JOKER (2019)

Movie Review by LL Soares

My main thought when leaving the theater after seeing the new Todd Phillips movie JOKER was a mischievous one, which is only fitting, considering the subject matter. I found it really funny to think that this movie was destined to become a huge box office hit, despite the fact that it is incredibly bleak. This is the exact opposite of the optimistic, we-can-do-it tone of the Marvel superhero flicks.

Which is why I liked it so much.

It would have been hard to screw this one up. The Joker is one of the most iconic bad guys (if not THE most iconic) in the history of comics. He’s the personification of pure raging insanity. Joaquin Phoenix, on the other hand, is an amazing actor who has a tendency to lean into the darkness. Together, this is a winning combination. Throw in Todd Phillips’ script (co-written with Scott Silver), and all I can say is “Wow.” This isn’t like any other comic book movie. It even makes Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT trilogy look upbeat in comparison.

The last great Joker we got was Heath Ledger in Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (2008), but that movie had its flaws. The biggest flaw was that there wasn’t enough of the Joker. He had to share screen time with not only Christian Bale’s Batman, but Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent, too, who went on to become Two-Face. This is nothing against Batman or Two-Face (another great villain who finally got some serious treatment in the movies), but the movie only really rocked when Ledger was onscreen. There was also a plotline about Asian gangsters that should have ended up on the cutting room floor.

It’s hard to compare Ledger with Phoenix’s performance in JOKER, because they’re so different. Ledger’s Joker is out of his mind, yet scarily so. He seems to be totally in control even though he’s completely bonkers. He’s scary, icy, and lethal, with insane flavoring added.

Phoenix’s Joker, or rather Arthur Fleck, the man who becomes “the Clown Prince of Crime,” is a put-upon victim. He gets beat up by kids while dancing in the street, waving a sign for a store. He gets beat up by Wall Street frat boys on the subway. Fleck is incredibly awkward in social situations and doesn’t take charge at all (that comes later). He lives with his disabled mom (Frances Conroy) who has a kind of unrequited love with Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who she used to work for when she was younger. Wayne, of course, is a local billionaire, who’s thinking about running for Mayor of Gotham City, even though he hates most of its populace and considers them “clowns.” Fleck works for a company called HAHA, which is kind of a talent agency that hires out clowns, but even that is a job he can’t hold onto for very long.

He has a form of Tourette’s where he laughs uncontrollably at inappropriate times – it’s so bad he even has a card he hands out to people to help them understand. This uncontrollable urge is perhaps the most defining thing about Fleck’s character.

He’s alone and victimized, living mostly inside his own head. His thoughts often involve his neighbor down the hall, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), who he has a crush on. After a disastrous performance as a stand-up comic, Fleck ironically ends up on the Murray Franklin Show, a Johnny Carson-like talk show that Arthur and his mother watch every night in their depressing apartment. Franklin is played by Robert De Niro, and if you’re a Martin Scorsese fan, he’ll remind you of Jerry Langford (played by Jerry Lewis) in Scorsese’s film, THE KING OF COMEDY (1982), who was stalked by De Niro’s character in that film, Rupert Pupkin. Arthur might also remind you of another Scorsese/De Niro character at times, Travis Bickle from TAXI DRIVER (1976).

One day, on that subway car with the Wall Streeters, he just cracks. It’s a twisted take on the Bernard Goetz incident that happened in Manhattan in the 70s (his tormentors/victims here, though, are rich not poor), and it’s all downhill from there. But the thing is, for the character of the Joker, it’s all uphill, because Fleck is going to stop being a doormat and start being something very different. Even if he is batshit crazy.

Along for the ride are Glenn Fleshler (from the Showtime series, BILLIONS) and Leigh Gill as Arthur’s co-workers at HAHA. Shea Wigham (BOARDWALK EMPIRE) and Bill Camp play two detectives who keep trying to have a word with Arthur. And there’s even a scene with Alfred Pennyworth (Douglas Hodge) and young Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson).

But the spotlight is focused intently on Phoenix, who delivers one helluva performance here. The movie’s ability to succeed (or fail) rests on him, and I thought he rose to the occasion. He also famously lost 50 pounds for the role, and has several scenes where he is shirtless, and you can see his protruding spine and rib cage. It’s pretty disturbing and the exact opposite of what we’re used to seeing in ultra-buff superhero movies. Phoenix is just amazing here.

Director Todd Phillips, known mostly for comedies like OLD SCHOOL (2003) and THE HANGOVER (2009), does a great job giving us something unique in the formulaic world of comic book movies. I really like bleak movies, and I’m partial to comic book flicks. So I enjoyed this one a lot.

