Film Review: Spenser Confidential (dir by Peter Berg)


Spenser Confidential, which is currently streaming on Netflix, is the latest Mark Wahlberg/Peter Berg collaboration.

It’s a crime film and it’s set in Boston and it will probably remind you every other Boston-set crime film that you’ve ever seen.  It’s got all the usual ingredients.  People sing Sweet Caroline.  A fat gangster wears a tracksuit.  We get a long overhead shot of the streets of Southie and there’s a scene set in an Irish bar.  One of the film’s big scenes takes place at what appears to be a deserted racing track.  (I’ve never been to Boston but, just from the movies, I know that the city is basically made up of Harvard, Southie, and hundreds of deserted race tracks.)  The Red Sox get a shout-out.  And, of course, the movie stars Mr. Boston himself, Mark Wahlberg.  Seriously, if your Boston movie doesn’t feature Mark Wahlberg or an Affleck brother, it might as well just be a St. Louis movie.

In this one, Mark Wahlberg plays Spenser.  Spenser was a cop until a gangster in a tracksuit murdered someone from the neighborhood and the head of homicide tried to bury the case.  This led to an angry Spenser beating the man up in front of his own house.  Spenser was sent to prison, where he served five years as an ex-cop in the general population.  That’s right!  He wasn’t even put in protective custody but somehow, he survived.  Right before Spenser is released from prison, he’s attacked by a Neo-Nazi who is played by Post Malone.  It’s not really that relevant to the overall plot but it does give viewers a chance to say, “Wait a minute …. is that Post Malone?”

Anyway, once he gets out of prison, Spenser moves in with his mentor and former boxing coach, Henry Cimoli (Alan Arkin).  He also gets a new roommate, an aspiring MMA fighter named Hawk (Winston Duke).  After Captain Boylan,  the head of homicide — yes, the same guy that Spenser beat up five years ago, is decapitated by 20 sword-carrying assailants, Spenser is the number one suspect.  Fortunately, for Spenser, another cop commits suicide and it’s quickly announced that the cop who killed himself also killed Boylan.  It’s a murder/suicide!  So, Spenser’s off the hook and I guess the movie’s over, right?

Nope, it doesn’t work like that.  It turns out that Spenser has his doubts about the whole story and he wants to investigate because he has “a strong moral code.”  Unfortunately, as a convicted felon, Spenser is not allowed to become a private investigator.  So, Spenser and Hawk conduct an unofficial investigation, which largely amounts to talking to Spenser’s former partner, Driscoll (Bokeem Woodbine) and getting into a brawl while Sweet Caroline plays in the background.

It’s a Boston thing.

The mystery are the heart of the film pretty much leads exactly where you think it’s going to lead.  For a 2-hour crime thriller, there aren’t exactly a lot of twists and turns to be found in Spenser Confidential, which is a problem.  The mystery’s solution is so obvious that it’s hard not to resent the fact that Spenser is apparently too stupid to figure it out on his own.  There’s an extended scene where he gets attacked by a dog and you know what?  That would have never happened to any other movie detective because every other detective would have figured out who the murderer was long before getting attacked by that dog.

On the plus side, Peter Berg knows how to stage a fight scene and he also knows how to make the best use of Wahlberg’s mix of sensitivity and working class arrogance.  Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is let down by a script that doesn’t give them much to do.  Winston Duke is physically imposing as Hawk but he spends too much of the film standing around and waiting for Spenser to take the lead.  Alan Arkin appears to be having fun in the role of Henry but again, his character is underwritten.  About the only person, other than Wahlberg, who gets to make much of an impression is Iliza Shlesinger, who is cast as Spenser’s ex-girlfriend.  Shlesinger may be playing a stereotype (she’s loud, crude, and has a thick Boston accent) but she fully embraces the character and makes her seem like the only person in the film who actually has a life beyond what’s happening onscreen at any given moment.

Anyway, Spenser Confidential isn’t terrible as much as it’s just forgettable.  It’s a generic Boston crime film and you can probably safely watch it if you’re not looking for something to which you would actually have to pay attention.  Some of the action scenes are well-shot.  If you liked Mark Wahlberg in other films, you’ll probably like him in this.  Whether you enjoy it or not, you’ll probably forget about this film about an hour after watching it.

Joker (dir. by Todd Phillips)


JokerPosterWhen I used to play games like Vampire: The Masquerade, they had this disclaimer that said: “You are not really a Vampire. If you can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality, you need to put this book down.”

