RIORI Vol 3, Installment 39: David Fincher’s “The Social Network” (2010)

The Social Network

The Players…

Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Tyler Pence and Max Minghella, with Brenda Song, Rashida Jones and Rooney Mara.

The Story…

Harvard sophomore and computer wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg almost single-handedly creates social media with his revolutionary FaceBook program and all the responsibilities and woes that entails.

That’s basically it, folks.

The Rant…

I have a love/hate relationship (status) with FaceBook. Maybe you do, too.

Like the rest of y’all, I use FaceBook for chatting with friends, news feeds, pop culture pap, promoting blogs and reassurance that I am not alone in this cold, cruel world without having to actually interact with human beings. That and nurturing a low-level feeling of narcissism. Like the rest of y’all.

I logged on as a FaceBook member back in 2009, two years after its launch, which is a century in a tech savvy game of catch-up. Did my research first, though. At first I was dubious about the new program. I had my times with MySpace and found it no better than anonymous catalog mailings and highway billboards: sh*t in my face I would rather ignore. Where’s the chicks? My sister indirectly wound me into the web. Email suggestion. Checked it out, met Tom and signed up.

And here my troubles began.

Little sis was—and still is—a Facebook junkie. Posting stuff seemingly every five minutes, of things grand and mundane by whatever standard she follows. From what I’ve seen, a lot of FaceBook friends (okay, all of them) can’t discern the difference between noteworthy events in their lives and meaningless dreck. Here’s an example I cooked up years ago when FaceBook was in its infancy, and its users were all so enraptured by the idea they could share every-bloody-thing about themselves and smear it all over the Web, whether you wanted to know or not:

Say you happened upon a really good sandwich shop. Chances are you’d tell your buddies all about it and recommend the ham on rye. Normal. Using FaceBook as extension of this common, casual interaction with others, if you would regale every single person you knew—and didn’t know—with your find where to get the ultimate Reuben, you’d be regarded as a nutjob. I enjoy sandwiches as much as the next guy, but I don’t need you on my lap telling me how to do so.

FaceBook is an open forum. People tend to forget this. Doubtless you’ve come across someone’s post about something you did not want to know about, like multiple videos of them getting that neck goiter incised. Or some guy dressed as a chicken, drunk and singing Rick Astley tunes. Or some heartbroken doof confessing—probably also drunk—their hatred of the opposite sex and how they’ll never get their original pressings of the entire Nickelback catalogue on Edison coil back from their evil, evil ex. We don’t want to see this sh*t (okay, maybe the chicken guy), yet we do—like or unlike, leaving comments as warranted—and inadvertently encourage our “friends” in being attention-starved narcissists that won’t quit poking people or posting funny cat videos. The ones with the goiters. You’ve seen it; you can’t un-see it.

It’s the Warhol theory in action, only 15 minutes isn’t enough. Thanks to FaceBook, users need perceived fame fed into their collective egos 24/7. The feeds have interrupted—some may say corrupted—how people have traditionally communicated for millennia: verbally. The intelligentsia has been bemoaning the death of conversation forever. With FaceBook, such concerns have accelerated into almost self-parody. Many of my FaceBook friends I have had to cut loose. Why? There’s a rather big difference between a post about someone’s new baby and…well, that Reuben sandwich.

FaceBook isn’t exactly an even give-and-take between users. It’s become more of a pissing contest with who has the “cooler” story, which memes are the most amusing and how many friends one can accrue online. Or at the end of the day merely a sounding board, in which the user really doesn’t give a f*ck about who is listening. Maybe it comes down to just some sort of desperate popularity contest. Listen, there is no way you can have 4,000 friends unless you’re the focal point of a major religion, like Moses or Elvis. It’s all malign self-importance unchained. At the end of the day, whenever that comes.

It’s really a shame though, since there are some very good, very practical things about FaceBook. Its network has allowed people to catch up with old friends and distant family members, too far away to visit (think about soldiers overseas). Infinite hits to expand your sphere of knowledge (good and bad). Breaking news customized to your concerns. Chickens singing “Never Wanna Give You Up.” All vital things this in our cyber global village. But all these links gets me to wonder: what are long term ramifications going to be regarding America’s ability to communicate freely under a constant spotlight? Privacy is at a premium lately. How much do you really want to give away? And what exactly would that stuff be?

I don’t think FaceBook founder Mark Zuckerberg fully considered the human factor when creating his social medium. Then again, maybe he did. All too well. After all, FaceBook was borne out of revenge; drunk dialing for the Internet generation. Hacking the Net to smear a girl is the ultimate form of: look at what this bitch did to me, America (or at least Harvard)! Like? Unlike? Comments?

Be careful which computer nerd you spurn in this day and age, ladies…

Harvard University, 2003.

Computer science sophomore and hacking wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) has been having trouble with his girlfriend, Erica (Mara). She can’t stand him anymore. He’s smug. He’s condescending. He thinks his genius is being undermined by the college community. That and he’s practicing a nice, little drinking problem. She dumps his ass.

And so begins the greatest form of mass communication since Gutenberg’s moveable type. From such humble origins. legacies are borne.

In a fit of drunken pique, Mark cracks into Harvard’s network and proceeds to rearrange the chess pieces to smear Erica all over the campus. It was a simple algorithm, Mark’s his roomie Eduardo (Garfield) happen upon his buddy’s malfeasance, and is immediately taken with the potential of Mark’s duct tape and baling wire hack. If Mark’s “Facemash” can unite the campus’ thirst for dirt, then what about airing laundry at other schools? And why stop at schools? Ed comes from not only a family with deep pockets, but also a business acumen that rivals any average student at Harvard. This includes the ridiculously affluent Tyler and Cameron Winkelvoss (Spence and Hammer, respectively), who claim that they were the ones who suggested Mark’s new social media experiment as theirs. Well, only when nerdy Zuckerberg starts making some capital with his hacking.

No matter this. With Ed’s business smarts, Mark being a prodigy (with a keen though misguided grasp on the social sways towards your average college kid) and later lessons learned by a smarmy, once-keys-to-the-kingdom Napster founder Sean Parker (Timberlake), their social network will become too big to fail.

So forget the green-eyed Winklevoss’. Forget Harvard’s reqs and regs regarding Internet protocol. Forget your best buddy all hesitant in his understanding how to keep a fledgling Internet startup afloat. Forget you’re schmoozing with the first big file-sharing success story with the first big fail. Forget all that.

Harness your ego and especially forget Erica. She’s already forgotten you.


Okay. Here’s a sort of companion piece to the whole “sandwich example” from above. It’s how the human factor gets ignored by the “men in the white coats.” And I ain’t talkin’ Bellevue bound here. Then again, I may be.

Many years past, I had a job in tech support for a mobile phone company. This was in the early aughts, when the first gen smartphones came on the market. Basic gizmos these; talk, text, web. That was it. No apps to speak of, let alone the concept of what an “app” was. I was a go-to guy to crack the hard nuts only the most affluent of customers demanded. It was a real latchkey operation back then. New tech rolling out faster than the tech guys—like me—could absorb and apply to the paying public.

The big new thing—only big when these new smartphone doohickies had actual keypads, not tap 3 three times to get F—was texting. It was more private than a phone call. When you place a call, half of the conversation might be heard by an inappropriate audience. Texts were quiet, and a bit more polite than an actual phone call when the recipient might’ve been in a place where chatting on a cell would be considered rude. Like in a movie theatre, or even in a surgical theatre for that matter.

Learned that one of the primary reasons for texting (it was called SMS then. Short messengering service) was to make cell phones accessible for the deaf. Can’t hear? No big. Just fire off an SMS and boom, target acquired. Clever, if not brilliant. Those dinosaur, brick, actual cell phones couldn’t accomplish that, let alone hold battery power beyond an hour. All hail technology.

That being said, here’s where the “men in white coats” theory comes into speculative practice. Some uber-smart dorks in lab coats reflecting on their work:

“Hey. Y’know, this SMS for the deaf is great. Now folks who can’t hear can utilize the mobile phone tech we devised. It’s all good.”

“…Well. I’m not so sure.”

“What’s that?”

“You know, people can abuse technology, as well meaning as our intentions.”

“What are you saying?”

“I mean, this SMS program is great, but what about cell phone users who can hear?”

“You’re losing me.”

“It might be quicker, and less intrusive, for anyone to fire off a text to communicate rather than place a call.”

“Your point?”

“My point is this: what if some people decide to send a text at an inappropriate time?”

“Like how?”

“Say, while driving. They feel the need to send a text while driving.”

“Oh, come on! Who’d be so stupid to use SMS while driving? You don’t see people reading the Times behind the wheel, do you?”


The guys in the white coats forget the human factor; they forget the rest of mongrel America isn’t as smart as they are. That we have to put red octagon magnets on our bumpers to remind other drivers to STOP TEXTING. By the way, that cup of McDonald’s coffee you have between your thighs is mighty hot.

What’s my point? I feel that most movers and shakers (especially in the tech biz) fail to consider the human factor and how the average joe thinks and reacts. Sure, Robert Goddard just wanted to demonstrate rocket science as a valid endeavor. I don’t think he anticipated Werner von Braun’s efforts with taking large chunks out of London.

