RIORI Presents Installment #192: Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” (2008)


The Film…


The Players…

Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfadyen, Rebecca Hall, Oliver Platt, Toby Jones and naturally Clint Howard.


The Plot…

In 1977, with Watergate still heavy on America’s mind, journeyman television personality David Frost is curious about Nixon’s unwillingness to discuss the scandal. He manages to convince the disgraced president for a few interviews to allow the man a chance to set the historical record straight. Warts and all.

Only Britain would go to Nixon.


The Rant…

Yeah, yeah. I’m still tweaking the site. I’m trying to make it read a little more efficient, read more pro and lend a hand to any newbs that link here. Ain’t that a great line of bullsh*t or what? Now on with this week’s lucky contestant.

Every time I watch the news—which isn’t often—I ask myself, “Who in the world would want to be the President?” After air traffic controllers, EMTs and javelin catchers the presidency must be the most stressful job in the world. Sure, there are perks. Nice house, Air Force One, Camp David, unlimited travel opportunities, the occasional park named after you and whatnot. However most of the time it’s being under constant scrutiny, tons of desk jockeying, dealing with skeezy lobbyists and not to mention skeezy heads of state from around the world, always butting heads with Congress, signing more stuff and being blamed for the sh*t the previous president set in motion, which overrides your original platform. Small wonder Reagan got addicted to jelly beans, LBJ to Fresca and JFK to Marilyn Monroe. We all seek release in our own way.

Do you want to know what I think the biggest thing that’s a strike against being president? Tough, shush and listen: it’s the lack of privacy. You would always be under the microscope by the government, your constituents and the media in equal, oft strident measure. Understanding the president is the international face of America they gave up their privacy as soon as they were sworn in, if not even on the campaign trail. Here’s the Oval Office, friend. This is as small as your world gets now, plus you better lose that ashtray.

Like with any other public office, the President’s face is omnipresent. State Of The Union? The President. A memorial speech? The President. To apply weight to a PSA? The President. The opening pitch at the Nationals opening season? The Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn? A summit? A press conference? Prez Prez Prez. Whew. With all that public spectacle the President deserves some privacy. Like that’s ever going to happen. Here’s a minor example of what I’m getting at: you may recall when President Clinton adopted his dog Buddy and they went jogging together (with an unobtrusive coterie of Secret Service agents along for the ride) in the early morning? No big deal; folks jog with their dogs all the time. Ah, but this was the President going for a jog, with the First Dog in tow, no less. Out came the jogging camera crew to cover…how Bubba and Buddy went for walkies.

That kind of jive is unquestionably silly. A man and his dog. A matter of state. The internet cracked in half. Whatever and change the channel. The guy in the Oval Office needs to feel normal now and again. To get away from it all once on a while, hence Camp David, and even that isn’t sacred anymore. Jeez, where does the uber-stressed out uber-politician find some R&R?

They don’t. Not really. The last time I heard that some President got any quality time was when Teddy Roosevelt went camping or hunting a jillion miles away from a newspaper. Or tubby Taft being the ultra baseball nut (he was the first Prez to throw the first pitch of the season, as well as accidentally creating the seventh inning stretch) and never missing a home game for the Washington Nationals. Or even when Obama played Wii Sports with Sasha and Malia before bed. And how the hell do I know all this crap if we’re talking about possible Presidential privacy?

Wanna lead the country? Take down that Facebook page. Ain’t gonna need it no mo’.

Here’s the flipside.

There are many adages regarding how those in high places must be careful when minding their productivity and quality therein. “Who watches the watchers themselves?” “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” “No, I am your father!” Warnings and cautions to those in power better watch their ass when it comes to public relations. And let’s face facts, many presidents were caught with their pants down, so to speak. Jefferson, JFK and Clinton all got tagged as cheaters. Lincoln had clinical depression. Grant was a functioning alcoholic. Both Hayes and Dubya’s ascent to the throne were in question. Obama smoked. Trump once hosted a reality show. No one’s perfect, but to have their dirty laundry aired by the papers, the radio, Fox News and Google? Where does it stop? Should it? Should the Prez be accountable for every bare scintilla of action, which may effect the government in particular and the republic as a whole?

Yes.

Sometimes those angular secrets reveal the intentions or even the true nature of the President. Either some hidden agendum or a skeleton in the closet (“Mr Jefferson? Sally Hemings on line 2. It’s a girl!”) may affect the normally rational judgment we hope our elected leaders posses. Or not. Most of us couldn’t be bothered by what gets churned out on Capitol Hill so long as our roads are paved and the price of Arizona tea never goes up. But there are inner workings, always inner workings that drive the president beyond his public office. It’s called being human, and most humans regardless of title have at least one hidden agendum in the closet. The best presidential example?

You guessed it. Richard Milhaus Nixon.

This choice is not just because of this week’s movie. Nor is it how his administration crashed and burned into scandal and dust. It’s about how “the mighty have fallen.” Drop the portcullis. Release the hounds. Unleash the Kraken. The failed Nixon administration and the ensuing folderol is a shame really. Nixon was born to politic, but the demons that plagued him from the past came to the fore once in office. Heist by his own petard and boy did the man go down in flames, and not some blaze of glory. Go f*ck off America. And Cambodia. And Laos. And accountability. Dammit, Tricky Dick, WTF went wrong?

To keep it short, it was an open secret that Nixon kept a list of his enemies towards the end of his time in the White House. He had over 20 names on the list, including trusted NPR columnist Daniel Schorr and beloved leading man Paul Newman (?). I forget who stated this regarding Nixon’s list, but if a man has to make a list of his enemies he has too many enemies. Rev Martin L King was also skeptical about Nixon’s intentions regarding his politics, him telling a Nixon biographer, “If Richard Nixon is not sincere, he is the most dangerous man in America.” MLK passing judgment. Consider that for a brief moment.

I did some honest research before tackling this installment. Since I wasn’t around when Watergate went down, I bounced around from site to site to get the whole picture. And boy, that picture was drawn by dozens of artists on retainer. Way too many details. So much so that when I unravelled the matter, I still felt there was more to the story. I even asked a few co-workers about the scandal who were around when I wasn’t.

For the uninformed (read: me) back during election year 1974, when Nixon was pursuing a second term, he and his cronies wanted to dig up some dirt on his possible rivals come November. The DNC was being held at the Watergate Hotel, so via espionage and burglary five thieves busted into the complex with the aim to wiretap the place so the committee to re-elect Nixon could get some straight dope from those on his Enemies List. They were caught red-handed, hired by the goons in Nixon’s inner circle. Understanding the dire fix he was in, definite impeachment looming large, Nixon had to decide to either sh*t or get off the pot. He got off the pot, resigned and took flight.

My older co-workers agreed, “Yes. That was pretty much it.”

Watergate was a warning beacon and/or a cautionary tale of when the President’s right to keeping certain things private—under wraps—could turn rotten, or at least misguided. Despite my limited understanding of Nixon’s rise and fall, I could not but help to view him as a tragic figure. I’m talking his foibles, not how he conducted business. I mean, one did inform the other, but keeping it all bottled up was Nixon’s ultimate downfall. Which is sad. He was probably the most qualified person to be President than any other in the 20th Century. He served in the Navy, becoming a decorated lieutenant post-Pearl Harbor (despite being a birthright Quaker, who do not condone violence in any form). He had a sterling record as a California congressman and later in senate (despite his very far right leanings, even for the 1950s). He was Ike’s VP. Despite losing to Kennedy in 1960 he handily won the 1968 election by a virtual electoral landslide (his 301 votes to Humphrey’s respectable 191 and Wallace’s paltry 46). In power he upgraded Medicaid and even helped the EPA get off the ground. And in 1972 only Nixon could go to China, literally.

All these political accomplishments, and still. Talking about his “Enemies List” opens a door into a very successful politician and a very insure man. With Watergate, his demons were laid bare, and they had been lurking al along. Recall MLK’s comment. As Prez, Nixon cut a presence. He had a unique voice and mannerisms that exuded assuredness. He truly mastered the “bully pulpit” stance that Teddy Roosevelt pioneered almost 80 years hence. Nixon was good at spin. He was also adept at denial. The man had many bones to pick from dinosaurs in his youth. After all I looked up on the man I got the impression that what got Nixon into politics—and he was very good at it—was not a desire to serve his country, but rather prove to all those “enemies” from his past, “See? How ya like me now?” That skein got unwound very fast in 1974. More like a tidal surge from a man’s tortured mind. It’s all very sad in hindsight.

And consider this: if Nixon did own up to his crimes? If he did apologize for his malfeasance? Would he seem sympathetic?

Like I said, it would be up to the court of public opinion to decide. Not an impeachment hearing…


The Story…

Not long after President Gerald Ford—perhaps the last just man in Sodom—pardoned Richard Nixon (Langella) for his involvement in the Watergate Scandal, the outrage bubbled up. What the hell really happened? Wiretapping? Where are those tapes? What’s on ’em? What are you hiding, Dick? The impeachment never happened, but there was still the court of public opinion to answer to. You were our elected leader and you abused your power! Understandably, Americans were very upset the President tried to hoodwink them, and instead of standing trial, Nixon resigned and fled. In the endgame there was no apology for the man’s misdeeds.

It was more like the reckoning. It was true Nixon never owned up to his alleged crimes; the man was proud and wanted his stained reputation cleansed. If not for the public’s satisfaction but for his. Nixon was firmly convinced he had served his country well, therefore deserving a modicum of respect. An opportunity to explain to America his side of the story may improve his image, which had been tarnished for far too long. Yes, Watergate was a huge mess, but even the lowest of the low is entitled to at least one second chance. Right?

Enter David Frost (Sheen). A ribald TV personality from the UK, Frost’s equally at home emceeing game shows as he was conducting talk show interviews. A clown, for lack of a better term. Fluff was his medium, aided well with having a nose for the next hot property that came down the pike. Ever opportunistic, Frost hatched the idea that would make him a legit (or at least respectable) TV journalist. He watched Nixon’s resignation on the tube and had a corker of an idea: sit down with the disgraced former President and interview him. Get the scoop on all that went down leading up to Watergate. The ratings would be huge! As well as a chance for Frost to crack America.

It took a few years, but Nixon caught wind of this upstart young Brit’s plan to bring the true Nixon to the masses. Nixon figured Frost as an easy mark, a lightweight, and in front of the camera he could spin whatever came to his mind while this whippersnapper could just sit still, cringe and experience Nixon The Man in full force! The former president could explain away everything while this limey tot would have to just sit still and quiver whilst being broadcasted to millions of Americans. To Nixon this would be the best of both worlds: speak his peace and demonstrate the authority that his f*cking former subjects refused to respect.

Such scheming didn’t account for two things: Frost’s artless on air ambition, and Nixon’s failure to understand he’s not President anymore.

We’re going live in three, two, one…


The Review…

Ron Howard is no stranger to historical fiction. I examined his biopic Cinderella Man here, much to my delight. His Apollo 13 was a real crowd pleaser. His Far And Away not so much, but at least we got a history lesson on how the Howard family set down roots in America. A Beautiful Mind won a (dubious) Best Picture Oscar, and introduced most of us to the almost forgotten mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr. He explained away better than anyone the intractable Moby-Dick by recounting the maritime exploits that inspired the novel with In The Heart Of The Sea. Howard even directed a pair of documentaries regarding the Beatles and Jay-Z (read that again). Safe to say the guy knows his stuff and has his thesis on its way to the AFI. Probably already there, with a program at the ready in Howard Film Studies.

After watching many, many of his films I believe I understand Howard’s appeal. Ron spent so much of the time in his youth starring on TV shows (EG: from Andy Griffith to Happy Days) that how a studio works to create a solid investment—hopefully a profitable one—there must be an efficient formula to get the job done. Such an ethos plays out in practice with his films. His movies are of middlebrow entertainment, aided by keen scenarists, solid actors and overall an engaging story. Not a lot of flash and splash (in fact, most of his films that apply that kinda formula ain’t that good. Read: The DaVinci Code movies), and whatever style gets spun a decent amount of substance makes up for any of the usual Hollywood trappings. I’m thinking about those comments Scorsese made about the MCU not being cinema. Whatever that means, especially regarding Howard’s output. Movies are meant to entertain first, and maybe become examples of art. I figure Howard just wants to direct good stories. And if the films get an award? That’s nice, but awards are fleeting in showbiz, whereas maintaining a good reputation is priceless.

So the numero uno appeal of Howard’s movies is their efficiency. The pacing is always spot on. His best films are like playing Ocarina Of Time (“Hey! Listen!”): just challenging enough, yet still rewarding. Your curiosity never wavers about what the next scene’s gonna deliver. However…this gets formulaic. The best directors always play their hands. It’s their signature, but sometimes it works through innovation, not revolution. Spielberg has been getting away with faces of shock and awe ever since Duel. Namely, we expect a certain madness to our fave directors’ methods. I now claim that when some sort of twist invades a good directors’ manque, makes them think twice, proposes a challenge, ah! Something to be reckoned with! Gimme a shot. Like all good directors try. Hey, Coppola was the pinnacle of mediocre until he was handed the script to The Godfather films. I’d like to believe that Howard rose to a similar challenge with Frost/Nixon. Seemed that way to me.

So what was different this time out for Richie Cunningham? Frost/Nixon‘s script. It was based on a stage play. And it showed in the best way possible. Instead of applying the term “pacing” as the ace in my hole of movie watching, substitute “efficiency.” Howard’s overall directorial style is efficiency; can’t say that enough. On the whole precious little screen time was wasted filler; scenes there just to pad out the story for story’s sake, not a movie. Efficiency is the watchword of any play. There are no second takes in a play. There are no editors. Even the director is relegated to the wings when the curtains go up. This spirit carried over with Howard’s approach. Nixon had a solid docudrama feel, a Ken Burns type air, but not handling the subject matter. The direction. Every shot, every scene, told a very deliberate story. Deliberate, doubtless with Howard’s experience in TV. This was a movie about a series of TV interviews, correct? The connective tissue between Frost’s drive, Nixon’s “charm,” and the whole production is about seeing. There were plenty of shots regarding Clint Howard as the director of the interviews tugging at both Frost and Nixon equally, for production value. This whole affair was about image, not truth, justice and Nixon having his way. Nixon was compartmentalized like a proper three act play. Here and now. Take. Here and now. Take. And so forth. Sounds boring, but don’t confuse boredom with efficiency. With Howard at the helm, Nixon was—as jazz fans understand—in the pocket.

I found another key aspect of this play-to-film wonderfully curious. Howard is known to have a gentle but omnipresent hand on his cast members. Not like that, you pervs. The actor whisperer. Since Nixon was based on historical events, Howard managed to coax honesty out of a parcel of rogues who have in other films acted like…themselves, only here to frame the narrative. Not to crack wise, but to commit.

Here’s what I’m screaming: Rockwell, Platt and Sheen are loose cannons. It’s their stock in trade. Yet with Nixon they were playing muted versions of their schtick. We traded comedy for the gaunt sweat act. Rockwell’s characters are usually blowhards and Platt’s are as equally blustery. Sheen knows no bounds as a a fixture of quirky cinema (EG: Midnight In Paris, The Underworld movies as well as The Twilight Saga). The only quirks here with Nixon is playing shallow and way out of his league as Frost. This is our protagonist? The guy to get the job done? He’s as equally ineffective has Nixon to get a straight story. And yet it works. These ruffians are the cinematic version of the Classic muses: Practice (Frost), Memory (Reston) and Song (Platt). All foils to Tricky Dick, our Melpomene here. The muse of tragedy. And what’s more Classic than a three act drama after all? More on those three stooges later.

And calm down. There’s drunken ranting on the way. Relax. I’m a professional.

Speaking of Nixon’s portrayal, Langella is a character actor extraordinaire. If the guy can be Skeletor, he can be Nixon without any air of mimicry. Despite the truth that Nixon’s personality and mannerisms are so entrenched in America’s pop culture (read: like Star Trek, Star Wars and the purple stuff vs Sunny D debate) that him bringing something new to the screen is nothing short of engaging. Nixon was a human being, after all. Shoddy president, sure, but someone was demonized as he was back then was still a person with feelings like all of us. Thanks in part to the story’s timeline, Langella pulls of a Nixon that most Americans may have never seen: not being the president, at least not in body. Langella pulls off the charm and cagey personality of the late Nixon, as well as his well honed, lizard-like guardedness that became all he was post-Watergate. Langella’s Nixon oozes charisma and menace in equal measure, all the while ratcheting up the tension so the audience may get the to see him crack, given enough of Frost’s rope if at all. In sum, Langella was great at being Nixon the performer.

As Langella’s foil, Sheen did a remarkable job of both overcoming and mining from his fanciful roles that prepared him for assuming Frost’s mantel. Sheen’s Frost quickly learned he is way in over his head with his pet project. The man was so hungry for the interviews he’d do/pay almost anything just to prove he’s legit. No shocker that the very few had much faith in Frost, and for good reason. Sheen delivered his character as shallow as a carnival barker, which isn’t straying from the truth. On some level Sheen’s Frost had the media cache of Rod Roddy, and a lot of back alley dealing was done in order to fund his little, dangerous venture. Um, I’m no tele-journalist, and perhaps back in 1977 things worked differently, but would bush league Frost make a Faustian bargain just for ratings?

Yes. And he did. The watchword regarding Sheen’s performance as Frost is shallow. Almost plastic. Desperate and insecure, and his swinging lifestyle made by his journeywork had in no way prepared David for his Goliath. Sheen is codependent (he never seemed to be alone with himself), buoyed by a carefully etched personality and a wooden smile. Frost’s jet-setting image was a very obvious, but less engaging affront. It’s him trying to dress the part (K)but the imperious attitude that has served him so well in the past is flayed naked when it gets down to the nitty-gritty of hard journalism. Sheen’s Frost was shallow; he was entrenched in it. Always with the grin. I kept waiting for Frost to crack well before Nixon might. You noticed how his posture kept changing during the shoot? (K). Like Nixon, Frost was a human being, too. Sheen was awesome as a flawed crusader, but just as imperfect as his opponent was. We earned his sympathy, but it took until the end of the second act. Before that I wanted to slap Sheen silly enough to knock the Valence off his scalp.

Beware of things in threes. The third leg of this potential media blunder stood on Kevin Bacon’s Jack Brennan. Nixon’s lap dog. Bacon, as we all understand and six degrees notwithstanding, is probably the most successful, viable character actors over the past 50 years. And why not? What can’t he do (besides surviving the first Friday The 13th movie)?

Bacon’s Brennan is the Spock to Frost’s Kirk and Nixon’s McCoy. He’s the superego. The negotiator and the one member of the cast who truly understands the make or break nature of Frost’s project. That lap dog crack wasn’t to be snarky. (K) If the interviews make Nixon look bad it’ll make Brennan look very bad, the one who never abandoned the man the rest of an underserving country did. Loyalty, no matter how blind, and anything less would be turning his back on his country. And Nixon. Jeez Brennan is so dedicated a confidant to the former president he even sounds like Nixon. In politics as well as potboiler TV journalism Brennan can see the whole picture. The man has a great deal invested in not only serving Nixon, but protecting an image.

Bacon is stern, passionate and supposedly painted as an antagonist. His Jack doesn’t really come across that way. There’s another major reason why Bacon has been such an in demand character actor for decades. He’s very versatile. Although his Jack a dedicated officer, he’s conflicted. Some other infected his Commander In Chief into impropriety. Bacon plays Brennan not as some blind patriot, but hopes the interviews go well, exonerate Nixon and reassure Jack that he wasn’t backing a losing horse well after the race ended. Bacon’s careful image is so practiced and polished that if its stretched too far it’ll break. The creeping stress and strain Bacon exudes is chaffing against his kind and professional appearance. Overall watching Bacon squirm and sigh and sometimes crack a smile displays the very best of his versatility. If you doubt this, recall his performances in Tremors, Footloose, Stir Of Echoes and/or Diner. Greatest hits here with Jack Brennan. He was the fulcrum upon which two uber-egos are teetering.

Okay, enough man crushes. Since Nixon was ostensibly based on a play there are only small roles, never small actors. The trio of Frost’s coterie/brain trust that was Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell and Matthew Macfadyen provided a sturdy backbone to keep time on task, not fluffing Frost’s jittery ego. Sure, their his entourage, but not in it for fortune and elbow-rubbing. There’s a mission here, which is proudly introduced by Sam Rockwell’s Reston. He’s a holdover from the self-righteous crusading against The Man yippie, cynical and bitter. I love it when Rockwell gets to be Rockwell. His style is almost always pleasantly unhinged that comes across natural. He’s the kind of character actor that thrives on assuming a role that is not outside his schtick. If you’ve ever seen The Way, Way BackSeven Psychopaths,or Matchstick Men (all covered here, duh) then you know what I mean. His part kinda gets the ball rolling if you consider it.

Oliver Platt is famous for his onscreen prattle, and with Nixon it’s no different. The mouth that walks like a man. He may be considered comic relief, but under the circumstances of Frost’s baby he’s not intentionally funny. His bluster and “what the hell are we doing here, man?” You ever seen Apocalypse Now, with Dennis Hopper as the photojournalist? Platt was like that, only less manic. His was more like his gorge was always on the way to being buoyant, and it took Rockwell and especially Macfadyen to reign him in.

And speaking of Macfadyen—the aide de camp—his icy logic keeps Frost in check (there’s a kind of mechanics at work here with Nixon, don’t you think). His Burt is the antithesis of Jack. Where Brennan was active, trying to be “the man behind the man,” Birt was the man behind the curtain. Always reigning in Frost’s frustrations and anxieties. Keep the eyes on the prize. Birt reminded me of Mr Spock, and that’s a complement. Someone had to keep Frost out of the clouds. Truth be told Macfadyen was more like Mr Data, telling it like it is, and with a conviction so stern you could not but help to listen to him when he was on screen. Macfadyen was the tonic that the rest of the cast needed, as did we. Escape the silly flights of fancy and get back to work, people!

So that’s the cast. Like I said, Nixon was based on a stage play, so there were no small roles. Solid acting all around. Sounds like I have no gripes. Psych!

The technical aspect of Nixon was a bit dodgy. The air of crusading got a bit repetitive and tiring. A lot of spinning wheels. It felt like after a while we knew the film’s outcome, but not in the way Howard’s Apollo 13 did. We know the crew of the Odyssey REDACTEDNixon got very busy at times. The bottom end of the second act got rather frenetic, our intrepid rubes trying to get their sh*t together after the early interviews turned into Nixon spin doctoring. Call this nervous tension. If all of these histrionics are designed to make us all uneasy, only to make the final reveal all the more rewarding, then the job got done. If only in a cheaped fashion. It’s a minor carp, but it still stuck at me. Talk about a literal media circus.

The key scene in the entire movie may be the best, but also may have been totally fictionalized. Nixon as I repeat was based on a stage play of the same name, and as with plays there’s no room for “filler.” However with the shrewd and efficient Howard at the helm, he know how to bring his audience back down to Earth.  By this I mean he permits his oft wizened protagonists [EG: Jim Lovell, John Nash, The Grinch (no fooling here), etc] a small window of opportunity/redemption to turn things around in their favor. This tactic plays out in what I’ll call the “drunk dial” scene. If this was a true story, it was a vital foreshadowing of the final interview. If Howard made it all up…it would still be cool.

We’ve been led across an hour and 45 minutes of post political posturing and way too many 70’s era fashions. There better be a glitch in the Matrix if we’re gonna wrap up little slice of while we’re still young. We’ve learned the stakes grow ever hight as one interview becomes another interview. We still don’t truly understand what the endgame is. Frost seeking legitimacy or Nixon demanding redemption? Until the call.

I won’t give it away. The crux of the whole story resting a single scene and I’m gonna blow the load? That’s worse than spoiling. That’s just a dick move (no pun intended).

Keeping it simple: Frost gets to passively bleed a tipsy Dick dry before their last on air day together. That’s it, that’s all and pay attention when that scene arrives. Howard efficiency at its best. And it sure would’ve been a cool story if it ever was.

I guess I should wrap up now. I’ve been longwinded but surgical in this week’s installment. The subject matter demanded it. There were no easy answers from Nixon. I think that one message I could’ve walked away with it’s always very hard to have that talk with the man in the mirror. The guy that knows everything. Every little detail, speck, foible and good deed in the reflection.

Sure beats being grilled in a stranger’s house by some limey playboy with a perm.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, indeed. Although Nixon was dense as well as cluttered in equal doses, Howard’s trademark efficient direction made for a very absorbing historical. Funny thing though is it still had that tightness and intimacy that comes with a play. Guess I’ve watched My Dinner With Andre once too often. Inconceivable!


The Stray Observations…

  • Sheen has perfect, distracting hair.
  • “You and Vidal Sassoon.”
  • Nice metaphor with The Great Escape there.
  • “I got six.”
  • Does Kevin Bacon ever age?
  • “I wouldn’t want to be a Russian leader. They never know when they’re being taped.”
  • (K) Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
  • Rockwell has a good shaggy hippie look going on, because a decade after the Summer Of Love is what he looks like.
  • “Can I play Deep Crack?”
  • Sometimes a cigar is not a cigar.
  • “Those are real Bunnies?”
  • Hey, Platt does a good Nixon. Maybe better than Langella.
  • “No holds barred.”

The Kudos…

And so concludes our series of pulverizing biopics and fictional histories here at RIORI. I never knew how much of you in the blogosphere were so interested in such movies. The hits have been crazy. Thanks. Guess I should try this again sometime. Perhaps with a different genre. We’ll see.

Thanks again for tuning in and all the likes. We should do this more often. 🙂


The Next Time…

And now for something completely different. It’s time to bone up on some classic animated comedy for the New Century. It’s the Looney Tunes: Back In Action! Catch it, Doc!


RIORI Presents Installment #191: Morten Tyldum’s “The Imitation Game” (2014)


The Movie…


The Players…

Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightly, Mark Strong, Allen Leech, Rory Kinnear, Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode and Charles Dance, with Alex Lawther and Jack Bannon.


