RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 15: Paul Schrader’s “The Canyons” (2013)


The Players…

Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, Nolan Funk, Amanda Brookes, Tenille Houston and Gus Van Sant.

The Story…

Trust fund doosh Christian figures himself a burgeoning movie producer. That counts if you consider soft-core porn YouTube and FaceBook feeds makes you a movie mogul. But behind his scenes Christian’s fragile failing actress girlfriend, Tara, hides an affair. Her tryst might be an opportunity to get out from Christian’s sleaze, but a chance meeting thrusts them all into a violent, sexually charged tour through the darker side of basal human nature. It’s not as cool as it all sounds, believe you me.

The Rant…

I have a confession to make.

I’m willing to wager that a lot of other guys might have a similar confession. Years ago, at least by a decade, and before she was druggy, snatchy and scraping a rusting career down to the metal, I had a crush on Lindsay Lohan. Back before the crash-and-burn that became her career’s swamp, she was hot, funny and charismatic. She was the It-Girl at the turn of the century. She also had natural comedic talent in the best way imaginable, organic and malleable. We all know about Mean Girls and the remake of Freaky Friday; pairing her against Jaime Lee Curtis was a stitch. And like Curtis, Lohan cut her teeth as a Screen Teen, growing up in front of the lens and whose every action was scrutinized with baited breath. By the way, she was hot.

Now I know the need to stretch yourself as an actor, to try challenging roles, test rougher waters. Lohan was a teen actress and former Disney darling (she starred in three Disney remakes, before God). If there is any evidence in Miley Cyrus’ post Hannah Montana career, then Lohan is one of a neverending string of Screen Teens that want so desperately shed their kiddie label, they’d take perhaps a premature plunge into the world of post-PG13. A tricky turn to take, and it often results in failure. For example, despite his promising start, Edward Furlong comes immediately to mind regarding career flameout. Shia LeBeouf ain’t doing so well either. To my immediate memory the only former Screen Teen that bucked the trend was Jodie Foster, playing nymphet Iris in Taxi Driver at age 12. Two Oscar wins later and well you get it.

Waitaminnit, didn’t she star in the original Freaky Friday? Hmmm.

The trouble with taking said plunge is that often the audience doesn’t want to go along for a swim. Would a Mean Girls 2 clean up at the box office? Maybe. Maybe even a Freakier Friday. But as she grew up, Lohan wanted to try her hand at more “serious” movies. Like I said, you gotta stretch yourself. The problem is you also have to be convincing, and take leap of faith that the audience will follow you young actor you along a different route, as if age is notwithstanding. It worked for comical Jim Carrey (once in a while), and on the other hand, brooding Robert de Niro (again, once in a while). For some odd reason, which I can only attribute to bad press surrounding even worse off-screen behavior on Lindsay’s part, her grown up roles were not very successful and followed the damning rules of diminishing returns like clockwork. How do you go from being a part of an ensemble cast in a Robert Altman film (A Prairie Home Companion) to a wretched attempt at American giallo (I Know Who Killed Me)? My take? Too many unadulterated street drugs and impatience.

Lohan should’ve fired her agent years before the crackpipe burned low. You can’t shoehorn yourself as a former child star into flawed “serious” roles and expect to taken seriously without a cocked brow. Looks like no one told LiLo this, and her later films—like The Canyons—illustrate her grinding against her once effortlessly charming side with her needs to be taken seriously. You can’t be taken seriously as an actor if you just dump yourself out of your element for the sake of that. Well, that and taking on lousy scripts ain’t much of a sound investment either.


Hollywood is a plastic town. No one disputes that. It’s very being rests on creating fantasy worlds populated by liars portraying imaginary lives for an unseen admiring public. It’s all glitz and glamour, drugs and squalor, fake reality and conspicuous consumption. Money has a lot to with Hollywood’s being also.

Apart from all those underpinnings, Tinsel Town rides along on making movies. That’s where the cash is. It’s a town that rides on spectacle, the literal sense of the word: to be watched. Everyone’s an actor, everybody’s on a stage, everyone’s performing some song and dance. Makes for an endless melodrama with all the twists and turns of reality to take in. And get warped.

Take Christian (Deen) for example. He’s got the latest thing. Tapping into the endless promise of social media, he can crank out “movies” for the gullible public on his smartphone, readily available and always rife with the possibility of going viral. He can be the next Scorsese with enough likes. Besides, he’s gotta have a spine unto which his trust fund bucks have to hang. He also needs a gimmick, a solid one beyond pixels.

