RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 2: James L Brooks’ “Spanglish” (2004)


Spanglish-Poster


The Players…

Adam Sandler, Téa Leoni, Paz Bega and Cloris Leachman, with Sarah Steele, Shelbie Bruce, Ian Hyland and Thomas Hayden Church.


The Story…

John and Deb Clasky need a housekeeper. Flor needs a job to keep her and her daughter Cristina financially independent. Matriarch Evelyn needs to dry out. The Clasky kids need some focus. The dog does not need a ball. Flor’s daughter needs American opportunities. And all of them need to start communicating in a productive manner otherwise John’s business is going to crack, Deb will crack further, Evelyn will crack open another bottle and the kids will turn to crack. And the dog is gonna trash the house. Really. After all these mixed signals, who needs more trash?


The Rant…

My father once inadvertently gave me some sage advice.

In my misspent life so far, I often recall his little nugget with a sigh and a shake of the head. He and I don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, but his words of wisdom at certain times bounce around my brainpan with sharp clarity.

Dad said that most of the world’s problems stem from a lack of communication. That, and high fructose corn syrup. But if you look around at the world—or at least what the cable news networks beat you over the head with 24 hours a day—my Dad may have been right. People get all bent out shape over issues like money, religion, politics, family and whose turn it is to take out the garbage. No one seems to listen to each other, and some people just won’t shut the hell up. Your voice at any given time is the most important sound in the galaxy, regardless of the topic and often the audience.

Nowadays, communication doesn’t even to need an audience. Not an immediate one anyway. With all the FaceBook posts and Tweets rattling around the Web at millions of bytes per second, does anyone really care who’s listening anymore? Most folks sure as sh*t don’t really care. I mean, some FB posts are way too personal for my sanity. People forget it’s an open forum, and do I really want to see the MRIs of that lime-sized tumor in your inner left thigh? No. No I don’t. Unlike.

It’s like everyone in the First World is talking about everything and saying nothing. No one listens, no one hears, and yet we still keep trying to get some point across. About what we have no idea. I blame the cradle, where we grew up. The first words you hear are usually mom’s, maybe the doctor’s cry “It’s a boy/girl (minus the slash, of course)!” Our first introduction to the world is people talking at you. Not with you; you ain’t there yet. Here’s where the troubles begin.

Me? I think problems with lousy communication start with the family.

We’ve all come a family, right? That’s where the hassle begins. I was born into a family. Maybe some of you were too? It’s supposed to be about open exchange of ideas and manners and community, socializing and creating opinions. Supposed to be. But reality intrudes, the diapers come off (hopefully by the time you’re 12) and let’s face it, every member of a family takes a side, sometimes knocking the whole civilized facade over. More often than not, every side takes a side that is a side of one.

Here’s an example: when you’re a kid, your Mom and Dad are the alpha and omega. They were infallible, and as sure as eggs is eggs, mom and dad would never steer you wrong. Then puberty hits, and the almighty parents seem more like tyrants; what do these, these f*cking “adults” know about growing up? They’ve already been there, so what do they know about what’s what now is anyway? And what’s up with that crappy music? Who’s Paul McCartney?

Later, around your mid-20’s (if you’re lucky), you come to realize that your parents are basically cool people, did the best they could, and you were the butthead all those years. But you didn’t listen. Check that: you didn’t want to listen, to mom, dad or their Beatles’ albums, which probably you now own and/or stole from their record collection. Now you can’t come out and say those six words: you were right, I wasn’t listening.

It takes a lot of humility to admit we’re wrong. It’s takes a lot of fortitude to truly speak our minds. And it takes either a careful reticence of words or copious amounts of beer to convey some actual meaning to an audience that counts.

I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “What the f*ck is he talking about?”

See? You weren’t listening. You were probably scanning YouTube for the latest video of cute cats doing macramé to the dulcet tunes of Katy Perry’s “Roar.” Drop the mouse and listen up. That’s right. Listen. Pay attention. Pocket the iPhone and please shut the f*ck up.

Remember Dad, in his finite wisdom, and let’s try to communicate in a productive manner. Let’s not be like the Clasky household…


John Clasky (Sandler) and his wife Deb (Leoni) are in dire need of a domestic. Deb has just gotten out of the investment business (read: fired) and is ill-equipped to manage a household. John as a reluctant four-star chef can’t balance his time equally between business and family. And there are the kids to consider, not to mention Deb’s freewheeling, boozy mom Evelyn (Leachman). Plus, there’s a crazy dog that needs a lot of walking and not fetching. The Clasky clan has gotta find a center to their bustling, verging on dysfunctional family dynamic.

Flor (r-r-r-r…Bega) has recently emigrated (and read: jumped the border) from Mexico and landed both she and her daughter Cristina (Bruce) into the barrio of LA, looking for the “American Dream” (read, once again: a good job). Flor’s cuz knows of this well-to-do family in need of a housekeeper that could probably pay a fair wage to keep Flor and Cristina financially solvent but still maintain their Hispanic roots.

Despite her age, Cristina knows that to make it north of the border you gotta learn English. Flor views such formality an affront to her proud Mexican heritage, and refuses to learn a lick. But there’s this job to consider, as well as Cristina’s well being. And the Claskys seem like nice people—albeit off the wall— so one must be ser flexible.

But how much to bend? John seems like a decent man. Deb looks like she needs massive therapy. Evelyn needs 28 days. And the Clasky kids Bernie (Steele) and George (Hyland) need fully functioning parents. Flor knows all the troubles of being a single mom without a family to back her. Now she ends up having to back this family? Well, with Cristina as her envoy, maybe Flor can find a middle ground to both stand firm and still earn a steady paycheck to keep the wolves at bay. Then again, who knew such a pack lived in suburban LA?

It’s all gonna be a dream deferred…


Sorry to tag that with a clipped quote from Hughes. Still, the guy knew poetry and the troubles of being a needful outsider, so again, shut the f*ck up. I already claimed you didn’t listen, and when I said Hughes I wasn’t referring to John. Get it?

