RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 30: Richard Curtis’ “Pirate Radio” (2009)


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The Players…

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Sturridge, Nick Frost, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans and Kenneth Branagh.


The Story…

It’s the mid-Sixites, and the British music scene is in trouble. At the peak of Britain’s burgeoning rock n’ roll vanguard, the BBC won’t permit even an hour of the music to ride their airwaves across the land. Across the land, yes, but on the North Sea it’s another matter, and it’s up to the crew of the Radio Rock and others to broadcast pop music to a grateful public whether the Great Empire wants it or not.


The Rant…

Many musical musings this time out here at RIORI. Me just blogging out again. But never fear, it’s all in the spirit of this week’s installment since our movie’s about music in general and radio in specific. Just figured I’d offer up y’all some backbone to show I know what I’m talking about. Or at least slather some healthy bullish*t around to give the impression I do.

So I used to be a DJ. Wait, that’s not quite right. Let’s back that up a few years…

I came from a musical family, although they didn’t know that at the time. At a formidable age, I took up interest in playing the saxophone. My inspirations were humble. In grade three, I knew nothing about John Coltrane, Charlie Parker or my personal sax god Wayne Shorter. When I was a kid, the keen sounds that horn player Kirk Pingelly of INXS made was my bag, not to mention Greg Ham from Men At Work. Those guys and the cool outro courtesy of Ronnie Ross on Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side.” Sax was my second instrument, thought. The first being was my parents’ turntable.

I was properly corrupted at a young age. In their youth, my dad was into folk-rock—Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, the Mamas & the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, Pete Seeger—and the Stones. My mom grew up with the Beatles and Motown. Her first concert was catching the Four Tops at college. To this day, whenever “It’s The Same Old Song” comes on the radio, usually in the car, she starts fingerpopping and swiveling in the seat like an 18-year old. It’s always pleasantly embarrassing. I, however, was a Stax guy, Soulsville, USA. Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, Booker T, early Aretha. Those cats. To that, my mom passes me a cocked eye. We could both do worse.

Sure, I dug the Stones, the Beatles, Sam & Dave, Bob Dylan and many others from the ‘rents halcyon days. My uncle turned me on to Carlos Santana. I am forever in his debt, and he is never getting his first pressing of their self-titled debut ever back. But without my very uncool parents, separated from their LPs shoved back into the closet, too busy raising my sisters and me, I guess I’d never develop a pair of ears.

Thanks to this restless intro into pop music, I would have never picked up the sax, messed around with the drums (thanks to both Neil Peart and Stew Copeland), tried to play the piano (blame Bruce Hornsby) and pluck limply at a guitar (damn you, Carlos). I tried and failed to reproduce the music from my—and my parents’—youth, save the fact I eventually nailed Ross’ outro. And learned about ‘Trane and Bird and Wayne. Call it growth. Due to the exposure, my nascent interest in music resulted in a massive, quite unhealthy record/cassette/CD/download collection.

In hindsight, I suppose all of that got me the gig at the radio station.

Fast forward to 2005. I landed a show as a DJ on the local community radio station’s pop/rock block. There, the term DJ was reserved for guys who either wheel the steel at clubs or host drunken karaoke nights on Fridays at the local bar. Here’s an aside, and I’ll have many regarding pop music: karaoke, despite its nerdy connotations, can be really quite fun. I hosted a few nights at my local bar armed with a crate of CDs of both popular and semi-obscure artists that the drunken, fun-loving crowd might be able to rally around. The folks who wanted to get on the mic were divided into two camps. One were people, inhibitions loosened by liquor, who wanted to just have a laugh and try to be rock stars for a few minutes. C’mon. Who doesn’t want to be one at least once?

I remember this one time I was behind the deck and feeling sorry for a guy who was fumbling through the stream-of-conscious lyrics of R.E.M.’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It.” I jumped up on stage, grabbed a mic and gave him a hand, trying my best with Mike Mills’ backing harmony. When it was done, he laughed heartily and bought me a beer. The audience cheered and clapped. We all had fun. Mission accomplished.

On the other side of the stream, there were karaoke folks who were sullen and determined. When they got on the stage (or riser, as it often was), they performed as if they were reaching for something. Like Simon Cowell was in the audience somewhere, taking notes and tugging at his groin. This crew was not going to have fun. They shrilly tired to reproduce what they saw on American Idol, or what they thought they saw. They clearly weren’t drunk enough, or maybe too much. Ugh. In any event, they were decidedly not having fun. And when I had to repeat that there weren’t any awards given out (e.g.: no free booze) and it was all in fun, I often had my shirt collar dragged into an outraged Bo Bice wannabe’s face and forced to defend my sexual preference. Good times. Anyway, it paid my bar tab. And I had the chance to share mostly musical stories, dappled with a touch of high school nostalgia with a lot of drunken, giddy karaoke aidoru about what the song they attempted meant to them. It was like my early days with the sax. It was hard to not like these people.

That’s what DJs do: play music in hope to make listeners feel good.

When I eventually landed on the radio, I found out we called ourselves “programmers.” On air, my peers and I just played music, plain and simple. Mine was an eclectic show, playing mostly rock n’ roll, with a healthy dose of folk, singer/songwriter stuff, blues and other errata that was either deemed tasteful or noteworthy by what AAA (adult album alternative) standards dictated. In short, I was more or less free to play whatever the hell I wanted provided there was no illicit content (no cussing, pervy sex or Primus). It was enjoyable; my peers and me filled the ears of hundreds of listeners across three counties who had a penchant for the old, obscure, underground and up-and-coming musicians who otherwise wouldn’t find a spot on any local commercial radio station. We affectionately termed it as “left of the dial,” parlance coined by college radio stations and/or oddballs like us, using a signal usually below 100 mHZ, FM.

It wasn’t a paying gig. All of us programmers were compensated with free brand new CDs, old LPs that were bound for the dustbin, the occasional free tickets to local shows and/or interviews with the musicians who were playing at said local venues. It was how I got to meet the Black Keys before their meteoric rise to Madison Square Garden fame. Good for them; never have I known a band more deserving of the recognition they’ve since received. Pat and Dan are nice guys. I didn’t have to buy a single album for over five years, and my music collection skyrocketed. As well as my tastes and horizons. I’m not bragging, but in my music collection, I literally have thousands of CDs (2057 by last count, most of which are downloaded into my iTunes account, and I go nowhere without my iPod), hundreds of LPs and dozens of mixtapes kicking around. From the 101’ers to Warren Zevon. And the number is ever increasing. I think I might need some professional help.

Okay. Here comes the bitching.

I thoroughly dislike commercial radio. Why? I’m glad you asked. Besides the repetitive, numbing format/playlists, I hate the commercials, or at least the babbling. I know it pays the bills. In comparison to my station, being public, local business’ paid a flat annual fee to have their names mentioned at regular intervals during certain shows as “sponsors,” not unlike PBS. They donated a $1000 a year, give or take, and everyday at a selected time they would get their shout out. It was all neighborhood operations, so we kept it close to home. Go local! But unlike commercial stations, we’d never keep on blabbing up until the lyrics hit, say, on the opening bars to “Stairway to Heaven.” I think most commercial programmers just love to hear their own voice, and listeners distinctly do not. We wanna hear the music, unless you enjoy being buffeted by AC/DC’s Back in Black (just the four major hits) everyday three times a day every f*cking week. You can set your watch by it. I once made an on air bet with myself: play fifty songs within the allotted three-hour time slot. I spoke little; announced the forthcoming songs, backlisted the rest, gave weather, traffic, station ID at the top of the hour per FCC regs and the occasional promo here and there…and kept my prattle to a minimum. You tune in for songs, not schpiel, right? Well, the best I ever got was 47 songs, which is sh*t-ton more than your average commercial station can do three hours, let alone six. To wit, commercial radio is all about yapping and selling anything but the music. Music is merely a bookend between adverts.

Here’s an aside before I get too deep in snarky rambling: I had a buddy, a fellow programmer for the local “classic rock” affiliate. The term “classic rock” either refers to any rock music created between when the Beatles landed on the US shores up until Led Zep broke up, plus a few “modern classics” that did some hefty, pre-iTunes sales, and some out of it. I mean, I love Everclear’s jaunty tune “Santa Monica,” but as a classic? I guess I’m too old. Or too young.

Anyway my buddy ran the monitors at my local watering hole where I did karaoke as the sound guy for all the free shows local bands performed every Friday and Saturday night. Free live music is good, right? Not to him. Yeah, it brought a little extra coin to his pockets, but mostly he (we) had to endure endless covers of Tom Petty, the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Puddle of Mudd (the f*cking “She Hates Me” single just doesn’t want to die). It was all cover bands, playing the same warhorses that were trotted out on a daily basis by his host station. He hated it; he kept a brave face, schilling for his station and manning the boards. But he hated it. Both he and I tired of said songs, and when a cool local cover band performed a left field tune, most of the would-be movers and shakers in the crowd would go “meh” and get back to their beers, much to our chagrin. The cover bands weren’t all one trick ponies. One group I enjoyed was fronted by an affable guy named Mike. He listened to my radio show and when his band performed at my bar, he was always sure to include “Life During Wartime” and “Sweet Jane” is his set whenever I came around. The rest of the regulars waited for a familiar tune that they had heard a thousand times over for free on the radio, not regarding any cover charge instead. I guess that familiarity doesn’t breed contempt in all people. At least, people who don’t listen to music so much as they understand certain sounds in the barest Pavlovian sense.

My friend was encyclopedic in rock knowledge. We would talk it up, he’d share stories about his days as a roadie for this band and that, the concerts he’d seen. He was once even so kind as to burn a pair of live Pere Ubu bootlegs onto disc for me, we being the only Ubu fans in the county, maybe the state. Regardless he loathed the format at his job, for the same reasons I did as a listener. But he, unlike me, had no choice. He had to talk it up on air, interrupting songs to promote the local auto dealers and just avoid the dreaded dead air. He had to drag out “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “American Girl,” “Rag Doll” and countless pabulum to make sure that the said car dealerships could keep paying the bills. Unlike me, I could spin Pere Ubu for my audience all day; they loved that sh*t.

