The Oscar-nominated “Joker” has brought a key question about art front and center, perhaps most prominently since the early part of this century when sample-laden songs started to become radio hits. Where is the line that separates homages from ripoffs? Inspiration from theft? Two Martin Scorsese films are regularly mentioned as the most obvious forbearers to Todd Phillips’ “Joker”: “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “The King of Comedy” (1982). I’ll look at “Taxi Driver” here.
Zorro is a rare superhero who doesn’t come from comic books, and indeed he predates the 1938 invention of Superman. He was created in 1919 by pulp novelist Johnston McCulley. The “Zorro” film series, of which the two Antonio Banderas-starring entries are the 10th and 11th American outings, dates back to 1920. Arguably, Zorro is not a superhero (he has no superpowers and did not originate in comics), but he’s listed as such enough times that I’ll categorize him as a proto-superhero for now and let the debate continue.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching “Ad Astra” (2019). Director James Gray’s film blends a solar system travelogue with the family drama of Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride hoping to connect with his estranged father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones). Clifford is on a spaceship orbiting Neptune as Roy starts off from Earth. “Ad Astra” is one big metaphor about a gulf in a relationship, but its space-porn visuals and the delicate, somber music from Max Richter made it irresistible for me. (Other viewers will find it too slow; this is a matter of taste.)
Quentin Tarantino low-key makes fun of 1969-era movie- and TV-making in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” But the production design by Barbara Ling and cinematography by Robert Richardson are as lush as “La La Land” (2016) and arguably even more impressive because this film is recreating a very specific time. So there’s no doubt the writer-director adores this time period.
Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of Philip K. Dick adaptations: Those that are faithful to his themes while switching the medium to movies (“Blade Runner,” “Minority Report”), those that are so faithful they come off too rigid (“A Scanner Darkly,” “Radio Free Albemuth”), and those that launch an action movie from a PKD premise (even though PKD almost never wrote action sequences). “Total Recall” (1990) introduces us to this most ubiquitous type of adaptation.
In 1988, Alan Moore wrote “The Killing Joke,” imagining the Joker’s origin story outside the primary DC Comics continuity. And now director/co-writer Todd Phillips (“The Hangover” films) does the same with “Joker,” a movie set outside the DC Extended Universe that imagines the Joker’s origin story in more robust fashion than ever before seen on film. It happens to be better than anything in the DCEU so far, so it’s a shame that this is a side project, especially since it builds up Gotham and the Wayne family so effectively.
Director Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” (2002) isn’t the most by-the-book adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story (most agree that’s “A Scanner Darkly”). But it respects the themes and messages of the 1956 short story and it’s ultimately one of the best movies inspired by his work. In addition to being a propulsive blockbuster actioner starring Tom Cruise, it’s also an irresistibly detailed vision of 2054 that lets us mull the pros and cons of precrime even as Cruise’s John Anderton tries to solve a tangled mystery.
Blade Runner” (1982, with director Ridley Scott’s “Final Cut” following in 2007) serves as a demarcation of child and adult movie tastes. I grew up a “Star Wars” kid, and as a teenager in the 1990s, a friend helped me catch up on other sci-fi classics via VHS rentals of “Alien,” “Terminator” and “Blade Runner.” Hoping on some level for space battles or at least flying-car chases, “Blade Runner” seemed slow and nonsensical to me.
After the solid “Hellboy” (2004) laid the groundwork, director/co-writer Guillermo del Toro and his team get to play in their sandbox in “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (2008) – and boy, do they have fun, as did I while watching it. The top-shelf production design is still there, but now with a steampunk-meets-fantasy flavor. We visit a troll market that’s like an underground version of “Valerian’s” open-air market, and meet a secret agent named Johann (for some reason voiced by Seth MacFarlane) who is literally a cloud of vapor contained in a deep-sea diver’s suit.
Of all the movies not yet released on 4K with Atmos, “Twister” (1996) is perhaps the most shameful oversight. It’s wall-to-wall action and tension and delightfully drawn storm chasers, and the special effects totally hold up two decades later. Co-produced by Steven Spielberg and co-written by Michael Crichton, “Twister” is from the era when the word “blockbuster” had some cachet, when people would keep such movies on their radar throughout the summer, enjoying them on a packed opening weekend or in the dollar theater months later.