RIORI Presents Installment #187: David Gray’s “The Lost City Of Z” (2016)



The Players…

Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller and Tom Holland, with Angus Macfayden, Edward Ashley and Pedro Coello.


The Basics…

Major Percy Fawcett is a cartographer of some repute, however that never gained much attention in his fellow explorer’s social circles. So-called poor breeding does not mean Fawcett is of poor character or courage. Or drive.

In 1906, Fawcett stumbles, literally, onto an opportunity like no other the Royal Geographic has ever known. On assignment to settle a border dispute in the Amazon—demarcating the boundary between the natives from encroaching on the rubber barons’ land and vice versa—Fawcett by pure accident comes upon ancient arfticats, suggesting a forgotten civilization in the middle of the Amazon basin. Undiscovered and untouched by the indifference of time. Incredible.

Now how does a mapmaker, no matter how skilled, convince the upper crust of the Realm’s bravest explorers that there is wonder in the jungle which needs further scrutiny?

Simple. Fawcett drops everything, absconds from the Empire to the Amazon and goes native, immersing into a world of discovery, both personal and anthropic.

He was never heard from again.


The Intro…

Much to my surprise regarding the last installment tackling Ron Howard’s biopic Cinderella Man I received quite a bit of positive feedback. A lot more than usual. A lot more, like chain mail level. I wasn’t planning on getting much feed back if any outside my small circle of subscribers, and since this week’s movie happens to be another historical drama I figured, “Heck, let’s have a few of these curious movies clog my account and see how well they stick.” So I rearranged my Netflix queue to get a mini marathon going. I chose six more varied biopics to roll on down the pike. Lucky seven. Like I said in the Cinderella installment, it’s creative license versus the historical record and how they should blend into good cinema. Let’s see what happens next.

An aside: Yes, I still use disc-at-a-time, and yes I do have access to streaming video. So why use the Triassic version of movie renting as I’ve done for over 20 years? Simple. Two reasons: one, Netflix’s streaming service is still in its infancy. Their digital library is infinitesimal compared to their hard copies. I’ll catch up when they catch up. Two, like why I gave up MMO’s, me having access to all that online cinema at the diff of a nose would render me off world and you’d never hear from my wretched ass again.

Stop cheering.

So then, what’s on the menu this week? Have a seat and put on the lobster bib.


The Rant…

What is it about movies involving discovery seem so sexy?

Slow down there. There’s a quarantine on and the CDC may be in cahoots with OnlyFans. Remember social distancing.

I’m not talking about Indiana Jones-esque movies. Not exactly. I’m talking about those adventure stories that penetrate the subcutaneous cockles of our curious hearts. The kind of films that get our blood pumping about new adventures and exotic locales and treasures to unearth that may end up on American Pickers. Discovery, that’s the ticket. All the best adventure movies have that. Whether it br digging in the Egyptian desert for forgotten tombs, hacking through the triple canopied jungle perusing a legend, or venturing into outer space. Heck, that last one is what Star Trek’s all about, and the latest series is even called Discovery. It’s all about “let’s go!” paired with a healthy dose of “now what?”

Discovery One was the name of the spaceship that took Bowman, Poole and HAL to Jupiter in 2001: A Space Odyssey and beyond the beyond. One of NASA’s shuttles from their now mothballed fleet was also dubbed Discovery. Shackelton’s expedition to Antarctica in 1901 was christened as such. There’s the Discovery District in Toronto, a city within a city exploring the practical medical applications of biotechnology. And also the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based, non-profit think tank to examine the human condition under the auspices of intelligent design. Flaky, but interesting. Who knows what they might discover? Maybe aliens set up shop here once, I dunno.

Why is discovery sexy? It’s very potent. It drives you. Humans like to learn stuff. Scientists live for it. We like to know new things, for good or ill. Recall in 2020 due to the decimating wildfires in Australia, multiple new species of marsupials were discovered. Granted, not the ideal way to a zoology kickstart, but at least it was good news. Why was that? Why in hindsight Down Under was ablaze and fire fighters from all over the world were desperately trying to suppress massive fire lines the liked we…Oh, look! A new, HUGE glider mammal came out to play! Thank you, fire suppressant! Hell, sure beats wanton destruction en toto.

Like tearing open that umpteenth pack of Pokemon cards and finally scoring that holofoil Ho-oh after so many loser scratch-offs. Woo-hoo! My determination (and luck) paid off! Acquiring fresh knowledge invites more, and all the usefulness—again, for good or ill—that it brings. In more fanciful terms, wouldn’t it be cool if we found remains of an ancient Martian civilization? Or developed anti-gravity? Or teleportation? Or even had Cyberpunk 2077 drop bug free? Hell to the yeah.

You might be asking me if I would care to listen: what was that about exploration movies being sexy? Good question.

In a soft science kinda way, exploration and discovery are sexy. Proving a theory. Going against the grain out of principle and being rewarded for it. Unlocking that secret level on your latest JRPG acquisition. All of that results in an almost exultant feeling of “Eureka!” mixed with “I told you so!” Heck, you’d run around Athens naked after unlocking that side quest about matter displacement, without NeoSeeker and shampoo still in your hair. Drinks all around. Reaching that “a-ha” moment feels pretty damn great, be it understanding algebra to creating a recipe to mastering stick shift. Discovering, and later being an adept can be an awakening. Mind clearing. All is well. I can impress a girl at a bar now with this knowledge, or maybe ace that physics exam. You’ll discover what’s a better chance.

Discovery is always a personal experience, but you know you have to share it with someone. Without a curious audience to maintain, your a-ha moment would be no more than a curiosity, afetish. Think about Watson and Crick, or the Wright Brothers, or Jobs and Wozniuk. All of their strange work proved successful. Eureka! Which is why it’s so damned hard to convince the cynical public that what these folks figured out might aid the greater good! It’s personal, meaning it’s precious to those who seek it and often some arcane hoodoo that flat-earthers just won’t buy into.

That’s often the trouble with discovery. Since it’s an inner elation, it’s rough to share without a context. It’s like the old saw that says the problem with getting something done right the first time is that others never appreciate how difficult it was. Time takes time, like how Hawaiians figuring out how to Spam actually edible. The guys in Northern Africa discovering how razzed their goats got after eating berries applied the scientific method and learned what the goats learned on their own: this coffee tree bears fruit that gets you hyped! How long do you think that brewing the stuff and drinking it caught on? Hundreds of years. Those goatherds were onto something, but precious few listened. They were only nomadic Ethiopians, not nutritionists. Vaccines, a round planet and pushing Betamax as the superior format (two out ion three ain’t bad) took some time even being backed by informed enthusiasm. Where’s your mask?

Discoveries can be tough pills to swallow, often annoying the status quo. A lot of great discoveries gestated for far to long until they saw the light of day, mostly kept in the dark by skeptics, folks without imagination and the business-minding having no easy way to find a way to make a buck off a new find. For example, the Wright Brothers first successful flight was reported by the press was relegated to the back page; no one could believe man powered flight could truly exist, even with photos available and Photoshop decidedly not. There were the “Two Kids From Cleveland” Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster who created the first and best superhero Superman. The Man Of Steel back in the 30s almost never got published because the guys at DC publishing said no one could believe a man can be faster than a speeding bullet etc. According to Business Insider in 2017 the property of Superman had a net worth over $1.9 billion. Hell, even that life-saving gear the parachute had to be demonstrated, if front of God and everybody, by the inventor of the modern design we use today. Franz Reichelt had to jump from the Eiffel Tower to make his point. Good thing all those discoveries had happy endings. Read: eventually profitable. Up, up and away!

No matter how gracious we claim to be, there is always the secret joy of “I told you so” when your discovery bears fruit or not. To paraphrase Galileo after being unfairly sweated by the Roman Inquisition after his astronomical studies, “All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.” It’s sinful pride of a very low degree, but still delicious. Sticking up a psychical middle finger to all those would doubted you out of ignorance or lack of vision. Being able to tout your hard-earned research and earning some respect? Ha, that can feel very sexy indeed. Having the last word, proving your mettle and perhaps even earning some concessions from the lowly one who doubted and mocked you for your fanciful notion of “Ah-ha!” Hopefully we’ve all been there at least once. Edison must’ve had that feeling weekly. Ever hear of that Spanish proverb, “Revenge is a dish best served cold” (now you have)? The point I’m reaching here is not about getting even, but being vindicated. I prefer the one about the monk Dom Perignon after he perfected his method for champagne: “…I am tasting the stars!”

Exultant. That is what sexy feels like beyond the bedroom and the beach. Tantalizing. Revelation. Not sexy per se. Glamourous. That’s what it feels like to be at the right time in the right place. All eyes on you, and you were both steadfast and lucky that your discovery eventually attracted an appreciative, respectful public.

Or not, nor ever. Their loss.


The Story…

In the early part of the 20th century, the British Empire still held sway over most of the civilized world. To be understood that Britannia was not the conquering, civilized race it once was, but they still were the dominant political power on Earth. The British were known far and wide for their explorations of the world and what influence they spread—for better or worse—but even now at the turn of the century acquiring huge swaths of land in the name of King and Country was not as vital as maintaining a presence on a global level.

No. It’s now no long quantity but quality. Resources instead of colonizing. Do not disturb the locals and how they conduct business. Get them to work for you. However first things first in this new capitalism, get the lay of the land, then set up trade.

Enter one Percy Fawcett (Hunnam), a seasoned and well-respected cartographer, as well as a card-carrying member of the Realm’s Royal Geographic Society. He has been fortunate enough in his life to be around the upper crust of his fellow royal explorers, but nary an accolade to befound on his jacket. Centuries old antagonism still clutters the minds of proper Britons, and Fawcett being Irish? Well, it’s been a polite uphill struggle to earn some honest recognition from the Society. Whether it may ever come, who knows?

Well, have you ever heard about how opportunity comes disguised as hard work dressed in rags? Percy has been assigned some hard work, and already feels quite rough shod and ragged. Turns out there is a border dispute in the Amazon. The rubber barons stake claim on one side of a river and the natives the other and none the twain shall meet. Unless a skilled mapmaker like Fawcett can literally draw the line. The Kingdom needs its rubber with as little grease as possible, so the Society dispatches Fawcett and his partner by proxy Henry Costin (Pattinson) to the Amazon basin to lay down stakes, once and for all.

No sooner do Fawcett and Costin approach the end of their trek—well deep into hostile native territory—does Percy literally stumble onto something curious: pottery. In the depths of the jungle. He knows the natives know nothing about throwing pots, so what are this shards doing here? As well as those curious growths of trees in symmetry, suggesting agriculture? Those smooth stones, they didn’t just fall into order. Someone once must have placed them there. Long ago.

Could Fawcett and crew have accidentally discovered a lost city in the middle of the jungle? He’s not certain, but if perhaps if so hen he returns to the Society after his work is through and reports a potential discovery he may not be considered…so “Irish” anymore.


The Breakdown…

I read all the dripping with caramel reviews of The Lost City Of Z—both the book and its film adaptation here—and for the life of me I just didn’t see what the hoo-ha was all about. All the praise, all the accolades, all the nominations from indie film fest from around the globe. All of it. I’ve learned after all these years on blogging to not watch the chosen movie in one sitting. It’s not a race. Depending on the film’s length and my free time I on average stretch the viewings over three evenings, and not necessarily consecutive evenings. Why? Despite the time crunch, I’ve found I need a little time in between to digest what I’ve seen. You kinda miss things in movies when you watch it beginning to end in one swift marathon dash to the coast. At least when you’re trying to both enjoy and dissect said movies. It was like when I caught Scorsese’s apology Best Oscar film The Departed. My friends and I walked out of the theater scratching our heads, trying to make sense of the last scene. We left in separate cars and doubtless both my friends and I were having a synchronous inner monologue trying to decipher how Mark Wahlberg REDACTED Matt Damon. It dawned on me by the third light, and there they were waiting. I flagged them down.

“It was his REDACTED!” And they nodded with enthusiasm.

It finally made sense, but only after 30 minutes in the car ruminating over the movie I had just watched. Thus being said, I now need time apart from a RIORI selected flick to actually “get it.”

Get it?

After finishing Z I appreciated my way of scrutinizing movies. Better well done than half baked. It took me a few days to “get” Z, but not without some confusion and letting some hubris get in the way.

I did not see what the big deal was with Z. As far as this blog is, the movie fit The Standard. Its budget was $30 million, but only netted about $20 million worldwide. The Tomatometer certified it fresh at 87%. Audiences felt differently at 57%. Critics loved it, while the average janes and joes either took it or let it alone. That being noted, I have a theory as to why Middle America didn’t much take a shine to Percy Fawcett’s exploits, and of course it fits in with my discourse. Let it be known that for the first time here at RIORI I sympathize with the popcorn heads. Shock and awe with conclusions to draw. Stay tuned.

At first I found Z to be a bit of a bait-and-switch. Recall what I said above about discovery and its lusty charms? Right, well that was what I was expecting: a hale and hearty period piece all about perils and pleasures of discovering the unknown, like with classic adventure films like Gunga Din or Lawrence Of Arabia. Action, adventure, globetrotting, terra incognito, treasure hunting and the like. That pair are period adventure pieces like Z, out of their time but still designed to take any audience elsewhere. Anywhere but here, but here you will stay, in your armchair, nachos at the ready and let the movie be your guide.

Just like Z? As the Brits say, “Quite the other thing.” Shocker. Can I have some nachos?

What follows is not a complaint about the quality of Z. Not at all. I found precious little flawed with this period piece…once I finally “got it.” Took a long time to get there, too. Like a week. At first glance—the first act I watched proper—Z felt nothing like your typical period biopic adventure. It rather felt like a British parlor novel, telling the tale of a well-to-do riding on their success (or family’s success) as status while “lesser” folks sally forth on their own questionable path to success, whatever that may be. The movie read like the “White Man’s Burden” in reverse. Meaning the (racist) drive of white men to civilize the natives got turned around as role reversal. It read as a shade jingoistic. My mind wandered. Sure, the historical “record” was elegant and intriguing, but there was a serious lack of tension over the next two-plus hours. This normally would’ve been a major issue on my side. My usual lighthearted nature would be rankling and eventually I’d calm down and doze off with the disc spinning, losing the chapter number, waking up to a day I didn’t know and an empty pint of Ben And Jerry’s melting into my shirt. Like I’ve said before, no tension, no story, no attention. Hand me a paper towel or three. I got nacho cheese on my knees.

BUT…

There was a story here and, hear me Middle America, patience would be rewarded. Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t the flavor in Columbus. Yes, the pacing was languid, but that may have been the point; a storytelling device. Perhaps director Gray knew what folks wanted in a historical adventure movie and decided to turn it on its ear. For instance casting Hunnam as Fawcett. Most of such films always have to have some sort of Alan Quatermain kind of hero, full of derring-do and arcane knowledge of lost treasures. Think Indiana Jones or…well, Alan Quatermain. Hunnam’s a versatile character actor, with roles as diverse with Cold Mountain to Children Of Men to Pacific Rim. All somewhat modern roles, to which I found Hunnam as a historical figure—albeit not a very famous one—hard to back. Especially considering how overall reserved he played Percy. I never considered him an actor of nuance. I didn’t buy him as Percy, but I cashed in on him portraying Percy or any other unsung adventurer. Again, wait until the next act.

In fact, all the major players here are pretty comfortable in their own skin, despite what treacherous unknowns the Amazon might have in store for them. Might’ve been the stereotype British stiff upper lip, but I didn’t get that impression. Another reversal of expectations. The cast themselves were patient, as was the film, as how one should watch it. I insist over several evenings. Gray’s direction was very methodical, ensuring you understood the story over the money shots. Hunnam and especially Pattison (who was still grandly shaking off the shadow of Edward) have an easy chemistry, with carefully measured dialogue. Barring the courtroom scene, words are just useless replies to one another, bookending wonder and fear.

I just implied Pattinson further digging deep away from being a viable property, which is a good thing. Hunnam may not be a household name yet, but he truly demonstrate he can carry a movie, with all the top emotions on healthy display with Z. Again I never pictured Hunnam as the leading man type. He had a dire elegance at play here, and therefore a lot to digest as to whom Fawcett was, besides a man at ease with Nature. I was pleasantly surprised by his performance.

This was not your usual fare regarding both biopic and adventure story. Z was carefully measure, frame for frame. There we precious few surprises. Everything flowed. It was a story first and a movie second. It was akin to a live action article from NatGeo, and I believe most folks read that magazine for the photos. The cinematography was nothing less than smart. The music was a polite afterthought; the sound effects served as a better backdrop than any Horner score. After a few nights Z felt perfect, but there was still a nagging feeling that I had been had. I hadn’t, but I suppose I got duped by the collective what an adventure film should be. Sometimes such flicks should not be all whiz-bang. Sometimes you need to stretch out and understand the adventure—the discovery—should lie between you ears.

In the endgame, Z played like the book the film culled from, but I never read the book. It just felt that way. This was the difference three evenings at home made rather than two-and-a-half hours in an impersonal theater or melting into the couch with a stream. Z was a patient movie that tried audiences’ patience. Mine included. When I slowed down and took my time I discovered—again, get it?—a lush adventure story told at the end of the Victorian Age of exploration, and a man’s search for truth, within and without. Also we should understand the story was never about finding a lost city. It was about the ideal. The thrill of discovery.

And to my surprise, I made it back in one piece.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. A solid adventure film, despite the Merchant/Ivory-esque execution. Don’t watch it in one sitting, especially with a bag of Cheetos. You jeans will thank you.


The Musings…

  • “Someday you and I will go hunting together.”
  • It must’ve been odd, if not a relief, to stumble onto opera in the jungle. A “taste of home,” per se.
  • “We might be too English for this jungle.”
  • Why is the lighting so soft in the first act? It is because the hardest is yet to come?
  • “Welcome to the inner circle.”
  • Racism takes many forms.
  • “That bugger wishes he was back on the South Pole.”
  • “Savage” is a relative term. Especially paired against the “sophisticated” combat of the Great War.
  • “A green desert.”
  • For the record, it’s Zed, not Zee. It’s a British thing.
  • “I must go back.”

The Next Time…

Sir Anthony Hopkins plans to take The World’s Fastest Indian motorcycle for a ride into history, Agent Starling. Fly fly fly!


 

RIORI Presents Installment #186: Ron Howard’s “Cinderella Man” (2005)



The Players…

Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Bruce McGill, Paddy Considine, Craig Bierko and naturally Clint Howard somewhere in the mix.


The Basics…

The Great Depression hit America hard, but determined albeit washed-up boxer James J Braddock hit back harder.

After suffering a career-ending injury in the ring, not to mention the nation’s economy going to hell, James still pressed on to keep his family together and well away from Hooverville. Of course it was a struggle, especially when it came to finding dependable work with a bum wrist, but James had weathered trouble before he was rich and famous. Now he’s going to have to start over. No depression of any kind will keep him from taking care of his family. He’s waiting for the next round.

It’s kind of funny, however, that a streak of bad luck could sometimes lead to a “lucky break,” even if in a left-handed sort of way.


The Rant…

It’s been said that Ron Howard is unique in the pantheon of great directors. He makes movies that are crowd pleasers as well as critical darlings. It doesn’t really come as much of a surprise really. Howard has been on sound stages ever since he played little Opie on The Andy Griffith Show (now try to get that theme song out of your head) and later as average Joe High School Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. He was raised in front of the camera with his baby bro Clint under the watchful eye of their character actor dad Rance. It was a sort of family industry. So after being in front of the camera for years, it came as not much of a surprise that Ronnie wanted to get in on some movie action. With his CV, Howard was more than up to the challenge.

Howard’s breakthrough film Splash was a hit. I caught it at the drive-in when I was kid where I got to see a young Tom Hanks flexing his comic chops. I didn’t get the whole art and craft of filmmaking when I was 8, but I knew what I liked and I liked Tom Hanks. He was silly. The rest of America felt that way, too and so the guy’s star rose high enough to eventually team up with a well-seasoned Howard a decade later to deliver Apollo 13. Both movies were big treats and critical smashes. The left-of-center fairy tale romance that was Splash and the nail-biting adventure in NASA history that was Apollo 13 both had something going for them, and it wasn’t Hanks. Okay, it wasn’t just Hanks.

Let’s reel back a bit. Splash was an auspicious start for a director to be noticed. It helped, no doubt, Howard’s education forged in TV and film for decades offered perspective. With that backlog, Ron’s created a bag of tricks to make most of his films the Pied Piper to America’s willing audience. A lot of great directors have one. It’s called their signature. You know when you’re watching a Scorsese film (or a Kubrick, Hitchcock, Burton or Carpenter film) before you read the credits. Howard has a signature: quality. Regardless of the story, casting, staging, lighting, choreography or stubborn prima donnas, he more times than not makes a movie that is satisfying. Fleshed out, driven of purpose and above all pleasing to the eye. Many great directors achieve these things, but Howard manages to always execute his films with warmth. That’s the ticket, that’s his signature.

Sidebar: It’s been said that Howard is the model to which all child actors should aspire. Ron has no drug rap, no criminal record, an all around nice guy, caring dad with his daughter Bryce making her own splash in Hollywood, and a guy driven of purpose: to make good movies for everyone to enjoy, audiences and critics alike. However I’d like to believe to former trumps the latter. Let’s face facts: Howard’s films are to simply be enjoyed. Just sayin’.

Howard’s covered a lot of thematic territory over the past forty years. He’s done romance (the aforementioned Splash), comedy (Parenthood), fantasy (Willow), action (Backdraft), thriller (Ransom), biopic (Pavarotti) and sci-fi (Cocoon). All of them with varying degrees of success, thanks mostly to the skill of delivering warmth. However one genre that has never betrayed Howard’s vision is that of historical drama. Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon, A Beautiful Mind, Far And Away and this week’s victim. Granted not all of these films have been great, nor exactly warm, but they were executed well and very shrewdly.

This is the part where the rant ceases being a Hallmark card.

