RIORI Presents Installment #197: Robert Luketic’s “Killers” (2010)


The Film…


The Players…

Ashton Kutcher, Katherine Heigl, Tom Selleck, Catherine O’Hara and Martin Mull, with Alex Borstein, Casey Wilson, Rob Riggle, Kevin Sussman and Kathryn Winnick.


The Plot…

Jen and Spencer are having troubles getting over their past relationships. Both just want to settle down and get their priorities straight. One would call it reassessment of their wants and needs.

Well, these two trying to turn over new leaves found each other in France, both ready for a change. Jen’s a computer programmer who just wants to get over, focus on her career, find some nice guy to maybe raise a family with. Spence seems like the nice guy, and agrees with Jen’s frame of mind.

That is not to say that Spencer isn’t tired of the demands of his government job. He wishes to give it all up in favor of a sense or normalcy, light years away from his trade as an assassin for hire.

…Hold up.


The Rant…

I wanna talk about black comedy this time out, and I’m not talking the Wayans Brothers here. I also wanna talk about rom-coms (again) this time out, and I’m not talking the Hallmark Channel here. I dislike most rom-coms, and it’s not just cause I’m a guy. I like romantic comedies so long they have some substance, namely a solid story, good characterization and precious little sparkly goo-goo eyes. Often next of kin to black comedies.

To begin, anyone out there know what the sub-genre “black comedy” is? It’s also commonly known as “dark comedy.” It’s a the kind of movie that finds humor in the bleakest, sometimes macabre, most ironic and often violent tendencies we humans apparently gravitate towards. It’s akin to watching the car wreck on the highway and being damned glad you weren’t in it. Schadenfreude, taking delight in others’ misery. To be deep consider Jung’s theory of the “death instinct.” Morbid curiosity about what the end might reveal. We’re all gonna go someday, so stir up a Cuisinart clogged with sh*t and let ‘er rip. That’s what dark comedy is about. Shout at the devil, screaming, “Is that all you got?” Because let’s face it, sometimes comedy and tragedy can go hand in hand. It’s the foundation of reality TV if you consider it. Do you really root for these idiots to succeed week after week? Be honest with yourself. Refer to your local, classic Greek playwright for clarification if confused.

Dark comedy is laughing at the Grim Reaper as catharsis. Bad sh*t happens every minute in our drab lives. Consider the evening news. Is it ever really informative or positive? Not from what little I’ve ever watched. Sure, there’s always a cute, little human interest story tag at the end of the evening’s installment, but the previous 22 minutes was hi-def wreck and ruin, and maybe the viewer being relieved not being wrapped up in another global train wreck. “Glad we weren’t in that reactor meltdown, but check out that footage of those liquified bodies that are gross, twitching, and ready extras for a Romero movie. Wow!” Yeah, it’s wrong, but it’s human nature and that’s what makes it amusing. Habeus corpus, this conundrum. Dark comedy, rife with murder, violence, perversion and the stuff that may have clotted in your mind like a poorly treated infection. Ick.

When done right, dark comedy can be a revelation. Scary things can be funny, and nervous chuckles are always welcome. Like with classic comedy and tragedy, an uplifting scene followed by a dire one (think Hamlet. It’s probably why it’s the Bard’s most famous work) to make some visceral impact. Follow something comic with something dark to achieve a metaphysical hit to the gut. Some pinnacles of this sub-genre you may have already seen and perhaps not quick to take them at face value, however there may have been a lingering odor of unease. Like a cut on your finger when not treated gives in to sepsis. Infamous titles like Dr Strangelove, Arsenic And Old Lace, MASH, Fargo and Young Adult are prime examples of the skewed view of how what may be cringy to one can be funny once we flip the script.

I find dark comedies an outlet. You think you’ve had a bad day? Check out The War Of The Roses. Directors who pull off decent dark comedies can be imps of the perverse and their output can be such a fine tonic to the stressors of the day. Say sure, Woody Allen, Ivan Reitman, John Landis, Charlie Chaplin and even Judd Apatow have made solid, funny stuff, devoid of pretense. You watch Annie Hall, Ghostbusters, Animal House, The Gold Rush and The 40 Year Old Virgin for yuk-yuks straight and forward. You might have also seen Interiors, Cannibal Girls, An American Werewolf In London and The Great Dictator which are far more subversive and perverted, but no less amusing. Apatow’s turn might have been Funny People, but only for the cringeworthy factor. Both sides of these directors know what funny is based against whatever ghoulish concoction they put out as a thumbing of the nose to just mess with audience expectations. This paradox results in a low level cognitive dissonance that makes you laugh at uncomfortable things. Like laughing during a eulogy or trying to talk your way out of a DUI speed trap. Sarry, occifer.

Comedy legend George Carlin illustrated what funny is perfectly: Everything we share but never talk about is funny. That being said the topic doesn’t matter, not really. We all can get behind the bumbling Dr Jekyll, for we are him sometimes. Hapless and muddling our way through the world. Dark comedy is the Mr Hyde, squirming and laughing against what makes us squirm like wanting to kill our boss or to sweep the leg of that senior citizen taking their grand old time weaving back and forth up the supermarket aisles Awful, right? But what if I…?. A fine example of this imp is our favorite spectral child-killer Freddy Kruger. He was truly scary, but also had an honest revenge agendum and some truly—dare I say—killer one-liners. He was terrifying and funny, so joyous skulking around in his boiler room and your subconscious. No surprise how the Elm Street franchise has endured. Can’t help but relish that car accident. Freddy’s yer boyfriend now. Funny sh*t. You could die laughing.

Please allow me that. Please?

The other side of the cinematic coin is the romantic comedy, often more querulous than any nagging Maguffin in Hitch’s arsenal. If you think about it romance can be scary, too. Regarding the object of your affection that is. As long as we’ve been able to breathe we’ve always been kindly against the opposite sex. Be it male, female or another trying to scrye what those dang butterflies are doing to your stomach. Those fears of rejection, self-doubt about your looks and your presence and a holy host of crap beyond your control because you must allow your love object to take your extended, open palm. Just like with Jung’s theories, you may get wounded, but you still try anyway. Coming back for more. Over and over. Masochistic. And that, my children, is why Only Fans is in such a tumult right now. A great many of us need to see the wrecks, literally and metaphorically.

Rom-coms mostly tease us. We’d all like to believe in Princess Bride true love, but that’s just wishful thinking. Feeling in love is indeed a scary feeling. If you are fortunate the love of your life accepts your hand and a romantic relationship begins it doesn’t necessarily mean the race is won. Even more imps may darken the day. Commitment issues, jealousy of another, failure to communicate, all such woes that taint any and all relationships. I speak from experience that whenever these issues rear their ugly faces I need to go to the bathroom. And they always do appear. At the back of your committed-to-the-other’s mind there’s always a lurking fear of when this crap happens again will that be the last time? Ask any divorcee for advice. Such going unease is scary, and often takes the legs out from under you. Hence why dark comedy exists. Yin and yang. Life goes on.

Consider it. Doesn’t the above seem scary, yet tantalizing? What? Were you never in middle school? Don’t puff out your chest. You’re lying. Accept that, as well as accept the fact that when romance goes sour—at least on screen—it’s cringy funny. Been there, don’t wanna go back there, will return there again. It’s a shared thing we never talk about yet is universal. Catch and release. Confidence and deferment. Swingers. That weird query that gnaws your mind to bits whether your crush is worth it. Worth what? A buffet of butterflies maybe? Such questions have informed the late John Hughes’ filmography. Being young and in dope love is never easy. Less so once married. And that’s when love truly becomes an algebraic problem…but with some luck mutually willing to solve. This is the ideal, mind you. You get it.

Hence the Hallmark side of things, so long as you don’t think too hard accompanied by a bowlful of micro’d popcorn. Maybe some Kleenex also.

The final flip side. Rom-coms are nothing but we wished would happen. The aforementioned Hallmark Channel is always happy to oblige a mismatched, forlorn, torn grocery bag romance that happens every New York minute. It’d be nice if that were true in real life, but it never is. And thank goodness, because it’s an ideal and they are seldom satisfying. Even stating that is cliché. That’s also kinda scary in the abstract.

Romance and humor is just as a tasty release and is horror and humor. Pleasure and pain walk along the same razor’s edge. That is why Trent Reznor’s ouevre still appeals. Time to get graphic and put false propriety to bed. Hold my hand once more, and don’t tell your father we made out.

The best rom-coms dispense with the usual schmaltz. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Kiss and make up. Boring. One must drip a little urine into the maple sweet saccharine to make a good rom-com come to life. Namely be both comedic and romantic in even doses, and not only please one side of the metaphysical waffle. Most rom-coms are either too romantic or too comedic because—again the Hallmark Channel’s stock in trade—the push and pull of drama is absent. If you consider it, most scary movies are at their core dramas. Using suspense to draw you in is nothing new in making movies. It worked for Casablanca as it did for Alien. Tight cast, solid story, and great pacing knows no genre. The gut feeling of “what happens next” is vital to all horror, comedy, romance and drama films. Right, like for all movies, but the key element is balance. Tip to far left or right and you end up feeling cheated. Not unlike every evil Eli Roth horrorfest I’ve even been subjected to. Man, grow up already. Your middle school bullies are all accountants now.

Not everything in rom-com romps is all puppy dogs, ice cream and young divorcees returning home to New England. No. Again boring with a capital B. That crap is all PG-13 bodice ripper. Style over substance, as well as cheaper to film. In case you haven’t noticed, America is lousy with single, capable white women that the Wayans can not wait to parody. Discussing this schism, funny marrying scary, dark comedy is the razor. Long argument short, in order for one to appreciate the relief of a dark comedy one must be awaiting it. I’ve had a sh*t life. I need a laugh and vengeance. Hey, is that my old beater DVD of Evil Dead 2? Press play. Maul me again. Let me laugh and squirm in equal doses so I can face the next day. I’ll rewatch Pretty Woman again come Friday with some hot slices of (Mystic) pizza.

Okay. Don’t allow me that.

Anyway, is the above cynical? Correct. That’s the crux. Now please, enjoy the car wreck and quit being ashamed for being curious. We’re all only human.

In the endgame how does dark comedy shake hands with romantic comedies? When done right look for subversion. Flipping the script, remember? Twist expectations just enough to get a foothold in the curious audiences’ mind and attention. Those dark comedies I mentioned above trick you into thinking you’re going to watch a straight ahead drama, comedy and/or character study. For example, when I first watched Arsenic And Old Lace I did not understand what Cary Grant was freaking out about when he opened up the cubbyhole. Then I did, and the film took on a darker bent despite still being grimly funny. Grant had great comic timing, and you know what they say about timing with comedy. It’s when the director of the beloved holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life spins a tale about a pair of old spinsters euthanatizing lonely old men as a public service.

*squealing tires*

Script flipped. Gotcha. Like romance squeezes your guts into jelly—think James Garner in the gooey adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook (yes, I saw it. Not bad)—all widdershins. Also when you found out what Mrs Vorhees was all bent up about. One and the same; give in to your vulnerability for a possible great trade. You dig?

No? I guess you’ve either watched too many of one over too little of the other. Or are just in denial of getting stood up at Prom, opting to hang with your low-life buddies instead, spiking the punchbowl with lighter fluid. Such shenanigans are rather devious but also downright funny, considering what inebriation may lead to on with the dancing couples.

Right, binge watching Hallmark with a Rachel McAdams TV movie marathon. Now that is scary!


The Story…

Breaking up is hard on you. When a relationship ends sometimes all you really need is a change of pace, a change of space. And what better change of place than the south of France?

Jen (Heigl) and her mom and dad (O’Hara and Selleck, respectively) are all gonna get away from it all. Too bad that Jen’s ‘rents won’t lay off on her crappy, failed marriage. We’re on vacation! Let’s get away from all it all, right!

Jen finds Nice nice. Chill place, pristine beaches, servers with flutes of the local brut at the beck and call. She’s totally off on her ownsome, in her happy place, until she meets Spencer (Kutcher) en route to the hotel pool. He says he also has a lot to get away from, especially the drudgery of his government job. It’s taking its toll on him and also wants a change. No shock. Jen can relate. They strike up a conversation and way leads onto way, which leads to a nice dinner, a nice club date and some nice skinny dipping.

…Three years later…

Jen and Spence are happily married. Spencer is out of his old job, and Jen can concentrate on her career. All is bliss, until it isn’t. Turns out Spencer offered out lies of omission Jen’s way. His old government gig? A hired assassin for the CIA, disposing of America’s enemies with extremely extreme prejudice. One mark at a time.

Spencer’s old boss Holbrook (Mull) comes calling, warning that Spence’s unfinished business is about to catch up with him. And he ain’t talking about be overextended on some mortgage. There’s a price on Spencer’s head. No one ever truly gets out.

And all Jen wanted was her own office.


The Review…

I think I was poorly prepared to watch Killers. loves this movie, however her movie tastes aim towards the Disney/Pixar angle. Apropos of nothing, her TV habits vacillate amongst 7th Heaven, Bones, Gilmore Girls, NCIS, Supernatural, the many DC Comics TV adaptations (especially Supergirl) and the myriad CSI series. In sum, I never know what she’s into at any given week.

So a dark comedy? She still has the ability to surprise. She made me an ardent fan of 7th Heaven, so all is possible. Don’t scoff; it’s enjoyable to watch an 11 season comedy-drama about a minister’s dysfunctional family. Good characterization, which is vital for such a program. Now please quit judging me and let’s keep going.

had the right view with Killers. She recommended it for RIORI and it met the Standard. I found the flick refreshingly funny. And it was funny, but I think she got lost on the satirical angle. She’s my kind of cute, so I allowed it. To be honest, I found it a bit disturbing how much she giggled when the gunplay was center stage, and I always leave the toilet seat down. However it was a cute send up of modern rom-coms. Cute was the key word. KIllers‘ plot was nothing new, and has admittedly been done before better with more panache (read: Cameron’s True Lies, Liman’s take on Mr & Mrs Smith and Zidi’s La Totale!, which inspired True Lies BTW). To the point we’ve seen Killers before, but if you consider the MPAA’s rating of the movie PG-13, that was only there to sell tickets, as it always is. Killers should have been “honored” as the first, official PG dark comedy, so light and fluffy it was. Bring your kids. And blindfolds.

At first I thought Killers was going to be some James Bond spoof. Nope. It was a rom-com spoof. A very deviant one at that. From what I had whined about regarding rom-coms and their all too predictable plot devices are indeed front and center, but were twisted in such a way that you figured out the inevitable before the first act finished and were eventually rewarded for it, albeit subverted. Nice work, You already knew where the story was headed and dispense with such rigamarole ASAP. That sh*t’s not vital to anything related to the gonzo plot. The setup was short and sweet within the first fifteen minutes. Director Luketic didn’t waste our time, hopefully out of respect. Worked for me.

Regarding Killers’ tone I was at first unsure about chemistry. From what I’ve seen about our two leads Heigl is best known as a difficult yet has an awesome head of hair and Kutcher being a goof as an affront to his male model good looks. Heck, even I could plant one on him. But Killers was all about subverting expectations. Heigl wasn’t bitchy. Kutcher wasn’t aloof. Both were maladroit incarnate. A prime way to earn sympathy; we are all thumbs most of the time. Clever use of that; endearing. In fact that may have been the underlying tone of the plot. A perverted take on wedding vows. If so, it was properly ridiculous.

With that “saw this coming” precept in place I guessed that the whirlwind romance thing was unavoidable. A sop to the regulars who stone into rom-coms. Killers might have been designed to annoy such fans. The trick with rom-coms is that they strictly adhere to familiar tropes. It’s like comfort food in a way; nice people finding each other despite some odds with the principals all having high cheekbones and no pores. Any deviation from this formula is almost anathema in this genre. What’s wrong with stirring the soup some? I mean, really all those tepid rom-coms on Hallmark all have the same plot. It’s akin to being an ardent HGTV viewer; every show is the same show. I know because I have shared time watching my mother’s favorite show, Love It Or List It. It’s the same ep over and over again. Well-heeled couple either wants to find a better house or renovate their current abode with an obscene budget at their disposal. My mom’s a Realtor, so the show must be some soft-core porn to her. I get it, but I don’t. It’s like other straightforward/disposable infotainment all lukewarm mac and cheese dappled with ketchup. Harmless, predictable and in poor taste.

That being said, some ubversion might spice things up. Killers did yeoman’s work at upsetting the  balance. Disrupting the foreseeable. Sure, there were the nods to typical rom-con tropes (EG: Jen expecting by accident, Mom and Dad’s meddling, lies of omission to save the relationship, etc), but it was all eyewash until the fit hit the shan. This was made evident in the final act, when the bullets were ricocheting off bullets and dead shots aplenty. Any cutesy schtick was avoided at all costs, natch. Such pap would just soften the madcap action. Truth be told, when Spence finally began to open fire the flick truly got funny. That and Jen went along for the ride, literally and figuratively. Talk about for better or for worse. The worst was best.

Hold. On second thought, Killers wasn’t outright funny. It was witty, but at times confusing. It sometimes felt as if the director was attempting to shoehorn too much banter making light of Jen and Spence’s plight. To paraphrase Pacino in Godfather III, “Just when I thought I was out, I get pulled back in.” To the formula, skewered once too often. The setup allowed some breathing room, but sometimes also lent a lull in the pacing. The second act was a blur of Three’s Company-esque miscommunication and sitcom hijinks paired against frenetic gunplay. It was all so rapid fire—so to speak—it came across all lazy. I was all down with the story until it began to bottom feed. Thank hell Luketic attempted to channel his notorious debut, Legally Blonde. Yes, that infamous fluke. Cutesy, sweet daffiness and satire then worked surprising wonders. I supposed his stuttering direction here allowed us to catch up on what the hell we were watching, but it made the implied urgency sag. The witty banter between buoyed the dark humor. Frankly, I was awaiting more senseless violence with an abundance of winking. Endgame: pandering to the small masses. I’d’ve rather watched Kutcher whack soccer moms instead. A lot.

In a curious way, Killers had an air of “Apatow light.” The flick was nowhere near as deadpan, but had a similar cadence. It’s like what I griped about a bit ago; Apatow’s comedies are rapid fire doggerel, jokes that are gone once before you catch them and always low key and dismissal. Not so much here. Killers is deliberate, perhaps another paean to how rom-coms attempt to hamstring your heartstrings. Things fall into and apart here with sharp precision. Once you accept the dirty deeds—which are more or less eyewash come the third act—you’re wrapped up the the anti-schmaltz. Yes, it often felt draining, but at the core love and death are welcome partners. Get that? That kind of nervous tension makes dark comedies work. Namely, you can’t believe what you’re watching—and maybe even enjoying—such nonsense. Face facts, we all want to snicker during the eulogy. I barked out laughs often with some precision, shame attached gladly. This may be the way I have been so forgiving of Killers‘ flaws; funny is funny. Right?

Killers scratched an itch. It alternated between between goofy and espionage (almost in the same breath). It had pretty cool, gonzo fight scenes. It had the atypical family drama feel set on its ear. It had a lushy Catherine O’Hara role. Killers was a kind that I would allude to being the first proper dark comedy for the family. It was overall ridiculous, but in a fun, gleeful way. A fine mess and a decent waste of time. Other movies like Killers did a better job of skewering the rom-com formula with much more elan, but to its credit Killers was the dark rom-com variety equivalent of a Bic Mac and large fries. Namely, this is not necessarily a good thing, but…

*nom nom nom*

Oh, crap.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. To the quick: f*ck the Hallmark Channel.


The Stray Observations…

  • “I’d kill for a normal life.”
  • I always wanted to know what Heigl felt like. I mean, felt like. K: *smack*
  • “Excellent mustache…Gorgeous.”
  • Aimes. Clever.
  • “Please, call me sir.”
  • Is that a spatula?
  • “I’m going to feed you.” Selleck had the best one-liners.
  • That’s a knife!
  • “Let’s go steal a car.”
  • Maalox. It’s not just for dinner anymore.
  • “if I was going to kill you I would have shot you back at the house.” Ah, marital bliss.
  • Can’t say Spence doesn’t come unprepared.
  • “Ooo, I’m Swedish!”
  • K: Piggy!
  • Wait. Kmart?
  • “Is anyone not trying to kill me?

The Next Time…

There is a property dispute regarding The House Of Sand And Fog. It’s not about who owns the land, per se. It’s about who has the right to live there.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #196: Joseph Kosinski’s “Tron: Legacy” (2010)


The Film…


The Players…

Jeff Bridges, Garett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde and Bruce Boxleitner, with Michael Sheen, James Frain and Daft Punk (no, really).


The Plot…

Almost 30 years after computer programmer extraordinaire Kevin Flynn disappeared from his CEO position at Encom, his son Sam receives a very curious communique regarding dad’s probable whereabouts.

Young Sam listened to his father regale him with digital dreams and analog adventures he had while working within Encom’s intranet, The Grid. Back then they were just cool bedtime stories. Pure fiction, but no less real to Sam.

Turns out the call for help came in the form of an archaic page leading to dad’s old, abandoned video arcade. Curious, Sam opens up a past that he always thought ol’ dad was just making believe. Being sucked into the Encom System to win video games or die trying. Pure fantasy, right?

Well, like father like son as it’s been said.


The Rant…

Ever hear of the “Eisenstein Effect?”

No? Well, more on that later. Right now I feel a need to recap some sh*t. That and I aim to make this installment the longest in RIORI‘s lowly history. Even more bloated than the doomed I’m Not There installment. Why? Because this time out (again) I’ve got a lot to say. Again. On your bike.

For those scant few loyal subs to RIORI, you may have noticed I return to a lot the same theories, themes and stories surrounding the making of the films I review and the dubious machinations that are responsible for their release. I harp on pacing a lot, true. I thumb my nose at the perceived money-grubbing practices Hollywood tries to bamboozle audiences with, yes. That repeated, tired thing about the blues being played yadda yadda yadda. All true, most relevant and with hope insightful. I’d like to believe The Standard is as close to a proper mission statement as you’re going to get around here. That’s why once in a while I feel the need to reheat matters of how this blog came into being.

Wait. Might be easier to link to the frothing frenzy that is my homepage. I’ll wait.

*clickbait*

Alrighty then. Remember The Standard? One of the reasons I started this blog was to deconstruct the implied conceit and deception Hollywood has trolled us with over the past 20 years. However recall that the movie business is just that: a business. A multi-million dollar business with a relatively plastic overhead. I say relatively because there’s a butterfly effect in how studios make ends meet. If a certain tentpole does fantastic clean up at the box office and/or home viewing, the floodgates open for potential sequels, merch, contracts and perhaps give second tier stars a breakout role to further their cachet. It’s never, “Welp, we did well here.” It’s more like, “Welp, we cleaned up here!” The first school of thought is moving on to the next big project. The second is what to do with this hot potato except stuff it back in oven again until it’s a charred cinder. Use it up. Beat it into the ground. It’s akin to why Dave Matthews isn’t popular much these days.

Bottom line, and I guess it needs repeating, RIORI was established as a watchdog to sniff out movies that may as well left for dead as far as Hollyweird could be concerned. Essentially I’m here as a PSA, advising all you curious folks out there in the blogosphere to not just take what the big deal movies throw at you and praying you bite. It was that way when I was a kid and much hasn’t changed, until nowadays when it’s nakedly blatant. All I ask for is  the chill feeling of watching a flick regardless of what the “experts” may say. I ain’t no expert, just a dork with a blog. Big Trouble In Little China is one of my fave films, and in the endgame I am curious about sequels to my favorite flicks as well as tasteful digital kablooey. But like LeVar Burton cautioned after recommending new reading material, “Don’t take my word for it.”

Whew. That was a good one, eh? [pant, pant]

*cicadas buzzing*

Where was I? Oh yeah, this week’s flick. CGI and gaming and sequels and attempting to realize a plot. And the Eisenstein Effect. We’ll cover all that claptrap soon enough.

Right now let’s get one thing—no, two things—out of the way.

One, the original Tron was one of my favorite movies when I was a kid. Still is as a grown-up; lotsa fun. Don’t know what to watch? Queue up Tron for it’s CGI and Star Wars-flavored story. In addition to the movie being prescient science fiction with fantastic visuals and a versatile cast, it introduced me to one of my most beloved actors Jeff Bridges. From The Fisher King to The Big Lebowski to The Last Picture Show, he’s always good, engaging and humorous, as well as self-effacing, thoughful and with a great head of hair. Big fanboy here.

