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



The Crew…

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


The Briefing…

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

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

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

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


The Flap…

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

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

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

Segue…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dive! Dive!


The Mission…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And hopefully themselves, too.


The Report…

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

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

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

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

Where were we? Right. Movie. That thing.

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

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

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

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

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

Uh, right.

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

BONK

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

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

Relieved maybe. I had no fingernails after watching U.


The Material Condition…

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


The Scuttlebutt…

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

Forward…

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

Because I Said So!


 

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



The Players…

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


The Basics…

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

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

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

Best embrace that. Won’t come around again.


The Intro…

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

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


The Rant, pt. I: Denial and Rationalization…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kinda like me.


The Rant, pt. II: Acceptance and Capability…

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

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

Scary. And inevitable. All apologies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Story…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete and Debbie are both turning forty.

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


The Breakdown…

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

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

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

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

There wasn’t one.

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

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

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

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

There. Now please open your textbooks to page…

BONK!

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get it?


The Verdict…

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


The Musings…

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

The Next Time…

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


 

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


The Lighthouse


The Players…

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.


The Basics…

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

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

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


The Rant…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wanted? Or needed?


The Story…

The New England coast, circa 1890.

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Breakdown…

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCREECH…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kinda like Winslow.


The Verdict…

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


The Musings…

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

The Next Time…

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

Yep, This Is 40.


 

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



The Players…

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


The Basics…

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

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

Um, who’s got the map?


The Rant…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CLONK!

Right. Got it.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Both Barry Sonnenfeld and Robin Williams are frustrating talents.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Verdict…

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


The Musings…

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

The Next Time…

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


 

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



The Players…

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


The Basics…

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

That’s what’s what, bro.


The Rant…

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

BONK!

*needle screeches across the record*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Story…

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Breakdown…

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

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

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

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

Two.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sigh. Round and round and round.

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

I can survive on this opinion.


The Verdict…

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


The Musings…

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

The Next Time…

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

That usually means poison ivy.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #177: Brendan & Emmett Malloy’s “Out Cold” (2001)



The Players…

Jason London, Zach Galifianakis, Derek Hamilton, AJ Cook, Flex Alexander, David Koechner and Lee Majors, with David Denman, Caroline Dharvernas, Thomas Lennon, Victoria Silvstedt and Willie Garson.


The Basics…

Once again it’s a story of a venerated mom ‘n’ pop business being shoved aside by some upstart, fancy-schmancy, “better” version, threatening the local, maybe too long-in-the-tooth operation.

What’s that? A restaurant that gives discounts for fire fighters? No. The local hardware store being edged out by some big box store where no employee knows your name? Uh-uh. A giant, corporate multiplex theatre running the beloved drive-in into the ground that still show Saturday matinee double features? Nope.

It’s Bull Mountain, a ski resort in Alaska, being overhauled into a frou frou, gentrified tourist trap. New money in favor of freestyling and jibbing? This will not stand. Not if the reliably unreliable ski instructors at Bull Mountain have anything to say about it.

Let’s hit the slopes!


The Rant, pt. 1…

This is gonna be somewhat academic. Never fear, it’ll be quick. Just a quick pinch.

Hey. Another co-directed movie. Back to back here at RIORI. It’s a coincidence; I pick these films at random. This filming method allows me to wax even more philosophical about how such movies get shot. Call me psychic, but I think Out Cold is not in the same league as The Road. Might be a judgment call, but I’m making it.

In the previous installment I spoke briefly of how does a film achieve synergy with two directors. Two visions, two egos, two potentially hardheaded filmmakers trying to reach an accord to get the job done and done well. Make it seamless, even before the editors take their turn. I turned to Quora last time to get some feedback and most of the forum agreed on compromise and good rapport as vital to get down and get with it. All responses sounded pretty reasonable. I got to wondering if there was something more. I dug in. I am a geek, and it is my duty to spout opinions I deem necessary to share with the lot of y’all about how films get pieced together. I’m doing a public service after all.

Here’s what I extrapolated: if you think about it, and being a movie dork like myself all movies have more than one director. If you consider multiple units or specialized experts (EG: stunts, F/X and post-production to name a few) the majority of American films are directed by several heads put together. Oh sure, the head director gets all the accolades and glory, but what would a film like the original Matrix look like if it hadn’t had Woo Ping Yuan to oversee the stunts and gift his acumen of “wire fu?” Right. In short, it’s all about a group effort to get from studio to streaming. Collaboration and probably some head-butting. That’s the angle I wanna tackle here. Not the head-butting though. Not yet.

I bumbled around Reddit for clear, informative and above all non-geeky discourse. Kinda hard to do on those forums, because once a know-it-all chimes in, all the know-it-alls chime in effectively shoving the sane and non-salivating voices away leaving shavings of uniformed opinions, informed options, half-baked opinions and opinions strewn all over the cutting room floor. Reasonable discourse, professional input and proper grammar jumped ship months ago.

Fortunately that didn’t happen in the forum I uncovered. Again, it was on Reddit (yes, I was surprised, too). Here’s what I learned: most of a director’s job is to work solely with the actors. They drive the story, right? So the director drives them. Any other technical aspect of shooting the film is handled by the other directors and their crew. Keeping that in mind, it’s a pretty straightforward albeit time-consuming skill to be Scorsese or Spielberg or Waters. Of course some directors do better PR than others; they are behind the camera and have learned how to be in front of it also. Two heads are better than none only works if the directors are keeping their foci on the game and not fretting about the nits and nats of production. That stuff the other dudes are in charge of. Or if there’s some bad vibes (brewing) between the pair the end result might be both losing sight of the common goal. Or one of the co-directors is goldbricking. That’s pretty much how the road to Development Hell is paved according to the actors and amateur auteurs on Reddit.

I think that was the first and perhaps only time that social media was helpful, no BS and well-constructed. Glad I wasn’t investigating how best to feed a fussy cat. Maybe next time.

What’s beneficial to a movie directed by two people? And what is unique in getting such films made? Synergy, plain and simple. It’s that two heads thing. Sometimes it does benefit production if one director focuses on the acting and the other supervises the tech stuff, so long in the endgame they’re on the same page. Must work well with co-directors who are related (EG: the Coens, the Wachowskis, the Hughes, etc), since they “get” each other hopefully. You’re more likely to be open to opinion/criticism to some you really know and trust. What’s more is that the two directors have different skillsets in getting the job done. Citing the Coens again, ever notice in the opening credits of their films you see a lot of “co-this” and “co-that?” The brothers trade off one another very well, and since neither brother is solely in charge of directing or writing or producing a different movie twice, you get a good mix. The best of both worlds if you will.

Well, that’s kind of how the Reddit discussion spelled out. Sounded logical to me, but I have a theory of my own (of course). The subject matter of the movie. Dig this: we all liked the original Matrix. Existential Philip K Dick-like hard sci-fi with cool fight scenes that also tickled your intellect some. Good fun. And the “brothers” should’ve stuck with sci-fi. Instead they delved into high fantasy. Both genres share similarities, but it’s like comparing a Ferrari to a Volkswagen. Sure, they’re both cars, well-designed, well-built and guaranteed to get you from A to B in a timely fashion (however the Ferrari will prob get you there faster). But they’re not the same. The “sisters” may have put their all into Speed RacerCloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending, but they missed the mark, because they didn’t understand the nuances of the fantasy genre. Fantastical doesn’t automatically mean fantasy. And no budget set aside 70/30 for CGI can fix a marred script.

The putting together of heads works the best when the co-directors are working in a genre they’ve proven successful with prior. Never minding the Coens, we’ve had Faxon and Rash’s The Way, Way Back, with their experience in quirky comedy in writing Little Miss Sunshine came in handy. Hoofer Gene Kelly wanted to cut a musical like the flicks he performed in, so he hooked up with his choreographer Stan Donen to co-direct Singin’ In The Rain, one of the greatest movie musicals ever (and one that still holds up to this day). There’s the original Poltergeist, with Tobe “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” Hooper at the helm and master fantasist Steven Spielberg (with the always scary Jaws under his belt) as his wingman. Let’s not forget the Hughes Bros with twisting, cringeworthy drama (in the best way) with Menace II Society, From Helland The Book Of Eli. They’re good at being gritty, and none of the team players I mentioned here didn’t really stray from a winning formula.

I guess some genres prove more flexible for co-directors. Or how they get flexed. One thing’s for certain it’s all about the synergy between co-directing seminal horror, resolute drama or silly, lowbrow slobs vs slobs comedies. Which brings us to…


The Rant, pt. 2…

Whew. Done with that. Sorry for being so academic. Time to get to the real meat of this week’s matter. Huh-huh. Meat.

Okay, classic formula: slobs vs snobs comedy. Lotta golden examples out there in Movieland. We’ve had Animal House (prob my fave comedy, always reliable), Caddyshack, Meatballs, Revenge Of The Nerds, Stripes, Trading Places, etc. The list goes on, mostly with good results. Sure, the formula is always the same, but need I remind you how the blues are played? Nah. What would be simpler is to say how the game is played, interpreted, tweaked, sent on its ear and still have some great lowbrow humor, lumpy fart jokes and new, devilish applications of beer. It’s the slob-com CV.

However—

Drop that sandwich. Won’t be that guy. Not another fussy list with an answer key. You all out there know good from bad, and since slobs vs snobs comedies are fairly straightforward/unsophisticated I ain’t gonna wax philosophical about either good or bad. I did enough waxing above, so much so I need new eyebrows. Let’s just play it as it lays: slob comedies are joyfully dumb, will never win any awards and that’s the idea, on both fronts. It’s stupid fun, and we all need that now and again.

Since these premises are always broad, loaded with misfit characters plucked right from the funny pages and always have a happy ending. It’s the old blues schtick again. Endlessly riffing on tried and true notes. However none of these films are interchangeable. Oh sure, the setup is always the same, but there always has to be some kind of cagey nature as the plot unfolds. Most slob coms have a sort of improv voice to them (and many are loaded with such on-the-fly scenes), almost like watching a stand-up comedy act. Yes, and a lot of the bits are populated with erstwhile comics; think Saturday Night Live alumni (EG: Bill Murray, John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, etc). In any event, there’s always this overarching feeling in such comedies that anything can go wrong at a given moment, and usually does.

A good slob com requires spontaneity. I know, I know. Most comedy does. It’s gotta. You need to keep that ball of wax a-rollin’ along. Some kind of comedies require a slow burn or some time to digest what just happened (most of Woody Allen’s funnies came to mind). Black comedies make you feel uncomfortable about laughing (think Harold And Maude, MASH or Withnail And I). Don’t get me started on those Monty Python flicks. However like those rapid-fire ZAZ comedies, any lull in the shenanigans and we immediately lose interest. If a good portion of a slob com requires a nonstop slough of dick jokes, boozing it up and pratfalls any exposition crashes the roller coaster ride. Don’t believe me? Watch Animal House again. Every darn scene is either snide, gross, scatological and has plenty of collateral damage. No time to sit back and chew it over. We gots horses to murder.

Okay, so speed is crucial, as well as a nervous anticipation of everything going off the rails. Bad taste in humor, natch. A feeling of winging it and often does. All these elements make up the backbone of a slob com. My rules. I call it like I see it. Nyah. Refute me.

But every experiment in madness needs an out of control control. What happens when a slob com is a hit-or-miss? That’s also an aspect of the genre; let’s throw these jokes against the wall and see what goes ker-splat. I mean what happens when a slob com may come across as unhinged and maybe unfocused? Like fog on little cat’s feet? Or rather tracks in the snow?

I’m glad you asked.


The Story…

Ah, the Great Outdoors. And nothing is as great as winter in Alaska. Especially if you get to spend the days outdoors at the Last Frontier’s no frills ski resort: Bull Mountain. That’s how Rick (London) and his ski bum buddies feel. Fresh powder, thrashing and beer. Lotsa beer. Lotsa snowboards. Lotsa goofing off. Life is grand.

Rick has all he needs, as does his low-life chums. We have Luke (Galifianakis), the resident practicing boozer, approaching pro. His dizzy bro PigPen (Hamilton), who’s better at shredding than…everything else. Cutie pie Jenny (Cook) who can drink anyone under the table and into the basement. Klutzy Anthony (Alexander), who prob should stick to double planks. So out-of-the-closet barkeep Lance (Denman) that he’s in desperate need of a BJ with a mustache. And slightly demented Stumpy (Koechner) expert on all things Bull Mountain, booze and not knowing what time zone he’s in.

Despite the colorful cast, willing to be willing, the mountain’s not profitable. It’s bleeding cash. Owner Ted Muntz (Garson)—who ungratefully inherited the place from his late, drunken, ski-crazy father—is setting his sights higher. Bull Mountain should be sold off to a resort franchise, attract a monied clientele instead the dippy locals and low-rent tourists. And boorish, wealthy entrepreneur John Majors (um, Majors) with his resort empire crossing the Lower 48 has his checkbook at the ready.

