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


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The Players…

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


The Story…

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


The Rant (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rant Redux (2019)…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Verdict…

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


Epilogue…

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

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


Next Installment…

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


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



The Players…

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


The Story…

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


The Rant (2013)

Another M Night Shyalaman movie?

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

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

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

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

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

And that, curiously enough, is a good thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rant Redux (2019)

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

(Some good BS there, eh?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Revision…

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


Even More Stray Observations…

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

Next Installment…

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


 

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

 



The Players…

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


The Story…

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

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

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

Or are we?

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

We must summon the Jaeger Corps!

(I love anime.)


The Rant…

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

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

That being said, onto this week’s review…

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

Until now. Right?

Drop that sandwich…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decidedly not.


Rant Redux (2019)…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get it?


More Stray Observations…

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

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

The Revision…

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


Next Installment…

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


 

RIORI Redux: Joseph Kosinki’s “Oblivion” Revisited


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The Players…

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


The Story…

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


The Rant…

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

What, too soon?

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

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

…I was wrong. Anywho…

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

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

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

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

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


Rant Redux (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*ahem*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Revision…

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


Next Installment…

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

Mwa ha ha.


 

RIORI Redux: Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly” Revisited


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The Players…

Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane.


The Story…

Fred Arctor is an undercover cop—a narc—in a world where almost everyone is addicted to Substance D, a drug that produces split personalities in its users. “Fred” sets up an elaborate sting to nab a notorious drug runner named “Bob.” But when almost everyone is a D addict, and its makes you schizo, then how can one tell who’s really who? Especially when it comes to your personal identity, or whoever you are that day.


The Rant (2013)

Phillip Kindred Dick: What is reality? The universal muse of the late sci-fi writer. Most if not all of his work wrangled with this question. As far as I know, three of his works have been translated to film. There was this little known work called Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? Later on the book was adapted for the screen, entitled Blade Runner. Maybe you’ve heard of it. The film was a real sleeper that eventually knocked the socks off of a generation of movie-goers that were too young to see said film in an actual theater. This seminal feature was a key example of Dick’s muse in action.

Later there was this Spielbergien effort called Minority Report that refused to generate the Hollywood dollars requiring it to be big hit, despite having Tom Cruise attached to it. It was another take on how Dick’s philosophy regarded human’s responses to seeing their potential future. Even though the film handily addressed the whole yin-yang of stimulus/response, it was awash in a sci-fi, crime caper guise that was too loud to let Dick’s voice be properly heard. It was still pretty good though, regardless.

Now we have this film, A Scanner Darkly.

Richard Linklater: What the hell is happening…ah, who cares? Indie darling of the mundane. All of his work has dealt with, or rather shrugged off this question. First there was Slacker, which garnered some attention, as well as a few honors. The follow-up Dazed and Confused, criminally ignored at the box office upon release, eventually repealing any critical scorn a full twenty years later to earn the Criterion Collection special treatment with double disc set with all the bells and whistles. It sold well.

All Linklater’s films tackle the human condition, usually in the form of ongoing dialogue reflecting his characters personalities despite them all being two-dimensional. His actors are generally reactive, only displaying any unique personality traits when in context with of other characters reactions. No one really initiates anything in his movies, only responds. His Waking Life is a ideal example of his oeuvre, where the “protagonist” spends the movie simply just listening to others speak about academic as well as pop philosophy. Linklater’s films seldom have a plot; they’re only interconnecting vignettes spliced with My Dinner With Andre-like commentary. Most are pretty good though, BTW.

And now this film, A Scanner Darkly.

Me: I streamed this? A humble yet snarky blogger of film criticism using free social media like a cheap, lazy podium upon which to spout prophetic about this culty film here and the failed blockbuster that. All of my work a big, smelly fart.

And yet this film, A Scanner Darkly.

The first thing that grabs you about this movie is that, “Hey! It’s animated! Woo-hoo! Bring on the dancing squirrels!”

Stop. Put down the pipe. There’s a bit more going on here. You may have to, regrettably, sober up. The thing is called rotoscoping.” an animation technique in which animators trace over footage, frame by frame, for use in live-action and animated films, like this one. In other words, turning live-action into cartoons. Linklater conducted a brilliant job here. After the first half hour, if yer not rockin the ganja, the background blends into the foreground into an oily montage of shadows and strangely patterned textures (especially with the actors’ faces). It can get a little unsettling at times also, not mention just plain trippy. And honestly, I’m not so sure that the “scramble suit” or hallucinogenic sequences would’ve worked as well outside animation. In simpler terms, Scanner’s not a cartoon, but a graphic novel coming into life.

You regularly abstemious (look it up) users out there might have taken note of the phrase “the background blends into the foreground.” How rotoscoping works, at least by my by eye, is that you tend to look out for the still shots in the frame that unconsciously grounds you to the forescape of the moving characters. In simpler terms, Keanu seems more like Keanu when he’s got a background behind him, be it in the scramble suit or curling his arm around Donna/Audrey/Hank? That’s how I saw it. Then again, I had no access to Substance-D.

Dick was never appreciated in his lifetime. He was more or less a cult writer. So much so that he had the dignity to die before Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? translated to the silver screen as Blade Runner. It became a beloved film decades after he got some common sense and kicked off. Him dying did great by his rep. Only Frank Herbert did somewhat better.

Ahem.

