RIORI Vol 3, Installment 35: David J Burke’s “Animal” (2004)


The Players…

Ving Rhames, Terrence Howard, Chazz Palminteri and Jim Brown, with Wes Studi, Fasion Love, Paula Jai Parker, Taraji B Henson and Beverly Todd.

The Story…

It’s a foregone conclusion that way leads on to way. Violence begets violence. The sins of the father and so forth.

Hardcore, career criminal James “Animal” Allen was destined to be in prison, but not before leaving a legacy of violence behind. The proverbial apple doesn’t fall far. His misdeeds are carried on by his adept son, Darius. With his infamous father behind bars, Darius has keeping up the family business, keeping the neighborhood under tight scrutiny, and keeping the ever-profitable cycle of degradation moving for the next crop of kids.

It’s kinda bad that Animal’s no longer part of the cycle, him being in prison and and all. It’s also too bad he has all the time in the world to think about his misdeeds and what influences they may have had.

Also, it’s unfortunate it means Animal’s gonna have to man up to his stupidity. And face down the man in the mirror, for his son’s sake.

Way leading on to way.

 The Rant…

I’ve got another story to share about the comic book store.

Oh, sh*t. Not again.

*screeching tires peeling out*

Come back. You know I’ve recounted a few times my working in a comic book shop here at RIORI. Keeping it brief for the under-informed, it was a part-time evening gig to score some extra cash and get access to new Marvel titles at a discount. The place has since closed its doors after 30 years of neighborhood funny business, BTW. Hard these days to find a good indie book store—comic seller or whatever—in your neighborhood.

About the neighborhood. My old shop was on the way downtown. “Downtown” in my little burg was code for “trouble.” Meaning, “I’m headed downtown” was followed with an unmentioned “to score smack, guns and/or a little Chinese girl who can juggle.” Good times awaited. I figured that out because now I can get four balls in the air. In one hand. Not necessarily mine.

*fifth ball makes contact with crotch*

Thanks. But the neighborhood my comic spot was at wasn’t that bad a place to be. The shop squatted on the corner of Crip and Blood, and most of the residents turned their stereos down by 2 AM and didn’t turn on their lawnmowers on Saturday before…ever. I’m joshing you. Nice area, really. The houses were pristine row homes dating back to the early part of the 20th Century, most of them well-preserved, even maintained. A kind of loose historical district. Very little litter, and only two blocks from the high school. The shop had a choice location for business, and no surprise quite a few curious teens would step up into our doorway. Just your typical, urban residential neighborhood where nothing much ever happened behind most closed doors.

Right. Most doors. There’s always gotta be that shadowy place where the birds never fly over its roof. I’m not talking, “‘Stay out of the old Jenkins’ place!’ Mother would scold.” You know what I mean. If you don’t, you’re lucky and doubtless living on a street named after a minor president, so here’s what I mean: about half a block up from the Batcave there was this sinister-looking house; neglected aluminum siding, tattered shingles on the roof, busted screens and maybe two or twelve DirecTV dishes sprouting up like mushrooms—never a good sign in my book. They can afford satellite TV but can’t shell out the ten bucks for screen patches. Priority.

In short, uninviting, especially with the cadre of toughs perched on the porch day and night. It looked as if they were on patrol, looking for something. Trouble was the likely culprit. Someone should’ve given them directions Downtown.

Never fear, though. The mountain came to Mohammad soon enough.

We all knew that place was trouble. The neighbors knew. The cops knew. Sure as sh*t the insomniac thugs knew this, too. The grim pall cast over the neighborhood could only get so grey before something broke into the day.

It did, and it wasn’t our semi-annual Green Lantern blowout sale. Three power rings for the price of four! In brightest day!

Key word being “day.” I got the story on what happened one fateful day up the street. Don’t worry, it was on good authority: my boss. The tawdry tale woven took place in a daring, daylight showdown. Concerned neighbors watched out of windows, smartphones at the ready. I was not there. Either I was elsewhere girding myself as ref for the weekly grudge match between a pair of mouth-breathers debating who would win in a fight: Superman or Triple H (my money would’ve been on the Hulk. Y’know, Hogan. No, before, you dolts). It was at my other gig, earning bill payments, and blissfully unaware of the altercation that would soon be smeared all over the front page of our local rag.

Squad cars pulled up with sirens screaming. Cops called out to the thugs, surrender your weapons or else noogies all around. Turns out the entrepreneurs were dealing in contraband guns. Fun, fun, fun. Weapons were drawn on both sides. It was a standoff, cops crouching behind their cars, the dealers defiantly aimed back from the porch. A lot of shouting and potty mouthing. It was inevitable that one of thugs would take aim at the cops. One dumbass did. He would give the pugs what for. He held out his piece on its side—y’know, like the gangstas do in the movies, barrel parallel to the ground—ready to deliver some retribution for his biz being curbed.

The gun jammed. A cop shot him in the shoulder. The rest went quietly after that. No, really. That’s more or less how it ended. The gun jammed. Owie. Surrender. Ambulance. Paddy wagon.

I point out the gun jammed as the f*cking point of this tale. Any ballistics expert can tell you that when you aim a semi-automatic pistol on its side, it will most likely jam. Why? Bullets don’t load right to left, dipsh*t. You might as well be aiming the grip and clutching the barrel. Hell, throwing the damned thing  would do more damage.

So why’d the guy do it, hold the piece all wrong? Well, for one, it sure looks hella cool and intimidating. It’s an extension of the hand pointing an exaggerated, accusing finger. “You wanna piece of this, bitch?” Hard to believe the guy was unaccustomed to handling firearms, considering his chosen profession. His posture before the boys in blue was almost sure to make him a golden oldie.

So what the hell, tough guy?

Wanna know what I think? Sure you don’t. Tough.

I betcha he did it cuz he saw it a movie. One of those gangsta flicks. It looked badass. It looked like he’d mean business. It was how it was done in endless gangsta fantasies. But here’s the rub. You wanna know why it works there but not Downtown—or even near the corner comic mart?

Sure you don’t. Tough. You’re still here.

Because it’s from a f*cking MOVIE. Movies ain’t real, so the truth can be regarded with a certain suspension of disbelief. In Menace II Society, for example, Larenz Tate’s escapades sure do come across a gritty and  hair-trigger, so to speak. But no one apparently told our Emmy award winner with the busted rotator cuff that all that sh*t was acting. What happens in reality is not an extension of what happens in the pictures. That’s a case for insanity. Just cuz you saw some not-real character pull off a not-real stunt with not-real results does not make it not-not-real. Crime in movies is a helluva lot slicker than the clumsy sh*t that happens up on the screen. Our dimwitted Arthur Rimbaud watched one too many John Singleton movies.

Judgmental? Sure. But possibly just a case of life imitating art, I guess.

Sigh. My story—my boss’ story—plays out like a pretty okay example of why you gotta try and steer clear of cliches and worn-out story lines when making a film about crime in the inner city and its consequences.

Huh? What?

Just go with me here. It’s a movie blog, right…?

Sorry, but sometimes crime pays. And crime has been good to The Animal. Very good.

James “The Animal” Allen (Rhames) is as hard as they come. He’s made a career as killer, dealer and sh*ttastic family man. He’s damn good at two of the three. Too bad the third is gonna come bite him in the ass someday.

Unrepentant Animal gets dragged into prison for trumped up/perhaps erroneous charges. Who can tell with a hardcore thug like Allen? No matter now. He’s up the river and pulling hard time, probably never seeing the light of freedom. Or his lost son.

Well, Animal’s lost son is doing just fine. Flourishing, actually. Darius (Howard) gets all grow’d up while his thug daddy languishes. Naturally, he continues the family business of misery, even surpassing Animal’s meager accomplishments. In short, Darius is building an empire of well-paying crime. With a lot of blood on his hands.

Allen knows nothing about this on the Inside. He’s happy to just carry on being violent and a capo to sleazy, unscrupulous Kadassa (Palminteri)—a career inmate who runs the joint like a godfather. Animal know fortune favors the bold, even behind bars. He’ll take any fortune he can find after losing his on the outside.

On the inside, however, there might be another kind of fortune to be found. The kind that grants freedom of the body and the mind.

Former revolutionary and terminal lifer Berwell (Brown) is an educated, principled jailhouse philosopher. Yes, he has killed. And he has burned. But he has never strayed from his scruples, never beyond admitting to culpability to his crimes. Allen finds him a joke at first, all Mr Miyagi with his reading. Berwell sees a lot of himself in The Animal, though—a man of thirty years ago—and takes him under his wing. He advises Allen that to get out of prison and reconnect with his estranged son, he must free his mind first.

Berwell makes James understand that he is not the hindmost n*gger. He is an angry “Negro” blinded by the System, and in turn blinded from what he truly could be capable of. An educated man. A strong man of conscious. A father.

