Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Why So Serious?

*spoilers ahead*

The concept of “Joker” is pretty straight-forward.  Todd Phillips wanted to show how evil is often shaped by a person’s circumstances.  Arthur Fleck is a child of abuse, grows up in a broken home with a delusional mother, suffers from delusions and a few other mental illnesses himself but can’t get them treated due to a lack of a civic support system for the mentally ill, and is doing all this while trying to get by in the notorious cesspool that is Gotham City.  Between being beaten up, losing his job, being confronted with an apparent lie about his parentage and then the actual truth about his parentage, lashing out with a vigilante attack, and then being mocked by a TV talk show host, Arthur finally snaps, and the Joker as we (sort of) know him is created.  If Arthur just snaps, he becomes one of, sadly, thousands of semi-anonymous people who commit awful deeds on a near-daily basis.  But because his path leads him to becoming the Joker, it underlines how everyday evils can give birth to a terrifying, world-threatening kind of evil.

It’s an interesting premise, and somewhat of a different one for a “comic book movie” (though Joker has none of the trappings associated with your normal Marvel or DC movie) beyond just the fact that a movie focused entirely around the villain is unusual enough.  So, the question is, why did I dislike this film?

In short, it’s a classic case of an interesting premise on paper not translating into a particularly interesting movie.  Joker is a tough watch — the one “comic book movie” trope it does adopt is carrying the “grim-dark” nature of a Zach Snyder DC movie to an extreme.  Obviously any film with such a heavy message is under no obligation to be light, and frankly, having many light moments or even dark comic moments would’ve been even more off-putting.  But the issue is, the movie’s tone and overall direction is so apparent even five minutes in that it left me just dreading a slog for the next two hours, and it was a slog I received.  If you’re wondering if there are at least a half-dozen music cues of songs about laughter or clowns scored to melancholy or violent moments, you are correct!

I don’t mind a tough watch if a film has something unique to say, but while that interesting premise I mentioned earlier is “somewhat different” for a full movie, it’s not exactly new to the world of comics in general.  Probably a good three-quarters of all comic villains already have an established tragic backstory — even among Batman villains alone, Mr. Freeze and Two-Face are on the Mount Rushmore of comic villain origin stories.  Ascribing such a background to the Joker seems almost unnecessary, since the Joker quite famously doesn’t have a set origin* and more or less seems like Phillips had Arthur become this specific villain because the Joker is the most famous one around.

* = of course, we already got a canon-busting Joker origin in the original Tim Burton Batman movie, and the comics have never really done anything to entirely bust up the old continuity of the Joker being a criminal known as the “Red Hood,” who has a header into a vat of acid during an encounter with Batman.  And, Phillips kind of hedges anyway about the “validity” of the entire movie by establishing that Arthur is delusional, so it’s possible the whole thing could basically just be the version that he sees in his head, or the one that that he’s telling to the Arkham psychiatrist at the end.

The other problem I had with the film is that in trying to humanize the Joker, I feel it goes too far in trying to sympathize or even excuse him.  To use the inevitable comparison to The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s Joker was an agent of pure chaos within what he felt was a chaotic system that deserved to be overthrown.  Yet that film, and Ledger’s performance, never let us forget that Joker was malevolent.  He’s fine with destroying everything and everyone for his own amusement, whereas in Arthur’s case, both his actions and the whole Joker movement for lack of a better term are presented as being borderline justifiable.  The Joker isn’t supposed to be a violent Robin Hood — while the Joker may be selective in his specific targets, his overall target is just “everyone.” 

Contrast this to Arthur, who only lashes out at those who have wronged him.  The goons on the subway, his co-worker, his mother, and Murray Franklin* all “have it coming” to some extent.  We aren’t shown what Arthur did to Zazie Beetz’s character and her kid, and leaving it ambiguous is a bit of a copout move on Phillips’ part since a definitive answer helps the narrative either way.  If Arthur leaves them unharmed, it shows he hasn’t entirely yet gone around the bend; if he does harm them, it shows he is ultimately evil, which better enforces the whole point of the movie. 

