RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 3: Darnell Martin’s “Cadillac Records” (2008)


The Players…

Adrien Brody, Jeffery Wright, Columbus Short, Mos Def, Eaamon Walker, Cedric the Entertainer and Beyonce Knowles.

The Story…

The history of Chess Records over the course of three decades reveals the rise (and occasional fall) of Chicago musical luminaries such as Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Etta James, all planting the roots of rock n’ roll…and the notoriety that can come with it.

The Rant…

I love music. I love movies too, but it’s only a close second. The reason why this blog is about movies is because I can wrap my head around that art form. Music is just so wide and varied and freakin’ complicated that I lack the verbiage to document opinions about it. Music just goes on forever, but there is a starting gate somewhere for the first motion picture. I can go from there. Anyway, anyone who knows me knows that I am a rock n’ roll guy. Have been since I got a hold of dad’s Elton John tapes (yes, tapes). Love rock n’ roll; it’s in my DNA. But I do have a great deal of respect for the genre’s progenitors. Cats like Chuck Berry (possibly the world’s first guitar hero. Ask Keith Richards), Louis Jordan (a personal favorite of mine), Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Ruth Brown and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins—to name a few—I have easily and often cut my teeth on again and again. There could be no rock without these folks.

When I was younger in my music collecting, I was a completist. Got into a band and/or singer I liked? Had to collect the back catalogue. Delving further into sniffing about a band’s roots, I’d investigate their influences. For instance, I discovered Kraftwerk by way of Joy Division by way of New Order. That kind of sifting. I learned that the thrill of the hunt (both finding records and tracing a band’s roots) could be just as bracing as the albums I’d eventually come to wear out.

This detective outcropped to where the music physically came from. As a kid and up until now, I always dug maps. I have an outdated atlas from NatGeo kicking around somewhere, battered from my endless searching. Nowadays I occasionally like to futz around with Google Maps. Y’know, because it’s cheaper than actually travel, an the satellite images fascinate me. Now granted as a kid, I couldn’t just hop on a plane to England to visit Elton’s hometown, but it gave me a sense of wonder to hear where my musical idols came from, hence the map thing. Next best thing to being there: artists bios and a place they called home. To put it simply: “The Beatles are cool. Where the heck is Liverpool?”

Paired with my twin interests in music and travel (if only in my mind), I later heard about places where certain kinds of music originated. Face it, America is a big place, populated with all sorts of creative weirdoes. Regardless of which coast you hail from, there’s gonna be a local music scene that’s uniquely, well, unique. Places like the rustic Mississippi Delta, good ol’ Memphis, Tennessee, New York’s downtrodden Lower East Side or the raked suburbs of Los Angeles. A good portion of most modern rock music can be traced back to such places. And from those places came legendary recording studios like Sun Records and Stax in Memphis, Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Abbey Road in London, or Hitsville USA in Detroit.

Not to mention Chess Records, the home of Chicago electric blues…

Leonard Chess (Brody) is a humble junk dealer, living the typical hardscrabble existence in the dumps of Southside. Needless to say, he’s broke and has very little prospects. Okay, none. What he really wants to do is open a nightclub for the musicians to play the “race music” he so enjoys, but first he’s gotta save his pennies for someday.

McKinley Morganfield—better known to his friends as Muddy Waters (Wright)—is a broke-ass sharecropper from the Mississippi Delta, living a thankless, backbreaking existence hoeing rows and earning nary a penny for his labors. What he’d rather be doing is strumming on his beater guitar, and maybe earn a living off of that someday, too. But first things first he’s gotta get off the farm.

Fast-forward a few years. Chess dumped the dump and got his bar; Waters got off the plantation, guitar in tow. The first settled down and dug in. The second got himself up Chicago way, playing his axe in street, hopeful to score a deal with his rip roaring slide guitar licks. After a fateful evening of improv at Chess’ bar where a weary Southern black guitar slinger meets a working class white Jewish barkeep…well let’s just say that from such humble beginnings, legacies are born.

Chess takes interest in Waters’ jamming and suggests they cut a record together. At first Waters is confused. What’s a curious peckerwood Jewish bartender know about music? Turns out a lot. Not long after Chess cuts a hit for Muddy, he starts to wrangle in other bluesy talents from around the Chicago circuit. There’s Little Walter, diminutive harp player and Waters’ aide-de-campe; Howlin’ Wolf, a burly blues singer from down Mississippi way; bluesman Willie Dixon who quickly becomes the house songwriter; upstart guitar slinger Chuck Berry who ushers in a new kind of music dubbed “rock and roll.” And lastly blues chanteuse Etta James, whose heartbreaking vocals could pull the tears from the stoniest of eyes. Yes indeed, the fledgling Chess Records roster quickly become synonymous with rhythm and blues.

Over the next few decades, Chess Records is peerless in it attraction and distribution of all kinds of “race music,” pioneering sounds and bringing to the masses the styles of Chicago electric blues, jump blues, early rock ‘n roll and whole slew of other styles that take the nation by storm. But all is not golden in Camelot. With great fame and fortune can come high peaks, yes, but also some crushing pitfalls. The life of a popular musician can swim in fortune and fame, but also foster loss, deception and the occasional tragedy. Not got for business, and nothing can last forever.

So the short, influential life of Leonard Chess and his recording studio was once the house of blues, molding the culture of Chicago’s music scene for decades to come, shared success and failure equally. Not all of it was wine, women and song. Well, most of it was. But for a time, the musical nexus of America was a dumpy recording studio in Chicago’s south side…

The frank plot outline above is in direct response to a Hollywood device I’ve always had trouble with: the ensemble biopic. Whereas a biopic with one central character, say the big screen story of Walk The Line, has a fulcrum to pivot on (i.e. Johnny Cash), a story involving a family like the Chess Records players tends to lack a tentpole for which the entire story can hang. To remedy this problem, the movie employs another device that I sometimes take issue with: a narrator.

