RIORI Vol 3, Installment 24: Joel Schumacher’s “Trespass” (2011)



The Players…

Nicolas Cage, Nicole Kidman, Ben Mendelsohn, Liana Liberato and Cam Gigandet, with Jordana Spiro and Dash Mihok.

The Story…

When wealthy diamond merchant Kyle Miller returns home to his personal Fort Knox one evening, he finds more than a lukewarm pot roast awaiting him. A typical night after work in his fortress becomes a hostage crisis of the first order.

Thieves infiltrate his home, take him and his wife hostage and proceed to dissect the house for a serious diamond score. But it quickly escalates from a battle for the Miller’s freedom and possible lives to a battle of wills. Turns out the Millers and the thieves have very divergent reasons to keep the diamonds with their rightful owners.

Namely nobody.

The Rant…

All right. Let’s talk about directing.

I guess it’s weird for after nearly a jillion installments of RIORI that your sometimes humble blogger is getting around to how a film is directed. I admit I don’t know the barest scintilla of rodent rectum about how a film is, well, filmed. I understand it involves some guy (it’s almost always a guy. Womens’ Lib only got as far as the boardroom it appears in ol’ Hollyweird), that lens hanging from his neck and possesses an imperative to shove actors around as his charges to speak and move to best move the script along. I’m paraphrasing here. Remember: rodent rectum.

I’ve heard of an old saw saying that the director is the “author” of the movie. All that prodding and chess-like moves amongst the actors, camera techs, writers and caterers converge to create a story. This concept is often referred to “auteur theory.” The whole “directer-as-author” of the movie.

I think this is all bullish*t. If you’ve ever stuck around for the end credits rolling—and watching Ferris Bueller for the umpteenth time don’t count, sorry—there is this massive list of folks that had a hand in making a movie possible. Hence the term credits. Plural. And the director’s name isn’t often listed then, save if it wasn’t dropped in the opening credits. My point is dozens of people contribute to getting the movie from stage to screen. Why does the director get almost all the credit?

I think it has something to do with creating a signature. All that pulling and poking ultimately makes the final say (pre-editing, o’ course) in what makes the final cut. But just the director? What about the scenarist? Without a good script as the baseline—you know, the f*cking story?—where does the director start?

This undoes auteur theory (and Peter Bogdanovich can go suck it) as far as I’m concerned. But the signature thing remains. I mean, when you watch a Martin Scorsese movie, be it Taxi Driver or GoodFellas or even The Age Of Innocence, you know damn well as fast that it’s a f*cking Scorsese film. There’s a signature. A feel. It’s what gets butts in the seats as endgame. An amalgam of writing and prodding. Direction. And in the final analysis, the pairing of these two elements create said signatures.

Hold on. I hear some you bitching, “Wait. What about genre directors, like James Cameron with his SF/action-adventure pics (and yes, that includes Titanic, sorry to admit if only for the third act)? Or John Hughes with his teen comedies? Or even Scorsese himself with his urban dramas, Johnny Boy? What about them, smart guy?”

Okay, first gimme back my beer. Second, genre doesn’t dictate signature, you follow? Spielberg, Zemekis and Gilliam have all tackled different genres. But they all have a unique spin and style. Comic book and SF writer Peter David (met the man once. Cool dude with a jaw that would not quit. Not that way, you perv) dropped this science once saying that not only is auteur theory bunk, but also making a film is really a collaboration between director and scenarist that “writes” a movie. If you want to properly credit the masterminds behind a movie, the opening should conclude with “A Film By Whoever and Some Other Guy.” Between such two nabobs—splat—we get either Oscar gold or Velveeta.

It depends on the meeting of the minds in how the aforementioned signature is created. Really classy directors bring aboard really sharp writers to make their vision come to life. Like Scorsese and Schrader. Or Cameron and Hurd. Or Zemekis and Some Other Guy. Banging those yin/yang heads together can make for some really good movies.

However—and there is always a however here. It’s almost RIORI’s reason for being—there are some director’s signatures that are at best infamous and at worse insulting. Like “Here America. Some more mindless pap designed to make you feel ever stupider and rob you of your cash/time. Again. More nachos?” I think such sh*t directors are less than discerning when it comes to scripts. I ain’t talking the journeymen guys who show up to just get the job over and done, only later to queue up for the paycheck, well aware merch with cover the budget over actual ticket sales. Also perhaps such hacks have such a dangerously fevered imagination that their latest work may be the pinnacle—their cherry on the sundae—of their legacy. Stupid egos that desperately need deflating, but there’s nary a needle in sight.

I’m looking at you Schumacher. So have a lot of other movie fans.

Joel Schumacher is the consummate hack. He churns and burns. He cranks out derivative movie after baffling movie. When his stuff is good, it’s okay. When it’s bad (and it often is), it’s insulting and embarrassing. Here I will mention Batman And Robin and that will be all. I don’t think his output hangs on his scenarists. I don’t think he cares.

Granted a lot of directors hire on questionable screenwriters. I mean, although I enjoy quite a few of Roland Emmerich’s potboilers, I don’t think the guy gives in to lousy scripts. He just puts them into his Cuisinart and cranks out fun, for good or for ill. Schumacher on the other hand seems so blinded by his maverick and alleged talents that any ol’ scribbles will satisfy his fevered muse. See Mommy? Look how clever I’m directing! Christ.

It’s amazing how with the first shots of a movie a director makes his signature known. If you’re familiar with a given director—cinephile or no—you can figure out in second-31 what you’re in for. Again with the examples: Scorsese’s Taxi Driver with its rain. Cameron’s The Abyss with its claustrophobia. Spielberg’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark with its Amazon tomb.

