RIORI Vol 3, Installment 21: Brad Peyton’s “San Andreas” (2015)


The Players…

Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Paul Giamatti and Alexandra D’Addrio, with Ioan Gruffudd, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Archie Panjabi and Kylie Minogue (of all people).

The Story…

SAR has always been Ray Gaines’ calling. It’s his strong suit, what he’s done all his life. He’s always been good at rescuing those in distress, so long as they’re strangers. Get too close that way and it’s no longer just a job to do, a mission. It becomes personal.

Getting up close and personal hasn’t really ever been Gaines’ strong suit. In fact, it’s his weak spot. It might cloud his judgment when it comes to doing his duty. Lives may get on the line, and the last thing Ray should be considering is what the endangered’s fave Beatle is on an intimate level.

However, following his usual routine for only a mere few hours on duty, Ray’s issues with getting personal are going to get quite shaken up. A lot.


The Rant…

It feels like lately at RIORI your humble blogger isn’t being as much of an prideful assh*le as been his custom. I think the degree has been showing, dammit. In it for all I apologize. I apologize to all you sniveling brats who take offense to any blogger trying to refine his delivery in hopes to gain a wider audience. You know, like any entertainer would. And the majority of bloggers are really entertainers gussied up as creative writers and only that. It’s all bollocks. RIORI was created out of a need for this guy to write but also be read. Be creative, earn an audience. I mean, no one raised anything but a cheer when Midnight Oil released Diesel And Dust, not disregarding the Aussie audiences. I only make a point of this because of multiple comments regarding the lessening of venom spat here at. I assume this in response: you can only piss so long on the same patch of grass before it starts to turn brown. Dig?

Enough. Let the folks know they’re out there. Anyway, time for movie sh*t you f*cknuts.


I’ve always taken a shine to Dwayne Johnson—


Wait. Before that. San Andreas is—at the time of this post—the most recent mediocre movie slid under the microscope here at RIORI. It ain’t even a year old yet. I only point this out as not any relevance to this week’s movie proper—or even The Standard for the matter—but a practice in Hollywood that I find dismaying (but also inevitable).

When I was a youth, you could guarantee that that summer’s blockbuster would be in a first-run theatre for at least three months. Sometimes if the flick was a big deal hit, say like ET or the original Die Hard it could have an extended release before petering out to second-runs and eventually the endless wait for home video release. That sometimes took up to a year. Be glad you of this generation never having to endure the Bataan Death March of waiting for new releases at Blockbuster to return on a Friday night so you could scoop one up (I’ve been a Netflix customer since its inception, over sixteen years. You Millenials are so lucky).

Nowadays, theatrical runs for new movies are lucky to stay in the cineplex for one month, regardless of their success (or failure). You gotta be quick to catch the latest Hunger Games chapter on the big screen before whoosh. At least you only have to wait three months till you can stream it.

Curtailed theatrical releases are now the norm for—not surprisingly—business reasons. One, it cuts back on piracy, what with the proliferation of smartphone video tech (doesn’t seem to work. It’s how I got my “instant copy” of…well, that’s another story, probably for the FBI). Second it allows Hollywood to jam more movies into the theaters over the course of a year. Churn and burn. Thanks to winnowing attention spans of American audiences, Tinsel Town can score for direct profits that way, rather than wait for the big bucks that roll in with home video sales and streams.

I understand all this, and partially agree with these practices. But I miss the lazy days of summer when I was a kid and didn’t have to feel a match under my ass to catch the original Jurassic Park before the month ran out (bad example; I bought my tix in advance for opening night with that one. Sometime I’ll recount what happened during the show, disregarding velociraptor antics).

Um, where was I? Oh yeah. Welcome to “The Rock.”

Johnson’s a local celeb in my neck of the woods. He grew up where I’m from, light years from his stint in WWE. It should come as no surprise that in high school, Dwayne played football, wrestled and was active in the drama club. All of this came into play when he became The Rock, his macho, humorous and charismatic wrestling persona. It translated well into his movie career, no duh.

That being said, I find Johnson the actor as rather enjoyable. Granted he’s not going to win any awards with his delivery, but his charm, humor and almost self-effacing demeanor can easily win over the most hardened of cinema snobs. Even in his tough guy action mode, he never comes across as some macho assh*le. Johnson strikes me as the kind of guy at the neighborhood summer cookout, bottle of beer in one hand and manning the grill with the other.

I think his likeability stems from both a vulnerability and an innocence. What? This burly dude? A former pro wrestler? Well, again, check out his acting style. Really. Johnson’s pretty relaxed when in front of the camera. At ease in the spotlight and all that. One could make the argument that all those years hamming it up for the WWE prepared him for the jump to the big screen, and I couldn’t agree more. Sure, Johnson’s bread-and-butter in movies have been mostly action hero types (e.g. The Scorpion King, The Rundown, the Fast & Furious movies, etc), but you gotta be a kind of softie to be built like a brick sh*thouse and star as the Tooth Fairy, GI Joe’s action figure come to life Roadblock or an animated astronaut in Planet 51 (okay, it was voice acting, but still). Not to mention Johnson’s roles in family adventure films like the remake of Race To Witch Mountain and the recent nostalgia trap Jem & The Holograms big screen treatment (okay, perhaps a questionable example. Show’s over, Synergy). And if that ain’t vulnerable and innocent, putting one’s literal movie muscle on hold to have a little fun, I don’t know what is. That and he does it better than Schwarzenegger ever did.

This amiable, almost universal appeal makes a lot of Johnson’s otherwise derivative, lame films go down a bit easier. His is akin to my assessment of one of my favorite actors, Sean Connery. I ain’t saying the Rock can outdo 007, but like Johnson, Connery’s made a lot of sh*tty movies, but he’s always entertaining. Also like Connery, Johnson looks like he really enjoys acting, devoid of the pretensions. It’s infectious, really. We all need more movie stars like Johnson. Or Connery, for that matter.

Okay. Now before this becomes some sort of man-crush lovefest (not unlike my questionable fascination with Don Cheadle), I gotta reel it in on a practical level. Johnson’s degree of charm can somewhat sabotage the feel of an entire movie. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it can get to be confusing. Sometimes it becomes hard to separate the quality—or lack thereof—of a movie from the likeability of the stars (refer to my The Day After Tomorrow installment). Sometimes you catch yourself being conned into thinking you’ve seen a great movie, but only able to remember the leads’ performances and forgetting the connect-the-dots, boring plot or the distracting 1.21 gigawatts of blinding pyrotechnics (again: Day After Tomorrow). It takes a bit of discernment to separate the two.

Not that this is always a tough decision. Especially when the movie in question is intentionally designed to just entertain, philosophical musings about the human condition be damned. Sometimes what you want is just a likable leading man and a lot of kerblooey. Sometimes you just want to put your brain on hold.

Check that: need to put your brain on hold. Another viewing of My Dinner With Andre can wait.

So let’s Rock and roll, shall we…?

Just your typical bright day in Southern California. Sunny skies, fresh air, perfect day for drive. Until a minor temblor hits and a rockslide sends your ride off a cliff, wedging it precariously in a very deep chasm.

It’s a good thing that Ray Gaines (Johnson) and his crack rescue team is on hand to swoop in with their chopper and crane your ass out of the jaws of certain doom. Y’know, just your typical day.

When it comes to his job, Ray is the calm, cool character. When it comes to family affairs, he gets kind of rattled. Ever since his marriage to Emma (Gugino) recently dissolved, he’s been forced to play catch-up as a beleaguered weekend dad to his daughter, Blake (D’Addrio). She’s back off to college soon, and his tenuous grasp as being Dad feels like it slipping away. Permenantly.

Permenantly ever since Emma shacked up with the big deal architect Dan Riddick (Gruffud). Riddick’s world-famous designs are renown for being near impervious to natural disasters, not to mention very tech sophisticated. So Emma needn’t worry to want for anything, especially balanced against what meager existence Ray squeezes out. So a trip out to Riddick’s to see Blake doesn’t feel like a typical day in the chopper.

Meanwhile at CalTech, it’s just your typical day in the lab. Esteemed seismologist Dr Lawrence Hayes (Giamatti) and his crack team of researchers have been applying his newest tech to study the latest series of tremors that have been rattling the California coast. Hayes suspects a major earthquake along the San Andreas is way overdue, and figures he and his team should conduct some field research with his new gear to see if its possible to accurately predict earthquakes.

On a jaunt to the Hoover Dam, Hayes and crew discover their readings to be quite accurate. Proven especially when an 8.1 temblor tears the dam in half. And it only get worse from there.

