RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 19: Paul McGuigan’s “Push” (2009)


The Players

Chris Evans, Dakota Fanning, Camilla Belle, Cliff Curtis and Djimon Hounsou.

The Story…

A group of young American ex-pats with telekinetic and clairvoyant abilities are in hiding. They were born different, special and criminal according to a clandestine US government agency’s mandate. They now must come together utilize their different talents for a final job, hopefully escaping the agency’s watchful eyes forever. Is Hong Kong sure a crazy town or what?

The Rant…

As I’ve pointed out in previous installments I am an unabashed comic book head. Been a collector ever since the ripe ol’ age of 12, and still going strong today (despite the unreasonable prices that get slapped on the covers of recent books, but that’s another story). Make Mine Marvel, as it was declared aeons ago by legions of fans that got behind Spider-Man, Captain America and the X-Men. The X-Men were my favorite. Still are. I know, I know; it’s a bandwagon title. I know that now, but I was 12 once, and didn’t know any better, so back off.

I always dug the X-Men for their buffet-style, grab-and-go, cornucopia of freaks and geeks. They’re a goddam mélange of oddballs, outcasts and, let’s face it, mutants designed to create the most off-the-wall plots this side of Stan Lee’s family photo album. The mutants all have a special power (some have several) that makes them unique, but also are ostracized and feared by the general public for said powers. That tension makes for good story, as well as pointed social commentary. Pulitzer Prize winning writer Michael Chabon once put it best; if you were different, you could relate to the X-Men. If you were black or gay or Jewish or a nerd or a geek, you could relate to the X-Men. In the time of post-modern geek chic, the role of the outsider is a point of fascination for the layman, setting the stage to where the rules of conventional society do not apply. Being on the fringe has become vogue, and why shouldn’t stories about them be also?

I betcha the creators of Push read a lot of X-Men back issues…

When Cassie (Fanning) shows up at Nick’s (Evans) sh*thole Hong Kong flat bearing news of imminent death, he has only one reaction: snarky disbelief. Who is this girl and how come she claims to know so much about their future—that’s right, their future—anyway? Well, Cassie is a “watcher,” a clairvoyant who has acumen for being artistic as well as being bratty. Nick is a “mover,” a telekinetic able to move things with his mind, and has been using his gifts for nothing better than gambling and mooching off people. His life has been remarkably lame most of the time, drifting from city to city, never ever laying down roots, trying to avoid those pesky agents of The Division.

Say hey, what’s going on here?

Turns out Nick and Cassie are just two of a huge sub-species of humans, those the children of parents who were experimented on back during WW2 in attempts to make a better soldier. There are all sorts of specials crawling around the planet. Movers, watchers, pushers, bleeders, etc. All of them living in a subculture that cloisters them into factions trying to outdo one another in various power struggles. And all of this under the watchful eye of the sinister Division, a watchdog operation that monitors the actions of those once part of their program.

Seems that Cassie has spied some future intel that could get the Division dogs off the backs of the specials for good, and she needs Nick’s help to get to the bottom of it all. Turns out that Nick’s erstwhile girlfriend Kira (Belle) has in her a particular ability that Carver (Hounsou), the head of the Division, wants either under his control or snuffed out. Cassie has seen Nick being the key to all this song and dance, and now it’s up to Nick to live up to his potential…

I didn’t want to do this review. I mean I really didn’t. This movie was an utter Greco-Roman clusterf*ck, and I didn’t even have any expectations going in.

Push has got to have one of the sloppiest, confusing and most inscrutable narratives I ever had the displeasure to watch. I actually watched Push twice (never a good sign). Once drunk, unable to follow the story, later thinking it was the booze. A second time sober…and I still couldn’t follow the storyline. The damned thing gave me a headache, and not due to any hangover either.

The movie tries real hard to fall into the vein of “high octane” action movies. In reality Push is just an X-Men rip-off drunk on Red Bull and angel dust. The problem with most hyper-action movies is that they confuse chaos and collateral damage with verve. Crazy fast action with reckless abandon in this sense just bewilders audiences. It’s numbing to the skull, introducing too much stimulus at once. Not to mention the editing is headache-inducing and relentlessly dizzying. It’s like you’re watching a movie while riding on a carousel that threw a rod. Bleagh.