James must soon also realize to be a possible mentor to Darius, whether he can get out or not.

Back to the lowbrow scene out of Boys N The Hood by way of Spider-Man:

I know comparing a cops ‘n thugz showdown to the movies influencing a squishy mind was a bit of a stretch. Okay, 50 miles of bad road stretch. The sh*t that went down was out of a malign ep of Law & Order. All cliches in place. And this was reality. A reality scammed from a TV show, at least in my opinion. But some criminal mimicking bad behavior from a million different hackneyed gangster flicks invites this question: What if a filmmaker picked up on such drivel and translated it to his work (again, even though it was done a jillion times before with better results)? Curiously angled gat and alla dat.

Hey, guess what? Some deranged director actually f*cking did! I kid you not! I mean, what? Sure! Some goofball with a modest budget and a half-baked plot with a message got made. Not sure if this is a common thing or just when the planets align.

Yeah, so Animal was substandard. Predictable story, stereotypical performances from a clutch of (pretty decent actually) actors, style well above substance blah yak yadda. The hell of it is, Animal should’ve been better, sharper, even if only for a moment of synchronicity.

*cue marimba*

I noted Law & Order above. I’ve also dropped that name in a pervious installment of another crime caper with a misguided filmmaker and hack scenarist, The Watcher (shame on you director of Creed videos). That film kinda ran parallel to your standard L&O ep where Logan and Briscoe chase down a crazed murderer. Right, like every other episode; tune in next week.

But did you know this little trifle? Animal director Burke used to write for the original Law & Order back in the 90s! And take this: did you know he directed a fair share of those episodes?!? Fer sure. You’d think a guy well-seasoned like so much beef would know a thing or five about directing a minor film about life and death in South Central. Okay, it ain’t the City, but crime knows no urban sprawl. Well, maybe not Oslo.

Burke really dropped the ball with Animal. He populated the thing with all that sh*t listed above, and apparently did not learn a thing or twenty about what should not be in place for a movie like this. It’s not for his lack of experience, but this was his debut a movie director. Big jump from the small screen. Maybe he simply kept referencing the old playbook as to what to do next with Ving and crew.

It kinda shows. Animal plays like a ghetto Elmore Leonard story, minus the snappy dialogue. All the grittiness is well in place, palpable and even chewy. Unlike one of Dutch’s many colorful novels (and ensuing movie adapts), director Burke only walked away with the standard issues in place. Mostly cribbed from the possible notebook, smearing with sweat, coffee and ink of a thousand stubby, stolen pens for S Epatha Merkerson’s desk (don’t f*ck with the lady who delivered Pee-Wee Herman’s mail, buddy).

Animal was riddled with cliches, a well-worn script and way too many stereotypes. It was coarse, basal and more than a bit cloying. To me, sometimes it feels with movies like Animal the director and/or writer is so determined to get their “street poisoning a la Iceberg Slim” message and feel across to the masses their urgency plows under the need and value of traditional filmmaking: tell a worthwhile f*cking story. And don’t pander, either. Burke missed that stuff, and we ultimately got served an R-rated “After School Special” vibe. We got a message here, dammit! Pay attention kids, and note how the guns are held!

Ahem. Sorry. Gonna be hung up on that thing for a long time. Someone could’ve gotten hurt!

I know I’m slamming Animal pretty bad, almost as basal and coarse I claimed the damned film was. Still, even with the lamest of films I’ve always found some nuggets worth sifting. The acting—though nothing to really blog home about—was straining to be good. All our leads were worthwhile actors, doing their best against a tired, mediocre, caged-from-freshman-year-Shakespeare script and plot. It really shows with Burke’s subtle as a flying mallet moralizing and preachiness.

Rhames as street thug was rather satisfying. It’s understood he’s a walking, talking, shooting boilerplate. Rhames seemed to know this, so he threw himself into the role of Allen with hammy aplomb. The character was a nice example of the man’s being allowed to really dig in, have some dark fun and perhaps catharsis (only later to quietly morph into a reformed con without you really noticing it). It also helped that Ving’s been built like a Mack truck since the womb. The dude’s got himself some presence, and puts that to good use here. Animal’s maybe an amalgam of all the goons Burke concocted for Law & Order, but that makes Rhames no less interesting. His role may be trite, but it was hard to simply dismiss. So good there, Marcellus.

I have a soft spot for Jim Brown. He’s an SU alum, like me, so of course I ended up paying the most attention to him. Again, his Berwell is something out of a warmed-over Huey Newton biopic. All the trappings of a institutionalized philosopher. But like Rhames, Brown has charm, as well as gravitas borne from his post-NFL career (and he’s also built like a concrete walrus). Unlike Rhames, Brown’s presence comes less from his size, but the strong delivery of his lines even though they’re as banal as the rest of the story. Despite his on-the-nose characterization, his calm and tough demeanor is both disarming and earnest. The yin to Animal’s yang, as Burke designed it. Oh, and that’s not Jim Brown acting. That’s Jim Brown.

It was amusing to see Howard work through his salad days here. We all know he goes on to bigger and better things later, but it’s interesting to watch him apply his trade as well as trying to find his voice. His strength in Animal—as well as what would serve him in future roles—is him having the best facial expressions. It is what’s made his career. Doubt me? Check out Mr Holland’s Opus. Really. His mixture of baby face and tight, clipped speech made his Darius quite the paradox. Casual, if not sweet-natured mama’s boy cum cold-blooded killer, following in his nasty father’s shadow. His role was closest in terms of honesty within a standard script, if only in fits and starts. Better some than none, I guess.

Lastly, I’d be remiss in my duties without giving a shout out to Palminteri. A choice character actor of mine, but mostly known for playing mafia toughs and grizzled cops. His “man who knew how to get things”—a sort of malign Red from Shawshank—role was entertaining enough, if only for his scruffy, scabby chewiness. His what served as comic relief in Animal. Sure, it was grey, sleazy humor, and nothing out of SNL either (thank God), but you gotta have a little hot sauce on that stale taco so to shove it down your pie hole. That was all a complement, BTW.

So what have we learned? Never staff a gang yard redemption flick with a TV directer who never turned off the set (double shame/f*cking ironic from the quill of a Law & Order alumnus). Never let decent actors unable to be fully decent. And don’t make another goddam movie like this again. I mean again. It’s been done. It’s been passed, played and in the locker for years now. We get it. Prison sucks, gangs are stupid and destructive, violence begets violence and Jim Brown rocks.

Okay, maybe we can revisit the last thing again.

*cue that weird clank-bell-thud sound effect from Law & Order. One more time, with feeling!*

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Animal was a chunk of marble in desperate need of a few spins in the rock tumbler. It was a retread, cast with cool actors probably frustrated with the…everything they got lassoed into. Bad agents! Bad, bad agents!

Stray Observations…

  • A pleading Ving Rhames is frightening.
  • “No fumar.” Ha.
  • I’m thankfully no expert, but I don’t think conjugal visits permit candles.
  • “You gotta live to get old, brother.” The always sage Jim Brown. Bless him.
  • How’d I know Malcolm X would eventually be brought up?
  • “You look like a burnt marshmallow.” Love is fast becoming one of my have character actors. He and Pena should go golfing.
  • “Tough ain’t sh*t son. It’s about being smart.”
  • …Bars everywhere.
  • “I’ve been waiting for my father to show up for over 20 goddam years. Then you the f*ck show up.” Best line in the whole damned movie. Might as well’ve been the tagline.

Next Installment…

It’s supposed to be Seth Rogen’s job to only Observe And Report any trouble at the mall he secures, not to canoodle with Anna Faris. Especially not Anna Faris.

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 34: Michel Gondry’s “Be Kind Rewind” (2008)



The Players…

Mos Def, Jack Black, Danny Glover and Melonie Diaz, with Mia Farrow and Sigourney Weaver.

The Story…

There is a corporate attack on indie films!

No, not that kind. The folks at Be Kind Rewind, a little mom-and-pop video rental, are having trouble keeping up with the Jones’. No one rents VHS tapes anymore, save the shop’s local, loyal, and perhaps misguided patrons. Beyond those folks, and in these days of Netflix deliveries and digital streaming, Be Kind Rewind barely has any legs to stand on. Let alone stumps.

But what about this nefarious corporate plot to destroy the local video mart? Blame the power plant across the way. Clerk Jerry thinks the exposure from high tension wires is playing hell with his brain—by extension his store—and plans to engage in some serious sabotage. If not for the sake of his fevered mind, then in the name of the store and the few who frequent there!

Viva le cinema!