Unbeknownst to Ray half a world away, his job is going to get a lot more hairy, beyond the friction with Emma and Blake. As of recent, Ray’s life’s been torn in half. Now it’s the state’s turn, and Ray races to the rescue of both with the same ablomb as a sense of responsibility allows.

You know, just your typical day…

While watching San Andreas, I couldn’t help from catching me smile in spite of myself.

Heed this: San Andreas is a very derivative, stupid movie. It’s your typical summer blockbuster disaster to rote. The acting is wooden. It’s terribly predictable. The massive CGI collateral damage is the real star over the lukewarm casting. You see everything coming, even the scenes you’ve yet to see. There’s nothing here that you haven’t seen before, and seen before with much more verve.

Yet I couldn’t help but smile.

San Andreas is not a good movie, unless your 16 years old or less. It’s cheap, dumb fun entertainment. And to say that is the point is a truism. It’s a digitally rendered summer movie, practically genetically engineered to fill your popcorn bucket to eruption. “That’s the point” seems even beneath it.

But I liked it.

The smiling thing wasn’t meant in any ironic sense. You know how some say you need to be in the proper mindset to appreciate a movie? With Andreas, you best have your mind properly wired prior to even hitting the PLAY button. You should plan on wasting time. You best not have anywhere to go for few hours. You want to have your common sense whipped into tapioca. You need this sometimes when seeing a movie, right?

Okay, Puddinghead, here’s the poop.

Despite the fact that Andreas prides itself—nay, revels—in its collateral damage, dopey acting and stale story, it has a certain warmth that’s hard to miss. Sure, it’s a warm fuzzy kept on the down low, if not muffled by the sound editing. Director Peyton is known for family adventure films, like the (seemingly needless) sequel to Cats And Dogs and Journey 2 (also starring Johnson, BTW). That presence is felt here. It’s to be understood that Andreas is kinda lightweight in that regard. I mean, after directing pixelated kitties a second time ’round it would be kind of tough to shed your fluff (I’m not apologizing for the double pun. Deal). This fluffiness, however lends Andreas a certain charm. It feels like a 70s disaster film, minus the overt cheese. Andreas indeed has a corny charm, but this vibe being at odds with the dire circumstances of the movie injects some unintentional humor into the script.

And boy, is there a lot to laugh at. There’s some really flat, pat dialogue. Of course the manic havoc being wreaked, so over the top it’s all too much unless you turn off your brain and give in to laughter. Most of this stuff can be forgiven thanks to Ray as tentpole, though. As usual, Johnson is a smooth operator. His Ray is a walking cliche, also adding to the humor. But it’s all about the delivery. The man oozes charisma, to be sure. It’s what usually elevates a banal movie to something at least watchable. It works here. Ray is a gritty chopper pilot. He’s a caring dad. He still cares for his estranged wife. He rises to the occasion when the latter two are in danger. It’s a family affair, the same for all of Peyton’s movies. It’s also all for rote, but Johnson turns on his old, rocky (sorry) charm and you know everything’s gonna be okay, if not better. Even if his world is literally crumbling beneath him.

Speaking of crumbling, props must be given to the F/X guys. The utter chaos is a feast for the eyes bleary with butter-flavored topping. Again, disregarding the ridiculous destruction, some nice, if not realistic touches were dotted here and there along the rending Cali coastline. I like the fact that during the catastrophic earthquakes not every skyscraper got felled. In a disaster film, wanton chaos is expected. Any excess can become comical. Peyton used a little restraint here. A little, and that I respect if not welcome. It lets in a scintilla of breathing room, almost there to let the audience to take in what’s going on beneath what’s going on. Is there such a thing as tasteful collateral damage? Andreas kinda reminds me of a Godzilla movie, only the prehistoric lizard is replaced by angry tectonics. But the scattering, screaming cast remains.

Yeah, let’s get back to that. I find it funny that such an esteemed actor like Paul Giamatti signed up for this production. I’ve mentioned in the past that Giamatti is one of my favorites, and his acting chops make his Dr Hayes work. His character is like—harkening back the Godzilla metaphor—Raymond Burr’s Stephen Martin, the only sane voice reporting on the all-consuming mayhem from the sidelines. Giamatti’s skills make Hayes’ delivery have some verve. He’s a tonic to Johnson’s mostly even-handed poise. Giamatti is a prickly actor in most of his roles (check out American Splendor and/or Cinderella Man), but apart from the question of “What the hell is he doing in this flick?” (the chewing gum mentality helps here) something tells me the guy just wanted to have some fun. He is fun here in Andreas.

D’Addrio being a relative unknown possessed a very good onscreen confidence. She did well with the hand she was dealt. Despite my somewhat muted raving about Johnson’s steady work here, some note should be given to her performance. I liked the fact that her Blake simultaneously plays girl in distress and anchor. Ostensibly she’s the raison d’être for Ray’s motivations, and yet she stands well on her own (minus a few hack scenes of wayward damsel). There’s a trio of plot lines going on here in Andreas, and I found Blake’s plight (as well as Ollie and Ben’s in tandem) the most interesting. The three actors portray the element of the victims on the ground, trying to survive and get to safety. Like another vaunted disaster film, the three are like the survivors in The Poseidon Adventure. The pacing here is good, swift and economical.

The same can be said of the rest of the film. Andreas wasted precious little time to keep elevating the stakes. Sure, such pacing sacrifices plot development (such as it is), but the editing is good and the film’s progression wastes no time with filler, for good and for bad. There are a lot of technical aspects here to appreciate, if separate from the film proper. There are some arresting visuals, maybe the best thing in the film. Like I inferred, the F/X guys earned their weekly pay with how they conceived the California coastline toppling into the Pacific. Yeah, such stuff screams, “We’re trying to do the ‘summer movie’ thing.” However…well, duh. Andreas is ultimately about the visuals. I liked the aerial shots. The tsunami climb was beyond nuts. Of course San Francisco dissolving into the ocean was the cherry on the sundae. Back to whipped custard viewing practices, this movie is all about the eye candy. Look for anything beyond that (and actually get something out of that), you’re either wasting energy, popcorn or needless logic.

But it’s not just open praise for open season on the Golden State’s foundation. There are some nagging flaws, like that popcorn shell wedged in the back of your teeth. Andreas is lighthearted—if not lightweight—and feels like blockbuster disaster film junior. There really isn’t much meat on Andreas‘ bone. No sh*t, right? True, but its compartmentalized, incoherent story progression can get a bit rough. The rough angles can’t shake off Peyton’s family film style. It’s like if Disney went R. You can take it if, yet again, you don’t place too much weight in emotional gratification. Sure, visceral entertainment pukes freely here, but regarding Peyton’s oeuvre, Andreas is at heart a family drama disguised as an action flick. Thanks to that there’s no true, palpable sense of danger—of urgency—at play here. It’s at odds with the kerblooey nature of Andreas. It might be a minor carp here against all of the carnage, but it’s a real detriment to any movie designed to be an “action/adventure.”

However, thanks to the cool cast and serious visual nonsense, I can give such cinematic merit a pass. All in all, such bitching here is akin to navel-gazing while watching a Sandler turd. You don’t possess a desire to watch a flick like Andreas to later walk away with the heat in your tummy like after seeing, say, GoodFellas or even The Shining. You want a buzz, fleeting and fun. Andreas is big, stupid fun. That’s its purpose. So tune in a drop out.

Right, folks?

Hey…What’s this grey sh*t on the floor?

Eeyeew. Smells like neocortex.

Good work, Rock. That’ll do.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. In a word: kaboom!

Stray Observations…

  • “Close your eyes…”
  • According to its builders, the Hoover Dam’s concrete will take almost a century to fully cure. Not soon enough here.
  • Gruffudd has a lousy American accent.
  • D’Addrio has the most amazing, piercing blue eyes.
  • “Contrary to popular belief, scientists don’t know everything.” Sure, just ask your average Republican.
  • The rearview mirror thing. There goes the past.
  • “I can’t wait to be 20.” Right on, kid.
  • I think I got a thing for Carla Gugino.
  • “Who wants an A in an independent study? I’m starting a new class.”
  • Wait a minute. The sporting goods store Ray crash-landed into. The sign outside read “Ray’s Outdoors.” Quick joke for us attentive morons?
  • I’ve been educated about the “lost child” effect on families. Who wants another s’more?
  • “Where’s you get your hat?” Salute with no irony.
  • “Mom’s going to love her.”

Next Installment…

Who watches The Watcher? I will, and am making no apologies for co-opting my very first “Next Installment” tag here at RIORI (for those fools who’ve paid attention. Get a life, will you?).

RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 20: Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman’s “Brave” (2012)



The Voices…

Kelly MacDonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connelly, Craig Ferguson and Robbie Coltrane, with Kevin McKidd and Julie Walters.

The Story…

Princess Merida may be royalty, but tiaras and galas aren’t her thing. Just let her ride on an overpowered steed and shoot arrows at anything that moves (or doesn’t move) and she’s happy as a hog in its waller.

Understandably her prim and proper mum Queen Elinor isn’t too keen on Merida’s tomboyish ways. Sure, it was cute when she was young. Enough so to let her da King Fergus encourage a love of hunting in his wee lass. But now Merida is a young woman, and should soon be courting a husband, preferably a stuffy, awkward young man from one of Fergus’ rival clans.

It’s now a classic adolescent battle of wills. Both on Merida and Elinor’s part. Propriety or archery? Who’s to say which is appropriate?

Neither. So now the arrows really start flying.

 The Rant…

Here’s a new one.

This is the first RIORI installment to pick apart an animated feature. And a Pixar release, no less. And also at the behest of my kid. She’s been gradually getting wise to why Dad locks himself up in his office and/or make jaunts out the local library with his laptop in tow. She doesn’t like that. She’d rather we play with Legos. So would I, but I figure for all the times she’s been dictating her parents’ movie watching habits at the theatre, she’d let out a little line for Dad to play by himself. Especially since she ostensibly picked the movie this time out.

She’s 8. It’s like drawing in a 1000-pound marlin. I will lose.

But not this time, dammit! Now you go to your room for 90 minutes while Daddy cringes before the DVD player. Good girl.

A few millennia ago I spoke about how few options I have picking out and seeing a first-run movie. For lack of funds for a real babysitter—and the grandparents’ increasing reluctance to play Mary Poppins—I’ve had to settle on animated features for my movie money at the multiplex. Not that this was always a bad thing. In recent years, I’ve been audience to The Lego Movie, which I found to be a delight (which stoked the fires of imagination in my little one’s fevered brain). Maleficent was serviceable, though trite for anyone no longer Santa Claus eligible. The recent Pixar vehicle Inside Out was awesome, making it my fave after Up. The Secret World Of Arriety was quite engrossing (me being a Miyazaki fan in specific and an otaku in general helped). And Frozen was Frozen was bedsheets.

But truth be told, being nagged into seeing only animated films in the theaters can really wear on a Peter Wier fan like myself. I like my cartoons, sure, and am quite fond of the animated shorts that precede the features at the local, classy second-run movie house. However I like the option to see a sub-PG flick, and not being screeched in to one.

Well thank Heavens for the folks at Pixar. Their work is almost always a welcome addition to any marquee.

When I was in college between studying, binge drinking and studying binge drinking, the spring of ’95 introduced to an unsuspecting, movie-going public to the future of animated films. A semi-regular thing my friends and I did on a lazy Saturday was to take a break, go out that evening to the multiplex and take in a movie. Thanks to the nascent media saturation online, we got hip to forthcoming films of interest a via Internet message boards a whole month before the newswire reached the mainstream media (this was the 90s. Time for you to let out some line). We heard about some upstart animation studio calling themselves Pixar (maybe you’ve heard of them) releasing their debut film that would herald in the next-gen of cartoons. It was computer generated en toto. It wasn’t traditional cell animation, and not a blend of CGI with the classic cartooning technique. No. It was completely rendered  in pixels. A first for a full feature-length film. Even I left my flask alone on opening night.

Toy Story was both a revolution and a portent for all animated movies coming down the pike. It also more or less set the standard for voice-acting and storyboarding for the next 20 years. However, I don’t think this was what the geniuses at Pixar intended for at the time. Sure, the maverick studio knew they were the first shot fired in the battle for supremacy when it came to future animated features (as well as probably trying to unseat the monolithic Disney as king of the cartooning mountain). I don’t think they intended to became the actual monolith itself. This might’ve proven right since a great deal of audiences back then viewed Toy Story‘s pixelated renditions of sentient playthings as nothing more than a novelty. A very well-executed novelty, but a lark nonetheless. Full CGI would never replace traditional cell animation, the standard for close to a century.


Fast forward two decades…

All right, all right. You know. Now there’s no such thing as cell yadda yadda yadda pass the Twizzlers. Every animated feature film is pixelated now. This became the reality in no small part to Pixar’s capital-Q quality movies, setting the gold standard. And not just in picture quality and special effects, which one has to admit has been evolving as the tech has, and are increasingly more beautiful and intricate with every ensuing release. There’s also excellent voice acting from name stars, compelling characters and—above all—captivating stories.

That last part’s the key to Pixar’s success. Hey, if it was just all about shock-and-awe tactics, people would tire of the studio’s schtick years ago. You want splash and dash? Go check out half of DreamWorks’ output. Or Warners. Hell, even Disney lately (the parent company, BTW). But if you want consistency and substance, not just a fleeting rush, the go-to guys have been Pixar for years. They ain’t number one for nothin’.

That’s been the case. But recently I’ve caught a whiff of something lurking.

Now I’ll admit I’m a touch cynical when it comes to Hollywood (speaking of shock-and-awe). I get suspicious of winning formulas obviously rehashed in lessening forms like with the Die Hard franchise. Call it movie vigilance or otherwise Alex Jones panic theory in action (perhaps both), but I can’t help but sense a taint—a slight but perceptible decline in quality in Pixar’s work as of recent. It’s actually more of a hiccup, if you will. Barring Inside Out, the studio’s latest projects are less sticking to a winning formula but rather approaching formulaic. The feeling of cutting-edge began to dull a shade, and the stories are taking fewer risks. Instead of appealing to a mass audience—I tell my friends that Pixar movies are family films, not just kiddie fare—the G-rated crowd seems to have squarely targeted first and mopey, ever-patient parents an increasingly distant second.

I could blame Disney, with their acquisition of Pixar almost a decade ago. But before I go on, let me say that I find it ironic the studio who rejected most of the brains behind Pixar—who thereby quit the House of Mouse to fly solo—eventually and in essence hired the lot back. Unsure if this was either because of Pixar’s runaway success or their becoming an active threat in digging in to Disney’s pie. Perhaps both. One would be hard pressed to deny that Disney’s own animated efforts (save Frozen, which was co-created by former Pixar artists) have been lacking for…well, ever since Disney bought Pixar. I think the former was hedging a bet when they bought out the latter. At least Diz was astute enough to let Pixar hold onto its moniker and a certain degree of autonomy.

So sure, it could be easy to beat up on Disney for Pixar’s scattershot record as of late. But you know what they say, if you sell it, someone will buy it for the right price. If you think about it, possibly without Disney’s budget, wonders like Up and Inside Out with their exceptional programming might not have happened. Perhaps.

That being said, one can’t fault Pixar’s hit-and-miss recent catalogue completely on Disney. It was shortly after the first Cars movie that Pixar’s quality and consistency started to slip, and not long before Diz stepped in with its deal and clout—and their increasingly lame animated movies—that Pixar’s output may well be described as “scattershot.” Cars was a prime example of aiming a Pixar movie straight at the kiddies (despite hiring Larry the Cable Guy, a blessing or a curse depending on whom you ask. Please, don’t ask me) diluting some of the Pixar spark. The final result was meh. Too bad it was Paul Newman’s swan song.

But then we had the unimpeachable WALL-E, followed by the winner Up. Both innovative and classic in a single breath. Both borrowing from classic Hollywood tropes with a surprisingly modernist touch, if not post-modern. They had excellent voice acting with quality actors, veteran and newbs alike, emoting as well as they might on the sound stage (it took a little longer with WALL-E, but it was worth the wait. Go Fred Willard!). And the sharp animation didn’t hurt either. Both films were very rewarding.

Sorry. I wasn’t much of a fan of Ratatouille, despite the subject matter and Patton Oswalt. Don’t hit me.

Then, for some inexplicable reason, we got Cars 2. You understand the machinations behind creating sequels. Either there’s another story there to follow up on, like with the James Bond movies (most were based on a series of books, after all), or the parent studio smelled big buckaroos capitalizing on a winning formula. Or trend. Or gimmick. Or whatever obscures common sense in the studio boardroom. Out rolls the cheddar until the mold takes hold. Then come the reboots.

