RIORI Redux: Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid And The Whale” Revisited


The Players…

Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Klein, with Stephen Baldwin.

The Story…

This is a story with an insightful look at the crumbling marriage between a self-centered novelist (whose career is on the wane) and his up-and-coming writer wife. In the meantime, the warring couple’s two sons get caught in the crossfire, which is where, as always, things get complicated.

The Rant (2014)

Here’s a new one for you. A film that did quite well at the box office (its production budget of a mere $1.5 million yielded over $7 million domestic total gross), received rave reviews, sported an excellent cast…and no one has ever heard of it.

Ooooo. Chills, right?

What is it about indie films that get people’s hackles up? A great deal of the public’s perceptions is that indie films can be artsy-fartsy, pretentious, twee vanity projects aimed a very narrow audience of either highbrow snobs or annoying hipsters that disdain anything considered “mainstream.” Which is rather appropriate considering these are the types of characters that inhabit the world of The Squid And The Whale.

The above claim is not without merit. A great many of indie films earn those epithets. But I don’t think Squid is one of them. I don’t think so. Although this is indeed an indie film, it isn’t in any immediate danger of being considered darling.

This movie is decidedly a character study, and both Daniels and Linney are two of my fave character actors. They tend to pop up in films that often place them in roles against type, whatever that may be. These types happen to be a couple who are so unhealthy for one other you cannot possibly pick a side. Unlike their kids.

Once upon a time in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in the mid-80’s…

There are some movies you can dislike, but not exactly hate. Something tells me that this is often a side-effect of a lot of indie films, especially comedy-dramas like Squid. They get wrapped up in their needs to be left of center in their execution that sometimes it just leaves a bad taste. I’m really diffident about Squid. I mean, it was a fine film. There was a lot more to love than hate. But still, there were these conventions in place that, although I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, seemed trite and frankly frustrating. Then again, some were plain as day.

The good first, and there is much of it. Daniel steals the show as Bernard, so full of himself, all his intellect just a suit of emotional armor that over the years has developed quite a few chinks. His pontificating on…well, everything is both hilarious and enervating. I think we’ve all known someone like Bernard in our lives (I know I have; it’s me). The kids are amazing actors too. Walt is trying so hard to imitate/please his father he comes across as subtly confused for the first two acts of the film. You don’t know if his whole personality is wrapped up in emulating his father or just placating his ego. And Frank is so oddly steely yet innocent you can’t really pity his young person for how he handles (or doesn’t handle) his family’s breakup. When you can’t pity a wide-eyed, adorable moppet, that’s good acting.

The performances are all cringe worthy, which makes them all the more relatable. This is a good thing. Really, I was wincing with almost every scene of the picture, tantalizingly aware of every nuance and pointed barb. Everything Bernard says made my eyes roll…or cringe. With Bernard, rarely has rationalizing sound so…so reasonable. And yet so cutting you want to smack him in the puss with a dead salmon.

A lot of the acting is done here with the eyes. Every member of the Berkman clan has a signature gaze that conveys their personalities very well. Bernard is remote, Joan is maudlin, Walt is indignant and Frank is…intoxicated. It’s like the four seasons, and this dynamic makes for an engaging series of purchases to hang on to. Walt’s pleading look especially. It’s a defiant front to anything that might put his father in a displeasing light, even if he sees it himself. His self-righteous and fragile fury is frustratingly simple to taste, and he justifies his attitude as a cracked mirrior image of Bernard. Walt takes several social liberties with the cloak of mock maturity. To put it plainly, the Berkman’s are not really Floyd fans.

And now the rougher stuff, and there is much of it. There is next to no chemistry at all between Bernard and Joan. Maybe this makes for an ideal portrait of divorce, but it’s overly antagonistic for cinema. You don’t really root for these two to get back together, but a part of you kind of wishes it. At least that’s the Hollywood conceit. This dynamic may or may not be considered brilliant by most audiences, but I found it a tad confusing. The film, to me, was more about the kids.

Speaking of Joan, I expected Linney to play more of a role here in Squid. Most of the time she seemed relegated to the side in favor of Daniels’ screen time. Again, maybe this was another metaphor; Bernard’s ego so inflated it pushed Joan out of the picture, figuratively and literally. If this were the case, a very clever metaphor. If not, maybe Daniels was counting lines. At any rate, Linney seemed wobbly enough to pitch over at any given moment. I guess she was the allegorical squid here.

The tennis/ping-pong as metaphor for the kids interacting with their quarreling parents is a not so subtle message. In fact it’s rather on the nose, and possibly insulting to less lenient filmgoers. This beat was hit upon time and time again, until the driving force was dried up, as well as a bunch of other bits here and there that were delivered a tad predictably. Also, on another hand (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) quite a few “ewww” moments in this movie I just didn’t expect. I’m not sure if there were done for graphic effect or just to set the audience off-kilter.

I don’t know if all the carps I’ve listed here either amount to great cinema storytelling or a ball of confusion. Maybe that’s what Baumbach was trying to convey, and how fragile relationships can be. Or maybe it’s another indie mindf*ck that one comes to expect with these kinds of films. On the whole, Squid was supremely acted at its core (which matters most in a character study), surrounded by a sticky coating of indie trappings not easily palatable by hipster or mainstream audiences alike.

Damned hipsters. Those cold, evil hipsters…

Rant Redux (2019)…

Nope. Got this one, too. Another lucky shot. Also, it seemed years ago when I got a little more specific in what made a movie mediocre or not according to the Standard it actually made sense. Heard that stuff’s called constructive criticism, and my 11th grade English teacher was right. Dang it.

The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: rent it. A very keen character study of divorce in revolt. That’s the best way I can describe Squid, and it’s a compliment.

Next Installment…

It’s the final revision of RIORI‘s first volume of posts, featuring Will Smith as “vampire” slayer in I Am Legend. After this chapters closes, we’ll get on to some new stuff.

You have been warned.


RIORI Redux: Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers” Revisited


The Players…

Bill Murray, Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton, with Jeffery Wright, Julie Delpy, Chloe Sevigny and Christopher McDonald.

The Story…

After being dumped by yet another girlfriend, serial bachelor Don figures simply he’ll be alone forever. It’s probably easier this way. But when an anonymous letter arrives one day and tells him he has a 19-year-old son out there, Don sets out on a cross-country journey to confront his past—and a few old flames in the process. Mom’s out there, too, you know.

The Rant (2013)

First off, I want to apologize for the last installment. It was hastily written under the influence of alcohol and hubris. Mostly alcohol. Also having one of your most fave rock n’ roll icons die of cancer would sour anyone’s day. If I were a professional, I would say that the last installment was very unprofessional. But I’m not, so I’ll simply say sorry for being a dickhead. Okay? Good.

Anyway, on with the show.

Relationships are hard. Believe me, I know. I’m in one. Sometimes I can recommend it. Other times, meh. But here’s a relationship that hopefully none of you will ever have. One with yourself. It’s ugly, and gets stale really fast. That being said, this movie did not clean up at the box office. Blame the director.

Jim Jarmusch has been long derided or complemented (depending on who you ask) as an indie darling. The long tracking shots. The signature fade out. The quirkiness. Jarmusch has never made any big coin from his films. His reputation almost precludes this. And I’m a fan of his work. Flowers is a pseudo art house film, not meant for all audiences despite how charming and unintentionally funny Murray is.

Not to mention that I’m a fan of Bill Murray, especially his “late period” stuff, when he hung up screwball for leading man as average Joe. If Murray here were anymore disconnected, his head would fall off. He is as wry as ever, lugging around that look on his face that screams befuddlement and self-absorption. Carrying that ridiculous bouquet of pink flowers (get it?) as his calling card, going door-to-door to all his exes, each one getting worse and worse than previous? It all but practically shouts “kick me.” And Bill is a delightful stooge with a bullseye taped to his ass. It’s really all an exercise in vanity as well as hopelessness. You never get a feeling of rooting for Don, and you don’t have to. He’s not likeable in any immediate way, but as I said before, it’s Murray, and he’s always charming.

Rounding out the cast is a flighty Sharon Stone, a vacant Frances Conroy, an aloof Jessica Lange and an outright hostile Tilda Swinton (whom I couldn’t even recognize at first glance). It’s as if each woman represents a chapter in Don’s life of bad breakups and past mistakes. In fact, that’s exactly what it is. No hidden subtext there. As a tonic, Jeffery Wright is hilarious as Don’s “life coach” and guide on his journey of self-discovery and madness. I don’t know what accent that is he’s using, but it’s oddly appropriate.

This whole movie has a surrealist Wes Anderson kinda feeling, maybe because of Murray. Little touches here and there painting different flavors of bizarre domesticity play out like a reel of Don’s history of crawling up his own ass. Maybe this film is about self-discovery. Maybe it’s a cautionary tale. Maybe it’s the oddest road trip movie ever filmed. I don’t know. What I’ve learned after watching Flowers is this: don’t chase down your past. What you may find is nothing more than yourself. That can be ugly.

Rant Redux (2019)…

Kinda like but not really the glib rant redux for David Fincher’s underrated Zodiac, I don’t have much to revise regarding Flowers. It helped the above draft was short and direct, as well as on point. Upon re-reading it however, another question about casting popped into my head. A seed was planted in my retread of What Just Happened? not that long ago. The question I had is thus: why do big stars choose smaller roles in even smaller films? Like with Happened, De Niro is a legacy actor and pairing him with Levinson (whose star, admittedly has dulled) felt a tad odd, if not angular. Despite the slow pace and overwrought storyline, De Niro was is fine shape and Levinson still had his subtle, nasty edge cutting a satire. Also despite Happened was released to little fanfare and even littler reception it did (to me) open up an inner dialogue. One between my cinematic sensibilities and what feeds that rot. It was more interesting than the movie, I figured.

Why do big stars opt for small roles with small directors? Wait. That’s not quite accurate. Jim Jarmusch is in the upper echelon of “indie” directors. Wes Anderson would not have a career without Jarmusch. Even though Jim is relegated to left of center, he’s known, revered and always engagingly weird. That’s his signature as much as his snowy pompadour. De Niro teaming with Levinson, in the final analysis, isn’t too far a cry. Bill Murray under the gentle, clutching wing of Jarmusch is a bit more than that.

Flowers is a dark rom-com, to be sure, and Jarmusch is not foreign to the bitter humor that drives his muse. He’s kinda like David Lynch with a sense of humor, except said humor stems from Andy Kaufmann’s “the joke’s on you” kinda humor. Whatever funny Jarmusch puts on the screen it can be as amusing as it is cringey. Flowers was no different, and in Murray Jim found his Bartelby, awash in doubt and blissful ignorance. If one considers it, Murray’s Don is an offshoot of his Bob Harris character in Lost In Translation five years earlier. The themes are similar: Bob is estranged from his wife, alone in a foreign land and desperate to reach out to someone. Scarlett Johannson got her breakout role (and only role worth the time of day if you’d ask me. Please, don’t) which was good, and Murray’s desperate Bob earned him an Oscar nod (which he was visibly profane when he didn’t win. Bill, it just doesn’t matter).

Flowers is a spiritual cousin, but unlike Bob, Don is Don. Murray is Murray, lovable hangdog in all its glory. While Coppola did admirable work coaxing conflicted drama from Murray in Lost, Jarmusch just let Murray wander. It worked quite well, perhaps better than in Lost. And I think that’s it, why big stars tackle small projects. De Niro’s dyed-in-wool style is intense, bleak, loudmouthed and darkly funny. Having aforementioned hangdog is well out of his wheelhouse, which is why I think Method actors take smaller roles. It could be to stretch their range, to try something weird that Big Hollywood would deem “unprofitable,” or just to have a little fun and f*ck around some. Getting off the radar allows a lot of stretching out and dusting off shoulders, Kayne-style.

Yeah, so that’s my hypothesis. Big stars opt for “small” roles in “small” films so to flex their thespian muscles as well as decompress. Toss around the medicine ball before bench pressing again. Both Flowers and Happened are good illustrations of that practice, I feel. Makes for better roles afterwards, I hope.

De Niro’s next role after HappenedRighteous Kill. Well…

Murray’s next role after Flowers: Garfield: A Tale Of Two Kitties. Umm…

It’s just a theory, after all.

The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: rent it. Again, Jarmusch’s films are decidedly not for everyone, especially those who have short attention spans. And Murray not being outwardly funny is also an acquired taste. Still, big names doing little things well stand for a lot these days. Consider the midget mathematician: it’s the little things that count.

I regret nothing much.

Next Installment…

We look through A Scanner Darkly once more and consider what the heck Richard Linklater was getting into.


RIORI Redux: David O Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” Revisited


The Players…

Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver and Chris Tucker, with Johnny Ortiz, Julia Stiles and Shea Wigham.

The Story…

After a stint in a psychiatric hospital, bipolar Pat has no choice but to move back in with his Philadelphia Eagles-obsessed family. While he tries in vain to reconcile with his estranged wife, Pat meets Tiffany who’s just as unstable as he is. Like attracts like and all that. Tiffany hears Pat’s plight and offers him a deal: she’ll get in touch with his wife of him if he’ll do her a favor. Pat’ll do anything to fix his marriage, but wait…

Swing dancing? Really?

The Rant (2013)

This may be my most personal review to date. Bear with me.

Two things before I get started. The first is practical. For the previous eight installments, I have based these reviews on the principle of “lack of box office mojo either/or of dubious reputation.” From now on, I shall refer to this criterion simply as “The Standard.” It’ll save time, and for those who need an explanation, please read my homepage. Don’t forget to Like it.

