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.


 

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RIORI Vol 3, Installment 92: George Noifi’s “The Adjustment Bureau” (2011)


TheAdjustmentBureau-PosterArt_CR


The Players…

Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Michael Kelly and Terence Stamp.


The Story…

Senator David Norris is on the fast track to politcal success. Dancer Elise Sellas is on the fast track to becoming the elite ballerina on the New York theatre circuit.

It’s not in the plan.

There’s a plan? Sure, David and Elise are destined to fall in love. But not that way.

There’s a plan. There’s always a plan.


The Rant…

“Just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean They aren’t out to get you.”

I’ve always appreciated that little witticism/message scrawled in ragged paint on a faux reclaimed wood panel sold in most Hallmark stores. It’s a curiosity, really if you think about it. I think it’s safe to claim that all of us at one time in our wretched, little lives that someone, maybe someones, hell even something is out to get us. Ruin our day. F*ck around with our credit score. Keying our car. Misspelling your name on that Starbuck’s venti latte (so that Mark gets your hot, foamy comfort rather than you, Matt). Dammit, someone’s out to get me. Rats.

That’s not to say I’m paranoid, it’s just that everyone is out to get me. Kidding (maybe).

Notice that I capitilzed “they” in the opening line. That’s not a typo, nor entirely accurate either. Pertaining to irrational fears of possible persecution, home invasion, wiretapping your kitchen, wiretapping your car, letter bombs stuffed with anthrax, the repo man, wiretapping yor dog, most of all that truck is nothing more than a product of a fevered imagination, maybe a result of brown acid. Or a binge watch of a Dennis Hopper movie marathon.

“I think, you want to know what I think? I think this is a crackpot idea!”

Thanks, Billy.

Paranoia is indeed crackpot thinking, like your meager life matters to humankind at large. Look in the mirror. Go on, go look. I’ll wait.

*sounds of sursurring Atlantic surf*

There. You ain’t special. You’re just another guy trying to make their way in the world, paying taxes, eating pizza and always on the hunt for the ideal parking spot. Like everyone else, even your kids. But on the other side of the coin it nags at you: there’s more than this, so why haven’t I found it? I’m so stressed. Is someone or something getting in my way?

Probably, like you being your own worst enemy and all those mistakes you made in college (like posting your kegstand skills on your LinkedIn profile. While doing a kegstand. Good times, good times, bad résumé). There may very well be a clutch of people who want to make things difficult for you based on your reputation and past bad decisions (read: kegstands). If so, maybe They’re just pissed you stole their parking spot. Being one’s own worst enemy can make Them a convenient excuse for your headaches. Or just plain confuse and/or derail your train of thought.

Face it. Some days it really does feel like the forces are collunding against you. Those bad days messed up with silly frustrations and epic fails alike. Traffic jam miles long on the highway when you’re on your way to that big interview and you can’t call ahead because either the reception is spotty or you failed to properly charge your phone from that all-nighter with Fortnight (and you with that big interview in the morning. For shame). All the coupons you collected for the market are either expired or for stuff the place doesn’t carry. That damned GrubHub delivery guy is clogging your spot again (after returning home to hop back on Indeed. That stupid Ethopian prince charity never panned out. Argh. Little bamboo shoots under the nails are these, and the pain can make you want to shake a fist at the sky. Don’t; it may start to rain. You hear what I’m screamin’?

All this musing on paranoia reminds me of a passage of a fave book of mine: Michael Crichton’s autibio Travels. Quit moaning. True the guy wrote potboilers, but they were very good potboilers (I heard even a few of his books were made into movies). Crichton’s travelogue covers his med school years, getting into writing and his world travels that informed a lot of his novels. Not surprisingly, his trademark frank writing about amazing things holds sway. Besides med school and globetrotting, there are a few paens to other odd situations he got himself into. Like him directing the film The Great Train Robbery starring Sean Connery. Like getting all psychedelic at the Institute Of Mentalphysics in the California desert by talking with a cactus (with, not to). Like the proper way to mentally bend spoons (it requires spirits, and neither of those). And like the time he had to consider his place in the realm of sexual politics.

Before I continue and although I’ve thoroughly enjoyed some of his books—Sphere jumps immediately to mind—I’ve found Crichton to be a very egotistical, sexist, racist writer. His frank technobabble style is so casual it almost reads like a science nerd’s thesis. You don’t understand? Well, haw haw, of course not and take my hand, you quark. Almost all his protags are white males, whose conflicts and foibles take many chapters to reveal. All females and non-whites’ flaws are out there all at once. Almost all his women are capable, but are strung up like Wonder Woman with her gauntlets welded together; impotent. Even in my pet Sphere, the antagonist may or may not be a black guy with an inferiority complex (no, that’s not a spoiler. I couldn’t really figure it out myself). Now, if you can get beyond all that happy crappy, Crichton’s stories are ultimately rewarding, if only with a sour taste in your brain.

Hang on. This is a parable about paranoia. I eventully get somewhere, right? Right? Anyway.

In his Travels, Crichton penned a chapter ominously titled “They.” Sounded like a script for a 1950s s/f B-movie. At first it read like Crichton, recently single, him having trouble making the scene again, naive since being out of the dating game for so long. It was the 1980s, fast to work and late to bed. Our esteemed writer felt truly wide of the mark, even when he managed to score some tail. He claimed to learn then that woman were following the design (albeit with yet to be processed Red Bull) institued by males back when Mike was…male.

The chapter spoke about guys in the 1980s trying to catch up with the career minded women who wanted it fast and quick rather than time consuming courting. It read all very sexist, like males were incapable of recognizing their emotional needs, and they  had it all together. The whole chapter read like a scared man who failed to try and understand female needs. He summed his experiences up with an inability to keep up with this “new kind of woman.” That being the career-driven, freewheeling and often “macho” kind of female that for good or for ill—in Crichton’s view—are climbing all over the early-80s social scene. And him getting lost in the shuffle.

Nonetheless it’s a thoughtful piece, “They.” Not necessarily a paranoid caution, but something to give one pause. I’m not talking about shoulder pads, feathered hair and lugging around an Osborne “laptop” on the way to the shareholders’ meeting who won’t give a nice guy a second glance circa 1984.  No. It’s about becoming vaugely aware that there might be a section of society at large that may indeed be scoping you out, sizing you up and maybe just plain getting in your way.

To paraphrase Hugh Jackman in Swordfish: “Stop f*cking up my chi.”

(Go with me here. I’m rolling.)

The curious thing about feeling paranoid, no matter who your They are, it’s never truly about They are “out to get you.” Get you. Okay, how? I barely get myself sometimes. Some nameless, faceless cabal are out to f*ck up your life because they don’t get you? They don’t even know you. All They might do—if They indeed are truly laying in wait to jam their SUV into your usual/infrequent parking spot bearing bags from Chipotle—is interfere. Mess up your schedule. F*ck with your system. Make you question sh*t you’re usually pretty sure about, like it being impossible to wiretap a Corgi. All that jumping. Really? They don’t know you.

Or do They? When the world feels like its conspiring against you, how come it feels so damned personal? So f*cking specific? Lightning struck thrice. Again with the fist. It makes a rational person begin to question the very fabric of their reality. He or she may not be paranoid, but dammit there sure are times when They might be creeping at your doorstep. Rearraging your sh*t. Shuffling up your well laid plans. Your routine getting shifted. Your familiar patterns get all out of order.

Sometimes, sometimes, such things being so out of order at times you—a normally rational person—wonder if some They is treating your daily affairs like a game of Yahtzee.

“Paranoia: you only have to be right once to make it all worthwhile…”


Politics is a dirty business, so it has been said. Makes strange bedfellows, too I’ve heard. Cliches aside, when one gets into the public eye goodbye privacy, hello microscope. You get to be a scion of virtue, too. At least to an adoring crowd.

Senator David Norris (Damon) knows this. He also knows how to politick. Using his “local guy from Red Hook” persona, Norris drums up the average New Yorkers into cheers and possible votes. He’s on the fast track, until some dirty laundry from his college days (inexplicably) comes back to haunt him, and may destroy his political career. Where’d that come from?

David’s fortunes seem to change meeting up with an aspiring dancer, Elise Sellas (Blunt). She’s lovely, vivacious and just the kind of girl David needs to be with to get both his head together and well as his frustrated heart. Elise comes and goes like the wind, and if it wasn’t for a fateful bus ride David may have never seen Elise again.

Well, that was how it was supposed to be.

David quickly learns that not everything a matter of chance. The sudden dirt a while back, once thought dead and buried? Elise meeting him in the mens’ room at one of his big deal speechs? Harry (Mackie) metaphorically falling asleep “at the wheel” and spilling the wrong coffee?

Strange things are afoot for David, and it all began by being on time. For some future…


This was different for me. In many ways.

I didn’t know at the outset that Bureau was based on a Philip K Dick story. Dick was a legendary s/f writer. I even read a few of his stories, and saw all of the movies based on his works. The list is short, but telling. Granted his name isn’t household regarding film adaptions like, say, Stephen King, Harry Potter or 3/4 of the Marvel titles out there, including those yet to written. Still, the fact that any of Dick’s esoteric s/f stories got the Hollywood treatment surprises me.

I say telling because most, if not all of Dick’s library regard reading it requires scratching one’s head into psoriasis. His isn’t casual s/f, and barely user friendly. Yet their adaptations into film usually work well (I credit the directors). I’ve seen Blade Runner (fave go-to film and duh), Total Recall (the first one. Can’t believe I have to quantify that), Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly (an early installment here at RIORI, and not a good one) and Bureau. So when I finally discovered Dick posthumously wrote the screenplay, I was like: “Oh. Okay.” Found this out after a 24 hour pause then on with the second act. The film made a lot more sense. Not in story, but in execution. Here’s what we got back from the lab:

Real quick. I feel it worth mentioning that Dick was a writer who was always asking questions. Primarily his muse was always demanding of him, “What is reality?” I also feel it worth mentioning Dick was a paranoiac, speedfreak and riddled with phobias (eg: he could eat in front of other people. Guess ol’ Phil wasn’t much of a “foodie”) that no doubt informed his work. All of his adapts have taken his musings to heart; from Blade Runner to Bureau, Dick’s films love to blur the edges about what you see is what you see. Now activate the esper machine, please.

Bureau is no different. The very slight undercurrent of paranoia looms large here. To think there is some omniscient team regulating reality, well that’s all about They, isn’t it? I say undercurrent for this film is pretty low-key for a s/f thriller. We got no Tom Cruise juggling balls here, literally or metaphorically. No. We have Damon’s scales fall from his eyes about how the “real world” works and off he goes, back to work and stalking Blunt again. In another movie of this ilk there’d be some drop and panic. Some all-powerful entity pulling humanity’s puppet strings to some end—good or evil, who knows?—might just give pause to the protag who stumbled on to such machinations.

With Bureau? Nope. This is an odd combo of mystery and rom-com, minus the com part. Heck, the hottest moments don’t start coming until well into the second act. Most of the time we’re wondering what’s so special about David that the Bureau takes interest in his career and nascent relationship with Elise. And what’s so special about Elise that also caught the eye of the men in the hats. We’re mostly left to scratching our heads, with no real answers in sight. If they ever come.

