RIORI Presents Installment #204: Tim Hill’s “Hop” (2011)


The Film…


The Players…

James Marsden, Kaley Cuoco, Elizabeth Perkins, Gary Cole, Chelsea Handler, Tiffany Espesen and David Hasselhoff, and featuring the voice talents of Russell Brand, Hank Azaria, Hugh Laurie and Hugh Hefner (no, really).


The Plot…

No matter how old one gets got gotta leave the nest eventually. Be it by hook, crook or quit being a schnook. Our friend Fred is defiantly not of the first two sorry to say. Time for our slacker to take flight, get a haircut and get a real job.

On the other hand we have E.B. He’s slated to take over the family business, but wants to ford his own trail as a musician. He has dreams of fame and fortune and staying home will not get him anywhere. So E.B. hops off to Hollywood to make it as a rock drummer.

Naturally Fred and E.B. have similar goals: make their mark on the world while still being true to themselves. Fred and E.B. agree to do the back scratching thing and out into the big, bad world of Los Angeles they go in search of truth and fun.

Oh, BTW, E.B. is a rabbit. The Easter Bunny’s son, no less. Good thing Fred loves chocolate.

Have drum, will travel.


The Rant…

At of the time of this installment it’s Easter time. It’s finally spring. The leaves are popping out of branches. Crocuses and daffodils are sprouting. Warm rain showers. And in my case cranky Canada geese in the yard, tending to their brood of fluffy goslings and all the while pooping green stuff everywhere. Ah, the vernal awakening.

Let’s not ignore Easter itself, duh. This family friendly holiday celebrated in the West has twofold significance. First, after Xmas, Easter is the most important holiday in the Christian calendar. It’s the symbolic day of Jesus’ resurrection and the big guy could not wait to tell his 11 buddies (read your New Testament) the Good News! There’a an amazing afterlife, so go get your sh*t together now so we can rock out with the Heralds when the time comes!

I hear you. Thomas scoffed, too.

Second—you guessed it—Easter’s the time to officially wave winter bye-bye. Nicer weather. Time to sow seeds. Put that ever stupider reset of Daylight Savings Time in effect. Spring training for the MLB. Free comic books on the first Saturday in May. Most importantly—any resurrections aside—a visit from the Easter Bunny. This meant coloring eggs, baskets filled with plastic grass, jelly beans, chocolate bunnies wrapped in foil, those weird Reese’s peanut butter eggs that resemble a stool sample and naturally time to hunt for those aforementioned eggs.

My grandparents always had an Easter egg hunt at the ready come that certain Sunday. They scattered plastic eggs all over their lawn for my young self and even younger sister selves to unearth (they actually buried the things just under the soil). Inside these festive ova were coins. Mostly pennies, but if we were lucky we could unearth a quarter. A whole quarter! Jackpot! We never could find all the eggs. To this day and decades later there must be thousands of dollars in pennies and quarters trapped below the salt on that property. Accounting for interest, of course. Coins hold up better than candy goes, I figure. At least until Rapture.

Oh yeah. Back to the candy thing. Durst I nary give Peeps a show? The ever divided camp over these curious marshmallow confections shaped like constipated chicks or extras from a Hello Kitty cartoon in every color of the rainbow. Some out of it. I’m not gonna slam on anyone’s joy regarding candy. I live in the city where the JustBorn candy company has their mother operation. Come Easter it is almost sovereign that we must love Peeps. On the whole this appears to be an accurate assessment of the public. Only the census is more exacting. Me? I hate the damned things. Why? I feel JustBorn’s frankenbunnies are the antithesis of the pleasures of a simple, sweet, white, soft marshmallow ready for roasting. Some of you out there might hear what I’m screaming. One of life’s simple pleasures is a summer campfire, and its companion is toasting marshmallows until they are done to your liking. Be it golden brown to me or a charred signal flare to others, it’s good, clean fun. Regardless the trauma your marshmallow endured all can be made better with a messy s’more. Then we can tell spooky stories.

Speaking of which, I have a story. Kinda spooky. A combination of a Peeps story, and work story and why celebrating Easter is best left as simple. Okay, sh*t like rebirth and resurrection can get little sticky, but so do Peeps. Moving on.

Dateline: 2009. About 10 miles away from JustBorn, within the blast zone. The seafood restaurant I worked at. It was the dreaded Restaurant Week. Charlie in the canopy. Our crew drew the losing lot and had to concoct some sort of signature dessert within the theme of Restaurant Week. You guessed it, Peeps. None of us liked them. They were of my belief in that a simple marshmallow was the best kind, and JustBorn’s signature mutation was anathema in our kitchen. We prided ourselves on our house made sorbet, not some unnatural oleaginous mock ‘mallow. The chef and us went for the college try. I suggested a variant on creme brûlée. Marshmallows are nothing more than air, gelatin and sugar. Let’s set a flame to one of these devil Peeps and see what happens.

We were cautious—read: wary—and set a Peep on the naked, stainless steel prep table and applied a match. The thing burned slowly like a candle, but the flame was green. Like neon (must’ve been the additives). It did not burn like a traditional marshmallow. No. It shrunk, kinda similar to the Mary Reeser case of suspected spontaneous combustion back in the 50s. The thing took at least five minutes to burn out, and when it was exhausted all that remained was a crystalline, cold black cinder usually reserved as a plot device for a Lovecraft story. Ugh.

Chef said, “We’re sticking with the cranberry sorbet. That and order some vanilla from the Heavenly Hedgehog (the local ice cream merchants). We’ll sparkle it with Mike ‘N’ Ikes.”

I exchanged looks with the pantry cook and shrugged. He went to to dispose of the Peep cinder and cut his thumb on the thing. It’s final form was spun glass. It wasn’t a pin prick mind you. It was a cut. He yelped in pain. I winced. Happy f*ckin’ Easter.

Easter, despite its unique spiritual undercurrents, is a time of rebirth. Getting refreshed whilst watching the trees wake up. Simple pleasures…which somehow demand complications. Like JC’s last chapter, Peeps as an IED or mandatory visits to the local rose garden to find eggs rather than check out the fresh, blooming perennials. This Easter my girl and I ventured into our local rose garden to play Pokémon GO. We scored nothing, but stumbled onto an Easter egg hunt, complete with a DJ. The kids present were more interested in the ducks and geese as fish and just engaging in young kid f*ckery (like tossing plastic eggs into the creek and placing bets on speed). The teens were too busy flirting with each other. It’s spring. It blooms eternal. Chill the f*ck out.

I know this rant is kinda fluffy, but once in a while it’s nice to revel in the fun stuff.  So thanks for hanging around for the film stuff. There just might be free candy on the way…


The Story…

Striking out on your own can be either inviting a great adventure or a spectacular downfall. It’s either gonna be the voyage of Odysseus or the plight of Icarus. Or maybe it’ll just be simple growing pains. Growing up pains. Like the kind Fred O’Hare (Marsden) has suddenly been stricken with. The real world looms.

Fred is a professional slacker. He has no job. He wants no job. His standards for employment are either way too high, way too specific or way too outside of his non-existent skill set. His folks have gotten wise to his goofy, head-in-the-clouds stumbling through life and so out he goes. Get a job, get a place to live, get grounded and for Pete’s sake get a life.

The real world can be a scary place, and not just for humans. E.B. (Brand) is the heir apparent to his dad’s Easter empire. His is the Easter Bunny after all, and has a ton of responsibilities to owe up to when the Ides Of March come calling. Candy production, delivering the goodies, keeping all those chicks in line, the list goes on, and E.B. wants nothing to do with any of it. He has aspirations of being a musician—a session rock drummer in Hollywood. Chocolate eggs are not in his basket.

One night E.B. takes off from Easter Island to LA to pursue his dream, and get away from all those silly chicks. The City Of Angels turns out to be an unforgiving place, and E.B. quickly learns he needs a friend to help him find his way. Instead E.B. runs into Fred, and things don’t go too hot. Fred is homeless and thanks to E.B.’s sudden appearance he’s questioning his sanity. A talking bunny drummer? Really? Really.

It helps that Fred loves Easter time—all the crap that E.B. is trying to escape. Fred and E.B. figure that if they put their misfit heads together perhaps they’ll make things work out to some mutual benefit. Hopefully.

Just keep those carrots coming…


The Review…

I really wanted to see Hop. The premise sounded so silly that I was amped to see obnoxious Brit comic Russell Brand chew scenery as a bunny Charlie Watts. That and Cyclops being a professional slacker rather than Boy Scout. Marsden is very good at being your average Joe, and Brand can be all five New York Dolls housed in a single body. So let the goofiness commence! Release the hounds! Unleash the Kraken! Right?

I was underwhelmed. Boy, was I let down.

Let’s put it this way. The late, great satirist Bill Hicks had a keen take on Easter in America. “…Commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus by telling our children that a giant bunny rabbit left chocolate eggs in the night. Now I wonder why we’re f*cked up as a race?” That being said, Hop was not f*cked up enough. I expected zaniness. Instead I got a derivative holiday tale (EG: The Easter Bunny is real!), a tribute to WIlly Wonka, with an oddly sober performance from Brand. I knew things were amiss when Marsden played against character as an excitable man-child. Needless to say, Hop subverted my expectations, and not entirely in a fun way.

Now before I start griping and whining I have to say why I was really up to seeing Hop. Illumination Studios has been giving Pixar a run for its money for the past few years. I’m not talking about plots and characterization here. Whereas Pixar has been dedicated to sharpening their CGI craft, all the minions at Illumination are making animated movies. What’s the diff? Pixar has been striving for life-like animation for decades, with varying results (EG: Sure, Brave looked great, but the story was uneven) and always pushing for more “reality.” Illumination just wants to make great cartoonsSing, The Lorax, The Secret Life Of Pets, the Despicable Me series (with Steve Carrell doing his best Bela Lugosi voice) are all great cartoons with vibrant, swollen colors and upbeat shadowing that would’ve made Chuck Jones drool. There’s nothing pretentious with Illumination’s output, and have no baggage to carry. They just really make awesome looking cartoons. Do you know hard it is to make an animated movie rendered in the ubiquitous CGI palette to have the feel of a cartoon? I feel there is seldom a wink and a nod to most animated feature films nowadays. In sum, I find Illumination’s work twice-removed from the Looney Tunes: kinda goofy, garish and glorious and if that wins an award then whatever. Let’s see what we can do Gru’s adoptive family the next time out.

True to form Hop was very much an Illumination vehicle, but this time is was a live-action/animated outing (as well as the studio’s sophomore release). I do enjoy the live-action hybrid. It’s the best of both worlds, so long as those world exists in the realms of fantasy, sci-fi and or comedy. The resulting dynamic between the real and the ‘toon makes such a film so filled with chewy goodness. Most outings of this kind have been more pleasant than not. Think Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Looney Tunes: Back In Action, the original Tron and that delightful and amazing dance scene with Gene Kelly and Jerry The Mouse in Anchors Aweigh! from back in the day. The overarching appeal of this stuff is the “opposites attract” dynamic. More like failing upwards/comedy of errors kind of thing. As it was with Hop Marsden is the relatable loser we all feel like when we wake up first thing. Brand is the overly eager and not wizened youth with eyes all wide; the innocent abroad. Abbott and Costello and who knows if Who will ever reach first base. An unlikely paring. A tried and true comedy trope like with The Odd Couple, any of those blundering old skool “road movies” with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope and even Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. This format has been proven time and again pure comedy gold. So what went wrong with Hop?

Two things: my high expectations and no real heavy. You know, the antagonist. The guy who drives/creates the conflict that pushes the story forward. We have Fred and E.B. both totally out of there element, as if there was an element to be out of. Both were pampered and given a shot at their best life and squandered any opportunity available to “find themselves.” Fred slacked off and E.B. had his floppy eared head truly in the clouds. So where’s the conflict then? Azaria is perfectly respiring his The Birdcage role in reverse. Scheming and (even the other chicks point out) what good would it do? The whole conflict and resolution matter was weak, and I’ve been scrutinizing a cartoon here, before God. Perhaps because I needed something to hang onto here.

That and the tried and true device of kids fording their own way despite the parents’ protests…or marching orders. That’s the very simple story about how Fred and E.B. met and where to go from there. It’s a classic setup, but Hop brought not much new to the table. No shock that all’s well will end well (despite Carlos’ failed coup, which was never setup). What was curious about this cock and bull story was the absence of real tension. From the get-go we had this aura of warm feelies. I blame the comic timing. Not that there wasn’t any—there was—but it all hopped the tracks (no pun intended). What I mean was that the good gags stuttered due to too much filler. Hence that lack of tension claptrap. It feeds back to the expectations being blown. I wanted goofy. I know what goofy is. Movie, don’t tell me what’s goofy about the Easter Bunny’s son’s desire to be the next Steve Gadd. Unnecessary. Filler. FFS why? Hop had the potential as a avant-garde Friz Freeling animation. Instead we got forced silly and disjointed expectations with a lame resolution. Still, you gotta get behind the rabbit drummer, right?

I did. To repeat Illumination makes some crazy great cartoons. This was almost one of them, but I’ll cut some slack since it was a live action hybrid. That and Hop being their second feature. Maybe they tried to chew over more than they tried to bite. Casting Brand as E.B. was a stroke of idiot brilliance, as was Marsden as man-child. You may have heard about a piece of art being greater than the sum of its parts, right? Hop just had a lot of cool pieces—set pieces—that darn didn’t connect into a lowbrow, upbeat whole. Like with Fred and E.B.’s joint efforts not gelling. From that it was all scattered, murky and kept nagging at me that we needed more swag employed courtesy of Acme Enterprises. Sarcasm aside, it was cool to learn that even the Easter Bunny has a backstory. Hey, the Tooth Fairy earned his own a year before and you can smell what the Novocaine is cooking.

I know this review was kinda schizo, but so was the movie. En toto ignore Hicks’ cynicism because overall Easter is just a good time to celebrate spring, candy and Jesus in equal doses. Hop tried that in muddy furlongs, but let the Big Guy take the back seat for a while because His back story lacked jelly beans.

Anybody seen my coin purse? I got laundry to do.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild relent it. Hop just wasn’t goofy enough for me despite the loony (toony) premise. However Illumination did not disappoint with their crisp pixels.


The Musings…

  • Easter Island. Get it? Clever that.
  • “I might not be the best egg, but I could be the best sock ever!” K simply said E.B. was just stating his mind. I didn’t argue.
  • Is he pooping out nooooo…
  • The Blind Boys of Alabama! Awesome!
  • “One more word out of you and it’s Wabbit Season!”
  • K: Does Fred have an “excuse book?”
  • “My best friend is a car.” Whose isn’t?
  • Cute cameo there, Russell…not.
  • Fred O’Hare. Get it? Ha ha.
  • “Move along.”

The Next Time…

Josie And The Pussycats. Long tails, and ears for hats. Guitars, and sharps and flats. Neat, sweet, groovy songs. You’re invited, come along…”

Hurry, hurry meow…


 

RIORI Presents Installment #203: Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” (2013)


The Film…


The Players…

Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, June Squibb and Stacy Keach, with Rance Howard, Devin Ratray, Tom Driscoll and Angela McEwan.


The Plot…

Congratulations Mr Woody Grant, you may already be a winner!

Nope, just a scam. Good son Dave tries to convince his boozy, space case of a dad Woody that his million dollar prize is just some pie in the sky sham. Happens all the time, especially with seniors. But Woody’s not having any of it. In his mind this is the first ever piece of good fortune that has come his way in his long, checkered life. And no one—no one—is going to keep him from claiming his rightful prize, be it friend, foe or family.

Dave kind of sympathizes with his dotty-headed dad’s quest for glory. Woody hasn’t had much going for him for the longest time, and dad seems so alive about the chance of being a winner. Despite all rational thought Dave does the honorable thing by Woody: take a road trip to claim his “prize,” if only to humor his daffy, lushy father.

So it’s off to Lincoln, Nebraska. Land of milk, Mickey’s big mouths and honey.

And probably a million dollar letdown.


The Rant…

Consider this installment a sort of companion piece to the Parental Guidance segment. Nebraska didn’t intend to be one. It kinda just happened, like how you found way more groceries in your shopping cart that you meant to buy come checkout. This time out it’s about my grandfather. My dad’s dad. Mostly. His wife was a yoga addict, if that matters. The following fits into the crevices some way, like that overflowing shopping cart with nary a coupon in sight. Let the journey begin.

In college I took this class at the behest of my girlfriend. It was a course in tai chi. Folks believe the practice is akin to yoga. Like yoga it is an exercise, but not really. Technically a martial art, tai chi was developed centuries ago by Tibetan monks who, after hours of genuflecting needed to stretch their legs. And arms. And everything actually. Nowadays the practice—at least to Westerners—is regarded as exercise. The style is related to the Chinese martial art wushu, but reallly slooowwed dooown. It focuses on stretching the muscles and joints at a very deliberate pace to, well, get the kinks out. If you were a monk and spent hours upon hours squatting lotus-like before the Buddha eventually you’d need a break and “crack your neck” if you follow.

My then g/f had an ample figure and I was a horndog. Yep, outré martial arts may equal smart sex? Show me the way.

By the mid 20th Century, the Chinese established 24 official postures constructing the tai chi set. I learned most of them; I’m clumsy and decidedly not Chinese. I learned the Chen style, the most popular (and simplest) form of the postures. It hurt. At first it was “this is new.” A last it was “this new thing hurts and makes me feel clumsy.” Still went on with it, though. Even in the late 90s some schools required a PE credit. Not kidding, and lunch didn’t count. I’d’ve had straight A’s then.

Our instructor inferred that tai chi with its 24 postures was akin to a journey. Actually this is pretty corny. All the roadsigns were there, but not all of us could complete the task of fording said postures because, hey, we’re all built differently. As a point due to genetic miscalculations I have duck feet like my father. The girlfriend had back problems, and don’t ask why (link to the Young Adult installment for any dirt, you lechers). We both could’ve done worse by the toss of the DNA dice. However we were assured that that wouldn’t have mattered because if you were diligent your body would adjust.

As the days rolled into weeks I started to get it. Not the postures per se; my spine still crackled like dry linguine before the boiling water treatment. That journey thing. Those who got it get it. Sure, tai chi was uncomfortable. That was the point. All exercise is uncomfortable, until you find a center. It’s like how figure skaters never seem to get dizzy. I became all too aware of my feet, and how I’d been misusing them. I discovered my posture sucked, and it was tough to straighten it out (if only for an hour). My joints were popping at such a rate I could’ve been an exotic dancer for the blind.

