RIORI Redux: Francis Lawrence’s “I Am Legend” Revisited


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The Players…

Will Smith, with Alice Braga, Dash Mihok, Charlie Tahan and…Abbey.


The Story…

When a contagion spreads across the planet and turns the human race into bloodthirsty mutants, civilization’s last hope for survival lies with scientist Robert Neville, the last normal man on Earth.


The Rant (2013)

Richard Matheson’s writing has never been regarded as “subtle.” In fact, his work has been compared to the literary equivalent of being bashed in the head with a sledgehammer, and this an alleged complement. Then again, there’s nothing really subtle about the concept of being ridden down by an unholy fleet of blood-sucking vampires out to chew your ass, which happens to be attached to the only human left on the planet. Pressure.

For those not in the know, Matheson was a quietly prolific writer of suspense and science fiction; some of his work was translated to many original episodes of the seminal TV series The Twilight Zone. For those in the know, he penned the classics “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,” “The Invaders” and “Third From The Sun” (oh yeah…that guy). Steven Speilberg’s first feature, Duel, was based on the short story of the same name. Several of his novels were adapted for Hollywood also, like Hell House, What Dreams May Come (which won an Oscar), A Stir Of Echoes and, yes, I Am Legend.

That particular novel has been made into a movie four times, including this version as well as the classic adaptations starring the inimitable Vincent Price and that damned dirty ape-hater Charlton Heston. So in long, Matheson’s fantastical work has proven to be quite versatile and malleable for the silver screen, stylized to fit the tastes and times. In short, he’s Stephen King’s favorite author and primary influence. Both say something about earning an audience.

That being said, it begs the question: “Four times?!?” What, they didn’t get it right the first three?

In this our 21st Century, we moviegoers have been bombarded with remakes of classic (and not so classic) movies. Here’s a story: years ago, 2004 into ’05, when I was a practicing alcoholic (I got real good at it too) and had a lot of down time to indulge in whiskey and cinema, I noticed a lot of commercials for new movies that I knew to be remakes. Since I had the time, I decided to keep track of how many films came out that year that were either remakes, reboots or sequels (or even prequels).

I counted 40. I sh*t you not. I double-checked this via the IMDb.

Forty. That’s a lot of laziness on behalf of Hollywood. And a mean way to fleece money off people. I guess the bigwigs figured the majority of moviegoers were either too lazy or too ignorant and wouldn’t bat an eyelash for a retread of a pre-existing film. Americans in general already have miniscule attention spans already; nostalgia is breakfast. Maybe the movie moguls were right. It might explain why I Am Legend is the fourth iteration of this movie whose origins span 40 years into the past. That’s pre-Internet, so what’d you expect?

Wait, wait. I’m not saying all remakes are bad. Some are quite good, like Hitchcock’s second go-round with The Man Who Knew Too Much, John Sturges’ classic western The Magnificent Seven, or even Mark Waters’ much-needed update of Freaky Friday. So before we pass (anymore) judgment, let’s pick apart the latest version of a classic man-versus-vampires epic and see on which side of fence it falls.

This film received some inordinate bits of flack by critics and audiences alike. Mostly directed at Smith. Like I noted in my After Earth dissection, I figure Smith is tiring of the maverick, comical roles he’s made his money on. Audiences seem like they’re not ready for a serious, dour individual like Robert. Like all the characters he’s portrayed most of his career, people would prefer to have Agent Jay or even the Fresh Prince up there on the big screen. But like with Adam Sandler’s constant re-hashing the buffoon roles, occasionally you gotta pull a Punch Drunk Love.

I Am Legend is not your conventional vampire movie. For one, the term “vampire” isn’t mentioned once. The Dark Seekers are not pseudo-romantic, quasi-sexual beings of immortal emulation. They’re f*cking freaks. An abomination to God and Nature. A plague, and the film depicts that as so; swarming rabid things crammed full of viruses. Redolent stinking hordes of shrieking rats preying on anything that bleeds. Have I made my point yet? Right. The Dark Seekers are very rather chilling and quite effective at establishing and maintaining Neville’s solitary nightmare atmosphere.

And poor Bob is stranded alone on Earth with the lot of them. In fact, “stranded” may be the key term that describes the feel of the film. For over an hour into the film, Smith is the only actor, not counting Abbey of course. We walk by his side, we only sees things that he sees, we truly live it all vicariously through Robert Neville and only him. We, as an audience, are stranded with him. Neville’s pathos is so consuming that as the movie progresses, you start to wonder if kind of relishes his solitude; wear it like a badge of pride or as sackcloth and ashes? He was directly responsible for the plague after all. Guilt can be a powerful weapon. So much so that it becomes ever obvious that Neville may be losing his mind. Wouldn’t you?

It’s good that Legend is quickly engaging. Not as in “fast pace.” The movies gets your attention very swiftly, and fails to falter. It has an urgent agendum, and quietly sweeps you up. This happens despite for the first half hour, all we really see is Neville driving through deserted streets of a ruined Manhattan, scrounging for food and sundries (yes, I used the word sundries) and tooling around in his lab. Smith is adopting a stoic, silent type of leading man, letting his actions tell the story. At this he does a fine job. A sort of relatable everyman in a dire circumstance. Him wandering the landscape gently affixes his sense of solitude to the viewer. By the way, how do filmmakers clear the streets like that? I mean, some of it is CGI, but the rest?

Speaking of CGI, I had a real issue (but not a big one) with the digitally rendered…well, everything in Legend. The effects were rather weak. You could almost smell the green screen wafting off the projector. What would be assumed to enhance the ferocity of the Dark Seekers only made them look rubbery and cartoon-like (still, rubbery scary cartoons). I admit I was watching a DVD on an HD television, but I’ve seen lower tech movies and the patchiness didn’t seep through. What the vamps lacked in looks, however, was made up for with screeches. So bravo Dolby.

