Phoenix rises in ‘Joker’

By Tom Von Malder | Jan 11, 2020
Photo by: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Joaquin Phoenix recently won a Golden Globe for playing the title character in "Joker."

Owls Head — Joker (Warner Bros., Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 122 min.). Joaquin Phoenix is likely to win the Best Actor Oscar for his intense, sometimes off-kilter, but always “out there” performance as Arthur Fleck, who, by film’s end, wants to be known only as Joker. This is an origin story of the DC Comics character – or perhaps not; he may just be the inspiration, a tack the TV series “Gotham” took -- that eventually folds into the Batman mythos, although Batman himself is never mentioned. The film contends that the Joker persona was the result of mental illness, social isolation and trauma, recalling Travis Brickle in “The Taxi Driver.” The film also is ultra-violent at times – two scenes in particular – recalling “Clockwork Orange.”

While some may argue the film is psychologically shallow, there is no doubt that the film is overall powerful, fueled by Phoenix’s bold acting. Director Todd Phillips (the three “Hangover” films, an upcoming Hulk Hogan biopic) co-wrote the script with Scott Silver (“The Fighter,” “8 Mile,” “Johns”).

When we meet Fleck, he is pretty much a bust as a person, dependent on pills and working as a professional clown, although not too successfully. He has a medical condition that sometimes makes him laugh uncontrollably, so much so that he carries a card explaining his condition to pass out to possibly offended people. Fleck lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) who continuously writes letters seeking help from Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen playing Bruce Wayne’s, aka Batman, father), whom she had worked for 30 years previously. Fleck and his mother live in abject poverty, with their lives seemingly only brightened by watching the Murray Franklin late-night TV talk show. Franklin is played by Robert De Niro, who brought Travis Brickle to life in 1976. Fleck strives to become a stand-up comedian, with one of his dreams being to appear on Franklin’s show. A seeming appearance on Franklin’s show is one of several imagined occurrences injected into the film, leading to a question of what is real at times.

What is real is the physical abuse that Fleck often endures, whether it be a group of kids who steal from him while he is on a job and then beat him or a trio of men who attack him on the subway, with his reaction to the latter attack turning him into a kind of folk hero, whose clown visage is taken up by the disaffected masses in a Gotham that literally is a hell on earth for the poor. Phillips has patterned his Gotham after New York City in 1981, complete to the garbage strike. These angry masses turn their attention against Thomas Wayne, who once referred to them as “clowns” and who is now running for mayor.

The film often looks amazing; kudos to cinematographer Lawrence Sher. There also is a tremendous, dark, brooding, often cello-based score by Hildur Gudnadottir, who won a Golden Globe for her work. Phoenix also won a Golden Globe, while Phillips and the film also were nominated. The film also was just nominated for 11 BAFTA Awards.

While the making-of featurette (22:25) is good, there is not much more for extras. One shows Phoenix trying out Joker expressions and movements (1:25), while another shows different takes of Fleck’s TV appearance (2:44). Finally, there is a stills gallery (3:04). Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 2 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

The Goldfinch (Warner Bros., Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 149 min.). This adaptation of the bulky Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Donna Tartt (2013) is also about a loner and while Theo Decker may appear nicer on the surface, his heart, in some ways, is as bleak as Arthur Fleck’s. Like Fleck, Decker was raised by his mother, until she was killed in an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Decker, who was 13 at the time, was in the next room when the explosion occurred.

Decker feels responsible for his mother’s death as the only reason they were out together that fateful day was because he had been caught smoking in school and his mother had to see the principal. As they were early, they stopped at the museum first. This guilt, along with the abandonment of his father, follows Decker throughout his life and leads to considerable hidden drug use.

The title of the movie and book refers to a 1654 Dutch painting by Carel Fabritius, who not-so-ironically was killed shortly after painting it when a nearby factory blew up. For reasons not explained until late in the film, the stunned young Theo (played well by Oakes Fegley of “Pete’s Dragon”) puts the small painting in his carrying case and keeps it hidden among his possessions.

