escapades some of the people he meets goes through are funny. However, that humour does stand out when everything around Jöns is so bleak with the plague, witches being burned, and Death around the corner.

The Seventh Seal is weird and haunting. The score, scenery and imagery are unsettling, but it all comes together to be almost beautiful. I’m not sure I’ll watch The Seventh Seal again, but I’m glad I have seen it. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012)

In 2011 Changez (Riz Ahmed), a young Pakistani man, tells his story to journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber). How as he chased corporate success on Wall Street, he found himself caught up in the conflict and tension in a post-9/11 world.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is told through flashbacks. In the present Bobby tries to figure out whether or not Changez had anything to do with the kidnapping of an American academic as tensions rise between Pakistani students and police and the CIA are never far away. And in the flashbacks Changez is living the American Dream, he has a lucrative job on Wall Street and he is dating photography artist Erica (Kate Hudson), until that dream starts to crumble after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The harassment that Changez goes through in New York just because of the colour of his skin is tough to watch and is a harsh reminder that little has changed in the world today. It highlights how people are so quick to judge and make assumptions and how dangerous those assumptions can be – not just for the target of those assumptions, but the people around them too.

Riz Ahmed is brilliant as a young man, struggling to consolidate the different sides of him. He has such a strong presence and nearly every single shot of the film has him in it. You find yourself hanging off his every word as he tries to explain himself and find what makes him happy.

The story of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is all about ambiguity, but the execution can be a little heavy-handed especially in the beginning. Still, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a gripping drama with a great central performance from Ahmed and supporting turns from Schreiber and Kiefer Sutherland who plays Changez’s Wall Street boss. 4/5.

REVIEW: Guarding Tess (1994)

Secret Agent Doug Chesnic (Nicolas Cage) is the agent in charge of the protection detail for Tess Carlisle (Shirley MacLaine), the widow of the former President of the United States and a woman who seems to enjoy making Doug’s life difficult with outlandish demands.

Guarding Tess has a typical plot – two very different characters who clash, learn to get along and understand one another – and it’s a functional yet dull plot as the two leads are never given much of a backstory or layers to their personalities. So many on the male characters speak in a monotone, even in stressful situations, which makes what’s supposed to be exciting on screen, not engaging at all.

Guarding Tess seems to be tonally all over the place too. It’s supposed to be a comedy, and there are a few funny moments, but then there’s these big dramatic moments in the last act that don’t hold any real weight due to the farcical nature of the previous hour of the film.

Cage and MacLaine have chemistry but it’s the kind of chemistry where you’re not sure if they’re going to tear chunks out of one another or kiss which naturally makes things a little uncomfortable and weird at times. It’s just as the relationship between Tess and Chesnic, and the rest of her Secret Service detail gets slightly interesting that the film swerves into something completely different and that relationship is never fully developed.

Guarding Tess ends up being a very bland “comedy” drama. The characters are, for the most part, pleasant but there’s so little drama or tension that they are just going about their daily lives and very little of interest happens. 2/5.

REVIEW: Havoc (2005)

TW: rape

Wealthy LA teens Alison (Anne Hathaway) and Emily (Bijou Phillips), want to become a part of the “gangsta” lifestyle but they soon get in trouble when they cross paths with a real gang of Latino drug dealers.

The characters, much like the film itself, are shallow and unlikeable. All of the teenage characters are trying so hard to be something they are ill-equipped to be that it comes across incredibly cringey. The acting is not good, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt Sam being embarrassingly bad, and the dialogue is full of clichés.

There is one character in Havoc that is not irritating, though that is probably because he’s a spectator to the teenager’s violence and provocativeness and you learn little about him. Eric (Matt O’Leary) is a teenager with a camera shooting a documentary about Alison and her friends and why they want to be a part of the gang lifestyle. Those scenes do offer hints of something more interesting and layered, but they do not last long and instead go back to the superficial teenagers increasingly risky antics.

In Havoc there is a gang rape scene, though characters frame it that it wasn’t rape because the girl consented to sleeping with the men to start with which is just wrong. She may have wanted to sleep with them, but not all at the same time and she was clearly distressed once she realised what was happening. It is really insensitive and irresponsible to portray something like that, without having characters believe the girl that was raped, and to frame it that she was lying about what happened.

