RIORI Presents Installment #196: Joseph Kosinski’s “Tron: Legacy” (2010)


The Film…


The Players…

Jeff Bridges, Garett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde and Bruce Boxleitner, with Michael Sheen, James Frain and Daft Punk (no, really).


The Plot…

Almost 30 years after computer programmer extraordinaire Kevin Flynn disappeared from his CEO position at Encom, his son Sam receives a very curious communique regarding dad’s probable whereabouts.

Young Sam listened to his father regale him with digital dreams and analog adventures he had while working within Encom’s intranet, The Grid. Back then they were just cool bedtime stories. Pure fiction, but no less real to Sam.

Turns out the call for help came in the form of an archaic page leading to dad’s old, abandoned video arcade. Curious, Sam opens up a past that he always thought ol’ dad was just making believe. Being sucked into the Encom System to win video games or die trying. Pure fantasy, right?

Well, like father like son as it’s been said.


The Rant…

Ever hear of the “Eisenstein Effect?”

No? Well, more on that later. Right now I feel a need to recap some sh*t. That and I aim to make this installment the longest in RIORI‘s lowly history. Even more bloated than the doomed I’m Not There installment. Why? Because this time out (again) I’ve got a lot to say. Again. On your bike.

For those scant few loyal subs to RIORI, you may have noticed I return to a lot the same theories, themes and stories surrounding the making of the films I review and the dubious machinations that are responsible for their release. I harp on pacing a lot, true. I thumb my nose at the perceived money-grubbing practices Hollywood tries to bamboozle audiences with, yes. That repeated, tired thing about the blues being played yadda yadda yadda. All true, most relevant and with hope insightful. I’d like to believe The Standard is as close to a proper mission statement as you’re going to get around here. That’s why once in a while I feel the need to reheat matters of how this blog came into being.

Wait. Might be easier to link to the frothing frenzy that is my homepage. I’ll wait.

*clickbait*

Alrighty then. Remember The Standard? One of the reasons I started this blog was to deconstruct the implied conceit and deception Hollywood has trolled us with over the past 20 years. However recall that the movie business is just that: a business. A multi-million dollar business with a relatively plastic overhead. I say relatively because there’s a butterfly effect in how studios make ends meet. If a certain tentpole does fantastic clean up at the box office and/or home viewing, the floodgates open for potential sequels, merch, contracts and perhaps give second tier stars a breakout role to further their cachet. It’s never, “Welp, we did well here.” It’s more like, “Welp, we cleaned up here!” The first school of thought is moving on to the next big project. The second is what to do with this hot potato except stuff it back in oven again until it’s a charred cinder. Use it up. Beat it into the ground. It’s akin to why Dave Matthews isn’t popular much these days.

Bottom line, and I guess it needs repeating, RIORI was established as a watchdog to sniff out movies that may as well left for dead as far as Hollyweird could be concerned. Essentially I’m here as a PSA, advising all you curious folks out there in the blogosphere to not just take what the big deal movies throw at you and praying you bite. It was that way when I was a kid and much hasn’t changed, until nowadays when it’s nakedly blatant. All I ask for is  the chill feeling of watching a flick regardless of what the “experts” may say. I ain’t no expert, just a dork with a blog. Big Trouble In Little China is one of my fave films, and in the endgame I am curious about sequels to my favorite flicks as well as tasteful digital kablooey. But like LeVar Burton cautioned after recommending new reading material, “Don’t take my word for it.”

Whew. That was a good one, eh? [pant, pant]

*cicadas buzzing*

Where was I? Oh yeah, this week’s flick. CGI and gaming and sequels and attempting to realize a plot. And the Eisenstein Effect. We’ll cover all that claptrap soon enough.

Right now let’s get one thing—no, two things—out of the way.

One, the original Tron was one of my favorite movies when I was a kid. Still is as a grown-up; lotsa fun. Don’t know what to watch? Queue up Tron for it’s CGI and Star Wars-flavored story. In addition to the movie being prescient science fiction with fantastic visuals and a versatile cast, it introduced me to one of my most beloved actors Jeff Bridges. From The Fisher King to The Big Lebowski to The Last Picture Show, he’s always good, engaging and humorous, as well as self-effacing, thoughful and with a great head of hair. Big fanboy here.

The second is pretty much an open secret. When the original Tron dropped in 1982 it was the first motion picture to feature (then) cutting edge animation via CGI. Computer generated imagery. It was then (now a tired cliche) a “game changer.” Video game changer, if you will. When Oscar season rolled around for the class of ’82, Tron got snubbed for a Best Visual Effects nod. Why? The Academy made the claim that the producers of the film “cheated.” They used computers. Consider that almost 40 years later, what with the MCU tearing up the box office. Without computers nowadays, big budget blast-fests that Martin Scorsese rolls his bushy browed eyes at would not be possible. For example, I saw on YouTube the gear Brolin had to wear and be green screened to turn him into the power hungry, misguided alien Thanos in pre-production Endgame. Without those zeroes and ones he would’ve suffocated in a deluge of latex. CGI a cheat? Pshaw.

Me nowadays? I’ve grown wary of excessive CGI in movies. Keyword excessive, and how’s that? Sh*t that’s irrelevant to propelling the plot. Bullet time. Lens flares. Fast motion trickery. And other silly stuff like digitally removing the march of time on actors. Cyber face-lifting. First time I became aware of this insidious practice was a music video for the then latest Rolling Stones video back in the 90s; some of the facial crags on Mick and Keef’s face were digitally airbrushed. Um, these were the Stones who set well known Guinness-level debauchery and rough living water marks. Why bother with the buffering? Did it make the song better? Was dumb to me. Still is, and yet.

There is that elephant in the room. Too many flicks these days rely on F/X to drive the plot, rather than apply an engaging story or sharp direction. Beyond every. Single. Animated. Feature these days, there’s a unholy host of movies that exist just to show off the newest, gee whiz, bucky gizmo digital whatsis like a kid on Xmas, shaking the presents. Middling stuff like Van Helsing, the Fantanstic Four reboot, the original Fantastic Four, Cats, Deep Blue Sea and whatever else Renny Harlin got his meathooks on. All of those movies are all about style over substance—and may end up under my scalpel in the near future—and small wonder why you felt cheated after watching them. Okay, some of those might be guilty pleasures, but it doesn’t change my point. A good movie is all about story, acting and direction. Not pixelation.

So what’s my point? Well, it’s no lie that CGI in movies is here to stay. This is mostly a good thing when smartly applied. IMHO, special effects should complement the film, not drive it. The original Tron is a good example. As a kid, despite the coolness of the visuals, I was invested in how Flynn, Ram and the titular hero would restore the Encom System to a free state rather becoming the digital equivalent of Stalin’s postwar Russia. Sure, I’d not pass up a ride in a light cycle, but I’d rather see the heroes triumph over the forces or darkness. Hear what I’m screaming? You don’t need the bleeding edge anything for a satisfying story like that which, let’s face it, never gets old.

Despite that Hollywood profits are not steeped in art, but rather wanna apply the latest digital carrot to lure you in, sometimes there’s a synchronicity where money meets art and shakes hands. A profitable film earns awards and esteem, despite what the snots at the AMPAS deem “proper.” Did Tron: Legacy achieve that? Was it as fun and cutting-edge as the first Tron?

Maybe. Hang on. As always. Hush, my darling Player One.

I’ve been a gamer pretty much since the 5th grade. A friend of mine had one of those classic Atari 2600 consoles, the kind with the decals made to resemble wood grain. We would hang out after school—perhaps a bit too long—o.d’ing on classic titles like Adventure, Pac-Man, Q-Bert, Vanguard and Pitfall! Very simple games, primitive compared to today’s titles. But they were fun and that’s what mattered. You betcha.

When Saturday would roll around—still without a console of my own—me, my crew and a gym sock full of scrounged quarters would pester someone’s mom to take us to the video arcade at the mall. It was to be an adventure, and sort of a “scream till daddy stops the car” tableau vivant. Set the stage, so to speak.

There was this (of course now defunct) video arcade which was the vanguard to plunk away a Saturday afternoon. It was called the Space Port, smack dab in the middle of the local mall. The entrance was made to resemble a UFO, neon lights and the whole wad. Mecca to me and my digitally drooling crew.

If you were a kid in the 80s, your joystick would tingle at the opportunity to try your hand at one of the latest machines Space Port tempted. There was Dragon’s Lair, which used then new Laserdisc technology to render a platformer illustrated by former Disney animator Don Bluth (EG: The Secret Of NIMH, The Land Before Time, An American Tail, et al). Those nifty Nintendo gallery machines that let you play a variety of console games, from Super Mario to Castlevania to Bubble Bobble and others. Sit down Sega sim racers like Pole Position or the motorcycling Hang-On! Only spending Xmas at FAO Schwarz could rival such a cornucopia of fun. Not to mention precious few grown-ups around to kick you out of your zone.

