While “Joker” misses the mark, Joaquin Phoenix’s mesmerizing performance hits the bull’s-eye

Updated: Apr 2


4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS

Joaquin Phoenix inhabits Arthur Fleck (aka Joker), as he prepares to take the stage at the Murray Franklin Show.


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“JOKER”


4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy, 2019, R for strong, bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language, and brief sexual images; Streaming (Buy & Rent) Amazon Prime Video (4K), Apple (4K), FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)


Best extra: The 20-plus-minute making-of feature, “Joker: Vision & Fury”












ORIGIN STORIES can be a tricky business.


On one hand, they can be … well, tedious—Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989), which got to the roots of Batman and Joker, being a notable exception. On the other, the audience already knows what makes the characters tick, so how much do you need, or even want, to know?


“Joker” suffers on both counts.


As A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times,” it’s so “besotted with the notion of its own audacity,” and Ann Hornaday wrote in The Washington Post, so “monotonously grandiose and full of its own pretensions,” you may well, like I did, catch yourself looking at your watch.


As for the fiend himself, does any self-respecting Joker-onado buy into the idea he was once some schmuck who was cast aside by a mean, uncaring world?

Poor Arthur Fleck just wants to do stand-up but scratches by as a clown-for-hire twirling going-out-of-business signs and entertaining the infirm. He lives with his mom in a drab apartment and fantasizes about the single mom next door. And he’s got this condition that makes him laugh maniacally at the wrong time. He’s seeing a therapist but she’s just going through the motions.


Really?


(1) Arthur Fleck puts on his clown makeup for his next gig. (2) Arthur has just been attacked in an alleyway by a gang who stole a promotional sign that he was using for a business that's closing its doors. (3) Arthur's mother Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy) has been bedridden for some time. (4&5) Arthur fantasizes about being at the Murray Franklin Show (Robert De Niro).




Director/co-writer Todd Phillips (the “Hangover” movies, “Old School”) says in the feature “Joker: Vision & Fury”) that “Joker” is more of a character study and less of a comic-book movie and that it was fun to fill in the blanks, “the who, what and where he came from.” In the same feature, producer/”Hangover” star Bradley Cooper asks, “What happens if you humanize” this two-dimensional character?


Sorry, Brad, but Joker was never two-dimensional—and what happens is you rob him of his intrigue. For my money Alfred laid out Joker’s origins when he told Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008) that “some men just want to watch the world burn.”


All that said, “Joker” is not to be missed solely for the performance of three-time Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix (“Gladiator,” “Walk the Line,” “The Master”). It’s not that he transformed himself physically for the role—Phoenix shed some 55 pounds to weigh in at a shockingly bone-thin 125—it’s that he inhabits it in every possible way. Hornaday nailed it when she said it’s a “larger-than-life performance [of] operatic bombast” that touches on the sad-clown-turned-mad-clown of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” 


Phillips says that he and Phoenix never discussed how he’d play Fleck/Joker. Instead, Phoenix says, they worked spontaneously to find the character in the moment. “It felt most true and exciting and dangerous when we didn’t know what would happen.”


No argument here. The tension they generate is palpable. Phoenix just won the Golden Globe for Best Actor (drama) and will be at the top of the list at the Academy Awards. On Monday morning the "Joker" ended up receiving 11 Oscar nominations topping all films.



(1) Arthur meets neighbor Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz) in the apartment building elevator. (2&3) Arthur gets his chance to perform at Pogo's Comedy Club in Gotham City. (3) The morning after three Wayne Enterprise businessmen were killed on the subway, Arthur and other commuters read the news about the prime suspect who was dressed as a clown.





It’s also fun picking out all the Martin Scorsese references. “Joker” unfolds in the urban/societal decay—think “Taxi Driver”—of 1981 Gotham City (with the Bronx, Queens and downtown Newark, N.J., subbing). You may well feel like washing your face and hands afterward, but the neatest trick was casting Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin, Fleck’s idol and the Carson-esque host of a late-night talk show that Arthur would kill to be on. De Niro, of course, stalked Jerry Lewis in Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.”


But as Hornaday points out, there’s another side to that coin, too. In the end, “Joker” feels less like an original film and “more like a funhouse reflection of images and themes we’ve seen before.”


VIDEO

Cinematographer Lawrence Sher (“Hangover” trilogy) is bound to be Oscar-nominated for his striking photography captured on 3.4K, 4.5K and 5K digital cameras and then mastered in 4K (1.85:1 aspect ratio). The color palette leans to the warm side with its wider gamut and expansive contrast levels from the HDR10 and Dolby Vision.


The 4K master extracts a superb level of clarity, especially in the numerous wide shots and cityscapes of Gotham City. Many shots from Sher and Phillips are super- tight, focusing right into the eyes and mind of Arthur.


AUDIO

The Dolby Atmos track is extremely active with the pulsating score from Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir (“Sicario,” “Arrival”), who became the first woman to win a Golden Globe. Look for her at the Oscars, too. The bass response resonates throughout while gun blasts and environmental sounds bounce from the height to rear speakers.


EXTRAS

Given “Joker’s” reception and box office—more than $1 billion worldwide—the extras are surprisingly weak. “Vision & Fury” brings in other members of the cast and crew and includes a few choice nuggets, but “Becoming Joker” and “Joker: A Chronicle of Chaos” are over before they start and feel tacked on. The exception is “Please Welcome … Joker.” It collects a number of takes when he steps onto the stage of the “Murray Franklin Show” and illustrates how Phoenix and Phillips worked without a net.


Craig Shapiro and Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer



Arthur shows up at the front gate of the Wayne Mansion and does a magic trick for nine-year-old Bruce Wayne. (1) Arthur confronts Gotham City leader Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), the man his mother says is his father. (2) Wayne denies the story and says Arthur's mother had been a patient at the state mental hospital and she's not his biological mother. (3&4) Arthur goes to the hospital and discovers his mother's file.





(1) Arthur is visited by former clown colleagues Gary (Leigh Gill) and Randall (Glenn Fleshler). (2) Arthur is overtaken by revenge and kills Randall. (3) Arthur is chased by Gotham City detectives Burke and Garrity. (4) Arthur is a real guest on the Murray Frankin Show and asks to be announced as the Joker. (5) Chaos breaks out in the streets of Gotham City after another killing and the Joker celebrates with the rioters.




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