That’s how commercial radio in my little ville went for decades. Even more so that when the evil Clearchannel, with its endless hydra-like tentacles clutched the majority of commercial stations, making sure that Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, One Direction and Adele have careers until Rapture. All in the name of profit, not music. Not really.

Let me drop some science on you, for those who care to actually listen to what commercial radio stations play: more than a decade ago, radio conglomerate Clearchannel more or less bought out (i.e. leverage gained) 90% of all commercial radio stations in the United States. Their format was profit expanse, never musical variety. They deemed what pop songs should be played that would get the most listener’s attention, and thereby would ramp up advertising increases to the hilt. Most of these radio stations only had a playlist of maybe 100 songs, and would grind them into the dirt until the listening public got bored and threatened to tune out. Then there would be a new crop of American Idol winners (and some of the flotsam), and the cycle would be born anew.

In sum, Clearchannel could give two sh*ts about music, so long as they can rake it in. And boy, do they rake it in. Sh*t as well as money.

Why do I dislike—hate—commercial radio? Well, besides the endless commercials, it’s killing music appreciation. Radio is the last free media in the world, and most folks get their minds wiped on a daily basis with the same 100 songs, often from multiple stations. Be it in our cars, at work (at the kitchen where I work, there’s a crappy little clock/radio that belts out late period Aerosmith and Back In Black with aplomb. I wanted to flush that thing down the toilet. I once vacuumed-sealed it in a plastic bag and headed for the men’s room, but my boss caught me, snatched back the radio bound for the sewers and chased me away. Meanwhile I stole its batteries. Tee-hee!) or at home. Clearchannel and what few of its ilk now pay the stations to play pop music with additional revenue to promote whatever artists they see fit to attract the most listeners for optimum times of day. In the biz, we call it “drive time.” What’s more lulling than being stuck in traffic, desperate for any distraction beyond not rear-ending the car in front of you? Hey. The radio. Click.

Adsadsadsads”music”ads”music”adsadsyoufeelrelevantyetyouf*ckingconsumeryou?AdsadsTrainads…

Click.

And to think, back in the early days of rock radio, to play such “drivel” was almost considered a crime. Radio was—and technically still is—a free market, and back then, unbound by the whims of big business, to be paid to play rock n’ roll was against the law. At lot of the early rock n’ roll DJs lost their careers if they we caught dead playing music backed by money from the studios. It was called “payola” back then. Nowadays it called “business.” Pioneer and seminal rock DJ Alan Freed paid the ultimate price for “accepting bribes” to play certain singles: he lost his career and eventually his life, all for trying to broaden the musical landscape with the devil’s music.

One time on the air, I had a birthday tribute show for Freed, playing old school recordings of one of his many live rock n’ roll parties. The likes of Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and of course Elvis would grace the airwaves, whipping the throng of already screaming teens into frenzy. One could feel from the lo-fi, dissonant tapings how rock n’ roll really irritated grown-ups back then. It was righteous. Nowadays, it’s business as usual, and all the numbing for it.

History lesson: it was even worse over in Britain in the dark, early days of rock broadcasting. At least in the US there were a handful of minor rock stations working their way through the country’s airwaves, bothering grown-ups and exciting kids alike. At least those stations were on land. In the UK, back in the 60’s, rock radio was more or less an overseas venture. Literally, over seas. Broadcasting rock music was illegal on British shores. Ah, but offshore was a different story, as this installment will soon report on.

Can you imagine that? Now here in the US we have an official constitution that grants freedom of expression, i.e. music, for anyone that wishes to sing, play and hear all different kinds, for good or ill. And a country, a culture much older than the United States’, oft-regarded as more “civilized” that us barbaric Yanks gives the hammerdown to freedom of expression. It seems that in to 1960’s, Brits were overwhelmingly partial to classical music, especially symphonies and opera (which is kinda funny since Germany is the home of many of the great composers, and Italy is top notch in performing opera. Germany and Italy. Two countries not terribly kind to the UK in the 20th Century. Hmmm…). And then these upstarts, these hooligans, these kids have the gall to create and perform this ragged, raunchy and very loud pop music that originated in the Colonies? The outrage!

Yes, outrage is just what the stuffy, old white men needed in their faces—and ears—in the middle of the ‘60’s. The Beatles, the Stones and their friends made damn sure of that.

Today we have thousands of commercial radio stations churning out pap in order to sell cars, pharmaceuticals, insurance and other very grown-up stuff under the aegis of Clearchannel. And Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, Nickelback and an unholy host of others have million dollar careers at the expense of good taste and discerning audiences. Can you just imagine over sixty years ago that to play the claptrap listed above would deserve jail time? Well, these days it should. But back in the day? In Britain? The home of the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, the Kinks and the Dave Clark Five? In the bloody 1960’s? Then? It was a stoning offense (pardon the pun).

Huh. Sounds like back then, rock n’ roll was doing its good number in the United Kingdom. AS IT WELL SHOULD…


Dateline: Britain. 1966. The House of Lords has a crisis on their hands. Not unemployment. Not health care. Not even football rioting. It’s a crime, but no-one can prove it. Under no one’s oversight, a group—nay, a veritable society—of ne’er-do-wells have taken over the UK’s radio waves, broadcasting filth and degradation to any innocent, proper British citizen to hear through the convenience of modern radio technology. The nerve!

Who are these dastardly smut peddlers? Ex-cons on the lam who managed to cobble together scrap transmitters to spew forth their filth? Fifth columnists with propaganda to smear and disrupt fine British normalcy? The sexual conquests of the Queen?

Worse. Pirate radio stations that broadcast rock ‘n roll music, the latest scourge to corrupt the Great Empire. And these pirate DJs immediately and easily damage anyone who has access to a radio. My, think of the children!

At least, this is what the folks on the SS Radio Rock are hopefully trying to do.

Lead by ex-pat American DJ, “The Count” (Hoffman) with his rabble crew of DJs and misfits at the ready, they do their damndest to broadcast the needful rock ‘n roll to a nation desperate to loosen up. It’s unfortunate that powers at the BBC are not in touch with the greatest art form since the Mona Lisa to rally fine Brits into mirth and merry. But never to fear: the Count and his crusaders are filling this niche, broadcasting rock from a ramshackle boat in the North Sea with the wonderful pummeling from homegrown rock bands like the Kinks, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Manfred Mann and a few scraps from the States. It’s what the nation wants! All 25 million of them, give or take.

Parliament does not agree. In fact, they aren’t even listening.

So Sir Alistair Normandy (Branagh), tight in the britches if there ever was such, sees a way into the upper echelons of Parliament with a new crusade: get rock radio off the air, cast away ships like the Count’s even though they aren’t really breaking any maritime or broadcasting laws. For real. This new music is tearing apart the social fabric of the United Kingdom! Isn’t it?

Some folks just don’t know what’s good for them…


Got up this morning. Checked the weather online, email. Made coffee. Tended the fire. Put side one and then side two of the Who’s Quadrophenia on my recently unearthed turntable and considered last night’s viewing.

Pirate Radio was not what I expected. What was promised did not pan out the way I hoped. It was supposed to be the classic “snobs vs. slobs” story. We got uptight white men in authority trying to maintain the status quo; on the other side of the fence our loveable, yet dimwitted rabble-rousers hell bent on bucking the system. Think Meatballs, Caddyshack and the granddaddy of ‘em all, Animal House.

Radio turned out to be a bit of a bait-and-switch.

Let’s backtrack a bit, almost noting a portent of things to come. In the original UK release, Radio was titled The Boat That Rocked. A fair enough name, with a clever play on words. That title promised, well, rock ‘n roll at its most basal. A party! A loud, awful rant ‘n rave-up against the gentry, authority figures, something.

Something is what was lacking.

Director Curtis has made a name for himself with British comedies (Love Actually, Notting Hill). His work’s pretty good. I enjoyed Notting Hill quite a lot. It’s one of my wife’s fave films, and one of Julia Roberts’ best roles I think, so he’s done some good. Not award-winning good, but still satisfying. However (here it comes), I’ve noticed his best work stems from limited casts. You know, the traditional antag/protag axis, with some fluffy actors in between to act as the peanut butter to so much jelly. For Radio, he tackles an ensemble cast. And here is where, as the Brits say, everything goes all pear-shaped.

As Stein coined, there’s no there, there. We have a great opportunity to capitalize on a bunch of askew, drunken, offbeat punters and all the quasi-drama that occurs between pints and spliffs and the latest by the Who. What we get instead is—again what the Brits call it—just naff.

I guess it pans out to a lot of wasted opportunity. For instance, Hoffman does his best Murray The K. He’s having a great time, and it’s infectious. After the fact, we know now that Hoffman died from drugs. There were “certain signs” (not unlike Brain Jones) in the characters he played that was prescient. He tended to play unlikeable characters most of the time. For example, remember his young snotlout in Scent of a Woman or incompetent cop in Nobody’s Fool, or his Oscar-winning role as Truman Capote? You don’t? Hit reverse.

Well not here. Hoffman’s channeling Alan Freed, and with an infectious—although stereotypical—beat that invites all the rock ‘n roll such a film should be lousy with. Face it, unlike most commercial pop stations these days, there is a helluva lot less necessary screaming done to whet the listeners’ appetite than…well…when we anticipate yet another AC/DC standard.

The funny thing about Curtis’ direction is from his prior films that he’s great with two-to-three camera intimacy. Aboard the Radio Rock, intimacy is shunted down the head. We got here an wild crowd of rock fans; drunken DJs, would-be-failed-to-be-dreaming pop stars, awkward straights denied a BBC seat, and stoners acting…stoned, rotating Dead and Hendrix albums with (literal) naked and unaware aplomb. And no one on the ship is remotely aware of this. Everything is compartmentalized, like a warbled installment of Monty Python. Nothing blends. It’s all scene-to-scene, camped out by a clutch of characters in search of some motivation. In short, there’s only style and no substance. Curtis fails to establish 3-D characters.

Good thing at least that Radio Rock‘s soundtrack is killer. Too bad there’s not enough of it.

Again with the bait-and-switch. I figured that Pirate was gonna be an early rock ‘n roll showcase. Hell, I half-expected Little Richard to show up with a baby grand slung around his neck. No such animal, birdman. In Hollywood fashion—and I blame none of the cast and crew—the selected music was cued up to bookend certain scenes. There was a thorough lack of spontaneity associated with rock here. However, what was selected was pretty fine. But that really has no bearing on the narrative.