Not to say that Bureau is some sort of canard. The jagged story is engaging, but it requires patience. Meaning there was me, with furrowed brows and “What am I watching here?” bouncing around my brainpan. Any suspense in Bureau is created by the looming undertow of paranoia, psychology and passive aggression. All of it. All decent suspense films like to play with your head. Bureau decidedly does not play with your head, and that gets unsettling. Especially when our heroes go back to life as usual after being exposed to the real reality. After digesting all the craftiness the Bureau employs to keep reality on the straight and narrow, our pawns carrying on with their existence (a manipulated one) feels very…weird. Unsettling. The abnormal is the new normal, so don’t behave abnormally, David.

About Damon. After all these years I’ve never warmed up to his smarm. Most his memorable roles required him to be a callow youth (even into his late 30s. Ever see The Departed? Kinda distracting) against near insurmountable cinematic goobley-gook. Portraying a salt-of-the-earth politician, job requirements are lip service and charming the public? Smarm works here. And what is smarm but the behavior of a repentant assh*le? Well, assh*le may be a bit much regarding David’s everyday conduct, but said conduct is endearing when couched in insecurity. David’s whole world has gone all topsy-turvy, and believes (correctly) that forces are colluding against him. When all that artifice gets stripped away he is exposed. Naked. Volitile. Scared. Damon’s smarminess becomes the ideal gateway to earn the audiences sympathy. Clever. The same thing didn’t work in The Departed, remember? Sure different kind of movie, but same Damon. Turning Matt on his ear was a good thing, otherwise I’d keep replaying the scene where the Agents were slapping him around. Hell, after sitting through Good Will Hunting one too many times I’d be first in line to slap that smug grin off his puss.

I wasn’t familiar with Emily Blunt’s work prior to Bureau, but she earned me as a fan here (enough to be charged to see Mary Poppins Returns this Xmas. It was awesome, BTW). It’s always a treat to discover an actress who can pull of smart and sweet in the same breath. Such characters are so rare it takes and obscure Dick adapt to present one. Her steely Elise was the perfect foil to Damon’s overgrown gamin grin. Good chemistry, and I think the casting director earned their stripes pitting these two against each other. Granted their fractured relationship is the Maguffin here, front and center, but there was enough nuauce to let us know not all is as it seems, let alone theirs is just a fling. It’s the lurking paranoia again. Coincidences don’t just happen in David’s world. They are structured, and flinty Elise is the fulcrum on which David’s world now balances.

Sounds like heavy sh*t, right? Considering the source material and the whole “They are out to get you” stance, you may be right. Me? Wasn’t so sure. For such dire sequences to happen for the Bureau, there’s a kind of light-heartedness to the whole affair. So the speak. I took some patience, but I eventually realized that Bureau managed to (just barely) deftly blurred romance against s/f. Right, it was without the -com; precious little humor lurking within this grey movie. But in the final act we got the “love conquers everything” without the schmatlz and sniffles. That there’s a fluffy trifle, but for a Dick script? That’s…well, heavy. Overall I dug that.

Mackie is fast becoming a fave actor of mine. His Harry sets the wheels in motion, and across the film he’s the only emotional construct of the Bureau. He’s the canary in the coalmine, chirping about danger. A metaphysical babelfish, alluding to all that the Norris matter isn’t so simple by keeping him and Elise apart. Mackie is adept at using his body at converying emotion, especially his eyes. His is all so subtle, you’re not sure what you’re watching until you do. I know that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and it’s probably all about believing it when you see it, but as the painter Frank Stella once said, “What you see is what you see” (that’s an eponym from Travels. See? Full circle).

I was gonna talk about the tech side of Bureau (I dug the camera work), but that’s seconadry stuff, better suited for a Cameron tech splash. No. The only machine at work here in Bureau was…um. Okay. Ever seen a movie that was creepy yet not? The creepiness factor here is made known by making the abstract plot so…so rationalBureau is supposed to be high concept s/f, but picking at the scab of paranoia that haunts all of us? There is someone not only out to get you, but to lead you lemming-like to your ulimate fate? Feels that way sometimes, right? If not often. And chances are you won’t earn your audience back and Emily Blunt chose the ladies’ room.

I think this intallment has been one of my better ones. Sometimes laying off the snark and jokes makes it easier to explain what I got out of a film and maybe you, too. But it’s not like I’m directing you to watch Bureau. I’ll advise, but never demand, control you to watch a film I broke down here at RIORIB.

*cue Black Sabbath riff*


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It takes time and attention to get going, but once Bureau does, you’re going to watch it again to break it down. And again. And again. And…


Stray Observations…

  • “This is the job.”
  • Men in fedoras in the 21st Century. Never a good sign.
  • “You’re bald.” Damon’s characters have always been good at busting balls. It’s disarming.
  • Why does it seem that would-be politicians running for office are often undone by past impetuousness of a long ago youth? Judge Kavanaugh, I’m looking at you.
  • “I just felt like someone was watching us.”
  • She was barefoot in the mens’ room?!? Gross!
  • “You matter, David. You really can.”
  • Editing blooper: Damon’s model of smartphone switches back and forth on the bus ride. Call me dork.
  • “That is…totally unexpected.”

Next Installment…

Bruce Willis wonders where The Kid in him went. Good thing a screechy Spencer Breslin appears to answer and horrify him. Where’s the dog?


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



The Players…

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


The Story…

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

They get more than they bargain for.

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

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

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


The Rant…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Trek-Con!

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

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

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

And the stars. The real reason why we came.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, young man?”

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

(laughs from the acne-ridden peanut gallery)

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

(boos from the zits)

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

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

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

(groans)

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

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

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

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

“Mr Burton, can I have your autograph?

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

“Well, could you sign this?”

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

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

“…Lucas.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We never saw him smile. Let alone laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again the grin, again the frown.

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

“Do me the honor?”

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

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

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

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


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

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

His name is Paul (Rogen).

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…There’s bullet holes in it.”

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

“Those look like cordite burns.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or watching reruns of Black Books.

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

Geek.


The Verdict…

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


Stray Observations…

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

Next Installment…

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


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 69: Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” (2006)



The Players…

Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, with Ellen Burstyn, Mark Margolis, Stephen McHattie, Cliff Curtis and Sean Patrick Thomas.


The Story…

Across a millennium, a simple man searches for an eternal life. From a 16th Century Spanish conquistador serving to save his queen to a 21st Century forensic oncologist seeking a cure for his wife’s cancer to across the Universe as a 26th-century wanderer of the cosmos.

In quaint terms, he’s on an odyssey. But for this well beyond space and time.

It’s for love.

How far would you go?


The Rant…

I think about mortality a lot. I’m human. It’s what I do.

Our days are numbered. If you take a breath and think about it: what did I do today? Was it worthwhile, meaningful? Was another punch in the timeclock any closer to finding fulfillment? Was that smoke break really worth the ten minutes? Five minutes?

*cough*

Not really. Not at all. The days are numbered, and what went down today went down permanently. We’re all gonna go one day. How we get there is courtesy of time, nature and self-destructive tendencies. We’d all like to die in our sleep. Most of us seek out a metaphorical car crash. It’s all only a matter of time, and time always, always catches up with the lot of us.

Okay, all right. I know I touched upon this downbeat feeling back with the Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World installment. Yeah, bummer. Best way to earn more subscribers, like introducing to an unwitting crowd the Wii U, New Coke or Gary Cherone fronting Van Halen (Christ, that dates me). Y’all don’t need anymore reminding that we’re all just a-passin’ through. Life’s short, as it goes, so you better take advantage of all the cool sh*t life has to offer you, like chocolate, thumbs and the Switch. Have fun while it lasts.

That being said, I’m now gonna twist that sentiment around in the spirit of this week’s film. The opposite. The age-old fantasy: immortality. To live forever.

Imagine the possibilities, Highlander. Never dying, being an everlasting witness to history. Wander the world, explore, experience all—and I mean all—of life’s comedies and tragedies. And never growing older, either. All the BBQ you could stomach. Playing Gears Of War 5437 in your head. I mean literally in your head thanks to that cybernetic uplink. Visit the Mars Colony for the ultimate tanning bed. And watch that bank account mature there, boy-o.

Of course, no one really contemplates the downside of immortality. For one, after you’ve travelled the Seven Seas seven hundred times over, the novelty wears thin (probably after the hundredth time over). Boredom sets in, and you with all the time in the universe. It’s akin to some blurb I caught from some no-name movie (surprise). A kid supposes that if some comic book super-villian did conquer the world, then what? Set up some real estate agency?

Same with the whole immortality deal. Great. Eternal life. Time enough at last and throw the glasses to the sidewalk. Now what? The travel thing would indeed get dull after a while. So would all that reading, movies, YouTube and tweets. You can only look at so many kooky kitty videos before you start hacking up bezoars yerself. And a lost library book would destroy your credit history forever. Noodle that one.

Another thing: relationships. Friends. Sure, you’re here on Earth until the sun goes nova, but everyone you’ve ever met will be long gone by then. You grow lonely in a massive crowd, feeling like an Edward Hopper painting. There was clever movie released a while back called The Man From Earth based on sci-fi great Jerome Bixby’s story (he’s the guy that penned the mirror universe ep of the original Star Trek where we all learned goateed Vulcans are logically evil). It highlights another unique dilemma for being immortal: not leaving a trail. In the flick our protagonist, one Prof Oldman (get it?) purports to be thousands of years old to his closest friends. You get around across millennia you’re bound to leave some footprints. There’s only so many places you can “hide” (even across the Seven Seas). Someone’s gonna get wise to something like, “Hey, how come our good buddy the professor still looks thirty-five twenty years after his fortieth birthday?” Or something like that. Being immortal must get hella lonesome, especially when it means you gotta haul up stakes pretty often to avoid the prying eyes of the men in white coats (who may either be nosy scientists or the guys with the thorazine). Being a fugitive is no fun. Ask Dr Kimble.

And romance? Love? Forget it. For all its delicious campy cheesiness the original Highlander made a good point of rejecting love if you’re immortal (or maybe it was just Connery delivering the lines) because it’ll just shatter you in the end. Your love’s end. Consider all your beloved relationships—family and friends alike—as a constant reminder in the back of your head that your eternal time on this plane is just a series of funerals waiting to happen. You go on, they don’t. Even harder as I said when it concerns a romantic interest. For most finding the right partner is both a virtue and birthright to all thinking people. Hell, even the ones that don’t think and would’ve voted for Trump anyway (zing!).

Truth be told, I don’t think living forever is worth the trouble. Especially if it means never fully creating a solid link with anyone. Like I said, they go and you go on. And on. And on and on and on.

What you need is that special one, if such an individual exists. That special someone who makes you live. Truly live. Who’ll go on and on with you. Not necessarily immortal, but the feelings that stir your lonely soul keep you going on and on. The seas are in the doldrums. You’ve encountered too many curious people. You’re without a country. But that special other? Ah, that is something to really live for. And screw the bank account.

All it takes, you learn, is to find the right place to search…


The Kingdom of Spain in under siege. Not by some invading army, but insurrection. The Inquisition is bent on weeding out any suspected heretics from desecrating the Church and all it stands for. At all costs.