The Rant…

When I was a mere stripling back in the 80s, VCRs finally became affordable at a sane price. Prior to, say, 1980 if you wanted to enjoy the luxury of watching movies in the comfort and privacy of your own mancave, you’d have to shell out enough to afford a new Buick, minus the tires. By the mid-80s, as my dad did understood, all you needed was 500 bucks. This was 80s dollars, mind you. Not cheap, but relatively reasonable (my father got a sharp deal coughing up enough for a high end unit. The thing held up well into the DVD years. It now holds up a steamer trunk in the basement). Yay. Now all the hit titles you wanted were available at the local Blockbuster ready for your couch. Or maybe via your supermarket. Or a few sketchy holes in the wall. Or pawn shops. Or that scabby guy on the street corner outside the CVS with the trench coat and the breath that smells of durian fruit. Multimedia infancy awaits your open arms!

To wit, circa 1985 you could rent a VHS f*ckin’ anywhere. And I wasn’t kidding about the supermarket either. It’s where I checked out the first Batman movie by Tim Burton. I even had a coupon form their circular at the ready. You know, to save a few. Really.

But here I introduce the ultimate bane of renting movies in the 80s. Not all in Heaven is free. We’re not including the sh*tty audio and video quality of the tapes exacerbated by thousands of plays from random strangers. As much of an ass pinch that was, I’m talking about the kryptonite that weakened every avid film renter back then: the dreaded late fee.

*collective screams from folks alive between Reagan and Clinton*

Before Reed Hastings’ ingenuity, your average movie rental had a very small window into which one may watch a movie checked out from the local Fotomat. Two days was the usual time slot. If you didn’t get that tape in your hot, little hands and back to the DMV as fast as your little, furry legs could carry you and—blammo—you get smacked upside the head with a late fee. In 80s bucks it usually meant the GDP of Belgium for having your copy of Top Gun 30 minutes late. You couldn’t even watch movies in your mancave without the doomsday clock ticking in the background. It was kinda hard to immerse oneself in Rain Man knowing you had best vacate the ball before midnight bell tolled. Or 4 PM. Whatever came first.

A lesser trouble with video rentals—although no less aggravating—was that damned time window. And if you checked your watch, you didn’t even get the full two days to enjoy your tape. If you checked it out on Friday at 8 PM, it wasn’t due back on Sunday 8 PM. Oh no. It was due back Saturday at eight. Heaven forbid you rented that copy of The Goonies the night the clocks changed for Daylight Savings. It would be a paradox of Asimovian proportions.

One could see it every Friday at Blockbuster when that week’s new titles dropped. The pressure of the “Two Day” rental looming. Since the video store had around only 50 copies of a fresh release in stock, you could almost guarantee a hot topic then like, say, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves starring Kevin Costner (shut up. It was the second highest grossing film of 1991. Only Terminator 2 topped it, and that tape always pulled a Jimmy Hoffa), would be gonesville before you got there. It wasn’t just because of the limited stock—although that was a prime suspect—but you had to physically wait until a renter dropped off their copy within the allotted time frame. Otherwise fees. Unfair fees. Like when you pay two bucks to a parking meter for an hour of wait time only to have it exceeded and the cop slips a fifty dollar ticket under your wiper. I understand inflation (no I don’t), but really?

Said fees meant that when you had to return Back To The Future before lightning struck you’d miss payments on next month’s mortgage. So return time was—albeit scattershot over the course of your average Friday or Saturday night—quite rigid but also random. I saw many a beleaguered Blockbuster clerk at the return window sweating like a day trader and very pissed off with humanity on numerous Friday nights. I myself once waited—measuring the degree of my smarts—at the same desk for over two hours to get a new release in my hot little hands for that Saturday night’s viewing until my patience paid off. Who-hoo! The 400 Blows, you are mine! I was 12. I thought it was softcore. Forgive me.

So what’s my point with all of this? Faithful readers (all five of you), you know I have some pretzel logic intertwined with my trips down whatever lane takes me at a given moment. The point is thus: it used to be kind of a quest to find the movie you sought at your local VHS emporium, akin to us poor folks scouring the discount DVD aisles at FYE. A search, a goal most holy. We had no Netflix, no Hulu, no YouTube back in the Reagan years. Movies we wanted weren’t a click away; we had no click to speak of. Beyond Blockbuster Video, Hollywood Video and the vagrant with the crack addiction and facial knife scars Video, the file share was dubbed tapes swapped between one another’s living rooms. It was the frontier, sweet Jeebus.

Later when we tired of the big hits, we were pioneers seeking out the indie/foreign sh*t. We had to uncover enclaves of video renters/salesfolk to score the dope we so dearly needed. Hitchcock films pre-PsychoBarry Lyndon from Kubrick. The director’s cuts for films that had no director’s cuts. The local SafeWay was for wanting. Us video renters who were serious in keeping our mitts on a video for as long as we needed, however long that took (admittedly porn didn’t take much time) to dissect and enjoy every angle, we sought out the indie shops.

I recall the ur-speakeasy video shop in my little burg. It was the first video rental—indie or otherwise—in the area, and ultimately the last. It even had a cool, all-knowing name: Omni Video.

The place was a shack. It had a cool slanted roof made entirely of skylights, both highlighting the merch and ensure the clerks clear profiles would be well silhouetted so to recount cops to who stole last three copies of Black Christmas. The joint squatted onto a stretch of practical highway in the shadow of the local Burger King, the lord of all it surveyed. It looked like the kind of place to dump a body. Back in my junior high days, me being a budding film buff (translation: score a mint copy of Return Of The Jedi in Korean) me mate and I sought out this relic. Sure, it had dozens of titles on the shelves. Right. Dozens. Like 24, not including pornos. The rest of the joint was cluttered with busted stereo equipment, shoddy VCRs stacked one upon the other like lilting checkers and I think I remember a rim or four to a Ford Mustang against the counter. Quality operation.

We came by having heard of the place with it’s out-of-it films for rent. I remember it as such we were looking for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. A controversial film at the time, which was why we wanted to check it out. The legit operations didn’t carry it, so we sold our white boy, suburban, swingin’-a-dead-cat-by-the-grave souls to Omni in search of our grail. The proprietor grunted and snuffled and didn’t give much a damn about ratings R, PG, X or Grade A; he’d put whatever we had into our paws so long as the price was right (a meager two bucks. Imagine that). We laid out five and crashed through the exit, very swiftly as the homunculus wielding the greasy wrench staggered out of the “sound studio.” A curious oregano-tainted smell followed him. Have a nice day.

Needless to say, we watched Brazil and failed to see what the whole hullabaloo was about. Again, I was 12. Ah well, Star Wars then. Again.

Back in the day, finding videos for an evening’s entertainment wasn’t as easy as Netflix. I’ve been their customer since its inception, 17 years. I only cashed in when the discount with the purchase of my first (and only, and still well-functioning) DVD machine. I suppose me being at the butt end of Gen X only I can truly appreciate the difference between renting VHS at your local church potluck, getting the DVDs you want via snail mail with no fines to streaming sh*t in your sleep, actual paying attention neither required nor necessary (hell, that’s how the Oscars are doled out, if you’re weighing any value in what you rent).

Renting videos for home viewing has come a long way. Hail convenience. Still, actual movie quality and respect for folks who take the overland route homeland to pick ’em apart/love ’em to pieces? It mostly goes unnoticed these days. Hail convenience.

But the quest shall always continue…

Somewhere in a corner of Passaic, NJ a revolution is brewing.

Kindly Mr Fletcher’s (Glover) video rental Be Kind Rewind is under siege. Not by more upscale competition. Not under the push of using 21st Century home video formats (eg: DVDs and digital streaming) rather than his worn-out library of VHS. Okay, maybe there’s a little flak from the city’s zoning commission. But overall, none of that is bearing down on his store’s reputation and imminent survival.

Nope. It’s all Jerry’s (Black) fault, him and his dopey conspiracies.

Jerry and Mike (Mos Def) have been Mr Fletcher’s loyal flunkies forever, and have been committed to shelling out movie fun to the neighborhood for years. But lately Jerry’s had a screw go loose. He’s convinced that the power plant he’s been living under in his beater trailer is messing with his mind. All those kilowatts? Seeping into his skull? Guy can barely think straight anymore. Jerry decides to do something drastic.

He lassos Mike into an act of sabotage: take down the generator. Of course it does not go well, and Jerry gets zapped to high heaven. The result? Well, besides more of Jerry’s manic behavior, he’s been magnetized! And thanks to his clumsiness (and an unbalanced, ionic pudding head), he’s wiped clean every tape in the shop! Blank! What’re they gonna do with no stock? What about their jobs? What’ll they tell Mr Fletcher?

Nothing. The show must go on.

Jerry concocts the wild idea that he and Mike “recreate” the titles of their defunct VHS library. Shoot their own versions! Starring them! Hey, gotta maintain customer loyalty, right?