A bit harsh maybe, and probably something of a stretch, but I don’t think Zuckerberg was fully aware of what beast he unchained when FaceBook went public back in 2007. How could he? He’s waaaaay smarter than the rest of we unwashed masses. He had no time for f*cking around with Skyrim on the PS3. There were worlds to build. Here, have a smoothie.

I did say fully aware, however. The film repeatedly points out—at least as far as the script read—that Zuckerberg and his cronies knew what kind of dirt their peers wanted dished out online. Booze, babes and silly cat videos. Maybe chickens, too. Almost a decade on and it looks like those geeks were spot on; thumbs on the pulses of a million mouse shuffling hands. So not all dangerously intelligent computer dorks are very far out of the loop. Sometimes it pays to leave the D&D once in while.

This back and forth dynamic—a push and pull—of how those who create and understand the tech between those who use it (with limited to little regard of its potential) drives much of the plot in The Social Network. That, and piercing character study of the cast’s mindsets and motives; immaturity and hubris braced against being driven to succeed and profit. It’s the classic argument of new science in action: could we versus should we. And then what could we do next? When people are this creative and intelligent, they tend to forget how ignorant the general public is.

But maybe not this time out. Consider Zuckerberg’s muse. Girl trouble. And booze. In bersabee* veritas.

What I like most about David Fincher’s films is their deliberate, calculated, almost clinical style. It’s his signature. From Se7en to Zodiac to Fight Club, everything is precise, clean and well-paced without feeling rushed.  There’s a rhythm, a momentum. His execution is an even flow of urgency, always dusted with a little dark comedy to unnerve you back to reality, if only for a moment. Network is no different, yet it does have a different timbre than that of the director’s other works.

Network might be the first “straight” film in Fincher’s oeuvre. A surreal air always hangs over the man’s movies like a mist. There’s a haunted feeling in watching, say, The Game or Panic Room, as if something is always going to go horribly wrong (and often does) in the next scene. That Hitchcock air is mostly absent in Network, but not The Master’s skills channeled by Fincher; the movie is cold, menacing and exciting, cut with a very deliberate sense of purpose. Yet it still feels like something is going to fall off the hinges at the fringe of each scene. The deft tension is still there. It’s definitely a Fincher flick, but the rules have changed. Not to mention the subject matter. Strange things are afoot at Harvard, but it’s not about serial killers lurking in the shadows. Not this time.

So what’s going on with this change-up? First, Network‘s a biopic. This stuff really happened, albeit gussied up with some Hollywood flair and Fincher’s sense of vision. The film was based on a book, after all, and a far cry from a Fitzgerald novella. The whole docudrama aspect could be applied to Zodiac, Fincher’s other esteemed true crime drama. However the differences between that film and Network are Zodiac was scary and highly stylized. Network is a legal caper punctuated with the thrill of discovery against genius run amok. It’s a lot of other things, too, somewhat removed from Fincher’s established comfort zone, but I’ll get to that later. Stay logged in.

The second bit is that we have a legal drama on our hands. One buttered with psychological overtones aplenty, to be sure, but huge wads of Network‘s story revolves around FaceBook’s ownership, intellectual property rights and copyright law. Uh, kinda boring off the set of Law And Order: Wall Street (da-dum). Not here. Snappy dialogue and pacing correct any yawns produced by “who did what now?” and “why did they do what now?” The many scenes that bookend the tech stuff and the human factor are brightly lit, confining rooms where the powers that be try to outmaneuver the power that is, namely Zuckerberg’s shrewdness, smarts and savviness. It’s sorta like an underdog theme, but not like with The Replacements. Sure, the implied underdog is Zuckerberg, but all the legal probing and deliberation only makes Mark looking like he holds all the cards. And he does.

None of that sh*t above would’ve been easy to digest without Eisenberg’s brilliant performance as Mark. I mean, scant few of us know the guy personally (one jillion friends online or no), but our lead’s portrayal of Zuckerberg is terribly convincing of being the man himself. I’ll admit I’m not in loop about Zuckerberg’s personal life, despite his public image, but Eisenberg’s approach to the character is spot on in us knowing a guy like Mark; a person who’s your typical computer geek (mercifully avoiding the stereotype), too smart for his own good and possesses that impetuousness of youth. C’mon, we all know a guy like Mark, and despite how odious his behavior can be throughout the film, his quirks make the character relatable.

Quirks like Eisenberg’s clipped, punctuated speech. It’s akin to programming code, reflecting his whole identity. That identity is also insecurity personified, only redeemed by his work, which never ends. He has to constantly announce his genius, onto to have it rebuked by authority and peers alike. The guy is driven, you bet, but driven by what? Ego? Greed? A need to prove something? Maybe all three. Guess one has to be a bit Madoff to pull off his antics. It’s Eisenberg’s nervous and swift delivery that keeps the story chugging along at a brisk pace, an extension of Fincher’s craft.

Our other two leads don’t fare as well. Garfield and Timberlake are capable actors (I know. I’m as shocked as you are), but they don’t seem to have the verve as Eisenberg does. It’s not that they’re characters aren’t dynamic (which they are), it’s just they seem muted and a bit incongruent paired against Eisenberg’s Mark. Maybe this was done on purpose. In fact, I’m certain of it. We got the id/ego/superego dynamic going on. We dig that Mark’s the ego part already. Fine. Eduardo is the pinion on which the moral compass spins. The voice of reason. Mr Spock. Sean’s idful, and even though I fail to buy that the real Parker was that reckless, it was actually kinda fun watching Timberlake all loose and insinuating, leading a naive Mark down the trail to ruin. His Sean was like a smarmy Johnny Cochrane (is that redundant?), all fast talk and a prime example of the man on the white horse. Even though JT was a cipher (as was Garfield), he did a much better job in Network than he did with In Time. That thing’s kicking around here somewhere. Don’t watch it.

In addition to the psychological/legal drama Network is also a cautionary tale. No duh, and not just about what happens when unrivaled greed has no checks and balances. That and mucking about on the Web stealing virtual panties. It’s the human factor again, unpredictable and unchecked when the latest, shiny thingamawhatsit comes down the pike. Network showed very pointedly the possible future of a disconnected social media culture. Like now. Disconnected as far as actual human interaction goes these days. The whole “Fashmash” deal in the first act is prescient of all the psychological damage FaceBook can cause. It’s a cool foreshadowing, but chilling as well.

Network is perhaps the first mainstream film about programming that doesn’t dumb down nor mystify the impact of hacking within the Web. That being said, I cannot wait for the day when Hollywood finally puts the whole “computer hackers as gods” motif/fallacy to bed. Until then, which may never come, we can thank Fincher for his clinical, almost “coded” examination of the human factor nipping at the edges of too much smarts meeting too much tech revo too damned fast. Network isn’t The Matrix, but it does share a similar scope: tech as religion, and its acolytes. The movie is almost the origin story of a religion; look how quickly the students of Harvard and later elsewhere took “the facebook” to heart and it virtually single-handedly became gospel.

Christ, now I’m sounding preachy, and using too many religious metaphors in rapid succession. Good Lord.

I’m willing to wager that in 100 years FaceBook will be regarded as much as the Dutch East India Company is today: world-owning, too big to fail and its crown usurped by the never-ending march of (techno) progress. In the meantime, thanks to Mark and this movie we probably have a better idea where all this social media is headed. FaceBook has drastically altered the world’s way in which we communicate. Correctly, unambiguous and self-serving as it may be.

Well, at least no one’s crashed a car commenting on a singing chicken meme.

Just now.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Network is a very interesting flick, and not your usual Fincher flavor either, which all helps in the end. I understand that “interesting” doesn’t necessarily jibe with “exciting,” but when the only action scene in the film involves rowing, and you still find the rest exciting, for Pete’s sake like it.

Get it? Ha-ha. Who wants a smoothie?

Stray Observations…

  • “I don’t want friends.”
  • Eisenberg’s delivery reminds me of Clu’s in the original Tron.
  • “It was Caribbean Night.”
  • Song’s come a long way from the Disney Channel, man.
  • “This is not spam.” Yet.
  • Is this the ultimate nerd revenge fantasy? Maybe, because it actually happened.
  • “We have groupies.” Hmm. Foreshadowing?
  • The Winklevoss’ meeting with the prez was f*cking hilarious. Fincher’s knack for dark comedy doesn’t fail him.
  • “Fashion is never finished.”
  • Keen use of the club music. It’s almost like a supporting character.
  • “I’m 6’5″, 220 and there’s two of me.”
  • Is Zuckerberg borderline autistic?
  • “I remember something about a trombone.”
  • The soundtrack is great, courtesy of Trent “Nine Inch Nails” Reznor. He won an Oscar for his work here, so I guess not everything about the Academy’s standards is stodgy.
  • “I don’t torture chickens.” Alice Cooper must be relieved.
  • And yet Erica is still unimpressed with Mark’s smarts. Maybe not the ultimate nerd revenge fantasy after all.
  • “I’ll send flowers.”
  • *Latin for beer. Get it? I love being funny and clever.

