Orange Thursday: Radioactive (2020) and Joker (2019)

Every Thursday, TMINE reviews two movies, carefully avoiding infringing a former mobile phone company’s trademarked marketing gimmick

And Orange Thursday is back on double duty, with two films to talk about, albeit on a Friday since I ran out of time yesterday.

The first is due out this month and is a biopic of the double Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie – Radioactive. The other is an origin story for an Oscar-winning supervillain – Joker.

Who says there’s not diversity of awards on TMINE?

See you after the ads and the trailer.

Radioactive (2020)

Plot

The scientific and romantic passions of Marie Curie and her husband Pierre, and the reverberations of their discoveries throughout the 20th century.

TMINE verdict

At first glance, Radioactive looks like it’s just a biopic of Marie Curie (Rosamund Pike) that starts with her meeting her future husband Pierre (Sam Riley) in Paris. It then shows her gradual warming to him as he offers her first a place to work and then a scientific collaboration, before they discover not one but two new elements, radium and polonium.

These being radioactive elements, you can guess what happens to poor Pierre and the rest of the movie then whisks through her later life as a widow, particularly her involvement with mobile X-ray units during the First World War with her own Nobel Prize-winning daughter Irène (Anna Taylor-Joy).

But as the title suggests, it’s also a biopic of radioactivity itself. This is a mistake.

Radio what now?

The movie feels like it’s written by someone (Jack Thorne, surprisingly enough) who’s heard about science, wants to write about it, but doesn’t quite understand it so hurries through the working out to try to get to the answer at the end.

The result is a decidedly odd affair. On the one hand, the biographical study of the ‘radioactive’ (ie awkward, shunned) Curie is cursory. It provides scant details about her life, except in response to Pierre, making it oddly counter-feminist.

Scientifically, it doesn’t exactly flesh out their work, other than it involved laborious grinding of pitch blend. Why did the Curies call the elements radium and polonium? You can probably work it out if you don’t know, but the film doesn’t explain the reasoning behind their choices, let alone get on to the properties of the elements, where they fit, and more.

Instead, the time it should have spent focusing on their work is instead dedicated to the second biopic. A biopic of radioactivity.

This part is seriously flawed. For starters, Becquerel discovered radioactivity, and uranium and its ore were well known before the Curies’ work. But although the movie acknowledges that in passing, the movie acts like they’re not just the discoverers but the inventors of radioactivity. Through flashforwards, largely to negative incidents, we see how radioactivity has affected history and the human race.

Which is fine, but the association seems to suggest (unintentionally, I think, judging by the director’s comments) that this all stems from Curie’s work. Yep, she and Pierre discovered radium and polonium and she devised an explanation for their creation through nuclear fission. But rather than focus on these and explain them in any detail, the movie instead dramatises the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb, the nuclear testing in the US near Las Vegas and the Chernobyl disaster.

You might as well blame Ernest Rutherford for that. Or have a biopic of James Clerk Maxwell that intercuts late 19th century Scotland with the invention of the railgun.

A marriage of equals

So Radioactivity does science and scientific history badly. Hell, you’ll come out of it not even knowing there’s an element named after the Curies. It also makes Marie Curie seem marginally autistic (who knows if she was), which is now the default portrayal of anyone with scientific acumen.

It’s not even a great biopic of Curie. You won’t get much of a hint of her Polishness, not even the fact she taught her children Polish, for example.

However, on the positive side, what it is very good at is history in general and a portrait of a genuinely loving marriage and an equal scientific partnership. The movie excels when it’s looking at period detail, discussing the rise of French nationalism and its depiction of the First World War.

When it’s dealing with the Curies, it is actually a very moving and touching, as we see how dedicated to one another they become, as well as how egalitarian Pierre is despite the age he was living in. The film’s also very good at showing the general chauvinism on display and the opprobrium Marie received in Paris after Pierre died, for both her life choices and for being Polish.

But if you want to know about their science or lives in any detail, you’re betting off reading Wikipedia.

