RIORI Vol 3, Installment 69: Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” (2006)



The Players…

Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, with Ellen Burstyn, Mark Margolis, Stephen McHattie, Cliff Curtis and Sean Patrick Thomas.


The Story…

Across a millennium, a simple man searches for an eternal life. From a 16th Century Spanish conquistador serving to save his queen to a 21st Century forensic oncologist seeking a cure for his wife’s cancer to across the Universe as a 26th-century wanderer of the cosmos.

In quaint terms, he’s on an odyssey. But for this well beyond space and time.

It’s for love.

How far would you go?


The Rant…

I think about mortality a lot. I’m human. It’s what I do.

Our days are numbered. If you take a breath and think about it: what did I do today? Was it worthwhile, meaningful? Was another punch in the timeclock any closer to finding fulfillment? Was that smoke break really worth the ten minutes? Five minutes?

*cough*

Not really. Not at all. The days are numbered, and what went down today went down permanently. We’re all gonna go one day. How we get there is courtesy of time, nature and self-destructive tendencies. We’d all like to die in our sleep. Most of us seek out a metaphorical car crash. It’s all only a matter of time, and time always, always catches up with the lot of us.

Okay, all right. I know I touched upon this downbeat feeling back with the Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World installment. Yeah, bummer. Best way to earn more subscribers, like introducing to an unwitting crowd the Wii U, New Coke or Gary Cherone fronting Van Halen (Christ, that dates me). Y’all don’t need anymore reminding that we’re all just a-passin’ through. Life’s short, as it goes, so you better take advantage of all the cool sh*t life has to offer you, like chocolate, thumbs and the Switch. Have fun while it lasts.

That being said, I’m now gonna twist that sentiment around in the spirit of this week’s film. The opposite. The age-old fantasy: immortality. To live forever.

Imagine the possibilities, Highlander. Never dying, being an everlasting witness to history. Wander the world, explore, experience all—and I mean all—of life’s comedies and tragedies. And never growing older, either. All the BBQ you could stomach. Playing Gears Of War 5437 in your head. I mean literally in your head thanks to that cybernetic uplink. Visit the Mars Colony for the ultimate tanning bed. And watch that bank account mature there, boy-o.

Of course, no one really contemplates the downside of immortality. For one, after you’ve travelled the Seven Seas seven hundred times over, the novelty wears thin (probably after the hundredth time over). Boredom sets in, and you with all the time in the universe. It’s akin to some blurb I caught from some no-name movie (surprise). A kid supposes that if some comic book super-villian did conquer the world, then what? Set up some real estate agency?

Same with the whole immortality deal. Great. Eternal life. Time enough at last and throw the glasses to the sidewalk. Now what? The travel thing would indeed get dull after a while. So would all that reading, movies, YouTube and tweets. You can only look at so many kooky kitty videos before you start hacking up bezoars yerself. And a lost library book would destroy your credit history forever. Noodle that one.

Another thing: relationships. Friends. Sure, you’re here on Earth until the sun goes nova, but everyone you’ve ever met will be long gone by then. You grow lonely in a massive crowd, feeling like an Edward Hopper painting. There was clever movie released a while back called The Man From Earth based on sci-fi great Jerome Bixby’s story (he’s the guy that penned the mirror universe ep of the original Star Trek where we all learned goateed Vulcans are logically evil). It highlights another unique dilemma for being immortal: not leaving a trail. In the flick our protagonist, one Prof Oldman (get it?) purports to be thousands of years old to his closest friends. You get around across millennia you’re bound to leave some footprints. There’s only so many places you can “hide” (even across the Seven Seas). Someone’s gonna get wise to something like, “Hey, how come our good buddy the professor still looks thirty-five twenty years after his fortieth birthday?” Or something like that. Being immortal must get hella lonesome, especially when it means you gotta haul up stakes pretty often to avoid the prying eyes of the men in white coats (who may either be nosy scientists or the guys with the thorazine). Being a fugitive is no fun. Ask Dr Kimble.

And romance? Love? Forget it. For all its delicious campy cheesiness the original Highlander made a good point of rejecting love if you’re immortal (or maybe it was just Connery delivering the lines) because it’ll just shatter you in the end. Your love’s end. Consider all your beloved relationships—family and friends alike—as a constant reminder in the back of your head that your eternal time on this plane is just a series of funerals waiting to happen. You go on, they don’t. Even harder as I said when it concerns a romantic interest. For most finding the right partner is both a virtue and birthright to all thinking people. Hell, even the ones that don’t think and would’ve voted for Trump anyway (zing!).

Truth be told, I don’t think living forever is worth the trouble. Especially if it means never fully creating a solid link with anyone. Like I said, they go and you go on. And on. And on and on and on.

What you need is that special one, if such an individual exists. That special someone who makes you live. Truly live. Who’ll go on and on with you. Not necessarily immortal, but the feelings that stir your lonely soul keep you going on and on. The seas are in the doldrums. You’ve encountered too many curious people. You’re without a country. But that special other? Ah, that is something to really live for. And screw the bank account.

All it takes, you learn, is to find the right place to search…


The Kingdom of Spain in under siege. Not by some invading army, but insurrection. The Inquisition is bent on weeding out any suspected heretics from desecrating the Church and all it stands for. At all costs.

Tomás (Jackman) and his fellow conquistadors have been tasked by Queen Isabella (Weisz) on a perilous quest at her behest. She has taken hiding within a spiritual stronghold, a monastery, plotting a dire, yet benevolent scheme to free Spain from the Inquisition’s wrath. She has learned of a legend in far off New Spain. A story of a fabled Tree Of Life, which any who would taste the mystic sap would live forever. A demonstration of such wonder would show her chained subjects that there is no such thing as Death. Only endless Rebirth, like the true Good Book promises.

Tomás and his colleagues travel to points West in search of the Tree. But the native Maya are hostile and very reluctant to have Outlanders dare suckle at this divine fountainhead. Tomás is wounded in battle, and now the Tree is his only hope of both survival and rescuing his beloved Queen and country…

Tommy (Jackman) is a brilliant and maverick oncologist. He’s onto a theory of applying holistic medicine in destroying cancer cells with chimps as his test subjects. At first his scientific endeavors are regarded as both flights of fancy and terribly unconventional, not to mention motivated beyond medical understanding.