Even the look of Gotham City here is depressing. There’s been a garbage strike going on for what seems like weeks (just like New York City in 1977) and garbage bags are everywhere. So are rats. The city is falling apart at the seams, and no one seems civil anymore. It’s not just a cold, hard city, it’s a malevolent one. And it chews up and spits out schlubs like Arthur Fleck on a daily basis without batting an eye.

Hatred grows inside Fleck like a cancer. And when it finishes eating him up, the worm will turn.

But the weird part is – he touches something in the disenfranchised populace of Gotham. And his insanity starts to seem —contagious.

Since it won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, JOKER has had something of a target on its back. As soon as the movie came to U.S. theaters, many critics were ready and waiting to start a big backlash in reaction to the film’s sudden success, especially due to its violence and moral ambiguity. There’s been an overreaction in the media and police at some theaters. But all this chaos seems perfectly in sync with the character of the Joker, and that only helps to promote the movie JOKER all the more.

I don’t remember seeing so many articles about a movie in newspapers after the fact — even if most of the articles have a negative viewpoint. Though several of these critics are saying that JOKER isn’t a very good or effective movie, the very fact that they are talking about it so much makes their arguments seem a bit hollow. Why all the attention if it’s such a minor movie?

I don’t care. I give it four knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives JOKER ~ 4 knives!

Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2

3 FROM HELL (2019)

Rreview by LL Soares

Sometimes, well water can be sweet.

For his new film, 3 FROM HELL, Rob Zombie goes back to the well that contains his feature debut, HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES (2003) and its sequel, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS (2005), to give us a third film in the series, rounding out the blood-soaked trilogy.

I remember seeing HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES when it first came out. It was riding on a wave of infamy, having been rejected by Universal Pictures for its NC-17 level violence, and having to find distribution elsewhere (luckily Lions Gate came to its rescue). While it had a bare-bones plot (innocent people wind up in the path of a family of lunatics), it had a very distinctive style that embraced the ethos of such 70s horror classics as THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974), and I loved the look and feel of it. THE DEVIL’S REJECTS felt more like a fugitives-on-the-lam grindhouse flick (as well as a modern-day western), and I loved it even more, making it easily my favorite of Zombie’s films. It showed that there was still more to tell about the murderous Firefly Clan, led in REJECTS by Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley), Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie) and the killer clown known as Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig).

The thing is, at the end of REJECTS, our heroes (Anti-heroes? Raving mad lunatics?) died in a hail of bullets as their car raced towards a roadblock of police cars, with “Free Bird” playing loud on the soundtrack.

3 FROM HELL takes the story exactly where REJECTS leaves off, with the blood-soaked Rejects being rushed to the hospital, each sustaining at least 20 gunshot wounds. Somehow, they survive and are nursed back to health, only to be thrown in prison for more than a decade. The killers stew in their own juices for a while, then things get bloody.

We get caught up with the hospital and prison stuff via a quick documentary-like sequence that starts the film. A reporter even interviews the trio in their prison cells. This is the first and only time we see good ol’ Sid Haig, who, because of health problems, has limited screen time here. He goes on one of his trademark rants, before we’re told he’s executed soon after, via lethal injection.

Without him, how can there be 3 FROM HELL, you ask? Well, the new trio is completed with the emergence of Winslow Foxworth Coltrane (Richard Brake of HANNIBAL RISING, 2007, and MANDY, 2017), nicknamed Foxy or the “Midnight Wolfman,” Otis’s half-brother, who is crucial to Otis’s escape from prison. After they flee in a trail of blood, Otis and Foxy lay low as they plan a way to bust Baby out of the women’s branch of the prison. Eventually, they come up with a scheme that involves the Warden himself, a dapper, mustachioed dude by the name of Virgil Dallas Harper, played by Jeff Daniel Phillips (also in Zombie’s THE LORDS OF SALEM, 2012, and in the TV shows WESTWORLD, 2016, and CLAWS, 2017). There’s a violent home invasion, hostage taking, and even a performance by an unsuspecting party clown named Mr. Baggy Britches (Clint Howard, Ron’s brother, who was the child star of the TV show GENTLE BEN. His other credits include SPLASH, 1984, ICE CREAM MAN, 1995, and HOW TO EAT FRIED WORMS, 2006) before Warden Harper finally agrees to play ball.

