RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 11: Brian de Palma’s “The Black Dahlia” (2006)

Black Dahlia

The Players…

Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank and Mia Kirschner.

The Story…

A pair of LA detectives go undercover to solve the mystery of a murder of an unknown Hollywood starlet. No big deal, really. Just another kid from outta town who lapped at the wrong end of movie star promise, right? Well as the small investigation deepens, the answer becomes decidedly no. A very heavy no. Looks like the late chanteuse has some very serious connections in ol’ Tinsel Town. She operated pretty fast for a nobody.

Was she a nobody?

The Rant…

To be read in the style of James L. Cain (ahem):

LA is a spectator city. The kind of sprawl that either invites or repels lowly nobodies full of dreams and slim billfolds, seeking fame or fortune out here in the hidden desert. It’s the place where both dreams and delusions hold sway like girls hold hands between playground swings. This is the place where dreams are built regardless of grip. Hollywood. It screams attention. It’s the hub of a million failed fantasies, and barely a keyhole view into the very few fortunate souls who managed to “make it” by sweat, grit or luck. The very few can intoxicate any hopeful Sally from the Midwest, the usual token swept up in the dime matinee back home. That’s the place where the germ of the seed of the idea of getting out of the two-pit clodhopper drag gets born. There is golden gleam in the eye of the lens and the eye of the hopeful in that willful daughter. The glint of opportunity. Of riches and status and flashbulbs galore. It all just has to take a chance encounter with one of thousands of scouts to pick you out of a crowd, brand you as “the one” and get you a quick, direct and ultimate seamy deal with a nobody that posesses the other kind of lens and then you’re to the quick. The first bite of the spectator city. Here is where dreams are made real, encouraged by dire need and a hopeful grasp at the hem of the Warners’ coat. Leo the Lion roaring in your mind. RKO spitting static across the planet. Republic and its goddam eagle. And a tugging at your hip that brings it home in a hurry. It’s still all a dream, but a salty, sweaty dream. In LA, where all things are possible depending on which side of the lens you are. You find yourself woozy, under the spell of the potential limelight, that dream so close to your grasp you miss the reality. The fact that you’re fresh meat. That you have no pedigree. That you’re fresh of the bus, reeking of turnips. That you’re an easy mark. That the dream is just a delusion. It’s the thing that kept you off the spike. To endure the endless belt across your back. To someday spit in the eye of your old man who couldn’t f*ck you but damn well made sure you knew what his shoe across your backside felt like. In Hollywood, yes, there is the oasis. Anything to get out of Kansas alive. It may not work out. It may be an encounter with fate. Hell, you might get lucky and Selznick might frequent that fruit stand you hit up for second apples. Maybe you’ll just be practical and hold onto the four dollar flat with the lumpy bed and keep the offhand rain off your broke ass. But LA is a spectator city. It’s just champing at the bit to See. You. Fail.

Back to the 21st Century.

The above was written under the terrible influence of duress, nicotine, whiskey and bile for the slice of life that was de Palma’s The Black Dahlia. My sh*t was homage, not unlike what the “Demon Dog of Crime Fiction,” James Ellroy does to pay the bills. To be honest, I’ve never read a single Ellroy novel in my life. All I know about the guy is his pedigree. That and his big screen adaptation of LA Confidential more or less launched the American careers of Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe (for good or for ill). He’s like the E L Doctorow of LA crime fiction (Doctorow is the only analog I can think of…since I’ve read his sh*t). It’s kind of hard to gage a writer on reputation alone, but from what I gleaned from The Black Dahlia adaptation, it’s a f*ckton of difficulty to raise the spirit of a book to the celluloid reality of a movie. It’s like a crane extricating a garbage scow from Boston harbor. At low tide. Dead fish f*cking everywhere.

Here’s the deal. I’ve already skewered films here at RIORI that were based on pre-existing media. You get expectations. For this entry, I’m engaging in an act of bad faith. Have never read an Ellroy novel, but do know of his credentials. Know his esteem. Understood that if you f*ck with his material, you’re gonna get drivel. I had no expectations, no understanding…and yet I got drivel from a director whose resume reads like a Sunday drive down the coast of Calais on June 6 circa 1944. In short, I know de Palma has a very short list of good films that keep his resume aloft while in the meantime he directs chunks of ABC gum.

The Black Dahlia was an exceptionally chewy wad…

It’s Los Angeles, 1945. The war is over, and LA has evolved into a powerhouse of business and industry. Apart from oil, the biggest business is showbiz. Hollywood over all. It’s the lure of glitz and glam that enthrall the most game of would-be it-girls. All that money, all that fame, is all a perfect stew for an underworld of sex and scandal. That and the occasional dead body of an unknown, defeated actress discovered in a forgotten part of the city.