Tomás (Jackman) and his fellow conquistadors have been tasked by Queen Isabella (Weisz) on a perilous quest at her behest. She has taken hiding within a spiritual stronghold, a monastery, plotting a dire, yet benevolent scheme to free Spain from the Inquisition’s wrath. She has learned of a legend in far off New Spain. A story of a fabled Tree Of Life, which any who would taste the mystic sap would live forever. A demonstration of such wonder would show her chained subjects that there is no such thing as Death. Only endless Rebirth, like the true Good Book promises.

Tomás and his colleagues travel to points West in search of the Tree. But the native Maya are hostile and very reluctant to have Outlanders dare suckle at this divine fountainhead. Tomás is wounded in battle, and now the Tree is his only hope of both survival and rescuing his beloved Queen and country…

Tommy (Jackman) is a brilliant and maverick oncologist. He’s onto a theory of applying holistic medicine in destroying cancer cells with chimps as his test subjects. At first his scientific endeavors are regarded as both flights of fancy and terribly unconventional, not to mention motivated beyond medical understanding.

The naysayers would be correct. Tommy’s wife Izzi (Weisz) is dying of brain cancer. If Tommy could peg the proper mixture, perhaps he could save her. He tries a sample of some unique resin from a rare tree that only grows in one part of South America on a fresh chimp. Within days, its cancer is in immediate regression. Better! After a follow-up examination, the primate’s cancer is completely gone! Izzi may now have a chance…

Lonesome cosmic traveller Tom-Creo (Jackman) has been put to task under his own mission to ensure the Tree Of Life has safe passage to the legendary nebula where creation and extinction converge. If they arrive, his lost love Iz-Creo (Weisz) may be born anew. However it will take an incredible amount of spiritual stamina and never forgetting to ensure the Tree makes it home. Again…

The Kingdom of Spain in under siege. Not by some invading army, but insurrection. The Inquisition is bent on weeding out any suspected heretics from desecrating the Church and all it stands for. At all costs.

Tomás (Jackman) and his fellow conquistadors have been tasked by Queen Isabella (Weisz) on a perilous quest…


Believe it or don’t, The Fountain is director Aronofsky’s most accessible picture. Pi was a critically darling mindwarp, and Requiem For A Dream was so f*cking harrowing (but good) that I’d never want to watch it again. Maybe not even Cubby, either. His viewing might’ve been the culprit in his demise. Damned evil carnivorous fridge.

Against his other two disgustingly esoteric, abstract films Fountain has a precious thing the other two lack: beauty. And in spite of all the time hopping, that and its very non-linear storytelling Fountain ultimately makes…sense, if only resulting in a groundswell of human emotions. Most of them positive, warm and fuzzy. Sure, Requiem made sense (e.g.: don’t do drugs), but was delivered in such a belt-sander-to-your-testicles way you’d never want to make sense of it again. Ever. Damned evil carnivorous fridge.

But yes, beauty. Alluded above Aronofsky’s films are angular and not warm. They hatefully challenge you, with often well reward. Fountain had a similar vein but with a warm, gooey center. Not saccharine, mind you, but unlike his first two films Fountain is inviting, not coercive. Sure, it’s still trademarked angular, and the non-linear plot may screw with perception, but there is a frickin’ warmth here that was sorely lacking in his other films. Probably because movies revolving around mathematics and drug abuse don’t really invite warmth. Been there, seen that.

Something to consider with viewing The Fountain is this: the (very) non-linear storyline. I’ve read somewhere that the old saw is that folks who don’t appreciate abstract art won’t like non-linear stories. I feel non-linear movie storytelling is, at its core, and educated risk. It requires a director’s faith in a curious, patient audience (which are damned hard to come by these days). I claim “educated” in reference to a healthy ego of a daring—if not left-of-center—filmmaker that if they cut it, and cut it just right, the proper audience will be in attendance. This usually guarantees lousy ticket sales, but that was never really the goal. The point was assuming a calculated risk of sharing an idea, a vision on the proper people whose heads wouldn’t hurt much by being entertained in such a fashion.

*burp*

That was deep. Then again, so was The Fountain. But not in some Sartre-esque, existential quarry down the rabbit hole kind of way. Okay, a bit. But not really. Non-linear, remember?

The only linear, unwavering theme of the movie was the sense of dedication. Commitment. Sure, the love thing was there, easily relatable. However over the course of the film’s millennium the one true, direct motivation for Jackman’s and Weisz’ relationship to revolve around—the axis—was an undying commitment to maintain their relationship. Look, you don’t have to be “in love” to keep your loved ones close. You just wanna be there for them when A) you very much care about their well-being, and/or: B) you just want to make sure they’re safe from harm. Come to think of it, that might be the reason for the NRA’s being. Shudder and moving on.

Thanks to the clean, unpretentious acting from the Wolverine and Dr Evelyn Carnarvon it was obvious to understand such. This was cool. Here in the States, our Aussie and Brit are best known for roles in action films (I know, I know. Weisz was merely introduced to us Yanks cleanly with 1999’s The Mummy, but it was a decent hello all the same. Led to her starring in films like this one). Both have some charm here. Yes, there are harrowing, marrowing bones thrown about to keep the Aronofsky edge there, if only on the fringe. But I also smelled an intellectual bent; some sort of “open your mind, Quaid” feeling. Also, something told me that Aronofsky’s cast gave themselves wholly and completely to his direction. Come, take my hand.

Jackman gets to shine here, even without song and dance. Another despite: despite Jackman being familiar to millions as an action guy in the States, he’s best know Down Under as literally a song and dance man. Musical theatre. I think I caught a glimpse of his dancing talent as Conan’s guest. Guy could kick. You’d never figure him for a guy with adamantium claws and a hair trigger. Nor would you here. There’s that intensity he’s known for, but with Fountain the better term is driven. It’s this drive to save Izzi that…well, drives the story. We get that this is a love story, no matter how esoteric that thing is, but the motivation behind it here is delivered so well by Jackman in his multiple roles. He’s always determined, always honest and always knows he’s against the clock. His multi-Tom role is dappled with ego, fragility, grief and that all-important determination. And not in just saving Izzi, but saving himself as well. From what? Dealing with loss, which we all eventually in varying points of “success.” Jackman’s shining, squinty eyes speak volumes, as well as the crack-ups off screen, so to speak.

I think I figured out what the key theme of Fountain was thanks to Jackman: that commitment thing. Right, love’s easier to digest, despite how abstract a concept that can be. It’s more than who gets to hold the remote. Commitment is underrated against love in the abstract, and Aronofsky chose to give his spin. If you care about somebody, and they need your help, you do your best to try. Perhaps against all odds, but you’ll take the time to try and maybe succeed. Not as sexy as love, but perhaps more endearing than a peck on the cheek or scattered sheets to tuck back in the next morning.

In the end run, however, I think we all want to tuck those sheets back in with hopes they’ll be unfurled again tomorrow night. It might go on. It will go on. Like Tom and Izzi are deemed to go on and on and on throughout the film. Such a view is terribly engaging. Commitment leads to hope, and hope may lead to commitment. The odd cycle of events in Fountain kinda reflects that, I think. But what do I know? The divorce papers haven’t been served yet and I’ve never been to South America.

It’s all really engaging here, especially since Aronofsky isn’t trying to beat our heads in over his latest project. By the by, was Fountain his attempt at a summer blockbuster? Sure, it dropped in late November, but had all the hallmarks due for a Memorial Day release. I think I got this impression based on how BIG the world(s) of Fountain was. We had elements of proto-swashbuckling, Crichton-esque science not-ready-to-but-may-run-amok and celestial exploration. Such sh*t screams for popcorn in a multiplex in a 90 degree-plus soaked July Saturday afternoon. Why this was no the case was an idyll I scribbled down in my notes: “This movie placed me into a philosophical mood.” Such twaddle is DOA at the box office around the Fabulous 4th, yet somehow is welcome towards the end of the cinematic year.

What’s up with that? The Fountain was not any semblance of shoo-in for the Oscars. Sure, it had symbolism aplenty gone wonderfully awry, which is kittens lapping at the saucer for the Academy. It was what I dubbed “automatically stylish,” which such an idea should on the flip side inform the palsied Academy, “Hey, check this out…” It was well-crafted, intriguing and deep in the best sense without pretense. Best of all: no damned evil carnivorous fridges.

It was lovely. Beautiful. And thanks to the script and acting, accessible. An adverb and two adjectives I’ll bet Aronofsky never considered prior to this film. We may have squirmed with praise about a number that has no end and witnessing meatball surgery on Jared Leto, but with Fountain we should squirm with delight and awe.

Good work here. And I reiterate, one of my fave paintings is Dali’s The Temptation Of Saint Anthony. Kinda abstract.

Believe it or don’t, The Fountain is director Aronofsky’s most accessible picture…


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s great, if you make the commitment. And the time. Get it? The time? I’m so clever and obnoxious.


Stray Observations…

  • “I just need to dig a little.”
  • A bald Jackman does a Kain make. Get it? “Cain?” Oh, whaddya know from witty?
  • Hwoo… Is he dead?”
  • It’s amazing how a sense of relief cascades.
  • Couldn’t help but feel that Jackman’s portrayal of a conquistador was spot on, if only by Hollywood standards. Hugh’s was of good standard.
  • Aronofksy crammed a lot into a mere 90 minutes. It felt miles long. This is a good thing.
  • “There’s time. We have time.”
  • Mark Margolis was a character actor I’ve adored without never learning his name. Until now. Thanks, Darren.
  • Aronofsky’s pulling a Shyamalan here. In a good way, don’t sweat.
  • “I’m here…for her.”
  • I penned this scribe with my left hand in a brace. How’s the penmanship? I’m a righty, BTW.

Next Installment…

If LiLo has to abide by another, obnoxious Georgia Rule she’s gonna lose her sh*t. And her career. And her sobriety. And…


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 59: Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys And Aliens” (2011)


Cowboys & Aliens


The Players…

Daniel “James Bond” Craig, Harrison “Han Solo” Ford, Olivia “that hot chick from House” Wilde, Sam “Justin Hammer of SHIELD” Rockwell and Clancy “Mr Krabbs and/or Kurgen” Brown, with Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, Adam Beach, Noah Ringer and Abigail Spencer.


The Story…

An amnesiac gunslinger stumbles into the Wild West town of Absolution, where he’s confronted by two potent adversaries. One is Boss Dolarhyde, a ruthless cattle baron who holds the town in sway, and God help anyone who crosses him or his family.

The other is invading aliens from outer space.

Wait, what?


The Rant…

Me and sci-fi movies have been buddies for decades. Ever since I caught ET back when I was six in the theatre I felt the nip and took its hand. It’s regarded as a classic now, but back then it was a gamble for both Spielberg and an S/F crowd raised on nasty aliens bent on world domination. Now Steve struck a poignant nerve with his prior S/F epic, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. That flick illustrated that Spielberg knew a thing or three about aliens being messengers of benevolence, fostering communication between worlds for the greater good. Only Robert Wise’s classic The Day The Earth Stood Still topped Encounters when it came to addressing such a concept.

Smart stuff.