Back then gaming was not in the mainstream as is now. Video games were a culty thing, reserved for freaks and geeks who both needed an escape from the drudgery of peer pressure as well find a place to bond. The arcade was a hotbed of social activity not unlike Star Trek conventions, comic book shops, nascent otaku, kids who sucked at basketball and were frankly persona non gratia to the fairer sex. Oh, gamers back then were almost exclusively male. The arcade was the middle school version of a man cave. Boy cave. Same diff. A home away from home.

As was then, it’s always been about escapism even before my young, Twizzler addled mind understood the concept. Gaming then as is now is like getting lost in a good book, or a good album, or a good movie before God. Gaming was a portal into another existence that in addition to escapism, you were in charge. The book example is potent, especially based against required reading from school that once you write up the report you might be blooped for your own interpretation rather than what teach deemed the “proper” way to view the story (EG: Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was about our hero hitching a ride down the Mighty Missip, soaking up the local culture with his fellow outcast buddy, Jim. Did you read the author’s note?). In sum, you were in control of these digital worlds, and no adult or popular kid could tell you different. Pocket full of coins, and you were a god.

Not unlike comic shops, the arcade was pitiable bubble, reserved for the lost and forlorn who needed a place to bond. Aim for the high score, debate which was better: Space Invaders or Galaga or Asteroids or Arkanoid. We gamer geeks knew the difference, and such discourse was valued for it was nothing the cool basketballers would get. Which is probably why the original Tron resonated with me and my fellow goony gamers.

The original Tron director Steven Lisberger got it. Not only did he forsee the potential of CGI in movies, but was also prescient how video games would eventually gain traction in the mainstream in the near future. His CGI rendered cinescapes reflected the games of the time. Think the angular styles of Atari and Colecovision console games. Watching Tron with its dark tableau punctuated with sharp blues and reds just screaming now. Well, now is now then, but if the original flick didn’t hold up we—I—wouldn’t be dismantling the sequel made almost 30 years later. That’s staying power, just like the allure of the arcade or a new PS5.

Tron was this is us. The junior gamers got it. When I was a pup I knew I was on the right track when my mom after seeing the film proclaimed she “didn’t get it.”

Score.


The Effect…

About the “Eisenstein Effect” (finally that). Ever heard of it? Of course not, because I made it up. Follow.

I consider it the gold standard of cinematic tribute. It’s where in a key scene (or scenes) of a contemporary movie pays tribute to a classic film image-for-image as homage, rather than some cherry on a DQ Blizzard held upside down. A good example of this is in Star Wars: A New Hope where Luke, Han and the gang receive accolades from Leia for a job well done. Director George Lucas more or less lifted this scene from Leni Riefenstahl’s epic Nazi propaganda film Triumph Of The Will, and dubious subject matter be damned. Another fine example is—with not much surprise—how the big fight scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, vol 2, was lifted from Bruce Lee’s debut film, Fists Of Fury. Even animated flicks are prone this kind of tribute; Disney’s Beauty And The Beast‘s final dance scene mirrored Sleeping Beauty’s. And Aronofsky’s mindf*ck of a PSA Requiem For A Dream documenting drug abuse and its joys? Yeah, that bathtub scene. An identical scene (if not circumstance) appears in Satoshi Kon’s psychological thriller anime Perfect Blue.

Lastly comes from a fave film from my youth. The one that made the late Sean Connery my favorite actor. Brian de Palma’s big screen interpretation of The Untouchables, what with the daring shootout scene lifted from the latter’s seminal film, The Battleship ‘Potemkin’. It’s not ripping off. It’s homage, and director Sergei Eisenstein created Potemkin. Not to mention innumerable filmmakers like those above who offer a twist on an iconic film scene. A tip of the hat, if you will. I consider such flourishes as Easter Eggs for cinephiles. An inside joke between strangers. It’s a good thing, and enhances some intimacy about how we film lovers love films and vice versa. You get it or you don’t.

There’s a curious thing about interpretation and review: depending on who digests it says what the feature was all about. I’m not talking about personal opinion. I’m talking about the court of public opinion. See, Potemkin dropped in 1925, and therefore a silent film. It depicted the harrowing nature about serving in wartime on a Russian cruiser. Lenin himself (yes, that Lenin) praised the film as a triumph of propaganda depicting the bravery and sophistication of the Russian Navy. This was something of a myopic view, for Eisenstein cut his masterpiece as a caution of the futility of war and how Russian sailors were no more than cannon fodder. I’ve seen the film. Guess where my sympathies lie.

The Eisenstein Effect is, in essence, honest cinematic tribute. A director was inspired by a classic film and decided to appropriate a scene, twist it around in a tasteful manner and incorporate it into contemporary milieu. The original Tron did this, but unlike Lucas, Tarantino and de Palma director Lisberger caged scenery from the arcades like the Space Port. What was the primary influence, which an audience may follow.

When Flynn and his fellow renegade programs get beamed down to the game grid, they are charged to play versions of the hot game titles of the day. It’s all Atari fully realized. The Lightcycle and Space Paranoids of Flynn’s user creations perfectly echoed the arcade hits of the day. Lisberger was inspired by the arcades, and rendered those games lovingly in his film. Not the “conventional” Eisenstein Effect, but I made that crap up and was spot on in respecting the source material, namely those old skool, quarter gobbling, flash and dash arcade games, which your Mom didn’t get.

In the endgame if you think about it (but not too much) sequels can also be tributes. Sure, there’ve been some very deliberate footprints laid out. Some movies invite the potential of an overarching story (again: the Star Wars saga and the MCU). I’d never thought in 30 years the original Tron could invite a sequel. It does make logical sense, though. There was more of a story to tell, since the first film heralded in the digital age of filmmaking, and such technology is ever evolving. I suppose now that computer use is not longer relegated to geeks, hackers and the military—all one and the same, tee hee—as hot as it was in the early 80s. In the early teens it was CGI upload all the way. As of now: viral TikToks. Ain’t the future of digital video as entertainment grand? Sigh.

Yeah, yeah. I know, I know, I know. Shaddap and cut to the chase. I’ve felt for too long us moviegoers have been relegated to steerage, assumed to play well for crusts. Some perspective is always in order. It’s akin to how Tom Jefferson commented that one should never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you. You ever flinch at the price of a basic pack of Twizzers at concessions? Of course you don’t. I don’t. Sue me. Like with all our pleasures and sins, you get what you give.

Beyond the big bucket o’popcorn, a sequel demands some attention. It once illustrated that some hot property of a film like the first Star Wars episode, or that The Godfather‘s source material insisted two movies to tell the whole saga, or bloody anything that moves too close to the MCU. Sequels are at most negative return on investment. Sometimes the first film warrants some chapters, like with Star Wars, The Godfather, the second, third and fourth Star Trek films, the entire James Bond 007 franchise, the Toy Story trilogy and Indiana Jones. There was more to expound upon, more stories inviting a cohesive whole. That last bit may be why those series flourished, aside of profit. I’d like to think so, for there are endless, unnecessary sequel made like I named back a bit that were nothing more than cash grabs. Example? The Die Hard series should of quit it with Vengeance, and should’ve skipped the second movie out of good taste (an icicle? Really?).

The aforementioned is important, for Tron: Legacy lifts its entire story—sometimes scene for scene—from the original film. Eisenstein again. It’s not a rip off, but a respectful nod dedicated to similar nodding fans saying to themselves “I get it.” Considering that director Kosinski was my age when the original Tron dropped I can only hope/pray that he was so in love as I’ve been that he had once watched Potemkin also. Or The Untouchables. Or pissed away a lot of quarters standing in front of a Timepilot machine. All worthwhile activities, by the way.

So. When does a sequel become a cash grab, a legit story progression of a tribute to the original film? A curious question, which these rants have not properly answered.

As the old adage goes, “The proof is in the pudding.” And I dislike pudding, unless I don’t.

Please deposit another 25 cents to continue.


The Story…

Dateline 1982: Encom’s software whiz kid Kevin Flynn (Bridges) is officially acknowledged as the programmer of several very successful arcade games. By his new resolve, Flynn rose to the rank of Encom’s CEO and launched a digital crusade; indeed computers are the guide to driving the future! With that flourish, Encom endeavored in shareware gratis to all American school districts and private universities alike. Information should be shared, not hoarded.

Dateline 1989: The birth of the World Wide Web, and info guru Kevin Flynn’s going off the grid. Encom’s prodigy was never seen again.

Dateline 2010: Upon the proper release of Encom’s next gen OS, Sam Flynn (Hedlund) keeps up his annual prank fest, thumbing his nose at the high and mighty Encom. They built his dad up, they took him down, and possibly out of sight.

Dateline 2012: Sam’s been wondering and a little less than pissed off about where Dad escaped to. No message, no reason, no clue. Until a very old skool message from wherever gets paged, before God, to Dad’s old “partner-in-crime” Alan Bradley (Boxleitner). Alan suggests the page was meant for Sam, seeing it was sent from Dad’s abandoned video arcade. Naturally Sam’s curiosity takes over, and wending his way through the forgotten machines he locates what seems to be Dad’s old Encom intranet portal. After all these years of Dad waxing philosophical about Encom’s System and the Grid, was there a pixel of truth in all those stories?

