David’s Watch Diary: October 2019

Thoughts on Joker, The Lighthouse, El Camino, The Laundromat, and much more.

Joker

After all of the hype, pre-backlash, and a bizarre (but totally on-brand for Venice) Golden Lion win, I can say that Joker is… fine. It’s not this generation’s Taxi Driver. It’s not even this generation’s Fight Club, though thousands of “edgy” teens will have its poster on their dorm room walls. It’s just a competently-made, grim Scorsese riff about a deeply unpleasant yet pitiable character, and if it wasn’t comic-adjacent, I don’t think anyone but Oscar prognosticators would still be talking about it.

Such conversation centers on Joaquin Phoenix, whose tortured performance is admittedly mesmerizing. On that point, at least, the buzz was justified. With his sharp features, lanky frame, and Crispin Glover hair, Phoenix’s unsettling twitchiness a far cry from Heath Ledger’s more theatrical incarnation, but no less considered. It begins with the laugh, portrayed here not as a villainous affect, but a symptom of Arthur Fleck’s mental illness; Phoenix doesn’t make a single false move even as the film plays coy about what’s real, and what’s just in his head.

The film is full of interesting actors who don’t get more than a scene or two in service of Fleck’s decline — Atlanta’s Zazie Beets and Brian Tyree Henry; ace TV investigators Bill Camp and Shea Whigham; Robert de Niro sleepwalks through his role as a late-night TV host. But taken together, along with the film’s meme-ready moments like the already, annoyingly iconic staircase, Joker is less than the sum of its parts. More importantly, what exactly is the film, directed and co-written by The Hangover’s Todd Phillips, trying to say?

Fleck is representative of an isolated underclass, discarded by the society he loathes. There was overwhelming discourse before the film’s release about whether the film is poorly-timed for this present moment; that the wrong people would take the wrong message from its protagonist’s violent retribution against his perceived enemies — that the most unwell weirdos on 4Chan, having found their new avatar, would pick up where the Aurora Dark Knight Rises shooter left off. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened, but I believe that says less about where we are as a country than about how muddled Joker’s politics actually are.

It appears intentionally ambiguous — are Fleck’s new foot-soldiers meant to be alt-right misanthropes, or some kind of “antifa” types rising up against the 1%? We empathize with him early on when he can no longer afford therapy, which ultimately contributes to his collapse — but the racially-based dichotomy of the “lone wolf” vs. the “domestic terrorist,” as defined by many in the media, is unavoidable too. Phillips is careful not to present Fleck as an antihero. We feel bad for him as the garbage keeps getting piled on, but we don’t exactly root for him. However, Joker’s scattershot approach to issues of class and mental illness, not fully committing to either in exchange for shoe-horned in scenes of the Waynes, never coalesces into anything meaningful, much less original. I’ll be relieved when the conversation has moved on from it.

The Lighthouse

If Joker demonstrates unsatisfying ambiguity, where you scratch the surface and find nothing underneath, Robert Eggers’ phantasmagoric madhouse of a second feature shows how to do it right. The Lighthouse, frankly, rules. It’s a whirlpool of Melville, Beckett, Freud, and Greek myth featuring two acclaimed actors operating at the peak of their powers. As the two lighthouse keepers slowly driving each other insane, Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson deliver briny monologues with gale force.

Eggers, no stranger to historical chillers after the success of his debut The Witch, films The Lighthouse in sumptuous black and white and in the old Academy aspect ratio; Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography, inspired by German Expressionism, psychologically transports you before a single word of 19th-century dialogue is uttered. When we first see Dafoe’s grizzled “wickie” and Pattinson’s quiet new recruit, they are staring just past the camera; the image could be a daguerrotype in a museum. But the tranquility ends quickly, as suspicious seagulls, visions of mermaids, unexpected discoveries, and endless storms turn the screws on the two men. Their routine assignment begins to resemble Waiting for Godot as the gin flows and the interpersonal conflicts escalate, ebb, and burst open again.

Eggers originally planned to co-write (along with his brother, Max) The Lighthouse as a ghost story, but what attracted Pattinson and Dafoe to the film wasn’t its supernatural leanings — which remain opaque and hallucinogenic throughout — but its more complex themes of masculinity on the edge of sanity. The keepers bellow and scrap, with the veteran fiercely protective of “his” light and assigning the younger man to constant grunt work (it’s Pattinson’s most purely physical role by leagues), but there are moments of surprising tenderness, and a steady current of pitch-black comedy that is as much situational as from the sheer delight of watching these two performers tear into their scenes with gusto.

Every time I thought I knew where the story was going, it would zag in a different direction, until I simply gave up guessing and let myself get pulled into its wake. The Lighthouse is pure cinema, dazzling and fanatically detailed; challenging and hysterical in both senses of the word. Though his protagonists resemble Proteus and Prometheus, Eggers himself could be Ovid, the Roman poet who gave popular voice to those figures and was himself exiled to the edge of civilization on the Black Sea: “In our play,” he wrote in Amores, “we reveal what kind of people we are.”

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie

Brian has already shared his thoughts on this, so I’ll keep mine brief: I liked El Camino, but nothing about it felt essential. I would have preferred that the film began where it ends — with Mr. Driscoll (neé Pinkman) beginning his new life in Alaska, with scenes of how he got out of the ABQ serving as flashbacks instead of as the main thrust of the story. We still could have had our moments with Badger and Skinny Pete (especially where the latter gives Jesse his beanie), the late, great Robert Forster as Ed the fixer, and the obligatory memories of Walter and Jane, but the result could have been something new and surprising instead of what generally felt like an average, if supersized, mid-season episode of Breaking Bad.

