Tag: joaquin phoenix

Joker


Joker (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Todd Phillips’ “Joker” stares directly into the dark well of a man’s misery and asks the viewers to endure a series of highly uncomfortable, humiliating, and desperate situations. Although there are sudden, gruesome violence and plenty of blame to go around—government corruption, systems in place designed to keep the poor longing and powerless while the rich remain thriving and in charge, the way we choose to treat our neighbors—it trusts the audience to find empathy and compassion toward a person whose life is not without laughter but utterly, cripplingly devoid of joy. It is most appropriate that we meet Arthur Fleck, a clown by day and an aspiring standup comedian at night, from behind as he faces a mirror. Because in order to understand him, even appreciate him, we are required to take a look at ourselves.

The titular character may have comic book origins, but the film is a character study first and foremost. Each passing scene is a nudge toward inevitable villainy, but Arthur is never reduced to a cartoon. The work employs a hammer to showcase mental illness but it is necessary, in a way, because the character is larger than life. His life circumstances, however, are grounded in reality: he does not have a rewarding job, he is not respected by his peers (in fact, he is ridiculed or mocked), he has no friends, he is told he is not funny enough to be a comedian, and even strangers have a tendency to pick on him because he appears to be an easy target. People see him but not in ways he would like to be seen. Maybe that is worse than being invisible.

I felt deep sadness toward this character and Joaquin Phoenix does a superlative job in making us identify the person behind the supervillain name and clown make-up. Even when the camera is showing only his back, we can already feel the weight of Arthur’s depression, his frustration from being rejected again and again, and eventually his rage toward a society in which no one really gives a damn—it is in his posture, the movement of his back muscles, the way he breathes.

When the camera focuses on Arthur’s face, it is like reading an engaging novel. Here is a man craving to find meaning, to be regarded by somebody else as important—or relevant at the very least, to be wanted for his ordinariness, to be enough. It is a consummate performance and it is not just because of Phoenix’ skeletal frame or creepy laugh: Experiencing Arthur’s day-to-day existence is like watching a car wreck in slow motion. At one point we must wonder how much more can a person take. It is the kind of performance you don’t want to blink from because doing so might lead to missing a very telling information. Phoenix does not waste a moment.

It is appropriate that co-writer Phillips and Scott Silver take inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s pictures, “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” Images like the subject playing with a gun and aspiring to be shown on television are obvious—and I am not interested in that. I am interested, however, in the mixture of tone and feeling of the two classics, the former a psychological drama with thriller elements and the latter a satirical dark comedy. What results in “Joker” is a morbid sense of humor, an anti-joke, and an effective social commentary about personal and societal responsibility. I wager the work will stand the test of time.

You Were Never Really Here


You Were Never Really Here (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

It is not often that I walk away from a film not knowing what it is about exactly but at the same time feeling like the ride is somewhat worth it. “You Were Never Really Here” is based on the book by Jonathan Ames and it is directed and adapted to the screen by Lynne Ramsay, a writer-director who is no stranger when it comes to uncompromising pictures that show violence externally and, perhaps more intriguingly, internally. Her familiar approach is present here but the structure of a hitman going on a mission that he is eventually blindsided by is twisted and manipulated in such a way that it becomes almost poetic.

It is difficult to recommend the picture because it not made for everyone—or even most people. It is, I think, for viewers who are open to what cinema can be or provide outside of a typical three-arc structure in which we know exactly where it is going, what is going to happen, and how it will end. The action is interlaced by flashbacks, imaginings, and traumas so detailed that it is never necessary for the material to stop and explain what is unfolding. Based on our life experiences, what we see in the movies or television shows, what we read in books or hear in music, it is up to us to construct what we believe is happening, and I think there is power in this approach.

Joaquin Phoenix plays an enigmatic man named Joe who is tasked to rescue a girl from a sex trafficking ring. The performance looks effortless but that is what’s brilliant about it. There are extended sequences here in which the viewer simply gets the chance to observe a consummate actor exercising his craft. Joe comes from such a violent and troubled childhood that the man who grew up from such toxicity is angry, violent, unpredictable. And yet notice Phoenix’ level of control. For instance, when the character is agitated by an external factor, the first response is almost always extreme violence. Now watch how Phoenix reels that monster back in toward a more calculated rage. A wise director, Ramsay ensures that the camera captures the performer’s eyes—they turn from monstrous to a child riddled with fear but does not know what to do with it.