Good (sigh).

Oy, this was tough, and not just the movie either. Recently, I had to retreat to my bedroom, wire up an old, first-gen flat screen TV with a beater DVD player just to get some privacy from family suffering from either insomnia or the midnight munchies. They always want to join me (read yet again: interrupt) and watch these so-called mediocre movies in my hopeful, misbegotten privacy. I now know I need a man cave. One with a portcullis.

I never knew how tough it was to be a mediocre critic of mediocre movies and try to ignore an audience. After all, it was the faceless, nameless, potential audiences I claimed to let them in on the know, before God. Well, on the topic of miscommunication, I guess I bend to that sway sometimes too.

Now then.

Ahem, this was tough. Backed by the Lady in the Water precept, didn’t you just want a movie to go right when others said wrong, wrong, wrong? Me too. The idea of a family comedy, one with an extended family and even in a sense adopted foreign family should be rife with opportunities about culture shock and clash, crazy humorous bickering, that crumbly pretense of normalcy of a family desperately trying to patch it up with chewing gum and duct tape. Hopefully all of it would be wrapped up in a smart outer layer coating a gooey, sentimental center, with chuckles all around.

Sometimes you cannot wave from popular opinion.

I heard gripes about Spanglish for a long time, but it was mostly superficial stuff. Things like Sandler not playing his usual, trademark buffoon schtick for laughs. My thoughts? His routine can get very grating and overdone. I am as surprised as you are. Y’know, like for (*does some quick math on fingers and toes*) his kersmillion comedies out there, pressed onto DVD, VHS, streamed, Edison coils, either all released, unrealized or still just a mote of dust in the mind of some kookoo producer. Sandler’s loud, goofball thing has served him well, and he’s probably been laughin’ to the bank the whole time. Still, here? Mostly mellow Sandler is a welcome thing now and again, if only to show he can be mellow It’s almost ironic that Sandler portrays a chef; chefs are decidedly not cool-headed people and prone to volcanic freak-outs. Besides, it’s not like he hung up the clown shoes after Spanglish.

There was also issue taken with how truly unlikeable Leoni’s character was. Deb is a neurotic nightmare. Even the characters we are not supposed to root for have at least one redeemable quality that would either be: a) later revealed as the plot devices carefully scrape away the bile and bitterness to expose the tender, misunderstood heart within, or; b) something the audience could relate with (a little warmth, a little pity, etc). Not Deb; she is an overanxious ball of nerves whose thoughts come across as so disjointed you find yourself wondering, “Is she really that f*cking insane? And how does Sandler put up with it?” Audiences didn’t put up with it much either.

And there were those adorable moppets, the kids, who despite this being an ensemble family drama ended up mostly as wallpaper. Cardboard cut-outs that didn’t really push the story along very well. Even one of the little buggers was, in essence, the center of the story, and even she was relegated to the sidelines most of the time.

So there were a lot of complaints. My sources came from the IMDb, good ol’ reliable Rotten Tomatoes and, of course, Box Office Mojo—along with what people told me with eyes rolled Heavenwards—to hang over this movie. Again, it was not unlike the flak dished out for Lady in the Water by yours truly. A character study of a non-nuclear family mixed with culture clash and language barriers isn’t a new thing. Hell, Dances with Wolves earned Best Pic for it, so folks know about this often used device. But the message of the movie, what I wanted to get out of Spanglish was…um…er…

I wanted to get a message. Any message. Moral, social, text. Something.

Director Brooks is known for telling stories about communication—or the lack thereof—and how it not only reflects individual social interactions (e.g. Terms of Endearment, As Good As It Gets, Broadcast News, etc.), but also American society as a whole. He’s been producing The Simpsons since its inception, so the guy knows a thing or three about kooky family dysfunction. The whole cast of Spanglish is endlessly flapping their lips and not saying anything. The whole movie’s raison d’être is absent. To quote Gert Stein, “There’s no there, there.”

But let’s break it down, by the numbers.

Spanglish’s story is pretty simple. The whole culture clash thing. Rich paired against not so much. Token outsider—conveniently played by a foreigner—gets swept up in the family dynamic and injects some much needed perspective on the whole mess. There’s that language barrier thing, too. Simple. Been done before. Will be done again.

Here’s a surprise: it’s been done better than Spanglish has here. Dances with Wolves was all about that. Other good examples include Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise and even that very-80’s sci-fi Robinson Crusoe caper Enemy Mine tangled with perils of communication breakdowns and their eventually being overcome. Those movies were about learning to communicate, and doing so a metaphor for peace, understanding and teamwork. Not the case here. We’re bludgeoned with the whole “too much talking and saying nothing” contrivance over and over and over again throughout the movie, and it gets very trying after a while.

And it doesn’t even lead to anything. Apart from all the verbiage—English and Spanish alike—other forms of communication are employed for naught regarding advancing the already tenuous story allegedly about Cristina and Flor. There’s a lot of emoting via facial mugging and deliberate speech here (Leoni seems to be channeling a low-level Sybil), but not necessarily by body language, which is if you think about it, for the better part of the film, Flor’s only way to get what’s going on is to read the Clasky’s faces and movements. It’s kind of like anti-mime (which sounds like a pretty good thing if you ask me). But all of it goes nowhere.

This is particularly damning when there are many flourishes or suggestions of how Spanglish could’ve made for some halfway decent entertainment. The subplot of Deb finding worth as a mom in Cristina’s eyes against Bernie’s deference to dad would’ve made for some juicy tension if it didn’t come across as so flat and hinging so one-sided to Deb’s crazy. The whole “performance anxiety” trail John follows fizzles out after awhile, rather than cloud his sense of responsibility versus ego. Lastly, a glaring omission for under using some acting is Leachman. She’s a delight here, and there’s a lot to her backstory, especially in how she relates to her grandkids. But instead she’s more or less releagated to scenes not unlike awkward comedy sketches. She has sweetness tempered with bile, and this is never fully realized not explored. Spanglish has a lot of these half-baked ideas paired with wasted opportunity, and the whole story about Cristina making her way into the world gets all tangled up and seemingly discarded in the overwhelming hijinks of the Clasky clan.

