By Marc S. Sanders

Once you’re a parent, you’re always a parent.  You’re also always a child to someone.  No matter if you are close with your mom and dad, or estranged and not on speaking terms, or your parents have passed on, you are always a child to someone.  Parenthood from 1989 demonstrates that you never clock out from being a parent or a child.

The Buckmans consist of four adult children portrayed by Steve Martin, Dianne Weist, Harley Kozak and Tom Hulce. They all got little ones to tend to with respective partners (Martin with Mary Steenburgen, Kozak with Rick Moranis and the other two are currently on the single status).  Their parents are portrayed by Jason Robards and Eileen Ryan and even the generation before them is represented by Helen Shaw.

With a cast of characters this large, there are various storylines and dynamics of raising and supporting children to go around.  Each child, or in other words, each parent has daily struggles to deal with.  The nuclear family of Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen’s is given the most attention when it is uncovered that their eldest child of three is struggling with anxiety.  Elsewhere, Robards finds himself trying to rescue his immature, lying twenty-seven-year-old son, Hulce, from gambling addiction and debt.  Weist is doing her best to survive a sexless life after her letch of an ex-husband has left her to deal with a daughter (Martha Plimpton) pregnant and married to a stock-car racing airhead (Keanu Reeves) and a quiet, distant teenage son (Leaf, later known as Joaquin, Phoenix).  Kozak’s storyline really belongs to Rick Moranis as her genius, nerdy husband determined to raise their three-year-old daughter as a virtuoso prodigy.  Kafka is a bedtime story.

Wow, that’s a lot of baggage to unload in two hours’ time.  Yet, it works so efficiently in a film directed by Ron Howard.  I’ve used this compliment before, but it bears repeating.  You can write a full-length screenplay about any one of these characters.  I guess that is the goal you strive for when you produce a film featuring an all star cast filling the slots of a large collection of characters.  A film like Boogie Nights and Love, Actually accomplishes this feat so well.  Parenthood just the same.

Favorite moments for me occur with Jason Robards’ character.  It is evident that he was not the best father, particularly to Martin’s character, and his admiration is likely misdirected towards the kid who hasn’t made the best choices in life, played by an aloof Tom Hulce.  I really like the story arc of Robards and Hulce’s relationship when the truth rests like an ugly slime on the surface that just can’t be filtered away.  Suddenly, a man prepared for retirement and rest, has to acknowledge that his adult son needs help but is he worthy of support and love any longer?  This movie is arguably not even the highlight of Jason Robards career, but you can not deny what a gifted actor he was.  His timing and delivery are so recognizable as a hard-edged retiree parent.

Dianne Weist, the only cast member to be nominated for an Oscar for this film, has a couple of good storylines as well.  Much of her performance stems from all too common drama where a spouse leaves her and abandons any relationship he had with their children.  It’s so unfair for the child.  It’s hard on the mother who has to maintain a career while raising teenagers who are entering a new phase with regards to love and sex.  Plimpton gets into an argument with Reeves, her boyfriend, and Weist starts to swat him away.  Then Plimpton unexpectedly announces they just  got married and Weist turns to swatting Plimpton.  Weist is funny while the material holds dramatically.  It’s a real nice balance.  

Steve Martin has a good storyline as well.  He’s a hard working white collar executive who wants to prioritize attention for his son though it kills him to lose out on a promotion he knows he’s entitled to.  At the same time, he battles with how his own father (Robards) treated him at a young age.  He makes sure that his son’s birthday party is the best.  He encourages the boy to play second base on the little league team.  He attempts to do everything denied of his own childhood for his son, now.  Still, it’s not enough.  Parenthood can often feel like a winless battle. 

Martin also has good scenes with Steenburgen, and they remind me of my relationship with my wife.  She’s the sensible one.  I’m the one who gets trapped in insecurity and anxiety and low self esteem as a worker, a friend, a husband, and especially as a parent to our teenage daughter.  I excel at taking care of the bills though. 

Why am I making this personal all of the sudden?  Well, perhaps it is to call out the true nature of family and marriage that exists within the script for Parenthood, written by Babaloo Mandell, Lowell Ganz and Ron Howard.  There are some moments where Martin’s character daydreams of scenarios for his son.  One time the boy becomes a valedictorian with a speech offering complete recognition towards his father.  In another moment, he’s a rooftop sniper blaming dad for making him play second base and missing the game winning out.  When I get trapped listening to the thoughts in my head, I envision what could be.  More often than not I’m predicting dread, which almost never arrives.  Yet, I believe parents yearn to raise the perfect child that they never were.  It’s an impossible stretch.  I write that here and now, and still, I’ll try and try.  So what, though! While I’m working for perfection and absolute happiness for my daughter, I must remind myself that my efforts are contributing towards a successful path for her full of fulfillment and happiness.  More importantly, while at least half of my efforts could lead in failure on my part, my intentions are always done with absolute love and care for her.  That’s what I see in the here and now.  I’m blessed. My whole family is blessed.  So many families have it so much worse and I wish them well.  I have to remind myself not to take what I have for granted.

