RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 7: Zack Snyder’s “Man Of Steel” (2013)


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The Players…

Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane.


The Story…

In yet another revival (and by revival we mean crossed-fingers in hope of keeping a possible cash cow of a franchise aloft) of the Superman legend, a wayfaring Clark Kent must keep his alien origins and fantastic powers hidden from the world at large. But when the nefarious General Zod plans to conquer Earth…well, you know.


The Rant…

Hmm. According to my records, this would be the third Zack Snyder film to go under the microscope here at RIORI. Also, this would also be one of several (and several more in my Netflix queue) movies based on comic books to go under the aforementioned lens o’ snark. I don’t know if it’s too soon to spot patterns here, but on both points, it seems rather suspect Zack keeps crossing my path. I’ll let you know more when my tests get back from the lab (no, not those tests. Jeez).

Something else I feel I should mention which is kinda off track. I’ve been getting a bit of flack about maintaining this weblog; about keeping the posts coming at a regular rate. Not to whine, but I have a job with a ridiculous schedule, which does not lend itself much time to sit down and actually watch these darned films. I usually get up at the ass-crack of dawn every morning and it’s only late at at night that I can wrangle the TV away from my family, let alone on a weekend for an evening’s viewing (I know I could just stream them on my iPad, but I got a big-ass TV with surround sound, so nyah). I’m tryin’ okay? Feel free to leave any comments behind to smack my wrist.

Moving on…

Why is it such a hit-or-miss prospect with comic book movies? Also, since the turn of the century, why weren’t more comic book movies made before? I know, I know. We had Richard Donner’s take on Superman and Tim Burton’s gothic Batman films, but that was it for over 20 years. Now since 2000, we’ve been inundated with the lot of ‘em. Took a while. You’d think they’d be naturals for cinema; they’re already storyboarded for pity’s sake. Some would argue that the special effects required for today’s comic book movies just weren’t available back then, but I think that’s weak sauce. Like I said, the early Superman and Batman films did just fine. Maybe mainstream audiences would turn their nose up at such a niche market? Not if it was marketed right, and most were. Maybe it was finding the right actors? That’s what casting agents are for, and to continually hammer this nail: Michael Keaton as Batman? Well, yeah.

I think Richard Donner had a stroke of genius in casting Christopher Reeve as the Caped One. An unknown actor who was mostly skilled in soap operas took to the skies with flourish and humor (and what else are superhero films but gussied up sci-fi melodramas?). Some of the more plausible comic book heroes were portrayed by actors who weren’t necessarily household names at the time (i.e.: Hugh Jackman, Tobey Maguire, Brandon Routh, etc.) as opposed to big name stars (I’m looking at you Affleck). When you cast an unknown, there are no preconceived notions about how the actor acts. It’s a clean slate. It works doubly so when the actor is put to task to portray an already established character, like Superman.

Henry Cavill did so. But quite left of center. More of that later. This was a Zack Snyder film after all, so what would you expect?

There’s no need to get into the movie’s baseline. We get it. Dying planet. Lost civilization. Last hope. Earth bound. Kind couple. Great power. Humanity lessons. Alien origin. Learn, adapt, overcome. Behold, Superman. Now let’s get onto the meat.

I’m not going to overview the story here. It’s not done out of contempt, believe me. It’s just that, like with my critique of Superman Returns, the folderol of explaining the history of Superman is pretty superfluous. If you’ve been extant for the past 75 years, you know who Superman is. Now let’s get on to it.

Man Of Steel is at heart an existential drama. For 75% of the movie, we get to mull over who Superman is when he’s decidedly not Superman. Henry Cavill, like Brandon Routh is an extraordinary find. An actor devoid of a complex résumé to pick apart. Clean slate. And here we have an incredibly malleable story. We start at Krypton’s end, a very stylized setting which, I gotta admit, is pretty striking. It echoes the first movie, but in a very stark way, kind of like David Lynch’s take on Dune. But it also has the intended thrill of a Zack Snyder spectacular. The whole wad is muted in colors as well as performances (save Shannon’s). In fact, the whole damned movie is pretty stark, but it works to its advantage. Again, more on that later.

Apart from the scenery chewing form Shannon, life on Krypton varies from cyber-idyllic to Orwellian nightmare, and a lot of climate-change prophesying to hit a message—some message about ignorance—home. Don’t know why. Figures it’s trying to connect Earth and the homeworld, well, home. Probably a disconnect attached to the Moses-like analogy suggested by the comics.

I’m looking too far into this. Onto Cavill…

He did a serviceable job. He didn’t honor the legacy of Reeve (or even Routh), but he got to the aforementioned meat of the story; the stuff the whole Superman sh*t pivots on. It’s namely the light of hope, the beacon, that could ignite the ideals of humanity into both light and action…only to be ignored. But Supes just keeps on tryin’, one crumbling building at a time.

