As a philosophical question, it’s emotionally fraught and almost unbearable to contemplate. Can you put a dollar amount on a life? You can, actually. Uncomfortably. And people have. They do it all the time. You may even know how much yours is worth in the event of your death. Will you have an insurance payout? How do insurers decide how much you’re worth? What if you have an accident? What would a court of law determine to be your worth? Lawyers wrangle over this number all the time, but I doubt anyone’s every been satisfied with their answers.
When al-Qaeda hijacked four airplanes and carried out deadly suicide attacks 9/11, the loss was astronomical and the country mourned. But as weeks and months passed, that loss began to be quantified, and it fell to someone to develop a formula that would establish a financial settlement for each of the victims. Under the formula, the families of deceased CEOs would receive more than the families of deceased janitors. It wasn’t fair, but maybe fair wasn’t the point. Maybe it wasn’t possible.
Congress hand-picked Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton) to lead the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. Armed with a calculator, he and partner Camille Biros (Amy Ryan) had the unenviable task of calculating something incalculable while looking the victims’ families in the eye and hearing their devastating stories of heartbreak and loss.
One claimant in particular (Stanley Tucci) challenges Feinberg to confront the humanity of his job, maybe for the first time in his impressive career. Worth is a story about compassion. Given its content and context, it would be easy to turn maudlin and dramatic, but Keaton keeps the whole thing in check with a restrained, stoic performance – not unemotional, but an excellent counterpoint to Tucci, who eschews melodrama in favour of simple human connection. It’s a nice movie about a tragic event. Check it out on Netflix.
Ziggy Stardust is David Bowie’s alter ego for his 1972 album of the same name and subsequent tour, a fictional androgynous bisexual rock star alien sent to Earth as a saviour of sorts before an impending apocalyptic disaster. Singing about politics, sex, drugs, and the superficiality of rock and roll, Ziggy easily seduced everyone he met, and by the end of the album, had died a victim of his own fame. The Ziggy Stardust album, classified as glam rock and proto-punk, a loose concept album I suppose, maybe even teetering on rock opera, though not easily classified period, is now considered to be one of the greatest albums of all time, important and influential to the glam rock genre. But where on Earth did a character like Ziggy Stardust come from?
Stardust provides both the long and the short answer. Succinctly: America. More generally, Stardust tags along on David Bowie’s first trip to the U.S. in 1971, a promotional tour that failed pretty spectacularly (can you even imagine anyone not recognizing Bowie’s star power?) but did hook him up with Ron Oberman (Marc Maron) who would prove to be instrumental in introducing him to some key American influences. In 1971, Oberman was seemingly the only American with any confidence in Bowie, but without a budget, and the biggest date on their tour being a vacuum sales conferences, it wasn’t a lot to work with. Bowie didn’t make it big on that trip, but he did see the people and the places that would inspire him to create Ziggy Stardust, and to treat music as merely the mask while he himself was the message. Bowie wasn’t just ahead of his time but beyond time itself.
It would obviously be very difficult to capture the lightning but that was David Bowie and expect him to shine as bright while confined to a bottle. However, the extent to which director Gabriel Range and company have failed here is pretty extravagant. Johnny Flynn is a fine actor and perhaps not the worst of casting options, but he’s no Bowie, and I could never see him as such, not for even one fleeting moment. Reduced to a few eccentric and deeply affected mannerisms, they’ve turned David Bowie from visionary into mimic. It’s disastrous. Of course, it was never going to work, not without a single Bowie song, having pissed off the family and been refused to license his actual work. Range thinks he can get around it by setting the film on a tour during which Bowie wasn’t allowed to play music after failing to obtain a proper work visa. But as I stated above, that tour was a total failure, and so too is this movie. I wouldn’t even wish it on a conference room full of vacuum salespeople rowdy on a modest open bar.
Stardust, if you’re a diehard Bowie completist, is in theaters and digital and on-demand platforms on November 27.
IMDB would have you believe that mixing comedy with a thorough investigation of psychedelics, ‘Have a Good Trip’ explores the pros, cons, science, history, future, pop cultural impact, and cosmic possibilities of hallucinogens. But that’s a bold-faced lie. You want to know how little science there is? The scientist is played by Nick Offerman, that’s how. Have A Good Trip is a terrible way to learn about psychedelics academically, but a pretty entertaining way to learn about psychedelics anecdotally.
