RIORI Vol 3, Installment 65: James Mangold’s “Identity” (2003)



The Suspects…

John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, John C McGinley, John Hawkes, Clea DuVall and Rebecca DeMornay, with Jake Busey, William Lee Scott, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Bret Loehr and Alfred Molina.

The Story

Ten strangers find themselves stranded at a remote desert motel during a raging storm a million miles from nowhere. They soon find themselves the target of a deranged murderer, and any one of them could be the killer. As their numbers thin out, the travelers turn on each other rather than trying to figure out who the real killer is.

The Rant…

Everybody loves a mystery. You ever take a moment as to ask why?

Is it your curiosity being piqued? The thrill of discovery? Nabbing the bad guy? Finally locating the lost TV remote (it was in the freezer, and that pint of Ben & Jerry’s you grabbed in a drunken haze is under the couch. Was)?

One of the best examples of illustrating the appeal of a mystery I caught—surprisingly—on an ep of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the cold open we learn that Captain Picard is mucking about on the holodeck, playing detective. He’s invited his friend Guinan to join him, since she expressed interest in what the appeal is humans see in solving a mystery.

They find themselves at gunpoint by some digitally-rendered tough promising hurt, demanding info on whatever. Suddenly a shot smashes through the window and the thug goes down. Picard is excited, much to Guinan’s confusion. She asks what’s next, and he asks who was this guy? What did he want? Why was his trying to kill us?

Picard lays it out, “We have to look for clues!”

Guinan asks, “And that’s fun?”

Picard grins and says, “And that’s fun.”

There is your geek-out moment for the day.

*takes small bow*

Forgetting the fact that Sir Patrick Stewart teamed up with Whoopi Goldberg to solve a murder in holographic, VR 1940’s San Francisco (there’s your second), that installment of ST:TNG was right. What’s the fun of a mystery, besides (hopefully) solving it? The thrill of the hunt. Pitting your wits against the quarry. See what you’re made of. Some guy has been killed. Whodunit? You up to the challenge, Sherlock?

By extension mystery movies are fun for the same reason, duh. It’s not like in reality, where detectives have a crime to crack, sure. A murder, theft, missing person, where their tub of Cherry Garcia got to, etc. With the real cops there’s a lot of pounding the pavement, jockeying the phone and lots and lots of paperwork. Briscoe and Logan made it look intense and fun, and you didn’t see them much at their desks did you? There were perps out there to shake down, dammit!

As much fun as the original Law & Order could be, the hour-long procedural (50 minutes, actually), barely half of your average episode were given over to the cops sniffing out the guilty party. With a mystery movie you not only get a lot more time to expand on character development, twists and turns, intrigue and do so blissfully devoid of commercial interruption. Speaking of which, how come there’ve never been an Ben & Jerry’s TV ads?

I’ll stop that now.

Time does make the difference. As analog to real life, certain infamous serial killer cases are still open, even years after the killings have ended. The Zodiac Killer, the Alphabet Murders, Jack the Ripper. I’m no forensic scientist, but what’s the sense in this? Okay, maybe the survivor’s have a bone to pick, awaiting closure. These almost-cold case files have been active for decades (and in a certain light, Jack’s conviction has been centuries in the making) to no avail. Why? Because the more time given over to cracking a case the greater the likelihood of it happening. In simpler term, tackle a mystery over a continuum permits more “study.”

Character study, psychological study, even a study of setting. Stretch it out, stir the pot and the mystery gets drawn out. In a good way. In a good mystery movie there must be room to breathe, space to let us buffs round up the usual suspects, take in as many clues as possible and time to cogitate what the blue f*ck’s going on. You gotta mull it all over in more that the almost half hour Dennis Farina and Michael Imperioli had.

Another key aspect of a good mystery flick—as demonstrated in the holodeck microcosm—is you should keep the setting tight. Small. Confined. Almost a character unto itself. It cuts away the distractions, the fat. The clunky mysteries I got subjected to often had this sprawling tableau. Fletch (which was really more a comedy with the mystery chewy center) wandered everywhere, from LA to Provo, UT. The Forgotten (which rambled on and on, despite the cool premise). Final Analysis (quit bumbling all over Boston Town). You get the idea.

Here’s when the isolation worked, almost to transcendent levels. Rear Window (Jimmy Stewart’s dumpy apartment and a trusty pair of binocs). Murder On The Orient Express (it’s a train, dummy). Memento (Guy Pearce’s bloody mind). It keeps us cinema detective focused; on the case, as it were.

The final key to a good mystery movie is an eclectic rogue’s gallery. In virtually every notable mystery flick we got us a freakin’ tossed salad as supporting cast. Again, Rear Window was a good example. The goofy Murder By Death and Clue were populated by real rogue’s galleries, despite both being parodies. The Usual Suspects was a given. The mishmash of disparate personalities keeps you guessing as to—you guessed it—whodunit.

That being said, Identity follows this formula to a T. We got a timeline to try and follow. We got an isolated scene of the crime. We got our weirdos. So the movie must’ve played out in classic fashion, and you kept guessing and scratching your head for the duration, right?

Well…let’s step onto the holodeck, shall we…?

Not much happens at Larry Washington’s (Hawkes) lonesome motor lodge. He’s planted in the middle of the Nevada desert, just south of nowhere. Like the Paul Simon song says: it’s a long, lonely life.

That is, until the storm hits.

Down the road apiece, nervous George (McGinley) and his family’s ride has a flat. He and his wife go out into the driving rain to inspect the damage, which is when George’s wife gets hit by Ed’s (Cusack) limo hauling fussy, near washed up actress Caroline Suzanne (DeMornay). She demands Ed leave it as a hit and run. Nothing doing. George’s wife is in mortal peril and needs help. A hospital beckons.

Too bad all the roads are washed out. Looks life Larry’s motel beckons instead.