ET wasn’t much different than Encounters, if not in execution than in tone. Also about communication and understanding ET was a lot less heady than Encounters, and perhaps more accessible to the mainstream. That may explain why back in ’82 ticket takers at the local megaplex had to wear riot gear for fear of getting trampled by overly eager crowds to see if the alien critter got home (to say nothing of Reeses’ Pieces sales at concessions). The crowds in the early 80s dug S/F flicks, a genre once maligned as being puerile at best and mouth-breathing at worst. But thanks to Star Wars: A New Hope, folks came in droves to S/F movies, appetites whetted by not only Hope (or simply Star Wars back then, before Lucas went bonkers), the aforementioned Encounters, the gothic, terrifying Alien, technically the original Superman film (Kal-El was from off-world y’know), Disney’s first PG film, the dark and sinister The Black HoleStar Trek made it to the big screen—for good and for ill. My kingdom for an editor—and heck, even 007 went into space with the loveably goofy Moonraker. Virtually all of these ventures, big and not so big alike, had success with the whole ticket sales thing. Some even got a little critical notice. It looked like for the most part S/F movies were getting their due. The geeky shadow they cast (barring 2001: A Space Odyssey. That one always gets a pass. Do not dispute me) wasn’t so scary as before. Believe it or not, although ET was the culmination of S/F movies as thoughtful and smart, Hollywood (still) wasn’t convinced of it not being a turkey. Unsure if the muddled masses could take in the story of a castaway alien “so ugly it’s cute” stranded in Levittown with his pet/guru human. Word has it the whole wad worked, quite well, and kicked John Carpenter’s sharp remake of The Thing—you know, the one with the vile, shapeshifting, un-cute alien that engulfed its victims and assumed their identities in an arterial spray of gore and puke. Good sh*t—out of the multiplex faster than you could say, “I thought you were dead.”

All of that smart stuff.

And when S/F is thoughtful and smart, we’re best buds. Thick as thieves. Pick my brain and stretch my imagination, please, cute and not cute critters regardless. Although I’m rather choosy about what S/F movie I feel like subjecting myself to, truth be told it’s always been like how RIORI operates: a gamble. There are those films that are required viewing in the genre, unimpeachable without a roll of the dice. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Forbidden Planet, Star Wars: A New Hope, Planet Of The Apes (sans Marky Mark), The Day The Earth Stood Still (minus Keanu), Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (excluding that wiry chick from Burn Notice/Scent Of A Woman, whichever you saw first), etc. There are scores more we could name, and despite the arched brow the masses often give the genre, it’s been a popular if not profitable one for over a century. A good example? Remember Voyage To The Moon? ‘Course not. You were barely an itch in your granddady’s crotch, but that novelty was technically a sci-fi flick. With pretty cool costumes for the time. 1902 to be exact. Film dork me.

Just being a smart-ass there. Breathe.

However did you notice that a few selections of the new wave of S/F flicks back then didn’t really cut the mustard in the “smart” department? It’s like the whole Highlights For Children “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” feature. One of these things is not like the other. No one could argue that Moonraker was intelligent, nor The Black Hole being a thinly veiled Biblical morality tale featuring obnoxiously cute robots with Disney eyes to boot. And Star Trek‘s leap into the void? Three words: creaky and dull. Hey, you can’t always shoot for the stars and not expect to miss the sun. Your shot may end up in a black hole. Sorry.

Let’s face it. Despite all the boundary breaking from back in ’82 my film buddy—how can I say this without have the ACLU come down on me like a ton of bricks for being “insensitive”—often rides the short bus. For every sharp S/F flick out there dozens—maybe hundreds—of wampa dung lurking in the shadows waiting to malign the genre ever further. Such may lay claim to some whiz-bang, crazy F/X, improbability factor looming large and just can’t wait to be committed to celluloid and be just plain dumb. I suspect a lot of directors who get handed the reigns to an S/F script assume all bets are off.  The wild flying monkeys trapped in my brain will finally have their voices heard! Call Scarlett!

Such bets often are off. Way off. We’re talking Saturn 3 off. Precious few filmmakers understand the golden gift of opportunity that fate and investors have bequeathed to them with an S/F project. Existentialist musings and the need for us all to communicate and better ourselves. Funk dat. It’s time for splatter and little matter. Just gimme that budget/wheelhouse and let’s see what sings beyond the blue horizon. Bring on the dancing blue horses.

Always wanted to wedge “bequeath” into this blog somehow, sometime. Scratch another one off the bucket list. Again, Mister smart-ass. What else did you expect?

Still, I have to wonder in light of too many dopey, misguided S/F movies made at the hands of some dopey, misguided director that if my pet film genre will forever smolder in the Seventh Level. I might have mentioned this prior (in fact I know I have) but it takes a sharp filmmaker to understand S/F ain’t all about aliens, spaceships and trying to convince us that Daryl Hannah can act. Well it’s not just that. Like all films, S/F is about stories, and about the human factor in particular. Standouts like 2001 was existentialism incarnate, not the Monolith doing its thing. Noted otherwise Michael Bay’s The Island was not about existentialism. It was about motorcycle chases, ripping off an even sh*ttier movie and forever chasing the butterfly that is Scarlett Johannson as a competent actress. Trust me, I saw both movies. Guess which one left tissue scarring?

(That smarts.)

In any event, my drunken wingman has had such a sh*t rep for so long it comes as only natural for the rabble to throw up their collective arms and shrug, “What the f*ck. This Lucy flick stars Scarlett what’s-her-tits. It’ll do.” Smart, thoughtful S/F is few and far between, and it only gets press when it’s smart and thoughtful. That and the CGI is used to enhance, not drive.

Yeah, yeah. Bitch, bitch. Welcome to my worldview. You made the hit and stuck around. Who’s the bigger dunce? Who’s so whip-smart here?

I call dibs, because I’m going to contradict myself…now!

Ignoring my preaching, sometimes we indeed do need a dumb, fun, socially non-redeeming S/F film to roll down the pike and goofily explain what a pike exactly is beyond an oversized spear and then get a cream pie to the puss. Dumb stuff, guilty pleasures, crap you’d be rather embarrassed to be caught watching and immediately hitting eject and slamming disc one of the remastered first season of Star Blazers. That kinda thing in the S/F world. Here’s a few trifles of questionable sci-fi, if only mentioned to explain why it took me until 18 to know what a bare breast felt like: Event HorizonLifeforce, Meteor, Outland (both starring Sean Connery! Joys aplenty!), Supernova and The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension. All choice schlock recommended by yours truly. Not the groping part, but yeah. All of them things are pure, dumb S/F fun, essential viewing as any Lucas-fueled phantasmagoria. Have I ever led you wrong before?

Shut up.

But what really constitutes “dumb fun” in S/F? It isn’t just moronic plots, hammy acting and laughable effects. Although those things help, I think the ace in the hole to ridiculous, head-slapping, MST3K-worthy material is a complete and utter lack of plausibility.

Huh? What’s that you say? It’s S/F. All of that truck is implausible. Alien life? That was a weather balloon. Interstellar travel? We can get only as far as the moon. Artificial intelligence? Um, does Siri count?

No, no, no. Chill. Have a cuppa. Shut the f*ck up. What makes good S/F work are a canny handling of the said human factor and (you guessed it) the barest scintilla of plausibility. I’m not saying that what’s depicted in most S/F movies could come to be. Alright, to be fair 2001 is very plausibleand if you consider the Star Trek franchise (old and new) who knows if we won’t be hoppin’ galaxies in 400 years? Those two examples stand out in the pantheon of S/F movies because it lends a feeling of “Huh…” to the audience, as if considering, “Well, what if?” or, “Hey, why not?” For example, it’s no coincidence that Chief Engineer LaForge of the Enterprise-D kept tabs on sh*t using a touchscreen tablet (it’s called a PADD in TNG parlance) and 20 years later in the real world we’re all toting iPads and/or Galaxies. A good example of plausibility in the perhaps not too distant made flesh. Digital. Smart tech. Whatever.

We’re not talking about that here. We be talking, “Oh, come on!” with laughs all around. Utterly unbelievable sci-fi gobbledygook and all its brain-melting glory. It’s vital now and again for any die-hard S/F fan, or regular Joe for that matter. Gotta have the bitter with the sweet to best taste the difference and spit or swallow. There ya go.

Okay. We’ve beaten that horse into glue. Horse sense maybe, or just horse smarts. How smart are horses anyway? Ever see how they behave in westerns? All it takes is a well placed sugarcube and water it won’t drink when you show it to them.

Right.

What does all this gibberish about good ‘n dumb S/F over thoughtful and provocative all mean here anyway? I mean, we get the whole “so bad it’s good” concept, but what am I really yammering about? Is it a retread of the lesson about in order to appreciate the good you gotta have some…I said that already? Well it’s still true. At it’s core, like all genres, S/F is meant to entertain. However unlike other, more mainstream films the genre demands—I mean demands—almost total commitment to suspension of belief with just enough wiggle room to allow “Huh..” When this precious balance is upset in watching S/F movies, the results can be disastrous, to both mind and body. I mean, c’mon, MASH was one of the most misguided S/F movies ever…

What?

Oh. Huh. Well as a S/F epic, that thing sucked on toast. Sure was funny, though. Riotous even. Like this week’s vaunt into the void.

Now draw…


Arizona. The late 1800s.

You wake up in the middle of the desert. No shoes, no ride, no memory. All you have is the shirt on your back, a mouthful of sand and a weird manacle affixed to your wrist. And it doesn’t want to come off. Where were you?

You make your way to a frontier town called Absolution in search of provisions, a bath and who the f*ck you are. The first place you break in to is occupied by a concerned, rifle-weilding preacher named Meacham (Brown). Despite you have no recollection of this man—or anyone for that matter—he sure as sh*t knows who you are. By reputation alone, Meacham marks you as the infamous outlaw and thief Jake Lonergan (Craig) and gives you a warning about shacking up in Absolution. This here was once a proud mining town until the stock wore out. Now it’s Col Dolarhyde’s (Ford) personal playground, and f*ck all that gets in his way. If Meacham’s offering any absolution for your amnesiac circumstance it’s just don’t get mucked up with Dolarhyde family affairs.

Whatever. All you want is a bath and drink, not necessarily in that order. Also figuring how to get this screwy gizmo off your arm. It stings. Almost feels like what they call over the telegraph wires “electrical.” Anyway, booze.

Isn’t always the way? You’re just trying to unwind, have a drink, contemplate your non-circumstances when the local sheriff crashes in the bar—and a weird, sultry lady (Wilde) lurking behind—ready to string you up for being an outlaw you can’t remember being. Absolution is Dolarhyde’s town, as has no recourse for infamous criminals. In spite of Dolarhyde’s guerrilla tactics regarding civic responsibilities, you’re the dunce that gets dragged off to the pokey. It might’ve had something to do with besting the Colonel’s drunken son Percy (Dano) in the town square, but you suspect it has something more to do with your rep. That and being The Outsider.

You quickly discover that while rotting in chains you are nothing of an outsider compared to the marauders Dolarhyde’s been trying to stop for months. Slaughtering his herd, scorching his land and ransacking his gold mining operation the good Colonel and this thugs have been trying to ferret out of Absolution. You’re supposedly a vicious criminal and master thief with an infamous gang at your hand, and the ideal prime suspect in mucking about with Dolarhyde’s affairs. You might be the outsider all right, with a missing history, but at least you came from somewhere.