Here’s what I mean by Howard being shrewd regarding those dramas. Being shrewd is the antithesis of being warm. From my understanding Howard stays faithful to the history of the story but also knows when to deviate from fact to make better fiction. It’s like what that oft-misquoted quote is from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. I’ll maul it a bit more here: “When the legend is better than the facts, print the legend!” He’s been known to do some sweetening with his historical dramas, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing when done right. Heck, a lot of good directors deviate from the story for a better film (EG: Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is both a watered down and over the top reinterpretation of Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness). Often that’s how it goes down. On occasions, however translating the legend gets clunky (check out the U-571 installment, for example). Shoehorning. Not warm, neither shrewd. Not in Howard’s bailiwick.

Being forewarned what follows are spoilers. Kinda. The difference between spoiling and clarifying depends on which story you stumbled onto first: the movie or the source. Avert your eyes if you must, but there’ll be no blue book waiting after this history lesson. The following may, may be considered spoilers, but not in the sense that I am giving away any crucial info to ruin your day. I’m divulging the mundane, historical record that got tweaked in contrast for a juicier filmgoing experience. Now shaddap and watch this filmstrip.

*raps chalkboard with pointer*

Settle down. And who stole my goddam apple?

All right then.

Jim Lovell did not say, “Houston, we have a problem” in Apollo 13. In reality it was, “Houston, there is a problem.” The tweaking of the line made it more personal, y’know? More urgent. Mathematician John Nash’s long-suffering wife Alicia stood by him as he wrestled with schizophrenia in A Beautiful Mind. In reality she divorced him unable to endure the stress of it all (they later reconciled and John lived as her boarder for the rest of his days. They had no kids. That and the whole pen exchange was totally made up). Holding it all together was the underlying story in the movie, and what can be accomplished if you keep plugging away. Divorce is the antithesis of that, head against the wall. Nixon admitted he was involved in a cover up, not a victim of one. Cinderella Man got its fair share of massaging also.

Still with me? Good. Moving on.

It’s a tricky thing. There’s always that whole thing about creative license balancing the historical record. Let’s face facts, most movie goers who like biopics could give two sh*ts about the Wikipedia page. They want to be entertained, rightly so and have never read a Marvel comic book in their lives (or a book at all). The historical facts attached to/inspiring the movie only really apply to the curious, and curious I am. Curious enough to share some Cinderella Man factoids. Not to decry Howard’s direction. Quite the contrary. How he was cagey in tweaking just the right “facts” to deliver a better movie. One that draws you in. This is important. Duh.

Here’s the story of Cinderella Man. The historical record is telling. Yes, Braddock revived his boxing career and won the Heavyweight Title against Max Baer in 1935. Okay. Baer was never the assh*le he was portrayed be in the movie. Sure, he was a rock star boxer, but still a professional athlete. When he knocked out and ultimately killed his opponent, Baer was very distraught by the accidental death. He even gave up boxing for a while. When returning to the ring before the title bout, Baer contacted Braddock of putting the championship fight on hold due to Baer’s fears, worry and knowing Braddock was no longer in his prime.

That Max Baer makes for a sh*tty villain. “Pussy” may be a better word. But there are no “villains” in boxing. This wasn’t the WWE. Baer was not Braddock’s nemesis, he was his opponent. But a movie about a comeback kid needs an antagonist. Bingo, Baer the pompous asshat was borne, and someone to boo at and call a bum or palooka or whatever pussy terms they used back in the day. Conflict is what drives a story and earns an audience. Being a good sport on the losing end does not. Howard knew this, and we—I—bit.

That’s just a small sample of Howard’s shrewdness when it comes to tweaking the facts to promote the legend. It’s safe for me to assume/speak for all of you that history can be pretty boring. It’s been said that the victors write the history, and I believe there are very few accurate stories in history that are exciting as the legends. Good examples? There were not just three hundred Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae. Leonidas and his army had scores of vassals, squires, cheerleaders, caterers, etc to get the job done. Marie Antionette was not so flippant as so suggest the hungry Parisians without access to bread should eat cake instead. In truth the doomed lady-in-waiting allegedly declared, “Let them eat the crusts (from the paté).” Yeah, just as insensitive (if not more so) but not as tantalizing as cake. Einstein never defined insanity. The source is attributed to part of the Narcotics Anonymous manifesto dating back to the early 1980s. Guess Einstein was sexier.

You follow? With historical drama, you gotta spin to sell it, but it has to be the right kind of spin. The record is almost always a straight line. Facts don’t entice as much as tears in the fabric do. A director needs a little wiggle room (read: creative license) to make the facts read out like a legend. People like to believe in legends, get behind them, wish they were the real thing. Howard got that, which is why Apollo 13 was a summer blockbuster as well as Oscar fodder.

If we’re talking spin, that’s kinda like how James J Braddock’s story dropped. And rose up.


The Story…

In the mid-1920’s “The Bulldog Of Bergen,” James J Braddock (Crowe) was the toast of Heavyweight Championship Boxing. Wiry, fast and could take a licking and keep on hitting. He had it all. Fame. Fortune. His devoted wife Mae (Zellweger) and three wonderful kids at his side. A nice house in Jersey, money in the bank, and James on the up and up in practicing the “sweet science.” The fortunes a wishful man dreams about.

That was all before the Great Depression hit, financially ruining James’ family. Not to mention his career. The Braddocks sold virtually everything to survive, including their liquid income, solid income and family home. Matches dried up. James was feeling the strain, physically, emotionally and most of all paternally. It was in his final fight he broke his right wrist, effectively ending his career. So much promise broken by so much pressure. All of it textbook tragic.

Years later, James is pulling itinerant work at the docks, One afternoon he’s visited by his old friend and trainer Joe Gould (Giamatti). Despite James being cut loose years ago from the boxing commission, Joe’s wrestled up a bout for James to score some quick cash. That’s what friends do in hard time. The opponent is just some chump, but the kitty is a healthy $250. James says he’ll give it shot hoping for some groceries for the next month or so. There are four mouths to feed. As well as a dream deferred.

Of such humble beginnings—or second chances—a legend can be borne. Again.


The Breakdown…

Cinderella Man may not be Ron Howard’s best movie, or the most praised, but it is the probably the most quintessential.

All the director’s skills are on naked display here, but nothing is overplayed. Man never wears out its welcome. There have been oodles of historical dramas that freely overplayed their hands, even those made by great directors. Kubrick’s Spartacus, with its soap opera trifecta of Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons (no, not that one) and Tony Curtis. Zwick’s Civil War masterpiece Glory that—how can I say this?—seemed more about alienation than honor at times. Mank’s Cleopatra, the end.

Man never hammers down how downtrodden and maudlin Crowe’s Braddock was. As of this installment Cinderella Man dropped in 2005, 15 years ago. Those in the know have heard that Crowe can have quite the temper. I’m not sure if this is true. Back in the years he could do know wrong in the early aughts, his onscreen personas overrode any offscreen antics. As I like to way too many times say never confuse the artist with the art. Considering here with Man, whatever hothead Crowe is on his days off, that rumor only enhances his performance as Braddock here.

Crowe has an ability to be earnest, whichever role he’s chosen (since LA Confidential. We’ll ignore Romper Stomper and especially Virtuosity today) and that’s a key aspect of his Braddock. He does eager and determined well in equal doses, most likely like any real working Joe in those times; reality versus finality. Despite his reputation, Crowe’s Braddock is rather nondescript after the cold open. We get the underdog treatment, but Howard being shrewd he pulls back the melodrama just enough to educate us that, yes, James is not totally out, but a guy who is down on his luck. And there was a great deal of luck to be down on in the Braddock household. He’s just doing what to do to get by with his family. It felt like polished cast James lugged was a kind of albatross, a reminder of what went wrong. We’ve all been there (and many are still there, thank you COVID) asking “What did I do to…?B

Between Crowe’s earnest performance and Howard knowing how to spin a yarn, our hero is neither a sad sack nor bitter. Like I said determined, as well as unsure of himself after such a crushing loss of his career and his home. Vulnerability; it works every time. Crowe’s roles have been rough and tumble for years, only hinting at enough vulernabilty to make us get behind him. Recalling everyone’s fave boxing story to glory RockyMan is unabashedly romantic, and also it’s the most likable Crowe has even been as an actor, and that’s saying something. No tossed phones nothing.

Crowe’s foil Zellweger was an odd casting choice at first. She seemed somewhat out of place. Her Mae was a little too precious, however still held enough on her own. Odd casting call for the first act, but her performance as Mae does grow on you. I could think of a dozen other actresses to play Mae (oddly enough Lizzy Caplan topped my list, with Emily Blunt a close second. Must be the hair), however with time and how the plot unwound I kinda got why Miz Renee got picked. Her character unfolds gradually over the three acts, like in Shakespeare but written by Ring Lardner. Mae knows more about what’s unfolding before James, or we do. The undercurrent, the tension of what is truly at stake with James’ second chance—earning more money at the risk of his own safety—is a proud and well presented Howard touch regarding family being stronger together than apart (EG: having the kids go stay with Mae’s sister “for a bit” is not an option in the Braddock home). You can see this tack in some of Howard’s other movies, like Apollo 13 or even Cocoon and Willow. This is technically a family film, but not in Disney fashion. Overall, Zellweger had the good head on her shoulders and proved to be more than just a concerned housewife. I was surprised.

The last leg of this troika is Giamatti’s Joe Gould, the Dr McCoy of the central players. Let me get this out front: I love Giamatti. He’s in the same caliber of the late, great Sean Connery. Meaning Paul’s been in a lot of questionable films, but he’s always good. I love his “gift for gab” in all his roles, and his Joe Gould is no exception. Probably the best role he got to demonstrate his verbiage. His motormouth delivery as a huckster and trying to be a decent, well, “Joe” in hard times when his friend James is covered in existential mud. If you consider it, Joe was James’ saving grace and unflappable in his ability to get back into the ring. James was under confident, Mae was scared and Joe was the attaboy huckster. I like that kind of graceful comic relief. Sometimes we all need a buddy without realizing it, especially from a familiar well that’s always there to dip in.

Okay. Let’s talk nuts and bolts.

Howard is notorious for establishing the ideal settings for his stories. Among location directors, scenarists, second units and/or very good sound staging he gets the job done, and the dreary world of Man is no exception. The period pieces are great, doubtless enhanced with tasteful CGI. Howard’s Great Depression here is repression, opression. The ultimate gambit of the haves being so ignored that the downtrodden are everyone’s out for themselves. The first act of Man is about futility and desperate measures, all sepia toned and glaring, almost like foreshadowing to James’ downfall.

It’s all gradual. It’s enticing you. It’s enlightening. It’s the hook. Like Crowe’s earnest Braddock, Howard lures you in with atmosphere and especially scenery. In the second act—after Braddock got his second chance and scored—the sepia tones gave way to sharper hues, hinting at he future. The fog is lifting. James won a few matches. Earned money to pay the bills. Some sunshine of the man’s back. And notice how the boxing audience gradually gets larger and larger. Another Howard trick: get behind the hero, be a part of the moment. I was.

Now the meat of the matter, the Maguffin. The boxing scenes. Granted we never see James punch frozen cattle carcasses, but the mounting matches fit that bill. Those near knuckle bouts were exciting and visceral, and I was never into boxing save Nintendo’s “Punch Out!” (and I never won). I sure as sh*t got amped watching these bouts, especially for the amazing editing and clever use of effects. Meaning when James shattered his wrist in his “last bout” we got an azure X-ray snap of the injury. Later on in the comeback fights, we get the cerulean flashes every time James takes a hit, and comes blinding with the final bout. It’s almost overwhelming, the hurt, the hurt, the hurt. But as fans we know why and who Braddock is: a fighter, but not for the purse. Not for milk. Not to be defeated.

Yes, the fighting scenes were exhilarating, and the tender moments of family and just getting by were kindly sentimental but never schmaltzy. The balance between pathos and desperate struggle was neatly packaged making for great tension. Another aspect of this balance was the pacing, my pissy muse. Man had a feeling of a classic three act play, where everything lined up just right to tell the narrative. Now not everyone knew the history of James Braddock like we did the failed mission of Apollo 13 where it was all over the TV news back in 1970. Braddock’s story was far more prosaic that the misadventures of astronauts. That was the key to Man’s simple wonder. It’s a underdog/comeback story with a nice, neat gift-wrapped happy ending standing above romanticizing the past and plunking the right amount of history into the story to make Crowe’s Braddock seem like a neighbor. That is what makes a shrewd director great. Focus on the story and don’t forget who you’re sharing it with.

Man had just the right amount of melodrama, action and bending the truth to be a real crowd pleaser. I sure was pleased, and quite satisfied. Good story, good execution. The most straightforward Ron Howard film ever. And in these times of bloated biopics, where the lead is granted to win the Oscar, it’s a relief to have a very good film win zilch.

“I want to go out like a champion. I want to be carried out.”

Time to throw in the towel. Ha.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? An absolute rent it. You’ve probably figured out when the installment is this sober (even if I wasn’t) I loved the movie. I scored a hard copy off eBay. Nuff said.


The Musings…

  • The milk thing.
  • “I got in a fight…”
  • For a Kiwi, Crowe does a good Joisey accent.
  • “Hey Joe, this is Joisey.” See?
  • Lotta good accents here.
  • “Welcome to Noo Yawk.”
  • I’ll stop now.
  • “I won.” Mug. Delightful.
  • The empty apartment thing.
  • “We all know the name of the game, and it sure as hell ain’t pugilism.”
  • Was there some sort of Chariots Of Fire, Jew versus Catholic undercurrent going on? Well, Braddock did use the orthodox position and that is the greatest Dad joke about religion and boxing you will ever read today.
  • “I think I can go a few rounds with a dancing Baer.”
  • The good luck handshake thing.
  • “Milk.”

The Next Time…

Another historical drama! Cool! This time we follow Charlie Hunnam deep into the Amazon searching for The Lost City Of Z! Catch it!


 

RIORI Presents Installment #185: Jonathan Frakes’ “Thunderbirds” (2004)



The Players…

Bill Paxton, Brady Corbett, Anthony Edwards, Soren Fulton, Sophia Myles, Vanessa Hudgens and Ben Kingsley, with Deobia Oparel and Ron Cook.


The Basics…

If there’s a local emergency you call the first responders. Fire fighters, police officers, EMTs. If there’s a national emergency you call on FEMA, the National Guard, the Red Cross. But who do you call when it’s a global emergency? A catastrophe so huge that no ordinary rescue team could get the job done?

Well, if you have that problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire…The A-Team International Rescue.

Thunderbirds are go!


The Rant…

Okay. I got one for you. Pull up a chair.

You ever get tuned into a culty pop culture hoo-ha by accident…in reverse?

I’m not talking a straight line like some Beatlemaniac from the 60s who not only has all the albums, singles and imports and proudly displays the framed, over the mantel, signed by Ringo vintage movie poster for A Hard Day’s Night. That kind of fandom is as common as COVID, and almost as communicable. No. I’m talking about a drunkard’s stagger backwards to the well, either out of curiosity, confusion or dumb accident. Usually all three.

Here’s an example, a theoretical one: say you’re some teen in the early 90s and got hip to this British singer/songwriter who went by the name of Sting. Silly name. His music was jazzy and rocky and sounded good to you. Curiosity piqued, you logged on the Net and surfed Lycos (early 90s, remember?) about all things Sting. Won a few Grammys, did some human rights work with Amnesty International and did a little acting on the side (and the less you found out about that the better). Also turned out the guy fronted this big deal new wave act back in the late 70s. Huh. Dig his new stuff, what’s the old stuff like?

Boom. A Police fan in borne. Like so many mushrooms.

Now I always dug The Police as a kid, and most of Gordo’s jazz/funk/rock solo work was pretty cool also (I gave up after his Ten Summoner’s Tales, and Sting should have, too). When I got into a musician, I did my homework and sought out back catalogs, and was more pleased than confused. When I did get confused over pop culture scavenging it was a rare occurrence, mostly because it was both by accident and rare. The cult stuff. And I’m talking deeper than Joy Division, the Sega Saturn or Octavia E Butler. Sometimes when you walk backwards far enough long enough you find yourself once you’ve backtracked forwards again.

Right. Bear with me. It’s been 185 installments. And if you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to come a little further. You remember the name of the town, don’t you?

*crickets*

Anyway, Red, time to tumble down the rabbit hole. Never fear, I will get to the meat of the matter and how it relates to this week’s movie somehow.

While the 90s teen nascent Police fan was not me, the following 80s kid story was. Maybe you, too. Back before the cable networks took the baton, the major networks would give over their Saturday morning airtime for cartoons. From six in the morning to noon, ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and adopted kid Nickelodeon was a Froot Loop chomping wonderland every Saturday. All cartoons, all morning long. Sometimes I think Spotify programmers took hints from Saturday morning programming in creating their playlist algorithms. There was a sh*tton of animated variety, and certain networks had certain themes. NBC had action. ABC had comedy. CBS has weird s/f/fantasy shows. FOX was FOX and Nick was green slime. I dug the NBC line-up. The penultimate shows were Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends and The Bugs ‘N’ Tweety Show. The first had Spidey teaming up with X-Men Iceman and Firestar to thwart the nefarious schemes of various Marvel baddies. The second was self-explanatory: an anthology of a few Looney Tunes shorts. Then came Soul Train so I could get hip to the newest rap stars. Afterwards the lawnmower waited, glowering at me. The usual Saturday.

When I got bored of the same old scene on the Big Four and Little Nicky, I aimed the remote onto the outer fringes; local affiliates that still had some say in what to air against the competitors but not so much to lose their backing. Namely syndicated sh*t. Not always a bad thing. I got my silly TMNT fix that way (as well as very early mean hangover Saturday mornings with The Tick. “Spoon!”), as I did the ulty-culty fave Inhumanoids and an informal introduction to anime.

Japanese animation. Admittedly that came about when I was in second grade watching bowdlerized versions of Space Battleship Yamato and GoLions! (Star Blazers and Voltron in the States, respectively), but I dug it. Other anime warped snuck its way onto the local airwaves as well. G-Force, RoboTech, Tranzor-Z (violence uncut!) and other nuggets from across the Pacific that haplessly toppled onto my cable feed. Nowadays, anime has well saturated American pop culture. Still on the fringes, mostly due to the fact cosplayers dressed as Rei from Evangelion outweigh Shizuku from Whisper Of the Heart by about two googolplex to…perhaps two. Japanese animation is a thing but still not a thing in Columbus. It was rattling around back in the 80s, and I happened upon it, even after I happened upon it.

Wait. Dig this. Digression. You ever hear of the psychological phenomenon cryptomnesia? It’s essentially deja vu in reverse. Instead of having a curious feeling of reliving a moment, a moment has a curious effect on your memory and somehow your brain figured it was your moment all along. If you ever heard about that silly plagiarism case regarding George Harrison accidentally cribbing the melody for “My Sweet Lord” from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” then you follow me. If not, Google it. I’ll wait.

*raids fridge for another popsicle*

Like that there. Back to the anime thing. There was some proto-indie animation block one on of the local stations. Upstart affiliates trying to cash in on the cult of Smurfs. It came out of New York and featured the 80s cartoon touchstones about cyber femme rocker Jem, the aforementioned Inhumanoids and some anime pastiche called—translated rather—Thunderbirds 2086. I hung around for a few episodes, curious about the staggering animation style and why the characters’ dialogue was so palsied, but their description of a family-operated S/F rescue team with their ultra cool (“a dazzling array”) mecha poked my brain. Why does this sound familiar? I was eight then, so I flipped the channel. A self-examined life and all.

Back around to Little Nicky. I was a big fan of the imported UK cartoons Nick used to air at the end of the day. DangerMouseBananamanCount Duckula and other giddiness. These were British cartoons and far shorter than the usual American 25 minutes. Those from across the Pond ran about 18 minutes, which invited some filler to bookend the commercials, like the occasional Monty Python animated piece (this was the 80s, remember) or a snippet from some TV serial revolving around globetrotters rendered in puppet form.

Wait a minnit…

Fast forward to fast backwards. Y’all remember that parody Team America: World Police by the lovely lads of South Park infamy, Matt Parker and Trey Stone? What rock have you been living under? It was a send up of Dubya’s foreign policy, but with marionettes, strings and all. I never saw it, but the trailers smacked me with some nostalgica (yes, I just made that term up). Where have I seen this kind of thing before?

If Carl Jung was right, and there is such a thing as a collective unconsciousness somehow my warped kiddie mind—from about age 8 to 24—through either Harrison’s creative ozone trip or that blip in my mind that was Thunderbirds 2086, somehow I learned about the original British Thunderbirds “supermarination” sci-fi show about International Rescue and their amazing mecha before we fledgling otaku knew was mecha meant. I think I caught it on Nick between DangerMouse episodes. Yeah, that’s it. I think.

So when the announcement of a big deal silver screen reel of Thunderbirds came along I was intrigued (I was 38 at the time. Late bloomer). All that childhood nostalgics came whizzing back. Holy crap, full circle! And this uber-obscure, card-carrying very cult show was getting the motion picture treatment. Stateside! With Bill Paxton! With Commander Riker directing! Pass the popcorn! Come under the knife of RIORI!

Why in the world am I telling you all of this? Good question. I’ll do my best to provide a fair answer. Nostalgia works in cycles. As we evolve into mature adults (like those who wear foam wedges of Swiss come opening day at Lambeau, bare-chested in a blizzard), we always look fondly upon our past. Our childhood. The salad days without worrying about taxes and traffic and insurance premiums and salmonella and terrorism. The days of Saturday morning cartoons, technicolor cereal, Transformers and an already trimmed lawn. It’s nice to be reminded as a grown-up with a surprise like a fond, albeit odd memory of days gone by…even through a tricky trail like Marty McFly followed to get his erstwhile dad getting laid and being rewarded for it.

More nostalgia? You bet. Hold on to those moments. Work awaits in the morn and a Stauffer’s microwave dinner in the eve. Things are just fine now.


 The Story…

Whenever’s there’s a rescue mission, most authorities call out the Coast Guard, or FEMA and perhaps the Red Cross also. People all over the country—maybe the planet—need help when the emergency is so dire not even the most modern technology and capable people can produce the Jaws of Life. That’s when the brave folks of International Rescue spring into action.