Can any one of you recall an inviting opening in a Schumacher film? Probably not. But you have an indelible image of bat nipples forever scarring your brain. Now there’s a directorial signature, regardless of the writer. Regardless of anything resembling considerate filmmaking.

Hey, Mom! Lookee what I’m directin’ now…

A man’s home is his castle, as the old saying goes. For affluent diamond merchant Kyle Miller (Cage), his home is more like a fortress.

Miller has been a prominent, if not the prominent diamond dealer on the West Coast millions, millions of dollars in industrial grade diamonds have passed under his monocle over the years. To say his reputation precedes him is akin to saying the Sahara is a tad warm.

With all that money and all that responsibility, Kyle’s spacious mansion serves as the hub of his business. The man needs to keep his property under tight scrutiny, and his state-of-the-art “smart house” not only provides home and hearth for him, his wife Sarah (Kidman) and teenage daughter Avery (Liberato) but also every angle of modern security systems that tech can offer.

Neither his wife nor daughter are completely aware about the delicate balance Kyle must maintain between security and “security.” Nor do they fully understand Kyle’s obsession with “need to know” information. There’s the matter of business security, but virtually blocking out the world? They suspect Kyle is hiding something beyond the diamond vault.

Actually, it’s more like they’re all hiding something. And what they’re hiding is just what master thief Elias (Mendelsohn) and his crew aim to find out.

A man’s home is his castle, as the old saying goes. But with the Miller’s high-end, Fort Knox-esque compound riddled with (almost) impenetrable security protocols, their castle may just end up being their—and their intruders—prison.

On second thought, crucible seems more apt…

Like with The Watcher, there was a good idea under all the gunk in Trespass. Where the former film was cluttered with cliches and lackluster acting that brought the film down, Trespass took a left turn. Its plot was a good one, and has been applied forever before. Crime caper with psychological drama generated by a Stockholm Syndrome hostage crisis shaken and stirred with a Rashomon-like multi-perspective story device. To greater or lesser degrees, Courage Under Fire, Memento and even Clue were pretty decent examples. Despite those movies’ possessing the above criteria, regardless of genre, they made senseTrespass played out like a poor man’s Panic Room slapped together against a circus-like version of Misery. This should sound cool. It ain’t.

Before I go off on a (further) rant, let’s carefully take Trespass apart, top to bottom.

First, the core of a good idea getting lost in the shuffle. Trespass had a very good storyline, used before and mostly foolproof. Hostage crisis getting increasingly tense played against a heist that goes awry. Pretty basic stuff, until the histrionics start. Referring back to Rashomon—essentially a murder mystery—the small cast does a lot of finger pointing as to who killed whom and for what reason. All the dramatis personae have highly personal reasons to unravel the truth/mete out justice (or at least just deserts). Rather simple in the endgame.

Trespass was decidedly not simple. The film had its expected twists and turns when it came to a mystery movie. We had that whole basic hostage crisis thing going on and a pseudo-Stockholm plight (poor Sweden) allowing claustrophobic tension. Common tropes.

We also got Schumacher’s kitchen sink storytelling gone all pear-shaped. Trespass had to be the most convoluted movie of its ilk, and to stir the soup further only in fits and starts. The movie was like an onion in reverse. Instead of peeling back the layers, Schumacher kept on adding layers only to later peel them back. And eventually cutting the proverbial onion in half come the third act. He made simple characters and their motives basic at first, then upped the ante with highly personal stakes, then tore them away and back, then laid the butter on thick, then crumbling the muffin up and descending into directing an action movie. There was such a rapid sh*tstorm of onion-flavored vinaigrette that come credit time I scratched my dizzy head and asked, “Um, what just happened?” And not in a fun way either, say like with the oddly amusing No Way Out or even the chilling Blair Witch Project. Trespass played like it had no way…okay, that’s cheesy. Well simply put, Schumacher tried to jam in too much into a film that required a scraped-to-the-metal execution. Worked for the Oscar winning Rashomon (and I’ll try to quit referring to that film from here on out. Try).

Next, the acting. Such a caper film demanded efficiency. The character’s backstories should’ve been stripped to the bone. Too much data overload and one tends to get lost. A lot of that doesn’t necessary pertain to the characters’ backgrounds per se. It’s how it’s conveyed, and a great deal of that depends on the actors themselves, or at least their acting styles. Trespass has the fortune (and perhaps misfortune) of two established Oscar winners as the leads. Despite the fact that Trespass is Schumacher’s attempt at a grim B-movie potboiler, some reliable A-listers signed on. We got Nic Cage (who has made questionable movie after questionable movie for the past 20 years ever since he got his statuette for Leaving Las Vegas) and Nicole Kidman (who looks like here she’s either chasing a paycheck or wouldn’t pony up for Swedish massage. I guess that’s sorta Stockholm-like). One has made a career of manic overacting to the edge of ridiculously entertaining. The other…is from Australia.

Speaking of chasing a paycheck, Cage hasn’t seemed to turn down a script in the past two decades either. Instead of tearing the guy a new one, I gotta face up and say that Cage is a hella fun actor. Sure most of his…okay almost all his roles have been dopey at best for years now, but he’s such a ham it’s hard not to like his work. Call it Shatner Syndrome here. His overacting is the stuff or greatness, and his exaggerated body language is almost clownish, but oddly effective (however I felt Nic’s injured, inflamed hand was a shade much). Here in Trespass, was Cage channeling H.I. from Raising Arizona in an upwardly mobile guise? How different is that character than manic, panicky, rubbery Kyle? Granted the motivations were different in Trespass, but a Cage performance is a Cage performance, tongue-in-cheek histrionics and all of that. As always, Cage is at least his most—wait for it—cagey (I regret nothing).