But Steel was also very dry. It almost chafes. Man of Steel is a rather dour film, almost overly serious, almost pulse-pounding, almost a blockbuster. But we can’t blame Cavill. He made for a rather…different Superman. A reluctant hero, all at sea about his station in life, and well aware that he is not of this Earth. A lot of soul searching goes on here, and Cavill acts with his face so well, you can go along for the ride. He’s got a certain magnetism about him that makes the audience actually curious about what’s going to happen next to the po’ faced, conflicted Kryptonian.

The first act is very subdued. Keen on the angst. An image that sticks with me is Clark finding himself on the beach of New England fishing village, looking for clothes to replace the stuff he lost rescuing a bunch of oil drillers. He’s kind of lost, at odds with himself, and the dulcet tones of Chris Cornell’s “Seasons” illustrate that no matter how powerful Clark is, he still feels lost, on the outside.

Unlike its predecessor Superman Returns, Man Of Steel generates empathy for our hero, not awe. It’s gotta be hard with all those crazy powers to keep it under wraps in a prejudiced world, even if you’re just trying to do things for the greater good. Cavill does angsty very well, above the usual cliché that has become with reluctant heroes an overdone device. He made a “different” kind of Superman. One overly reluctant; uncomfortable having powers and not really reconciling with that fact. He’s definitely feeling his alien roots up and down here; being an outsider. It’s kind of weird watching a superhero wandering around in existential crisis. It’s hard to root for this Superman, only to pray instead.

Another contrast to Superman Returns; that film nodded a lot to the mythos. Man Of Steel seems hell-bent on retconning it. To clarify, “retconning” (short for retroactive continuity) is the practice of comic book writers to take creative license and alter a significant plot device or a piece of a character’s mythos to better serve current storylines. For example, Uncle Ben never told Peter Parker “that with great power comes great responsibility;” it was in narration, not dialogue. Later it was changed to Uncle Ben. That being said, Steel takes pains to hammer the point home that this is the definitive Superman story. Or at least it should be.

But I’m not sold on the whole Kryptonain history/embellishment either. There is a definite feel of Snyder trying to put a square peg in a round hole. By reinventing the wheel, and with it’s slate-grey view of the world, the entirety of what makes Superman fun has been stripped away. This is one of Snyder’s more serious efforts. Deliberately so. And that is funny to say since most of Snyder’s films have serious undertones, but peppered with frivolity. None of that claptrap in Steel. We’re down to business here, and that business is becoming Superman in a hard, cold world.

Oh, and also thwarting General Zod’s quest to conquer the planet.

Steel got a lot of flak—and I mean a lot flak—for gratuitous amount of collateral damage during the big fight scenes between Supes and Zod’s cronies. As was said by the pros, a lot of collateral damage. Spectacle over sensibility. Even made me squirm. Not to say that the fight scenes weren’t exciting. Snyder hasn’t lost his flair for action while trudging through the existential swamp. Exciting yes, but also overwrought. More hammering away at the heaviness of the movie’s tone. They don’t just have to be action shots, they gotta feel as if every punch means something.

Enough about the melodrama, let’s talk about the acting. We’ve already dissected Cavill enough, and he is handily backed up by a variety of solid actors. It took a while for the new Jor-El (Crowe) to earn my attention. For me, Crowe will always be Maximus. Unlike that gladiator, Crowe was more soft spoken as Jor-El, the avatar of all things Kryptonian. The quiet way about him (even when sh*ts hitting multiple fans) I found rather, dare I say, charming. And Crowe is not a charming guy.

A lot of scenery chewing from Shannon, and the climax is the stuff of…well, comic book heads would leap out of the seats in horror, spilled their Jubjubes everywhere: SUPERMAN DOES NOT KILL! (screams, rending of garments.) Even I had trouble with that one. But overall, Shannon was a fun villain, one you love to hate but also one with a very specific agenda. His motives are clear, his execution flawless and he has a commanding presence necessary for general and/or comic book villain. I like that earnestness.

Amy Adams was a misstep in casting. She’s a great actress (and even did some voice acting for Justice League Unlimited. Really) but lacks any believable drive to get to the heart of the Superman scoop. It’s almost all a walk in the park as her Lois Lane just happens to be in the right place at the wrong time on he trail of the alien.

As for technical flourishes, there was a lot of neat camerawork and editing in Steel. Seeing how the plot for the first act of the movie is not linear, it took a lot of cool edits to keep the story floating (e.g.: Kal’s Earthfall, the “toner” bit). Along with tasteful uses of flashbacks, the flow of the film was right on. Two-and-a-half hours moved by rather smoothly. Good pacing.