Now don’t get me wrong, a lot of good movies have employed a narrator to great effect. Forrest Gump is a good example, and so was Fight Club (odd that these two movies were adaptations of novels, where narrators are indispensible. Hmm). In Cadillac Records, Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer, adopting a rather off-putting caricature of your stereotypical bluesman) serves as the voice and storyteller of Chess Records’ rise and fall. Here’s the issue: stories about places, and the ensemble of players within, seem to employ a narrator when the story is too varied and needs a focus. In other words, the story can’t stand by itself. Cedric does a serviceable job as Records’ spinner of tales, but ultimately wasn’t necessary.

There’s enough going on in and around Chess to scoop up your attention just by itself. Take the opening credits. Cinema verite of the sounds, sight and songs of the subject matter. The montage was very indie, which set my mind up for some expectations. Namely, the needful drive to set the film apart form Hollywood biopics ran fast and loose, which is an affliction of most indie films. Another trouble with biopics is you gotta embellish and exaggerate the story, since the reality is probably a lot more mundane. For instance, we can’t have many scenes where Chess is negotiating contracts with the potential talent (which must always be more involved than what Hollywood portrays, doubtless with lawyers stinking up the joint) or the unglamorous trials of touring via bus to points afar. You get what I mean; you gotta strip the story down to meat and bone and spice up the meat to make the story tastier.

From the opening credits we sure do get fast, loose and spicy. Scene upon scene serving as touchstones for the origins of Chess Records. Chess in the junkyard, Waters on the plantations. Chess in the bar, Waters on the Chicago streets. The struggles, successes and women (of which there is a lot) come in at rapid clip. It feels like this movie is in a hurry. And it is, trying to cram in as much info as possible to bookend the scenes that matter most: the musical ones. No real surprise there, but before I get too academic about it all (and I’ve noticed with these reviews my voice has been getting more uptight and stentorian with each passing week. Sorry about the lack of snark. I’m gonna try an fix that later on), I gotta get down with the film’s more accessible points beyond the technical crap.

Stuff like dialogue, which at the outset is none too promising. I’m not saying the writing is shoddy (which it kinda is), but how it’s delivered. Wright makes for an outstanding Muddy, but his delivery is rather unconvincing, not unlike the rest of the cast. He’s like your stereotypical journeyman blues guy, rough on the outside due to hard promises, golden on the inside for his gift for creating joy from his axe. Now Wright made for a damn fine Muddy Waters, all gritty and downbeat, but he had to work with what he was given, and he comes across rather one-note. A good note, but narrow all the same. As an aside, I’ve seen a couple of films here at RIORI that Wright starred in, and he is fast becoming a favorite character actor of mine. He’s very versatile in his work, and is more the less the lead of the picture, shouldering out Oscar winner Brody.

Brody as the titular music tycoon is sort of blah despite being the alleged center on which the whole story spins. Wright steals the show. As do most of the other players. Hot-headed Columbus Short as Little Walter is all fire and naïveté and plays the Flava Flav to Waters’ Chuck D. Another subtly impressive role was Eamon Walker’s portrayal of Howlin’ Wolf. Walker is an imposing charater, darker and deeper than Muddy. He was kind of scary too, not unlike the mountain of the actual man.

Here’s a treat: Mos Def as Chuck Berry. What a hoot. He’s the comic relief, all freewheeling and pop star without a whit of irony. Def has a nice Berry voice, not on point but you gotta give credit where it’s due. It’s kind of hard to screw up a role of a musician when you’re a musician yourself. But on the other hand there’s Beyonce at Etta James. The less about that the better. She’s a singer. She’s a singer playing a singer. She’s all melodrama and singled dimension. She’s got sass but should stick with singing, which for the most part she does belting out James’ signature tunes with aplomb.

Okay. There. We’ve covered the acting bases. The acting is scattershot overall, and not many of the characters (save Wright) are consistency convincing. Records is movie with an ensemble cast. The cast doesn’t play well with—off—each other. Moving on.

There’s a lot of Hollywood trappings in Records also, despite it being an indie film. For instance, the old tried and true schtick of crossing the race barrier. The film makes no bones about both Chess and Waters being on the outside, but of course between their synergy, both rise to fame and fortune. There are again stereotypical scenes addressing race relations and how music transcends all and blah blah blah. It’s a very tried trope. To trim up the film, maybe it should have been avoided altogether. I mean, c’mon. Hell, these are black blues singers working with a Jewish guy during the height of racial segregation in urban 1960s Chicago, on the air or otherwise. What the hell do you thinks gonna happen? The whole race card game is played, Hollywood. We get it. Stop reminding us. Or at least save it for one of Ken Burns’ epic PBS documentaries. Not all music stories need to be so drenched in tragedy. Not to downplay it (because without that tension, would the music have been so seminal?) but it’s stale.

What really sinks Records is too much melodrama and (you guessed it) slow pacing. Again with the pacing. There’s a lot to say about the history of Chess Records, and Cedric does his damndest to keep us apprised, but every scene is just slammed onto the screen as if the director is gonna run out of film. There’s a lot say, all right, but as an audience we don’t want to feel hurried. Watching the movie I had this recurring feeling that I had missed something. Out of breath is a bad way to watch a movie.

I love music. I want to love movies about music (not movie musicals, I generally think that sh*t’s corny). I wanted to love Cadillac Records. I didn’t. The music Chess put out hit close to my LP collection heart, but the tale of how those tunes were spun were hampered with Hollywood stereotypes and rushed production.

You know what? It takes dozens of takes to get a movie right. Sometimes with a song you can do it unjust  one. Maybe I should just’ve stuck with the albums.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Despite my enthusiasm for the subject, relent it. The film is too rushed, too staged and too fragile.

Stray Observations…

  • Mos Def as Chuck Berry. Is it a bad thing that all my fave hip-hop artists become actors? They always quit rapping.
  • “There’s your riff right there.” “Ain’t nothing to that.” Understatement of the career.
  • That tear. “She’s gonna need milk.”
  • Hot sauce. Yes. Some cultural touchstones really do transcend barriers.
  • “Skinny motherf*cker…”

Next Installment…

Aspiring writer Rob Brown is Finding Forrester to be a misanthrope, a crank and quite possibly the best teacher he’s ever had.

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 2: Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” (2006)


The Players…

Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Parker Posey, Sam Huntington and Frank Langella.

The Story…

After spending years away from Metropolis, Superman returns to find a city that’s managed to survive without him. And much to his chagrin, Lois Lane has moved on to another man. Supes is now heartbroken and feels without purpose. Not to worry, though. His old archenemy Lex Luthor is developing a new plan to rule the world. Again.