Kidman wanted to be elsewhere. Anywhere else besides the Trespass sound set. For such a dynamic actress, she sure was going through the motions here. From the glassy stares to the almost willowy presence to her stock damsel in distress cum mama bear stance all of it came off as dry, boring and not believable. A shame. I can understand a high-profile actor slumming once in a while for fun. I can even understand Kidman wanting to have a little fun like Cage has been (like he needs more fun in his work there, Johnny Blaze), but she sure didn’t look like she was having fun. She barely seemed awake.

Now, you wanna know what I think? I think Kidman and Cage were a ruse. Trespass was really a stage for newb actors, a launchpad. You know what a “springboard” movie is? Probably not, since I made up the term. But since I’ve seen more movies than Alex has raped, so I think I’m entitled to a few creative liberties here and there. So listen up, bitches. There is probably a proper term for a movie/role that brings attention to an actor. I’m calling it the springboard. I’m not talking about a “breakout role” here, like Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. I’m talking about an actor who rises above the dreck and stands out, maybe even eclipsing the big name stars. Mendelson did this here. His Elias was the only engaging character in all 91 minutes of Trespass. Sure, he might’ve had a young Tom Waits as a vocal coach, but Mendelsohn’s Elias infused the corny, often lame dialogue (amidst even the rest of the cast) with a degree of charm and and honesty that he was the only role that felt fleshed out, even if he was still the stock, desperate thief. Also, how he carried himself screamed desperate criminal (and the electrical tape thing was a nice touch). He and his fellow villains may be stock, and Mendelsohn comes across as a poor man’s Gary Oldman, but hell, at least the whole lot are interesting, if only for being campy. Like I’ve said, though: it ain’t the notes, it’s how they’re played. Mendelsohn gave us a good jam session in Trespass, and I’d like see him in more movies (just not like this one).

Now it be time for the technical stuff here, so let’s go to the tool bench. I said earlier that Trespass felt like Schumacher’s attempt at a B-movie potboiler. A deliberate attempt. He sorta succeeded here. Trespass possesses all the trademark cheese that comes with a low budget thriller, and these were good things believe it or not. Actually, the weak stuff balanced out the better stuff pretty well. It all resulted in some dumb fun, with the emphasis on dumb.

Trespass played out like a 21st Century take on Ten Little Indians. Except instead of murder, we got vengeance. Everyone in the cast—everyone—has their own motives to keep the diamonds where they are (even though the diamonds are a sort of Maltese Falcon seeing that REDACTED). I’ll tell you this, the body count is low, but in the tradition of most B-movie fodder, there is so much over emotive folderol the cheese level got raised to Pepper Jack Velveeta and whatever violence goes down it’s less cringe and more “Huh?” I figure there’s a time for Tim Roth’s dying words and one for a cream pie to the face.

The dialogue is incredibly lame and overreaching, but dotted with enough clever shots that the final result in overall corny, but not outright insulting. In other words, we got you the best knock-knock joke you’ve never heard. Curious? Where you going? Kinda funny sh*t, intentional or otherwise. And what makes it really funny is how overwrought it all was. Schumacher was attempting towards an intense, desperate measures duality thriller. How our cast expressed themselves played out like a fifth grade play, but so goofy you couldn’t help but play along in turn (check out some of the select quotes below).

I think the critic at AllMovie missed the point here. He lacerated this trifle. True, Trespass is a crappy movie, virtually branded with The Standard on its reel (or whatever they use these days. Holograms?). But maybe seeing this gunk required the proper lenses. Is there such a thing as a comedic thriller? Maybe, if you count every Friday The 13th installment after the one with Corey Feldman (it’s true. Look it up if I don’t believe you). Overall, Trespass falls under the aegis of the “Saturday Afternoon Movie.” You could crash in front of F/X come 2 PM and waste some time. You’d never drop ten bucks to see this stuff in the theatre. But maybe you could point your soon-to-be former friends.

So it goes. No worries. The next time out, Schumacher will get ever more clever and lure you in again. Maybe next time it’ll be Henry Ibsen with robots.

*spit take*


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. You want a good, amusing diamond heist film? Try…anything but this. There is such a thing as trying to be too clever, cushioned by cheeze or…Gotta go. Mom’s pounding at the door, screaming about abusing creative license. And my REDACTED.

Stray Observations (No notable moments, just quotes)

  • “Mom’s being arbitrary and inflexible.” Hooked On Phonics worked for Avery.
  • “I stay stupid, you go to jail.” Stay stupid, Nic. Keep staying stupid.
  • “What’nd he good??”
  • “That’s the way you want it, yuppie?” Who uses the term “yuppie” anymore?
  • “Or the kid.”
  • “Hey buddy, cuz I want to tell you a story.”
  • “You have an assh*le for a doctor.” Not a bad thing for a proctologist though.
  • “Don’t ya just love surprises?”

Next Installment…

RIORI is gonna take a break for a while so me and the fam can take in some guaranteed fun films—ones that don’t (and shouldn’t) bear much scrutiny—for a change. I need to educate the wifey on the wonders that are the key James Bond flicks. Also, since the 8-year old has been pestering me about The Force Awakens, I feel obligated to introduce her to the original trilogy, as well as the prequels (shaddap).

So Merry Xmas for now. See you next year. When we return—and maintaining a sense of continuity, at least at my end—Star Wars fans asked what went askew with the prequels? It might’ve been a virulent Attack Of The Clones. Let’s misuse The Force now, dig it.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 23: Donald Petrie’s “Just My Luck” (2006)


The Players…

Lindsay Lohan and Chris Pine, with Fasion Love, Missi Pyle, Samaire Armstrong, Bree Turner and MacKenzie Vega.