Jeff Tracy (Paxton) is an ex-astronaut and an industrial titan in the S&R game. From what he learned in his NASA days he’s designed the technology to  an ncredibly bleeding edge fleet of sophisticated vehicles designed to do what no ordinary rescue team can do: the impossible. From air, sea, land and even space, Tracy’s “Thunderbirds” are always vigilant and ready to take on any case.

Sounds like something out of a comic book, and Jeff’s youngest son Alan (Corbett) always has his eyes in the clouds, looking for his super dad and his super bros that round out the elite team. Alan’s too young to serve in his Dad’s proud service—not to mention Jeff is more than a little protective of his youngest son—but too bold to ignore his calling. Especially during algebra.

However…quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchers themselves? Dun dun dunnn.

Unbeknownst to Jeff and the Tracy team, an old, yet unknown enemy calling himself The Hood (Kingsley) has a scheme of very serious purpose to ruin the Thunderbird team’s sterling record of world saving. Knock off the world banks by hijacking Tracy’s amazing machines to steal millions as well as ruining the Thunderbirds’ reputation without recompense.

So when Alan is home on spring break, and his dad and brothers are off-world, and the Thunderbirds fleet is ripe for the hijacking, and the nefarious Hood has some sort of mind control, and his schemes are deadly real, and only Alan has a rough concept how to keep the fleet intact, and cutie pie TinTin (Hudgens) has developed breasts, what’s he gonna do?

Make a Fully Acknowledged Broadcast hopefully his over-protective dad could hear:

“Are Thunderbirds a go?”


The Breakdown…

Blame nostalgia. Or blame a lot of silly, whiz-bang fun. We need more chewing gum like this.

Thunderbirds is not a good movie. The acting’s kinda wooden, the scheme is right out of Lex Luthor’s bag of tricks and you’re gonna have to have a very high suspension of disbelief to go along with this sci-fi/disaster/cartoon come to life bat out of hell. Never fear though, True Believers. It’s all in good fun. Here’s the extra huge tub of fresh popcorn. Nom nom nom.

Despite that the original Thunderbirds programme was a British space opera with a cast of puppets, and the 80s incarnation was essentially an anime rip-off of that, the big screen adaptation here is a big, garish, winking cartoon come to life. Sometimes, now and again, once in a while we all need a megadose of some big, dumb, unapologetically over the top action flick to snuggle up with. Call in the Thunderbirds. Help is on the way.

Let’s get another key thing out of the way: there are precious redeeming aspects to Thunderbirds. That’s part of its charm. There’s a ton of winking and nudging informing us that this is silly, fun and far, far away from winning any awards. It’s also a clever film, always alluding to the original puppeteer’d vision of the Anderson’s creation in the swinging 60s. You might not get it, especially if you never went up the rabbit hole like I tried to explain…poorly. All in all overall, its a live-action cartoon. The kind ready made for the Disney Channel or folks who dig Scooby-Doo (like me, who has no shame). Quit grumping and lighten up or else the beatings will commence.

The key here to enjoying this flick is like with all good stand-up comedy its timing, a kind of pacing that depends on luck and where to use it. As a action/adventure family film directed by Number One we should go play connect the dots. Scene moves effortlessly to next scene with a new trouble Alan and crew get into. It’s kinda like a platformer video game (think the MegaMan series). As for the lucky timing, yeah it’s scripted, duh, but happenstance pops up again and again at just the right spots in the story, furthering the admittedly flimsy narrative. We see it all coming a mile away, but the direction pumps along at a pace that propels a “saw that coming” sensibility, but also says, “Let’s see what happens next.”

Thunderbirds could have easily descended into absolute schlock if it wasn’t for that winking and off-kilter delivery. A sense of goofiness pervades the movie, but not so much to dilute the action. Hell, and even the solid action scenes are cartoony—right out of Looney Tunes—like when TinTin takes out the bad guys with the Firefly. All the action is goof-tastic (IE: Every time Lady P laid a punch I could hear Mike Myers as Austin Powers bleat, “Judo chop!”) from diminutive Ron Cook and his pratfalls to Deobia Oparel cackling like Count Chocula and then getting a face full of bees. And it’s irresistible, because it’s all so ridiculous you just have to give in to it all and enjoy the ride. Hell, you already streamed it. Face the consequences.

I like the story device of the kids rescuing the parents. So sue me. Consider flicks like The Goonies. Or Spy Kids. Or even the first Iron Eagle, for Pete’s sake. The dynamic helps to establish that family action feel, which director Frakes must’ve known was Thunderbirds‘ backbone. Even though all of the acting is Marxist (Groucho, that is) in style, you can’t shake that the solid bonds of family and friends will always help you ride out any storm. If only in real life that was so easy, but to quote Paul Simon: that’s why God made the movies. Jeff and his sons don’t take a second thought to go help Off-World John. Lady P and Parker waste no time in aiding their adopted Thunderbird family. Most of all the—dare I say—sweet father/son relationship that nerdy Brains has with his wunderkind Fermat. All that also assures you that no matter how much Jeff and Alan don’t see eye to eye you know all will be all right in the end. You know that, but the anticipation’s fun nonetheless. It’s a very minor league version of how Ron Howard built tension for his Apollo 13. We already knew the astronauts got home safely. It’s the thrill/mystery of that coming down. We know everything will be okay in the end with Thunderbirds. Just sit back and enjoy the ride already.

That means we gotta ride along with a very motley cast of players, some of whom seem violently out of place and all the better for it. I reiterate: not all movies are designed to win awards. Not even a Razzie. That being said, Thunderbirds received absolutely zero Nick Kids’ Choice Awards for acting (I checked. None). You must look at this snubbing within the proper context. The film is a silly, revisionist live action cartoon. Of course the cast is supposed to be ciphers, caricatures and over the top. It’s no surprise that the late, lamented Bill Paxton makes even the fluffiest of films great, but he’s more or less relegated to the sidelines for most of this ball of wax. I already mentioned the kids saving the day—when done right, and it wasn’t all bad here—was A-number one plot point here, and Brady and company do their best to keep its PG firmly in cheek. The trio are trademark nonentities; stereotypes the world over we recognize in any family flick. No more, no less. It works, though since the action is seamless and their patois is what you’d expect: teen insecurity against a serious matter. We’ve all been there and maybe still are. This crap works on a basal level, with nary a SAG nod to be seen. I repeat, just go with it.

As for the supporting cast, they all have their moments to shine, but five stars and a bouquet to Sir Ben Kingsley, Academy Award winner then and unashamed to ham it up now. You could see he truly had fun playing the bad guy/slumming it up here, a graduate of the Jim Kirk School of Drama and Scenery Chewing. His Hood smirks, cracks dopey one-liners, makes fun of his role and delighting in basically f*cking around. You want to be the antagonist in family film? Go for clownish and mustache-twirling spouting Shakespeare. Kingsley was the penultimate best thing about Thunderbirds, save Ron Cook’s Parker and he’s quite the other thing. Plus, Kingsley’s Hood wears a kimono! What else do you need?

Again, Thunderbirds‘ pacing falls right into the butter zone. The story bounces along at a friendly clip. No scenes heavy with drama or pithy monologues. No room for that claptrap. On a serious note, the movie was excellently framed, very efficient in telling the story where each scene of action was bookended by scheming how to escape this mess and get into the next. I heard that Star Trek alum Jon Frakes is regarded as such an economical director—most likely as his CV cites him for his TV direction experience over cinema—he earned the nickname “Two Takes Frakes.” I like that. It means he steers the movies along the swiftest current so the cast won’t get all fatigued. His work reflects this, as our cast never get overwrought and just keeps on being silly.

Right, so call this one a guilty pleasure. My girl’s a big Bill Paxton fan (yet she has never seen Weird Science. Hmm) and bought the disc off Amazon to watch it with me knowing I’m a big Bill Paxton fan. Too bad he didn’t get much screen time, but but I guessed his gung-ho Jeff Tracy schtick wouldn’t fit in well with the silliness of Thunderbirds. So there you have it.

Did I mention the silliness of the movie?

Oh, and by the way, the movie sure respected the TV show’s legacy. For a taste of the first original episode click here.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Again, did I mention the silliness part? You need this movie to kill some time. It’s very good at that.


The Musings…

  • “Who will rescue the rescuers?”
  • The opening credits are very clever. Almost like a primer for the uninformed.
  • The CGI holds up well here, especially since this is a cartoon.
  • “My Achilles’ heel is my Achilles’ heel!”
  • Very rousing score.
  • Lady P’s ride is a custom Ford Thunderbird. Get it?
  • “Fu-fu-fu-noo way!”
  • BTW, did the producers get any flak from the PC police for the stuttering?
  • “I did…”
  • That and The Hood’s psychic powers were never really explained away.
  • “You just can’t save everyone…”
  • Ron Cook looks like a ripe plum tomato ready to pop. Speaking of which…
  • “I love it when your checkered past becomes useful.” Lady P got the best lines.
  • Didja notice all the Tracy sons were named after astronauts (EG, Virgil was Gus Grissom’s real first name. John Glenn was the first astronaut to orbit Earth, not unlike John Tracy’s HALO in Thunderbird 5)?
  • “That’s quite enough losing for one day!”

The Next Time…

“Smash an hour glass, grab the sand, take his hands and cuff ’em,
Spin around to freeze the clock, take the hands of time and cuff ’em.
Cinderella Man…”

I’d like to believe that boxer James Braddock would’ve been an Eminem fan.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #184: Josh & Benny Safdie’s “Good Time” (2017)



The Players…

Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Buddy Duress, Taliah Webster and Jennifer Jason Leigh.


The Basics…

When Connie’s clever bank heist goes all pear-shaped, his special needs brother Nicky accidentally takes the fall. So from jail to the bail bondsman to the company of strangers Connie tears around New York burning lean tissue into the night to secure Nicky’s bail all the while the loot keeps expanding and retracting as the traffic lights change.

If it sounds complicated, it isn’t. It’s just madness.


The Rant…

Do you ever get the impression that people who are “slow” understand a lot more than they let on?

I understand using the term slow hinges on risking the PC police ramming down my door, but let’s be frank: straight to the point is always best, and special needs could be applied to a junkie as well as a person with trisomy 21. Nothing has done more to pervert communication in America than political correctness and hindering swift communication. You bet your Funk and Wagnalls.

So let’s just keep using the term slow for now without meaning any insult to anyone. Except lousy drivers, you know who you are. No, slow in the intimation that some folks, well, aren’t in a manic hurry to have an idea. Heck, I’ll go you one further. Doesn’t it seem like those who are slow are more thoughtful and deliberate in making up their mind, like not wanting to waste time going off half-cocked? I used to work with a young woman who had Down Syndrome, and was very methodical in getting work done. She was a server assistant at some restaurant, and I regret I can’t recall her name. Unlike the demonstrative, polite even game show host-like demeanor to wait on the guests and perhaps also fluff some egos, server assistants were relegated to the scullery, out of sight and out of mind. They pick up the dirty dishes when the meal is done and eventually haul the bus bin back to the dishwasher. They also reset the table; lay down fresh napkins and forks and whatnot after a thorough wipe down as well as pick up any trash wantonly fell to the floor. Chairs got a wipe, too. Not a glamorous job, but necessary all the same.

This girl—let’s call her Sue—had Down Syndrome. “Slow.” She made far less than the regular servers meaning next to nothing. She was 23 and I learned this was her first job. She had a 9th Grade education and she was a marvel to watch her work.

You see, SAs are the at the very bottom of kitchen hierarchy. The cooks make the food, the servers wait on the guests and the assists are basically the clean up crew. Like I said the job consists of breaking down tables and get them all spiffy again for incoming guests. Lay out fresh flatware, buff the classes to make sure they shine, arrange the plates in the traditional Continental style most restaurants prefer, folding napkins just right, that kind of consideration. Not to mention that almighty, healthy wipe down of the table first, natch. Very direct, very simple and very important. And so often eluded the other SAs who had such a hot nut to dart out to the loading dock for a quick smoke and a Tweet. And me to rightfully get on their ass for shirking.

I had never worked with anyone more deliberate and exacting than someone who was deemed slow that was Sue. She was methodical but not slow, dragging a simple task out. I’d often have to remind Sue to tend to her own tables rather than the rat trap, ramshackle mine collapse a few feet away. It might’ve been her eagerness for those who want to prove their salt, or just do a good job or just simply earn their own money and have a say in how to spend it. You know, like all of us. And every time her tasks were completed she was always quick to tell me, “All set!” Other “normal” servers left me to wondering.

Enough with the Hallmark card moment. It’s a curiosity that people who are “normal” regard the other side with either condescension or childlike good intentions. I’m talking both experts and yahoos like you and you. It’s curious how selected people are capable of seeing a responsibility to carry on as if nothing’s wrong or out of place. Not to sound all treacly but perhaps the slow people are better in touch with reality than others. A simple plan, minus all the horses*t we think is so vital (like that Tweet in your head that might cure rickets if you could spell rickets after all those White Claws). For instance, most of us are not well aquatinted with how to milk a cow, but I guarantee that there’s an autistic out there who never did before but becomes a whiz when listening to the Talking Heads. For a stouter argument how could Asperger’s Syndrome Dan Ackroyd assume the role of Elwood Blues without his trusty police badge in his pocket? Not kidding there. Look it up.

That being said Middle America, a great many slow people and doing pretty good not under a heel, and most don’t want your sympathy. A while back I learned that my g/f was diagnosed by an expert. I mean, come on, her diagnosis was along what her concerns were about balancing her budget to make rent, maintaining proper work relations to earn a raise and binging enough of The Vampire Diaries to zone out after the workday. Traumatizing. How did you spend you summer vacation?

Maybe all those slow people in society actually have the right idea. Hope for the best and worry about the worst when it comes. Saving their dollars for a car one day rather than blowing it on, say, a new PS5. The one with the disc drive. Sue might’ve had Netflix, and would have movie night every Saturday with her girlfriends, binging on the flicks of that month’s heartthrob (Brad Pitt’s always a safe choice, or Cary Grant). No time for workplace gossip; gotta earn some keep. Gotta stock up at Wegmans for Taco Tuesday. DSW is having a sale and some new Danskos are in order lest we slip on the floor.

Myself? I yell at my phone. My eBay auctions aren’t panning out well. Traffic is scary. I’m sick of reading labels on groceries in so doing lying to myself about watching what I eat. My hair’s going grey. Presidential debates. Maybe I need a PS5. The one with the DVD drive, natch.

I’m not f*cking deifying people with special needs. Sure, there are plenty of Sues out there, but just as many people as indignant us who don’t want a pat on the head and a liver snap on their tongue. Nope. Seems to me from what I’ve experienced slow people have a very keen, very fast bullsh*t detectors, honed to a razor’s edge whenever normal life tries to give them a raw deal. They may be childlike, yes, but I never knew a child to shy away from making their demands known and don’t talk down to me. I can do algebra, Dad. You can’t balance your checkbook so you save up for that PS5. Slow folks know what the game’s about and are quick to say so.

Which is why they are such lousy accomplices on a bank heist.


The Story…

Constantine Nikas (Pattinson) is a hood. There’s no other word. He’s not a thug, not a tough, not even a criminal in the traditional sense. Connie’s a hood. A conniver, a schemer, a charlatan. And a loving brother.

Connie’s bro Nicky (Safdie) has special needs. He’s not too swift on the uptake, but quite aware when there’s trouble afoot. Especially when the trouble is in the form of his hood brother.

The trouble Connie’s cooked up is a half-baked scheme to rob a bank. Despite the fact that Connie is whip-smart, he has a hard time figuring out what to do next, in crime and in time. He strong-arms Nicky into being his literal partner in crime. Despite the heist goes off without a hitch, the overly exuberant Connie neglects the fact his brother is slow-witted, as well as having a solid moral compass and ends up screwing the pooch.

Everything goes to sh*t. Nicky lands in jail and is beaten to a pulp. Connie didn’t nab enough cash to make Nicky’s bail. And in all the mix-up Connie abducts Nicky from the hospital only to discover that he kidnapped the wrong patient. Now comes the wheeler-dealer Connie, crusading to scrounge up enough cash by any means possible, including more theft, credit card scamming, doping up security guards and even getting a questionable hairstyle.

All in the name of saving Nicky, who wouldn’t’ve been in the mess it wasn’t for…you know.


The Breakdown…

I’ve the impression that with his Twilght years behind him Robert Pattinson has been trying very hard to shed the sparkly shadow that was Edward. Trying to distance himself from moody, dreamboat status and illustrate he’s no one trick pony. In fact, refute me in saying that Pattison has been very determined to prove himself a serious actor.

Wait, that’s not quite right. The claim of “serious” actors usually entails trading up lightweight roles for dramatic ones. It’s not necessarily the roles that prove or break an upgrade, but the setting. Consider this: Adam Sandler made his bones in the 90s doing infantile, screwball comedies. Some were unintentionally funny, but you can only trip over the ottoman one so many times. Like Tom Hanks learned, Sandler could apply his comic trade into other kinds of movies. Sure, most have been for lacking (EG: Spanglish, Reign Over Me, Funny People, etc). Regardless of what script Sandler was entangled with, he was still Sandler. The actor never changed, just the act. Someone should inform the future Batman that he should give Edward a pat on the back for inviting such an opportunity.

In the interim Pattison has been stretching himself (or perhaps just retooling his acting chops) into roles that Sandler wouldn’t approach with a red hot chili pepper. Pattison has been outright defiant in carving out a niche in the “serious” acting world. Post-Twilight Saga, I’ve caught Pattinson in some very terse and challenging roles. His turns in Cosmopolis, The Lighthouse and here with Good Time are definitely, if not defiantly away from YA vampires vs werewolves a la Montegues vs Capulets soap operas. Then again, you could consider his brooding breakout role might’ve informed his later projects. I say this is fine.

Best way to put it I think. Look, you can go a few routes as an actor with a solid cachet. You could go the Mickey Rourke route, buy a gold-plated Rolls, sell yourself short as Harley Davison, get into boxing, win a one-off award in a semi-biographical indie film and wind up as an Iron Man adversary so obscure that even the most dyed-in-wool Marvel Zombies never even heard of him.

Or…

You could use that cachet for more challenging, interesting roles on indie films to sharpen your chops for audiences that want to see some extra cheese on their pizza. I’m not saying playing against type, mind you. Pattinson’s Connie is just a natural extension of Water For Elephants and The Rover: expect something different every time, but it’s still Pattison. Again, the actor never changed. He morphed into a protean performer who has and is trying at anything. From what I’ve seen, he’s pretty good at delivering.

Which leads to Good Time. It’s Pattinson’s show all the why. It’s a turgid character study to be sure, but it sure is a deceptive one. I don’t mean Connie’s a scoundrel (which he is), and I don’t mean he tries to hoodwink people (though he does), but his motives for knocking over a bank is just not for the hell of it. Well it’s not just that.

To wit, the watchword employed to Good‘s tawdry tale is intrusion. Pattinson’s Connie can’t help but get in the way of things. Leave well enough alone. Like that surly drunk and your favorite bar threatening you over who really knows about peanut butter (the creamy vs chunky debate rages ever onwards). His wingman cools him off and excuses himself to take a leak, and as soon as the bathroom door wheezes shut it’s, “Jif, you motherf*cker!!!” Let it go and leave it alone. Things are going go from bad to dumb to desperate to what else could go wrong?

This may sound like a criminal caper gone wrong, like Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan or the Coen’s Fargo. It is, but not in the way those films lead you. There’s a clear motive, albeit hazy. You gotta pay attention to the cold open and the final scene. More on that later, for at the outset of the movie your focus is on the intrusion and the icky intensity of Connie that feels like a cold lick on the cheek. Almost from the get-go we learn that this is Connie’s show all the way.

Good kinda goes for a 21st Century Taxi Driver feeling. There’s sweat and grit and a palpable sense of dread. Our protagonist invites all this, but does not exactly initiate it. He falls into it, one after another hurdle to rescue Nicky that he falls victim too and has to clamber a way out if it only get tripped up again and again, patching up the dike as the storm seethes. Connie may be driven and clever, but keeping his eyes on the prize results in some scathing criminal activity. We’re talking major cringey here. I felt like facepalming many times over the course of Good but I didn’t. Why? Not sure. I was unable to quit rubbing my face while watching. Again, why was that? Tension? Embarrassment? Defeat? Perhaps getting caught up in the twisted life Pattinson imbued into Connie tricked me that he was a decent guy forced to do whatever it takes to set things right.

Nah. Connie’s a hood, and his motives are highly personal. Read: selfish. You can be selfish for the right reason, though. Even if you’re not aware. I felt that Connie was all too aware from the get go; he has a conscience and he hates it. His only redeeming quality is his dedication to his slow bro Nicky (who in fact may be nothing more than the Maguffin here). I felt that such dedication came at a price. Ever read Of Mice And Men? Or see a screen adaptation I recommend the version starring Sinise and Malkovich)? Good has an overarching feel of the frantic George trying to reign in the sweet, oafish brother Lannie who also has special needs and a certain strength that invites trouble. Nicky didn’t invite it, but he expected it, and here comes best bro Connie. The best laid plans, which may be why Nicky REDACTED in the opening scene as Connie interrupted his appointment. Also consider the final scene where Nicky is back at another appointment having to come to terms with his REDACTED and it’s all right to express yourself out loud.

So. That’s the major chunk of how if not for Pattinson, Good could’ve come across rote like some dissonant crime capers do. Think Woody Allen’s kinda dorky directorial debut film Take The Money And Run or Harold Ramos’ clunky The Ice Harvestboth trying to be clever and trying too hard. Good‘s not a comedy, though. Not in the conventional sense. Good is a true comedy of errors, where payback is always a bitch and someone always gets hurt. Often the wrong people.

