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It is probably a difficult task to detach whatever your personal feelings may be about Joker and whatever the apprehensions or concerns about a film like it were or still are, since the film's 11 Oscar nominations are sure to invigorate the flow of eyes and dollars into the DC and Warner coffers, making more than a billion dollars since its opening three months ago as of this writing. Nevertheless let's put our heads down and try to soldier on through this together, shall we?
Adapted into a screenplay by Scott Silver (The Fighter), Todd Phillips co-wrote and directed. Yes, the same Todd Phillips from (Hangover Part III) did this film, which serves to dive into the origin story of arguably the most famous villain in comic books. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix, The Master) lives with his mother and works as a clown for hire. He gets beat up and abused constantly, and despite his attempts to put on a happy face, life continually thwarts and denies him this. And over the course of two hours, Arthur becomes, well, Joker.
The Joker character is a complicated one in the sense that in this movie tries to cover a lot of different motivations, all while using laughter as a misplaced motivation. There have been concerns about it being male-centric, or at least as I was told the other day by a friend, a hostile environment towards women. But, my gender aside I think it doesn't lean that way; Arthur loves his mom Penny (Frances Conroy, Six Feet Under) for most of the film, and he even develops a romantic interest, or the closest one he'd have in Sophie (Zazie Beetz, Deadpool 2). But I'd argue that any turn of feelings are ones that were brought on by a sense of betrayal, perceived or obvious. And by the time Arthur gets to that point with those women, it's been after a lot of persecution that the film doesn't hesitate to show us.
Phillips chose to set this in 1980s New York City for obvious reasons, conditions then would certainly lean towards a Gotham City aspect for the film without having to fully embrace being a comic book movie. But Joker certainly ticks a lot of the boxes off, even if they are more in graphic novel territory than traditional books. Having Robert De Niro ( Hands of Stone) play a Joe Franklin type comedy talk show host lends to The King of Comedy) vibe that a lot of people have received from the film as well, and it's those scenes that serve as crystallizing moments for Joker.
As you may have guessed, Phoenix is justifiably great in the role, losing more than 50 pounds to play Arthur and looking like a character that David McKean could have illustrated. Arthur does seem like a gentle creature, whose ways of finding comfort diminish until he finds them through violence. Lots of calories have been burned by talented guys who have played the role before, and won awards for it, but Phoenix owns the ground because it is dark enough that he feels comfort in it. It's mesmerizing to watch.
Lots has been told and retold about the Joker in various ways, but Joker gives it a deeper, darker dive that others haven't been able to do in the past. In large part it's because there's usually a guy wearing a bat suit that gets the bulk of the attention, but in Phoenix the transformation is spellbinding and worthy of the words that it's received thus far.The Blu-ray:
The Blu-ray for Joker is in 1.85:1 widescreen and looks fantastic. Whether it's in details like bruises and cuts on Phoenix, or in fabrics and woods in the apartment hallways, things are loaded in the image, and colors in the suit of Joker and makeup look natural and untouched. The film is generally dark and those black levels are deep as can be. It's a bummer that we didn't get a 4K disc to look at but would imagine that that one is even more perfect in every way. What I was able to watch is great.The Sound:
The Dolby Atmos track for Joker is pretty darned good, with the film possessing a lot of music from various genres (striding down the stairs to a clear and punctuating "Rock and Roll Part II" seems about right for the film), the Sinatra sounds good, and the score by Hildur Guonadottir has been getting a lot of praise and for good reason, you feel the cello in the moments you need to. The dialogue is consistent as can be and the larger dynamic moments in the second half of the film have a superb immersion level to them. A top notch work by Warner.Extras:
Sadly not too much here, perhaps a special edition, post-awards season is in order, particularly since Warner loves to re-dip on the DC catalog. "Becoming Joker" (1:25) looks at test footage of Phoenix in various makeup and costume stages, and "Vision and Fury" (22:25) is the big extra, looking at the inspiration for and making of the film, and Phillips' pitch to DC and Warner for this. Thoughts on the material from cast and crew abound, along with music and production design ideas, and on Phoenix' transformation for the role. Aside from Bradley Cooper (producer for the film) in a disturbing moustache, it's a decent piece that could have used a little more in it. "Please Welcome Joker" (2:44) looks at some varying takes of a scene, and "A Chronicle of Chaos" (3:04) is a stills gallery for the feature. It also comes with a standard definition and digital copy for your enjoyment.Final Thoughts:
As it gets closer and closer to the time when Joker wins a few more award statues and people attach whatever sociological or political connotation they choose to it, I think at its heart, Joker is about a guy who does want to bring joy to others, and is reflecting that which is projected and forced onto him, in the vessel of perhaps the most gifted actor we have in movies today. Technically the disc is perfect and the lack of extras is a wet blanket on an otherwise intriguing and engaging piece of film. I'll be seeing it again and hope others do the same.