My ranting above how social media is more or less making us less social (i.e. no one pays attention to each other anymore). The art of conversation, with all its words and sounds and need to use your ears and no snappy emoticons at the push of a button and having to feign interest (not dissimilar to what you’re doing here) has all but vanished. It’s all making us unable to talk without using sound bites and enough room to give someone barely the time of day, what with your nose glued to your Android and all. We don’t notice or know our own miscommunication anymore. That might have been the message behind Spanglish, what with all its dysfunction and Three’s Company­-like mixed signals. No one listens, no one understands, no one is willing to accept any incoming feeds about others’ needs or wants. We’re all too tied up in our own bullsh*t. Maybe that was what Brooks was trying to get across, but I don’t know. Seemed the culture clash thing was supposed to be the whole crux, but the story got hijacked by the antics and antagonism of upper-class, white liberal guilt. And maybe too much corn syrup.

No shocker here, but I had a hard time watching Spanglish. It wasn’t the plot was too obtuse or the acting that dreadful. There was just this lack of momentum here, which in turn failed to engage me. It felt like this: have you ever been reading a book only to come to the conclusion about halfway through you don’t like it? But then you grit your teeth and squint and sally forth anyway out of some sense of spite? You’re not going to bested by some book, by God! Well, I was determined to not be bested by Spanglish. I tried watching the movie three times. Now I’ve been known to occasionally re-watch my victims here at RIORI. You know, in case I missed something or was too pished to remember it (hey, it happens. If you forced yourself to watch of these clunkers, you’d need a drink, too). Re-watching and re-re-watching Spanglish was both an exercise in futility and teeth-grinding. And I eventually lost the fight.

For a guy who places a serious emphasis on the importance of communicating, Brooks failed to send us any real message with Spanglish.

Hey, you still listening?

Hello…?

ERROR 404


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. I all but gave up by the second act, that and the disc kept skipping out on me. I need full streaming on this new/old unit. Talk about a breakdown in communication. Oh yeah, and the movie wasn’t that good. Thanks a lot, Dad.


Stray Observations…

  • “Double gulp!”
  • Second best fake orgasm ever.
  • “I don’t exist!” “Ah, sure ya do.”
  • Finally, Sandler’s screaming come in handy.
  • “I slept.”
  • Story has it Sandler met with and learned a few things from esteemed chef Thomas Keller to get into character. He wasn’t listening too well.
  • “Well, I’m broke.”
  • I notice the less I like a movie, the fewer notes I take.

Next Installment…

Breaking news! The President has been abducted by terrorisrs! Is the country under siege? Is the White House Down? Further updates and snarky movie reviews may provide some answers. Back to you…


 

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RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 1: Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” (2013)


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The Players:

Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Alice Braga and Sharlto Copley, with Diego Luna, William Fichtner and Wagner Moura.


The Plot:

In the mid 22nd Century, the wealthy elite has divorced themselves from an overpopulated, toxic Earth to live out an exclusive, eternal life of luxury on the space colony known as Elysium. Such an Eden is the envious life of those left behind, and for one Max DeCosta, getting there may be the only chance of saving his own degrading life.


The Rant:

For those who’ve kept paying attention, this is the first installment of the third (and hopefully final) iteration of RIORI. It’s for two reasons, one practical and one we’ll call sympathetic.

First (in short), the practical: I finally fine-tuned the blog to a setup of maximum efficiency and minimal fuss. In real life, I make my living as a cook. That being said, us cooks must work with an economy of motion. I’ve read other blogs out there. No doubt so have you. Some are very pretty, models of webtech, which we should all aspire to. They posess lots of splash-and-dash and eye grabbing visuals that might make your forget you visited a blog to read something above all else…and try to ignore that Disney bug in the corner.

Popular blogs—the ones that might garner sponsors—look quite professional (e.g..: users paid for the premium ticket. I’m broke, so I work with what I got). A great deal of them read like they had the NY Times as underwriters. Well written, user-friendly and just the right amount of eyewash to separate them from the dross. These precious few are the high watermark that us in steerage try to aspire. That and those of us who try to follow grammatical logic (haven’t figured out the “your/you’re/you are” trifecta yet? Go review you Funk’n Wagnalls, and we’ll chat never, okay?). I’d like to think that’s so, such streamlined blogs of untrammeled verbiage. Simplicity and economy.

It’s hard these days of immediate text overflow to differ between good online content when it happens or just a lot of shock-and-awe-with-your-unwanted-selfies-in-that-truck-stop-stall-with-the-crumpmled-tallboys-of-PBR-at-the-heels-of-your-widdershins-Candies. I still suck at it. I am trying to not contribute to it. And about those beer cans? Tsk-tsk.

I’ve always strove towards efficiency and economy. Tried to. I’m no Hemingway, but I think most writers owe him a debt of gratitude in showing how to tell a story with just enough words to convey both meaning and feeling. Following that example—at least when it comes to sheer effectiveness—I’m trying to keep RIORI slim and trim, easy to access and minimal on the sparkly. Trying to. The focus should be on the semi-regular posts—the words and stories—and not the ever-alluring bells and whistles. We can access enough accidental porn via spam, thank you very much.

On the flipside, as a caution, most other blogs I’ve frequented look like a six-year old high on glue let their older sibs smatter their tweets onto solid hypertext to make the galaxy know that their kitty is such a good, good kitty. Such a good kitty. That and there’s a lot of spelling misteaks. I’m not passing judgment; I’m just reporting on what I’ve seen. Just sayin’.

*draws squeegee across monitor, hitches up belt and feels fattened by the marrow than only prime blogging can bring. Checks lock on door*

Ahem…

Second (in long), the sympathetic: The intro page at RIORI shouts its intent, ribald as it is. I’ve made no apologies; I warned you after all, and yet week after week you come back for more abuse. Thanks, by the way. But like the germ for all good stories—at least, I’d like to think this a good story—an original idea never occurs in a vacuum.