Click AGREE to comply.


The Review…

Fair warning. A lot of the following is riddled with spoilers. Hate doing it, but I gotta make things clear. Now who want’s s’mores?

This is odd, but akin to The Godfather saga (but less grand), one must see the original Tron to fully appreciated its Legacy. Just saying you need to watch the first to understand/appreciate the second. Lots of sequels play that way. I mentioned above about how sequels must enhance the going story to be worthwhile viewing. Yes, most part twos are a charred potato, rushed into production before the domestic box office tally has been fully scored. You can probably count those kinds on all yer fingers and toes, and if you’re a guy that makes thirteen.

I’ll see myself out.

After this. I feel that a little gestation period between sequels and threquels and prequels against the primary film helps justify an ongoing existence. Consider this: The first two Godfather movies were filmed sequentially, as were the original Superman movies. Both were in the can at the same time and were later tweaked to better bridge the two chapters. Our renegade archaeologist Indiana Jones worked in reverse; the cast proper was introduced in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, then Indy was back in the first proper prequel, Temple Of Doom and then the gang en toto was back in full in real time for The Last Crusade (save Marion, but now Dad). But Marion would show up years later, so yeah, full circle. Good examples of sequels and their ilk; there’s more of a story there, so let’s explore. And, yeah, I left out Star Wars now. Those chapters do go without saying, yes.

All being said, when a sequel gets released lightyears after the mother film, I start scratching my head. Like I said, sometimes it works (EG: Aliens, Terminator 2, Toy Story 2, etc). Most of the time it doesn’t (EG: Caddyshack 2, dishonorable mentions The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, any Jaws feature after the first one, etc). Anyone with a brain in their ticket holding stub knows what they are most likely getting into. Not to sound all grand or nothing, but quoting Thomas Jefferson once again, “People pretty much get the government they deserve.” Butter topping on that?

The last time I recalled a belated sequel to a movie was for the weeper Terms Of Endearment. This Oscar friendly paean dropped in 1983, and won a few vital awards, like Best Picture and whatever. It’s loose sequel, The Evening Star was unleashed to nobody in 1996. That’s a 13 year hiatus. The original Tron came out in 1982. The sequel in 2010. Wanna do the math?

That’s 18 years. Eighteen. I know I mentioned decent sequels demand a little breathing room. The crew behind Tron: Legacy must’ve been asthmatics. It’s all a good thing. Calm down. Here, have a Twizzler.

In hindsight after seeing Legacy its slow gestation made sense. Consider how the home video game consoles evolved so rapidly in the past 25 years. We’re at PS5 at the time of this installment, and consider its legacy since the 90s. Gaming has become a subculture to mainstream in a very short time if you think about it. The official console wars (not war, but plural) have been raging since the PSX dropped in 1995. Before that it was a pissing contest. Nintendo versus Sega, always trying to outsell more units. Players back then gave little sh*t to the inner workings of the SNES or Genesis (and their offspring), so long as the games were good. That last thing still holds today, what with true gamers knowing a tad more that just bitrate. Oh, and the Internet came along so there.

It is utterly numbing how fast consoles try to outdo one another. Despite being retro, I keep abreast of the latest specs of the next gen consoles and their gaming fodder, I just don’t invest in them. Why? Budget, nostalgia, budget, speed runs, ran out of HDMI ports and budget. And for the record I have eight and/or nine retro consoles corralled into a very exhausted Vizio flatscreen and multiple switch boxes. My pedigree as retro speaks volumes, and yet I still have a g/f to play Pokémon GO with. She’s the better trainer BTW, but I have two—two—fully maxed out Raichu. A boy and a girl. Wait, Pokémon breed?

*leaves rustling*

I’d like to think I have some qualifications as a gamer, albeit old skool. I mean I still have my very first console the g.1 NES—which I got as a twelfth b’day gift and is still working fine 20-some years later, thank you very much—a g.2 SNES (not the “toaster”), a Sega Master System, the Sega Genesis mk. 2, the underrated Sega Saturn, the extremely underrated Sega Dreamcast, a Wii, a Game Boy Advance SP (gotta play classic Pokémon somehow, pika pika) and a PS2 slim (which I bought new after hawking my old PSX and g.1 PS2). Anything else I check out Steam. I’d like to lay a claim I understand how a Tron sequel was inevitable, but not immediately so.

A movie based on/inspired by video gaming like the original Tron required patience for any going audience to catch up. Took a long time, even considering 90s boom. Now gamers are far more tech savvy, demand better programming and now we have MMORPG’s that connect the whole f’n planet into a virtual gaming world not unlike the Encom gaming Grid from those innocent days of yore that just needed a pocketful of coins and a Big Gulp to power up. Or a buddy you’d abuse to play Atari again at his house after school, guzzling down all his Gatorade. True story.

(I also almost bankrupted myself years ago playing Phantasy Star Online v2.0 on my broadband Dreamcast, which is why now I swear off MMOs. Also a true story.)

Legacy evolved as gaming evolved. Think the Metroid Prime saga, Wipeout Fury and other s/f racers, the Mass Effect series, etc. The inspiration was there—another tribute—based on how far we’ve come in gaming, for good and for ill. The games are more sophisticated now than the quarter gulpers of yesteryear. Legacy dropped at the same time when the PS3 (one of the most hot properties at the time) and the Xbox 360 in its stride engaged in battle, and the Wii swept them both under the rug with the first attempt at actual physical engagement into the game world. And Steam had already been viable since 2003. Like I keep hammering, gaming has become one with the mainstream.

So with evolution, a movie based on gaming and it’s ascent into the mainstream, despite said long gestation, I supposed it was about time that Tron would invite a sequel. And it did. And with that it did the gamers proud. That and those who like quick, crisp, organic CGI not exclusively reserved for action scenes or reducing facial wrinkles. Okay, all that was there, but there was also that ur-Eisenstein thing. And like the original, Legacy was also prescient as well as potent. Consider the film’s patient timeline, for instance. I’m pretty sure the original Tron was relegated to cult thing and some dandruff Disney was quick to brush away. However in TV land a lot of series were revived due to pressure from Internet posts and sympathetic network affiliates that needed to fluff up their schedule (EG: think Futurama, Family Guy and MST3K).

Here’s a kind of cinematic clickbait with Legacy. In the opening/flashback scenes, the last time young Sam spent with his dad Kevin was in the summer of 1989. That was the official/unoffical year when the US government declassified their network for commercial use. Look it up:

Berners-Lee, Timothy. Weaving The Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor. Harper San Francisco (1999).

No hyperlink here; you’re gonna have to do some homework. The future just happened.

*burp*

That was enlightening. Back to the review.

Just a moment, some clarification. My g/f has become the practical Siskel to my jelly donut Ebert when plying my trade. Over the past few installments she’s watched the selected movies with me, offering up her observations and opinions. She did this a lot with Legacy, doubtless because we watched the original the night before and she found that movie to be a lot of fun. So as I have in the recent past I will make now policy: whenever you read “K:” in a comment it was her insight, not mine. She’s been very helpful, and deserves credit. Moving on.

At its core Legacy is about family. The ties that bind and all that entails. The first film had a hint of that. Fellow programmers trying to maintain the ethics of their once cottage industry up against the corporate machine, but there was no blood there. At the outset, Legacy illustrates the bond between Kevin Flynn and young Sam. K: Sam has all of his dad’s Tron merch on display in his bedroom, illustrating young Sam believes in Dad. It’s a bit touching, that and Kevin is just as much a kid and his son. Bonding. It draws you in, unless you have ice in your spine. The movie lets you melt at this point, and also inform you as to who Sam becomes as a grown-up. Namely, living in a garage as all good nerds do when creating. Like Dad with his hacking for the greater good..

Such a setup can be one’s undoing. Like with all sequels, there must be more to tell but also honor the source material. Legacy‘s example? Check out all the motorcycles in the first act. A nod to Tron? Maybe. Foreshadowing? Definitely. When we finally get down to game grid level, the Encom System resembles the gamescape of early 10s games as the original mimicked the early 80s arcade analogs. Like I implied: tech is ever evolving, and with Legacy as does the continuing saga. In sum, Legacy to Sam is all about catching up, if not with his absentee father but also experiencing that the Grid is real, and will challenge you as it did Dad. A family thing, remember?

What I dug about Legacy was that it was not as cold as the original. From my experience, director Lisberger wanted his world of Tron to be cold, yet producing its own light via the landscape crackling with electricity. At the outset if Sam’s adventure in the upgraded Grid is heated by the blooming reds of corrupted files. It’s not as clinical as the prime film. Legacy is more “symphonic” than the original. More organic. The first film had a soundtrack derived from the bleeps and bloops of old skool synths and arcade machines. Now we have Daft Punk driving the soundtrack, well adept at creating futuristic soundscapes (I own their first two vital albums. An inspired bit of contracting). Everything screams (K:) “Upgrade!” And it sure was. We had lots of flash, dash and Matrix-style action, however not really detracting from the family drama that acts as the backbone of the plot. As I said the environment of Legacy was less cold than the original. And much to my surprise, it worked.