He and Tara (Lohan) haven’t been with each other long, but long enough to reach a tenuous agreement. He provides the luxury, she provides the money shots. All that’s missing is the white lines and a domain name. One night after drinks and dinner with Christian’s latest prospects Ryan (Funk) and Gina (not Wagnall’s), the usual nighttime T&A session goes a little left of center.

Turns out Tara has a bit of history with Ryan, a glimmer of a possibly better life that would have garnered security and perhaps the all elusive love rather than sucking miles of c*ck in the name of a really nifty address, both online and on the block. But Christian is the jealous, possessive type. He’ll share Tara’s bush with total strangers so long as it ends in profit, as long it won’t result in an actual healthy shine at a relationship, hand to God.

Their’s is all spectacle. This is the plastic town of Hollywood. Relationships don’t actually exist beyond the coupled hands at the premier, and even wasted Tara knows this. So what’s this proto-fluffer gonna do to get back towards the straight and narrow with a guy like Ryan? After all, Christian’s not exactly the most even-keeled yacht in the bay, especially since he’s easily tempted by any female other than Tara.

Sigh. Just another chapter in the novel that is Hollywierd. Next!…

Whoa nelly. I bet most of you smelled The Canyons light-years before you ever heard about it. The flick fell so hard under The Standard on all fronts you’re probably wondering what took me so long to get to it. Patience, friends. Patience. Here’s a super low budget movie that still managed to be a loss leader at the box office, even after skimping out on craft services (I think. I mean, everyone in the movie seemed way too skinny to me). I heard that Schrader more or less made this movie on a bet regarding the budget.After seeing the thing I’m not sure if Schrader won or lost. The Canyons is looow budget all right, right down to the DV camera work (maybe a parallel with the making movies on phones?). The working budget was around $250,000 and the movie grossed only $59,000 and some change. That’s including DVD sales. Ouch.

I think this movie died based mostly on negative press; it kept people away. After watching it once (only once this time!), I’m not entirely sure what the flap was about with The Canyons. It does have a lame plot, sure, and the acting is wooden, but was it all on purpose? It’s hard to tell, but I’m willing to wager that The Canyons is a very self-aware movie. Everything is superficial, but was it deliberate? The movie semi-revolves around acting and making movies, after all, and what else is based so much on style first, substance second than making movies? The flash of a movie is what gets your attention in the first place. This movie is not engaging, but itseemingly doesn’t try to be. It’s all plastic, as well as somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

I credit this to the script. Bret Easton Ellis was…is known for being an 80s writer in every sense of the term: slick, winking and tapping into the cultural zeitgeist without shame. That and a lot of lines of blow being snorted. Since this movie indeed seems so plastic, what better way to illustrate the transparency of movie making than an expert chronicler of the superficial and fleeting? The Canyons is all about putting on faces, on denying accountability and how cheap and hollow relationships can be. It’s an 80s movie for the 10s. It’s got a feeling similar to Refn’s Drive (a review of that is kicking around here at RIORI somewhere), another film about gloss, movies and hostility. The Canyons is a rather ugly film and transparent film, and doesn’t try to hide it.

Despite all that ugliness, there were a few high points. There always as to be a few, right? Right? Whew. Thought I was losing it there for a minute. Fo’ instance, I really liked the opening montage of all the burnt out movie theaters. It really sets the stage, as all good montages do. Up front you’re getting a totally not subtle message as what the next 100 minutes are gonna be about: the stripped out side of movies and acting. It leaves a dry feeling in your mouth, and feels welcome there. We also have some pretty good cinematography going on. Very deliberate camera angles; again no subtlety. The Canyons intends to whack upon your sensibilities and offer no quarter. Again, here’s the ugliness up front and personal, used exceptionally well in the sex scenes (did I mention LiLo gets naked a lot in this movie? You’re welcome). So we got that working for us, which is nice.


Let’s talk about the acting. This was the bugaboo that the intelligentsia really took issue with. Either James Deen is a really bad actor, or his performance is keenly calculating in line with Ellis’ writing. He’s just so smarmy he’s fun to hate, as well as hate his acting. He’s so full of himself and at the same time so weak. If the goal was indeed to make his character Christian so hateful to be a reflection of all too prevalent stereotypes in Tinsel Town, Schrader succeeded. If not? It’s still all deliciously fake.

Speaking of fake, Lohan here seems so out of place. Tara seems so bewildered as to her circumstances, so in denial of the fact that she’s just a tool and piece of ass, and not really caring. She comes across as totally out of breath and almost checked out emotionally. Even when she tries to muster up some muscle, it’s all so dire. Again, deliberate? Following along in the vein of the movie? Maybe.