The second is pretty much an open secret. When the original Tron dropped in 1982 it was the first motion picture to feature (then) cutting edge animation via CGI. Computer generated imagery. It was then (now a tired cliche) a “game changer.” Video game changer, if you will. When Oscar season rolled around for the class of ’82, Tron got snubbed for a Best Visual Effects nod. Why? The Academy made the claim that the producers of the film “cheated.” They used computers. Consider that almost 40 years later, what with the MCU tearing up the box office. Without computers nowadays, big budget blast-fests that Martin Scorsese rolls his bushy browed eyes at would not be possible. For example, I saw on YouTube the gear Brolin had to wear and be green screened to turn him into the power hungry, misguided alien Thanos in pre-production Endgame. Without those zeroes and ones he would’ve suffocated in a deluge of latex. CGI a cheat? Pshaw.

Me nowadays? I’ve grown wary of excessive CGI in movies. Keyword excessive, and how’s that? Sh*t that’s irrelevant to propelling the plot. Bullet time. Lens flares. Fast motion trickery. And other silly stuff like digitally removing the march of time on actors. Cyber face-lifting. First time I became aware of this insidious practice was a music video for the then latest Rolling Stones video back in the 90s; some of the facial crags on Mick and Keef’s face were digitally airbrushed. Um, these were the Stones who set well known Guinness-level debauchery and rough living water marks. Why bother with the buffering? Did it make the song better? Was dumb to me. Still is, and yet.

There is that elephant in the room. Too many flicks these days rely on F/X to drive the plot, rather than apply an engaging story or sharp direction. Beyond every. Single. Animated. Feature these days, there’s a unholy host of movies that exist just to show off the newest, gee whiz, bucky gizmo digital whatsis like a kid on Xmas, shaking the presents. Middling stuff like Van Helsing, the Fantanstic Four reboot, the original Fantastic Four, Cats, Deep Blue Sea and whatever else Renny Harlin got his meathooks on. All of those movies are all about style over substance—and may end up under my scalpel in the near future—and small wonder why you felt cheated after watching them. Okay, some of those might be guilty pleasures, but it doesn’t change my point. A good movie is all about story, acting and direction. Not pixelation.

So what’s my point? Well, it’s no lie that CGI in movies is here to stay. This is mostly a good thing when smartly applied. IMHO, special effects should complement the film, not drive it. The original Tron is a good example. As a kid, despite the coolness of the visuals, I was invested in how Flynn, Ram and the titular hero would restore the Encom System to a free state rather becoming the digital equivalent of Stalin’s postwar Russia. Sure, I’d not pass up a ride in a light cycle, but I’d rather see the heroes triumph over the forces or darkness. Hear what I’m screaming? You don’t need the bleeding edge anything for a satisfying story like that which, let’s face it, never gets old.

Despite that Hollywood profits are not steeped in art, but rather wanna apply the latest digital carrot to lure you in, sometimes there’s a synchronicity where money meets art and shakes hands. A profitable film earns awards and esteem, despite what the snots at the AMPAS deem “proper.” Did Tron: Legacy achieve that? Was it as fun and cutting-edge as the first Tron?

Maybe. Hang on. As always. Hush, my darling Player One.

I’ve been a gamer pretty much since the 5th grade. A friend of mine had one of those classic Atari 2600 consoles, the kind with the decals made to resemble wood grain. We would hang out after school—perhaps a bit too long—o.d’ing on classic titles like Adventure, Pac-Man, Q-Bert, Vanguard and Pitfall! Very simple games, primitive compared to today’s titles. But they were fun and that’s what mattered. You betcha.

When Saturday would roll around—still without a console of my own—me, my crew and a gym sock full of scrounged quarters would pester someone’s mom to take us to the video arcade at the mall. It was to be an adventure, and sort of a “scream till daddy stops the car” tableau vivant. Set the stage, so to speak.

There was this (of course now defunct) video arcade which was the vanguard to plunk away a Saturday afternoon. It was called the Space Port, smack dab in the middle of the local mall. The entrance was made to resemble a UFO, neon lights and the whole wad. Mecca to me and my digitally drooling crew.

If you were a kid in the 80s, your joystick would tingle at the opportunity to try your hand at one of the latest machines Space Port tempted. There was Dragon’s Lair, which used then new Laserdisc technology to render a platformer illustrated by former Disney animator Don Bluth (EG: The Secret Of NIMH, The Land Before Time, An American Tail, et al). Those nifty Nintendo gallery machines that let you play a variety of console games, from Super Mario to Castlevania to Bubble Bobble and others. Sit down Sega sim racers like Pole Position or the motorcycling Hang-On! Only spending Xmas at FAO Schwarz could rival such a cornucopia of fun. Not to mention precious few grown-ups around to kick you out of your zone.

Back then gaming was not in the mainstream as is now. Video games were a culty thing, reserved for freaks and geeks who both needed an escape from the drudgery of peer pressure as well find a place to bond. The arcade was a hotbed of social activity not unlike Star Trek conventions, comic book shops, nascent otaku, kids who sucked at basketball and were frankly persona non gratia to the fairer sex. Oh, gamers back then were almost exclusively male. The arcade was the middle school version of a man cave. Boy cave. Same diff. A home away from home.

As was then, it’s always been about escapism even before my young, Twizzler addled mind understood the concept. Gaming then as is now is like getting lost in a good book, or a good album, or a good movie before God. Gaming was a portal into another existence that in addition to escapism, you were in charge. The book example is potent, especially based against required reading from school that once you write up the report you might be blooped for your own interpretation rather than what teach deemed the “proper” way to view the story (EG: Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was about our hero hitching a ride down the Mighty Missip, soaking up the local culture with his fellow outcast buddy, Jim. Did you read the author’s note?). In sum, you were in control of these digital worlds, and no adult or popular kid could tell you different. Pocket full of coins, and you were a god.

Not unlike comic shops, the arcade was pitiable bubble, reserved for the lost and forlorn who needed a place to bond. Aim for the high score, debate which was better: Space Invaders or Galaga or Asteroids or Arkanoid. We gamer geeks knew the difference, and such discourse was valued for it was nothing the cool basketballers would get. Which is probably why the original Tron resonated with me and my fellow goony gamers.

The original Tron director Steven Lisberger got it. Not only did he forsee the potential of CGI in movies, but was also prescient how video games would eventually gain traction in the mainstream in the near future. His CGI rendered cinescapes reflected the games of the time. Think the angular styles of Atari and Colecovision console games. Watching Tron with its dark tableau punctuated with sharp blues and reds just screaming now. Well, now is now then, but if the original flick didn’t hold up we—I—wouldn’t be dismantling the sequel made almost 30 years later. That’s staying power, just like the allure of the arcade or a new PS5.

Tron was this is us. The junior gamers got it. When I was a pup I knew I was on the right track when my mom after seeing the film proclaimed she “didn’t get it.”

Score.


The Effect…

About the “Eisenstein Effect” (finally that). Ever heard of it? Of course not, because I made it up. Follow.

I consider it the gold standard of cinematic tribute. It’s where in a key scene (or scenes) of a contemporary movie pays tribute to a classic film image-for-image as homage, rather than some cherry on a DQ Blizzard held upside down. A good example of this is in Star Wars: A New Hope where Luke, Han and the gang receive accolades from Leia for a job well done. Director George Lucas more or less lifted this scene from Leni Riefenstahl’s epic Nazi propaganda film Triumph Of The Will, and dubious subject matter be damned. Another fine example is—with not much surprise—how the big fight scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, vol 2, was lifted from Bruce Lee’s debut film, Fists Of Fury. Even animated flicks are prone this kind of tribute; Disney’s Beauty And The Beast‘s final dance scene mirrored Sleeping Beauty’s. And Aronofsky’s mindf*ck of a PSA Requiem For A Dream documenting drug abuse and its joys? Yeah, that bathtub scene. An identical scene (if not circumstance) appears in Satoshi Kon’s psychological thriller anime Perfect Blue.

Lastly comes from a fave film from my youth. The one that made the late Sean Connery my favorite actor. Brian de Palma’s big screen interpretation of The Untouchables, what with the daring shootout scene lifted from the latter’s seminal film, The Battleship ‘Potemkin’. It’s not ripping off. It’s homage, and director Sergei Eisenstein created Potemkin. Not to mention innumerable filmmakers like those above who offer a twist on an iconic film scene. A tip of the hat, if you will. I consider such flourishes as Easter Eggs for cinephiles. An inside joke between strangers. It’s a good thing, and enhances some intimacy about how we film lovers love films and vice versa. You get it or you don’t.

There’s a curious thing about interpretation and review: depending on who digests it says what the feature was all about. I’m not talking about personal opinion. I’m talking about the court of public opinion. See, Potemkin dropped in 1925, and therefore a silent film. It depicted the harrowing nature about serving in wartime on a Russian cruiser. Lenin himself (yes, that Lenin) praised the film as a triumph of propaganda depicting the bravery and sophistication of the Russian Navy. This was something of a myopic view, for Eisenstein cut his masterpiece as a caution of the futility of war and how Russian sailors were no more than cannon fodder. I’ve seen the film. Guess where my sympathies lie.

The Eisenstein Effect is, in essence, honest cinematic tribute. A director was inspired by a classic film and decided to appropriate a scene, twist it around in a tasteful manner and incorporate it into contemporary milieu. The original Tron did this, but unlike Lucas, Tarantino and de Palma director Lisberger caged scenery from the arcades like the Space Port. What was the primary influence, which an audience may follow.

When Flynn and his fellow renegade programs get beamed down to the game grid, they are charged to play versions of the hot game titles of the day. It’s all Atari fully realized. The Lightcycle and Space Paranoids of Flynn’s user creations perfectly echoed the arcade hits of the day. Lisberger was inspired by the arcades, and rendered those games lovingly in his film. Not the “conventional” Eisenstein Effect, but I made that crap up and was spot on in respecting the source material, namely those old skool, quarter gobbling, flash and dash arcade games, which your Mom didn’t get.

In the endgame if you think about it (but not too much) sequels can also be tributes. Sure, there’ve been some very deliberate footprints laid out. Some movies invite the potential of an overarching story (again: the Star Wars saga and the MCU). I’d never thought in 30 years the original Tron could invite a sequel. It does make logical sense, though. There was more of a story to tell, since the first film heralded in the digital age of filmmaking, and such technology is ever evolving. I suppose now that computer use is not longer relegated to geeks, hackers and the military—all one and the same, tee hee—as hot as it was in the early 80s. In the early teens it was CGI upload all the way. As of now: viral TikToks. Ain’t the future of digital video as entertainment grand? Sigh.

Yeah, yeah. I know, I know, I know. Shaddap and cut to the chase. I’ve felt for too long us moviegoers have been relegated to steerage, assumed to play well for crusts. Some perspective is always in order. It’s akin to how Tom Jefferson commented that one should never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you. You ever flinch at the price of a basic pack of Twizzers at concessions? Of course you don’t. I don’t. Sue me. Like with all our pleasures and sins, you get what you give.

Beyond the big bucket o’popcorn, a sequel demands some attention. It once illustrated that some hot property of a film like the first Star Wars episode, or that The Godfather‘s source material insisted two movies to tell the whole saga, or bloody anything that moves too close to the MCU. Sequels are at most negative return on investment. Sometimes the first film warrants some chapters, like with Star Wars, The Godfather, the second, third and fourth Star Trek films, the entire James Bond 007 franchise, the Toy Story trilogy and Indiana Jones. There was more to expound upon, more stories inviting a cohesive whole. That last bit may be why those series flourished, aside of profit. I’d like to think so, for there are endless, unnecessary sequel made like I named back a bit that were nothing more than cash grabs. Example? The Die Hard series should of quit it with Vengeance, and should’ve skipped the second movie out of good taste (an icicle? Really?).

The aforementioned is important, for Tron: Legacy lifts its entire story—sometimes scene for scene—from the original film. Eisenstein again. It’s not a rip off, but a respectful nod dedicated to similar nodding fans saying to themselves “I get it.” Considering that director Kosinski was my age when the original Tron dropped I can only hope/pray that he was so in love as I’ve been that he had once watched Potemkin also. Or The Untouchables. Or pissed away a lot of quarters standing in front of a Timepilot machine. All worthwhile activities, by the way.

So. When does a sequel become a cash grab, a legit story progression of a tribute to the original film? A curious question, which these rants have not properly answered.

As the old adage goes, “The proof is in the pudding.” And I dislike pudding, unless I don’t.

Please deposit another 25 cents to continue.


The Story…

Dateline 1982: Encom’s software whiz kid Kevin Flynn (Bridges) is officially acknowledged as the programmer of several very successful arcade games. By his new resolve, Flynn rose to the rank of Encom’s CEO and launched a digital crusade; indeed computers are the guide to driving the future! With that flourish, Encom endeavored in shareware gratis to all American school districts and private universities alike. Information should be shared, not hoarded.

Dateline 1989: The birth of the World Wide Web, and info guru Kevin Flynn’s going off the grid. Encom’s prodigy was never seen again.

Dateline 2010: Upon the proper release of Encom’s next gen OS, Sam Flynn (Hedlund) keeps up his annual prank fest, thumbing his nose at the high and mighty Encom. They built his dad up, they took him down, and possibly out of sight.

Dateline 2012: Sam’s been wondering and a little less than pissed off about where Dad escaped to. No message, no reason, no clue. Until a very old skool message from wherever gets paged, before God, to Dad’s old “partner-in-crime” Alan Bradley (Boxleitner). Alan suggests the page was meant for Sam, seeing it was sent from Dad’s abandoned video arcade. Naturally Sam’s curiosity takes over, and wending his way through the forgotten machines he locates what seems to be Dad’s old Encom intranet portal. After all these years of Dad waxing philosophical about Encom’s System and the Grid, was there a pixel of truth in all those stories?

Click AGREE to comply.


The Review…

Fair warning. A lot of the following is riddled with spoilers. Hate doing it, but I gotta make things clear. Now who want’s s’mores?

This is odd, but akin to The Godfather saga (but less grand), one must see the original Tron to fully appreciated its Legacy. Just saying you need to watch the first to understand/appreciate the second. Lots of sequels play that way. I mentioned above about how sequels must enhance the going story to be worthwhile viewing. Yes, most part twos are a charred potato, rushed into production before the domestic box office tally has been fully scored. You can probably count those kinds on all yer fingers and toes, and if you’re a guy that makes thirteen.

I’ll see myself out.

After this. I feel that a little gestation period between sequels and threquels and prequels against the primary film helps justify an ongoing existence. Consider this: The first two Godfather movies were filmed sequentially, as were the original Superman movies. Both were in the can at the same time and were later tweaked to better bridge the two chapters. Our renegade archaeologist Indiana Jones worked in reverse; the cast proper was introduced in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, then Indy was back in the first proper prequel, Temple Of Doom and then the gang en toto was back in full in real time for The Last Crusade (save Marion, but now Dad). But Marion would show up years later, so yeah, full circle. Good examples of sequels and their ilk; there’s more of a story there, so let’s explore. And, yeah, I left out Star Wars now. Those chapters do go without saying, yes.

All being said, when a sequel gets released lightyears after the mother film, I start scratching my head. Like I said, sometimes it works (EG: Aliens, Terminator 2, Toy Story 2, etc). Most of the time it doesn’t (EG: Caddyshack 2, dishonorable mentions The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, any Jaws feature after the first one, etc). Anyone with a brain in their ticket holding stub knows what they are most likely getting into. Not to sound all grand or nothing, but quoting Thomas Jefferson once again, “People pretty much get the government they deserve.” Butter topping on that?

The last time I recalled a belated sequel to a movie was for the weeper Terms Of Endearment. This Oscar friendly paean dropped in 1983, and won a few vital awards, like Best Picture and whatever. It’s loose sequel, The Evening Star was unleashed to nobody in 1996. That’s a 13 year hiatus. The original Tron came out in 1982. The sequel in 2010. Wanna do the math?

That’s 18 years. Eighteen. I know I mentioned decent sequels demand a little breathing room. The crew behind Tron: Legacy must’ve been asthmatics. It’s all a good thing. Calm down. Here, have a Twizzler.

In hindsight after seeing Legacy its slow gestation made sense. Consider how the home video game consoles evolved so rapidly in the past 25 years. We’re at PS5 at the time of this installment, and consider its legacy since the 90s. Gaming has become a subculture to mainstream in a very short time if you think about it. The official console wars (not war, but plural) have been raging since the PSX dropped in 1995. Before that it was a pissing contest. Nintendo versus Sega, always trying to outsell more units. Players back then gave little sh*t to the inner workings of the SNES or Genesis (and their offspring), so long as the games were good. That last thing still holds today, what with true gamers knowing a tad more that just bitrate. Oh, and the Internet came along so there.

It is utterly numbing how fast consoles try to outdo one another. Despite being retro, I keep abreast of the latest specs of the next gen consoles and their gaming fodder, I just don’t invest in them. Why? Budget, nostalgia, budget, speed runs, ran out of HDMI ports and budget. And for the record I have eight and/or nine retro consoles corralled into a very exhausted Vizio flatscreen and multiple switch boxes. My pedigree as retro speaks volumes, and yet I still have a g/f to play Pokémon GO with. She’s the better trainer BTW, but I have two—two—fully maxed out Raichu. A boy and a girl. Wait, Pokémon breed?

*leaves rustling*

I’d like to think I have some qualifications as a gamer, albeit old skool. I mean I still have my very first console the g.1 NES—which I got as a twelfth b’day gift and is still working fine 20-some years later, thank you very much—a g.2 SNES (not the “toaster”), a Sega Master System, the Sega Genesis mk. 2, the underrated Sega Saturn, the extremely underrated Sega Dreamcast, a Wii, a Game Boy Advance SP (gotta play classic Pokémon somehow, pika pika) and a PS2 slim (which I bought new after hawking my old PSX and g.1 PS2). Anything else I check out Steam. I’d like to lay a claim I understand how a Tron sequel was inevitable, but not immediately so.

A movie based on/inspired by video gaming like the original Tron required patience for any going audience to catch up. Took a long time, even considering 90s boom. Now gamers are far more tech savvy, demand better programming and now we have MMORPG’s that connect the whole f’n planet into a virtual gaming world not unlike the Encom gaming Grid from those innocent days of yore that just needed a pocketful of coins and a Big Gulp to power up. Or a buddy you’d abuse to play Atari again at his house after school, guzzling down all his Gatorade. True story.

(I also almost bankrupted myself years ago playing Phantasy Star Online v2.0 on my broadband Dreamcast, which is why now I swear off MMOs. Also a true story.)

Legacy evolved as gaming evolved. Think the Metroid Prime saga, Wipeout Fury and other s/f racers, the Mass Effect series, etc. The inspiration was there—another tribute—based on how far we’ve come in gaming, for good and for ill. The games are more sophisticated now than the quarter gulpers of yesteryear. Legacy dropped at the same time when the PS3 (one of the most hot properties at the time) and the Xbox 360 in its stride engaged in battle, and the Wii swept them both under the rug with the first attempt at actual physical engagement into the game world. And Steam had already been viable since 2003. Like I keep hammering, gaming has become one with the mainstream.

So with evolution, a movie based on gaming and it’s ascent into the mainstream, despite said long gestation, I supposed it was about time that Tron would invite a sequel. And it did. And with that it did the gamers proud. That and those who like quick, crisp, organic CGI not exclusively reserved for action scenes or reducing facial wrinkles. Okay, all that was there, but there was also that ur-Eisenstein thing. And like the original, Legacy was also prescient as well as potent. Consider the film’s patient timeline, for instance. I’m pretty sure the original Tron was relegated to cult thing and some dandruff Disney was quick to brush away. However in TV land a lot of series were revived due to pressure from Internet posts and sympathetic network affiliates that needed to fluff up their schedule (EG: think Futurama, Family Guy and MST3K).

Here’s a kind of cinematic clickbait with Legacy. In the opening/flashback scenes, the last time young Sam spent with his dad Kevin was in the summer of 1989. That was the official/unoffical year when the US government declassified their network for commercial use. Look it up:

Berners-Lee, Timothy. Weaving The Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor. Harper San Francisco (1999).

No hyperlink here; you’re gonna have to do some homework. The future just happened.

*burp*

That was enlightening. Back to the review.

Just a moment, some clarification. My g/f has become the practical Siskel to my jelly donut Ebert when plying my trade. Over the past few installments she’s watched the selected movies with me, offering up her observations and opinions. She did this a lot with Legacy, doubtless because we watched the original the night before and she found that movie to be a lot of fun. So as I have in the recent past I will make now policy: whenever you read “K:” in a comment it was her insight, not mine. She’s been very helpful, and deserves credit. Moving on.

At its core Legacy is about family. The ties that bind and all that entails. The first film had a hint of that. Fellow programmers trying to maintain the ethics of their once cottage industry up against the corporate machine, but there was no blood there. At the outset, Legacy illustrates the bond between Kevin Flynn and young Sam. K: Sam has all of his dad’s Tron merch on display in his bedroom, illustrating young Sam believes in Dad. It’s a bit touching, that and Kevin is just as much a kid and his son. Bonding. It draws you in, unless you have ice in your spine. The movie lets you melt at this point, and also inform you as to who Sam becomes as a grown-up. Namely, living in a garage as all good nerds do when creating. Like Dad with his hacking for the greater good..

Such a setup can be one’s undoing. Like with all sequels, there must be more to tell but also honor the source material. Legacy‘s example? Check out all the motorcycles in the first act. A nod to Tron? Maybe. Foreshadowing? Definitely. When we finally get down to game grid level, the Encom System resembles the gamescape of early 10s games as the original mimicked the early 80s arcade analogs. Like I implied: tech is ever evolving, and with Legacy as does the continuing saga. In sum, Legacy to Sam is all about catching up, if not with his absentee father but also experiencing that the Grid is real, and will challenge you as it did Dad. A family thing, remember?

What I dug about Legacy was that it was not as cold as the original. From my experience, director Lisberger wanted his world of Tron to be cold, yet producing its own light via the landscape crackling with electricity. At the outset if Sam’s adventure in the upgraded Grid is heated by the blooming reds of corrupted files. It’s not as clinical as the prime film. Legacy is more “symphonic” than the original. More organic. The first film had a soundtrack derived from the bleeps and bloops of old skool synths and arcade machines. Now we have Daft Punk driving the soundtrack, well adept at creating futuristic soundscapes (I own their first two vital albums. An inspired bit of contracting). Everything screams (K:) “Upgrade!” And it sure was. We had lots of flash, dash and Matrix-style action, however not really detracting from the family drama that acts as the backbone of the plot. As I said the environment of Legacy was less cold than the original. And much to my surprise, it worked.

Thanks to the new programming, Legacy‘s new color scheme was key to and thanks for its keen application this time out. I can’t compare the first the second film enough, but the use off color was an extension of the story thread. Back in ’82, blue was good, red was bad, CLU was yellow. And it was a heckuva reveal when the one-time cyber bloodhound of Kevin Flynn evolved/mutated in our antagonist, CLU v2.0. Yellow in Legacy meant bad news for Sam and crew. Think about it, if you’re working from your own private agendum who gives a sh*t what side you belong. And Bridges as CLU paired against virtual Kevin made a very clever Jekyll vs Hyde dynamic. Hey, sometime the old crap works.

Despite how CLU loomed large over the advanced grid, it’s not to say that Kevin and Sam are mere pawns in his game. But before we get to that, let us consider this “plot hole.” Namely: how the f*ck did CLU came back to full operation? This was a major issue with Tron fanboys. I had to ruminate over this bugaboo also. This glitch harkens back to young Kevin trying to crack the code to hack into Encom’s intranet.

WARNING: TECHNOBABBLE AHEAD!

Inquiring geeks want to know. In the real world, CLU is syntax with the computer language ALGOL (algorithmic language), which was developed at MIT back in the day designed for more or less “seek and/or destroy” programming. The root sub-language is in Cluster (ergo: “CLU”). Its syntax is designed to unravel very complex numbers. Namely, a pre-programmed rouge program to weed out unneeded data that may hinder a network, designed by an independent user (EG: Flynn as hacker). And now you know. Blame MIT.

Whew. Yer welcome.

That being babbled, CLU v1.0 was not destroyed by Master Control two decades hence, but rather appropriated into Encom’s network, rather than expunged as we were led to believe in the first movie. I bring this up to silence all the Tron dorks who were screaming “What the f*ck?” back in 2010. Do yer f*cking homework you hackers you. I did, and it took less time than dial-up. So there.

Whew v2.0.

Wait. K: Kevin Flynn’s present memory disk is the memory bank for the entire new Grid he created. It hold’s all system’s memories. If that gets into CLU’s hands everyone is in trouble. Smart girl, and also commented, “the student became the teacher.” Bingo. Moving on.

