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.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 62: Floria Sigismondi’s “The Runaways” (2010)


The Runaways


Meet The Band…

Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart, Stella Maeve, Scout Taylor-Compton and Michael Shannon, with Alia Shawkat, Riley Keough, Johnny Lewis and Tatum O’Neal (where’s she been anyway?).


The Tour…

What we got here is a biopic about a group of unique, driven and kinda crazy teenage girls as they rise from rebellious Southern California kids to rock stars of the now legendary band the Runaways. Some claim that they paved the way for future generations of riot girrrlz. Some say they were just a jailbait novelty act.

Some of both may be right.


Sound Check…

Okay. Before the expected rock n’ roll movie screed, let us gather ’round the fire and chew this over: why are there so few successful, if not name brand female directors in Hollywood? Scratch that. Why are there so few female directors period? At least, woman who are known instead of novelty. I can think of Kathryn “The Hurt Locker” Bigelow, Jane “The Piano” Campion, Mimi “Deep Impact” Leder and Penelope “Wayne’s World” Spherris. There most likely dozens of others of the fairer sex who helm a mean camera weekly, and we hear nary a snappy one-liner from the dweebs on Hollywood Insider. On second thought, perhaps a good thing that. Keeps street cred.

It’s kinda understood that Hollywood is a man’s man’s man’s man’s world. Been that way for decades. Oh sure, we’ve had bajillion talented women grace the screen, sometimes becoming icons, several legends to aspire to, impeccable craftswomen and Tia Carrare from Spheeris’ flick about the two dolts in the basement. We can only swing for the fences so much, yet with all this acting clout women bring to the medium, actually being in control of a film is trace element stuff. There’s been more sightings of Bigfoot.

So, what’s up? The first argument that might be made by the cigar-chompers is that Americans aren’t interested in movies manned—so to speak—by woman. Erm, The Hurt Locker did well at the box office and scored a li’l something called the Oscar for Best Picture. Certain lame-o’s could make the argument that, well, she was married to James Cameron. Maybe something rubbed off (don’t scoff. I heard this so-called argument once. Sure, it was drenched in alcohol, but so was Dorothy Parker). I’ve heard similar malarkey as if a female director wouldn’t’ve earned her stripes without some kindly gentleman behind the curtain gently pulling some strings. If this sounds sexist it’s because it is.

Or is it something more insidious?

I’m no Alex Jones conspiracy theorist. But I naturally have a theory as to why women behind the camera is regarded as anathema to the Hollywood machine. It’s simple really. Even since Birth Of A Nation (technically the first blockbuster. A skewed, racist and jingoistic blockbuster, but it did well back then nonetheless) Griffith set some standard and has been practiced, if not run riot ever since: boys club. Deviate from that focus back in the day? Hollywood meltdown. Women couldn’t even vote back then, let alone be permitted to make a movie, the high water mark of influential medium of the times (until radio got popular, that is. And God bless Maria Callas). In sum, entrenched sexism from almost a century ago keeps girlies from making their own blockbusteries. If it ain’t broke—and brings in the samoleans—do not fix it. Just get back in the kitchen and where’s my martini?

That’s my take anyway. Maybe I’m way off the mark, but when you get the opportunity to see The Declaine Of Western Civilization, Lost In Translation and/or Lords Of Dogtown afterwards you may have to ask yourself, “What’s up now?”

That being said, The Runaways was directed by woman. A biopic about a seminal all-girl rock band. Telling? Let’s hope so.


Headlining Act…

So after that being said, here’s a pseudo companion piece to the anti-boys club in Hollywood, its brethren can be seen sniffing around Tower Records, Music City, Motown and even (back in the day when they played actual yadda yadda blah) MTV. Namely, it’s tough—exceptionally tough—to get exposure, let alone respect as an all female rock band. There are precious few as any of us audiophiles know. Sure, there’ve plenty of solo artist rockin’ ladies since the genre’s birth. Women like Wanda Jackson, Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Suzi Quattro and other trailblazers established that, yes, girls can rock out, too.

But what about the band, Elwood? Few and very far between, like catching a homer on Mercury.

What gives? Beyond the Go-Go’s, the Bangles, L7…uh, the Shaggs and our movie’s subject matter how many all-female rock acts can you name? And no, Hole doesn’t count. Sorry. I don’t care who was at the boards. Neither do Josie and the Pussycats. Grow up.

*coyote howls in the night*

For the wasted, drunken life of me I have no answer either. In the past here I’ve made no bones about being a geeky, obsessive, amazed he’s not a virgin audiophile. I’ve got scads of female artists clogging my LP collection/iTunes account as far and wide from Patsy Cline to Marianne Faithfull to Feist. All great performers, and all walking a lonesome road. Hundreds, if not thousands of female rockers and singers have made their mark on their own, but a collective as band? Not so much.

Again: why?

I could reheat the Hollywood boys’ club mentality here, but making movies and making music are two different things, barring the whole entertainment biz and fleecing folks courtesy of Ticketmaster (bow down to your master). Not too different, mind you. Both are all about bread and circus against your humdrum facio. Both are about creativity as business as usual. Both may enlighten and educate (like about maybe why the blankety-blank concert tickets cost so damned much. I know it’s U2, but still). But why is it we’ve had innumerable ensemble films cast with almost exclusively women that did well with both the critics and the box office takeaway with nary a blink? Steel Magnolias, Bridesmaids, even f*cking Mystic Pizza held their own pretty well. Folks seem to line up in droves for synched stuff like that. So how’s that queue for the Babes In Toyland reunion tour?

*crickets*

Or at least some crickets. Look, it’s been a foregone conclusion that rock and roll has been a man’s world since its inception. Thank or blame Elvis, Little Richard, The Killer, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly or Bill Haley. It’s been a leather clad sneer with three chords since “Rocket 88.” A very large glass ceiling was set up well before the term was coined. But the funny thing about rock and roll since its birth was that if you had the talent, the drive and the attitude anyone could make it. Unlike classical music, you didn’t necessarily need an education to, well, rock out making music. Beyond rudimentary instrumental proficiency, the ability to pick out a choice wardrobe and maybe write a few ditties, to be a successful rock star was to gain an audience. Grab their sweaty attention. Have some showmanship, for crap’s sake.

Or showwomanship. If a door would open…


“Girls don’t play electric guitars.”

Upon such claims legacies are built. Some ignoramus says you can’t, so therefore you do. That’s what Joan (Stewart) figures. Playing folk tunes will not be her trade. She likes Chuck Berry. She likes the Stones. She eventually likes the Sex Pistols. She does not care for Joni Mitchell. Joan wants to rock out, find a band, be loud and obnoxious. Too bad it seems her vagina stands in the way.

Cherie (Fanning) is weird. She loves glam rock, the big glittery mess that never quite jumped the Pond. She’d love to jump off herself elsewhere than the hell that is SoCal suburbia. It’s normal for a teenaged girl to want to be elsewhere, no matter how cushy here is. But Cherie’s home life sucks; if Fixer Upper existed back in 1975, her home would be number one with a bullet. Cherie’s pop-rock mentality needs an outlet, so clubbing the LA strip seems a good plan. Might meet another like-minded, wannabe pop star.

Enter trashy and creepy music producer Svengali Kim Fowley (Shannon). He knows what’s hip. He knows the ins and outs of the biz. He knows what the crowds want before they know they want it. He knows he likes Joan’s pitch. He really knows he likes Cherie.