Several first-rate story-tellers, mostly comedians (as theirs is the only career path that couldn’t be negatively impacted by admitting this on tape), offer up fun tidbits from past trips. Lewis Black, Sarah Silverman, Nick Kroll, Rob Corddry, David Cross, Will Forte, Paul Scheer, Marc Maron…this list goes on for quite some time, so perhaps I’ll let you be delighted with the surprise of so many familiar faces (and just fyi, a couple of recently departed ones – Carrie Fisher and Anthony Bourdain).
Acid trips are like dreams (as I write this I realize this is true in more ways than one): nobody wants to hear about yours. And even from the mouths of our favourite funny people, sometimes accompanied by clever little animations, or less clever reenactments, most of these takes still land in the awkward category of “you had to be there.” Acid trips are not movies. They do not have plots or characters or crucially, a point. Of course, neither does this movie, which again, IMDB has generously categorized as a “documentary” but actually feels more like someone’s answering machine after they spent a weekend at work while all their buddies went to the desert to munch through a bag of mushrooms.
If you’re predisposed to liking the comedians involved, it’s not such much “worth your time” as “a semi-entertaining time waster” – bonus points if you’re 35-45, because the drug references are pretty dated.
Some directors just have their muses: Scorsese has DeNiro, David O. Russell has Jennifer Lawrence, Tim Burton has Johnny Depp, Wes Anderson has Bill Murray, and Peter Berg has…Mark Wahlberg. Spencer Confidential is another Peter Berg – Mark Wahlberg collaboration, the fifth in a lineup of increasingly forgettable films: Lone Survivor, Patriot’s Day, Deepwater Horizon and Mile 22 and it feels like it was cobbled together by an AI that’s been programmed to write screenplays based solely on other Berg-Wahlberg collabs. It has thrown together all the B(b)erg cliches: Wahlberg inexplicably shirtless, Wahlberg sporting a sexy black eye, Wahlberg sticking up for the working man, Wahlberg just wailing on a guy, driving cars, crashing cars, and just generally acting macho.
He plays Spenser, a Boston cop who’s so dumb he spells his name wrong. He suspects his superior officer is a dirty Boston cop so he shows up at his house and beats him silly. You know, not exactly a rule follower. So he goes to prison to cool his heels, as you do when you assault a police officer. And when he gets out he lies low, drives transport trucks for a living, takes vacations in the desert.
Haha, just kidding. Spenser is out of prison for less than 24 hours when the cop he assaulted winds up murdered, and guess who’s the prime suspect. And even though he’s very much not a cop anymore, he still works the case. Out of the goodness of his heart?
Anyway, he’s got two buddies backing him up: an old man named Henry (Alan Arkin) and a complete stranger who’s also his new roommate, Hawk (Winston Duke). Conveniently, Hawk is a tank of a man who’s an amateur MMA fighter and knows a little computer, so he actually comes in handy when he’s paying attention. But believe me, you don’t want to be Mark Wahlberg’s friend. I mean Spenser’s friend. Okay, I mean both. Spenser has a knack for finding trouble. He’s never even heard of minding his own damn business.
Anyway, Spenser Confidential is a new kind of forgettable that’s actually forgettable even whilst viewing. Luckily there’s no real plot to keep track of and there’s no character development because no characters were drawn in the first place. Which is super convenient if you mostly watch Netflix for the white noise.
Cynthia’s a little disappointed to learn that she won’t inherit her dead grandfather’s house. In fact, the only inheritance Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and her wife Mary (Michaela Watkins) will receive is an old civil war-era sword that they can’t wait to dump at a pawn shop.
Mel (Marc Maron) owns just such a pawn shop. He isn’t overly impressed with the sword, or with Cynthia’s story about her GrandPappy, but when he learns that this sword may be of value to a certain kind of collector, his assistant Nathaniel (Jon Bass) puts him in touch with a man crazy enough to shell out big bucks. So now these four people are going to partner up and travel down to the deep south where a “proofer item,” ie, a sword that purports to prove that the south won the civil war, is high in demand.
You can imagine what kind of idiocy you invite into your life when you start hanging out with someone who vehemently believes in a southern victory. What other conspiracy theories are you likely to wind up in?
Sword of Trust is slow in the good way – it takes its time getting to know folks, and really probing the dirty corners of people’s wildest speculations. This is the kind of movie where the players just get in a room and hang out. Even when they’re locked in the back of a U-Haul they’re pithy and quippy and full of spunk.