Back to the color thing; color’s vital here, day. Since we figured out that CLU and his minions are trying to achieve separation (read: sentience a la the MCP back then), not to mention insurrection. K: The characters that are red imply, “Yer gonna get burned, Sam,” as if on fire in rage; the blues are oppressed and must remain calm. It’s all zeroes and ones. And it’s a very apt analogy.

Am I looking too deeply into all of this? You bet. It’s fun to pick apart films you like. Star Wars nerds, change my mind.

But, as always, there are hiccups with Legacy. There always are. There was a sh*tton of data to download with Legacy, maybe to get the newbs caught up. Legacy had a lot more exposition and navel-gazing this time out. The original was all about show me, don’t tell me. The basic plot invited that simple, effective precept. Legacy felt more like the Matrix sequels, trying to reinvent the bicycle. The upgraded Grid is so very life and death that any mistep from the emotional Users involved will unravel reality. Heavy portent, and far from the light-hearted tone of the first film. I’m saying that Legacy is a well-constructed sequel (more of a tribute really), even for non-fanboys, but heavy, man. Heavy.

The execution here is less basal than the first movie, and jazzed up for more “sophisticated” PlayStation pilots—a lot more stylish—but the song remained the same. Good versus evil. Cool CGI that complemented the film rather than weigh it down. Nifty soundtrack, In sum, overall and counting the numbers Legacy tickled my 7 year old self now as for the same fun with the first one: digital fantasy, efficient action, geeky humor and devoid of artistic merit beyond the frame rate. Legacy sure as heck didn’t feel two hours long. Pacing, as always. Regardless of exposition and thanks to Jeff Bridges in a dual role.

Hear what I’m screaming AMPAS?

From the deck of the Potemkin: End of line.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a good companion piece to the original. Watch it paired with the first Tron and make it a double feature. It’s all good popcorn fodder, perfect for a lazy Saturday afternoon.


The Stray Observations…

  • “We’re always on the same team.”
  • Mickey logo on Sam’s motorcycle helmet. Discuss.
  • Now that is a big door!
  • K: Was that some sort of shadow simulation over Sam’s route to Dad’s lab? Like with the last movie? Again, sharp girl.
  • No one: Sam’s shop’s named DuMont, probably honoring Walter’s avatar in the first movie. Ever wonder where that moniker came from? History time! The DuMont TV network launched in 1942, and was rival to ABC. Long story short, DuMont’s programming was too ahead of its time, but later cable TV took a nod from its misunderstood scheduling based on content, not just entertaining (read: like The History Channel, Discovery Channel and Food Network in the 90s). DuMont folded in 1956, almost forgotten. Walter was co-founder of Encom, old and almost forgotten. And now you know.
  • “I’m tired and I smell like jail.”
  • Anti-Tron purrs like an overfed cat.
  • Oh Lord. Not Journey again.
  • Notice all those motorcycles.
  • Did that dinner scene remind you of the last act of 2001?
  • K: Like father, like son.
  • I felt that Wilde was only brought on board cuz she was hot. And duh!
  • And her character’s name Quorra, Sam’s digital love interest and Kevin’s operative, means “heart.” Subtle?
  • “Made it.”
  • Sometimes life moves faster than zeros and ones. K: Kinda like Cheerios. Me: Kinda profound that.
  • “Yer messin’ with my Zen thing, man!”
  • Does this installment compete in length with I’m Not There? I lost word count.
  • “I’m a User. I’ll improvise.”

The Next Time…

Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl make for an unlikely pair of KIllers, but hey, so are most newlyweds.

Huh?

Pull!


 

RIORI Presents Installment #195: Bergeron, Letterman & Jenson’s “Shark Tale” (2004)


The Film…


The School…

Will Smith, Jack Black, Robert DeNiro, Renee Zellweger, Angelina Jolie and Martin Scorsese, with Peter Falk, Vincent Pastore, Michael Empirioli, Katie Couric, Doug E Doug and Ziggy Marley.


The Plot…

No one likes a loser, but that’s usually from the loser’s point of view.

Oscar is a little fish in a big ocean. Sure, he has a secure life at the whale wash, but he can’t help but dream about being the cream of the crop on the high cliffs on the Reef. Only to hope for the better.

Lenny is a big fish in a small pool. He’s a disappointment to his Don of a shark, and won’t chomp lesser fish for ethical reasons. Lousy philosophy for an apex predator, and a disappointment to Pop. Only to hope for the worst.

So what are these odd couple of fish coming together gonna do to reach their goals?

Simple: social media and spray paint. Worked for David Flowie.


The Rant…

Got a meaty one for you this week. Ready?

This one was not my idea. I actually wrestled with it. Animated movies are almost unheard of here at RIORI for scrutiny. There was the recent Looney Tunes: Back In Action installment, but that was a mix of live action and cells. There was my take on Pixar’s Brave, which in my opinion was a very creaky, non-Pixar endeavor if there ever was one after the first Cars flick (IE: Cars 2 was deplorable, where the merch hit the stands before the movie proper hit the theatre). I’ve strayed away—mostly—form tackling mediocre animated flicks here because on the whole there is no specific audience. Unlike anime features, where there is a line always in the sand about where the content of a film takes you (EG: Akira and Ghost In The Shell is not Studio Ghibli), American animated films are designed to appeal to both young and old at the same time. Then again, if I have to sit through Frozen ONE MORE TIME I’m gonna have to let it go. Let it all go.

*applause*

Yer welcome.

Shark Tale was a favorite flick for K. She loved this pastiche. Then again, she’s a gourmet regarding animated films. She’s a Pixar junkie, just like me. She is a dyed-in-wool Disney fan. Stone cold. She appreciates my adoration of Studio Ghibli’s output. We both dig the Looney Tunes (well, I dig. She goes along with them). I always have to be on top anyway we dig animated flicks. However there must be a line in the sand. Just because a movie is pixilated or celled does not a good film make. Passable yes, but not necessarily good. Ever watch the House Of Mouse’s output during the 70s? ‘Course not.

It was federal law to watch animated flicks when I was a pup. I was a Reagan Baby, and across the 80s there was a crazy quilt of animated feature films available to entertain and warp me at an impressionable (read: dumb) age. I wasn’t aware at the time, but there were a handful of what could be considered “subversive” films in that animated universe. Don’t quote me on this, but in hindsight the 80s might’ve been the watershed to introduce “adult” concepts into ostensibly movies designed for the junior set. Granted, there were classic Disney films the pushed the envelope. Sleeping Beauty featured baddie Malificent morph into a demonic dragon. Some asshat shot Bambi’s mom. The donkey-as-sin scene from Pinocchio is still harrowing. Hell, Cruella DiVille got her own movie recently, which admits her staying power as a palpable, lizard-like villain. So yeah, Uncle Walt’s early triumphs did not shy away from the more unpleasant aspects of life, real or imagined.

The following is all hindsight 20/20, 30 years on and not so dumb anymore (hopefully less dumb). Although I didn’t take much notice at the time, I’ve since recalled a handful of animated flicks that, well, left a curious taste in my brain. If you’re a member of Gen X you might dig what I’m sharing. Come, walk with me. It’s down a foggy memory lane. I have cookies.

Recall the Rankin/Bass meditation on death and rebirth that was The Last Unicorn. The creepiness of conspiracy and tyranny with The Secret of NIMH, what with its literal backstabbing. Heck, before the first act of the original (animated) Transformers movie began the nasty Decepticons whacked dozens of Autobot stalwarts from the TV series into so much scrap metal (I was really bummed how Ratchet—the Autobots’ medic—got mowed down by the nasty Megatron in gun form, which was based on a Nazi pistol). The flick had a stellar, old skool celebrity voice cast (EG: Orson Welles, Robert Stack and Lionel Stander, all hamming it up and having a blast). Some coarse language and lots of violence pervaded the film rendering our Autobot heroes from the last three sanitized seasons on TV rendered into smoldering slag. And the perquisite, unrelenting, insufferable, cheezy 80s soundtrack courtesy of Vince DiCola to boot. There was me as an eleven-year old: Cool! Ugh.

Finally, the proud, meat-of-the-matter example of us Gen X kids growing up too fast, the original (again animated) G.I. Joe movie had a very terse scene. The climax. It occurred when one of the principal protags—I think was Special Forces agent Flint—got shot by a COBRA operative pointblank and bled out so fast he slipped into a coma. And never returned to the film. Go figure it out.

These were animated flicks. Cartoons. And were acceptable as kids’ “entertainment” by the MPAA. Times sure have changed. Maybe a tad too much.

Word is born. Good luck finding any straightforward “serious” content in kiddie flicks nowadays, save Pixar’s output and much of that is drama driving any conflict. Now for real, I’m not trying to romanticize the past. In fact above I tried to and I don’t feel so romantic. Hold me. It was not that long ago that a hard-nosed plot element made kids think as well as entertain. Again, raise a glass to Pixar, possibly the last bastion in animated studios that “get it.” Good, if not great animated movies are both provocative as well as endearing. Once again with Pixar, the opening montage in Up speaks volumes with no voices to be heard. Prods your brain, invites you into Carl’s worldview and why. Can’t lie that it’s my fave Pixar movie, and always enduring once you own up to the message of loss and redemption. It’s not about cranky Carl. It’s not about Russell and his dim-witted Kevin. It’s all about Ellie. Chew on that.

And WALL-E is all about conspicuous consumerism. And Charlie Chaplin. Sorry about the headache.

Enough about Pixar. I mean enough about Pixar. Time to talk about the competitors, specifically DreamWorks. They’re the guys responsible for fodder like Shark Tale.

I will be polite. I am allegedly an adult now. If I was able then to deal with one of my fave actors Jeff Bridges as Prince Lir getting gored by the devil Red Bull and reviving in the drink, I can play nice now (sh*t, tell me your best bar story). I’ve learned/understood a few things as of late regarding modern animated films. I’ll get back to that after this one thought:

I never killed the school back in my junior high days suffering under the influence of watching Voltron. Nowadays I suffer this…


The Story…

Oscar (Smith) has always dreamed he’d hit it big someday. Instead of toiling at Mr Sykes’ (Scorsese) Whale Wash he rather be with his head in the clouds. Jet set. Living a life of luxury at the top tier of the Great Reef. But nooooo, whales are endangered and need regular flossing. Crap in a hat.

Lenny (Black) is a shark of ethics, and has never wanted a piece of the action like his pop, Don Lino (DeNiro). Lino is the head of the local shark Mafia and his cosa nostra shakedown is pretty straightforward: gobble up fish. It’s what sharks do, except pacifist Lenny, disgrace to The Family. All he wants out of his miserable existence is to have dad’s respect. Be someone, but that means putting his conscience aside. What to do?

Well, as comedy of errors go, both Oscar and Lenny meet at the crossroads of fate. Square peg Lenny feels he has no business with the sharks, and Oscar has no business with his head in the clouds of the rich and famous. Due to accidental destiny, between them both Oscar succeeds in reaching the high life thanks to Lenny’s bumbling, and Lenny finds a new family amongst the lesser fish of the reef.

Until Don Lino and his crew come looking for his cowardly son. And the wrasse-hole that “slayed” Lenny’s big bro Frankie (Empirioli).

Now it’s all up in the foam. Well, thank goodness what the right swatch of blue can do.


The Review…

Picking it up now, there were quite a few detractors who regarded Transformers: The Movie as nothing more than a glorified toy commercial. They weren’t entirely wrong. As a kid what I dug about the film (besides the collateral damage and Spike shouting “sh*t” out of panic) was not so much the prospect of new toys on the horizon and new eps on TV. Nope, it was the movie’s introduction of new characters. Consider this, really do. When you consider a film to claiming “a cast of thousands” (hyperbole aside) don’t you groan a bit at the claim? I understand it’s an old gimmick, and now a cheesy cliche, but really. Most films seldom have too many principals. If you think about it Star Wars: A New Hope only had seven leads. The film series invites grand things, but with a small, core cast. Luke, Han, Leia, Threepio, Artoo, Obi-Wan and Vader. Everyone else is just gravy, no matter how core Peter Cushing’s role of Moff Tarkin was central to the plot. Lesser fans of the movie forget about him regardless. Fanboys…never say much either. Hope was no Spartacus, and for good reason.

The core cast thing works wonders for most live-action films. There may be a lot of secondaries and extras (EG: every Woody Allen, Robert Altman and/or Lawrence Kasdan film) in big flicks with big stories, but that eyewash is only there as filler. When that formula goes awry—read: David Lynch’s Dune or DeMille’s The Ten Commandments as examples—it’s akin to getting dinner at your local Italian red sauce joint where the menu folds out like a road map atlas with over a hundred meal options taunting you. You eventually just settle on the lasagne. Like last time. Every time. Too many options.

Ah, but for animated movies it’s practically de riguer to have a “cast of thousands.” It’s always the more the merrier. Consider this, Disney’s first theatrical, animated release was Snow White & The Seven Dwarves. The title alone speaks of a broad spectrum of players. Okay, maybe not, but back in 1937 a full length feature film that was fully animated was an unusual achievement. And never mind Snow or her charges, or the Wicked Queen or Prince Charming. Instead recall that this was the 30s. There were no such tech as we have today for sound effects. An unholy host of “extras” provided bird whistles, other nature sounds and even singing as backdrop to match the soundtrack. I recently checked the manifest of voice actors, et al that provided sound for Snow White. It took 20 people—voice actors and F/X crew alike—to imbue the film with the warmth we all recollect from seeing Walt’s big deal animated movie. Not a thousand people, but you get it, and it set a standard being followed my modern animated films to this day.

*crickets*

Okay, okay. In short if you’ve ever seen the Toy Story films, the Shrek movies, the Madagascar flicks, Sing, Over The Hedge, and if you wanna count Despicable Me with its myriad Minions a big animated voice cast works. It’s required these days. You gotta have that cast of…tens to make sure they are sewn into the tapestry of the story. And naturally there are no small roles, small parts, just small attention spans. Those help also when trying to digest so much technicolor upchuck.

Swing and a miss.

A big vocal cast to a big feature animated movie. Sometimes it works and sometimes it “works.” Shark Tale was on a fence here. It’s not the notes its how you play blah blah blah. There was no economy of dialogue here to warrant a big cast, except for cheap, there-and-gone gags. That and this high profile cast of yeoman voice actors didn’t help move the story along. Good thing there wasn’t much of a story I guess. Look, for once I’ll upchuck all of the lousy parts from this week’s hanging and get on to the praise. Both are in equal parts BTW. I’d like to be mannered this time out.

Ahem. The story. Shark‘s is a tried-and-true plot device. Read: boring. Our two misfits from opposite sides of the tracks do some wheeler-dealing to get in good graces with the right crowd. In this case, Oscar wants to make a name for himself and Lenny wants to be accepted for who his. It’s a riff on Trading Places, or Strangers On A Train, or A Bug’s Life, before God. It’s been done before and with more panache, but was lost on Shark. It’s merely a canvas for wisecracking and getting all goofy on yo ass. There ain’t much meat on this whale fall, and for all it pluses, there is way to much filler and pandering to kids and adults alike. The story is stale and no amount of pop culture asides can redeem this tale twice told ten times over. A shame.

It’s understood that I am an unabashed Pixar fan. Beyond the cutting edge CGI, Pixar’s flicks have healthy, well-built stories with fleshed out characters and a certain plot pinion—the almighty Maguffin—that informs the entire story. With Up, Coco, Inside Out, WALL-E et al, there was a single trigger to set the story in motion. EG: Millie’s death, Coco’s fading memory of her beloved Hector’s music, Riley’s troublesome move and solitude against conspicuous consumerism respectively. Unlike Shark, these stories don’t use tropes as a crutch, but as a launchpad.

This is my issue with DreamWorks’ animated movies. It kinda goes along with the line about “cast of thousands.” As of late, there is only one DreamWorks animated I’ve loved, and oddly enough the plot is based on a million other stories (EG: our protagonist put in a responsibility to care for a troubled pet), as with a fave of mine How To Train Your Dragon, which had some weight being based on a series of books. It was a boy and his dog, classic. It’s that blues riff again. Unfortunately most of DreamWorks CGI output lacks nuance, since nuance doesn’t sell well with most animated films for a fast buck. Think again about Despicable Me and its sequels following the laws of diminishing returns.

DreamWorks as well as other animated studios of a similar ilk (EG: Illumination with those damned minions again) cage way too many pop culture riffs to serve as humor. Think Family Guy. At least with Disney/Pixar there’s some breathing room, some satori with tasteful exposition. With most DreamWorks animated flicks it’s all about flash, dash, splash and being utterly disposable. Sometimes such disposable fluff’s a welcome thing, but when there is precious little meat on the plot to begin with, and all that flash gets hella boring f*cking quick. I mean name one memorable scene in DreamWorks’ production catalog beyond Fiona singing the bird to death. Right. Gimmicks as entertainment. All of Shark‘s pop culture refs would go over the kiddies’ heads, and just came across as trying too hard.

Rough, I know. However the big deal redeeming factor of Shark is its animation. The whole movie is f*cking beautiful. The whole show is very pretty, very colorful, very vibrant. Luscious is the watchword with Shark, and majority of the budget been spent on pixels upon pixels. Sure wasn’t invested in sharp scenarists (ow!). It’s a gorgeous movie. I can’t stress that enough.

Beyond just being lovely to look at, the animation was also quite clever. Unlike Finding Nemo, our fishy friends in Shark are over top anthropomorphic and all the better for it. I loved how the character’s faces resembled their flesh-and-blood human counterparts. Oscar looked like Smith. Lenny looked like Black. Don looked like DeNiro (note the birthmark on the cheek). Check out Mr Sykes’ bushy brows. And Lola was Jolie. Amazing, and very amusing. I ain’t made outta stone, people.

Natch, voice acting always brings out the best in actors with unique voices and their cadence. For example with Shark, Smith got to ham it up to 11, channeling his inner Fresh Prince. His spin seemed almost cathartic. Let’s expel some serious goofiness akin to primal scream therapy. Well, that and taking time to skewer his public image. As did the supporting cast, especially Black whose squeaky Lenny was barely recognizable as Black himself (and for a first, no histrionics. Didn’t think it was in him).

Here’s another nifty example about healthy self-parody Shark permitted our vocal cast. For years Jolie has more or less having her acting chops be waylaid by her looks. Here we have a great parody of that dilemma. In the endgame her best roles downplay her pretty face. Ever see Malificent? What’s I’m saying—despite the weak story and splash and dash—is that the voice actors get to tear it up, make fun of their public image, or embrace it with more cheeze than the Kraft conglomerate. Yeah, the pop riffs were lame, but the execution was a delight. Kind of a weird paradox.

So what’s my final word? Well, Shark was madcap, exquisitely beautiful to watch, funny in fits and starts, freaking loud in execution (like sporting an orange shirt at the beach) and definitely all about style over substance. K loves this movie, probably for the same reasons I’ve been all meh about it. Still, what I loved about Shark was not what she liked. Call this a lesson in cinematic life: it takes all kinds. A kinds of takes. Get it?

Go fish.


The Verdict…

A mild relent it. This ain’t Pixar territory here, and that’s okay. On another hand Shark Tale should be mandatory viewing for every budding CGI animation student.


The Stray Observations…

  • “Is that supposed to be the Titanic?”
  • “That’s not how you sing that song, mon.”
  • “Nobody loves a nobody.”
  • Danger: Heavy Load.
  • Echo!
  • “Go be useless somewhere else.” I must use that line at work.
  • License plate. Ever see Jaws? Heh.
  • Crazy Joe. Sorry, not sorry.
  • What was that thing a while back when Scorsese derided the MCU as “not cinema?” Huh.
  • The Whale Wash is like a dentist appointment from Hell.

The Next Time…

Why didn’t the folks at Disney call the sequel Tron 2.0 instead of Tron: Legacy? Some people don’t have a Clu.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #194: Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” (2016)


The Film…


The Players…

Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani, with Barry Shabaka Henley, William Jackson Harper, Chasten Harmon, Cliff “Method Man” Smith,  Rizman Manji, Trevor & Troy Parham and Masatoshi Nagase.


The Plot…

Paterson NJ bus driver Paterson drives by day and lives by night. More like late afternoon when his route is over. It’s then he’s Paterson the poet, poring over his notebook to get just the right words. Like a lot of poets they find their inspirations in the mundane, and often keep their best stuff from the light of day. His wife Laura thinks his stuff is great and should be published, but Paterson is wary.

He feels, well, what if is his work isn’t great? Unlike Paterson’s favorite son and idol William Carlos Williams, our driver friend figures he’s better off being obscure.

Just another fellow traveller, so to speak.


The Rant…

Bad news, folks. Being a Hollywood star isn’t glamorous anymore. Hasn’t been that way for years considering how the Studio System collapsed and died in the early 50s. Back then the Warners, MGM, RKO and a slough of the rest kept a tight grip on their core stars and the projects they were attached to. Simply put, a classic like Casablanca could not be made without Bogie having a contract with the Warners and director in a pinch Michael Curtiz being beholding to the Warners. It doesn’t work that way anymore and for decades. Today it’s just a dog and pony show. Kinda like free agents in baseball. It’s not the laborious quality of the picture that earns millions, it’s the smiling faces and name directors who earn billions. Considering the average cost of a movie ticket is about $12 and streaming services are averaged are $180, the producers in La La Land probably don’t give two sh*ts about creative control and return customers all they want is the dailies to gauge how to leverage a tenth mortgage on they’re third villa in Switzerland. Does this tentpole star this and whomever? Green light! Skiing is fun.

Well…Sometimes it’s just for the better to not follow the double diamond and just keep to the bunny slopes. I never knew if Irwin Allen ever hit fresh powder, and that’s how I wish it.

We’re talking about filmmaker Jim Jarmusch here, the anti-director. He directs his movies by not directing them. That’s what it feels like. That’s a complement. He finds inspiration in the mundanities of life. A lot his movies do. Almost all of them have a low key tenor about them, which is also nice considering most film auteurs utilize wrenching emotion from their delicate toys to make a statement. More like a STATEMENT, whatever that is. And I hate auteur theory. Hey kids, you don’t need to scream to get yourself heard. Anything more is a desperate cry for attention from people you don’t wanna meet. Ever seen an ep of The Bachelorette? Right, me neither.

From what I’ve watched of Jim’s filmography there is always this omnipresent feeling of calm belying the film’s passive/aggresive tension. C’mon, a week in the life of a bus driver sounds very far from engaging. However, once you shroud this picayune plot in dry humor, thoughtful narrative structure and an almost left-of-center sensibility then you got a story. This is how Jarmusch makes his films, with a sense of unease that provides the tension. That and the proto-Monty Python awareness that like Harvey Pekar’s comic American Splendor claimed that ordinary life is complicated stuff. Jarmusch is a whiz with nuance. That and making—demanding—you pay f*cking attention. Blink and you’ll miss a vital plot point, like Bruce Willis looking for a match in The Fifth Element (watch it to get it).

Hey, figure this: Jarmusch’s films ain’t for everyone. They require a degree of patience—a Masters’ degree—as well a keeping a sharp eye. And being patient. It’ll come to you. Just quite literally sit back and relax. Keep your peepers peeled and enjoy the ride. That’s really all their is to it with Jarmusch’s films. That and the tickling, gnawing sensation at the back of your mind continuously prodding you, “What’s going on here?” Usually, it’s a character study shot in a dead pan style. And I ain’t talking about Leslie Nielsen’s comedy roles (see below).

Just…just hold on. Be patient, remember? Thanks.

I may have touched upon this before here at RIORI, but I’ve been adherent to this aesthetic for over twenty-five years so it’s still relevant. Esp’ watching certain kinds of movies directed by Jim Jarmusch. Or Wim Wenders, Richard Linklater or even Woody Allen to name a few. All of those guys have something similar in their execution which is at both times ineffable and relatable. You don’t quite get it, but you get it on some other level, like in the vein of another aesthetic that I’ve been adhering to for the past quarter century. I may have touched upon it before here at RIORI. Again, thanks for your patience. Now check it.

In my salad days I signed up for a college class called “Shakespeare In Film.” Self-explanatory. The prof not only played English speaking films based on the Bard, but also adaptations from other cultures. A BBC take on The Taming Of The Shrew (starring ex-Python John Cleese as would-be playboy Petruchio) was an uproar. There was quite a bit of scenery chewing by Sir Laurence Olivier across several movies. There was this very baroque take on Hamlet by some German troupe which had this whole vibe that wafted, “Sorry about the war and all.” And interpretations in Japanese cinema. Films from esteemed directors like Juzo Itami, Ishiro Honda and of course Akira Kurosawa.

