'Joker' proves itself to be brilliant cinematic art despite noise from cautious critics

(Photo by Niko Tavernise)

(Photo by Niko Tavernise)

By Ryan Hanlon

When asked about his motivation for making the movie “Joker,” director Todd Phillips wondered, “what would it be like to really strip comic book movies down and do an intimate character study... a deep dive kind of hand-made movie where you explore one of these comic book characters in a unique way?”  In “Joker,” Phillips does indeed explore the mind of a comic book villain from a unique and interesting perspective. Despite condemnation from many national critics due to its dark and cynical themes, Phillips’ “Joker” was fantastic, and it single-handedly redefines the superhero genre in a way that is both fresh and compelling.  

While “Joker” was clearly inspired by Heath Ledger’s take on the Clown Prince of Crime in “The Dark Knight” (there is an overt ode to Ledger’s Joker in an eerily similar cop car scene), Phillips’ iteration is a very dark character-driven movie dominated by a stellar and twisted lead performance from Joaquin Phoenix the likes of which I haven’t seen since Daniel Day Lewis in “There Will be Blood.”  From Forbes to the Atlantic, critics all seem to agree on the stellar quality of Phoenix’s performance.  And the 90% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes coupled with a wildly successful first two weekends at the box office confirms that the vast majority of fans loved the film.  What some critics don’t agree on, however, is whether “Joker’s” message, if there is one, resonates with any profound cultural impact.  In addition to a (mostly) spoiler free review, this article will explore what “Joker” means within today’s society as well as what some critics’ response to the film says about today’s society. 

Most critics’ response to the film can be summed up as one of two general themes, which are really just different ways of saying the same thing: either (a) “I don’t like what the film has to say,” or (b) “the film has nothing significant to say.”  The thrust of the criticism from these types of reviews is that the writers of “Joker” dportray its main character with some degree of sympathy, and his vile actions as a reasonably logical response to his circumstances.  However, this is not morally irresponsible filmmaking; rather, this is how shrewd storytellers create a villain that people care about.  

Until “Joker,” superhero movies were about two or more characters, some clearly good and some clearly evil.  Legitimate stories, on the other hand, are about complicated protagonists and antagonists who combine good and bad qualities.   Take for example, Jaime Lannister from the smash hit television series “Game of Thrones.” In Jaime Lannister, George R.R. Martin created a very complex character that was both sympathetic and reprehensible.   When the audience is made to sympathize with villains and become emotionally invested in their plight, they become far more powerful characters. Such is, to some degree, what Todd Phillips has done with Arthur Fleck in “Joker.”  Phoenix, with a malnourished frame and a lot of hypnotic dance moves, convincingly portrays a man who has been cast out by society and scarred by his psychologically abusive mother (an aspect of Joker’s genesis story that has been conveniently overlooked by all of the reviews pegging society/government as the enemy in the film). Failed by his circumstances and the system that created him, Arthur slowly descends into madness…not because he is a preordained psychopathic serial killer, but because he is a fallible human being that has been neglected and pushed to the brink. 

Arthur’s plight is pretty damn realistic and socially relevant which explains the moral outcry of some critics playing gatekeeper and attempting to protect the masses from misinterpreting Phillips’ Joker as a hero rather than a villain.  These critics worry about the final acts of the film, wherein Joker truly embraces his most insane and destructive impulses which finally validates Arthur by earning him the attention and praise he’s been craving. This is the message that the gatekeepers detest and fear: that a segment of the audience may feel close to Arthur and empathize with his story, those who feel overlooked and unloved and angry with society, may interpret this movie to mean that if they too lash out, others will follow suit – that they are not alone.  

Is this a dangerous message in today’s societal and political landscape?  Absolutely. Should Phillips be condemned for making this movie? Absolutely not.  In fact, the very idea that “Joker” is seen to have such a potential to resonate with violent and downtrodden fame seekers only confirms its brilliance.  That is why the film feels so real, so raw, and so sinister. This could happen, it has happened to one degree or another in our real society (Arthur’s story, at least, not necessarily the revolt he inadvertently creates).  But the movie, as does all art, relies on the audience to interpret it, and I cannot imagine any sane viewer coming out of this movie thinking it is promoting or even passively endorsing violence or mass shootings. Arthur’s last couple murders were shocking, cold hearted and bone chilling.  If anything, I came out of this movie thinking that it is encouraging more acts of everyday kindness, more mental health awareness and more social and governmental support for the same precisely because unjustified killing is such an extreme and terrible consequence of failing to do so. 