Were all old school rock stations really like this? Maybe. I hope so. I know from experience that radio jocks and their itinerant family can be quite the circus. Pirate’s best feature, as well as its flaw, is its notable cast. It’s mostly a boy’s club, and not all performances are good, but they are noteworthy.

Despite the lack of cohesion and interplay with the varied cast, there are a few standouts. Bill Nighy as Quentin, the formal station manager/captain of the Radio Rock brings his usual proper, Albion regality to the crew. He quips some good one-liners, and his dry delivery is always amusing. Goofball Nick Frost is a roly-poly card. His sleazy, self-described ladies’ man Dave outstrips Hoffman, ostensibly the rowdiest of the crew. Seeing Dave in his skivvies, and later out of them is a cheap joke, but it oddly works here. It’s definitely memorable.

On the flipside, Tom Sturridge’s young Carl is the Maguffin that gives Pirate its raison d’être. He’s quite bland however, and interchangeable with any mop-topped teen actor that could’ve been plopped onto the set. His sleepy performance makes the film kinda drag (as well as thin plot and bored pacing, but more on that later), and he plays Carl with a predictably that’s not annoying, but lackluster and slow. It makes for one the oddest coming-of-age stories I’ve ever scene.

I loved Rhys Ifans’ legendary disc jockey Gavin. Old school DJs were revered almost as actual rock stars in their own right. Their on-air personas were avatars, midwives to the actual artists. It was like they were making the music. Think Wolfman Jack. Playing to the mic is really the only music actually created by DJs, and Gavin sees himself, as his listeners do, as a rock icon. Outrageous outfits, signature routine and shagging his way through groupies is very rock n’ roll, and his self-important peacock act is a hoot. In a way, Ifans uses physically comedy in the same dry way as the British use verbal humor. He’s a clown; a very lean, wiry and rigid clown, but a clown all the same.

Some technical things I dug: I liked the lilting camera work, replicating the rise and fall of the sea. A nice touch this “rocking.” The shots from all angles on the deck really give the feeling that the Radio Rock is really out there, all at sea, so to speak. These folks are rebels, cast-offs, and the only place they can find haven is out on the rolling blue. This isolation reinforces a tight, family atmosphere, cutting them away from society. Hmm. Maybe I’m looking too deeply here, having some poetic notion about pirate radio, which these guys were supposed to deliver.

However, despite the pointed freewheeling atmosphere the cast is supposed to generate, British stuffiness and its nonstop dry humor pervades the scenes. There is rigidity to Pirate that can’t be shaken, and the story’s lack of natural flow can alternately be pokey and jarring. The plot drags and wanders, sputters and stops. It’s almost like watching a sketch comedy show with only mild laughs. Although the cast is colorful the unnecessary feeling of restraint here keeps them from really cutting loose. Very un-rock n’ roll. These folks are supposed to be loveable, but for lack of even flow, it’s too forced. My complaint is what other critics complained about: as actual people we’re supposed to care about, the crew of the Radio Rock is two-dimensional. With what we expect and what we are given, there’s nothing much to hang it all together with these people. It’s all scant substance, and that’s really a shame.

Pirate upholds a lot of corny English institutions in their comedy. There isn’t any depth to Branagh’s Sir Normandy; he’s just another stuffed shirt, and his motives to crackdown on the Radio Rock is ill-defined behind the stereotypical character of “The Man.” From the cluttered scenes of how the music invades the UK’s shores and its citizens illustrates a good thing, the “bad thing” about what rock is doing is never hammed up or made clear here, which I think would’ve done a lot for the story in the tension department. This was one of the many ways which Pirate’s plot was weak and wandering.

Once again, I ride out the old warhorse called pacing. There was next to no sense of urgency to the exploits of the Radio Rock. At least not until the very end, and by then it was too late. The meandering and yet stifling storytelling made for the voyage about the Radio Rock akin to the Middle Passage. There was no glue that held the interesting characters together, the plot engaging or the supposed humorous antics between the two coming. Like I said, the movie at times was languid or worse, outright halting. This made for a slow pace, only kickstarted a sputter with the occasional period rock number (of which there was precious little).

The other night, with my overpowered, retrofitted Sansui amp, jerry-rigged to accommodate my iPod, my family and I had a very loud British Invasion dance party—almost to shake the blues in my head away from the previous night’s viewing. We were all jumping around, and I scooped up my kid (she is getting heavy, believe me) and we rocked out to “My Generation.” I lifted her up and wobbled her down to John Entwistle’s thunderous bass runs. She laughed and screamed a lot. I put the Stones’ “Satisfaction” next on rotation and tried to explain what a “signature song” was. She didn’t get it. No matter. She liked it anyway.

That’s what matters about rock. Not its history. Not the details, not really. Not even the format, be it vinyl, digital, broadcast or what have you. It’s about the songs, right there and then. I’ve often mused that humans are the only creatures that make music for reasons other than just getting laid. I mean, it helps (as my wife and mother of my child found out), but overall it’s the almighty song that gets us into a twirl. Rock n’ roll is supposed to do that, and its DJs are its messengers. After the performer, it’s the guys that get in on the airwaves (for free) that make a difference. The folks aboard the Radio Rock did their best, but I think an actual docudrama about British pirate radio would’ve been a better tribute, not a stammering comedy as it was here. Pirate’s gimmickry and lack of cohesion got real old real quick.

And I hope I die before I get old.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Despite all its charms, it’s a rock ‘n roll movie minus the roll. Rock it has; too bad that’s just the station ID.


Stray Observations…

  • “Do you know what a lesbian is?”
  • Is Branagh supposed to look like Hitler? I figure the Brits were never subtle in their comedy (think Benny Hill).
  • “Governments loathe people being free.” Sounds like a Bill Hicks tag. And a good one.
  • I love the mod fashions, especially the ladies’. Nothing screams 60s British hip like go-go boots and vinyl dresses.
  • Otis Redding. Works every time.
  • Muddy Waters’ “I’m a Man” dropped 11 years after this movie takes place. Way to go, A&R guys.
  • Here’s another: “Won’t Get Fooled Again” wasn’t cut until five years after the events on this boat. Again A&R guys, again. Cat Stevens, too.
  • Was that Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue (1980) doing literally floating about the set? Only dorky dickheads like me would—did—notice this. Hey! You! With the beer cans! I said my apologies after the Control installment! Ow!
  • “Do what you gotta do…chicken!”
  • The kids are alright…

Next Installment…

We’re shipped out to the Mideast with Jake Gyllenhaal and his fellow Jarheads.


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 29: Scott Coffey’s “Adult World” (2013)


Adult World


The Players:

John Cusack, Emma Roberts and Evan Peters, with Armando Riesco, John Cullum and Cloris Leachman.


The Plot:

Recent college graduate Amy is sure she’s going to be a famous poet. But until then, if it ever happens, she reluctantly takes a job at an “adult” bookstore to make ends meet. Meanwhile, inspired by some found work by isolated post-punk poet Rat Billings, she decides to stalk out her muse in hopes to find a mentor. It does not go well, as such things often do.


The Rant:

For a few of the recent installments here at RIORI, I’ve waxed both nostalgic and poetic about my salad days in college. Being a post-modern English/Education/Philosophy student (with nary a whit of modesty) that I was, allow me to drop you some science. You want to know where the term “salad days” came from? No? Tough. My blog, my rules. It hails from (who else?) William Shakespeare. It’s from Antony and Cleopatra:

“…My salad days, when I was green in judgment; cold in blood…”

The phrase has since been adopted as the go-to excuse for the impulsive decisions we choose in our callow youth. Like getting a tattoo, or getting your labret pierced, or bleaching your hair, or smacking around a sh*t-ass drumkit for some going-nowhere notion of a rock band, or going to hole-in-the-wall clubs seeming built out of graffiti, spent plastic beer cups, cigarette butts, puddles of puke and a sense of self-satisfaction, or wasting hundreds of dollars on import CDs of your then favorite cult band via the demon eBay. Green in judgment? Cold in blood? Sounds like my punker days at ol’ SU. Tattoos, piercings, two-toned hair, wannabe-garage-band-on-the-side, a stupid tab at an unattractive trough, and an unhealthy collection of Joy Division and Ramones bootlegs. Good times, good times.

Hey. It was the ‘90’s. Back off. To wit, Oasis actually had a career then. Chilling.

Anyway, there you have it. My alma mater in a weak nutshell. I’m not wholly sure if I ever name-dropped the school I got the degree from here, but now you have it. Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences. Huzzah. It was a good school. I learned a lot. Studied under some very good professors. Made a lot of cool friends. Did a lot of self-exploration. Read more post-modern and deconstructionist philosophy than any sane person would or should. It was the place to be for an aspiring educator and writer like myself to be schooled.

Of course I’m looking back on my days at Syracuse with a bleary lens. The college may have been grand, but the local scene and the town itself was beat. Imagine a grey metropolis worn down by urban blight and self-resignation with the art scene a weak, glowing ember under foot of the townies who didn’t really care for the student body in the first place. The only bright spots the city had going for it was the school, an sort-of gentrified, Boehme neighborhood downtown where the cool record shops, clubs and restaurants were, and a massive, opulent shopping mall built over the site of a former toxic waste dump (really). If you haven’tve ever been through such a town, imagine Bridgeport, CT or Allentown, PA with a Café Wha? right next to the welfare office and there you have Syracuse.

I never could understand the malaise the locals had towards the students. After all, the university was the highlight of the town, and the students brought business. I’d like to believe that the isolated, staid culture that hung over the cities along in the lee of Lake Ontario—Syracuse, Rochester, Oswego—were a result of the muting consequence of “lake-effect weather” which drove everybody indoors for the better of a year. Cold rains in the spring, stuffy air in the summer and perpetual swirling snowstorms around the New Year. The winters were eternally grey, a steel-colored sky that casted its pall over the town starting at Halloween and eventually dissipating come Easter. The snow and ice would hang in the air, never really collecting. It was like being stuck inside a snow globe, minus the whimsy. Due to the climate—social and otherwise—the lack of hospitality from the townies rendered the college scene an entity unto itself, cards held close to the chest, a bulwark against the willful hostility and decidedly xenophobic residents of the Salt City. Maybe it was the notions of the locals that the students came from a monied background and thought they were somehow better than the locals (who had been suffering from economic damage for decades, the city slowly going under while the college thrived). Jealousy. Maybe that and there were a lot of non-white people being deposited into the community courtesy of fall enrollment every August. I dunno.