* = by the way, I shouldn’t say that this movie is entirely humourless, since the unintentional comedy of legendarily grumpy late-night talk show guest Robert De Niro playing a late night talk show host is off the charts.  Especially since his big comic catchphrase is, simply, “that’s life!”  Even Jay Leno would find this guy too much of a hack.  By the way, De Niro was cast as an homage to his role in ‘The King Of Comedy,’ but actually having De Niro there probably pushes the homage into straight ripoff territory.  The line between homage and ripoff, by the way, is called the De Palma Threshold.

Not giving us an answer either way strikes me less of Phillips wanting to create some mystery, and more not wanting to have the audience turn on Arthur — except, by this point we should be turning on Arthur because HE’S THE JOKER.  I mentioned earlier about how so many comic villains have tragic origins, and probably at least half of that number manifest that past into some type of a code of ethics.  Again, looking at Batman villains alone, Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, Harley Quinn, Catwoman wouldn’t have killed Zazie and her youngster; Riddler or Penguin probably not; hell, even Two-Face would spare them if his coin flipped the right way.  Adding the Joker to the list of “villains with ethics” is the only real breach of comics continuity that I have an issue with, since it goes against one of the fundamental aspects of what the Joker is all about.  To him, there’s no such thing as “they had it coming” since in his view, everyone is inherently corrupt and thus has it coming sooner or later.

My other hot take about the film is, and I have to be quiet if any angry Academy voters see this….

┳┻| _
┻┳| •.•) psst….
┳┻| _
┻┳| •.•) …this isn’t a very good Joaquin Phoenix performance.

Phoenix, usually a reliably great actor, isn’t bringing anything new to the table in his portrayal of damaged Arthur Fleck, or even how he shifts into fully-formed Joker mode by the end of the film.  Arthur seems like a poor man’s version of Freddie Quell, a much better Phoenix character from “The Master.”  As for Jokerized Arthur, even accounting for the fact that he’s still in the embryonic stages of his criminal form, there isn’t the sense of controlled menace that should be surrounding the Joker at all times.  It doesn’t help Phoenix that Ledger’s performance is still so fresh in everyone’s mind, and I don’t at all think Phoenix deserves a Best Actor Oscar for this (though it would be classic Academy to award a seemingly overdue performer for a lesser role rather than one of their headline performances).

“Joker” is an interesting movie, hence all my words about it, but I hesitate to call it an actual good movie.  I don’t know if this specific kind of story needed to be told about this specific character, and even if so, I’m not sure Todd Phillips is the director to make it.  But hey, this movie is set to make over a billion dollars, so what do I know?  To quote legendary TV funnyman Murray Franklin, that’s life.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Bob Mortimer

I think my favourite part of Bob Mortimer's "Would I Lie To You?" appearances is that, of all the funny people and funny stories ever featured on the show, nobody makes the other comedians crack up as much as Bob Mortimer.  If Miles Jupp, who laughs at everything, was ever booked on the same episode as Bob, I think Jupp would literally die laughing.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019


Hopscotch is, at once, both a moderately-entertaining Walter Matthau vehicle and the easiest game ever played.  I can't truly attest to the former, since I sort of half-watched it on TV years ago and don't really remember anything besides Matthau's genial charm, and can definitely attest to the latter, since I may have been the Pele of hopscotch.

A brief rundown of the rules, since it's possible most people don't actually know the rules of hopscotch, even though their childhood playground or schoolyard almost surely had multiple courts stenciled onto the pavement.  Most "games" consisted of kids just skipping through the numbers like they'd vaguely seen on TV, without the key aspect of picking up the stone.  It would be a little like practicing putting on a green without any holes.

Once you add the stone, however.....to quote Carl Weathers, baby, you've got a stew going!  To say it added excitement would be an understatement, and yet here I go, understating the whole thing since for an extreme talent like myself, the game was simply too easy to catch my interest.

Picture it: a young Mark is in third grade, and randomly strolling around his schoolyard during recess looking for something to do.  It was a rare day when Mark didn't go off by himself and make-believe he was a Ghostbuster, as Mark decided to be social for a change.  He stumbles upon some classmates playing hopscotch and, after a brief recitation of the rules, he decides to join in.

The stone is tossed onto the court, and the game is afoot.  And the foot is the game, in many cases, as Mark easily jumps through every square with room to spare between his feet and the lines, while then easily bending over to snatch the stone in one fell swoop and returning to the end.  Task complete.

