“We should have known, huh? You can always tell the winners at the starting gate. You can always tell the winners, and you can tell the losers.”
Shot over the course of a decade, Sergio Leone’s final film is a sprawling gangster epic that reflects his regret at turning down the opportunity to direct The Godfather. Although he adopts the sequel’s approach of intercut flashbacks (as well as its lead, Robert de Niro), its use here bears greater resemblance to Casablanca — an older man, weary with regret, is forced to revisit the ghosts of his past. At nearly four hours in length, the film held me riveted despite convoluted storytelling, some threads still feeling truncated despite the running time (allegedly between eight and ten hours of footage were trimmed down to the final version and certainly now this would fare better as an HBO mini-series). What Leone nails, however, is tone: the intoxication of greed and success, the wistful remembrance of first love and lost friendship, the ugliness of violent acts, and the weight of guilt. So strong are those aspects, enhanced by Ennio Morricone’s score, that they surpass the specifics of the story. No, I don’t think Once Upon a Time in America challenges The Godfather‘s place in crime cinema, but notably Leone avoids Coppola’s glorification of crime: we may want to see the street hoodlums succeed as children but as a gang he forces us to see them as extortionists, rapists and murders, unpleasant as it may be.
“The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”
Joker abandons the formulaic comicbook movie to widen the canvas in another strong argument against the connected universe that DC has fumbled in its attempt to chase Marvel’s success; the result is unrelentingly bleak, uncomfortable viewing but utterly mesmerising. The film will be divisive less because of controversial content than because of expectations about how its titular subject will be explored. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is extraordinary, his emaciated contortion as unsettling as his wild laughter and introspective gaze. However, despite the extreme close-ups and unreliable perspective, the script does not really delve deeply into Joker’s psyche — instead it reflects society’s treatment of such an individual: the ostracisation and abandonment of the mentally ill. The character’s violent acts are brutal and shocking, never cathartic or glorified, with Fleck openly eschewing any political purpose ascribed by others, but the film invites us to understand how they occur. Todd Phillips channels Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, de Niro’s presence making no secret of these inspirations. Fleck’s talk show appearance reflects society’s willingness to mock and exploit the vulnerable (reality TV being particularly guilty), shying away when it becomes awkward rather than entertaining, as if the person has suddenly become an affront to our sensibilities. Joker is at its weakest when tying itself into the Batman universe, cursory scenes with a young Bruce Wayne serving no real purpose. I also wish the film had found a more a focused ending to demonstrate whether Phillips’ vision was driven by intent rather than accidental, but this is unsettling, haunting cinema in the very best way.
“Can I ask you something? These sunglasses: they’re really nice. Are they like government issue, or do you guys all go to the same store together?”
I was inspired to watch this off the back of the Rick & Morty episode Mortynight Run. An accountant on the run is chased by bounty hunters, the FBI and the mafia. The majority of the film is an odd couple road trip as De Niro’s Jack Walsh catches his target but has to haul him back to LA. The middle section devolves into a repetitive series of run-ins with a rival bounty hunter and mafia goons while the FBI are one step behind. Fortunately it closes more satisfyingly with a proper character arc in its conclusion.
“If they don’t offer us justice, then they aren’t laws! They are just lines drawn in the sand by men who would stand on your back for power and glory.”
Although its rise from a spoof trailer in Grindhouse to an actual franchise is impressive, the creativity here is less so. Robert Rodriguez serves up the expected sex and violence of exploitation cinema, but this is less a modernised homage like Planet Terror than derivatively aping the genre’s style. There is fun to be had at the over-the-top ridiculousness of it all – “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us!” – but there is little of substance here that Rodriguez has not achieved better before in his Mariachi trilogy.