RIORI Redux: Nicolas W Refn’s “Drive” Revisited


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The Players…

Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Oscar Isaac, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks.


The Story…

Hollywood stuntman by day, getaway driver by night. Our man is the go-to guy, the all-purpose wheelman to get you the hell out of Dodge. No connections, and that’s how he likes it. It is, until his solitary life is disrupted by his cute neighbor and her young son. He quickly learns that, hey, maybe starting a friendship ain’t so bad after all. His newfound peace is shattered, however, when her violent husband is released from prison hell bent on a family reunion, whether mommy wants it or not. This reminds our man why it’s better to stay disconnected.


The Rant (2013)

In keeping up the general gist of this blog, I’m rambling through various recent movies of dubious reputation or had been lacking in box office mojo. Here’s the thing though: I already knew Drive was a noteworthy picture a few years ago, and had tallied up some relatively decent cheddar at the multiplex to boot—for a minor film. Of course, despite what Hollywood thinks, just cuz a movie makes a few ripples doesn’t mean it was any good. How else does that explain Rob Schneider having a career?

It’s was the critics’ responses to Drive that tweaked me, or at least what they didn’t say. The general public were up and down. The critics were all over the map. For example, good ol’ reliable Rotten Tomatoes gave Drive 93% while the audience gave it an average 78%. IMBD users, 7.9/10. Metascore, 78/100. Seems few can agree to disagree here.

Help is on the way.

That’s what I’m here for: to help people. Really. Or at least not to have you waste your hard-earned (or stolen) cash on the next stream. Well, that and give me a forum to spout my half-baked opinions about movies, shaking a fist into the air, railing like an angry shepherd under the black, starry sky, cursing Hollywood for inflicting the likes of Grown-Ups 2 and another useless remake/reboot because the folks in Tinsel Town are under the impression that we’re either all stupid, drooling inbreds or have memories the likes of retarded goldfish, slothfully dragging our popcorn-addled carcasses to the omegaplex devoid of any independent thought. Entertain us, o heathen warlords of the silver screen after our almighty, slippery ducat. Aye, there be yer zombie apocalypse.

Where was I? Right. Help. Here we go…

First and foremost, Drive is an homage to 80’s style thrillers, right down to the synth heavy score. To Live And Die in L.A. immediately comes to mind. From the metallic blue of the L.A. skyline to it’s sepia toned daytime desert climes. The pacing is as tight as the car chases. And the acting as wooden as the Sequoia National Forest. This pseudo-noir flick makes for neat cat and mouse antics through the City of Angels, but that novelty runs out of gas (ha!) pretty damned quick. Gosling’s performance as the Driver. Ugh. Where to begin? Is his portrayal supposed to be so stiff? I know he’s supposed to be this icy, introverted tough guy, but comes across as flat as the L.A. freeway and he never seems to blink. And when he does show emotion—a smile here, a tear there—it comes across as just plain creepy. Carey Mulligan is just vapid wallpaper. Why was Hendricks in this movie, other than to get offed? Her role was very pointless and was no more than a glorified cameo.

Cranston is criminally underused here and just comes off as some kind of caricature. The old mentor schtick doesn’t usually improve with age, and his staggering about the set came across as comical without being funny. On the bright side, Brooks and Perlman are just as amusing as ever, especially Brooks in a wiseguy role. However Brooks is so unconvincing as a killer mobster (even when does kill and do mobster things), that it’s unintentionally funny. I have a soft spot for Ron Perlman, so it’s tough to say rotten things about his acting, even though he was kinda goofy. Sorry.

You can’t talk about this movie without commenting on its violence. There’s a lot of it, and, yeah, it’s gratuitous. It’s also boring. You get numb to the Driver’s antics real quick. He’s not a fun date. And the motel scene; when did he become Rambo? What was that pledge earlier in the film that “I don’t use a gun”? Oops. He uses sharp implements and shoes a lot too. Cold-blooded and unconvincing.

Harsh, you say? Tough, My review. Nyah, nyah, nyah. I still haven’t figured out the disparity between the critics and the audience. I’m part of the audience here, not a professional critic. Let’s just put it this way: I didn’t fall for Drive‘s alleged art house pretensions. It was just a poorly acted, violent, rip-off of other motor n’ mobster movies that came before it, mostly in the cocaine-fueled 80’s. Kinda like the soundtrack.


Rant Redux (2019)

Okay. I’ll admit it. I was too harsh. I think I was too eager to gnash my teeth and get all Lewis Black on this film for two reasons: 1) I was all too quick to latch on, remora-like, to the inconsistencies in the plot and trumpet about them, and: 2) a neophyte to blogging I wanted to make a stink so readers would “notice me” by trashing a noteworthy film. In simpler terms, I was a snot and strutted about, Mr Movie Know-It-All, openly pissed about no being allowed at the cool kids table at lunch in 7th grade. Wah.

Before I go on with this stroll down memory lane I feel it proper to give a shout out to the “silent partner” in the creation of RIORI, one Jordan Harms. I told about the inspiration for this blog in Vol 3’s installment about Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium. Back then Jordan was hot to trot to see said film as how much he loved the director’s District 9. The day after he caught the movie I asked him about it. He shrugged. It was okay. Meh. He looked let down. That’s when I asked no one the apocryphal question, “There oughta be a website out there that warns about mediocre movies.” Boing. And here we are.

There’e more to that than that. I’ve understood that to truly enjoy another’s company, you gotta be down with their quirks. If you can get beyond others’ fears, concerns, ideologies and tastes no matter how warped you can find a cool friend amongst all their personal bouts with life. Another aspect of getting to know a person is sort of a silent matter; you don’t wanna bring it up in casual conversation because it it ultimately private and others Just. Won’t. Get it. And I ain’t talking sexual preferences or who your fave X-Man is. Sometimes that’s one and the same. Eeyew.

Jordan had a condition to compartmentalize social interactions to quick, smart conversations that overarched the need for him to hit the head. Often. A lot. Like go off the grid a lot. In and out of the kitchen was he, returning with a look of satori on his face; he had just realized something. Like a lot of us he did his best thinking in the bathroom, and would often return to work with a pithy thought or two to share. The man always had something on is mind. I liked that.

Once he laid it out thus: what makes a movie mediocre? Well, bad reviews for one, but that’s always subjective. Lousy acting? Sure, but sometime a good story can make lame acting tolerable. And the story? Of course, but one can run the acting thing in reverse. And there’s always the return on investment: the box office takeaway. That’s a key thing there, the almighty ducats. This became one of the Five Pillars of The Standard. If a movie walked away breaking even or scratched a surface then something mediocre was afoot. Just because most American audiences are dumb they’re not dumb. They knew when they get ripped off. I highlighted that on the start page. Jordan and I couldn’t ignore that factor, so I looked up Box Office Mojo and The Numbers to do the math for some movies’ budgets against what they actually earned.

That being said, smaller indie pictures don’t nestle easily into Avengers: Endgame territory. Budgets for smaller films tend to be modest, and if such an indie film catches fire, well the spread between the budget and the takeaway can be like David and Goliath, minus the head injuries. At least the literal ones.

Drive was such a film that caught fire. Kinda. We’re dealing with low numbers into not so low numbers, but all with critical praise, name actors and a hook that I completely missed with my first viewing. In fact, I got it after I send the disc back to Netflix (no, this caveman still doesn’t have streaming on his TV and I refuse to watch a movie on my iMac. It feels like homework). I had already written the installment above and posted it begrudgingly because I didn’t…I was lazy. Jordan was the one who suggested Drive, and was rather dismayed I didn’t like it. He told me so on Facebook, and if you can’t believe that then, well.

In hindsight the installment for Drive was sour grapes. I nitpicked. I groaned. I panned. And I totally missed the point until a day later after the post was in the can. I base the revelation after the time I caught The Blair Witch Project in theaters. Sure, the movie was spooky and weird but didn’t really stir the blood. The most I can say about that was dissecting the movie with my pals at the cafe across the street from the only theater in town that showed the darn thing. We mostly didn’t get it, but it sure was different.

It was only a day later, sitting on the edge of my bed before sleep (no, really) that I got it. There was a plot point about the Blair Witch allegedly making her potential victims to stand in the corner, like a bad pupil would. So when in the very last scene REDACTED. I froze, replaying the scene in my mind. Holeee sh*t. I got it. A day late and ten dollars short but I got it.

That’s kinda the delayed reaction I had from watching Drive. Understood there was a lot of melodrama and excessive violence that I carped about. I also bitched about other things that I did not immediately get a la Blair Witch. I even quacked about it in the original rant, rather snarky for my usual custom. I called Drive “pseudo-noir flick.” I was almost right. Drive is “neo-noir,” a good enough phrase to contain the style of a modern take of the 1980’s style thrillers. That stuff about To Live And Die In LA was not a swipe. Not now anyway. Drive takes its hints from half-forgotten 80s “classics” like Die In LA, as well as ThiefNight Hawks and Manhunter. Products of their time given a shave and a massage for the 21st Century with Drive.

Christ, I was so caviling. So smug. Look, I know it was just a movie critique, but it is the duty of the critic to broadcast their truth in an unbiased way at the outset. I think since it was Jordan’s recommendation I had a bias at the beginning to like it, so not to offend his bathroom wisdom. I guess I overanalyzed things. I finally figured out that with all its flaws, just go with it. We’re aiming for atmosphere here, not philosophy.

My biggest carp with Drive was the acting. I called it wooden. It was. But I later understood why: Drive is a tribute to the plastic nature of the 80s flicks and their artifice. If the only true drama laid out by flicks such as To Live And Die In LA as front-and-center a drug dealer getting a shotgun blast to the groin, you really couldn’t care less about how the actor screamed and screamed. The violence Gosling dispenses is a head nod, not a high five. The stereotypes, like Albert Brooks heavy Bernie work because the entire cast are ciphers channelling the soiled glam and glitz of those skeezy neo-noir flicks from the Reagan administration. Via such hamminess, it’s a love letter. I got it. I get that now, end of the bed or no.

I owe an apology to the bathroom sage Jordan. I credit him for helping to establish The Standard, and relent the crap I spewed about Drive out of spite. Hey, it was my third installment. Sue me. Again. My lawyer’s on retainer.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Overruled: Rent it. I learned you must be in the right mindset to dig a film like Drive. In 2013 I was defiantly in the wrong mindset. And high. Did I mention that?


Next Installment…

We take an Uber around Midnight In Paris again. Woody Allen was the first esteemed filmmaker I tackled, and I hope I did a good job. I think I did. I also think I was a blowhard that farted pretension and took the edge off with metaphysical bumper cars.

Get it?


 

RIORI Redux: Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” Revisited



The Players…

Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Ackerman, Billy Crudup, Jeffery Dean Morgan and Matthew Goode.


The Story…

Adapted from comic laureate Alan Moore’s landmark miniseries, the events that transpire after a superhero is murdered in an alternate universe circa 1985 lead a band of once famed costumed avengers—now outlaws—to solve the mystery. However this is no mere murder, regardless of the victim. There are far more sinister forces at work shadowing this mystery, and very little of it has to do with some dead guy wearing a costume. And a smiley face button.


The Rant (2013)

When I was a pup, I picked up the first ish of Watchmen. Didn’t get it. I guess I was not the target audience. Sold the thing for five bucks. This was 1986 dollars. I was too young to know the oys and joys of beer, drugs and sex. I guess I was a wastrel when it came to comics as well. Who’s the latest X-Man? What’s Spidey up to? What’s sex? They do what? To each other? Eewww.

Ha. Since then, I’ve grown up. Sort of. Through waste and disgrace I now have all 12 issues of Watchmen hermetically sealed in a binder somewhere. First issues. Ugh, the geekiness of it all. Am I boasting? F*ck yeah I am.

So when the whirling dervish that is Zack Snyder got the green light to tackle a full-flung take on the mini-series (which had been languishing in production hell for lifetimes) and plaster it to the silver screen, a million comic geeks over were harping about either two things: this had better work or this ain’t gonna work.

And here I am to declare the results in a sober, reserved geeky mindset. Keep in mind, I’ve been a movie nut well before there were ever comic book movies…

Where to start?

Okay, the plot. It’s painfully simple, right? Painfully simple, which is all but this comic series and ensuing film is. Funny thing is it’s almost impossible to give too much away about the movie for how dense it is for its 2 hour 45 minute running time. I’m actually amazed the studio heads and/or editors allowed this length. Then again, I doubt a movie could do the comic book justice in only 90 minutes. The book and the film are that inscrutable.

My take on certain points of the film is cursory at best, because there is a sickening amount of details crammed into the near three-hour running time. I’ll try to make this work. Remember, I’m not a professional movie critic. Just a loudmouth with a blog.

At its core, Watchmen is a murder mystery. All the allegory and satire is just applesauce. Very good applesauce, mind you. But try telling a neophyte the plot of Watchmen without tying up your tongue and his mind. Right.

There is a lot more going on here than my perfunctory synopsis the story. I can’t explain it all, and that is what is the most damning about this film adaptation. There is too much going on. Props for Snyder trying his hand at it. He did what no other director managed to do thus far. He managed to do what Terry Gilliam, David Hayter, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass could not. He got it on film. Not only that, but he captured the spirit of the comic quite well, if not the complexity.

There is a holy host of touches that make this movie work. The fact things work at all is practically a miracle. It feels like Snyder got into most of the heads of the readers of the series and tried to make celluloid flesh out of what the mind’s ear heard and of what the imagination piqued.

First of all, the voices are important. It’s hard to believe that the dulcet voice of Billy Crudup (Dr. Manhattan) that assured us for everything else, there’s MasterCard would be such an eerie complement to the omnipotent Doctor. There’s a wistful innocence and dare I say pity in Crudup’s performance that marshals up emotions that we as the audience should have for him: pity and awe. On the flipside, Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach snarl was dead on for my mind’s ear. The voice of a demented, so-called hero. The monologue in the prison interview was especially effective. The dialogue was tight and didn’t seem forced or purple, which could be construed that way if delivered by a different actor.

Along with the voices was the music, especially the now-infamous Leonard Cohen romance scene. Some of these songs also appeared in the miniseries proper, also cued up and overlapped as scenes in the book as well as the screen translation. It’s nice to know the writers did their homework. Then again, all that homework might’ve hurt the film some. It’s always difficult to translate a book into a movie. Something’s always going to be either padded or jettisoned (for Watchmen it was the whole “Black Freighter” subplot, which was later and adapted for a straight-to-DVD release). But scenarists Hayter and Tse may have adhered too closely to the source material, not leaving a lot of room for cinematic interpretation. It’s one thing to see the images leap onto the screen. It’s another to have to keep turning the pages.

The sets reflect the hard, colorful angles of the nine panel pages of the original book. Everything sort of takes a kind of surrealist focus, as if to remind the audience that this is—was—not the 1985 you knew. You get the feeling that despite the heavy-handedness of the source material, Snyder’s having a lot of fun making the film. Granted the fun is dark and sometimes demented, but let’s face the truth: sometimes the best kind of fun is dangerous.

I gave up following the movie frame-by-frame along with the original comics I cracked out for the occasion by the third act. Biggest carp? The ending was racist Hollywood, and with that a lot of other stray thoughts clutter up my mind. Being beaten over the head with exacting efforts can leave one woozy.

Do any of these points sell the film for people who’ve never read the comics? Probably not. They are but touchstones of a valiant effort to bring one of the most complex, dense and literate comic books to the screen. So…


Rant Redux (2019)…

Again, I was surprised that I didn’t sound so bloated as I thought. Being a comic book fan I am one of a few individuals that are given a wide berth when it comes to their fetishes (eg: comic geeks, pro wrestling fans, CosPlayers, pedophiles, etc). Meaning I’m faced with a certain degrees of bemusement and “Sir, this an Arby’s” when it comes to my—and others—blathering on about their manic, fevered obsession over the machinations, codex and philosophy about a fictional universe that admittedly stinks to high Heaven of life arrest and taking up indefinite residence in their folks’ basement. Fantasy, exactly. Glad you’re following along.

One of the major achievements of Watchmen I glanced upon was that the dang film ever got made. With Zack Snyder at the helm, of all people. I say that based on past becomes prologue over the years here at RIORI. Snyder is the most scrutinized director here, which says something. Not that all his films are lame (Sucker Punch  was a fine exception), but most are in some way, bland, ethereal and…well, assuredly mediocre passing entertainment. Over the years here at RIORI Snyder’s aforementioned Sucker Punch, his take on Watchmen and Man Of Steel have gone under the microscope, and if The Standard doesn’t change (it won’t) we’re gonna see a lot of more of Snyder’s craft end up here unless his style changes (it won’t).

Still Snyder’s taste for spectacle over craftsmanship suited the abstract Watchmen well enough even I was surprised—surprised the comic series ever made the leap to cinema at all. In the endgame it was a herculean task to rescue Alan Moore’s magnum opus from infinite Production Hell. Watchmen was optioned back in 1986, the year the comic was released and didn’t hit the theaters until over 20 years later. The main reason why it took so long is because Fox failed to secure a director. Those names I mentioned above? All were qualified for the job as far as I was concerned; they could all tackle such a recondite, culty, socio-conscious detective story out of a comic book, before God. But I don’t think seeking the right director was what Fox (later Warner Brothers and later Paramount and even later Warner Brothers) found tricky.

It was the source material. Not so much it being sourced from a vital, however still obscure comic book, no. And not exactly what the plot of the comic book was, either. I feel that the source material’s sophistication and an execution would not have been taken seriously, or at least the studios defiantly did not understand the opportunity because—

*drum roll and drop the mic*

it came from a friggin’ comic book. Up until 1986, the only comic book hero to grace the silver screen was Superman, his cinematic exploits couched firmly in action and fantasy suitable for all ages. What Moore and Gibbons had cooked up was topical, complex, loaded with social commentary, satire and major head-scratching  in equal measures. This was a comic book? Where are the capes,? Joel Silver cried. Why, daddy why?

Yep, believe or not Hollywierd. And they shuffled the option around and around like a hot potato with tertiary syphiliis, too hot for any conventional studio at the time to touch. The aging powers that be deemed Watchmen unfilmable (not out loud) and down to the Seventh Level the script was laid dormant for over two decades. The party line goes that Watchmen was never picked up in a timely fashion for myriad of reasons: all the usual Hollywood folderol. Budget. Casting. Revolving door of perspective directors. Rewrites. Budget. “Creative differences,” and last of all budget.

To wit I say: hogwash. Zack Snyder made the impossible possible and got Watchmen to theaters. Better late than never, especially up against the dimwitted myopia studios have “unfilmable books” (read: return on investment) been regarded, and often incorrectly. If Kubrick could get A Clockwork Orange and Lolita—of all books—to film, one would be hard-pressed to ask, “Hey. What about that Miracle Man guy?” And for better or worse, master weird guy David Lynch got a crack at Dune (much to author Frank Herbert’s dismay. I think the fiasco contributed to his death a year after release. That and the cancer, but the cancer came after the movie, so hmmm). Naked Lunch got the movie treatment, ‘tho I’m still not sure why. Gonzo journalistic epic Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson directed by (once tapped, erstwhile director of Watchmen) Terry Gilliam to good effect. And for some other whacked out reason (other than a bet) Steve Coogan tried his hand a Tristam Shandy but shouldn’t have.

This brings me back to my point: my reluctant praise for Snyder full pulling off the greatest jewel heist in comic book movie history. It was Alan Moore’s K2, and Snyder planted a flag at the summit, for better to worse. I still only claim that because of course the final product could’ve been better, but most audiences’ attention spans with movies have been trained to be reliable only up to 100 minutes. Watchmen was almost three hours long and even within that “restricted” boundary Snyder still did  the best he could with the cards dealt him.

And Snyder did yeoman’s work. Watchmen the movie was acceptable and not uninteresting. All that made a good movie good were in place: good story, decent acting, cool action, pacing, what have you. It was serviceable to the masses and frustrating for the fanboys (like me). But one a final, honorable note Snyder made his mark with graphic spectacle. His version of Day Of The Dead and his breakthrough 300 (technically another epic culled from a graphic novel rather than historical record) with unabashed spectacle. That signature of spectacle sticks around in Watchmen, but this time out Snyder brought out the CGI fireworks and martial arts to accentuate plot points, not as wallpaper (think the birth of Dr Manhattan or the “foreplay” between Nite Owl and the Silk Spectre). I appreciated that; he let the story ride on without a lot of naive audience appealing conflagration for the sake of eyewash. How the studio must’ve hated him for it in a “basic comic book” movie.

Too bad the takeaway proved him wrong. Chin up, Zack. Later on you’ll be back on par soiling Superman’s cape and f*cking up the non-existent DC Cinematic Universe with such joie de vivre.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: Rent it. It’s a good movie, even if it was only made against all odds. Will it please fanboys? Hells no. Is it a cool murder mystery? Yep. Erm…sue me.


Next Installment…

I take another Drive with Ryan Gosling as my murderous Uber. This was the first movie I watched based on someone’s recommendation. Said recommendation was from the unofficial co-founder of RIORI, the mischievous Jordan. He was upset that I didn’t like Drive. Maybe this time around I won’t be sippin’ on the sizzup for a less hazy judgment. Maybe.


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 98: David Gordon Green’s “Pineapple Express” (2008)



The Players…

Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, Gary Cole and Rosie Perez, with Kevin Corrigan, Craig Robinson, and Amber Heard.


The Story…

Dale and Saul are the best of buds…so to speak. Dale relishes his unenviable job of a process server, throwing out subpoenas to unsuspecting catchers. Sure, it can stressful, but then there’s his pal Saul with the panacea: a veritable Eden of reefer.

But Saul doesn’t have the green thumb, no. He’s just Amazon. The distributor, and his reach is vast, is only as long as Saul’s supply line runs. And what funds the supply? Right, cold hard cash.

So what does Dale do when on the job? Right. Witness a murder at an alleged drug lord’s mansion. And then what does Dale do in a reefer-induced haze? Right. Seek out Saul and his product for solace. Right?

Nope. And now any hope of safety goes (wait for it) up in smoke.


The Rant

Let us speak frankly now about weed. And I ain’t talking gardening here. Blooms definitely not in the Burpee catalog.

My experiences with mary jane are few and far between. I’ve been partial to the legal, government sanctioned, actually dangerous drugs available at any SafeWay. Booze, caffeine and nicotine, the American Holy Trinity. Sure, I did have my fun with prescription abuse, but the worst that happened there was constant drowsiness and bitchin’ dreams about being awake. That and the patience to read dozens of books at a leisurely clip to which I have no recollection of reading. That sure as sh*t wasn’t amongst the microscopic warnings on the phial. Oh well.

(BTW: why are the risk warnings SO HUGE the legal drugs and f*cking cramped onto a postage stamp for the prescription drugs? Discuss)

I like beer. If you could see me now it shows. Moving on.

Weed. I is a decaf Cheech & Chong routine. For real, every time in my ancient, Phish-loving past I toked and fell fast asleep. Every. Damn. Time. I never felt the dopey joys and goofiness and chilling and ability to dissect every guitar chord on Santana’s self-titled debut along the curves of the Book of Psalms. Nope. Snore, snore and more. Wake up hours later with chili sauce slathering your nose enough times you figure out what a downer apparition you are under the influence of grass.

did sleep well though, complete with some bodacious dreams involving Heather Graham circa 1997.

Even in high school hanging with my stoner friends (I was the lone holdout) I got a metaphorical contact high. First and prob to no surprise I’m pretty liberal in my views about burning. Pot is a controlled substance nowadays, but back then I figured that it should’ve been treated as such. For booze and smokes? You gotta be of a certain age to partake, like 18 or so. You shouldn’t toke and drive, since it messes with your already flawed everyday judgment. You shouldn’t be high in public, because you are irritating and might shut down the local pizzeria. Control the substance. It’s not harmful, but too much weed may make you annoying.

Here’s a story. It’s from college. For those of you who went to one you’ll hear what I’m screaming. It’s one of those “there’s one in every crowd” story. Face it, you’ve been there.

Every solid dorm floor population at college is inhabited by a lot of stereotypes. The go-getter with his scholarship in finance. Some jock, an expert is some lesser-revered team sport (think lacrosse or cricket). The computer nerd with the pale complexion. The bando (raised hand), the artsy queer, the engineer, the etc.

And the burners. You know the kind. Two seconds behind the matter at hand. Their glow-in-the-dark Dead posters hung upside down. Facial tics like moss growing on the wrong side of the tree. Wake and bake. They’re like anti-KISS Army; unlike those manic fanatics who wake, wash and dress like Gene and Paul do everyday, the burners smirk and giggle since Gene don’t bow to the delights of their chosen high despite they snore “Detroit Rock City” in their sleep, sometime after lunch.

There is an argument I lean towards when those admonish the others for toking. Weed can be psychologically addictive. Y’know, like cigarettes, coffee, heroin and binge watching Game Of Thrones. Of which is the worst I cannot say, but when you firmly believe you need to maintain your habit on an hourly basis, then yeah, you have an addiction. My father watches BBC America every night on PBS. It’s an awful show, and he’s not British. What gives? Then again I a lot myself nightly bouts with Jeopardy! So who’s to say what?

We all have our addictions. It’s only when the habit supersedes getting on in the day that it may get troublesome. Especially that if such practices rub you raw, consider the others in your ever dwindling circle that find you increasingly annoying. So here comes the wake ‘n bake tale of grue. Not so much an after school special but an inevitable facepalm.

A room over from my freshman squat were the ideal Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Can’t remember their names, but it doesn’t matter. As I said, you know the type. Glazed eyes, snickering at nothing funny, reeking of patchouli, snickering at nothing funny. Study hall. Domino’s would call the floor asking when we’d like to place our order. Not kidding, there.

We’d have these dumb floor meetings. The RA would rally us every Friday to talk turkey. Mostly domestic 20th Century skills about keeping house. Cleaning up trash. No loud music after 10. Don’t use Canadian quarters in the Coke machine. Bring us together so that we may agree.

It was always eye rolls. But to Zig and Zag it was a circus. Giggling, impatience, odors of spoiled incense and Europe ’72 oozing from every pore. The funniest thing about a career pothead (besides his sidekick) is that they are convinced no one else figures that they are high. Pretty funny, and very annoying. Ain’t this as funny as ever? No, and nope. The joke’s on…whatever.

Like I said about these two jokers. They were in the room next to mine. Always with live recordings on their jambox, day and night and day. Going to actual classes ended…come to think of it, I don’t remember if the guys ever went to class, or if they ever registered. No matter. All I knew then was they bivouacked next door and really liked Santana. I know this for sure because said group invited my first and only convo with Tweedlewhomever. Like most white folks, they all look alike to me.

I had a substantial CD collection then. I was alternating between American Underground bands like the Replacements and Buffalo Tom against classic rockers like Hendrix and the Who. And Santana. This dope caught wind that I had the remastered disc of Carlos and Co’s debut album replete with live tracks from the original Woodstock concert. Trace element stuff back then. I was a feather in my cap, and I played those live tracks to death. Awesome.

I had the door to my room open one evening, that Santana album on repeat when Dee sauntered by. He poked his shaggy head in the doorway and used it to brace himself. I regarded him curiously.

“Hey man,” he drawled. “That Santana?”

I nodded. “Remaster. Got live tracks from Woodstock.”

“Cool, cool. Can I borrow it?”

I hesitated. Hey, at least give me that credit. “Yeah, sure.”

“Like now, man?”

Right now?”

“Yeah. Big study session. Carlos relaxes me. Is it cool?”

Without realizing what I was doing I turned off the stereo, ejected the disc and case and handed to him. At this point anything to make him leave. He smelled like a fart in a car, and was creeping me out. He was interrupting all the nothing I wasn’t working on.

“Thanks, man.” His tipped a salute with the case, leered and dragged himself down the hall. I closed the door.

Now I may know what you’re all thinking: and he never saw his blessed Santana CD ever again. Nope. It was in exile; even I had forgotten about it for some weeks. But one night I got to studying and felt peckish. I went next door with a keen awareness of what laid in wait: very odd, confused hospitality. I shoulda figured out the scene earlier. Once when the Domino’s delivery guy dropped off that evening’s feast it was my turn to pay. He sent me on my way with the pizzas and fistful of coupons. We were such good customers; he told me to spread the clippings around my floor. Sure, okay. Whatever. Save a few bucks next night.

So after the extra extra cheeses were demolished I passed around the coupons and took it on myself to drop the rest off at my dormmate’s rooms. Those who weren’t in I just slipped them under the door. Had to get rid of them somehow.

I met resistance at the door of my music critic’s room. I was surprised. I knew these guys were usually on something, but I couldn’t place what. I was too dumb then to fully understand what patchouli incense was really for, other than for attracting a bull yak in the time of the rut. I tried to shove the coupon under the door, but something was in the way. I poked around and figured it was some fabric. A towel. I gave up, looking quizzically at the piece of paper like one does when the Coke machine won’t accept that wrinkly dollar bill. I saw that the edge was discolored, wet. I raised and eyebrow, harrumphed and went back to my room. I tossed the coupon on the floor. One would figure two potheads would eagerly trudge at a chance for cheap pizza.

Many moons later and about the peckish order, I wanted my Santana album back. It had been weeks since I loaned it out and I was for wanting. I went around the corner and knocked on their door. No surprise a live Dead bootleg was warbling from within. And again with the yak bait. I knocked again.

A shuffle, then a stuffy, “Who’s that?”

“Me.”

“You?”

“Yeah. Can I have my Santana disc back?”

Silence. I knocked again.

“Who’s that?”

I rolled my eyes. Dave’s not here. “I want my Santana disc back. Please.” I’m nothing but polite.

The music went off and the door unlocked. I pushed against but it got stuck. I looked down. Lo and behold a wet towel, as well as a miasma of incense that could keep Dracula at bay. I saw the room was dim; the blinds were closed. Day-glo Henrdrix poster on the wall…as well as an elaborate hand painted mural of a Dead concert as if conjured up by Lewis Carroll. Pizza boxes piled by the closet. I guessed they found that coupon.

My fellow fanboy cursed the glare from the unforgiving halogens in the hallway. It was my turn to lean in the door. He looked at me perplexed.

“What’s up, man?”

“My Santana CD. May I have it back now?”

“That was yours?”

“…Yeah.”

“Hold on.” He kicked away the fallout and found the disc, handed it to me. “Sorry, man. I forgot about it.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I didn’t even get a chance to hear it. But thanks, dude.”

“You’re welcome.” I let him slink back into his lair. Jerry and the guys kicked back into life. I went back to my stereo and kicked Carlos back into life. To this day the liner notes of that remastered disc still smell like spoiled oregano. Good times, good times.

Not long after that meet-and-greet, the Tweedles left campus. And no surprise, not of their own choosing. Not actively, at least. They were expelled, but not so much for getting caught schmokin’ than for never going to class. And vandalism. I will admit I embellished describing the Santana CD story, but the pothead’s room? Amazing. Decked out like an opium den minus the opium. In brighter light the mural was amazing, the stink was glorious and maintenance would’ve had to tear up the floor tiles for sanitation’s sake. All in all awesome, but what a waste.

On the whole, most burners are a kind, mellow lot. Casual and conversational, with a lot of cool stories and great jokes. Chill. It’s only when pot becomes their life and wife that stoners can become obnoxious, where everything is funny, including wreck, ruin and expulsion. Not even making casual use of weed legal could undo that. It’s like if a user, pot or otherwise, is making life troublesome for at least one other person then it becomes an issue. If one’s—pardon the pun—dopey antics, no matter how benign start to rankle someone (even if they’re high as sh*t) it might be time to say when.

Take Dale and Saul, for instance…


“You’ve been served!”

Sounds kinda like a superhero battle cry. But nope, it’s just pothead process server Dale Denton (Rogen) doing his ugly job. Hence the weed. You think you could remain sane being called a*shole on an hourly basis and not partake to remain calm? Right. Pass the Dutchie on the left hand side.

Saul (Franco) is Dale’s left hand. He’s the hookup, with a veritable forest of rare weed to cure every ill. Sure, Saul is just as—if not more—dopey than his numero uno customer Dale, but he’s a kindly, generous soul. No harm to anyone. He wants to invest his cut of sales to get his Grammy Faye into a better retirement community. Aw. See, kind?

Dale’s job ain’t as kind. He’s Saul’s remora. It’s symbiotic. Dale needs the weed to tolerate the job. Saul provides the balm to salve his wounds. Easy.

However, on night on the prowl, doped out of his mind on the latest breed o’ weed Pineapple Express—very new and very trace—Dale starts to get the paperwork ready to deliver to one Ted Jones (Cole) when shots ring out. Jones plugs a guy in the head and Dale sees it all, freaks and speeds off, dropping the tell-tale joint on the driveway. Not cool.

Not ever cooler is when Jones investigates the screeching and finds a spent roach on the ground. Sniff, sniff.

“Pineapple Express.”

See, Jones is a big deal drug dealer in weed, and Saul is his pusher as Dale is the mark. And eyewitness to a murder. Ted’s killing.

Uh, Dale better call Saul…and both get the f*ck out of town.

Who said pot was harmless…?


I may have mentioned this before (and probably have indeed), but doesn’t Rogen play the same guy in all his movies? I know it’s nice to find steady work, but as an actor with a solid schtick rather than a range you’re gonna close a lotta doors. Then again, no one has ever lost money in Hollywood underestimating audiences’ intelligence. Well, maybe once or twice.

Rogen has a good thing going over the past decade. His motormouth humor isn’t for everyone, and even gets a bit degrading for me sometimes, but does sell tickets. At the end of the day I find Rogen funny and sometimes approaching witty in a blend of “aw shucks/are you insane” repartee. His stuff’s usually good with the right co-star. You gotta have one for a buddy movie, right? In Superbad it was Bill Hader, and it was Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 50/50. Such pairings that didn’t work was Adam Sandler in Funny People and especially not Katherine Heigl in Knocked UpDefinitley not her, even if she weren’t a she. Vote’s still out on that, too.

Face it, buddy comedies are almost exclusively the man cave of the sprawling studio lots. So gotta get a good foil to your straight man. A Costello to his Abbott, a Spock to his Kirk, a Stimpy to his Ren (okay, not the best example there). If Rogen’s Dale is an immature, churlish goof with a weed habit. The Murtaugh is his Riggs is slacker, skittish (but still mellow) with a weed habit and business Franco’s Saul. I was pretty surprised how well the two got on together, especially since I never figured his usual yuk-yuks border on ribald. His and Rogen’s oddball, passive-aggressive, bird-pecking-croc-teeth is the centerpiece of this movie.

It also might’ve been the only thing of merit, also.

While watching Express (for the second time, mind you. Caught in theatrical release and wasn’t bowled over. Guess I should’ve smoked up first, but that sh*t’s harder to sneak in than a cold six. This precept has been tried an tested. Yer welcome) there came a nagging at me. And no, it wasn’t the kid yanking on my earlobe for her iPad so she can watch The Loud House (j/k, she’s a SpongeBob fan. watch The Loud House. Grew up with sisters. ‘Nuff said).

(note to self: cut back on parenthetical references)

Express felt a little lopsided, like more was going on elsewhere in film land than what I was immediately seeing. As metaphor, my car has a “dead bulb” warning glowing on my dash, but for the life of me I cannot locate it. Headlights are fine, blinkers re fine. I even asked the kid to check out the rear lights as I applied the brake. Nothing. But something is up. I guess Express cam across a little stilted because that director Green is better known for dramas than screwy stoner action-comedies. A shot in the dark, but hey. Throughout the whole movie there was this Sisyphus-like weight threatening to derail the whole story. I couldn’t figure if this was some proto-meta, Kaufman-esque gag about how too much weed can ruin your perception of the reality of your surroundings. Or maybe it was just shoddy camera work, I dunno. Still, cool to ponder, eh?

Wake up. I got Oreos.

So right, we got a really Laurel and Hardy action going on here. Despite the minor, but still smelling overarching pretentious of our director I must give credit to this dopefest—literally and figuratively—is that is does have a cool mystery vibe going on. It’s paper thin (Dale witnesses a murder, Ted is a bad dude, Carol’s a crooked cop. Saul is just Saul, etc) but enough to let Express survive. It’s a burner Sherlock mystery. Again maybe a metaphor for the Down syndrome goldfish memory of most stoners, but there’s enough silliness to keep things afloat. Barely.

My biggest carp with Express is there’s quite a bit of filler. Scenes that have no point, crammed into the lacy plot. I didn’t really see the point of Dale’s dating Angie in the movie; he’s already very immature and petulant. It’s also safe to assume that a lot of the banter between Rogen and Franco was improv, but too much of it jumps the shark. When that crap goes down, the decent chemistry between Rogen and Franco become stale Martin and Lewis (in a word, annoying, and gimme back my Santana CD). If any wit seems stilted sometimes blame bad directing or an editor asleep at the reel.

Come on. That is the greatest pun you will ever hear in this installment.

Anyway, this action/mystery/comedy flows at a leisurely pace. Perhaps another analogy. This film made me think too hard, because I wasn’t high at the time. Clever device? If there’s some precious direction at work in Express I must’ve been too lucid to find it funny. The movie was funny, but there was too much passive winking that I snuck up on and examined to much.

Let me put it this way: as of this post, the hot ticket at the multiplex is Avengers: Endgame. I haven’t watched a Marvel movie in the theatre since the first Iron Man film back in 2008 BC. Being a comic book collector, I had seen other adaptions before the MCU got revved up, to see what was “right” and what was “wrong.” It’s the only form of snobbery I have: if a movie is based on pre-existing material (Shakespeare’s plays, Stephen King’s novels and/or Stan Lee’s superhero stories) I will scour it rather than just sit back and enjoy it. I can’t help it. Entertainment takes a back seat for studying up for the Bar exam. I overanalyze things (it’s kinda what RIORI and The Standard is all about). I found myself picking apart Express with the lucidity required to strip the Thanksgiving turkey carcass of its oysters because most folks don’t know that turkeys have oysters.

Remember, oreos.

So exactly why does the wit seem stilted? Why was my mantra watching Express was, “Something is missing here?” Must’ve been my imagined device at work. Watched the flick too deeply that Corrigan and Robinson were secretly the real stars of the movie (or at least the yin to Dale and Saul’s yang). Then again I may spotted Green’s established, aforementioned artistic pretentions at full flow here, behind the scenes. Everything is kind until it’s not (the final scene was the best part, clear as a bell). The gauzy direction must’ve put off a lot of folks by The Standard’s stake. But chances are they weren’t high, like me, and missed the chucklefest for that very loss. I dunno.

Welp, that being said I’m gonna go watch One Crazy Summer for the umpteenth time and then try to solve Fermat’s last theorem. Again.

Dude, marvelous.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. A kind rent it. See it with a bud. Hey, where’s them oreos at?


Stray Observations…

  • “Dopest dope I ever smoked.” Dude, movie in a nutshell.
  • Where’d Saul get the pickles?
  • Why is every vehicle here a period car?
  • So. Many. Payphones.
  • “I used to use this little gun when I was a prostitute.” Shrug.
  • “Watch your head.”
  • Is all the bush supposed to look phallic?
  • “Yeeeah. If you could roll out those 18 bales of kush by 9:30 that would be greaaat (sorry, couldn’t resist).”
  • I never did test the high beams.
  • “Teamwork!” “Yes!”

Next Installment…

Adam Sandler has cooked up a few Bedtime Stories to share with his kid. What’s endearing about that is the tales were intended to be just stories.

Gumballs, anyone?


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 97: Taylor Hackford’s “Proof Of Life” (2000)



The Players…

Meg Ryan, Russell Crowe, David Morse, David Caruso and Pamela Reed, with Anthony Heald, Gottfried John and Michael Kitchen.


The Story…

When Alice’s architect husband Peter goes missing into the dense canopy of the Teclan jungle, it’s up to special agent Terry Thorn to get him back alive.

Funny thing is the revolutionaries who abducted Peter want him to remain alive. Good business sense, as all human trafficking blueprints flow.

Can Thorn locate the waylaid Peter in time and fend off advances from desperate housewife Alice?

Stay tuned!


The Rant…

There are a lot of ugly words in the English language. Dismemberment. Murder. Moist. A panoply of them. Being once an English major I too gathered words that would not be invited to my Friends list: Suture. Lonely. Lesion. Hangnail. Literally. All those words describe nasty ideas and poor grammar, and all describe harm in some fashion (including that overused and incorrectly applied adverb, Millennials). Stuff that bums us out an makes us cringe, images of suffering and pain and loss cloud our minds when we hear them.

On the flip side there is a more insidious nature of our emotions being triggered by hear the bad stuff above. Selfishness, another ugly word, crosses our minds:

“Glad it’s not me.”

That being said another nasty term that clouds my brain with fear and loathing (and not just relevant to this installment): kidnap. Separation anxiety in its fullest form. Stolen. Taken away from your life and loved ones, only to become an object, some poker chip by the guy who demands a ransom. It’s akin to slavery; people are not products, and therefore are not meant to be bought and sold. The 13th Amendment has something to say about that skin trade.

Humans dislike captivity. Scratch that. They f*cking hate it. That’s why cons pulling hard time are so grumpy. No Internet, no GrubHub but lots of potential sodomy (traveling tip: soap on a rope). Humans don’t want to feel caged, lost, helpless, alone and deal with pesky hangnails. It’s terrifying, and kidnapping is a bit more brutal than, oh, getting lost in the mall when you were 6, mom and dad seemingly evaporating from existence. No. When you are spirited away by some hooligan low on cash you become a thing. It doesn’t truly matter in such a circumstance that you have a family, you have friends, you have a mortgage and a kid and a dental plan and the next season of Stranger Things to binge on. You are now a commodity. Get used to it. Ugly.

Now you may be thinking, “Hey blogger, what do you know about kidnapping? Were you ever kidnapped? And what’s with all those hangnails? You been juggling potato peelers?”

Actually, yes. Had a lot of pomme gratin to fuss with at work. And shut up. No, I was never abducted. Getting lost driving when the reception kacks out and Google Maps takes a walk makes me worried. Zip ties around my wrists, gagged and a hood over my head sounds like no garden party to me. S&M party maybe, but there’s usually controlled substances involved. Cold oatmeal every noon while rotting in a bamboo cage doesn’t sound very fun.

But I know about getting lost, and I don’t just mean not knowing where you are. We’ve all been lost in that context at least once. Not knowing where you is part of that equation, but not unlike all those cancerous and cuticle terms I mentioned above, being lost is harmful. Like chain lightning all sorts of nasty feelings bombard your brain and push it into panic mode. The greatest fear is that of the unknown, and being yanked out of your comfortable routine into a dark world not of your making, well, the animal inside comes to the fore. Mainly pain and panic.

Consider any and all prominent kidnapping stories ever in the media. Do they ever end well? Even at rescue there is shock and awe and fear and what the crap? Elian Gonzalez in the iconic closet photo with the muzzle of a gun in his face. Patty Hearst—supposedly brainwashed—brandishing a gun during a bank robbery for the Symbianese (whoever they were) on security camera. And there’s that nasty ending to the Lindburgh baby abduction. Despite Argo got it mostly right, those American diplomats did not appear happy when they set foot back on American soil. They looked like foreigners.

Kidnap is a dirty word. Lost is a dirty word. As is alone, isolated and trapped. Rips humanity from you. Sounds dramatic, a bit too much? Maybe, but recall that “glad it’s not me” comment? Well, granted the topic of kidnapping is hardly water cooler conversation, but the notion of being marooned, emotionally and physically? Like when the reception craps out, how vulnerable common folks can be caught unawares by desperate forces can be felt and more often than not tap a basal fear. Glad it’s not me is a surface touch, not unlike one’s reaction to that last snap of Elian. In a breath later:

“That could have been me.”

Shudder. Then back to the cubicle.

We all love the car wreck, so long as we weren’t in the damned thing. And just like the traffic slowing to a dead crawl, gradually glancing at the scene you’re glad it wasn’t you. But there is a corollary to your relief: someone knew the person in that car, and won’t know the difference between a fatality or a trip to the ER.

That could be me. I could be gone. I could be there. I’m glad I’m here. Otherwise, just like lesions, hangnails and kidnappings you just as quickly—perhaps unbeknownst to your loved ones—could end up…gone.

Ugly…


The country of Tecala is in trouble, from within and without. If the ineffectual government is unable to quell the yelling of the ELT rebels, the country’s infrastructure is a mess, especially managing its natural resources. That’s where Peter (Morse) and Alice (Ryan) have moved to Tecala. It may prove to be another success story in Peter’s CV.

You see, the man has built up quite the reputation as an architect; a dambuilder that has trotted the globe (with his long-suffering wife in tow) coaxing wells and moving rivers so the local can have access to fresh water. Yes, he’s made quite a name for himself. However now residing in Tecala, his successes have made him marked man.

The ELT fund their little revolution via ransoms. Human trafficking. Kidnapping. They’ve found an ideal mark in Peter, someone who could be pawn in their game. He’s nabbed and spirited away to their camp, and the demands come rolling in.

Alice is at her wits end. Enter Terry Thorn (Crowe), a former Aussie special agent adept in these kind of circumstances. The Bowman’s new home becomes ground zero for fielding phonecall demands, going into the field and picking off the testy rebels. She sees Terry as the man Peter should be: take charge, not negotiate, let alone kiss ass and suck up to rules that demand snipping a lot of red tape.

Alice demands action. First to let Terry do his job, then maybe get Peter back alive.

Maybe, on both counts…


I read on AllMovie that Proof Of Life was a sort of return to form for director Hackford. The man made his name with films like An Officer And A Gentleman and Against All Odds portraying relationships in peril. Bad love, failing marriages, misguided coupling, etc. Desperation is his muse. Proof is classic Hackford, but don’t call it a comeback. Tension and anger and the futility of living is his stock in trade, with a coda of possible grace. His stuff keeps you rubbing your (emotional) sweaty palms. True, his stuff may come perilously close to soap opera territory, but a solid script often elevates the drama to cinematic satisfaction.

*crickets*

Yeah. Not here. Sorry.

You might have forgotten how preachy Hackford can get without a well fleshed-out script keeping his ire in check. I’ve seen a lot of Hackford’s films, and there’s always some message and/or social commentary lurking behind the clackboard. Usually such doggerel is kept in check by an aforementoned solid story, but when the story is too broad Hackford has a field day. Put Officer against Bound By Honor? We needed more Lou Gosset. And a kick to the crotch.

Metaphors aside Proof needed such a kick. In spite of Proof‘s dire content there’s a serious lack of necessary urgency demanded by stories like this one. Most of the second act, where Terry in full is introduced, is bookended by a lot of exposition. Proof was cut in 2000, back when Crowe was riding high from his lead in Gladiator, back when he was likable, bankable and not hurling phones. Crowe got labelled as an action hero, albeit a surly one, His presence as special agent dispatching the baddies with extremely extreme prejudice seemed a natural character extension of a desperate Roman general exiled to gladiatorial combat. A special ops guy? Skilled in hostage negotiation? How could that fail?

Plenty. Denude Crowe of his ballsy balls and his signature grimace and he’s a bureaucrat. With access to firearms. When he needs them. And when David Caruso goads him, like some bully’s toady, champing at the bit to get his old partner back into the fray.

To whit I ask: why? This is the primary problem I sniffed at in the first act. Sure, Terry was well-equipped to head the Bowman abduction case, but I never found it clear why he was the guy to spearhead the hunt. And with all dramas, the protag usually gets emotionally invested in his mission. For two thirds of the film Terry is rote. Apart from a skirmish scene in the second act, Terry is inert. Another hostage negotiation, another day at the office. What’s for dinner?

So there. We have weak tension here, despite the film’s plotting. At least by the second act, which became a crucial line of demarcation by my viewing; for such and intense story there is a surprising lack of urgency. And even after Proof grinds into second gear, Peter’s abduction seems even less urgent than Terry dicking around with his contacts. That and dealing with Meg Ryan making goo-goo eyes at him, and she comes across as all at sea with this drama (BTW, the romantic element was totally unnecessary and pointless). Ryan is a lead in a cameo role. I wished Oliver Reed had more unnecessary screen time.

I found the acting between the leads clumsy and without chemistry. Their banter was a slog, and muddied up an already muddy story. To be fair, Hackford’s best work has always been gratingly edgy, but his edges are all square here, like he was trying to “play it safe” against the then hot topic of exile and abduction in the shadow of the Gonzalez case. The kid was dragged back to Cuba in June of 2000. Proof dropped in December of the same year. I doubt one did not inform the other. Play on a fresh media storm that may be translated to film? Been done before. But why does everything in Proof seems rote, safe? Hackford has never been one to flinch, and his social commentary has always been naked. But never paint by numbers. I was bored and cheated here. We needed more boom with the subject matter, less bust.

Of course, all was not lost in Tecala. Besides the editing being very good, Morse was very engaging as captive Peter. He’s always had a stiff presence, Not really a bad thing; precious few actors can make bland so endearing. I’ve appreciated Morse all the way back to his salad days as Dr “Boomer” Morrison on St Elsewhere. He made being bland interesting, which makes him so protean. You’d never finger him  out as a perp in a police lineup. He’s everyman, minus leading male. That’s an asset, and why really good character actors succeed. As it’s been incorrectly said in writing, make your characters likable. Wrong. Make them interesting. Morse as Peter was interesting by being bland and relatable. True most of us have never tasted the hell of forced captivity, but Morse well-illustrated the “glad it’s not me” edict. Big ups to Morse.

This movie was all about distance. Kidnapping, captivity, wrenched out of the nest, distance. As Thorn is active, Peter is passive. And back and forth, never really connecting. That may be just a machination of the story, but what went down in the third act should’ve informed the first two acts: action. Swift and deliberate. There’s a worldbuilder gone asunder! Heavy stakes. Instead we get a smarmy Caruso (is there any other kind?) trying to prod uber-agent Thorn to pick up a rifle again and pick off brown people for the sake of picking off brown people. Sure, socio-politcal commentary. Sure, hostage negotiations. Sure, government intrigue. Sure, needless goo-goo eyes. If indeed Proof was Hackford’s return to form, he should’ve kept the box top in plain sight when assembling the jigsaw puzzle. Regarding Officer and Odds, Hackford seemed to opt to distance himself from his muse. Proof was rote, dull for too long and if any social commentary was to be made we could’ve all watched CNN for two-plus hours for far-removed storm and stress in small countries populated with subjugated brown people.

Might be more urgent. You might feel about all such stuff, “Glad…”

Ugly.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. You want a solid kidnap flick? Watch Jack Lemmon sweat in Missing. Proof just lets you sweat in desperation to “get on with it!”


Stray Observations…

  • “I’m on my way to the airport.”
  • Morse’s dye job fools no one, especially since he’s been totally bald since 12 Monkeys. And that wig wasn’t any better. Just sayin’.
  • “I am not getting pregnant again in the Third World.” Wait, what?
  • You know, I’m getting real tired of seeing terrorists portrayed as fanatical savages…kinda like the Minutemen were. Ouch.
  • “What kind of stress are we talking about?”
  • Who’s really corrupted here?
  • “Your toilet.” Yes, yes indeed.
  • Oh sh*t. Claymore.
  • “You never get a pretty picture, okay?”
  • Why is Caruso so good at being slimy?
  • “These pigs are lucky to have you.” Zing!
  • A corollary: precious few “terrorists” have been portrayed as non-jokes in old Hollywierd. The Hurt Locker, Three Kings and Munich portray the other as adversaries, not enemies. Chew on that.
  • “Nothing.”
  • The 13th Amendment, Section 1: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Since Tecala doesn’t exist, well…
  • “That was fun.” “Yeah!”

Next Installment…

All aboard the Pineapple Express! Next stop…uh…I fergot…


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 86: James McTiegue’s “V For Vendetta” (2006)

 



The Players…

Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry and John Hurt, with Rupert Graves, Tim Pigott-Smith, Roger Allam and Sinéad Cusack.


The Story…

It’s been quoted that “a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.”

That’s a misquote. It’s actually, “They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.”

Terry Pratchett, a 20th Century English author of fantasy novels steeped in ribald comedy.

It’s now the mid-21st Century. 2027, to be exact. And it’s Britain, operating precisely as Pratchett warned society.

Evey, an intern at the State owned British Television News does her damndest to help keep propaganda running smooth and digestible via the inescapable airwaves. Then she gets assaulted by the Realm’s authorities she’s supposed to understand as upstanding and decent.

Her beliefs end when she is rescued by “V.” And his mission.

Woke.


The Rant…

Like with The Missing I caught V For Vendetta in its original theatrical run. It was 2006 and I was getting reacquainted with the comic book world, collecting again in earnest. After giving up comics for Lent—er, high school—I got bit again and found I had a lot to catch up on in the funny pages. Like what was this thing about Superman dying? The then recent issues made him look pretty healthy. Wolverine was cloned and now has a sister with his powers? And she was a hooker? Magneto joined the X-Men by masquerading as a REDACTED with a REDACTED for a REDACTED? I had a lotta catching up to do.

Like Nintendo and Legos, I retired my marvelous hobby in high school. Thought the stuff was “too childish” for a “mature” high schooler. Couldn’t score chicks carrying around MacFarlane’s silver ish of Spider-Man #1. At least not in my high school. So yeah, retired the comics in the name of becoming a big boy for the 90s. Hell, according to fellow collectors circa 2006 I was told I didn’t miss much, save something about Batman having back trouble and Marvel going bankrupt. Both properties got better it turned out. Just in time for me to pick up the cudgel again.

Into the 21st Century, back into the fray. Proceeded to get hip to what had been going on outside my personal comics gulag, making a jailbreak and frequenting my local comic shop and scouring eBay for what wasn’t available at the brick-and-mortar. Now I wasn’t that dense. I knew of some major milestones in the comics pantheon, high water marks of the medium that only the dilettanti would raise a brow at. Stuff like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series and the book that elevated comics from mere kiddie entertainment to actual literature: Alan Moore’s superhero deconstructionist meditation on the nuclear arms race WatchmenWatchmen made Time‘s Top 100 greatest books of all time. I knew that from reading the rag in my self-imposed exile from comics, so there.

Here comes our quandary. How does a refreshed comic collector not get all slobbery over the magna mater of modernist comic books and yet still has a review to write that may require spittle?

Make it simple. Keep it that way.

That being said, I’m not gonna wax rhapsodic about Moore’s magnum opus (tho’ it is a great book); I’d just crow about what’s been crowed about a million times over by every terminally pimple-faced mouth breather. What I will say is that Watchmen made me a Moore fan…like every other comic book collector. It’s about the man’s literary quality. Most comic stories merely push the action along with script as skeleton. Moore’s style is the action. From what I’ve read of the man’s work, any comic book action is merely a bookend to the story. The story is the story. Moore gets this.

And that being said, the following is not a Watchman fanzine. Instead, it’ll go like this:

Comic movies in the early part of the century were odd ducks. Superhero films were either fun (Raimi’s Spider Man films) or grim (Hellboy, From Hell [another Moore vehicle]) but both dabbling the toes in the stream. Like I said in the Constatine installment Hollywood didn’t really know what they had on their hands. There was no Marvel Cinematic Universe. We were stuck with Affleck as Daredevil. This whole wad of Thomas Jane was like a sticky bomb slapped against the Hollywood machine. Big stars? Of course. Whiz-bang? Better have. Depth? This ain’t just a necessity for a submarine maneuver. Call Snipes. He be good at slicing and dicing vampires. Marv who?

This fumbling allowed precious few comic movies back then to make it to the silver screen. Again with the Constantine installment, Hollywood was slow to take the plunge into comic book as viable property. They were unsure what to do with funny books as movies back in the early aughts. Sure, the first two original Spider-Man flicks did well, enough so to resurrect Superman (to diminishing “returns.” Get it? I luv being funny and clever). Hollywood mostly played it safe, kept the tootsies in the shallow end. Barring the original Blade, Tinsel Town chose to option graphic novels. Guess they had more literary merit in their eyes. Probably more like they were self-contained without a massive continuity history that tapped an unlucky director to shoulder, as well as the wrath of hundreds of geeks for possibly f*cking it up, not getting it “right.” Pressure. Better make it work or else we revoke your rider. No more free Cheetos. Marker.

Most undertakings floundered. The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell and Watchmen (at least by The Standard’s criteria). Not to mention V For Vendetta. All Alan Moore works, BTW. Guess he was the go-to guy for solid literary merit to make films from back in the Bush, Jr years. Nah. His name was the cachet for the geeks, and perhaps an entry drug for cinema doofus’ growing tired of watching Bruce Willis explode things yet get nary a cut. That’s a judgment call, but I’m making it.

As I intimated, a few of Moore’s adaptations have graced RIORI in the past, including the above Watchmen, From Hell and presently V For Vendetta. Here’s the rub against La-La Land’s scattershot yet best investment choices. Moore’s stuff is very esoteric, dense and not user friendly. Took me three reads through Watchmen to “get it,” and I was in my mid-30s at the time. I read Ulysses in a week and got it. Barring shipping time from eBay my initial foray into Watchmen took over a month. Twice as long years ago to fully scan this dense comic book serial. I’m not some snot-nosed middle schooler who desired access to tittie shots. Um, though even in my thirties I appreciated that. And plot, too. Can’t forget that. Moore’s works are like that: you expect the expected and get delightfully disappointed. LIke with Jimmy Joyce. Who needs a drink?

*klonk klonk*

Thanks.

Too bad Hollywood kinda missed the boat with that vital aspect of telling a dense, terse and ultimately rewarding story culled from Moore’s works, even after making some necessary concessions. I expected and couldn’t argue with Zack and Co excising the “Black Freighter” subplot from the Watchmen film. If included the movie would’ve ran into the 3-plus hour range, and that’s not good for filling theaters. Sometime common sense reigns, but when it threatens the story (and often it does) we get ugly fallout that reeks of ancient sneakers and smug Hollywood indifference. Namely commerce over art.

Moore’s oeuvre has a merit that doesn’t cow to Hollywood well. I’m willing to wager that his tough subject matter welcomes high drama in the studio’s eyes. Ka-ching. The literary merit? Folks don’t go to movies to read, unless it’s a foreign film. And who watches those (ahem, everyone outside of America)? So most Moore movies often get shaved to the bone. The nuance is stripped bare. The room to breathe is lost for the sake of pyrotechnics and the latest in CGI as well as dwindling audience attention spans. Not just that, but to do so is tossing a sop to bored movie goers to hopefully get all twitchy over drama first and story a distant third. Connery retired after League. When 007 throws in the towel, you can smell the frustration against story versus execution. And this was the guy who willingly starred in Zardoz, Meteor and Never Say Never Again. Jeez.

All that being said, V For Vendetta might, just might, be the Alan Moore adapt that bucked the trend, holding on to the literary quality—the “message”—the author was approaching. Screaming and kicking against the Hollywood machine maybe, with a sluggish response. However I’ll bet the royalty checks were welcome. Not that Moore would, nor should acknowledge that.

Precious few movies based on books, plays, TV shows, video games or comics get the letter of the law as well as the spirit. The message. The Godfather movies, Apocalypse Now, Zeferelli’s Romeo And Juliet, Polanski’s Macbeth, Kurosawa’s Ran, Donner’s first two Superman films (I’ll leave Lester on a hard day’s night. Funny and clever, remember?), A River Runs Through It, the original Straw Dogs and 2001: A Space Odyessy. All maintain a sort of faithful integrity to the source material. They all did a bang-up job at the box office, too. Even from across the North American continent. You know, the foreign market?

To the point, we’re going to fly under Moore’s hermetic radar across The Pond. To a microcosm of messages, if not outrage about too much forced, profitable drama and not enough message.

There, I kept my fanboy-ism in check. To a degree and you’re welcome. Anywho, there’s a movie to tend to.

Dateline: The United Kingdom, circa 2027 CE. It’s Rule Britannia under rule…


The United Kingdom was once a bastion of freedom, integrity, national pride an stable economic viability, both financial and social for a millennium.

That was then. This is now.

England is still a bastion, but of order, control and media manipulation. It’s the mid-21st Century, and for the rest of the world it’s all strife, shortages and civil war, including the once great United States. “The Colonies” the disdainful Voice Of Fate hammers over his state-sanctioned broadcasts have descended into lawlessness. An open warning against a liberal government.

So England prevails.

The UK has become a fascist dictatorship, determined to maintain order by any means possible. Be it censorship, surveillance or cultural suppression. It’s all in the best of the people, not to mention holding on to power as long as this new order breathes.

Enter Evey Hammond (Portman), an intern at the overly influential, state sanctioned BTN, the Voice Of Fate. The mouthpiece of media for High Chancellor Sutler’s (Hurt) vision of Britain. Evey serves coffee, delivers the post and barely tolerates the talking heads that give the public what they need—must—hear. The law of the land must be enforced, lest England descends into chaos like the other former First World nations.

Sick of it all, one eve Evey decides to get all dolled up, break curfew and get some social air. Much to the dismay of the Order’s secret police who nab her and intend to give her the action she was seeking elsewhere. Anywhere but here.

Enter a stranger, eloquent and doffed in a cloak wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. He calls himself “V” (Weaving) and proceeds to dispatch the Fingermen with extreme discretion. It’s all too much for Evey to digest.

When she finds herself captive in V’s underground lair, she discovers even more to digest. She learns from her benefactor he intends to bring down the New Order by all means possible. Being a fascist state does not suit Britian’s health, emotional and social. According to V’s diplomatic argument, Sutler’s England should not stand.

Evey soon understands that her captor has some sort of vendetta. Should she come along for the ride…?


V For Vendetta was the right film at the right time. And I ain’t talking the right time to make some comic book movie. That then was just a foot in the door. Some feet shoved said door open, but was the first to gain some traction as comic book as viable trade to make a dramatic action movie. In a weird way of a pissing contest did better than Superman Returns (also covered here) at the ticket taker. An obscure story in a dying British fantasy magazine—half-forgotten by the author himself—managed to steal the brass ring from the Man Of Steel’s “triumphant” return to the green screen.