Thanks to the new programming, Legacy‘s new color scheme was key to and thanks for its keen application this time out. I can’t compare the first the second film enough, but the use off color was an extension of the story thread. Back in ’82, blue was good, red was bad, CLU was yellow. And it was a heckuva reveal when the one-time cyber bloodhound of Kevin Flynn evolved/mutated in our antagonist, CLU v2.0. Yellow in Legacy meant bad news for Sam and crew. Think about it, if you’re working from your own private agendum who gives a sh*t what side you belong. And Bridges as CLU paired against virtual Kevin made a very clever Jekyll vs Hyde dynamic. Hey, sometime the old crap works.

Despite how CLU loomed large over the advanced grid, it’s not to say that Kevin and Sam are mere pawns in his game. But before we get to that, let us consider this “plot hole.” Namely: how the f*ck did CLU came back to full operation? This was a major issue with Tron fanboys. I had to ruminate over this bugaboo also. This glitch harkens back to young Kevin trying to crack the code to hack into Encom’s intranet.

WARNING: TECHNOBABBLE AHEAD!

Inquiring geeks want to know. In the real world, CLU is syntax with the computer language ALGOL (algorithmic language), which was developed at MIT back in the day designed for more or less “seek and/or destroy” programming. The root sub-language is in Cluster (ergo: “CLU”). Its syntax is designed to unravel very complex numbers. Namely, a pre-programmed rouge program to weed out unneeded data that may hinder a network, designed by an independent user (EG: Flynn as hacker). And now you know. Blame MIT.

Whew. Yer welcome.

That being babbled, CLU v1.0 was not destroyed by Master Control two decades hence, but rather appropriated into Encom’s network, rather than expunged as we were led to believe in the first movie. I bring this up to silence all the Tron dorks who were screaming “What the f*ck?” back in 2010. Do yer f*cking homework you hackers you. I did, and it took less time than dial-up. So there.

Whew v2.0.

Wait. K: Kevin Flynn’s present memory disk is the memory bank for the entire new Grid he created. It hold’s all system’s memories. If that gets into CLU’s hands everyone is in trouble. Smart girl, and also commented, “the student became the teacher.” Bingo. Moving on.

Back to the color thing; color’s vital here, day. Since we figured out that CLU and his minions are trying to achieve separation (read: sentience a la the MCP back then), not to mention insurrection. K: The characters that are red imply, “Yer gonna get burned, Sam,” as if on fire in rage; the blues are oppressed and must remain calm. It’s all zeroes and ones. And it’s a very apt analogy.

Am I looking too deeply into all of this? You bet. It’s fun to pick apart films you like. Star Wars nerds, change my mind.

But, as always, there are hiccups with Legacy. There always are. There was a sh*tton of data to download with Legacy, maybe to get the newbs caught up. Legacy had a lot more exposition and navel-gazing this time out. The original was all about show me, don’t tell me. The basic plot invited that simple, effective precept. Legacy felt more like the Matrix sequels, trying to reinvent the bicycle. The upgraded Grid is so very life and death that any mistep from the emotional Users involved will unravel reality. Heavy portent, and far from the light-hearted tone of the first film. I’m saying that Legacy is a well-constructed sequel (more of a tribute really), even for non-fanboys, but heavy, man. Heavy.

The execution here is less basal than the first movie, and jazzed up for more “sophisticated” PlayStation pilots—a lot more stylish—but the song remained the same. Good versus evil. Cool CGI that complemented the film rather than weigh it down. Nifty soundtrack, In sum, overall and counting the numbers Legacy tickled my 7 year old self now as for the same fun with the first one: digital fantasy, efficient action, geeky humor and devoid of artistic merit beyond the frame rate. Legacy sure as heck didn’t feel two hours long. Pacing, as always. Regardless of exposition and thanks to Jeff Bridges in a dual role.

Hear what I’m screaming AMPAS?

From the deck of the Potemkin: End of line.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a good companion piece to the original. Watch it paired with the first Tron and make it a double feature. It’s all good popcorn fodder, perfect for a lazy Saturday afternoon.


The Stray Observations…

  • “We’re always on the same team.”
  • Mickey logo on Sam’s motorcycle helmet. Discuss.
  • Now that is a big door!
  • K: Was that some sort of shadow simulation over Sam’s route to Dad’s lab? Like with the last movie? Again, sharp girl.
  • No one: Sam’s shop’s named DuMont, probably honoring Walter’s avatar in the first movie. Ever wonder where that moniker came from? History time! The DuMont TV network launched in 1942, and was rival to ABC. Long story short, DuMont’s programming was too ahead of its time, but later cable TV took a nod from its misunderstood scheduling based on content, not just entertaining (read: like The History Channel, Discovery Channel and Food Network in the 90s). DuMont folded in 1956, almost forgotten. Walter was co-founder of Encom, old and almost forgotten. And now you know.
  • “I’m tired and I smell like jail.”
  • Anti-Tron purrs like an overfed cat.
  • Oh Lord. Not Journey again.
  • Notice all those motorcycles.
  • Did that dinner scene remind you of the last act of 2001?
  • K: Like father, like son.
  • I felt that Wilde was only brought on board cuz she was hot. And duh!
  • And her character’s name Quorra, Sam’s digital love interest and Kevin’s operative, means “heart.” Subtle?
  • “Made it.”
  • Sometimes life moves faster than zeros and ones. K: Kinda like Cheerios. Me: Kinda profound that.
  • “Yer messin’ with my Zen thing, man!”
  • Does this installment compete in length with I’m Not There? I lost word count.
  • “I’m a User. I’ll improvise.”

The Next Time…

Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl make for an unlikely pair of KIllers, but hey, so are most newlyweds.

Huh?

Pull!


 

RIORI Presents Installment #185: Jonathan Frakes’ “Thunderbirds” (2004)



The Players…

Bill Paxton, Brady Corbett, Anthony Edwards, Soren Fulton, Sophia Myles, Vanessa Hudgens and Ben Kingsley, with Deobia Oparel and Ron Cook.


The Basics…

If there’s a local emergency you call the first responders. Fire fighters, police officers, EMTs. If there’s a national emergency you call on FEMA, the National Guard, the Red Cross. But who do you call when it’s a global emergency? A catastrophe so huge that no ordinary rescue team could get the job done?

Well, if you have that problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire…The A-Team International Rescue.

Thunderbirds are go!


The Rant…

Okay. I got one for you. Pull up a chair.

You ever get tuned into a culty pop culture hoo-ha by accident…in reverse?

I’m not talking a straight line like some Beatlemaniac from the 60s who not only has all the albums, singles and imports and proudly displays the framed, over the mantel, signed by Ringo vintage movie poster for A Hard Day’s Night. That kind of fandom is as common as COVID, and almost as communicable. No. I’m talking about a drunkard’s stagger backwards to the well, either out of curiosity, confusion or dumb accident. Usually all three.

Here’s an example, a theoretical one: say you’re some teen in the early 90s and got hip to this British singer/songwriter who went by the name of Sting. Silly name. His music was jazzy and rocky and sounded good to you. Curiosity piqued, you logged on the Net and surfed Lycos (early 90s, remember?) about all things Sting. Won a few Grammys, did some human rights work with Amnesty International and did a little acting on the side (and the less you found out about that the better). Also turned out the guy fronted this big deal new wave act back in the late 70s. Huh. Dig his new stuff, what’s the old stuff like?

Boom. A Police fan in borne. Like so many mushrooms.

Now I always dug The Police as a kid, and most of Gordo’s jazz/funk/rock solo work was pretty cool also (I gave up after his Ten Summoner’s Tales, and Sting should have, too). When I got into a musician, I did my homework and sought out back catalogs, and was more pleased than confused. When I did get confused over pop culture scavenging it was a rare occurrence, mostly because it was both by accident and rare. The cult stuff. And I’m talking deeper than Joy Division, the Sega Saturn or Octavia E Butler. Sometimes when you walk backwards far enough long enough you find yourself once you’ve backtracked forwards again.

Right. Bear with me. It’s been 185 installments. And if you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to come a little further. You remember the name of the town, don’t you?

*crickets*

Anyway, Red, time to tumble down the rabbit hole. Never fear, I will get to the meat of the matter and how it relates to this week’s movie somehow.