This has had to be my most arch, stern, under the microscope kind of review. Man Of Steel is definitely not your father’s Superman movie. Any maybe that’s for the best. This was an interesting spin on the Superman mythos, highlighting the Kryptonian side rather that the adopted humanity Clark Kent so embraces. It made for a stark action movie, a lot of fist wrenching and teeth grinding, but it wasn’t boring.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a character study of what it’s like to be a superhero with lots of stuff going boom. ‘Nuff said (wait, that’s some other comic publisher).


Stray Observations…

  • Did the “scout ship” set borrow from Alien? Sure looked that way, and no doubt tying into the whole alien motif of the film.
  • Enough with the Jesus Christ imagery already.
  • This has got to be the best role Costner’s had in years.
  • “A good death is its own reward.” Yeah. I know. Badass.
  • What? No spitcurl?
  • “Nice suit, son.”
  • My pen died.

Next Installment…

We go over the rainbow with James Franco AKA Oz, The Great and Powerful.


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 6: Jon Favreau’s “Made” (2001)


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The Players…

Jon Favreau, Vince Vaughn, Vincent Pastore, Sean “whatever inane handle he’s cooked up for this month” Combs, Fazion Love, Famke Janssen, David O’Hara and Peter Falk.


The Story…

Aspiring boxer Bobby and his idiot pal Ricky get tagged to head off to New York as representatives of an LA mob boss. Their mission—as if they could refuse it—is to secure a money-laundering deal, but trouble hits when the two meet up with would-be made men of their aspirations. It’s a dodgy trip into NYC’s underbelly for stooges Bobby and Ricky. Let’s hope they don’t have to make any (collect) calls home for help.


The Rant…

First off, sorry for the half-assed review the last time out. It’s not that it was written in haste or under the influence. It was just I was so not engaged in the film. It teetered on the edge of being boring, and you know how cranky that makes me (more so than usual).

Call it a hangover from the Finding Forrester review, but what really draws me or anyone into a film are the characters. You know, the vehicles of the film. They’re the guys and gals who really, truly are the reasons why we go out to the multiplex and pay such absurd prices for dry, sh*tty nachos. The reason why I adore Forrester and need a bucket for Cloverfield is an emotional investment in the characters (or lack thereof). It’s the actors, man. The folks that draw us to the box office in the first place.

Okay. There are a bunch of snoot-worthy filmgoers that plunk down their dollars for a movie directed by such-and-such and written by scribble-and-scrawl. F*ck them. Again, movie fans go to the omegaplex to see what the stars a-gonna do. The actors are the teeth upon which the gears grind. Any questions?

*crickets*

Right.

Made is rife with characters. It’s a character driven movie, not unlike its malformed twin, Swingers. Unlike the affable Swingers, Made is demented. In the image of a character study gone horribly awry left of center f*cking stupidly amusing as hell.

Here we go…


Bobby (Favreau) is a chumpy boxer (his night job) who labors as a mason (his day job) to make sure his stripper girlfriend Jessica (Janssen) can hold onto the rent and give her kid a roof over her head. Ricky (Vaughn) is an idiot. He has no backstory beyond being Bobby’s childhood buddy. He’s just an idiot. Did I mention he’s an idiot? And he’s hitched to beleaguered Bobby’s belt like barnacles. Can’t keep his trap shut or his fingers clean. Ever had a wingman who could effortlessly spout out every sexual conquest freely to the latest model that hovered into the airspace of your rapidly shrinking scrotum? Hey y’all, meet Ricky! And Bobby will politely grind his molars into kibble.

Such a dynamic may have worked real keen-like back in high school, but now such finger-poking lost any amusement decades ago. Bobby is tired of Ricky’s narcissistic bone-headedness, constantly having to both babysit him and clean up the many messes that he makes. Such messes always fall into Bobby’s lap to mop up. Now when yet another one of Ricky’s schemes backfires, Bobby has to take the heat in the worst way: he has to perform a favor.

The favor is for Maxie (Falk), local mob boss and Bobby’s benefactor. One night at one of Jessica’s many house calls, Bobby slugs out a guy getting too touchy-feely. The end result is several thousand dollars worth of dental damage to a very influential guy with “connections.” That and Ricky “lost” Maxie’s dry cleaning truck. No matter. Time to pay the fiddler. For their shenanigans, Maxie sets them up on a junket to NYC to secure a money-laundering scheme with smooth operator Ruiz (Combs). It’s a stupidly simple job; just represent the Left Coast. Even these two couldn’t…oh, who the hell are we kidding…


Like I said, Made is all about the characters. Okay, mostly the two leads. Favreau and Vaughn shook things up quite well (like a good martini. Get it?) in Swingers (another movie you should go rent. Go ahead, I’ll wait…….Okay? Told ya). There wasn’t conventional chemistry in that movie, and that repeats itself here. Only this time the dynamic is turned on its ear.