Seems that no matter how far away you get, home waits for your return. For good or for ill.

The Rant…

Superman. The name alone brings images of heroism, magnetism and, naturally, what puts the super in super. The Man of Steel is one of the most iconic, most recognized images in pop culture (others being Mickey Mouse and—of all things—Coca-Cola). Supes recently celebrated his 75th birthday, and there is little doubt that his creators, the “two kids from Cleveland,” Jerry Seigel and Joe Schuster would’ve been very surprised that their simple sci-fi premise would forever saturate the world’s consciousness.

It’s kind of funny that it took so many years for the big guy to reach the silver screen. In the late 70’s, unknown actor Christopher Reeve took to the cape and red-and-blue tights and brought the story of the Last Son of Krypton to life. His charming, earnest and humorous portrayal of the comic book icon won over hundreds of moviegoers and comic book heads alike. Despite all of Superman’s powers, his alter ego Clark Kent made the hero accessible and immediately likeable with his foibles and humility. Reeve’s performance was nothing short of wonderful, and with smart writing, good acting and (at the time) cutting-edge special effects, the first two Superman movies were big hits and are now regarded as classics. All thanks mostly to the late, great Reeve.

It was a simpler time. Now in our post-9/11 world, with heroes harder and harder to recognize in black-and-white terms, interpretations of the Superman mythos can get downright sticky. The notion of a single man (or rather, alien) with amazing powers could single-handedly right the world’s wrongs with a flick of the wrist (or the flap of a cape) is almost laughable and out of place with our jaded, cynical society. We’ve seen it all and done all of that. Does the world really need, or deserve a Superman anymore?

Maybe, maybe not. But as filmgoers we do deserve a Superman film rife with all the hallmarks that have made the character so epic over the years. We need a super tale to remind us of what made the franchise so enchanting in the first place. We could all use a bit of wonder.

As in a previous installment, I noted I was a comic book head. Superman is the A-number one comic book superhero in the world, heads and shoulders above, say, Green Lantern (you can blame Ryan Reynolds to a point). Like I had said, DC has had a harder time making it in the movie biz, despite being a property of Warner Brothers (competitor Marvel is owned by Disney, so maybe that says something). But unlike Green Lantern, Superman is far more accessible with a simpler backstory and an all-around average Joe air about him. I like that. Lots of other people do, too. It’s kind of a hard storyboard to f*ck up. Now, I’m still a Marvel acolyte—I’ll take Spider-Man over Superman any day—but I respect Superman. Any self-respecting comic book head would do the same, Superfan or no. Put plain and simple, Superman’s legacy is rooted in his honesty, humanity and humble background. It should make for great moviemaking, right?

So why has it been so damned hard to get and keep Superman in cinema? Is it because of the aforementioned world-weariness of modern audiences? It is because there have been so many (maybe too many) varied interpretations of the hero that have made him less accessible? Is it because Christopher Reeve died? Or is it simpler?

Maybe it’s the pacing.

Pacing, the flow of the movie’s narrative, has become either the high or low water mark for how I measure most of these misunderstood movies. If the pacing is slow, the film is boring. Too fast and the flick becomes rushed and spent like premature ejaculation. There is a Goldilocks zone I always try to find in any movie I watch, good or bad, and if either miss that mark I get testy. Acting can get twitchy, plotting can get messy, direction can get scattershot. But mess with the movie’s overall stream and you can sure as sh*t get a headache. You’re tampering with the audiences’ attention span, and minutes matter in a movie. You want to wisely invest your time and not feel cheated.

After watching Superman Returns, I felt cheated. Worse, I felt bored

So Supes has been on sabbatical. Earth astronomers detected the flotsam and jetsam of Kal-El’s home world Krypton, and the Man of Steel flew ever homewards to give it a look-see. The round trip took him a few years away from his adopted Earth, and a lot can happen in a few years.

Superman—and of course Clark Kent (Routh)—returns home to Metropolis only to find himself feeling more alien than ever. The world’s moved on without him and seems to be doing just ducky in the absence of the world’s greatest hero. In fact, very little has seemed to have gone on while Superman’s been on vay-cay.

There are a few exceptions. Well, one actually. Love of his life, dauntless reporter Lois Lane (Bosworth) got tired of waiting around for the Caped One and gone and settled down, got hitched and even had a kid. Poor Superman/Clark has his heart stepped on by Lois. Twice. She wrote a Pulitzer-winning article shortly (and doubtless spurned) after Superman went off-world decrying the need for him. After all, the world didn’t end after he left.

At least, not yet.

Also out of circulation for the past few years was none other than Superman’s egomaniacal and shorn enemy (ha!) Lex Luthor (Spacey). Seems that Superman’s impulsive urge to try and go home again let Luthor’s incarceration fall flaccid (it’s kind of stupid to be a key witness in a world-domination gotta-get-to-The Hague kind of thing and, oh I dunno, leave the planet). Naturally, you know ol’ Lex is jouncing for a little revenge and another world-domination ploy. You can’t keep a good villain down…

There’s really no need to spend more time on the plot. There isn’t much of one. And what there is is stale and derivative. You already know Superman will make a triumphant return (hence the title, I guess), woo Lois, save a few treed kitties and thwart Luthor’s latest hair-brained scheme to make the world his bitch. It kinda sounds like the first movie kinda.

It is.

While I was watching the film I had to catch myself from trying too hard to look for/recapture the memories of the first movie of my youth. But the parallels were obvious. Director Bryan Singer tried very hard to follow the spirit of the earlier movies. Maybe too hard. Singer is no stranger to comic book movies. He directed the serviceable first X-Men movie and its terrific sequel. He passed up directing the third to helm Superman Returns (and after seeing the X3, I think he might have had the right idea). Instead of sticking with a winning format that had proven fruitful, Singer wanted to extend his reach and tackle the DC universe with his own unique stamp. But instead he aped Richard Donner (director of the first two Superman movies) in every way possible, right down to the music.