We got to see Marc Maron at Just For Laughs this summer, and while I expected to be entertained, I wasn’t prepared to see a truly energizing and exciting set. This film gives him the space to act and react. Writer-director Lynn Shelton crafts the perfect opportunity for him, and then casts people around him with similar improvisational aplomb, especially Jillian Bell who has really blossomed in her last few roles. By the time Dan Bakkedahl makes his appearance, we’re already sold, and the rest is just icing on a confederate cake.
Sean and I both saw Joker at TIFF last month, at back to back screenings. We met up for lunch afterward (I believe we had a slight pause before seeing the Harriet Tubman movie) because boy did I have thoughts, comments, and questions, which I tried not to yell too loudly because: spoilers.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck in a totally new but not entirely unfamiliar way. He works as a professional clown (semi-professional, maybe? – he gets sent to hospitals or going out of business sales by a central booking agency that employs many other clowns besides) but dreams of becoming a stand-up comic. He’s not a great clown – he gets complaints a lot. Maybe it’s because he breaks clown rules with the way he does his makeup. Real clowns prefer to paint in large circles because pointy-ended makeup gives kids a subliminal fright. As you can see, Arthur paints both eyes and mouth with sharp ends, normally prohibited in the clown community. But there was another rule-breaker, historically. His name was John Wayne Gacy, and Joker’s makeup is likely a subtle nod toward this man, a serial killer who entertained kids on the side as Pogo the clown. He raped, tortured and murdered at least 33 teenage boys during the 1970s.
Arthur has a complicated relationship with his mother (Frances Conroy), with whom he lives. She’s not well, and depends on his support, meager as it is. She may be somewhat delusional because she writes long-winded letters about her poor living conditions to one-time employer Thomas Wayne, hoping his outrage will be enough to improve their circumstances. Until such a time, mother and son alleviate their suffering by cuddling up every night to watch their favourite late night talk show, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro).
Arthur is dangerously thin, but people aren’t just uncomfortable about his physical self. There’s also the laughing. He laughs often, and inappropriately. It’s a neurological condition, and he hands out cards to strangers to ease their discomfort when his laughing goes on just a little too long. Still, it gets him into trouble. Joker’s laugh is iconic, and Phoenix taps into something so deranged, so haunting, it’ll nail your feet to the floor. The laugh alone justifies casting him. It is at distinctive, different, perfect. Unforgettable. Scary as hell. It sounds almost painful for Phoenix and it sent shivers down my spine.
Meanwhile, Gotham City is a total shit show. Garbage is piling up everywhere, home to super rats that terrorize the city. It’s never explicitly stated, but I’m guessing it’s 1981. The clothes are very late 70s/early 80s, you can still smoke indoors, and both Blow Out and Zorro The Gay Blade are playing at the movies. People are starting to agitate. The city’s becoming increasingly dangerous. There’s an undercurrent of discontent. It isn’t safe. Arthur gets robbed, jumped, beaten. There’s a certain electricity in the air. We all know Joker to be a villain, but the way things are going, these people may see him as more of a hero. Kill the rich – that’s their slogan. Not a great time to be the Wayne family. But is Joker the symbol this rebellion needs?
Arthur Fleck is nobody’s idea of a hero. He’s a mentally unstable man. He’s been in psych wards. He takes 7 different kinds of meds but still feels bad all the time. He keeps a joke diary filled with suicidal thoughts. “The worst part of having a mental illness,” he writes, “is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” I’ve lost count of how many Jokers we’ve seen on screen now (feel free to help me out in the comments section if you can), but it truly feels like Phoenix doesn’t fuck with any of them. Truly, he and writers Todd Phillips and Scott Silver have created Arthur/Joker from the ground up. He is an amalgam of childhood trauma, torment, debasement. You really get the sense that if anything had gone even just a fraction differently, you’d end up with a different guy. Arthur’s natural reaction to the world isn’t insanity or violence or evil. He genuinely seems to want to bring joy to the world. He wants to make the people laugh. He is searching for a way in. He is searching, I suppose, for identity. For something that makes him real, makes him feel like there’s a reason why he exists. But for one reason or another, this guy just keeps slipping through the cracks. There’s nobody to help him. If one person had reached out when he needed it, this would be a very different story. And I suppose that’s why this movie is so good. It doesn’t feel like a comic book movie, it feels more like Taxi Driver. It’s a character study. This man feels unpredictable, and yet we know his ending. There is a surprising amount of tension for a movie that can really only end one way. But director Todd Phillips creates this constant sense of swirling stress and anxiety, this emotional tautness by repeatedly having Arthur reach out. He doesn’t want to be a weirdo, or a loner. He wants that same connection that we all do. But society is keeping its distance. He’s isolated. He’s forgotten and ignored. We have countless opportunities to save the world from the Joker but we never do – we fail Arthur Fleck. Does the film show empathy toward him? I suppose it does, in many ways. Or at least to people who fall through the cracks, who get left behind. Personally, I had a hard time feeling empathy toward his first victims. Arthur is a complex man living in some complex times. There is no single reason that tips him over into villainy. There are just an awful lot of cracks in the pavement. A chasm is bound to open up, which is maybe the scariest way to look at it. There is no vat of acid. Joker’s descent into madness, or crime, or evil, or whatever you want to call it – it’s grounded in reality.