This was all a test on my body and my mind. And what the hell for? Exercise? Enlightenment? Goodie points in the sack? Perhaps all of that rot. In truth my tai chi lessons really helped much later on as a chef, what with all the hours of standing and reaching for things. I learned how to adjust and stave off fatigue and owies. It can be amazing to feel like Reed Richards for under a minute when the push comes and there is no neuropathy. Sounds heavy, dig? So are my feet.

With all college classes there came homework. Our teacher laid the class out with a PowerPoint demonstrating the postures. What they did. How they worked. Where they came from, etc. I tried at being a good student since I never got the whodiwatiz gold star. I just read the junk about the history of tai chi. Like I said it was the works of crampy monks. But with almost all things Far East there is an underlying principle defining what gets on the Travel Channel or not. Remember this: Andrew Zimmern is not sexy but ignore his husky knowledge that you secretly vie for bulut.

Sorry that. Moving on.

This may sound kinda of corny (prob’ because it is), but it was not my view of tai chi, but my sensei. She was—without surprise—calm, cool and collected as well as a bit of a flake. She would describe the postures as a “journey” right off, and quite the ardent fangirl she was was quite to remind us of the arts’ multiple benefits to our fitness. She even claimed at since practicing the postures for so many years that she had actually gained 2 inches in height. I would’ve been pleased to just lose 2 inches from my waistline.

BTW, who wants another beer?

But seriously, how’s that again? I’m not well-versed in anatomy, but aren’t most humans “fully grown” by, say, eighteen years of age? She was pushing forty. My pituitary gland fell into a coma at seventeen. Not like my grandma. She got her second wind around 70.

My Nana was hip to Eastern ways of thinking regarding life, love and leaving. She was a diabetic, but took no insulin. She was a vegetarian and controlled her blood sugar count the way that the Creator intended: smoothies and yellowjackets. She had a pill habit, and figured Eastern medicine would counteract her sins (that’s for another time, kids). When I saw her constrict her body during her yoga routine, eyes rolled into her sockets, arched spine, feet pointed out in ways that defied genetics made me worried. She looked constipated. I just wanted the spaghetti dinner.

Enter Ed. My dad’s dad who always went by Pop (save his spiritually minded spouse). Everyone called him Pop. Neighbors, friends, us, even my father. He was Pop, and friendly moniker for any age. He was born Edward; he earned Pop. A badge of pride in my worldview. My Nana preferred—demanded—that we called her Joan. Yogi Joan was Pop’s second wife, therefore me and my fam were not related to her. Every time I called her Nana she winced. That title was reserved for her non-goy family. We took it in stride since she insisted on family dinners.

Back to that tai chi thing. Joan planted a seed in my young mind. Maybe Eastern exercise works better than Western. I was, and am no way the picture of athletic health. The only time I ever stretch now is when the wireless PS controller tumbles under the bed. My Nana was the picture of a senior woman trying to keep fit. I’m presently made of beer and sandwiches, but as a youth I was curious. The curious thing about the martial arts—and, yes, yoga is one—as my tai chi instructor insisted is that’s all about a journey. Tai chi has its motions, as does yoga, and karate and judo and even parkour. Assemble them correctly, first slowly until fluid then you’re on your way to…where?

To the quick, Pop’s marriage to Joan has soured long before I was born. Pop was irascible, quick to rile as well to belt out laughter (often over inappropriate things), generous to a fault and a low tolerance for bullish*t. Why this never rubbed off on my father I’ll never understand. Ed was opinionated, defiantly non-PC and humorously prejudiced. What I mean by that is he casually used racial slurs a joke. When I was a pup I was tickled by him calling Chinese take-out as “gook food.” He loved Chinese take-out, if not just thumbing his nose at his earth-crunchy spouse. He tolerated the yoga, what with Joan’s daily rearranging of the living room to accommodate her mat. The woman would go through her motions even as we sat at the dinner table, somewhat patiently wait for her to get on with it. I could hear the pasta getting cold.

This happened only when me, my parents and my sisters came over for the day. Pop’s place was only a spit away so this scenario was common. What wasn’t as common as when the ‘rents plunked me and sibs at Pop’s doorstep to mind us while they raced off to do grown-up things. At these times, I was treated to lunch at the kitchen table with Pop endlessly perfecting his grilled cheese recipe. Haute cuisine to him (and little me) while Joan scoffed and waxed philosophical about man and God and law and her battling arthritis while supping on a smoothie made from what looked like oats and Satan’s vomit. I was grateful for the two grilled cheeses.

Even at that young age—shocker—I figured these two were not destined to be together. As an adult I learned about the nasty stories of drug abuse, infidelity and estrangement. With maturity came knowledge; despite all the yoga sessions and vile smoothies I knew that Pop and Joan’s journey together diverged even when I was a kid salivating over the scorned grilled cheese. A with her yoga, Joan never grew any taller, at least not in stature. She didn’t even grow closer. Quite the contrary. Like me trying to score brownie points with my rapidly eroding relationship with my strained girlfriend taking tai chi when it’s over, it’s over. And no mass of postures could ever reach an end.

I know: where the blue f*ck am I going with all this?

Here. My Pop was dotty as my memory serves. He was caught in a tender trap that happens in wedlock. Each other grows apart, and seeks social solace elsewhere. For Pop it was us, his grandkids. For Joan it was her isolating world and her vast Jewish clan. I always had a sense I really didn’t belong in her world. When we hung out with her daughter and granddaughters and they talked shop I never felt so much like an outsider goy then I did then. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m a folks-mensch, but prejudice is prejudice—unwitting or otherwise—and when Joan proclaimed at one time over dinner there, toasting with wine she should not have been drinking, “May the bird of paradise sh*t in our eyes!” I took succor in my NES I lugged along and plugged into the office TV. I did a speed run through Final Fantasy prime. I was ashamed to be there.

This was one of the more extreme examples of schism between Pop and Joan. On the whole I figured Pop had a raw deal, and dove into grandpa-hood with aplomb. When he came to visit us (often without Joan), he would smother me, my sisters and my dad with attention. It was an outlet you see. Time to cut loose and dance in the rain. He’s always took me to Kmart to buy be a new LEGO set and watch me build it and then play with it. He’s chase my sisters around in a proper “Gonna gotcha” style. He’d debate against and equally approve of what my dad was up to in the food service industry. He would sweat my mom about her real estate ventures (to compare, my mom’s dad never asked about her career). He used to watch Danger Mouse with me on Nick and found it as funny as I did. His rare trips from Maine to Pennsylvania were a raucous event, sans “responsibility.”

He was going through some motions. It wasn’t tai chi. It sure as sh*t wasn’t yoga. It was him trying again trying to keep in contact with his immediate, real family. He didn’t believe in divorce. He worked for the Red Cross all his life, so giving back was his motto. And even as he grew even more balmy as the years wore on, as long as his winnowing relationship with Joan wore on, Pop never gave up on his extended family. He never took a shine to Joan’s demonstrative yoga antics. He liked Milwaukee’s Best, gook food, LEGOs and humoring his grandkids. And laughing at my bad kid jokes.

In sum, all grandfathers are a little light in the luggage, but given the opportunity can  give you a little boost. Without posturing.

Just wait for an impromptu supper of perfect grilled cheeses…


The Story…

It sucks getting old, especially when there’s nothing to get old for.

One day Woody Grant (Dern) the ideal boozer and dreamer gets some hope in the mail. Something to live for. Something to do. A winning certificate claiming he’s the recipient of a million dollars!

Since that post ozone riding Woody found a reason to be, and by wit and/or grit he’s gotta get to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his stake. This scheme. This trap.

Good son Dave (Forte) kinda gets his dad’s rapture. The old man’s been on the far fringe of reality for years. Lousy marriage. Distant father. Beer and more beer. All of it pining for relevance. “Bad son” Ross (Odenkirk) is too busy and too tired of keeping distant watch on Woody. Thanks to this “windfall” it’s Dave’s turn. Humor the man. Don’t let him kack off on too much beer.

Alright. So now Dave convinces himself that this trip to Nebraska might allow him some long earned time to reconnect with his spaztastic dad. Talk stuff over. Make some connection. And damn well keep his greedy, hick extended family at bay.

What would you do for a million dollars…?


The Review…

Like the Parental Guidance entry Nebraska bathes you in the wisdom of seniors, only with many left turns and a perverse definition of fatherhood. We ain’t saying goodnight to Alice here. More like get bent, kid.

Nebraska is a character piece and Dern is the pawn as well as king and queen. Despite the fact I regard the Oscars as an overblown dog and pony show sometimes those doddering fools in the Academy get a few things right respecting certain actors’ work. Dern won the Best Actor award back in 2013 for his portrayal of Woody. He had aged into an amazing, old coot akin to Dustin Hoffman’s turn as autistic Raymond who also earned an Oscar for Best Actor. Earned, not rewarded for a job well done. There is a difference.

Most roles like Woody’s are usually reserved by types like Morgan Freeman or Robert Duvall or even…well, Hoffman. Cagey characters, often with a bitter wit and a self-effacing countenance. That has been Dern’s stock and trade for decades, only now in the 21st Century his shuck and jive is now appreciated. No surprise I’ve been a fan of Dern’s work, from Freeman Lowell to Jason Staebler to Michael Lander to Mark Rumsfield to voice acting in From Up On Poppy Hill. Dern can be a real chameleon, which is why it took him so long to be honored with a black, faux gold statuette. The kind you could buy as a $20 bowling trophy somewhere. I have three. Dern never needed one.

Whislt watching Nebraska K noted that people never ask the right questions. It’s a keen observation beyond watching movies, and so true an observation. In my palsied worldview most folks aren’t really aware of their surroundings, or what they may contribute. Here’s a very gauche but apt example courtesy of many smartphone shots: the George Floyd tragedy. Did Officer Chauvin even consider his act of police brutality would go unnoticed in our age of social media? The entire f*cking planet sure didn’t think so. Call it hubris, call it awful, call it a spotlight. Hundreds of Officer Chauvins have been suffocating hundreds of George Floyd’s for centuries. In this day and age where practically everyone has a camera on their person, no one is beyond reproach for their actions and the ripple effect.

I’m not being reactionary here, but as for people not asking the right questions (of themselves) the fallout might be disastrous, or with this week’s film go horribly awry. Ostensibly, Nebraska is about Woody Grant’s quixotic quest to earn his wobbly fortune. Considering her observation, she was spot on, but also Woody’s journey was not about some stupid scam, either. Doddering Woody was making an attempt  to relearn who his family was and where he fit into the puzzle. The only member of his immediate family that gave a small sh*t about Woody’s well-being was Dave, although reluctantly. That’s how she gauged it and I could not argue. No one was asking the right questions about Woody’s motives, not even himself. It’s a good way to develop tension without much scrutiny. Like not asking the right questions.

Harkening back to the Rant Dern was uncannily like Pop. He even looked like him, with frazzled hair and ill-fitting glasses. Guess that’s really why I took as shine to Woody. Face it: our grandpas are just like teenagers, but now they have an arsenal of wisdom to both impart and not bother with. I killed Kennedy and I could kill you, too you little sh*t. You follow. Being and old codger grants one a lot of freedom to mouth off, spew half-baked theories about how the government is screwing us and eat your ice cream with a fork. Oh, grandpa. Dern was harmless, yet not to himself. Better him than Dave. Or Ross. Or the rest of his extended rapscallion family. Better share his potential riches with someone worthy, if share it at all.

This is what I mean regarding Dern’s portrayal of crusty Woody: resignation. Reminding me of my Pop, his golden years are nothing more than what non-seniors regard as golden. Bowie’s song said it best: “In walked luck and you looked in time. Never look back, walk tall, act fine.” Put on a brave face. All sh*ts gone to hell with you but don’t let on. Like with my Pop’s explosive sense of humor, Woody’s passive aggressiveness if his only way or gaining a higher ground. He may be an ancient but he ain’t stupid and he still matters. If only for himself. Grant knew what the deal was and just didn’t give a hoot. Whatever stuck to the wall on this trip.

Back to the film in practice. Woody Grant: sideshow philosopher king. The curious thing about Dern’s role is that it’s pretty straightforward, despite his loony old man schtick with the BAC beyond 8.0 and demanding a handout. Like all good character studies the lead doesn’t lead the story. It’s the supporting cast as fuel that drives the engine of insanity. In a character dramas, all the best have engaging and/or vibrant backing actors, which gracefully allow the lead to lead with just the right amount of prodding. To put it this way: you ever notice how the Oscar Best Picture award almost always earns the award for Best Editing also? Films are not shot sequentially; scenes are patched together by the editor to make a cohesive narrative. Same with the supporting cast in a character drama. They can act as a microscope focusing on the lead’s role. Movies don’t use spotlights after all. They use supports.

So.

Why is it that most SNL alumni do so well with dramas? Consider Dan Ackroyd in Driving Miss Daisy, or Bill Murray in Lost In Translation, or even Robert Downey, Jr for his turn in the biopic Chaplin, which earned him a BAFTA award (the thinking person’s Oscar). It’s harder to be funny than serious. As Woody’s oracle Will Forte’s Dave was a very solid anchor which kept the story on an open track, despite how often Dern tried to sabotage it. Barring the blundered scheme of stealing back Ed’s compressor, Forte was “the good son.” He knew this award scheme was a canard, but would rather have his screwy dad entertain some fantasy, with very little irony. In some aspect, Forte slightly stole the show by not giving an inch as the fall guy. To the quick, Forte had this constant, dreamy look of “Why me?” And have this shamefaced “kid” learn to smile even under Woody’s watch? Well, it’s hella funny in spite of the situation. Forte didn’t get much of a nod for his work on Nebraska, and that’s a shame. I’m not for award ceremonies in body quite so in spirit. He did get some respect from the National Board of Review, but let’s face it the NBR is a non-profit and therefore not sexy enough to get any kudos on TMZ. Disregarding the snark a quiet, honest award is a lot better than glitz, and Forte’s portrayal of uncomfortable and beleaguered Dave was a far cry from being “10-1” on SNL. Meaning his stuff there was so bizarre the skits were shunted to the end of the show. That says something about his reserved yet about to burst role in Nebraska. I wish I knew what.

Dern’s permanent bewilderment belied a certain need. Nebraska is a skewed road movie reflected by the ramshackle direction. Nothing is gonna go well. We learn that Woody has always been trying to fill some hole in his life. He isn’t truly spacy, just numb and indifferent so people would just leave him alone asking other questions. After a lifetime of drifting, Woody has quietly understood his life has been wasting away, bottle by bottle, and just doesn’t want his drifting on his clan anymore, especially sons Ross and Dave in particular. As I mentioned about my Pop, he put a brave face on for me and my sibs (and maybe even my dad) telling all to often with maximum volume everything is okay. Dern’s Woody is terribly relatable, since we’ve all encountered someone like this regardless of age. Just behind the jocular nature belies necessary therapy. I mention all this because, well hell, desperation was what Dern expressed with aplomb, either drunk or funny. Both fell with a thud.

I found Nebraska‘s execution to be similar to the opening scenes of Kenneth Logeran’s Manchester By The Sea. The story follows Casey Affleck’s character hang himself with his own mistakes. To the quick the opening is about how handyman Casey has to deal with a tenant’s leaky faucet, both navel-gazing, observing no fix and an ambitious repair (which we know will happen eventually, which ain’t the point. Duh). It was all a heavy meditation on…nothing. It was allegory within the film proper and the outcome didn’t matter. Woody’s ozone trips and exercising his arm meant nothing to the meat of the matter. He like Affleck only wanted recognition beyond their assignments. Hey, I got a story for ya. Wanna hear?

Nope. Not now. Fix the pipe and/or stop drinking and trying to drive.

In the endgame Nebraska was all about self-respect…based against others’ respect, which is of course a sham (not unlike the winning ticket) As metaphor asked me out loud, “Why hasn’t Dave taken care of Woody’s bandage yet?” after several scenes passing from when he hurt himself? A good question. One I didn’t bother asking; it was just…there. I supposed it was just another scar of Woody being drunk, disorderly and disconnected. I soon learned, like the big reward all of it was a sham. The wrong thing for the right reason actually. Many, many unasked, necessary questions.

We’ll get to the soft, white underbelly of the plot in short order. Let’s talk technique first. Director Payne is known for his offbeat style. Better reigned in from Wes Anderson’s terminal quirkiness but also appreciative of the Cohen Brothers’ more accessible hodgepodges. Call his style rated-G Jarmusch. Do I sound snobbish? Sorry, but snobs are what ignorant folks call the informed. Please don’t log off.

Payne’s previous offerings have been offbeat en totoElection, About Schmidt, Sideways. Those of his films highlight the skills of being a director: coaxing characters out of actors who are mostly character actors and get sent on their collective ears. Dern’s muse has always been a bit of a charlatan. Scheming and left of center. An imp of the perverse. Always hinting but cards close to the chest. Ferris Bueller starring in a black comedy? Nicholson underplaying his role, not to mention being awkward and subdued? Giamatti as a raving gourmet drunk? Payne is good at overplaying his hand in equal parts letting his leads shine by letting them just sit still for a while. The same went for Forte and Odenkirk. Remember the SNL thing and Mr Show? Well, now consider the intermediary of the tricky Run And Jump and that spinoff Better Call Saul. Payne can calmly coax his actors to reel it in just enough to make them interesting while still being familiar to the audience. The same goes with the extras. Sure, with Nebraska they are all “characters” (EG: the twins, Woody’s wife, even his old squeeze), but they’re also antagonists. That’s where the intrigue comes from. Frame these norms against the interloper, then exploit him. In sum, it’s all about gimme, gimme, gimme. What Woody got that’s in it for all of us? It was never really the climax of Woody’s journey put a cap on things. From the first act on it was all denouement. The stakes were obvious, as well as crystal clear false. It was all about hiccups on the way down where the “wealth” came to play.