About the goddam movie. Visually, well, that’s the only trump its got going for it. There’s a very cool premise locked up in visual haberdashery (again, look it the hell up). Keanu is as wooden as ever. The only roles he seems to get stuck with is Neo, a Ted Logan clone, or a Neo clone. Or a Neo clone. He might be able to stretch (might be able to) if he’s taken out of the fantasy/sci-fi genre. He did pretty good in the goofy rom-com Something’s Gotta Give, hitting on Diane Keaton. But here he’s still stiff, struggling. So is Winona Ryder as Bob’s sorta girlfriend, who later turns out to be…ah, you’ll see it. Only the secondary characters of Downey, Harrelson and Cochrane do anything to spice up this film based almost solely on visuals.

I could go on, but this film committed the ultimate sin in my movie-watching mind: it bored me. Despite all the cool visuals, it was boring. It was like a stupid Michael Bay movie sans the big budget: lots of things to look at, and not much else. Listen Linklater, Waking Life was a bold, intriguing experiment, albeit not very cohesive. That was the point. I got that. This time out, continuity, acting and plot should’ve been the point. You culled from a very smart author whose works already translated to film quite handily. You already got your rewards, now try not to beat us over the head with the trophy.

Seven years from now…


Rant Redux (2019)…

This installment was more-or-less in the same vein as my What Just Happened? screed. I was pissed, I was drunk and despite the blurry vision (mentally as well as physically) I feel ripped off.

I had seen quite a few Linklater films before Scanner. I liked his friendly, offbeat, subversive style, populated by interesting characters. Not likable, mind you. I’ve already gone on record that the old saw about writing is one has to make their characters likable. Utter fallacy. Case in point in the pantheon of movie baddies: Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, Pinhead and Freddy Kruger did precious little noble things in their cinematic universe, yet they are iconic and revered by many a film buff. Why? Lord Vader was Shakespearean. Lecter was a meditation on sanity and its role in society. Pinhead was all about sexual freedom. And Freddy was the best Jungian metaphor to bullying this side of any YA novel. Very interesting.

Which is odd since a director like Linklater decided to do a soft S/F film based on one of the more outwardly weird names in the genre’s pantheon. I guess now he was looking for another challenge. I hope.

It’s curious I say that now because the old rant still rings true. My opinion of the film has not changed. I wouldn’t watch it again, and felt like Linklater was using the carrot and the stick. Might’ve been his point, but I don’t know. We are dealing with Dick adaptation here; he liked to keep you guessing and second guessing. That was his muse.

Which now with some distance that might’ve been Linklater’s also. It was a pretty accurate meditation on “what is reality,” Dick foremost message to spread. But in reflection I don’t think Linklater was the guy to try this. There wasn’t much soul here, and despite the rotoscoping twist he applied in Waking Life, where that was daring and enhanced the vignette’s subject matter, Scanner‘s application felt like a gimmick. A very clever gimmick, but one all the same and it didn’t do much to progress the plot. Disappointing.

Go watch Waking Life instead for a better, cleaner, animated, Dickless take on how reality works. And I will not apologize for that pun.

That’s the best pun you’ve never heard.


The Revision…

Rent It or relent it?: Sustained: Relent it. Lots of potential and lots of wandering. Viewing of this movie requires patience, a high pain threshold and ample Starbucks Doubleshot at your elbow. Again, too bad.


Next Installment…

Drum roll…

The ultimate apology/revision RIORI will ever give as we enter—re-enter—Oblivion.


 

RIORI Redux: Martin Campbell’s “Green Lantern” Revisited


Image


The Players…

Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong and Tim Robbins.


The Story…

Hal Jordan, an ace test pilot, is chosen by galactic peace-keeping force the Green Lantern Corps to become their representative on Earth. Now wielding a mighty power ring, Jordan soon learns that with great power—

Wait a minute. That’s some other guy. What Jordan needs to figure out now is how to get the damned ring to work, not piss off his employer/occasional girlfriend any more than he already does (and excels at) and keep a malevolent space entity at bay from devouring Earth’s populace.

To this, flying untested fighter jets seems preferable, and a lot safer.


The Rant (2013)

I’m a comic book head. I adore comics. I collect them and read them on my days off. Every Wednesday is comic book day, and that’s when I head off to my local comic shop, where Jeff, the curmudgeonly proprietor, waits with my haul. I go pick up the weekly adventures of costumed heroes the likes of Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, Daredevil. All Marvel characters. In case you haven’t heard, Marvel’s had quite a bit of success in translating their books to cinema. I’ve seen a few of them myself. It’s no real matter, though. I prefer my superheroes on paper than film anyway. Call me a hipster (I dare you).

That’s not to say that Marvel’s cinematic endeavors haven’t been entertaining. The first two Spider-Man movies were awesome (I’ve heard the third was eh. It might be a RIORI candidate down the line). Iron Man was thrilling. Hell, the second X-Men film brought tears to my eyes (really, and shut up). I guess it really comes as no surprise than in Marvel’s 70-plus years of publishing, somebody with cash to blow in Hollywierd would get the smarts to do big screen versions of these guys in tights. It’s paid off well, too. Almost to a fault. In any event, Marvel’s been cleaning up at the box office, and good for them.

DC—Marvel’s “distinguished competition”—has had a harder time at it, so I’ve heard. In case you didn’t know, DC’s been the publisher with the longest teeth. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman. Those lady and gentlemen.

Not to mention Green Lantern. My favorite DC character. The only DC character I followed regularly. Sure I loves me some Spider-Man and X-Men, but if you were into epic sci-fi action and intrigue, GL was the best place to go for many years. The pages were like Star Trek met Star Wars met Law & Order met Fringe met—right. That and a metric sh*t-ton of insane art. Green Lantern’s world—universe—was big with a capital big, and the writers and artists were very aware of the job they had to do. And did quite admirably for many, many years.

