‘Joker’ and ‘Ad Astra’: Making the blockbuster intimate

OCTOBER 12 — An incredibly packed work schedule meant that for the last couple of weeks, I’ve only managed to see lots of films without being able to write about them.

From Rambo: Last Blood to Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark to local policer Motif and last week’s big release Joker, I’ve caught at least about five to six films in Malaysian cinemas in the past fortnight or so.

With the latest Ang Lee film (and Will Smith vehicle) Gemini Man opening this week (which I haven’t seen yet), and Joker getting even more tongues wagging on social media now that it’s played for a week and still playing strongly, a lot of the films from the last two weeks have either ended their run or have very limited screenings now.

I’m going to make a special exception for Ad Astra though, because even if it’s suffering the same fate, with only one screening per day in most cinemas still playing it, it’s too great a film not to write about and share with you. 

So with that explained, let’s get on with it, shall we?

Joker

The hype surrounding Joker, whether positive or negative, has been absolutely deafening. 

You can’t avoid discussions about it turning up on your social media timeline or in movie groups you’ve joined on social media. 

It even won the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival, which had a jury headed by one of my favourite female film-makers of the last 10 to 15 years—Lucrecia Martel (who made the incomparable modern classics La Cienaga, The Headless Woman and Zama). 

And just to give you context on what this Golden Lion might mean in terms of the Oscar race, previous Oscar heavyweights like Roma and The Shape Of Water won it before triumphing at the Oscars.

So of course the only remaining question is this — is it that good? Despite what the reviews and plaudits might say, I think Joker is definitely not the masterpiece that a lot of people are making it out to be. 

It’s a well told and emotionally involving supervillain origin story, telling the journey of the main character (played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix, but still nowhere near his work in The Master): from a wannabe stand-up comedian called Arthur Fleck who eventually becomes the Joker.

My main problem (and annoyance) with the film is, for a film that clearly has aspirations to become a nuanced, layered and meaningful serious drama cum arthouse film, there’s nothing nuanced at all about the storytelling as everything’s very obviously laid out by director Todd Phillips, from the “triggers” that caused Arthur to become the Joker and the supposed “homage” to Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy and Taxi Driver, which saw the casting of Robert De Niro in the Jerry Lewis role, in case anyone misses that connection.

The amount of handholding here just boggles the mind, and even though I still enjoyed watching the movie, parts of it just brings to mind how annoyed I was with Birdman, another painfully literal and cynically calculated attempt at making a meaningful film that was lauded in Venice and went on to achieve Oscar glory. 

To me, it’s a solid enough 6/10 or 7/10 movie, not the 9/10 or 10/10 masterpiece that a lot of people are calling it. Approach this one with caution.

Ad Astra

American auteur James Gray is one of my favourite American directors since the mid 90s, when he first arrived with Little Odessa.

He has an elegant and very classical visual and editing style that I just can’t help but fall in love with, which reached its peak, for my money, with the stunning The Immigrant

Its closing shot, which reveals a pair of frames within a frame, is one of the greatest closing shots in all of cinema, with just one image conveying everything about the two characters in the shot. 

It’s an astounding example of mise en scene, an appreciation of which is one of the main reasons why cinema can still continue to make cinephiles the world over swoon.

The closing shot in his last film, The Lost City Of Z, is similarly swoon worthy. So it takes quite something to make a big budget (reportedly around US$100 million or RM418 million) sci-fi film set in space and starring Brad Pitt an endless swoon for almost the whole movie. 

Despite the huge budget and the space opera potential, it is actually a very intimate story about an astronaut tasked with looking for his father, long thought to be dead during a space mission years ago.

If you want to see a nuanced, ambitious, big budget masterwork with a soulful and Oscar-worthy lead performance, this is your film. 

It’s a film about how we can’t help but become our fathers, but at the same time it’s also an allegory on religion and God. 

Pitt’s character may be searching for the man who “created” him, his father, but that same father has been absent throughout his life as well, and there’s a clear allegory there as one can also read it as an allegory on humanity’s search for God, who created us, but has left us here on Earth to find for ourselves the meaning of life, and who or what to believe in.

Like the two allegories, one big and one small, the film itself plays like that, both big and intimate at the same time. 

We ruminate about the small and thoughtful things that Gray nudges us to think about, and marvel at the technical accomplishments, even at the car chase on the moon that’s thrillingly staged by Gray. This one’s special, don’t miss it.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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