While the 90s teen nascent Police fan was not me, the following 80s kid story was. Maybe you, too. Back before the cable networks took the baton, the major networks would give over their Saturday morning airtime for cartoons. From six in the morning to noon, ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and adopted kid Nickelodeon was a Froot Loop chomping wonderland every Saturday. All cartoons, all morning long. Sometimes I think Spotify programmers took hints from Saturday morning programming in creating their playlist algorithms. There was a sh*tton of animated variety, and certain networks had certain themes. NBC had action. ABC had comedy. CBS has weird s/f/fantasy shows. FOX was FOX and Nick was green slime. I dug the NBC line-up. The penultimate shows were Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends and The Bugs ‘N’ Tweety Show. The first had Spidey teaming up with X-Men Iceman and Firestar to thwart the nefarious schemes of various Marvel baddies. The second was self-explanatory: an anthology of a few Looney Tunes shorts. Then came Soul Train so I could get hip to the newest rap stars. Afterwards the lawnmower waited, glowering at me. The usual Saturday.

When I got bored of the same old scene on the Big Four and Little Nicky, I aimed the remote onto the outer fringes; local affiliates that still had some say in what to air against the competitors but not so much to lose their backing. Namely syndicated sh*t. Not always a bad thing. I got my silly TMNT fix that way (as well as very early mean hangover Saturday mornings with The Tick. “Spoon!”), as I did the ulty-culty fave Inhumanoids and an informal introduction to anime.

Japanese animation. Admittedly that came about when I was in second grade watching bowdlerized versions of Space Battleship Yamato and GoLions! (Star Blazers and Voltron in the States, respectively), but I dug it. Other anime warped snuck its way onto the local airwaves as well. G-Force, RoboTech, Tranzor-Z (violence uncut!) and other nuggets from across the Pacific that haplessly toppled onto my cable feed. Nowadays, anime has well saturated American pop culture. Still on the fringes, mostly due to the fact cosplayers dressed as Rei from Evangelion outweigh Shizuku from Whisper Of the Heart by about two googolplex to…perhaps two. Japanese animation is a thing but still not a thing in Columbus. It was rattling around back in the 80s, and I happened upon it, even after I happened upon it.

Wait. Dig this. Digression. You ever hear of the psychological phenomenon cryptomnesia? It’s essentially deja vu in reverse. Instead of having a curious feeling of reliving a moment, a moment has a curious effect on your memory and somehow your brain figured it was your moment all along. If you ever heard about that silly plagiarism case regarding George Harrison accidentally cribbing the melody for “My Sweet Lord” from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” then you follow me. If not, Google it. I’ll wait.

*raids fridge for another popsicle*

Like that there. Back to the anime thing. There was some proto-indie animation block one on of the local stations. Upstart affiliates trying to cash in on the cult of Smurfs. It came out of New York and featured the 80s cartoon touchstones about cyber femme rocker Jem, the aforementioned Inhumanoids and some anime pastiche called—translated rather—Thunderbirds 2086. I hung around for a few episodes, curious about the staggering animation style and why the characters’ dialogue was so palsied, but their description of a family-operated S/F rescue team with their ultra cool (“a dazzling array”) mecha poked my brain. Why does this sound familiar? I was eight then, so I flipped the channel. A self-examined life and all.

Back around to Little Nicky. I was a big fan of the imported UK cartoons Nick used to air at the end of the day. DangerMouseBananamanCount Duckula and other giddiness. These were British cartoons and far shorter than the usual American 25 minutes. Those from across the Pond ran about 18 minutes, which invited some filler to bookend the commercials, like the occasional Monty Python animated piece (this was the 80s, remember) or a snippet from some TV serial revolving around globetrotters rendered in puppet form.

Wait a minnit…

Fast forward to fast backwards. Y’all remember that parody Team America: World Police by the lovely lads of South Park infamy, Matt Parker and Trey Stone? What rock have you been living under? It was a send up of Dubya’s foreign policy, but with marionettes, strings and all. I never saw it, but the trailers smacked me with some nostalgica (yes, I just made that term up). Where have I seen this kind of thing before?

If Carl Jung was right, and there is such a thing as a collective unconsciousness somehow my warped kiddie mind—from about age 8 to 24—through either Harrison’s creative ozone trip or that blip in my mind that was Thunderbirds 2086, somehow I learned about the original British Thunderbirds “supermarination” sci-fi show about International Rescue and their amazing mecha before we fledgling otaku knew was mecha meant. I think I caught it on Nick between DangerMouse episodes. Yeah, that’s it. I think.

So when the announcement of a big deal silver screen reel of Thunderbirds came along I was intrigued (I was 38 at the time. Late bloomer). All that childhood nostalgics came whizzing back. Holy crap, full circle! And this uber-obscure, card-carrying very cult show was getting the motion picture treatment. Stateside! With Bill Paxton! With Commander Riker directing! Pass the popcorn! Come under the knife of RIORI!

Why in the world am I telling you all of this? Good question. I’ll do my best to provide a fair answer. Nostalgia works in cycles. As we evolve into mature adults (like those who wear foam wedges of Swiss come opening day at Lambeau, bare-chested in a blizzard), we always look fondly upon our past. Our childhood. The salad days without worrying about taxes and traffic and insurance premiums and salmonella and terrorism. The days of Saturday morning cartoons, technicolor cereal, Transformers and an already trimmed lawn. It’s nice to be reminded as a grown-up with a surprise like a fond, albeit odd memory of days gone by…even through a tricky trail like Marty McFly followed to get his erstwhile dad getting laid and being rewarded for it.

More nostalgia? You bet. Hold on to those moments. Work awaits in the morn and a Stauffer’s microwave dinner in the eve. Things are just fine now.


 The Story…

Whenever’s there’s a rescue mission, most authorities call out the Coast Guard, or FEMA and perhaps the Red Cross also. People all over the country—maybe the planet—need help when the emergency is so dire not even the most modern technology and capable people can produce the Jaws of Life. That’s when the brave folks of International Rescue spring into action.

Jeff Tracy (Paxton) is an ex-astronaut and an industrial titan in the S&R game. From what he learned in his NASA days he’s designed the technology to  an ncredibly bleeding edge fleet of sophisticated vehicles designed to do what no ordinary rescue team can do: the impossible. From air, sea, land and even space, Tracy’s “Thunderbirds” are always vigilant and ready to take on any case.

Sounds like something out of a comic book, and Jeff’s youngest son Alan (Corbett) always has his eyes in the clouds, looking for his super dad and his super bros that round out the elite team. Alan’s too young to serve in his Dad’s proud service—not to mention Jeff is more than a little protective of his youngest son—but too bold to ignore his calling. Especially during algebra.

However…quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchers themselves? Dun dun dunnn.

Unbeknownst to Jeff and the Tracy team, an old, yet unknown enemy calling himself The Hood (Kingsley) has a scheme of very serious purpose to ruin the Thunderbird team’s sterling record of world saving. Knock off the world banks by hijacking Tracy’s amazing machines to steal millions as well as ruining the Thunderbirds’ reputation without recompense.

So when Alan is home on spring break, and his dad and brothers are off-world, and the Thunderbirds fleet is ripe for the hijacking, and the nefarious Hood has some sort of mind control, and his schemes are deadly real, and only Alan has a rough concept how to keep the fleet intact, and cutie pie TinTin (Hudgens) has developed breasts, what’s he gonna do?

Make a Fully Acknowledged Broadcast hopefully his over-protective dad could hear:

“Are Thunderbirds a go?”


The Breakdown…

Blame nostalgia. Or blame a lot of silly, whiz-bang fun. We need more chewing gum like this.

Thunderbirds is not a good movie. The acting’s kinda wooden, the scheme is right out of Lex Luthor’s bag of tricks and you’re gonna have to have a very high suspension of disbelief to go along with this sci-fi/disaster/cartoon come to life bat out of hell. Never fear though, True Believers. It’s all in good fun. Here’s the extra huge tub of fresh popcorn. Nom nom nom.

Despite that the original Thunderbirds programme was a British space opera with a cast of puppets, and the 80s incarnation was essentially an anime rip-off of that, the big screen adaptation here is a big, garish, winking cartoon come to life. Sometimes, now and again, once in a while we all need a megadose of some big, dumb, unapologetically over the top action flick to snuggle up with. Call in the Thunderbirds. Help is on the way.

Let’s get another key thing out of the way: there are precious redeeming aspects to Thunderbirds. That’s part of its charm. There’s a ton of winking and nudging informing us that this is silly, fun and far, far away from winning any awards. It’s also a clever film, always alluding to the original puppeteer’d vision of the Anderson’s creation in the swinging 60s. You might not get it, especially if you never went up the rabbit hole like I tried to explain…poorly. All in all overall, its a live-action cartoon. The kind ready made for the Disney Channel or folks who dig Scooby-Doo (like me, who has no shame). Quit grumping and lighten up or else the beatings will commence.

The key here to enjoying this flick is like with all good stand-up comedy its timing, a kind of pacing that depends on luck and where to use it. As a action/adventure family film directed by Number One we should go play connect the dots. Scene moves effortlessly to next scene with a new trouble Alan and crew get into. It’s kinda like a platformer video game (think the MegaMan series). As for the lucky timing, yeah it’s scripted, duh, but happenstance pops up again and again at just the right spots in the story, furthering the admittedly flimsy narrative. We see it all coming a mile away, but the direction pumps along at a pace that propels a “saw that coming” sensibility, but also says, “Let’s see what happens next.”