So when I caught wind that (finally) GL was going to make it to the big screen, I was both happy and hesitant. Simply put, most DC characters that make it to Hollywood get treated scattershot. Don’t get me wrong. There were the delightful first two Superman movies with the late, great Christopher Reeve. There were also the two Batman films with the brooding and surprisingly convincing Michael Keaton. Later on came the fantastic reboot starring Christian Bale. The successes with the few others? Not so much. For instance, I’ve already covered the up and down adaptation of Alan Moore’s (though he’d been wished to remain anonymous) Watchmen, which my wife, oddly enough, enjoyed by the way. To this day I don’t know how she managed to both A) stay up that late and, B) respect the character that was Rorschach) which…

Where was I? Oh yeah, Green Lantern…

DC hasn’t been as a hot a commodity for the silver screen as Marvel characters have been. But Hollywood must have been champing as the bit to get the glorious sci-fi universe that was Green Lantern to the box office. I hoped so. It had the pedigree for a fantastic sci-fi adventure, replete with alien worlds and creatures, engaging stores to unfold and, yes, a great deal of opportunities for CGI scramblings. Yet despite my enthusiasm for the prospect of GL being rendered on the silver screen, in the end-run I couldn’t bring myself to go the multiplex. Why? I mean, why man, why?

Cuz I figured they’d screw it up. The GL universe is so vast and varied that there would be no room, even in a comic book head’s imagination, to do it justice. That and Green Lantern ain’t exactly a household name like Supes and Bats. I don’t know many kids with bedsheets sporting images of Kilowog pounding Manhunters into rusty slag. That is, it’s not like I snoop around in kids’ bedrooms. Not since “the incident.”

Well, whatever. Shut up, kids. Like I said: GL’s a second tier character, despite being a key member of the JLA. That don’t mean much to Hollywood execs who—probably hailing from Warner Brothers, DC’s parent company—wanted to jump onto the Marvel money-making movie machine. I can almost imagine the discussion in that Warner Bros. boardroom:

“Marvel’s making a killing with all their movies!”

“Well, we’ve had some luck with Superman and Batman…”

“Yes, but they’re icons. People know all about them. What we need is a superhero that most folks’ve never heard of.”

“Like who?”

“Someone who’s flexible. Someone that we can warp.”

“Um, Star Trek‘s a Paramount property—”

“Quiet! What I’m saying is we need some cape that is unknown. Untested. Green.”

“Uh, sir? I think I have an idea…”

So then came the film. And our (ring) fingers were crossed.

I will warn and re-warn you that I have a soft spot for Green Lantern. No one was more enthusiastic than I to see the GL universe translated to the screen. In the final analysis, was I pleased? Despite all the bad press the film earned, I can only respond this way:

Sorta. Here we go.

The movie’s opening says it all, and is overall accurate by comic book history. Keep in mind this is coming from a comic book head to boot. The images are boldly ripped from the comics from the past decade. Shamelessly, I might add. That’s a good thing. Fan service. That’s a bad thing. Fan service. Never in my time that a comic book superhero movie needed so much dialogue and visual cues to explain what needed to be explained. Well, that with the assist of a lot of red wine.

Of course, I got it all within the first 12 minutes. I timed it (I am that lonely). And throughout the film they kept keeping on hammering the same note. Yes, Hal Jordan in a fearless pilot. Yes, he has an attitude. Yes, he has a smart-ass mouth with a demeanor to match. And yes, he has the critical ability to overcome fear (that key component to grant entry into the GL Corps). And that third thing is the film’s greatest flaw. Stilted dialogue. Ryan Reynolds should act with as little dialogue as possible. Fortunately, he does. But he does have to talk once in  while. Therein lies the tragedy.

Once and again Reynolds seems awkward here, unsure if he’s a pilot or a ladies’ man or a superhero. He’s only good as a physical presence, which oddly enough Campbell may have recognized since that most of the best scenes are when Reynolds is robbed of dialogue. Even the post superhero act of saving the day at Carol Ferris’, Jordan’s former flame and current employer, is delightfully cheesy and self-aware, so much so that Reynolds’ character is cut short. It’s pretty funny.

The film’s kinda predictable as far as superhero tales go. Reynolds indeed seems awkward at times, like his lines were written for someone else. On the flipside, as far as dialogue goes, Blake Lively is very smart, whereas the polar opposite, Tim Robbins as the Senator, as always plays sleazy very well. The best dialogue seems to be spoken by the supporting cast in Hal Jordan’s new sci-fi family (e.g.: Kilowog is mighty cool).

As if you haven’t figured it out, Lantern gets heavy on the exposition. How the lines are delivered is key in keeping this film aloft. Despite it being a sci-fi adventure, there sure is a hell of a lot of chit-chat going on here. I suspect it might have something to do with introducing an unwitting American studio audience to a semi-obscure superhero, and water wings are needed. Still, the chatter is at least lively, funny and relatively unobtrusive. It’s a tempered version of “show, don’t tell.” Yeah, there’s a lot of telling, but it’s in an interesting, bouncy, almost comic-booky way. Hey! Who’d’ve thunk it?