Mike’s not too sure of this, but he doesn’t want to let Mr Fletcher down, either. What the hell. As a goof, he and Jerry do their best stab at a lo-fi version of Ghostbusters using whatever resources that happen to be lying around. Here’s hoping the neighbors will bite.

To their delight, they do. In fact, their amateur efforts prove to be even more popular and profitable than the polished Hollywood originals! So Jerry and Mike do the next logical thing: expand their fledgling empire. If these two local yokels can do what big deal actors and directors can, then why not let the whole gang in on the act? Friends, Passaic, countrymen, lend us your camcorders!

Everybody wants to be in showbiz…

Y’know, sometimes this blog can be a real drag. Night after night watching mediocre movies in hope that some bright spot pops though the clouds. After weeks of anti-binging on lame cinematic dross, one may as well pray for ever seeing the sun again, if only for single, fleeting beam.

In other words, it’s nice to get a breath of fresh air once in a while. Even if it’s quick, like Be Kind Rewind. Hell, I’ve watched many stinkers in a row, and any bright spot—be it of cinema or what a cop waves in your face well after 2 AM—will grab your attention and right quick. And no, Officer, I’ve been at home, reading the Bible and taking a hi-lighter to the Book of Revelation. Bless you.

So here’s what took a shine to me (haw haw):

I’ll admit it, I was wary about watching Rewind. The last Gondry movie covered at RIORI—the big screen adaptation of The Green Hornet—didn’t really deliver. It wasn’t bad, but I felt its shortcomings resulted from endless manhandling from the production side. That and too much Seth Rogen as Seth Rogen.

It’s wonky plot device of Jack Black’s brain getting magnetized via an analog to how The Flash got his powers didn’t sound so hot either. I guess Barry Allen’s light speed and Jack Black hyperdrive onscreen histrionics created to have the almighty Maguffin shoved into play both are too demented to lend much depth to a neighborhood, ensemble comedy. If there was any depth to delve about a crumbling video store and its patrons, that is.

Finally, I wasn’t too keen on seeing another flick with Jack Black’s signature, over-caffinated shenanigans front, center and behind. Does he improv all his lines? How about his everything? You wanna watch a low-key manic Black? 1998’s Enemy Of The State. Really. He did have an acting career back then.

Well, it took me about to the second act to come around to Rewind. All that fiddle-faddle with the defragged VHS and the kooky idea of amateur recreations of classic (and not so classic) movies was the hook. An Andy Kaufman-esque way of getting the crowd to go along with Gondry’s vision. I got punked. I endured 20-plus minutes of slapstick and forehead-slapping to get to, “Oh, I see.”

I found my patience ultimately rewarded.

Rewind is lighthearted—more so than usual—but more than a little goofy for a Gondry flick. Sure, Hornet was a lark; a tongue-in-cheek action movie with lots of kung fu, car chases, explosions and…Seth Rogen being Seth Rogen. But Rewind is laid back, where the former was manic and often stiff. Rewind‘s a casual affair, once getting beyond the self-conscious silliness. That and keeping the man-who-sh*ts-napalm-as-delivery on a firm leash. A lot of that restraint has to do with Mos Def as Mike, but more on that later.

Like I said before, it took me a bit to cozy up to Rewind, and only after I figured out what the film really is. Be Kind Rewind is what I like to call a “neighborhood movie.” The immediate setting of the film is a character in itself, no less than the principal players. For example, consider Spike Lee’s very hot afternoon around Sal’s Pizza in Do The Right Thing. Or Wang and Auster’s metaphysical Smoke, where the cigar  shop in a Brooklyn corner is tentpole to the story proper (made concrete by Harvey Keitel’s character’s daily morning snapshot ritual of his store). We had Rocky running around South Philly. Maybe even the 4077th in MASH (the movie not the TV show, you hipsters. Play nice), its endless drab canvas curtains against the antics of Trapper John, Hawkeye and Duke (again, movie, and shave off that beard) with their vaudevillian nose-thumbing at ineffectual authority.

Rewind also has this feeling of cozy community at its heart. All the players here are pretty relatable, and could be found in Downtown, Anywhere, USA. You know the kinds, folks you could pick up out of a line up, pointing a finger and saying, “Yep, that’s him. I know that guy.” We have ourselves an ensemble cast to play with. Not to worry, they’re not all characters off an old Edgar Wallace Plot Wheel. There’s some actual warmth here, where one could easily slide into the background yet still have some small value. It helps you find a window to invest some time with the townsfolk in Passaic and actually care about their lives, too. And this in a Jack Black vehicle! I just as shocked as you are.

What starts with a zany premise gently evolves into nostalgia, always a powerful potion to gain an audiences’ sway. Like I recounted in my above, fevered, drunken, rambling tale of glory in pre-Netflix movie rental acquisition (is that a great line of bullish*t or what?), sometimes seeking out a movie—be it in a theatre, Blockbuster or hole-in-the-wall behind the Chow Mien Palace—is better than actually seeing the bloody movie. It can be a shared experience, later to be recounted with fellow distant film fans within the neighborhood. We found it! The Lost Dutchman’s Mine! Don’t tell anyone! And Brazil shoved into the VCR! Ha-ha! Hail Satan!

So, like the folks in Mr Fletcher’s Jersey neighborhood, relying on the only—however obsolete but still amaranthine (look it up, you hipster trash)—video shop to spend an evening away from their dreary routine. They are us. They are the neighborhood, and since the newsstand and soda fountain have gone the way of the T Rex, all can chew the fat about sh*t they saw Friday night. I know I’m leaning well into the wind with sentimentality, but before FaceBook, The Walking Dead and urgent, instant music opinions (things which never had a physical gathering place) the local vid store was the place to go to share pop culture opinions with strangers and regulars alike. And record stores don’t count, either. Not really. Face it: you only argued with yer bud about the merits of Permanent Waves against Moving Pictures in the store, them or the clerk. Negative to comic shops, too. All you need there is matching sneakers and welcome to the cult. You still sporting that scruffy thing on your jaw?

Simply put, Gondry did a very good, pleasantly subtle job making Be Kind Rewind the center of the neighborhood over a continuum, not some vital historical edifice (though later it was but not really but definitely later. Just wait and see and mind that return fee). The homey atmosphere was achieved with charm, winks and nostalgia for things now so long gone. And never in hurry. It was helped with some pretty decent acting from our leads who are known for not being—what’s the word?—contained. It looks like Gondry had a leash all right, but slack. Maybe only as tight as necessary.

So what about Mos and Black, our heroes? The odd couple. Movie fanboys incarnate. Who’d’ve thunk a streetwise rapper and Bozo-on-speed would have such decent chemistry? Sure, it’s in a Three Stooges Minus One kind of way, but tempering their usual personas, Gondry coaxes a mild but self-conscious silliness as well as a “kids in a candy store” vibe. It’s cute, and by this I mean endearing. It’s understood they’re both cinema buffs, otherwise they wouldn’t be at Mr Fletcher’s dying albatross. They may misunderstand each other outright, but when the “opportunity” to recreate the movies comes to the fore, both concede and get down to business: having fun. Even this being a film with Black’s over enthusiasm, only to be tempered by Mos’ hangdog and hidden grin, it’s akin to my video rental store paradigm. Movies bring strangers and weirdoes together, for better or worse.

Rewind is the anti-High Fidelity. I know, I know. That’s another Jack Black quip-fest I covered here. Shut it. I’m going to make it relevant (try to). Instead of ugly snobs scaring off business/snaring customers into their trace element, arcane knowledge of movies gone by, we get Mike and Jerry sharing the wealth. Movies all around for anyone who likes ’em, bush league or major! The film’s heart feels to me a tribute to DIY filmmaking; those goofy kids back in the 70s with their Super 8s trying to be Camino. Witnessing Mike and Jerry’s ramshackle yet entertaining efforts—and eventually the entire neighborhood’s contributions—it slowly but surely came to my attention that Rewind was a secret love letter to us old fuds from Gen X—perhaps before then—although streaming video is convenient, it lacks interaction. It denies the time to reflect. Sorta like social media; immediacy does not necessarily mean urgency, if you hear what I’m screaming. In other words, rub some elbows now and again.

At the end of the day, Rewind spoke to the movie geek in me, and not in an ugly, pointed way like, say, Altman’s The Player (he directed MASH, right?). I guess the best word to describe Rewind is a term I know I have never used here at RIORI without a scintilla of irony: whimsical. I started out hating this movie, off-put by Black’s usual schtick, Mos’ slouched performance and what seemed to be the usual “community, unite!” paradigm. Okay, there was a decent helping of that codswallop, but it was a cute bait-and-switch. A ruse. Rewind was all and none of that. It moment by moment became the oft-dreaded “feel good” movie, but also holding some weight within social commentary. Honest, emotional weight. That’s usually better than just a nostalgia trap, don’cha think?