I think high octane is passé, at least to my mind. Push is riding on the coattails on films like The Transporter series’ (or any Jason Statham vehicle for that matter), and in a less fluid manner. Push’s action is an exploding yard sale: sh*t everywhere without much logic or reason. The razor thin plot is almost impossible to divine, and the frenetic pace makes it character development (not that the acting is much of a treat) all but absent. I mean, Camilla Belle has this glazed over look like she just witnessed a car crash firsthand for the duration of the film. That’s the kind of bone you’re left to chew on here.

This may seem like nitpicking, because it is. There are so many loose threads wisping about in Push. Like first of all, there’s too much babble. I guess we were trying to world build here, with every inch of flying debris has a meaning, but incorporating so much jargon that it results in speed bumps in the (equally impenetrable) dialogue that it just baffles the ear. And speaking of world building, the trick to building a sci-fi universe like Push fails to pull is this: every character cannot be “special.” There has to be a “control” for the audience to anchor on to. Even the X-Men movies with their colorful casting included normal humans in the plotline. I guess it’s just me, but it’s hard to suspend one’s belief for the duration of a movie like this and not get tired, bored and just plain mystified by the characters’ motives, actions and increasingly confusing special powers.

Speaking of action, most of the acting in Push, though obviously not the reason you watch a film like this, is so dry. I understand that these special people live in a world separate from normal ones so it doesn’t shock them when an unnatural act of science belches forth from the refrigerator or something like that (this didn’t actually happen in the movie, but it would’ve cool if it did). In a film like Push, you’d expect a lot of juicy, corny, ridiculous dialogue. Nope, not here. Everyone delivers his or her lines in a short, blunt fashion. They all sound bored. Another point of order on sound: the audio got so muddled I had to turn the captions on. God, I messed around with the remote a lot with this movie. That’s no fault of the actors; shoot the sound guy.

Yeah, I’ve ripping on Push pretty bad, and it’s all perfectly legit, trust me. There are always high notes in every bad song. Speaking of which, here is a keen use of music employed here. Punchy songs bookend scenes very well, and it didn’t hurt that the songs were cool. Radio Citizen, yes. Another aspect of auditory stimulus? Well, despite the dialogue being so flat, it did have a level of snark that I could appreciate (me? Noooo). It’s kinda amusing that for all the ridiculousness crashing around Nick and Cassie’s world, they can still be so blasé about it. A little predictable, but still funny.

Although most of the acting, though inconsequential, was lame, Fanning did a good job portraying the precocious, streetwise clairvoyant Cassie. The role is kind of an old stereotype, but she carries herself well, so I’ll take it. Camilla Belle on the other hand, had a certain Linda Blair quality about her, like she was an innocent that was gonna pop at any second. It must’ve been the opening scenes in the hospital. Whatever. Belle served as merely a novelty, even if unconvincing in every scene.

Why did Push remind me of manga, and not just because it was shot in an Asian locale? Because it was a comic book movie in search of a comic book. There is slapdash action, arching dialogue, over the stop spectacle and an utterly baffling, poorly plotted story that if you were not in the loop, you wouldn’t—couldn’t—follow what’s going on. You couldn’t pluck a recent ish of X-Men, read it and understand what was happening, every with all the purty pictures. Push is all about spectacle, and not very engaging spectale either, due to the impossible to follow story (I cannot harp on that enough). I wasn’t sure if I ever got a hang on what the movie was about. Maybe it was pointless to try.

I really dreaded doing this review. I just wanted to bash it out and get on with the next movie. I complained on my last outing that Netflix had sent me a good movie by mistake. Be f*cking careful what you wish for.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Like I have to tell you. Relent it. This movie made no damned sense, didn’t try to, and didn’t try to in an entertaining way either. Pass the Aleve.

Stray Observations…

  • In the opening scenes, Hounsou looks exactly like Isaac Hayes in Escape from New York. I just had to point that out.
  • The latte nab was dumb.
  • All this talk about The Division had “Love Will Tear Us Apart” jangling around in my brain.
  • You gotta admit it: cheesy CGI is fun to watch paired with wire fu.
  • “I don’t have a sister?”

Next Installment…

Time to get down with some old school gridiron action with George Clooney and his gang of fellow Leatherheads.

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 18: JC Chandor’s “All Is Lost” (2013)

All Is Lost

The Players…

Robert Redford, some fish.

The Story…

A man stranded alone at sea faces having to a pilot leaky boat, cut off from the world thanks to failed radio contact and a ferocious storm as he struggles to survive with just a sextant, maritime maps and grim determination to guide him.