Elizabeth Short (Kirschner) was just one of a thousand Hollywood hopefuls that hopped a bus from the Midwest to break into the movies with stars in her eyes, youthful naïveté, and a half-baked idea of seeking fame without talent. She came to the big city, did some screen tests, had reality smack her upside the head and got work in stag films. Some budding acting career. Oh, and then she was found eviscerated in a field somewhere.

It’s just another murder mystery in LA, but still, the grisly nature of the crime…it’s unlike anything the LAPD has ever seen before. Time to get the Force’s best and brightest on the case. Or we hope they’re the best and brightest. This case is going to be one for the angels.

Detectives Dwight “Bucky” Bleichart (Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Eckhardt) are old chums that go back a ways, from their salad days as boxers up until their turn as cops. They have a palpable rivalry, and have an unconventional method to their madness. This isn’t your average murder case, after all, and as Blanchard’s marriage to Kay (Johansson) begins to suffer due to his obsession with the sensational crime Bucky discovers a troubling link between the victim and the mysterious Madeleine Linscott (Swank), a prominent socialite and the daughter of one of the town’s most connected key players…

I’ve kept the synopsis straightforward, with a minimum of my usual purple prose. I don’t want to talk about the actual movie much. It made me mad. The Black Dahlia is the most unintelligible, inscrutable wandering crime drama I have ever seen (for this blog anyway). I had to watch it twice just to make sure it wasn’t me but the movie that was so confounded. I had no idea where this film was going, the narrative was so sloppy. And what really pissed me off is for a two-plus hour murder mystery movie, the Maguffin was touched upon for maybe 15 minutes. It was a soap opera bookended by a grotesque murder that neither lead seemed very invested in. Not so much a murder mystery than a character study, with characters I invested very little in.

In short, I didn’t like The Black Dahlia.

First off, the film employs a rather dubious device: narration. It’s got the Blade Runner principle going for it, flat and mostly a distraction. Hartnett’s delivery is in such a low voice it sounds more like an incoherent croak. I pointed out in my ripped seam for Cadillac Records, narration can be a rather tricky thing to use to enhance and/or embrace a story. The narration here was less of an embrace and more of a ball gag.

Hartnett himself seems out of his element here, awkward. He’s got the looks of an aged-out Disney Channel sitcom star. What’s more is here’s one of the few character types in Hollywood that is a stereotype but endlessly fun to watch: the tough gumshoe. Hartnett could’ve chewed it up a little better by adding a little ham.

Speaking of ham, we have the seasonally unreliable Aaron Eckhardt as Hartnett’s foil. If Hartnett underacts, then Eckhardt goes over the barrel with goofiness. The boxing scene alone was an embarrassment. Here we have him chewing scenery and vacillating between clown, cop and supposedly devoted romantic. Neither he nor Hartnett were very convincing, let alone comfortable in their roles.

Johansson is one of two (two!) femme fatales in the movie, and boy is she awkward. It’s as if she’s trying to acclimate to her new found “It girl” status. A simple, semi-sleepy indie film like Lost in Translation may work for an underspoken role like that one demanded. To flip the coin and be sassy as well as demure here didn’t show her having much range, just a cute face.

A surprise however was that Kirschner had the best scenes in the movie, albeit the shortest (and in flashback no less). She acts very well because the role itself demands actual acting. The hungry young starlet is a classic movie staple that can veer close to cliche, but Kirshner puts it out as the first naive nymphet whoever tries these stunts and trappings that come with the archetype and might fail. There is a sense of urgency. A keen eye should be on baited breath to taste what happens next. After all, she is the Black Dahlia. The movie’s reason for being. Too bad it forgot that.

I don’t want to get into Hilary Swank at all.

The Black Dahlia is a half-baked attempt at noir (not unlike my overwrought intro to this week’s installment). There’s an attempt to create a period piece here, but it’s too angular. There are all the trappings of lousy noir here, despite the cool camera trickery and good cinematography (the only things I’m certain that I liked about the movie), namely trying too hard to be hard-boiled and atmospheric. There’s no atmosphere here. No subtlety. Like with the opening scenes of a street riot with none of the authorities doing anything to quell the mob, the film beats you about the head with questions like “What the hell is going on?” or “What is trying to be said?” Such questions I was keenly aware of every time a scene was cut to frame the softer, “human” sides of the characters. This is supposedly meant to build up a backstory, but all it did was confuse me further.

A lifetime ago I reviewed another true crime murder mystery, Zodiac. That film also examined the civilian lives of the protagonists minus the “period melodrama” as I call it. It kept the tension hotter than the deliberate melodrama in The Black Dahlia.

So I had a very hard time following the narrative. I had very little emotional investment in the characters. I had expected to see a murder mystery movie. Instead I got flash, a poor script, lousy acting and—you guessed it—bad pacing. Tsk tsk tsk. This was a very wobbly, under confident, soulless movie that was relentless in its wandering storyline and unreliable in not only keeping my attention, but also an ability from keeping my gorge buoyant.

