Joker Movie and Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit Correspondent Tony Farinella.

If you had told me “Joker” would be the best film of 2019, I would have looked at you a little funny.  Truth be told, I’m not the biggest fan of comic book or superhero movies.  I understand I’m in the minority here as they are extremely popular and make billions of dollars.  Personally speaking, I find them hard to get into, and I have difficulty suspending my disbelief in certain cases.

So, what is different about “Joker?”  Well, it does not play like a comic book movie.  Instead, it plays more like a character study and drama as we learn how the Joker became the Joker, and it does so in a way which is unnerving, challenging and brutally blunt.  That is how I like my movies.

Joaquin Phoenix should win an Oscar for his portrayal of Arthur Fleck, and he might be well on his way after winning a Golden Globe.  He lost a lot of weight for this performance, but it’s more than just the physical transformation.  It’s also the looks he gives and the emotional power he brings to the role.  Now a lot of controversy surrounded this film when it was released as people were worried the tone and nature was going to inspire other people to behave in a similar fashion as the Joker.  One interviewer even asked Joaquin Phoenix a question about the film potentially inspiring mass shooters.

Now I understand we live in sensitive times, and I am very aware and respectful of other people’s feelings.  A lot of bad things have happened over the past two decades, and we can’t ignore any of that.  However, when it comes to blaming video games, television or pop culture for these things, I find it is a rather far-reaching theory.  Film can be used in certain instances as a way to entertain, educate and inform us.  “Joker” is merely commenting on what is happening in the world today, and this is even though it is set in 1981.  You can’t help but see the parallels between what is happening in the film and what is happening in the world right now.  After all this time, there is still a marked division between the haves and have-nots.

Arthur is down on his luck in life even though he is trying his best to put on a happy face.  He lives with his sick mother (Frances Conroy), who is obsessed with Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen).  She used to work for him and keeps writing him letters, hoping he will respond and help them out.  When Arthur is out on the streets twirling signs as a clown, he gets beat up by a group of young punks, and it appears no one has much sympathy for what he endured.

He can’t catch a break with his therapy sessions either as he feels as though his therapist is not really listening to what he has to say. People also judge or feel uncomfortable around him because he has a condition where he has uncontrollable laughter, sometimes in inappropriate moments.   He’s on a number of medications (seven in fact), but none of them seem to be making him very happy.

Every night, he watches the Murray Franklin Show with his mother. Robert De Niro plays Murray Franklin, the wisecracking late-night talk-show host. Arthur hopes to one day be on the show as a famous stand-up comedian.  It is his dream. The film does a great job of showing how someone on that many medications can have severe side effects and difficulty figuring out what is reality and what is fiction.  I enjoyed the fact the film did not spoon-feed everything to the audience.  In many cases, you are not sure what is really happening or what is in Arthur’s head. The film tackles how difficult it is to get the proper funding for mental health treatment.  It is about someone who has been completely ignored and rejected by society.

Arthur is doing his best to put on a happy face, but the world around him is getting more and more out of hand each and every day.  Whenever he turns on the news, there is another gruesome or horrible story.  It makes him wonder what his purpose in life is and what is going to become of him.  How will he survive in this world?  He’s doing everything he believes to be right and fair, but the world is spitting him up and chewing him out.

This is when the real Joker is revealed after Arthur’s had enough and can’t take it anymore.  It’s up to the audience to decide what it all means and what’s the truth of the matter. Even Thomas Wayne can be looked at as a Trump-like figure if you want to go there.  I picked up on certain things I felt director Todd Phillips was sprinkling in throughout the movie, but I don’t know his true intentions.

“Joker” is the best film of 2019 much to my surprise.  It is supremely well made, intense, and it left me wanting more.  The film does leave the audience with more questions than answers, but this is a good thing.  We don’t need everything tied up together at the end of the film.  This is not that type of movie.  A lot of critics have compared it to 1970’s cinema and also “The King of Comedy” and “Taxi Driver.” It is the kind of film which is most definitely worth watching again and again because there is a lot to digest and unravel.  The musical score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, which also won at the Golden Globes, really sets the dark tone and mood of “Joker.”