With Decker’s father out of the picture, Decker goes to live with the Barbours an upper-class family whose matriarch is played by Nicole Kidman. Her son, Andy, was Decker’s classmate. In the museum, a dying man gave Decker a ring and asked him to return it to the Hobart and Blackwell antique shop. That was Welty Blackwell. Decker is befriended by Hobie Hobart (Jeffrey Wright) and young Pippa Blackwell, who also was inured in the explosion. Decker develops a never-fulfilled romantic interest in Pippa (Aimee Laurence as a child, Ashleigh Cummings as an adult).

Just when it seems Decker is accepted as a member of the Barbours, his father (Luke Wilson as Larry Decker) shows up with partner Xandra (Sarah Paulson of TV’s “American Horror Story”) and takes him off to Las Vegas, where they live in a barely-populated, treeless housing development out in the desert. There, Decker befriends Russian immigrant Boris (Finn Wolfhard of the two “It” films), who turns him on to alcohol and drugs. Eventually, Decker flees back to New York City, where he is taken in by Hobie. Years later, Decker (now played by Ansel Elgort of “Baby Driver,” the upcoming musicals “West Side Story,” “Spring Awakening”) is a partner in Hobie’s antique business and reconnects with the Barbours. He also accidentally reconnects with Boris (Aneurin Barnard of “Dunkirk,” TV’s “War and Peace”).

Despite some strong acting by Wright and the two who play Boris, the film comes across as a bit superficial, as the 784 pages of the book have been boiled down to the action sequences by screenwriter Peter Straughan (Oscar-nominated for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and writer of TV’s “Wolf Hall”) and director John Crowley (“Brooklyn”). Thus, much of the character nuance is missing, especially as the book was a first-person narrative. This leaves the adult Decker as more of a cipher who only reacts to what is around him. Kidman, in particular, is given very little to do.

The film does look excellent thanks to Oscar-winner and 14-time nominee, cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Blade Runner 2049”), and the time shifts are handled well. Extras include a making-of featurette (12:54); a look at the painting and artists (8:38), the painting hangs in a museum in The Hague; and 15 deleted scenes with introductions by Crowley (16:59). Film: 2.75 stars; extras 2 stars

Rambo: Last Blood (Lionsgate, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 89 min.). In this fifth, and probably last, film in the “Rambo” franchise, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone, also the co-writer) at one point says, “I haven’t changed. I just try to keep a lid on it.” Well, when things get personal, that lid comes off and that is just the way we like it.

After the original trilogy, there has been a new Rambo about every 10 years. This one starts with a retired Rambo running a ranch and training horses in Arizona, not far from the Mexican border. He is living with an “adopted” family that consists of his niece Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal) and housekeeper Maria (Adriana Barraza). Memories of Rambo’s Vietnam war experiences cane be found as he has built a complicated tunnel system beneath the ranch – sure to come into play later in the film, of course.

College-aged Gabrielle has been curious about her birth father, who abandoned his family 10 years earlier, as his wife was dying of cancer. Gabrielle’s friend/former friend Gizelle (Fenessa Pineda) calls from Mexico, saying she has found Gabrielle’s father. Against Rambo’s wishes and knowledge, Gabrielle goes to Mexico, is rejected by her father and is taken to a bar by Gizelle, where Gabrielle is roofied and finds herself part of a sex slave ring when she awakes.

When Rambo goes to find Gabrielle, he is beaten by part of the gang who holds her, but an independent journalist, who is interested in the gang, has followed Rambo and helps him escape and then recover. She is Carmen Delgado (Paz Vega), whose sister had been taken for the sex slave and killed by drugs supplied by the Martinez Brothers. Sergio Peris-Mencheta plays Hugo Martinez and Oscar Jaenada plays Victor Martinez.

Rambo kills one of the brothers in Mexico as a calling card and then retreats to his ranch, which he prepares for an invasion. Mayhem ensues and revenge is sweet. The film ends with a montage from the previous films, indicating this probably is the last one. After all, Stallone is 73 now.