On technical side Lantern was directed (handily, I might add) by Martin Campbell, the man that brought us the very cool James Bond reboot Casino Royale and Pierce Brosnan’s first outing as 007, GoldenEye. That alone lends the film some props. Martin’s a guy who understands how a franchise works outside the proverbial box. Lord knows how much coin was laid out for him to direct this film. In the final analysis it was worth every penny. A smartly spent budget and solid directing goes a long way in a would-be summer blockbuster like Lantern, even if the revenue was less than stellar. In these days of big budget movies run amok with GCI and crazy locations scouted, every farthing matters. Considering Campbell’s steady hand, Warner Bros. was able to sleep easy, at least with that factor.

The greatest accomplishment this film can claim is being able to coax Ryan Reynolds to quit acting like Ryan Reynolds. Lo and behold, he isn’t acting like a smartass (prime example: Waiting) 24/7! He plays the innocent for once, and it’s a really welcome thing. I mean, considering the circumstances his character was plunked into, would you humble yourself? He actually holds back on the smarm and freaking acts a little! Y’know, with emotions other than smug. Right! Just don’t talk so damned much! Listen to your supporting cast! There you go! Ah, it’s like Sprite enema. Now granted, no awards will come of this, but then again, it was squeezed out from a guy who directed James Bond for f*ck’s sake. It’s such a nice change of pace you forget it’s Ryan f*cking Reynolds up on screen, slingin’ the ring, if only for a little while. In simpler terms, Reynolds made a decent Hal Jordan. Not good, but decent.

My carps with Lantern are mostly minor. Questionable acting, a few plot holes, the need to immerse yourself in back issues, stuff like that. Despite me picking on Reynolds (who does ask for it), there’s really nothing to get in a twist over. If you’re a comic book head however, the screen would’ve been pelted to death by errant popcorn kernels after the aforementioned 12 minutes. If you’re not, as most of you who get sex on a regular basis are, you can lean back and let yourself go along with the ride. Lantern is harmless, and feels like one of those movies that pop on F/X from time to time to fill space and/or kill time.

In fact, that’s just what Lantern does. It sure beats watching Batman & Robin again. Wait. Again? Don’t you people own a streaming Netflix account?


Rant Redux (2019)…

Okay, I’m bearing my balls here. My old review—despite being somewhat accurate, albeit in the wrong way—was written clouded by fanboy fervor. GL is still my fave (and only) DC hero I get behind. Back when the flick slouched into the multiplex I was so glad. Cool! The Green Lantern universe has a sh*tload of s/f gold to mine! And there was Kilowog in CGI splendor, voiced by that guy from the Allstate ads! What could go wrong?

Plenty. Duh.

He was another early comic book movie produced by non-geeks who did not understand how to handle their precious property. Sure, the movie got a few things right (eg: the origin story, the ways of Oa, the aforementioned KIlowog and a nice nod to Abin Sur, Tomar Re and of course Sinestro), the majority of the movie was composed of wasted opportunity. Campbell has a hot potato, and dropped it. Several times.

At this point in movie history it’s safe to say the DC Cinematic Universe is lame. That and it doesn’t exist despite Zack Snyder et al doing their best to catch up with Marvel. Then again, the FOOM has Disney money on its side, and for launching a franchise it’s all about the funding. F*ck, Warner Brothers released the film and it already owned the damned property. Why did the flick become such a straw man? Because of the nascent super hero phenomenon? Um, didn’t Warner Bros fund the original Superman movies, which started back in the 70s? The lesson of history was lost in 2011, and instead panic of being left behind in Marvel’s wake. Throw money at it, hire big stars, write a plot with everything that may stick. F*cking impending Avengers movie.

You can smell the panic nipping at GL‘s heels. On the whole the movie was entertaining. In the details (like cohesive plot, capable actors ill-fit and CGI trying to compensate for proper staging. That and ADD pacing) Warners read the writing on the wall as rushed headlong to spar with the Bullpen. In sum, GL was impatient and also had the audacity to anticipate a sequel (which might’ve been okay provided the box office takeaway said go ahead. It didn’t). Which is why we’re back here.

Now truth be told, and along the curves of the original rant, I did find GL entertaining, however through a set jaw. My fanboy drool palsied my objectivity. It was akin to how pro wrestling fans stand by their heroes histrionics rather than their show. Do you smell what the Rock is cooking? Sure you do. How was he in the ring?

Ummm.

Right. Splash and dash over action. That’s how GL played out: just enough fan service to make you watch, then nothing but a grinding jaw for the film’s duration. Upon review I scanned the crap I forgave against what I should’ve paid attention to.

First of all the casting. I gave Reynolds a pass, and he wasn’t as smarmy as he usually was especially since his dialogue was economic. I still found the supporting cast appealing. But the majors seemed awkward. This was Reynolds second stab in the comic film universe (after Marvel’s Blade: Trinity but before Wolverine: Origins) before striking gold in Deadpool. Call it a dry run for a snarky hero who did not choose his fate. Reynolds awkwardness here was supposed to come across as endearing. Instead his performance was failing upwards. He was fun, but also really wobbly; isn’t a reluctant hero supposed to rise to the occasion? Reynolds does, in fits and starts, and it starts when he introduces himself as GL to Lively’s Carol Farris. How odd she sees through his visage? Reflects the hot potato.

Now. I still say I have I have no real issue with Reynolds. He did his best with what he was dealt. But the supporting cast offered precious little support. Look what we had here: the reliable Tim Robbins, the authoritative Mark Strong, the unpredictable Peter Sarsgaard, Pedro Cerrano and the willowy Blake Lively (four out of five ain’t bad). All the others were grand; Lively was the weak link, and a vital one at that. C’mon, in a superhero flick it’s almost de rigueur for the protagonists to have his gun moll. It’s a stereotype, true, and although Steinman followers may cringe, the sassy, no bullsh*t love interest is a gadget us comic book heads fall for every time (this honor or blame may fall at the pumps of the late Margot Kidder, with her sassy, no bullsh*t take on Lois Lane). Such a device this is in virtually all modern comic book films is that when the heroine may show signs of (shudder) feelings towards our stalwart man-on-the-white-horse the audience writhes in contempt.

