RIORI Presents Installment #172: Kasi Lemmons’ “Talk To Me” (2007)



The Stars…

Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cedric The Entertainer, Taraji P Henson, Mike Epps, Vondie Curtis Hall and Martin Sheen.


The Story…

Besides the free three hots and a cot, the best thing about being in prison is you are free to speak your mind. No one will listen. No one will listen, of course unless you cause a scene. Start a ruckus. Make you realize that you are indeed imprisoned. Then there might come some existential frisson and screaming ensues.

Frisson is all prisoner DJ Petey knows, and he’s rough and ready to remind his fellow listening audience/inmates that all is not well in the nation’s capital. Or the country, for that matter. For Petey there are always matters of injustice to address, as well as inject James Brown into the echoing corridors to appreciative lifers.

But on a very rare, if not one-time occasion, Petey’s broadcasts leak beyond the prison walls. Or rather, just the right kind of audience tunes in at the right time.

One from The Outside.


Foreword…

Hey, welcome back. Glad you could make it.

It took a tad longer than expected, but Volume One of RIORI has been all revisited, revised, updated and forgotten about. We all know it’s bad to dwell on past regrets, but I regret being such a tool years back and there was my way to atone to my loyal readers. Thanks and you’re welcome. It was such a load off my spine.

In retrospect, I was pleasantly surprised at a lot of that rough hackwork. Those very early entries were ostensibly written as movie critiques weren’t all bad. Some were whisky saturated screeds against Hollywood corporate agitprop. Others were mean diatribes. A few were right on base, perhaps then a sign of better things to come. Hell, some even were spelled correctly. Or I just got lucky. Or not. So anyway here we are, back on course to tackle some potential new threats on the mediocre movie horizon. Let’s set our sights on the next Michael Bay project (I hear Bad Boys 3 is right around the corner, and now we’re being lured by Kevin Hart. Scramble the jets!).

But before we go any further, some notes are in order. First, I’ve done away with all that “volume” crap. I only started dragging that line to troll possible subs to sign on thinking I had multiple feeds elsewhere. Of course it didn’t work. It would help if I had multiple feeds. Yeah. Sorry. Didn’t fool me, either. I have the non-comment feed to show for my little subterfuge. And I still pray every night, kids for the blog fairy to come and sweep me off to BloggieLand on gossamer WiFi.

Sigh. A man can dream, right?

Secondly, there is this practice in the comic book industry (lately) that when a new team tackles a long-running series (EG: Spider-Man, X-Men, My Little Pony, etc) they start counting all over again. It’s not issue #26, it’s #1 again. Again. This is a transparent ruse to coerce prospective buyers with the lure of a “new #1.” Number one issues are still quite prized, despite the despotic fandom comic collecting creates amongst like minds, concrete and just plain daffy. Namely, it’s a gimmick that works for new sales and irks the Cheetos-addled. Publishers are all about the bottom line, but comic collecting is still a niche market despite what Disney commands, and f*cking the noble history of our noble heroes quite rankles the geek squad nobly.

The remedy? “Legacy numbering.” About a year or so back, the team behind the most recent volume of The Amazing Spider-Man ran their course. Over ten years they penned the ups and downs of everyone’s fave web-head, and eventually looked for greater peaks to scale. After said decade the writers and artists passed the torch; in specific their run ended with Amazing Spider-Man #801. The new crew began not with #802 but a new #1. It was emblazoned on their first ish…with a byline: Legacy 802. Get it? This run at RIORI was the centennial, but screw any more trolling with quantity over quality. Hell, it might actually cage me a few more new subs. In other words, clean slate. Fair dinkum. Reset your calendars and synch those smartwatches.

Here we are at installment proper #172, and we’re gonna keep it lean and extra mean from now on. Everything has been legacied. No more back issues to collect. Time to get roasting and hope I’m pleasantly proven wrong again. Again. Thanks again for tuning in!

Now where was I? Oh yeah…


The Rant…

I’m not sure if I ever mentioned these stories before (I probably have) but rest assured it is very relevant regarding this week’s movie. Appropriately enough, it’s all about being on the air. The radio, that is. Listen up.

If you think about it, radio has been the free social media landscape before stuff like Facebook, Instagram and even WordPress existed. Radio also happens to be the best, and the Internet has been only aping AM/FM broadcasts since MySpace crept out from under its bits and bytes (MySpace still exists, BTW. Fancy that) is spirit. Our free social media can be the Fresh Kills Landfill online for all to dump in, but I’ve learned that radio lacks a soft white underbelly unlike its online peers. Why?

Maturity. If you wanna get technical radio transmissions are as old as the Universe, and humanity has only learned to harness the airwaves for only a little more than 100 years, and its friend count has never been tallied. Never had to. Radio has been just…there. Spreading news, insight and music from Cape Town to Columbus. For the most part it’s free, cheap and green. And often taken so far for granted its like it never was there. I think Queen wrote a song about that, which inspired a young Steffie Germanotta to pick up a mic. All we hear is…you know the rest.

Wanna know how yours truly first picked up the mic? Too bad. My blog, my rules. Now learn to appreciate the subtle yet convincing grip does duck tape have around wrists and under arms of a Stryker chair. Miss Quinzel? You may dance for me now.

Where was I? Right. Maturity. I speak from experience. In truth, a lot of the radio jive I’m gonna talk about from experience. Now. Here comes the story I think I may have told before but is still relevant to this weeks installment. I was once a radio programmer for our market’s local community radio station. WDIY 88.1 FM, the Valley’s community public radio station. Many choices, real voices. That was us. Is. Still is. WDIY just celebrated in 25th anniversary, and that is quite the triumph in small market, low metro coverage. Consider the MySpace ribbing earlier.

For five years, 2005 to 2009 I was on air, hosting the drive time, AAA music show. I was “Your Friend In The Blend.” “The Blend” was on every weekday, 1 to 4 PM, and I held the crucial Friday slot. I say crucial because to be on air Monday morning or Friday evening is akin to how a good play (or movie) should pan out: if you got a solid opening and a memorable ending, it was worth the time. The rest is just filler. Good filler, mind you, but most folks drive cars and most cars have radio and most folks have jobs and most folks commute to work on Monday to start the slog and speed home on Friday and in-between the radio might be something to tune into for news/music on the go. Stuff like that. My seat also meant some pressure. Gentle pressure mind you. Moreover there was “performance anxiety.” Say and play what sticks and the rest is gravy. And no road-rager will wrap their Benz around a telephone pole, ejecting that iPhone like a shotput. Shoulda stayed tuned in.

Radio may be mature, but it sure takes a lot of on air hours to make the deejay grow up. Hold that: this may sound pretentious (and it is) radio programmers shy away from being labeled “deejays.” What was once the provenance of the disc jockeys on air, to spin tracks of wax as well as wax on spins past that title now refers to the many club types who wheel the steel, host raves, do trivia nights and pull karaoke. I’ve done all of that, and I can understand why the term, “programmer” has been set aside for the people in the broadcasting booths around the world. Heck, even on day one at the station my boss told me to not use the word “deejay.” WDIY never hosted karaoke nights.

But I did. Check it: in and around my “respectable” programming gig at WDIY, I scored some extra cash by hosting karaoke at an old fave bar. I got that opportunity because a local, well-known and respected deejay manned the boards at said club when he hosted that evenings entertainment. Namely, the local bands who’d perform every Friday and Saturday at no extra door charge for the patrons. DJ Rick was a fixture at the club as well as on the air, so he had some pull. That and he and I were huge Pere Ubu fans. Rick even caged me some bootlegs on disc. Best buds.

The setup for a karaoke night is pretty self-explanatory. You might’ve been there one lazy, bored night. A mixing board, mounted speakers, one or two mics, a dedicated drive housing thousands of push button songs, a monitor tele-prompting lyrics for the drunken brave few and some plank to stand on which the lucky losers can caterwaul for three minutes. Only self-checkout at Wegmans is more complicated.

But you need a deejay to hold it all together (EG: the least drunk guy in the room). That was my job. Basically be hall monitor. Queue up the requests, make sure everything worked right and play to the crowd. For example: “Let’s give a big round for Bob! Warren Zevon told him to beware those “Werewolves Of London!” Now howl! Stuff like that. I had to be Alan Freed; all the jokers had to do was try and sing and land in train wreck territory (even though that was part of the fun) and not barf on stage. Good times to be had by all. At least that’s how Rick described it, and the hundred bucks I scored didn’t hurt for such mercenary work. It also covered my bar tab.

If you’ve never done it, don’t believe the haters. Karaoke is capital F fun. Get a little drunk, loosen up, hop on stage and pretend to be Elvis for a few minutes. Hosting it was great. It was like an inebriated middle school talent show. Sure, try to do good but who really cares? We like music and we’re having fun; so what if we suck? Naked naivete and go with it. Stop being a killjoy and grab the mic.

After many, many rounds of hosting karaoke I learned a few things about our brave, sloshy performers. Namely, we have three types of singers. The first being those who can’t sing, but make up for it just by rocking out. Their buddies cheer them on and sometimes sing along also. It’s all a big joke, and usually the performer buys the next round. Good times had by all, esp the host.

The second karaoke fan is a novelty. Happens seldom, but when it happens it’s a Susan Boyle moment. The person grabs the mic and can actually sing. One time this one guy nailed Bon Jovi’s “Blaze Of Glory” so well I felt like I was stranded on the Garden State Parkway. Casual listeners were stirred. Lighters came out. A lot of screaming and clapping, myself included. Those kind of performances are the stuff of legend. Made me glad I took up Rick’s offer. So much fun.

Then the dreaded then.

I feel this is where karaoke gets a bad rap. It’s all fun and games until we lose an eye. Then we play marbles. Some folks who religiously attend karaoke are like the Blues Brothers: on a mission from God. The fervor is real, but God took a nap an aeon ago. These guys suck all the fun out of the room, stinking of White Claw and daddy issues. They get up on the plank and start singing as if they are really reaching for something, like Simon Cowell is out on the floor somewhere playing foosball or whatever. Simply put, karaoke is all about drunken fun, not getting a free ride to Hollywood. Here’s a tale and a coda about what I think getting lost in sound should go.

Here is a fine example of when the train runs off the tracks. One time where crash and burn was expected, and the stoic deejay had to lend a hand. One karaoke night, the bar was a desert. There were the usual yokels at the bar to be sure, but the floor was a ghost town save one table of eight drunken revelers. It was a birthday party, and the lucky b’day boy had turned 21. He and his party took turns at the mic, the quality of their singing getting ever shriller with each new pitcher. Good times.

I became not the host but a jukebox. The sloshy revelers barked at me to play a certain tune on spec and then fell on the mic and proceeded to warble before I had the chance to turn the monitor and the mic on. It became like playing Tetris, only I was the sole brick. I tried to remain pro—mature—about the debacle. Hey, like I said, when things go “wrong” with karaoke sometimes it’s for the better.

The birthday boy was dared into covering a song near impossible to do drunk, let alone sober. His celebratants demanded I cue up the infamous stream-of-consciousness anti-pop that is REM’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Four minutes of manic, blurred social commentary culminating in a shout-out to Leonard Bernstein. And this dweeb accepted the challenge. Hail Columbia. He went on record saying he couldn’t really read the monitor. All three of them. Facepalm, but hey, a job’s a job and a song’s a song. I cringed and queued up Mike Stipe and the boys, fingers and toes crossed.

I’d like to say Mr 21 actually did okay. I’d like to say that. In reality it was a shambles, rubbernecking all the way. The song is tricky enough to sing sober. I recall one time catching REM on an MTV Unplugged session and even Michael had the lyrics he had written himself taped to his mic stand. Our birthday boy was taped to the mic stand himself; it supported his woozy weight. Blowing verse after verse and me feeling genuinely sorry for the guy (his friends at the table weren’t much help, mocking him the entire time) I jumped up from behind the deck like a spring and grabbed the other mic. I could read the monitor, but the song was so burned into my consciousness I really didn’t need it. I did an impromptu duet with the guy, me egging him on and singing fractured harmony. It was great fun, and when we had finished the table was on their feet cheering and the dude gave me a hug and bought me a beer. All in a night’s work.

What does my whole riff on karaoke have to do with the radio? A couple of things. One, being the obvious, there’s a good chance any would-be karaoke artist heard their quarry on the radio and was thereby inspired. The second is a bit trickier, and it’s all about communication and that maturity thing. Indulge me.

Besides hearing the daily dirt on NPR, radio can enlighten. It’s mature. I base this claim on a very eloquent, if not spot on claim from musician Richard Carpenter. He was once asked to say which medium he liked better: television or radio. He immediately said radio. Why? “Because the pictures are better.” He cited a Spike Jones number he caught once as a kid on a local radio broadcast, and what a Barnum-esque fever dream got injected into his brain. Carpenter claimed it was that broadcast that made him want to play piano. Not sure of the solid truth behind that tale, but Richard was correct: the pictures are better. They cement any sound into thought, which may bely inspiration and then bely creative output. For good or for ill, but radio doesn’t lie. The broadcasts might, but the reactions don’t.