Next Installment…

Dr Hanninal “The Cannibal” Lecter (before the fava beans) reluctantly lends his intellect to help the FBI nab the serial killer known only as “The Tooth Fairy.”

Ahem, waitaminnit. I mean: “…the great Red Dragon.

Yeah. That sounds cooler.

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 38: John Wells’ “Burnt” (2015)


The Crew…

Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Omar Sy, Daniel Brühl, Sam Keeley and Riccardo Scamarcio, with Uma Thurman and Emma Thompson.

The Story…

“God gives us the nuts, but He does not crack them.”

That was Kafka, and we knowing as much as we can from his writings, such existential thinking requires a bit of time to digest.

Speaking of digestion, disgraced chef Adam Jones has been trying to turn his life around—both personally and professionally—and get back into the swing of things. He’s relocated to London, trying to reignite the fire that torched him so back in the early days of his profession.

Also, and not so quietly, pursuing a third Michelin star as well as validation as a productive, upright member of proper culinary society.

In other words, Adam wants respect. Within and without.

The Rant…

A millennium ago here at RIORI I regaled y’all with my misadventures as a cook with the Chef installment. An aeon ago here at RIORI I spewed to you folks about my struggles with bipolar disorder with the Silver Linings Playbook installment.

Now we meet our quandary. Strap in.

Due to the fact (or maybe in spite of it) that Burnt tackled issues close to home it was still a natural fit under The Standard’s demands. Also, it’s been some time since we reviewed what The Standard is all about. So let’s, shall we?

What? Again? What for? Well, one you didn’t read the homepage, which means you are either lazy or disinterested as to how this blog gets slapped together. Maybe both. I would be too.

Second, recalling my rant on The Physician installment, folks are fuzzy on the logic of why these movies. I get a fair share of recommendations here, and only a few make the cut. The Standard may be a little flexible here and there, but a its core, RIORI is a PSA/angry screed about how Hollywood’s been fleecing us since the turn of the century. Its pretty ironclad overall. So can the movie biz’ practices, shamelessly and obviously, and spitting on our collective movie-going audience minds in the process. The fluff that’s aimed at in my very opinionated crosshairs is the acid test for what Tinsel Town gets away with and/or hides from us. Ipso facto, what movie fans care most about—thought provoking entertainment. It’s that cheated feeling I’m taking a stand against, like an angry shepherd cursing his unruly flock.

If you ain’t hip to that, go elsewhere. Flock off already.

*groans from the balcony*

Shut it. That was the best pun you ever heard. At least here.

So to put it plainly, The Standard was established based on a simple tenet: dissect perceived mediocrity in modern movies. Yer welcome.

*cheers from the nosebleed seats. “Freebird!”*

Where was I? Oh yeah, the movie gunk. But first I gotta get my bitch on.

Never fear. I’m not gonna go on and on with some long, winding bio in the food biz like I did with the Chef installment. Again, yer welcome. Still, I’d be remiss to not say a few things about the world of cheffing and its preconceived notions by the hoi polloi, which to some degree Burnt addresses, if not encourages. So I’ll take you on some long, winding tirade about how the food biz works and how the public believes it works, amplified by the camera lens. Don’t fret none. It’ll only sting a little. Later we may have to break out the branding iron, if needs be.

This may come as a bit of a shock, but I have a certain disdain for the concept of a “celebrity chef.” Back in the day, any great chef worth his salt—and it was almost certainly always a he—earned his rep through word of mouth and an impeccable menu, as well as a certain “reputation.” You know what I mean. The arrogant stereotype that launched a thousand signature Rachael Ray spice racks down ol’ Target way. Folks like Careme, Escoffier and Pliny The Elder got their esteem via reputation alone, either through praise or infamy. Often both. No cameras then. No endorsements. No makeup artists. Just skills and craftsmanship and a legacy to hold them up. Them’s were frontier days.

In the not so recent past (at least before basic cable), going into the restaurant biz was an option slightly better than a conscript in the army, prison inmate or high school gym teacher. No glory then, not like today where white bread America is enraptured with mad food skillz and prettiness and effete snobbery of self-described “foodies.” Folks, let me tell you: drizzling black truffle oil on everything does not a gourmet dish make, no matter how crisp those French fries are. Or a Red Baron pizza, for that matter. Snooty foodie guests get all moist over the lobster risotto, unaware that the dish is merely a thrown bone to keep ’em quiet. Sometimes it even works, provided they didn’t catch the latest installment of The Chew and what Michael Symon kept giggling about.

No. Not too long back, cooks were regarded as chattel, lowly laborers in hot dungeons, fueled by beer, crank and the burning need to make rent at the YMCA. Oh yeah, a desire to make good food in there somewhere. It wasn’t all shiny shiny, endless pantry, the barbarians of Gourmet shaking down the gates to understand how the chef succeeded in foraging for morels in October. Again, no. Back then, no one really cared, so long as the food kept coming and didn’t taste like week-old snot. Thank God for ketchup. The general public didn’t want to know how the sausage was made, literally and figuratively.

A lot has changed since those Stone Age-y days (not that much. The beer thing is sovereign). Today, pro chefs are revered for their craft and creativity. Restaurant cooks now have a sort of rock star cachet (a phrase I loathe). Most are either formally educated at Johnson & Wales, the CIA, under the tutelage of a knowledgeable chef or simply spending years in the bellies of multiple beasts, plugging away from dishwasher to sous. Sometimes beyond; look at Thomas Keller. We are skilled craftsmen and women, hell bent on improving your lives with food, fun and a psychotic enough drive to make a rabbit torchon or proscuttio foam (shout out to Robinson there, the maniac) for your dining pleasure. And ultimately ours.

Some things have not changed. Professional cooking is still a lonely trade, in so those who do it understand all too well that the people outside the circle just. Won’t. Get. It. We labor in very close proximity to others in unpleasant climes that would result in a harassment suit in a proper corporate environment. Potential physical danger at your fingertips, often on purpose. Lots of sweat, lots of pressure, lots of angst and lots of the f-bomb used for every part of speech. Rewards for this toil? Internal. The occaisional complement only makes us skittish and ever more determined to the next time to perhaps, blue moon-like get another (hopefully in the form of a clean plate). Meantime in the not so far back of our heads we constantly ask ourselves, “What can be done better?”


Like many of the problems of our culture, blame TV on this sea change in the public’s view of chefs. It could’ve came from any cook’s cult of personality (mine was Jeff Smith, AKA “The Frugal Gourmet”), but I’m gonna say that the praise or said blame could be laid at the feet of Emeril Lagasse for bringing the wonders of cooking into your average suburban kitchen. You know, a house with little more than a sticky microwave and way too many cans of Campbell’s at the ready. Oh, and Kraft mac and cheese. Can’t forget the Kraft now. All ya gotta do is cheeze me. Call Sandra Lee.

Before Emiril’s cries of “bam!” penetrated the hive mind of Middle America in the 90s, chefs toiled in steerage and earned obscurity. Most wanted it that way; it’s easier to practice a rather psycho craft without prying eyes and scorn gettin’ all up in your grille. The job is tough and has little of the glamour the media dumps on the likes of Bobby Flay and others of his ilk. You know, the former pro chefs who are now well-groomed, have writers and nary a day-old beard growth to be found (this includes Anne Burrell). Sure, the chef does get rightful attention at their eateries, for the good and the gross, but what’s behind the curtain would never sell in Columbus. I’m telling you, if you ever got a look over the pass at some two-star joint at how we labored, spoke and behaved—all in the name of speed and flavor, mind you—you’d turn around in search of a chemical shower usually reserved for biohazard contamination. Please try the veal.

Kidding. It’s not that bad. It’s only on weekends we have to bust out the manacles on the ankles. Moving on.

Emeril brought a personality to a chef. Mainstream media-flavored. A cult of personality to be sure, thanks to the camera or in spite of it. But think about it, he was funny, animated, knowledgeable and coined a bloody catchphrase, before God. Even ol’ Jeff Smith was lacking there. So bam! as star was born. A celebrity chef, and it’s been the trickle-down theory ever since. For good and for ill. Very ill. Hospice level, actually.

The other end of the spectrum—the inevitable, tired shark-jump—are the myriad Gordon Ramsey travesties that are pure, car crash entertainment. Say what you will, but at least Emeril’s programming (barring that embarassing sitcom) was about cooking. All Ramsey does it let loose with his frustrated ex-footballer lost glory and hams it up. Ramsey’s antics on his plethora of non-cooking shows only demands the question, “Why would anyone want to get into this business?” It’s all a real shame. The guy’s talented, taught by the esteemed British chef Marco White, the only guy who ever retired his Michelin stars. You watch Kitchen Nightmares (the US version) and you’d never get the impression that this petulant, raging assh*le commanded such loyalty back in his actual cheffing days that when he quit a kitchen he crew followed suit, raging asshat boss be damned.

That kind of story isn’t sexy enough for TV. Screaming blue language is.