The Rant…

When I was a pup, I went to this summer camp out on Cape Cod. When I say “out on Cape Cod,” I mean it. The place was on the fringe. You could see Ireland at daybreak, that’s what I mean. The camp, nestled on the coast as it was, was heavily into nautical activities. Swimming lessons were mandatory. But there were also less dire activities such as fishing and seining (look it up), even water skiing. There of course was boating, too. Sailing to be specific. You and three other crewmen, plus one seaworthy camp counselor could sail rings around the bay, literally learn the ropes and generally have a fine time just messing about with boats. An afternoon with sea spray, cresting waves and the wind in your face was bracing, as it was soothing with a sense of solitude out there on the sea (Okay, you could see land like a half-mile away, and technically you had other people with you. Just go with the metaphor. Trying to create atmosphere here, people).

I also learned that actually steering a small boat can be a tense affair.

Most of the time the counselor was at the tiller, steering our small vessel and tugging at the line like an old salt. Of course it was expected of his charges to pitch in and earn their hardtack and swill. All of us had to take the reigns eventually, and this scared the ever-lovin’ piss outta me. The bay was always windy. Always. There was virtually no slack to speak of when the tide was in. This made it an ideal place to learn how to sail; you’d never run out of fuel. Taking this into consideration, I learned a term I dread even to this day: capsize. I haven’t been on a boat, much less a small sloop in 20 years and still the notion of the thing just flipping over and sending me flying into the cold, unforgiving Massachusetts water freaks me out today.

I’m telling you that thing to tell you this thing: the day came when it was my turn to take the tiller and learn how to “tack” the boat. For those not in the know, tacking is a maneuver by which a sailing vessel (which is sailing approximately into the wind) turns its bow through the wind so that the direction from which the wind blows changes from one side to the other. Its also called “coming about” in nautical parlance. In other words, I had to sail basically in and out of the wind, keep the boat on an even keel and make sure no one got their block knocked off by the swinging boom. I was like f*cking ten. I couldn’t steer a boat into the wind, let alone with other people on board. To say I was anxious is akin to saying the Atlantic Ocean is somewhat damp. So I protested. I was ten. We do that.

The counselor on board was having none of it. Tacking is a very basic sailing move. You had to learn it to move goddam boat. I remember him clearly, Name of Willie. Scotsman. A for real Scotsman. He hailed from Glasgow and knew about sailing. Willie would not take no for an answer. He ordered me after a few words of confidence to get to work and shoved the tiller into my hand. What happened next?

Here I could offer up a nautical tale of grace and power on par with the best Melville story. I could do that. Instead here’s what I pulled off. I had the till shoved into one clumsy and the line flung onto the other. Willie glared at me and ordered that when I turned into the wind, pull the tiller tight and hold the line. Don’t pull it, hold it. And when I was ready to tack, yell it out so he and the rest of the crew could duck down in time when I literally lowered the boom. This all happened in maybe thirty seconds, barring Willie’s shouts “encouraging” me that I could (had to) do this. So the time came to come about. I yanked in the tiller, hung onto the line and squeaked out in my authoritative voice, “Tack!”

I think I pulled it off. I don’t really remember much with any clarity. All I can recall is that we didn’t capsize. That and Willie clapping me on the shoulder. I guess I had earned my sea legs (anyone want them back?).

And that, ladies and germs, is my harrowing tale of life at sea. I know, I know. There was no real drama lives didn’t hang in balance. Just some dumb kid who basically learned how to steer left (sorry, port). But for the trivial nature of it all, I still found it harrowing, scary and exciting. I had mastered the sea. F*ck the seagulls. Today I am a man!

I was so full of sh*t…

Our man (Redford) just wants a quiet life a sea. To get away from it all and have an affair with his mistress, the deep blue sea. Weeks go by and his handsome yacht goes wherever the wind takes him. Until the Virginia Jane takes him to a derelict, floating shipping container leaking sneakers that bites into the boat’s hull. The rush of water soaks his LORAN system as well as the crucial radio, therefore guaranteeing his now unwanted solitude. This is one of many maritime hardships our man must endure and hopefully triumph over as his journey grows ever more treacherous when Mother Nature displays quite a temper in the open water…

I could go on with the synopsis but it would totally obliterate the story. All Is Lost is all about story, and Redford is story incarnate. There are a few basic tenets when writing fiction. One of which is you must have conflict to move the story forward. Second, you need to use a character in some form as a means to escalate and/or wrangle with the conflict. In Lost, we have our nameless hero smacked upside the head with conflict almost instantly. His boat is leaking. The sense of helplessness comes quick, as do the stakes. Instantly the story’s tension is reduced to a very primal conflict: survival or death. Good story!