The second thing is trying to explain away how an Oscar-winning film like Silver Linings Playbook meets The Standard. I mean, it cleaned up at the box office. It earned several accolades. The star of the freakin’ Hangover films got an Oscar nod, before God. How does this movie meet the criteria?

The subject matter. A lot of folks who saw the film (at least folks I met) claimed that although the movie was good, Cooper’s acting was overreaching. His manic delivery was exactly the stuff of the Method, and I guess current audiences find that old hat. It works, yes, but these days people with a vestigial attention span demand the shiny. It’s still entertaining though, even if wide of the mark. Then again, what do the majority of filmgoers know what it’s like to endure a manic episode? Right.

Mental illness has long been a favorite well for Hollywood to dip from. Whether it’s Ordinary People for survivor’s guilt, The Deer Hunter for PTSD or The Silence Of The Lambs for sociopathy, crazy sells well at the ticket taker. The stuff’s a guilty pleasure for the gentry. It’s like the car wreck on the highway. You just gotta look—be witness to the wreck and ruin—and at the near back of your mind thank your lucky stars that that ain’t you. Being in the presence of an individual suffering from mental illness, be it depression, bipolar disorder, even outright psychosis is akin to the car wreck scenario. Sure, you’ll sneak a peek, but you’ll then recoil and be glad to not get any of it on you. It’s sort of a malign guilty pleasure for most.

Most well-healed folks figure they don’t ever have to worry about the crazy label. Life is normal for them, or for whatever passes for normal. Yet there are thousands of people out there who have to deal with the misfiring spark plugs upstairs every waking moment, yet still have to maintain a life. They don’t necessarily suffer in silence, but feel silenced all the same, especially against all those stares. Unless such sh*t ends up on the cover of People—and Heaven forbid Kim and Kanye’s spawn grow up to suffer from an eating disorder—then it’s in the public interest. Following that lead, how’s that for a dubious reputation?

As I was saying, Playbook made some waves with its depiction of bipolar disorder suffered by the lead Cooper. From personal experience, I say its depiction was straight on. This may get a little too personal, even for a blog, but I don’t really care. Others, I have found, have posted far more intimate and nuttier stuff than I would ever regard as appropriate. You ever truly look deeply at some of these profile and/or cover pictures? I mean, c’mon.

I suffer from bipolar disorder. Don’t laugh; I’m serious. I have a constant, intrusive internal monologue, often puking out into an external one. There’s the racing thoughts. The low-level paranoia. The occasional raging. The often crushing depression. It’s all there everyday for me, America, and for thousands of others, too. Like Pat, only therapy and meds make life work, and only in a wobbly way at that. It’s tough. And surprisingly enough, Cooper earned an Oscar nod for his portrayal. Yeah, best actor and alla dat.

Why should I say surprisingly? C’mon, this guy made a fortune portraying a guy slogged off on roofies and/or booze for three films for f*ck’s sake. What the hell business does he have starring in an Oscar-nominated film?

Because he sold it. Because he earned it. Because he got it right.

Playbook was a smart, humorous and at times intense movie. A hard combo to work with. According to the dailies, it took director Russell 20 rewrites over five years to get the film just right. Good Lord. It worked though.

Playbook is a mass character study, so we’re gonna talk about our cast. A lot. First, Bradley Cooper really surprised me, just as much as most other critics were (who, unlike yours truly, actually get paid to do this sh*t). His depiction of bipolar disorder was spot f*cking on. The raging, the paranoia, the endless hang-ups. The label of being f*cking nuts. All there. As if to accentuate Pat’s struggles, it rather hurt when in the film the local law came to harass and/or bully poor Pat over the head about his restraining order. Sometimes it felt for just him it being out in public was enough for a drubbing. Car wreck culture and all. Ugh. Even if your brain is firing on all cylinders, it’s hard to watch. It’s also a great method employing “show, don’t tell,” and with a character study, you gotta show a lot of face time.

Something else key was apparent that I often bitch about for lack of in these posts: good pacing. Nothing in Playbook felt rushed. The story folded out as easily as a box of Kleenex, minus the lint. Two-plus hours stretched gracefully into a good evening’s entertainment. Face it, when you’re spending your free time on a film heavy on mental illness it better flow smoothly. Hell, that’s all I (or anyone else) should ask for.

In addition to the excellent pacing, of course the acting was great. There were no minor characters in the film. I know that follows the old saw of there being no small parts, but with Playbook each role was crucial in mirroring Pat’s new life post-hospitalization. A lot of films of this nature have roles that drop off the map halfway through the feature. Not here. “Lesser” roles like Ronnie and his patient therapist Dr. Patel offered insight and warmth (not necessarily sympathy) to Pat’s struggles. It’s a contained circle, one you get comfortable with as it creates a real sense of closure as the film winds down.

Other touches work well to reflect Pat’s picking up the pieces. The choice of music for instance (a pet cinematic enhancement of mine) was exceptional. Led Zep makes for the ideal soundtrack for a mental meltdown. And if your heart doesn’t crack a little for the sequence accompanied by Bob Dylan’s and Johnny Cash’s duet of “Girl From the North Country,” you have no soul (it’s from Nashville Skyline by the way. Go buy the damned album).

Considering the rest of the noteworthy cast, Chris Tucker is a stitch, but not in his mouthy Rush Hour style. He’s the lingering vestige of the sh*t Pat had to deal with and suck up to in Baltimore. He keeps popping up in Pat’s life on the outside not as the Magic Negro, but perhaps as a reminder as to what he was trying to leave behind, despite the fact it’s still stuck in his BP rattled head. He also ends up teaching Pat all about groove. This is important. Delightfully so.

DeNiro was also nominated for an Oscar in this one. It’s the first worthwhile role he’s played in along time, and for his limited screen time, Russell brings out the best in him. Although it takes several scenes, it becomes easy to understand why he got the nod. He’s brusque, he’s hammy, he’s f*cking petulant. He may have inadvertently contributed to Pat’s undoing, him being all superstitious and OCD. Always gambling. He took a gamble on Pat and ostensibly lost. Many times. Bob does lot of pure acting with just his scowly yet puppy dog jowls of his. Haven’t seen that since Casino. I could go on, but it would ruin the sub-plot.

Oddly, Weaver got an Oscar nomination too, although at first it’s hard to figure why. She doesn’t have many lines, and her screen time seems limited to only when Pat and/or his dad are roiling in their own psychological juices. However, she also seems to be the only one who is pointedly aware and truly sympathetic to what Pat has gone and still is going through. Pat’s her son after all. Understanding is crucial in the healing process, and you need that kind of presence to make the story have a tonic to the continuous conflict. In that light, Weaver is in the Goldilocks zone.

And lastly, Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany. Ah, her. She won the Oscar, you know. Her Tiffany is nuts, just stark-raving oozing kooky nuts. But just to watch her…I’ll be crude. No I won’t. You can be crude. But hell, she can act, all fiery without chewing scenery and hold her own as if she wrote the script. She has confidence and a strong presence that permeates every scene she’s in, eclipsing star Cooper at times. Simultaneously, she has a particular vulnerability that, if employed in other films, may come across as mawkish. Here it generates a feeling not exactly of compassion, but one more of relatability despite the extraordinary circumstances handed to her. And she can dance. And run at a good clip, too. And oddly enough, heh-heh, so can Pat, just don’t take her to a diner on a first date. You just gotta see it to get it.

I have next to no carps with this movie. Save a Hollywood ending, Playbook was truly compassionate in its execution and acting. Is it because I’m sympathetic? Well, yeah. But only because here’s a film that depicts a hairy subject 90% correct. The remaining 10% is courtesy of Tinsel Town, cuz sumpin’s gotta sell tickets. The story is the car-wreck scenario, but tempered with just enough sugar with the urine that an audience can feel empathy rather than unease or scorn towards the psychologically challenged. It’s simply a cagey nevertheless excellently staged film

Yeah, excellently staged. Smart dialogue. Solid acting. Hall rented. Orchestra engaged. Now it’s time to see if you can dance.

If only somebody had told Lawrence to mind the step.

Rant Redux (2019)…

Okay, I owe you all an apology—now and future ones also—for trying the pull the wool here over Playbook. I had established The Standard as, well, a standard for all movies skewered here at RIORI as to how and why they got here under my hot little, petulant microscope. To review for the jillionth time, any movie—supposedly “mediocre”—that stumbles onto this blog meets a specific criteria to rush this frat: been made/released between 2000 to now, had disappointing box office returns, received mixed reviews and therefore generated perhaps unwarranted notoriety based on said wobbly criticism, and/or (the biggie); Suffered a general lack of “box office mojo.”

Playbook had none of that. It was well received, a box office success, was nominated for and earned a few awards and in turn had some mojo; Playbook escalated middling character actors Cooper and Lawrence into the upper echelon of Tinsel Town Treatment. Lawrence got her Oscar, and later Cooper got to voice a not-raccoon with a hair trigger and score Lady Gaga. One outta three ain’t bad…I guess (and talk about a bad romance).

*back to the hurling bottles thing*

It was years ago, and I had so many movie opinions I needed to smear, angry-monkey-fecal-like-sling at my adoring non-audience. I feel into a trap that virtually all FaceBook denizens do: regard my opinion as gospel. And by the dictionary, I also felt that my feelings were honrdt and implicitly received as truth.

Yeah. Nope. And as for myopic ego…well, all of you entrenched in social media have one, too. I apologize and I don’t. I apologize for lying and not following my own rules but not since most of us online do just that as gospel. And no, I did not weep at Grumpy Cat’s death. I was too busy being concerned about paying my bills and not regarding non-white people south of Texas as potential ISIS recruits.

*bonk. Kelly Clarkson!*

To conclude, I misused my blog as soapbox to encourage folks to see a film they had already seen, enjoyed and applauded when Lawrence stumbled onto the stage. My bad. It was drunk and I was late. I apologize for the hoodwink, and apologizing as ugly naked as this is in the blogosphere is catch-as-catch-can (BTW; the origin of that term stems from old school wrestling, namely repel your opponents with your hands any way to wear him down. You’re welcome).

Wait. There is one more thing: although the review of this offbeat character study was accurate, one observation was a little off. That whole bit about mental illness being sexy money in Hollywood? True, but like dinner at the local, reliable, cheap-o, red sauce pizza Italian joint it’s all about the presentation, not the dish.

I wasn’t kidding when I explained that I have bipolar disorder, and like other select films that interpret mental illness accurately and in an enlightening way, you gotta go pretty afar from the norm to get my attention about filming stories surrounding such touchy stuff. A lot of on screen mental ills are depicted by ciphers who a destructive to their costars as Snidely Whiplash pestering Penelope Pitstop (how’s that for dating me?); drab tragic figures that are simultaneously fragile and volatile. Or worse, just plain nuts and that’s all. I brought up my condition in the original view because the film got experiencing the disease more or less correct and in a palpable way. Unlike another film frisked here, The Informant!, where our protagonist has bipolar and his unchecked disease leads to irrational behavior and acts that are his undoing. I didn’t care for it much, mostly due to star Matt Damon’s delivery of the character and his issues. I know the flick was supposed to be satirical; I shouldn’t’ve had to watch the thing through the fingers of a terminal facepalm.

I liked the sympathetic eye cast on Pat. Yes, he is ill. Yes, he committed a violent crime. And yes, he’s gonna struggle the rest of his days keeping emotions in check at an arm’s length from his family who doesn’t exactly “get” what Pat’s all about. In other words, he’s not to be pitied, nor never shown that way. He’s just trying to keep his sh*t together. That’s me everyday. Hell, that’s you everyday, trying to keep your cards shuffled and the lumps out of your gravy. That reliability Cooper summoned up made the bipolar less of a plot point and more a of character trait. Not flaw, as most films of this ilk, even good ones (EG: Rain Man, The Best Years Of Our Lives, Good Will Hunting et al) often portray. Pat’s bipolar is now a fact of life due to screwy mixes in his brain cocktail. Yeah, he’s messed up. How he delivers the goods is as if, “Yep. You too?” Of course.

I forced my folks to watch Playbook with me to offer insight into how I feel everyday. They liked it a lot.

They also did not “get it.”

That’s what you get for leading people along, I tell ya.

The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: rent it. Silver Linings Playbook is a very good movie that had absolutely no business roaming around RIORI’s turf. I apologize again. I have Standards, after all.

Next Installment…

It’s auspicious to ask What Just Happened? revisiting this DeNiro diamond in the rough. Can one go too far off the map into indie territory and still regard a movie as mediocre?


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 80: Ridley Scott’s “Matchstick Men” (2003)

The Players…

Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman, Bruce Altman and Bruce McGill, with Sheila Kelley and Beth Grant.

The Story…

Roy’s a professional con man struggling with three distinct issues. One, well being a con man. Two, rampant OCD. And three, meeting the daughter he never knew he had.

Poor Roy inadvertently jeopardizes his tightly organized and artificially controlled life when the very not artificial concept of fatherhood chafes his orderly scamming lifestyle. Beyond it all, man’s got a right to earn a living, whatever that is, be it against a Nabokov book waiting to happen or not.

Wait! What? Huh?

*washes hands with vigor*

The Rant…

My first intro to Ridley Scott was at a precocious and waaaaay too f*cking young age.

It was the early-80s. VCRs were finally affordable to middle class schlubs like my Dad. We got a quality Maganox VHS unit at an 80s steal around $700. Thing was worth more, reliable, durable and even survived well into the DVD age. Sure, we had to clean the soot out of its chimney once every month to maintain picture clarity, but this slab could stop an assassin’s bullet and still be able to set the timer for that week’s SNL installment. We didn’t need an app for that.