Once Baby is freed (after years of solitary and the scorn of a prison guard played by Dee Wallace), the gang of three move around a lot, trying to stay off the radar of the authorities, which is hard when we’re talking about homicidal maniacs, especially now that Baby’s brain seen especially addled after her stint in the big house. We see a glimpse of this in a scene where Baby, alone in her cell, watches as a cat-faced ballerina dances behind a ventilation grate. It’s surreal enough to remind me of the some of the imagery I loved so much in THE LORDS OF SALEM (and wouldn’t it be cool if the dancing Cat woman teamed up with the naked Owl lady of UNDER THE SILVER LAKE for a demented version of the Owl and the Pussycat?). If Baby was crazy before, she’s even more batshit loco this time around, to the degree where even Otis seems caught off guard by her unpredictable behavior.

There are moments when our trio just seems tired of living, and it would have been cool if they verbalized this more. After years of craziness and violence and unrestrained murder, you wonder if they’ve reached the point where they feel like they’ve done it all and maybe it’s time to lay down and die.

They agree the best course of action is to head down to Mexico, and we’re soon South of the Border, with our trio trying to spice things up with knife-throwing contests and bordellos (and lots of tequila!) when they’re not going stir crazy in their hotel rooms. Unfortunately, this is the territory of the Black Satans Gang, led by the son of a guy Otis killed during his jail break (Danny Trejo in a brief role as a guy named Rondo), and the “proprietor” of the hotel, a twitchy dude named Carlos (Richard Edson, a terrific character actor who was also in DO THE RIGHT THING, 1989, SUPER MARIO BROS., 1993, and STRANGE DAYS, 1995) just happens to make a phone call to let them know that Rondo’s killers are in town, and ripe for the taking.

Which, of course, leads a bloody showdown between a lot of Luchador-masked assassins and three hillbilly psychopaths. Carlos’s put-upon “assistant,” a dwarf played by Pancho Moler (who was also Sick-Head in Rob Z’s previous flick, 31, 2016) turns out to be a sweet-natured ally.

Anyone who saw the previous mentioned 31 knows that the Number One reason to see the movie (one of Zombie’s lesser efforts) is for the monologue-spewing psycho clown named Doom-Head, played by Richard Brake in the movie. Despite that movie’s flaws, it’s a break-out performance. So it’s no surprise that Brake fits in just fine as the third amigo in 3 FROM HELL. He even adds some dark humor to the proceedings, as his Foxy is constantly bummed out by the way the media refers to him as a lesser criminal hanging around with Otis and Baby (he thinks he’s just as scary, Otis tells him he’s delusional). In fact, the quarreling between the three protagonists will remind you of kids arguing, and it can be just as funny. Moseley continues to give off Manson-like charisma as Otis, and Sheri Moon Zombie is kind of remarkable here as Baby at her most demented. It’s a solid performance from the otherwise underrated Moon, who shines in most of Zombie’s flicks.

The Mexico half of the film is my favorite – the dusty western feel plays like a demented funhouse mirror version of THE WILD BUNCH –and its peak is when the wacko Baby Firefly goes sneaking around with a bow, shooting arrows into the masked skulls of the Black Satans. Moon is the biggest of badasses here, and I couldn’t help but love her.

Which brings me to a quick observation – most of Rob Zombie’s movies almost seem like a love letter to his wife (albeit, a blood-soaked love letter). He writes roles specifically for her, and she’s given juicy material to work with. One reason why I loved Zombie’s LORDS OF SALEM so much (even though a lot of people slammed it) is that it’s the purest example of a Moon showcase, where she proves she can lead a movie all by herself. I really don’t know why more directors don’t hire her, but I’ve enjoyed every single one of her performances in Rob’s films.

The soundtrack is mostly the work of musician Zeuss, but there are also some choice cuts, including Suzie Quatro’s version of “The Wild One,” three songs by the excellent James Gang (“The Devil is Singing Our Song,” “Ride the Wind,” and “From Another Time”), Joe Walsh’s original band pre-Eagles, and an especially effective use of Iron Butterfly’s “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida.” There’s even a song by yodeling Slim Whitman (“It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie”).

How you feel about 3 FROM HELL depends an awful lot on how you feel about THE DEVIL’S REJECTS. If you hated the previous film, this one is not going to win you over. But if you enjoyed the fuck out of it as much as I did, then 3 FROM HELL will be a welcome return to the world of these demented thrill-killers.

I give it four knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives 3 FROM HELL ~ 4 knives!

Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2

Note: I saw 3 FROM HELL as part of a special 3-night-only release from Fathom Events, since this movie did not get a traditional theatrical release. It will be available on Blu-ray and DVD on October 15th.