Upon arrival Ed and crew meet with surly Detective Rhodes (Liotta) tasked to escorting violent criminal Robert Maine (Busey), all grinning and nuts. Faulty newlyweds Ginny (DuVall) and Lou (Scott), whose bickering belies a deeper problem. Paris (Peet) the hooker, who’s either on the run or planning to “get lucky” in Sin City. Now thanks to impartial Mother Nature all of them are stuck with Larry’s hospitality for the night.

But the night is not still in the desert, despite the rain.

Paraphrasing Keanu, strange things are afoot at Larry’s motor lodge.

Caroline’s desperate to calling her agent in LA. She scrambles out into the brush trying to find better reception for her cell phone. Then she ends up in one of the motel’s dryers, not choosing to do laundry, let alone find the rest of her body.

Great. We got a killer on our hands. Where’s Maine at?

He escaped the cuff attached to the plumbing only to find himself literally chewing on death.

What about Rhodes, his escort? He’s got a habit of disappearing.

And what the hell’s in Larry’s freezer?

It’s murder by numbers. One, two, three.

All apologies to Sting…

Identity is a modern day, B-movie, Hitchcock pastiche. This is not a bad thing. In fact, such a mish-mash makes the flick kinda fun. Kinda.

Like I said above, Identity has all the hallmarks of your classic—albeit simple, if not formulaic—mystery movie. Admittedly, the film’s story was lifted from the Agatha Christie classic And Then There Were None. But again this book was caged more times than a shoplifter rampant in a Wal-Mart populated by blind sales reps so let’s give that a pass, shall we? Identity is a classic but hackneyed story played out already a dozen times over. We’ll give that a pass, too. Hell, if it’s a formula that works, roll with it. Like I’ve been fond of saying regarding a film’s originality, it’s like the blues: it’s not the notes, it’s how they’re played.

Despite Mangold being a solid director, he’s probably also a tad tone deaf. At least here.

Now. Either the guy was a total rip-off artist and hack with Identity, or f*cking brilliant in the movie’s delivery. At the outset the movie’s intro smacks of something, but it just might be every mystery movie ever made needed to introduce our future victims, yet just twistedly cheezy enough to keep you watching. Mangold sets the stakes fast, if a bit comically. Of course nothing is as it seems to be, within the story and without. The tension and intrigue begins to pile on, but in such a ramshackle fashion you’re not as to take it seriously or find it all laughable. Maybe Identity‘s supposed to be seriously laughable, I dunno. Middle America’s vote is still out on this one.

Keeping in mind The Standard (which we haven’t kept in mind for a coon’s age) dictates an assignment due to mixed reviews, Identity is the first flick here to deliver mixed signals. Messages, even. Here’s a way to twist the whole Ten Little Indians dynamic: troll the audience. I ain’t talking twists and turns here. I’m talkin’ playing on the audiences’ expectation. Tomfoolery over intrigue. Tugging your coat rather than planting seeds. In simpler terms: nyah nyah nyah.

It’s kinda cool in a way. Really.

I’ve seen other Mangold’s movies (including The Wolverine, which was covered here. He did a good job, and his latest Wolverine installment Logan is getting rave reviews) and he does above average yeoman’s work. He’s a journeyman director, like Richard Donner or Alan Smithee.

*pause for effect*

And the man’s pedigree is a varied one. We can go from Walk The Line to Knight And Day in a single breath, and go along with it with a tenuous grin. I mean, “Oh sh*t, where are we going?” There’s a difference (but very slight) between winking at the audience and tying the string around their loose tooth. Oddly, both often have the same effect.

So which side of the coin clattered down with Identity? We land on the edge, my popcorn-addled flock. Mangold is no doubt trolling us here, but it’s done in spite of ourselves. We know where we’re going here. We know that any one of these dweebs could be the killer, especially since motive is absent (that a spoiler?). We expect twists and turns to obfuscate the killer’s identity.We have established tension, but it’s a tad weak, and you could see it all coming. Yet we didn’t expect to find Caroline’s REDACTED. Most murder mysteries ain’t so graphic nor wink-wink, nudge-nudge in the same breath. Here’s a cute sample of Mangold f*cking with us, but not necessarily messing with our mind. Not outright. It’s the comic booky fun at work with Identity.

Identity is kind of chimera. An idle fancy. It’s as if Mangold asked himself, “How far can I stretch the audience’s suspension of belief?” It’s a puzzle, not a mystery. Identity is a Rubik’s Cube, not a chess board. It’s obviously inspired by Christie, but also Rashomon; the story is slick and slippery. You can’t get a tack. Mangold relies on trickery rather than intrigue. There’s a kind of goofiness to the movie. That B-movie flavor I alluded to above. Despite the dire stakes, some madman (or men) skulking around offing Larry’s guests, there’s a cardboard cheesiness lurking just below the surface. It has the feeling of formula, yet dodges it. Admittedly, I have to dig that.

And, doy, I gotta address our dramatis personae. We’ve got the best ensemble cast here that I’ve seen in a long time. At first, these actors have no business whatsoever sharing screen time together. Later we understand that anyone could be the killer; they’re all stereotypes after all. But again with the blues. For example, I often forget how protean Cusack can be, despite his comic bent. Liotta is so good at being mad. Hey, Peet can act (color me surprised)! DeMornay’s still alive (not for long here, ha ha) and is still hot! And McGinley set aside his desperate sarcastic schtick for being desperate and period. Okay, Busey is still weird, but still our cast is so colorful it gives us a little sugar to go down with the urine. Yeah, there’s a game afoot, but someone lost the instructions.