On the surface, perhaps the movie is about channeling one’s trauma (“bad”) into a service (“good”)—rescuing an underage girl and punishing those who deserve it. But, looking closely, I believe it is not that simple because the performance communicates that the service provided does not function as therapy. On the contrary, as the goes pictures on, there is an increasing number of opportunities for us to glimpse into his fractured mind. Clearly, he is not made healthier by his actions. Note how slowly he moves, as if he were sleepwalking, and the state of his unkempt body. This is a man on the path of self-destruction.

There are stretches of great frustration for me, particularly in the contrast between tension-filled scenes but the protagonist moving as slow as molasses. Had the story been more straightforward by amplifying its action-thriller elements, for example, it could have been a crowd-pleaser. But that is not the movie that was made and I appreciate Ramsay’s willingness to deliver upon her specific vision. What results is a work that is probably worth seeing once given that those willing to dive in are in the mood to be challenged.

Inherent Vice


Inherent Vice (2014)
★ / ★★★★

If I were to jot down the positive qualities that “Inherent Vice” had, the page would be close to blank. With a running time of two and a half hours, it feels significantly, tortuously longer because the screenplay and direction by Paul Thomas Anderson fail to engage the viewers in such a way that it makes a drug-fueled underworld look like a bloody automobile accident one could not help but watch.

Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a licensed private investigator who decides to ask questions after his ex-girlfriend’s disappearance. The last time they spoke to one another, Shasta (Katherine Waterston) confessed that she has been made aware of a scheme that involves two people wanting to send the man she is currently seeing—a major league real estate figure—to a mental hospital. Sportello becomes a suspect when he is found by the cops, led by Lieutenant Detective Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), regaining consciousness next to a corpse in the middle of the desert.

Not for one second is the protagonist a convincing investigator. Superficially, we observe him floating from one connection after another, often addicted to drugs themselves, but he does not ask enough probing questions—questions that incite reaction or any surprising insight about the mystery at hand. Oftentimes the characters engage in whispers and mumblings—the camera real close to their faces—so low-key that the scenes become bland, boring, soporific, so dragged on that the running time becomes unjustified.

The material neglects to give us a good reason why we should care about the detective or the missing girl. Their relationship is not anything special. One can argue that they do not even have a relationship to begin with—at least one that is deep or lasting. Sportello comes across as lazy, dirty, deadly dull when interacting with others. Other than the one scene that sets up the story, we learn not one interesting thing about Shasta. I would like to personally ask the director why he thinks this story is worth telling.

This is a film teeming with caricatures, not real people. This would not have been a problem if the material consistently made an active attempt to criticize a particular time, place, group people, or way of thinking. But the picture is not a criticism of anything—not through comedy, satire, or condemnation. It is a straight-faced drama with no marrow to it. Thus, what results is a one-dimensional dross with actors in it who utter lines but they themselves look like they have no idea what the movie is attempting to accomplish.

People will defend this movie for its brazen insularity. They are entitled to do that. Not me. I could not go up to someone, genuinely tell them that it is worth seeing, and feel good about it. A movie can be inaccessible emotionally or intellectually, maybe both, yet still offer a great experience through, for example, visual artistry or how the work tends to stick to the viewer’s brain long afterwards.

I understood “Inherent Vice,” based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, on the basis of what it tries to accomplish, but I wished that the writer-director understood the importance of translating a book to the screen. Some might say one has to read the book first and then watch the movie so the work can be understood. Wrong. It is most critical that the material be digestible through a cinematic experience. Otherwise, why spend millions of dollars to make something that gives nothing yet steal everybody’s time?

Her


Her (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Deciding to dive into a film with a premise that is potentially rife with unintentionally funny and embarrassingly awkward situations, given that the main character gets into a romantic relationship with his operating system, “Her” ends up being quite a delightful surprise. It is sweet, amusing and accessible, but it also has insights when it comes to the complexities of human connection—what seems so real and substantial one minute can feel so fleeting and imaginary in the blink of an eye.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a lonely man who remains to live in the shadows of his impending divorce. He has the papers but he refuses to sign and send them. To him, it is neither the right time nor does it feel right. When he purchases an operating system, who names itself “Samantha” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), he is slowly pulled away from the shadows and learns to open up to someone new. That someone new just happens to be a machine. Is there something wrong with that?