Rewind‘s a specimen that you just gotta see to get. It’s understood by now that the thing appealed to my inner (and ofter outer) movie geek. It did it slowly though, carefully and thoughtfully. Gondry tricked me into this film. I couldn’t stand the first act. You? Stand it. It’ll be rewarding, I assure you.

But this fu*king copy of Brazil—gummed up with peanut butter and too much porn—in my dad’s VHS I got is over 30 years late (even ignoring the Y2K scam). And this f*cking trunk is f*cking heavy. Guess I own the fool tape now. And it’s in Portuguese, dammit. Not the trunk. Korean, as usual.

 The Verdict

Rent it or relent it? Rent it (so to speak). It takes a while to warm up, but Be Kind Rewind is ultimately satisfying. Just be patient, unlike Blockbuster on a Friday night with those checked out copies of Dances With Wolves. Damn you, Costner. Damn you to heck.

Stray Observations…

  • Wait. Was that Steve “The Colonel” Cropper on the train? By golly, it was. Awesome!
  • “Why does it do that when you do that?” To get to the next act, duh.
  • “I like your ensemble.” Wink.
  • The “pizza effects” were funny and brilliant. A salute to the lo-fi ethos at work.
  • “It’s a country, not a verb!” That’s what I told ’em!
  • Is all of this simply a nod of appreciation for all DIY filmmakers out there? I’d like to know so.
  • “He don’t like remakes…”
  • Film brings people together. You’re reading this blog, ain’t ya?

 Next Installment…

“We cannot glimpse the essential life of a caged Animal, only the shadow of its former beauty.” – Julia Allen Field

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 33: Richard Donner’s “Timeline” (2003)


The Players…

Paul Walker, Frances O’Connor, Gerard Butler, Billy Connelly, David Thewlis and Neal McDonough, with Ethan Embry, Matt Craven and Rossif Sutherland.

The Story…

Archaeology can be a dirty business. It can also be boring and thankless, contributing to the historical record to an indifferent public. It’s really tough bringing glimpses of the past to eyes of the modern age in the name of science and social development. One would assume that if the powers deemed possible getting the message out would require some tangible, active analog to our 21st sense of being. A time machine would be nice (chuckle).

No such thing exists. On purpose.

But Einstein—that devil of a physicist—once purported that if one could fold space-time (literally make ends meet), wouldn’t it result in a  shortcut? You know, the swiftest distance between two points is a straight line, regardless of the medium?

Uncle Al coined it a “wormhole.”

Betcha he never imagined such as gizmo would burp up in the French countryside.

The Rant…

Hey. If you were there, do you remember back in the 90s when all those movies adapted from Michael Crichton’s books were oozing from the cineplex? Sure you do; it was inescapable as death, taxes and overly extended jams at a Phish concert. You can either thank or blame the original Jurassic Park as the first sortie of Hollywood’s assault on Crichton’s library for that. Don’t get me wrong. The original Park was very fun and delivered with the trademark Spielbergian élan. But just cuz an Oscar-winning director does a bang up job of translating page to screen—the guy did have a little experience before with a tiny film called Jaws—doesn’t mean any studio worth their salt can just acquire the film rights to a successful novelist’s work and make it stick to the silver screen (e.g.: virtually every Stephen King movie ever made, past and future).

To which you say: no sh*t.

Don’t misunderstand me anymore than you usually do. I’ve read my fair share of Crichton novels. One of my favorite, desert island books is the man’s autobio/travelogue Travels. Of course I read Jurassic and many of his other books that ultimately went through the movie mill, almost all of them screw ups. As for the books, Congo, The Great Train Robbery, Eaters Of The Dead, The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man and (another personal fave) Sphere varying in quality from pretty good to downright awesome. These titles all made it to screen. Some shouldn’t have. I mean, some had no business whatsoever being made into a movie. True Jurassic, Andromeda, Train and Terminal were damn fine. Hell, Crichton himself directed Train, did a good job and wisely hitched his wagon to Sean Connery lending some star power, so the guy knew a little about how to make a movie work. But those films were anomalies torn from Crichton’s pages. The remainder (and the list is long) sucked big dumb insert offensive sexual simile here.

Why was this? Crichton wrote primarily science fiction with the classic, no-fail tropes attached. Technology run amok. Meddling in God’s domain. Culture clash. Hard to f*ck up such simple, well-established story devices. But Hollywood did, over and over again. Still, there really was no wonder why the studios kept placing bets and throwing darts at Crichton movies. Since Jurassic Park made a mint, and that medical drama on TV ER was sucking up ratings, let’s hop on the bandwagon (a bandwagon Hollywood almost singularly created)! We got a cash cow to milk into Parmalat!

Uh, no. And not even Stamos could resuscitate the show towards the end of its vaunted run.

So again, why did most Crichton films tank? Of course I have a theory. Lissen hup.

Back in my high school days—not long after Jurassic had theatrical release—I immersed myself in Crichton’s catalog. As I said I read Travels, Congo et al with aplomb. I also mentioned my favorite novel of his was Sphere. For those not in the knowSphere was about a group of scientists who discover a spaceship on the ocean floor. Said spaceship appeared to come from the not-so-distant future and somehow got bounced back in time. The rest of the plot was simple: figure out how and why. Like with all good sci-fi, we had mystery, technodrama and the human condition examined into the ground but not before setting up some keen tension. Simple. Really. What made Sphere crackle was said human drama and the thrill of a mystery, both well rendered by Crichton’s pen. I caught Jurassic (the gateway drug), dug it and tore into and loved Sphere. Even back in those pimply, sexually frustrated adolescent days I knew that if Sphere ever made it to being a movie, they’d f*ck it up.

Fast forward to my college days. Me and my buddy Mark—I’ve mentioned him here before. We were java jockeys at the local cafe—were quite the bookworms. Every year before summer break we complied a list of must-read books to chew over before school reconvened in the fall. We always suggested to one another a personal recommendation. I had discovered via primitive online message boards that my beloved Sphere was gonna get the Hollywood treatment. The horror. I insisted, nay, demanded of Mark to read the book before the movie was released. I told him in no uncertain terms that the movie would ruin the book. They’d f*ck it up. For sure.

Mark heeded my words. The following fall he raved about the book, but he failed to regard my movie caution. He later caught the film version (inexplicably directed by Barry “Rain Man” Levinson). Christ, why I don’t know. Don’t look at it, Marian. Close your eyes. When I next saw him, he was stunned. I’m not kidding. Like “that newborn babe looks nothing like me” stunned. He shook his head after coming back from the cinema and told me, “Sh*t Nate, you were right. They f*cked it up. How’d you know?”

Here’s how I knew. My theory, which is steeped in centuries of fiction writing:

Sure, Crichton’s tales were littered with cool tech, intricate detailing (the man sure know how to do his research) and wild ideas. But that’s not what made his books great. Hell, none of that crap makes a story great. Whether it be time traveling spaceships, cloned dinosaurs or space viruses, it’s all frosting. All that sh*t is the hook, what initially nabs your attention. It’s characterization and how the cast reacts to the weirdness—that classic tension bringing about conflict and ensuing drama—that creates the backbone of the story. What keeps you turning the pages. Without interesting characters and compelling conflict (manifesting itself into “how do we get out of this mess?”), the whole narrative falls flat. What Hollywood has failed to understand time and time again is no matter how much whiz-bang you throw at the audience—adapted from a bestseller or otherwise—if you don’t got no meat on the bone, all that shiny ain’t gonna save a crap movie. And gristle can look mighty shiny.

I guess that applies to all stories, movie scripts included. Just a thought.

Since those heady days of nineteen ninety whatever, Crichton movie adaptations have fallen by the wayside. Probably too many turkeys courtesy of Tinsel Town to risk a loss leader. The last one made was back in 1999 with The 13 Warrior (adapted from Eaters Of The Dead) before Timeline lurched to life in 03. This is an eternity in Hollywood regarding riding a pony like Crichton’s works. I mean, look at today’s John Grisham output. Right.

Maybe taking a vacation away from movie adaptations of John’s smart efforts will prove good, if not better in the long run. I figure only time may tell.

Oh, shut up. That was f*cking brilliant…

You know that quote by Philip Burke? “Those who who don’t know history are destined to repeat it?” Most folks misquote that one as “doomed to repeat it.” Well, thanks to an overly high-tech “delivery service” with a thirst for knowledge that bent is more accurate.

Archaeology professor Ed Johnston and his son Chris (Connolly and Walker) are conducting some research in Southern France. The professor and his crew of the usual scruffy history buffs with scabby knees and permanent grime under their nails are hip deep in a dig. They’re carefully dissecting the ruins of Castelgard, an important stronghold from the Hundred Years war. In simpler terms: “pig in sh*t” territory.

