Tag Archives: Joaquin Phoenix

A Man Aparte


by George Wolf

“Destiny has brought me here! Destiny has brought me this pork chop!”

And a silly food fight ensues between Napoleon and Josephine, just minutes before director Ridley Scott unveils a simply breathtaking recreation of 1805’s Battle of Austerlitz.

Scott’s Napoleon is a film that succeeds with moments both big and small, but suffers from a lack of connective tissue that might have formed it into one unforgettable whole.

Joaquin Phoenix makes the legendary emperor and military commander as endlessly fascinating as you’d expect, while Vanessa Kirby’s equally mesmerizing turn as Josephine creates a dynamic that authenticates Napoleon’s lifelong devotion.

But even if we didn’t already know Scott’s 4-hour director’s cut is coming, this 2 and 1/2 hour version ends up feeling like a stunningly crafted, IMAX-worthy appetizer. It’s every bit a grand spectacle with epic vision of history, but never quite the incisive character study that may be waiting in the streaming wings.

Ari, Are You OK? Are You OK, Ari?

Beau Is Afraid

by Hope Madden

Is Ari Aster all right?

Asking as a fan who is starting to think Hereditary was autobiographical.

Aster’s new 3-hour self-indulgent opus Beau Is Afraid revisits the scene of his 7-minute 2011 short film Beau, in which a middle-aged man loses his keys and is delayed in his plan to visit his mother.

For his exponentially longer feature, Aster employs the inarguably brilliant Joaquin Phoenix.

Phoenix is Beau Isaac Wasserman from Wasserton and he is living a nightmare of undiluted Freudian scope. Things seem fine as we open on his session with his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson, slyly hilarious), who prescribes some new meds. But Beau’s walk back to his apartment is a descent into Escape from New York territory. Escalating tension leads to a naked, corpse-leaping, maniac-fleeing car accident that lands Beau in the highly medicated home of Roger (Nathan Lane, an absolute treat) and Grace (Amy Ryan, always welcome).

But he needs to get to his mom’s house.

Aster generates much of the same kind of primal, ceaseless tension of the Safdies’ Uncut Gems or Aronofsky’s Mother. But he embraces the absurdity of it all in a way the others did not. At times, his film is astonishingly beautiful. There’s a surreal theatricality to the middle portion that’s stunning, but even the comparatively mundane scenes are shot gorgeously.

And as odd as they are, performances throughout are great. Patti LuPone, Kylie Rogers, Parker Posey, Zoe Lister-Jones, Armen Nahapetian, Hayley Squires, Richard Kind, Julian Richlings and a barely glimpsed but nonetheless memorable Bill Hader all add intrigue as they populate Beau’s increasingly desperate and blisteringly imaginative quest to get to his mom’s place.

But damn, it is long. And it asks a lot. Beau Is Afraid is essentially a 3-hour string of traumatic dream sequences, beautiful but shapeless, leading to something out of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. And if Hereditary triggered your mother issues, for the love of God, do not see Beau Is Afraid.

The similarities between Aster’s 2018 horror are legion: the house, the attic, the physically beaten son, a headless body – you’re almost waiting for Mona (LuPone) to deliver the line “I am your mother!”

All told, Beau Is Afraid is a fascinating, gorgeously realized vision and I don’t think you’re going to like it. I can’t say I liked it. I admire it, am stunned by it, and kind of want to see it again. Maybe I do like it, I can’t tell.

One thing I know for sure, Aster is still working some shit out.

Unpacking Adjectives

C’mon C’mon

by Hope Madden

In looking back over the notes I took as I screened Mike Mills’s latest feature, I find more single words than helpful phrases or insights. I wrote down these words: intimate, vulnerable, hopeful, sincere, earnest.

In other words, C’mon C’mon is a Mike Mills film.