Video rentals were like mushrooms back then: sprouting up everywhere in places you were surprised to find them. Sure, there were a few chains like Blockbuster, Hollywood. But also local mom-and-pop movie dealers, the local libraries, even supermarkets before God. My father got a membership with local mom and pop (who also sold bagels if my memory serves, which it doesn’t). Friday evening came and he, me and sometimes my screechy sisters would wander in and scope out a few tapes for the weekend. My father being a shrewd customer—one who had access to a phone—would be one to literally call it in. Do you have this movie? You do? Could you please hold it for me? Be your best friend. Thanks. See you later. Hey, do you have any cinnamon raisins left?

Back to Scott. And the worst night of my pre-pubescent life.

It was of course a Friday night. Late night. Mom and the screechies cacked out hours ago. Even at age 10 I had the nite owl blood in me. Insomniac. Still am; started writing this week’s screed at 12.30 AM. But it’s Friday and I’m off work tomorrow, so yay me.

Didn’t have a store to mind when I was 10, and on those Fridays back in the day my Dad made his prerequisite calls to the Bagelsmith to see what was fresh and ready for pick-up. He would roll out around 6-ish and come back a half-hour later with a pair of tapes. If the kids didn’t come along for the ride-and-pick we were not supposed to. My father’s selections were his and his alone. Wonder where I learned about insomnia and the power of holding the remote.

I got curious, of course.

A few times Dad let me squat down in the wee hours to watch what he was watching. At 10 I was into The Karate Kid, Star Blazers and Chilean snuff films (kidding. Discovered Star Blazers when I was 8). It was mostly aboveboard stuff. Dad was Dad. He was older. He could rent PG-13 movies with impunity. The R-rated stuff was trace element. My father was a pretty liberal guy when it came to me joining him for his late night viewing frenzy. If a movie was rated R he followed the rule to the rote: Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Namely, he was over 17, I wasn’t. He was there as the guardian with the membership card and I found my snot-nosed self being “accompanied” by him into the Friday night cinematic chop shop. To his credit he always assured me that if what were watching turned out to be too scary/violent/sexy/redolent of poppy seeds we could turn it off. Sounded like a challenge. My father challenged me to Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, The Graduate and Gene Hackman in general. Sweep the leg, Johnny.

This was I how I was unravelled by Ridley Scott. When I was 10 I could give the barest rodent scintilla about who directed a movie so long as that movie was cool. The names Scorsese, Kurosawa, Spielberg and Scott were all but pidgin to me. I liked sci-fi, comedies and sci-fi comedies (bless you, Spaceballs). What Dad had cued up on the capstans made me stand at attention that there was an almost monolithic man/woman behind the cameras demanding where the story would go. The director. And the first director’s name I ever learned was Ridley Scott. By now you’re prob’ scratching yer scalp wondering, “Whatever Ridley Scott movie could lobotomize a 10 year old so?” If Dad were present and it was late, then it must have been rated R. And since you were under 17 and required an accompanying parent or adult guardian, Dad understood his responsibility and assessed that I may have been hip to this proviso, his late night rental. You lucky, insomniac scamp, you.

So if this gets too scary, here’s my arm. Squeeze if you have to.


It was Alien. I was 10. He let me watch Alien. Did I mention I was 10? I “slept” post-viewing with my bedroom light burning until morning. My Mom poked her head in the door early the following Saturday morning and asked a “sleeping” me why the light was on all night. Then:

“Have you been up all night?”



“…Dad showed me a scary movie.”

She rolled her eyes. “Better go talk to him.”

“I liked it, but…”

It must’ve been around 10 AM. “Go get some sleep.” And echoing down the hall came: “Oh, honey!”

The image of a freaked out Sigourney Weaver burned in my head. I could relate with that skittish, everything may fall apart at the last minute feeling. Remember the film’s final act? Uh, yeah. I wasn’t well until Sunday night when school was looming anew. Boy, did I have a movie to tell my friends about. And said nothing.

The movie stunned me so with both its claustrophobia as well as grotesquerie—and with me being “man enough” to watch it—I kept Alien to myself. It scared me sh*tless, and I survived it, well below the 17-year old water line. Felt like a right of passage, watching a serious R-rated movie intact. And beyond enduring the visceral viewing, I enjoyed it. To this day Alien is my favorite scary movie (and I don’t even like scary movies, at least not the exhibitionist kind. I demand good acting, decent pacing and an acceptable plot, like the original cuts of The Haunting or Halloween), and I relish any opportunity to punish the Alien-uninitiated for a virgin viewing. My stepkid found it “okay.” She liked Aliens better, and voiced so. Philistine. She was thirteen at the time. I earned my stripes at 10, so there.

Besides Alien scaring the sleep out of me, it injected a need to figure out what the hell did a movie do to make me take notice. Sure, I always got some entertainment from watching movies, mostly the age appropriate, non-arm clinging kind. At the then time I think my fave film was the original Ghostbusters (a sucker for Bill Murray ever since I saw Meatballs. Saw it at summer camp. Where else?). Paranormal comedy grabbed me as a kid, and taught me to not cross the streams. Heard it was bad. I guess that fave flick planted an embryo as to how did this awesome movie happen?

But Ghostbusters didn’t entrance me, not like Scott’s sophomore effort did. I was still 10, remember? A fresh Lego kit held my attention more. I knew how to put those little, plastic bricks together to create a satisfying whole. The instruction manuals helped. Was there an instruction manual out there to instruct how a cool movie tickled my fancies?

Fast forward…

I don’t believe in “auteur theory,” where the director of a movie is claimed to be the “author” of the film. If that were the case there’d be no closing credits. Even the average movie-goer is sharp enough to know the director may get the biggest slice, but there are also other folks billed as actors, writers, producers, caterers, etc that made a major contribution to the final product that you eventually get to hem and haw and keep the light on all night for. In a fair and just cinematic world (with an often exception to Tarantino, Kubrick and Hitchcock), a film’s opening credits would read directed by/written by/produced by in the same frame.


Whoever, right? Didn’t know the why before Alien. After watching it was like tossing those old ELO albums out the window after hearing the first Ramones album. A punch to the gut. Who was behind this awesome/scary/dad arm-clinging movie?

Ridley Scott. The first director after Spielberg that demanded of a young me what a director/”auteur” did to place an indelible stamp on my freaked out, insomniac forehead, watching the lazy ceiling fan slowly swirling above a bare light bulb hoping beyond hope that its glare would keep any slobbering xenomorph from creeping out of the closet and ripping my ribs into jello. Hearing my mother’s scolding meant it worked.

Fast forward a year, maybe two. A buddy of mine who was keen to sci-fi as I was got hip to some cultish movie. Caught a snippet of it on HBO, a free weekend. Remember those? The snippet proper was a caution about the film containing graphic violence. I wasn’t hip to the phrase “graphic violence,” but it sounds devilishly good to me. My friend told me it was on heavy rotation on HBO then. I didn’t have premium cable at my house; his den was the golden gate, decades before parental controls.

At the right time, we nipped the scene where Priss—

“What are you two watching?!?”

We switched the proper Atari toggle.

In harmony, a la Bosom Buddies: “Nothing.”

Blade Runner. Also not healthy for 10-year old boys. Dangerous fun. A mind warp of a movie. Starred Han Solo, so there.

So that’s what it’s all about. A signature, a statement, a reason to deny sleep. Took me decades to decode that whole wad. I wasn’t some amateur film critic at 10; barely one at 40. But across the decades being drawn to certain movies, defying the Kobra Kai, I think I got it: there are no auteurs, just directors with a grip. Like on my dad’s arm.

Ridley Scott taught me about signature, an aesthetic. Us movie watchers are well aware if not forewarned by a certain director’s style, muse, statement, motive. Spielberg has his. So does Scorsese. As do Carpenter. So did Kurosawa, Ford, Hill, Ashby, Hitch, Kubrick. Including the guys on this plane: Weir, Lynch, Nolan, Argento, (sigh) and Bay. Style. Eventually you wait on baited breath for any of the above icons to unbridle their freshest horse. You know what arm to cling on.

But like with The Color Purple, The Last Temptation Of Christ, Dr Strangelove, The Quiet Man, Big Trouble In Little China, Rear Window, High And Low, The Last Detail….and Matchstick Men, a signature director sometimes needs a left turn to remind us that they are human. Directors are not infallible. Sometimes they take on projects that might be left of center, against their grain. Spielberg had his 1941. Carpenter has his Prince Of Darkness. Kurosawa had his Ikiru. And Scott had his Matchstick Men.

All passable movie entertainment, but also strain against the directors’ trademark style. It’s good to challenge yourself as a director, tackling a project that may or may not be their usual flavor. Often it’s a good thing. Spielberg directing The Color Purple, a Jewish director exploring racism and same sex romance. Nolan tackling a comic book icon like Batman and making a psycho-thriller rather than Donner’s Superman sparkle. And Scott helming a goofy crime caper, rather than his usual epic-style Blade Runner. Or even Gladiator.

After viewing Matchstick Men something told me that Scott got to grabbing at our arm. So come, take my hand. Just take off your shoes before you lay foot on the carpet…

Roy Waller (Cage) is a criminal. A con artist, scamming innocents out of their hard earned cash so to better his business acumen. He’s also a neurotic mess. OCD. Anxiety ridden. Maybe a guilty conscious at work? Whatever. There’s always a job to get done. And therein lies a new problem. Good Lord.

Roy’s partner in crime Frank (Rockwell) is tired of the small scams. Cheating old ladies out of their insurance money? Small potatoes. Frank wants a big mark, namely in the form of a high roller (McGill), a treacherous duck to be sure. But Roy is not so sure, especially since that letter dropped out of the mail slot onto his beloved carpet.

The anonymous letter claims that Roy has a child. A teenaged daughter named Angela (Lohman) who wishes to know him. Gulp. A spanner in his nefarious works.

Roy’s therapist (Altman) encourages him to reach out. He suggests it might be a healthy change, engaging with someone who won’t outright contribute to his anxious life of crime.

Roy reluctantly concedes. He meets Angela after school one day and puts on his best new dad face, tics and twitches in full force. He discovers she’s a pleasant, well-adjusted teenaged girl who always wanted to meet her estranged dad. Angela is disarming, and her connecting to Roy’s life of angst mellows him somewhat. Whew.

As way leads on to fatherly way, Roy ‘fesses up and informs Angela of his chosen profession. She’s intrigued. To his surprise, Angela wants in on the action. Roy’s unsure. Frank’s really unsure; Angela’s sticky fingers might muddy the waters, distracting Roy further from his big scam, as well as some forward motion.

No matter. The dice are cast. Roy opts for some responsibility. Angela takes to the con like a duck to water. Frank flails his hands in frustration.

Again, no matter. Roy’s carpet needed a shampoo anyway…

Like I mentioned, Ridley Scott’s style operates on an epic level. Even the simplest of his films (like this one) approach a grand scope. Unlike Alien (still epic, yet deceptively simple), Matchstick Men is a diversion. Here his big idea concept is intact, but married to an overtly simple story. And he keeps it that way, to his delight.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Not necessarily.

Recall the “left turn” notion about how some directors with their signature often attempt to shed their audience? Men is one of those kind of films. Outright, what business does the director of AlienGladiator and Kingdom Of Heaven have fiddling around with some crime caper? Guess he felt like he needed a cinematic colonic. A directorial equivalent of Dylan’s Self Portrait album. Maybe he just liked the script. Or maybe wry comedy was something he felt like dabbling in. Or maybe for him just cut loose and have some fun.

And Men is fun. Funny, rather. Offbeat. Not the flavor in Columbus. Definite lo-fi aesthetic as far as Scott’s work goes. It’s a nice change, albeit incongruent with the guy’s signature oeuvre. It kinda shows. Again, not really a bad thing. But it sure plays out as odd.

Men is pretty light-hearted for Scott, relatively speaking. One, it’s a comedy. Don’t recall anytime him attempting this. Granted, it’s kind of a black comedy, and Scott is no stranger to being dark. But there’s an uncharacteristic sunny side to this offbeat caper (and “offbeat” is nearly verboten in Scott’s catalogue). And I’m gonna use the term “offbeat” a lot here. Fair warning.

That being said, Men is shot with the exactitude Scott always employs, like the cheap scalpel to the high school fetal pig autopsy. His high concept vision of cinema verité is intact. His characters are mismatched chess pieces. The story is straightforward enough—

*tires screeching to a halt*

Therein lies the trouble. It’s been relayed that Scott is a director of big concepts. Men is anything but. It’s straightforward, almost formulaic. Doesn’t really marry well with the director’s accepted raison d’etre. Simply put, Scott directing a flick like Men don’t make much sense. Still, he did a good job being in the shallow end of the pool.

I think most of the heavy lifting in this featherweight caper rests on the cast. They’re more of a distraction than an asset to moving the story along. And the story—as I noted—is quite simple and straightforward. We’ve seen crime capers like this before. Men swings evenly between Paper Moon and unevenly towards The Professional. But like with those movies, it’s the cast that somewhat strains in rising above The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, the ur-crime caper. So then, let’s dismantle Men‘s rogues gallery, shall we?