The point is, “Joker”, like all movies, is a form of art.  Whether it is good or bad art is for the viewer to decide. I happen to think it was awesome - clearly others didn’t.  We as a society should not condemn an artist for creating a piece of art that may incite a particular (unintended) reaction in a small corner of the population.  To censor or suppress artists out of fear for how their message will be received by the audience contributes to the death of nuance in our culture, and nuance is important.  If often feels to me like the spaces within today’s society where people are encouraged to engage in nuanced conversations about controversial topics are quickly disappearing, but movies should always be one of those spaces.  

In a broader sense, I think Phillips has created a blueprint for DC going forward that will distinguish it from the more colorful and happy-ending world that Marvel has so successfully created and branded.  “Joker” felt very fresh and independent of previous Batman lore, but it creatively tied in familiar faces and iconic moments. Also, Phillips’ ability to work a decent amount of laugh out loud moments into a film with such a bleak tone was remarkable.  I am encouraged by the prospect of other DC comic book characters existing in the raw and painfully realistic world created by “Joker.” Batman, a hero without any real superpowers, is the perfect character to occupy this space, and I can only hope that DC explores a similar deep and dark dive into Batman as a character, what really motivates him, and how he is tied to Joker (whether it be Arthur Fleck or another version of the Clown Prince spawned from Arthur’s revolution).  Here’s to hoping that Phillips and future filmmakers in this genre continue to innovate and push the envelope, even if it means making movies that require more nuance in deciphering the line between good and evil, hero and villain.

(The Atlantic) "I’ve Seen the Limits of Journalism" by John Temple, Director of UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program

lead_720_405.jpg

No. Not again.

That’s how I felt on Saturday when I heard the terrible news from El Paso and then again on Sunday morning when Dayton added a second blow. I imagine I wasn’t alone. Each time the shocking news of another mass shooting arrives, I find myself wanting to turn away.

I was the editor of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver when the Columbine High School shootings gripped the nation in 1999. The Columbine attack was covered live on cable and broadcast television. At the time we thought it would be the mass shooting to end all mass shootings. How could we let anything so horrible happen again? Especially after seeing what we had all seen.

(The New Yorker) Kamala Harris Makes Her Case

Kamala (in yellow) was born in Oakland and attended law school at UC Hastings.

Kamala (in yellow) was born in Oakland and attended law school at UC Hastings.

One day in early June, Kamala Harris, the junior senator from California, tapped the glass of the bakery case at a Blue Bottle coffee shop on a non-iconic block in Beverly Hills. No one seemed to know who she was—another polished professional woman, grabbing an afternoon coffee—which was fine by her. She had chosen the spot, presumably for the anonymity. A few minutes later, her body woman delivered her a cookie: caramel chocolate chip, covered in a light snowfall of flaky salt. As Harris broke off small pieces and popped them in her mouth, we talked about her early life, rummaging through the layers for identifying details. The child of immigrant academics who divorced when she was young—her mother, a cancer researcher, came from India, and her father, an economist, from Jamaica—Harris grew up between Oakland and the Berkeley flats, but also spent time in college towns in the Midwest and a few years in Montreal, where her mother was teaching. “A very vivid memory of my childhood was the Mayflower truck,” she told me. “We moved a lot.” She speaks some French. She loves to cook and enjoys dancing, puns. She tells her own story uneasily. “It’s like extracting stuff from me,” she apologized. “I’m not good at talking about myself.”

(California Sunday) ‘‘You Got Your High School Diploma?’’ What happens when you put a classroom on wheels and park it in the poorest neighborhoods of San Francisco?

aa9.jpg

One day late last August, Shelia Hill sat at a table on a sidewalk in Sunnydale, outside a San Francisco city bus that had been painted an exceedingly upbeat shade of apple green, yelling at every car that rolled by.

“YOU GOT YOUR HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA?”

“Hey, how YOU doing? You got a minute?”