The filmmaker’s most memorable movies dig deep into one connection within a family to see how that tumult ripples out to the rest of our hero’s relationships. Beginners pitted a man’s evolving bond with his aging father (Christopher Plummer, who took home an Oscar for the role). Six years later, Mills digs into mother/son issues with the incandescent 20th Century Women. (Mills nabbed his first Oscar nomination for the screenplay.)

In C’mon C’mon, a man’s changing relationship with his young nephew mirrors his deepening bond with his estranged sister. That man, Johnny, is played by Joaquin Phoenix, who presumably does not need to be described as one of the greatest actors working today because everyone knows that by now.

Phoenix is particularly endearing in this film, hitting those earlier adjectives with such authenticity it would be very easy to believe he simply loved the little boy he was spending all this time with, regardless of the amount of energy a 9-year-old sucks from you, not to mention the frustration that comes with that territory.

Jesse, the 9-year-old, is played by quite an amazing actor himself. Woody Norman (love that name!) shoulders the responsibility of being precocious, frustrating, brilliant, adorable, tender and human. He soars, and his chemistry with Phoenix couldn’t be more charming or genuine.

So many adjectives!

Gaby Hoffmann deserves one, too, because she’s wonderful as well as Norman’s mom, Johnny’s sister Viv. Viv needs to look in on Jesse’s father, a bipolar musician who’s bitten off more than he can chew with his new job, new apartment and new dog. Johnny agrees to look after Jesse, eventually bringing the boy along with him to New York and then New Orleans where Johnny interviews kids for a radio program.

Johnny is finding out how the world looks to a child and realizing that it is genuinely terrifying.

Both sound design and cinematography also need to be acclaimed as adjective worthy as well, because this film looks and sounds amazing.

Mills blends the interviews (of non-actors whose responses are not scripted) with the fictional relationships among Johnny, Jesse and Viv. The blending of reality with fiction is seamless enough to buoy the sense of authenticity and heighten a mood of empathy.

As is true with Beginners and 20th Century Women, C’mon C’mon wraps the messy, awkward, disappointing realities of being human in a blanket of hope. As cloying as that sounds, the film is so sincere it’s hard to deny its warmth.

The Man Who Laughs


by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Todd Phillips, director of the Hangover trilogy among other comedies, recently told Vanity Fair that he had to get out of comedy because woke culture made it impossible to be funny.

That sounds like a butthurt white guy nobody thinks is funny. Doesn’t that actually make him the perfect person to reimagine Joker?

Directing and co-writing with Scott Silver (The Fighter), Phillips offers an origin story that sees mental illness, childhood trauma, adult alienation and societal disregard as the ingredients that form a singular villain—a man who cannot come into his own until he embraces his inner sinister clown.

It’s a dangerous idea and a dangerous film, but that doesn’t make it a bad movie. In many respects—though not all—it is a great movie. This is partly thanks to an ambitious screenplay, Lawrence Sher’s intense cinematography, solid directorial instincts with some beautifully staged violence and constant (indeed, fanboy-esque) nods to Scorsese.

But let’s be honest, it’s mainly because Joaquin Phoenix is a god among actors. His scenes of transformation, his scenes alone, his mesmerizing command of physicality, and in particular his unerringly unnerving chemistry with other actors are haunting.

Phoenix is Arthur Fleck, (or Afleck, if you were giving points for Batman references) wannabe standup comic and put upon outcast in 1981 Gotham City. The garbage strike has everyone testy. Rich, entitled Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s dad) isn’t helping matters with his bid for the mayor’s office and his disdain for those who are struggling.

Since Phillips genuflects to both Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, it is appropriate that Robert DeNiro, with some snazzy new teeth, participates as Murray Franklin, the late night legend that Arthur and his mother (Frances Conroy) watch every night.

More than once, Phillips does not trust his audience to stay with the direction he’s taken, and it’s unfortunate. These “look what I’m doing here” scenes drag the film, but as long as you never take your eyes off Phoenix (and who could?), you’re not likely to notice.