Let me clarify, as well furthering Payne’s technical shrewdness. Let me try and crawl out of mine own arse. Nebraska has really good cinematography. I mean really good. The cameras were aiming in very deliberate focus here. Took me a bit to catch on, but since Nebraska was a demented character study it made sense for every shot be centralized. There was precious little action in the periphery. No panning shots I could detect. Barring the driving scenes, everything was a close up. Why? Because Nebraska was a play, not a film. Despite being an ersatz road movie, Nebraska was nakedly theatrical. How the tragedy played out was akin to plays as films like 12 Angry Men, Sleuth and/or Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Payne was fully aware of the inevitable tragic overtones of the story and couched them with wit and more than a little hubris and not to mention choosing black-and-white film (subtle as a fart at a funeral, that). Then considering Payne’s shrewdness agaIn the MacGuffin in Nebraska decidedly not the golden ticket to Wonka’s candy factory. No. Pay attention and keep your ears peeled. To Woody the sweepstakes was REDACTED money, and meant for doing right thing. Finally and for once. In the endgame you sympathize with Woody’s circumstance, despite the inevitable outcome. Perhaps as some sort of satori, it might be why Forte’s tight face had caught up to “Why not?” Watch it and you’ll get it. With Nebraska there’s a lot to get.

In sum, Nebraska was a classic take on a small movie with large intentions. You know, if you ask the right questions of yourself while viewing. Sure, not everything was what it seemed, but it didn’t seem like that from the outset. Like tai chi, yoga, the proper way to make a grilled cheese and an “ersatz” road movie it’s all about the journey and not necessarily where you arrive.

Sorry it got a bit long here; I had a lot to say and as to get. As inverse I should fess up that a limited engagement release like Nebraska doesn’t really fit The Standard. Guess this installment was bit of carrot-and-stick. Anyway any movie won’t score much cash if you had to GPS it to the proper theater. If you did then we might figure it was worth the trip.

It’s always about the trip. The trip. Isn’t it?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Bruce Dern’s rightfully earned best role as everyone’s DP Pop. ‘Nuff said.


Woody’s Musings…

  • “Where’s my teeth?”
  • “Beer ain’t drinking.”
  • “You got a latrine?”
  • “You’re using the wrong wrench.”
  • “That’s not my carpenter!”
  • “Cuz I like to screw! And yer mother’s a Catholic!”
  • “The barn’s still standing…”
  • “That’s not my compressor!”
  • “I just wanted to leave you something…”
  • “Hah?”
  • “These aren’t my teeth!”

The Next Time…

Okay guys. It’s Easter time. Best we cut a movie about the Big Bunny. C’mon now, Hop to it!


 

RIORI Presents Installment #202: PJ Hogan’s “Confessions Of A Shopaholic” (2009)


The Film…


The Players…

Isla Fisher, Hugh Dancy, Kristen Scott Thomas, Krysten Ritter, Fred Armisen, Leslie Bibb and Julie Hagarty, with John Lithgow, Joan Cusack and John Goodman.


The Plot…

You ever hear the expression “the clothing makes the man?” Sure you have. Whereas that little maxim is suggesting dressing sharp leads to a good impression for guy, no one can hold a candle to Becca’s mission of leading the ultimate impression. If only for her own self-image. To herself. And her alone.

Becca has overextended her many lines of credit so far as to reach the moon. One of Saturn’s many moons, to be frank. Her freewheeling spending on high end fashion has landed her into spiraling credit card debt, and no amount of a windfall is going to help her out.

Save a mismatched résumé landing her a writer job for the preeminent money magazine Successful Savings. Opposites always attract I suppose.

Let’s give Becca just a little credit for now, huh?


The Rant…

Years back I had tuned into one of the few TV shows I never missed. This was before streaming, BTW. It was the “fan favorite” ep of the Travel Channel’s No Reservations hosted by snarky chef turned snarky writer turned snarky world traveler the late Anthony Bourdain. The fan fave thing was (I think) devised for figuring out what Tony’s next destination would be and suggested by—you guessed it—an ardent fan of the show. The final selection was based on a sort of Tinder-style video from a local pitching the whys and why nots of coming out for a visit, then the select few earned an up close and personal meet-and-greet with Bourdain himself. To size up the lucky chosen few. Kinda like the American Idol finals but not dumb. Okay, not outright dumb. You need the see the episode to get it and shudder quietly.

Cutting to the chase the winner was one Danya Alhamrani from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She’s an esteemed filmmaker and her hometown is the Chicago of Saudi Arabia. The next most populous city after the capital Riyadh, but more colorful. Her pitch was to dispel any preconceived notions about the Arabian folks to us Yanks. Turned out that Jeddah is Saudi Arabia’s second largest city as well the major port city. It’s a hopping metropolis that happily sits on the Red Sea just west of Mecca. Yes, that Mecca, deep in the Muslim world and all the culture to soak up as time allowed. Selling point that. Bourdain felt it would be cool, eye-opening experience to visit so off went the No Reservations crew to check out Danya’s stomping grounds. Maybe the wheels were greased by Danya being very charming and very cute. Maybe her somewhat ulterior motives. Just sayin’. Off to Arabia!

Danya took Tony by the hand. She brought him into her home to meet the hubs. Had breakfast at the local farmers’ market, went swimming around the local coral reef and showed how she did underwater photography (as well as how to spear fresh fish). Had lunch at the local Saudi version of KFC, still a family-run franchise no less. Later on a camel BBQ showed no mercy, followed up with an improv desert rally with all kinds of 4x4s tearing up the dunes. Jeddah proved to have something for everyone.

One of the more notable segments from the show was when Danya was considering the proper garb for her benefactor. They went out and purchased a thobe for Tony, a sailcloth-like robe made of thin white billowing fabric perfect for the hot Arabian days with a tasteful white cap to protect the head. Bourdain’s wry voiceover commented to the effect it didn’t seem fair for Saudi women had to wear those stuffy black burqas in the desert heat. There was also a comment from Danya about how despite “progressive” the style was regarding her burqa wearing it was still a heated affair, so to speak. Sure, her outfit wasn’t the stereotypical head-to-toe black cloak us Westerners are used to seeing on the TV, but such propriety demands in a Muslim nation and not a lot of concessions were given. When in Rome I guess.

Later Tony and Danya found themselves cruising an upscale mall. Very upscale. Very. Like you could not shop there. Fashion boutiques everywhere aimed at well-heeled ladies. Bourdain commented on his familiarity with “blue state beauty,” in which the pretty few are just out there to gawk over. Saudi women conceal themselves under their burqa to “disguise their beauty” Danya implied. Kinda like camo shellacked with foundation for the blind to appreciate, so says a Yank.

“Underneath, we’re all like that.” Danya pointed to the Saudi equivalent of a Frederick’s Of Riyadh window display. A pair of burqa clad women were pointing at the mannequins dressed in Prada fashions. “See the stilettos?” Danya said as the camera spied some very pricey pumps the girls sported. That cloak can’t cover up everything.

“The competition must be brutal!” Bourdain squawked. “It’s all about ‘in your face, bitch?'” Regardless of the head-to-toe appearance, it suggested that most Saudi women were dressed to the nines underneath that black shadow. Once at home, away from public scrutiny off come the burqas and onto the runway. Something like that.

Now why on Earth am I sharing this story? It’ll soon come to light as it relates to this week’s movie. Patience, Grasshopper.

You ever hear that old maxim, “Clothing makes the man?” There’s a corollary to that adage, namely “Clothing is the woman.” Or rather fashion is. Allow me to indulge.

Sure, guys want to wear nice clothes as much as women would (depending on the occasion, natch), but I feel that there is a line of demarcation that cannot be crossed regarding the likes of Ralph Lauren vs Vera Wang. I don’t know if women have a favorite t-shirt, but men do and they’re all identical and every stain has a story (of which you do not want to hear). Guys like their wardrobe comfy, threadbare and just the right amount of sh*tty unless it’s a job interview, marriage or some significant religious holiday like Easter or St Patrick’s Day.

Okay, now the following may come across as sexist. Probably because it is. However to deny the facts that men and women view fashion differently is akin to adopting a parental Karen stance that is utterly convinced her spawn are snowflake prodigies no matter what their grades say and they still eat paste in the 7th grade. And require inordinate daily doses of prune juice. There are more than more genders than there are genomes!

Right. Silly. But women are different, especially regarding their garb and its purposes. How are their sensibilities different from the average dude? For instance women have an actual wardrobe to hang stuff, if not an actual closet. A walk-in closet for more enterprising females. If you doubt me check out any program on HDTV. Guys usually have only two options: a pair of laundry baskets for the dirty and the less dirty. Sometimes a gift card from J Crew may tip the scales. Another truth is that the fashion industry isn’t really that interested in all things testosterone. It’s understood that fashion galas use the runway more as an easel for whatever canvas created to drape over a model who may desperately need a sandwich. Men’s upscale fashions are usually just the same cloth wrapped in a different mold. Check out any mens’ magazine, from Maxim to CQ. Guys get the short shrift regarding innovation in fashion; another sleek suit, the hardscrabble look for the LL Bean hiker fan, pro sport jerseys and Target’s limitless vault of graphic tees from The Avengers to zodiac signs. What the heck is thread count anyway?

Men like it simple, because that’s all we’ve been offered. And that’s okay. That’s how guys are. Let the clothing make the man, be it a model or a dad. This is why most guys ask their girls when shopping, “Honey, do I like this?”

The known constant that the human male does not know how to dress up without the female input is an affront to nature when you consider it. In the wild it’s the males’ duty to display flash and dash to attract a mate (EG: peacocks unfurled, crows offering gifts, rams…ramming, etc). From what I’ve seen the guys with money are the ultimate catch, and wearing sporty duds is just a billboard. Speaking for most guys all we need is a beater tee shirt and well-worn frayed jeans. Sometimes sweats when we catch cold/are hungover. For dudes fashion is barely an afterthought.

Not so with the fairer sex. I’m not sure if it’s cultural expectations, the need to make a statement in society without shouting or just a love of color (maybe all three). Which is why there is that pesky, endearing feminine mystique.

Quick: name five male supermodels. I’ll wait…

Buffering…

Sorry, Brad Pitt doesn’t count. His one time pushing Pringle’s does not a modeling CV make. As you may I can easily name five (if not 10) supermodels in a single breath. They’re all females, BTW, which is a weird thing. As I implied this goes against nature.

I’m not going to do that. To do so would belittle both sexes about what fashion means to them. All in all it’s personal preference, which is always subjective. I’ve been wearing black tee shirts and beater jeans ever since the Dubya administration. In college I preferred “mod” styles and big jeans. In high school I was buttoned down. In junior high…um, tee shirts and practical cut jeans from JC Penney. It all worked for me. It was fashion, and it fit the bill for the time. It was never like my sisters’ rotating circus of clothes, since women’s fashion trend change accordingly with the movement of the sun.

After all this babble I suppose I’ll never truly understand what fashion means to women. Perhaps I’m not supposed to, since “clothes make the man” is an open and shut case. Is “fashion the woman?” Do men only care about their outfits when the women are present? Considering public courtesy according to Danya:

“Do men behave badly? They do!”

I guess it’s why us guys need a snootful of style from out friendly female fashionistas. And what is it with those high heels?

Purr…


The Story…

Rebecca (Fisher) is a dyed-in-wool, self-appointed gatekeeper of fashion. She knows what the hot fashion trend is before its launched. She always on the prowl at the mall for the “so choice” accessory, be it purse, belt or scarf. And her maxed out credit card debt could fund NASA’s experiment flight to Venus. You know, the planet named after the goddess of beauty?

Well if Becca were a goddess the good things in life would come easily. Despite her posh wardrobe and entraining the fallacy that she’s gonna be the 21st Century’s version of Niki Taylor, she better come to terms with her excessive spending, being sort of a burden on her bestie/roomie’s Suze’s (Ritter) couch and budget as well as barely reaching the brass ring as writer for her fave shopping mag. Working part-time at Wendy’s would do wonders for Becca’s finances. But…

Since Suze is looking for a better job and encourages Becca to try the same, a classic case of “mistaken identity” ensues. Thanks to a little hubris and more than a little tequila, the pair accidentally mail each other’s résumé to the job of their dreams; Suze to Becca’s fashion rag. Becca to Suze’s ideal financial advice magazine. And good news! They both get hired!

But what does Becca know about investing in anything save Macy’s?

And what does Suze know about green scarves?

In a word: nothing. Which is how writing legends are borne.

Now what’s this about a 3-day sale at Nordstrom’s…?


The Review…

This is gonna be a short one. The shortest since yesteryear’s Project X disgrace. Look, it’s no shocker that I’m fussy about my rom-coms. They gotta be witty, well-written and sweet. Not dopey, formulaic and sappy, which is the going rate for the majority of the rom-coms chumming the cinematic waters for the past God knows how many years. Big and small screens alike.

As I have said I have clutch of rom-coms that are required watching. Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Pretty Woman, As Good As It Gets, The Graduate (those 2 being rom-com of errors), Notting Hill and anything that has a clever twist to keep things lively and unexpected. A good script is a must, as well as a willing cast and knowing director. To me most rom-coms these days are ultra-predictable, retreads of fluffiness right on point. Consider the pre-req side boob shot to guarantee an edgy PG-13 rating (because an R would hurt ticket sales). We’ve been here before.

With Confessions I kept waiting for the humor to begin. And waited. And waited for some kind of sign from above. Good thing that I’m not a praying man, for if I was Audrey Hepburn would’ve made a cameo from the grave and clotheslined Ms Borat into submission.

Confessions was weak, rote, predictable and f*cking boilerplate like most of Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic scribblings (I read one. Don’t ask). The Looney Tune humor, the junior high sexual awkwardness, the cleavage, it’s all present and accounted for with Confessions. It’s all one note. Charm in overdrive with no brakes. This movie is provo-TikTok flagellation. It kinda makes sense how Becca sucks at financial restraint and ends up at “Successful Savings” with her magical Anglo/romantic interest at her side. Hallmark Channel! Quit drilling, we’ve struck oil!

In all fairness, Confessionslike most rom-coms—does have a few charms, if few and far between. If I were to rail against everything I saw here it would be a very paltry blog indeed with nary a Tweet in sight. Still today, this is gonna be a short one for a very unique reason. And not because Confessions was predictable, pandering, mid-budget slog. No. It was a missed opportunity, which Kinsella’s book politely prodded. Again, don’t ask. I read The Joy Luck Club at my grandma’s recommendation. It was for Grammy. Check out my new black tee!

Confessions wasted an opportunity on being an open letter. I read Kinsella’s book (again, don’t ask) and her very personal, novelized life story gave some insight into how one decides upon conspicuous consumption as a lifestyle choice. Considering that the USA is overloaded with stuff attached to multitudes of folks who identify themselves with not only their fashion sense/social scenes—from emo kids to MAGA trucker hats—director missed an ideal tableau to raise a noise. Perhaps a real funny noise/social commentary if Fisher didn’t portray some daffy little girl in the big city trope, but rather was allowed to show some sass and savvy as in Wedding Crashers and Now You See MeSelf-aware comedy demands some serious acting chops, for the antagonist must be whip-smart at coming across as funny without acting funny. Fisher’s good at this, and her keen talent was utterly wasted here. As well as prime cut to what Kinsella was on about made for the big screen. I figure that kind of heady sh*t don’t sell tickets in Columbus.

Confessions was decidedly middling and a wasted opportunity. A shame. If you ask me, rom-coms can and should appeal to both sexes and not just the Carrie Bradshaw otaku who claim to identify with that quartet when in fact is was just wish-fulfillment/living vicariously thru streaming.

A final note, and back to Jeddeh: Tony and Tanya were enjoying a fried chicken lunch when Bourdain commented on the layout of the restaurant. Saudi Arabia being a Muslim country the dining room was laid out in two parts: an open area for the men and enclosed booths for families and friends. I was expecting Tony’s wry wit to take hold of Danya asking what she though of this setup. It would be outright sexist in America if McDonald’s divided their dining area in twain along genders. I wanna sit where I wanna becuz I wanna!

Danya honestly surprised Bourdain with her frank response. She always figured the single men were the segregated ones while the women got to eat with friends, family, Tony or whomever they felt like eating with.

In sum rom-com filmmakers, don’t hedge your bets and alienate half of a potential audience. We guys like going shopping for nice duds also. So long as we have a savvy female leading the way.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Watch this with both fingers crossed and you will still be let down thanks to the Joyce Hall bloodline. Felt so bad for Fisher.


The Musings

  • Was this movie funded by Etsy?
  • “Cost and worth are very different things.”
  • All glass doors deserve a head bonk in every rom-com.
  • “They said I was a valued customer. Now they send me hate mail.”
  • Joan Cusack is that old now? And what kind of movie would John Goodman not be in at his whatever age?
  • “We get it. Now go away.”
  • K: Pencil sharpening facepalm.
  • WTF Finland?
  • “You speak Prada?”

The Next Time…

Good news! Turns out Bruce Dern lucked out and won a contest! Bad news? It demands many a mile to ford—with Will Forte in tow—to claim the prize.

Road trip! Off to Nebraska!


 

RIORI Presents Installment #201: Andy Fickman’s “Parental Guidance” (2012)


The Film…


The Players…

Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Marisa Tomei and Tom Everett Scott, with Bailee Madison, Joshua Rush, Kyle Breitkopf and Carl.


The Plot…

Great news! Alice’s tech genius hubs Phil has done it! His smart home software has been nominated for invention of the year! It’s rewarded him and Alice an all expenses paid business vacation! It’s been too long since they got away together, leaving behind work and chores and the kids!

The kids! Whose gonna watch the kids?!?

Reluctantly Alice calls her estranged parents, Diane and Artie, hoping they’ll do her and Phil a big solid. Could you mind the kids for a couple of days? Maybe a week?

Of course they would! It’s not like Artie’s in a career crisis or nothing, or Diane’s in light speed menopause, right? They’ll be there for their grandkids they almost never see, you bet! What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty!


The Rant…

Without question being a parent is hard work. However being a grandparent? That’s usually pretty free and easy. Allow me to explain the difference.

From the cradle to high school—and often beyond—raising kids is a very expensive affair, both with money and time. Diapers, shots, school, fashions, sniffles, puberty, birds, bees, and the omnipresent feeling of possible wreck and ruin/middling self-confidence that may make you question every moment in your kids young lives that you might be raising a psychopath. Do we flush dead goldfish Harry or bury him in the sandbox (best buy a sandbox first)? Where did junior get the idea that if he oversaturated his morning cereal into a technicolor sludge he can easily snuff it down rather than use a spoon (his teacher did, explaining the nose and throat are connected. Even you didn’t know that) because it tickles, “smells better” and always grosses out big sis? Your best and brightest got so pissed that the face recognition app on your iPhone XXXVIII didn’t work with Pokémon GO he tossed it in the toilet “to punish it for lying.” He stole the thing, BTW. Pika pika.