In any event, partially due to the influx of new faces from across the country (and often from across the globe), Syracuse generated a certain literary-minded quality. A lot of noteworthy writers had strolled though the college and surrounding community over the years. Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, William Safire, Joyce Carol Oates and Shirley Jackson to name a few. Even Stephen Crane attended classes at SU once (but he never did graduate). The place was a quiet hotbed of would-be and sometimes successful writers and journalists, and the snow-weary brick homes around the school had the air of quiet desperation that comes with the mostly solitary act of writing. Salad days or no, my times and explorations at SU allowed me a certain degree of youthful woolgathering, dreaming of the day when I would be a published author, living in a quiet brick house with a solid oak door, roaring fireplace, and Friday evenings with the local literary elite. The residential parts of town had the romantic air of JD Salinger somewhere barricaded against the wintery weather and open hostility of the general public to hunker down over the typewriter and write for his own pleasure, and no other audience.

Salad days, remember? Despite the grey—or maybe because of it—my imagination grew fallow, green at Syracuse. It was only the naïveté of English students such as myself that created such a romantic, unrealistic view of a dumpy burg with a killer philosophy department. Seems that I wasn’t alone in my mind’s eye. Such fanciful notions seemed to have rubbed off on Adult World’s writer Andy Cochran and director Coffey…


Virginal college grad Amy (Roberts) is a fledgling poet, already entrenched in both the starving artist schtick and a need for a “real job.” Problem is, apart from hundreds of rejection letters for the various publications that have been stuffing the mailbox, there aren’t any real job prospects in Central New York for a budding rhymester. Her parents aren’t having a hard time reminding her of the thousands of dollars of student loan debt that’s been racked up, so since push has come to shove, and Amy’s prospects are slim, she better find some source of real income soon…or else.

Dragging her ass home one night after an abortive house party, Amy stumbles upon an abandoned car stuffed full of tattered books (of all things). She absently snatches a hardcover at random from the pile. In her hands is a copy of poetry written by one Rat Billings (Cusack). After thumbing through the book, Amy realizes that she has discovered her muse. Rat’s writings are just what she has always aspired to create. Now, if only she could meet the actual man…

Wait! He’s local! Time to get stalking.

But before she stars her quest, there’s that little matter of personal finance to tackle. After unsuccessfully trying to get a legit job (turns out there just aren’t many opportunity for majors in poetry out there than Amy hoped to believe), she happens on a dumpy shop with a HELP WANTED sign in the window. What the hell. Inside she discovers, to her horror, that the joint is an adult sex shop. XXX videos. Spank books. Anal beads. Hot cocoa. The place has it all. It’s called Adult World, imaginatively enough, and the kindly co-owner Mary Ann (Leachman) is delighted that a college grad would take interest in the position (better than some slacker high school snot). Amy balks at first, but a job is a job—and it doesn’t hurt that the friendly assistant manager Alex (Peters) is easy on the eyes—so, again, what the hell.

Back to the stalking: turns out that Rat is a reclusive writer, not to mention (surprise!) a misanthrope and a cynic. No matter to Amy; Rat’s doing a book signing town, and here’s the perfect opportunity to plumb the mind of a real, published poet, albeit a minor one. We’re not talking Sylvia Plath here. But his work spoke to her, which is a shade more compelling than meeting the needs of the losers who queue up at Adult World for the latest video releases and a jar of Vaseline. Maybe Rat’ll converse with her. Maybe he’ll read her poetry. Maybe he’ll give her some help, some constructive criticism. So bowled over by her raw talent, maybe he’ll take her his wing as a protégé!

Maybe he’ll tell her to go take a flying leap…


Adult World is a movie described by an adjective I have never used here at RIORI: charming. Sure, the movie is derivative, predictable and Roberts’ acting can get really annoying, but Adult World feels greater than the sum of its parts. Feels mind you, not is. It’s a polite, pleasant film with a few laughs, a great setting (regardless of my bias), and an easygoing pace. It’s quietly engrossing in its own way, kinda like when you’re stoned and find yourself staring at a strawberry for over an hour. You don’t feel like your wasting time watching the movie, but 90 minutes slip by regardless when you could’ve been doing something more productive. Like the strawberry would have waited for you.

But Adult World does indeed have its charms. The movie slipped under the radar upon its release in 2013. It saw a few reviews, mostly mixed. The only real highlight of the film that both audiences and critics alike picked up on was John Cusack’s performance as Rat. Now I have been a Cusack fan ever since adolescence, and not just because of his breakthrough role as Lloyd Dobler in …Say Anything (ah yes, the iconic boombox/Peter Gabriel scene. Often imitated but never duplicated, which launched the ships of many a cheesy teen romcom). I’m no snob when it comes to films. Not really, despite my endless polemics here at RIORI. I loved Cusack’s salt mine years with such goofy throwaways in the 80’s like Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer (both live-action cartoons, really. Summer had the delightful kooky cast of a very young Demi Moore, Curtis “Booger” Armstrong and unhinged, screechy comedian Bobcat Goldthwaite chewing scenery. Not to mention Cusack’s bit part in Sixteen Candles. All classics). In those trifles, Cusack honed his loveable loser persona. Awkward, earnest, often innocent and sometimes snarky, he had this endearing quality that one hoped transferred to real life. I’m not certain if Cusack is a dick in real life; I hope not.

Anyway, people argued for the fact that Rat Billings was the best role Cusack’s had in years. This is true. After shuffling through big-budget clunkers like 2012 and The Raven, (there was a little gold in there with Hot Tub Time Machine. Very little), Cusack seemed better as playing minor roles. Not necessarily as an actor but as low-key characters, self-effacing and sincere. I mean, all of the characters in Adult World are stereotypical, interchangeable ciphers, but since Cusack’s acting has always been kind of fluid (albeit in that signature hangdog way), his placement in the film seems just right. It’s not as if the role stretched him as an actor, but instead it played to his strengths and in turn fell right at home here.

This can’t be said of winsome, perpetually 16 year old Roberts. Her Amy is banal, annoying and pigeonholed into your average wide-eyed college student as can be. Seems here that Roberts is attempting to shed her skin of her CV of dreadful tween flicks (better so than We’re the Millers). She’s doing it without resorting to being sordid like an adult Lindsey Lohan. Adult World is a far cry from Hotel for Dogs, but Roberts is just too innocent and naïve to play, well, innocent and naïve. Amy is a stereotype, and not a terribly convincing or relatable one at that. And the starving artist deal has been done countless times before, and with a lot better results. Roberts plays naïve to the hilt, and it gets kinda tiresome.

Adult World has a goofiness one can find endearing. But it also has all the familiar trappings of indie films over the past 25 years, set to the de rigueur quirky soundtrack. This is a cut-and-paste kind of affair, and you can apply whatever redeeming values you have toward the film as you can conjure up. Adult World isn’t breaking any new ground here. I don’t think that was Coffey’s aim. This is a movie designed to be seen in the early evening with a date as a prologue to a cuppa at the local coffee shop, but not any notions of carnality in the future. Still, for all its Central New York blah, Adult World is entertaining, if only to see Rat grumble and ward off the spunky Amy who is so (predictably) blinded by art that she fails to register she sells dildos to make ends meet. Huh, that might be the story of hundreds of recent college grads who walked away with a degree in poetry. Or English and Critical theory. Or architecture for that matter.

I was trying not to view Adult World with the friendly, blurry eyes of nostalgia. I know the story takes place on my old stomping grounds, and it’s easy to confuse memory with actuality. The movie does carry a predictable meter, but somehow retains it charms. Must be the dialogue. That and Cusack’s “comeback” performance (OMG. Rat was me in college. Now I have to learn to hate myself. I’m comfortable with that). You see a lot of the story coming, but it’s a laid-back trip, which makes for a relaxing stroll around the grimy streets of Syracuse to take in the local lack of color. Who knows? Adult World might give you a hankering for a visit to Syracuse to check out its small, literary underworld. There are a lot of homes that look like Rat’s digs.

Just don’t say you’re from the college. Your accent would give you away and you’d just receive unfriendly stares and a face full of snowballs. Even if it’s June.


The Verdict:

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, if only as a lark. Adult World has been done before, and with more verve, but if you’ve missed the Cusack of old, here he is.


Stray Observations:

  • Suicide by electric oven. Yeah, it doesn’t work that way.
  • “There’s a lot of kiwis…”
  • That’s the director Scott Coffey as the bookstore owner. He kinda looks and acts like a college bookstore owner, don’t he? Must be the haircut.
  • “Have sex with me.” “No.”
  • I think I need a graph like that. Some things coffee cannot exorcise.
  • “Don’t take my napkins!”
  • Holy sh*t. I’ve eaten in that restaurant. The place was mediocre, but it had great lighting.
  • My wife and I used to kiss like that. I guess I better get back to that novel.

Next Installment:

Commercialized music got you down? Can’t find a place to hear all your favorite indie rock songs? Hate Katy Perry? You should start yourself your very own Pirate Radio station!


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 28: Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010)


Pilgrim


The Players…

Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Alison Pill, Mark Webber, Johnny Simmons, Ellen Wong, Kieran Culkin, Anna Kednrick and Aubrey Plaza.


The Story…

When the literal girl of his dreams Ramona starts popping up in his life-on-hold, slacker musician Scott Pilgrim wakes up. But to win the love of this rollerblading goddess, Scott must vanquish all seven of her evil exes in martial arts battles. You read that right. Bonus round!


The Rant…

I’ve covered a few comic book-based movies here at RIORI. To note, we’ve seen Green Lantern, the Watchmen, Iron Man, Superman (twice) and the Spirit (once and only once. Ugh) raked over the coals by the Hollywood combine, most of them with confused results. My responses have been generally positive than not on my watch, by the way. I try to separate my bias from…some other bias. To save time and spittle (and I’m slowly learning my readers can sometimes tire of the spray), most of the middling comic book adaptations I’ve seen under The Standard have been palatable, at times even enjoyable. But I think not all comic books deserve the dubious honor of making it to celluloid, or whatever they use these days.