The naysayers would be correct. Tommy’s wife Izzi (Weisz) is dying of brain cancer. If Tommy could peg the proper mixture, perhaps he could save her. He tries a sample of some unique resin from a rare tree that only grows in one part of South America on a fresh chimp. Within days, its cancer is in immediate regression. Better! After a follow-up examination, the primate’s cancer is completely gone! Izzi may now have a chance…

Lonesome cosmic traveller Tom-Creo (Jackman) has been put to task under his own mission to ensure the Tree Of Life has safe passage to the legendary nebula where creation and extinction converge. If they arrive, his lost love Iz-Creo (Weisz) may be born anew. However it will take an incredible amount of spiritual stamina and never forgetting to ensure the Tree makes it home. Again…

The Kingdom of Spain in under siege. Not by some invading army, but insurrection. The Inquisition is bent on weeding out any suspected heretics from desecrating the Church and all it stands for. At all costs.

Tomás (Jackman) and his fellow conquistadors have been tasked by Queen Isabella (Weisz) on a perilous quest…


Believe it or don’t, The Fountain is director Aronofsky’s most accessible picture. Pi was a critically darling mindwarp, and Requiem For A Dream was so f*cking harrowing (but good) that I’d never want to watch it again. Maybe not even Cubby, either. His viewing might’ve been the culprit in his demise. Damned evil carnivorous fridge.

Against his other two disgustingly esoteric, abstract films Fountain has a precious thing the other two lack: beauty. And in spite of all the time hopping, that and its very non-linear storytelling Fountain ultimately makes…sense, if only resulting in a groundswell of human emotions. Most of them positive, warm and fuzzy. Sure, Requiem made sense (e.g.: don’t do drugs), but was delivered in such a belt-sander-to-your-testicles way you’d never want to make sense of it again. Ever. Damned evil carnivorous fridge.

But yes, beauty. Alluded above Aronofsky’s films are angular and not warm. They hatefully challenge you, with often well reward. Fountain had a similar vein but with a warm, gooey center. Not saccharine, mind you, but unlike his first two films Fountain is inviting, not coercive. Sure, it’s still trademarked angular, and the non-linear plot may screw with perception, but there is a frickin’ warmth here that was sorely lacking in his other films. Probably because movies revolving around mathematics and drug abuse don’t really invite warmth. Been there, seen that.

Something to consider with viewing The Fountain is this: the (very) non-linear storyline. I’ve read somewhere that the old saw is that folks who don’t appreciate abstract art won’t like non-linear stories. I feel non-linear movie storytelling is, at its core, and educated risk. It requires a director’s faith in a curious, patient audience (which are damned hard to come by these days). I claim “educated” in reference to a healthy ego of a daring—if not left-of-center—filmmaker that if they cut it, and cut it just right, the proper audience will be in attendance. This usually guarantees lousy ticket sales, but that was never really the goal. The point was assuming a calculated risk of sharing an idea, a vision on the proper people whose heads wouldn’t hurt much by being entertained in such a fashion.

*burp*

That was deep. Then again, so was The Fountain. But not in some Sartre-esque, existential quarry down the rabbit hole kind of way. Okay, a bit. But not really. Non-linear, remember?

The only linear, unwavering theme of the movie was the sense of dedication. Commitment. Sure, the love thing was there, easily relatable. However over the course of the film’s millennium the one true, direct motivation for Jackman’s and Weisz’ relationship to revolve around—the axis—was an undying commitment to maintain their relationship. Look, you don’t have to be “in love” to keep your loved ones close. You just wanna be there for them when A) you very much care about their well-being, and/or: B) you just want to make sure they’re safe from harm. Come to think of it, that might be the reason for the NRA’s being. Shudder and moving on.

Thanks to the clean, unpretentious acting from the Wolverine and Dr Evelyn Carnarvon it was obvious to understand such. This was cool. Here in the States, our Aussie and Brit are best known for roles in action films (I know, I know. Weisz was merely introduced to us Yanks cleanly with 1999’s The Mummy, but it was a decent hello all the same. Led to her starring in films like this one). Both have some charm here. Yes, there are harrowing, marrowing bones thrown about to keep the Aronofsky edge there, if only on the fringe. But I also smelled an intellectual bent; some sort of “open your mind, Quaid” feeling. Also, something told me that Aronofsky’s cast gave themselves wholly and completely to his direction. Come, take my hand.

Jackman gets to shine here, even without song and dance. Another despite: despite Jackman being familiar to millions as an action guy in the States, he’s best know Down Under as literally a song and dance man. Musical theatre. I think I caught a glimpse of his dancing talent as Conan’s guest. Guy could kick. You’d never figure him for a guy with adamantium claws and a hair trigger. Nor would you here. There’s that intensity he’s known for, but with Fountain the better term is driven. It’s this drive to save Izzi that…well, drives the story. We get that this is a love story, no matter how esoteric that thing is, but the motivation behind it here is delivered so well by Jackman in his multiple roles. He’s always determined, always honest and always knows he’s against the clock. His multi-Tom role is dappled with ego, fragility, grief and that all-important determination. And not in just saving Izzi, but saving himself as well. From what? Dealing with loss, which we all eventually in varying points of “success.” Jackman’s shining, squinty eyes speak volumes, as well as the crack-ups off screen, so to speak.

I think I figured out what the key theme of Fountain was thanks to Jackman: that commitment thing. Right, love’s easier to digest, despite how abstract a concept that can be. It’s more than who gets to hold the remote. Commitment is underrated against love in the abstract, and Aronofsky chose to give his spin. If you care about somebody, and they need your help, you do your best to try. Perhaps against all odds, but you’ll take the time to try and maybe succeed. Not as sexy as love, but perhaps more endearing than a peck on the cheek or scattered sheets to tuck back in the next morning.

In the end run, however, I think we all want to tuck those sheets back in with hopes they’ll be unfurled again tomorrow night. It might go on. It will go on. Like Tom and Izzi are deemed to go on and on and on throughout the film. Such a view is terribly engaging. Commitment leads to hope, and hope may lead to commitment. The odd cycle of events in Fountain kinda reflects that, I think. But what do I know? The divorce papers haven’t been served yet and I’ve never been to South America.