Don’t misunderstand me. Such behavior is par for the course in a professional restaurant kitchen. The exploits recounted in chef-cum-travel host Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential are painfully spot on, cocaine and all (I’m not saying I harbor a blow habit. I’m a drunk. I only avoid police at key moments). But for all the hullabaloo from ignorant, moneyed ‘Murica tossing bouquets and feigning culinary knowledge akin to that sketchy guy at the used record store, clutching his first pressing of Neu!’s self-titled debut like the Dead Sea Scrolls with a sneer, the job’s decidedly not some fashion show runway with knives. Pro cooking is a basal, ugly business. It’s only redeemed by the throughput from of many sweaty hours. Years. It is never about hand-picked anything and impeccable crystal. It’s what you don’t see beyond those pickled ramps you’ve been lusting over, which only a day ago you understood as things the drunken wheelchair-bound used to get up to the library.

The celeb chef ideal is a myth. It’s a fabrication based on a broadcasted image. It’s seldom if ever about what’s on the plate. It’s TV. Get that through your hipster heads. And shave off that f*ckin’ beard already.

That being said, it comes as no shock that my friends in the field had to check out Burnt, if only to gleefully point out technical errors and/or see if Cooper “got it right.” I sometimes start the rants without seeing the movie proper, like here. Why? Distillation of bile when a film might tackle a subject that may be near and dear. Gets the juices a-flowing’ ya dig? Don’t sweat none about the actual review. It’s lurking around here somewhere.

Speaking of the actual film this week, I think it proper to point out that our lead Cooper had a little experience behind this role back in his salt mine years. In the early aughts, Cooper starred in a short-lived TV show loosely based on/inspired by the escapades in the aforementioned Bourdain exposé Kitchen Confidential. For less than a year, Cooper portrayed chef Jack Bourdain (clever) trying to hold a white tablecloth joint together with his rabble of criminals and miscreants as crew. The venerable character actor Frank “Skeletor” Langella played the beleaguered owner of the place, which lent a degree of gravitas to this left-wing farce, but mostly it was unknown and therefore malleable actors that filled in the blanks. Such a clean slate must’ve allowed Cooper some room to work out the kinks his comedic acting style. The show limped along for a single season, then vanished without a trace. Three years later Anthony’s tales on the Travel Channel’s No Reservations took flight and eventually scored Emmys. I find all that funny. Just thought I’d say something. Whatever. Back to the PopSecret with you.

Due to the waffling reviews, lame takeaway and ribbing from my peers I took Burnt under my wing. Truth be told it was mostly out of curiosity. Not necessarily professional curiosity. I admit that was there. More so I was curious to see if what Cooper might have learned back in 2005 got translated here (in an identical role BTW, complete with checkered past and a struggle against addiction) with any élan, more confident thanks to an Oscar nom under his belt. And sans any potential insulting performance my fellow countrymen would cackle at. Here’s hoping.


Time takes time, as it’s been said.

Disgraced chef Adam Jones (Cooper) has been marking off his time in oysters. Shuck by shuck.

He’s been in a self-imposed exile away from running a kitchen, trying to get his sh*t together after drink and drugs ruined his career years ago. He’s found the time is right to make amends. Not so much to others he’s wronged in the past, but for the debacle of his Parisian restaurant—thereby insulting his mentor—through hubris and excessive…everything.

Jones is in London, looking for his comeback (and the ever elusive third Michelin star). He shakes down Tony (Brühl), the stuffy maitre’d of the exclusive Langham Hotel to give him the gig to turn around its restaurant. Tony is all too knowledgeable of Adam’s recklessness, and balks at first. Still, Adam is the man with the skills, and a third-tier eatery would do wonders for the Langham’s cachet.

Everybody deserves a second chance. So Adam goes about wrangling in talented cooks to make his dream of revenge come true. Helene (Miller) is a brittle, single mom whose got a lot more to gain and lose by teaming up with Adam. Michel (Sy) was Adam’s former sous when the merde went down in Paris, and might still be harboring something. Grillardin extraordinare Max (Scamarico) is on board for his wonders over the fire, as soon as he gets out of jail. And FNG David (Keeley) is a commis far from hopeless, as soon as he realizes it.

Even with his dream crew, it’s not really about Adam creating his dream restaurant here. It’s not really even about righting wrongs with old friends as well as professional integrity. It’s not even about that elusive third star.

Adam conquering the Langham is about apples. And oysters. And time served…

While Chef was an R-rated family film disguised as a character study, Burnt is nothing but a character study. Chef was friendly while Burnt is prickly. Chef  was uplifting while Burnt is downbeat. Chef had a hopefulness about it, with a likable star at its helm. With Burnt, we have murkiness and a decidedly unlikeable lead.

Dare I say it? Yep, I do. We’re talking apples to oranges here. Stop screaming.

The image if the “celebrity chef” hangs over Burnt like a pall. Not totally bad, though; there’s enough decent acting to keep the air light and puffy. The sh*t you witness on the Food Network is akin to watching an ep of Maury, that kind of emoting. That’s mostly absent with Burnt. Mostly. This is a Hollywood concoction, so certain concessions must be made. But still there are quite a few shades of that demon cult of personality I warned about creeping at the edges of Burnt. Only by way of canny direction and calculated acting does the film arrive as more than the sum of its knobby-kneed parts.

Like I said, character study. Boy, do we have a holy host here. That ubiquitous notion of celebrity chef nips at every corner of Burnt. It’s almost cliched, if not to the toilers on the sea but to every enraptured soul that takes Rachael Ray way too seriously (admit it, you’d tap that). It gets blurry, what the story is behind these characters. It is a tale of redemption, yes, and with the supporting cast, we have many facets of Adam’s wounded past made flesh. They’re like mirrors reflecting all the f*ckery Adam committed in his callow, druggy days and now he has to face them. Face himself.

Here’s where the drama comes in. Cooper may be the star, but it’s the folks in the wings that make Burnt work. Otherwise, this would indeed be Silver Linings Cookbook, yearning and fragile. Pert, almost shrewish Helene keeps Jones in check; keeps his time on task. It’s understood that Jones is very insecure and emotionally raw. His only validation for living is his work. His work is under par (to others). His fragile ego is shattered. Then he lashes out at others because they’re easier marks than himself. Not so with Helene. She’s not in this biz for ego—not like Adam—but for a clinical love or food and family, something he lacks. Her directness and no posturing, no bullsh*t attitude tempers, if not challenges Adam’s bluster. It’s agreed in this work that arrogance is important, but should be allayed by the bottom line. In sum, Cooper and Miller have an uneasy chemistry. Tit for tat. It’s almost not there. Almost, mind you. This push and pull makes for some good tension. It’s the best part of a comedy-drama: when both fronts won’t yield. And both come out smiling.

Cooper’s Adam is an arrogant doosh, to be sure. I guess balancing off him is why I enjoyed the supporting cast better than our star. Miller and the rest are a lot like a Classical Greek chorus, either emoting or telling the audience what’s happening. You gotta be sharp for it, though. Sy’s Michel was a fine example. All along the line, you get whiffs that he’s got a bone to pick with Adam, but you never truly see his motives coming. He’s calculating, but rather removed at the same time. It’s not until The Big Reveal that we get his message and purpose. Ooooo (that wasn’t a spoiler. It really wasn’t. Really. Back off).

Keeley’s David and Scarmarcio’s Max were yin and yang. David’s the newb, wobbly but eager. Max is tough, embittered to what the biz dishes out. There were some nice moments between the two, but not direct interaction. Whenever Adam fails to get his jones (ha!) on, and takes down his crew with hubris and ridicule, David and Max mirror the fallout. David gets abashed, and Max hangs his head in silent disgust, seeing this happening one too many times and now emotionally removed from the skewering David gets treated to. It’s a dynamic I’ve seen in kitchens before; big bro, li’l bro. BTW, the ranting, bully chef figure is so passé. Thank TV and Ramsey for that. That sh*t does not a productive kitchen make. There ya go.

My fave character in this mess is Brühl’s Tony. Mister uptight, what-the-f*ck-have-I-gotten-into, beleaguered maitre’d. He’s the hub upon which the spokes spin. Reality check. Apart from Helene, Tony’s the man with the plan: keeping Adam on target. All this sh*t with the Langham and getting a third star and mending Adam’s troublesome conscious means nothing. It’s the bottom line. Cooking is a business, not just some palate to cleanse. There are stakes here beyond perfect saffron and not scorching the bechamel. Tony passively reminds Adam that there is a world out there, beyond the kitchen. Maybe he should check it out, really check it out sometime. That and his accent is great, and mish-mash of Eurotrash and an ingenue. He’s very natural.

Now that’s out of the way, we’ll get to what Bourdain calls “the nasty bits.”