To Chris, it ain’t nothin’ but another hole in the ground. Unlike his historian dad, Chris prefers his knees off the ground and hands clean. His dad knows his son isn’t cut out for archaeology, despite his respect for history. Ed also knows that Chris is only tagging along to get with Kate (O’Connor), one of the best and brightest students. It’s funny what guys’ll do to score a chick.

The dig proves to be a curious one. There are edifices here and there that are out of synch with the historical record. The anomalies intrigue Andre Merek (Butler), the site manager, but upset Professor Johnston. He gets a suspicion that the dig’s benefactors ITC have been tampering with things. Incensed at the possibility of his work getting botched, Johnston hauls ass out to HQ for an explanation.

He doesn’t get one. At least not in the conventional sense.

Meanwhile, Kate and Chris are crawling around the catacombs of Castelgard. Not only do they uncover more curious artifacts, but Kate accidentally trips over a very unique relic: a chipped and scratched lens from a pair of bifocals. The caves have been sealed from around 600 years; folks didn’t wear bifocals back then.

Especially ones with plastic lenses.

Fast forward to ITC. Where’s the Professor? How the hell could these dusty antiques be from six centuries ago be made only in the modern age? What’s going on at the site anyway?

ITC’s prez Rob Doniger (Thewlis) is hesitant to explain. Best leave it up to his right-hand man Kramer (Craven) to take the reigns:

“Have you ever heard of a wormhole?”

You know that quote attributed to Alexander Pope? “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing?” Yeah, somebody should’ve reminded Doniger and his cronies of that…

Okay. About that Crichton tech being misunderstood and/or misused. Timeline didn’t do that. It kept the technobabble short and F/X quick and tasteful. Everything after that fell on its face.

To be fair, tag “for the most part” at the end of the last finger point. I gotta admit, for all the movie’s flaws, director Donner. was hip to keeping the dread splash and dash in check with Timeline, at fate most Crichton-inspired films have succumbed to. He fell back on his strengths: make Timeline into an action/adventure. Instead of maverick cops and their shenanigans, we’ll do knights with swords a-clashin’. Sure, we’re gonna throw a sop to the Crichton purists out there (maybe the author himself), try to keep the movie sailing along with the concepts and characters at odds with one another with sharp tension. And Timeline did have that in fits and starts. But there were two major flaws colluding against the movie being…how shall I put this? Not sucking too much?

Here’s exhibit A: Donner, though a solid, journeyman director, has had no solid experience directing S/F movies, of which Timeline is toeing the line. Before you starts hurling beer cans at me, again, full ones this time hear me out (like you have a choice anyway, and ignore that back button in the upper left). I don’t consider the first two original Superman films S/F. They’re more fantasy/action movies with a lot of good, cheesy B-movie pulp nods, mostly from the cast (Brando being in the first and getting top billing alone is hilarious). Not hard S/F, or very soft either. Great stuff, but quite a different animal than Timeline, barring the scene where Supes recused Lois for the umpteenth time. No. For the most part Donner has been a spinner of action tales with a few comedic fantasy films along the way (e.g.: Ladyhawke, Scrooged, et al). Although he didn’t outright swamp the audience with info overload, like a lot of Crichton movies have a tendency toward, he did apply his almost signature 80s style directing panache to Timeline: “high concept” low production value with a healthy dose of attempting to be clever and/or cute. Sometimes it even works.

Not here. Timeline felt like it was reaching towards a 21st Century Jules Verne aesthetic. The film is too slick. Lacks bite. It’s hurried but not urgent. It has its exciting moments and was often entertaining, but smelled like cosplay/Renaissance Faire gone awry. Donner’s in yo face style does not let itself well to would-be “high concept” S/F; no room for subtlety. The guy didn’t seem to understand how S/F—especially Crichton’s—worked. You just can’t smack the audience upside the puss with a gym sock filled with glitter and expect them to just roll with it. I’m not talking the crucial “interior logic” paradigm that needs to be followed AT ALL TIMES in an S/F movie (do not dispute me; I read it in Popular Mechanics). I’m talking about a bait and switch here. The nifty time travel aspects of the film were all but abandoned by Act 3. Instead we got the aforementioned joust/history lesson. If Donner was on the ball, understood his source material and took notes from other Crichton scripts (e.g. Jurassic Park), Timeline might’ve been more engaging. Instead Donner saw Riggs and Murtaugh gallivanting across medieval France with no regard for diplomatic immunity. He lost the plot. Sure, he did a good job directing, but it meant for another film. Maybe The Goonies for grown-ups, which might not’ve been a bad thing if you think about it. Now do the Truffle Shuffle.

The other tech flaws with Timeline are myriad. The movie pulled the classic flub in trying to pull a huge info dump into a very small window. Again, like with so many past Crichton flicks, the science in his S/F got stripped bare and dumbed down to just the juicy bits. Sure, a few sparks of from the writer’s fevered imagination squeaked by, but this is Hollywood here and  we need to inject only enough smart to make it sell (or dumb, which is more probable). I repeat, I don’t think Donner really knew what he was getting into. Or just fell back on old formulas (some might say habits) and just galloped through production with not enough wisecracks at the ready. Oh, that and he hadn’t made a movie since (thankfully) the final Lethal Weapon film. Might’ve gotten a tad rusty like an old suit of armor (I’ll stop it now).

Now, enter exhibit B: The acting. It’s wooden, stiff. It’s likely Timeline‘s greatest fault. Our hero Walker tried to be strong, but his delivery came across as just plain awkward. It’s understood that the “reluctant hero” archetype is a favorite one, but his Chris came over as too reluctant. The character was passive and reactionary. I mean, he was trying to rescue his dad, for Pete’s sake. The least he could’ve done was overtly care. Don’t misunderstand me, Walker could play rough and ready (those Fast And Furious flicks are lacking without him, and they had a lot to lack, future ones also), but here he just seems rudderless. No love lost here for O’Connor, Thewlis and Connelly, too. All caricatures, all going through the stereotypical motions with next to no verve. The third tier characters were more interesting than the leads (especially Craven and Embry, God bless ’em).

The one bright spot in the cast of sleepwalkers was Butler’s Renek. His had a certain Captain Kirk vibe about him: kinda hammy, kinda funny, rather passionate. It wasn’t just me being a Trekkie, either. Renek was the only guy in this motley crew that gave a sh*t about what was at stake. Also not to mention his entrenched love of archaeology had him chewing into the historical record as he would have wanted to as if he was there. Good thing he was. Renek’s Han Solo scrappiness/Indiana Jones enthusiasm/insert any Harry Ford character’s charms here was a lot of fun and actually made you interested in the story when everything else had hopped the tracks.

Apart from Butler’s performance, wanna know another good thing Timeline possessed? Editing. Editors don’t really get the due they deserve. Movies aren’t put together in a linear fashion. At the end of the day it’s all patchwork, spackle and crossed fingers. Timeline felt seamless. I said it was slick, but it also was smooth. Almost everything here ran together well, so the throughput was a very direct execution amidst a messy fest of wonky S/F malarky, clipped exposition and Donner beating us over the head with a sledgehammer on speed. In sum, Timeline didn’t feel like two hours crawled by, and my attention span is about as long as look a puppy!

An aside: although I found Timeline‘s editing to be on the mark, I felt a small tweak was in order. I know, plenty of legit directors and scenarists have already “tweaked” with stories like this a jillion times over in the past with varying degrees of success. Based on watching a thousand more movies than any sane idiot would do, I think I learned a little bit. Not much, but here’s hoping: Timeline might’ve been a lot better with more of those sharp, angular cuts between “then and now,” modulating closer and closer, thereby heightening some tension (which this movie so desperately needed). If we got us a time travel piece here, relegating the “present” to the back seat kinda robs the story some of that urgency to make an adventure flick click. Just a thought. Don’t worry, though, no one at Paramount ever calls me back. Must’ve been my Star Trek/snuff film mash-up pitch.

So what have we learned? By my writing, not a lot, except I need more Lamictal and fewer cans of PBR down the throat. But I think all films have a message to send, even the cruddy ones. C’mon, a time travel tale, no matter how tepid, piques the brain cells. As far as I could glean from Timeline, the message there was this: how much have we f*cked with history? Like Walt Benjamin said, “History is written by the victors.” Hopefully not these victors.

One final thing (yer welcome): let’s just face it. You can thank (or curse) the original Jurassic for all the Crichton adaptations that followed in its wake. Most have been scattershot, usually a result of Hollywood grease or underestimating the audiences’ collective intelligence (my money’s on…both to be honest). You can’t write smart fiction and expect a guaranteed buck with it at the multiplex. It’s been proven time and again (remember Congo? Don’t) that technothrillers often loose their tech, characterization and backbones once they take a ride through the sawmill. I guess that’s inevitable. Too bad since Timeline had a lot of potential going for it, which got squandered by mismatching everything.