The only other gripe I had was the film’s resolution. It had sort of a “duh” feeling to it. Considering what kind of man Robert Neville is, one would think he’d come to the proper conclusion light years ago. This would make the film really short though, and not worth the ten bucks admission. So we’ll ignore that as best we can for now.

Legend is very stark film, not unlike Matheson’s fiction. There is very little subtlety involved in the story. Bob’s alone, struggling to retain a sense of normalcy and avoiding the baddies. Not much else to the plot. You don’t really wonder if he’ll get out of this hell, nor do you invest much interest in that. It’s just watching him running errands basically. This was, in fact, the general feel of the novel some critics have said.

There are still very little amenities here. For instance, what attempts as humor here, doesn’t. It’s difficult to tell if it’s intentional or not. Smith has been understood as a comical presence in Hollywood, after all. And as for his acting, it’s some of the best he’s done in years. He’s essentially carrying the movie more or less by himself. He better be good. Again, and I hate to keep hammering on this, Neville’s sense of isolation really fills up the white space here.

Speaking of filling up space, there is next to no soundtrack. Silence—the absence of man-made noises like cars and general hustle and bustle—again creates the feeling of a desolate planet. How could you feel alone with smartphones bleeping everywhere? Like I said, stark.

Overall Legend was a pretty good little slice of cinema. I say little because it was released in the middle of December. Oscar time, not blockbuster time. And since it recouped only (yes, only) $100,000,000 at the box office, you could say it was a loss leader for Smith. Seeing that the original Men In Black movie raked in over $500,000,000, Will might have a long-ass time to go to shed some skin.

I liked Legend. I wouldn’t want to watch it again. For all its stylistic efforts, it lacked that je en sais quai I get from time to time, even from the bad sh*t I am tricked into watching. As I said it wasn’t typical Will Smith fare. Still, it had some merit as far as remakes go. It kept closer to the original source material, but even the tightest scenarists should know that following the book line for line leaves little room for interpretation. All that gooey solitude of the movie that I keep harping on was engrossing, but it did get tedious after a time. Maybe too much alone time with Will Smith’ll do that to you. Then again, the same can be said of Mathson’s stories.


Rant Redux (2019)…

I Am Legend was cut back in the “remake era” of moviedom, whatever that’s supposed to mean. According to some pop culture pundits we’re presently in the “reboot era.” What’s the diff and the point? In the original intro above I groused about the quadrillion remakes of good and not-so-good movies from yesteryear (EG: the 2000s), claiming—perhaps rightly so—Hollywood had gotten lazy, ran out of original ideas or banked on the notion of how Millennial sense of history is so palsied. Might have the hattrick there. In the end run audiences got bored with all the “new boss same as the old boss” folderol and the ticket taker showed exactly that. Despite Legend being one of the better remakes, the cracks were starting to show even then.

Now we have studios rebooting every franchise they can ferret out of the pre-WiFi vault. Probably also hedging their bets on Millennial knowledge of history, with all the world info in their pockets yet can’t work an ancient rotary dial phone. That’s not an insult; they could ask Alexa. You hear what I’m screaming? Right. I’d like to think that Gen X was the last generation that appreciates nostalgia. One doesn’t need nostalgia now; we have Facebook et al. Not a swipe, it’s true. That and most Millennials are so very forward-thinking, not ones to dwell on things left undone. There’s work to be done, achievements to reach, goals to scratch off the great To Do List of life. Who has time for longing after that year old memory? We have new ones to make!

Okay. Sorry. That’s as schmaltzy as I’m ever gonna get. Here.

So what does all that mean with this rebooting trend? Hollywood is trolling the Millennials. There were a lot of cool-ass movies series back in the ancient 80s and 90s (and 00s. Sigh). Let’s dress them up in some flash togs and market them to the forward-thinking brats and introduce the (market) value of nostalgia for stuff they never knew. Or wanted to. Or needed to. Do we really need another Bill & Ted sequel?

Sure. Rebooting isn’t necessarily a bad thing nor a cash cow. Picking up where we last left off is common in other media. Like when a rock group decides to reunite and tour. Or some spin-off of a popular TV series (EG: Cheers begat Fraiser, the many Star Trek series and the prequel Young Sheldon from Big Bang. Okay, two outta three ain’t bad). Or when some writer brings back a popular character for a new novel, like Jack Ryan, Lestat or every-bloody character from Kurt Vonnegut’s body of work. Jump-starting that rusted engine now and again allows the next generation of talent to see if their dog will hunt as Big Cinema crosses its arthritic fingers.

Rebooting, remaking, whatever. Hollywood is a business, commerce, trafficking in entertainment. At its core, like all bottom lines, Hollywood wants to make money, not art. If a film becomes “art” it does so by no means attached to the studios’ mission statements. A fine example is the classic Casablanca. No one intended it to be a classic, endlessly quotable, ideal ensemble piece during its production. No. Michael Curtiz was interested Howard Koch and friends’ concept of a film version of the play Everybody Comes To Rick’s. Only after the word-of-mouth, quotable quotes and ensuing awards, boom: classic. The film was made under the old studio system, so free press and agency were no-gos, not to mention the scalding absence of social media. Meaning: nope, Curtiz and company just had a job to, and the film itself was riddled with production problems and budgetary concerns despite being the nice, neat romantic triangle movie under the now standard 100 minutes long.

BTW: Trivia! Casablanca is the most quoted movie in Hollywood history. So here’s looking at you.