Set the way-back machine, yet again, for the not too distant past. Oh, quit groaning. You made the hit here, didn’t you? This one’s gonna a get a bit more personal than before, and admittedly has very little to do with the context of this week’s movie. Why and what for? Well, sometimes you gotta just blog when you have a blog. Didn’t you learn anything from the Control installment?

2005. Between reality and semi-sobriety, a decade ago I decided to find a job. The inheritance that I had plopped into my lap was fast wasted on booze, pills, ennui and a grad school degree. Well, almost on that one. The only clear-headed thing I did with that wad of cash. I burned away my prospects and not a few bridges. Addictions are like that. You trade turns in the road only as often as you find the freakin’ road. So I was broke, strung out and stuck terminally in my late-20’s living under the ‘rent’s roof to get on the mend with my feet touching the pavement. Some pavement, anyway.

The job part comes in later. Remember my screed attached to the prior installment? Fire, walk with me; it’s a stinkin’ blog.

There was one addiction I used to have that remained dormant for a long time, however. And believe me, it did far less damage than the aforementioned blurs. Bless childhood.

*rewind*

Since middle school comic books were one of my balms against the cruel realities tweendom. I got hip to the funnies in summer camp, back when the sensible price for a new Marvel ish was a respectable 60 cents. This was the 80s. Yes, Millenials, I am old. So’s yer f*ckin’ iPhone 5s. The camp had a “system”; the parents doled out some discretionary spending that yeilded coupons for various items at the camp “store.” On sale was candy, cheap toys like balsa wood gliders and kites and, of course, comic books. The decent 60 cent kind. I wrapped my imagination around the likes of the X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man and—back in ‘85—issues from Marvel’s “New Universe.” For the uniformed, the New Universe was a line of then-new Marvel titles with brand new characters and storylines not drawn from their classic canon. It was launched in honor of Marvel’s silver anniversary. These titles, although new, were kinda derivative, stale and on the whole sucked. But as brand new stuff for a brand new collector such as myself, it was pretty cool overall. Anyway, the line tanked before the year was out, and it more or less caused then Marvel Editor-in-chief Jim Shooter to resign his position in frustration and shame. Them’s the breaks.

Fast forward many years, up until high school. I quit collecting comics upon graduating middle school. Why? Not for a very good reason; comics were for kids. I was in high school now, a big boy. I got rid of almost all my books and delved instead into regular books, music, writing and pursuing the opposite sex with complete futility. You know, you mature. Or rather you just get older, and not necessarily wiser.

(By the by, according to the history books, the ‘90s were a terrible time for comic books. Sh*tty stories, bad artwork, prices skyrocketing and the ol’ House of Marvel even filed for bankruptcy. In other words, I didn’t miss out on much during the ‘90s. Call it blind luck.)

Jump ahead again a decade or so. A college graduate. Time for the real world, which I avoided completely for most of the ‘00s as the abovementioned confessional explained. I gave up on most of my existence, mostly living for my Friday nights (and Saturday’s, and Sunday’s, and…), generally hand-to-mouthing it the rest of the week. I had a hard time holding down a job, and lived a Bukowskian existence for a few seasons. While I was trying to my head together, I reflected on “what went wrong” and backtracked, trying to assess the damage. I won’t go into great detail here, other than I tried to relive my past. That and I began collecting comic books again. It was a hesitant step, mind you. I heard about the abortive ‘90s and tentatively perused what had came before. Ugh. I got turned onto manga instead, and eventually weaned my way up back to America again. The turn of the century, after some housecleaning, brought about a Renaissance to the comic industry. That and prices, although higher, had stabilized. Again, I lucked out.

Between moping and scraping together what little cash I could, I began to frequent, or rather re-frequent the local comic shop of my youth. The owner, Jeff—who still holds court in the place for over twenty-five years. Quite an accomplishment for an independent comic book store, or any indie bookstore for that matter—was a sometimes acerbic, always opinionated but overall friendly dude who was also, of course, encyclopedic in his knowledge of the art form and history of the medium. To say his store had a lot of books is akin to saying the Antarctic is a tad chilly. Thanks to his hospitality and salesmanship, he re-activated the dormant comic-collecting addict I had once been in my callow youth. This was a major turning point for me, whether I knew it or not, and I slowly began to get my sh*t together.

Instead of carousing at my local watering hole, I hung out with Jeff and our fellow comic patrons (he kept late business hours) of all stripes. Young and old, male and female, black and white; it was a real crazy quilt of folks that would either shop and/or just chill there. I’d do some shopping, argue the merits of this book or that with Jeff and crew, or just simply hang and shoot the sh*t. I began to heal, although I didn’t know it at the time.

One day, I was doing that week’s shopping when Jeff extended either a hand of goodwill (he knew of my troubles, financial and otherwise) out of either being the charitable sort or knowing I was fast becoming one of his best, most reliable customers. Maybe both. In any event, he asked me about my work prospects. He must’ve known I was down on my luck by my constant yapping yap. Job opps? I said I had a few—meaning zero—irons in the fire, and then he made his pitch. He needed a guy to mind his store nights, from 5 till close 6 nights a week. He wanted someone he knew, perhaps trust and definitely not a snot-nosed kid who’d only rifle through the “adult books.” It didn’t pay much, but he would throw in an “employee discount” for me as a bonus. So whaddya say?

Of course I took it. Yes, the gig did indeed pay peanuts (and most of those peanuts were fed back into the elephant), but it got me out of the house—and bar—with a semi-productive routine. I managed the register. I recommended books in a salesman-like way, not some frothing fiend fresh outta momma’s basement. I was at in-stores, charitably promoting the local and not-so-local talents. I was also witness to the sad spectacle of life-arrests actually getting into fistfights over arguments regarding who could beat whom: Thor vs. Superman. On more than one occasion, I had to physically, but politely escort such ruffians out the door, reminding them to not carelessly chip a tooth on the concrete (sh*t like this really happened, Kevin Smith plot or no). As for promotion, the then EIC of Marvel Joe Quesada did a Q&A via conference call at the store, candidly fielding all of our geekish questions about what Spider-Man was gonna do next month. And the next. And the next. And the you get it. Joe suffered our silly inquiries handily and with much humor. I figured he was an old hand. After dealing each Wednesday with the usual rabble-rousers, I could only imagine what ol’ Joe has to do weekly with shareholders. It was all in good fun, and I wished I had only found a gig like this sooner.

At the end of the day, and I can’t repeat this enough, my time immersed in the comic book world as I had never done before in my youth became a lifejacket in a drowned world of my doing. Am I clean? Hell’s no. I tipple every time I watch a movie for this abortion. I smoke a lot too. Occasionally I’m solicited by co-workers with wondrous tales of the rapture that coke and weed may provide. Whatever. In this day and age, I find it takes a strong soul to say just that. I mean, look who we have to vote for. Still, my current vices possess the aegis of legality on its side. I’ll remain there for the time being. So long as the current Marvel/Disney hydra fails to notice its eighth head (you figure that one out, with your iPhone 6 Plus, bright boy).

Now. What I’m finally getting to here, is like the classic Cobsy line: I told you that story to tell you this story. While I was in “rehab,” immersing myself and getting caught up on the adversities of my favorite superheroes had triumphed over during my collecting absence, I came upon a format of comic book that I only had a passing understanding of: the graphic novel. I knew that publishers would often compile a story arc of a particular title—say, the Avengers—into an omnibus edition; it was simply collecting several back issues into one comprehensive whole, like a trade paperback. During my manga years, I only collected comics in this format (I initially thought all manga was published in this way). I wasn’t aware of stand-alone graphic novels of a single story and artwork carried across a self-contained package until my time at the comic store.

The first example of a “true” graphic novel came in the form of Harvey Pekar’s Our Movie Year. It documented Pekar’s experiences getting his long-running, cinema verite series American Splendor made into a movie. Pekar has sort of become the archetype for this style of comic book storytelling. I’ve read other novels of his, like the bio of his friend in Michael Malice: Ego and Hubris and his urban historical, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland—a complete account of his beloved hometown—the backdrop to his Splendor series. I dug into other novels: Alison’s Bechel’s autobiography, Fun Home, about growing up gay set against the backdrop of her family’s business, a funeral home as well as an adaption of Paul Auster’s City of Glass and other novels by Frank Miller, Alan Moore and others. These comics had little to do with superheroics, more to do with drama and humor. If conventional comic books were USA Today, graphic novels were the New York Times.

More like premium cable, actually. If you wanted to watch Homeland, Shameless or The Affair, you’d have to plunk down some extra cash. Like these cable series, graphic novels offered up a bit more freedom to explore more mature content than you average ish of Spider-Man (and like HBO, the prices were higher). Some stories were dramatic, others scary, some humorous. On the humorous side, and also attempting ironic commentary on folks from my generation, was this little collection called Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Here, before I run on any longer, I’ll simply jump to the synopsis and get on with the meat grinding:

Once upon a time in Toronto…


Scott Pilgrim (Cera) is the archetypal 22-year old slacker. No real job. No real prospects of any merit. Living in his dingy flat shared by his pompous, gay roomie Wallace (Culkin). Endlessly the bane of his younger sister’s (Kendrick) existence. Adrift, and he likes it that way.

Scott’s got nothing better to do with his days except endlessly pluck bass with his going nowhere garage band (the knowingly named Sex Bob-Omb) losers Stephen Stills, Young Neil and grumpy Kim (Simmons, Webber and Pill, respectfully). Oh, and on the side, date some 17-year old girl from a catholic school, the fetching Knives Chau (Wong). Right. Scott has a sh*tty track record for dating. His list is short and sweet and hopefully won’t get any longer wooing this recipe for a crime.

Then one fateful night, it comes to him in a dream. Really. A dream. The true “girl of his dreams,” whom at first could only be a figment of Scott’s staid imagination trying to break free. So when at a party, Scott and his amigos hear about a local battle of the bands—networking! This could be the way to Sex Bob-Omb’s big break!—there she is…

Her name is Ramona Flowers (Winstead), an ex-pat from New York City trying to settle down and find some stability in the Great White North. With her punky garb, snarky ‘tude and locks of many colors, Scott is transfixed. If not by her presence, then by the fact she has a presence outside his mind. Hey, all men are great in the their dreams, right? Scott pleads to the fates that this is true.