Everyone is f*cking everyone else, figuratively and literally in this movie. It’s just so brutal, and you wish you could sympathize with someone on screen, but you can’t. It’s because they’re all cardboard caricatures of cardboard caricatures. Ciphers, empty and lacking any place for emotional investment. Once again…oh, well you get it by now. No nuances, no delicacy, just a rolling pin over your sense of civil behavior. All of it deliberate and without taste.

Everything in The Canyons is “on purpose.” Repeat this mantra: deliberately devoid of subtlety. I really don’t know about this one. Everything is so superficial, and maybe that’s the point. That seems to be the message trying to get across here. In other words, all’s fair in love, war and video apps.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A solid question mark. Really. The film is so on the nose fake that it’s sphinx-like in its intentions. I guess you gotta rent it to make up your own mind. I can’t really recommend it though.

Stray Observations…

  • I liked the “no kissing” thing. Elegantly sleazy.
  • “Nobody has a private life anymore…” “Okay. What do you talk to your shrink about?”
  • It’s curious how the characters in the film keep reminding us of “how beautiful” Tara is when in reality LiLo’s cosmetic surgery did her no favors.
  • “How was your day; you go to the gym?”
  • The use of Deen’s Bluetooth: very clever narration.
  • “Nod for me.”

Next Installment…

Aubrey Plaza has a short summer to check off all her “conquests” for her To-Do List.


RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 14: Domenic Sena’s “Swordfish” (2001)


The Players…

John Travolta, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle with Sam Shepard and Vinnie Jones.

The Story…

Either Gabriel Shear is a brilliant revolutionary or some nut who’s read one too many Ayn Rand novels. He’s determined to get his mitts on $9 billion in a secret DEA account so he can use it to fight terrorism, or so he claims. He may lack the hacking skills, but is exceptional in the HR department. So he recruits—read: blackmails—encryption expert (and supposedly reformed felon) Stanley Jobson to digitally crack the government mainframe. Okay, maybe Gabe’s read Snow Crash too often, rather.

The Rant…

It’s been a week.

I understand a lot of blogs delve into the personal. Almost all do. RIORI was decidedly not to be one of those kinds, outside of personal takes (and attacks) on questionable cinematic efforts. But I am not made of stone, and personal things happen. First and foremost, blogs are, quite simply, designed for venting. So, three things:

First, my wife is ill.

Second, Tommy Ramone died.

Third, you ever have a movie you wanted to like based on, say, vague reputation alone? I mean a movie that had repute for being…somewhat off kilter. Views of it were so divisive you told yourself, “Hell, I gotta check that out!” So contrarian you just had to make up your own mind, regardless of eventual irrefutable proof that the movie was indeed a bucket of doggie-doo? Ha! A challenge!

No? The hell you say.

A few months back I tackled a film that fell under that criteria. It was Lady In The Water courtesy of M Night Shyalaman (stop groaning). There was a film with such a wonky premise, it just had to be either misunderstood or just plain quirky, designed with the MST3K crowd in mind. You just wanted to like it, and like a clean wipe after battling it out with Taco Bell, it just did not come through. You’re welcome for the visual by the way.

Before I get even more obvious in my opinion about Swordfish, here’s what happens…

Stan Jobson (Jackman) is washed up. And in need of a wash, appropriately enough. Living low on the totem pole does not suit him, but it suits him better than lockdown in federal prison. Stan used to be one of the most feared computer hackers in Christendom, but as in cybercrime is wont to happen, you get sloppy, you get busted. Stan was sent away to Leavenworth for a stint. In the interim, he lost everything, home, life, freedom and family. Now he churns out a meager existence as a grease monkey for oil rigs. No glamour there, and a far cry from cyberspace to which he is permanently banned, lest he end up back in the clink.

One day, a curious stranger comes calling at his beater trailer home. A sultry woman named Ginger (Berry) with really great legs offers our downtrodden former cracker an offer. You want your life back, as well as your estranged daughter? Pay a call to her boss. He’s a man in need of Stan’s unique talents.

Gabe Shear (Travolta) is kind of a techrat. Better known as a cyberterrorist. An info broker of the blackest level. He’s got a not so hidden agenda of upending America’s data flow for the better of society, as far as he’s defined it. Stan’s the man to crack code faster than a jackrabbit on Mountain Dew. If Stan can bust into the US Treasury, the DoD, hell, the US airspace grid with nary a fart, then cracking for the “greater good” should pose no challenge. Under Gabe’s promises and afforded clout, maybe Stan can get his record expunged, his daughter back and perhaps a slice of the pie he could get under the aegis of the Bill of Rights rather than Honor Among Thieves that has done so well for him.