Writer-director Spike Jonze creates a futuristic world that is a patchwork of past and future. The orange glow, a technique usually used to denote a past, gives the picture a dream-like, sunbaked atmosphere. On the other hand, the lifestyle of advanced technology and infrastructures of futuristic Los Angeles communicate otherwise. In that way, it is a science fiction film in concept but its essence is grounded in a sort of parallel reality. The images are easy on the eyes.

It is up to us to do the judging. Either one buys the romance or is repelled by it completely. After all, the central relationship is between man and machine. Samantha may sound just like a human being. She may claim to feel a spectrum of emotions like joy, love, jealousy, and hurt. She says she has needs and has dreams. But the fact is she is not a person and will never be a person. Is it all an illusion?

Jonze is a smart director—one who has consistently turned an original vision into reality—and so he anticipates and avoids the trappings of the romance genre. Casting Phoenix is an advantage because he can be unpredictable. Part of the excitement is wondering what he will do next—how his character will react to more familiar situations like a blind date or consoling a friend who is at the end of her wits (Amy Adams). From the moment Theodore activates the OS to the final shot of the L.A. skyline, Phoenix embodies a character that we want to see achieve some sort of happiness. Theodore may be a sad sack at times but, through his conversations with Samantha, we learn that he is aware of his limitations and that he can be impossible. Aren’t we all?

“Her” makes an interesting double feature with Steven Spielberg’s undervalued “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” about a robot in a body of a child who goes on a journey to meet The Blue Fairy so he can make a wish and be turned into a real, live boy—parallel to Samantha’s obsession with having a body. Though the scope and mood between the two are worlds apart, both pose similar questions about mankind’s relationship with machines and machines having human-like consciousness.

The Master


The Master (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran, struggles to find his place after the war. Dipsomania as baggage, he is unable to keep a job: first as a portrait photographer then as a cabbage farmer. After another night of binge drinking, he ends up on a yacht rented by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of a mysterious philosophical movement called The Cause, for the duration of his daughter’s wedding. Dodd feels a deep connection with Freddie almost immediately, insisting that they had met prior but cannot remember the exact circumstances, so he invites the barely functioning alcoholic to join the group.

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, “The Master” keeps us wondering what exactly is going on, but it is ultimately a frustrating experience to endure because its content and execution are both so oblique, they never reach the synergy that is necessary for us to have a firm grip on the characters and their own definitions of reality. What could have been an analysis of two extremes–one a slave to his affliction, the other a slave to his delusion–ends up becoming an arrhythmic dance around the fire. It showcases two fiery performances but the hullabaloos are as empty as a drum.

Phoenix and Hoffman feed off each other’s energies. What Freddie and Dodd have is explored via a master-follower relationship as well as a father-son relationship though to a lighter degree. Even fainter is a homosexual undertone. The most memorable scenes involve their characters simply sitting across from one another and ascertaining what the other can offer. Despite Freddie’s alcoholism and Dodd’s charlatanism, not once do we forget that they are intelligent men, so often lost in their own thoughts, with something big to lose and equally momentous to gain. The push and pull between them, as well as the forces around them, makes a compelling watch even though the camera at times cannot stay still when the decibels of the men’s voices reach another level of intensity.

Freddie captured my interest because he reminded me of an abused dog my family adopted when I was a kid. This dog barked and snarled every time someone was near. She would be quiet only when she saw food about to be delivered to her bowl. We had this dog for three or four years and not once did I feel comfortable approaching her or calling her name. I pet her head about twice or thrice and even then I reached out my hand with the most reluctance. Freddie is the same: he has so much anger and personal demons that it is almost impossible to like him. He is fascinating as a specimen but getting close to him is a willful act of setting one’s self up for certain disappointment. I never loved that dog. I disliked having her as a part of a family so much, I thought about maybe “accidentally” leaving the gates open so she would be tempted to run in the street and never come back.

The screenplay is not mindful of its gaps in time. Instead of being in the moment, part of our attention is dedicated to determining how much time has passed since Event C now that Event M is happening. For instance, Freddie has fallen in love with a sixteen-year-old high school student named Doris (Madisen Beaty) before he is sent to war. Some years later, he returns to a reality that we have long come to expect. This romantic strand is a would-be reminder that the protagonist, though hardened, is neither incapable of feeling nor unwilling to open up. For a film with such ambition, it comes off pedestrian. The yearning feels phony and stale. There is a glaring lack of momentum in the unspooling of the events. It is exhausting to sit through.