All that being said, remakes and its red-headed stepchild reboots can be a good thing. It all depends on the context and construct. Those two factors carry a lot of weight, especially when the movie in question is based on pre-exisiting media, like Legend was. Like with sequels, remakes and reboots have to demand: “Well, is there more of the story to tell? What can be added? What can be excised? Will it make money? Could you get off Instagram for one darn minute, Mr Producer?”

Re-whatever is a good thing if they can enhance a movie’s legacy. It’s hard to determine that if the continuous iterations fumble with the atmosphere of the originals against the story’s original potency, which invites future interpretations. Also what counts as a “re?” Consider all the adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. How many times has Romeo And Juliet been spun? We have from the definitive Zeffirelli version to the hip, 90s take with Leo DiCaprio and Claire Daines in their respective, titular roles. How about master Japanese director Akira Kurosawa plundering the Bard’s catalogue with samurai infused films like Throne Of Blood and Ran? Or even George Lucas plundering Kurosawa’s oeuvre gaffing-taping the plot of 1958’s The Hidden Fortress onto Star Wars: A New Hope? Christ, even the original Die Hard was ripped from a pedestrian novel.

Did all this creative theft prove right? Yes, if any of the above movies seem salient. Like way above, Legend was made into a movie four times over. I guess the story lent to fresher interpretations, and most of them were entertaining and made money. Unfortunately that’s the bitter bottom line, but occasionally those dollars made meant something. I did not intend for this revision to become a relatively even-handed screed about the pros and cons of re-anything, but the nature of Legend‘s being done again again lent some credence. I’d like to think so.

Oh, and as a coda: It was good to see Smith stretching himself by performing a one-man show, a la Tom Hanks in Castaway. That was the best part about the movie. If I Am Legend gets another do-over (I think it will), leave in all that solitude business. It kinda reminds me of myself carrying on this way to precious no one.

Hello? Wait, was it something I said? Come back, Shane!

(That last line was totally lost on the Millennials, despite its riffs in endless memes.)


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: rent it. We all need an awkwardly moody vampire/character study now and again.


Epilogue…

Well, that’s it, friends. Sanded off the rough edges of my early entries. Feels good to know after revisiting them I didn’t come across as a vomiting demon most of the time. Mostly. I suppose more barf may come up in future installments. Thanks to the evil social media I’ve learned my bile has become a stock-in-trade. I guess thanks are in order. You’re welcome.

So now it’s off to fertile fields. New territory. Gerard Butler to put in place. Business as usual. Hope you stay tuned. Excelsior!


Next Installment…

My man Don Cheadle is ex-con-turned-DJ Ralph “Petey” Green demanding his audience to Talk To Me so he may face the consequences.


RIORI Redux: Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid And The Whale” Revisited


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The Players…

Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Klein, with Stephen Baldwin.


The Story…

This is a story with an insightful look at the crumbling marriage between a self-centered novelist (whose career is on the wane) and his up-and-coming writer wife. In the meantime, the warring couple’s two sons get caught in the crossfire, which is where, as always, things get complicated.


The Rant (2014)

Here’s a new one for you. A film that did quite well at the box office (its production budget of a mere $1.5 million yielded over $7 million domestic total gross), received rave reviews, sported an excellent cast…and no one has ever heard of it.

Ooooo. Chills, right?

What is it about indie films that get people’s hackles up? A great deal of the public’s perceptions is that indie films can be artsy-fartsy, pretentious, twee vanity projects aimed a very narrow audience of either highbrow snobs or annoying hipsters that disdain anything considered “mainstream.” Which is rather appropriate considering these are the types of characters that inhabit the world of The Squid And The Whale.

The above claim is not without merit. A great many of indie films earn those epithets. But I don’t think Squid is one of them. I don’t think so. Although this is indeed an indie film, it isn’t in any immediate danger of being considered darling.

This movie is decidedly a character study, and both Daniels and Linney are two of my fave character actors. They tend to pop up in films that often place them in roles against type, whatever that may be. These types happen to be a couple who are so unhealthy for one other you cannot possibly pick a side. Unlike their kids.

Once upon a time in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in the mid-80’s…

There are some movies you can dislike, but not exactly hate. Something tells me that this is often a side-effect of a lot of indie films, especially comedy-dramas like Squid. They get wrapped up in their needs to be left of center in their execution that sometimes it just leaves a bad taste. I’m really diffident about Squid. I mean, it was a fine film. There was a lot more to love than hate. But still, there were these conventions in place that, although I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, seemed trite and frankly frustrating. Then again, some were plain as day.

The good first, and there is much of it. Daniel steals the show as Bernard, so full of himself, all his intellect just a suit of emotional armor that over the years has developed quite a few chinks. His pontificating on…well, everything is both hilarious and enervating. I think we’ve all known someone like Bernard in our lives (I know I have; it’s me). The kids are amazing actors too. Walt is trying so hard to imitate/please his father he comes across as subtly confused for the first two acts of the film. You don’t know if his whole personality is wrapped up in emulating his father or just placating his ego. And Frank is so oddly steely yet innocent you can’t really pity his young person for how he handles (or doesn’t handle) his family’s breakup. When you can’t pity a wide-eyed, adorable moppet, that’s good acting.

The performances are all cringe worthy, which makes them all the more relatable. This is a good thing. Really, I was wincing with almost every scene of the picture, tantalizingly aware of every nuance and pointed barb. Everything Bernard says made my eyes roll…or cringe. With Bernard, rarely has rationalizing sound so…so reasonable. And yet so cutting you want to smack him in the puss with a dead salmon.