It was so easy that honestly, I thought I'd gotten something wrong.  Maybe a rule wasn't explained properly, or I was supposed to yell HOPSCOTCH in a goofy voice while grabbing the stone or something of that ilk.  Could a game possibly be this simple?  Maybe so, since my classmates reacted like I'd just a four-minute mile.  "Oh wow, have you played before?"  Nope.  Beginner's luck....or the birth of a natural.  I sailed through that course as easily as Walter Matthau delivered a wry one-liner.

Now, just to add a dash of humility, I should note that the court was gigantic.  The squares had to have been at least 40cm x 40 cm, so it really was no problem for the foot of an eight-year-old.  And yet, my classmates apparently had the balance of a drunken Stephen Leacock character and somehow couldn't navigate this seemingly simple course.  I guess I was a bit tall for my age, and perhaps had a bit of extra leverage?  It's at this point where I bemoan the fact that I was already 5'10" by the time I was 12 or 13, and then just stopped growing forever, dashing my early hopes of being an NBA player. 

Whatever the reasoning, I was somehow a hopscotch master and everyone else struggled.  Since there was no challenge, I didn't seek out many more opponents, and I think my interest in the game began and ended that same afternoon.  Maybe if there was a professional hopscotch league on TV, I could've had more of an interest, in an attempt to emulate heroes like hopscotch legends Angus "The Hopped-Up Scottish Man" McFayden, or Sammy "Stone-Grabber" Williams.  Without the incentive of a lucrative professional career, however, it was back to busting ghosts for me.

For years afterward, every time I saw a hopscotch court, I began to sing Madonna's "This Used To Be My Playground."  Oh, what might have been.  What might have been. 

I would try scotchin' it up again one of these days, but my god, just imagine the inevitable hamstring tear.

Friday, November 08, 2019

Cities/Big Business/I Zimbra

"Stop Making Sense" is the best concert film of all time, and in my opinion, one of the actual greatest films of all time.  Yet while I've spent years and years adoring this film and the soundtrack album, it somehow never occurred to me that there was extra footage.

Turns out, during a random read of Stop Making Sense's Wikipedia page, two songs were actually left out of the theatrical release (but included on the VHS release and as DVD extras).  Needless to say, both performances are incredible, and again, HOW did it take me until 2019 to see these?  How did I get here?  This is not my beautiful house!

Monday, November 04, 2019

The 3D

3D = Double Dipsy Doodle, in this case

I wrote that whole post the other day without actually explaining why "the ol' Dipsy Doodle" had come to mind (not that my nonsensical ramblings usually require inspiration).  It's because after years of never hearing that phrase ever mentioned by anyone other than my grandfather, I inexplicably heard it twice in a two-day span.

1. my car was being serviced at Canadian Tire, and they were wheeling it out of the garage.  I could look into the garage and see my car moving, only to be confused when it was being driven towards the back of the facility rather than out the actual front door.  The guy at the desk explained that there was some kind of machinery taking up the entire central area of the garage, so the mechanic in my car would have to do "the ol' dipsy doodle" around the thing in order to leave.

The clerk was in his early 50's, which still makes him ostensibly too young to know that reference, but I was tickled nonetheless.  Maybe he heard it from his grandfather too, or maybe a parent, or maybe it just fits in with Canadian Tire's vague old-timey vibe that eighty-year-old slang can still be heard on the reg.  Just imagine, you could go into a Canadian Tire in 2099 and some clerk will use the old-timey phrase "on the reg."

2. while listening to the Maple Leafs on the radio, Joe Bowen mentioned that a player did "the ol' dipsy doodle" while making a clever move with the puck.  This mention was less surprising, since Joe Bowen is 68 years old and is as old-school as it gets.  The man may talk exclusively in old-timey references, and/or references to anyone who has ever played for the Maple Leafs since World War II.

Do I currently have a fantasy hockey team that I have just renamed "the ol' Dipsy Doodles"?  You are 100 percent correct.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Name Game

Longtime readers may remember my list of baby names, or the 42 names I had in mind if I ever had a child.  I should note, that post was written over eight years ago and I'm still childless today, so yeah, the dating life is going great. 