It’s hard not to compare the two movies. Naturally there are shades of Swingers, right down to the quirky music in Made. Vaughn’s motormouth Ricky is like his counterpart Trent only in reverse. Ricky is all anti-charm and exasperates everyone, a paranoiac through his own devices. Favreau instead of being anxious here shoulders utter frustration and masters a severe hangdog; not unlike Bill Murray in Broken Flowers, with his bewildered face falling off his lantern jaw, so gripped tight for almost every scene as he’s forced to deal both with his circumstances and Ricky’s nonstop prattle. He also must’ve had a steel will to not crack up at Vaughn’s antics, most of which had to have been improvised. It’s like Abbott and Costello in Made, but with punching.

I like Peter Falk. Been a fan since The Princess Bride. He was one of the most likeable actors ever, even when he was pissy. And for the few short minutes in the film, boy was he ever endearingly irascible. It works though. This diminutive, half-blind Jewish character actor was able to eject power into a caricature role that would usually embarrass most folks. Not here. He commands both attention and trepidation, to very amusing affects. He’s a nice aperitif to the doggishness of Vaughn and Favreau. By the way, there’s some kind of symbolism with the fight wounds, bandages hanging off Bobby’s face in Maxie’s dark office. Can’t quite put my finger on it but I know something’s there. Something about Maxie’s soliloquy (post comments as they warrant).

Hey, you know what surprised me? Puffy (I’ll call him that since his heyday was in the 90’s). Yes, yes, I know he’s acted before in Monster’s Ball (as an inmate. What? A rap mogul as convict? That was trite when the Straight Outta Compton album debuted. And Cube has been in far more movies). Here he’s got some serious swagger, a being a heavy without overplaying his hand. He was the “serious” actor in this film, and did a nice job of balancing heavy with jovial. Pretty good stuff. Like I said, a surprise in an overtly character driven movie. Reese’s cups to one and all.

Something offhand (but weighty enough not to be stray): You ever notice that films that take place in NYC have a certain swagger prior to 9/11, which got lost after the Towers fell? This movie has that necessary swagger. A confident, ball-sack dragging swagger that is simultaneously empowering and endearing, which a lot of indie projects lack. And no mystique here, Made is an indie cashing in on premium stars. But they’re put to good use, so cheers.

The technical flourishes were good too. Maybe this was why Favreau landed the gig at helming the first two Iron Man films. Really good cinematography plus a keen use of lighting. These are two things that land films subtlety into Oscar territory. Made wasn’t made to win any Oscars. But for the technical stuff that actually wins Oscars and flaunt bigger budgets, Made delivers.

Like I said, Made is a character movie, rife with those you can easily get engaged with, hand-in-glove. It’s also convenient that one of the leads also directed the thing. Favreau’s steady hand guides Made into chewy, harmless, but ultimately entertaining fun. Demented, but entertaining.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. If you liked Swingers, you’ll enjoy Made, if only with a left of center (uppercut to the jaw) flair. Where’s Alex Desert?


Stray Observations…

  • “I got enough people pretending to sweep.”
  • The limo’s license plate read DBLDN11. Did ya catch that?
  • “I know you got fish to drop off.”
  • …And they saved the fish.
  • “You have a great Easter.”

Next Installment...

Henry Cavill is Superman, the Last Son of Krypton, the Man of Steel.


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 5: Matt Reeves’ “Cloverfield” (2008)


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The Players…

Mike Vogel, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, TJ Miller and Michael Stahl-David.


The Story…

A going-away party is interrupted when a mysterious monster of epic proportions launches an attack on New York City. With camcorder in hand, a small group of friends makes their way out into the chaotic streets, scrambling to stay alive.


The Rant…

This will be probably my most curt review ever. You have been warned.

Ever since the inception of “found footage” films dawned with The Blair Witch Project, directors have tried to improve upon a very simple device by adding a lot of bells and whistles. The Paranormal Activity franchise has capitalized on this four times, and maybe more will roll along in the future as long as the ticket prices scream as such. Blah blah blah insert pithy sh*t here Cloverfield is the first found footage film with a budget, which came from JJ Abrams’ pocket to boot.