A lot of the acting is done here with the eyes. Every member of the Berkman clan has a signature gaze that conveys their personalities very well. Bernard is remote, Joan is maudlin, Walt is indignant and Frank is…intoxicated. It’s like the four seasons, and this dynamic makes for an engaging series of purchases to hang on to. Walt’s pleading look especially. It’s a defiant front to anything that might put his father in a displeasing light, even if he sees it himself. His self-righteous and fragile fury is frustratingly simple to taste, and he justifies his attitude as a cracked mirrior image of Bernard. Walt takes several social liberties with the cloak of mock maturity. To put it plainly, the Berkman’s are not really Floyd fans.

And now the rougher stuff, and there is much of it. There is next to no chemistry at all between Bernard and Joan. Maybe this makes for an ideal portrait of divorce, but it’s overly antagonistic for cinema. You don’t really root for these two to get back together, but a part of you kind of wishes it. At least that’s the Hollywood conceit. This dynamic may or may not be considered brilliant by most audiences, but I found it a tad confusing. The film, to me, was more about the kids.

Speaking of Joan, I expected Linney to play more of a role here in Squid. Most of the time she seemed relegated to the side in favor of Daniels’ screen time. Again, maybe this was another metaphor; Bernard’s ego so inflated it pushed Joan out of the picture, figuratively and literally. If this were the case, a very clever metaphor. If not, maybe Daniels was counting lines. At any rate, Linney seemed wobbly enough to pitch over at any given moment. I guess she was the allegorical squid here.

The tennis/ping-pong as metaphor for the kids interacting with their quarreling parents is a not so subtle message. In fact it’s rather on the nose, and possibly insulting to less lenient filmgoers. This beat was hit upon time and time again, until the driving force was dried up, as well as a bunch of other bits here and there that were delivered a tad predictably. Also, on another hand (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) quite a few “ewww” moments in this movie I just didn’t expect. I’m not sure if there were done for graphic effect or just to set the audience off-kilter.

I don’t know if all the carps I’ve listed here either amount to great cinema storytelling or a ball of confusion. Maybe that’s what Baumbach was trying to convey, and how fragile relationships can be. Or maybe it’s another indie mindf*ck that one comes to expect with these kinds of films. On the whole, Squid was supremely acted at its core (which matters most in a character study), surrounded by a sticky coating of indie trappings not easily palatable by hipster or mainstream audiences alike.

Damned hipsters. Those cold, evil hipsters…


Rant Redux (2019)…

Nope. Got this one, too. Another lucky shot. Also, it seemed years ago when I got a little more specific in what made a movie mediocre or not according to the Standard it actually made sense. Heard that stuff’s called constructive criticism, and my 11th grade English teacher was right. Dang it.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: rent it. A very keen character study of divorce in revolt. That’s the best way I can describe Squid, and it’s a compliment.


Next Installment…

It’s the final revision of RIORI‘s first volume of posts, featuring Will Smith as “vampire” slayer in I Am Legend. After this chapters closes, we’ll get on to some new stuff.

You have been warned.


 

RIORI Redux: M Night Shyamalan’s “After Earth” Revisited



The Players…

Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Zoe Kravitz and Sophie Okonedo.


The Story…

A thousand years in the future, Earth has been abandoned, its populace fleeing environmental degradation. Humanity sets up shop elsewhere, its home world forbidden and eventually all but forgotten. However because of a disastrous interstellar voyage, one General Cypher Raige and his young son, Kitai, are forced to crash-land on the long-abandoned, desolate Earth. Now alone and with his father gravely injured, Kitai must set out to find a rescue beacon that hopefully will save them from their cradle’s hostile, if not vengeful ecosystem.


The Rant (2013)

Another M Night Shyalaman movie?

Yes, another M Night Shyalaman movie. He is of ill repute lately, and his latest effort is no different in reflection. His hottest feature (this one) already has a notorious reputation for being a cataclysmic stink bomb at the multiplex. A failed summer blockbuster if there ever was one. Critics lacerated it. It grossed domestically only a fraction of its budgetary costs (but to be fair, it did recoup a lot overseas). It starred the once unimpeachable Will Smith, king of the summer blockbuster for over a decade, whose rep has now been inextricably damaged. Oh, by the way, it also co-stars his kid! Boo! Hiss! Piss on the screen!

Christ, the masses are a capricious bunch, aren’t we? It’s just a damned movie, after all.

First mistake: perceiving After Earth as is a sci-fi film.

Second mistake: modestly intelligent fans still address the genre as “sci-fi.” We don’t get no tornadoes made of sharks here in science fiction town. Really. No. I always preferred the genre designated as what writer Harlan Ellison termed “speculative fiction.” Stuff than could only exist in your imagination alone until it was time to be borne. Contemporary societal tropes shrouded with the allegory of the fantastic. That kinda stuff. There is, nowadays, very little “science” in science fiction. I doubt since the heady days of Jules Verne there has been much overt science in science-fiction at all, and that was over a century ago. Again, no. In the simpler terms of Ellison: If you like peanuts, you’ll love Sci-Fi!

Third mistake: perceiving this was meant to be a summer movie. After watching Earth, it has the aroma of a very late fall release, shrouded in falling leaves and freed from the farts and darts that we’ve all grown accustomed and/or numbed to during the summer popcorn releases. After Earth has little popcorn going for it. Also, it’s the first true leap Night has made into the spec-fic genre.

And that, curiously enough, is a good thing.

This movie is a film about the dynamics between a father and his son. Granted, it’s 1,000 years into the future, but I guess it’s safe to assume that such relations haven’t evolved too much from present times. I guess the only real diff is the current applications of clubs and flint. Anyway, families are alike all over.