In the summer of 2013 I was tasked to work in a glorified snack bar at the country club I chef at. I did it for two summers, which were two summers too many. For one, the kitchen’s heat was insufferable. If you stood still long enough, you could watch hydrogen atoms merge with oxygen atoms and their osmosis would collect on your eyebrows. Yeah, it was hot.

For two, the clientele were basically the Disney Channel audience on speed. Kids aging from afterbirth to frustrated tween demanded at full volume where the f*ck their chicken fingers were. These were the spawn of the alarmingly wealthy; kids always tapping away at their iPhone 6 in 2012. I was the go-to man for “You wanna super-size that?” What I wouldn’t have given for a hankie soaked in chloroform and a polo mallet.

For some perspective, I was once the sous chef at a white tablecloth restaurant complete with a fey sommelier and an ever-changing menu that reflected the months. Not seasons, months. My chef was into a seasonable/sustainable doctrine that hadn’t seen such fervor since the first draft of Mein Kampf. After years of keeping salsify fresh with a milk bath and cultivating mint and sorrel in the restaurant’s backyard, I had to (being a new dad and a newfound family to support) seek out a gig that paid better and eventually promised health bennies.

Enter the club, and the ensuing chicken fingers.

I arrived then at what I now know as the “cattle call.” Summer’s a big deal at clubs. Being an operation based mostly on a summer sport, it would go to follow that during those heavy, hot days, with numerous would-be golfers champing at the bit to play a few rounds, folks might get a slight peckish. The club had several satellite kitchens opened to fill the members’ hungry needs. In turn the place took any willing applicants they could, regardless of experience.

Read: I was a sucker. But a sucker with a wife and kid. You’ll suckle at anything then.

Two sentences: I needed the job and needed the benefits. I did not need to dunk fries for the children of effete wastrels absconded to the bar because their offspring was a secondhand notion. Not that I’m bitter. Hey, want my recipe for balsamic moules a la basquaise? Of course you don’t. Go to Red Lobster. They won’t have it either.

In spite of the heat and the thankless tasks of feeding, babysitting and allowing my knives getting rusty, I had a simple pleasure in working with some good guys. All of them summer folk and they possessed a resigned, genial, shrug-and-nod attitude to the place. Most of the time working with good people in a sh*tty work environment will make the day feel a lot less like work and more like a day just getting on.

Despite the craptastic, cramped conditions, insufferable heat and nary a sous vide well to temper, it was a well-paid gig. And thanks to the bennies, I’m assured I can always afford to be sick. It was what it was, and I’ve always hated that axiom. I still do, but after the club’s snack bar summers, I’ve learned to understand it. I only pray that you, dear reader, never have to understand it also.

One of the cool guys I suffered through summer with inadvertently planted the seed that would germinate into Rent It Or Relent It. Again, I assure you it’s a good story. Again I at least think it is. Most of the best stories are personal. You still reading? Okay:

Jordan was at least my junior by a decade. I’ll spare you the magnifying lens of nostalgia. The fact that he liked Vonnegut, Neutral Milk Hotel and the works of Terry Gilliam as I did says enough. Good taste, no matter what the age, is always welcome.

I know that Jordan occasionally visits this blog. For any digressions from the conversations we’d had, I’ll employ the Man Who Shot Liberty Valence escape clause: if the legend is better than the facts, print the legend. He’s an honest soul; I’m hoping he’ll forgive any embellishments. Then again, we worked late and were both doped-up with heat. Some things get cloudy.

Anyway, we worked the night shift. We were left alone to close up the place. This permitted some down time and interesting conversations would ensue. Work stories, travel stories, this and that. One night Jordan told me about a movie his friend had seen and he wanted to see also. It was Elysium, and was directed by the guy who brought us District 9. I hadn’t seen 9 yet but heard good things about it and its director, Neill Blomkamp. Jordan had seen that film and was jonesing to catch Elysium. I just kind of shrugged and nodded. I heard some flap about 9, also a lot of quacking about its class warfare theme. From what little I knew of the movie and people’s reaction to it, I was surprised to hear that most people didn’t get the apartheid allegory. Jordan wasn’t surprised at this. He was more along the things of, “You know how people are.” Me? I’ve all but given up.

After Jordan finally saw Elysium and reported back to me, he was kinda bummed. All the hype surrounding Blomkamp’s big-budget, name-actor sophomore effort was for naught. He was disappointed that the film was so, well, blah. It had no real twists and turns, very straight-forward. That and Jodie Foster had this inscrutable accent that was very distracting.

I told Jordan that, yeah, that’s happened to me too. A big deal movie turns out to be not such a big deal after all. This got me to wondering and I shared my thoughts with Jordan. There ought to be some website out there that warns us about seeing “blah” movies. Not movies that outright suck, but disappoint, fluster and lead the audience into a state of post-viewing, “…The f*ck?”

That’s when it hit me. Jordan and I had seen many movies that had this effect. Jillions of them were already floating in under-supervised RedBoxes around the planet, just waiting to be inflicted on unknowing movie watchers. The horror!

I had to do something.

So that’s it. Really. And here we are. Since August of 2013 RIORI has tracked down and picked apart dozens of “blah” movies, all to save you from possibly wasting precious time and money. You’re welcome, by the way. And if you haven’t appreciated my screeds here (yet you keep returning), blame Jordan. It was more or less his idea in the first place.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t as good a story as I had thought. Whatever.

Onto this week’s time waster, the Maguffin that got this ball of wax rolling…


Los Angeles has always been a sprawling city. It teems with millions of people from all over the country—nay—the world to set up shop and try to live out some existence that passes at most productively and at least manageable.

That’s the 21st Century we’re talking about. In the 22nd Century, all LA is meager existence. Meager, poverty-ridden, toxic and diseased. Not just LA, but the Earth as a whole. The world has become an open sewer. The destitute live hungry, diseased lives. And to make matters worse, the way out, the Promised Land mocks the rabble from orbit.