If all of that sounds ridiculous you’re right, and have never raised a child. Ever. Wouldn’t.

Being a mom or dad is costly. Your life as you knew it before kids is on permanent hiatus. You find yourself going to weird lengths to both satisfy and succor their wants and needs. I recall a time driving all over the county with my infant teething daughter in back quailing in pain on a desperate search for Anbesol. It fell like the desperate escape with the tanker truck at the end of The Road Warrior. When we finally found a CVS that carried the stuff the kid had fallen blissfully, frustratingly asleep.

Funny thing about dealing with your kids’ odd demands is that your kids secretly know when it’s a good time to push the envelope. Testing the boundaries is required as a child. It’s fun. It’s also a crapshoot ignoring the rules mom and dad laid down. When we were kids we all had stories. Most havoc wreaked was minor, but you know how parents get.

Like you I have a few tales to spin about trying parents’ patience, as did I and my siblings. Were you never a kid? Dig this.

One time when I was young I decided to make breakfast for everyone. Cream Of Wheat, the satisfyingly goopy hot cereal with the friendly chef on the box delivering the goods. That non-Newtonian bowlful is kinda like tofu: assumes the flavor of whatever you added to it, be it honey or butter or Sriracha. I planned on cooking a big batch for the fam with only the hubris a 10-year old Gordon Ramsay could have. I followed the instructions and kept an eye on the pot. Gosh, there was a lot of water in there. Better add some more cereal. And some more. Although I didn’t know this at the time, but what I was doing what physicists refer to as “achieving a critical mass.”

Half an hour of simmering later it was, “Hey! Look mom! I made Portland Cement in our kitchen!”

We had to throw the pot away. I was banned from breakfast duty for an indefinite period of time…even after I became a chef. My mom would always remind me of that fateful morning when I ever opt to make eggs and bacon. I pay income tax now.

Another time I took on some goofy kid experiment, but I had an accomplice. We heard somewhere that if you took your average baseball and heated it up real good you could hit it twice as far. Nifty, too bad we had no idea how to warm the thing up. We boiled a ball for a while, let it cool enough to handle and went outside. It fell flat and and spattered a lot of smelly water. Seemed that moisture was not the answer, so he suggested the microwave. We could dry out the ball and get it hot at the same time! I was hesitant; give me some credit. But it sounded doable, and we didn’t use his mother’s microwave.

Drum roll.

After my friend had split I stared balefully into the microwave. The seams had ripped open. The hide was stuck to the rack, like spent bandages. Turns out the guts of a Rawlings special is made up of a cork core enmeshed in what were essentially industry-strength rubber bands. When mom discovered our little Mythbusters experiment gone awry she did not the throw the machine out. It was later replaced and I gave up all hopes of being the next Cal Ripkin. And never allowed to use a microwave unsupervised ever again. Well into high school with my much tamer Pokemon habit. Pika?

It wasn’t always me testing the waters in my folks’ gene pool. If you’re a parent of multiple children, you understand that they have wiretapping down so much the CIA are envious. Here’s one more tale of trying the parents’ patience and quickly winnowing sanity. This time out I was not to blame.

It was Xmas time. The presents had been opened, and we were all just chilling by the fireplace. My aunt gave my sister a gift of a pack of those smelly, permanent markers. The kind you’d have in art class in school with abundant sheets of paper to draw whatever your heart desired or whatever conceptions your imagination could not wait to be freed. I was pleased for her. She was so delighted. She was four. She…

Paraphrasing Denis Leary it’s when it gets too quiet it’s too quiet. After about an hour of me jamming spent wrapping paper into the fireplace to watch the weird colored flames there came a screech. It was mom; I knew that screech too well. Someone unworthy released the Kraken. I darted away from my pyrotechnics display and followed the red alert. What I saw I knew I should not laugh at. I did anyway. Pikachu!

My little sis was found wielding a bright red Marks-A-Lot marker. One of those permanent markers, remember? Turned out to be very permanent. She chose her canvas to be the antique, snow white loveseat, rendering it a splattering red mess that Hannibal Lecter would’ve approved of. My mom howled as I giggled. Little sis was delighted with her work…which resulted in a ban on all markers in our house until at least my sophomore year of high school. My mom figured by then it was a tricky prospect for me to highlight texts in my schoolbooks with a Crayola.

All of this sh*t happens when you’re a parent. Good chance that even more ludicrous stories are floating around out there. Needless to say is that being a parent (at least a good part of it) involves expecting the unexpected hitch displacing a happy household by, say, covering up an antique piece of furniture with a blanket for years that no one ever really sat on anyway. Anbesol scarcity. Nuked baseballs. Cream of cement. All in a day’s work for harried mom and dad. I could go on, but why bother? These are tales told twice over twelve times.

Ah, but there’s the corollary. The “been there, done that” attitude and bemusement of grandparents. God bless ’em. If any of the above nightmare scenarios happened under their watch it would be a trip down memory lane. The passing years have since softened the blows. Storytelling and chuckles ensue and your mom and/or dad turn a curious beet red.

That’s what is truly great—if not revelatory—about your grandparents. They are the only people in the galaxy who will tell you the truth about your parents. A sample interaction:

Re: Kid brings home lousy report card.

Dad: “Look at this. When I was 12 I was getting straight A’s. Right, Pop?”

Pop: “When you were 12 you stole a car!”

Now here’s something I’m pretty sure you can relate to regarding a trip to Grandma’s: getting spoiled.

Whenever my fam came to visit my Mom’s parent’s place as a whelp I always knew there was to be a cornucopia of goodies waiting for me. Always chocolate chip cookies in their respective tin, nice and sweet and chewy cut from those clever Pillsbury logs and baked. Loads of attention deficient sugary cereals, which were all but verboten back home. Frosted Mini-Wheats, Frosted Flakes, Frosted Frosteds, whatever. Full candy dishes. Of course the freezer was loaded with whatever frozen confections that were big that week. Did I mention the soda vault? All free pickings for my sibs and me, and Mom and Dad could not stop us. Ha!

Grandparents spoil you. It’s their sworn duty. It’s all in fun. They already trudged through the Bataan Death March of parenting regarding your mom and dad. With lessons learned (and being totally done with diapers), time for the circus and delight to the grandkids. Recalling the blurb about grandparents quickly offering up a reality check regarding you parents, consider this scenario when mom and dad have a date night. Your parents tasks their parents to keep watch over the kids. Halfway through the night mom calls on her mom to see how they’re all faring:

Mom: Are the kids in bed yet?

Grandma: Hell’s no! We’ve been doing shots, eating ice cream and playing Nintendo! Just caught another one of those yellow mousy Pokémon things!

Mom: …A Pikachu?

Grandma: That’s it! We’re gonna have a taffy pull later! Right, kids?

Kids: Yay!

Grandma: When did you say you were getting back?

Mom: *dial tone*

Thanks, grandma (burp). Pass that Chunky Monkey my way.

All of that truck is obviously exaggeration, but not really. Grandparents are indeed designed to spoil their grandkids. It goes without saying. Whereas mom and dad can’t wait to lay into you as a kid, all grandparents wanna do is wait. Chill. Hang on your every word about the mundanities of school, friends, hobbies and how you call tell a boy Raichu from a girl Raichu based on their tails. Gram and Pops were always very into your whatever you were into all the time. That kind of love and hospitality goes well beyond childhood. For instance, in college I pledged a fraternity, got in and even served as vice prez for a semester. This was a gateway drug to Pops, who also was a fraternity back in the day at the University of Miami, Illinois. He shared with me some stories about his college days—very few printable here—as soon as I told some of my very weak frat house antics, like sponsoring blood drives and duking it out with the Engineering house for the best GPA every quarter. Of his few tales of his salad days included putting Jello in some unsuspecting pledge’s toilet, and a prank involving a tray from the cafeteria, a full bladder and a very cold day. Refer to the Comments link for recipes.

Finally—can’t stress this enough—grandparents always gave the best gifts. My grandma helped me complete my Transformers’ Aerialbot (the airplanes) and Protectobot (the emergency vehicles) collections, always got me the Lego set I needed every Xmas and scored me the killer app for the NES: the original Metroid. Just because she paid attention to my idle wishing. However I’m now not speaking of the material goodies Gram and Pops hopefully lavished upon you. No, I’m on about the real value they imbued on you as children. The following may sound all Hallmark Channel, but it’s not. If you think about it it’s very not.

Gram and Pops absolutely adore you, but are also adept at instilling a few values in you as a kid. Mom and Dad might still being parenting around, but their folks are old hands. Gunslingers. No bullsh*ting the bullsh*ters. And above all else regarding how parents treat their little snowflakes like the potential Nobel Prize winners Mom and aspire them to be, Grandma and Grandpa have no such fallacies. Why?

They’re not their kids!

While Mommy and Daddy hover, trying to raise the juniors right and to avoid the aforementioned sociopathy, the grands understood their brood didn’t kill anyone (as far as they knew) so should follow them. Namely while mom and dad were overly concerned with their kids sugar intake affecting their grades Gramma would sit back and watch the little buggers pour From Loops down their throats and up their noses until they barfed up a technicolor rainbow. All the while with crossed arms of amusement and satisfaction.

“Now kids, what did we learn?”

Us grandkids learned the value of a gloved fist, followed by an implied lecture of self-control. If any of you out there can relate to this metaphor then you had astute grandparents. My grandma taught me a lesson about courtesy and respect by simply commenting to my father how her feelings were hurt when I didn’t care for my LL Bean thermal vest and dropped it on the floor. That’s what I overheard. My 80-something grandmother politely announcing her feelings were hurt by my inchoate selfishness. I wore the thing every winter since that time and eventually was a hand-me-down to my Dad. It was just the right amount of warm, which I swiftly grew to appreciate. As did my father, because hey, LL Bean.

In that weird moment I felt so shoddy about myself (but unsure as to why) I snapped to. Grandma was quick to cheer up. Was I trolled? All these years later maybe I was, but it taught me a lesson faster than any unwanted smack upside the head ever did. And my folks smacked my bitch up a lot to the point social graces never took hold. Not like that comfy vest, and my grandma’s practiced hangdog.

Such an example suggests the bottom line as to what values grandparents can imbue on us. Using the proper influence at the right time, when a passive learning opportunity arises. An opportunity the seniors might have wished was available when their rugrats got a little too aggro, a little too curious, a little too mouthy and out of paternal reflex yanked that fork out of the toddler’s claw before he truly learned what a power trip was bothering that electrical outlet with the smiley face.

However—and this is a BIG however—such solid tales of building character and gradually appreciating LL Bean mean nothing, nothing, if Gram and Pops are unable to stir the soup. By this I mean, well, mom and dad may be embarrassed by their parents’ rampaging style of permissiveness cluttering the kiddies’ imagination. Spoil them with unwarranted ice cream, Legos and more ice cream…then show precious little pity when the stomachaches kick in and the soles of the feet are sharply tortured locating that missing piece when you dropped your spaceship on the kitchen floor. The grandparents have seen it all before; let’s let the kiddies learn their lessons on their own. Sometimes not helping is help, and guilt can be a powerful teacher.

Your folks, despite all their good intentions cannot hold a candle to Gramma and Pop’s passive aggressive lessons about life, the universe and everything. They may try to repeat, deny or even emulate what their parents did for them as onto you, but the g’rents will always stir things up in the best possible way for the next generation. Be it embarrassing Mom and Dad, sharing devious tales of wreck and ruin from some salad days, or perhaps getting beaned in the head with Grammy’s best pot, which you cooked cement in. Learning opportunities abound.

Like finding out almond milk sucks…


The Story…

Alice (Tomei) is in a fix. Her tech wiz husband Phil (Scott) has just gotten a grant—as well as an award—for his smart house software to be approved for the mass market. This is great! So great in fact that Phil and Alice have been offered an all expenses paid junket to this year’s E3 in Hilton Head, SC, rife with all those pesky golf courses, pristine beaches and nightlife galore.

It’s been ages since career climbing Alice and Phil have had a vacation, so this looks like the brass ring. Why not get away from it all? Well, there’s a few reasons. Three actually. The kids Harper (Madison), Turner (Rush) and Barker (Brietkopf). If Alice and Phil are going to jaunt off to South Carolina, who’s going to marshal the troops?

Phil makes the suggestion, “What about your folks?” With great reluctance, Alice calls on her parents. The motormouth Artie (Crystal) and the freewheeling Diane (Midler), the twin black sheep of the Decker clan as far as Alice can see it.

Artie’s going through some professional crisis, and Diane really wants to bond as a grandma should with her daughter’s decidedly distant kids. Not to mention Artie really isn’t into Alice’s good graces. She runs her family as upwardly urbane one can get in the 21st Century. Her kids have it all prepared for them. Healthy food, after school activities, music lessons, strict adherence to both manners and being in touch with their emotions. All that the Simmons’ kids need to be the ideal offspring are full frontal lobotomies. Alice is already adept at brainwashing.

The grandparents Decker accept the challenge. Diane can’t wait to bond with her grandchildren and show them a time! Artie’s not so sure that all will be puppy dogs and ice cream, but the job as grandpa is better than no job at all.

All he has to do is avoid all those “red words” that come so naturally…


The Review…

This is one of those installments that comes across as negative but results in saying I liked the flick. I’m tired of keeping my cards against my chest. I know my stock in trade is to first lambast then praise. Pro movie critics do this for a living. Want me to shift in gears? Pay me. I will accept my weight in beer and/or Reuben sandwiches.

Guidance isa guilty pleasure. K recommended it out of her library and it fit The Standard so here we are. Movies like these are not the kind I usually gravitate towards. Don’t get me wrong. I really like Billy Crystal’s motormouth delivery, but family hijinks are a dime a dozen in comedies, regardless casting any seasoned SNL alums. Same plot, different cast. There’s always a formula at work here. It’s funny one, but always smacks of something else (read: Uncle Buck, Mrs Doubtfire, Cheaper By The Dozen etc). All fun films sure, but do I need to remind you how the blues are played? Again? Same goes here with Guidance.

Being a family comedy stereotyping runs riot with Guidance. One could call it a character study, albeit one note applying to all the players. I’m not making that call. Basic roles were what we got, you betcha. Stereotypes, because what to we say about stereotyping? Right, it’s quicker, and this piece of family fluff does not require much development. What you see is what you get. It’s kinda like comfort food in a way. Familiar, but heck, a lot of the movie relates to all of us. At least those of us that were raised by a family.

That being said, a real non-surprise here is Guidance stuck to a formula. Like I said: sure it was amusing, but hardly original. Guidance borrowed the best bits from innumerable “relatively fishy relative out of water” movies like again Uncle Buck, Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead and even the original Mary Poppins if you think about it. Such a formula works because, well, consider the above grandparent tales; sometimes that fish really wants to nibble the bait. We root for the underdog grandparents to stir the pot and show the kids what fun really is against the neurotic parents’ discipline. We all know what we’re getting into with a flick like Guidance, so best enjoy the ride. You kinda asked for it. It’s predictable, but also relatable. So no great moral ground was broken here, thank God. No heavy scrutiny of the human condition. A few messages may have been tossed about, but none with any real circumstance (save Carl’s REDACTED). Guidance was fluffy, as should most family mishap movies be. As I said, I found this flick to be a guilty pleasure. Besides if I wanted Werner Herzog I’d watch Grizzly Man for the umpteenth time. This time out I needed an imaginary kangaroo. Who doesn’t now and again?

A major part of Guidance deals with role models and their clay. It was a no-brainer that the kids acted like grown-ups and the adults behaved under the influence of Peter Pan-esque denial. For example, Artie was still pursuing his childhood dream, even at the expense of his moody grandkid. Phil loved his tech goodies at the risk of turning his extended family into guinea pigs with no alfalfa pellets to be seen, let alone his smart house almost as inviting as a holodeck programmed by Ray Bradbury. If the kids were any more structured they would be industrial engineers before hitting puberty. Even Alice was living vicariously through her kids treating them as she wished she was treated by her supposed unhinged ‘rents. If any of you out there are familiar with classic, dopey sitcom Three’s Company what with its miscommunication gags, Guidance may be right up your alley. The entire cast is best viewed through a lens smeared with Vaseline. To quote Billy Joel, “…the good ole days weren’t always good.
And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” To overemphasize this the g’rents were back in the good old days. Read: rearing your mom and dad. If there was any underlying message to Guidance it was no parent knows everything, they just want the kids to be kids and not grow up to be criminals. Or influencers. Or whatever takes a plop on your freshly washed car.

Despite all the sight gags, pratfalls and, well, Billy Crystal being himself there was a clever skewering of the 21st Century practice of “helicopter parenting.” For those of you who never heard of this blight on modern parenting—which is rather like the real life version of one’s acting on social media leaks into the real world—it’s where the overly informed moms and dads react seriously to all the potential BS the internet feeds them so as to raise their kids in a bubble. Call it passive eugenics, raising kids to never experience stress and strain that may ruin their self-esteem and totally not prepare them for the real world. Stuff like bullies and traffic and gluten exist, and held-parents do their best to be a detriment to their brood all in the name of no one striking out. Ever. On anything. Ever.

Big whoops there. Luckily director Fickman played that sham up for all it was worth. Any thinking parent (or person) knows you can’t shield your kid from every single trial and tribulation. That’s a part of growing up, and in the endgame building character is much more useful than, say, winning an award for someone else winning an award. It was a curious mess that Tomei’s Alice was all for modern parenting, which meant micromanaging every aspect of her kids in school and after school activities (certain activities came off as more for mom’s satisfaction in seeing her flock well-rounded rather than having fun). Alice made an argument about how “irresponsible” parents Artie and Diane ruined her by spoiling her, but then that being spoiled has chomped her on the ass. Alice is not the head of the household, her hydra children are. Everything was so about them that she lost perspective, as well as avoiding getting dirty hands too much, too often. From imaginary kangaroos with social security cards to speech therapy with no actual speech to violin lessons under the tutelage of Eva Braun’s distant cousin, what Alice deemed as proper for her kids played hell on her brain…which eventually looked like she wasn’t a mom anymore, or even a life coach. Alice became an image consultant, but for what agency? Fickman never shamed Alice for her misguided approach to parenting. He just did a send up as to how freaking ridiculous helicopter parenting was. It didn’t do much good for the Becker clan, and sure as sh*t rendered Alice enervated and all at sea. If Guidance was approaching some message, well there you have it.