I, like many ‘Mericans, enjoy the blockbusters Will Smith has hosted. Men In Black, Independence Day, Bad Boys, you get the idea. As of late, Will has been either dodging the summer spotlight or…oh, let’s face it. He wants to choose his own roles. Hell, he’s made his bones. Us duffers from Gen X remember him as either “The Fresh Prince Of Bell Air” or of one half of DJ Jazzy Jeff and…you (might) get the idea.

Here’s this idea: Will Smith since entering cinema has always been a reliable source of charisma, audacity, and humor we’ve come to expect from a  21st Century film icon. Heretofore is a pleasant way to say you’ve been typecast. Like Leonard Nimoy (who directed a fair amount of reputable movies non-Trek related in the 80’s) as Mr. Spock, Smith is trying to shed his skin. And at the same time, striving to have his cake and…well, you know the drill Agent K (look here please)…huh?

Now the Fresh Prince has a son. And here’s the f*cked up thing about it: he’s a more interesting actor than his dad. You know, the multi-millionaire cinema icon dad former fresh prince dad. A well-adjusted 16-year old (at the time of this screed) son whose following in his dad’s footsteps. And a better, more convincing actor than his well-heeled dad has become.

You get it: I think Jaden Smith is a more engaging actor than Pops. Wanna know why? Earnestness. Every Will Smith movie stinks of bravado. Like the coffee pot that has set on the burner way too long into the morning and ignites a redolent smell of TP that has overspent its taint? Poor Will has had to live up to iconic status that, frankly, I don’t think he wanted in the first place. I’d like to imagine that the guy just wanted to try acting (and let’s facts. Every time Will tries to escape the predictable dumb comedy trope he inadvertently makes a profit. Must be stultifying).

Young Jaden, unhampered by typecasting, has carved out a much more eclectic niche than his rich-beyond-compare dad. I’ve seen the films tucked under Jaden’s belt. The remake of The Karate Kid was pretty good. The Pursuit of Happyness wasn’t bad (it co-starred his dad too.) And you wanna known what? There’s a reason why I credited the prime cast as I did (well, such as it was. There were less than at least eight humans I saw. And none of them Night. Looks like he saw my corollary). Jaden carried the film. And very well I might add. I found he conveyed appropriate emotion scene for scene better than his big-ticket dad (whom I’ve never seen act so damned stern before. The usual Big Willie charisma has all but vanished here).

As for the technical flourishes that are always evident in Night’s movies, After Earth was not for wanting. The sets and locations were nothing less than beautiful. The cinematography was exceptional. The film had an excellent score, courtesy of James Newton Howard (he makes the music to all of Night’s movies). And again CGI was used tastefully, not with splash and dash to make a lot of noise. On the contrary, After Earth is never a loud movie. It’s restrained and patient. It takes its time. This is probably why it failed as a summer movie. Too reserved. Or whatever expectations audiences have of Night’s movies, this failed too. This was the most linear, straight-forward tale Night has spun yet. Based in the traditional coming-of-age story and the dynamic of father/son bonding, Night cranked out a very simple, very affecting movie. I think toning down his alleged filmmaking monomania has done Night some good here.

Another element that is always present in Night’s movies and is not lost here is the idea of family. Every film the man has made revolves around the ties that bind, especially in Unbreakable and Signs. After Earth is no exception, and has been distilled down to the very basic element of family: parent and child, one caring for the other. It’s a simple dynamic, but an effective one, and I believe that if we didn’t have the prime cast consist of actual real-life father and son, the movie would not have worked. Most claim the film already didn’t work. Then again, it was summertime, people have expectations and the fact it was a Shyalaman film, there were also preconceived notions about what they were getting into. I guess this movie could remind us all of the immortal words of Flava Flav: don’t believe the hype.

To wrap it up, I have become slowly but surely aware of what I have been smearing all and up down Facebook between and betwixt my “friends” and what I regard as my local family of fleshoids (I enjoy Futurama), that I have since become somewhat of a fixture here. When I openly announced that I was gonna watch After Earth, the groans and screams were nothing less than satanically shrill. Anyways and simply put, audience screaming doesn’t make for a proper critique, especially if it’s the wrong time of year.


Rant Redux (2019)

Admittedly I have been rewatching some of these old films to get perspective on what I was trying to do back in 2013. Although I was drunk most of the time to endure some of the schlock, I think it’s fair to say that even professional movie critics need to watch a certain film more than once to have a solid opinion. Granted along come milestones like The Godfather, GoodFellas, Silence Of The Lambs, Annie Hall and others that require no further examination to decide they are great films. Sometimes, we have curiosities that need to percolate over the years for a proper verdict to be decided. Blade Runner, Night Of The Living Dead, They Live, 2001: A Space Odyessy, Die Hard and other possible cultish movies that just needed to steep awhile in the collective dark, deep teapot of the soul.

(Some good BS there, eh?)

Boink. After Earth is not one of those movies. By no means an outright bad flick, but we’ve all seen its like before. That being said, it seemed so has Night.

Pedestrian, formulaic and almost totally linear, Earth is a retread of a million S/F survival films and death is always a rude neighbor with endless kegs and a DJ that always spins Oakenfold spinning Oakenfold. And they never invite you over. Yeah, you’ve been here…there before.

I also believe this movie tanked because it sure as sh*t did not feel like a Night film at all. Suspense and utter weirdness has been the director’s stock in trade all his career. But sci-fi? Uh-uh. The difficultly in shooting a decent S/F movie is to bow to the will of interior logic and don’t apply a lot of deus ex machina or purport the future setting is indeed in the future. The best S/F films are loaded with social commentary and the human factor (EG: the original Planet Of The Apes, the aformentioned 2001Blade Runner, The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Matrix, etc), not gee-whiz-bucky-gizmo-Flash Gordon hyperbole. Okay, so the first Matrix movie had some of that, but the plot was classy and made you think.