First and foremost Cage’s bread and butter is weird roles. We ain’t talkin’ Raising Arizona or Wild At Heart weird here. His Roy however seems custom made to tickle his muse. Cage is also well-known for his deft physical comedy chops. How’s it look here painted with OCD? Right. Ugly funny. The hook here is Roy’s mania, not the con game that soaks the plot. Roy’s OCD is played as comic, but ultimately is sad and scary. He’s supposed to be the guy we get behind? It’s a key plot device overall, but beneath Scott and no less tragic. We ain’t talking Maximus tragic, but it’s enough to allow us sympathy for our twitchy protag. Roy’s OCD may be played as comic, but ultimately it’s sad and scary. Recall the hook. He’s supposed to be the guy we get behind? Good plot device done well, but beneath Scott’s skills. No less tragic, though.

Now being a sudden dad is a responsibility you can’t con. Trust me, I know. The con makes Roy approach stable, making up sh*t. It’s reality that’s his downfall. That being said, Lohman has an honest taste for her role as Angela (and for the life of me I can’t shake the hand of the casting director enough. How did they make a twentysomething successfully come off as a 16-year old high school skater chick? I credit strategic bandages and hair flairs). Funny without being cute or openly naive. If you pay close attention through Angela Roy isn’t really the “hero.” Lohman carries the second and third acts. Roy’s just eyewash. Very funny eyewash, but the con nonetheless. Makes for a jovial, R-rated Brady Bunch feel. That being said, neurotic Cage and loose cannon Lohman paired against each other have a genuine chemistry. Yep. Thank or blame Scott going out on his demented, xenomorph-less shingle.

Men is Elmore Leonard on Xanax. It’s kinda madcap. Another divergence for Scott, and he’s faring well here. The plot is bone simple. You might’ve seen this movie before. I know I have. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. The Fisher King. The original Rush Hour. Mutant buddy movies. Barring Rockwell as Cage’s confidant, Men is a warped buddy movie all the way. But that’s a conceit. Despite the odd mixture of character play, this was relatively straightforward. You can see where this is going a light-year away, with a few twists to keep your attention. I figure this movie floundered because it was too “not Scott” to attract the usual fans. That and the poor press. So much for Ridley stretching himself short.

A coda: it’s in the final act where Scott’s edge finally surfaces. It’s all the better for it, annulling the first two derivative acts of cat, mouse and vacuum. It’s also a shame that Men is merely a curiosity for both Scott and his audience. Again, unsure if Scott needed some diversion from his stock-in-trade epic style. Although uncomfortable, Men has its merits. It’s akin to Bob Dylan’s Street Legal album. Most musicians would kill for this best stuff. But it’s Scott here. Playing it safe? Not really. Entertaining some trifle? Sure, but such a thing is not where Scott should tread. Oh well.

Needless to say, Men didn’t keep me up all night, fan swirling in agony. Scratching my head? Somewhat. It was okay, but for lacking.

What I’m driving at is I opined for tasteful violence paired with chuckles. But this wasn’t a Tarantino flick. It was a Ridley Scott flick with a diluted epic feel.

Screw it. This was hardly epic. Or clever. Or beyond rote.

“Sometimes the cold makes the blade stick.”

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it, if only for another side of Scott you’ve never seen. I hope I never see it again. Twitch.

Stray Observations…

  • “One, two, three.”
  • Ever wonder how crazy people conduct their outwardly “normal” lives? You found this blog, didn’t you?
  • Rockwell is not an actor. He is a voice.
  • “That was a good day!”
  • I feel for poor Roy. I really do. I just didn’t want to be felt. Or burlap either.
  • Cage has been balding for, like, 20 years now.
  • “I’m in antiques.”
  • She turned the key three times.
  • The art of the dry swallow personified.
  • Altman is a passive deus ex machina. That’ll be $125 please.
  • “Your turn.”
  • Like the soundtrack. Very Rat Pack-esque.
  • It’s odd. Cage’s twitchiness never really becomes distracting. It’s like a character unto itself. Think Mr Hyde.
  • For all of his roles has Rockwell ever combed his hair?
  • “Pygmies.”
  • “You’re not a bad guy. You’re just not a very good one.” Ouch.
  • Lohman fake cries really well.
  • “You didn’t take yer pills, didja?”

Next Installment…

Giving sanction to an alien en route to a sci-fi convention? That’s like an ironic spin on robbing Peter to pay Paul.

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 79: John Carney’s “Once” (2007)

The Players…

Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová, Bill Hodnett, Danuse Ktrestova and Geoff Minogue, with Gerry Hendrick, Alastair Foley and Hugh Welsh.

The Story…

It could’ve only been happenstance.

One day an Irish street musician meets a kind Czech ex-pat girl with an ear for music. She likes his songs, and a  conversation is struck regarding her wish to be a musician herself. To play piano.

Our busker knows a few people and offers his hand as well as his company. She’s delighted by this chance, not to mention him being able to fix her busted vacuum.

Certain opportunities only come around…well, you know.

 The Rant…

As a wordsmith, and maybe not unlike you everyday speakers of English, I have a short list of words I love to speak and hear. C’mon, you all must, too. Think about it. Sometimes you hear a word or a sentence that tickles you, be it a silly joke, a quote from a fave movie or just someone who knows how to turn a phrase. Be honest. George Carlin once said that everything we share but never talk about is funny. In that vein, conversation isn’t much different. This isn’t a thing we often share on an intimate level, but then again it’s kind of like divulging to a stranger the magic of chicken-fried steak.

That’s a phrase I like: chicken-fried steak. First heard of the dish back when I was a pup and got to reading the homespun philosophies of Robert Fulghum. You know, the All I Ever Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten guy. He was the commencement speaker at my college graduation and was very keen in turning a phrase. Maybe more on that later.

Let’s get back to the smithy.

Yeah, so. Favorite words. Betcha you got a few yourselves. My list is kinda short so I won’t bore you. Long. I hope. Mine are merely terms that invite amongst fond memories, ideal ways to express my wants and needs, or just plain fun to say. Such terms or phrases as “lunch,” “under the aegis of,” “ostensibly,” “flash,” “stands to reason,” “libation,” and many more. But I said I’d keep it short. Could go on for days, under the aegis of free expression that blogging permits. Heh.

Here’s another choice word o’mine: busker. Learned what that curious term meant back in my high school salad days (another choice phrase. I’ll quit it soon) when I discovered the Beatles. Not a bad way to get literate, right?. I learned that in England, a “busker” is a street musician, trying to earn their bones as a legit artist. If not in some contract than with earnest singing and playing to a happy crowd. A few coppers in the guitar case doesn’t hurt neither. Heard that’s how John and Paul met George, his teenage self jamming in the street for the occasional schillings flipped into his case. So I’ve heard. I later found out things worked out well for the quiet George.

From the Fab Four I learned about the ur-busker, Lonnie Donegan, the skiffle king. For those out of the know, before the Beatles tackled the UK to the mat, skiffle was the pop music of the times. It was kind of a manic amalgam of punky folk paired with a strident delivery hell bent on speed and maximum volume. Skiffle was almost exclusively acoustic guitar driven and performed—where else?—in the streets. Such an unruly racket would never set foot on the stage at your local Brit dance hall. Down on the corner however? Talk to Sir Paul and the spirit of Lennon. Skiffle is how it started. Passersby tend to be a curious crowd.

However, the first time I heard “skiffle” (of a sort) from a “busker” (of sorts) was in college, well after the Beatles and Fulghum with his chicken-fried whatsit. It’s been mentioned here before I paid for cigarettes and barcrawling by way of playing barista at the local coffee house, a very hip job in the mid-90’s. Hell, I just liked coffee. And smokes. And coffee and smokes and beer in varying levels. I was yet another regular gadfly at the joint alternating between studying, getting wired and getting wired with friends over our studies well onto midnight. My regular status led me to having a job there. Just me getting reimbursed for the gallons of coffee I had consumed over many semesters, which was all right.

The cafe had an almost stereotypical boheme atmosphere. Patrons could not only pound down shots of espresso by the dekaliter, but also pore over Sartre that invited the inevitable philosophical arguments about bad faith and/or de Beauviour was his girlfriend or his rival. Or roll their own cigarettes and suck them down faster that Ginger Lynn on your local high school basketball team. Or again just essentially cram homework, wired out of your mind and maybe end up sitting shoulder to shoulder with the prof of the designated class who was just as wired as you were, dropping hints about key points in their next lecture. All that actually happened. Good times with insomnia.

All this and more, like letting the misfit cast of characters that actually served this circus molest the tape deck (remember, 90s) with all sorts of personal tastes of incongruent music, somewhere approaching acceptable to the wacky clientele’s ears or invite some kind of sonic trepanning. My sophomore year I was welcomed into the fold as a java jockey, and naturally I brought a small clutch of mixtapes to spice up the life into the lateness of the hour like my rogue’s gallery did. Our musical wanderings were seldom an issue (save the time a few of our Middle Eastern residents chafed at the Cure’s “Killing An Arab” came over the speakers. In hindsight, understandable).

The lot of them were mostly too into their cups of joe and Being And Nothingness to care, unless something came over the house speakers that busted up their reverie. Though the Cure’s squeaky meditation on what Camus was getting at with l’Etranger my choice of noise was The Style Council’s Cafe Blue album. The title alone made it seem relevant to our little hidey-hole. Nope. I soon learned that here was a place to cut one’s teeth on experiencing new music reflected by an audience, reactions good and not. Wasn’t exactly busking. More like Jack Black’s histrionics in High Fidelity. No wonder folks could get twitchy at times. Refill?

We were a quiet rowdy lot, us latte slingers. Always jacking tapes in with bands that meant something unique to us (and us only), tweaking the volume to barely above annoying and engaged in an embryonic version of file-sharing. I figured I had questionable tastes, more jagged than eclectic (I was the usually that got told to turn it down. Often). At the time I was big into old school UK punk and a lot of 80s indie rockers (eg: The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, early REM, etc) and the guests knew I was on duty before they came inside thanks to the speaker on the patio. I can almost hear the groans and rolling of the eyes.

So yeah, the cafe was kind of a jukebox. Like when you frequent your local watering hole; you immediately knew who was on the job courtesy of the sound system. An old bartender of recent was a Led Zep freak, so when I had a hankering a cold draft and stepped over the threshold to hear “Going To California” slipping from the speakers I knew I could safely expect a frosty pint waiting at my usual seat. I was often correct.

As correct as it was back in that coffee bar. You knew what you were in for before you were even inside, us buskers by proxy. My law student buddy loved ska and funk, so either The Toasters or Thievery Corporation were on heavy rotation. The very feminist but never admitting to it played a lot of Ani DiFranco (no surprise there). Another guy preferred odd, Eno-esque soundscapes. Threw Style Council to the floor, I tell ya. You almost never knew what you were gonna get, but not really.

Then there was the one girl, Rachel. I think that was her name. Surly, well built, whip-smart and quick with an eye roll. She was diminutive, which would explain the patent leather stack boots she always wore. That gave her presence, which may have been the point. That might’ve also explained why she dragged in her tapes of random eclecticism to punish the customers. Her soundtrack definitely said, “I’m here.”

I dug her sh*t. It was often a revelation. Me being the restless audiophile I took in what I’d take in. Rachel and I would often share shifts, and her being as cuddly as a cobra I let her run riot with the stereo. Didn’t want to f*ck up her chi. My patience was how I got exposed to the then-darling emo band Texas Is The Reason, debated the contributions of trip-hop folkie Beth Orton to some of the Chemical Brothers’ albums, and get razzed by my retro tastes. I never thought the Police were that retro.

Oh, and Rachel turned me onto Billy Bragg, the last busker that made good. Especially him.

I wandered in one night with Rachel womaning the register with her usual oddball selections winding around the capstans, warbling over the nightly, dutiful students, what with their tiny, empty cups of espresso and the pulling of the hair. What was with the pulling? Rachel’s selection. A f*cked up Cockney voice that wobbled like mid-60s Dylan with a shrill righteousness accompanied only by a poorly tuned electric guitar. That was it and that was all. The song that grabbed me was called “A New England.” She was playing it at 11. I looked around and was intrigued. That broken, strident guitar sound pulled me in. The pained, earnest voice grabbed me. Who was this guy?

“Billy Bragg,” Rachel said plaintively. You dolt.

I didn’t really know what a busker was back then. Now it’s a favourite word.

Bragg either created or at least spearheaded the “anti-folk” sub-genre of protest music for the 80s. Based on the UK punk aesthetic translated to the socially ineffectual Thatcher administration, what with its indifference to the plight of the workaday sub-middle class, Bragg picked up his axe and assumed the role to Britain what Dylan did for America 20 years prior. Namely, using finger-pointin’ music to scream the emperor is naked and the empire crumbling. Hell to the yeah.

Rachel’s selection got my ears a-twitching. 20 years on, I have all of Bragg’s albums. Why? Not because of what the man was singing, yearning. That was what he was, earnest. Still earnest, singing loud and proud. What else is a busker? On the streets, screaming what needs to be sung. Rachel’s playlist made me an instant acolyte, so I hit the Web and did my research. Hence George’s history, underage at the time to hook up with the Quarrymen, but they waited. Further down the rabbit hole was Lonnie, rapping in the back alleys of London informing John and Paul where to get. Aeons later to me with Billy and his pointed tones of demanding social change. I was a Dylan fan all along, so it wasn’t much of a leap.

That choice word: busker. A street musician, earning his keep by the kindness of often indifferent strangers. A few coppers to passively shut him up only to let his music get louder, hoping beyond hope that someone will listen.

Sometimes someone does. I mean, I did…

On a nowhere street in Dublin a going nowhere busker (Hansard) plays out his passion on his beater guitar, screaming the popular favourites. That’s during the day (while he shirks his lame job). Later in the evening he drops the popular favorites and barrages the neighbourhood with some intense originals, big enough to heal the lame and the halt.

His sundown singing attracts the attention of a meek florist (Irglová). She likes his singing and playing, and has been listening for a while. He’s flattered, not to mention attracted to this random girl’s attention. Of course it’s not all knits and gnats. Turns out this girl has been suffering the nuisance of a busted vacuum cleaner. Good thing the busker’s day job is working in his dad’s (Hodnett) vacuum repair shop, as well as living in his attic. Suffering for art and all.

Their chance encounter informs our guy that she’s a pianist, amateur not unlike him. Another music enthusiast. With his meager “connections,” our man takes her to his favourite music store, where they get to duet together on the baby grand for her and his beater guitar for him. A friendship is struck and she encourages him to quit the streets and find a studio.

He’s reluctant. It’s one thing to be playing anonymous in a crowd. A single? That precludes recording songs for strangers. No immediate audience to inspire him. She says that’s all rot; he’s talented, and deserves an opportunity to widen his audience, get his music out there.

But that would entail him making the leap over to London, leaving his nest. It’s scary, but if he wants to follow his muse Dublin doesn’t seem the place to be.

Especially not its street corners…

Oh yeah. The chicken-fried steak thing.

Never heard of the dish before Fulghum (and have yet to find place that serves it. Not enough truck stops around where I’m from, I guess). He tells of his wanderings for the ultimate chicken-friend steak experience, bouncing from tiny burg to hidey hole in the Pacific Northwest in search of his quarry. The way the man told it, the dish consists of taking “a piece of stringy beef, pound hell out of it with a kitchen sledge, dip it in egg and flour, and drop it in a frying pan.” The rest is mystery, with something involving peas, mashed potatoes and serious gravy along the way. Sounded good to me, at least how he told it.

I heard wrong. My chicken-fried steak experience imploded in my own kitchen. Stringy was right, like chewing on an inflatable wading pool in your backyard. The flour didn’t help any and I don’t care for peas. For me as a chef, chicken-fried steak was akin to prepping fresh leftovers. It was rather a disappointment based against Fulghum’s epiphany. Sorry, Bob. Can’t believe all you read.

Still, I did take a shine to the dish’s simplicity. Nowadays, with Ramsey and Irvine smearing the overdramatic cooking show feces all over the map, coaxing gourmet from a can of baked beans and much theatrical profanity (not Irvine) is a pipe dream. Lousy beef is lousy beef. But the “simple pleasure” factor cannot be ignored. Not unlike watching Once. Twice rather.

I’ve endured the headache before of giving the week’s slab a second viewing. It was based among “not getting something,” “did I miss something?” or just plain falling asleep. I watched Once twice based on the second precept. The next time around was a chicken-friend steak matter. Once was such a simple (and quite appealing) movie I also viewed it twice under the impression of the first precept. Nope. Not much there, and that’s what made Once so enjoyable.

I recall back in ’07 this movie getting a lot of hype; critical praise of a certain urgency that implored folks to check it out. The box office returns said otherwise. The soundtrack sold well enough, but the ticket taker kinda limped. Granted Once was a more-or-less indie film, but so was Birdman and it won the Oscar. Did Once have limited release? Sure, but so did Birdman and you know. That’s along the lines of why RIORI visited Once.

Once was refreshing. It was so simple. Girl meets guy, both love music, girl encourages guy to pursue his dream and helps her realize hers. That’s it. Simple. Uncomplicated. Besides the prerequisite dramatic tensions (mild here), it was kinda hard to f*ck up the movie’s premise. Director Carney also wrote the script, and went on record saying that Once was basically an extended music video. Easy to see. Once—pardon the pun—played out like an album, punctuated by tracks and illuminated by scenes alluding to music (eg: burnt CDs, our girl longing for a piano, our guy’s collage of concert posters on his bedroom walls, etc). It’s an unconventional musical. It is like a very long and involved music video, down to the piercing camera work and lighting. As far as an execution of dramatic music vid goes the spirit of Jacko would’ve been proud. He-hee.

So yeah, simple. Let me tell ya, after alternating between watching gee-whiz-bucky-gizmo action numbers, questionable comedies and staggering dramas here at RIORI, watching a simple film like Once was a cinematic colonic. I watched it twice not just because I liked it (and I did), but quizzically, as if I missed something. Again, I didn’t. Once was clean, clear and pleasant. Like the ideal cup of coffee. A rare pleasure.

Once gives the outward impression of a romantic comedy a-brewin’, huh? It quickly flicks the plectrum and says no. Sure, it’s a girl-meets-guy premise but it deftly diverts that conceit. Glen and Markéta (and I’m gonna use their real names from now on. Despite their characters have no names barring “guy” and “girl,” saying so gets confusing since there are multiple guys and girls in this movie) play a muted version of footsie, but the idea of romance between them are dashed in the first act. Once is ultimately a buddy movie, not unlike Driving Miss Daisy: two lonely folks meet each other, find common ground and bond. That’s all. Simple.

Once is sweet, but not cloying. It’s derivative, but saved by some uncanny acting as well as its flow, the cruel mistress pacing. It invites all the contrivances of a rom-com and dodges all of them. It’s a music video, right? So the jamming is the sweet spot. The movie is all about how a love of music can both define us as well as well as free us. Glen’s dumpy job may pay for fresh guitar strings, but that’s all it’s about. The film illustrates the aforementioned Billy Bragg experience: exposure to a life, and also akin to grumpy Rachel’s lesson, Once is all about revelation. Slow blooming and awareness of personal expression. Simple, but heavy. I mean, you remember that moment when a song moved you? Right. The Once.

There’s a lot of keen, thoughtful camera work here, also not unlike a music video. It’s all about angles to trap your attention. Admittedly, the movie is low key, but when it’s time to jam the film snaps to life, demanding your attention. It’s a creeping thing, subtle. The movie is framed by the songs, and running the risk of sounding too hoity-toity, not unlike Shakespearean soliloquies. Our characters respond and introduce the musical numbers with a lot of existential chatter about family and future/past potential prospects. It’s as if to codify this conceit the single takes and tracking shots only occur when any singing/playing is involved, like when Markéta accepts Glen’s gift of a beater Discman and burnt CDs of his originals. It’s a long walk home (cut), but she doesn’t seem to mind the cold. Think we’ve all been there once. Let’s hope so.

I betrayed my own sensibilities by watching Once more than, well, once. You really do have to “watch” this movie. That might’ve led to its undoing. I recall back in ’07 a lot of that hype surrounding Once. John Carney coming into his own as a director. Glen as the leader of the beloved Irish folk-rock band the Frames making his big screen debut. I even promoted the film when I was an on-air radio programmer, as well as seeing the TV spots about this delightful movie that should demand your attention. All of which demands examination of our fresh-faced primaries acting. C’mon, I said Once is at its core a buddy movie. Admittedly (and this might be my only solid gripe here) Once‘s plot is still derivative. You can see where it’s going an AU away. Of course it ends well. Or course Glen and Markéta connect. Of course Glen pursues his dream. All of that is saved by some uncanny acting, as well as flow, that anti-muse pacing. Yeah, her again. And always.

It’s a saving grace that our novice thespians hold together so well. Truth be told, neither of the leads are serious actors. Or real actors, for that matter. Glen’s a musician, no film cred. Marketa’s CV consists of three films (including this one), and listed as only “participant,” whatever that means (a few dollars above an “extra” perhaps?). Regardless of their acting experience, the two work very well with awkward chemistry. Their “all thumbs” approach makes the trite premise endearing. As the instance Glen is a shy, dorky guy, but only when not singing and punishing his guitar. Marketa seems meek, offering an impression that a language barrier equals some naiveté. She’s a lot sharper than Glen in life, love and leaving that she leads on. So wrong-o on both counts.

Carney’s script (did I mention he wrote the thing?) allows our leads to just be themselves. Carney was the compass, clunky Glen and Marketa were true north. And it worked. Music enthusiasts them, and of all stripes, know what a good tune can do to smooth out the edges. Consider your fave bar discussion with a stranger: Who’s better? Beatles vs Stones? You’re both right. Good music is good music. Now go and molest the jukebox. Or if you have the time head over to your local music shop and f*ck around. We could all do worse with such drunken fun. Glen and Marketa are us at a bar, talking tunes and eventually decimating our TouchTunes accounts. Like I said, we could do far worse.

Even though I”ve been describing Once as homespun, it did have its cinematic moments of revelation. There is a thin thread of tension—friendly tension—running throughout the movie. Anticipation, rather. Again, Once is not a rom-com; any concept of that—need I remind you—is tossed into the curb by the end of the first act. It’s really all about will Glen become a successful songwriter with a contract, and will Marketa get her very own piano that she had to abandon in her family’s flight from the Czech Republic? That’s what matters here. Those are the stakes. We don’t care if they shack up, nor should we. For me I sat squirming throughout the final act, and my bladder was empty. I checked. I saw canny casting, careful tension and smooth pacing. All from some relative journeyman (and woman) came a fumbling, simply enjoyable flick. We cinephiles all desperately need that time and again.

Alas, in the endgame, nothing worked. Once crashed and burned at the multiplex. As I said, the soundtrack did well enough, but Once was no Birdman. Probably for the better. Once‘s type of earnestness is often lost on Americans’ barely there attention span. I’m guilty of that too, again hence to double watching. Sometimes what you see is supposed to be what you get. No need to jam that cold pizza slice into the microwave. Just chew.

This installment ain’t trying to be some crusade. Take it or leave it is the spiritual guide here at RIORI. That’s kind of a truism. Sometimes, however, there is a bleed. When a quality flick rolls around that flips the bird at The Standard I gotta say something. So what I’m saying is thus: you want a cinema detox? Watch Once. It quietly defies your sensibilities. It’s not a rom-com. It’s not a drama. It ain’t really that funny. It’s a buddy movie, with a cool soundtrack. It’s a series of vignettes broadcasted as an old skool MTV block of pop hits. It defies categorization. It is delightfully troubling chicken-fried steak busking. I’m talking serious gravy overflow.

It’s all cool.

The Verdict..

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Need a break from it all? Once is the movie for you. For all of us really. Michael Bay can wait. And wait. And wait some more. We’ll still have tiiiiimeee.

Stray Observations…

  • “I bring my Hoover!” That thing a pet or something? If that’s it we should name it “Maguffin.”
  • Holy sh*t. I was once in that music store. No, really, on a trip to Dublin. Lots and lots of guitars.
  • “I’ll pay ya back.”
  • Like the slippers.
  • “That’s the first thing I got sorted out.”
  • And the lesson scene, in that store? All those electric guitars hanging on the wall, and the pair defiantly acoustic. Hmm.
  • “Now play it again.”
  • Okay. So the song didn’t flounder.
  • “Cool, cool…”

Next Installment…

We got a picture about some Matchstick Men scheming against the status quo.

I regret nothing.

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 72: Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal” (2004)

The Players…

Tom Hanks, Stanley Tucci and Catherine Zeta-Jones, with (quite the supporting cast of) Barry Henley, Eddie Jones, Diego Luna, Chi McBride, Michael Nouri, Kumar Pallana and Zoe Saldana.

The Story…

All Viktor wanted to do was get home. But some stupid coup d’etat explodes in his homeland, and he’s stranded at Kennedy Airport, carrying a passport nobody recognizes.

What to do, what to do now? That answer is pretty basic. Since Viktor has no recourse, quarantined to the transit lounge, he simply goes on living. By his lonesome. Such as it has become.

But Viktor doesn’t have to go it alone. This is JFK International Airport, after all. Someone is bound to lend a hand.

Hands, rather.

The Rant…

Hey. Welcome back.

So you check out Munich yet? For those who did, bravo! For those who didn’t you’re most likely a newb here. Welcome anyway.

Today is a carryover from the last installment, my scrutiny of Steven Spielberg’s polarizing historical fiction Munich about how the Mossad waxed the “terrorists” who waxed the Israeli track team in the 1972 Summer Olympics in the titular city. This is the second part of a two-part study of the esteemed Steven Speilberg’s hiccups in the 21st Century. The first half, my intrepid examination of his Munich bore some fruit. After watching it (and thereby disturbed by it) illustrated the man has not strayed very far from his craft and/or muse.

As with a few earlier installments here, seeing the subject matter of this brief study we’re gonna divvy up some rations. I shall employ one intro pertinent to the matter at hand (Spielberg being the crop of the cream) and a second snarky, bilious intro based on my fevered, judgmental, feverish judgments. Thank you and you’re welcome.

First Intro…

The man’s an easy target.

In the pantheon of esteemed movie directors, Spielberg has earned his bones and has rightfully scrabbled to the top of the heap. In the grand scheme of cinematic things, such is no small feat. After all, “movies” took hold in France (depending on who you’d ask), and from the Francos theatre on the big screen usurped the eventual snobbery dividing the theatre goers against the cinemaphiles. Like all rivalries, you can’t have one without the other. There could be no Coke without Pepsi.

Spielberg’s cinematic dichotomy has been written into clay ever since his Jaws coined the phrase “summer blockbuster.” His CV wanders between fantastical and harrowing. Precious few of his outings cast an audience over the spell of “sentimental,” but that’s there. Sometimes it borders on treacle, but that Brit molasses is sweet and heady, therefore tough to resist. C’mon, you have to be made of stone not to at least sniffle when you see ET REDACTED by a helpless Elliot. But sometimes sentimentality can grow out of hand, curdle and become maudlin. Sorry Steve, but with Always your slip was showing. Same with Hook. Hell, especially with AI (Kubrick should’ve stayed the course, I tell ya).

So there are a few, minor bloops on the man’s resume that might tarnish his rep for when his heart was hiked up too far on both sleeves. Or until BFG 2 gets dropped. Whatever comes first. The matter there is that once you reach the top of the heap is finding a way to stay there, all the while keeping both your rep and cachet intact. Well that’s not possible. Even the most revered directors drop a turd in the punchbowl once in a while, blinded by the power and glory of their vision. It’s necessary though. It’s the Coke vs Pepsi paradigm: you can’t measure the good without having the bad rear its pus-filled head once in a while. Hence Pepsi Crystal.

The great many of Spielberg’s movies are like pizza: when it’s good, it’s good and when it’s not you still have some pizza. Like Lou Reed said, “My week beats your year.” In the final analysis, the man’s work speaks for itself, and in turn speaks to a lot of audiences. That can’t be denied. But sometimes—sometimes—the man overplays his hand as well as keep them cards too close. When it comes to establishing a personal, emotional grip on the audiences’ attention you can’t have it both ways; you can’t mix artsy-fartsy with Kleenex. Get too squishy that way and off the top of the heap you may slither.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’ve got a soft spot an AU wide for sentimental, treacly films. Gotta have those guilty pleasures, right? Forrest Gump, On Golden Pond, One Crazy Summer and so on. I’m not made of stone, either. But I can be pushed towards petrifaction. The envelope can only go so far. On more than one occasion (as I listed earlier), the man’s tried my emotional patience. Sometime for the good, though, but mostly it’s been lemon juice-dipped fingernails on a chalkboard hewn from pumice.

In other words: Steve, know when to rein it in.

Sometimes it’s good, if not fun to let a talented director to run riot with their treacly id. Once in a while. The other times when that goes down, said director better have a damned interesting script to back up their Hallmark moments.

That being said, The Terminal holds up better than Always. And far better than Jurassic Park: The Lost World.

That was a joke, you dolts. Show some emotion already…

Second Intro…

Air travel sucks.

I recently read a story in the New York Times op-ed section from a seasoned and presently retired commercial airline pilot. He spoke as to  debunk the myths surrounding the so-called luxury of the Jet Age. The man flew planes from the late 60s into the late 90s, and according to his experiences in the air and out, trade-offs were few, far between and interchangeable when it came to the “comfort” of flying the friendly skies. His argument was akin to Pete Townshend’s proclamation of, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” For the record, the FAA was the boss all along.

The pilot compared traveling business class today with its sardine-like seating and the dinky, ever fluttering screen embedded in the headrest in front of you with yesterday’s roll down trundle beds (that took up three rows of seats and cost as much) and panopticon movie screen scrolled down for one feature for the duration of the three day flight as not very far removed. At least these days passengers aren’t choked into lung cancer via open smoking recycled through the already recycled air. That and non-Whites are now permitted into First Class. With those roll-down beds and blowjobs. Kidding. There are no roll-down beds in First Class, just non-allergenic blankets. So I’ve heard. Now turn your head and spit.

Tee hee.

Anyway. According to the article, the only thing that has never changed in air travel is the being on the ground part. The waiting. In the airport. Being poked and prodded and x-rayed and having your gums inspected and it costs how much to weigh my bags? Now get in this line to get into that line.

Admit it. Sometimes when you have a layover it feels like it lasts longer that your actual flight, if it would ever land on time. You’re stranded in the terminal, what with all its food courts, book stores, communal charging stations and a billion foreign tongues chattering with urgency. It can be surreal. It’s like another planet. It’s disorienting. The only thing that can keep you metaphorically grounded is your aging flight pass and happy hour at the nearest watering hole. It’s five o’clock somewhere, right?

Yeah, at your destination. Five days away. I don’t know about you…wait, that’s not right. I do know you. We’ve all been stuck with a layover if we travel by air. Sometimes it’s a few hours, sometimes it’s many, many, many hours. We’re talking sprawl out on the nearest empty row of chairs hours. You’re in fishbowl. It’s a given that it’s no fun to wait around for a flight, a matter completely out of your control, at the mercy of the aviation gods. It’s a test of patience. So chill. Ride along. Make the best of it. Watch the people scattering hither and yon, for you may be scattering some day also. Pulsing humanity. Big airports are a microcosm of the human condition in action. Seeking sanction and/or seeking escape.

Yeah, yeah. That truck sounds so heady. But (surprise) I got a tale to tell about the oddness of said human condition that happened to me in an airport. Seems relevant. That and it happened in Utah, so that carries some weight.

It was August, and I headed out the summer after graduating college to visit my then girlfriend who took a job as a park ranger in the Black Canyon in Colorado. Never been to the Rocky Mountain range, and was curious as to how she conducted business. She promised the elegance of Colorado’s high desert country, as well as an easy descent into said canyon beckoning one of those Ansel Adams-esque streams flowing at the bottom. Crystal clear water and a keen view of the rising Coloradan cliffs. Sounded good to me.

I departed Philadelphia International for a five hour flight to the Centennial State. The cross country flight was unremarkable. The three hour layover in Utah was something else. Believe it or not, whenever I had flown in the past I was mercifully spared super-long layovers. Maybe an hour at most. Even my high school jaunt to Ireland only trapped me in Heathrow for a bit over sixty minutes. Call me lucky.

Stuck outside Salt Lake City was a different story. Three hours. That’s the first set of a Dead show there. It was the late 90s. Mobile phones just made calls. No Wi-Fi. Michael Crichton still a hot topic at the local newsstand. Boredom set in quick, as well as getting all fidgety for lack of a traveling companion. That and queuing up in the proto-TSA security line made me edgy. Hope the crack team with the wands wouldn’t find that stash of hash crammed in my ears.

Kidding (I wish). I trudged my way along the line to get prodded in the name of safety, chatting up this young woman who was just as bored as I. Never caught her name, but we BS’d as we waited. We came through scott free—ears intact—and decided to kill some of a lot of time at one of the many bars. She recently finished school and welcomed me for a few. Over cocktails we talked about our destinations and where we were from. It was a real “single serving friend” moment, to quote Tyler Durden. She was en route to Colorado also, to start a new life. Something about recovery and living with her sister who had recently given birth to her first kid. Single mom, offered an opportunity for my single serving to get her head together. No judgments from me; I was intrigued.

I spewed my bile and she suffered me pretty well, probably since I offered to pick up the tab. We took in the scenery, the masses moving to and fro. I pulled my recent degree in English and Philosophy out of my ass and got all existential on her, remarking on the surrounding, pulsing humanity. She dug and told me more about her microcosm of addiction and hanging with “the wrong crowd.” She showed me a fresh tat on her arm, something tribal. She called it a milestone, a change in her life and what it might lead to. Sorta like true north. The whole chit-chat seemed to be all about where we were going, reflection—satori—in the busy shadows of hundreds chasing their flights.

We killed enough time for her to finish her layover. I ran with her to her respective gate and bid her good luck. “See ya around” and such. She embarked and that was that. Another nugget of humanity that could only get sifted through one of America’s many airport terminal screenings. Funny how a chance encounter with a stranger makes for some well-killed time in a building full of strangers hell-bent for stranger tides. I waited out my final hour of laying over thumbing through a journal or something, lamenting the batteries in my Discman were dead. Late 90s, remember?

Coda: almost a week into my vay-cay with the park ranger girlfriend, we had to venture out to the Costco for groceries. I wanted to stock up on the necessities of my climb down the Black Canyon. Clif Bars, bottled water, oxygen tank (that would come later, actually and really). I got into my head to kill some time back at her cabin we needed to build some Lego sets. No cable, no Internet, no nothing. Why not? Those esteemed Danes launched their new Ninja sets that summer, and I had a hankering.

While rifling through the boxes, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I figured it belonged to my girl, ready to scold me for considering such a frivolous purchase. I was wrong. It was my single serving friend, smiling, pushing a stroller with a sleeping infant. I was so surprised to see her again I could only grin and say, “Hi!” F*cking backwoods Colorado, a lifetime away from Salt Lake, her new neice snoozing in the stroller. The damned Costco of all places. She smiled back, waved and made her way down the aisle. That was all.

Funny what connections can be made on the road. The passing parade sometimes lends you a chance to jump onto a float. And float is an apt term. Stuck in the melee of travel, you get get alone amongst hundreds of strangers. Not surpring how the desperate lonely there seek out some kind of connection, over drinks or no. Now that I scratch at that memory, I remind myself that my friend had only recently graduated high school. Nineteen years old. Far too young to drink in an airport bar. But I was paying, and vouched for her and the bartender left us alone. Figured she’s seen this setup before.

Funny what sticks, and what didn’t. All I knew about then is that I had a hangover for the record, and met another stranger who helped me out of boredom. With long distance travel, sometimes that’s all you need to make the wait not seem like waiting.

More about the ride back later. The apocryphal trip home…

Viktor Navorski (Hanks) is a man without a country. Literally.

During his stay in NYC political upheaval has torn his homeland asunder. To put it plainly his country of Krakozhia doesn’t exist anymore. Viktor’s citizenship—his very nationality—has been revoked. He can’t go back home, because technically it ain’t there no more. So now he’s stuck JFK airport’s international arrivals terminal for the long haul. A very long haul, until some loophole in customs come to light.

This isn’t that uncommon in the historical annals of international air travel. Sometimes travelers can’t get to their desired destination for myriad reasons. Political matters, yes, but at least there’s a place to go to. Normally Viktor’s plight would be handled with a minimum of fuss, drenched in paperwork, red tape and waiting on a phone call returned from the Krakozhian embassy.

Normally. There is a spanner in the works at JFK regarding Viktor’s exit: customs director Frank Dixon (Tucci) and his impending promotion. See, our castaway is a prime example—albeit of a unique circumstance—of what Customs tries to avoid. Prevent would be a better word. Displaced peoples. Dixon has been zealous in his duties, his reputation impeccable. His responsibilities keeping JFK ship-shape have never floundered, so Dixon’s on the deserved up-and-up.

Now Frank has Viktor. Quite the possible blemish on his sterling record. This will not stand, so to unload his misguided frustrations and ire, Frank makes Viktor’s non-life a bureaucratic hell. Sign this, sign that. Don’t do this and don’t do that. How dare does this backwater Eastern Bloc yahoo screw with his smooth-running airport?

Due to international law and basic protocol, Dixon can’t just toss the waylaid Viktor out onto the street, nor can he send him back “home” either. The guy’s stuck there in the IAB, forced to etch a new life as a refugee with no cash, no English, with just his luggage and the clothes on his back.

Oh, and his can of peanuts. Can’t forget the peanuts…

I had to watch The Terminal in two sessions. It was over two hours long, I got tired and had to get to work the next day at an ungodly early hour. That and my attention started to waver by the start of the second act. When I start watching the timer, such does not bode well for a positive critique of the weekly mangling.

My attention started to fail when I began to silently ask the movie, “Where are we going with this?” (perhaps also to the two or nine beers I had consumed). To put it quick, Terminal had got to be one of the most winding road trip movie I ever saw. And seeing our protag never gets to go anywhere outside the airport also made for a weird viewing experience. Don’t misunderstand that. The Terminal is about going places, but it’s all inward, revolving about our waylaid hero Viktor. The atmosphere is alluding to the guy finishing his journey, by hook, crook or redeemed passport book, but the whole process is akin to that Rush lyric (quit moaning): “The point of a journey is not to arrive.” Whatever that means.

But think about it. Another cliche: getting there is half the fun. Precious few films I’ve just given up on here at RIORI. Most because they were boring, insipid, poorly written or a melange of alla dat. I lose patience. The whole timer watching thing. Darted my eyes up and down between the film and the Blu-Ray readout. Like I said: does not bode well for this duck.

Then I remembered Terminal was a Spielberg flick, and the man often takes his time setting up the story. Beat as I was, I wasn’t so thick to give up so soon. The first act of Terminal was not boring, insipid, or poorly written. But it was rambling. Couldn’t figure where Viktor’s odyssey was headed. Barring the hook/Maguffin of the peanut can, The Terminal felt like rote Spielberg. Still I maintained enough curiosity to keep going. Even if it took two nights. Three, actually. I said I was late and it was tired.

Halfway through my viewing I remembered a short interview with Spielberg courtesy of AMC. It wasn’t a kitchen table thing, just a short-lived gimmick the network employed to promote new movie remakes (in theatrical or soon-to-be theatrical release) against the originals in their library. The example: dateline 2005. Steve was going to unleash his version of HG Wells’ War Of The Worlds that summer, so AMC did their due diligence in broadcasting Byron Haskins’ original 1953 outing about malevolent Martians laying waste to humanity one Saturday evening. Remastered!

I really dug the original, and sorry, forget director Haskins’ vision. This War was special effects guru George Pal’s baby all the way that time out (I believed after eventually watching Spielberg’s version, he paid more homage to Pal’s vision rather than Byron-what’s-his-tits). I learned later that Pal’s take was a thinly veiled allegory about Communist invasion—both mindset and body—seeping into post-war America, what with all it amazing consumer and technological advancements (read: modern conveniences. Who would’ve though self-cleaning ovens could shake the Iron Curtain so?). When I was 12, I just dug the tension, desperation and very cool, ahead of its time F/X. Did I mention that?

During those fateful weekend viewings, Steve shilled his new project between commercials. Naturally he laid much praise on Pal’s movie. More on the F/X, natch. He also shared his muse that drove his version. Perhaps also inspired by the second into third act storyline of the original film, Steve brought up the notion of the “refugee experience.” This left-field musing caught my attention (right before the sponsor Scope tore me out of my reverie). From an alien invasion film? Really?