Ramona is somewhat taken with Scott’s geeky charm, but is reluctant to commit to any kind of relationship just yet. Not unlike Scott, she’s had some bad turns in the road on the dating scene. In fact, she’s had seven. Seven really whacked-out relationships that more or less scared her off to Canada. Scott thinks out loud: How bad could they have really been?

Well…

At the fated battle of the bands, Scott gets a taste (one of seven) of what Ramona warned him about. In a less than straight line, Scott faces off with one of Ramona’s exes, who apparently followed her flight up north. To win her, Scott must defeat him, Mortal Kombat style. Wait. This poof with the Lina Yamazaki hairstyle and his raiding of Prince’s wardrobe, this guy dated Ramona? And what about the psychic vegan bass player (Routh)? Or the witless, square-jawed action hero actor (Evans)? Or the Goth girl…girl? Or the twins!?!

Yikes. It’s like one of those video games Scott never plays, but (dum-dum-dum) it’s for real. How the heck is he gonna get past this rogue’s gallery of jealous freaks and win Ramona’s heart? Wit? Grit? Basslines?

And what’s Knives gonna think…?


It’s movies like this that make me question whether I was the target audience or not. The endless video game references, indie music soundtrack, alt-scene caricatures and the like seem to be aimed at me. Seem. However while watching Pilgrim, I got the creeping, crawling sensation that I had (shudder) grown beyond these hooks.

No, I’m not. All of it was just poorly executed.

Let me get one thing clear right now: I’ve never actually read Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. I was aware of it. It slouched on the shelves at my former place of employ, but I never picked it up. After watching the film version, I kinda wished I had. Along with that sneaking suspicion that the raison d’être for Pilgrim on film was slipping past me, I also felt that taking the story out of its original context was doing me no favors. And the film was lousy with bleeps and bloops that winkingly told the audience that, hey, this was originally a comic book!

I mean—ahem—graphic novel.

I understand that for over a decade comic book movie adaptations have been en vogue, but not all books really need an adaptation. Admittedly, Pilgrim had an interesting way of “adopting” the comic book format for a movie. A lot of the gimmicks of the trade (sadly mostly clichéd concepts) were employed on screen. Sound effects—a la the 60’s Batman TV show—action lines, dialogue balloons, asides to the audience and ridiculous scenes of fight scenes lifted from hyperactive video games like Mortal Kombat, Looney Tunes chase scenes and/or supernatural portals into otherworldly, kaleidoscopic world via Dr. Strange’s sanctum sanctorum, all were employed to keep you in on the joke. Unfortunately, the joke’s not that funny.

Even the editing is comics panel-like. Scene to scene, things just swoop in and out of view like some slideshow with a corrupted file. I guess this was to come across as surreal—and believe me, Pilgrim has surrealism in spades—but it also was exhausting. The pace is so frenetic that if you felt you missed something, you probably did. Trying to make sense of what you see here makes no sense.

And despite the breakneck dynamics, Pilgrim feels boring. I say feels, not is. Yes, the plot is a well-trodden road, yet the overall vibe of the movie tries to have some verve. But this movie drags. At an almost two hour running time, Pilgrim is something of a slog. It feels like all of this sh*t could’ve been wrapped up on a nice, neat 75 minutes. It doesn’t; Pilgrim goes on and on and on. I blame the stale script and the tired storyline. This movie looks like it’s not supposed to be boring, but it sure as hell feels that way. Plus it has a corny, after-school special kind of ending. Did that ruin it for you? No, it didn’t.

Other than the threadbare plot, Pilgrim is a movie about the dynamics of being dumped. In the long run, you learn from it. But the short run runs so quick that, even for maybe a few months, it feels eternal. It’s ultimately harmless and a fact of life. Under normal circumstances, tempered with a reality that excludes the dumped, a breakup seems world ending over a span of some very long days. We’ve all been there, and many of us may be there again in the future. Like I said: fact o’ life. If that’s the message of Pilgrim, it seems a little high-minded. Okay, I said it, but I think I was trying to put something into the film that wasn’t there in the first place. Most of it seemed like a lot of Gen X audience bating, but I never read the graphic novel, so what do I know?

Is Pilgrim Gen X nostalgia? I’m not sure. There are those tiring video game in-jokes, and the music is the post ur-grunge that saturated the marketplace circa 1995. But the series was launched in 2004, and I think that might be too soon to wax poetic about ago in this case. Overall, Pilgrim really reads like Looney Tunes meets Dazed and Confused. Is this supposed to be a comedy? Because it’s not terribly funny. Sometimes the snappy dialogue is engaging. When forced, not so much. And the hell of it is that director Wright is a vet of the alt-comedy standup circuit in LA. I figured here he was trying to apply his craft on film. Actually weld is a better term; welding shows its seams.

Pilgrim is trying too hard to be “hip.” But it’s catering to the wrong crowd. Seriously. Gen X virtually invented cynicism towards pop culture while simultaneously embracing it. If the producers of Pilgrim was aiming to make it a tongue-in-cheek lambast of everything “cool” in 90’s alterna-culture, then they should of took a step back and rethink their drink (Christ, even writing that sounds hopelessly 90s. I suck). I cringed a lot here.

One final carp (you’re welcome): Pilgrim is suffering from a bad case of The Matrices here, and not in just overt terms. Never has CGI been used so wastefully. It’s an extension of the forced hip pretenses of the movie. I know that nowadays you couldn’t execute the same kind of video game F/X here without digital aid (most moviemakers simply don’t want to), but it sure gets numbing. Made to make Pilgrim more comic book-y? I dunno. Maybe it was like that in the book. I’m still at a loss there.

Universal’s jump on the comic book cum movie bandwagon falls short here. Then again, I might be completely wrong in my opinions. All the other movies based on comic books I’ve taken apart here at RIORI I was a least familiar—even in passing—with the source material. When one goes to see a movie based on pre-existing media, comic book or otherwise, part of the enjoyment of the film stems from what the director lifted and (hopefully) got right from the book. I didn’t have that here, and it was entirely my fault.

Then again, a good movie—adaptation or no—should lend itself to some enjoyment at least. That was sorely lacking here in Scott Pilgrim’s world. The whole thing was a grind.

A grind. Y’know. Like in video games? That’s hip.


The Verdict…

Rent or relent it? Relent it. It’s stupid. If this is Universal’s hope of tossing its erstwhile notion of hip into the ring of the lucrative comic-as-movie trend, then they have dysplasia.


Stray Observations…

  • Seinfeld reference! Definitely Gen X nostalgia.
  • “Pirates are in this season!”
  • I have an affinity for Rickenbacker basses. Must be my early-Rush fanitude speaking.
  • Evans is really enjoying his role here. You can tell. He also has great facial hair.
  • It appears that the rabble who blinded and willfully go to the multiplex have little to no concept of dues ex machina It gets shamelessly employed here in Pilgrim World a lot. Good work, advertizers! (That’s not a typo.)
  • I tried veganism for a few years. Lost some weight, which, in fact, I needed to (lost some muscle mass, too, though). My blood pressure improved, as well as my endurance. A poorly maintained vegan diet however, as mine was (I then knew nothing of quinoa) is a highway towards anemia. Been there. On the whole, and not out of hipster dynamism, one should experience once in a while a diet sans animal products. You’ll feel quite clean and refreshed. And after a few months sanity will set in and you’ll be queuing up at Mickey D’s for the semi-annual relaunch of the McRib wearing nothing a lobster bib. Really, try quinoa.
  • “Kick her in the balls!”
  • Was that Thomas Jane? Awesome! “No vegan powers!”
  • DRUM. Heh.
  • Pill is the best actor here, deliberate or not. As the eye of this hurricane, her flat affect works wonders.
  • “What are you doing?” “Getting a life.”
  • Up up down down left right left right A B (select) start.

Next Installment…

John Cusack quits sleepwalking through movie roles long enough to rejoin the Adult World, if only for one film.


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 27: Paul Haggis’ “Crash” (2004)


Crash


The Players (we got us some live ones here)

Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, William Finchter, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate, Michael Peña and Shaun Toub.


The Plot…

In post 9/11 Los Angeles, superficially separate from that national tragedy, tensions erupt when the lives of a Brentwood housewife, her district attorney husband, a Persian shopkeeper, two cops, a pair of carjackers and a Korean couple converge during a 36-hour period.


The Rant…

Now that Oscar time is upon us, I felt it proper to tackle a film that once won the Academy Award for Best Picture. ‘Tis the season.

When I was younger, no bigger that this, the Oscars were not to be missed. As a teen, I made it my quest to make sure that I saw all the movies nominated for Best Picture of the given year. Didn’t matter the actors, the directors, the plot or the hype, I saw ‘em all, if not in the theatre then eventually on video. I figured being a movie geek it was no less my patriotic duty to see these films, lest I be left out of some pop cultural loop. These movies were supposed to be the big deal, the crème de la crème, the sh*t that separated the wheat from the chaff. I also assumed seeing them made me more cultured than the dilettantes that wanted to be—bah—merely entertained.

I was a little snot then. No surprise. I’m a bigger snot now, but my motives have changed. Call it maturity.

I seldom pay any attention to the Academy Awards now. Unless it’s an Oscar-nominated film that just happens to hove into my radar, I could give two moldy sh*ts if it won anything. It’s most likely coincidence than anything. The last film I saw that won Best Picture was Argo in 2012, and I saw that one for the reasons I snuffled at when I was younger: I was invested its story, but definitely not in Affleck (though he did handily direct it, I’ll credit him that much). The only other Oscar nom I saw within recent memory was American Hustle, and that one for it being a David O Russell piece, as well as me being quite entertained by his Silver Linings Playbook (see Installment #7). Neither movie captured my interest by promise of accolades, red carpets, flashing cameras and a lot of self-patting of the backs. No. I simply wanted to check ‘em out, regardless of unbridled popular opinion, possible awards be damned.