Sounds like Easy Street, right? But as with Gabe’s agenda, there are hitches, catches and bugs to unwire. As Stan jacks back into the matrix, he fast becomes a pawn in a greater game of chess that tosses zeroes and ones faster than the lives of average Americans or a madcap version of Pong. All in the name of the 21st Century balances of power…

Christ, this movie was stupid. I heard of its ill repute years ago. Perfect for Standard material.

Director Sena’s oeuvre has never been mired with the trappings of “smart cinema.” Mostly it’s been in defiance of it. And a lot of the time, his sh*t’s a good thing. Pure popcorn, lots of excess, just-don’t-think-too-hard-and-you’ll-have-fun kinda movies. It’s odd he never got slated to direct one of those endless Fast And Furious movies. But truth be told, I really liked his remake of Gone In 60 Seconds. Heck, the star of that flick wasn’t Nic Cage but the Shelby Cobra I’d give my left nut to own. However while 60 was an exercise in silly fun, Swordfish was just an exercise in silly.

There’s a very on-the-nose Matrix feel here. Like computers and their hacking are now still things of the proto-future. Look, I can jack into dozens of online sites, cleanly or otherwise. I’ve expanded my music collection a hundredfold simply by dropping twenty-five bucks. Once. Five years ago. If I’m gonna get busted by the FCC for claiming this (and I really can’t since I paid at the outset to do so, as well as sharing data I also pay into), I’m already at the end of a very, very long line of Internet abusers who can operate faster than the glacial pace of our government’s overseers who are still using pencils to rewind cassettes back into obedience for their Walkmans.


In other words, Swordfish’s idealization as future in motion was already outmoded by 2001. Hey, remember Napster? So it doesn’t hold up well with the Skype generation. And yes, I have a Skype account but never use it. Turns out I’m too ugly, even for cyberspace (probably because I still use the term “cyberspace”).


Swordfish has a forced sense of urgency. Tension in a story should be organic. The forces on the outside should nudge the protag into action naturally, not shove him into the head of the line like, say, in a movie queue. From the opening scene, as well as it’s executed (and it’s done very well, I must say), there should be no need for kick-in-the-balls action as Swordfish clumsily does, again and again. It folds out that all of the scenes of drama are bent over the railing with awkward action, like as if Sena suspected we needed a kick to follow the story (the cat-and-mouse tagging in the interrogation room scene being an ugly example) with splash that insults subtlety. It makes for a headache after a while.

Not to say that there aren’t some nice touches throughout the movie. For one, the pacing bounds along effoertlessly with very little hiccups. Another bit is that there is a plethora of post-millennial touchstones present, as if to deliberately set the stage (to become dated, though). Plus Vinnie Jones is a good actor on presence alone. It’s the thematic things that work well here. It’s called world-building, and essential to movies like this. Despite it’s now dated trappings, Swordfish uses a classic sci-fi device for a non-s/f movie: the world within a world. Better examples of this are The Matrix, Tron and to a quite lesser degree, Innerspace. Although Swordfish isn’t science-fiction, the sub-world of hacking and the black Internet and the culture that pervades it has a nice analog to folks who’d usually turn down a free ticket for, say, JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. But future shock can only go so far to grab the audience’s attention.

By 2001, the Internet was as pervasive as athlete’s foot in a locker room, almost inescapable. Sena does provide a nice air of post-techno modernism, which does accent the paranoia and pleasure of computers reigning most of all of our lives. One scene I dug but don’t quite know why is Stan assaulting Gabe’s flashy banks of monitors and computers trying to hack code and gain access to where he should not be going. Jackman takes turns talking to himself, chain smoking and hitting liquor in a manic fashion reflecting the speed at which computer tech takes us. Then again, I might be looking to hard for smart in a film designed to be anything but.

Swordfish’s number one crime, despite wooden characters and really cheesy acting is the dialogue. The dialogue sucks. It’s laughable and clichéd and sounds first draft from the intern’s typewriter (yes, typewriter. That’s how low it gets). Save Travolta, and only very little, all the characters stumble over their lines like wading through a minefield with their laces tied together. This is especially bad on behalf of Jackman, whose US accent, by the way, fools no one. At least his was proto-Canadian in X-Men. Here he has no accentuation at all, just flatness. Cheadle runs a close second with his manic special agent jargon and tough guy posturing. I don’t even think Cheadle was having any fun chewing the scenery, and he’s usually a damn fine actor, eloquent, especially with delivering his lines.