Redford is the avatar for that story. His simplicity is perfect for the audience to indentify with, climb on his back and take a piggyback. You are him for the next hour and a half, with no other cast mates to bog down the flow. It is the litmus test of the character-tension-conflict triad that makes story exist.

Alright, enough of the literature lesson. All Is Lost was f*cking great. Tight, exciting and well acted. Redford had better be in good form since he’s the sole cast member. His facials and every move speak volumes. You can tell by how our hero handles himself and the events thrown at him in that he is a very experienced sailor and has seen it all, knowing what do to at every turn. No panicking, but it does loom throughout the film. In conveying this, Redford is solid.

Lost’s pacing echoes the classic “adding the egg” metaphor. Hold on. I’ll explain. Back in the day, Betty Crocker was having a hard time selling its cake mixes (just follow me along with this). People complained that the stuff was too easy to make, just pop the box, add water and boom: mediocre pastry fun for the whole family No challenge there for yer brownie fix. So marketing tweaked the recipe. They added an extra step: add one egg. Shazam, the stuff sold like ice cream in hell. By adding the egg, it made the everyday housewife think they’re Wolfgang Puck. They now had a vested interest in the recipe working out. Lost is a very good example about when the director and/or actors leave out certain obvious plot points and the like, the audience will add their own “egg” and be more emotionally invested in the film.

And boy, do we get an emotional investment, with stunning returns. We have non-stop tension throughout the run of the film. There’s almost a manic desperation to it. We see Redford get into one jam after another, seemingly solving one problem only have another come his way. Three steps forward, two steps back. The constant splashing of water mocks our hero, makes the audience empathize with our man. Redford aged 10 years over the course of the movie. But our man is unflinching in the midst of it all (SPOILER), even when his boat capsizes. It’s survival instinct personified.


All Is Lost can be described simply has harrowing. This is one intense, utterly engrossing film that reduces the science of story to its base elements. The craft of storytelling is all about showing, not telling. With over 90 minutes of virtually no dialogue Lost had better be all about showing. And Redford showed how to act and keep the conflict alight, from the very first scene to right before the credits roll. With nary a word spoken.

You can say a lot without saying anything sometimes.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it…

Stray Observations…

  • Is sailing by the jib symbolic of something? I learned how to sail a boat but not in a storm. Please leave any answers in the comments. I’m serious.
  • The first rain scene, though brief, is beautiful.
  • There’s no handle to manually work the bilge pump? Odd.
  • The use of music here is haunting, probably because how sparsely it’s used. Auditory egg!
  • I know I said last time I’d be bitchy, but my Netflix queue got all kerfuffled and went and sent me a quality movie. Although All Is Lost met The Standard on the diminishing returns factor, it just happened to be a film I actually wanted to see. But I’d be derelict in my duties to leave any film that hovers into my view unscathed. Sorry about that. Maybe next time I’ll get my britches in a bunch. For real.

Next Installment…

Push it. Push it real good.


RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 17: Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” (2006)


The Players…

Nicolas Cage, Michael Peña, Maggie Gylllenhaal, Maria Bello, Michael Shannon, Frank Whaley and Stephen Dorff.

The Story…

Transit cops John McLoughin, Will Jimeno and their team are trapped beneath the rubbled of felled WTC 1 in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Now, instead of helping survivors, they are survivors themselves in need of rescue. Can the other first responders get to them before time runs out?

The Rant…

When I was in college, I was required to take a psych course. I was matriculating in education, and basic psychology was one of the prerequisites of the program. It was essentially there to give students a better understanding of how the mind operated, if only on a basic level. I learned quite a bit, but not enough to list it all here. In fact it’s mostly been forgotten. But I do recall learning about a particular phenomenon of memory. It’s a relatively new concept in psychology, new as far as immediate media access is concerned, called a “flashbulb memory.” Such memories are more or less a collective one, revolving around a significant social event to which many people were made aware, usually through the media, especially through radio, television and most recently the Internet. Events like the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion…and 9/11.