I was hooked. No, not with Shakespeare. I dug his sh*t years prior to the class. Japanese films. No shocker, they sure had a different aesthetic to making movies than us in the West. I found it engaging and refreshing. It was nice to not have exposition rammed down our rifles. Take Kurosawa, for instance. He had this economy to all his movies, from dialogue to action. Say what needs to propel the story only. Engage in action that propels the story. And go bonkers when needed so long as it propels the story. And end the story when it ends. No gag reels. In a sense of artless inspiration, Kurosawa got into filmmaking because it was easier than being a painter.

Noting Kurosawa’s filmmaking ethos, a great deal of his muse stemmed from traditional Japanese art forms and styles. Most Japanese directors do; there’s very little cross-pollination with influences with a culture that were staunch isolationists for centuries. Unlike Western design that one nation culls of from an other (EG: traditional opera is only in German or Italian). What Kurosawa did, like Jarmusch has, was making tropes his own. Something new, something old, something else, pass the salt.

Here, before I get lost in the brambles…

That artistic sensibility I’ve been trolling you with is called mono no aware. It’s Japanese, translates to “moment of transience.” Perhaps you’ve heard of the Cherry Blossom Festival in Tokyo, where in spring the cherry trees bloat with pink petals that fall like snow for a few weeks. Right. Nothing beautiful lasts so appreciate it while you can. Be it cherry blossoms, a month at the beach, or a gourmet meal. Nothing good lasts. Kurosawa was a master of projecting mono no aware. So is Jarmusch, albeit left of center. As for Kurosawa here’s a proper example, all to the right. The final scene of Seven Samurai screams this.

Here. The man’s revisionist take on Shakespeare’s King Lear, Ran follows the basic plot lines, but with a lot of expanse (EG: lots of drawn out scenes). Shakespeare’s dramas are quick and clipped and bouncy (read: all of them). Kurosawa’s adaptations take as much time as they need, be it longer or shorter. Mostly longer. There was this scene in Ran showing a scene of samurai on horseback crossing a river. Pretty standard for a film about a battle. The crossing scene took over ten minutes to film and the creek was barely a yard wide. My prof pointed out to the class to watch this scene. And again. And watch it again. And watch it again. I did, and I got it.

Mindfulness. Listen to the bubbling of the river. Take note of how muscular the horses are, and how they trode to avoid the rocks. The stern, blank expressions of the samurai. Watch this. And watch this again. Again.

It was a moment of satori, which informed the dire matter of why the samurai had to venture into enemy territory. This scene was a grave matter, alluding to future conflicts on a not so distant horizon. Be mindful, watch this.

In Japanese, Ran roughly translates to “chaos.” It’s the opposite of Jarmusch’s muse. Be patient, watch and wait some more. It may be rewarded.

One more thing before I lacerate Paterson this old story. It’s kind of a joke, and you may have already heard it before. If you haven’t, please follow along:

A simple man climbs the mountain to speak with the wise man. Once there he asks, “Wise Man, what is the meaning of life?”

The wise man replies, “Life is a flower.”

The simple man was confused, “What do you mean ‘Life is a flower?'”

The wise man blinks, “You mean it’s not?”

Bestow to Jarmusch’s work and muse, it is.


The Story…

Paterson (Driver) is an average bus driver in Paterson, NJ. Very auspicious, since he’s a part time poet not unlike his hero poet William Carlos Williams, Paterson, New Jersey’s favorite son. Most likely the best thing that came out of the grimy town.

Paterson lives a simple life. Wakes up early without aid of an alarm clock. Enjoys his cereal while pondering his next poem. Taking his moody dog Marvin for a walk after work on the way to tie one on at the local bar. And he’s always especially encouraging—albeit reluctantly—his wife Laura’s (Farahani) creative outlets. Be it an amateur interior designer, guitar student or would be cupcake baker no matter what flighty flight of fancy his bae chases, Paterson’s there for her, with the right complement.

It’s a win-win. Laura is his best fan and critic of Paterson’s poetry. In truth, she’s his only fan. Paterson doesn’t share his passion with the world. Publishing never entered his mind. Just writing poetry and his daily routes—which are one and the same—is all he needs to get by. That and just trying to be Paterson.

No. Not being Paterson the aspirant poet. Being Paterson, Williams’ opus.

Which route to take?


The Review…

It was kind of tricky to wrap up Paterson. I should’ve offered up enough of the story to inform/interest you, but not to blow the wad. It’s hard to do that with films like this. Jarmusch’s style is like reading Thoreau’s Walden. The penultimate “you had to be there to get it” story (the eventual being the Bible. Refute me). You have to watch the films, enjoy them and are incapable to explain to others what you liked about what you saw. Framing and nuance and dialogue are all an actor in themselves. It’s really hard to tell the curious why you loved a certain Jarmusch film. Sure, one has to watch it to get it. Watching Paterson is akin to trying to read James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: this is inscrutable “the hell’s going on?” There is a story here. The movie attendant is a lot more attainable. Chill.

Running the risk of sounding too academic—again, sorry—Paterson is kind of like that Joycean aesthetic. Really more like an ep of Seinfeld: amusing, but with a cogent understanding of how to twist words to one’s own advantage. That’s akin to Paterson, as well as Paterson. If I’m using too many big words, you louts. Observational comedy is designed to amuse. But what about the day to day sh*t that is decidedly unfunny? Please, help is on the way.

Unlike “deadpan humor,” where jokes are internally impassive and tossed off, “dead pan camera” movies are framed in emotionless imagery. In simpler terms, you figure out what’s going on here and come to your own conclusion. Jarmusch’s films seldom, if ever, using panning and tracking shots. Y’know, to show momentum. No. I repeat, his stuff requires passive attention. If something seems out of place it’s deliberate (sorry to spoil the moment). Everything is fixed camera work. Dead pan. This technique makes good sense with a story like Paterson’s. It’s a slice of life piece about an amateur poet. Chances are thoughtful scenes of satori deny any Arriflex.

Paterson’s bus route is his muse, and Driver’s (kind of a pun there) performance is nothing short of elegant. Always serene, always trying to be positive and his ears always a-twitchin’ the the urban patois that he smiles with on his ride. The guy makes multiple stops, both literally and metaphorically. My experience with Driver as actor is lamentably lax. Yeah, yeah Star Wars blah. Truth be told, I’ve never seen an Adam Driver film ever, save this one. I liked what I saw. In true Jarmusch style, it’s always refreshing to have a lead who is laidback. Driver’s face is perpetual wonder. To me, Paterson was like a well-adjusted Travis Bickle: a genuine guy with a goal, not a mission. Refeshing. Most of Jim’s protags are victims of circumstance (most created en toto by their bad choices). The only bad choice I saw with Driver as thoughtful Paterson was lack of self-confidence when it came time to put pen to paper. That and his haunted need for a fix. I’m not talking about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll to get his imagination churning. He has to be in every moment, every moment in order to write. The man has a codependency issue with his entire environment. If it doesn’t stimulate him, he can’t—won’t—write. That’s normal for every writer, poet or otherwise. It’s intrinsic to the film after all. However most writers need to kickstart their muse if she ain’t talking with them someday. Inspiration favors the single man, and won’t come easy if you just wait around for it. Kind of what Paterson does for a good chunk of the movie. Waiting for the words to come based solely on outside influence.

This is a good thing, and thanks to Jarmusch’s tasteful deadpan camera work we can see our titular friend occasionally straining to write something. If there’s any message to be found in Paterson is at the end of the day, all you have to rely on is yourself. Don’t wait for your ship to come in. Row out to meet it. This Hallmark card drivel leads me to a story I read about prolific author Stephen King. Now, regardless of what he writes—mostly horror, yeah, but also sci-fi, fantasy, mysteries and journalistic endeavors—the guy does spin solid yarns. Some better than others true, but reliable nonetheless because of a schedules he’s kept for years. Whenever he needs a break, mull over his current project or to battle writer’s block he goes for a long walk in the afternoon to clear his head and resume writing refreshed. He isolates himself to think clearly, get inspired by his own imagination. Paterson’s struggle, on the other hand, is not really a struggle. Driver’s both sweet and frustrated face hints at that. Despite our hero has a well-off enough existence, he doesn’t have a life. I believe what he scratched down in his notebook after his route was a life he wish he could have had, Williams fandom or no. Just a thought.

Speaking of Stephen King, here’s how I assessed Paterson’s arrested inspiration in the mundanity of his bus routes. Back in the 80s there was this anthology series The Ray Bradbury Theatre, hosted by the sci-fi great. It may have been staged, but Bradbury introduced each episode where all of his story ideas came from: his office. From the camera eye Ray’s “studio” was crowded with curios, fetishes, models and an occasional stuffed animal (and we ain’t talkin’ plushies here). This guy wrote Fahrenheit 451, A Sound Of Thunder, The Illustrated Man, and The Martian Chronicles inspired by junk? Yep. So goes Paterson, sans stuffies. His passengers are his stuffies, and het gets kinda empty when there’s no business from the gallery. Poets are genuinely like that: if the muse sends them astray, so goes the art. And Paterson always need his fix. It makes his boring life worth it all. Pretty amazing performance by an actor all flat affect. Even when eating quiche. Moving on.

Once you go along with Paterson’s worldview, the rest of the flick falls into place. Passivity, remember? Finish the popcorn already. This is a Twizzlers kind of movie. Chew chew chew. There’s a slow unravelling here. My implication of codependency carefully creeps into our bittersweet narrative. Anyway, there’s the other side of Paterson’s romantic ideas. His life with Laura, his somewhat overly artistic wife. Brash, outgoing and whimsical—everything Pat is not—she seems grounded yet flighty yet with an agenda. She has no routine, and her days are always different. Unlike Paterson. Driver was very good at being guarded, but not in cross-armed kind of way. Not defensive. You gotta admit, having a free spirit like Laura married to everyman Paterson makes a lot of sense. She’s his life coach. Try this, do that. A new dinner. Publish something. She’s gotta lotta designer cupcakes to bake (remember that weird trend in the mid-teens? I served them at my wedding). The more Driver plays a sort of passive/agressive aw shucks routine, the more Laura tries to shuck her clam. Farahani was not Paterson’s cheerleader, and never drifted in magic pixie territory. She was there to stir the soup (EG: the guitar lesson scene), perhaps be the balm to Paterson’s fragged mind and also a stroll with Stephen King. Maybe. Jarmusch’s films allow a lot of room for interpretation. Also overthinking. Both are good things.

Here I reach a quandary. I must admit—begrudgingly—although Paterson fell under the criteria of The Standard (remember that little thing) we should not fool ourselves. A film like this was never intended to be a tentpole. Anyone who’s worth their salt knows all about Jarmusch’s indie cred, and he doesn’t seem concerned with the box office. Me taking on a film like Paterson is a bit of a lame duck. I did it before a lifetime ago with Broken Flowers. That movie like this one was designed to be under the radar, which I believe is how Jarmusch likes it. It’s akin to Prince when he made records for his own pleasure, and if they sold or didn’t it was no big deal to him. He just followed his muse and didn’t wait up for it. Like Jarmusch. Like Paterson.

Simply said, Paterson was a fine example of Jim’s cool process over three deceptively simple acts.

Go tell your friends.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Duh, rent it. It’s like a vacation for your mind. Tune in, drop out and pay just enough attention. Learn patience.


The (Many) Stray Observations…

  • “Just remember—cupcakes.”
  • Laura’s a pretty clever designer, albeit black and white (rimshot).
  • Note: Marvin’s collar.
  • “I am an actor.”
  • (K) Three sets of turns. For every child you see there’s a twin. I had no clue as to what she meant, but it sounded right.
  • Note: the picture of Williams.
  • “Look out Nashville.”
  • Marvin’s a tough critic.
  • Note: and his photo. Keeps wandering around the house.
  • “I know a lot sh*t about that.”
  • loves me some Sam & Dave.
  • (K) NoteTwenty-three is a lucky number. Route 23 is where Paterson finds inspiration.
  • “I’m gettin’ my ass kicked today.”
  • My aunt used to live in Paterson. It was decidedly not as pristine then as it appears here.
  • (K) Note: the chalkboard. WE ARE ALWAYS CHEAP.
  • “Sometimes an empty page presents more possibilities.”

The Next Time…

Boy, have I a whale of tale for you!

Well, actually it’s more like a Shark Tale. But still!


 

RIORI Presents Installment #193: Joe Dante’s “Looney Tunes: Back In Action” (2003)


The Film…


The Humans…

Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, Timothy Dalton, Joan Cusack, Heather Locklear, Bill “Goldberg” Goldberg and Steve Martin.


The Tunes…

Joe Alaskey, Jeff Bennett, Billy West and Eric “Not Goldberg” Goldberg.


The Plot…

When Daffy Duck quits his job as second banana at Warner Brothers, security guard DJ gets tasked with keeping that ungrateful quack off the lot.

On the flip side, comedy maven Kate needs Daffy back in the ranks—you can’t have Bugs without Daffy after all—so she and star wascally wabbit Bugs Bunny are on the case.

But this is no simple snatch and grab/road trip. Oh no. The secrets this goony quartet discover along the way might alter the course of history!

And maybe coerce Daffy to come home and renegotiate his contract. Maybe.


The Rant…

Let me share with you my late Saturday mornings back when I was a pup. Betcha most of you out there in the blogosphere have a similar story.

Before Saturday morning cartoons were relegated to cable on the Disney Channel and Nick the major networks gave over their usual airings of game shows and talk shows to broadcasting cartoons from, say, six AM until noon to bring in the weekend for kids like me. We were glad and relieved to get away from schoolroom drudgery for 48 hours (unless that dope of a 5th grade science teacher gave us homework over the blessed weekend. I could’ve cared less about what mitochondria do for the cell. Ugh). giving over to a morning of silliness, action and whatever you could describe Pee-Wee’s Playhouse was. That and too many bowls of neon colored cereal designed to overload your carburetor, God willing.

Getting right to point (for once) my Saturday morning viewing habits concluded with Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends (Iceman and Firestar of the X-Men), The Bugs And Daffy Show and finally Soul Train, where I caught up on the newest rap artists. Then I had to go mow the lawn. That’s how it went for a lot of Gen Xer’s I’ll bet. Not just the lawn mowing, nor grooving to the likes of Run-DMC or Kurtis Blow (an aside: opposite Soul Train was American Bandstand, which I detested. What turned me off was the prattle of America’s oldest teenage dork Dick Clark, which cardboard had more charm), but the immortal Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. The Looney Tunes! Classic and timely in the same package.

Those cartoons had something for everyone, kids and adults alike. Keep in mind that those classic ‘toons were shown after the previews in theaters back in the 1940’s and 50’s, aimed for mass appeal. Well before Pixar. Well before pixels even. For children of all ages. If you consider it, the Looney Tunes were the progenitors for the likes of modern parody and satiric cartoons like The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park. Okay, granted the Looney’s were not as overtly topical or scatological as the aforementioned establishments, but they were damn good at poking fun at…well, everything, at least back in the early 40s. They could also skirt around being subversive when they wanted to (EG: what was with all the cross-dressing?). Some of the best shorts was when the toons directed their mockery at real life celebrities, skewering the pop culture of the day. Example, sister series Merrie Melodies provided “Slick Hare,” which both lampooned and celebrated all the real-life stars in the Warner Studios in the forties. Here’s a sample. Check it.

I’m figuring that was Lauren Bacall as Bogie’s date.

So why have the Looney Tunes endured, while equal acts back then like Woody Woodpecker and Popeye kinda fell into obscurity? Because, Doc, on the most part they could be reinterpreted by each generations’ audience. They were funny, they were topical, both factors carry over, as well as being their being irreverent. I believe that’s the key; the Tunes winking and nudging and trolling and just being zany enough to ignore the rules of physics, both scientific and why the hell don’t any of Wile E’s Acme deliveries never work yet he won’t delete his account profile? And where’s he getting the funding for all the crap? We don’t care. Just keep being funny, guys. Just keep being.

That zaniness paired with irreverence—the self-effacing, wink wink nudge nudge delivery—is why the Toons have survived for so long. Even back in the 90s, with the updated gags of Tiny Toon Adventureswhere Buster and Babs Bunny took cues from Uncle Bugs, there were even more sight gags of social relevance as well as pop culture roasting of the trends of the day (EG: I really dug the ep of TTA when it was all music videos highlighting the goofy brilliance of They Might Be Giants. Buster: “Who are these guys?”). Thus saying, the Tunes can adapt to the times, as well as be revisited in all their silly, non-PC glory from back in the day. Circle of life. As comedy goes, the tropes that got it right as far as staying power goes follows like Monty PythonSNL, MST3K and of course the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies franchise. And how’s this? Relevance, dependability and reinvention, which is all those series had in spades. Still do.

I get it that the Tunes aren’t that sharp to reinvention, despite they originated in the movie theaters, which mocked their output. However when it came time for a live action adaptation (a la Roger Rabbit), which was far overdue for the big screen, how would Bugs and crew adapt this time out? We’re in the 21st Century now, and a lot of the non-PC gags which made the shorts so great back in the day would be taboo now. We’re not talking cancel culture here, and I kinda doubt Yosemite Sam hamming it up as a demented Johnny Reb, the Kaiser’s egotistic WWI pilot or the hare trigger happy outlaw Yosemite Sam we know and love today would translate across the decades. A lot of the Tunes mana was parody, slapstick and occasional satire. All welcome today—I repeat, South Parkbut the Tunes modus operandi was not to offend any sensibilities. They were drawn to be funny, packed fair and square. These days we can plainly see a bit of cultural insensitivity here and there, but it’s there and gone in a flash and not the whole of the short, as opposed to Walt Disney’s “blackface” animation Song Of The South, released in the same period. All anyone got out of that mistake was the catchy “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” song that, admittedly, won the Oscar for best original song. Precious few know that song due to the ultra-conservative take on it. However up the ladder almost anyone knows “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down,” the Looney Tunes theme song. There, now you know the title.

As venerable as the Looney Tunes franchise is it’s still lucrative. Still appealing. Consider the Space Jam sequel. Heck, when ten-year-old me was wedged between Peter Parker and Don Cornelius I thought the Tunes were new-fangled, custom made for Saturday mornings. What a shock it was to find Bugs and Daffy were older than my parents. And yes, sometimes the gags haven’t aged well, or at least inspired by arcane studio system trivia from back in the very day. All things considered, the Tunes back on the silver screen was a long time coming. So did Bugs, Daffy and the whole crew have the moxie to pull it of like back in the good ol’ days?

Let’s find out, folks…


The Story…

You’ve heard about things in threes? Beware, beware. But what about things in fours? Or fives even?

DJ (Fraser) is a crummy, clumsy stuntman at Warner Brothers studios. After one too many botches, he’s relegated back to his original job: security guard. He’s not very good at that either. It’s really embarrassing since his dad Damien Drake (Dalton) is their superstar action spy leading man…who scored his klutzy son the guard job in the first place. The apple fell far from the tree regarding DJ.

Meanwhile…

Daffy Duck (Alaskey) has had it being second fiddle to Bugs Bunny (also Alaskey), always enduring Elmer’s shotgun blasts to his feathered face. Daffy’s fed up and won’t renew his contract with the Warners for another season unless he gets his props. WB’s exec of comedy Kate (Elfman) is now tasked to get the duck back in action because, hey, without Daffy Bugs has no cachet. So she and the rabbit jailbreak from the studio to catch up with their duck amok.

Meanwhile…

JD received an urgent message from his superstar dad to come back home…with stowaway Daffy in tow. Dad’s mansion is a tribute to Damien…with a lot of odd decorations. After Daffy accidentally trips a secret message, turns out Damien is a for real spy, and has crucial info regarding the Acme Corporation’s nefarious Chairman (Martin) and his latest plan to generate more nefarious revenue. The Acme Corp? Don’t they fund the Looney Tunes? Oh yeah, and Damien is in their clutches.

Meanwhile…

Looks like it’s up to DJ and Daffy to complete Damien’s mission, not to mention Kate and Bugs’ mission hot on their trail to secure their jobs.

Meanwhile…

What the hell’s a Blue Monkey…?


The Review…

Right off the bat, I must say that this flick wasn’t for everyone. It’s clear that I’m an ardent Looney Tunes fan, but I feel for most my ardor runs very close to culty territory. Most folks I’ve found regard Bugs and company as quaint. A portrait of the animated comedy of yesteryear. In their time the Tunes were cutting edge. Not nearly as polished as their Disney rivals, and all the better for it. Let’s put it this way: no matter how new fangled the latest smartphone gets, the old model that fit the bill (and your palm) was the best phone you ever had, despite its limitations. Mine was my old iPhone 5. It was perfect, and I’m sometimes tempted to assault eBay for a retro purchase. The Tunes aren’t considered flashy now, or even en vogue as far as cartoons go, but they were solid pieces of animated comedy. Always reliable for a laugh. If you disagree you have no sense of humor. You are, as it’s been said, a maroon.

The raw animation of the Tunes couldn’t hold a blowtorch to Mickey’s motley crew, all watercolors and chirpy dialogue. However, the best take on how the Tunes trumped Disney when it came to humor came from disgraced comic Louis CK. His was something along the line of “Bugs Bunny is f*cking funny! Mickey Mouse is like: ‘Oh! Too much water!’.” When I claim that Chuck Jones was a genius the gentry responded with polite indifference: “Didn’t he own that kiddie pizza place?” Most folks don’t know (let alone care) what an acme* is anyway.

So yeah, the Tunes haven’t been much of a going concern lately what with every big budget animated feature having tossed pen to cell into the Dumpster decades ago. Along with my busted iPhone 5, with the ghost of Steve Jobs cackling. Agony. Sure, as of the time of this installment the Space Jam sequel is on it’s way, featuring this generation’s best b-ball players alongside the Tunes. Brand new live action married to CGI animation that is often better than expected. However, there is something to be said about the organic charms of the Tunes old skool cell animation. For one, it was pretty damned good animation. Again, not as polished as Disney, but what the Tunes lacked in technical merit they made up for it in spades when it came to tongue in cheek fun. Tunes tries a good deal to recapture that lightning in a bottle, even with CGI enhanced whatsits. Director Dante got the manic feel right, that zaniness across the board, but the execution felt a bit forced. It scanned like he had a dire mission to bring the Tunes to a 21st Century audience, where everything was madcap, frenetic and ultimately too busy to sit back, inhale and laugh. Blink and you’ll miss it. Tunes was indeed witty, but there was this Doppler effect that when a gag launched, it took a few long seconds to catch up with it. It got kinda exhausting. I’m all for swift pacing, but the parallax shift in Tunes got hard to take let alone me following the story. That was my immediate carp with Action. I wished it would have slowed the f*ck down. ADHD makes for a bad mindset when it comes to watching (and dismantling) any movie, but all was not lost on a Ritalin smoothie. I know that I’m always harping on pacing either making or breaking a flick, and Tunes was hell bent on recreating the zaniness we know and love from the originals at mach 10. The gags and one-liners in Tunes were delivered at such a frenetic pace it left one’s brain swirling on an existential Tilt-A-Whirl. What I’m saying is I needed some breathing room. Ever take in a Michael Bay movie? Get tired of all the boomy things? Me too. It kinda ruins the narrative, even when it doesn’t really matter. Like with The Island.

Zing!

I reckon director Dante was just as much a fanboy as I, and earned his bones with Tunes covering the spread of the WB cartoon universe. Hell, these characters made me laugh as a child of the 80s, and were created in the 40s before my parents knew how to eat solid foods. There’s a lot to digest here (pun intended) canon wise, and like I implied Dante made sure we suffered an overdose. That’s either a delight or a caution depending where you’re perched on the fence. Dutifully, Dante’s output has been pretty hit-or-miss. All of the fantasy films he’s helmed over the years have been a bit fevered, attempt to reconstruct an homage (or mimicry) to Spielberg. However, unlike Steve’s flights of fancy films, which always had a thread of “seriousness” to them (read: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial and even Hook, before God) Dante’s catalog lacks no such pretense. I’ve gathered he’s made films based on cutting his teeth with the B-flicks he loved as a kid. That shows; there’s a teenage guile behind his camera work, snickering all the while. His sh*t won’t win awards, and it doesn’t matter. Ain’t you having as much fun as I am? Your loss. Like with his Innerspace, The ‘Burbs and Matinee (a very telling culprit in his oeuvre), his muse is an amusement park, freewheeling against Spielberg joyously navel-gazing. That sort of aesthetic explains his directing Tunes. It invited migraines, but it worked. Pass the Advil.