Then I finally caught Spielberg’s version. Despite the violence, ear-crushing Dolby digital and an out-of-place Tom Cruise, I grokked to where the man was going. Great swathes of Spielberg’s film involved desperate humans bolting for survival, their country in upheaval, fleeing for shelter and REDACTED a crazed Tim Robbins. Folks driven for normalcy via wit, grit and both. Steve’s War in that light was a culmination of sorts regarding literal refugee stories like Empire Of The Sun and The Sugarland Express, if not Jaws and Close Encounters in a metaphorical sense.

The Terminal is a very literal refugee experience. But from the inside out. Within Spielberg’s healthy id and his sentimental superego. Viktor is the uber innocent abroad, but like Rush alluded it’s not Viktor’s destination that really matters, It’s how he manages to survive, a la Empire. On the run the whole time. Not from invading aliens. From time. And a dogged government official. Gotta respect the FAA.

Hanks’ Viktor is indeed a refugee. So when plunked into an environment not of his own making, what to do? Right. Create a suitable (new) life, if only to establish a new normal and keep sane. Once I woke up and carried on after the second act and into the third, my befuddlement leaned into empathy for our hapless hero. It’s made clear at the outset that Viktor is no rube. Sure, there’s a language barrier. But that’s it. I don’t know about you (and the following might be on the cusp of racist), but where I work a great portion of my co-workers serve English as a second language. Half of the time Spanish, Farsi and Arabic spoken there. I only know enough Spanish to know when someone is talking about me (“Se hombre tiene schnozzola grande“), and I’ve never had a three day layover in Riyadh, so there.

That irks me. Not the non-layover. But feeling dumb that I have this lingual deficiency. Constantly being reminded of my insular American-ness makes me feel like, well an American and a casual Trump disciple. So I’ve been accused. In Farsi. Our Viktor isn’t dumb, regardless of how Americans regard non-Americans who don’t savvy the language.

That being said, I harken back to a recent installment (#70, Garry Marshall’s Georgia Rule) where I offered to critic of that film a favor. I owe AllMovie critic Terry Seibert a dinner, too. This time with a glass of wine. Like I said, I was a tad befuddled by where the hell Spielberg was taking me with The Terminal. Seibert sent me on the course. That aforementioned curious tableau The Terminal offered with a two-plus day viewing demanded me to check out AllMovie’s take. Like I said I’m a “believe it when I see it (literally)” kind of guy, but once in a while I get all confuzed and need some insight. Seibert’s take set me straight.

Better put, Seibert gave me some perspective. Tom Hanks is a good, reliable actor. A 21st Century Jimmy Stewart. But Hanks CV has been rather spotty overall compared to his legacy contemporary. Sure, Hanks eventually hit a stride in the early-90s, but only after bumbling through his salt mine 80s. Can’t really think of many good Hanks flicks between being Kip for two measly seasons of Bosom Buddies and the doggie slobber that was Turner And Hooch. Not to say there weren’t some bright spots peeking from behind clouds of pratfalls and goony histrionics. There was Big, of course. A breakthrough. But also minor goodies like Punch LineSplash and to a lesser degree Nothing In Common, his first stab at drama. Why cite these and not the chewy goodness of Dragnet and The Man With One Red Shoe (better not to ask)? Listed above suggested the key to Hanks’ appeal that Seibert plainly said about the actor’s motivation in The Terminal.

Hanks is a good listener. Or rather, his characters on screen are good listeners. When they carefully take in the world around them—or dumped into, like Viktor—they take the necessary time to figure out what’s going on and what to do with it, as well as thoughtfully interact with the other characters. That’s when the Viktor’s of Hanks’ oeuvre take flight. Even when screaming at a volleyball.

Along with Big, Forrest Gump (a no-brainer, so to speak) and even Saving Private RyanThe Terminal gets its proverbial mileage from Hanks observing his environment and weighing the options offered up by people he meets along the way. The aforementioned films have ensemble casts, as does Terminal. The only difference is that our protagonist is not part of the ensemble. Not really.

Here’s how that works. Our setting—the titular terminal—is the real protagonist of the movie. Viktor’s just its avatar. JFK International a federal law teems. May not be Salt Lake City (but then again, where is?), but I’ll bet you a silk pajama that at least a million travelers tear through that airport each week in a running at full clip OJ Simpson fashion. In a good way (I think). And despite Viktor’s claustrophobic cultural exile, we sure can see a lot of space. Said space allows Viktor to “explore America,” get some bearings and permits our Cold War Gump to take us on the trip also. The terminal—a world unto itself—lets us be Hanks’ Link to JFK’s Hyrule.

You’re welcome, Switch users and abusers.

What I’m driving at there (“It’s dangerous to travel alone! Take this” Ha ha and sorry) is how the many lives fold into Viktor’s adventure. What I’m getting at here is the supporting cast. At heart, Terminal is a character study. Sure, Viktor is our avatar against the backdrop of the omnipresent terminal, but how he wends his way towards whatever depends almost solely on (as Blanche’s been over-quoted) “the kindness of strangers.” We have a lot of cool strangers indeed to rely on here. Barring Viktor, but not snubbing the principals, the motley, reluctant crew at his sides really makes Hanks shine. He’s a listener, right? At first glance, Hanks’ language barrier looks like only be used for derivative comic effect. It’s only later that we learn it’s his only defense against being regarded as some patsy or rube. Viktor ain’t dumb. He’s perceptive. Also earnest. To the people around him and later rally around him. Or don’t.

That’s good there. Let’s start with Viktor’s nemesis, Frank. Tucci is always great at being smarmy. It’s his signature, and it works wonders here as the antagonist. Frank’s not a bad guy, just a tad overzealous in his job. We know folks like that, worked for folks like that. Are folks like that. Tucci’s Dixon is a prime example of the old saw: characters don’t have to be likable. Maybe not even relatable (likable’s red-headed stepchild). No. They have to be interesting. What’s Frank’s damage? Beyond the demands of his (potential) new post? Felt kind of a Napoleon complex here, and not just cuz Hanks is 6′ and Tucci is a subaverage 5’7″ (really. Those stats are correct. I Googled it, and I’m a lame-o. That stat is also correct). Dixon’s the classic case of someone who has something to prove to himself by proving it to everyone. A real heavyweight. Against the patient, curious, resourceful and without a network Viktor, his ire and contemptuousness makes for a delicious brew of conflict. Sure, Tucci comes over as a bit over the top in his pursuit, but it feels…well, like natural acting. He’s slimy (for a good example, watch Big Night or The Core, covered here earlier). His slow burn works especially well as Dixon’s underlings begin to regard clever Viktor with more respect than their boss. Like I said, Dixon’s not a bad guy. He’s just a bad listener.

The supporting cast was awesome, and I’m not just talking the actors. Like the terminal, the folks on the fringes add to the world as human fishbowl microcosm (did that make sense?). As Viktor attempts a new life in exile, he bumps into a lot of other displaced persons along the way. Viktor may be alone in a crowd, but that makes him the ideal pinion for the often invisible people that make an airport run, run. Thanks to “local hero” Viktor we get to meet the “real New York.”

I must admit, I really loved the supporting players here. All touchstones of Viktor’s muddled psyche, and all trying to point the way, if only in a low-rent, surreal kinda fashion. Each minor player had their own fleshed-out story. Most ancillary players in an ensemble film are usually just chess pieces shoved around to keep the narrative dutifully chugging onwards. Not here. Chi McBride, of whom I am quite the fan (ever since his turn as cigar-chewing, philosopher king janitor Heavy Gene on The John Larroquette Show back in the ancient 90s) was a delight. Channeling Gene here, his baggage tosser Joe is brash, yet still savvy to the needs of the anonymous millions he disservices (and quite cagey in scoping out their valuable errata). The guy knows stuff and has no misgivings about waxing poetic about the basic needs of people. His whole schtick reminds me fondly of that Robert Fulghum essay about chicken-fried steak (visit your local library). Joe is the guru Viktor needs to get his sh*t together, while all the while gathering more “sh*t.” Namely, finding your place in the midst of life, wherever that place may be. Now play cards.

Diego Luna was not an actor I was immediately familiar with, but (as they say, whoever they are. They is usually me, and I don’t know anybody) he “has that face.” Right; I saw him in Elysium, also covered here (vol 3, installment 1) and did some voice work for the well-received Book Of Life. He also did this little thing later called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. So that. Guy’s been around. Here? He’s the hapless romantic figure. An oft dodgy prospect in most roles of such ilk. But I giggled a lot here thanks to his performance. That’s right: giggled, and not in a down-the-nose kinda way. Luna’s Enrique was a sweet, hapless romantic, a la Roberto Begnini and starring towards piece of Viktor’s fractured presence.

Did I mention that thing? That I found the supporting cast as representing aspects of Viktor’s psyche? Like a Greek chorus? The terminal being the grey matter dictating Viktor’s adventure, the minor players serves insight into our hero’s fractured voyage. If Chi was the sage—a wiseass sage to be sure—then Luna was the romantic, soft for stalwart Saldana and using Viktor’s supposed innocence as an ideal Cyrano. Must’ve sparked something in Viktor’s imagination, as well as his unwanted isolation to attempt to get all close to Amelia.

Ah. Sorry to be so abrupt (no I ain’t. This yer first time here?). Here we take the pipe. Jones’ Amelia is too fluffy and not fleshed out, perhaps on purpose. If that’s the case, then boo, Steve. Right on, she’s nice on the eyes, yes, but as a valuable addition to the chorus? Not so much. She comes across as an afterthought; some sort of device—perhaps a MacGuffin—to bolster Viktor’s unwinding story. Don’t get me wrong. Jones’ is a decent actress, often sly and funny. Some claim she’s pretty. She’s neither here (not the pretty part. She looks like my wife when I want her to. Love you, Seej! Don’t change the locks!). I figure we gotta have some wart festering in a tale like this. A cast of tens needs at least one square peg, right? Uh, wait. Dixon filled that slot. Jones had only three distinct spots here, and almost all of it fluttery and spineless, like she knew her role was superfluous and either incapable or unneeded of rising to the likes of, say, Kumar Pallana’s Yoda-like Gupta.

He was a trick, meaning he fooled me. Y’ever come across a guy who’s a real pest? Well-meaning and sharp but lacking the social skills to know when to shut the f*ck up? I work with a guy like that. Maybe you do too. Story time! Yet again! Shut up!

The kitchen I sweat at has at least three utility guys on the clock all day long. Utility? Read: dishwashers. One of them is a loud, boorish, jabber box off the first water. He has Asperger’s Syndrome. For those not in the know, Asperger’s is a high-functional type of autism. Namely, those that make their way in the world by abiding to their personal rules that guide them through the day. Like most of us, which means we don’t call for V-E-R-N when Tom Cruise rifles through our library. Unlike most of us however, when something occasionally goes awry (as it sometimes does), we try to not get very pissy and only chill when homeostasis is re-established. When the flow is restored. No. All is well when the system is in place, on certain terms. Take that away and Hail Columbia. In the interim, you can’t talk to the guy. He’s a raging torrent of profanity who looks eager to take a swing at you. Sometimes he does. No matter. He’s pesky. He means well overall. And if he doesn’t shut his trap when all’s on the level again YOU’RE gonna get ready at bat.

Gupta was kinda like that to me (especially considering how he wielded his mop). Pallana was mouthy, sour and the ideal Spielbergian avatar as emotional center for Viktor’s chorus. He was my fave character, though not at first. He reminded me a bit too much of my proto-Rain Man co-worker (do not ever f*ck with the guy’s system about stacking pots. I have nine fingers now. Kidding. Eight fingers and a thumb). Eventually my patience was rewarded. Gupta’s sagacity reflected Viktor’s trevails, but in a subtle, rather crafty way. Gupta’s presence was a slow build. A very slow build. Like Vik, get patient. Don’t stack the pots yourself. Just listen to the scamp; he knows sh*t. Viktor’s good at listening. With Gupta, Viktor/Hanks learned how to be selective in what to listen too. We eventually learn through Pallana’s ultra-subtle acting/characterization that prickly can often be dismissed beyond empathy and wisdom. That being said, I learned how to replace the detergent block in the dish machine to make those agony-inducing, digital bleeping screams go away for a while. Viktor learned fast to whom should be heard.

Terminal might be the most angular film Spielberg ever cut, and maybe on purpose. Couldn’t escape the feeling of a message being conveyed. Not sure of the message, but so much of the film seemed deliberate. That’s not bad thing; angular does not necessarily mean absent of nuance. The supporting chorus paired against Viktor’s crafty self cured that…with patience. Still, beyond any obvious human condition thang and Speilberg trademark humanity, Terminal was approaching some kind of statement. Again, not sure what, but the smell of that lingered. Might’ve had to do with how clever the movie played out. That deliberate feeling reflected when Viktor REDACTED his adopted home. It felt like a crafty descent into being clever. The entire film is clever in a very cheeky way, but it takes aeons to figure that out. That being said, Terminal is a voyage into the human condition, stuffed illegally into the overhead compartment with a lot of emotion, coat-tugging, willful disappointment, a lame Catherine Zeta-Jones and a dedicated appreciation for jazz. Something for everyone. Just keep your ears as open as your eyes. And mind the pots.