That lack of solid misdirection in Identity, paired with Mangold’s cagey direction makes this goofy murder mystery all the more sweet, if only barely palatable. The film insults our intelligence, yet you feel you gotta go along with it. What I’ve been pummeling for the past lifetime is thus: a good movie mystery can adhere to all the rules I laid out before, misstep and still be entertaining with the right director lording over a mediocre story. Better than the sum of its parts? I don’t know. Half the movie’s parts are stuck in transit from eBay with Identity.

The best thing I feel about Mangold’s direction and therefore Identity‘s atmosphere is that it never takes itself too seriously. It straddles the ridiculous. It has a steady, creepy funny vibe. A combo seldom found in anything Miss Marple ever unraveled. Even the big reveal is laughable, as if, “Oh James, you got us. Pop the balloons.” He got us all right. The finale is such a joke you’ll slap your head in disgust for falling into his trap. For following along. Going with it. D’oh!

Identity is a clear sample of having the joke on you. I might’ve overplayed my hand here. I had to be careful and select my words very carefully to not give away the progression of the mystery. And it wasn’t truly a mystery, either. It was a shuck and jive, and the attentive audience kept looking for a partner at the junior high dance. You’re better off glued to the wall, watching the few, brave characters on the floor.

In the end, with Identity connect the dots, erase, suspend what you expect then accept it, slap your head and laugh and then get pissed for being hoodwinked. It’s a good waste of time.

Just leave Larry’s freezer alone.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Never have I laughed so hard at myself for taking a murder mystery seriously. The mystery is really, “Why the f*ck did you watch this? For DeMornay’s boobies?” Uh, yeah.

Stray Observations…

  • “Did you feel that?” Kinda cheesy, but it worked.
  • Even for 2003, that’s an awful big cell phone there.
  • “I wish I had beige.”
  • This mess is like a murderous Gilligan’s Island on crack.
  • “I am very f*cking calm!”
  • Mangold indeed shows his strengths here, well put to his Wolverine movies.
  • “I don’t know if I’m comfortable with guard duty, per se.”
  • Kinda glad George got his. He got quite annoying quite fast.
  • “We’re all in Nevada.”
  • Does Cusack ever age?
  • “Yeah.”
  • So after all that’s said and done Malcolm is truly in the middle?

Next Installment…

Who would’ve know Mike Judge’s Idiocracy would prove so prescient so fast? Ask Putin (burn!).

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 64: Malcolm D Lee’s “Roll Bounce” (2005)


The Players…

Shad “Bow Wow” Moss, Chi McBride, Meagan Good, Kellita Smith, Wesley Johnathan and Nick Cannon, with Khleo Thomas, Rick Gonzalez, Marcus T Paulk, Brandon T Jackson and Jurnee Smollott.

The Story…

X and his buddies dominate their local roller rink with their groovy moves and sweet speed. But when the crew’s home base goes out of business, they have to look for another hangout. What else are they gonna do with the rest of their summer? Jump rope?

Well, there’s that Sweetwater Rink on the other side of town. If they wanna roll, that’s the place to be. And they soon discover a whole new, upscale joint that is the stuff of skaters’ dreams, complete with a high end snack bar, video games, some randy guy renting skates and this master skater dude with his crew who need to be take taken down a peg.

Aww skate skate skate!

 The Rant…

I remember the local roller rink from my youth.

The place looked like a low slung hangar. It screamed mid-70s, and smelled like it, too. Burnt orange carpets surrounding the skate rental. A snack bar that more resembled the slop line at a prison rather than a shiny shiny promising hot pizza. On the perimeter there were tables for birthday parties that smelled like feet and a small video game arcade (I f*cking rocked TimePilot) that also smelled like feet. All of it surrounded by gliding and stuttering pre-pubers and churning teens alike on smooth, gleaming, lacquered maple, slick and slippery for maximum skating speed that I never achieved, clumsy dolt kid I was.

Good times, good times.

Let me reel it back. The first time I roller skated was when I was seven. It was for a b’day party, and on the rink I had the the tendency to cling to the wall like it was the last life preserver on the Titanic. I had all the grace of an asthmatic giraffe, and toppled over like one, too. A lot. I found it terribly unfair. I couldn’t skate. I was bloody seven. I barely had the bike’s training wheels peeled away. I remember equal parts embarrassed and upset with the birthday boy, him a skating whiz and then I a total spazz caroming off the cinder block walls to the latest Michael Jackson single (“Beat It”). I tried to have fun, then TimePilot beckoned. That and the ice cream cake. Those were nice. My skating experience not so much.

Still despite my klutziness I was amazed by all the other skaters, rolling free, making it look easy, sporting cool moves in the middle of the rink as if possessed by Nureyev’s ghost. I wish knew how to hold my balance, because seasoned skaters made it look so fun, so cool, so f*cking effortless. Remember I was suffering from two-wheel envy; eight wheels was akin to deification. Or a source of envy. Pick your poison.

Back when I was seven and stumbling along the rink’s wall I fast learned what freedom was. To move like water. To slide fast. To spin a triple Lutz when I only know such a thing to be a quality potato chip. I was a clumsy arse. I wanted to be so slick. But I was seven. The smack-downs I was often privilege to by the resident elementary school long riders uncovered the mystery as to what happens to a face when it meets the piss puck in your average urinal. It smells like Mountain Dew Code Red, by the way. Being slick was not part of the equation.

My humiliation and frustration on the rink was a keen metaphor for breaking away from the crowd and my humdrum, sometimes pucky existence. Wanna pick up speed? Run, skate, do something. Just don’t sit there. It’s a positive and useful message, but I sucked at skating (did I mention that?) and was unable to reach escape velocity.

A little too deep, like some well-maintained cess pool? Maybe, I dunno. But even since my troubled adventure out on the rink I cringe every time I hear “Beat It.” That’s how sweet I thought roller skating was. Is.

Speaking of sweet…

Set the wayback machine to 1978. Disco. Funk music. Knee high tube socks. Roller skating. Especially roller skating.