Technical sh*t, and I ain’t talking editing (which was indeed fine, if only for the first act). Got a handful of gripes here, and it’s not from my experiences with sweat and tired feet. No. Again it’s with the demon specter of the Food Network peppering the story with “sweetening.” Overall, there are nuggets of truth within the kitchen at The Langham, but delivered with the usual Hollywood sell. It’s a convincing sell, mind you, but I could really have done without the whole “bad boy” image Jones had. The leather jacket? The shades? The bloody motorcycle? Total TV. Also, one needn’t explain away a chef’s turbulent background/upbringing. I mean, my mentor was raised by a mother who was gay; take that under your belt. He was bipolar as well. Did you need to know that? No. Did it have any real bearing on his career? Probably not (the dope maybe). Did we need to be reminded frame after frame of Adam’s misdeeds? Of course not. We got it. He’s haunted. One mention is enough. Anything more delves into after school special territory/cautionary tale. Let the audience add their own spice, already.

In addition to that, there are lots of pretensions here to “illustrate” the sturm and drang of cooking. Excessive plate throwing is the stuff of Hollywood. Sure, it happens. Like once in a Sasquatch sighting happens. It did happen to me once, but by accident. Here, have a seat. I nearly got an ear torn off by an errant hotel pan. Again, it was an accident. I was literarily walking through the door to clock in for service when this angular, metal non-boomerang caromed off the mop sink basin and crashed at my feet. Only after I ducked with drunken cat-like speed. My chef was horrified at what he had done, scared. He could have sent my teeth flying. I learned that he was pissed at a certain piece of troublesome equipment and took out his ire by hurling the irksome pan across the kitchen. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Still scary, though.

The antics the flustered Jones engaged in was hyped up, but probably for the sake of keeping the audience awake. And say what you won’t, Jones manifested the worst and best parts of my mentor perfectly, warts and…warts. His skulking around the kitchen, making sure everything’s on point and on the level. The endless, stern questioning of his crew ensuring the former. The stress. That much was genuine. But that sh*t only sells so much to the average, attention starved, lasagane-loving audience. We gotta throw hotel pans to keep folks engaged. Shameful, at least for trying to convey a fine dining kitchen as “authentic” against the reality.

Here is where I shall share with you the true make-up of film. What Hollywood is all about in execution, not necessarily practice. Burnt is an ideal acid test. You wanna know what filmmaking is all about? Do ya? Huh, do ya?

Wake up.

Hollywood is reality plus 20%. Dig it.

The best movies feel real. They aren’t real, they’re stories. But the stories are supposed to trick us into believing that this, this is reality. This is how it is. Doubt me? Then explain all the Star Wars acolytes out there. And no, sorry to burst any bubbles, you can’t buy the Millenium Falcon on eBay. At least not “life-size” and in Lego form. Sorry.

Many writers claim that to make a story work, the characters must be likable. Bzzzt. Wrong. Is Jones cuddly? Characters have to be interesting. Is Jones interesting? Yes. Likable? Nuh-uh. By following that line, a film offers up a “normal” chef role and there’ll be yawns aplenty. You gotta exceed real reality. You gotta throw hotel pans. Daily. Hourly. With a lot of cussing. It’s made Ramsey’s post-football/post-chef career. It’s interesting. You need that 20% overage to sell the ticket.

So Burnt sold it. Director Wells knew what he had to do. Then everything went pear-shaped in the third act. He exceeded 20%. He brought in too many soap opera touches. Hollywood crept in. The final act bore little to the tale laid out in the first two. Everything collapsed. What began as a curious tale of redemption descended into utter bathos. The epic fail that almost destroys our hero. The (forced) romantic interest. Deus ex machina saving the day. The sunny conclusion that was almost imperceptible a few frames back. All Cooper had to do was shave and we’d be in Oz. Christ, that sh*t pisses me off. Hollywood needs to be reminded more often that hey! It doesn’t have to work out every time! Or at least not make it so f*cking obvious and slick like so many downed egg creams.

I think Wells hornswoggled us. A bitter comedy-drama about an embittered chef worked well on paper. And for the most part, that script worked. Then we took a wrong turn entered Forrest Gump territory, and the center failed to hold. What a bummer.

My mom loves Bradley Cooper, even more than me. I lent her and my dad the disc for their viewing pleasure. According to the party line, moms got up halfway through the screening and went to bed. She said Burnt wasn’t holding her attention. What? With Cooper starring? With his eternal day-old growth? The hell?

Reality plus 20%. The third act killed it all. For me too. Mostly. Too bad.

In the final analysis, Burnt was good overall. It’s a shame that I found Chef more enjoyable, and probably for the wrong reasons. I expected Burnt to be a more mature version of Chef, especially since we had seasoned Jack Bourdain along for the ride. It was, until Tinsel Town needed to relieve itself, scamming Middle America in the process.

I’m kind of an idealist. Really. Quick snickering. In so I hope that with certain “docudrama” type movies the curtain will be pulled back and an unknowing public might have the scales fall from their fishy eyes. Films like Grizzly Man, Longtime Companion and The Decline Of Western Civilization considered. See how the sausage is made for certain. Burnt had that capacity, but copped out. I guess, for better or worse, to make a marketable film you gotta go for the soft sell. Too bad here.

All right, good night. Don’t forget to tip your server, and please stop dipping that f*cking sushi in that goddam mixture of soy sauce and fake wasabi swill you stirred together to get your virgin sushi eater date to think you know sumpin.


Check please.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A tepid rent it. It didn’t suck. That much is good. The acting was a delight. Two-thirds of it was quite entertaining, even if you’re not a chef (or a Food Network disciple). But you ever watch a good movie only to have it all undone by a lousy ending? I’ll say it: it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

C’mon, gimme at least that one.

Stray Observations…

  • You figure out what belies Tony’s true dislike of Adam? Right. Unrequited love. It’s kinda heartbreaking, really.
  • “You have a spare bedroom?”
  • What was up with that silly Terminator pose?
  • “I’m not much for groups.” Portent.
  • I dug the soundtrack.
  • “I haven’t been myself since the 90s.” Been there, done that. Look at this tribal tat on my leg.
  • “Where is he?” “Outside. Throwing up.”
  • hate heat lamps. They are a necessary evil.
  • “Not to me; to the f*cking fish.”
  • Um, sous vide baths were around in 2010. Jones must’ve been really high.
  • Turbot for the kid. It’s kinda heartbreaking, really.
  • “Should I be writing this stuff down? ‘Cause I don’t have a crayon.”
  • Band-Aid?!?
  • You’re not as pretty as you once were.”
  • That scene with Helene being late? Plausible, minus the raise.
  • “Thirty seconds, no more.” For the dish or the deal?
  • The kiss. It’s kinda heart—ow!
  • “Perfection doesn’t exist, but we still keep looking for it.” That one’s mine.
  • Once more, count up all the cooking-related metaphors I used in this installment and you win a pony! Okay, if not that then I’ll quit punching you in the face.

Next Installment…

We absorb the ups and downs of establishing The Social Network, namely FaceBook. Read about it on FaceBook! Be sure to like it! Or else!

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 37: Patrick Stettner’s “The Night Listener” (2006)


The Players…

Robin Williams, Toni Colette, Joe Morton, Bobby Cannavale and Sandra Oh, with Rory Culkin and John Cullum.

The Story…

Two odd stories—one within and the other without—coincide with radio personality Gabe Noone’s fractured life. The first story is about the loss in Gabe’s life. The second is about loss in the abstract, which Gabe can really sympathize. If not obsess over.

Abused child? Compelling manuscript? Empty nest? And utterly unable to separate work from reality? Gabe’s life is awash in uncertainty and confusion. All it took was a few words on air and down the rabbit hole he went. What to do to get some sanity back?

Stay tuned.

The Rant…

Hey, you know what? This here’s the first installment at RIORI that’s exceeded the number of previous volume’s installments. I guess that’s a milestone. Maybe a testament to my wounded attention span’s slow mending. Or whatever. Most FaceBook posts are still a blur to me even 30 minutes after. Thought I’d say something, though.

Anyway, now it is time I once again recall my radio days. I’ve touched on it before back with the Pirate Radio installment, but I don’t think I really cut into the meat of the matter. Y’know, beside screaming vitriolic about how can Gwen Stefani still have a “career” in music and “earn” accolades courtesy the pages of Us Weekly on her fashion sense and how her new album’s production standards (it’s amazing what one can glean from their doctor’s waiting room pile of mags) exceed the next viral phenom from Canada’s many suburban basements.

Just kidding. Most Torontan’s have attics, too, sans the skins of fallen fanboys, hides shimmering in the new dawn’s light.

Christ, that was grisly. I must really hate…everyone. Moving on:

So forgetting my bilious dislike of Journey for a breath, I was raised on radio.

I grew up in a patch of Pennsylvania that was squarely aimed between radio broadcasts from both Philly and NYC. Dotted between those markets were a panoply of local affiliates (then untouched from the winding tentacles of ClearChannel) which thrilled me with their broadcasts of music, news, talk shows and the occasional Bible thumping that scared me back into bed faster than a Wes Craven movie in 4D. Needless to say, I got me a lot of bang from my boombox. And pissed through a lot of double-As.

Back in the 80s, everyone had a Walkman, including me. Used to strap that thing on my belt all the time, if not for the radio than the monthly Weird Al release. I was always curious about the radio programmers (never deejays; a term a pox on any respectable radio personality). They would talk and talk, always in bright, upbeat tones regardless of how lame the last single might have been or how horrible the war in Lebanon was (is). To me, it was precognition. The programmers’ words dictated where the day would go. The idea of voices floating out into the ether and landing on whatever ears they could (including my maligned radar rings) fascinated—later disturbed me.