The only thing that was reliable in the film was de Palma’s flair for violence. Lucky you.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Do I have to say it? Please, relent it. I’ll believe that James Ellroy deserves better.

Stray Observations…

  • “She won’t mind.” The most efficiently clinical post-war medical examiner ever.
  • kd lang. A little on the nose, yes. But she sings well, so I’ll give it a pass.
  • “Old beef. Pot roast tonight?” Quite clever. I credit Ellroy.
  • Kevin Dunn is a very underrated and reliable character actor. He only may have spent maybe 5 minutes on screen but was efficient and smart. Worthy of the ticket.
  • “Hollywood’ll f*ck you if no one else will.” Again, Ellroy I hope.
  • I love how back in the old days the movie marquees would announce who the stars of the film were. Unlike today as it is an unwritten rule to declare unapologetically the reasons you went to see the film. It’s (hopefully) the acting, of course!
  • What is it that makes two women making out such a turn-on? Never worked for me. It’s just two more women who have no need for me. No double kisses for the critic.
  • My wife caught maybe seven minutes of the movie and called it out as dumb. I was stupid and watched all two hours, twice. My wife’s a smart guy.
  • “There are so many pretty things here…”

Next Installment…

Yours truly, From Hell, Jack the Ripper…


RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 10: Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are” (2008)

Where the WIld Things Are

The Players…

Max Records, Katherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara and Forest Whitaker.

The Story…

Max has had it with being a nobody in his neighborhood. His big sister dumps him in favor of playing with her friends. His mom looks as if she’d rather be with her new boyfriend. And Dad…?

Max imagines running away to a some far-off land where fantastical beasts may crown him as their king. They would play rumpus, build forts and discover secret hideaways. Sounds good, but really is that all there is to being the king of the beasts?


The Rant…

Children’s books, by design of necessity, are short. The stories within are usually quick ones and seldom, if ever, delve deep into the Graham Greene of things. Sure, kids books often have poignant messages, life lessons to learn and adorable anthropomorphic creatures coaxing the young eyes to read ever further. They’re also chockablock with amazing artwork, lets not forget, which is the usual culprit that grabs the youngin’s attention in the first place.

But one thing is an immutable truth: kids’ books are f*ckin’ short. We don’t want attention spans to be taxed or eyes to become strained. We want a five to ten minute respite from chaos and screeching that only a Shel Silverstein or a Dr. Suess could deliver to frantic parents everywhere. Kids want a quick break to let their imagination grow fallow, if only for a bit. Only daydreaming is faster. And cheaper.

Most movies are not short. Decidedly so. If they were, at least in today’s market, they’d probably not have much of a client base. Too many other mobile distractions to contend with, like kids books. It is a very precarious thing to stretch a 30-page, less than 100 words, heavily illustrated, razor-thin missive into a precise 88 minutes of celluloid glory. Standalone it hasn’t worked yet; you gotta add a lot of breadcrumbs to that meatloaf. So far there have been the bastardization of several of Dr. Seuss’ most beloved tales (How The Grinch…, Cat in the Hat, The Lorax, etc.) that have illustrated this point. His books went through the Hollywood meat grinder and out came the gristle. What the brevity and efficiency of a children’s book has on the page does not marry well to cinema. Screenwriters have to apply a lot of padding, altering the script to miles away from the original, concise plot and hire a lot of dippy-ass tunesmiths to churn out the shiny for little kid ears. The junior target audiences that were entranced by the source material in the first place, now yanking a recalcitrant mom and/or dad to the multiplex in a frothing frenzy are en route to a let down. It’s inevitable.

God, this sh*t pisses me off. Let’s face facts. Once here I claimed that Hollywood erroneously views us  moviegoers as stupid. So under this premise the average adult moviegoer adult is stupid, then according to marketing the kids must be f*cking brain-dead. They’ll watch any colorful dreck that gets smeared on the screen and has a toy and cereal tie-in. Here’s a common fallacy: kids are stupid. I was a teacher once. Kids—and it seems the younger they are, the harder it is to bullsh*t them—are a lot smarter than they let on. Most are actually a lot smarter than most adults, like George W, Donald Trump and Donald Sterling. I’ve been privy to a lot of movies aimed at kids. Being a dad, I seldom get a say in what movie to go out and see nowadays. What I watch is almost always animated, Disneyesque, hyper and pandering. Funny thing here is kids know they get short-changed pretty soon on in the movie. Here’s a common conflict in regarding, say, a Seuss adaptation: “This isn’t how it was in the book! The book was much better!” This is usually followed by a scowly pout and an eventual smattering of Twizzlers ricocheting off the other sibling’s head, which proves to be much more entertaining than the movie slipping off the sprockets. They squirm in their seats. They get bored and say so. They want to leave and start whining about it. And Mom or Dad try to hush them, knowing full well that they ain’t gonna recoup the twenty plus dollars wasted on this time spent in the dark. Mom and Dad are forcing them to watch the car wreck out of spite at this point. The kids know they got gypped. Like I said, smart.