How’d that go down? Story. At the right time.

dropped in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks, which invited a lot of “permitted” fear-mongering and militant xenophobia (BTW, water-boarding is torture and detainees are federal prisoners. Like Olestra is to potato chips as your ass is to being glued to a toilet seat). The Twin Towers collapsed? A plane crashed into the Pentagon? Let’s not assess the ugly situations, let’s point a finger. It’s always quicker and simpler to blame the other for the bad “they” inflicted on “you.” But who’s the other?

Let me pull the hood back. I know here at RIORI I tend to pontificate under the review proper. We all have our opinions, our beliefs, about movies and otherwise. After seeing V all those years back and being refreshed now, a tidewater surge of opinions are about to splash over the lot of you. And I expect, if not demand hostile feedback from the other side of the fourth wall. Ready?

*klonk*

Good.

Put simply, one cannot fell two 110-storey skyscrapers with airplane impacts alone. Especially since the impacts failed to alter the collapse “trajectory.” Read: straight down. That would’ve required strategically placed ordinances. Every demolished building I’ve seen taken down collapses in on itself. Strategic, physics-compliant explosives. They don’t drip like wax from candle without a few yellow X’s spray painted to say where the C4 charge should go.. And don’t get me started on the flashpoint of jet fuel on steel. That’s been done already. Or sympathetic vibrations from a collapse cannot fell a building unless a nuke was involved.

Done. Shutting up now. Though I could choose not to.

Was 9/11 tragic? Nothing else but. But what’s worse was all that bootin’ rally that happened in 9/11’s wake. God praise the first responders, naturally. They are now honored at the weir. Now saving grieving family members (who must relieve the nightmare via TV every September 11th), name one civvy survivor. Who wasn’t surviving by accident?

*(partial) crickets*

Does that inquiry support my theory? No, but it might make you think. All that destruction, and not enough media attention to the destroyed? Tell that to the crossed hands in front of all those TVs into the 12th. To quote sicko comic Doug Stanhope: “Did you pray on the 10th? Didn’t do dick, did it?” It’s an open response.

In short, 9/11 devolved into a blood-buttered publicity stunt designed to have W wave his prick at his ineffectual dad who couldn’t nail the dictator that had nothing to do with the attacks. In long, open up long-waiting Rothchild’s accounts and encourage the racism that got Trump elected. Hey, if you can trust a former reality show host who had a board game named after him who can you trust?

BTW, the Mideast War is the longest hot war in American history. And it will never end.

Kaboom!

*klonk klonk ricochet*

Crass? Sure, but unless you hear the other side, your side will either remain quiet or way too vocal about half-baked, ignorant, xenophobic hate speech. Dialogue always counts, despite the bile that may rise. Talk with the bile, and may another 9/11 never happen again. One can only dream, with heartburn. The price to pay over mulling details.

So anyway, fear-mongering. V was released at the right time despite its curious audience wasn’t exactly ready for it. It was released five years after the 9/11 tragedy, and the USA was polarized. Some kept weeping, others kept their stocks clean and ready to see action…somewhere. According to my myopic view, no one wanted to talk about the fallout into the future. Everyone was still too busy chewing on their nails.

Want to know the crushing part? Blocks upon blocks of prime real estate have been obliterated and rebuilt in Israel, Syria, Jordan, Iran and elsewhere in the Mid East over and over again. But once it hits home people snap awake. Takes a bit of time, but it inevitably goes down.

That’s kind of the message behind V: such deliberating can only go so far. And once it does, you missed the plot. The novel was already published; took months to finish the book. Too late to dog ear the page. Too late to pause. V‘s message is unfortunately timeless. Now don’t laugh, the tenor of is akin to a line from the original Star Trek.

“I’ve found that evil usually triumphs. Unless good it very, very careful.”

Thanks for the philosophy, Bones.

But really, that’s true. Malice creeps, and can be very insidious. That’s how Hitler took control of Germany and then most of Europe. People like Alexander The Great with his bravado haven’t existed for a long time. Nero did play the fiddle, but not while Rome burned. He ran from the city to the hills only to be strung up later. Creeps, seldom a supernova.

Yeah, V is a cautionary tale about how power corrupts and can also be embraced out of fear. Fear of order falling apart and all the First World luxuries falling along with it. is a 21st Century take on the classic “man on the white horse” theory. But with more knives and explosions. Dunno what Orwell would’ve made of this movie, but I doubt he’d sleep well after watching it.

An Interweb resource claims (better than I can eloquate) that in some cultures, white horses stand for the balance of wisdom and power. In others, like Christianity (“Strength Through Unity, Unity Through Faith”), the white horse is a symbol of death. The horse is a universal symbol of freedom without restraint, because riding a horse made people feel they could free themselves from their own bindings.

That is the world of V in a nutshell. Sutler’s reign is preferable to the crumbling of social order beyond Albion’s shores. Sure, British social structure sucks, but it sure beats civil war. Or not eating. Or being without the telly. Keep the public docile, so England may prevail. Ugly.

While watching V (for the second time, mind you. This time uder a microscope), my brain kept poking me about a short story I once read by sci-fi scribe extraordinare Harlan Ellison. “Asleep: With Still Hands.” To keep it quick, the plot illustrated that society cannot evolve without conflict. V is the fly in the ointment, hellbent on irritating Sutler’s England to devolve into revolt.

This is where V‘s story begins. Never have I seen a flick where the backstory is so vital to the active plot. Funny thing, though. The backstory creeps in the background just enough to make this audience glue its attention to the active action on the screen. As soon as Evey breaks curfew and encounters the “Fingermen…” That term alone alerts us all to that this is decidedly not Merry Ole England of history. We now have a UK with a secret police. It is to tremble, and now we know where we’re coming from. And into.

is a polite Orwellian nightmare. First we’ll hear your impotent case en toto. Then we’ll shoot you. This kind of arrangement smells preferable to Birkenau. Still, minus the overt allusions to totalitarianism, you get the edge that all is not right here. There is anxiety, a looming sense of “being caught.” The creeping fear that clouded the US public’s judgment back in 2001 became manifest in V‘s world. The populace lives in both fear an indifference. Hell, our way is better than the “other’s” way, but we’re wearier for it. A docile people does not a healthy society make. Like V says, “People should no be afraid of their government. The government should be afraid of the people.” Sutler and crew are indeed afraid of their people. All they need a voice to scream it as so. That’s why V is labeled a terrorist. Of course he’s not. He’s a revolutionary.

V toes a very thin line running the gamut as social commentator, heavy-handed naysayer and simple cinematic entertainment. It’s the anti-hero thing again. You’re not really sure you can get behind him, despite his motives. An odd twist of the movie is that it’s hard to see if V’s crusade is played out of a sense of justice or revenge. Since there is this blur it spins the mystery of his motives ever deeper. Makes for delicious conflict.

One must give respect for Weaving as our crusader. Best put: Agent Smith as an avenging hero? Yes. Yes indeed. I’m as surprised as you are. The sinister Smith as a gallant, Errol Flynn-esque hero fighting the good fight for freedom against a non-digital regime? You see it here.

Which is curious since Weaving was a last minute replacement for James Purefoy, who dropped out of the production after six weeks of filming. IMDB claims he quit due to issues wearing the Guy Fawkes mask. Whatever. Due to the Wachowski connection via V‘s script came on in a pinch, loaning his voice to parts of the first act and taking over for the remainder.

And “taking over” is a apt phrase. As scary as Agent Smith was, his V is just as charming. For a guy who wears a creepy, smiley-faced mask for the duration of the film, he sure can emote with nary a wink. Weaving’s body language impressively defines V in spite of or thanks to that mask. Weaving’s performance is like a dark mime. We learn to like him, but since the face is always masked we have  hard time trusting him. Until he physically emotes. Best example of this acting is in the final act when V is injured. We can hear and see his pain, and it is palpable, but we still don’t see his face. But we see his face.

And let’s not forget this: V’s monologues are elegant, and the flipside to the willfully unwitting and naive Evey’s screeching. Portman is Weaving’s ideal foil. A young woman entrenched in the System that “supports” her yet vaguely aware all is not well. Minus the studied histrionics, Portman plays everywoman rather well, with an acceptable English accent to boot. Evey portrays what I’ll call “guilty victim.” A strong but damaged woman who adheres to the power structure if only to put away the old one and all its pains. She knows Britain is f*cked, and tries to keep that notion in the back of her mind, no matter how appealing the opposite could be towards getting in touch with reality. No matter how nasty it is. Better to feel something than nothing at all. Think we’ve all been there, shaved head or no. We ride on Evey, we follow V.

On the other side…

Ironic casting Sir John Hurt as as the High Chancellor. Of course there are plenty of clever nods to the film version of 1984. And having Winston Smith cast as Sutler is delightfully on the nose. Hurt’s character only appears as a talking head on a giant screen for almost all of the film, hair closely stylized to resemble Hitler’s. Ultimately his rich voice is character, from is far but sinister, confident and authoritarian. It’s fear that Sutler screams as dogma, almost clownish. He’s not Big Brother. He’s more like the fear-mongering demagogues you see nightly on the cable news broadcasts. It sorta makes for the best kind of villain: more presence than flesh, even though Sutler is really nothing more than the monster under the bed. Look how his cabinet cowers before him; they’re more worried about their job security than their freedom. The voice of the republic, for the republic but merely a voice. Only Fox News is less scary as dictating what “must” be said. All weak spines from his chosen few. Disturbing, and all too plausible.

An aside, but maybe very telling. After seeing twice I harbored a belief that a great deal of V‘s cinematic world’s references of UK culture and history was lost on US test audiences. Guy Fawkes’ Day for instance. Or what the Old Bailey is. Or even Thatcherism. Of course liberties were taken with the source material (if only to grease the wheels in the name of Anglo/American cinematic entertainment). Then again, too much British in an American action film might’ve turned off the more culturally ignorant US audiences. Just sayin’.

Here’s what’s up. An essential piece of V‘s being is a twisted version of a near ancient society wrapped up in symbolism only third to the Chinese and Meso-American peoples. Sure, most Americans have a vague understanding of their country’s history, but it ain’t really based on bowing to symbolism and the rites that may ensue. Which I why I enjoyed the police procedural B-plot against the less drab but still rather formulaic A-plot “crusade.” V’s mission is not just one of revenge but of message. A rallying cry. That kind of motive has a certain hole. Like in the original Matrix, not everyone is ready to be freed. And since V’s most visible targets are symbols of an old, maybe better past, the rabble that grew up in this nightmare just might not give two sh*ts about his mission. Same could be said for American audiences who think that the Old Bailey is a pub and Parliament is just a cigarette with a wider margin. Not every mission earns a following, despite what the film dramatically points act come the end. There be a sinister creeping afoot…

That being said, Rea is the “absent” star here. His Finch’s empathy never wavers from feeling real, from duty to mystery to reality. He knows from day one something’s rotten in London, and had known it all the while. This V case provides the opportunity to sift through the dross and understand how he came to cow before that blowhard Sutler. He’s the yin to V’s yang. And an earthier choice against our flamboyant, swashbuckling, titular hero. If one considers it, Finch’s investigation parallels V’s terrorist acts. Both want to get to the meat of the matter. Both sacrifice life and limb over sworn duty. The only diff’ is that Finch’s path is one of direct intrigue, where V is nothing but intrigue. Who would you follow? Right, the beleaguered inspector. It’s his foil that make’s the story work. Comedy versus tragedy. It works every time. Kinda like Nair; strips it all away.

Sorry.

Another (and hopefully final) thing about that I really dug was the clever editing. There’s a lot to digest in the dystopian world full of bad food, corrupt cops, curfews and media saturation for the sake of all hail. It better look seamless, and it does. Big pat on the back to Martin Walsh, the editor. What could have been something out of 10-year old’s bedroom flowed. Those who are recurring readers here know that apart from pacing, crappy editing is my big bugaboo. Make stuff jarring, it f*cks with your attention span, as well as clouds the story. Not with V. Everything falls into place neatly, and sometimes often into sub-place. The trips to Larkhill. Valerie’s story. What V’s true motive is. Lotta grace there. Walsh allows just enough breathing room for the audience to take it all in.

Until the third act. Now it’s catch-up time.

I hate this. When a dense plot needs a resolution far too many directors do a cram session. Sadly, V spills out as no different. We got a bit too much exposition in the third act, explaining everything. Literally everything. It’s a Readers’ Digest version of their abominable Condensed Books (you Millennials should be grateful for not being exposed to these anomalies of soft literature. Praise Audible). This was where the story gets muddled. It all makes sense, but you better take notes to track it down. A flurry of lines try to wrap up and hour and 55 minutes of action and social commentary can be exhausting, if not distracting to follow. Felt like the SATs minus the blue book. Crap in a hat.