Earth’s ultra-beyond-belief rich established the space colony Elysium as a haven from the scourges that ravage the planet. Every day on Elysium is idyllic, serene and free of worry. Perfect. Magic technology allows Elysian citizens to live in a virtual paradise, free from aging and sickness, not to mention having to intermingle with those dirty savages on Earth below. Elyisum is basically a big “f*ck you” to the troglodytes planet-side. Yes indeed, the rich are different.

Max DeCosta (Damon) is an ex-con trying to live the straight and narrow in a shanty town of overpopulated, deteriorating LA. His days consist of work and his nights of sleep, thankful to have that amidst of all the sh*t he has to swallow. In the face of soulless police robots randomly attacking the poor populace to air pollution that could choke a walrus, Max considers himself one of the “lucky ones.”

Until an industrial accident takes that little bit away from him.

After suffering a lethal dose of radiation poisoning at the plant where he builds said robots, he’s facing at most five days to live. Now sick, Max knows of illegal “immigrants” hot-wiring shuttles to get to Elysium and access to their healing tech. Most of these “escape routes” are blown out of the sky, and those that do make it there are captured and are trucked right back down to sh*tty ol’ Earth again. If they’re lucky.

Facing a grim fate, Max hangs up his goody-two-shoes schtick, seeks out help to get to Elysium and fix himself before time runs out. He’s not sure what’ll kill him first: the radiation, the robots or the missiles. What Max is sure of is that he’s not going to kick off anytime soon, and flawless Elysium holds the solution…


There’s nothing quite like a sci-fi parable. When you think about it, almost all sci-fi stories are parables. Leave the dictionary alone; I got your back.

A parable is an allegorical story. Y’know, one with a message. It’s usually steeped in social commentary and a lot of “look out, you could be next” symbolism. Most sci-fi, which is usually designed for outright escapism, can be some pretty dark stuff. A lot of sci-fi books/films almost always have a shade of darkness to them. The 1984 adaptation’s a good example, so is THX-1138, Blade Runner, The Terminator, The Day the Earth Stood Still (not the one with Keanu, you simp), Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Silent Running, even Starship Troopers and the original Godzilla, before God. Sniff around and you’ll probably find more examples. The future’s not all bright and sunny most of the time in the not-too-distant.

After District 9, Neill Blomkamp established himself as an astute observer of class warfare via sci-fi allegory (despite the fact that a lot of moviegoers missed the point. In some way, I guess that’s good; apartheid was vile, and since now a generation doesn’t get it…well, let’s call that a semi-good thing with an added plus of disregarding certain U2 albums). Elysium isn’t all that different than 9. It’s more pointed, but has a more straightforward story than its kin. That’s sometimes welcome, especially if it’s executed with a keen sense of purpose. In the case of Elysium, that purpose is to entertain first and preach later. Sometimes parables don’t have to be serpentine in getting a message across. Sometimes directness paired with action film implementation is all you need to get by. It’s a lot more fun that way.

Elysium starts off with some very compelling visuals. The trading off between Earthscape and the space colony is very earnest in setting up boundaries via the issue of unlawful “border crossing”. Elysium itself looks like, well literally, Elysium. The curling space colony recalls Larry Niven’s Ringworld saga, doubtless an inspiration for Elysium. It looks like a perfect world, in reflection of the sh*tastic life on Earth. Those rouge shuttles remind me too much of the open-air caravans of migrant workers being trucked back and forth between the Cali border and home to Mexico. I guess Blomkamp did a good job. Future LA looks like it’s begun to revert back to its natural desert climate, all dust, dirt and desperation. This future looks just plain worn out, I like grimy sci-fi; please refer to your Blade Runner notations.

There’s some darkness here with a crude sense of humor—usually delivered by the symbolic robot paradigm—that gets rather chilling after a while. The humans on Earth are the horde, totally worthless and easily expendable (save for Max; he is our hero after all). The automatons act more human—at least regarding being fully functional and sinister like their masters—than that of their flesh-and-blood counterparts, especially when it comes to quelling the mob.

Elysium plays out a like the proto-Philip K Dick story. Dick’s muse was “what is reality?” If the world of Elysium reflects Dick’s hard-nosed sense of existential muckraking, it’s taking a backseat with the pointed commentary. The metaphors of Elysium are as obvious as an exploding cigar at a state funeral, but executed with the élan of the original Die Hard; Max is the utmost reluctant hero. He ain’t fighting to win, he’s fighting to quit puking. Through his trials, Damon’s Max acts with a serious “What the f*ck is happening?” vibe. Such disbelief reflects the audience’s expectations—Max is doomed, he gets wired up (meta-allegorical considering that robot-producing Armadyne caused his plight in the first place), tears through dusky LA nigh invulnerable, desperately searching for a way out with a lot of emotional obligation involved.

I think I might have just described all of John Wayne’s early vehicles. The Duke was always the strong, silent type, and Damon seems like he’s channeling a taste of that in his Max. However he doesn’t have a heart of gold by any means, only a sense of conscientiousness and more than a little need for retribution. He’s a unwilling hero with a purpose, albeit one who’s MO is highly personal. It a literal matter of life and death.

Max as everyman—at least him an example of the rot that plagues future LA—is in stark contrast to our villain, Foster’s Secretary Delacourt. She epitomizes everything that is wrong with Elysium society. I love villains whose motives are despicable but are executed under the belief that what they’re doing is for the good. That’s more or less how serial killers operate. Delacourt is a conniving, opportunist zealot disguised in a thousand dollar suit and a perfect coif. She’s power hungry without the frothing at the mouth and mustache twirling. Despite being the voice of reason and law in Elysium, she’s underhanded and self-righteous, couching her power plays in the name of “the greater good.” She’s a sci-fi version of one of those Fox News pundits who think they know which way to steer America while advancing their personal gain and ever inflating their—as Bill Hicks once put it—“fevered egos.” In the case of Elysian society’s betterment, Delacourt “knows what’s best,” enough to employ mercenaries to destroy the hijacked shuttles and hack into the brains of politicos that stands in the way of her private agendum. It’s okay though, she only has the “children’s’ interests” in mind. Mwa-ha-ha.

