Phil’s retro movie last week was (finally!) The English Patient (1996). Another movie I had seen but didn’t remember much about, but Phil told me I bashed him one at the end of it the first time round, which didn’t bode well. Directed by Anthony Minghella, based on the 1992 novel of the same name by Michael Ondaatje, it stars Juliette Binoche, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Ralph Fiennes and Colin Firth.
The film centres around one man, Count Laslo de Amasy, (Fiennes) a Hungarian count and cartographer, who, in the late 1930’s was mapping the Sahara for the Royal Geographical Society. The stunning opening of the film shows him flying over the sahara with a woman passenger in a biplane, and then being shot out of the sky by German artillery.
He is left with horific burns, and after treatment in hospital, the next place we see him is on a medical train travelling through Italy towards the end of the war, where a nurse, Hana (Binoche) is looking after him. He apparently has no memory of who he is but speaks perfect English and has a book with him which contains memento’s and letters. They end up in an empty, damaged monastery where she looks after him, and he tells her his story through many flashbacks. And his story is about his illicit relationship with Mrs. Katherine Clinton (Scott-Thomas), who had turned up with her pilot husband Geoffrey, (Firth) to help with aerial mapping in the sahara. When Geoffrey has to go away for a week on a skullduggery mission for the Govt, Amasy and Katherine fall in total, passionate, consuming love, and Fiennes and Scott Thomas are both outstanding in making it feel so real, and so visceral. That’s it for spoilers sakes, but there are other relationships and elements to the story woven in and that is done seamlessly. Betrayal on several levels, spying, love, abandonment, death, loss, pain both physical and mental, and kindness, Minghella and his cast explore them all with sympathy and aplomb. It is a good looking movie, the cinematographer used his locations of Tunisia and Italy (Tuscany- wish I’d known that when I went there!) well. It is about as perfect a movie as you could wish for. Just staggeringly great. Phil so enjoyed seeing it again, it’s up at the top end of his all time favourites. I appreciated everything about it, but I know why I bashed him the first time round. It broke my heart. I cried at the end, I cried when I woke up at 4am the next morning and it popped into my head, and again at 8am making my cuppa tea. And I’ll start again if I think about it much more. There is a reason I don’t do (SPOILER!!!) unhappy endings. And this is it.
So my choice now and onto happier things. Hah, just kidding. Joker (2019) based on the D.C character is possibly even more depressing than The English Patient. Starring the intense actor Joaquin Phoenix and directed by Todd Phillips, this is about as far away from the expensive, flashy, CGI rich Marvel or D.C’s Batman extravaganza’s as you can get. It isn’t even really about the Joker as thought of in those movies, but a man called Arthur Fleck who lives with his old mother in a dingy apartment in Gotham, and works as a hired out party clown with ambitions to be a stand up comedian, which he is completely hopeless at. He is on medication for an unspecified mental illness, has a maniacle laugh he can’t control when he’s nervous, and is on medication given him by social services. When a series of bad things happen to him, and his medicine is stopped after cuts to social services, he descends into insanity and nihilism, inspiring a counter- culture revolution against the rich people in Gotham. No spoilers again, but what a performance from Phoenix, who really, really, gave the part his all, losing 24kg and studying serial killers and watching videos of people who suffer from pathological laughter. (It’s a thing apparently!) Robert de Niro plays a talk show host who ridicules Arthur on his TV programme after seeing a clip of Arthurs failed attempt to do stand up, and then invites him on his show to repeat the performance and ridicule him in person. Doesn’t quite work out that way as Arthur has gone full batshit by then. Some characters from the Batman stories have bit parts, Bruce Wayne as a child and Arthur very briefly, and Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) angling to be Gotham’s next mayor and is not the altruistic nice guy we are used to. There is a kind of love interest for Arthur, played by Zazie Beetes and then Arthur’s mother Penny, also mentally as well as physically frail and played really well by Frances Conroy, after the part was (mercifully) refused by Frances McDormand (her voice grates on me). But the movie belongs to the powerhouse performance of Phoenix. Todd Phillips was heavily inspired by Scorsese movies and it shows in the way he transforms New York into a grimy, dirty and dark Gotham City, it becomes a character in itself. More than anything the music played a huge part in the tone of the movie, an unsettling score composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir, with songs such as Sinatra’s “That’s Life” and “Send in The Clowns”, Cream’s “White Room” and the (awful) Gary Glitter’s “Rock n Roll part 2” dropped in either to accentuate a scene or contrast with it.
Phoenix won an oscar for his performance but the movie has very mixed reviews from the critics, more so than I would have expected.
Jim Vejvoda for IGN gave Joker a perfect score, writing the film “would work just as well as an engrossing character study without any of its DC Comics trappings; that it just so happens to be a brilliant Batman-universe movie is icing on the Batfan cake.” He found it a powerful and unsettling allegory of contemporary neglect and violence, and described Phoenix’s performance as the Joker as ‘engrossing and oscar- worthy’
Stephanie Zacharek of Time Magazine labeled Phoenix’s performance as over-the-top and felt that while Phillips tried to “[give] us a movie all about the emptiness of our culture… he’s just offering a prime example of it.” She argued the plot was nonexistent, “dark only in a stupidly adolescent way,” and “stuffed with phony philosophy.”
I think I fall between those two points of view. Phoenix was amazing and all that, but I never forgot he was acting.
So that’s it for this week, two very different movies, neither of which I truly ‘enjoyed’ in my usual gung-ho way, but both worthy of recommendation.