That, to whit, is was makes S/F a genre special. Of course all movies may make you think, but science fiction must make you think in order to appreciate it. I suppose its why most Star Wars adherents declare that their pet saga is more fantasy than sci-fi. I can agree, and me being a Trekkie I dig the social commentary angle rather than the fantastic. Sorry. The rules of creating a decent S/F must be concrete.

Earth is abstract, propelled by a very generic plot device (EG: fathers and sons, fathers and sons…), technobabble, a lot of CGI hoopla, and nothing subtle for you to mull over. And the sick, sad part of it all is that Earth rolled out like Night was so original and clever delivering this pseudo-morality tale of family, redemption and forgiveness. It sure as sh*t has been done before many times. Ever see the original Star Wars trilogy? Yep.

There are two things about Earth that I did respect (and only two. Everything else was padding, fluff and afterthought) was the examination of solitude and enjoying the dynamics of an acting family working together. Consider other movies where parents and kids (and sometimes even elder generations) collaborate. On Golden Pond with its sentimental brittleness between Dad Henry and daughter Jane Fonda. Or the sheer goofiness (intentional or otherwise) of Kirk, Michael and Cam Douglas in the cheekily titled It Runs In The Family. Or heck, even the Murray family with Bill, Joel, John and Brian Doyle crossing paths in all sorts of media. It can be a real treat to watch how family collides with work when it comes to making movies; you can see where the lines blur. Smear would be a better term with Earth. Cypher and Kitan are as oil and water as you could get, yet a keen eye can tell Will Smith is really keen on working with his son on a movie. Perhaps that real-life bond softened the blow of a rather trite film. Call me a romantic.

Or just call me a dad who’s proud of his kid when she shows earnest creativity. At least more earnest than what Night tried here.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Overruled: a mild relent it. Despite its flaws, the two factors I spoke of are interesting as they were played out. The rest? Meh, with a capital meh.


Even More Stray Observations…

  • Always always always wear your seat belt. Always.
  • Towards the beginning of act two: was that a scrunt?
  • “Put my damned cutlass away!”
  • Back in the days of old school anthology TV series (EG: The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, etc) certain episodes concocted an impetus to a story was some blah monster or a herd of alleged monsters. Such monster plot devices were dubbed “the bear.” In Earth the Raige’s have to best a nasty creature called an “ursa” hunting them. Night is a known Zone enthusiast, and you need to brush up on your Latin.
  • “Without knowing how to be alone, we cannot know how to be with others and sustain the necessary autonomy.” – bell hooks

Next Installment…

Ahoy! A quick trip back to the museum to see The Squid And The Whale square off again, starring that chick from Ozark and Atticus Finch.


 

RIORI Redux: M Night Shyalaman’s “Lady In The Water” Revisited


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The Players…

Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeffery Wright, Cindy Cheung, Sarita Choudhury and Bob Balaban, with Jared Harris, Bill Irwin, Mary Beth Hurt and…M Night Shyalaman (jeez).


The Story…

Nothing much ever happens at Cleveland’s apartment complex, his home and his work. Endless days consist of fixing leaky pipes and skimming out the pool. Sure, it’s a living, a simple existence and Cleveland wouldn’t really want it another way. Sort of. So when a water nymph pops up in said pool one night and tells him her desperate tale of escape and peril, his simple world is totally upended. To say the least.

Wait. What?


The Rant (2013)

Poor Night. After being slathered with praise for his Oscar-nominated opus The Sixth Sense, he just hasn’t been able to make lightening strike twice. Don’t get me wrong, his follow-ups Unbreakable, Signs, and to a lesser extent The Village were all fine films. But audiences are a fickle bunch. They want the goodies delivered twice, thrice and over and over again. Some directors can do this effortlessly with no question (Spielberg) regardless of whatever pap they churn out (Always, Hook, Jurassic Park 2 etc). But not poor Night, seemingly always living in a private hell of his own making, shadowed by ghosts and a psychic Haley Joel Osment.

Whilst The Sixth Sense was more or less a high concept Twilight Zone episode, Lady In The Water plays kinda on a fairy tale Night cooked up for his kids. How’s that for a healthy ego? Pretty damned good considering the literal ghosts at his back. F*ck the critics, I’m gonna base my next failure—ahem—feature on this!

Bad idea, dad

The circumstances described at butt end of the synopsis is usually when Night’s movies come off the tracks. Lady is no exception. I know it’s early in the film, but the sh*t gets really weird really quick, and not in a fun way, either.

I’ve found that with Night’s better films, the weirdness is creeping, not like being slapped in the puss with a dead haddock, all slimy and smelly. It’s called building tension, if not atmosphere. Sure, we can be dropped into the thick of it in, say, action movies. But with fantasies like Lady, we need a slow climb with some significant backstory. Since fantasy and its cousin sci-fi work in worlds of their own separate  from conventional drama and comedy, we need a steady climb in such a film from the mundane to the fantastic. Within context, of course.

(The following malarky is loaded with spoilers.)

A good example? The twin intros of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I say “twin” because the opening with the proto-humans struggles to survive and the eventual arrival of the Monolith then paired expertly executes backstory that will only reach fruition within context later in the film.

Millions of years later we have the metaphorical jump cut leading into the heralded, ballet-esque docking sequence between the shuttle and the space station, which serves as the second intro. In Kubrick’s version of 1999, space travel has become so routine that the miracle of tech doesn’t even touch Dr. Floyd or his companions imaginations. Being on their ISS is just work. It takes 20 more minutes of keen exposition until sh*t gets weird, and by that point in the film Kubrick has laid the groundwork for the proceeding sci-fi mystery.

