RIORI Vol 3, Installment 85: Jesse Dylan’s “Kicking And Screaming” (2005)

The Players…

Will Ferrell, Robert Duvall (?), Mike Ditka (!?) and Kate Walsh (.), with Musetta Vander, Dylan McLaughlin, Josh Hutcherson and a team of spastic tweenage boys.

The Story…

Phil’s never been the athletic type. Truth be told he’s a total klutz, much to the disappointment of his uber-competitive dad, Buck.

Phil’s always been trying to earn his father’s approval. So when an opportunity arises for Phil to coach his son’s little league soccer team, he figures this might be an ideal way to prove to his old man he really has the chops to be a sports star. If only by proxy through the non-skills of a bunch of misfit, booger-eaters.

Play ball!

The Rant…

Ah, sports comedies. Covered on here with The Replacements installment back in 1870. I’m gonna paraphrase the MO of most sports comedies again right quick. Don’t want to bore you:

It’s all about the underdogs. The end.

Works well with grown-up “athletes” up against crazy odds. Even better with kids. Look at the Bad News Bears, The Mighty Ducks and to a skewed degree Hoosiers. C’mon, it had Hackman and Hopper. That claims some merit. My blog, my rules. And enough with beer cans already. Upgrade to bottles, for pity’s sake.


Thank you. Moving on.

Most sports comedies, by deliberate—if not predictable—design are meant to be feel-good, with much clownish humor and a dash of human drama thrown in. Y’know, to anchor some precious emotional investment. It’s a formula that works most of the time in such flicks. Please refer to the examples above.


Again, thank you. Shows your’e paying attention.

In relation to sports comedies (or any funny formula) there sometimes—okay, often—is what I call “animal mimicry.” It’s a very specific form of rip-off. There are only so many ways to fold a sheet. Namely a certain, specific sub-genre of movies hang on signature tropes to attempt to make the plot work. It’s expected. In fact it’s demanded. Talking about the sports comedy movie here, duh. There’s the essential underdog factor, given. The literal loss leader team of misfits as well. An incompetent, big-hearted coach with personal issues. The basics. Need I remind you of my fave saw regarding most formulaic film devices. Like the blues: it’s not the notes, it’s how they’re played.

Sometimes, however, the strings break like an Entwistle bass solo. The tropes get abused. Familiarities set in. A cocked brow reluctantly raises with hope, smelled this poop before. Not so fresh anymore, pilgrim, so choose wisely at the ticket taker. For every Slap Shot you’re gonna find a dozen The Air Up Theres, all desperate for your stub and not satisfaction. It’s like choosing a personal pizza from the local Target’s snack bar. Plain or pepperoni? Never mind. It’s f*cking Target.

Based on Box Office Mojo, Rotten Tomatoes, AllMovie and the ghost of Ebert, we willfully get duped more often than not about this thing called sports comedies, We want the chuckles, the warm fuzzies, the guilty pleasures of rooting for rapscallions to achieve on the field of glory. It’s the formula we crave as ideal popcorn fodder. We can catch the latest Von Trier movie some other Sunday afternoon.

But at the back of our Twizzler-addled gourds, mostof us want Buddy Guy to thrill us, then leave. The sports comedy it totally disposable, and that’s the way we want it. We know how this game is played, so to speak. Just show us some money for a bit. Pleasure us. Get dopey without being dopey. Bad News Bears was dopey. Slap Shot was very dopey. The Replacements reveled in its dopiness, almost as parody. But they delivered their self-conscious dopiness with elan and not sacrificing the essential dumb to make us laugh.

I think I just described every Rob Schneider vehicle that wasn’t. Whoops.

How a good, formulaic sports comedy works? Don’t bow to our expectations, Hollyweird. Don’t play. We know what we’re getting into. Don’t disappoint us by disappointing us. Don’t play that sharp chord over and over again, Buddy. Tweak. Try b-flat. Might launch a tired show into something worth hearing. In basic terms, don’t deliberately aim for the lowest common denominator. Again, we know what we’re getting into even if we don’t. Don’t throw us any line. Just let us watch, giggle and/or groan and a spit of pathos might work millions. Better than multiple fart jokes. A few, but not multiple. We’ve seen Blazing Saddles already.

Wait. You haven’t?


Thanks. A simple concept shot too simple too often. Sports comedies. Dime a dozen.

Except with Kicking And Screaming. We’re gonna hafta work with eleven…

Attached to two left feet and a needful desire to honor his dad’s neverending legacy towards being a winner, Phil Weston (Ferrell)…fails a lot.

His nemesis and shaman father Buck (Duvall, whose cachet is rapidly wilting) is a sports gear magnate. Phil mans a holistic, humble vitamin store. Phil married his college sweetheart Barbara (Walsh). Buck scored the ultimate trophy wife in curvy, much younger Janice (Vander). Phil’s son Sam (McLaughin) is sweet natured and inherited Dad’s two lefts when it comes to team sports. Buck’s shark of a son Bucky (Hutcherson),the apple and all, tears up the soccer field like a lawn mower on steroids. Fist bump!

Phil’s not much of a winner based against Buck’s ultra-competative world. It rankles him, though he’d never say so outright. To say anything would just goad Buck further. And that’s another form of competition Phil’s been struggling with all his life. If there was only a way to prove his mettle about…something.

This something comes in the form of Buck cutting benchwarmer Sam from his soccer team. From the arch Gladiators to the lowly Tigers. Sam ain’t thrilled by this demotion, but on his inaugural game with the Tigers, he and dad Phil discover the coach has quit. Team can’t play without a coach, and Phil sees an opportunity. He’ll put on the mantle of coach. He’ll prove to his son and Dad both that he really has the goods to lead a junior soccer to the championships.

Right. Go have another cup of coffee, Phil. Smell it while you’re at it…

I had a bad feeling about this one.

This movie is one of the many reasons I risk sanity for all y’all at RIORI, and ultimately how The Standard came into being. It’s a low rent public service, to be sure, but a service nonetheless. And a free one, so there.

I’m gonna admit outright that I am generally not a fan of Will Ferrel’s retarded style of frat boy humor. I was a frat boy, and suggested dick jokes get limp (ha!) pretty damned quick. On the man’s flip side, his ace-in-the-hole is playing the innocent, shoved into said dick jokes. Fish out of water. Victim of circumstance. Yet ready to go streaking or drop the f-bomb on air. I get it, but I’ve seen it done better. I find his schtick too broad. Sorry. Not bad, per se. Just broad.

So after screening Kicking And Screaming I was left with the question, “Did Ferrel really want this role?” Old School, Ron Burgundy and even Elf (a fave Xmas movie of mine, as well as a million other elves) used the man’s comic chops of crass innocence prior to this flick to great effect. Okay, even though Ron dumb, it was self-consciously dumb. I’m really not a Ferrel fan, but I give the guy a wide berth acting in the proper role. With Kicking there is neither the sharp wit or self-aware banter winking to the fact that Farrel is a lovable dolt. With Kicking he tries, but he’s just a dolt, and a smarmy one at that. Not Ron Burgundy territory here.

We looks like we gots ourselves a bad case of the Happy Madison’s here. Trying to mine the numb dumb of Sandler’s earliest cinematic efforts (and effort being the key term, like in bearing to look, swan) is what Kicking reeked of. It also stank of forced sight gags, lame stereotypes, wooden acting and a dire need to shoehorn a PG-13 movie into the context of a G one. It was a bait and switch.

Kicking was Bad News Bears lite. Unlike that classic bad film of misfits and miscreants rising to a little league challenge to a non-victory, our duck drags to an inevitable conclusion. There a few decent sight gags, but the whole wad falls on Ferrel’s nebbish/manic quips and yelling for no good reason. I know it’s a Ferrel vehicle, but it’s also supposed to be a sports com. You can’t have the lead dominate everything. It quickly becomes a high profile act at The Laugh Factory. Kicking ain’t cuddly. It’s bitter, especially when Duvall rears his skull.

Let’s talk about that. Duvall is a great actor, earthy and convincing if not a bit profane. Tender MerciesApocalypse Now (love that napalm stink), Godfathers 1 & 2. His career cachet is grounded in portraying bitter anti-heroes. Hell, even the acclaimed original Twilight Zone ep “Miniature” early in his career proves his studied awkwardness can go far. I’ll even lob his stints in lesser roles like Gone In Sixty Seconds, Falling Down and Deep Impact, reluctance may be his stock-in-trade. Being a boor doesn’t suit his skills well. Enter Buck.

The guy is so annoying. It may be on purpose. It may be a need to be foil to pussy Phil. It might have been Duvall f*cking around with this lark, having a laugh. It might even been a troll to drag the ‘rents to the cineplex so their spawn could watch Lord Business play catch. Whatever the motive, I saw Duvall selling out with precious little shame, shoehorned into a role simply cast as a foil to dopey Ferrel. I mentioned this above. It bore repeating. Duvall wanderered through his role, visage awash with bitterness. I’m gonna place bets that overall a hefty check was his motive.

And yet, and yet…Duvall was the funniest guy in the movie. No joke, so to speak. Maybe being (deliberately) miscast served as a boon for his comedic chops. Right, Tom Hagen, Sgt Kilgore, Mac Sledge and Karl Childers senile dad were never the funniest guys in the room (okay, I’ll give a slight pass to Kilgore and his fetish for surfing and gasoline as tactical weapon). Duvall as crusty Buck was an inspired role born of either a demented agent or a crazy casting director. Maybe both, and maybe not. Let’s review: Duvall’s cachet as an actor may be portraying bittersweet anti-heroes, but there’s a flipside to this style. Duvall’s credited to making an acting career out of awkwardness, yes, but also via characters as fish-out-of-water, placed in situations that demand shrugging shoulders against the roles that are meant for any other actor to be the Rock of Gibraltar. Duvall bows to that, but with calculated reluctance. C’mon. Do you think Tom Hagen had a clear conscience representing the Corleone family? Mac Sledge sure had a time divulging his nasty past with that kid. Kilgore was sure good with all that bluster, but it was all posturing. Taking all this hoo-ha into consideration, maybe him being cast as Buck wasn’t solely about chasing the check. His Buck is an anti-hero, shades of Kilgore. Kicking was an ideal setting for Duvall’s cachet to be turned on its ear. That being claimed, Duvall as wiseass and a walking a anti-PC warning might be viewed as revisionist thumbing-of-nose to a snickering audience. Duvall’s Buck played as an okay to fart at a funeral. Yeah, he was funnier than Ron Burgundy in Kicking. I’m as shocked as you’re most likely not.

*klonk klonk*

You may stop that now.

At least Duvall twisted himself around and chewed some scenery. Ferrel was sleepwalking through his part. All the gags he honed in the above movies are merely laurels here. I know I’m beating up on a pseudo-kiddie flick here, but with a mostly quality cast here misused again and again, the star should at least buoy the flop with their signature style. Hell, even Jim Carrey’s trademark goofy annoyance played rather well with The Truman Show and The Man In The Moon. Here Ferrel is just plain annoying. It’s little wonder why his Phil became his pop’s fave whipping boy. Namely, Ferrel’s Phil is unlikeable and could’ve been salvaged by him playing to his precious few decent roles as amalgam. Instead, no nuance. Matthau made a good drunk with a heart of tarnished gold. Ferrel is just a wimp, and a whiny one at that. No surprise he spent most of the movie being dismissed. I found Phil boring as much as Duvall shrewdly chased the paycheck. Snore.

Yeah, yeah. I’m tearing apart some pastiche about kiddie soccer league like it were Proust. I found that troubling. Kicking was supposed to be disposable, bearing not much thought. EG: the most retarded family sports comedy ever. But the primaries totally dismiss character, the juvie cast ugly and a predicable straight line to the climax made me feel gypped. There’s a total absence of tension; we could see the ending a light-year away. I know we know the outcome’s gonna be; you don’t need to broadcast the sh*t. I didn’t expect to dig Gone In Sixty Seconds no less to be delighted by Elf every Xmas. But that fluff overturned my expectations. Surprised me. I saw Kicking a parsec away, and felt dumped.

I’ve been broadcasting. I know. But even with the crappiest film there is some emotional glue that keeps us watching (beyond the non-existant Walsh shower scene. Got your attention now?). That being shouted, to its credit, Kicking did possess an odd bittersweetness going down. The underlying dynamic is all about dads relating to their sons, for good and ill. In American society competition is the lifeblood of all. What better way to address this dynamic in microcosm than sports? My father and I were like oil and water when it came to the Super Bowl (as well as musical tastes, and books, and porn. The man-on-goat stuff was never my thing. Okay, his thing). I’m not sure my kid’s enthusiasm for field hockey will sow seeds. I only pay attention to pro ball if Boston makes it to the playoffs, then maybe.

In sum sports—and by extension, middling family sports comedies—should bring folks together. Often with polarizing results, sure, but that’s how the game’s played. So to speak. Fun is the name of the you-know-what. Kicking lacked that, and what a shame. We all need a good, goofy sports-com once in a while. Y’know, to pop the proverbial and overblown obsession with football as warfare.

In closing, some words from the front: it was many years ago when I was a baker at some hole-in-the-wall restaurant. I got to talking to a young server about the National Pastime (no, not streaming Netflix). We chatted about the merits of baseball against “faster” sports like football and b’ball. Eventually it came down to our fave teams. He was already going on about Yankees this and Yankees that, and asked me about who I followed.


He frowned. “Yankees.”

“…I heard.” And frowned back.

In a moment of satori he curled back his hip and withdrew his hand from his back pocket, extended it.

“Okay. Ortiz has a hell of a swing.”

I took his hand, “And Jeter has a hell of an arm. Until the field of battle…where we will crush you!”

We slapped each other on the backs and laughed. Brothers in arms.

There’s a real sports comedy for y’all. Go find your own.

*klonk klonk klonk*

Y’all must be Mets fans. Or for Barcelona.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Kiddie sports comedies are usually funny. As is Farrel. Usually.

Stray Observations…

  • The only true laugh I belted out here was for the “We forfeit” scene. You’ll laugh, too.
  • “Go hemp!”
  • At least the kids ain’t cute.
  • “Get some circulation back in your skull!” Um, huh?
  • Too many pop songs. Cloying.
  • “Meat first!” Wise words.
  • Got the feeling that Ditka carried this movie.
  • “I take a vitamin everyday; it’s called a steak.”
  • Right. Coffee makes you an assh*le. Surprise (finger at face)!

Next Installment…

Dystopia never seemed so politically palpable as Natalie Portman raised her woke fingers in a V For Vendetta.



RIORI Vol 3, Installment 84: Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” (2012)


The Players…

Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Joe Anderson, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie, Ben Bray, James Dale and whomever else makes it out alive.

The Story…

After a plane crash on the Alaskan tundra, the survivors must endure angry weather, bitter cold, possible starvation and being hopelessly lost.

Oh, and the wolves. The very hungry wolves. Can’t forget about them.

So in addition to unforgiving Mother Nature, the resourceful Ottway and his band of misfits had better find a way to stay alive, stay warm, keep fed and keep the wolves at bay double-quick. Otherwise…

Let’s not think about otherwise.

The Rant…

One of the biggest issues I take with modern society is how modern it is.

Don’t misunderstand me. I appreciate modern society. Without it I’d have no health insurance, food at the local Wegman’s, a car to drag my ass to work and Wi-Fi, which allows me to write this blog about movies that would not exist without digital technology. I enjoy my iTunes collection and Nintendo, too. And bagels (can’t forget the bagels). However, I am led to believe that humans as a species has grown so removed from Mother Nature that when it comes down to dwelling in her untrammeled kingdom, the human race would at its current state of development be f*cked.

This isn’t going to be one of my usual snotty screeds. Sarcasm only goes so far to make a point. No. What follows will be more humane, more philosophical. Less blowing smoke than I am wont to do. I’ve been terribly naked in the past few years about where I’m coming from and how certain mediocre movies may make my angry spittle justified. Not here. Just be patient. A point will come. Eventually.

*out comes the brandy and cigars*

By my count, humanity stopped cooperating with Mother Nature well over a century ago, ever since the Industrial Revolution. As a benchmark for evolution, it was the first time that humans grew impatient with the gradual, deliberate and effective ways of living within the means of the biosphere. Humanity got too big for its britches, and commerce took hold (always a big motivator) and then railroads, telegraphs and steel mills superseded wagon trains, the pony express and felling trees for the homestead’s fireplace. It was inevitable in a sense, the ongoing evolution of society.

But evolution is a gradual thing. The Industrial Revolution was the diametric opposite of an agrarian way of life. And came fast. It was all about bigger, better, faster more. Urban development. Get off the farm, there’s real money and upward mobility to be found at the end of the nearest rail line. Stuff like that.

For millennia, humans abided by Nature’s fickle way of making things work out. Abiding by the seasons when it came to planting and seeding crops essential to life and the eventual harvest. Year in, year out. Building homesteads on the high ground, just in case of a groundswell. And positioning said homes with a southern exposure to maximize heat in the winter and maybe provide a little coolness in the summer. I live in an ancient stone farmhouse older than this nation’s founding. The walls are a foot-and-a-half thick, designed to keep this edfice’s mean temp 66 all year long. Southern exposure; okay in the summer, drafty come winter. The miller’s family who moved in back in 1802 knew how to cooperate.