The kids’ve been doing some busking. Well, f*cking around in a beat up trailer, making their rock noise and generally kicking up a racket. This racket intrigues Fowley (not to mention the abundance of adolescent snatch within his greasy reach). An all girl rock group? Could be the next big thing. Could just be a novelty act. But Joan has the chops and Cherie has the desire. There really might be something to click here.

But the rock and roll world might be reluctant to embrace the Runaways (that’s what Kim dubbed his quintet of harlots). An all girl band? Really. Rockers are supposed to be tough, swarthy men in leather who if they couldn’t f*ck you, they’d eat you alive. Teenage girls? Get real.

Well Joan, Cherie and the rest are getting real.

Regardless, girls shouldn’t like Bowie…


I heard this story once that pretty well sums up Joan Jett’s cachet in the rock and roll world.

It was on a Henry Rollins speaking date. He was telling the audience of the time he was with the USO, touring the Mideast and entertaining the troops. Rollins said he found the expereince so enjoyable and interesting he phoned his agent to schedule another tour for later in the year.

There was a pause. Rollins’ agent informed him, “Nobody goes twice except for Joan Jett.”

To which Hank responded, “Good for Joan, she rocks.”

That says it all for me about Jett nee Larkin. Well, that and her whole ethos on her signature song “Bad Reputation.” She rocks indeed. And doubtless has stories of her own to share with us troops, which might explain the zeal in getting Joan and the girls’ backstory to celluloid.

The last biopic we covered here at RIORI was a rock n’ roll tale, too: the winding Tolkien-esque epic I’m Not There, ostensibly about Bob Dylan. Where that film was an exercise in fantastic indulgence and mind warping notions about who Mr Zimmy was—is—The Runaways is a straightforward rock bio. For kids!

Uh, no. Not really. Not at all actually. I can’t really compare There with Runaways. At all. The only real diff I can call out between these two flicks is thus: one is stylized and the other tries to be stylized. You ever have that happen? Watch a movie based on true events and scam a scent of “this stinks of bullsh*t” against another film that smells like freshly laundered…laundry? Runaways has the former smell, like what we’re watching is fluffed up for audience satisfaction. It’s not overtly a bad thing, but it can get to be an annoying one. Especially when the present film is pretty entertaining, but the show is seedy and not meant for everyone. And I ain’t talking Scorsese/Last Temptation Of Christ either.

This is the deal. Some biopics can be enlightening, enjoyable, educational even. But it all depends on how the “truth” is couched to make it tasty to an audience. Runaways, though entertaining, has more than a whiff of bending/embellishing the truth, whatever that may be. Namely, it came across as somewhat fake; too much embellishment, too much titillation. I don’t care how much of it was actual (and maybe few of the crowds), but there was this mist of “I ain’t buying this” hanging over my gourd.

By using the word stylized here I’m describing the director’s execution based not on her vision per se, but her background. Sigismondi’s style comes from the school of cutting music videos. She’s in good company (David Fincher) and not so good company (Michael Bay). Both those guys have made their mark (or stain if you consider Bay’s oeuvre) in Tinsel Town, so there is legitimacy of cutting your teeth as a director of twenty one pilots’ latest hit.

However Sigismondi’s style is a drawback as well as a fallback. Sure, this is her debut flick, and the story is probably one close to her heart. She loves music, perhaps a Jett fan and might also had to put up with the push and push of directing a kind of high profile music doc from old men who are tone deaf. It’s just a thought, but by the way Runaways plays out there is a brittleness as well as the over-embellishment/smells kinda like bullsh*t factor lurking. Let’s start the vetting process, shall we?

First off, it felt like the setup was a bit on the nose. True, most bands are brought together in an organic way. I know (for a fact) that Fowley arranged Jett, Currie, Ford and the rest as a publicity stunt, but I’m gonna bet it wasn’t all staged. A lot of Runaways feels staged. Going through the numbers. Dribs and drabs of truth polished to make the whole schmeer hang together. The smelly part. It might’ve been intentional; a semi-subliminal message from Sigismondi illustrating the sexism run rampant in both making films and/or albums. The setup might’ve been on the nose, but if you sat back for a time, watched and took a whiff you might hear what the director was screaming (even if was merely a murmur.

But on the whole it was a good movie. Really. Watchable, intriguing and tough with the fun (two onions and a bottle of vodka. Hell of a Saturday night). It’s kinda plastic; a stiffness surrounds the production, but the acting saves the thing against Sigismondi’s Taylor Swift training. Truth be told (I do that sometimes), at the outset I wasn’t sure if this flick was a way for Fanning and Stewart to shed their sweetie pie images. If that was the case it felt a tad forced, but not boring. Sure, maybe our leads were entering unknown territory and had some rightful trepidation (especially regarding the non-rock and roll stuff), but need I remind you it was hard to tell what was “true,” what was Sigismondi’s underscore and what was Hollywood.

Example? You know, between the wobbly yin/yang sh*t I’ve been alluding to? Here we go and fasten up: we have a lovely dichotomy pairing carefree, adolescent with a nascent, serious, adult rock and roll life. Maybe that was what Fowley was mining. History tells the tale that Fowley was less then gracious when it came to fostering his musical undertakings. It was all business, nothing but and exploitation was the keynote address. Shannon channels such cutthroat sleaze with aplomb. I liked Shannon as sleazy. It was a nice contrast to his “serious” roles, and his feline, scuzzy and almost paternal nature made him a breakout star after he’d already broken out. Prob’ from a failed stint in rehab. He’s kinda the villain here, what with his careless care he attends to his latest band/stunt, but not overtly. He’s mostly just smog hanging over every effort the Runaways make towards legitimacy.

Using Shannon as example, the flipside is thus: his hamming it up in his scuzzy way fun, but ofter overwrought to the point you had a hard time telling the truth from “the truth” from an agendum. Like I said, I’m not sure if Sigismondi’s muse drove her to shoot stuff like that, but it entertaining. It was also pantomime. That’s what it felt like to me, and Runaways had an overall feeling of uncertainty about it. What was truly at work here? It wasn’t just a rock doc—that goes without saying—but what was the director trying to tell us? Show us?

Speaking of legitimacy, I tossed off a line earlier pertaining to our female leads, Fanning and Stewart about trying to shed their cutie image. Nothing like lesbionic scenes to cut that cloth (to shreds). But before we cut into that, let’s talk upfront acting. C’mon. I’ve heard once that it’s vital to a film, even if…whatever.

The good? Stewart as Jett was quite convincing. True I don’t know the real life counterpart personally (goddam caller ID), but I do recall her music videos on MTV back in the day. Real Joan had swagger, she was a badass. Is. If not for the tough covers that made her solo career (and later also with her Blackhearts), and even then if it was simply aping for the camera, she carried herself as the real deal. Hell, she was once the only musician that went on USO tours more than once. Girl likes to rock, and bring it to hungry audiences even with the threat of gunfire. You go girl.

Stewart must’ve watched a lot of Jett’s old vids to get the tone right. For most of her roles (okay, Bella), she’s played kind with a shade of anger. Not here. She’s like a bundle of nails plugged into some C4. Tough, smart and barely—barely—containing teenage glee at the prospect of picking up her axe and bonking some drunken party boy on the head with the neck after he tries a grope. Like the original, real life band (and just a shade above Lita Ford), Stewart as Jett wants it. Not at any cost, but just enough of that moxie that the on screen band feels all the more real. Necessary. Stewart’s take was very satisfying with no bullsh*t.