Pillaging Maurice Sendak’s magnum opus was not particularly smart, either. And it wasn’t pillaged well to boot…

Max (Records) is your typical, nine-year-old (at least he looks nine) kid, full of unhinged energy and idful abandon. He likes to terrorize the family pet, incite snowball fights with his big sister’s friends, and be the lord of a fantasyland of his own creation, much to the exasperation of his mom. You know, standard kid stuff.

So Max is attention starved. Not surprising with his older sister Claire more interested in hanging out with her friends and mom (Keener) being a harried single parent trying to juggle both career and homestead with equal attention. Max being in the middle—or at the bottom of the totem pole, depends where you’re looking—he acts out often. He can be defiant, mouthy and even violent. Looks like a Ritalin candidate if there ever was one.

One evening, dressed in his signature wolf costume, Max is feeling particularly punchy since Mom’s male “friend” has come over for dinner, hogging his spotlight. Feeling slighted, he tears it up, howling and standing on the dinner table and actually assaulting Mom with a wolf bite to the shoulder. That’s enough. Mom is furious and Max is chased out of the house, scrabbling through the streets, tears streaming down his face. He’ll show them. He’ll run away from home and they’ll all be sorry. He’s the king of the beasts, not some beastly kid.

After hitching a ride on a sloop on the beach, Max sets sails to points afar, places where he will be appreciated and understood. Enduring an interminable transatlantic stormy passage, Max washes up on the shores of a remote island, and quickly discovers that he is not alone. The island is populated by fantastic beasts, all of whom seem out of sorts, like they need some guidance. Max knows what to do. He has found his people. Let the wild rumpus begin…!

Like I said, children’s books are short, and the movies based on those books need a lot of applesauce to fill up time. Most of the time it’s dreadful (I cite the adaptation of The Lorax as a good example), stuffed to the gunwales with bad jokes, extraneous dialogue, crappy musical montages and additional, irrelevant plot points separate form the source material added just to, well, stretch it out. To be fair, there are exceptions to this issue. For one, I thought the adaption of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs was in some ways superior to the book, it being very funny, nodding an winking and even providing an actual explanation and backstory (e.g.: plot) to the hijinks in Chewandswallow. But this is an exception. Usually a lot of padding robs the original story of its power that so entranced the audience in the first place. This practice seems very shady to me, as if the powers that be added crap to just to pander to the kiddies’ imagination that absorbed more emotional stimulus in fifteen minutes by merely reading the source material. Competition for attention, as well as flammable dollars. It’s like they know, and probably full well, that by adding all the claptrap will keep the keys jingling in front of their juvenile audience.

However, unlike The Lorax, Wild does decidedly not pander to the kiddies. It does the direct opposite. It barely panders to kids at all. It does however f*ck with the source material just enough to make itself feel overblown and stodgy. Jonze went and took a universally adored book and went and put it through the existentialist Cuisinart. The final result was an intractable movie ostensibly aimed at kids and families, but ended up as a freshman year philosophy treatise on phenomenology.

Wake up.

Okay, enough babbling. Wild is a bloated attempt to simultaneously cash in on a generation’s nostalgia and wax philosophical about the ways of childhood anger and fear. That’s it. Adolescent and mopey. This film uses Sendak’s book as an excuse, not an homage, as a means to an end for Jonze’s jaundiced vision. He went and made a metaphysical kids movie. While this counts for originality (as far as adaptations of childhood literature go), it makes for lousy storytelling.

Yeah, I know. I’m being pretty awful here, trashing an honest attempt to bring the book to life. Wild misses the mark in its stilted execution, and sucks all the wonder away in a very angular fashion. It’s so goddam serious. There is not much connection to the sweet yet salty Sendak tale, and is padded with philosophical drivel with all the subtlety of a fart at a funeral. The pacing is languid, like walking through syrup. Even the wild thing beasties seem half asleep in their activities most of the movie. This wasn’t the movie to watch late at night. A cough syrup cocktail works just as well to drift off that sitting through Wild (don’t ask me how I know this).

I’ll quit masticating on the movie for a bit and talk about the good stuff. There are some notable goodies in Wild. Max’s acting was pretty good. At least he channeled storybook Max’s vital aspects to live action—the childish raving, trying to be a good boy, and the innocent regret for his actions. Our lead is not easily likeable nor immediately endearing at first glance, but he wins your over and makes for a good vehicle to serve the audience. On this level, Jonze (whose spelling I’ve always thought pretentious) at least recognized on a vestigial level that Wild was supposed to be a kids movie, so he let his lead run riot. Records’ performance was the only refreshing aspect of the whole movie.

There are also some stunning visuals. The seams separating CGI from live action is virtually untraceable here. A high note. The wild things themselves are rendered almost hair for feather with such exactitude you have to get that Jonze is truly trying to convey the message of the book. He overdoes it, but he wasn’t dressing Mike Myers up as a winking cat. Simply put, the Sendak creations look quite Sendak. At least on these grounds, Jonze remembered his muse, and didn’t swat it.

