RIORI Vol 3, Installment 27: Rob Bowman’s “Reign Of Fire” (2002)


The Players…

Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey, Gerard Butler and Izabella Scorupco, with David Kennedy, Ben Thornton and Alice Krige.

The Story…

Rudely awoken from the depths of London, an incredibly dangerous, powerful force has been released by man. The consequences soon become beyond dire, threatening the whole of the populace.

What’s happened? Fault lines tearing up earthquakes? Sinkholes consuming the high rises? Busted gas lines ready to blow?

Something is ready to blow, all right. Dragons. Left slumbering for millennia and drilled out of there creche, the creatures now strike out at any living thing, burning them to cinders in their wake. Cities fall. People flee to the four winds only later to be devoured. Once proud metropolises teeming with both people and technology are now killing jars so the beasts may feed. Humanity will surely be wiped out by these once thought mythological monsters unless by some miracle can stop them.

And you thought sewer rats were bad.

The Rant…

This one’s gonna get a bit goofy. But hey now, we all a little mad now and then.

That being said, it’s time to get hooked up to the ol’ nostalgia Cuisinart again.

*attaches probes to the temples*

There. Hold still. Struggling will only make it hurt more. Bite down. That’s better. Care for a latte?

Speaking of lattes, we’re gonna truck it back a few decades to the 90s when ‘ere blogger was but a wisp of a teen.

*tightens restraints*

Ah. I see you know this bit. My soapbox, my words. That’s what you came here for in the first place. Right? Well, that and the cookies. So here’s my cookie.

When I was a teen in the early 90s, most of the TV shows I followed with any regularity were S/F programs. Shows like Star Trek: TNG,  Quantum Leap and The X-Files. If you know anything about sentence structure my volunteer, you’ve probably figured out that the last show is the raison d’être for our rant today. Quite right. Here, have another cookie.

Barring the latest reboot (ugh) of that seminal series, the original X-Files was the next logical step/spawn from a classic 80s “weird happenings” program, Unsolved MysteriesX-Files creator Chris Carter must have dubbed the entire series run onto VHS for his personal library. With Robert Stack’s creviced face and sonorous growl explaining the dangers of UFO abductions and playing around in God’s domain birthed the goofy, wily, spooky hijinks for Mulder and Scully to muck about in.

The X-Files also had a very simple premise, too. It was basically a police procedural in The Twilight Zone. Two FBI agents—one a believer, the other a skeptic—investigated “strange incidents” that are just barely within the Bureau’s jurisdiction. Or plausible denial (the votes read mostly the latter). Things like UFOs, cryptozoology, technology run amok, all buttered with endless conspiracy theories. It was great, chewy, cheesy B-movie fun. Fox Mulder was eerily funny—a true believer, if you will, if not an enthusiast for such weird investigtions—and Dana Scully was like the chick in the slasher flick that investigates the noise in the basement wielding only a candle (while we at home scream at her to run or get a goddam flashlight at least, Praise Jeebus). She got scared real good a lot. Good times alone with the tube.

Yep. I was an X-Files fan in them teenage stone age days. Every Friday on Fox, well before their pagan news channel, I’d plop down in front of the tube for an hour and simultaneously giggle and shiver. At least for the first season or so. The novelty got pissed away rather quickly. It wasn’t the show got bad (‘tho there were a-plenny of clunky eps) or plot lines got too convoluted (that came later), but I felt that the series started to take itself way too seriously. Like the investigations Mulder and Scully tackled were akin to the Rosenberg case. No. It was about aliens, werewolves and conspiracies. And feeling spooked. That’s all. The winking silliness of the show slowly gave way to a feeling of DIRE UPMOST IMPORTANCE. Conspiracies within conspiracies. Humor waning. It was almost like being delivered some Scientology sermon each Friday night, like America needed to hear the gospel according to Cancer Man. The X-Files was a cult show that (almost) spawned a for real cult. Or at least tried to. Not sure why. Weird.

In short, X-Files started to preach a gospel, and it quit being entertaining. What was a fictionalized version of Unsolved Mysteries morphed into a manifesto for paranoid freaks and geeks everywhere in TV land. That was when I turned off the TV. Wasn’t fun anymore; crawled up its ass. But, hey. I can’t deny some of those early eps of X-Files were indeed high-end fun and steeped in classic B-movie sensibilities. Sometimes more than a  liberal bit o’ creepy, too. And the writers weren’t ever afraid got downright weird with their scripts (Fringe caged a lot of their ideas from X). The weirdness later on in the series, which started as a hook, devolved into either weirdness for weirdness’ sake or a case of the writer’s putting themselves into a corner. Kinda like that abandoned farmhouse the survivors holed themselves up in Night Of The Living Dead.

Of course the original! You f*cking churlish, hipster Philistines you.

Hey, that reminds me. An X-Files episode that addressed weirdness, isolation and the apex of what the show’s writers could pull off. It was called “Gender Bender.” It was most unsettling. Maybe you saw it too. Something about a sex cult but not a sex cult but more of a murder bordello but maybe more. Sex sells, y’know, and it sold me (the little hothead post-puber I was). It also sold me on gender identification, and how subjective it was. I was f*cking 13Prime moment, wrong viewer. Still it stirred the soup enough to get my attention to later scour Wikipedia about the what-the-f*ck machinations that went into that mind wipe. One of the things I uncovered was that some upstart TV writer X-Files enthusiast directed that episode, and hand thumb deep in its writing also.

*subject writhes under its restraints, odor of pee detected*

His name was Rob Bowman. He later directed the X-Files big screen jump, Fight The Future. That movie stunk. A fevered dream written by a fanboy assuming the general/casual X-File loved the series as much as he did. The center did not hold. But his left-of-center panache for making flavored TV eps for other shows as well as a handful of big screen schlockfests barfed onto his resume. Most of it turned out to be entertaining. Not first season X-Files entertaining. Definitely not Fight The Future entertaining (which was, at heart, just a high concept/high budget long continuation of the TV series). But it all was in good fun. That’s what matters, right?

