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Joker, a new take on DC Comics’ Clown Prince of Crime, will go down as one of the year’s big missed opportunities.

Director Todd Phillips, best known for his Hangover movies, apparently got the green light to do whatever he wanted with the Joker mythos. In a feat of perfect casting, he managed to get Joaquin Phoenix to sign on for the title role. This was a chance to tell a dark origin story from Joker’s point of view.

Phillips blew this chance. Phoenix is otherworldly good as Arthur Fleck, a severely troubled clown and standup comedy wannabe (and momma’s boy) with a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate moments. Phoenix physically and mentally disappears into the part—to the point where it’s reasonable to become concerned about the actor’s well-being.

He accomplishes this in a film that has a major identity crisis, in that it wants to be a DC movie utilizing a DC icon without really being set within DC lore. Could that have worked out OK? Sure, but the movie builds to a conclusion that frustratingly teases, but only teases, the great Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel. Why not do a film that tells the story of The Dark Knight Returns entirely from the Joker’s perspective, instead of dancing around Batman lore in a way that feels like the filmmaker is merely trying to be cute and clever? The experience of watching this left me unfulfilled. Phillips borrows many elements from comic books, Bernie Goetz, Death Wish and Martin Scorsese movies, resulting in a muddy work that feels oddly rote given the crazed and wonderful performance at its center.

When we first see Fleck, he’s dressed as a clown, spinning a sign and generally having a good time. He promptly gets his ass kicked; we then see him in therapy and living in poverty with his quirky mother (Frances Conroy). Fleck slowly but surely starts to lose all sense of his humanity as he grows into a criminal monster.

We’ve seen all of these plot mechanizations before, in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Heck, Phillips even casts a game Robert De Niro to play a talk-show host who winds up being a nod to Miller’s David Letterman riff, David Endocrine, in The Dark Knight Returns. At its most derivative, the screenplay echoes A Beautiful Mind, filmed in a way that feels like a hackneyed Shyamalan twist.

Is the violence too much? That depends upon your personal threshold for fake mayhem in movies. I, for one, was appropriately shocked at times by how visceral the movie got; it goes well beyond your typical Avengers movie or the playfully crazed violence of something like, say, Deadpool. The violence in this movie is ugly and extremely downbeat; it will leave you with knots in your stomach.

Phoenix does a thing with the hysterical laughing early in the movie, where he shows Fleck struggling because it hurts his throat and challenges his smoker’s lungs. As the film progresses, it appears that the Joker’s hysterical laugh muscles are strengthening—as if in training for his criminal career when that laughter will cause no pain, and flow out of him with no need for lozenges afterward. Touches like these, as well as the depiction of Gotham as a city reminiscent of pre-Giuliani New York City in the 1970s (I assure you folks, that place was a hellhole), are impressive.

This impressive work is done in by paint-by-numbers plotting. Fleck’s standup comedian aspirations don’t make a whole lot of sense; they simply make for a convenient plot device to reach the movie’s predictable finale. Everything to do with Fleck’s mother plays like a poor man’s Psycho. For a movie that was supposed to be an entirely original approach to the Joker, nothing really feels original other than the spark of creativity Phoenix brings to the enterprise. It’s boringly familiar.

Joker won the Golden Lion for Best Film at this year’s Venice Film Festival? That voting panel must’ve been on mushrooms.

Joker is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Director Todd Phillips, a man responsible for slob comedies like The Hangover and Old School, takes a more serious, satirical route with War Dogs. The results are mixed—but ultimately entertaining.

The film is based on an article in Rolling Stone that described real-life gun-runners and the way they bilked the government and screwed each other over. It plays out as a sort of Wolf of Wall Street with weapons and Albania instead of stocks and the financial district.

Contributing to the Wolf vibe is Jonah Hill as Efraim Diveroli, a diabolical, narcissistic weapons dealer who puts profit before morality and friendship. Even though Hill throws in an annoying laugh, the core of his performance is funny—and brutal when it needs to be. He continues to show he’s far more than a giggle-getter: He’s a real-deal actor.

Miles Teller plays his partner, David Packouz, a massage therapist who can’t keep his career in line and needs to straighten things out fast, especially because he has a kid on the way with his wife, Iz (Ana de Armas, far less scary here than she was while she tortured Keanu Reeves in Knock Knock).

The story focuses on a big deal the two try to broker involving millions of ammunition rounds in an Albanian warehouse. The U.S. government under Dick Cheney and George W. Bush basically put arms-trading deals out to anybody who dared to bid on them—and these guys dove in. They run into all kinds of trouble, some of it predictable. It’s startling that much of this actually happened; the film shows how utterly stupid and simplistic the whole system was. The predictably and willingness of these dopes to chase a profit at all costs led to a lot of carelessness.