Roller skating. The pinnacle of fun and coolness for Xavier “X” Smith (Bow Wow) and his buddies,  motormouthed Junior (Jackson), nerdy Boo (Paulk), hapless Naps (Gonzalez), and Mr Laid-Back Mike (Thomas). Together they are the kings of the Palisades Garden roller rink. And school’s out. It’s summer! What to do, what to do?

Duh, what else. Lace up and go roll and bounce.

Well it’s a short-lived summer. The Garden closed down, and X and his crew has no local joint to roll and bounce. What to do for real?

Junior knows about the new rink on the other side of town, the appealing sounding Sweetwater Rink. It might be a drag to bus it on out to the North Side, but a skater’s gotta do what a skater’s gotta do. So X and his pals—along with the new girl in town, the skating impaired Tori (Smollett)—make their way to Sweetwater. And what a revelation it is.

The joint is swank. Top of the line. High tech sound system. Neon everywhere. Huge rink. X and co feel like small fish in a big pond. No matter. Skating is skating. And no-one is getting in the way of these kids from the wrong side of town having a proper summer.

Well, except maybe the resident ace skater Sweetness (Johnathan) and his buddies. What’s up with these scruffy kids from the South Side? Oh, you think you can skate, do you? Well we got this here Roller Jam Skate-Off coming up. Wanna prove you’re smooth? See you then, suckers.

What a bully. X and his friends aren’t gonna take this challenge lying down. Sweetwater is now just as much their rink as it is Sweetness’. The “Garden Boys” will give him what for.

Just as soon as Naps gets some right sized skates…

Roll Bounce is nostalgia for people who weren’t there. That’s fun.

This movie is kinda like a diet cola, jive Dazed And Confused. Another period piece about high schoolers in the 70’s. Summertime and a quest for truth and fun. No weed or beer in Bounce, but we do have a splendid soundtrack. Donna Summer rocks. So does Bill Withers.

All right, enough gushing. But Bounce does have a lightweight resemblance to Dazed, and Bounce is just as fun. Less heavy navel gazing. And plenty of scenes of sweet humor. Not out of being sappy, mind you. Just a simple breath of fresh air that seems to be lacking in these days’ “coming of age” movies. It doesn’t always have to be terse with an arch message. It can be fluffy and still retain it’s “struggling teens” motif. I’m saying Bounce claims it doesn’t have to be about angst and fear of aging. Sometimes it can be about buddies, girl trouble and trying to have that perfect summer. That being said is where the Dazed comparison ends, maybe barring the eclectic cast.

And the cast is stellar. I know it may sound funny to praise Snoop Dogg’s barely adolescent protege as the ideal representation of everyyouth, but young Bow Wow (who has the best rubbery expressions) truly carries this movie, ably complemented by the smart cast. This is an ensemble piece, and the crazy quilt of the supporting cast buoys Bow Wow’s earnest performance. Okay, and Smollett plays Watson to Bow Wow’s Holmes quite well, too. More on that later. Sit down.

What I liked a lot about the cast is that they often perilously teetered on stereotypes/one note characters that afflict a lot of “coming of age” movies. And I hate that phrase. It sounds all treacly and Hallmark card, and for real, much coming can happen in a single film (not that kind of film, you silly goose), right? From what I’ve seen in COA movies is that the teens come out a little wiser, and maybe the hero gets the girl. Just keep it simple, direct and honest: it’s a f*cking teen film, all right? And thank you. We need fewer experiments in semantics, these days especially. Did you catch inauguration night?

Ahem. Sorry. Tangent. Happens here a lot. Moving on.

Yeah so our cast of characters (and indeed they are) may be old hat (e.g.: the wiseass, the dork, etc), but they funny old hat. It’s amazing what scenarists and casting directors can do with the right actors. That being said, another cool thing with our cast is that they’re really funny. For real, and disarming, too. Almost all the lines come across as improv (and perhaps they were), comfy as these kids’ performances were. It makes a predictable movie interesting. Or at least hold your attention.

I want to get on to the tech stuff for a bit. Of course I do, but fear not I got more to dish about the cast later on.

As I way saying, Bounce is a period piece. Now I’ll admit I could barely walk (let alone skate) when the movie’s story plays out. But that’s kind of the fun of period movies: like I said above, it’s nostalgia for most folks who we’re even there. That and everything is a megadose of the pop culture. If you passively did your homework—absorbed stuff over the years—you can grok to any period flick without ever being there. That is, of course, you let yourself go along with the ride.

Bounce did this effortlessly (not unlike my birthday host did on his skates), and a great deal of this smoothness is thanks to another curious aspect about period pieces: there’s that flood of pop culture touchstones, subtle as neon. Not so with Bounce. Apart from the fashions, hairstyles and tech, this could’ve happened in the backyard of your youth, regardless of the decade.

I feel that most period films—I’m not talking The Age Of Innocence here—like American Graffiti, Forrest Gump and Boogie Nights are broad enough to please people who had “been there, done that.” I don’t mean that in a cynical sense (probably a first here for me). I’m talking about a familiarity in a sort of universal sense, without any homework. Hey, you hadn’t have to been on a shrimp boat to understand Forrest’s motives. I ain’t about the shrimpin’ bidness; it’a about honoring his lost friend’s wishes. We’ve probably all been there and done that at one point in our wasted lives.

Other such films—Fiddler On The Roof, The Sting and American Hustle for example—kinda play out like paging through Thoreau’s Walden, which to me is the ultimate example of “you had to be there” to appreciate it. Now some may scream, “Hey blogger, where’s yer pants?” And after that: “Those other film were comedies (or at least comedic), and who doesn’t like a good laugh? Laughter is infectious. So’s this abbess on my foot, but I don’t feel the need to share that. Sort of.”

