RIORI Presents Installment #210: George Tilman, Jr’s “The Hate U Give” (2019)


The Film…


The Players…

Amandala Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Lamar Johnson, Issa Rae and Algee Smith, with KJ Apa, Sabrina Carpenter, Marcia Wright, Lonnie “Common” Lynn and Anthony Mackie.


The Plot…

Starr lives in a lower-income black neighborhood, but she attends a largely white prep school. Torn between two worlds she knows how to keep her balance, even if the center may not hold.

Then the tipping point hits home. Starr becomes a witness to her childhood friend shot to death by a white police officer. Starr now finds herself bound between those two worlds as she tries to do the right thing regardless of her upbringing, her neighborhood, her education…her family, who always taught her to follow her gut.

But thanks to the ensuing media circus surrounding the shooting Starr’s guts are totally wrenched.


The Rant…

Here’s a serious question, and if you gauge it even-minded you know I ain’t fooling: Ever been harassed by the cops?

I mean cops. Not police officers. I respect those guys. Follow the difference. Police officers try to maintain law and order (kinda like that TV franchise), serve the community at large and occasionally hunt down the bad guys at large, too. Growing up we got to know the local officers on a friendly basis. They would tool around on patrol in our neck of the woods—which was usually a quiet beat—and would chat up the neighbors. They were as threatening as our local mail carrier, and he carried pepper spray. Simply put, I never panicked when that prowler was cruising down my street. Why? I wasn’t doing anything wrong so those guys didn’t give a f*ck about me. I was too young to rob a bank. I was too young to have a bank account.

On the other hand cops are f*cking bullies. Throwing their weight around, looking down on civvies with their whining, thumbs always hitched on their gun belt, and usually—but not always—reflecting the stereotype that they are registered at the local Dunkin’ Donuts. The police don’t harass you; they wanna fix the situation quick and be out of your hair. There are crack dealers hovering around the high school. But cops

Again I hate bullies. I mean I really f*cking hate bullies. Had to deal with many over the years. When the police see fit to hire these men-children who excelled at scoring illicit lunch money in high school and then give them access to firearms and souped-up squad cars with blinding spotlights that when they hit your face there is no way to not look under the influence of something. Makes one wonder: What did I do? It’s usually fear that wafts off your nervous face, even if you’re white. Or black. Or Martian.

Here’s a simple metric trending how one should and should not be considered as an officer of the law:

Q: “Why do you want to join the Force?”

Correct A: “I want to serve the community, uphold the law and keep the peace.”

Incorrect A: “I want a gun.”

You follow?

Here’s a story. My kid has issues. Forget that, she has the lifetime subscription. Teenage anxiety disorder on Red Bull. She sometimes lashes out and gets impetuous for no real reason. On more than one occasion she had called the cops on me because she did not like how I disciplined her, like when I caught her hacking into my PayPal account. The outcome was no more PayPal and I reset my account. Never raised a hand. When the sh*t went down, either theft or hiding crappy grades, in her mind panic felt it proper to call on the local authorities to settle the matter. I grew to dislike being on a first name basis with the local colonial police officer as first responder and offering up coffee. Again.

The final time this circus act happened the familiar officer had a ride along. He was a rookie; the officer told me so. Told you I was on a casual basis with man. His newb  was all hale and hearty and nervous and full of Boston Cremes. First night out according to the officer, very green. Over many months I got to know the officer. He was police, said little, by the book and f*cking tired of visiting my house for the same bullsh*t. Freshen your mug? Nah. The man probably felt like leaving to go sweat some actual perp.

His ride along could not but help follow the rulebook, and even the rulebook had creases. He demanded info, but wouldn’t let me speak. The officer warned me about his hungry attitude prior while we chatted and ignored coffee in the kitchen. Oh boy. The newb was pandering, condescending and husky. Nothing I did not say swayed his imperious conduct. My kid was sniffling in the next room and the cop sweated her, insisting she went to the hospital. He was 25, over 6 feet tall and could not keep his thumb off his sidearm. The kid was 10 and rubbing her eyes. You figure it out.

Needless to say the trip to the ER was brief. The consequences of her small potatoes crime had set in and she wanted to go back home. The cop was having none of it, and blamed me for putting her in the hospital. Did I mention the cop put the idea in her mind and drive her to the ER himself? In a prowler? I followed close behind. Once at the ER the officer just shrugged because the cop wasn’t technically out of line, but when my kid insisted on wanting to go back home and the cop would not let up. His superior had had enough. He was tired and frustrated to have to “follow the book.” The kid wants to go home. Not in our jurisdiction. Good night. We went home. In my car. No more Hello Kitty accessories anymore. Too bad, so sad.

There’s a funny coda to all that melodrama. My mom lives in a sorta subdivision, populated by old farm homes in a pocket neighborhood. There once was a bridge that connected the drive to the main street, and also a right-of-way leading out the back. The bridge was condemned, therefore there was now only one way in and out of the neighborhood. Only a single thoroughfare, which was admittedly inconvenient.

For a time there was a police car stationed near the intersection that led into the neighborhood. You see, the road was once used as a shortcut for people to get to the main road quicker, which was illegal because the right-of-way was to be used exclusively by emergency vehicles and the residents in the neighborhood. Lots of drivers sped like the all the demons in Hell were chasing them. My mother believes in the Golden Rule and is a very cautious driver. Me too because, you know, cops.

The cop pulled my mom over. She was not speeding. She followed the rules of the road. She did not have to hear the siren go whoop-whoop. My mom pulled over just shy of the right-of-way as the squad car creeped up behind. The cop squeezed his way out of his ride and started flipping that clip book stalking up to her car with all the drama of molasses dripping from a jar in January.

It was the same cop! The newbie. Mr Krispy Creme. He tried to cite my mom on trespassing. Again, there was that very obvious sign at the entry to the right of way saying it was not a through street, and only residents and emergency vehicles were permitted. It was clear as day on the sign. My mom mentioned to the cop that she recognized him (from his visit weeks earlier, natch) and he knew where she damned well lived.

“What? Do you want to read the address on my license?”

Face was lost, and my mom was free to go. She later called the colonial police to complain. What I just wrote was pretty much verbatim. Smelled like the rookie was trying to dole out tickets, not enforce what the sign said. Again cops are f*cking bullies, and there’s that thin blue line to consider.

What’s that you say? What blue line? I’ll tell ya. Back in the day that expression mean that the police were the first defense against crime and civil unrest. Fine. Nowadays the phrase is akin to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” What happens in the precinct stays in the precinct. For a good examination of this philosophy check out Pacino’s turn in the biopic Serpico. Fifty years on the film still resonates and perhaps explain why cops—white cops in particular—are quick to put holes into non-whites. For a reference contact Daryl Gates. Moving on.

The history of our modern police force is a tricky one. The concept did not originate with the precept of upholding the law. No. Hate to break this to you, but in an early iteration police officers were assigned to capture and punish runaway slaves back in the bad old days of the Civil War. Upholding the “law” to be sure, but the motive was wrong and the end result was wrong, even by 21st Century standards. Or 20th. Or 18th. Legalized bullying.

It was antebellum South. During the Colonial days the proto-policemen were more of less just glorified night watchmen. Think mall security. In the South the Confederate cops were bounty hunters, paid to hunt down runaways. Key word: hunt. These “lawmen” were not driven to serve and protect. There were recently liberated n*ggers on the run and needed to be brought to “justice.” Some things never change according to the nightly news. Consider this and compare:

An old school North Carolina police badge (ca 1860s):

 

A modern police badge (no disrespect to Illinois PD):

How far we’ve come. Yeah, it’s just a shape. But so is a swastika. No, I’m not saying cops are Nazis. Of course not. However why wear your proverbial heart on your sleeve like above? If a modern badge represents law and order, then why do so many cops ignore that precept? Consider the matter of the Trayvon Martin’s murder or George Floyd’s been strangled to death. If you have been watching the news as of…forever, cops tend to panic and mow down black and brown people at an alarming rate. And nothing is done to correct it. Even Derek Chauvin—known to abuse his badge—got off lucky for killing Floyd (and he might definitely get shanked while in stir). But what about the multiple school shootings that have plagued this nation for over a decade? Most caught are white and go under analysis. These demons killed kids and as punishment they get hugs. If it was a black guy who aimed the rifle he would be hanged. Lynched.

There is a kind of precedent here. I was alive in the early 90s, and was witness to the Rodney King trial on the major news networks.  For the uninformed, King was driving drunk on LA’s I-210. The cops pulled him over, dragged him out of his car and proceeded to beat the pulp out him. All four of them. And they walked, despite the whole tragedy being caught on video. It was understood that King was mixed up with drug dealing, and so was Floyd. Did they need to be beaten and killed for it? No  duh. Then was the undoing for the notorious “command presence” of the LAPD, and the bigoted chief of police Daryl Gates threw up his hands in frustration and let the n*ggers run riot, which is what they did. Again, no duh. The biggest, nastiest mob mentality since the Watts riots in the 60s. All because the bullies—the cops—got off with a slap on the wrist. If that.

A final scenario for you who have yet to discern the difference between police officers and cops. Say you got pulled over for speeding, and all too common moving violation. I don’t know about you, but whenever I pulled over all the nasty, though irrelevant, misdeeds run through my mind. What else could I be stung with? That’s nuts, but you may have committed a crime and the officer has your driving record as well as a sidearm. More times than not you sweat.

When the officer strolls up to your overtaxed car there are two scenarios that could go down. One conducted by the police and one from a cop. One never happens but should as the law looms at your drivers’ side door. Read:

“Hello. I pulled you over because I clocked you at going 80 in a 50 mile an hour zone.” Then comes some panicky haggling from the motorist. “I hear you. May I see your license and registration, please? Thanks.”

That would be in a perfect and just world. Here’s the common reality:

“Do you know how fast you were going?”

Kinda passive aggressive right? Like there’s no correct answer, especially at the end of the month. Do not talk, do not argue and be slow opening that glovebox, all the while a thumb on the weapon. F*cking cops. This sh*t is an everyday thing for folks, getting pulled over and automatically struck with fear. You know why you got pulled over, but what if this scary cop has access to all the naughty things you’ve got away with thus far? Boosting CDs from the local Best Buy. Dine and dash. Cheating on your significant other. But that’s neither here nor now, just a speeding ticket. Maybe later on the nod and plow into a church group. Somehow scoring a street legal assault rifle means to ventilate a bunch of kids. Or demolish the Oklahoma Federal Building on a lark. Forget all that. For now you got off lucky; just a speeding ticket.

But what if you were black? And with that star shining—glaring—at you…?


The Story…

Garden Heights is not the place to live. Unless you grew up there like Starr (Stenberg) has, from her formative years to now.

Place has unfairly gotten a bad rap, even by her parents’ standards. Starr’s mom Lisa (Hall) insisted she gets the finest education possible. This means enrollment at Williamson Prep, the best private school in town. Or rather across town, across the tracks and Starr is their only black student.  She’s stuck between worlds.

The Heights is where Starr can be herself. Everyone is a neighbor and the neighborhood’s flaws make it family. A dysfunctional family, mind you. Such a reminder comes to Starr when she goes to a local house party and runs into her old bestie, Khalil (Smith), fellow Harry Potter fan and one-time crush. When gunshots ring out she and Khalil make a break for it, driving away as if all the demons from Hell were chasing them.

Bad move. Chasing all right. The high speed escape catches the notice of a local black & white, with an emphasis on the white part. The two are pulled over, and well…

Khalil’s funeral causes a media circus. With Starr as the key witness in Khalil’s murder she’s forced to chose sides. Garden Heights or Williamson?

Perhaps neither…?


The Breakdown…

I often thought that 2Pac was a misunderstood artist. Like he was more what his fans thought rather than who he was. His brash, outspoken image tempered with intellectual leanings entranced and confused rap fans of all stripes. I found his lyrics to be very literate, which was not the flavor in Columbus. But he sold, and was the second hip-hop performer to reign with a white fanbase as well as secured in black culture. Before that? Run-DMC. I may be a fossil, and this may be lame street cred, but I do enjoy some solid hip-hop to this day that no doubt influenced Shakur. I was a still a pup back in the 80s when rap became a legit music genre. I grew up with Run and crew, Kurtis Blow, GrandMaster Flash, the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, Public Enemy and all those folks. In the 90s there was Gang Starr, Tribe, Dre, Biggie, Coolio and 2Pac, natch. Cut me some slack, I was a white kid from the suburbs. Daily Operation is still the best East Coast album from the early 90s. DJ Premier utilized jazz samples exclusively, so there. I am a hip-hop nerd.

*silence, crickets*

See you in the comments section.

What led to Tupac’s undoing I feel that despite how smart, cagey and literate he was—both in art and attitude—he eventually began to believe his own press. It became Thug Life rather than THUGLIFE, and some fabricated media stunt about a rivalry between Biggie from the East Coast and Shakur from the West. That sham was perpetrated from the boys in the basement to up record sales. I blame the true thug Suge Knight behind the artifice, and he only got jail time, again, for his back alley scheming. To quote Chris Rock: “Biggie wasn’t assassinated. Tupac wasn’t assassinated. Those n*ggas got shot.” Dead as doornails, which was then most folks caught on the the chicanery. I mean why would Shakur hang out with gangstas? Such an image betrayed his whole muse. Nobody is weak to their own fame, no matter what happens. It’s a shame he had to be shot and killed because of that. Being used for being brash.

However being brash back in the day was essential to the nascent hip-hop scene; gotta get noticed somehow in this vanilla, dollar burning economy. A rap artist who told it like is as well as the Last Poets did back in the 70’s, however in the 90’s is was novelty. Social commentary was always inherent in rap, but it wasn’t until Tupac that the fusion of street poetry with actual poetry in the rhymes became legit. Sure, other artists were slamming their fists against the white establishment, but the likes of NWA, Public Enemy or even Arrested Development were far less subtle in delivering the word. Those artists were more akin to Gil Scott-Heron than Langston Hughes.

Like Tupac’s rhymes THUG delivers the word in a uniquely literate manner. It wasn’t just because the plot was adapted from Angie Thomas’ award-winning novel of the same name, but the cinematic version flows like reading a novel. And I never read it. To be sure (beyond this installment) the book garnered a lot of attention. More than one would expect from a YA novel. And true to form: you wanna to get a book read? Ban it. No cap. Tell everyone. Even better? Adapt it to streaming or cinema. Thomas’ novel earned many accolades across the board, and within the context of film it shows.

No surprise THUG is a character drama, and we have quite a few characters at work. I was duly impressed with Stenberg as Starr. She carried herself very well and very pro. Really well. I was not aware she started her career in earnest with The Hunger Games franchise. I’m not terribly familiar with the series, books or otherwise. What I do know about Suzanne Collins’ dystopian flavor on YA novels is that the cast is vast and wide, both in print and on screen. If the Carnegie Medal, Coretta Scott King Book Award and Edgar Award doesn’t justify the The Hate U Give‘s publication, then I don’t know what more could coax Hollywood to commit print to screen. Makes me wanna actually read the dang thing.

Anyway, back to that whole character drama thing. Yes, Stenberg shined, but the juxtaposition she was cast in reminded me of the rampant woke community. I mean, duh. Y’all just figured out people of color have been marginalized for centuries? Now you want to take up the flag cuz you just figured out (minus including those who were ostensibly outcasts in our society? Shoosh). I saw Starr as passing in reverse, and doing so as casually as she could. Consider Tiger Woods back in the day. Or even Obama. “Passing” was a risky thing hundreds of years back, as well as rather odious. The term stems from when a black person had a fair enough complexion to “pass” for white, and entitled to all the luxuries/opportunities that came into view. Stenberg’s Starr didn’t pass in the traditional sense. She was well aware of her standing at Williamson, and minded her grades and her trade. Her classmates regarded her as a novelty, waiting for her to go full ghetto. All in woken fun you see? Hell, even the lighting goes from shrill as school to warm back home. Subtle, but demanding.

Despite the narration, Starr stood staunchly between two worlds. Stenberg was confident without being uppity. Thoughtful of her place within and without school, and even Garden Heights. She was always quick on her heels to say what needed to be said at a given moment. She must’ve felt personally responsible as to what tragically happened to Khalil, her once best bud. Stenberg was passing in reverse, did a good job, and that was a shame since such crap happens all the time to what the woke crowd would deem degrading. Starr was perceived as an “Oreo” and her shrinking violet schtick was just an act. Passing.

