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“Someone Who Hides Behind a Mask.” “Joker”, Superheroes, Vigilantes, and Pulp Friction…

A lot of digital ink has been spilled about Joker.

This makes sense. After all, it entered the discussion as a source of moral panic. It then emerged as a box office smash. It is a potential awards contender. And it provides an interesting intersection of genre. It is a hybrid of the dominant genre at the contemporary blockbuster with more ambitious and abstract awards fare. As such, it is not a surprise that Joker has dominated public attention in the way that it has. It seems almost tailor-made to generate discussion and debate, even if that can occasionally feel deafening.

That said, one of the most interesting and frustrating aspects of Joker is the way in which the film deliberately and consciously avoids crossing any particularly provocative lines. The film sidesteps a lot of potentially thorny issues of race and gender, perhaps wary of the potential internet blow back. If the film is making a point about anything, it seems to be a self-aware acknowledgement of the desire to imbue objects with symbolic weight and meaning even when they have not been designed to bear the weight. “I’m not political,” Arthur Fleck asserts, as political meaning is imposed upon him.

That said, there is something very interesting at the heart of Joker, something that likely emerged almost entirely by accident. Joker provides an interesting genre hybrid of the seventies and eighties vigilante thriller with the contemporary superhero blockbuster. And, in doing so, suggests an interesting throughline. Joker suggests that the superhero blockbuster isn’t as far removed from these urban power fantasies as the audience might like to believe.

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150. Joker – This Just In (#9)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Jenn Gannon, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This week, Todd Phillips’ Joker.

In eighties Gotham, a failed clown descends into madness as the city breaks down around him. Garbage builds up in the streets as violence lurks in the alleyways. What kind of a man can survive such a world?

At time of recording, it was ranked 9th on the Internet Movie Database’s list of the best movies of all-time.

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Non-Review Review: Joker

The most interesting parts of Joker are inevitably going to be drowned out in shout matches about the least interesting parts of Joker.

Before the film was released, it seemed to have a totemic power. Critics (especially American critics) seemed tied up in how “dangerous” this cinematic origin story of a killer clown could be. Entertainment Weekly refused to assign the film a simple letter grade. Vulture ruminated on whether mainstream audiences were ready for a film that combined the moral ambiguity and grit of seventies cinema with the trappings of superhero blockbusters. The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and director Todd Phillips did his bit to stir the pot by complaining about the “far left” or “woke” culture.

All of which seems to combine to suggest that Joker is a film of the moment, to imbue the live action R-rated autumnal release about Batman’s arch enemy with a powerful cultural resonance. Joker seemed to exist as a Rorschach test, even before anybody arguing about it had actually watched a full scene of footage from it. Listening to the chatter, reading the churn of the internet, it seemed like Joker had to mean something. Even if the film refused to provide a simple meaning, that meaning would be imposed on it. Joker was to be the best and worst of the current moment. It was to be a film that spoke to the “now.”

As such, it is almost a relief how stridently Joker refuses to actually say anything particularly insightful, and to trollishly chide the conversation around it for trying to force meaning upon it. In one of the film’s most absurdly on-the-nose moments, the camera passes over a demonstration outside a city opera house as protestors wave signs in the air. “We’re all clowns,” the sign proclaims. Amid the cacophony around it, how right Joker is.

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Non-Review Review: War Dogs

At one point in the movie War Dogs, manipulative sociopath Efraim Diveroli presents his naive business partner David Packouz with a gift.

It is a sequence that is as illustrative of War Dogs as it is key for Efraim. The gift in question is a golden hand grenade, a gesture of tremendous subtlety on the part of the film and its secondary lead. See, Efraim and David are self-described gun runners. More than that, they are ostentatious over-the-top gun runners with no sense of tact and the bare minimum of business sense. What better way for Efraim to convey this to David (and for the film to convey it to the audience) than through the gift of a gold-plated hand grenade.

"Quick question: do we HAVE to be framed with these picture of Bush and Cheney? I mean, I think people get it."

“Quick question: do we HAVE to be framed with these picture of Bush and Cheney? I mean, I think people get it.”

However, the kicker comes in the inscription that Efraim has engraved on the bottom of the ridiculous gift. “The world is yours,” the grenade seems to promise its owner. It is, of course, a line from Scarface. It is, in fact, a line from both versions of Scarface. It is the bitterly ironic sentiment that closes out the film, an encapsulation of the greed and hubris that led the two gangster protagonists their downfall. Conveyed through advertising, it was also a stinging commentary on the American Dream. It was the height of irony, a cynical sting at the end of a moral fable.

There is a sense that Efraim does not necessarily understand irony. Having watched War Dogs, it is not entirely clear that the film does either.

Cool gun runnings.

Cool gun runnings.

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Non-Review Review: The Hangover, Part III

There was a time when The Hangover seemed like a breath of fresh air. It wasn’t so much an original story or set-up. Rather, it was a devil-may-care attitude and unrepentant immaturity. It was bold and it was willing to do absolutely anything it needed to in order to get a laugh. It worked because of that sheer commitment and energy, energy that is mostly absent from this final instalment. “Leslie Chow is madness,” a character boasts at the climax of the film, talking about one of the franchise’s popular recurring characters – but he may as well be talking about the film itself. “You don’t talk to madness,” he insists. “You lock it in your trunk…”

It’s a nice call back to the very first film and the first time we met Ken Jeong’s “Mr. Chow”, but it also speaks to the weaknesses of The Hangover, Part III. Somewhere along the way, the madness was lost. The high-octane “anything can happen” spirit of the original film leaked out of the two sequels. I’m fonder of The Hangover, Part II than most, but it is a cheap imitation, a repeat of a joke that was hilarious the first time and passable a second.

It’s to the credit of Todd Phillips that he doesn’t try to emulate the same formula a third time. I appreciate that a few efforts are made to push the trilogy into a shape resembling a circle, but it feels so much more contained and so much more rote than it did all those years ago.

I wouldn't get too excited, Alan...

I wouldn’t get too excited, Alan…

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Non-Review Review: Project X

Project X is a mess, but it’s a high-octane and energetic mess, with an incredible youthful exuberance and a desire to throw anything it can at the wall to see if it sticks. Though it starts out a bit slow, it accelerates pretty quickly, with the film managing to hold itself together as the party on-screen starts to fall apart. The best way to describe Project X might be to define it as Superbad‘s hyper-active, less focused, more crass, more direct and less sweet younger brother. It lacks the heart that defined that other recent coming-of-age teenage comedy, but it more than makes up for its relative shallowness with an enthusiasm that’s infectious and hard to resist.

Razing the roof...

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Non-Review Review: Old School

It’s tempting to look back at Old School in the wake of the massive success of The Hangover and claim “I saw Todd Phillips’ potential first!” After all, massive critical, commercial and audience hits don’t come out of nowhere, and the early work of a given director should probably give some indication of their hidden talent. However, I don’t really see too much of The Hangover in Old School, a film that I like, even if I don’t love it. There are a few similarities in content and structure, but I still can’t see anything in the film that would have led to me to “keep an eye” on Phillips. It’s a solid fratboy comedy, but it’s not anywhere near a classic.

Ferrell was on a hot streak when this came out...

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