The Story…

When England entered the fray back in World War II, she was a starving nation. As an island country, supply ships were the lifeblood of the nation. However said ships were regularly torpedoed by the Axis’ U-Boats and the Allies’ planes shot down before landing. Why? It was an enigma.

Or rather the Enigma: the Nazis’ supposedly unbreakable coder/decoder, the ultimate machine made to deliver encrypted orders. Every day the codex changes, and every day Allied aid is rendered flotsam, jetsam and burning flak. Impossible to determine when the next attack will strike. The UK needs to crack those codes and soon, or all will be lost.

England’s best mathematicians have been beset to cracking the damned machine, and have been bested over and over again. Time is running out, and who could ever be sharp enough to find a pattern? Well, humble, eccentric mathematics professor Alan Turning has a notion, but first it must pass military muster. And it eventually does: Fight fire with fire. Create a machine to defeat a machine.

Turing’s so crazy that he just might make it work.


The Update…

Yeah, yeah. I know. Always streamlining yet still dropping down traffic cones. Those orange ones. They mean beware. Like Pete Townsend lyricized, “The music must change; For we’re chewing a bone.” I’m now getting down to the marrow, out of respect for my subscribers. Namely be more direct and quit the fluff. You’ll get it later. Hopefully.

*clackboard*


The Rant…

Here we are, yet again. This is the penultimate installment of historical fiction movies (until a fresh one comes a-creeping), that the formers have been received quite well here at RIORI. I’ve been genuinely surprised and quite pleased. I guess it’s kinda significant, since the likes and visits have been off the minor scale that this blog reaches. Thanks fer yer support.

Here we go…

Once a while back while waiting for my auto to be serviced, I picked up a then recent issue of Time magazine while in the waiting room. Time magazine, where I always go for the truth. Some article I gleaned was about a computer program that could beat the “Turing Test” courtesy of the nice folks at Google, natch. It broke down the program algorithms of human speech so to mimic responses to the user’s questions and answers. There was a sample of the journalist’s discourse with the computer that ran Google’s digital Rosetta Stone to illustrate how smart the program was in imitating human conversation. Nifty.

Before we lurch any further, I feel the definition of what the “Turning Test” (AKA “The Imitation Game.” Hey! Like the movie!) is. Dr Turing hypothesized that a test for intelligence in a computer, requiring that a human being should be unable to distinguish the machine from another human being by using the replies to questions put to both (definition courtesy of the OED). Sort of a like a game of poker, with a heavy amount of bluffing.

I’ll cut to the chase of what the article said: Google’s advanced whatsit failed to pass. Why? By responding to human questions in an all too human way. Simply put, Google Turing kept changing the subject when it did not know how to respond. This happened often. A lot. Not unlike a lot of flesh and bloods who find the conversation awkward. Since the interviewer knew he was chatting with a computer didn’t make for a decent double blind, how the program kept changing the subject was key to making it feel akin to dealing with a telemarker rather than a member of the human race.

In true Google fashion, the conversation ran like ads, suggesting products, demographics and the (failed) Google Glass quite a bit. Much face was lost. Blame the humans with the discourse, not the one that started it. It felt to me that the program didn’t fail at mimicking human conversation (it was transcribed in the article). It failed mimicking human nature.

More on that later. Open the pod bay door, Hal.

Do computers really “compute” anymore? The original, ginormous, granddaddy of ’em all computer ENIAC did just that back in the day. Calculating mathematical equations that, in short, helped the Allies to win World War II. ENIAC was the first digital computer. It was as big as a trailer home, used vacuum tubes instead of non-existent microchips to store memory of less than that of ten digit decimals, and was modular but never really portable—it could be dismantled for transit to another lab, which required a few trucks. ENIAC didn’t have WiFi or even Solitaire. Not a feature was stirring. Not even a mouse.

Ho ho ho.

Modern computers, like my iMac, iPhone and iPad, do indeed compute. They use math in order to run programs. However they don’t use a ten digit decimal memory, instead they employ bytes. 00 and 01. Positive and negative. Kilo, mega, giga and tera. Yes or no, perhaps what Turing was getting at when he hypothesized how a computer could “think.” Could a computerized device think for itself? Hence his imitation game, which—Time magazine notwithstanding—has been lost time and time again over the past thirty years or so. Modern computers don’t think in the classical sense, but they do the thinking for us. Modern computers suck at human nature, but they excel at predicting it.

What am I getting at? Glad you failed to ask. Here’s a quick Turing-esque question: what’s your mother’s phone number? I’ll wait.

….

…..

Did you look at your phone or did the correct ten digits ran through your brain? These days, I’m placing my bets on the former. I do it too, and my senior mother lives with me. Chances are your entire contact list is there on your smartphone so you don’t have to bother remembering it. Here’s a relevant story: once upon a time I called Apple tech support to deal with something hinky with my new phone, and knowing full well it’s hard to tweak your mobile while talking on it I opted to use mom’s phone to make the call.

It didn’t go as planned.

The IVR was useless, so I pressed zero. The CCR was useless, because she failed to hear me say I was not on my iPhone but was using my mother’s which was why the accounts didn’t jibe plus it’s hard to tweak oh you get it. Long story short after our planet made its annual stroll around the sun the Tech asked me to specify exactly which iPhone was I calling about. I gave her my number and clarified I was talking on my mother’s line, and then gave her mom’s.

“Wow! You knew that off the top of your head?”

Sheepishly I said, “I checked my contacts list on my phone.”

My mother. As of this installment I still haven’t committed her number to memory. Any why not? That’s what mobile phones are for.

It’s about the anti-Turing test. Computers can’t think outright, even in these challenging times. But they can think for us. Examples? I don’t know your phone number, but you could call me if you wanted. I don’t know what level your PC is at in the latest iteration of Gears Of War, but your team does and you’ve never met any of them IRL. Nor should you, nor does it matter. Spotify knows what you want to listen to. Tinder knows how desperate/horny you are. Your Apple Watch knows your pulse rate and you don’t and you never thought about your pulse rate until you strapped that gizmo over your wrist in the first place. You’re welcome and thank you.

I figure you follow, but thanks to the tenor of this tale I’m probably going to retell a story of why I gave up online video games and why MMOs concern me. The reason? It was an addiction, and my brain left my mind for two years. It was also something bit more sinister, and I’ll bet Turing would’ve never calculated this game:

I heard about some matter back in 2001 regarding some plane crashes in NYC. I knew about hunting for 7 star plus weapons for my PC in Phantasy Star Online, v 2.0 on my Sega Dreamcast via side quests and trading between myself and my online cadre at 2 AM, every AM from London because the USA server was littered with dooshes. It cost me 5 Euros monthly, but was worth it.

My Dreamcast and Sega.net knew this so I didn’t have to. Pew pew pew. Rather my diminutive, curvy, cutie pie HUnewearl could score free items from my teammates just by me being high level as well as being female (BTW the Dreamcast was the best 6 gen console ever). The game had it’s primitive algorithms; being the first console with built-in online capability (56k dial up or broadband. No WiFi yet), and you could download games as well as upgrade hard copy in the forms of new quests, advancing difficulty and of course always new hacks and treasures. For 2001 online gaming, it was very immersive. So much so that were three priorities in my life back in 2000-02: PSOv2, work and booze. Eating and the g/f became mere distractions. I’m not kidding that the game became my life. Like so many addictions, you cannot wait for your next fix, be it a drink, a smoke or a raid party. It becomes all consuming, and when your addiction is calmed by the power of a machine, a computer, well you’ve just given up freewill and sunshine to level up your team of customized skins.

The computer is thinking for you by that point. It guides your moves, urges and business. It’s not really that different than saving numbers in your smart phone, or digital photos on your hard drive (the app can sort them out for you) or every bit of info about your life in the Cloud. You don’t have to remember sh*t anymore, even how to write a proper blog. Grammerly will tell you how to write good. I mean well. It’s all there in the bits and bytes of your lives, either waiting for you to initiate something or finding some link that may engage you. Sad? Cynical? Doomspeak? Yeah. The truth? Getting there.

As if wasn’t made clear by now, I’ve always been wary of unbridled technology run amok. It’s usually tied to advertising and profit in some fashion, telling what you want, by billboard and website alike. I’m not a luddite, though; I don’t think technology is evil in itself, but how it is used isn’t always about creating viable COVID vaccines. Sometimes tech is used to create COVID and its evil brood, if you hear what I’m screaming. Computers are only as helpful as their users, and what they program and access can make our society rise and fall. These days, thanks to the Internet we have a wealth of information and a dearth of wisdom. Social media is an echo chamber and crypto currency is a select swindle. Did you put a third mortgage on your home to finance a PS5? Why do I ask this stuff?

So, is what the imitation claimed accurate? Can we tell if computers can think, even in the abstract, like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Like AI? I don’t think so, not yet anyways. However if we reach that point in the not so distant the computers will do fully think for us like in The Matrix and we’ll be downgraded to just mere applications. Apps, the programs that run your “lives.”

Turing may have been right in his conjecture. I can almost hear him turning over in his ashes…


The Review…

In my never-ending quest for simplicity and efficiency I decided with this installment to forgo The Story section en toto. Hope you read the above Warning. I finally figured there’s no need to re-encapsulate the movie’s plot that I already encapsulated in The Basics section. We can all read. That’s why we’re here, I hope. Otherwise you got lost and the link to DraftKings is here. Now double down, ante up, whatever and thank your mom for the sandwiches.

Ostensibly, The Imitation Game was about how the eccentric and brilliant mathematician Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) created the first truly digital computer to decipher the Nazi’s uncrackable Enigma. And you’d be correct on that notion, to a point. You could’ve also viewed the story of Turing coming to (reluctant) terms with his homosexuality, and that’s not far off either. Myself, ever the contrarian, had a different view. Mine was about “passing.”

It’s a sinister term, trying to prove/con oneself an equal citizen in an intolerant society. Racism, sexism, ageism. Happens everywhere around the globe. Even the Japanese, some of the most accepting people on Earth harbor some prejudice against the native ainu that live on Hokkaido island to the north. Akin to how the Aussies regard the abos, or the failing caste system in India, or how the American white majority get over on the black and the brown. The other. The misunderstood. Like classic Greek playwright Aeschylus proclaimed, “Everybody is quick to blame the alien.”

When all others were not, that was Alan Turing. Passing. If not for a military strategist and no more than a vacuum cleaner salesman, he had attempted to assimilate himself into a man’s world. Back then, I guess being eccentric and creative wasn’t macho enough. And if you were gay playing in a straight domain? Heaven help you and your naughty bits. As the Brits say Turing was “quite the other thing.” As was his intellect, work and inspiration. Consider this irony: back in the day being a gay man in Britain was a crime, not unlike with Nazi Germany. Think about that.

In this context, passing is a dangerous game. I believe the terminology harkens back to the antebellum South during Reconstruction. You know, when all black slaves were freed but not really “freed.” Passing was where lighter-skinned blacks could hoodwink for white folk and thereby evade racist antagonism…so long as they kept a low profile. Passing for white. Due to intolerance, bigotry and the threat of violence “mulattoes”—an ugly term in and of itself—had to hide who they were to survive. Passing meant denying a very basal part of all humans: identity and lineage. Cumberbatch’s Turing was very much in the closet before the closet was built. Going so far as to marry “his girl Friday” Joan Clarke (Knightly), his number one cryptographer. It was more like a man married to a man really married to his work. It was icky to watch, despite Turing and Clarke were ideally fast friends and great partners. Turing and Clarke knew it was a sham, but their union was for the greater good. Heck, even being the man who hired a woman as supervisor on the greatest codebreaking is history? That got Turing into a lot of hot water, if not from the Army than that of public opinion.

All right, enough muckraking. Should’ve said all this in The Rant, but all that truck does come to bear on the overall feel of Game. Namely, this movie was a period piece, but not like Merchant/Ivory or Shakespearean whatnot. The film could’ve only been told in a few sparse years. None of Turing’s seeds would grow to bear fruit if not for the War. That’s a matter of historical fact. The story would not have worked if not under all that pressure. Turing’s story of his imitation game (computer or homosexual) could never be told across a continuum. It’s like the story of John Harrison, who back in 1700s developed a successful, working chronometer for ships at sea to measure longitude. It took five years for Harrison to build it and a few centuries later to understood how it worked (it was still in use in the early 20th Century). We could not have had such a leisurely pace afforded with Game. We just couldn’t. It wasn’t like Charles Babbage woolgathering about his “difference engine.” stakes were too high, and the events could’ve only happened in WWII.  A sort of synchronicity, if you will. There have been other recent biopic films that tackled similar scenarios (EG: The Theory Of Everything, Hidden Figures, Lincoln, etc), but none of them had so much palpable urgency. If not for WWII, and the US not entering the war, the Great Depression would never end, the baby boom would never have happened and we wouldn’t have any iMacs to post blogs on an nonexistent Internet. Desperate times invite desperate measures, and desperation was Turing’s primary modus operandi. Not necessarily to beat the Nazis at their own game, but to prove his theories could be not only feasible but true and even put to positive use. Turing would’ve proven right, earn validation and not have his little secret discovered. Yes, he was indeed driven, but to what end? Turing needed to pass.

It was all about the passing. For all the sexual identity navel-gazing Game indeed had excellent tension, and did not dwell on homosexuality in the abstract. The dire cryptography race got laid on thick and fast; we learned the stakes at hand, and right quick. Game may had been labelled either a drama or a biopic. In execution it was neither: it was a spy thriller. Not like James Bond per se, but there was this always looming tick tick tick and Turing had got to get his sh*t together before he cracked after hearing the daily death tolls on the radio once more. Again, the stakes. Okay, Game was a biopic, but it played like a keen thriller. Time was ever running out, for the Allies as well as Turing’s grip.

Cumberbatch’s perpetual exasperation with duty to king and country and trying to reconcile his research as an extension of his emotions made for delicious drama. The man really sold it. His Turning was angsty but not drenched in cinematic bathos; no hand wringing thought there was a lot to wring about. I did some snooping around online to determine whether or not Turing was a prodigy, autistic, or just a plain eccentric genius. Maybe all three, but not all at the same time. Results were inconclusive. Cumberbatch’s performance and idiosyncratic behavior gave me pause. Sure, it was just acting—really convincing acting, mind you—but it smacked of something. And all the better film for it.

Speaking of autistic tendencies that Turning may or may not have had, I’ve found that really sharp people relish patterns, not unlike our good doctor did. Consider this tale: I had a childhood friend who was an ace at math and music. He played a few instruments and sang, both quite well. But his room was always a mess. No, check that. It only appeared to be a mess. In fact, his yard sale run amok living quarters was a very particular filing system. He always knew where everything was, he just didn’t bother to put things away normally like we passing do. Here: three large mounds of laundry on the floor in selected parts of the room. One clean. One dirty. One comprised of what to wear for the week, socks and all. Books on the floor he had read or wanted to reread. New stuff piled on his dresser. CDs strewn all over the floor for this month’s playlist. New, still wrapped discs at the foot of his unmade bed. He never made his his bed. Quite logically since it was just going to get all messed up come bedtime. And please, don’t touch anything unless you ask first. You might f*ck up the system.

After you have watched Game, you may be nodding your collective heads. My old friend had Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism. Namely, it results in abnormal but usually harmless behaviors revolving around patterns and rituals as a matter of some senses of control, regardless of the circumstance. Kinda like not changing your socks in the middle of a winning streak, but with a purpose. C’mon, we all let our dirty laundry pile up too much once in a while. But do you have a tape measure at the ready to gauge how high the pile was before it was laundry day? Not that, but yes him. One meter. Always.

Moving forward, I read a sobering response on Quora (hey, it’s better than anti-mask Uncle’s Facebook screed about COVID was created on Venus…which might begin to make sense after a bit) as to whether or not Turing had Asperger’s? Here’s what the forum post reported:

“Diagnosing historical figures can be tricky, and can get a lot of people riled up. That said, if you have enough anecdotal evidence of their behaviour during life, there are diagnostic criteria that can be applied. Psychologists have done this with Turing, and found he met all six of the…criteria for Asperger’s.” Courtesy of P Howell, who also claimed to be autistic. It was a thoughtful response from someone with a similar condition, so I decided to include it here? Valid? Yes. Sound? No, but more honest than anything on TikTok.

Coming back to Earth, Game was a character study alright, but not just the usual tortured genius type. Kinda wondered if Cumberbatch did his research of the character beyond just research. I understand one open-ended comment from a Quora forum does not a doctorate make, but still Cumberbatch sold a quirky genius serving his country with a not-too-deep seated agenda: proving if a computer could think like a person and (you guessed it) pass the grade. All the while you watch Game you know full damned well that Turing does not give two rat sh*ts about the war. He’s used the military’s funding to prove his theories to others and himself. Cumberbatch’d Turing was trying to prove to England that he was something. He was right. He could pass as well as Christopher could calculate. The desperation of this sweats out of Cumberbatch’s performance of Turing, even when he wasn’t sweating. In sum, the man was perfect for the role and really, really sold it. I wasn’t watching stoic Sherlock Holm—er, Ben Cumberbatch. I was watching Alan Turing as if I had met the man (yeah, Ben was that good). I can’t say enough good things with Game.

Except in one way. It wasn’t the fault of the performances, god no. It was the tonic when his Turing slipped in to analog rather than digital mode. These were the scenes where Game got cringey, but deliberately and may scare away erstwhile, adroit, well-heeled moviegoers. Pay attention.

First of all the subject matter of Game was kind of a niche market. Namely early computer science nerds and WW2 history buffs (EG: nerds with a Masters’). Stuff like that is not the flavor in Columbus, which is why despite rave reviews the sales showed it didn’t reach the masses. It’s funny, though. Even for the somewhat arcane history stuff Game was pleasantly accessible, more so than one might’ve thought. The acting is top notch, duh. There’s all sorts of intrigue, drama and palpable tension. My g/f found the movie very interesting and she’s usually into rom-coms and Disney flicks. But she’s also a big Cumberbatch fan, and we found his Turing, terse and angsty as he was he was still human, flawed and may have spent way too much time with “Christopher.” Cumberbatch played more like a computer himself, rather than a flawed human. He lacked sympathy towards others and was often impatient with his peers. Petulant and believing he was the smartest guy in the room (he was) and better than the rest. Sympathy and redundancy, that’s how computer interface works. Little wonder of Turing’s frustrations. Being logical only goes so far. Sometimes it’s best to pick one’s battles, even if you’re unsure as to what you’re battling. That kind of dichotomy requires patience to digest, and since most of Middle America has precious little—always screaming at the microwave to “Hurry up!”—to simultaneously watch and digest a film is anathema and that’s how Waffle House stays in business 24 hours.

…I did it again, didn’t I? No matter…

Here’s a conceit that screams white light in Game: It’s often said that characters are supposed to be likable. Wrong. They’re supposed to be relatable, interesting. Here’s an example: horror writer Clive Barker who created the Hellraiser franchise claimed that the demonic Pinhead never did one nice thing over the span of seven movies, yet he still gets marriage proposals via email to this day. Interesting, just like Cumberbatch’s Turing. I’m not talking proposals, I’m talking posthumous respect. In the final analysis, cracking the Enigma was his show all the way. Cumberbatch’s portrayal will never achieve Gump-like adoration, since he was such a snot. But his performance was about an interesting snot. Gold stars all around for characterization. In sum, you need to see this film.

Speaking of acting, Mark Strong is fast becoming one of my fave character actors. His is very good at being mean. From 1917 to Green Lantern to John Carter Of Mars he has raised being callous, indifferent and belittling to the protagonists he has to deal with in his films. He’s also very smug about it. It’s always a ton of fun to find a villain you love to hate, especially when the bad guy believes erroneously he’s in the right. And who wouldn’t like to bust a stuffy bureaucrat in the chops? Moving on.

Secondly, Game was a non-linear movie, but again strangely more accessible than one might’ve believed. Yeah, I covered a few non-linear flicks here at RIORI (EG: The FountainTristram Shandy, I’m Not There, etc) and they have been a little disorienting to watch. However the flashbacks and jumps in Game are tastefully done. Meaning they are bookends to the A plot. We get involved in Turing’s mission, and once there’s a breath, boink, back in time forward in time. It felt the director was very “calculating” to lighten things up once in a while, if only just for a change of pace. It was kinda akin to when Shakespeare would inject some levity in a play moments before the sh*t went down. Catch us off guard. Tyldum wanted us to catch up, take a breather and then back into the churning circuits. I found that neat.

Towards the final act of Game, I found myself asking, “Was all of this just interrogation?” Was the movie designed to make you question identity, digital and/or analog. If that was the case it was a very good questioning, minus the good cop. Game may have been about cryptography, sexual identity, passing and the never to be fully understood human condition, but it felt to me the movie was prodding me to go a little deeper. I got a hidden message beneath the whole folderol with cracking the Enigma and the dangers of Turing stepping out of the closet. That was overt. Something told me that there was an undercurrent—a code—that director Tyldum wanted me to crack. It may have been all subjective, but I felt there was some code lurking, waiting to be cracked.

The first proto-social media algorithms. Names, times, objectives. Get them all in line and a private code may reveal itself. That’s FaceBook. That’s Twitter. Unfortunately TikTok. Was Tyldum suggesting that accidentally Turing invited social media into our world as we know it today? Let his imitation game reach its fruition to suppose what humans wanted to get from computers? Dictate their lives? Make people second guess everything? Enhance egos? That may be a stretch, right?

Maybe, maybe not. I was probably reading too much into it. But overall Game was a great length of code, inviting decryption even for a basic app like me.


The Final Analysis…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Game is a sturdy flick, filled with lots of intrigue and excellent drama. A solid biopic of an interesting person in a unique situation who exited too soon leaving a lot of unanswered questions. Also with a representative performance that well demands, “Why?” Queue up and make up your mind. I did.


The Stray Observations…

An explanation: I’ve decided to quit the movie watching as a solitary job and now I go over to my girlfriend’s place on the weekend to watch this week’s assault on the senses together. She makes some pretty keen observations with this film, so then I added them to my notes and credit her where credit is due. Whenever you read (K) in the notes or observations, it was her comment not mine. It’s good to get a second opinion.

  • “Pay attention.”
  • (K) That’s a lot of numbers.
  • “The carrots got into the peas.”
  • If only hunting for a job was as easy as solving a crossword. My mom’s a crossword freak. WW2 would’ve ended in week if she were born sooner.
  • “You just defeated the Nazis with a crossword puzzle.”
  • (K) The simple was so simple it was tricky.
  • “When people talk to each other, they never say what they mean….They say something else and you’re expected to just know what they mean.” Kinda like texting.
  • That smirk.
  • “We love each other in our own way.”
  • Here’s a keen urban legend about Alan Turing: One of Turing’s fave snacks was apples (there’s a scene in the movie about that). Turing took his own life, and his bedside was an apple with a big bite out of it (“last meal”) tainted with cyanide, which the police noted. Story went that Steve Wozniak heard this tale and shared it with his partner Steve Jobs. Hence Apple’s moniker and logo. There are two kinds of stories: those that are true and those that should be.
  • “Is that it?”

The Next Time…

Did Micheal Sheen really try to Frost/Nixon, as portrayed by Frank Langella? We’ll see as RIORI‘s series of biopics comes to an end.

Thanks for coming along.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #190: Tate Taylor’s “Get On Up” (2014), part 1



The Players…

Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Octavia Spencer, Jill Scott and Dan Ackroyd, with Craig Robinson, Viola Davis, Lennie James and Brandon Smith.


The Basics…

Like with the First Man on the moon, astronaut Neil Armstrong, we examine the life and times of the “Godfather Of Soul,” “The Hardest Working Man In Show Business,” “Mr Dynamite” himself, the incomparable James Brown! Yeah!


The Rant…

True to form, this installment culls deeply from a personal, hands deep in pockets kind of nostalgia. The owned, best kind.

Ah, but the Temps. They could sing. As a little white kid with all the coolness cachet of a sack of flour, I knew I couldn’t plead like David Ruffin, but I liked what I heard. I recognized Motown music as soulful without really understanding what that meant. It was something good, and a nice change of pace from infinite rotations of Graceland (still a great album BTW). A bit more oomph, if you catch my drift.

My mom’s fave Motown group—despite being a 60s Beatlemanic, which was federal law for girl Boomers back then—were and are The Four Tops. It was the first concert she caught back in college. Her alma mater is back in Virginia, and her being from a white bread New Jersey circa 1966 the concert was a revelation. Soul music wasn’t a hot topic back in her hometown, but had a firm foothold in the South. The Motown groups would make regular circuits all around this side of the Mississippi, and were a seasonal fixture in her college town. College gigs were common back then. Like back in the 90s when I caught some newb shock rocker Marilyn Manson. Funniest club date ever, but that’s another story.

So moms caught the Four Tops at the height of their career. She went to an all women’s school, which required much screaming and flailing and perhaps pantie-tossing as these sweat ‘n’ soul guys rocked the stage. She told me how they danced in perfect synch, and when not swiveling they would huddle arm in arm for the ballads, like their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Your Love Is Sweeter Than Ever.” When it came to the rockin’ songs like “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch” lead singer Levi Stubbs had the audience in the palm of his hand. I’m making it more dramatic than what my mom saw, but she read this bit and couldn’t argue. To this day whenever she hears a Tops’ tune on the radio, from my iTunes library and/or in the car she starts doing the butt dance and fingerpopping like she did back in the day. Play “It’s The Same Old Song” and it’s Pavlovian; she drops everything and starts to groove. She’s in her 70s. She’s 20 again. It’s a sight to behold. Grow old but don’t grow up, right?

An aside: Moms has always been a sucker for singles, regardless of genre. It’s residue doubtless left over from that Tops’ show. For instance, she drove her father mad with endless rotations of the Dion classic “The Wanderer” back in high school. Whenever Van Halen’s “Jump” comes on the air her reaction is always: “This is a classic!” She’s said the same thing for Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out.” She also prefers AC/DC with Brian Johnson over Bon Scott. There’s no accounting for taste, I’ve heard. When I shared such tidbits offhand with my old bartender friend he blurted, “Yer Mom’s cool!” She also attended high school with a young wallflower named Joe Walsh. That Joe Walsh. He was already ugly then. Moving on.