True. But the second trio of flicks had comedic elements also. And I’m willing to bet a silk pyjama that no matter how sweet those titles were, it might’ve required some belated stops at Wikipedia to better “get it.” And let’s face it, Hassidic wedding traditions, bunco and the porn industry might, might not be accessible to all. Ever if they’d “been there.”

Whew. That being said and getting back to the rink, the comic elements of Bounce (of which there are many) are universal, and therein lies the appeal even if you can’t skate (neon sign over the blogger’s head. No, I won’t let that go). There’s a bittersweet innocence here, especially when we learn about X’s personal tragedy. Face it folks, and sorry to be so abrupt but as soon as you accept the truth the better we’ll all be for it. Meaning no matter how sunny the plot seems, there’s gotta be some conflict to drive the plot along.

Despite Bounce being a bright movie (and I don’t mean smart), there are a few nuggets here and there that pull us away from the day-glo colors. There is an undercurrent of blue belying the alpha plot. Thanks to the smart pacing (a rarity I’ve found with most “teen films.” I mean, as fun as Ferris Beuller’s Day Off was, it was a staggering on and off when you think about it (don’t. It’ll ruin the experience), this melancholy plays under the surface. Sure, X and his pals are a riot, but you get the feeling early on in the flick that all is not well in the wood. This underlying tension makes the funny all the funnier. Hard to have the sweet without the bitter. It’s a principle of drama, even when that drama creeps just below.

*wipes sweat from…wherever.*

Back to a pair of character dynamics. One I promised, the other needs to be addressed. And don’t you think for a beat that I don’t know that this installment is stretching. Had a lot of sh*t about “period films” and Bounce was the ideal platform. Besides anyway, yer still here. Loser.

It’s understood X and his crew blend well together. They have to; they’re the chorus. You know? Greek theatre? Aw what do you know from nothin’? Maybe just as much as me about roller skating (no I will not let that go).

But anyway, Tori’s Robin to X’s Batman. Jurnee was a find. Here we have a smart girl, draped in naivete, polar opposite from X. She’s the new kid in town. He’s a fixture. She sucks at skating (harmful to her self-esteem). X is a whiz on eight wheels. She’s practical. X has his head in the clouds, or at least those monster earphones and his skating obsession. It’s a nice change of pace that the cute girl (but not too cute) tries time and again to bring the boy hero back to earth. And never once you get any real sexual tension between Tori and X and his gang. Quite the opposite; Tori can trade barbs with Junior faster that you can say, “Yo mama…” In the final analysis, you can see X and Tori becoming  best buds, and needing precious little bracing.

*groans. Time fer the cans*

Wait wait wait! That other bit, the one I was gonna address. It’s vital. To the drama and sh*t. Quit stomping already. And let go me shirt.

Chi McBride is a highly respected character actor. In Bounce that’s hard to argue. I first caught a glimpse of the man mopping up on The John Larroquette Show as Heavy Gene, the janitor sage of the bus terminal. His character was funny without being funny. Not so far a strecth an X’s dad in Bounce. Here McBride plays the “cool dad” i the very best way: by not being cool. I figured since REDACTED, Dad as Dad has been muted, yet still trying his best to keep X and his lil’ sis grounded. He’s the major source of serious drama in an otherwise fluffy film. Again and like I said, Bounce is all about the casting. And this a character drama as the nougat wrapped around by a summery story regarding skating. There might be a degree of “smart cheeze” draping the movie, but it makes the wavering all the easier to swallow. How’s that for the biggest line of crap in this entire installment? Thank you.

So back to and finally, Bounce is a sweet treat (especially with the excellent camera work with the dance movies. Hell, considering that there better be). As I said earlier, Bounce is no Dazed And Confused but their tenor is similar and on the mark. Simple and fun. Nostalgia. It works for everyone. Regarding movies, nostalgia doesn’t truly matter against a smart film ethos. Which Bounce has in spades.

Figure of speech. Oh well. Commence with the hurling. I should be used to it by now.

Y’all clung to the wall too, right?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Like I said, it’s simple and fun. Despite all my drunken histrionics sometimes it’s best to just let go of the wall and your ass to hit the floor. One more time. That’s a lyric. From the power pop band Earth Quake. It’s about an “all skate.”. From the 70s. Anybody there?

Stray Observations…

  • “A moment of silence for her face, please.”
  • I remember the old “street light rule.” Best be home before they light up, or else.
  • “I do have good hair!”
  • Best product placement I’ve seen in a long time.
  • “Somebody fan her, please?”
  • I heart the BeeGees, so screw you.
  • “Your mouth looks like an explosion in a tin foil factory!” Let the games begin.
  • The smashing the car scene was a little over the top. Effective, but over the top.
  • “Hey, if you’re dead can I get your Atari?”
  • A good chunk of this movie is a drawn out game of The Dozens. What’s The Dozens? Well The Dozens is a game. And how I f*ck yo mama is a goddam shame.
  • “I’m the king of this here flo’, ya dig?” We dig, bro. We dig. Just keep that ‘fro away from us.
  • That being said, I swear it’s all about the cool hair here. As it should be.
  • “And who left the white boy?”

Next Installment…

It’s a case of mistaken Identity. And it’s unfortunate we can’t precisely divine whose identity might be mistaken…as the killer.

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 63: Timur Bekmambetov’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (2012)


The Players…

Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Anthony Mackie and Rufus Sewell, with Marton Csokas, Jimmi Simpson and Erin Wasson.

The Story…

Abraham Lincoln. Honest Abe. Our 16th president. The Great Emancipator. And with his mystical axe a righteous slayer of the undead demons in the night, too.

Say what?

But what would drive the Rail-Splitter to take up his version of a oaken stake and hack his way through the evil droves of nocturnal blood sucking freaks?

Well, a vampire killed Abe’s mom, duh. That and protecting the Union. So how would you react?