One more thing before we wrap this up. It’s regarding The Standard, which I haven’t mentioned in quite a while. Figured all nine of you already read homepage. One of the tenets of The Standard is a movie’s overall poor box office takeaway (domestic) that gets the standard substandard RIORI treatment. But I’ve been thinking: does limited engagement really warrant that part? Earnings aren’t everything. Yes, I know Good was an indie, but…

Maybe I should rethink my drink. Until then, I understand using the term poor hinges on risking the indie director’s guild ramming down my door, but let’s be frank…


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Unlike the dour solo performance in Cosmopolis, the vivid misadventure with Good really let’s Pattinson flex his thespian muscles. Without any gold-plating.


The Musings…

  • “What’re you thinking about?” “Nothing.”
  • Nice earrings. Hoops to studs. Gotta mix it up, y’know?
  • “I gotta come clean to you ’bout something.” Riiight. 
  • What? No 555?
  • “Don’t be confused. It’s just gonna make it worse for me.”
  • Was that EMT smoking? Sets the tone of the entire movie right there, “F*ck this…”
  • “It’s been a big f*cking night!”

The Next Time…

Thunderbirds are go! F-A-B!”

What the heckin’ all that even mean?


 

RIORI Presents Installment #183: Michael Lehmann’s “Because I Said So” (2007)


Diane Keaton and Mandy Moore in Because I Said So (2007)


The Players…

Diane Keaton, Mandy Moore, Gabe Macht, Tom Everett Scott, Lauren Graham and Stephen Collins, with Piper Perabo and Ty Panitz.


The Basics…

All Daphne wants is her youngest daughter Millie to settle down with the right guy. Millie’s sisters are already in fine relationships and have been for almost as long as baby sis has been adrift.

Mom’s no matchmaker, so she sneakily gets all 21st Century on Millie’s butt and posts her best qualities on FaceBook to troll possible bachelors. Because Mom cares, you know?

Say it with me now: “What could possibly go wrong?”


The Rant…

Get this, America. I enjoy romantic comedies. I do. Come on. Who doesn’t like seeing a relationship evolve with a some good yuk-yuks thrown in? It’s all in good fun, and when done right it makes for a good 90 minutes of misty eyes balanced against wit and wisecracks. I’m not made of stone. Sandwiches and beer most likely, but I know when to go along with something all mushy and looking forward to that vital happy ending. Cinematic that is. Yer mind’s in the gutter otherwise and in the wrong, sticky-seated theater. Masher.

I’m not proud to not admit the many times I laughed at one scene in such movies and reach for the Kleenex in another, but I won’t deny that either. I’m sentimental fool, really, and if the rom-com story I’m enjoying at any given has a really good story and a cast I can get behind then here goes the waterworks. Really. Want some personal examples? Tough.

Yes, I got all misty-eyed at the “you complete me” scene in Jerry Maguire, but I was already bawling beforehand when Rod and his family celebrated his cable broadcast victory. Got a little choked up when Richard Gere came to spirit Julia Roberts away in his limo, hopefully driving away to a fairy tale ending. Towards the end of Forrest Gump—admittedly not a traditional nor concise rom-com—I got all to bawl when our titular slowpoke visited his beloved’s grave for the last time. I ain’t made of stone.

Those above are more modern rom-coms, but what about the classics? I’m glad you didn’t ask. Those films I adored never made me weepy, but left me with a feeling of warm satisfaction; everything worked out right in the end. Take Breakfast At Tiffany’s, for example. It’s romantic. It’s also comic in a wry way. Despite the lighthearted nature of the film it was lit with shadows. It was notorious in the film’s making that Tiffany‘s author of the source material Truman Capote was totally offended how the story was bowdlerized (probably to make it sell tickets, which it did. A lot) and his ideal Holly Golightly should have been played by Marylin Monroe, of all people. In the book Truman’s Holly was a call girl and her friend Paul was a reclusive, gay writer. In the film version, Hepburn’s Holly was a gold digger and Paul was straight, albeit a (failing) writer who paid the bill by providing certain “services” to a wealthy, married Patricia Neal. Something like that.

Capote pilloried the mauling of his story, but after watching Tiffany’s more times than perhaps RuPaul has streamed his race, I think tiny Truman missed two points of this rom-com that make me feel so gosh darn good after watching it. It’s the small ways where lonely Holly and Paul connect, minus any bedroom eyes. It is possible to learn to love someone as an individual and not an object of amour. Tiffany’s illustrated that, in the offhand scenes. Holly dragging Paul to Tiffany’s as a lark. Paul signing the library’s copy of his lone book, dedicating it to Holly. And of course Paul rescuing the cat in the finale. We’re all so lucky to happen upon that kinda romance. Satisfying.

On the opposite side of the field regarding classic rom-coms, Woody Allen’s masterpiece (which he would be first to disagree) Annie Hall aims for the laughs based on the bittersweet formula of how relationships begin and how they crumble. It’s a rom-com alright, heavy on the com part. It’s also satisfying, however in the opposite of Tiffany’s. Namely it’s all too human, too existential and all too neurotic. This is a Woody Allen flick after all, and it wouldn’t be one without Woody getting all clumsy with Diane Keaton’s Annie (…wait a minute). Ultimately Annie works not as just romantic and funny but also fragile. There’s always a sense of doom hanging over Alvy Singer’s dream girl and a feeling that all will dissolve at a moment’s notice. Surprise, it does.

Also unlike Tiffany’s there’s is nothing cute about Hall. Hilarious and irreverent, but never requires Kleenex. What ruins a decent rom-com is a severe allergic reaction to the cutes as a substitute for humor. Nope. What succeeds in Hall‘s contribution the genre is, well, not everything works out. This is true in real life, but seldom in the movies. I could pick apart this movie like I did the ur-rom-com Tiffany’sbut as we most know breaking up is easy to do. Just ask Woody. And Mia if you dare.

What also makes a memorable and sweet (seriously this time) is sense of irreverence. Bucking the norm. The nice boy from across the tracks connecting with rich girl or what have you. All I have to say is “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel and you get where I’m headed. Right. John Cusack holding a massive boombox over his head hoping that Ione Skye won’t spurn him again.

Say Anything… is probably where the term “adorkable” entered our lexicon without ever being uttered in the movie. Cusack’s Lloyd is awkward, sweet-natured and has not much going for him. But he is good at being Skye’s valedictorian Diane Court’s boyfriend, and she never made time for dating at all. The movie shows that not all relationships are made in heaven. If they did, then why bother? Love is complicated, if not insincere at times. Thats why Anything… works. Beyond being funny and sweet (in the best way possible) we have simpleton Lloyd Dobler just wanting to love Diane. That’s all. It’s a relief.

There’s a few of my choices for good, if not great rom-coms. In a world of hackneyed, predictable, winking love stories a select few that just come across as human and that’s worth or while and a pint of Haagen Dazs. When done right these offbeat stories of life, love and leaving really stick to your ribs and worth revisiting again and again.

Let’s slow down there.

Um, the key phrase is “when done right.” That’s not so easy to come by with rom-coms these days. I blame the Hallmark Channel and Kate Hudson personally. Too much cute, too many plastic characters—if not ciphers—too many recycled plots and their devices. Too many “homecomings” and waaay too many white people. Cookie cutter is what I’m aiming at, and these dime-a-dozen films are caked with sugar. And they are f*cking everywhere.

So in the final analysis what does that mean? “When done right?” Believe it or not there is a formula with genre films to not be formulaic, at least not overtly. The ancient Greeks thought there were only two types of plays: comedy and tragedy. One has a happy ending, the other usually ends with stabbing and/or poison. You decide which is which. Not all the endings to either kind of play is black and white. What makes movies—and stories and plays—define one from another is nuance. I don’t mean the winky-winky kind of “nuance” that plagues almost every freakin’ Meg Ryan vehicle. I mean like the almost subliminal kind. Idiosyncratic. Annie Hall is a prime example of this kind of rom-com. As much as it is funny and has the right stuff to be romantic, the story is more or less about Alvy Singer’s lost love through his neurotic lens. The obvious funny bits are universal (EG: the lobster scene), but what first belted out laughter form me was Alvy’s opening monologue talking about “screaming about socialism.” I nearly died, and that is the kind nuance I can get behind in a rom-com. No pandering. Keep you guessing. Anything that avoids the old warhorse tropes like the endearingly clumsy cute girl hooking up with the bland but kind single dad. Roman Holiday was sweet but never saccharine, most likely because Gregory Peck’s gravitas balanced Audrey Hepburn’s grace. Balance is just as important as nuance in a rom-con I say. Refute me.

Because I Said So tried very hard to. Very trying.


The Story…

Daphne Wilder (Keaton) is a brilliant psychologist, but just because you help others with their thoughts does not mean you can read minds.

She’s a single mom of three very kind, very different daughters. We have the witty Maggie (Graham) following in Daphne’s footsteps as an established therapist. Mae (Perabo), the “wild child” (every family’s got one). Last but not least there’s Millie (Moore), sweet, clumsy, hapless Millie. Maggie and Mae are already in good relationships, married and happy for it. Millie? Either she never made the time what with her busy catering service or never got around to finding the right guy. If one even existed.

Daphne does not want her pretty, dorky daughter to stumble through life alone. She knows what’s best. Millie needs a decent man to connect with, but blind dates and speed dating aren’t the way. Daphne—knowing Millie best—opts for virtual “résumé” of her daughter’s plusses and minuses and posted on social media.

In sum, Daphne’s gonna troll for eligible bachelors via Facebook. It’s the best course of action to find what she, er, Millie needs.

Once more with feeling: “What could possibly go wrong?”


The Breakdown…

I watched Because I Said So over a period of four nights in 20 minute increments. Why? I had a bad feeling, and knew I could not digest this farce in just one sitting without sacrificing objectivity and running out of all the popcorn in the house to throw at the screen. It didn’t turn out to be that bad, but Because was rather annoying. All the tropes were there. The Three Stooge sisters. The well-meaning but meddling mother. Mister Nice Guy vs Mister Rich Guy. Precocious moppet. That guy from 7th Heaven. It was all there. Ready made for the bargain bin at FYE. Help yourself.

It did take a while for me peel back the layers of this onion of a movie. I say onion not because it made me cry but that something smelled funny over those four nights. It was not the stale popcorn on the floor. Recall what I said about Classical drama a light-year ago? Right. Tragedy and comedy? Right. You wanna know else was good and spinning tragedy and comedy into really good drama? Right. Woody Allen.

Oh shut up. You knew the answer before I asked the question. Even without Googling something. Quit smirking.

Shakespeare knew how to twist the twisted nature of romance into real potboilers over his illustrious career. Romeo And Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest and the infamous Taming Of The Shrew. That’s the one I wanna talk about. Here. Against Mandy Moore’s leading lady role. Mandy Moore. “Candy.” Right. Shakespeare. Goes together like bacon and ice cream. Here, take my hand.

For those who don’t know (or never bothered to attend their senior year English class), Taming Of The Shrew is a black comedy before there was ever such a thing as black comedy or the Wayans brothers. The story goes thus: wealthy Mr Minola wants to marry off his two daughters to upstanding young men. Bianca—Daddy’s favorite—has suitors lined up out the door into the town square ready to sweep her off her feet. Her other sister Katarina (the titular shrew of the play. Read: bitch) has always been jealous of her sister. Her beauty, her grace, the attention Daddy never gave Kate. She’s bitter and her nasty disposition chases away any promising young men. Husbands. Bah! Who needs ’em? I’ma gonna be a single gal just to piss Dad off!

Kate’s ploy works. Sort of.

One day this (alleged) rich bachelor comes to Genoa. His name’s Petruchio, and Pete has a hot nut to find a rich wife. He asks the locals who’s the wealthiest man in town. They tell him Mr Minola, and tells them he’s in the market for some tail. Does Minola have any daughters? Sure, folks say. There’s the lovely Bianca and her sister, Kate. Bianca’s spoken for, but what about Kate? Cringey. She’s got a bad attitude. Well, Pete likes a challenge (as well as a fat dowery) so he goes any pays a visit on Kate’s dad and makes a proposal: if I can straighten out this wench’s crankiness, you’ll let us get married with full blessings. If not…

This plot will be appropriated for a middling rom-com that tries its best to be as witty as Shrew was (is). Instead of the hapless Minola trying to pawn off his older, wicked daughter on ANYONE that’ll take her, we have Daphne, the control freak; the meddlesome mom doing the wrong thing for the right reason. Her older daughters are hitched and doing fine, while the baby of the clan has a lot to give someone and that someone is her mother by proxy. Daphne wants to feel complete by helping Millie get “complete.” Well, that and filling her own personal emptiness for being an old divorcee.

Enter Johnny and David. Mr Down-To-Earth (one half of Pete parading around as a faux-playboy) versus Mr High Rise (the other half who will die with the most toys). Two possible suitors leading to similar outcomes: happily ever after. Ugh. Sure I like happy endings—Disney is aces all the way—but I do not want them shoved down my gullet as soon as the opening credits finish. I saw where all this was headed two weeks before I watched Because. Not a surprise. To wit, this movie had a big budget LifeTime Network feel, and I’ve never even watched the LifeTime Network. Well, there was that one Cops marathon back in ’99 but otherwise they showed too many doe-eyed white girls. Who would never return my calls.

There was another thing I forgot to mention in the rant about what makes a quality rom-com: they should have something to offer both sexes. Humor is always good. Essential even, but not broad humor. Virtually all rom-coms takes the girls’ side, and not just because females are the protags in such films. Rom-coms are designed to be sexist, and more times than not it’s all about scoring the guy, like the leading lady needs a man to feel whole. Cute and unfunny. I am loathe to admit this but many of Judd Apatow’s movies got it right. No one is perfect, maybe even barely adequate in his ribald view of relationships. Although his stuff can be crass and over the top it is funny and relatable. For example: recall the scene in Knocked Up where Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl try to REDACTED during her second trimester? That sh*t happens. It’s funny for being so on and so awkward. There is no way in Heaven and Earth that a highly eligible bachelor would turn to f*cking Facebook to score a girl. Isn’t that against their policy or something? That kind of truck only passes for humor in the almighty cute and winking world of Because and others of its ilk. Such a gag also reinforces lame ass gender tropes that were stale back in the 90s. The whole atmosphere felt dry.

Because is still a comedy, and we got to give praise to the capable, inoffensive cast who did the best they could. Truth be told I liked the main characters (save Scott who lacked any presence), fluffy as they were. I know that’s part of the whole deal, but there were some sparks here and there that amused me. Because was more snicker worthy (not mention groan worthy) than laugh out loud. There was a low-key zany going on. Think the Three’s Company kind of humor that revolves around misunderstandings. There are quite a few sight gags, quite a few pratfalls and quite a few quick witticisms all wrapped up in a nice, neat gooey package about the difficulties of maintaining/establishing a romantic relationship. It would be all rote if it weren’t for our two leads.

Diane Keaton has been playing the same character for 20 years now. Twenty years yes, she still has that golden comic timing. Sometimes Keaton can actually be funnier silent, all that mugging and exasperation. Her Daphne kinda reminds me of my aunt. She’s controlling, anal and full of good intentions. You know where good intentions lead, right? It becomes quickly apparent that Daphne wants Millie to shack up with some guy not so her daughter won’t be alone for the rest of her life rather Daphne needs to fill a personal void. Push meets pull as Millie’s just fine concentrating on her career and evading the stress of dating. That’s where our primary tension lies: mother knows best. So did Gothel in Tangled. Which also starred Mandy Moore. Hmm…

This was Moore’s debut in a starring role. She was capable, if not dorky. Not “adorkable” mind you. She played Millie more like a klutzy middle schooler than a rearing to go career woman. Might’ve been the years of pressure Daphne dumped on her and this lifestyle was her getting back. For the better part of the movie Moore played it nice. Safe. I wasn’t expecting her Millie to have a full on, ‘roid-ragin’ sex scene. Might’ve been cool that, but no she played the simple innocent. Sweet and inoffensive. I would’ve rather seen her have and all out screaming match with Daphne about making her own decisions, but it was not to be.

Like a lot of rom-coms charm is vital. Yeah, yeah. We know this is gonna be fluffy, insubstantial, but it sure as sh*t better be endearing. Charm was the only thing that consistently kept Because afloat and barely, barely skirting a ripoff Jerry Maguire ending. Barely. On the whole the cast was good and gamely played their parts. The plot was for rote but still engaging enough to see how the movie ended even if we knew the ending already. It was likable, but not something you’d add to your collection.

Because had no cats to rescue, no flashbacks or animated interludes, no Peter Gabriel.

I would of rather watched a rom-com like that, with all of those ingredients. Including Keaton.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild relent it. It’s a run-of-the-mill rom-com with a good cast, a tired plot device and already queued up on your LifeTime stream. Pass the Haagen Dasz.


The Musings…

  • “That ship’s…docked.”
  • Is it possible to have a white “Magical Negro?”
  • “What does an orgasm feel like?” That’s actually a pretty tricky/very good question.
  • I felt that Cooper the dog was the most well-rounded character.
  • “Can I see it?” Kids these days.
  • Why do all the Wilder girls’ names start with M?
  • The guitar lesson scene was rather cheesy, but to the movie’s credit it was the only cheeze.
  • liked Millie’s laugh.
  • “Happiness is just a series of choices. It’s not something that just sort of happens!” It does in the movies!
  • Waaay too many white people.

The Next Time…

It’s never a Good Time to bust your slow-witted bro outta jail while abusing the New York underworld’s favors. Run Robert, Run.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #182: Jonathan Mostow’s “U-571” (2000)



The Crew…

Matthew McConughey, Harvey Keitel, Jake Weber and Bill Paxton, with TC Carson, Dirk Cheetwood, Will Estes, Tom Gulry, Jon Bon Jovi(!), David Keith, Jack Noseworthy, Erik Palladino, Dave Power and Matthew Settle.


The Briefing…

At the height of World War II, the Germans ruled the Atlantic with their U-Boat corps. The Nazis own the Atlantic from just beneath the surface. The subs are cutting off supply lines and ruining the Allied fleet via stealth and torpedoes, instilling fear and risk in all who traversed the ocean. According to the Admirality, it will take more brains than brawn to earn the upper hand.

The Nazis’ submariners have intelligence in spades, thanks to their Enigma codex. No Allied force can unscramble the Reich’s next mission until it’s too late due to the machine’s spell-bending, and yet another U-Boat sinks another Allied ship down to Davy Jones’ Locker, all hands lost.

What the US Navy needs is a break, that and a so-crazy-it-just-might-work mission to hijack a U-Boat, steal one of those Enigma contraptions and crack those secret orders wide open, potentially saving hundreds of lives in the process.

The US Navy requires seasoned crew of skilled sailors to handle such a daring mission. But where to find such skilled sailors? Nowhere, but this is war, and it’s always country before self, so we best take our chances on Lt Tyler’s very green crew.


The Flap…

I’ve never been much for war pictures. Not sure why. I’ve seen a great many of them, some held in very high esteem according to movie geeks more seasoned than I. I have seen and enjoyed Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now (a favorite of mine, which may be Coppola’s finest moment), M*A*S*H, The Longest Day and Born On The Fourth Of July to name a few. All good, if not great movies revolving around our species’ endless need to divide and conquer. The stuff gets you on a gut level, primal and also basal. On the flip side combat movies are easy to digest; all the drama and action is a lot sexier than seeing any actual combat. Go ask any Vietnam veteran.

That must be it. I’m no soldier, but despite all the violence and the human factor under the lens, war on film doesn’t look that…real. I know, I know. They’re movies. What’s reality got to do with it, Tina? I’m not talking about historical accuracy or torsos being shredded by tripping a claymore in full THX, dang it. Nope. I need my war movies ugly, sweating of desperation and dire consequences. I need drama without soliloquy. In short, I need grime in my war films. I think you know what I’m screaming. Grimy.

I guess that the only war movies that stuck to my ribs revolve around submarines. Now we’re talking grime. I have never, ever seen a “pretty” submarine war flick. Everything is wet, from sea bilge to dripping pipes to the de rigueur hull breach to perspiration f*cking all over the flinty, terrified crew. Grimy. I think it must have something to do with all that claustrophobia, all that canned air. Tension is guaranteed to get ramped up real quick, and the pipes and wheels looming all over the cast like some mocking maze. There’s an immediate understanding of no escape. Always acting on your feet, as it were. Such anti-romanticism might’ve been the result of reading Tom Clancy’s The Hunt For Red October one two many times. Hey, it was a good book. Drew me in and made me wonder what kind of movie it might make.

Segue…

There are many more sub movies out there, but I can safely count on one hand a few silent service action movies that always keep ratcheting it up just one notch more, meter by meter below. All that sweat, all that grime. There’s the immortal Das Boot by Wolfgang Petersen (IE: pronounced “Volf-gong Pay-der-sen” for you exacting film nuts out there), the grimiest, most intense and probably most historically accurate, sh*tty depiction about being on a submarine crew. Disenfranchised Nazi submariners just trying to survive below decks and f*ck all to the missions the Reich command, so long as their Navy looks good regardless of who’s stretching their necks for Germany. These Nazi submariners fight for home and hearth and bloody hate their mission. Suck it in; its war.

The movie adaption of Red October was unpretentious and satisfying, had perfect pacing and starred an amazing cast with my man Sean Connery, the underrated Scott Glenn and a whipper-snapper Alec Baldwin as the ideal Jack Ryan, man without a country (BTW, it’s odd now to figure such an adored comedic actor was once an action star. And shot people to boot). The movie was a classic cat-and-mouse caper, with a dash of social commentary thrown in for good measure. All the characters had a history, all the subplots added up to a rewarding whole and despite the clean undersea scene, there was lots of sweat. Sure, the Red October and the Dallas looked like luxury liners, but still felt cloistered and desperate. Lotsa sweat, man. Lotsa sweat. Did I mention the director helmed the original Die Hard? There ya go and check it out.

Technically not a submarine thriller, James Cameron’s The Abyss (his best film. Refute me) is an awesome undersea survival movie. Claustrophobia reigns, as well as an undersea rig ready to tear apart at the reams, pressure reigning down from above and below. Most folks balk at The Abyss, all pissy about not seeing enough undersea aliens. They missed the point. Alien contact is the icing. The crew surviving long enough to have a third encounter is the cake. The protagonists are not the aliens; they’re men, just as on shore. That mess and it’s a pretty great homage to The Day The Earth Stood Still, so long as you watch the three-plus hour directors version. Never fear. It’s a Cameron flick. It’ll flow by like Taco Bell through the orifice of your choice, voluntary or otherwise. You’re welcome for the visual. Moving on.