(Spoiler alert over. You may now return your stewardess to her upright position.)

In sum, Night, you just can’t drop weird out of the sky and expect us to just roll along with it. Especially when you continue to lay on the weird all rich and thick-like. Both the audience and the cast can’t digest/process it very well.

Speaking of casting, I love Paul Giamatti, but it’s a plutonic relationship (he never returns my calls anyway). He’s far and away my favorite character actor. His work is almost always delightful, humorous and often separate from the film he’s in. He always gives it his all, regardless of the pap smear he’s gotten himself shackled into. This takes chutzpah. It takes a lot of gumption as an actor to throw yourself into a role for a film with a lot of rusty gears grinding against it. You gotta respect that. Especially if the actor is the only redeemable facet of the film.

Like I said earlier, Night conceived this movie on the basis of a story he made up for his children. Now, just because a tall tale enthralls young ears at home does not mean it will gain traction outside the house, especially considering the multiplex. I looked up the disparity of budget versus gross for Lady. Production budget, $70 million. Domestic total gross, a little over $42 million. Ouch. Even taking in the worldwide gross, this movie took in only a little over $2 million profit. That’s the price of certain actors’ trailers. In other words, a pittance. Even simpler: dud.

For all its canny flourishes, solid acting and outstanding cinematography, Lady is (if you’ll pardon the pun) dead in the water. And the funny thing is I had high hopes for this movie. The premise is just so mysterious and wonky, it had to provide some crazy fantasy elements to tickle the mind. Plus it stars Paul Giamatti! And Bryce Dallas Howard is naked! It’s something I wanted to recommend to others with great enthusiasm!

What went wrong?

Well first things first, I’d like to say (and he probably would, too) that M. Night Shyalaman is the Hitchcock of the supernatural film. That’s a fair comparison I think, if you consider The Master’s mid-period films of the Fifties. Night employs a lot of deliberate camera angles, centering elements of the scene to either drop hints about future plot points or to frame the actors (a good example of this in action is Hitchcock’s classic, Rear Window). There are always elements of mystery in his films, paranormal or otherwise. And he always likes to make a cameo in each of his works. Or co-star, as it would appear in Lady. Nope, it wasn’t enough Night made a big budget movie based on a kiddie story, but he had to contribute large chunks of dialogue and plot progression as well. This sort of hubris might’ve offended a certain portion of the movie going audience. The phrase, “Who does he think he is?” seems apt. Just cuz it worked for Hitch, well, you know (that and Alfred never uttered a syllable of dialogue in his films. Smart).

Now don’t get me wrong on that paltry matter. Lady is superbly, well, filmed. It’s crisp and clean. The CGI is an accent, not filler. And the acting by the cast (save Night) is well done. It’s the damned plot that’s hair-brained. This film is so f*cking obtuse. It commits another cardinal sin in my book about bad films: it fails to maintain its interior logic. I know it’s a fantasy film, but watching the story progress is like watching someone patch up a leaking dam. There are corners cut to cram in each element of Night’s supposed fairy tale, seemingly shoehorned into being for the sake of…what? His vision? His kids’ expectations? The fact the audience would lap it up like so much melting ice cream?

Examples: Like all of Night’s films, there is that pervasive weirdness. It oozes from every pore of every frame. It usually works. But not weirdness for its own sake. Like I said, pieces of the story are introduced suddenly, thrown against the wall and maybe they’ll stick and forgotten to only later take up a different tack in the movie. Also, it’s odd (to say the least) how everyone in Cleveland’s apartment complex easily, unquestioningly goes along with Story’s, well, story in trying to make the fable come to life. Is it because Night’s moral of the movie is to say that some fantastic stories should be true? It’s as subtle as a fart at a funeral here. Way too much exposition takes up the second act, mostly consisting of a lot of mumbo-jumbo to allegedly push the fractured plot ever onward. If you’re paying attention, it becomes headache inducing. Again I say: hubris.

Lady In The Water is a waste of a good idea. In execution, it was a shambles. I think we might need more fantasy films at the box office nowadays. True escapism. And based on something else besides Tolkien. Small praise for Night in trying to fill this void, but he tried in a very clumsy fashion. Too bad.


Rant Redux (2019)…

As I update this installment, it’s only fair to note that Night’s films have had a renaissance of sorts over the past few films slowly sliding our of the murky haze of hubris-created schlock and getting on with it then; plots playing out like a malign version of The Twilight Zone where host Rod Serling was replaced by Screaming’ Jay Hawkins. Who remains dead the whole time yet can still sing. In simpler terms, the man’s work is earnestly creepy again, but he’s taking baby steps, keeping the cards against his chest. Better than no steps at all, right? Or knowing when to fold ’em.

I’ll quit the cheesy music metaphors now. Breathe easier.

So yeah, Night has been trying his darndest to stay off the glue and put a spell on us again. Everyone likes a comeback story, especially when it’s a comeback against insurmountable odds. Like your own ego and hubris, which ran riot all over Lady‘s production. However upon review Lady was a muddled mess, but it was an interesting muddled mess. Night was really reaching for something, but damned if I could figure out what.

The only lead I had into Night’s fever dream was that Lady was intended to be a “bedtime story for grown-ups.” Yes the story was concocted and adapted to screen by a bedtime fantasy he spun for his kids, but do we so-called adults really have a need for PG-13 rated Goodnight Moon? Night answered this in an affirmative affirmative. I only wished he was on massive hillocks of blow to justify this very interesting mess. And BTW, do his kids sleep well?