Don’t get me wrong. Abrams is a whiz at spectacle. Fringe was one of the few TV series I watched with any regularity. I found the new Star Trek movies fun, and Super 8 should’ve gotten an award for…something. Those are a few of the reasons why Cloverfield ended up under The Standard. Abrams’ sh*t is often derided for the stories being written—wedged rather—into a corner. His Lost suffered from it (so I’ve heard; never seen it. Hell, at least I’m honest) and Fringe came perilously close to that many a time. Another carp with Abrams’ production is that he tries to be too clever. And he often is clever, deliberately so, with his winks and nods to the audience to make sure they are in on the joke, as if we were looking for the joke at the outset. Now with Cloverfield he had to wrangle with spectacle, corner writing, cleverness and the aesthetic of the raw, dirty found footage milieu.

It did not go well. To quote Lou Reed, “Like bacon and ice cream…”

A bunch of sort of attractive nobodies assemble for a going away party for the central character, which has more or less every action skewered onto camcorder for a long as the film allotted. It’s a lot of the awkward angles and migraine inducing action cuts that go along with typical amateur handicam work (come to think of it, all handicam work is amateur). It’s no matter, because we gotta celebrate Rob’s (Vogel) going away party tonight before he books it off to Japan tomorrow (hmm, Japan…monster movie. Could it be? Naaah). It’s going to be an evening of drinks, videography from all Rob’s well wishing friends, more drinks and a behemoth rising up from the mouth of the Hudson to lay waste to Manhattan. Bummer.

Wait. What?

Turns out that the video we’d been watching for the first twenty minutes or so was actually—you guessed it—found footage cataloging the monster’s rampage as well as the fallout inflicted upon our intrepid band of yuppies trying to get off the island. All we know about the beastie is that it’s big, bad, hates architecture and seemingly questing for something. The footage only gives the watcher drips and drabs as to what’s happening, and how our cast members try to deal with their unfortunate circumstances. And the footage plays so fast and loose there is no discernable editing, cinematography or a simple point to focus on, save maybe the camera operators’ point of view. In sum, video vertigo.

The “acting” in Cloverfield is secondary to the mayhem. This is a movie without a story, so there’s no real motivation. There’s definitely no three act structure. There’s a monster on the rampage; that’s all. Run, scream, survive, panic, lather rinse repeat. All it is is 84 minutes of blur, screeching, menace and collateral damage. It’s relentless, but not in a gut-wrenching way. It’s headache inducing, and the surround sound will make you need to pluck the shards of glass from one’s ears. Cloverfield is kind of in a way very loud training wheels for Super 8. The differences between the two is the latter has a plot with a creature where the former just has a creature.

Cloverfield is a hard movie to break down. It’s an odd duck. One on hand it’s a sci-fi monster movie/found footage hybrid. On the other it’s a big winking joke. I know it’s supposed to be an homage to Godzilla and its ilk, but it gets all wrapped up in the Abrams’ (and despite the fact Matt Reeves is credited to this film, it’s Abrams’ show all the way) cheesy cleverness. Nods to monster movies abound, right down to screeching people getting stomped. A lot of the limp story gets hedged to leave a lot of questions unanswered, which is how Abrams’ figures his audience likes to be hooked in. I wasn’t. It never engaged me. So much so that when a scratch in the DVD f*cked up its playing, I simply shut the movie off. Didn’t care about the ending. I had no emotional investment made in any of the characters (save Hud, the camera operator, who’s death in my opinion should’ve cued the end of the movie) or the stakes they were under. The pacing was frantic—intentional I know, but frenetic camera action does not equal suspense. This movie was all spectacle, which was the point, but thin spectacle all the same. Maybe this was part of the joke.

You see where I’m going with all this? Abrams’ jeopardy is being too clever to let the line be drawn between ribbing the audience and shock n’ awing them. You get the joke? No? That is the joke! Ha ha! Hey, where’re y’all going?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Cue low battery alert.


Stray Observations…

  • The film had an 84 minute running time, the full recording length of your average DV tape. Get it? No, seriously. Where’re you all going?
  • You ever wonder how at the end of these “science run amok” movies (or whatever you want to call them) how the powers that be cover their asses so the rabble might respond in return? I do. When I’m awake.
  • “Maybe you shoulda left town a littler earlier?”
  • This film dropped in January, a black pit for most movies save latent Oscar candidates. Maybe releasing a pseudo sci-fi vehicle when no-one was expecting it was to enhance the “no-one was expecting it” theme of the movie. Or maybe it was just done to toss off the snowflakes. I dunno.
  • Some battery life on that camcorder too, huh?
  • “It’s a terrible thing.

Next Installment…

Do swingin’ Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau have what it takes to be Made men?


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 4: Gus Van Zant’s “Finding Forrester” (2000)


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The Players…

Sean Connery, Rob Brown, F Murray Abraham and Anna Paquin, with Busta Rhymes, Michael Pitt and Michael Nouri.