Back to her concert revelation. Think about that for a moment. Never ever in your wretched life have you ever caught your favorite musician in their prime and knew it. My mom was one of the chosen few: it was actually the Tops’ first national tour, like all across the USA. The way she tells it, she knew what was going down back then. It was a revelation.

Me? Sure, Motown was cool. I love Stevie Wonder and the Temps and Marvin Gaye and all those cats. Great songs to sing along with even if you’re not Ruffin. However growing up on punk and prog and…well, Elton my tastes in tunes demanded a little more oomph. A little more grit. A lot more horns (I played sax in band, remember?). A little more…soul.

Enter Stax Records. Deep southern soul. Aretha, Otis, Carla, Ike, Booker T and the MGs (“Memphis Group” for the curious) and especially my guys Sam and Dave. I loves me some Sam and Dave. They never sang a bad song. Never. One of my fave songs by them was their first single, “You Don’t Know Like I Know.” I blare this from my car at mind shearing volume as if I drove a low rider. It was in reality an early 90s Volvo sedan. Whatever. Sweat and soul and defiantly not pretty like Motown was. Moms was never much for Stax. Takes all kinds.

Okay. To prove some sort of point in how Stax operated in stark contrast to Berry Gordy’s empire of smooth, here’s a choice tale about how sometimes the best accidents result in the best songs down in Soulsville, USA. Have a seat. Here’s a beer. Shaddap and lissen hup.

The following is an excerpt from Henry Rollins’ Do I Come Here Often? (Los Angeles: 2.13.61 Publishing. 1988) when the infamous LA punk icon got to interview the legendary Issac Hayes about when he was a house songwriter at Stax back in the mid-60s. Here’s Ike’s tale:

“…Starts in a big ol’ room like a movie theater…The toilet was up in the corner of the room. I’m sitting in the center of the room, up against the wall by the piano, playing.  And Dave [Porter, fellow Stax songwriter] said, ‘Man, I’ve got to use the john.’

“He went to the restroom, and I struck a groove. And I said, ‘Damn, I don’t want to lose this thing…Hey man! C’mon!’

“And he said, ‘Hold on! I’m coming!’ And he came out the john with his pants down saying, “That’s it! That’s it! Man, I got the title!” And hey, we sat down and wrote ‘Hold On, I’m Coming.’ You know, it’s a funny thing the way these tunes come out.”

Huh. Chances are Motown’s hit factory never sought inspiration from taking a dump.

That being said, and as with all legends—be it Arthurian, Spider-Man or musical—there always is a wellspring. Whether is be the smooth and poppy grooves of Motown or the girt and grease of Stax, if soul music be where the twain met and/or splintered thanks lay to James Brown and his Famous Flames. Both sides of the card. Grit and groove. Shine and tarnish. Inspired both ends of the spectrum and spreading the gospel—again, so the speak. Brown was a visionary, with his trailblazing fusion of gospel, classic R&B and funk, informing both Houses and endless musicians to this day. Even to this day—15 years after his passing—where his standards can be omnipresent thanks to nostalgia, constant revisionist history of his craft and miles and miles of samples culled for rap songs he’s still a force of nature. As I suggested, his songs could be sweet like Motown or lowdown as with Stax. Brown was so explosive that he was a genre unto himself within soul music. Doubtless that some of the Godfather’s style influenced Otis Redding, Solomon Burke and Aretha. Brown was the Jackie Robinson of funk, brought it to the masses and informed both Motown and Stax how it should be done.

I know, I know. I’m laying it on thick. Some folks dismiss Brown’s catalogue as old hat, so saturated his tunes have been co-opted into popular American culture. However consider this one final story about how a young James left his first mark on the world stage. Only Hendrix at Woodstock outshone James live. Once more into the breach, my friends and quit groaning or else no nap time and no juice boxes with graham crackers. Roll out the towels.

There was this concert film back in the early 60s, The TAMI Show. It featured many up and coming musicians to strut their stuff and doubtless doing so would push record sales. There were a lot of cool acts in their infancy on display on TAMI (“Teenage Awards Music International” for the record). The Beach Boys. Chuck Berry. Smokey Robinson. Marvin Gaye. The Supremes. All on the guest list, including James Brown and the Famous Flames and also some snotnose British Blues group calling themselves the Rolling Stones.

The historical record went down claiming James and the Flames stole the show. The kids went bonkers. The Stones waited in the wings as the act to close the show, and they were agog with James’ performance. It was kinda like, “We have to follow him?” Mick and crew were amazed and delighted by the Flames’ act and figured that guy Brown had the right idea.

For years upon years we know Mick Jagger in concert likes to preen and strut and boogie and play to the audience. I caught the Stones back in the early 90s, and of course I expected Mick to swivel and shake. I was not let down. But if it was not for James Brown, I doubt the Stones wouldn’t’ve enjoyed their legacy so long. They would’ve died after the inaugural Monterey Pop festival playing so aloof. Save Keith, natch. Only kryptonite could kill Keef. The red kind, natch.

If you ever caught some classic videos on YouTube of Mick and the boys performing their frontman came across as too cool for school. Mick’s gestures made him appear aloof, like the audience didn’t deserve his talent. After he and his band watched James and the Flames cut it up, the modern Stones appeared. Instead of Mick affecting the stance of him waiting his turn at the pool table, TAMI showed him bouncing and dancing and swerving and getting into it as we expected him to do well into his 70s. Not unlike James Brown in his 20s. Jumpin’ Jack Flash is a gas, gas, gas now.

Hey, if some then unknown soul brother could alter the course of Britain’s premier rock institution, well, I guess must be a story behind that…


The Apology…

I supposed some you out there in the blogosphere noticed the “part 1” tag attached to this week’s installment. Welp, here’s why:

Due to technical difficulties—namely me trying to reconcile the differences between WordPress’ classic editor and its new block editor—the remainder of this installment got wiped. Sorry. Lost my notes, lost my media, then lost my crackers. Sorry.

Instead of scrapping the whole wad I decided to post the first half; The Breakdown part broke down. Why? Either to maintain my oh so rigid posting schedule and/or maybe drum up some tension and cliffhanging (like when Capt Picard was captured by the Borg at the end of TNG’s third season) as to what may have made Get On Up either compelling or never mind. Wait and see.

Ah well, don’t fret none. Get On Up‘s part 2 will be concluded in the future. Hopefully by then by then I’ll have learned to stop toggling/vacillating between too many Safari tabs. Not to mention not putting my faith in autosave too much.

Until then, stay tuned. 🙂


The Next Time (God willing)

As the first computer scientist, Dr Alan Turing devised his test—better known as The Imitation Game—based on an idea that a computer could be said to “think” if a human interrogator could not tell it apart, through conversation, from another human being.

Read: “passing.”


 

RIORI Presents Installment #189: Damian Chazelle’s “First Man” (2018)



The Players…

Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, with Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Shea Wigham, Corey Stoll and Lukas Haas.


The Basics…

This film fictionalizes the account about how Neil Armstrong overcame the trials and tribulations of being the first astronaut—the first human—to ever set foot on the Moon.

That’s it. Short and sweet. You’re welcome.


The Rant…

I’ve noticed this resurgence of Flat Earth societies on social media, which is where I go for “the truth” if you dig. These yo-yos proffering some pseudo-science to disprove facts the ancient Greeks figured out long before any Karen had it out with any exasperated manager. I’ve since learned that the ancient Babylonians realized the Earth is round based on simple astronomy (EG: how the sun and moon move across the sky). This conspiracy theory has bubbled up again en masse within the past four years, coincidently enough. It’s rough to be a YouTube subscriber and not see all these posts regarding science versus erroneous empirical evidence. I’ve watched a view channels, and those trying to disprove our amazing planet is nothing more than a D&D-esque platform for humanity to play upon. Never mind the other planets are round, or the moon of the sun even. Nope. God’s just been f*cking with our sense of time and motion for thousands of years. Sure. You ever heard of Occam’s Razor?

Huh? What’s that? You haven’t? Did never catch a screening of Zemekis’ Contact? That movie was based on a novel by uber-astronomer Carl Sagan, who is still held in high esteem in some circles. His book was a feasible, scientifically minded s/f story about how aliens may want to communicate with us. Long story short the movie posited two scenarios. Either astronaut Jodie Foster actually contacted some extra-terrestrial signal or the whole mission was just one big, expensive, international hoax for yuk-yuks. Occam’s Razor says that the simplest answer tends to be the correct one. Either Jodie heard something or John Hurt spent an obscene amount of cash to make Earth’s population look like a bunch of rubes with he mother of all practical jokes. Made you look! Regarding the Flat Earth theory either the firmly established laws of time, space, gravity, general relativity are wrong or Kyle with his Twitter feed and has streamed way too many classic eps of The Outer Limits is correct ignoring basic psychics your average junior in high school understands. Noodle that.

I have a point coming up regarding Flat Earth myopia, and it’s a simple, Occam kind of inquiry. Say these yahoos are correct and we’ve been living on a God’s snooker table for millennia. My response to that theory is thus:

“So?”

These would-be kindergarten Keplers are so very insistent, if not in a frothing frenzy to prove that our planet is planar one must ask: So what? What’s your point? What do you get out of that?

*crickets*

Humans are an advantageous species. We look for ways to overcome obstacles in the most expedient fashion. Hell, take the COVID vaccines. I’m not some shill for Merck, but I’m pretty sure vaccines take some time to be developed. My mother told me about the polio epidemic in the 50s and how quick Salk made his vaccine available, despite some resistance. Kinda like now (BTW, we presently have not one but two viable vaccines for corona developed within a year, yet Africa has been dying of AIDS going on 40 years. Hmm). We want quick solutions to problems, and like Occam, we want the simplest, most efficient solution.

Solving the COVID crisis is not even in the same league as the Flat Earth theory, but it’s akin to it based on scientific, empirical truth upset the whole “So what?” argument. We know the outcome of effective vaccines (EG: less death, fewer masks and an unencumbered opportunity to go to a movie theatre again). We know the benefit. So what’s the benefit of a flat planet? What does this swift, direct and totally fallacy do to help the true believers? Haven’t seen that on YouTube yet, but I’m willing to wager a small sum that such videos exist. I’d like to meet those folks and sell them this historic bridge in Brooklyn for a dollar. A Canadian dollar. Don’t get nervous.

The best evidence I know of to firmly debunk this silly, unscientific, shut-the-hell-up-already Flat Earth theory can be laid at the feet of—no big surprise—NASA.

Let’s set the way-back machine to July of 1969. The intrepid crew of Apollo XI set down on the moon, the first time in history humanity was off-world. While astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were doing geological surveys and taking selfies, command module pilot Michale Collins was in lunar orbit, waiting for his buddies to finish up their day at the dirty beach. History was made and our daring spacefarers made it back to Mother Earth intact, with no small help from the seasoned pilot Collins.

I feel that Collins got the short shrift in NASA history. No, he didn’t make and giant leap for whomever. He was a space valet driver if you think about it, but he was the most seasoned pilot in NASA, cutting his conning teeth back in the Gemini program where young astros were learning the physics of outer space HALO.

One of the highlights of Collins’ career as an astronaut was essentially writing the rulebook for space docking procedures. Hey, all those capsules and satellites and excursion modules had no computer guidance, and they had to fit together somehow. Early NASA flights were seldom self-contained like the ISS is today. Lotta Lego action back in the Gemini program. That’s where Collins had made his bones.

Back in 1966, Collins and company were practicing docking maneuvers during the Gemini X program. The goal was to dock a space capsule with an “Agena Target Docking Vehicle.” Essentially a satellite to—you guessed it—practice docking maneuvers. At the rendezvous point, Collins took this photograph as he approached the Agena (photo courtesy of NASA):

Slow down there. What’s that I spy with my little eye in the background? Looks like Earth, curvature and all. This snap was taken in 1966, before Neil and friends made it to the moon. This was high orbit. I see clouds and the ocean and a hurricane forming and perhaps Argentina and a distinct curved horizon. Pool tables aren’t curvy.

Which leads us to the other conspiracy theory, the bastard stepchild of the Flat Earth myth: NASA faked the moon landings. Now here come the other witless True Believers. Those who claimed the moon landing was a total sham. Again, why? What favor does it give you dingdongs? Stanley Kubrick made up that mock set so LBJ could thumb his nose at the Soviet Federal Space Agency? I view this mentality akin to pranking a stranger with a dozen delivered pizzas. Sure, it could’ve been made a hoax with a big deal Hollywood budget and an isolated soundstage at Area 51. A lot of these would be skeptics claim that the actual film director Kubrick was commissioned to stage the hoax with his expert eye and nifty special effects created by wiz-kid Douglas Trumbull that made their s/f epic 2001: A Space Odyssey such a visual tour de force. Of course it could be done! And it was!

To what end I ask?

Yes, the visuals in 2001 are striking—even 50 odd years later—at least from the tech angle. However all those heavenly bodies in the film, from the moon landing to our intrepid astronauts jetting out to Jupiter are against obvious matte paintings. Very good matte paintings mind you—for the time—but the original story told that Bowman, Poole and HAL were heading off to Saturn to search for intelligent life, not Jupiter. Why the switch? F/X wizard Trumbull nixed the Saturn voyage because he couldn’t create an accurate looking Saturn. This was reflected by how Jupiter in the final cut looked like a cotton candy Chupa-Chup. A very good cotton candy Chupa-Chup, but still just a matte painting.

Wait. To compare here’s a photo from an Earth-based observatory of Jupiter courtesy of NASA back in 1967 (read the log entry), a year before 2001 debuted:


Now here’s a shot of “Jupiter” from 2001, released in 1968:

So let’s get this straight: Kubrick faked the moon landings, despite the film tech at the time was slightly less sophisticated than NASA’s bag of tricks. 2001 dropped a year before the Eagle landed, yet Trumbull was unable to make Saturn look like Saturn, but create Jupiter as a photograph of a photograph of Jupiter. You doubters can go along with debating the film’s feasibility (like a a bow and arrow could  overpower an AK-47 in the wrong hands), but you’ll argue against two dead master filmmakers who admitted their limitations making the ultimate, scientifically accurate s/f movie they couldn’t reproduce with a NASA-sized budget, leaving Lyndon kicking a foot against his Fresca machine.

That’s the trouble with conspiracy theories: they technically can’t be disproven. With every shred of doubt comes a sliver of evidence to the contrary that only invites another theory refuting the evidence. It’s all paradox. It’s all Schrödinger’s Cat. These fallacies just encourage the theorists that they are right, the Universe is wrong and in the end it leads to nothing. Nothing save some self-righteous dolt with a YouTube channel established firmly to be an anthropological buzzkill. So what if the Earth is flat? So what if the moon landing was faked? To what end?

Mostly justifying insecurity, paranoia, the warm fuzzy you have knowing “the truth,” as well it is as bad as you think and, yes, They are out to get you. Now, here’s your sandwich board, scrawl THE END IS NIGH on it, take this bell and go stand on that street corner. Some like-minded nabob may strike up a conversation.

Sigh.

Regrouping, chances are you not familiar with Michael Collins and his story. But you all know who Neil Armstrong was. His story was about being the first man on the moon. He brought back this postcard for all Mankind:



The Story…

Hello? Did you not read The Basics above? Short and sweet?


The Breakdown…

Before we commence with the usual folderol I’d like to share a whimsical story about Neil Armstrong. Not about the man, per se, but the idea of the man and what he inspires.

In college I played sax in the marching band. My then girlfriend played baritone horn. The thing looked like an oversized bugle, but with valves, and bell angled at the audience and you had to carry it like a sack of groceries. They gave off a pleasant, sonorous sound in harmony with the tubas. Every year at band camp, to break the ice and generate morale for the freshmen, the upperclassmen would design a tee shirt to wear during practice. My girl once laid some trivia on me that back in his schooldays Neil Armstrong played in marching band, and played the baritone horn! Upon dropping this science she asked me for my opinion (for some weird reason. I played sax. I already had my John Coltrane’s Crescent album art emblazoned on my tee) as to how maybe incorporate this Armstrong story into a baritone tee. My answer was simple: you ever see online one of those huge, round screens Pink Floyd used to use in their live shows? Superimpose the moon on one with a caption that read, “SUMB Baritones. Still first in space.”

It didn’t happen, but it would’ve been neat. I’d’ve bought one.

Anyway, most folks in modern history lionize Neil Armstrong as the “greatest astronaut ever.” He wasn’t. No one astronaut in the Apollo flight plan were. Those guys were all aces, quick on their feet, able to multitask, savvy in engineering and able to deliver the goods when the “real science” needed churning out down on Earth. Armstrong was a solid engineer and a crack pilot. These days, you want a sortie on the ISS you better carry multiple diplomas earned from universities in New England and/or California. Or even the UK. These days the scientists surf on sine waves more than they can tolerate altitude sickness and subsist on Gerber’s for a few days. These days its all tech and numbers. Back then it was a gamble with gravity. No, Armstrong wasn’t the greatest astronaut, but come Apollo XI, he was the most qualified to command the mission, and he got the job done. The proof is on Betamax somewhere, I think.

Ahem.

*raps pointer on chalkboard*

For our fourth of seven movies in a series that revolve around historical fiction/biopics this week we have First Man. Since I’m an amateur astronomer and have always been nuts about space travel I couldn’t wait to see the film. I’d naturally been drawn to the story (doy) about how Neil Armstrong became…well, Neil Armstrong. First man on the Moon. Awesome! Shots of early NASA history! Behind the scenes of Neil’s homelife against his job…his mission! Why wasn’t this film made sooner?

There are reasons.

First was one of those long gestating projects in ol’ Hollyweird. Not quite in Development Hell, but pretty close. A lot of gears had to turn for the film to grind into being, and timing—as they claim—is everything. So much so that a bit of serendipity was at play back around, oh, 20 plus years ago.

Acclaimed actor/director Clint Eastwood had just wrapped up his NASA dramedy Space Cowboys. Fun flick BTW, a lilted take on the Mercury program meets Geritol. In 2003 author James R Hansen released the official bio of Neil Armstrong titled First Man: The Life Of Neil Armstrong. Clint opted the book for the film rights in 2005. As things went, Eastwood dropped the project (as well as starring in the movie) and First went adrift for awhile. Until Universal and DreamWorks took up the baton, and then assembling a crew to make First happen that was ragtag but proved fruitful. A lot of movies under production work this way, often with success. The original Lion King happened in a ramshackle fashion. It took decades for Forrest Gump spring from page to screen. Even One Flew Over The Cuckoos’ Nest was optioned by Kirk Douglas (who wished to star as McMurphy) only to have son Michael Douglas merely finance it. Sh*t happens, then it fertilizes.

First became a reality piecemeal. Director Chazelle got a lot of applause for his La La Land and rewarded with the Best Director Oscar back in 2016. With that clout La La star Gosling came along for the ride, even though Emma Stone—whom I would enjoy touching—got the Best Actress ho-ha (and IMHO would’ve made a pretty good Janet Armstrong with First). It’s odd how a story like Armstrong’s took so long to tell, at least on the big screen. Not to mention how First technically didn’t stall at the Seventh Level. It’s kinda a nod to how Armstrong gradually rose in the ranks from test pilot to Gemini to Apollo to the moon. Good stuff takes time, and patience is rewarded. All that and it doesn’t hurt that Dirty Harry made the first move, punk.

Chazelle knows how to rope you in. Man‘s cold open sure got my attention, you better believe it. He showed that in NASA the stakes are always high. Over the moon, so to speak (let me have that one, okay?). We’re focusing on the early space program and the people behind it. In our minds we know that those first daring men risked life and limb in the name of exploration, science and informing Khrushchev to get bent. In the film however, everything, everything is dire. There’s a scene where Janet Armstrong explains that she’s used to funerals. That pretty much sums First up. Risk, risk and more risk. From Armstrong’s daughter Karen to death spirals to onboard fires after watching this I could only marvel at how young NASA managed to succeed more than fail back during the Space Race. This was frontier territory. The risks were indeed great, but also relentless. I could mention great tension, but I’d rather say I wasn’t going to the bathroom for two-and-a-half hours watching First. And I know how to tap a pause button.

Which you may have to do watching Man. There are a lot of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it details, allusions, foreshadowing, Easter eggs and a lot of other nice touches that one could have learned in basic 7th grade language arts. The cold open is good place as any to set the tone for the movie, despite it being a tad misleading as well as winking, but in a polite way. As the NASA works out the kinks for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, the camera focus gradually gets less grainy. The use of a Steadicam in the first act made for great visual tension, if not visceral terms. I prayed both were cut back for the second. And they were. As this little technique clears up, we realize we have two plots diverge but never really break. We had Neil’s mission and Janet at home with the kids. Frontline against homefront. The camera work there is at “home” things are jagged, like watching an old ep of NYPD Blue. When Neil’s “at work” everything is much smoother Even as we may know a chunk of NASA’s historical record, sure space exploration a “purely scientific endeavor” (quotes mine), but there was always an undercurrent of competition with the Soviets. More like a pissing contest. I doubt that the astronauts and their wives attending yet another funeral were ignorant of those in the cat’s bird seat in DC not paying for the services.

Noise seemed to be a prominent force here, or the absence of it. We all know that there is no sound in the vacuum of outer space (or now you do), and director Chazelle using this nugget of astronomy to create a character from it. No shocker when Armstrong and Aldrin touched down and ventured out of the Eagle there would be jarring silence. However, silence was the enemy for several scenes in the movie. Silence. The not knowing. Every time something went adrift in the film was like immediate foreshadowing well into crisis. Deafening silence. Without such a distraction you had to believe your eyes as to what the hell was going on. Sensory deprivation was a very clever way to hook the audience in. We were dealing with extremes through all those early NASA days. Everything was dire. Every bolt secured, a coffin. Why not make the movie audience chew on their finger and toenails to get hooked on Neil and company’s exploits in scientific uncertainty?

That being said, fear is another potent draw in First. Gosling as Armstrong, no matter how qualified for the job is a walking contradiction. Seasoned pilot and later seasoned astronaut. Loving family who is always waiting for the space boots to drop. Duty to God and Country despite both failed his REDACTED. Many scenes in First had this air of, “Please, not again.” It’s not surprising that danger lurked around every corner of the Space Race, but I felt another funeral was always looming. An undercurrent. Sure, space exploration was paramount, but what about the folks Earthside that weren’t risking their lives but lived through potential loss vicariously thanks to the proud NASA goals? In a word: Who? The “who” is what created the finest tension in the film. The off-world exploits were damned fine, but what about the people the astronauts should come home to? In one piece if any? Remember, none of this is real, yet all of this is real. Perhaps in some obtuse way, but you are damn observant when you sprout gooseflesh as I did watching First. Many times.

I was totally mesmerized come act three. I had held Neil’s hand for over two hours. I felt every minor victory and every pronounced shiver. As Chazelle was a skilled director, throughout all that tumult—all those minor ups and major downs—if there were any solid truth in it, I got why Armstrong had to get to the Moon. Not for science, quite not for NASA and surely not for taking a whiz on the Soviets. For closure.

What’s out there? Something lost? Someone? REDACTED?

First is both a harrowing and joyous film. Shakespearean in execution and Steinbeck in structure. First is a many-headed hydra. It makes you uncomfortable, then engaged, then uncomfortable being engaged until elation comes without warning. Thank the even comedy and tragedy and appreciative understanding that Armstrong had made it to the moon well before this biopic hit theaters.  The film requires an easy concentration. There is a lot to digest, but it goes down easy with Chazelle confidently at the helm. He’s very clever with First. It’s tricky to balance art with commerce with La-La Land, but on the whole he succeed. if only in a modest way.

It’s too bad First ended up here at RIORI. It truly is.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? By all means rent it. First is—in two word words—a success. Short and sweet.


The Musings…

  • “It’ll be an adventure.”
  • Gosling’s haircut is ridiculous and absolutely perfect. It was an era of discovery and very bad haircuts.
  • “Jiminy?” Well, when you wish upon a star and all that.
  • I enjoyed Gosling’s vocal affect.
  • “Now look at all the crayons!”
  • Oh God, Karen’s bed.
  • “I married Neil because I wanted a normal life.”
  • The Gemini VIII scene was worth the admission price alone.
  • “If I had a choice I’d take more fuel.”
  • Why were foot pedals for freezers abandoned? Kinda like tap toe hi-beams?
  • “I’m done.”
  • Here’s some cool trivia: The glass that NASA used for their craft’s windows? Pyrex. No cool super-polymers back then. Found that clever.
  • And yes, I’ve seen Silent Running. Trumbull’s Saturn then was no less convincing.
  • “You’re Dad’s going to the Moon.”

The Next Time…

Get up! Get On Up! Get up! Get On Up! Stay on the scene! Get On Up! Like a sex machine! Get On Up!


RIORI Presents Installment #188: Roger Donaldson’s “The World’s Fastest Indian” (2005)

 



The Players…

Anthony Hopkins, with Jessica Caufiell, Patrick Flueger, Saginaw Grant, Diane Ladd, Christopher Lawford, Aaron Murphy, Paul Rodriguez and Chris Williams.


The Basics…

Kiwi Burt Munro is obsessed with speed. So much so that he can’t stop tweaking his custom Indian motorcycle in order to fulfill a lifelong dream: to test his metal and mettle on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and break a land speed record. Burt’s already broken records in Australia and New Zealand. But in the USA? Ah, the jewel in his crown.

He’s got the drive—so to speak—to “‘Ave a go at it!” But his ramshackle ride is a wreck. His health isn’t what it used to be. And Burt’s New Zealand home is half a world away, him an innocent abroad. Amongst his being broke, ailing, out of his element and a victim of his eccentricities however Burt never wavers on his quest for epic speed. His motive is not some throwaway reason why one climbs a mountain: because it’s there. Nope.