It’s all really engaging here, especially since Aronofsky isn’t trying to beat our heads in over his latest project. By the by, was Fountain his attempt at a summer blockbuster? Sure, it dropped in late November, but had all the hallmarks due for a Memorial Day release. I think I got this impression based on how BIG the world(s) of Fountain was. We had elements of proto-swashbuckling, Crichton-esque science not-ready-to-but-may-run-amok and celestial exploration. Such sh*t screams for popcorn in a multiplex in a 90 degree-plus soaked July Saturday afternoon. Why this was no the case was an idyll I scribbled down in my notes: “This movie placed me into a philosophical mood.” Such twaddle is DOA at the box office around the Fabulous 4th, yet somehow is welcome towards the end of the cinematic year.

What’s up with that? The Fountain was not any semblance of shoo-in for the Oscars. Sure, it had symbolism aplenty gone wonderfully awry, which is kittens lapping at the saucer for the Academy. It was what I dubbed “automatically stylish,” which such an idea should on the flip side inform the palsied Academy, “Hey, check this out…” It was well-crafted, intriguing and deep in the best sense without pretense. Best of all: no damned evil carnivorous fridges.

It was lovely. Beautiful. And thanks to the script and acting, accessible. An adverb and two adjectives I’ll bet Aronofsky never considered prior to this film. We may have squirmed with praise about a number that has no end and witnessing meatball surgery on Jared Leto, but with Fountain we should squirm with delight and awe.

Good work here. And I reiterate, one of my fave paintings is Dali’s The Temptation Of Saint Anthony. Kinda abstract.

Believe it or don’t, The Fountain is director Aronofsky’s most accessible picture…


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s great, if you make the commitment. And the time. Get it? The time? I’m so clever and obnoxious.


Stray Observations…

  • “I just need to dig a little.”
  • A bald Jackman does a Kain make. Get it? “Cain?” Oh, whaddya know from witty?
  • Hwoo… Is he dead?”
  • It’s amazing how a sense of relief cascades.
  • Couldn’t help but feel that Jackman’s portrayal of a conquistador was spot on, if only by Hollywood standards. Hugh’s was of good standard.
  • Aronofksy crammed a lot into a mere 90 minutes. It felt miles long. This is a good thing.
  • “There’s time. We have time.”
  • Mark Margolis was a character actor I’ve adored without never learning his name. Until now. Thanks, Darren.
  • Aronofsky’s pulling a Shyamalan here. In a good way, don’t sweat.
  • “I’m here…for her.”
  • I penned this scribe with my left hand in a brace. How’s the penmanship? I’m a righty, BTW.

Next Installment…

If LiLo has to abide by another, obnoxious Georgia Rule she’s gonna lose her sh*t. And her career. And her sobriety. And…


Advertisements

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 68: Frank Oz’ “The Stepford Wives” (2004)



The Players…

Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Roger Bart, Jon Lovitz, Christopher Walken and Glenn Close, with Faith Hill for some reason.


The Story…

After power player, big deal TV exec Joanna suffers a nervous breakdown (as well as getting “let go”), she and her hubs Walt decide to get away from it all. Leave the Big City for the quaint suburbs, get away from the scramble of urban chaos.

Walt found an ideal place. A subdivision in Stepford, CT, far enough away from what ails Joanna. A nice place, populated by nice people. Especially the resident women whom are quite nice.

Very nice, in fact.

Very nice.

Joanna’s scared by this.

Very scared.


The Rant…

Let’s, you and me, talk about feminism.

*collective groans*

Now don’t collectively groan. The thing ain’t always about Gloria Steinem, unshaved armpits and Gloria Steinem’s unshaved armpits. Really. Overplaying my hand outright, I was the only male in my college’s Feminist Collective.

Why? Uh-oh, a story. Remember where you are. I get to editorialize from three to infinite paragraphs alluding ever so slightly to this week’s film proper, and you gratefully accept the bitegaurd and smile through your tears. Okay. Much thanks. Now into the pits. So to speak.

Back in school I was a philosophy wonk. Shocker. I attended so many of such classes I earned a minor in the field. Shocker. I swamped my brain learning about how others thought and felt. Figured if I gleaned onto enough smarter people than me, their thoughts might bring about some scent of enlightenment.

Well, nope. I just learned how jerky people could be. Folks who signed up for either a quick, nice, subjective grade or an opportunity to spew bile and generate fear and trembling. I did both.

Shocker.

I was the eldest of three children. Me the son buffeted by two younger sisters. I was and still am courteous enough to lower the toilet seat, even though I live alone now. Don’t ask. I’ll just shrug. But that being said, with Tweedldumb and Tweedledumber being at my hip, I was in the prime position to get exposed to all the trials girls had to deal with in our polite society. Cutting to the chase, I had to  instruct my middle sis how to use a tampon from the other side of the bathroom door against her squealing in embarrassment. Against my squealing in embarrassment. Just make sure the string hangs out.

Too much? Then you never had two sisters. Don’t get me started on the proper way to shave the legs. I was then learning how to not chop up my face. One would assume I learned something from that other than Cottonelle tabs make for the best impromptu bandages.

I’ll stop now.

Back to this Feminist Collective. I took this women’s studies class as part of the minor and as partly out of curiosity. I knew a lot about the male psyche already, and after reading wads of Sartre and hearing about his philosopher non-wife Simone de Beauvoir, I figured I’d set a toe in the deep end of the pool. The class was pretty cool. Not surprising, feminist philosophy was quite different than the overwhelmingly male schools of thought. That and a lot more political/steeped in social commentary. Makes sense. “The second sex” had gotten the short shrift in…well almost everything when it came to deconstructing social hierarchies, mores and what it means to be…you. The “you” in that case were the dozens of young women who had signed on. I was, like, one of four guys in the class. Got the feeling the other three were just fulfilling a credit. Just.