But THUG also presented—if not demanded—a sharp supporting cast. It was a rogue’s gallery of sorts. It’s always lurking in the periphery for a character drama. What was great about this time out is that the traditional stereotypes were blurred for our story. Despite what I made a stink about above there is social relevance here. Again, duh, but not cookie cutter. Starr’s story of self-reliance and integrity was ably fleshed out by a really smart and sometimes subtle supporting cast. Smart as in shrewd. The supporting cast were smartly chosen as to illustrate the usual archetypes of growing up black in a downtrodden neighborhood without being mawkish.

Ex-con Mav tries hard to be a good dad, and he is. Paid his dues and is now a pillar of the community. Lisa is a caring and dedicated mom and wife. Lost, learned, loved and keeps on loving knowing full well every good moment is transient and what she could’ve lost again every day. Khalil was not the star anything (and may have gotten into some bad business), except be a good Joe who still cared for his childhood friend, Starr. Not a lot of “Good Joes” in movies like this; closest I can recall is Ricky from Boyz N The Hood, and even he was kinda smarmy. All points covered in what could’ve been a moribund take on life in the ghetto. Even if there was no ghetto. Garden Heights was tableau as a black Mayberry; this is how we are. It could be anywhere, which is why it resonated so well. This sh*t could happen to you. All of us.

Hold on for a bit for another thing, but later. We’ve read a lot of other things here, but later is for a bit later. Hold on and anyway.

I must get to the diamond in the rough, Anthony Mackie. He’s become one of my favorite and reliable character actors. He slides into any role either as a warm hero or an icy villain with equal aplomb. Sure, most MCU fans recognize him as the erstwhile social worker cum Avenger Sam Wilson (AKA: The Falcon), streetwise, driven and palling with Captain America (he was also the first black superhero to get his own ongoing comic book series. No cap and no Cap). His Mr Hyde roles are best illustrated here as well as his role in Half-Nelson, a warm thug with a heart of coal. Conniving, dangerous and is convinced the world owes him many favors. Despite how sinister his gang lord King is here he’s still relatable. We all know a schemer in our lives, but never one who’d be sympathetic to. In sum, Mackie was a badass antagonist, always quietly stirring the pot. Slick.

Overall, THUG hit like a play. I know it was based on a book, but that is not the same as a play. For those million years in high school English once you’ve read enough Shakespeare once you see it live there’s no turning back. THUG was staged with very choice breaks to let the drama leap into the next act, like Garden Heights against the world of Williamson and back again to Starr’s boisterous home. Pacing was smooth and crucial to how this drama-of-errors played out, and we know how I take to pacing. In fact, despite the rough story THUG was a very smooth, cool, thoughtful film. Made you think, but not upside the head with some brickbat.

Hey, wait a moment. There’s that other thing though, but later. We’ve read a lot of other things here, but later is for a bit later. Hold on. It’s not what you call me—

Like Top Gun: Maverick a lot could have—should have—gone ridiculously wrong. Perhaps a PG-13 version of Menace To Society starring a sepia-toned female with no access to being strapped. Not here. THUG was a coming of age story (a label I hate), but the whole mess of high school antagonism paired against police…cop brutality fares far from the suburbs. There’s familiarity at work. Unless you’ve been up on the news, and most of those victims were white aimed at by another disenfranchised white boy. It’s all enough to be both a learning experience and a better reason to call in sick and hide in your closet. THUG had this omnipresent feel of being sheltered. Despite the film’s “open world” execution through Starr, we as the audience understood the need of a dashboard. We should also cringe, but not out of social status. We acknowledge the pudge and the belt. And deaf ears.

Finally and thanks for holding on. Being addressed as African-American is still a label. It’s not what you call me, but what I answer to. Like Chris Rock exclaimed, “Run! The media is there!” Black Americans are black; most have long since settled for that moniker despite a very large contingency did not come from Africa and emigrated from the Caribbean to America in search of a better job. A good chunk of our darkies never knew Africa. Despite what the safe newscasters use as African-American. Ignoring a very large, black community that are now dubbed African-American by the PC white media figures. Such a pandering, blah label to address at least 1/4 of the US (who in the past built the f*cking US) is insulting. Kinda like how Starr had to balance both sides. I do not know a single black person who uses that epithet. A old co-worker friend of mine told me his folks hailed from the Dominican Republic, and he was just him. Labels are just labels, and don’t define you. Neither do badges.

To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut for the woke crowd: “All your protests are nothing but banana cream pies.”


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. For once we have a movie like this that isn’t preachy. My breakdown was more preachy, and not nearly as well-staged. A very smart film.


The Musings…

  • “Neither version of me.”
  • K: Was that a gun? Yes. Yes it was 🙁
  • “We know this is hard right now.” “Do you?”
  • K: Trauma. It’s one of the worst words.
  • “I didn’t name you Starr for nothing.”
  • All those mixed looks at the funeral reception. It was a tad on the nose.
  • K: You can’t blame yourself for what you can’t control. Word.
  • “Being black is an honor.” Being white is trite.
  • Daddy?!?
  • What was all about the shoes? Was it about walk a mile in mine?
  • “Duh?”
  • The white hoodie.
  • I can’t breathe. A full year before.
  • “Where you live doesn’t define who you are.”

The Next Time…

Wow. Jim Carrey must’ve been really vying for The Majestic Academy Award for acting in this role. Let’s let him show us something, please?


 

RIORI Presents Installment #209: Charles Stone III’s “Drumline” (2002)


The Film…


The Players…

Nick Cannon, Zoe Saldana, Orlando Jones, Leonard Roberts and J Anthony Brown, with Gregory ‘GQ’ Quiyum, Jason Weaver, Earl C Poitier, Candace Carey, Shay Roundtree and Miguel A Gaetan.


The Plot…

Welcome to the world of high-energy, show-style, ultra-competitive college marching bands. Fish-out-of-water but tenacious Devon has earned a scholarship for his musical (read: drumming) prowess. But can some talented Harlem street drummer in need of an attitude adjustment who enrolls in a Southern university can hope to lead his marching band’s drumline to fame?

It’s show—er—half time!


The Rant…

If you’ve all be following this blog you probably have heard me wax philosophical about my years playing in my alma mater‘s marching band. If you haven’t (or even have) then here comes a snootful. But first consider this:

Have you ever been away from home for an extended period of time? I’m not talking about a vacation, but to a place that you may be unceremoniously plopped into for any number of perhaps serious reasons. You finally landed your dream job! But it’s on-site and you live in New York and now you must jet off to LA and crash in some hotel for an indefinite period of time until proper lodgings are found. Perhaps you’re a soldier, constantly deployed where you are needed, never getting fully accustomed to being in country for any solid tour of duty. Or maybe—you may have seen this coming—you’re entering your freshman year at university, and the school is light-years away from your home town, and everything you knew.

So what do all these scenarios have in common? Right. Welcome to your new normal, with overturned suitcases and the laptop on constant charge. Repositioning via one chopper sortie after the next to another hot spot, same as all the other random patches of indifferent desert. Fast realizing you have to know how to take legible class notes, calling in sick to class means an absent mark and Mom ain’t around to make your bed anymore. It can be unsettling. Heck, to the point unnerving would be a better word.

That new normal? It’s really a clean slate. Humans are social creatures, and what do we do when we’re out of the cradle and endlessly rocking? Right. Seek out friendly, like-minded people to bond with. Find a kinda ersatz family, because others may be just as bamboozled by their new normal as you are, be it a career climber, someone in the service, or a wet-eared college student. Like attracts like and all of that jazz. At heart we all need a safe place to fall, regardless where the net can be found.

So yeah, the key to getting comfortable is all about befriending like-minded people. Mr Corporate Ladder will eventually settle into some new digs, but FFS won’t make the landlord their new bestie. An old army friend of mine was in the Rangers, and no he never saw combat, but being stationed in Germany gave him the luxury of soaking up the local culture, making some civvie friends and learned an appreciation for all things German (even their hostile cuisine). And me? I went to university already enrolled in the marching band. There was a partial academic scholarship attached (it was more like a gift certificate), but I learned a wealth more bonding with my extended musical family than any meal ticket would offer. Namely, like-minded people, despite our disparate hometowns away.

Now a warning. As the immortal imperative of John Holmes was: this may get a little long.

I’ve already commented here at RIORI that I was a bando. Marching band geek, from high school, well through college and even grad school for a time. No diggity, no doubt. It’s almost like deja vu at this point. But just consider that one time when you were far from home—not to chill in Hawaii, mind you—did you have a desire to get comfortable in your new digs by almost instinctively seeking out some safe haven? I had been in marching bands all through adolescence. That facet of my personality became a safe haven via proxy thanks to my collegiate credit/discount. I knew what it was like being in a marching band, so thank goodness for the Syracuse Orange  to ease into my new normal. It was akin to the football team practices, or why folks rush the Greek System: get in where you fit in, if only to find some semblance of a family.

Follow me? Sure you do. You’ve all been in a similar homesick bind, and that’s cool. At least with hindsight.

Okay. Time to please forgive my indulgence. Heck, the following may come across as a “yep, been there” satori, hopefully placing a small smile on your face. You finally managed to find a new comfort zone. Even if you never played a musical instrument. Time for a march down memory lane. Cool? Good.

Dateline: the early 90s. I had finished high school and was terrified about leaving the nest. Despite I had long since had enough of the LV, that and high school was a constant, roaming migraine, moving away to far away shores was unknown and kinda scary prospect. Terra incognita. I recall me being in tears about leaving home and my father (who had the flu at the time and was as patient as a starving owl) screeched at me to get my sh*t together cuz we’d be leaving for school in the morning. By we he meant me and my mom.

Three miserable hours later up North  I-80 I met my quarry: the band camp freshman dorm. Allegedly the architect of the heap once designed prisons. It showed. Couldn’t find a decent parking spot to disembark anywhere, and my trunk was heavy. Not to mention my drumkit. My mum, god bless her. I was trying to teach myself how to play drums in my senior year, and got kinda good sorta. I got it into my Mountain Dew addled head that college band would be a gateway drug to forming a rock band or something. I had the gear, all I needed were like-minded people with a garage to let. I was very stupid.

Very. Band camp allowed precious time to do any canvasing. I settled into my new squat in stir, which would be mine proper for the first semester. For the rest of the campers my dorm was their barracks. No hots and a cot, that was all. My short term roomie Chris was the squad leader for the mellophones (the marching band equivalent of a French horn, which resembles a trumpet on steroids), and he was amazed, if also scoffing at my drum kit I managed to set up and wedge into the corner of my room. Regarding that prison allegory, the room was a postage stamp. Putting exaggerations aside, the room was a square 25 by 25 feet, not including the space taken up by the bed, closet, console, desk and a lone study chair. Consider this analogy: ever enjoy a Hershey bar? Sure you have, and all its choco goodness lets you take it apart, piece by piece, to either share or dump down your gullet. Right, well take apart my room’s arrangement, bite by bite and I was left with maybe 10 square feet…on my side of the room. Drumkit and all. Again, I was very stupid. And also very much into flannel and goatees since it was the early 90s. Dumbass.

What possessed me to further crowd the matchbook that was my dorm room escapes me. Knowledge comes with time and 20 odd years on I still don’t grok what I was thinking. I suppose in hindsight I just wanted to project an image of a true music fan. That and the garage thing. Perhaps scoring tail. Who knows? But what I soon knew were the almost unbearable rigors of university band camp and my little nest was transient at best. No time to dick around on the trap set. Look at your friend the pillow. You will render her a widow.

I recall Chris being groggily awakened by senior bandos around 6 AM for the two weeks. I was a frosh and was granted an extra half hour; Chris was my alarm clock. This was new, and not just sharing a pillbox of a dorm room. In the high school marching band I went to bed around midnight and sprang alive at 6 AM to get to practice on time. I don’t know how I did that 5 days a week (this was pre-Red Bull mind you). I had an that extra half hour, yet somehow always had a sensation of exhaustion I had never experienced. Daily band camp was a 10 hour rigor, 6 days a week, begin at 7 and finish practice at 5. Long days. I first fell asleep upright in the shower by day 3 and it happened twice more resulting in my being late to practice marching on some very unyielding astroturf. My superiors were enthralled by me being tardy, but I wasn’t alone. It was a kind of rite of passage for the newbs. Never happened again come sophomore year. BTW, never walk around on astroturf barefoot for a pronounced period of time. The soles of your feet will look like a pedicure performed via cheese grater. Don’t ask and live and learn.

This may be kind of a spoiler, but if you actually plan on scanning Drumline (which of course I wish you would) a lot of the showmanship the bands displayed was pretty much on the mark. Director Stone was on his school’s marching band, therefore he knew what he saw what he cut. I can only assume. It’s like when you catch a film revolving around a very specific plot point, and you knew the director and/or scenarist came from that school of hard knocks. Consider the culinary nods Chef or Burnt installments as good examples.

That being said band/boot camp was pretty well illustrated in this week’s movie. My uni band wasn’t nearly as flashy, but there were tunes to commit to, dance moves, positioning, a kind of passive martial law about working as a team (weakest link and yada yada yada) and making half time shows fun and boisterous. There was a good deal of hazing too, sans paddles and sneezing powder. Needless this was all new to my wet ears. Shocker. For reference check out the I Love You Beth Cooper installment or the raw high school band days. Back then it was just practice, memorizing the music and formations for football games. This was the case as with the SUMB, but on a whole different level; having to be self-reliant enough to not snooze in the bath.

Like this week’s film and adapting to a new normal, band camp became the core of a family. We all need to belong somewhere, and band camp as well as adapting to college as a whole was—in hindsight—the family away from home. I know that sounds a little too Hallmark Channel, but occasionally it’s accurate. Being in band camp was never outright indoctrinating me into my new “family,” but it was more sincere in action. The opposite being when you go for that job interview like Mr Suitcase does. When that new boss claims,”We’re a family here,” run. Run run away. Unless you applied to the Olive Garden.

I did a lot of running back then. Literally. We never had some half-baked exercise program in high school band. At uni we had too endure laps, push-ups, standing still for as long as the squad leader felt fit (no joke), crunches, jumping jacks, sculling, dead lifts, macrame, you name it. The enclosed stadium had no a/c, so water bottles were a must. Folks did indeed get dehydrated, despite being shielded from the sun; it got hot in there. Some frosted actually passed out from the strain and mid-August heat. Only the newbs, though. My sophomore turn I got it. Call it culture shock.

Was it worth it? Well, yeah. We had to practice, but there were fringe benefits, too. Kind of like Easter eggs. I was well acquainted with the campus far before my freshman dorm mates settled in. The upperclassmen bandos had introduced me to the restaurants, bars and assorted social shortcuts my other newbs may find by  only stumbling in the places I learned not to be after dark. As well as where to be after dark. All of this discovery tempered by a grueling practice schedule. My ears dried out some when interacting with civvies.

To wit, I was the only guy settled in well before the rest of the floor made their beds and found where to score pencil shavings as gourmet weed. However I also possessed the presence of touch-and-go like some teeth-grinding ninja. I was the transient figure, darting in and out of my room to the stadium daily (I still had calls to make to confirm class attendance. The Internet wasn’t as reliable then as it’s not reliable now) and I was the momentary weirdo oracle. I knew this and I knew that and was a bando always in a sweat. To the quick I once stormed out of the elevator while all my floor mates were socializing to blunder onto my email account. No mobile smartphones back then.

One of them asked, “Hey man, what’s up?”

I spat out, “My blood pressure.” and kept on storming. They laughed.

My mind and body were too busy with music, formations and the promise of the local, divest, hole in the wall bar come Saturday night that was very loose with the drinking age. If not there when we were set loose some house party at some rundown rental house of bando upperclassmen. Such elegant destinations were the first places I was subjected to Beast, drinking games and basement mischief (read: how to try and play bass. Geddy Lee I wasn’t). Zoom, Schwartz, Profigliano.

Considering my wayback machine, my adoptive family prepped me for college better than any freshman seminar. For good or for ill. My trunk was completely unpacked, I was with my soldiers at uni with this crack team who knew that the meal program was a sham (use the ice machine gingerly and never try the green scrambled eggs come Sunday, or the greenish hot dogs ever). There were many other variations on not dropping soap.

That dang shower…


The Story…

In the course of musical history there have been precious few shining stars than could be dubbed a prodigy. Mozart with his works, Hendrix with his guitar, Gould with his piano. And maybe Devon Miles (Cannon) with his snare drum.

D is a singular, natural talent with the drums. So much so his skills have granted him musical scholarship at the prestigious Atlanta Technical University. This means big deal performance in its high level marching band, full of pomp and circumstance.

But D is a loose cannon. His NYC street cred does not gel with the ultra disciplined ATC marching band. Even though music theory-minded conductor Dr Lee (Jones) recognizes D as a prodigious talent that whips a crowd into a frenzy. But there is always music first and showmanship later. And solos are a privilege.