Now I know what I’m about to write may come across as either cinematic mysogyny of self-appointed, overweight, comic book authority. Maybe both, but I’d rather put myself on the spot as a movie fan. I’ll explain: there are precious few tropes in telling stories, in print or in film, that are tried and true. Not necessarily essential in spinning out a tale, but when they do show up there always has to be an interior logic that works—and works well—within the story. We’ve all seen ’em: from the wizened private eye who’s seen too much to care, to the reluctant hero on a quest to do what’s right but riddled with inner doubt. The tale of revenge, the quest for enlightenment, the need to escape and everything that Tarantino and/or DeMille made bigger and bolder. When it works, the cliches are elevated into avatars of grand story. When done poorly, they remains as…well, just gimmicks, misguided visions and tropes. And in a film populated by an ensemble cast (such as GL had), if one of those avatars falls off the wagon, well the whole story can go ker-thud.

At heart, all super hero movies are the same. A character is gifted with incredible powers and does their best to make ’em work, for good or for ill. Said heroes are defined by their nemesis. Superman and Lex Luthor. Batman and the Joker. Spider-Man and his myriad of rogues reflecting the self-doubt he always carries around, web-slinging or no. They are also defined by their friends and family. Jor-El was rather cagey firing off baby Kal-El to simple, backwater planet like Earth, but that more or less worked out okay. It’s tragic young Bruce Wayne witnessed his parents getting gunned down, but fast-forward later and Gotham is now relatively safer in their memory. Guess that’s all a macho, guy thing. But the comforting, grounding trope that makes these immortals human are a savvy, pragmatic girlfriend or Girl Friday to offer romance, guidance or a combo thereof.

Examples? First Gwynyth Paltrow as Virginia “Pepper” Potts in the Iron Man movies. Sure, we knew from the books that Tony Stark was a lushy womanizer; Pepper was the one woman who saw through Tony’s act, and was never ever gonna tear his armor off to get at Little Tony. In the first movie, that resolve melted away and the crowd cried foul (at least I did, right before the ushers temporarily blinded me with their vicious Mag-Lites). Similar reaction might’ve be roused by the stupid “playground fight/flirtation” scene in Daredevil. Party foul!  Either that or DD was a craptastic movie. Just sayin.’

I’m belaboring this point after seeing many, many, many more superhero flicks because I believe this key dynamic between alpha male superpowers do-gooder needs to kept in touch with reality via the love interest/their Girl Friday. Keep the heroes eyes on the prize but “hey, this ain’t just for you, hon. We got people down here with real jobs.” A good example of this comes not only how Lois teaches Supes how to be human but in the Iron Man comics, his AI is named Friday. Get it? Right. Lively’s Carol Farris had none of that guile. At least not convincingly. She managed to out-Mary Sue Reynolds, and he did a damned fine job of that. Except his was played for laughs. Lively was the wrong pick for two reasons: her character feigned confidence poorly and she ended up marrying Reynolds after shooting was done. You think goo-goo eyes has something to do with the awkward chemistry?

Nah.

Yeah, so Lively was the one real weak link in the chain. I learned that Warners intended GL to be a trilogy; there was a teaser post-credits of Sinestro happening on a yellow ring. Like Lady Macbeth, Carol Farris tried to wash her hands of blood on the screen. And yeah, I know I’m beating up on her right good, but when she can score a role like Glenda in Hick three months after GL dropped, I am flummoxed. Lively is a versatile, charming, funny and smart actress; not only with Hick I found her great in The Town and even that silly lark Accepted. Such a simple, reliable and often effecting plot device misspent from a reliable actress. I’m probably totally off the mark with this theory, but weren’t we glad when Katie Holmes dropped out of the Rachel Dawes role in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy in favor of Maggie Gyllenhaal? Me too.

At the end of the day, I guess we can agree that most modern comic book movies are of an ensemble cast; there are no real bit players after the hero and villain. Once that ensemble get fractured everything goes to hell in a bucket. Go on, name an ensemble film that was overall good save whomever (EG: WTF was Jeff Bridges doing in The Men Who Stare At Goats?).

Yeah, yeah. After 100-plus doofy movies fractured under my belt, I let the scales from my fanboy eyes fall away. But do dig this: I still like GL. It’s kinda like how I enjoy broccoli and when I discovered the value of coffee at age 15: first time it’s so weird it’s great! By the time the years roll by and you’ve had enough Birdseye and Starbucks’ triple-whatever…you get it. GL was a reliable modern super hero flick, but it wasn’t as great as the Farmer’s Market or indie cafe’s best.


The Revision…

Rent It or relent it? Overruled: a mild relent it. Green Lantern isn’t amongst the hallmarks of, say Superman II or The Dark Knight. But it doesn’t try to be, so what the hell.


Next Installment…

We put our oars in the water and paddle back towards Shutter Island, Scorsese’s attempt at Hitchcock with Leo attempting Jimmy Stewart circa Vertigo.


 

RIORI Redux: Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch” Revisited



The Players…

Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung, with Oscar Issac, Carla Gugino, Jon Hamm and Scott Glenn.