Overall, there is an inherent sweetness to the film, but it’s too bad it’s just so forced. There is a message Jonze keeps trying to hammer into the audience’s skulls, almost like cinema verite with a rather blurry concept of dealing with childhood anger. After watching Wild you kind of wish there was a dippy song-and-dance montage placed in the story just to lighten it up a bit. This flick was too heavy, both in philosophy and execution. It was the cinematic equivalent of eating a heavy meal. Too much padding, in a non-kid way.

Throughout the film I found myself asking myself, “Why is this film boring?” The answer is that it felt more like a symposium than a family film. It was dour and ponderous, and there definitely wasn’t enough rumpus. For a kid film, it sure wasn’t kid friendly. Three-quarters into the movie, I hit MENU and skipped to the end. Dissatisfied with the conclusion, I turned it off, put down my pen and decided to go to bed, tiring of feeling vicious.

When I got to my room, my dinner was still hot.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Better you go reread the book instead. To your kids. They’ll thank you.

Stray Observations…

  • “I don’t think the crazy’s been eliminated.”
  • Writing a kids book within a movie based on a kids book? Pretty clever (and cute) meta.
  • “All right tree. We’ll settle this later.”
  • Jonze got his start directing music videos (e.g.: Beastie Boys, Dinosaur Jr, etc). It shows here.
  • Did I mention the sick amount of padding in adaptations like this? I might’ve missed mentioning something.

Next Installment…

Who killed Elizabeth Short, AKA The Black Dahlia? Gonna get all true crime up in yo’ ass.

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 9: John Carpenter’s “Ghosts Of Mars” (2001)


The Players…

Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Jason Statham, Clea DuVall, Joanna Cassidy and Pam Grier.

The Story…

Mars. Once Earth’s desolate, lifeless neighbor has since been colonized and terraformed into a new world where humanity can set up a new civilization. Of course, life on the frontier is rough business, and when the workers at a remote mining colony go missing, it’s up to the local marshals to get to the bottom of the mystery. These tough cops are ready for anything the planet can throw at them…except maybe Mars’ legacy with a history of violence.

The Rant…

I’ve noticed I’ve been sort of derelict in my duties lately here at RIORI. I haven’t been stressing how The Standard has applied to the last few movies I’ve scoured. I guess it’s necessary given my tendency to ramble, as well construct large blocks of text that doubtless gives you a headache to remind you of why we’re here. From the likes of what I’ve been reviewing, it’s been headache season for the past few months. Anywho, to review, The Standard is as follows. The movie had to be, more or less:

  1. Lacking in box office mojo (i.e.: a poor return at the box office);
  2. Made in the 21st Century, and/or;
  3. Misunderstood/misrepresented and perhaps needed a second look.

There will be a test later. Now then…

John Carpenter is one of my favoritest filmmakers. In addition to the classic bogeyman flick Halloween, Carpenter has helmed other noteworthy movies that are my faves. Escape from New York, The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China are choice feathers in the cap (I’m also a fan of Kurt Russell, probably because of these movies). I love Carpenter’s low budget, minimalist, DIY aesthetic. That and his wild ideas and dark sense of humor. His is almost like punk rock cinema.

The funny thing about his movies is that, for a guy best known for horror, they tend to be so low budget and stripped down they often come across as comic. Not funny ha-ha comic, but with a very firm tongue-in-cheek rather. You have to take his movies with either an entire lick of salt or let yourself in on the joke, otherwise you just plum won’t enjoy the movie. Even his scary movies have that dark humor sneaking along with the story, and it’s not usually hard to sniff it out.

It’s when it’s overt that we got a problem, and then the joke is on us…

Welcome to Mars. Two hundred years from now, the powers that be thought it was good idea to transform the barren, desert landscape of the Red Planet into an alternate Earth (the process is called terraforming) and create a new society for humanity. It sorta worked. The Martian frontier now is not unlike the Old West on Earth—boomtowns and mining operations on the fringes of the cities, rough and lawless. You need to have a pretty tough bunch of lawmen (and lawwomen) to keep those who’d do harm in line. That’s what Lt. Melanie Ballard (Henstridge) of the Martian Police Force and her cadre are all about, meting out justice, protecting the innocent, keeping the peace and kicking some ass when needed. At least they used to be. Stuff’s gone down since then.

Flashback (or flash-forward. It gets hard to tell after a while). A mining train trundles across the stormy surface of the planet back home, the Martian capital city of Chryse. When it arrives the authorities find it running on autopilot, its complement missing. Well not completely. Lt. Ballard is handcuffed to her bunk, unconscious, injured and of all things, drugged up. Looks like we got ourselves a mystery here.