The title sequence sets the tone for the movie, recreating everything from the theme music to the graphics of the first movie. Perhaps this is homage, or maybe suggesting a continuation of the franchise that lay in limbo for almost 20 years. In any event from then on the movie is a non-stop echo of what the original films were. There’s a lot of hat tipping to the original movies, and a holy host of details lifted directly from the comics, like the audience needed hand-holding. A generation has gone by without a Superman film. Maybe Singer felt obligated to fill in the gaps for the uninformed. As I’ve warned before, it’s far better to show than tell. Let the audience figure it out, flex their collective imagination.

That’s the funny thing. For an action movie, there isn’t a helluva whole lot of visual storytelling. Yes, yes, There’s Superman flying, demonstrating his super-strength, heat beams, icy breath, perfect hair, etc. But it’s all so preciously staged. Even the beats of solid action lack dynamics, a lack of verve. The film is so rigidly structured it was like watching a wall being mortared. A wall that kept out a good storyline, or at least an interesting one. I felt cheated, bored. Everything feels stale here.

Well, not everything. But it also may be the cause of more single dimensioned aspects of the movie. Try as you or I might, you can’t fault lead Brandon Routh’s take on Superman and/or Clark Kent. He even looks like a young (and breathing) Chris Reeve. He nails all the mannerisms of Supes and Kent flawlessly. Flawlessly if you’re measuring it against (yes, again) Christopher Reeve. We’re gonna keep tugging on that cape, so to speak, because there was so much either lifted from or nodded to the original films it was like sparking a little originality into the mythos would smash the apple cart. In the comic book world, we call it defying the continuity cops.

And the hell of it is that Routh was really good in his acting. The nobility and dare I say tenderness and humility of Superman was on point, and klutzy Kent was no less than endearing or funny. He had some big shoes to fill, and fill him well he did. The rest of the cast, not so much. Bosworth’s Lois was wooden and didn’t show the particular drive that possesses a Pulitzer winning newswoman. Kevin Spacey was hardly menacing as Luthor; he was goofy but not as campy as Gene Hackman’s performance from years ago. Let’s face it, since Superman Returns tries to emulate the original films so badly, any breaths of fresh air got coughed into the vapor.

Superman Returns is pushing too hard to be epic rather than organic. Most damning of all, there’s no sense of urgency. There’s never any real tension. You know everything’s gonna work out. Everything falls into line and by the numbers, and is thick with sluggish directorial flourishes that are thrown in there like the frill in a club sandwich, as if to reassure you that a movie is going on. There is a palpable lack of fun and wonder.

Finally, the film’s running time is way too long. This movie should’ve been wrapped up in a nice efficient 100 minutes. Instead it crawls along for over two hours, halting several times like a stalled car to where the call for cut/print should’ve been called a few dozen scenes in. Like I said, slow pacing. I actually did something I have never done while reviewing these films: I stopped it midway through. Just hit pause, went to bed, saved it for a later day when I felt like finishing it. That was how bored and cheated I felt. I just shrugged it off for a week.

In sum, Superman Returns was a heartbreaking disappointment. A lot of wasted ideas and time were squandered on this movie. The question of heroics was raised a lot during the movie. What makes one a hero. What they are to others. Quite a bit of navel gazing. Too much philosophy and not enough of a proactive stance, cinematic or otherwise.  I feel bad in saying it: the whole thing was a slog. And I so wanted this movie to work.

Does the world need another Superman movie? Yes, but not like this one.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it, I’m sorry to say. Commit the cardinal sin of boredom in any movie, no matter how epic it tries to be, and you’ll get no good graces from me.

Stray Observations…

  • “Even though you’re the last, you’re not alone.” That is a good line.
  • It seems with CGI and its superluminal rate of evolution, audiences’ suspension of disbelief must be ever quicker. One can tell faster and faster what is real, model or green screen with every would-be blockbuster.
  • Gotta love that spitcurl.
  • The piano montage was cool, but seemingly pointless. Another directorial indulgence from Singer.
  • People still use faxes?
  • The Jesus Christ pose towards the end of the movie was bit too on the nose. We’ve already been reminded how much of a savior Superman is over the course of two hours. He saved the planet. Gotcha. It’s what he’s expected to do after all.
  • “Gotta fly.”

Next Installment…

Adrien Brody cuts tracks for stacks of wax as the head of Cadillac Records.

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 1: Alison Maclean’s “Jesus’ Son” (2000)


The Players…

Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, Denis Leary, Jack Black, Dennis Hopper and Holly Hunter.

The Story…

FH is a well-meaning drug addict who stumbles backward into redemption. We’re not even close to talking about a twelve-step here. Amid his life’s wreckage of addiction and co-dependency, a near-fatal car crash and a chance to save a child’s life force FH to examine his existence and its meaning, if there’s anything to find at all.

The Rant…

Hey! So begins Volume Two of Rent It Or Relent It! This week’s entry is the first one designed with this blog in mind. No repaginating needed! Yeah, I know. Not kind of a big deal. I just figured I’d mention it since we’re starting over with “Installment 1” again and I didn’t want no confusion. I hear ya. When Marvel Comics does this kind of thing, it irritates me, too. So let’s just move along, shall we…?

What, another precious indie film? Hey, in case you hadn’t noticed, these little buggers have been popping up lately all over movieland, like mushrooms on cow turds. The fun mushrooms, mind you. And like those funky beauties, such small budget, little known actor, inscrutably scripted movies can either mess with your mind or alter your perception, in any order.

Drug allusions aside (yes, that was what they were), it’s only proper that we delve into a film about substance abuse. On the other side of the screen, dummy. Now put down the beer bong and listen up. Why proper? These flicks seldom make much coin at the box office. That’s usually because no one shows up to see them. The Standard dictates the reception had to either be tepid or outright hostile. I never said you’d ever had to hear of the damned movie (please refer to the The Squid And The Whale entry for a good example. Uh, the only example I got actually).

That kinda brings me to a point. I used to be a deejay at our local community radio station and NPR affiliate (BTW, we preferred to call ourselves “programmers” since deejay has either become trite or an epithet for the mixmasters at rave-ups, but that’s for another day). With NPR came their news programs, human-interest stories and the like. There were often movie reviews and interviews with the stars of the reviewed movie. That’s where I heard about The Squid and the Whale and also Jesus’ Son. Jeff Daniels and Billy Crudup were interviewed respectively. After listening to these shows (and this was years before weblogs came to the fore) I got to wondering, “Who’s this for?”