Shelia — who is 51 and has bright red hair and who is fond of sharp sweats, lacquered nails, and a pair of Adidas that say love — was sitting with Katie, the bus driver, trying to recruit students. Shelia was doing all the work.

“How’s your day going? Blessed?”

“Hey, YOU got a diploma? You want an application?”

Sunnydale —  the name of a housing project but really the name of a neighborhood — is one of the poorest, most forgotten parts of San Francisco. If Shelia could get people to fill out applications, she could perhaps get them to change their lives, since the bus was a traveling classroom, the latest project of the Five Keys Charter School. Shelia had done it — she’d bucked nearly 40 years of failing at school and earned a high school degree. Though to be honest, she hadn’t done it on her first try. Or her second. Or third. Or fourth try, either. By the time Shelia arrived at the Five Keys classroom at 1099 Sunnydale Avenue, in 2014, she’d not learned how to read in high school and dropped out. She’d not learned how to read at San Francisco City College and dropped out. “The lady told me I was wasting my time,” she says. “That I just need to get a job, let the school thing go.” She’d fallen into drugs, prostitution, bad relationships, and jail.

RIP Jake Phelps, a San Francisco Skateboarding Legend

(Photo by Andrew Paynter, CaliforniaSunday.com)

(Photo by Andrew Paynter, CaliforniaSunday.com)

The New York Times reviews ‘Vice’ and the story of Dick Cheney's America

aa33.jpg

Bale, thickening and graying before our eyes, burrows into the personality of a shrewd operator endowed with whatever the opposite of charisma might be. His Cheney lacks any trace of charm, humor or warmth, except sometimes in the company of his family. Dick’s devotion to his wife and their two daughters is genuine, but what motivates him above all is the study and acquisition of power, a vocation in which he has Lynne’s fierce and unstinting support.

The Great Scooter Crisis of 2018

image.png

By Peter Horn

In a rare show of local bureaucratic efficiency, the powers that be in San Francisco heard the desperate cries of their constituents and came together to confront the city’s most pressing issues. Or issue, rather: The Great Scooter Crisis of 2018 (“TGSC2018”).

In a zero-sum resource environment, this act of bravery is not without consequences. All police officers with pre-2010 rent control who’ve managed to maintain an address in the city will be reassigned to the elite Scooter Task Force (“STF”). In a move lauded by local officials as fighting fire with eco-conscious fire, the 2,298-person task force will be given an armory of fully stocked AR-15s and unrestricted use of the city’s 14 police horses normally deployed to city parks in the fight against glass bottle-riddled picnics. They will be given orders to use lethal force when necessary, and if scooter traffic near the Philz truck on Marina Boulevard in the last two weeks is any indication, there will be blood.

With the recent surge in property crimes around the city, the STF is encouraging citizens not to leave valuables in their cars while officers’ resources are occupied by the scooter threat. Citizens should expect additional BART delays as well as a generous amount of public nudity and urination on the trains wholly unrelated to TGSC2018.

Then there’s the question of where to store the abominable things once the threat has been neutralized. Thankfully the city’s leaders had a Plan B after a Mission District homeowners group objected to spray-painting them blue and tossing them in Zuckerberg’s yard. The 95 affordable housing units in the Natalie Grub Commons complex just received its 6,581st lottery application, and it’s going straight to the top of the waiting list.

Critics of the plan will be comforted to know institutional investors have begun to show interest in the Affordable Scooter Storage sector despite its unfortunate abbreviation, and rumor is WeWork is eyeing a WeScoot concept where members pay a premium hourly rate to store their scooters in units with exposed beams and ironic wall murals.

None of these measures, of course, are free, so budget dollars will need to be reallocated from less urgent uses. Homeless shelters and opioid abuse clinics will temporarily shut their doors, while mental health facilities will be converted to post-traumatic scooter centers to give reeling citizens a safe place to work through the stages of Scooter Inconvenience (“SI”).

San Francisco is truly a world class city, complete with its share of world class problems. We can all rest easy knowing our leaders are facing these pressing issues head-on, one two-wheeled menace at a time.