The Story…

Wrongly institutionalized after an accidental killing, a young girl known only as “Baby Doll” is slated for lobotomy. She’s nuts. She creates her own reality. She had nothing doing will denying her lecherous, drunken foster uncle getting cut out of the will. Nothing.

Baby Doll isn’t taking this lying down (so to speak), and naturally and aims to escape her prison as well as take a bunch of her fellow young female inmates along for the ride. But a ride it is, especially when Baby and her buddies have to dance their way out and in of her mental phantasms.

Wait, what?


Intro…

So here we are.

This was supposed to be the 100th Installment here at Good Ol’ RIORI. Truth be told, what with me manipulating the structure of the so-called “volumes” here, we passed that landmark, like, fifty Installments ago. Weren’t you keeping track? I barely was. The snowdrift of mediocre movies I scrambled through has left my head a tad hazy. Too much underrated exposure to Aaron Eckhart and/or Scarlett Johansson I guess.

Instead, I’m opting to review and overhaul the first 17 Installments—the so-called Volume 1 of RIORI—for your viewing pleasure and mine own edification. The first volume consisted of posts on FaceBook. Basically extended screeds until I got wise and created a WordPress account to little fanfare. At first. I just cut-and-pasted my crap onto WP pages and figured that’s that, and went on to clamber up higher cliffs.

However, it always chafed me that the first “volume” here was a such a raw and naive attempt. The posts were too short, sophomoric and responding to the NOW culture that social media cultivates. In short, I was dumb and in a hurry. Why? Like all avid, would-be blogging Hemingways I had a message to spout and an ego to feed. And let’s face facts, FaceBook posts and blog posts are the same thing: ego massage. We all think our innermost opinions are an essential, Wikipedia-esque vitality the ‘Net needs. Hence the proliferation of funny cat videos on YouTube. I enjoy them too. Give in to the guilt.

At time of this pressing, a few months back on the Cooking Channel, food geek and scientist Alton Brown wisely decided to escort himself away from the role of game show host to get back into the kitchen. Being a cook, his Good Eats series was de riguer viewing through the aughts. The show was a treat, even if you weren’t some aspiring foodie (read: culinary snob in training). Brown’s witty discection about cooking worked on a Mr Wizard cum Kids In The Hall level that was entertaining as well as educational. Good TV overall, as well as scarce. Bam!

The aforementioned few months back involved Brown in “reloading” episodes of his original show. Correcting mistakes, tweaking formulas, adding new recipes and cleaning out his decade old erlenmyers stained with glace. That’s what I’m gonna do here: flesh out the bare bones that made this blog such a limping success. I think it’ll serve both as a revue of those heady days back in 2013 and an intro to all my new FaceBook followers to the glorious pile of cowpies I’ve had to scoop up over the last 6 years. Remember social media: fluff the ego.

So now, a hundred-plus Installments under my belt, and have since learned that deeper delving into a mediocre movie oft requires more than two paragraphs and a slump home, I’m gonna upgrade those lowly first 17 Installments. Polish them, groom them, apply mascara and hopefully expound upon my grand experiment. This time employing spellcheck and be naked of hubris.

Well, just mostly naked.

Here we go and here we try…


The Rant (2013)

Horror master Stephen King once wrote in his Bare Bones memoir that one of his biggest and earliest fears was losing your mind. Going insane. Having the cheese fall off one’s cracker. He did admit that the fear was viewed through naive eyes. One does not lose their minds in one fail swoop, like on an episode of the Twilight Zone or something. King addressed the process of going mad brilliantly in his classic, The Shining. As it became with Jack Torrence, psychosis happens across a continuum, develops like a malign dream, is a sickness. Insanity is not like breaking a limb, sudden and immediate. It’s deliberate and slow. To quote Riff-Raff, “Madness takes it toll.”

Apparently no one told writer/director Zack Snyder this.

It seems after Snyder’s sudden and runaway success with his 300 he earned carte blanche to indulge his cinematic id. Shoot a movie that popped from his fevered imagination fully-formed like Zeus’ siblings from Cronos’ cloven skull. One with even more spectacle than the crimson Battle of Thermopylae could deliver. A phantasmagoria of dragons, ninjas, robots, fighter planes and of course, girls with guns. The hallucinations of a diseased mind hyped up on truck stop speed and espresso.

Behold the opus that is Sucker Punch.

The title alone says something. An unfair blow to the gut. That’s more or less what this film delivers. It meets the standard of poor reputation, sad box office draw, critical lambasting and naturally going way, way over budget. So begins the inaugural installment of RIORI. Hooray!…

…*tumbleweeds roll across webpage*

Plot make any sense yet? There’s a plot? Is one even necessary? If the above sequence of events seem disparate from a single film, you’d be wrong. It’s more or less how Sucker Punch plays out. All at once. That rigmarole is a single film, one and the same.

WTF? Uh-huh. Yeah.

Sucker Punch has got to be one of the most demented sci-fi/fantasy/action hybrids I have ever seen (as if I’ve seen many sci-fi/fantasy/action hybrids at all).

The story is inscrutable, the acting both entrancing and repellant, the sets off-the-wall amazing and depressing and the F/X so beyond over the top you cease to have a suspension of disbelief. You have to go with it because otherwise, if you think about what’s going on too much, your brain would pop and spurt out of your ears like so much hot cerebral tapioca.

In short, Sucker Punch is awesome.

Sometimes you just wanna be entertained. Sometimes you need a big old guilty pleasure to make the day ease by a little smoother. Sometimes you feel like having your senses and sanity assailed, whipped with a cat o’ nine tails made of cobras wielded by a nude, immolated dominatrix that can juggle chainsaws, do origami with her toes and has a PhD in metaphysics whose name is Sheila. This is the movie for you.

