Film reviews: Joker | Judy | Hitsville: The Making of Motown | Harry Birrell Presents: Films of Love and War

Joker borrows heavily from 70s classics by Scorsese, Lumet and Friedkin, but it creates its own identity and energy thanks to an audacious lead performance from Joaquin Phoenix, writes Alistair Harkness

Joaquin Phoenix as The Joker PIC: Warner Bros
Joaquin Phoenix as The Joker PIC: Warner Bros

Joker (15) *****

Judy (12A) ***

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Hitsville: The Making of Motown (12A) ***

Renee Zellweger in Judy
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Harry Birrell Presents: Films of Love and War (12A) ****

Rooted-in-reality comic book movies are nothing new, but no studio has committed itself to making one as authentically realistic as Joker before. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as Batman’s greatest nemesis, the film is more character study than franchise film, a psychologically rich portrait of a mentally ill loner that just happens to take place in a world that will one day yield a cowl-wearing billionaire vigilante. If Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning take on the character in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Night was pure id, Phoenix’s take builds a credible cause-and-effect framework for the character’s eventual nihilism, his eponymous alter ego ready for his close-up only in the movie’s final minutes.

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In this film, which is set in a crime-infested Gotham City clearly modelled on the punky, lawless, pre-gentrified New York of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Joker is a would-be stand-up comic called Arthur Fleck whose day job as a clown-for-hire is complicated by a neurological condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inopportune moments. Phoenix uses this malady to add poignancy to the self-pitying tears-of-a-clown motif, accentuating Arthur’s alienation. Arthur can’t relate to the world, but in the context of this film, his off-kilter laughter is no less bizarre than the forced bonhomie of the studio audiences chuckling along to the corny routines of Murray Franklin, host of the nightly TV talk show on which Arthur fantasises about appearing.

Scorsese fans will recognise the clear nod to The King of Comedy here, something made explicit by Robert De Niro’s casting as Franklin and the delusional Arthur’s similarity to the fame-chasing sociopathy of Rupert Pupkin. They’ll recognise too the debt the film owes another Scorsese/De Niro classic, Taxi Driver, especially as Arthur’s kicked-around status starts boiling over from fantasy to actual violence after he becomes fixated on Bruce Wayne’s father and the way the rich seem to disregard people like him.

Indeed, director Todd Phillips (hitherto best known for The Hangover movies) is nothing if not a good student of this particular cinematic era of not-going-to-take-it-anymore discontent. In addition to Scorsese he riffs on Sidney Lumet’s Network and William Friedkin’s The French Connection, setting the scuzzy tone with a propulsive foot-chase that echoes the Gene-Hackman-as-Santa-Claus opener of the latter. In Phoenix, though, he has a performer capable of helping the film transcend its many influences. Like the flip-side to his bearish, hammer-wielding vigilante in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix’s Arthur is a fat-free freak with mummy issues, his dancer-skinny frame contorting itself into uncomfortable-looking shapes that reflect his misbegotten status in society and his unconscious – and eventually very conscious – desire to be seen. That also makes the film feel very much of the moment, not because Joker acts as any kind of call to arms, but because the irony of its title character’s condition reflects the reality of a world in which absurdity is no laughing matter.

There’s something appropriately (albeit unintentionally) low-rent about Judy, the new Renée Zellweger-starring biopic about Judy Garland. Zeroing in on her 1968 London residency the year before she died, it’s another film about the dark side of stardom, picking up her story when she was effectively homeless and hawking her wares around the nightclub circuit for pitiful fees. As such, the film’s obvious budget shortfalls reflect the story being told on screen, with Zellweger lending proper Hollywood sparkle to a production that seems a little beneath her. She’s good, though, and to his credit, director Rupert Goold works with what he’s got, emphasising the mirage-destroying reality of the entertainment machine with flashbacks to Garland’s teen years as a studio-shackled starlet on the set of The Wizard of Oz. But the pulling-back-the-curtain metaphor only takes the film so far. Zellweger makes it work, but it never really transcends its stage-play origins.

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Officially sanctioned histories can be hit or miss affairs, with penetrating analysis sometimes sacrificed for access. The Berry Gordy approved Hitsville: The Making of Motown is unashamedly hagiographic in this respect, but having Berry, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and many of the other key players lay out the story of his legendary record label in their own words alongside some incredible archival footage feels like a valuable trade-off – a way of getting this on film for the ages before its too late.

On the subject of valuable archival histories, Harry Birrell Presents: Films of Love and War transforms the vast personal archives of Scottish amateur filmmaker Harry Birrell into an absorbing, intensely personal visual history of the early part of the 20th century. Birrell shot some 400 cine films over the course of his life, documenting it in rigorous detail before such impulses were all that feasible. But it’s the films he made during his military service that are the real eye-openers here. Augmented by diary extracts (narrated by Richard Madden), director Matt Pinder uses them to provide an invaluable glimpse of far flung countries such as India, Nepal and what was then Burma at a time when some of these places had barely been properly mapped, let alone filmed (Birrell also did the mapping). It’s an incredible visual record — made all-the-more valuable by Birrell’s cinematic eye. ■