The bad. In short, Fanning tries to be a sex kitten, but comes across as a weak suburban Lolita. The waifish innocence air only goes so far. Despite her being a big Bowie fangirl, she comes across as reluctant to…everything (especially the rock and roll front woman deal). Everything about rock. Most likely, Fanning had hot nut to take a large step away from her cutesy girl image Sure, her uncertainty factor is played out well over the course of the film, but she can’t seem to escape the message of “I don’t belong here,” and not just her character either. Am I saying she was a bad fit? Not exactly, but there definitely was a lack of confidence going on. It got distracting. Fanning did hold her own, but it was fragile. Wobbly.

Okay. Time to catch the meat, whatever that means.

It’s the tech stuff. The alternating small and large things that serve as the glue that holds the whole film wad together. The things between the lines, and I ain’t talking Fowley’s cocaine habit here. So at heart, Runaways is a curious amalgam of a weird coming-of-age story paired with the rough chemistry (if any) of the leads with very divergent goals. That’s how it works in a band, I guess. Identity crises up against the folks that help forge one’s identity. Sounds a bit cerebral, but then consider the social circles you ran with (or against) back in high school and maybe you get it. A band’s a family, and in the Runaways’ case it’s a family teetering on dysfunction. Our cast is very fragile, so from such brittleness delicious tension occurs. We get slammed around with the band trying to “make it” so often here that the smaller, more precious things here might get lost in the shuffle. It’s sad quite a bit of that spice should’ve stayed lost, or at least remained allusions.

Remember back when I hinted at that with a bio certain things are eyewash embellished by the Hollywood machine? Right. Runaways has a cornucopia of that. Most of it focusing square in the eye of the sex and drugs and rock and roll ethos. Well, mostly the sex part. Here was the speed bump that distracted this viewer. For the first act or two, it’s screamingly obvious that Fowley has more on his mind than producing and all-chick rock band. He wants to market jailbait snatch. So natch, with all these cutie pies stuck practicing in a sweaty, beater trailer (and still practicing in said trailer after they’d “made it.” Go Fowley), it’s a matter of course before the youngins’ start playing tab B, slot B.

Right out there: the lesbian overtones are overwrought and unconvincing. I don’t care which way Joan Jett swings. I don’t even know, but again I’m also unsure if this matter was steeped in fact, Sigismondi or Hollywood. Sex sells, after all, and same sex sex sells like ice cream in hell. I don’t think Jett is gay—but she co-produced the film which implies she gave the go-ahead with tawdry tale—but I don’t really know. It’s kinda like my ancient dissection of Lady In The Water: ever want a story so wonky to be believable? Yeah. Same here. I got to thinkin’ the whole man-on-no one action was more of a concoction of the facts jammed into a Waring blender. Who knows? Might’ve been true, but in the endgame the whole sexploitation aspect of the film was less about titillation and more akin to the director’s subtle Selby-esque tone about morality and decay. Two things rife with and odds with each other in the rock and roll world. You could only imagine what fit hit the shan when the Runaways were all in synch. Of course not I’m talking about band practice.

Put simply, as interesting as Runaways was, there was this gauze coating the whole affair. We got the greatest hits, but never a satisfying deep track. I mean, the film descended into your typical rock bio by act three: the fights, the fallout, the rehab. Corner store stuff, like there was more behind the curtain, but not “sexy” enough to film. The show here was for lacking, but in only the nitpicky way I get. Often. After the wifey and me discussed the film afterwards (and her being a Stewart fangirl), she gave it a mixed reaction. I hoped for something a bit more solid, but sometimes good news if just above a C. Besides, it was only the second time she sat down with me and put up with her hubs’ odd hobby. She’s into astrology and I an never one to judge. For now.

Still unsure about that would triad perhaps underpinning Runaways, its motives. Was is an exaggerated rock doc? Was it the director sending a message disguised as fangirlism, like the goofs get from dissecting Kubrick’s The Shining one to way many times? Was this another sampling of male Hollywood smacking the mug of coffee out a young director’s hand. Hell, even Fincher marched of the set two-thirds of the way through his debut, Alien 3. Something to do with studio meddling. Go fig. I dunno. I’m only here to call out what I see. Runaways, though good, had a lot of shadows and fog.

Lastly, I don’t believe that Jett is gay. No matter if, but I don’t think she’d exploit that fact to sell records and piss on Fowley crippled ass.

Okay, maybe that second half.


The Take…

Rent it or relent it? Another mild rent it. Definitely one for the fans, but still watchable overall. After a chat, the wifey gave The Runaways a B-. I found that pretty accurate.


Fallout…

  • “Places everyone!”
  • Remember phones with dials that hung on the wall? I barely do.
  • “I want what he’s wearing.”
  • The wifey claimed that Shannon as Fowley reminded her of Buffalo Bill from The Silence Of The Lambs. Very astute.
  • “Quite a presence…”
  • Hey. Was that Shaun White?
  • I gotta admit, the first gig/beer can battle made me laugh.
  • “You’re taller.”
  • Very cool hair all around.
  • You know, I never liked those twin-necked guitars either.
  • “…Don’t abuse me.”
  • I think I know why the Runaways were “Big In Japan.”
  • “I learned how to use chopsticks.” No, not relevant to the above.
  • She’s wearing the coat.
  • “This is my life.”

Next Stop…

“Four score and seven years ago, I slew many a bloodsucking freak.” So said our esteemed president Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Emancipate that, bitches!


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 60: Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There” (2007)


im_not_there


The Players…

Christian Bale, Marcus Carl Franklin, Heath Ledger, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere and Ben Whishaw, with Kris Kristofferson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, David Cross, Julianne Moore, Bruce Greenwood and Michelle Williams.


The Story…

A biography of the iconic musician Bob Dylan portrayed by five different personas over the course of his early career.

That about says it, I reckon.


The Rant…

Virtually all music collectors have a Dylan story, namely the first time they laid ears on the man. Such geeks wax rhapsodic about how the man’s music both changed their lives as well as the course of modern music. Others get into your face about your Dylan-esque ignorance and right there and then give an almost mathematical deconstruction of what a musical philistine, ignoramus and overall weenie you are. All the while bolting a digital pair of Skullcandy phones to your head so Bringing It All Back Home can blast some sense into you. Thanks to wi-fi, everywhere.

Didn’t happen that way for me. My tale is much more plain. Thus:

Ain’t it fun when you happen upon a surprise? Like a wadded up fiver in your recently laundered jeans, or finding a shortcut shaving a good chunk of time off your commute, or uncovering what’s actually in the house dressing? Unlike being flogged by some mouth-breather with the complete Biograph on Edison coils, I bumbled onto Dylan by cleaning out a closet. A surprise, but not a valued one at first. I was just looking for my boots.

It was a boring snowy day. Probably a Saturday, since I wasn’t in school. Then again it might’ve been a snow day, but at any rate I was bored and stuck inside until I found those damned boots. Was going to head off into the storm to Blockbuster for a video fix. That’s right, back in the day we had to go to the store to score a fresh movie, and if you had to do that errand during winter, it required proper footwear (especially since the ‘rents refused to let your surly teenaged ass drive in such sh*t weather). Footwear I could not find.