Because it’s for then.


The Rant…

I’ve always been a fan of motorcycles. Never ridden one, but am still curious. Anyone can understand the appeal of zooming down the road on a sunny day with the wind bracing your face. One may also understand those dyed-in-wool riders who don’t wear helmets. Must be kinda like flying. The wind in your hair, or—let’s face it—all that POWER beneath your groin. Hell to the yeah. One with road and the journey and seldom the destination. If you’ve ever seen Easy Rider (and I suggest you do, this the ultimate road trip movie), with Wyatt and Billy riding their souped-up choppers heading down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, accompanied by Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” wailing in the background then you get it. You must, even if you’ve never set your ass on a bike. Looks fun, fancy and free.

Me being a total rube when it comes to bikes I have trace only element understanding how the goddam things work. I’ve ridden a bicycle, but its bully of a big brother like a Dodge Tomahawk that looked like it escaped the set of Tron? As the Brits say, “quite the other thing.” What is all that gimmickry between those wheels? How much gas can that tank hold for long road trips deemed appropriate for a TV commercial? What the hell is a cubic centimeter and how do they relate to gas consumption? And how do Harleys make their pipes sound like God’s Own T Rex with hemorrhoids with an addiction to Monster drinks and free access to a Howitzer in the Grand Canyon? In sum, Hogs are LOUD. And how?

Mystery to me, which is why I’m a curious sort.

In my misspent life I’ve been privy to a few gearheads either boasting their rides’ power or otherwise dicking around in the garage. Although I’m not fond of visiting my mechanic when my ride is acting up—who does?—he and his crew are okay if you’re curious to see what’s being operated on in the garage itself. Just don’t pass the yellow line. Any questions? Just speak up. I gather that they’re not giving up any “secrets” just to prevent wasting in time in the future when can’t explain some weird noise with your car, which ,ore than not turns out to be nothing. Those guys and girls also appreciate a free Starbucks now and then for their troubles.

BTW, speaking of coffee, when I was fresh out of college and needed a quick job I took up an ad at the local cafe for a barista position. In the evenings when the weather was pleasant we had a small motorcycle club that would spin by almost every evening. I’m not talking Hell’s Angels here, just a bunch of old guys and high school kids alike out for a spin and a decent cup of joe. They’d park their bikes in the street, four or five of them, get something to drink and talk biking all evening. Not to mention boasting all their customizing they’ve recently done, to one-up each other as to who now had MORE POWER.

I’d admire their bikes and they suffered my questions well about this and that, like some dopey kid shaking all the presents on Xmas morning. Those guys explaining the mechanics of their bikes in references to a car? Hopeless. They’d rev up their motors to 11 creating deafening booms, or spun their rear wheel to shimmy back and forth creating squeals and a lot of smoke, laughing all the while. I didn’t really get it, but it sure seemed fun and I understood how they worked if you get the drift. There was a lot more going on than an engine at full peel, customized or no. I wanted to get “it”, but all I had was my run-of-the-mill four-wheeled vehicle, which I never customized. Not counting new floor mats and the occasional Little Tree.

Consider this however: If you’ve ever been granted permission to watch the grease monkeys lobotomize your crazy car, be it under the hood or from under the lift, there is a LOT of complicated sh*t inside your ride to make it go. And I ain’t talking like a Ferrari. I drive a ditzy little 2009 VW Rabbit (with a manual tranny; the girls love me), which is a pretty simple ride overall. There’s no GPS, no Bluetooth, no cruise control (it can’t; manual remember) and the A/C hasn’t worked since a month after I bought the thing. Sure, like your car it sometimes it gets whiny and makes requests via the Periodic Table of Elements dashboard lights. I need gas. Buckle your belt. High beams are on. It’s cold out. You missed your turn. I don’t like this music. Why do footprints appear on the windshield when you turn on the defogger? And then there’s that dread feeling you experience when the always scarlet CHECK ENGINE light blinks into life. Oh no. What now? I already topped off the blinker fluid. You know what it’s like.

The first time I opened the hood on my jalopy I was perplexed. The CHECK ENGINE lit up and sure enough I did and the engine was in there. It did not look like and engine but instead a mini fridge with four large cords protruding from it, out and away. The only other things I thought I recognized (actually the only other two things) were the reservoirs for the blinker fluid and water for the radiator. These three things made my car go. It ran. The last ride I had I bought off my sister, a late 90s Volvo that spent more time in her garage than on the highway and ran on mothballs and prayer. Must’ve been the runt of some litter back in Gothenburg. Long story short, you fast learn you know nothing about how temperamental cars can be until you have your own coffee mug at the garage.

There are a lot of things your needy car wants besides fuel and water. There’s a real tricky system under the hood, and all of it working in such to enable you to travel swiftly and safely. I spent time in that garage looking up. No easy task.

A motorcycle? I only see three working parts on a machine naked to the world: two wheels and the handlebars. But there’s a lot, LOT of guts between those wheels. Hell, even the brake discs are exposed. You SIT on the gas tank? You brake and go with your HANDS? Why have you been using CAPITALS so much? Because if you think about it, what makes motorcycles go so fast depend on a microcosm of what makes my bulbous Rabbit putter hither and yon. Compact. Ultra-efficient. Fast as roadrunner with Apple Pay. Stripped of body construction and smashed flies on the visor FAST. At first glance a bike’s compact nature betrays its power I feel. Sure, some bikes like Harleys and those luxury liner, over-the-road models are big, but the principle remains the same: maximum speed for maximum efficiency using the minimum of solid parts. Shrewd design, a knowledge of wind shear, balance and basic physics are all essential, not matter the size. And those crazy custom jobs that look like they were designed on Proxima Centauri? You gotta be one sharp designing cookie to ride the lightning.

Erm, well, Burt Munro with his cobbled together, cannibalized custom Indian racer? Not so much, even if he HIMSELF came from Proxima Centauri so out there he was. Or maybe it was just New Zealand in his veins. As well as Castrol.


The Story…

Down Under, if you have a need for speed don’t come calling on eccentric motorcycle nut Herbert James “Burt” Munro (Hopkins). Old man’s been tinkering with his over-customized 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle as if he were Dr Frankenstein. That “bike” is his wife and his life. Sure, Burt’s harmless, but so obsessed with his bike is he that his genial nature belies a man with a dire mission.

That mission? Break the land speed record with his ride at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. The United States. The big time. Yeah, Burt’s broken speed records on his homeland and neighboring Oz, but he’s only a local legend. Perhaps only a cottage industry. But to go to America and showoff what his beloved Indian can do? Driven by a duffer like him? Beat that!

There are only two things keeping Burt from his quest. One, his age. Ol’ Burt is pushing 70, and its understood he broke some records with his mutant Indian back in the day when he was as spring as one of his pet chickens, but now he has a heart condition and arthritis. Is Burt still nimble enough to coax his bike to action overseas?

Which leads to two, Burt has known no other world than his hometown of Invercargill, NZ. America is a lot bigger than the Kiwi Realm, and Burt really has no idea what’s in store for him in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Salt Flats. It’s literally a world away, and Burt has some trepidation (naturally) about what to expect naked as a jaybird. Sure gonna be out of his element.

Hey. It’s all no matter, mate. There are rules to be broken, as well as records!

“If the butterflies in my stomach were cows, I’d be able to start a dairy farm!”

Have crazy cycle, will travel with crazy rider.


The Breakdown…

On occasion I frequent AllMovie to get an idea of what I’m getting into regarding the week’s hatchet job. Most of the reviews are kinda vanilla: useful but criticizing a movie without bashing it in hopes you’ll take it upon yourself to come to your own conclusions. Due to advertising, those guys can’t get too rowdy. My curiosity? I call it research and I don’t trust critics. Call it a proto-acid test: I’m gonna watch this? Cross fingers, toes and brows. Let’s see what there is to see from my POV.

I read the rather lackluster review of Indian and upon watching the actual movie I believe the reviewer missed something. Something crucial to the plot. Indian wasn’t Forrest Gump with a motorbike as the fellow alluded. No. It was a meditation on mortality; how fleeting life is. The movie was never about proving speed. It was about challenging time.

Consider Burt’s throwaway tale to how his big brother REDACTED. Up until that point, Burt would wax poetic about how he came to living in a garage and always tooling with his Indian. Next door neighbor kid Tom kind of regards Burt a folk hero, what with his stories about once upon a time and his itchy nature to never give up on his “old girl.” And, yes, Burt’s knowledge of metallurgy and engines can be mesmerizing, but there are many blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments threaded through the film that if you pay attention, this isn’t a movie about fulfilling a dream. It’s more about keeping a promise. To one’s self. To thine own self be true. It’s not just for Sunday School y’know.

Indian is about mortality, or rather staring it down before the inevitable. It’s not made clear that this what the true motivation behind the real Burt’s dream of breaking the record, but his age and illness suggest that time is short. Precious. Live every day like yada yada yada. It’s a familiar story, but as it with playing the blues it’s not the notes but knowing how they should be played. It takes a severe talent to get this kind of skill and Hopkins does it in spades. His Burt is easily the friendliest role he’s ever played. He always has a smile, a quick one-liner and an almost childlike gaze on the world, although he knows time is running out. Every passing scene is passing, and Burt tries to make the most of, ingesting the new world he’s been plopped into. The whole thing is positivity on overdrive—so to speak—but appropriate and never mawkish. Some other actor of lesser caliber couldn’t have pull off the likes of Burt like Hopkins did. It’s most light-hearted I’ve even seen him, if not downright jolly. If you think about that, it’s scarier than Hannibal Lecter.

Oh, pipe down. You knew I had to drop that name here sooner or later.

So yeah, Burt’s obsessed with time, not necessarily speed. It’s not mentioned much in the film how Burt got the itch, but it’s implied. His recollections of moments past with Tom, especially the story of Burt’s older brother’s fate, hints at what Burt’s all about and the Indian his escape. There are quite a few quick shots of Burt looking at his watch. He also gets really irritated with smoking. At first this movie with all its fluffy positivity makes for weak tension. Oh, tragedy begets regret begets redemption. Yawn. I disagree here. All that sweetness and optimism belies the tension that eventually arises when we’re arrested by Burt’s historic ride and all the trickiness that undercurrents doubt and failure.

I can’t deny the healthy doses of silly/fish-out-of-water/innocence that pervaded Indian, and if any other seasoned actor like Hopkins would assume Burt’s fictional mantle the movie would’ve definitely fallen apart. Big shocker, but I suspected major creative liberties taken with the plot. Weak or not, the story was still engaging thanks to Hopkins. Ever since the man aimed to be a thespian he’s carried a lot of “unfilmable” movies through the course. Until his Oscar win, Hopkins more often than not played second fiddle. This is not an an insult; Keef makes Mick look good. Consider the man’s CV in relation to his Burt in Indian. Although John Hurt was the cause celebre in The Elephant Man, Hopkins’ kindly Dr Treaves proved that Merrick was not a freak, just a victim of a rare disease. The endearingly uptight butler Stevens who’s whole duty is not to serve Mr Lewis but never let his reveal his crush on Miss Kenton; that would not be proper. And of course his turn as psychopath Dr Hannibal Lecter, toying with FBI trainee Starling to earn his freedom. BTW, as all cinephiles know, Hopkins was basically played a supporting character but earned Best Actor 1991 for less that 20 minutes on screen. Hopkins is good—great—at being wallpaper pasted up by Picasso.

So what better way to appreciate Hopkins’ Burt in how he deals with being out of his nest in search of his quarry? Right. Go along for the ride, so to speak. It’s impossible to not like Hopkins here, all hale and hearty and chuckling and more than a little bit off. That’s his charm, which is quite the statement considering most of Anthony’s charm stem from his best known roles portraying quite reserved characters (EG: the aforementioned Treaves, Stevens and even Lecter). He’s a unrepentant optimist, never giving a damn about social graces. Almost as if his Burt was living against what Ben Franklin said about mortality (but still very much aware of it): “Some people die at 25 and aren’t buried until 75.” Ol’ Ben lived to be 88 and loved a good dirty joke. I suppose you can’t help but be curious about some duffer chasing a childhood dream even if they’re collecting Social Security. I think the best example of Hopkins’ Burt’s unflappable good humor is best summed up in one line. When his new American friend, a trans named Tina comes out to Burt, his simple response is that Tina’s a sweetheart anyway.

Again and of course director Donaldson took some creative liberties with Indian. Erm, some? Precious little was true in the tale, save the showdown at Bonneville. If you think about it, Burt’s true test of his nerves would’ve been easily encapsulated in a one-hour History Channel doc back with the channel aired History. Sometimes you gotta add a lot of breadcrumbs to that meatloaf otherwise no dinner. How Donaldson and Hopkins jury-rigged the story to make it more…there is akin to (and I’ve used this example before, so muzzle it) one of the best Mandela Effect movies quotes ever: “If the legend is better than the facts, print the legend!” Facts can be boring, and if one wishes to spruce up the story you need some ketchup. And kicked up dust. A spoonful of denial makes the soft script go down.

Indian is by far one of the oddest road trip movies I’ve ever seen, and it is indeed a road trip movie. Once Burt’s in the States what else would you call it? The record breaking takes up a lot of room in the back seat in the third act, but the eclectic encounters with the colorful folks he meets—which are all to kind to help Burt on his harebrained quest—makes the trip worth getting off the beaten path one in a while. And really, what’s wrong with a simple, feel good movie?

Indian isn’t complicated (far more than the mortality undercurrent) in which a story like this—legendary or factual—hasn’t been done before, and will be done again. Still, it was charming, had a little weird Coen Brothers bent, a motley cast, a kooky Hopkins and motorcycles. Like I said, sometimes you just gotta go with it and leave some cynicism at the door.

Now who wants fresh squeezed lemonade? No you don’t.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s fluffy to be sure, but so’s your pillow and you still lay back on it. Quit being a drudge and enjoy some Happy Hopkins.


The Musings…

  • “Time goes by so fast.”
  • I need a tomato-shaped squeezy bottle.
  • “It’s only flat on the bottom!”
  • There is a very fine line between eccentric and crazy.
  • “What?” Tom reveals the Maguffin.
  • I liked that clever reveal.
  • “I’m planning on going, not stopping!”
  • Burt can talk his way out of anything.
  • “If you don’t go when you want to go, when you do go, you’ll find you’re gone.”
  • Fun fact: Burt never pissed his lemon tree. Probably never even had one. Director Donaldson threw that bit in as a tribute to his Dad, who in fact did practice that kind of horticulture. I’d never have a glass of iced tea at the old Donaldson home, no sirree.’
  • “I did it!” Chuckles, naturally.

The Next Time…

“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” claimed the First Man to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong…by way of the Mickey Mouse Club.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #187: David Gray’s “The Lost City Of Z” (2016)



The Players…

Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller and Tom Holland, with Angus Macfayden, Edward Ashley and Pedro Coello.


The Basics…

Major Percy Fawcett is a cartographer of some repute, however that never gained much attention in his fellow explorer’s social circles. So-called poor breeding does not mean Fawcett is of poor character or courage. Or drive.

In 1906, Fawcett stumbles, literally, onto an opportunity like no other the Royal Geographic has ever known. On assignment to settle a border dispute in the Amazon—demarcating the boundary between the natives from encroaching on the rubber barons’ land and vice versa—Fawcett by pure accident comes upon ancient arfticats, suggesting a forgotten civilization in the middle of the Amazon basin. Undiscovered and untouched by the indifference of time. Incredible.

Now how does a mapmaker, no matter how skilled, convince the upper crust of the Realm’s bravest explorers that there is wonder in the jungle which needs further scrutiny?

Simple. Fawcett drops everything, absconds from the Empire to the Amazon and goes native, immersing into a world of discovery, both personal and anthropic.

He was never heard from again.


The Intro…

Much to my surprise regarding the last installment tackling Ron Howard’s biopic Cinderella Man I received quite a bit of positive feedback. A lot more than usual. A lot more, like chain mail level. I wasn’t planning on getting much feed back if any outside my small circle of subscribers, and since this week’s movie happens to be another historical drama I figured, “Heck, let’s have a few of these curious movies clog my account and see how well they stick.” So I rearranged my Netflix queue to get a mini marathon going. I chose six more varied biopics to roll on down the pike. Lucky seven. Like I said in the Cinderella installment, it’s creative license versus the historical record and how they should blend into good cinema. Let’s see what happens next.

An aside: Yes, I still use disc-at-a-time, and yes I do have access to streaming video. So why use the Triassic version of movie renting as I’ve done for over 20 years? Simple. Two reasons: one, Netflix’s streaming service is still in its infancy. Their digital library is infinitesimal compared to their hard copies. I’ll catch up when they catch up. Two, like why I gave up MMO’s, me having access to all that online cinema at the diff of a nose would render me off world and you’d never hear from my wretched ass again.

Stop cheering.

So then, what’s on the menu this week? Have a seat and put on the lobster bib.


The Rant…

What is it about movies involving discovery seem so sexy?

Slow down there. There’s a quarantine on and the CDC may be in cahoots with OnlyFans. Remember social distancing.

I’m not talking about Indiana Jones-esque movies. Not exactly. I’m talking about those adventure stories that penetrate the subcutaneous cockles of our curious hearts. The kind of films that get our blood pumping about new adventures and exotic locales and treasures to unearth that may end up on American Pickers. Discovery, that’s the ticket. All the best adventure movies have that. Whether it br digging in the Egyptian desert for forgotten tombs, hacking through the triple canopied jungle perusing a legend, or venturing into outer space. Heck, that last one is what Star Trek’s all about, and the latest series is even called Discovery. It’s all about “let’s go!” paired with a healthy dose of “now what?”

Discovery One was the name of the spaceship that took Bowman, Poole and HAL to Jupiter in 2001: A Space Odyssey and beyond the beyond. One of NASA’s shuttles from their now mothballed fleet was also dubbed Discovery. Shackelton’s expedition to Antarctica in 1901 was christened as such. There’s the Discovery District in Toronto, a city within a city exploring the practical medical applications of biotechnology. And also the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based, non-profit think tank to examine the human condition under the auspices of intelligent design. Flaky, but interesting. Who knows what they might discover? Maybe aliens set up shop here once, I dunno.

Why is discovery sexy? It’s very potent. It drives you. Humans like to learn stuff. Scientists live for it. We like to know new things, for good or ill. Recall in 2020 due to the decimating wildfires in Australia, multiple new species of marsupials were discovered. Granted, not the ideal way to a zoology kickstart, but at least it was good news. Why was that? Why in hindsight Down Under was ablaze and fire fighters from all over the world were desperately trying to suppress massive fire lines the liked we…Oh, look! A new, HUGE glider mammal came out to play! Thank you, fire suppressant! Hell, sure beats wanton destruction en toto.

Like tearing open that umpteenth pack of Pokemon cards and finally scoring that holofoil Ho-oh after so many loser scratch-offs. Woo-hoo! My determination (and luck) paid off! Acquiring fresh knowledge invites more, and all the usefulness—again, for good or ill—that it brings. In more fanciful terms, wouldn’t it be cool if we found remains of an ancient Martian civilization? Or developed anti-gravity? Or teleportation? Or even had Cyberpunk 2077 drop bug free? Hell to the yeah.

You might be asking me if I would care to listen: what was that about exploration movies being sexy? Good question.

In a soft science kinda way, exploration and discovery are sexy. Proving a theory. Going against the grain out of principle and being rewarded for it. Unlocking that secret level on your latest JRPG acquisition. All of that results in an almost exultant feeling of “Eureka!” mixed with “I told you so!” Heck, you’d run around Athens naked after unlocking that side quest about matter displacement, without NeoSeeker and shampoo still in your hair. Drinks all around. Reaching that “a-ha” moment feels pretty damn great, be it understanding algebra to creating a recipe to mastering stick shift. Discovering, and later being an adept can be an awakening. Mind clearing. All is well. I can impress a girl at a bar now with this knowledge, or maybe ace that physics exam. You’ll discover what’s a better chance.

Discovery is always a personal experience, but you know you have to share it with someone. Without a curious audience to maintain, your a-ha moment would be no more than a curiosity, afetish. Think about Watson and Crick, or the Wright Brothers, or Jobs and Wozniuk. All of their strange work proved successful. Eureka! Which is why it’s so damned hard to convince the cynical public that what these folks figured out might aid the greater good! It’s personal, meaning it’s precious to those who seek it and often some arcane hoodoo that flat-earthers just won’t buy into.

That’s often the trouble with discovery. Since it’s an inner elation, it’s rough to share without a context. It’s like the old saw that says the problem with getting something done right the first time is that others never appreciate how difficult it was. Time takes time, like how Hawaiians figuring out how to Spam actually edible. The guys in Northern Africa discovering how razzed their goats got after eating berries applied the scientific method and learned what the goats learned on their own: this coffee tree bears fruit that gets you hyped! How long do you think that brewing the stuff and drinking it caught on? Hundreds of years. Those goatherds were onto something, but precious few listened. They were only nomadic Ethiopians, not nutritionists. Vaccines, a round planet and pushing Betamax as the superior format (two out ion three ain’t bad) took some time even being backed by informed enthusiasm. Where’s your mask?

Discoveries can be tough pills to swallow, often annoying the status quo. A lot of great discoveries gestated for far to long until they saw the light of day, mostly kept in the dark by skeptics, folks without imagination and the business-minding having no easy way to find a way to make a buck off a new find. For example, the Wright Brothers first successful flight was reported by the press was relegated to the back page; no one could believe man powered flight could truly exist, even with photos available and Photoshop decidedly not. There were the “Two Kids From Cleveland” Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster who created the first and best superhero Superman. The Man Of Steel back in the 30s almost never got published because the guys at DC publishing said no one could believe a man can be faster than a speeding bullet etc. According to Business Insider in 2017 the property of Superman had a net worth over $1.9 billion. Hell, even that life-saving gear the parachute had to be demonstrated, if front of God and everybody, by the inventor of the modern design we use today. Franz Reichelt had to jump from the Eiffel Tower to make his point. Good thing all those discoveries had happy endings. Read: eventually profitable. Up, up and away!

No matter how gracious we claim to be, there is always the secret joy of “I told you so” when your discovery bears fruit or not. To paraphrase Galileo after being unfairly sweated by the Roman Inquisition after his astronomical studies, “All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.” It’s sinful pride of a very low degree, but still delicious. Sticking up a psychical middle finger to all those would doubted you out of ignorance or lack of vision. Being able to tout your hard-earned research and earning some respect? Ha, that can feel very sexy indeed. Having the last word, proving your mettle and perhaps even earning some concessions from the lowly one who doubted and mocked you for your fanciful notion of “Ah-ha!” Hopefully we’ve all been there at least once. Edison must’ve had that feeling weekly. Ever hear of that Spanish proverb, “Revenge is a dish best served cold” (now you have)? The point I’m reaching here is not about getting even, but being vindicated. I prefer the one about the monk Dom Perignon after he perfected his method for champagne: “…I am tasting the stars!”

Exultant. That is what sexy feels like beyond the bedroom and the beach. Tantalizing. Revelation. Not sexy per se. Glamourous. That’s what it feels like to be at the right time in the right place. All eyes on you, and you were both steadfast and lucky that your discovery eventually attracted an appreciative, respectful public.

Or not, nor ever. Their loss.


The Story…

In the early part of the 20th century, the British Empire still held sway over most of the civilized world. To be understood that Britannia was not the conquering, civilized race it once was, but they still were the dominant political power on Earth. The British were known far and wide for their explorations of the world and what influence they spread—for better or worse—but even now at the turn of the century acquiring huge swaths of land in the name of King and Country was not as vital as maintaining a presence on a global level.

No. It’s now no long quantity but quality. Resources instead of colonizing. Do not disturb the locals and how they conduct business. Get them to work for you. However first things first in this new capitalism, get the lay of the land, then set up trade.

Enter one Percy Fawcett (Hunnam), a seasoned and well-respected cartographer, as well as a card-carrying member of the Realm’s Royal Geographic Society. He has been fortunate enough in his life to be around the upper crust of his fellow royal explorers, but nary an accolade to befound on his jacket. Centuries old antagonism still clutters the minds of proper Britons, and Fawcett being Irish? Well, it’s been a polite uphill struggle to earn some honest recognition from the Society. Whether it may ever come, who knows?

Well, have you ever heard about how opportunity comes disguised as hard work dressed in rags? Percy has been assigned some hard work, and already feels quite rough shod and ragged. Turns out there is a border dispute in the Amazon. The rubber barons stake claim on one side of a river and the natives the other and none the twain shall meet. Unless a skilled mapmaker like Fawcett can literally draw the line. The Kingdom needs its rubber with as little grease as possible, so the Society dispatches Fawcett and his partner by proxy Henry Costin (Pattinson) to the Amazon basin to lay down stakes, once and for all.

No sooner do Fawcett and Costin approach the end of their trek—well deep into hostile native territory—does Percy literally stumble onto something curious: pottery. In the depths of the jungle. He knows the natives know nothing about throwing pots, so what are this shards doing here? As well as those curious growths of trees in symmetry, suggesting agriculture? Those smooth stones, they didn’t just fall into order. Someone once must have placed them there. Long ago.

Could Fawcett and crew have accidentally discovered a lost city in the middle of the jungle? He’s not certain, but if perhaps if so hen he returns to the Society after his work is through and reports a potential discovery he may not be considered…so “Irish” anymore.


The Breakdown…

I read all the dripping with caramel reviews of The Lost City Of Z—both the book and its film adaptation here—and for the life of me I just didn’t see what the hoo-ha was all about. All the praise, all the accolades, all the nominations from indie film fest from around the globe. All of it. I’ve learned after all these years on blogging to not watch the chosen movie in one sitting. It’s not a race. Depending on the film’s length and my free time I on average stretch the viewings over three evenings, and not necessarily consecutive evenings. Why? Despite the time crunch, I’ve found I need a little time in between to digest what I’ve seen. You kinda miss things in movies when you watch it beginning to end in one swift marathon dash to the coast. At least when you’re trying to both enjoy and dissect said movies. It was like when I caught Scorsese’s apology Best Oscar film The Departed. My friends and I walked out of the theater scratching our heads, trying to make sense of the last scene. We left in separate cars and doubtless both my friends and I were having a synchronous inner monologue trying to decipher how Mark Wahlberg REDACTED Matt Damon. It dawned on me by the third light, and there they were waiting. I flagged them down.