To his credit however, Dante did a decent job honoring the legacy as well as acknowledging the fans, Red Bull enemas notwithstanding. What was great about this movie was that virtually ALL of the Looney Tunes got screen time, even the obscure ones like dopey Beaky Buzzard and outlaw Nasty Canasta. Tunes was a who’s who in WB toon-dom, perhaps an urgent plea to indifferent Millennials to get off TikTok for a blip toiling over their lame animations (mostly ripping off the Toons at the outset. It’s a judgement call, but I’m making it) and embrace the feels of old skool animation. Tunes did have a certain scent of catching up the under-informed how vital these characters were and still are. Perhaps not on a collegiate level, but it was very obvious Dante loved and respected the Looney Tunes and wanted to share all with an unassuming love letter. A frothing frenzy of a love letter, but in good spirit dang it.

I figured that Tunes was another nod to all the goodies Dante scooped up and digested as a teenager. My eye spied a fanboy a mile away, and not just towards Looney Tunes. Nope. Tunes was dappled by many nods to classic scenes from the WB vault. Dante was a fan. The riff on Psycho‘s infamous shower scene, maverick and influential filmmaker Roger Corman shows up, a black-and-white Kevin McCarthy shows up at Area 52 lugging an alien pod. And that Pixar dig. The guy did his homework. Not necessarily about out of time pop culture, just to know what to dapple the LT universe with. A tribute, you see. However Dante’s wink wink nudge nudge schtick got to be somewhat tiresome after a while. In other words from fellow LT fans: “We get it.” I guess sometimes there’s always too much of a good thing. Ah, me.

It’s easy to say that the voice cast performed admirably. Alaskey was the primary voice of the Tunes, but the others (particularly West, who has a résumé a mile long, from Ren & Stimpy to Futurama) did their yeoman’s work. I remember seeing Alaskey on several stand-up comedy shows as an impressionist. His bit about Jack Nicholson as Eddie Haskell coming on to Leave It To Beaver‘s June Cleaver was hilarious, as well as Edith Bunker from All In The Family reciting Juliet’s soliloquy from Shakespeare’s best known romantic tragedy was truly inspired, not to mention Ralph Cramden deconstructing the events surrounding Laura Palmer’s murder in Twin Peaks. The guy knew voices, and not just sounding like the characters. The man could enunciate. He had nuance. He wasn’t just sounding like Bugs Bunny, he was Bugs. And I was nothing short of impressed that Alaskey was not only Bugs, but Daffy, and Sylvester, and Tweety, and… Well, the voice crew were no Mel Blanc, but then who could be? Daffy was his usual apoplectic slapstick. Bugs was all cool and detached. Taz slobbered a lot, all in the best honor to Blanc’s polymorphic vocals. Who could ask for anything more? Alaskey was a student, as was West. I’ve seen quite a few YouTube interviews with the man as to how he developed his voice. It was akin to method acting, only with your throat (he voiced Elmer Fudd, ha ha ha). It must’ve been a bit tricky when the casting call came down for all those voices. Wiser heads prevailed. Good job, Mary.

It’s the flesh and blood actors I want to talk about now, and the casting was right inspired. Fraser has been underrated for his skill with physical comedy. Doubtful? Check out Encino Man, George Of The Jungle (hey, that Eiffel Tower rescue scene. Did you think? Nah) or Monkeybone. Sure, none of them were designed to earn awards (let alone recognition), but they do illustrate Fraser was at home with the Tunes. When you consider it, most of Fraser’s memorable roles have an element of physical comedy (think Airheads, The Mummy and even him being rather aloof in Crash). His toony body language worked well in context with Tunes. It helped that his DJ took nothing seriously, even when trying to, which resulted in a seamless performance when interacting with his animated co-stars. Best proof? Check out the fight scene between DJ and Nasty Canasta. Again, seamless. Fraser was the ideal guy as our beleaguered protagonist.

Speaking of goony, it appeared that old skool, “wild and crazy guy” Steve Martin reared his madcap head as Mr Chairman of Acme Corp. If you ever caught Martin’s old comedy shows back in the 70s, you understood he played to the crowd a lot, as if breaking some fourth wall. Only Martin could make that dumb arrow-through-the-head gag funny. The look of Mr Chairman was “my look is my act look.” The thick horn rims, the Prince Valiant haircut gone horribly awry, the twitchy gesticulations of a six year old desperately in need of a public restroom. It’s all there, and Martin played to the hilt, not giving a damn how annoyingly cringy he got. In sum, Mr Chairman was a dopey bad guy we all would like to smack in the face with a flounder. Too bad he’d probably enjoy it. We all love a villain we love to hate, even if it was the live action cartoon like Steve Martin. Thumbs up overall.

Nonentity Jenna Elfman starred here in Tunes also. Moving on.

Okay, okay. Minus the dig at Elfman and her Sprite commercial appeal, Tunes did a decent job bringing Bugs and the gang into the 21st Century. Considering the last time they were on the silver screen was with 1996’s Space Jam (not to mention that sequel again right around the corner at this time of writing), Dante did a solid job representing all the glorious goofiness of the Tunes in the theater, even without Air Jordan. Yes, there were hiccups (EG: the pacing required crystal meth to follow, the action-comedy came across as forced, Jenna Elfman was cast, etc), but if you’re a fan of the Tunes, this was the greatest hits album. Not a fan? A simple curiosity with a lot of dumb jokes. It’s a good lazy Saturday afternoon movie. Perfect for after the debut of the new LL Cool J single and later on when the backyard needed mowing.

That’s all folks!

(C’mon. You gotta gimme that. 🙂


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. Looney Tunes are a unique taste. I love ’em, however their return to the silver screen lacked a lot of the charm the original shorts had. Still, the Loonies are like pizza: even when it’s bad it’s still better than no pizza.


The Quips…

  • *The highest point. The pinnacle. Yer welcome.
  • “I found Nemo!”
  • Elfman is not hot. Don’t believe whatever hype.
  • “You got rid of our best duck.”
  • Lotsa cool cameos here, wide and varied and prob’ LT fans themselves.
  • “Y’know, I’m getting really tired of throwing you out of the car.”
  • Dalton’s better here as a spy than he was as 007.
  • “Shh. I’m about to defy you.”
  • I loved the vintage horror aliens (as well as Robbie the Robot’s cameo) on the rampage.
  • ” – Run! –”
  • Wait a minnit. That’s an Indian elephant.
  • “I did not order the pendulum of doom!”
  • This sure ain’t no Roger Rabbit.

The Next Time…

Welcome to Paterson NJ, where we spend a week with Paterson the man. Bus driver by day, poet by night. Where to?


 

RIORI Presents Installment #192: Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” (2008)


The Film…


The Players…

Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfadyen, Rebecca Hall, Oliver Platt, Toby Jones and naturally Clint Howard.


The Plot…

In 1977, with Watergate still heavy on America’s mind, journeyman television personality David Frost is curious about Nixon’s unwillingness to discuss the scandal. He manages to convince the disgraced president for a few interviews to allow the man a chance to set the historical record straight. Warts and all.

Only Britain would go to Nixon.


The Rant…

Yeah, yeah. I’m still tweaking the site. I’m trying to make it read a little more efficient, read more pro and lend a hand to any newbs that link here. Ain’t that a great line of bullsh*t or what? Now on with this week’s lucky contestant.

Every time I watch the news—which isn’t often—I ask myself, “Who in the world would want to be the President?” After air traffic controllers, EMTs and javelin catchers the presidency must be the most stressful job in the world. Sure, there are perks. Nice house, Air Force One, Camp David, unlimited travel opportunities, the occasional park named after you and whatnot. However most of the time it’s being under constant scrutiny, tons of desk jockeying, dealing with skeezy lobbyists and not to mention skeezy heads of state from around the world, always butting heads with Congress, signing more stuff and being blamed for the sh*t the previous president set in motion, which overrides your original platform. Small wonder Reagan got addicted to jelly beans, LBJ to Fresca and JFK to Marilyn Monroe. We all seek release in our own way.

Do you want to know what I think the biggest thing that’s a strike against being president? Tough, shush and listen: it’s the lack of privacy. You would always be under the microscope by the government, your constituents and the media in equal, oft strident measure. Understanding the president is the international face of America they gave up their privacy as soon as they were sworn in, if not even on the campaign trail. Here’s the Oval Office, friend. This is as small as your world gets now, plus you better lose that ashtray.

Like with any other public office, the President’s face is omnipresent. State Of The Union? The President. A memorial speech? The President. To apply weight to a PSA? The President. The opening pitch at the Nationals opening season? The Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn? A summit? A press conference? Prez Prez Prez. Whew. With all that public spectacle the President deserves some privacy. Like that’s ever going to happen. Here’s a minor example of what I’m getting at: you may recall when President Clinton adopted his dog Buddy and they went jogging together (with an unobtrusive coterie of Secret Service agents along for the ride) in the early morning? No big deal; folks jog with their dogs all the time. Ah, but this was the President going for a jog, with the First Dog in tow, no less. Out came the jogging camera crew to cover…how Bubba and Buddy went for walkies.

That kind of jive is unquestionably silly. A man and his dog. A matter of state. The internet cracked in half. Whatever and change the channel. The guy in the Oval Office needs to feel normal now and again. To get away from it all once on a while, hence Camp David, and even that isn’t sacred anymore. Jeez, where does the uber-stressed out uber-politician find some R&R?

They don’t. Not really. The last time I heard that some President got any quality time was when Teddy Roosevelt went camping or hunting a jillion miles away from a newspaper. Or tubby Taft being the ultra baseball nut (he was the first Prez to throw the first pitch of the season, as well as accidentally creating the seventh inning stretch) and never missing a home game for the Washington Nationals. Or even when Obama played Wii Sports with Sasha and Malia before bed. And how the hell do I know all this crap if we’re talking about possible Presidential privacy?

Wanna lead the country? Take down that Facebook page. Ain’t gonna need it no mo’.

Here’s the flipside.

There are many adages regarding how those in high places must be careful when minding their productivity and quality therein. “Who watches the watchers themselves?” “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” “No, I am your father!” Warnings and cautions to those in power better watch their ass when it comes to public relations. And let’s face facts, many presidents were caught with their pants down, so to speak. Jefferson, JFK and Clinton all got tagged as cheaters. Lincoln had clinical depression. Grant was a functioning alcoholic. Both Hayes and Dubya’s ascent to the throne were in question. Obama smoked. Trump once hosted a reality show. No one’s perfect, but to have their dirty laundry aired by the papers, the radio, Fox News and Google? Where does it stop? Should it? Should the Prez be accountable for every bare scintilla of action, which may effect the government in particular and the republic as a whole?

Yes.

Sometimes those angular secrets reveal the intentions or even the true nature of the President. Either some hidden agendum or a skeleton in the closet (“Mr Jefferson? Sally Hemings on line 2. It’s a girl!”) may affect the normally rational judgment we hope our elected leaders posses. Or not. Most of us couldn’t be bothered by what gets churned out on Capitol Hill so long as our roads are paved and the price of Arizona tea never goes up. But there are inner workings, always inner workings that drive the president beyond his public office. It’s called being human, and most humans regardless of title have at least one hidden agendum in the closet. The best presidential example?

You guessed it. Richard Milhaus Nixon.

This choice is not just because of this week’s movie. Nor is it how his administration crashed and burned into scandal and dust. It’s about how “the mighty have fallen.” Drop the portcullis. Release the hounds. Unleash the Kraken. The failed Nixon administration and the ensuing folderol is a shame really. Nixon was born to politic, but the demons that plagued him from the past came to the fore once in office. Heist by his own petard and boy did the man go down in flames, and not some blaze of glory. Go f*ck off America. And Cambodia. And Laos. And accountability. Dammit, Tricky Dick, WTF went wrong?

To keep it short, it was an open secret that Nixon kept a list of his enemies towards the end of his time in the White House. He had over 20 names on the list, including trusted NPR columnist Daniel Schorr and beloved leading man Paul Newman (?). I forget who stated this regarding Nixon’s list, but if a man has to make a list of his enemies he has too many enemies. Rev Martin L King was also skeptical about Nixon’s intentions regarding his politics, him telling a Nixon biographer, “If Richard Nixon is not sincere, he is the most dangerous man in America.” MLK passing judgment. Consider that for a brief moment.

I did some honest research before tackling this installment. Since I wasn’t around when Watergate went down, I bounced around from site to site to get the whole picture. And boy, that picture was drawn by dozens of artists on retainer. Way too many details. So much so that when I unravelled the matter, I still felt there was more to the story. I even asked a few co-workers about the scandal who were around when I wasn’t.

For the uninformed (read: me) back during election year 1974, when Nixon was pursuing a second term, he and his cronies wanted to dig up some dirt on his possible rivals come November. The DNC was being held at the Watergate Hotel, so via espionage and burglary five thieves busted into the complex with the aim to wiretap the place so the committee to re-elect Nixon could get some straight dope from those on his Enemies List. They were caught red-handed, hired by the goons in Nixon’s inner circle. Understanding the dire fix he was in, definite impeachment looming large, Nixon had to decide to either sh*t or get off the pot. He got off the pot, resigned and took flight.

My older co-workers agreed, “Yes. That was pretty much it.”

Watergate was a warning beacon and/or a cautionary tale of when the President’s right to keeping certain things private—under wraps—could turn rotten, or at least misguided. Despite my limited understanding of Nixon’s rise and fall, I could not but help to view him as a tragic figure. I’m talking his foibles, not how he conducted business. I mean, one did inform the other, but keeping it all bottled up was Nixon’s ultimate downfall. Which is sad. He was probably the most qualified person to be President than any other in the 20th Century. He served in the Navy, becoming a decorated lieutenant post-Pearl Harbor (despite being a birthright Quaker, who do not condone violence in any form). He had a sterling record as a California congressman and later in senate (despite his very far right leanings, even for the 1950s). He was Ike’s VP. Despite losing to Kennedy in 1960 he handily won the 1968 election by a virtual electoral landslide (his 301 votes to Humphrey’s respectable 191 and Wallace’s paltry 46). In power he upgraded Medicaid and even helped the EPA get off the ground. And in 1972 only Nixon could go to China, literally.

All these political accomplishments, and still. Talking about his “Enemies List” opens a door into a very successful politician and a very insure man. With Watergate, his demons were laid bare, and they had been lurking al along. Recall MLK’s comment. As Prez, Nixon cut a presence. He had a unique voice and mannerisms that exuded assuredness. He truly mastered the “bully pulpit” stance that Teddy Roosevelt pioneered almost 80 years hence. Nixon was good at spin. He was also adept at denial. The man had many bones to pick from dinosaurs in his youth. After all I looked up on the man I got the impression that what got Nixon into politics—and he was very good at it—was not a desire to serve his country, but rather prove to all those “enemies” from his past, “See? How ya like me now?” That skein got unwound very fast in 1974. More like a tidal surge from a man’s tortured mind. It’s all very sad in hindsight.

And consider this: if Nixon did own up to his crimes? If he did apologize for his malfeasance? Would he seem sympathetic?

Like I said, it would be up to the court of public opinion to decide. Not an impeachment hearing…


The Story…

Not long after President Gerald Ford—perhaps the last just man in Sodom—pardoned Richard Nixon (Langella) for his involvement in the Watergate Scandal, the outrage bubbled up. What the hell really happened? Wiretapping? Where are those tapes? What’s on ’em? What are you hiding, Dick? The impeachment never happened, but there was still the court of public opinion to answer to. You were our elected leader and you abused your power! Understandably, Americans were very upset the President tried to hoodwink them, and instead of standing trial, Nixon resigned and fled. In the endgame there was no apology for the man’s misdeeds.

It was more like the reckoning. It was true Nixon never owned up to his alleged crimes; the man was proud and wanted his stained reputation cleansed. If not for the public’s satisfaction but for his. Nixon was firmly convinced he had served his country well, therefore deserving a modicum of respect. An opportunity to explain to America his side of the story may improve his image, which had been tarnished for far too long. Yes, Watergate was a huge mess, but even the lowest of the low is entitled to at least one second chance. Right?

Enter David Frost (Sheen). A ribald TV personality from the UK, Frost’s equally at home emceeing game shows as he was conducting talk show interviews. A clown, for lack of a better term. Fluff was his medium, aided well with having a nose for the next hot property that came down the pike. Ever opportunistic, Frost hatched the idea that would make him a legit (or at least respectable) TV journalist. He watched Nixon’s resignation on the tube and had a corker of an idea: sit down with the disgraced former President and interview him. Get the scoop on all that went down leading up to Watergate. The ratings would be huge! As well as a chance for Frost to crack America.

It took a few years, but Nixon caught wind of this upstart young Brit’s plan to bring the true Nixon to the masses. Nixon figured Frost as an easy mark, a lightweight, and in front of the camera he could spin whatever came to his mind while this whippersnapper could just sit still, cringe and experience Nixon The Man in full force! The former president could explain away everything while this limey tot would have to just sit still and quiver whilst being broadcasted to millions of Americans. To Nixon this would be the best of both worlds: speak his peace and demonstrate the authority that his f*cking former subjects refused to respect.

Such scheming didn’t account for two things: Frost’s artless on air ambition, and Nixon’s failure to understand he’s not President anymore.

We’re going live in three, two, one…


The Review…

Ron Howard is no stranger to historical fiction. I examined his biopic Cinderella Man here, much to my delight. His Apollo 13 was a real crowd pleaser. His Far And Away not so much, but at least we got a history lesson on how the Howard family set down roots in America. A Beautiful Mind won a (dubious) Best Picture Oscar, and introduced most of us to the almost forgotten mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr. He explained away better than anyone the intractable Moby-Dick by recounting the maritime exploits that inspired the novel with In The Heart Of The Sea. Howard even directed a pair of documentaries regarding the Beatles and Jay-Z (read that again). Safe to say the guy knows his stuff and has his thesis on its way to the AFI. Probably already there, with a program at the ready in Howard Film Studies.

After watching many, many of his films I believe I understand Howard’s appeal. Ron spent so much of the time in his youth starring on TV shows (EG: from Andy Griffith to Happy Days) that how a studio works to create a solid investment—hopefully a profitable one—there must be an efficient formula to get the job done. Such an ethos plays out in practice with his films. His movies are of middlebrow entertainment, aided by keen scenarists, solid actors and overall an engaging story. Not a lot of flash and splash (in fact, most of his films that apply that kinda formula ain’t that good. Read: The DaVinci Code movies), and whatever style gets spun a decent amount of substance makes up for any of the usual Hollywood trappings. I’m thinking about those comments Scorsese made about the MCU not being cinema. Whatever that means, especially regarding Howard’s output. Movies are meant to entertain first, and maybe become examples of art. I figure Howard just wants to direct good stories. And if the films get an award? That’s nice, but awards are fleeting in showbiz, whereas maintaining a good reputation is priceless.

So the numero uno appeal of Howard’s movies is their efficiency. The pacing is always spot on. His best films are like playing Ocarina Of Time (“Hey! Listen!”): just challenging enough, yet still rewarding. Your curiosity never wavers about what the next scene’s gonna deliver. However…this gets formulaic. The best directors always play their hands. It’s their signature, but sometimes it works through innovation, not revolution. Spielberg has been getting away with faces of shock and awe ever since Duel. Namely, we expect a certain madness to our fave directors’ methods. I now claim that when some sort of twist invades a good directors’ manque, makes them think twice, proposes a challenge, ah! Something to be reckoned with! Gimme a shot. Like all good directors try. Hey, Coppola was the pinnacle of mediocre until he was handed the script to The Godfather films. I’d like to believe that Howard rose to a similar challenge with Frost/Nixon. Seemed that way to me.

So what was different this time out for Richie Cunningham? Frost/Nixon‘s script. It was based on a stage play. And it showed in the best way possible. Instead of applying the term “pacing” as the ace in my hole of movie watching, substitute “efficiency.” Howard’s overall directorial style is efficiency; can’t say that enough. On the whole precious little screen time was wasted filler; scenes there just to pad out the story for story’s sake, not a movie. Efficiency is the watchword of any play. There are no second takes in a play. There are no editors. Even the director is relegated to the wings when the curtains go up. This spirit carried over with Howard’s approach. Nixon had a solid docudrama feel, a Ken Burns type air, but not handling the subject matter. The direction. Every shot, every scene, told a very deliberate story. Deliberate, doubtless with Howard’s experience in TV. This was a movie about a series of TV interviews, correct? The connective tissue between Frost’s drive, Nixon’s “charm,” and the whole production is about seeing. There were plenty of shots regarding Clint Howard as the director of the interviews tugging at both Frost and Nixon equally, for production value. This whole affair was about image, not truth, justice and Nixon having his way. Nixon was compartmentalized like a proper three act play. Here and now. Take. Here and now. Take. And so forth. Sounds boring, but don’t confuse boredom with efficiency. With Howard at the helm, Nixon was—as jazz fans understand—in the pocket.

I found another key aspect of this play-to-film wonderfully curious. Howard is known to have a gentle but omnipresent hand on his cast members. Not like that, you pervs. The actor whisperer. Since Nixon was based on historical events, Howard managed to coax honesty out of a parcel of rogues who have in other films acted like…themselves, only here to frame the narrative. Not to crack wise, but to commit.

Here’s what I’m screaming: Rockwell, Platt and Sheen are loose cannons. It’s their stock in trade. Yet with Nixon they were playing muted versions of their schtick. We traded comedy for the gaunt sweat act. Rockwell’s characters are usually blowhards and Platt’s are as equally blustery. Sheen knows no bounds as a a fixture of quirky cinema (EG: Midnight In Paris, The Underworld movies as well as The Twilight Saga). The only quirks here with Nixon is playing shallow and way out of his league as Frost. This is our protagonist? The guy to get the job done? He’s as equally ineffective has Nixon to get a straight story. And yet it works. These ruffians are the cinematic version of the Classic muses: Practice (Frost), Memory (Reston) and Song (Platt). All foils to Tricky Dick, our Melpomene here. The muse of tragedy. And what’s more Classic than a three act drama after all? More on those three stooges later.

And calm down. There’s drunken ranting on the way. Relax. I’m a professional.

Speaking of Nixon’s portrayal, Langella is a character actor extraordinaire. If the guy can be Skeletor, he can be Nixon without any air of mimicry. Despite the truth that Nixon’s personality and mannerisms are so entrenched in America’s pop culture (read: like Star Trek, Star Wars and the purple stuff vs Sunny D debate) that him bringing something new to the screen is nothing short of engaging. Nixon was a human being, after all. Shoddy president, sure, but someone was demonized as he was back then was still a person with feelings like all of us. Thanks in part to the story’s timeline, Langella pulls of a Nixon that most Americans may have never seen: not being the president, at least not in body. Langella pulls off the charm and cagey personality of the late Nixon, as well as his well honed, lizard-like guardedness that became all he was post-Watergate. Langella’s Nixon oozes charisma and menace in equal measure, all the while ratcheting up the tension so the audience may get the to see him crack, given enough of Frost’s rope if at all. In sum, Langella was great at being Nixon the performer.

As Langella’s foil, Sheen did a remarkable job of both overcoming and mining from his fanciful roles that prepared him for assuming Frost’s mantel. Sheen’s Frost quickly learned he is way in over his head with his pet project. The man was so hungry for the interviews he’d do/pay almost anything just to prove he’s legit. No shocker that the very few had much faith in Frost, and for good reason. Sheen delivered his character as shallow as a carnival barker, which isn’t straying from the truth. On some level Sheen’s Frost had the media cache of Rod Roddy, and a lot of back alley dealing was done in order to fund his little, dangerous venture. Um, I’m no tele-journalist, and perhaps back in 1977 things worked differently, but would bush league Frost make a Faustian bargain just for ratings?

Yes. And he did. The watchword regarding Sheen’s performance as Frost is shallow. Almost plastic. Desperate and insecure, and his swinging lifestyle made by his journeywork had in no way prepared David for his Goliath. Sheen is codependent (he never seemed to be alone with himself), buoyed by a carefully etched personality and a wooden smile. Frost’s jet-setting image was a very obvious, but less engaging affront. It’s him trying to dress the part (K)but the imperious attitude that has served him so well in the past is flayed naked when it gets down to the nitty-gritty of hard journalism. Sheen’s Frost was shallow; he was entrenched in it. Always with the grin. I kept waiting for Frost to crack well before Nixon might. You noticed how his posture kept changing during the shoot? (K). Like Nixon, Frost was a human being, too. Sheen was awesome as a flawed crusader, but just as imperfect as his opponent was. We earned his sympathy, but it took until the end of the second act. Before that I wanted to slap Sheen silly enough to knock the Valence off his scalp.

Beware of things in threes. The third leg of this potential media blunder stood on Kevin Bacon’s Jack Brennan. Nixon’s lap dog. Bacon, as we all understand and six degrees notwithstanding, is probably the most successful, viable character actors over the past 50 years. And why not? What can’t he do (besides surviving the first Friday The 13th movie)?