Seriously though, Cars 2 was the first release under the banner of the Disney/Pixar name. And it stunk. It was nothing more than 80-plus minutes of gimmickry, distraction, sparkly and product placement. It was later followed, but not in direct order, by another needless sequel, Monsters University. Now let me tell you: Monsters, Inc, Pixar’s second release (only second!), was so heartfelt, touching and self-contained there was absolutely no reason—not chasing a muse, at least—to expand the universe any further. Oh, did I say sequel? My bad. Monsters University was a red-headed stepchild with herpes scars: a prequel. It’s one of the most odious tricks in Hollywood’s trick bag to separate the gullible from their money. Remember Star Wars, eps. 1-3? Uh-huh.) Since Pixar apparently prided its creative output on innovation and originality, why a sequel? Hell, why two?

I sense the Disney strong-arm. I’m not saying the studio directly laid any pressure on Pixar’s creative license. It’s not like the above films, no matter their flaws, had the stamp of a paw print on their digital drafting boards. Dinsey and Pixar usually have a very distinct signature, and WALL-E et al possessed that. But I feel behooved to mention—reheat, if you will—my masticating of John Carter a few months back. I made the argument that Carter came apart at the seams due in part to Disney meddling, protecting their investment instead of giving in to the director’s vision of a more organic S/F tale. The end result was indeed entertaining, but also stiff, protracted and the sticky fingerprints of how sh*t is supposed to go down at the House of Mouse. Disney Studios’ influence in production was rampant with Carter. Not the Disney Touch, the Disney Process. Unwavering and ultimately obsolete.

For years, decades even, that process worked. Disney was it. No one could touch them. And why not? Their animated features were amazingPinocchio, Snow White, hell even The Jungle Book were either cutting edge or hopelessly charming. Even their smaller fare like their Winnie The Pooh efforts were endearing and bore the unmistakeable Dinsey Touch. Audiences lapped it up, and other animators strove to imitate, never truly duplicate the grandeur of Disney’s animated adventures.

It should come as no surprise that despite the early rivalry and perceived acrimony Pixar had with Disney that comparisons would be made. And made they were; it was inevitable. The Disney Process was entrenched in the movie making industry. Even if one had never even seen a Disney film (hard to believe, but it must’ve happened. Kinda like sighting Sasquatch), its reputation preceded everything. It’s tough to argue against the possibility that Pixar followed that Process in making their films.

With Brave, that Process was keenly felt. There were similarities between Brave‘s delivery and Disney’s dyed-in-wool methodology. But it was kind of like comparing the styles of similar directors.

For example, consider the canons of Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemekis. Both have similar styles. They have unique signatures in their craft. We have JawsSchindler’s List and two Best Directing Oscars on one side, and Back To The Future, Forrest Gump and multiple snubs on the other. One influenced the other, and the other developed their own voice. It’s no different between Disney and Pixar. When you watch a Spielberg film, you know its a Spielberg film for its feel. The same with Zemekis. Disney has their Touch, borne from their Process, and Pixar has their spark. Both are similar, but have their own unique fingerprints.

Brave blurred the corners, and with curious results. Sure, the film was a success—as all Pixar films become—but it came at a cost. Be it following a “template” or Papa Walt’s ghost asserting itself, Pixar slipped some. Especially in the eyes of the critics, and some audiences, too.

As I have hammered home before many, many times, movies are made to make money. It’s a business first, and a creative outlet second. I’m willing to wager that if Disney wasn’t directly forcing Pixar’s hand with every other of their films in the past decade, their business acumen might have been. Sure, WALL-E, Ratatouille, Cars 2 and even Up had their fair share of merchandising—a large chunk of movie-made money—but I have a hard time believing said films were made with that in mind. At least, not directly in mind, if you catch my drift.

Disney is not just a studio. It’s a brand. They have heavy influence, beyond the silver screen (curious fact: Disney has the third largest fleet of ships in the world. The world. Only the US and UK naval fleets are larger. Think about that. Now stop). Such name-recognition has gravity. Pixar’d have to be pretty naive to ignore this. Maybe Disney didn’t apply any muscle against the once upstart rival, but my money is on that their presence was felt. The brand was in the air, and a rep had to be upheld. John Carter be damned. Same for Monsters U.

So now we have Brave. The spark at odds with the Process. And that Process is hard to escape when making an animated film, even including the studio that indoctrinated it.

Here’s a story. A few years back, Disney released and publicly announced its “last princess movie” Tangled, based on the tale of Rapunzel. I found the movie to be great, and a fine statement to usher in a new Process (I can be very naive). It was the last great Diz animated movie until Frozen rolled along. That being said, Frozen made liars of Disney. They couldn’t escape their Process, heist by their own petard.

Well, sort of. Tangled technically was the last animated princess movie. However it was followed by Frozen, a film not about princess, but two princesses. Loophole!

Maleficent had no princess…until the plot deemed it appropriate. But it wasn’t animated! Another loophole!

Brave under the Pixar banner featured a princess! But still it wasn’t technically a Disney movie! Um, loophole?

You smell a pattern forming here? Is this Process inevitable? Is there a brand being upheld? Does the presence spread? Unsure here on most fronts, but it does get one to wonder.

Yeah, I’m splitting hairs. So what? But I’m the barber here, and my point is this as before: Disney is a brand. It has a formula. It works, so praise the mouse and pass the tickets.

I again am willing to wager a pair of ears—not at first, but slowly and eventually—loomed over the production of Brave, radiating an omniscient presence…

Adolescence is seldom easy.

You’re regarded as a young adult, your personally maturing as does your physique. Approaching adulthood, yet still steeped in childish ways. You want—demand—to be respected as a mature individual, but you still gotta muck about in the woods chasing toads. You understand your responsibilities, you’d just rather have them on your own well-meaning but misguided terms. You’re a kid, just don’t let anyone call you that.

It’s even harder if you’re a princess. All that crapola wadded up and thrown into your petulant scowl on a daily basis. Despite your legacy.

Motherhood is never easy.

You’re responsible for not only escorting a life into this world, but also ensuring said life is brought up right. You must imbue this young person with both a sense of security as well as confidence and esteem. You must be sure that they want for nothing, but withhold any possible influence that may steer this young person down a wrong path. Yet in due course, you must unfurl your wings and let this darling child spreading their own wings and take flight, face risk. You must hold hard to the belief you did the best by them and pray that they will find a way in the world that sets a true aim.

It’s even harder if you’re a queen. All that regality dictates not only propriety, but to set an example. An example not only to your subjects, but to your family. Your legacy. And yes, to your petulant princess daughter.

Princess Merida (MacDonald) and Queen Elinor (Thompson) share similar ideals, but on completely different wavelengths. One pulls. The other pushes. And back again. And so forth. Merida demands to be her own person, on her own terms and for her own benefit. Elinor demands the respect a mother and a queen demands, in that order, for Merida’s benefit as well as hers. Neither side of this family dynamic seems to wish to weigh the vitalness of it all in the endgame.

It’s a bear of a problem…

As I was rambling on, Pixar felt like it was taking leave of its senses in fits and starts over the past ten years. I wasn’t saying that this was a conscious thing, though. Disney’s presence might have been felt, like someone staring at you from behind or that wafting from the back of the fridge, your long since forgotten about saved hunk of tuna melt glossed with gorgonzola or discovering what the fate became of your beloved hamster Fred.

Too much? Just driving the point home.

With Brave, Pixar took the big jump into a tried-and-true device that their parent company had utilized as their stock in trade since they invented it: they cut a princess movie.

True, hardly an original concept. The furthest from actually. Like I said, such a scenario has been Disney’s bread-and-butter as far back as their first, full-length animated feature, Snow White And The Seven Dwarves. Hell, Disney f*cking created the template. The same template every single animation feature since has more-or-less adhered to. And why not? It’s worked. To greater or lesser degrees. I suppose it was a matter of time that Pixar got hip to this idea.

Still, one can’t help but wonder, with Pixar’s recent scattershot (I’m gonna use that adjective a lot here) output that if their benefactor’s presence in the ether had a little bit of pull. True, the fairy tale aspect works wonders when done right, but you can only tell the same story so much until is grows threadbare. No matter how well the merch sells. I mean, even to today I see hordes of Merida childcrap being hawked at Target. At reduced prices sure, but then again I needed socks. So there.

Like I said, and with no shock, the princess story works when done well. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid and not to mention the anime renditions Princess MononokeOh My Goddess! and Urusei Yatsura work great. All have comedy and tragedy (and to greater or lesser degrees), cool mystique and engaging characters paired with compelling storytelling. That’s the template, but when done poorly—and beyond just a faulty execution—derivative aping of a good, effective formula can at best be considered unoriginal and at worst insulting. Insulting to the story as well as the audience.