Thunderbirds could have easily descended into absolute schlock if it wasn’t for that winking and off-kilter delivery. A sense of goofiness pervades the movie, but not so much to dilute the action. Hell, and even the solid action scenes are cartoony—right out of Looney Tunes—like when TinTin takes out the bad guys with the Firefly. All the action is goof-tastic (IE: Every time Lady P laid a punch I could hear Mike Myers as Austin Powers bleat, “Judo chop!”) from diminutive Ron Cook and his pratfalls to Deobia Oparel cackling like Count Chocula and then getting a face full of bees. And it’s irresistible, because it’s all so ridiculous you just have to give in to it all and enjoy the ride. Hell, you already streamed it. Face the consequences.

I like the story device of the kids rescuing the parents. So sue me. Consider flicks like The Goonies. Or Spy Kids. Or even the first Iron Eagle, for Pete’s sake. The dynamic helps to establish that family action feel, which director Frakes must’ve known was Thunderbirds‘ backbone. Even though all of the acting is Marxist (Groucho, that is) in style, you can’t shake that the solid bonds of family and friends will always help you ride out any storm. If only in real life that was so easy, but to quote Paul Simon: that’s why God made the movies. Jeff and his sons don’t take a second thought to go help Off-World John. Lady P and Parker waste no time in aiding their adopted Thunderbird family. Most of all the—dare I say—sweet father/son relationship that nerdy Brains has with his wunderkind Fermat. All that also assures you that no matter how much Jeff and Alan don’t see eye to eye you know all will be all right in the end. You know that, but the anticipation’s fun nonetheless. It’s a very minor league version of how Ron Howard built tension for his Apollo 13. We already knew the astronauts got home safely. It’s the thrill/mystery of that coming down. We know everything will be okay in the end with Thunderbirds. Just sit back and enjoy the ride already.

That means we gotta ride along with a very motley cast of players, some of whom seem violently out of place and all the better for it. I reiterate: not all movies are designed to win awards. Not even a Razzie. That being said, Thunderbirds received absolutely zero Nick Kids’ Choice Awards for acting (I checked. None). You must look at this snubbing within the proper context. The film is a silly, revisionist live action cartoon. Of course the cast is supposed to be ciphers, caricatures and over the top. It’s no surprise that the late, lamented Bill Paxton makes even the fluffiest of films great, but he’s more or less relegated to the sidelines for most of this ball of wax. I already mentioned the kids saving the day—when done right, and it wasn’t all bad here—was A-number one plot point here, and Brady and company do their best to keep its PG firmly in cheek. The trio are trademark nonentities; stereotypes the world over we recognize in any family flick. No more, no less. It works, though since the action is seamless and their patois is what you’d expect: teen insecurity against a serious matter. We’ve all been there and maybe still are. This crap works on a basal level, with nary a SAG nod to be seen. I repeat, just go with it.

As for the supporting cast, they all have their moments to shine, but five stars and a bouquet to Sir Ben Kingsley, Academy Award winner then and unashamed to ham it up now. You could see he truly had fun playing the bad guy/slumming it up here, a graduate of the Jim Kirk School of Drama and Scenery Chewing. His Hood smirks, cracks dopey one-liners, makes fun of his role and delighting in basically f*cking around. You want to be the antagonist in family film? Go for clownish and mustache-twirling spouting Shakespeare. Kingsley was the penultimate best thing about Thunderbirds, save Ron Cook’s Parker and he’s quite the other thing. Plus, Kingsley’s Hood wears a kimono! What else do you need?

Again, Thunderbirds‘ pacing falls right into the butter zone. The story bounces along at a friendly clip. No scenes heavy with drama or pithy monologues. No room for that claptrap. On a serious note, the movie was excellently framed, very efficient in telling the story where each scene of action was bookended by scheming how to escape this mess and get into the next. I heard that Star Trek alum Jon Frakes is regarded as such an economical director—most likely as his CV cites him for his TV direction experience over cinema—he earned the nickname “Two Takes Frakes.” I like that. It means he steers the movies along the swiftest current so the cast won’t get all fatigued. His work reflects this, as our cast never get overwrought and just keeps on being silly.

Right, so call this one a guilty pleasure. My girl’s a big Bill Paxton fan (yet she has never seen Weird Science. Hmm) and bought the disc off Amazon to watch it with me knowing I’m a big Bill Paxton fan. Too bad he didn’t get much screen time, but but I guessed his gung-ho Jeff Tracy schtick wouldn’t fit in well with the silliness of Thunderbirds. So there you have it.

Did I mention the silliness of the movie?

Oh, and by the way, the movie sure respected the TV show’s legacy. For a taste of the first original episode click here.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Again, did I mention the silliness part? You need this movie to kill some time. It’s very good at that.


The Musings…

  • “Who will rescue the rescuers?”
  • The opening credits are very clever. Almost like a primer for the uninformed.
  • The CGI holds up well here, especially since this is a cartoon.
  • “My Achilles’ heel is my Achilles’ heel!”
  • Very rousing score.
  • Lady P’s ride is a custom Ford Thunderbird. Get it?
  • “Fu-fu-fu-noo way!”
  • BTW, did the producers get any flak from the PC police for the stuttering?
  • “I did…”
  • That and The Hood’s psychic powers were never really explained away.
  • “You just can’t save everyone…”
  • Ron Cook looks like a ripe plum tomato ready to pop. Speaking of which…
  • “I love it when your checkered past becomes useful.” Lady P got the best lines.
  • Didja notice all the Tracy sons were named after astronauts (EG, Virgil was Gus Grissom’s real first name. John Glenn was the first astronaut to orbit Earth, not unlike John Tracy’s HALO in Thunderbird 5)?
  • “That’s quite enough losing for one day!”

The Next Time…

“Smash an hour glass, grab the sand, take his hands and cuff ’em,
Spin around to freeze the clock, take the hands of time and cuff ’em.
Cinderella Man…”

I’d like to believe that boxer James Braddock would’ve been an Eminem fan.


 

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.


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 95: Steven Norrington’s “The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen” (2003)



The Players…

Sean Connery, Shane West, Richard Roxburgh, Tony Curran, Peta Wilson, Stuart Townsend, Jason Flemyng and Naseeruddin Shah.


The Story…

Dateline: Europe, 1899. The United Kingdom in the now. The planet in the abstract. The world may be at war any day now. That is if the mysterious and dreaded terrorist known only as “Fantom” and his minions have their way.

It’s time to act. Under Her Majesty’s blessing, special agent “M” is marshaled into assembling a team, a league of heroes—and a few anti-heroes—of unique, exceptional and extraordinary  acumen to quash any notion of global conflict. To stop Fantom at any cost and bring him to justice.

But what to call this disparate, somewhat ragtag band of heroes? Hmm.


The Rant…

So when, when would he have gotten to this one? Rumor had it that is was such a juicy bite, right? Notoriously so.

A good question.

League was too easy, too obvious a target for one. Had to make my bones literally years back to decide what really was a mediocre movie and one that was just misunderstood. Consider that I started this whole mess back in 2013, when Marvel got their foothold in the movie biz, and then Disney (feeling threatened, as always) wanted in on the action. Then DC heroes got to the silver screen, and saving Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy the Distinguished Competition cinema with sketchy-at-best results. Still, with a relic like League already in the can going on 20 years we can at least tip a hat to the effort of we may have never seen Black Panther. Comic book movies are designed and demand to be seen in a big theater with THX, crystal clear pixelation and a wheelbarrow labored with popcorn. Lotsa popcorn. It takes a keen studio to get that kind of stand-and-deliver chutzpah. And even if League capsized back in ’03, give some props. Passive aggressive props, but acknowledgment for a job, well, done.

I was a multiplex guy back then. Lotta pressure. Back in the day I had at least 3 months to score the latest big deal flick at the local cinema. I recall in high school I got a “student discount” if I presented my high school card to the polite, tired girl at the box-office. Back in the early 90s you could get a big popcorn, small drink and precious few smirks from the bitter staff for around 5 bucks with that card. As long as you had that useless ID card outside the high school campus, cinematic wonders would abound. I was there every Friday with my low-life buddies.

Not just Fridays, mind you. Summertime soon arrived. Time to raid the theatre. Me and buds raped and pillaged that place for all its worth. Blockbusters? There. All the cinematic hullabaloo 90s Hollywood throw at us. The original Jurassic Park, Keanu becoming an action star in Speed. Running around with Forrest Gump. Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum thwarting aliens from vaporizing Earth in Independence Day. Feelin’ hakuna matata with Timon and Pumbaa (hey, they can’t all be grown-up movies). My buds and I? We liked ’em big. The movies, you dope (and yeah whatever). That list has some big titles, demanding the big screen, even Gump (recall the Vietnam chapter?). What cinephile doesn’t like splash and dash, cool fight scenes, crazy F/X and lame but well timed jokes. Hey, who doesn’t? And since only scant few comic book movies every graced the multiplex back then, we’d take what we could get for action heroes that five bucks could offer. Hell, back then a flick like League would have blown our minds and perhaps other body parts, too.