“It was his REDACTED!” And they nodded with enthusiasm.

It finally made sense, but only after 30 minutes in the car ruminating over the movie I had just watched. Thus being said, I now need time apart from a RIORI selected flick to actually “get it.”

Get it?

After finishing Z I appreciated my way of scrutinizing movies. Better well done than half baked. It took me a few days to “get” Z, but not without some confusion and letting some hubris get in the way.

I did not see what the big deal was with Z. As far as this blog is, the movie fit The Standard. Its budget was $30 million, but only netted about $20 million worldwide. The Tomatometer certified it fresh at 87%. Audiences felt differently at 57%. Critics loved it, while the average janes and joes either took it or let it alone. That being noted, I have a theory as to why Middle America didn’t much take a shine to Percy Fawcett’s exploits, and of course it fits in with my discourse. Let it be known that for the first time here at RIORI I sympathize with the popcorn heads. Shock and awe with conclusions to draw. Stay tuned.

At first I found Z to be a bit of a bait-and-switch. Recall what I said above about discovery and its lusty charms? Right, well that was what I was expecting: a hale and hearty period piece all about perils and pleasures of discovering the unknown, like with classic adventure films like Gunga Din or Lawrence Of Arabia. Action, adventure, globetrotting, terra incognito, treasure hunting and the like. That pair are period adventure pieces like Z, out of their time but still designed to take any audience elsewhere. Anywhere but here, but here you will stay, in your armchair, nachos at the ready and let the movie be your guide.

Just like Z? As the Brits say, “Quite the other thing.” Shocker. Can I have some nachos?

What follows is not a complaint about the quality of Z. Not at all. I found precious little flawed with this period piece…once I finally “got it.” Took a long time to get there, too. Like a week. At first glance—the first act I watched proper—Z felt nothing like your typical period biopic adventure. It rather felt like a British parlor novel, telling the tale of a well-to-do riding on their success (or family’s success) as status while “lesser” folks sally forth on their own questionable path to success, whatever that may be. The movie read like the “White Man’s Burden” in reverse. Meaning the (racist) drive of white men to civilize the natives got turned around as role reversal. It read as a shade jingoistic. My mind wandered. Sure, the historical “record” was elegant and intriguing, but there was a serious lack of tension over the next two-plus hours. This normally would’ve been a major issue on my side. My usual lighthearted nature would be rankling and eventually I’d calm down and doze off with the disc spinning, losing the chapter number, waking up to a day I didn’t know and an empty pint of Ben And Jerry’s melting into my shirt. Like I’ve said before, no tension, no story, no attention. Hand me a paper towel or three. I got nacho cheese on my knees.

BUT…

There was a story here and, hear me Middle America, patience would be rewarded. Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t the flavor in Columbus. Yes, the pacing was languid, but that may have been the point; a storytelling device. Perhaps director Gray knew what folks wanted in a historical adventure movie and decided to turn it on its ear. For instance casting Hunnam as Fawcett. Most of such films always have to have some sort of Alan Quatermain kind of hero, full of derring-do and arcane knowledge of lost treasures. Think Indiana Jones or…well, Alan Quatermain. Hunnam’s a versatile character actor, with roles as diverse with Cold Mountain to Children Of Men to Pacific Rim. All somewhat modern roles, to which I found Hunnam as a historical figure—albeit not a very famous one—hard to back. Especially considering how overall reserved he played Percy. I never considered him an actor of nuance. I didn’t buy him as Percy, but I cashed in on him portraying Percy or any other unsung adventurer. Again, wait until the next act.

In fact, all the major players here are pretty comfortable in their own skin, despite what treacherous unknowns the Amazon might have in store for them. Might’ve been the stereotype British stiff upper lip, but I didn’t get that impression. Another reversal of expectations. The cast themselves were patient, as was the film, as how one should watch it. I insist over several evenings. Gray’s direction was very methodical, ensuring you understood the story over the money shots. Hunnam and especially Pattison (who was still grandly shaking off the shadow of Edward) have an easy chemistry, with carefully measured dialogue. Barring the courtroom scene, words are just useless replies to one another, bookending wonder and fear.

I just implied Pattinson further digging deep away from being a viable property, which is a good thing. Hunnam may not be a household name yet, but he truly demonstrate he can carry a movie, with all the top emotions on healthy display with Z. Again I never pictured Hunnam as the leading man type. He had a dire elegance at play here, and therefore a lot to digest as to whom Fawcett was, besides a man at ease with Nature. I was pleasantly surprised by his performance.

This was not your usual fare regarding both biopic and adventure story. Z was carefully measure, frame for frame. There we precious few surprises. Everything flowed. It was a story first and a movie second. It was akin to a live action article from NatGeo, and I believe most folks read that magazine for the photos. The cinematography was nothing less than smart. The music was a polite afterthought; the sound effects served as a better backdrop than any Horner score. After a few nights Z felt perfect, but there was still a nagging feeling that I had been had. I hadn’t, but I suppose I got duped by the collective what an adventure film should be. Sometimes such flicks should not be all whiz-bang. Sometimes you need to stretch out and understand the adventure—the discovery—should lie between you ears.

In the endgame, Z played like the book the film culled from, but I never read the book. It just felt that way. This was the difference three evenings at home made rather than two-and-a-half hours in an impersonal theater or melting into the couch with a stream. Z was a patient movie that tried audiences’ patience. Mine included. When I slowed down and took my time I discovered—again, get it?—a lush adventure story told at the end of the Victorian Age of exploration, and a man’s search for truth, within and without. Also we should understand the story was never about finding a lost city. It was about the ideal. The thrill of discovery.

And to my surprise, I made it back in one piece.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. A solid adventure film, despite the Merchant/Ivory-esque execution. Don’t watch it in one sitting, especially with a bag of Cheetos. You jeans will thank you.


The Musings…

  • “Someday you and I will go hunting together.”
  • It must’ve been odd, if not a relief, to stumble onto opera in the jungle. A “taste of home,” per se.
  • “We might be too English for this jungle.”
  • Why is the lighting so soft in the first act? It is because the hardest is yet to come?
  • “Welcome to the inner circle.”
  • Racism takes many forms.
  • “That bugger wishes he was back on the South Pole.”
  • “Savage” is a relative term. Especially paired against the “sophisticated” combat of the Great War.
  • “A green desert.”
  • For the record, it’s Zed, not Zee. It’s a British thing.
  • “I must go back.”

The Next Time…

Sir Anthony Hopkins plans to take The World’s Fastest Indian motorcycle for a ride into history, Agent Starling. Fly fly fly!


 

RIORI Presents Installment #186: Ron Howard’s “Cinderella Man” (2005)



The Players…

Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Bruce McGill, Paddy Considine, Craig Bierko and naturally Clint Howard somewhere in the mix.


The Basics…

The Great Depression hit America hard, but determined albeit washed-up boxer James J Braddock hit back harder.

After suffering a career-ending injury in the ring, not to mention the nation’s economy going to hell, James still pressed on to keep his family together and well away from Hooverville. Of course it was a struggle, especially when it came to finding dependable work with a bum wrist, but James had weathered trouble before he was rich and famous. Now he’s going to have to start over. No depression of any kind will keep him from taking care of his family. He’s waiting for the next round.

It’s kind of funny, however, that a streak of bad luck could sometimes lead to a “lucky break,” even if in a left-handed sort of way.


The Rant…

It’s been said that Ron Howard is unique in the pantheon of great directors. He makes movies that are crowd pleasers as well as critical darlings. It doesn’t really come as much of a surprise really. Howard has been on sound stages ever since he played little Opie on The Andy Griffith Show (now try to get that theme song out of your head) and later as average Joe High School Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. He was raised in front of the camera with his baby bro Clint under the watchful eye of their character actor dad Rance. It was a sort of family industry. So after being in front of the camera for years, it came as not much of a surprise that Ronnie wanted to get in on some movie action. With his CV, Howard was more than up to the challenge.

Howard’s breakthrough film Splash was a hit. I caught it at the drive-in when I was kid where I got to see a young Tom Hanks flexing his comic chops. I didn’t get the whole art and craft of filmmaking when I was 8, but I knew what I liked and I liked Tom Hanks. He was silly. The rest of America felt that way, too and so the guy’s star rose high enough to eventually team up with a well-seasoned Howard a decade later to deliver Apollo 13. Both movies were big treats and critical smashes. The left-of-center fairy tale romance that was Splash and the nail-biting adventure in NASA history that was Apollo 13 both had something going for them, and it wasn’t Hanks. Okay, it wasn’t just Hanks.

Let’s reel back a bit. Splash was an auspicious start for a director to be noticed. It helped, no doubt, Howard’s education forged in TV and film for decades offered perspective. With that backlog, Ron’s created a bag of tricks to make most of his films the Pied Piper to America’s willing audience. A lot of great directors have one. It’s called their signature. You know when you’re watching a Scorsese film (or a Kubrick, Hitchcock, Burton or Carpenter film) before you read the credits. Howard has a signature: quality. Regardless of the story, casting, staging, lighting, choreography or stubborn prima donnas, he more times than not makes a movie that is satisfying. Fleshed out, driven of purpose and above all pleasing to the eye. Many great directors achieve these things, but Howard manages to always execute his films with warmth. That’s the ticket, that’s his signature.

Sidebar: It’s been said that Howard is the model to which all child actors should aspire. Ron has no drug rap, no criminal record, an all around nice guy, caring dad with his daughter Bryce making her own splash in Hollywood, and a guy driven of purpose: to make good movies for everyone to enjoy, audiences and critics alike. However I’d like to believe to former trumps the latter. Let’s face facts: Howard’s films are to simply be enjoyed. Just sayin’.

Howard’s covered a lot of thematic territory over the past forty years. He’s done romance (the aforementioned Splash), comedy (Parenthood), fantasy (Willow), action (Backdraft), thriller (Ransom), biopic (Pavarotti) and sci-fi (Cocoon). All of them with varying degrees of success, thanks mostly to the skill of delivering warmth. However one genre that has never betrayed Howard’s vision is that of historical drama. Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon, A Beautiful Mind, Far And Away and this week’s victim. Granted not all of these films have been great, nor exactly warm, but they were executed well and very shrewdly.

This is the part where the rant ceases being a Hallmark card.

Here’s what I mean by Howard being shrewd regarding those dramas. Being shrewd is the antithesis of being warm. From my understanding Howard stays faithful to the history of the story but also knows when to deviate from fact to make better fiction. It’s like what that oft-misquoted quote is from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. I’ll maul it a bit more here: “When the legend is better than the facts, print the legend!” He’s been known to do some sweetening with his historical dramas, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing when done right. Heck, a lot of good directors deviate from the story for a better film (EG: Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is both a watered down and over the top reinterpretation of Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness). Often that’s how it goes down. On occasions, however translating the legend gets clunky (check out the U-571 installment, for example). Shoehorning. Not warm, neither shrewd. Not in Howard’s bailiwick.

Being forewarned what follows are spoilers. Kinda. The difference between spoiling and clarifying depends on which story you stumbled onto first: the movie or the source. Avert your eyes if you must, but there’ll be no blue book waiting after this history lesson. The following may, may be considered spoilers, but not in the sense that I am giving away any crucial info to ruin your day. I’m divulging the mundane, historical record that got tweaked in contrast for a juicier filmgoing experience. Now shaddap and watch this filmstrip.

*raps chalkboard with pointer*

Settle down. And who stole my goddam apple?

All right then.

Jim Lovell did not say, “Houston, we have a problem” in Apollo 13. In reality it was, “Houston, there is a problem.” The tweaking of the line made it more personal, y’know? More urgent. Mathematician John Nash’s long-suffering wife Alicia stood by him as he wrestled with schizophrenia in A Beautiful Mind. In reality she divorced him unable to endure the stress of it all (they later reconciled and John lived as her boarder for the rest of his days. They had no kids. That and the whole pen exchange was totally made up). Holding it all together was the underlying story in the movie, and what can be accomplished if you keep plugging away. Divorce is the antithesis of that, head against the wall. Nixon admitted he was involved in a cover up, not a victim of one. Cinderella Man got its fair share of massaging also.

Still with me? Good. Moving on.

It’s a tricky thing. There’s always that whole thing about creative license balancing the historical record. Let’s face facts, most movie goers who like biopics could give two sh*ts about the Wikipedia page. They want to be entertained, rightly so and have never read a Marvel comic book in their lives (or a book at all). The historical facts attached to/inspiring the movie only really apply to the curious, and curious I am. Curious enough to share some Cinderella Man factoids. Not to decry Howard’s direction. Quite the contrary. How he was cagey in tweaking just the right “facts” to deliver a better movie. One that draws you in. This is important. Duh.

Here’s the story of Cinderella Man. The historical record is telling. Yes, Braddock revived his boxing career and won the Heavyweight Title against Max Baer in 1935. Okay. Baer was never the assh*le he was portrayed be in the movie. Sure, he was a rock star boxer, but still a professional athlete. When he knocked out and ultimately killed his opponent, Baer was very distraught by the accidental death. He even gave up boxing for a while. When returning to the ring before the title bout, Baer contacted Braddock of putting the championship fight on hold due to Baer’s fears, worry and knowing Braddock was no longer in his prime.

That Max Baer makes for a sh*tty villain. “Pussy” may be a better word. But there are no “villains” in boxing. This wasn’t the WWE. Baer was not Braddock’s nemesis, he was his opponent. But a movie about a comeback kid needs an antagonist. Bingo, Baer the pompous asshat was borne, and someone to boo at and call a bum or palooka or whatever pussy terms they used back in the day. Conflict is what drives a story and earns an audience. Being a good sport on the losing end does not. Howard knew this, and we—I—bit.

That’s just a small sample of Howard’s shrewdness when it comes to tweaking the facts to promote the legend. It’s safe for me to assume/speak for all of you that history can be pretty boring. It’s been said that the victors write the history, and I believe there are very few accurate stories in history that are exciting as the legends. Good examples? There were not just three hundred Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae. Leonidas and his army had scores of vassals, squires, cheerleaders, caterers, etc to get the job done. Marie Antionette was not so flippant as so suggest the hungry Parisians without access to bread should eat cake instead. In truth the doomed lady-in-waiting allegedly declared, “Let them eat the crusts (from the paté).” Yeah, just as insensitive (if not more so) but not as tantalizing as cake. Einstein never defined insanity. The source is attributed to part of the Narcotics Anonymous manifesto dating back to the early 1980s. Guess Einstein was sexier.

You follow? With historical drama, you gotta spin to sell it, but it has to be the right kind of spin. The record is almost always a straight line. Facts don’t entice as much as tears in the fabric do. A director needs a little wiggle room (read: creative license) to make the facts read out like a legend. People like to believe in legends, get behind them, wish they were the real thing. Howard got that, which is why Apollo 13 was a summer blockbuster as well as Oscar fodder.

If we’re talking spin, that’s kinda like how James J Braddock’s story dropped. And rose up.


The Story…

In the mid-1920’s “The Bulldog Of Bergen,” James J Braddock (Crowe) was the toast of Heavyweight Championship Boxing. Wiry, fast and could take a licking and keep on hitting. He had it all. Fame. Fortune. His devoted wife Mae (Zellweger) and three wonderful kids at his side. A nice house in Jersey, money in the bank, and James on the up and up in practicing the “sweet science.” The fortunes a wishful man dreams about.

That was all before the Great Depression hit, financially ruining James’ family. Not to mention his career. The Braddocks sold virtually everything to survive, including their liquid income, solid income and family home. Matches dried up. James was feeling the strain, physically, emotionally and most of all paternally. It was in his final fight he broke his right wrist, effectively ending his career. So much promise broken by so much pressure. All of it textbook tragic.

Years later, James is pulling itinerant work at the docks, One afternoon he’s visited by his old friend and trainer Joe Gould (Giamatti). Despite James being cut loose years ago from the boxing commission, Joe’s wrestled up a bout for James to score some quick cash. That’s what friends do in hard time. The opponent is just some chump, but the kitty is a healthy $250. James says he’ll give it shot hoping for some groceries for the next month or so. There are four mouths to feed. As well as a dream deferred.

Of such humble beginnings—or second chances—a legend can be borne. Again.


The Breakdown…

Cinderella Man may not be Ron Howard’s best movie, or the most praised, but it is the probably the most quintessential.

All the director’s skills are on naked display here, but nothing is overplayed. Man never wears out its welcome. There have been oodles of historical dramas that freely overplayed their hands, even those made by great directors. Kubrick’s Spartacus, with its soap opera trifecta of Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons (no, not that one) and Tony Curtis. Zwick’s Civil War masterpiece Glory that—how can I say this?—seemed more about alienation than honor at times. Mank’s Cleopatra, the end.

Man never hammers down how downtrodden and maudlin Crowe’s Braddock was. As of this installment Cinderella Man dropped in 2005, 15 years ago. Those in the know have heard that Crowe can have quite the temper. I’m not sure if this is true. Back in the years he could do know wrong in the early aughts, his onscreen personas overrode any offscreen antics. As I like to way too many times say never confuse the artist with the art. Considering here with Man, whatever hothead Crowe is on his days off, that rumor only enhances his performance as Braddock here.

Crowe has an ability to be earnest, whichever role he’s chosen (since LA Confidential. We’ll ignore Romper Stomper and especially Virtuosity today) and that’s a key aspect of his Braddock. He does eager and determined well in equal doses, most likely like any real working Joe in those times; reality versus finality. Despite his reputation, Crowe’s Braddock is rather nondescript after the cold open. We get the underdog treatment, but Howard being shrewd he pulls back the melodrama just enough to educate us that, yes, James is not totally out, but a guy who is down on his luck. And there was a great deal of luck to be down on in the Braddock household. He’s just doing what to do to get by with his family. It felt like polished cast James lugged was a kind of albatross, a reminder of what went wrong. We’ve all been there (and many are still there, thank you COVID) asking “What did I do to…?B

Between Crowe’s earnest performance and Howard knowing how to spin a yarn, our hero is neither a sad sack nor bitter. Like I said determined, as well as unsure of himself after such a crushing loss of his career and his home. Vulnerability; it works every time. Crowe’s roles have been rough and tumble for years, only hinting at enough vulernabilty to make us get behind him. Recalling everyone’s fave boxing story to glory RockyMan is unabashedly romantic, and also it’s the most likable Crowe has even been as an actor, and that’s saying something. No tossed phones nothing.

Crowe’s foil Zellweger was an odd casting choice at first. She seemed somewhat out of place. Her Mae was a little too precious, however still held enough on her own. Odd casting call for the first act, but her performance as Mae does grow on you. I could think of a dozen other actresses to play Mae (oddly enough Lizzy Caplan topped my list, with Emily Blunt a close second. Must be the hair), however with time and how the plot unwound I kinda got why Miz Renee got picked. Her character unfolds gradually over the three acts, like in Shakespeare but written by Ring Lardner. Mae knows more about what’s unfolding before James, or we do. The undercurrent, the tension of what is truly at stake with James’ second chance—earning more money at the risk of his own safety—is a proud and well presented Howard touch regarding family being stronger together than apart (EG: having the kids go stay with Mae’s sister “for a bit” is not an option in the Braddock home). You can see this tack in some of Howard’s other movies, like Apollo 13 or even Cocoon and Willow. This is technically a family film, but not in Disney fashion. Overall, Zellweger had the good head on her shoulders and proved to be more than just a concerned housewife. I was surprised.

The last leg of this troika is Giamatti’s Joe Gould, the Dr McCoy of the central players. Let me get this out front: I love Giamatti. He’s in the same caliber of the late, great Sean Connery. Meaning Paul’s been in a lot of questionable films, but he’s always good. I love his “gift for gab” in all his roles, and his Joe Gould is no exception. Probably the best role he got to demonstrate his verbiage. His motormouth delivery as a huckster and trying to be a decent, well, “Joe” in hard times when his friend James is covered in existential mud. If you consider it, Joe was James’ saving grace and unflappable in his ability to get back into the ring. James was under confident, Mae was scared and Joe was the attaboy huckster. I like that kind of graceful comic relief. Sometimes we all need a buddy without realizing it, especially from a familiar well that’s always there to dip in.

Okay. Let’s talk nuts and bolts.

Howard is notorious for establishing the ideal settings for his stories. Among location directors, scenarists, second units and/or very good sound staging he gets the job done, and the dreary world of Man is no exception. The period pieces are great, doubtless enhanced with tasteful CGI. Howard’s Great Depression here is repression, opression. The ultimate gambit of the haves being so ignored that the downtrodden are everyone’s out for themselves. The first act of Man is about futility and desperate measures, all sepia toned and glaring, almost like foreshadowing to James’ downfall.

It’s all gradual. It’s enticing you. It’s enlightening. It’s the hook. Like Crowe’s earnest Braddock, Howard lures you in with atmosphere and especially scenery. In the second act—after Braddock got his second chance and scored—the sepia tones gave way to sharper hues, hinting at he future. The fog is lifting. James won a few matches. Earned money to pay the bills. Some sunshine of the man’s back. And notice how the boxing audience gradually gets larger and larger. Another Howard trick: get behind the hero, be a part of the moment. I was.

Now the meat of the matter, the Maguffin. The boxing scenes. Granted we never see James punch frozen cattle carcasses, but the mounting matches fit that bill. Those near knuckle bouts were exciting and visceral, and I was never into boxing save Nintendo’s “Punch Out!” (and I never won). I sure as sh*t got amped watching these bouts, especially for the amazing editing and clever use of effects. Meaning when James shattered his wrist in his “last bout” we got an azure X-ray snap of the injury. Later on in the comeback fights, we get the cerulean flashes every time James takes a hit, and comes blinding with the final bout. It’s almost overwhelming, the hurt, the hurt, the hurt. But as fans we know why and who Braddock is: a fighter, but not for the purse. Not for milk. Not to be defeated.

Yes, the fighting scenes were exhilarating, and the tender moments of family and just getting by were kindly sentimental but never schmaltzy. The balance between pathos and desperate struggle was neatly packaged making for great tension. Another aspect of this balance was the pacing, my pissy muse. Man had a feeling of a classic three act play, where everything lined up just right to tell the narrative. Now not everyone knew the history of James Braddock like we did the failed mission of Apollo 13 where it was all over the TV news back in 1970. Braddock’s story was far more prosaic that the misadventures of astronauts. That was the key to Man’s simple wonder. It’s a underdog/comeback story with a nice, neat gift-wrapped happy ending standing above romanticizing the past and plunking the right amount of history into the story to make Crowe’s Braddock seem like a neighbor. That is what makes a shrewd director great. Focus on the story and don’t forget who you’re sharing it with.

Man had just the right amount of melodrama, action and bending the truth to be a real crowd pleaser. I sure was pleased, and quite satisfied. Good story, good execution. The most straightforward Ron Howard film ever. And in these times of bloated biopics, where the lead is granted to win the Oscar, it’s a relief to have a very good film win zilch.

“I want to go out like a champion. I want to be carried out.”

Time to throw in the towel. Ha.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? An absolute rent it. You’ve probably figured out when the installment is this sober (even if I wasn’t) I loved the movie. I scored a hard copy off eBay. Nuff said.


The Musings…

  • The milk thing.
  • “I got in a fight…”
  • For a Kiwi, Crowe does a good Joisey accent.
  • “Hey Joe, this is Joisey.” See?
  • Lotta good accents here.
  • “Welcome to Noo Yawk.”
  • I’ll stop now.
  • “I won.” Mug. Delightful.
  • The empty apartment thing.
  • “We all know the name of the game, and it sure as hell ain’t pugilism.”
  • Was there some sort of Chariots Of Fire, Jew versus Catholic undercurrent going on? Well, Braddock did use the orthodox position and that is the greatest Dad joke about religion and boxing you will ever read today.
  • “I think I can go a few rounds with a dancing Baer.”
  • The good luck handshake thing.
  • “Milk.”

The Next Time…

Another historical drama! Cool! This time we follow Charlie Hunnam deep into the Amazon searching for The Lost City Of Z! Catch it!


 

RIORI Presents Installment #178: Stacy Peralta’s “Dogtown And Z-Boys” (2001) / Catherine Hardwicke’s “Lords Of Dogtown” (2005)



The Players…

Stacy Peralta, Tony Alva, Jay Adams and the voice of Sean Penn / John Robinson, Emile Hirsch, Victor Rasuk, Michael Angarano and Heath Ledger.


The Basics…

Illustrating the time in the mid-70s LA where surfing met skateboarding come two movies. One, a documentary featuring the icons and nobodies of those halcyon days of skate that set the standard for the sport we know today. Two, a fictionalized version of said documentary, made sleeker and sexier for the movie going public that do not care for documentaries.

That’s what’s what, bro.


The Rant…

Well, this is odd. The last time out I covered Out Colda snowboarding movie. This week we have Z-Boys And Dogtown and Lords Of Dogtown, both skateboarding movies. Recall last time I said I pick these movies at random so this a funny coincidence. Wonder if there’s a surfboarding movie out there somewhere? Hmm…

BONK!

