Tag Archives: Character study

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: JOKER (2019)

Todd Phillips’ The Joker (2019) is a tedious, derivative manifesto for the “woe is me” white American male.  “I haven’t been happy one minute of my entire f—ing life,” says Arthur Fleck () and that sentiment is all too contagious while sitting through this self-pitying exercise of hackneyed seventh grade psychology. There’s more fun to be had here twirling one’s straw while waiting for the paint-by-number soundtrack accompaniment. Do a countdown while checking off “Send in the Clowns,”  “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” “That’s Life,” and Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll, Part 2” (its inclusion is a blatant, adolescent attempt to be provocative, given Giltter’s history). At least you’ll stay awake, if your straw is strong enough to endure all that twirling.

Still from Joker (2019)Another way to enhance what little entertainment that can be squeezed out of this lesson in masochism is to locate the the slivers of other films embedded in it: King of Comedy, Taxi Driver (cue the Robert De Niro cameo) ‘s Modern Times, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, The French Connection, and ‘s Batman, to name a random few (throw in at least one reference to ‘s “Dark Knight” comics as well).

For all its derivativeness, The Joker is yet another comic book based movie that’s embarrassed of its comic book origins. Angst-ridden fanboys, who haven’t seen a movie that’s not comic book-based in a decade or more, will hardly care. They’ll heap a ton of praise (and money) on it, proclaiming it profound, with an Oscar worthy performance from Phoenix, which will validate their own basement profundity.

It seems to be set in the 1980s (i.e. the Mark of Zorro marquee has been changed to Zorro, the Gay Blade) and it is essentially plotless. Fleck works for a clown agency, understandably gets fired for not being funny, rages against swamp-entitled self-righteous public figure Thomas Wayne (hint, hint), has mommy issues, sees conspiracies afoot (mostly involving Wayne) and descends into … whatever. End of story. It takes 90 muddled minutes (!) for Fleck to get into the makeup—but the makeup is rather a pronounced point of the Joker, a bit like the suit is a pronounced point of the superhero.

Phoenix’s may be the worst  portrayal of the character to date. Cesar Romero, (who’s looking better with each new portrayal), and each brought a sense of glee to the role, albeit a  maniacal one. Not so with Phoenix. He’s a tiresome gray, and when he does finally go black, he does not enjoy a moment of it.

The Joker is certainly bound to have a huge opening, but is it worthy of the controversy its generating? It deserves neither. Nor does it deserve to be remembered, celebrated, or mistaken for art, or cinema, for that matter. The Joker is merely a tasteless nothingburger.

CAPSULE: MAD DETECTIVE (2007)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:  Johnnie To, Wai Ka Fai

FEATURING: Lau Ching Wan, Andy On, Lam Ka Tung, Kelly Lin

PLOT: An insane detective with psychic abilities comes out of retirement to help with the case of a missing policeman whose gun has been used in several murders.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: You’ll find the word “weird” thrown around a lot in regards to this movie; if you’re a longtime devotee of the genre, however, you’ll find Mad Detective resides at the low end of that scale. Once you get your feet under you and understand the rules of Detective Bun’s madness, you’ll find it to be little more than an entertaining police procedural/character study with a semi-supernatural gimmick.

COMMENTS: You would think that Detective Bun’s perfect record solving crimes using his psychic powers would make him an invaluable asset to the Hong Kong police department. Ultimately, however, his madman stunts, like attacking his fellow cops and cutting off his own ear as an impromptu present for a retiring superior officer, become too disruptive for the constabulary to tolerate, and he’s forcibly retired. But when a sticky case comes along, Bun’s preternatural sleuthing skills prove too great a temptation to resist, and a former partner tracks him down to pick his broken brain.