Before any further analysis, Brave is Pixar’s first foray into the princess story. It did have all the hallmarks of the template. We have a brave (duh) but vulnerable princess. We have a fantastic realm to explore (this time the highlands of Scotland, one might assume. Sure, it’s no Rivendell, but it’s sure is hella pretty). We got those tricky family dynamics. And we have the quest for fate. There’s even a bit of a King Lear analogy going on, so we got classic drama in effect. So roll camera already.

Brave possesses all the above qualities and aspects. And since the whole schtick has been overdone to death many times over already (“last princess movie.” Malarkey), an audience must wonder—especially beleaguered moms and dads—how many times can this tale be told? More over, how many times well?  Been there, done that. Get on with happily ever after.

We’ve come to rely on Pixar movies to elevate tired storytelling tropes of adventures and self-discovery into high entertainment and emotional investment. Brave is no different.

Here it comes.

However understanding the machinations of the princess tale—and doubtless Pixar does thanks to its benefactor—doesn’t mean a hell of whole lot if you follow the above template for rote. One would think that Pixar would have all its ducks in a row when it comes to creating a princess tale. It’s pretty easy when you think about it, and audiences already have certain expectations even if they’ve never even heard of Sleeping Beauty. It’s so saturated our collective pop culture consciousness its akin to never seeing an episode of Star Trek, but virtually everyone knows who Mr Spock is. Thank or blame Disney for this. So surely Pixar knows what to deliver.

And they did. All too well.

Brave, although gorgeous—Pixar had some new programming to try out, and in that they delivered. Big time—is a stock fairy tale. It even had actual fairies (okay, will-o’-the-wisps. Let’s not argue semantics). It has all the above criteria, and is delivered in a very bland, almost ham-fisted kind of way. The movie’s fairly predictable, as all princess stories are, but its the twists and turns the (hopefully compelling) characters follow that make the ride unique and fun. Such a tale shouldn’t be transparent dappled with a few clever touches. Brave was predictable in the worst way. I found myself internally demanding (cue Monty Python voice) “Get on with it!”

A big issue I took with Brave was beyond just the linear nature of the story with all its tips and tricks is it had no spark. It lacked the touch of a Pixar movie. In fact, it didn’t even feel like a Pixar movie. There wasn’t the usual je ne sais quoi here. Not only did Brave not feel like a Pixar film, it felt more like a (shudder) classicist Disney film. Sure, princesses are Disney’s goldmine, and they don’t necessarily hold the reigns ultra tight, but they do know their sh*t about such a thing. They kinda wrote the book and all. Some presence was felt.

Pixar’s made their mark either innovating or upending warhorses, not cowing to them. Brave follows the Disney playbook play by play. And a lot of it seems forced. Feels forced. I’m not going to blame Disney for placing a firm hand on Pixar’s shoulder here. Despite their presence was clearly felt, I doubt Brave was yielding to Disney standard princess story practices. One could make the argument after watching the movie that Pixar was trying to cut a tribute to said story. A nod to the classic storyline. But again I’m not sure; it feels like weak sauce.

A lot of it has to do with that “not feeling like a Pixar film.” What I mean is Brave‘s lack of or limited whimsy. Normally that’s a good thing, but Pixar’s been a whiz at turning the syrupy cutes on its ear. You know, those little tweaks in the script that otherwise might result in either bathos or insulting your intelligence. A good example of Pixar’s mad skillz? The final scene of Monsters, Inc or Carl attending Russell’s REDACTED in Up. Both could’ve been construed as squishy, but instead fulfilled the plots. Brave lacks this pseudo-whimsy. A lot of the emotional plot beats land squarely on the nose, no nuance.

This has a lot to do with the film’s pacing. Yeah, you’ve heard it before. This is my big gripe when it comes to enjoying movies: lack of smooth story flow. Brave comes across as so uneven and blatantly intrusive it feels rushed. The pace, as well as the action is very busy. It’s borderline frenetic. To be fair though, we at least have some of the always noted Pixar nuanced touches, but they fly by so fast they barely have time to register. It’s like the action comes so fast and hard you nary have a chance to breathe. Why was Brave in such a hurry, and to what end? It felt exhausting. Despite the kiddies mainlining Sour Patch Kids, doubts even here how they could pay attention.

About that—sugar rushes notwithstanding—halfway through my viewing of Brave, my previous opinions about following the Disneyesque princess tale rulebook almost note for note faded. There was a distinct tinkering in Brave that either was a bastardized “Pixar touch” or a distinct, almost forced statement that this movie was decidedly not a contemporary Disney thing. Brave quickly took a turn to create a feel that was more squarely aimed at grown-ups, as if rebuking the usual kiddie crowd, rejecting them.

The second act got very heavy very quick. We understood over 30 minutes that Merida and Elinor have very different agenda. Brave abruptly becomes a journey of understanding into something more dire. The tension escalates, sure, but so does the scary imagery and even the violence. Fessing up, I actually saw Brave first-run (remember my daughter’s unwavering pull?) back in 2o12, but remembered next to nothing of it until I scoured critical reviews online. The Standard was met this way, so onto the queue it went. I had my memory jogged by the time Brave‘s third act rolled around for the RIORI viewing. I remembered I heard screaming, not sounds of excitement but literal screaming coming from the kiddies during the fight scenes. It was akin to Ellison’s review of 1984’s Gremlins. Director Joe Dante called his movie “ET with teeth.” To wit, “fangs is more like it” Ellison noted. Hell, even had issues with Brave‘s intensities, the screeching kindergarteners in attendance notwithstanding.

A few more troubles of note. Relax, these are going to be technical issues, devoid of angry grizzlies.

For one (maybe more. Lost count here), everything in Brave comes across as very tightly controlled, almost measured. A good instance? Why does the humor feel so forced? I mean from the story’s aspect it’s truly not, but the overall feel says otherwise. With all the tension I spoke of above you need something to release the steam valve. But the jokes comes across as not quite organic. They’re almost expected, following in line with the rest of Brave‘s execution. This, like some of the other “softer” stuff in the movie seemed either out of a strict Disney blueprint or otherwise hackneyed. We had a pretty good mother/daughter subplot going on, but it was trite even though it had enough story to elevate it above average. But it was struggling to have its voice heard.

Come to think of it, a voice is what was sorely absent from Brave. I mentioned earlier that the animators at Pixar got their mitts on some new fancy-schmancy tech, which they unleashed with Brave. I said that movie was missing its usual studio flair. Perhaps one could make another argument that the animators were so enraptured with their new toy that stuff like plot, characterization and pacing were left behind in a case of future shock. I’ve already spoken at length about the dissonance Brave had when measured up to Pixar classics (or even Frozen for that matter). This might’ve been a not-so-simple case of form preceding function here. Just a thought. I don’t know.

Whew. Many theories abound. But what’s not theoretical about Brave is the aforementioned animation techniques. Not to be denied, Brave is a very, very pretty film. Even the bouncy scarlet locks of Princess Merida are enough to give the most wizened daddy pause. It’s near perfect CGI, and no denying here that even with a questionable script, the minds at Pixar know how to play some english on them keypads.

The technical aspects or Brave are nothing short of flawless. Forgetting its narrative hiccups for a moment, the gift of the animators at Pixar in creating lush, eye-popping visual paired with classic filmmaking skills are definitely not for want here. Pixar has always been quite adept at “camera work.” I say this in quotes because there are really no traditional cameras used here. It’s all a trick of the light, literally. Put aside any prejudices towards Brave‘s storyline and you’ll find it easy—natural—to enter into the verdant, sprawling world of Merida and Elinor. The forests, the water, the bawdy goings-on in the labyrinthine castle, all of it is a feast for the senses both visual and audio.

Speaking of audio, both Brave‘s sound editing and the soundtrack are awesome (maybe too much so at times, recalling the keening wails from dozens of misled kids). The effects and especially the music were so rich and think you could pour it over pancakes. It really, really enhanced the atmosphere of the whole movie, regardless of its faulty delivery. The sound filled the room, and not in any distracting way either. It was like a warm quilt, holding everything together. I felt—felt—my ears prick up over and over again across 90 minutes, immersed in the progression of a story that, like I said, wasn’t terribly special. The soundtrack tricked me into thinking Brave was. That’s some tech, and I can’t recall that ever happening to me with a movie before. Beyond the gee-whiz THX factor that is (sure my ears were bleeding when I saw Alien: Resurrection, but blame the projectionist falling asleep at the reel. Either that and the stupid plot).