Joaquin Phoenix is perfect as Arthur Fleck/Joker.  Without him, this film does not work.  I have not seen a performance which stayed with me like this in a long time.  At times, he’s sympathetic, and you feel empathy for him.  At other times, you are disgusted by his actions and his behavior.  This is not a one-dimensional character.  This film took a lot of balls to make, and it also took a lot of balls on the part of Phoenix to make the choices he made in this film.  “Joker” is a masterpiece of cinema, and it is easy to see why it is the first R-rated film to make one billion dollars at the box office.

* * * * out of * * * *

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Blu-Ray Info: “Joker” is released on a two-disc Blu-ray combo pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.  It has a running time of 122 minutes and is rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images. It comes with the Blu-ray, DVD and a digital code as well.

Video Info: “Joker” is released on 1080p High-Definition on an aspect ratio of 1.85:1.  The film looks absolutely perfect on Blu-ray.  It has an old-school look to it while also looking crystal clear at the same time, which is exactly what the film needed to look like.

Audio Info: The audio for the film is presented in Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, English Descriptive Audio, and Dolby Digital: English, French, and Spanish.  Subtitles are also in English, French, and Spanish.  The audio is superb.  Once again, the score by Guðnadóttir is hauntingly eerie, and spot-on for the film.

Special Features:

Joker: Vision & Fury

Becoming Joker

Please Welcome… Joker!

Joker: A Chronicle of Chaos

Should You Buy It?

In the end, what Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix pulled off in “Joker” is simply stunning and mesmerizing.  This is not hyperbole here.  This film and everyone who participated in it deserves all of the praise they have received.  It is also great to see appearances by Marc Maron, Brian Tyree Henry and Bryan Callen sprinkled into the film along with a very stellar supporting performance by Robert De Niro.  It would have been nice to see more of Zazie Beetz in the film, but she does a lot with her limited screen time. She’s a pivotal part of the movie, especially the more you think about it.

A lot of people can probably relate to how Arthur feels and everything he is going through in life.  Of course, you don’t agree with his actions in the film, but you can understand it in the context of the film and this character’s state of mind.  That is the important thing to remember here—this is a film.  No one should ever go out and do any of this. I have to make that crystal clear.

You should buy this film as soon as you can! This is the kind of film you want to add to your collection because it is only going to get better with age.  It is an adult drama/character piece which is perfectly done.   The special features are a little light in terms of length, but maybe that was done on purpose.  The filmmakers don’t want to show all of their cards.  This film comes highly recommended from yours truly. It blew me away in the cinema, and I had the same reaction watching it at home.

‘Antichrist’ Shakes You Like Few Movies Can

Antichrist movie poster

This review was written in 2009.

It’s been over a week now since I saw the latest cinematic provocation from Danish film director Lars Von Trier. What I witnessed in “Antichrist” is still on my mind, and it took me a long time to process all I saw. I found myself talking to complete strangers about it as we each tried to interpret the movie on our own terms. Some found it too long which had me wondering if they ever saw Von Trier’s “Dogville” which was three hours long (“Antichrist” is only 109 minutes). Some just didn’t get the story. Either way you look at it, “Antichrist” is to 2009 what Michael Haneke’s remake of “Funny Games” was to 2008; an immensely polarizing film people will have passionate disagreements on. I found it to be a completely mesmerizing experience which had me transfixed throughout its entire length.

“Antichrist” stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg in performances which don’t deserve Oscars as much as they do Purple Hearts. They play a married couple who are referred to as He and She, and the movie opens with them making love while their baby boy plays in his room. There is even a hardcore insertion added to the sex scene which may seem inappropriate to some, but it adds a raw carnality to a moment which makes it all the more immediate. Their lovemaking becomes equated with death as their son goes up to an open window, fascinated with the falling snowflakes, and ends up plummeting to his death. From there, “Antichrist” follows them as they cope with their son’s tragic death, but things get even worse. And just when you think they have hit rock bottom, things getting even worse than that. Yup, it’s that kind of movie.