Ron Howard’s film is not entirely perfect.  I could have done without some of Steve Martin’s recognizable schtick from his stand-up routines.  I always like his material.  I just think some of it doesn’t belong here, the same way Robin Williams would let his known antics creep into some of his films.  Some scenes are also spliced into the film jarringly, like when a dentist’s office is suddenly vandalized.  Thematically, these break away moments should have remained on the editing floor.  Fortunately, the movie isn’t anchored by these plot points for too long.

There’s much to relate to with Parenthood.  Kids who gleefully sing about diarrhea, to parents mired in regret and doubt.  Teenagers who think they have found love to the absence of father figures.  Grown-ups who just haven’t grown up and parents who are just getting a little too ambitious in their child’s upbringing.  This is not a film, necessarily about the love a parent has for a son or daughter.  Rather, I appreciate how it questions the role these characters serve towards their fathers, mothers and children. 

Love is only one dynamic in fatherhood, motherhood, and childhood.  Parenthood focuses on everything else.


By Marc S. Sanders

Director/Screenwriter Spike Jones is a master at adding multiple dimensions to what we always know exists. It’s been evident in his prior films, Adaptation, Where The Wild Things Are, (which I did not care for personally), and most especially in Being John Malkovich. He plants the seeds of fantasy in what we can normally touch, hear and see. Then his elements of fantasy receive a supportive crutch from what his viewers have always been familiar with.

her is another masterwork; a film that takes place in the not too distant future that expounds on our current digital age. If we can already talk to “Siri” or “Alexa” and trick–umm, excuse me, “her” (I mean “Siri”) into making sophomoric dirty jokes, then of course we are bound to approach the stage where we can literally, truly fall in love with her and then she can reciprocate.

With her raspy yet silky vocals, Scarlett Johansson is inspired casting as the voice of “Samantha.” Had she actually had a physical presence in the film I would have totally fallen for her affections. The film hinges on the performance of Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore. If we can’t believe that he loves “Samantha” more than he loves himself (a surefire test of true love as far I’m concerned) then “her” falls apart. Phoenix passes abundantly. He deserved his Oscar nomination.

From the start, you become very accustomed to the banter between Theodore and his electronic device voiced by “Samantha.” Both have personal feelings. Both have personal longings (more especially “Samantha” the computer, of all things!!!).

Spike Jonze explores all the diameters and dimensions of a loving relationship. The ups, downs, and in betweens. What’s different is how all of these layers of a relationship are received in this currently fictional (bound to come true, one day) dynamic of a relationship. Theodore and “Samantha” are affectionate. They argue, they laugh, they even make love. Watch the movie to understand that last point. It happens, and it is perfectly executed with the residual effects of their lovemaking bringing the film into its next act brilliantly.

Jones won the Oscar for original screenplay simply for how innovative this picture is. I’m not sure it’s the most exciting two hours of film, however. Personally, I think other films in this category back in 2013 had sharper and more interesting scripts. her is practically all talk and when it ended, I was ready for it to be over, and it concluded as I expected.

Still, Jones is fortunate that his cast (Johannsson, Phoenix, Amy Adams and Rooney Mara and Chris Pratt) trusts him. If they hadn’t, this movie would have lost its magic by probably how absurd this script must have originally been perceived on paper. Well done work by all involved but credit has to begin with Jones, the screenwriter.

JOKER (2019)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Todd Phillips
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beets
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 68%

PLOT: In early-‘80s Gotham City, mentally-troubled comedian Arthur Fleck, disregarded and mistreated by society, embarks on a bloody downward spiral of crime and social revolution.

Most comic book movies, by default, require at least a little pre-existing knowledge of the universe inhabited by these characters, in order for the stories to make sense.  There are precious few exceptions.  Batman Begins (2005) is one.  Superman (1978) is another.  And now we have Joker, an origin story like no other, presented to the viewer as if no previous Batman movies existed, as if the Joker was a creature as new and original as Hannibal Lecter was nearly thirty years ago.  (Or, dare I say, Travis Bickle, over FORTY years ago…)

It’s incredible, if not impossible, to believe this film was directed by a man (Todd Phillips) whose most famous movies to date have been the Hangover trilogy and Old School.  There is nothing in this gritty psycho-drama that bears any resemblance to anything Phillips has directed before.

And I haven’t even mentioned Joaquin Phoenix’s performance yet.  More on that later.

The story: Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is an everyman, your average nobody, living in Gotham City in the early ‘80s, a time of garbage strikes, graffiti-riddled subways, and a porno theater on every downtown corner.  He lives with his invalid mother and pays the bills as a clown-for-hire, doing everything from entertaining bedridden children to sandwich-boarding on the street.  His real dream is to be a stand-up comedian and appear on a late-night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), whom he idolizes like a long-lost father.

(The similarities of this plot point to The King of Comedy [1983] have been well-documented and need not be explored here; that would require a whole separate article.)