*needle screeches across the record*

Never mind that crap in a hat. Your eyes are not failing you. Two movies?!? At once? Yeppers. I’ve always wanted to try this, and thanks to The Standard in geo-synchronous orbit circling Netflix and my cunning (read: random selections) one flew east, one flew west, but both settled down into my nest. I’ve always spouted about movies based on pre-existing material, be it plays, books or comics, cause a sort of frission with audiences. There’s always that grumpy disconnect between which was better and which got it all wrong. “The book was so much better!” “Check out the original before you see the remake.” “Hydrox are better than Oreos.” You get it. Something almost always gets lost in translation. Sometimes, however, the remake is better. Consider  Soderbergh’s take on Ocean’s Eleven, or the movie is better than the book as with the original Die Hard. And sometimes things have to get lost in translation to break old rules, like Kurosawa’s versions of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and King Lear (his Throne Of Blood and Ran respectively) replacing the Scottish Highlands and feudal Britain for the Tokugawa shogunate. There’s really no solid formula for making a reinterpretation a decent one. Besides shrewd casting, a savvy director with a unique vision and a scenarist with a scalpel for a pen, the rest is just luck. The filmmaker up against a fickle audience that may have read the book/seen the play/saw the original/saw the other remake better have some serious confidence—if not hubris—that what they’re gonna commit to camera will not go sh*te over shovel. Luck has a lot to do with this since movie geeks are so dang fickle, even if they are going to see the reinterpretation just to quail about what got f*cked up at the next Trekkie Con.

Just kidding. I like Star Trek. I meant E3.

Here is the first time where two movies of identical material get to go under the microscope. Nowhere in The Standard does it say I can’t tackle two questionable films in the same breath, especially since one precludes the other. The story may be the same, but just like reinterpretations and revisionist remakes one movie may take efforts to be honest and the other, more user friendly flick tries to sell tickets. We’ll be the judge about the what’s what. And in the endgame I will lord over both. Mwah-ha-ha.

Ahem. I know little about the art and craft of skateboarding. I say art because, hell haven’t you ever seen the pros shred? It’s kinda like interpretive dance mixed with acrobatics. And it looks so cool when done by a master. I’d like to think that skateboarding has informed all sorts of manually-powered sports on planks in the manner of flash and style. BMX, snowboarding, rollerblading, even wake boarding owes something to how a deck is properly manipulated. Style and substance are inextricably linked.

I say craft because one just doesn’t hop on a board and reach crucial realm. There’s a science to it, no doubt. An understanding of fundamental physics, like gravity, inertia, momentum, wind shear and equilibrium. Takes a while to get all that stuff in synch, not to mention a lot of earned bruises and skinned knees (always wear protection, kids). I figure ballet dancers must know the same facets, as do NASCAR drivers, BASE jumpers, surfers and anyone who has played an Nintendo console since the inception of the Wii (ten years on and I’m still learning that lesson). It’s somewhat akin to the dancing skills of the iconic hoofer/actor Fred Astaire. He made it look so easy, like it was natural as taking a stroll. What few understand it took hours upon hours of practice to make his moves appear natural. A grand illusion. So goes for the mad skillz of the other performers above. There is a science to everything, and those that understand the scene may prove their craft. And with craft may come art, and art may yield effortless grace like Astaire’s dancing. But grace does not ever come easy. In fact, I’m willing to wager that those who achieve grace never realized it at the time.

That’s kinda the theme with Stacy Peralta and his fellow skater dudes from 1970s Dogtown. No one knew they were reimagining and recreating the sport of skateboarding at the time. They were just doing the DIY thing. Can’t surf the waves? Go surf the concrete. Make do with what you got. I like that type of ramshackle ethos. Not to get too obscure, but I always liked the liner photos of ska-punkers Operation Ivy sole album Energy. The bass player had affixed his axe to the strap with electrical tape. The drummer used stacked milk crates as a throne. Use what you have. The stories of Peralta and his crew scouting out empty swimming pools as makeshift, proto-skate parks appealed to my broken-wing sensibilities.

So where am I going with all this? I can’t skate. I’ve tried an am too much of a spaz. I can barely walk in a straight line under ideal weather conditions (I blame my dependence of Starbucks’ Doubleshot. That and wearing Crocs at work). I really don’t want to try again. It’s been years, since the 90s when the sport finally achieved legitimacy thanks to Z-Boy disciple Tony Hawk. Like I’ve mentioned before these movies are mostly random selections to which I subject myself to, even if they are about stuff I really got bored of aeons ago.

I find as this heartening for the scruffy and the broke to pool resources and can creates opportunities from scratch. Make make a lousy life more tolerable if only for a little while. We all need that sometimes, whether it being blowing on an old NES cartridge to get Mega Man 2 going just one more time to the tired grandma in Tuscany with overgrown eggplants and tomatoes and that large tire of cheese her hubs scored cheap at the local farmer’s market. What if I fried this? Bang. Eggplant parm. It’s an underdog feeling backed by practicality.

It’s all about surviving. And making good of what life hands you, like skate wheels that grip, a drought and empty swimming pools.


The Story…

Dateline: Dogtown. Where Venice Beach ends. The last of the great urban slums. The crumbling piers and the crashing surf against the rotting pilings are the only reason any comes down to this end. The butt end of Oakland, to catch a wave. The best surf cuts below the remnants of the once seaside paradise of Venice Beach. And its not for sale. Never for sale. As far as the local surf punks are concerned those unworthy couldn’t even rent it.

Stacy (Robinson) and his fellow surfer bros Jay (Hirsch) and Tony (Rasuk) want a piece of the action, always. But local tough and surf happy gypsy Skip (Ledger) and crew want no snot noses harshing their curls. Locals only, and the three live too many blocks uphill to earn their trade. But the beach belongs to everyone, right?

Not in mid-70s LA. Nothing belongs to nobody for long if it means an escape from urban blight. So Stacy and friends are back to riding their beater skateboards instead, a poor excuse to comp for sh*tty surf. It’s kinda like that saying about pizza: “Even when it’s bad it’s good.” Stacy and crew frequent Skip’s beater surf shop, which he lords over like the snob he is. Again, locals only. One day a decidedly non-local shows up at Skip’s shop pushing something. The guy figures surfing ain’t so far removed from skateboarding, so check it: Urethane skate wheels, made from petroleum. They grip and never shatter like traditional clay wheels.

Skip’s intrigued, as well as Stacy and his fellow skate rats who are quick to grab the sample wheels and refit their planks. Behold! Now they can surf anytime! On land! They take their surfing skills to concrete and what do you know? Skateboarding gets all curvy, faster and eventually vertical.

All by happenstance Stacy and his friends are re-inventing skateboarding from a cheap form of transport and a novelty to…a performance art?

Upon such humble beginnings do legacies commence. Helped along with some squishy wheels.


The Breakdown…

You know the novelist’s adage, “Write what you know,” right? Well Stacy Peralta knows skateboarding. He and his cronies reinvented the sport. So to offer up a slice of decidedly California culture Peralta cut Dogtown And Z-Boys about his teen years on the Zephyr Skate Team and the ensuing fame and fortune and loss and the whole bit. Rags to riches to rags to redemption. Kinda standard issue really.

As was Hardwicke’s take on history with Lords Of Dogtown. I’m gonna say upfront that one informed the other. Directly. Peralta thought he could get the Dogtown story to a larger audience via historical fiction rather than just by the doc alone. He was somewhat correct in his thinking. It took a budget of $400,000 to bankroll Z-Boys, but only earned $1,300,000 at the US box office (grand total with overseas was $1,500,000). According to my fuzzy math that’s only a quarter takeaway. Hardwicke didn’t fare much better with her film, netting only about half gross, including foreign markets.

I have a theory about why that happened (surprise). Despite how cool and fun skateboarding is, it is clearly a niche market for a hardcore subculture. I’m not certain, but I think most kids thrash on an Xbox rather than an Element 92 Classic. Both films would definitely be ready-to-wear for skaters, but mostly a curiosity for the rest of us. If we want to learn about the history of skateboarding there’s always Wikipedia, YouTube, other social media or simply just the latest gaming installment in the Tony Hawk franchise.

To most, skateboarding is a curiosity, and movies about the sport have a very specific (if not narrow) margin to shove into the local multiplex. When I was finished with Peralta’s film—which began to get repetitive and a shade dogmatic (pardon the pun) in the third act—I had the firm belief this was for skaters and “locals only.” I also felt that Z-Boys was too long. Peralta made his point clear before the first hour elapsed. The rest came across like shout-outs to his fellow skate rats like Alva and Adams, and when those dudes were actually in front of the lens they more-or-less repeated the events that Peralta assembled on film. It all seemed a little suspect—if not desperate—to me. Skating culture is not the flavor in Columbus. I live in a modest metropolitan area, boasting a little more than 660,000 souls. The cities that make up the greater LV area pride themselves on their Parks And Rec services, boasting more parks and playgrounds than Saturn, or whatever. Wanna know how many skate parks there are where I dwell?

Two.

Two for forty-one square miles of counties stretching towards Philadelphia and into Jersey. New York City has only 6, and they have 300 square miles to work with. It’s a niche market, and most squares are simply not interested in skateboarding movies. Especially since those cooked up usually are nothing more than framed stunts with a sorta story threading through to justify it as a movie rather than commentary on zeitgeist or a commercial plug (EG: Gleaming The Cube, Street Dreams, Skate Kitchen, etc). I know I’m a ruddy cynical dork, but when you’ve watched as many mediocre movies as I have done here, you start to see patterns. Patterns as to why some films flourish and others tank. This all doesn’t really have anything to do with a dearth of skateparks in the LV, but it does all reflect movie audience’s discretionary spending.

Now that we’ve established that skateboarding is a very specialized sport (kind of like hockey, badminton and curling), we need to address the bottom line here. The one regarding ticket sales. It’s not as if Z-Boys and Lords were bad movies. They weren’t. It’s just they would appeal to either this niche market or curious onlookers. Like I also said, skating done pro is amazing to watch; it looks like these pros are really defying gravity. But a whole movie? Two? There are oodles of YouTube feeds dedicated to the sport where an avid skater can ogle and take notes and try out the stunts for themselves. Why bother forking out 12 bucks for matinee?

I equate it to the rock star thing. Sure, you get all the albums, tee shirts and paraphernalia from your idols’ websites. But to see them perform live? Ah, therein lies heart of the matter. Like with rock, as with skating isn’t it curious that a pop culture revolution always starts with revolt but evolved a mean to and for pleasure? Perlata’s movie touches upon that. Moreover it shows how kids that got stuck in the middle turned to that surviving thing and became rock stars of the skating world. Young Peralta and his friends weren’t trying to get rich and famous. They weren’t allowed to surf and/or got bored. It morphed into a homegrown industry where the home life sucks. It explains why bullying surfmeister Skip became a surrogate dad to these boys. Gave them purpose, and also allowed the fruits of their labor to be skimmed off the top.

Everyone wants something from you is what Peralta’s movie unwittingly informs us. Beyond frustration with the same ol’ same ol’ and going nowhere fast mental block; why does everything have to go to utter sh*t in order to breakaway? Frustration? A need for some DIY ethos? Being broke? Most likely yes on all fronts. Peralta and company weren’t hellbent on changing the sport, but change it they did and all the usual trappings led to more trappings. There’s a very bleak undercurrent to Z-Boys; you know how this is going to end up, even if never even set foot on a deck. That might be where the onlooker movie goer mindset might be to want to check out this flick.

Enough gloom and doom. Let’s talk tech. Not surprisingly with Peralta, Alva and Adams at the fore, Z-Boys is impeccably researched. Peralta managed to connect everyone involved with and around the Zephyr team back in the day on hand. He even made time in interview Adams who had been busted on a drug rap (he was released a year later after the film premiered). All were present, and they weren’t spinning yarns. Nothing like a documentary with a wide swath of characters “keeping it real” and sharing the good, the bad and the scars. The stories I heard was when times are rough, one must play rough to enjoy these times. No one interviewee was swaggering (maybe Adams a bit) and there was a lot of backslapping, snobbery and bullying one could chalk it up to adolescence. That and gobbling up any royalties that skated their way. You know, when you get older, rose colored glasses and bleagh.

The historic footage in Z-Boys is nothing short of amazing, and in no small part to photographer Craig Stecyk. He was the camera eye catching the Z-Boys in action, and just as their skills inspired other boarders to get vertical, his photos that graced Skateboarder magazine were just as inspiring to the onlookers. Chances are all lot of them perused the magazine, saw what they saw and saved up for a plank to swim in an empty pool. His work was a bit more than Robert Mapplethorpe. His shots were like the urban equivalent of National Geographic. Witness the skater in their element. I have never read a skateboarder magazine ever, but with Stecyk’s eye I was tempted. Many, many original shots. History applied as trade. This is a history most of us wouldn’t even care about, but it is a vital slice of pop culture even if you didn’t care in the first place. I sure as hell didn’t until I saw how the sausage was made.

Okay. Peralta’s doc is pretty right on, ever for a land lubber like me. But we’ve been talking tech, right? My nasty familiar was curling around my legs watching Z-Boys and her name is pacing. Peralta’s moves plays like a sleepy day in high school civics. Z-Boys gets really repetitive halfway through the second act. Recall that backslapping mentality? It’s one thing to comment on our skaters’ accomplishments. It’s another to get all rah-rah for large chunks of the time where the object of affection says their part. It’s a minor version of the Packers’ superfan (or pick whatever hockey team one rallies around) that paints themselves green (all of themselves), donning a foam block of cheese on their scalp and behaving like they scored the last few goals personally. All the while holding a frosty mug full of Bud. It felt like filler, and the tale was told 30 minutes ago. In simpler terms, the sh*t grew sluggish. Bummer.

So what’s up with Hardwicke’s take? She caged a lot of data from Z-Boys, albeit a tad awkwardly. The real Peralta, Alva and Adams served as consultants, but I had a tough time assuming these guys had a final say come post-production. It’s no surprise that Z-Boys informed Lords, and even if I saw Peralta’s movie after Hardwicke’s I’d pretty hard pressed to claim I didn’t connect the dots. Heck, all documentaries are based on real events. Historical fiction? That demands sweetening over facts. Or at least a nod to the facts second and a head bob to sick righteousness front and center. Cynical? Yep. The way of ticket sales? Ditto.

Using one film to relate to other was where I got scourged. It was bound to happen. That sweetening matter? Sigh. Peralta’s doc was adequate and interesting enough on its own, but to lave the fictionalized story with classic, cloying Hollywood drama trappings? Even if you didn’t see Peralta’s film and did keep a clean nose you’d smell the tropes miles away from the highest tide. Such crapola ruined the potential of Lords. Instead we get a kinda kinetic Hard Days’ Night feeling. Adolescence running riot. These skater kids are sex waiting to happen. And Peralta was on hand for all this, so I had to allow some credence. But if the man gave the thumbs up eight ways to Monday and was on hand ready for finger-waving, I’ll bet he in the endgame cowed towards revenue than relevance (esp’ how his doc tanked with Middle America).

Hardwicke’s chronicle is an amusing tale of surfing in Cleveland, with Sex Wax behind the ears to stave off otitis. Rough and tumble? Sure, but the trappings are a mile long. I’d like the believe that Hardwicke’s film was curtailed to make it more marketable. That and due to rampant, encouraged sexism in Hollywood having a woman at the helm was a significant enough pill to swallow. To not rock any cradles, Hardwicke may have conceded to the sweetening in order for Columbia to back off and have her name attached to her project. Just a theory, but considering the lone Z-Girl Peggy was once disqualified for being a girl at a meet and the movie Peggy got less screen time in Lords than the real Peggy in Z-Boys got me to wondering.

Which brings me to casting, and believe or not my views are rather favorable. For the most part. Considering Hollywood meddling, our portags fill the necessary void of characterization via the assembly of the tough guy, the fragile guy, the misfit and Wally Cleaver. I think Robinson was put on board—so to speak—because he’s a dead ringer for the younger, real Perelta. Look, you don’t become and ace skater fiend by being a Boy Scout, and none of these down and out, ne’er do well kids would ever be eligible for the Glee Club by being meek and upstanding. Hirsch as Adams as a mama’s boy? If your mom as that whacked out you’d be first in line for the latest Fear concert date, punches all the way. Instead his delicate features paired with wild behavior just screams poseur (a very keen skater insult). Get in with the cholo brigade cause he can speak Spanish and shearing off his sunny locks to get in with the punk crowd? Might make some sense—esp’ considering the Z-Boys adult Adams regretting his bad decisions in his youth—but that lingering family obligation, so sweet and so proud? Friction.

That whole schpiel however illustrated how dedicated Hirsch was to the character. Sure, for all three acts he was an insufferable snot, but at least he acted. Robinson and Rasuk mostly just went through the motions, were able to skate mean and most likely consulted with YouTube than with the real Peralta and Alva. Rasuk just comes across and spoiled bully, demanding no spotlight to others. Robinson is passive, nice clean cut kid next door who happens into the world of skating by aw shucks accident. Red lights. Like Adams/Hirsch you don’t get to the top of a very selective sport by braiding your sister’s hair. You must be—as Skip told them—pirates and take no prisoners. Considering that this sport is meant for one to be smashed onto the ground more often than get vertical you gotta get hard. Too many soft blows in Lords took the steam, the momentum out of the film. What would’ve been better would be the cinematic version of “actions, not words.” Too much exposition, titillation and soft lobs. Not enough metaphorical face plants.

On a postive note, and compared to Peralta’s movie, most scenes are recreated really well. Almost frame for frame. No shock that Stecyk had a lot to do with this, what with his tireless camera work for the real Z-Boys. Hard to deny the actors never blew his images off. I understand comparing apples to avocados between films is lazy work, but someone cracked the whip when these kids aimed for the light. Regardless of their lame acting chops (save Hirsch) these kids could thrash with the best of them, managing to reenact classic shots through Stecyk’s lens almost effortlessly. After all, the heart of both films are the stunts, and boy howdy these non-actors can shred. Looks even better through the eyes of high-end cameras.

Even though I called out Hirsch as the only solid Z-Boy on the casting call, it always seems the guy behind the guy is the most captivating. I give you Ledger as Skip. He’s the only one who has presence, even if his Skip it totally invented. Based against Z-Boys far kinder reflection his was where the lines got blurred.

The late Ledger was a darn fine actor. Protean. He was never the same guy twice as his career went on. In fact, until his rude passing, it became very hard for me to see where the man took a left and the character shoved itself into front-and-center. Ledger’s Skip has a lot to do with his acting chops and making characters his own. I’m not slagging on the rest of the young cast as just wallpaper. Like I implied Hirsch was excellent at being fragile, even though you know what a dark road he was heading down. But Ledger shined because he was portraying a real person, and one to be compared to the real Skip on Z-Boys. Real Skip and Heath’s Skip are not the same people, however Ledger’s performance feels more real. We all know (or heard of) a guy like Skip. That pissy, on-the-fringe dude who really gave a sh*t about you were doing in school, since he dropped out freshman year.

Ledger was the only one that had presence, even if his Skip was fabrication. I was not sure during Lords if I liked Skip or not. Wait, that’s not right. It would be if I respected the character, since he was the de facto axis up which the story spun. As implied above the other Zephyr kids were more or less ciphers (even Hirsch). He was the troubled kid. Jasuk was the ego. Stacy was average joe. And so on. Skip had a little more meat on his bones. Without him around I doubt I could’ve tolerated Lords with all its Tinsel Town trappings tracery to trade tickets.

That’s the stuff that bugged me about Lords. Had to come up. There was a lot of MTV, mandatory slickness about its delivery. A lot of pat teen rebelliousness for rebellion’s sake (I focused the lens on Hirsch in particular). These kids were from the mean streets. They’re troublemakers. They skate and ditch school and smoke weed and enjoy vandalism and are sexually active and voted for McGovern and yak yak yak THESE KIDS ARE DANGEROUS. To like, the status quo and everything! Why Hardwicke presented these kids in this very, very tired light escapes me. Hasn’t the whole “maintaining integrity vs corporate mainstream” thing been played to death yet? Old hat. What’s the motivation? There have been endless topical teen rebellion flicks well before Hardwicke’s pedestrian take. Consider the classics that the director prob’ took a few hints from: The Wild One, Rebel Without A Cause, The Outsiders, Kids, etc. The list goes on, and we’ve seen it all before. I would’ve wished with such a fertile tale of a very uniquely American slice of pop culture that Hardwicke would’ve brought her own spin would spice up a very tired trope. Nope. It was a real slog to watch the third act of Lords, which passed as flair was a serious dose of the sillies. Guess what? You can’t introduce comedy into a movie decidedly not a comedy. I’m splitting hairs here, but…

Here we reach our quandary. Two movies about the same story with two distinctly different takes. Two different views, and not dealing with remakes or sequels or other distractions. This was kinda like taking a final exam explaining my take, but here it is even without cramming. Both films were overall okay, but hampered by hubris and the soft sell. Peralta overestimated how vital his tale was, but Z-Boys was chockfull of history and eyewitness accounts it was about skateboarding. That very niche-y niche market. Low ticket sales didn’t equal a bad film here. Low ticket sales equalled a select few buying tickets. Pure math.

Lords did the math backwards. How can we pitch this tale of trailblazing skaters—a very below the salt demographic, mind you—to the average movie-going nabobs and make it finger licking’ good? Let’s bake this recipe: get rowdy kids, make their characters cut-and-dried, assemble a classic period playlist, sprinkle sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll here and there like a classic Ian Dury album and entice Heath Ledger to act while being on…something for eight weeks. Make sure he breaks stuff. Gets the fist pumps going. That’s how to make a profitable film, Kate. BTW, yer a girl director right? In that case you better waste any creative potential to ensure a third rate pay cut. All producers have grey hair and a daily Metamucil cocktail for breakfast. Ida Lupino was a fantasy dream. What’s this nose manual thing? We don’t have any allergies. Where are you going?

Sigh. Round and round and round.

This whole installment was akin to applying for a Rhodes scholarship. I’m beat. I still don’t know how to skate, but I respect it more. Not the stunts. The practice invested to making it look Astaire effortless. And as with making good movies, seamless is the way to go. Never thrashing, and never pussyfooting.

I can survive on this opinion.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? For Peralta’s film? A mild rent it. It’s still a specialized market, but the film was infused with enough verve to invite curiosity. Hardwicke’s film? A mild relent it. Once you give up and resign yourself to this being a formulaic film, just chill and enjoy the cool surf and skate stunts. Not all flicks are designed to win awards. Like Peralta’s did.


The Musings…

  • “I was on a summer vacation for 20 years.”
  • Ledger does a killer McConaughey impression.
  • “This was the last great beachside slum.”
  • DeMornay still has her epic smile.
  • “You just got patty-slapped!”
  • Ambivalent about the Z-Boys soundtrack. Don’t think Peralta had a real say in it. A lot of overused songs IMHO.
  • “Do a Bert!” I like that.
  • Jay coulda sold that board, what with cash being tight.
  • “Nice socks!”
  • All right, the Tony Hawk cameo was cute.
  • LOCALS ONLY.

The Next Time…

Road trip! Worse, family vacation! Robin Williams chucks his family and way too much baggage into his rental RV to get in touch with Mother Nature!

That usually means poison ivy.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #172: Kasi Lemmons’ “Talk To Me” (2007)



The Players…

Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cedric The Entertainer, Taraji P Henson, Mike Epps, Vondie Curtis Hall and Martin Sheen.


The Basics…

Besides the free three hots and a cot, the best thing about being in prison is you are free to speak your mind. No one will listen. No one will listen, of course unless you cause a scene. Start a ruckus. Make you realize that you are indeed imprisoned. Then there might come some existential frisson and screaming ensues.

Frisson is all prisoner DJ Petey knows, and he’s rough and ready to remind his fellow listening audience/inmates that all is not well in the nation’s capital. Or the country, for that matter. For Petey there are always matters of injustice to address, as well as inject James Brown into the echoing corridors to appreciative lifers.

But on a very rare, if not one-time occasion, Petey’s broadcasts leak beyond the prison walls. Or rather, just the right kind of audience tunes in at the right time.

One from The Outside.


The Foreword…

Hey, welcome back. Glad you could make it.

It took a tad longer than expected, but Volume One of RIORI has been all revisited, revised, updated and forgotten about. We all know it’s bad to dwell on past regrets, but I regret being such a tool years back and there was my way to atone to my loyal readers. Thanks and you’re welcome. It was such a load off my spine.

In retrospect, I was pleasantly surprised at a lot of that rough hackwork. Those very early entries were ostensibly written as movie critiques weren’t all bad. Some were whisky saturated screeds against Hollywood corporate agitprop. Others were mean diatribes. A few were right on base, perhaps then a sign of better things to come. Hell, some even were spelled correctly. Or I just got lucky. Or not. So anyway here we are, back on course to tackle some potential new threats on the mediocre movie horizon. Let’s set our sights on the next Michael Bay project (I hear Bad Boys 3 is right around the corner, and now we’re being lured by Kevin Hart. Scramble the jets!).

But before we go any further, some notes are in order. First, I’ve done away with all that “volume” crap. I only started dragging that line to troll possible subs to sign on thinking I had multiple feeds elsewhere. Of course it didn’t work. It would help if I had multiple feeds. Yeah. Sorry. Didn’t fool me, either. I have the non-comment feed to show for my little subterfuge. And I still pray every night, kids for the blog fairy to come and sweep me off to BloggieLand on gossamer WiFi.

Sigh. A man can dream, right?

Secondly, there is this practice in the comic book industry (lately) that when a new team tackles a long-running series (EG: Spider-Man, X-Men, My Little Pony, etc) they start counting all over again. It’s not issue #26, it’s #1 again. Again. This is a transparent ruse to coerce prospective buyers with the lure of a “new #1.” Number one issues are still quite prized, despite the despotic fandom comic collecting creates amongst like minds, concrete and just plain daffy. Namely, it’s a gimmick that works for new sales and irks the Cheetos-addled. Publishers are all about the bottom line, but comic collecting is still a niche market despite what Disney commands, and f*cking the noble history of our noble heroes quite rankles the geek squad nobly.

The remedy? “Legacy numbering.” About a year or so back, the team behind the most recent volume of The Amazing Spider-Man ran their course. Over ten years they penned the ups and downs of everyone’s fave web-head, and eventually looked for greater peaks to scale. After said decade the writers and artists passed the torch; in specific their run ended with Amazing Spider-Man #801. The new crew began not with #802 but a new #1. It was emblazoned on their first ish…with a byline: Legacy 802. Get it? This run at RIORI was the centennial, but screw any more trolling with quantity over quality. Hell, it might actually cage me a few more new subs. In other words, clean slate. Fair dinkum. Reset your calendars and synch those smartwatches.