The underlying mystery in Mad Detective isn’t particularly convoluted; only the obscuring mist of Bun’s madness hides the solution. From the audience’s perspective, the confusing thing is that many of the characters that appear onscreen may only appear in Bun’s hallucinations, which can throw you off (at least momentarily, since the reality of the situation is almost immediately quickly resolved). You see, when Bun looks at someone, he sees not only their physical body, but also a manifestation of their personality made flesh. To add another twist, he also sometimes sees people who aren’t there at all. And his method of crime-solving requires him to spark his psychic abilities by recreating the crime in dangerous ways: if a victim was thrown down the stairs while packed in a suitcase, he zips himself up in a soft-sided luggage and has a partner throw him down a flight of stairs, emerging at the end with a “eureka!” Mad Detective works as a schizophrenic character study rather than a typical mystery or procedural—and it works exceptionally well. It even ends with a climax that manages to put a surreal new spin on the Lady from Shanghai-inspired hall-of-mirrors shootout. Good stuff.

Johnnie To (Drug War) is a prolific action director who’s one of the few remaining in Hong Kong to carry on the legacy of John Woo. Wai Ka Fai (who co-wrote the script) is better known as a screenwriter, but directs and produces films occasionally. I have no idea how the divided up the directorial duties here, but it seems likely that To handled the action-oriented set pieces. It’s a shame this movie didn’t start a franchise; To and Fai could have brought Bun back to solve an entire slate of bizarre cases (a la Detective Dee).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If the insanely inventive and entertaining ‘Mad Detective’ weren’t so weird — and in Cantonese — hordes of action geeks would be lining the block to see it.”–Manohla Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by short film director Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: POSSUM (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Matthew Holness

FEATURING: Sean Harris, Alun Armstrong

PLOT: A lonely ex-puppeteer tries to dispose of his demonic spider puppet, but it returns to his room every morning.

Still from Possum (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Possum earns a look due to its sheer intensity and commitment to a consistent mood of lingering, suppressed evil.

COMMENTS: You’ll know whether you are into Possum or not from the pre-credits scene. Sean Harris, with a face that can only be described as carved into a permanent frown, gray shirt buttoned to his chin, looking like a guy forced to sign up for the sex-offender registry solely because he looks like a pervert, stands in a field while he reads a corrupted nursery rhyme in voiceover: “…Can you spy him deep within? Little Possum, black as sin…” He places a bag at the base of an odd tree formation with seven trunks. Shot from a dramatic low angle, he stands before it, looking down at the package, pensive, uneasy, shoulders hunched, hands pointed inward toward his crotch; two trunks flank him on either side like splayed limbs. A flute plays a nervous melody, accompanied by the deep strings of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, which explode into a cacophonic drone as the titles play. The atmosphere is already thick and dreadful, filled with a tension suggesting horrible repressed secrets.

Possum is great at suffocating you, making you feel like you’re inside the airless mind of a tormented madman. It fills you with apprehensive suspicion. But, up until the end, the story does not really develop so much as pile on. Every day, the same scenario repeats, with hallucinatory variations. Every day, Philip leaves his brown and dingy house with a large sack containing his puppet, Possum, a spider creature with a human head that looks suspiciously like its owner. He slouches about town, avoiding human contact; he throws the bag in the trash, in the river, burns it, but when he wakes up in the morning Possum is there again at the foot of his bed, or hanging on his wall. Other than a few awkward encounters with locals who shoo him away, Philip only converses with his housemate Maurice, an avuncular older man with a veneer of sarcastic friendliness, who obliquely hints that he knows things from Philip’s past—awful things, it goes without saying. Their daily conversations, though nominally about Philip’s indestructible puppet, are almost entirely subtextual. “You show that to children?,” asks a skeptical Maurice.

Although the movie initially plays as obscure, the symbolism is not difficult to tease out, and becomes fairly explicit by the end. But that hardly lessens Possum‘s effect. Although the repetitive first hour may lose impatient viewers, Possum is unforgivingly rewarding to those who stick with it. It wears away at your sanity drip by malicious drip. Armstrong, primarily known to British audiences for his portrayals of Dickens characters in stage and television plays, makes a wily and terrifying villain. Harris completely crawls inside the shell of his loner puppeteer; he generates sympathy while simultaneously remaining alien and creepy. The camera is bleak and the music oppressive. It’s a great movie for those who like their horror emotionally punishing, and no fun whatsoever.