Here’s a quick example: No feedlots back then, just pastures. Cattle were permitted to roam and graze. They weren’t crowded, hooked up to milking machines. Cows were hand-milked, not molested by rape-racks in the name of the Dairy Board’s bottom line. Manhandling cows was time consuming, but the product was better (I know. I’ve tasted the difference).

Free range wasn’t a movement, it was status quo. Livestock were allowed to wander as the seasons permitted. Soaking up the sun, growing plump and when summer ended, off to the chopping block. We may squirm now in the squeamish 21st Century at such dispatch in the name of nutrition, but yet we seldom any qualms scooping up bologna at the local supermarket full of chemicals that would kill a rhino.

Windmills. Sluice works. Tomatoes in summer and summer only. Canning in the lean months. Obeying the rules of the seasons. Cooperating with Nature, not trying to bend and fold it to suit the whims of impatient humans. Those back in the day had to cooperate with mercurial Mom all year long every year or else wreck and ruin.

That being said, and as reflection on my reflection we’ll talk about entropy. The universe runs on it. Everything falls apart. Unless great amounts of energy are dumped into a system to maintain order, you’d be living in a scene straight out of The Day After right now. With no Wi-Fi. Nature is the penultimate guardian at the gates that both demands and invites the endless cycle of build it up, tear it down. A concept most humans recognize as just urban renewal. Truth is we’re still all pawns in her game.  That little bloop illustrates in part my going somewhere point. I think.

Consider New York City. The metropolis to end all metropolises. It’s not supposed to be there. Can you imagine all the resources required to keep that city running? Electricity. Gas lines. Sewer systems. Well-paved roads (sometimes) for surly Middle Eastern cab drivers to cage a fare. Can you imagine all the energy necessary to keep the City running smoothly, pissy Travis Bickle types praying for rain and all? Yet the City doesn’t run smoothly, despite all the high tech and desperate systems designed to keep it all smooth. It’s not perfect. Cities strain against entropy. Look how potholes grow and spread like malign fungus.

So yeah. Urban life requires a lot of juice to keep it all running right. Cities in general are anti-nature. They refuse to cooperate, by design. They bat away Nature, like gnats at a picnic. But even for urbanized, stubborn domesticity Mother Nature always creeps its scolding finger. Example? The Empire State Building. Probably the most famous skyscraper in the world. It has two sub-basements, anchoring the edifice. I learned that there are monitors for the building that often have to check the water level in the sub-basement where the long gone river that once ran under the building. You know, so the moisture doesn’t waterlog the foundation. Such water damage may compromise the skyscraper’s structural integrity. There are watermarks scrawled on the wall demarcating where that stubborn streams rises up, a reminder of Manhattan’s once verdant past. Nature is always cagey in letting us know who’s boss, if only hidden from the denizens of NYC, crabby cabbies and all.

Now consider the flipside: Sequoia National Park, for example. Those titular trees have grown stout and tall all by themselves. No dusting, no cultivation, no seeding. Those monsters are hundreds of years old, tall as a five storey building. They’ve survived forest fires, lightning strikes and man. By cooperating. Like these massive trees had any choice (last I knew, timber has no freewill). The forest is a self-regulating, self-sufficent system with no need for fumbling humanity to muck up the works. And if it ain’t broke, don’t harvest it, plant three saplings and cross your fingers. As much as we claim to know about how Nature works and how best to exploit it, on a basal level invited by modern conveniences if we were to try to commune with Nature, respect it, we’d end up a hors d’oeuvres for a salivating grizzly. With no Wi-Fi to call for help. Those damned sequoias screw with reception.

Here’s a possible scenario. Say you got a hot nut to go camping. You prepare well. Lots of potable water and durable food; Clif Bars, granola and potted meat product at the ready. Tinder for a campfire. The proper wardrobe. Compass, sextant, bread crumbs. A satellite phone, before God. You tell yourself you are set for your adventure. A pair of LL Bean’s hunter boots strapped tightly to your tender feet. Off you trek.

Mother Nature says, “Hold my beer.”

Your weatherproof tent gets torn to shreds from one of those violent, sudden thunderstorms. You were careful to hang perishable foodstuffs from a tree, but the branch was weak and in the night clever raccoons found themselves a snack. Your Camelback sprung a leak during your trek in the hot sun. Stunted by the heat, you stumble upon an upswell of water and decide to take a sip. With no knowledge of the precious value of iodine, your quick drink invites crippling diarrhea later down your stumbling path, blind with cramps. Those damned mosquitoes are the icing on the cake.

Eventually you find yourself covered in mud, as well as slick feces, barfy, lost and Mother Nature’s equalizers—cunning predators smelling an easy mark—ready to take your carcass separated from the precious Wi-Fi into their fangs and gullets. At least you remembered to hang that sack of Clif Bars from your pack. The one that fell into that well that gave you the sh*ts. Best laid plans.

Unless you’re the next Bear Grylls, you’re fast becoming the next dork on an ep of Naked & Afraid. Ever faster as a pile of bear pellets. Or deer pellets, if you’re worse off. You are. And Mama Nature don’t f*ck around. You’re an irritant, a defiler of the pristine wilderness, lost in Nature’s Domain. As of this post, it’s 2018 and you’ve been living in a cushy world of modern convenience that started when Sam Morse had a brilliant communication idea. And it wasn’t Wi-Fi.

Nature and humanity has always been a balancing act. Forever it was never man vs Nature. It was man with nature. There was a time (not too long ago in the scheme of things) that people cooperated with Nature, not trying to control it. Conquer it. Recall the resurgent stream underneath the Empire State. Nature always has the last laugh. Most of modern society never gets the joke.

Too bad it’s on them…

It’s just your typical drilling town. Another outpost out-of-ways in the tundra of Alaska. In the definite middle of nowhere, the roughnecks drawing crude work hard and play hard. It’s the kind of place where either the nuts or the hardy make their trade. Maybe both.

Ottway (Neeson) is in charge of security. A special kind. He doesn’t break up bar fights. He doesn’t sniff out smugglers. He doesn’t give a sh*t about petty theft or needs to. He doesn’t do humans.

Wolves. He exterminates wolves.

The drilling op is on the fringes of the wolfpack territory, where they try to defend their line and protect their den. The wolves are brave and have been getting braver. It’s a battle of wills. The humans who want to make a living and the pack that must defend their living. Someone has to tip their hat soon.

But never mind that for now. Ottway and company have earned a furlough. A plane ride out of this frozen hellhole to get away from it all. Bright sunshine, no rigging and for our man, no wolves to pester him. He has a girl in mind.

Fast forward a few hours…

Ottway and six others are the only roughnecks to survive the plane crash. They are in the middle of the middle of Alaskan nowhere. The wind cuts, the snow blinds, the provisions lean and the very pissed off wolves are even more pissed off these stupid humans were unceremoniously dumped smack dab into their territory. This isn’t just gonna be some incursion with Ottway and his fellow survivors in tow.

It’s going to be a war.

I’m going to slip slide the normal Standard rules here. The Grey got good reviews. It’s budget was doubled at the box office, which meant the studio broke even. Heck, the film was dropped in the appropriate dead winter of January, hardly a time to release a high profile adventure movie no matter how sagely timed.

So why are we here?

The Grey is a misfit. Sure, it broke even. It got mostly high marks. And it also a creeping sense of indifference, despite its high profile. Namely, “Heck, sure. I’ll go. F*cking cabin fever and I wanna see how Ducard slays the wolves.” In other words, what else is there to do? The storm felled the wires so streaming’s offline. Besides, I need popcorn but the microwave is asleep.

That was the backdrop, more or less. I got the skewers from the major media outlets. Great movie who cares? Well, I betcha folks were bored after Oscar season and needed a cinematic colonic. The Grey fit the bill. The Tomatometer announced 80%. Audience responses were a splat at %60. No one knew what to do in January 2012. I slept a lot.

Hats off to Neeson, then. And you’re welcome.

The Taken series of movies introduced us to Liam Neeson the action star. Heckuva mid-life crisis. I’ll admit I scoffed at the man’s 180 career move. So did most moviegoers. However there was a precedent set for Neeson setting a toe in the action genre back in the early 90s playing the anti-hero in Sam Raimi’s Darkman. For the uninformed, Neeson plays the titular character portraying some proto-superhero/master of disguise. He’s on a mission of vengeance against the mob, so much intrigue and busted fingers ensues. A lot of busted fingers. I kinda liked it, but quite the departure for our tall, dark, handsome and Irish leading man.

Before—and not long after this lark—Neeson was best known for his dramatic and comedic roles.  So much so he earned an Oscar nod as the protag in the historical drama Schindler’s List. Miles away from Darkman. Who’d’ve thunk the guy was harboring a need to get all John McClane on kidnappers, hijackers and Batman?

So. Liam Neeson as action star? Forget Schindler’s List. Say hello to Schindler’s fist.

I’ve scanned Neeson’s filmography. According to AllMovie, the man’s CV is split down the middle. Almost equal parts action roles and dramatic/comedic roles. The curious thing the bulk of the action roles began with the first Taken installment and has been rolling almost non-stop (heh) since with the bone-crunching. That means there’s an entire generation of kids who only know Neeson as an action star. Oskar who?

So what then? I’m saying it’s hard to truly appreciate Neeson’s range beyond adventurer unless you surrender yourself to stuff like Satisfaction, Husbands And Wives, of course Schindler’s and, um, Krull. Since the guy’s résumé screams of diversity and range, I think it’s safe to say the jump into action flicks isn’t such a stretch. Especially his honed dramatic chops portraying the brooding Ottway in The Grey.

That being said, let get on with the flick.

As an a adventurer, Neeson certainly looks the part with his grizzled face and tall frame.It should give us pause to wonder why the man wasn’t cast as an action star earlier. Sure, we had Taken, but that had too much glitz, a novelty factor. Grey may be the true beginning as Neeson as action star. Thanks to his dramatic chops, his Ottway has some gravitas that Rambo, McClane and Martin Riggs lacked. Those characters were kinda fun. Neeson’s Ottway is anti-fun, if not totally unlikeable. Precious little charm paired with a hangdog a football field long. This is our hero? Yes, yes he is. The product reveals itself slowly, allowing plenty of time to see where our protag is coming from. Ottway is no Brian Mills. He’s passive, haunted and afraid. With good reason considering the very unfun conditions he and his crew are teething through.

That’s just it. The world of Grey is dire, more so than busting up a kidnapping ring or derailing a train with most chuckles (and busted fingers). It’s an adventure film, but passive. Neeson and his fellow crash survivors are victims of their environment and the final goal is survival. Period. No big bad guy. No quest for hidden gold. Nothing more than to best the wolfpack and give Nature the middle finger. The Grey is dour, but just as engaging as Non-Stop. Or Schinder’s List, for that matter.

This movie may be the true beginning of Neeson as action hero. Exchanging adrenaline for existentialism makes for a potent hero. Consider Chris Klein as Captain America, all brooding and reluctant to pick up the shield once more. Or even better Sly Stallone as John Rambo in First Blood. Reluctant heroes forced into their roles, and boy do they not like it.

Neeson’s Ottway may not be Steve Rogers, rough and ready. He’s just rough, and is wobbly on being ready. Grey is the next step after Taken as far as action heroes go. Active vs passive. It’s the quiet ones one must pay attention to. Like Hannibal Lecter, even though he’s behind bars. Ottway is behind his own bars, as the movie hints at.

That being said, Grey may be the true beginning of Neeson as action hero. His Taken and others were all whiz-bang and broken limbs. It takes a certain amount of nuance to be a real action star. I’m talking pathos, a step back and taking a breath from all the head butts. There are no head butts in Grey, instead a lot of heady sh*t. Grey is the next stage: Neeson as adventurer. Consider Indiana Jones in Raiders: “It’s not the years. It’s the milage.” Vulnerability. Not bulletproof. This may be Jaws on the tundra, but a great deal of Grey is the USS Minneapolis monologue. Reluctant adventurers slowly learning of their descent into futility. Even Indy had his moments of doubt and pain. So did Luke Skywalker. So did John McClane, crawling around the maze of Nakatomi Plaza littered with a wolfpack of terrorists. He got shot at a lot. Vulnerable.

If you’re expecting dire wolf (ha!) action in Grey, you’re in for a surprise. Hopefully a pleasant one (as far as visceral survival stories go).

The wolfpack is nothing more than the Maguffin in Grey. Sure, there are wolf attacks here and there, but it’s mostly eyewash, reminding us of the peril Ottway and crew are in. Mostly all you’re left with is the aftermath of an attack; no body, lots of bloody pawprints. A great deal of Grey is all about survival, imperious Mother Nature hell bent on ruining the downed oil riggers. The wind, no bearings, the cold. You can taste the cold here. It’s the true enemy, wearing our cast down so and end up being wolf kibble. When it comes to the classic man vs nature story, nature isn’t manifest as irritated animals. It’s all about landslides, blizzards, forest fires and floods that invite wreck and ruin. For Grey it’s the cold as primary enemy. The hungry wolves are like not showing the shark. Both are quite effective.

This invites the pinion which Grey spins. This is an existential adventure movie, all about man’s place in the scheme of things. A great deal of Grey revolves around survival, wolves or no wolves. The trailers I caught for Grey were misleading. Cleverly so. I expected to see Neeson in full Martin Riggs mode, hopped up on adrenaline, RockStar and adrenalin flaying rabid wolves into sausages.


Mostly Ottway and his fellow survivors are lost and fleeing. They aren’t really seeking civilization and rescue. They don’t know that. All they want to do is live, against all odds. It becomes clear by the second act that this is a fool’s errand. There’s no way out. The sooner you accept this the more rewarding the film becomes. Grey is not about hungry wolves preying on hapless plane crash survivors. It’s about big, bad Momma Nature tearing the humanity from our castaways and they eventually surrender to the inevitable. It’s not the days, it’s the strained desperation to live. For what? It all becomes a Sartre text  as our cast succumbs to the inevitable: facing mortality.

Does The Grey refer to the sneaking wolfpack or the middle ground between between right and wrong? The grey area, so to speak? I know I’ve beaten the whole existential idea to death here. We get it, we get it. Ottway et al are f*cked. Commence edgy navel gazing, suckling at mama wolf’s teat. Yeah, yeah. But there is the keen, terse monologues Ottway schpiels about battling wolves and bowing to Nature. Vulnerability, remember? Invites humanity.

Here’s a good example: “Stare right back.” Predators love a staring contest. It’s what makes your average beagle cover its nose and noisy cats scurry away. Look away first and you lose. Bite to the jugular. Such moments bait you into believing that these guys are in control. I mean, it’s true about “negotiating” with predators. Staring contest. But it’s weak sauce, a tease. Such moments lure us into a sense of false hope. Every time Ottway opens his mouth with some pithy reassurance that all will be well, it blows up in his face an the body count rises.

And seasoned acting from Neeson’s pedigree lets us rubes believe that all will work out for the better, even though we know it won’t. C’mon. Seven survivors from a plane crash into the gullet of Alaskan cruelty. No f*cking way they’re all gonna make it out alive. Maybe a few, but all? With such stakes? That sinking doubt with a few scrabbled scenes of “hope?” Thank God Ottway is there to keep the home fires  burning, especially when the alpha wolf is on the spit.

What keeps Grey alive (so to speak) is that there’s a lot of honest humanity at work. It’s the only defense. Our characters are cyphers, but well-placed cyphers. Ottway is the gruff, de facto leader of this rabble. Diaz is the tough guy. Talget is the sensitive one. And Burke is the expendable black dude. All our marks are in place. Relatable, draws you in. You can’t be on level with the impassive Alaskan mountains, except with submission. But the cast? Us against them—it. Sometimes against each other. That’s what matters here in our archetypal “man vs Nature” theme. Grey is more us. The wolfpack is the Maguffin. A keen one, but not the heart of the story. Keeping them in the shadows is. How our cast chew on each other drive the true plot: survival, plain and simple.

A thing I really dug about Grey was how plausible it was. Barring any old eps of The Jeff Corwin Experience, the dire circumstances that envelop our cast could (and likely has) gone down. As the Alaskan terrain casts it gloom down on our survivors, you get the feeling that someone did their research. Let me repeat that the whole man vs Nature device is a favorite plot device in film. Consider Jaws, All Is Lost, Dersu Uzala and to a certain degree the original Predator. Take modern man out of his comfort zone, let Nature run riot and hoo-boy the sparks will fly. I’m convinced that with a film like Grey, the environment should be a character in itself, and not just some backdrop. It should be some huge, wheezing behemoth of indifference casting a shadow over the hapless humans who dare tread in its domain. Grey is an excellent example of this process. You must give awe to Nature in order to ride along with Ottway and his rabble. The Edge, Into The Void and Jaws 2 (and 3, and 4) doesn’t respect that. Man trying to conquer Nature there. Plants a seed of warm fuzziness. Not welcome here with Grey. Again the cold, the lost and the hungry beasts waiting on the fringes cannot be ignored. And over two hours refuses to be. I may have mentioned that Grey is terse, to be sure. It’s also uber-existential. We have this dwindling septet of plane crash survivors still trying to survive against snow, hunger and the omnipresent specter of a wolfpack gnashing at their wobbly heels. Allows for pauses within the cadre to assess their situation. I’m not talking about some pithy, Sartre-esque soliloquies about bad faith and how tasty canis lupus regards human thighs. The dry, desperate instructions Ottway gravely states to his scared, reluctant team speak volumes about their (human) condition. Parting from Ottway’s dire fear, Momma Nature is keen to scream at us all is f*cked.

Just because Grey is relentlessly gloomy doesn’t make it a bad watch. Shocker. I only wax this philosophical when I dig the movie. Wait, that’s not true. A good many of my screeds here at RIORI involve pummeling cinematic disappointments, seen through a squinty, jaundiced lens. Not here. I thoroughly dug The Grey. Yes, it is downbeat. It’s harrowing. It denies popcorn. It backs up my philosophy above about working with nature instead of against it. But really that outlook would render this movie moot. It’s really about the humanity, ground down to the nub. So much so that our outcasts begin to mimic their perceived enemy.

Final note: The wallets? Ottway’s pack. The family he must defend. It’s futility incarnate. But it must be done.

That being belched, I appreciated the open-ended finale. Makes one’s imagination do the work. Like my quip about the Universe falling apart by design. Everything in Grey falls apart. Gloriously so.

“If you live among wolves you must act as a wolf yourself.” – Nikita Khrushchev

The Verdict…

Rent ir or relent it? Rent it. Another quote: “There are nights when the wolves are silent and only the moon howls.” George Carlin. The turned phrase feels fitting for a movie like this where all may be lost at a given moment. Yeah, howl.

Stray Observations…

  • Why a fountain pen? Subzero temps play hell with ballpoints. They clot and jam. Science!
  • “You’re gonna die; that’s what’s happening.”
  • Neeson’s facial abrasion gets rather distracting.
  • Grillo almost steals the show.
  • “Maybe I’ll turn into a wolfman now.”
  • So does this mean that makes Neeson the “alpha wolf?” (rimshot)
  • It’s almost as if Ottway needed this adventure.
  • “You wanna say anything?”
  • REDACTED‘s demise. Heartbreaking.
  • I may actually have to buy this movie. No bullish*t.
  • “We don’t belong here.”

Next Installment…

Will Farrell is an overly enthusiastic little league soccer coach, and the only way he’d deny his team a championship is by a lot of Kicking And Screaming.

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 83: Jason Reitman’s “Thank You For Smoking” (2005)

The Players…

Aaron Eckhard and Cameron Bright, with Maria Bello, David Koechner, Adam Brody, Sam Elliot, JK Simmons, Rob Lowe and Robert Duvall.

The Story…

In the competitive market of the tobacco industry, it’s good to have an “in” into the public mind to best promote cancer, heart disease, emphysema and a stinky wardrobe. That’s where guys like lobbyist Nick Naylor steps in.

He’s a shill for cigarettes and a single dad. He has scruples when it comes to rearing his bright son, but when Big Tobacco calls, he’s their sleazy, immoral mouthpiece.

So when the assignment of his career invites getting a very high profile for his efforts how can he convince his son his work is worthy?

Check that. Convince? Try con rather.

Smoke ’em if you got ’em?

The Rant…

Okay. Confession time. Again.

I am a smoker. Twenty years gone. I’m not proud of it but I won’t deny it either. Like the late, great Bill Hicks said, “I’ll smoke. I’ll get the cancer. I’ll die. Deal? Thank you, America.”

The fact that Hicks passed away from pancreatic cancer gives me pause. And some teensy bit of black hope. Denial is more than just a river in Africa.

My ugly habit emerged in my senior year of college. I was studying to become a secondary ed English teacher. Middle and high school students. It was a stress ball of the first degree, the curriculum, the course load. In addition to maintaining steady attendance of my regular classes, I had to shoehorn some time in the morning three hours a day, five days a week as student teacher at the nearest middle school. Those pre-pubers were a handful and a half. Never realized how short we all we back then. And mouthy. And at the dawn of the ‘rents blaming little Johnny and Janie for their sh*tty test scores on Teach being ineffectual whilst ignoring the thumb-worn PlayStation controllers and mouldering library cards. Ah, Millenials. Here’s the world you wrought on the public educational system.

To claim it was all a stress magnet is akin to suggesting that Gordon Ramsay may have a potty mouth. Us student teachers were shoved into an environment that not only took us away from other classes, but our very perception of reality. And let alone declaring said classes as the only classes that mattered at a university that virtually invented the liberal arts education, but also a responsibility of teaching our young charges by proxy. They may have been our kids (our “project”), but it was the host teacher’s class. Big diff, and a hand tying one at that. We as novices were supposed to have said hands on learning how to conduct a class. But the host teacher was stern, ever watching us to make sure we didn’t “undo” all that was learned prior to our intrusion. It was like perpetual internment in the principal’s office. Especially when us would-be educators proved the perfect foil to Teach when mom and dad came calling once again, Wii nunchuck wrapped around their necks.

Sleep deprived, coffee level low, profs scowling. A great many of us took to vices to counter the blows. Some began drinking more. Others turned to pot or even speed, which was hard to come by, but not impossible. Kept one alert, and since Red Bull hadn’t crossed the Atlantic yet it did the trick (not to mention sleep dep’ and teeth grinding). The rest of our lot of us took up smoking. Including me.

I eventually graduated, secondary English ed sheepskin in hand. I’ve since lost it, figuratively as well as literally. But the tobacco habit stuck. I won’t lie to you (this time), but my first forays into cigarettes were less that dignified. Sure, the puffing was mellowing, but the deeper intakes were wrenching. I puked quite a bit, but kept going back. Guess that’s how potent nicotine can be. I learned that drug stimulates your frontal lobes. Meaning it gives your brain a boost, thinking faster. Which is also why a drag clears your head for a bit, until it doesn’t. Then on to the next butt.

In itself, nicotine is harmful in a minor sense compared to way it’s delivered. Tobacco has all that tar that coats your lungs until they look like briquettes, f*cks up your pulmonary system into high blood pressure at best and choking the heart into cardiac arrest at worse. You might lose a lung. You might lose both. You might die.

Yet smokers keep sucking them devil cigarettes up, Grim Reaper be damned.

I know all this, yet I still haven’t quit, even though falling from grace a potential force for good molding minds around the beauty of Shakespeare, Stephen King and how to sight parental forgeries on crappy tests.

I instead entered the culinary world, where me and my misfit peers are poster boys for delinquency in the eyes of the American Lung Association. The booze and speed boosters are there, too. How do you want your steak cooked?

Why is this? I mean, beyond the head rush cigarettes lend? There is open science as to what cigarettes do, their damage and how pernicious their addiction can be. Yet a million miles of voice boxed words are ignored. Guess the research ain’t in yet, as Congress would lead you to believe.

Here’s a tale that may codify the typical tobacco addiction. I mentioned before that my first foray into smoking was less than Hollywood golden days glamourous. For some odd reason (perhaps it was the brand I got introduced to) my smoke of choice was the raspy Kamel Reds. Apart from Lucky Strikes, this was the late 20th Century take on inhaling steel wool soaked in lime juice for a week. I convinced myself they were yummy. After a late night at the cafe I worked at I put out half a pack of these devils and a few more on my way home. It was when the key hit the lock when the buzz rebelled. I darted to the toilet as if all the demons in hell were on my ass, awaiting my supple anus. I puked violently, the sputum reeking of lattes and smoke. I caught my breath, staggered out to the stoop and lit up.

That’s what it’s all about. Unsure on all fronts, but that post-barf cig sure cleared my brain. Of what I wasn’t sure. Here’s my point.

There is no point. Cigarettes are addictive and understandably no good for you, no matter what the lobbyists try to spin. They cause cancer and heart disease. It’s an open secret. So why does Big Tobacco insist on having lobbyists? Isn’t that in the government’s eyes (as well as popular opinion that reads things beyond what’s smeared on a smartphone) kinda suspect? Any cause embroiled in controversy deserves a spotlight, and Big Tobacco has been in the glare for decades. Precious little has happened beyond bigger warning labels. But people don’t really read anymore, right?

How does this happen, this commercial shadowplay? Money. Big money. Big lobbyist spin doctors backed by Big Tobacco backed by smoking assh*les like yours truly. We have met the enemy and they are us. Why does Big Tobacco, Big Pharma and the NRA never lay it down frankly what their agendum is? Bad for business, because we need that rush, keep the demons in our heads at bay and make sure non-Whites stay off their collective lawns.

This isn’t reactionary, populist, Alex Jones bile here. It’s (kinda) the truth. But the research isn’t in yet.

All this schadenfreude is suspect beyond the beyond. And it invites the question: what kind of doosh would promote this trash? Smoking is “cool?” That is so tired. It’s the trite throwaway reason tobacco-shilling rats claim what gets kids to smoke in the first place. On air, on screen. Doesn’t happen much these days. But wait! The endless Internet. YouTube. Vines. WordPress. There are always outlets to let the impressionable public that smoking looks is to be hip!

Nope. Smoking as cool is overrated, as well as wrong.

Millenials most likely never caught that scene in Now, Voyager where a suave Paul Henreid shares a smoke with femme fetale Bette Davis. Looked cool. Too bad most Millenials never saw Now, Voyager starring Paul who and Bette what. In black and white! Anathema. The scene was iconic, and very cool. But unless their Hulu stream is deep, viewers were smoking before the queue caught up.

Folks smoke to reduce stress. Looking cool caught smoking is so 20th Century. Passe. Stress, anxiety, headaches. The stuff of legend to the working class. Nothing cool there. Not to day traders, cops or willing educators. Stress is the total opposite of cool. Neither is the escape, be it cigarettes, beer or reds.

Put that in your pipe, lobbyists. And suck…

Nick Naylor (Eckhardt) is a dream. He’s a death merchant with a heart of gold. He’s a dedicated dad who’s got his son’s best interests in mind. He’s a committed business man committed to wreck and ruin. He’s hopelessly naive and keenly aware of the duties of his chosen profession. Of which is deplorable.

Nick is a lobbyist on the part of Big Tobacco. His job? Use his gift of gab to both decry and admit to the ups and downs of smoking in the same sentence. He’s very good at this spin, much to the chagrin of the people (barely) close to him. Like his son.

Nick’s job security is in flux. Turns out the Millenials are cleaning up their act. Smoking ain’t as “cool” as it used to be. Media, both open and social are decrying cigarettes and in turn folks are hanging up their Bics. Nick’s boss B.R. (Simmons) has made/concocted a scheme to secure their post. He sends Nick on his way to meet The Captain (Duvall), a venerated tobacco baron. The Captain has a ploy to make smoking “cool” again: get cigarettes in the back in the movies. Worked in his youth. So say Nick, how’s your generation coughing lately?

This would be Nick’s ultimate pitch, against all odds for his odious career to really take flight. Too bad tough-on-tobacco (the fantastically named) Senator Ortolan Finisirre (Macy) has his dander up. The opposite of Nick’s crusade, the senator views his crushing Big Tobacco would make his mark in the Senate.

And the race is on, all the way to the very Kool Hollywood…

There is comedy and there is black comedy. And there is tar black comedy.

Hang on. Before we go any further let me light up.

*cough, hack, spit*

Ever watch a black comedy whose premise is so wicked, so demented, so sensible you don’t know when to laugh? Thank You For Smoking is all that and more. Its send-up is so ridiculous, so absurd and so composed (not to mention dry) you have a hard time drawing the line between yuk-yuk and huh? Smoking makes you think so long go with it. Turn off, tune in, light up.

Smoking is the fine debut directorial effort of Jason Reitman. This movie is more or less his acid test. He went on to better things (Young Adult jumps immediately to mind, also covered here), but this his rough draft for future comedic triumphs. All the hallmarks are present. Very dry, wry humor. Offbeat without a Wes Anderson bent. His characters caught in moral trap of their own doing (and often undoing). It’s all naked here. Perhaps a tad too naked.

I make this claim based on after watching Smoking it creeped at corners that Reitman the younger had something to prove. He’s had some big shoes to fill with dad Ivan “Ghostbusters” Reitman and mom Genevieve “Casual Sex” Robert. Despite his stiff delivery with Smoking Jason honors no allegiance to the ‘rents. His idea of desperate comedy sniffs more of Jim Jarmusch than Jim Carrey. His muse is so dry it chafes. Smoking screams that. It also screams, “Wait, this is funny?”

And, surprise, Smoking was funny, but definitely not laugh out loud. Not even a snicker. The humor is passive. You can’t believe what you’re watching. We’re supposed to get behind a mealy-mouthed spin doctor who is a committed Dad who treats his child as a client to make him sympathize with the nature of his odious profession?

Uh, yeah.

You just gotta go with that. There are no overt one-liners to chuckle at. No sight gags (not really). Nothing broad. It’s all prickly and pointed. So much that you forget Smoking‘s supposed to be a comedy.   A black comedy. And we ain’t talking mid-80s Eddie Murphy fare.

Simply put, Smoking is not funny. Except when it wants to be. Hint at rather.

Ultimately, Smoking is a character study, right down to the voice-overs. That’s where to humor rears its cancer-ridden agendum. The banter amongst the caricatures. The desperate stereotypes. The flat affect of “just a job to do.” In the face of these very basic tropes, you gotta pay attention here. I mean, if you do laugh, it happens in the next scene.

So. It’s our rouges’ gallery mannerisms that carry the giggles. Character study, remember? Our antihero Nick. He’s our avatar through the dingy business of tobacco-pushing. He’s also the spearhead through this kooky cast of opportunistic, shallow government slimes to get a grip on all the ends that justify the means. All as cool and calm as winds across the Mojave.

That said, I think we found Eckhardt’s hacky acting niche. I’ve labeled the man reliably unreliable. Almost whatever score he blows based on coming across all plastic. For every exception (The Core, The Dark Knight) he drops the ball more than he catches (The Black Dahlia, Battle: Los Angeles). The guy’s talented, as well as narrow and compartmentalized. Flat affect, all the time. His agent must have a 20-20 lazy eye. Or Aspberger’s.

The flat presence works to his advantage in Smoking. Eckhardt’s Nick is a cypher. Add on what you may.  And that niche mentioned above? Being smarmy. He’s soaking in it. As well being in complete, convincing oblivion to it. It’s his job. He’s very good at. And it’s never about the smokes, not really. It’s about having purpose, regardless of the ends. Which are always quickly justified in the next choked breath.

The passive sense of humor here is Nick’s responses to his peers and superiors. Eckhardt is defiantly not funny. His Nick is anti-funny. It’s circle, quick with either a quip or a one-liner making smoking a worthwhile hobby—er, habit rather. While Nick sounds like Fox News, his supporting cast babbles like…well, Fox News about opportunism. Such opportunism paints Nick as the innocent here. There’s a Monty Python meets Woody Allen humor at work. Like I said about Reitman’s slow out of the gate start, the humor is dry but the premise is so preposterous. If Smoking as a whole wasn’t ridiculous (and being very good at that), the supporting cast would justify it as so based mostly on Nick’s passive responses to the weirdness he’s been dealt in the name of climbing the career ladder.

For the nonce, Nick is surrounded by a circus of oddballs directing his possible promotions, and he boinks off all of them and never really taking the baton. Simmons is his usual clipped, blustery self. Duvall chews scenery as the stereotypical Southern tobacco baron, mint juleps at the ready. Fellow spin doctors Bello and Koechner are the The Three Stooges in two, babbling about misery and corruption as business as usual while Nick quietly chews a steak. A cameo by Stanley Tucci as an anti-smoking terrorist. Sam Elliot as Sam Elliot. Nick’s whole mouthpiece is here’s another fine mess I’ve gotten myself into. The ping-pong ball delivery is where Smoking gets it’s irreverence. You don’t root for Nick. You’re not allowed to. But you’re allowed to boo and laugh at him, so hapless is his crusade backed by all these morons.

Overall, there is a veneer of some kind of satire happening. Big shocker. It’s razor thin between a PSA and a terminal facepalm. Here’s where Reitman may be pushing too hard. I say if there were any more symbolism here the script would’ve been transcribed via semaphore. Smoking‘s humor may be arid, satirical, absurd and trace but it’s supposed to be an outright comedy. Doesn’t fully reach that, what with being in the valley of the shadow. If Reitman was reaching for a black comedy subtly was absent. Based on that precept, Smoking is disagreeable but not unlikeable. That lack of subtlety was part of the gag, but was omnipresent and therefore got kinda tired. Fast.

So this installment’s been mixed. Since I know that Reitman was bound for greater things I give a pass to Smoking‘s pitfalls. I’m the sympathetic sort. I did get the joke, even without a single laugh. Big problem with the flick is that for all the manic, passive nonsense Smoking was busy, busy, busy. Too much happening all at once. Right. Pacing was rough. Like I said I got the joke…in the next scene.

This might be my most clinical take ever at RIORI. Might be because I’m a customer of folks like Nick and am trying to rationalize something. Maybe the film made me squirm with guilt of my nicotine habit. Maybe its chafing humor laid a giggle in my brain but my lungs were too weak to cough out an actual laugh. Whatever. Truth be told, Smoking was too loony, subdued and justifying the Ministry of Silly Walks to have me walk away with a feeling of contentment. Smoking made me feel both ugly and cynical at the same time. Credit Reitman’s yeoman’s work.

Light ’em up.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A sympathetic rent it. Consider this film a dry run for Reitman. Also the most pointed, absurdist PSA committed to film. Don’t smoke if you’re a burgeoning educator. And do smoke if you’re a burgeoning educator. A guy like Nick’ll get your back. Cough.

Stray Observations…

  • “Please don’t ruin my childhood.”
  • Aw crap. Katie Holmes. With Eckhart. All we need is Aniston for the ideal trifecta of gah.
  • “If you argue correctly you’re never wrong.” Not quite Hallmark territory. Even better.
  • The Birks might have been a bit too much.
  • “Get your ass on the next flight to Winston-Salem!”
  • I don’t think Nick’s kidding about his motive of “population control.”
  • “It’s an inside joke.”
  • Who isn’t slimy in this movie?
  • Angel wings on Joey’s back? We get it.
  • This movie felt like slow-burn (so to speak) Jerry Maguire in reverse.
  • “You wanna hug me here?”

Next Installment…

The Grey wolf is the second most specialized member of the genus Canis, after the Ethiopian wolf, as demonstrated by its morphological adaptations to hunting large prey, its more gregarious nature.

Like lost, injured and frostbitten humans.

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 82: Ron Howard’s “The Missing” (2003)

The Players…

Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Aaron Eckhart, Eric Schweig, Jenna Boyd, Evan Rachel Wood and Val Kilmer.

The Story…

Being a single parent—needless to say such—is a tough, often thankless job. At its worst, sometimes not even a rewarding one. This can be said especially when a family is splintered.

Maggie is a frontier doctor, a healer on the fringes aiding anyone who needs her help. Her rigid patience knows no illness. But when her estranged father Sam rides into her farm—a man very mixed up about who he is and why—her patience is tasked.

Maggie is not thrilled about his out of nowhere visit. Sam abandoned her long ago, and she’s tried to provide for her family as best as he didn’t. She tries to chase him away, but he came calling from exile for a very specfic purpose.

That purpose is made known when Maggie’s eldest daughter Lily goes…missing.

The Rant…

Here’s a milestone. Well over 100 movies scanned here at RIORI and never once did a western cross my path. I think that says something, either reflecting my tastes or The Standard bows to cowboys and Indians. I often don’t.

Westerns. Never been a big fan of the genre. Sure, I enjoy a good oater now and again. I fact, I have a few select movies. The list is short because when it comes to this particular genre, I’ve had to sift through a lot of trail dust to find a gold nugget. Namely, I don’t “get” most westerns.

It’s been said that the western movie is the genre that just won’t die. Funny phrase, considering how many of such films built the backbone of summer blockbuster season from the 70s until now. Think about it. Westerns were a hip thing post-war until the early 70s until a rogue shark took the bite out of them. Ha ha and shut up. If you want to get technical, the longest running program in the history of broadcast media was Gunsmoke. A radio drama in the 40s that evolved into a TV series in the 50s. The show ran until 1975. By the math Gunsmoke was the longest running series in the history of a serialized programs. That’s over a quarter century. Granted, Gunsmoke wasn’t a movie, but its long run illustrated the appeal of the western. Even The Simpsons has yet to catch up.

So why won’t the western die? I think it’s because the genre is very homespun. It’s based on truth and imagined truth that could’ve only happened in America. Sure, other cultures have their signature histories to draw from when it comes to filmmaking. The samurai film comes to mind. India has its Bollywood. There’s the “wire-fu” police action flicks in China. The myriad war movies from countries all over the globe (a prime example: Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot illustrating the exploits of a reluctant Third Reich submarine crew). All are made inherent to their own unique culture. The American western is no different. Consider this: John Wayne could not have been born in Belgium. Marion Morrison maybe, but not the Duke.

That being said, the reason the western won’t roll over and die from a rattlesnake bite is that it’s a uniquely American genre. Sure, there have been lots of western plots lifted from foreign films (eg The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful Of Dollars, etc), but the transplant is couched in a scenario that is distictly American. The gunslinger as knight, exchanging the blade at the hip for a pair of sturdy Colts in the holsters. It ain’t exactly swords n’ sorcery, but the idea hangs on myth, legend and truth. Historical escapism, if you will.

Maybe this displacement and ideation with the western is the notion of the lone hero, serving king and country. The almighty “law.” America never had knights, samurai or stormtroopers (not the Star Wars kind, you dip). Warriors who swore fealty to their masters, bound by a sense of honor to guide them. Now it’s understood that the western idealized the notion of the lone gunman, a solitary force for good against corruption trampling the common folk. If you’ve read your history (and sure as hell I didn’t), most fabled lawmen were less than savory characters. Heroes not. I mean, Bat Masterson got his name for pistol-whipping felons rather than shooting them outright (might be viewed as virtuous, but it sure had to hurt to twitching). The real Jesse James was a merciless crook, not some Robin Hood (prob’ because there was no real Robin Hood). Hell, even the virtuous Wyatt Earp began his career in law enforcement as a gambler. As far as cinematic entertainment goes, most of our Old West “heroes” were scoundrels and scofflaws before seeing the light. Such as it were.

Perhaps that’s the trick why the western movie won’t roll over and die. Paired with the faulty notion of honor against evil and being a (mostly) unique American concoction of history mixed with legend that holds its appeal. Probably not much different that the occasional period piece by Kurosawa. After all, a ronin works for money, not to honor the emperor. I don’t think supporting your local sheriff has much pull on presidential policy. But in the final analysis, we plop down our ducats for popcorn and trail dust. That’s that. Entertainment. Uniquely ‘Muricun. Pass the sarsaparilla and nachos.

And me? I feel the issue I take with westerns is most seem repetitive and carbon copy; the tropes are almost always front and center. Sure, cinephiles rave on about Clint’s spaghetti years, the Duke’s powerhouse, revisionist stuff like Stagecoach, The Searchers and True Grit (and to an extent, his first leading role Tall In The Saddle, the meta western). High Noon is a classic for its social commentary. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid for it’s irreverence. Unforgiven for being just plain bad ass. But people get in a twist over the classics. The Magnificent Seven, Rio Bravo, the aforementioned Leone “Dollars Trilogy.” These are all high watermarks, if not boilerplate. And aren’t they really few and far between?

Truth be told, in the heyday of westerns a saturation point reached a fever pitch in the mid-50s until the late 60s. Blame the godly presence of the Duke and the vicarious appeal of mean ol’ Clint. We remember the good stuff fondly and forget about trash like the recent Lone Ranger debacle. Memory sees with a blurred lens.

Why I ask? Why is there such a narrow window of successes in westerns? I mean, they do happen. Even a blind squirrel blah yadda yak. Because the good sh*t regarding westerns buck the trend. Face it. What I’ve learned from watching westerns with my father from childhood into adolescence, a great many of the movies retread over one another. The tropes are dyed in steel wool. Loner cowboy, seething villain, gunplay, plots involving kidnapping/treasure/the natives being restless, etc. I feel 90 percent of westerns are a revolving door, and the only reason the genre refuses to die is because it buoyed by the above gold standards. It’s kinda like reverence for Lipps Inc’s “Funkytown.” Great song, but what else? Flash in the pan and all that it delivers. Comparing that to westerns we’d all like to hear “867-5309/Jenny” over and over again than the repetitive catalog of Counting Crows. Talk about a long December.

Hey. Even I’m not totally immune to the lure of a good, unique hoof-in-mouth. I may be a cynic, but I’m a movie fan first. Second. Sorry, my cynicism overrides all. Surprise. Now sit still or else I peel off more duct tape. Struggling will only make it hurt more.

So. The westerns I’ve truly taken to heart? I mean barring the biggies already mentioned here’s the short list and why. Mine’s a very short list. Snap out of it, and please wipe the Cheetos residue from your chest. Thank you.

Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado. It’s the “greatest hits” package of westerns. Every trope, gadget and cliche litter this little gem. And I love it. The cast is awesome (Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover and a refeshingly emotive young Kevin Costner). There’s a lot of humor, sometimes winking. Lots of flashy gunplay. A despicable, heavy villain (Brian Dennehy). A rather tricky plot, too. You don’t really get the stakes until well into the second act. It’s a satisfying slice of western hodgepodge, even if you don’t dig westerns. Silverado is a post-modern western that wears it’s heart on it’s sleeve. I recommend it for a lazy Saturday afternoon. Red River it ain’t, but yee-ha all the same.

Peter Hyams’ Outland, a sci-fi take on High Noon. A lot of folks back in the day panned Outland as a rip-off, despite it’s timely tale of subjugated laborers with no union support as well as starring my main man Sean Connery. But it retains a certain charm, soft High Noon in outer space. Talk about frontier territory. I know, I know. The setting is a mining facility on the Jovian moon Io (mining and westerns go together like PB and J), so there’s an eye-roller. A funny one. We also have 007 as a disgruntled marshall. Marshall, not cop. Regional police force, transient. Drifter? Peter Boyle as the tyrannical general manager, always turning a blind eye to corruption (which feeds his wallet). And Connery’s O’Neill having something to prove, if not against the corrupt system then to himself. And his girl grizzled Doctor Friday in the form of Frances Sternhagen who’s tired of the sh*t afoot at Con-Am 27 who lends a hand. Sounds like a western to me. It’s best to watch this B-movie pastiche as not a SF movie but…, well, you know. Outland is revisionist, post-modern western. It has that going for it, which is nice.

Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. ‘Nuff said.

Notice none of those three movies were cut during the halcyon days of Hollywood’s Death Valley days. Silverado was released in 1985, and Outland in 1980 (the tail end of the SF boom thanks to Star Wars: A New Hope). Saddles dropped in ’74, a year effectively removed from the days when John Wayne and Clint chomping on a beadie were long gone. That’s how my mind works, even after seeing the “classics” of the genre. And I only caught High Noon for the first time on Amazon Fire last month. Good movie. Slow learner.

In the longview, seeing the classic westerns preps you for seeing the post-modern ones. They stink of a history there, be it Vaseline streaked across the the lens of memory (historic as well as cinematic). But it creaks the door open, invites curiosity. Help yourself. Westerns can be a melange of fun, revisionist history, recalling young America as lawless and on the fringes. Using too much dynamite paired against making the decision to name a lone wolf Two Socks. These touchstones are a patriotic reminder and appeal as to why the western genre just won’t die.

I’m not anti-western, but such movies and all their retreads better try real hard to reel me in. It’s too bad, but there’s a lot of dross to sift through regarding most westerns. Most folks don’t have the patience and simply look for the tin badge.

Loss leader. Based against the above criteria, it was kinda like…

Maggie (Blanchett) is a frontier doctor. A healer to the locals. From bloodletting to amputation to infected tooth extraction she does it all. Not that she’s comfortable with it, nor her small family either. She could do better. But it pays the bills, and she’s very good at her practice. Maggie feels her work is essential to keeping her fragile family together.

Mentioning fragile, one day Maggie’s estranged father Sam (Jones) wanders onto her farm with no fanfare. She’s displeased, this wastrel daring to ride into her life of career and quaint domesticity. A world away from the whirlwind of her youth that Sam invited.

An uneasy alliance is granted, with Maggie’s beau Brake (Eckhart) does the Christian thing and lets Sam crash in the barn. Under his watchful eye Sam lets Brake in on some science; he didn’t come here on some whim. The wind blew him here, to protect his lost family.

Brake hears Sam out, and figures he means well but is also full of crap. Brake feels his resolve is enough to protect his adopted family. But from what? Unsure.

Brake’s daughter Lily (Wood) can’t stop bemoaning her mixed family’s life arrest. If Maggie is such a gifted healer, why the hell are they all stuck in the middle of nowhere? The city beckons, with opportunity and away from all these diseased Indians. Lily soon has her fill and bolts. And disappears.


Sam sniffed at something, so he asks of his estranged daughter to join together and go find Lily. Because who took Lily is far worse than any infected teeth that need pulling…

I won’t lie to you (much), but I caught The Missing in its first theatrical run. It was 15 years ago, and memories get blurry. When I was sifting through potential RIORI subject matter via Box Office Mojo and The Numbers The Missing popped up. By its budget against its gross I was surprised how much of a mediocre tally the film received. It was a Ron Howard movie, after all. And Opie rarely lets an audience down.

I recalled digging The Missing. Then again I was hopelessly hooked on Valium and whiskey at the time, so my memory of the show might’ve been a bit hazy. I remembered Jones as a wannabe Apache. I didn’t remembered how I got home from the multiplex. Let’s just say I was glad my apartment didn’t have a pool in the backyard.

*takes the life jacket off*

Anyway, my fractured memory recalled The Missing being pretty good, despite what the Tomatometer claimed. And me not being a big fan of westerns, the fact the movie left a positive impression that rekindled my memory here. A woozy impression, to be sure, but also inviting enough curiosity to take a chance and watch it again. Standard be damned?

15 years can be a long time, especially without downers as a crutch. Let me address you wastrels burnt out on weed for the umpteenth time at the local midnight viewing of Rocky Horror, stuff can look at lot clearer when you wipe off your metaphorical eyes. So I bellied up, took a squeegee to my bleary, doubtful eyes and tackled The Missing for a second time. And this time I paid attention. So here’s what I saw.

It was a different kind of movie this time around. What I once saw as engaging turned out to drag. Being under-initiated with the so-called “nuances” of westerns, this time out and many moons later I found my attention wavering. To the point, it took four nights to watch The Missing, interrupted by the need to sleep. In my bed, instead of on the couch with the remote stuck to my hot little hand, Cheez-It crumbs littering the carpet. Well, okay. The crumbs were already there (my nonexistent Dustbuster broke).

As do the tropes that can stink up a decent, left-of-center western. Must sound like my sophomore, somewhat sober viewing of The Missing made for a fallen-scale, lousy viewing experience. Not at all and not really. Turned out my muddy memory was too off the mark. True, a lot of Missing was derivative, but I found it was all about the packaging. Yet again, like the blues: it’s not the notes, it’s how they’re played.

Missing does possess all the bored hallmarks of a typical western, the kind I bitched about. The movie’s a bit too straightforward at times, but its saving grace is that it retains its own signature. There is a lot of “displaying” here. We do have “show” but its often interrupted by too much “tell.” But when “show” comes into play, Missing can be exciting as well as harrowing. A lot of Missing is staging. Stages set for big deal ugliness (eg: Brake’s undoing, Lily’s captivity, Kilmer opening fire on Jones, etc), but it sometimes feels like it takes for-bloody-ever to get there. This is a tale of urgency overall; a teen girl REDACTED by a psycho Apache. She must be found at any cost. Provided that cost can be cashed via tracking shots. And Jones playing cowboy and Indian.

Stuff like that made Missing all gummy, slowed things down and placed the necessary urgency on pause. Watching Missing recalled the minor gripes I had with some of Howard’s other efforts; fun films that stretched, as if to allow breathing room to assure the audience that all will be well, stay in your seats. Putting aside the dark matter of Howard’s more grim features like Missing, there is always this “sunniness” that can’t be escaped. An optimism against ugly circumstances. That helped buoy the film, considering that Missing possessed the stinging crime of sluggish pacing. I often had a feeling of “get on with it” watching Missing, yet I could not but help feel a need to pay attention, no matter how much of a chore it was (pacing, remember?). That Howard optimism kept me watching, the seed planted in back that I knew things would work out, but how?

That was the hook that kept me engaged, over the boring, stereotypical western gimmicks that could either float or sink a genre film. Wait. That isn’t exactly accurate. Missing played out as a western, but at heart it was a mystery. Missed that the first time. And I liked how the mystery unfolded, better than the trite western movie gobbledygook. One had to shift their view to appreciate Missing. All the western schtick was eyewash, blurring the corners and denying the conscientious western fan…well, everything. I say again, Missing ain’t no oater. It’s a whodunnit, and for all the better.

I liked how the mystery unfolded. To be sure, the movie drags a lot, but only against western expectations. I heard once on NPR that it’s better to watch the first six Star Wars out of order so to appreciate the series better. Namely, don’t watch The Phantom Menace to Return Of The Jedi straight through. Mix the chapters up (can’t recall the order suggested. Sorry you geeks). Twitch out the already established expectations. Might let you see the Jedi vision quest in a different light. Watching The Missing is kinda like that. Once you understand all that staging is bleeding western movie and all the snores they create, drop the sandwich and get your Hercule Poirot on. Follow the clues as to why Lily was nabbed and follow the trail. Hey, Tommy Lee Jones is your wingman. Should be a cool trip.

And Jones was quite the trip. Weak and willing. Shiftless and transient. Hangdog a mile wide, almost as practice for No Country For Old Men. Whipped dog, shuffling back into his past. And that hair, either a really good wig or a dedication to the role. Whatever. We get the impression that Sam had a more fulfilling experience with his adopted Apache family that with his daughter. Little wonder why Maggie has such contempt for her absentee dad. And Jones appeared to have been doing okay. Maudlin, but okay.