I think the same can be said of Todd Phillips Joker, and it may be the source of a lot of the fear associated with it.

I believe the big fear that everyone has with Joker is that it’s going to incite people to violence and/or mimicry. It’s the same kind of fear that probably happened with films like Death Wish and Taxi Driver. It’s also the kind of thing that did happen with 1993’s The Program, a film that contained a scene with kids laying down in the middle of a busy road. Someone actually tried it, and ended up dying. As a result, people get a little nervous when Hollywood produces something that could lead to someone mimicking what they see on screen. In that sense, any film has the potential to have an idiot try it out, despite all of the warnings.

If that makes you in any way uncomfortable, the movie will be out on VOD in 3 months time, not a long wait. Still, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is easily worth the price of admission.

Looking past all that, Joker is actually very good. The Crow, The Dark Knight and Conan the Barbarian are comic book films, but are so serious that you wouldn’t really associate them with a comic unless you knew it beforehand. Joker falls into the same category for me. This might be a little off putting for some who are expecting a more “comic action” like performance along the lines of say, Batman Forever. It’s the kind of film where if you stripped the credits from it and sat someone down to watch it, they might not figure it all out until 3 quarters of the way in. It feels like just another film, save that happens to be dropped in Gotham City.

Joker is the story of Arthur Fleck, a man with a variant of Tourettes that causes him to laugh at inappropriate moments, among other issues. Working as a clown and hoping to become aThrough a series of events, Arthur falls and is pushed until he reaches a breaking point. That is the quickest way to explain Joker without divulging too much. Let’s focus on the particulars.

Todd Phillips’ direction is good here. We move from scene to scene with ease, and as far as I could tell, there didn’t appear to be any editing issues (which is more than what I can say with The Dark Knight). Gotham is a dark, gritty city, reminiscent of NYC during the late 70’s. The film also manages to make connections to DC Lore in some great ways, My only complaint there is that while it’s a city that could use the Batman, it wasn’t exactly screaming for help. Personally, I thought it would be better if you saw that Gotham had more issues of corruption or crime. Nothing bad, just a nitpick.

From a casting standpoint, Phoenix is the heart and soul of Joker. Having dropped some weight for the role, Phoenix throws himself fully into the role of a man trying to keep it together while his world slowly crumbles. Come awards season, I would be shocked if he wasn’t at least in talks for nominations. Between the moments of laughter, there’s a lot of pain being expressed. Granted, this isn’t entirely new to Joaquin Phoenix, who had a similar role in The Master, but he definitely takes it to some new levels here.

 

Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2) is okay here as a woman living in the same apartment complex as Arthur, but isn’t given too much to do here. The same could be said of Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under), who plays Arthur’s mother, who tries to keep him on the right path. Robert DeNiro also stars as a late night tv show host who Arthur admires, which will remind some viewers of Martin Scorcese’s The King of Comedy. Of particular note is the score of the film, handled by Hildur Gudnadottir (Sicario: Day of the Soldado), which ties in nicely to every scene with its haunting themes.

If I had any problems with Joker, it would be that the film makes it sound like being a loner automatically qualifies you for crime. There are tons of people who prefer solitude to companionship (or at least in short doses).  It showcases both Mental Illness and firearms in such a way that could scare some audiences, suggesting that if you are medicated and stop, you will eventually cause someone some harm. If you own a gun, someone will probably be harmed. Having grown up around cops, guns, and family members with Bipolar Disorder, I don’t agree with that. This didn’t make the film bad in any way for me. In the context of the film, however, Joker is bound to raise some concerns.

Again, it’s mainly nitpicks, but for a story that shows the rise of a villain, it does work.  There’s nothing mystical about Joker’s rise, and perhaps that’s scarier than finding out he was irradiated by gamma rays or some other superpower. I will say that watching Phoenix have these strange moments of slow tai chi like movements had me wondering what was up with him. That was strange, indeed.

Joker is also a film that doesn’t have a whole lot in the way of action. If you’re expecting a major third-act action sequence, it’s not exactly there. As a dramatic piece, Joker excels at moving the story forward, and as someone who was originally tired of the idea of yet another Batman related story (with all of the heroes /villains DC has at their disposal), this film was quite the surprise.

Overall, Joker is definitely worth the watch for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, though if you’re not ready for it at the theatre, you can always wait for it on Digital / VOD.