Around the time the Towers fell, I was still deep in my anarchist, punker days I had carried around  since college. Terribly cynical and a general malcontent (not much has changed, BTW, save the waistline). When I was roused that fateful morning by one of my roommates who was both an insomniac and a TV addict, I stared at the screen seeing the Manhattan skyline razed and said, “I’ll be damned.” Not the most pithy of statements, I know. I had a very political head at the time and tried to keep abreast of the social strife going on in the Middle East via web boards and whatever CNN sputtered out. Namely, I had heard of Osama bin Laden prior to 9/10. Call it cynical, but at the time with all my nascent Wolf Blitzer-esque bravado, I wasn’t surprised by the attacks. I didn’t really suspect a home invasion at the time, but I wasn’t surprised that it eventually happened. To me, it was only a matter of time before the fit hit the shan, all the US’ (let’s call it out) mucking about in the Mideast where we clearly had not been wanted. On this level however, it was awesome (and by the way, “awesome” does not automatically mean “cool” you hipster f*cks).

As I said, I was terribly cynical at the time. I don’t remember driving to work that day, but I do remember having to stop at a gas station for cigarettes or something…

Look, I was going to share a bit of personal shame here about what I said to the lady clerk about the attacks, but hindsight is 20/20, and I was completely insensitive. No. I was a dick. And after watching World Trade Center, I feel like more of a dick than ever.

But this is a good thing…

Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. New York. Jet airliners have crashed into the World Trade Centers. Lower Manhattan is in utter chaos. What should’ve turned out to be a routine day for Port Authority police officers Sgt. John McLoughlin (Cage), Officer Willy Jimeno (Peña) and the rest of their fellow cops has turned into the most urgent, most dire assignments they have ever faced.

McLoughlin and the rest of his first responders are called in on crowd control and to make sure WTC 1 is evacuated safely. Unbeknownst to McLoughlin, this was not an accident; the towers were specifically sighted, and the structural integrity of the building has been compromised beyond expectation. The tower falls, but not before McLoughlin and crew escape to safety of the elevator towers as the building comes crashing down around them.

Hours later, the officers wake up trapped and pinned down by rubble. McLoughlin, Jimeno and others are alive, but barely. Choking on the remains of the building, hopelessly trapped, and slowly having their strength winnowing away, its up to a helpless McLoughlin to keep his men alive on morale alone until a rescue team comes to extricate them from the bowels of the fallen buildings. If they can find them in time, if at all…

Oliver Stone’s direction has never been considered subtle. It’s about as delicate as a flying hammer, and plays pretty fast and furious most of the time. Also, he always seems to plug some kind of “social message” in all his movies, cold, hard and calculating. Sometimes this urgency makes for exciting cinema; sometimes it can fly by in a blur tough to digest. World Trade Center is the first Stone flick I have seen that bucks the trend. This movie has nuance, warmth and above all heart. If there is a message here, it is the classic pairing of the triumph of the spirit and the power and strength of family.

It’s a warm film regardless of the tragedy, but Center is not without moments of true tension. It’s tempered by the back and forth dynamic of scenes between the trapped officers and the homefront of their concerned and understandably scared families. It’s not unlike the Shakespearean tactic of bookending scenes of comedy between scenes of tragedy. Now I’m not claiming that Stone is Shakespeare, but Center does have the similar hallmarks of up and down to create good tension as well as good pacing, which the movie has in spades. There is never a dry moment as Stone cranks up the tension to the ultimate release in the end.

It also helps that the script is tight. Center does run perilously close to descending into utter bathos, but what keeps that at bay is the consistent screenwriting. The events of the film were based on the actual accounts of the real McLoughlin and Jimeno, after all. You want to make a movie based on true events, as always, go to the source. This is the sign of a good script; you know the officers got out alive, but the mounting tension keeps you glued. It worked for me.

Center is at its core a family drama. It’s less of a tribute to the fallen, more of testament to the power of love, loyalty and the good old ties that bind. The solidarity between Cage and Peña, struggling to maintain sanity as well as their lives reflects the tight bond that cops, fire fighters, EMTs, etc. create by working as a, well, family. And on the other side of the coin, it’s the families desperately waiting for news of rescue…well, it’s the usual message of families coming together and you know the rest. It’s kinda soft-edged for Stone material, but it’s pulled off pretty well with a minimum of corn.

On the technical side, I’ve always found Stone’s films to have excellent cinematography. The opening montage of pre-attack New York is both breathtaking and charming. Seemingly endless shots of the City in all its clean and grubby glory. Everything in this film seems framed perfectly, and a great lot of the story comes from these images.