So that’s it. was overall a quality waste of a Saturday afternoon. We had action. We had drama. We had political intrigues. We had swords. We had a drop of mental science smudge the forehead of any thinking person still smelling the stink of spilt jet fuel on their tongues. More than all of that, we got a flick that toed the line between political statements and action/mystery tale in a quite satisfying way.

Back in 2006 when I caught V it charged me. It was like every time some bullying force tried to bludgeon me into submission a part of me screamed, “No! I’m right!” Naive? Yep. Unrealistic? Maybe, maybe not.

Fast forward to now. Does the sh*t stink? Yep. What can I do?

Write this blog. But don’t take any faith in it.

“The first duty of a man is to think for himself.” – José Marti


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. If you’re a thinking person, you will be stony in your viewing. If you’re not, you vote with crossed fingers.


Stray Observations…

  • “Fear got the best of you…”
  • Didja notice how heavily armed the law enforcement was here? No nightstick wielding bobbies in this London.
  • In the comic it was Chancellor Susan, not Sutler. Perhaps a swipe at Thatcher?
  • “Put the sword away.”
  • Books. Always the enemy.
  • Always, always, always cut the red wire. Unless you shouldn’t.
  • “You wear a mask for so long, you forget who you were beneath it.”
  • There appears to be an air about the vacant telly-watching rabble that habitually tunes in a drops out that is bored, dulled but also aware all is sh*te. Yet they won’t shut Big Brother off.
  • What is it about shorn heads that scream both subjugation and defiance at the same time?
  • “Are you a Muslim?” “No, I’m in television.”
  • A part of me feels that the best part of the movie is the “movie within the movie” regarding Valerie’s plight.
  • Despite  being the director’s debut film, he sure has confidence and a feeling of execution with purpose.
  • “God is in the rain.”

Next Installment…

Zack And Miri Make A Porno because food stamps only go so far.


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.

Nope.

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 78: Francis Lawrence’s “Constantine” (2005)



The Players

Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Shia LeBeouf, Djimon Hounsou, Tilda Swinton and Peter Stormare, with Max Baker, Pruitt Taylor Vince and Gavin Rossdale (yeah, that guy from Bush).


The Story…

In a world ruled largely by what is and what’s not, an eccentric, troubled private detective with a taste for the supernatural finds himself on his latest paranormal-tinged case: an investigation of a murdered suicide victim.

Say what now?


The Rant…

I’m a lapsed Christian. Been so for quite some time, at least since dinner.

It’s not like if I fell out of love with the church (but she’s never returned my calls, so there), just away. I was raised Episcopalian, which is the American version of Anglicism, the church of England. Very similar practices, but with less heavy accents. Either way this branch of Protestantism is pretty straightforward: study and try to follow the teachings of Jesus, apply them towards peace and understanding to friends and enemies alike and attend mass every Sunday to compare hats. It’s a social affair as much it is a spiritual one. Enlightenment and handshakes all around. Amen.

As nice a sentiment as that is, over time I tired of church, but not tired of the above things. Definitely not the hats; coonskin goes a long way. Don’t misunderstand me here; nowadays I’m pretty much an atheist. It’s not the whole, “If there is a God then how come there is so much suffering yadda yadda yadda you’ve heard it…” Shut it. Bad sh*t happens because people, not some omnipotent deity make it rain on other people. This a simple construct as well as popular one for the ago non- or no-longer believer. It sure is trite. Call that mindset your typical “gateway drug” into questioning faith. It’s the Busch Light version of Martin Luther and his hammer. Still, that precept in all its iterations is a good question as to why some folks leave faith behind. Or pull a 180. Why is the world so topsy-turvy when most of us seek spiritual enlightenment? The whole peace, love and understanding matters of unity. What’s so funny about that?

*wink*

Even me being a lapsed Christian, to this day (and call it judgmental; JC would waggle a finger at me for this one) I’m a pretty good armchair/inflatable pulpit kinda rainmaker when it may why push comes to shove between faith up against the often ugly reality about living on Earth. The other plane can wait for now.

Although I’m not a believer in God, I am quite the fan of his son. Whenever I’ve read the Bible, the Four Gospels always appealed to me. Jesus’ best buds Matthew, Mark, Luke and John waxing poetic about their times hanging with the big man. Taken as a whole, the Gospels play out like a G-rated Tarantino flick. In so saying, John says, “I remember the time Jesus and me did…” Then Matt says, “Waitaminnit, that’s not how I remember it.” Then Luke raises his hand, “Uh, guys…?” And Thomas grouses, “You guys are full of sh*t.”

JC’s times with his apostle wingmen are a big road trip, with essential Christian lessons learned along the way. And with every good road trip you gotta have the guy that takes the wheel. In this light—as one of several—the New Testament is like a Hallmark card given at the right time. The Old Testament may be a series of cautionary traffic cones, but the next chapter is the open road, full of possibilities. I like that with Jesus as the wheelman. A guiding force for good without the messianic complex, so to speak. This I can get behind, with or without proper worship.

Then there’s that 180. The collective who takes the Bible’s stories beyond way too serious. I think it was Voltaire that said, “One does not read the Bible for its text.” Namely, read between the lines you dweebs. You know the crap I cited above about hats? Yeah. I figured out that there are two types of Christians. On one hand we have the believers that congregate to engage in both worship and social congress, trying to understand one another’s differences and find some common ground. On the other we have folks who’ve gone through the Book of Revelation with a highlighter. Yeah, I think I’d rather hang around the coffee urns post-sermon. We got enough issues already to waste time planning for Armageddon, and again you don’t need church to try and reconcile with all that sh*t. War, disease, fake news, GMOs, being actually concerned about Miley Cyrus’ career path. We all got our spiritual bags full of cracked eggs.

All that’s out there, and was another nail in the cross—again, so to speak—of me quitting the church. The whole “if there is a loving God” schpiel eventually found me as a cop-out. All that bad sh*t above happens in this world is caused by people, not crafted from some prankster on High. I figured if that one attends church to learn the straight and narrow, that’s a waste of time. You learn that path by wandering through the world, taking in the sights, sizing up what you see and hear. If you found the right path then you’d find your way to a house of worship. If you need to understand how to get along with people and two hours every Sunday fits the bill, you are a far more enlightened person than me or anyone that reads this blog.

Yeah, so the whole “making excuses” factor soured me. That and Thomas’ potty mouth. I didn’t believe I had to attend church to understand the basal concept of good versus evil, or how to try and get along with different people, or not burn anyone at a stake. Attending church boiled down to the whole hat thing again. I read the Bible on my own, most of which I dug. Understood JC was a cool guy, a philosopher and an agitator to the rather unbalanced status quo of the Roman Empire. No one needs to attend church to get all that. At the end of the day, I figured out church as that hat thing. Old hat.

One final significance that turned me off to church: the routine. Scolding sin and looking for the highest tree to lasso. When I was a wee one sitting in the pew (quit giggling), trying to soak up so much ballyhoo I could’ve sworn I was getting the stinkeye from the prominent gatekeepers attendant by the altar, not to mention the prelate himself at the lectern delivering tales of hellfire and brimstone to a quivering congregation. Needless to say, I didn’t feel right welcome. Not JC territory for me, even at the age of nine.

So what does all my mucky muck have to do with lapse in faith? Well, it’s not a lapse in faith per se. Despite all the nastiness on the planet and my cynical worldview, I still have faith in humanity. There’s still compassion out there, practiced by decent, caring people, Christian or no. Be it St Jude’s Hospital, Habitat For Humanity, Greenpeace or Black Lives Matter, caring folks with the need to communicate a message of trust and understanding to everyone is out there. Kinda like what our wheelman might do.

No. I lost faith in the church, an entity that was once open but is now insular, in bed with the state and casting out when they should be opening up. Not all churches are like that, but I’ve driven by many monolithic edifices dedicated to worship (most with Wi-Fi) and couldn’t help but wonder where all that money came from to build those fortresses on such prime real estate and where it could’ve been spent otherwise? Tax free?

Slow down there. Before I crawl any further up thine own arse about this whole struggle with belief, I’ll sort of wrap up with the following warm fuzzy. And it has nothing to do with my keeping Super Mario Bros on my NES on indefinite pause for the duration of one Sunday’s eucharist cuz I finally made it to world 8. That kind of sounds like religious fervor. Not a prayer circle or nothing, but what the hell, I was 12.

It’s about retirement, both literal and spiritual. Too much of everything, yet still committing self to spirit. Possibly a metaphor for bailing on the need for turtleneck sweaters between 9 and 11 in the morning on any given Sunday. We’ll even let go of the suspect prime real estate for now.

Recall overly stern minister I rambled about? After he retired I learned on the sly that there was a sort of witch hunt upon his flock. I knew I felt uncomfortable during service, and what was told spoke millions as well as calmed me. I was f*cking 9, yet in the swim of the hat checking that was floating around the congregation.

Turned out the senior members of the congregation didn’t want kids in worship; too much of a potential ruckus. Ban ’em, down to Seventh Level with ya little booger-eaters. Even as a kid I knew that was dopey. How are you gonna replenish the crop without fresh seeds? Not a direct quote there, but really? Segregation at church? Isn’t that a part of both what the Apostles and the Founding Fathers fought against (and if you can’t trust GW and JC then who can you)? So the proverbial seed of doubt was sown, and I was merely nine. Church ain’t the place to be. The physical building at any rate.

Fortunately the edict was short lived. As a kid—ignoring the witch hunt—I kinda found church comfy, albeit boring. We all went through the motions, sure, hearing about sin and redemption and WWJD? No joke here, but hanging close with all the parishioners felt good, like family Thanksgiving. It was probably herd mentality all the way, but I received some succor from the rhetoric. For a time. What I learned about the minister and his elite guard, church wasn’t the nest it was supposed to be. It was a crucible.

*insert dramatic tympani bellows here*

The game changer was the old codger’s replacement. He was a soft-spoken man, Southerner with a lilting accent and a bit of a hangdog. He wasn’t the aggressive peddler in sin and strife like his precursor, all self-righteous with St Peter on speed dial. No. The new guy was gentle, reserved and gave the finest sermons I ever heard. I was still a kid and at that time an acolyte who lit the candles and fidgeting before the altar during service (what with that massive reminding crucifix hanging over my head. Another good reason to dodge church: the possibility of being smitten), but had a keen enough ear toward a good story when I heard it. Brimstone or thankfully no.

Our Southern gentleman preacher’s sermons were the kind of thing I could get around, loaded with questioning and light on the sinning. Sure, he’d always start his schpiel with some Biblical references, but we were in church so it felt superfluous. Guess he was filling some sort of Episcopalian counting coup quota. But the bulk of his sermons were steeped in social commentary. A lot of it political, which flew in the face of proper sermonizing. Separation of blah and blah, right? Stuff like our leaders’ civil intentions towards their constituency, and were they walking along the path of the Savior. Or educators’ rolls teaching faith without “teaching faith.” Or the one sermon that really stuck with me (despite me being whelp cowing under the cross, literally and figuratively) was about divorce as sin. Was it? That covenant between man and woman under the watchful eye of God, broken? Don’t ask why some snot-nosed young snot like me paid attention, but that might’ve been our genteel preacher presented his sermon like some closing argument in trial court. He weighed the evidence, tempered it with just enough emotion to make it go down smooth and delivered his answer:

“Is divorce bad? Yes. Is it a sin? No.”

This frankness was a lot more assuring than me bound for the lake of fire for playing doctor with that cute girl down the lane. Kidding. I didn’t live on a lane. It was a drive.

It’s that kind of story, that kind of meditation on life, love and leaving that was mostly absent in my family’s church. I know now that I don’t need to attend mass to get my fill of Jesus’ many road trips, nor do I need mismatched worship against hidden secular agendum. I don’t need the teachings of the Bible as an excuse for humans’ deplorable behavior. And I don’t need some omnipresent overlord with His magnifying glass to ensure we all keep in line. That’s all bullsh*t. We’re in charge of our own destinies without churches, hopefully going forward with decency and common sense. That’s me.

To conclude, and in respect to this week’s wad of dough, there was that 180 I spoke of. I don’t really need to expound on those “true believers” motives, or motivations for that matter. I can’t exactly pin it down, but I’m sure I heard it somewhere, maybe in high school history class: Our puritanical Puritans who we asked to leave England and set up shop here had a very dire version of practicing their baleful version of Christianity. Their sermons consisted of hellfire and brimstone, to be sure. But to have to listen to passages of how much God hates you, you willful sinner. How you are a mere insect hanging by a thread over the Inferno, and the Man Upstairs cannot wait to cut the cord and only eternal prayer may—may—save your eternal soul, well that kind of mindset JC might argue against.