The Story…

Ashley has always been gifted with uncanny luck. Without even trying, everything in her upwardly mobile, cosmopolitan life always ends up on the sunny side. From cinching a crucial deal at her job to landing a date with Mr Tall, Dark and Handsome, she has a lucky streak a mile long.

Jake, however, more easily catches a disease than a cab. Perpetually broke, sh*tty digs, managing a going-nowhere pop band who is fast tiring of his empty promises, Jake is the picture of hard luck. It’s not as if he invites his hardships. They just seem to be waiting for ’round every corner.

It only takes a chance encounter between these two opposites for their fates to swap. And it takes no time for either to get what they so desperately need: a reversal of fortune.

Best of luck to both Ashley and Jake. For better and for worse.

The Rant…

A while back I dissected The Canyons starring Lindsay Lohan. It was a bewildering movie; not good and not outright bad. It fell within the confines of The Standard, but befuddled me so that I couldn’t give it a straight rent it or relent it judgment. A first, maybe an only. One of the aspects of the movie was Lohan’s role, Tara, slashing all ties with her prior movies and “good girl” imagery. Before The Canyons, Lilo specialized in comedies, most with a family-friendly bent. Either to satisfy her muse or forcibly eradicate her connections to kiddie fodder, she enlisted in a Paul Schrader-penned, tawdry, Hollywood murder mystery and git nekkid a lot in the process. Again, wasn’t sure what to make of it all. The movie, not the boobie parts.

I guess it ain’t no big shocker after the lampoon Machete and the mutant giallo I Know Who Killed Me that the girl signed up for The Canyons. I mean, what did you expect her to do with her career? Three more installments of Herbie: Fully Loaded? Even I’d go postal as an actor following that route (look what happened to the two Coreys. Same poop, different scoop). I figure The Canyons was her absolute declaration that her Disney days were over, severed with soft-core.

Suffice to say her acting career took a rough turn—an understatement to say the least—after abandoning the comedy market. Hard to say if it was the questionable “adult” roles or unadulterated street drugs (probably both) that undid her sterling career. One could probably also blame Instagram, but don’t ask me for sure.


Still she had a good thing going with those simple comedic films. Freaky Friday, Mean Girls, A Prairie Home Companion, all good and entertaining comedies. Her characters were witty, sardonic and enjoyable as well as minimally cloying and tongue-in-cheek (check out her hosting SNL back in the early 00s. She knew which side of the cradle stank the worse). LiLo was funny, had good timing and being a cutie didn’t hurt none.

Things change (again, the street drug thing).

I am willing to wager that this comedy—most likely final comedy—was impetus for the change of direction. This week’s chucklefest began to show the curtains’ edge fraying, but not for a lack of worthwhile material.

More on that later. Now let’s take a walk with Lohan down the streets of NYC, where her fictional as well as actual fate took a turn. Hard to say if it was for the worse…

Being a single gal in New York, as it’s often said, can be tricky. Ask Carrie Bradshaw. Career can get tough. Lots of smarmy, wolfy guys on the prowl. Expenses up the ass. The stress of merely catching a cab could make the most of composed women tear their coppery hair out.

Ashley Albright (Lohan) never has to worry about anything, nabbing a ride or otherwise. The ley lines of the universe always converge beneath her Calvin Klein boots, found on sale at Macy’s forgotten on the bargain rack at 75% off. The sun always shines on her shoulders. She has a flash, rent-controlled apartment (hard to find in the City after Nixon was elected). She’s the rising star at her job at a posh ad agency. And to her friends’ amazement, uncannily adept at scratch-off lottery tickets. Life’s a lucky breeze for Ashley.

Jake Hardin (Pine), on the other hand, just catches bus fumes. Always behind in rent. First to have a pigeon sh*t on him on a cloudless day, only soon to commence pissing down rain, soaking his tearing, Salvo clothes. His dream job managing an up-and-coming rock band always taking a backseat to plunging toilets as his “backup” job at the local bowling alley. Yep, Jake is bad luck personified, rusty horseshoes continuously clunking down on his head. You know what they say, it could get worse. Jake’s just waiting for the worse to let up and let the worst to drop in on his miserable life.

Still, Jake maintains hope. He has the utmost assuredness that his band, McFly, can really go places. All he and they need is some representation with muscle.

Enter music mogul Damon Phillips (Love), the most powerful producer in the City.

Wait. Enter Ashley first.

Much to her boss’, esteemed ad exec Peggy Braden’s (Pyle) delight, Ashley spun some of her infallible, lucky wheeler-dealing and snagged Phillips as a premier client. How? Why not a big masquerade ball? A bash of who’s who before anyone know who’s who? Perfect! Phillips loves it, and Ashley is vaulted from her cubicle to a private office with a company credit card! Let fortune shine!

Such a big party does not go unnoticed, so now enter Jake. If Phillips is there, Jake might be able to score McFly a deal by sneaking the big guy a demo and set them all on the track to the big time. Just so long Jake’s bad luck doesn’t intervene. And he has a quick dalliance with New York’s luckiest woman. And saves Phillips from an accident. And…and…and…

And is that a limo to drive Jake back to his new, luxury apartment?

Meanwhile, Ashley breaks the heel of her pump. And nearly chokes. And gets sh*tcanned.

It only gets better from there…

So Lohan scored well as a comedic actress. She had a good thing going. Fluffy sure, but a good thing nonetheless.

But the world of comedy has a fickle audience. What got belly laughs in the Andrew “Dice” Clay 80s gave way to sardonic observations in the Jerry Seinfeld 90s lead to the obnoxious, goofiness in the Dane Cook 00s. Comedy is always in flux, and the audience is always changing. Opinions if not core interests. What flew then may flop now.