Save one guy. Memory is lost on me what his name was, but he was a real piece of work. Quite the provocateur. I wasn’t sure if his blatant chauvinism was genuine or he just liked stirring the soup. Either way his endless prattle did evil wonders in generating discourse. Well, rancor would be a more apt term. God, he used to get the class so riled with his snottiness; his self-rightoeus notions about how women thought and how women did and maybe he just could never score a date without a handy-dandy chloroform soaked hankie at the ready. At any rate, his comments were oddly well thought out, albeit sub-50s idea of who goes where. He may have made some blatantly sexist comments about man and God and law, but he was articulate. Actually, as my daughter is wont to say, “cringey” is a better term. He baited all the “serious” feminists in the class (including the prof) into raving loons. Well-meaning, dedicated loons, almost confirming his accusations. When he got going, I kept quiet, rolled my eyes, grew bored and heard my tuition going down the drain. Still a cool class, though, which led to this whole Feminist Collective thing and how I ended up being the only male member (get it?) of the group.

I was that enthused by the class, and if only to thumb my nose at the guy’s ancient and obnoxious views that cluttered the class I signed on to the professor’s roster of her idea of a casual klatch of like-minded casual feminists. Just to hang out, discuss philosophy and go to relevant performances like readings, “happenings” and concert dates. Happenings like the Take Back The Night rally, promoting rape awareness and the occasional Ani DiFranco club date. That was the time that I really felt part of the group and not some anomaly. Namely, not chasing well-educated tail.

The Collective wasn’t a large group. The class had like almost 40 students. Our mere think tank had like a dozen members, and me the rogue monkey in tow. But me and the females got on well, shared ideas freely and got well-caffinated often. That was status quo at the DiFranco gig we travelled to (with the prof along to make it legit. She scored the tickets). The major topic of conversation wasn’t de Beauvoir or how to properly pronounce her name. It was “that guy.” He was a dope, a pig, a disruption. I defended him as best I could. Poorly.

Now I ain’t saying I agreed with his palsied, hidebound barbs. I am saying he offered a tonic to the all to often heady tones that bubble up in any college philo class, feminist or otherwise. My worthy vagina-owning constituents didn’t really agree. He was a dope, a pig, a disruption. All true, but he did have the right to speak his crude mind. It made for lively class discussion. When he’d shut his trap.

They suffered my treason well, and laughed at me. Hard to not be humble as a guy when poked at by very non-guys. I still argued the value of his discourse. I was outnumbered, and their flak almost, almost justified my argument. Their vitriol came perilously close to confirming the squirmy worm’s accusations, and here the sole male in a Feminist Collective I was automatically outnumbered and very, very wrong. Still an interloper with fellow classmates for a full semester. Still a guy. By proxy, I couldn’t properly absorb the women’s outrage, nor could they like the cut of my jib.

DiFranco eventually took the stage. And all went away, seemingly forgiving.

But is that the trick? Regarding the eternal “battle of the sexes” was I off the mark passively defending the dork’s views, or was I just stuck with my XY chromosome, inherently sympathetic to the “first sex?” It was the whole “nature vs nurture” argument, despite me ultimately plopping myself into a group of educated, driven females out of curiosity. When you think about it, twenty years on it sounds like naivety and proto-Match.com. Fail.

Then again, it kinda now jibes with the subversive message of Oz’ adaptation into film for an umpteenth time Ira Levin’s classic cautionary/feminist tale of subservient women serving dismissive men their every want and need no matter how petty or idful. Did I really tag along for enlightenment, or did I arrive with a notion of impressed intelligent women with my gumption?

Maybe a bit of both. I’m a guy. We have that genetic imperative we’re almost always trying to suppress. We want to understand, even empathize with the other, but then again we refer to women as “the other” so that’s a strike. This disconnect between the sexes, be it philosophical, domestic or genetic creates all sorts of delicious tension. It’s based on the unknown, the misunderstood. The perceived understood.

Guys want to assume/know what “the other” is thinking. Why? Talk truth guys, disregarding the DiFranco gig (which was great, BTW), we all wanna know what they want so that they may know what we want. In simpler terms, it goes like this: a woman wants a man to satisfy her every want and need. A man wanys every woman to satisfy his one want and need.

No matter how much I took away from that class and my naive involvement in Syracuse University’s short-lived Feminist Collective, no matter how much I marched in Take Back The Night, no matter how much I debated Adrienne Rich’s bilious screeds I’m still a male. In hindsight I was “passing.” Here’s the ugly truth: most men are passing (again: Match.com) in order to try and understand the fairer sex as a means to sample real sex. Sorry. Cat’s outta the bag. With or without a first pressing of Not A Pretty Girl on hand.

That piggy guy may have been piggy, but at least he was honest. At least within his ancient male sense of entitlement. But truth be told, all guys no matter how (weakly) enlightened have that churning to keep at bay. And we’re not talking about the baffling, signature morning wood phenom. We’re talking about convincing female to what we guys are all screaming about.

Namely, crude and honest, park it.

Maybe somewhere near Stepford, CT…


Being a career climber can get exhausting, Especially when you’re a first tier, go-getter, cast iron bitch like Joanna Eberhart (Kidman). Her high-ranking cachet of money-making TV producer has worked well for seasons, indicated by the cracks at the corners of her eyes. Her eager fall season plans of plenty of “reality shows” wrestling with the age-old “battle of the sexes” dynamic. It’s a formula that works well, until it doesn’t. And when it eventually doesn’t epically, Joanna gets let go and she let’s go. Hence all the screaming.

Her husband Walter (Broderick), kind nebbish that he is decides to scoop up Joanna and their family to relocate to Connecticut. To get out of the City, leave their broken, exhaustive urban lifestyle behind. Quaint suburbia awaits, the best outlet.

Joanna ain’t quite cool with this. The suburbs? Well-groomed lawns and bake sales? Nuh-uh. But Walter has spoken and Joanna needs to decompress, spend time with her alienated family, soak up some sun. Get her proverbial sh*t together. And Stepford’s welcome wagon is only so gracious to help.

The wagoneer is Claire Wellington (Close), so friendly and squeaky clean as she. She assures the new family that they’ll fit right in with such cheer it’s not so much disarming as disabling. She assures the wounded Joanna will love it here, with Stepford’s well-groomed lawns and bake sales. Every step’s a yes here in Stepford.