After Ballard comes to, she’s debriefed by her superiors and out comes her implausible tale of what happened to the crew, her partners, that prisoner they were supposed to transport and locate the whereabouts of over a hundred miners out near the remote outpost of Shining Canyon.

Back up (or forward). Ballard was dispatched with her fellow officers to transport the very dangerous criminal James “Desolation” Williams (Cube) from holding in Shining Canyon to a max security prison. When the cops arrived, the mining town was deserted; the buildings vacant and there were signs that something…odd happened to the miners, if not otherworldly.

Once Desolation was relieved of his cell he recounted that something truly f*cked up went down there. Turned out the miners didn’t exactly vanish as much as they had “gone native.” They all retreated to the hills, started speaking in tongues, engaging it self-mutilation and taking great pleasure in decapitating outsiders. They appeared to be possessed by some sort of malevolent juju, and are out for blood. Something evil is afoot, and Ballard and her partners are stranded in Shining Canyon until the next train arrives.

The possessed miners are coming over the hill to prey on new game. Ballard and Co bunker down in the deserted, underground, maze-like tunnels of the mining town and start pooling their ammo. The next train isn’t for days, and the natives are indeed restless. So Ballard and crew have no choice but to bear down, take aim and survive. If the planet will let them…

For all of Carpenter’s lo-fi ethos, a better budget equals cleaner production. It’s a fact in movies. Ghosts is no different. Unfortunately Carpenter lost his grip on this one. And the end result, even with a heftier budget, is a film that could not be saved by any sum of money.

Ghosts is Escape From New York in space, with a hint of Evil Dead and a little Roshomon­ thrown in for good measure. Plus some additional spice from Lord of the Flies and The Road Warrior as well. It’s a hodgepodge of Carpenter’s earlier films as well as his influences. It was claimed that the man was running close to empty at the end of the 90s; he’s just running on fumes with Ghosts. Shame.

There isn’t an original bone in this movie’s body. It’s all ideas and scraps from Carpenter’s early films. There is an especially potent Assault on Precinct 13 smell wafting from the cineplex. The movie kind of plays out like a campfire tale: you’re just waiting and waiting for the storyteller to go boo. Keep on waiting. There is no sense of urgency in Ghosts and the pacing is sluggish. It’s like waiting in line to use the bathroom, only to find you’re out of toilet paper. Sh*t.

First off here, Henstridge’s acting if rather wooden. If she was cast just to look pretty, I wouldn’t be surprised. She never seems to be giving emoting even a try; she’s just going through the motions, and unconvincingly at that. Cube doesn’t fare much better. He snarls and barks like the dangerous character he’s portraying, but it just comes across as comical. For our leads, there’s no much leading going on at Shining Canyon. In reality, both stars don’t seem to be necessary in advancing the plot. They’re just…there. Neither have any presence, like they wished they were someplace else (like the Orwellian LA of They Live, for instance). That’s a shame, because both Henstridge can be sharp, and Cube has demonstrated his grim ‘n gritty chops in Boyz N The Hood and his wittiness in Barbershop. Both of their facets are strained here in Ghosts.

Speaking of comical, all the blood and gore was ridiculous. Not in the sense that is was excessive. Rather for trying to push the “horror” aspect of this movie, Carpenter confused “scary” with “bloody,” and proceeds to pick off the characters one by one in ways that are so over the top, they come across as laughable. It’s difficult to tell if this was intentional, or Carpenter fell asleep in the director’s chair. Maybe it was all foreshadowing of his eventually admitted resignation that he fell out of love with “her” (his pet name for making movies). Solidified with the rampant splatterfests, Carpenter flattens all of Ghosts corners, and later crashed on the chaise lounge with a half-empty New Orleans hurricane at his elbow, eventually spilled.

A final note: there are too many homages in this picture. Way too many. When I gave the recipe for Ghosts a few paragraphs back, it read like a Lego set with half the pieces missing. You know, pieces like character development, suspense, plot, all that sh*t. I pointed out that Carpenter has a dark sense of humor. Was Ghosts supposed to be a comedy that went horribly awry? And if so, why did Carpenter have to cannibalize his own movies? Sure, he has a great CV, and it’s been plundered already by countless cinema neophytes. But plagiarizing yourself? That only worked for John Fogarty, and just barely. In a word: snore.

I sniffed out Carpenter’s humor here easily. No subtlety. When it’s overt, it’s not entertaining. I don’t mean just humor. The man didn’t keep his cards close to his chest. In fact he threw his hand onto the table. He didn’t care about his audience here, even hardcore fans like myself. Bummer. This movie had a stinktastic reputation kickin’ about for over a decade. Now I see why.

I’m gonna go watch Escape From New York again for the zillionth time.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. This movie was dumb, bottom line. What’s worse was that it wasn’t even original. Don’t blame me, blame the lazy director over on the chaise lounge, spent cigarette butts in his crotch.