Reeling it in, I feel the greatest issue with Brave as a movie is not its perceived attempt to create its own Disney-flavored princess tale. They tried and fell short. Hell, it happens to even the greatest of heroes, right Achilles? No. The biggest mistake I feel with Brave is that Pixar tried too hard. Maybe in perhaps trying to pay homage to Disney movies or by clear-cutting their own path Pixar lost the plot, figuratively and otherwise. That and the temptation of letting loose some new sparkly in a Bikini Atoll-fevered anticipation. Whatever the motivation, Brave went over stiff and ended up tasting stale, if not outright lame.

One final thing. Brave wasn’t as risky as most Pixar films. Following the template resulted in a stilted attempt to not reinvent the wheel per se, but seemingly deny all the stuff that’s made Pixar’s output so celebrated the past. At first it was just cutting cartoons out of pixels. That alone was enough to make folks flock to Toy Story back in the day. What keep them coming back for Monsters, Inc, A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo and so on was about compelling stories and interesting characters. That and turning classic story tropes on their collective noggins. Pixar does family films, not exclusively kiddie fare. To succeed at that, you gotta take risks. You need to imbue some bitter with the sweet. You should engage in some thoughtful social commentary. You have to shoot Bambi’s mom once in a while. You know, like big, bad ol’ Diz did.

First you learn the rules. Then you break some. Pixar should tear a page from its own book before they drop another drippy sequel or something.

*applying Lewis Black’s growly voice*

“Can I use a swear word now?”

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? With a heavy heart, thy must relent it. Brave‘s not a bad movie. It’s just not a Pixar movie, if you smell my haggis.

Stray Observations…

  • A “will-o’-the-wisp” is traditionally a spirit that escorts the fallen into the afterlife. Just right for a kiddie flick, no?
  • “Feast yer eyes!”
  • Brief ass shots equal a PG rating, and not the violent fighting bears. Thank you, America.
  • “That’s my favorite part!”
  • Hard to believe all this craziness occurred over only two and a half days.
  • “Just remember to smile…”
  • My wife’s biggest issue with Brave was its violence (the knife thing was particularly—forgive the pun—pointed). Not to mention Merida trying (and succeeding) to change her REDACTED. Both were disappointing to the say the least and outright unsettling overall. Even the kid agreed, one of the mewling many at the multiplex then.
  • “Bring the tiny glasses.” Well, it is a big crowd.
  • Did anyone get the Inside Out reference above there? I was trying to be clever. Trying. Where y’all going?
  • “Baer!”

Next Installment…

There’s a massive earthquake ripping across the San Andreas Fault! Do you smell what them rocks are cooking?!?

RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 19: Roland Emmerich’s “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004)

The Day After Tomorrow

The Players…

Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ian Holm and Kenneth Welsh, with Emmy Rossom, Sela Ward, Dash Mihok and Jay O Sanders.

The Story…

Something’s a-stirrin’ in the Atlantic Ocean, and it ain’t just the tuna running.

When Jack Hall, a roguish climatologist and his team nearly perish in an ice flow cracking off the Antarctic shelf, he takes this to be a sign (at the very least) that his theories on climate change might be correct. Despite his credentials and impeccable data, Hall’s claims don’t do much to sway the US government into taking action. There’s been evidence for decades that global warming is a very real thing, and all of Hall’s research might be on to the reason why and maybe how to fix it.

And it’s not just all about a drastic increase in greenhouse gasses.

It’s far worse.

The Rant…

If you’ve been paying attention, the subject of climate change has been quite the hot topic—so to speak—in recent years, both in the scientific and political communities alike. Some claim global warming is due to man-made pollution. Others say it’s part of a natural cycle. A few say both. Most stamp their feet and say neither and return to that Game Of Thrones marathon and their Chex Mix.

Me? I don’t know what to think. I’m no climatologist. I’m not a politician, either (thank you and you’re welcome). But I’ll tell you what I know. Say you work in high places, and some Poindexter with multiple PhDs and a particle collider at the ready approaches you with some data suggesting a possible global catastrophe, wouldn’t you, as an elected government official serving the people’s interests, take at least some pause?

I would. And I have only one term limit: my life, and want to keep it as long as possible.

Hmm. I think this might be my first openly political diatribe here at RIORI. Sure, I’ve dabbled in the kiddie pool of partisan social commentary before. Hell, it’s part of this blog’s raison d’être (and movies. Can’t forget about movies). But actually taking a deliberate stand on a social issue? Not sure.

Too bad. I’m drunk and here we go.

Here’s a tale courtesy of the way-back machine. When I was a kid, way back in the bad ol’ 80s, I became aware of this environmental crisis which swiftly became a major buzz during the drowsy end of the Reagan years. Scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. This layer of weird oxygen surrounds the planet serving to deflect most of the sun’s harmful radiation. Without it, all of humanity would be one big, walking melanoma. Down at the South Pole it went missing, and kinda began to f*ck sh*t up.

And the hole was getting bigger.

And later another hole over the Arctic joined the party.

Then Tibet got bit.

What was up? Turned out that all those aerosol cans of Aqua Net, Lysol and Silly String (yes, Silly String) sprayed over the decades were the culprit. Or rather, what made the stuff spray was to blame. The propellant those things used to pssssht were called chlorofluorocarbons. CFCs. They were found to basically eat ozone when their residue reached the upper atmosphere. And this only took—give or take—a little over fifty years to happen. A veritable blink in Earth’s history. All from a few hundred thousand A/C units churning Freon on a daily basis.

When all the research got added up, the US and many other industrialized nations quickly put a moratorium on CFCs. The disuse of said chemicals didn’t halt the damage to the ozone layer, but it was slowed. But the damage was done, and is still there. The consequence has been, besides the Dali Lama’s bros needing SPF 10,000 to work tai chi, an increase in potential global warming.

This was over thirty years ago, and efforts were made to fix it. Thanks in no small part to the vigilant guys in white coats.

So now. It’s thirty years later. Efforts were made back then and the environmental issue of depleting ozone got addressed, including the offensive chemicals being banned. Still global warming exists. Persists. And the majority of our present elected leaders are breaking their knuckles from jamming their fingers into their ears with force greater than tearing a phone book in two drawn between a pair of tanks (go watch the MythBusters ep). Um, huh? The scientists so esteemed then are but witches and goblins these days as regarded by House and Senate. There is no proof. Look at this snowball I brought in to this hallowed hall of government. Well, if said snowball hailed from Phoenix during July then I might be a tad concerned.

Where did this willful ignorance come from? Sean Hannity? Look, if there were any immediate threats to life on this planet, and the nerds came a-callin’ with their clipboards and slide rules to the powers than be and said, “Wait!” Well, you with your doctorate from Georgetown and not MIT, might be wise to take at least some heed.

Politicians are supposed to uphold the public need—the so-called “greater good”—for their constituency. If some well-educated, well-meaning dude—an expert in their field—pays you a call and tugs on your coat about a potential danger to your much-needed voting community, again, wouldn’t you take pause? At least to prolong the lives of the electoral season ticket holders? Some that even work for ExxonMobil or BP? Some that might be lobbyists possibly holding the unedited cut of the Zapruder film?

I dunno, maybe. Just maybe.

There. Lecture over. Please pass in your Blue Books and class dismissed.

*audience rushes towards the exit, some trampled into a molasses-like smear, now unable to catch the latest Michael Bay movie staring Jim Carrey*

Like I said, I’m neither a scientist nor a politician. I don’t know what’s going on, except that something is going on. In the sky and/or in the halls of Congress. But I reiterate, I’m no expert. If I want to get some facts on climate change, I think it best I consult a real expert.

Good thing I got Dennis Quaid on my contacts list…

The life and work of a dedicated scientist can be harsh. The life and work of a dedicated paleoclimatologist (say that five times fast) screams harsh.

Ask Dr Jack Hall (Quaid). He’s been globetrotting for years, lifetimes away from friends and family, all in search of clues. Clues to how our planet works. Clues to how our endless ice ages advanced and retreated. Clues to what makes the ocean currents tick. And after many years, while posted in Antarctica, Jack might have found some answers. Finally. In the form of a vast chasm that nearly swallows up his entire research party.

Wait. The clues weren’t leading up to this. The Shackleton ice shelf is breaking off into the ocean? Like that? Christ. More clues abound.

Hall has been studying the Earth’s ancient past it see if climate change then predicts climate change now. According to his data, the answer is yes but a helluva lot faster than a few millennia. We’re talking decades now. Maybe just decade. No matter when, the issue of global warming demands attention now. But for all his skills and exhaustive research, Hall’s warnings go all but unheeded by a US subcommittee headed by the man himself, veep Becker (Welsh).