I’m not saying that Luck was unfunny outright, nor was Lohan missing her comic spark. Also, there are some comedy devices that either are key signatures of the genre and/or are universal themes that transcend pop cultural tastes as did this movie had. The issue I took with Luck is with all its classic, screwball romcom themes, everything came across as muted. I ain’t talking low key here. I’m talking wrestling with the snooze alarm and losing muted.

Pace drags. Moving on.

Luck played like a watered down Mark S Waters project. Hell, it could’ve been one his films, what with Lohan on board and the bittersweet atmosphere of the movie, but there are unshakable trappings at work here. Maybe be even sinister.

Okay, a bit dramatic. Still, there’s this subtle cruelty in Luck‘s story dynamics. That muted feeling I mentioned didn’t just apply to the execution of classic romcom standards, but also an undercurrent of meanness for two-thirds of the film. It was like we as an audience to were expected wait on baited breath for the next sh*tball for Ashley to field, and therein laid the fun. Not to mention how Jake’s meteoric rise to fame and fortune was more like privilege than hard-earned (yo, Hollywood: ‘Muricans love the underdog overcoming their adversities, not just getting a handout. This kinda undoes some tension, always vital to creating a good story). Neither side of the dynamic was hopeful nor satisfying for a movie make.

I’ll quit lecturing. But you gotta agree, negativity is a helluva way to turn off your average romcom audience. Happened here. It had it on good authority (read: the IMDb) a lot of folks found Luck not only unfunny and lacking spark but also possessing a sour taste in the mouth. Paraphrasing here. Terms like “canned” and “forced” also dappled amateur reviews. I had to agree, but I’d like to believe that my loose cannon lens wasn’t so myopic.

I’d like to believe that. But let’s try anyway.

Like I mentioned earlier, the film was lame but not wanting for quality material. Huh? What’s that? A muted, somewhat mean-spirited love story had a stripe of quality running through it? Well kinda. On a second thought, Luck wasn’t exactly muted. It was cluttered with devices trying to be disguised with traditional romcom elements. The flick was a throwback to late-50s/early-60s romantic comedies/dramas. Think Breakfast At Tiffany’s or The Apartment. Bittersweet. Luck came across as just bitter. Sure, it had the mismatched would-be lovers, the struggles of living in The Big City (almost always NYC), stereotypical but not quite cutout characters who eventually “find/save” one another, a heartwarming resolution. The whole wad (no cats to rescue, still it might’ve helped here).

What went wrong here is that almost everything in Luck screamed “called it in.” Stock everything that almost hit the mark. It’s shame for a fluffy romcom to feel fluffy; a pair of shears would’ve been useful. The flick had a sorta pseudo-Disney feel underneath the underneath. Chalk it up to LiLo’s salad days, and perhaps director Petrie was attempting to cash in on his starlet’s rep with her first foray into more “grown-up” movies. Big shocker: didn’t work. Predictable, but—not unlike the plot—what did you expect?

Enough sh*t. What’s at the heart, so to speak, of a romantic comedy? Right, our heroes. This flick had a likable cast. What went wrong? On one side Luck had Chris Pine in all his awkward, pre-Kirk glory. On the other we had LiLo with all her sexy, smoky-voiced, pre-unadulterated street drug glory. Well, despite the setback of Lohan OD’ing on coke for the first time during Luck‘s shoot (there’s sumpin’ fer the résumé) both our leads did a serviceable job. I felt one of the nicest aspects of Luck  was watching Pine in his salt mine years. He was earning some footing here, and it was good to watch where his toddling steps of movie stardom began. It was kind of akin to seeing Brad Pitt in Thelma And Louise, saying, “Hey, this guy’s got something here.” I enjoy Pine; he’s fun. And could his Jake be any sweeter? Hell, his way with band management, needful little kids and eventually bagging a babe, I think he was a safe bet to run a Federation starship.


Here we had an example in seeing one star rise as one begins to fall, and the twain really meet. In Luck, ostensibly a Lohan vehicle designed to be her breakaway “adult” role, we had our star going through the motions. She seemed bored with her role, indifferent and only showed shades of her waning comic talent and manna. Sure, serviceable was the key word here overall with Luck, but like with a recovering addict (let’s forgo irony here), LiLo’s Ashley is only as interesting as when she’s leaning up against her co-stars for support. Simply put, Ashley is only Our Girl Friday The 13th when balanced against her onscreen friends. Not by. Against. In the scenes—especially the second and third acts—where Ashley is more or less forced to face life without her luck but still has her best buds, Lohan shined some like an uncut diamond. It was too bad that this was in fits and starts. For Luck, half of the time it was Lohan’s show, but keep in mind she had to share the spotlight with the rest of the cast for a full 90 minutes, and not in every scene. In short, Lohan was wobbly, only showing glimpses of her spark from her films past. Including Waters’ work. Too bad, and some love lost here. Some.

Such a drag. We all need a fluffy romcom once in a while. Luck ain’t one of them. The thing has too much inconsistent acting, too many dumb sightgags and too much abrading, mean spirited ridiculousness. Breakfast At Tiff’s this wasn’t.

Okay, that was a far cry. Luck was barely brunch.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. You want worthwhile, friendly fluff? Go shear a sheep. Good luck with that, BTW.

Stray Observations…

  • I caught that rainbow a might bit after the helicopter takeoff. Twenty minutes in and any possible subtly is gone.
  • “I like the tiny marshmallows.” Kinda sweet there, and neither in a syrupy nor South Park way.
  • My girl is all over astrology, but wary of tarot. You know what I’m shaky with? Superstition dictating fate. Check out my Netflix queue if you don’t believe me.
  • Hey! Tift Merritt! Big fan here.
  • “They all look alike to me.”
  • Kill me, but I dug McFly’s Britpop style.
  • “I’m afraid to say yes.”