Believe it or not, writer/director Matthew Holness was previously best known to the British public as a comic actor. I haven’t seen his comedy, but I believe he should stick with horror. Possum is an adaptation of a short story he wrote for an anthology themed on Freud’s notion of the uncanny. The movie did not play in U.S. theaters, but it was released on a DVD with extensive interviews with the director and cast. It’s also currently available free to Amazon Prime subscribers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you’ve dreamed of ‘Ken Loach’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,”‘ here is the closest such thing anyone is likely to ever commit to celluloid… Fans of conventional horror will no doubt sigh with boredom over the lack of action, but more adventurous viewers may lend this modest but distinctive enterprise its own eventual cult following.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND (2002)

DIRECTED BY: George Clooney

FEATURING: , , George Clooney,  Julia Roberts

PLOT: Chuck Barris is a producer of game shows by day and a free-lance CIA agent by night; the successes and failures of his parallel careers are remarkably in-step with one another.

Still from Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With as screen-writer and television’s slimiest visionary as the subject matter, we might have been on course for a nomination. However, director George Clooney grounds Confessions of a Dangerous Mind as conventional, hip Hollywood fare, embellished with some creative window dressing.

COMMENTS: An unlikeable protagonist, an unbelievable premise, and an odd fixation with montages add up to a dark and breezy viewing experience in George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. In his directorial debut, Clooney artfully weaves a tale of Cold War intrigue, mental collapse, and really, really bad television programming. Screen-writer Charlie Kaufman’s fingerprints coat Confessions, but while self-examination-through-self-debasement oozes throughout it is simultaneously an odd character study as well as a Hollywood thriller. Chuck Barris strikes us as a skeezy guy doing the CIA’s skeezy work.

Lustful from the age of eleven, Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) crashes through his youth horny and bitter. Wanting nothing more than to score with women, he is adrift in life, failing at his job as a minor, minor television executive. His fortunes change when he encounters Jim Byrd (George Clooney), a CIA recruiter who wants to take Chuck on as a freelance agent. After his run in with this shady emissary, Chuck’s life in the Biz immediately turns around: his “Dating Game” pilot is picked up, and his career rockets to a grimy pinnacle of debased pop success. Taking his longtime lover and friend Penny (Drew Barrymore) for granted, he dallies with classically educated, icily erotic fellow contractor Patricia Wilson (Julia Roberts). Chuck’s TV ratings begin to slide at the same time his CIA career takes a dangerous, deadly turn.

Confessions‘ budget hovers just below the thirty-million-dollar mark, but considering the actors involved, Clooney makes that outlay look altogether frugal. To accommodate, he uses a lot of novel sets to  create an illusion of grandeur, some deal-making with his fellow heavy-hitters (Julia Roberts, for instance, agreed to work for a mere $250,000), and plenty of vintage television footage. Beyond that there are the montages. In fact, the whole thing feels like a montage of montages: a montage of Barris’ rise, a montage of Barris’ CIA training, a montage of Barris’ conquests, a montage of… you get the picture. With Confessions, the point where flashback montage and current montage meet is blurred by further montage.

Perhaps it’s appropriate. Chuck Barris is constantly running just to stay in place as Sam Rockwell’s sickly charm carries the character through all the depressing motions, showcasing someone that we cannot help but loathe while simultaneously rooting for. After the suicide of an assassin buddy, he refers to him as a “stagehand.” That description is strangely apt: Barris and his cohorts were the kinds of guys that constantly lurked around the periphery, making sure the show went on without others’ awareness. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind acts as a eulogy for these men and women. All those spooks and hitmen were at heart ordinary people trapped in the giant reality show of the Cold War. And though heavily laden with regret and contemptuousness, this darkly comic biopic shows the tenderness and humanity of history’s dirtbags.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The whole is less than the sum of its parts: the dueling Kaufman and Barris takes on self-flagellation don’t exactly mesh. This film, a shape-shifting apologia-biopic as weird as Adaptation, is too cold for its own good.” –Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: LIKE ME (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Robert Mockler

FEATURING: Addison Timlin, Larry Fessenden, Ian Nelson

PLOT: A teenager embarks on a low-impact crime spree in support of her burgeoning social media presence, but feels pressured to escalate in the face of blistering online criticism.