BUT, since I knew that this was inevitable, or that I'd have slightly fewer than 42 children if I ever did become a father since it's not like I'm Robert Baratheon or something, I've had my list of names on offer for years.  It's become a running joke that, whenever a friend is expecting, I'll forward them that list as a suggestion.  I say "running joke" since it's technically tongue-in-cheek, but let's be real, I want this to happen.  Imagine the follow-up blog post it would inspire!

This you're reading that very follow-up post now, then....well, you're underwhelmed after all the build-up, but the bigger story is that it's happened!  Two friends recently welcomed a little girl into the world, and named her Lily, thus firmly and delightfully removing one of the names off my list for good. 

Now, technically, Lily may have been a family name on both of their sides, so I don't want to claim that my list was the sole inspiration.  Tied for first, sure, but not the SOLE inspiration.  Still, I'll claim it, after all this time.  This was an exhausting as actually being a parent, in many ways.

One down, 41 to go. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Waits So Serious?

Move over Joaquin Phoenix.  And, I guess, move over Heath Ledger, as even though he was literally born the same year as this interview, surely he must've seen it at some point while growing up in Australia.

I guess this video has been floating around the web for some time now but I'm only seeing it (and being floored by it) now.  Fast-forward to 1:44 when Tom Waits sits down.  I always felt that watching Curb Your Enthusiasm and seeing Larry David in full bloom somewhat detracted from Jason Alexander's legendary George Costanza performance since it became clear that Alexander was to some extent just impersonating David, and I can't help but similarly feel that this Waits interview takes just a bit of the steam out of Ledger's take on the Joker.  Then again, I guess at most Ledger lifted the voice.....I somewhat doubt that in part two of the interview, Waits offers to show the host a pencil trick.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

The Ol' Dipsy Doodle

Every grandparent uses old-timey expressions, and everyone who spends time with their grandparents inevitably picks up some of those expressions and carries them forward through the ages as sort of a rhetorical time capsule.  One of my grandpa's favourite turns of phrase was "the ol' dipsy doodle," which was basically his go-to term for any kind of tricky reversal. 

If, for instance, someone made a big comeback in a family game of rummoli, they didn't just turn the tables on the opponents --- they pulled the ol' dipsy-doodle on them!  And then a fistfight usually broke out, since my family took games night pretty serious.  My grandma throws a mean right hook.

Perhaps with my brain was jarred from my grandma's punch, but for some reason, it took me until 2019 to actually look up "dipsy doodle" and, lo and behold, it was a hit song from the 40's?!

Tommy Dorsey was the first to perform it, and it was a hit for both the Andrews Sisters and Ella Fitzgerald within the next few years.  So the next time you complain about too many covers or too much sampling in today's pop music, don't forget that back in that day, it wasn't uncommon for the exact same song (maybe with a different arrangement) to be re-released several times within a few years' time.

If I had to guess where my grandpa really adopted the term, it was probably from an old Andy Griffith Show episode, as Otis the town drunk apparently used to sing it over and over.  So this must be where I inherited my habit of having 50% of everything I say come from TV and movie dialogue.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019


Back in 1990, Conan O'Brien and Robert Smigel co-created a TV series called "Lookwell," starring Adam West as a washed-up actor who takes his old role as a TV detective too seriously and begins to investigate (a.k.a. meddle in) actual crimes.

Now, if I told you this exact same premise was being used by a new show coming on the air today, you'd clearly watch, right?  This is the kind of thing that would be a Comedy Central staple for five seasons minimum, or easily be picked up by Netflix/Amazon/Hulu/insert your favourite streaming service here.  Unfortunately, "Lookwell" was too ahead of its time for the early 90's and the series wasn't picked up, but the original pilot did indeed come to light so we can enjoy at least one episode of this could've-been-classic series.
One wonders what would've happened if "Lookwell" had actually been picked up and run for even a season or two.  Perhaps Conan would've focused on this show and not continued to write for SNL, or never written for the Simpsons, or never become the host of Late Night.  Comedy history would've been irrevocably changed had perhaps just one more network executive been on board with watching Adam West wear the hell out of those mock turtlenecks.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Departure Suite

It's technically Thanksgiving and all, but October 14 is also the day of the Sudden Departure, so....bit of a downer.

btw, most beautiful musical score in TV history?  It's got my vote.