Next Installment,,,

Nic Cage is royally pissed off with those thieves that ignored the NO TRESPASSING signs circling his property. Should’ve got a bulletproof dog.

RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 22: Joe Charbanic’s “The Watcher” (2000)


 The Players…

James Spader, Keanu Reeves, Marisa Tomei, Ernie Hudson and Chris Ellis.

The Story…

Unhinged, insomniac former FBI profiler Joel Campbell can’t shake the feeling that he’s being watched.

After failing to capture a serial killer on his home turf in LA, he ends up in Chicago, disgraced and with a headful of chemicals barely keeping crippling migraines and PTSD at bay. His old case has gone cold, but some nut job is still out there somewhere preying on unsuspecting women.

He knows this because of a few incriminating photos sent to his flat via FedEx for his eyes only. All anonymous women, slain in an identical fashion. Joel recognizes the handiwork; the killer is back in his life again, baiting him. Taunting him. The game isn’t over yet, since all the vics are local. It would appear that Joel’s not the only one to drag unfinished business to Chicago.

Looks like the case has heated up again.

The Rant…

This is gonna be quick. Relatively speaking.

I wasn’t sure as to what angle I could take for handling The Watcher. One was I could consider the serial killer murder mystery; what makes it work and what doesn’t. The other I could ruminate over what makes a bad murder mystery bad and the opposite so.

After some hand-wringing, I’m going to try to join the two together. But again, don’t worry. This is gonna be quick.

A year or so back, I covered the Hughes Bros’ From Hell at a friend’s behest (you’re welcome, Rivers). It was the big screen adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name, and it—both the book and the film—delivered a tasty, lush murder mystery surrounding the weird case of Jack The Ripper. The first “celebrity” serial killer, and analyzing the mythos behind him. Save Heather Graham’s cheesy performance, the movie had all the hallmarks of your classic whodunnit. It was a satisfying, albeit strange mystery movie.

From Hell could be considered a modern day primer for the genre, a good starting point. Sure, all the tropes and trappings were there, but there are only so many ways you can send up a murder mystery. The story progression is always the same: innocent victims, dedicated investigator, examine evidence/search for clues, hunt, chase, capture, lather, rinse, repeat. That’s any ep of CSI right there.

The rest is all style. Ultimately, that’s what’s gonna keep you glued. The original Law And Order didn’t have 20 seasons fer nuffin. It was a pretty stylish show, so much so that audiences forgot about its grittiness and absence of glamour after a while. It became part of the tapestry, a surefire formula in the best sense. With the grim nature of the cases, and continuous rotation of characters, you had to rely on some flair to keep folks coming back every week (even if it meant the cases getting increasingly more lurid).

This conjecture could be extended to serial killer movies/TV. The story is a warhorse, so only with a little spark can elevate the lame episode of The Profiler into the quirky, cultiness of Dexter (I know the finale bit the big one, but it took several seasons to get there. And y’all kept tuning in each week, so who’s the stooge? And he might be coming back, BTW). When creating a decent serial killer show or film, you gotta give a little spin. I’ve heard having some really f*cked up, memorable characters mucking about the crime scene often does the trick.

Consider those movies now, and of course I’m thinking about The Silence Of The Lambs and need not go into further detail. From Hell had quite a few weirdoes also, including the suspects. The list of successful killer movies—or at least moderately successful, if only notable—has a relatively short list, though. The Usual Suspects, Psycho, Se7en, M, Halloween. They all have a little twist, a little flair, a strange-ass cast that make the audience go, “Huh? Wait a minute” (especially that Michael Myers dude. What’s up with him?). I feel it’s the cast that makes the murder movie enjoyable or at least palatable. Unique, if not gonzo characters can elevate a tired storytelling device into good—if not high—entertainment vaulting over the common coffee and donut trappings.

So back to TV land, the primary gateway into the kooky world of killers and their hunters. While Law And Order’s homicide procedural as drama might have set the mainstream gold standard, it also galvanized every homicide investigation cliche within and without the cordon, and probably an extension into movies (remember 2001’s Along Came A Spider or even Primal Fear?). Such cliches yielded us The Black Dahlia, Hannibal (the movie, and maybe the TV show), to a degree the Saw franchise and every movie Eli Roth ever wrought. Those films not only are terribly cliched but also stock and desperate imitators of other, better films and television. It’s all about shock, awe and grue, peppered with stupid characters and sh*tty dialogue (and I mean that literally about Roth’s characters. Dumber than a sack of hammers dipped in Krazy Glue. What a fine mess, Ollie).

Most of all, they have cardboard and imitative characters. Cliches.

Getting back to From Hell and its brethren, an unsettling weirdness in their casts keeps an audience captivated. We’re all already familiar with the Law And Order and/or Hannibal Lecter clones. We can smell a schtick a mile away, even if you’ve never even seen a Hitchcock flick. We’re well acquainted with the innocent vics etc setup from above. Minus “flair,” their characters are ciphers, and the story swiftly gets flat. It’s not just we know somebody (or bodies) got murdered and the case must be cracked. We gotta to have a fresh horse to gallop out onto the range.

Someone should’ve clubbed Charbanic over his melon with this concept…

Retired FBI agent Joel Campbell (Spader) can’t sleep. His fevered mind won’t let him.