Correct. Cleave a great swath through the corruption. It is for…the living rather to be dedicated…to the unfinished work which they who fought…have thus far so nobly advanced.

That’s from the Gettysburg Address. Proving Abe knew his sh*t about battling vampires. The end.

The Rant…

Ah, the vampire movie. A perennial Hollywood favorite. Seems like one graces America’s silver screens every other year (which I guess is why they’re called perennial). There’ve been so many iterations of the vampire flick that I don’t think any sub-genre of the movie hasn’t been tackled. Well, maybe not a musical. Some undead La-La Land.

…Hang on there.

*flip flip, click click*

Sh*t. We gots two, at least. I Kissed A Vampire and Suck: A Vampire Rock Musical Comedy. I kid you not and creep on over to the IMDb if you doubt me. Just not yet. Read on. I’m bleeding here (get it?).

So yeah, vampire flicks have been all over the movie landscape since FW Murnau’s fired the first shot with his seminal Nosferatu almost a century ago. There now must be thousands of undead cinematic offspring lurking in the shadows, and all with their own unique stamps, spins and sucks. Some good, like the original, uber-creepy Dracula starring uber-creepy Bela Lugosi as our beloved Count. Or the snappy, Brat Pack-esque The Lost Boys featuring both Coreys (this matters to certain factions of Gen X. Mostly the lonely ones)! And the punky, funky yin to Jack Bauer’s yang Near Dark. We had the cheeky and silly Fright Night (the original one. I’ve been finding myself using that quantifier a lot these days). Or the ludicrous actioner Blade, starring Wesley Snipes as the titular vampire hunter is all his martial arts/pre-tax trouble glory. And everything in between. Something for everyone.

Right. Now the other side of the coin. Y’know how it goes, folks: for every clean wipe you suffer a bout of explosive diarrhea, Kenny. You’re welcome.

The schlocky Dracula 2000, illustrating what a hot commodity Gerard Butler became (for a single film). Eddie Murphy’s turn in Vampire In Brooklyn, foreshadowing his decline as a Hollywood commodity (with no end in sight. Sigh). The incongruent Underworld franchise. Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead And Loving It was a super-duper waste of potential. I guess Breaking Dawn, pt 2 falls in there somewhere, too. And everything in between. Something for everyone.

So now here’s the biggie: why are there quite literally thousands of vampire movies? I know what you’re thinking. It’s them appealing details about eternal life, sexual freedom, blood and guts, bats and givin’ ya a good scare or three. All that truck adds up to “no sh*t, Sherlock” to the thinking vampire movie buffs. All twelve of you.

What I’m driving at is with a vamp flick those above facets are freakin’ mandatory by Federal law (that’s a joke, but perhaps a truth, too). You’re gonna get a taste of a few, if not all of them in your average undead fest. Like that old Prego pasta sauce ad said: it’s in there. Now all the filmmakers had to do was couch the goodies in a plot that kept your attention. If you were lucky, it’d be entertaining.

Here’s the thing. The “couching.” As far as drama goes there are only two kinds of plots: tragic and comic. Some writers have extended the count to 20. It doesn’t really matter what the plots reflect; the number simply invites this cinematic question. It’s the question that all—all—directors and scenarists ask when they undertake a movie:

“What can I bring to the table?”

The random list above of good and not so good vampire flicks is a fine example of this. Again, we know what to expect from a vamp movie. Sex and blood and guts are sovereign. It’s how it’s delivered. It’s what’s brought to the table. It’s not about re-spoking the wagon wheel. It’s about thoughtful innovation.

Considering the vampire movie template, such films are no different than your average western. Or spy flick. Or crime caper. Or Adam Sandler scatological comedy, farts—I mean warts and all. It’s the cinematic equivalent of that old, trashy joke: we’ve already established that, now we’re just haggling over a price. Attempting to overturn an almost century old formula is an exercise in futility. Might be why some vamp movies soar and others sink. Sure, acting, direction, story, dancing horses all come into play. That’s a given. It’s what’s brought to the table, the latest idea—no matter how Hollywood hair-brained—about how to spin a tried and true formula into something fresh. Again.

Me? I figure why the vampire theme is so attractive and potent—separate from the tropes—is that the canvas has been spread so wide any director worth their salt and is interested in the genre will say, “Sh*t, can do that!” Directors far and wide, esteemed ones like Francis Coppola and schlockmeisters like Roger Corman have taken a stab (ha!) at vampire-as-movie challenge. Like above, some good, some not so much. Again, the appeal beyond the obvious? You got a whole mythos to cull from. Keep the king and queen in set and let the pawns charge up the board. One space at a time. Add your spin. Take the tired tropes and turn them on their ears. Mix it up. Give it a personal stamp. Sign your signature. Make gravy with the lumps.

Above all, make a well-trod warhorse trot again. Take the well established archetype of the vampire movie and give it clever spin; use a device more original that how fast to build the body count. Very few have done that. Shadow Of The Vampire did it. Near Dark did it. Hell, Mel Brooks’ anti-epic tried and failed gloriously. Nowadays (and those nowadays have been nowadays for over 50 years, if not longer) it’s all about the stamp and the twist. Despite the clutch of vampire movies that have came along since the turn of the century (e.g.: Underworld, Byzantium, 30 Days Of Night, etc), precious few have really cleared the tabletop for their feast for the senses. I mean that dishing it out when it comes to being innovative with the formula. Few and far between.

Small wonder why it took so long for this blogger to cover one…

Abraham Lincoln (Walker) was born into humble means. At an early age he learned about and fast understood the values of hard work, justice and family. Bright kid. Might be destined for great things someday. Growing up poor does set a determined spirit in motion, after all.

So does the death of one’s mother.