Okay. So Jones is Jones. Fine. But here Cate is Cate, and very well played as such. Her Maggie is fragile without being weak. Uncertain without waffling. Driven yet quiet. Desperate in the best way to characterize Maggie. Not sweating bullets over the fate of Lily, but more like the Talking Heads’ rendition of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River” (how’s that for left field?). Battling against the unsure. The stakes are dire, and Maggie is barely holding her own, but she never breaks. Just bends, usually under the reluctant sway of estranged dad Sam. She’s a strong lead with a long shadow.

The only carp I have with Maggie’s character could be laid at the feet of the scenarists. Meaning how often does she need to hammer on Sam about him being a crappy father? It borders on whining, especially in the light that Sam is trying to reach out and amend (despite his dubious motives). At the outset we get it; Sam went off the reservation. And Maggie never got over it. It’s a significant plot point, to be sure, but her nagging does a lot to undo her independent strength at the lead. Maybe there was a motive there, but I just didn’t see one. Hers is again a minor carp, but it was like a splinter in my heel. I could walk, but not very fast. It f*cked up the pacing. Sorry.

Missing made me understand why Eckhardt is a better better supporting actor that a lead. Remember him as Harvey Dent/Two-Face in The Dark Knight? Exactly and there you go. Ignoring the glowing praise I gave him as the lead in The Core (that flick’s goofiness let his on screen awkwardness shine), every other film I’ve seen with the guy as leading man was clunky and off-putting (and a lot of his flicks have showed up here a RIORI a bit too often). He’s a lot better as a sideman. His Brake (telling name) for the first act reels the desperation in. A calm voice of reason. Things go off the tracks pretty fast with Missing. It’s good to have a person to put things in perspective, even if your valorous efforts results in you ending up as smoked REDACTED. In the endgame, Eckhardt’s character set the pace for the hunt for Lily, and a fire under Maggie’s ass. Preserve the family, at all costs. Brake showed the way into the plot. Eckhardt should be hired for more roles like this, even at the cost of reeking of bacon. Watch the thing.

Even though Howard’s films can get edgy, pointed but still remain fun, Missing doesn’t pan out that way. It’s bleak, downtrodden and outright brutal at times. I know I said that the majority of Richie’s films possess a shine of optimism, that all will work out well in the end. That plays out here, too, but it’s all hazy. We know Lily will get rescued, that much is certain. This is a Ron Howard film, after all. But everything is delivered in a gauzy fog. There’s this pall cast over the movie, definitely casting curtains of the hope. Missing is a meditation on rape culture. How females are subjected and subjugated as entertainment. Granted, Lily is dragged into a market of snatch for sale, but such a plot device (book or movie) is a prevalent and popular one, and not well wedged into Howard’s oeuvre. Namely, it gets icky.

Rape culture is a vicious, pernicious plot device applied in many non-R rated flicks regarding how the male/female dynamics may play out in relation to…well, relationships. Superbad is a fine example; score booze to score babes. The convo between Jake and Farmer Ted after the party went tits-up in Sixteen Candles. All of the original Porky’s. The threat of Lily getting sold off is a major plot point for Missing, if not the plot point. Hell, she’s the MacGuffin here, which sets the story in motion. Ugly. We’re set up to believe this is a family drama, and we get some rube photographer ready and willing to take a casual snap of Chidin’s harem. Giggle, giggle. This is indeed ugly, cleverly undoing Howard’s PG-13 history. I’m not sure that even Howard was aware of the hornet’s nest he kicked. It undid the shine, made Missing creepy and left fans uncertain. I liked that, but I wasn’t sure I liked it.

The Missing is Howard’s first uncertain picture. The optimism is there, but only on the fringes. The casting was secure, as was the straightforward story. The pacing was mostly okay (when Cate didn’t sermonize). Framing was impeccable.

So why did I feel unsatisfied?

Maybe this time out I was clean, able to see the chinks in the armor. Missing was still a solid movie, with its moments and its head-scratchers. It was awkward at times, like about what was trying to be said. Was it a family drama, a rescue mission, post-modern western, a meditation on rape culture? Not sure on any fronts. Guess that’s the movie’s major flaw. It didn’t know what it was supposed to be.

Neither did I. But I liked it. Still liked it.

Pass the roofies.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, but with blinders. There’s a lot going on here if you’re observant. And if you’re not, have another. At least Eckhardt doesn’t hang around long. Not as long as Jones’ hair.

Stray Observations…

  • “I’m afraid we have just enough food for a family.” The table is set.
  • Blanchett’s facial emoting is incredible. Never overwrought.
  • “You’ll live.”
  • The blanket scene. Something about it.
  • “I don’t know her name!”
  • The production quality isn’t as “grainy” here as with most post-modern westerns. Might be a result of modern camera work.
  • “Let him go. I don’t care.”
  • Jones growls too much. At times it gets hard to understand his lines.
  • “No.”
  • As always with a Howard film, great cinematography.
  • “They are enlisted men.”
  • Dot is a junior badass.
  • “I asked you if you wanted some sage on your fish.” Oddly, this moment seemed to capture the feel of the entire film.

Next Installment…

Aaron Eckhart (sigh) is a shill. Not that time this time. He’s going to the line for big tobacco, and bid all Thank You For Smoking. Cough.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 81: Greg Mattola’s “Paul” (2010)

The Players…

Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, (and the endless voice of) Seth Rogen, with Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, David Koechner, Jane Lynch, John Carroll Lynch, Blythe Dinner, Jeffery Tambor and Sigourney Weaver.

The Story…

A pair of dyed-in-wool British sci-fi geeks are taking holiday in the US southwest. Not just for attendance at the big deal Comic-Con, but also to scope out historic UFO sightings in the vast wilderness.

They get more than they bargain for.

Chugging along in their RV late at night on the highway they narrowly avoid a serious car crash. Feeling their civic duty to check on the driver, they’re beyond shocked to discover a for real alien behind the wheel.

Some smelling salts later, they learn his name is Paul, and he needs their help getting home.

It turns out for our trio, “home” is a relative term.

The Rant…

A while back I covered Sam Raimi’s Oz, The Great And Powerful, a rompy prequel to the classic Victor Fleming opus, the third (and best) cinematic interpretation of L Frank Baum’s opus, The Wizard Of Oz. I also went on record that I was never keen to fantasy. Wasn’t interested in Tolkien’s film adaptations. Never saw (nor read) any of the Harry Potter series. Never even was barely curious about watching (or reading) Game Of Thrones. Beyond Fleming’s idea of Oz, the closest thing to fantasy films I ever dug was…well, Oz, The Great And Powerful. Mila Kunis made for a cool Wicked Witch Of The West. As well as Meg Griffin, just to play to the fanboys.

Speaking of fanboys, despite being meh on fantasy I’m big on science fiction. Last time I waxed nostalgic on being exposed to Ridley Scott’s signature flicks, namely Alien and Blade Runner. Sci-fi films in the barest sense. Sure, both flicks took place in the future, where malign tech and nasty, slobbering xenomorphs reigned supreme. I also spoke of my young poisoning of the mind catching both Star Wars: A New Hope and ET: The Extra-Terrestrial in the theater around age six.

However neither of those pairings really stuck. They piqued my interest, sure, about “out there, somewhere.” But the sci-fi gateway drug was (surprise) Star Trek. That and a few Arthur C Clarke books and Time magazine’s compendium of how the universe worked. For sure. Bless your local library. And put down the damned smartphone.

Yeah. Trek. A giver. I remember the very time I got into it. I was 14, and rolling on the couch like a desiccated hot dog back and forth on the lukewarm washboard at your local Sheetz. I had my wisdom teeth impacted, and my jaw felt like a strained jack holding up a Mack truck. I all I could eat was yogurt and all I could do was churn on the couch and watch TV. It sucked.

Cold compact pressed against my mandible, I surrendered to the idiot box. Didn’t want to read or listen to music. The NES controller grew dusty. The remote was sticky in my mitt (when I wasn’t groaning rubbing my on fire jaw) as I channel surfed. Saw the usual “Disney Afternoon;” (yes, I was in high school and still watching cartoons. I had yet to experience the oys and joys of p*ssy and beer. We could both do worse). I was a fan of the wry DuckTales, the silly Chip N’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers and the very good superhero send-up Darkwing Duck. These pastiches ran from 3 PM to 5, where after the syndicated series’ reruns rerun.

Cutting to the chase, at clear 5 every afternoon the local cable affiliate aired both the previous and recent episodes of Star Trek: The Generation starring that lovable dork from PBS’ Reading Rainbow, Levar Burton. More on that soon.

Sooner than later, I had idly caught an ep of TNG once and saw big bro Levar wearing a golden hair clip across his eyes, wearing tight red pajamas scouring the deck of a damaged starship deck.

The hell? But don’t take my word for it. Ha.

Even at 14 I also dug Reading Rainbow. Our host Levar was a piece of work, promoting literacy on PBS. He came across, convincingly, as the cool older brother who knew stuff. Seeing him with a banana clip over his face made me ask “What the crap?” So with aching missing teeth, I stayed tuned in after Darkwing ended. And gradually the scales fell from my eyes.

I enjoyed the drama. I liked the dialogue. I dug the character interplay. The Enterprise-D looked like a mall in space. Worf’s ever evolving face was funny. I slowly got hooked. Darkwing what?

The affiliate was burning through the fourth season at the time during the week I learned. Saturday evening was last week’s ep followed by the latest installment. I punished my parents before the big screen to tolerate my new addiction before Saturday primetime. And a small win there. Once Paul Sorvino was a guest star on a TNG so even my stalwart Dad set the remote down for that episode.

I swiftly nabbed every episode I could nab. The older sh*t I rented from my local library (remember the 20th Century?) TNG became a fast addiction. I later checked out the original series to compare notes. The drama/humor/intrigue dynamic failed to falter. I was seriously hooked. Not a bad way to go for a stone cold sci-fi fanboy. Now stone cold.

So what else to do, when one is a Trekkie, anathema to the opposite sex, hanging out after school with all-female friends who loved to re-watch Aliens over and over who had no interest in my flaccid…that.

Star Trek-Con!

We went to a handful back in the day, right outside Philly. My friend’s dad was patient in driving us out to the convo (we all had lisences, but no car. How we suffered), dropped us all off at the convention center and spun back to the homeland ASAP. Probably didn’t want to get contaminated. He suffered our endless afternoons carved into the latest MST3K installment enough. He hated tribbles, I guess.

So we were let loose at the Trek convention. It was cool. Really. I mean if you were into sci-fi in all its guises—be it movies, TV, comics or related curios—the whole Trek theme fell by the wayside. Lots of booths with their hawkers peddling the above goodies, not unlike a malign, stellar flea market akin to a space opera wall of a TGIFriday’s shot through a Waring blender.

It was a circus. Folks dressed as out of shape Klingons. Folks dressed as the forceable Borg (lots of dead aquarium paraphernalia put to good use there). Folks dressed as Starfleet Acadamy recruits who could never pass the physical. Also writers, artists, actors earning some beans schilling their former stage and/or screen glories.

And the stars. The real reason why we came.

Consider this. There have been TV shows that have ran far longer than Trek in all its iterations. The original Law & Order. The Simpsons. Even Gunsmoke, before God. MASH still maintains the highest ratings for its finale pales in comparison to the mere three seasons the original Trek graced the grey screen, and us Trekkers get our conventions. It is to wonder.

Three stories from the front, in degrees of artistic appreciation of sci-fi openness that Trek allowed me. From up to down.

First: Sir Patrick Stewart. Capt Picard himself. He wasn’t knighted then, but a was bright light for us dorks. He was the primary guest on the list that day. We all sat in attendance, and Stewart let most of the Trek questions roll off his back.

Stewart suffered our endless TNG questions well enough. The rest of the time he promoted his one-man show of A Christmas Carol on Broadway, a big deal thing back in the day, prob’ cuz it was very un-Trek and most likely what the man needed as a prophylactic to chatting with Number One for the umpeenth about what to do with the dang communication breakdowns with the pesky Romulans.

But Stewart was a stage actor first, born and bred. I recalled when I accidentally saw I, Claudius on PBS (was probably searching for the latest Reading Rainbow installment). I took note of the actor playing Sejanus. That voice. Now the body attached to the voice was voicing to all us geeks. I smelled an opportunity, perhaps once in a parsec. I raised my hand and Stewart called me out.

“Yes, young man?”

“Mr Stewart, I understand you were a student of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The Bard never wrote science fiction. I don’t think there was any context at the time—

(laughs from the acne-ridden peanut gallery)

—however, I seen you on TNG for years and often wondered how the Shakespearean Method has been imprinted on your Picard character. It can’t be denied the method, but the setting, the scenes on TNG don’t really permit Shakespeare. Drama, yes, but also this context makes me curious. What permitted Sejanus to wear the Captain’s uniform? And to what end?”

(boos from the zits)

Stewart set the mike at his hip and snickered. He raised the thing back up to his lips:

“Young man, you do know where you are right now, correct?”

I didn’t falter. “Yes. We’re here at a Star Trek convention appreciating your appearance. But also it’s also my opportunity to sweat a respected Shakespearean actor to how he’s applied his craft to a space opera, co-starring a guy who pushed books and had the hair clip at the wrong end.”


Stewart giggled, then grinned, “Son, I’m glad you asked me that!”

And he went into a tear about his time with the Theatre, TNG never really hammered on. I was glad. My fellow dorks weren’t. C’mon, if you were alone in a looked room with your favorite writer, would you really ask about how they held a pencil? Doubts even here.

The next late of this trilogy isn’t mine, but too sweet a treat to deny you bored readers. Still makes me smile.

An old roomie of mine was a Trekkie, and once made his pilgrimage to Mecca. Mr Banana Clip Levar Burton was a guest. Due to contractual obligations my crafty friend heard he wasn’t permitted to sign autographs. Pishaw. My buddy knew the secret knock. He cornered Burton after he left the bathroom and leapt on him.

“Mr Burton, can I have your autograph?

He waved his hands. “I’m not allowed to give out autographs, sorry.”

“Well, could you sign this?”

My friend waggled a book in front of Burton. A Reading Rainbow book.

Burton grinned, snatched the picture book from him and said “Gimme that. What’s your name?” He pulled a pen out of nowhere.


Burton scrawled on the cover page: To my friend Lucas, keep on reading. Your friend, Levar Burton.”

Cool right? Better than catching the pick after Keef’s third encore solo.

And finally, the reason why we sci-fi morons congregate the way we do. For the big game.

My last tale hems the pants of my convention days. High school was ending and assumed maturity of going to college after summer. One last night flight. That and another jillion Aliens viewings waiting. You can take the gorilla out of the jungle, but…

We all went, me and my trio of proto-Ani Difranco friends. It was sovereign this time. We’d already seen the sights at the convo a dozen times over. Same hotel, same sh*t. There were only so many lead soldier Geordis for sale one could pore over. This time it wasn’t about the goods. It was the goods.

The guest of honor was Leonard “Mr Spock” Nimoy. We were thrilled. Doy.

The man had done it all. An old hand. Nimoy was a star of stage, screen, photography, writing, music (for good or ill), directing and all things logical. When he took the mic—shocker—standing O. It was funny. For decades we watched Nimoy’s exploits on TV and later on the big screen. We scrutinized every twitch of the eyebrow or ear. We ingested his lines. We saw him get McCoy’s goat regularly.

We never saw him smile. Let alone laugh.

Like I said, the guy was an old pro, and not just being an actor. He had been pounding the beat at Trek convos since their inception. Again, an old hand, and he had us all in the palm of his.

He came well prepared. He had a PowerPoint presentation, flicking through outtakes of TOS, explaining the minutiae of how the show was put together. We were enraptured. Some were drooling.

The cherry on the sundae was how Nimoy as Spock invented the Vulcan salute. “Live long and prosper” and all that jazz. The screenshots he presented were from an episode where Spock returned to Vulcan with his human buddies Kirk and McCoy as witnesses to some ancient Vulcanian rite of passage. There was a quick scene of Spock addressing the “queen” with the salute. We well knew the episode. It was etched in our Clearasil-scarred brains.

Nimoy paused the scene and calmly explained the scene and the gesture all we Trekkies do rather than shake hands with one another’s sweaty, mealy palms. The Vulcan salute’s origin. It’s a cool story, really. Even if your not a Trekker. Pull up a seat.

When Nimoy was a kid in Brooklyn, he hailed from an orthodox Jewish family. Missing temple on Saturday was verboten. It was Talmudic law. Best not piss the Big Guy off. Like most Christian practices, there was a benediction at the end of the service. May God bless you and keep you and so on. The Benediction usually occurs at the narthex, where the prelate and acolytes praise the congregation for their audience. JC approved.

The Jews have something similar, but at the front of the altar. Nimoy and his father knew the routine. Close your eyes, kneel, pray and don’t open your eyes. We’re talking don’t look, Marion.

Of course Nimoy did. He said he was six. Seemed logical at the time.

He witnessed the cantor with armed outstretched and speaking is Hebrew. His hands were formed in the shape of a familiar alien greeting, thumb and fingers separated in the middle of the palms. According to Nimoy, the gesture was a representation of the Hebrew character shin, which is supposed to represent a wish for a fruitful life, and also practice actions that would help others find their way.

Sound familiar? Was to us nerds. Nimoy co-opted the gesture and meaning for the Vulcanian salute. “Live long and prosper.”

All of us in the enraptured audience in unison went, “Ohhhhh. Okay.” Grins all around.

Cool Hand Spock suffered our questions well, with much patience and humor. I reiterate, guy was an old pro. Talked about goofing around on the set. What a card Shatner was, always pranking him. And DeForest “Bones” Kelley was really a sweetheart, miles away from cantankerous Dr McCoy. It was revealing. Not just hearing about how the sausage was made, but how communal the cast was. A family. Shat, Bones and Nimoy were buddies as well as co-workers. So were the rest of the cast of TOS.

It was not unlike us Trekkies. Most strangers to be sure, but not unlike rowdy Philadelphia “Fly Eagles Fly” football fans, vintage vinyl collectors and online gamers. It’s a community, often congregating in their chosen forums to revel and high-five over their culty, pet hobbies. It enables camaraderie that, let’s face it, outsiders wouldn’t “get.”

I believe that is the appeal of both Star Trek cons and Birds’ tailgating alike. Like-minded folks immersing themselves in their fetish, where strange, disparate weirdoes can make friends. Among others who “get it.”

Like with sci-fi cons, fast friendships can be formed, forged in the arcana of Star Trek, Warhammer and the rioting that followed the Cubs winning the series. Bonds formed with people who get it, and snubbing the poor schlubs that don’t. Their loss. Resistance is futile.

Well okay, one more: a prime example of this is a tale from one of my bar buddies, also a Trek enthusiast. He attended a con where James “Scotty” Doohan was the guest of honor. He was in ill-health, kinda dinged in the head, recovering from a stroke (which left him speechless. Literally) and stuck in a wheelchair. There was a lightyear long queue for getting his autograph. According to my bud, the stroke rendered his penmanship a bit wobbly. Read: inscrutable.

My pal patiently waited in line. He noticed that Doohan could barely hold his Sharpie and basically scrawled a blur across the fanboys well-worn copies of Mr Scott’s Guide To The Enterprise. My friend wasn’t interested in scribblings. He wanted to chat with The Man.

His turn came and with no pretense he greeted him in a tone that could wake the lame and the halt (which was kinda the point):

“Jimmy! Lookin’ good! Hey, what do ya say we ditch this joint? Got a great bar upstairs, How ’bout we do some shots of whisky?”

Doohan’s droopy face lightened up. Grinning, he craned his head up to look at his daughter who was escorting him and smiled. She shook her head no. Scotty frowned.

“That’s okay, Jimmy. When yer kid has to hit the head we can skeedadle!”

Again the grin, again the frown.

“Anyway, heard you were signing stuff?” He held out a well-worn VHS jacket of Star Trek: The Animated Series. Doohan got the role on TOS based on his rep for being a skilled voice actor. Doohan was Scotty as well as Arex as well as all the ancillary voices voices on both series.

“Do me the honor?”

Smiles again. Doohan raised a shaky, outstretched hand and accepted the case. He held the Sharpie in both hands and slowly, carefully wrote on it in very clean script, “For my friend, George.” Clear as a sunny day. Too bad shots didn’t later ensue in celebration. A few months later Doohan passed away, but my bud has his “real” autograph to remember him by.

That’s kind of family feeling Trek cons create. As do tailgates and the SXSW festival. We get it. And so sorry if you don’t and then scoff. Your loss.

So now, let’s fall down the sci-fi geek wormhole with a pair of unwitting pals accidentally finding their “thing” out in the real world.

Well, “surreal” world might be a more apt description…

Two sci-fi geeks in blood from Britain, Graeme and Clive (Pegg and Frost, respectively) take holiday to attend a big deal Comic-Con on the West Coast (and we ain’t talking Wales here). But that’s just the cherry on the sundae. They’ve rented an RV for a road trip across the American southwest to check out all the alleged alien activity over the past century (and we ain’t talking rogue migrants here).

When their boat gets all waylaid near Nevada’s forbidden Area 51 by what first appears to be a DUI driver, well there goes the voyage for truth and fun. Until the driver scrabbles out of the scrub and introduces himself.

His name is Paul (Rogen).

He’s a Grey, a casual term for a space alien. From outer space. Outer. Alien. The contact of is the holy grail for these two twits.

He needs help getting home, not to mention sanctuary from the gun happy agents who need to get him back to the lab.

(And we ain’t talking Alexa home here. We’re talking “phone…” Oh, you get it, tosser.)

I’ve read that when it comes to very Albion, very dry comedy Simon Pegg (also Scotty!) and Nick Frost can do no wrong. From Shaun Of The Dead to Hot Fuzz, they are Britain’s answer to a Millenial Laurel and Hardy. Us moviegoers can’t wait to see what another fine mess they get themselves into.

After seeing Paul I think the secret to their success is staying in the UK. Their rapport may be regarded as a novelty to us Yanks. But take these two goofs across The Pond and set up camp in Vegas? Erm.

Make no mistake, Pegg paired with Frost is very funny. But taking them out of English context render them cannon fodder. Namely, ain’t these limeys cute? Especially in the Nevada desert? Does England have a desert? Haw haw.

That speaks that their’s is a very palpable awkwardness for our wonder twins hamming it up as strangers in a strange land. That schtick is like a sliver or popcorn wedged in one’s gums. Pegg and Frost don’t belong in America, let alone the community their fave sci-fi con environments provide sanctuary from the ugly, real world. It’s kind of a cheap joke, fish out of water and all that implies. It’s been done before, and done better.

To the point, Pegg and Frost are poorly fit for Paul. Their interplay is based more on finger-pointing than hands across bellies. It’s kinda mean. And redolent of the unfun stereotypes that fanboy geekiness invites. The “innocents abroad” gig only goes so far.

That’s really the shame of Paul. It’s rather one note when there was comedy gold to mine. Instead we get sci-fi geekdom in its stereotypical bad light (which ain’t hard come to think of it), drug jokes and sh*tty chemistry between all the Yank players; save Bateman (and surprisingly not Weaver), Paul suffers what I’ll call “joke cramming.” Namely, there are so many funny cast members all pitted against each other to be the funniest. It plays like a fridge door with way to much elemenary school art: hard to compare, but necessary completeing the whole. Whatever that is. Try to get a nine year old to cough up her postmodern muse, which is likely a melding of Care Bares and Melanie Martinez. In short, Paul tries to be cohesive, but the kid ate up all the paste.

Beyond Pegg and Frost, Paul does have a great, eclectic cast. It’s too bad they all were reading different scripts (which I suspect was mostly improv). Our two blokes, despite being the stars, are quite underused. They’re both underused, especially in light of the background rogue’s gallery backing up the story. Sorta more on that later.

I think the lick of salt you take with Paul is that it’s kinda like a funny X-Files/ET send up. Maybe outright parody. However the thing about parodies is that they are deliberate send ups of war horse movie tropes. Think Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Spaceballs and the rest of Mel Brooks’ CV. Not to mention the Police Squad movies, the Airplane! movies and practically the entirety of the ZAZ movies (save Ghost, which later was sweet parody fodder in other parodies, like The Naked Gun 2 1/2. Hey, wait a minute). Parodies are winking and let audiences in on the joke. Bad parodies resort to Family Guy-esque non-stop pop culture name dropping to blur the corners. If parodies require Google, they’re lame. It’s one thing to be let in on the joke. It’s another to be overloaded and force to surrender to a critical mass. Keyword being “critical.”

Paul tries to be sweeping in skewering anything and everything sci-fi geek/classic sci-fi film it’s like shopping at a flea market for used electrical sh*t. It plays like this:

“Hey look! A used Sega Saturn! For just a buck!”

“…There’s bullet holes in it.”

“No big! Previous owner musta got pissed at f*cking up nights Into Dreams too much.”

“Those look like cordite burns.”

“Ah, it’s a buck. I’ll take it home, clean it up and we’ll be in PTO land faster than you can call 911!”

Then you call 911 as your mancave descends into the Seventh Level. All that wasted beer. Tsk tsk.

In other words, this flick could’ve been great. A real find. Then it leaves you dumb. And hard to figure if that was intentional. That’s the trouble with poor parodies, you eventually can’t differentiate the inside jokes from the outside, name-dropping ones. It’s gets boring. As Steve Martin claimed: comedy is not pretty. True, but it should defiantly bore as Paul did for me.

We’re sorta get into the above now. I keep my promises.

At its core, Paul is a buddy/road trip comedy. Almost always a good thing to waste time with. Think Rush Hour, Rain Man and all those classic team-ups with Bob and Bing. The key to such flicks are surefire gold chemistry between the leads. Or course Pegg and Frost have that spark, duh. However the supporting cast has a vital purpose also: to bounce off our bumbling heroes. Despite the awesome supporting cast bombarding Pegg and Frost with limitless comedy fodder, our limey dolts are too passive. Way too passive. They only react to the inanity, not respond. Pegg and Frost made their mark in zany comedy by interacting with absurdity that plagues them (e.g.: remember the record throwing scene in Shaun Of The Dead? Yeah, like that). In Paul, they are the records, bombarded with insanity and Frost just sits in the RV’s passenger seat while Pegg traipses off to the bathroom. Sorry, I meant loo.

I understand that Paul is another frenetic comedy directed by Mattola, but there stinks of a of rehashed Superbad schtick lurking beneath the Area 51 gags. The buddy comedy. A quest to complete. Jon Hader as a “cop.” What worked once doesn’t always work again, and Superbad is one of the wifey’s fave films. I could not in all honesty suggest we watch Paul together. There’d be too many sci-fi, pop culture refs to punch up. And down the toilet we go.

I feel the ultimate fault in Paul‘s execution is a lot of stilted dialogue. Not what is said, per se but how it’s delivered. Senta, RinaldiSenta. Letting Rogen run his motormouth for 90 minutes does not automatically equal funny. We need some time to breathe. Instead we choke on the bullet-time gags about drugs, sex, sexy drugs and drugging Kristen Wiig with too much truth (there was a gag that could’ve gained traction. Instead it fell into a short-bus version of Tyson’s Cosmos. Coulda worked).

That’s a pretty apt way to send off Paul: it could’ve worked. There were some bright spots, like Weaver winkingly chewing scenery in the final act. Or Tambor’s wry cameos. Of the sense of belonging between our fanboy/hereos in the final scene to share. Hell, even the heartwarmer (kindly slower scene) between Paul and Danner. Everything else was shot through like poop through a goose. Too much pant pant. You gotta lay off the relentless silly in order to take time to giggle. And taking time to see a Grey suck REDACTED don’t count. Sorry.

Based against those bright spots, there was still a lot of wasted potential with Paul. Was it funny? Sure, it fits and starts. Were Pegg and Frost at the top of their game? Nope. And nope. Was the cast awesome? Approaching. Did Paul require, nay, demand pop-culture name-dropping to push the plot along? Uh-huh.

It was a mish-mash of one-liners, winking jokes, tired Hollywood tropes whipped up in a Cuisinart? You just won a prize. Still—believe it or not—I couldn’t bring myself to dislike it. Call it my soft spot for the SF cons of youth. Or Frost and Pegg, together again. Or that shared guilty pleasure sense of being one with the cosmos reveling in one’s culty fetish, and the welcoming outstretched arms from fellow freaks.

I guess my real, buried soft spot for Paul was the (admittedly flawed) tribute to guys like Clive and Graeme. Brothers in arms. Loving tales about illicit autographs, contraband booze just out of reach (when one could really need it) and a venerable Shakespean actor suprised and then respecting an honest question.

Sh*t like that never seems to happen watching The Simpsons. Or Firefly.

Or watching reruns of Black Books.

What? Too obscure? No more than debating the life-saving value of Prince’s Batman soundtrack.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild relent it. I didn’t hate Paul, but I was sorely let down. Still, there were enough winks to keep me smiling and watching. Only logical I gave it a “mild.”

Stray Observations…

  • Are comic-cons really like this? Yes, yes they are.
  • “Pizza!”
  • Cute Raiders nod.
  • “You know you’re grown men, right?”
  • Who’d’ve thought Bateman could ever have such a great flat affect?
  • “Get away from her, you bitch!” A very meta ha!
  • Is this whole flick a tourist trap? Ha!
  • “Seems rather fitting.”

Next Installment…

Cate Blanchette must reunite with Tommy Lee Jones in an uneasy alliance in order to find The Missing  family they both have lost.

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 80: Ridley Scott’s “Matchstick Men” (2003)

The Players…

Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman, Bruce Altman and Bruce McGill, with Sheila Kelley and Beth Grant.

The Story…

Roy’s a professional con man struggling with three distinct issues. One, well being a con man. Two, rampant OCD. And three, meeting the daughter he never knew he had.

Poor Roy inadvertently jeopardizes his tightly organized and artificially controlled life when the very not artificial concept of fatherhood chafes his orderly scamming lifestyle. Beyond it all, man’s got a right to earn a living, whatever that is, be it against a Nabokov book waiting to happen or not.

Wait! What? Huh?

*washes hands with vigor*

The Rant…

My first intro to Ridley Scott was at a precocious and waaaaay too f*cking young age.

It was the early-80s. VCRs were finally affordable to middle class schlubs like my Dad. We got a quality Maganox VHS unit at an 80s steal around $700. Thing was worth more, reliable, durable and even survived well into the DVD age. Sure, we had to clean the soot out of its chimney once every month to maintain picture clarity, but this slab could stop an assassin’s bullet and still be able to set the timer for that week’s SNL installment. We didn’t need an app for that.

Video rentals were like mushrooms back then: sprouting up everywhere in places you were surprised to find them. Sure, there were a few chains like Blockbuster, Hollywood. But also local mom-and-pop movie dealers, the local libraries, even supermarkets before God. My father got a membership with local mom and pop (who also sold bagels if my memory serves, which it doesn’t). Friday evening came and he, me and sometimes my screechy sisters would wander in and scope out a few tapes for the weekend. My father being a shrewd customer—one who had access to a phone—would be one to literally call it in. Do you have this movie? You do? Could you please hold it for me? Be your best friend. Thanks. See you later. Hey, do you have any cinnamon raisins left?

Back to Scott. And the worst night of my pre-pubescent life.

It was of course a Friday night. Late night. Mom and the screechies cacked out hours ago. Even at age 10 I had the nite owl blood in me. Insomniac. Still am; started writing this week’s screed at 12.30 AM. But it’s Friday and I’m off work tomorrow, so yay me.

Didn’t have a store to mind when I was 10, and on those Fridays back in the day my Dad made his prerequisite calls to the Bagelsmith to see what was fresh and ready for pick-up. He would roll out around 6-ish and come back a half-hour later with a pair of tapes. If the kids didn’t come along for the ride-and-pick we were not supposed to. My father’s selections were his and his alone. Wonder where I learned about insomnia and the power of holding the remote.

I got curious, of course.

A few times Dad let me squat down in the wee hours to watch what he was watching. At 10 I was into The Karate Kid, Star Blazers and Chilean snuff films (kidding. Discovered Star Blazers when I was 8). It was mostly aboveboard stuff. Dad was Dad. He was older. He could rent PG-13 movies with impunity. The R-rated stuff was trace element. My father was a pretty liberal guy when it came to me joining him for his late night viewing frenzy. If a movie was rated R he followed the rule to the rote: Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Namely, he was over 17, I wasn’t. He was there as the guardian with the membership card and I found my snot-nosed self being “accompanied” by him into the Friday night cinematic chop shop. To his credit he always assured me that if what were watching turned out to be too scary/violent/sexy/redolent of poppy seeds we could turn it off. Sounded like a challenge. My father challenged me to Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, The Graduate and Gene Hackman in general. Sweep the leg, Johnny.

This was I how I was unravelled by Ridley Scott. When I was 10 I could give the barest rodent scintilla about who directed a movie so long as that movie was cool. The names Scorsese, Kurosawa, Spielberg and Scott were all but pidgin to me. I liked sci-fi, comedies and sci-fi comedies (bless you, Spaceballs). What Dad had cued up on the capstans made me stand at attention that there was an almost monolithic man/woman behind the cameras demanding where the story would go. The director. And the first director’s name I ever learned was Ridley Scott. By now you’re prob’ scratching yer scalp wondering, “Whatever Ridley Scott movie could lobotomize a 10 year old so?” If Dad were present and it was late, then it must have been rated R. And since you were under 17 and required an accompanying parent or adult guardian, Dad understood his responsibility and assessed that I may have been hip to this proviso, his late night rental. You lucky, insomniac scamp, you.

So if this gets too scary, here’s my arm. Squeeze if you have to.


It was Alien. I was 10. He let me watch Alien. Did I mention I was 10? I “slept” post-viewing with my bedroom light burning until morning. My Mom poked her head in the door early the following Saturday morning and asked a “sleeping” me why the light was on all night. Then:

“Have you been up all night?”



“…Dad showed me a scary movie.”

She rolled her eyes. “Better go talk to him.”

“I liked it, but…”

It must’ve been around 10 AM. “Go get some sleep.” And echoing down the hall came: “Oh, honey!”

The image of a freaked out Sigourney Weaver burned in my head. I could relate with that skittish, everything may fall apart at the last minute feeling. Remember the film’s final act? Uh, yeah. I wasn’t well until Sunday night when school was looming anew. Boy, did I have a movie to tell my friends about. And said nothing.

The movie stunned me so with both its claustrophobia as well as grotesquerie—and with me being “man enough” to watch it—I kept Alien to myself. It scared me sh*tless, and I survived it, well below the 17-year old water line. Felt like a right of passage, watching a serious R-rated movie intact. And beyond enduring the visceral viewing, I enjoyed it. To this day Alien is my favorite scary movie (and I don’t even like scary movies, at least not the exhibitionist kind. I demand good acting, decent pacing and an acceptable plot, like the original cuts of The Haunting or Halloween), and I relish any opportunity to punish the Alien-uninitiated for a virgin viewing. My stepkid found it “okay.” She liked Aliens better, and voiced so. Philistine. She was thirteen at the time. I earned my stripes at 10, so there.

Besides Alien scaring the sleep out of me, it injected a need to figure out what the hell did a movie do to make me take notice. Sure, I always got some entertainment from watching movies, mostly the age appropriate, non-arm clinging kind. At the then time I think my fave film was the original Ghostbusters (a sucker for Bill Murray ever since I saw Meatballs. Saw it at summer camp. Where else?). Paranormal comedy grabbed me as a kid, and taught me to not cross the streams. Heard it was bad. I guess that fave flick planted an embryo as to how did this awesome movie happen?

But Ghostbusters didn’t entrance me, not like Scott’s sophomore effort did. I was still 10, remember? A fresh Lego kit held my attention more. I knew how to put those little, plastic bricks together to create a satisfying whole. The instruction manuals helped. Was there an instruction manual out there to instruct how a cool movie tickled my fancies?

Fast forward…

I don’t believe in “auteur theory,” where the director of a movie is claimed to be the “author” of the film. If that were the case there’d be no closing credits. Even the average movie-goer is sharp enough to know the director may get the biggest slice, but there are also other folks billed as actors, writers, producers, caterers, etc that made a major contribution to the final product that you eventually get to hem and haw and keep the light on all night for. In a fair and just cinematic world (with an often exception to Tarantino, Kubrick and Hitchcock), a film’s opening credits would read directed by/written by/produced by in the same frame.


Whoever, right? Didn’t know the why before Alien. After watching it was like tossing those old ELO albums out the window after hearing the first Ramones album. A punch to the gut. Who was behind this awesome/scary/dad arm-clinging movie?

Ridley Scott. The first director after Spielberg that demanded of a young me what a director/”auteur” did to place an indelible stamp on my freaked out, insomniac forehead, watching the lazy ceiling fan slowly swirling above a bare light bulb hoping beyond hope that its glare would keep any slobbering xenomorph from creeping out of the closet and ripping my ribs into jello. Hearing my mother’s scolding meant it worked.

Fast forward a year, maybe two. A buddy of mine who was keen to sci-fi as I was got hip to some cultish movie. Caught a snippet of it on HBO, a free weekend. Remember those? The snippet proper was a caution about the film containing graphic violence. I wasn’t hip to the phrase “graphic violence,” but it sounds devilishly good to me. My friend told me it was on heavy rotation on HBO then. I didn’t have premium cable at my house; his den was the golden gate, decades before parental controls.

At the right time, we nipped the scene where Priss—

“What are you two watching?!?”

We switched the proper Atari toggle.

In harmony, a la Bosom Buddies: “Nothing.”

Blade Runner. Also not healthy for 10-year old boys. Dangerous fun. A mind warp of a movie. Starred Han Solo, so there.

So that’s what it’s all about. A signature, a statement, a reason to deny sleep. Took me decades to decode that whole wad. I wasn’t some amateur film critic at 10; barely one at 40. But across the decades being drawn to certain movies, defying the Kobra Kai, I think I got it: there are no auteurs, just directors with a grip. Like on my dad’s arm.

Ridley Scott taught me about signature, an aesthetic. Us movie watchers are well aware if not forewarned by a certain director’s style, muse, statement, motive. Spielberg has his. So does Scorsese. As do Carpenter. So did Kurosawa, Ford, Hill, Ashby, Hitch, Kubrick. Including the guys on this plane: Weir, Lynch, Nolan, Argento, (sigh) and Bay. Style. Eventually you wait on baited breath for any of the above icons to unbridle their freshest horse. You know what arm to cling on.

But like with The Color Purple, The Last Temptation Of Christ, Dr Strangelove, The Quiet Man, Big Trouble In Little China, Rear Window, High And Low, The Last Detail….and Matchstick Men, a signature director sometimes needs a left turn to remind us that they are human. Directors are not infallible. Sometimes they take on projects that might be left of center, against their grain. Spielberg had his 1941. Carpenter has his Prince Of Darkness. Kurosawa had his Ikiru. And Scott had his Matchstick Men.

All passable movie entertainment, but also strain against the directors’ trademark style. It’s good to challenge yourself as a director, tackling a project that may or may not be their usual flavor. Often it’s a good thing. Spielberg directing The Color Purple, a Jewish director exploring racism and same sex romance. Nolan tackling a comic book icon like Batman and making a psycho-thriller rather than Donner’s Superman sparkle. And Scott helming a goofy crime caper, rather than his usual epic-style Blade Runner. Or even Gladiator.

After viewing Matchstick Men something told me that Scott got to grabbing at our arm. So come, take my hand. Just take off your shoes before you lay foot on the carpet…

Roy Waller (Cage) is a criminal. A con artist, scamming innocents out of their hard earned cash so to better his business acumen. He’s also a neurotic mess. OCD. Anxiety ridden. Maybe a guilty conscious at work? Whatever. There’s always a job to get done. And therein lies a new problem. Good Lord.

Roy’s partner in crime Frank (Rockwell) is tired of the small scams. Cheating old ladies out of their insurance money? Small potatoes. Frank wants a big mark, namely in the form of a high roller (McGill), a treacherous duck to be sure. But Roy is not so sure, especially since that letter dropped out of the mail slot onto his beloved carpet.

The anonymous letter claims that Roy has a child. A teenaged daughter named Angela (Lohman) who wishes to know him. Gulp. A spanner in his nefarious works.

Roy’s therapist (Altman) encourages him to reach out. He suggests it might be a healthy change, engaging with someone who won’t outright contribute to his anxious life of crime.

Roy reluctantly concedes. He meets Angela after school one day and puts on his best new dad face, tics and twitches in full force. He discovers she’s a pleasant, well-adjusted teenaged girl who always wanted to meet her estranged dad. Angela is disarming, and her connecting to Roy’s life of angst mellows him somewhat. Whew.

As way leads on to fatherly way, Roy ‘fesses up and informs Angela of his chosen profession. She’s intrigued. To his surprise, Angela wants in on the action. Roy’s unsure. Frank’s really unsure; Angela’s sticky fingers might muddy the waters, distracting Roy further from his big scam, as well as some forward motion.

No matter. The dice are cast. Roy opts for some responsibility. Angela takes to the con like a duck to water. Frank flails his hands in frustration.

Again, no matter. Roy’s carpet needed a shampoo anyway…

Like I mentioned, Ridley Scott’s style operates on an epic level. Even the simplest of his films (like this one) approach a grand scope. Unlike Alien (still epic, yet deceptively simple), Matchstick Men is a diversion. Here his big idea concept is intact, but married to an overtly simple story. And he keeps it that way, to his delight.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Not necessarily.

Recall the “left turn” notion about how some directors with their signature often attempt to shed their audience? Men is one of those kind of films. Outright, what business does the director of AlienGladiator and Kingdom Of Heaven have fiddling around with some crime caper? Guess he felt like he needed a cinematic colonic. A directorial equivalent of Dylan’s Self Portrait album. Maybe he just liked the script. Or maybe wry comedy was something he felt like dabbling in. Or maybe for him just cut loose and have some fun.

And Men is fun. Funny, rather. Offbeat. Not the flavor in Columbus. Definite lo-fi aesthetic as far as Scott’s work goes. It’s a nice change, albeit incongruent with the guy’s signature oeuvre. It kinda shows. Again, not really a bad thing. But it sure plays out as odd.

Men is pretty light-hearted for Scott, relatively speaking. One, it’s a comedy. Don’t recall anytime him attempting this. Granted, it’s kind of a black comedy, and Scott is no stranger to being dark. But there’s an uncharacteristic sunny side to this offbeat caper (and “offbeat” is nearly verboten in Scott’s catalogue). And I’m gonna use the term “offbeat” a lot here. Fair warning.

That being said, Men is shot with the exactitude Scott always employs, like the cheap scalpel to the high school fetal pig autopsy. His high concept vision of cinema verité is intact. His characters are mismatched chess pieces. The story is straightforward enough—

*tires screeching to a halt*

Therein lies the trouble. It’s been relayed that Scott is a director of big concepts. Men is anything but. It’s straightforward, almost formulaic. Doesn’t really marry well with the director’s accepted raison d’etre. Simply put, Scott directing a flick like Men don’t make much sense. Still, he did a good job being in the shallow end of the pool.

I think most of the heavy lifting in this featherweight caper rests on the cast. They’re more of a distraction than an asset to moving the story along. And the story—as I noted—is quite simple and straightforward. We’ve seen crime capers like this before. Men swings evenly between Paper Moon and unevenly towards The Professional. But like with those movies, it’s the cast that somewhat strains in rising above The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, the ur-crime caper. So then, let’s dismantle Men‘s rogues gallery, shall we?

First and foremost Cage’s bread and butter is weird roles. We ain’t talkin’ Raising Arizona or Wild At Heart weird here. His Roy however seems custom made to tickle his muse. Cage is also well-known for his deft physical comedy chops. How’s it look here painted with OCD? Right. Ugly funny. The hook here is Roy’s mania, not the con game that soaks the plot. Roy’s OCD is played as comic, but ultimately is sad and scary. He’s supposed to be the guy we get behind? It’s a key plot device overall, but beneath Scott and no less tragic. We ain’t talking Maximus tragic, but it’s enough to allow us sympathy for our twitchy protag. Roy’s OCD may be played as comic, but ultimately it’s sad and scary. Recall the hook. He’s supposed to be the guy we get behind? Good plot device done well, but beneath Scott’s skills. No less tragic, though.

Now being a sudden dad is a responsibility you can’t con. Trust me, I know. The con makes Roy approach stable, making up sh*t. It’s reality that’s his downfall. That being said, Lohman has an honest taste for her role as Angela (and for the life of me I can’t shake the hand of the casting director enough. How did they make a twentysomething successfully come off as a 16-year old high school skater chick? I credit strategic bandages and hair flairs). Funny without being cute or openly naive. If you pay close attention through Angela Roy isn’t really the “hero.” Lohman carries the second and third acts. Roy’s just eyewash. Very funny eyewash, but the con nonetheless. Makes for a jovial, R-rated Brady Bunch feel. That being said, neurotic Cage and loose cannon Lohman paired against each other have a genuine chemistry. Yep. Thank or blame Scott going out on his demented, xenomorph-less shingle.

Men is Elmore Leonard on Xanax. It’s kinda madcap. Another divergence for Scott, and he’s faring well here. The plot is bone simple. You might’ve seen this movie before. I know I have. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. The Fisher King. The original Rush Hour. Mutant buddy movies. Barring Rockwell as Cage’s confidant, Men is a warped buddy movie all the way. But that’s a conceit. Despite the odd mixture of character play, this was relatively straightforward. You can see where this is going a light-year away, with a few twists to keep your attention. I figure this movie floundered because it was too “not Scott” to attract the usual fans. That and the poor press. So much for Ridley stretching himself short.

A coda: it’s in the final act where Scott’s edge finally surfaces. It’s all the better for it, annulling the first two derivative acts of cat, mouse and vacuum. It’s also a shame that Men is merely a curiosity for both Scott and his audience. Again, unsure if Scott needed some diversion from his stock-in-trade epic style. Although uncomfortable, Men has its merits. It’s akin to Bob Dylan’s Street Legal album. Most musicians would kill for this best stuff. But it’s Scott here. Playing it safe? Not really. Entertaining some trifle? Sure, but such a thing is not where Scott should tread. Oh well.

Needless to say, Men didn’t keep me up all night, fan swirling in agony. Scratching my head? Somewhat. It was okay, but for lacking.

What I’m driving at is I opined for tasteful violence paired with chuckles. But this wasn’t a Tarantino flick. It was a Ridley Scott flick with a diluted epic feel.

Screw it. This was hardly epic. Or clever. Or beyond rote.

“Sometimes the cold makes the blade stick.”

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it, if only for another side of Scott you’ve never seen. I hope I never see it again. Twitch.

Stray Observations…

  • “One, two, three.”
  • Ever wonder how crazy people conduct their outwardly “normal” lives? You found this blog, didn’t you?
  • Rockwell is not an actor. He is a voice.
  • “That was a good day!”
  • I feel for poor Roy. I really do. I just didn’t want to be felt. Or burlap either.
  • Cage has been balding for, like, 20 years now.
  • “I’m in antiques.”
  • She turned the key three times.
  • The art of the dry swallow personified.
  • Altman is a passive deus ex machina. That’ll be $125 please.
  • “Your turn.”
  • Like the soundtrack. Very Rat Pack-esque.
  • It’s odd. Cage’s twitchiness never really becomes distracting. It’s like a character unto itself. Think Mr Hyde.
  • For all of his roles has Rockwell ever combed his hair?
  • “Pygmies.”
  • “You’re not a bad guy. You’re just not a very good one.” Ouch.
  • Lohman fake cries really well.
  • “You didn’t take yer pills, didja?”

Next Installment…

Giving sanction to an alien en route to a sci-fi convention? That’s like an ironic spin on robbing Peter to pay Paul.

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 79: John Carney’s “Once” (2007)

The Players…

Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová, Bill Hodnett, Danuse Ktrestova and Geoff Minogue, with Gerry Hendrick, Alastair Foley and Hugh Welsh.

The Story…

It could’ve only been happenstance.

One day an Irish street musician meets a kind Czech ex-pat girl with an ear for music. She likes his songs, and a  conversation is struck regarding her wish to be a musician herself. To play piano.

Our busker knows a few people and offers his hand as well as his company. She’s delighted by this chance, not to mention him being able to fix her busted vacuum.

Certain opportunities only come around…well, you know.

 The Rant…

As a wordsmith, and maybe not unlike you everyday speakers of English, I have a short list of words I love to speak and hear. C’mon, you all must, too. Think about it. Sometimes you hear a word or a sentence that tickles you, be it a silly joke, a quote from a fave movie or just someone who knows how to turn a phrase. Be honest. George Carlin once said that everything we share but never talk about is funny. In that vein, conversation isn’t much different. This isn’t a thing we often share on an intimate level, but then again it’s kind of like divulging to a stranger the magic of chicken-fried steak.

That’s a phrase I like: chicken-fried steak. First heard of the dish back when I was a pup and got to reading the homespun philosophies of Robert Fulghum. You know, the All I Ever Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten guy. He was the commencement speaker at my college graduation and was very keen in turning a phrase. Maybe more on that later.

Let’s get back to the smithy.

Yeah, so. Favorite words. Betcha you got a few yourselves. My list is kinda short so I won’t bore you. Long. I hope. Mine are merely terms that invite amongst fond memories, ideal ways to express my wants and needs, or just plain fun to say. Such terms or phrases as “lunch,” “under the aegis of,” “ostensibly,” “flash,” “stands to reason,” “libation,” and many more. But I said I’d keep it short. Could go on for days, under the aegis of free expression that blogging permits. Heh.

Here’s another choice word o’mine: busker. Learned what that curious term meant back in my high school salad days (another choice phrase. I’ll quit it soon) when I discovered the Beatles. Not a bad way to get literate, right?. I learned that in England, a “busker” is a street musician, trying to earn their bones as a legit artist. If not in some contract than with earnest singing and playing to a happy crowd. A few coppers in the guitar case doesn’t hurt neither. Heard that’s how John and Paul met George, his teenage self jamming in the street for the occasional schillings flipped into his case. So I’ve heard. I later found out things worked out well for the quiet George.

From the Fab Four I learned about the ur-busker, Lonnie Donegan, the skiffle king. For those out of the know, before the Beatles tackled the UK to the mat, skiffle was the pop music of the times. It was kind of a manic amalgam of punky folk paired with a strident delivery hell bent on speed and maximum volume. Skiffle was almost exclusively acoustic guitar driven and performed—where else?—in the streets. Such an unruly racket would never set foot on the stage at your local Brit dance hall. Down on the corner however? Talk to Sir Paul and the spirit of Lennon. Skiffle is how it started. Passersby tend to be a curious crowd.