Comic books and super hero movies tend to deal in quite general archetypes of good and evil. This makes the characters instantly recognizable as hero or villain, but it also serves to put a distance between audience and character because there is little to relate to. Todd Phillips’ Joker is much more layered, which means at times you’ll root for him, and other times you’ll be disgusted by him. It’s a push-pull that few actors could pull off, and it’s why Joaquin Phoenix, already one of this generation’s biggest and truest talents, deserves an Oscar nomination, and as of right now, I’d say even the win.
Joker, however, is not just a great performance. It’s a wonderful, thoughtful film, a send up to gritty character studies of another era. Todd Phillips has said “The goal was never to introduce Joaquin Phoenix into the comic book movie universe. The goal was to introduce comic book movies into the Joaquin Phoenix universe.” Goddamn I love that quote. I think it shows great appreciation for Phoenix’s body of work. This isn’t just another origin story, this is a deep dive into a man’s psyche. Phoenix tends to gravitate toward the broken and tormented, but they’re not one-dimensional. They are faceted individuals. Different actors have interpreted Joker in many ways: a fiend, a terrorist, a thug, a psychopath. But Joaquin Phoenix goes with something else: human.
So I wrote all of that last month, after seeing Joker at TIFF. Since then, certain media outlets have tried to whip up a story about possible violence at Joker screenings and whether this movie sends a terrible message. I have wondered whether I should contribute to that noise at all but find that I do have something to say about it. Feel free to debate.
Does the movie treat the Joker too sympathetically? In a word: no. This is not the Joker from Batman comics. That Joker doesn’t exist yet. Arthur Fleck is a sad man with mental health problems. When he kills, he has a reason. None that justify the violence of course, but it’s not senseless or diabolical or insane.
Is Joker gratuitously violent? Actually, no. There is some violence, of course, but compared to other films, relatively little – in fact, probably relatively little even compared to other Batman movies. This is primarily a character study, so a lot of the interesting stuff is introspective, in his head, as his character transforms.
Is the film inviting violence from incels? Of course not. An incel, if you haven’t heard, is a man who believes himself to be INvoluntarily CELibate – ie, no one will sleep with him, and he blames it on some big female conspiracy. Incels have found each other in chat rooms and encourage each other to be nasty and wrong and gross, and angry toward women generally, and perhaps even violent toward them. They somehow think they are owed sex and even more confusingly, plot revenge for all the sex they aren’t getting. And somehow no one stops to think: this is why. This is why no one wants to date me. I am a creep. Women get a creep vibe from me, and they stay away because they sense I am an angry, dangerous dude. Maybe I should try…being nice? But the situation in the Joker movie doesn’t apply. There’s a woman he fixates on but even a criminally insane Arthur Fleck doesn’t blame her for his failures. He’s not an incel and I don’t think they even tread into that territory, so people trying to associate that with the movie are just being deliberately inflammatory.
Let’s remember that this movie is only the Joker’s birth. He’s a Joker fetus. He isn’t a criminal mastermind. There is no Batman yet; Bruce is still just a boy and Arthur is just a man finding his identity on the dark side. Where society has rejected him, the underbelly accepts him and raises him up. Of course it’s intoxicating. And of course it’s wrong. But if we’re talking body count, he’s responsible for only a fraction of Blade, or The Bride, or Rambo, or Walter White’s. And if we don’t protest every instance of violence, why are we targeting Joker? Especially when we could instead read it as a plea for early intervention, as a workbook for reaching out to the Arthur Flecks instead of merely condemning the Jokers.