Erm, my best buds were all girls. Moving on.

Back to the future: I think it’s safe to say that League was year zero when the comic book action film met the conventional action movie audience. The review in Maxim hinted at that with sarcasm beyond my big yap can claim (and yes, I had a subscription. What do you read while on the john? Hemingway?). But yeah, yeah, yeah. I know what you’re thinking, regardless of that esteemed rag’s opinions. Rather: but blogger dude, what about the original Spider-Man movie? That dropped a year before League and Spidey was a blockbuster!

You’re right. It was. It was a great movie featuring everyone’s friendly, neighborhood arachnid hero. But that’s just it: everyone in Christendom knows who Spider-Man is. He’s Marvel’s biggest hero. Even if you never read his comics America en masse knows who Spider-Man is, so high-profile he be. Spidey’s story was a safe bet for Hollywood, and how right they were. They got big and nearly big name stars. They found the ideal director in quirk-tastic Sam Raimi. And the CGI was polished to a sheen (for 2002 anyway). In hindsight, the movie served as metaphor for the comic book movie dipping a toe in the sketchy waters of Tinsel Town’s grimy pool, and it paid off. It worked, so let’s open the floodgates. More comic movies, with more challenging stories! And more challenging characters even! Characters we can mold in our own image! Characters no one has never even heard of!

Slow down there.

It’s one thing to cull from the Spidey mythos to make an origin pic accessible to Middle America, and quite the other to tackle Alan Moore’s catalog. Herculean balls in fact. What was Fox thinking about besides its wallet?

Not much else. Ask Sean Hannity, if you dare.

And all did not go very well. At least that’s what the dailies said. And Rotten Tomatoes. And Agent 007 personally. Connery kinda retired after this, making League his swansong. Bummer. Was it that bad? I mean, James Bond never failed a mission (unless you include his girlfriend REDACTED at the end of Casino Royale), but this pastiche made Connery say, “I don’t think I’ll ever act again. I have so many wonderful memories, but those days are over.” That’s a direct quote. Sniff.

From what I gathered about Leaguebefore I sat down and watched it, that is—that down to brass tacks it was the first big cinematic turkey of the new century. The movie became saturated with notoriety as nothing but bombast and artifice, even for being an overt (very overt) popcorn flick. We ain’t talking’ Heaven’s Gate territory here. That infamous film took years to recoup its theatrical release losses against its rental and televised earnings. No. League only lost $12 million at box office to break even. That’s half the budget of most movies today.

WTF? What’s with all the crowing? League would never win Best Picture, even if that’s what Norrington’s aim was. That and the numbers do not reflect rental/streaming sales, so there. How come this flick became a high water mark in the early 00s as “don’t try this at home?” From my myopic view, a movie like League would’ve killed back in the nascent CGI days of 90s cinema. My pals and I caught the original Jurassic Park on opening night. Most of the fervor for me, my friends and doubtless the bodies queued up around the block were enticed by the promise of some new-fangled digital dinosaur action. If the adjacent theater was featuring an action movie where an art deco submarine was the set there would have two Sisyphusian (I just made that word up) lines, all with trembling tickets in there hands.

My point? I think I have one: You can’t be everything to everyone at the best time. So much being a busybody will only run you down, and as for moviegoers will disappoint. Taking risks is good, provided you a have a plan in place (and maybe a backup plan also). Creative license can be a good thing, provided you don’t take too many liberties. And a decent story works wonders against way too much digital F/X. I think League got stoned a la Shirley Jackson because the audience wanted more that the aforementioned splash and dash. To claim modern audiences are more sophisticated in their viewings is a canard. This would explain Adam Sandler’s success as a movie star.

No. The average movie joe likes shiny as much as the next crow, but when the vital basis for a good movie (eg: the script) gets mangled—especially an adaptation—it demands boo/hiss. Recall what I said about Moore redacting his credit from any movie project based on his books? Or Connery’s testament? Or even League‘s box office takeaway? Don’t try to con us, Hollyweird.

All around, ouch…


In a universe parallel to ours…

Literary heroes of our past are the real thing in this alternate present. And it will take some of these extraordinary explorers, fighters and scientists to unite and defeat a creeping evil bent on world war.

So what and why us?

On Her Majesty, Queen Victoria’s secret service, it falls to special agent “M” (Roxburgh) to round up the usual suspects and with crossed fingers mold a real team our of these disparate misfits and adherents to rid the planet of the nefarious and mysterious terrorist Fantom and his technically advanced army. So that’s what.

But why us? Because you are the best and brightest and most screwed up needed to protect our way of life, not just for Britain but for the entire planet.

People like you Allan Quatermain (Connery), rough and ready African hunter; agent Tom Sawyer (West), foreign agent from the Colonies; Nemo (Shah), captain of the high tech nuclear submarine, the Nautilus; Dr Henry Jekyll (Flemyng) and his monstrous alter ego Mt Hyde; the immortal Dorian Gray (Townshend); the stealthy Invisible Man (Curran), and Mina Harker (Wilson), bloodsucking vixen.

Does Fantom stand a chance of world domination against a league of such extraordinary heroes?

Perhaps, if they don’t kill each other first…


Back to our world…

Hey. You know how I like to skewer the actors as the first part of a review? In the immortal words of the late George HW Bush, “Not gonna do it.”

I have next to zero complaints with the acting in this movie. For real. No BS. The cast was great. Misused, but great! There was a chemistry, albeit a tad awkward. The cast really got into their roles, channeling the fictional, literary heroes as we might have read them. Chances are the cast did. They were a circus in the best possible way. I really loved West as Sawyer, devil-may-care and freewheeling like his novel analog, as well as Shah as Nemo, regal but not snooty and very sharp (and knows kung fu!).  It was also nice to see even at his advanced age Connery was still up an action role. But again, all misused. A shame.

Misused how? Journeyman director Norrington who had a rep for turning scraps into a viable story did not know what to do with a big budget. Kid in a candy store moment, hungry mouth dripping with gum disease. There’s champing at the bit, and there’s getting in over your head.

For those who don’t know, Norrington helmed the original Blade movie, and did a helluva job. He took a minor league Marvel character and made him a badass, vampire -slaying fool. Even the comics had to take notice as they retconned virtually everything attached their vampire hunter character of the 70s, including the hairstyle. Blade was a surprise hit. Not for the comic book appeal—as I far as I know, there was no such curiosity then in the slick 90s—but for the straightforward, simple, dynamic action flow aided by Wesley Snipes martial arts skills and dry wit. It was kinda the anti-Batman; Blade offing his victims not out of symbolic revenge, but from revenge plain and simple. A nice violent, bloody, kung fu drenched battle between kinda good and kinda evil. Custom made for the 90s crowd like I used to be a member of. It’s still one my go-to movies to watch when I don’t know what I want to watch. It never fails to disappoint.

So kudos for neophyte Norrington back in ’98. You delivered the goods and now the phone won’t quit buzzing, clogged with voicemails from Hollywood. Yer gonna be a hit, kid! Here’s a ludicrous budget. We got Alan Moore on board, as well as 007! We’re going to Africa.

*cue the Toto song. Weezer’s cover or the original, I don’t care*

Okay. Like with the casting I’m not gonna beat Norrington up. Blade was solid; he knew what to do and did it well. He was offered the keys to the kingdom and did his best. Referring back to his sophomore effort, as an early entry into the comic-as-movie device, his reminds me of an actual comic. Not a bad thing. These days if its not as realistic as possible, average comic movies fans quail and mope and return to their basements bedrooms in their parents’ homes.

For real, League has a pretty cool premise. Especially using the tried-and-true “alternate universe” template in S/F. Lotta clay to mold with. Alt-reality is fun, especially once you figure out its alt-reality. Figuring that out? That’s the fun part. The setup reads like that; takes you a few scenes (even beyond the 1899 fact) to get it, and then go along with the ride. It’s rather fun to watch the team form out, all these varied, disparate characters. Sure, been done before, but these goofs are so incongruent you have to ask yourself how can their mission succeed with all these mavericks? A promising start, right?

And also a portent: this was the first (and only) Alan Moore adaptation that credits him. After the dailies for League I can only guess why he pulled his name from the credits for his later cinematic projects. Dum dum dummm.

Anywho…

So this project was cursed. I could lay the fault at Norrington’s feet, but that wouldn’t be fair. Kid in a candy store, remember? What would you do with the legendary Connery et al with all those millions? Right. IHOP. Then filming, with this terribly amusing, eclectic cast that hit almost all the marks. Maybe all the storyboard targets spun too fast for Norrington, because his crew missed a crucial target: editing. Now allow me to crawl up mine own arse.