In our house we had two hall closets, one for mom and dad’s stuff, the other for not mom and dad’s stuff. There must’ve been a recent shuffling I wasn’t aware of and found the missing boots in the grown up closet. I had to get on my hands and knees to claim my quarry, buried behind long coats, forgotten boxes of whatnot and mittens—endless mittens. I stumbled upon my dad’s old record collection in a milk crate. It wasn’t much to crow about, one milk crate. This was the early 90s, and that proto vinyl revival was percolating. I was aware of this thing, this “revival” with me the burgeoning audiophile. I had built an already righteous CD library, but to call this “new” interest in records a revival flummoxed me. There was still a healthy LP rack or two at my local music store so to claim some revo was happening on the fringes struck me as bullsh*t. But I was an insecure teen and was quick to latch onto whatever unique trend set me apart from the lemmings. That and I had fond memories of dicking around with the man’s turntable as a spit of a youth, which was most likely the real reason I began to rifle through the crate. Boots and Die Hard 2 soon forgotten.

It was an eclectic stack of wax. I recalled fumbling through them as a little kid, curious about the album cover art and who these singers were. Truth be told I was more entranced by Ella Jenkins and Pooh And The Honey Tree as twin pinnacles of musical triumph. I had no clue, nor wanted one, as to whom Chuck Mangione was. Still shouldn’t.

As a teen I was little more versed in some of the platters in my dad’s milk crate. Neil Diamond Gold, a greatest hits thing. Barbara Streisand. A lot of Barbara Streisand. Too much Streisand (always felt the woman was a better actress than singer, but that’s not saying much. That’s not saying anything). Judy Collins. John Denver. Simon and Garfunkel. The Mamas & The Papas. Peter, Paul & Mary (my dad was big into folk music back in his youth). The Rolling Stones’ Out Of Our Heads (the album featuring some little ditty called “Satisfaction.” Perhaps you’ve heard it). More Streisand. Santana (hey…). Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde. Highway 61 Revisited, Nashville Skyline and the man’s Greatest Hits, Vol 2.

At the time I was into singer/songwriters. Elton John, Billy Joel, James Taylor, U2 and the like. I’d heard of Dylan. Knew his big hits from the 60s. Casual acquaintance. I guess thanks to the aforementioned faux vinyl revival, but more likely it was just curiosity that dragged that crate out into the sunlight for the first time since whenever. Curiosity and a need to make better dinners for my family.

This will make sense. Take my hand and don’t look down.

My discovery of the forgotten LPs coincided with a sh*tty winter and a need to counteract even sh*ttier dinners. That winter was most likely the gateway drug into my culinary career. You can only boil hot dogs so many ways. Being cooped up in the house during those cold weeks, and tiring of grilled cheese with Campbell’s tomato soup (condensed for your pleasure), I took to task making actual meals with actual ingredients. That winter had a flu epidemic paired with such subzero temps so that school was closed for almost two weeks. So me stuck at home with all comics exhausted, all the Nintendo my eyes would take and my video library gone over twice (hence the fateful non-trip to the video store) I took to combating boredom via cooking. Don’t ask my why or how.

I wanted to make dinner all special like. Use the dining room rather than the breakfast nook. Actually set the table instead of the usual fork throwing. Even have some background music. I found the records, noodled with the neglected turntable to get it up and running again and reconnected the speakers that were thought broken but just needed a little tweaking. Voila. Like something out of a restaurant. Not a grilled cheese to be found.

However before my little gastronomical ploy to shake off the winter blues went into effect I had to go and actually listen to my newfound music cache. The whole dinner music thing didn’t come to be in a vacuum. In hindsight, rummaging through those records is what most likely got my head a-churnin’ to play midwinter Wolfgang Puck.

I rifled through the collection. Some gems in there, although I wasn’t sure of it at the time. Without going into the laundry list there were two artists that immediately commanded my teenaged attention. One was Santana. My dad had their first album. Well, it was more like he had his brother’s album. Goodness knows how it got in that lot, but I’m forever grateful it did. Carlos Santana is my guitar god. ‘Nuff said.

The other albums of note—surprise—were the Dylan records. The aforementioned Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde and Nashville Skyline. All classics by any account, but I didn’t know that then. I was a Dylan nimbob and knew next to nothing about the man’s music save some passing aquaintence with “Blowin’ In The Wind” and/or “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” The second one thanks to Simon and Garfunkel, to which I thought it was their original. Like I said, nimbob.

Dad also had a well worn copy of Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Vol 2. I figured it was a good enough place to start (tried Nashville Skyline first, mostly due to Dylan’s smiling face on the cover. Didn’t do it for me). A greatest hits comp is almost always a safe bet for the neophyte, which blissfully ignorant was I. So I pulled out the first record (it was a double album), plunked it onto the turntable, adjusted the needle and listened.

I was intrigued.

I didn’t outright like Dylan’s songs, but you ever happen on a surprise? Forgive the schmaltz, but my first few exposures to Dylan were akin to the scene in Mr Holland’s Opus where Richard Dreyfuss recalls the first time he heard Coltrane. Didn’t get it, so he played it again and again until he couldn’t not stop playing it. Yeah, that we me with Greatest Hits 2. I was surprised by the songs’ eclecticism. The man could barely sing, but how it sounded in context didn’t matter. I didn’t get Dylan outright, but I knew I was listening to something different, something vital. And my fave Dylan song is “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Thank Vol 2 for that.

So yeah, the backdrop for several of the dinners I threw together was Santana’s debut and Dylan’s second greatest hits comp. I was excited about spinning these records almost as much as inflicting my warped idea of burgundy beef on the ‘rents and sibs.

Their reaction to dinner was similar to my musical selections: indifference. Well, patience would be a better word. It came to pass that for me those nightly winter meals became less about gustatory satisfaction and more about assailing my family with my newfound discovery of Bob Dylan. But they did get tired of Vol 2 on endless rotation. My dad in particular, which baffled me because that was his album from back when he was my age then. No matter. It was an insular winter, and I got increasingly more intimate with the record player. Vol 2 held sway over me, but I eventually branched out to Highway 61. When I first heard “Like A Rolling Stone” all bets were off. And f*ck all anything about some alleged vinyl resurgence.

So what’s the point of all this? None really. Just a passing pertinence to this week’s flick, I’m Not There. The movie’s supposed to be about how Bob Dylan’s influence can go far beyond his music. Not sure about that. All I know about my connection to the man and his music went further than my unearthed record collection, but not so deep down I’d pummel the Dylan deprived for, well, being Dylan deprived. Nope. My possible snobbery was nil. It was all about that surprise brought about lost boots and the fire being fanned by snow and a burning need to get away from meatloaf for a time. A pretty mild way to get into one of the preeminent musicians of the 20th Century (and still going strong into the 21st).

So that’s my Dylan story. Feel free to add to it whatever legacy you wish to hear.

Or see…


Jack Rollins (Bale). He’s the newest rising star in New York’s burgeoning folk music scene. He’s not like other performers. Where interpretation is more valued than original material from such modern day troubadours, Rollins’ delivery is something…different. His songs are of a social and political nature, but how he comes across therein lies the difference. His style is raw, wounded, pleading and far from the usual rallying cry for change delivered by his peers. The man has something to say, and clearly has something on his mind. And what he has on his mind comes across as both a mirror and pointed finger. The show will go on as long as it has to. Needs to.

Woody (Franklin). Not his real name. Doesn’t need one. The identity you’re given at the outset doesn’t mean you’re that person. Woody took his name as a tribute to his musical hero, legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie. This machine kills fascists. That’s what Guthrie scrawled on his guitar, and also what Woody scrawled on his guitar case. With a head full of ideas that are driving him insane, Woody hits the road, rides the rails west, hoping to become the next big thing. He spews lies and dreams with equal aplomb. He knows exactly what his wants: to be a folk singer. But Woody doesn’t know why. Yet.

