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?


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