Radio is mature. It let’s your ears do the talking. You hear songs, you hear news, you hear talk and your imagination fills in the blanks. C’mon, if you’ve ever seen the flick American Graffiti with legendary deejay Wolfman Jack at the boards, spinning tunes and baiting listeners, you’d never pick him out of a police lineup for being remarkable. The only real gesture of man behind the myth was to offer Richard Dreyfuss a melting popsicle. That might be poignant but I don’t know. My worldview is often that way. Shocker.

Radio is free. One of my fave movies is Talk Radio (and probably the only Oliver Stone film I’ve ever enjoyed, and not pummeled by). Despite its subject matter, when I was in high school and caught it on late night TV, with Eric Bogosian ranting and Alec Baldwin reeling, I wanted to be a part of that insidious free and ultimately mature medium of delightful and dire expression. I got my wish 20 years later. My dream had a long gestation period until maturity.

Yeah, yeah. I’ve been on the nose and flowery, but this is what I’m driving at: those sounds you tune into when you can, they’re not just voices in the fan. There are people behind those sound waves. Not just performers but storytellers. Think of that scene in A Christmas Story, where Ralphie and Randy curl up to the cathedral radio to tune into Little Orphan Annie. The boys are rapt, the pictures are better and the on-air adventures are free for all imaginations.

Finally, and perhaps is the core spirit of radio (a la Rush perchance) that it demands a part of your attention that is very hard to ignore, and the messages broadcasted can be very persuasive to listeners curious for new sounds or an echo chamber for their own soundtrack. Radio can also be coercive, subversive and intrusive. It may be a mature medium—the most mature, says I—but only a mature voice can truly scratch at your grey matter.

Which is only barely a centimeter from your itching scalp…


Prison sucks. Not only for the obvious reasons (solitary confinement, crap food, soap crises, no cable, etc), but rather its demoralizing. An inmate is just another disenfranchised citizen made more so. Rehabilitation? Nuts. You’re just off the street into a new neighborhood, which might be safer than your old stomping grounds. This time the locks always set.

Feels that way to Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene (Cheadle). He’s been lifer all his, well, life. Another population statistic. Just another successful con to fall to The Man, whomever that is these days. And these days have got Petey all astir. Sure, he may be tucked away from all the tumult that is the 60s, but he’s got an ear. And a mind. And a mouth. And thanks the prison system a microphone.

You see, Petey has special dispensation as the prison’s radio DJ, spinning tunes and mouthing off to his brothers in stir. It’s the only luxury they truly have in the joint, and how the boys love to tune in to Petey’s soulful playlist and bittersweet rants. His voice is a steam valve to vent all the pent-up frustration his fellow cons simmer with even before lock up. And Petey has a captive audience, indeed and so to speak. Too bad it seems like no one on the outside can tune into Petey’s show.

One day the outside comes in. Dewey Hughes (Ejiofor) reluctantly visits his brother Milo (Epps) in the joint, only to be drawn by his brother’s tales of woe to his cracking up at the “tell it like it is” broadcast of the DJ. See, Hughes is the program director at the struggling but once vibrant WOL-AM radio station out of Washington, DC. His job is essentially figure out what’s hip to the listening audience. WOL’s star has been falling, and Hughes’ boss, Mr E G Sonderling (Sheen) demands some new life be injected into their format. Needless to say, Dewey wasn’t listening to Milo much. Nor his boss’ really. Petey’s voice was too loud.

Way leads on to way, and recent parolee Petey shows up at WOL’s door, much to Dewey’s surprise (to say the least). Their current morning show DJ is stuck in the past, and WOL needs to be in the present. They’re getting their ass’ whupped by the rival station. Dewey correctly claims that no one listens to Nat “King” Cole on the radio anymore. The only King folks wanna hear in ’66 is Martin Luther, Jr preaching the truth. WOL needs a preacher from the streets. And DC needs a wake up call to all the junk that few can tell it like it is:

“I’ll tell it to the hot, I’ll tell it to the cold. I’ll tell it to the young, I’ll tell it to the old. I don’t want no laughin’, I don’t want no cryin’, and most of all, no signifyin’. This is Petey Greene’s Washington!”

You heard it here DC, like it or not…


For anyone out there who frequents RIORI on a semi-regular basis, you know I have a few man-crushes on certain actors. To me, these fortunate few always deliver the goods, acting wise. Their films may be dopey, but their performances are always fun and engaging. I’m talking about Dwayne Johnson, Sean Connery and my main man here with Talk To Me, Don Cheadle. I’ve been waiting for a decent film with him at top billing since the Soderbergh Ocean’s 11 trilogy. He delivered here, as I hoped he would.

But why here, why now? I mean, the guy has had a long, storied career. Over thirty years with the usual ups and downs (mostly downs), but always working, always plugging. He’s always solid, but often left of center in the general feeling of his roles, whether it be Boogie Nights or Reign Over Me or even his Marvel movie appearnces. So as game an actor as I claim Cheadle to be, what’s up with his rather spotty output?

I have a theory. It’s a good one, I think. You know how some esteemed directors find their protege/muse in an actor and can elicit the best out of them? They test them? Right. Not an uncommon thing in cinema, but seldom this mutualism resulted in the stuff of Hollywood lore (read: great movies and bales of tickets sold wherein). I’ll call it the “John Wayne/John Ford” thing. Not catchy, I know, but it’s to the point and shut it and lissen ‘hup.

A smart director knows how to work their leads; the strengths and weaknesses and how to coax the best out of both, and sometimes its the je ne sais pas we as the audience actually knew what was there all along, even if we didn’t. Or really never considered. Point being, legendary, eclectic director John Ford was a notorious taskmaster, abusing and using and coaxing his charges to give it their all. Some fared better than other prima donnas, like The Duke. I’d like to believe there was a quiet, workmanlike respect between the two. It radiates out of their combined output. Meaning when Ford directed the swagger out of John Wayne, John Wayne the solid actor came to the fore, and not the typewrote cowboy/soldier cipher. Consider Stagecoach, the meta-Western as we know and loathe it today. Consider The Quiet Man, Wayne’s best role with economic dialogue and body language; no posturing, save the flashback sequence. Consider The Searchers, the anti-Western decades before Clint’s equally tantalizing Unforgiven. Ford coaxed The Duke out of Wayne, and the results were nothing less than splendid.

Fanboy-ism? Perhaps, but consider further:

Legendary cult director John Carpenter found his Wayne in Kurt Russell. With him under the wing, Russell starred in three of Carpenter’s best flicks—one of which Russell hilariously aped The Duke—to revelatory levels. Carpenter pulled Russell from the mire of Disney-esque, fam-friendly fodder to the penultimate cult anti-hero Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, all head-butts and blasphemes aplenty. Along with the terror of his version of The Thing and the Chuck Jones-style “kung-foolery” of Big Trouble In Little China, Kurt Russell became a solid action star and no longer filler.

Here’s another great example of the Ford/Wayne dynamic in modern film: the esteemed Martin Scorsese has done this twice with a pair of opposite pole actors, one method, one protean (or maybe just misguided). First he took the relatively unknown, journeyman actor Robert DeNiro and converted/revealed him as the troublesome Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta; all damaged, rough and tumble, sympathetic guys. Marty’s second iteration was with Leo DiCaprio, Mr Terminal Boyish face cum teen actor into fiery Amsterdam, eccentric aviator Howard Hughes and earnest, doomed Danny Castigan. Marty coaxed them both out of the shadows into the spotlight, and the pair returned their accolades in kind.

Get it now?

Okay. Cheadle is one of those actors: find a left of center director who takes Cheadle under their wing (EG: Soderbergh, Anderson, Lemmons, etc), he’s permitted to shine. Don’s not just Detective Walters, he gets to be Cheadle. He’s not Miles Davis, but you wish he were. After watching—and enjoying—Talk, director Lemmons was just left of enough to let Don be Don be Petey. In the immortal words of John “Joliet Jake Blues” Belushi: “Elwood, go nuts.” Boom.

And indeed boom is Talk, but it is measured. The real Greene was a larger than life figure in broadcast radio, which eventually grew into an Emmy-award winning talk show career. The movie isn’t a rags-to-riches story by any means, nor is it some swaggering tribute to the “man against The Man” biopic. Not really. At its core, Talk is a biography, but dramatically dappled with the social commentary, race relations and political spin that neither the government nor its voters—what the hell—left from right is. It’s all about parallels and blurred lines. And a director must be cautious in cutting a bio film occurring in the USA’s cultural upheaval that was the 60s. It’s been a popular well to dip from for Hollywood, to the point of balefully tantalizing. A good example of a director culling history to their own ends in the name of film/personal agendum is most of Oliver Stone’s output, which are often ham-fisted in delivery as well as preachy. For every Platoon we have a Born On The Fourth Of July. For every JFK we have a Nixon. For every Talk Radio we have a script for Conan The Barbarian. Biopic directors have a tough choice choosing from entertaining, informing and railing. The trick is to get a game cast (like we have here) and let organic, organized chaos run rampant.

Since Talk—being a biopic—is naturally a character drama, it’s not just Cheadle the axis upon which the movie spins, it’s the entire ensemble. All of the cast. They all have to be in place to make the movie work as well as it does. Well, okay, to be honest, Cedric and Hall were underused IMHO (more on that later), but they were more or less just symbolic foils of style over Petey’s substance. Yin, yang and of that jazz. There’s just enough ham and cheese to be digestible here. The others, who let’s face it, are steeped in the social message movie tropes (EG: the uptight boss, the hungry ladder climber, the wild girl with a heart of gold, that other guy, etc), but are delivered with such elan you can’t help but follow along. Sure, they might be cyphers, but they are fleshed out; everyone has a backstory here. Even that other guy.

Before I go on about acting (esp Cheadle, doy) I have to point this out: this film is well staged and well framed. Since the bulk of the movie is shot in tight spaces (EG: the broadcasting booth, dive bars, prison cells, etc), reflecting the solitary confinement of both people on the fringe and radio personalities (often one and the same, Bernstein). Voices heard and unheard and should be heard. The scenes created a very episodic feel through the acts, kinda like radio programming. For instance: in the first act, I felt that Lemmons’ direction was simply “go for it.” If this film is about an outrageous person, frame it as such and whet the audiences’ appetite. Remember Pirate Radio? Right, but done better here and with some purpose. Where those DJs were caricatures in which hijinks had to ensue, Lemmons’ presents us with a sense of urgency, all or nothing. This dynamic does well in introducing Petey’s inner circle, new and old, straight and chased alike.

Consider Ejiofor’s Dewey. No offense intended, but the man plays an excellent Tom; a black man “passing” in the corporate media world. He’s very self-aware of his position, he responsibilities and his “place” within the job. Moreover, his duty to the people is what drives him for the most part. Mostly his people, as if to compensate for striving. And as he strives as the (devil’s) advocate for Petey at WOL, Dewey not so secretly—but subtly enough—wishes he had Petey’s new gig, later almost living vicariously through his loudmouth, ex-con bullhorn but still playing the porch nigga scam to his disgust. Although he cares deeply about getting a message out (as well as crushing the competition), he wants to play it safe and let Petey do the dirty work. Dewey is a seat-of-his-pants wheeler dealer; his motives aren’t really suspect, but the motivation itself might be: does he want WOL to succeed with a fresh, hip, with it new DJ for the people? Or does Dewey need Petey to speak the words he wished he could speak but constrained by his responsibilities? Might make sense considering all the misguided faith Dewey has in Petey, criminal record or no (or one he “wished” he had kept). At first I thought this movie was all about Petey. In the endgame it was really all about Dewey.

I really dug Martin Sheen as WOL’s put upon general manager Sonderling. It might be Sheen’s best role since The West Wing. He may be a hot mess, but he understands what’s at stake if WOL doesn’t evolve with the times. No matter how many times Sonderling calls in security to escort the crude Petey away, he’s always willing to let him back into the booth. You get the feeling the man knows what’s what, but his hands are tied by FCC rules and regs, as well as losing face within the broadcasting community by using a stunt like putting an ex-con and his outspoken, prison-drenched ghetto speak about how f*cked up the nation is. He’s hip to what’s changing in DC, but he doesn’t want to lose his job over saying so. Petey is his avatar, not unlike Dewey if you think about it, so he takes the necessary risk. Sometimes you gotta loose a finger—or some face—to save a hand.

Henson is also a choice actress of mine. Believe it or don’t. But she does have range, and can be very funny without being comical as here with Talk. Despite Petey’s wiseacre style, Vernell is the comic relief, but not so much as to crack wise in turn but pop some bubbles. She was Miss Reality Check. Sure, Henson was brassy, sassy and no fool, but was also the yin to Dewey’s yang for keeping Petey in check and on the ground professionally. Need Petey be reminded how much WOL’s security would love to drag their fresh-faced DJ back to the clink and the brink. If Petey was meant to “tell it like it is” then Vernell was meant to tell Petey what it is, and Henson did so with a streetwise verve.

And now Cheadle’s performance, natch. I’ll try and not gush, but again it sure was fun to watch the man live up to his potential. If you think about it, Cheadle has done a lot of road work in biopics. From portraying Sammy Davis, Jr in The Rat Pack, Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda, and post-Talk Miles Davis for Miles Ahead (BTW, was Talk a dry run for Miles Ahead? Discuss) the guy is seasoned in playing real people as other people. If you think about this, it must be pretty tricky to act as a real figure would rather than what a fictional character would do. You’re trying to pay homage to a real public figure in history; there’s a small but very vocal audience out there waiting for you to f*ck it up or be bound for glory (in that order, always). And f*ck-ups occur with stunning, disappointing regularity in Hollywood biopic output. I mean, for every Talk To Me we have a Wired, inch for inch. Recalling the whole comic book folderol, we sickos kinda wanna see our heroes fail on the big screen. It’s always a big breath-grabbing whew when a filmmaker dodges that bullet. Even with a cult icon like Petey, Cheadle plays it straight, so even the ignorant “gets it.” After all, that was the real Petey’s motivation: for the right folks to get it.

I think I got it pretty good. Beneath the pseudo-rags-to-riches biopic, we have the art of the steal. Namely, who’s conning who and how? Sure, Petey is a miscreant with a mile long rap sheet, but that’s the obvious thing. Radio may be mature and free, but it lies a lot too. Misinforms you. Sways you. Derails your train of thought sometimes. That’s part of the point, but do those on air voices want to just tell ya or sell ya? Here’s a few examples: at the end of the first act, I loved the scene where Petey is “escorted” to the broadcast booth. It’s almost akin to his being let free from prison into another box. Another golden moment was when Petey was “legit” on the air with no heroics (well, maybe for Dewey, all flop sweat). Which one’s real? The first time Petey sat in the WOL chair he REDACTED, despite having another captive audience at his whims. What gives? Is the voice of the people and its delivery all a scam? Who’s conning who in the endgame? Do you hear what you want to hear? Do the broadcasts speak the truth or just feed you? Is Dewey living vicariously through (his idol) Petey? That may go to say sure, regarding the historical fact that Dewey later went on to REDACTED in real life. Is the voice of the people for the people, for the speaker or just an echo chamber. To be blunt, memes originated in the 70s and all social media is an sounding board. Or karaoke night.

Yeah, Talk is a character study, duh. Of course I’m going to cite the acting as vital. However, there is always a flipside. Remember that stereotype thing earlier? Right. Lay some blame at Cedric and Hall’s feet. Those two were wasted opportunity, yo. At first glance, these two characters are representative of the stereotypes Petey likes to rail against. We have suave, soulful playa Nighthawk pimping his word and his persona as a voice of the people, a voice representing their needs and sympathies through music and pillow talk (again, shades of Pirate Radio). In simpler terms, showman and caricature. Hall is the opposite, of the old skool and old guard about what he thinks the people want to hear: dulcet tones of black crooners of yesteryear. Soul fool to ease the soul. More like comfort food, which we know in the end is decidedly not good for you. Two ends Petey is struggling against in the black community, style over substance and vice versa.

It’s a good social theory I feel (sure), but how Hall and Cedric were used just as cyphers was boring. We’re getting slapped around for the first act how vital these two programmers are to the WOL family. How? Nighthawk is a comic book character and Sunny Jim is your grandad, and neither were really convincing as the voice of the left or the right. Sure, it was hinted at, and both are competent character actors, but neither Hall or Cedric really got into character. They just filled time and space to suit the narrative. That and Petey was the center of the story, overarching and vocal, which didn’t give let alone permit Hawk and Sunny to shine. They were eyewash. Maybe ear-wash even. I dunno. Hey, if this was the only real gripe about the flick, consider me charitable.

There’s always the technical part to consider in a period piece like Talk. It covers the mid to late 60s and beyond. Y’all know what that entails: social unrest, bitter race relations, marches on Washington in protest of Vietnam, pot, free love and LBJ. That’s just for starters and not necessarily in that order. The best way to wallpaper rough times such as those is with the pop culture therein. Stuff we the average, in-the-know-thanks-to-social-media-you-tube-crazy-cat-memes 21st Century joes and janes should recall from the recent history books. Stuff like the great costuming and makeup with the film. Can’t forget the soundtrack (IE: Terence Blanchard did the soundtrack. That’s capital Q quality there) rife with James, Sly, the Chambers, the Reverend and Marvin. Use a little nostalgia to make the make the urine of the dirty past go down a little easier. And there is a lot of social commentary to digest. The 1960s were not all peace and love, and least not for non-Anglos. What better place—if only through happenstance—to have Washington be the setting? If Talk is a biopic with a message, where else and time to reflect the neo-tumultuous times in these our Millennial United States? Who do you trust when FoxNews propaganda fuels the fires of racial unrest, when music is more commercial than ever as commodity over expression? When the maturity of radio is sidelined to the proverbial echo chamber? Folks like Petey and his kind are redolent of a voice of the people we so desperately need now. So who’s conning who?

…That was deep (*burp*). Weren’t we talking about some movie?

Said plain, Cheadle delivers the goods with the right director. A patient one, and one who understands what’s at stake balancing entertainment with a message, and not making it some mawkish crusade highlighting the protagonist as some saint. Cheadle’s Petey is decidedly not, nor is he the voice of his people. If he was, he wouldn’t be on the radio. He’d be at the Lincoln Memorial. Instead of an simmering throng he gets a microphone, he gets to be a figure without being seen; his audience never sees an ex-con. Oh sure, he screams he’s a “miscreant” all movie long, but that label doesn’t really befit him. He’s just another cog in the disinformation machine, and that’s as timely as Reddit nowadays, if only for an hour and then forgotten. It’s Cheadle’s Petey’s tough naïveté that’s the appeal, and we always root for an underdog, no matter how disenfranchised or ragged. Lemmons let Cheadle be Cheadle, with patience, and out came a great perforamce that informed the rest of the cast and the message of the movie with minimal bubbles.

The final act runs out of steam, though. I wonder if that was the point. I think so. Being on air takes a lot out of you. I know; I used to try and take a nap after my show, mostly behind the wheel en route to my real job. The final scenes pass in a blur, where Petey REDACTED and his other side of the coin Dewey gets a comeuppance. Like that scene, Talk can get exhausting, and stuff doesn’t always pan out the way it’s planned. The final act illustrates that well. Being a voice in the ether can take its psychic toll; cracking wise and spouting truth can wear the speaker down. It can wear the audience down also, but both always tune back in the next time. We wouldn’t want to miss a possible chance for the right message to be called out and the right ears hear it. If only for a little bit, and not to get conned by doggerel again.

Huh. Covered a lotta kooky ground this time out. Let’s see we have the maturity of radio, the seduction of radio, The Duke, The Admiral, doggerel (can’t believe I had to use that term) and Cheadle—finally—in his element. Hope it added up to some sense, now that we’re all back on board with fresh installments of RIORI. Let’s hope I can keep it on a steady wavelength.

And this I just gotta say: “Don’t touch that dial!”

*rimshot/crushed, hurled beer cans*


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Turn on, tune in, drop by for the flipside. Finally a role worthy of Cheadle’s talents. Oh yeah, support your community radio station, lest Billie Ellish have a fruitful career. Shudder.


Stray Observations…

  • “Wake up, goddammit!”
  • Barring QuestLove, whatever happened to the afro? I’m kinda serious.
  • “Did he jus’ say ‘blue blazes’?”
  • That tune playing in the background of that decisive pool game was “Chinese Checkers” by Booker T & The MGs. Clever. And nine-ball is a lucky man’s game.
  • “Watch your language!”
  • All through the movie this was nagging at me: Dewey sports some cool hair. It’s all about the sideburns, baby.
  • “That white boy he was with…?”
  • Great edit: Vernell’s apartment to Dewey’s door.
  • I’m the people.”
  • Yes, that is the original cut of “Tainted Love” playing. No surprise that it punctuates that key scene. Also clever.
  • “Now we’re even.”
  • Oh God, the riots…left out of the history books. Sheen’s response to Cheadle’s eloquent soliloquy is priceless.
  • “Hey, Dave.”
  • Petey Green: The black Lenny Bruce? Or the proto-Pryor?
  • “Was it free p*ssy day or sumpin’?”
  • Fun fact: director Lemmons played Clarice Starling’s roomie Ardelia in The Silence Of The Lambs.
  • “Do you mean I get a job or what?”

Next Installment…

“I doth decree that thou shall not parody Excalibur, The Sword And The Sorcerer and especially The Princess Bride!”

“As you wish, Your Highness.


 

RIORI Redux: Francis Lawrence’s “I Am Legend” Revisited


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The Players…

Will Smith, with Alice Braga, Dash Mihok, Charlie Tahan and…Abbey.


The Story…

When a contagion spreads across the planet and turns the human race into bloodthirsty mutants, civilization’s last hope for survival lies with scientist Robert Neville, the last normal man on Earth.


The Rant (2013)

Richard Matheson’s writing has never been regarded as “subtle.” In fact, his work has been compared to the literary equivalent of being bashed in the head with a sledgehammer, and this an alleged complement. Then again, there’s nothing really subtle about the concept of being ridden down by an unholy fleet of blood-sucking vampires out to chew your ass, which happens to be attached to the only human left on the planet. Pressure.

For those not in the know, Matheson was a quietly prolific writer of suspense and science fiction; some of his work was translated to many original episodes of the seminal TV series The Twilight Zone. For those in the know, he penned the classics “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,” “The Invaders” and “Third From The Sun” (oh yeah…that guy). Steven Speilberg’s first feature, Duel, was based on the short story of the same name. Several of his novels were adapted for Hollywood also, like Hell House, What Dreams May Come (which won an Oscar), A Stir Of Echoes and, yes, I Am Legend.

That particular novel has been made into a movie four times, including this version as well as the classic adaptations starring the inimitable Vincent Price and that damned dirty ape-hater Charlton Heston. So in long, Matheson’s fantastical work has proven to be quite versatile and malleable for the silver screen, stylized to fit the tastes and times. In short, he’s Stephen King’s favorite author and primary influence. Both say something about earning an audience.

That being said, it begs the question: “Four times?!?” What, they didn’t get it right the first three?

In this our 21st Century, we moviegoers have been bombarded with remakes of classic (and not so classic) movies. Here’s a story: years ago, 2004 into ’05, when I was a practicing alcoholic (I got real good at it too) and had a lot of down time to indulge in whiskey and cinema, I noticed a lot of commercials for new movies that I knew to be remakes. Since I had the time, I decided to keep track of how many films came out that year that were either remakes, reboots or sequels (or even prequels).

I counted 40. I sh*t you not. I double-checked this via the IMDb.

Forty. That’s a lot of laziness on behalf of Hollywood. And a mean way to fleece money off people. I guess the bigwigs figured the majority of moviegoers were either too lazy or too ignorant and wouldn’t bat an eyelash for a retread of a pre-existing film. Americans in general already have miniscule attention spans already; nostalgia is breakfast. Maybe the movie moguls were right. It might explain why I Am Legend is the fourth iteration of this movie whose origins span 40 years into the past. That’s pre-Internet, so what’d you expect?

Wait, wait. I’m not saying all remakes are bad. Some are quite good, like Hitchcock’s second go-round with The Man Who Knew Too Much, John Sturges’ classic western The Magnificent Seven, or even Mark Waters’ much-needed update of Freaky Friday. So before we pass (anymore) judgment, let’s pick apart the latest version of a classic man-versus-vampires epic and see on which side of fence it falls.

This film received some inordinate bits of flack by critics and audiences alike. Mostly directed at Smith. Like I noted in my After Earth dissection, I figure Smith is tiring of the maverick, comical roles he’s made his money on. Audiences seem like they’re not ready for a serious, dour individual like Robert. Like all the characters he’s portrayed most of his career, people would prefer to have Agent Jay or even the Fresh Prince up there on the big screen. But like with Adam Sandler’s constant re-hashing the buffoon roles, occasionally you gotta pull a Punch Drunk Love.

I Am Legend is not your conventional vampire movie. For one, the term “vampire” isn’t mentioned once. The Dark Seekers are not pseudo-romantic, quasi-sexual beings of immortal emulation. They’re f*cking freaks. An abomination to God and Nature. A plague, and the film depicts that as so; swarming rabid things crammed full of viruses. Redolent stinking hordes of shrieking rats preying on anything that bleeds. Have I made my point yet? Right. The Dark Seekers are very rather chilling and quite effective at establishing and maintaining Neville’s solitary nightmare atmosphere.

And poor Bob is stranded alone on Earth with the lot of them. In fact, “stranded” may be the key term that describes the feel of the film. For over an hour into the film, Smith is the only actor, not counting Abbey of course. We walk by his side, we only sees things that he sees, we truly live it all vicariously through Robert Neville and only him. We, as an audience, are stranded with him. Neville’s pathos is so consuming that as the movie progresses, you start to wonder if kind of relishes his solitude; wear it like a badge of pride or as sackcloth and ashes? He was directly responsible for the plague after all. Guilt can be a powerful weapon. So much so that it becomes ever obvious that Neville may be losing his mind. Wouldn’t you?

It’s good that Legend is quickly engaging. Not as in “fast pace.” The movies gets your attention very swiftly, and fails to falter. It has an urgent agendum, and quietly sweeps you up. This happens despite for the first half hour, all we really see is Neville driving through deserted streets of a ruined Manhattan, scrounging for food and sundries (yes, I used the word sundries) and tooling around in his lab. Smith is adopting a stoic, silent type of leading man, letting his actions tell the story. At this he does a fine job. A sort of relatable everyman in a dire circumstance. Him wandering the landscape gently affixes his sense of solitude to the viewer. By the way, how do filmmakers clear the streets like that? I mean, some of it is CGI, but the rest?

Speaking of CGI, I had a real issue (but not a big one) with the digitally rendered…well, everything in Legend. The effects were rather weak. You could almost smell the green screen wafting off the projector. What would be assumed to enhance the ferocity of the Dark Seekers only made them look rubbery and cartoon-like (still, rubbery scary cartoons). I admit I was watching a DVD on an HD television, but I’ve seen lower tech movies and the patchiness didn’t seep through. What the vamps lacked in looks, however, was made up for with screeches. So bravo Dolby.

The only other gripe I had was the film’s resolution. It had sort of a “duh” feeling to it. Considering what kind of man Robert Neville is, one would think he’d come to the proper conclusion light years ago. This would make the film really short though, and not worth the ten bucks admission. So we’ll ignore that as best we can for now.

Legend is very stark film, not unlike Matheson’s fiction. There is very little subtlety involved in the story. Bob’s alone, struggling to retain a sense of normalcy and avoiding the baddies. Not much else to the plot. You don’t really wonder if he’ll get out of this hell, nor do you invest much interest in that. It’s just watching him running errands basically. This was, in fact, the general feel of the novel some critics have said.

There are still very little amenities here. For instance, what attempts as humor here, doesn’t. It’s difficult to tell if it’s intentional or not. Smith has been understood as a comical presence in Hollywood, after all. And as for his acting, it’s some of the best he’s done in years. He’s essentially carrying the movie more or less by himself. He better be good. Again, and I hate to keep hammering on this, Neville’s sense of isolation really fills up the white space here.

Speaking of filling up space, there is next to no soundtrack. Silence—the absence of man-made noises like cars and general hustle and bustle—again creates the feeling of a desolate planet. How could you feel alone with smartphones bleeping everywhere? Like I said, stark.

Overall Legend was a pretty good little slice of cinema. I say little because it was released in the middle of December. Oscar time, not blockbuster time. And since it recouped only (yes, only) $100,000,000 at the box office, you could say it was a loss leader for Smith. Seeing that the original Men In Black movie raked in over $500,000,000, Will might have a long-ass time to go to shed some skin.

I liked Legend. I wouldn’t want to watch it again. For all its stylistic efforts, it lacked that je en sais quai I get from time to time, even from the bad sh*t I am tricked into watching. As I said it wasn’t typical Will Smith fare. Still, it had some merit as far as remakes go. It kept closer to the original source material, but even the tightest scenarists should know that following the book line for line leaves little room for interpretation. All that gooey solitude of the movie that I keep harping on was engrossing, but it did get tedious after a time. Maybe too much alone time with Will Smith’ll do that to you. Then again, the same can be said of Mathson’s stories.


Rant Redux (2019)…

I Am Legend was cut back in the “remake era” of moviedom, whatever that’s supposed to mean. According to some pop culture pundits we’re presently in the “reboot era.” What’s the diff and the point? In the original intro above I groused about the quadrillion remakes of good and not-so-good movies from yesteryear (EG: the 2000s), claiming—perhaps rightly so—Hollywood had gotten lazy, ran out of original ideas or banked on the notion of how Millennial sense of history is so palsied. Might have the hattrick there. In the end run audiences got bored with all the “new boss same as the old boss” folderol and the ticket taker showed exactly that. Despite Legend being one of the better remakes, the cracks were starting to show even then.

Now we have studios rebooting every franchise they can ferret out of the pre-WiFi vault. Probably also hedging their bets on Millennial knowledge of history, with all the world info in their pockets yet can’t work an ancient rotary dial phone. That’s not an insult; they could ask Alexa. You hear what I’m screaming? Right. I’d like to think that Gen X was the last generation that appreciates nostalgia. One doesn’t need nostalgia now; we have Facebook et al. Not a swipe, it’s true. That and most Millennials are so very forward-thinking, not ones to dwell on things left undone. There’s work to be done, achievements to reach, goals to scratch off the great To Do List of life. Who has time for longing after that year old memory? We have new ones to make!

Okay. Sorry. That’s as schmaltzy as I’m ever gonna get. Here.

So what does all that mean with this rebooting trend? Hollywood is trolling the Millennials. There were a lot of cool-ass movies series back in the ancient 80s and 90s (and 00s. Sigh). Let’s dress them up in some flash togs and market them to the forward-thinking brats and introduce the (market) value of nostalgia for stuff they never knew. Or wanted to. Or needed to. Do we really need another Bill & Ted sequel?

Sure. Rebooting isn’t necessarily a bad thing nor a cash cow. Picking up where we last left off is common in other media. Like when a rock group decides to reunite and tour. Or some spin-off of a popular TV series (EG: Cheers begat Fraiser, the many Star Trek series and the prequel Young Sheldon from Big Bang. Okay, two outta three ain’t bad). Or when some writer brings back a popular character for a new novel, like Jack Ryan, Lestat or every-bloody character from Kurt Vonnegut’s body of work. Jump-starting that rusted engine now and again allows the next generation of talent to see if their dog will hunt as Big Cinema crosses its arthritic fingers.

Rebooting, remaking, whatever. Hollywood is a business, commerce, trafficking in entertainment. At its core, like all bottom lines, Hollywood wants to make money, not art. If a film becomes “art” it does so by no means attached to the studios’ mission statements. A fine example is the classic Casablanca. No one intended it to be a classic, endlessly quotable, ideal ensemble piece during its production. No. Michael Curtiz was interested Howard Koch and friends’ concept of a film version of the play Everybody Comes To Rick’s. Only after the word-of-mouth, quotable quotes and ensuing awards, boom: classic. The film was made under the old studio system, so free press and agency were no-gos, not to mention the scalding absence of social media. Meaning: nope, Curtiz and company just had a job to, and the film itself was riddled with production problems and budgetary concerns despite being the nice, neat romantic triangle movie under the now standard 100 minutes long.

BTW: Trivia! Casablanca is the most quoted movie in Hollywood history. So here’s looking at you.

All that being said, remakes and its red-headed stepchild reboots can be a good thing. It all depends on the context and construct. Those two factors carry a lot of weight, especially when the movie in question is based on pre-exisiting media, like Legend was. Like with sequels, remakes and reboots have to demand: “Well, is there more of the story to tell? What can be added? What can be excised? Will it make money? Could you get off Instagram for one darn minute, Mr Producer?”

Re-whatever is a good thing if they can enhance a movie’s legacy. It’s hard to determine that if the continuous iterations fumble with the atmosphere of the originals against the story’s original potency, which invites future interpretations. Also what counts as a “re?” Consider all the adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. How many times has Romeo And Juliet been spun? We have from the definitive Zeffirelli version to the hip, 90s take with Leo DiCaprio and Claire Daines in their respective, titular roles. How about master Japanese director Akira Kurosawa plundering the Bard’s catalogue with samurai infused films like Throne Of Blood and Ran? Or even George Lucas plundering Kurosawa’s oeuvre gaffing-taping the plot of 1958’s The Hidden Fortress onto Star Wars: A New Hope? Christ, even the original Die Hard was ripped from a pedestrian novel.

Did all this creative theft prove right? Yes, if any of the above movies seem salient. Like way above, Legend was made into a movie four times over. I guess the story lent to fresher interpretations, and most of them were entertaining and made money. Unfortunately that’s the bitter bottom line, but occasionally those dollars made meant something. I did not intend for this revision to become a relatively even-handed screed about the pros and cons of re-anything, but the nature of Legend‘s being done again again lent some credence. I’d like to think so.

Oh, and as a coda: It was good to see Smith stretching himself by performing a one-man show, a la Tom Hanks in Castaway. That was the best part about the movie. If I Am Legend gets another do-over (I think it will), leave in all that solitude business. It kinda reminds me of myself carrying on this way to precious no one.

Hello? Wait, was it something I said? Come back, Shane!

(That last line was totally lost on the Millennials, despite its riffs in endless memes.)


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: rent it. We all need an awkwardly moody vampire/character study now and again.


Epilogue…

Well, that’s it, friends. Sanded off the rough edges of my early entries. Feels good to know after revisiting them I didn’t come across as a vomiting demon most of the time. Mostly. I suppose more barf may come up in future installments. Thanks to the evil social media I’ve learned my bile has become a stock-in-trade. I guess thanks are in order. You’re welcome.

So now it’s off to fertile fields. New territory. Gerard Butler to put in place. Business as usual. Hope you stay tuned. Excelsior!


Next Installment…

My man Don Cheadle is ex-con-turned-DJ Ralph “Petey” Green demanding his audience to Talk To Me so he may face the consequences.


RIORI Redux: Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid And The Whale” Revisited


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The Players…

Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Klein, with Stephen Baldwin.


The Story…

This is a story with an insightful look at the crumbling marriage between a self-centered novelist (whose career is on the wane) and his up-and-coming writer wife. In the meantime, the warring couple’s two sons get caught in the crossfire, which is where, as always, things get complicated.


The Rant (2014)

Here’s a new one for you. A film that did quite well at the box office (its production budget of a mere $1.5 million yielded over $7 million domestic total gross), received rave reviews, sported an excellent cast…and no one has ever heard of it.

Ooooo. Chills, right?

What is it about indie films that get people’s hackles up? A great deal of the public’s perceptions is that indie films can be artsy-fartsy, pretentious, twee vanity projects aimed a very narrow audience of either highbrow snobs or annoying hipsters that disdain anything considered “mainstream.” Which is rather appropriate considering these are the types of characters that inhabit the world of The Squid And The Whale.

The above claim is not without merit. A great many of indie films earn those epithets. But I don’t think Squid is one of them. I don’t think so. Although this is indeed an indie film, it isn’t in any immediate danger of being considered darling.

This movie is decidedly a character study, and both Daniels and Linney are two of my fave character actors. They tend to pop up in films that often place them in roles against type, whatever that may be. These types happen to be a couple who are so unhealthy for one other you cannot possibly pick a side. Unlike their kids.

Once upon a time in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in the mid-80’s…

There are some movies you can dislike, but not exactly hate. Something tells me that this is often a side-effect of a lot of indie films, especially comedy-dramas like Squid. They get wrapped up in their needs to be left of center in their execution that sometimes it just leaves a bad taste. I’m really diffident about Squid. I mean, it was a fine film. There was a lot more to love than hate. But still, there were these conventions in place that, although I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, seemed trite and frankly frustrating. Then again, some were plain as day.

The good first, and there is much of it. Daniel steals the show as Bernard, so full of himself, all his intellect just a suit of emotional armor that over the years has developed quite a few chinks. His pontificating on…well, everything is both hilarious and enervating. I think we’ve all known someone like Bernard in our lives (I know I have; it’s me). The kids are amazing actors too. Walt is trying so hard to imitate/please his father he comes across as subtly confused for the first two acts of the film. You don’t know if his whole personality is wrapped up in emulating his father or just placating his ego. And Frank is so oddly steely yet innocent you can’t really pity his young person for how he handles (or doesn’t handle) his family’s breakup. When you can’t pity a wide-eyed, adorable moppet, that’s good acting.

The performances are all cringe worthy, which makes them all the more relatable. This is a good thing. Really, I was wincing with almost every scene of the picture, tantalizingly aware of every nuance and pointed barb. Everything Bernard says made my eyes roll…or cringe. With Bernard, rarely has rationalizing sound so…so reasonable. And yet so cutting you want to smack him in the puss with a dead salmon.

A lot of the acting is done here with the eyes. Every member of the Berkman clan has a signature gaze that conveys their personalities very well. Bernard is remote, Joan is maudlin, Walt is indignant and Frank is…intoxicated. It’s like the four seasons, and this dynamic makes for an engaging series of purchases to hang on to. Walt’s pleading look especially. It’s a defiant front to anything that might put his father in a displeasing light, even if he sees it himself. His self-righteous and fragile fury is frustratingly simple to taste, and he justifies his attitude as a cracked mirrior image of Bernard. Walt takes several social liberties with the cloak of mock maturity. To put it plainly, the Berkman’s are not really Floyd fans.

And now the rougher stuff, and there is much of it. There is next to no chemistry at all between Bernard and Joan. Maybe this makes for an ideal portrait of divorce, but it’s overly antagonistic for cinema. You don’t really root for these two to get back together, but a part of you kind of wishes it. At least that’s the Hollywood conceit. This dynamic may or may not be considered brilliant by most audiences, but I found it a tad confusing. The film, to me, was more about the kids.

Speaking of Joan, I expected Linney to play more of a role here in Squid. Most of the time she seemed relegated to the side in favor of Daniels’ screen time. Again, maybe this was another metaphor; Bernard’s ego so inflated it pushed Joan out of the picture, figuratively and literally. If this were the case, a very clever metaphor. If not, maybe Daniels was counting lines. At any rate, Linney seemed wobbly enough to pitch over at any given moment. I guess she was the allegorical squid here.

The tennis/ping-pong as metaphor for the kids interacting with their quarreling parents is a not so subtle message. In fact it’s rather on the nose, and possibly insulting to less lenient filmgoers. This beat was hit upon time and time again, until the driving force was dried up, as well as a bunch of other bits here and there that were delivered a tad predictably. Also, on another hand (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) quite a few “ewww” moments in this movie I just didn’t expect. I’m not sure if there were done for graphic effect or just to set the audience off-kilter.

I don’t know if all the carps I’ve listed here either amount to great cinema storytelling or a ball of confusion. Maybe that’s what Baumbach was trying to convey, and how fragile relationships can be. Or maybe it’s another indie mindf*ck that one comes to expect with these kinds of films. On the whole, Squid was supremely acted at its core (which matters most in a character study), surrounded by a sticky coating of indie trappings not easily palatable by hipster or mainstream audiences alike.

Damned hipsters. Those cold, evil hipsters…


Rant Redux (2019)…

Nope. Got this one, too. Another lucky shot. Also, it seemed years ago when I got a little more specific in what made a movie mediocre or not according to the Standard it actually made sense. Heard that stuff’s called constructive criticism, and my 11th grade English teacher was right. Dang it.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: rent it. A very keen character study of divorce in revolt. That’s the best way I can describe Squid, and it’s a compliment.


Next Installment…

It’s the final revision of RIORI‘s first volume of posts, featuring Will Smith as “vampire” slayer in I Am Legend. After this chapters closes, we’ll get on to some new stuff.

You have been warned.


 

RIORI Redux: M Night Shyamalan’s “After Earth” Revisited



The Players…

Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Zoe Kravitz and Sophie Okonedo.


The Story…

A thousand years in the future, Earth has been abandoned, its populace fleeing environmental degradation. Humanity sets up shop elsewhere, its home world forbidden and eventually all but forgotten. However because of a disastrous interstellar voyage, one General Cypher Raige and his young son, Kitai, are forced to crash-land on the long-abandoned, desolate Earth. Now alone and with his father gravely injured, Kitai must set out to find a rescue beacon that hopefully will save them from their cradle’s hostile, if not vengeful ecosystem.


The Rant (2013)

Another M Night Shyalaman movie?

Yes, another M Night Shyalaman movie. He is of ill repute lately, and his latest effort is no different in reflection. His hottest feature (this one) already has a notorious reputation for being a cataclysmic stink bomb at the multiplex. A failed summer blockbuster if there ever was one. Critics lacerated it. It grossed domestically only a fraction of its budgetary costs (but to be fair, it did recoup a lot overseas). It starred the once unimpeachable Will Smith, king of the summer blockbuster for over a decade, whose rep has now been inextricably damaged. Oh, by the way, it also co-stars his kid! Boo! Hiss! Piss on the screen!

Christ, the masses are a capricious bunch, aren’t we? It’s just a damned movie, after all.

First mistake: perceiving After Earth as is a sci-fi film.

Second mistake: modestly intelligent fans still address the genre as “sci-fi.” We don’t get no tornadoes made of sharks here in science fiction town. Really. No. I always preferred the genre designated as what writer Harlan Ellison termed “speculative fiction.” Stuff than could only exist in your imagination alone until it was time to be borne. Contemporary societal tropes shrouded with the allegory of the fantastic. That kinda stuff. There is, nowadays, very little “science” in science fiction. I doubt since the heady days of Jules Verne there has been much overt science in science-fiction at all, and that was over a century ago. Again, no. In the simpler terms of Ellison: If you like peanuts, you’ll love Sci-Fi!

Third mistake: perceiving this was meant to be a summer movie. After watching Earth, it has the aroma of a very late fall release, shrouded in falling leaves and freed from the farts and darts that we’ve all grown accustomed and/or numbed to during the summer popcorn releases. After Earth has little popcorn going for it. Also, it’s the first true leap Night has made into the spec-fic genre.

And that, curiously enough, is a good thing.

This movie is a film about the dynamics between a father and his son. Granted, it’s 1,000 years into the future, but I guess it’s safe to assume that such relations haven’t evolved too much from present times. I guess the only real diff is the current applications of clubs and flint. Anyway, families are alike all over.

I, like many ‘Mericans, enjoy the blockbusters Will Smith has hosted. Men In Black, Independence Day, Bad Boys, you get the idea. As of late, Will has been either dodging the summer spotlight or…oh, let’s face it. He wants to choose his own roles. Hell, he’s made his bones. Us duffers from Gen X remember him as either “The Fresh Prince Of Bell Air” or of one half of DJ Jazzy Jeff and…you (might) get the idea.

Here’s this idea: Will Smith since entering cinema has always been a reliable source of charisma, audacity, and humor we’ve come to expect from a  21st Century film icon. Heretofore is a pleasant way to say you’ve been typecast. Like Leonard Nimoy (who directed a fair amount of reputable movies non-Trek related in the 80’s) as Mr. Spock, Smith is trying to shed his skin. And at the same time, striving to have his cake and…well, you know the drill Agent K (look here please)…huh?

Now the Fresh Prince has a son. And here’s the f*cked up thing about it: he’s a more interesting actor than his dad. You know, the multi-millionaire cinema icon dad former fresh prince dad. A well-adjusted 16-year old (at the time of this screed) son whose following in his dad’s footsteps. And a better, more convincing actor than his well-heeled dad has become.

You get it: I think Jaden Smith is a more engaging actor than Pops. Wanna know why? Earnestness. Every Will Smith movie stinks of bravado. Like the coffee pot that has set on the burner way too long into the morning and ignites a redolent smell of TP that has overspent its taint? Poor Will has had to live up to iconic status that, frankly, I don’t think he wanted in the first place. I’d like to imagine that the guy just wanted to try acting (and let’s facts. Every time Will tries to escape the predictable dumb comedy trope he inadvertently makes a profit. Must be stultifying).

Young Jaden, unhampered by typecasting, has carved out a much more eclectic niche than his rich-beyond-compare dad. I’ve seen the films tucked under Jaden’s belt. The remake of The Karate Kid was pretty good. The Pursuit of Happyness wasn’t bad (it co-starred his dad too.) And you wanna known what? There’s a reason why I credited the prime cast as I did (well, such as it was. There were less than at least eight humans I saw. And none of them Night. Looks like he saw my corollary). Jaden carried the film. And very well I might add. I found he conveyed appropriate emotion scene for scene better than his big-ticket dad (whom I’ve never seen act so damned stern before. The usual Big Willie charisma has all but vanished here).

As for the technical flourishes that are always evident in Night’s movies, After Earth was not for wanting. The sets and locations were nothing less than beautiful. The cinematography was exceptional. The film had an excellent score, courtesy of James Newton Howard (he makes the music to all of Night’s movies). And again CGI was used tastefully, not with splash and dash to make a lot of noise. On the contrary, After Earth is never a loud movie. It’s restrained and patient. It takes its time. This is probably why it failed as a summer movie. Too reserved. Or whatever expectations audiences have of Night’s movies, this failed too. This was the most linear, straight-forward tale Night has spun yet. Based in the traditional coming-of-age story and the dynamic of father/son bonding, Night cranked out a very simple, very affecting movie. I think toning down his alleged filmmaking monomania has done Night some good here.

Another element that is always present in Night’s movies and is not lost here is the idea of family. Every film the man has made revolves around the ties that bind, especially in Unbreakable and Signs. After Earth is no exception, and has been distilled down to the very basic element of family: parent and child, one caring for the other. It’s a simple dynamic, but an effective one, and I believe that if we didn’t have the prime cast consist of actual real-life father and son, the movie would not have worked. Most claim the film already didn’t work. Then again, it was summertime, people have expectations and the fact it was a Shyalaman film, there were also preconceived notions about what they were getting into. I guess this movie could remind us all of the immortal words of Flava Flav: don’t believe the hype.

To wrap it up, I have become slowly but surely aware of what I have been smearing all and up down Facebook between and betwixt my “friends” and what I regard as my local family of fleshoids (I enjoy Futurama), that I have since become somewhat of a fixture here. When I openly announced that I was gonna watch After Earth, the groans and screams were nothing less than satanically shrill. Anyways and simply put, audience screaming doesn’t make for a proper critique, especially if it’s the wrong time of year.


Rant Redux (2019)

Admittedly I have been rewatching some of these old films to get perspective on what I was trying to do back in 2013. Although I was drunk most of the time to endure some of the schlock, I think it’s fair to say that even professional movie critics need to watch a certain film more than once to have a solid opinion. Granted along come milestones like The Godfather, GoodFellas, Silence Of The Lambs, Annie Hall and others that require no further examination to decide they are great films. Sometimes, we have curiosities that need to percolate over the years for a proper verdict to be decided. Blade Runner, Night Of The Living Dead, They Live, 2001: A Space Odyessy, Die Hard and other possible cultish movies that just needed to steep awhile in the collective dark, deep teapot of the soul.

(Some good BS there, eh?)

Boink. After Earth is not one of those movies. By no means an outright bad flick, but we’ve all seen its like before. That being said, it seemed so has Night.

Pedestrian, formulaic and almost totally linear, Earth is a retread of a million S/F survival films and death is always a rude neighbor with endless kegs and a DJ that always spins Oakenfold spinning Oakenfold. And they never invite you over. Yeah, you’ve been here…there before.

I also believe this movie tanked because it sure as sh*t did not feel like a Night film at all. Suspense and utter weirdness has been the director’s stock in trade all his career. But sci-fi? Uh-uh. The difficultly in shooting a decent S/F movie is to bow to the will of interior logic and don’t apply a lot of deus ex machina or purport the future setting is indeed in the future. The best S/F films are loaded with social commentary and the human factor (EG: the original Planet Of The Apes, the aformentioned 2001Blade Runner, The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Matrix, etc), not gee-whiz-bucky-gizmo-Flash Gordon hyperbole. Okay, so the first Matrix movie had some of that, but the plot was classy and made you think.

That, to whit, is was makes S/F a genre special. Of course all movies may make you think, but science fiction must make you think in order to appreciate it. I suppose its why most Star Wars adherents declare that their pet saga is more fantasy than sci-fi. I can agree, and me being a Trekkie I dig the social commentary angle rather than the fantastic. Sorry. The rules of creating a decent S/F must be concrete.

Earth is abstract, propelled by a very generic plot device (EG: fathers and sons, fathers and sons…), technobabble, a lot of CGI hoopla, and nothing subtle for you to mull over. And the sick, sad part of it all is that Earth rolled out like Night was so original and clever delivering this pseudo-morality tale of family, redemption and forgiveness. It sure as sh*t has been done before many times. Ever see the original Star Wars trilogy? Yep.

There are two things about Earth that I did respect (and only two. Everything else was padding, fluff and afterthought) was the examination of solitude and enjoying the dynamics of an acting family working together. Consider other movies where parents and kids (and sometimes even elder generations) collaborate. On Golden Pond with its sentimental brittleness between Dad Henry and daughter Jane Fonda. Or the sheer goofiness (intentional or otherwise) of Kirk, Michael and Cam Douglas in the cheekily titled It Runs In The Family. Or heck, even the Murray family with Bill, Joel, John and Brian Doyle crossing paths in all sorts of media. It can be a real treat to watch how family collides with work when it comes to making movies; you can see where the lines blur. Smear would be a better term with Earth. Cypher and Kitan are as oil and water as you could get, yet a keen eye can tell Will Smith is really keen on working with his son on a movie. Perhaps that real-life bond softened the blow of a rather trite film. Call me a romantic.

Or just call me a dad who’s proud of his kid when she shows earnest creativity. At least more earnest than what Night tried here.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Overruled: a mild relent it. Despite its flaws, the two factors I spoke of are interesting as they were played out. The rest? Meh, with a capital meh.


Even More Stray Observations…

  • Always always always wear your seat belt. Always.
  • Towards the beginning of act two: was that a scrunt?
  • “Put my damned cutlass away!”
  • Back in the days of old school anthology TV series (EG: The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, etc) certain episodes concocted an impetus to a story was some blah monster or a herd of alleged monsters. Such monster plot devices were dubbed “the bear.” In Earth the Raige’s have to best a nasty creature called an “ursa” hunting them. Night is a known Zone enthusiast, and you need to brush up on your Latin.
  • “Without knowing how to be alone, we cannot know how to be with others and sustain the necessary autonomy.” – bell hooks

Next Installment…

Ahoy! A quick trip back to the museum to see The Squid And The Whale square off again, starring that chick from Ozark and Atticus Finch.


 

RIORI Redux: M Night Shyalaman’s “Lady In The Water” Revisited


Image


The Players…

Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeffery Wright, Cindy Cheung, Sarita Choudhury and Bob Balaban, with Jared Harris, Bill Irwin, Mary Beth Hurt and…M Night Shyalaman (jeez).


The Story…

Nothing much ever happens at Cleveland’s apartment complex, his home and his work. Endless days consist of fixing leaky pipes and skimming out the pool. Sure, it’s a living, a simple existence and Cleveland wouldn’t really want it another way. Sort of. So when a water nymph pops up in said pool one night and tells him her desperate tale of escape and peril, his simple world is totally upended. To say the least.

Wait. What?


The Rant (2013)

Poor Night. After being slathered with praise for his Oscar-nominated opus The Sixth Sense, he just hasn’t been able to make lightening strike twice. Don’t get me wrong, his follow-ups Unbreakable, Signs, and to a lesser extent The Village were all fine films. But audiences are a fickle bunch. They want the goodies delivered twice, thrice and over and over again. Some directors can do this effortlessly with no question (Spielberg) regardless of whatever pap they churn out (Always, Hook, Jurassic Park 2 etc). But not poor Night, seemingly always living in a private hell of his own making, shadowed by ghosts and a psychic Haley Joel Osment.

Whilst The Sixth Sense was more or less a high concept Twilight Zone episode, Lady In The Water plays kinda on a fairy tale Night cooked up for his kids. How’s that for a healthy ego? Pretty damned good considering the literal ghosts at his back. F*ck the critics, I’m gonna base my next failure—ahem—feature on this!

Bad idea, dad

The circumstances described at butt end of the synopsis is usually when Night’s movies come off the tracks. Lady is no exception. I know it’s early in the film, but the sh*t gets really weird really quick, and not in a fun way, either.

I’ve found that with Night’s better films, the weirdness is creeping, not like being slapped in the puss with a dead haddock, all slimy and smelly. It’s called building tension, if not atmosphere. Sure, we can be dropped into the thick of it in, say, action movies. But with fantasies like Lady, we need a slow climb with some significant backstory. Since fantasy and its cousin sci-fi work in worlds of their own separate  from conventional drama and comedy, we need a steady climb in such a film from the mundane to the fantastic. Within context, of course.

(The following malarky is loaded with spoilers.)

A good example? The twin intros of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I say “twin” because the opening with the proto-humans struggles to survive and the eventual arrival of the Monolith then paired expertly executes backstory that will only reach fruition within context later in the film.

Millions of years later we have the metaphorical jump cut leading into the heralded, ballet-esque docking sequence between the shuttle and the space station, which serves as the second intro. In Kubrick’s version of 1999, space travel has become so routine that the miracle of tech doesn’t even touch Dr. Floyd or his companions imaginations. Being on their ISS is just work. It takes 20 more minutes of keen exposition until sh*t gets weird, and by that point in the film Kubrick has laid the groundwork for the proceeding sci-fi mystery.

(Spoiler alert over. You may now return your stewardess to her upright position.)

In sum, Night, you just can’t drop weird out of the sky and expect us to just roll along with it. Especially when you continue to lay on the weird all rich and thick-like. Both the audience and the cast can’t digest/process it very well.

Speaking of casting, I love Paul Giamatti, but it’s a plutonic relationship (he never returns my calls anyway). He’s far and away my favorite character actor. His work is almost always delightful, humorous and often separate from the film he’s in. He always gives it his all, regardless of the pap smear he’s gotten himself shackled into. This takes chutzpah. It takes a lot of gumption as an actor to throw yourself into a role for a film with a lot of rusty gears grinding against it. You gotta respect that. Especially if the actor is the only redeemable facet of the film.

Like I said earlier, Night conceived this movie on the basis of a story he made up for his children. Now, just because a tall tale enthralls young ears at home does not mean it will gain traction outside the house, especially considering the multiplex. I looked up the disparity of budget versus gross for Lady. Production budget, $70 million. Domestic total gross, a little over $42 million. Ouch. Even taking in the worldwide gross, this movie took in only a little over $2 million profit. That’s the price of certain actors’ trailers. In other words, a pittance. Even simpler: dud.

For all its canny flourishes, solid acting and outstanding cinematography, Lady is (if you’ll pardon the pun) dead in the water. And the funny thing is I had high hopes for this movie. The premise is just so mysterious and wonky, it had to provide some crazy fantasy elements to tickle the mind. Plus it stars Paul Giamatti! And Bryce Dallas Howard is naked! It’s something I wanted to recommend to others with great enthusiasm!

What went wrong?

Well first things first, I’d like to say (and he probably would, too) that M. Night Shyalaman is the Hitchcock of the supernatural film. That’s a fair comparison I think, if you consider The Master’s mid-period films of the Fifties. Night employs a lot of deliberate camera angles, centering elements of the scene to either drop hints about future plot points or to frame the actors (a good example of this in action is Hitchcock’s classic, Rear Window). There are always elements of mystery in his films, paranormal or otherwise. And he always likes to make a cameo in each of his works. Or co-star, as it would appear in Lady. Nope, it wasn’t enough Night made a big budget movie based on a kiddie story, but he had to contribute large chunks of dialogue and plot progression as well. This sort of hubris might’ve offended a certain portion of the movie going audience. The phrase, “Who does he think he is?” seems apt. Just cuz it worked for Hitch, well, you know (that and Alfred never uttered a syllable of dialogue in his films. Smart).

Now don’t get me wrong on that paltry matter. Lady is superbly, well, filmed. It’s crisp and clean. The CGI is an accent, not filler. And the acting by the cast (save Night) is well done. It’s the damned plot that’s hair-brained. This film is so f*cking obtuse. It commits another cardinal sin in my book about bad films: it fails to maintain its interior logic. I know it’s a fantasy film, but watching the story progress is like watching someone patch up a leaking dam. There are corners cut to cram in each element of Night’s supposed fairy tale, seemingly shoehorned into being for the sake of…what? His vision? His kids’ expectations? The fact the audience would lap it up like so much melting ice cream?

Examples: Like all of Night’s films, there is that pervasive weirdness. It oozes from every pore of every frame. It usually works. But not weirdness for its own sake. Like I said, pieces of the story are introduced suddenly, thrown against the wall and maybe they’ll stick and forgotten to only later take up a different tack in the movie. Also, it’s odd (to say the least) how everyone in Cleveland’s apartment complex easily, unquestioningly goes along with Story’s, well, story in trying to make the fable come to life. Is it because Night’s moral of the movie is to say that some fantastic stories should be true? It’s as subtle as a fart at a funeral here. Way too much exposition takes up the second act, mostly consisting of a lot of mumbo-jumbo to allegedly push the fractured plot ever onward. If you’re paying attention, it becomes headache inducing. Again I say: hubris.

Lady In The Water is a waste of a good idea. In execution, it was a shambles. I think we might need more fantasy films at the box office nowadays. True escapism. And based on something else besides Tolkien. Small praise for Night in trying to fill this void, but he tried in a very clumsy fashion. Too bad.


Rant Redux (2019)…

As I update this installment, it’s only fair to note that Night’s films have had a renaissance of sorts over the past few films slowly sliding our of the murky haze of hubris-created schlock and getting on with it then; plots playing out like a malign version of The Twilight Zone where host Rod Serling was replaced by Screaming’ Jay Hawkins. Who remains dead the whole time yet can still sing. In simpler terms, the man’s work is earnestly creepy again, but he’s taking baby steps, keeping the cards against his chest. Better than no steps at all, right? Or knowing when to fold ’em.

I’ll quit the cheesy music metaphors now. Breathe easier.

So yeah, Night has been trying his darndest to stay off the glue and put a spell on us again. Everyone likes a comeback story, especially when it’s a comeback against insurmountable odds. Like your own ego and hubris, which ran riot all over Lady‘s production. However upon review Lady was a muddled mess, but it was an interesting muddled mess. Night was really reaching for something, but damned if I could figure out what.

The only lead I had into Night’s fever dream was that Lady was intended to be a “bedtime story for grown-ups.” Yes the story was concocted and adapted to screen by a bedtime fantasy he spun for his kids, but do we so-called adults really have a need for PG-13 rated Goodnight Moon? Night answered this in an affirmative affirmative. I only wished he was on massive hillocks of blow to justify this very interesting mess. And BTW, do his kids sleep well?

Lady was the penultimate tipping point for Night’s fall from grace. Crawling up one’s ass is a surefire way to alienate an audience. That screams the director in question forgot there’s an audience out there to consider. Since Night is more or less a mainstream cult director, when you dismiss your core fanbase you cut yourself off at the knees, Oscar nom regardless. I’d like to believe that the quiet lies the locusts told Night during Lady whispered, “You have almost lost the plot.” After came The Happening (the aforementioned implied ultimate nadir) and the sky fell in. And even after further mediocrity, Night readjusted his watch and said to himself, “Reel it in some, sport.”

I’d like to think, like to, that Lady was a red light implanted in his field of vision that planted the seed of doubt. Sure, this film is interesting, and stars Giamatti (EG: agent fired) and there’s a lot of mood. To quote Gertrude Stein: “There’s no there, there.” Lady was all artifice, and seriously that pissed off your fans who sided with you even through The Village.

Reeling it in, Lady wasn’t as off-putting the second time around. Sure, it still stunk, but upon a second spin it permitted a bit more perspective. I’ve often found rewatching Nights films always have deliberate Easter eggs to indirectly shove the story along…

…I hate to do this, but I’m going to have to resort to spoilers now, if only to make my point. And I do have one. For the lot of y’all who refuse to look behind the curtain avert your eyes and don’t think of a purple elephant…

Night drops a lot of hints in his movies, kind of like the “Hidden Pictures” feature in Highlights For Children (the most popular feature, BTW and don’t ask me how I know that. Maybe because I’ve been to the dentist). Anyone with a sharp eye may spot lots of “the hell?” moments in Night’s universe.

For example:

  • The color red indicating contrivance and/or deception in The Sixth Sense.
  • David Dunn in his shadowy poncho, cowl to cape in the train station testing his “powers” in Unbreakable.
  • The screaming inconsistencies about the alien invasion in Signs designed to fool everyone.

That last one is my favorite. Night misled us good big time with Signs. You’ve heard the clamor: “Why would aliens invade a planet that’s 80 percent water even thought the stuff’s toxic to them?” “Where’s the alien tech, like UFOs and anal probes?” “They have trouble with doors?”

All valid questions and massive plot holes with Signs…if you thought the movie was about an alien invasion (another spoiler: it wasn’t). In actuality Signs was about a demonic invasion.

The idea gained some traction over the movie sites, and the more one peeled away the onion, the more “huh” folks got. An article in The Imaginative Conservative (of all places) dissected Signs in such a convincing way that all of them plot holes are not plot holes but plot hints. In Night’s traditional style. So now, go ahead. Hit the link and read up. I’ll wait.

See? Sometimes knowledge creeps forth from some strange cross-wiring. Go fig.

Anyway, maybe there were connections missed with Lady. I missed them the first time out, as did most of bewildered America. In short, Lady was the most intractable movie Night ever made. As executed, it was spot on. And that’s it. Lady never seems to go anywhere, but the trip it takes you on is nothing less than interesting. That makes no sense, of course, but it follows in line with the yarn Night tries to spin: bedtime stories only exist to lull the listener into sleep. A haze. A fugue state. A torpor. To a place where you just give up. You submit. I’m still unsure if that was Night’s muse, but that was the overall effect on me. Just go with it, hope upon hoping it all makes sense, that there’s some reward. Like a good night’s rest. A satori, even.

Lady is a coherent mess. I’ll explain that: recalling what I spoke about in the Skyline installment regarding “interior logic” in movie making, Lady has all its ducks in the pond. The fantasy element is pretty wonky, can’t deny that, but Story’s story follows the rules. Within the context of the movie all makes sense. However (and this is a big however, hence the italics and parenthetical reference), Night’s delivery is f*cking redolent with ego, hubris and an incessant urging, pleading to the audience puh-leeze go along with this. It’s important. More important than hydrophobic fiends running riot, dammit!

We get it. We get it. Fantasy is important. It’s what imagination is made of. We don’t need Night’s ham-fisted direction (and story. And production. And acting) to remind us denizens of the Apple logo society. There’s no substance, no vitality, no sense of urgency a film like this deserves. Its delivery is cloying, its tension is weak and its acting is wooden. Yet it still is interesting. Interesting inasmuch as you cannot ignore the potential Lady is striving for. It’s sense of wonder is almost there, and you root for that to bloom, but it keeps fizzling out over and over again. This dynamic reminded me of how the stereotypical punk dresses to impress…almost. Spiky hair? Check. Leather studded jacket? Check. Sneer? Check. Footwear…Doc Marten’s? Nope, loafers. Oops! You were this close. Now let’s go slam into things at the Rancid gig.

Let’s hope this renaissance of Night’s movies keeps a-rollin’ and let Lady be his only albatross. It really sucks when a genuinely interesting film misses the mark, like here. Wasted potential. Crap. I’ll stand by my original verdict…


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: relent it. Simply put, Lady was a letdown. Still.


Some More Stray Observations…

  • “Put my mom on!”
  • Never have I ever seen Giamatti embarrass himself with such beauty.
  • “Is there anything further I can assist you with during my naptime?” Two days detention.
  • I think I realize I’ve been nurturing a man-crush on Wright.
  • “I’m 13B.” Is there such a thing as being anti-smug? Because I think Balaban nailed it.
  • Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Ask Joey.
  • “You have to believe that all this makes sense somehow.” Amen to that.
  • This was the first installment ever to have off-site links. I’ll fix the other pages. Promise, I guess.

Next Installment…

We reunite with Night again…again. The family Smith jaunts afar After Earth and we’ll be there for the return voyage. Again.

Again.

(Why didn’t I launch a mediocre, silly cat blog instead?)


 

RIORI Redux: Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” Revisited

 



The Players…

Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Ron Perlman and Charlie Day with Burn Gorman, Max Martini and Rob Kazinsky.


The Story…

Earth’s under attack! It’s an alien invasion! Scramble the jets!

Wait. Don’t look to the skies. These fiends are rising from the depths!

A dimensional rift has opened up from beneath the Pacific Ocean, and huge, horrible monsters are emerging and laying waste to our cities! Humanity is under attack! We’re all doomed!

Or are we?

It’s time to call in the elite battalion of battling robots to thrash these beasts hell-bent on destroying the planet.

We must summon the Jaeger Corps!

(I love anime.)


The Rant…

When I started these posts this summer past (What would one call these posts anyway? It’s not traditional Facebook fodder, and it’s not really a weblog either. Weblogs usually require an outside provider. Facebook was available. Guess we’ll call this thing of mine a Faceblog. How’s that? No? Tough.), it was kinda at the behest of a former co-worker (Jordan. You know who you are). We got to talking one slow evening about movies that were more or less “misunderstood.” Did lousy at the box office. Bad rep. Plagued by rumor. Stuff like that. That was the criteria under which The Standard was established. Now, another unmentioned point of order following a pattern for The Standard: The movie must’ve been made in the 21st Century. 2000 to present (I know the new millennium didn’t start until 2001. Just humor me).

Why this period in time? Because moviegoers have been fleeced something fierce since the turn of the century I feel. We’ve been snowed under with remakes, reboots and repeats for well over a decade now. Ticket prices have gone up, quality and imagination has gone down. Hollywood has resigned itself to a single tenet in recent years: the audience is stupid. They’ll watch anything with pretty faces and a surfeit of sh*t that goes boom. Now I like shiny just as much as the next crow, but at the same time I like a little plot depth, some character development, and a lack of pandering. When was the last time you went to see/rent/stream an alleged summer blockbuster only later to feel you wanted your two hours back? I reckon it’s happened a few times. At any rate, I had a crapload of opinions about movies rattling around my brainpan for years. Looks like Facebook became my bullsh*t pulpit. Besides, Twitter couldn’t support rants like these under sheer volume’s sake.

That being said, onto this week’s review…

Hoo boy. Here’s the magna mater of films to which I decided to do these Facebook posts. Back to where The Standard was born. Big budget film that tanked (or at least had a disappointing return) at the box office? Check. An alleged blockbuster plagued with both the rumor mill churning and a sad reality of poor writing, lousy acting or misguided direction? Check. A lotta splash and dash and not much else, appealing to the most vacant of movie goers? And check. What’s worse? A very talented director at the helm who’s reputation for handling fantasy films has been impeccable.

Until now. Right?

Drop that sandwich…

Fantasy has foremost been del Toro’s stock in trade for years (Pan’s Labyrinth, the Hellboy movies). What could be more fantastical than giant Godzilla-like monsters versus building-sized, psychic-powered gargantuan robots? Sounds unique enough to me. Not really if you’re an otaku, but still.

Pacific Rim appears to be an attempt at live-action anime. A very good attempt, mind you. Giant robots doing battle with pseudo-Lovecraftian behemoths? Gotta love that. Such ideas are overt Asian tropes nodding to the anime structure. That being said, admit it: a Jaeger clubbing a Kaiju with a derelict ship is mighty badass.

This film is 90% visual candy. The plot is razor thin, and almost an afterthought paralleled against all the wanton mechanized mayhem. The dialogue is often trite, and I truly dislike excessive exposition in a movie. It’s a movie; it’s all about show, don’t tell. The acting is wooden. There is no chemistry between any of the leads and all roles are interchangeable. Except for Charlie Day. His Dr. Newton “Newt” Geiszler (yet another improbable name) is naturally the comic relief, as well as the bridge for pushing the plot forward, such as it is. Is he funny? Kinda. Not Charlie Murphy funny; he seems to be really reaching here. But at least his performance is memorable, if only in an irritating way. Unlike the rest of the cast.

Barring the craptastic acting, Rim is oddly engrossing. Del Toro still has the eye for fantastic flair. This has to be the first true big budget he’s had access to, and he wasted precious little of his resources. The action scenes are indeed impressive, and the anime parallel runs deep. Also, the detail involved in rendering each Jaeger and Kaiju alive is nothing short of mesmerizing.

However there is this very slight feeling of weakness throughout the film, and I don’t mean in any technical way. It’s like Del Toro had a flash new toy to play with—sans the instructions—and is just barging his way through to get to the action scenes (granted there are a lot, but still). On the flipside, there is an odd subtlety to this film. Can’t put my finger on it, but I think it’s why it failed as a true blockbuster. The film simultaneously beats you over the head with crashing action and then has its quiet moments of reflection. Up and down, up and down. It’s like playing with the volume on a stereo. The inconsistency is hard to take, as well as other factors, too. Did Rim have too long a running time for the audience? Have we grown numb to CGI-infused spectacles like this? Was Charlie Day too annoying?

I don’t know. But I did enjoy the film.

Sure, it might sound like I’m complaining. I’m not really. All the inconsistency in the movie lends a peculiar charm. Rim still has that Del Toro quirkiness, which pervades his every film. And sure, Pacific Rim is a comic book movie in need of a comic book, what with its slapdash, corny premise. But it’s also a summer blockbuster with a small seam of intelligence running through it, also like most of Del Toro’s movies. I wonder why the movie failed to catch on with the popcorn-choked rabble. This film made two-plus hours stream by quite quickly; time I didn’t necessarily want back. And unlike the recent A Scanner Darkly viewing, this was a visually impressive movie that was definitely not boring.

Poorly acted? Sure. In search of a solid plot? Yeah. Questionable writing? Uh-huh. Dull?

Decidedly not.


Rant Redux (2019)…

This was a perfect trifecta of sources crashing into confluence that had happened here before. The curiosity viewing this tidbit is a lame excuse to watch a well received movie under false pretenses. It was also recommended for a haircut a curious friends. It was also demeaning scrutiny based on box office returns against critical…well, criticism. Yeah, Rim was not a mediocre movie. But was it? Depends on who you ask. Come, take my hand.

The biggest stink I heard about Rim was that it didn’t feel like a Del Toro film. Too commercial, not enough weird. This is true, but his original Hellboy flick was both commercial and weird. So much so that my then girlfriend (who was never into movies like this) was horrified by the scene I conveniently missed when I when to drain my lizard of too much Cherry Coke. Dammit, Janet. Truth be told, she went along with as a curious onlooker as to what was this new thing called a comic book movie allegedly inspired by source material which her uber-dork b/f had way too many of. She said she liked the overall weirdness of the movie, but didn’t really “get it.” Cool with me. You either go along with Del Toro’s kind of weird or not, but it’s still nice to look at.

But here’s the weirdest thing about Rim, considering most folks “got” Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape Of Water: seemingly most of America missed the satire/tribute going on in what I found a pretty straightforward S/F movie. Hence that disconnect lent to some lousy test audience scores. Don’t ask me how I know this. It doesn’t really matter on social media. What mattered overall was the box office takeaway, and it was good. Most of the critics praised Rim, which was good. The Court of Public Opinion? Let’s just ask you about Scorsese’s comments about the MCU and let the trashing commence. Like when I had to break up and toss out a pair of dweebs from my comic shop over a fight. The fight was over who was stronger: Thor or Superman? Tho’ their arguments were valid, they stunk of Cheetos and Axe saturated dirty clothes and I showed them the door (read: cut off their pull lists). Such bickering was the vox populi of Rim fans and anti-fans.

Me being on the fringe after a botched first viewing, I chose to remain an otaku.

The friend that recommended Rim as fodder agreed wholly with me as this film was an attempt at live action anime. I think we are correct still. For the uninformed, an otaku is an anime fan, extending from the Japanese pejorative “home body.” Picture a basement apartment in a family home littered with Takis, spent cans of Red Bull, an abandoned rig once meant for LAN parties before they became outdated/uncool and a now very sweaty Xbox One sits as lord of all it surveys, covered in Shrinky Dinks and shreds of cheap paper once attached to the stapled spine of Pulp comics, an offshoot of Animerica but with tits. The whole room awash in Axe and the part-time gig at Panera that sometimes waits for no one. Esp the opposite sex.

Bitter? Me? Naw. I have a nice kid and a kind g/f. But you better get the idea of what audience I was up against. And I like Axe. Yuck foo.

So that was akin to the folks who did not “get” Rim. It was as if I were invading some sort of secret society, like the Freemasons or Oprah’s Book Club. So let’s talk frankly about the otaku thing, beyond the limits of cultural cross-pollination even If that was Del Toro’s muse (and most likely was). Rim is a deliberate blend of kaiju movies (think Godzilla) and classic anime robot-team OVAs (original video animations), like the many, many Gundam series. If you were Gen X and raced home to watch the highly edited, quite mangled Voltron series every afternoon, that was OVA. I was a Star Blazers fan myself, and still am. Fast forward to this film: as a tribute “gipsy” is still misspelled. Go ask Del Toro if you don’t “get” that.

From my position, Del Toro “got it.” A lot of critics and audiences alike did not as many as the other halves did. See, a director walks a tightrope of spun glass drawing inspiration from a kind of cult pop culture. Again back to that otaku label; in the USA, it’s a compliment, an identity, a member of a club. Such clubs are along the lines of Trekkies, comic book heads, fantasy footballers and NAMBLA. All have arcane rules and regs and are snooty towards curious outsiders rather than extend the hand of welcome. These special handshakes might be tempting for Hollywood to dip into a well, and when they do there’s more times than not a backlash. The hardcore fanboys almost always cry foul when their pet fetish is translated to celluloid. You didn’t “get it!” Well, you assailed Fandango, so there.

(I’d be remiss to not mention the exception to the rule is the MCU, but that took almost a decade to establish and no self-dishonoring fan would ever grace the vestibule of a comic shop. Icky and Scarlet Johannson is hot.)

That being said, as an otaku I “got” Rim immediately, and like my friend who recommended it was live-action anime. It was almost cartoony in its delivery, a lot of techno-babble supposed to be taken as legit science, overwrought family issues plaguing/driving out heroes, hungry kaiju and our heroine with the blue tip highlights. It’s all there, naked as a babe. I’m guessing the detractors were looking more substance, but that was foolish. Like glam rock, the style in Rim was the substance. Go with it, like my ex her placing a toe down the pit of darkness that Hellboy crawled out of. It’s mecha battling kaiju, that was it and that was all and that was fun.

Get it?


More Stray Observations…

I didn’t think I’d have to do this, but upon watching Rim a second time I noted a few other noteworthy blips that tripped up my radar. Felt they were worth jotting down:

  • Gipsy dragging the ship is a very classy homage to the ronin dragging his blade towards a worthless duel (EG: this will be no honorable fight; too simple, too easy and the enemy is not worth bloodying my blade. Now slash).
  • “Numbers do not lie. Politics, poetry, promises, these are lies. Numbers are the closest we get to the handwriting of god.” That is a damn good line, prob the best in the movie.
  • Is the character of Newt a nod to the otaku? I’d like to think so.
  • “Where is my goddam shoe?” Kinda says it all. No it doesn’t.

The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: rent it. Ignore the detractors. Haters wanna hate. Go with it. “Get it.” Mono no aware. IE: Japanese: moment of transience. Appreciate what’s good because it won’t last. Get it now?


Next Installment…

We go swim with the Lady In The Water again before she got all chased by those stupid, cloned dinosaurs. Everybody into the pool!


 

RIORI Redux: Joseph Kosinki’s “Oblivion” Revisited


Image


The Players…

Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko and Andrea Riseborough, with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo and Zoe Bell.