That gets to Joanna, as well as Walter. Opposite ends of the spectrum, though. Joanna meets and greets with the local wives, and all of them a very nice. Vacant, subservient and kinda dumb, but very nice all the same. As well as all competing in the World Series of Barbie look-alike contests.

This ain’t Joanna’s scene. Neither is it Bobbi’s (Midler), a bawdy writer who’s quick to take Joanna’s elbow and warn her about the eerie kindness that oozes from these willing voidoids. Not is all that it seems here in Stepford she warns. It always feels like inches away from taking the Kool-Aid the women folk, and that clandestine Men’s Club on the hill bids ill will to any female with a working brain.

For Stepford’s husbands this sounds like an ideal place to hang. Walter, too. The division between the sexes is cut in stone here.

Good thing strung out Joanna packed her jackhammer…


Another movie, another 21st Century remake. How novel and yawn.

I might have mentioned this before here, but with the blatant proliferation of movie remakes, reboots sequels and prequels mostly becoming swift moneymakers in our new dawn (a flying in the face of a generation raised on the Internet, all the knowledge in the world custom delivered to your iPhone) that present impatient audiences are so potentially informed and so much more uniformed, only pursuing data that sates their ADD FaceBook ego, that Hollywood has been swift to tap the ignorance of the Information Generation to smack ’em upside the jaw with weak scripts and derivative acting to invite movie gold. Did you know that Gone In Sixty Seconds was a remake? Neither did you.

I think I might have mentioned that before.

Anyway, I’ll reel it in. This version of The Stepford Wives is another in a long line of remakes and reinterpretations of Ira Levin’s seminal novel about crushing feminism in general and women in specific outright. The original 1975 (yes, they did have movies then pre-Netflix) version was a chilling, harrowing deconstruction of both chained-to-the-stove and it-can’t-happen-here. The film was about gender roles, slavery and Katherine Ross getting shared sh*tless.

The 2004 adaptation lost that. Oz traded in passive feminist theory for black comedy. Very black. We’re  looking soot here. It had its moments, but ultimately this version of Wives played funny against chilling. It works in fits and starts, but the end result is for lacking. A lot like that dolt in the class, Oz tries to ram down a point bathed in screwball and the terrifying message gets lost.

That might’ve been the point. This take on Wives has the barest scintilla of social commentary the original was awash with. Unsure why. What I took away from the Feminist Collective is that the magnifying glass on this sort of class war is sorely needed in this age of…well, everything in our media-saturated sub-existance, where the divides are greater than ever and why I can’t find a decent parking spot at Wegman’s and where the hell did the remote go and why am I so bothered by such trivial sh*t?

Where was I? We were talking about sexual politics? We were? Can’t recall. Must’ve been hip deep in checking my FaceBook feed. Anyone seen my wife lately?

Sorry. But here director Yoda had a prime slab of real estate to make a wave and opted instead to halt any social commentary and instead drench brain-dead audiences with coal-black humor lost on folks who don’t recognize coal-black humor. No shock I did notice, both within and without, still this Wives wasn’t all bad. Just not fleshed out very well. Like I said, it works in starts and sputters, but the endgame feels like us viewers missed something. Like coherence.

I had to give Oz props for keeping the funny, sometimes goofy atmosphere creepy. The air of “all is not as it seems” hangs over Wives like a fluffy pall. There’s a slow burn in effect here that the unknowing might find odd, if not unsettling. We’re so damned cynical these days…okay I’m so damned cynical that what spell was cast here wasn’t easily cast aside. Namely, was Oz trying to skewer general notions of polite gender equality? Or was he trying to satirize feminism’s shortcomings outright? Both questions feel out of joint here, since the director was just attempting a flick that was blackly funny.

Simply put, kinda, is that don’t look too deeply here, but keep the blinders off. Be aware of the message, but don’t buy into it. The movie’s kind of cartoonish, but was that part of said (passing) message? Take away what you would, but it’s hard to deny the sexual politics under the microscope here, even with a kooky delivery.

Speaking of delivery (and since Wives is also sort of a warped character study), our cast fits perfectly with the story. It’s in a rather square peg fashion; juxtaposing Alex Forrest against June Cleaver on PCP is a prime example of mixin’ the colors. Her Claire is f*cking creepy; actually almost the flipside of Fatal Attraction. She seduces with nice, a pastered-on smile and a hidden agendum so deep it’s painfully obvious. Another is letting stuttering Walken be the penultimate word on male rights/cult leader (then again, that may not be that much of a stretch). Kidman’s not known for comedy well, but take a nod to To Die For and you can jibe where her neurotic Joanna comes from. She does well here. Funnier than Eyes Wide Shut anyway.

There’s this degree of corniness that acts as an ideal portent. I’m talking foreshadowing here. All is too well in Stepford, the mirror reverse of Joanna’s Big City. And she resists almost every step. I must nod to her trepidation to take this idyll at face value. We the audience know at the outset that Stepford’s f*cked up, well before the Claire Clones come to the fore. The slow burn I spoke of is Joanna’s deconstructing the mystery and discovering/succumbing to the horrible truth. She doesn’t want to be a part of Stepford, she doesn’t want to mingle with these weird locals. The only person who smells of her lost cosmo, go-getter life is Bobbi who in turn becomes Sherlock to her Watson. Granted, Wives is a dark comedy, but it also has the air of a mystery, which is rather cool.

Again, we the audience know something’s rotten in Denmark, or at least this hamlet (ha!), but when Bobbi and Joanna take to task to getting the meat of the matter, it’s rather fun. Give Oz credit: he keeps the cards close to his chest, and when the big reveal hits it’s pretty…revealing (trick: Joanna looked better as a brunette despite Kidman’s natural strawberry blonde. It’s the small things). In a silly way, all of it casts a weird, big budget Addams Family ep aswirl with lo-fi feminist derring-do/how petulant, middle schooly guys can get when allowed to get. Quite the cocktail.

Sure. Weak social commentary, muddled by bleak humor, eventually screaming witch trial at demon technology (that’s not really a spoiler, it’s just a great endgame to a very demented game overall). However, Wives well indeed has it charms. It’s not a great flick, but that’s if you look for said Steinem-esque pits. Or ever spent and airless hour in a basement classroom with 40 pissy feminist philo women who just want to speak their minds. Only to have a single doosh continuously drag the needle across the record.