*shoves powdered donut into subject’s face*

*smiles, gives thumbs up*

Right. So despite his weird track record, Bowman knows a thing or three about mutated S/F stories. “Gender Bender” got a lot of flack back then for its probing commentary about sexual identity. On a prime time, highly-rated TV show, no less! This was the 90s. Internet hookups—all five of them—still squawked when you dialed in. The Earth was still reeling after Cobain ate a shotgun salad. F*cking Clinton was trying to woo Gen X into voting for him by playing a flat sax version of “Heartbreak Hotel” on Arsenio’s show (between his takes for voice-acting on “The Real Ghostbusters”). Yep, the 90s were weird, and since we don’t talk about gender politics anymore, Bowman’s effort was for naught. His work is on the shelf with moldering My Mother, The Car scripts.

Quit squirming. What?

What’s that about this S/F drama the guy shot? As director? Not like Fight…no not like that, huh?

Did you say dragons? Lemme remove that. Sounds interesting, kinda like being pulled from Carter’s canon.

No f*cking? Strike one. But it’s weird, huh? Not too far removed from the series’ feel? Hmm. These dragons aliens I hope?

Be honest and you’ll get another donut. Jelly this time…

It’s just lunch.

Young Quinn (Thornton) simply does his after school ritual to check up on his mum. A simple brown paper bag (there might be an apple in there) is his bait. His mum (Krige) is his quarry. For insufferable weeks the woman has been managing a very uncooperative vein that could either wreck or ruin the underground project. Quinn being Quinn scuttles off to see what the hold-up is. After being prodded by a loutish digger, Quinn crawls into what looks like an antechamber, oddly warm. When he gets some sort of volatile acid spat into his face he quickly, fearfully runs for his dear life. Those wings. That roar. That fire.

Old Quinn (Bale) has been keeping on it since then. It was a dragon, and very little of the thing resides in mythology. It was a fire-breathing abomination. One of many. Thousands. That digging woke up the alpha. Years bore on from that rebirth, and the Earth burned for it. Sure, several pockets of humanity are trying to eke out an existence obeying the new nature of fire and consumption versus crops and not getting incinerated. Sustenance against survival; one cannot exist hand in hand anymore. The flying furnaces will just torch it all if it displeases them. All Quinn can do to fight back is keep the many orphans under his wing to be orphans for another day.

Then one day, those damned tanks roll into Quinn and his family’s fortress/plantation. That day he had a plan. Quinn has been a scholar of dragons. He knows how to hide. He understands what to conserve. He knows how to defend. He knows a day will come when a vile dragon will torch his fragile existence to the coals. But those damned tanks.

A Yank by the name of VanZandt (McConaughey) has arrived with his elite, maverick, totally unorthodox dragon fighters (backed by a phalanx of worn-out, 20th Century tanks and curiously decked out choppers) to save the day at Quinn’s compound. Van claims to know how to take out the alpha dragon’s nest deep in London with his arsenal, and has learned Quinn knows the nature of the beasties. He presses a pseudo-pascifict Quinn into helping him, ghost of mum or no. Yes, these monsters have torn Earth asunder. But does aggression really work against even more aggressive monsters? All they do it eat, fly, burn, eat again and occasionally piss petrol. Really, getting pissed in the eyes by a dragon as a lad is one thing. So says Quinn.

There is no other thing. Just dig deep, dig hard and watch the skies.

And keep on track of what’s left over from lunch…

Now then, let me unlock that mouthpiece. Ah.


*insert donut, apply herbal massage*

There we go. Thanks for your patience. When you come to, you’re gonna need some patience to crawl through Reign Of Fire. No worries. It’s not that bad a movie. But you gotta have your brakes checked beforehand, and not for a lack of road safety. Chill out; dragons don’t drive.

Reign has Bowman back in his oeuvre. This indeed a B-movie for sure, make no bones about it. But now our dear director has a larger budget and even big name stars at his command. We know the man flexed his muscles with The X-Files already, and it shows here. Unlike Fight The Future, Reign illustrates his CV in a proper way. Also unlike Future, this film has a very sharp feel. Crisp and purposeful. It bounces along with a sense of urgency that all sci-fi/action/dragon epics should aspire to. That is, until we gotta apply some brushstrokes from the multihued palate of drama. But that’s for later on. The hazy fog of mystery still clouds Reign, but now its used as atmospherics and not bowing to some established plot device.

But me being ever so contrary, the funny thing when watching Reign is even with its dire nature and bleak outlook, it didn’t feel like a post-apocalyptic disaster. It felt like a typical X-Files ep. I know, I know. I’ve already hammered this to death, but a tiger cannot chew off its stripes. Reign’s a big deal X if there ever was one, but since Bowman’s strength lay in TV his sensibilities it’s natural to have that bleed onto the big screen. In Reign‘s case, it’s blissfully (still only mostly) separate from the wagon train the director once hitched himself to. Our show’s still weird, but stylishness remains, and that is a good thing. If the only thing you walk away with from seeing Reign is a satisfaction of seeing people in peril against an otherworldly foe trying to reaffirm their dwindling sense of humanity. Cheers?

Want another donut yet?

By this point, my installment must seem pretty limp. I ain’t dismantling Reign as I have other towering achievements of boom and blast that have wandered into my BD player’s vision. It’s okay. We can’t always have vivisection regarding Scorsese’s Casino (it was too long) some other time. Reign was a goof, a big smash and grab action film. A film almost specifically designed for RIORI. So if you haven’t connected the dots yet, it’s time to let the scales fall from your accursed hipster eyes. Never fear, I’ll still try to fart in your general direction if you follow.

*straightens tie*

I’ll reel it in. Been much too perilous. Sallie forth.