A pivotal moment where Arthur crashes a posh screening of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is Phillips’s less-than-subtle reminder that it has always been the clowns in this world who reflect society’s reality back to us. It’s a wise move to make this an alienated-to-the-point-of-violence white guy who takes his frustrations out not on the powerless, but on those with power, thus becoming a kind of hero himself.

Of course, the inclusion of Chaplin could also be read as a direct admission that Joker is a comment on our modern times. Superhero universe? Fanatical throngs blindly following a sociopath? Checks out.

But similar to Phillips’s approach with War Dogs three years ago, an uneven tone lessens the intended impact. Alongside the straightforward Scorsese homages are left turns into Oliver Stone territory a la Natural Born Killers. That black comedic satire is a tough nut regardless, even more so if comes in fits and starts.

Credit Phillips for a damn the torpedoes vision that’s damn near palpable, but it’s impossible to imagine this all meshing as well as it does without Phoenix. His presence is completely transfixing, always convincing you that he is here to fulfill this legendary character’s destiny.

Remember when we thought Nicholson could never be topped? Then Ledger did it. And now Phoenix makes this the darkest, most in-the-moment Joker we’ve seen.

And it’s chilling.

So, Phillips succeeded in making an anti-comedy and anti-comic book movie because bro culture totally rules and comedy is dead and that’s not a privileged cop out at all. But then, it is possible to separate art and the artist.

We all still love Rosemary’s Baby, right?

Twisted Sisters

The Sisters Brothers

by Hope Madden

How many Jacques Audiard films have you seen? You should probably see all of them, including his latest, The Sisters Brothers.

Like his previous films (Rust and Bone, A Prophet, Dheepan), The Sisters Brothers starts out as one film, inserts another fascinating story, and as those two come together the movie unveils its true intent. Unlike Audiard’s other films, The Sisters Brothers is a Western.

We open with Charlie and Eli Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly, respectively), two gunslingers for hire on the job. Their next big gig assigned by The Commodore (Rutger Hauer) will put them on the trail of a prospector in the 1850s West.

Phoenix, who is having a banner year even for him (if you haven’t already seen You Were Never Really Here and Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, please do), plays the loose cannon brother. Making trouble is in his blood—a fact his brother is trying to forget.

Eli longs for something better for himself, something settled and adult. But he is bound to his brother and their friction bristles with the bonds and bondage of family. Reilly’s conflicted tenderness and responsibility mingle with a genuine longing that offers an emotional center for the film.

A few days’ ride ahead of the brothers is the tracker The Commodore hired to assist in the deed. Jake Gyllenhaal’s John Morris is an observer and a loner, a man who believes in his own intellect but is willfully blind to the consequences of his career choice—until he befriends the object of The Commodore’s interest, a chemist with ideals and a compound that seriously simplifies the act of finding gold.

Good-natured chemist Hermann Kermit Warm is played by Riz Ahmed (also having quite a year, back to back this week with his strong turn in the overly criticized Venom). He and Gyllenhaal remind you of the amazing chemistry they shared in 2014’s Nightcrawler. Though their characters couldn’t be more different this time around, the two actors again share a natural rapport that makes you a believer.

Peppered with fascinating images, intriguing side characters and the lonesome beauty that infects the best Westerns, Audiard’s film embraces a genre without bending to expectations. Does it all come down to daddy issues? Yes, but the longing for camaraderie and the quest for redemption has rarely been this charming.

The film meanders intentionally, serving the rugged outdoorsiness required of its genre, but relies on its four leads to craft fascinating characters whose relationships and destinies infect you with a hope often lacking in Westerns.

Hot Wheels

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

by Hope Madden

In case you are missing it, Joaquin Phoenix is having one hell of a year. The inarguable talent is fresh off the relentlessly wonderful You Were Never Really Here (watch it right now!). Later this year we’ll get the chance to see him in Mary Magdalene as well as Jacques Audiard’s Western, The Sisters Brothers—both films boasting extraordinary casts.