There’s a mean streak belying Wives, you bet. But it’s funny, vacant and rather dark. I’ve been lamenting the overt lack of social commentary in lieu of twisted jokes, but maybe that might me subversive enough in its own right to warrant Wives a nod at the horror Ross faced three decades hence. We have a mixed bag here, and you take away with what you wish based on your outlook.

Mine? I’ve read too much Ettinger and heard too much DiFranco to be unbiased. Is my worldview of feminist theory is already very sound? Very, but not valid. I don’t want to fall into the camp that wanker lorded over in my class, but then again I listened to him as much as the women. I guess I wouldn’t’ve appreciated Wives as well as I did without both sides of the coin.

But a doosh is a doosh, and I’d rather not consider his frame of mind to deeply. Either my mind would’ve turned to putty, my GPA would suffer (more than it did) or have a gang of solid women friends vote me off the island. But I kinda enjoyed Wives. Not for Mike Wellington’s awkward charm (or Walken’s awkward charm, for that matter) or the classic dark humor. No. I liked the somewhat objective platter, doubtless inviting my viewpoint via a chummy DiFranco show that I saw gratis.

I’d hate myself for denying that. I already harbor loathing on the other side of the bathroom door.

Strings out!


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Take it for what it is in small doses: a black comedy wobbling on the edge of social commentary. You want feminist theory? Best go look elsewhere. Like a few castrating paragraphs from Adrienne Rich. Mike Wellington? Take…heed.


Stray Observations…

  • “…That was usually Hank.”
  • Saw that scream coming, and it was damn good, too.
  • As my kid regards my music collection she’d regard this film as “cringey.”
  • “Did you finish the laundry?” “No, I finished a chapter.” Snap.
  • “Ever since I was a little girl.”
  • Talk about putting your money where your mouth is. Okay. Shut up. And…
  • “She gives singles!”
  • You were right, Jill. Cringey.

Next Installment…

Hugh Jackman travels between time and space in search of The Fountain Of Youth. Turns out to be a tree. No wonder Ponce deLeon couldn’t find it; then again he thought Florida was an island.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 67: Joel Coen’s “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001)



The Players…

Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, Tony Shalhoub, Joe Polito, (eyes roll…) Scarlett Johannson, Richard Jenkins and James Gandofini.


The Story…

Ed’s an aimless barber who’s dissatisfied with his station in life in a his tiny NoCal town. The only excitement he’s felt in a long time is discovering his wife’s possible infidelity. This presents Ed with a unique opportunity; blackmail that he thinks will turn his life around. Read: a big, fat wad of hush money.

He thinks. Ed’s not so good at thinking outside the proverbial box. Especially when greedy thoughts taint his outlook…and lead to murder.

Ed shoulda stuck to cutting hair.


The Rant…

…Pant, pant. Okay. What’d I miss?

Sorry for the long break. Bet some of you other there figured I’d finally threw up my hands, in went the towel and gave up on scouring the Web for mediocre movies to strangle. Tempting, but I remembered I’m performing a public service. Wouldn’t be doing my civil duty with all those Affleck pics still slinking around out there. RIORI exists out of concern for all of you discerning movie monkeys. Out of love.

Right. Kisses. Now it’s time for Name That Movie Subgenre! And here’s your host…

Hi.

You’ve heard of film noir, right? Right? Aw, c’mon. You’re reading a movie blog. We’ve covered genres like sci-fi, action, drama, comedy, comedy-drama, dramatic comedy, comedies that weren’t funny, dramas that weren’t funny, etc. Don’t think I touched on any significant subgenres like film noir. For real, comedy-drama is a subgenre. So is horror porn come to think of it. In any event, all popular, well-worn genres have their little cliques. From crime drama we get film noir. Here’s an accelerated tutorial for the uniformed. The folks at Wikipedia define film noir as:

“…A cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly such that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations.”

Stuff was like all the superhero flicks today: all the rave, and just as virulent. I think the Golden Age of film noir was back in the mid-1940s to the mid-50s. Wartime into peace. In a world of conflict, I’ll bet it appealed to the Homefront to tune into a dark underworld of corruption as a passive response to the open crimes beating Europe over the head with a rubber hose studded with roofing nails. Rough justice. Criminals getting their due, albeit in an ambiguous fashion. Femme fatales. Private dicks with a job to do unclouded by lofty concepts of justice and duty. The mean streets. The world of then was now a bit more blurry when it came to discerning what good and evil truly was. Shades of grey all around. Hence, noir.

Like that? Give you a chill? Anyway…

Appealing to the well-heeled to distract them from recent, all too real conflicts past overseas. Trade it all in for short, direct morality tales. With sex and shooting, too. Hail Columbia and pass the popcorn.

The genre kinda petered out, I think, with the dawn of Technicolor. That and the dawn of TV. Unsure on both fronts. The genre didn’t go away though, not fully. There’s always a need for on screen murkiness against what “good” and “bad” mean to each other. What I’m wagering here is that perhaps years of blurring the lines between good and evil on screen reached a saturation point post VJ-Day. After almost a decade of war, I’ll also bet Americans wanted to breathe a sigh of relief and lighten up some. Hence, Singin’ In The Rain.

Film noir never really went away, though. I mean, c’mon, watching Gene Kelly dance is a thing to behold. But so is looking down the barrel of some tough’s gun. A lot of what I’m about to say is conjecture since I wasn’t there when it went down, so I’m a-gonna offer a perspective akin to what went down. It’s all about reinvention, mixing the colors to appeal to contemporary audiences in need of a little deviance and a few anti-heroes to anti-root for.

I’ve always been a slow learner. I never had my head in the clouds; my lofty expectations were almost always grounded. Meaning I was well-versed in the present but always curious, studious in the past. Blame my Dad’s Dylan LPs. My point was—and maybe still is—that it takes me time to fully absorb the wealth of a certain something upon exposure. Sometimes it takes time for the right time to bloom fruitful.

Long story short, I discovered Never Mind The Bollocks in college. Again, slow learner.