Anyway, about that R-rated Goonies concept. Sloth should be played by Steve Buscemi. Heavy duty CGI there.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Here we have it folks, the movie The Standard exists to be. A solid “I don’t know,” separate from scams, egos and hype. Timeline was lame, yet it tried hard to not be. The esteemed director was out of his league, but did his best. Paul Walker was the (diminished) lead. I like ice cream. In the endgame, this was a simple action movie with some fairy dust sprinkled over its glossy wings. Timeline would be the kind of flick you’d stumble onto via TBS and let the remote fall to the floor. Call it all a complement, really. Meanwhile I’m still waiting for Mad Max: Fury Road to get here via bruised disc because I can’t afford streaming and the flying monkeys—

Dang. Bitchiest verdict I ever posted. Tune in and enjoy the show this time and next time! I got this thing on my thigh to…never mind.

Stray Observations…

  • Hey, that’s Donner in the opening scene, driving the car.
  • “I’m not interested in the past.” Foreshadowing maybe?
  • Nice to see that goofball from Empire Records was still able to find work.
  • “Now we wait.”
  • I’ve heard that Crichton got often irritated with how his work was bowdlerized to film. You ever think he ever got really pissed about it? Who knows, but I bet he still cashed the checks.
  • “Please tell me you have a backup plan.” Mantra of the movie.
  • Is it because I’m of French heritage I generally dislike British fiction? Or is it I despise boiling everything before I eat?
  • I knew REDACTED was going to stay behind by Act 2. Hey, it’s a time travel flick. Something always gets left behind.
  • “…Why didn’t you listen to me?”
  • Trebuchets worked. It took weeks but they worked.
  • “It’s me!”
  • “Fire The Moat” would be a great name for some emo band. Who’s with me?
  • Paul Walker, the poor man’s Keanu Reeves. I can’t believe I just wrote that.
  • Postscript: After a hat trick of bleah movies, I’m gonna take some personal time to clear off my palette (that and a I have few days off of work). Mad Max: Fury Road was just unleashed on Netflix so I plan to indulge in all four films for the coming week. Just gimme a bit away from the loose cannon fodder and allow me to watch Mel Gibson and Tom Hardy drive us to the end of love. Deal? Call your mom.

Next Installment…

There is now an entire generation of kids who have no idea what the phrase “Be Kind Rewind” even means. I envy them.

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 32: Howard Deutch’s “The Replacements” (2000)

Replacements one sheet

The “Players” (get it?)

Keanu Reeves, Gene Hackman, Brooke Langton, Orlando Jones, Jon Favreau, Rhys Ifans and Jack Warden, with Fazion Love, Ace Yonamine, Troy Winbush, David Denman and Michael Jace (plus John Madden and Pat Summerall, naturally).

The Story…

The Washington Sentinels have gone on strike, but the game must go on. Especially since the playoffs are a mere few weeks away. F*ck throwing in the towel, Sentinels’ owner Ed calls on and old coaching buddy of his, Jimmy to rally up some scabby troops and assemble a working team. Albeit a team of washouts, criminals, head cases, drunken soccer stars, former sumo wrestlers, a deaf halfback and of course a quarterback with a sketchy history.

Uh, maybe “working” is a relative term here.

The Rant…

Americans love an underdog story, especially in cinema. It’s a tried-and-true trope—gimmick is probably a better word—of having some misfit (or group of misfits) struggle against societal odds in a clumsy way only to later have THAT BIG MOMENT where everything bonks together and happily ever after pass the gravy. It’s an old story employed as long as the lifespan of your average Twinkie. Wholesome goodness.

The underdog story has also been played the f*ck out in Hollywood. It had its time, its moments. It even won an Academy Award or two (think Forrest Gump or the original Rocky) when done tastefully. But the underdog tale is a horrible cliche, run amok for way too many years at the multiplex. Sure, audiences never seem to get sick of the formula, but I consider that way of thinking and feeling in a stark contrast to how True Americans ultimately embrace—and eventually deject—the hardscrabble hero for a given, very short time frame. It’s happened before and sure as sh*t it’ll happen again. And again. And I hate you all.

The “American Dream” is based on a work hard/get ahead ethos. It usually also stems from the successful being borne into a meager existence. Folks like Abe Lincoln, JC Penney, Sir Richard Branson and even the McDonald brothers are good examples. The “humble beginnings” story is a delicious one in fiction, too. Including the two films above, you can probably name endless movies of this ilk; people overcoming great odds to becoming a success, with all the ups, downs and trappings that go along with it.

America laps this crap up, in the movies and other media outlets. We love to raise the underdog upon our shoulders in praise, and later toss them into the gutter when they get too successful, famous and eventually ubiquitous. The relationship sours. No surprise that Steve Jobs was lionized after the success of the iPod, iPhone, iBlender, etc only to be picked apart as some Machiavellian control freak when Apple replaced morality in the country. And after he died? Whoo boy, media field day. No wonder Wozniuk stayed in the basement.

Why is this? I mean, there are plenty of entrepreneurs et al that avoid this spin cycle. Ben and Jerry still make great ice cream, despite being retired but keeping their company’s charitable causes on point. No matter how pretentious the U2 guys get, they still keep their heads from getting relatively too far into the clouds and still release solid (not necessarily great) albums while being philanthropic. Even the late, hard-working Paul Newman kept his humility regarding his craft and his charities.

Does generosity have something to do with it? Work hard, get ahead, later share the wealth in a Carnegie sense? Avoid the egotistical muck that gets smeared all over Access Hollywood? Maybe. But the phenomenon of the underdog roller coaster persists notwithstanding. It’s almost as if Americans want to see their heroes fail. An ongoing cycle of schadenfreude. Praise Kanye at first and strip him to the bone later (even if he hadn’t invited it. Picking on poor, little Taylor. The nerve). Hell, you bought his f*cking albums already. Where do you think that bank account and ego come from, in that order? Blame yourself folks, and be patient for the next man on a white horse to ride into Hollywood.

What’s my point? None really. Does the underdog film appeal to us because of the above, heartwarming template? Does the opposite in reality stem from jealousy? Is it all just of us watching Springer? I’m no social critic—not professionally at any rate—but I think the underdog tale is a very vicarious one. Most of us wake up everyday feeling like a Tom Waits lyric, but hope later in the day we’ll write Rain Dogs. That’s why we put the album on.

I’m thinking the corruption of the underdog stems from said dog believing his or her own press. Enough people deify you, you’ll claim you wrote the Bible. Take for instance this pop culture example: we have two musicians. Both worked together. Both got terribly famous, wealthy and eventually revered for their work. When they parted ways and pursued solo careers, both maintained their cachets and appeal as music makers. Barring tragedy (one lost his wife to cancer, the other was killed), their legacies were secured, and integrity mostly intact. However one got a lot of sh*t for being outspoken while the other dodged most of the slings and arrows of universal fame for the remainder of his years.

One was Paul McCartney, the other John Lennon.

How did one get public grief while the other (barring dying young) mostly avoided the media mill post-Beatles? I don’t know. Best ask George Harrison…um, back in 99.

All right. Enough bullish*tting. Onto this week’s installment. Not sure if the ensuing torches and pitchforks are relevant to my ramblings, if only to reinforce that the underdog sports comedy is a warhorse beyond being bound for the Elmer’s factory.

Hell. Well anyway, it’s time for kickoff…

Pro athletes can be a fickle, spoiled lot. Even though they work hard getting pummeled on a weekly basis, one can’t ignore Bentleys going unpolished or mansions with two of the three pools with busted filters. They want more money; equal wages for equal time. And what’s that birdsh*t still doing on my digital sundial?!?

Strike, strike, strike.

The Washington Sentinels’ owner, Ed O’Neill (Warden) won’t have any of this pouting and pussing out. Playoffs are in a month, by God, and we’re gonna have a team to play. What to do?

Desperate times and all. Ed calls on his old coaching bud Jimmy McGinty (Hackman) for just the ticket. Jimmy’ll assemble a motley crew of players who don’t need their Maseratis detailed, Swedish masseuses on their glutes and stock indexes checked every time they fart. No. Jimmy’s got the action. Get hungry players; the guys who love football and wanna be champs, if only for a little while.

Ed’s wary of this. Who exactly does Jimmy have on his roster?

Well there’s Cliff Franklin (Jones), who can run like the wind and catch like a blind quadriplegic. We got insaniac cop Dan Bateman (Favreau) who lives to…hurt things. With some mild, legitimate pro sports experience there’s lushy, chain-smoking Welsh soccer star Nigel “The Leg” Gruff (Ifans). And our quarterback, the sullen, maybe cursed Shane Falco (Reeves) with a big chip and a long hangdog. They all wanna play bad. Maybe they’ll only just play bad. Either that or head back to their cells.

What could possibly go wrong?