TMINE rating

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Joker (2019)

Available on iTunes and Amazon

Plot

Forever alone in a crowd, failed comedian Arthur Fleck seeks connection as he walks the streets of Gotham City. Arthur wears two masks — the one he paints for his day job as a clown, and the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel like he’s part of the world around him. Isolated, bullied and disregarded by society, Fleck begins a slow descent into madness as he transforms into the criminal mastermind known as the Joker.

TMINE verdict

By and large, although I tend to read DC comics more than Marvel comics, I’ve not been a big fan of the DC movies. Certainly, there’s very little that could persuade me to watch either Suicide Squad or Birds of Prey for example.

And I had no interest in watching Joker. I mean another origin story, but a supervillain’s origin story? Please no.

Still, it did win actual proper, grown-up awards and it was available for £2.99 rental at the weekend, so I thought I might as well.

And you know what? It’s actually very good. A very good movie that is. As a superhero/supervillain movie, it sucks. But then again, that’s not what it’s trying to be.

Rather, the main bulk of the movie steers away from vats of disfiguring chemical waste et al to instead be both a moving portrayal of mental illness and a revisit of Falling Down for the socially excluded.

The joke’s on him

Set in the nightmarish 70s/80s that was New York/Gotham, the movie follows Joaquin Phoenix’s failed comedian and would-be clown as he tries to make it big as a stand-up, while holding down a side-job as a clown. His big problem is that he doesn’t really understand people and he isn’t really funny.

To be fair, he’s stuck at home with his physically and mentally ill mum. He might also have a condition or two of his own, and he frequently has to visit a state-provided psychiatrist with minimal interest in him. Plus life (and Gotham) seems to keep visiting terrible plagues of misery upon him, from random beatings by teenagers and constant job losses to televisual mockery and more.

Slowly, we watch him ‘break bad’ and begin to gain some modicum of self-esteem. With a stunning and justifiably Oscar-winning performance by Phoenix, it’s a very convincing portrayal of why someone who only wants to make people laugh would end up a dangerous and homicidal criminal.

Dinner, Batman?

Nevertheless, the movie is still a prequel to the Batman movies, albeit some notional Batman movies that don’t yet exist and that would see a 65-year-old Phoenix fighting a 30-something Batman, judging by the cameo of a tween Bruce Wayne.

Here, it’s less successful. But not unsuccessful. If you’re expecting a rousing climax of superviolence and the Joker coming up with a cunning plan to destroy Gotham, you’ll be disappointed, for sure.

However, combining that “prequel but not a prequel” flexibility with its existing sensibilities, it does give a new, previously unaired angle to the Batman-Joker relationship. Here, Bruce’s dad, Thomas, is no longer the benevolent patrician who tries to help a decaying city whom we saw in the Christopher Nolan films, for example. And sure Pennyworth has done something different here, too.

But by making Wayne Sr an out of touch 1%-er who despises the poor he’s trying to help and is going to give ’em what’s good for ’em, the film actually has something political to say about the underlying right-wing subtext of Batman – ie. what’s needed to fight crime isn’t the ending of wage inequality, social programmes et al, but a billionaire going out at night in a costume to punch the poor and mentally ill.

It also takes on elements of the Occupy Wall Street movement, essentially making the Joker a figurehead for the dispossessed and oppressed – not quite a Robin Hood, but a clown-like, enraged V taking out his anger on the city’s blue bloods.

The joke’s on you

As well as a fabulous piece of rage against the uncaring, isolating nature of American society, with a misanthropy that practically drips from every frame, Joker is a tense thriller. While Heath Ledger’s The Dark Knight Joker is ultimately a vastly more terrifying incarnation of the clown criminal, Joker probably has more to say than The Dark Knight and any movie that gets Robert de Niro to essentially reprise his King of Comedy role after all these years deserve double credits.

The final act could probably have done with having a bigger climax, something to justify the descent into madness and Hell that the film depicts. But then again, the loss in the second half of the movie’s quieter, more sophisticated moments, such as the now famous restroom dance scene, is one of its Achilles’ Heels so maybe it could have done without having a more subdued ending, too.

Either way, Joker will at least remain stamped on your memory after watching, mainly due to Phoenix’s outstanding performance and the fact you might even cry tears for this clown.

TMINE rating

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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