So far, this is really heavy material, a real downer.  But then the screenplay strikes gold.  It turns out Arthur suffers from an unsettling, but very real, affliction, although it’s never quite named in the film: Pathological Laughter or Crying (PLC). Also known as the pseudobulbar effect, it is a neurological condition defined by episodes of uncontrolled laughter or crying.  People with PLC often laugh out loud or cry for no apparent reason.

In other words, Arthur simply bursts out laughing for no reason, and often, as we’ll see, at the most inopportune or inappropriate moments.

To me, this was genius.  It gives a legitimate grounding for the Joker’s iconic laugh.  What would normally be comic-bookish or hammy in previous incarnations becomes a little sad.  I felt empathy towards this guy whenever his affliction overcame him, especially in the scene on the bus when he’s amusing a little kid by pulling goofy faces, and the kid’s mom tells him to stop bothering her child, and he starts laughing despite his obvious disappointment.  The empathy for me came when I could see through the laughter, could see Arthur’s face contorting with genuine sadness and misery even as he guffawed helplessly.  It was touching.

The real turning point of the movie comes when he is accosted by three drunken yuppies on a subway, and he starts laughing uncontrollably, and the yuppies start beating him up…but they don’t know about the gun he’s carrying for protection.

But that’s enough of the plot.  I think I’ve described only the parts of it that you might have guessed anyway from the trailers.  The sensationally well-told story, not to mention the complexity of the story itself, is only one half of the movie’s greatness.

The other half, it must be said, is Joaquin Phoenix’s performance.  The trailers don’t do it justice.  A lot of the performance has to do with his tortured facial expressions when he has a laughing fit.  There are a couple of extraordinarily long shots where Arthur SHOULD be crying, but is instead laughing, and his agony is evident.  He WANTS to cry properly, but he can’t.  I don’t know how he pulled it off, but you can see both emotions on his face at the same time.  It’s a masterstroke.

Another remarkable factor at work in his performance is his subtle nods to previous Jokers in movies, and even TV.  If you watch really carefully, you’ll notice a quick reference to Mark Hamill’s celebrated voice work as the Joker in the Batman animated series and films; Cesar Romero’s eccentric dance moves from the ‘60s television series; and Heath Ledger’s hair.  (If there’s a reference to Nicholson, I must have missed it.)  I just thought it was a brilliant touch to bring in all of those influences and incorporate them into this newest incarnation, as if to acknowledge the pop-culture roots of this character, while still breaking new ground.

Joker is the comic-book movie for people who don’t like comic-book movies (even Deadpool).  It’s The Dark Knight crossed with Se7en and Taxi Driver.  It’s utterly unlike any comic-book movie I’ve ever seen, and I doubt anyone will ever be able to make another one like it without comparing it to this one.


By Marc S. Sanders

It’s important to understand first and foremost, Todd Phillips’ film Joker is really not a Batman story, a comic book story or even the derivative of a Batman comic book story.

Consider the Martin Scorsese pictures Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy. Both films focus on two different characters descending into a variation of psychological madness. Yet the the titles of each film are pretty random, generic almost. Joaquin Phoenix plays wannabe comedian Arthur Fleck (to my knowledge never a DC comics character before this film) and this latest release from Warner Bros is billed as the origin of the Joker. Nevertheless, other than calling the setting Gotham City and having a billionaire character named Thomas Wayne with a son named Bruce, there is nary any calling to the mythos that fans are so familiar with. Why not just present this film with a title called “The Comedian” for example and run with it? Calling it Joker feels like a shameless cash grab. This is not a Batman villain tale, folks.

Joaquin Phoenix is astonishing in the lead role. He’s in every scene of the film and the method to own the character of Fleck is shown both physically and mentally. The known method actor must have lost at least 75 pounds to show weird, stretching contortions that easily shown his rib cage and pale complexion. Phillips films Phoenix at times where there is no dialogue either grimacing in a mirror, randomly dancing or simply leaning his head against a cold transit bus window. Surprise moments also come with head slamming against walls or glass doors. This was not all direction by Phillips. Phoenix had to have invented some of these instances.

Robert DeNiro is an obvious nod in casting as a Merv Griffin/Johnny Carson role meant to salute the Scorsese films of his heyday. When he was the man bordering on insanity, DeNiro performed with method material. Think back to when he’s Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull bashing his head against a wall while in solitary confinement.

While Joker certainly offers probably the best performance of the year in any category, it’s not a pleasant film to watch. It lacks any sense of wryness or humor. It’s a very depressing film about a man’s inevitable descent into madness. I couldn’t take my eyes off of Phoenix in the role, but like other comic book based films it didn’t leave me wanting more. I’m not eager for a continuation of this character.

If they wanted to a popular comic character story then I wish there could have been some more slight nods to the ingredients of this pop culture legacy. Couldn’t Arthur Fleck have been mugged by Oswald Cobblepot or sidled up alongside Mr. Zzazzz? How about a quick encounter with Selina Kyle or Edward Nygma? There’s just not enough evidence here for me to accept this is a Batman tale. Again Warner Bros banked on the title and not much else.

I got my money’s worth from Phoenix and I’m gunning for him to win the Oscar (not just nominated), but I can’t help but feel a little let down as well.