"Sacramento Proud" - A native shares his thoughts on the Stephon Clark tragedy

By Ryan Hanlon | @ryan_hanny 

The Stephon Clark tragedy has shook my community to the core.  Aside from an enlightening stint at UC Berkeley for college, I have spent virtually my whole life in Sacramento.  Naturally, I am a loyal Sacramento Kings fan.  While strong ties to the community certainly grant me an emotional stake on this issue, my qualifications for writing this article end there.  I was raised by a conservative white family in the middle class suburb of Elk Grove.  I am not a police officer, and I have no family or close friends that have served in law enforcement.  I also have never served in the military or been in a combat situation.  Thus, I am lacking perspective on both sides of this equation.  Then again, maybe it is precisely that lack of perspective that affords me the objectivity necessary to write this article. 

On the evening of March 27th, 2018, a good friend and I went to see the Sacramento Kings play the Dallas Mavericks at the Golden 1 Center in Downtown Sacramento.  Why, you might ask?  Good question.  On paper, this tank-fest of a game is about as intriguing as another 50 Shades of Grey sequel, but, as I mentioned, I am a loyal fan.  When we arrived close to game time we were greeted by a notably diverse group of hundreds of citizens protesting the shooting of Stephon Clark. 

To be honest, my immediate reaction was one of annoyance.  Of course I sympathize with Stephon Clark’s family, friends, and community for their tragic loss.  I also recognize that racially charged police violence is a legitimate issue that communities face across the country.  But what the hell do the Sacramento Kings and their fans have to do with this horrible tragedy?  This might be my last chance to see the great Dirk Nowitzki play, and these protesters are denying me that opportunity for something that neither I nor the thousands of other men, women, and children standing dumbfounded outside the arena gates had any part in?

As the protesters continued to stand their ground, the Kings promptly notified fans that they would not be able to get into the arena and that they would be receiving refunds for the price of admission.  My friend and I then went to a local bar where we found other exiled Kings fans.  Over a couple beers and some appetizers, my friend and I began to engage in an in-depth and constructive conversation about what we had just witnessed and the circumstances surrounding it.  Over the course of the night, I couldn’t help but overhear many other Kings fans engaging in similar conversations, though some less constructive than others. 

Some folks openly supported the protest.  Others didn’t seem to mind the protest or the effect it had on their night.  The more common sentiments, however, were along the lines of, "There is a place called the State Capitol! This is not a good way to get their point across." And my first instinct as stated above: “What the hell do the Kings and their fans have to do with this?”  As the beer and conversation continued to flow and the Kings continued to lose the game (or win the draft lottery war, depending on how you look at it), I quickly realized that I was missing the point. 

Because the protest directly affected me, it forced me to think about the issue in a way that a protest marching on the steps of the Capitol never would have.  It forced me to seek out the facts in an effort to develop an informed opinion both on what happened to Stephon Clark and the method of protesting the same.  It made me feel uncomfortable.  And that is the point.  The protest is working - people are talking, and, more importantly, people are listening

Fortunately, one of the most influential voices in my community is setting an example by engaging in constructive conversation about these issues.  While the Sacramento Kings organization has not done much right from a basketball standpoint over the past decade plus, they’ve handled the recent protests with class and grace.  On March 22, 2018, the first night the protest denied fans access to the Kings game, the Kings’ owner, Vivek Ranadive, stepped up and addressed the Kings fans, the protesters, and the NBA by making a simple and straightforward live statement expressing compassion and promoting unity. 

That is a tough task for any owner of a sports franchise, especially considering he couldn’t have had much notice.  He said nothing particularly profound, and he for the most part took the politics out of his message (which is difficult to do), but he squarely addressed the situation, voiced support for the family, and preached solidarity.   Every NFL owner had the opportunity to make a similar impact for their respective communities last NFL season, and while some issued statements and/or stood with players in direct response to President Trump’s lambasting of the NFL for not changing its policy on the anthem protests, none that I am aware of made live public statements to positively address the anthem protest itself.  Sure, there are different facts and dynamics at play in the NFL which do not make the comparison apples to apples (less NFL games, a different demographic of fans, players protesting as opposed to citizens, and a different method of protest), but these complications do not excuse inaction – or worse – condemnation.  Mr. Ranadive may have no idea how to build a front office, but he is miles ahead of the field when it comes to steering a franchise and a community through delicate social issues. 