Bacon’s Brennan is the Spock to Frost’s Kirk and Nixon’s McCoy. He’s the superego. The negotiator and the one member of the cast who truly understands the make or break nature of Frost’s project. That lap dog crack wasn’t to be snarky. (K) If the interviews make Nixon look bad it’ll make Brennan look very bad, the one who never abandoned the man the rest of an underserving country did. Loyalty, no matter how blind, and anything less would be turning his back on his country. And Nixon. Jeez Brennan is so dedicated a confidant to the former president he even sounds like Nixon. In politics as well as potboiler TV journalism Brennan can see the whole picture. The man has a great deal invested in not only serving Nixon, but protecting an image.

Bacon is stern, passionate and supposedly painted as an antagonist. His Jack doesn’t really come across that way. There’s another major reason why Bacon has been such an in demand character actor for decades. He’s very versatile. Although his Jack a dedicated officer, he’s conflicted. Some other infected his Commander In Chief into impropriety. Bacon plays Brennan not as some blind patriot, but hopes the interviews go well, exonerate Nixon and reassure Jack that he wasn’t backing a losing horse well after the race ended. Bacon’s careful image is so practiced and polished that if its stretched too far it’ll break. The creeping stress and strain Bacon exudes is chaffing against his kind and professional appearance. Overall watching Bacon squirm and sigh and sometimes crack a smile displays the very best of his versatility. If you doubt this, recall his performances in Tremors, Footloose, Stir Of Echoes and/or Diner. Greatest hits here with Jack Brennan. He was the fulcrum upon which two uber-egos are teetering.

Okay, enough man crushes. Since Nixon was ostensibly based on a play there are only small roles, never small actors. The trio of Frost’s coterie/brain trust that was Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell and Matthew Macfadyen provided a sturdy backbone to keep time on task, not fluffing Frost’s jittery ego. Sure, their his entourage, but not in it for fortune and elbow-rubbing. There’s a mission here, which is proudly introduced by Sam Rockwell’s Reston. He’s a holdover from the self-righteous crusading against The Man yippie, cynical and bitter. I love it when Rockwell gets to be Rockwell. His style is almost always pleasantly unhinged that comes across natural. He’s the kind of character actor that thrives on assuming a role that is not outside his schtick. If you’ve ever seen The Way, Way BackSeven Psychopaths,or Matchstick Men (all covered here, duh) then you know what I mean. His part kinda gets the ball rolling if you consider it.

Oliver Platt is famous for his onscreen prattle, and with Nixon it’s no different. The mouth that walks like a man. He may be considered comic relief, but under the circumstances of Frost’s baby he’s not intentionally funny. His bluster and “what the hell are we doing here, man?” You ever seen Apocalypse Now, with Dennis Hopper as the photojournalist? Platt was like that, only less manic. His was more like his gorge was always on the way to being buoyant, and it took Rockwell and especially Macfadyen to reign him in.

And speaking of Macfadyen—the aide de camp—his icy logic keeps Frost in check (there’s a kind of mechanics at work here with Nixon, don’t you think). His Burt is the antithesis of Jack. Where Brennan was active, trying to be “the man behind the man,” Birt was the man behind the curtain. Always reigning in Frost’s frustrations and anxieties. Keep the eyes on the prize. Birt reminded me of Mr Spock, and that’s a complement. Someone had to keep Frost out of the clouds. Truth be told Macfadyen was more like Mr Data, telling it like it is, and with a conviction so stern you could not but help to listen to him when he was on screen. Macfadyen was the tonic that the rest of the cast needed, as did we. Escape the silly flights of fancy and get back to work, people!

So that’s the cast. Like I said, Nixon was based on a stage play, so there were no small roles. Solid acting all around. Sounds like I have no gripes. Psych!

The technical aspect of Nixon was a bit dodgy. The air of crusading got a bit repetitive and tiring. A lot of spinning wheels. It felt like after a while we knew the film’s outcome, but not in the way Howard’s Apollo 13 did. We know the crew of the Odyssey REDACTEDNixon got very busy at times. The bottom end of the second act got rather frenetic, our intrepid rubes trying to get their sh*t together after the early interviews turned into Nixon spin doctoring. Call this nervous tension. If all of these histrionics are designed to make us all uneasy, only to make the final reveal all the more rewarding, then the job got done. If only in a cheaped fashion. It’s a minor carp, but it still stuck at me. Talk about a literal media circus.

The key scene in the entire movie may be the best, but also may have been totally fictionalized. Nixon as I repeat was based on a stage play of the same name, and as with plays there’s no room for “filler.” However with the shrewd and efficient Howard at the helm, he know how to bring his audience back down to Earth.  By this I mean he permits his oft wizened protagonists [EG: Jim Lovell, John Nash, The Grinch (no fooling here), etc] a small window of opportunity/redemption to turn things around in their favor. This tactic plays out in what I’ll call the “drunk dial” scene. If this was a true story, it was a vital foreshadowing of the final interview. If Howard made it all up…it would still be cool.

We’ve been led across an hour and 45 minutes of post political posturing and way too many 70’s era fashions. There better be a glitch in the Matrix if we’re gonna wrap up little slice of while we’re still young. We’ve learned the stakes grow ever hight as one interview becomes another interview. We still don’t truly understand what the endgame is. Frost seeking legitimacy or Nixon demanding redemption? Until the call.

I won’t give it away. The crux of the whole story resting a single scene and I’m gonna blow the load? That’s worse than spoiling. That’s just a dick move (no pun intended).

Keeping it simple: Frost gets to passively bleed a tipsy Dick dry before their last on air day together. That’s it, that’s all and pay attention when that scene arrives. Howard efficiency at its best. And it sure would’ve been a cool story if it ever was.

I guess I should wrap up now. I’ve been longwinded but surgical in this week’s installment. The subject matter demanded it. There were no easy answers from Nixon. I think that one message I could’ve walked away with it’s always very hard to have that talk with the man in the mirror. The guy that knows everything. Every little detail, speck, foible and good deed in the reflection.

Sure beats being grilled in a stranger’s house by some limey playboy with a perm.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, indeed. Although Nixon was dense as well as cluttered in equal doses, Howard’s trademark efficient direction made for a very absorbing historical. Funny thing though is it still had that tightness and intimacy that comes with a play. Guess I’ve watched My Dinner With Andre once too often. Inconceivable!


The Stray Observations…

  • Sheen has perfect, distracting hair.
  • “You and Vidal Sassoon.”
  • Nice metaphor with The Great Escape there.
  • “I got six.”
  • Does Kevin Bacon ever age?
  • “I wouldn’t want to be a Russian leader. They never know when they’re being taped.”
  • (K) Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
  • Rockwell has a good shaggy hippie look going on, because a decade after the Summer Of Love is what he looks like.
  • “Can I play Deep Crack?”
  • Sometimes a cigar is not a cigar.
  • “Those are real Bunnies?”
  • Hey, Platt does a good Nixon. Maybe better than Langella.
  • “No holds barred.”

The Kudos…

And so concludes our series of pulverizing biopics and fictional histories here at RIORI. I never knew how much of you in the blogosphere were so interested in such movies. The hits have been crazy. Thanks. Guess I should try this again sometime. Perhaps with a different genre. We’ll see.

Thanks again for tuning in and all the likes. We should do this more often. 🙂


The Next Time…

And now for something completely different. It’s time to bone up on some classic animated comedy for the New Century. It’s the Looney Tunes: Back In Action! Catch it, Doc!


RIORI Presents Installment #191: Morten Tyldum’s “The Imitation Game” (2014)


The Movie…


The Players…

Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightly, Mark Strong, Allen Leech, Rory Kinnear, Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode and Charles Dance, with Alex Lawther and Jack Bannon.


The Story…

When England entered the fray back in World War II, she was a starving nation. As an island country, supply ships were the lifeblood of the nation. However said ships were regularly torpedoed by the Axis’ U-Boats and the Allies’ planes shot down before landing. Why? It was an enigma.

Or rather the Enigma: the Nazis’ supposedly unbreakable coder/decoder, the ultimate machine made to deliver encrypted orders. Every day the codex changes, and every day Allied aid is rendered flotsam, jetsam and burning flak. Impossible to determine when the next attack will strike. The UK needs to crack those codes and soon, or all will be lost.

England’s best mathematicians have been beset to cracking the damned machine, and have been bested over and over again. Time is running out, and who could ever be sharp enough to find a pattern? Well, humble, eccentric mathematics professor Alan Turning has a notion, but first it must pass military muster. And it eventually does: Fight fire with fire. Create a machine to defeat a machine.

Turing’s so crazy that he just might make it work.


The Update…

Yeah, yeah. I know. Always streamlining yet still dropping down traffic cones. Those orange ones. They mean beware. Like Pete Townsend lyricized, “The music must change; For we’re chewing a bone.” I’m now getting down to the marrow, out of respect for my subscribers. Namely be more direct and quit the fluff. You’ll get it later. Hopefully.

*clackboard*


The Rant…

Here we are, yet again. This is the penultimate installment of historical fiction movies (until a fresh one comes a-creeping), that the formers have been received quite well here at RIORI. I’ve been genuinely surprised and quite pleased. I guess it’s kinda significant, since the likes and visits have been off the minor scale that this blog reaches. Thanks fer yer support.

Here we go…

Once a while back while waiting for my auto to be serviced, I picked up a then recent issue of Time magazine while in the waiting room. Time magazine, where I always go for the truth. Some article I gleaned was about a computer program that could beat the “Turing Test” courtesy of the nice folks at Google, natch. It broke down the program algorithms of human speech so to mimic responses to the user’s questions and answers. There was a sample of the journalist’s discourse with the computer that ran Google’s digital Rosetta Stone to illustrate how smart the program was in imitating human conversation. Nifty.

Before we lurch any further, I feel the definition of what the “Turning Test” (AKA “The Imitation Game.” Hey! Like the movie!) is. Dr Turing hypothesized that a test for intelligence in a computer, requiring that a human being should be unable to distinguish the machine from another human being by using the replies to questions put to both (definition courtesy of the OED). Sort of a like a game of poker, with a heavy amount of bluffing.

I’ll cut to the chase of what the article said: Google’s advanced whatsit failed to pass. Why? By responding to human questions in an all too human way. Simply put, Google Turing kept changing the subject when it did not know how to respond. This happened often. A lot. Not unlike a lot of flesh and bloods who find the conversation awkward. Since the interviewer knew he was chatting with a computer didn’t make for a decent double blind, how the program kept changing the subject was key to making it feel akin to dealing with a telemarker rather than a member of the human race.

In true Google fashion, the conversation ran like ads, suggesting products, demographics and the (failed) Google Glass quite a bit. Much face was lost. Blame the humans with the discourse, not the one that started it. It felt to me that the program didn’t fail at mimicking human conversation (it was transcribed in the article). It failed mimicking human nature.

More on that later. Open the pod bay door, Hal.

Do computers really “compute” anymore? The original, ginormous, granddaddy of ’em all computer ENIAC did just that back in the day. Calculating mathematical equations that, in short, helped the Allies to win World War II. ENIAC was the first digital computer. It was as big as a trailer home, used vacuum tubes instead of non-existent microchips to store memory of less than that of ten digit decimals, and was modular but never really portable—it could be dismantled for transit to another lab, which required a few trucks. ENIAC didn’t have WiFi or even Solitaire. Not a feature was stirring. Not even a mouse.

Ho ho ho.

Modern computers, like my iMac, iPhone and iPad, do indeed compute. They use math in order to run programs. However they don’t use a ten digit decimal memory, instead they employ bytes. 00 and 01. Positive and negative. Kilo, mega, giga and tera. Yes or no, perhaps what Turing was getting at when he hypothesized how a computer could “think.” Could a computerized device think for itself? Hence his imitation game, which—Time magazine notwithstanding—has been lost time and time again over the past thirty years or so. Modern computers don’t think in the classical sense, but they do the thinking for us. Modern computers suck at human nature, but they excel at predicting it.

What am I getting at? Glad you failed to ask. Here’s a quick Turing-esque question: what’s your mother’s phone number? I’ll wait.

….

…..

Did you look at your phone or did the correct ten digits ran through your brain? These days, I’m placing my bets on the former. I do it too, and my senior mother lives with me. Chances are your entire contact list is there on your smartphone so you don’t have to bother remembering it. Here’s a relevant story: once upon a time I called Apple tech support to deal with something hinky with my new phone, and knowing full well it’s hard to tweak your mobile while talking on it I opted to use mom’s phone to make the call.

It didn’t go as planned.

The IVR was useless, so I pressed zero. The CCR was useless, because she failed to hear me say I was not on my iPhone but was using my mother’s which was why the accounts didn’t jibe plus it’s hard to tweak oh you get it. Long story short after our planet made its annual stroll around the sun the Tech asked me to specify exactly which iPhone was I calling about. I gave her my number and clarified I was talking on my mother’s line, and then gave her mom’s.

“Wow! You knew that off the top of your head?”

Sheepishly I said, “I checked my contacts list on my phone.”

My mother. As of this installment I still haven’t committed her number to memory. Any why not? That’s what mobile phones are for.

It’s about the anti-Turing test. Computers can’t think outright, even in these challenging times. But they can think for us. Examples? I don’t know your phone number, but you could call me if you wanted. I don’t know what level your PC is at in the latest iteration of Gears Of War, but your team does and you’ve never met any of them IRL. Nor should you, nor does it matter. Spotify knows what you want to listen to. Tinder knows how desperate/horny you are. Your Apple Watch knows your pulse rate and you don’t and you never thought about your pulse rate until you strapped that gizmo over your wrist in the first place. You’re welcome and thank you.

I figure you follow, but thanks to the tenor of this tale I’m probably going to retell a story of why I gave up online video games and why MMOs concern me. The reason? It was an addiction, and my brain left my mind for two years. It was also something bit more sinister, and I’ll bet Turing would’ve never calculated this game:

I heard about some matter back in 2001 regarding some plane crashes in NYC. I knew about hunting for 7 star plus weapons for my PC in Phantasy Star Online, v 2.0 on my Sega Dreamcast via side quests and trading between myself and my online cadre at 2 AM, every AM from London because the USA server was littered with dooshes. It cost me 5 Euros monthly, but was worth it.

My Dreamcast and Sega.net knew this so I didn’t have to. Pew pew pew. Rather my diminutive, curvy, cutie pie HUnewearl could score free items from my teammates just by me being high level as well as being female (BTW the Dreamcast was the best 6 gen console ever). The game had it’s primitive algorithms; being the first console with built-in online capability (56k dial up or broadband. No WiFi yet), and you could download games as well as upgrade hard copy in the forms of new quests, advancing difficulty and of course always new hacks and treasures. For 2001 online gaming, it was very immersive. So much so that were three priorities in my life back in 2000-02: PSOv2, work and booze. Eating and the g/f became mere distractions. I’m not kidding that the game became my life. Like so many addictions, you cannot wait for your next fix, be it a drink, a smoke or a raid party. It becomes all consuming, and when your addiction is calmed by the power of a machine, a computer, well you’ve just given up freewill and sunshine to level up your team of customized skins.

The computer is thinking for you by that point. It guides your moves, urges and business. It’s not really that different than saving numbers in your smart phone, or digital photos on your hard drive (the app can sort them out for you) or every bit of info about your life in the Cloud. You don’t have to remember sh*t anymore, even how to write a proper blog. Grammerly will tell you how to write good. I mean well. It’s all there in the bits and bytes of your lives, either waiting for you to initiate something or finding some link that may engage you. Sad? Cynical? Doomspeak? Yeah. The truth? Getting there.

As if wasn’t made clear by now, I’ve always been wary of unbridled technology run amok. It’s usually tied to advertising and profit in some fashion, telling what you want, by billboard and website alike. I’m not a luddite, though; I don’t think technology is evil in itself, but how it is used isn’t always about creating viable COVID vaccines. Sometimes tech is used to create COVID and its evil brood, if you hear what I’m screaming. Computers are only as helpful as their users, and what they program and access can make our society rise and fall. These days, thanks to the Internet we have a wealth of information and a dearth of wisdom. Social media is an echo chamber and crypto currency is a select swindle. Did you put a third mortgage on your home to finance a PS5? Why do I ask this stuff?

So, is what the imitation claimed accurate? Can we tell if computers can think, even in the abstract, like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Like AI? I don’t think so, not yet anyways. However if we reach that point in the not so distant the computers will do fully think for us like in The Matrix and we’ll be downgraded to just mere applications. Apps, the programs that run your “lives.”

Turing may have been right in his conjecture. I can almost hear him turning over in his ashes…


The Review…

In my never-ending quest for simplicity and efficiency I decided with this installment to forgo The Story section en toto. Hope you read the above Warning. I finally figured there’s no need to re-encapsulate the movie’s plot that I already encapsulated in The Basics section. We can all read. That’s why we’re here, I hope. Otherwise you got lost and the link to DraftKings is here. Now double down, ante up, whatever and thank your mom for the sandwiches.

Ostensibly, The Imitation Game was about how the eccentric and brilliant mathematician Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) created the first truly digital computer to decipher the Nazi’s uncrackable Enigma. And you’d be correct on that notion, to a point. You could’ve also viewed the story of Turing coming to (reluctant) terms with his homosexuality, and that’s not far off either. Myself, ever the contrarian, had a different view. Mine was about “passing.”

It’s a sinister term, trying to prove/con oneself an equal citizen in an intolerant society. Racism, sexism, ageism. Happens everywhere around the globe. Even the Japanese, some of the most accepting people on Earth harbor some prejudice against the native ainu that live on Hokkaido island to the north. Akin to how the Aussies regard the abos, or the failing caste system in India, or how the American white majority get over on the black and the brown. The other. The misunderstood. Like classic Greek playwright Aeschylus proclaimed, “Everybody is quick to blame the alien.”

When all others were not, that was Alan Turing. Passing. If not for a military strategist and no more than a vacuum cleaner salesman, he had attempted to assimilate himself into a man’s world. Back then, I guess being eccentric and creative wasn’t macho enough. And if you were gay playing in a straight domain? Heaven help you and your naughty bits. As the Brits say Turing was “quite the other thing.” As was his intellect, work and inspiration. Consider this irony: back in the day being a gay man in Britain was a crime, not unlike with Nazi Germany. Think about that.

In this context, passing is a dangerous game. I believe the terminology harkens back to the antebellum South during Reconstruction. You know, when all black slaves were freed but not really “freed.” Passing was where lighter-skinned blacks could hoodwink for white folk and thereby evade racist antagonism…so long as they kept a low profile. Passing for white. Due to intolerance, bigotry and the threat of violence “mulattoes”—an ugly term in and of itself—had to hide who they were to survive. Passing meant denying a very basal part of all humans: identity and lineage. Cumberbatch’s Turing was very much in the closet before the closet was built. Going so far as to marry “his girl Friday” Joan Clarke (Knightly), his number one cryptographer. It was more like a man married to a man really married to his work. It was icky to watch, despite Turing and Clarke were ideally fast friends and great partners. Turing and Clarke knew it was a sham, but their union was for the greater good. Heck, even being the man who hired a woman as supervisor on the greatest codebreaking is history? That got Turing into a lot of hot water, if not from the Army than that of public opinion.

All right, enough muckraking. Should’ve said all this in The Rant, but all that truck does come to bear on the overall feel of Game. Namely, this movie was a period piece, but not like Merchant/Ivory or Shakespearean whatnot. The film could’ve only been told in a few sparse years. None of Turing’s seeds would grow to bear fruit if not for the War. That’s a matter of historical fact. The story would not have worked if not under all that pressure. Turing’s story of his imitation game (computer or homosexual) could never be told across a continuum. It’s like the story of John Harrison, who back in 1700s developed a successful, working chronometer for ships at sea to measure longitude. It took five years for Harrison to build it and a few centuries later to understood how it worked (it was still in use in the early 20th Century). We could not have had such a leisurely pace afforded with Game. We just couldn’t. It wasn’t like Charles Babbage woolgathering about his “difference engine.” stakes were too high, and the events could’ve only happened in WWII.  A sort of synchronicity, if you will. There have been other recent biopic films that tackled similar scenarios (EG: The Theory Of Everything, Hidden Figures, Lincoln, etc), but none of them had so much palpable urgency. If not for WWII, and the US not entering the war, the Great Depression would never end, the baby boom would never have happened and we wouldn’t have any iMacs to post blogs on an nonexistent Internet. Desperate times invite desperate measures, and desperation was Turing’s primary modus operandi. Not necessarily to beat the Nazis at their own game, but to prove his theories could be not only feasible but true and even put to positive use. Turing would’ve proven right, earn validation and not have his little secret discovered. Yes, he was indeed driven, but to what end? Turing needed to pass.

It was all about the passing. For all the sexual identity navel-gazing Game indeed had excellent tension, and did not dwell on homosexuality in the abstract. The dire cryptography race got laid on thick and fast; we learned the stakes at hand, and right quick. Game may had been labelled either a drama or a biopic. In execution it was neither: it was a spy thriller. Not like James Bond per se, but there was this always looming tick tick tick and Turing had got to get his sh*t together before he cracked after hearing the daily death tolls on the radio once more. Again, the stakes. Okay, Game was a biopic, but it played like a keen thriller. Time was ever running out, for the Allies as well as Turing’s grip.

Cumberbatch’s perpetual exasperation with duty to king and country and trying to reconcile his research as an extension of his emotions made for delicious drama. The man really sold it. His Turning was angsty but not drenched in cinematic bathos; no hand wringing thought there was a lot to wring about. I did some snooping around online to determine whether or not Turing was a prodigy, autistic, or just a plain eccentric genius. Maybe all three, but not all at the same time. Results were inconclusive. Cumberbatch’s performance and idiosyncratic behavior gave me pause. Sure, it was just acting—really convincing acting, mind you—but it smacked of something. And all the better film for it.

Speaking of autistic tendencies that Turning may or may not have had, I’ve found that really sharp people relish patterns, not unlike our good doctor did. Consider this tale: I had a childhood friend who was an ace at math and music. He played a few instruments and sang, both quite well. But his room was always a mess. No, check that. It only appeared to be a mess. In fact, his yard sale run amok living quarters was a very particular filing system. He always knew where everything was, he just didn’t bother to put things away normally like we passing do. Here: three large mounds of laundry on the floor in selected parts of the room. One clean. One dirty. One comprised of what to wear for the week, socks and all. Books on the floor he had read or wanted to reread. New stuff piled on his dresser. CDs strewn all over the floor for this month’s playlist. New, still wrapped discs at the foot of his unmade bed. He never made his his bed. Quite logically since it was just going to get all messed up come bedtime. And please, don’t touch anything unless you ask first. You might f*ck up the system.

After you have watched Game, you may be nodding your collective heads. My old friend had Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism. Namely, it results in abnormal but usually harmless behaviors revolving around patterns and rituals as a matter of some senses of control, regardless of the circumstance. Kinda like not changing your socks in the middle of a winning streak, but with a purpose. C’mon, we all let our dirty laundry pile up too much once in a while. But do you have a tape measure at the ready to gauge how high the pile was before it was laundry day? Not that, but yes him. One meter. Always.

Moving forward, I read a sobering response on Quora (hey, it’s better than anti-mask Uncle’s Facebook screed about COVID was created on Venus…which might begin to make sense after a bit) as to whether or not Turing had Asperger’s? Here’s what the forum post reported:

“Diagnosing historical figures can be tricky, and can get a lot of people riled up. That said, if you have enough anecdotal evidence of their behaviour during life, there are diagnostic criteria that can be applied. Psychologists have done this with Turing, and found he met all six of the…criteria for Asperger’s.” Courtesy of P Howell, who also claimed to be autistic. It was a thoughtful response from someone with a similar condition, so I decided to include it here? Valid? Yes. Sound? No, but more honest than anything on TikTok.

Coming back to Earth, Game was a character study alright, but not just the usual tortured genius type. Kinda wondered if Cumberbatch did his research of the character beyond just research. I understand one open-ended comment from a Quora forum does not a doctorate make, but still Cumberbatch sold a quirky genius serving his country with a not-too-deep seated agenda: proving if a computer could think like a person and (you guessed it) pass the grade. All the while you watch Game you know full damned well that Turing does not give two rat sh*ts about the war. He’s used the military’s funding to prove his theories to others and himself. Cumberbatch’d Turing was trying to prove to England that he was something. He was right. He could pass as well as Christopher could calculate. The desperation of this sweats out of Cumberbatch’s performance of Turing, even when he wasn’t sweating. In sum, the man was perfect for the role and really, really sold it. I wasn’t watching stoic Sherlock Holm—er, Ben Cumberbatch. I was watching Alan Turing as if I had met the man (yeah, Ben was that good). I can’t say enough good things with Game.