If you’ve been a sharp tack, you’ve probably figured out that this installment regards Reign as a very roughhewn, silly film. After all, name the last dragon-flavored action flick that wasn’t a tad silly? Correct. Reign is no exception. A lot of that silliness stems from the plot. The concept of dragons roaming the earth after hibernating for millennia—also in turn trying to validate the creatures reason for existing—is straight out of a comic book. I know we’re not aiming for historical and/or scientific accuracy here. What would be the point? It’s all about the delivery that makes Reign unintentionally funny. I’m not complaining, not really. But it’s hard to take an action movie like this seriously when it takes itself  seriously, you dig? It always comes crashing down into nuttiness that way.

Yet for its goofiness, Reign maintains a sense of style. Hell, if the plot is wonky, you better make the world of it interesting. And there are quite a few novel things going on here that’ll grab your attention. For me, I really dug the set designs. There were a lot of nice touches Bowman spattered here and there. Despite this film is supposed to delve into Road Warrior territory, the British countryside still looks pristine. Wait. Not pristine exactly. Medieval. This is a dragon dragon flick, right? And the world has gone off the grid. Only thing to do is band together for survival. The interiors of the buildings are grim, dank warrens of low light and desperation. No one looks very 21st Century. Hard to when you’re always under the threat of a siege, slapping together very DIY defenses. The cinematography is nice, and does a good job of conveying the world as alternating between Dark Ages and the firebombing. Very clever work, Bowman. Set the mood, set the style.

Now. Let’s talk casting. We’re already in agreement that Reign is absurd. One best have on hand a bunch of actors that can bind the pudding. Again, we succeed here. Subject one, our hero Quinn. Christian Bale’s a good actor, although no one you’d ever think be hand-picked for an action movie. He’s our everyman here, our avatar for traversing this ashy world. There’s a nice twist about personal responsibility driving our lead (not to mention his exhaustive research about his winged foes), which makes him sympathetic. Also, the reluctant hero schtick is guaranteed to make the star our bud for as long as the movie lasts. Sometimes, ever better, afterwards. So yeah, Bale did well with what was handed him.

It’s a law in the annals of literature that characters must be likable. Bzzzt. Wrong. Do not pass Go, do not collect your senses. Characters must be relatable. Moreover, they should be interesting. So Subject two, Quinn’s foil VanZandt. I think McConaughey was coming out of his starving years with Reign. Either that or he had a hankering to play someone who was kinda nuts and in need of Rogaine. VanZandt is a rather offensive creature, sometimes dipping into a caricature redolent of one too many Escape From New York weirdos. But he is interesting (and maybe the only intentional comic relief in this picture) if only for the fact Matt portrayed him. All scruffy and growly, waxing philosophical about how to handle the little dragon issue, VanZandt chomps cigars and has all the swagger of a colonel in the Pentagon circa 1965 to 1975. He’s a real troublemaker here, if you hear what I’m screaming. Sure, he hams it up, but based against the surrounding story, give the guy some concessions. He’s supposed to be the heavy.

Technical sh*t. Might as well be a shopping list. More like a grab bag actually. Like, you ever try to keep to the list when you bound out to Wegman’s or wherever only to come home with myriad different stuff? Reign‘s like that. All lot of good stuff squeezed against, “Oh brother.” For each good bit, there’s a distraction. The straight drama is forced, almost cheesy. Despite Bale being a solid actor, occasionally his classical training interferes with the deliberate stupidity of the movie. A small stripe of VanZandt would’ve helped here.

Reign may be crisp and bouncy, but that’s at first. The pacing—quit groaning, lest you get the lash again—is inconsistent. First the film flies, then drags. From the genuinely engaging chopper chase scene to when VanZandt busts out the battle-axe (really) I was like “what the?/oh yeah,” the film had me. But the creeping through wasted London and the whole “meaning of life” navel-gazing, well, buoyancy starts to peter off here. This disrupts any genuine tension in the story. We’re left only with curiosity, namely, “Where the heck are we going here?” We slowly cease to care about our characters, just wanting to reach a point where everything makes sense. We are dealing with nonsense, true, but even kooky movies shouldn’t unintentionally make us baffled. Reign’ plot progression winds down. The story may be hinky, but its gotta get somewhere. Remember, three act structure?

Don’t get me started with the injections again.

All the pieces have to fall into some kind of order. Bowman wrote for TV. Episodic television on a primarily S/F show. Proper S/F/fantasy process: the Maguffin should be the raison d’être on a minimal level via dialogue and/or melodrama in order to build up steam for the real deal in the third act. Well, the third acts gets soggy, as if Bowman wasn’t sure where to go after all the bombast. The steam gradually evaporates. The big showdown, instead of going out with a proverbial bang, fizzles out into a low rent version of Jaws’ finale. We get that big head of steam built up, and the final confrontation devolves into farting and all sunny. It’s kind of a letdown. But the CGI was solid at least. Soundtrack was goo, too.

Here’s the hell of it though, Reign may have dragons and a shorn Matty, there’s an allegory here somewhere. It’s the most subtle thing about a film decided not very subtle (read: battle-axe). There’s a clever device, an undercurrent if you will (and you will. Refresh your beverage?) at work here. Beneath all the fire and ash, we ain’t really talkin’ dragon slaying in Reign. We have two camps trying to solve the same problem. Here it’s culture clash, territoriality, vestiges of civilization trying to make an argument for which is better and will ultimately triumph with survival. We have the passive Brits bounced against the gung-ho Americans. Here’s where real tension lies, but it’s buried underneath the overly alpha plot. Tension via miscommunications. It’s never overt, but it might raise eyebrows if you look for it beneath all the histrionics. Foreshadowing maybe. In sum, the Brit keeps his shirt on; the Yank tears his off. This is all about class warfare.

But in the endgame, all the clutter makes Reign feel one-note. It’s fun in fits and starts, but gets muddled with dross and distractions. I felt that a movie about an end-of-the-world, fire-breathing dragons, screaming and scattering people would result in a lot more oomph. There’s a lot of good sh*t, but it gets all scrambled over the course of 100 minutes. It can leave you bewildered and with a headache.

Speaking of bewildered, we gotta do something about them soiled shorts. Phew. I think another latte is out of the question. By the by, you got any inquiries, like what the Black Oil was all about?

*spits out bite guard, commences to chew through leather straps*

Sorry, Mom.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, with reservations. Like I said, lot of cool stuff here, bogged down by the eventual uncool stuff I mentioned above. I guess you gotta watch this with the proper mindset, namely one under the influence of weed and Sterno. BTW, McConaughey got no hair here.

Stray Observations…

  • Reenacting Star Wars in a church. Can we say meta?
  • There are fire extinguishers everywhere. Wink.
  • Was that Dr Bashir? (answer: yes)
  • “Only one thing worse than dragons: Americans.” Voting lines have been drawn.
  • How’d VanZandt get the US tanks overseas? I must’ve missed something.
  • The Jimi bit was corny.
  • “Dig your own holes. Die in ’em.” I remember Lolapalooza, too.
  • “This town’s gone to Hell.”
  • Call me silly, but it’s nice to hear Wooderson’s Texas twang again. With or without a precise hairline (okay, I’ll lay of the bald sh*t now. Good thing I’m done. For many reasons).

Next Installment…

A kidnapping’s gone down in Boston, but it may for the best. Sh*tty home, druggy mom, unsafe neighborhood. Whatever. In the end, she’s Gone Baby Gone.

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 26: Rob Letterman’s “Gulliver’s Travels” (2010)


 The Players…

Jack Black, Jason Segel, Emily Blunt and Chris O’Dowd, with Amanda Peet and Billy Connelly.

The Story…

When slacker mail room clerk Lemuel Gulliver want to impress his crush, the newspaper’s travel writer, he tries his hand as a travel writer himself. She gives him a “fluff assignment” about goings on in the Bermuda Triangle, and not wanting to lose his chance Gulliver jumps at it. If only to impress a girl.

After getting sucked into the weirdness that is the Triangle, Gulliver washes ashore on the isle of Lilliput, populated by tiny people who are none too happy now having a giant on their hands. Not to mention Gulliver unhappy in wondering how he’s going to get home again.

There’s a girl waiting, y’know.

The Rant…

Hey. Here were go with another flaky cinematic adaptation of a famous, if not revered author. If only for one book. Well, it worked for Dalton Trumbo.

Aaaand here come the Obscurity Police, ready to club me with the latest Grey installment.

*wards them off with a battered copy of Gravity’s Rainbow; screaming*

That’s better. Pynchon. Works every time. Now then:

I’d be remiss in my duties to not mention that I failed to mention that the last installment covering The Raven was serendipitous. At the time of that post, it was Edgar Allan Poe’s 207th birthday, spot on. I didn’t know at the time. It was a crummy gift (even though the movie was okay. Just okay), but how appropriate and lucky I took apart a film loosely based on Poe’s works on his b’day.

Well  thought so.

Speaking of loose adaptations, betcha most of you read Jonathan Swift’s satirical opus Gulliver’s Travels back in high school English. If you were me, instead of studying the book…let’s not go there. Even if you never read Swift’s novel, you probably know about the part where our hapless hero washes ashore on the island of Lilliput populated by tiny, tiny people. The image of the now giant Gulliver strapped down, dozens of micro people flittering around the giant has become part of pop culture. Not to mention an eternal metaphor for…something.

Sure, the book was full of cool adventures, but most readers had to be reminded that Travels was intended as a satire. Social commentary couched in silliness. When I was conscious in class, I learned that the conflict between the Lillputians and their enemies the equally tiny Blefuscudians, which Gulliver became entangled, was the result of a disagreement of the proper way to crack an egg. Absurd.


It’s true; read it. The Lilliput/Belfescu conflict was supposed to represent the acrimony between the UK and France over…nothing really. At the end of the day, nothing vital. Just culture clash, really. So went Gulliver’s other travels, Swift flipping the bird to stuffy British society between tending to his clergy with his day job as a minister.

*more crickets*

It’s true; read it. That metaphor is classic (not the clergy thing), which is why the tale has inspired countless movie versions, both live-action and animated. I remember as a kid a live-action version of the story starring the unimpeachable Peter O’Toole as our titular adventurer. It only tackled the Lilliput arc (as most have done), but it was a great version. I only found out later—when I woke up—after reading the book how close to the book the moviemakers got. And it didn’t stop with the O’Toole version and now the Jack Black movie. Gulliver’s Travels has been adapted to TV, film and even radio thirteen times. Told you it was a potent tale, literary accuracy or no.

Where am I going with all this you may ask, as well as where are my slippers? Despite the fact Gulliver is a delicious tale to reinvent, the satirical element—the book’s original selling point—often gets lost in the shuffle. I’ve found that only for satire to work there needs to be just enough humor to balance any rancor, not matter how tame. I’m not talking a Carlin screed here (even though he was able to temper his ire with quieter, sillier bits), but I only think Gulliver on film works best when there is low-level silliness, not fart jokes and our hero pissing on things.

Wait, what?

Oh. Well, I did say when I first actually read the book…nothing I should mention here…

Terminally stuck in the mail room at the New York Tribune, lowly slacker Lemuel Gulliver (Black) gets a fire under his ass from his new boss. Gulliver’s rudely informed that he’s a going-nowhere loudmouth, and’ll probably be stuck in the trenches forever unless he mans up and gets a pair. Y’know, make a first move.

That almost being a dare, Gulliver hits up on his crush Darcy (Peet), the resident travel writer for a date. Instead he stumbles into getting assigned a fluff assignment to Bermuda to investigate a story about its infamous Triangle. Hey, whatever works.

So with passport in hand, a mediocre at best command of being a reporter, Gulliver sets sail into the heart of the matter. The heart turns out to be a typhoon that scoops him ashore on the tiny island of Lilliput with its equally tiny denizens. By accident, Gulliver is now the mountain of a man he should’ve aspired to be in the first place. And it fits him as well as being strapped to the earth against his will.

Might as well be back in the mail room and that “Guitar Hero” session.

Okay, so the whole satire angle went totally out the window with this version of Gulliver. But this was supposed to be a family film, so we gotta dumb it down a bit. Maybe a lot. But as stupid as the source material could be stripped, this Gulliver could’ve been a lot worse. You’re in for a typical Jack Black ad-libbed quip fest. What else did you expect? Bertolt Brecht’s Baal on ice?

*even more crickets*

Wake up. It’s almost lunchtime.

Even though Black is known, if not infamous for playing randy, snarky assh*les, his schtick actually marries well to a “family” flick like this one. The man’s bread-and-butter is playing overgrown kids after all. It’s just odd here in Gulliver to not hear any blue language (kind of a relief actually). We got Black making an attempt to play it straight—be the everyman—and try and be relatable rather than repellant. I ain’t saying Black as an actor is repellent. He’s terribly amusing, if not hilarious in the proper film (e.g.: High FidelitySchool Of RockTropic Thunder, etc), but I think we’re all kinda used to the sh*tstorm he brings to his films. That’s a complement, BTW.

Toned down Black (just enough) is pretty palatable. Gulliver features Jack Black Lite. Sure, his character is an obnoxious clown, but he also manages an air of innocent sweetness. Really. Sweet Jeebus he comes across as likable here. I know. I’m just as shocked as you. Hell, it’s a family film, and the schlumpy dude is a big kid. A very big kid in Lilliput anyway. He’s got a sweetness here in a chummy sense, not sugary. If it weren’t for Black—I can’t believe I’m saying this—there’d be very little for this movie to hang on to. Sure, the supporting cast (especially Segel) is entertaining and goofy, but without Black’s left-handed charm to grab onto, everything would descend into slapstick. For almost 90 minutes.

Speaking of timing, I must talk about the technical sh*t at work here. Don’t worry, I’ll be back to smashing to other stuff in due course. I just can’t resist a good segue.

Gulliver is a pretty straightforward movie. Not a lot twists and turns, at least none that would blow the kiddies’ minds. But against that the pacing is too swift. I know this is supposed to be a family-friendly flick, quick enough to battle against bathroom trips and the youngin’s attention spans can’t be taxed too much, but give the editor an Ativan, will ya? Rapid fire cuts and leaps can really take its toll on anyone no longer Santa Claus eligible. What I’m sayin’ is give the ‘rents a break already. Gulliver clocks in at an efficient 85 minutes; I’d actually appreciate a few more to calm sh*t down. But that’s just me (a parent, thank you).

A few other things: much to my surprise, this fluffy little film was pretty faithful to the source material. Some of the notable things anyway. The loopy life of Lemuel and his hard-on for Darcy is out of Hollywood, but several of the (mostly) humorous bits were left intact. For instance? The literal piss takes. At first I was cheesed at sticking in a schtick like that, but it was in canon. Really. So was the boat-tugging in the battle at sea scene, and of course the iconic Gulliver-strapped-down bit. Overall I was surprised how many details director Letterman included in his movie spun from Swift’s tale, cleverly applying the size-difference in nifty ways. The coffee montage was great I have to admit, as was the beach house thing. Usually when a book churns through the spin cycle—especially a family movie—a lot of crap gets excised in favor of poop jokes and/or extraneous, Cheez-Whiz dramatics. Don’t misunderstand, Gulliver has its fair share of poop, but even minor concessions made to the source material against Black’s shenanigans it seems almost…respectful. I like that.

Back to the cast. Even though our females leads, Blunt and Peet (which sounds like a home and garden chain) are not much more than wallpaper. Peet and Black have no believable chemistry even with the short screen time, and Blunt is a wooden bodice. Girls, who needs ’em? There is a buddy movie undertone to Gulliver. Y’know, guys and chicks and how to nab ’em. Sure, it’s tired, but pairing Black with mini-Segal makes it work somehow. It was amusing to see Segel playing it straight for once as the lovelorn, earnest Horatio. And Black being the wingman made it feel okay. A kind of dopey okay, but harmless enough. I’ll give it a pass.

O’Dowd however has nothing earnest going for his Admiral Edward. He was such a rich ham and quietly stole the show. What amazed me (and still does; can’t explain it) is that for all Edward’s stuffy, effete Britishness toeing the line of stereotype—think John Cleese meets Margaret Thatcher. Okay, don’t—his performance alternates between brash and all three Stooges. Snicker worthy, not laugh out loud, but enough of those snickers throughout the film to leave an impression. He’s really fun to hate, too. Always a good thing when it comes to booing and hissing the snotty bad guy.

Back the tech stuff again. The only real issue I took with Gulliver‘s delivery is when the third act finally rolls around. Here we descend into outright silliness. I kinda alluded to you watch a film like this with the proper mindset. Read: card-carrying goofball Jack Black as giant; put away your SAG cards. Like all proper three act plays, here’s where it all comes to a head. A very silly head, and I done like’d it. Sue me. Remember, family film. “Epic” showdown with the baddie? Check. Guys get the girls (not matter how superfluous they are here)? Check. Jack Black murdering a rock song with lots of air guitar? Um, duh. F*cking inevitable. He might’ve even done it in that indie drivel Jesus’ Son I covered back during the Ice Age. Oh, well.

In any case, despite—or maybe because of—Letterman’s straight arrow execution, there were enough tweaks and winks slid into his imagining of Gullver to get the audience scratching their collective chins. Amusing is the watchword here, and it was. Cinematic merit? With Jack Black? You’re really asking this? Pishaw. Gulliver decidedly wasn’t a popcorn flick. Gummi Bear flick is more apt.

Okay, class dismissed. Next week, Beckett’s take on Hansel & Gretel. Whatever you do, don’t eat the downspouts.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, with reservati. Yeah, yeah. Shaddap. Cynical snot like me digging fluff like this? What? You don’t like Gummi Bears? Philistine.

Stray Observations…

  •  “…You’re never really going to get bigger than this.” Foreshadow much?
  • Hey. Whatever happened to “Guitar Hero” anyway? I mean, sure it wasn’t in canon. But still. Guess Swift was a Wii kinda guy.
  • “Inside the castle voice, please.” I’m using that from now on with the kid.
  • Does adding Coffee-Mate to the filter actually work? (later) Nope.
  • Need a flexible, inoffensive British dude as authority figure? Get me Billy Connelly!
  • “But Vice President Yoda can run things without me for a while.” That is a line any sane person would never expect to ever hear in a film with the proper prescription.
  • Prince. Works every time. Ever see Pretty Woman? Scored Roberts three grand.
  • Mini, mini Kiss!
  • Segel’s accent is great, and doesn’t betray his usual patois. It enhanced his character really. Go fig.
  • “Gulliver, you work in the mail room.” “Not today I don’t.” Almost badass, for a family film anyway.

Next Installment…

London comes tumbling down in a Reign Of Fire. The fault lies with the dragons. And Christian Bale. Curse you, Bale.

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 25: James McTeigue’s “The Raven” (2012)

The Raven 2012

The Players…

John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve and Brendan Gleeson, with Kevin McNelly and Oliver Cohen.

The Story…

Baltimore’s unfavorite son and equally under-appreciated writer Edgar Allan Poe discovers that a killer is stalking the city, executing his victims inspired by Poe’s tales of the macabre. To exonerate himself from any hand in this business, it’s up to the drunken, addict scribbler teaming with the steely, maverick Detective Fields—his only solid ally, to be sure—to get to the bottom of the mess.

Using his wily art of cogitation, Fields employs the best modern forensics to find the link between Poe’s work and the killer’s motives. But it all seems so simple to Poe—in and out of his opium haze—that these grisly murders are a mere matter of life imitating art. His grim and demented art.

What an honor! Now praise the Lord and pass the laudanum!

And we’re back.

Yeah, I know. I told you all last year that the 2016 inaugural installment of RIORI would beachcomb Star Wars: Attack Of The Clones. Seemed appropriate (I guess) with the launch of the new chapter in the saga, The Force Awakens. Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the Netflix queue. Turns out by a turn of sheer bad luck The Force Awakens also touched ground the exact same time my Netflix feed politely hit me over the head with a waiting list that reached all the way to Terra Haute. All six of the other films—yes, including Clones—were on back order. Every title announced, “long wait,” “very long wait,” “are you still waiting? There’s, like, this new movie out now,” “looks like you need some sun, fanboy. Drop the Funyuns and get some air,” “Christ, get a job already…” And so forth.

So, yeah. No Clones this time out. Some other time, sorry. Hell, I needed the fresh air anyway.

Still, one would think Star Wars fans would’ve already been well acquainted with the series arcana and inferred mystical—wait for it—forces. So much that the custom Chewie at Build-A-Bear moves out faster than an elephant with dysentery could describe. Either that or fan dads and fan moms had to educate little Dick and Jane all about the life-changing experience that is classic Star Wars with a little mandatory movie night. Research, you see, for the ultimate trip to the multiplex and get an eyeful (quite possibly a dozen) of The Force Awakens.

Or maybe the Netflix execs are a bunch of dicks and parse out only so many movies at a time for sh*ts and giggles. Especially the obscure ones like Star Wars. That and Barbarella in 3D.

I’m not that frustrated, though. The remaining time off was well spent. I got to expose the wifey to a few of the essential, early James Bond films. Yep. This yielded some fruit. We watched Dr No and From Russia With Love with great interest (okay, was into them; she politely feigned interest.) But with little surprise we hit pay dirt with Goldfinger. Big shocker there. She dug it, and even though it had been years since I last saw it, I found my delight with Bond thwarting the titular, nefarious gold smuggler hadn’t diminished much. Goldie is the seminal Bond flick, replete with all the hallmarks (and eventual cliches) found in every 007 flick since. Cool cars, hot babes, globetrotting, Q and his oft-questionable spy tech and M being a dick, taking notes from Netflix execs. Y’know, the essentials. We both enjoyed the latest Bond flicks featuring Daniel Craig, but I felt it my cinematic duty to introduce her to a very young, studly Sean Connery and how it should be done. Some designs cannot be improved upon.

All right. Had to get all that out of the way. You’re welcome. Happy New Year!

On to this week’s drubbing…

The Rant…

You might’ve had this experience, too.

A million years ago, back when I was in middle school, I was exposed to the weird world of Edgar Allan Poe. In 7th grade were we learning about esteemed American writers, and teach thought it cool to get us all hip to Poe in reading some of his key scary stories are Halloween time. Good idea. We read The Black Cat, Fall Of The House Of Usher, The Tell-Tale Heart, all the biggies. Admittedly, I wasn’t really blown away at the time. One, I was too busy in nabbing the attention of your garden variety, unattainable girl a few rows over to be bothered with some dead writer with a bad comb-over. Two, learning about Poe was school-related, so any 12-year old doing his due diligence had to let any introduction of knowledge go in one ear and..and…what was I talking about?

Right, right. Oatmeal cookies. I do like oatmeal cookies. A lot of people don’t, since they masquerade as choco chips, but for me—

*eraser bounces off blogger’s head*

Thanks, Teach.

Anyway, despite raging hormones and being compelled to hurtle into C- minus territory as fast as f*ck as possible, I couldn’t deny that Poe’s work got in my head anyway. I guess it was The Raven as ear worm that planted a seed (that and the Treehouse Of Terror bit was no slouch either. Admit it). That poem and The Murders In The Rue Morgue cured the concrete. With that one I caught a TV adaptation starring the late, great George C Scott as the proto-Sherlock Auguste Dupin with a very young Val Kilmer as his flunky. It was a pretty good murder mystery as far as Poe adaptations went, as well as CBS went, too.

About Morgue. Along the way I uncovered that Poe’s Dupin was the first literary detective. First. Created and presaging Conan Doyle’s immortal creation Sherlock Holmes by almost 50 years. It’s been said there are maybe only five or six original American art forms. Poe created one of them: the detective story. That got my attention, and I only uncovered that factoid decades after 7th grade (I’m a slow learner. BTW, did you know it’s bad to put a fork in the microwave? Tell that to my eyebrows).

Discovering this I went back through time and reviewed my Poe. Not just his famous stories—recognition solidly earned—but his bio. That’s how I roll. Interesting fact planted in my water-headed brain and off I go to abuse Wikipedia. What I uncovered about one of America’s early literary masterminds was Poe’s inherent f*cked up-ness. The boozing. The drugs. The Lolita Complexes. What fun date he was. Small wonder the guy wrote some seriously messed up sh*t. Murder, incest, demonic possessions, the whole buffet. It’s hard to not to feel a sense of respect and awe.

It should come as no surprise I’ve went on and on and on here at RIORI that I do not play well with others. No happy camper here. A lot of the sh*t Poe wrote about—and doubtless dabbled in—fascinates me. He was a great writer, perhaps ahead of his time (e.g. Auguste Dupin). But his diseased brain is what I can identify with the most. I mean, all writers are f*cked up on some level. Sure, they have a public face that is usually sunny and marketable. They also have a side strictly reserved for the audience of the PC.

For example, Psycho author Robert Bloch was known to be nothing but a perfect gentleman (and he was a student of HP Lovecraft, before God). He also invented Norman Bates. Stephen King is one of the giants of horror fiction. He also plays guitar in the Rock Bottom Remainders, a band promoting literacy, as well as dumping his millions into ever-improving his town of Bangor, Maine. He also coaches Little League.

You gotta have a keenly cracked psyche to write graphic sh*t and still make the donuts every morning. Was Poe like that? Probably not. I think his grace was in reverse. He was an very flawed individual, not anyone to pick as a wingman. But the guy could write emotional, visceral, creepy tales of the macabre like no one’s business. Hell, if I could’ve written anything as well as he did, that chick a few rows over might’ve blinked at me.

Anyway, Poe’s work with all its meat and gristle has been adapted to film before. There were those nifty, yet kitschy movies with Vincent Price back in the 60s. The above version of Morgue. Most have been scattershot, however, almost capturing Poe’s R-rated catalog into a shoehorning PG-13 world. With Edgar (by which the mystery-writing top dog award is named for), it was all about atmospherics. It’s kinda hard to capture the perverse air of House Of Usher without Hollywood smearing CGI feces all over the production. To be sure there have been bright spots, but most of the time the spirit gets lost, like a cask of Amontillado that was never there.

It should be simple. Poe’s work is rife with a feeling of mystery. The horror part sold the stories. The head-scracthing brought an audience back for more. The wonder imbued. Vincent Price and his buddies gave it the college try, but substance was for wanting. You know what a good Poe Picture (as Stephen King coined them in his memoir) really needs? Mystery, and healthy does of the creeps. It’s hard to pull those from a story onto film.

Director James McTeigue tried his best with The Raven to pull this off...

It’s tough to be a writer. It’s even tougher to keep up a public face of a writer. Regarded a chronicler of life, love and leaving, your work must not only speak for yourself but also reflect society through your creative eyes and muse and hope the people follow you down.

Then we have Edgar Allan Poe (Cusack). The biggest issue he has to face it to quit trembling every time he reaches for a snifter of brandy. That and clearing that never-ending bar tab. Oh yeah, and writing. Can’t forget the writing.

When not being a lushy dipsomaniac (which isn’t often), Poe usually spends his days staggering about, denouncing people who fail to respect—let alone acknowledge—his talents. Despite being Baltimore’s bon vivant/enfante terrible, Poe and his work get little recognition. Plus very little money.

But someone loves you, Edgar. Perhaps a bit too much.

At the scene of a grisly murder one Detective Fields (Evans) recognizes the scene straight out of Poe’s stories. Being a fan, Fields seeks out the infamous, unstable writer for some insight. Not wanting anymore heat from the constabulary, Poe reluctantly agrees. Sure enough, the scene is right out of his murder mystery, The Murders In The Rue Morgue. And it only gets worse from there.

The Pit And The PendulumThe Cask Of AmontilladoThe Tell-Tale Heart. Ensuing bloody crime scenes echo Poe’s works. Fields deputizes Poe—very much against his will—to get to the bottom of these killings. We have a serial killer on the prowl, so its up to Baltimore’s sharpest detective and booziest writer to track down the murderer or else the killings are bound to continue until Poe’s entire catalogue is exhausted.

Hopefully before the bar tab gets even longer or when the opium runs out. Whatever comes first…

Shortly into watching The Raven, I came to a revelation.

“This has been done before.”

Not that Poe’s works never made it to cinema. The Raven‘s execution was painfully familiar, but I couldn’t place where. You know, when the writer becomes a character/gets trapped in his own work. Spike Jonze’s Adaptation came close. So did the cinematic version of The Dark Half, but not really. Regardless, this meta-inducing plot felt familiar. As well as its mundanity. But the execution of the story was curious enough that it held my attention. That’s a good thing, right?


You know what I said earlier about Poe’s writings’ essential atmosphere? The Raven has in it spades, as well as some sharp visuals. The whole movie is slippery, dingy and grim. I like that, especially since we’re dealing with a killing spree. The 1700s Baltimore of Poe’s days—according to The Raven‘s creators at least—is a ruined reflection of the Victorian Age. It’s a grey slum, smattered with endless, pissy rain and very few of its denizens come across as upstanding, not to mention having their own agenda. This is handy since we’re delving into a murder mystery. You gotta lay on some heavy ambiance of the creeps to get the lay of the land. We’re also dealing with Poe-inspired murders, so that cracked, psycho poet view runs thick. Almost too thick, actually.

Hang on. I remember  where I saw a similar  period piece mystery like Raven: the Hughes’ Bros From Hell. I tackled that one a while back here at RIORI. That murder mystery steeped in actual events was a pretty good whodunnit, albeit with a lot of unlicensed surgical gore and Johnny Depp’s trademark un-histrionics (and Heather Graham’s oh-so unbelievable Irish accent, not to mention her lack of facial scarring as hallmark of Mary Kelly’s occupation. That and…).

*second eraser touchdown pending*

Ahem. Any who, so yeah Raven is a Jack The Ripper…well, rip-off. It seems that way at first. From Hell is Raven’s immediate analog, and director MacTeigue is determined to one-up the Hughes’ film in everything. More mysteries, more menace, more violence and more period set work than a revival of Far From The Madding Crowd. Too bad it doesn’t really work; you can’t shake the “this has been done before” feeling. Originality is for lacking.

But it ain’t dull. Take Raven as From Hell lite. MacTeigue’s vision is just as dark and forbidding as Hell, but with a lighter touch. There’s a good deal of humor mixed in with the murder and mayhem. Just a spoonful of sugar don’t you know. I figure Raven would be just another swipe at the period mystery movie if not for the snickers and raised eyebrows.

One of the things—maybe the only thing—that makes Raven stand on its feet is the acting. Without colorful characters lurking around Baltimore’s underbelly, this would be nothing than a derivative From Hell. And boy howdy we got a gem acting as Poe. John Cusack has always been at heart a comedic actor. Even with more “serious” roles like this one there’s always a humorous undercurrent to his delivery. He’s really fun when he hams it up, loses his cool. Remember his Rob Gordon back in High Fidelity? Yep. It’s also too bad the movie seems to enjoy it, too. Cusack’s Poe runs perilously close to being one-note, but tempered by our no bullish*t Detective Fields.

The stern yin to Poe’s unhinged yang, Evans’ performance is what keeps the story from hopping the tracks. Sure, we have a sort of paint-by-numbers mystery going on here, but to keep everything moving along smoothly (good pacing, woof) and not come crashing down into potboiler territory with a lot of flayed skin we gotta have a guy like Fields around to spearhead the crime, not to mention keeping Poe on a leash. Evans’ performance from determined cop to stiff out-of-his-league to tiresome is a slow crawl and can be a drag, but the beleaguered officer is a reliable character type, and a tonic to Poe’s eccentricities (of which there are legion). We got a weird Sherlock action all up in here where Poe as Watson are one and the same. There better be a steady-handed Inspector Dupin at the ready (and Evans’ portrayal as the profiler was far more palpable and relatable than with Depp’s signature weirdness). One could make the argument that this is another rip-off from From Hell. Wacky cop paired against street-smart raconteur, only in reverse. I say it’s no matter. Entertaining, though not necessarily unique characters are all I’m asking for/expecting here. Good thing we got Cusack on board.

Speaking on being unique, Raven’s execution plays out like the plot of a graphic novel. I know, I know. Raven‘s sister movie was indeed based on a comic, and seeing how MacTeigue’s directorial debut of V For Vendetta was based on a graphic novel (written by Alan Moore, author of From Hell. Hey, wait a minute…) either some hero worship or hangover persists here. What I think is that MacTeigue is a Poe fanboy. Sure, he didn’t have much of a hand in the script, but his hand is heavy in establishing a narrative slathered in imagery right out of the Master’s stories. It teeters on overdose territory here. I’m also of the mind that the Poe angle was the supposed selling point. Raven is a trivia delight for fans (almost on a Star Trek con level). When was the last time a big deal, big budget cinematic adaptation of the man’s works hit the screen? Doubts even here, but I bet there was a vast, quiet flock out there waiting and waiting.

Under MacTeigue’s lens, for both Poe and crime drama fans, they had to take a weakened dose. Even though the director gets the atmosphere right, and Cusack’s fevered performance ably pushes the story along, there’s not much to hang onto here. The Raven is hampered with weak tension, forced style and bad case of the From Hell‘s. Like I said, it borders on derivative and blatant rip-off, but there are enough tricks in MacTeigue’s bag to keep Raven from being outright lame. Sure, it’s thin, but not uninteresting.

If you can get beyond the movie’s overt flaws, there is a neat mystery creeping underfoot.  There’ nothing revolutionary going on here, but regardless of the moody stylizing and gore, there’s a fairly decent mystery story. Not that the mystery proper is anything to crow (Ha!) about, but the details make Raven not drag as much as it would against all its other hiccups. A prime example (maybe the only one), is in the third act when the mystery reaches a head. I really enjoyed the trolling. Really. MacTeigue really toys with us. Any character acting suspicious hints at being the killer. It keeps you guessing. Oddly, Poe never comes across as REDACTED, but everyone else in the primary and secondary cast could be. Again, maybe overkill, but I dug it.

On the tails of that, my only serious, outright gripe with Raven is the ending. Yeah, I know. That’s a biggie; a real deal breaker. But I had patience enough with the first hour and forty-five minutes of this fanboy-drenched, slick and shameless reach-around swindle to hang out for the conclusion. And I got screwed. Actually, pissed is a more apt word. The ending ruined almost everything. Of course I’m not gonna ruin it for you. Take a risk like me, and consider getting your head checked.

Oh well. Was Raven a good movie? No. Was it a good time-waster? Sure, okay. Was it all just an opium/ego-induced dream? Well if so, I need a mixture like that. Come to think of it, so do you.

This is the part when I’m supposed to squawk, “Nevermore!” Right?

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Really. It’s a kinda cool waste of time, ideal for a Halloween movie night. Not ideal for…well, any other time of year. Pass the brandy. And the needles. And a fountain pen to stab things with. What the hell.

Stray Observations…

  • “Try not to sh*t yourself.” I always fancied Poe was a coarse talker.
  • Awesome editing between the pendulum and the heart.
  • “So was she 14?”
  • Back in Poe’s day, actors—and acting as a profession—were looked down on as mere entertainers; they were people who didn’t earn their keep with a hard day’s work and paid accordingly. My, how times have changed. Right, Sandler?
  • “I didn’t say I was an admirer.” “Yet…you did read them.”
  • Okay. The thing with the raven? A bit too much.
  • “Time for a piss.” Be right back.
  • The “catacomb” search is rather convoluted.
  • “…I guess I went a little nuts.”
  • There is no version of Barbarella in 3D, you idiots!

Next Installment…

Jack Black takes us on a modern trip through Gulliver’s Travels. Let’s hope it doesn’t suck ass.