It’s all about the cramped quarters. Modern nuke subs have a crew complaint at a little over 130, including officers. The average length of a modern Ohio class-sub is approximately 560 feet. The actual space for actual humans to function is no larger than a dog park. For 130 bodies. No room for a beer bust, or pooper scoopers. Can you feature that? The graduating class of some suburban high school crammed into a nuclear powered tin can, which is more or less and inverted balloon (like a jet airliner fuselage holding back all that pressure) with foreign objects ready to scar all that steel and carbon fiber.

You wanna talk about pressure? I’m not just talking about structural integrity here, but pressure on the sailors brave and daring enough to submerge in those old-fashioned diesel and electric powered subs of yesteryear, the kind that were swifter above the surface than below the waterline. Sonar was fuzzy, if even available and when you’re using bumps and bonks as a mean of rough navigation. And if gets too dicey to got to periscope depth that lumbering drone of a battleship can be easily confused by whale song. Until the depth charges start falling.

You wanna talk about pressure? Sweat, stink and swearing. If Petersen’s movie was the acid test, then a tour under the sea is akin to living in a mouldering YMCA pool locker in July. One could practically smell the fungus and foot rot. I would not at all be surprised by all the frayed nerves, patchy facial hair and having a short, profane order from Herr Kapitän or the cook. From stealth breeds bravado, and that invites death by torpedo or crush depth.

You wanna talk about pressure? From what limited civvie understanding I have about submarines is that they are all are haunted, and death is omnipresent. I wouldn’t bother shaving either. Haunted by way of compressed, grimy humanity squeezed into a unforgiving microcosm of fear, perspiration and the glory of the hunt. Happens little, worth the wait and risk.

After all this folderol, it might—barely—suggest I have some big message to get across. Of course not. Said all that had be said about the pressure of being on a sub crew/recreating that isolation and scene chewing required to make a film recreation palpable. There are precious few, and precious few further. Will U-571 make the grade?

Dive! Dive!


The Mission…

Britain is starving for ammo, food and sundries. The Blitz left London in pieces, and the rest of England didn’t fare much better. True the bombing ruined the Realm, but without proper supplies the country can’t even think of rebuilding.

It’s all because of those damned Kraut U-boats. Sneaking up from nowhere and torpedoing supply ships to so much flotsam and jetsam, score of lives taken. The Admiralty is furious at such audacious, cowardly warfare, not to mention quite scared of it also. To wit, the Treaty of Versailles never said boo about submarines. Furthermore, how it is those damned Axis subs can always, always thwart the Allied missions before the fool things haven’t even been carried out?

The US Navy has a hunch. It’s the Nazi’s blasted Enigma codex. Unbreakable. Thanks to that hellish gizmo the Axis are able engage the Allies under the seas faster than the wind blows. The Enigma can most likely predict that, too. Blast!

What the Allies can only hope for is a lucky break…and they get one.

Flap is that there is a stranded U-Boat floating in international waters, with “precious cargo” aboard. Now is the Navy’s chance. Take the boat, disable the crew and abscond with the Enigma. Straightforward, and with as little grease as possible.

Heading up this secret mission is the seasoned and hale Lt Cmdr Dahlgren (Paxton). Despite the need-to-know basis of the mission, and due to a lack of sailors, Dahlgren is hampered with a very green crew save his aide-de-camp Lt Tyler (McConughey) and grizzled Chief Klough (Keitel). The rest are green-gilled and literally wet behind the ears.

No matter. Service first, and so the mission proves successful…until Dahlgren and crew are holed by a German torpedo, and their boat is sinking fast. What to do now?

Right. The American crew has no other choice but to commandeer the Nazi vessel and sail safely back to the United Kingdom with the Enigma intact.

And hopefully themselves, too.


The Report…

Beyond being some submarine caper, U-571 is a measured—very measured—character study, even with the wartime histrionics. Meaning there is no wallpaper here regarding roles. Everyone in the movie has a purpose, kinda like being on a sub crew. These men (beyond the headliners) are well-formed characters with personalities and foibles of their own. Barring how odd that sturdy character actor David Keith and cinematic fringed leather jacket novelty Jon Bon Jovi evaporate from the plot, these swabbies feel like real people. Smart way to have an audience invest their two-plus hour attention well beyond the stretching point. That being said, the time just flew by. Economical pacing considering the closed quarters and skirting-close-to-formula plot.

(Another moment of your time. I’d feel remiss in not bringing this point up at least once here picking apart U like so much leftover Chinese food. Pick, pick, picky, but I feel it necessary.

Not surprisingly, and since the film did the research as U was based on actual events. Whether or not the events coalesced into a feasible whole? Don’t ask me. It’s understood, however, that films based on “true” events are more often than not subjected to “creative liberties” and sweetening. Y’know, make it all sexier like. However again, this was a war movie “inspired by true events.” That being said, I understand why its release in the United Kingdom ruffled a few feathers. A whole chicken coop’s worth. According to the historical records, the erstwhile true events were based upon the exploits of the desperate British Navy, not an American crew. Sweet.

I’m the last person you’d ever mistake for a patriotic flaggot, but I feel their ain’t enough Stevia in the solar system to warrant such a gauche move. And not even a proper send off before the credits roll. Like we couldn’t have taught Mac a British cum Fort Worth accent, alright? Alright. Alright lame.)

Where were we? Right. Movie. That thing.

I didn’t find U to be your typical submarine actioner. Shocking. I got the feeling that director Mostow wanted to bring some zing back to war movies with as little navel (naval?) gazing as possible. This movie dropped two years after Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, both high watermarks of existential combat cinema. Mostow brings the flash not just with terse action scenes, but that character interplay thing. Felt like he was going with some solo vision, sorta indie feel here, all stripped down. It kinda worked. More on that later.

Like the above pair, you get drawn into the drama by getting drawn into the characters’ heads (literally in Red Line and to excess) with U. I repeat: everyone has their place, but their place is based on immediate action—duty—which invests you into what happens next. Here, it’s down to the wire. Sure, Mac, Pax and Sport are the stars and that gets butts in the doors, but the supporting crew keeps you seated. Worked for me. plays like a play: deliberately staged and structured. It’s a nice change from the beyond crazy cray-cray 90s sweatfests so rampant since Sly Stallone hurtles towards Social Security eligibility (“I am the law!”). Burp.

U is an odd duck of an action film, not so often these days. Heavy on the drama, characterization and kerboom in that order. I stand by my conviction that if weren’t for Mostow shoving around fully fleshed out characters this would be just another sweaty Bruce Willis shoot ’em up. Nope. You actually have a modicum of care, if not concern for the sailors, even on both sides of the wire. Namely I appreciated all angles of the cast and how they were used. Not liked mind you. Watching the cast interacting with one another, the plot weaving in and out, it was not dissimilar to watching a chess match. Back and forth, back and forth. Run to the fore of the sub for extra weight. Thinking on one’s feet as to how to fix the diesels. Low level “sonar.” All these tasks cut workmanlike and with precision, and I repeat all of the casting was competent and well-executed.

A minor carp was the whole “liked mind you” crack. Here’s an example: McConaughey has always oozed slick confidence from his roles. Not here; he’s all anxiety and stress. Never seen him so grim. Serious, but a capable action hero. Not great, but serviceable. As great as the casting was, everything felt rather five degrees off cool. Slighty off and awkward. Keitel feels kinda out of place here (despite, or because of him being the sole voice of reason), but just because he’s Keitel, not someone like Sport for example. The rest of the swabbies don’t have a lot of backstory, but that didn’t feel like a detriment to me based against how well the cast worked together. I know that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but if you catch the movie you might see what I mean.

On, and that “other side of the wire” bit? I appreciated how the Nazi submariners all had beards. No washing or shaving on a U-boat. A touch of humanity to a piece of the Reich’s more infamous elements of blitzkrieg. Mostow took some obvious cues from Das Boot. You almost feel bad for the Germans. That’s good direction. It’s also a bittersweet conceit that the Axis submariners are sailors first, not wind-up toys for the Reich. I felt that humanizing the enemy made the tension all the more palatable; these are people, sailors like Tyler’s crew. This notion perhaps filled in the blank I mentioned before. I know that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but if you catch the movie you might see what I mean.

Uh, right.

This was an action movie, right? So where would an action flick be without its bucket of tech stuff to play with? Right! Hot Topic!

BONK

Thanks. From what I know about submarine architecture (which isn’t much. Most of it came from movies) quarters are always cramped, stations are relegated to a single chair and every inch of available space is designed for keeping the boat afloat and the crew alive. Again, Das Boot comes closest to this miserable truth. Heck, the sets of Red October were f*cking palatial compared to the workshop function over form that was U. And since this movie dropped circa 2000 we got really good models, not CGI. I dug that. Made the underwater scenes all the more real and seminal. Desperation does not let up. Grimy, remember? Claustrophobic of course, but the sets made the mission all more dire, like could rip apart at the seams at any moment…and almost does. The plunging depth charges, the winding torpedoes, and the B plot matters with keeping the diesels and batteries online and the boat alive. It was intense, resulting in excellent pacing. Right in the butter zone for an undersea action caper. I was grinding my teeth a lot, despite my dentist’s warnings about watching too many sub movies.

A final note, I appreciated how not glamorous it was to be on Tyler’s crew. Again noted with Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line had nary an iota of the “glory of war” glam and glitz. Neither does U. I appreciated seeing how beat up the crew was. War’s never about charm. When this movie was released it was on its own. Not every action/war movies needs a “message.” The mission alone speaks volumes to us civvies, if we pay attention. Since U was “based on actual events” any head-scratching, speechifying or sloganeering would not fit in. Hell, even though this film had a “happy ending,” there wasn’t much to be happy about.

Relieved maybe. I had no fingernails after watching U.


The Material Condition…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a solid, straightforward action movie with a great cast. No muss, no fuss. A Saturday afternoon movie. Call it a cinematic shore leave.


The Scuttlebutt…

  • “Everything’s in German!” Well, duh!
  • Um, I don’t believe that conventional crockery were ever used on subs (EG: Navy mugs lack handles).
  • The mock shield reveal. Ugly, ain’t it?
  • Zippos are temperamental.
  • “How wise is that, Lieutenant?” “Not very.”
  • It took me, like, two-thirds into the movie to notice Tyler wearing the Captain’s hat. Guess I was too caught up elsewhere.
  • The ring exchange.
  • No submariner would ever be so reckless with firearms as illustrated here.
  • It’s still hard to believe Paxton is gone. Sorely missed.
  • “Keep working.”
  • One would think more than just one of the crew knew German.

Forward…

Why the heck are we reading about some doofy rom-com starring Diane Keaton and Mandy Moore?

Because I Said So!


RIORI Presents Installment #181: Judd Apatow’s “This Is 40” (2012)



The Players…

Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd, Maude Apatow and Iris Apatow, with John Lithgow, Albert Brooks, Megan Fox, Charlyne Yi, Jason Segel, Chris O’Dowd, Lena Dunham, Melissa McCarthy and Graham Parker.


The Basics…

Middle age creeps into the lives of Pete and Debbie and certain things aren’t so certain anymore. Then again, on the brighter side, some things always are.

The tough stuff? Financial woes, naturally. Parenting headaches. Extended family members always politely but disdainfully asking, “What are you going to do with your life?” Such things can be a melange of hard questions with no easy answers as the reality of your life being half over gradually sinks in. Uncertainty pervades every aspect of your life.

So what’s the good news? The certainty that no matter how nuts and how fast your life is winding down your family and friends will do the best to get your back. Even if you’re both grown-ups and you don’t want them to.

Best embrace that. Won’t come around again.


The Intro…

I’ve done this before, section off the rant. This time out there are stipulations. This iteration should be read as an essay, like for a college course (or an early Kevin Smith film). Gauged and patiently that.

Never fear, however. None of this will be on the final exam.


The Rant, pt. I: Denial and Rationalization…

When I turned 40 I could’ve cared less. Sure, it’s considered a milestone, however as you get older those ages capped with a zero start taking on a less-than-pleasant connotation than your first 30 years. Meaning no one 29 and under trusts you anymore. You’ve seen the tee shirt.

A lifetime ago I covered The Wolverine and went on this fantastic tangent about how the West and the East regard youth. It was an X-Men movie; I was in rare form. To recap, most countries in Asia venerate seniors for their experience, knowledge and all of Grandma’s secret recipes. In the West we praise youth, meaning potential, wide horizons and well-skilled with the ideal time to nuke a Hot Pocket to drippy perfection. Consider the matter of a very young, hotshot lawyer becoming a partner before 30, such skills they have. Success then knowledge! You follow. And it sounds good—and often is—but my bet is on the friendly, tenured philosophy professor whose knows all his students by name and walks 30 minutes to class each day, Red Bull in hand, for reliability.

Yeah, I respect my elders. Even though I ain’t eld. Yet. Put down your Blue Books.

So yeah, when I turned 40 it was just another day. Most people chalk that birthday up to identity crisis. Me? I fixed my old video game consoles from the 8-, 16- and 32-bit years and told my then wife I needed to dress better. So between engaging in another round of Ocarina Of Time and purchasing a few smart sweaters life went on as usual. But it was the year that the fateful age began yelling at me nonetheless.

I had a crap day at work (had quite a few of those back then). Someone leaked that it was my birthday. I gave up counting when 30 rolled around and the Millennials dubbed Interpol as “classic rock.” Kept feeling razzed. Already had enough frustrations in my life—financial, marital, parental, still unable to catch all those stupid Poes—that being treated like a kid almost not a kid. Whatever my fellow deviants’ brand of salt felt ideal to rub into my wounds wasn’t something I needed. That and my back was bothering me.

I was at the barest end of my thirties. I felt that all my efforts to get my sh*t together were in vain. Was drummed out of my first chef’s position. Had kicked the pills but beer always reared its frothy head. Three degrees on my resume but still pulling slave wages for 60-plus hours a week (if it weren’t for overtime I couldn’t pay for jack since the wifey refused to get a job). Stuck at home with my parents with my family in tow after being evicted years back. No social life. No social time (save churning out these screeds, and just barely). A bum knee. Dandruff. An acquired hatred of shrimp cocktail. The list could’ve gone on. I was not a happy camper. I figured while most Gen X thrity-somethings were climbing the corporate ladder, I kept going below decks to scrape out the grease trap.

The following is exaggerated. Makes for a better story. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend:

My fortieth year was the year when my body began to rebel. A decade plus working in kitchens will take its toll as folks who have gone over Kitchen Confidential with a highlighter know. It’s not being on your feet all day—it’s not just that—but it is a piece of the puzzle as the hours upon weeks upon years roll on. All that bending and stretching. Knife cuts and burns. You’re hearing gets low level tinnitus from the constant drone of the hoods. You’re expected to work sick, even if you have a doctor’s note (never happened). However it wasn’t my age that did me in, per se. Just warned me about possible wreck and ruin.

I’ll cut to the chase: had a few falls in my career—physical ones as well as otherwise—which screwed up my lower back. Took to wearing a brace from time to time, but only as a Band-Aid. The joint where I was working come that fateful shift was a wellspring of tumbles for me. Crappy shoes, wet floor, pow, ow. Slipped on the ice off the loading dock. Lost my footing in the stairwell. I’m not a clumsy person, not really, but those imps of the perverse were out to get me. Even after I invested in some better footwear.

The pièce de résistance came when I literally fell out of the kitchen. Like outside. Onto the sidewalk. Mats weren’t laid down flat. Trip and oopsie. Did and somersault and landed on all fours with a mighty pop! I suddenly had no spine. I could not move. All was numb. The wind knocked out of me. I was afraid to move. My coworkers wanted to give me a hand up but I waved them off. I was still assessing the damage.

When I was sure nothing was broken I laid down on the ground. The pain was there, this dull, throbbing, really pissed off pain. The kind that mocks you. I laid there until one of my supers came by. He had back trouble also and sympathized, carefully helped me up. I was scared. With that terrific header I had no idea what had caused what and was afraid to move…period. He helped me fill out the incident report, let me go home, gave me a Vicodin and took me to my car. He asked if I was okay to drive. I was and called him once I got home. There I called the doctor, made an appointment and laid down on my bedroom for a while, letting the pill do its thing. Didn’t really help.

I confessed to the skylight—Roger Murtaugh-style—uttering out loud, “I’m getting too old for this sh*t…”

Quit laughing. It’s no big shocker as you get older you don’t recover from anything fast, and the older you get you may not recover period. I don’t mean the Grim Reaper knocking at your bathroom door, not yet anyway. Just things ain’t gonna be the same anymore. In your 20s you could survive on 3 hours of sleep, Natty Ice, Red Bull and a Snickers bar a week. When you hit 40 you hopefully have learned Red Bull is made from bile, Natty Ice is paint stripper and Snickers bars are made from lies and deception. Better belly up to the trough with strong coffee (for its wake-up call after its wake-up call), Grape-Nuts and Icy Hot applied when needed. Ha ha. You’ll get there you whelps, saving up for your PS5s and perpetual adolescence upkeep. I’m jealous really.

My debilitating fall had much to do with my age. Plain bad luck was closer to the truth. It was more akin to someone who had recently suffered a concussion should not be allowed to take a nap. The grind was all over me, paired with the never-ending stress of being broke and being broke. But really, I think it took that incident to get me to do some real self-assessment. I was talking to a window, let’s start there. An angry back isn’t anything fresh sweaters could remedy. My 20s were long gone; those college days as a punker/raver desperate writer were out to pasture. My 30s were just yesterday when I was doing restaurant work, had a radio show on the side and started this dimwit blog. Then here I was—am—with a bum back, still a bum knee, divorced from both my wife and my job and left wondering “What happened?” All that and me fumbling through Riven again on the PS2 like I did 20 years ago on my PC, which is now scrap.

Kinda like me.


The Rant, pt. II: Acceptance and Capability…

I think that is the crux of the turning 40 dilemma: what happened? It’s around that age when one starts either a full blown or low key existential crisis, whether they realize it or not. You get hair plugs or refurbish old video game consoles respectively. Turning 40 is the gateway to old age, when nostalgia really starts to matter. It’s when you begin to consider fiber more than just an ingredient in morality. It’s when you start voting straight ticket—regardless of the candidates’ Grape-Nut intake—so long as they won’t raise taxes (EG: “Hey, the guy might’ve murdered 30 children and made boxer shorts out of their hides but at least he won’t raise taxes”). Is the Clash really considered “oldies?” Why is it whenever I watch Jeopardy! all the advertisements are peddling heavy pharmaceuticals? How does Wi-Fi work and why can’t I master the 720º? I mean, Tony Hawk is over 40 and he can…because he’s in better shape than me. Strong back. Whimper.

It’s all about insecurity and uncertainty, but without the panache of getting older and therefore wiser living in the Land of the Rising Sun. No. We live in American, Home of the Whopper, and knowing better we still get pissy when the shake machine is down. We’re confused. Hitting 40 does not necessary mean you’re old. It means you’re on your way. Consider this: based on anthropological studies that without readily available food and water sources, modern medicine and reliable shelter the average human lifespan would be approximately 35 years in the wild. See all you birthday buddies? You’d already be a feast for worms by now without aspirin. Now life is simply metaphorically short, but that doesn’t mean you don’t begin winding down at 40. It’s about your perceived obsolescence, reinforced by what Madison Avenue pitches to you and the younger generation no longer regarding you as on the bubble. Recall the retro gaming references I made above; vital to me, maybe to you but most likely not to Gen Z. Or Gen AA. You know, the future consumers. The past is always catching up to you—whether it be in the forms of playing outmoded video games or nasty falls past—and the future is a maw that can’t be fed.

Scary. And inevitable. All apologies.

Despite it all, turning 40 can be fun, at least with us, the rabble that is Gen X. We’ve since reached that cachet of pop culture loaded with high watermarks of hipness. And some were. As we live on, nostalgia is the yardstick by which we measure our cultural awareness. Discounting technological advances it’s safe to assume our parents would never have dreamt that their progeny could make a living blogging about video games of have a YouTube channel devoted solely that is the magic that is James Blunt (with a million-plus subs, and BitCoin out the bum). Nostalgia idealizes the past and fandom defines the present now, and thanks to the Internet and a million ways to be trolled, Gen X is swamped in pop culture as personal definition, then and future.

If you caught my take on High Fidelity way back when, there came a scene where John Cusack’s disenfranchised 30-something character Rob confesses: “I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like…Books, records, films—these things matter. Call me shallow but it’s the f*ckin’ truth.” And it is. At least for forty-somethings like me, barely aware (barring the occasion back injury) we’re getting up there. Probably because there is so much saturation and value of innumerable pop culture touchstones these days. What I mean is akin to every Boomer boasting they were at Woodstock—the first time—there will be a Gen Xer claiming they caught one of Billie Joe’s dirt clods at Woodstock ’94 (and also boast that Dylan was there, not so back in 1969. Nyah). We win. F*ck age and Rogaine. We’re always on the hunt for cool and obscure Americana that memes are made of. Fruitless passion for sure, but at least its passion ignoring you old arse. For instance I studied large wads of Shakespeare in college, but am only able recall famous lines these days (EG: “To be or not to be!” “My kingdom for a horse!” “Stop!” etc). But ask me to flip the switch you can guarantee I’ll shout with Shakespearean gusto: “There are four lights!” You get it or you don’t.

My generation is indeed defined by pop culture, and not the other way around. We don’t create it as much as we engulf it. Every age has their high points and gravedigger lows. It’s all about where we focus the lens and what comes into view. What Cusack said in the movie is apt in keeping Gen X creaking towards obsolesce in check. You doubtless have noticed all the pop culture crap I rattled off above, and doubtless many of my generation raised more than a few eyebrows. You may lurch through your day with aches and pains, but all gets lost in a blur as soon as someone starts quoting lines from Dazed And Confused. Or GoodFellas. Or The Big Lebowski (ah, I can hear them brows a-bristlin’). Pop touchstones are what Gen X social circles run on. And on. And on and on.