Phillips, like Adam McKay before him with The Big Short, makes a strong and convincing transition into dramatic satire. Yes, the film has laughs, but by most standards, this is a drama, like a film that Martin Scorsese would try to tackle. Mind you, Phillips is no Scorsese, but he has made a good-looking movie containing strong, realistic performances. While he goes down some familiar story paths, he does so in a way that’s stylistically strong.

The film is at its best during a sequence in which Efraim and David must drive a small shipment of guns through the Triangle of Death and into the heart of Iraq. It’s during this stretch when the movie is funny, thrilling and even a little scary. The parts before and after are often riveting and engaging in other ways, but they aren’t as fast-paced or entertaining. This great sequence raises the level of the film a notch, even if it makes the rest of it look slightly inferior.

Hill put on a lot of weight for the role—so much so that it could make his fans a little anxious. He’s seesawing with his weight like two kids on the playground after three bowls of Apple Jacks chased with five cups of pure-cane sugar and a gallon of Coke. (I saw him on a recent interview show, and he’s looking much healthier again. Still, his adherence to the Robert De Niro/Christian Bale School of Body Acting must be taxing his ticker.)

Teller bounces back impressively after last year’s awful Fantastic Four. He’s also been tied into the abysmal Divergent franchise in these last few years. He’s been in some crap, but anybody denouncing this guy needs to look no further than Whiplash, The Spectacular Now and this film for examples of his talent.

War Dogs isn’t a great movie, but given how awful this summer has been, it’s actually one of the season’s better movies.

War Dogs is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

I had high hopes for The Hangover Part III, the conclusion to director Todd Phillips’ trilogy about a group of guys who get into a lot of R-rated trouble after ingesting bad stuff.

In retrospect, I feel like a major idiot for having such high hopes.

The Hangover franchise, as it turns out, should’ve never become a franchise at all. With the first film, Phillips and his gang of actors captured comedic magic when an awkward bearded man drugged his buddies at a bachelor party, which led to sordid acts including the kidnapping of Mike Tyson’s tiger.

The Hangover Part II was a carbon copy of that film, shipped from Las Vegas to Thailand. It had about 15 percent of the original’s laughs; however, it wasn’t a complete loss, even though it was a supreme disappointment.

Alas, Part III is total garbage, a film lacking any sense of purpose and woefully lacking in the laugh department. Phillips tries to make a completely different sort of film with his final chapter—and he succeeds, in that this movie has just one, or maybe two laughs.

It doesn’t even come off as a comedy. It’s crime thriller/kidnap movie—which is not a scenario we need to see the Wolfpack (Zach Galifianakis, Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms) going through.

The movie starts with a giraffe beheading that contains one of the film’s laughs. It then moves into an intervention, where Galifianakis’ Alan is told that he will be going away for a little while. Alan does some very awkward crying; I laughed a little more.

Then the boys hit the road … and the laughter stops cold, as if some sort of movie demon sprung from the ground and smacked the film over its head with a sledgehammer.

An evil crime lord (John Goodman) forces them off the road and introduces the moronic plot thread: the search for Mr. Chow, played by the increasingly annoying Ken Jeong. The trio embark on a search for Chow—and regrettably find him. This leads to some nonsense involving stolen gold, a return to Vegas for a cocaine party, and some surprisingly violent moments involving guns.

This Hangover film has a pretty big body count, and that’s not something I expect from a Hangover film. I expect people humping tigers or Helms’ Stu comically removing his pancreas with tweezers while on heroin.

There’s a sequence atop Caesars Palace in Vegas that looks cool, and Melissa McCarthy shows up in a not-altogether-terrible cameo. However, Galifianakis seems to be the only one really trying out of the trio, and most of his shtick falls flat here. Cooper still plays an OK straight man, while Helms seems lost.

Phillips makes the mistake of thinking we actually have some sort of sentimental connection to these characters. I like these actors a lot, but the characters themselves? I didn’t need three films full of them doing the same thing over and aver. Make another comedy, and cast these actors if you want, but do something new with them. The Hangover was a unique premise that should’ve been one film and out.

What started as a good idea got unnecessarily revisited, and then got pummeled into the ground until it became unrecognizable and ugly. The Hangover Part III is Hollywood greed at its worst, and has no redeeming value. But if you must go, stay for the credits and a sequence in which Phillips gets truly desperate and goes for last-ditch laughs that can’t save his crap movie.

The Hangover Part III is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews