RIORI Vol 3, Installment 31: Phillipp Stolzl’s “The Physician” (2013)


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The Players…

Thomas Payne, Stellen Skarsgaard, Elyas M’Barek, Olivier Martinez, Emma Rigby and (good ol’ reliable) Sir Ben Kingsley.


The Story…

Being a doctor in the Middle Ages didn’t mean healing. It meant one was a practitioner of witchcraft in league with Satan, a wretched barber who understood anatomy as well as a young child understands the cosmos, a nosey whelp interested only in the under-dealings of a fair maiden’s crotch.

Needless to say, hundreds of people suffered and died for no real reason. In fear.

Like what took Rob’s mum. Her death meant his family being torn asunder. By sickness. Miserable, inexplicable sickness. By choice of the Devil or God, whomever got to her first. But her passing—Rob’s loss—sparked a notion in his young mind:

What if he had gotten to her first?


The Rant…

And now, for my first trick, I shall perform a feat I have not performed in a fortnight: I shall tackle a film recommended by a friend. An actual human being.

I usually pluck these Standard-worthy movies via endless web-sifting. I have a few go-to sites to gather intel; ever-reliable resources like Rotten Tomatoes, the IMDb, my fave Box Office Mojo as well as minor players like Flickchart, The Numbers and even AllMovie. Sometimes even Wikipedia when I hit trumps. Other scraps are here and there and far too numerous to mention because I don’t want to sound like some cinematic OCD flake. Which I am.

But as for actual, in the flesh recommendations? Few and far between. Few because a lot of what I’m told to watch doesn’t fall under The Standard. I often am told about a bag’s worth of cheeseballs that dropped before the year 2000. I’m not gonna slag on Billy Madison here, despite how ripe a peach that is. And personal opinions of post-millennial features that fared well against an individual’s claim? Again, read above Internet data. It’s called “The Standard” for a reason. And I have some, both standards and reasons. Ask my shrink.

However, sometimes an actual human being gets hip to my MO. They watched a movie from the past (at least at this time of posting) 16 years and thought it was okay, but still for wanting. Some folks were alternately ecstatic/miserable over what they caught, and poked me on FaceBook for some screen time. But to date, after almost 100 installments, only three flesh-and-blood people suggested valid subjects to probe here at RIORI.

Time for some shout outs. Raise yer glass.

My former co-worker Rivers (that’s not really his name, just what we called him) dug Scorsese’s Shutter Island. He badgered me to see it and post my findings. I relented it. He didn’t like that I relented it. He quit our workplace soon after the post. I’d like to think I had something to do with that (our ex-boss’ Machiavellian practices probably had more of an influence than my precious keystrokes). But still Rivers reads the blog on a semi-regular basis, and we both still like DiCaprio, so it’s all good.

My girl’s former guy/presently good buddy got my back on the first Pacific Rim movie. I don’t know whether both of us were in synchronicity when he thunk that movie up, but it jibed with The Standard and was one of the titles that became the backbone of RIORI Vol 1. Hell, seeing the poster on the marquee then was enough to get my dander up. In a giddy kind of way, don’t worry.

And for my third accomplice, here’s the tale: I recently took to re-frequenting my old watering hole as a brief two-hour oasis after my drudgery at work before my responsibilities waiting at home. Due to these stressors at both ends, I required some quiet time. And a beer. A few beers. I used to abuse this old brass rail every night after service from multiple restaurant postings, mostly between 11 PM and “I’m sorry, Officer…” years ago. I’d clock off work, toss off my togs, step into the less fragrant jeans and belly up with that week’s Marvel titles, notebooks, pens and indifference from younger ladies somewhere between three and many pints.

Today? Fewer days, accountable lagers, a mostly sweet wife and daughter at home and a laptop in tow to type up this shingle. But still there’s a decent pitchman behind that bar. His name is Dan.

I was stony the first few weeks back at my old bar. Been a while. Hadn’t gone out to tie one on since 2012. Y’know, right before the Apocalypse. I had a sh*tty day one week like you have every day of the week, and me lagging behind on the stupid blog, not wanting to go home. I felt the need for a blissful cold one. And have a beer, too.

I kept going back. Every other day, balancing between the solitude of the local college library (where smoking indoors is frowned upon), and the bar (where Proust is frowned upon). I returned to the dive not in some self-entitled alky sense, but there are some luxuries of privacy offered only at a bar that a church cannot promise—if you hear what I’m saying. Better put, back in my lushier days, when I got the lowdown question, “How come you’re reading/writing in a bar?” My deadpan response was always, “Because they don’t serve beer at the library.”

So that being said (and my old school barkeep being “promoted” to weekends), I eventually started to tug on his coat on these every other days. No surprise, but we rambled about movies. And I eventually had to ask the apocryphal question:

“Dan, what’s your favorite movie?”

He crossed his arms and set his jaw.

“That’s a good question.”

“S’why I asked it,” I said, pounding the keyboard as if my boot kicked in the bathroom stall locked only by a twist-tie.

He snapped his fingers. He stabbed one at me. He told me something like, “You should check out The Physician.”

And then he told me why I should check out The Physician.

*lights go low, curtains draw back*

So I went and checked out The Physician…


Dateline: England. The Middle Ages. Grime and ruin reigns. Whatever advances the Romans made centuries ago in science, philosophy and especially hygiene have all but dried up. Presently the denizens in and around London just try to scrape together a meager existence towards the purpose of just seeing another day. Black Plague be damned.

That’s what young Rob (Payne) sees in his never-ending mornings. It is until a charismatic barber (Skarsgaard) comes to town with his promising medicine show. Rob knows his mum is sick and maybe he might glean a little knowledge from this tramp’s quacksalver hat of tricks to help her.

Nope. She dies anyway, and poor Rob devastated, traded off to points unknown. Namely, by stowing away in the barber’s horse-cart. The scoundrel takes a shine to Rob’s spirit, and does him the honor of letting him be his apprentice. Now, the drive to learn whatever scourge took away his mother will be put to good use under this man of letters and medicine.

Again, nope. The barber is nothing more than a film-flam man, and has no qualms duping people into his custom “treatments” to steal away their money. He warns Rob to let go his fantasy to become a true healer. He’ll be burned as a witch otherwise, or for mucking about in God’s domain. The populace are wary, if not outright hostile towards doctors, and the Church definitely finds “practicing medicine” sinful. This doesn’t matter to Rob. He’s determined. He’s learned of a medical school in distant Persia, the finest in the world, and there the near mythical Ibn Sina (Kingsley) is revered as the most learned man of medicine there ever was.

Rob’s decision is fixed. Ibn Sina is the man he seeks for answers. He’ll do whatever it takes—sail away from England to the distant Orient, masquerade as a Jew to have access to medical knowledge, even find himself mixed up in political scandal—to become a true healer.

His mum would’ve wanted it that way…


The Physician is one of the most interesting movies I’ve ever scanned here at RIORI. I’m not talking interesting because of an original plot or brilliant acting. It has neither, really. The interest comes from the platter upon which Physician is served. This ain’t your standard Hollywood historical drama like, say, Gladiator or Spartacus. It’s like one of those docudramas the History Channel used to air before those 48 hour American Pickers binge marathons took over (and I have never seen so much antique advertising for Coke in my entire misled life ever).

The problem for most Hollywood historical dramas is that damned historical part. You know Gladiator‘s plot was completely plausible, and hell, Spartacus was based on actual events (adapted from and filtered through Howard Fast’s pen and dubious research). But as we know from both sophomore year Western Civ classes and Tinsel Town’s defiant and desperate need to gild a dead lily, history can be boring. Boring that is, unless you can package the details in a nice, straightforward adventure with very little bullsh*t.

The Physician was made in Germany, a jillion miles away from the California Coast. This might’ve helped.

I guess this could be regarded as my first “foreign film” to skewer. And I really hate that phrase. Foreign Film. Here in ‘Murica, folks likely think that most movies from outside our borders are all artsy-fartsy and are bummed when the actors make funny talk. If you think about it, Gigli was a foreign film in Uzbekistan, so top your popcorn with that.

But anyway, it’s a foreign film. The Physician certainly has a different aesthetic that the above historical dramas. It goes without saying that movies made in other parts of the world are not made like they are in America. Barring language barriers and cultural references, an Akira Kurosawa movie is different from a Francois Truffaut movie is different from a Fritz Lang movie is different from a freaking Guy Ritchie movie. Hollywood pics tend to hack and slash to get their stories across, usually with as much pyrotechnics and Ben Affleck as their googol budget permits.

Not Physician. It’s patient. Not a lot of splash and dash. Sure, there are some wicked action scenes, but they’re reserved until the third act (of which unfolds about four-fifths into the movie. Like I said, patient). The remainder of the time it’s mostly staging. There’s a lot to digest here in Rob’s world, and you can tell at the outset that this story’s gonna take a bit of time out of your day. It feels epic, like you’re in it for the long haul. But it doesn’t feel like a slog, and unlike the aforementioned films director Stolzl isn’t trying to cram down as much info as fast as f*ck as possible about characters/plot/motive/pacing/diet down your throat to evacuate your reluctant bowels. There’s a winding story to tell here. There’s a lot of details. And since The Physician is the classic “boy on a quest” tale, we’re gonna walk many miles with our hero to get to the very nubbin of his purpose.

So what is the purpose here? Well, besides telling a story, Physician smacks of trying to learn ya something. Truth be told this movie felt less like a movie and more like a History Channel docudrama like I mentioned above. Educational sure, but with tits. Not a complaint, mind you (the educational thing, not the boobies). While watching The Physician I could almost hear the dulcet narration of Edward Herrman explaining as Rob set sail, “In England, medical science was a lost, if not forsaken practice, but half a world away in Persia…” True to that kind of tone, it felt that almost every aspect of the movie was calculated. Calculated to lend the audience a serious idea about what was at stake with Rob’s quest, and why it was necessary.

The quest maybe, the plot not so much. Same could be said for the acting. To be honest the first was not that original and the second was not that great. Like I said: boy on a quest. And the impetus for Rob’s quest could be lifted from a trillion other stories of that ilk (Star Wars: A New Hope springs immediately to mind). And our hero can be a whiny whelp like our beloved Luke was. To even suggest Payne’s portrayal would ever garner any awards would be like me jamming up the Academy’s executive toilets with my shoes. Does not flow here. But as I am ever fond of saying here at RIORI (which should become its subtitle, not that “A Social Study…” malarkey) that Physician is more than the sum of its parts. Say it with me now: “It’s not the notes, it’s how they’re played.”

That was very good. You get a gold star for the day. Now here’s your cracker.

Carefully so, Physician plays out like a fantasy, with a little “and now you know” sentiment attached. The movie’s trying to passively “teach” you something, but director Stolzl is just shrewd enough to smack you upside the head with that nonce where a day old salmon fillet would do wonders. There’s precious little sugar with the piss here, and so much so results in head-scratching and the all important “so then what happens?” feeling. I know I felt it for Physician‘s near pushing three hour running time. Me being of the US, some hook better have nabbed my attention, or else I would’ve been screeching “Freebird!” after the first fifteen minutes (“Where’s them titties at?” *takes a hit off the Sterno*).

But to be fair, the show only descended into real melodrama in the final act. Sometimes you gotta throw a possible restless audience a sop. For the duration of Physician, it played out like a wonderful world of discovery. Maybe casting Payne as our hero served us well, him all wide-eyed (and very blue-eyed) as a center for the furrowed-brow rest of us lot. The cinematography, costumes and settings were nothing less than beautiful, and the overall camera work gave us this immense sensation of space. Even when our Rob is reservedly trying to woo Rigby’s Rebecca, there’s the endless dunes of the Arabian desert at their backs. And when our hero finally reaches the mythical city of medical learning Isfahan, it appears like that dumb flag icon from Google Maps wedged within a crevice between angry mountains. The whole MO of Physician is about discovery. Very interesting; them’s the watchwords. The movie’s supposed to arrest certain minds. And at least the rest of it should be of things that make you go, “Hmmm…”

*dodges rotten tomatoes from the early-90s*

So I hope we agree at this point that the acting and plot here is nothing to crow about. So I also hope we agree at this point that this matter don’t mean a sh*t. At the end of the day, The Physician‘s strengths lay within a delicately balanced cradle between “understand this” and “understand that.” Stolzl is very clever in costuming info into entertainment. I might believe that despite this movie being a German film, he knew what bones to throw towards a Sandler-addled audience. The sh*t that might’ve been given a snort in Berlin would’ve caused a book-burning in Columbus so it would be wise to send The Physician overseas, see what kindle it may burn. Too bad it wasn’t a lot, but that acid test might’ve proven that a straight-ahead/science-based quest tale might allure more mature Europeans.

Sorry. Too sharp there? Consider this:

The Shah’s reluctance and admitted ignorance of medicine rather echoes the motives for Rob’s flight from England. Power does not necessarily equal knowledge. So don’t carry a snowball into Congress when Tyson has that viral webcast. Dig?

*smack*

Right, so the past reveals the present in a tasteful, engaging fashion here. Got it? Good. Lay off the salmon.

But again and truth be told, after watching Physician, there is an odd parallel within the American scientific community warring frustratingly against the American stupid. It’s the kind of conflict that’s been brewing—veritably fermenting—for many centuries. I wasn’t sure if Stolzl was aiming at satire here, for the feel of the film ultimately was a gentle one, no shouldering. But again and again, “Hmmm.” Like I was saying, if The Physician fails to entertain, it’ll succeed in making you think. Hopefully without snowballs.

I guess that last thousand paragraphs read like a mash-up amongst Aldous Huxley, The Clash and a Bill Hicks monologue. Well, so did the film. I’m trying to separate The Physician from the stock here, and it’s a bit of a rough beast. We already know the acting is rote. The story is derivative. And the melodrama (although tasteful) is totally out of place for Rob’s discovery of his world. We’re into ancient History Channel programming that. But then again, isn’t what films like The Physician represent have been lacking from the Picker Channel for the last decade? Maybe. A shrug here.

The biggest strength The Physician has a film is how engaging it is. It helps if you’re a history buff. But it’s indeed oddly engaging for a mid-production film. I say “mid-production” because my American eyes aren’t accustomed to German filmmaking. For instance, it’s pretty remarkable what the film crew did on a relatively low budget. Low by American standards ($36 million estimated). I guess director Stolzl is a disciple of Roger Corman; everything here from the sets to the F/X to the acting is very direct and to the point, almost utilitarian. Very little fluffy melodrama to hamper the story of Rob’s quest. I like that. The Physician is—if you’ll pardon the pun—very clinical in its execution.

Okay, sure. But when the long build-up from England to Persia descends into melodrama, such a hard, angular sell simply needs to be followed with a soft one. All that burgeoning science hokum can only go so far as a flash can do twice as fast. Double quick. With clean epics like this one, again you need to  throw a bone now and again (eg: the big throw down in the final act). You gotta love an oily villain twirling his mustache, and the ever so slight preachiness and cheeze about the glory of healing to be construed as mawkish, but such things are essential to a movie like this. We’re reviewing history here. It can get a little dry, and we can only play that hand for so long a game before we need the swords unsheathed. What I’m getting at is that for most of The Physician we’re getting a history lesson—across a vast world of religion, politics, science and culture clash. All good things, BTW—but in the endgame you need to have a steam valve tripped to make the journey worth your effort, even if only it means to cater to a Western audience. And come on, there’s nothing like siege on a palace of learned men protecting what we as the audience know is worth defending. Chivalry and the preservation of knowledge and alla dat. Remember Dead Poets’ Society? There ya go.

And that’s the most human message The Physician tries to deliver. It’s not trying to be a medieval episode of House. For all the tepid acting, well-worn storylines and a fountain of bathos at the film’s conclusion, the movie wants you to walk away with a feeling of learning something. Perhaps something you hadn’t considered before. It’s meditative and methodical in its delivery, and most importantly The Physician doesn’t pander to its audience, either. It stands upright. It’s not great film by any means, nor is it really that good. But it is interesting. It is engaging. Hell, it kept me awake for over two hours under the influence of whiskey and endless cigarettes. Even Gladiator failed to do that (I had to take three tries to fell that beast, and I ain’t talkin’ Russell Crowe, neither).

So there you go. The Physician. I tried to be as tasteful as I could writing this one, as it was borne from someone’s personal recommendation, which I had to respect. Wouldn’t wanna lose a beer by the man. Nor make him leave his job, y’know. Vested interests here.

Okay. Time to get. You don’t have to go home but you can’t write deceptive songs about becoming a dad clouded by the metaphor of the usual last call ritual.

Thank you.

Now for my next trick, I shall gargle peanut butter.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. A solid film, despite its occasional creakiness. But overall it is quite intriguing. What more could one ask for? Okay, maybe the History Channel resume airing history once more. I’m a picky bitch.


Stray Observations…

  • Cool edit with the opening titles there.
  • “You should stick to whores, too!” Sound medical advice.
  • Never mind the boobies, this movie would be great for high school history class.
  • “My first amputation!” “Mine too!”
  • Hey. Did Rob kill that guy or did the desert “take him?”
  • “My hair could do for a trim.”
  • I really didn’t like the Matrix-esque drama every time Rob takes a pulse. His is not The One one. Whatever.
  • Best. Eye roll. Ever.
  • The circumcision scene is brilliant; Kafka-esque.
  • “Yes, we’ve all gone a little mad. You’re next.” Wanna go?
  • Did everyone back then have lousy appendices?
  • “How pale and tedious would this world be without mystery?” Only Kingsley could deliver a line like that and not make it sound corny.
  • You always gotta go back for the girl. You gotta.
  • The Middle Ages f*cking sucked.

Next Installment…

When I caught wind that there was a movie about one of my fave bands, The Replacements I was stoked. Then I learned it starred Keanu Reeves playing football. Ruh-roh.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 30: Joel Coen’s “Intolerable Cruelty” (2003)


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The Players…

George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Edward Herrman, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Adelstein and Cedric The Entertainer, with Julia Duffy, Geoffrey Rush and Richard Jenkins.


The Story…

Love is fleeting as it’s been said. That’s why we have prenups. Serial golddigger Marilyn has a made a career of “marrying right” in order to divorce when the check clears. Finding Mr Right is a distant second to scoring Mr Right For Now.

When Marilyn solicits Miles Massey’s law firm for her latest chump to dump, he smells a rat and a scam. And an irresistible fiscal black widow Miles can only regard as “fascinating.”

And the case. Right, let’s not forget the case.


The Rant…

Short one this week. Kick back. Grab some Cheetos.

So. Do you remember your first Coen Brothers’ movie?

I do. They’re kinda like an event nowadays. Films made for a cult audience before the cult’s even made. I first experienced that hoo-hah back in college, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Again.

My first toe-dip into the Coen’s olympic-sized film pool was by way of Raising Arizona. Didn’t get it then. I was a kid. Liked Nic Cage because he was loony and hammy. Saw Arizona the same year Peggy Sue Got Married came out on video. Even though being a kid and totally removed from the film’s 50s pop culture references I liked that film enough. It was where I first met Cage really, and got reacquainted with that funny lady from Romancing The Stone, too, which was nice—mostly for Cage’s nasally delivery. The whole time travel thing was cool, too. Such simpler movie watching times then.

So me being a nascent Cage fan, hearing about the Arizona movie I checked it out. Like I said, didn’t get it. Too young. But Nic was clowning around and the whole goofy kidnapping caper tickled my fancy, enough so that I still remember the film aeons later. Must’ve left an impression.

The Coen’s movies sure do that. Leave an impression. It might not always be a good impression, but their signature sticks in your teeth like a Jolly Rancher, regardless of being either sweet or sour. Sure, other directors have their signature thumbprints all over their work (e.g.: Scorsese, Spielberg, Kubrick, Hitchcock, etc), and you look forward to their usual antics, but the Coen’s work is so oblique, so abstract, so f*cking weird we don’t get thumbprints. We get a five-fingered slap. And it can feel oh so good.

But for every Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Miller’s Crossing, we can also get The Hudsucker Proxy, The Ladykillers and Paris, Je T’Aime. I ain’t saying the latter films suck, but the Coen impression is skewed here, beyond the wacky scripts and bizarre acting. There’s inconsistency with the impression. Even some of Spielberg’s lesser films still smell like a steady Spielberg project. Coen films are a lot like comparing sex and pizza. When it’s good, it’s good, and when it’s bad it’s still good. But for both accounts, when it’s bad is isn’t necessary bad when it comes to Coen films. But it can be unsatisfying.

Akin to my Raising Arizona story, that Coen impression can be so palpable that when you watch one of their fluffier films you run the risk of walking away scratching your head. “What was up with that?” you may ask yourself after watching Inside Llewyn Davis two weeks after seeing No Country For Old Men. You dig? With the Coen brothers, it’s never really a good impression or a bad one. Across a continuum it can be a baffling impression. I understand all directors want to squeeze the orange every so carefully with each of their ensuing films, but the Coen’s work is so eclectic, and their quality is so all over the map it gets hard to adjust your lens.

Take this week’s installment…


She’s cunning. She’s deceptive. She’s gorgeous. And she’s loaded, which is separate from her other assets.

Marilyn Rexroth (Jones) is a serial golddigger. Professional golddigger is more apt, and she knows how to squeeze both a bank account and a scrotum with equal ease. The former is her weapon of choice. And her latest stupid, prey is on the chopping block, the cheating Rex Rexroth (Herrman). So to make sure she gets the biggest buck for her bang, Marilyn seeks out the best counsel against the law firm of Massey et al to secure the prenuptials.

Slick marriage attorney Miles Massey (Clooney) knows a ripe peach when he picks one. Marilyn’s beguiling…case proves to be a curious one. Miles suspects Marilyn isn’t the damaged, rueful ex-wife she appears to be. He scours about the law community trying to get some scuttlebutt on this woman’s true motives—which are painfully obvious.

But as Miles gets to understand his quarry, he finds himself slowly getting tangled in Marilyn’s web of…of…

How fascinating…


Like I began to babble about up top, my first real Coen movie exposure came in my senior year of college. Not one of their films, per se, just the reactions to one. The movie of the moment then, whose buzz could not be killed with an entire pallet of Raid was The Big Lebowski. My peers raved. They cheered. They took the White Russian-soaked philosophical mumblings of The Dude quite seriously. A cult was brewing. I was hesitant.

I’ve always been suspicious of the mass pop cultural appeal towards the movie/TV show/band/book/yoga position of the moment. For example, when the novel The DiVinci Code was the book on everyone’s quivering lips, I steered clear. Since the majority of Americans are functionally illiterate, when the hoi polloi starts salivating over a few pages, I arch a brow. I once got a “recommendation” for Dan Brown’s opus from a bar buddy of mine. Her claim, “Don’t worry. The chapters are short” was hardly a ringing endorsement. Back when Lebowski was the flavor of the week, and my esteemed colleagues would just not quit answering all questions with, “The Dude abides,” I slinked away and said later, gator. It took many years for me to get around to see the thing. Then and only then I figured out what my friends were slobbering over. It’s a great movie, granted. I guess I had already seen a lot of other films from the Coen Canon before my eventual few frames with Walt and Donny, so when the hammer came down I knew what to expect. I wasn’t disappointed. And of course I was pleased. Because that crucial Coen impression was slathered all over the place.

Cruelty has the impression all right. It’s just not a good impression, and not in the sex/pizza paradigm, either.

Let’s get right to the point, Cruelty is a comedy in the vein of its Coen-helmed ancestor, Raising Arizona. Only it’s the opposite. Where the latter was an experiment in the bizarre, and totally left field compared to other comedies of its ilk back in 1987 (eg: Three Men And A Baby. Need I say more, Spock?), the former is a straightforward black comedy. Arizona was the anti-comedy. Cruelty is a winking screwball comedy. Almost, but lacks bite. A great part of the Coen’s impression is bite. Stinging, ribald, getting-under-the-skin bite. Cruelty has almost no bite. It gums. It’s goofy, to be sure as comedies like these are, but the movie flies by in such a gale that nothing gets a chance to take hold. Stick. Penetrate. Chafe. Ow.

Sorry.

Cruelty is a slick caper, this one. It’s not that there’s anything overtly off-putting here—acting’s good, story’s not dull, Jones is hot—but one gets the feeling that the Coens are deliberately holding back. You know, taking a few Ativan and seeing if they can bring wacky, campy sh*t to rise minus the late Randall “Tex” Cobb and his shenanigans. The end result here doesn’t feel very organic though, not the way like, say Fargo was. And that movie was a lot funnier than Cruelty is, albeit more stark. Then again Cruelty is a deliberate black comedy, trying very hard to be screwy, and maybe on purpose. I mean, it felt like the Coens were reaching for something here, something more mainstream in a comedy compared to their past efforts. But the whole thing just zooms by with nary a whit of subtly, like there’s some hurry to get to the resolution or the kitties will burn. It’s like staring into the microwave, watching that spinning cup of coffee boil over.

In simpler terms, slow it the f*ck down. Moving on.

Cruelty kinda reminds me of one of those daffy comedies starring Cary Grant back in the day. It’s would explain Clooney’s delivery, all snapping teeth, mile-wide smile and silver-tongued scene chewing. His Miles is a second cousin to Ulysses McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou?—I know, I know. One more Coen movie citation and out the window with me—all fast talking and on the cusp of total ham. Whereas Ulysses tried to be an honorable husband and dad, Miles’ smarminess belies a petulant, pimply teen inside, always squirming with self-doubt. For all his wheeler-dealing, high-end divorce lawyer guise, what ultimately motivates him is getting girls to notice him. There are plenty of scenes when Miles is scampering about like spoiled, randy teenager, all bluff and bluster. It’s somewhat charming, but not necessarily endearing. Miles’ is ostensibly the protagonist; why’s he so reactionary?

Perhaps because Jones’ Marylin is so seductive, and not in the silk stocking kind of way. She’s a smooth operator, all right. Some master criminals scheme their schemes with maniacal glee. Well, so does Marilyn. Save the rare remorseful, crying jag she’s as scheming as they come. In a way, her nefarious lack of bluster makes her all the more Black Widow-type. Only instead of killing her prey, she kills their livelihood. It’s a kind of bullying really, and maybe a form of radical feminism. I don’t need a man for what he can give me; I want what he can give me. Jones is the villain here, and a delicious chimera if there ever was one. Best part of the film I figure. And kudos to the wardrobe department.

Despite the mostly seamless (get it?), winding, interconnecting plot threads in Cruelty, the whole thing comes across as way to busy and rushed. Feels like Coen comedy lite. Sure, it was amusing, and professional in its execution. And it did smack of a Coen Brothers madcap comedy, but everything was too measured. No real edge. No Hudsucker here. No tension. Slick like Miles courtroom babbling and everything streamlined because Marilyn has other fish to fry. Hurry, hurry, hurry. IfI get to timer watching—so to speak—there be a problem, laddie buck.

Welp, that’s about it as far as this installment goes. Other things of note (I don’t want to be derelict in my duties by ignoring other noteworthy sh*t. Yer welcome) that Cruelty sports the usual, eclectic, tasteful, awesome supporting cast of misfits and wastrels. We still have plenty of Andy Kaufman-esque “punk the audience” humor. There was a fair amount of head-scratching curiosity (one could say too much). The movie didn’t outright suck, but it was for lacking. Cruelty was a casserole of half-baked ideas and malformed notions, and maybe all a deliberate mess. Taken as a whole, Cruelty was sadly less than the some of its more impressive parts.

Y’know, now that I think about it, Cruely kinda played like a mashup of other Coen comedies. This specimen seemed fused together from ideas scattered on the cutting room floor. Was this part of any underlying comedy here? Like the Coens were trying to bait the audience by preying on blind fandom and Jones’ boobies?

And do they even have cutting rooms anymore?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Hey, not every Coen Brother film is worth quoting, y’dig? It’s like this is what happens when you find a stranger in th—Ow!


Stray Observations…

  • I think this is the first movie I’ve seen starring Jones with her not shedding the Brit accent. Maybe the lilt in her speech was meant to make her Marilyn all the more intriguing.
  • “We’ll eat the pastry!”
  • Was it just me, but didn’t Miles’ big speech at the convention kinda flow like Jimmy Stewart’s in Mr Smith Goes To Washington? Like I claimed, classic comedy film undertones. Discuss.
  • “This man is tuna.” F*cking vile, that.
  • Living Without Intestines. Now that’s bathroom reading. And it has a pinup!
  • “Who needs a home when you have a colostomy bag?” Good point.
  • Talk about eating your words (*rimshot*).
  • “Punky’s Dilemma.” Clever.
  • “I nailed your ass!”

 


Next Installment…

The Physician of the Middle Ages understood that the only real obstacle on the way to becoming a healer was ignorance. And superstition. And the Catholic Church. And the Inquisition. And traveling afar to unknown lands. And eventually HMOs. And…


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 29: Henrik Genz’ “Good People” (2014)


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The Players…

James Franco, Kate Hudson, Sam Spruell, Omar Sy and Tom Wilkinson.


The Story…

In spite of being down and out in London, Tom and Anna keep trying to make ends meet all the while holding on to a dream of financial freedom. It’s the same old tale. One needs money to spend money to earn money.

By accident they discover their boarder came into some money. A lot of money. A big sack of a lot of hidden money. Too bad for him he’s dead.

Or is it? As Tom and Anna look into each other’s eyes, with all their financial woes nipping at their heels, almost psychically they ask each other: Too bad he’s dead?

The gangsters who got played don’t want  like to take time out. And dead or alive, that missing cash is gonna find it’s proper way home. Most likely behind the muzzle of a shooter aimed straight at Tom and Anna’s heads.


The Rant…

You’ve done this. I’ve done this. It pisses us off so that any adjectives would be useless in this occasion.

*checks scrotum. sighs in relief*

But not that. You’re welcome. So here it comes:

“The book was so much better than the movie!”

Gah. I hate that. Don’t you? And you’ve probably exclaimed such sh*t yourself. God knows I have. We ain’t perfect.

Before I go any further down the rabbit hole, let me riddle you this: you ever found yourself get into an interest, hobby and/or fetish by accident? You know, like Pokemon cards, the films of Lars von Trier or even an unnatural obsession with Ben & Jerry’s Willie Nelson’s Country Peach Cobbler ice cream (sure as rain I did)? Just happened to stumble onto them, and got hooked.

Well this little pre-intro is for you. Sit back a spell and let me tell you a tale. Not to worry, it’s not gonna be like my sloppy, gonzo Reign Of Fire installment I did last month. Truth be told, I’m still embarrassed about that one. But anyway and onwards, here’s my entry drug story.

I don’t watch much TV. Very little in fact. The term “binge watching” is both confusing and anathema to me. When I was a kid, too much television would render your brain into Reddi-Wip. Nowadays TV binging is an app. I don’t get it. I stay away from the screen not because the medium is redolent with crap—and 90% of it is—and I’m not ignoring the remaining 10% that is definitely not crap (e.g.: The Walking Dead, Hell On Wheels, Longmire, Homeland and others of that ilk), even though most of them on premium cable. I just…don’t watch TV. My screen’s nothing more than a platform to watch movies or play Nintendo nowadays. But there was I time I often curled up with the remote.

I had to settle with basic cable years ago. Couldn’t afford an HBO/Starz/Showtime/Spice Channel package, so I hunkered down with the History, Discovery and Travel Channels. It was kinda in that order actually. Got my history fix about the world (till Axe Men took over), got my weird science view of the world (till MythBusters became the “what can we blow up this week?” show) and got to virtually travel the world (till Bourdain threw up his arms and followed his wallet. CNN must pay better).

For all my muted ire, the Travel Channel served my vicarious needs best. Sh*t, I couldn’t gallivant off to Morrocco, Paris and/or China at the drop of a hat. But I could go there on TV, even via a distilled version. Better than scouring ancient editions of Nat Geo and wondering why why why? Simply put, an hour of No Reservations, Bizarre Foods, Off Limits, Made In America or Hidden City gave me a nice, simple time wasting away from my boring, sorry existence in my little ville. TV is escapism, right? Better choose your escape right, especially if you only has basic cable. I played the cards I got dealt. No serious complaints here, for real.

I sense a disturbance in The Force. No wait. That’s just gas. But I do sense a question:

Hidden City?”

It was a short-lived series. Barely two seasons. Its premise began with having our host trot around to  major American metros as well as milder fields of grain. Our avatar collected the poop on three significant crime stories that were illustrative of the selected city’s historical periods, or a backwater scandal that precious few had ever heard of. A gold star from me with my diligent, suburban, white guy denial to the producers who thunk up that sh*t. And I caught Hidden City in my 30s. No one really graduates high school.

So how’d I get hip to this unfairly truncated series? One, by accident. A combination of late night/after work channel surfing. Second, the surfing landed on the Travel Channel having a program almost over covering the whacked-out murder case of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Or course I have the LP, and read the Savage book twice over, so my interest was piqued. Our host was sweating the former lead singer of a cultish punk NY band I enjoyed for years, “Handsome Dick” Manitoba of the late, lamented Dictators. At the time of the airing, Manitoba had since hung up his microphone and upgraded himself into a nightclub owner. His place catered to the old guard and curious alike about how the Lower East Side sounded back in the day. The guy vocally assaulted the host in a timber I knew well and had no qualms about giving his angle of the the Sid and Nancy deaths.

Oh yeah. The host? Sorry to leave him out. Name was Marcus Sakey. Co-producer of the show as well as an esteemed shortlist writer of crime fiction. Stuff like Good People. Good book.

He was the guy who let me know it was okay to sport my triple lobe piercings again (thereby warding off middle age a bit longer than necessary). That is was okay to lay the Pynchon down and indulge in some ribald tales of shiftless motherf*ckers coming down hard of unsuspecting—but still sympathetic—innocents. To slum really, and turn off the English major for a week or so and just chew on a satisfying book.

So I’ve read all of Sakey’s books, even me not being a real crime fiction fan, and I’ve dug ’em all. Listen, and not to be pointed, but when you’ve read too many cookbooks, Stephen King and Raymond Carver fiction as if have (not a brag. I think those claims barely register as even approaching a boast, really) as well as my very fair share of Marvel titles, an enema like Sakey’s work can really do a stressed-out brain good. To drive it home, when I read Sakey’s stuff in bed, the wife would caw after well too late, “Honey, turn off the light.”

That’s a good read. Needless to say I recommend Sakey to anyone who wants “a good read.” Hell, even I turned my taciturn, urban historical, McCollugh-lovin’ dad into reading Sakey’s debut The Blade Itself. Soon after the man finished the novel (in a record three days), he asked me plainly, “He write anything else?” I loaned him my copy of At The City’s Edge. And Good People. And the other books, all of which the man got rather bulimic over. Mission accomplished.

But in all honesty, Sakey’s most recent efforts—his mild take on S/F—Brilliance and A Better World read like a standard X-Men crossover series, but both were still fun. Isn’t that really what entertainment is all about? Regardless of media, so long as you find your parking space—or the right time to abuse TV—so long as you don’t drop your keys en route to the car. So long as you find said keys en route to your car. Or so long as you have a car to drive home, did you have yourself a time before?

You should “forget” the movie as soon as you leave the cineplex. You should “lay the book down” as soon as you’ve finished it. You should ignore the people who made the matter mind. You should…

Wait. ‘Sup? Good People? Sure, I read it. It got made into a movie, right? Kewl. Sakey doing the narration or somthin?

Sakey. The writer.

What do ya mean “who”?

Ask Handsome Dick Manitoba, you f*cks!

“Talk, talk, talk, keeps getting in the way…”


We all know living expenses in America can get so heavy it may crush you. Well, for Tom and Anna Wright (Franco and Hudson) the notion of relocating to London from their beloved Chicago has proven to be more of a syphon than a fiscal haven.

Tom’s a journeyman landscape artist. Anna’s a part-time schoolmam. Between them both might be thruppence to rub together. No luck there, especially when the eviction notice gets served. Here is where everything should and shall go down the tubes. Tom’s latest restoration job’s run out of funding. Anna’s meager hours can’t pay the bills. The only steady income comes from their basement boarder, Ben, who’s been quiet for weeks.

Literally weeks. What’s been going on down there? And why is that damned TV so loud?

Tom and Anna unravel that riddle. Ben’s dead, drug overdose. But he was kind enough to leave behind a sack of £44,000 as a parting gift. Good thing, too, since they’re about to lose everything. This money is just the ticket to eradicate all their debts. Continue Tom’s current restoration project. Get the fertility aid Anna’s been wanting. Hell, pay back some kindness to Anna’s sister in the form of a new washer. Wipe everything clear.

Save the thugs from a crime ring who really want that swag back. As well as the dope Ben stole on his final murderous job. Tom and Anna got gold in their eyes, and the head of a drug empire, the mysterious  “Khan” (Sy) has retribution in his. He wants it all back, and doesn’t care if the innocent Wrights are nothing more than casualties.

It’s been said that money is the root of all evil. That’s an error. It goes that the love of money is the root. Too bad for Tom and Anna they have to understand this little axiom a shade too late…


So, yeah. “The book was so much better than the movie!”

There have been exceptions. We’ve had numerous Shakespearean plays adapted for the screen with maybe more flair than what The Globe offered (check out the 80s BBC version of Taming Of The Shrew starring John Cleese as Petruchio. Hilarious). Die Hard was terrifically better than the source novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Rod Thorpe. And the stage drama Everybody Comes To Rick’s melded quite well with the scenarists assigned to Casablana‘s production. Hell, if we can weld a 15 line poem into an epic like Gunga Din then there’s hope for all.

More often in Movieland things go wrong along such curves. Not unlike for our wayward Tom and Anna in Good People, hundreds of folks in Hollywood negotiating million dollar deals lose sight of the endgame. I’m talking about actual profit by way of replay value and enduring art, but the final product’s throughput lacks something. We’ll warp the source material just enough to accommodate a story easier to digest and not endangers potential ticket sales. We’ll let the director follow his vision, no matter how hairbrained it is. We’ll cram the actors into discomfort to ensure they’re characters are palatable, safe. And if the film proper was spawned from a pre-existing text, it tends to be de rigeur to f*ck with said source just enough to fit under the cookie cutter.

Despite my snobbery of adherence to the source text, I do occasionally appreciate, even like, some spin given in tweaking the story ever so slightly to make it fit on screen. However the hard part about watching a movie based on a book you’ve already read said book is that you can’t help but see/be on the lookout for discrepancies in the plot. Hell, that kind of thing ruined The Ten Commandments for me.

Seriously, perceptions get scrambled for us poor reader/viewers. It might be more cringeworthy to witness this in action for dorks like me, but it’s an absolute ripoff to casual audiences. Even if you never read Good People, you would eventually suspect that the film version is half-baked. Everything in Good People the film feels stiff. Unlike my valentine the book, which was simple, fluid and punchy in the best way. What I’m getting at is this shouldn’t’ve been so hard to make page translate to screen here. Where the book was straightforward in plot, tone and characterization, the film version plays like a warmed-over Guy Ritchie flick minus the winking, all-important humor. And the misfit characters. The cast of Good People are just misfit.

Even the opening: dry. I wasn’t digging the opening scene right off. Set up like a stock crime caper, sprinkled with just enough violence to get your attention. The almighty hook. Didn’t work on me. Things didn’t really improve from then on. Not surprisingly I’ve got a laundry list of how this movie let me down. Indulge me, won’t you?

*pats head*

Gracias. The biggest crime here within a crime caper is People‘s lack of honest tension (at least by when timecode 37.00 rolled about, thereabouts. I was patient, and if I was watching the timer a problem was slinking up). The flick was going way too slow. We’re supposed to have a desperate thriller here. Instead we got steady paces. People was creeping predictability. There’s a big difference between being predictable and straightforward. When a director tries to be edgy on purpose—and don’t lie, you can tell the difference between watching Taxi Driver against, say, Superman Returns—you can smell it like a fart in car. People suffered greatly in that department. It played like Law & Order: London, even down to the lighting, all grey and muted (what’s up with that trick? Sure, it worked in Se7en, but how?). People’s biggest crime was playing by-the-numbers. Rote. A straight-to-video kind of feel. Not a good time-waster.

Based against my already-read-the-book prejudice, it’d be hard for the casual People watcher to fail to ignore the dry film’s other faults. C’mon. You’ve seen enough crime thrillers to recognize multiple turds in the punchbowl. For one, we got a lot of stilted dialogue. There’s too much telling, not enough implying. With a crime story, we shouldn’t—can’t—have our cast declaring all their intentions and emotions. We gotta have intrigue, mystery, fear and the all important tension. You have the leads broadcast f*cking everything, well flush. Let’s take a ride on the tedium train. Choo-choo. Derailment.

Also, quite foreign-sounding director name is a portent for not getting America genre films. Racist? Perhaps. I’d rather call it “lost in translation,” kind of like arguing with a customer care rep stationed in the Indian subcontinent. Nuances and axioms get run through the rock tumbler. Just sayin’.

People wasn’t a total shambles. though. Like with any bitter there’s a residue of sweet. Kind of like the relief that comes after passing a kidney stone. There were some bright spots in acting here, almost as a rebellion against the dross. Franco was as smarmy/likable as ever. Granted his charm cracks through his bland Tom only in drips and drabs, but it’s reassuring that he’s still in there somewhere. I’m for any kind of anchor in the otherwise talented cast to moor onto. I mean, we had Tom Wilkinson before God and our lifeline was the New Goblin. I thought I’d never say this—nor anyone else in the solar system—but may the heavens bless James Franco for slightly redeeming this staid movie. Pineapple Express was pretty okay, too.

Hey. What’s key to all good crime capers? Interesting villains. Admittedly, People‘s bad guys are derivative in their motives and portrayals. But they are not wholly uninteresting. And played pretty well, too. Although it took a while to warm me up, Spruell (despite his middle-aged Opie looks) eventually morphed into a rather scary character. His Jack stole Sy’s head baddie Khan’s thunder who was little too rough-edged to be a convincing, smooth operator drug king pin. Jack being calm throughout all his nefarious deeds does a decent bad guy make. Since People was shot in London (instead of the book’s hometown of Chicago, where it was probably too costly to shoot People, BTW), I came to wonder if Spruell was an in-demand actor in Britain. One can only hope.

Hudson was pretty and wooden. Moving on.

Well, at least the third act had juice, despite getting all McGuyver as resolution (which was also oddly predictable. Franco should’ve sported a mullet all along). If only the first hour-ten had the spark of the final 20 minutes then this movie would’ve been worthwhile. Okay, the big confrontation smelled of watered down Die Hard, but at least it had motion, unlike the rest of People. You gotta respect the Kafkaesque rule of having the gun on the shelf in the first act going ka-blam in the third. I have to respect and admit that’s classic. At least director Genz didn’t watch every film in the Ritchie canon.

So here we are, a Sakey fanboy feeling scammed and a possibly frustrated audience tossing popcorn buckets at the screen. Like I mentioned, you needn’t have read Good People to feel ripped off by watching this movie. In a way this review is a shifty method of denouncing cable TV. Damn you, Sakey, gently lulling me into fandom with a few eps of Hidden City. Then again if you’re a Franco-phile (I will not apologize for that one), blame his charming ass. If you’re a Kate Hudson fan, I can’t help you; there is no such thing as a Kate Hudson fan. Despite the reliable star power, the simple yet botched plot and eventually satisfying conclusion, People was a serious letdown overall. I recommend y’all to read Sakey’s books instead, if only as a can of Glade to the film.

Oh yeah. One last thing.

Dick Manitoba’s band, the Dictators? They cut a track called “Sleepin’ With The TV On.” It mentioned the Thin Man films, which is worthwhile watching.

Good People wasn’t. And Sid was innocent.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it, doy. Serious letdown here, for Sakey fans and crime thriller fans alike. How the f*uck do you botch such a simple, if not well-worn premise? I blame EarthLink tech support outta Mumbai. That chick really tried to scam me.


Stray Observations…

  • “Tonight…someone’s gonna get pregnant.” Smooth.
  • Cute with the “All Gamblers…” sign hovering over the windfall.
  • Franco’s got a winning smile. Admit it.
  • That’s dirty pool! Sorry, couldn’t resist.
  • “Promise me you won’t kill us.” “…No.” Like that’s ever worked anyway.
  • I kinda dug the soundtrack. I did suit the (attempted) mood of the film.
  • “Guns are for pussies.” Tell that to John McClane.
  • “Honey! I’m home!” Roll eyes.
  • “Are you alright?”

 

Next Installment…

A decent woman would regard golddigging as despicable and could be an act of Intolerable Cruelty to the poor man with the wallet. But if she could actually get her mitts on the pursestrings, well, um…Better call George Clooney. Works every time. Right?


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 28: Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone” (2007)

 


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The Players…

Casey Affleck, Ed Harris, Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Freeman (here again), with John Ashton, Amy Ryan, Amy Madigan and Titus Welliver.


The Story…

When an innocent gets kidnapped, it’s always news. When it’s a poor, white girl? Good Lord, send out the tanks. But what if the child “needed” to be kidnapped? Had to be taken out of a dangerous situation?

PI Pat Kenzie might’ve taken the time to ask these questions. Instead he got pulled into this circumstance already. Against his will, against heavy odds of cracking the case, and soon against the wall.


The Rant…

After my last, extremely goofy installment, I’m gonna try to play it straight (okay, straighter) this time out. Besides, this week’s scrutiny is over a serious movie, so I’ll try to leave out a lot of the pretzel logic. That and I’ve never been much for Steely Dan anyway.

Ahem.

Never been much of an Affleck fan. At least not Ben.

If you’ve been alive since the 90s, Ben’s star had been gradually—and then meteorically—on the rise. With somewhat good reason. Despite being straightforward and kinda derivative, Ben and his buddy Matt Damon’s breakthrough script for Good Will Hunting opened the  floodgates to increasingly better gigs. Profitable if merely artistically. Keep in mind though, Ben got his Oscar for writing not acting (and I don’t see such rewards towards that in the foreseeable future. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong some century).

It’s easy to slag on Ben the actor. He’s had precious few roles that earned some respect beyond just his scribbling. Really. Victim by proxy to a stink palm only goes so far to engender an actor’s respectability. Nor does playing a blind superhero dancing on seesaws with his future wife. Or running in J.Lo’s circle period. Even when does a serviceable, even good job with the roles he’s been given (e.g.: Dazed And Confused, Chasing Amy, Hollywoodland, et al) Ben’s repeatedly drawn the short stick regarding career enhancement via thespian. Let’s hope his finger-crossing turn as Batman might not go tits up. Unsure on many fronts (hard to get Daredevil’s playground scene out of my head). But he’s dogged. Keeps on trying. Gotta respect that.

Still not a fan, though.

On the other side of the camera, however, Ben has shown promise. Even considering the mediocre script behind Hunting, his directing acumen has been increasing in leaps and bounds. I’ve been as surprised as you have. Both The Town and especially Argo (which won Best Pic, BTW) were pretty good films. Satisfying. Not necessarily excellent, but there’s a short list of prominent—let alone good—films directed by faces usually in front of the camera. Ordinary People by Redford. Dances With Wolves (for good or for ill) by Costner. Unforgiven  by Eastwood. Pretty short list there. Kinda surprising in some respects that Ben earned membership into that club. I’m not put off by that.

His acting, however? We’ll just let that go for now, okay?

His l’il bro, on the other hand, I’ve found quite interesting. Blame or thank Hunting for this. In a sense, that was Casey Affleck’s breakout role. All 15 minutes of it (not a cliche, I timed it. Don’t ask why). For all the fluff in Hunting—good fluff, to be fair—there was one scene where Casey held the camera. If you’ve seen the movie you know what I’m talking about. The bar scene, the one about the cop car. Right, that. One of the best shaggy dog stories I’ve ever heard in a movie, and Casey delivered it in a classic, “you talkin’ to me?” accent via Bahstun. Wicked pissa.

I’ve been in moments like that. You’ve been in moments like that. The wiseass, Spanky-esque wingman with the tales to tell and too many pints too fast. The term “relatable” regarding characters has been bandied about so much it has ceased to carry much weight, even though I’ve used it here at RIORI one too many hundred times. I’ve been slow to learn—and am still learning—that making a character relatable on screen in tough. You can have the everyman, as in every role Redford has ever done. You can have the beleaguered, humorous guy, as in every role Steve Martin has done. You can have the assh*le—in a good way—like Pacino’s entire CV (c’mon, Tony Montana was a doosh, but folks still love him). What I’m saying is being a relatable character in a movie requires moxie. Doubt that? Well, if you think about it Travis Bickle is a relatable character. Right you scum?

I’m not trying to overplay my hand here, but Casey’s camera grab didn’t feel like a fluke. It felt to me more like an introduction. It didn’t end there, nor really start there either. Casey had the Ocean’s 11 series, Out Of The Furnace, Interstellar. Character roles, malleable, chameleon-like, something his big brother isn’t as good at pulling off with much conviction (not to beat Ben up, but he did star in not one but two Michael Bay travesties. Wait, is that redundant?). Read: Casey might direct someday, too. As well pen a few scripts. So the guy’s been busy even (almost) living in the shadow of his award-winning, smarmy big bro. Casey’s been on the rise.

Not sure if he ever carried a movie, though. You know, as the lead.

I recently found out he had…


There’s been a kidnapping.

Madeline McCready. Four years old. A good girl, pretty, sweet. Scooped out of a run-down South Boston neighborhood amongst many run-down neighborhoods. The case has either baffled the police, or too much red tape is keeping the investigation mired. The hell of it is that there are precious few clues, no obvious motive, not even a real ransom demand. The kid’s just…gone.

Private investigator Patrick Kenzie (Affleck) is an expert in such matters. Missing persons in general, lost children in specific. He and his “partner” Angie (Monaghan) usually keep away from high profile cases like the McCready kidnapping. But he’s local, as little Maddy’s Aunt Bea (Madigan) learns, and she and her distraught brother Lionel (Welliver), frustrated with the cops dragging their feet seek Pat out. He reluctantly takes the case after meeting the “distraught,” coked-up mother Helene (Ryan), an odious creature if there ever was one. Pat wonders if Maddy is better off elsewhere than with the failure that is Helene.

Despite the police commissioner himself, Jack Doyle (Freeman) spearheading the search, Pat’s getting little cooperation from the cops in finding Maddy, save grizzled, experienced Lt Remy Brussant (Harris). Remy appears to have a personal agendum regarding the kidnapping. And the child’s immediate family is dodgy with even raising a finger to find Maddy, as if almost protecting her from Helene despite the awful crime.

Pat finds himself getting bounced and bombarded about Southie’s underbelly in trying to get a crack in the case. And no one is helping. It feels like finding Maddy is an afterthought against not finding her.

After all the headaches, it looks like to Kenize that the kid is nothing but…gone…


One could make the argument that Gone Baby Gone is Ben Affleck’s bid for critical respect on his own feet, minus Damon. This is also his debut as a director, as well as employing overt nepotism. I only mention this because, well, if you’re a first time director it would be plenty handy to have your lead be someone you’d be quite familiar with. A family member would be a good choice. Okay, it didn’t work with Sofia in the third Godfather movie. Then again, almost nothing worked there. But there’s the case for the Carradines, the Howards and the Sutherlands. Hell, I think some of those folks have actually worked together. Mostly positive results there. I’m no expert mind you, but I’ve seen one on TV.

With Baby, director Ben was pretty shrewd in casting in his baby bro Casey as the fulcrum upon which the script balances. Casey’s performance as Pat pleasantly surprised me based on his drunken bit part in Hunting. I know, it was probably the first time you saw Casey in action also. But the swaggering boozehound morphed into a cagey PI—quite well, BTW—was an unexpected turn. The fact it worked wasn’t necessarily shocking, but oddly refreshing. I didn’t fancy Casey for the emotive type sans ham. Granted, Ben knew how to pull Casey’s strings, but it’s probably safe to assume the guy was willing. Both made it work.

This was a very character-driven film. Very. Good thing all of the cast was interesting. To explain, when the casting call went out, “local color” responded. The kidnapping case was nothing more than wallpaper for the cast to keep pasting up. I know. All dramas play that way, but I can’t immediately recall any recent drama where the almighty Maguffin is so shoved aside to let balls-to-the-wall characterization carry everything. So much so that—in Baby‘s case anyway—the plot element gets sidelined to baffle the audience as to what the f*ck is going on. I guess that’s what makes for a good mystery-drama. One gets the impression within all this story everybody wants something from someone for nothing. All of Baby is nothing bit one big personal agendum, and the audience is relentlessly pummeled by this. It’s all good.

There’s a significant flaw in executing a crime drama/mystery thriller: replay value. How can one make a film like Baby captivating over a second viewing even though you know how it ends? Sharp characterization. We got it here. Boom. Like I said. This being an uber-character driven film, I gotta tackle all facets (or try to) of our beloved family, the good and the warts. Hey, my prerogative and duty. I do this so you don’t have to, like wiping. But seriously, and beyond ragged Pat, we got a holy host of live ones to nail up.

First off, however, is a complaint. Right, right. Bitch, bitch. Gonna go here first and sweep the crumbs under the mat. I saw Baby with the wifey. We enjoyed it with a cringe, but throughout the film I had a nagging feeling. So much of one I had to bother her halfway through the movie. Hit pause, turned around and asked about Angie. I commented that Monaghan seemed too fragile to handle the gig she had. She felt out of place. The woman’s comment (and she nailed it)? She’s seemed an afterthought. She was. Baby is an man’s, man’s, man’s, man’s world. All our male leads tear it up, and lonely Monaghan gets lost in the shuffle. Even Ryan’s harridan Helene has more testosterone than Angie. Maybe her frailty was there as a steam valve for all the relentless tension, but being wispy throughout didn’t do much in that regard.

Other than Monaghan’s miscasting, the rest of the actors were excellent. I’ve already given a high five to Casey, but the rest of our crew was just as notable. Hats off to (Ed) Harris—a little Led Zep pun there. We need to lay off the serious now and again—he’s always solid. His Remy is a relishing role. He really chews it up, almost to the point of hamminess but delivered so convincingly you just end up rolling with it. Harris’ skill as an actor is “selling it.” No matter how engaging, how silly, how dependable he can be his characters always sell. Even his Bud in The Abyss (my favorite Cameron movie. Don’t judge me). Without a whit of irony. His Remy is no different. And what’s cool is his Remy is sketchy. His is a con artist ready to con (or in some cases here re-con) any poor soul like Pat into a sense of righteousness in whatever it takes to get the job done. Kinda chilling if you think about it. In short, you gotta respect Ed Harris.

Funny Harris being second fiddle really. Again, barring Monaghan, the second tier was also expertly cast. For instance, I don’t know if Ryan got a nod towards any movie noms, but if not she should have for her sleaze in Baby. Her Helene was odious. Talk about deadbeat dads? What about monstrous moms? The assh*ole, absentee dad is a well-worn trope. Now I ask you, tell me a tale in the world of celluloid of a notable c*nt of a mom after Mommy Dearest?

*counting fingers*

Ryan’s Helene was hellacious. Her character was a high school PSA for birth control. Oh God, if after seeing Baby with Ryan skulking about and you wouldn’t seek a condom, maybe a scalpel? Yer a f*ckin retard. Her turn was that good. Good in the sense of awful. It takes a pretty talented actress to make you want a shower after seeing her perform. See Angie? That’s how it’s done. Yuk.

*time for an intermission, and you are welcome*

If you saw my snarky parenthetical reference in The Players meme up top (and I’m sure you did) Morgan Freeman showed up. For the past I don’t know how many years, Freeman’s been the go to guy for…well, everything. I’m guessing that based on prior installments, as well as my vitriol against the banal and repetitive. I’m gonna slag Freeman’s overexposure for all it’s worth, right?

Not necessarily.

I’ve been pretty straightforward with this installment. I pride myself on being a loony. Occasionally I rein it in. But I feel I’d be remiss in sharing with the lot of y’all a personal twist on this trip out. Never to fear, it involves Red Ellis. It also involves Eazy Reader.

Presently, as I write/edit this installment—as I do with almost all my screeds here at RIORI—I have a soundtrack busting out of my iTunes library. Been listening to the Irish punk band Stiff Little Fingers. I don’t care if you’ve ever heard of them. No snobbery here. However regarding Freeman’s movie career, and in keeping with the time-out we’re in here, my digital library serves as an analog towards Freeman’s prolific/overexposed FaceTime. Again, Eazy Reader.

I know I’m rambling, but so does Freeman’s career. Ever see Brubaker? Hole in one. Consider this a trip to the snack bar. Let’s let it get away for a punch. Remember to lower the seats.

Ever since Freeman earned Academy respect with Million Dollar Baby, the guy has been in almost every single American film since 2004. Regardless of genre, demand or soundtrack, Freeman has dotted the Is and crossed the Ts in The Bucket List, Oblivion, The Lego Movie, Last Vegas, Wanted, Invictus, Born To Be Wild, RED, Dolphin Tale, Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, Olympus Has Fallen, Dolphin Tale TWO, Lucy, Ted 2, LONDON Has Fallen

You catching my drift? The guy’s a great actor, but can we say overexposed? What’s next? The Larry Bird Story starring Morgan Freeman? Maybe.

A few things. First, maybe the guy is just in demand for his versatility and loves to act. Second, the man’s getting up there in years and perhaps wants to pack as much thespian punch as he can before the clock runs down. Third, he’s been following the Nic Cage law of diminishing returns and just can’t turn down a script no matter how career threatening it may prove to be. I repeat: Dolphin Tale 2.

Whatever it is that drives the man, his Jack Doyle—though delivered with the usual Freeman gravitas, sincerity and sensibility—is a waste of his talent. Here Freeman is nothing more than a glorified cameo, seemingly only around to give the big reveal. I hated that. An actor of Freeman’s caliber (but may be quickly becoming a bore. Ha!) should do more than just give face time in an otherwise compelling mystery. What I’m getting at here is any actor could’ve played Doyle. Even Ed Harris. Morgan’s been stretching himself thin for a while now, and his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role in Baby is a good example of that. Too bad. Freeman is a graceful actor. It’s probably why he’s so popular/in demand, although his fans might not realize that.

Back to normal.

Like a lot of crime dramas, atmosphere and overall feel are crucial to setting the pace of the movie. I’m not talking pace pace here (although we get nice and thick with Baby‘s even pace), I’m talking about dragging it out just enough to 1) create intrigue and; 2) enhance both tension and the need to make the audience scratch their collective skulls. What’s going on here? That’s what a decent police procedural should ask you.

Baby does this in spades. It was edgy in a very good way. That’s a term oft overused in most crime dramas. It’s not here. Even with some stilted dialogue—though not totally off-putting—grimy stereotypes galore and a lotta hypocrisy throughout, Baby is overall interesting in how the “real” investigation gets underway (even if that was not until the third act). Some might find a million cliches and jillion other movies being tagged here, it’s not about the notes, but how you play ’em as I like to scream to the rafters. Often. A lot.

Here’s an example: it felt like Taxi Driver was a major influence on this production, but done with taste. At least half the scenes were shot in the demimonde, buttering the tension all over the place. All poor lighting and angular camera work. We also enter into Rashomon territory; who’s version of the truth is the truth? Baby keeps you asking, almost frustratingly so. This could just be overspill from the source novel, but I wasn’t so sure. At any rate, it kept me a-scratchin’, and that’s what made Baby good. A mystery should keep you wondering. Like Hitchcock said, “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” Any perceived lameness of script (even though the final act was indeed hurried) can be overcome by skillfully squeezing the audience’s scrotum by way of acting, atmosphere or even a keening note from the soundtrack. Dusky characterization, rough cinematography and/or glaring lighting—which were great here, BTW—can still blur the corners. If a movie’s good, watch it and damn the torpedoes. Suffer.

That being said Baby was a tough movie to get through overall. That’s a complement. The hard sh*t you want—need—to remember. The plot, the content, the difficult (but memorable) characters. All that jive. I think Ben might be onto something with this whole directing bit. Working with his kid bro seems fruitful, too. Perhaps there’s enough juice getting brewed to perhaps excuse Jersey Girl. That and maybe Tower Heist. Could be possibilities abound.

“Yeah. One or two.”


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a solid caper, directed by an actor I cannot stand starring his little bro as a baby-faced, Southie, wizened detective hell-bent on finding lost children. I still liked it. Deal. Argo was pretty okay, also. I cheated on my taxes, too. And I still like Oasis, okay?


Stray Observations…

  • “It’s not that, Lionel.” “What is it then?” “She’s a c*nt!” Looks like Family Feud is written all over this one.
  • Harris’ hairpiece is terrible. You can’t take such a thing seriously. The actor’s been bald for the better part of his storied career and has done fine without wigs. He wouldn’t’ve gotten that award for Pollock if he sported a ‘fro, right?
  • If a newcomer to America came up to me and asked, “What is white trash?” I’d hand him a copy of this movie.
  • “You are an abomination.”
  • “And get that sausage off my lawn!” Gotta use that. At least once.
  • I thought Taggert retired by the third film?
  • “It was an accident…”
  • “Murder’s a sin.” “Depends on who you do it to.”
  • Best drinking scene I’ve ever seen on film. At least to my immediate whiskey-addled memory. I think there was something in Raiders…(passes out)
  • “That’s not an ‘if’ you wanna bring into your life.”
  • Casey’s eyes in the big reveal is cunning.
  • Confession scene one: Bea calls the media. What else would she do?
  • “…I love children.”

Next Installment…

James Franco? Kate Hudson? They’s Good People. But them Yanks just gotta be careful ’bout rooms to let, true guv?