Say what you want about Snyder’s infamous cinematic flair for visually going over the edge, he’s damned good at what he does. Punch has got something for everyone, except much consistency, substance or sense. The movie’s nothing short of utter nonsense, relying almost totally on the applesauce that usually complements a film’s key components like plot, acting, three-act structure, catering, etc. Epic special effects and big stupid surround sound eruptions. Martial arts and trench warfare. Robots and rockets. And of course, girls with guns in skimpy/tight outfits. Not to mention also that this film was dropped at the beginning of spring, before God, when most filmmakers are just putting out dandruff made last year. What balls it takes to make a film that is completely devoid of all the niceties and pretensions of polite, professional cinema. It’s oddly refreshing and to a lesser degree…quite mature.

I know. Calling out Sucker Punch’s execution as mature seems like a lot of hogwash considering Snyder’s debut was the 2004 remake of Dawn Of The Dead. Almost all of the Living Dead movies (save the original) are nothing more that puerile exercises in adolescent salivations for gore and mayhem. But to just toss everything out the window, simultaneously hurling sh*t at a wall just to see what’ll stick is a stance of defiance that only the most courageous, confident and maverick filmmakers command.

There is a ridiculous amount of heavy-handed symbolism, granted, as if even the most water-headed filmgoer can hitch a ride and take it all the way to the end of the line. Such handholding can come across as insulting at best and sturdily mawkish at worst. Such sophomoric storytelling is usually accompanied with a three season deal for a reality show on some Fox network, usually resulting in a book deal with Snooki (oops). Such rampant juvenilia usually hawks a big gob at any sane movie watcher. And yet, it does take guts (maybe not much brains) and a self-assuredness that only comes with a measure of wisdom. It also takes being stubbornly attached to your vision, no matter how myopic it may seem. In sum, Snyder is f*cking crazy. Bold, but f*cking crazy all the same.

Enough pontificating. What made the movie so “awesome?” Well, beyond the visual and sonic treats there’s…uh…nothing else really. The plot is wafer thin, moving along like sludge, only in place to be used as a medium to bounce from a scene of action, titillation, more action or another sequence that hopefully results in a lot of sh*t going kerblooey.

And the acting? Who cares? Only Jena Malone and Scott Glenn have any real acting chops. You might remember Malone portraying Jake Gyllenhaal’s girlfriend in Donnie Darko. She’ll be in the forthcoming Hunger Games sequel too, and possesses both earnestness and sass that works pretty well with her character Rocket here in Punch. Glenn’s been all over the place, known for playing grizzled characters, like Jack Crawford in The Silence Of The Lamba and Capt. Mancuso in The Hunt For Red October (guy seems to like working with Hollywood adaptations of novels). I enjoyed Glenn’s goofy cameos in the film quite a bit; an anchoring factor in a film that is always threatening to come off the tracks. Other than those two, the rest of the cast is only there to look pretty (they succeed. Duh).

The cinematography was mounted on a careening roller coaster. Very well, I might add. Nothing stays still for very long here in the world(s) of Punch. It’s a very, almost exhaustively kinetic film. Two hours freaking jet by watching this travesty. The frenzied action scenes are only interrupted by the “B” plot of the girls trying to flee the bordello/asylum/Babydoll’s ailing mind/who the f*ck knows awash in greys and silvers and a lot of dour expressions, an ethereal “reality” invading our crack-addled amusement park. This tries to be congruent and symbolic of the “A” plot, or is it the “C” plot? Christ, I couldn’t keep track. If this is Snyder’s attempt at auteur filmmaking…

Forget it. I should just stop trying. There are no redeemable “serious” filmmaking machinations at work in Sucker Punch. The only constant in the film is that there is a whole winking and nodding aspect of the feature that repeatedly shouts at you, the audience, are in on the whole messy jest. The unfortunate part is that the joke is without a punchline. Snyder gave us nothing to hang onto. Again, was that the point? The whole movie was pointless.

And rising above all this degradation was a solid two hours of entertainment.

At any rate, all this overly elaborate editorializing may fly in the face of what I’ve been rambling on about for the past few minutes. Maybe Punch wasn’t intended to be the masturbatory effort Snyder barfed out, rife with neon symbolism, feminine fantasies, an examination of mental illness and hallucinations of sphinx-like splendor. Maybe all Snyder wanted to do was deliver shock and awe. Visual and sonic bombast. A manga come to life. Scott Glenn in period garb. An excessive blow to the senses. Maybe stuff like that.

Sometimes that’s all you really need to be entertained, I suppose.


Rant Redux (2019)

When I re-read this pastiche, I was actually kinda surprised my “economy” of words summed up pretty well the essence of Snyder’s fever dream. I guess now that sometimes less is more, especially the face of the f*cking huge undertaking Sucker Punch must’ve been. After watching it again, the word big is an apt term for this mind-bending, very entertaining fiasco. Punch was the classic example of form following function, But the actual function was mired in such popcorn existentialism that I must’ve left the masses blind. Here we are, a bit budget popcorn flick that requires further examination. Wrong flavor for this kind of phantasmagoria.

Classic qualifications for a “cult film.” We’ll see if that prediction bears fruit in 2021. Maybe 2029 to be safe.