Majors first wants to know if his potential investment has…well, potential. So Ted shackles Rick into giving Majors the dime tour. Rick’s not so keen on Bull Mountain get all yuppied up, but Majors hints that if he helps sway the locals into buying into his franchise, there might be some nice kickbacks waiting.

Rick’s torn. A better job drenched in cappuccino, or the lure of seasonal debauchery, shreddin’ the gnar and more debauchery? What’ll his crew think if he turns to the Dark Side? What’ll his rent say when it’s due again? “What about last month?” What’s a professional slacker snowboard slinger to do?

Seek wisdom within what ol’ Papa Muntz always said after he had a few and a few more:

“Bull Mountain! Don’t go changin’!”


The Breakdown…

There’s another thing that gives the slob com that je ne sais quoi: the cast. I think the wing trait of a slob com is likable, relatable characters regardless whether being heroes or bullies. Just as long as both camps are cheerfully goofy and clueless. You know what the literal translation of je ne etcetera is? “I do not know what.” That’s pretty accurate for a film of this ilk. And boy, does Out Cold have that I don’t know what going for it big time.

So we got slobs vs snobs for the New Millennium, and wouldn’t ya know it but it’s Meatballs on ice. Like that prerequisite, perennial rainy day at camp movie, Cold has its alluring charm. The movie has a homespun feel to it, mostly thanks to its lowbrow but not dumb characters and their jokes. In addition to the yuk-yuks the Malloy brothers cut their teeth on snowboarding videos so they knew a few things (what did I say about synergy?), there was a certain feeling of whimsy during the run of the show. The cast felt like family, directed by family. I guess Cold is best described as “chummy.” Equal parts goofy and friendly, an ideal combo. You’d like to hang with these dudes, if only for one night out. And only one.

Okay. We got the likable characters down, even the rotten ones like Lee Majors’ Majors (Christ, that’s confusing. Was it intentional?) and the icky Thomas Lennon’s toady act. To think after years of being a TV action star, Majors missed his chance at comedy until here, and his does a good job at it, too. C’mon, there’s nothing funnier in villain being boorish, snarky and quick with a quip. Majors did this is spades, and with nary a Million Dollar Man joke cracked. Majors’ role was a highlight of the goofy fun. You wanted to shake his hand and slap him at the same time.

The rest of the friendly, albeit bland crew were witty in fits and starts. The pacing was sluggish, and had definite feelings of “get on with it” even if I knew all would out in the end. Still, the folks were likable. Heck, this was London’s best role since Dazed And Confused, sorry to say. At least it didn’t go straight to SyFy. Truth be told, I liked all the characters…in a muted way. Maybe I could see where all of it was going as I have seen it before, but there was a general lack of tension in Cold. Right, we had gags aplenty, dappled with sexual dalliances, alcohol abuse and Galifianakis and Hamilton taking turns doing a two-man Three Stooges routine so may argue tension in a comedy like this alien.

WRONG!

Tension is what drives story, and regardless of how dopey, mindless, vulgar and of no redeeming quality a comedy is tailored, there has to be some trouble to overcome. I can’t beat on this chevaline enough, but regardless of genre, pacing and tension are key—key!in how this dope values his flicks. As I said above any slowing down and/or reflection in a slob com dooms it to the bargain bin. Hell, I think that’s where I scored it. At Costco. On Betamax. It skipped.

Sigh. Anyway…

I had a funny thing going on regarding the technical aspects of Cold. There were none. The Malloys got their start in commercials, and the camerawork proves thus. I did like the ski tricks, and the opening scene is doubtless a first in skiing comedies (yes, there have been others, like Hot Dog! and Ski Patrol, neither are worth mentioning here), but the shredding is more of a bookend to an otherwise rote sports comedy. Kinda like a philistine Maltese Falcon. It looked like the directors were trying to sell me something, like snowboards or how snowboarding is cool or how cheap-ass beer is cool or somehow the toilet brush that was Zack’s beard was cool, which may explain the follicular explosion of the past few years. tLike I said, all slobs coms are interchangeable, so even if the skiing shenanigans were cool, I wasn’t buying into it. Hell, I wasn’t even shopping. I just came here to laugh. I didn’t need passive product placement.

I did find myself giggling however, then later laughing out loud (the Casablanca nods were pretty clever). The humor was lowbrow, but not dumb. In truth the wisecracking was pretty sharp, esp thanks to Majors and Galifianakis’ motormouth delivery and the dopey innocence of the rest of the cast. Sure, the dire situation of Bull Mountain getting yuppified was always floating in the background, but it was pressing enough an issue to disrupt the laughs and stupidity. Like I said, all slob coms are the same. Cold must’ve been the most laid back pervy yukfest I ever saw. Truth be told, it was the silliest movie I ever chilled out to. Must’ve been that I dunno what.

Whatever, Cold teetered on the precipice of boring, but ultimately saved by the dopey et al recipe and a likable cast. Might be a gateway to a full blown 80s style comedy revival. Maybe not. Cold does make for a decent Saturday afternoon movie. It gratefully never takes itself, you know.

Don’t forget the beer. And to wax down.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. Sure, nothing new here, but the cast was cool and I am a sucker for comedies like this. Might’ve been funnier if I were pished before I hit play. Wait…I think I was.


The Stray Observations…

  • “Are you sniffing me?” The dice have been cast.
  • I love that Eve 6 song, God help me.
  • “I am not gonna take romantic advice from somebody who cannot spell romantic or advice…or bong.”
  • I thought black dudes didn’t ski. It’s a new world.
  • “Speaking of testicles, let’s get a beer.”
  • Best gag/outtake reel I’ve seen in a while (that wasn’t animated).
  • “Hey, retard…”
  • Ah, chatrooms. Once the 7th level of the Web.
  • “It’s called the ’80s! Ford was president, Nixon was in the White House, and FDR was running this country into the ground!”
  • Derek Hamilton, the poor man’s Crispin Glover.
  • “I don’t have to write a test to tell ya I take drugs!”
  • I love that Andrew WK song, God help me.
  • “Seize the carp!”

The Next Time…

We bow before the Lords Of Dogtown in awe of their smith grinding, acid drops, bitch slaps and other skateboarding moves, the likes of Nature has never seenAs is it written.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #176: Javier Aguirresarobe & John Hillcoat’s “The Road” (2009)



The Players…

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, with Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Garret Dillahunt, Micheal K Philips, Molly Parker and Robert Duvall.


The Basics…

A planetwide catastrophe has destroyed Earth’s ecosystem, and like the ancient dinosaurs humanity is gradually circling into extinction.

Fate means nothing to a desperate father doing his damnedest, by wit and grit, to protect his son in the aftermath. An endgame of no food, no bullets, no shelter and cannibalism eating away at what remains, figuratively and literally.

All that really remains is the road, a way towards some nonce of civilization. Location unknown, perhaps near the coast, if there is such a haven to be found.

It doesn’t matter, reality does, to a father driven to protect his son at any cost.

It’s something to live for. If only that.


The Rant…

Well, isn’t this timely?

I read something once by my wingman Stephen King when he re-released his ur-COVID-19 epic The Stand. The novel was published anew cleaned up and uncut, resulting in an sprawling tome of Armageddon clocking in at give-or-take 1200 pages. You get your money’s worth. It’s a very cool read, and a very accurate and sobering tale about the human race—what’s left of it—trying to adapt to the fact that civilization at large is gone. Now it’s time to start from scratch. Oh, and there’s a lot of weird supernatural hokum wrapped up in the culmination of the forces of good taking a stand against the forces of evil. Hey, I told you it was a Stephen King novel. Whad’ja expect? A quilting bee/unicorn cotillion?

What I read that stuck in my craw from King’s director’s cut didn’t come from the story proper. Not some pithy meditation from the hero about survival. Not a cautionary metaphor about science run amok. Not even some religious mumbo-jumbo about the Wrath of God and why those packets of airline peanuts are so gosh darn hard to open. Nope. I read it the foreword.

We’ve either read and/or seen a lot of stories about the end of the world. Some sociopolitical like The Day After. Some nihilistic and/or existential like the Mad Max series. Some metaphorical like The War Of The Worlds, Children Of Men, Deep Impact and countless in between. Some dumb as f*ck like Armageddon. All these movies have one factor in common, and King hit on it perfectly in his novel. Well, the intro actually.

I’ve long since lost my copy of the uncut version of The Stand (chances are the thing just feel apart after too much abuse), and the author penned the phrase perfectly, but the years have worn on and dammit I can’t remember it properly. Some of you might ask, “So why don’t you go out a buy a fresh copy?” Like everything else these days, from economic ruin to dandruff, thank the coronavirus. My workplace, like many, is closed indefinitely. A fresh book would be nice. Already had enough comics, dicking around in the kitchen, laundry, YouTube feeds and working my way through the Resident Evil series on my Nintendo, Zero thru 4. Things are so scattered these days little wonder why I can’t recall the quote. Besides, my online bank account was hacked twice in one month, so the PayPal balance is zero. This happen pre-quarantine, BTW and I fixed it which I why I didn’t call you. So don’t worry yourself none.

But I’ll try my best to recall that sentiment. King commented in the intro to his massive “dark chest of wonders” that when considering a story about the end of the world that you yourself would survive. That cast of imaginary thousands you argue with in the shower? Gone. All gone. Save you. Whenever we watch The Road Warrior, On The Beach or even A Boy And His Dog in the back of our minds we scream “This could never happen! Not to me!” Welp, a nasty, highly communicable virus is—at this time of writing—stirring up the soup all pandemic-like. King is being plagued, so to speak, about the allegory of The Stand all over the Net. Something akin to “Not me!” is feeling a little Pollyanna these days, and there was no kind of procedure to fix her legs back in 1913 by way of 1960, despite what Uncle Walt wanted you to believe.

It could happen. It has happened. It is happening, but not in a Captain Trips kind of way. 99.99% of humanity will come through this pandemic unscathed, the latest iteration of Mother Nature cleaning house. “You” will survive, but here’s the hairy dilemma about end-of-the-world scenarios. Sure, you made it. Now what? Everything you knew is gone. Friends and loved ones are gone. Hell, your job and your car and your online streaming and your f*cking Nintendo Switch is offline! Again, now what? It’s to be likened to the comic book super villain who finally conquers the world. So now what? Garden? Your robot horde did scorched earth to all the crops, and you’re f*cking Nintendo Switch if offline to boot!

Seriously though, considering the apocalyptic films mentioned above, with the assuredness of survival in some form dare grants the certainty of solitude. Being all alone, separated from the things that once made you whole, rudderless and craving fellowship. Few and far between in those movies. Good motivation, makes for good tension. There’s a lot to lose in such films about losing everything. Would you want to survive, and to what end? Many storytellers, not unlike King have tackled this penultimate existential matter: where to go from here? The ultimate answer is finality: giving up, remorse, regret and death. Not a pretty picture, but it sure does make for some compelling stories.

Me? At the end of the world? I think I’d be holed up in a subterranean bunker retrofitted from an abandoned missile silo in Kansas living off Spam canned during the Truman administration and still kicking around with my Nintendo (the NES. No Wi-Fi, remember). Or just plain dead, beaten to a pulp with empty bottles of bleach by loonies upset that by finally having to accept there will not be another Avengers movie.

Fatalistic? Yes. Realistic? Maybe. It would probably be better than the alternative. Meaning aimlessly wandering towards some scintilla of lingering civilization where you can be…what? No longer alone? No longer in exile? Free craft services? Nope. Human again, which got blasted to smithereens barely days ago that feel like years. Those imaginary years take their toll, and smirking at “Not me!” is a curse and not a boast.

For a sense of finality, Samuel Delany claimed, “Apocalypse has come and gone. We’re just grubbing in the ashes.”

And what are ashes? Spent. Nature’s final regard for all things spent.

*tumbleweeds skitter across the dusky webpage*

Bleak enough for you? You drink your daily dose of Purell this morning? I opt for Metamucil myself.

Now who wants s’mores? Better yet, how ’bout an inoculation?

Slow down there. Before we get to the usual cinematic thrashing it would be remiss for me to not spout some opinions about the outbreak itself. Everyone else has. WordPress is social media after all, and what good is social media if not for smearing panic, fear mongering, disinformation and cute cat videos? Everyone has an option on the nationwide quarantine thanks to our COVID-19 party crasher. I do too, but it’s not about infection and potential death lurking on every doorknob. I’m not worried about getting infected. Not really. I’m more concerned about people’s irrational behavior surrounding the virus, and what fear and ignorance can do en masse. I’d rather be laid up in an oxygen tent in some hospital than be trampled under foot getting the last bale of Charmin, dig?

Viruses are highly communicable, but relatively easy to avoid. You catch a virus by coming into physical contact with it, namely shaking hands or being sneezed on by the infected. All viruses are transmitted via physical contact. Be it the flu, the common cold, corona and let’s not forget HIV all travel alike. Avoid sick people and keep yourself clean and you’re more or less golden. All that hand sanitizer you be laving your body in? Doesn’t work. Doesn’t do squat against viruses. Read the bottle. It says antibacterial, not antiviral. I know that sanitizer is a quick fix when you can’t properly wash your hands, but it’s hardly a substitute. In fact, too much sanitizer is bad for your skin; dries it out, kills off good bacteria you need and renders your hands more susceptible to possible infection, and viruses love a good open wound.

And those surgical masks? You’re using them wrong. Apart from the fact that the majority of said masks are manufactured in China, they are not meant for fending off viruses. Surgical masks are meant for surgery, and it might be safe to claim that those are a final precaution when a patient goes under the knife to prevent infection. You know, in case  of the sniffles or the sterile environment of an OR with all those chemicals and filters might not be enough. You’ve seen on TV some throng of Asian people going about their day wearing masks, right? They’re not afraid of getting sick. They already are sick. Coughing and sneezing on people is a keen way to spread a virus, so using a mask is not just a courtesy but also alerts others to stay back. “Hey, they have a mask on. Give them a wide berth. It’s flu season, you know.” A surgical mask with protect you from corona as well as catcher’s mask would. I saw a guy at the store the other day wearing a safety mask, the kind a carpenter would wear to avoid accidentally inhaling sawdust. Insert facepalm here (along with the other guy pushing his cart wearing woolen mittens. It was 65 degrees that day). The only benefit those masks may have is keeping your gooey fingers away from your infectious gob so you don’t accidentally wipe a booger on a sick person.

This low-level fear I can tolerate, barely. Whet gets me in a twist is hearing about how Cabela’s can’t keep ammo in stock, or morons have quit drinking Corona cerveza mas fina for reasons other than it sucks, or “religious” groups come oozing out of the sociopolitical sewer with hatespeak about (insert disenfranchised minority group here) is the cause of this plague, beating their Bibles with the Book of Revelation all gone over with a highlighter, or our Prez and his cronies really starting to feel a tad silly about certain budgetary cuts to educational and scientific resources. This isn’t The Andromeda Strain, but I’m pretty sure the CDC’s version of pre-flight instructions got lost in the shuffle.

There. Still not bleak enough? No fear, now we come to movie part. Ready?


The Story…

We have a father (Mortensen) and we have his son (Smit-McPhee) at the edge of the world. The end of the world. What life remains is hard and terrible. There is no government, no order, no medicine, no food, nowhere.

We have this fragile family shuffling down a road in search of some sanity. There’s a shortage of that also. We have roving tribes of survivors out for food, ammo, gasoline and preying on the weak and the halt. We have a father guiding his son along the ways of this ruined world, where starvation and suicide is standard operating procedure as are the lost ideals of a republic of men as only fantasy for his son in the wake of the apocalypse.

We have this bonding endure, because we all have an undying faith in when the right people come together, community may thrive.

For now, we will have to get by eating dead insects and keep on moving down the road.


The Breakdown…

Not so fast.

Watching The Road reminded me of something about directing a film. I’ve always been kinda confused about how a seamless film gets made (save editors) with two directors, like The Road did here. I’ve seen a few of these movies, and to merit they’ve all be pretty good, if not sometimes great. Wayne Wang’s collaboration with author Paul Auster with Smoke, Faxon and Rash’s The Way, Way Back, George Miller teaming up with George Ogilvie for a kinder, gentler, weirder Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix series (well, the first one anyway). Most Disney and Pixar animations work this way as well. There are many more collaborations I haven’t seen, but they got done. How? How in synch do two filmmakers have to be in order to have a shared vision about what their final product should be? A lot of creative vibes and a lot of compromising is my guess. Probably a lot of hair pulling, too.

So how’s it get done? I stumbled onto this forum on Quora that was pretty spot on. Yes, fair compromises must be made, as well as more than a few concessions. If the directing pair have a good rapport—kind of like between the Coen Brothers—then the final product is paramount, not egos clashing. Guess overall it requires focus.

Boy howdy, co-directors Aguirresarobe and Hillcoat were very focused in constructing The Road. After watching this, I got the serious impression that they read the McCarthy novel many times, and labored over recreating the harrowing tale of survival on film. No easy task, and I never read the book, but I feel without their shared focus this movie could’ve fallen apart like a house of cards slicked with Vaseline. That falling apart feeling is the feel of the film and the feel of the direction. It’s all a good thing, to tell a story like The Road‘s.

These co-directors do. Okay, if you wanna get technical Aguirresarobe was ostensibly the cinematographer, and there is a bit of debate about his actual directorial contribution to the movie. I feel the credit is due because how crucial using landscape was in telling the story. Framing everything just right? Duh, that’s a cinematographer’s job and savvy. With The Road, the blasted landscape of scorched earth is every bit as essential to telling the story as is the story proper. The Road is a survival tale, but all that monochrome was sickening (in a good way), and who else makes sure the camera work flows seamlessly. Right. A great portion of the movie reminded me of the third act of Full Metal Jacket, what with all the burnt out buildings, smoke and scree everywhere. “I am in a world of sh*t,” Private Joker stated. If you think about it Kubrick’s Vietnam epic is a tale of survival, too. Washed out and grey makes for good grimness it appears as well as a dreadful feeling of no way out. The Road never suggests one. That’s its design.

The Road is certainly grim enough. The “post-impact” world Viggo and Kodi journey through is a washed-out, ruined ecosystem of a planet that is dying. It’s implied at the film’s outset that some natural cataclysm occurred—a massive meteor strike like the Chicxulub impact event that wiped out the dinosaurs—and the ensuing landscape the two traverse sure seems that way. Trees broken in two like matchsticks, dust storms, always cold and always in half-light. Humanity is going by way of the dinosaurs: slouching towards extinction. It’s a harrowing movie to watch—the Nick Cave/Warren Ellis soundtrack sure goes the distance—and our star Viggo is eloquent in reciting McCarthy’s story of survival and loss.

You ever see a film that starred a certain actor that no one else could’ve more ideal for the part? Al Pacino as Micheal Corleone. Judy Garland as Dorothy Gail. Heck, even Heath Ledger as the Joker? Viggo was built to play his part. Literally. According to the IMDb: “To live the role [he] would sleep in his clothes and deliberately starve himself. At one point, he was thrown out of a shop in Pittsburgh, because they thought he was a homeless man.” Truth be told, Viggo didn’t exactly starve himself. He started shooting at a base weight and just ate less and less as the filming went on. That’s dedication, and the gaunt lines and grime on his face shows it. Some ideal actors relish their roles and as the audience you could not pick a better Randall P McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest than Jack Nicholson. Viggo looks like his role hurts, not enjoying it at all and making it look natural. That homeless man story I find curious because the cafe owner’s didn’t recognize him? I thought the Lord Of The Rings movies were big ticket, that or the man got his, pardon the pun, road work down pat.

Sorry. Moving on to the other side of the Father’s coin.

Kodi was a very good foil for Viggo. Father is all worn out, sick and still able to remember Earth as it was before the vastator arrived and ruined everything, which beyond parental obligation is something that he tries to cling to as a vestige of his humanity: the way it was. The Son was raised in this world, so abnormal has always been the norm for him. He’s always wide-eyed, questing, always seeking guidance from his Father who is all too grave to not tell his son the truth. Or what he makes it out to be. Truth is there are no rules in this trashed world, just survive. To what end is ambiguous, and the Son is constantly probing. Are they the good guys? Father isn’t so sure, but at least that notion is keeping his only child holding on. One on the ascent crossing one on the descent, and neither the twain shall meet.

If there were any messages in The Road (intentional or accidentally) they totally depended on your view of humanity at large. I’m pretty cynical, but not a pessimist. What’s the difference? Here’s where I draw the line: a pessimist thinks the world sucks. A cynic thinks the world could do better. That’s a slight message The Road might’ve been aiming at. Despite all the pervasive gloom and doom The Road traffics in there is an undeniable glimmer of hope in the ashes. That might be a ruse just to keep the tension up and be baited, but I think the palsied optimism Viggo had and Kodi was searching for allows us to keep up the chase. Perhaps it’s the relatable aspect of family. Namely, being a dad is tough. I’m one, and we’re always kinda second-class citizens to moms. Well, the mom here REDACTED in the first act, not long after REDACTED, so the Father had to fill twin roles, provider and nurturer. Viggo is clearly stressed about going it alone, but Kodi (who has more than a slight resemblance to Theron) is his mother’s child, and reminded Viggo of this with every clutching question about where to find the next meal or maybe a tank of gas for a non-existent vehicle. Viggo’s Father serves one purpose: provide, beyond the pale. By the second act I stopped taking notes and just watched. There was a lot to take in.

The Road must’ve been the most unglamorous end-of-the-world epic ever. And one of the best I’ve ever seen. Sure The Road lacks any elan of Mad Max, The Matrix or even The Day After. It needs none. It’s dismal, brusque, unassuming delivery is enough. I watched most of the film with a hand covering my mouth. Not out of getting nauseous (and there were plenty of scenes that invited that). According to the dictionary of body language “the hand covers the mouth as the brain subconsciously instructs it to try to suppress the deceitful, or in other cases unintended, words that are being said.” Namely, I did not want to believe that what The Road was informing me was correct. The film was an unfortunate and terribly realistic image about our extinction as a species yet still struggling to matter as being human. The human factor was never lost with The Road. Unlike other post-apocalyptic films, the “end of the world” is merely a backdrop to serve as a McGuffin (EG: Mad Max again, or the re-iterations of I Am Legend) to drive the story. We are in the belly of the hungry beast in The Road. Consequences are dire, life is cheap, survival is terrible and the endgame is…what? Hopelessness? Despair? A journey to the coast?

No. Retaining some sliver of the “nobility” of being human. We’re the only species (maybe barring elephants) that are aware our existence is fragile and finite. If we’re wise, we know that every moment matters. Every warm meal, every soft bed, every orgasm, handshake, favorite band, good book, memory matters. Ultimately Viggo and Kodi remind us of that for going without and within. No matter what the terrain.

Oh BTW, heaven forbid I get do sick: you were right, I was wrong, I’m outta TP and Corona is still a sh*tty beer.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Not the definitive post-apocalypse movie, but pretty close. Now go wash your hands.


The Stray Observations…

  • “Why are you taking a bath?” “I’m not…”
  • I liked the small details in the first act of things getting increasingly dire, like the stocking up of batteries and other non-perishables. Minor details that helped build tension.
  • “Two left.” Grim.
  • Literally caught with his pants down. The only vestige of humor here.
  • Piano. Out of tune.
  • “It’s foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these.” And how.
  • The weevil bit. Not that subtle, but effective for the curious.
  • “Are we still the good guys?

The Next Time…

We hit the slopes a la Meatballs at a ski lodge where the resident slashers are usually knocked Out Cold on beer, weed and dwindling lift ticket sales.

Who’s up for double diamond?


 

RIORI Presents Installment #175: Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” (2013)



The Players…

Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine, with Gucci Mane and James Franco.


The Basics…

Spring break. It’s when all the lucky college kids get cut loose from their classes for an idyll on some sunny seashore drenching each other in suntan oil, alcohol and semen. Good, wholesome entertainment to let the pent up collegiate steam loose. If you can afford such debauchery on the beach.

Faith and her friends can’t. They’re broke, but they get it into their heads that unless they have a proper spring break they’ll be nothing but the outcasts they claim to be. But how to get some fast cash and get the hell outta Dodge?

Easy. Knock over the local Tex-Mex joint and abscond with the loot all the way to Miami. Or Aruba. Or jail?

Talk about getting away with getting away with it all.


The Rant…

I never had a proper spring break in college. By proper I mean never a vacation to sunny climes. I either went home or visited my girlfriend. Why? One: I was always broke, and; two, free laundry. I said I was always broke. Could never afford a week-long jaunt to sunny Hawaii. Truth be told I never saw the point. Just to get a week off of school was nice. That and getting stains out of things.

Yes, I visited that girl on occasion. She lived in rural Massachusetts, and no, there wasn’t any beach nearby (and if there was it was March in rural Mass. Wanna go count the mounds of slush on I-95?), but she was a spit away from the college/mafia town of Providence, RI. When Brown University let out its sigh, there were lots of cool shops to hang out at without the usual clogging. There’s something about the shopping district around a college that oozes with possibility of finding something neato in the underbrush that would usually be teeming 51 weeks out of the year. Cafes. Record Stores. Army surplus. May not have be Ixtapa, but I could locate a few pairs of Chuck Taylors in colors that forbade a sensible purchase, which came to around $25. That’s a month’s laundry money, BTW.

Did I want a “proper” spring break? Nope. Beyond the financial matters, I couldn’t justify the need to travel afar only to get pished, laid and sunburnt in some Olympic fashion as R&R from a syllabus. Minus the laurel crown I could do such dissoluteness at school, or rural Mass come to think of it. Sure, getting really away from it is all is great, even necessary once in a while, but when I go on a rare vacation, I don’t want to bring home (as well as the routine there) along for the ride. I travel light, thanks.

Way, way back in The Way Way Back installment I spoke of how vacations, especially those with family, can become a real drudge. You can’t really cut loose and be yourself when mom and dad have you in tow (along with several other generations of unknown relatives, strangers and hangers-on from the parking lot). That must be what the idea of spring break is so appealing, besides booze, babes and beaches. Sure, going to college is the first time “away” from everything for the lucky few, but the luckier few may afford spring break to get away from “themselves” for a while. Or worse turn into themselves for a week, and I ain’t talking nothing ’bout inner reflection.

I remember as a youth back when MTV blah blah blah was interrupted by going live to the scene of the crime: MTV Spring Break. Instead of getting the usual heavy rotation of Pearl Jam’s delightfully disturbing video for “Jeremy,” I had to endure Sodom by the sea with TLC’s sweet “Creep” oozing from somewhere out in the sand. Could’ve been Miami, could’ve been Aruba, could’ve been a sound stage for all I knew. What I learned from all this basic cable televised postcard from sunny bacchanalia was this: college kids’ll do all sorts of stupid things in front of a camera (and this being before social media, my catfishing friends) and the camera laps it up and spits it out. Then it was into my lap. I’m not badmouthing spring breaks, not at all. Let me tell you, due to lake effect climate any time to get away from the chilly gloom of overcast March in Central New York is always welcome, if not essential to maintaining a degree of sanity. It could get so grey somedays that I figured if I slugged a prof square in the nose I get to see some color ooze from his inflamed nostrils. Just saying. And since I was too broke or too afraid of melanoma I went back home to the sunny climes of Southeast PA, where there we fresh leaves on the trees and I could enjoy a Hershey’s Special Dark as a treat and not a K ration to ward off hypovitaminosis D. Did I mention that vital free laundry?

What I had to endure on MTV until my next fave video of the time came on (the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” natch) was a bunch of buzzed, well-tanned, gyrating co-eds wearing bikinis made of what appeared to be unwaxed dental floss. Again, not badmouthing. It just all seemed overrated. Vacations are a need now and again, and destination vacations can be something of an adventure. In the vein of The Way Way Back all that spring break had a lot of baggage to me. Besides escaping the drudgery of classes for a week, what’s the big deal? It’s akin to a girl’s Sweet 16 party; and the big deal is? Guys don’t get a sweet 16. You’re old enough to drive now, that’s good. Cotillions went out of fashion when Hitler was a struggling art student. You don’t always need a vacation, but they sure are welcome in times of stress. You don’t need a reason to party, nor do you have travel afar and snort up Euros to have an “adventure.”

Must be some status symbol. It ain’t cheap to hog an entire Caribbean idyll for 7 days, but since the ‘rents are footing the bill go hog wild. Whether a camera crew will be there to cover the whole wad…well, no. That’s what smartphones are for: to document dumb things. And onto Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and the FBI fingerprint database we go go go. Must look good to all us yutzes with fresh sheets and nowhere else to go come springtime. Might make the underprivileged feel left out of the loop, all that sun and fun and…well, freedom! Freedom to get trashed with impunity. Free to sleep (or at least pass out) on the beach. Free to get into all kinds of mischief, proper and/or unhealthy. Maybe even if you get lucky, it could wind up criminal.

Criminally free!

So for instance, let’s consider Faith and her posse’s dilemma.


The Story…

Everyone needs some time to blow off steam. A break from the norm. A break period. This goes for overextended parents, overworked social media specialists, overtaxed teachers and their burnt out students alike. Especially students at the college level what with day in/day out lectures, papers, study groups, insomnia, too much Red Bull and not enough White Claw. That’s what spring break is for. To get away from it all, break from the norm and blow off billowing clouds of steam. At least, that’s what Faith’s friends are all about.

Faith (Gomez) is understood to be a “good girl.” Studious, spiritual and unremarkable. She always seems just outside of her social circle of Brit, Candy and Cotty (Benson, Hudgens and Korine, respectively), who are privately wild but are too broke—all are too broke—to cut loose escape their humdrum coed lives. Typical. The good life always just out of their reach, or simply some time in the sun.

As spring break approaches, Faith gets it stuck into her head that unless she and her BFFs get a spring break themselves, regardless of their lack of funding, something’s gotta give. Faith has always been, well, one of the faithful, but her code of conduct has kept her from breaking loose for the past three years. Whether under pressure from her crew or the Word, Faith gets a hot nut to tear off to Sodom by the sea in sunny Florida. But there still is the more issue. How to scare up some cash fast? Ask Grandma for more birthday money?

Nope. Let’s knock over the local taco joint. All four of us. Smash and grab. Whaddya say, girls?

To quote Elwood Blues: “We’re on a mission from God.” We need to get away with getting it all.

The four pull off their scheme, and now have enough dough for fun in the sun. However as we all should understand, power corrupts. The rush of being criminals have left the taste of wanting more in Faith’s friends, and Faith just wants to lie in. Nope. Not if demented, curious pusher “Alien” (Franco) has his way. And his way is very sketchy and very charismatic. These fresh pieces of chicken have had a taste of the wild life, and Alien wishes to utilize their “talents.”

Faith has had enough. Her ideal spring break has stretched beyond a week, and no one can say why we can’t all go home?

Power, corruption and lies. Like Cotty says, “Spring break forever, bitches…”


The Breakdown…

Oh. My Lord.

All right, let’s talk about trash films. I don’t mean “trashy” films, they all ramshackle, lo-fi and accidentally deviant. I’m talking about “trash films” as a genre. I’m talking (and bowing) to the likes of ugly auteurs—and their cinematic spawn—like Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol and the godfather John Waters. Misfits who cooked up such bad taste to celluloid that you could never unsee them. And wouldn’t want to. “Deviant” as pejorative as a salute of respect. Such calculated garbage was both decried and embraced as art (not that they would ever agree). It was cohesive smut with a solid story, a keen acumen or purpose and actors willing themselves to be willing. The matter that the matter of their final product was about sh*t taking a sh*t and then consuming said sh*t cries…

Sh*t happens? Well, okay. Onto the next act. Wipe away any excess KY from your lobes. Smile!

Director Korine is a fanboy. Or as Warhol would utter, “a dilettante.” And trying too damned hard to offer up satire and trash as social commentary with all the nuance of a Karen Carpenter diet plan. My first hyper-judgmental reaction to Breakers that it was stupid, but maybe I might have been too soon to count it out. I mean, there was a bit of a hullabaloo when this thing got released, but as I watched and kept watching I learned that its content and story were the driving force behind all Breakers‘ reputation. Me? I found it trying very hard to pander to an audience that was sketchy at best versus Tarantino on estrogen.

No. The real deal squeal was that the sweet, little Disney darling Selena Gomez was in an R-rated movie about she and her friends doing bad, bad things. I’m not gonna expound on that…much. Look, the woman was 20 years old when she starred in Breakers, many, many miles away from Waverley Place. Deal. Even Shirley temple grew up to be an ambassador, a role even more mature that Selena cavorting about in a bikini for 90 minutes (all right, that and playing with illegal firearms). The whole shaming/blowback of Gomez’ script selection is akin to Nickelodeon’s Jennette McCurdy of iCarly infamy. Her spin-off show more or less hit the skids due to bad PR about the Internet leaking naughty images of McCurdy. What?!? On the Internet?!? That never happens, and she was only 21 at the time! For shame Sam fans, and quick! Clear your browsing history!

What is it about grown Disney actresses that they feel it necessary to star in a never subtle trashy flick to declare their independence as a “serious actor?” Not to mention crawling out from under the image of the House Of Mouse (EG: Lohan, Lovato and now Gomez and Hudgens)? I suppose it’s that years of portraying wholesome young Disney ingenues may result in typecasting. That and playing such roles can get pretty darn boring. Not challenging. What better way to cut all ties with a turn in a flick like Breakers? Or like Twisted Nerve? Or like The Canyons? All of these movies are a U-turn from their starlets Disney beginnings. Not all of those films are trashy, per se, but an extreme breakaway from family-friendly fodder. And a lot of those “grown-up” roles in “mature” films have a lot of creakiness and growing pains. You can take the girl out of the theme park, but…

That being said, in some respects Breakers is self-aware and anti-Disney…to a degree. We’re not busting on Herbie: Fully Loaded here, not trashing any Disney formula or legacy. Director Korine is (with a heavy hand) decrying all that is romanticized about spring break—if, based on my teen TV watching habits, there is such a theme—and plays the “very bad things” with the elan of an 80’s teen sex romp, complete with the jarring MTV editing and/or Tangerine Dream-esque soundtrack. It’s all been done before and a lot better. Subtly can go a very long way, rather than this ham-fisted cautionary tale.

Yes. Breakers is at its core a “trash film” with a conscious. There is nothing to glorify these nymphets criminal acts and hyper-sexed debauchery, but nothing beneath warning that Gomez and company are gonna get busted. No sense of retribution of any kind, which leaves the plot open-ended and rambling. Really, the whole wad got less interesting when Gomez—ostensibly the reason butts got into seats here—went up and REDACTED, and then the gyre began to widen. If there is a message Korine was reaching for here is a forced “say so long to your youth.” Trash film and social commentary don’t marry well. Unless they do, but they don’t here.

Overall, I had a difficult time understanding where director Korine was taking me. Granted I probably wasn’t the target audience; I dislike Meghan Trainor, find White Claw to be Kool-Aid for the Bukowski set, gave up on my Instagram account long ago and never saw any iteration of the High School Musical franchise. In short, didn’t really care that Gomez and Hudgens starring in this pastiche. Just wanted to see the fallout, and The Standard was screaming at my to obey. The pacing was languid—sluggish would be a better word—the girls had no personality (they call could be interchangeable) and the story didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. This was a PG T&A cakewalk with some T, rudderless story that dies in the second act and a short bus version of a John Waters trash film ethos. The difference there is snappy trash and morbid, moribund trash. Gloomy does not equal edgy here.

On a bright note, Franco stole the (small) show with his turn as Alien. He had fun with role, chewing scenery with a Shatner-like aplomb, only creepier. And is he ever creepy, right down to those nasty trailer park dreads and his garish grille. Beyond creepy, he sure as sh*t was committed to the role; you can barely recognize him here. Perhaps a similar motivation drove Franco to take the role after being cast as a lovable goofball ever since Whatever It Takes. Heck, the only sorta edgy role prior to Breakers is his PG-13 portrayal of Harry Osborn in Spider-Man 3If Franco was champing at the bit for a role of extreme makeover Breakers was it (and his play with Mane was delight, albeit dark but the most animation that came from this trifle). While Gomez accidentally stumbled onto edgy territory for just being herself (read: there), Franco threw the kitchen sink out of the window. He left a bad taste in my mouth, and that’s a good thing here.

The best description in the endgame I’d apply to Breakers is an attempt at Korine trying to be Michael Mann from the 80’s for the 21st Century. Grim, gritty and blurry with synths. But a lack of real substance in this trash film does not make it have substance. Granted, Devine eating doggie-doo does not have the cachet of Joe Pesci’s “how am I funny” improv rap, but both scenes are similar because they are both hard-to-take, kinda frightening and cannot be unseen. That, and they’re both relevant to the story writ large. Weak tantalizing does not a good trash film make, especially if making an obvious buck is sort overt with Breakers.

Look, truth be told, I didn’t want to watch Breakers. Yes, it fell under the aegis of The Standard and I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t curious about how Alex Russo/Beezus handled herself in a big girl role, but my cynicism demanded justification. It was justified and now I wanna watch that old ep of Walker: Texas Ranger when Gomez was just a glint in Disney’s cash register.

And remember, like RIORI Chuck Norris never sleeps. He waits. Hopefully for a better movie than Breakers.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. A hoodwink. Not only Gomez is still just Gomez, but the story is a lame MTV weekend.


The Stray Observations…

  • “This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
  • The opening montage perfectly illustrates why other countries hate America.
  • Is that an El Camino?
  • Alien: the “anti-Wooderson.” Alright?
  • Every sort of sexual perversion, and yet—and yet—no dick shots.
  • Alien: actually the “anti-Logic.”
  • Makes my tits look bigger.” That’s it. We’re done here.

The Next Time…

We go on The Road with Viggo Mortensen, looking for America and unable to find it anywhere.

No. Really. Literally anywhere.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #174: Jessie Nelson’s “I Am Sam” (2001)



The Players…

Sean Pean, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dakota Fanning, Dianne Weist and Laura Dern, with Brad Silverman, Joe Rosenberg, Stanley DeSantis and Doug Hutchinson.


The Basics…

Fatherhood is often deemed as second-rate parenting compared to the benighted world of Mommy-dom. On the other side, however single fatherhood is an altogether different matter. Such a role is regarded as strong, brave and beautiful to the general parenting public. Dad putting it all out there, all alone so his kid can have the same privileges that usually involves a dad and a mom.

Single fathers are a special class of people. But what if a single dad is himself “special?” As in, one with “special needs?”

And what happens when after years of loving care to a daughter get dashed over some incident? Parents make mistakes, but should there be special dispensation dealt out depending on a family crisis?

Or shall we say, “special” dispensation?


The Rant…

Before I ended up in the restaurant biz, I studied English Education in college. Got a degree that’s still kicking around somewhere. I had a desire to be a writer and English teacher. No, really. A part of me still does, especially during the lunch rush.

In my salad says, I was fascinated—if not obsessed—with language and the written word. It wasn’t an all-consuming interest, but always just below the radar. Regular as breathing. Not surprisingly this fascination with words, idioms, irony, satire, sarcasm and the lyrical prowess of prog rock heroes Rush* led to English being my best subject in high school. Not to brag but it came easy, and I was confident that no matter how many times I botched an algebra assignment—which was quite frequent, surprise—I could tilt the academic pinball and set things mediocre by acing a test on some Samuel T Coleridge poem, even if the lesson was on some Ralph W Emerson scribblings. I had taken enough extra credit sh*t, so please clam your collective selves.

Funny thing, ‘tho. I never really considering teaching English as a real career until later in my high school days, namely junior year. If you’re of the fortunate few the drudgery of mounds of homework, social status upkeep and ritual swirlies could be tempered by scant teachers that “got you.” Maybe some of you out there in the real world were lucky enough to meet a few of your own. Teachers that got you, encouraged you, challenged and sometimes applied the necessary academic thumbscrews to make you really think. You know the kind. I recall my American Lit teacher, who inadvertently drove me into college seeking English enlightenment.

He was Mr Russell—Will—a ruddy-faced, red-headed old skool PA Dutchie with an unwavering reverence for American Literature. That was my junior year, that was his class. He was frank and humorous and could smell bullsh*t a parsec away. No nonsense until some nonsense might grease the wheels and get lazy students marginally interested in the classics of Poe, Hawthorne, Twain and other luminaries of the American word. He also made his own practicum; he decided what reading material was worth poring over. This is important. Not syllabus. Practicum. Either due to tenure or that no BS stance, Russell thumbed his nose at what the school board deemed appropriate and focused on classics that were relevant then as is today (The Scarlet Letter was a fave, and will prob’ never lose its message). He told the class outright on day one what novels he would not cover, despite what curricula demanded. No Moby-Dick. He said it was long and boring. No Hemingway novels. Too pretentious and felt too long. Just his short stories. No Shakespeare either. It was an American Lit class. Don’t get all confuzed.

In no small terms he amazed me. I recognized another free-thinker as I was trying to be. I could fast see this guy he played favorites…but you had to earn that dubious honor. I figured out what you could get away with in his class was how he regarded you as a student, good, bad and/or crazy that may lead to special dispensation. Example: Russell’s classroom was in the bottom floor of one of the campus’ auxiliary buildings. By bottom floor I mean a polite basement. The man had four truncated windows to offer some natural light and oxygen into his room. He attempted to improve air circulation with hanging ferns. It was probably just window dressing (such as it was), but he would direct one of us a week to water them. It was his version of getting the class settled. But down your bags, get out your books and, oh yeah Timmy, water the plants. I got to be Timmy a few times, and this was no apple polishing. This became envelope pushing.

My seat was the first in the line of desks nearest the “windows.” Before class was in session I always perched myself on the large, refrigerator-sized A/C unit under the sills. No reason, except maybe stare out the window for a bit, waiting to get the heck home. Never bothered Russell, except the few times I tried to make the A/C my desk. Don’t ask me why. I think I was pushing “special treatment.” He didn’t like my perch, literally if not metaphorically (esp when I had my contra Discman plugged in).

Hold on to that “special treatment” comment, BTW.

The class ran like what I would find a college lecture to be: Russell held court at his desk, occasionally pacing in front and/or up and down the aisles. The daily lesson plans revolved around the selected book for the week. A book. One book. Five days. Forty-five minutes a day. We never ran out of things to pick apart. He’d ask a few choice questions about the text, ranging from characterization to social deconstruction. The class did more talking than he did; it was like a debate. Me and my fellow classmates would talk about the subject with each other rather than raise hands for Russell to chose (no big, he never went after the hands anyway, just random names). Oh sure, there were other things like going over the homework and him redirecting us back to reality, but for the most part Russell’s class allowed us to think and by that I mean critically. That’s a practicum that was, has and still is sorely lacking in high school. For that Russell was a great teacher because he didn’t do a lot of teaching. Not in any conventional way. I think I learned more about English than any other high school teacher I had could, not to mention more about critical theory, classic rhetoric and mediocre horticulture.

So.

I enrolled in Syracuse University’s English and Textual Studies program with a concentration in Secondary Education. Will’s impression was still stuck in my brain like so much spent chewing gum on the undersides of many desks then; I wanted to teach English to high schoolers. My naiveté was rich and thick like so much butter on pancakes. Just cuz I was a high schooler who got keen to one of his mentors style and enthusiasms did not mean it ran both ways. Far from it, and think about it: I was praising but one of a zillion teachers that actually “got” me. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while. I was (and still am) such a nut.

It was expected in SU’s teacher education program that us fledging educators would have to do some work in the field. Several experienced teachers in the district (many I found to be crabby, suspect of the university’s practices and maybe merely hungry for some tax write-off) permitted student teachers to ride along and eventually instruct classes with their approval of our lesson plans…which never really happened unless they were tweaked into a bastardized version of their lessons. The “correct” ones. Parroting isn’t learning, kids. Let’s get that out of the way right now.

I was assigned to a seventh grade English class. My host teacher did not appreciate my admittedly doe-eyed approach to conducting the class, and even though me being a newb I didn’t like her style of teaching, if that’s what you could call it. Seemed like holding court at a military tribunal; she ruled over her charges with both the carrot and the stick. Rewards for the few that followed her rules, a metaphorical switch across the back for the unlucky few. A lot of verbal bullying and threats. I recalled me in 7th grade being a veritable hell. Between draconian, tenured teachers and an endless disembarking from the good ship Lunkhead, the crew queuing up to take a swipe at me it was the prime example of lowest of the low. I figured by the looks on the kids’ dazed and confused faces, things hadn’t really changed much.

The class was arranged with a relatively new practice back in the 90s. It was called an “inclusive classroom.” No big deal in the 21st Century, but back in the Stone Age it was a risky prospect. This was the time where PC ran riot, and everyone wanted to be included in the rat race we call life, regardless of any “impairment.” Be it physical, emotional, cognitive and/or Trekkie, everyone wanted in to whatever the “normal” was peddling.

Here’s how an inclusive classrooms works: students who need special attention are incorporated into the daily lesson with a few concessions made, like giving a student in question extra time to reach an answer, or have worksheets written according to their reading level. Literacy issues? That’s what the floating teacher’s aid was for. If not that, then a sharp student would pair up with the exceptional kid for the day, serving as de facto tutor. That’s how it followed.

Okay. Here’s how the inclusive classrooms I studied followed: the retard sits in the corner. Any questions?

It felt like that following the barest scintilla of what comprised an inclusive class in my bad ol’ days of student teaching was essentially tokenism. We got a special needs kid in the class already, okay? True to form in that middle school purgatory, any kid who was deemed “special” was sequestered to their own deal, alone and more times than not relegated to the back of the room. I felt it made the student for like an example than exemplary. Might as well be rusty manacles. But I wasn’t in charge, and the special kids got their “special treatment:” being a pariah. Dang it.

Back to my seventh grade English class. A pretty unremarkable affair. Two dozen kids between the ages of 12 to 13, diverse and all pounding through puberty the best of us ever could. They just wanted to get decent grades, rib one another and get the heck home ASAP to catch the latest ep of Dexter’s Laboratory or molest their PlayStations. Healthy interests all around.

I’ll spare you the details of my host teacher’s heavy-handed methods of keeping her charges time-on-task. In the spirit of this week’s film I wanted to tell you all about Sara.

Sara was the inclusive one. She was 15, had Down Syndrome and very limited literacy skills. Instead of being incorporated into the class proper, she sat at her table in the corner, playing endless games of Scrabble with the lucky kid of the day. I’ll cut to the chase: Sara always looked supremely bored, hand holding up her chin and almost asleep. I could relate. I had two months to follow in my host teacher’s steps (nuh-uh). Will Russell’s English class this was not, but I always kept my mentor’s spirit in the back of my brain.

I observed Sara’s dynamic for weeks. I wasn’t allowed to be unleashed on the kids until I created a lesson plan on my own and learn by observation what should be done to enrich these little trolls’ minds. Never mind the “regular” kids, what with their workmanlike attitudes. Small fry. I kept focusing my attention on Sara, natch. When the coast was clear, I eventually got to sit with her and play a match. I found her literacy skills were subpar, and ostensibly playing Scrabble was supposed to help her learn to form words. Well, yeah; that’s how the game’s played for everyone. I didn’t learn how to read playing a board game. Thank Dr Suess. Kinda figured that if Sara was gonna get anywhere she needed books. Instead she got this “special treatment.”

Let me tell you something about folks with special needs: they ain’t stupid. “Stupid” is an aphorism what “regular” people apply to those who are “special” (BTW, sorry about all the quotation marks). The awkwardness or just plain discomfort polite society has in regarding—let’s just call them simply specials from here on in—people who need five extra minutes is stupid. I’ve never met a special who is stupid. Like everyone, they want to fit in, be productive, hold down a job and date. I’ll go so far as that specials are smarter than non-specials. Never met one with a drug habit. Never met one late for work. Never met one who wasn’t eloquent. Never met one without opinions of their own. Never met a criminal. That stuff bereft of normals is more common than not. In simpler terms ever been at a 24 hour Walmart ’round 11 PM and hear kids yelping, mom screaming and it’s a school night? Chances are none of those specimens has autism. The kids that do went to bed at 8.13 that night, as they do every night. Because it’s 8.13. And school starts at 8.30. Those normal young shoppers are probably guzzling Red Bull mixed with anti-freeze and Mom is wondered what good her baby-daddy’s high school was worth.

It’s prejudice, plain and simple. We fear what we don’t understand, and cognitive disabilities can be a doozy to fathom. But for a special, it’s life. Gotta make do with what you got. Sara indirectly schooled me on that.

So I fooled around with Scrabble for a bit, mostly chatting up bored and frustrated Sara. I sweated her. Do you do this everyday? Yes. Ever get to sit with the other kids? No. Do you like playing this game? It’s boring. And so on.

Sara was very articulate. She made no bones about who she was and what she wanted out of school and wished to be a better reader but was stuck with this dumb game. To say she had excellent verbiage is like suggesting that the Atlantic was a tad damp. She was also a little OCD, neat freak. She wanted everything at her table just so. She even requested that the lamp at her table had a specific brightness (I give ups to my host teacher on this one. Instead of using the glaring overheads, she has casual table lamps dotting the classroom for illumination. Mr Russell would’ve approved) and her backpack had to be slung over her back of her chair, unlike on the floor with the others. She was just bad at reading. She made all this known to me in one day. Guess she just needed someone to talk to.

Fast forward. When it was my time to take over the class for a week, I had a pretty clever lesson plan in mind. I though so anyway. It was the time in the English class to tackle writing stories. I had the idea to have the kids work in “pods” (groups of four or five) on a single story and each kid had a specific job. One would write the story, one would illustrate, one would edit, etc. I plucked up Sara and sat her down in her pod with her friend Jessica (who was a very brainy girl). She had the story idea. The artsy kid sharpened his crayons. The kid who’d make sense of it all was armed with the Wite-Out. And I made Sara the Editor-In-Chief.

“What’s that mean?” she asked me.

“You make sure that everyone is doing their job correctly. You tell them what to do.” I told her.

She beamed.

Sara took her position seriously. She was very good at expressing expectations, delegating authority and keeping a cool head when the other Hemingways were bickering (“No yelling, please“). Sara had natural organizational skills, and a kind but no pushover demeanor that served her well throughout the assignment. And if things got hairy in the literacy department, Jessica was always willing to lend her a hand.

My host teacher f*cking loathed all of this. What? That a surprise? She took me aside on the penultimate day of our “publishing house” project and tore me a new one. She said, and I quote: “I will not tolerate you undoing what I’ve created for this class!” What, like making it more inclusive? No wonder that the matter of Sara interacting—heaven forbid—directly with her classmates would make my host teacher uneasy. Power struggle? In her mind maybe. But from personal experience I could only play Scrabble by myself for so long.

That being said, the next week Sara was back to shuffling tiles, gloomy, well aware of her standing in the classroom. I was pissed, and also discovered that Sara’s quandary was not an isolated incident. In fact, the teacher—for lack of a better phrase—picked on the few other students with disabilities but still high functioning. It was as if the teacher had an axe to grind with the concept of an inclusive classroom (“Great, more mouths to feed”), the school board for pushing it or just “slow kids” in general. In retrospect, I’m leaning towards the latter. Again: surprise!

She was another statistic of “they’re a bunch of retards. They’re all stupid.” Recall what I said earlier: slow does not equal stupid, not exclusively. Never knew a slow guy who texted and drove. Stupid is what you are if you pat their heads and talk to them like they got their big boy pants on. Also, quit thinking them as “cute,” a lie to hide your own insecurities and bias. They can sniff bullsh*t faster than your average 7th grader, Scrabble champ or no.

BTW, Sara’s pod earned an honest A-. Not my grade; the host teacher made the marks. Teamwork makes the dream work.

Maybe it came from Will Russell’s free-thinking English class. Maybe it was my lesson that was Sara. And maybe I’ve worked with too many “slow” people who are sharp enough to milk that tag the “normals” give them so they can slack off (it’s true, that card gets played often in the “help the handicap” scenario, but who’s really handicapped gets kinda blurry), but I’m assured of this: “normal” folks like you and me are stupid. Specials just need five more minutes. The others take a lifetime.

At least, that’s how it kinda looks like with Sam Dawson’s legal case.


The Story…

Sam Dawson (Penn) has a pretty average albeit decent life. He works as a server at the local Starbucks. He’s a major Beatlemanic. He hangs with his bros for movie nights and diner dates. He does the best single daddy duty he can loving and raising his daughter Lucy (Fanning) just right. It’s all good, with a certain exception: him. Sam is exceptional, possessing a cognitive disorder that leaves him with the mind of a seven-year old. No matter, though. His friends and caring neighbor Annie (Weist) provide advice and support where needed. From diaper changing all the way to reading homework, Sam and Lucy have a fine support network. So all is well.

Until it’s not. The best laid plans and all.

At Lucy’s surprise 7th birthday party, things get a little out of hand. Some kid allegedly gets hurt, and his dad is not pleased. In a whirlwind rush, youth and family services are summoned to get Lucy to a secure place. Read: away from Sam. Sam has to go to court to defend his case and get Lucy back…but…

Sam’s not a lawyer, but even with his “diminished capacity” he understands he needs legal help. He doesn’t make enough to earn a high-class lawyer, nor really understands how to get one in the first place. What’s a single dad to do to get his kid back? Of course! Sam lets his fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages and comes across a firm promising justice, swift and bountiful. He makes an appointment immediately. Many immediate appointments. Okay, he just keeps showing up pestering overstretched yet still high-class lawyer Rita Harrison (Pfeiffer) until she takes on his case.

Rita doesn’t see much fortune taking on Sam as a client, besides the guy’s broke. Still, taking on his case pro bono might do wonders for her frazzled image. She’s a strung-out parent too, and although not in Sam’s camp, can somewhat relate. Then again taking on a case like Sam’s could blow up in both their faces. A man with diminished capacity, single and has a daughter that is more intelligent than him? Might make good press, but is it worth the pressure on all of them?

Well, Sam is quick to remind us all quoting his buddy John Lennon: “All you need is love.”

God willing.


The Breakdown…

Recall I stated no one who was ever regarded as “special needs” never earned the label stupid. However, much to our detriment many “average” folks can easily (if not willingly) fall into the dum-dum camp. Worse still that some them folks might got access to a movie studio.

I’ve already made my voice heard on how polite society regards specials. A lot of head-patting and talking slow. Aforementioned I am against this knee-jerk, superciliousness, guilty white liberal film-flam. It’s unfortunate that director Nelson was lost on this notion, whether out of ignorance or engrained in the crapola I just repeated. I’m leaning towards the…uh…both.

Cutting right to the meat of the matter, what could’ve been a sterling legal drama about who’s “truly fit” to be a parent turns out to be an unconventional film  about family with a serious case of the cutes. Actually, utter bathos would be more accurate. Anything of substance in Sam is razor-thin, and the film plays out like a Lifetime movie with a larger budget. It’s really a shame, because we could have a meatier plot here; all the ducks were in a row. Instead we get Hallmark cards, pandering and a fresh box of Kleenex. Almost tragic really.

Why? Because we got a stellar cast! Young Fanning holds her own really well here. Very sharp and hints of good things to come in her career. She’s still ranks as the youngest actor ever to be nominated for a SAG award (for her performance here, bruh). Fanning’s young Lucy is everygirl with a mind and thankfully not precocious. Well-aware of both hers and her special Dad’s circumstances, she rolls with the punches and also serves and Sam’s confidant and, well, playmate. A friend, and one of precious few in Sam’s life that gets what’s going on around her. Not even grown-up, shut-in Weist (always good with rigid and/or volatile characters, like here) gets what’s truly up with Lucy and Sam’s father/daughter relationship. Fanning sells it without “selling” it, and thankfully avoids any trappings of being a moppet. Least well-meaning director Nelson accomplished that much. Might be the most cutting edge in the whole movie.

Save Penn’s performance. Even that I don’t give three sh*ts about the Oscars and their back-slapping, sometimes they get a few nods aimed in the proper direction. He got an Oscar nod here, and it’s easy to see why. Penn really sells it. While taking in Sam I didn’t see Penn. I saw Sam. Here’s a guy who’s convincingly played a convicted felon being prepped for The Chair, a whimsical Django Reinhardt fanboy, SF’s gay-activist city supervisor Harvey Milk and the benchmark by all movie surfer dudes are measured (right, Keanu?). Here we have his Sam Dawson, perhaps the only reason for this film to be. I never saw Penn in Sam, nor did I in any of those other movies (save Fast Times, okay? Everyone was young and unknown once). Penn really sells it here all right, but it’s the cinematic equivalent of buying the album just for the single.

A great actor can be only as good for their foils. I dug Sam’s entourage quite a bit and seriously Penn’s Sam is spot on, both as a dad and someone special. I have seen and met both, and been so also sometimes. An example of Penn’s keen acumen for the character, regardless of Sam’s nature he displayed the universal shock and awe about being a new father. Trust me: been there, done that. That can’t be mocked or made up. Yet Penn fooled me as Sam. Simply wow. I wasted my time watching this for this moment and it’s okay. Granted there was some conflict within me watching Sam regarding laughing with and laughing at, but Pfeiffer’s frazzled yet subtly steely performance did a good job helping us understand Sam beyond being a jilted father and a man with a child’s mind. I needed Rita to understand Sam, and vice versa. Needless to say good chemistry is crucial with an ensemble cast.

Come to think of it, the entire cast is solid; no one is one-note, a caricature or a cipher (despite Schiff always portraying a lawyer. Very well as seen here). Sam is an ensemble drama and a good one, if only in the technical sense. the pacing is good, the story is straightforward—a kind of a “ripped from the headlines” story—albeit done before and better. Everything here is sturdy, professional and workmanlike. All factors vital to make a drama work and work well.

So what the hell did I not enjoy it?

We had two very big distractions I could not ignore, and not the dolt on his phone checking his subscriber count. The first is thus: whenever we see a film it is imperative to maintain a “suspension of disbelief.” Be mindful that (barring a documentary and its like) what we are watching is not real. Gotta go with the flow, even if the films deal with high fantasy, hard sci-fi, superhero adventures or anything Monty Python ever cut. Hang up the prefrontal lobes at the door, especially if this is a 90s Adam Sandler piece. Grab your popcorn and enjoy the show.

A cousin of suspension is “interior logic.” I’ve gone on about this one. It means where the film must follow the rules the story dictates. If some hiccup goes against the story we feel confused and sometimes cheated. Think about when George Lucas could not stop polishing the original Star Wars trilogy. Right. Although Sam doesn’t deviate from the story, I kinda wished it did to incite some kind of a twist. But that’s a minor carp. The big fish is the accusation screaming in my ear: THIS COULD NEVER HAPPEN. It couldn’t. It just couldn’t. Forget the incident at the birthday party, Child Services would have been waiting in the damned delivery room when Sam held Lucy for the first time. Sometimes thank God for Hollywood’s wish fulfillment, but THIS COULD NEVER HAPPEN. Anyone special that is a contributing member of society (eg: has a job) has to have some government employee monitoring their case. We all know that. And having a shut-in with agoraphobia giving out parenting advice is hardly a support group. An audience knows whomever if at all shot first in the Cantina, despite blasters don’t exist. Child Services do as f*ck exist, and would never wait for an incident with Lucy to intervene. Y’know how The Lord Of The Rings could never happen? I Am Sam sits next to that trilogy aboard the train of thought.

The second part of Sam‘s undoing fall at the feet of director Nelson. In a word: bathos. OED: “insincere pathos; sentimentality; mawkishness.” I repeat, a virulent case of the cutes. All the schmaltz shown in Sam is enough to render some rich chicken stock. What’s worse is that it all gets delivered in a dumb way. By dumb I mean didn’t the director pay attention to the film she was cutting? There was a redolence of an after-school special brewing. This got insulting not to mention preachy. Maybe it was me and may time hanging with specials, unable and/or unwilling to accept Nelson cotton candy directing, the the reviews and Rotten Tomatoes’ drubbing (35% on the tomato meter) supported my view. The audience score was a favorable 87%, however I wonder how many in that audience actually knew let alone hung our of worked with a special needs person. The dishwasher where I last worked had Asperger’s, right? He also said he had ADD. It was not the typical diagnosis. He did not have attention deficit disorder. He had attention deficiency disorder. Namely, he’d do anything to draw attention to himself. As well as slack off whenever he could. He was loud, boorish and pesky. But when his caseworker came around, he was calm, professional and collected. As soon as she was done with him he went back to being the Tasmanian Devil on steroids. Hand to God. I’m willing to wager a small sum that that 87% also never washed a dish in a commercial kitchen before, all the while the “hire-the-handicap” used the word as*hole like regular folks use the word “the.” Like Flava Flav warned: don’t believe the hype. Before watching Sam bring Listerine I all I say.

Sam was, in a word, unrewarding. We know how this is going to play out. We know the ending will satisfy our tear ducts. We know Penn will deliver the goods (and he does). We learn that the flick gets insulting, if not preachy to the cerebellum suffocating due the prefrontal lobes stuck in the line at concessions. So much good and potential here, only to end up with the metaphorical retard cornered. Again.

My host teacher may have approved of Sam, but I doubt Mr Russell would’ve. I sure didn’t.

Guess I’ll go water the plants.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Saccharine. Warning: viewing I Am Sam may be factor leading to Type 2 diabetes.


The Stray Observations…

  • Why do all actors portraying specials always wear highwaters?
  • “Can I get a balloon with this?” My, how Mr Data has suffered so.
  • Cute Abbey Road nod there.
  • “Hello, lawyer.”
  • Special or no, new dads always make that face the first time their hold their newborn.
  • “Your ears are bigger and your eyes are older.” Again, dads…
  • Rosalind Chao? Keiko O’Brien? Another Star Trek:TNG alumnus? As a hooker? Kinda cool.
  • “Want some marshmallows?”
  • Can’t argue with the soundtrack.
  • “No more now, okay?”
  • We never really did find out what Annie’s issues were.
  • “That is the first stupid thing I’ve ever heard you say.” That’s a very good left-handed compliment.
  • *RIP Neil Peart, 1952-2020.

The Next Time…

Most Spring Breakers want fun, sun and rum. Others demand cash, dash and stash. And James Franco. Sorry that didn’t rhyme.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #173: David Gordon Green’s “Your Highness” (2011)



The Players…

Danny McBride, James Franco, Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel and Rasmus Hardiker, with Justin Theroux, Damien Lewis, Toby Jones and Charles Dance.


The Basics…

Sibling rivalry. Anyone who’s had one often shares the oys and joys about the black sheep competing for attention and praise with the white knight. So to speak.

Prince Thadeous has always been blanketed in the shadow of his brother, the golden boy Prince Fabious. Fabious is as noble and fair as Thad is a lout. Seeing no real pressure into saving damsels in distress or doing his part for king—his father, mind you—and country, Thad is comfortable, if only to be spiteful, gambling, getting stoned and practicing at being a professional lothario. King Dad always asking no one what he did to deserve this clown and possible heir apparent? Who knows what may happen to the kingdom after he is gone and Fabious fails to return from slaying the dragon? The castle converted into an opium den, forsooth?