The real Outsiders are only not from Absolution, they’re not from around these parts at all. Quite literally.

So when the paddy wagon you’re chained in (and with the son of the local heavy that caused all your woes) gets set on fire from a barrage of some sort of controlled lightening shot from an airship no one has even seen the likes of before, you have to ask your amnesiac, troubled past, incarcerated self this:

How the hell did I end up here?…


Before we swoop in and take Cowboys & Aliens by the metaphorical horns (heh), I always feel compelled to point out a literal comic book adapted into a motion picture, usually regarding movies that the average, upstanding citizen did know was a comic book movie (e.g.: Bulletproof Monk, From Hell and, yes Cowboys And Aliens).

Usually these nuggets slip under the radar because of their weird and/or mature content. Sometimes they’re books adapted from lesser known publishers (seems DC and Marvel already have the lion’s share of promotion out there in La-La Land. Batman? Spider-Man? Perhaps you’ve heard of ’em). Sometimes they don’t play as “comic-booky” as the more popular films of their ilk (Kick-Ass anyone?). Sometimes they’re so oblique without a popular cache that you just watch and go, “Whatever. This’ll work.”

Okay, Cowboys does fall under the aegis of all these factoids. I admit I went into watching this with eyes wide shut about the movie’s origins, but I plucked it not so much for it falling under the auspices of The Standard. That, of course, was part of the autopsy, but what really piqued my interest about Cowboys had precious little to do with the dailies I used to scan back in my comic shop monkey days. No.

It was something I caught by accident on the History Channel. Back when they aired actual history, BTW. Those were the days.

The program was called UFO Hunters or something like that. Guess now it was the dry run for the immensely but not understandably popular series Ancient Aliens, the show that tackles the mysteries of the Nazca Lines up against incredible hairstyles. Similar to its progeny, Hunters investigated UFO happenings, then and now, from around the US (and sometimes in other countries) by way of the detective work, forensic science, and/or interviewing eyewitnesses. If none were available—read: dead—scouring the historic record served in a pinch. From the ep I caught, it was a pretty cool show, with none of the foaming histrionics that’s Ancient Aliens’ signature. That and the Greek guy’s impeccable, trapped in a wind tunnel coif.

The scene of the crime for the episode I got sucked into was Aurora, Texas, an nice little patch of nowhere in the Lone Star state just north of who cares and a little west of where are we? The town’s claim to fame (as well as the raison d’etre for the producers to film there, natch) was a report of a saucer crash that occurred so long back it became less of the historical record and more like a beloved urban legend. According to the show, the Aurora incident (nicknamed “Roswell, Texas”) was a bit of both. Stories naturally got scrambled over time, but one thing could be agreed upon by Aurora’s legacy: something fell out of the sky back then.

And back then was in 1897, a full fifty years before the Roswell Incident.

The details were hazy, and shifting to and fro by the locals, but the thing that was certain that an airship of curious design crashed and burned in Aurora and its crews’ remains appeared unlike anything on Earth. That’s right. There were passengers aboard that UFO. Some declared them as “not of this earth” if not “Martian” outright. The bodies were given a proper, Christian burial in the local cemetery of all things, but not before the rough-and-ready media swarmed Aurora for news of the strange airship from out of space and its alien visitors.

That’s the bulk of the tale. A close encounter of the third kind. Talk to Spielberg. But the devil’s in the details. After the crash there were tales of unusual properties regarding the metals used in the construction of the airship, radiation poisoning from improper disposal of the wreckage resulting in maladies in the locals as mundane as advanced arthritis to more serious like birth defects to…other things. No to mention that one of the bodies interred was an “infant.” It is to wonder and have that mousse at the ready.

I think the key thing to consider about the Aurora Incident is that the locals, back in 1897, had next to no concept whatsoever as to how to comprehend a flying machine. This was in the middle of nowhere. No proper airships crossed their clouds resembling anything like a steady schedule. The Wright Bros were to take flight only a mere 6 years after the incident, and even then the general public failed to believe their feat real. With photos no less. Yet the testimonies of Aurora’s denizens fell in line with your contemporary mass UFO sighting, proper burials notwithstanding. In short, no matter how rural, isolated and not-20th Century folks might’ve been, they knew that weird sh*t had rained down from space onto Aurora, and most of it was far from explicable. So call Robert Stack already.

Okay. What the f*ck does this MUFON wet dream have anything to do with “dumb, fun” S/F and this week’s pile? Glad you asked.

The movie Cowboys And Aliens was inspired by a graphic novel inspired by supposedly true events. Read: the Aurora Incident. Big surprise. Author Scott Mitchell Rosenberg once commented that his comic was inspired by what may or may have not happened in Aurora all those decades ago. If you took in what I intimated earlier, Rosenberg considered the ramifications of pre-Industrial age folk encountering technology and essentially a home invasion of the like they simply could not comprehend. I’m paraphrasing here, as well as taking great liberties with Rosenberg’s musings. Still, such a notion could be akin to the events relayed in the original Terminator or how a few of the key players in Seven Samurai got offed by gunfire rather than swordplay (or got offed at all). How does the average Joe and Jane wrap their minds about alien (so to speak) tech interrupting—if not disrupting—their everyday existence? By Rosenberg’s vision, not well. That doesn’t mean the incurring party takes it lying down, of course.

Such is the stuff of fun. Stand offs. Fisticuffs. Get off my land. As for the silly S/F factor? Uh, the movie’s called Cowboys And ALIENS in case you forgot. You did, didn’t you? You and yer Pokemon Go. Focus!

Funny thing though (almost retracting everything I said above), Cowboys was not dumb. It was pretty sharp actually. The concept may have been dumb and silly, but put into the proper perspective the thing had clear eyes.

The nifty thing about Cowboys is that it’s two movies in one. On one hand we got us the classic Western tropes. Mysterious drifter. Scowling bully that holds the hapless denizens of a dying town in his sway. Gunplay. Whiskey. All the essentials. They’re played out in the traditional fashion but lacking any corn that a less canny director than Favreau could not resist. All of Absolution is grim and gritty, worlds—if not light-years—away from some S/F plot with marauding alien invaders mining for REDACTED.

The first act plays out kind of like classic Eastwood “man with no name” Westerns. We have a grim anti-hero, past a mystery, handy with a gun and carrying a sense of purpose. The big difference is for most of the movie is that Jake’s past really is a mystery, and even though later the pieces fall back into place, that mystery drives a great deal of the tension in the tale. At least the existential part of it. If Jake and Co were immediately plunked into extra-terrestrial hijinks there’d be no human drama, and Cowboys would swiftly mosey (if you can do that) into the overwhelming fast and stupid S/F I cautioned about before.

This whole setup surprised me, though. Well, I kinda knew what I was in for with a movie called Cowboys And Aliens. It starred James Bond and Indiana Jones. Jon Favreau—who helmed Iron Man, Zathura and the latest incarnation of The Jungle Book—knew a trick or ten about directing spectacles without processing them into rancid Velveeta. It was based on a graphic novel (heard that’s a safe gamble nowadays for movie fodder). Having human drama paired with only essential Western devices as launchpad into some space swashbuckling would usually lead into cinematic giblet gravy, and the reason I thought that (or at least took pause) was while I read the opening credits. I really do that by the way. I still don’t know what an ACE is.

The screenwriter/producers for Cowboys were the infamous glimmer twins of less-than-subtle S/F and fantasy flicks: Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. A true mixed blessing. I’ve mentioned in the past for my fondness of Fringe, that warped X-Files meets Twilight Zone hybrid that Mr Spock occasionally popped up in. That show was good, but their other efforts were often received with ambivalence. The Star Trek reboot (which Mr Spock also occasionally popped up in) which was more about pyrotechnics and winking nods to Trekkies than drama. The seventh installment in the Star Wars franchise, The Force Awakens resulted in more questions than answers and even more plot holes. Lots of pyro and winking also. The manic Now You See Me, which went under the lens here at RIORI and I needing an Ativan after its viewing. Their sh*t can be mad entertaining, but as for nuance and grace, their sledgehammer-subtle concoctions can make for a grueling experience on the imagination—info dump upon info dump—and a need to have great patience, pay attention and try to keep up lest you miss something whizzing by at breakneck speed, which you need a crate of Red Bull at the ready because Adderall can get pricey.

Yeah, so these two lovable dunderheads penned Cowboys’ script. I repeat, I took pause at that. Then I crossed my fingers, recalling the best eps of Fringe and just shrugged, deciding to go with this and see where it went. The first thing I noticed after our hero crawls out of the desert is what the movie didn’t have. Not outright anyway. Knowing my Kurtzman-Orci track record I guessed the nasties from the great beyond would descend upon Arizona and start vaporizing cacti by the score before the bloody credits were over. Then Mr Spock would pop in.

Quite the other thing. The opening is gradual, the pacing is steady, there’s room to breathe and time to figure out what is up. We find our bewildered Jake marooned. We see him get into scrapes that suggest his troubled past. We get him to Absolution—a town name as subtle as a fart at a funeral—where he comes to a crossroads and the pieces/mysteries start falling into place. All at the speed of mind. I thank Favreau for this. Like before, the guy has a talent for spectacle, but his directing allows breathing room. That comment about CGI enhancing rather than driving a S/F flick? There ya go.

Consider this the calm before the storm. Right, it being the type of movie it is, we’re gonna get some pyros eventually. What I dug about the action in Cowboys is that it’s almost exclusively Western-style. Barring the weird manacle that blasts lasers, Jake prefers his sidearm to do the talking. In actuality, its both in tandem, but the gunplay is straight out of the old West. That little bit is a good example of how Favreau’s lens works here. There’s a canny fusion of Western and S/F action playing through Cowboys.  The man with no name that everyone knows. The outlaw as the “chosen one” in a greater, world-bending scheme. The humans and the aliens feuding over the same property, and it isn’t plutonium. There’s a lot of stereotypes and tropes with both genres, but they get so bent and twisted Cowboys comes over as fresh and thrilling not eye-rolling and a burlap sack of yawns. As I am accused of saying way too damned often, it ain’t the notes, it’s how they’re played. By melding these two tried and true warhorses—so to speak—we got ourselves a pretty deft, if not unusual S/F caper. With whiskey.

And a crackerjack cast, too. Yeah, yeah. I’ve already dropped the alter-egos here, but separate the actors from their iconic roles and you’re in for a surprise: character acting! Neither Craig nor Ford are known for deviating from their signature styles. They’re not like, say, Paul Giamatti or Forrest Whittaker, whose roles and delivery roll with the tide. No. We know Craig as tough, smug and gruff. We know Ford as tough, funny and gruff. We know Wilde as willowy and rather wooden. Um, as far as Cowboys‘ principal players roll, two out of three ain’t bad.

Craig’s Jake is tough, sure. He’s a gunslinger, first line of the CV. He’s also vulnerable, with no memory of his past and reminded of something he’s supposed to remember strapped to his wrist. Walking contradiction, and also shouldering this feeling of malaise that he deserved whatever has happened to him. This later dissolves into having the holes plugged (it’s almost inevitable), but while we get there we have a protag that is scared, fragile and despite carrying a piece is unlike any prominent role Craig has had before. Okay, maybe Mr X in Layer Cake comes close, but really can you picture Bond riddled with angst? Not for an entire picture. Maybe that’s why Craig looks so gaunt here. Well, that and being stranded in the desert.

Ford was having some fun here as the despotic Col Dolarhyde. Playing the baddie, the heavy, chewing it up. Folks are accustomed to Harry playing rapscallions and rough-and-tumble heroes, often possessing an air of insecurity and/or reluctance. Han didn’t want to get mucked up in the Rebellion. Indy just wanted to go on a cool expedition, not mess with Nazis. President Marshall just wanted Gary Oldman to get off his plane (who wouldn’t?). Virtually all of Ford’s roles have been him reacting to something, not being pro-active. It’s worked. But getting the opportunity to play the bad guy? A vicious cattle baron whose name is quivering fear on all the locals’ lips? Boy howdy does Ford do a fun job, all growly and menacing and ruthless with his enemies. One wonders why Ford didn’t try this schtick before? You can only run away from so many snakes before becoming one. That almost made sense. Quick with a gun, with a threat and an ultimatum, very few actors could pull off this 180 Ford did in such a fun way.

Wilde is kind of creepy here. It suits her enigmatic character, but let’s call a spade a shovel: the girl is eye candy. She’s stiff, she’s not natural, she overreaches. Again, it mostly works here considering her role. It just isn’t particularly enjoyable. Sure, she’s purty, but that’s where all her presence lies. This can be traced all the way back to he salt mine years up against cantankerous Hugh Laurie in House. Come to think of it, didn’t her character only made it onto Greg’s team because of her looks? Foreshadowing? Regardless of whatever, wedged between Craig and Ford, Wilde gets lost in the shuffle.

Besides the action sequences of scary, ravaging aliens and hell bent for leather outlaws Cowboys had oodles of tech points that were not only winning but essential to movie’s mood. Like I said before, we’re dealing with Western tropes here, so if there are going to be stereotypes they better be good, attentive, substantial ones.

There are, breathe easy. What Western would be complete without a convincing setting (at least as far as what we expect to see in a Western)? Right. A backlot. Not here in Cowboys. The landscapes are sweeping and stunning demanding our attention, “Damn, we’re in God’s country.” Big sky and exposed, the whole county screams isolation with only mere handfuls of folks trying to live. Looks like a good place where no one will look for a good place. Great cinematography is all I’m sayin.’

Like most Westerns Cowboys‘ pace is rather slow. It can make it feel edgy. There’s always either been a big blow out in act one, scene one of a Western (e.g.: Silverado, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, etc) or some slow build to a super major blow out (e.g.: The Wild Bunch…’nuff said). Then we get a Western that creeps, builds, takes its time even in light of the urgency. Looks like Kurtzman and Orci took a few pages from the old playbook and put ’em to good work without rendering them in the summer blockbuster blender. Sometimes you can have an even hand and not show it right away without bumming out the audience. Oh, and the sh*t really picks up later so have that with a slice of cake.

There’s lots of nice touches through Cowboys (the surgeon scene is a good example) that make its world-building barely skirt the mindless S/F fun mark. This film isn’t mindless. It is chewing gum for your mind. You dig Western films? Good. You dig S/F films? Also good. You dig movies about alien invaders trying to wipe out the townsfolk of a remote mining village and the quickdraws band together in a Seven Samurai-esque union to take the freaks down? Very good. You want it all stupid or do you want it “stupid?” Keep working that gob in your jaw and all will be well in viewer land.

Cowboys plays with a clever, entertaining, stupid, serious fun. Its a weird movie, but of the best kind. Think Independence Day, but with horses. It’s such a wonky, if not schizo movie that you’ll swear you’re watching two separate films. But they fold over well with each other, and that’s nice. Two flicks for the price of one.

Oh, and it’s dumb, too. Sometimes you gotta put your Fellini away (cuz he never did S/F).


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Cowboys is so freakin’ rife with all the goodies and baddies of both genres you’d have to be some sorry son of a bitch stick in the mud to not turn on, tune in and get yer mind a-chewin.’ Yee-haw.


Stray Observations…

  • “English.”
  • An interesting note: Wilde looks as if she’s wearing minimal makeup. Attention to period detail, or for some…other reason. Hmm.
  • “Give me your hand!” No.
  • The knife scene. Shades of classic Ford. We do miss them.
  • “God don’t care what y’are, son. Only who you are.” Best Hallmark card never written.
  • Of course the hat floats.
  • Ayahuasca. It works every time.
  • Nice shot, Doc. Nice shot.
  • “You’d better hurry.”

Next Installment…

Bob Dylan claims “I’m Not There” in his biopic. To a certain degree he’s right.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 50: The Strause Bros’ “Skyline” (2010)

 


Skyline


The Players…

Eric Balfour, Scottie Thompson, Donald Faison, Brittany Daniel, Crystal Reed and David Zayas.


The Story…

After their first night in LA with old friend-made-good Terry, Jarrod and Elaine wake up with one hell of a hangover. The room is spinning. The bright light of the sun is blinding. The sky peeking through the blinds is…

…Littered with alien spacecraft, sucking up people by the score. Only one thing to do: Jarrod and Elaine band together with a few survivors of last night’s bacchanal to set out and solve the mystery of what’s happening to the human race.

And their spines.


The Rant…

Special F/X are crucial—crucialto sci-fi/fantasy/action movies. Maybe crucial isn’t even the best term. Essential is a more apt term. Think about it. Could The Matrix movies be so visceral without “bullet-time?” Would the original Star Wars trilogy be as thrilling without all the Dykstra model dogfights? Hell, would the monster be as scary in Frankenstein if Karloff just thumped around in oversized boots?

My guess is no.

In these Hollywood days of endless summer blockbusters, tentpole flicks would not exist without cool, compelling and most of all “realistic” special effects. For the past twenty years, when one hears “special effects” it’s almost always equated with awesome CGI. The kind of things you seen on the screen that make your eyes pop, your spine grow weak and your bladder…whatever.

Crucial stuff nowadays. Not the bladder thing, mind you.

I’m not gonna wax philosophical about dem good ol’ days with paper moons and cardboard skies. I ain’t that dumb. Sharp pixelation or intricate models, cool F/X are cool F/X. I’m a big Ray Harryhausen fan. Those old school Godzilla films are a funny treat. Sh*t, even the old school Star Trek movies’ Enterprise looked like it could run the rings off Saturn.

Nowadays, refer to CGI to almost exclusively deliver the goods. And goods almost always do arrive on time. After watching sci-fi et al films for years, I’m continuously amazed by what those nerds can create with zeroes and ones. Face it, there would be no Jurassic Park franchise without ILM pulling the strings (even after the source novels ended after two installments). The Matrix films, either. Heck, if you think about it where would Shrek be now? Still a pop-up book probably. Without computers, today’s action flicks wouldn’t exist. Or at least look kinda clunky if it were up to teenage boys huffing model cement and trying to build a cyborg Trojan horse with their eyes all runny.

In sum, JJ Abrams’ crew’s take on the new starship Enterprise looks hella cooler with gigabytes pulsing away. Gimme the keys.

But it’s funny (and here goes the nostalgia trip), back in the day CGI was infancy, new and testy. Again, not knocking it. You gotta crawl before you can pass the “jump test.” One of my fave sci-fi flicks is Tron, and that one was denied an award from the doddering Academy for using CGI. It was the first film to do so with such shameless élan. The Oscar codgers claimed Disney cheated by using computers. Right. The preeminent animation studio grabbing hold onto the next big thing five years before the other studios. Now wipe that pudding from the chin off that old, white guy. No, the other one.

CGI back then was a toy. An experiment. Wozniuk in the basement. Brave new world and all that sh*t. In the present day it’s hard to fathom that before the present day in movies all we had to rely on for splash and dash were creative puppeteers, highly skilled makeup artists and adolescent boys with fumes in their eyes. From such humble beginnings revolutions are borne.

That and such movie magic was prescient. Duh.

Let me tell you a fave tale of mine regarding how CGI affected a typical test audience. And unplug those fingers from your collective ears.

Another one of my fave sci-fi flicks is James Cameron’s The Abyss. For the unitiated, the story deals with a crew of underwater oil miners trapped in a crippled submersible drilling platform who are visited by undersea aliens. It was Cameron’s aquatic take on The Day The Earth Stood Still, but with better F/X. Way better. Good stuff.

There’s a scene in the movie where the aliens try to make first contact with the trapped drillers. Since they are aquatic in nature, they send out a probe made of plasticized sea water. A water tentacle, as it were. Rendered in CGI, five years after Tron‘s snub. The Abyss dropped in 1989, and pre-production most likely a year prior.

Rumor has it that when the test audience first saw the CGI-rendered water tentacle for the first time, the oxygen level in the theatre dropped dramatically. As in, gasp. That’s what good CGI can do, even back in the butt-end of the 80s. Did it enhance the plot? Not really. Did it look cool and enhance the feel of the flick? I’m talking about it almost 30 years later, ain’t it?

It can get tough to find perspective these days when CGI runs riot at the multiplex. Every movie has CGI enhancement now. Be it the latest installment of The Avengers franchise (and all of its satellite projects, including those yet to me made. Or even conceived) to make the Hulk’s veins on his inner thighs look like green bacon, or keeping Meryl Streep look less hideous, or the dells of Middle Earth eternally verdant and Smaug free.

All of this is good in the final analysis. For fantasy, sci-fi and/or action films we need this kind of polish. Smart. Because there are dozens of rouge animators out there with no sane concept of using their skills and tech to better a film, keeping plot and acting and storyboarding in mind. Lookee the toys! F*uck Hausenharry! We rule the future! Who’d be so dumb as to text and drive?

Two things that. Old saws. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Absolute power and such.

Also quoting Jeff “Dr Ian Malcolm” Goldblum from the original Jurassic Park: “…Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

That and Dylan, “I’ve seen guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children.”

Sound a bit dramatic? I recall when drama held sway to story first and not pixels.

“Confirmed, Alan 1…”


It’s good to get away from it all.

Jarrod (Balfour) and his girlfriend Elaine (Thompson) got a call from their old buddy Terry (Faison). It’s his birthday! Some on out to the West Coast to celebrate! And so they do.

The invite’s not all about cocktails and cake, though. Well, it’s not only that. Terry’s a wheeler-dealer in the film industry out LA way and he might have a sweet job opportunity for Jarrod. Being a graphic designer and special effects whiz, Jarrod’s skills would be perfect for Terry’s budding empire. The only tricky thing is the perfect spin and also convincing Jarrod and Elaine to stick around.

By morning, that’s the only choice they have.

Jarrod, Terry and friends awake to a silent city. LA looks…abandoned. Where’d everybody go? And what was up with those weird, blue, mesmerizing lights that descended on the city last night?

Well, those alien, biomechanical spaceships descend from the sky and start absorbing the stragglers, answer provided.

Holy sh*t! An alien invasion! Freaks from space gobbling up LA’s populace! Jarrod and company are marooned atop Terry’s penthouse as they try desperately to escape the creatures by bouncing along—wait for it—the city’s skyline. But who can save them? The army is ineffective. The monsters are trashing the city. People are being hypnotized into willing snacks for the invaders thrive on.

Worst of all Jarrod’s hot job prospect has gone right down the toilet…


You see that post on FaceBook about the gun advocate mother asserting the importance of safety for her family only to be shot in the back by her three-year old? I’m paraphrasing. And I don’t have a fact checking department.

This is definitely a stretch, but I feel that tragic story is akin to how Skyline happened. What I mean is that the directors and producers were so enraptured by the potential the movie’s tech and F/X offered, they were blinded by all the shiny to bother considering the vital facets of good moviemaking. Namely, plot, acting and pacing.

Okay. Just a moment, and please try to ignore the crude analogy above. For the record, as well as against one of The Standard’s principle tenets, Skyline did not tank at the box office. Far from. Its original $10 million budget was paid over seven plus times. Most audiences dug it. Alien invasion films are always fun. From Independence Day to Invasion Of The Body Snatchers to War Of The Worlds, when scary creatures from outer space come down from the heavens and wreak havoc on humanity it’s laughs all around.

I didn’t laugh much over Skyline. And there was much to laugh about, but not in the way the directors might’ve planned. If you’re a thinking person or simply a nabob who likes hi-tech, sci-fi B-movies, neither mindset explains—at least to yours truly—why folks found this stupid crap appealing. I don’t care about that $70-plus million takeaway either, so muzzle it. For the sake of argument at least.

From the outset Skyline feels like a SyFy original movie. With a better budget. And speaking of that, the pretentiously credited Brothers Strause directed the bonanza Alien Vs Predator feast-for-the-eyes- and-ears franchise, as well as being on hand to help out with the F/X on James Cameron’s Avatar. So yeah, the guys know their way around amazing special F/X (and I suspect Jarrod’s career is more than a bit meta here. Just saying).

Doesn’t mean they were handy with an axe for the rest of the movie.

Skyline’s execution was awkward from scene one. My feelings about what was going down or will go down were myriad. Like despite I knew the aliens were on their way, the first act of the film felt muddled, inviting a holy host of thoughts in my brainpan if only to make sense of everything besides people’s brains being eaten.

Before I carry on now, I feel it proper to warn y’all about spoilers ahead. I know, I know. I hate them and hate using them, but this time out I felt it nigh impossible to dissect Skyline without dismantling key scenes/aspects in the movie. So from here on out, no REDACTED bullsh*t. Sorry. Beyond this point there be hungry cyborg aliens. You have been warned and you’re welcome.

Back to the whole awkwardness shenanigans. I got the feeling that Skyline‘s setup put all the pieces in place. This is SOP for almost every movie, but Skyline‘s opening came over as deliberate, not organic. I couldn’t see the gambit at first, but I sniffed one. Bad this. It’s one thing to have a film be predictable. It’s another to give the audience cue cards. Felt like the Strause’s were trying to arrest your attention with the CGI as prelude to the chaos later. The whole night at Terry’s had precious little to do with the invasion. All staged, as if to throw us a bone and wrestle a little emotional investment out of our characters (PS: didn’t work). In other words the next 90 minutes will be about collateral damage with a few humans as bookends. That’s what it looked like to me.

Another feeling I got from Skyline was that it was attempting to be some kind of “home invasion” metaphor. The movie was indeed about invasion—within and without—but its execution seemed ham-fisted. Sure the aliens keep trying to get at their prey all holed up in their luxury hi-rises, but the brief moments of humanity that pop up under those circumstances feel more like forced appreciation of our wooden, almost interchangeable cast to actually upset us when any of them get gobbled up. Paranoia can be scary. Isolation can be scary. Freakin’ hungry drones out for flesh can definitely be scary. Trying to force empathy for our movie’s heroes via said devices? Not so much.

One more thing and get I’ll off this tack. Skyline also had a Cloverfield vibe, and I didn’t like that one either. There was this kind of goofy element of mystery at work in Skyline. Where’d the invaders come from? Who knows? Why’d they come? Later on it slouches towards obvious. Why LA? Why not (maybe to obliterate studios like this one. One can only hope)? Again it was another razor thin element thrown as a sop to folks who actually pay attention instead of get all gooey over the admittedly impressive F/X. It’s not nice to scam folks like that, though.

That’s what was Skyline‘s deal. Good F/X. Not much else. The plot was derivative, as were the characters. Well, most of them. To be fair, there’s gotta be some good after sifting through the waste. The only character I liked was Oliver, the concierge. In the middle of any disaster film, we must have a convincing voice of reason. So there. All right. Anyway, Skyline was all about high tech/low budget. I know thing made a metric sh*t-ton of money off a shoestring budget. That’s not what I mean. I mean all the other vital things that could’ve made this a lot more compelling were absent. Acting, story, blah blah you’ve already heard it blah. Come to think of it, low rent might be a more apt term here. Disappointment.

One final thing before I go, and it’s all about the anti-REDACTED thing. Ostensibly being a sci-fi actioner, Skyline betrays the principle of interior logic. I’ve mentioned this before with other sci-fi films, what this gnarly beast is, but hear me out anyway.

To review: “interior logic” in a movie is when the rules make sense and are followed exactingly to ensure the story’s even flow. In other words, consider Star Wars: A New Hope. Now we know that Jedis, Chewbacca and the Millenium Falcon don’t exist. They can’t in reality, but make perfect sense in that galaxy far, far away within the context of the story. For example in the fourth chapter, Obi-wan explains to Luke the natural flow of The Force. Corny as it may have sounded, it was—and still is—a major crux of how the original trilogy operates, laying the bedrock for the other movies.

However…

In The Phantom Menace, it’s explained that manipulation of The Force is not outside nature, but had to to do with genetics. Midichorian crap. Wait, doesn’t that go against what we learned as gospel in the original films? Yes, yes it does. Which is why Star Wars fans were up in arms about this deviation in the mythology. The rules—the logic—got changed. The source of a Jedi’s strength was now scientific and not metaphysical. And Han shot first.

In similar terms, Skyline busted up a lot of interior logic. And you don’t have to be some sci-fi wonk to not take notice.

So we got us some hungry aliens. They wish to feast on the brains and spinal columns of every human they absorb. Here’s the first part. It’s safe to assume these aliens ain’t picky. No doubt they’ve swooped down on other planets to lobotomize the constabulary for lunch. Last I checked, humans only live on Earth. So either these creatures customize their digestive tract for whatever the “smartest” species is on their target planet (and I only saw ruined humans on their ships), which was never explained. Nor was why. Or this was a professional hit. Even in Independence Day it was explained the aliens were “locusts,” scooping up any and all viable planetary resources until the world was sucked dry and to then sally forth on their endless quest for more resources. Existential, really.

Also that blue light thing. Supposedly it was used as bait to zombify humans and make them easier prey. Look into the light, lose your will to live and yum yum yum. So how does Jarrod’s triple exposure make him Thor? One would figure that if a single exposure to the dread blue light would make you weak and docile, then how would being exposed multiple times make you stronger, if not invulnerable to said light? Again, not explained or even hinted towards an answer.

Finally, apart from Jarrod’s new found paternal responsibility, how does his morphing into a cyborg get overridden by his overexposed body? I get the whole father thing, but how? And do the aliens have that keen an acumen of how the human reproductive systems works beyond the physical sh*t? Us parents know about our gut feelings towards our kids, unborn or otherwise. By Jarrod’s relatively easy hack into these avatars of supreme galactic knowledge they ain’t as sophisticated as we were led to believe over the past 80 minutes.

Whew. So that’s betrayal of interior logic with Skyline, which really gums up the script when you think about it (too much). And I don’t think the Brothers Strause placed a priority on thinking too much when watching their little pastiche. They wanted to show off 2010’s version of a water tentacle.

That they did, but not much else. C’mon, alien invasion movies need a little meat on their bones to make them fun, if not memorable. Independence Day will never be called original, smart or even revolutionary (save those model/pre-CGI F/X, whose progeny hampered the sequel BTW). The only thing I found memorable about Skyline—minus the cool CGI—was that the finale would’ve been great for a good movie.

No fear though. Someone promised a sequel. Again, you’ve been warned.

Now ignore the blue lights and get to the marina.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Despite all the awesome CGI, Skyline was laughable, predictable and above all boring. Criminal in my books regarding movies involving hungry aliens. Regarding everything actually.


Stray Observations…

  • “What is i—ust run”
  • Same F/X used in Avatar? What a waste.
  • Sure, kill of the black guy/name-recognition actor first.
  • Nice lens flare there.
  • Kamikaze. I get it. Pretty cool.

Next Installment…

Nerdy Denis finally gets up the nerve to declare I Love You, Beth Cooper to the object of his affection. Much to his surprise, Beth responds, just not in some Sixteen Candles kind of way.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 46: Jon Amiel’s “The Core” (2003)


The Core


The Players…

Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Stanley Tucci, Delroy Lindo and Bruce Greenwood, with DJ Qualls, Richard Jenkins, Tcheky Karyo and Alfre Woodard.


The Story…

The Earth’s inner core has stopped spinning, and scientist Josh Keyes with his fellow maverick seismologists must discover why before the planet literally falls apart. So by burrowing into the planet’s center in an elite vessel they might dig deep enough to get to (wait for it) the core of the crisis.

I warned you.


The Rant…

A funny thing happened on the way to the Blu-Ray player.

I initially meant to open this week’s salvo with a treatise on the ways and means of a proper disaster film. Then insomnia intervened and the 9-year old woke up multiple times to interrupt dad’s questionable movie watching practices.

It was late. Later than usual for me to hunker down in front of the screen with the disc, the notebook, the essential libations and my pen clutched in my hot little hand. Time for another evening of Press Your Luck via Netflix. It’s the stuff dreams are made of, or nightmares of a frustrated wifey who’d rather  canoodle that accept the vital nature of this blogger’s ongoing opus. Either way, I had beer and a lack of Pop-Tarts.

Whatever.

Midnight was nigh, and I was beat as well as falling behind with my chosen duties. Good thing I had the day off tomorrow; the flick was over two hours long! Could see the sun cracking the horizon by my timetable, including all the pretzels, bathroom breaks and cracking open more truth elixir. Let me tell you, with my nutty watching habits a 90 minute flick can stretch into three hours easily. I have to go outside to smoke, well into the next county it feels. And you can kill a guy anywhere. Go fig.

But twenty minutes into The Core I was interrupted in the worst way. We’re not talking power outages, scratches in the disc (which did happen once or twice truth be told. More on that sh*t later for those cinephiles who can’t afford streaming), or the neighbor kids jacked up on the Mountain Dew and wailing on their guitars for an impromptu garage band practice consisting of and only of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” remixed by Moby.

No. Worse. A nine-year old girl with insomnia. And dad one-third through the movie and halfway in the bag to boot. Not a Pop-Tart to be seen.

She was stressed out. Happens to kids of all ages. Mom started a new job and was gone most of the night. I clocked out late, too, but Grammy and Pop Pop were gracious enough to hold down the fort until I scooped her up. But Mom wasn’t around as she usually was. No one to chit chat with while Dad’s toiling away in the Seventh Level. Chicken nuggets for dinner again (and again). The general household dynamic torn asunder (and her stepsister kept away from yet another weekend visit by her dooshy daddy, but that’s another story). So yeah, kid’s stressed and therefore cannot seek slumber.