It really helps to go into “Antichrist” with no expectations and an open mind because it will not be anything you predict it will be. So much attention has been paid to the unnervingly graphic moments to where you think Von Trier is trying to court fans of “Saw” and “Hostel.” But anyone expecting this will walk out of this movie horribly disappointed. “Antichrist” does not exist merely to shock viewers with copious amounts of blood and gore. Instead, Von Trier seeks to challenge the things you believe in, and he dares you to look beyond the darkness of our own human natures to get a glimpse of what he implies.

An ominous hum runs throughout this movie in the same way it runs through many of David Lynch’s films (“Lost Highway” and “Blue Velvet” among others). Dafoe’s character is a therapist, and his conflict of interest is clear from the start as he questions how his wife’s psychiatrist is treating her. The wife disagrees, telling him he shouldn’t get involved, but his love for her overrules everything else, including common sense. Almost immediately, he makes her flush her medication down the toilet, causing her a frightening amount of emotional upheaval. He then takes his wife to a cabin in the woods, which is ironically called “Eden” (it’s anything but). She finds this is the place which scares her the most, and he decides it will be the perfect place to try exposure therapy. By facing her greatest fears, he feels this will get her past the tragic loss of their son.

You would think Dafoe’s character has his wife’s best interests at heart, but the exposure therapy only exacerbates her grief and despair. We later discover her hold on reality is tenuous at best when He finds She has been working on a thesis regarding gynocide, which itself is a take on the word gendercide; referring to the systematic killings of a specific sex, in this case, women. He comes to see She has embraced the witchcraft of women and that they are seen as evil beings, something he quickly tries to disprove to her. But having made her emotional state even worse than it already is, He sees her grief has made her justify the punishment She inflicts on herself as She lets herself believe it is her fault their son died.

Von Trier has long been accused of rampant misogyny in his films, and yes, he does seem to put his actresses through an emotional wringer most of the time. But while “Antichrist” deals with misogynistic themes, it is not a misogynistic movie. I’m sure many will make a good that it is, but the film could also be interpreted as empowering in some respects. “Antichrist” does call into question how the female sex is viewed as nurturing and caring while the male sex is seen as stronger. But for the last half of the movie, even though She has gone completely mad, She seems to have all the power and proves to be anything but weak and helpless.

All of this led me to a big question when I walked out of the movie theater in my emotionally shaken state; who is the antichrist of the story? Many may see it as the Gainsbourg character in how She embraces the sexist teachings which She has been studying, and of how the stick figure in the movie’s title seems to look like a woman. But I felt this illustration was not gender specific in its design, so this makes it subject to interpretation. Neither character is of sound mind throughout the movie, and both deal with their soul-sucking grief in very unhealthy ways.

Nature itself is a huge character in this movie, and the majority of the action takes place there. The house which sits upon “Eden” is much like the one we have seen from the “Evil Dead” movies so you can see in advance how bad things will happen there. Maybe nature is the antichrist of because out there, the laws we live under don’t exist in the same way, and there is no order to be found in anything. “Antichrist” almost ends up being like “Deliverance” but without the demented hillbillies. No one is put in cages. This all leads to the moment where Dafoe encounters the fox who takes the time from disemboweling itself to utter the words which define the film, “Chaos reigns!”

This scene apparently led to much laughter in the audience at Cannes when “Antichrist” was shown there, but it is the most truthful and frightening of moments in the entire film. Whether or not you believe Gainsbourg’s character when She says “nature is Satan’s church,” it is clear the relationship between these two, let alone their state of minds, are descending into total chaos. Many movies show how nature can force us to discover the animalistic parts of ourselves, the parts we would rather not know about, and “Antichrist” is no exception.

I took some time to look at the definition of the word antichrist and what it really meant. According to Christianity, the antichrist is one who fulfills Biblical prophecies concerning an adversary of Christ while resembling him in a deceptive manner. Clearly, someone of sin, he or she opposes against anything that is worshiped, claiming divine authority. Most notably, this person also works all kinds of counterfeit miracles and signs. With this in mind, I can’t help but think Dafoe’s character is the antichrist of this movie, for he has taken his wife’s well-being into his hands thinking his experience trumps that of a younger doctor. He rails against all which is medically sound, and he subjects his wife to unnecessary torment despite his intent to help her. If he really thinks exposure therapy is the way to handle things, I wonder how it worked with his other patients who were not family related.