The Story…

Reclusive, award-winning novelist William Forrester wants to have nothing to do with the outside world, at least as far as the other side of his apartment’s window. It’s only when literally a thief in the night loses his bag of writings in his flat that William considers reaching out. Turns out the burglar is named Jamal, and he has considerable writing talent. William decides to mentor the youngster, who harbors a passion not usually associated with the thug kids in the neighborhood. Sure, Jamal likes basketball well enough, but William fast discovers the kid’s real muse: he’s obsessed with words.


The Rant…

Let me tell you the first truth about writing. It’s f*cking hard. Don’t let any dilettante tell you that it’s easy breezy lemon squeezy. Just let your emotions flooow, like a smooth river of caramel dotted with the sweet, sweet morsels of words and words and words. Ah, you can practically hear birds chirping.

A big firm no. Trying to drum up, coax and often cleave words onto a page takes one part crazy, one part driven and one very big part passion. To hole yourself up for hours—days—manipulating those words and create a cohesive narrative takes time, time, practice, effort, coffee, time, barbiturates and time. The life of a writer is not easy, and f*cking all writers say that. Those that like to go rafting down the Cadbury Creek say nay-nay and it’s all about what you feel and stuff. This is the romantic twaddle that gets foisted onto authors by the readers, wishing they could do what they won’t. Which all leads back to cleaving bullsh*t.

But when it’s cut well, like a surgeon with a hawkeye, then all that bourbony sweat and coffee breath and a lion tamer-like will to get the words onto the paper, then yeah, it feels that breezy…to the reader. The hardest part about performing an art is to make it look effortless. That’s why it’s called art. Craft is a better term actually regarding writing. Craft is the job. The story is the art, the throughput. And in writing, a flowing story is tirelessly hewn from that rugged block of the English language.

So how does such a chore of a craft make for a decent movie? Well, to start to answer that we first gotta read between the lines…


Jamal Wallace (Brown) is your average, likable kid. Middling high school student, down with basketball and bumming with his crew. It’s kind of a façade though. Jamal is privately bookish and always scribbling in his journals, hauling them around with him in his omnipresent backpack. He harbors a desire to be a writer, and all those journals serve to get out all those words that so plague his adolescent mind about life, love and leaving.

There are all sorts of pockets of humanity hidden away in the tenements in Jamal’s Bronx neighborhood. The local haunts for all the kids, the basketball court, the high school and the creepy apartment with the even creepier recluse who spies on everybody with binocs via a curiously clear window.

One night, Jamal’s crew puts him up to a dare: sneak into “The Window’s” flat and steal some goodie to prove he was there. Of course this does not go well. Jamal is chased out of the apartment leaving his backpack—and all his journals—behind. When he eventually does retrieve his pack (or rather  unceremoniously dropped on him) and his treasured journals, he finds “The Window” has given them the red pen treatment, scrawling literary criticism across the crinkled pages.

After timidly trying to apologize for his trespassing, Jamal discovers “The Window” is a rather unpleasant, very reclusive crank who goes by the name of William Forrester (Connery). The guy’s got some hefty opinions on writing in general and Jamal’s writings in specific. After taking in the criticism and with some coaxing, Jamal asks Forrester for some tips and tricks. And boy, does he have some.

Turns out that Forrester is a writer of some repute, who successfully wrote his Great American decades ago and has been pulling a Thomas Pynchon ever since. He never goes out, whiles the days away bird watching, spying on the neighborhood and writing missives that no one will ever read all the while curled up with his handy rocks glass of scotch. Unsurprisingly, he has no real friends to speak of outside of his personal library. Jamal’s conciliatory visit comes as more an incursion to the cloistered writer.

Maybe a little guidance should be in order. A little help from Forrester might give Jamal the boost he needs in his budding writing career. And a little boost from Jamal might give crotchety Forrester a little attitude adjustment. Maybe he’ll even get out of the house more. Here’s hoping…


Oooooo, the critics hated this movie.

It was lacerated for being too derivative of Van Zant’s previous Oscar-winning film Good Will Hunting (maybe you’ve heard of it). True, Forrester was released barely three years after Will and their plotlines are very similar. Forrester has often touted at Van Zant’s other feel good mentor picture, which sounds kind of disparaging. It is, seeing how both films follow the same pattern; no awards for originality here. This mentor/protégé dynamic has been used before. It’s also sort of timeless and sometimes tiresome, too. So sure, the movie is derivative.

But it’s good derivative.