Robbie Clark (Ledger). An up and coming actor. Well, that’s not quite true. Robbie’s already established himself as your typical pretty face, screen icon. He’s wants more than that, a little more edge. Serious roles. He gets one in the shape of Grain Of Sand, a biopic encapsulating the life and times of rebel folk singer Jack Rollins. It’s the role that’ll escalate him from mere pretty face to serious actor. It’s also the role that lets Claire (Gainsbourg) into his life. She’s an artist, and fast finds her muse in Robbie. But later she finds her muse is less Robbie and more Jack. That’s not quite right. Between both of them acting seems to be the only reality they share. Image and mock truth.

Jude Quinn (Blanchett). He was the darling folk artist of the scene. But as an artist—a musician especially—one must evolve, push oneself’s creative boundaries. Which is why at a high profile New England folk fest he plugs in and cranks the amps to 11. The audience—his soon-to-be former fans—doesn’t take kindly to him going electric. They f*cking hate it, and call him out as a judas and sell-out. Quinn’s been such a guy with the hot button for so long his chasing his muse has gotten not only the folk scene but the media in general in a furor. Esteemed TV personality Keenan Jones (Greenwood) grills Quinn over a series of interviews as to what gives Jude the right to do whatever he pleases with his music. Did he ever consider his fans? Is he “selling out?” Is all this folderol nothing more than a demented PR stunt? Quinn says yes and no to all of this. Maybe more of his mystique would’ve come to light if he didn’t bite it in a motorcycle crash.

Billy McCarty (Gere). Retired from the outlaw trade. All he wants is a quiet, normal life, miles away from his callow youth and moniker. Living in Riddle, MO Billy’s become the sort of de facto guru of Riddle, in tune to the townsfolk’s wants as they are to his sketchy past. Presently however, Riddle’s in a pickle. Corrupt commissioner Pat Garrett (Greenwood) has sold over the town so a new-fangled highway can come a-tearin’ through, demolishing Riddle in the process. When Billy catches wind of his adopted family’s plight (as well as stories of suicides), against all sense Billy confronts Garrett. His face is not easily forgotten, as Garrett recognizes his old nemesis and runs the man out of town on a rail. Rails. With some help from the townsfolk, Billy hops a train and rides off to lands afar, to realign his identity once more. Good thing he found a guitar to keep himself occupied for the long trip ahead to nowhere.

Arthur Rimbaud (Whishaw). Not his real name, but they don’t have to know that. What kind of government subcommittee is this? Why was his brought in? Did he break some law? Just because he has this expansive knowledge on this Bob Dylan guy doesn’t make him a criminal. Try explaining that to these jokers. They don’t know what’s happening, do they?

Do they, Mr Jones…?


For those few who care, sorry it took so long for this installment to come to fruition. The delay was due to multiple factors. Xmas time. Insane work schedule. A visit to the dentist. Traffic. Alien invasion.  Alien dentists. Whatever works. The biggest impasse however was how intractable, dense, polyphonic and utterly weird I’m Not There turned out to be.

I loved the thing and wanted to do its prostate examination justice. Or try to. Now cough.

I know. I’ve been making a bad habit of showing my hand too often at RIORI lately. I’m also probably jinxing myself by saying this but I’ve pretty lucky with the past few installments. Had a small streak with mediocre movies that turned out to be pretty good. I’m Not There is no exception, regardless of my Dylan fandom and the pleasant memories his albums evoke. This film was engaging, weird and unique. Uniquely unique. It was also the most mutated biopic I’ve ever been audience to, and I really haven’t seen many biopics. But I’m Not There…um, is one of them. And Christ, what a corker it was.

But first and as always I gotta justify how an award-winning, critically acclaimed movie about a towering figure in folk, rock, blues and poetry (not to mention nakedly reluctantly Nobel Prize winner) earns The Standard’s stamp. It’s a kind of a pretzel logic here, and a total judgment call (as is my wont), but I think I figured out some sort of skewed way of wedging There into the questionable camp of flicks that probably shouldn’t be lurking around these neck of the woods. Might be a Marvel movie ’round the bend waiting to strike. Excelsior!

Ahem. In simpler terms, I’m gonna stretch it.

Not by active choice either. There is a sh*t-ton of ground to cover here with There, and I got all exhaustive like. Of the fairest warning, this must be the longest installment here at RIORI ever. Ever. All the Dylan asides would fill a boxcar. So if you durst tread further be warned. Beyond this point be dragons, folk music and Cate Blanchett in drag. Enjoy!

So.

Todd Haynes isn’t what you’d call a name director. He’s a critical darling, and almost always his muse puts him into a descent of offbeat and weird projects, most of which only the critics see.  His sh*t don’t make a lotta ducats at the box office. Rentals and downloads yes, but that what creates film cultiness and not marketability. Just because the man’s CV consists of the weird and wild doesn’t make him an odd duck though. Wes Anderson, Werner Herzog and even everyone’s favorite hack Quentin Tarantino all delve into the left-of-center and quirky, most with amazing returns at the multiplex. Haynes ain’t like that. Like I said he’s not a name. Merely a curiosity, which is probably why his films are often doomed to just cult status. That or something a snooty film freak would beat your ignorant ass over the head with like so many scratchy Bob Dylan LPs.

*wink*

Nope. Haynes’ name and cachet had very little to do with There becoming a hit. A modest hit, mind you and aimed at a very cagey, dedicated crowd. Face it, now matter how epic Dylan’s career has been he’s still an acquired taste (not unlike Haynes’ filmography). I recall how my freshman year roomie mocked both Dylan and my fandom with a very unflattering rendition of the man’s snarly growl. Then again all my roommate listened to was Nine Inch Nails, Tori Amos and Nine Inch Nails. There’s no accounting for taste as they say.

Based on my research (which is totally biased and usually consists of smacking Wikipedia around while nursing two or nine beers), taste wasn’t much on the mind of the folks who pulverized the theaters to get a visually stimulating Dylan fix. No. Argument was that it was tragedy that brought people into seeing There, not so much the polyphonic biopic’s…whatever.

There was the first movie featuring the late, lamented Heath Ledger. True, Ledger was gone when The Dark Knight dropped, but There was kind of his Nirvana Unplugged In New York (an aside: why do esteemed entertainers’ popularity skyrocket after their untimely death? Is it a sort of last gasp—so to speak—of vicariously walking alongside an idol? Or just a jolt to the main vein realizing there’s no more  Dean, Cobain or Ledger and a need to prolong the magic? Or maybe some people are just morose). It was the official last time the fans and the curious could watch Ledger in action. A lot of critics claimed that Ledger’s passing had some sway with the film’s attendance, which may have elevated this curiosity to rake in the dough it did (beyond belief). Jaded, I know. So explain then Nirvana’s meager Sub Pop catalog (one and one-half albums) breaking their bank on April 6, 1994.

*crickets and seething*

Simply put, There wouldn’t performed as well if Heath were still alive. Cynical? Sure. Accurate? Possibly. Crass? Duh.

Now we meet our quandary. Did There fare better than it should’ve due to America’s morbid fascination with the curse of 27 or was it just a darn good film? I’m crossing my fingers, putting the cynicism aside for a nanosecond and leaning towards the latter.

Cards. Chest. Fold. Remember?