Extras include a solid, five-part production diary with commentary by Stallone and director Adrian Grunberg (50:20) and a look at the music by composer Brian Tyler and how he incorporated Jerry Goldsmith’s work into the score (17:22). Grade: film 3 stars; extras 2.75 stars

Ad Astra (20th Century Fox, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 123 min.). Even more significant daddy issues plague main character Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) in this near-future space odyssey. McBride is an astronaut whose father (Tommy Lee Jones as H. Clifford McBride) disappeared 29 years ago near Neptune while exploring the outer solar system with The Lima Project. Clifford McBride’s ship was powered by anti-matter and it may now be emitting what is called “The Surge,” creating disruptive electrical storms on Earth and the Moon and Mars colonies.

McBride is sent to find his father and what is left of his ship. Midway through the film, he discovers the secret orders are to destroy his father’s ship to stop the anti-matter blasts. Those latter orders are known by Col. Pruett (Donald Sutherland), who accompanies McBride to the Moon, but is physically unable to go further.

The film, directed by James Gray (“The Lost City of Z”), who co-wrote the script with Ethan Gross, telegraphs too much and has far too much narration by Pitt as McBride, who turns out to be a very contemplative character. For example, when they arrive on the Moon, it is described as a Wild West war zone, so of course pirates attack as they travel to a launch site on the dark side. On the way to Mars, the ship McBride is on receives a distress signal, which naturally turns into a deadly trap.

Much like Stanley Kubrick did in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Gray makes traveling in space – at least to the Moon—seem very routine. The film opens with a standout visual sequence as McBride is working on the outside of the International Space Telescope, which stretches all the way to the Earth from orbit like an extremely long elevator, when the initial Surge disaster strikes. McBride literally falls to Earth,  while 43,012 are killed by The Surge.

Extras include audio commentary by Gray; two deleted scenes with optional Gray commentary (3:25); a plot-heavy making-of featurette (8:35); a piece on Pitt and his character that has more behind-the-scenes stuff than the making-of (8:45); and a piece with the cast and crew talking about space travel (7:21). Best of the extras are a look at  the film’s other characters, the banality of space travel and some of the wire work and make-up (9:08) and the art of the film, including Kevin Thompson’s production design, including the ship’s controls and space suits, with set ups for a couple of scenes not included in the final film (11:15). Grade: film 2.75 stars; extras 3 stars

The Omen Collection: Deluxe Edition (1976-2006, Scream Factory, 5 Blu-rays, R and NR, 525 min.). The box set includes the four original films and the 2006 remake of the first film. The original is the best and it is presented in a 4k remaster from the original negative, with new bonus interviews.

In the film (rated R, 111 min.), Kathy Thorn’s (Lee Remick) son is stillborn at 6 a.m. on June 6 (the giveaway 666, mark of the beast) in Rome, but her husband (Gregory Peck as Robert Thorn) is talked by a priest into substituting another child, born at the same time but whose mother died in childbirth. Robert does so, without ever telling Kathy.

Jumping forward a few years, Robert is appointed the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. When the child, Damien (Harvey Stephens), turns 5 strange things start to happen, including the suicide death of his nanny (Holly Palance, daughter of actor Jack Palance), who famously says, “Damien, it’s all for you” as she jumps. Damien’s new governess (Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock) literally seems in league with the Devil.

Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton, who played the second incarnation of Doctor Who from 1966 to 1969) is sent from Rome. David Warner (“Time After Time,” TV’s “The Holocaust”) plays photographer Keith Jennings, whose pictures of those around the Thorns show unexplained defects that he soon realizes mirrors the subjects’ subsequent deaths. Thorn and Jennings head to Rome to search for the truth about Damien’s birth. Jennings’ death, done in camera, is one of the highlights of the entire series.

The film was directed by Richard Donner, who would go on to direct “Superman” and its sequel, four “Lethal Weapon” films, “Goonies,” “Scrooged” and “Ladyhawke,” among others. The film is overwrought at times and Jerry Goldsmith’s score is heavy at times, but Goldsmith works in some deliciously evil chanting.