However Center is a very difficult film to watch. It isn’t a whole lot of fun (which is I guess expected considering the subject matter). The scene where WTC 1 collapses, it is to rip your armrest to shreds. Seeing Cage and crew pinned in the bowels of the rubble, it exudes helplessness and fear. There is that ever creeping sense of all is lost that pervades the story. At times is feels that the only thing keeping Center aloft is the knowledge that these guys got out alive. It can be uncomfortable.

The only carp I have with this movie is the acting. It comes through as a tad wooden and stereotypes are played up a bit. I’m thinking that part was again a not so subtle effort by Stone to generate sympathy, which would’ve been there all along if the acting was more natural. Let the actors do their thing, Ollie. It’ll happen (I’ve heard Stone is notorious for micromanaging his cast).

Maybe the tepid response to the film was because it was too soon. Made five years after the attacks, the dust still hadn’t settled yet. Crowds probably stayed away for fear it was going to be a typical Stone docudrama about the Taliban’s saber rattling and W’s failure to respond swiftly. It wasn’t, surprisingly so. It was a heartfelt drama with that whole triumph of the human spirit jazz going on. It can come across as cheesy sometimes, but it didn’t here.

I know this review has been a rather sober one, but like everyone else in America, I’ve been living a life post-9/11, in some ways the ultimate flashbulb. If I could go back and smack myself all those years ago, I would. I guess this review is more or less an apology to no one and everyone, and a sign of respect for people who can muster up indomitable strength under the shadow of tragedy.

Don’t worry. Next time out I’ll try to be a bitch.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s an emotional roller coaster, but well worth the fare. So watch it with this in mind: I can never apologize enough for the sh*t I said to the lady at the gas station.

Stray Observations…

  • At the time of the attacks, I was working tech support at a mobile phone company. For us, 9/11 was the slowest day ever. It’s still a mystery today for me.
  • “God’s will isn’t done for me!”
  • I will never forgive the louts who failed to perform sufficient follow-up investigations of the ’93 WTC attacks further than nabbing a few perpetrators. It’s a very black mark on the Clinton administration.
  • “We are Marines. You are our mission.” Oo-rah.
  • For one of the greatest 9/11 rescue tributes, I highly recommend Vol. 2, #36 of The Amazing Spider-Man from Marvel Comics. Don’t you f*cking laugh.

Next Installment…

Robert Redford is all at sea, all alone and seemingly All Is Lost.

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 16: Maggie Carey’s “The To Do List” (2013)


The Players…

Aubrey Plaza, Johnny Simmons, Bill Hader and Scott Porter, with Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele and Clark Gregg.

The Story…

Class valedictorian Brandy Klark can and has handled anything that high school threw at her. Stellar grades? Of course. Extracurricular activities? Almost the full catalog. Dating?

Uh, what?

College starts in the fall for Brandy, and facing down all the socializing that comes with that (read: action with the opposite sex), she realizes she’s coming up trumps in the sex department. So she takes the logical, studious action: make a list and check off any and all erotic activities she’d like to work her way through before heading off to school. Hopefully with that studly surfer dude Rusty.

The Rant…

I’ve noticed in the past few years, and I guess it’s SOP for every generation, that Hollywood has been cashing in on movies squarely aimed at my generation. The vaunted Gen X. Those of us, who were Reagan babies, grew up with the Internet and a keen acumen for relaying tons of useless pop culture trivia to one another with the ravenous fervor of a bulimic elephant in front of the Planters’ factory.

I noticed this trend when the first of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies came out. The Transformer toys and ensuing cartoons were a hot commodity back in, say, 1985 (back when the original animated movie came out, BTW). The Transformers movie dropped in 2007, when we of Generation X is all growed up. I was working in a comic book shop at the time (DON’T JUDGE ME) and my fellow geeks of similar ages were raving about the film, saying it was awesome and the best thing they ever saw.

Hmm. This seemed like key jingling to me. The best thing they ever saw? That’s sad. Now I’ll admit it, I haven’t seen a single installment of the Transformers franchise. Why? I don’t really wanna be another statistic to be pandered to courtesy of Hollywood, another wallet to shamelessly empty. That and I hate almost all of Michael Bay’s movies. But to seemingly trap a generation who had fond memories of childhood backyard wonder, knowing full well how irresistible it is to tempt the tastes of long ago? That is calculatingly cruel and insulting to entire generation of latent adults who march off to the theater to try and recapture something that is fleeting, and basically, not as great as you may have remembered it. Cashing in on nostalgia? It might explain the insipid Smurfs movies from the past few years.