Much of what we see in “Antichrist” is open to interpretation. Von Trier has not gone out of his way to try and justify what he has shown us. There is a story at work here, but its meanings will be different for those who dare to see it. Watching this movie reminded me of when I was a student at UC Irvine and saw a production of David Mamet’s “Oleanna.” It was a play which focused on a meeting between a male professor and one of his female students whom he gave a bad grade to. At the end of it, no one could decide who was more at fault. It frustrated many because the play seemed to be devoid of a straight answer, but this was the point. One made the play so great was how thought provoking it was. It made you think about what you just saw, and it expanded how you saw certain things and maybe gave you a deeper understanding of the world around you more than ever before.

“Antichrist” gave me this same kind of experience, and I can’t remember the last time I had one like it. Most movies today don’t challenge you out of fear of offending too many paying customers they depend on, so as emotionally draining as this film is, it still feels s like a victory something this artful actually got made. It is meant to shake you, and that it did to me. Many will hate the film, but for those filmgoers who are far more adventurous in what they watch, I think there is much they can appreciate.

Is there anything audiences can come to agreement on with “Antichrist”? Well, one thing’s sure; you cannot deny the astonishing beauty of the cinematography on display. The director of photography is Anthony Dod Mantle, the same cinematographer who shot “Slumdog Millionaire.” The opening prologue stands out as one of the most beautiful pieces of film I have ever seen. The juxtaposition of He and She making love while their son ends up falling from his bedroom window is as lovely as it is horrifically tragic. Mantle also gives us some incredible dreamlike shots which capture the beauty of nature while hinting at the inescapable darkness lingering beneath the surface. I somehow doubt that I will see more beautiful imagery in any other movie I see for the rest of 2009.

What else can we agree on about “Antichrist”? Ah yes, the performances! Both Dafoe and Gainsbourg rise up to the unthinkable challenges Von Trier lays at their feet. What they both do here almost seems criminal were they not such willing participants. Both actors are known for taking big risks, so this makes them well suited to take on material so emotionally naked.

Gainsbourg won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, and she clearly deserved it. Ironically enough, she also appeared in a production of David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” and she played the title character in the 1996 version of “Jane Eyre.” Her opening intro from “The Cement Garden” was used in one of my all-time favorite Madonna songs, “What It Feels Like for A Girl.” Throughout her career, she has disappeared into her characters with an abandon you don’t find in many other actors. Her performance in “Antichrist” shows her at the peak of her powers, but I’m sure there is greater work we will see from her in the future.

But let us not leave out Dafoe who can add his role here to the many great ones he has played. His character is a witness to an unspeakable despair, and he does not hide the fact his character deals with this despair in ways which are selfish more than anything else. Dafoe’s career has spanned several decades, and it includes controversial movies like “Mississippi Burning” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Dafoe’s mission and intent as an actor has never been to simply get under your skin, but to explore the darker parts of humanity so we can better understand them. He is unhindered by the trappings of stardom and glamor, and he continues to take chances with movies like this one.

Von Trier may not be “the greatest director in the world” as he proclaims whenever given the opportunity, but he is certainly one of the best directors working today. Watching his movies, you can understand why there is actually a benefit to people booing his material. Were a film like this were not generating strong emotions such as booing, this film would have been a failure for him. Art, be it in film or in paintings, serves to challenge the things we believe in, and that is what Von Trier has done here.

“Antichrist” is a movie which takes its time in getting to where it’s going as opposed to going for a quick payoff like most movies do. If you can keep up with its slow pace, you will be in for a movie as mesmerizing as it is psychologically draining.  Many will it intensely, but I count myself as one of its defenders. For me, this is far and away one of the best movies of 2009. But like both sides, I will warn you this is not a movie for everybody. If you are easily offended or not in the mood for something deeply disturbing, then don’t see “Antichrist.”

* * * * out of * * * *