September 11, 2019

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “Joker” & “Harriet”


JOKER (Warners – October 4):  One’s perception of Todd Phillips’ JOKER may depend in part on the context in which one sees it.  In the 11 years since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the MCU has taken over not just Hollywood’s financial heart but the very tone and definition of the comic-book genre.  The MCU has made it almost a requirement that comic-book movies have a gently self-mocking tone, characters with discernible warmth, and violence that’s copious but never actually threatening.  Even the R-rated Deadpool series is more of a curlicue around the MCU tone rather than a challenge to it.  Compared to that norm, Joker is shocking stuff: despairing, nihilistic and seriously violent.  Compared to the genuine terror of Heath Ledger’s villain, though, this Joker is rather sentimental, and compared to Phillips’ obvious models of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, the script he wrote with Scott Silver lacks sophistication and nuance.  This is an origin story, and so its ending is preordained, including the encounters with Bruce Wayne (Brett Cullen).  None of this detracts from Joker‘s real accomplishments, chief among them the remarkable performance of Joaquin Phoenix.  His pathetic clown, driven to bursts of violence, is a sustained silent scream performed with ungodly physical grace.  It’s just that his Arthur Fleck is so obviously downtrodden, so victimized by everyone around him, that his crimes seem just this side of justified, without the depraved, unmotivated glee that Nolan gave Ledger’s Joker.  Conflating Travis Buckle with Rupert Pupkin negates the twisted principles of the first and the vicious humor of the second; Arthur only seems to be a wannabe stand-up comic so that Phillips can bring in DeNiro as Joker‘s version of the Jerry Lewis character in King of Comedy for a doubleheader in-joke.  What Phillips does do extremely well is create Arthur Fleck’s world, a garish version of New York circa 1981 shot by Lawrence Sher and designed by Mark Friedberg.  Phoenix is surrounded by a fine ensemble that includes Frances Conroy as his mother, Shea Whigham and Bill Camp as cops, Glenn Fleshler as a co-worker, and Brian Tyree Henry in a throwaway role as an records clerk.  Joker is stylish and gripping, and special for 2019.  It doesn’t, however, burn down the conventions of its genre.

HARRIET (Focus/Universal – November 1):  Kasi Lemmons’ biography of Harriet Tubman (played by Cynthia Erivo) is a workmanlike example of the Hollywood Great Personages of History genre that surfaces every year for Oscar season.  Tubman, as written by Lemmons and Gregory Alan Howard, has few dimensions beyond the bravery and determination that it undoubtedly took to be a hero of the Underground Railroad.  The only additional side to her that the script offers is that she had access to heaven-sent visions of the future that allowed her to sidestep traps and strategize battles, which would certainly be a convenience.  The other characters aren’t drawn any more fully, including Joe Alwyn and Jennifer Nettles as monstrous slave owners, and Leslie Odom, Jr and Vondie Curtis-Hall as noble associates on the Railroad.  The only character who seems to have more shading, a free black woman played by Janelle Monae, has disappointingly little to do.  As the story goes on, it leans toward melodrama and even hokiness, as Tubman has to have one last confrontation with her former owner.  Erivo has a strong presence as Tubman, and it’s easy to believe she burns with desire not only for her own freedom but for all those around her.  But the material holds her down–she’s not nearly as exciting to watch here as she was in a supporting role in last year’s Widows–and given the fact that Erivo is a world-class singer, there was an unfortunate decision to have Tubman repeatedly signal her allies with hymns, delivered at such a professional level of skill that one expects a full orchestra to join in behind her.  Harriet has been reasonably well visualized, and it tells an important and worthy story in a clear, concise way.  Unfortunately, a great subject doesn’t inevitably result in a great film.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."