But yeah, I found that if you read between the stilted lines there was some very real feminist navel-gazing going on there. Not a bad thing. I found upon repeated views that it made the mess more palatable. It is odd to actually dissect a crazy, fantasy actioner like Punch as if deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls. Okay, maybe not that intense, but to simultaneously ask an audience to go along with this disjointed tale (which may be a manifestation of a diseased mind in abject fear for their sanity. Or not) as well as look for the loose nuts and bolts might be too much of a task for yer average Twizzler gobbler, like me.

The key term for Punch is existential. I swallowed wheelbarrow loads of Sartre and Kierkegaard back in college to recognize the bad faith that resonates in all of us, even in the movies. For the uninformed, the term “bad faith” was coined by none other that Jean-Paul himself; only this very moment matters. What’s past is past and gone. What may be, may be, but unattainable. Only NOW matters, and there is a very thick vein of NOW bleeding throughout Punch. Babydoll’s fate is moments away, but does what went down—no matter how tragic—means nothing now, and what might happen is an unattainable fever dream. If you doubt me, examine the editing (if you can with that salt and fake butter on your lashes).

I feel it is now time to admit that I’ve presently mastered the art of spewing bile and bullsh*t in equal doses. See what a difference six years make? You’re welcome.

At its heart, I think Punch is indeed akin to an existentialist play, one that navel gazes about being and nothingness, what it means to be human and its frailty and the price of true freedom. I know, heady sh*t from a Snyder film, but if you take the longview virtually all of Snyder’s movies question the human condition and what exactly is that anyway? 300, Watchmen, Man Of Steel, even his version of Dawn Of The Dead is about survival as well as maintaining one’s individualism against oppression (okay, Dracula 2000 barely scratched at that, but it did lead to sharper, not necessarily better things). There’s that metaphor careening through Snyder’s output, for good or for ill. It’s only his Punch that such a vision truly gels. And oy, it can be a headache to follow.

Punch is unique in its execution, ignoring the crazy, over-the-top, sumptuously rendered CGI action sequences. No. After watching and considering (and reconsidering) the movie’s flow, Punch tells a non-linear story. But instead of flashing forward and backward again through time (a la Quantum Leap), we go sideways. Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time (sub Babydoll for Billy). The story does trudge along a straight line, but with truly demented road stops along the way. This direction is not as difficult to follow as, say, The Fountain was executed. But once Punch diverges, you have to follow the context. Quickly. Even moreso than Aronofsky’s celestial mindf*ck.

The ozone trips that take place in Babydoll’s psyche/dance routines are all bristling with dire individualism. Seeking freedom, seeking self. Yeah, yeah. Lemme crawls out of my colon and face the sunshine. To be blunt, Snyder was exploring the “feminine mystique” from a guy’s POV. With lotsa booms and lotsa bullets. Lemme explain this in plain terms:

Back in the 1960s, writer and nascent feminist Betty Friedan penned the social examination The Feminine Mystique, questioning why the postwar homemaking women were so dissatisfied with their comfortable, modern convenience lives. Friedan called it “the problem that has no name.” Gender roles on the other shoes, usually wingtips: “What do women want?!?” Even modern women could answer that, but they knew that something was missing in their Better Homes And Gardens idyll lives.

Fast forward 50 years, director Snyder thought he had an answer—maybe a theory not unlike Friedan’s, but with more CGI aggression—and wanted to send a message/spin to arrested development, popcorn-munching Middle American movie goers that not only do women want to display themselves as strong, capable, assertive people but also heroes trying to escape social oppression based on centuries of patriarchal mores and control.

I’m back in my rear again, right? Too bad. You read it, you can’t unread it.

Punch is an over-the-top James Cameron movie, steeped in Snyder’s lack of subtlety. I cite Cameron, that old taskmaster, as a signature of his movies he always has a strong female protagonist. Always. Either some innocent who rises to the occasion or a tough-as-nails female who is still female. Think of his take on Ripley in Aliens, and her foil Vasquez. Or Sarah Connor in The Terminator and its sequel; she’s gets to be yin and yang. Of cast-iron bitch Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in The Abyss. Or even funny lady Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies. Snyder had a statement to make in Punch, but was bleary-eyed in his execution. Cameron is like a knife. Snyder is like a stapler: I’ll pin a few things up here and there, you tell me what pages made sense. Snyder leaves it up to you…and maybe himself.

This is all a good thing. Really. I’m not bashing Snyder here (not this time) for his subtle-as-neon execution, script or production. Not at all. Punch was very entertaining, and that’s the ultimate goal of all movies. Shoving a erstwhile, CGI manifesto of a cinematic feminine mystique…well, I figure it would confuse most casual audiences. Not to sound any more high-minded than that I have already, but I studied wads of existentialist philosophy in college so I suppose I was inadvertently pre-programmed to enjoy Punch at the outset, even if I didn’t know that at the time. I mean, duh, females can be action heroes while still maintaining  mystique. I’m a guy. I can’t really get that, but I can respect that. Especiallly with awesome action scenes and rather pithy moments of sexy self-examination. Punch overall is a deconstructionist “girls with guns” melodrama. Snug clothes around a healthy female form is also a spoonful of sugar.

Sorry, I’m a guy. Deal with it, ladies of various strengths.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: Rent it. I even own a copy of Punch in my hard library, and has fast became a go-to flick when I need an action fix, like with the original Blade or The Matrix. It’s a guilty pleasure and I’m wearing a sh*t-eating grin proudly.


Next Installment…

We continue reconsidering director Zack Snyder’s muse with his take on Watchmen. Think what you may, but do acknowledge he got that project out of Production Hell and into cinematic flesh, warts and all.

For what that’s worth.