Anyway, to the matter at hand: the film. Nearly forgot the thing. Now you don’t have to be a Dylan scholar to appreciate this movie, but it sure as hell helps. The minutiae There gets into is of course reflective of Dylan’s early career, so knowing a thing or three about the man helps the average joes and janes appreciate the story ever more. In truth, the bulk of the film focuses on pivotal moments that ultimately result in the man’s mythos, not the trivia that salivating Dylan-philes love to beat you over the head with. Again and again. There‘s about tentpoles supporting a very wide canvas. And a lot of that canvas was cut with a lot of holes. That’s where “creative license” comes in, therefore taking an audience through the jungle isn’t nearly as entertaining as bringing the jungle to their back stoop. With a glass of wine and a cigarette.

What I’m sayin’ is that the best part about waiting on a gift is the actual delivery, and best thing about There‘s delivery is how cagey Haynes is in constructing the narrative. I’m not talking about the alternate realties and intertwining storylines a la Dark City and/or Pulp Fiction (which is essential, as well as engaging and mad confusing at times. Often, actually). It’s how carefully the Dylan mythos skirts the “Dylan Mythos.” Like I said many times, There is not for the casually curious, but neither is it for your everyday, run-of-the-mill, raving Dylan loon. No. This movie is for people that have nary a blue f*ck about who Bob Dylan is, don’t care and found themselves in the theatre for Heath’s passing, a recommendation from a friend who digs Dylan’s albums, or the aforementioned maniacs (as you may have figured, these dicks are a key target of mine) the movie is, it’s not friendly, immediately accessible and just plain weird. Dylan sure had a mythos. He’s got a lot of nutty and equally poignant tales—real and/or imagined—to draw from, apart from him just cutting records. Haynes’ steers clear of all that, or at least covers the chapters in a hazy, gauzy quality, blurred at the corners. In simpler terms he makes the audience rub its eyes and go, “Huh? Hey…” Haynes plucks “key” moments from Dylan’s early career and warps them into this patchwork quilt as well as collage. At first glance, no matter how disarming (and that is a strange adjective to apply to this kooky, non-linear tale about a protean musician who’s had more legends than facts to ponder), There is both a challenge to laypeople and dedicated fans alike.

And now Side B.

It’s not just the staggering, wonky, disjointed, essential editing I’ve ever scene (under or over the influence). Again, it’s Haynes at work, playing with his toys and rewriting history, or maybe just chronicling it in a way that only fans will get. When I say “get” I don’t mean for a lot of dorks to nod their collective heads to and mumble, “Yeah, that was it.” No. There was designed to confuse and make you think—perhaps reconsider—about how Dylan in the collective, media consciousness twice. It’s pretty daring to direct a movie about a prominent musician that doesn’t regard the subject matter in solid form. The Bale/Franklin/Ledger/Blanchett/Gere/Whishaw amalgam is but a mirror, and what the crowd wishes to see or demands to see.

In other words, Haynes is trolling us. A very creative, smart troll, but still what’s it all trip-trapping all over the bridge for?

To mess with us in a giddy fanboy way that tickles as much as it pisses us off (not unlike Dylan’s muse). This is fun, BTW, despite the plastic, non-linear story structure. Such directing is sure as sh*t absorbing, and far less enraging than Haynes’ last foray into a musician’s “biography.” A decade prior to There Haynes inflicted Velvet Goldmine on an unwitting audience who loved Bowie and Ewan MacGregor in equal portions (and most, like me, found the whole gob pissy and needlessly obtuse). For those not in the know Velvet was a fabricated documentary/biopic covering the life and times of a Bowie-clone rocker and the rock journalist peeling back the onion of the man’s life (the scribbler was portrayed by Bale, so at least one person knew what they were in for when they set sailed on the SS Planet Waves). It was a frustrating film, even you knew nothing about the glam rock scene back in early-70s England (and had a fleeting desire to witness MacGregor as an Iggy Pop clone flap his d*ck around on stage. No, really). It had the proto-air of what There succeeded in doing: disjointed chapters depicting the life and times of an important musician through both the director’s eyes and the audiences’s on the same level.

Fortunately, There is far less oblique than Goldmine (with a lot less c*ck. Sorry, ladies). Despite its byzantine structure There is—for real—more accessible than most rock biopics. I know I was playing footsie with this concept before, but There isn’t a movie with an easy message to pin down. If there’s a message at all. I think Haynes was just having fun f*cking around with his audience offering one Dylan story and pulling a bait-and-switch. Those who went along with the ruse sat there and drank it in. The rest just missed Heath.

At its core, There is a character study, studied over by multiple characters. All Dylan, all different and yet all the same. Regardless of the settings and atmospherics (which are all period spot-on no matter what period), we’re watching the rise and sunset of a character, if not a mere characterization of a person who made a life of being endlessly creative and endlessly difficult. Small wonder why Haynes chose the device he did to tell Dylan’s tales. I mean, within the first seven years of his career, Dylan jumped many fences and crossed many lines (including ones he drew in the first place). So since, at heart, There is indeed a character study then the bulk of this winding way should rest on our cast, right? So drawing from the synopsis, let’s break the story down brick by brick.

Bale worked with Haynes before, remember? The fanboy cum rock journalist in Goldmine. Might explain why Bale was the actor most at ease with his Dylan cipher. Haynes’ work can get screwy, messing with timelines and blurring the corners between what actually happened and what should have actually happened. Bale’s laid back, slouching representation of Dylan’s early busking years comes across as both vulnerable and piss-and-vinegar. Jack Rollins is new to the City’s folk scene, but is already well adept in what being outwardly vocal is all about; having a message and somehow finding a way to force it to the surface. I swear, I think I only saw Bale life his head maybe three times over the course of his chapters. Rollins was a man retreating into his own skin and yet at the same time screaming for relevance. A semi-tragic figure, bleeding sympathy, Bale’s Rollins might’ve crashed and burned as a caricature of Dylan, but I attest to his Haynes’ training (and maybe them Batman films), the guy held up damn fine, and when Rollins’ post folkie career ended, the circle closed beautifully in a way most nabobs would only deem as tacky. Like Pete Seeger might’ve once said.

Franklin as “Woody.” He was a wild card (one of two really). It’s tough with a “serious” movie—especially a biography—to have the damn kid sit still, read his lines and follow his paces without eating up precious, expensive studio time by acting like a damned, precocious kid. This is the stuff of Ritalin’s dreams. But Franklin managed to hold his own (barely) as the ideal of Dylan’s eyes-wide-open pursuit as the next big thing in folk music before folk music was big. Anyone who knows anyone knows that Dylan was probably the biggest Woody Guthrie fanboy this side of the New York Islands. A major inspiration. Our Woody may serve as the embodiment/inspiration avatar for young, naive Dylan, but for our purposes he’s just full of sh*t. Sure, he can sing, play guitar and spin yarns about eminent fame and fortune as the next runaway kid spinning yarns about fame and fortune, but at heart Woody knows he’s full of sh*t. All he’s really trying to do is escape. Escape his crappy home and going nowhere existence. Life an imaginary life of a hobo, traveling troubadour with a message to share and a goal to reach and a life to escape.

Franklin toes the line very carefully between precocious and obnoxious. Not an easy balance. He’s supposed to represent Dylan in his salad days (that whole Guthrie adoration with the “This machine kills fascists” saw on Woody’s guitar case speaks volumes, especially since the real Guthrie had that scrawled on his actual axe. A shade more proactive). All wide-eyed and needing to shake the Zimmerman family name back in Hibbing, MN like a bad case of fleas. Franklin shines as the hobo, still sweet but painfully vulnerable. Like I intimated, Woody’s all about escaping, especially himself. Franklin impresses with his keen dichotomy of scared kid and outgoing not-there-yet adult. The kid can sing, he can play guitar and he can shoot the bull with the best/worst of them. Is he convincing? Yes, and that follows acting and mission both. The scene where “Woody” gets busted as a runaway speaks volumes alone.