The truth is that any musical prodigy, for all their sunshine, carries a heavy load. Bukowski drank himself to death. Mozart was laid to rest in a pauper’s grave. Lennon was shot by a fan. Heavy. D is on the up and up, however and finds a loyal family never known back in Harlem. At ATC his skills might be fully attained. Namely some discipline, lay off the lone wolf stuff and of course accept rigors of band camp.

Not to mention ignoring the ribbing from the tuba line…


The Breakdown…

Before I carry on carrying on, I feel I must tell you that Drumline is a niche movie. Like the aforementioned Burnt, which reeked of my then career as a chef, I took a shine to this movie based on my band camp days, but I will be objective. Never fear. I can be professional when I want to be. But I probably won’t.

Kinda like the well-oiled machines that were the marching bands in Drumline the movie was very well produced, with crisp cinematography and tight direction. I again suspect director Stone drew from experiences in college band. It was deftly translated with verve and nods to us not only in the niche but curious onlookers alike. If you’re a faithful sub you know how pacing is my bitch. This movie’s cadence bounced along with only a little murk. Drumline was overall a friendly flick, but I sensed that Stone felt obligated to throw a sop to the folks in the crowd who may have needed a break from the non-stop military precision which the plot demanded. It was a bright and colorful movie, and not just for the acting and direction. It was at times a tough watch, but there were enough twists (and the delight of camaraderie) to keep the tone upbeat.

Yes, Drumline had wonderful pacing. Maybe the best I’ve ever enjoyed here at RIORI. The story unfolded over a course of two hours, but slid by effortlessly. There was a kind of rough and tumble aspect to the plot, and somewhat forced sophomoric drama, but it kinda paid off in the end. However that end was the terminus of a very twisting roller coaster ride. The “serious” scenes in the movie did not really gel regarding the whole of the plot. Such scenes acted like bookends. Chapter marks. For a flick so dependent on motion, these halts were kinda jarring (EG: the fraternity scene that came out of nowhere) as if we were watching another movie. This happened often, which despite great pacing such hiccups were rather distracting. Overall, let’s say that Drumline was better than the sum of its parts. That’s all I’m saying.

Some of those parts are when director Stone pulled the cards away from his chest. For release the acting was choice. Meaning the principals acted very unlike what audiences are accustomed to. For one Orlando Jones, MadTV alumnus and former 7-Up pitchman was Dr Lee, all music theory, serious academic and father figure to his students. The man did not mug the camera once. His Lee was hard-nosed, somewhat egotistical but always kept his musician students foremost in his mind. IMHO Jones’ character was the most engaging (but nothing like my old band instructor, what with his taste for beer and arm wrestling. No joke). Jones as not goofy was good. He impressed me.

Our lead, a young Nick Cannon (barely 21 at the time)—although holding his role well—was a cipher. The impoverished but brilliant kid from the wrong side of town trope is the archetype of any black kid with a chip on their shoulder (EG: check out the Finding Forrester or Roll Bounce posts) with some gift that needs fostering. It’s rather tired, however Cannon did well with what was given, albeit one note. His performance improved when the script permitted him to open up some as a character. For instance we learn at the outset D is estranged from his dad (duh) and carries around his percussive prowess like a totem. It’s in the third act—natch—that he learns his old man REDACTED and D gets his sh*t together and learns how to be a member of the drumline not as a hotshot, but a team player. So to speak. It’s all been done before, and better, but Cannon’s enthusiasm wins you over. If only that, but here it’s just enough. In the endgame Drumline is your typical “the student has become the master” and back again setup. Thank Cannon’s youthful enthusiasm to make it slide by.

Drumline‘s central thread reminded me of the parable about the Prodigal Son. In fact it was, but in reverse. C’mon, you’ve all heard the tale. Kid gets kicked out his home by dad for his wicked ways. The real world smacks the son upside the head with a fistful of nails, and he crawls back home with his tail between his legs. Inexplicably Dad welcomes kid back with open arms. Draw curtain, house lights up. Now we’re left with that simply, frank question: why FFS? And how does this relate to the movie? Tell us, O Great Karnak.

I felt that the throughput in Drumline was the adage of the Prodigal Son. What I meant by in reverse is thus: D has a dad, which he successfully avoided since whenever (despite whatever influence D absorbed). That being said, D is whisked away to college with a scholarship attached to his somewhat maverick but excellent musicianship. He fast learns that being on the drumline is as close as he knows to be a family. D gets knocked out of his shallow life and discovers there are people out there who share his ups and downs. This is far more valuable than any advice his mom ever gave, let alone high school. D doesn’t have to be the odd one out anymore.

So where does this prodigal (read: wastefully or recklessly extravagant) element come into play? Right, introduce the father figure D as been for lacking. Considering the push-and-pull dynamic between D and Dr Lee in how ATC’s drumline worsk as a solid unit, my ever surprising stated with assuredness that when people are hard on you your instinct says that they’re trying to play you the fool. In fact they want you to do better. You learn more from the hardest teachers. True that, and I may add such discipline may ready you to be your own teacher. D being essentially rudderless all his young life, Lee served as the paternal force that not only gives D focus, but also is swift to say, “Knock off the sh*t.” You wanna be a good student? Shut up and hear the expert out. More kudos for Jones’ performance.

Pretty heady, right? A fair chunk of Drumline is about discovery; coming of age stuff. A prime example of growing into yourself was well illustrated by the lone white guy Jayson (GQ), the awkward bass drummer on the line. Apropos of nothing, why is such tokenism rife and accepted in movies with a predominantly black cast? Drumline was a character dramady, we always need an odd duck (in a flock of odd ducks) to serve as a loose cannon. No big, but at the time away at uni (recall the new normal, Mr Suitcase) you are naked to the quick. Drumline did a fine job illustrating that awkwardness, and if you ever had to go to college there’s always room for a fresh start. Despite that Jayson was a lovable rouge—if not a bit…sorry, wiggerish—he served the role of foil with his ineptitude with the drum against D’s prodigal skills therein. Look, I find tokenism a drab gimmick in flicks like this, but when D was able to help Jayson get his groove back? Hey, what are friends for no matter where they came from? Sappy? Maybe. True? Often. Go enroll somewhere.

What I took away from watching Drumline (despite the nostalgic sh*t) is the flick reeked in a good way of a new normal fostered by a new family. Sure, the highlights of the movie were all about making music, but ultimately that was eyewash. Drumline was about disparate people coming together to create a family. To get in where you fit in, growing pains and all. Yes, again the plot was threadbare; we’ve seen this kind of underdog story before and again and so on and so forth. Or at least competently (EG: Major League, The Karate Kid, and the original Rocky spring immediately to mind). But such is a tried and true crowd pleaser, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Hell, I ain’t that cynical.

That and about making music. Can’t forget making music together. Not to mention a few slumber parties in the early morning shower. If only to wash out mouthpieces.

Oh, and that drumkit? Sold it for a durable washing machine. Being broke/getting older sucks.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it, if only for the scoop and serve story. The music makes up for the overworked warhorse of a plot.


The Musings…

  • “Good morning to music.”
  • Mini-Me. Ha.
  • D’s not staring at Dr Lee. D’s sizing up the crowd.
  • “Do women really respond to your come ons?”
  • And that’s how you tune a drum. Yes, they need tuning.
  • Was that a Meters song?
  • “What? You two a couple now?”
  • K: The moral of the story is that with competition you can only go as far as you need to.
  • “It’s a tuba thing.”
  • So that’s why D was always improving.
  • It’s all about about freestylin’.
  • “Let’s get crunk.”

The Next Time..

“The Hate U Give little infants f*cks everybody.” – Tupac Shakur


 

RIORI Presents Installment #208: Michael Mann’s “Collateral” (2004)


The Film…


The Players…

Jamie Foxx, Tom Cruise, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Berg and Bruce McGill.


The Plot…

Cabbie Max picks up Vincent, a man who offers him a big fare simply to drive around LA. The promise of easy money sours when Max realizes that Vincent is a hitman. Max is no negotiator, but now it’s either just  to “go along with it,” or keep Vincent’s bounties off the back of a milk carton.

Buckle up.


The Rant…

The other day I got to bored at work, Happens to the best of us. I fell upon one of the myriad lists on eBaum’s World. The subject? “25 Awesome Jobs That Actually Suck.” The list was kinda revelatory, and not just because I had a few of them back in the day. I could relate. Some of the gigs I read were chef, radio personality, journalist, musician and teacher. All vital prospects in the employment field and only vital if you can with comfort scream every dang say, “Thank you, Sir! May I have another!?!”

A lot of that eBaum list was bunk; they were the worst of the worst, and totally subjective. The throughput was how stressful those professions felt. Namely, the effort put in was not worth it. For example I spent 15 of my nine lives working in kitchens, and only half I regret using minus sick days (cuz I didn’t have none). I did my radio thing for 5 years, and believe you me (if you saw the Josie And The Pussycats installment) it’s hard to be natural on air with the ghost of the FCC breathing over your shoulder. I freelanced for about that long, and learned fast to never, ever do punch up. If the reporting wasn’t relevant let alone honest covering the story, into the circular file your scribblings went. I played sax and drums for fun since the first Bush was in office in high school, and later college, and even later grad school. Worked with some very cool and encouraging music heads as well as a decidedly dumb punk group in college. I played drums like a sober Bonzo. Just to make noise and have fun. Risky pre-Spotify, but who else cared beyond the basement? No one, and only the most dedicated axe-slinger might see being signed. Such a prospect/pie in the sky may suck the fun out of performing after a time. You know, when it comes an actual job.

Sub teaching was a zoo. Enough said. Moving along.

Many rackets on that list seemed real cool, albeit in a bell hooks kinda way; your soul ground into dust for maybe an eventual, crossed fingers reward. The stress factor was against the promise of the brass ring, I was surprised soldier didn’t make the list, despite being the third most stressful job in America. The first and second are air traffic controller and teacher, respectively. Can’t really argue there, then again those were stats probably assessed by some nosy think tank trying to crack some code. To what end I don’t get. All jobs are stressful. The severity is based on the workload. Like the seemingly insurmountable piles of work adhering to persnickety rules of the FCC. Maintaining order from chaos and still managed to serve a fine plate hewn from more profanity than an early 90s Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay concert. Adding filler to boring stories to make the very boring just somewhat boring, and the shredder always loomed.

Boo. Hiss. Business as usual. Frustrating and, yes, stressy.

In my endgame I found eBaum’s list for lacking. So I posted on Quora (what I deem to be the NPR of threads) and gathered some more intel from average Joes and Janes for some frank answers about work politics. Barring stats I uncovered some truths I couldn’t argue with. Combat soldiers were indeed there, as well as surgeons, cops, lawyers, even game developers topped as stressful and somewhat not quite cool. I had a few suggestions, but kept it shrewd. Asked about people who were in the Secret Service. Protect the President and ward off counterfeiting? Well, they are part of the Treasury. Mail carriers, thanks to the pandemic stop by every home on their route, mostly naked to COVID (or angry dogs, or angry humans) and can’t swerve according the whole “Neither snow nor rain…”. Test pilots. Trash collectors. Truck drivers. A lot of gigs requiring travel, since getting there is half the fun and always a stressful matter. Ever lose luggage? We’ve all had to get somewhere else at sometime or another, often at the mercy of a pilot, bus driver or Lyft.

Or via taxi, the black sheep of public transportation.

I found myself trolling the Net to get some dope on being a cabbie in relation to this week’s installment. Me stumbling onto eBaum’s list was just serendipity, but thanks to the folks on Quora I got something of sorta objective opinions. Other victims of work related stress—to my surprise—were pro athletes, actors, and folks in advertising. They were never on my radar, but neither were cabbies, Many threads spoke about people in public transportation in general. Cabbies in specific.

One of my fave films is Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (the ultimate “And you think you’re having a bad day?” movie). The scenarist Paul Schrader made a point claiming that in the big city who is more invisible than a cab driver? Taxis are ubiquitous in  NYC, Philadelphia (where SEPTA is notoriously unreliable. I speak from experience) and especially in LA where when 5 people go out to dinner they take 6 cars. Cabs are everywhere and nowhere in LA; you could hop from hood to hood and never touch the street (again, experience) since the driver is no more than an afterthought. The cab is just a door and unload whenever. Where you headed? Just like Ishmael, soon forgotten. Keep the change.

Like poor Travis Bickle, his story is that he’s just there to drive, clean up fluids and be forgotten. Cabbies must see a lot of sh*t on their routes. Learn a lot, too. Hell, the volume of drunks barfing their spleens out on a nightly basis in the back seat must scream the sorry state of our species. Must be like an abused child who can’t defend themselves, not if it might mean a good tip. Sounds like being a cabbie is worse than being ignored. It’s worse for being needed by no one and everyone. Invisible/

I wasn’t kidding when the planets aligned on eBaum’s, Quora and Collateral. What I gleaned from the AllMovie review Collateral was a flick about a cabbie taken hostage by a hitman. It ostensibly starred Tom Cruise, but the pinion on which the story hung was about a hapless cabbie played by Jamie Foxx. After watching Collateral, the story was a crucible about how a overextended cab driver could see too much and not but help but accept his circumstance. Dang, talk about stressful.

Where to…?


The Story…

Like Missing Persons sang, “Nobody walks in LA.”

Cab driver Max (Foxx) only got his hack license to supplement his prospective as real estate agent. Something legit, securing luxurious timeshares for the ultra-rich in the tropics. Of course. That is a pipe dream, and he’s had this part-time gig for over a decade. Ah, well. Pays the bills.

One evening Max picks up a curious fare. Curious because the passenger does not strike him as a person who takes cabs. He says is name is Vincent (Cruise) and offers Max a fat wad of $600 just to have him tool around LA. No direct destination, just to go where Vincent says. No questions asked.

Six hundred bucks for a ride! Max is no fool. Okay, Vince! Where you headed?

Vincent’s next mark. Turns out he’s a professional assassin, and has some work here and there around the City of Angels. A bit of business to finish. Vince is a kind of a philosopher king, quick to share his calmly and clinically relayed to Max under now dire circumstances. Vince isn’t a bad guy, just a businessman, and so what if his business is killing. It’s not him, it’s his assignment. Now Max is Vincent’s driver, and that is the primary concern.

Max is just along for the ride…


The Review…

Michael Mann is a curiosity amongst directors. He fancies himself an intellectual and a voice for characters are always against all odds. He is also an architect, and although he’d probably deny it is more of an engineer than auteur. I’d bet he’d scoff at auteur theory as I do. Said theory claims that the director is the author of the film, which is utter nonsense. If you ever sat back after watching a movie there’s this very, very long list of people that made what you just enjoyed happen. It’s called the closing credits for a reason. I also like to think that Mann would agree with that sentiment; the director is only one of many, despite putting the final stamp on the film. Be it an intellectual property right, always attempting to respond to those existential traits that make us human, or just build a foundation from a solid story. François Truffaut he ain’t, and whew.

Mann’s muse is finality. His signature on the bottom line.

Abruptly switching tacks prolific sci-fi and comics writer Peter David put it best to wreck the whole auteur conceit. He once commented in his column in the Comics Buyer’s Guide that (paraphrasing here) if auteur theory was real then at the end of the opening credits we’d read directed by this guy and written by that guy in a single frame. My point? I agree with David, but from what I’ve seen of Mann’s output he couldn’t possibly give two sh*ts either way. The man is an engineer, and his sharp angles leave no room for hand holding or Hallmark Channel sentimentality. As far as Mann’s motivation goes I’ll quote the opening line from Douglas Fairbairn’s notable 70s novel Shoot: “This is what happened.”

That is what I’ve always found refreshing about Mann’s work. No frills, no filler, no hugs, no bullsh*t. Just raw story. This is what happened.

I first got hip to Mann’s work with his 80s TV work, Miami Vice and Crime Story. Look, I know I was barely out of Pampers when these series aired, but even as a Nintendo-addled whelp I found Mann’s deliberate and methodical use of characters compelling (as far as a 10-year old can figure. He made me a fan of Dennis Farina, too). If you can recall the pilot episode of Miami Vice, when our pair of MTV cops Crockett and Tubbs are en route to settle a score of revenge and cocaine trafficking. Our two leads are on the road, silent and dour with Phil Collins’ arresting, but melancholy song “In The Air Tonight.” Neither Crockett of Tubbs appear rigid with anxiety and/or stress. Nope. Mann just has the two leads stare dead ahead, framed in the confines of the car. I found that neat. A pretty good way to sum up where Mann points the camera.  This is what’s happening. Deliberate.