Except in one way. It wasn’t the fault of the performances, god no. It was the tonic when his Turing slipped in to analog rather than digital mode. These were the scenes where Game got cringey, but deliberately and may scare away erstwhile, adroit, well-heeled moviegoers. Pay attention.

First of all the subject matter of Game was kind of a niche market. Namely early computer science nerds and WW2 history buffs (EG: nerds with a Masters’). Stuff like that is not the flavor in Columbus, which is why despite rave reviews the sales showed it didn’t reach the masses. It’s funny, though. Even for the somewhat arcane history stuff Game was pleasantly accessible, more so than one might’ve thought. The acting is top notch, duh. There’s all sorts of intrigue, drama and palpable tension. My g/f found the movie very interesting and she’s usually into rom-coms and Disney flicks. But she’s also a big Cumberbatch fan, and we found his Turing, terse and angsty as he was he was still human, flawed and may have spent way too much time with “Christopher.” Cumberbatch played more like a computer himself, rather than a flawed human. He lacked sympathy towards others and was often impatient with his peers. Petulant and believing he was the smartest guy in the room (he was) and better than the rest. Sympathy and redundancy, that’s how computer interface works. Little wonder of Turing’s frustrations. Being logical only goes so far. Sometimes it’s best to pick one’s battles, even if you’re unsure as to what you’re battling. That kind of dichotomy requires patience to digest, and since most of Middle America has precious little—always screaming at the microwave to “Hurry up!”—to simultaneously watch and digest a film is anathema and that’s how Waffle House stays in business 24 hours.

…I did it again, didn’t I? No matter…

Here’s a conceit that screams white light in Game: It’s often said that characters are supposed to be likable. Wrong. They’re supposed to be relatable, interesting. Here’s an example: horror writer Clive Barker who created the Hellraiser franchise claimed that the demonic Pinhead never did one nice thing over the span of seven movies, yet he still gets marriage proposals via email to this day. Interesting, just like Cumberbatch’s Turing. I’m not talking proposals, I’m talking posthumous respect. In the final analysis, cracking the Enigma was his show all the way. Cumberbatch’s portrayal will never achieve Gump-like adoration, since he was such a snot. But his performance was about an interesting snot. Gold stars all around for characterization. In sum, you need to see this film.

Speaking of acting, Mark Strong is fast becoming one of my fave character actors. His is very good at being mean. From 1917 to Green Lantern to John Carter Of Mars he has raised being callous, indifferent and belittling to the protagonists he has to deal with in his films. He’s also very smug about it. It’s always a ton of fun to find a villain you love to hate, especially when the bad guy believes erroneously he’s in the right. And who wouldn’t like to bust a stuffy bureaucrat in the chops? Moving on.

Secondly, Game was a non-linear movie, but again strangely more accessible than one might’ve believed. Yeah, I covered a few non-linear flicks here at RIORI (EG: The FountainTristram Shandy, I’m Not There, etc) and they have been a little disorienting to watch. However the flashbacks and jumps in Game are tastefully done. Meaning they are bookends to the A plot. We get involved in Turing’s mission, and once there’s a breath, boink, back in time forward in time. It felt the director was very “calculating” to lighten things up once in a while, if only just for a change of pace. It was kinda akin to when Shakespeare would inject some levity in a play moments before the sh*t went down. Catch us off guard. Tyldum wanted us to catch up, take a breather and then back into the churning circuits. I found that neat.

Towards the final act of Game, I found myself asking, “Was all of this just interrogation?” Was the movie designed to make you question identity, digital and/or analog. If that was the case it was a very good questioning, minus the good cop. Game may have been about cryptography, sexual identity, passing and the never to be fully understood human condition, but it felt to me the movie was prodding me to go a little deeper. I got a hidden message beneath the whole folderol with cracking the Enigma and the dangers of Turing stepping out of the closet. That was overt. Something told me that there was an undercurrent—a code—that director Tyldum wanted me to crack. It may have been all subjective, but I felt there was some code lurking, waiting to be cracked.

The first proto-social media algorithms. Names, times, objectives. Get them all in line and a private code may reveal itself. That’s FaceBook. That’s Twitter. Unfortunately TikTok. Was Tyldum suggesting that accidentally Turing invited social media into our world as we know it today? Let his imitation game reach its fruition to suppose what humans wanted to get from computers? Dictate their lives? Make people second guess everything? Enhance egos? That may be a stretch, right?

Maybe, maybe not. I was probably reading too much into it. But overall Game was a great length of code, inviting decryption even for a basic app like me.


The Final Analysis…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Game is a sturdy flick, filled with lots of intrigue and excellent drama. A solid biopic of an interesting person in a unique situation who exited too soon leaving a lot of unanswered questions. Also with a representative performance that well demands, “Why?” Queue up and make up your mind. I did.


The Stray Observations…

An explanation: I’ve decided to quit the movie watching as a solitary job and now I go over to my girlfriend’s place on the weekend to watch this week’s assault on the senses together. She makes some pretty keen observations with this film, so then I added them to my notes and credit her where credit is due. Whenever you read (K) in the notes or observations, it was her comment not mine. It’s good to get a second opinion.

  • “Pay attention.”
  • (K) That’s a lot of numbers.
  • “The carrots got into the peas.”
  • If only hunting for a job was as easy as solving a crossword. My mom’s a crossword freak. WW2 would’ve ended in week if she were born sooner.
  • “You just defeated the Nazis with a crossword puzzle.”
  • (K) The simple was so simple it was tricky.
  • “When people talk to each other, they never say what they mean….They say something else and you’re expected to just know what they mean.” Kinda like texting.
  • That smirk.
  • “We love each other in our own way.”
  • Here’s a keen urban legend about Alan Turing: One of Turing’s fave snacks was apples (there’s a scene in the movie about that). Turing took his own life, and his bedside was an apple with a big bite out of it (“last meal”) tainted with cyanide, which the police noted. Story went that Steve Wozniak heard this tale and shared it with his partner Steve Jobs. Hence Apple’s moniker and logo. There are two kinds of stories: those that are true and those that should be.
  • “Is that it?”

The Next Time…

Did Micheal Sheen really try to Frost/Nixon, as portrayed by Frank Langella? We’ll see as RIORI‘s series of biopics comes to an end.

Thanks for coming along.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #190: Tate Taylor’s “Get On Up” (2014), part 1



The Players…

Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Octavia Spencer, Jill Scott and Dan Ackroyd, with Craig Robinson, Viola Davis, Lennie James and Brandon Smith.


The Basics…

Like with the First Man on the moon, astronaut Neil Armstrong, we examine the life and times of the “Godfather Of Soul,” “The Hardest Working Man In Show Business,” “Mr Dynamite” himself, the incomparable James Brown! Yeah!


The Rant…

True to form, this installment culls deeply from a personal, hands deep in pockets kind of nostalgia. The owned, best kind.

Ah, but the Temps. They could sing. As a little white kid with all the coolness cachet of a sack of flour, I knew I couldn’t plead like David Ruffin, but I liked what I heard. I recognized Motown music as soulful without really understanding what that meant. It was something good, and a nice change of pace from infinite rotations of Graceland (still a great album BTW). A bit more oomph, if you catch my drift.

My mom’s fave Motown group—despite being a 60s Beatlemanic, which was federal law for girl Boomers back then—were and are The Four Tops. It was the first concert she caught back in college. Her alma mater is back in Virginia, and her being from a white bread New Jersey circa 1966 the concert was a revelation. Soul music wasn’t a hot topic back in her hometown, but had a firm foothold in the South. The Motown groups would make regular circuits all around this side of the Mississippi, and were a seasonal fixture in her college town. College gigs were common back then. Like back in the 90s when I caught some newb shock rocker Marilyn Manson. Funniest club date ever, but that’s another story.

So moms caught the Four Tops at the height of their career. She went to an all women’s school, which required much screaming and flailing and perhaps pantie-tossing as these sweat ‘n’ soul guys rocked the stage. She told me how they danced in perfect synch, and when not swiveling they would huddle arm in arm for the ballads, like their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Your Love Is Sweeter Than Ever.” When it came to the rockin’ songs like “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch” lead singer Levi Stubbs had the audience in the palm of his hand. I’m making it more dramatic than what my mom saw, but she read this bit and couldn’t argue. To this day whenever she hears a Tops’ tune on the radio, from my iTunes library and/or in the car she starts doing the butt dance and fingerpopping like she did back in the day. Play “It’s The Same Old Song” and it’s Pavlovian; she drops everything and starts to groove. She’s in her 70s. She’s 20 again. It’s a sight to behold. Grow old but don’t grow up, right?

An aside: Moms has always been a sucker for singles, regardless of genre. It’s residue doubtless left over from that Tops’ show. For instance, she drove her father mad with endless rotations of the Dion classic “The Wanderer” back in high school. Whenever Van Halen’s “Jump” comes on the air her reaction is always: “This is a classic!” She’s said the same thing for Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out.” She also prefers AC/DC with Brian Johnson over Bon Scott. There’s no accounting for taste, I’ve heard. When I shared such tidbits offhand with my old bartender friend he blurted, “Yer Mom’s cool!” She also attended high school with a young wallflower named Joe Walsh. That Joe Walsh. He was already ugly then. Moving on.

Back to her concert revelation. Think about that for a moment. Never ever in your wretched life have you ever caught your favorite musician in their prime and knew it. My mom was one of the chosen few: it was actually the Tops’ first national tour, like all across the USA. The way she tells it, she knew what was going down back then. It was a revelation.

Me? Sure, Motown was cool. I love Stevie Wonder and the Temps and Marvin Gaye and all those cats. Great songs to sing along with even if you’re not Ruffin. However growing up on punk and prog and…well, Elton my tastes in tunes demanded a little more oomph. A little more grit. A lot more horns (I played sax in band, remember?). A little more…soul.

Enter Stax Records. Deep southern soul. Aretha, Otis, Carla, Ike, Booker T and the MGs (“Memphis Group” for the curious) and especially my guys Sam and Dave. I loves me some Sam and Dave. They never sang a bad song. Never. One of my fave songs by them was their first single, “You Don’t Know Like I Know.” I blare this from my car at mind shearing volume as if I drove a low rider. It was in reality an early 90s Volvo sedan. Whatever. Sweat and soul and defiantly not pretty like Motown was. Moms was never much for Stax. Takes all kinds.

Okay. To prove some sort of point in how Stax operated in stark contrast to Berry Gordy’s empire of smooth, here’s a choice tale about how sometimes the best accidents result in the best songs down in Soulsville, USA. Have a seat. Here’s a beer. Shaddap and lissen hup.

The following is an excerpt from Henry Rollins’ Do I Come Here Often? (Los Angeles: 2.13.61 Publishing. 1988) when the infamous LA punk icon got to interview the legendary Issac Hayes about when he was a house songwriter at Stax back in the mid-60s. Here’s Ike’s tale:

“…Starts in a big ol’ room like a movie theater…The toilet was up in the corner of the room. I’m sitting in the center of the room, up against the wall by the piano, playing.  And Dave [Porter, fellow Stax songwriter] said, ‘Man, I’ve got to use the john.’

“He went to the restroom, and I struck a groove. And I said, ‘Damn, I don’t want to lose this thing…Hey man! C’mon!’

“And he said, ‘Hold on! I’m coming!’ And he came out the john with his pants down saying, “That’s it! That’s it! Man, I got the title!” And hey, we sat down and wrote ‘Hold On, I’m Coming.’ You know, it’s a funny thing the way these tunes come out.”

Huh. Chances are Motown’s hit factory never sought inspiration from taking a dump.

That being said, and as with all legends—be it Arthurian, Spider-Man or musical—there always is a wellspring. Whether is be the smooth and poppy grooves of Motown or the girt and grease of Stax, if soul music be where the twain met and/or splintered thanks lay to James Brown and his Famous Flames. Both sides of the card. Grit and groove. Shine and tarnish. Inspired both ends of the spectrum and spreading the gospel—again, so the speak. Brown was a visionary, with his trailblazing fusion of gospel, classic R&B and funk, informing both Houses and endless musicians to this day. Even to this day—15 years after his passing—where his standards can be omnipresent thanks to nostalgia, constant revisionist history of his craft and miles and miles of samples culled for rap songs he’s still a force of nature. As I suggested, his songs could be sweet like Motown or lowdown as with Stax. Brown was so explosive that he was a genre unto himself within soul music. Doubtless that some of the Godfather’s style influenced Otis Redding, Solomon Burke and Aretha. Brown was the Jackie Robinson of funk, brought it to the masses and informed both Motown and Stax how it should be done.

I know, I know. I’m laying it on thick. Some folks dismiss Brown’s catalogue as old hat, so saturated his tunes have been co-opted into popular American culture. However consider this one final story about how a young James left his first mark on the world stage. Only Hendrix at Woodstock outshone James live. Once more into the breach, my friends and quit groaning or else no nap time and no juice boxes with graham crackers. Roll out the towels.

There was this concert film back in the early 60s, The TAMI Show. It featured many up and coming musicians to strut their stuff and doubtless doing so would push record sales. There were a lot of cool acts in their infancy on display on TAMI (“Teenage Awards Music International” for the record). The Beach Boys. Chuck Berry. Smokey Robinson. Marvin Gaye. The Supremes. All on the guest list, including James Brown and the Famous Flames and also some snotnose British Blues group calling themselves the Rolling Stones.

The historical record went down claiming James and the Flames stole the show. The kids went bonkers. The Stones waited in the wings as the act to close the show, and they were agog with James’ performance. It was kinda like, “We have to follow him?” Mick and crew were amazed and delighted by the Flames’ act and figured that guy Brown had the right idea.

For years upon years we know Mick Jagger in concert likes to preen and strut and boogie and play to the audience. I caught the Stones back in the early 90s, and of course I expected Mick to swivel and shake. I was not let down. But if it was not for James Brown, I doubt the Stones wouldn’t’ve enjoyed their legacy so long. They would’ve died after the inaugural Monterey Pop festival playing so aloof. Save Keith, natch. Only kryptonite could kill Keef. The red kind, natch.

If you ever caught some classic videos on YouTube of Mick and the boys performing their frontman came across as too cool for school. Mick’s gestures made him appear aloof, like the audience didn’t deserve his talent. After he and his band watched James and the Flames cut it up, the modern Stones appeared. Instead of Mick affecting the stance of him waiting his turn at the pool table, TAMI showed him bouncing and dancing and swerving and getting into it as we expected him to do well into his 70s. Not unlike James Brown in his 20s. Jumpin’ Jack Flash is a gas, gas, gas now.

Hey, if some then unknown soul brother could alter the course of Britain’s premier rock institution, well, I guess must be a story behind that…


The Apology…

I supposed some you out there in the blogosphere noticed the “part 1” tag attached to this week’s installment. Welp, here’s why:

Due to technical difficulties—namely me trying to reconcile the differences between WordPress’ classic editor and its new block editor—the remainder of this installment got wiped. Sorry. Lost my notes, lost my media, then lost my crackers. Sorry.

Instead of scrapping the whole wad I decided to post the first half; The Breakdown part broke down. Why? Either to maintain my oh so rigid posting schedule and/or maybe drum up some tension and cliffhanging (like when Capt Picard was captured by the Borg at the end of TNG’s third season) as to what may have made Get On Up either compelling or never mind. Wait and see.

Ah well, don’t fret none. Get On Up‘s part 2 will be concluded in the future. Hopefully by then by then I’ll have learned to stop toggling/vacillating between too many Safari tabs. Not to mention not putting my faith in autosave too much.

Until then, stay tuned. 🙂


The Next Time (God willing)

As the first computer scientist, Dr Alan Turing devised his test—better known as The Imitation Game—based on an idea that a computer could be said to “think” if a human interrogator could not tell it apart, through conversation, from another human being.

Read: “passing.”


 

RIORI Presents Installment #189: Damian Chazelle’s “First Man” (2018)



The Players…

Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, with Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Shea Wigham, Corey Stoll and Lukas Haas.


The Basics…

This film fictionalizes the account about how Neil Armstrong overcame the trials and tribulations of being the first astronaut—the first human—to ever set foot on the Moon.

That’s it. Short and sweet. You’re welcome.


The Rant…

I’ve noticed this resurgence of Flat Earth societies on social media, which is where I go for “the truth” if you dig. These yo-yos proffering some pseudo-science to disprove facts the ancient Greeks figured out long before any Karen had it out with any exasperated manager. I’ve since learned that the ancient Babylonians realized the Earth is round based on simple astronomy (EG: how the sun and moon move across the sky). This conspiracy theory has bubbled up again en masse within the past four years, coincidently enough. It’s rough to be a YouTube subscriber and not see all these posts regarding science versus erroneous empirical evidence. I’ve watched a view channels, and those trying to disprove our amazing planet is nothing more than a D&D-esque platform for humanity to play upon. Never mind the other planets are round, or the moon of the sun even. Nope. God’s just been f*cking with our sense of time and motion for thousands of years. Sure. You ever heard of Occam’s Razor?

Huh? What’s that? You haven’t? Did never catch a screening of Zemekis’ Contact? That movie was based on a novel by uber-astronomer Carl Sagan, who is still held in high esteem in some circles. His book was a feasible, scientifically minded s/f story about how aliens may want to communicate with us. Long story short the movie posited two scenarios. Either astronaut Jodie Foster actually contacted some extra-terrestrial signal or the whole mission was just one big, expensive, international hoax for yuk-yuks. Occam’s Razor says that the simplest answer tends to be the correct one. Either Jodie heard something or John Hurt spent an obscene amount of cash to make Earth’s population look like a bunch of rubes with he mother of all practical jokes. Made you look! Regarding the Flat Earth theory either the firmly established laws of time, space, gravity, general relativity are wrong or Kyle with his Twitter feed and has streamed way too many classic eps of The Outer Limits is correct ignoring basic psychics your average junior in high school understands. Noodle that.

I have a point coming up regarding Flat Earth myopia, and it’s a simple, Occam kind of inquiry. Say these yahoos are correct and we’ve been living on a God’s snooker table for millennia. My response to that theory is thus:

“So?”

These would-be kindergarten Keplers are so very insistent, if not in a frothing frenzy to prove that our planet is planar one must ask: So what? What’s your point? What do you get out of that?

*crickets*

Humans are an advantageous species. We look for ways to overcome obstacles in the most expedient fashion. Hell, take the COVID vaccines. I’m not some shill for Merck, but I’m pretty sure vaccines take some time to be developed. My mother told me about the polio epidemic in the 50s and how quick Salk made his vaccine available, despite some resistance. Kinda like now (BTW, we presently have not one but two viable vaccines for corona developed within a year, yet Africa has been dying of AIDS going on 40 years. Hmm). We want quick solutions to problems, and like Occam, we want the simplest, most efficient solution.

Solving the COVID crisis is not even in the same league as the Flat Earth theory, but it’s akin to it based on scientific, empirical truth upset the whole “So what?” argument. We know the outcome of effective vaccines (EG: less death, fewer masks and an unencumbered opportunity to go to a movie theatre again). We know the benefit. So what’s the benefit of a flat planet? What does this swift, direct and totally fallacy do to help the true believers? Haven’t seen that on YouTube yet, but I’m willing to wager a small sum that such videos exist. I’d like to meet those folks and sell them this historic bridge in Brooklyn for a dollar. A Canadian dollar. Don’t get nervous.

The best evidence I know of to firmly debunk this silly, unscientific, shut-the-hell-up-already Flat Earth theory can be laid at the feet of—no big surprise—NASA.

Let’s set the way-back machine to July of 1969. The intrepid crew of Apollo XI set down on the moon, the first time in history humanity was off-world. While astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were doing geological surveys and taking selfies, command module pilot Michale Collins was in lunar orbit, waiting for his buddies to finish up their day at the dirty beach. History was made and our daring spacefarers made it back to Mother Earth intact, with no small help from the seasoned pilot Collins.

I feel that Collins got the short shrift in NASA history. No, he didn’t make and giant leap for whomever. He was a space valet driver if you think about it, but he was the most seasoned pilot in NASA, cutting his conning teeth back in the Gemini program where young astros were learning the physics of outer space HALO.

One of the highlights of Collins’ career as an astronaut was essentially writing the rulebook for space docking procedures. Hey, all those capsules and satellites and excursion modules had no computer guidance, and they had to fit together somehow. Early NASA flights were seldom self-contained like the ISS is today. Lotta Lego action back in the Gemini program. That’s where Collins had made his bones.

Back in 1966, Collins and company were practicing docking maneuvers during the Gemini X program. The goal was to dock a space capsule with an “Agena Target Docking Vehicle.” Essentially a satellite to—you guessed it—practice docking maneuvers. At the rendezvous point, Collins took this photograph as he approached the Agena (photo courtesy of NASA):

Slow down there. What’s that I spy with my little eye in the background? Looks like Earth, curvature and all. This snap was taken in 1966, before Neil and friends made it to the moon. This was high orbit. I see clouds and the ocean and a hurricane forming and perhaps Argentina and a distinct curved horizon. Pool tables aren’t curvy.

Which leads us to the other conspiracy theory, the bastard stepchild of the Flat Earth myth: NASA faked the moon landings. Now here come the other witless True Believers. Those who claimed the moon landing was a total sham. Again, why? What favor does it give you dingdongs? Stanley Kubrick made up that mock set so LBJ could thumb his nose at the Soviet Federal Space Agency? I view this mentality akin to pranking a stranger with a dozen delivered pizzas. Sure, it could’ve been made a hoax with a big deal Hollywood budget and an isolated soundstage at Area 51. A lot of these would be skeptics claim that the actual film director Kubrick was commissioned to stage the hoax with his expert eye and nifty special effects created by wiz-kid Douglas Trumbull that made their s/f epic 2001: A Space Odyssey such a visual tour de force. Of course it could be done! And it was!

To what end I ask?

Yes, the visuals in 2001 are striking—even 50 odd years later—at least from the tech angle. However all those heavenly bodies in the film, from the moon landing to our intrepid astronauts jetting out to Jupiter are against obvious matte paintings. Very good matte paintings mind you—for the time—but the original story told that Bowman, Poole and HAL were heading off to Saturn to search for intelligent life, not Jupiter. Why the switch? F/X wizard Trumbull nixed the Saturn voyage because he couldn’t create an accurate looking Saturn. This was reflected by how Jupiter in the final cut looked like a cotton candy Chupa-Chup. A very good cotton candy Chupa-Chup, but still just a matte painting.

Wait. To compare here’s a photo from an Earth-based observatory of Jupiter courtesy of NASA back in 1967 (read the log entry), a year before 2001 debuted:


Now here’s a shot of “Jupiter” from 2001, released in 1968:

So let’s get this straight: Kubrick faked the moon landings, despite the film tech at the time was slightly less sophisticated than NASA’s bag of tricks. 2001 dropped a year before the Eagle landed, yet Trumbull was unable to make Saturn look like Saturn, but create Jupiter as a photograph of a photograph of Jupiter. You doubters can go along with debating the film’s feasibility (like a a bow and arrow could  overpower an AK-47 in the wrong hands), but you’ll argue against two dead master filmmakers who admitted their limitations making the ultimate, scientifically accurate s/f movie they couldn’t reproduce with a NASA-sized budget, leaving Lyndon kicking a foot against his Fresca machine.

That’s the trouble with conspiracy theories: they technically can’t be disproven. With every shred of doubt comes a sliver of evidence to the contrary that only invites another theory refuting the evidence. It’s all paradox. It’s all Schrödinger’s Cat. These fallacies just encourage the theorists that they are right, the Universe is wrong and in the end it leads to nothing. Nothing save some self-righteous dolt with a YouTube channel established firmly to be an anthropological buzzkill. So what if the Earth is flat? So what if the moon landing was faked? To what end?

Mostly justifying insecurity, paranoia, the warm fuzzy you have knowing “the truth,” as well it is as bad as you think and, yes, They are out to get you. Now, here’s your sandwich board, scrawl THE END IS NIGH on it, take this bell and go stand on that street corner. Some like-minded nabob may strike up a conversation.

Sigh.

Regrouping, chances are you not familiar with Michael Collins and his story. But you all know who Neil Armstrong was. His story was about being the first man on the moon. He brought back this postcard for all Mankind:



The Story…

Hello? Did you not read The Basics above? Short and sweet?


The Breakdown…

Before we commence with the usual folderol I’d like to share a whimsical story about Neil Armstrong. Not about the man, per se, but the idea of the man and what he inspires.