Here’s a different, simpler tack. Watching Guidance deconstructed parenting as often surrendering to the chaos, if not embrace it. I hoped I was hearing PC parenting in its death knell.  It is now relevant to remind you that there are no perfect parents, which is why Alice was so ridiculous as the neurotic mother, piling on therapy and after school activities as panacea to any possible damage her brood might be up against. Read: again, avoiding the unpleasant thing that is reality. Such a mindset is ludicrous as it comical in a finger-pointing way. Surprisingly, Tomei’s overextended mom didn’t exactly hover over everything her brood did under a watchful eye. In a comical way Alice paired with the smart house came across like a demented Big Brother. Regarding grandparent wit, one simply cannot plan for everything. Read: lotsa physical comedy ensues. Fish out of water meets the Otto pilot from WALL-E. Right, kinda silly against kinda stomping OCD into a puddle.

Enough social commentary. The cast. I really dug the cast. Especially the kids. They were delightful. No moppets there, but actual young actors. In essence, Harper, Barker and Turner weren’t ciphers. Yes, they were adorable, but they had presence. It’s hard to pull that off. The kiddies were simple kiddies, but also had unique personalities. Obeying the plot they found unique voices based against Alice’s well-meaning meddling. The road to hell and alla dat. In a perverted sort of way, Alice’s molding of her kids made themselves superstars under Artie and Diane’s roguish, full dairy product ways. The kids wouldn’t of blossomed unless the g’rents unleashed their dirty influences. Recall my five-and-dime analogy.

I found it kinda funny when snarky Crystal and brassy Midler actually reigned it all in and could be endearing and sincere. Neither of these actors are renown for their subtlety or restraint. To this point I don’t know how they pulled off that trick of being both nervous and ebullient embracing grandparenthood. Of course it helped that uptight mom (Tomei was a pretty insecure kid herself) wasn’t around, so cake, Saw movies and rampant permissiveness broke the ice. The end product of pairing solid kid actors with usually madcap grown-up actors resulted in some sweet success without being cloying. That’s a hard line to tow (EG: My Girl, The Man Without A Face, and hell even Good Will Hunting), and this pastiche managed to pass with a bouquet.

Another surprising point I noticed (after the fact) was that Guidance had good pacing, almost seamless. The film flew by like quicksilver, not like sh*t through a goose with cholera but bounced along with a lively tempo. Again I cannot lie, movies like this aren’t really for me because of their formula, but since Guidance‘s formula took some risks (again, hiring kids that could act and Tomei being the unwitting antagonist) there was just enough elan to keep the crap engaging. And yes, I adored the karaoke scene a lot of fun in spite of myself and the kinda left field feeling that my g’rents often did. Non sequiturs in the proper context.

Truth be told I was stunned that I dug Guidance  I viewed it twice. Partially for Crystal’s exasperated, sarcastic one-liners, but also for a nostalgia trip. Yeah, yeah. Not every kid had cool, parent shuddering grandparents. Be it wish fulfillment, memory lane or just flat out about Dad stealing a car, Guidance was a first in my mind. Grandparents took center stage, and not like with On Golden Pond.

And no, no animals were harmed in this movie by having their face sucked. 😉


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a surprisingly good time. Crystal does Crystal (if you’re a fan of that) for the kids that are kids. And Midler spits venom if the devil’s eye. You may dig this as your parents may wince.


The Musings…

  • Eggless egg salad?
  • “They don’t know you well enough to not like you.”
  • K: Who knew imaginary kangaroos would need a doctor?
  • “Cake…”
  • Pretty nice Tony Hawk cameo. It furthered the plot some.
  • “Get your taser ready.” Double take.
  • That “nobody’s out” version of Little League is anathema. Artie’s schpiel was right on.
  • “Noodles!”
  • Best version of “The Book Of Love” I’ve ever heard. 🙂
  • “It’s 9 AM; I need a martini!”
  • K: Artie finally got to announce for the “Giants.”
  • “Call me Grandpa.”
  • For the curious: Pikachu roughly translates from Japanese as “spark mouse.”
  • “Lights out, Alice.”

The Next Time…

Visa debt notwithstanding, The Confessions Of A Shopaholic are nakedly telling.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #200: Tate Taylor’s “Get On Up” (2014), pt. 2


The Film…


The Players…

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


The Plot…

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


The Intro…

Yeah. So. This is my biggest, dumbest blunder here at RIORI I ever had to own up to: an unfinished post. What the heck?

No, it wasn’t outside opinion that marred Get On Up‘s shakedown. It wasn’t me being disingenuous in reviewing a movie I hadn’t seen. It wasn’t even the all too possible probability of me being too pished watching this movie and dissecting the scenes where James Brown was the guest star at the Ice Follies one year. Nope.

I destroyed my notes before I finished the installment. Due to technical difficulties updating my WordPress account, it was me being sloppy. Sorry about that. That’s all. I mean how can I tear apart a movie without the proper context? My always snide observations and remarks missing? P’shaw. My readers deserve better and effrontery belittles the Standard. For you, my faithful subs. I apologize.

From here on out I’ll write down a proper review of the movie, well, properly. I’ll cut right to the chase. If you want to check out The Rant from months back (if only to get reacquainted with my tenor responding to Get On Up) click here. Please do. It’ll make stuff all the clearer. I hope.

Again, I apologize for being sloppy and thank you for being patient. Now where were we…?


The Story…

It often follows that when a great talent comes along, hardship may have had a large influence on their muse. Either by wit or grit, cream will rise while the scum gets scorched. However, on a very rare occasion, both cream and scum complement each other. Like when bold gospel music gets messed up with down and dirty R&B and in turn gets truly, gloriously funky.

Young James Brown (Boseman) knows all about being in a funk. Poor, undereducated and borne from two parents that should’ve never tried. Still, mom and dad instilled in James to never take any bullsh*t from anyone. Especially those well-heeled white folk that would just count out James as another n*gger. Stand up and shout, kid.

James has an ear for music. Rhythm and the blues and the grand showmanship of gospel. Stumbling through his troublesome youth the only real constant James had was song. Not music, mind you. Song. The performance, the display, the beat of music. Song. It was the only thing that was steady, in heart and a determined, stubborn ego. Hard work is always hard on yourself, especially when have a pernicious desire to prove something, ipso facto a unique talent.

James was all about song, performance, the spotlight and self-promotion. He became the hardest working man in show business. Mr Dynamite, with his funk and his moves and he single-minded approach to life and show. He was self-evident, flawed, brilliant and played by his own rules. Rules that struck a chord with audiences, both literally and metaphorically. And despite all of his achievements, hit singles and iconic standing all Brown wanted was respect by any means possible.

His means were both drive complemented by failings. When such opposites meet a legend is created…


The Review…

Okay. Let me get something out of the way, straight up: Tate Taylor directs black movies for white folks. After seeing Get On Up, as well as The Help Tate’s execution has the air of paternalism towards blacks that borders on an anti-Uncle Tom. Embracing black culture and history without a real emotional investment, at least for us moviegoers.

I found The Help both overrated and odious. Skeeter’s anonymous account of black maids in her Southern town and all the travails they faced played out as if she were interviewing the domestics not as people but as test subjects. That and the solid acting came from Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, yet Emma Stone, Bryce Howard and even Alison Janney held the spotlight. This is kind of storytelling would’ve gotten Faulkner into trouble with the rise of the Civil Rights movement. Paternalism, charity and tokenism mars any movie about black culture in America

Actors are not ciphers—vessels to be filled with whatever, whenever to satisfy the director’s whims (not unlike how Boseman’s James treated his band. Read on). Nor should such roles make white folks feel guilty of their privilege being taken for granted. In a word: preachy.

Tate, it’s a movie FFS. You want to mount a soapbox? Go find one. They’re hard to come by nowadays. Just direct a story.

All right. Had to speak up. Questions/comments? Watch The Help and Get On Up and then we can debate Tate’s direction and muse. I’m not trying be a gatekeeper, but I have a rather unruly James Brown collection in my library; I might know a few things about guy’s musical legacy.

Back on track, despite how I took issue with Taylor’s vision, I appreciated the execution with his twist on the tried, true and predictable linear plot progression of many, many, too many biopics. Up was non-lineal and considering Brown’s history certain “chapters” (more on that later) of his biography say more about the man than the expected rags-to-riches spectrum. This was important. Unlike, say David Bowie or Madonna, Brown never tried to reinvent himself. He was a force of nature with varying hairstyles. He just was with some telling touchstones. Like chapters, which bookended the various highlights and low points of his life and times.

Taylor’s movie was more like a memoir than a biography. Bios—like their sister autobiographies—tend to be linear. We watch and/or read how the person of interest grows up, finds their calling and the diaspora that said life dealt them, both good and ill, from cradle to approaching the grave. Most bios read this way, like Johnny Cash’s life story Cash, or almost anything David Halberstam or Ron Chernow ever put to paper. Same usually goes with biopics. Ignoring the directors’ need for creative liberties, most biopics are also linear, like Howard’s Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon, Zwick’s Glory and Boyle’s 127 Hours. These kind of cinematic journals are often satisfying despite their straight line. Or leaning back towards those unspoken creative liberties all the better for it.

Taylor opted for the left turn. Not unlike adaptaions such as Penn’s Into The Wild, Pulcini and Berman’s American Splendor and Chazelle’s First ManGet On Up likes to bounce around. A bio is linear. A journal, a memoir, a diary highlights key moments in the subject’s life, regardless of when they occurred. The first (and best) scene in Up illustrates the worst in James Brown, when his drugged up ego finally lands him in jail for a legit reason. As a kid even I saw this on the news, which may have indirectly caused my curiosity about the man.

But what about the best stuff? Four stars and a bouquet for not letting the rabbit out of the hat too soon. Namely, the next scene recounts James and the Flames under fire en route to a USO performance in Vietnam. That in turn lands in the backwoods of Georgia where young James cut his teeth on music and dealing with his dysfunctional (read: totally f*cked up) upbringings. This back and forth motion created some weird tension, like we didn’t really know where the story was headed. It both kept you on your toes as well be kept informed as to who’s show it was, and it was Brown’s show all the way. Always front and center stage.

That being said, Up was Boseman’s show all the way. Regardless how Tate’s direction was pandering and scattershot, this was Boseman’s movie. He was James Brown. From the craggy voice to the swift moves to the monumental ego to feed, the actor was all heart and soul here, pounding his performance in yo’ face. The man should’ve won some award for his portrayal. Up did get nominated for stunt work(?), however the late Boseman made a name for himself for biopics well before he adopted the mantle of T’Challa in the MCU, his swan song. No awards, save a nomination for Best Special Effects (??), but beyond the whatever Boseman was always clutch for his roles. He was never Chad the actor, he was the chosen role. Assuming the mantle. As I watched Up, I did not see Boseman. I saw Brown, and it was a magnificent performance right down to the make up and hairstyles. Dedicated he was, and his style was infectious. Too bad he didn’t sing the songs himself. Might’ve sounded pretty good. Now we’ll never know. A pity.

Offhand: Boseman never spoke out about his cancer diagnosis. Instead he made many, many stops at childrens’ hospitals for oncology in T’Challa garb much to the kids’ delight. That might have been a veiled surety of his limited time, but in the larger picture it’s about selling the goods, not reaping the rewards. Dig?

So since we probably agree the Up is a staunch character study (and ignoring most of Taylor’s soft lobbing stuff), let’s delve ever deeper into Boseman’s world of funk.

The matter of Taylor’s non-linear storytelling indeed stirred the soup. Since Brown’s story was most likely as scrambled as Taylor’s direction the final product recalls a particular ep of the old sci-fi series Fringe. Stay with me here. The plot was about a serial killer who stole his victims memories before the inevitable late night party. The B-plot was the opposite. The antagonist was a psych, and was rescued by a kind woman that comforted him, guided him, taught him not everyone was out to hurt him. Namely young Brown was saved by a patient soul who introduced him to music as salvation. Gospel. The gospel truth. It’s all a scrambled mess, but it flowed well. Talent seldom follows a straight path. So does non-linear storytelling. In any event, I found Taylor’s style the only meat on the bone with Up. The rest was eyewash. Very good eyewash mind you, but really did not flesh out the story. The end result was Up being Boseman’s tour de force performance…but that was the only meat on the bone.

Enough grousing. There were some very nice touches—flourishes—that Taylor shot, almost as if by accident. Once more I may be reading to deeply into the film, big a big story about a big entertainer demands big thinking. Or at least paying attention for some modest (but still big!) context clues. For instance, there was some matter about clothes and especially shoes that got some screen time. The brief REDACTED scene where young James stole some shoes. A lot Brown’s fancy dancing hinged on how he swivel his steps. Some more screen time dedicated to when Brown was finally earning some dough and invested in some fly, custom kicks for all to see. How the man strutted to and from his shows in the guts of the arena, those stack heels snapping. Like I said, I may have been investing too much time ignoring the filigree of the movie, but in the endgame Brown wore a lot of shoes in the metaphorical sense. Putting it another way walk a few miles in Brown’s shoes. I liked that.

Another aspect of Taylor’s direction invited a question regarding a legend: is there such a thing as a humble ego? Not fragile mind you, but one being ready to slink back into a shell when the risk of failure seems nigh approaching. Brown dealt with a lot of sh*t growing up and getting on the music scene. Something informed me in the film that Brown that the man was cagey about his job. It was always about the show, and that was fine. but what if something went wrong. It was hinted in Boseman’s uptight performance that all of it could end either on a whim or the VC blasting his plane out of the sky. It was always about the show; it was what James lived for unless he couldn’t. There was never an unless, Mr Lorax. It’s somewhat amazing how much an ego may grow against personal responsibility. Kudos to Taylor that.

There was also significant storytelling gimmick I dug in Up. Hang on. I’m trying to be positive here, which has never been my strength. I suspect you all may have tired of my incessant bile, so here’s one of few shout outs to Taylor, whom I’d like to believe he did his best. However misguided that came across.

You know about the theatrical term “breaking the fourth wall?” No? Allow me to catch you up on things. The term refers to when an actor or the entire cast addresses the audience directly as if letting them in on some secret. Boseman did this quite a bit throughout the film, but only as part of the dialogue. He was trying to convey who was really in charge of things, if only to reassure you that under his control everything will turn out fine. Just pay attention. Or else. Boseman’s panache was paired with great timing. When he spoke to us it was as if, “You follow?” Oddly reassuring since the air of the film was whatever random splat stuck. His asides made for a sharp throughput.

One more noteworthy thing about the film: great staging. It was the chapter thing, and not just the scatter of Brown’s life and times. Despite the non-linear storyline, these “chapters” as they were constructed a sturdy timeline/history of Brown’s rise to power. It almost made up for the haphazard documentation what made Brown become Brown. Don’t misunderstand me. Taylor’s style was overall pedestrian and formulaic as biopics tend to go, but a simple twist like the staging keeps your interest going. Worked for me if only in “get on with it” attitude. Maybe I felt this way since I consider myself an amateur Brown scholar. Maybe.

It’s a decent movie, albeit rather pandering, and sometime too stylized for its own good. Yes, I was just gushing a moment ago, but it was in spite of the clunkiness of the narrative. Meaning the story was cool to watch, but more often than not it felt like trying to drink a bottle of Pure Leaf iced tea while driving: fits and starts of slaking a thirst while your face and lap gets splashed. We learned that James was not his best around the opposite sex, messed around with controlled substances, an absolute tyrannical taskmaster where his sidemen were just pawns in his career and a somewhat puerile need to prove he was the best at…”everything” with precious little nuance. But ever the devil’s advocate I suggest that may have been the point. In sum the film lacked guts, played it safe and didn’t allow the other principals to breathe, let alone play. Up was rather stiff.

Yes, Bowie and Madonna were into reinvention, but never James. He was Mr Brown, and paid the cost to be the boss with unflinching determination. K claimed that you just got to got to be yourself and be good at it. Not to mention being good at being bad. It’s a classic yin and yang. You gotta embrace both with determinism and grace. That’s how I see it. I hope that Taylor tried to display that, too. I really do.

Chadwick Boseman. 1976-2018.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild relent it. I cannot stress enough how this was Boseman’s show all the way. He was fantastic as Brown. The surrounding movie? Wallpaper. Very nice wallpaper, but still just gravy. And no biscuits.


The Musings…

  • “Please, call me ‘Mr Brown’.”
  • Just goes to show don’t do DUI armed.
  • “I’m in a h*nky hoedown!”
  • K: Isn’t that the guy from Ghostbusters? I was surprised, too.
  • “I ain’t heard a thing since my radio got busted.”
  • K: It does go good with ice cream.
  • “Drums…”
  • K: Read him his fortune.
  • “Velma pregnant.” “Congrats.” K: Always double check your work. Amen.
  • Steak and eggs? Now you’ve made it.
  • “The man in front got to be The Man.”

The Next Time…

A put-upon career woman needs some Parental Guidance from her estranged mom and dad. Not advice, per se, but to be budget babysitters in a pinch.

Say it with me now: what’s the worst that could happen?

Answer: SUGAR!


 

RIORI Presents Installment #199: Joseph ‘McG’ Nichol’s “This Means War” (2012)


The Film…


The Players…

Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, Chelsea Handler, Til Schweiger and Angela Bassett.


The Plot…

Daring CIA operatives Tuck and Frankie have opted for perhaps their most challenging mission yet: getting a date.

No, really. Both our spies are getting burnout from all this “making the world safe for democracy” stuff. They ain’t getting any younger, nor is the planet getting any less dangerous. It’s high time to settle down, preferably with a nice girl.

Too bad the suck with women. Tuck’s a divorcee and FDR’s just a player. What they both need is a grounded, no-nonsense kind of woman. Someone cosmopolitan but also independent, free-thinking…and easy to dupe.

It won’t be a contest, but rather a “gentleman’s agreement.”


The Rant…

What begins with 007 ends up with continental philosophy.