All right. I kind of knew what I was getting into when The Replacements arrived, and I wasn’t disappointed. This meant I expected to be disappointed, and the movie delivered.

Let’s forget most of the philosophizing from above for a few. Most of it. A lot of heady crap for a throwaway sports comedy, right? Disregarding my usual, subtle-as-neon social commentary, the whole underdog thing only works when the dog in question (or in the case of The Replacements, the whole pack) is fleshed-out. Rocky Balboa was a Regular Joe. Forrest Gump was “stupid.” Delta House were a bunch of losers. We know this why? Backstory and good characterization. The Replacements’ cast—although not boring. Stereotypical yes, but not boring—only comes across as half-baked. And not in the Jim Breuer sense either.

Back in the day (the late 70s to be exact) a underdog sub-genre took the cinemas by storm: the underdog sports comedy. It all started with the original Bad News Bears (I can’t believe I have to preface a title that way. Everything is being remade and rebooted at such a rate I can’t keep count let alone keep the sh*t in my queue), the ur-ne’er-do-well does well sports comedy, of course cast with insufferable imps that eventually grow on you. Bears was the gateway—for good or for ill—for movies like Slap Shot, North Dallas Forty, The Longest Yard and so forth. What made these retreads work was good characterization and a degree of wonkiness with the characters that made the show a decent one.

What made The Replacements tank was a dearth of consistently notable characters. The older films weren’t fun because they were underdog stories (although they were), rather the dogs in question were really f*cked up. Remember what I said about believable characters in film? They don’t have to be likable; they have to be relatable and interesting. I mean, the footballers in The Longest Yard were bloody convicts, before God (and forget the Sandler remake, please?). Not a lot of nice guys in those classic flicks (the National Anthem brawl in Slap Shot? Very patriotic), and the better for it.

Replacements major faux pas is setting us up with drab, stereotypical characters that are written to be likable. If you wanna have an underdog sports comedy, you need to have a cast of miscreants that get under your skin at first and gradually win you over. I’m not saying this as an absolute, but it worked pretty good in the past.

Maybe more simply, Replacements had boring, color-by-numbers characters.

This was quite the shame, too, since the eclectic cast was stellar and totally misused. If they all were better written their predictable stereotypes could have been more palatable. Even funny, if only on an inconsistent tilt.

The other major blight on this movie was it was totally formula in action here. I know, I know. Kinda alluded to that issue before. Just was girding myself for the slaughter waiting on my DVD player. I packed my rucksack well. Sure enough, I got me predictable dialogue, paper thin plot—muted, too, like the movie was bored with itself—its inevitable outcome and trying too hard to recreate the feel of those old skool sports comedies. Even my wife said it was boring, and she usually likes…movies not like this. So my disappointment was well prepped.

But here’s the hell of it: The Replacements was funny, if only in fits and sputtering starts. Despite being an obvious Major League rip-off (which oddly was a late-entry sports movie that worked), where that film’s silliness was inspired and a decent homage to its ancestors, almost everything in Replacements is rote and smelled like the crew was asleep at the wheel. If the few funny moments were buttered over the course of the movie we might’ve had a football Major League to enjoy. We didn’t.

I know. I’m slagging on this week’s travesty pretty hard. It took me three nights to finish it, I was that bored. But I gotta be fair, even a blind squirrel finds a nut with a chewy nougat center rolling around outside the multiplex once in a while. What few moments of funny were good, they were pretty damned amusing. Thankfully, almost inevitably these yuk-yuks came from the eclectic cast; they managed to extricate themselves once in a while from the corporate Hollywood mire now and then.

The biggest treat in The Replacements was Favreau’s maniac performance as…well, a maniac: the unhinged Dan Bateman. Prior to this movie, Favreau made his mark portraying lovable, schlumpy losers (e.g.: Swingers, Very Bad Things, PCU). Not here. His Bateman is a wild dog of a nut job, hamming it up and behaving like a toon out of Wacky Races. Sure, his character is a cipher, but sometimes you need a little chewing gum once in a while. Just go along with Favreau and roll your eyes.

Speaking of an actor being out of place with himself, how did Hackman get conned into this movie? I figure he just wanted to catch his breath and have some fun. If you consider Hackman’s fifty-plus year career, the man’s been riding on a sine wave of great films balanced against stuff like The Replacements. Most esteemed career actors have a CV that can get scattershot. I mean, Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda didn’t quit drilling once they hit oil. Once you thought their roll slowed down—bang—out popped a “comeback” role.

Not so with Hackman. Consistent peaks and valleys across the board. Yeah, Replacements was a valley, but still he delivered his best. His best just being Gene Hackman. The Conversation and/or Unforgiven The Replacements ain’t. Then again, that’s not a fair comparison (duh). What Hackman brings to this movie is Hackman. His work is like sex: when it’s good, it’s great. When it’s bad, its still pretty good. And I’d be hard pressed to think otherwise that the man was off on a goof here. I mean, look at the throwback Bear Bryant hat he’s sporting. A nodding wink, fer sure.

Despite the goofiness, Hackman and even Reeves maintain their cachet. Like I said in the Watcher installment, Keanu is a passive actor; everything happens to him and he initiates nothing. His Falco is no different. C’mon, he’s yanked back into the fray with reluctance. He’s riddled with doubt and under confident. He’s the primo underdog here (would that make him an omega dog? Nah, sounds like a reject from the X-Men). That being said, Reeves is in his element here, as usual. It ain’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s kind of comforting in a way, especially since he’s portraying a classic reluctant hero type here. It offsets the motley crew, begrudgingly highlighting them. When you got a heavyweight like Hackman and welterweight Reeves on the marquee, its easy to ignore the minor players. Unless you’re bored with the marquee.

That’s where I felt Jones and Ifans entered stage right. I spoke of my affinity for Ifans’ comic talent before, and it’s still intact here. He has got to be the best peacock plunked down into American cinema. I don’t know how he fares as a star in the UK on his own, but when cast in an American film his simultaneous fish-out-of-water/this is my pond (bitch!) attitude is both endearing and forehead slapping. I find he’s only funny when totally out of place against American actors. His incongruity as Gruff the “football” player clearly not belonging in the Yank camp shows off some knowing goofiness that landed The Replacements a simple Three Stooges feel. Ifans was a stooge of one, and that’s a complement.

Orlando Jones still thinks he’s on the set of MadTV here. His Franklin is a rubbery clown, and since seeing his versatility on television with his protean comic talents, I liked his Dangerfield-esque delivery in the movie. The only problem with his delivery in The Replacements is that you can’t appreciate it unless you base it against his work on MadTV. It’s kind of a detriment, and otherwise his Franklin is just another nervous Nelly. His performance well illustrates the schizo nature of the film: The Replacements can be an amusing film, so long as there’s some context, like with Ifans. Or Hackman. Or even Love, for Pete’s sake. You really shouldn’t have to do homework to appreciate those guys’ efforts with ha-ha.

I guess that’s the biggest issue with The Replacements. You shouldn’t have to try and find the funny here. Gaging that, it ultimately comes down to not the underdog schtick, the prickly casting or the derivative plot. I walked into all of that sh*t with eyes wide open. No. You shouldn’t have to study a dumb comedy to figure out what to laugh at. Eyes wide open I knew what to expect. I didn’t think it was going to be so hard to understand why.

The Replacements is a hollow affair, and the actors clash violently against a tried-and-true plot device. The movie was an exercise in desperate tedium, baiting yours truly with precious few chunks of comic gold. Yet it still supplied the warm fuzzy that accompanies an underdog sports comedy. Christ, it was exhausting.

So was this installment. File it under unnecessary roughness.

Oh, shut up. I’m tired and you’re ugly.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it, but with reservations. Huh? I know. There’s some nuggets here amongst the silt. The Replacements is a lazy Saturday afternoon movie, one designed to get you away from the Internet porn and lawn darts for a bit. I sure wouldn’t pay the the 30 cents to download it though.

Stray Observations…

  • What’s up with the soundtrack? It’s both out of place and eerily appropriate. Here’s a movie made in the 00s with an 80s-flavored soundstripe. I kinda dig it.
  • “By Welsh standards.”
  • Nice boots there.
  • “Thunderstruck!”
  • He we have Jon Madden at his most sedate.
  • “You’re late.” “Car trouble.”
  • Admittedly, the “I Will Survive” bit in holding best showcased Jones’ comedic talents.
  • “Nothin’ like a good bar brawl. Avoid them at all costs.” So that’s what I did wrong.
  • This is a PG-13 movie straining to be an R. The MPAA lost here.
  • “Let’s play football, bitch.”

Next Installment…

Hey. Wouldn’t accidentally traveling back to Medieval France disrupt history’s Timeline? Not to mention Paul Walker’s credibility as a bankable actor? Ces’t la vie.