…Right. Movie. Let’s get on to that:

The To Do List is very aware of nostalgia. Self-aware in fact. The film takes place in 1993, twenty-odd years ago when I was in high school. Back when there was no World Wide Web, cell phones were the size of bricks for the privileged few, grunge was the soundtrack, and I had this sick crush on some girl in band that I never had the sack to ask out (you did too, admit it. Well maybe no the band part). It was your salad days, all hormonal and identity building. Sure it was tough at times, but like they say, it built character and meant you were growing as an individual.

*eyes rolling Heavenward*

Let’s face reality. For most of us, high school sucked miles of broken glass and stank of acne and angst. But it was a major touchstone in social awareness, when your personality was starting to gel. You began to understand what you liked and disliked on a socially relevant level, and eventually it (whatever “it” was) defined you as an individual. You may have attached a lot of your memories to the events that happened in high school, for good and for ill and are going to drag them around with you for your remaining days. This is not a bad thing, walking around with all these pop culture moments in your mind. Especially if you’re a member of my generation with the ridiculous affectations of pop culture dripping from your cerebral cortex that cloud your judgment when seeing a silly movie based on a line of toys over twenty years old.

Sorry. Still bitter about that cinematic version of gaslighting. So it goes…

Valedictorian Brandy Klark (Plaza) is the epitome of overachiever. It seems that ever since kindergarten, not only she has reached for the brass rail, she’s straddled it as been ridin’ for glory ever since. Too bad it’s the only thing she’s been riding.

It’s summertime, and Brandy’s college bound in only a few short months. She’s more than prepared for the transition. She’s got her awards on the wall, her scholarship in place and all her pencils sharpened and her lascivious buddies Fiona (Shawkat) and Wendy (Steele) nudging her at every moment how not prepared Brandy is for college. You see, Brandy is painfully virginal, and has generally deleted the need or at least any curiosity about the opposite sex. She’s had no time for boys. Made time. Brandy’s just apple pie about reaching her academic goals without being distracted by some mouth-breathing boyfriend, thank you very much.

That is, until, she her gal pals attend a usual but this time fateful party…

Long story short, a brief encounter with the resident blond Adonis Rusty Waters (Porter), all tanned, chiseled abs and guitar slinging at a moment’s notice makes Brandy to finally make time for the pesky—albeit gorgeous—opposite sex. So Brandy, being OCD as she is, makes a mandate. She will lose her virginity to Rusty before the summer is out. She considers it worthwhile goal on par with the student government, president of the math club and another essential learning experience. It helps that Rusty is just too dreamy.

But before Brandy sets off on her quest preparations first must be made. Brandy has no experience whatsoever with all the oys, joys, boys and general stickiness that comes with making out. Necking, dry-humping, hand jobs, all that good stuff? Foreign. Gotta make a to do list of every sexual act in the book (and some out of it) and check them off as they’re completed. Gotta be thorough, lest she comes off as a klutzy newb to Rusty. All of this research should culminate in getting into Rusty’s pants before she’s off to college. Brandy’s always been meticulous, well-read and goal-oriented. But this is sex, and it always, always gets gooey…

Here’s a new one. One wonders why it wasn’t done sooner.

Well it’s kinda new. The formula is an old warhorse. Almost all teen sex comedies are about guys. Remember American Pie? That probably stands as a high watermark for the subgenre, and despite the fact that the movie had memorable female characters (no cookie cutters there), none of them held the spotlight. Busting your cherry in Hollywood (and in the movies. Ha!) seems strictly a guy thing.

Why? Good question, and one director Maggie Carey aimed to answer. She took a pretty good stab at it, too.

An extension of my opening sortie to this installment, tickling the bare feet of nostalgia, despite how not subtle and manipulative it is, is always fun. George Carlin once said that everything we share but never talk about is funny. A good portion of List’s comedy stems from quietly reviewing the acid test of high school memory. Picking out the goodies that send you back to your salad days and thus getting your fancy tickled. Usually this was the junk of the heart that never got talked about in polite company. Or impolite company either now that I think about it.

Well, List didn’t do so hot at the box office, despite maintaining that shared secret funny we’ve all shared. I think the reason for the lousy returns might have had something to do with the nostalgia trip comedy being too specific here. Pop culture is a generational thing, and one generation is only a part of the American whole. Yes, List is squarely aimed at Gen X, with a lot of references being spot on for me but most definitely lost on the Millennials. But The To Do List was made for Gen X, and by playing that nostalgia card…well, it’s kinda hard to make a movie like this without keeping the original pop culture junkies entertained.