Still from Like Me (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Off-kilter sound, picture, and editing all combine to keep viewers on unsteady footing throughout, but Like Me ends up being a lot like the cereal its heroine grossly consumes: empty calories, all color and no nutrition.

COMMENTS: To be a creator of any kind—whether your forum be art or music or performance or, God help you, a writer of online movie reviews—is to crave an audience. Even if you yourself want no part of the attendant fame and controversy, the compulsive need to be heard remains. Sia may hide behind surreal dance routines and bichromatic wigs, Banksy might destroy his own work by remote control, even the mind behind the reboot of “Nancy” might prefer to fly under the radar, but they all still have something to say and want you to listen. You may have already noticed me , waving meekly at you in hopes that you will heed what I have to say about offbeat cinema. It’s no small knock on this writer that the most comments I have ever received on this website came not from a careful consideration of an epic montage or a dissection of the cinematic adaptation of one of theater’s seminal works, but rather for that time I caused a controversy by mentioning an alert to sensitive material with insufficient care. I mean, we all just want to be loved.

Kiya, the teenage protagonist of Robert Mockler’s debut feature, understands instinctively the importance of being heard, and she’s coming to realize how it is equally valuable to have something to actually say. Twice, she asks another character to “Tell me a story,” as if she knows that she is an empty vessel who desperately needs something hearty and substantial to fill her up and give her meaning. She never really gets that need met, though, and instead fills her days with hopelessness and her nights with making videos of humiliating pranks which a portion of the population devours as rich content.

Mockler has real visual flair. His jittery camera, rapid-fire editing, random imagery, and electrified color palette all speak to a deliberate and ambitious cinematic strategy. He isn’t shy about using his bag of tricks, most notably in a nightmare sequence where Kiya’s beat-up clunker motors through a candy-colored underwater bubblescape in a 900-degree long take, like Children of Men on shrooms. But what soon becomes apparent is that the weirdness is less of a mission than it is joint compound; cinematic spackle smoothing over the emptier, more aimless stretches of the thin plot. Unusual imagery does help put us inside the mindset of our quixotic, sometimes drug-buzzed protagonist, but more often than that it’s padding.

Like Me is undoubtedly titled ironically, as it’s next to impossible to like anyone in it. As Kiya’s online nemesis, Burt, spews venom at her online art project, it’s possible to agree with his harsh assessment of the pointlessness of her efforts and the vapidity of those who would lavish their attention on her while simultaneously concluding that he is an obnoxious blowhard. Her hostage-collaborator, Marshall, is both a pitiable figure for his predicament (I kept worrying about his unattended motel) and a wretched, pathetic loser. Even a little girl we meet at a service station is corrupt, shooting everything she sees with a toy gun “because it’s fun.” And then Kiya herself, played with real movie magnetism by Addison Timlin, is strangely the most compelling of all, managing to be intriguing despite having no clear inner life whatsoever. Not likeable at all, mind you. But fascinating.

There’s a lot of talent on display in Like Me, and enough of an understanding of the allure and the method of the wired world to give it verisimilitude rarely found in more mainstream films. But the whole of the movie is so much less than the sum of its parts; it can warn of the hollowness of our way of life or stoke incipient distaste for affirmation measured in followers and thumbs-ups. But once it has our attention with its sharp imagery and flowery language, nothing of consequence lingers. Which I guess is a red flag for all of us who insist on sharing our voices with the universe.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an impressionistic portrait of modern estrangement, using all manner of stylistic devices to capture his protagonist’s tumultuous psyche. The film’s lack of a traditional narrative will no doubt alienate many, but for the more adventurous, it offers a uniquely weird take on loneliness and lunacy.” – Nick Schager, Variety (contemporaneous)

342. THE BUTCHER BOY (1997)

“I asked the actor playing the priest, a very nice actor, ‘Would you mind repeating those lines, but this time would you wear this alien fly head?'”–Neil Jordan, The Butcher Boy commentary track

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Eamonn Owens, Stephen Rea, Fiona Shaw, Sinéad O’Connor, Alan Boyle, Aisling O’Sullivan

PLOT: In flashback, the grown-up Francie Brady describes his childhood in a poor Irish village: the son of a drunk and a depressed mother, he passes his days getting into mischief with his best (and only) friend, Joe. As his home life deteriorates, Francie increasingly blames his stuck-up neighbor Mrs. Nugent for his troubles. His escalating attacks on the poor woman result in him being sent first to a strict Catholic boarding school, then to a mental hospital, as he grows more violent and detached from reality.