She’s vaguely aware of Dad’s clandestine movie habits and plopped down on the couch to both talk about her lousy sleep and wonder what the f*ck Daddy is watching. I explained to her the gist of the movie and asked (for the hell of it) if she’d join me. By that time the flick was on pause for an eternity, blaring a frozen shot of our heroes trying to extricate their high tech tunneling machine from within an enormous geode. For real. After I explained what a geode was I resumed the film. She watched for about ten minutes (The Core is PG-13 BTW, but I’m over 13 and figured it was okay for the kid to follow along. Don’t judge me) before abrupt protestations.

“It’s too loud! It’s too scary! I don’t know what’s going on!”

Through simple serendipity, a nine-year old girl with insomnia summed up the best mindset regarding a good disaster movie beyond any half-baked blather I could muster. Sure, she didn’t “get” the flick (PG-13 mind you. And shaddap) but her reaction purely illustrates how we should all watch a movie like The Core. In simpler terms, get bewildered and bamboozled. Then find more beer. It helps, believe me. Burp.

But in all seriousness, a good disaster flick should be loud, sometimes scary and make you unsure as to which way is up. A healthy dose of suspension of disbelief and a willingness to let your brain be scrambled into submission both help. Go along with it. Follow stupid down the rabbit hole. Allow some (partial) credence for Michael Bay’s oeuvre for a bit. Check your coat at the front desk. Eat the Oreo’s frosting first. Enjoy the bombast and the dumb, if only for two hours. Then you can get back to the Lars Von Trier binge watch. Don’t forget the Cheetos and the Dustbuster.

That being said, riddle me this. Did The Core takes nods from the pyrotechnics that came before? Was the same demented structure of chaos and creation take hold? Did Gene Hackman let go of that valve at the right time?

Perhaps. First, let’s dig a bit deeper…


Ill winds are blowing through Earth’s ionosphere. Solar winds.

Peculiar environmental phenomena have been popping up around the globe as of late. Auroras over Washington. Birds losing their ability to navigate. Earthquakes nowhere near tectonic activity. What’s worse Wi-Fi keeps crapping out everywhere. What the hell’s going on?

Dr John Keyes (Eckhart) has a theory. Being a seismologist, he’s pretty in touch with how the Earth eats, breathes and occasionally farts. By all the disparate chaos suddenly plaguing the planet, he has a theory. The outer core of the Earth, the part that controls its EMF, has stopped its rotation. That means in three months everything on Earth that is powered by electricity will halt. Within a year, the sun’s radiation will burn our world to a crisp. Ouch.

What to do to avoid this calamity? Well first, don’t panic. Second, convince the powers that be that this is an apocalyptic threat. Third, don’t panic, for surely there are a collective of science geeks out there who are sharp enough and nuts enough to correct the problem. Namely, and essentially jump-starting an entire planet. No sweat, right?

Keyes (with his maverick theories) gets indoctrinated into a military cabal—which is never a good sign—to initiate a mission to delve into Earth’s inner core to “reactivate” its rotation. Among Keyes’ rogue’s gallery, we have assembled quite the unique crew. We have Conrad Zinksy (Tucci), the preeminent seismologist on the planet to guide the insane mission to tunnel into the Earth (backed up with his supreme arrogance). His former, alienated genius Watson to his Holmes, Dr “Brazz” Brazelton (Lindo) has devised a means to travel into the Earth’s mantle—a nigh indestructible machine—and hopefully intervene with the globe’s eminent failure. And lastly, but not most leastly former space shuttle pilot Major Rebecca “Beck” Childs (Swank) to guide Brazz’ experiment home.

So we got the know-how, we got the tech and we got the mission. Get Earth’s core a-swirling again. But it’s never that easy, is it? ‘Course not. We gotta toss in some MIC intrigue and a giggling robot for the kiddies.

Wait. No giggling robot? Well is is a PG-13 flick after all. Movie sign!…


What I was rambling about earlier with my reluctant, sleepless sidekick holds true regarding disaster films. Too loud. To perilous. Confusion is scads. Believe it or not these are good things to have with such films. Suspension of belief is paramount.

If you were young enough to remember them (and sure as sh*t I wasn’t), TV mogul Irwin Allen of Lost In Space fame got a wild hair up his ass and got into the motion picture action. His notable contributions were The Poseidon AdventureThe Towering Inferno and to a lesser extent The Swarm (hell, at least that muckity-muck got Henry Fonda some work). All were a melange of let’s throw sh*t at a wall and see what sticks, hopefully running down to the floor in a gooey mess. A mess the audiences would love to slop around in.

To wit, Allen’s cinema schlockfests were dappled with a cast of thousands (often with name stars like Gene Hackman, the aforementioned Henry Fonda and even Paul Newman for pity’s sake), all put in perilous positions of penultimate tragedy with a lot of splash and dash in between to culminate in a satisfying ending. Lotsa pyrotechnics and histrionics in there for good measure, too. Plus a lot of cheesy dialogue to boot. Y’know, to lighten the load. Hoorahs all around.

All Allen’s potboilers are fun so long as you don’t think too much about you willingly subjected yourself to. That’s the key, and director Amiel tapped into this philosophy very keenly with The Core. Keep it fun, keep it fast, keep it dumb. In that order. Works well, which is why the peanut butter and jelly sandwich has endured for almost a century. Please trim off the crust. We don’t require anything that resembles substance here. It’s barely an afterthought.

Okay now. Where to begin? Allen’s cheesewheels always starred a mishmash of prominent actors (of their time) pitted against/collaborating with lesser knowns. Again, Amiel took notes. We have the notoriously reliable unreliable Aaron Eckhart as our reluctant hero. I have no love lost on Eckhart. Virtually every film he’s been in he seems out of place. Worse, like bewildered he’s even in a movie to begin with. How the hell did I end up here? Well, in Core, that flappable nature finally comes to good use. What I mean is that you ever catch Battle: Los Angeles? Right. I ain’t supposed to be here. Based on that, Core presents us with Eckhart’s best, most accessible acting until The Dark Knight got released. His skittish, nerdy scientist might be the go to for geek freak as soon as Jeff Goldblum retires. Eckhart here never overplays his hand. Read: he doesn’t ham it up, despite the fact that there are plenty of chances to chew the drywall. His Dr Keyes is the only solid voice of reason—therefore the pinion—which the movie turns. It’s almost as if Eckhart is aware that Core is an Allen rip-off, so he plays the part right. He’s our Dr John Robinson, minus a spine. Underdogs always play well at the ticket taker, don’cha know. Worked for me. I found his acting fun.

And fun is the watchword towards our remaining cast members. Be mindful that The Core‘s plot is ludicrous, so the actors better shape up to carry this farce to the bitter end with elan or at least  marginal competence. Overall, they’re likable. No, I mean it. For the film’s contexts the cast and crew of the Virgil are all enjoyable (even Tucci’s snot. I enjoyed his smarm). The key to this is stereotyping. I know, I was just as surprised as you are. If The Core is a nod to Allen disaster flicks, then there better be a disparate mishmash of oddballs and heroes at the ready, all of which possess that certain something that makes it all click. What is this magic ingredient?

Simple. Stereotyping.

Why do we stereotype? Because it’s easier and it’s quicker. With the rapid fire pace The Core delivers, really deep character study is superfluous. Just go along with the reluctant hero-moustache twirling rapscallion-maverick scientist-plotting MIC types. And a girl. Gotta have a girl. Helps if she’s pretty, and carrying around an Oscar adds a bit of street cred, too. The Core‘s casting is straight out of a John Hughes reunion, chockablock with all the dopey sci-fi stereotypes you can shake a stick at. And all of them reassuringly cheesy with faceplam-worthy dialogue to boot. Makes the mission go down a bit easier overall. So to speak.

Still with all the B-movie histrionics, wonky characters and implausible…everything, The Core is lacking in a few basic, first grade elements that could’ve elevated it to Irwin Allen fractured glory. I’m always talking about pacing here at RIORI. How it’s absolutely essential to drive the plot. Now The Core does have decent pacing, but there is some noticeable sputtering throughout the thing. To wit, is there such a thing as reserved urgency? If so, then this movie has it. Right, right, we know the Earth is doomed. The thinktank is working on a rescue plan. Things seem very dire. Then why are all these folks so damned rational about it? I know our crew is composed of steely military types and MIT misfits known to be more mindful that emotional. But this is a movie, too. If this were the ideal disaster flick, there’d be sufficient freak-outs countered by urgent emotional face-slapping to quell the rantings (“Forget him! He’s gone!” “No he’s not!” – Hicks and Vasquez from Aliens, BTW). Nope. Some shouting, but that’s about it.

An aside: despite the dynamite casting, we have a glaring issue. I don’t care about her Oscars. Hilary Swank seems really out of place here. Even if she got her start as The Next Karate Kid, action apparently isn’t her strong suit. Most of the film Beck seems wobbly, detached and wooden. The look on her face most of the time says, “Stupid agent.” Even Alfre Woodard—one of my fave actresses—who is on par with Swank’s dramatic chops snarls a lot better that Hilary does. Other than Swank, as I’ve pounded on, the rest of the cast was great.

One more thing for the bitch board: Amiel may have been trying to honor Allen’s disaster flicks with The Core, but overall his work came across as “Poor Man’s Emmerich.” Noodle that one. Sure, the action plays out smooth, but the direction was also kinda tame. It was as if Amiel was playing it safe, holding back. I know that sounds hard to believe after my glowing shiny shiny, but there’s this feeling of drawing the whole thing out (at 2 plus hours running time, this isn’t such a stretch. So to speak). A little too much roominess for all the ensuing pyrotechnics. It can make for a sort of uneven viewing experience, a la that “reserved urgency.” Emmerich throws everything and the kitchen sink out the freakin’ window with his bread and circuses. Amiel should’ve cranked up the nutty a bit more is all. Just sayin’.

Despite the dumb and corn (or perhaps because of it), I dug The Core. So to speak. I’ll stop that now. It’s a complete waste of time. The acting is silly. The story is demented. The F/X were awesome. Just toss the remote over your shoulder—after you’ve grabbed a cold six first—watch and let your cranium fill with Oreo filling. Some action movies are dramatic. Some are violent. And some are just unapologetically stupid. That being said, Irwin Allen would’ve approved of The Core.

Now if it only had a Leslie Nielsen cameo. Box office gold.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Its flaws make it great. Like with Pacific Rim, don’t think too hard about it. Just go with it. Better get two sixers for optimal viewing pleasure. Play it safe.


Stray Observations…

  • “There’s nothing on the other side of the equal sign.” I suck at math, too.
  • “Unobtainium?” Isn’t that the crap the bad guys were mining for in Avatar? Cameron, first the Harlan Ellison swipe and now this?
  • “God, I hate this sky.” F*cking smog I tell ya.
  • This must be the first disaster movie ever that has a simulator of an imaginary machine. Told you Amiel was kind of playing it safe.
  • “All right. I’m hitting him again.”
  • Wouldn’t Journey To The Center Of The Earth be a better title? Ah, right. Been done and has too many words for modern Pokemon Go audiences.
  • “After that it gets bad.”

Next Installment…

“Better leave her behind with The Kids Are All Right.”