In college I played sax in the marching band. My then girlfriend played baritone horn. The thing looked like an oversized bugle, but with valves, and bell angled at the audience and you had to carry it like a sack of groceries. They gave off a pleasant, sonorous sound in harmony with the tubas. Every year at band camp, to break the ice and generate morale for the freshmen, the upperclassmen would design a tee shirt to wear during practice. My girl once laid some trivia on me that back in his schooldays Neil Armstrong played in marching band, and played the baritone horn! Upon dropping this science she asked me for my opinion (for some weird reason. I played sax. I already had my John Coltrane’s Crescent album art emblazoned on my tee) as to how maybe incorporate this Armstrong story into a baritone tee. My answer was simple: you ever see online one of those huge, round screens Pink Floyd used to use in their live shows? Superimpose the moon on one with a caption that read, “SUMB Baritones. Still first in space.”

It didn’t happen, but it would’ve been neat. I’d’ve bought one.

Anyway, most folks in modern history lionize Neil Armstrong as the “greatest astronaut ever.” He wasn’t. No one astronaut in the Apollo flight plan were. Those guys were all aces, quick on their feet, able to multitask, savvy in engineering and able to deliver the goods when the “real science” needed churning out down on Earth. Armstrong was a solid engineer and a crack pilot. These days, you want a sortie on the ISS you better carry multiple diplomas earned from universities in New England and/or California. Or even the UK. These days the scientists surf on sine waves more than they can tolerate altitude sickness and subsist on Gerber’s for a few days. These days its all tech and numbers. Back then it was a gamble with gravity. No, Armstrong wasn’t the greatest astronaut, but come Apollo XI, he was the most qualified to command the mission, and he got the job done. The proof is on Betamax somewhere, I think.

Ahem.

*raps pointer on chalkboard*

For our fourth of seven movies in a series that revolve around historical fiction/biopics this week we have First Man. Since I’m an amateur astronomer and have always been nuts about space travel I couldn’t wait to see the film. I’d naturally been drawn to the story (doy) about how Neil Armstrong became…well, Neil Armstrong. First man on the Moon. Awesome! Shots of early NASA history! Behind the scenes of Neil’s homelife against his job…his mission! Why wasn’t this film made sooner?

There are reasons.

First was one of those long gestating projects in ol’ Hollyweird. Not quite in Development Hell, but pretty close. A lot of gears had to turn for the film to grind into being, and timing—as they claim—is everything. So much so that a bit of serendipity was at play back around, oh, 20 plus years ago.

Acclaimed actor/director Clint Eastwood had just wrapped up his NASA dramedy Space Cowboys. Fun flick BTW, a lilted take on the Mercury program meets Geritol. In 2003 author James R Hansen released the official bio of Neil Armstrong titled First Man: The Life Of Neil Armstrong. Clint opted the book for the film rights in 2005. As things went, Eastwood dropped the project (as well as starring in the movie) and First went adrift for awhile. Until Universal and DreamWorks took up the baton, and then assembling a crew to make First happen that was ragtag but proved fruitful. A lot of movies under production work this way, often with success. The original Lion King happened in a ramshackle fashion. It took decades for Forrest Gump spring from page to screen. Even One Flew Over The Cuckoos’ Nest was optioned by Kirk Douglas (who wished to star as McMurphy) only to have son Michael Douglas merely finance it. Sh*t happens, then it fertilizes.

First became a reality piecemeal. Director Chazelle got a lot of applause for his La La Land and rewarded with the Best Director Oscar back in 2016. With that clout La La star Gosling came along for the ride, even though Emma Stone—whom I would enjoy touching—got the Best Actress ho-ha (and IMHO would’ve made a pretty good Janet Armstrong with First). It’s odd how a story like Armstrong’s took so long to tell, at least on the big screen. Not to mention how First technically didn’t stall at the Seventh Level. It’s kinda a nod to how Armstrong gradually rose in the ranks from test pilot to Gemini to Apollo to the moon. Good stuff takes time, and patience is rewarded. All that and it doesn’t hurt that Dirty Harry made the first move, punk.

Chazelle knows how to rope you in. Man‘s cold open sure got my attention, you better believe it. He showed that in NASA the stakes are always high. Over the moon, so to speak (let me have that one, okay?). We’re focusing on the early space program and the people behind it. In our minds we know that those first daring men risked life and limb in the name of exploration, science and informing Khrushchev to get bent. In the film however, everything, everything is dire. There’s a scene where Janet Armstrong explains that she’s used to funerals. That pretty much sums First up. Risk, risk and more risk. From Armstrong’s daughter Karen to death spirals to onboard fires after watching this I could only marvel at how young NASA managed to succeed more than fail back during the Space Race. This was frontier territory. The risks were indeed great, but also relentless. I could mention great tension, but I’d rather say I wasn’t going to the bathroom for two-and-a-half hours watching First. And I know how to tap a pause button.

Which you may have to do watching Man. There are a lot of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it details, allusions, foreshadowing, Easter eggs and a lot of other nice touches that one could have learned in basic 7th grade language arts. The cold open is good place as any to set the tone for the movie, despite it being a tad misleading as well as winking, but in a polite way. As the NASA works out the kinks for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, the camera focus gradually gets less grainy. The use of a Steadicam in the first act made for great visual tension, if not visceral terms. I prayed both were cut back for the second. And they were. As this little technique clears up, we realize we have two plots diverge but never really break. We had Neil’s mission and Janet at home with the kids. Frontline against homefront. The camera work there is at “home” things are jagged, like watching an old ep of NYPD Blue. When Neil’s “at work” everything is much smoother Even as we may know a chunk of NASA’s historical record, sure space exploration a “purely scientific endeavor” (quotes mine), but there was always an undercurrent of competition with the Soviets. More like a pissing contest. I doubt that the astronauts and their wives attending yet another funeral were ignorant of those in the cat’s bird seat in DC not paying for the services.

Noise seemed to be a prominent force here, or the absence of it. We all know that there is no sound in the vacuum of outer space (or now you do), and director Chazelle using this nugget of astronomy to create a character from it. No shocker when Armstrong and Aldrin touched down and ventured out of the Eagle there would be jarring silence. However, silence was the enemy for several scenes in the movie. Silence. The not knowing. Every time something went adrift in the film was like immediate foreshadowing well into crisis. Deafening silence. Without such a distraction you had to believe your eyes as to what the hell was going on. Sensory deprivation was a very clever way to hook the audience in. We were dealing with extremes through all those early NASA days. Everything was dire. Every bolt secured, a coffin. Why not make the movie audience chew on their finger and toenails to get hooked on Neil and company’s exploits in scientific uncertainty?

That being said, fear is another potent draw in First. Gosling as Armstrong, no matter how qualified for the job is a walking contradiction. Seasoned pilot and later seasoned astronaut. Loving family who is always waiting for the space boots to drop. Duty to God and Country despite both failed his REDACTED. Many scenes in First had this air of, “Please, not again.” It’s not surprising that danger lurked around every corner of the Space Race, but I felt another funeral was always looming. An undercurrent. Sure, space exploration was paramount, but what about the folks Earthside that weren’t risking their lives but lived through potential loss vicariously thanks to the proud NASA goals? In a word: Who? The “who” is what created the finest tension in the film. The off-world exploits were damned fine, but what about the people the astronauts should come home to? In one piece if any? Remember, none of this is real, yet all of this is real. Perhaps in some obtuse way, but you are damn observant when you sprout gooseflesh as I did watching First. Many times.

I was totally mesmerized come act three. I had held Neil’s hand for over two hours. I felt every minor victory and every pronounced shiver. As Chazelle was a skilled director, throughout all that tumult—all those minor ups and major downs—if there were any solid truth in it, I got why Armstrong had to get to the Moon. Not for science, quite not for NASA and surely not for taking a whiz on the Soviets. For closure.

What’s out there? Something lost? Someone? REDACTED?

First is both a harrowing and joyous film. Shakespearean in execution and Steinbeck in structure. First is a many-headed hydra. It makes you uncomfortable, then engaged, then uncomfortable being engaged until elation comes without warning. Thank the even comedy and tragedy and appreciative understanding that Armstrong had made it to the moon well before this biopic hit theaters.  The film requires an easy concentration. There is a lot to digest, but it goes down easy with Chazelle confidently at the helm. He’s very clever with First. It’s tricky to balance art with commerce with La-La Land, but on the whole he succeed. if only in a modest way.

It’s too bad First ended up here at RIORI. It truly is.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? By all means rent it. First is—in two word words—a success. Short and sweet.


The Musings…

  • “It’ll be an adventure.”
  • Gosling’s haircut is ridiculous and absolutely perfect. It was an era of discovery and very bad haircuts.
  • “Jiminy?” Well, when you wish upon a star and all that.
  • I enjoyed Gosling’s vocal affect.
  • “Now look at all the crayons!”
  • Oh God, Karen’s bed.
  • “I married Neil because I wanted a normal life.”
  • The Gemini VIII scene was worth the admission price alone.
  • “If I had a choice I’d take more fuel.”
  • Why were foot pedals for freezers abandoned? Kinda like tap toe hi-beams?
  • “I’m done.”
  • Here’s some cool trivia: The glass that NASA used for their craft’s windows? Pyrex. No cool super-polymers back then. Found that clever.
  • And yes, I’ve seen Silent Running. Trumbull’s Saturn then was no less convincing.
  • “You’re Dad’s going to the Moon.”

The Next Time…

Get up! Get On Up! Get up! Get On Up! Stay on the scene! Get On Up! Like a sex machine! Get On Up!


RIORI Presents Installment #188: Roger Donaldson’s “The World’s Fastest Indian” (2005)

 



The Players…

Anthony Hopkins, with Jessica Caufiell, Patrick Flueger, Saginaw Grant, Diane Ladd, Christopher Lawford, Aaron Murphy, Paul Rodriguez and Chris Williams.


The Basics…

Kiwi Burt Munro is obsessed with speed. So much so that he can’t stop tweaking his custom Indian motorcycle in order to fulfill a lifelong dream: to test his metal and mettle on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and break a land speed record. Burt’s already broken records in Australia and New Zealand. But in the USA? Ah, the jewel in his crown.

He’s got the drive—so to speak—to “‘Ave a go at it!” But his ramshackle ride is a wreck. His health isn’t what it used to be. And Burt’s New Zealand home is half a world away, him an innocent abroad. Amongst his being broke, ailing, out of his element and a victim of his eccentricities however Burt never wavers on his quest for epic speed. His motive is not some throwaway reason why one climbs a mountain: because it’s there. Nope.

Because it’s for then.


The Rant…

I’ve always been a fan of motorcycles. Never ridden one, but am still curious. Anyone can understand the appeal of zooming down the road on a sunny day with the wind bracing your face. One may also understand those dyed-in-wool riders who don’t wear helmets. Must be kinda like flying. The wind in your hair, or—let’s face it—all that POWER beneath your groin. Hell to the yeah. One with road and the journey and seldom the destination. If you’ve ever seen Easy Rider (and I suggest you do, this the ultimate road trip movie), with Wyatt and Billy riding their souped-up choppers heading down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, accompanied by Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” wailing in the background then you get it. You must, even if you’ve never set your ass on a bike. Looks fun, fancy and free.

Me being a total rube when it comes to bikes I have trace only element understanding how the goddam things work. I’ve ridden a bicycle, but its bully of a big brother like a Dodge Tomahawk that looked like it escaped the set of Tron? As the Brits say, “quite the other thing.” What is all that gimmickry between those wheels? How much gas can that tank hold for long road trips deemed appropriate for a TV commercial? What the hell is a cubic centimeter and how do they relate to gas consumption? And how do Harleys make their pipes sound like God’s Own T Rex with hemorrhoids with an addiction to Monster drinks and free access to a Howitzer in the Grand Canyon? In sum, Hogs are LOUD. And how?

Mystery to me, which is why I’m a curious sort.

In my misspent life I’ve been privy to a few gearheads either boasting their rides’ power or otherwise dicking around in the garage. Although I’m not fond of visiting my mechanic when my ride is acting up—who does?—he and his crew are okay if you’re curious to see what’s being operated on in the garage itself. Just don’t pass the yellow line. Any questions? Just speak up. I gather that they’re not giving up any “secrets” just to prevent wasting in time in the future when can’t explain some weird noise with your car, which ,ore than not turns out to be nothing. Those guys and girls also appreciate a free Starbucks now and then for their troubles.

BTW, speaking of coffee, when I was fresh out of college and needed a quick job I took up an ad at the local cafe for a barista position. In the evenings when the weather was pleasant we had a small motorcycle club that would spin by almost every evening. I’m not talking Hell’s Angels here, just a bunch of old guys and high school kids alike out for a spin and a decent cup of joe. They’d park their bikes in the street, four or five of them, get something to drink and talk biking all evening. Not to mention boasting all their customizing they’ve recently done, to one-up each other as to who now had MORE POWER.

I’d admire their bikes and they suffered my questions well about this and that, like some dopey kid shaking all the presents on Xmas morning. Those guys explaining the mechanics of their bikes in references to a car? Hopeless. They’d rev up their motors to 11 creating deafening booms, or spun their rear wheel to shimmy back and forth creating squeals and a lot of smoke, laughing all the while. I didn’t really get it, but it sure seemed fun and I understood how they worked if you get the drift. There was a lot more going on than an engine at full peel, customized or no. I wanted to get “it”, but all I had was my run-of-the-mill four-wheeled vehicle, which I never customized. Not counting new floor mats and the occasional Little Tree.

Consider this however: If you’ve ever been granted permission to watch the grease monkeys lobotomize your crazy car, be it under the hood or from under the lift, there is a LOT of complicated sh*t inside your ride to make it go. And I ain’t talking like a Ferrari. I drive a ditzy little 2009 VW Rabbit (with a manual tranny; the girls love me), which is a pretty simple ride overall. There’s no GPS, no Bluetooth, no cruise control (it can’t; manual remember) and the A/C hasn’t worked since a month after I bought the thing. Sure, like your car it sometimes it gets whiny and makes requests via the Periodic Table of Elements dashboard lights. I need gas. Buckle your belt. High beams are on. It’s cold out. You missed your turn. I don’t like this music. Why do footprints appear on the windshield when you turn on the defogger? And then there’s that dread feeling you experience when the always scarlet CHECK ENGINE light blinks into life. Oh no. What now? I already topped off the blinker fluid. You know what it’s like.

The first time I opened the hood on my jalopy I was perplexed. The CHECK ENGINE lit up and sure enough I did and the engine was in there. It did not look like and engine but instead a mini fridge with four large cords protruding from it, out and away. The only other things I thought I recognized (actually the only other two things) were the reservoirs for the blinker fluid and water for the radiator. These three things made my car go. It ran. The last ride I had I bought off my sister, a late 90s Volvo that spent more time in her garage than on the highway and ran on mothballs and prayer. Must’ve been the runt of some litter back in Gothenburg. Long story short, you fast learn you know nothing about how temperamental cars can be until you have your own coffee mug at the garage.

There are a lot of things your needy car wants besides fuel and water. There’s a real tricky system under the hood, and all of it working in such to enable you to travel swiftly and safely. I spent time in that garage looking up. No easy task.

A motorcycle? I only see three working parts on a machine naked to the world: two wheels and the handlebars. But there’s a lot, LOT of guts between those wheels. Hell, even the brake discs are exposed. You SIT on the gas tank? You brake and go with your HANDS? Why have you been using CAPITALS so much? Because if you think about it, what makes motorcycles go so fast depend on a microcosm of what makes my bulbous Rabbit putter hither and yon. Compact. Ultra-efficient. Fast as roadrunner with Apple Pay. Stripped of body construction and smashed flies on the visor FAST. At first glance a bike’s compact nature betrays its power I feel. Sure, some bikes like Harleys and those luxury liner, over-the-road models are big, but the principle remains the same: maximum speed for maximum efficiency using the minimum of solid parts. Shrewd design, a knowledge of wind shear, balance and basic physics are all essential, not matter the size. And those crazy custom jobs that look like they were designed on Proxima Centauri? You gotta be one sharp designing cookie to ride the lightning.

Erm, well, Burt Munro with his cobbled together, cannibalized custom Indian racer? Not so much, even if he HIMSELF came from Proxima Centauri so out there he was. Or maybe it was just New Zealand in his veins. As well as Castrol.


The Story…

Down Under, if you have a need for speed don’t come calling on eccentric motorcycle nut Herbert James “Burt” Munro (Hopkins). Old man’s been tinkering with his over-customized 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle as if he were Dr Frankenstein. That “bike” is his wife and his life. Sure, Burt’s harmless, but so obsessed with his bike is he that his genial nature belies a man with a dire mission.

That mission? Break the land speed record with his ride at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. The United States. The big time. Yeah, Burt’s broken speed records on his homeland and neighboring Oz, but he’s only a local legend. Perhaps only a cottage industry. But to go to America and showoff what his beloved Indian can do? Driven by a duffer like him? Beat that!

There are only two things keeping Burt from his quest. One, his age. Ol’ Burt is pushing 70, and its understood he broke some records with his mutant Indian back in the day when he was as spring as one of his pet chickens, but now he has a heart condition and arthritis. Is Burt still nimble enough to coax his bike to action overseas?

Which leads to two, Burt has known no other world than his hometown of Invercargill, NZ. America is a lot bigger than the Kiwi Realm, and Burt really has no idea what’s in store for him in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Salt Flats. It’s literally a world away, and Burt has some trepidation (naturally) about what to expect naked as a jaybird. Sure gonna be out of his element.

Hey. It’s all no matter, mate. There are rules to be broken, as well as records!

“If the butterflies in my stomach were cows, I’d be able to start a dairy farm!”

Have crazy cycle, will travel with crazy rider.


The Breakdown…

On occasion I frequent AllMovie to get an idea of what I’m getting into regarding the week’s hatchet job. Most of the reviews are kinda vanilla: useful but criticizing a movie without bashing it in hopes you’ll take it upon yourself to come to your own conclusions. Due to advertising, those guys can’t get too rowdy. My curiosity? I call it research and I don’t trust critics. Call it a proto-acid test: I’m gonna watch this? Cross fingers, toes and brows. Let’s see what there is to see from my POV.

I read the rather lackluster review of Indian and upon watching the actual movie I believe the reviewer missed something. Something crucial to the plot. Indian wasn’t Forrest Gump with a motorbike as the fellow alluded. No. It was a meditation on mortality; how fleeting life is. The movie was never about proving speed. It was about challenging time.

Consider Burt’s throwaway tale to how his big brother REDACTED. Up until that point, Burt would wax poetic about how he came to living in a garage and always tooling with his Indian. Next door neighbor kid Tom kind of regards Burt a folk hero, what with his stories about once upon a time and his itchy nature to never give up on his “old girl.” And, yes, Burt’s knowledge of metallurgy and engines can be mesmerizing, but there are many blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments threaded through the film that if you pay attention, this isn’t a movie about fulfilling a dream. It’s more about keeping a promise. To one’s self. To thine own self be true. It’s not just for Sunday School y’know.

Indian is about mortality, or rather staring it down before the inevitable. It’s not made clear that this what the true motivation behind the real Burt’s dream of breaking the record, but his age and illness suggest that time is short. Precious. Live every day like yada yada yada. It’s a familiar story, but as it with playing the blues it’s not the notes but knowing how they should be played. It takes a severe talent to get this kind of skill and Hopkins does it in spades. His Burt is easily the friendliest role he’s ever played. He always has a smile, a quick one-liner and an almost childlike gaze on the world, although he knows time is running out. Every passing scene is passing, and Burt tries to make the most of, ingesting the new world he’s been plopped into. The whole thing is positivity on overdrive—so to speak—but appropriate and never mawkish. Some other actor of lesser caliber couldn’t have pull off the likes of Burt like Hopkins did. It’s most light-hearted I’ve even seen him, if not downright jolly. If you think about that, it’s scarier than Hannibal Lecter.

Oh, pipe down. You knew I had to drop that name here sooner or later.

So yeah, Burt’s obsessed with time, not necessarily speed. It’s not mentioned much in the film how Burt got the itch, but it’s implied. His recollections of moments past with Tom, especially the story of Burt’s older brother’s fate, hints at what Burt’s all about and the Indian his escape. There are quite a few quick shots of Burt looking at his watch. He also gets really irritated with smoking. At first this movie with all its fluffy positivity makes for weak tension. Oh, tragedy begets regret begets redemption. Yawn. I disagree here. All that sweetness and optimism belies the tension that eventually arises when we’re arrested by Burt’s historic ride and all the trickiness that undercurrents doubt and failure.

I can’t deny the healthy doses of silly/fish-out-of-water/innocence that pervaded Indian, and if any other seasoned actor like Hopkins would assume Burt’s fictional mantle the movie would’ve definitely fallen apart. Big shocker, but I suspected major creative liberties taken with the plot. Weak or not, the story was still engaging thanks to Hopkins. Ever since the man aimed to be a thespian he’s carried a lot of “unfilmable” movies through the course. Until his Oscar win, Hopkins more often than not played second fiddle. This is not an an insult; Keef makes Mick look good. Consider the man’s CV in relation to his Burt in Indian. Although John Hurt was the cause celebre in The Elephant Man, Hopkins’ kindly Dr Treaves proved that Merrick was not a freak, just a victim of a rare disease. The endearingly uptight butler Stevens who’s whole duty is not to serve Mr Lewis but never let his reveal his crush on Miss Kenton; that would not be proper. And of course his turn as psychopath Dr Hannibal Lecter, toying with FBI trainee Starling to earn his freedom. BTW, as all cinephiles know, Hopkins was basically played a supporting character but earned Best Actor 1991 for less that 20 minutes on screen. Hopkins is good—great—at being wallpaper pasted up by Picasso.

So what better way to appreciate Hopkins’ Burt in how he deals with being out of his nest in search of his quarry? Right. Go along for the ride, so to speak. It’s impossible to not like Hopkins here, all hale and hearty and chuckling and more than a little bit off. That’s his charm, which is quite the statement considering most of Anthony’s charm stem from his best known roles portraying quite reserved characters (EG: the aforementioned Treaves, Stevens and even Lecter). He’s a unrepentant optimist, never giving a damn about social graces. Almost as if his Burt was living against what Ben Franklin said about mortality (but still very much aware of it): “Some people die at 25 and aren’t buried until 75.” Ol’ Ben lived to be 88 and loved a good dirty joke. I suppose you can’t help but be curious about some duffer chasing a childhood dream even if they’re collecting Social Security. I think the best example of Hopkins’ Burt’s unflappable good humor is best summed up in one line. When his new American friend, a trans named Tina comes out to Burt, his simple response is that Tina’s a sweetheart anyway.

Again and of course director Donaldson took some creative liberties with Indian. Erm, some? Precious little was true in the tale, save the showdown at Bonneville. If you think about it, Burt’s true test of his nerves would’ve been easily encapsulated in a one-hour History Channel doc back with the channel aired History. Sometimes you gotta add a lot of breadcrumbs to that meatloaf otherwise no dinner. How Donaldson and Hopkins jury-rigged the story to make it more…there is akin to (and I’ve used this example before, so muzzle it) one of the best Mandela Effect movies quotes ever: “If the legend is better than the facts, print the legend!” Facts can be boring, and if one wishes to spruce up the story you need some ketchup. And kicked up dust. A spoonful of denial makes the soft script go down.

Indian is by far one of the oddest road trip movies I’ve ever seen, and it is indeed a road trip movie. Once Burt’s in the States what else would you call it? The record breaking takes up a lot of room in the back seat in the third act, but the eclectic encounters with the colorful folks he meets—which are all to kind to help Burt on his harebrained quest—makes the trip worth getting off the beaten path one in a while. And really, what’s wrong with a simple, feel good movie?

Indian isn’t complicated (far more than the mortality undercurrent) in which a story like this—legendary or factual—hasn’t been done before, and will be done again. Still, it was charming, had a little weird Coen Brothers bent, a motley cast, a kooky Hopkins and motorcycles. Like I said, sometimes you just gotta go with it and leave some cynicism at the door.

Now who wants fresh squeezed lemonade? No you don’t.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s fluffy to be sure, but so’s your pillow and you still lay back on it. Quit being a drudge and enjoy some Happy Hopkins.


The Musings…

  • “Time goes by so fast.”
  • I need a tomato-shaped squeezy bottle.
  • “It’s only flat on the bottom!”
  • There is a very fine line between eccentric and crazy.
  • “What?” Tom reveals the Maguffin.
  • I liked that clever reveal.
  • “I’m planning on going, not stopping!”
  • Burt can talk his way out of anything.
  • “If you don’t go when you want to go, when you do go, you’ll find you’re gone.”
  • Fun fact: Burt never pissed his lemon tree. Probably never even had one. Director Donaldson threw that bit in as a tribute to his Dad, who in fact did practice that kind of horticulture. I’d never have a glass of iced tea at the old Donaldson home, no sirree.’
  • “I did it!” Chuckles, naturally.

The Next Time…

“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” claimed the First Man to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong…by way of the Mickey Mouse Club.