I love spy movies. Okay, check that. I love James Bond films, ever since I was a kid. I may have mentioned this before; I tend to repeat myself a lot here at RIORI (did I mention I tend to repeat myself here?) back in the day the local NBC affiliate would run a Bond film every Wednesday evening in July when I was a pup. Guess what I was up to every Wednesday night at 8 PM? Right, making microwave popcorn after hiding the remote from my Dad. Priorities, right?

Bond films are wish fulfillment incarnate for a teenaged male. Think about it. We have action, intrigue, exotic locales, cool cars, even cooler gadgets courtesy of Q, beautiful women, and if they became a liability Bond had a license to kill. Kidding, not kidding. I know a few married guys who’d love to have that license, if only to be left alone to find that lost remote. And seriously whenever Bond waltzed into a casino, a posh hotel, a swank bar and said who he was—bam—gorgeous woman oozed out of the ether, fawning all over him. I always wished I was his wingman, but I would’ve probably been poisoned by that Ukrainian supermodel before the end of the first act. Would’ve been worth it.

Consider this: over the franchise’s 50 year history, James Bond has created, influenced, parodied and informed every modern spy caper to this day that has ever been committed to film. It helps that no one actor portrayed Bond. A cult of personalities have informed the character based on the cinematic climate of the time. The zeitgeist. Every iteration of James Bond reflected in cinema as, well, what a super spy should perform. We had the original, Sean Connery, the cool Bond. Fast forward to Roger Moore, the funny Bond. The one-off George Lazenby, the Aussie Bond. Timothy Dalton, the angry Bond. The belated Pierce Brosnan, the thinking man’s Bond. And of recent Daniel Craig, the tough Bond. This MI:6 cornucopia characters reflected the pop culture at the time, and like Superman Bond could be reinterpreted to fit the bill.

So when we’re talking about spy thrillers, I both thank and leer a crooked eye at the 007 movies. Considering that the 007 movies are the gold and silver standards for every spy movie, be it the comedic True Lies, the terse Jason Bourne series (both with Chamberlain and Damon), or the endless stunt-fest/threadbare plot Mission: Impossible movies. In sum, the spy thriller genre is fractured, not unlike the many Bonds that embodied the vox populi and their expectations of what a spy thriller “should be.”

So what should a spy thriller be for the 21st Century? Simple.

Deconstructionist. Question everything you know about spy capers, their tropes and then lay it all bare for the curious. Subvert the expectations and damn the torpedos.

In the academic sense, deconstruction is philosophical and critical movement, starting in the 1960s and especially applied to the study of literature, that questions all traditional assumptions about the ability of language to represent reality and emphasizes that a text has no stable reference or identification because words essentially only refer to other words and therefore a reader must approach a text by eliminating any metaphysical or ethnocentric assumptions through an active role of defining meaning, sometimes by a reliance on new word construction, etymology, puns, and other word play.

Whew.

The above definition was courtesy of Dictionary.com so don’t play tl;dr because that wasn’t me talking, though I get it. In our case, dismantle all we know and understand about an accepted, popular tenets in popular movies and turn it all on its proverbial ear. Shake some fresh life into a well-worn out warhorse. Kind of like when Led Zeppelin reunited in the 90s and deliberately left “Stairway To Heaven” off the set list. Instead Robert, Jimmy et al incorporated traditional British folk instruments into some deep tracks thereby creating a new twist on their trademark heaviosity, with fiddles, mandolin and bohdran (a traditional Celtic drum for the curious). I didn’t even knew what a hurdy-gurdy was until I saw a live feed on cable, but it sounded cool.

Moving on.

Where to start with deconstructing spy movies? For lack of a proper film let’s claim James Cameron’s True Lies as fountainhead. Well, it was based on a foreign film, but had the neat package of American sensibilities and Cameron’s way of yanking his audience as sutra. That and Arnie in his comedic prime didn’t hurt neither. For those unfamiliar with this choice slice of popcorn fodder, Schwarzenegger plays Harry: humble computer sales rep by day, moonlighting as a super spy unbeknownst to his family. The movie is riddled with the usual whiz-bang of Cameron’s best actioners, but with a twist. Cameron is not known for hijinks. Sure, a good chunk of his oeuvre is dappled with one-liners and wisecracks (his Aliens was littered with ’em), but being outright funny? Nope.

This is a serious reason why True Lies worked, in spite of being not very original. Remake, remember? The spy on the sly thing has been done before, and often better than True Lies (think North By Northwest or the Kingsman movies), but the injection of humor—including pratfalls and slapstick, before God—was not, not something you’d get out of a Cameron spy adventure with a star he’d worked with prior that also included pants-wetting gags. True Lies was funny in spite of itself being a action/adventure encompassing all those espionage goodies I mentioned as de rigeur for James Bond. And the “funny Bond” Moore mostly just quipped, winked and nudged. Quite well I felt, but I was 12 so don’t invest too much in that.

When you put the tub of half-eaten, stale popcorn down and ruminate over your viewing of True Lies (which, in reality, you didn’t), you might, might’ve asked yourself “Wait. What did I just watch?” The Roger Moore era Bond was labelled as the funny one, but just our protagonist being a smartarse does not a spy comedy make. David Niven did a better job with the original Casino Royale. As with True Lies, one of the more terse scenes is when Jamie Lee Curtis looses control of an Uzi and Wile E Coyote-like offs the terrorists at the ready to kill Arnie. It’s physical comedy in a slanted way, a very Cameron way, and what the hell did we just watch? And why are we laughing?

What I’m getting at is entertainment skewed informs the basal needs of the average moviegoer. Cognitive dissonance. All you are left to do is laugh. Dr No this wasn’t, and all the better for it. If True Lies was wellspring, it led to movies like Knight And Day, Killers and—natch—This Means War.

These days it’s okay to have rom-com ideas spice up action movies. In the theater just consider it: the life of a CIA operative/MI5 agent must not be much fun. Constant stress, paperwork, jet lag and always multiple superiors to answer to. That and we still aren’t sure who killed Kennedy. I knew a guy once who was an analyst for the CIA (maybe, might’ve been a cover). What his job required made Alec Baldwin’s character in The Hunt For Red October seem glamourous. In the simplest terms he explained he pissed through 3 highlighters a day. License to kill nowhere to be issued. Like being a cop, what you see on Law And Order is made all dramatic and the bad guys are almost always nabbed within 50 minutes. In reality, being a detective involves tons upon tons of paperwork, phone calls and deadlines. No different for a CIA desk jockey, of which there are legion. It’s not much of a surprise that flicks like This Means War glamorize the glamour that were the early Bond films, rather weeks of desk work. Movies are not supposed to follow real life, duh. Excluding documentaries, movies are supposed to inject fantasy into your humdrum existence. It’s called entertainment. And since I believe that ever since Gen X we’ve seen it all before and demand some deconstructing of the cinematic versions of “Stairway To Heaven.” Just like all prices ending in 99 cents we got it already and you ain’t fooling anyone no more.

Lampoons like This Means War are important movies. Not “important” like Casablanca, Citizen Kane or even Cameron’s Aliens. Important because they subvert expectations of a genre, which provides a lot of the fun in contemporary flicks. Why? Because it’s all uncertain, a surprise and an inside joke all rolled up in a neat package. And picking it all apart—deconstructing it—is the seller. Like I commented with Killers, black comedy does worlds of good to tired plot devices. If you ever seen the likes of Grosse Point Blank, Mr Right or even Clue, for Pete’s sake you know that a little urine with the honey makes a funky fun gut reaction. Usually resulting in inappropriate laughter. With the sort-of-sister-movie Killers black comedy is also an aspect of deconstructionist cinema, if not the forerunner. For further insight, again refer to the installment. Then try to refute me, because I can’t. Not now, sorry. I’m quite tired.

After all that folderol, does This Means War qualify as the seminal, deconstructionist, black, rom-com spy movie?

Uh, I dunno. Nope? Don’t know any others. Time to break it all down…


The Story…

It happens to us all eventually. Burnout. Your job becomes your life, therefore taking away any life you used to welcome outside of work. Hard work yields good work rewarded with more work. It’s rather a self-fulfilling circle. Work hard to get to the top of the heap and burn lean tissue to stay there, rep and salary intact. You soon have no rep beyond work and spending time in the mere off hours finding new ways to piss away your salary to find escape from the ever-higher responsibilities that said job demands.

In sum, you got the new PlayStation well in advance but have no games, nor any time to play them if you had them. It can be all such a blur, even if you’re not in the private sector. Even if you’re outside the private sector.

Top CIA agents, field partners and BFFs Tuck Hansen and Frank ‘FDR’ Foster (Hardy and Pine respectively) are burnt out, as well as out of the game for a time after botching capture of international criminal Karl Heinrich (Schwieger). That mess resulted in the death of his brother (more on that later). Trapped behind their desks under the scrutiny of their grumpy boss Collins (Bassett), they find quite a bit of time on their hands. All this downtime and then the question comes up: “When was the last time we had date? Just get out for one night with a nice girl?”

Tricky question that. Tuck’s a reluctant divorcee, trying to cover his cover by keeping his ex and kid at a distance for their own safety. FDR’s free and clear of such obligations, but would rather play the field unbecoming a field operative. Read: score as much tail as a cruise ship captain can. Ugh. Both are lonely. Both need a change.

Enter Lauren (Witherspoon), a high profile, woman-made exec with a relationship on the skids. She has no prospects right now—always too busy. Lauren’s very demanding quality control company doesn’t have much quality time going for it. In fact, it’s been guiding her non-life. She needs a change of season also.

By weird happenstance, Tuck, FDR and Lauren’s paths cross. ALL of them need a change from a hazy shade of winter. Tuck and Frank get to thinking about a “gentleman’s agreement” regarding potentially dating Lauren. Heck, it at least it might be a good waste of time, or best finding a decent woman to settle down with. May the best man win!

Later: Heinrich, with malice on his mind wants Tuck and FDR’s blood spilt in revenge for his dead brother.

May the best man win…?


The Review…

What starts with a jolly take on skewing expectations ends up with stoicism. Stick around.

Like with Killers, I dug This Means War in spite of myself. K has a huge crush on both Chris Pine and Tom Hardy, so naturally she slapped me up the face with the DVD and slapped said disc into the player. I was at her mercy; she hasn’t let me down yet here with RIORI so what could I say? Heck, she tolerated us seeing Villeneuve’s take on Dune, pt 1all three hours of it—and we both ended up enjoying it (glad I read her a few chapters of the source material to prep her). She prepped me enough about Killers and now This Means War to be in a place to get it, if not enjoy it. Quid pro quo, Clarice.

The goofy premise of War led to some rather goofy hijinks. Here wispy Witherspoon was the heavy, whereas Pine and Hardy were salivating, lunkhead bros. Did 007 drop a jaw at any token Bond girl? Nope. Did the Bond Girl of the moment ever lead 007 around by the nose? Not unless it meant the best for the mission, Ms Moneypenny. In Goldeneye did 007 and 006 engage in a pissing contest? No. Brosnan just dropped Arecibo on Sean Bean’s busted body. Sexy? Yes and no, but overall better than the humdrum of horny spies hell-bent on not busting a nut against one another. Extravaganza incarnate and all around boffo, Biff.

Flip that script. The deconstructionist thing. It worked here with War. Kinda.

To the point, War was ridiculous. There were two movies wedged into one going on. The quirky rom-com met the spy drama rendering many sparks falling to the floor. High suspension of disbelief was required, and once you lightened up you allowed yourself to laugh it became fun. Despite the outset dusky undertones of a trad spy thriller, War ended up a madcap comedy of errors. With a lot of gunplay and collateral damage. Best of both worlds, and amazingly nary a sliver of irony lot be found. Sure, there were a few sops to keep us engaged in the characters (EG: Tuck’s forced divorce, Lauren’s big sis Trish with her endless relationship advice, wine and Cheetos, FDR as the adolescent Bond fanboy akin to what I was back in the day, etc). There has to be some webbing that makes the audience relate to such a motley crew. It was all done tastefully, meaning not ramrod down your gullet. Amazing for potboiler director McG, but the story and characterization unfolded rather then the usual reeling in the line too fast. War, despite its setup required some patience.

I know. I was just as surprised as you.

But firstly, let’s get back to that nonsense about deconstruction theory for a moment. Regarding movies like War, all spy adventures and perhaps the diametric opposite romantic comedy. One of these things is not like the other. Sometimes—more often than not really—I get to waxing philosophical about some of these middling movies. Sometimes it’s fun to overthink fluff like this week’s shindig. I wonder if some weird formula like War had could be an example how certain “misunderstood” movies become cult classics; just waiting around until a potential audience plays catch up (think Rocky Horror, Buckaroo Banzai, and/or anything John Waters ever cut). War had that potential, despite the marketing, the budget and that silly popcorn pleaser director McG at the helm. Which was weird how determinism stuck with a movie like this.

Yes, we are going forward this foundation of philosophy with this Sour Patch Kid pasticheWhy? One, makes for a more interesting critique here (because how many ways can we breakdown a Witherspoon vehicle), and; two, yeah War a twist on a tale as old as time minus the proverbial beast. We’re gonna navel gaze here for the f*ck of it. My blog, my rules. Besides, as of this writing, its Xmas time and I’ve grown numb the froth and Oscar season, okay? A gift to me to indulge. Pass the Chunky Monkey already.

Determinism is rather like the corollary of deconstructionist theory. Determinism claims that all events—freewill included—have sufficient causes. No coincidences, no hidden agendum, no ulterior motive. Facts are facts and choices are choices and all are predominantly planned. The execution of War kinda follows this precept. Meaning we should’ve figured out by the cold open and first act how this movie would end. Awkward and fun, and vice versa. With the order changed, also panem et circenses.

Feeling smart yet? Me neither. Let’s move on.

All that blarney bounced around in my head trying to figure out what had I watched and what did I enjoy it? The flick was not my usual cup of coffee, but I couldn’t ignore War was a fresh spin on the True Lies paradigm with a 21st Century sensibility. Unlike War howeverthat 90s Arnie blockbuster paired action with comedy evenly and romance as just added flair/subplot C. Again, it was a remake and maybe plagued by stuff getting lost in translation. Despite my adherence to 007’s exploits being the Rosetta Stone for all spy stories until Kingdom come, I never saw such a fluid, inane mashup and nod as I did with War. For shear goofiness it topped True Lies. If the CIA there were middle school, we’d all be at lunch. Gossip, dicking around with a clandestine 3DS and spying the fairer sex to which Mama Nature blessed in an expedient fashion. Read: stretch marks on their foreheads.

In sum—disregarding all those backflips—War was simply dumb fun subverting most expectations. I wouldn’t watch it again, but like sex I enjoyed it while it lasted.

We’re getting all heady here, I know. However we know how much I find the rom-com vehicle as tired as the next never-ending, one-note chapter that is the equivalent  of  cinematic golden goose that is the MCU, a breath of fresh air is welcome. War was more of a fart than a fresh of breath air, but as far as the spycomrom model goes at least it was different. That and oddly enough a nod to classic espionage movies listed above. Yet still stupid enough to entertain.

One of the main reasons I dug War was its playfulness. A little juvenile at times, yes, but so were our frat house heroes. There was a John Hughes feel, all goofy and winking and waiting for Farmer Ted to pop up and crack wise. In most his of his touchstone hits, Hughes always included some character duality that resulted in a romantic connection, albeit hard won. Think Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and/or Pretty In Pink (right, the obvious ones). War was ostensibly a spy flick that morphed into a left of center rom-com with the senior year hijinks on naked display dappled with a blurred version of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Something about FDR and Tuck’s “gentleman’s agreement” whiffed of a Hitchcock thriller, at least in an ethereal sense. Not sure why but that felt right.

Despite being a rom-com, War was a guy movie, by guys, for guys like me who don’t dig rom-coms. I dubbed this movie as “cromantic bromance.” A bromcom, if you will. I mean, look at it. Do spy partners really hang out on their few days off? Sure they do, here. Makes sense since Pine and Hardy act more on a sibling rivalry vibe than defending freedom. And all over a stuffy Reese Witherspoon. Small wonder our heroes are set up as opposing forces. Like, duh. Their trifle to shake up their humdrum existence thwarting terrorists is a paper wad pissing contest. commented that when two guys fight over the same girl they’ll go to ridiculous ends to make each other look bad. In the end they will both look bad and rather foolish in the process. Passive aggressive comedy. I got it.

With that nailed to the wall, offered up this corker: “Their aim is magnificent!” Pretty sure she was talking about Pine and Hardy’s prowess with firearms, but in the abstract this was spot on. At least played for cringey laughs. So now I enter the time to perform an autopsy on the acting chops of our protags and “innocent” bystander. It’s two guys at polar ends vying for the affection of a very guarded, rather practical woman. A tough nut to bust crack.

Witherspoon has made a rep for herself as a self-sufficient, confident actress regardless of her roles. You can’t con her. From Walk The Line to Wild to Cruel Intensions to even The Man In The Moon, Pleasantville and Legally Blonde (before God) you cannot f*ck with her. Her drive is too strong. Her in War, mostly playing against type was refreshingly welcome. Nothing truly steely about her Lauren, which was almost satirical based against her cinematic CV, but made her for a fun, neurotic foil to our two dreamy, drooling operatives.

Still, I’ve never felt Witherspoon gets the solid respect she deserves. Don’t ask me why. She’s very a versatile actress with both great comic timing as well and not pull her cinematic punches with drama. Might be my own myopic view of her big roles being a good chunk like here in War: seemingly disposable and frothy stuff that sells mondo tickets. Consider Sweet Home Alabama, Legally Blonde and Cruel Intentions to name a few. These flicks were popular and the bills got paid, but I feel she really cut her teeth on projects the harrowing Wild and the coal black Election. The “just another pretty face” label has been a scarlet A on her head for too long mow. That Oscar? Given for hard work over a spectrum, or rather than a one off yet earnest role? Baby, baby, baby the late, journeyman, venerable, character actor Ned Beatty won his Best Supporting as a cameo in Network, for all of maybe 20 minutes of screen time, and his CV was lightyears long with just as many hits and misses (EG: Deliverance versus the original Superman franchise). Reese had to fend off a crazed Mark Wahlberg in her breakout role in Fear for decidedly most of that danged squalor. Taste is always subjective, and more times than not determines what road a talented actor may follow. What I’m driving at is that some may follow their muse whilst others will follow the paycheck. I, for one, do not believe Witherspoon is in it for a new mansion, but must play the course as it lays to earn some street cred.