Good faith and good PR. Might be a better weapon against Satan and his mighty, tempestuous hordes of demons at his beck and call. Y’know, personal faith to thwart evil. Integrity over temptation. Righteousness over sloth. Belief against the inevitable.

Prayer against…


The trouble with knowing you’re wrong is that you’re often right.

John Constantine (Reeves) is damned. Damned if he does and damned if he does. He’s a detective. A very unique detective. He doesn’t specialize in theft, infidelity or even murder. No, not outright. He specializes in weird crimes that no one else can handle. Mostly because they involve the supernatural, the occult and slapping demons in the puss.

You see, John has the ability (maybe curse) to see what the normal world can’t. Or won’t. Demons, angels and everything in between are naked to him, as are the crimes on this plane they commit. He takes on the odd cases involving exorcism, magic, ley lines out of whack and nasty imps from the underworld hell-bent of corrupting mortal beings. It can get messy.

And not just in the ectoplasmic sense. Detective Rachel Dodson (Weisz) seeks out John’s unique talents.  Turns out her sister Isabel (also Weisz) after being committed to an asylum takes a swan dive into the facility’s pool. From ten floors up. Rachel refuses to believe this was a suicide, them both being devout Catholics. Isabel would never take her own life, no matter of disturbed she may have been.

Rachel suspects some otherworldly force drove Isabel to jumping. At first, John is skeptical. Sound like a traditional suicide to him. But over the week since, and weird demonic crimes popping up at an inexplicable rate, there might be something…unnatural attached to Isabel’s death.

Maybe supernatural might be a better term.

So John lights up and also lights up…


We never talked about the occult or the paranormal, beyond the devil’s antics and the seven deadly sins in church. Which is kinda odd. There are plenty of opportunities to teach the mortal plane about storm and strife with the addition of demonic activity to drive the point home.

Sure, there are significant tales from the chapters of the Good Book that highlight spectral incursions. The temptation of Christ courtesy of a jealous Satan. The temping snake in Eden. Even the donkey Uber telling Joe and Mary the way to Bethlehem. Lots of weird sh*t in the Bible as head-scratchers, courtesy of the paranormal.

Not much was delved into when I was a church-goer. Too bad, for if this element was examined further I might be still attendant. Why? Consider the nightly news. A diluted version of sin and strife to be sure, but also as entertainment. JC feeding Satan his hydra-like c*ck of his own ass? What leaves more of an impression? Probably more than the potential financial turnouts on NBR. Go invest elsewhere.

This week, I invested in Francis Lawrence’s Constantine for a fix of demonic incursion and intrigue. That and a little police procedural thrown in. I’ll admit, I was a tad bamboozled. Based on my viewing of Lawrence’s take on I Am Legend, I expected a weird amalgam of sci-fi, Lovrecraftian sensibilities and human drama.

Instead, and within 12 minutes there was a stink of cheeze.

At the outset, Constantine felt deliberately comic-bookyI don’t care if this film was lifted from DC’s mature Vertigo imprint, where those titles aim beyond the PG-13 crowd. Any hack can warp a serious comic into drivel if they don’t understand the nature of the medium. Fortunately, a great many filmmakers did get it (eg: Watchman, From Hell, Scott Pilgrim vs The World, etc), and were fearless in their execution.

Constantine has the stale scent of holding back met with fumbling fingers. Like clumsily unhooking a bra after prom.

Now to be fair, Constantine was cut during the fallow days when comic book movies were just beginning to come into vogue and most directors didn’t know what they’d gotten their hands on. Sure, some guys like Bryan Singer got it with his take on the X-Men and some guys like Bryan Singer didn’t with his take on Superman Returns. We’re talking uneven stories at best back then (if not now, come to think of it). There wasn’t a proper template established yet. From what I’ve observed most early comic book movies couldn’t—or outright wouldn’t—stray far from the “comic book” aspect of the movies’ source. The bombast, the action, the bing boom splat. The subtlety of Adam West.

I’m not claiming that director Lawrence wrote it in, but there was an air of Constantine playing it safe by delivering the straight line. What’s worse the film appears to be trying real hard to rise above the underpinnings that Batman And Robin staked down almost a decade prior. Barring any neon upchuck, Constantine overplays the action and undermines a lot of the human drama that makes comic book movies tick (as well as actual comic books). The first Spider Man flick illustrates this tenet. This lack (or at least, rather weak feeling) of organic drama and character development makes the movie feel strained,  compensating with lots and lots of F/X and speed while muddling the razor thin plot. It’s forced atmosphere of urgency. Simply put, Constantine is the first boring exciting movie about demons I’ve ever seen. Sure, I don’t have much of a reference point, but ride with me already.

And the ride through Constantine was a bumpy one. A lot of stalled pacing, like when a car slips out of gear and you have to turn the engine over again (my ride’s stick; best analogy I could think of). Like I said, forced urgency. Funny considering the balance of power between angels and demons existing on our plane with their tips and tricks. Figured those stakes would ramp up something. I said the film was trying too hard to be suspenseful and mysterious, but on the flipside I also felt director Lawrence was holding back. He was shackled to the preconceived notions of what—at the time—a comic book movie should be. Lawrence is a stylish director, but his work has a fair amount of substance only accented with style. I repeat, his take on the umpteenth iteration of I Am Legend was chockful of style balanced well with human drama substance. Seeing that film was a dire character study with only Will Smith and a loyal German shepherd as the primary cast for most of the movie, the guy knows the balance of the human factor against the, well, inhuman factor. Looks like with Constantine the human part got gobbled up by the inhuman splash and dash. But again, Legend was released after Constantine, so it stands to reason that the man might’ve learned a thing or three after this pastiche.

In retrospect, that’s kind of a shame. Again I profess that comic book trappings of the time undid a lot of this movie. Lawrence is too sharp a director to let things get out of hand, but again that comic book prejudice. Blame may be placed at the feet of test audience (I’ll have something to say about that Neilsen nightmare some other time), who may have wanted Exorcist lite, but with more boomy things. And that might be where Lawrence met some middle ground between “Slow down there” and “Get on with it.” I appreciated the restrained use of the slam-bang CGI action. Constantine’s descents into the underworld were swift and sharp. Plot points and not just some phantasmagoria to tantalize us with wanton pixels. I liked that aspect; it felt like evidence of how the action would play out in I Am Legend. Sparse and essential to captivate and maintain interest in the story. Worked for me.

Some more strained positivity: truth be told, okay. It takes a while; slow burn. Maybe too slow, but the intrigue eventually rises. Even if only halfway through the second act. I didn’t get where the flick was going. It felt aimless, lacked oomph. Where the hell are we going with this (so to speak)? Eventually got an inkling that Constantine was trying to be an action movie, not really. Forgetting comic book bias for a minute, the movie was in actuality a murder mystery, gussied up with Peter Stormare as REDACTED and minus a spine. It took a while to come to this conclusion, but I got. Then I tried to keep on to that. That was the tricky part.

Reeves seems a bit too slick to pull off gumshoe, paranormal or no. He’s been in the shadow of Neo’s leather coat a bit too long. Constantine is supposed to be gritty; guy’s like a paranormal MacGuyver. But he’s too smooth, regardless of how used to he is with dealing with the occult, demons, angels and maintaining a balance between plains. Reeve’s Constantine is irritated, not wizened by a lifetime of battling endless evil. And all he has to show for it is a hopeless addiction to cigarettes and their REDACTED. Guy should’ve been more pissy. Just saying.

Weisz doesn’t fare much better. She comes across as too willowy to be taken seriously as a grizzled cop, and eventually descends into reactive, damsel-in-distress territory. Sure, she’s easy on the eyes but her on screen time just grates. Despite her matter is the movie’s maguffin she sure seems overly passive in solving her sister’s “murder.” She’s a tag-along, made worse by her gaping over the supernatural stuff that is Constantine’s (stale) bread and butter. Too bad there.

But like I said with the supporting cast, ah, therein lies some rub.

I really dug Swinton as the reluctant angel, the oracle. Here’s a good (if not the only) example of mystery that the movie was ostensibly pushing. Her screen time was brief, but crucial. I’ve always enjoyed Swinton’s air of nervous dignity, codified by her later performance in Michael Clayton (check it out. I’ll wait). Sometimes less is more, especially in an overwrought comic book movie like this one.

Hounsou as Papa Midnite was a trick, the Huggy Bear of the underworld underworld. Sharp, flinty and has seen too much. Barely tolerating every aspect of his being. Sure, he’s the man with the plan, but the plan’s been leased out to “forces” beyond his command. Papa can see the horizon, but not the dawn, and makes no bones about that to our pretty hero with something on his shoulders. That and Hounsou is something our lead is sorely lacking: he’s tough.

What really surprised me was Gavin “Everything Zen” Rossdale as the schemin’ demon Balthazar. His show was quite affecting. I am as shocked as you may be that Mr Stefani could pull off such a scuzzy, intriguing performance. Rossdale’s Balthazar reminded me of a riverboat gambler: all about the stakes before the prize. His motivation was like that quote, “some goals are so worthy, it’s glorious even to fail.” Might sound high-minded about a Brit grunge also-ran’s acting debut, but he played his sh*t to the hilt and the rest of the cast should’ve taken notice. F*ck Razorblade Suitcase BTW. Don’t care what the critics said. Neither did they.

Erm, I’m gonna leave Shia as Spanky, er, Chas the cabbie alone. Can’t win ’em all.

Stormare was a trip. He’s always bleakly funny. From Grey in Fargo to the cosmonaut in Armageddon, his lot is humor, and always necessarily left of center. Sinister humor here. Even though his presence is made known in the third act, it was worth the wait, at least for this blogger who was biting his nails not out of suspense but of desperation (at least I was feeling something). Stormare was perfectly cast for his role, and played it to the hilt as well as teetered on cheesy. But good cheesy, his stock in trade. These supporting characters (even the annoying Max Baker) almost, almost redeemed this whole paranormal rigamarole. Can’t cross the Mississippi in three small steps and all. Splash.

Despite the sick supporting cast trying to hold it all together, Constatntie’s final act eventually devolved into murky/busy. Too many ends to tie up. It was as if Lawrence threw down his bullhorn, threw up his hands and just threw up. There was too much to wrap up in a few scenes, like a Buzzcocks song with too many lyrics and not enough notes. A tempest of sluggish, fast and harried. Yeah, we got our resolution but what the hell happened? Without giving anything away I felt all bamboozled. Not to mention cheated. Constantine felt muted at times, subdued, retrained. Then we flipped the coin and got jagged, unhinged action, not necessarily fun or coherent. Not sure in the grand scheme if this was the redeeming factor in an uneven paranormal crime procedural, or just illustrating the studio wasn’t exactly sure how to open this Pandorum. Truth be told I would’ve preferred more key restraint, namely with our cast. Like it seems with pleasantly schlocky flicks like this the leads grate while the supporting cast is cast in a more flattering light. Too bad even that appeal was so incongruent. Gave me a headache.

I know, I know. I’ve been real cagey with this installment; giving you mostly bones with very little meat. That word “incongruent” best describes Constantine. But it ain’t all a snarky labyrinth; my screed might be read as a passive way to suggest you all seeing Constantine without a lot of personal investment. Take it that way. Don’t misunderstand me (any more than you already have), this movie is subpar as both an action movie as well as a comic book adaptation. It does retain a certain charm, however; consider Constantine as an acid test for how far comic book movies have come over the past decade-plus. Sure, it’s heavy on the bombast and light on the human—and/or inhuman—factor, but there’s that charm thing hanging in the ether. Watching Constantine is akin to a one night stand: sure, it’s fun while it lasts, as long as you abandon all thoughts of commitment the next morning.

Don’t forget to leave cab fare on the pillow, fer Christ’s sake.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Cast this demon out. Sorry, Neo.


Stray Observations…

  • “You goin’ down?” “Not if I can help it.”
  • Always wondered what do non-smoking actors smoke when they smoke in the movie?
  • “I need to eat.”
  • Cow tipping (rimshot)!
  • “Two hundred dollar shirt, by the way.”
  • Okay. The tub scene was disturbing.
  • “Not bad, kid.”
  • “It’s called pain. Get used to it.”

Next Installment…

Once upon a time, there was an Irish vacuum cleaner repair man that met a florist who loved to play piano…

That sounds promising.