New extras include interviews with screenwriter David Seltzer (also “The Hellstrom Chronicle”), who says the first film succeeded because it had “an innocent villain,” which the sequel did not (23:25), actress Holly Palance (13:14) and composer Christopher Young, who talks about Goldsmith’s score and how it influenced his scores for the first two “Hellraiser” films (19:05). Ported over from previous releases are three audio commentaries – by Donner and editor Stuart Baird, by Donner and filmmaker Brian Helgeland, and by film historians Lem Dobbs, Nick  Redman and Jeff Bond; an isolated score track; an introduction by Donner; a stills gallery; and vintage featurettes that include Goldsmith on his score, Donner on the film, a deleted scene with audio commentary, an interview with Seltzer and an appreciation by filmmaker Wes Craven.

The first sequel was “Damien -- Omen II” (1978, R, 107 min.), which had young Damien (Jonathan Scott-Taylor), now 13, in the care of his wealthy uncle (William Holden) and aunt (Lee Grant), but sent to military school. Damien is now considered by many to be the Antichrist and he plots to seize control of his uncle’s business empire. Anyone attempting to uncover Damien’s past meet with untimely deaths. Extras include new interviews with actors Grant (15:56), Robert Foxworth (16:21; he plays CEO Paul Buher) and Elizabeth Shepherd (26:34; she plays journalist Joan Hart), plus a new audio commentary with special project consultant Scott Michael Bosco. Ported over from previous releases are an audio commentary by producer Harvey Bernhard, a making-0f featurette (7:22) and a stills gallery.

In “The Final Conflict” (1981, R, 108 min.), the adult Damien is played by Sam Neill. He is 32 and out to control the world. Damien needs to kill the reborn Christ child. Trying to stop Damien is determined priest DeCarlo (Rossano Brazzi) with the Seven Sacred Daggers of Megiddo and reporter Kate Reynolds (Lisa Harrow). Extras include new interviews with director Graham Baker (24:56), writer Andrew Birkin (20:30) and production assistant Jeanne Ferber (16:38), plus a new audio commentary by Bosco. From previous editions are an audio commentary by Baker and “The Omen Legacy” documentary (2003, 101 min.).

“Omen IV – The Awakening” (1991, NR, 97 min.) has the Damien prophecy reborn in a mysterious girl named Delia (Asia Vieira), who is adopted by attorneys Gene and Karen York (Michael Woods and Faye Grant). Gene is running for a state senate seat in this made-for-TV rehash of the original film, albeit with a gender switch. Karen hires a private investigator (Michael Lerner as Earl). Extras include a new interview with writer Brian Taggert (18:11), plus a stills gallery and the “666: The Omen Revealed” documentary (46:18).

The final film in the handsomely-packaged box set is the remake “The Omen” (2006, R, 100 min.), with the Thorns played by Liev Schreiber (“Ray Donovan”) and Julia Stiles. A quartet play the infant Damien, but the more grown up one is played by Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick (“Moonrise Kingdom”). Recycled extras include audio commentary by director John Moore, producer Glenn Williamson and editor Dan Zimmerman; unrated extended scenes and an extended ending (7:09); Abbey Road sessions featurette (10:14); and “Revelation 666,” a behind-the-scenes featurette (22:17). Grade: first film 3.5 stars; extras 3.75 stars; overall set 3.5 stars

Tunes of Glory (Great Britain, 1960, Criterion Collection Blu-ray, NR, 107 min.). In this showcase for actors Alec Guinness (“The Bridge on the River Kwai,” the original “Star Wars” trilogy, TV’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) and John Mills (“Great Expectations,” “Ryan’s Daughter,” “Hobson’s Choice”), they face off over control of a Scottish battalion after World War II. Guinness plays the boisterous, alcoholic, my-fun-way temporary commander Col. Jock Sinclair, while Mills plays his replacement, the more strait-laced, upper-crust Col. Basil Barrow. Barrow is all “by the book,” while Sinclair lets emotions rule and parties like one of his men.

According to the bonus material, the two originally had been cast in the opposite roles, but Guinness wanted to stretch by playing Sinclair, figuring Barrow was more like the part he played in “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” The two actors had both appeared in “Great Expectations,” which was produced by Ronald Neame, who is the director here. Neame says in an interview that “Tunes of Glory,” despite not making much money, is the film he is most proud of.

The film is an adaptation by James Kennaway of his own novel. The screenplay earned an Academy Award nomination. Guinness, Mills and Kennaway were among the five BAFTA Award nominations the film received and Mills won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival in 1960.