Campbell hung up his badge after failing to capture a serial killer back in his hometown of LA. The killer’s last victim was none other than Joel’s girlfriend, whose killer at the end of pursuit just…walked away, mocking him. It was too late to nab the prolific killer, one David Allen Griffen (Reeves), and ultimately too late for Campbell to regain a sense of normalcy. He relocated to Chicago, to get a full time zone away from his shattered life, as well as Griffen, whose case swiftly went cold.

In fact, the killer evaporated off the grid.

Then Campbell starts getting mail.

Between lackluster therapy and an addiction to a pharmacy’s worth of pills, Campbell does his best to get a grip on reality. He lost his girl, his job and his home. And all of this he blames on the elusive Griffen, who as far as he knows is either still out there strangling women or has turned into a ghost.

Then mail arrives. FedEx’d photos of dead girls. All strangled, all local.

A lifetime ago, Campbell failed to catch a killer who took his life away in Southern California. Now the same killer has moved to the Midwest.

The past followed Campbell. Literally, and in all the guises.

Okay, now a bit on the chin about what makes a good serial killer/murder mystery not work.

First, watch one too many eps of Law And Order. Second, be a neophyte film director with a CV that includes creating videos for Creed. Creed of all bands! Third, be totally ignorant of my tenets above. Sure, my words ain’t gospel, but I have on pseudo-good authority that what I wrote before was fairly accurate (if you can’t trust your barkeep, who can you trust? Your minister? Get behind me, Satan).

Citing the Law And Order formula again, at its inception the series slowly redefined and came to refine the gritty, urban cop show. And over 20 seasons, the show codified the homicide investigation cliche. Dogged detectives, investigations with twists and turns, the psychology of tracking down the killer and all of the fallout therein. The show’s long shadow eventually touched—some would say tainted—every show of its ilk since. This could also be said of seminal serial killer movies like LambsSe7en, etc. These films and the show created a well to draw from. In the case of the Watcher’s production, the well was drained.

Director Charbanic watched Briscoe and Logan battle wits a shade too many times. His directorial debut is rife with FBI manhunter cliches. Soaked in them is more apt. We ran the whole gamut with Watcher. Tortured, determined FBI investigator with a checkered past. Smooth, giddy, nutball killer with their quirks. Doubtful local law enforcement at first uncooperative until realizing their need for the aforementioned damaged agent’s “special skills.” Multiple damsels in distress. And all shot with jagged, “edgy” camera work. There’s even substance abuse, before God, as if all the other sh*t wasn’t churning up enough muddy waters. Watching all this was an exercise in self-flagellation, and Christ my head was hurting after 90 minutes of it.

Actually, “hurting” isn’t the best metaphor. You know how damp sandpaper feels when you rub your thumb across it? Try it, I’ll wait…Get it? That’s how my mind felt after watching this claptrap. Irritated. Chaffed. Extremely worn.

I point out irritated. The Watcher had a germ of a good idea going on, only to be bogged down—collapsed—with a billion L&O cliches. In all honesty, the movie played like an overly long ep of the series. Well, Watcher played more like a warmed-over installment of Law And Order: Criminal Intent, one starring Jeff Goldblum (the show was running on fumes by that time anyway).

But there was a good idea there, lost in the tidal surge of cliches, overwrought acting and note-by-note manhunting by the unconventional, screwed up FBI profiler. The concept of codependency between the hunter and the hunted—one has no purpose without the other—isn’t a common story device. Sure, it’s been done before (e.g. Angel Heart kinda), but infrequently enough to create a palette for a creative director and scenarist to play “What If?”

Charbanic and Co failed miserably here. Excluding the trite delivery, Watcher felt like that they only read the instructions and forgot to play the f*cking game. Everything went tits-up here. The Watcher committed to most serious crime when making a film. No, not crappy pacing (that actually worked here). The Watcher was boring. An exercise in tedium. And the movie had so much wasted potential.

Let’s start with the casting. Like I said above, get a wonky cast and let them wander, not confine them, to make a serial killer tale interesting. This cast, oddly enough, was great and totally chained to the director’s myopic vision as how such characters should behave.

And boy, was the casting nutty. We had James Spader as the strung-out, haunted FBI agent. I like Spader. I enjoyed his roles in his 80s heyday. Sure, he played mostly douchebags, and possessed the same halted delivery as here. But he had an edge to his usually wooden performance. He’s the thinking man’s Billy Zabka.

Not here. There’s no edge. Any reptilian acting is muted like a molasses enema, trapped in Charbanic’s, well, trappings. You can almost see Spader struggle to pull off the stereotype of f*cked up lawman tempered with his infamous smarminess, and forced to fall flat on his face (in several scenes literally). Come to think of it, Spader’s Campbell spends more time trying to hide under his coat than generating sympathy from the audience. One would expect a tormented FBI cop working towards redemption would gradually come out of his shell. This sort of happens, but in a very sluggish way. Spader’s Campbell looked so haggard, but not like being taunted by personal demons or the killer. He, like me, was bored.

Spader was just one example of The Watcher‘s underused cast. We also have Reeves’ Griffen to consider. Okay, here it is flat out: within ten minutes we know that Keanu is not a convincing serial killer. I guess that’s no surprise. The man’s made a career of playing the innocent, not the aggressor. Even as Neo in The Matrix series, his characters are often placed in passive roles, finding themselves in bewildering circumstances (e.g. the Bill And Ted movies, SpeedJohnny Mnemonic, Something’s Gotta Give, etc). Sure, a handful of roles he plays an action hero, but often reluctantly. Reeves’ acting style is never in your face. One may be led to suspect him being aggressive isn’t his style.