Sandwiched in between his turns as gun-for-hire (YWNRH) and Jesus (MM), the clearly versatile actor portrays cartoonist John Callahan in Gus Van Sant’s biopic Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.

Portland-based Callahan used creating cartoons as an outlet for his frustration, creativity and humor following a car accident that left him paralyzed. His simple visual style (both arms and hands were badly compromised by the paralysis) and his dark, taboo-driven humor found favor and protest in his hometown newspaper.

Phoenix charms and breaks hearts in equal measure as Callahan. What the actor conveys in breathtaking fashion is discovery. After Callahan’s accident and through his fleeting moments of clear-headedness, the character affords Phoenix many opportunities to recognize, accomplish or notice things for the first time. His interaction with an adorably saucy sex therapist, for instance, is pure joy.

His is not the only wonderful performance in the film. Jonah Hill effortlessly conveys a wearied tenderness that reminds you how truly talented an actor he is. Jack Black has a small but gloriously Jack Black role, and the AA group (Udo Kier, Beth Ditto, Mark Webber, Kim Gordon and Ronnie Adrian) offer rich and interesting characters regardless of their minimal screen time.

Rooney Mara, on the other hand, seems like she’s acting in an entirely different film. I fully expected her character to be a figment of Callahan’s imagination, pulled intact from another movie.

Van Sant bounces back from a creative lull (The Sea of Trees, anyone?), showing, among other things, his remarkable knack for period detail.

And while the 12-step structure feels both too stifling and too familiar for such an irreverent central figure, Van Sant bursts through that frame with a non-chronological series of vignettes and wild antics. As the film progresses, step by dutiful step, Van Sant fills gaps with quick jumps back and forth through drunken episodes and pivotal moments.

As interesting and entertaining as these flashes are, the chaotic lack of chronology fits so poorly with the rigid timeline of the film around it that the whole feels like an experiment gone wrong.

But so much of the film goes very, very right—thanks in large part to another award-worthy performance by Phoenix.

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Bloody and Beautiful

You Were Never Really Here

by George Wolf

Two killers lie on a kitchen floor, gently singing along as the radio plays “I’ve Never Been to Me,” surely on of the cheesiest songs of all time. Only one of the men will get up.

It’s a fascinating sequence, one of many in Lynne Ramsay’s bloody and beautiful You Were Never Really Here.

In 2011, Ramsay turned We Need to Talk About Kevin, a spare novel that was not especially big screen friendly, into one of the most devastating yet necessary films in recent memory. Her gifts keep on giving, as here she adapts Jonathan Ames’s brisk novella into a dreamy, hypnotic fable, an in-the-moment pileup of Taxi Driver, Taken and Drive.

Joaquin Phoenix delivers an intensely powerful performance as Joe, a combat veteran who has been wounded in various ways. Joe lives with his mother in suburban New York, whetting his appetite for violence as a vigilante for hire who specializes in rescuing kidnapped girls and exacting brutal justice.

A New York senator (Alex Manette) wants his daughter’s (Ekaterina Samsonov) disappearance kept quiet, so Joe gets the call, only to find this case comes with unexpected complications.

Together, Ramsay and Phoenix ensure nearly each of the film’s 89 minutes burns with a spellbinding magnetism. While Phoenix lets you inside Joe’s battered psyche just enough to want more, Ramsay’s visual storytelling is dazzling. Buoyed by purposeful editing and stylish soundtrack choices, Ramsay’s wonderfully artful camerawork (kudos to cinematographer Thomas Townend) presents a stream of contrasts: power and weakness, brutality and compassion, celebration and degradation.

Much like Ramsay’s Kevin, YWNRH is no feel good garden party. It is darkly surreal, and ironically exacting in its impressionistic study of taking hits, and hitting back. Still, it offers a rich cinematic experience, with a filmmaker and actor working in glorious tandem to soak each frame with meaning.