I’m guilty of it, too. We are not the generation that sit by the fireside with snifters of brandy, waxing philosophical about which existentialist was correct in gauging the human condition: Kirkegaard or Sartre. No. We don’t even while our time in front of a few eps of Star Trek. We binge from Kirk to Picard to Picard and back again, covered in Cheeto dust. We have 1,000 friends on  FaceBook, but we don’t. Just a feed to 1,000 Trekkies waxing philosophical about things like: “Wait, if Discovery takes place before TOS, then how come Mr Spock only as access to buttons?” And we raise our glasses. Such dialogues in echo chambers is what we’re all about. Hell, we invented the Internet after all, for shopping and stealing music and PornHub and establishing once and for all was Simone de Beauvoir Sartre’s girlfriend or not (not exactly: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/beauvoir). Just like that. Tidbits of trivia define Gen X, and boy are we adept at calling them out. Such goofy knowledge is a clarion call to all other would-be slackers to declare we are alive!

Which kinda makes socializing a one-trick pony, especially regarding relationships. Who we are is what Rob declared/warned us about. It’s more about things than exhaling ideas these days, and you can’t build a relationship on how many still-in-box first gen Transformers you own, how you successfully translated Wookkie into Japanese and how well-versed in how many lead singers Black Flag had and why. Why do we do this? Is this easier than asking, “How’re you doing?” I don’t know. I’ve done similar things in “conversation” as much as the next dork.

And hell, in billions years when the Earth gets engulfed by the expansion of a dying sun and has its atmosphere boiled off like so much toasted bread through fondue, it will not matter who was more vital a human. Cobain or Einstein?

When that time comes, my money would be on Kepler.


The Story…

The dull ticking of the clock is slowing down. Pete and Debbie (Rudd and Mann) are feeling the grinding, almost arresting halt that reaching 40 does to your average Gen X’er with kids, mortgages, business matters and an unhealthy adherence to a fitness regime. Silly biker shorts and all.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. The kids of the 80s had enough to fear already (read: toughen them up for the big bad real world) what with the Cold War and MAD ever looming, the evil specter of AIDS, massive savings and loans collapsing into a financial canyon and the peril of New Coke. The couple should be tougher for it all, and yet someone or something yanked the carpet up from under them.

It’s called a midlife crisis. It’s not just time crawling ever onwards, it also realizing things don’t always work out according to plan, even if you didn’t exactly have one.

Debbie’s fashion boutique is inexplicably losing money despite doing good business. She suspects someone is stealing, like one of her trusted employees. Debbie has trust issues, but not with Desi and Jodi (Fox and Yi). She refuses to not trust them. Ever since Deb was a kid she’s had trust and abandonment issues stemming from when her estranged father, the successful surgeon Oliver (Lithgow) divorced her mom when she was nine. How could she bail on her staff? Um, wait a minnit.

Pete’s indie record label is slumping because he won’t represent new talent, only classic indie rockers…that he likes. Even scoring a record deal with the venerable British rocker Graham Parker (himself) isn’t attracting much business. That and Pete’s financial woes are doubled (if not tripled) by his dad Larry (Brooks) who found himself suddenly in the family way due to an all too successful fertilization procedure. Not to mention Pete is the only typical white male American who even knows who Graham Parker is.

Pete and Debbie hemorrhaging cash all over the place. The spats between their kids Sadie and Charlotte (the Apatow girls) are reaching the intestine of an Olympic event. Deb can’t kick smoking. Pete is addicted to sweets. Both are unable to give up the ghosts that embody daddy issues. And to top it all off, our struggling couple are looking down another daunting deadline:

Pete and Debbie are both turning forty.

Dear Lord, who needs a cupcake? How ’bout a loosey?


The Breakdown…

Apatow. You either enjoy him or don’t. Or merely tolerate him. I think I may be in the latter camp.

I dug The 40-Year Old VirginKnocked Up was enjoyable enough, if that’s the adjective to use. Funny People wasn’t really. Haven’t seen Trainwreck (yet). All the movies in his oeuvre have a sort of “take it or leave it” quality about them. Either go along for the ride or get kicked to the curb, and make sure to establish how not cool you are to appreciate such breathtaking scatological discourse. It’s all about the fractured human condition. Ever hear of Sartre?

This Is 40 follows in Apatow’s usual vein. Clumsy romance, the strains of relationships (both family and romantic), one too many sight gags involving weed and/or booze, megadoses of pop culture references that only…well, a guy like me would get. All of which hangs together in a ramshackle fashion like rats abandoning a sinking ship, yet still makes sense anyway against all odds and breaking many unspoken rules about making movie.

Clutter never has seemed to bother Apatow much, though. His movies will go on as long as they have to in order to make their message known. Or simply entertain you. Or frustrate you. Or whatever. Still, 40 is patchwork entertaining with all the above Apatow hallmarks (including working with the same actors, who are usually great). And discounting all the meatball surgical direction of 40, it all hung together pretty well—like Calder mobile made of fart jokes—but I did have a nagging concern that I just couldn’t shake about 40. It was about the plot.

There wasn’t one.

The flick was strung together by a series of vignettes that did not provide a cohesive narrative, just scenes pertinent to the overarching idea of what Apatow thought it meant to reach middle age. A collage, if you will. If you’ve never seen it (which is unlikely come holiday time) Bob Clark’s perennial fave A Christmas Story toes the same line. It’s also a series of vignettes strung together with a common thread of little Ralphie getting his ultimate Xmas present. Half the film isn’t even about Xmas, let alone the wishes for the ideal gift. There is no plot, just scenes to entertain, not unlike a few of artsy-fartsy Jim Jarmusch’s arthouse cinema for the masses. No story. Nope. Just a theme. And with 40, there was barely even that.

It got tricky fast for Apatow to let me in on where the hell was he going. The man used to be a stand-up comic, and his credentials led to him co-creating the sketch comedy program The Ben Stiller Show back in the 90s. I’m gonna assume that Apatow took something away from Stiller, that is how his directorial style “flows.” 40 plays out like sketchy comedy, one wacky bit precedes another wacky bit. Good for sketch comedy, bad for comedy films. Everything getting disjointed and muddled and all head-scratchy ain’t funny, unless you’re in Monty Python, but they broke the mold.

Okay, okay, okay. There are some one-trick pony comedy upstarts out there that have made painfully funny films based almost totally on one-liners and sight gags. The ZAZ team for one (EG: Airplane!, The Naked Gun series, etc), 99% of Mel Brooks’ catalog and the Marx Brothers’ antics to name a few. I’ve seen most of those kinds of films, and precious few have anything approaching sticking to the narrative.

But they have plots, and Apatow cannot have his both ways. You cannot direct a comedy film comparable to a sketch show, and some splash and dash by introducing insight into the lives of a family in distress and rely on Family Guy-like pabulum/Gen X pop culture conventions to stand in for a cohesive script. 40 came across to me as plundered the endless well of 90s nostalgia to lure us in. But I got tired of South Park after its second season. I got the joke real quick like: enjoying pop culture en masse is always pleasing, and that’s a gyp. The literal translation from Latin is “a return to home.” Sounds like comedy cheating to me. Based on that precept, Apatow was shoehorning gags in the very slight crevices of a potential story. Like with poor Ralphie, there were underlying themes to 40, but there was no underlying direction, which I felt it was so muddled.

There. Now please open your textbooks to page…

BONK!

Moving up to empty bottles now, eh? Hm. Might deserve it.

Since the rant was cleaved in twain and regarded as a term paper I’m going to get all collegiate and analytical on 40‘s ass. After what I was treated to, the curious will thank me later.

What I took away from 40 was a tableau of how white people react to turning forty years of age. That was about it. Scenes upon scenes of the oys and joys of middle aged suburbia and all its trappings with maniac Apatow at the helm. Again, that was pretty much it. Don’t misunderstand me though, there were plenty of laughs—the awkward, self-deprecating kind that is the director’s signature—drawn from a pretty apt portrait of family politics in the 21st Century. The man must’ve taken notes drawn from personal observations of married couples trying to communicate. Poor communication is another well Apatow draws from when creating his comedy worlds. That and, hell, being Gen X himself making movies to personify a whole generation’s cynicism and anxiety.

I spoke of my generation’s obsession with pop culture as identity. There was a subtext to 40 that keenly addressed that trap. Was the film trying to make Gen X feel old, yet still “cool?” Back to that nostalgia fest again. It was one idea of a paltry few that held this sketch comedy together. We can all rally around screaming Pixies’ songs in the car, much to our kids’ chagrin as well as…everything we do to our kids’ chagrin. Gen X is terminally trapped in their 20s, always pushing against that feeling of “What happened?” I do. I have a kid. I like the Pixies and she’s never heard of them, despite the fact she has free reign over my iTunes library and can have access to all their albums including the reunion ones. Means something to me, now and then, but she loves My Chemical Romance and TikToks of MCR and neither of the three things were around in my 20s so I just lean back. Lean back into that trip realm of “What happened?”

Let’s expound on that, shall we? My generation is arrested development personified. Apatow gets this, which is why his films soar on wink wink nudge nudge. It’s the same as what I commented about before: Family Guy and South Park humor. Dropping the dime on pop culture without really considering it. It works for us, since we were/are so media drenched. Don’t believe me? My generation created “binge watching.” We also claimed that too much TV made you stupid. Perhaps Apatow’s movies are a reflection of that. At least his characters magnify that conceit.

When I was in college in the late 90s, in my early 20s, I thought I had it knocked when it came to personal identity. I was an English scholar, focused on writing and education. I was in the band and played a few different instruments to varying levels of skill. I was a punker/raver guy, replete with leather, baggy torn jeans, broken wing fashion sense and multiple piercings (most self-administered). I had a healthy library, both books and music. I was a member of the anime club and made sure to keep abreast of what Spidey was up to each and every month. I ran with many crowds but was always myself.

“What happened?”

Maturity. Parenthood. Bills. And being 40 does not warrant one to go around looking like Joey Ramone and Keith Flint had a baby. Both are dead. ‘Nuff said. Still collect comics, though. Those were my halcyon days, but I never realized it until I hit 40. Such angst it well illustrated by Pete and Debbie; they’re not afraid of middle age. They want to scream out loud they are still relevant, if only to themselves.

Pete and Debbie are the self-appointed gatekeepers of cool, despite what they deem cool is lost on the Instagram crowd. Debbie owns a semi-failing chi chi boutique in a business world where such things are no longer viable (that’s what Etsy is for). That and she’s in denial of her actual age. Pete runs a flailing indie record label promoting sundown artists that only he deems worthy based on personal artistic merit when what he needs is a Lady Gaga. I like both Parker and Gaga. Pete’s in denial of being out of touch with an audience. Any audience. Couples always fight about sex and money. Such things are not necessary endemic to a mid-life crisis, but through Apatow’s lens it sure seems that way.

Despite my griping, the man does have a way with a camera. His illustrations of aging Gen X frustrations are attentively apt. I’ve been there. Like parents getting caught by their kids doing anything they don’t want them to see. I’m not just talking about the silly, clumsy REDACTED scene, I’m talking about arguing over non-finances being frittered away by flying in the Rumour to back up Graham like back in the day to a half full club date. Like hacking into the kids iPad to scan their texts, or even monitor the store for possible theft. Don’t these idiots know what’s good for them?!? Sorry guys, your kids don’t care about your fleeting dreams. They care about you and getting fed on a regular basis. Wake up.

But no. No they won’t. They don’t have to. It’s the other side of 40‘s coin. Celebrate and dissect our generation getting old, then go into screaming denial when such an epiphany comes. Although Apatow’s work here is scattershot, his message (if there is one) here is there is always an element of deception creeping in order to keep the status quo status between family, work and ego. Denial is the watchword of 40 and Gen X. All will be well in the end run if we deny an end run.

My take is pretty heavy on such a frayed film. What it lacked in substance, originality and cohesion good jokes and a stellar cast stuck to my ribs. But in the endgame 40 feels like there was no solid story. And in particular no resolution. It just ends. That might’ve been some kind of existential meditation on how life gets frittered away on outside influences, within and without.

So what? Is there a message here with 40? Middle age sucks? Family sucks? Lady GaGa sucks? Everything sucks? Or does it all work out somehow?

Well, recall that this was an Apatow movie so insert dick joke here and go along with the ride.

Get it?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. It’s funny, but needs some Krazy Glue to hold the imperfect narrative together. That and it’s aimed at a specific demographic, insinuated like when I feel a headache coming on and pay close attention to Jeopardy!‘s second commercial break. Here comes the rooster.


The Musings…

  • “Forty can suck my dick!” Yep.
  • As Apatow’s films roll ever onward, he must accept the value of an editor, and not include outtakes and gag reels within the movie. Gag reels go at the end of the movie. This might explain why such a 90 minute movie needlessly bloats into over 2 hours. Just saying.
  • “Sometimes I wish just one of you had a dick.” “Well, we don’t want one.” Modern parenting.
  • I’m actually a big fan of Graham Parker. No, really.
  • “You’re so mean since your body got weird.” Such knows no generation.
  • Scripts are nice sometimes.
  • “Are you trying to start a fight?”
  • Was the entire birthday party scene improvised? I’d like to believe so.
  • “Hello. There are children around.”
  • You ever notice how often I bring up retro gaming as a metaphor and/or barometer of cultural awareness? Um, how old did I say I was again, you nerf herder?
  • “Don’t blink!”

The Next Time…

Dive! Dive! U-571 is a Nazi sub! Launch torpedoes! At her Allied crew! Featuring Jon Bon Jovi! You read that right!


 

ROIRI Presents Installment #180: Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” (2019)


The Lighthouse


The Players…

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.


The Basics…

In the late 1800’s on a remote New England island, two USLS employees begin their post as lighthouse keepers for a four-week tour. It’s a straightforward assignment: maintain the facility and keep the light burning. Nothing remarkable. Standard operating procedure.

But when a violent, almost ungodly storm sweeps the island, cuts off supply lines and threatens to pummel their small tower into strewn bricks their post becomes a living nightmare. Now both must try to survive nature’s wrath, being stranded, each other’s fraying nerves and a creeping descent into madness.

Then again, it’s nothing a little alcohol abuse couldn’t remedy.


The Rant…

My mother has a thing for lighthouses. More like a festish really.

Those sturdy, concrete, somewhat phallic sentinels that dot the coastlines. Once the vanguard of maritime safety, now a quaint reminder of a simpler time before radar and GPS. These edifices still have their uses. Landmarks for one, especially considering small craft that may not have a LORAN unit. These days lighthouse beacons serve better as a landmark on the roads than on the shoals. However they are still the idea backup source when modern naval tech fails. Heck, I even learned that 75% of all lighthouses in America are still fully functional navigational aids, kind of like hard copy to go with online purchase. And as I can fondly recall from youth that light was the summertime version of “be home before the street lights come on.” As soon as you could see that beacon spinning, get yer ass home.

I spent many summers as a kid on the Fire Island National Seashore. My grandparents had a summer place there, and there was the iconic Fire Island Light at the far eastern tip of the shoreline. Here’s some history: the tower is 160-plus feet tall and was completed 1858. Pre-Civil War, it was daring feat in concrete. The light’s the second tallest one in New York, and its beacon can cast up to over 20 nautical miles out to sea. The light did crap out in the early 70s, and the tower fell into disrepair. Later, in the mid-80s, the Coast Guard returned the Fire Island Lighthouse to an active navigation aid. Dusted it off, fresh coat of paint and buffed its lenses clean. I recall as a kid the near incessant hum of distant sandblasting at the workers stripped the tower down to bare brick in or to repoint the thing as well as give it said new, high tech coat of paint. Even later in the 2000s the light became a private aid to navigation, a self-sustaining entity from the local historic society. It continues to be on the nautical charts to this day, despite being practically obsolete.

Kinda intersting, huh? Was to my Moms. I don’t sweat other people face to face for opinions on whatever subject RIORI has gotten messed up into week upon week. Apart from recommendations from friends who still don’t understand The Standard (EG: “Yes! The Phantom Menace was lame! Wrong decade! Who are you anyway? Why are you in my freezer? Hand me that popsicle!”). I fly blind. Besides, it’s easier for me to have another “do the research” rather than me scouring the IMDb and its sister sites all weekend long. So I this time out I got either clever or lazy and consulted the mother about her pet interest. Got more than I wished for. Um, you did read the above paragraph, right?

I think that, which may hint at the aforementioned “simpler times,” is what my mother’s infatuation with lighthouses are all about. Like me when I was a kid, she spent her summers on Fire Island with her folks. This was back in the 50s. Then the island was nothing more than a big sandbar; precious little vegetation, just scrub, dune grass and a few stunted pines. At night the twirling beacon lit up the entire bay. No trees mean it cast its light up and down the island every minute or so. The way my mother described it, it sounded like God’s flashlight, inescapable and demanding awe. And also like it came to be with me, you better be home before you can see the beam.

Some more history, according to Moms: back in the 60s the Fire Island National Seashore was founded and set about overhauling the landscape, planting trees. They offered up shade and shelter belts from storms and their root systems did fine job of holding the sandbar together. Due to the new canopy, the almighty Fire Island Light did not lord over island like it used to what with all that fresh canopy. It was also the rise of radar, so ships really didn’t need those huge beacons to navigate at night anymore. The rest is history.

My mother didn’t just spend summers on Fire Island however. From kid to young adult she visited many beaches. She went to camp on Cape Cod, and there were lighthouses. Her in-laws had a summer place on the coast of Maine, and there were lighthouses. She visited the Outer Banks, learned of his maritime history and…you get me. Mom found lighthouses as a touchstone for fond childhood memories: summer camp, swimming at the beach, fresh lobster from Maine (until she discovered she had a shellfish allergy, the hard way). She was—is—an amateur scholar of maritime history and told me how old yet tricky lighthouse technology was and how far back it went in the US, how vital they were for navigation safety back in day. One of little buts of trivia that the one and only George Washington commissioned New York’s first lighthouse at Montauk Point all the way back in 1792. That is some history for a now quaint, obsolete, concrete colonial LORAN unit. But hey, if our first Prez said the Montauk Light was important to national safety are you gonna argue?

Moms brought up one more thing about those old lighthouses: nothing was automatic. No electricity. No running water. No GrubHub. Gotta keep the coals burning to keep the beacon lit. Gotta chip ice off the lenses, lest some poor ship gets blinded and runs aground…or worse. The keepers needed to maintain potable water and sustenance through the lean months, rationing if needs be. Backbreaking, often scary work. There were always storms brewing, and you can’t just call in sick. And there’s always having to sleep light.

The life of a lighthouse keeper was a solitary one, she said. Lonely and miles away from civilization. Always on the edge of the coast. Can you imagine?

“Must’ve been an isolated life,” I nodded assent.

She agreed. Isolation. But who’d want such miserable, dangerous work? What were the benefits, if any?

She wasn’t able to offer up a satisfactory answer, save maybe some people just wanted the solitude.

Wanted? Or needed?


The Story…

The New England coast, circa 1890.

Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) has tired of his years as a lumberjack. In an effort to support himself between jobs on his traveling North, Winslow joins America’s Lighthouse Service for some swift money. It’ll be a temporary job, to be sure. Four weeks tending a lighthouse on some tiny islet to get some money in his wallet and a change of perspective. It seemed simple enough, but that’s how trouble always starts.

Ephraim’s boss, old salt Tom Wake (Dafoe) doesn’t take kindly to landlubbers who just want a fast buck against ships running aground. He is gruff, rude, often drunk and works Ephraim like a pack mule. Wake claims he can’t do much hard labor because of his bum leg, but Winslow believes the old man just likes to bully him. Wake is a seasoned wickie and the lighthouse his wife and the rock it rests upon his brood and needs a young, strong back to keep the home fires burning. It’s an important title being a lighthouse keeper over these treacherous waters. Of course, no one accepts that until things go wrong. Winslow is slow to understand that, even within a month’s tour on their gull splattered rock. Is the pay worth it?

It doesn’t take very long for Winslow to sense something is not right with Wake’s wife and her flock. One evening while doing another chore in an endless parade of them he glances up that shining beacon. He swears he can see Wake, stripped of his clothes and sunning himself against the glare. Winslow is alarmed but shrugs it off as another of the old man’s weird drunken behaviors. He stows the thought away. Then things really begin getting strange.

He can hear forbidden acts through the catwalk that Ephraim is not permitted to see. The gulls scatter and attack him as if with a vendetta. He could swear he saw a mermaid on the shoals and later tentacles slithering across the lenses. Winslow starts to doubt his own sanity, and superstitious Wake offers him no quarter. Save a few snorts of rotgut to clear the head and ease the drudgery.

Something bizarre—perhaps supernatural—is crawling into Winslow’s simple life. And he wants to have a simple one, to be sure, however Winslow should best acquaint himself with that old New England saw:

“The good seaman weathers the storm he cannot avoid, and avoids the storm he cannot weather.”


The Breakdown…

I’m not much for horror films. I like terror films. Perhaps I have brought this up before, but there is a major difference. Sit tight.

Won’t lie to you, Lighthouse was creepy and definitely not for the weak-willed or squeamish. Not a lot of violence, just blink and you’ll miss it, but suffocating with metaphor. This is not some eye-opening, mouth agog holeeey sh*t kind of terror. It’s the kind that sticks to your brain like glue, leaving you wondering what the hell did you cough up 12 bucks to see, boy-howdy terror. Your mind ablaze with images that cannot be cut away since you spend days afterwards obsessing over What did I just watch? No fear, you’ll have no trouble answering that upfront. More on that later.

The Lighthouse was very engaging, and drew you right into Ephraim’s world. Just keep paying attention. Things come fast and furious. It was also a very literate movie, inspired by gothic horror and Jamesian pragmatism turned on its ear. The belief that words and thoughts are tools and instruments for prediction, problem solving, and action are perverted by Max Eggers’ script. The scenarist—the director’s brother, BTW—admitted he was inspired by one of Poe’s fragments “The Light-House,” as well as borrowing thematic ideas by Carl Jung (renown for his interpretations of dreams and man’s symbols). the The final product was nothing like the story—that and there were countless production stalls, never a good thing—and got morphed into a “haunted house” period piece. Makes sense. The movie is a period piece inasmuch as we know that the setting was in New England in the late 1800s, as well as dismantling the mechanics of what isolation does to one’s sanity. Right?

