Joker (2019)

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Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is a great movie. So is his ’King of Comedy.
     Todd Phillips’s Joker is not a great movie, but it’s a good one, and it has considerably more in common with those films than with any movie sporting the word “Batman” in its title. That’s because Joker is less your traditional superhero flick and more an intense character study about a manic, brow-beaten obsessive/depressive, played with relentless abandon by Joaquin Phoenix (Her).
     Arthur Fleck (who will, in time, morph into the arch villain known as The Joker) shares many of the personality traits and trappings of Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin: compulsive, delusional, mentally unstable. In homage, presumably, Robert De Niro—who played the aforementioned antiheroes—is cast as talk show host Murray Franklin in Joker, with Arthur the pathetic, sad sack “comedian” who dreams of landing a guest spot on his show.
     In their dreary Gotham apartment, Arthur watches The Murray Franklin Show with his not-quite-with-it mother (Frances Conroy) on whom he dotes. He’s a clown-for-hire by day and an aspiring stand-up comedian by night, but he’s not much cop at either. Zazie Beetz (Atlanta) plays the single mom down the hall with her typical panache.
     Joker is dark, brooding stuff from director Phillips (the ’Hangover films) and it’s pretty much all backstory, which is wonderful if you’re looking for a creative and somewhat different take on the Clown Prince of Crime but less rewarding if you’re hoping to see any face-offs between our titular character and the caped crusader. Bruce Wayne does warrant an appearance in Joker, but he’s barely out of short pants.
     Phoenix impresses though. I didn’t much care for him in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master—and avoided him in Inherent Vice (and Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot) thereafter—but as Joker, Phoenix is 100% committed to the role (right on down to losing some 50-odd pounds) and pulls off a killer characterization that compares favorably to Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight as well as Jack Nicholson’s effusive turn in Tim Burton’s Batman from 1989. His diabolical laugh is just delicious.
     The best scene in Phillips’s film, ironically, is the one that’s mired in the most controversy: a “reborn” Joker in full regalia sashays down a concrete staircase to the familiar strains of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2.” With Glitter (born Paul Francis Gadd) currently serving a 16-year prison sentence for sexual crimes against minors, its inclusion seems questionable at best, even if the ‘70s glam rocker is no longer profiting from the song’s use (sporting arenas around the U.S. began phasing out the anthemic call to arms shortly after Gadd’s indictment). The sequence just works, brilliantly: an exuberant explosion of new-found power from a dangerously troubled harbinger of ill will.


(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene (2017)