Naturally such a loss would change the course of thinking in a young boy’s mind and a more rapid step in his heart. Especially when said boy was witness to how his beloved mother met her fate. The doctor said it was blood poisoning. He was not incorrect; young Abe spied the pestilence that took his mother. An intruder skulked into their log cabin home and…bit her. The next morning she was at death’s door, which opened wide swiftly.

The doctor said it was blood poisoning. He was so right.

Fast forward many years. Lincoln is an aspiring lawyer and has made his way to Springfield, Illinois to set about future plans. Whilst setting up stakes, a curious stranger named Henry Sturges (Cooper) confronts Lincoln. He’s a man who…knows things. Knows things like how Lincoln’s mother met her fate. Like how Abraham has a burning need to solve the mystery…and exact revenge on her toothy killer.

With no pretense, Henry tells Abraham a vampire took his mother.

Ridiculous. There’s no such thing as vampires. But then again, how else could Abraham explain away what he saw done to his mother all those years ago? Henry goads him, believes his story and offers some “training” to Abraham to battle these nasties of the night.

Fueled by revenge and justice also, Henry takes him under his wing, learning the tricks and trade of hunting the undead. But Lincoln fast learns that it takes a lot more than skill with a blessed axe to take out these beasties. It takes a certain prowess. A kind of diplomatic one. Henry informs Abraham that there is a great deal more to the vampires’ agendum than merely feeding.

Simply put, politics breed strange bedfellows. Especially when there’s the whole of the Union to be under siege in the name of power.

And sustenance…

Recall again what I said about bringing life to the vacant table that is the vampire movie. I never figured a fresh breath would come from a bastardized History Channel miniseries. Circa 2005, naturally. Well, okay, regarding the current programming codswallop of a once proud network. We do have one axe man here.

Aw, shut it. That was the best gag you’ve read here in a fortnight. Moving on.

Big surprise here, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter definitely brought something different to the table at the vampire feast. Heck, with a title like that what’d you expect? I bet folks came in droves to catch it at the local multiplex by the title alone, even if they didn’t like vampire movies.

Well, that didn’t happen, hence why it’s in the canon of The Standard. However many movies taken to task here to try and improve/expand on Dracula’s legacy, sh*tty returns does not a boring movie make. Moreover, an interesting movie, even within the confines of the well-worn vampire movie blueprint. Even if the movie in question didn’t exactly light up the night.

The point I’ve been meandering towards for the past decade from that whole table discussion is thus: same old story, unique execution. Lincoln pulls this trick off almost brilliantly. Adapted for the screen from Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel of the same name, director Bekmambetov (how’s that for a mouthful?) execution of the story is nothing short of miraculous. C’mon, consider the premise. Hell, consider the freakin’ title. Our esteemed 16th president is a statesman by day and Buffy by night. Timur (gonna refer to him by that from here on out) had some stones to cut what he did. Kinda like Abe’s trusty axe.

It worked, amazingly enough. If only just.

A lot of it had to do with the acting. More like the casting. For instance, Ben Walker as Abe was a find, akin to a low-level discovery of Chris Reeve portraying the Man of Steel. I enjoyed how earnest and naive Walker’s manner was. He also looks like Lincoln, and carries himself as the president we (think) we know in an uncanny fashion. This is especially true as the movie stretches. Walker divides himself between modest and dedicated politician against pure action hero when it comes to slaying the evils of the night. Well, Honest Abe was a man of action, so we have that, which is nice.

One might regard such a role—such a performance—as schizo as they come. But it works, barely. A lot of things in Lincoln barely work, and again I think it comes down to the acting by a very eclectic cast. The casting director earned his pay with their roundup. Apart from Walker, the supporting cast was a weird, delightful melange of folks who did not belong together in the same movie. Yet they were, and proved to be the glue that (just) held the film together.

I really dug Sewell as vampire leader/lord of the manse. He seemed so logical, so gentle in his demeanor (a Southern gentleman vampire. Why not?) as well as his scheming. His Adam was one cool character, not the occasionally hot-headed Abe. Sewell was an ideal foil to, well the idealistic Walker. Another good piece of a good vampire flick? Make the lead bad guy charismatic, always more so than the hero.

Cooper as the ruffian Van Helsing element in another instance. Of course we gotta have the guy behind the guy as expert in destroying vampires. But it’s a nice twist that Cooper’s Henry REDACTED as the opposite of the somewhat gallant Walker’s Lincoln. Another vamp trope; you just gotta have the keen-eyed, seasoned hunter in the film somewhere to pass on his legacy. It’s always fun to see how the sausage is made (unless it’s actual sausage). It’s also kinda fun to watch lanky Walker try to  learn anti-vampire ninjutsu as the hands of scruffy, dandy Cooper. He was fun, teetering on hammy. Cooper has the tendency to overplay his hand though (despite trying keep it close to his chest) like why I REDACTED his cachet above. You kinda want a guy like Henry to keep the cards close to his chest, but like the whole atmosphere of Lincoln you just—must—go along with it. Embrace the absurdity. Keep a pokerface like no doubt Timur and the rest of the crew had to.

We’ll tackle those details later. Now let’s tug at the tapestry proper. Lincoln, at its core has a cozy, subtle B-movie flavor (regardless of the title). Despite a (most likely) hefty budget, the thing plays out as if shoestring. We have corny dialogue, but it’s fitting. Charming even. All the settings appear pulled off the Gone With The Wind backlot with a little bit of Glory thrown in. Even the dusky costumes seem hack and stereotypical, like what you were expecting to see. This whole “barely works” charm binds the film together. Again, barely. Threadbare sometimes.

This may sound like bitching. Not really. Moaning maybe, but then again that’s a sound you want to hear in bed. That’s what I’m getting at: Lincoln is a made-to-order guilty pleasure. There is so much off with this movie that you can’t help but watch and wait on baited breath for the whole sh*tstorm to collapse. But it never does, and that’s a really odd way to hold an audience’s attention. Despite all the action and intrigue I watched the thing perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop. Incredibly it never did. The laces must’ve been too snug.