With the global economy on his mind, and America’s place in it, Mr Becker recognizes a potential grave matter in a global catastrophe. However there isn’t enough resources going around to just jarring shift the world’s industrialized nations into a realm of tree huggers. Besides, the planet has fared far worse before humans began littering its atmosphere with greenhouse gases. How dire could this matter be? How rapid could these climate shifts move?

In a word: very.

Despite Congress bending an ear backwards, Hall has at least one advocate in the form of Dr Terry Rapson (Holm). Rapson is more or less Hall’s spiritual mentor regarding climate affecting the planet and vice versa, and since taken a shine to Jack’s work. His experience studying the ocean, particularly the ebb and flow of the North Atlantic Current might be pertinent to Hall’s theories. Perhaps it’s not just global warming that’s messing around with Mother Earth, and it might go beyond the polar caps melting at an alarming rate. Rapson warns there’s a distinct chance that rapid climate change could disrupt the planet’s oceans, namely the currents that serve as Earth’s natural thermostats. If the currents begin to shift—or even fail—we could see a precipitous decline of the world’s temperature, heralding in a new, aggressive ice age.

Chilling. Literally. But Hall and Rapson’s theories are just that: theories. Global warming is unfounded. Ocean currents interrupted is the stuff of textbooks. And neither of these are compelling enough to get the world’s governments’ collective heads together and be proactive. Hall and Rapson, frustrated in their acts of environmental futility, bang their heads against the wall and wonder what’s it gonna take to make the powers that be understand a potential ice age is in the immediate future?

Well, the North Atlantic Current failing is a good start. Tornadoes ripping the West Coast apart might work. How about hurricanes the size of Greenland spewing ice, covering the Northern Hemisphere in fatal, white, fluffy stuff?

Maybe someone’ll pick up the phone then. Right after they find their mittens…

A few months back I dismantled another Roland Emmerich disaster film, White House Down. The movie was a hilarious, unapologetic Die Hard rip-off, with all the hallmarks of an Emmerich big screen clusterf*ck. We had memorable characters spewing chewy dialogue, rife with cheese-tastic one-liners. There were stunts a-plenty that flipped the laws of physics the bird. A bare thread of a plot that strung (heh) the offhand story together. And of course, lots and lots of collateral damage. Let the wild rumpus begin (sorry, wrong movie. Don’t care)!

All the above are trademark Emmerich popcorn fodder. He’s a master of disaster. His neo-catastophe epics harken back to The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, only with big name stars and better pyrotechnics. His movies are designed to be loud, brash and fun, with zero philosophizing and the barest scintilla of coherence. You gotta be in the right mindset to catch one o’ Ronnie’s movies (namely being unpretentious and unplugged). Sometimes you need Solaris, but other times you want Event Horizon.

Emmerich understands this. His work fills a void in the cinematic universe: big, dumb, explosive fun. IMHO, he is the 21st Century king of the “Saturday Afternoon Movie.” You know. Steamy summer weekend. Bored? Have time to kill? Need to unwind? Stream Independence Day on a lazy Saturday. There ya go. It is here where the proverbial hog rolls in its waller. All we need to complete the scene is a sixer. Or a twelver. Whatever works.

*shakes head with a crooked smile*

For some odd reason, The Day After Tomorrow missed working by a hair. And considering the above criteria of a signature Emmerich boomfest, I think I figured out what was lacking this time out. I think I also figured out why a good chunk of his movies do work.

I mean, let’s face facts. All of Emmerich’s films are derivative. This is the point. Let’s keep and maintain the story at its absolute baseline. Let’s amp up the F/X to a ludicrous level. Let’s play connect-the-dots with story progression. Let’s just have fun, people.

But whatever we get out of his films, let’s not ever do these two things:

  1. Get all serious, and;
  2. Have boring, stock characters.

Day committed both these crimes, and that’s why it swiftly got bogged down resulting in a 2-plus hour long slog.

First things first (and this might be a first). Here’s an action movie with a sociopolitical/environmental message. Been done, and seldom well (Steven Segal’s On Deadly Ground springs immediately to mind, unable to be redeemed even by Michael Caine’s gravitas). It’s a tricky thing to make a mainstream movie with a serious message to get out to the masses. Socially relevant movies are as old as the medium (e.g. Birth Of A Nation) and all over the place. If you take a breath, all movies are socially relevant, from Silver Linings Playbook to the Watchmen adaptation (you can read those reviews here :)). Movies are farting out loud with social issues; the skill is executing such a movie without being too obvious or—heaven forbid—preachy. Emmerich’s movies are at their best when they don’t tax your neocortex too much. When they don’t act as a churchkey popping open a fresh can of paint. We want popcorn. We want jokes. We want boom. Boom, I tell you!

We don’t want the Weather Channel, no matter how well the writers did their homework.

There’s nothing wrong with having a big deal disaster film tackle so prickly a matter as climate change. Al Gore and friends did a pretty good job. If you think about it (something I don’t openly endorse regarding an Emmerich film), Earthquake and The China Syndrome were about environmental disasters, and both achieved what Day failed to: generate interest.

As I’ve said before, the glue that holds a story together and keeps it humming along, be it novel or movie, is tension. For all the chaos seeing Mama Nature at her worst time of the month, Day suffers from an acute lack of urgency. I know. Despite at the outset Hall and Rapson tell us about the ensuing weather calamity, when the sh*t goes down there’s a lot of tripping over feet. Stuttering. Sure, there are a lot of the the key Emmerich touches of crash and wow, but they stagger. Why? Mostly lousy editing.

Day comes across as too self-aware, especially with the heavy-handed environmental message in tow. The self-aware factor in Emmerich’s movies are always there, though. It’s that when it’s winking, it works. The goofiness factor of his films—be it with story, acting or pyrotechnics—make the flaws go down a lot easier. Just a little bit of sugar with the urine.

Day lacks that. It’s a fickle movie, in mood and execution. The film’s whole atmosphere, so to speak, is cranky and pessimistic. The story drags out in a terribly over-serious, PSA kind of way. It’s a cautionary tale with a very large budget and banks of digital tech (over)driving the message home. Now a lot of Emmerich’s films—if not all—have a message of caution. Be it the dread of an impending alien invasion, science going too far or governments sleeping with the enemy, it’s all a hook for his movies. It mostly works, but when his stuff gets too self-aware (read: self-important) as it does in Day, the helium goes out of the balloon. The urgency gets lost in the scuffle, and the actions scenes are like so many bookends encapsulating the message, always with the message. In short, Day got too serious for its own good.

Secondly, a great deal of Emmerich’s success relies on his movies’ casting. There’s a lot of awkward wedging of human drama into Day, video feeds or no, which ain’t Emmerich’s typical MO. It’s not organic here like his usual fare, for all its wanton and welcome (and in this case, needful) silliness. So take pause and listen up. I know you’re not gonna like this, and it might want to make you slam the book shut forever. I’m telling this for your own, movie-going good. It is true, but it is not necessarily fair:

Independence Day was a ridiculous film with a scattershot plot lifted from a billion S/F “alien invasion” films. It was derivative. It was obvious. And if you took a nanosecond to pick apart the plot holes, a singularity would occur over your head and all your memories would be transmogrified into the liner notes of a mid-70s Rush album.

But it sure was fun. Vintage Emmerich. Damn the torpedoes!

Why did ID4 work, what with all its contrivances? Casting. The folks at the casting call did their homework when it came to selecting dramatic personae for the mid-ninties update of Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers. We had fresh-faced Will Smith in all his winking, charming glory. We had eternal nerd Jeff Goldblum. There was the poor man’s Harrison Ford, stony Bill Pullman. Whack job Randy Quaid, Sage Judd Hirsch. Oscar-winner Mary McDonnell. The late, great character actor James Rebhorn as the irritant. Then piece-of-ass-of-the-moment Vivica A Fox. ID4 even had Commander Data, for Pete’s sake. With that eclectic line-up, how could a summer movie not entertain?

All of Emmerich’s movies feature ramshackle casting; folks you’d never see communing together except at a bar. With the example of ID4, it was a fun film, but not a good film. It was redeemed by its colorful cast. Pitting Kurt Russell and James Spader against the tranny from The Crying Game was great, chewy fun for Stargate (it didn’t spawn multiple TV series for nothing). Foxx and Tatum in White House Down made for a funny Abbott and Costello dynamic. Such casting saved potential turkeys from the sticky cinema floor because it kept the movies engaging. The characters held our attention, and quite well.