However, the first time I heard “skiffle” (of a sort) from a “busker” (of sorts) was in college, well after the Beatles and Fulghum with his chicken-fried whatsit. It’s been mentioned here before I paid for cigarettes and barcrawling by way of playing barista at the local coffee house, a very hip job in the mid-90’s. Hell, I just liked coffee. And smokes. And coffee and smokes and beer in varying levels. I was yet another regular gadfly at the joint alternating between studying, getting wired and getting wired with friends over our studies well onto midnight. My regular status led me to having a job there. Just me getting reimbursed for the gallons of coffee I had consumed over many semesters, which was all right.

The cafe had an almost stereotypical boheme atmosphere. Patrons could not only pound down shots of espresso by the dekaliter, but also pore over Sartre that invited the inevitable philosophical arguments about bad faith and/or de Beauviour was his girlfriend or his rival. Or roll their own cigarettes and suck them down faster that Ginger Lynn on your local high school basketball team. Or again just essentially cram homework, wired out of your mind and maybe end up sitting shoulder to shoulder with the prof of the designated class who was just as wired as you were, dropping hints about key points in their next lecture. All that actually happened. Good times with insomnia.

All this and more, like letting the misfit cast of characters that actually served this circus molest the tape deck (remember, 90s) with all sorts of personal tastes of incongruent music, somewhere approaching acceptable to the wacky clientele’s ears or invite some kind of sonic trepanning. My sophomore year I was welcomed into the fold as a java jockey, and naturally I brought a small clutch of mixtapes to spice up the life into the lateness of the hour like my rogue’s gallery did. Our musical wanderings were seldom an issue (save the time a few of our Middle Eastern residents chafed at the Cure’s “Killing An Arab” came over the speakers. In hindsight, understandable).

The lot of them were mostly too into their cups of joe and Being And Nothingness to care, unless something came over the house speakers that busted up their reverie. Though the Cure’s squeaky meditation on what Camus was getting at with l’Etranger my choice of noise was The Style Council’s Cafe Blue album. The title alone made it seem relevant to our little hidey-hole. Nope. I soon learned that here was a place to cut one’s teeth on experiencing new music reflected by an audience, reactions good and not. Wasn’t exactly busking. More like Jack Black’s histrionics in High Fidelity. No wonder folks could get twitchy at times. Refill?

We were a quiet rowdy lot, us latte slingers. Always jacking tapes in with bands that meant something unique to us (and us only), tweaking the volume to barely above annoying and engaged in an embryonic version of file-sharing. I figured I had questionable tastes, more jagged than eclectic (I was the usually that got told to turn it down. Often). At the time I was big into old school UK punk and a lot of 80s indie rockers (eg: The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, early REM, etc) and the guests knew I was on duty before they came inside thanks to the speaker on the patio. I can almost hear the groans and rolling of the eyes.

So yeah, the cafe was kind of a jukebox. Like when you frequent your local watering hole; you immediately knew who was on the job courtesy of the sound system. An old bartender of recent was a Led Zep freak, so when I had a hankering a cold draft and stepped over the threshold to hear “Going To California” slipping from the speakers I knew I could safely expect a frosty pint waiting at my usual seat. I was often correct.

As correct as it was back in that coffee bar. You knew what you were in for before you were even inside, us buskers by proxy. My law student buddy loved ska and funk, so either The Toasters or Thievery Corporation were on heavy rotation. The very feminist but never admitting to it played a lot of Ani DiFranco (no surprise there). Another guy preferred odd, Eno-esque soundscapes. Threw Style Council to the floor, I tell ya. You almost never knew what you were gonna get, but not really.

Then there was the one girl, Rachel. I think that was her name. Surly, well built, whip-smart and quick with an eye roll. She was diminutive, which would explain the patent leather stack boots she always wore. That gave her presence, which may have been the point. That might’ve also explained why she dragged in her tapes of random eclecticism to punish the customers. Her soundtrack definitely said, “I’m here.”

I dug her sh*t. It was often a revelation. Me being the restless audiophile I took in what I’d take in. Rachel and I would often share shifts, and her being as cuddly as a cobra I let her run riot with the stereo. Didn’t want to f*ck up her chi. My patience was how I got exposed to the then-darling emo band Texas Is The Reason, debated the contributions of trip-hop folkie Beth Orton to some of the Chemical Brothers’ albums, and get razzed by my retro tastes. I never thought the Police were that retro.

Oh, and Rachel turned me onto Billy Bragg, the last busker that made good. Especially him.

I wandered in one night with Rachel womaning the register with her usual oddball selections winding around the capstans, warbling over the nightly, dutiful students, what with their tiny, empty cups of espresso and the pulling of the hair. What was with the pulling? Rachel’s selection. A f*cked up Cockney voice that wobbled like mid-60s Dylan with a shrill righteousness accompanied only by a poorly tuned electric guitar. That was it and that was all. The song that grabbed me was called “A New England.” She was playing it at 11. I looked around and was intrigued. That broken, strident guitar sound pulled me in. The pained, earnest voice grabbed me. Who was this guy?

“Billy Bragg,” Rachel said plaintively. You dolt.

I didn’t really know what a busker was back then. Now it’s a favourite word.

Bragg either created or at least spearheaded the “anti-folk” sub-genre of protest music for the 80s. Based on the UK punk aesthetic translated to the socially ineffectual Thatcher administration, what with its indifference to the plight of the workaday sub-middle class, Bragg picked up his axe and assumed the role to Britain what Dylan did for America 20 years prior. Namely, using finger-pointin’ music to scream the emperor is naked and the empire crumbling. Hell to the yeah.

Rachel’s selection got my ears a-twitching. 20 years on, I have all of Bragg’s albums. Why? Not because of what the man was singing, yearning. That was what he was, earnest. Still earnest, singing loud and proud. What else is a busker? On the streets, screaming what needs to be sung. Rachel’s playlist made me an instant acolyte, so I hit the Web and did my research. Hence George’s history, underage at the time to hook up with the Quarrymen, but they waited. Further down the rabbit hole was Lonnie, rapping in the back alleys of London informing John and Paul where to get. Aeons later to me with Billy and his pointed tones of demanding social change. I was a Dylan fan all along, so it wasn’t much of a leap.

That choice word: busker. A street musician, earning his keep by the kindness of often indifferent strangers. A few coppers to passively shut him up only to let his music get louder, hoping beyond hope that someone will listen.

Sometimes someone does. I mean, I did…

On a nowhere street in Dublin a going nowhere busker (Hansard) plays out his passion on his beater guitar, screaming the popular favourites. That’s during the day (while he shirks his lame job). Later in the evening he drops the popular favorites and barrages the neighbourhood with some intense originals, big enough to heal the lame and the halt.

His sundown singing attracts the attention of a meek florist (Irglová). She likes his singing and playing, and has been listening for a while. He’s flattered, not to mention attracted to this random girl’s attention. Of course it’s not all knits and gnats. Turns out this girl has been suffering the nuisance of a busted vacuum cleaner. Good thing the busker’s day job is working in his dad’s (Hodnett) vacuum repair shop, as well as living in his attic. Suffering for art and all.

Their chance encounter informs our guy that she’s a pianist, amateur not unlike him. Another music enthusiast. With his meager “connections,” our man takes her to his favourite music store, where they get to duet together on the baby grand for her and his beater guitar for him. A friendship is struck and she encourages him to quit the streets and find a studio.

He’s reluctant. It’s one thing to be playing anonymous in a crowd. A single? That precludes recording songs for strangers. No immediate audience to inspire him. She says that’s all rot; he’s talented, and deserves an opportunity to widen his audience, get his music out there.

But that would entail him making the leap over to London, leaving his nest. It’s scary, but if he wants to follow his muse Dublin doesn’t seem the place to be.

Especially not its street corners…

Oh yeah. The chicken-fried steak thing.

Never heard of the dish before Fulghum (and have yet to find place that serves it. Not enough truck stops around where I’m from, I guess). He tells of his wanderings for the ultimate chicken-friend steak experience, bouncing from tiny burg to hidey hole in the Pacific Northwest in search of his quarry. The way the man told it, the dish consists of taking “a piece of stringy beef, pound hell out of it with a kitchen sledge, dip it in egg and flour, and drop it in a frying pan.” The rest is mystery, with something involving peas, mashed potatoes and serious gravy along the way. Sounded good to me, at least how he told it.

I heard wrong. My chicken-fried steak experience imploded in my own kitchen. Stringy was right, like chewing on an inflatable wading pool in your backyard. The flour didn’t help any and I don’t care for peas. For me as a chef, chicken-fried steak was akin to prepping fresh leftovers. It was rather a disappointment based against Fulghum’s epiphany. Sorry, Bob. Can’t believe all you read.

Still, I did take a shine to the dish’s simplicity. Nowadays, with Ramsey and Irvine smearing the overdramatic cooking show feces all over the map, coaxing gourmet from a can of baked beans and much theatrical profanity (not Irvine) is a pipe dream. Lousy beef is lousy beef. But the “simple pleasure” factor cannot be ignored. Not unlike watching Once. Twice rather.

I’ve endured the headache before of giving the week’s slab a second viewing. It was based among “not getting something,” “did I miss something?” or just plain falling asleep. I watched Once twice based on the second precept. The next time around was a chicken-friend steak matter. Once was such a simple (and quite appealing) movie I also viewed it twice under the impression of the first precept. Nope. Not much there, and that’s what made Once so enjoyable.

I recall back in ’07 this movie getting a lot of hype; critical praise of a certain urgency that implored folks to check it out. The box office returns said otherwise. The soundtrack sold well enough, but the ticket taker kinda limped. Granted Once was a more-or-less indie film, but so was Birdman and it won the Oscar. Did Once have limited release? Sure, but so did Birdman and you know. That’s along the lines of why RIORI visited Once.

Once was refreshing. It was so simple. Girl meets guy, both love music, girl encourages guy to pursue his dream and helps her realize hers. That’s it. Simple. Uncomplicated. Besides the prerequisite dramatic tensions (mild here), it was kinda hard to f*ck up the movie’s premise. Director Carney also wrote the script, and went on record saying that Once was basically an extended music video. Easy to see. Once—pardon the pun—played out like an album, punctuated by tracks and illuminated by scenes alluding to music (eg: burnt CDs, our girl longing for a piano, our guy’s collage of concert posters on his bedroom walls, etc). It’s an unconventional musical. It is like a very long and involved music video, down to the piercing camera work and lighting. As far as an execution of dramatic music vid goes the spirit of Jacko would’ve been proud. He-hee.

So yeah, simple. Let me tell ya, after alternating between watching gee-whiz-bucky-gizmo action numbers, questionable comedies and staggering dramas here at RIORI, watching a simple film like Once was a cinematic colonic. I watched it twice not just because I liked it (and I did), but quizzically, as if I missed something. Again, I didn’t. Once was clean, clear and pleasant. Like the ideal cup of coffee. A rare pleasure.

Once gives the outward impression of a romantic comedy a-brewin’, huh? It quickly flicks the plectrum and says no. Sure, it’s a girl-meets-guy premise but it deftly diverts that conceit. Glen and Markéta (and I’m gonna use their real names from now on. Despite their characters have no names barring “guy” and “girl,” saying so gets confusing since there are multiple guys and girls in this movie) play a muted version of footsie, but the idea of romance between them are dashed in the first act. Once is ultimately a buddy movie, not unlike Driving Miss Daisy: two lonely folks meet each other, find common ground and bond. That’s all. Simple.

Once is sweet, but not cloying. It’s derivative, but saved by some uncanny acting as well as its flow, the cruel mistress pacing. It invites all the contrivances of a rom-com and dodges all of them. It’s a music video, right? So the jamming is the sweet spot. The movie is all about how a love of music can both define us as well as well as free us. Glen’s dumpy job may pay for fresh guitar strings, but that’s all it’s about. The film illustrates the aforementioned Billy Bragg experience: exposure to a life, and also akin to grumpy Rachel’s lesson, Once is all about revelation. Slow blooming and awareness of personal expression. Simple, but heavy. I mean, you remember that moment when a song moved you? Right. The Once.

There’s a lot of keen, thoughtful camera work here, also not unlike a music video. It’s all about angles to trap your attention. Admittedly, the movie is low key, but when it’s time to jam the film snaps to life, demanding your attention. It’s a creeping thing, subtle. The movie is framed by the songs, and running the risk of sounding too hoity-toity, not unlike Shakespearean soliloquies. Our characters respond and introduce the musical numbers with a lot of existential chatter about family and future/past potential prospects. It’s as if to codify this conceit the single takes and tracking shots only occur when any singing/playing is involved, like when Markéta accepts Glen’s gift of a beater Discman and burnt CDs of his originals. It’s a long walk home (cut), but she doesn’t seem to mind the cold. Think we’ve all been there once. Let’s hope so.

I betrayed my own sensibilities by watching Once more than, well, once. You really do have to “watch” this movie. That might’ve led to its undoing. I recall back in ’07 a lot of that hype surrounding Once. John Carney coming into his own as a director. Glen as the leader of the beloved Irish folk-rock band the Frames making his big screen debut. I even promoted the film when I was an on-air radio programmer, as well as seeing the TV spots about this delightful movie that should demand your attention. All of which demands examination of our fresh-faced primaries acting. C’mon, I said Once is at its core a buddy movie. Admittedly (and this might be my only solid gripe here) Once‘s plot is still derivative. You can see where it’s going an AU away. Of course it ends well. Or course Glen and Markéta connect. Of course Glen pursues his dream. All of that is saved by some uncanny acting, as well as flow, that anti-muse pacing. Yeah, her again. And always.

It’s a saving grace that our novice thespians hold together so well. Truth be told, neither of the leads are serious actors. Or real actors, for that matter. Glen’s a musician, no film cred. Marketa’s CV consists of three films (including this one), and listed as only “participant,” whatever that means (a few dollars above an “extra” perhaps?). Regardless of their acting experience, the two work very well with awkward chemistry. Their “all thumbs” approach makes the trite premise endearing. As the instance Glen is a shy, dorky guy, but only when not singing and punishing his guitar. Marketa seems meek, offering an impression that a language barrier equals some naiveté. She’s a lot sharper than Glen in life, love and leaving that she leads on. So wrong-o on both counts.

Carney’s script (did I mention he wrote the thing?) allows our leads to just be themselves. Carney was the compass, clunky Glen and Marketa were true north. And it worked. Music enthusiasts them, and of all stripes, know what a good tune can do to smooth out the edges. Consider your fave bar discussion with a stranger: Who’s better? Beatles vs Stones? You’re both right. Good music is good music. Now go and molest the jukebox. Or if you have the time head over to your local music shop and f*ck around. We could all do worse with such drunken fun. Glen and Marketa are us at a bar, talking tunes and eventually decimating our TouchTunes accounts. Like I said, we could do far worse.

Even though I”ve been describing Once as homespun, it did have its cinematic moments of revelation. There is a thin thread of tension—friendly tension—running throughout the movie. Anticipation, rather. Again, Once is not a rom-com; any concept of that—need I remind you—is tossed into the curb by the end of the first act. It’s really all about will Glen become a successful songwriter with a contract, and will Marketa get her very own piano that she had to abandon in her family’s flight from the Czech Republic? That’s what matters here. Those are the stakes. We don’t care if they shack up, nor should we. For me I sat squirming throughout the final act, and my bladder was empty. I checked. I saw canny casting, careful tension and smooth pacing. All from some relative journeyman (and woman) came a fumbling, simply enjoyable flick. We cinephiles all desperately need that time and again.

Alas, in the endgame, nothing worked. Once crashed and burned at the multiplex. As I said, the soundtrack did well enough, but Once was no Birdman. Probably for the better. Once‘s type of earnestness is often lost on Americans’ barely there attention span. I’m guilty of that too, again hence to double watching. Sometimes what you see is supposed to be what you get. No need to jam that cold pizza slice into the microwave. Just chew.

This installment ain’t trying to be some crusade. Take it or leave it is the spiritual guide here at RIORI. That’s kind of a truism. Sometimes, however, there is a bleed. When a quality flick rolls around that flips the bird at The Standard I gotta say something. So what I’m saying is thus: you want a cinema detox? Watch Once. It quietly defies your sensibilities. It’s not a rom-com. It’s not a drama. It ain’t really that funny. It’s a buddy movie, with a cool soundtrack. It’s a series of vignettes broadcasted as an old skool MTV block of pop hits. It defies categorization. It is delightfully troubling chicken-fried steak busking. I’m talking serious gravy overflow.

It’s all cool.

The Verdict..

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Need a break from it all? Once is the movie for you. For all of us really. Michael Bay can wait. And wait. And wait some more. We’ll still have tiiiiimeee.

Stray Observations…

  • “I bring my Hoover!” That thing a pet or something? If that’s it we should name it “Maguffin.”
  • Holy sh*t. I was once in that music store. No, really, on a trip to Dublin. Lots and lots of guitars.
  • “I’ll pay ya back.”
  • Like the slippers.
  • “That’s the first thing I got sorted out.”
  • And the lesson scene, in that store? All those electric guitars hanging on the wall, and the pair defiantly acoustic. Hmm.
  • “Now play it again.”
  • Okay. So the song didn’t flounder.
  • “Cool, cool…”

Next Installment…

We got a picture about some Matchstick Men scheming against the status quo.

I regret nothing.