After watching Reeves’ Griffen slither and carouse (closest verb I could find here that applies), this deal is definitely not his style. His stilted delivery as vicious serial killer out to taunt his nemesis just doesn’t wash. Again, the idea of his character keeping up the game just to have a purpose in life, as well as serving as an unwanted yin to Spader’s yang had some potential. In The Watcher, this novel concept is ruined by the wooden dialogue and even more foresty acting. If there is only one aspect of Reeves’ hollow performance is that he looked like he was having fun playing against type. Whoa.

Funny thing is—and perhaps this might be a subtext within a good murder mystery/serial killer film—Reeves might have been better utilized if he remained in the shadows. You know, kind of like in Jaws, keeping the shark off camera for two-thirds of the movie until it was “ready” to be seen (and boy, was Roy Scheider’s reaction shot was great. Even more so that it was honest; it was the first scene “Bruce” made its presence known). Generates some good tension there, let’s the audiences imagination run wild for a bit. A lot of good serial killer flicks keeps the killer waiting in the wings. I mean, how many prominent scenes was Buffalo Bill in with  Lambs? Three, four? The scenes of the abduction, the well, the dance and the final confrontation. Only Lecter got more camera time.

Reeves’ Griffen might’ve been better as the voice at the end of Campbell’s phone. Or just a silent package of photos of his dirty work. Or even only headshots on FBI dossiers. Nope. Griffen’s all over this so-called mystery, in glaring light and dancing with his vics, put down by big-ticket actor Reeves time chewing scenery with ground down teeth. At least I found Keanu never breaking a sweat interesting, oozing his green charisma before strangling the objects of Griffen’s affection. Best, if not only good thing about his performance.

Simply put, the acting is not convincing. There’s nothing worse than an interesting cast wasted on a lame movie. And the rest of that cast is indeed interesting. Watcher sports an Oscar winner (Tomei), a reliable, friendly character actor (Hudson) and a hammy, relative unknown (Ellis, who indeeds hams it up in a very fun way, what with the Southern accent rooted in the Windy City). These folks have absolutely no business being a movie together. With Watcher, they still didn’t, but it would’ve been a sh*t-ton better in the hands of a director whose resume didn’t highlight wasting time directing 90s bands on their way to the bargain bin.

All this half-baked acting contributes to no sense of urgency here. We’re dealing with a vengeful serial killer, right? Then why the hell is the dramatic personae practically sleepwalking through the story, playing color by numbers? One could fault Charbonic’s neophyte standing as a straight-to-video auteur (apart from the cast, The Watcher has its own bargain bin looming behind production) on his first outing away from the MTV soundstage. Maybe there was a bad case of the Lenny Briscoes driving this movie’s motivation. Maybe it was Keanu being terribly miscast, even though he made the best of his circumstances? Doubts even here.

A thing about how high-profile Reeves landing in this pile of cow flop. Coming off his success with the first Matrix movie, you’d think Keanu would have had the pick of the litter with his next project. A serial killer mystery sounded cool, and Reeves was approached with the script. He turned it down; the story failed to catch his interest (who says the guy’s not bright?) and walked away. Yet here he was, giving his best, lukewarm Albert DeSalvo.

You might’ve heard about this. The party line went that a so-called friend of Reeves forged the actor’s signature to sign on for Charbanic’s exercise in apathy. Instead of getting into some messy, expensive legal harangue, Reeves sighed, shrugged his shoulders and—splat—hello, David Allen Griffen. And some really lame dancing.

Little doubt that Reeves’ star power permitted The Watcher to take the top spot at the box office its opening weekend. Littler doubt that the movie’s craptastic, well, everything caused its early demise therein. According to Box Office Mojo‘s numbers, The Watcher toppled precipitously a 36% plunge by its second week in theaters, and so forth and so on. The film barely made it above budget in returns. Hell, at least Reeves knew what he was getting into and tried to make the best of it (or deliberately tanked it out of spite).

The same can not be said of Charbanic and his crackerjack crew of hacks. They probably were so ecstatic to make it to the big time with all their shiny, new toys that they let their Law & Order fan worship bulldoze away any clear sense of purpose (not to mention the inclusion of an intrusive soundtrack and some really awful CGI). I mean, why does this movie even exist? Nothing really fresh was brought to the table. What was brought had been seen a hundred times before with much better quality. If my above argument about a good serial killer flick deserves strange characters, then why pick such an eclectic cast and not unitize them? Sure, Spader and Reeves played against type. Okay. But both wooden as a pair of cutting boards. How did the crew get The Watcher so scrambled and so pat with such decent resources?

I heard this story once from hair metal band Poison’s guitarist, CC DeVille (just go with me here). He recounted when he was a kid and just learning the instrument, he’d constantly be listening to his guitar heroes—Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards to name a few—on his turntable and try to mimic what he heard. Pretty common practice for a budding axe slinger. According to the guy, he had every possibility to be a great guitar player, but what he heard and what he created was a matter of getting it all scrambled in his head (well before any cocaine habit). I think DeVille later averred that if he just practiced more on his own style rather than trying to be Hendrix, he might’ve gotten on to something better. Paraphrasing here.

Maybe Charbanic shouldn’t’ve watched Red Dragon for that 101st time. That and keep away from Creed songs.

A few licks of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” might’ve done some good. Now sweep the leg, Johnny.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? What do you think, huh? And Keanu needs to get better friends.

Stray Observations…

  • “Nothin’ like a serial killer to kick off the holiday season.” My sentiments exactly.
  • The right cross with the stereo was the only thing that grabbed my attention here. It was pretty cool, tho’.
  • “Yet you make it here every week.”
  • Wait. First in one scene the car’s window is smashed, then in the next scene its healed. Bad editor!
  • “You’re paperwork.”

Next Installment…

Just My Luck, I gotta watch another dippy Lindsay Lohan movie.