Both Max’s and Delacourt’s aims are clearly set, and the pacing reflects that; Max is not one to go off half-cocked, nor is Delacourt. Again, I lean back onto my bitchy muse of engaging cinema: pacing. Elysium has a leisurely pace, with no hurrying the story despite Max’s impending death. However it feels appropriate. Max is just chattel, like the rest of the scrubs downstairs. Why should his life be any different? But it is his life, and Max has the right to survival regardless of his predicament. Even with all the chase scenes and gunplay, Elysium’s pace is methodical. Scene by scene follows Max’s progression from average joe to techrat fighter to revolutionary (as well as reflecting Delacourt’s nefarious chess games) is very deliberate and engaging. It may play out to some as too straightforward and predictable, but it has a progression that is executed with precision and simplicity. Not all parables have to be so forthright to get their message across. Saying that, Elysium is very satisfying.

So after sweating it out in the infernal snack bar, a good way to kill time and keep my hand in the writing game emerged. Once during that humid summer I brought in manuscripts of some of my completed short stories and novel I had labored over for year. I let Jordan and the servers peruse them in a half hidden way to fluff my ego under the guise of healthy criticism. Jordan saw through that ruse as easily as most people eat food, breathe and go into spiraling credit card debt. You know the thing about fooling most people yadda yadda yadda.

Still, Jordan planted the germ and I guess I’m forever in his debt. That and he got me to see a sturdy little sci-fi action flick, which I enjoyed even if he felt gypped. No matter. What did eventually matter (after getting RIORI off the ground, off of FaceBook and onto a practical blog) was that I got out of that damned sweatbox snack bar with most of my sanity intact. I’m still a cook, and still endure the stressors that come with it—excluding my dubious choice of voluntarily watching dubious movies—but at least I don’t have to beg to have an audience pore over my diatribes and endless pontificating about what you fools should see and/or steer clear of like a hooker ninja with both ADHD and the siff.

The club kitchen still rolls on and I with its endless punches. I’m still in good financial standing if it comes to contracting said STD, and I try to flee from chicken fingers as long as I can.

But sometimes I miss the mint.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a solid, grounded sci-fi parable, with very little preaching. Nothing is out-of-sorts, the acting is solid and the pacing is precise. Such things appeal to me. Welcome to Volume Three!


Stray Observations…

  • Foster is struggling with her accent, whatever its supposed to be. Speaking of which, what the hell’s Kruger’s?
  • “Now it’s time for the real fun…”
  • Carlyle’s got a nice ride.
  • I need a gun like that. F*ckin’ Canada geese.
  • Nice football metaphor there, Spider.
  • Max tearing off that robot’s head was really satisfying.
  • Um, how can a car outrun an aircraft that can reach supersonic speeds in 15 seconds? Biodiesel, I tell ya. Biodiesel.
  • “What’s in it for the hippo?” An honest, tender, fleeting moment.
  • Palm trees. Nature’s icon of the idle rich, even off-world.
  • “It’s just a flesh wound, mate!”
  • Elysium: any place or state of perfect happiness; heaven. It could only happen in outer space.
  • “You wouldn’t believe what I’m looking at right now.”
  • I tried very hard to make this installment as well written as I could. I’ll admit I’m a hack, but most hacks try to do well. Consider this all a tribute to my fellow misfit Jordan, who just did what he did. We all need some friendly inspiration now and again (“Could I interest you in a little pot?”). Keep enjoying SD, Jordan, and don’t follow my errors.

Next Installment…

Oye ¿como va, Spanglish? De nada, you gringos.


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 36: Stephen Frears’ “High Fidelity” (2000)


High-Fidelity-poster-art


The Players…

John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Jack Black and Todd Louiso, with Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lisa Bonet, Sara Gilbert, Joan Cusack and Tim Robbins.


The Story…

Once again, cranky audiophile Rob Gordon has been dumped by…oh, it doesn’t matter. They’re all the same, ever since middle school. After this latest failure of a relationship, Rob decides to do some soul-searching; to figure out what’s gone wrong in his life when it comes to the opposite sex. It may be a lack of maturity. Or his caustic attitude. Or most likely, he identifies better with the music in his unfeasible record collection than actual socializing. Whatever the reason may be, Rob’s going to be adrift and alone forever if he doesn’t take off the headphones.


The Rant:

Here we go again with another music-themed movie, and you just know your not-so-humble blogger is going to either rail on and on about corporate rock and/or rail on and on about his psychotic record collection.

Nope.

Not this time. Not gonna do it. We’ve got something else under the lens today: movies based on pre-existing media. In the case of High Fidelity, books.

With any movie adaptation of a pre-existing literary form—a Shakespearean play, a novel, a comic book, etc.—the director has to walk a very loose tightrope, but a tightrope nonetheless. I say loose because we have two sides of an audience to reach here—most of whom are fickle—and we best be flexible.

On one side, the audience that knows the source material, wants to see the director’s vision and interpretation of said source as close as possible, hopefully satisfying the need (sometimes obsession) to see if he got it “right.” People want to see the director’s vision not getting in the way of…well, the director’s vision. You don’t want to have a color-by-numbers, scene-by-scene exact duplication of the original material. That’s a cop-out, especially to those who already read the book and probably loved the book like chocolate, sex and sex-covered chocolate.

On the other side, you don’t want the director to deviate so far from the original idea so to mangle the script, use lame dialogue, and stick in some artistic “flair” that either Hollywood insisted on adding like a happy ending, general sweetening or Jennifer Aniston. That or placating the director’s muse excitedly sh*tting on his head. It’s a delicate balance, and the pissy audience that already read the book—Harry Potter fans, Game of Thrones disciples, Walking Dead adherents and/or Fifty Shades of Grey very desperate housewives—wants it both ways. When it doesn’t work out, it’s usually the audience’s fevered fanboy-ism that’s to blame. Not that they’d ever admit it.