And we’re not gonna stop whipping this horse. The whole damn story is derivative and stale. Ruined hero, chance for redemption, get life back, blah blah blah, clever rogue offering an offer that can’t be refused blah. It’s all been done before, and in much better ways. Sena thought that gussying up this trope with technobabble might make it seem hip. Listen, Hollywood gets in a few snippets of “cutting edge” tech speak and thinks they wrote the bible. Like tech, storylines can and will become obsolete—read: irrelevant—quite fast. Sena’d like to think he’s clever. He’s not.

Yep. Swordfish deserved The Standard treatment. Everything I had either heard or was implied turned out to be true. If you wanna rent this movie be prepared for a unique experience: a very trying high-octane action film that has plodding action tripped up by dumb acting and dumber dialogue. Yet it has good pacing. Go fig.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. This film is stupid. Mildly entertaining, but still stupid.

Stray Observations…

  • For the record, I did not co-opt Travolta’s opening monologue as the foundation of RIORI. Just a happy coincidence. Great minds and all, but I’m not crediting Travolta’s.
  • “You’re f*cking up my chi.” The perfect bumper sticker for the 00’s.
  • A lifetime ago the film to see about proto-hacking into the “information superhighway” was 1992’s Sneakers. Good movie, but now unfortunately dated. Swordfish plays out a lot like Sneakers in spirit, except here pro hacking garners a lot more T&A.
  • Halle Berry’s tits. There ya go. Yer welcome. By the way, there’s a film going on. Strap up. Also, what was the book’s title?
  • “I can’t drive this thing!” “Learn.”
  • Did Dell bankroll this movie? Doesn’t it simply illustrate how frangible their products are?
  • The title Swordfish borrows from a Marx Brothers bit from the movie Horse Feathers. It pertains to the password in order to get into an exclusive club. Trivia!

Next Installment…

Witness Lindsay Lohan’s career plummet even deeper into The Canyons.


RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 13: Mike Figgis’ “Timecode” (2000)


The Players…


The “Story”…

A harrowing chronicle of fear and loathing in Los Angeles. Shot on digital video in real time, four stories are told simultaneously, each in a separate on-screen frame, depicting the City of Angels at its least angelic, with sex romps, drugs and Hollywood antics taking center stage. Sounds like a typical day in Tinsel Town, split four ways.

The Rant…

For some reason, either out of respect for the reading public or the fact that I’ve been out of snarky character for the past few reviews (oh dear, I’ve begun to take myself seriously), I feel the need to apologize for the last installment of RIORI. It’s not that I want to recant what I wrote about From Hell. I did like the movie. It’s just I fear I’m starting to crawl up mine own ass and sounding like a stuffy, professional movie critic, getting further and further away from beating on The Standard I so hotly held onto a year ago when I started this shebang.

Truth be told: I hate movie critics, and with a few choice exceptions, I find them to be ignorant, pompous, joyless creeps who either have little to no sense of fun and/or, well, are stuffy asshats. F*ck them. Movies are supposed to be looked upon as fun, first and foremost. I’d rather take on a half-assed tweet about the latest Transformers installment as review than an uptight, arrogant take on a movie series that wasn’t meant to be anything but fun in the first place (although I admit, Michael Bay’s films in general suck). And I don’t wanna be hoodwinked by some scribbler into seeing a sh*tty movie who has Fellini enemas every weekend to ward off the popcorn demons. You gotta have the dumb to go with the smart. Summer blockbusters are as American as Latino, pizza and being Made In Japan, and indie films are not the be all and end all of cinematic j*zzum, as some critics would have you think (either way). So extricating my brain from my sphincter and deciding to get back on track, I tackled an experimental film this time out.

*slaps forehead in the fashion of Homer Simpson*

Oops. Well, like I said on the title page, I am not a movie critic. I am a consumer advocate. I am also an idiot. Read on.

I usually give a flowery synopsis of the movie at this point in my screed. Well this time out, I ain’t doin’ it. It’s simply because Timecode has no plot. This li’l stinker of an indie project so incredibly ego-driven is nothing more than an exercise in irritating an audience, both emotionally and physically. You see, Timecode was shot on four digital camcorders, all a single take, and each feed is played out simultaneously on the screen in quadrants, not unlike a bank of security camera monitors. The audio fades in and out of each “screen” to hint at plot progression. But there is no damn plot. The whole wad is an improvised ensemble piece ostensibly about the daily goings-on at a Hollywood production company that grinds along for 90 minutes in such an incoherent fashion you gotta wonder who bankrolled this film. It’s not a film for the ADHD generation. Truth be told, this movie has Down Syndrome.