Unlike Will, Foresster has two things going for it: a lot less melodrama and no Ben Affleck. Also, it’s got Sean Connery! I love Sean Connery. He’s my favorite actor. You can always count on him to deliver the goods. Sure, a lot of his films have sucked big donkey d*ck, but he’s always good—solid, engaging and humorous. What else could you ask for from an actor? And he was James Bond, after all. Street cred. His performance as Forrester here was nothing short of a miracle. Here’s a guy asked to portray what has to be the utmost perfect stereotype of the wise reclusive writer, from being surrounded by books, wearing the robe all day and nursing a nice little drinking problem. And yet it works, because Connery makes the role his own. He plays irascible well as he does thoughtful. His character follows the basic tenet that all writers strive to follow: he shows, not tells. He delivers his lines with wit and sincerity that you could swear it was his own words, not a script. When you think about it, with his 50-plus acting career, Connery really has nothing left to prove. He can and has chosen roles that simply please him. If indeed he had anything left to prove, he could’ve hung up his hat with You Only Live Twice (my fave 007 movie. It’s got karate!). At this point in his vaunted career, Connery’s chosen roles are being Connery. He’s an icon, and he’s aware of it. Just hand him the script and he’ll take the movie from there.

My fawning explains why the Forrester stereotype worked here. You would be correct in claiming that Connery’s titular role is a cipher. To my immediate memory, I can’t recall any movie about writers that didn’t showcase the “the brilliant author” as anything else but quirky, private, antisocial, phobic and (perhaps) harboring an addiction (e.g.: Wonder Boys, Adaptation, Shakespeare In Love, American Splendor, The Shining, Sunset Boulevard and on and on). Connery apparently does, and does it quite well. So how now, Brown Cow? Why doesn’t his Forrester come off as a total caricature?

In a word, earnestness. Sean believes in the man that is Forrester, but not so seriously to make him a man made from stone. Connery injects just enough snark here—almost as a wink to the audience—to make him grounded, relatable. Sure, some could even regard Forrester as a hipster (and I f*cking hate hipsters), but Connery is too sharp to play that card so close to his chest. Remember what I said about him choosing his own roles? He knows what’s going on, his career being so long. In sum, Sean’s self-consciously hamming it up. He understands the stereotype. He understands himself and his acting style. He understands what audiences expect of him. He understands not to give a f*ck and just have some fun. Sean ain’t gonna win no awards here in Forrester, and he don’t give a sh*t anyway. We’re all here to have fun, Ms. Moneypenny (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Now here’s the part where I’m gonna employ my best impression of Roger Ebert crawling up his own ass. Ready?

At the other end of the table, Rob Brown’s performance is noteworthy in that this was his first movie, and had next to no training for the role, the polar opposite of our leading man and the perfect foil. Story goes that Brown tried out for the part just to earn some cash to pay a cell phone bill. It paid off, if you’ll pardon the pun. So by way of overages, we got ourselves a pretty decent young actor. Brown’s Jamal is totally relatable without ever being stereotypical or boring. Sure, Jamal could be any black teen hailing from a crappy neighborhood in the Bronx. Therein lies the key. Even if Brown had no formal training, he picked up pretty quick the paradoxical way of Jamal’s personality. On the outside, yeah, Jamal is average in every sense. Another black kid from the inner city who plays basketball like countless black kids from the inner city who play basketball. Big deal. It’s Jamal’s mannerisms that carefully give away where his real comfort zone lies, but because of his surroundings, it’s not really attainable. Since we understand at the outset that Jamal is a closet bookworm and quite smart, it’s easy to see why he kind of keeps his intellect in check—keeps it under wraps is more like it. His hiding comes across sort of like a social survival skill. Where Jamal lives, being wise is not wise. It’s not appreciated, let alone wanted. It’s only in fits and starts—where a situation moves him—that he expresses himself naturally. Jamal is keenly aware of this outsider status, and goes to certain lengths to hide it. Watching Brown’s expressive facials are paramount to understanding the character as opposed to dialogue and body language. You can’t teach this; it’s a natural gift, and it takes years for a seasoned actor to hone this skill. Some nobody that spent his bucket of minutes trumped dozens of child actors catching 10 percent.