As Sinclair, a part he thoroughly inhabits, Guinness sports a stiff, flaming red brush haircut and mustache, and speaks in a rough brogue. He is a favorite of the men under his command because he acts as one of them. Barrow is more reserved and, while Sinclair came up through the ranks, Barrow is third generation military by way of Eton and Oxford. Their conflict ultimately results in tragedy, a tragedy that seems a bit too abrupt, about the film’s only weakness.

Susannah York (“A Man for All Seasons,” Richard Donner’s first two “Superman” films) made her film debut as Sinclair’s daughter, who is secretly dating one of the battalion’s pipers (John Fraser of “El Cid” as Cpl. Ian Fraser). When Sinclair sees the two at a pub, his impulsive anger leads to an action that could result in his court martial, should Barrow decide to pursue things by the book.

Bonus features include a 2003 interview with Neame (23:23); a 2002 audio interview with Mills (14:27); and a 1073 interview with Guinness from BBC’s “Film Extra” (15:22). The booklet has an essay by film scholar Robert Murphy. The film is presented in a new 4k digital restoration. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 3 stars

Passport to Pimlico (Great Britain, 1949, Film Movement Blu-ray, NR, 84 min.). This Ealing Studios comedy recalls “The Mouse That Roared” (1959) in that it deals with a small kingdom dealing with a larger one amidst heavy doses of satire. When an unexploded World War II bomb in the Pimlico section of London suddenly goes off, local Arthur Pemberton (Stanley Holloway of “My Fair Lady,” “The Titfield Thunderbolt”) discovers a hidden underground chamber that contains artifacts from the Grand Duke of Burgundy (France). According to history expert Prof. Hatton-Jones (Margaret Rutherford of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “Murder She Said” and four other Miss Marple films), one of the documents there, a 15th Century royal charter from King Edward IV, ceding the Pimlico Street area to the Grand Duke, thus making it a long-lost duchy and part of France.

As this is a time of rationing in post-World War II England, the Pimlico residents quickly take to their “foreign” status in which England’s rules no longer apply to them. They tear up their ration cards and keep the pub open all day long. However, street vendors from elsewhere in London also take advantage and flood the area, forcing the British government to set up customs checkpoints. The residents eventually have to steal water and then their food runs out, with relief arriving in a most unusual way.

The film’s screenplay by T.E.B. Clarke was nominated for an Academy Award and the film was nominated for a BAFTA. The film also stars Hermione Baddeley of “Mary Poppins” and TV’s “Maude” as Edie Randall and Paul Dupuis as the current Duke of Burgundy.

Extras include an interview with British Film Institute Curator Mark Duguid on the Ealing Comedies (7:09); a locations featurette with film historian Richard Dacre (4:19); a restoration comparison (6:54); and s stills gallery (1:50). Grade: film 3.75 stars; extras 2 stars

The Titfield Thunderbolt (Great Britain, 1953, Film Movement Blu-ray, NR, 84 min.). Also from Ealing Studios is this charming film that has members of a small town in England band together to preserve their train access, after the Ministry of Transport decides to eliminate the branch line from Titfield to Mallingford. As with “Passport to Pimlico,” the screenplay is by T.E.B. Clarke (Oscar winner for “The Lavender Hill Mob”).

Those wanting to run their own railroad passenger service along the branch get funding from Valentine (Stanley Holloway of “Passport to Pimlico,” “My Fair Lady”), the richest man in town, by telling him that if they run the railroad, the bar car can be open all the time. There is opposition, though, from two men – Jack MacGowran as Vernon Crump and Ewan Roberts as Alex Pearce – who run a competing bus service, men who do not mind stooping to sabotage. A highlight of the film has a “borrowed” locomotive barreling down town streets without tracks.

Extras include a making-of featurette covering the shooting in Bristol and Oxfordshire (9:15); cinematographer Douglas Slocombe’s home movie footage with an accompanying 2012 audio interview (10:48); a featurette on the Lion Locomotive used in the film (5:38); a locations featurette (2:34); a stills gallery (1:29); and a 2012 Slocombe audio interview on director Charles Crichton (4:21). Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 3 stars

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