The “who” in question was the target audience. NPR listeners are a cagey lot. They’re not usually the first to bow to the will of pop culture. I figured if a movie got press on NPR, it was: a) of some good critical repute; b) going to get limited release, and/or; c) was made with built-in obscurity in mind. I suspected Jesus’ Son wasn’t intended to be a big release movie. Being affiliated with part of the NPR audience, I assumed this movie would’ve naturally appealed to my and others’ ersatz hipster pretensions.

I think I was looking too hard…

FH (Crudup, whose character’s name is oddly never mentioned in the film) is a slow-witted man-child seemingly drifting through life, love and addiction. Never one to stay in one place too long, nor does he seem aware that he’s doing it, FH touches hands of everyone he meets in a languid, faraway notion. We’re not tugging heartstrings here; FH is a buffoon and overall irritant. And he’s not your typical poster child for decrying drug use. He’s kind of just…there.

Anyway, amid all the random people he bumps into and scrapes he gets into, he does find love in the form of somewhat unstable Michelle (Morton), an erratic party girl with a healthy smack addiction that FH immediately takes a shine to. Naturally in love, he engages in the habits of heroin shooting and pill popping that Michelle is hip to, and becomes readily addicted to addiction and all the pitfalls that accompany it.

Michelle drifts in and out of his life (or perhaps the other way around) while FH follows a scenic and winding road through perdition by ways of keeping his multiple habits going. Whether he’s deconstructing homes with buddy Wayne (Leary) for scrap to sell for dope money, working as an orderly with whack job Georgie (Black) for ready access to pills, or finding redemption in an old age home with fragile widow Mira (Hunter), FH is seemingly doomed to be rudderless. He’ll just keep on wandering, leading a terminal existential crisis while never being released from adolescence. Or truly free from chemical dependency…

Huh. Sounds like the story would appeal to the NPR crowd. Too bad it was a load of drivel.

Our hero Crudup possesses the clear eyes and rubbery face of an adolescent. The awkward innocent to all the events that fall at his feet. He’s never proactive. This breaks a principal tenet of story: you can’t have heroes being acted on all the time to capture either sympathy and/or attention. Maybe this was what the director was intending, but 90 minutes of it was really grating.

Heroes are supposed to wade through the plot for us; take us on their journey. Problem: there was no plot. Jesus’ Son was nothing more than a series of vignettes. Again, more off-kilter episodes that FH just wanders into following the direction of addiction (which was mostly a pretty tame portrayal) wherever it may take him. Jesus’ Son is the flipside of the grimy, urban drug drama Panic In Needle Park. Where that movie was harrowing and unlikeable in a gripping way, Son plays out like Forrest Gump on smack. It was more or less a comical take on substance abuse, and not with a whit of irony.

Speaking of irony, only not really, why was Jack Black in this movie? I know it was another non-plot point of FH’s quest for drugs, and Black is notorious as an amped up clown in his roles, but never have I seen him so shoehorned into a character that tries to lean on his strengths as a comic actor in such an inappropriate manner. Watching the movie you expected him to bust out with air guitar, which would’ve been apropos of anything and yet you’d expect it. It was another lull in the movie’s meandering pace.

Before I overload the bitch switch, there were several highlights that just couldn’t be ignored in the film. Shot in muted colors, Son had a real 70’s feel to it, appropriate because of the timeline. There was a gritty, earth tone hue to the set and it coaxed out a very laidback vibe that married well to the narrative, such as it was. Another great visual aspect was the make-up job. For such a slanted comic affair on drug use, the etchings of FH’s rubbery face over what felt like months highlighted his progression into substance abuse with disturbing accuracy.

The movie is kinda rife with cameos, and the best performance was the one delivered by Dennis Hopper. Ironic that one of cinema’s most offbeat, unhinged personalities provided a little stability in an otherwise frayed film. He only had like 12 minutes of screen time, but he made them the most memorable. Almost always a gold star for Hopper.

Apart from all that, there wasn’t much to like about this movie. It really tried my patience. Crudup isn’t much of a leading man, and his dopey (ha!) character FH was neither endearing nor sympathetic. He’s just a wistful moron, even more so when he kicks his drug habit. His interactions with his fellow cast members lacked chemistry, and the results were a pretty wooden affair. The pacing, although good, was too slipshod to hold my attention. Don’t get me started on the narrative flow. The whole mishmash caused me to drift in and out of the story, not unlike FH’s journey.

Oh well. To be perfectly honest, despite what I’ve written about,  I really don’t remember a lot of this movie. I used to suffer from this malady due to watching movies drunk, and only having a passing notion to what I thought I had seen. Jesus’ Son was accompanied only by Snapple, and it didn’t stick so well either. I guess I may have to give up reviewing indie films for this blog. They only scratch the surface of The Standard anyway, and viewing them requires a kind of eye that has willingly fallen blind by me. If so, then I can go back to being snarky and vicious, which is the waller I was happily floundering around in when I began this here project.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Not everything pitched on NPR is of a culturally enriching endeavor.

Stray Observations…

  • “Somebody’s going to get hurt over this.”
  • I hope that the patient with cerebral palsy was not intended as comic relief. It seemed just on the cusp of inappropriate.
  • “Where’s my hunting knife?”
  • Another thing: this entire movie had a very disjointed three-act structure. It was very difficult to discern where the climax was, if there was any at all.
  • The title Jesus’ Son was a lyric lifted from the Velvet Underground song “Heroin,” and not of some messianic undertone. At least, not directly. Trivia!
  • “What a lousy birthday.”

Next Installment…

Brandon Routh is no Christopher Reeve (but he tries) as Superman Returns.


RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 18: Francis Lawrence’s “I Am Legend” (2007)


The Players…

Will Smith, Alice Braga, Dash Mihok, Charlie Tahan…and Abbey.

The Story…

When a contagion spreads across the planet and turns the human race into bloodthirsty mutants, civilization’s last hope for survival lies with scientist Robert Neville, the last normal man on Earth.