That being said, there have been several notable book-to-film adaptations; some were stellar or at least satisfying. Sam Raimi’s Spider Man 2 springs immediately to mind. My opinion is best validated by rumor having it that when original Spidey artist John Romita, Sr. caught a sneak peak of the film, his comments were more-or-less, “I drew that…Drew that…That too…etc.” Sounds like the movie straddled the line well to me. Other highlights include MASH, the Godfather and the original Die Hard; yes, Die Hard was based on a book. I read the book after seeing the movie like, oh I dunno, a jillion times. I can safely say that here’s one instance where the movie version is superior. All the humor and vulnerability of Bruce Willis’ iconic, relatable everycop John McClane were absent in the book, as well as the hero being actually named “John McClane.”

As a control, Forrest Gump is not a good example. The touchy-feeliness of the movie version was sentimental Hollywood claptrap, which reliably raked in the dollars and awards; the novel was pessimistic with a capital P, Jenny. Another bad example, oddly enough, is Die Hard 2. Yes, yes, it was based on a book, too. A very good book, BTW. Hack director Renny Harlin chewed it up and spat it out and made a good, taut action/thriller novel into the ur-Michael Bay summer blockbuster. Lots of boom, bullets and bad dialogue. Yippee-ki-yay.

So why do some adaptations work and others limp? Like I said, walking the tightrope. There has to be enough cuts from the original roast to remain true to the spirit of the book, yet have enough directorial sensitivity to respect the lifted material while still adding a unique spin. This is usually done with visuals, dialogue and above all else acting. That and a kick-ass screenwriter like Ted “The Silence of the Lambs” Tally or Richard “The Quiet Man” Llewellyn don’t hurt none. All of it as a whole must be executed with extremely extreme prejudice. In simpler words: don’t dupe the audience. There’s a good chance they already read the book well before the movie hype hit the dailies. Ask any Shakespeare aficionado. Or Spider-Man fanboy.

Some books-turned-movies use the device of a narrator, and sometimes it works. Fight Club employed a narrator (to go so far as to credit Edward Norton simply as “Narrator”), so did Forrest Gump (and despite that movie’s squishiness, it worked too) and also Taxi Driver, A Christmas Story, The Big Lebowski, Apocalypse Now, GoodFellas and—before God—Dances with Wolves. These all worked. High Fidelity uses a narrator too. What separates this movie from the others is the deliberate shattering of “the fourth wall.”

For those who don’t know the reference, I’ll share. Look, it’s not as if the readers out there on the Interweb are thick, it’s just I want to be clear. I gather that most of us are of decent intelligence; of a curious nature that draws the lot of y’all to sh*t-digging social experiments like this one. I can get obtuse in my rumination at RIORI, so I’m making a point out of this one. It’s vital to the movie as a whole.

The “breaking of the fourth wall” is a theatrical reference in which a player steps out of character to directly address the audience. Bill Shakespeare (him again) did this often, like in his drama Othello where the baddie kept telling the audience about his nefarious plans, mwa-ha-ha. The best example used I can recall in modern cinema is in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Our protag makes asides to the audience enhancing the action to what’s happening (or will happen) onscreen. For High Fidelity, not unlike Day Off, it augments the comic aspects of the movie. Unlike Fidelity, all the wink-wink/nudge-nudge bets are off.

All right, lecture’s over. Hand in your blue books.

*cheers, applause, sighs of relief, lines to the bathroom*

Hmm. It seems like I’ve already chewed apart our latest installment before the synopsis is out there. Glad you caught me…


Laura (Hjejle) left. She finally had her fill of Rob (Cusack), his musical obsessions and his generally mopey attitude. She’s just another failed relationship in Rob’s seemingly endless line of failed relationships. Now he’s alone, bitter and the only companionship he can find is his unwieldy record collection.

What went wrong?

Rob now plays out days at his semi-failing record shop, Championship Vinyl, dealing with the snobby opinions of his “musical moron twins,” blithering Barry (Black) and milquetoast Dick (Louiso). Nights are spent organizing and reorganizing his LPs, ruminating over the notion that maybe he’s doomed to live alone forever.

Again, what went wrong?

In a rare moment of clarity, Rob does some soul-searching. He recalls his “top five, all-time breakups,” and how they happened. His sifts through his address book and decides to track down his exes to see if there was a pattern forming; what led to his undoing and lowly state. Sure, it might be painful to go down memory lane, facing some ugly truths about his relations with the opposite sex. But you know what they say: pain means you’re growing.

Rob figures it’s time to man up, stare down adulthood, get some maturity and, well, face the music…


I read High Fidelity well after I saw the movie. A lot of people—the aforementioned fanboy audiences— always claim that the book is always better than the movie. Fidelity is an exception to that belief. I’m not saying that either one was superior to the other. I’m saying with Fidelity as a whole, it didn’t really matter.

The movie is very faithful to the book. Very faithful. Like I said, I read the book after I saw the movie, and it made no difference. That’s how faithful Frears’ adaptation was. There were only three differences between the book and the movie:

  1. The setting. Nick Hornby’s book took place in London. The movie is set in Chicago. Cusack, who co-wrote the screenplay, is a native Chicagoan, as well as a handful of the other actors (Robbins et al). They were all once part of a troupe in the Windy City, and it was at Cusack’s behest that these folks could add something to the movie, enhance the set as tableau. Like the book, London was much a character as Chicago is here. Director Frears—who is English—was originally rather diffident about shooting an English story in an American city until he read the script and met the cast. In the end, where High Fidelity takes place was irrelevant. Some stories, like Hornby’s delightful novel, are universal. Life, love and leaving. That’s what Fidelity is all about.
  2. One scene from the book was deleted, and one was added. In the book, the chapter where Rob went record hunting at a spurned wife’s exes fire sale of his record collection was left out. The subplot about Rob producing a pair of burgeoning amateur musicians was added. Both were metaphor for Rob’s life arrest and eventual getting on with life. Both worked well, and;
  3. In the book, he was Rob Fleming. In the movie, he’s Rob Gordon. Not sure why this was done.