The notion of free-floating vapors as voices more or less got me into radio, if only for the briefest moment. Before my times on air, I was once a kid who’d stay up late and tune into the local college stations. As you may know, those broadcasts are tad more eclectic and loose in their programming. Any college kid working on a broadcast journalism degree, hyped up on coffee, knocked loose on window box weed and powered by a healthy does of misguided musical hubris would only have the gall to spin Miles Davis into the Beastie Boys into the Minutemen into Brian Eno into the drone of an angle grinder. Good times for a geeky, insomniac teen like me. Hell, maybe you, too.

Must’ve been the hour. When the rest of the world had gone to sleep, there I was in the dead of night, ear pressed against the stereo. I mean pressed. The walls of my house were like tissue paper, and if mom or dad heard any noise from my bedroom after midnight, it was inviting a raid, safeties off (they f*cking hated Eno. Must’ve been that second Talking Heads album, them upset by their wrangling of the Al Green tune. Picky, picky). Strange sounds from the radio entered my brain, and I was entranced how these weird college kids got away with playing what they did, saying what they said. It was a far cry from how the local Top 40 station conducted itself. Me being cracked in the head, hard up and quite tired of—if ever awake to—Ace Of Base, the mumblings of these ne’er-do-wells and the odd tunes they played was nothing less than a revelation.

Wait. That’s not quite right. Not a revelation. An obsession. Late at night these voice wafted froth from my stereo and I often wondered where they came from. I knew a studio. I ain’t that dinged in the head (not quite). Just who were these folks and what was their damage? Did they really consider their audience, or did they just babble hoping their music selections and the random errata that only endlessly cracked cans of PBR could coax? Yeah, yeah. Both, I know. Still, got me to wonder.

Fast forward a lifetime. It was my custom (and still is) to tune into the radio for my morning shower. Rest assured I do bathe, almost daily. Sometimes I even use soap. Amidst my sudsing up, I get my news and the odd rhythms that being up well before sunrise provide. A habit from back in the day, when my day began at 1 PM and my aim was to scrub the alcohol-soaked sins of the night away. I got sick of the commercial stations, buffeting my stinging ears with that week’s American Idol caterwauling. I decided on bleary day that, f*ck it, I was gonna tune down to way left of the dial and scroll up until I found a decent playlist, something that stank of my adolescent midnights with the stereo and the angle grinder.

I didn’t have to go far.

One click above the the butt end of the FM buzz I struck upon a really decent pop tune, by some artist I didn’t know. It was an earnest, sunny song recalling summer and picnics, but not cloying. It was decidedly not Ace Of Base. The sphincter loosened. It was followed by that jaunty Beatles song “Drive My Car” and flowed naturally. That piano vamp and Ringo’s cowbell (if you yell “More cowbell!” after reading that you are a dick) really brightened my shower. I even flossed in the tub. Between my toes, mind you. I ain’t that weird.

Needless to say, I tuned into that curious station everyday from then on (BTW, the sunny song I spoke of I later learned was Sam Roberts’ “Every Part Of Me” from his We Were Born In A Flame album. Yes, I own the thing. Now. Duh). Everyday that station had a different host, and with their personality came reflecting songs. The show was (is) called The Blend, on WDIY FM 88.1, Lehigh Valley’s Community Radio station. I was entranced, both by the eclectic variety of rock, blues and obscura that got spun, but also the voices of the folks on the other end of the mic. Reminded me of those blissful, lonely nights again, securing trip wires five feet from my bedroom door (that Heads cover was awesome, by the by. My folks were just Al Green purists is all. They liked basketball a lot).

One fateful broadcast, the folks at WDIY let out a casting call. Volunteers to be on air programmers (again, the more pro term for deejays. Radio folks deem the title as a pejorative, reserved for guys still donned in Jncos and spinning Skrillex at 11 for sweaty chicks saturated with ecstasy. The drug, not the rapture. Maybe both actually). They needed capable bodies who knew music. Against my lukewarm receptions at karaoke nights and my unfeasible record collection, I think I might’ve met the requirements. What the hell. Play music? On the radio? Where those voices came from? Ha ha ha. The source! I called immediately.

The long and the short of it was I spent five years on the air as the Friday host of The Blend. Nate, your friend in The Blend, Eeyore On Prozac was my handle. Well, I thought it was clever, and partially accurate. I got to see how the sausage was made. I got to spin my tunes as well as exposed to more new music than any sane person should. Day one when I met with the operations manager Neil (the man behind the curtain), my position was secured by the two massive CD wallets of endless mix discs that served as my resume. Neil was a Sham 69 fan, and the handshake cliched the position.

Everything old, new, borrowed and blue was The Blend’s tagline. And there I was, one of the voices, playing all sorts of eclectic sh*t both within and outside my comfort zone. I learned to be cagey. As a listener, I hated how commercial programmers seemed to be in love with their own voices. They’d talk and talk, interrupting every third song for either a plug or a wisecrack. Some would always, always yak over the instrumental intro to a song before the mandatory station ID. Imagine the speedy prattle over Jimmy Page’s delicate guitar work on “Stairway To Heaven” before Robert Plant tells us about a lady she knows. Yeah, that. Puke. I did not tune in to hear that voice. I tuned in for the songs and either the hazy or witty repartee from the programmer without intruding on the music.

I know, right?

I kept it brief. The best part of left-of-the-dial radio after the music by the unscripted dialogue from the programmers. Those distant voices. I learned from my late nights tuning in. Keep it short, or at least interesting. My ultimately goal was to jam in 50 songs within the three-hour running time of The Blend. The closest I ever got was 47. Commercial stations can barely squeeze in 20 songs within a single hour, what with the ads and blathering from the DJs’ irritable colon. Not I. Barring station identification (mandated by those fun folks at the FCC), I kept my on air babble along the curve of Mel Gibson’s lines in The Road Warrior. I understood there was a voice necessary to tether the show, but based on my experiences it was far better to speak frankly at the right moments for the right reasons.

My laconic sensibilities once proved fruitful. Once. I got a kind email of appreciation from a fan, thanking me for airing some fresh tracks from the then new Belle & Sebastian album. She told me she always tuned in to my show to accompany her studies at a local college. She also appreciated the brevity of my demanded on air spiel. Short and simple, just say enough to get out there and onto the next track.

But that was it during my five-year stint as Eeyore On Prozac at WDIY. One casual, friendly blurb. It was the lone letter of gratitude I ever got from a fan for my efforts, meager as they were. Once more a naivety let me down. Folks out there weren’t as interested in the voices as much as I was. Or as I hoped. Still, I did consider who might be out there, tuning in, and what they were getting out of listening. There is an entire human audience out there in radio listener land. I kept thinking about who might be on the receiving end. A single email from a fan was all I knew.

I guess the voices didn’t travel as far as I thought.

More like heard…

Gabriel Noone (Williams) tells stories. He’s an on air broadcaster at WNYH, telling tales and spinning yarns for the proud few that tune in. On the radio, his tales are a warm comfort for the millions of silent ears out there in listener land. At home…well, Gabe’s having a bit of it leaving work at work.

What else is leaving? His boyfriend Jess (Cannavale), has had his fill of Gabe’s woolgathering and increasing distance. Theirs was once a nurturing relationship. Turned out Jess being HIV positive and Gabe’s total sensitivity to all that entailed only went so far. Jess didn’t want to be a terminal pity case, and Gabe with his Florence Nightingale syndrome something had to give.

What didn’t give was Gabe’s drive for sympathy to others. Misguided sympathy to be sure, but akin to his endless firesides on the microphone, keenly aware of the audience out there listening. Out there it matters to someone, the tales he tells.

Turns out he has a fan.

One day Gabe’s publishing agent friend Ashe (Morton) presents him with an unsolicited manuscript of a bio from some abused kid. Quite the fan of Gabe’s radio show Ashe assures him. He thumbs through the pages and a dull-burning spark licks the embers of his brain. Here’s a kid who’s a real head case. He needs a friend. Later phone correspondence proves this true. The boy’s caretaker Donna (Colette) tells him of the boy’s dire circumstances, and the illness that is killing him. Out comes the apocryphal plea:

“It would mean a lot if he could meet you.”

Screw it. Jess is gone. The on air audience is hiding. Here’s an opportunity to get in touch with a true listener. Someone who gives a real sh*t about what Gabe’s been sending out forever.

In kind, the man sets out for forever. He may never get back…

This was a tricky watch. By tricky I mean, “What the f*ck?”

I was merely confused and a bit bored with the first act. Only later I didn’t know what the f*ck was up. Later still I wanted to kick the screen in for the movie cheating me. No, I didn’t enjoy The Night Listener. I tried to. My resolve ain’t broken that quickly (except around mint chocolate chip ice cream). It was a long ride to not enjoy The Night Listener. Took some attention, though.