Timecode is very hard to follow at first. It’s kinda like getting your vision checked at the doctor’s. You gotta double check every frame to make sure you’re getting the whole of the half-baked, pseudo-existentialist plotline. In some aspects its oddly engaging in a novelty sense, like that “Pac-Man Fever” one hit wonder (that dates even me). The movie plays out as one grand experiment fevered by caffeine and hubris, but not without a few charms. For instance, name a flick that features a supple Salma Hayek make out with Jeanne Tripplehorn and later f*ck a lumpy, boozy Stellan Skarsgard with the rough cuts of a sorta porno screen test as backdrop? What? You know one? F*ckin’ drunken liar.

Here’s a stitch: Timecode had a broke-ass budget and still managed to tank at the box office. I know we’re talking limited release here, but when you drop only $5 million on production and only recoup a little over $1 million at the box office…Sh*t, you could’ve smelled the flop sweat coming from director Figgis’ brow. Probably due to the screaming of the editors. A cheapie that couldn’t recoup the cost of catering. Pathetic, you say? Well, I could call it gutsy. I won’t, but still…

Timecode is like the apex predator of a popular film style of the 90’s. Like the intersecting story arc model (Pulp Fiction, Go, Magnolia, etc.) taken to its Mountain Dewiest extreme, this flick overreaches. But unlike those more palatable (and plot driven) films, Timecode fails to give a sh*t about the audience. There ain’t nuffin wrong with improvisation in movies, but when it gets overused (or the sole MO of the movie) it alienates the audience; there’s nothing solid to center in on. Beyond especially who you have to watch four films at once. I know, I know. It’s the same film. I don’t care. I only have two eyes. Seriously, having to try to make an attempt at concentration for a film hell bent for leather to be off kilter…F*ck, gimme an Advil. Seriously, I got a fur-real headache watching this movie.

Still, I gotta give Mike “Leaving Las Vegas” Figgis props for his nerve (though mindless and inconsiderate) in creating this Petri dish of a movie. I figure Timecode was too smart for me. It probably was, what with my adoration of early John Cusack films. I had to Black Dahlia it and watch it twice to make sure I “got it.” I didn’t. And yet I got in one viewing.

Wait! That film was entertaining! Timecode left my brow permanently furrowed. Ow.

I’m gonna go watch One Crazy Summer again for the umpteenth time.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Pass the aspirin.

Stray Observations…

  • I suspect that which frame you’re drawn to says a lot about you.
  • This film required the least amount of notes I have ever taken. Yay! I saved ink!

Next Installment…

What’s the password? Swordfish.



RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 12: Albert and Allen Hughes’ “From Hell” (2001)


The Players…

Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Ian Holm, Robbie Coltrane and Ian Richardson.

The Plot…

It’s London in the late 1800’s, and a vicious murderer is on the loose. He preys on the women of the night, cornering them, slitting their throats, eviscerating them. There is no clear motive. There are no proper clues. Save a few odd letters from the ghoul that taunt the authorities, the deeds might as well been committed by a specter. Scotland Yard charges one of their best, brightest and rather unconventional inspectors to the case. He is put to task investigating these grisly murders revolving around a new, different and baffling breed of criminal altogether: a serial killer.

The Rant…

In college, I came across a novel that I found myself tearing into from the prologue. It was The Alienist by Caleb Carr. Perhaps a few of you know of it. I lapped the thing up. A serial killer mystery in late 1800’s New York, chock full of seamy atmosphere, proto-noir, remarkable characters and sense of urgency that if the killer could not be found (by employing the woefully primitive forensics of the day) in time, a new victim would surface at every chapter turn. Needless to say, great book. Read it like three times in a year. It even had Teddy Roosevelt as a minor player. Really.

I’ve read other serial killer novels that also took my fancy. The Silence of the Lambs, of course and its prequel, Red Dragon. Robert Bloch’s Psycho. Some others tales of no consequence. I’m not exactly a voracious reader of the oeuvre, but the notion of the hunt appeals to me. The hunt for clues and the hunt for the man. And it doesn’t hurt when the stakes are high. A trail of bodies that’ll lead to an even longer trail if something isn’t done to stop the nutjob with the meathook and daddy issues. Like I said, high stakes. Makes for a good mystery.

I guess it’s a foregone conclusion that you know the unsolved Jack the Ripper mystery is the fountainhead where all such tales of grue flow. It’s the original cold case file. A spit back I covered a film analyzing the hunt for one of Jack’s contemporaries, the Zodiac. That film adaptation was a clean, clear, concise and equally gripping story as any aligned with the Ripper mythos. But that’s just the thing. No other serial killer, real or from an author’s imagination has created a mythos; a set of attitudes and tenets based on the romanticized notion of what a killer could be. The closet relative is f*cking Dracula. And the Ripper was indeed a real person, but somehow not as scary as Arthur Leigh Allen (or whoever the Zodiac was—is—whatever).