At least “The Master” gets into some detail about The Cause’s methods and ideologies, from the hypnotherapy sessions designed to recall one’s memories in his or her past lives to believing that the world has existed for trillions of years. Its 1950 milieu is also very convincing, its wide shots accompanied by sparse but memorable score by Jonny Greenwood. However, as hard as I tried, I could not connect with it fully. It tells us a lot but at the same time it does not. I do not like puzzles that are puzzling for the sake of puzzlement.

I’m Still Here


I’m Still Here (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

When Joaquin Phoenix announced that he was to retire from acting and pursue a career as a hip-hop artist, the media was abuzz, wondering if he had lost his mind. Some were angry with his decision because they thought it served as a mockery of something they deeply respected. Personally, I did not care so much of the announcement. While I was a bit saddened because he was a very good actor, I thought he was well within his right to change career paths. After all, hundreds of thousands of people decide to change jobs every day. I saw his decision to move from being an actor to a music artist as no different. If I had seen this film prior to the announcement that it was all a hoax, I would have been seriously disturbed. I would not have laughed at the most intense scenes such as when the actor in question had an argument with one of his friends concerning a leak of information (which led to a disturbing payback), the meetings with Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, and when Ben Stiller offered Phoenix a role in Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg.” I find it difficult to find humor in something that I believe to be non-fiction because I take no pleasure in seeing the suffering of others, especially through ridicule. In a way, I took comfort in the fact that it was all a joke so I was able to pay attention in what Phoenix and Casey Affleck, the director, wanted to convey about celebrity life. Naturally, one of the main messages was being a celebrity did not necessarily equate to happiness or financial stability, but I relished small details I wasn’t aware of before like the paparazzi actually booing actors who chose not to pose in front of the camera. The harrassment Phoenix had to endure (some, admittedly, he incited) were sometimes difficult to watch. I could not help but feel sorry for him. However, the paparazzi were not the only ones that showed cruelty. Even people I’ve never even heard of (like YouTube “celebrities”) can have opinions that not only sting but leave a mark in the psyche. At the same time, Affleck’s film was effective in showing the ridiculous nature, as well as dangers, of method acting if taken to an extreme. Mostly everyone was convinced that Phoenix had lost control of his mental capacity and that made me question the amount of truth, if any, in the images I saw. I’m not convinced all of the scenes were designed to simply poke fun. After all, the most convincing lies stem from a truth. “I’m Still Here” is not for everyone because most people don’t understand satire. But I think Phoenix’ fans just might enjoy the film because it really was quite a performance.

Gladiator


Gladiator (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★

When the emperor of Rome (Richard Harris) was murderered by his own son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), Maximus (Russell Crowe), general of the Roman empire, wanted to honor the dying man’s wishes by helping the empire turn into a republic again. This didn’t sit well Commodus because he craved for power and wanted to prove that he would be a great ruler by leading a dictatorship. The first time I saw this film, I wasn’t impressed with it. I thought the story was all over the place, the characters were simplified for the sake of being commercial, and there were a handful of glaring idioms that did not fit for its time (it was set in year 180). While I think that those flaws are still applicable, I found myself liking the movie the second time around for two reasons: this role being one of Crowe’s more moving performances and the intense action sequences. Without a doubt, the picture relied too much on the battles in the colosseum to generate some sort of tension. However, it was effective because we like the characters fighting for their lives such as the friends/fellow slave-turned-gladiators (Djimon Hounsou, Ralf Moeller) who Maximus met along his journey. I caught myself voicing out my thoughts such as “Hurry up and get up!” and “Watch out for that tiger!” No matter how much I tried, there was no way I could have kept quiet because I just had to release some of the stress I felt at the time. I also enjoyed watching Oliver Reed as the man who owned the gladiators; I found his past interesting and I wished the film had explored him more because he could have been a strong foil for Maximus. The scenes they had together were powerful because they respected each other but at the same time they didn’t want too be friendly because, after all, one was “owned” by another. Another relationship worth exploring was between the late emperor and Maximus. They treated each other like father and son but it felt too superficial, too planned. Commodus would walk in on them and feel jealous and unloved. But what else? “Gladiator,” directed by Ridley Scott, was loved by many because everything was grand and it wore its emotions on its sleeve. However, I’m still not convinced that it is Best Picture material because it often chose the obvious over the subtle path too frequently. For a sword-and-sandals epic with a two-and-a-half hour running time, while the action scenes were highly entertaining, there was no excuse for a lack of depth involving most if not all the characters. Therefore, as a revenge picture, it didn’t quite reach its potential.