Watching Night was like waiting for tea to brew. Iced tea. You know. Dunk those speciality teabags in cold water and let them do their duty, slowly. Gradually the water turns brown and murky over a few hours, not like hot tea. That stuff’s immediate. Five minutes and boom: chai for your gullet. Ice tea takes a lot longer. And solar tea? Break out your dusty copy of War And Peace. Christ, just pop a bottle of Snapple already.

Despite Night being a relatively short movie (hour twenty to be exact), the waters got brown and murky pretty fast. The plot was wobbly and the execution fractured enough to be baffling instead of intriguing as I suppose director Stettner intended. It was handily directed, though, albeit in a hurried fashion. As well as in an unsophisticated fashion. This was a mystery film like an onion; many layers to peel away. Those layers just weren’t pared down in a considerate fashion. We brewed a pot of hot tea here and the bags tore.

Some specifics. The key issue I had with Night: that nagging feeling that this had been done before. I dismantled Flightplan years ago. There’s a touch of The Sixth Sense here. Hitchcock’s unimpeachable Rear Window gets ransacked by Night. Little girl lost. Someone who was never there. Was there a crime at all? Dribs and drabs from psychological thrillers of yore, sprinkled over the muddle here. Homage or rip-off? You figure it out. I couldn’t. Ultimately, I think it was ignorance on the director’s behalf of how to pull this thing off that made this crap come off the rails.

We can thank the interesting cast for trying to keep Night on track. I’ve always considered Williams in dramatic roles almost always more satisfying than his comedic ones (think The Fisher King or even Good Will Hunting. Stop groaning; he did get an Oscar for that thing). His Gabe is a haunted, desperate character. He appears useless, dismissed. Lonesome. Not lonely, mind you. All alone with himself, despite people seemingly concerned for his well being. There was a disconnect; Gabe’s fragility belies a need to be wanted. His quest to help the invalid child—which may or may not exist, in Gabe’s mind or otherwise—we could follow a futile search. Williams’ timorous delivery and an appearance of massive insecurity clinched a convincing angst. Best stuff in the whole film I think. Better than the copycat plot.

An aside: I’d probably be remiss in my duties to not mention that Williams was in recovery, owing up to a crippling addiction to booze while filming Night. One could only wonder if the anxiety his Gabe delivered on screen was magnified under the strain of rehab. Not The Method I would want to use in fleshing out a character. Worked though.

Anyway, most of the rest of the cast also stood well by Williams’ performance. Joe Morton is a fine character actor. Always a cool customer, even after Sarah Connor blew out his arm (run through your cinematic mental Rolodex, people. Does anyone even use, let alone know what a Rolodex is these days?). Morton is the the only actor I know of that gets younger every successive film he’s in, and his natural energy is always snappy and warm. His Ashe might’ve gotten Gabe into his mess, his somewhat casual passive-aggressiveness almost appealing to Gabe’s neurosis, the impetus for Gabe’s decline.  Morton didn’t get a lot of screen time, but he made the best of it.

However (and there’s always at least one here), not every member of the decent cast was actually cast well. Toni Colette is a fine actress, almost always in roles demanding a left-of-center kind of aesthetic. She’s pretty solid. But you know what she’s not good at? Hamming it up. Her Donna was a low-rent version of Kathy Bates’ performance as the demented Annie Wilkes in Misery. It was pretty apparent at the outset that Donna was a wingnut, always changing her story, vague in her motives and just as desperate as Gabe to be needed. The only difference with Colette was a lack of subtlety against Williams sober (so to speak) performance. It’s far better to be an antagonist that doesn’t twirl their mustache. Or failure to see.

Night attempted to be creepy, but with a soft sell. It’s a stalker film, but in reverse. We’re never sure who’s listening to whom, and what their quarry is. Is this a film about obsession really? If so, over what? All those things are peppered throughout the movie, making it a confusing melange of old mystery tropes that Stettner either clearly was dedicated to, or completely oblivious to Hitchcock’s work and every damn stereotype in a psycho thriller. His parents must be so proud.

I walked away with a dissatisfied feeling in my tummy. I kept asking myself “What’s going on here?” Being convoluted does not a convincing mystery make. Night was like either an early Cluster album and/or a Danielle Steele bestseller: very little to hold on to. We learned Gabe was grasping at straws, trying to establish sense against both his fractured mind and uncovered odd circumstances. That much was certain. But the “what the hell for?” aspect was either screamingly cliche or way too murky to appreciate. Like so much dingy hot tea.

Too much was going on to follow, despite the short running time. Then again, too little was flopping about, too, like the running time was a stopwatch. Night was a confusing, unpleasant mess. Nothing lined up. Mysteries should not bewilder. Confound maybe. But not leave you scratching your head come credits time like lice were feeding directly on your cerebral cortex. Especially if you got hoodwinked as to the real purpose of the show.

Night was an example of what I entertained back in my radio days. Someone out there heard me. Maybe they cared. A voice on the wing managing to connect. I didn’t get no invisible, sickly, junior writers describing their abuse with sounds, feathers, so much lube and bacon on inappropriate parts.

Might’ve been cool, though. On both fronts.

Hey. Was that Cluster bit too far reaching? Go hear the album then, you philistine. Yay angle grinders!

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Not surprisingly, relent it. I think I’m getting sick of derivative psychological thrillers. I’m also getting sick of chicken. For real. They have a tendency to explode when I f*ck them. Duct tape, folks. Always duct tape. That and don’t watch this movie.

Stray Observations…

  • Pirandello Press, percursor of the Theatre Of The Absurd. English degree. You’re welcome.
  • “Do you have to make everything filthy?”
  • Denial is denial, not matter which way you swing (I should’ve worked for Hallmark).
  • “Go play with Tiny Tim!” Tiptoe…
  • I can’t remember a Hollywood take on a May/November relationship—gay or straight—that wasn’t rotten with stereotypes. And these guys were a couple, really?
  • “It’s a hideous way to promote a bank.”
  • Admittedly, Colette made for a convincing blind person from what I saw (so to speak. Ha!).
  • “You’ve done something for flight attendants?”

Next Installment…

Bradley Cooper is a strung-out, Burnt-out chef, desperately searching out a few old recipes from the Silver Linings Cookbook to get his life back in order. Excelsior!

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 36: Jody Hill’s “Observe And Report” (2009)


The Players…

Seth Rogen, Anna Faris, Ray Liotta and Michael Peña, with Collette Wolfe, John Yuan, Matthew Yuan, Patton Oswalt, Jesse Plemmons and Aziz Ansari.

The Story…

“All the animals come out at night…”

Wait, that’s another story. It’s during the day when the freaks come out to terrorize shoppers at the Forest Ridge Mall. It’s up to bumbling mall cop Ronnie to keep the food court secure and free of vandals, flashers and thieves. He does the best he can, which ain’t too much. His misguided self-importance gets in the way of his duties a lot. That and the belief the hot chick at the make-up counter would ever give him the time of day.

But never mind that. Vandals, flashers and thieves have infiltrated Ronnie’s turf. This means war. And he’s not gonna let any legit cops get in the way of his righting right. By any means possible.

Including Hoverboards. The thieves might’ve gotten away on Hoverboards.

The Rant…

Let’s be perfectly clear on this matter: I’ve never believed in the Oxford comma.

Whew. Glad we got that out of the way. Onwards!

One of my fave films in my all-time, top ten is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (“You talkin’ to me?”). It’s a classic, even to people who’ve never even seen the dang thing, so saturated it’s become in our collective pop cultural landscape. But to be fair, for those who haven’t seen it (fools), here’s the premise: Travis Bickle is an antisocial, emotionally unstable cabbie who can’t relate with anyone. He gets it into his head that if he can complete a quixotic mission to rid the city of filth, he will become self-actualized. And get the unattainable girl. Something like that. There’s a lot of violence and violence, too. Well worth watching.

Taxi Driver was the ur-antihero movie. What I mean by that is there were plenty of films prior where the “hero” toed a very fine line within their role and how to reach their goals. Most of the time it was an “ends justify the means” kinda outlook. The antihero could be just as dangerous as the villians. Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” in the Dollars trilogy. Charles Bronson in the first Death Wish movie. Hell, even later on with Mad Max: The Road Warrior, it got kinda tricky to root for the home team where there was no place to lay one’s head as home. Please refer to your Metallica fake book for further answers.

In light of my 40 years on this planet, after watching 40,000 plus movies (give or take 39,000) I can’t immediately recall an antihero movie to be silly. So obviously goofy an execution that any audience would be hard-pressed to take the demented, clownish antihero seriously. Sure, there’s always been humor—albeit dark and perhaps unintentional—in these kind of movies. I cite The Road Warrior again: the marauders dressed like rejects from a combo cabaret/Wes Craven/bondage festival ravaging the Aussie Outback? Were they menacing because they were generally scary, or so over the top ludicrous you just had sit back, say, “It is what it is” and go with it? Maybe a bit of both. Still, not overtly silly.