The tough part about getting a kid to act as an avatar for an adult—especially a famous, vilified adult (icon)—is to get the kid to “get it.” Franklin must’ve been barely ten when he got slated as Robert Allen the wandering Woody Guthrie acolyte minstrel. The wounded confidence he dragged along was admirable, interesting. Here’s a kid who was perilously close to Culkin territory. Instead he turned cute into troubling. Sure, at some point in our youth we’d all love to run away and join the circus. Franklin’s Woody is the circus, and with precious little treacle sticking to anything. The kid’s slick and slippery, and once you think you’ve figured out his MO (which may or may not be miles from becoming a famous folk singer), he turns on you. Well, rather the writers did. But still, with Franklin as our guide young Dylan became all the more palpable. Not bad for some snot-nosed whelp.

The late Ledger. The pinion. Maybe the reason that There got more press than it may have earned. Now I’m not gonna deny that Ledger was a talented actor who over a relatively short career evolved from a pretty face to a grotesque, Oscar-winnig face. That and a shepherd having a crisis with his sexuality, having a tough time looking that face in the mirror. Yeah, so from 10 Things I Hate About You to Brokeback Mountain, Ledger sharpened his claws right quick, and became a swift and beloved cinema icon.

Which is rather appropriate, if not prescient that his portrayal of the hard-nosed—yet with a fluffy, pretty boy CV—Robbie Clark (a semi-tragic figure within his own career). Clark represents Dylan in his reluctant fame phase. Clark’s career prior to Grain Of Sand is akin to Dylan’s post-folkie route. Here we get introspection of a reluctant kind. Clark is assured in his talent, and now has a project to prove his mettle. Sure, the talent’s intact, but the youthful recklessness is not. Nothing more potent for implosion than a fragile ego paired with a need to please, even (if not especially) if only for yourself.

Ledger’s Clark/Dylan persona cleanly demonstrated not only Heath’s gradually, workaday climb from pretty face to serious actor with mass appeal still in check. Clark’s career follows the same track, mirroring Dylan’s post The Times They Are A-Changin’ albums; your fans want you to stretch (only on their terms. Refer to the Jude Quinn segment…later), to see more talent down deep. Casting Ledger as Clark was a stroke of brilliance, and not just for his rugged, postmodern James Dean, self-effacing (at first) performance. The guy had quite a bit to draw from and plunk at the table.

The Clark chapter had many parallels not only with Dylan’s nascent fame, but also Ledger’s career in microcosm. Wouldn’t be surprised if There‘s casting director enlisted Ledger not just for his acting chops but also the slow burn tumult of his private life. And when you’re a big deal star—being it movie or music—it gets harder and harder to keep one apart from the other, even though there is always spillage. Good thing social media didn’t exist when Dylan was just on his feet. Would’ve been burned at the stake for the stunt he pulled at Newport (again, Quinn segment…still later).

And it’s virtually impossible if you’re a fan of either artist to sniff out the trouble waiting around the corner with Clark. There are indeed parallels (perhaps too many to be close for comfort) with not only Dylan’s life at that point but Ledger’s also. Granted each chapter of There is following a continuum, just not in a linear progression. We bounce back and forth between Robbie’s life along with the rest of the players, but thanks to/blame the timing, what starts Robbie’s story as an innocent courting of Claire devolves into so much fragility and alienation that ultimately undoes the relationship.

Gainesbourg was a find, despite being established. I know nothing about the beginning, flowering, decaying, undoing of Dylan’s marriage to his wife, Sara (bet it wasn’t fun), but Gainesbourg’s Claire was great channeling the almost cliched willowy artiste trying to make her mark in The Big City. Clark by extension was too. Sure, everything starts all puppies dogs and ice cream like, but with the lure of stardom comes the fractures. Who do you truly value? Your loved ones? Your agent? You? One can only wonder again with the casting director’s choice that Ledger’s very public, very ugly separation from Michelle Williams might’ve had a hand in getting him the part, as well as stoking the fire of a greedy, fan audience. Maybe, then again Ledger’s and William’s couple hood had unraveled during the filming of Brokeback Mountain. You know, the high profile gay love pic which had Ledger play against Williams as his disassociated wife (and was it a coinkydink that Williams floated around this merry-go-round)? Synchronicity. That real life/behind the scenes/reflective narrative seems a tad too juicy to be coincidence.

Which is why we can thank Claire. Gainsbrough really was a find. Although There somewhat descends into the rock and roll cliche of fame and hard-living paired against ignoring personal relationships and loved ones (that and our avatar quickly becomes mister good time charlie too fast, too soon), Claire keeps it aloft and in perspective. C’mon, even if you’re not a Dylan scholar, you’re well-versed in the whole rise and fall of fame bullsh*t ride. Even with the angular There, you see it coming light-years away. Claire’s eventual brittleness after the time with Robbie—the rising star, raising a family, her stagnant art career, etc—is us, the audience, witnessing promise and power quickly but still politely descend into dysfunction. All the while Gainsbrough is our charioteer. Sure, the whole Clark chapter is Ledger’s all the way, but you need to have a vital foil to balance (or tip) the scales. Our Claire is Patti Smith minus the balls, recording career and a demand to fully grasp the collapse of everything as Robbie the star becomes Robbie the actor. Such invulnerability demands a chink in the armor, so thank you Gainsbourg.

A fond farewell to Heath, who left us like too many talented people: far too soon.

And now for something completely different. The cherry on the sundae, perhaps a bigger scoop (ha!) than Ledger’s swansong: Cate Blanchett as Electric Dylan (and if that ain’t a band name scooped up by now, get on it and you’re welcome to it). Kinda seen as a gimmick at the time, even ‘tho Blanchett has always been an adventurous actress. I played the most prominent Queen in England’s history, so it’s only natural I want to play a prominent rock star (even if it means taping up my breasts)! Right, the novelty of Cate playing a man doubtless teased the crowds, if only for the humorous reasons. But beyond the winking, Cate’s “Jude Quinn” was the most Dylan of all the chronicles tackled in There.

A technical thing, and I know it’s the first one here. Probably the only one that arrested my attention in There, regardless of all the warping of space and time. For the duration of the movie, I loved the lighting techniques. At least two thirds of There was shot in rich black and white, and the argument could be made to say this gave the film a historical context. That’s odd though, considering the way-back machine set for Woody’s and Billy’s past lives are shot in vibrant color. Not sure exactly what this indicates, but I doubt it was all a creative whim.

Quinn’s chapter is Richard Lester in reverse. If you ever saw A Hard Day’s Night with the Fab Four running riot through Swingin’ London, then you get the idea. Lester is kinetic, urgent and almost breakneck in his style (check out at least one half of Superman II. At least that). There is a rhythm, a pulse, a need to get the message across ASAP with verve. With Quinn, Haynes’ style reflects Lester’s need for info dump, but everything here moves almost at a languid, if not cautionary pace. No less urgent than Lester, but there’s quite an air of bitterness, desperation and mean-spirits floating through Quinn’s world. Whatever for? Let’s meet him, shall we?