READY OR NOT (2019)



Review by LL Soares

The story of READY OR NOT is simple enough. A woman marries into a family of rich eccentrics, and on her wedding night is forced to play a game of hide and seek. She hides, and the rest of the them try to find her and kill her before the sun comes up. If she survives, they believe that they will die.

You know, some people just shouldn’t get married.

Grace (the terrific Samara Weaving), is at the Le Domas estate on her wedding day. She was a foster kid growing up and has always wanted to be part of a real family. And she’s madly in love with Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien, also in “BAD TIMES AT EL ROYALE,” 2018), who is heir to the family fortune. The family made its money selling board games. Despite Grace being so excited to become a Le Domas, the family, right off the bat, is rather strange, especially Aunt Helene (Nicky Gaudagni), who, with her crazy hair and staring eyes, looks like a vampire, or the sister of Robert Blake’s character from LOST HIGHWAY (1997). Anyone that menacing-looking should be a tip-off that something’s really wrong here. The rest of the family just seems a little off in comparison.

Other family members include Alex’s mother, Becky (Andie MacDowell); his father, Tony (Henry Czerny, from the TV show REVENGE, 2011-2015, and the great HBO miniseries SHARP OBJECTS, 2018); ne’er-do-well younger brother, Daniel (Adam Brody) and his wife, Charity (Elyse Levesque, ORPHAN BLACK, 2013-2017); sister Emilie (Melanie Scorfano, star of the SyFy series WYNONNA EARP) and her husband Fitch (Kristian Bruun, probably best known as Donnie Hendrix on ORPHAN BLACK); and, of course, creepy Aunt Helene. There are also the servants, led by Stevens (John Ralston, DESIGNATED SURVIVOR), the butler, and various attractive young women in maid’s outfits.

The thing about the Le Domas family is, they take their games very seriously. So at midnight after the wedding, they all meet in a special room full of animal heads to play a game. It begins with a box that will choose what game they play – and of course poor Grace gets the one card everyone has dreaded. She’s off to hide, still in her wedding dress, as the family members grab an assortment of old-timey weapons like axes, muskets, and crossbows. And then the game begins.

Seriously, if marrying into the family results in a night like this, Alex really needed to give his wife-to-be an honest warning of what was in store for her. When asked why he didn’t tell her, Alex brushes it off as “Well, you wanted to get married,” which is pretty lame. Then again, there might be a reason why he was so hesitant to fill her in beforehand.

At first a victim, Grace eventually decides to fight back, and that’s when things get really interesting.

With lots of violence and gore (and language), this one gets an R-rating (hurray!). And despite the simple premise (which was almost completely revealed in the trailer, by the way – I hate that!), READY OR NOT was a lot more fun than I was expecting. As things started off, I thought this was going to be a predictable trudge, but, while it’s not exactly surprise-packed, there are some surprises, the biggest being that Samara Weaving completely owns this movie, and her character is the main reason to see it. She easily goes from sweet and trusting to hard-as-nails in a believable way that makes you cheer for her.

I’ve been a fan of Weaving’s for awhile now, so I’m not surprised. In fact, her having the lead role in this one was one of the main reasons I went to see it. Genre fans will no doubt recognize her from roles in the movies MAYHEM and THE BABYSITTER (both 2017), and the TV shows ASH VS. THE EVIL DEAD and SMILF. Other recognizable faces belong to Adam Brody (from shows like THE O.C., and movies like JENNIFER’S BODY, 2009, and LOVELACE, 2013), whose good here as a character who we’re never sure who’s side he’s on, and Andie MacDowell, who was big in the 80s and 90s in movies like GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES (1984), where she played Jane, SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE (1989), and, of course, GROUNDHOG DAY (1993), and who plays the matriarch of the Le Domas clan as maybe the one person who really regrets what she’s doing. Nicky Guadagni, as creepy Aunt Helene who left such an impression on me, seems pretty over-the-top at first, but she grew on me as perhaps the most ruthless of the clan. Guadagni was previously in the movies CUBE (1997) and SILENT HILL (2006).

READY OR NOT was directed by two-thirds of the producer/director collective called Radio Silence, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (the third member, who didn’t direct here, is Chad Villella). Together, the three of them made segments for the anthology films V/H/S (2012) and SOUTHBOUND (2015). Previously Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett also co-directed (without Villella) the horror movie DEVIL’S DUE (2014). READY OR NOT was written by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy (not the guy who created AMERICAN HORROR STORY).

I thought this was a fun flick, worth seeing in a theater. I give it three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

Stab_2Stab_2Stab_2HALF