Here we are at installment proper #172, and we’re gonna keep it lean and extra mean from now on. Everything has been legacied. No more back issues to collect. Time to get roasting and hope I’m pleasantly proven wrong again. Again. Thanks again for tuning in!

Now where was I? Oh yeah…


The Rant…

I’m not sure if I ever mentioned these stories before (I probably have) but rest assured it is very relevant regarding this week’s movie. Appropriately enough, it’s all about being on the air. The radio, that is. Listen up.

If you think about it, radio has been the free social media landscape before stuff like Facebook, Instagram and even WordPress existed. Radio also happens to be the best, and the Internet has been only aping AM/FM broadcasts since MySpace crept out from under its bits and bytes (MySpace still exists, BTW. Fancy that) is spirit. Our free social media can be the Fresh Kills Landfill online for all to dump in, but I’ve learned that radio lacks a soft white underbelly unlike its online peers. Why?

Maturity. If you wanna get technical radio transmissions are as old as the Universe, and humanity has only learned to harness the airwaves for only a little more than 100 years, and its friend count has never been tallied. Never had to. Radio has been just…there. Spreading news, insight and music from Cape Town to Columbus. For the most part it’s free, cheap and green. And often taken so far for granted its like it never was there. I think Queen wrote a song about that, which inspired a young Steffie Germanotta to pick up a mic. All we hear is…you know the rest.

Wanna know how yours truly first picked up the mic? Too bad. My blog, my rules. Now learn to appreciate the subtle yet convincing grip does duck tape have around wrists and under arms of a Stryker chair. Miss Quinzel? You may dance for me now.

Where was I? Right. Maturity. I speak from experience. In truth, a lot of the radio jive I’m gonna talk about from experience. Now. Here comes the story I think I may have told before but is still relevant to this weeks installment. I was once a radio programmer for our market’s local community radio station. WDIY 88.1 FM, the Valley’s community public radio station. Many choices, real voices. That was us. Is. Still is. WDIY just celebrated in 25th anniversary, and that is quite the triumph in small market, low metro coverage. Consider the MySpace ribbing earlier.

For five years, 2005 to 2009 I was on air, hosting the drive time, AAA music show. I was “Your Friend In The Blend.” “The Blend” was on every weekday, 1 to 4 PM, and I held the crucial Friday slot. I say crucial because to be on air Monday morning or Friday evening is akin to how a good play (or movie) should pan out: if you got a solid opening and a memorable ending, it was worth the time. The rest is just filler. Good filler, mind you, but most folks drive cars and most cars have radio and most folks have jobs and most folks commute to work on Monday to start the slog and speed home on Friday and in-between the radio might be something to tune into for news/music on the go. Stuff like that. My seat also meant some pressure. Gentle pressure mind you. Moreover there was “performance anxiety.” Say and play what sticks and the rest is gravy. And no road-rager will wrap their Benz around a telephone pole, ejecting that iPhone like a shotput. Shoulda stayed tuned in.

Radio may be mature, but it sure takes a lot of on air hours to make the deejay grow up. Hold that: this may sound pretentious (and it is) radio programmers shy away from being labeled “deejays.” What was once the provenance of the disc jockeys on air, to spin tracks of wax as well as wax on spins past that title now refers to the many club types who wheel the steel, host raves, do trivia nights and pull karaoke. I’ve done all of that, and I can understand why the term, “programmer” has been set aside for the people in the broadcasting booths around the world. Heck, even on day one at the station my boss told me to not use the word “deejay.” WDIY never hosted karaoke nights.

But I did. Check it: in and around my “respectable” programming gig at WDIY, I scored some extra cash by hosting karaoke at an old fave bar. I got that opportunity because a local, well-known and respected deejay manned the boards at said club when he hosted that evenings entertainment. Namely, the local bands who’d perform every Friday and Saturday at no extra door charge for the patrons. DJ Rick was a fixture at the club as well as on the air, so he had some pull. That and he and I were huge Pere Ubu fans. Rick even caged me some bootlegs on disc. Best buds.

The setup for a karaoke night is pretty self-explanatory. You might’ve been there one lazy, bored night. A mixing board, mounted speakers, one or two mics, a dedicated drive housing thousands of push button songs, a monitor tele-prompting lyrics for the drunken brave few and some plank to stand on which the lucky losers can caterwaul for three minutes. Only self-checkout at Wegmans is more complicated.

But you need a deejay to hold it all together (EG: the least drunk guy in the room). That was my job. Basically be hall monitor. Queue up the requests, make sure everything worked right and play to the crowd. For example: “Let’s give a big round for Bob! Warren Zevon told him to beware those “Werewolves Of London!” Now howl! Stuff like that. I had to be Alan Freed; all the jokers had to do was try and sing and land in train wreck territory (even though that was part of the fun) and not barf on stage. Good times to be had by all. At least that’s how Rick described it, and the hundred bucks I scored didn’t hurt for such mercenary work. It also covered my bar tab.

If you’ve never done it, don’t believe the haters. Karaoke is capital F fun. Get a little drunk, loosen up, hop on stage and pretend to be Elvis for a few minutes. Hosting it was great. It was like an inebriated middle school talent show. Sure, try to do good but who really cares? We like music and we’re having fun; so what if we suck? Naked naivete and go with it. Stop being a killjoy and grab the mic.

After many, many rounds of hosting karaoke I learned a few things about our brave, sloshy performers. Namely, we have three types of singers. The first being those who can’t sing, but make up for it just by rocking out. Their buddies cheer them on and sometimes sing along also. It’s all a big joke, and usually the performer buys the next round. Good times had by all, esp the host.

The second karaoke fan is a novelty. Happens seldom, but when it happens it’s a Susan Boyle moment. The person grabs the mic and can actually sing. One time this one guy nailed Bon Jovi’s “Blaze Of Glory” so well I felt like I was stranded on the Garden State Parkway. Casual listeners were stirred. Lighters came out. A lot of screaming and clapping, myself included. Those kind of performances are the stuff of legend. Made me glad I took up Rick’s offer. So much fun.

Then the dreaded then.

I feel this is where karaoke gets a bad rap. It’s all fun and games until we lose an eye. Then we play marbles. Some folks who religiously attend karaoke are like the Blues Brothers: on a mission from God. The fervor is real, but God took a nap an aeon ago. These guys suck all the fun out of the room, stinking of White Claw and daddy issues. They get up on the plank and start singing as if they are really reaching for something, like Simon Cowell is out on the floor somewhere playing foosball or whatever. Simply put, karaoke is all about drunken fun, not getting a free ride to Hollywood. Here’s a tale and a coda about what I think getting lost in sound should go.

Here is a fine example of when the train runs off the tracks. One time where crash and burn was expected, and the stoic deejay had to lend a hand. One karaoke night, the bar was a desert. There were the usual yokels at the bar to be sure, but the floor was a ghost town save one table of eight drunken revelers. It was a birthday party, and the lucky b’day boy had turned 21. He and his party took turns at the mic, the quality of their singing getting ever shriller with each new pitcher. Good times.

I became not the host but a jukebox. The sloshy revelers barked at me to play a certain tune on spec and then fell on the mic and proceeded to warble before I had the chance to turn the monitor and the mic on. It became like playing Tetris, only I was the sole brick. I tried to remain pro—mature—about the debacle. Hey, like I said, when things go “wrong” with karaoke sometimes it’s for the better.

The birthday boy was dared into covering a song near impossible to do drunk, let alone sober. His celebratants demanded I cue up the infamous stream-of-consciousness anti-pop that is REM’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Four minutes of manic, blurred social commentary culminating in a shout-out to Leonard Bernstein. And this dweeb accepted the challenge. Hail Columbia. He went on record saying he couldn’t really read the monitor. All three of them. Facepalm, but hey, a job’s a job and a song’s a song. I cringed and queued up Mike Stipe and the boys, fingers and toes crossed.

I’d like to say Mr 21 actually did okay. I’d like to say that. In reality it was a shambles, rubbernecking all the way. The song is tricky enough to sing sober. I recall one time catching REM on an MTV Unplugged session and even Michael had the lyrics he had written himself taped to his mic stand. Our birthday boy was taped to the mic stand himself; it supported his woozy weight. Blowing verse after verse and me feeling genuinely sorry for the guy (his friends at the table weren’t much help, mocking him the entire time) I jumped up from behind the deck like a spring and grabbed the other mic. I could read the monitor, but the song was so burned into my consciousness I really didn’t need it. I did an impromptu duet with the guy, me egging him on and singing fractured harmony. It was great fun, and when we had finished the table was on their feet cheering and the dude gave me a hug and bought me a beer. All in a night’s work.

What does my whole riff on karaoke have to do with the radio? A couple of things. One, being the obvious, there’s a good chance any would-be karaoke artist heard their quarry on the radio and was thereby inspired. The second is a bit trickier, and it’s all about communication and that maturity thing. Indulge me.

Besides hearing the daily dirt on NPR, radio can enlighten. It’s mature. I base this claim on a very eloquent, if not spot on claim from musician Richard Carpenter. He was once asked to say which medium he liked better: television or radio. He immediately said radio. Why? “Because the pictures are better.” He cited a Spike Jones number he caught once as a kid on a local radio broadcast, and what a Barnum-esque fever dream got injected into his brain. Carpenter claimed it was that broadcast that made him want to play piano. Not sure of the solid truth behind that tale, but Richard was correct: the pictures are better. They cement any sound into thought, which may bely inspiration and then bely creative output. For good or for ill, but radio doesn’t lie. The broadcasts might, but the reactions don’t.

Radio is mature. It let’s your ears do the talking. You hear songs, you hear news, you hear talk and your imagination fills in the blanks. C’mon, if you’ve ever seen the flick American Graffiti with legendary deejay Wolfman Jack at the boards, spinning tunes and baiting listeners, you’d never pick him out of a police lineup for being remarkable. The only real gesture of man behind the myth was to offer Richard Dreyfuss a melting popsicle. That might be poignant but I don’t know. My worldview is often that way. Shocker.

Radio is free. One of my fave movies is Talk Radio (and probably the only Oliver Stone film I’ve ever enjoyed, and not pummeled by). Despite its subject matter, when I was in high school and caught it on late night TV, with Eric Bogosian ranting and Alec Baldwin reeling, I wanted to be a part of that insidious free and ultimately mature medium of delightful and dire expression. I got my wish 20 years later. My dream had a long gestation period until maturity.

Yeah, yeah. I’ve been on the nose and flowery, but this is what I’m driving at: those sounds you tune into when you can, they’re not just voices in the fan. There are people behind those sound waves. Not just performers but storytellers. Think of that scene in A Christmas Story, where Ralphie and Randy curl up to the cathedral radio to tune into Little Orphan Annie. The boys are rapt, the pictures are better and the on-air adventures are free for all imaginations.

Finally, and perhaps is the core spirit of radio (a la Rush perchance) that it demands a part of your attention that is very hard to ignore, and the messages broadcasted can be very persuasive to listeners curious for new sounds or an echo chamber for their own soundtrack. Radio can also be coercive, subversive and intrusive. It may be a mature medium—the most mature, says I—but only a mature voice can truly scratch at your grey matter.

Which is only barely a centimeter from your itching scalp.


The Story…

Prison sucks. Not only for the obvious reasons (solitary confinement, crap food, soap crises, no cable, etc), but rather its demoralizing. An inmate is just another disenfranchised citizen made more so. Rehabilitation? Nuts. You’re just off the street into a new neighborhood, which might be safer than your old stomping grounds. This time the locks always set.

Feels that way to Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene (Cheadle). He’s been lifer all his, well, life. Another population statistic. Just another successful con to fall to The Man, whomever that is these days. And these days have got Petey all astir. Sure, he may be tucked away from all the tumult that is the 60s, but he’s got an ear. And a mind. And a mouth. And thanks the prison system a microphone.

You see, Petey has special dispensation as the prison’s radio DJ, spinning tunes and mouthing off to his brothers in stir. It’s the only luxury they truly have in the joint, and how the boys love to tune in to Petey’s soulful playlist and bittersweet rants. His voice is a steam valve to vent all the pent-up frustration his fellow cons simmer with even before lock up. And Petey has a captive audience, indeed and so to speak. Too bad it seems like no one on the outside can tune into Petey’s show.

One day the outside comes in. Dewey Hughes (Ejiofor) reluctantly visits his brother Milo (Epps) in the joint, only to be drawn by his brother’s tales of woe to his cracking up at the “tell it like it is” broadcast of the DJ. See, Hughes is the program director at the struggling but once vibrant WOL-AM radio station out of Washington, DC. His job is essentially figure out what’s hip to the listening audience. WOL’s star has been falling, and Hughes’ boss, Mr E G Sonderling (Sheen) demands some new life be injected into their format. Needless to say, Dewey wasn’t listening to Milo much. Nor his boss’ really. Petey’s voice was too loud.

Way leads on to way, and recent parolee Petey shows up at WOL’s door, much to Dewey’s surprise (to say the least). Their current morning show DJ is stuck in the past, and WOL needs to be in the present. They’re getting their ass’ whupped by the rival station. Dewey correctly claims that no one listens to Nat “King” Cole on the radio anymore. The only King folks wanna hear in ’66 is Martin Luther, Jr preaching the truth. WOL needs a preacher from the streets. And DC needs a wake up call to all the junk that few can tell it like it is:

“I’ll tell it to the hot, I’ll tell it to the cold. I’ll tell it to the young, I’ll tell it to the old. I don’t want no laughin’, I don’t want no cryin’, and most of all, no signifyin’. This is Petey Greene’s Washington!”

You heard it here DC, like it or not.


The Breakdown…

For anyone out there who frequents RIORI on a semi-regular basis, you know I have a few man-crushes on certain actors. To me, these fortunate few always deliver the goods, acting wise. Their films may be dopey, but their performances are always fun and engaging. I’m talking about Dwayne Johnson, Sean Connery and my main man here with Talk To Me, Don Cheadle. I’ve been waiting for a decent film with him at top billing since the Soderbergh Ocean’s 11 trilogy. He delivered here, as I hoped he would.

But why here, why now? I mean, the guy has had a long, storied career. Over thirty years with the usual ups and downs (mostly downs), but always working, always plugging. He’s always solid, but often left of center in the general feeling of his roles, whether it be Boogie Nights or Reign Over Me or even his Marvel movie appearnces. So as game an actor as I claim Cheadle to be, what’s up with his rather spotty output?

I have a theory. It’s a good one, I think. You know how some esteemed directors find their protege/muse in an actor and can elicit the best out of them? They test them? Right. Not an uncommon thing in cinema, but seldom this mutualism resulted in the stuff of Hollywood lore (read: great movies and bales of tickets sold wherein). I’ll call it the “John Wayne/John Ford” thing. Not catchy, I know, but it’s to the point and shut it and lissen ‘hup.

A smart director knows how to work their leads; the strengths and weaknesses and how to coax the best out of both, and sometimes its the je ne sais pas we as the audience actually knew what was there all along, even if we didn’t. Or really never considered. Point being, legendary, eclectic director John Ford was a notorious taskmaster, abusing and using and coaxing his charges to give it their all. Some fared better than other prima donnas, like The Duke. I’d like to believe there was a quiet, workmanlike respect between the two. It radiates out of their combined output. Meaning when Ford directed the swagger out of John Wayne, John Wayne the solid actor came to the fore, and not the typewrote cowboy/soldier cipher. Consider Stagecoach, the meta-Western as we know and loathe it today. Consider The Quiet Man, Wayne’s best role with economic dialogue and body language; no posturing, save the flashback sequence. Consider The Searchers, the anti-Western decades before Clint’s equally tantalizing Unforgiven. Ford coaxed The Duke out of Wayne, and the results were nothing less than splendid.

Fanboy-ism? Perhaps, but consider further:

Legendary cult director John Carpenter found his Wayne in Kurt Russell. With him under the wing, Russell starred in three of Carpenter’s best flicks—one of which Russell hilariously aped The Duke—to revelatory levels. Carpenter pulled Russell from the mire of Disney-esque, fam-friendly fodder to the penultimate cult anti-hero Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, all head-butts and blasphemes aplenty. Along with the terror of his version of The Thing and the Chuck Jones-style “kung-foolery” of Big Trouble In Little China, Kurt Russell became a solid action star and no longer filler.

Here’s another great example of the Ford/Wayne dynamic in modern film: the esteemed Martin Scorsese has done this twice with a pair of opposite pole actors, one method, one protean (or maybe just misguided). First he took the relatively unknown, journeyman actor Robert DeNiro and converted/revealed him as the troublesome Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta; all damaged, rough and tumble, sympathetic guys. Marty’s second iteration was with Leo DiCaprio, Mr Terminal Boyish face cum teen actor into fiery Amsterdam, eccentric aviator Howard Hughes and earnest, doomed Danny Castigan. Marty coaxed them both out of the shadows into the spotlight, and the pair returned their accolades in kind.

Get it now?

Okay. Cheadle is one of those actors: find a left of center director who takes Cheadle under their wing (EG: Soderbergh, Anderson, Lemmons, etc), he’s permitted to shine. Don’s not just Detective Walters, he gets to be Cheadle. He’s not Miles Davis, but you wish he were. After watching—and enjoying—Talk, director Lemmons was just left of enough to let Don be Don be Petey. In the immortal words of John “Joliet Jake Blues” Belushi: “Elwood, go nuts.” Boom.

And indeed boom is Talk, but it is measured. The real Greene was a larger than life figure in broadcast radio, which eventually grew into an Emmy-award winning talk show career. The movie isn’t a rags-to-riches story by any means, nor is it some swaggering tribute to the “man against The Man” biopic. Not really. At its core, Talk is a biography, but dramatically dappled with the social commentary, race relations and political spin that neither the government nor its voters—what the hell—left from right is. It’s all about parallels and blurred lines. And a director must be cautious in cutting a bio film occurring in the USA’s cultural upheaval that was the 60s. It’s been a popular well to dip from for Hollywood, to the point of balefully tantalizing. A good example of a director culling history to their own ends in the name of film/personal agendum is most of Oliver Stone’s output, which are often ham-fisted in delivery as well as preachy. For every Platoon we have a Born On The Fourth Of July. For every JFK we have a Nixon. For every Talk Radio we have a script for Conan The Barbarian. Biopic directors have a tough choice choosing from entertaining, informing and railing. The trick is to get a game cast (like we have here) and let organic, organized chaos run rampant.

Since Talk—being a biopic—is naturally a character drama, it’s not just Cheadle the axis upon which the movie spins, it’s the entire ensemble. All of the cast. They all have to be in place to make the movie work as well as it does. Well, okay, to be honest, Cedric and Hall were underused IMHO (more on that later), but they were more or less just symbolic foils of style over Petey’s substance. Yin, yang and of that jazz. There’s just enough ham and cheese to be digestible here. The others, who let’s face it, are steeped in the social message movie tropes (EG: the uptight boss, the hungry ladder climber, the wild girl with a heart of gold, that other guy, etc), but are delivered with such elan you can’t help but follow along. Sure, they might be cyphers, but they are fleshed out; everyone has a backstory here. Even that other guy.

Before I go on about acting (esp Cheadle, doy) I have to point this out: this film is well staged and well framed. Since the bulk of the movie is shot in tight spaces (EG: the broadcasting booth, dive bars, prison cells, etc), reflecting the solitary confinement of both people on the fringe and radio personalities (often one and the same, Bernstein). Voices heard and unheard and should be heard. The scenes created a very episodic feel through the acts, kinda like radio programming. For instance: in the first act, I felt that Lemmons’ direction was simply “go for it.” If this film is about an outrageous person, frame it as such and whet the audiences’ appetite. Remember Pirate Radio? Right, but done better here and with some purpose. Where those DJs were caricatures in which hijinks had to ensue, Lemmons’ presents us with a sense of urgency, all or nothing. This dynamic does well in introducing Petey’s inner circle, new and old, straight and chased alike.

Consider Ejiofor’s Dewey. No offense intended, but the man plays an excellent Tom; a black man “passing” in the corporate media world. He’s very self-aware of his position, he responsibilities and his “place” within the job. Moreover, his duty to the people is what drives him for the most part. Mostly his people, as if to compensate for striving. And as he strives as the (devil’s) advocate for Petey at WOL, Dewey not so secretly—but subtly enough—wishes he had Petey’s new gig, later almost living vicariously through his loudmouth, ex-con bullhorn but still playing the porch nigga scam to his disgust. Although he cares deeply about getting a message out (as well as crushing the competition), he wants to play it safe and let Petey do the dirty work. Dewey is a seat-of-his-pants wheeler dealer; his motives aren’t really suspect, but the motivation itself might be: does he want WOL to succeed with a fresh, hip, with it new DJ for the people? Or does Dewey need Petey to speak the words he wished he could speak but constrained by his responsibilities? Might make sense considering all the misguided faith Dewey has in Petey, criminal record or no (or one he “wished” he had kept). At first I thought this movie was all about Petey. In the endgame it was really all about Dewey.

I really dug Martin Sheen as WOL’s put upon general manager Sonderling. It might be Sheen’s best role since The West Wing. He may be a hot mess, but he understands what’s at stake if WOL doesn’t evolve with the times. No matter how many times Sonderling calls in security to escort the crude Petey away, he’s always willing to let him back into the booth. You get the feeling the man knows what’s what, but his hands are tied by FCC rules and regs, as well as losing face within the broadcasting community by using a stunt like putting an ex-con and his outspoken, prison-drenched ghetto speak about how f*cked up the nation is. He’s hip to what’s changing in DC, but he doesn’t want to lose his job over saying so. Petey is his avatar, not unlike Dewey if you think about it, so he takes the necessary risk. Sometimes you gotta loose a finger—or some face—to save a hand.

Henson is also a choice actress of mine. Believe it or don’t. But she does have range, and can be very funny without being comical as here with Talk. Despite Petey’s wiseacre style, Vernell is the comic relief, but not so much as to crack wise in turn but pop some bubbles. She was Miss Reality Check. Sure, Henson was brassy, sassy and no fool, but was also the yin to Dewey’s yang for keeping Petey in check and on the ground professionally. Need Petey be reminded how much WOL’s security would love to drag their fresh-faced DJ back to the clink and the brink. If Petey was meant to “tell it like it is” then Vernell was meant to tell Petey what it is, and Henson did so with a streetwise verve.

And now Cheadle’s performance, natch. I’ll try and not gush, but again it sure was fun to watch the man live up to his potential. If you think about it, Cheadle has done a lot of road work in biopics. From portraying Sammy Davis, Jr in The Rat Pack, Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda, and post-Talk Miles Davis for Miles Ahead (BTW, was Talk a dry run for Miles Ahead? Discuss) the guy is seasoned in playing real people as other people. If you think about this, it must be pretty tricky to act as a real figure would rather than what a fictional character would do. You’re trying to pay homage to a real public figure in history; there’s a small but very vocal audience out there waiting for you to f*ck it up or be bound for glory (in that order, always). And f*ck-ups occur with stunning, disappointing regularity in Hollywood biopic output. I mean, for every Talk To Me we have a Wired, inch for inch. Recalling the whole comic book folderol, we sickos kinda wanna see our heroes fail on the big screen. It’s always a big breath-grabbing whew when a filmmaker dodges that bullet. Even with a cult icon like Petey, Cheadle plays it straight, so even the ignorant “gets it.” After all, that was the real Petey’s motivation: for the right folks to get it.

I think I got it pretty good. Beneath the pseudo-rags-to-riches biopic, we have the art of the steal. Namely, who’s conning who and how? Sure, Petey is a miscreant with a mile long rap sheet, but that’s the obvious thing. Radio may be mature and free, but it lies a lot too. Misinforms you. Sways you. Derails your train of thought sometimes. That’s part of the point, but do those on air voices want to just tell ya or sell ya? Here’s a few examples: at the end of the first act, I loved the scene where Petey is “escorted” to the broadcast booth. It’s almost akin to his being let free from prison into another box. Another golden moment was when Petey was “legit” on the air with no heroics (well, maybe for Dewey, all flop sweat). Which one’s real? The first time Petey sat in the WOL chair he REDACTED, despite having another captive audience at his whims. What gives? Is the voice of the people and its delivery all a scam? Who’s conning who in the endgame? Do you hear what you want to hear? Do the broadcasts speak the truth or just feed you? Is Dewey living vicariously through (his idol) Petey? That may go to say sure, regarding the historical fact that Dewey later went on to REDACTED in real life. Is the voice of the people for the people, for the speaker or just an echo chamber. To be blunt, memes originated in the 70s and all social media is an sounding board. Or karaoke night.

Yeah, Talk is a character study, duh. Of course I’m going to cite the acting as vital. However, there is always a flipside. Remember that stereotype thing earlier? Right. Lay some blame at Cedric and Hall’s feet. Those two were wasted opportunity, yo. At first glance, these two characters are representative of the stereotypes Petey likes to rail against. We have suave, soulful playa Nighthawk pimping his word and his persona as a voice of the people, a voice representing their needs and sympathies through music and pillow talk (again, shades of Pirate Radio). In simpler terms, showman and caricature. Hall is the opposite, of the old skool and old guard about what he thinks the people want to hear: dulcet tones of black crooners of yesteryear. Soul fool to ease the soul. More like comfort food, which we know in the end is decidedly not good for you. Two ends Petey is struggling against in the black community, style over substance and vice versa.

It’s a good social theory I feel (sure), but how Hall and Cedric were used just as cyphers was boring. We’re getting slapped around for the first act how vital these two programmers are to the WOL family. How? Nighthawk is a comic book character and Sunny Jim is your grandad, and neither were really convincing as the voice of the left or the right. Sure, it was hinted at, and both are competent character actors, but neither Hall or Cedric really got into character. They just filled time and space to suit the narrative. That and Petey was the center of the story, overarching and vocal, which didn’t give let alone permit Hawk and Sunny to shine. They were eyewash. Maybe ear-wash even. I dunno. Hey, if this was the only real gripe about the flick, consider me charitable.