The casting aspects never quite gel in Day. It’s not for lacking a great cast, the classic Emmrich ace-in-the-hole. I love Dennis Quaid, and he’s no stranger to sci-fi action films. I remember his roles in nifty B-movie homages like Dreamscape, Enemy Mine, Wilder Napalm and Innerspace. Hell, there was that recent s/f calamity tale Pandorum where he got to play the demented bad guy. His bro did great in ID4. With Dennis’ credentials, he should’ve been a round peg here.

Nope. His Jack Hall, although in reliable Quaid form, is stiff, disconnected. He doesn’t really engender much empathy from the audience. Sure, he’s the pinion on which the plot spins. He’s a got a solid backstory (also derivative, but I’ve already hinted at giving Emmerich a pass about this). He’s got family issues. He’s got drive. And he is wanting for an emotional investment from the audience. The Quaid movies I mentioned above were fun because he hammed it up some. This is an Emmerich film. Isn’t the hero supposed to crack wise with regularity? Not with Hall. It’s all shrugs and worry. Again, I blame the subtle-as-neon message up against the neck. It robs the movie of any potential verve.

Let’s talk about the rest of our players, shall we? Like I intimated, Day isn’t lacking for an eclectic cast. Holm is a delightful character actor, and I remember him best from his role as the psychotic android in the original Alien as well as the fidgety priest in The Fifth Element. His acting chops are terribly underused here. His Rapson was so terribly laid-back in Day, the calm voice of reason and/or herald of impending danger. Sure, it’s nice to have at least someone keeping their sh*t together in the face of impossible odds of survival, but I’ve watched Holm freak out, and it would’ve added some spice here. Kinda like smooth operator Captain Kirk losing his crackers in the original Star Trek ep “The Enterprise Incident” (what? Too abstract? Too bad, film nerds).

What I found rather amusing about the casting in Day (besides trying to accept him as a teenager) was seeing Jake Gyllenhaal in all his pre-Oscar glory. Jeez, Bubble Boy has come a long way. In Day, young Jake doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself. His character is terribly awkward, and not because of his obvious geekiness. He appears aware that he was too old to play a teen, and being a young man unable to convince himself of acting so otherwise. That and his Sam is a cipher. Isn’t the whole strained father/son dynamic over and done yet? I know that Emmerich likes to play with classic Hollywood character tropes, giving spin. No spin with Sam. He’s rote, that and totally lacking any chemistry with Quaid, especially when their interactions get mawkish by the third act. It’s a shame what with these two usually reliable actors.

Now Welsh as VP Becker was a stitch. There was a none-too-subtle analogy going on there with a Cheney/Bush portrait (and Perry King as the bewildered Prez with maybe only one line of stumbling dialogue drove the point home). Welsh was the only interesting character in the whole movie. Sure, he was the “bad guy” and they always get the best lines, but it was how they were delivered that mattered. It’s easy to peg a villain that twirls his mustache. It’s more interesting to try and peg an antagonist who carries themselves so calmly and rationally as an antagonist. Remember Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter? He wasn’t the villain. Ostensibly it was Buffalo Bill, but Lecter was calm and calculating. Bill was clearly disturbed. Who won the Oscar? Now no, Welsh didn’t eat anyone, but he exuded slimy confidence of a dyed-in-wool politician that would never accidentally shoot a hunting buddy in the face. This appeals to me (not the shooting-in-the-face part. Sorry).

Sela Ward was pretty. Moving on.

Enough grousing. There were some aspects of Day I dug. You gotta find the sweet amidst the bitter, right? I think I spent enough time being bitter here for now. Instead, how ’bout those signature Emmerich F/X? As always, strategic and dazzling. The weather effects are great. They’re also totally plausible. Over the top, yes, but the “atmospheric anomalies” kind of reminded me of a Jack Kirby comic. What he drew didn’t exist, but looked like it should. Even those multiple tornado touchdowns in LA could never happen (based on the laws of physics, which are rigorously never adhered to in an Emmerich movie, thank God) looked like they should’ve happened, at least within the context of the story.

Apropos of nothing, I’d be remiss to mention that Day—for all its awesome spectacle—got a lot of flak for so much urban collateral damage so relatively soon after 9/11. This must’ve hurt the box office takeaway. I don’t think any terrorist attack undercurrent was part of Emmerich’s story, but people can be a might fickle regarding a city under siege, be it a bomb or a hurricane. This possible oversight on the studio’s behalf might’ve done some damage to the movie’s rep (but I think the fragile acting might’ve been a more likely culprit).

Day did have another significant thing going for it. My darling, bitchy muse pacing was sated here. Despite the bumbling plot and protracted running time, the movie had a mostly smooth pace. I know, I know. How can that be with all my moaning and groaning about lackluster story and clunky acting? Well, we understand the plot was convoluted and at times felt kind of non-linear (not to mention lacking in following interior logic, but hey again, Emmerich movie), but it strangely all hung together well. The subplots, though generally unnecessary, didn’t muddle the flow of the film. The overall muted acting didn’t distract from the story’s momentum. Despite all the other hiccups, Day rolled along with nary a hitch in context. I think that last bit’s the key. In context. I guess with this aspect, the sum was greater than its parts. If only in this aspect.

Lightening up, let’s not forget the funny. Like with all Emmerich films, there’s a good deal of humor in Day. I’m not gonna get into (again) the whole Bill Shakespeare thing. I lamented earlier that this film needed a healthy dose of silliness. While not on par with the hijinks of ID4Day had its tongue-in-cheek moments. Seems all that overarching self-awareness wasn’t lost on our heroes winking understanding about how ridiculous and surreal their circumstances are. And they are ridiculous. Emmerich hasn’t lost sight of screwiness here, even though it gets all bleary with needless melodrama and an overly serious message. Some comedy is better than none when the entire planet’s atmosphere is malfunctioning, I guess.

I’ve found precious few directors who can so cleanly set up shop the way Emmerich does, making their movies their signature own. Spielberg, Scorsese, Zemekis, Gilliam, Fellini and Kurosawa are others (not to name-drop). Now I’m not placing Emmerich in their camp, not exactly, but you have to respect a filmmaker who knows his station and can sell it so well to audiences. To be so unashamed to lay it so think like so much peanut butter that audiences get all up in that. Like I said in the White House Down installment, Emmerich’s stuff is such silly fun, and not designed to win any awards (barring Best Visual Effects and most ka-booms per frame).

With Day, the man slipped up a bit. Sure, all the nuts and bolts were there to make it another surefire Emmerich blockbuster, but the parts weren’t connected properly. Too many loose ends. Too much philosophizing. Not enough one-liners. No Jeff Goldblum. You hear what I’m screaming.

I repeat, Emmmerich is the modern day king of the disaster film (maybe the only king), a sub genre that’s been more or less absent until his rise to power with ID4. We need chaos and creation like his. We need stupid stunts and even stupider jokes. We all need to sit back, get all comfy with our Slim Jims, turn on one of his films and let them delta waves do their thing. It’s just that simple. And Day was not. It was a fantastic, visually-rich disappointment. It was also a movie of contradictions in execution. Smooth pacing, jerky storyline. Great cast, lame acting. Interesting plot, preachy story. Again, screaming.

If there was one message I got from Day—besides the subtle-as-neon enviro one—it was this. One for Emmerich, actually: You be you, so don’t make us think. Keep that ID4 sequel nice and goony and maybe I’ll return your calls, just so long as a colossal electric storm doesn’t drop over the Eastern seaboard and generates enough amps to create an EMP to wipe out all the cell towers from here to Venus.

Don’t forget to recycle!

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Sorry, folks. If you’re looking for style over substance, look elsewhere. Just watch out for the storm front first.

Stray Observations…

  • I really dug the opening credits. Cool camera work.
  • Emmerich sure likes to do a lot of globetrotting in his movies.
  • Nice touch with the tree flick in the foyer.
  • Erasing the Hollywood sign? Roland you sly devil, you.
  • “So much for one in a billion…”
  • What was Tomita up to between here and Karate Kid 2?
  • “Terrible weather!” “Tell me about it!”
  • Amazing service that lady in the library has.
  • “We’re all gonna need it.”
  • “There’s a whole section on tax law down here we can burn.” Come to your own conclusions.
  • “Just dropped in to do a little shopping.”
  • Thank you for not showing Sanders’ impact. A rare display of restraint on Emmerich’s part.
  • “Have you ever seen the sky so clear?”

Next Installment…

Disney leads Pixar Studios into a Brave new world, and the results are rather pretty. Maybe too pretty.