The Rant…

Richard Matheson’s writing has never been regarded as “subtle.” In fact, his work has been compared to the literary equivalent of being bashed in the head with a sledgehammer, and this an alleged complement. Then again, there’s nothing really subtle about the concept of being ridden down by an unholy fleet of blood-sucking vampires out to chew your ass, which happens to be attached to the only human left on the planet. Pressure.

For those not in the know, Matheson was a quietly prolific writer of suspense and science fiction; some of his work was translated to many original episodes of the seminal TV series The Twilight Zone. For those in the know, he penned the classics “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,” “The Invaders” and “Third From The Sun” (oh yeah…that guy). Steven Speilberg’s first feature, Duel, was based on the short story of the same name. Several of his novels were adapted for Hollywood also, like Hell House, What Dreams May Come (which won an Oscar), A Stir Of Echoes and, yes, I Am Legend.

That particular novel has been made into a movie four times, including this version as well as the classic adaptations starring the inimitable Vincent Price and that damned dirty ape-hater Charlton Heston. So in long, Matheson’s fantastical work has proven to be quite versatile and malleable for the silver screen, stylized to fit the tastes and times. In short, he’s Stephen King’s favorite author and primary influence. Both say something about earning an audience.

That being said, it begs the question: “Four times?!?” What, they didn’t get it right the first three?

In this our 21st Century, we moviegoers have been bombarded with remakes of classic (and not so classic) movies. Here’s a story: years ago, 2004 into ’05, when I was a practicing alcoholic (I got real good at it too) and had a lot of down time to indulge in whiskey and cinema, I noticed a lot of commercials for new movies that I knew to be remakes. Since I had the time, I decided to keep track of how many films came out that year that were either remakes, reboots or sequels (or even prequels).

I counted 40. I sh*t you not. I double-checked this via the IMDb.

Forty. That’s a lot of laziness on behalf of Hollywood. And a mean way to fleece money off people. I guess the bigwigs figured the majority of moviegoers were either too lazy or too ignorant and wouldn’t bat an eyelash for a retread of a pre-existing film. Americans in general already have miniscule attention spans already; nostalgia is breakfast. Maybe the movie moguls were right. It might explain why I Am Legend is the fourth iteration of this movie whose origins span 40 years into the past. That’s pre-Internet, so what’d you expect?

Wait, wait. I’m not saying all remakes are bad. Some are quite good, like Hitchcock’s second go-round with The Man Who Knew Too Much, John Sturges’ classic western The Magnificent Seven, or even Mark Waters’ much-needed update of Freaky Friday. So before we pass (anymore) judgment, let’s pick apart the latest version of a classic man-versus-vampires epic and see on which side of fence it falls…

Geneticist Robert Neville (Smith) was a specialist for the US Army. Was. His life has changed a bit since then. In 2009, the men in the white lab coats made a breakthrough in medical science. The good news, by a means of introducing a retrograde virus into the subject’s recombinant DNA, they have found a cure for cancer. The bad news, it might turn you into a bloodthirsty freak. Uh-oh.

Fast forward three years. Earth is a wilderness. Manhattan is a desert island. The once proud skyline is crumbling. Nature has reasserted herself. No taxicabs. No Internet. No Starbucks. Not a human soul remains. Save one. Robert Neville. By all means, he’s the last human on Earth. Immune to the plague he inadvertently helped in creating and dodging any mutant that might cross his threshold.

During the day, Robert whiles the daylight away by hunting, foraging, playing golf off of the tail of an SR-71 Blackbird and just trying to keep busy or else lose his mind. He holes himself up in lab in the basement of his Washington Square brownstone, now a bunker, trying to cook up a remedy for the virus that has turned Earth’s populace into what are essentially vampires. Dark Seekers are the technical terms. By night he locks down the house, cracks out the heavy artillery and waits for day to come. All the while things outside are going bump in the night.

Time alone is endless. Well, Robert’s not exactly alone. His only companion is his German Shepherd Sam (Abbey), an anchor of sanity in his lonely purgatory. And a reminder of his past, when things were simpler and a lot less bloody. She’s his best buddy, and together they’re like a married couple. There are scary things out there. Best keep tight to your friends…friend.

Like clockwork, Robert broadcasts on the AM dial a distress/rescue message to any survivors out there. It’s a call of sanction, but moreover it’s a plea for help. Because every day that dies into night might be his last day. After all, for a man that’s lost everything—everything—in his world, it’d be nice to share the nothingness with another human being.

Will Dr. Neville find a cure for the virus? Will he survive the onslaught of hungry mutants? Is he doomed to be alone forever? Only time will tell, and Robert Neville has nothing but that…

This film received some inordinate bits of flack by critics and audiences alike. Mostly directed at Smith. Like I noted in my After Earth dissection, I figure Smith is tiring of the maverick, comical roles he’s made his money on. Audiences seem like they’re not ready for a serious, dour individual like Robert. Like all the characters he’s portrayed most of his career, people would prefer to have Agent Jay or even the Fresh Prince up there on the big screen. But like with Adam Sandler’s constant re-hashing the buffoon roles, occasionally you gotta pull a Punch Drunk Love.

I Am Legend is not your conventional vampire movie. For one, the term “vampire” isn’t mentioned once. The Dark Seekers are not pseudo-romantic, quasi-sexual beings of immortal emulation. They’re fucking freaks. An abomination to God and Nature. A plague, and the film depicts that as so; swarming rabid things crammed full of viruses. Redolent stinking hordes of shrieking rats preying on anything that bleeds. Have I made my point yet? Right. The Dark Seekers are very rather chilling and quite effective at establishing and maintaining Neville’s solitary nightmare atmosphere.

And poor Bob is stranded alone on Earth with the lot of them. In fact, “stranded” may be the key term that describes the feel of the film. For over an hour into the film, Smith is the only actor, not counting Abbey of course. We walk by his side, we only sees things that he sees, we truly live through it all vicariously through the character Robert Neville. We, as an audience, are stranded with him. Neville’s pathos is so consuming that as the movie progresses, you start to wonder if kind of relishes his solitude; wear it like a badge of pride or as sackcloth and ashes? He was directly responsible for the plague after all. Guilt can be a powerful weapon. So much so that it becomes ever obvious that Neville may be losing his mind. Wouldn’t you?