After the March 27th protest again denied fans access to the Kings game, Mr. Ranadive continued to engage in constructive conversation when he sat down with the leaders of the protests to discuss how to come together and move forward.  The result of that meeting was a partnership between the Sacramento Kings, Sacramento Black Lives Matter, and the Build. Black. Coalition in an unprecedented effort to fundamentally transform Black communities through investment in black youth in Sacramento.  The partnership’s effort to support black youth in Sacramento began promptly this past Friday (March 30, 2018) when current Kings players Vince Carter and Garret Temple and Kings legend Doug Christie appeared at a local event titled “Kings and Queens Rise: A Youth Voice Forum for Healing." Again, the Sacramento Kings lead by example and use their platform to foster togetherness. 

We should all follow the example set by the Sacramento Kings.  We should all engage in this process, not be dismissive of it.  We should all be respectful of and receptive to other people’s viewpoints, not criticize the manner in which they express them.  We should all search for common ground. 

I am not here to tell you what your opinion should be on the issue of racially charged police violence in our country. That is for you to decide.  But keep in mind, despite what the media would have you believe, your opinion does not have to be confined to the extremes of either “fuck the police” or “tough shit, when the police say stop, stop.”  That’s the easy way out.  While I’m on my soapbox, I’d argue that either extreme almost presupposes that you have not thought critically about the issues, reviewed the objective facts, and/or discussed the issue openly and respectfully with others who may disagree with you (posting provocative comments on social media does not count in my book).  You can support some aspects of the protests and disagree with others.  There is room for nuance.  I doubt this article takes an extreme enough position for those who protested at the Kings games on March 22nd and March 27th, and I am certain this article does not satisfy those who left the arena cussing and screaming at the protesters.  But that is just fine. 

What happened to Stephon Clark was undoubtedly horrific and representative of a larger issue in our country.  I do not presume to have all the answers for how to best address this issue.  I do know, however, that any significant social issue cannot be effectively addressed without the leadership of those in positions of power and influence.  While I couldn’t disagree more with President Trump’s characterization of this tragedy as a "local issue," I do agree with how my community and its leaders are working to address it on a local scale.  I can only hope that, when given the opportunity, people and organizations in positions of power in other communities across the country will follow the example set by the Sacramento Kings in the wake of the Stephon Clark tragedy.  Now, more than ever, I am #SacrametoProud

"I Am A God: Prologue" debuts April 5th in the 16th Annual Oakland International Film Festival

Henrik Sertima is a nerdy budding photographer planning to invent and distribute a unique line of film cameras ordained with ancient Egyptian symbols. In the midst of an ordinary day hanging out with his friend Kevin, he sees a supernatural vision. Their whole world is turned upside down after this revealing experience. As Henrik makes progress with his inventions the visions intensify. He becomes determined to find out what these visions mean and what he must do. I AM A GOD is a magically surreal story of self discovery that summons ancient truths.

Get your tickets here. 

For those who can not make the debut, the film will also be showing April 6th - 10pm at Jack London Regal... The perfect way to end your First Friday Festivities. See you there! 

Author Steven Pinker appears on the Joe Rogan Podcast, insists on a positive outlook of the world

Steven Pinker is a cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author. He is Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. His new book "Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress" will be released in February 2018.

Bay Area yoga teacher Jamila Ekukpe seeks to spread a unique perspective with her practice

By Connor Buestad

When you take a yoga class led by Jamila Ekukpe, the first thing you notice is how professional she is as a teacher. Clearly experienced with her craft, Ekukpe welcomes students into her downtown Oakland studio with an aura of confidence that puts one at ease when they lay down their mat for a class. She takes a direct and thoughtful approach throughout, drawing on both her understanding of the human body and her emotional intelligence to lead her classes to a better place each session, both physically and mentally.

Although she could easily be mistaken for yet another highly qualified yoga instructor that Bay Area yogis are lucky to choose from, look deeper and you will find a person that has much more to offer than a series of timed asanas. She has a much deeper message to share.

Born and raised in Dallas, Texas by Nigerian parents, Ekukpe had very little yoga influence in her life growing up. It certainly wasn’t a path she envisioned for herself growing up. After graduating from high school, Ekukpe decided that a career in the Air Force would give her a stable career path and a chance to see the world. Unfortunately, that’s not how it played out for her at all. Instead, she was faced with empty promises unfulfilled and a serious back injury that required extensive rehab.