Another good example (by my standards, which are very flexible don’cha know) of humor penetrating and otherwise gritty melodrama? Escape From New York. We know the film’s delivery is pretty honky tonk, which is unintentionally funny, but the only gag meant as a gag was the one-liner, “I thought you were dead.” The rest of the time is Kurt Russell shooting, stabbing and limping his way along the wastes of Manhattan. Not many giggles, few and far between. At least on purpose.

But wait, blogger! You forgot about antiheroes like Han Solo and even Frank Drebin from The Naked Gun series! They weren’t dark and dangerous! You forgot to floss too! Broccoli! Gross! Both that and their movies had plenty of humor! Huh? How’s that, huh? Who’s dead, Kent? Who’s dead?

Calm down. And it’s spinach, you dolts. And like I said unintentional humor. Han and Frank were  scruffy and incompetent, respectively. Not necessarily malicious or menacing like Clint, Max and Snake were. Within that context (and giving the raison d’être for this week’s debacle. Not the movie. Maybe this scribble. Pick and choose) this week’s installment examines an antihero in a lighter take of another antihero movie. Observe And Report is a comedy, never fear, but it’s also—

Wait, wait. Hang on. Y’know what? Let’s save that extended commentary for a little later on, post-apocalyptic Australian bikers at my ass be damned.

Fair dinkum…?

There’s something rotten at the Forest Ridge Mall, and it’s not the moldering crap in the China King’s dumpster. Well, it’s not just that.

Rent-a-cop Ronnie (Rogen) has sworn to protect his mall and its patrons at any cost. He might’ve sworn too much. No vermin is gonna invade his territory of pristine Orange Julius’, Sharper Images and even that annoying Saddamn (Ansari). No vagrants, no delinquents and no thieves allowed.

Oops on the last one.

Someone’s been knocking over store after store under Ronnie’s nose, clearing out thousands of dollars of merch in shoes, jewelry and George Forman grills. This don’t look good for Ronnie’s rep, nor his job security. The general manager figures he better call in the pros; a team of actual cops, headed by the irascible Detective Harrison (Liotta). And Harrison is not gonna let a loser mall cop with delusions of grandeur muck up his investigation. Things don’t look so hot for Ronnie.

But what does look hot to Ronnie? That babe Brandi (Faris) at the makeup counter. Too bad all his meager efforts fail to get her attention. She won’t go on a date with our schlumpy, mildly unhinged Ronnie. He gets it into his head that if can nab the perpetrators himself—maybe even become a cop in his own right—he could score with Brandi. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Oops. What about that perv? Guy’s running around showing more c*ck than a henhouse.

Ronnie’s got a busy week ahead of him…

Here’s the painful truth about this week’s movie. Ready?

Observe And Report is Taxi Driver. For real.

*gasps from the peanut gallery, empty beer cans at the ready*

Hold on there. I am saying Report‘s a comedy. A rather bleak and dark comedy, but a funny film nonetheless. However it is Taxi Driver also. Consider the parallels:

Our hero is unhinged, socially awkward, racist and has delusions of grandeur of cleaning up the creeps that rove into his job. He’s obsessed with both the unattainable girl and stopping the criminals, both may serve a singular need. When all that falls through and he snaps, he ends up rescuing a wayward female and finds a feeling of worth and/or redemption. It’s all rather open-ended, however.

Now. Are we talking about Ronnie Barnhardt or Travis Bickle? Flip a coin.

More parallels in specific: Ronnie and Travis are obsessed with blondes named Brandi and Betsy, respectively who spurn them. Ronnie and Travis pop pills to keep their impulses in check (to no avail). Ronnie comes to the aid of Nell, an sweet-natured, injured girl who’s treated unfairly by her boss. Such is a la Taxi’s pimp Sport taking advantage of his naive charge Iris, played by a very young Jodie Foster  later reduced by Travis (BTW, “Nell” was the name of one of Foster’s movie roles. Just saying). More comparisons can be made.

Report‘s plot is virtually identical to Taxi. They’re two sides of the same coin, to be sure. And, no, Report is neither a rip-off nor outright plagiarism. I didn’t know if director Hill and his crew were paying homage or subconsciously channeling Travis. I’m not sure it was either, but the argument via comparisons can be made in the affirmative. The antihero vibe is there, as this movie is indeed an antihero movie. It’s a black comedy, too, but who says our lead can’t be demented and funny as well?

*”Where’s he going with this? I got a roast in the oven.”*

I’m saying we’re going back to the silly antihero theme, which is few and far between in movie land. Report is both madcap and dark, stupid funny and aggravating, off kilter and subtly disturbing. It’s like watching an ep of The Monkees minus the innocence and music and plus blue language, violence and waaay to many full frontal dick shots. Madcap. Even from the Coen-esque intro we know we’re in for a surreal and crass ride. Again, dick shots. It’s been said what audiences remember most about a film is the opening and the ending. Report‘s got your attention at the outset and sure does set the tone of the film, so be warned. Beyond this point there be dragons. And flashers.

This was the first Rogen vehicle that didn’t fair too well at the box office. The critics were pretty divided, also. Report fell quite comfortably into The Standard’s territory, which is weird. Since his ascent in Hollywood as the reliable buffoon, Rogen’s mostly done no wrong. Until now. Report was his first movie to lose money at the cineplex. Uh-oh. I think I know why. And it wasn’t for too much (wait for it) dicking around, either.

Ronnie is nuts. His is a sad case. It’s cringe-inducing to witness his conduct, his cluelessness, his about to snap. I’m thinking the guy’s core fan base (mostly frat boys I’d wager. Then again I was a frat boy back in the day. We only had Rob Schneider as an option, the poor man’s Sandler. Yes, I did write that) didn’t know what to make of their hero’s…antiheroics. Rogen the endless quip machine as assh*le. As nut job. As disturbing. Not the flavor in Columbus, despite it was some of the best actual acting the man has ever done. We’re supposed to like Ronnie, root for him. It’s not an easy task.

Actual acting. Rogen can’t act. Sorry to pop your bubble. It’s true. Oh sure, he’s funny, a one man Jerry Lewis movie tempered with the charm of the Three Stooges on a blind date with their cousins funny. But he only acts as Rogen, take it or leave it. If he’s not careful, his agent will doom him to being himself up to when the heart attack hits, maybe four more hits into his contract. Seemed to me that Rogen tried to stretch himself here in Report. Perhaps a bit too much for the mainstream media vultures. Um, fans. I meant fans. Smells like his fans didn’t go along for the ride with Ronnie. Not enough Paul Blart, I guess.

Which is too bad (not the missing Blart bit), because Rogen really did apply himself here. There was his usual histrionics, yes, and very much welcome by yours truly. But I also liked the creeping menace Ronnie was dragging behind him, not unlike—you guessed it—our favorite cabbie Travis. A good example of Ronnie blowing his cool in his usual slapdash manner is the scene where he comes to Nell’s “rescue,” which is redolent of the shootout in Taxi. Before Ronnie goes off pop, you can see him mulling over what to do next. It’s acting you seldom see Rogen do, and it was lost on the masses. A shame really.

I didn’t intend for this installment to pick apart Rogen’s performance, but already dropping Taxi Driver a million and a half times here it didn’t feel necessary to go into Report‘s finer details. All I can say about that is the film was good. A bit creaky at times, until you figure out where the whole thing is going, but still funny in the endgame. Also funny if you view the movie’s humor as a thickly disguised veneer covering the fact that our goofy, silly antihero character is crazy and willfully unaware of how dangerous he could be in different circumstances. Like becoming an actual cop. Shiver.

I know. Heavy sh*t for your almost run-of-the-mill Seth Rogen film. He ain’t gonna win any Oscars for his performance, and critical respect is but a parsec away, but it was kinda cool to see the guy act as well as be funny. Such things are possible in our impatient culture of gnat-like attention spans.

Rogen acts. Huh. Go figure.


Hey! I just got pig sh*t on my shirt! And it fell from the sky!

Ah well, maybe a real rain will come down and wash the filth—

*incoming beer cans*

Whaddya want me to say?!? “That’ll do pig?”

Barbarians. Where’s my truncheon?

The Verdict:

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a cleverly disguised black comedy. Most folks didn’t get it. Doubts even here if they ever would. Just never confuse stupid with stupid. And that’s one to grow on.

Stray Observations…

  • Did Rogen actually gain  weight for this role?
  • “You’re just drunk, mom.”
  • “My dick is brown, you dumb motherf*cker!”
  • It sounds as if Morphine did the soundtrack. Amazing since their bass player has been dead for over a decade.
  • “Good luck with the crack.”
  • WE ACCEPT. Get it?
  • I once knew a guy who was so hard up to be a cop. He applied twice to the academy and tanked; lousy on admission, which is code for “unfit.” He also often spoke unfavorably about non-Whites. Wonders abound why he didn’t pass.
  • “I party like this only every four to six hours.”
  • The wifey loved this flick, “every inch of it.” I know this from being awakened by her cackles of joy against my Resperidone induced slumber. That’s how funny it was. Wish I was awake for the third act.
  • “Gotta get back to work.”

Next Installment…

Any responsible radio host must be mindful about what they say on the air. Robin Williams should be exceptionally careful. Who knows what The Night Listener hears when he tunes in to his show?