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While many critics agree that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) was a cinematic game-changer, highlighted by a sensational plot twist less than an hour in that no one saw coming, fewer, relatively speaking, can decide on what the 78/52 in the title of Alexandre O. Philippe’s inconsistent documentary 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene actually refers to. The majority say it’s the 78 camera set-ups and 52 edits required of the sequence, whereas others claim it refers to 52 shots in a 78-second sequence (more plausible, frankly). Some even say the complete opposite: “78 shots that comprise the 52-second sequence,” or “the ratio of edits to seconds.” What’s odd is that those numbers are never explained in the film itself, let alone discussed. There’s an early throwaway reference to “78 pieces of film” by Hitchcock himself, but it’s never explored. And no mention of 52 whatsoever.
     Nobody, not nobody, seems to have counted correctly. I guess it depends on when the shower sequence actually starts; it’s pretty obvious when it ends.
     And that’s the surprising—and frustratingly insurmountable—thing about Philippe’s doc. Psycho’s shower scene has been referred to, imitated, parodied, and dissected a million times over the years, but rather than an in-depth, shot-by-shot breakdown of the scene itself, as promised, we get little stabs at analysis and a lot of fawning and filler. Interesting tidbits and factoids are plopped in here and there but never pursued. The film is largely a collection of fanboy/fangirl interviews with a wide-ranging assortment of adoring actors (among them Jamie Lee Curtis, Elijah Wood, Illeana Douglas) and directors (Guillermo del Toro, Peter Bogdanovich, Eli Roth), as well as editors, sound engineers, film historians, whathaveyou,  who clearly love the film but rarely venture much beyond singing its praises. When they do—editor Walter Murch, Janet Leigh’s body double Marli Renfro, composers Danny Elfman and Kreng—the film takes a much-needed turn for the better.
     But it needs much more cut-by-cut examination, and much less rah-rah repetition.
     We never see the infamous shower sequence in its entirety, for example—how dumb is that? Gus Van Sant’s psycho Psycho remake (from 1998) is mentioned of course, but simply in the context of other slasher films that were inspired by Hitchcock’s original (!?). Philippe also stages some black and white reenactments of some of Psycho’s pivotal sequences to offset the talking heads. Again, a strange decision; why not use the original footage?
     For some reason, the director also thought it was a good idea to keep returning to the aforementioned Elijah Wood (who contributes next to nothing) and filmmakers Josh C. Waller and Daniel Noah (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Greasy Strangler, Camino), the three of them sharing a couch and blandly pontificating on the parlor scene as it plays out on the TV screen in front of them. All I can think is that this tiresome triumverate—founders of the SpectreVision production company—must have provided some kind of financing in return for their (questionable) on-screen input.
     I had heard, many moons ago, that it was Saul Bass, not Hitch, who had shot—maybe even directed—the shower sequence. Bass’s name is mentioned exactly once in 78/52 with little insight. Likewise editor George Tomasini. We learn how Tomasini employed a groundbreaking optical shot of Janet Leigh’s unflinching eyeball superimposed over the shower drain that slowly spirals into regular 24-frame rate footage but that’s about it. In his book on the history of American Cinema, The Sixties: 1960-1969, Paul Monaco describes Tomasini’s contributions this way: “Tomasini’s most important work with Hitchcock was the memorable shower scene in Psycho (1960). Its aesthetic and dramatic accomplishment was achieved largely through the editor’s skill. The completed forty-five second sequence that Hitchcock originally storyboarded was compiled by Tomasini from footage shot over several days that utilized a total of over seventy camera setups. From that mass of footage, Tomasini selected sixty different shots, some of them very short, through which he elected to rely heavily on the techniques of  ‘associative editing.’”
     60 shots. 45 seconds. Again, the numbers don’t add up.
     The stuff we do learn in 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene—the subtle and not so subtle foreshadowing, the multiple layers of voyeurism, how Hitchcock managed to cheat the censors, the role of casaba melons and Hershey’s chocolate syrup—makes it worth a look, but I felt like I had more questions about the iconic sequence coming out of the film than I had going in. And that, surely, is not what anyone would have intended.


(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Victoria (2015)

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Victoria is a German movie from 2015 about a young Spanish woman (Piercing’s Laia Costa) who hooks up with a quartet of “real Berliners” with funny names—Sonne, Boxer, Blinker, and Fuss. They meet at a rave and wind up walking the streets late into the night, hanging out on an apartment building’s rooftop for a while before things take a turn for the worse. For some reason we’re always expecting things to take a turn for the worse in Victoria, probably because we wouldn’t expect a young woman, even a party girl like Victoria, to hang out with four inebriated strangers she just met. Will the friendly men wind up assaulting her? Will she turn the tables on them? Either way, we’re on edge. The dialogue seems improvised—that’s because it is—and everything feels very casual and a little bit removed. There’s no real urgency to any of this, at least not immediately, and the conversations are mostly trite and unfulfilling, i.e., realistic. But the longer it goes on, the less pedestrian it becomes. The thing that really holds our attention, however, is the camerawork, a single unbroken take of some 138 minutes, which is quite an achievement. Sure, similar feats have been done before—Birdman, Russian Ark, the recent Long Day’s Journey Into Night—but here it grabs us early on and pulls us into the story, much as Victoria herself is pulled into the unfolding drama which slowly builds in intensity once we realize these men have an unpleasant job to do, a debt to repay, and they’re dragging Victoria along with them. Director Sebastian Schipper orchestrates this real-time night on the town with true dexterity; Sturla Brandth Grøvlen is his actual camera operator, and he deserves credit for both his creativity and stamina. The one-take affair never feels awkward or contrived; Grøvlen’s camera circles and weaves, follows at a distance, comes in close when emotions warrant it, goes up and down stairs, dances frenetically, cycles in and out… and it never once feels like a gimmick or an unwanted presence. Without a doubt it’s a technique that enhances the drama one hundredfold. “One City. One Night. One Take” boasts the film’s punchy tagline. Victoria is also One Wow.


(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com