That tightness results from a constant, palpable tension running through the whole flick. All the way through Abe is either hunting or fleeing from the demons—literally and figuratively—that drive him. It’s constant, almost relentless. Tension is what drives a story after all. But then again, there’s this goofy undercurrent that distracts us enough to lend a “what the heck?” aspect in and erstwhile action-cum-history lesson. That alone keeps one glued. It’s all very byzantine, and trying to describe it’ll make you sound as nuts as an almond grove.

Still I’ll try. Further.

I think I’ll call this whole affair “frontier Fringe.” You like that? We have an interesting alt-history at work here, a malleable tableau. Supernatural activity in the prebellum South. Undead nasties attempting to usurp power from the Union via the Civil War. And the director and scenarist having keen eyes and ears considering the historical record and how it can be properly twisted to suit the narrative. No easy feat, then again not something invited by your fire sale vampire movie. It allows just enough breathing room political science to temper all the craziness. Call the whole wad Ken Burns meets Tim Burton (he co-produced the damned thing BTW). It’s what is brought to the table personified. And it works well. Mostly.

I keep saying that. It’s an insistence that Lincoln is not a good movie. It isn’t, but it’s also not lousier than the sum of its yadda yadda. It has the hallmarks of a summer blockbuster and was released in June, but smells like a September leftover and the returns reflected that. It’s a vampire movie, but smeared with a bit too much commentary to really take off. We have a lot of cool action scenes, staggered between Edward Herrmann-esque narrated History Channel outtakes. Lincoln is entertaining to be sure, but often bewildering.

It’s a chimera, but not like it’s better than the sum of its parts. It’s Lincoln‘s determination to be straight-faced and utterly entrenched in its execution and conviction. It’s a vamp film with a pokerface, and after all my ribbing it’s a better film for it. Kinda like Evil Dead 2 or Big Trouble In Little China (admittedly one of my fave films. Get off me; my blog, my rules), it’s a mash up of several genres, all surprisingly well intertwined. I know I’ve been smacking Lincoln around for the past 80 paragraphs, but that’s mostly out of the aforementioned bewilderment that the thing worked. Again barely. The whole “barely” thing stems from my expectations that the movie will fall flat on its ass for the duration of the viewing. It never did. Pokerface. Grim determination. You will f*cking accept and like what we’re doing here. Either that or the Bog of Eternal Stench for you!

You gotta respect a filmmaker who does that. Someone who shoves the chloroform-soaked celluloid in you face and makes you submit to a ridiculous premise. Sure one dappled with a stellar cast, crazy action, nods to history, Civil War battles, a revenge story and vampires vampires vampires, but crazy nonetheless. It often results in some rather curious technical things.

For instance, remember my muse? That cagey bitch whose always testing my patience: the pacing. It’s  a kinda slow, if not creeping build up. The story really only catches fire in the second act, and even then there’s this lugubrious feeling crawling around, all drab and listless. Another aspect of the “barely” descriptor. Such sludge actually works despite itself. It holds the serious action back, so when the sh*t gets real, you’re glued to the screen. I suppose it’s all about trickery courtesy of Timur and Co.

And what would a vampire flick be without blood and guts? Right, an aerobics video. Lincoln can get stylishly gruesome at times. Violent, yes, but with flair. Timur smartly holds back on the vampires chomping on necks. Instead we get vamps as viruses, surreptitiously sneaking around, draining life and only baring fangs for a menacing effect, like who’s the boss here. It sure ain’t Tony Danza, thank goodness.

This clever device really stirs the blood (so to speak). It’s cool to have intrigue over immediate action in a vampire flick. It worked quite we in the 1931 Dracula. What’s going on? There’s more going down than just Abe hacking away and trying manage a war torn republic. The scenarists were pretty smart in incorporating the politics of the day (or properly lifting sh*t from the source novel) to set up the stage in the third act. I dug the “slaves vs masters” allegory regarding humans vs vampires. The war between the states became the war between the “states” if you catch my drift. It’s clearly disguised as a history lesson (consider the Gettysburg Address scene, which was beautiful, BTW). All the key facts are in place, just dressed up in a different skin. It adds a little weight to the scattershot execution, forgiving some faults.

I guess that’s the whole deal to enjoying Lincoln, besides the action and the acting. Forgiving faults is just another piece of suspending belief. Like I kept hammering, this film barely worked. But it did work. The premise was ludicrous. The acting, though good, was stone-faced as if daring you to defy the gravity of this work. The action grew so over the top that it dared you to join the ride. All this sh*t tempted you to throw up your arms and give up (or simply throw up). Didn’t play that way for me, and since I’m so terribly cynical you should surrender to the absurd and give Lincoln a chance.

Take a bite, if you will.

Okay, now that is the best gag you’ve heard in a fortnight.

BTW, what’s a fortnight?

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Another mild rent it. It’s not that Lincoln teetered on crappy, but came across as rather fragile at times. That was distracting. Still, it was stupid fun and that counts for something. Barely.

Stray Observations…

  • Nice shot there, Abe. Your quest has begun.
  • “That hat makes you ridiculous.”
  • It’s tough to watch Simpson act and not think of the McPoyle brothers. Want some milk?
  • New Orleans? Really? Despite actual historical significance did Anne Rice catch a whiff of this movie?
  • “I work nights.”
  • Nice out, Will.
  • And nice out, Abe.
  • The burning trestle scene was over the top. Way over the top.

Next Installment…

For the uninformed, “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll” (switch the italicized words around for our next feature) is a tune by Vaughan Mason and the Crew, celebrating the joys of rollerskating. Also for the uninformed, roller skates were the precursor to rollerblades. Um, again for the uninformed…