Lady was the penultimate tipping point for Night’s fall from grace. Crawling up one’s ass is a surefire way to alienate an audience. That screams the director in question forgot there’s an audience out there to consider. Since Night is more or less a mainstream cult director, when you dismiss your core fanbase you cut yourself off at the knees, Oscar nom regardless. I’d like to believe that the quiet lies the locusts told Night during Lady whispered, “You have almost lost the plot.” After came The Happening (the aforementioned implied ultimate nadir) and the sky fell in. And even after further mediocrity, Night readjusted his watch and said to himself, “Reel it in some, sport.”

I’d like to think, like to, that Lady was a red light implanted in his field of vision that planted the seed of doubt. Sure, this film is interesting, and stars Giamatti (EG: agent fired) and there’s a lot of mood. To quote Gertrude Stein: “There’s no there, there.” Lady was all artifice, and seriously that pissed off your fans who sided with you even through The Village.

Reeling it in, Lady wasn’t as off-putting the second time around. Sure, it still stunk, but upon a second spin it permitted a bit more perspective. I’ve often found rewatching Nights films always have deliberate Easter eggs to indirectly shove the story along…

…I hate to do this, but I’m going to have to resort to spoilers now, if only to make my point. And I do have one. For the lot of y’all who refuse to look behind the curtain avert your eyes and don’t think of a purple elephant…

Night drops a lot of hints in his movies, kind of like the “Hidden Pictures” feature in Highlights For Children (the most popular feature, BTW and don’t ask me how I know that. Maybe because I’ve been to the dentist). Anyone with a sharp eye may spot lots of “the hell?” moments in Night’s universe.

For example:

  • The color red indicating contrivance and/or deception in The Sixth Sense.
  • David Dunn in his shadowy poncho, cowl to cape in the train station testing his “powers” in Unbreakable.
  • The screaming inconsistencies about the alien invasion in Signs designed to fool everyone.

That last one is my favorite. Night misled us good big time with Signs. You’ve heard the clamor: “Why would aliens invade a planet that’s 80 percent water even thought the stuff’s toxic to them?” “Where’s the alien tech, like UFOs and anal probes?” “They have trouble with doors?”

All valid questions and massive plot holes with Signs…if you thought the movie was about an alien invasion (another spoiler: it wasn’t). In actuality Signs was about a demonic invasion.

The idea gained some traction over the movie sites, and the more one peeled away the onion, the more “huh” folks got. An article in The Imaginative Conservative (of all places) dissected Signs in such a convincing way that all of them plot holes are not plot holes but plot hints. In Night’s traditional style. So now, go ahead. Hit the link and read up. I’ll wait.

See? Sometimes knowledge creeps forth from some strange cross-wiring. Go fig.

Anyway, maybe there were connections missed with Lady. I missed them the first time out, as did most of bewildered America. In short, Lady was the most intractable movie Night ever made. As executed, it was spot on. And that’s it. Lady never seems to go anywhere, but the trip it takes you on is nothing less than interesting. That makes no sense, of course, but it follows in line with the yarn Night tries to spin: bedtime stories only exist to lull the listener into sleep. A haze. A fugue state. A torpor. To a place where you just give up. You submit. I’m still unsure if that was Night’s muse, but that was the overall effect on me. Just go with it, hope upon hoping it all makes sense, that there’s some reward. Like a good night’s rest. A satori, even.

Lady is a coherent mess. I’ll explain that: recalling what I spoke about in the Skyline installment regarding “interior logic” in movie making, Lady has all its ducks in the pond. The fantasy element is pretty wonky, can’t deny that, but Story’s story follows the rules. Within the context of the movie all makes sense. However (and this is a big however, hence the italics and parenthetical reference), Night’s delivery is f*cking redolent with ego, hubris and an incessant urging, pleading to the audience puh-leeze go along with this. It’s important. More important than hydrophobic fiends running riot, dammit!

We get it. We get it. Fantasy is important. It’s what imagination is made of. We don’t need Night’s ham-fisted direction (and story. And production. And acting) to remind us denizens of the Apple logo society. There’s no substance, no vitality, no sense of urgency a film like this deserves. Its delivery is cloying, its tension is weak and its acting is wooden. Yet it still is interesting. Interesting inasmuch as you cannot ignore the potential Lady is striving for. It’s sense of wonder is almost there, and you root for that to bloom, but it keeps fizzling out over and over again. This dynamic reminded me of how the stereotypical punk dresses to impress…almost. Spiky hair? Check. Leather studded jacket? Check. Sneer? Check. Footwear…Doc Marten’s? Nope, loafers. Oops! You were this close. Now let’s go slam into things at the Rancid gig.

Let’s hope this renaissance of Night’s movies keeps a-rollin’ and let Lady be his only albatross. It really sucks when a genuinely interesting film misses the mark, like here. Wasted potential. Crap. I’ll stand by my original verdict…


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: relent it. Simply put, Lady was a letdown. Still.


Some More Stray Observations…

  • “Put my mom on!”
  • Never have I ever seen Giamatti embarrass himself with such beauty.
  • “Is there anything further I can assist you with during my naptime?” Two days detention.
  • I think I realize I’ve been nurturing a man-crush on Wright.
  • “I’m 13B.” Is there such a thing as being anti-smug? Because I think Balaban nailed it.
  • Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Ask Joey.
  • “You have to believe that all this makes sense somehow.” Amen to that.
  • This was the first installment ever to have off-site links. I’ll fix the other pages. Promise, I guess.

Next Installment…

We reunite with Night again…again. The family Smith jaunts afar After Earth and we’ll be there for the return voyage. Again.

Again.

(Why didn’t I launch a mediocre, silly cat blog instead?)