The same adheres to the first sorta film noir flick I caught. Was made at the dawn of the 1960s. Sure, it wasn’t as hardcase as, say, Double Indemnity (more on that later. Don’t shiver), but still bore the hallmarks of the sub-genre. Sex, infidelity, steely villian and unwitting hero. Fit the mold. Hell, it even won best pic that year. Of course it’s a fave film of mine. Always in my top ten. And only hangs on the noir schtick in a febrile sense. No matter. Follow my pretzel logic.

Not all noir flicks are about the criminal element in otherwise polite society. Sometimes the most domestic, even plebeian circumstances—well-written—can be pretty sharp, cutting even exposing the evil that men can do without firing a gun. Sometimes all it takes are morally ambivalent characters acting on questionable impulses. Or thought out schemes.

The story goes as such. Our protag is a nebbish. Nice guy, but in need of a spine. Gets bullied a lot because, well, he figures that’s his lot in life. He’s a bachelor, and probably will be the rest of his days. No real friends to speak of, just said bullies who on good word can wrangle favors out of him. Sometimes for fast cash, sometimes just to be let alone. Our wimpy hero only has his job, some vague career aspirations, flirting with that cute elevator operator and his apartment.

If any of this sounds familiar to you, chances are you didn’t molest Fandango for Guardians Of The Galaxy, vol 2 tickets. If it does, color me impressed.

Turns out our wimpy leading man has a real thing for the elevator girl, and too shy and socially ill-equipped to have any gumption to ask her out. Flirting will have to do, especially since she’s the unofficial squeeze of our man’s smarmy, married boss. It’s thanks to that boss that our man’s sanctum sanctorum, his apartment, has become a garden of earthly delights. Namely, hey bud, you got no one and we guy folk need digs to swing, follow? You’re good people. Just let us use your apartment to shack up with some legs and you’ll be…well-compensated. Your boss said you’re golden. Dig?

CC Baxter nods his head. Too often. His “hospitality” catches on with his higher-ups, recommended by the big man himself Mr Sheldrake. Favors beget favors, but as Baxter’s star begins to climb based on infidelity, his morals get squished and his fantasy girl Fran gets further out of reach. With all that jazz coming from his apartment, she assumes CC is really just a player in lamb’s clothing.

Sounds pretty noir to me. You smell what I’m stinking, Quill?

The movie was The Apartment. A fave. Won best pic back in 1960, a time where noir was though dead. It had the same moral ambiguity, grim characters you couldn’t really tell which side they set on, black humor and sex on the sly. There were no shootings, no femme fatales (young Shirley McClaine was too much of a cutie pie), no dirty criminal activities (okay, maybe blackmail and some hints of embezzlement) and no fog clouded back alleys replete with a body in a dusky Dumpster. We had Jack Lemmon at his most cringey, the polar opposite of Some Like It Hot as our “hero.” We had Fred McMurray as the unlikely heel, especially so pressed against his future role in My Three Sons. We had Shirley McClaine well before her past lives, all pert and perky. We had all three take a downward spiral spin into moral corruption and sexual dalliances. Again, sounds pretty noir to me.

And the style never really went away. It’s still around. The neighborhoods might have changed, but the coal black underbelly of human frailty still slithers. From David Lynch taking us on a ride down Mulholland Drive to Miller and Rodriguez’ highly stylized Sin City to the starkness of Brad Anderson’s The Machinist (already covered here, BTW), noir is still with us.

Heck, even the Coen brothers made their big screen debut with their cheerless, brilliant Blood Simple. Another tale of human frailty, illicit gains and a corrupt private dick after said illicit gains. All of the tawdry tale set against the background of quaint suburbia.

Kinda like this tale…


Ed Crane (Thornton) has a decent life. Nothing exciting, but maybe wanting for something more. He’s unsure.

Ed’s the local barber, a reliable fixture on Main Street. He’s good at his job, and even though it doesn’t pay much, he’s got not much to worry about there. His pretty wife Doris (McDormand) is well employed at the local, successful department store Nirdlinger’s as a bookkeeper. She knows all the ins and outs and comings and goings of all stock and what it costs. She also drinks too much and might be banging her esteemed boss, “Big Dave” Brewster (Gandolfini). Despite being rock solid and quiet, this irks Ed somewhat.

It’s funny how opportunity can rear its ugly head. One eve, close to closing time at Ed’s barber shop, some yappy traveling salesman hops in a demands a trim to better accommodate his toupee. As Ed snips, this guy Tolliver (Polito) goes on and on about his latest business venture. He calls it “dry cleaning,” getting those pesky stains out via special chemicals rather than soap and water. Way of the future, and all Tolliver needs is some mark to invest in his franchise. Clean, with chemicals.

Ed smokes a while. Sure, his life’s okay. But also he doesn’t feel that it’s really his life. Doris, after all, kinda holds all the cards, as well maybe Big Dave’s big dave. It’ll be nice to reach for a brass ring. Maybe just better to reach for…something. He meets Tolliver to lay down his part in the nascent business plan.

Ed’s not used to making a stand. He’s not used to making anything. All he knows is that it’s time for a change. A swerve in the road.

And fighting off a Lolita complex to classical piano a decade before Lolita is published…


Now I know using The Apartment as an example of late period noir was a bit of a stretch. Most installments here are. Still, there are decent parallels between one of Wilder’s greats and The Man Who Wasn’t There. Both films involve infidelity, blackmail and the sometime ugliness involved in “getting ahead.” I’m willing to wager the Coens’ took a nod to The Apartment as partial inspiration to Man. Then again, it might be my prejudice and an need to find some link. Why? I dunno. But I’m pretty certain that Man, despite its trappings, tries to examine the classic “good man who does bad things” as a means to an end. Kinda like The Apartment, except someone gets killed here, not just a ruined life. Well there’s that, too. I think I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Coen brothers got their start in neo-noir. Their debut, Blood Simple, had all the hallmarks of a classic noir film. Blackmail. Sex on the sly. A corrupt detective. People getting shot. Ambiguous, downbeat conclusion. All the goodies. So the bro’s knew their mark. Man is steeped even deeper in noir tropes, but it still has the same Coen ethos as Blood. In fact, Man has the Coen thumbprints all over it. Theirs is noir that cannot escape their trademark left-of-center humor. Man’s not funny much, but it’s still screwy in the Coen tradition. Namely, it’s weird.