Or she can have it both ways. Witherspoon has always been the thinking person’s Jolie. Sure, she’s pretty but never a dumb blonde (which may be why the Legally films are so chuckle worthy). Letting down that expected cinematic guard with War made her a shoo-in for more active, vibrant onscreen adventures, meaning those that aren’t as broad as the Legally movies (read: A Wrinkle In Time, Gone Girl and even Mud), but more esoteric. War was kinda like that, but with a rather mocking take. Wasn’t Lauren sorta being set up like some trophy between two lonely dudes? Like a sex object even; indie woman to dependent girl? And like how if Lauren had such sharp eyes she never got hip to FDR and Tuck’s scheming? Was it all of the clandestine spy stuff made solid. Or was Lauren weighing options? Uh, yeah, duh. With razor sharp Witherspoon in her prime, the joke gets skewed, the roles are reversed and all of it results in a classic error of the sexes. With lotsa booms. Reese is too clever to chose a role such as Lauren without knowing how to send it up. War was a great opportunity to make a send-up of her persona, which in he endgame was zany funny. I’n almost ashamed to make that claim. Blame K, dang it.

Pine and Hardy turned out to be surprisingly ideal for their roles. FDR, movie expert and smarm expert. Tuck, nice and safe guy in the wrong job. Yin and yang shocker. It helped that with War being all bromantic our two male leads had more experience as either portraying Captain Kirk and Venom (depending what color pill you took). Pine has been known to have nice comic timing also, as well as being well indoctrinated as an action guy. From young Captain Kirk to Wonder Woman’s squeeze to even fish-out-of-water CIA analyst Jack Ryan, he’s always likable with a quip as well as a phaser or whatever. Let’s face facts, the guy is super handsome and very disarming. Hell, would date him. And he’s more style than substance with War.

Unlike his foil. Tom Hardy’s roles tend to be ugly, both literally and physically with only a nub of humor as a last resort (EG: Mad Max: Fury Road, Venom or Bane in The Dark Knight Rises). Let’s just say his strength does not lie in selling the most cookies in his troop. Oddly enough his Tuck is kind, humble, self-effacing and f*cking nothing you saw in The Revenant. While FDR revels in frat boy joy as an operative, Tuck always tries to be subtle, even if it’s only to keep a low profile for his estranged family that still think he’s a travel agent. Oh Tuck’s a travel agent all right, he just never wanted one to recommend an easy getaway spot. Hardy’s a real smooth smoothie in War, as well as sympathetic and charismatic. Both roles are stereotypical, but the elan our spies play out with feel nothing but. These guys are the real deal: lonely guys. Who hasn’t been there, and who hasn’t looked for the opportunity to get out of the rut? Sure, it sounds like a new meme sensation. But come on, spies or no, license to kill or no hasn’t yer bro ever get hung up a girl so badly you’d be more than happy to take the problem off his hands? Heh heh.

I took War at face value. It was a farce as rom-com as well as spy movie. What I did not expect was the giddy deconstructionist/deterministic edge it had. If you think about it (once more) Shakespeare was very clever in his tragic plays to insert humor right before the sh*t went down, making it all the more terrible. War substituted terrible with collateral damage, also effective and sometime hawking up chucks ridiculous (True Lies anyone?). War delivered the chunks, however there was one glaring issue with the plot, and I mean a structural issue with the plot. Sometimes flicks like this demand whiz-bang with no questions asked…so long as the plot, no matter how sh*tty, follows some logic. War was a flick devoid of realistic logic, but there are still principle rules that must be obeyed. At least within the context of the plot.

Don’t make me quote determinism theory again.

Good. This was the only matter that bugged me with War, and it wasn’t about content. The B plot, Heinrich’s character motives were shoved to the back burner for too long, as if the final confrontation was just gravy, sideshow, blown load or just “The hell?” I knew War was an action/rom-com hybrid, but both kind of films always has the antagonist stewing the background, plotting his next move. We had swaths of plot bouncing along that were action fun with no sign of the big baddie. Heinrich’s plotting revenge as Maguffin. What ostensibly set the gears in motion. Come on. The villain lying in wait is a classic spy movie trope (EG James Mason in North By Northwest), which should have been skewed like everything else in War. Bummer. Might’ve invited more action zaniness.

Okay. So, what have we learned? A few things. Not all rom-coms are created equal. Director McG had a few tricks up his sleeve in delivering a movie that was fun via parody and self-awareness, not just action and one-liners. Tom Hardy can play a nice guy whilst still cracking skulls. Continental philosophy really has no place in a movie review. And has surprisingly good taste for fun films.

Mission accomplished.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. This Means War is fun, witty, winking, stupid and a rather clever lampoon of both spy capers and rom-coms. Overall, it’s a disposable, good waste of time. A movie that requires being watched alone with cold, leftover pizza at the ready.


The Stray Observations…

  • Joe Jackson’s “Look Sharp!” Get it?
  • “Don’t touch my grill.”
  • Cheeto Wednesday. Own it.
  • “Why is he listening to that old man?
  • Do any of the CIA’s satellite offices use fluorescent lighting?
  • “That’s mommy’s special milk!” Did Handler ad lib everything?
  • The knife, then the knife.
  • “…Then he entered the premises.”
  • The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” Get it?
  • “Steal this car for me?”
  • Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Get it?
  • “I’m Yoko!”
  • Sade’s “Smooth Operator.” Get it okay I’ll stop.
  • “We will see about that and about that we will see.”

The Next Time…

Commemorating RIORI‘s installment number 200(!), I’m going to make up for my past blunder and present Part Two of the James Brown biopic, Get On Up.

Can I count it off? Again?


 

RIORI Presents Installment #198: Vadim Perelman’s “House Of Sand And Fog” (2003)


The Film…

 


The Players…

Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, Ron Eldard, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jonathan Adhout and Frances Fisher.


The Plot…

When Kathy falls behind on her taxes, the bank seizes her family home and puts it up for auction. She’s had a bad streak ever since her husband ran out on her and she doesn’t earn enough to keep things liquid. Now she loses her home as the final insult to her injurious dire straits.

Colonel Behrani is a retired military man from Iran, now a US citizen. He’s been looking for the ideal bungalow for his wife and son to set down some roots, as well as reminiscent of their beach house on the Caspian coast back home. He feels he’s found the ideal home for his family here in the Pacific Northwest: Kathy’s.

Despite that the Colonel’s intentions are good and his claim legit, Kathy will not lose the house she grew up in to some strange foreigner without a fight.

Legal…or otherwise.


The Rant…

Let me tell you about the house I grew up in. Both of them. All three actually.

I was born in Dallas, whisked away as a baby to Wilkes-Barre, PA on the fringe of the Poconos. My folks told me later it was a nice place to live. I had to take their word for it because I was 2 at the time and therefore my first home was a mystery to me. You can’t go home again it seems. Still, the fact that I lived somewhere before my childhood gives me pause; you never really know home until you’ve left it. Again, I was too. We can get all elegiac later.

Post potty training I was whisked away with infant sister to the Lehigh Valley. It’s one of the last places in this country where metro holds hands with idyll well and populated by folks who don’t appreciate that. This isn’t my usual cynicism talking. The LV is vibrant, both culturally as well as topography, unfortunately too many of its denizens are ardent philosophers about where the grass is truly greener. My response? About five miles down the road. Might be a dairy farm there. Moo.

Everyone likes farms, especially when they’re right around the corner. My current residence is adjacent to a corn field and an apple orchard (more on this later). The Interstate is less than a mile away and I can barely hear it. Yeah, the LV’s the best of both worlds, however redolent with fussy locals who’ve never been to Dallas, let alone ever consulted a road atlas.

There’s a theme brewing here, you understand.

My first proper home (from ages 4 to 18) I grew up was in Allentown, PA. It was pretty average, and nothing like the Billy Joel tune. For one, the steel mill was in neighboring Bethlehem and I only spent one summer on the Jersey Shore. In sum, A-town never painted a picture. It was there and there I was from pre-K to high school with all the mundanity at the ready. This might sound a lot like your home town, but more John Mellencamp than Bruce Springsteen if you follow. I’m more a Mellencamp fan, so there.

I was all but four when my folks airlifted me from outside Scranton by way of Upstate New York (don’t ask) into A-town into one of the many homes that transient Air Products families used and abused and sold all within a year’s time. Cutting to the chase and drugged out fantasy from the 60s became a garish reality in the 70s, especially home decor. I was four and explored my new home day one stem to stern. What the hell were the previous occupants thinking? The color scheme of everything was the typical Ford-era nightmare, all avocado green, burnt orange and baby sh*t brown. The wallpaper in the hallway was like gold lamé, like the color off Freddie Mercury’s onstage cape. Stucco ceilings, incongruous wallpapers in the bathrooms, and someone had lopped away the original wooden bannister and replaced it with a wrought iron one, like the kind that would be useful outside. And who the f*ck has wall to wall carpeting in the freaking kitchen?

I was four. Welcome home.

I mention all this is because no matter what condition your house is in it’s irrelevant to how one makes their home.

Here was the good stuff. I had my own room, whilst two sisters had to share a bedroom until I left for college. We had a big backyard with a jungle gym and a sandbox and eventually a small garden I tended to. Nothing survived, but it made me feel like I was manipulating nature to coax withered tomatoes, and that’s always worthwhile. We had a finished basement to play in, where I displayed my Lego models, and later my NES collection and console. The walls were real pine, and easy tack posters to. I ransacked every map from my folks’ monthly ish of NatGeo and turned the place into an atlas, both of Earth and the rest of our planets. Mom wasn’t too keen on it all, but hey, it sure beat all the Mad magazine fold-outs I used to have. What, she worry?

Later still I hooked up cable TV and a beater VHS so I could abuse to watch late night talk shows far away from anyone else as well as my odd, pirated/dubbed videos from the local Blockbuster. In retrospect I always wondered why the staff there never raised an eyebrow with I rented a VCP, the latest titles and a handful of blank cassettes. The FBI never came to my door. Funny what sticks. As for late night TV? I’ve always been a night owl, and staying up late back then to watch Conan on his first show was a good way to end the day. He always had the best musical guests.

Like most of you out there in the blogosphere it might’ve taken some time to settle into your digs. Betcha a bit of the above woolgathering might apply. All that’s not necessarily nostalgia per se, but after a few years your house gradually takes on the identity of your home, security, quirks, spoken and unspoken rules alike. And yes my parents corrected all the LSD-meets-HGTV phantasmagoria over the course of 20 years, especially including no more greasy-ass deep pile in the scullery (goddam burnt orange, the color of satanic eczema). That and the railing was restored to its proper wooden glory. Way easier to slide down.

Like I said, quirks. All homes have them. Even more so with my second home.

It wasn’t really my home. It wasn’t even the ‘rents. It was my grandparents’ summer rental on Fire Island. I touched upon the place way, way back in The Way, Way Back installment. My grandparents actually had two rentals. One was a friend of my grandma’s who had moved away to Massachusetts and had no interest in crashing there for any further summers. For like 10 years, me and my sibs spent every July there in the only slum in town. The place was a blight on the shiny cottages that made up the municipality. Neglected (I had to once one crawl up the roof with fence slats and bailing wire to replace a screen that was the foyer for the mosquitoes hovering over the above level septic tank. Good times) so much so that the master bath had to be upgraded in the late 80s to meet code, or else. I went from a kid to bathing in a clawfoot iron tub during the Cold War years to the then state-of-the-art plastic plumbing. I opted for the outdoor shower meant for after a day on the beach. Like I say again, quirks.

Despite its compact size the house was thoughtfully big. Its architect knew that this place was a summer home and demanded maximum space at an economical package. Wanna jam a lot of people on a summer rental for maximum yield? Right, lotsa bedrooms. Between me, my two sisters, mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, aunt, other aunt and uncle we we able to bunk up together without sharing a bed, and the only bedroom I had was the ignored one adjacent to the master bath. This summer home—called a “Coffey House” after its designer, a man known for efficiency and damn the zoning rules—was a place designed to invite family members to hang out, if only for a month. For good for ill.

No shock here, but most of it was for the good. I got away for many Julys to splash in the ocean, ride my bike, listen to my stereo at odd volumes (this meant both CDs and radio shows. I always picked up the good stuff from the City late at night), beachcomb, abuse my NES on a daily basis and abuse myself with caged booze and weed with friends on the beach with no full moon to rat us out. Far, far away from landlocked PA, with next to no traffic to avoid. None, actually. There were no cars in that little ville. It was oh so quiet when the HPS lights sputtered to life. Curfews were pointless. It was an island; where were we to go? I mean me and my then clutch of high schoolers on leave squatting on the pier and talking heady teenage sh*t well until midnight. Time well spent.

My summers at the grand ‘rents place was where I flex my mental muscles in a creative fashion. I made driftwood sculptures, read a lot of my fave books to this day, wrote stories on my dad’s laptop and discovered Van Morrison, which I punished my family with on my beater jambox 25/8. We both could do worse. It was that kind of rambling that molds one’s teenage outlook on life and what it could be, with no noisy cars around and a Discman spinning at around 9 PM playing REM’s Reckoning at mind shearing volume. “Harborcoat” escorted me to the pier. Nice that.

As of 2005 I live here, still in the LV. Bethlehem, the neighboring city to A-town where the actual steel mills were. It’s a very old farmhouse, built well before 1776 and had been expanded as late as 2007. It’s a tangle of local history. Many different families have lived here. To cut to the quick, my room is the whole of the loft that is the third floor. Lotsa room for a bed, a chaise lounge, way too many books, way too many DVDs, WAY too many retro game consoles (everyone by Sega, including a dead Game Gear), my clothes, this desk and this iMac (which contains all my writings as well as my obscenely large iTunes library). All bow down to arrested development.

The kids’ room is right below, decorated in a scheme we’ll call post-modern Goth. A giant collage dedicated to My Chemical Romance. Box spring and mattress on the floor, no frame. My old beater CD jambox with the prerequisite stack of Paramore albums at the ready. Make up station and her Precision bass and amp nearby. Way too many lightening chargers. I durst not touch any of it. Might ruin her system. Did I mention her color scheme is black and grey dappled with black? All hail adolescence.

The rest of the place is just there. Kitchen. Bathrooms. A basement that has my washer, dryer and and my infeasible comic book library. Some back room with a fireplace that gets a lot of use in cooler months; that’s where I do most of my reading. It’s also where my turntable is, as well as my infeasible record collection. Also some porch screened in that gets a lot of use in the warmer months; that’s where I do the rest of my reading. Also where my the bird feeders are, just outside (as well as those stupid, hungry squirrels). It’s home. A (former) chef’s life is frustration incarnate, but pays okay, and the need to wind down into comfort is as vital as if you were criminal lawyer, a firefighter, a nurse or a misguided writer. I’m fortunate enough to even have a fireplace. Like my old college roomie claimed, “Home is where you hang your ass.”

Perhaps you may have gleaned from this rant’s tone that home is where you find it, if not mold it. Why am I telling you all this? Simple. a house is not a home until you stamp your mark on it. That garish tableau about my childhood home my parents sent into rehab became a fine place to live. That run down shack of my grandparents was a fine place to waste away the summer. My place now? Well, the Wi-Fi is spotty in places, but blame the stone walls. The mortgage is getting paid on time. We have ducks and geese in the yard since we’re so close to the creek, along with duck and goose poop littering the driveway. That and the driveway repaved last year. And permanent residence of a couple of Northern Cardinals who always swoop by the large bird feeder, regardless of which yard I plant it according to the seasons. It’s all fine.

All this claptrap makes a house a home. It’s an abstract thing. What you may consider hearth and home I may never approach without the aid of a service dog and a Geiger counter. Again, we could all do worse.

Or for the better. Wherever we grew up, the concept of home was informed by our presence. What we did there, what were learned there, what we ate there, etc. A house is not a home blah blah blah. We all dig that line, because it’s true. Regardless of knotty pine walls, bad carpeting, dry rotten screens, carpeted kitchens, wallpaper that Roger Daltrey might’ve used as a cape at Woodstock and who the f*ck carpets a kitchen? All in all, the quirkiness of your home makes it more than a house, right? And eventually when that house feels like a home, questionable decor and curious angles become like, well, family. Reassuring, as ugly as a home could be.

Now hear this: if ever you’ve moved away from your old home and old neighborhood, do years later you wonder who’s living there now? Can’t go home again and all that. Because there are new residents, well, residing in your old home. No way. That was my home. Did the new owners change things around? You know, to better suit their living? Like carpeting in the kitchen? Perish the thought.

But it’s not your home anymore. Hasn’t been for years. In truth it stopped being your home once you left it, either literally and/or metaphorically. All that is left are the memories, those tones of home. And you know what I’ve said about the myopic lens of nostalgia, and nostalgia is fleeting since it dwells in the past. Gone. But you in your present home do not dwell in the past. Right?

Do you? Don’t you?


The Story…

As it’s been said you can’t go home again. Especially when the bank puts up your home for auction and you get evicted.

Such is Kathy’s (Connelly) predicament. Her husband left her, as well as left a ton of unpaid bills and bank statements getting ever higher with each day. She’s teething her way through rehab, can’t stop smoking and can’t stand her surroundings. Not her family home. Place was built from scratch by her Uncle, perched high above on the Northwest cliffs overlooking the Pacific. Its a nice piece of property plagued by ghosts and overflowing ashtrays. Now the bank tells her to vacate or else.

Enter one Massoud Behrani (Kingsley). A former colonel in the Iranian Air Force, he decides to move to America to set down some fresh roots. After leaving his bungalow in disgrace, the Colonel’s been working odd jobs to pay for a new home. He comes across a notice of a bank seized property up for auction. Kathy’s place.

Kathy is kicked out with nowhere to go and the Colonel moves in. Finally a place to call home for his wife (Aghdashloo) and teenaged son (Adhout). It may not be on the Caspian, but it’s better than staying in a hotel. Kathy’s loss is the Colonel’s gain. There is all this paperwork to validate both efforts.

Kathy’s claim has all but evaporated. Her uncle built that house from tinder, and although she never liked the place at least it was her place. Hers.

Home is where you hang your hat. Or your face. Or the end of your rope.

Otherwise it is just property.


The Review…

Here’s something for you. It’s considered one of the most major, forgivable plot holes in modern American cinema. And it barely relates to this week’s film. Check it out.