It’s taken a few years, but I’ve figured out that the Oscars are a puerile, politically correct, dog and pony show of ego and hubris. That and most pictures nominated for anything are filler. I mean, you gotta fill up three to four interminable hours of honoring entertainment for entertainment’s sake with something besides the parade of who’s wearing what (and endless, pointless musical numbers). At the end of the day, the Oscars have less to do with movies and more—much more—to with Entertainment! Being entertained with the glitz and glamour, the who’s-who of celebs, the expensive clothes and exercises in narcissism. The movie aspect part are just the thumbtacks holding the poster to the marquee. In short, whatever gets a nomination doesn’t really matter. You only tune in for the show, not justification by both the public and Hollywood as to what passes for “art.”

The last Oscar presentation I actually tuned in to was to see if Argo got the coveted stamp of approval, seeing the story was so solid and deserved some more press. The first fourteen hours on the broadcast was an endless montage of shiny faces, dumb jokes, words of praise from Hollywood types congratulating each other as if they found the Lost Dutchman Mine, the aforementioned musical bits and a smattering of movie stuff now and again. The only thing I saw that was actually entertaining was seeing Jennifer Lawrence trip onto the stage. That was merely a bonus.

Here’s a bit of cinema trivia: Did you know that the bigwigs at the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences are not even required to watch the films that are chosen for Best Picture? It’s true. The so-called guidelines for a nom are dictated by a very simple edict: the movie had positive word of mouth (read: what the critics said) and decent enough box office takeaway. That’s it. If any of those old, doddering, white males happen to actually see a picture, well then bully for them. They were most likely checking in on their investments. The nomination process is akin to the beleaguered high school teacher tossing the midterm essays down the stairwell and whichever paper lands on the ground floor gets the A. At the end of the day, Oscars are dime-a-dozen based on a 12 dollar admission and what some paid film nerd said.

But there’s another, more sinister aspect of Oscar nominations that really has jacksh*t to do with actual movie merits. It has to do with keeping up appearances. Hollywood is all about image, after all. It’s also about making obscene amounts of money (and blowing it as well, either on many of the specimens covered here at RIORI or up collective LA noses. Bam!). In case you don’t recall the whole Mel Gibson/anti-Semitic very public douchebaggery from a while back, convey the wrong image and bye-bye career. And the most prickly of all things regarding image are the studio heads’ PR. They put on their Sunday best all of the time in order to coax cash from us. Heaven forbid they present a poor, socially irrelevant, insensitive and/or downright stupid face to the buying public. They have to hold something up to ward off bad press, and to even think of perhaps sometimes once in a while not backing a movie with a message…?

Well, here we go.

Here’s a Hollywood mentality that adheres to the Oscar tenet; it goes something like this: Last year, in 2013, 12 Years a Slave won best pic. This probably didn’t happen based on the struggling criteria I’ll lay out soon enough. It most likely happened because—hand to God—anyone on the Oscar committee wanted to snub a film that tackled an issue so serious as slavery. I mean, dismiss that and you could alienate a chunk of the movie-going consumers, and no producer worth their salt wants that. You dig?

Now.

I find it suspect that any film that has a message or a “cause” to rally around immediately trumps other films that struggle with concepts of “engaging plot” or “good acting.” I suppose this now sets me up via a knee-jerk reaction that I am a bigot and racist. Not anymore than the average person, but for f*ck’s sake and after all it’s just a damned movie, not a march on Selma. That being said, 12 Years was not a bad movie. Along the Academy’s so-called standards, it did extend a message that ultimately making white people look and feel guilty was good trade. For comparison, 2013’s nomintaed American Hustle didn’t make white people look guilty. Stupid maybe, but not guilty. One should not have to have one’s attention and conscience wrenched away from plot, acting and the overall execution of a particular movie in order for said film to be regarded as “good” and/or “noteworthy.” None of this socio-pop rhetoric escaped the notice of the Academy, or critics for that matter.

Here. I’ll go you one further:

Set the way-back machine to a quarter century ago, circa 1990. The best picture for that year was Dances with Wolves. Again, not a bad movie. But Kevin Costner’s acting was his usual wooden emoting, and he was nominated for Best Actor. Go fig. His direction won Best Of, quite the feat for a first time director (by the way, Hitchcock and Kubrick never won an Oscar. Just sayin’), and all that sweeping prairie did indeed do wonders for the lens. I’ll give Mary McDonnell’s portrayal of Stands-With-A-Fist worthy of the statuette, too. But the film hasn’t really aged well. These days it tastes self-indulgent and simultaneously comes across as pandering and somewhat demeaning to Native peoples, making aspects of such cultures seem dignified in its simplicity against the progress of greedy white people. I’m not saying that’s how it is. I know sh*t about the Sioux and would be first in line for a spanking. But anyway and overall, it was a decent movie. Just a decent movie. And just a movie, not revisionism nor retrograde propaganda, as some of the pundits made claim. Or merely perceived.

Another Best Picture nominee in 1990, however, was a fantastic movie.

Unlike Wolves, it had a unique story, great acting, superlative direction, and ended up being packed to the gunwales with critical praise. And it sure as sh*t has aged well, even endured. In fact, it hasn’t aged at all.

The movie was GoodFellas. It was Scorsese’s finest. It didn’t win. I figure the message of rooting for a strung out Ray Liotta would send a bad message.

And here’s a final story and a caution.

Years ago swimming clumsily about in an alcohol-soaked haze, I was at my local watering hole working my way through a Henry Rollins travelogue and several pints of lager. My on-again, off-again bar buddies brought up one of my favorite subjects: movies (duh). One of these guys wasn’t a close relation. In fact, the dude only ever engaged me in a friendly way over pop culture factoids. We got to talking about Martin Scorsese’s movies—Taxi Driver, Casino, etc.—when I said of myself that I had never seen GoodFellas. Here’s the caution: I absolutely despise it when people chew you out about never have seeing a noteworthy film (“You’ve never seen The Godfather?!? What are you, retarded?”). Putting you on the spot like that is not only mean, but unconditionally impolite. Not to proffer myself up, but when that kind of thing happens in conversation, my default response is more or less, “You should check it out. You’ll like it.” Simply embarrassing a guy will probably not only put him or her off to your so-called recommendation, but will also be demeaning as well. Don’t be that guy.

Well, following that guy’s directive or else, I added GoodFellas to my Netflix queue and waited for a lonely night (of which I had many) to crash and watch it. When I finally did, it was after a laborious pub-crawl, ending well after 2 AM. Maybe 3. I ended up along with the couch, cracked open a fresh bottle of Jameson’s and plunked GoodFellas into the player. Despite how drunk I was, I was absolutely glued to the screen. I polished off the whisky, collapsed into bed and remembered the entire movie the next day, with trembling opinions on my tongue I could not wait to share with the guy who made it my civic duty to watch this film. It’s one of my more pleasant memories from those dark days with the bottle.

Needless to say, Crash did not have the same effect as GoodFellas did (the being captivated part, not being intoxicated). The only reason I even got my hands on Crash was that it was a gift from my wife’s mother’s misguided mind. I say misguided because the woman would randomly pluck DVDs for sale off the rack at the local CVS just to have them, only later to pawn them off on, well, me. To put this into perspective, my eccentric—and that’s being polite—mother-in-law does not own a DVD player. Yeah, you figure it out.

Anyway, Mom’s “heartfelt” gift or no, I eventually watched Crash because: A) Hey, free movie, B) It won Best Picture despite my appreciation for Brokeback in tandem with bewilderment that that film didn’t win; and C) There was nothing else to do that night. In addition, my girl said something along the lines of “What the hell…”

This week’s installment, as you haven’t guessed already, is about a picture that, when the lots were drawn, won the vaunted Oscar for Best Picture of the year and didn’t really deserve to win. Not on merits alone, no, but based on the cagey way the Academy doles out the statues. It wasn’t a bad film, but is was a safe film. And here’s the curious part—based partly on my past determination to catch all the Oscar-nominated Best Pictures—I kind of fell into both the Brokeback and Crash viewings by accident. One by way of my fiancée, and the other via a gift from her demented mom who watches movies as frequently as the rest of us go ice fishing in July.

My girl had seen Brokeback Mountain, and insisted, nay, demanded that I watch it with her. Indeed I did. It was really good. I mean great, the stuff award-winning films should be made of. I say that it should’ve won Best Picture that year, being 2005. It didn’t, and most likely because the Academy codgers didn’t want to risk praising a film about gay cowboys, narrow as their view was. Instead, the award went to Crash, another one in the camp of 12 Years: a pretty good flick, and also far more anodyne than a love story between two shepherds.

Like I said, I fell into watching Crash instead of actively seeking it out. It wasn’t like my quest of my salad days. No. And I remember this time being quite sober. I watched Crash because, more or less, “What the hell…”


Los Angeles is a tangled city. Desert city. It’s not supposed to be there. Gets cold at night. Maybe the mad snarl of people who reside there are not supposed to be there either. A lot of lives cross a lot of lives in that desert city that should not exist. Populated with people that should not be there. Carrying out existences that are foreign, albeit very, very local. Despite of, or perhaps because of it, the social climate—thousands of people interact with one another in ways that might under other circumstances would be disparate—is also fractured.

It all ends with a car crash, and concludes another day-and-a-half whirlwind of human traffic in the City of Angels. Detective Graham Waters (Cheadle) staggers from the scene of the accident while his partner Ria (Esposito) decides to have it out the angry Asian lady who wedged her bumper into their door. Conveniently enough, the accident happens at crime scene of yet another anonymous dead black man. This time, however, Waters believes he knows this mystery body.

In fact, he’s sure of the identity.

Rewind two days ago…

In another, more well-lit part of town, Rick and Jean Cabot (Fraser and Bullock) are concluding a night out. Yet another function to better Rick’s face in the undying camera flashes that come with being the local DA. Also enjoying a night out, both of them dueling philosophy and the perils of being the only two black dudes in the whitest part of town, Anthony and Peter (Ludacris and Tate) amble down the boulevard towards their next job: Rick and Jean’s Lincoln.