Wrong.

Okay, but it was inspired by Poe’s works? Not exactly.

All right, then The Lighthouse was a “literary” horror steeped in metaphor? Getting warmer.

I found The Lighthouse to be a hybrid terror tale by way of, yes, Edgar Allan Poe and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. More specifically “The Black Cat” meets “The Tell-Tale Heart” meets “William Wilson” meets “The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner.” Right, straight on the nose but apt all the same. Now let’s turn our textbooks to page…

If you’ve ever read these works you know what I mean. If not, here’s the Cliffs Notes: The first is about a guy who almost gets away with murder, the second is about how insidious madness can be, the third is a sort of Jekyll and Hyde cautionary tale and the fourth is about eternal guilt and penance. “An albatross around your neck,” right? Right. All four tales got pillaged to construct the plot of Lighthouse. Not sure if Max meant that, but it was a deft turn of a pen or maybe just cryptomnesia. Either way, he made it work and with a minimum of shoehorning. Not just to scare the bleep out of you but also create a keen amalgam into an clever—if not overdone and bombastic—allegory. Lighthouse is meditation on guilt, grief and retribution. The stuff I mentioned earlier that is a mental wad of spent chewing gum on the underside of your cranial school desk.

So why is The Lighthouse and terror film but not horror?

There is a big diff’ between horror and terror. Horror is offensive, gaudy, violent and bloody. No subtly there. From the Saw series to the ridiculous Final Destination series to the stupid Friday The 13th series to almost anything Eli Roth directs, blood and guts are king. No subtlety, no nuance, definitely no characterization or plot development. Just splatter and arterial spray. Ugh. If that’s your thing, fine. However you are terminally 14 and have a dire, world-ending need to caress a breast, you just want cheap thrills (and you can get that from a well-placed can of Reddi-Wip). BTW, if your date agrees to see one of such movies with you, her chest is nervous with anticipation. Win-win I guess.

Terror? That’s a whole other animal. Watching a terror film you don’t get splatter, you get a racing pulse. You don’t get laid. Small sacrifice. In return you get a rush, a thrill, a story, an interest and a lot of jump scares (which are totally underrated, BTW). And why do jump scares get such a bad rap regarding scary movies? Many classic terror movies are custom made for them. Psycho, Halloween, Alien, The Haunting…

SCREECH…

Robert Wise’s The Haunting is an ideal example of terror. Nowadays we call such subgenera “thrillers,” like Silence Of The Lambs or Get Out. I’m going to lay claim to The Haunting as ground zero for the modern concept of terror films. There may have earlier and maybe done better later, but The Haunting can be the most definitive covering all bases. The bases being building tension (often relentlessly so), firm character development all around (as opposed to cannon fodder), little to no (explicit) violence and letting the imagination fill in the blanks.

Here’s what I mean from our chosen film: the story is that a few paranormal investigators—professional and amateur—spend the night in an allegedly haunted mansion and record their findings. That’s it. However over the course of 2 hours you never see a single ghost. Sure, there is evidence of spirit activity, but nothing concrete. It’s scary as hell as your imagination runs riot trying to fill in the gaps. Was that a ghost? What’s that sound? Hey, where did so-and-so get to? Let’s investigate that locked room. Creepy sh*t. Crawling terror.

The first time I caught The Haunting was on Turner Classic Movies. Long time back, before streaming and DVRs were extant. It was Halloween time, so duh, TCM went through its vaults and aired the very best in scary. Now TCM airs its stuff commercial free. No interruptions to ruin the moment. I’m all down with that, until 30 minutes into the film I had to pee. I held it for another half hour until my teeth were floating, and relieved myself at light speed so not miss much more. I was that drawn into the amazing tension Wise imbued the film with, and nary and arterial spray or chainsaws could be found. My heart was pounding. Go stream it, dammit. And for pity’s sake ignore the 1999 remake at all costs.

Back to The Lighthouse. I felt the movie fell into the terror category, but with overarching senses of horror, allegory and quite a bit of psychological hoodoo. I was almost—almosttempted to spoil a good portion of the plot, so dense, wonky and just a full out Greco-roman clusterf*ck it was to behold. I can get scared witless and cracked up really high by a good terror movie. I’ve never really been outright disturbed by one. But here I am and we all are.

As disturbing as the movie was, I found it owed a bit of thanks to Mad magazine. For a good portion of the film all the hallmarks were present for your standard haunted house tale. Isolation, creepy things in the shadows, hints at supernatural goings on, etc. Typical fare, almost a parody. Also like Mad let’s just throw every cracked idea we got and see what fits into the story and what is just plain weird. The entire first act is relatively lightweight (EG: Winslow doing chores, Wake chewing scenery as the ancient, scuppered sailor, male bonding over a drink, etc) to either fool you into a sense of polite unease or warming up for ramming speed. I thought both.

Then the winds changed. The supernatural (if that what is was) began to crawl into the frame via Winslow’s POV, as well as the subtle-as-neon metaphors. We swiftly learn that Winslow is REDACTED and as his guilt grows he descended further into drink, grief and madness until nothing makes much sense in the final act. The man becomes completely unravelled, aided by Wake who may or may not have the answers to undo Winslow’s drunken frenzy. This movie was terrifying because it was relentless in making you question every little detail to determine what was really going on only to have another piece added (or taken away) to the puzzle. That and there eventually came many scenes that could only be described as “gooey.”

I’ve never been so rattled by a terror film like The Lighthouse. Not for it’s strangeness or outright horror elements. I felt so confused, spun around and bamboozled by what I had watched I fell like I had gone for a tumble in an unbalanced washing machine. Tearing at my hair grumbling, “What the f*ck?” I analyzed it nine ways to Sunday and my brain would not let go until a few days later. That’s a unique scary movie experience. More unique than holding your water for an hour waiting to see a ghost that’s never there.

Kinda like Winslow.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. I only say “mild” because there was a lot of studying—both during class and for homework—to follow the movie. Otherwise, it was quite an experience in terror.


The Musings…

  • “Keeps ’em…stupid.”
  • Was there a reason why the film wasn’t full screen?
  • I wondered how Dafoe affected that voice. He indeed sounds like an old salt, no pretense.
  • “Had enough of trees, I guess.”
  • No matter the place or time, you got to appreciate a good drinking song.
  • Pattinson’s contempt is smeared all of his face: “I don’t have time for this crap…”
  • “Yer fond of me lobster!”
  • Pattinson’s makeup is impressive. He looks more like a cadaver as the films rolls on.
  • Provisions.
  • “…I ain’t want to be stranded here with some damn lunatic!”

The Next Time…

You’re still working at what is not your dream job. You kid is a holy terror, both at home and school. You’ve never, ever, ever successfully maintained a balanced budget. And you still surf Reddit for “all the answers.”

Yep, This Is 40.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #179: Barry Sonnenfeld’s “RV” (2006)



The Players…

Robin Williams, Cheryl Hines, Joanna “JoJo” Levesque and Josh Hutcherson, with Jeff Daniels, Kristin Chenoweth and Will Arnett.


The Basics…

A classic scenario. An overworked dad needs to reconnect with his family and plans a vacation. You know, to relax and get away from it all. To the perfect vacation spot to chill and definitely get away from it all. But the very reason Dad needs a break follows him down, and such pressure from work defiantly gets him away from all that plagues him.

So now what? Risk his career or risk his family? Both! Let’s rent a clunky RV and head out to Hawaii!

Um, who’s got the map?


The Rant…

As many movies have informed/warned us full-blown family vacations are rarely ever what they’re cracked up to be. Except the whole cracking up part. That’s a given.

Oh sure, it seems like a good idea at first. Whether it’s a road trip with no real destination in mind (or at least mediocre one), a week at the beach, blazing a trail through the great outdoors or dedicating just one weekend to cleaning out under the couch cushions—eventually to the couch itself—to find that dang Amazon Fire remote that got lost one day after the installation. And if that isn’t quality family time, what is (besides also finding all that loose change so one may buy a replacement)?

It’s that nagging “quality family time” bit, that’s what always trips the trip up. As we’ve learned from quarantine (at this time of writing) being cooped up with your loved ones for too long devolves into the love scene from Lord Of The Flies. Whatever skewed and misguided Rockwell-esque dream trip you were imagining stresses you the f*ck out when it doesn’t come to fruition. And why is that? Because Rockwell painted ideals, not actuality, and your imagination has been palsied by too much work, pointless PowerPoint presentations, lousy coffee and those irritating motivational posters that litter your office walls like so many stray bullet holes. One always makes vacation plans when one is desperate to get lost, an end-of-the-rope kinda scenario. How can you think straight when you’re so stressed out? Right.

Getting away from the humdrum is necessary once and again, and of course there are good parts and bad parts to that idea. Especially if you’re strung out at both ends. The good’s obvious: heading away from said humdrum! To the beach for swimming and sun! To the woods for camping and hiking! To Vegas for free shrimp toast and to lose and lose again! Change of scenery is what it comes down too, kinda like that Jimmy Buffet tune, “Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes.” At least that’s what one expects. Hopes.

Now this is the rub. An essential need in going on vacation is a routine. This facet may be why vacations get so damned stressful, Rockwell notwithstanding. Okay, home/work life is getting you down and you demand an escape. Understood. However in order to take a vacation you must leave that routine—that lifeline—at home for a while, which is in and of itself stressful. Sure, you might’ve gotten tired of dopey Reddit forums and resolve to not touch your phone on your getaway, but by day three you’re back at it again, all wiry and frustrated. See where I’m going here? A vacation is as only as relaxing the further you leave your daily routine behind, however in order to enjoy a vacation your daily routine must be put in perspective; you don’t give it up. You can’t. It’s SOP. You can’t appreciate a vacation unless you measure it against your normal life, and that normal life is what you get homesick for by day three. Doubt me? How many times have you been on holiday when someone in your family/party says something like: “Wonder what the others are doing back home?” or “This sure beats your desk job, right?” Folks don’t truly appreciate vacations at face value. All they are is distraction. Distractions that come with distractions, like scrolling trough Reddit again, foaming at the mouth all the while. And of course you all have to come home eventually, lest have the RCMP form a search party.

BTW: Why is it called Reddit when most posts are written by folks who obviously can’t read and simply adore comma faults?

English lessons aside, one takes a vacation to escape the stress and strain of the daily grind. One gauges how good the trip is against your daily grind. Eventually one needs pieces of that daily grind to deal with the stress and strain of a vacation. Out comes the iPad you should’ve left at home and whatnot. Sure, that hotel room sure is sweet, but that’s not your bathroom. Stocked with rinky-dink soaps and shampoo bottles that aren’t your brand and you didn’t bother bringing your brand anyway because, hey, the hotel provides soap.

You get it. You have to take it with you, otherwise you can’t appreciate the getaway, and you need some anchor with a very, very long chain to keep you balanced. Seems like a lot of baggage to carry while you carry your baggage to the trunk of the sighing minivan. You can leave but you can never escape.

I know, I know. I’ve once again shellacked a cynical veneer across a universally wonderful idea like a vacation. But am I wrong? When I was a pup I was glad—happy—to spend another summer on Fire Island (well away from the gay communities, which sounded like fun incarnate but I didn’t know any better). However over the years the conveniences of the mainland ever creeped onto my summer idyll. First it was my CD player. Then the VCR with a clutch of choice tapes. Then the NES (so long sunset watching). Then cable. Then BOOM, I was home again away from home with no homework. At least there were beaches, but being in the sun between 11 AM and 3 PM were bad for my skin and I was working my way through Legend Of Zelda‘s second quest and…

A trap of bringing too much home with me. Some of it by choice, like the Nintendo. Some of it unavoidable, like hanging and dealing with the extended family. Some of it essential, like the Nintendo. You can’t really “get away from it all.” That’s a myth. You always bring something along to ground you, something you. Hopefully it’s something pleasant, like that book you meant to read, or a pair of field glasses to do some birdwatching, or your Nintendo.

CLONK!

Right. Got it.

What I’m getting at is that if you go hit the road, you gotta throw out a safety line; bring along a bit of the home life you’re tired of to take the edge off. Bring something “me.” Your phone, a book, your 3DS, whatever. Better yet, take your vacation alone. Otherwise your time away hearing other mouths whine and warble can be…well, kinda stressful…


Bob Munro (Williams) is an overextended workaholic of which he is keenly aware. He’s been losing touch with his family for years, always in the grind to make him feel like spent coffee dregs. It’s to be understood he’s good worker, and has earned his bones, but his sympathetic side to his burnt out co-workers has earned him the reputation as a softie. It’s all about the bottom line and whom one must answer to.

That one is Bob’s shrill boss Todd (Arnett), a scheming, self-entitled boor who after his business garden party was ruined by Bob’s leftist teenage daughter Cassie (JoJo) Bob must atone for her sins. Guilt by association and all that. Turn over this ailing account Colorado way and maybe, just maybe Bob’ll get back on Todd’s good side (if he even has one).

But wait. Understanding his predicament that work has trumped family for far too long, Bob booked a vacation in Hawaii for the summer. Hawaii and Colorado are not next to each other Bob explains to Todd. But it’s either a fresh proposal or his job, which means surfing has to wait. Is there a work around? Have a cake and share it too?

Sure! Rent a big ol’ dumb RV and rewire the Hawaiian getaway to a cross-country road trip to go “camping” in Colorado. Bob’s long put-upon wife Jamie (Hines) isn’t so sure about the idea and earth-crunchie Cassie and prison thug-in-training son Carl (Hutchinson) hate it. What about Hawaii? What about beaches and surfing? What the blank’s in Colorado that so urgent?

For one, Bob’s career. For two, winning back his family. What’s going to take priority?

Most likely figuring out the dang seat belt on this mother-trucker…


Both Barry Sonnenfeld and Robin Williams are frustrating talents.

On the whole, Barry’s work is ideal for family fun. Big, brash stuff like The Addams Family movies, the Men In Black franchise and the goof-tastic, so-bad-it’s-good send up of TV’s Wild Wild West. He’s never tried to win awards, he just wants to have fun and wants the audience to take his hand. However when the guy gets lazy or simply complacent it shows. “Fun” films like For Love Or Money, Nine Lives and Big Trouble are terrible yawns, as if the director swore off coffee in favor of an evening melatonin regimen. Barry’s either really into his films, or just calls it in. There’s no grey area that says he’s trying. Instead, his movies get trying. His directing style has bipolar 2.

Same could be said of Robin. He had a lot of good roles nailed down, enough to dismiss (but not eradicate) the crapola he churned out either trying to learn how to ply his trade or just pay the wireless bill on time. Consider this: for every Dead Poet’s Society, The Fisher King or Good Will Hunting he has to answer for HookToys and Father’s Day. Granted, the latter movies are not the former, but it was the same Williams all along. The guy wasn’t stupid, but maybe chose to be stupid just to let the manic comic man-child come out and play. It was more bad than good most of the time, and we as the audience were made to suffer. Care to watch Jack again, anyone?

Pairing such manic depressive talents together made for a very schizo comedy with RV. As far as Shakespeare saw it a comedy has a happy ending and a tragedy has a sad ending. RV twists that conceit backwards. It’s a comedy that we wish to end badly. Like with a thud.

Not surprisingly, RV feels cookie cutter. Ever since National Lampoon’s Vacation we all know what to expect from vacation movies. Everything that can and does go awry and all the antics can only be labeled as “zany.” Not funny, mind you, but definitely zany. BTW, what the f*ck does zany even mean? It means clownish, which is an apt term to describe Robin’s acting and Barry’s direction with RV. Except the usual motormouth comic histrionics are missing here, as well as the goofy zest Barry tries to imbue into his craft. Nope, what we got here are two very tired people. The air was out of the balloon before the opening credits were over.

This is a dumb thing to say but Robin was quite adept at tickling our collective funny bone back in the day. No, really. Look it up. Some of his early onscreen fluff—Popeye, Moscow On The Hudson, The Survivors, etc—just that, disposable entertainment, where acting craft came after the chuckles. His schtick both served and later haunted him as well, I feel. Over the years he became less coked-up man-child to solid character actor. He even got an Oscar under his boot. However all that time since Dead Poets’ Society audiences could never truly shake Robin’s—well—zany sense of humor and ADHD timing. Hey, when you land roles in films like Dead Again and The Final Cut it’s doubtful you’re going to reach for your old whoopee cushion any time soon.

So here, with this fluff titled RV a singularity appeared over Robin’s head and delivered a character completely devoid of clownish. In a comedy. A road trip comedy. Instead of rapid fire dialogue chased with quips aplenty we have Robin as frustration incarnate. Mostly with his character’s predicament but perhaps also with his career choices. It’s the first time I ever saw the man work a slow burn rather than manic panic. It’s oddly refreshing, but not for here and not now. Robin sells it so well it never appears like he’s having any fun at being Bob Munro. And he’s not. Even as the rest of the main cast proffer up their uptight, antisocial charm, Robin was living it in this movie. Come to think of it, none of the main cast seemed to having fun. That was sort of an inside joke at the film’s outset, but it sputtered, rusted and went clank by the end of the first act.We’re all in agreement here that Barry prized capital F fun in all his movies. Didn’t happen with RV. It just came across unfocused and wheezing. Ridiculous, and not in the best way.

The flaws with RV are myriad, but ultimately boils down to this fact: the movie just wasn’t funny. Beyond the stiff performances by Robin et al there were a lot of technical hiccups that pulled what few cards the movie had against its chest. Conflict is important is telling stories, even if it supposed to be for laughs. Hard to build that when the director is in a hurry. There was too much foreshadowing, still I couldn’t wait to see how the story would pan out. No surprises at all, but it’s like when my friend spoiled the twist in The Sixth Sense. Okay, I know Bruce Willis REDACTED, now I just wanna how we get there. Seeing everything coming is (say it with me) not fun.

Now hold on there. I’ve only outright hated just one movie here at RIORI (EG: Project X), and have always tried to find something redeeming about a big batch of bleah. Too put it simply, what was wrong with the Gornike’s? Jeff Daniels’ and his film family were a hoot and a holler, and much more interesting than the Munros, as well as enjoyable. The “down home” gig of the Gornikes might be real cornpone, but they’re a lot wiser and happier than Bob and company. Might be a lesson in there somewhere, like there ever is sequel to RV in the works (never gonna happen) ditch the Munros and bring back the Gornikes. Remember that crucial scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation with Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie? There you go.

We were trying to laugh here. We were really trying, but it was all so bland. Robin’s (and Daniels’) comedic talents were all but wasted here. Both called it in to some level. Even decent agents can make mistakes. Despite all the hackery I was really disappointed in Barry’s unfunny direction. Like almost everything Blake Edwards cut after Breakfast At Tiffany’s, the law of diminishing returns (and laughs) can’t be avoided unless you care. Believe in your product, lest no one else will.

Best be getting to returning that rental. Got that deposit and all.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Pretty sluggish and joyless flick for being about a cross-country road trip. Don’t forget to buckle up!


The Musings…

  • “Try to remember we’re not friendly.”
  • The whole RENT ME thing is a decent metaphor for Bob’s predicament. And Robin’s.
  • I lost track of my facepalms.
  • “I’ll get some music!”
  • It’s amazing how technology can date a movie so fast.
  • Why do I get the feeling that the motivation here is all about cleavage?
  • “Wipe your feet.” Thank you unknown Amy Schumer!
  • Okay, the “not meat” scene’s final edit was great.
  • “Honey…honey…”

The Next Time…

Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson are trapped inside The Lighthouse they’re supposed to man through the densest of rolling fog. However insanity can really hamper one’s ability to stay focused.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #178: Stacy Peralta’s “Dogtown And Z-Boys” (2001) / Catherine Hardwicke’s “Lords Of Dogtown” (2005)



The Players…

Stacy Peralta, Tony Alva, Jay Adams and the voice of Sean Penn / John Robinson, Emile Hirsch, Victor Rasuk, Michael Angarano and Heath Ledger.


The Basics…

Illustrating the time in the mid-70s LA where surfing met skateboarding come two movies. One, a documentary featuring the icons and nobodies of those halcyon days of skate that set the standard for the sport we know today. Two, a fictionalized version of said documentary, made sleeker and sexier for the movie going public that do not care for documentaries.

That’s what’s what, bro.


The Rant…

Well, this is odd. The last time out I covered Out Colda snowboarding movie. This week we have Z-Boys And Dogtown and Lords Of Dogtown, both skateboarding movies. Recall last time I said I pick these movies at random so this a funny coincidence. Wonder if there’s a surfboarding movie out there somewhere? Hmm…

BONK!

*needle screeches across the record*

Never mind that crap in a hat. Your eyes are not failing you. Two movies?!? At once? Yeppers. I’ve always wanted to try this, and thanks to The Standard in geo-synchronous orbit circling Netflix and my cunning (read: random selections) one flew east, one flew west, but both settled down into my nest. I’ve always spouted about movies based on pre-existing material, be it plays, books or comics, cause a sort of frission with audiences. There’s always that grumpy disconnect between which was better and which got it all wrong. “The book was so much better!” “Check out the original before you see the remake.” “Hydrox are better than Oreos.” You get it. Something almost always gets lost in translation. Sometimes, however, the remake is better. Consider  Soderbergh’s take on Ocean’s Eleven, or the movie is better than the book as with the original Die Hard. And sometimes things have to get lost in translation to break old rules, like Kurosawa’s versions of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and King Lear (his Throne Of Blood and Ran respectively) replacing the Scottish Highlands and feudal Britain for the Tokugawa shogunate. There’s really no solid formula for making a reinterpretation a decent one. Besides shrewd casting, a savvy director with a unique vision and a scenarist with a scalpel for a pen, the rest is just luck. The filmmaker up against a fickle audience that may have read the book/seen the play/saw the original/saw the other remake better have some serious confidence—if not hubris—that what they’re gonna commit to camera will not go sh*te over shovel. Luck has a lot to do with this since movie geeks are so dang fickle, even if they are going to see the reinterpretation just to quail about what got f*cked up at the next Trekkie Con.