Our intro to Quinn is to he and his bandmates opening fire on an unwitting crowd at a New England folk concert. Literally as well as metaphorically. Drawing from the pissed off reaction of folkies at Dylan’s electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, to say the hippie dippies were unthrilled by Dylan’s new direction is akin to referring to the Arctic as somewhat chilly. They claimed he sold out. Pete Seeger was in agony. Cats and dogs living together. Mass hysteria!

Kinda what Quinn was aiming at. Now we arrive at the “voice of a generation” chapter of Dylan’s life, and Cate jumps in with both feet. Once you get beyond he’s a she, the opposite befalls you. Quinn is Dylan in the hot seat, and under the scrutiny of the mass media, this once folkie troubadour gone unabashed rocker. Brash and outspoken, smartass and well aware he has the world in the palm of his hand, Quinn conducts himself as him, not what his vast flock deems him to be. In other words, freeing himself from the trappings (nay, moorings) of his early career.

Blanchett pours it on. Her Quinn is cocky, smarmy and bleeding edge rock star persona incarnate. The Quinn chapter is the closest thing approaching linear in There‘s execution. It’s almost as if Haynes had a real message to broadcast with Cate, whatever that message was. What I walked away with was a tale of freeing yourself from…yourself. The underpinning of the Quinn chapter is our anti-hero slinking in and out of what the media expects. Blanchett is delightful in this environment, almost unlikeable but still engaging enough that you wish to devour what comes next in his/her story, regardless of what a dick Quinn is.

And Blanchett, vagina or not, is a dick. Like the jocky guy you get shoved next to at a beer bust, Quinn cannot help but smear his accomplishments (true or otherwise) all up on you. I’m so special because others tell me that. My talent is secondary, despite the fact it got me all these lackeys. It’s quick to see that Quinn’s surgical bluster is all a ruse to keeping what was once just that. Blanchett is both cocky and dodgy as Quinn. An anti-hero vibe. You want to like this guy, even as a casual fan, but Cate’s so obtuse, so snotty, so much like Brian Slade from Haynes’ Goldmine, he wants—needs—everyone to question his MO. After enjoying watching Cate shuck and jive, being unpredictable was the true motive. That and Quinn evading his modest, very uncool past. Cate was Dylan as far as I was concerned for There. She won an award after all. Not all judges are stodgy. Well, maybe Judge Judy, but she probably never owned a copy of Self Portrait. Nor should you. Moving on!

The “Billy the Kid” segment of There was the most left field, even more so than Woody’s adventures. You’d be hard-pressed as a Dylan fan to not catch the connection to the man’s soundtrack for the the movie Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid here, and maybe moreover the aftermath of Dylan’s mysterious motorcycle accident. That’s the guts of this chapter, and what an odd one it is, almost totally removed from the rest of the movie “proper.”

Richard Gere (surprisingly well-casted) appears as Billy “The Kid” McCarty, though do to his age no one calls him a kid anymore, let alone anything from his mischievous past. No. Billy is a recluse, stationed in nowhere and a local benefactor to everyone, still he’s just trying to escape and shed some skin.

Story goes that Dylan cracked up his ride and suffered some nasty injuries riding around in his adopted hometown of Woodstock, NY. Since the aftermath of the accident was so hush-hush, people got to figuring the whole schmeer was just a stunt to get Dylan out of the limelight for a time. Plunking our next to last chapter avatar in the Old West works well based on this urban legend. And Gere surprised me as Billy. He’s always had a laid back demeanor, teetering on reserved. From American Gigilo to Pretty Woman to even The Mothman Prophecies, Gere is a cool character and often rather far from losing his composure even when he’s being malevolent (think Internal Affairs).

His Billy was the only noble character in this game of pawns. Gere may have played the recluse, but his performance was sterling as the retired outlaw. He hasn’t quite recovered from the life, still has flashbacks about his former life and times. He does however a (newly found) serene nature about him after getting away from it all. The motorcycle analogy is wafer thin here—especially if one considers the “riding a horse” metaphor—but it works. It works as long as Gere keeps a gentle distance from his surroundings and just tries to stay in the background. Until his hand is forced.

Yeah, this is indeed a naked metaphor for Dylan’s life and times in long ago Woodstock. The reputation, the constant spotlight, the need to escape. Hell even the injuries are metaphor. In hindsight, the Billy chapter might be the most obvious parallel to Dylan’s life, even more than the on the nose take with Quinn. Ignoring the Wild West environ, Dylan as Billy brings the past/present Dylan into focus with the last episode (or at most the denouement) of the man’s early career. He had his whirlwind in a small length of time, and the legend is secure no matter what comes next. Like Billy the Kid.

Lastly and finally of this major character study via wild, disjointed biography we have Arthur as Rimbaud as what young Dylan pursued as Whishaw. Not much to say here really. Ben’s appearances felt more like bookmarks than part of the story proper (whatever it was). He’s the voice of the anti-establishment, the rebellious youth culture of the 60s and ultimately the foil of the real life Dylan. Whishaw’s delivery is punky, snotty and presages the middle finger Quinn gives the world later down the pike. What does the old men in grey suits know? Mr Jones and alla dat. Ben’s attitude is what justifies his appearance here. The wiry, “you don’t get it” bravado oozes from him like smoke (all those cigarettes help somewhat), and his almost desperate laments echo Dylan’s protest songs. Just because his brief interludes seem throwaway, it doesn’t lessen the stories impact any less. They’re more like a moment to catch your breath while Dylan’s lyrics seep through. Hell, Whishaw’s bits were the most linear of There‘s whole winding journey. Like I said, breathe.

I know, I know. This installment devolved into less of a review and more of a term paper. Sorry and whatever. Just because I got a little (all right, very) dense with There doesn’t mean the flick was all terse and intractable. Quite the other thing. Haynes’ vision was wild and disorienting, true, but that made for no less an engaging flick. It was hard to nail down what exactly Haynes’ vision was. Was it a fantasy? A biopic? A tribute to Dylan or a ironic screed against the man, the myth and the legend? Probably all of these and none. Like I said miles ago you don’t have to be a Dylan fan to appreciate I’m Not There, but the arcana associated with the guy’s career sure would come in handy. Get you on the ball for the next dooshnozzle waving their first pressing of John Wesley Harding at your nimbob ass.

And don’t you think for a mo’ that I wasn’t aware I got the timeline for my facts got a bit screwy. So was Haynes’ whole jagged plot line, so there. It’s not that I didn’t fully care for accuracy, or twisted things to suit this installment (okay, maybe a tad), but rather writing a biopic and a review for a biopic you take a few “creative liberties” to make the data flow download easier. Otherwise both would be a long, winding, tedious display of literary upchuck which would be nothing but self aggrandizing…

Uh-oh.

Pass in your blue books.


“You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”

Bob Dylan. Chronicles, Vol 1.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? An enthusiastic rent it. A first. I know, right? Sorry to get all academic, but it sure tasted better than your final in Economics 101 right? If you like Dylan, you’ll adore I’m Not There. If you aren’t, the film might goad into buying an album of his. If it did neither, you’re hopelessly wrapped up in your Melanie Martinez obsession.

Happy New Year, BTW.


Stray Observations…

  • The soundtrack is awesome, naturally.
  • “Whoever heard of a fatalistic farmer?”
  • Why’d Robbie leave the lights on?
  • Bruce Greenwood is yet another character actor that’s earning my respect, up there with Peña and Love.
  • I was too engaged in the film to keep a steady stream of notes. Might explain why the review was so uneven. Either that or the beer.
  • “Just like a woman!”

Next Installment…

Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World. Worst. Personal ad. Ever.