There’s always the technical part to consider in a period piece like Talk. It covers the mid to late 60s and beyond. Y’all know what that entails: social unrest, bitter race relations, marches on Washington in protest of Vietnam, pot, free love and LBJ. That’s just for starters and not necessarily in that order. The best way to wallpaper rough times such as those is with the pop culture therein. Stuff we the average, in-the-know-thanks-to-social-media-you-tube-crazy-cat-memes 21st Century joes and janes should recall from the recent history books. Stuff like the great costuming and makeup with the film. Can’t forget the soundtrack (IE: Terence Blanchard did the soundtrack. That’s capital Q quality there) rife with James, Sly, the Chambers, the Reverend and Marvin. Use a little nostalgia to make the make the urine of the dirty past go down a little easier. And there is a lot of social commentary to digest. The 1960s were not all peace and love, and least not for non-Anglos. What better place—if only through happenstance—to have Washington be the setting? If Talk is a biopic with a message, where else and time to reflect the neo-tumultuous times in these our Millennial United States? Who do you trust when FoxNews propaganda fuels the fires of racial unrest, when music is more commercial than ever as commodity over expression? When the maturity of radio is sidelined to the proverbial echo chamber? Folks like Petey and his kind are redolent of a voice of the people we so desperately need now. So who’s conning who?

…That was deep (*burp*). Weren’t we talking about some movie?

Said plain, Cheadle delivers the goods with the right director. A patient one, and one who understands what’s at stake balancing entertainment with a message, and not making it some mawkish crusade highlighting the protagonist as some saint. Cheadle’s Petey is decidedly not, nor is he the voice of his people. If he was, he wouldn’t be on the radio. He’d be at the Lincoln Memorial. Instead of an simmering throng he gets a microphone, he gets to be a figure without being seen; his audience never sees an ex-con. Oh sure, he screams he’s a “miscreant” all movie long, but that label doesn’t really befit him. He’s just another cog in the disinformation machine, and that’s as timely as Reddit nowadays, if only for an hour and then forgotten. It’s Cheadle’s Petey’s tough naïveté that’s the appeal, and we always root for an underdog, no matter how disenfranchised or ragged. Lemmons let Cheadle be Cheadle, with patience, and out came a great perforamce that informed the rest of the cast and the message of the movie with minimal bubbles.

The final act runs out of steam, though. I wonder if that was the point. I think so. Being on air takes a lot out of you. I know; I used to try and take a nap after my show, mostly behind the wheel en route to my real job. The final scenes pass in a blur, where Petey REDACTED and his other side of the coin Dewey gets a comeuppance. Like that scene, Talk can get exhausting, and stuff doesn’t always pan out the way it’s planned. The final act illustrates that well. Being a voice in the ether can take its psychic toll; cracking wise and spouting truth can wear the speaker down. It can wear the audience down also, but both always tune back in the next time. We wouldn’t want to miss a possible chance for the right message to be called out and the right ears hear it. If only for a little bit, and not to get conned by doggerel again.

Huh. Covered a lotta kooky ground this time out. Let’s see we have the maturity of radio, the seduction of radio, The Duke, The Admiral, doggerel (can’t believe I had to use that term) and Cheadle—finally—in his element. Hope it added up to some sense, now that we’re all back on board with fresh installments of RIORI. Let’s hope I can keep it on a steady wavelength.

And this I just gotta say: “Don’t touch that dial!”

*rimshot/crushed, hurled beer cans*


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Turn on, tune in, drop by for the flipside. Finally a role worthy of Cheadle’s talents. Oh yeah, support your community radio station, lest Billie Ellish have a fruitful career. Shudder.


The Stray Observations…

  • “Wake up, goddammit!”
  • Barring QuestLove, whatever happened to the afro? I’m kinda serious.
  • “Did he jus’ say ‘blue blazes’?”
  • That tune playing in the background of that decisive pool game was “Chinese Checkers” by Booker T & The MGs. Clever. And nine-ball is a lucky man’s game.
  • “Watch your language!”
  • All through the movie this was nagging at me: Dewey sports some cool hair. It’s all about the sideburns, baby.
  • “That white boy he was with…?”
  • Great edit: Vernell’s apartment to Dewey’s door.
  • I’m the people.”
  • Yes, that is the original cut of “Tainted Love” playing. No surprise that it punctuates that key scene. Also clever.
  • “Now we’re even.”
  • Oh God, the riots…left out of the history books. Sheen’s response to Cheadle’s eloquent soliloquy is priceless.
  • “Hey, Dave.”
  • Petey Green: The black Lenny Bruce? Or the proto-Pryor?
  • “Was it free p*ssy day or sumpin’?”
  • Fun fact: director Lemmons played Clarice Starling’s roomie Ardelia in The Silence Of The Lambs.
  • “Do you mean I get a job or what?”

The Next Time…

“I doth decree that thou shall not parody Excalibur, The Sword And The Sorcerer and especially The Princess Bride!”

“As you wish, Your Highness.


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 71: Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” (2005)



The Players…

Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Clarán Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz and Hanns Zischler, with Mathieu Amalric, Alylet Zurer, Michael Lonsdale and Lynn Cohen.


The Story…

The Olympics are supposed to be a time of healthy competition amonst nations, highlighting athletic prowess and cultural pride. It’s a show of goodwill amongst nations, to come together and cheer for favorite sons and daughters. It’s supposed to be almost familial, not political.

Supposed to be.

So when Palestinian terrorists hold hostage and ultimately kill a group of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, the tragedy prompts the Mossad to track down the assassins and deliver justice.

Whoever wins this race will not get a medal.


The Rant…

Steven Spielberg. One of the most popular, esteemed directors in the history of American cinema. Heck, maybe the most popular across the globe. Man’s had more movie hits than Jordan’s had slam dunks. His style of storytelling is so wide-eyed and visceral audiences can’t help but be drawn into his many, many celluloid worlds. He’s done it all: suspense, sci-fi, comedy, drama, fantasy, everything save porn (and he probably has a project about that in the works. Historical drama, of course. With squeegees).

For a lot of you I’m willing to wager that Spielberg’s films taught you to love the movies. Sure did for me, if only for the fact the first flick I saw in a for-real theater was a Spielberg flick. I was six years old and properly damaged in head so that now you’re reading this snarky blog. Pros and cons abound.

I was six, knew nothing about going to the movies, simply because I had yet to go to a damned theatre. I was six, couldn’t reach the pedals. That’s what grown-ups are for, and my parents got hip to this new, big deal movie in theaters. They friends caught it, raved and insisted they catch it, too. This is how legacies are created.

For reasons lost to a spotty memory, mom and dad got the idea to bring me along to see this blockbuster. Me. Dopey, six-year old, when’s the new Lego catalog coming out me? Damn. This…this was something. My folks never invited my booger-eating butt out with them for grown up things. At least fun things. Meet The Teacher night didn’t count. Even being a mere stripling, my gut new this was something. Something BIG. I mean forget the babysitter big, li’l me was going out for a night on the town with mom and dad to see a MOVIE. In a THEATRE. With POPCORN and SODAS you drank from a wheelbarrow and above all else, staying up PAST MY BEDTIME (okay, it was a weekend, but still). I didn’t know about beer and sex yet, so this whole package was epic. In some ways, a bigger deal than booze and p*ssy, and a lot less messy, barring the cinema floor.

An aside: What the hell is up with that? You’ve waded through it every premier night. Is it Coke mixed with discarded Gummi Bears dappled with Velcro? Probably closer to the truth than comfort allows. Yick.

Anyway, speaking of a babysitter, didn’t need one that night. At least didn’t. My kid sisters were waylaid for the evening by the teen up the street. Big bro was gonna paint the town red. That’s what it felt like anyway. As a little kid I had no concept of what a big night out was, only that when the sitter was called on to watch my little sisters and “big” me while mom and dad trotted off into the night a came home super late (almost 9:30), something special went down when that front door closed shut. Even if it was merely for a new movie. An R-rated movie probably, so no kids. Sigh.

Keeping that in mind, the ‘rents invited me to see a PG movie. Okay for kids, right? So long the P’s provided proper G, all would be okay (y’know, like intense scenes that reflexively make go grab mom’s arm). That was my folks’ logic it seemed. Besides, this film got rave reviews, and a Spielberg movie to boot!

Um, who?

I was six, remind you. The peak of visual entertainment for me were Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends and the original Looney Tunes on the Bugs And Daffy Show that rounded out Saturday morning TV programming. I loved Chuck “How The Grinch Stole Christmas/Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote” Jones. Guess that showed a modicum of taste.  No clue what that name meant (please refer to the Sahara installment to better illustrate my cinematic ignorance). We didn’t own a VCR yet. Early 80s and such. The movies were the big time, and that being said Mom and Dad actually dressed up for this event. And me too. It would’ve been considered business casual nowadays, but being six doffed with a college prof turtleneck and khakis around my waist…hell, might as well have been a tux. To this day, even though I don’t get dressed up for it, going to catch a movie in a theatre is alwaysspecial event for me. It ain’t the Oscars red carpet, true, but I have access to a monster pouch of Twizzlers and the Afflecks do not. I win, always.

The place is lost on me, but I recall my parents taking me out to eat before the show. At a real restaurant. With menus! I was used to the occasional jaunt to McDonald’s (especially when they were giving away dinky Lego sets with the Happy Meals. Good times, good times), but this was another new experience. Namely,we had to wait for our food, at least longer that 30 seconds. Another experience of the kind of grown-up fun I was missing simply by being too short. Now life was happening.

We ate and left for the mall. That’s where the cineplex was. Like a dozen theaters. Big deal hub for a movie hungry crowd. To me it was like Grand Central, so many busy lines and crowds of people. It was the weekend, mind you. Not much has changed in the past 30-plus years when it came to venturing out to cinemaland on a Friday. Then I clung to my mom, praying I didn’t get lost, stomped on or stolen away to wherever kids are sentenced when they stay up past their bedtime, big boy khakis or no.

Never fear. The big people knew the way. They paid for the tickets and the popcorn (I got a f*cking bale of the stuff, bucket bigger than my pre-puber old head. Like I said, some things haven’t changed much), so they had the kings to the kingdom. They found seats. The theater was packed to the gunwales with eager cinemaphiles. Never I had seen so many people crammed into a single room, and the room itself was miles wide. It was like being in a hangar, minus the planes. Felt like thousands of people were attendant, but I was a kid. EVERYTHING in the place felt huge and out of proportion. Especially that screen. That big, big screen. We had a modest 24 inch set at home. Here, in the gloaming, amongst all the other grown-ups out “late” on a Friday, that massive screen was the Monolith and I was a mere, scrabbling chimp. A big deal.

I’ll cut to the chase. The lights went low, the previews played (probably a simple three, rather than the present half-hour plus parade these days, with NO commercials), and the declaration that as the letters encircled an image of Earth, Universal presented the movie. Funny what sticks.

I felt a palpable hush, an electric feeling of anticipation. I knew I had one, turtleneck vibrating. I was wedged between mom and dad, mutual easy access for an arm to cling to. This was PG territory, mind you. The big leagues. And big it was. The show began, the title faded into view and I strapped in.

It was called ET: The Extra-Terrestrial.

What the hell was an “extra-terrestrial?” I was intrigued. And well-rewarded for my interest.

The rest is mystery. Welcome to RIORI.

Another aside: I feel it necessary to say the next film I caught that year in a for-real theatre (I recall it being a birthday thing) was Star Wars: A New Hope in re-release. Doubtless whetting fans appetites for Return Of The Jedi coming soon to a theatre near me. To which I felt after seeing Lucas’ space epic that I needed, neededMillennium Falcon. Alas, too short. Couldn’t reach the pedals or synch the hyperdrive. Probably woulda crashed into a moon anyway. Nuts.

So yeah, my first intro to Spielberg was my first film seen in a theatre. Not a bad way to start, and it probably explains a lot. Like this bilious blog you dolts keep on visiting. Thanks, BTW.

It’s understood that Spielberg is one of the most esteemed, popular and vital directors in film history. That goes without saying. And of course his ET properly tampered with my mind when it came to watching movies. I say tampered because the guy’s talent sometimes overrides common sense.

An example? For reasons only know to the cinema gods, I got wrapped up one summer as a teen with his Jaws. Watched it everyday, alternately enthralled and freaked out. It was almost an every afternoon ritual for me to watch Robert Shaw get chomped in two. At my grandparents’ summer place. On Fire Island. A postage stamp of a summer ville bookended by the Atlantic and the Great South Bay. Water on both sides. I steered clear of the beach and watched it over and over. I was a doofus.

Another example? This not nearly as dopey, but the Spielberg touch gave up the whammy again. I’ve spoke of this here before, but I feel it bears repeating.

Dateline: late summer, 1998. Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is making the cinematic rounds, and gobbling up both critical praise and oodles of tickets at the box office. Hype could not be ignored, so my father and I caught it.

We indeed caught something.

Mom came home from work and saw us, post-viewing, chain-smoking on the porch. She asked how our day out was. We said it was good. She asked how the movie was. We said it was good. We kept smoking. She politely shrugged, went inside and let us be.

A more telling aspect of Spielberg’s light touch was when dad and I were in the theatre. The opening scene. The storming of Normandy. Bullets and screaming and amputees and blood and screaming. When Tom Hanks’ Capt Miller makes it to the beachhead and alternates between commanding his troops and relaying what the f*ck’s happening with the comm officer, when he sees the comm no longer has a face, me at 22 years old, reached over and clasped my dad’s hand. Hard. He squeezed back. Hard.

Good work, Steve. Good work.

*pant*

Let me reel it in now. Dad quit smoking. I go through a lighter a day. Damn you, Spielberg.

*sigh”

But after all my gushing, not all of Speilberg’s movies have been so compelling. By compelling I mean good. He’s had a few duds, mind you. Either outright lame-brained or stalled at the gates duds. To paraphrase Mick, even Jesus had his moment of doubt and pain. Which is why I called you all here today, and I ain’t talkin’ old time religion. Please adjust your turtlenecks.

Steve may have a golden touch, but you really can’t be regarded as a great director without having laid a few turds in your punchbowl. For every Vertigo, Hitchcock cut a Family Plot. For every Harold And Maude, Ashby cut an 8 Million Ways To Die. For every Paths Of Glory, Kubrick cut a Killer’s Kiss (betcha never heard of that one let alone saw it. Don’t) It’s the old truth: how can you gage what’s great if you have nothing bad to measure it against? You need a Vanilla Coke to chase that Crystal Pepsi.

Spielberg has had a few missteps. His proper cinematic debut was the loud, goofy and overly offbeat Sugarland Express. He followed with his breakout, the first blockbuster Jaws with the wondrous, engaging sci-fi Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (the best The Day The Earth Stood Still rip-off ever) with the, um, loud, goofy and overly offbeat comedy dreck 1941. Most of his stuff in the late-80s came across as stiff or underdeveloped, but not without ambition. The Color Purple, Empire Of The Sun (which gave the world Christian Bale), even the remake of the Spencer Tracy vehicle A Guy Named JoeAlways had their merits, but without the verve Spielberg has been known for. Resting on laurels?

Perhaps, but there have been stone cold duds in his CV. Hook springs immediately to mind. The Lost World is another stillborn. The Terminal confused audiences (more on that later, like next installment). What he was aiming at with Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull and The BFG approached a retreat to six-year old kiddie fare wearing khakis.

*wink*

However, the missteps sometimes take time to sink in as decent films in the end run. Cinematic history regards Empire Of The Sun as a dry run for stuff like Schindler’s List and especially (you guessed it) Saving Private RyanThe Color Purple addresses lesbian love, albeit in a very PG-13 way. In the 80s. That counts for something I feel. And War Horse brought his fascination with military history full circle, like saying: “Hey. Important sh*t happened prior to my birth!” Then enter Lincoln.

The point I’m getting at (and I do have one) is that there might be a difference between bearing the mantle of one of the world’s greatest directors gauged against his failings. Here it’s not the “good vs bad” argument. It’s the influence against the expectation here. I equate this to an interview with writer Joseph Heller, author of the famed and seminal Catch-22. Something about him being accused of not writing anything else as good as 22.

His candid response? “That might be true, but nobody else has either.”

So go watch Empire Of The Sun. Maybe again. Back to China in the 40s and beyond.

Today, Germany in the 70s beckons.

So stay up late, clean the gunk off the microscope lens and put on your turtleneck…


A terrifying, despicable thing went down in Munich, 1972’s host city of the Summer Olympics. An act of terrorism. An act political reaction. An act of murder. Murders.

The Olympics are supposed to be a time of countries to hang up their differences, keep the sabers sheathed and work it out on the battlefield of athletic competition. It’s not supposed to political, at least not overtly.

A cadre of Palestinian terrorists feel otherwise, and in the dead of night break into the Olympic Village and take the Israeli track team hostage, demanding safe passage home as well making a statement to the world that Palestine wants its independence from Israel. So much for athletics over differences.

The camera crews are at the ready, the whole world is watching, and of course nothing goes well. The whole Israeli team is slaughtered. The ones who pulled the triggers escape. And leaves a mess of red tape interwoven an international crime to be solved.

Not solved. Avenged.

Enter lowly Mossad desk jockey Avram Kaufmann (Bana). A lifetime ago in his career he was a soldier, a field officer, the man with connections. Now, quaint domesticity, his expectant wife and a safe, albeit boring job. Life could be nothing simpler.

Then the Munich massacre. Enter Ephraim (Rush), the man with the plan.

You see, Avner has that certain something—namely being raised in Germany—which may loan some cultural insight as to how in the world did what happened happened. These terrorists weren’t acting independently you see. They were funded. About a dozen high-end Palestinian sympathizers funded this hit, and they need to be investigated, sought out and be brought to justice.

Wait, that’s not correct. They need to be executed.

This is not a mission of uncovering an international crime ring. Ephraim puts it plain to Avner, his chosen angel.

This is about revenge…


Munich was not Spielberg’s first foray into historical fiction. Well all know about Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan (which indeed was inspired by a true WW2 story) and maybe Empire Of The Sun. All great films via Spielberg’s lens. However Munich was the overtly dark historical fictions I’ve ever seen by the man. It was so intense, and beyond the actual investigation tactics and, well, murder tactics. Munich has got an equal amount of intrigue balanced by a lot of graphic gunfire and explosions. In some way, this stuff came across as more dire circumstances than storming the beaches of Normandy or a no exit train ride to Auschwitz. At least as Spielberg spun it.

I’m not downplaying what the man brought to film with above two. It’s just that Munich is a different beast. It’s ugly. I mean need a chemical shower ugly. List and Ryan had an element of hope attatched to them. Munich is as cynical as…well, me. And even I was disturbed. I mean, I never killed anyone in the name of vengeance, but after watching Munich I could sympathize.

Does that make me a bad person (beyond my bleak worldview)? I don’t think so. Munich hits you on a gut level, blurs the corners between good and bad and eventually throws the whole tale into the confusing, emotional Cuisinart. It gets jarring, but feels so pure you can’t help but not press pause even if to take a leak. Okay, admittedly I had to pee a few times. A two and a half hour viewing warrants that; I’m only human. Beer does that, but I felt a bit guilty letting this film wait for me. Munich waited for no one. And especially not my distended bladder.

Sorry. I was saying:

I’ve noticed a different aesthetic in his films he takes an emotional, personal, almost gritty stance then when he’s just having fun. The guy has a signature with “looking at things” with either awe, disgust and/or terror. It’s all about drawing you in and digest what’s going down. That being said it may go without saying: Jaws was fun to watch in a terrifying sense. Close Encounters was fun to watch in a mindbending sense. Raiders was fun to watch in a fun sense. Those stories invites empathy with the characters. But when the man ain’t screwing around he throws down the gauntlet. Mentioned before his historical fictions don’t mess around, but there’s always a glimmer of hope. Munich espouses no hope, and with all the engaging spygame, I think I know why.

Munich was too close to home, even if you weren’t extant in 1972. However I’m willing to wager you were alive in September, 2001.

Munich—couched in historical fiction—was the man’s (belated one may claim) 9/11 response. The film was one of the most telling, brilliant metaphor of the tragedy I’ve ever seen, on film or otherwise. Like I said, it blurs the corners. Over the course of 2-plus hours, the spygame goes from straight ahead to who are really the killers? The terrorists: are they the financiers of the slaughter? Or are they a reason for a crew of reactionary Israeli Jews creating elaborate hits to also make a political statement? The deeper you play, the more muddled the rules become. And at either end, it’s the dealer who walks away with the full deck. I got the chilling feeling watching Munich that its message (if there really was one) here lies within this question: “Who are the real terrorists?” The invaders or the invaded? Depends on the response/point of view. Like I said, an ugly-feeling notion, but he’s skilled at making you look at things.

Munich does feel like Spielberg, though. It’s a good thing here. It’s dark, cynical, deliberate and unnerving. Also good things (Always vs Raiders, remember?). It’s time then to chat about the technical things. One cannot have a melodrama of harrowing violence and a progressive examination of the futility of man without some flair. Despite Munich being a very un-Spielberg film at first watch, there are his fingerprints all over the movie. Duh, it still is his movie. Muted, but still.

Munich illustrates how the real spygame gets played. This ain’t no 007. Staging hits on the politically guilty is clumsy, grimy and messy most of the time being a slave to the watch. Bond may have been suave, and have the cool tech courtesy of Q getting his back, but Avner’s mission failed to have any Alfa Romeo ejection seat at the ready. As the movie moved on, every hit became less and less certain of “success.” More patchwork, damage control. Maverick. The crew getting more and more frantic, desperate. Almost all of Israeli nationalism on their sleep-dep shoulders. That aspect sorta had a classic spaghetti western feel; revenge, grease wheels for intel thudded against the wall, a motley crew of raw gunslingers, etc. It later feels like a dupe. Traditional Spielberg offbeat heroes against odds unsurmountable. That much is true, but foibles, mission and the aforementioned makes for some gripping tension.

Actually, smart tension may be a better phrase. Nothing here is flashy, like a la Bond again. No. It’s not visceral, either, though it may feel that way while watching. Here you can see what’s coming, but you don’t. There’s this edge. It’s the bleeding edge at the aforementioned blurry corners that bear investigation. We’ve learned over the course of the second act of the movie that Avner and co’s mission is a desperate one, but it might be a futile one. Sure, we know the terrorists are gonna get theirs’, but how about getting there? Everything is frail, fragile and could go off pop at any minute. It was made clear at the outset Ephriam dictated to Avner that he his on his own, and the Mossad knows nothing about Kaufmann, which makes his unique skills so viable. All are working in the shadows, and the shadows permits some mental downtime to consider…what? Who’s really the “bad guys?” Who’s the “avenging angels” of Israel (oh, yeah. For those non-partisan athletes who paid the ultimate cost)? Whose colluding with a very questionable informant giving up the intel for the next hit? Felt like a football’s field’s length away from Bond to me. Again, ugly and brilliant.

A great deal of this Spielbergian struggling empathy is channelled by our reluctant protag Avner. I’ll be the first guy in line to draw lots against Bana’s beheading, but after watching Munich, I quaver. Simply because I appreciate his steady, anti-slow descent invites him realizing anew a sense of purpose, if only his need to douse others’ sense of purpose, with booby-trapped phones and colluding with open secret crime families that market information. It’s established we don’t know who’s who, but Bana’s grim, renewed enthusiasm for being in the field again, fighting for Israel—his spiritual home—he begins to “enjoy” his job. It’s a fall from grace, and a grace from nothing else but equipped by a parachute of civic duty. And isn’t that what terrorists feel on the job? Yet again, ugly. Good work here, Dr Banner.

Munich is a spartan film, relentless in its self-examination yet we still never gauge who is who against what conflict. The whole nasty matter of the Israel olympians getting off is nothing more than an excuse to one-up one government against another claiming who has the bigger balls. Like what Israel claimed to Palestine here. Or what the US waggled to Iraq. Or maybe Iran. Maybe the Rothchilds. We all just don’t know, but there’s a “cause” out there we must fight for!

Finally, Munich is a film with many different shades, ultimately descending into charcoal. It’s very cynical, which attached to Spielberg might’ve led to its tepid response. Not to mention the insidious “terrorist sympathy.” Such stuff would’ve gotten the man on the blacklist back in the 50s. Fortunately today we only have to worry about the Tomatometer. Its shades makes one slowly scratch their head and maybe, just maybe peel away some scales. That might sound a big grand (and perhaps a bit sympathetic to the “other”), but the message squeaked through despite all the sociopolitical debris.

That is if you put aside this was a Spielberg film with no remorse as well as precious little hope.

It was satisfying, though. For all the post-viewing pondering.

So. To lighten things up, who’s ready for ET-X?

No? Okay. So will Tom Hanks work then?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a tough watch, but ultimately rewarding, Unlike other Spielberg’s “friendlier” flicks, you best watch this one by yourself, then come to your own reactionary conclusions. Go look in the mirror afterwards, then drain that lizard.


Stray Observations…

  • “I have the world’s most boring job.”
  • The period fashions (and haircuts) here are great. Not flashy, which is probably why the Academy snubbed that. Oscar likes shiny.
  • And that’s how you uncork a bottle.
  • “I’m proud of what you’re doing.” “You don’t know what I’m doing.”
  • Stalking terrorists is a risky business. Right…everyone?
  • “Everybody works for someone.”
  • Al Green makes everything okay.
  • You ever notice—barring the title card—almost all his movies never have any opening credits? Why is that? There must be a reason; I’m curious.
  • “It costs dearly, but home always does.”
  • “There is no medal or anything?”

Next Installment…

Part 2 of a 2 part study examining Spielberg’s missteps: Tom Hanks can’t fly home to his native land (since it don’t exist no more). Now he’s stuck on a layover from hell, his new home being The Terminal. Could be worse. He’s got Catherine Zeta-Jones to keep him company. We should all be so waylaid.