Just kidding. I like Star Trek. I meant E3.

Here is the first time where two movies of identical material get to go under the microscope. Nowhere in The Standard does it say I can’t tackle two questionable films in the same breath, especially since one precludes the other. The story may be the same, but just like reinterpretations and revisionist remakes one movie may take efforts to be honest and the other, more user friendly flick tries to sell tickets. We’ll be the judge about the what’s what. And in the endgame I will lord over both. Mwah-ha-ha.

Ahem. I know little about the art and craft of skateboarding. I say art because, hell haven’t you ever seen the pros shred? It’s kinda like interpretive dance mixed with acrobatics. And it looks so cool when done by a master. I’d like to think that skateboarding has informed all sorts of manually-powered sports on planks in the manner of flash and style. BMX, snowboarding, rollerblading, even wake boarding owes something to how a deck is properly manipulated. Style and substance are inextricably linked.

I say craft because one just doesn’t hop on a board and reach crucial realm. There’s a science to it, no doubt. An understanding of fundamental physics, like gravity, inertia, momentum, wind shear and equilibrium. Takes a while to get all that stuff in synch, not to mention a lot of earned bruises and skinned knees (always wear protection, kids). I figure ballet dancers must know the same facets, as do NASCAR drivers, BASE jumpers, surfers and anyone who has played an Nintendo console since the inception of the Wii (ten years on and I’m still learning that lesson). It’s somewhat akin to the dancing skills of the iconic hoofer/actor Fred Astaire. He made it look so easy, like it was natural as taking a stroll. What few understand it took hours upon hours of practice to make his moves appear natural. A grand illusion. So goes for the mad skillz of the other performers above. There is a science to everything, and those that understand the scene may prove their craft. And with craft may come art, and art may yield effortless grace like Astaire’s dancing. But grace does not ever come easy. In fact, I’m willing to wager that those who achieve grace never realized it at the time.

That’s kinda the theme with Stacy Peralta and his fellow skater dudes from 1970s Dogtown. No one knew they were reimagining and recreating the sport of skateboarding at the time. They were just doing the DIY thing. Can’t surf the waves? Go surf the concrete. Make do with what you got. I like that type of ramshackle ethos. Not to get too obscure, but I always liked the liner photos of ska-punkers Operation Ivy sole album Energy. The bass player had affixed his axe to the strap with electrical tape. The drummer used stacked milk crates as a throne. Use what you have. The stories of Peralta and his crew scouting out empty swimming pools as makeshift, proto-skate parks appealed to my broken-wing sensibilities.

So where am I going with all this? I can’t skate. I’ve tried an am too much of a spaz. I can barely walk in a straight line under ideal weather conditions (I blame my dependence of Starbucks’ Doubleshot. That and wearing Crocs at work). I really don’t want to try again. It’s been years, since the 90s when the sport finally achieved legitimacy thanks to Z-Boy disciple Tony Hawk. Like I’ve mentioned before these movies are mostly random selections to which I subject myself to, even if they are about stuff I really got bored of aeons ago.

I find as this heartening for the scruffy and the broke to pool resources and can creates opportunities from scratch. Make make a lousy life more tolerable if only for a little while. We all need that sometimes, whether it being blowing on an old NES cartridge to get Mega Man 2 going just one more time to the tired grandma in Tuscany with overgrown eggplants and tomatoes and that large tire of cheese her hubs scored cheap at the local farmer’s market. What if I fried this? Bang. Eggplant parm. It’s an underdog feeling backed by practicality.

It’s all about surviving. And making good of what life hands you, like skate wheels that grip, a drought and empty swimming pools.


The Story…

Dateline: Dogtown. Where Venice Beach ends. The last of the great urban slums. The crumbling piers and the crashing surf against the rotting pilings are the only reason any comes down to this end. The butt end of Oakland, to catch a wave. The best surf cuts below the remnants of the once seaside paradise of Venice Beach. And its not for sale. Never for sale. As far as the local surf punks are concerned those unworthy couldn’t even rent it.

Stacy (Robinson) and his fellow surfer bros Jay (Hirsch) and Tony (Rasuk) want a piece of the action, always. But local tough and surf happy gypsy Skip (Ledger) and crew want no snot noses harshing their curls. Locals only, and the three live too many blocks uphill to earn their trade. But the beach belongs to everyone, right?

Not in mid-70s LA. Nothing belongs to nobody for long if it means an escape from urban blight. So Stacy and friends are back to riding their beater skateboards instead, a poor excuse to comp for sh*tty surf. It’s kinda like that saying about pizza: “Even when it’s bad it’s good.” Stacy and crew frequent Skip’s beater surf shop, which he lords over like the snob he is. Again, locals only. One day a decidedly non-local shows up at Skip’s shop pushing something. The guy figures surfing ain’t so far removed from skateboarding, so check it: Urethane skate wheels, made from petroleum. They grip and never shatter like traditional clay wheels.

Skip’s intrigued, as well as Stacy and his fellow skate rats who are quick to grab the sample wheels and refit their planks. Behold! Now they can surf anytime! On land! They take their surfing skills to concrete and what do you know? Skateboarding gets all curvy, faster and eventually vertical.

All by happenstance Stacy and his friends are re-inventing skateboarding from a cheap form of transport and a novelty to…a performance art?

Upon such humble beginnings do legacies commence. Helped along with some squishy wheels.


The Breakdown…

You know the novelist’s adage, “Write what you know,” right? Well Stacy Peralta knows skateboarding. He and his cronies reinvented the sport. So to offer up a slice of decidedly California culture Peralta cut Dogtown And Z-Boys about his teen years on the Zephyr Skate Team and the ensuing fame and fortune and loss and the whole bit. Rags to riches to rags to redemption. Kinda standard issue really.

As was Hardwicke’s take on history with Lords Of Dogtown. I’m gonna say upfront that one informed the other. Directly. Peralta thought he could get the Dogtown story to a larger audience via historical fiction rather than just by the doc alone. He was somewhat correct in his thinking. It took a budget of $400,000 to bankroll Z-Boys, but only earned $1,300,000 at the US box office (grand total with overseas was $1,500,000). According to my fuzzy math that’s only a quarter takeaway. Hardwicke didn’t fare much better with her film, netting only about half gross, including foreign markets.

I have a theory about why that happened (surprise). Despite how cool and fun skateboarding is, it is clearly a niche market for a hardcore subculture. I’m not certain, but I think most kids thrash on an Xbox rather than an Element 92 Classic. Both films would definitely be ready-to-wear for skaters, but mostly a curiosity for the rest of us. If we want to learn about the history of skateboarding there’s always Wikipedia, YouTube, other social media or simply just the latest gaming installment in the Tony Hawk franchise.

To most, skateboarding is a curiosity, and movies about the sport have a very specific (if not narrow) margin to shove into the local multiplex. When I was finished with Peralta’s film—which began to get repetitive and a shade dogmatic (pardon the pun) in the third act—I had the firm belief this was for skaters and “locals only.” I also felt that Z-Boys was too long. Peralta made his point clear before the first hour elapsed. The rest came across like shout-outs to his fellow skate rats like Alva and Adams, and when those dudes were actually in front of the lens they more-or-less repeated the events that Peralta assembled on film. It all seemed a little suspect—if not desperate—to me. Skating culture is not the flavor in Columbus. I live in a modest metropolitan area, boasting a little more than 660,000 souls. The cities that make up the greater LV area pride themselves on their Parks And Rec services, boasting more parks and playgrounds than Saturn, or whatever. Wanna know how many skate parks there are where I dwell?

Two.

Two for forty-one square miles of counties stretching towards Philadelphia and into Jersey. New York City has only 6, and they have 300 square miles to work with. It’s a niche market, and most squares are simply not interested in skateboarding movies. Especially since those cooked up usually are nothing more than framed stunts with a sorta story threading through to justify it as a movie rather than commentary on zeitgeist or a commercial plug (EG: Gleaming The Cube, Street Dreams, Skate Kitchen, etc). I know I’m a ruddy cynical dork, but when you’ve watched as many mediocre movies as I have done here, you start to see patterns. Patterns as to why some films flourish and others tank. This all doesn’t really have anything to do with a dearth of skateparks in the LV, but it does all reflect movie audience’s discretionary spending.

Now that we’ve established that skateboarding is a very specialized sport (kind of like hockey, badminton and curling), we need to address the bottom line here. The one regarding ticket sales. It’s not as if Z-Boys and Lords were bad movies. They weren’t. It’s just they would appeal to either this niche market or curious onlookers. Like I also said, skating done pro is amazing to watch; it looks like these pros are really defying gravity. But a whole movie? Two? There are oodles of YouTube feeds dedicated to the sport where an avid skater can ogle and take notes and try out the stunts for themselves. Why bother forking out 12 bucks for matinee?

I equate it to the rock star thing. Sure, you get all the albums, tee shirts and paraphernalia from your idols’ websites. But to see them perform live? Ah, therein lies heart of the matter. Like with rock, as with skating isn’t it curious that a pop culture revolution always starts with revolt but evolved a mean to and for pleasure? Perlata’s movie touches upon that. Moreover it shows how kids that got stuck in the middle turned to that surviving thing and became rock stars of the skating world. Young Peralta and his friends weren’t trying to get rich and famous. They weren’t allowed to surf and/or got bored. It morphed into a homegrown industry where the home life sucks. It explains why bullying surfmeister Skip became a surrogate dad to these boys. Gave them purpose, and also allowed the fruits of their labor to be skimmed off the top.

Everyone wants something from you is what Peralta’s movie unwittingly informs us. Beyond frustration with the same ol’ same ol’ and going nowhere fast mental block; why does everything have to go to utter sh*t in order to breakaway? Frustration? A need for some DIY ethos? Being broke? Most likely yes on all fronts. Peralta and company weren’t hellbent on changing the sport, but change it they did and all the usual trappings led to more trappings. There’s a very bleak undercurrent to Z-Boys; you know how this is going to end up, even if never even set foot on a deck. That might be where the onlooker movie goer mindset might be to want to check out this flick.

Enough gloom and doom. Let’s talk tech. Not surprisingly with Peralta, Alva and Adams at the fore, Z-Boys is impeccably researched. Peralta managed to connect everyone involved with and around the Zephyr team back in the day on hand. He even made time in interview Adams who had been busted on a drug rap (he was released a year later after the film premiered). All were present, and they weren’t spinning yarns. Nothing like a documentary with a wide swath of characters “keeping it real” and sharing the good, the bad and the scars. The stories I heard was when times are rough, one must play rough to enjoy these times. No one interviewee was swaggering (maybe Adams a bit) and there was a lot of backslapping, snobbery and bullying one could chalk it up to adolescence. That and gobbling up any royalties that skated their way. You know, when you get older, rose colored glasses and bleagh.

The historic footage in Z-Boys is nothing short of amazing, and in no small part to photographer Craig Stecyk. He was the camera eye catching the Z-Boys in action, and just as their skills inspired other boarders to get vertical, his photos that graced Skateboarder magazine were just as inspiring to the onlookers. Chances are all lot of them perused the magazine, saw what they saw and saved up for a plank to swim in an empty pool. His work was a bit more than Robert Mapplethorpe. His shots were like the urban equivalent of National Geographic. Witness the skater in their element. I have never read a skateboarder magazine ever, but with Stecyk’s eye I was tempted. Many, many original shots. History applied as trade. This is a history most of us wouldn’t even care about, but it is a vital slice of pop culture even if you didn’t care in the first place. I sure as hell didn’t until I saw how the sausage was made.

Okay. Peralta’s doc is pretty right on, ever for a land lubber like me. But we’ve been talking tech, right? My nasty familiar was curling around my legs watching Z-Boys and her name is pacing. Peralta’s moves plays like a sleepy day in high school civics. Z-Boys gets really repetitive halfway through the second act. Recall that backslapping mentality? It’s one thing to comment on our skaters’ accomplishments. It’s another to get all rah-rah for large chunks of the time where the object of affection says their part. It’s a minor version of the Packers’ superfan (or pick whatever hockey team one rallies around) that paints themselves green (all of themselves), donning a foam block of cheese on their scalp and behaving like they scored the last few goals personally. All the while holding a frosty mug full of Bud. It felt like filler, and the tale was told 30 minutes ago. In simpler terms, the sh*t grew sluggish. Bummer.

So what’s up with Hardwicke’s take? She caged a lot of data from Z-Boys, albeit a tad awkwardly. The real Peralta, Alva and Adams served as consultants, but I had a tough time assuming these guys had a final say come post-production. It’s no surprise that Z-Boys informed Lords, and even if I saw Peralta’s movie after Hardwicke’s I’d pretty hard pressed to claim I didn’t connect the dots. Heck, all documentaries are based on real events. Historical fiction? That demands sweetening over facts. Or at least a nod to the facts second and a head bob to sick righteousness front and center. Cynical? Yep. The way of ticket sales? Ditto.

Using one film to relate to other was where I got scourged. It was bound to happen. That sweetening matter? Sigh. Peralta’s doc was adequate and interesting enough on its own, but to lave the fictionalized story with classic, cloying Hollywood drama trappings? Even if you didn’t see Peralta’s film and did keep a clean nose you’d smell the tropes miles away from the highest tide. Such crapola ruined the potential of Lords. Instead we get a kinda kinetic Hard Days’ Night feeling. Adolescence running riot. These skater kids are sex waiting to happen. And Peralta was on hand for all this, so I had to allow some credence. But if the man gave the thumbs up eight ways to Monday and was on hand ready for finger-waving, I’ll bet he in the endgame cowed towards revenue than relevance (esp’ how his doc tanked with Middle America).

Hardwicke’s chronicle is an amusing tale of surfing in Cleveland, with Sex Wax behind the ears to stave off otitis. Rough and tumble? Sure, but the trappings are a mile long. I’d like the believe that Hardwicke’s film was curtailed to make it more marketable. That and due to rampant, encouraged sexism in Hollywood having a woman at the helm was a significant enough pill to swallow. To not rock any cradles, Hardwicke may have conceded to the sweetening in order for Columbia to back off and have her name attached to her project. Just a theory, but considering the lone Z-Girl Peggy was once disqualified for being a girl at a meet and the movie Peggy got less screen time in Lords than the real Peggy in Z-Boys got me to wondering.

Which brings me to casting, and believe or not my views are rather favorable. For the most part. Considering Hollywood meddling, our portags fill the necessary void of characterization via the assembly of the tough guy, the fragile guy, the misfit and Wally Cleaver. I think Robinson was put on board—so to speak—because he’s a dead ringer for the younger, real Perelta. Look, you don’t become and ace skater fiend by being a Boy Scout, and none of these down and out, ne’er do well kids would ever be eligible for the Glee Club by being meek and upstanding. Hirsch as Adams as a mama’s boy? If your mom as that whacked out you’d be first in line for the latest Fear concert date, punches all the way. Instead his delicate features paired with wild behavior just screams poseur (a very keen skater insult). Get in with the cholo brigade cause he can speak Spanish and shearing off his sunny locks to get in with the punk crowd? Might make some sense—esp’ considering the Z-Boys adult Adams regretting his bad decisions in his youth—but that lingering family obligation, so sweet and so proud? Friction.

That whole schpiel however illustrated how dedicated Hirsch was to the character. Sure, for all three acts he was an insufferable snot, but at least he acted. Robinson and Rasuk mostly just went through the motions, were able to skate mean and most likely consulted with YouTube than with the real Peralta and Alva. Rasuk just comes across and spoiled bully, demanding no spotlight to others. Robinson is passive, nice clean cut kid next door who happens into the world of skating by aw shucks accident. Red lights. Like Adams/Hirsch you don’t get to the top of a very selective sport by braiding your sister’s hair. You must be—as Skip told them—pirates and take no prisoners. Considering that this sport is meant for one to be smashed onto the ground more often than get vertical you gotta get hard. Too many soft blows in Lords took the steam, the momentum out of the film. What would’ve been better would be the cinematic version of “actions, not words.” Too much exposition, titillation and soft lobs. Not enough metaphorical face plants.

On a postive note, and compared to Peralta’s movie, most scenes are recreated really well. Almost frame for frame. No shock that Stecyk had a lot to do with this, what with his tireless camera work for the real Z-Boys. Hard to deny the actors never blew his images off. I understand comparing apples to avocados between films is lazy work, but someone cracked the whip when these kids aimed for the light. Regardless of their lame acting chops (save Hirsch) these kids could thrash with the best of them, managing to reenact classic shots through Stecyk’s lens almost effortlessly. After all, the heart of both films are the stunts, and boy howdy these non-actors can shred. Looks even better through the eyes of high-end cameras.

Even though I called out Hirsch as the only solid Z-Boy on the casting call, it always seems the guy behind the guy is the most captivating. I give you Ledger as Skip. He’s the only one who has presence, even if his Skip it totally invented. Based against Z-Boys far kinder reflection his was where the lines got blurred.

The late Ledger was a darn fine actor. Protean. He was never the same guy twice as his career went on. In fact, until his rude passing, it became very hard for me to see where the man took a left and the character shoved itself into front-and-center. Ledger’s Skip has a lot to do with his acting chops and making characters his own. I’m not slagging on the rest of the young cast as just wallpaper. Like I implied Hirsch was excellent at being fragile, even though you know what a dark road he was heading down. But Ledger shined because he was portraying a real person, and one to be compared to the real Skip on Z-Boys. Real Skip and Heath’s Skip are not the same people, however Ledger’s performance feels more real. We all know (or heard of) a guy like Skip. That pissy, on-the-fringe dude who really gave a sh*t about you were doing in school, since he dropped out freshman year.

Ledger was the only one that had presence, even if his Skip was fabrication. I was not sure during Lords if I liked Skip or not. Wait, that’s not right. It would be if I respected the character, since he was the de facto axis up which the story spun. As implied above the other Zephyr kids were more or less ciphers (even Hirsch). He was the troubled kid. Jasuk was the ego. Stacy was average joe. And so on. Skip had a little more meat on his bones. Without him around I doubt I could’ve tolerated Lords with all its Tinsel Town trappings tracery to trade tickets.

That’s the stuff that bugged me about Lords. Had to come up. There was a lot of MTV, mandatory slickness about its delivery. A lot of pat teen rebelliousness for rebellion’s sake (I focused the lens on Hirsch in particular). These kids were from the mean streets. They’re troublemakers. They skate and ditch school and smoke weed and enjoy vandalism and are sexually active and voted for McGovern and yak yak yak THESE KIDS ARE DANGEROUS. To like, the status quo and everything! Why Hardwicke presented these kids in this very, very tired light escapes me. Hasn’t the whole “maintaining integrity vs corporate mainstream” thing been played to death yet? Old hat. What’s the motivation? There have been endless topical teen rebellion flicks well before Hardwicke’s pedestrian take. Consider the classics that the director prob’ took a few hints from: The Wild One, Rebel Without A Cause, The Outsiders, Kids, etc. The list goes on, and we’ve seen it all before. I would’ve wished with such a fertile tale of a very uniquely American slice of pop culture that Hardwicke would’ve brought her own spin would spice up a very tired trope. Nope. It was a real slog to watch the third act of Lords, which passed as flair was a serious dose of the sillies. Guess what? You can’t introduce comedy into a movie decidedly not a comedy. I’m splitting hairs here, but…

Here we reach our quandary. Two movies about the same story with two distinctly different takes. Two different views, and not dealing with remakes or sequels or other distractions. This was kinda like taking a final exam explaining my take, but here it is even without cramming. Both films were overall okay, but hampered by hubris and the soft sell. Peralta overestimated how vital his tale was, but Z-Boys was chockfull of history and eyewitness accounts it was about skateboarding. That very niche-y niche market. Low ticket sales didn’t equal a bad film here. Low ticket sales equalled a select few buying tickets. Pure math.

Lords did the math backwards. How can we pitch this tale of trailblazing skaters—a very below the salt demographic, mind you—to the average movie-going nabobs and make it finger licking’ good? Let’s bake this recipe: get rowdy kids, make their characters cut-and-dried, assemble a classic period playlist, sprinkle sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll here and there like a classic Ian Dury album and entice Heath Ledger to act while being on…something for eight weeks. Make sure he breaks stuff. Gets the fist pumps going. That’s how to make a profitable film, Kate. BTW, yer a girl director right? In that case you better waste any creative potential to ensure a third rate pay cut. All producers have grey hair and a daily Metamucil cocktail for breakfast. Ida Lupino was a fantasy dream. What’s this nose manual thing? We don’t have any allergies. Where are you going?

Sigh. Round and round and round.

This whole installment was akin to applying for a Rhodes scholarship. I’m beat. I still don’t know how to skate, but I respect it more. Not the stunts. The practice invested to making it look Astaire effortless. And as with making good movies, seamless is the way to go. Never thrashing, and never pussyfooting.

I can survive on this opinion.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? For Peralta’s film? A mild rent it. It’s still a specialized market, but the film was infused with enough verve to invite curiosity. Hardwicke’s film? A mild relent it. Once you give up and resign yourself to this being a formulaic film, just chill and enjoy the cool surf and skate stunts. Not all flicks are designed to win awards. Like Peralta’s did.


The Musings…

  • “I was on a summer vacation for 20 years.”
  • Ledger does a killer McConaughey impression.
  • “This was the last great beachside slum.”
  • DeMornay still has her epic smile.
  • “You just got patty-slapped!”
  • Ambivalent about the Z-Boys soundtrack. Don’t think Peralta had a real say in it. A lot of overused songs IMHO.
  • “Do a Bert!” I like that.
  • Jay coulda sold that board, what with cash being tight.
  • “Nice socks!”
  • All right, the Tony Hawk cameo was cute.
  • LOCALS ONLY.

The Next Time…

Road trip! Worse, family vacation! Robin Williams chucks his family and way too much baggage into his rental RV to get in touch with Mother Nature!

That usually means poison ivy.