Havoc is full of unlikeable and irritating characters and it doesn’t have much in the way of plot or surprises either. If you’re someone like me and likes to watch things just to complete an actor’s filmography, fans of Hathaway, Channing Tatum, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt should avoid it for as long as possible. 1/5.

REVIEW: The Riot Club (2014)

Two first-year students, Miles (Max Irons) and Alistair (Sam Claflin) join the infamous Riot Club at Oxford University, where reputations can be made or destroyed over the course of a single evening.

The Riot Club is a fascinating film as the vast majority of the characters are completely awful and unlikeable but it’s still a compelling film to watch. The young men who are a part of the Riot Club are rude, entitled, violent, destructive, and a few are inclined to sexual assault as well.

What works well is that when you are introduced to both Miles and Alistair, you feel sorry for them for different reasons. Alistair has overbearing parents and his older brother’s reputation to live up to, while even though Miles is a posh boy, he’s more down to earth than others and finds it difficult to be a part of the rich boy’s club and with his fellow students who were from state school backgrounds. It’s like he doesn’t totally fit in with either group.

As the film progresses and they both get initiated into The Riot Club you meet the right other young men that complete this club. James (Freddie Fox) is the President but it’s boys like Harry (Douglas Booth) and Dimitri (Ben Schnetzer) that really egg the group on and display a complete disregard for people and money.

There are so many things, both little and big, that make you uneasy about the young men in the Riot Club and their beliefs. All these things build up, as Alistair appears more comfortable in the Club while Miles becomes more torn, and everything comes to ahead at a dinner in a small family-run pub. The actions of The Riot Club are deplorable and there’s so many moments that show how a few of the young men could become half decent people if they were away from the toxic environment of the Club.

The Riot Club is unsettling and maddening. As events build and get worse, it’s like a car crash you cannot look away from as you watch these boys bring out the worst in one another, to the detriment of the innocent bystanders around them. It’s an unflinching display of superiority complexes and an entitlement that money can fix all problems as they men show no respect to people they see as beneath them. It’s rather concerning that there’s a good chance that young people like the characters here exist in the real world. 4/5.

REVIEW: Unicorn Store (2017)

Kit (Brie Larson) is trying, and in her eyes failing, to be an adult. Her passion for art and glitter is almost snuffed out as she gets a temp job and feels her parents are constantly comparing her to more successful people her age. But then she receives a mysterious invitation to The Store, where she meets The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson) who gives her the chance to fulfil her childhood dreams.

Brie Larson’s directorial debut is assured, colourful and magical. From the very first scene, the way characters faces are framed give you no choice but to experience with them what they’re feeling. The use of colour and glitter throughout is wonderful and Kit’s wardrobe is just the right blend of childish and mature.

Because that’s where Kit is stuck. She’s an artist with dreams of magic and colour but the “real world” doesn’t see the value in such things. She’s a twenty-something that’s now having her coming-of-age story as she goes through that dilemma a lot of young people have – should she try and be a “proper grown up” or should she still try and follow her dreams, even if they seem out there.

The script is funny and genuine and it’s due to both the script and Larson’s performance that Kit never becomes unlikeable. She’s strong-willed and sometimes selfish, but she also apologies when she has a temper-tantrum and is friendly and kind. Kit can come across very naïve, firstly because of the promises the Salesman makes are truly fantastical, but also due to her low self-esteem and the fact she’s never been in the workplace before she can’t figure out if her boss is harassing her or not. A simple yet brilliant moment was when Virgil (Mamoudou Athie), a hardware store worker who Kit pays to help her achieve her dream, states that what her boss is doing is wrong. Virgil and Kit’s friendship is so sweet, and their conflict comes from Kit being obsessed with the seemingly impossible, and not appreciating what she has in her family and friends.

Kit is a messy human who’s trying to figure out what she wants from life, and when life gets hard, she reverts to chasing the dreams of her childhood. But it’s seeing how she starts to understand who she is and what she wants that’s truly touching.

The basis of Unicorn Store’s story is weird but the themes it has, figuring out who you are, learning to love oneself and let yourself be loved, keeping the sense of wonder in the world, are universal. Unicorn Store is whimsical and heartfelt and just delightful. It’s a proper laugh-out-loud funny film but then it will also make you cry a lot too. It’s sweet and touching without ever being cringey and Larson really captures all the different sides of someone who is trying to figure themselves out and to be OK with who they are. 5/5.