Vince Gilligan & co. are extremely good at what they do, so calling El Camino “average” is still rating it higher than most things. But I know El Camino was originally conceived as a short, and as much fun as it was to bring the gang back together — especially Jesse Plemons, who (extra weight aside) is still brilliant as an aw-shucks sociopath — it may have been better to keep a tighter focus if the plot was only going to collect a few dots. It reminded me of Lost’s DVD-only epilogue, “The New Man in Charge,” which was more of a curio than a compelling standalone narrative. At least they finally got to film a proper western shootout?

The Laundromat

Steven Soderbergh made a Big Short-style angry infographic about the Panama Papers and the corrupt global financial system, and it seems to have already died an unceremonious death on Netflix. That’s a shame, because though The Laundromat is far from Soderbergh’s most incisive work, it’s bold and outrageous and cleverly put together.

Many of the laughs come from Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, frequently speaking to camera as the founders of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, wealth managers for the ludicrously rich and powerful. From luxurious beach chairs and darkened clubs, they explain how money gets moved internationally through various hydra-like shell companies, which allow cut-rate insurance providers, like the one responsible for paying out after the fatal Ethan Allen tour boat accident in 2005, to simply transfer the responsibility to an empty office in a different country.

That’s what brings Meryl Streep’s dogged widow (and composite character) into the story, chasing down the paper trail only to find that the services Mossack Fonseca provide are infuriatingly legal. The Laundromat moves episodically, using Oldman & Banderas’s monologues as transitional elements as they walk us through different large and small-scale tragedies around the world and how they are definitely not responsible. Some of these vignettes work better than others, and it’s only at the end as you feel like you haven’t gotten enough Streep that Soderbergh plays his last trick in the film’s call-to-arms final sequence — it actually genuinely surprised me (though it probably shouldn’t have), so I won’t reveal it here.

Anyway, it’s Soderbergh, so you know it’s good. A minor entry in his oeuvre, but good nevertheless.

Quick hits:

  • Last Sunday’s Watchmen premiere signaled that this is going to be a series to reckon with. I haven’t read the original graphic novel since college (and never saw the Zack Snyder film), but Damon Lindelof has set the table for something exciting and provocative — right from the pilot’s opening scene dramatizing the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, which most of us never heard about in our history classes. The vigilantes are almost an afterthought. I’m sure I’ll have more on this in the months to come, but for now know I’m 100% on board.
  • Mr. Robots final season is also off to a terrific start, cleverly shifting the voiceover burden from Rami Malek to Christian Slater as it seems increasingly likely that Elliot will be sacrificing everything he has left to bring down the Dark Army. Having him join forces with Phillip Price (grieving the shocking death of his daughter, Angela), is already paying dividends, too.
  • Succession solidified its place as the best thing on TV (for ten weeks out of the year) with an audacious and wildly satisfying season finale. From the yacht breakfast where the Waystar crew took turns politely serving each other up for sacrifice, to Roman’s attempt at humanity being shot down by his siblings’ baby voices, to Kendall’s press conference bombshell, “This is Not For Tears” was full-throttle Succession…and there’s nothing else like it. (And no, I don’t think that was Logan’s plan all along.)
  • I’m getting real Mad Men vibes off the final season of BoJack Horseman, and not just because Netflix split it in two (the rest is coming in January). When we see our favorite alcoholic, self-loathing horse again, he’s trying something new: Actually doing the work to self-improve. He’s really trying. He’s making amends. He’s going sober. He’s opening up about (most of) his past. And, for once, his friends are happy to have him around. Following standout episodes on Princess Carolyn’s working motherhood, Diane’s new relationship, a purely screwball Mr. Peanutbutter affair, and Todd just being Todd, the seventh episode leaves all of the characters in a surprisingly satisfying place. Then the eighth reminds us of the full scope of the damage BoJack has caused in his life, and sets up what will surely be a scorching final run of episodes. This series is a gift, as breathlessly funny (more Amy Sedaris tongue-twisters!) as it is poignant.
  • If I have anything critical to say about The Good Place in its final season, it’s to note that it’s focusing much more on plot than character as a matter of necessity. The season’s arc is clear — prove definitively that people can change, or else all of humanity ends up in The Bad Place — but you can feel the writers racing to get there, not just leaving a little less time for the bon mots and sitcom shenanigans, but keeping the new characters one-note and old characters (like Tahani and Simone) stuck in a holding pattern. Like Eleanor, though, I have faith. It’s still a joy to watch.
  • I watched the Between Two Ferns movie on Netflix. The Twitter-length review: Everything involving celebrities was brilliant; everything in between had me scrolling through my phone. Just stick to the interviews, Galifianakis.
  • Finally, I sampled a couple of episodes of Criminal: UK (not to be confused with sister series Criminal: Spain, Germany, and France), pretty much just for the guest performances from David Tennant and Hayley Atwell as suspects. And they didn’t disappoint, though I was pretty meh on the experimental series overall.

Looking ahead to: We’re entering the throes of Oscar season, and I’ll be catching Jojo Rabbit and Parasite as soon as they hit my local theater, as well as Ford v. Ferrari (11/15), A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (11/22), and Rian Johnson’s delightful-looking Knives Out (11/27). On Netflix: Timmy Chalamet as Henry V in The King (11/1) and the Scorosese/De Niro/Pacino/Pesci behemoth The Irishman (11/27). I’m also hoping to catch Pain and Glory, Waves, The Report, and am probably parentally obligated to see Frozen 2 (11/22). Mid-month harkens the arrival of Disney+ Star Wars series The Mandalorian (11/12), and the new cast of The Crown (11/17). Whew!

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