Rationalizing with Woody

Irrational Man

by Hope Madden

It’s always exciting when the next Woody Allen movie screens, but it’s best to keep expectations in check. Remember, for every Midnight in Paris, there’s a Cassandra’s Dream; for every Vicky Cristina Barcelona, there’s a Scoop.

The question is, on which side of that coin will his latest, Irrational Man, fall?

As is generally the case, Allen draws an exceptional cast. In this go-round, the always magnificent Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, an alcoholic philosophy professor entrenched in an existential crisis. To his aid come the fresh, bright undergrad Jill (Emma Stone), and understanding, morally loose professor, Rita (Parker Posey). But their attention isn’t enough – Abe doesn’t feel himself again until he finds purpose.

What’s his purpose? Or more to the point, what’s Allen’s purpose? It’s to spin a familiar, albeit black, joke about the relative morality of getting away with murder.

Allen’s premise is actually fairly slight and not at all unique, but he pads it with loads of philosophical ponderings. We wrestle with the existential toxin of inaction, the impotence (literal and figurative) of writing instead of doing, and the messy leap from strictly philosophical ideals to life in a real, concrete world.

Irrational Man would sink into verbal tricks and intellectual nonsense were it not for three compelling, grounded performances and Allen’s sudden interest in Hitchcock.

Phoenix and Stone deliver something both pretentious and earnest enough to befit the project. Being from Allen’s pen, there’s something in their May/December relationship that works as both self-deprecation and excuse.

Posey steals every scene with a slyly comical and perfectly realized character.

The film slogs a bit through its first act, but gradually picks up steam, offering a bemused and somewhat detached observation of a mystery as it unfolds.

Though the film is listed as a drama, in many ways it is one of Allen’s cosmic jokes, and not just because he’s again toying with how to get away with murder. It’s more the laugh of, what would it be like if Woody Allen made a Hitchcock movie?


The Master Returns

Inherent Vice

by Hope Madden

Where Inherent Vice most succeeds is in proving that both Joaquin Phoenix and filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson can do anything.

Phoenix and Anderson collaborated on their 2012 masterpiece The Master, but the spawn of their latest partnership couldn’t be any more different. You know Phoenix – brooding, troubled, powerful – but comedic? Likeable? Sort of weirdly adorable, even?

That’s what you’ll find in this film.

Phoenix plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, an inebriated private detective working LA in 1970. Sweeter than Hunter S. Thompson, edgier than Dude Lebowski, Doc swims in the vaporous haze of every drug he can grab while he muddles through a series of interconnected and apparently non-paying cases.

Though the screen mostly brims with light hearted debauchery, expect a handful of truly powerful, even difficult scenes. Such tonal shifts can become cinematic weaknesses, but in hands like Anderson’s they pull in the darkness that underlies the choice or circumstances that delivers a person to this life on the fringes.

It comes as no surprise that Anderson can work magic where other directors might falter; the man’s a flawless filmmaker. He’s never made a film that was anything shy of brilliant. Even the Coen brothers made a handful of only-adequate films (The Hudsucker Proxy, The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty). Not Anderson.

Not only can he direct, he can cast. Inherent Vice is an ensemble piece boasting a host of memorable if often tiny (and in some cases possibly imaginary) roles. Reese Witherspoon is a stitch as a straight laced assistant DA. She has a soft spot for loopy hippie PI’s, but draws the line at dirty feet.

Equally fun are Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone and Martin Short. (Martin Short!) But Josh Brolin steals the show.

What each is doing can be a bit fuzzy, but then Doc’s usually a bit fuzzy, and therein lies the genius of this film. It opens, hardboiled noir-style, with a dame from the past showing up on this dick’s doormat with a story to peddle and a request to make.

But from there, puzzling out the details and conspiracies becomes as tough for the viewer as it is for the detective because Doc is as high as a kite.

Rather than a true mystery, the film offers a wonderful image of the political, social and cultural tensions of an era without pointing out that intention. It’s nutty, brilliant stuff.