Why does the mystique of this case endure? Is it because the Ripper case was never solved? Well, neither was the Zodiac. Is it because of the gruesomeness of Jack’s slaughter? Jeffery Dahmer’s acts were far more perverted. Is it the time and place? There was the Devil in the White City, HH Holmes, who worked in a similar time and space while Jack picked off his vics, and Holmes had dozens more than the Ripper’s. I say none of that matters. What really matters is that there’s a great story behind Jack the Ripper, real and/or imagined. A story only history has steeped into the collective memory of all of us (hell, it even popped up in an episode of the original Star Trek). We’re talking staying power. Enough to entrance moviemakers time and again…

The Story…

London, 1888. The Whitechapel district. The Tenderloin of the seamier, skuzzy, sh*thole asscrack of Albion where the depraved come to practice their trades, learn them or simply succumb to the filth that just happens to be hangin’ ‘round. Because that’s all any of it is good for. You wanna good screw? Go elsewhere. You want to get f*cked, get thee to Whitechapel. You’ll blow your load and lose your billfold on so much sh*t tub booze and honeyed words from the local, willing bang-tails. Maybe you’ll even be relieved of the end of your nose if you’re so fortunate. Good times, good times.

For some better times than others, for there is a killer on the loose in Whitechapel. And not your average cutthroat out for money or fulfilling a vendetta. No. This ghoul works in and is of the shadows, snapping his victims out of the dreary, sordid streets of the demimonde and eviscerating them, bloody and savage as if God wasn’t watching. His works of butchery are found to have a certain grace however. These aren’t the knife gouges of your common street tough, but rather concise work of a skilled surgeon. The victims bodies have been relieved of their innards, disemboweled by the likes of an artisan, and the focus of the incisions being of the genitalia.

Despite the grisly nature of the crimes, they don’t really draw much concern from the denizens of Whitechapel, you see. The victims have all been prostitutes, common corner-walkers. Whores. Transient wayward women who come and go in the distract as the gardyloos run down the gutter. What’s another dead trollop in a neighborhood awash with depravity?

A mystery, for one. And a fever dream for one Inspector Frederick Abberline (Depp) who can’t just let such cases go. It’s a curious case, one bets, but not nearly as curious as how Abberline goes about his detecting. He has “visions” of sorts, aided from endless nights chasing the dragon at a secret opium den or alternately chasing the green fairy with a bottle of absinthe, a few well dripped baubles of laudanum and nice hot bath. He “sees” the crimes happen before they happen, but the details are always hazy. The Ripper case is a particularly juicy one to bite into, as it appears to point in a pentagram-like compass rose to many halls of the British social structure.

A political case, you say? What does the insane practices of diseased butcher have to do with the social climes of Victorian England? Abberline wants to know, needs to know. Away from his usual haunts and mostly lucid, Abberline realizes he needs and inside man within the halls of Whitechapel to follow down a lead. More accurately, he needs an inside woman, whom he finds in the form of the rabble rousing Mary Kelly (Graham), who was close to several of the Ripper’s victims. She knows the streets even grimier than what Abberline ever accessed, and if these murders are not random, not quite sociopathic, but political in nature, why, the Queen herself would be up in arms. The slaying of whores as remonstration up against a political identity that has served the Empire well for generations?

Some are not willing to let go of this case for many reasons. But Abberline has only one: to stop a madman…

The Breakdown…

Heh. This was a fun one.

Remember the old 1985 movie Clue? That was also a fun one, and not just because it was funny. It was based on a game after all, and the story kind of flowed out like a game, tongues firmly in cheek. From Hell has that same vibe, but without the humor. No matter, that. But there is a game afoot. Let’s case this joint.

The opening montage is just great. Everything you need to establish the atmosphere is put into place. Snuggle up, we’re gonna be here awhile. Better get comfy. It’s sometimes a bit of a challenge to set the stage for a “period” film without resorting to stereotyping. Since this movie was based on a graphic novel, such staging used it not only reflective of the comic but how the story flows as well. From Hell has good story flow from the get go. Like I said before, the first 12 minutes. Got my attention.

The camera work here sort of plays out like a graphic novel, too. Very cool editing, deliberate and sound. I’m assuming that From Hell is not as immediately recognizable as, say, Watchmen in the Alan Moore catalogue (I’m noting this as a sort of PSA for the under informed). But it is noteworthy in how exhaustively researched it was with the Ripper case. The framing of shots here flow in a panel-to-panel progression. I find that neat. Here’s a comic book adaptation with a high sense of style.