There is less of an homage here than a winking nod. The matter with modern noir is the modern part. A great deal of what made the classics of the genre still resonate today (if only to us film geeks) is its lo-fi ethos. Imagery that’s too sharp and clean robs the style of its innate, intentional grittiness. Man is a noir throwback with a budget. Everything’s so clean and direct. Sure, we have tension, but minus the blurriness of the old school. Thornton’s Ed is too well-defined to be regarded as desperate, like our anti-heroes of the days gone by.

Still, it’s essential in a film like Man to have an average Joe thrown into—or in Ed’s case, invited into—unusual, opportunistic circumstances. Problem is with Ed he’s so darn nondescript there’s precious little to relate to. All we can glean from Ed’s life of quiet desperation in that he’s depression incarnate. We’re led to think Ed’s life sucks. Instead it looks like he’s just bored; even the screwy get-rich-quick scheme seems more like a lark than a way out of Ed’s humdrum life. You know, the one with the pretty (albeit lushy and wandering) wife and financial security. Ed’s motives for blackmail are vague at best, and derivative at worst. It’s like the Coen’s were forcing the noir aspect, not letting it be organic. This was the Coen brothers’ film I ever saw that was completely joyless, even with their trademark sly humor in check. Even Blood Simple had a sort of light touch. Not here. Man was grim. Not a lot of fun.

Still, this was the kind of film I just wanted to watch, sans commentary. There felt to be a lot to be absorbed here. Everything felt so deliberate. Wasn’t sure it was tribute or the usual Coen angular storytelling. Man was interesting to look at, but not to watch. Some shots work (like the confessional/ensuing struggle between Ed and Big Dave), some don’t (Doris’ pleas behind bars). Some seem genuine noir, some seem…too Coen. I know, I know. Established directors must have their own styles. It gets perilous, however, when said director tackles a particular genre that has well-defined parameters and spins it to their muse. What I’m driving at is that Joel’s trying to channel classic noir here, but he’s trying as well as practicing that screwy Coen storytelling logic. There’s some friggin’ in the riggin’ here, and it made my attention wander.

What did keep my attention was the acting, despite its stereotyping. We’ve already beaten up the concept that certain character ciphers are expected in a noir flick. The everyman put in a perilous sitch. The femme fatale. Greed and corruption. All lot of that in The Apartment. Here however, our leads are pretty hard-boiled, like a James Cain pulp (admittedly what the Coen’s claimed they were aiming for). Like I said, joyless. But our stereotypical characters paid tribute in the best way possible: they were familiar and welcome.

Thornton played low-key, almost stoic very well. If Ed is supposed to be the complete, unremarkable everyman plunked into a dark shadow, Billy Bob’s chain smoking protag fit the bill quite well. He’s so muted, so flat affect, the idea of being relatable goes out the window. We’re supposed to be sympathetic with Ed. It doesn’t work, since Ed has no personality. However I dug Ed’s narration. Resigned, like he was already in the Chair as he recounted how what happened happened. Low-key and guttural. All the best aspects of Thronton’s on screen persona, and far more engaging than him stalking about as Ed. Still, being in fine voice does not an engaging character make. We ride along with him as not just as avatar, but because he’s so blah we’re waiting to see if anything, anything stirs him outside of dry cleaning, unfaithfulness and having Tolliver make a pass at him. The rest of the time is an intriguing field trip with a man who has nothing to lose because he had nothing real to begin with. Guess that blah can be interesting after all, but it don’t curry any empathy with our lead.

The flipside of Thornton’s performance is the dynamic Tony Shaloub (who I wished had more scenes). Man proved to be a great platform to illustrate how versatile our often one-note Shaloub could be. One might’ve not even recognized him here as the fast-talking shyster lawyer Freddy. I didn’t at first. His spark came in at the right time in the film to mix the colors. I’d go as far to say that his brief screen time might’ve warranted an Oscar nod. Too bad those doddering, old white guys were drooling in their oatmeal. Yes, I liked Antonio that much, even without the clumsy guitar picking.

But overall, the film felt like Joel and Ethan were trying too hard. Man might be construed as fanboy wish fulfillment. They did a better job with Blood Simple; allusion rather than the straight line, which fell short of the mark here. I wanted to get into Man, but the film did its darndest to alienate me. Not unlike Ed being Ed. A shame.

Oh yeah. Remember a million miles ago when I mentioned I’d get into Double Indemnity? I lied. Go stream the thing for some noir goodness. Right now I gotta take these stained trousers to get dry cleaned.

Ain’t I clever? Kinda like straining spaghetti with a tennis racket.

Oh, go stream The Apartment already.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. There’s a reason why certain Coen films land here at RIORI. They’re lacking something. Or have too much misplaced Coen in them. Chemicals.


Stray Observations…

  • “Like I said, I’m not an expert.”
  • Never light a cigar with a Zippo.
  • “That was really something.”
  • Talk about being high on the hog. Sorry.
  • “Just keeps growing…”
  • I did like the old school “scrolling background” during the car rides. A nice touch.
  • “I do the talking.” And how.
  • “Thank you, Burns. Now get lost.” Best line in the movie. Quite noir.
  • “Sooner or later we all need a haircut.”

Blogger’s Note (A Bonus)…

Hey. I’ve been at this blog for a few years now, tackling what mediocre movies the 21st Century has thrown at me. I’ve been considering branching out (mostly at the behest of passive-aggresive suggestions from the blogosphere) to consider questionable flicks shot prior to the year 2000. I was thinking about tossing off a random review of a random film with a dubious repute to stir the soup. Granted there are tons of such films lurking around the 20th Century, so I figured to set some parameter: mediocre movies within my lifetime. From 1976 (the Bicentennial. How American) to now. I’ll Quantum Leap backwards occasionally like some Dr Sam Beckett with an AllMovie profile and dig up some possible dirt. What say you all? Post some comments. I’m approaching serious here.


Next Installment…

 Nicole Kidman suspects there’s something off with The Stepford Wives, and it’s scaring her. Matthew Broderick suspects something similar, and he loves it.