The Story…

Earth. It used to be a nice place to live. Commander Jack Harper thinks so, especially now he’s stuck planetside salvaging scrapped tech and maintaining the automated defensive drones. An alien invasion took it’s toll on Earth, so everybody save Jack and his partner jumped ship and sailed off to Titan to begin new lives. Well, Jack’s stuck with his old one, indefinitely. Then one day a crippled starship enters his territory. Its sole occupant, a mysterious woman, leads Harper to discover some unknown, shocking truths about humankind’s legacy beyond broken cities and mechanized battlebots.


The Rant…

Have you noticed lately that Tom Cruise’s roles lean towards the action hero type? The guy’s fifty-one. Can we say “mid-life crisis?” From the Mission: Impossible franchise to Jack Reacher to Oblivion, it may be now safe to say that his Top Gun days are well over. Best be sure to tell Tom this factoid. It’s time to retire into Forrest Gump territory. And that role gave Tom Hanks street cred. Ironic huh? Like the star of the Fast & Furious franchise going up in an auto-shaped ball of flame?

What, too soon?

And isn’t Morgan Freeman in every movie nowadays? I mean, other than schilling for Visa, hosting Through The Wormhole on the Science Channel, and (as an aside) portraying his best role, Easy Reader from The Electric Company, (that dates me) the guy’s been f*cking everywhere. Maine prisons. Rubbing elbows with rogue spies. Trundling bitchy Miss Daisy down to the Piggly Wiggly. Surviving cancer with Jack Nicholson. Off to Vegas with other geriatrics. Now he’s on post-apocalyptic Earth. Guy gets around faster than a rabbit with herpes.

(PS: I wrote the above before even watching the movie. I’m assuming my pontificating holds up some…)

…I was wrong. Anywho…

Oblivion is an odd duck of a comic-book movie adaptation. What makes it odd is that, first of all, it was based on a comic. I didn’t know that. Did you? Really? Huh. Goes to show what I know. Secondly, I haven’t seen so much philosophizing about identity within a sci-fi film since the original Star Wars trilogy. I don’t say this as derisive, though it may come across that way.

The plot Oblivion is a thin one, but it tries to come across as much thicker than it is. The movie’s motif borrows from countless sci-fi psychodramas, from Blade Runner to Solaris to…to the Solaris remake with George Clooney. Oblivion has less to do with creating new worlds and more about proclaiming identity. It’s character drama. The concept of who you are in a given time under certain circumstances. Are you really sure of who you are and what those circumstances are? Are you lost? Is it the déjà vu all over again scenario? I don’t know, and film did not provide any easy answers.

What it did provide was a visually clean farscape. Not ostentatious, with a lot of smart CGI. You know how most of today’s sci-fi films want to bludgeon you over the head with digitally rendered whatsits and foreign locales off-world with nary a modicum of subtlety? Right, Oblivion doesn’t do that. Instead it offers up a very real, one could say prescient view of a ravaged planet Earth. Did I mention the cinematography (including the CGI enhancement) is breathtaking. I won’t lie to you. Most of Oblivion is pretty damn beautiful.

There was a bit more original drama than I had expected for a lifted plot. Actually, this movie is more a melodrama wrapped up in the guise of a sci-fi flick. There’s a good amount of play and tension against the characters, not unlike a relatively well-wrtten soap opera arc. And like your daytime dramas, there is plenty of intrigue and weird plot loops tossed about. It’s tricky to give a clear explanation about what Oblivion is really about because, 1) it’s near impossible without dumping spoilers all over you, and; 2) it’s not exactly clear what Oblivion is trying to say. Don’t get me wrong. The film is interesting. It’s also obtuse as hell, and can make for a confusing viewing experience. But it’s sci-fi, only when it’s not, and when it’s not…um, it’s something else. Stop yelling at me.

This was a confusing review to write, and it shows. Mostly because I didn’t know where to stand on this film. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good. It was rather confusing as if the film couldn’t make up its mind. It sure as sh*t met The Standard considering its lousy turnout at the box office. Is that a reflection on this movie? Kinda. I don’t know. All I can say for sure is that Oblivion was pretty.


Rant Redux (2019)

I’ve been noticing lately that in addition to commenting, editing, twisting and rationalizing the reasons why my earliest installments need some tweaking, I’ve found myself inadvertently correcting other stuff. Like the list of the players for the particular hack job I’m trying to suture. After the story, who is telling it is the most vital part of the movie, kinda like a Greek chorus; the cast and the director serve that need, following by the scenarist (however the poor drudge who wrote the damned script seldom gets any recognition save the dog and pony show every February). All together form the foundation for a movie, and the rest (eg: costuming, soundtrack, CGI effects, riders, etc) are in essence eyewash.

Why am I telling you this? For the first part, me noticing errors and fixing them are the meat of why I’ve been revising these sandwiches. If the cast and creative crew are indeed the vital signs of a winning or faltering movie I gotta give credit where credit is due (despite the cracks about Cruise’s midlife crisis cum action hero, he did a good job here, as well as most of his John McClane-esque roles). That and it’s the easy part of doing this crap.

The second part is that I am truly, truly sorry for this installment—even more regretful hoodwink that was Silver Linings PlaybookOblivion‘s rambled and rambled and was held aloft by some pretty righteous bullsh*t. Truth be finally told, I was way too messed up to even pay attention to the second and third acts, and here’s why:

My then wife for months was suffering from an incessant cough. She smoked quite a bit so that was no surprise. I smoked, too. But it was this angry, raspy cough that sounded like she was going to puke up her lungs. She wisely saw a doctor and had some tests done. Weeks later when she delivered my the preliminary results it was on my night off (late at night) when she dropped the science on me.

COPD was the verdict. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Your lungs betray you and gradually refuse to do their job. You suffocate on the carbon dioxide you have difficulty expelling. The disease invites an unholy host of terrible maladies, and in the endgame COPD is what kills you. From my understanding and her explanation she was living on borrowed time.

My first reaction was angst. I pressed her for info getting increasingly agitated with every vague detail, drinking all the while, meantime Oblivion (oddly accurate) was rolling on the BD player. I was bawling, screaming “It’s not fair” and fuming with rage and alcohol. I was so torqued I snatched a hatchet from the tool shed and contemplated trashing my own car. I didn’t though, through my whiskey-addled haze I thought of my insurance premiums and it would be expensive to cover my own vandalism. It’s weird what sticks in your conscience when yer pished.

So then what? Grief, fear, crying jag, booze. The wife had went to bed, understandable scared of the diagnosis (and me too, I guess). I was left alone stalking the living room, Oblivion still on pause. Grabbing at a stone, I crashed back down deciding to “watch” the movie. The remaining notes on my pad were blind chicken scratch. Not that I cared. I just needed something that felt normal then and there.

Write drunk, edit sober. Doesn’t really work for movie reviews, since you must have your faculties about you. Big shocker but I only recalled bits and pieces of the end of the movie and the early rant shows that? Did it sound like a lot of BS to you? Bingo! You’ve just won a prize: my bittersweet honesty. You’re welcome and sorry again.

On the brighter side, later on my wife’s diagnosis was reduced to severe asthma, a precursor to COPD but was treated and cleared up after a year or so.

Don’t smoke, kids. And don’t drink and pass judgement on mediocre movies that don’t make much sense. Even when sober.

*ahem*

So after wiping a fresh bar towel across my blurred memory of Oblivion I took to task to giving it a second chance. The movie’s title did it justice to my mental state back then. It’s amazing what one can take away from a Tom Cruise movie with the suspension of disbelief and not under the influence of whiskey. Beer maybe, but not whiskey. What? You think I’m nuts? This was a Tom Cruise movie! You need to numb yourself for most of his filmography. You can’t handle the truth.

You know the expression about a thing being “greater than the sum of its parts?” An example of this is Star Wars: A New Hope. If you take it apart and scrutinize the film (as millions of mouth-breathers do every hour), the thing is riddled with flaws, inconsistencies and a lot of flubs (not to mention the last scene lifted from the ultimate Nazi agitprop film Triumph Of The Will. Dubious at best, nerf herders). But despite those flaws—or perhaps even because of them—A New Hope is a lot of fun. It’s not a great movie, stuck with all the claptrap of comic book sci-fi trappings; a popcorn movie to be sure, but I like popcorn, especially on a lazy Saturday afternoon with no hangover to nurse. The movie has a homespun charm than can’t be denied, and that scrappiness elevates, if not buoys the entire franchise (even most Rebels can forgive the questionable prequels for stretching the plots and defying internal logic…no they didn’t). It’s greater than the sum of its parts.

Oblivion is the direct opposite. It’s entertaining, but only based so on the cool parts the movie culls from. Imagine all the noteworthy S/F films in Hollywood canon, if not doctrine from the past 50 years. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet Of The Apes, Silent Running, The Matrix, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial and, yes the Star Wars saga. Oblivion treats films of that ilk like the salad bar at Old Country Buffet. Picks at what looks good despite what might be best for you. But it’s from the salad bar! Yep, and Oblivion is cottage cheese drenched in French dressing. It may not suit all tastes, but it comforting for many. Then again so is hanging out with John Barleycorn.

Post-apocalypse survival. AI run amok. Nuclear holocaust. Alien invaders. Screwed up history. Mind warps. All present in Oblivion. I once (read: infinitely) applied the saw attached to the blues to describe how a niche film genre works. Say it with me now and you’ll get a cookie: it’s not the notes, but how they are played. John Lee Hooker made millions by this precept. And why not? It works, both in music and cinema. It works…but it can get tiresome. You can only listen to “Boogie Chillin'” so many times trying to eradicate that memory trapped in the murky mire that was The Blues Brothers (don’t forget the Cheez-Wiz, boy).

Oblivion borrows a little from all the above films and tropes and essentially does the “greater than…” idiom in reverse. It felt like director Kosinki (probably bummed his Tron reboot didn’t fly) went through a sci-fi flea market and picked out all the goodies he knew would work in his next effort. Ir did, just not in the way he might have hoped. We understand the three-act structure of plays and films, and there are sub-acts—scenes—that add light and shade to the plot as it moves merrily down the lane. Scenes should never be abrupt, or at least without exposition; they are not chapters. After Kosinksi cobbled together his movie from multiple dips at the golden sci-fi movie spring you can practically see the stitching as the movie moves from chapter to chapter, not scene to scene. At least I was correct in my original opinion: no segue so no sense. Jarring. Abrupt. And yet so familiar…with good reason.

Hey folks, you’ve seen Oblivion already, even if you haven’t. If you’ve seen 2001, you’ve seen Oblivion. I’ve you’ve seen The Matrix, you’ve seen Oblivion. Hell, if you’ve seen The Day After, Galaxy Express 999 or the freakin’ Manchurian Candidate (either one) you’ve seen Oblivion. You’ve just watched a sorta incoherent s/f rip-off from the best cliches of that genre for the past half century. And Kosinski did so with such verve. Naked and shameless. I have to respect that much. I’m not sure if Kosinki can play blues guitar, but I’m pretty sure he’s an Elmore James fan.

The story may be stale, but the movie was a treat for the eyes. Can’t be ignored. The ruined Earth of Oblivion looks like how our planet should after climate change, nuclear war and our natural satellite reduced to powder. The visual of Cruise on patrol walking over a sand dune covering half of the Empire State Building’s observation deck is telling. Startling. The buildings once straddling the Venetian canals are now the cliffs serving as waterfalls into endless basins. Yankee Stadium is a crater akin to the Moon’s Copernicus. Kosinksi succeeded in turning Mother Earth into an alien planet. I couldn’t deny that one bit.

And you know what else? This may be a jump, but Cruise’s Harper pining for an Earth he never knew, perfect in his mind, and suffusing his mountain retreat with some very old skool tech…It suits the mood, without a whit of irony. Especially balanced against the ominous 21st Century tech Harper is ostensibly planet side to service. We have two choices here: Harper relaxing to a hi-fi that was made before even was born grooving to “Midnight Rider” (why not?), or chasing down or being chased by sentient, well-armed drones that resemble albino TIE fighters with HAL 9000’s unblinking red eye. Which toothpaste would you choose? Interesting as this dichotomy was, it still reflects the salad bar thinking. Sure, cool dynamic, but that and a lot of other things in the movie might seem awesome ultimately boils down the the audience being unfamiliar with another movie.

In the endgame, I’m not a snob. With a clear eye I was entertained by Oblivion. But that was it. Any epic message to bestow on my brow was not there. It’s all a rip-ff, sure, but it was a decent, pretty rip-off. An okay time-waster even you see the ending miles ahead of time.

And if you didn’t see anything coming, you are either, a) drunk as a skunk playing funk aboard a junk, or; b) Oblivion is your first foray in s/f movies.

I recommend the drunk part first. And lock up that woodshed.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. Entertaining but only filler. ‘Ware any s/f movie implying epic proportions only to land in a crock of French dressing.


Next Installment…

We return with another wobbly, half-baked subterfuge in your humble blogger twisting the Standard to their own evil ends using the first Pacific Rim movie as bait.

Mwa ha ha.