But wait, there’s The Standard to follow…

We got highly stylized everything here. The costumes, the acting, the staging, the lousy accents (seriously, Depp and Graham would’ve fared better speaking in their natural voices. They both sound like outcasts from a Renaissance Faire), the period atmosphere is all a bit overwrought, sometimes bordering on cartoonish. I know this was supposed to be a comic adaptation, but there’s nothing deliberately comical about the story. However the Hughes’ bros were never shy about being stylistic. Who says you gotta stay in Compton in order to flash violent flair? Then again, the gore in From Hell can be stupid at times, comical. There’s a balance the Hughes’ are trying to reach here, between mystery and historical fiction (as well as probably trying to do Moore justice) but it’s barely left of center.

There’s a touch too much melodrama in From Hell, which can make the film feel hollow here and there, like the balloon might be popped at any moment. Again I know it’s supposed to be a period piece, but that doesn’t mean we gotta get all stereotypificated here. You can safely lay that pratfall at the feet of our leads. There was nary a hint of chemistry between Depp and Graham. Depp’s Inspector Abberline feels as if he’s spent way too many nights “chasing the dragon,” a slave to his “visions.” He often seems on the verge of boredom, despite the grisly urgency of the case. And there is urgency; the Hughes’ keep things moving at a good clip with very little slushiness. What slushiness remains is provided by the caricature Graham provides. The streetwise hooker with a heart of gold is an all too common device, which in the right hands works really well. Um, it didn’t work with Graham. Along with that accent, bleah. Mary Kelly and her brood just showed up in the film to slow it down.

On yet another hand (and here goes that durn balance trying to get established) the interplay of the characters, especially the supporting cast (and an exclamation point to Ian Holm whose laid back presence throughout the film really hit the finale home) created a nice Upstairs, Downstairs dichotomy going on. There is this subplot of class warfare in the movie I didn’t particularly take a shine to, but it did make for a pretty nifty take on how the other half lives in late Victorian London. Here the balance was achieved.

Upside: the movie’s a good mystery. Downside: I think I figured it out too soon. There was an element of predictability in From Hell, albeit a small one. I’m also kind of on the fence of having the mystery solved. According to my records—*rifles through pages*—the Ripper case was never closed. It’s probably the longest cold case ever. The again, it’s quite hard to gage the film version against the comic. I never really read the book so I can’t tell if I’m ahead or behind the curve as plotting goes. I know Moore was writing historical fiction, but one of the greatest aspects of the Ripper case is that was never solved, thus adding to the mystery and mystique. Wrapping it up robs the story of some its punch.

Despite all my carps, I did dig the movie. From Hell was fun. What’s neat about this film is how easily it makes the mystery aspect interactive. The audience sniffs for clues as Depp sniffs for clues (note: in Whitechapel, clues smell a lot like beer farts). It uncurls, twists and turns again as we scratch our collective heads with an air of…well, whodunit? It plays out to the cinematic version of a game of Ocarina of Time. Not too hard, not too easy. Goldilocks zone. Nice balance actually achieved there,  too, perhaps what the Hughes’ were aiming for along the way.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go chase me some fairies (Zelda or absinthe reference? YOU DECIDE).

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s got a pleasurable charm for the graphic subject matter. But at its core, for all the gore and sociopolitical folderol, From Hell‘s a good, old-fashioned whodunit. One plus two plus one plus one; that’s six. 😉

The Musings…

  • I love the sound effect when the brougham’s steps are deployed. It cleverly replicates the sound of…well, a blade being unsheathed.
  • “You won’t get any sense out of her.” “I’m used to that.” Both smirks are priceless.
  • In college, I was vice prez for our chapter of the Kappa Sigma fraternity. Most of its rituals came from those of the Freemasons. I learned that despite the accolades the Masons earned in helping found our country, a lot of their sh*t stank. Perhaps the mention of it in the movie is a warning to both invest in and suspect an outside, secret belief system. In simpler terms: don’t be quick to trust anyone simply because they have “connections.”
  • A lot can be done on a small movie lot. If this sounds like a small anti-CGI screed, it’s not. I just appreciate efficiency in cinema in all its guises.
  • “Let me commune with T.S. Eliot!” Ah, the absinthe speaks.

The Next Time…

Linear. Vertical interval. ABS-EBU embedded with digital audio. Burnt-in. CDI. MIDI.

You know, types of Timecode.