Now. One of my fave films to watch when I don’t know what to watch I go to Mann’s Manhunter. The often forgotten prequel to The Silence Of The Lambs. Unlike the stylish take Jonathan Demme made with the 1991 movie—examining what sanity is supposed to be—Mann’s movie is a mostly straightforward crime procedural smothered in PTSD. Clarice was trying to find her legs in Lambs. In Manhunter semi-retired FBI profiler Will Graham—portrayed by a very haunted William L Petersen—is just trying to learn how to walk again. He was the agent who caught Hannibal Lecter. It left scars, metaphorically and literally. Where Demme’s direction of Sir Anthony Hopkins portrayed him as both elegant and brutal (think The Curious Case Of Dr Jeckyll And Mr Hyde), Mann’s Lecter was portrayed by venerable character actor Brian Cox, and he was f*cking pissed that Graham nabbed him. When Will sweats Lecter for some insight about catching a new killer Cox is far less accommodating than Hopkins was. Staging again. Graham was in the same cage as Lecter, also metaphorically and literally. Petersen’s thousand mile stares speak volumes on how Mann applies the pressure of finality in his work.

There’s a reason why heavy-hitter Tom Cruise didn’t get top billing in the Players section. It’s simple: he was not the lead. Last time that happened I think was back in the 80s with his role in Rain Man. Dustin Hoffman was the “star” (and nabbed the Oscar), but Cruise carried the film. Supporting all the way. Did a damn good job, too, as well his support for the same reason. Thanks to Tom’s aloof performance Collateral was Foxx’s movie. I learned that taxi drivers are invisible in the grand scheme of cities, but they also hold the infrastructure sh*t together. Like urban cabbies Foxx was a supporting actor, but Collateral was his show all the way. It’s amazing how far the guy has come. More on that later.

It’s been suggested that Collateral was neo-noir, but what the heck does that mean? Well, back in the day there was this sub-genre of the whodunnit called film noir. Such films took their cue from the “hard boiled” style of a crime novels. Dash Hammet, James Cain, Raymond Chandler and others. Stories about anti-hero detectives slumming it to solve cases no one in proper society would give a sh*t about. Always shot in black-and-white. Consider the real-life, still unsolved rape and murder of The Black Dahlia. Film noir was a gritty but still stylish film production using light again shadow casting a murky atmosphere over a mystery movie. Classics like Double Indemnity, The Third Man and The Big Sleep are prime examples. The genre collapsed when Technicolor became the norm, or rather evolved. Maybe. Not sure, wasn’t there.

The aesthetic didn’t die with the dawn of color however. The sensibility remained, and thanks to color films of hard-boiled, mean street stories of urban decay found a broader palette, so to speak. Consider the harrowing Scorsese trio of Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Taxi Driver. In a similar vein Collateral proved that the formula is still alive and kicking. Film noir was all about atmosphere, and the neo-noir of films like Collateral are hours that stretch; the atmosphere isn’t as punchy like its parent genre. Instead we have sprawling and somewhat lugubrious movies. K’s acumen and casual comments set a stage. She offhand said she liked the cityscape of LA at twilight. Looked like it was remastered, and how was it mapped out? Keen. Like I said film noir may be dead, but neo-noir still crawls. The city in color glitters. Alluring, but seldom golden. Again atmosphere is paramount; the cold, hard, well-lit downtown LA is accidentally pretty, but every silver lining has a cloud. K is a cinema savant. She caught the vibe neo-noir before I did with Collateral. I know she has never had any notion about what neo-noir was let alone film noir. My partner in blogging crime catches things I miss. What I’m getting at is that an outside opinion can be more informative that what you see. When I am so very concentrated in watching these flicks. I miss stuff. She who doesn’t watch too hard says, “Hey. What was that?” Well, that and she is a total Cruise fangirl and almost bludgeoned me for having missed Top Gun: Maverick on opening night.

Ahem.

Consider, if you will, Poe’s poem The Raven. His most famous work is not “punchy.” It creeps and crawls, unfolding dread at every verse. The atmosphere stretches so and draws you into the poet’s inner turmoil, and f*ck dear Lenore. That was a loss leader, so the narrator is wracked with ennui. Loss and losing (somewhat akin to Max’s beloved REDACTED). Poe was keen with his exposing the nastiness people may resort to justifying a questionable means to a usually scurrilous end. Or deny if it ever was worth it; regarding Poe as Vincent our doomed poet who very invested in revenge. Looking at Collateral through the lens of Poe Mr Allan might just have been a fountainhead from which noir scenarists took some hints, or maybe Chandler et al. After viewing Collateral I took away something smacking of The Raven‘s portent. Max’s predicament may be for nevermore, or for Vincent either. The way that night’s fare rolls out sh*t’s gonna collapse. The center will not hold. Nevermore. Did I mention how dark all this was, regardless of LA’s twilight sparkle?

Right.

Being observant is crucial with neo-noir mysteries since their pacing is so deliberate. Such observations help with films like Collateral. Recall atmosphere is key, and this movie had it in spades. It took some time to get comfortable, and then uncomfortable. Keep on your toes. Dread’s at every corner. It’s not unlike Foxx getting comfy in his role as an accomplice. In fact, I can’t recall a movie where Foxx ever got to play a victim, especially some oddly stalwart hostage.

Now about Foxx. I have been simply amazed as how he’s evolved as an actor. First time I saw him perform was on the seminal sketch comedy show In Living Color. He was one of several actors that cut their comedy teeth on that subversive show. Others included David Alan Grier, Shawn and Marlon Wayans and, of course, Jim Carrey. Consider its rival SNL that gave birth to “serious” actors like Dan Ackroyd, especially Bill Murray and even Adam Sandler. This rogues’ gallery rose above just mugging for laughs on Color, but left-field Foxx jumped the hurdles. I was surprised he sang as Ray Charles in the titular movie. He was so grizzled in Jarhead. Made a solid, sympathetic super-villain in Andrew Garfield’s turn as Spider-Man. Intense and vulnerable homeless cellist in The Soloist. To the point: the guy has range. A far cry from the failed fifth diva in En Vogue on ILC.

Cruise also has range, but has been all too often relegated to being the cocky, handsome guy (read: the original Top Gun). Given the opportunity Cruise can flex his chops. I mentioned Rain Man, but with films like Vanilla Sky, Eyes Wide Shut and (for good or for ill) Far And Away Cruise can be more more than just—only—Maverick. Collateral is another example of him being understated, yet still a potent force. His Vincent is distant and aloof, and it’s just a front. He does not translate as a conventional villain. Vincent may invite some empathy, but still is very, very dangerous. That’s because Cruise plays him as both cagey and feverish, not unlike his “jobs.” Cruise was one cool customer here. The anti-Maverick. Couldn’t tell what his revenge tactic was as a means to an end. Vincent felt like a real hitman, calculating and assured that nothing would go wrong, yet still able to surprise. He reminded me of another hitman character, but since I couldn’t recall who Cruise fit the bill. K: He’s got a bad mouth, and I don’t mean swearing. He’s weak and full of sh*t, which made for a nice dichotomy paired against desperate, panicky Max. Spot on.

made another keen observation: Collateral had a cold and saucy feel. I said she wasn’t familiar with noir genre, but that cold observation hit hard. In truth the flick sometimes came across as hollow; familiar and had been done better with panache. As far as noir flicks go Collateral was fairly rote as stories go, even regarding Mann’s scorched earth direction. Our leads were great, but the story had been done before, and better (EG: Key Largo, Sorry Wrong Number and again Double Indemnity). Still the device is too delicious to not revisit. Director Mann, who is well acquainted with moody crime dramas anchored Collateral within classic procedural tropes. The story might have been juicer if the cops were absent from the story. Leaving Max flapping in the wind, no sign of rescue. And Vincent opened up to show his fangs, which was also absent too long until the final act. The ambience was there, but it felt slick. A tad contrived “in the heart of the city” claptrap. There are enough hiccups to remind us this is a neo-noir flick. We had a slow crawl, mean signature. A mystery/mission to unfold. Nothing new. However by the third act I caught the spin, shrouded before by the dry story about “getting away with it.” That is very tired. Very tired indeed, no matter how Sonny Crockett slick.

There is a “however” coming. Wait for it.

There was a game is afoot, Watson. Recall the Poe examination before? There was another analogy that crossed my mind well into the screening. Another analogy. Poe’s darkly comic tale of “William Wilson.” It was in the Jeckyll/Hyde vein (despite being published decades before Stevenson’s proto-psycho thriller), when two men who shared a name—twins separated at birth as it was implied—grew up to be polar opposites. One corrupt and a hedonist, the other upstanding and virtuous. No shocker these two guys despised each other, one always ruining the other’s reputation. The “moral” of the story is that they were both one and the same. Sides of the same coin, and one cannot exist without the other. It all came to a head when the two Wilsons clashed resulting in a duel and…well, go read the story.

Related to Collateral duality between Max and Vincent was like Stockholm Syndrome, but in reverse. The jailer sided with his prisoner. That vague “William Wilson” feeling. These two men are indeed opposites, but their motives are not. Max is a dreamer, waiting for action to just drop in his lap. Like Vincent’s easy $600 invites. Vincent is just tired, wallpaper. Not the lead of the film, just the imp of the perverse (Poe again) and doesn’t really have his heart in it all. Recall the scene spent with Barry Henley’s Daniel and you may follow. There’s a dreamy quality to Collateral. Mann’s movies have a signature, and that signature is always condensed to a singularly: raw story. Collateral drifts in and out of the metaphysical, almost like some tenet. Blurred. Not to mention a great deal of allegory, but more felt than seen. Made the tension icky and mushy. Why would one of the best no-nonsense, solipsistic directors be given over to some whim of existentialism?

Guess what? Gotta theory.

Like Travis Bickle, cabbies witness a whole sh*tload of urban decay along their collective routes. It must get surreal; these animals are human? A real rain and whatnot. We are not watching a “trad” neo-noir movie here. I’ll go so far as to claim Collateral with all its existential underpinnings should not have any business in the 21st Century. Fantasy films are passé, and that MCU folderol don’t count. Consider this along the lines of Wilson: is Max on a dream trip? Is Vincent even really there, first overing the fare of a lifetime and not ditching/whacking him when he gets too nosy? A trip to jazz club, before god? I mean really, he gets to rescue the fair damsel in distress as endgame. Max has desires stuck on the back burner (and the other side of his sun visor). Are Max and Vince actually the two Wilsons? Or some sort of hockey helmet Tyler Durden? Man, I feel Mann let this flick get carried away, but to where? In the endgame I felt Collateral was occupied with the neo more than the noir. The flick followed the “rules,” but the plot got muddled. Not very Mann, sorry to say.

Watching Collateral play out in the final act codified—at least for me—why Mann’s movie felt a tad rote. There was no claustrophobia; funny since the bulk of the film was in a taxi, anchored by a classic procedural device. Any sense of desperation being off the radar never felt genuine. The danger didn’t clench enough. Unlike most of Mann’s output I could see through the cracks here and that all would not end well, minus any neat little bow. His work with subtle surprise. Like the Crockett and Tubbs ride; you know sh*t gonna go down, but never how. And definitely with very little cues. A great deal of Collateral was hazy, subjective and littered with jump scares that are not Mann’s go-to to reeling you in. In the endgame the film was good, mostly engaging, above average acting, but all-in-all could’ve been better.

Wrapping stuff up, after I edited this installment I think I had misled you. Yes, Collateral had all the hallmarks of neo-noir (which we again we not watching, that and also had an accidental Goethe bent), but it wasn’t all that bunk which brought me back to Earth. Collateral was Gothic horror winding through the dirty streets of LA. The Raven and “William Wilson” again. All three possess a loose, literary aesthetic of fear and haunting. Fear and haunting were aplenty in Collateral, but muted. I think Mann overextended himself. A crime story should be meted out with the thunderous booms of rubber stamps and bullets chasing bullets.

Not the poignant scribbles of a goose quill. Better luck next time.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. A curious left turn from a fascinating director. However some of these things did not like the other.


The Musings…

  • “Nobody notices.”
  • Did Cruise “age” for the part?
  • “Definitely not from ’round here.”
  • So much for the cleanest cab.
  • “I don’t know any Rwandans.”
  • Dang. Look at those gas prices.
  • “You don’t have the trunk space.”
  • K: Sarcasm solves everything.
  • “I’d thought you’d be taller.” Wink wink, nudge nudge.
  • Silver…
  • K: Cruise is a hitman, and he never changes rides. Good point.
  • “What a great story.”

The Next Time…

College is important, but playing in the marching band’s Drumline is importanter.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #207: Dean Israelite’s “Project Almanac” (2015)


The Film…


The Players…

Jonny Weston, Sofia Black-d’Ella, Sam Lerner, Allen Evangelista and Virginia Gardner.


The Plot…

When teenage David stumbles upon late father’s time travel tech, he and his buddies head to the past to get an edge on their future. Of course it doesn’t take them long to figure out that when you fool around with the timeline the future won’t turn out like you hoped it did.


The Intro…

Hey, welcome back.

I’m cutting The Rant in two this week for Project Almanac, because the movie addressed two very significant yet disparate genres. First, the found footage movie, and second the classic sci-fi device of time travel. Neither have the twain ever met before as far as I know, and both have unique angles to approach. That and the longer I thought about it I could not figure out some sort of segue between both ideas. So I kinda cheated here.

Sorry and oh well. Now please pay attention, please.


The Rant, pt 1…

Hey, welcome back.

Today we’re going to dismantle a relatively modern movie genre: the found footage film (heretofore known as FFF). I say relatively because before the turn of the 20th Century there was no such genre. At least not as we know them today. Prior to 1999 the closest movie style to run parallel of a FFF is the oft-overlooked case study-as-entertainment, the docudrama. A sort of half breed movie that is based on fact, but steeped in fiction. A film based on/inspired by true events in short. Good examples of these movies are All The President’s Men, The Right Stuff and In Cold Blood to name a few, and most are almost exclusively based on books. Not surprising that, hence the whole docu- prefix. The source material was real. FFFs like to play with reality, whether fictitious of face.

Please, pay attention.

The biggest return on investment movie ever was what I hate to called a game-changer, that so tired a phrase nowadays it makes what really is a game-changer seem trite. The Internet, insulin, nuclear fission and The Blair Witch Project were true game-changers. Well, Witch was not as vital as the other things, but it sure was a sight different than your usual over budget Michael Bay train wreck. It was the definitive FFF, as well as seminal. Blair Witch wasn’t a true game-changer since there was no game before its debut. Sure, there were the twisted one-off “novelties” like Cannibal Holocaust or Coming Apart, but these were too outrageous and histrionic to be taken either seriously or just profane. Docudramas tried to hold your belief that what you were watching was the truth, not based on the truth. With co-creators Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick working with an aglet budget and actually filming with only film film they hit a nerve. What you were watching was the truth, but not real. There’s a difference.

Hey, welcome back. I first caught Witch in its first theatrical run, tempted like my friends were to see what all the fuss was about. Did I like the movie? A distant yes and very hesitant no. The experience was murky. We weren’t sure what we were watching, let alone if it was based on real life events (the directors played very cagey with their limited marketing) or a sham for scares. It was less of a college field study gone horribly awry and more like solving a puzzle. A puzzle fraught with pitfalls and pungee sticks, but still more a mystery than a horror show. To be sure it was creepy, and good at messing with your head, but like with Bruce the Shark in Jaws, the face of terror was the culmination of an hour-plus waiting game. This made the climax all the more disturbing.

It took me a day or two to process the movie. Not appreciate it, per se, but figure out what I had seen. It wasn’t much fun. Unlike when (at this time of writing) caught Top Gun: Maverick in May with my g/f (who has a huge crush on Tom Cruise) and we thought it was awesome. And it was, so much so I had to beat the praises of the flick over my co-workers heads until they promised to check it out and shut me up. I hated the original Top Gun and had reservations about any sequel. I had found the young Cruise a real…what’s the word? Dickhead? This time out a more mature Maverick with a sense of humility was much easier to get behind.

I couldn’t get behind Witch. Not at first. t was a puzzle I had to piece together. Now granted that Witch is a movie lightyears removed from such fun popcorn fodder as Maverick. That movie was awesome leaving me with some of the best fun I’ve had at the cinema in a very long time. Ago Witch was decidedly not fun, which perhaps was the point. I walked away from it baffled, unbalanced and more than a little spooked. I felt like I had spent 90 minutes in a rock tumbler, and the conversations afterwards were more like an autopsy rather than sharing opinions. My friends and I after we saw the movie dissected it more than discussed it. It’s homespun and lo-fi aesthetic was new to us, and we ended up chatting about “What did we just watch?” Like the hapless grad students in the picture we were all unsure about what Witch was trying to tell us. More like taking a final than At The Movies. All that discomfort made the movie all the more sinister. Crude even.

Please, pay attention.

Hey, welcome back. So over the past 20 years since Witch FFFs have earned a niche in Hollywood, albeit one stuck squarely in the boogeyman’s closet. It makes sense. Most scary movies have limited budgets, and FFFs are produced from mere pennies. Return on investment, remember? Kinda like with the original Halloween. That kind of thrift paired with big Hollywood marketing results in well cleaved cubit zirconium. So long as it sparkles. You follow?

Witch‘s success spawned a bevy of imitators in its creepy wake. Some of those flicks were respectable, some demanded Dramamine and some actually quite good. The first Paranormal Activity did a fine job of suggesting a ghost hunt gone horribly awry; the stuff of nightmares. Godzilla nod Cloverfield played great on the classic “fear of the unknown” scare tactic. And of course the proto-FFF Cannibal Holocaust could not but help do its best to make you vomit despite yourself. Hey, gross-out horror porn had to start somewhere. Pass the popcorn.

Hey, welcome back. It’s unfortunate that Hollywood is notorious in milking a gimmick for all its worth. Keep going until its beaten into the dirt. The FFF format has had its fair share of slumming in the name of feeding the fickle maw of audiences. The trouble with Hollywood business logic is when the execs find a new, inexpensive device—like FFFs, duh—to rake in the dollars their motives are based on praying that lightning will strike twice, even if it means going out in a storm wrapped in aluminum foil. When you have non-existent budget and a fairly throughput plot thread there is only so much one can do to “expand the mythos,” if you will.

Good that your paying attention.

All in all what I dig about FFFs is their air of mystery and not about jump scares galore. Intrigue. What happens next? Conventional films often have well drawn out directions to lead you through the story. Unlike plot resolution as reward for movies such as, say, Top Gun: Maverick FFFs credo is getting there is most of the fun, even if the journey will be bumpy and jumpy (camera angles). What the hell’s going on? What just happened? What did I just see? And who the heck cares? Most FFFs are open-ended, which allow your imagination to fill in the blanks. This I suspect is why Witch and others of its ilk are so nebulous. The movie making playbook got tossed into the fire. All the audience has to work with is the ashes.

Not knowing what is going on—the fear of the unknown—is a very potent fear. Not understanding something, where the road my lead, doubting your reality, all of it. It’s pretty tantalizing.

So anyway welcome back. Thanks for paying attention. You may step out of the corner and return to your seat now…


The Rant, pt 2…

Hey, welcome back.

Time travel has always been a reliable, potent sci-fi device. And why not? It invites unlimited possibilities. It also invites potential ruin.

Consider the best films of this pantheon. We have the delightful Back To The Future trilogy, mostly lighthearted and always funny. A nostalgia fest and a story of just deserts. The gooftastic Bill & Ted adventures. Although not a trad time travel tale Groundhog Day is the thinking man’s existential comedy stuck in that inexplicable time loop. Bill Murray starring was key. Despite casting there is always a however.

Time travel tales often echo an Orwellian metric to Sir Thomas More’s Utopia. A perfect society free from want and war. And what does “utopia” translate as? Nowhere. A haven like that does not, nor ever will exist. But how does this relate to sci-fi time travel? If you were ever permitted to change the timeline, nothing, nothing good will come of it. It would lead you nowhere. Dystopia is more common in pop culture than any utopia. The former decidedly does not exist, but inferring from More we have plenty of worlds of speculative fiction about time travel that are portents, awful, tragic and far more engaging than completely the ideal senior year history project.

Please, pay attention.

The Terminator series (the first two, at any rate) are prime examples of nasty cautionary tales about technology run amok The original Planet Of The Apes depicts devolution as future, where human are savages and their prior intelligent existence was wiped from the historical record. Heck, even the fountainhead of all time travel stories was HG Wells’ novel The Time Machine translated many times in film describes a savage future, where George Jetson walking Astro on the treadmill could never happen (random fun fact: according to the cartoon’s George was born in 2022).

Welcome back. Chances are that if time travel ever becomes a reality the bold adventurers will do nothing but set some butterfly effect in motion. You know, accidentally f*ck with past events that eventually f*ck up the future. Present. Whenever. After all time is like a river, always flowing forward. Who knows what might happen downstream if someone tries their cast to catch a prize coelacanth?

Are you paying attention? Wake up, and welcome back.

Despite modern pop culture neither Jeff Goldblum nor Ashton coined the phrase “butterfly effect.” It stems from a story written by Ray Bradbury. He was an icon in writing stories steeped in “what if” with a sinister bent, and well removed from More’s musings. None of his best works are warm, comforting tales of communion of humanity in future times. All his sh*t were brilliant, brittle cautionary tales slick with a veneer of humans thinking there were doing the right thing. In a word: wrong. And wrong is quite viral. Endemic even.

“A Sound Of Thunder” was one of Bradbury’s most telling sci-fi short stories, as well one of his most famous. It is also a time travel story, which is also a cautionary tale. In the not too distant some hotshot big game hunter wants to bag the ultimate trophy. He wants to hunt dinosaurs, and the Time Safari company is ready to oblige. Zipping back in time however has a few ironclad rules: hunt only creatures that are known to be extinct in the timeline, do not interfere in the biome that suggests evolution and above all things stay on the virtual path so you don’t accidentally f*ck up said biome which may evolve into the future. And guess what? Our hunter f*cks up, leaves the path and crushes a prehistoric butterfly. You paying attention?

Welcome back. When our intrepid hunter returns to his present everything has changed. Language doesn’t work anymore. Poltics don’t work anymore. Ever the climate doesn’t work anymore. All because he accidentally crushed that ancient butterfly. Ripple effect. Murder and mayhem ensues. The end.

Thanks for paying attention.

Bradbury was not a positive oracle, but his own butterfly effect might have informs Hollywood that dystopian time travel tales sell more tickets. Like the nightly news the tragic scenarios of The Terminator or Planet Of The Apes are more relatable and therefore gain more “ratings.” Why? Because a bleak future could happen suggested by our current state of global affairs. Our nascent dawn of AI could invite Skynet. Genetic shenanigans could make the lower primate kings of the Earth a possibility. Hell, even Wells’ conjectures as metaphor between the discrepancy of rich and and poor could….oops.

If time travel were feasible it would firmly be couched in the present science of modern physics, especially Einstein’s laws of relativity. Time only goes forward, not in reverse. Theoretically if you wanted to fast forward, catch the shuttle to set up a new life with the condos dotting the vista of Mars’ Olympus Mons best back your bags for a one way trip. Cuz you ain’t coming back. Time travel would only be an Autobahn and never a pit stop. Or a roundabout. It would be permanent.

Welcome back. Time travel as I see it—based on more amusing back-and-forth trips Hollywood has projected on the silver screen—is just a pipe dream. The fantasy is always better than the dreary reality. I think that traveling through time would be the ultimate getaway. Like Devo sang: “Go forward! Move ahead!” If you were a time traveler you’d be better off going forward and escape your crap of the now. Example: when my sis got married in 2008 the wedding took place in Puerto Rico. It was the last vacation I ever had. To this day I would love to go back there. Enjoy the food, soak up the local culture and spent every night on a deck chair, a sixer at the ready, Television on my iPod and count shooting stars. Again.

You’re welcome. My moments in PR are never gonna happen again, even if I get lucky enough to visit PR ever again. The past is always past and one’s memory is always smeared with sentiment, regret, smiles and pounding through Facebook’s search engine to find out what that girl got away was up to. (guilty). No wonder going back in time is impossible. It was never there, and through a cracked mirror.

Welcome back to the present. Watch when you step off the present path now…


The Story…

We welcome Dave Ruskin (Weston) a high school senior, techno-geek and MIT hopeful. His dad was a researcher for the government, and hopes the genetics rubbed off. Of course getting into the most prestigious science university in the country looms long in his mind…but good grades doesn’t insure financial aid.

One evening his buddies Quinn and Adam and sis Christina (Lerner, Evangelista and Gardner respectively) venture down into Dave’s basement and uncover some half-finished project of Dave’s late dad. After tooling around with strange contraption they discover it manipulates light, magnetism and…time. Time? Dad created a time machine? If Dave and company can figure how the gadget ticks they could go back in time and change history for the better.

They’ll all teens. More like their betterment.

Scoring winning lottery tickets, scoring the prime VIP treatment at Lollapalooza, advancing their academic acumen and even Dave scoring his crush Jessie (d’Ella-Black) all seem awesome and fun at first, but the inevitable happens. It always happens.

Dave and his friends constant f*cking with the timeline starts making the historical record fray, like not changing the oil. Stuff starts to fracture and the time-busting crew start paying the price.

The future ain’t what it used to be.

Paying attention? Good…


The Review…

Hey, welcome back.

If Project Almanac did anything original, it keenly illustrated how time travel can keep looping in on itself. Continuous repetition of the moments that eventually lead to wreck, ruin and even more distortion of reality. I am reminded of the ep of Star Trek: TNG “Cause And Effect,” where the Enterprise crew are stuck in a time loop, and only through an endemic sense of deja vu they realize their dire situation. Picard and company lost a month in the loop, precious time lost from boldly going.

In addition to the temporal pit stops I’ve never seen a time travel movie so hell bent on demonstrating how altering the timeline can be very, very dangerous. The whole wish fulfillment aspect of time travel—so lighthearted the exploits of Doc Brown and Marty made it seem—with Almanac gets very sour very fast. The diaspora of Dave and friends’ meddling gets ever worse, collapsing in on itself. Mostly thanks to the human factor. Thou shalt not meddle, etc.

As mentioned above time travel is a very risky project. There are myriad films about the peril of screwing with history, but precious few films take it to the next level. This means how the flow of time directly affects a singular protagonist, not the world at large. A few good examples are the anime OVA GunBuster, where our teenage heroine to always out of the present due to her travels in space, where superluminal travel renders her terminally 16 while all she knew on Earth has progressed as always. It’s a very existential story about being alone in a crowd.

Another time travel film is not necessarily about conventional time travel. The Man From Earth was courtesy of sci-fi luminary Jerome Bixby. It tells the story of a man who never ages and has been wandering the world for centuries. The hero tells his friends that “you can’t go home again” because whatever was home is gone, and memories of the past become so blurred that he can’t recall where he “came from.” Again, alone in a crowd. To wit, all of humanity.

But hey, and welcome back. Time loops and deja vu are all well and good to move a plot along. Almanac is also a FFF (with better production value), and certain aspects still stick here, an offspring of the Blair Witch aesthetic. As I said I dig FFFs, but it’s RIORI and I did take issue with Almanac‘s execution. It’s not as scorching as what I had to say about Project X (quite possibly the worst film ever scanned here), but there was something off-kilter with Almanac I feel compelled to mention.

The issue I take with modern FFFs is that the camera effects and angles are almost always at the ready, Reminds me of stalking and/or an invasion of privacy. C’mon, consider the proliferation of social media (duh). Reflecting a FFF it invites too much exposition and jump cuts just don’t work. It reminds me too much that it’s a movie, not an ep of Cops, per se. A heavy point in FFFs is to bewilder, mix sh*t up and leave it up to the audience to figure it out.

You paying attention? Good.

I must also take notice with Almanac‘s execution as a “proper” FFF. It’s pretty busy. There wasn’t enough room to breathe, whereas with Witch et al there were long periods of non-action that allowed the audience to digest whatever the hell what was on screen was going. Despite the rapid fire delivery Almanac still maintained a nice pace, despite the clutter. Most FFFs I’ve seen have a tendency to ramble; obscure the details in order to ramp up the unease. Not so with Almanac. It’s quite fast-paced, if not relentless in cramming as much story into the scrambled script as possible. I took issue with the info overload, but in the endgame it enhanced the bleeding chaos that ran through the story. If you’ve ever been witness to the demolition of a tall building the blasts go off, the structure slowly cants and then kerblooey. A minute stretches into a second and we’re left with rubble. Sh*t can go from 60 to zero in the moment that stretches.

Even though the trad three-structure with Almanac is somewhat absent (this was a FFF after all) what made it work overall was its bottleneck. Every time our time traveling teens try to flip the script, the points on the curve get ever closer. Their many temporal jaunts create more chaos that trying correct the accidental chaos from the last moment. It’s all a downward spiral, and that has the film generates penetrating tension…which only come to a head in the final “act.” It could feel muddled and even deranged, and I can’t lie it really to me for a ride. One that demanded a barf bag, but still.

You paying attention yet?

That’s the catch about time travel. If you want to go back to alter the timeline for the better you’ll end up screwing something else up. Dave and crew learned a hard lesson there. Blame Heisenberg I guess, or the impetuous nature of youth. And they’re all still kids, still impetuous, drugged by power beyond their understanding, and as we already know absolute power corrupts and can be contagious (read: peer pressure and its ills).

Almanac suggested that what would it be like if John Hughes directed a FFF. For the better part of the late director’s filmography he reveled in messing around with teenage misfits existential crisis. The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. All tales of teens engaged in wish fulfillment  paired against their standing in the world, and neither do the points do cross.

Hey, welcome back.I figure that kind of view is what made Almanac, but barely. I kinda felt the FFF format was at first just a gimmick. Then again would a cautionary tale about about reckless teenage time travel would’ve work if it played it straight? That crazed camera work might’ve been disorienting, but ultimately rewarding in context. Still made my head spin, though.

That being said, Almanac was very effective—albeit blurred—illustrating what real danger could happen with time travel. There was never an end-of-the-world butterfly effect. Instead a more insidious feeling of string theory coming unravelled. The desperation kept getting ramped up to even have me questioning “Where am I now?” Almanac‘s möbius strip of a story was a journey that (almost) had a conclusion. Recall in the final scene where Dave was wearing REDACTED? The end begins with the start.

Again, welcome back. And again thanks for paying attention.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Very interesting. Very dizzying. Somewhat thoughtful. Riddled with scattered allusions that could only happen in a FFF. Where was I?


The (Many) Musings…

  • “Your father would have be so…” Kiss of death.
  • Soundtracks are inessential with FFFs. Silence is golden as a rule.
  • K: “It’s like alien tech.” Sharp.
  • Lightbulb. Metaphor. Got it.
  • “No. I didn’t study. I was building a time machine!”
  • Who the f*ck is holding the camera when?
  • “You ever see the movie Looper?” “God, I love that movie.”
  • Red shirts? Really?
  • “I’ve always wanted to be a getaway driver!”
  • Chemistry. Heh.
  • “When did we get a video camera?”
  • Imagine Dragons? Bruh.
  • K: “You know what this reminds me of? National Treasure. Like the briefcase is a character always changing scenes and moving the movie.” Like I said, sharp.
  • All this to get into MIT. Just call the Pentagon instead.
  • “Time me.”

The Next Time…

Jamie Foxx has a hack license and picking up Tom Cruise is just another fare. He fast realizes he’s no longer the driver. He’s Collateral.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #206: Jared Bush, Byron Howard & Charlise Castro Smith’s “Encanto” (2021)


La Película…


Las Voces…

Stephanie Beatriz, Maria Cecilia Botero, John Leguizamo, Jessica Darrow and Diane Guerrero, with Mauro Castillo, Angie Cepeda and Wilmer Valderrama.


La Gráfico…

The Madrigal clan lives a magical life in the mountains of Columbia. No, literally. The Family Madrigal is magical, every mother, father and child possessing a unique gift to better home, hearth and familia.

Save one.

Fifteen-year old Mirabel is the only Madrigal to have never presented any magical powers. The magic manifests itself in childhood, and Mirabel has gone without the wonders her family has enjoyed all her young life.

However, when a mysterious force threatens the magic of the Madrigal family it becomes fast apparent that only Mirabel possesses the power to set things right again.

Not magic. Power.


La Despotricar…

Let’s talk about the Disney Formula, shall we? And yes, it involves princesses.

Also, fair warning. This is going to be one of the longest installments that sometimes dapple RIORI. In a fashion it’s out of respect for K, my ardent Disney fanatic and very cute ohana. I would be remiss to not say I labored over this installment, kind of like a 24 hour C-section delivery. Let that sink in a bit.

I really dig most of Disney’s “princess flavored” big screen output. From Snow White to Frozen those movies’ flair is like a sore d*ck: you can’t beat it. From Sleeping Beauty to The Little Mermaid to Beauty And The Beast (the first ever animated movie given an Oscar nod for Best Picture, BTW) Disney has been synonymous with quality in their animated movies, not to mention setting the gold standard for all other animation studios, CGI and otherwise, silver screen or streaming. Especially if the movie stars a princess. Refute me.

The following is an excerpt from Megan Lunny, once a high schooler from Doylestown, PA, who dissected the Disney princess formula best, or rather the monotone message such films project. Ms Lunny is now a graduate of Columbia University and at this time of writing interning as a communications expert at what I can only call a pro bono legal firm. Chances are she’s pretty good at making constructive arguments. Don’t take my word; I just stumbled upon the info. Anything more I could note about this woman would be close to a LinkedIn profile, and here at RIORI I have no networking budget. I have no budget period.

Here are Lunny’s words that encapsulated the “Disney Formula” from the mid-Teens, and for the very few out that may dare ask, “Yo blogger. How did you find out about this?” The answer is simple: LinkedIn. Right. Anyway according to Ms Lunny:

“It was the Disney Princess Formula: P = D + G; a Princess is the sum of some deep-ridden Desire—adventure, tail-less-ness, freedom—and a Guy who satisfies this desire. Sometimes Disney’s writers—in a contrived attempt at Girl Power—wrote the Brave Princess, or the Smart Princess, or the Warrior Princess…” ¹

Cut to the quick, right? If you’re curious check out the entirety of Ms Lunny’s theory click here. I’ll wait…

Her “contrived” thing stuck with me. Sure, a great many of those princess movies fed the warm fuzzies in all of us, but after you’ve seen a zillion of such movies (and if you’re paying attention) there begins a wafting of deja vu. “I’ve seen this before.” Almost like perusing every diner menu you’ve ever perused. All of this seems all too familiar. Almost rote. Despite how yummy Reuben sandwiches are they are all the same sandwich.

Consider Ms Lunny’s exposition, or rather a Disney formula exposé. Or just plain screaming the emperor is naked. Ms Lunny’s hypothesis stated stuff I’ve noticed all along regarding Uncle Walt’s myriad “princess stories.” Simply put no girl—no matter how strong-willed or capable—can overcome her circumstances without some male hero entering the picture. Never. Even strong female types like Belle or Ariel or Jasmine or even Snow White can’t get out from under the rock that they stumbled under without a prince’s assistance to set things right. That and there are many, many villains whom are female that can’t wait to get their claws into something their “princess” may possess worth wanting. The Wicked Queen, Malificent, Lady Tremaine, Ursula, Mother Gothel, Cruella DeVil, Madame Medusa (I’ve done my homework). Hell, even Meg from Hercules (though not a traditional female antagonist) is a fallen woman that only our titular demigod can save at a price. What’s up with all the implied misogyny anyway? Was Walt just following the straight line with all those adapted fairy tales, or something more sinister? Mr Disney was a married man, and had two daughters (one of whom was adopted), so raising two girls—and all the “fun” that goes with it—most likely influenced him and his staff as to what would endear a female audience, them dragging Dad/brother/boyfriend to the cinema on opening night. Still it leads me to wonder.

Sinister? No. Business-minded? You betcha. It was always about the bottom line with Walt. I mean, c’mon, the image of a princess is akin to a Jungian archetype: The Innocent, the second of the twelve. Bear with me. Told you this would get long.

Archetypes are littered throughout Disney’s animated output. And why not? They are the foundation upon which all dramatis personae are made. Famed psychologist Karl Jung used archetypes to implement the idea that some images and/or roles are universal. He cemented his theory of society as a result of a “collective unconscious.” To put it plainly, some things are understood as they are on an instinctual level. Such examples are the ideal of the mother, the child, the adversary and the wise one. Virtually all of Disney’s animated films follow this hierarchy (consciously or no). Hedging such bets—as well as being vital to this closed-ended arguement—Disney heroines are children, regardless of species. Even though the studio is adept at creating a proper three act movie the cast are all ciphers reimagined film for film based on Jungian archetypes. The hero, the wise one, the child…the formula? I’m probably overthinking this, but perhaps I’m compensating for the other 90%.

Seriously, maybe Jung’s concepts might have informed Walt with his oeuvre and perhaps such may be why Lunny’s theory is so presently potent. Same sh*t, different movie. No matter how clever Disney has spun it the princess formula has run its course. To wit, how come an under-employed cook made a connection between Jungian psychology and Princess Jasmine? There may be a bunch of you out there who’ve also toppled down the rabbit hole and ignored there was no bunny in the first place.

In the endgame, we’re talking true and tired. Being a “princess” is no longer a starring role—it’s more like a pejorative these days—and the House Of Mouse has had some difficulty in accepting some few hints. Conducting business now often blurs the longview. Hey, when comes down to the bottom line why change lanes? The princess palette brings in the bucks at the box office. Ain’t broke, don’t fix.

I’d like to believe that in recent years Disney has considered, but never outright declared that their formula has become threadbare. Again, I dig princess stories (EG: The Princess Bride, The NeverEnding Story, Star Wars: A New Hope, etc) but have grown yawning of “princess stories” if you catch my drift. I am sick of the “damsel in distress” schtick and demand more proactive heroines. We’ve had many notables over the past few decades. Consider Joan Cusack “accidentally” holding Working Girl together. Weaver as Ellen Ripley in Aliens, confronting many nasty demonsOr even the wispy Trinity from the Matrix movies, who goes all John Woo on yer ass once she jacks in. Or even in anime with the capable, mixed vag female team of cyborg hunters in BubbleGum Crisis: Tokyo 2040. These are examples of strong-willed women who are still female and buck the all too tired trend of needing others—male or otherwise—to get sh*t done. That’s the key for me to a have a solid movie heroine: independence. Closest example I can think of recently with Disney was the resourceful Rapunzel from Tangled. Her “knight” was a scoundrel/fanboy and her weapon of choice wax  a frying pan. Heck, Ripley improvised too. And we could all do worse.

Let’s backtrack now. Step backwards in Danny’s bootprints. I think I might be getting to a point. That and I really like Dunkin’ Donuts’ fat free blueberry muffins.

…What began as an experiment as well as a revolution in animation with Snow White way back in 1937 set the stage. The Disney Formula: feisty damsel in distress needs a prince of sorts to sweep her off her feet and/or protect her from the evil machinations her innocent circumstances invited. Then again, Snow didn’t have to eat that apple. Aurora understood to steer clear of spinning wheels. Ariel wanted to be with Eric at the risk of her unable to even chat with him. Cinderella knew she was running a risk crashing Charming’s ball against her stepmom’s stern words. Even Belle waltzed eyes wide open into that cursed palace if only to get away from that dolt Gaston.

You hear what I’m screaming? Precious few Disney heroines stand their ground and principles for the choices they make. Most are reactionary, sometimes pawns of a wicked female passive-aggressively waiting for their knight in shining armor. Or again with Tangled some hapless scoundrel getting caught up in mix, by wit, grit and trying to outrun some sh*t. Disney, try as they might, can’t shake old habits no matter how much of their fans scream not again. In the long run up to now the Disney Formula is (as of this screed) f*cking 85 years old, and has become as tired as Rip Van Winkle sleeping off a bender.

I don’t know about you, but from a person who loves animated movies enough is enough already. If any of you out there in Disneyland haven’t picked up on Mickey’s treadmill yet I suggest you squeegee your mind’s eye and watch some flicks from the upstart studios with lesser budgets but bigger cojones to create “alternative” animation. More irreverence, less fluff (unless relevant to the plot). To wit I’d like to believe that Ms Lunny was a fan of the Shrek movies.

One more thing. The more recent sanitizing practices when Disney strays away from the source plot, some very interesting twists are left out. Fudging with the source material for the sake of sanitizing (Disney is notorious for this). Stuff that might earn a flick more pathos and ultimately more rewarding in the end. For example, in the original fairy tale Cinderella there were no fairies to set her up right. She cultivated a magic tree that collected all sorts of useful things in its branches. It was only after the tree spruced (ha!) up Cinderalla’s wardrobe to get right for the ball, it was chopped down out of envy by the nasty stepsisters. Despite this setback, the Prince still went on his foot patrol (ha ha!) with that slipper, looking for his ultimate date.

Here’s the twist. We know that Cinderella and the Prince lived happily ever after, but ‘Rella held no ill will against her siblings and mother. Sh*t was rough with a lot of sour grapes. She got lucky, and encouraged the Prince to find some nice bachelors from his court to be wed to Anastasia, Drizella and even cranky, old Lady Tremaine, thereby fixing a broken family. No hard feelings. The moral of the story is that family makes us stronger, and it’s never some sort of competition to be the first at anything. Hey, we all hang together through life. If there were a moral to Cinderella’s adventure it was to be gracious and not selfish.

That was the moral of the story I did not see in the film. Downbeat? Kinda. Satisfying? Yep. A change of pace? Could’ve been if not for that dang formula.

To quote Jerry Seinfeld, “What is up with that?”

Back to the 21st Century now and Disney dragging a limb. Encanto‘s Mirabel is no different a specimen, yet not designed to be. She’s awkward, a shrunken violet compared to her magical sisters, the ugly duckling amidst the bevy of swans. It takes the desperation of the Madrigal family to coax the help of REDACTED and turn the tables at Casita. Sure, Mira figures it out, but not alone. Never alone. The other characters need to shine, sometimes overpower our heroine. It would betray the (let’s face it) Disney ticket selling machine. There’s a dynamic here that is the house style, so why fix what ain’t broken?

I cannot stress this enough: it’s tired. And tired is a polite way to say predictable. And predictable is a polite way to say in a rut. And that sucks. Sure, back when Ariel got all bold in standing up to her overbearing father so to get to know (Prince) Eric out of love it was a breath of fresh air. Having a Disney princess take the bull by the horns for once. It made a great story and a timeless movie, which I still enjoy today. Then the formula percolated, right around the “Kiss The Girl” scene. The Little Mermaid was cut in 1989. You follow? As of this writing that was 35 years ago. Taylor Swift was yet to crawl out of the womb. Feel old yet? You should, but not 85 years old old.

Enough. Let’s consider this week’s installment. Over the past few years—after the original Frozen appeared in wide release—the Diz Biz has been straining to escape the formula. Sure, my beloved Tangled took an offbeat tack, but in the end Rapunzel was a REDACTED princess. At least Flynn Rider was REDACTED trying to save her naive ass went against formula. And hey, Princess & The Frog had our competent Tiana, but she wasn’t really a princess, dig. That and she’s black! Score! Now go away!

No matter how it spins Encanto was Disney’s answer to Pixar’s Coco. Similar plot: get to the bottom of things regarding the almost forgotten black sheep of the family who is the fountainhead of wisdom escorted into the light by a determined, misfit family member. Spin it to win it. Coco was far less pretty not to mention more convoluted and opened-ended than Encanto, to be sure. Still what made Encanto “unique” was our hero was a heroine, not a princess. Perhaps an heiress apparent, defiantly the black sheep and struggling against the spirit of Uncle Walt to create another cash grab classic. A twist on a tried-and-true plot device? Perhaps, but streaming the thing was what I was after. I hoped it would be finally that new twist, Prince Charming all absent. Our heroine being a linchpin of the plot sans any hide or hair of some chiseled hero with perfect hair and nothing to hide.

Okay, there was something to hide, or remain hidden being a better phrase. Despite the creaks and cracks Encanto did manage to score a few firsts long absent in Disney’s catalogue. I may be a cynic, but I always give a wide berth to questionable movie exploits. Especially animated stuff. Encanto might’ve been one of them. But still, hey, Disney animation! We’ve had 85 years worth of expectations.

There is a fine example of the malign regarding the revolving door of princess movies. If you’ve ever read the delightful and witty Olivia picture books then you might recall our porcine protagonist lamenting about having to dress up as a princess for a theme b’day party. Young Olivia’s dilemma somewhat mirrors Ms Lunny’s argument. It read like this:

“Why is it always a pink princess? Why not an Indian princess or a princess from Thailand or an African princess or a princess from China? There are alternatives. And on Halloween,” said Olivia, “what did all the girls go as?”

Mother: “Princesses?”

Olivia: “PRINCESSES!” ²

Disney’s had growing pains since the turn of the century, and in only fits and starts that the studio has been trying to inject 20th Century sensibilities into their 21st Century animated films. Better late than never? It’s rather been more like a see-saw than a carousel for a long time. Then again there is hope. Recall how I mentioned Mirabel needs her supporting cast to define her role in the Madrigal Clan? I kinda trolled you a bit. Disney’s growing pains are still creaky, but the “formula” can still be tooled with. As with Encanto.

Please, Mirabel, be strong and prove me wrong…


La Historia…

The Madrigal family are imbued with magic, but it was not always this way.

Grace to only what could be called a miracle, at a time of great sacrifice the powers that be bestowed an never-ending glow from a mystical candle—an encanto—to not only protect the family, but also bestow magical powers to the children when the time is right. Magic to aid the community, to protect all and imbue joy.

All is great and good under the encanto, which is why Mirabel (Beatriz) feels so left out of…everything.

You see, Mirabel is the only Madrigal who never inherited any magical powers. But instead of being the odd one out, she’s perpetually in overdrive trying to keep things shiny and bright, if only to outshine her worth to the Madrigal matriarch, her kind yet stern abuela Alma (Botero). She’s keeper of the encanto, and all too well knows Mira tries her best, but…the girl is powerless. What to do?

Until one day the mystical casa of Familia Madrigal starts to sputter out its magic for no identifying reason, Mira gets on the case. This isn’t about faulty magic. It’s about a faulty family.

Just ask the guy we no longer mention…


La Revisión…

The curious thing about Encanto is adjusting for return on investment—paired with The Standard—is that the movie didn’t do so hot at the box office. This is in relation to earned Disney revenue. Almost all of Walt’s animated flicks break the bank. Encanto only managed to break even. Over $400 million at the domestic box office. This was Disney money, and only about half of its original budget. Encanto just limped by, which is why it’s here under RIORI‘s lens. I repeat, a Disney movie. That was not a hit and met with dicey reviews. Is the sky falling? Will there be lunch tomorrow?

Recalling my recalling my recollections about the tired and true formula from hours ago, Disney is going through growing cramps, trying to squeeze its way out of a trite plot device and attempt—in a broken-wing phoenix way—to redefine its princess parable predicament. This began in earnest with The Little Mermaid introducing a slew of films starring capable princesses, but still often relegated to supporting characters if not wallpaper. Or worse, a fallback into being a plot device (think Meg from Hercules). Ugh. Better thinking, but still too feminine and still playing it safe. More like hedging some bets. In the end run though, Disney’s 90s to 00s output worked, and was more thoughtful about where the heroine fit into the story at large and not relegated to being just a damsel.

Then came Frozen, Tangled, The Princess And The Frog and, yes, Encanto, which openly tooled with bucking the house style. Disney was getting better, growing hip to current pop culture trends. Doing so breathed some much needed life into the studio, but sometimes with odd results. Encanto is such an odd duck. We have no princess, the conflict is vague in execution, and there are no defined antagonists. At least on the surface. This may be a first regarding Disney’s output—despite all the songs and spectacle—Encanto is a mystery movie. An existential “whodunnit?” It’s not about an overt threat that may upset the natural order of things like Hades or Jafar attempted. Encanto is all about identity, and not tossing Gaston from the parapets.

Hear me out. This may get weird.

I’ve lamented about the end of trad cell animation over the last decade. However Encanto has proven to me why digital animation is of the now. Encanto was f’n gorgeous. By far the most beautiful modern Disney animated movie I’ve scene to date. said she loved the colors; I could not argue. The flick gave Pixar a run for the money for being digitally sumptuous. Disney has learned how to use coloring as a character in its own right. What was different this time out Disney used color and shadow to propel the story. This was oddly deliberate considering one of the main characters was a magical house. I’m going to call the spade Encanto a spade. This was a deceptively complex story. The very fact the formula was all but thrown under the bus says volumes. Using setting as a defined character (Casita or no) I can’t recall that ever being attempted, let alone succeed. Light and shade, a reflection of the story.

In addition to that light and shade, a very major aspect of Encanto’s feel is the voice acting. Never have I heard a vocal cast be so…themselves. Disney has always had impeccable taste in casting their voices. I particularly loved the choice of Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor as the rodent orphan hunting duo in The Rescuers. With Encanto our cast is ostensibly Columbian, and their dialogue is so subtly Latin American, even to adopt a Columbian accent (there is one) the Madrigals come across as so natural and not forced. There was no bombast, just conversation, as if hearing regular folks go about their day. Sure, when the encanto began to sputter there was some concern, but never any histrionics like, say, The Lion King. Everything flowed. It was like watching an ep of Seinfeld, minus the bluster. We’re all just talking and sharing and was all so soothing and engaging. The most natural voice acting I’ve ever heard. Good job.