Playing on my generation, I loved the title sequence. It’s introductions like this that always crack me up, just like all the pop culture references in this movie. Is there a thing as too much nostalgia? As List’s 100 minutes play out, Carrey’s answer is decidedly no. The choice of music, the technology of the times (I almost forgot about those clear phones), the endless cultural references to then hot topic movies and TV is an overdose on early nineties zeitgeist. The crassness of this trip down memory lane is very funny, but unfortunately for a narrow audience. To which I say, too bad, so sad. Neener, neener.

But anyway, The To Do List answers the question I posited earlier. Why don’t we give the ladies some (aw yeah) much needed insight on how to get laid? C’mon, we’re not talking Sex and the City here. We’re talking fumbling with undergarments in the back seat of your Daddy’s sedan. This isn’t about feminism and social climbing (not really). List is about sex, plain and simple. Carrey based this film on a lot of biographical events, and you what they say: write what you know. In this case, it’s what semen tastes like after too much pineapple juice. 🙂

Yes, yes, I know. But ladies can get rude and crude too. IMHO, I think females are much more self-aware and comfortable about sex in all it’s guises (RE: Cosmopolitan) than guys could ever think possible. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood wised up and decided to get some insight from the angle of the Second Sex. Time for the classic teen sex comedy to get a belated distaff spin.

Our heroine Plaza is terribly funny as uptight, yet eager Brandy. Her facials are priceless (actually, the entire cast’s are). Is it possible to mug the camera without being hammy? I think Plaza does it, pretty well I might add. What’s particularly shrewd on the behalf of Carrey is how fast Brandy turns from civics darling to turbo-whore. One can chalk it up to her overzealous nature or attacking all her learning endeavors with aplomb, but also it sets a (dare I say it) really neat momentum for the film to glide upon. In other words, good pacing. You had me at hello.

Unlike Brandy with all her sharpness and candor, the supporting cast falls into typical teen sex comedy stereotypes, but stereotypes in the best sense. Brandy’s boy BFF with the oh so obvious crush on our lead (Winters), the antagonistic and sexually advanced buddies, the object of her affection, the older “wise” mentor (Hader), we run the gamut. Despite the fact they’re all unquestionably one-note, they’re all sharp and funny or groan worthy with a slap to the forehead (well admittedly, Bill Hader’s Willy tended to get on my nerves. I wanted to like Hader, I really did. Call is residue from enjoying  Superbad).

Speaking of the characters, is List supposed to be self-parody? Is it trying too hard? The template the movie follows is pretty unremarkable as far as teen sex comedies go. Same old formula. But Carrey turns this formula on its ear. As I said List is pretty self-aware, so why not stock itself with the commonplace trappings of this kind of movie as use it as the big screen version of a comedy club? The comedy here is totally based on one-liners, like a sexually charged Mitch Hedberg routine. Funny, punchy and not necessarily hackneyed. The dialogue plays out like a bit, and its words are used with efficiency and candor. Yeah, there are a few sight gags (with keen uses of freeze frames) that can be considered trite, but they’re still funny (like the endless popcorn bucket trick) and that’s what matters.

List does not have the same sweetness as American Pie, but it does have more guts. Really, when the penultimate teen sex comedy’s high point is the main character f*cking pastry, you could really push the envelope a bit more. List does that. As well as ultimately subverting the tired tropes that go along with these kinds of movies. Sure, List can be a bit derivative in places, but don’t worry. It’s all in good fun. At least for us Gen X’ers. And as for the overdose in nostalgia, in the final analysis, it’s all relative.

And yes, that’s what a Mac looked like twenty years ago. Sans Internet. It is to shiver.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. You’ll especially enjoy it if you were born to Baby Boomer parents. Don’t worry, like Millennials, they’ll hate this movie too. Word!

Stray Observations…

  • Oh Lord, Sour Apple Pucker. The end of many casual dates.
  • “You’re like after school special drunk.” Again, Sour Apple.
  • “We can stay.”
  • I still enjoy Mazzy Star. I am old.
  • That Elastica song was released two years after this movie’s timeline. I’m a member of the anal pop culture generation, remember? Go on, ask me what band Justine Frischmann was in before Elastica. Come at me.
  • “To the van!”
  • Goddam devil sticks…
  • “Have fun poppin’ yer cherry.” Should’ve been the movie’s tagline.

Next Installment…

Nic Cage and crew struggle to survive the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks of 9/11.