Still from the Butcher Boy (1997)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was based on Patrick McCabe’s stream-of-consciousness novel “The Butcher Boy.” McCabe co-wrote the adaptation with director Neil Jordan. The writer also appears in a small role as the town drunk.
  • The title comes from an old folk ballad (probably English in origin) that became popular in Ireland in the 1960s.
  • An uncredited Stephen Rea provides the narration as the adult Francie Brady.
  • One of Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll take any of the visitations from the glowing, foul-mouthed Virgin Mary, played with straight-faced seriousness by Sinéad O’Connor.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Boy in a bonnet; Virgin Sinéad; ant-head aliens

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: With schizophrenic nostalgia, The Butcher Boy starts from an intense, uncompromising subjectivity and jumps down a rabbit hole of boyish delusion.


Original trailer for The Butcher Boy

COMMENTS: Shot on location in postcard-pretty County Monaghan with a cast of locals supplemented by stalwarts like Stephen Continue reading 342. THE BUTCHER BOY (1997)

CAPSULE: BAG BOY LOVER BOY (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Andres Torres

FEATURING: Jon Wachter, Theodore Bouloukos, Adrienne Gori

PLOT: A slow-witted hot dog vendor takes it into his head to become an artist after an uptown photographer uses him in a photo shoot.

Still from Bag Boy Lover Boy (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A throwback to the artier side of grimy NYC exploitation films a la , Bag Boy is unusual because of its odd lead and a few perverse set pieces, but the script ultimately does little to distinguish itself from an ordinary slasher flick.

COMMENTS: John Wachter has a swayback that gives him a pot belly in profile, even though he’s almost painfully thin. He speaks in a nasally voice that sounds like an Eastern European Dudley Do-right. His character, Albert, works at a hot dog cart and has very little sense of hygiene (he drops wieners on the cart floor, then assures a potential buyer not to worry because it’s for “tomorrow’s customers”) and even less range of expression. Those features wouldn’t seem to make him the ideal candidate for supposed uptown star photographer Ivan, especially since most of those personality traits don’t come across in stills. (Would work as a fashion model?) Still, Albert’s supposed to be some kind of Diane Arbus-style “discovery.” Just roll with it. Ivan does, and mooning over Albert in a couple of photoshoots where a busty model in black lingerie feeds him strawberries or where he’s covered in fake blood holding a tiny pitchfork and (literally) grilling a nude model painted up as a pig. You know, “real art.”

Albert is infatuated with a local street girl whom he supplies with free hot dogs, but when she walks off with an amateur photographer (because she doesn’t realize it’s never a good idea to make the psycho jealous), the vendor becomes convinced that a career in the arts is the key to her heart. (Adding to his newfound enthusiasm is the fact that his blood got pumping when Ivan instructed him to place a bag over a model’s head and pretend to strangle her). When Ivan goes off on an assignment and Albert starts hiring streetwalkers as models, you can probably figure out where this is going—no surprises will follow, although a few well-done, short dream sequences and gross-out scenes liven things up. Bag Boy does reasonably well with a low budget, delivers acceptable performances, and never bores despite its predictability, but it’s not essential viewing. More derangement would have helped.

The DVD/Blu-ray features commentary from Torres, Bouloukos, and the editor, plus a couple of very short, inconsequential silent black and white student shorts starring Wachter. One of them has amusing commentary: during one shot of a closed door, Wachter reflects “there were supposed to be a lot of interesting things happening… but that didn’t really happen this time.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this low budget effort (actually made in 2014) ticks all the boxes as a cult hit. Some films, however, try far too hard to win over the hipster cool crowd with bizarreness. We’re happy to report that Bag Boy Lover Boy manages to walk the tightrope of knowing weirdness perfectly.”–Martin Unsworth, Starburst (DVD)