Encanto kind of felt like a cousin to another movie about music, mayhem and finding your way in the world: The Sound Of Music. “How do you solve a problem like Mira?” It was an ugly duckling story, and Mirabel was the misfit. The only member of family Madrigal who never inherited a magic power. This was the detail that drove the story. What’s wrong with Mira? How come she has no magic? And more of the sinister: “Does she even belong here? Is she a true Madrigal?” Taking into account our female protagonist is an awkward 15-year old young woman, all that awkwardness that goes along with adolescence is laid bare. Who here can’t help but relate?

*blogger raises hand, pops bubblegum*

This review, like Encanto, will take some hard lefts. I’ve dissected way too many middling flicks here at RIORI, but I’ve never outright attempted to explain a movie away. As I said, Encanto is a deceptive, complex movie, and if you view it from the princess formula you’ll miss a lot. I did first time around. Correct, Encanto demands a repeat viewing. I actually had to do some YouTube sifting to either affirm or dismiss the true meaning of the film. Admittedly that was kind of fun, namely having your suspicions confirmed/dismissed. Like I said Encanto was an existential mystery. Heavy for an Disney flick, but the studio pulled off the ruse deftly. Not was all as it seemed. and this nagged at me. Just like a good caper should.

For example: a twist I missed at first. Have you ever felt in trad Disney animated films that the songs were just bookends/exposition rather than just…songs, compared to Pixar movies. Randy Newman’s “You Got A Friend In Me” became the theme song for the Toy Story. That’s all, and that’s how it’s always been…since most Pixar flicks stray away from licks unlike the endlessly catchy/bemoaned “Let It Go” from Frozen. Encanto is a Disney film, so we get songs aplenty. This time out it’s not about bookmarks, let alone curtain calls. The songs are indeed madrigals in the center of the scene singing about the significant goings-on within the act proper. Heck, even the aforementioned “Let It Go” concluded Frozen‘s second act. Right on point. For a good portion of the film the songs just burst forth, off guard and you even get the sense that regarding a given scene now’s not the time to get all Harold Hill on yer arse. Like color, the music is a character, too.

Hard left: let’s get old school. I wanna talk about the three act structure. Perhaps you’ve read me flogging about how crucial it is to satisfying films. Disney Studios are ardent adherents (if not drones) to this practice, as should all professional scenarists be in constructing a fully realized final cut. This would be the fully-formed three act structure. No worries. Encanto played by the rules. Quite well. Listen now.

We might have heard that the ancient Greeks wrote the book—so to speak—on how to create proper dramatic theater in the Western Hemisphere. We call it a play, or a film or even an ep of TV. Cutting to the chase the classical three act structure is “a narrative model that divides stories into three parts—Act One, Act Two, and Act Three, or rather, a beginning, middle, and end.” ³ It’s just that simple, and you’d be hard pressed to ignore movies (especially animated ones) that let things get all wobbly and mushy and stray from the story proper in favor of flash and dash. Think Cars 2Treasure Planet or (if you wanna get technical) John CarterThat kinda direction just ends up being baffling. I dug John Carter, but took me many layers of onion to peel away to actually appreciate the messy plot. The film could’ve been shorter also; a big film does not necessarily invite a bloated running time. Encanto was big, but not overblown and could have been if not for some shrewd storytelling with a tasteful amount of muss and fuss.

Here’s a key factor to the three act structure. It’s based partially on an audience’s reaction to a movie. Everyone remembers the opening and everyone remembers the ending. It’s not unlike to the crucial parts of a jet taking flight: the takeoff and the landing. The rest in between is essentially just coasting, and like with a movie most drama occurs in fits and starts like turbulence. Encanto‘s directing team understood this, which is why the first and second acts are littering with backstory and clues. I said the movie was an unconventional mystery story, and deciphering the clues makes the mystery fun to solve. As well as the whole “things are not what they seem” stuff.

A probable, ugly truth. That may have been Encanto‘s downfall.

In most Disney films (since their Renaissance) the formula to the tale of the resilient heroine almost always concludes with a big, bold scene of comeuppance. Victory and cue happily ever after. With Encanto that resolution is never really assured. Everything about the Madrigal magic fading and why is blurry, just out of sight. But there are clues if you pay attention. Close attention. I said I had to do some YouTube scanning to confirm my suspicions about the real story about the encanto, Casita and Mirabel’s place within the unfolding drama. In sum while watching the movie I kept asking myself, “Where are we going here?” It was not a question formed out of frustration. According to the box office tally maybe for the audience it was.

Something told me that the generations raised on the formula were all at sea viewing Encanto. Folks know what they’re in for when queuing up for the latest Disney flick. It’s familiar. It’s dependable. It’s all a family affair. It’s comfort food. Encanto was decidedly not your usual Disney fare, and it may have left a bad taste in the public’s mouth. Why? Well first of all the ending was open ended and not a tidy package all wrapped up. Our protagonist’s dilemma was never really resolved; Mirabel started with no magic and ended up with still no magic (at least at first glance). There was no definitive antagonist and the aim of the narrative was vague at best. That and America really had to think to appreciate Encanto. There was no spoon feeding, which I feel is what made the film great and quite a revelation. The directorial team worked hard to give us an earthy, quirky story that had a lot of moving parts. How those parts interlocked made Encanto work, especially when you get an “A-ha!” moment. Took me two viewings, but I got—earned, rather—mine. Even if it also required some Internet sifting.

Okay. The sifting thing—that and trying to write a primer for Encanto without ruining it for you—yielded some interesting results, as well as the movie might be the most avant-garde animated film since Fantasia from the venerable Walt Vault. Not unlike Encanto‘s disappointing takeaway for taking risks I’ll compare it the first Velvet Underground album. That record initially tanked, but everyone who heard it went out and started their own band. I hope Encanto set a precedent for future wily animators.

The miracle of magic from personal sacrifice allows the Madrigal encanto to imbue unique magical powers to its children when they come of age, kinda like the X-Men, but welcome in their community. Under the guiding light of the mystical, never-ending flame no child has ever been denied their gift, until Mirabel comes along. Unlike her pretty and strong sisters Mirabel walks away with nothing, and becomes the misfit of the clan (of which she is all too aware). However Mira keeps on being buoyant, always there to help the residents of Casita with everyday troubles we all face.

There. That’s the setup. Act one. Now pull out your magnifying glasses. Mirabel has no magic…or does she?

This comes into question when the magic starts to fade for no apparent reason. All the magical Madrigals are getting all stressed out, especially abuela Alma. She’s the self-appointed caretaker of the magic candle, and when the crisis goes into full swing she cannot. Just. Let the encanto be. Why?

Ah, the mystery, to which Mirabel gets a big lead from the almost literal skeleton in the closet, Bruno. The Ishmael of the Madrigal clan whom we do not speak of. Again, why?

He’s another misfit because he spoke his mind about the abuse of the magic, and how it might ruin Casita. That and Mira may be the catalyst to either save Casita from the waning magic or ruin everything completely. How?

This is where my sniffing around and my contempt for the worn-out princess plot paid off. I think. You ever hear the phrase, “The Captain always goes down with ship?” Sometimes there is no seaworthy ship. Sometimes its a fellowship, and/or a friendship. Consider this: Mira has no magic powers, at least not in the abstract. However if you applied a sharp eye (like the directorial team hoped I’ll bet) not all that Disney glitters is gold. To be blunt sometimes it’s terra cotta.

Sometimes the most mundane reveals treasures. King Tut’s tomb was buried in an offhand cave in the Valley Of The Kings, and look what we found. The Rosetta Stone? One of Napolean’s foot solders stumbled over it, so to speak. And there was that tale about Alexander Fleming and his sandwich. Boom, penicillin. Why not something obvious by accident could drive a movie? This just encapsulated Roger Corman’s entire milieu, and I’ll answer the former.

Hidden in plain sight. The director’s twisted the audience’s expectation with Encanto and left us up to gather the clues. Most of us Disney fans appreciate being indulged with a familiar, reliable (baby) formula. Encanto made one think, and boy did that sting. Just consider the ticket sales, most lost over Mirabel never getting her powers.

Wrong. Not getting but using. Moving on. You still there?

Without giving too much more away I feel that Encanto‘s eventual outcome reads as thus: why is it when Mirabel is under emotional duress Casita reacts in kind? Why? We’re not allowing Ursula to sway Eric with Ariel’s stolen voice here. Also, why was it when it was Mirabel’s chosen time to grasp the doorknob the encanto‘s erstwhile magic gift sunk into the floor rather than unlocking some magic? And what’s with the endless flapping shingles, cracks in the foundation and kids who need Mira to lean on? Curiouser and curiouser. No surprise, but I suggest you watch Encanto and unravel the mystery yourselves.

That’s enough for now. I’m not jamming my fingers up your collective noses anymore. Yes, this installment has been winding, weird and overall wordy. Then again aren’t all mysteries to some degree? Maybe not. Who knows? James Bond’s exploits never made much sense, yet we still watch ’em.

Encanto is an existential riddle, and only the determined will appreciate it. The film might require multiple viewings to be satisfying, but there’s a lot of cool things to scan. I hope that Disney allows more of this output. Adult films for families. I’m not wishing upon a star, but it would be cool if Encanto‘s execution might be a precursor for more mind-bending animated films to come. Heck, even the promo art holds riddles, even if Olivia is a self-appointed expert on gender roles.

Thank you everyone. I’ll be here until I’m dead. Please, try the veal and be sure to tip your servers.

Good night and no te dejes atropellar.


Trabajos Citados…

¹ Lunny, Megan. “Disney Princess Formula Undergoing Much-Needed Transformation.” cbsd.org. http://www.cbsd.org/cms/lib/PA01916442/Centricity/Domain/1522/Disney%20Princess%20Formula%20Undergoing%20Much.pdf. Accessed 20 June 2022.

² Falconer, Ian. Olivia and the Fairy Princesses. Illustrated, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2012.

El Veredicto…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Original, lush, engaging, curious and above all different, with no princesses to be seen. Gracias a Dios.


Las Reflexiones…

  • K: “It’s funny how the house catches everything before the people do.” Very astute.
  • I found Mirabel adorkable in an Annie Hall kinda way. It’s all about the glasses.
  • “And that’s why coffee is for grown-ups.”
  • For the curious encanto translates as “charm” in English. Oddly appropriate.
  • “The rats told me everything! Don’t eat those!”
  • There is always a Bruno in the closet we never talk about. It’s tradition.
  • K: “It’s a Mickey cactus!” Pat pat, there there.
  • And also for the curious a madrigal is a lyrical story set to music. Duh.
  • “How do I save a miracle?”

En Agradecimiento…

KayKay, who made me watch this trifle. She has surprisingly smart taste. Yah.


La Próxima Vez…

Something suggests the Project Almanac has less to do with the passing seasons and more to do with the passing years. Years. Upon years. Upon…


 

RIORI Presents Installment #205: Harry Elfont & Debra Kaplan’s “Josie And The Pussycats” (2001)


The Gig…


The Band…

Rachael Leigh Cook, Rosario Dawson, Tara Reid, Alan Cumming and Parker Posey, with Gabe Mann, Paulo Costanzo, Missi Pyle and Carson Daly.


The Rider…

The life of a touring band rough. Whatever YouTube transmits those superstars’ 3 minutes of video hit fame takes interminably endless miles of gig between this bar to that beer bust. Very little reward for a sh*t-ton of earning your bones.

Josie and her punk pop trio, the Pussycats have been putting in their time, but no recording contracts are calling. Until the fickle of finger of fate taps them as the next big thing. All that gigging at sweaty bowling alleys are paying off! Some smarmy talent agent has the ‘Cats in his sight and readies them for fame and fortune!

Then again, as the old saw goes: be careful for what you wish for. All Josie and her friends ever wanted were a break, not a breakdown.


The Soundcheck…

The subject matter of Josie is near and dear to me. I’ve perhaps mentioned what an audiophile I am, but my insane iTunes library isn’t really relevant today. I know I’ve babbled on about my times on air at my old radio station WDIY, but that’s not the horse of the proper color. I might have mentioned my times in bands, either marching or garage but that’s not the bare nubbin. It’s how ugly the waning record industry is.

Ugly. I mean fascistic. I learned a lot about the integrity (or lack thereof) when it comes to record labels and their nefarious machinations. If that sounds sinister, it is. I’m putting it out there: more money for less art.

Chill. This in not going to be some hipster, snobbish screed. At least not on the whole. It’s tough to talk about your pet interest without getting all stinky and/or gatekeeping. But let’s be honest: consider stereotyping. Why do we do it? It’s to the quick. Kinda like assuming that every Deadhead is also a burner. Or that every member of the KKK is also a card-carrying member of the NRA also. I’m not saying they’re not. If the sheet fits wear it.

I’m just gonna tell you about what I learned back in my heady days of broadcasting (which also confirmed some suspicions). For one the FCC is very really strict about content. I mean really strict. As example, back in my radio days if there was a song that had “inappropriate content” in its lyrics (EG: profanity, explicit violence or sexual content, anything by Gary Puckett & the Union Gap, etc) and if it somehow got aired there could be a very real fine waylaid on the station if there was a complaint filed. Especially if a sponsor made the call. A fine upwards to $30,000 in early 00’s ducats. I almost took a fall for a Black Grape song that went on air. It was an accident; I played the unedited cut while darting off to the bathroom. I never peed on the job ever again. Thirty grand would have bankrupted the station. No joke. The FCC keeps a very tight hold on the First Amendment, but parses out its value in the name of commerce. Such is laid at the feet of media giants IHeartMedia and others of such ilk (of which there are very few). As of this writing Cardi B is presently enjoying a lucrative music career. “WAP” can kiss my A. Black Grape calling you a “silly mother*cker” for listening was too direct a message I gather. Even now, all these years later I still don’t get it. What people want to hear versus what they are made to hear. That may be why I never made any money in radio broadcasting.

In addition to on air decency, the FCC has other curious rules about broadcasting protocol. For instance it is mandatory for station ID at the top of the hour (give or take five minutes). You know. “You have tuned into WXYZ FM” and so on. No big, but if that’s ignored—you guessed it—another finein the range of $3000 (early 00s dollars). Kinda steep I thought for just saying hello to faithful listeners. Not to mention the playlists. Ah, the playlists. Songs chosen had to be cleared by record company hacks who pimped out music critics that said what was what where on the charts and where what was could be on the charts. Kinda like taking to that strong-arm game at carnivals. Whatever rings that bell gets a prize. Cynical? No, not at all. It’s how business conducts itself and we got free CDs to shuffle through for on-air consideration. We were all in on the scam. Willingly or else we’d’ve received no swag at all. If our indie station got snubbed by a music site—say, like Slate—it would make our station absolute poison and anything given gratis once before (EG: free CDs, swag, ratings, etc) would dry up. It’s akin to why public TV stations hold pledge week. It’s selling Girl Scout cookies for ratings and a bigger budget. Sound ugly? It is.

Uglier still is how commercial radio (the last free medium in the world) has morphed into one big commercial, en toto. A great many of the local stations in my area have over a decade abandoned their format as soon as IHeartMedia bought them out. The changes were insidious. It felt like what happened to me the comic collector when Disney bought Marvel. The House Of Mouse’s business merger assured no interference in Marvel’s making their books, then all of a sudden Marvel titles were four bucks apiece. Prior first tier titles like Spider-Man were $3 apiece, lesser titles around $2. Sure, the quality of the books’ production didn’t change…but now the average high schooler couldn’t casually pick up an ish of the latest X-Men title on a whim with the change in their pocket. I used to work in a comic shop not far from the local high school, and back in the day this happened often. I let the kids rifle through the racks to check out the new sh*t, but were bummed out when I had to tell them they needed more cash (we didn’t take credit/debit. It was an expense the boss couldn’t afford). I even had to break the same news to the local college kids, some trying to buy some books for an assignment. All after the Disney acquisition and four bucks on all titles, including the Unbeatable Squirrel-Girl, the Avengers‘ nanny. We lost a lot of walk-in biz thanks to Disney’s non-interference with Marvel. Still to this day I never believed Disney was hot about literacy. Better to just watch.

Consider this: in Canada at least 30% of all broadcasting must be given over to Canadian content (including the French Quebecois). An example I saw was a televised award ceremony I caught on YouTube for everyone’s favorite Canadian power trio, Rush. It was the Juno Awards (Canada’s Grammys), and for the Lifetime Achievement award. Neil Peart, the band’s lyricist and drummer, thanked everyone in bursts of both English and French, acknowledging the Canadian honor system and keeping it as Canuck as possible.