Stray Observations…

  • Jason Statham, the UK’s answer to Bruce Willis, at least as far as hairlines go.
  • Cube’s facials here are hilarious. He always looks like he had a bad run-in with Taco Bell.
  • “And this is eight inches.”
  • Whitlock’s explanation of the dormant “ghosts” in arid climates is scientifically true. This might’ve been the germ that fostered Carpenter’s story, I’ll bet.
  • Henstridge’s hair clip is rather distracting.
  • So camo pants didn’t die with the 90s?
  • Was Big Daddy Mars really slapping at his ass when he was set on fire? I adore Carp’s sense of humor.
  • “Put your hand down!”
  • Say no to drugs.

Next Installment…

Spike Jonze takes us to Where the Wild Things Are. Supper can wait.

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 8: Sam Raimi’s “Oz, The Great And Powerful” (2013)


The Players…

James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King and Tony Cox.

The Story…

Circus magician and professional scoundrel Oscar Diggs is magically transported to the Land of Oz. Mistaken for the prophesied wizard send to vanquish the three witches manipulating the land, Diggs reluctantly uses his illusionist skills and resourcefulness to become the savior the residents have been hoping for. Hell, beats the circus racket, as well as all those piles of elephant poop.

The Rant…

I’ve never been much for fantasy films. The Lord of the Rings trilogy never caught my attention. I’m not a Game of Thrones viewer. A good portion of Disney’s bread-and-butter animation films are lost on me. I recently went to a viewing of Maleficent (the kids dragged me to it. Oh, the burdens of dadhood) and found it meh. My brain just isn’t wired to go along for the ride amongst dragons and wizards and elves and the rampant pixie dust imagination of your average male sixth-grader (admit it, a Piers Anthony book is kicking around in your attic somewhere. Admit it!).

Of course there are always exceptions. There’s gotta be, otherwise you have nothing to measure the silly against. I’m an unabashed fan of How to Train Your Dragon and when the sequel comes out this summer, me and the stepkid are gonna be at the multiplex already frothing with popcorn. The Neverending Story of my youth was pretty cool, and still holds up to this day, even with the Kajagoogoo soundtrack. Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is a perfect film (don’t argue). Ah yes, and of course, there’s The Wizard of Oz.

The movie has been pleasing audiences for 75 years now. 75! Its songs alone are the earworms a thousand musicals later to contend with, no part in fact to Judy Garland’s pipes. Its ridiculous Technicolor sets are so beyond gaudy they’re mesmerizing. And the acting’s pretty good too. It’s not really a fantasy film at heart—it’s a Broadway musical gussied up with a big budget and ever bigger sets. It’s kind of laughable now to think that Oz was a flop at the box office. It was, and only through the miracle of television that the movie is now heralded as the classic it is today.

Why do I mention all this crap and what relevance does it have on this week’s movie selection (besides the prequel crap, and the setting, and the characters and the you get the idea)? Based on the above goodies from the original, you can’t get lightning to strike twice, no matter how hard you try. Yet I don’t think director Raimi was really trying to recapture the childish wonder of 75 years past. He’s an eccentric filmmaker (read: Evil Dead and Spider-Man movies), and with an odd view of the world through the camera lens lends itself to making some pretty odd movies; curious and demented movies this side of Tim Burton (and at least Burton tried to make weird relevant). Raimi’s vision of Oz was less than a wondrous fantasyland of munchkins and ruby slippers, but more of a fever dream acid trip of he demanded the world of Oz should be. This film wasn’t retconning the original Oz, but rather blazing a trail through weirdness, childhood be damned. Actually, it was more like stomping a trail down the yellow brick road…

Oscar “Oz” Diggs (Franco) is a middling circus magician circa the early 1900s. He’s less of a magician and more of a con man, a rapscallion and an self-entitled, self-important buffoon. Always scheming to get a bigger piece of the pie, grabbing the most desirous of women, demanding the spotlight and (surprise) never wanting to get his hands dirty. He’s always got his head in the clouds, just waiting for that lucky break that’ll escalate him to his notion of “the big time” and out of his penny ante outfit. His dreams may be big, but Oz’ prospects are small.

One day, after a particular nasty run-in with the suitor of one of the many naïve girls Oz tries to woo (I gotta gets me a few music boxes), he escapes his rightly deserved beating by hitching a ride in a hot air balloon. His getaway is clean, until he gets scooped up in one of those unpleasant Kansas twisters (a twister, Dorothy!) and thrown clear over the rainbow.

Oz lands in a multihued landscape of bizarre creatures, exotic flora and Mila Kunis doffed in scarlet. Where the hell is he? Why, fans of the first film knows this is the merry old land of Oz, and Oz himself is naturally confused as well as delighted. This world shares his name, as well as what the witch Theodora (Kunis) tells, also a prophecy foretold by her sisters. A wizard will arrive from lands afar to rescue the citizens of Oz from a very wicked witch (this world seems to run lousy with witches) as it is written. Guess who’s the lucky contestant?