The only times when Jamal’s hidden personality fuses with reality is around Forrester. Not at first, of course. Since this movie is a character study/buddy movie, we need to have that “getting to know you” tension established in order to find the eventual mutual camaraderie and (sometimes sappy, even here) friendship that the audience craves for movies like Forrester. To claim that Forrester brings Jamal out of his shell is a bit of a truism. Such a dynamic is expected here; it’s what the movie’s all about, not writing. Writing is the shared passion of our two leads, and like with most friendships first we establish a common ground, then we explore it further (farther, sorry). Once this is set down, the inevitable happens. Here in Forrester, thanks to our tenderfoot/veteran balance of actors, an otherwise derivative plot is elevated to a really fun character study. Slowly under Forrester’s acerbic tutelage Jamal comes out of the proverbial shell, both with his writing and understanding that it’s okay to be brilliant in fits and starts. After all, Forrester is “brilliant,” but also antisocial and harboring a not so subtle drinking habit. I guess Van Sant’s trying to drive the point home that all creative types have their vices, whether it being scotch, basketball or an inability to express oneself in a emotionally productive manner. In the cloister of “The Window’s” labyrinthine apartment of books, typewriters and multiple TVs, I also guess that Jamal understands it’s okay to explore that stifled part of his personality, and maybe it might be his key to his way out of…something.

*readers stir from their snoring and drooling*

Welcome back. Your fly’s open.

Back to the technical stuff. Regarding the character that is Brown’s Jamal: that’s this trouble with the label “relatable”; it’s a tag that often means cookie-cutter. C’mon, that whole “relatable” tag has been so bandied about so much regarding leading men that it has ceased to maintain relevance. I already went on and on and on about Brown’s excellent delivery, and what made it excellently relatable was Jamal’s insecurities and uncertainty. It was naked, but only if you had a keen eye. Forrester’s schtick was as subtle as neon. With his expressive eyes, honest curiosity and truly down-to-earth demeanor, Brown is a delight. In short, good job kid. You won me over, and this coming from an ardent Connery fan.

Okay, now any story about stories needs a foil, a dastardly villain. We need an Iago here, a Moriarty, a Milton-esque Satan. F Murray Abraham’s Dr Crawford fits the bill here. Abraham is an accomplished, Oscar-winning actor. His Professor Crawford villain here is ham-fisted, greasy and utterly laughable. He’s fun to dislike. Small wonder here that the guy probably relished the role. Crawford is all moustache-twirling and effete and offers a performance so eye-rolling it provide a great deal of unintentional humor. I think we’ve all probably had a teacher along the way like him. All of such credentials lend Abraham into the Velveeta wing of Hollywood’s best worst overactors. Like I implied, I think the guy knew what he was getting into as Forrester’s Salieri (had to mention it at least once. Now shaddap), so I’d also like to think the guy’s attitude to approaching the project was more or less, “What the hell?” So he got all campy and Snidely Whiplash and we were all there to lap it up like fresh cream. Cheesy? Sure. But no less fun.

There are a lot of other little perks to this movie. Devil in the details and all. Jamal’s hidden library. The “ghost” story. Delivering groceries. Jeopardy! Busta as the voice of reason. Crawford’s stupid tea ritual. Paquin’s perky boobs. And something else quite noteworthy? The soundtrack. Painted with the tunes of Miles Davis with the guitar stylings of Bill Frisell, my favorite jazz guitarist (don’t have one? Get one), the music plays layers of jaunty groove and accents all over the urban landscape. It plays as an actor in its own right. And it only gets played when Brown is on screen, usually alone. Representative of our conflicted hero’s mind? You decide.

You got to have a really hard heart to dislike this movie. I for the life of me failed to see any overt issues with Forrester‘s storytelling. The words from the critics seemed like a lot of nitpicking to me. I will admit, Forrester does get treacly at times, but’s often redeemed by our two leads’ hard-won, mutual respect and snappy dialogue. I mean, it’s just a buddy flick, pure and simple, with no pretenses to win any awards. Lighten up. Connery and Brown have a really good chemistry, totally believable. The script is simple, streamlined and deft, and if missing lofty goals about the human condition in the abstract ruins a character study, I say with Forrester let it be ruined. The direction is economical with a minimum of pandering. Forrester might get a bit touchy-feely and maudlin at times, but it’s got Sean Connery. ‘Nuff said.

I’ll be honest, if you don’t like this film you’re a cynical dickhead. And I’m a cynical dickhead.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Call me biased but I’m a sucker for both buddy movies and films about writing. Moreover, it’s one of my guilty pleasure favorite films. Sorry for the hoodwink, but not really.


Stray Observations…

  • Forrester’s apartment looks a lot like my old place during my post-grad days. I didn’t want many visitors either.
  • “Not exactly a soup question.”
  • Punch the keys for God’s sake!” Not as easy with a PC. Or with a typewriter either, those first few pages.
  • There is the scene where Forrester slides a book back into its proper place on the shelf. When I showed my girlfriend the movie, she exclaimed, “That is so you!” We broke up.
  • What the hell is that fiddle at the party? I want one.
  • “You’re the man now, dawg!”

Next Installment…

We’re gonna be rollin’ in Cloverfield, as found footage films go super-sized.