It’s good that Legend is quickly engaging. Not as in “fast pace.” The movies gets your attention very swiftly, and fails to falter. It has an urgent agendum, and quietly sweeps you up. This happens despite for the first half hour, all we really see is Neville driving through deserted streets of a ruined Manhattan, scrounging for food and sundries (yes, I used the word sundries) and tooling around in his lab. Smith is adopting a stoic, silent type of leading man, letting his actions tell the story. At this he does a fine job. A sort of relatable everyman in a dire circumstance. Him wandering the landscape gently affixes his sense of solitude to the viewer. By the way, how do filmmakers clear the streets like that? I mean, some of it is CGI, but the rest?

Speaking of CGI, I had a real issue (but not a big one) with the digitally rendered…well, everything in Legend. The effects were rather weak. You could almost smell the green screen wafting off the projector. What would be assumed to enhance the ferocity of the Dark Seekers only made them look rubbery and cartoon-like (still, rubbery scary cartoons). I admit I was watching a DVD on an HD television, but I’ve seen lower tech movies and the patchiness didn’t seep through. What the vamps lacked in looks, however, was made up for with screeches. So bravo Dolby.

The only other gripe I had was the film’s resolution. It had sort of a “duh” feeling to it. Considering what kind of man Robert Neville is, one would think he’d come to the proper conclusion light years ago. This would make the film really short though, and not worth the ten bucks admission. So we’ll ignore that as best we can for now.

Legend is very stark film, not unlike Matheson’s fiction. There is very little subtlety involved in the story. Bob’s alone, struggling to retain a sense of normalcy and avoiding the baddies. Not much else to the plot. You don’t really wonder if he’ll get out of this hell, nor do you invest much interest in that. It’s just watching him running errands basically. This was, in fact, the general feel of the novel some critics have said.

There are still very little amenities here. For instance, what attempts as humor here, doesn’t. It’s difficult to tell if it’s intentional or not. Smith has been understood as a comical presence in Hollywood, after all. And as for his acting, it’s some of the best he’s done in years. He’s essentially carrying the movie more or less by himself. He better be good. Again, and I hate to keep hammering on this, Neville’s sense of isolation really fills up the white space here.

Speaking of filling up space, there is next to no soundtrack. Silence—the absence of man-made noises like cars and general hustle and bustle—again creates the feeling of a desolate planet. How could you feel alone with smartphones bleeping everywhere? Like I said, stark.

Overall Legend was a pretty good little slice of cinema. I say little because it was released in the middle of December. Oscar time, not blockbuster time. And since it recouped only (yes, only) $100,000,000 at the box office, you could say it was a loss leader for Smith. Seeing that the original Men In Black movie raked in over $500,000,000, Will might have a long-ass time to go to shed some skin.

I liked Legend. I wouldn’t want to watch it again. For all its stylistic efforts, it lacked that je en sais quai I get from time to time, even from the bad sh*t I am tricked into watching. As I said it wasn’t typical Will Smith fare. Still, it had some merit as far as remakes go. It kept closer to the original source material, but even the tightest scenarists should know that following the book line for line leaves little room for interpretation. All that gooey solitude of the movie that I keep harping on was engrossing, but it did get tedious after a time. Maybe too much alone time with Will Smith’ll do that to you. Then again, the same can be said of Mathson’s stories.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Then turn it off. Then go read the book. Alone. In the dark. Get it?

Stray Observations…

  • “Just the way you like it: disgusting.”
  • I read once that Smith and Abbey would spend “sessions” alone for weeks at a time before, during and after filming so that they could create a special bond. Talk about creating on screen chemistry.
  • Saw the accident with the knife coming. Smith’s scream is priceless.
  • “It’s my birthday. You wanna sing?”
  • “Please say hello to me.” Pretty much captures the spirit of the film.
  • The toss away line, “Let’s say hello to mom” has a deeper gravity later in the film. It might be a nod to a theme Matheson employed in his fiction. Or maybe it was lifted directly form the source text. I dunno.
  • Nice detail with the weight loss. The flashback scenes feature Smith as sort of well-fed. Later in the film he looks as if he’s aged ten years.
  • “I like Shrek.”

Next Installment…

Billy Crudup feels just like Jesus’ Son, but not in a messianic kind of way.

RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 17: Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid And The Whale” (2005)


The Players…

Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Klein, with Stephen Baldwin.

The Story…

This is a story with an insightful look at the crumbling marriage between a self-centered novelist (whose career is on the wane) and his up-and-coming writer wife. In the meantime, the warring couple’s two sons get caught in the crossfire, which is where, as always, things get complicated.

The Rant…

Here’s a new one for you. A film that did quite well at the box office (its production budget of a mere $1.5 million yielded over $7 million domestic total gross), received rave reviews, sported an excellent cast…and no one has ever heard of it.

Ooooo. Chills, right?

What is it about indie films that get people’s hackles up? A great deal of the public’s perceptions is that indie films can be artsy-fartsy, pretentious, twee vanity projects aimed a very narrow audience of either highbrow snobs or annoying hipsters that disdain anything considered “mainstream.” Which is rather appropriate considering these are the types of characters that inhabit the world of The Squid And The Whale.

The above claim is not without merit. A great many of indie films earn those epithets. But I don’t think Squid is one of them. I don’t think so. Although this is indeed an indie film, it isn’t in any immediate danger of being considered darling.

This movie is decidedly a character study, and both Daniels and Linney are two of my fave character actors. They tend to pop up in films that often place them in roles against type, whatever that may be. These types happen to be a couple who are so unhealthy for one other you cannot possibly pick a side. Unlike their kids.

Once upon a time in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in the mid-80’s…

Bernard Berkman (Daniels) is an effete, arrogant snob. He is also a writer of some repute, or at least he used to be a lifetime ago. He now whiles away his days with teaching, giving book readings to somnolent college kids and dispensing culturally pithy dribble to anyone within earshot. And collecting ego-deflating rejection letters for his more recent submissions. His wife, Joan (Linney) is a shrinking violet of a woman, relegating her days to playing the mom role, being passive aggressive to her callow husband and making an ever increasing new life as a promising writer. The relationship has been going south for over a decade, the clash of personalities once so energizing has degraded into all out head banging. Joan can’t stand her husband’s insecurities and aloofness, and Bernard is blinded by jealousy of what may or may not have been Joan’s dalliances with other men. After one particularly heated argument about the aforementioned issues, Joan and Bernard decide to divorce, very much not amicably. Separate lives, separate homes, even sharing the family cat, before God.