Of course no hero should go so foolishly into battle without some trusty friends in tow. After saving his life, Finley (Braff) the flying monkey pays a life debt to Oz and will be his trusty servant, whether his wants it or not. And after demonstrating some of his “magic” to the crippled China Girl (King), he gains a rather delicate of body but strong of heart cheerleader in the best sense. Finally, Glinda (Williams) the Good Witch (continuity!), who naturally leads the trio along on their quest to the straight and narrow.

Now Oz the Great, as he’s been shunted into the title, must now not only be worthy of literally living up to his name, but also let a little humility into his ego while simultaneously using his cunning as an illusionist to stop the spell of dark magic from corrupting the land of Oz…

From the get-go Oz has Raimi’s eccentricities firmly in place. The prologue alone is a good primer for any of his works. The cartoonish nature of his lead, the rubbery dialogue and, of course the outlandish nature of the plot going joyfully off kilter. All we need now is Bruce Campbell (wait! We do! Let’s play “spot the cameo!”).

Oz sure is a pretty film. There is heavy duty CGI going on here, like all the sets were designed with Prang in mind. It’s almost a bit too much to take. But there are nice touches with the analog bits that do the original film justice (I’m a sentimental sap). The movie tries to match the explosive brightness and kaleidoscopic fever dream that was the original film. It succeeds in many places, but it’s like there’s too much green screen. Is it intentional? It makes the movie appear kind of pulled from a comic book, that or a Maurice Sendak story. Thanks to that splash there is an oddly organic plot development following along here, and since it was based on a mishmash of L Frank Baum’s books (a more accurate interpretation of the writer’s somewhat brooding series), Raimi played fast and loose with his colorful toys.

On another hand, the acting’s a lot of fun. I mean a lot of fun. It’s the best thing the film’s got going. Raimi has a knack for bringing out the best in his cast, and Oz is no different. Franco here is equal parts charming and greasy, sporting the classic “I’m not from around here,” manqué personality. He’s got a good endearing vibe around him, despite being a charlatan. After all, his trip through Oz is a kind of voyage of self-discovery, and discovering who you are and who you can truly be is the classic stuff of fairy tales. He’s a thief with a heart of gold, but it takes time to see it.

Braff and King’s characters are the yin-yang to Franco’s hero. Braff is amusing as Franco’s aide-de-camp. He’s not funny (not like John Dorian funny, but close), but amusing, adding just a touch of empathy for our dauntless Oz. Then there’s the tragic figure that is China Girl. King’s voice acting is so sweet and heartbreaking as the voice of Oz’ consciousness you gotta have a heart of ice to not be touched even a little bit.

I think the three actresses playing the witches—Kunis, Weisz and Williams—are the trifecta of cool. They’re kind of like a more benevolent trio of Weird Sisters, a la Macbeth. All three steal the show, even if it takes Kunis’ charater to play catch up in the third act of the film. Glinda was pretty badass in a gentle way (as well as respectful of Billie Burke’s iconic role), whereas Evanora chews scenery with aplomb. Some pretty cool witches I say.

One of Oz’ biggest issues is that, well, there’s no sense of wonder here. It’s just a thinly veiled action movie. The fantasy ends with the aforementioned backdrops. However there are those moments, which echo the original film that make this version seem worth our attention. Oz is a lot of contradictions rolled into one story. It might puzzle the casual filmgoer not acquainted with Raimi’s style of cinema, but it can entrance as well as repel, kind of like the smell of gasoline (how’s that for simile?).

Like with my list of fantasy films I could get behind, it’s hard to distance yourself from the spell of nostalgia in giving this film a frank assessment. Ostensibly, this is a kid friendly movie. On another hand, Raimi’s left of center humor as well as direction shove the film into the right of the PG-13 crowd and up. It’s always about what is lacking rather than what is fresh, and which may or may not be better, and the audience Raimi is aiming for here is rather schizo. I dunno. Oz left me scratching my head in places and cheering in others. But it wasn’t terrible—there were far too many redeeming factors in the acting that could excuse the plot. I guess all I can say was I wanted a modern day taste of what the classic three-quarter century years young classic did to me when I was a pup.

Right. Being terrified of flying monkeys.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It ain’t half bad. It’s definitely entertaining in a rather difficult way, but fun nonetheless. Just don’t expect any true movie magic. Or songs.

Stray Observations…

  • “I think green is my favorite color.” Directorial meta?
  • Yep. Flying monkeys are still freaky, and not that funny.
  • “Let’s go kill ourselves a witch!”…tra-la-la. A keen example of Raimi’s style of humor. Sorry kids.
  • Does Danny Elfman have to score only weird films? He does a great job, but it’s not gonna win any Oscars. He might be onto something.
  • “Remind me to show you sometime.” Smooooth.
  • “The only person you can’t fool is yourself.” And that’s one to grow on.

Next Installment…

We head off to the red planet courtesy of John Carpenter (yay!) to go bust the Ghosts of Mars.