Elsewhere…

Daniel (Peña), a locksmith in a beat-up part of the city has just tried to secure the backdoor to shopkeeper Farhad’s (Toub)—an Arab immigrant—meager convenience store. No go. It’s the door that’s damaged, not the lock. Daniel, all too used to frequenting operations in shady parts of town (places he’s worked to get out of), patiently informs Farhad it’s not the lock, but the door. He doesn’t take this well, and such his business’ safety a concern, what with all the Arab hate crimes that have popped up recently, wants nothing to do Daniel’s recommendation. So much so that Farhad has recently procured a gun to ensure his property’s safety. But not his sense of security, and it seems Daniel the former gangster whose trying to walk the straight-and-narrow may now be the brunt of his frustration.

Somewhere else…

Police officers Ryan and Hansen (Dillon and Philippe) get the call about the Cabot’s carjacking and are on the lookout for a couple of African-American men cruising about in the stolen SUV. Ryan, being ever shrewd, pulls over a vehicle that fits the description. But not the couple. Well-to-do and noted TV producer Cameron Thayer and his wife Christine (Howard and Newton) are not two black males. But they are black, and that’s good enough for Ryan, especially when he frisks Christine, much to her protest and Hansen’s reluctance to agree to the search. But after all, Ryan is just doing his civic duty. Right?

In another place…almost another world…

Los Angelinos are simply trying to make their days run into the next. Social interactions are fractured, isolated. Sound bites. Some of those sound bites are loud and grating. Most are quieter. Pretensions, assumptions, asides, slurs. Stereotypes. “The Man”, n*ggers, sp*cs, sl*nts, r*gheads. All alive and well across the square miles. More often than not their paths cross, and not in a convivial way. Or a gentle one. Sometimes the paths don’t intersect so much as collide.

LA is a tangled city. Maybe it’s been borne that way for a reason…


Crash is not a bad movie. It is actually quiet a good movie. It also has a singular glaring fault that is at odds with the engaging story arcs and solid performances.

Boy, is Crash hella preachy.

I’m not talking about preachy in dialogue, but in message, and that message is about as subtle as a fart at a funeral. Crash is bigotry incarnate, and in f*cking overdrive. I understand that writer/director Haggis was trying to drive home the “we’re all so different/we’re all the same” message—in passing, he stated he was more-or-less trying to bring back the “grit” to ensemble films about LA that often paint a sunny image of glamour to the city. There is a certain degree of forced grime to this movie—but ends up being pedantic. Crash is always on the nose. Here is racism under the glass. A “message” film is always perfect fodder for the wary Oscar committee. Yeah, it’s preachy and pedantic, but that makes it no less interesting. And it’s very well acted.

This is all about character drama. There really is no plot, just message. Crash is compromised of a series of intertwining vignettes. It’s odd how the movie manages a narrative structure based solely on the slow, disparate chapters that hold it together so well. There is some deliberate subtly here, and it mostly works. Character nuances, convincing dialogue, a lot of great facial expressions, all of this adds to the richness of the tapestry. Now if only that pesky message wasn’t so damned inescapable. We get it, we get it. So, what? Nobody in LA likes each other?

Crash is too pointed in its commentary. Pointed, but oddly digestible. I think it might be the snappy repartee. Overall I credit this almost exclusively to the acting. Like I said: no plot. The actors had better be damned engaging in order to hold an audience. And man, is this flick rife with characters.

I read somewhere that in writing, in order to create memorable, relatable characters (note I didn’t specify likeable characters), you had to make them big. Over the top types whose emotional motivations must be so extreme that making them stereotypes you don’t even recognize. Stuff like that. Crash is f*king littered with these stereotypes (the rookie cop, his bigoted superior, the affluent, insecure black guy, the introverted detective, the hotheaded Arab shopkeeper, etc.). And all the better for it, especially when you have a primo cast like this.

Don Cheadle (ostensibly the axis of the film), as I have said in past installments is a choice actor of mine. He’s always played subtle, reserved characters. I have never seen him portray a character that ever loses his composure, even when upset. Hell, even when duking it out with Tony Stark as War Machine in Iron Man 2, Cheadle was holding back. He’s finally used well here, the everyman an audience can find themselves in comfy shoes. He sees the world with a mind gritting its teeth however, and the tension is quite protean. He’s handed a lot of bullsh*t, and being forced to smell it in a town infamous for being sh*t-tastic, he bears it well and does a convincing job as our avatar of being smeared with hate and disgust around every corner.

Matt Dillon’s racist cop Ryan is awkwardly tender and conflicted. He does know compassion, but such is a weakness. What better moral fulcrum than a veteran LA cop? At least over the past 3 decades in a city not regarded fondly for its racial harmony. Again, the guy with power and prejudice is a tasty character to follow, because it’s so prevalent in the real world, and so juicy to hate. But Dillon acts more or less in his ways out of his character’s “duty” rather than outright hatred. Cops are usually heroes in these commercial films right? Let’s face it; playing against type is always engaging.

I think although I’m not sure that the “inner city philosopher king” bit was codified here. It’s almost a caricature. I’d like to think that is got hot with Ice-T, sprouted by way of the Last Poets. Here we got Luda’ and Tate. They’re the Abbott and Costello of angry black thugs. They’re the—pardon me—black comic relief. We gotta have these guys intertwining here to be a pressure valve to let the steam out. Without it, all this drama would be too overwhelming to take. It’s a Shakespearean thing, so don’t argue.

Peña is fast approaching one of my favorite character actors. His Daniel is the movie’s soft spot. Family man, hard-working, trying to atone for past transgressions. Like the comic relief, you need to have a soft, squishy role to lean on, and the scene with his daughter at bedtime, though tired, is touching. Dad’ll make everything better.

Lastly, I liked Howard’s portrayal of the successful black yuppie, unsure of his stature. Does it hinge on his status as a producer, or a good boy for playing the white man’s game, sacrificing his dignity in return? That’s a fair question I think, and Howard’s responses makes it no less easy to answer.

It’s all well-acted, if only in a Hemingway-esque sense (“Kill your darlings. Kill, kill your darlings”). What I mean is that Papa’s words, no matter how simple, cut. Crash has good facetime. Almost all the actors here work with a flat affect, save Terry Howard and Ryan Philippe (whose bright-eyed, naive rookie cop needed a good slappin’ now and then. Mostly now). It’s a blank slate. It’s gonna be you the audience to cringe and scowl and exasperate to fill in the blanks. Let’s face the stink: racial stereotypes are engaging because—like Avenue Q taught us—we’re all a little bit racist. If you say, vehemently, “Not me!” you’re a liar and you’re boring. Crash is nothing but your reflection, and it’s hard to take. It’s also very real, palpable and hard-hitting.

Yeah, Crash relies on shock value to create often false tension and drama. I say “false” because you can see a lot of the tensions between the characters coming from a light-year away. Kind of like that thing in horror movies when the main character investigates the strange noises in the basement defended by a lone candle. You want to bonk some of these folks over the heads for being too much “in the message.” And I guess that falls in line with the big bugaboo in Crash: that damned message.

Like I said with Dances with Wolves, a message film is a safe bet. I don’t think Haggis set out to lecture and bait us with cray-cray social commentary, nor do I believe he was creating a machine to suck up statuettes. Even the late, esteemed critic Roger Ebert bet the farm on Crash to be the headliner for that year’s Oscars. He probably made that bet based on a decent story, good acting and snappy dialogue, not on the whole “racism is bad” theme. We know racism is bad (I’ve often heard the same about cigarettes), but dealing with it creates delicious tension. It’s just such an overdone thing, and we’re getting hacked to bits with it here. With Brokeback Mountain as the favorite—which was, in fact, a more arty and obtuse film with an even more intense message to convey, albeit a helluva lot more subtle—Crash upsetting the public opinion applecart screams “safe.” A simple message, a high-end ensemble cast and executed with élan and sturdiness. This is a prime formula for a good movie. It’s also very easy to do, and also relying on a lot of shock-and-awe can easily bamboozle and guilt rich, white Hollywood into recognizing that a film can make them feel guilty about being rich and white. It almost screams white male guilt; “We’re not racist. Look how we honored this movie. Please don’t spend your money on a film by the rival studio.” It also makes Hollywood look hollow—which it is—to pat Crash on the back for being so bold as to address the race issue once and for all. Again. Now, whose buying?

Despite—or perhaps because of—all its stereotypes, archetypes, prototypes and typewritten scenes and characters (read: the message notwithstanding), Crash is quite a good morality play. It may be up in your grill and on the nose, but its solid acting can forgive most of the relentless hammering. It also keeps the meandering storyline in check bookended with the aforementioned racial undercurrents. Crash is well-assembled, well-acted and well executed overall. If it could only turn down the neon a bit here and there, it might’ve been a better contender for the award.

Preach on, brotherman, preach on.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It is a good movie, albeit a tad pandering. Did it really earn the award? No, not really. Thank the suits at Paramount or wherever. You’re probably better off with Heath and Jake bumping very uglies. But overall, yeah, it’s okay. But do maintain your guard. Crash is fast approaching Dances with Wolves territory. In fact, it just did. Whoosh…


Stray Observations (lots of good quotes here)

  • “In LA, nobody touches you…”
  • It seems that any “intertwining storyline” movie since Pulp Fiction—nay, since Rashomon—is an obvious shoo-in for a Best Picture nom. Books do it all the time, that’s why they’re books. I suppose most movie moguls don’t ever f*ckin’ read. That’s what a staff is for.
  • “You could be right.”
  • I used to go with a girl that looked a lot like Sandra Bullock, but with larger breasts. Unlike Jean Cabot, she turned out to be an unrepentant harridan (no hard feelings) thanks to the open coffer that is the Internet. I have no idea what that even means. I do drink while watching these things, y’know.
  • “…Like a gun.”
  • And, of course, it’s Christmastime.
  • “Do I look like I want to be on the Discovery Channel?”
  • The highway rescue scene is the core of this movie, in the face of all the preaching. Remember that thing about “actions speak louder than words?” Yep.
  • “I love hockey.”
  • Mark Isham’s soundtrack is great. I don’t think he gets enough props for his movie work.
  • “A harsh warning.
  • There are a lot of nice touches here (the wedding ring, the kids coming home from school, etc.) that highlight family. It’s almost a hidden message here, in the background of all the noise. Kinda like a good bass player.
  • “You embarrass me.”
  • Wait. Was that Counselor Troi?
  • “It’s a good cloak…”

Next Installment…

Look out! It’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World! Actually it’s more like Scott Pilgrim versus a girl. And a guy. And some twins. And…