Because the Air Force had given her a taste of life in California, Ekukpe decided to stay and enroll at San Jose State to pursue her degree post service. Upon completion, she found herself in the corporate world of Bay Area real estate. Although successful, Ekukpe found that it didn’t allow her to sufficiently spread her perspectives on both mental and physical fitness. Perspectives and opinions that she takes very seriously.

“In the Air Force, I experienced obstacles with race and gender that I didn’t feel I deserved to face. For a lot of reasons it was unhealthy for me. By the time it was over, I had physical scars from my back injury and some mental scars from the culture there,” she explains.

As Ekukpe continued to rehab from her back injury, she found that yoga was an essential ingredient in getter her back on her feet both physically and emotional. Enamored by the process of healing and growth, Ekukpe began to feel the desire within her to teach yoga herself. She found a teacher training program with Annie Carpenter and hasn’t looked back.

“Teaching yoga really brings out the best in me. It allows me to connect with the public and share my teachings in a way that benefits not only my students, but myself as well. When I walk into a class, some people might make judgements based on how I look or what my background is, but that fades away when a class starts. All that matters is the hour at hand and how it makes people feel. I think that can be very powerful.”

When taking a class with Ekukpe, it is easy to be inspired by her calm confidence that she brings to the room every session. Her physical gifts as a yogi are easy to spot, but her emotional response to her class is equally as valuable. A long path has lead Ekukpe to finally be teaching yoga in the Bay Area. We are lucky to have her and learn from her journey.  

The GOP’s Licensing Deal

GTY-trump-hotel-toronto-grand-opening-jt-170104_4x3_992.jpg

By Peter Horn | @PeterCHorn

They thought they were getting a two-bedroom, two-bathroom slice of the American dream. A condominium built to the specifications of luxury befitting a man whose name nearly always appears in gold.

Sure they saw the warning signs. He’d nearly lost it all in a series of failed Atlantic City casino investments, and did he really call into the New York tabloids under a false alias to brag about his lascivious pursuits?

Maybe he’s flawed, but aren’t we all? And doesn’t that make his return to prominence that much more impressive? That much more relatable? That much more American?

So they looked past the red flags and signed on the dotted line. Trump Ocean Resort Baja. Trump Towers Tampa. Trump Towers Fort Lauderdale. For some, the down payment represented a lifetime’s savings.

Contrary to what they were led to believe, these condo projects were not to be built by Donald Trump. Rather, the giant gold letters in the marketing materials were the product of a licensing deal.

But a pig with lipstick on it is still a pig. And a poorly built condo sporting gold letterhead is still a poorly built condo.

These investors learned the hard way what the GOP soon will: Donald Trump is not a master developer; he is a master of short-term marketing and risk insulation.

When the Republican Party saw him take the stage in front of those pulsing, feverpitched crowds of red baseball caps, it saw an opportunity to rebuild a proud but dated brand. It saw a redevelopment plan.

Sure they saw the warning signs. A sham “university” that preyed upon desperate individuals striving to better their lives. An audio tape bragging about using a position of power to sexually harass women.

But isn’t there something in the bible about casting the first stone? And did you see the size of those crowds?

They will soon learn that, like so many of his recent condominium developments, Donald Trump has no equity stake in the GOP. This wasn’t a redevelopment. It was a short-term licensing deal.

And this licensing deal was no different than the rest: Trump stamped his name, offered a brand infusion by stoking the flames of resentment and animosity, then placed others around him in the first-loss position.

The failure of Obamacare repeal? McConnell. Potential tax reform failure? Cohn and Mnuchin. Russia? Let me give you the number for Jeff Sessions.

This has become Trump’s MO: positioning himself and his family to reap the financial rewards of his personal brand, while spreading the investment risk to all those around him. Capturing the upside, offloading the downside.

So it will be with the GOP. If and when things turn south, others will take the fall. Then when the party is no longer convenient, no longer accretive to the Trump brand, he’ll pull those gold letters down and walk away.

And those who chose to look past the warning signs in hopes of a GOP redevelopment will be forced to pick up the pieces of yet another broken Trump licensing deal.

They won’t like what they see.