Hold on. Okay. Let’s put it this way: Any of you out there ever saw the first Star Trek movie? Better yet, the “Director’s Cut?” There was a possibly cool flick in dire need of an editor (perhaps an acting coach also but never mind). Even if you’re not a Trekkie like I am, there are quite a few parallel brain farts in directing that Norrington inadvertently followed after the esteemed Robert Wise took the helm of the big screen Enterprise. Indulge me, will you? Thanks.

It’s all about motion. Stories hinge on that. Pacing. Remember her, my precious cinema bitch? Some key writers in the American literary canon were and are adept at that. A few examples (of course personal)? Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, Charles Bukowski’s Ham On Rye, Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy and Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Say what needs to be said with economy and nothing further. Those books zoom past your eyeballs, and surprise you when you’ve finished. A lot of good movies work that way, too. League was not such a movie.

Back to the Star Trek: TMP analog. There’s an early scene where Scotty and Kirk are taking a shuttle to the refitted Enterprise. Its transporters are down, but that’s a semi-minor plot point. It was more of an excuse to declare lo and behold there’s the starship Enterprise on the big screen. Big as life! For about ten minutes. It took about ten minutes to complete this scene, with way too much time spent on the sexy ILM model giving fan service and Kirk and Scott arriving at the damned vessel. You can even see when the editors had to stretch it and for no reason. It got to yawn.

What was worse was this: on Star Trek: TOS the Enterprise was goin’ places. Due to the budget, jetting off to another crisis zone was implied with stock footage behind a cheap wall of stars that the Enterprise was on its way. Not unlike any other Trek TV/movie series. There are only two TOS episodes that required actual motion of the crew to move the plot along. Balance Of Terror, the best sci-fi submarine drama ever made, and The Ultimate Computer surrounding events of war games go awry. The rest of the other 78 eps? We be going places via your mind. Take the sugarcube. Let your imagination fill in the gaps using so much bread crumbs.

One more paragraph then we’re done. TMP was stagnant. Mostly because the new fangled Enterprise didn’t go anywhere. The warp drive was f*cked up until Spock fixed it, and when the Enterprise reached her quarry, they all got stuck again. Mired in the gullet of a biomech alien for the next two acts. The only time we got to see the new Enterprise zip off into the outer rims was within the last five minutes of the movie! And Kirk behaving like a dickhead for 2 and half hours! I am entitled to more popcorn, dammit.

Done. You get it. Now here’s me pulling the same punches with League:

The Nautilus crawling up the Venetian canals is a prime example. Long talks that serve no purpose is another. Too much exposition. Too much showing off the latest CGI chrome. Too many explosions paired against too much untrimmed fat. Too much tell, too little show. That is not how stories are told. It’s a crime. Show don’t tell like the Rush tune warned. You may have the coolest cast on hand, the best F/X money can buy, a very simple good vs evil plot on hand also. But to deliver a film—action sci-fi comic book whatsit or whatever—that wastes the audiences’ time? The aforementioned goes down the crapper. That’s what League got bogged down with. Too much down time. I understand being a comic geek that Moore’s work demands patience to digest everything. We have only two hours here; let’s point the grout with a lot of exposition…and slow…things…dooowwwnnn. Flipping such downside to the upside, though: it invites curiosity. Kinda like reading the fortune after you smashed and ate the cookie: what fun! Now what?

Act two. I think I now understand why League took such a drubbing at the box office: too much tell and not enough show. The lumbering and rather aimless plot only cradles action for action’s sake. Kinda like how the song-and-dance scenes in Mary Poppins Returns only bookend another rather aimless plot (but those scenes were awesome). Even if the most derivative and/or lame story has to follow a straight line. Even non linear stories (like Aronofsky’s The Fountain or Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction) have a thread to follow. Unless it’s an anthology film, plots should not wander. Break that rule and the audience’s attention will wander. Like I did with League. By act two I could not get what was going on. Blame lies in again too much exposition and wasted dialogue at that. I don’t care about our characters’ back story the third time around. Or describing things we can see on the screen. Or open monologue to explain what’s going on/what’s next. Where’s the mystery? Where’s the surprise? Where’s the tension and where is my Diet Coke? We need an editor.

*facepalm*

Okay. Now what?

This. The tech angle. The usual third act. All action films use backdrops as extras. Saharan dunes don’t need craft services. Nowadays CGI is paramount to creating a viable action film. Back in the Stone Age of ’03 we still had to go on location to set the pace. And by the way League’s sets are impressive. You could with your keen eye back then separate the pixels from the actual. The sets are nice, very nice. Grey’s library should’ve invited an Oscar nod. Too bad the intelligentsia with the bankroll doesn’t read.

Bitter? Nah.

Well, yeah, after taking in League. It helped to digest the mildly cartoony CGI by reminding myself League was cut in 2003. Cutting edge then, and held up pretty well. This was thanks mostly to Norrington’s tasteful hand at employing CGI F/X for emphasis, not run riot like the Star Wars prequels. Here’s a few examples I found very cool: the Invisible Man’s entry is stunning, heck, CGI or no and that literally painted on face was alien enough to drive the point home how warped he became. A gentle mad scientist and a warning to science. That was a gold star.

Dr Jekyll “hulking out” into Mr Hyde was kinda frightening. As it should be! I read the book. I saw John Malkovich get all twisted in Mary Reilly. The book was chilling. Malkovich’s performance was demented. Curran’s Hyde was…a monster, enhanced by tightly wound CGI metamorphosis. Curran behaving like a junkie, his serum calling to him, alluding to not knowing what might happen if he “Hydes out” again. That plot point I liked.

One more thing, though not related to F/X but relevant to our dramatic personae.

[Fair warning: the following contains fanboyism. You have been warned.]

The varied cast paints a picture, encapsulating the up-and-comers against an action film icon: 007 himself, Sean Connery. I love Connery. He’s probably my fave actor. Probably because he’s always be able to play tough but really is witty and a rapscallion. Towards his end of his turn as James Bond—he was getting bored of the role and didn’t want to get typecast—he decided to turn is his license to kill (what sane person would do that?) to look towards dramatic and comedic roles. Connery being protean only returned to an action role (007 no less) for Diamonds Are Forever because he and the studio disliked George Lazanby’s take as James Bond and he felt he had to mop up (the character and doubtless his bankroll).

Sean hung up proper Bond (Never Say Never Again doesn’t count. Even by Connery) in 1971 with Diamonds. Precious few action roles followed since, some good (The Untouchables, sadly his only Oscar), some notable (Outland), some weird (Zardoz), some silly (Entrapment), some decent (The Hunt For Red October), some culty (Highlander) and some poking fun at him (Indiana Jones And The Last Crudsade). That last nod is what brings us back to League. There were quite a few allusions—from Connery himself, not Quatermain—that he’s getting too old for this sh*t. I found that to be a passive but kind farewell to the spotlight, action or no. I’d like to think so. Connery came full circle and this was his last (live action) movie. He’s retired now, Sir Thomas. Good idea to bow out after this pastiche, but thanks for the ride. No shocker he was the tentpole for League.

Whew. Sorry.

So what have we learned? Well, I tend to ramble. That and a cool script executed with poor efficiency makes for a slog of an action film. Smart use of period CGI can make a difference. Alan Moore never lent his name to credits for movie adapts of his comics. Don’t ramble. League, though mildly entertaining as well as frustrating, was still oddly humorous, barely. It was mostly entertaining, though I had to change contacts after squinting down a cohesive plot. League was, overall, mostly interesting but wobbly on the entertaining angle. I guess in some way it was a vital literary history lesson.

That’s a cheap shot, I know. Recall my chosen myopia about 2003 CGI? I gave it a pass, and eventually acceptance. But the plot and actors? Spent. Blah. Damn. A shame. The Clash’s triple album Sandinista! reminds me of League. The album ran over 2 hrs, 30 mins. 28 songs. Only a fraction of them would be better spent on a tighter album. League might have scored better under the two hour mark. Less can always be more.

Ignoring old skool CGI.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A very mild rent it. Mentally trim the fat and there’s a fine actioner. Think too much about what you’re watching and hello aneurism. A few beers help. Like maybe nine. Go Cubs! (burp)


Stray Observations…

  • “Regale me.”
  • BTW, it’s Quatermain, not Quartermain. I’ve made the same mistake, too.
  • “Call me Ishmael, please.”
  • Impressive beard. Puts most Millennials to shame. Men included.
  • “If you don’t do it with one bullet, don’t do it at all.” Connery summing up the CV of every hitman.
  • Are Fantom’s goons proto-Nazis?
  • “I’m not much of a drinker.” Ha ha.
  • I don’t think the Venetian canals are that deep.
  • “He’s stolen us, and we let him.” That is a good line.
  • REDACTED as traitor? Did not see that coming. Really.
  • “We’ll be at this all day.” I wish.
  • Wasn’t that how Moriarty met his end in the last Sherlock story? Fall from a frozen cliff? Hmm.
  • “Then the game is on.”

Next Installment…

Topher Grace would love to ask Teresa Palmer, “Take Me Home Tonight.” But Anna Faris is standing next to him yakking so forget that.