At heart, Fidelity is not a music movie. Right. It does have the soundtrack of my dreams, even Katrina & the Waves and “Most of the Time” is one of my fave, latter-day Dylan songs. But it’s not a music movie. It’s a story about personal responsibility and belated growing up.

It’s a lot of other things, too. Fidelity is a love story to and within Chicago, but the opposite of Ferris Beuller. Frears turned out to be wrong, all right. The setwork is great, and the backdrop of the city makes for a lovely sofa. The setting doesn’t really matter, but it helps the movie took place in a city as diverse as Chicago.

Almost as diverse as Rob’s infeasible record collection. Both are as much characters in the movie as the actors. Rob’s music collection is so intertwined with his personality—and his troubles—it’s like he can’t divorce himself from self-absorption steeped in adolescent fantasies and motives. His whole “art of the mixtape” schtick comes across as both solace and salvation, a la a teen brooding in his room after being not invited to the jocks’ beer bust. In the end, it’s all just juvenile and for naught, especially for a mid-30s bachelor and record geek.

Another thing: most importantly Fidelity is a character study, and without a primo cast like this one, there’d be just another Gen X nostalgia cash cow being milked here. Usually the director guides the actors. According to Frears, Fidelity was the other way around. And the whole thing rests on Cusack’s shoulders. If a lesser actor was employed the whole thing might’ve torn apart at the seams.

Rob is a walking headache. Leave it to Cusack to deliver his role with a slumped-shoulders, Holden Caulfield affect. No matter how old he or his story gets, Rob’s terminally in the 7th grade. It drums up sympathy for a character who really is a drudge, cranky and generally not a guy you’d want to share a beer with. His character does a lot of acting with a hangdog and a blank, baleful, hundred-mile stare. It’s paramount to breaking the fourth wall.

Oh yeah, that. The whole narrator thing? Key.

The DVD release of Fidelity has clips and commentary from Cusack and director Frears. Frears was a fan of the book and always wanted to make it into a movie, but was afraid that all of “the good stuff” would have to be left out. It was Cusack’s idea to do the whole narration thing. That way, all the exposition that was so vital to the book was left in, delivered in this very clever, non-intrusive way to convey Rob’s angst. It’s very subtle, thanks to Cusack’s alternating manic and meandering delivery. His monologues are like the confessionals of a middle schooler, which Rob ostensibly still is. It works well with the theme of life arrest. Rob’s just a “victim of circumstance,” with circumstances he’s created. He’s boxes himself in with his own rationalizing, and gets it intimate with the audience.

Fresh-faced Hjejle is great as Laura. She’s very disarming, kinda like a Gen X Isla. Laura is oddly strong, yet vulnerable. You get the feeling that she doesn’t want to leave Rob, she just has to so to maintain her sanity. It’s tough to be in a long term relationship with someone who just doesn’t get commitment, that it’s not just about you anymore. Rob is all about “you,” meaning him. Laura, whether Rob knows it or not, keeps him grounded. She’s never shown to be the bad guy. She bails, and it’s not for wondering why.

Black and Louiso are the Laurel and Hardy in Fidelity. Dick and Barry are yin and yang. Black is delightfully toxic. His acerbic wit and classic music snob blathering is both hilarious and cringe-worthy. I think we all know someone like Barry. They are all alone in a crowded record store. If only more actors could be as charmingly hammy as Black. And he actually has a good singing voice. It’s a bit schlocky, but entertaining, not unlike Tenacious D. Isn’t that what matters?

Louiso’s Dick is so self-effacing and passive it’s like he’s hiding inside his clothes. Dick is the anti-Barry. He’s still a music snob, but he assumes the timid, quiet stance. He likes letting lesser-knowing music buffs in on obscure bands as some secret, trace element stuff. It’s along this line that gets Dick a date. To wit, Louiso and Gilbert have an honest chemistry, and their budding relationship reflects Rob’s failed ones in understated, sweet contrast.

There’s a lot of nice touches about relationships in Fidelity. It’s a gentle movie, kinda tender, despite the prickly subject matter. It’s also a guy movie, with Cusack being the spot-on, typical thirty-something man-child, awash in insecurity, facing middle age and exuding weltschmerz from every pore. Us guys get that way. Rob’s love/hate relationship with his music reflecting his love/hate relationship with his past relationships; it’s never blunt, and paired with the smart narration, the message comes across with great humor and flintiness with being preachy. It’s the whole “adding the egg” metaphor here (see the All Is Lost installment). I love the dry humor. It does a great job escalating the tension within the first two acts as it eventually tempers the third descending into sweetness without being saccharine.

To wrap it up, there’s one word to describe Fidelity: satisfying. The story is solid, the acting great, the pacing perfect and it has an intelligent, thoughtful streak running throughout. High Fidelity is probably in my top-five, desert island movies.

Now where could I hook up the DVD and the stereo on a desert island? Well, thank God for Wi-Fi.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Go read the book, too. Check out either one first. And take off those damned headphones.


Stray Observations…

  • “She liked me. She liked me. She liked me. At least I think she did…” No one really ever graduates middle school.
  • Every scene in the store, club or apartment features at least one album I own. I don’t know whether that’s comforting or really, really sad.
  • “A Cosby sweatah!”
  • That Slits album has been bouncing all over the sets. Who wants to wager director Frears is a fan?
  • “How can someone who has no interest in music own a record store?” The very sage Jack Black. Dumbass.
  • Keen use of the Beta Band there. Yeah, I have those albums too.
  • “Do you have soul?” “That all depends…”
  • Jones says “F*ck!” better than I’ve ever heard it anywhere.
  • Rob all alone in the record store. His castle, his prison.
  • “My guts have sh*t for brains!” Hornby.
  • I do miss mixtapes. I’ve made my fair share of mix discs, but it’s just not the same.
  • “I’d never thought I’d say this, but can I go to work now?”

Next Installment…

“Who, as they sung, would take the prison’d soul and lap it in Elysium?” That’s John Milton. Who’d’ve thunk he was into Matt Damon movies?