By the way, they have two teenaged sons.

To say that lines have been drawn is a gross understatement. The elder son, Walt (Eisenberg), is a carbon copy of his pompous dad, lapping up whatever terse, groundless tenets he has on man, God and Proust. It’s hard to tell if passively hot-headed Walt is truly mirroring his father, or just being a sycophant. Either way, it’s a mutual relationship, and naturally Walt claims disdain for his alleged unfaithful, weak-willed mother, despite whatever pretentions Bernard may or may not have instilled in him.

Younger and at first glance innocent son Frank (Klein) is reclusive—withdrawn and confused by all the new status quo of separation. He chooses to side with his mother, who is far less judgmental than his domineering dad (who seems to have more time for Walt anyway). To deal with his alienation, Frank takes up activities of a dubious nature—to say the least—either to express his pent-up frustrations or as a means of drawing attention. Either way, the whole divorce has shattered something loose in Frank’s pubescent mind.

What with all the roadrunning, the kids being pumped for info as to what the other parent is doing, Bernard’s failing career, Joan’s budding one, Frank screaming into puberty and Walt trying to act like what his father would deem mature, it’s only a matter of time before something gives…


There are some movies you can dislike, but not exactly hate. Something tells me that this is often a side-effect of a lot of indie films, especially comedy-dramas like Squid. They get wrapped up in their needs to be left of center in their execution that sometimes it just leaves a bad taste. I’m really diffident about Squid. I mean, it was a fine film. There was a lot more to love than hate. But still, there were these conventions in place that, although I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, seemed trite and frankly frustrating. Then again, some were plain as day.

The good first, and there is much of it. Daniel steals the show as Bernard, so full of himself, all his intellect just a suit of emotional armor that over the years has developed quite a few chinks. His pontificating on…well, everything is both hilarious and enervating. I think we’ve all known someone like Bernard in our lives (I know I have; it’s me). The kids are amazing actors too. Walt is trying so hard to imitate/please his father he comes across as subtly confused for the first two acts of the film. You don’t know if his whole personality is wrapped up in emulating his father or just placating his ego. And Frank is so oddly steely yet innocent you can’t really pity his young person for how he handles (or doesn’t handle) his family’s breakup. When you can’t pity a wide-eyed, adorable moppet, that’s good acting.

The performances are all cringe worthy, which makes them all the more relatable. This is a good thing. Really, I was wincing with almost every scene of the picture, tantalizingly aware of every nuance and pointed barb. Everything Bernard says made my eyes roll…or cringe. With Bernard, rarely has rationalizing sound so…so reasonable. And yet so cutting you want to smack him in the puss with a dead salmon.

A lot of the acting is done here with the eyes. Every member of the Berkman clan has a signature gaze that conveys their personalities very well. Bernard is remote, Joan is maudlin, Walt is indignant and Frank is…intoxicated. It’s like the four seasons, and this dynamic makes for an engaging series of purchases to hang on to. Walt’s pleading look especially. It’s a defiant front to anything that might put his father in a displeasing light, even if he sees it himself. His self-righteous and fragile fury is frustratingly simple to taste, and he justifies his attitude as a cracked mirrior image of Bernard. Walt takes several social liberties with the cloak of mock maturity. To put it plainly, the Berkman’s are not really Floyd fans.

And now the rougher stuff, and there is much of it. There is next to no chemistry at all between Bernard and Joan. Maybe this makes for an ideal portrait of divorce, but it’s overly antagonistic for cinema. You don’t really root for these two to get back together, but a part of you kind of wishes it. At least that’s the Hollywood conceit. This dynamic may or may not be considered brilliant by most audiences, but I found it a tad confusing. The film, to me, was more about the kids.

Speaking of Joan, I expected Linney to play more of a role here in Squid. Most of the time she seemed relegated to the side in favor of Daniels’ screen time. Again, maybe this was another metaphor; Bernard’s ego so inflated it pushed Joan out of the picture, figuratively and literally. If this were the case, a very clever metaphor. If not, maybe Daniels was counting lines. At any rate, Linney seemed wobbly enough to pitch over at any given moment. I guess she was the allegorical squid here.

The tennis/ping-pong as metaphor for the kids interacting with their quarreling parents is a not so subtle message. In fact it’s rather on the nose, and possibly insulting to less lenient filmgoers. This beat was hit upon time and time again, until the driving force was dried up, as well as a bunch of other bits here and there that were delivered a tad predictably. Also, on another hand (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) quite a few “ewww” moments in this movie I just didn’t expect. I’m not sure if there were done for graphic effect or just to set the audience off-kilter.

I don’t know if all the carps I’ve listed here either amount to great cinema storytelling or a ball of confusion. Maybe that’s what Baumbach was trying to convey, and how fragile relationships can be. Or maybe it’s another indie mindf*ck that one comes to expect with these kinds of films. On the whole, Squid was supremely acted at its core (which matters most in a character study), surrounded by a sticky coating of indie trappings not easily palatable by hipster or mainstream audiences alike.

Damned hipsters. Those cold, evil hipsters…

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? I recommend this film without truly liking it. Rent it, but you only need to watch it once.

Stray Observations…

  • Oh, Lord. Wine coolers…
  • Is all the camera work here done with handhelds? I think they are. Tell me if I might have missed any scenes that were steadycam.
  • “Since when do you drink beer?” “Since recently.”
  • The soundtrack here is wonderful. Wistful, solemn and desperate. Cut by Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500 and Luna fame, two pet favorite bands of mine. Check out some of their albums; you might like them.
  • The movie was only an hour and fifteen minutes, but seemed like longer. Not that it dragged, but instead a lot of characterization was crammed in there real good. Maybe the best aspect of the film.
  • “Don’t be difficult.”
  • Oh, Lord. Mr. Mister…

Next Installment…

Will Smith declares I Am Legend against a horde of post-apocalyptic vampires. What could go wrong?