Unless you’ve being living in the Duggar’s family compound for the past 40 years or so, you’ve most likely have seen Raiders Of The Lost Ark. You know, Indiana Jones’ first (and best) foray into archaeological action and the problems messing with religious artifacts. The plot hole is introduced in the first act, kind of like foreshadowing. Indy recovers the golden idol with the mass of your average sand castle, absconding with it only to have his smarmy rival Belloq steal it away. All that trouble just to lose the fool thing, as well as Alfred Molina in the process.

The plot hole is thus: Indy never needed to be in the movie. The Nazis got the Ark in the endgame, despite Jones’ nosing around. So why include our intrepid albeit goofy sand-sifting hero in the first place? Simple. Indy was the lead, but he was also the audiences’ avatar. We saw and adventured through the movie through Jones’ eyes. He was the audience, or we were he. Without Harrison Ford, Raiders would come across as nothing more than a never-ending episode of The Mystery Of Oak Island. At least with Raiders we got to see some gold. And melting Nazis.

How does that classic globetrotter have anything to do with House Of Sand And Fog? The answer is more esoteric. Whereas with Raiders, Jones—our accident prone hero and tour guide—didn’t need be on retainer. With House we had no proper antagonist. House was a drama of duality, but neither party was on the side of the wrong or the right. Heck, the only possible sinister aspect of the film was Eldard’s misguided cop, and even he was an opportunistic ‘tard. No spoiler there, really.

Here’s another analogy I wish to drop. Yes, I figured Spielberg was a smart enough director to try and recreate the action and fun of those old Alan Quatermain shorts he adored in his youth. In sum, Raiders was a comic book adventure and us the readers as hero. Vicarious film fun at its best, duh. I feel that there is a twisted side of “going along for the ride” as with Indy and company. Cutting a film informed by what the director believes the audience wants. We don’t want to see an absence of a protagonist, nor do we want to be fed what a protagonist “should be.” I bring this little nugget to light as a response as to how harrowing House was. Who do you get behind?

Now for something completely different.

Not much of a surprise I’m an otaku. An anime fan, mostly of the s/f kind. I’ve seen many anime adopting a patch of a Western aesthetic, and I’m not talking about the bowdlerized yet venerated Gatchaman legacy. Disregarding the 80’s take on GoLions (AKA Voltron), which was wedged into American sensibilities, I’m going to talk about an action anime that was deliberately designed for Western audiences. Before I go there, allow me to riddle you this: I once had a co-worker who through her college studies got to spend a week in Berlin (she was a language student). I advised her that when offered some lemonade (in re: soda and/or pop) it was not likely going to be lemonade. The Germans refer to soda and soft drinks as limonade. Kinda like folks around Atlanta call every kind of soda “Coke.”

Point? Stuff can get lost in translation.

In any event, director Osama Dezaki unleashed the incredibly violent, incredibly stupid actioner Golgo 13: The Professional. It was about the ultimate hitman for hire, often hung up with distractions of unwanted vagina, unwanted money and anything that got in the way of offing unwanted wealthy people. Duke Togo (yes, that was his name) had the eye of a sniper blessed with zero pulse. It was one of the first anime designed directly to appeal to American audiences. And it was awful. Admittedly the minimal plot threads offered a keen twist, but the primitive CGI (even for 1989. Dire Straits’ 1985 “Money For Nothing” music video was more innovative) was as much an insult to American feelings as Beavis & Butthead was 20 some years ago. At least that brainless duo was funny. If you ever are curious to watch Golgo 13 all the way through, you can almost hear Dezaki shrug and say, “What?”

In sum, a director should never assume what the audience needs—not wants—to watch. Director Perelman is Ukrainian, once part of the “Evil Empire,” and please forgive the stereotyping. Russian literature—and by extension classic cinema—is inspired by failure, desperation and pining for the Earth to be engulfed by the sun ready to go nova and not leave fresh towels in the hotel bath. Doubt me? Here: what’s the inspiration for Tolstoy? Death. Dostoevsky? Murder. Gogol? Grotesquerie. Solzhenitsyn? Isolation. Russian artists have been given the short shrift for their muses, yet often a spade is a spade. Life can often be harsh so it’s best we talk about in frankly. For example, Ivan Illych died chasing a dislodged kidney as his endgame. Who’s hungry?

The Russian muse is a grim one. House was a very terse, bleak movie. I dare not question director Perelman’s motives since misery equals company. Like Golgo 13 his take on Dubus’ existential novel, nothing will go well, end well, let alone end well properly. Meaning a sense of full circle closure. By House’s raison d’être, that’s not the point. The movie was always about how the other half lives, as heartless as what that invites.

Let’s get this out of the way again. House is devoid of both protags or antagonists. Both primaries have very real, very honest motives for loving in the titular house. Yet the dynamic is all about a challenge, a conflict where both lines are drawn for the same goal: a place to live. And stay.

There’s a mystery there. A few actually. More on that later.

Besides the terse melodrama, I kinda figured out the message of House, and the polite discord it invited. Namely, families—regardless of size—are alike all over. It may have been the sole pinion that we as the audience could dance around. Like I spoke about earlier with my houses as homes theory, family is what makes a house a home. It’s based mostly on motive, meaning the desire to set down roots. In House, Kathy shouldered her “home” when it once becomes a burden. The Colonel spies her house as an ideal home to set down roots in America proper. It’s all an ideal, and always fading. Houses are physical, homes are ethereal. The responsibilities are equal with both. Again, families are alike all over.

Which my be the heart of how the tragic played out. Again, House had no antagonists. Just a pair of desperate people trying to live their lives for the good. Proper? Kathy was trying to get her sh*t together, battling booze, bills and a bailed husband. The Colonel just wanted to have a decent place for his family to live like back in Iran. Where was the adversary? None really. There was the theme of fleeing an unpleasant history afoot. It was not that overt, however, nor something corporeal wreaking havoc on our principals. It was some calumniator; an organic, all too familiar entity that ruins the lives of people all the time.

Red tape. Bureaucracy.

There may be spoilers ahead, but with House that might be a matter or interpretation.

Kathy lost her house due to red tape, unfairly and in error. The Colonel obtained her house thanks to the banks operating under false pretenses unbeknownst to Behrani. mentioned why not the two make a deal? Like Kathy be the landlady and charge rent to the Colonel while she took up residence in the guest house? A fair point, but then this might’ve resulted in more conflict, which the plot already had plenty of. No. Events unfolded in a way that there had to be a clear winner, which there would be none. Too many outside forces were inadvertently colluding against Kathy and the Colonel and the struggle was taken out on each other. If felt like divide and conquer where only the banks and the lawyers profited. Like I said, bureaucracy. At its finest.

Connelly was hot on the heels of her Oscar win for A Beautiful Mind. Her performance as Alicia Nash—the long suffering wife of a schizophrenic math genius—carved out a nice niche as a skill for playing both desperate and vulnerable. This may have not been lost on the esteemed scenarist Akiva Goldsman when the casting call came around for House. Here Connelly is a different kind of desperate. Unlike in Mind, she invited her predicament, wallowing in ennui, many empty wine bottles that should not be there and an ashtray that also should not be so convenient. She hates her house and all the history it contains and only comes to value it when the place gets taken away. Unlike Alicia Nash, Kathy is hard to sympathize with. I mean, if you were at the bottom of it all, wouldn’t you still be secure with a roof over your head? In essence, when Kathy accidentally punctured her foot it said it all for me. So little, too late.

Desperation worked both ways in House. Yes, yes. It’s criminal to lose one’s home. It’s often funny/tragic when it gets bought by new owners. Recall my ribald recollection of the fever dream of my first home. Took my folks maybe 15 years to correct all the design schemes cooked up by too much deep pile and low cut 70s cocaine. When it came time to leave I couldn’t even fathom any new occupants taking reign over my family’s “perfect” domicile.

Of course I was wrong. A house is a house, objective. A home is subjective, right? We’ve well established that. For the Colonel, Kathy’s house was more than a home. It was a retreat, a refuge. A fresh start, but from what?

If you paid attention watching House (as assured am I that you did after you reloaded the popcorn), it came quickly apparent that the story took place in the 80s. The cars, the tech, the fashions. K took note of the retro, glass Mountain Dew bottles strewn about Kathy’s place. All screamed Trickle Down theory, and equally beaten down. In early scenes we learned that soon after the Colonel earned his citizenship he had to work menial jobs to make ends meet—lightyears beyond his esteemed military career back in the Middle East. He kept up appearances for his family until the time was right to set down roots; Horace Greeley might have had the right idea. Here’s the itch: if the Colonel was doing so well back in Iran, why emigrate to the US with rocks in his lunchpail? Why was Kathy’s old house so damned the house?

History lesson. Number 2 pencils only.

The aforementioned was implied in the movie, and only in a fart-and-you’ll-miss-it scene. It spoke volumes to me. Moving on.

If you remember when Coke changed its formula to Pepsi’s or the Sega Master System being rival to the NES you might also remember Oliver North on trial implicated in the Iran Contra Scandal all over the major networks. No? Help is on the way.

Back in the bad ol’ 80s, it came to light that the US secretly sold weapons to Iran as quid pro quo to sell contraband weapons for the uprising in Nicaragua. In sum, a global village designed to pay Peter by robbing Paul. This was illegal, by the way, and way too much money changing went down. Needless to say, many in the Iranian military wanted out before this turned into a very hot potato. Many in the Iranian took flight, claiming sanction in the US, their bestest of besties.

In the movie, when the Colonel’s son insists to his dad the really didn’t sell those jets, the man looks away and says something sardonic. Like it was just a necessary business decision. Or it may have been done for the greater good. Or for him. It was a throwaway scene, but it wasn’t. Small wonder why the Colonel and his family fled Iran in such a desperate, haphazard way, Especially when Nadi got so pissy about their new digs. noted “Why make changes to the house if its only temporary?” That was another part of the puzzle regarding the Colonel’s intentions about what should be just so. Also, why was Nadi always left out of the loop?

Get it now? No? That’s okay. Pencils down.

also noticed there was a lot more not being told. She commented background noise. True. She’s sharp and was correct. The drama generated essential tension, but rather removed from the dramatis personae. This story was a about a house, the main character, the pinion. However both principals had waffling reasons to own the house, but had no sincere investment. It became an existential pissing contest. A matter of control, but of what? Neither protags were set up to gain anything, and the actual house was nothing more than a chess piece. The plot circled around loss. All was a very thorough exercise in futility. No one cares to care. Dire.

Okay, let’s chat about our leads. This being melodrama, as well as dual character study there were two sides. Overall, their impetus was fear. Insecurity was the watchword, and since home and hearth always means stability, Kathy and the Colonel’s regard to the house was the total opposite. Did I mention that? As mentioned, Connelly excelled at desperate, but here only after her ambivalent home was taken away. She vacillated between indifferent and afraid of her place. She always had this wide-eyed gaze expecting the inevitable, but also denying that time would ever come. Until it does, then it’s all shock and awe and how the hell did I get evicted from my uncle’s house that I despise? Being kicked out on the street invited reality right quick.

Now let’s chat about Kathy’s backstory, a matter that always informs the first act. She’s been abandoned, teething through sobriety, “not smoking” and always shuffling through a pile of bills that aren’t addressed to her. And she always has an excuse for all of it. Sad, and there’s another aspect of Kathy’s denial that is very potent as well as explanatory for her circumstances. Recall her blankness. I figured the word “drink” had a dual meaning.

Sure, escaping the grip of booze is very hard, but Kathy’s station was twisted. Most folks who attend AA are trying to get their sh*t together, clean up and get real. Kathy was stuck (and was documented at length in the book), and that sense of stuck oozes from Connolly’s performance. Hell, she doesn’t even like her house, but it sure beats her car. Throughout the story, Kathy would simply not give up the ghost, perhaps because the house was where everything…stopped, as did her “life.” It’s often been said that living in past is damaging, but what about a damaged past that one wears like a sign of strength? In her endgame, her attitude about her tenuous grasp on life is akin to the child who breaks their toys so other kids can’t play with them. No one else—especially like the “upstanding” Colonel—gets to ruin her home. Petulance, if not fast out brattiness was Kathy’s motive.

It goes without saying that Sir Ben Kingsley is an esteemed, versatile actor. If you have any doubts—of which you shouldn’t—check out the Thunderbirds and/or The Physician installments, or just watch Ghandi or Dave or Sexy Beast. I always took note that KIngley’s features are also very versatile. He was born in India when under British rule, therefore has a certain refined cadence in delivering lines that always sound natural. His lineage also may contain Russian and Jewish stock, so, yeah diversity. How an actor delivers their lines are just as important as their motion and subtle facial action, and Kingsley rules with that. His skill of nuance was essential in spinning House‘s story.

Kingsley’s Colonel, at first, comes across a dignified man. More like stiff. Later working odd jobs to earn enough capital to buy Kathy’s bank action house, he comes across as at ease, albeit a bit—how could I say this?—slimy. Ulterior motive haunts this man, but for what end? Just as Kathy’s death spiral takes hold, the Colonel attains a death grip stiff up lip. I’m just buying a house; nothing to see here. Recall what I said about Iran-Contra above? There’s nothing wrong. This is fine. Look at the view! Enjoy it while we have it because we must move on. The ulterior matter. It’s just a house at an opportune time. A home may lie elsewhere. May, which is a calculated lie. Kingsley comes across as knowing, but really just a different color of insecurity like Kathy’s. She didn’t want the home but needed it. The Colonel doesn’t need the home but wanted it. Kingsley’s rigid, confident, worldly manque belies fear. Fear being uncovered. Kingsley’s stiff upper lip comes across as a desperate man, and his latest property purchase was nothing more a prop, a canard. He once was a decorated soldier, but not anymore. Not since the jets his son implied. Kingsley’s stalwart perform and was both proud accessory and unyielding pride. The man was great. And scary.

Here’s the last part of the cast’s trifecta. Ron Eldard crashed onto the scene way back in the 90s as the traffic cop who pulled over a “blind” Al Pacino in Scent Of A Woman. A former Coast Guard sailor, and all that matters. This was Eldard’s best dramatic role. Maybe his true first. I felt that his Lester was the true “bad guy” with House. Lester carried himself as very immature as well as opportunistic, much worst that our principals. Regarding Kathy’s predicament was keen to take note of there’s always flirting if they’re just “friends.” K also commented about trust birthed from despair (my sentence, her insight). Aren’t cops (ipso facto) trained to follow the law, no matter how cling…no excuse. How desperate was Kathy to set up digs with an unfaithful father, husband and cop? Misery loves company—invites it. It was the best invitation Kathy had had in forever.

As always, pacing is my red-headed stepchild. House‘s pace was smooth and creeping. Although we learned about Kathy and the Colonel’s ulterior motives regarding the property, there was that mystery afoot. The aforementioned theory about a flight from the Iran Contra mess. Why did Kathy’s husband leave her holding the check? Neither of these questions were adequately answered, and that may have been the director’s aim. Sh*t rolls downhill, regardless of direction. In sum the final act kept you guessing. Not exactly nail biting, more rather unconsciously poking at that sore tooth with your tongue.

This was a very difficult installment to write, which is why it took so long to post. In my cinematic memory I can’t name many films where the resolution is bittersweet and there are no clear winners. Or clear losers, for that matter. RashomonDog Day Afternoon, The Third ManTime Bandits and almost every movie in John Carpenter’s filmography ends on an ambivalent down note, House was no different, considering the James Joyce-esque touch where the end is the beginning is the end. A breathless cycle of loss and gain and loss. If there was any carp I had with House is was that there was too much melodrama, namely anytime Eldard entered the picture. He was good, but oily, and his taking advantage of Kathy’s vulnerably was the stuff of mid-level soap operas. It was some forced drama got injected just to hold our attention. Patchwork. We already learned that this caper would not end well. Pummeled into minds was more accurate. Scenes like those tasted like being led by our noses. That being said, House was lean and mean, but to make the story better it needed to be a bit leaner.

K commented that so much was wrong in the name of right. No memories were worth all this trouble. Well said, kid.

This is why you can never go home again. It’s not there.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild relent it. House was a good movie, no argument. However it was so tragic and bleak that repeat viewings would just be an exercise in masochism. Once and done, I say.


The Musings…

  • “Things are not as they appear.”
  • It was only matter of time for the racism factor to appear.
  • ‘Boycott Grapes?’
  • Don’t drive by the house. Never get out of the boat. Never rub another man’s rhubarb…
  • “There’s no one to call.”
  • Lester sure has a lot of friends.
  • “They’re already at home more than I ever was.”
  • That stupid dripping faucet.
  • “I just wanted things to change.”
  • Wait. Super Nintendo?
  • “I feel found.”

The Next Time...

Super spies Tom Hardy and Chris Pine are both vying for the affections of Reese Witherspoon.

Of course you know This Means War.


 

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


The Film…


The Players…

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


The Plot…

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

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

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

…Hold up.


The Rant…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please allow me that. Please?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay. Don’t allow me that.

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

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

*squealing tires*

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

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

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


The Story…

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

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

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

…Three years later…

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

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

And all Jen wanted was her own office.


The Review…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*nom nom nom*

Oh, crap.


The Verdict…

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


The Stray Observations…

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

The Next Time…

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


 

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


The Film…


The Players…

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


The Plot…

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

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

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

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


The Rant…

Ever hear of the “Eisenstein Effect?”

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

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

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

*clickbait*

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

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

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

*cicadas buzzing*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score.


The Effect…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please deposit another 25 cents to continue.


The Story…

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

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

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

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

Click AGREE to comply.


The Review…

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

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

I’ll see myself out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*leaves rustling*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*burp*

That was enlightening. Back to the review.

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

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

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

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

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

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

WARNING: TECHNOBABBLE AHEAD!

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

Whew. Yer welcome.

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

Whew v2.0.

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

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

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

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

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

Hear what I’m screaming AMPAS?

From the deck of the Potemkin: End of line.


The Verdict…

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


The Stray Observations…

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

The Next Time…

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

Huh?

Pull!


 

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


The Film…


The School…

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


The Plot…

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

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

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

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

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


The Rant…

Got a meaty one for you this week. Ready?

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

*applause*

Yer welcome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Story…

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

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

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

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

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


The Review…

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

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

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

*crickets*

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

Swing and a miss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go fish.


The Verdict…

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


The Stray Observations…

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

The Next Time…

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