The US has some similar stipulations, but only a passing semblance to our radio station Northern Neighbours. Namely commerce via media, which is quite American I must say. Consider our movie this week as precedent. Note all the ads. In every. Single. Scene. What was satire in Josie is rampant nowadays, so much so people seldom notice it anymore. Once upon a time, such behind the scenes influencing on the radio was regarded as criminal, despite common practice nowadays. Imagine, radio stations being paid to play certain content deemed fit by the sponsors so to better their gains through advertising. Sounds like typical American media business these days. Set the wayback machine 60 years and greasing plams at WIOU was a felony. Enough the grab the FBI’s attention.

History lesson!

It was called payola. DJs were lured with money by record producers to play their latest, hottest singles on heavy rotation. In return the station would get kickbacks. I’m fudging that definition a tad if only to make a relevant point. That practice was illegal back in the day, and still is. Nowadays its SOP, albeit shrouded in the murk of how music is distributed. The FCC is more concerned with halting digital piracy rather then having Harry Styles’ latest single leak on air. Since 90% of all commercial radio is operated by the IHeartRadio conglomerate the recording industries shunt an obscene amount of marketing, promos and horse trading to keep Nickelback on the air, no apologies given or expected. Precious little pop music from non-whites gain much traction on the radio anymore, at least with the nationwide broadcasts. Call me cynical, but how does payola differ from, say Bertelsmann pushing the latest single from Imagine Dragons in exchange for manipulating ad revenue? IHeartMedia is not interested in trap music, reggae, rock en Español, soca or J-Pop. No mass market money in it. Like movies, radio is a business. I’m not griping, only calling a spade a spade.

Sigh.

Remember what I said about nerdy gatekeeping? Gonna bend that truth. It was inevitable.

The point? IHeartMedia is all about sales, not promotion. Barring the whole payola “scam,” today Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, TikTok, YouTube channels and whatnot inform what might be profitable listening material, regardless of honest audience opinion or even appreciation. I know that all sounds backwards, but precious few people pester radio stations with requests; to play that track again, because it piqued some interest. Word of mouth on the radio is all but dead these days, and comments are easily ignored as a snowflake landing on your face. You are played to hear what the real gatekeepers have paid for you to hear. Everyone hates Nickelback, but they’ve sold millions of albums, and no one has ever downloaded any of their songs. Here, I have a photograph to show you.

Please prove me wrong.

A final note on this screed about how nowadays the listener isn’t respected by the radio. The three minute single format is as old as dust when it comes to broadcasting. The 45—the chosen single format for decades—was a relic when I was before a kid. Back in the 60s playing singles on 45s was sovereign. The biggest non-single single that topped the charts was the 7-plus minute opus that was Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.” The tune demanded airplay via audience request. Give the public what they want. These days the public does not know what they want, save three minute disposable tunes. It’s easier to jam more commercials into the hour with three minute songs. Most folks don’t download the full albums anyway. Not cynicism, just acknowledging trends.

So what have we learned (besides I suck at not being a gatekeeper)? Modern commercial radio is more of a gatekeeper than I claim to be. It’s incredibly, terribly hard for flop sweat musicians that may hold onto a shred of “street cred” to make it without social media (which is not necessarily a bad thing), the FCC are mostly oblivious about any perversion the Bill Of Rights holds to prevent litigation on private, creative rights and no one is a Nickelback fan unless they prefer Labatt Blue to death.

Enough negativity. There are thousands of musicians right now toiling in the salt mines, making music for music’s sake. Y’all keep on toiling. The odds are against, but never quit mining.

There’s an appreciative audience out there someplace. They just might not listen to commercial radio…


The Setlist…

Josie (Cook), Val (Dawson) and Mel (Reid) are the pop punk trio the Pussycats. The last bastion of riot grrl rock in suburbia, because their snotty style is not the flavor in their hometown of Riverdale. The girls are friends to the end, and if the success they seek never happens, whatevs. They got each other and they all love making music. Isn’t that what matters?

Well…

Okay. They’ve paid their dues, played the dives and are quite rock ‘n’ roll, but their time is out of time. It’s the early 2000s and poppy boy bands like the current flavor DuJour are all the rage, not some homegrown garage band of girls, before God. There’s no room on the modern pop charts for gutbucket rock. Besides, it’s an industry open secret that girls don’t make for good rock stars. Especially those who make their bones via the local bowling alley. Good “wallpaper” maybe.

Sick of the rat race the ‘Cats take to busking at the local mall. Support local music in Riverdale! Riverdale isn’t interested. Josie and friends are brushed away into the beady eyes of talent scout Wyatt Frame (Cumming) from MegaRecords. Whisked away into Wyatt’s world of high finance music making, he assures the trio that they have the “it” factor; that je ne sais quoi. However scheming Wyatt does indeed know what’s what. Not only an overflowing back account, but also perfecting Mega’s CEO Fiona’s (Posey) plans for world domination. And we ain’t talking’ Beatlemania here.

It’s understood that the majority of pop acts are disposable, as is the revenue they create. Teens love digital media, social media, streaming media and media bias. Pair all that with disposable income and voila! Josie and company are the next big thing to come down the pike, whether they want/earned it or not. Sometimes you gotta sacrifice artistry for artifice. The price of fame.

Josie, Val and Mel have a choosy choice to make: Stardom or street cred?


The Takeaway…

As a courtesy I just want to say the following may come across as an extension of the The Rant. Just hear me out.

I first saw Josie at the local first-run drive-in in my little ‘ville back in 2001. I know. The concept of a first-run drive-in theater should’ve been dead as disco by the turn of the century. Surprise. It’s still there to this day. But more on that some other time.

I caught Josie with a friend and our respective girlfriends. We grew bored with film seeing very much where it was going. Years later the movie might’ve presaged TikTok, but there were no social media apps for your smartphone back then. Or apps. Or smartphones. All I had to work with was DSL and a Nokia 3300, which were secondary things used to interact with people—meaning face to face, mind you—to share opinions. That’s what my bored friend and myself did that evening, irritated by the message Josie was trying to spread. Actually “cautionary tale” is a better term. We wandered the circuit of the drive-in smoking, sharing hits of a bottle of vodka. The place was BYOB, but you had to have a designated driver first. We didn’t. Instead we babbled on about what Josie was getting at and how the majority of audiences would not get it.

Fast forward 20 years later. Social media governs all. Josie‘s plot was prescient, and it irritated me. Why? My friend was an aspiring DJ; wheels of steel and such, but tooling around with Kazaa on your own only gets you so far. I had a similar sitch regarding my nascent DJ career (trivia and karaoke nights) that we agreed that most folks just don’t get it. Get what? Well, two things:

One, despite what American Idol purports making a living in music is very difficult. Takes one part talent, one part resolve and 100% luck. Maybe more than that. Perhaps a chicken sacrifice here and there. Anyway, us trying to make a go at it was a pie-in-the-sky affair, but we knew what was ultimately our roadblock: an audience. They do not know what they want until they hear it, but that takes time. A lot of hit-and-miss. Here’s an example of what I’m getting at.

In my hometown the go-to cover band were the Aardvarks. Singers and guitar slingers Mike and Jake are journeymen musicians in their own right, cutting and recording original stuff locally, and very well esteemed. Their Aardvarks project? Well, you might be treated to the most eclectic cover band ever, and I mean ever. I was a professional barfly for years following the ‘Varks exploits. The local club I frequented every Friday hired the ‘Varks monthly. The crowd lapped them up. And why not? They were a great band whose selection in songs was wide, varied and performed with much aplomb.

I grew to be buddies with Mike, who also enjoyed cool, obscure pop songs that would’ve never scanned by Katy Perry. I would always scream for Mike to play “my song” and he’d always smile and nod and rev up. “Sweet Jane,” “Life During Wartime,” “Jailbreak,” etc. I said they were eclectic, and the crowd always responded in kind even if they didn’t know the song. As a bonus, the sound guy was Rick from the local “classic rock” station. As much as he dug Zeppelin and the Stones he traded bootleg burnt Pere Ubu CDs with me, and told me about the shows he caught back when he “was my age.” None of this was the flavor in Columbus, but those on shore leave who dug wide-ranging rock, my club was the place to waste away your Friday. Sometimes Saturday, too.

What I am saying is playing music is not pretty, and earning an audience is akin to an illegal border crossing. But you make it across, wonders abound. Like free bootlegs.

Two, despite what Spotify dictates there is a galaxy more of music out there that is actively blooming and dying on the vine. To make money is this biz in this day and age you must always be in a hurry. Hustle culture, like Clive Davis running laps in a particle accelerator hurry. Like a colony of aphids speed dating. Better put check out this little interview between “Everything Music” producer/YouTube personality Rick Beato and well-seasoned writer/musicologist Ted Giola. I’ll wait.

Josie was a prescient, cautionary tale. We ain’t talking Nineteen Eighty-Four territory here. Like my circuit around the drive-in and later immersed in many cover songs that were not necessarily “hits” the folks behind the scenes really don’t get how music works. Heck, I don’t even know if musicians know how music works. But it does, and whether you play bass in some garage band, collect vinyl or just sing in the shower music is a touchstone. People resonate to music, either through passion or fashion. Josie‘s satirical bent illustrated this dynamic perfectly. Especially the fashion part.

This movie was a product of its time, but in a good way. Back in ’01 pop music was lacquered in all things Britney and pop-punk had yet to gain mainstream acceptance. I think blink-182’s Enema Of The State creeping around eventually ushered that scene in. Just like those goofy misfits the Pussycats were of and out of their time. The co-directors got their start in the record biz, and Josie is very deliberate social commentary on conspicuous consumerism. As the movie treaded on from silly to absurd you sorta got the notion that Elfont and Kaplan had a ton of baggage to unload about the commercial sins of the recording industry. However instead of getting all Jello Biafra on audiences’ ass they knew how to catch bees with honey than a Justin Bieber single. Why rant when you can thumb your nose?

Josie is one big, satirical, not very winking cartoon based on neener neener. Makes sense though since the flick was a sorta comic book adaptation. The Pussycats debuted in the Archie & Friends comic books that will probably be printed until our Sun goes nova. Later the ‘Cats got their own cartoon, which kinda spoofed the days in the life of a touring pop band. Sure, antics abounded but was in the Scooby-Doo vein. I tuned into reruns for the tunes. Doubtless our directors did to and walked away with a puckish sense of alarm requiring a clarion call the likes the town crier at Pompeii should have announced:

Just go with it! Right before the pyroclastic flow buried him.

Enough fooling for now. The directors deserved props for bringing a 21st Century sensibility to its charming 70s cartoon counterpart. Josie covered all the basics: troubles with scoring gigs, touring mishaps, exotic locales and in-house good natured creative bickering. Heck, the movie gave a nod to the pseudo-Scooby mystery to uncover. I got to watching this and asking myself that if this version of Josie may make the brutes check out the original toon. Of course not. At the time of this installment the comic shop I frequent has yet to run out of the latest issues of Dr Strange. All three of his titles. That’s kinda a bummer, but also redolent of the insidious message Elfont and Kaplan tried to push. This movie must’ve bothered more than a few record label bigwigs. That tickled me.

Same goes for Josie‘s damned near perfect casting. Choice for the time. Our three leads were the best incarnations of their animated analogs. Cook was your everyday everygirl would-be punky pop singer. Think Hayley Williams by way of Hilary Duff circa Lizzie Maguire. Just a driven and determined rock ‘n’ roll player, no more, no less, just fine. Like I said, everygirl with all the awkwardness that comes with it. Cook’s Josie was endearing, but not sappy. Just comic, the comic book analog. I can’t stress enough how well the actors fell into their somewhat limited roles in a comic book adaptation of a cartoon into a live-action movie that didn’t lose any charm. Sort of.There was that message thing, or whatever. Overthinking this stuff gets awkward.

Honorable mention to Missi Pyle, BTW.

Dawson’s Val was the perfect live-action incarnation of her cartoon counterpart. The smart one, who always knew what to say, a grounding element, who played music for fun and maybe it might go somewhere. That and keeping her ear always to the floor. There was something rotten with MegaRecord. Where did the golden goose of an opportunity come from? Who the crap is funding all this promo? Like I said, in the comics/cartoon Val was the practical one, always delivering the “It’s not my fault” with a Han Solo ring to it. Predictable considering, but just shaddap and watch.

The cherry on the sundae was Reid’s Melody as salt of the earth. More like a sand castle. If there were an Oscar category for Best Channeling, Reid would’ve won hands down. She was a riot, embodying the idiot savant that her cartoon drummer, blurting out the right thing to say at the wrong time and the opposite. Reid was so endearing as the “dumb blonde” she was the dollop of Kool-Whip on your Jello. I loved her being oblivious to everything. I loved how she used her drumsticks to have dinner. Her best role since American Pie. Hey, again, this was a comic book movie so I went along with it.

What would under the radar live-action cartoon heroines be without some slithering, over the top baddies to piss in the punchbowl? Cumming and Posey did a delightful job in mimicry regarding the standard Josie foes. Never as solid as their hare-brained schemes claim to be and not the smartest folks in the room. In short, those two romping it up. called out Cumming’s Wyatt was a bad dude. I’d rather say reptilian, delighting in being the bad guy. He was aware he was the bad guy and relished it. Most movie villains never consider themselves as evil or wrong. Consider Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. No reason or reflection for the chaos he created. The world burning like Alfred claimed. Wyatt just loves a good mustache twirling. Very funny, with no apologies. I like that in a cartoon bad guy.

Posey was her Darla on ether. A bubblegum pop diva with no songs to sing. That and seeming never got over her loss as Prom Queen. Petty, purple and puerile, she was a perfect bully still hell bent on who brought her to a lowly state of her own creation. Think the Wicked Queen from Snow White with a bigger budget. The payoff was beyond ridiculous, yet still satisfying.

This movie had ADHD. Or at least invited it. I was quite dizzy come act three.

I repeat, again, that this was an early entry into the comic book movie adaptation. Back when we and I saw the original Spider-Man movie courtesy of the erudite schlock-miester Sam Raimi, many of us Marvel zombies were drooling to see if Sam The Man got the feel right. He did, and in fact set the gold standard that the MCU exploits. Before any of that claptrap, the Josie team dabbled their toes. Too bad very few if ever took the dip. I keep hammering this because the hoi polloi is well-armed with a battery of screwdrivers.

*takes drink*

Here I am. Go on. Sorry. Moving on.

The co-directors did a stellar job bringing a comic book sensibility to a motion picture, but again I’m not talking Spider-Man. Not superheroes. My folks were fans of the Archie comics up to my age now (and don’t ask how old). I read a few as a kid and they were always winking funny; the stories made fun of themselves. So did this movie adapt. I know I spoke at length about folks watching this would not “get it.” That was kinda marching around the issue. Even the simplest films can make a big noise if you’re open to it. Like bootleg Pere Ubu concert recordings.

Back again to my stroll around the drive-in, ruminating over the movie’s tone, I could net help but get flustered. Sure, Josie was no Paths Of Glory or All That Jazz. Cautionary tales of deception and denial, but now made relevant if only on a diluted PG level. I know. Give me some wiggle room; trying to wrench some weight from a fluffy film. Why bother? Because in the past two decades there have been precious few blatant, cautionary movies. The only prominent one I could figure was Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, which was once telling and popular and over 30 years old. Josie was nowhere near as heavy, but the message was a second-cousin. Forces beyond your control are aligned against your best intentions. I know, kinda heady, but when was the last time you saw a film with a message you could relate to, or at least digest? We may never have to face the ordeal of having to engage in a legal matter regarding God vs Darwin in Inherit The Wind, but we can all get behind The Buddy Holly Story. The outsider just doing his thing trying to make folks happy against “The Man’s” demands. That being said, isn’t that a part of rock ‘n’ roll? Wasn’t that Darrow’s fate? No such thing as bad press being an outsider.

Dangerous fun is the best kind of fun, and nowhere near as dangerous.


The Response…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. Subtle as an exploding cigar at a state funeral, but still goofy funny. The soundtrack trumps the movie. Was that the point? Or was it?


The Encore…

  • “Does anyone have change for a tampon?”
  • Good Lord. Frosted tips everywhere.
  • “Maybe because I was in the comic book?” “What?” What?
  • Are those cat teasers?
  • “The walls are mushy!”
  • Okay. That Evian placement was quite a stretch.
  • “The tough make lemonade!” That’s actually a pretty good way to look at things.
  • This was the role Reid was meant to play.
  • “I swear on my bus pass!”
  • FOR SALE. Nailed it, but still clever.
  • “SEGA!”
  • Fun fact: Val was the first ever animated black female in the main cast of a cartoon. Not a supporting player in the background, but a co-star. And who says only now cartoons can be topical?

The Next Stop…

Mirabel Madrigal is in crisis. The Madrigal clan all have magical gifts except her. Might be just being born at the right time, or teenage angst, or most likely that Mirabel just lacks any feminine Encanto.


 

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.