Well, thank Heavens that Fabious is around, and has his kindly betrothed Belladonna to keep him grounded…until a nasty wizard kidnaps her and Fab loses his sh*t.

Only now can Thad be of any use to his baby bro, let alone the kingdom, in getting Bella back home safe as well as ensure he doesn’t get banished. No more foot rubs, wine or wizard weed. It’s time for Thad to earn his royal bones. Or else get packing.

Who says chivalry is dead?


The Rant…

What ends with fantasy films and their fandom begins with hearth baked pizzas.

Wait! Please come back!

Thank you, and leave your shoes by the door. This might get a bit sticky. And will get a bit bizarre.

I went on record with the Oz, The Great And Powerful installment that I’m not much for fantasy films, but I’m not made of stone either. Certain flights of cinematic fancy do tickle me. The original Wizard Of Oz, natch. The Thief Of Arabia is a stone cold classic and was way ahead of its time regarding special effects and minimal cheeze, proving fantasy can ne more than just kids’ stuff. There’s Krull (a prime example of a movie that has “cult fave” smeared all over its noble gob). The Neverending Story was dark, twisted and pretty cool for that. The Princess Bride? Nuff said. And if we accept the Star Wars saga as fantasy and not sci-fi (or a religious doctrine to its fans akin to the followers of Scientology, which was esablished by a S/F writer to boot), I enjoy that stuff, too. And I do not care whether Han shot first or not. Quit whining. It’s just a movie, invest in some Clearasil and just have fun.

Those “true” fantasy franchises, however, are lost on me. Never seen a Tolkien flick, but I did read The Hobbit when I was 12 (it was a qualification then for pre-teen boys), which gave me the general flavor of such stories (that I didn’t take to). Those Divergent series diverge. Who’s Harry Potter and why is Danny Radcliffe starkers on broadway for Equus? Sounds muggle-y to me. I like to keep my feet on Earth, so to speak, when it comes to fantasy films. To wit, some of my fave films are fantastical, albeit a bit dark, weird, dystopian and sometimes outright weird. Films like Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix trilogy and innumerable anime movies and OVAs that wrangle with the human condition in rather inhospitable settings. Most of the works of Hayao Miyazaki oeuvre follow this principle of humanity borne from fantastic stories; Totoro is a fine demonstration.

I need to have a foot in reality when watching a fantasy movie. The plot device of Bastian reading The Neverending Story cum narrator is a fine example, especially since I saw it as a kid and knew what it was like (and still do) to get wrapped up in a good book. I need a tether like that. I’m not really capable of suspending my disbelief so far as to embrace an entire virtual world of swords and sorcery. Ask any Game Of Thrones follower; to get it is akin to cramming for the SATs 1 hour before the test and the reefer buzz has yet to wear off. I don’t want homework, I want a good movie without water wings, crib notes and the salivating dork screaming in my ear every nanosecond every detail before I register a detail, Cheeto dust staining my jaw an unnatural orange color.

Look, I’m not decrying the genre. I can’t hate a dish I’ve once only merely picked at. I guess my beef is the whole “grandiose” delivery of modern fantasy films, like their release is on par with unravelling DNA’s double helix (and believe me, some of the fans look and act like there’s an extra chromosome floating around in there somewhere). I cannot handle the Nuremberg fandom. I need to see bubbles popped. Like with The Princess Bride. Or even Blade Runner 2049. Light some fire under my ass and grab my attention.

In the best, worst Princess Bride way, Your Highness had a freshly filled Zippo giving me a colonoscopy.

But wait, you may be asking me, “Hey blogger, what does lighting farts have to do with coal fire pizza?”

I’m glad you asked…and boy, this will be ever the dumbest comparison to what’s up and what’s down I had suffered. So join me.

I live in a community where pizza is a big deal. That’s true for a lotto places, like New York or Chicago or Rome. However where I live is not as big as those metropolises; our collective populace wouldn’t even scratch the census forms. Nevertheless, we got mom-and-pop pizza joints out the wazoo and up the ying yang round these parts. I know this to be solid, as I did the math:

Offering comparisons, The Big Apple has a population of 8.3 million souls (calculated in 2017). Where I hail from the greater metro area inhabits 840,000. One fifth of NYC, give or take. According to Quora, there are approximately 32,000 pizza joints in the five boroughs. That’s a lotta cheese. My stomping grounds has, according to Google, (with me adjusting for ads, random hits and dead ends. I have to much spare time) over 70,000 restaurants that sell pizza, including franchises. Where I live covers a bit over 42 square miles; the Five Boroughs covers a bit of 300 square miles.

Do you see what I getting at here? Yes, my math is fuzzy, but if those numbers are correct (and my Calculator app isn’t using Romal numerals again), all adjusted it seems like a relative one to one ratio. We got a lot of pizza joints with a very large, very vocal crowd who can’t wait to crow about where to get an awesome pie, and how your pet choice is substandard. In sum, toss a rock in the air and it’ll most likely land on the roof of a pizza shop ’round here. That or a Denny’s.

Must be only Naples that crows about pizza more than we in the LV do. Not sure why. I think all the red sauce joints were set up in direct retaliation to the original, local fare. Down with PA Dutch pickling f*cking everything—even scrapple. We want baked, circular things that serve as a platter! Stop eating hog maw! You have Wegman’s! And refrigerators! Have a slice and don’t goddam smother it in brine!

Maybe like that. In essence, PA Dutch cuisine is akin to a short bus food truk menu. That was not a misspelling.

Back to the point, such as it is: we got a lotta fans arguing over the same thing as microcosm for the country’s largest city/cultural tossed salad about—of all things—freakin’ pizza. Such fandom and dedication can lead to some very healthy, hearty and misguided stances on who’s the best and why and the differences that make it worth debate. It’s never neapolitan versus deep dish, never crust versus sauce, never a pie cut into eight slices has fewer calories than one cut into ten (it’s a thing here). It’s about a dozen local joints all in competition for your dollar and your palette, and we’re all willing, vocal guinea pigs champing at the bit for a slice and extolling it against your friend’s slice for the same reason. Around here, it’s like the old joke: “What does pizza have in common with sex?” “Even when it’s bad, it’s good.”

My take on all this pizza doggerel? Where does my loyalty lie? Easy. Coupons and Grubhub.

*cold winds whistle through the canyon*

So what’s all this jazz have to do with fantasy film fandom? Be patient. Like a boomerang with a sex drive: it’ll come to you.

In the past two decades or so my city’s downtown was undergoing gentrification. You know: out with the chains and in with the local businesses. Focusing on local history as commerce and generally giving the whole neighborhood a fresh coat of paint. Along with new stores of course came unique shopping opportunities which eventually leads to tourism. A good example of this is how Times Square kicked out the whores and junkies and replaced them with the brightest neighborhood in the world, even after Vegas. In fact, one snow cannot set up business on or near the Square without paying a pretty penny for plasma JumboTron advertising. Considering that, it’s in part how BubbaGump Shrimp Company came into being. I’m just as offended as you are.

So now with my downtown got a wake up call and brushed the eye boogers from it’s new, authentic gas-powered street lights (which stay on 24/7, like some spiritual collective pilot light to make sure we’ll see more money to burn from eager albeit naive tourists. Is there any other kind?), the local restaurant scene began to grow also. There were a few (read: two) bistros that were tentpoles for dining out before the whitewashing. Now there are dozens, all of different gastronomical stripes vying for your dollar, as well as the vital out-of-town cash. We have the bistros, the wine bars, the regular bars, the ma-and-pa Italian joints, the tapas place, the grand hotel and Subway. Now foodies stick out their necks and tongues to both hail and decry all these new places to gorge their tummies and egos until the Rapture.

And of course and you guessed it…

For those of you who have copped a squat here at RIORI before you know that my day job is a cook. I know a bit about food and restaurants. I’ve seen how the sausage is made, both literally and figuratively. Tony Bourdain notwithstanding, restaurant kitchens are indeed a hotbed of culinary experiments, hopefully yielding yummy plates to sell. There’s a lot of heat, hazards and harsh language as well. To call a restaurant kitchen on a busy Friday night organized chaos is to fancy the Atlantic Ocean as damp. Yet through all that wreck and ruin, we’ll get your food out fast and make is seem effortless. We hope.

I feel I’m losing some you. Fear not, I always have a point to make, no matter how flaccid.

Of course the pizza crowd wasn’t left out of this gourmet uprising. We had three new, upscale Italian places that served pie: the coal oven place, the wood oven place, ultra high tech gee whiz bucky gizmo brick oven place (at the place worked at for a time. Guess who thought our pizzas were the best?) and the old stalwarts which had been around forever and outlasted most marriages. You know the places: nuttin’ fancy but reliable. Only the Pyramids are more eternal.

Soon foodies chewed their way out of the wainscot trumpeting about which was better: coal, wood, brick or Mario’s? In my culinary circle, these debates got as intense as the SALT talks, but much more dire. With all the pizza joints in town—”upscale” and otherwise—those who claimed to “know pizza” inside and out and were not flummoxed over the end scene of Inception knew and told all about man and god and mozzarella. It got so crazy that a custom order pizza place opened adjacent to my favorite coffee shop. And really, does tuna and pine nuts really scream “yummy” to you (I sh*t you not. That was two of too many options you had to punish your dinner guests with)? My neighbor was one of the few who got caught up in the folderol and kept putting his two cents in whenever we invited him over for pizza…which gradually began to happen less and less.

The debate was on. Which method of baking a pizza was best? Coal, wood or whatever? Let me tell you something about baking a pizza: all you need is a good, hot oven, regardless of the fuel. Oh sure, burning wood some argue imbues a unique smoky signature on the pie. Well, yeah, however it is usually overrun by the sauce and the cheese and those other goodies you slap on it. Best to reserve that for the cappicola.

No. How it is baked has nothing to do with fire source. All one must do is properly gauge the temperature, the timing and keep that brick hearth scrubbed. Lather, rinse repeat. No mesquite, anthracite or Kingsford necessary. Just steady heat and steady hands.

*pant, pant*

Here is what I am getting at, the parallels of pizza and fantasy films. Dismissing the toppings, the methods and for God’s sake all the albacore and pignolas, all pizzas are the same, even if we feel different. Yes, there are endless variations on a theme, and we have of faves, but at the end of the day its always crust, sauce, cheese, not necessarily in that order. Debating this and debating that ruins one of the simple culinary delights of the past few centuries. Shut up and eat.

That being said, at their base all fantasy films are the same, inasmuch as they virtually all start with the same device—the same Maguffin, if you will—to get the Sisyphusian rock rolling: SOMEONE/THING NEEDS TO BE RESCUED. The key word is “rescue.” Not found, not avenged, not destroyed. RESCUED. Has a romantic air, doesn’t it? Saved, protected, liberated. Better than conquered, acquired or, well, lost. For want of a nail and all of that.

I can hear the grumbles now. Stale, half-eaten crusts clattering onto your plates. “The hell you talking’ ’bout, blogger? You can’t compare Monty Python’s Holy Grail to Excalibur to The Princess Bride to the Tolkien movies!”

Au contraire. I can and I will fantasy geeks. And I deliberately truncated the Pythons’ film title just to get your anal anuses all taut and mean. You’re welcome.

Rescue, that’s the rub. There is always something to rescue in a fantasy film. Frodo’s gotta rescue Middle Earth from the doom of Sauron. Westley’s gotta rescue Buttercup. Dorothy has to basically save herself. Prince Colwyn has to rescue his bride Lyssa (refer to the Westley/Buttercup paradigm). Bastian has to rescue Fantasia from The Nothing. The list goes on and the formula for a fantasy film never really diverges much from SAR. Then again some films do stand out and others doth fizzle (EG: the lines of my long-winded pizza metaphor above, duh). That and until The Lord Of The Rings epic made it to theaters, the genre was usually derided to the dollar bin at Best Buy before the tickets had been sold. A genre not to be taken seriously has never been taken seriously. Often for good reason.

Okay. Ignoring all the precious few good fantasy films that exist, the rest of the rabble demands rescuing. They are all one-note. The plot device is always the same. Everyone has a British accent—even on planet Krull. The rest is always swords and sorcery. Sometimes even the mundane of these work (EG: Conan The Barbarian), but more often not (EG: Conan The Destroyer) and just call it all in. Fantasy flicks are supposed to be the penultimate genre of escapism (the peak being horror films, letting out the terrified animal inside you. Snarl), but when it’s all couched in amazing CGI trying to run interference with the same ol’ dopey rescue quests, you gotta stick a pin in it.

Of all the convention subcultures—Trekkies, cosplayers, comic book geeks, Furries, the KISS Army, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc—fanatics of the Renaissance Faire and/or LARPing get very touchy about Outsiders who don’t get their fetish, and quick to rile if questioned about its value. With other groups I mentioned (perhaps excluding the Latter Day Saints) the response is usually a shrug, sigh, too bad you don’t get it, your loss. And back to shopping for that all elusive whatsit one can only buy at cons at shameless prices. Like the time I got my replica Star Trek: TNG chirping combadge back in high school. Don’t judge, and I wish you’d get me.

Folks who delve into fantasy do it hardcore. Escapism is a f*cking job for these hapless souls. One must wonder why LARPers pay more on a suit of armor made from polycarbonate fiber that is also used on the stealth bomber than they would on food and rent? So they can render themselves invisible to the Orc Ninjas and SCUD missile launches?

Hold on. That was mean. I of all people should not be bashing strangers with their predictions for D&D, Tolkien and Arthurian legends. I have a basement full of comics, every Sega console ever made daisy-chained to my TV and way, way, way too many albums in my iTunes and vinyl library. I shouldn’t judge either. Still I stand by my claim that fantasy filmgoers have been ripped off time an again by way of the superior pizza argument: it’s all the f*cking same, just different pixelated toppings. You’re all getting duped, you cinephile muggles you. Stand up and be counted. And admit it: you kinda did like Krull, didn’t you? Betcha bought the game version for the Atari 2600.

I have now officially dated myself and forget to bring flowers.

We’ve established I’m not the big fantasy film fan because one: I need to have at least one toe in the relevant, and; two: the thread through virtually all epics are all about the rescue. Hollywood should try and rescue moviegoers with some fresh concepts. To be sure, there have been films who’ve skewered the genre to good to even great success employees the mead-soaked goodness of comedy. Spoonful of sugar and all of that, and Mary Poppins rocks.

Monty Python And The Holy Grail, Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, The Princess Bride and now Your Highness all sent up the stuffy fantasy genre with a little pin pricking. Often most fantasy films come off rather pompous, as if engaging a viewing of such a film is tantamount to deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls. Come on, even Elvis poked fun at his own dancing. And granted Grail got made and broke the mold, but the imitators came a-calling. Let’s face it, the genre is to rich to not poke fun at. Our suspension of disbelief goes into overdrive when we watch such movies, because none of it exists or could ever exist. This can get exhausting, so let’s lower the bar a little for everyone with some chuckles.

So how does all this deconstruction of pizza snobbery relate to fantasy filmmaking? Again, like the old joke: How is sex like pizza? Even when it’s bad, it’s good. And if the wrong crowd starts to get all up in sweaty arms about either, remember to rescue them from their one vitriolic fanboy-ism with hard truth. Namely, it’s only dinner and a movie; shut up and chill. For the love of all that is holy. Tolkien was writing his retirement fund, not a third testament. Papa John’s pizza is only good for dipping that lovely crust into that soufflé cup of delicious, carcinogenic oil and yellow dye number 5.

In the endgame, how relevant is a tale of pizza pairing with a tale fantasy to getting the munchies?

Ask the wizard who sold you his weed. Or mozzarella.


The Story…

Like Mel Brooks told us, “It’s good to be the king!” Old Mel was right, but he never knew about the plight of poor King Tallious (Dance), blessed and cursed with two sons. Blessed because noble Fabious (Franco) is the apparent heir apparent. The stories of his valiance are legend, and he has the kindness and charisma to back it up. He is the King’s favorite son, you know.

Which means…

To Fabious’ yang is his older brother yin Prince Thaddeus (McBride). Thad is the epitome of the green-eyed monster. So what if Fab is an incredible warrior? So what if he’s handsome and brave? So what if he scored his hot fiancée Belladonna (Deschenel) on personalty, fealty and nice hair? In his grumpiness, Thad would was while the day away drinking, hittin’ that wizard weed and chasing tail. Hence the King’s double-edge sword of family affairs.

What boorish Prince Thad needs is a dose of reality. The King is sick of his slovenly son Thad lounging around, taking the wrong advantages a prince can mooch off. He needs a role model, or rather the threat of being disinherited and let lovely Fabious have everything…especially if this new/only quest proves successful.

Which quest? Well, the nasty sorcerer Leezar (Theroux) kidnaps Bella on the day of her nuptials with a wicked, world-conquering scheme on his mind. So, duh, Fabious must rescue her and embarks on (another) quest of dire consequences. But this time, it’s gonna be family affair. Thad is reluctantly in tow so he can see how a real bold prince behaves in times of crisis…but moreover to not to written out of the will. Eye roll and put the mead down for a small spell.

And who knows? If both pull off rescuing the hapless Bella from Leezar, who’s to say that Thad’ll ask if she has a sister? Again, who says chivalry is dead?

Perhaps like Prince Thad’s number here.


The Breakdown…

Right.  But since you’re still here, thanks for listening.

The whole genre of fantasy is decidedly one-note to me. Someone/something has to be RESCUED in order to set right what has been wronged. And be it D&D geex or pizza-faced freaks, you have reach a crisis and not take sh*t so damned seriously. Sometimes this staid genre needs to be rescued from itself. Even in spite of itself. Happily, Your Highness aims to let air of the balloon and into your whoopee cushion. Its goal was to walk alongside comedic romps like The Princess Bride, Monty Python And The Holy Grail and even Robin Hood: Men In Tights to a small degree. Sweep away the pompous dust that has long settled on spent carcasses like Dragonslayer and The Beastmaster.

At least I think that was Highness’ goal.

Let’s get this out of the way: even though I’m not big on fantasy films I’m not a hater. Just isn’t my thing. Sure, like I said a few I enjoy and am well-versed enough in the genre to connect the lines and dot the Ts about what makes the magic work. I’ve said enough about the rescue thing, but there also many other tropes fantasy has to have or it just ain’t the surreal deal. Stuff like swords and sorcery, fantastic beasts of legend, raw noble-on-noble action and British accents. And by the way, why do all actors in fantasy films affect a British accent anyway? Even with non-Albion legends like Troy, et al. Hell, Krull‘s setting wasn’t even on Earth. Must be something about sounding both regal and amused at the same time.

Highness has those two qualities in spades, but in an offbeat package you’d probably expect from director Green. There is a lot to be amused about here, but not out and out ha-ha. Mostly snickering and eye-rolling. We get it; the movie’s whole spin is mocking the fairy tale adventure combo meal with extra mutton. Duh. For all it’s winking however, Highness somehow misses the mark of true parody and convention smashing, and I don’t mean crashing TrekCon dressed like Boba Fett wielding two rather large jugs of some blue Molotov cocktail straight outta Mandalore.

Have I got yer breeches in a twist yet, nerds? Cool!

Yeah, so since our expectations were more or less met when we heard about the movie, Highness is silly. Not exactly funny. More like lewd and ridiculous. It’s gotta be something screwy if we’re gonna parody some tired, old genre. Mel Brooks was a genius at it, as is former Python Terry Gilliam, albeit with a darker vision. And a zany one regarding the ZAZ team (EG: Airplane!, The Naked Gun and Top Secret!). I feel what made all their parodies work and work so well is because the creators took their subject matter seriously.

The what now?

Sure. There is a serious side to comedy, especially in the realm of parody. It helps that you do your movie genre device homework before you get to the skewering. There first must be a respect to the old warhorses, and then slaughter them with extremely extreme prejudice. For example, Brooks knew his way around a Western, and how to correctly lampoon it with Blazing Saddles (even the title sez it all). Party line goes that he even wanted The Duke himself John Wayne to be cast as the Waco Kid. Wayne found the script hilarious but was afraid it would affect his movie rep. “I’ll be the first in line to see it!” he told Brooks, so if that kind of endorsement doesn’t ring true, then old Mel was probably ghostwriting (he wasn’t BTW; that was Richard Pryor). Nearly all of Brooks’ parodies are informed—if not steeped—in traditional genre formats and tropes. You gotta be wise to know when to call out the naked emperor. Highness does a decent college try at it, but like with the last time Green teamed up with Franco and McBride for his stoner/action/comedy mishmash Pineapple Express he just, just missed the mark. Almost there, but no banana. Or pineapple for that matter.

Yes, Highness delivers the goods in bitch-slapping the tired, overblown mystique of fantasy films, but its execution is too overarching. It’s too wink-wink-nudge-nudge get-it-audience see how clever we are at poking fun at fantasy films? That was the same impression I had with Pineapple, also. “Yeah, yeah. I get it already.” Having this type of attitude is why I got tired of South Park after its second season. I get it already. I’m in on the joke. Green and crew were just plain trying to hard. Despite Green approaching getting it “right,” too many of the gags, concepts and dialogue seemed half-baked.

Segue…

So to speak, McBride is the only thing spot-on about Highness that Green invested himself in: Thad’s droll, cynical, naked emperor-like disdain for this whole misadventure. Not to be crawling up thine own arse too much, McBride’s mornings are akin to a Greek chorus, expounding the truth to the audience against all this drama and outright nonsense. EG: You can’t bullsh*t a bullsh*tter, and Thad is having none of this, missing bride or no. Sure, he’s not outright funny here, but his Laurel and Hardy-esque “another fine mess” attitude is the best thing in this movie nudging the audience (but his lech routine does get rather tiring. Echoes of South Park, season three). In Thad’s philosophy, the joke’s truly on all of us. All 12 bucks of it.

Speaking of acting, consider McBride’s foil, Franco. The dashing warrior to the debauched, black sheep of the royal family. It took a while for me to get some shine to Fab. Like the execution, Franco’s almost got the right idea. He’s almost hamming it up. Almost. It would’ve been better if he did. Fab’s got the Strider blues bad, and more freak outs over “why is this quest so trying!” would’ve been welcome. Fabious is self-parody as Prince Wonderful and all. Franco should’ve let it all out and get to Shatner scenery chewing. Overall though, Franco’s Fab was just naive and pouty enough to make we wanna reach into the screen and slap his candy-ass around. It’s not a John Wayne endorsement of effective emoting, but I’ll notch it up to a B-.

Biggest quibble over Highness? Bingo: slow pacing. Not good. I say this based on how the third act panned out. Despite the simplicity of the plot (essentially a Renaissance Faire meets a Gallagher concert), the story took its sweet ol’ time to unfold. There was a lot of dead air trying to deliver those winky winky jokes I keep going on about. True, the other fantasy fable foibles I said that worked didn’t overtly sacrifice genre for yuks-yuks (The Princess Bride is still a Chuck Jones style romp with the edges sanded off), but they sure didn’t drag for two actsI kept tweaking the timer to not keep track of how long the film elapsed. Again, not good.

I can’t bring myself to bash Highness too hard, though. Why? Because what Green and Company got right, they did so with elan. Moments few and far between, but still there. Eventually. For instance, although it took awhile, I did like the progression of Thad finally getting a pair…sorta. Or Portman’s backstory taking its time…sorta. Or Lazarr’s mommy issues…sorta. You get it. There was a head of steam slowly boiling away in Highness until the third act, but I never saw it coming. That’s a glaive (French for “double-edged sword,” as well as the mystical boomerang thingy in Krull. Multitasking). It’s cool to get a surprise ending, and the final act was indeed fun, but where the hell was the snappy fun two acts ago? The plot to Highness is threadbare and hackneyed and decidedly so on purpose. Green could’ve baited us a little with the barest scintilla of twists. Yes, the film is a gag reel, but it still should act like a movie first.

All in all, the recurring theme of Highness was “almost.” It almost, almost made it. Almost. Still, the thing didn’t stink like a hillock of orc dung. Wasted potential maybe, but not outright sh*t. In the endgame Highness was a good, late night time waster. Pair this with Pineapple Express for a midnight double feature. They’re almost companion movies anyway. Almost.

Ah well. Paraphrasing Sean Connery in Finding Forresterthis ain’t exactly a pizza question: Who wants more mead?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild relent it. Stick with the classic Brooks-type parodies first, then burn one and appreciate Your Highness. Kaff!


The Stray Observations…

  • “God, if your mother could see you now.”
  • There’s something about the lighting…
  • “Teamwork!”
  • McBride stares really well.
  • “Magic…motherf*cker.” Hell to the yeah. I mean: uh-oh.
  • Lame Indy tribute there.
  • “To the f*ckening!” Best. Bedroom line. Ever.
  • The chase scene was good. Nothin’ fancy, just meat and no filler.
  • “And if your vagina is anything like my hand, there will be no problem.” Kinda sez it all.
  • It felt like Franco improv’d everything, with not a lot of conviction. Remember the “serious side of comedy” thing? Yeah.
  • “This quest sucks!”

The Next Time…

“I do so like green eggs and ham! Thank you! Thank you Sam-I-Am!”

That Dr Suess line is how the writers’ named the movie I Am Sam. Sorry to ruin that.