In hindsight, Spielberg’s 1989 misfire Always (which I enjoyed, thanks to the great cast replete with the likes of Dreyfuss, Goodman, Hunter and Keith David [!]) feels like a dry run for Terminal‘s story of being “lost” and eventually “finding the way again” metaphor. Sure, it was a 15 year gestation, but certain things need to take their good ol’ time. In that aspect Terminal was a minor miracle. A tale of naked human emotion that didn’t need Kleenex. Instead of rubbing your palms together, genuflecting and demanding of the sky, “What does it all mean?” we got, “Huh…” and (hopefully) later, “Ohhh.” Then break out the peanuts, please.

Airports tend to be dehumanizing, as I said. We’re all but airfares and lemmings. That actual building, the one embedded into concrete is the real master of air travel. Public charging stations, fees for fees, Dan Brown paperbacks with Hanks’ mug on the cover and all them cat o’ nine tails upon the Carlin-esque pre-boarding process. After watching The Terminal, I took some small solace in knowing I wasn’t all alone in such massive spaces, whether in major hub Salt Lake or parking lot Durango, CO (with or within the lost single-serving). Sure, we see the passing parade at the time. On the streets, in a mall, even on FaceBook. But for a singularity of purpose—getting the f*ck away—enjoy a layover.

That might’ve been the message I was grafting onto the character study that was The Terminal. Could’ve sworn I heard something…


Oh yeah. That return flight home.

You ever get lucky on a flight and have the entire row to yourself? Me neither, but en route back from Colorado I scored the next best thing: an empty seat between my rump and another poor schlub stuck on the same red eye. Never caught his name, but I remember being the first to suggest that we slap the armrests back and get some breathing room.

He was a software developer, from Seattle (hmm) on some junket and claimed feeling like he was paying rent here with so many whistle stops. I told him about me being a recent college grad and where I was departing from. From Montrose, CO to Salt Lake City—pushing three hours with the headwind—we chatted and joked about (then early) Internet tech, family, the delights of modern air travel, college and I shared my tale about my single-serving friend. Both our arms were crooked over the vacant headrest. We we able to swivel our legs inwards to maintain circulation as well as avoiding a brusque encounter with the errant beverage cart. The time flew. We had a grand conversation. Amazing what a bit of legroom could do. Best return flight ever.

He asked me about the Black Canyon. Always wanted to hike in Colorado but duty calls. He asked me if I recommended the Canyon to meet his curiosity. I ended that hike wheezing so hard I lost my cigarettes halfway up the ascent and found myself sucking on an oxygen mask like Ginger Lynn readying the money shot.

Of course I said yes. Wear the proper shoes. Worn out Doc Martin’s make for lousy climbing. You heard it here and it was the 90s.

You may now return your flight attendant to her full, upright position.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Be patient, my friends. The payoff will come. Hanks is a good actor. He doesn’t push and pull. He’s lost but hopeful. He’s patient. He’s a good listener. Be like Hanks.

Steve is also hopeful. Also patient. A good listener. He makes nice movies. His win awards. Good luck being like Steve.

Stray Observations…

  • “America is closed.” Says it all.
  • BORDERS. Kind of on the nose there. But I do miss that chain, sorry. I have another story to tell there about how I got married. I just need to see the proper movie to introduce that rant. I am strict.
  • “She’s a Trekkie!” No…way.
  • I got a feeling that Viktor’s awkward posture was a ruse. Can’t put a finger on how, though.
  • “I hate Tuesdays!”
  • Always took a shine to a resourceful hero type. Must be latent “MacGyver” nostalgia/fandom.
  • “He love that goat.” Wink.
  • That being noted, we got some odd humor going on here. Uneasy, jittery. Post-911 perhaps? Again?
  • “You don’t like fish.”
  • This is the polar opposite of Munich, right? Right?!?
  • “Success.” Irony not lost.

Next Installment…

If you thought one was bad, try dealing with Seven Psychopaths, Clarice.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 70: Garry Marshall’s “Georgia Rule” (2007)

The Players…

Jane Fonda, Lindsay Lohan, Felicity Huffman, Dermot Mulroney and Garrett Hedlund, with Dylan McLaughlin, Zach Gordon, Cary Elwes and the always reliable voice of reason in almost every Marshall-helmed flick Hector Elizondo (him usually always being the best part).

The Story…

Lily’s had her fill of her unruly daughter Rachel, what with the dropping out of school, questionable relations, too much obvious, reckless persona and even more reckless, obvious cleavage dripping off of her. So this exasperated mom takes her wild child to Idaho to live with her flinty, no-BS grandmother Georgia, who’s quick to lay down a simple set of rules centered on two things: God’s love and hard work.

This be some sh*t Rachel willfully knows nothing about. Not Lily either, really.

Let’s get ready to rumble!

The Rant…

Christ, hiccups are annoying. You wanna know how stop them? I got a trick, but first we need to know the nature of the beast.

A hiccup (or hiccough if you’re more sophisticated) is a spasm in the diaphragm, that thin muscle beneath the lungs that regulate their respiration. For some unknown reason the thing occasionally gets hinky. You usually breathe without thinking about it. Involuntary. But now and again you swallow too much Corn Pops at once or torpedo a can of PBR and bingo, your diaphragm gets all twitchy. Boink boink boink. It gets irritating, like a burp you can’t release.

Now science doesn’t know what hiccups are for, nor a bonafide way to stop them from happening. There are theories (some involving shotgunning PBRs) that when a foreign element intrudes on our normal breathing practices—some glitch in our standard, smooth-running, Twinkie bolting anatomy—our diaphragm gets mixed signals and suddenly there’s a scratch in our CD.

Here’s how you hack it.

Since breathing is an involuntary thing, as are hiccups, you should get all mindful. To rid yourself of this ant at the picnic you consciously take control of your breathing. Realize you do this normal breathing thing every second without a thought. Take deep, forceful, evenly paced breaths. For me it usually takes about five. Find your center. Breathe deep. You’ll become aware of your diaphragm. You’re controlling it now rather than the other way around. Sure enough after a few monitored breaths the doohickey will calm down and you can get back to that next can of PBR.

That lesson taught—and to get all Robert Fulghum on your collective asses—we can’t avoid hiccups in life. And not just the ingested ones, figuratively and literally. Again, science can’t explain the physical reasons why hiccups happen, but we can all identify with the bullsh*t that throws our routine out of wack. Our life out of wack. Can’t predict it. Can’t control it. Might be big, might be little. But after awhile it sure gets annoying as sh*t. It was all fine yesterday…now what?

In comparison, that’s what it’s like to be involuntary uprooted from your usual state of days and plunked into terra incognito. I’m willing to wager that modern science has a vague idea as to why hiccups happen, but probably due to meager funding and more important stuff like, I dunno, curing AIDS such annoyances like hiccups get slated to the back burner of a banquet kitchen range. That’s 8 burners, BTW.

But when such hiccups happen, sh*t they are annoying. There goes your comfy routine. No bacon with your eggs at breakfast. I gotta take the bus today? What do you mean it’s gonna take six to eight weeks for my winning eBay bid for a first pressing of the Faces’ Long Player album to arrive from London (okay, that was mine. Duh)? Hiccups. Things might seem mox-nix, but when the little, vital sh*t gets hacked, boy oh boy does the week get all kerfuffled.

Kinda like a forced homecoming in Idaho.

Wait. Too abrupt? Idaho? What the f*ck do hiccups have to do with the Gem State?

Quiet now. My blog, my Rule…

Being a parent is never easy. That goes without saying so much than why even say that? Still, as a mom and/or dad you do your best to aim your little ones towards the proper goals in life. Goals you may have reached and were rewarded by or goals that slipped by and wouldn’t want young Dick and/or Jane to miss out on.

But life itself intervenes, and there are hiccups.

Lily (Huffman) has had it up to there with her idful daughter Rachel (Lohan) and her wild child antics. “Antics” is a kind descriptor at best. Don’t even start with the “child” notion. Disrespectful, sexually precocious and simply headed down a path of wreck and ruin. Lily can see what’s happening (since it happened to her), so she feels for—demands—a change of environment for Rachel.

So it’s a bittersweet homecoming (mostly bitter) for Lily with Rachel in tow. Back to Hull, Idaho and see you later San Francisco. Home to Hull where Lily’s flinty, no-BS mom Georgia (Fonda) rules the roost. Grandma don’t take no sass, not pulling one’s weight and absolutely no blasphemy. To say Rachel is out of her element is a serious understatement.

Georgia’s heard all about Rachel from Lily’s cursory calls. Lily is sure that time with grandma with change Rachel’s mind about…everything. It sure did for Lily, and she grew up with her (and fled as fast as f*ck as possible to get the hell out of Dodge). Georgia may be down with lowering the boom on Rachel’s wild ways, but a little on the fence about reeling her boozy, chain-smoking daughter in, too. Apple and tree and all of that.

Neither of Georgia’s girls are gonna get out of Hull intact. Let the kicking and screaming commence…

I usually consult the professional reviews at AllMovie about the films on my chopping block to get an idea of what I might be getting into that week. Now I’m not a skeptic, not really. I’m more of a I’ll-belive-it-when-I-(literally)-see-it kind of guy. Whatever the critic in question bases their opinions about a particular film is subjective. Duh. I often don’t care what they say. I just want an idea of what I’m getting into. I’ll believe it when I see it. Literally.

This time around, I was forced to agree with AllMovie’s assessment of Georgia Rule. I owe critic Derek Armstrong a dinner for his words of caution. He wrote about the movie, and I quote: “Georgia Rule is an icky film.” Icky. There’s an adjective I thought I never use to sum up a film. Lousy? Sure. Bad? Pedestrian but to the point. Icky? That’s telling. And wholly accurate for this family melodrama in desperate need of a shower. The kind viral pathologists need after a solid day’s work. Icky.

Rule has precious little going for it, and that’s a shame since it could’ve been really sharp. There was a lot of family drama to cull from here; intergenerational family drama has been a proven film formula for decades, albeit hackneyed and often warmed over. I’ve learned in my short, misspent, missing the matinees youth that family melodramas almost always have a tired, trite premise (such as Rule‘s: wild grandchild, estranged daughter, steely matriarch who meant well but missed a mark, etc). Such tired tropes are sometimes redeemed by solid acting. Fleshed out characters courtesy of actors—seasoned or giving their best college try—that accept the cards dealt and give a (hopefully) fresh spin on old hat.

A good example of this kind of movie is On Golden Pond, a guilty pleasure of mine. Its plot is terribly derivative, rotten with sappy sentimentality and an all too pat resolution. But I love it. Why? Star Henry Fonda (in his final and only Oscar winning role) is a riot throughout, delivering smart and barbed one-liners throughout the movie bookended by smart, barbed grandfatherly wisdom. He was a hoot.

It was Katherine Hepburn’s swan song also, but she lived for another ripe quarter-century. Her sign off was the classic “mother trying to hold it together” via a warm heart and a plethora of wisdom learned against her crotchety hubby for decades. And key, Henry’s real-life estranged daughter Jane played as the on-film estranged daughter who through shared life behind the camera found an understanding with each other, brittle as it was. It wasn’t brittle for very long in reality. Henry was quite ill during filming, and received his Oscar via his hospital bed facing the TV broadcast of the 1981 Academy Awards, daughter Jane accepting in his stead, teary-eyed and quite proud of her dad.

In Rule, Jane seemed to channel her dad’s character from On Golden Pond. And like her dad in his final film, Fonda’s Georgia is the only fleshed-out character in Rule, despite being another stereotype, albeit acting better than the script dealt. I thank the genes. Her no-nonsense, yet still practical and at the same time unconventional Georgia was the best thing about Rule. The only thing, her being an old poop and all.

The rest of the cast is wooden. A clutch of pretty talented, somewhat reliable character actors playing their dealt hands and coming up trumps. What got under my skin about their performances (Lohan, Huffman, Mulroney, et al) is that they failed to rise above their stereotypes. All predictable, all lame. I mean, I would swear that this movie presaged Lohan’s fall from grace, but her performance—as an example—was so incongruent, so forced I was wishing for the actual off-screen BJ spoke about so frankly made it on-screen (hell, the movie was rated a rare R). A lot of shoehorning drama and deviance going on here.

Speaking of shoehorns, it was never really explained how Huffman’s reedy Lily turned out against Georgia being so strict. It came out that Lily’s dad was a drinker, but that only explained—nay, casually remarked—the chemical/genetic aspect. A drinker myself I know what drives my nasty habit, but regarding a fictional character’s personal descent into the bottle in a movie an audience demands some meat on the bones. With dry (so to speak) Lily all we get are bones. C’mon Garry Marshall, throw us one. If this was Mr Happy Days attempt at being edgy he shoulda stayed in Milwaukee.

Back to the ickiness factor: we couldn’t weld the sour with the (bitter)sweet here. It’s the feeling of stuff feeling forced here that also led to Rule‘s undoing. Marshall seemed well out his depth here. Disregarding his uneven CV, shortly within the first act something screamed derivative, more so than usual with Marshall’s trademark treacle. Don’t misunderstand me. Sometimes the man hits gold. Sometimes. The offbeat Frankie And Johnny. The perennial favorite weepie Beaches. The solid and charming Pretty Woman. These may not be great films, maybe barely good, but they delivered comedy-drama in a golden fashion. Rule in comparison is rusty, creaking along and desperately trying to fit into the mold of Marshall’s above mild triumphs. Nothing works, despite Fonda’s enjoyable performance. Star power counts for nothing here.

And that being said, let us consider the supporting cast, Fonda’s bookends. Lily and Rachel have more in common than either would ever admit. That’s obvious, and also gets dark rather swiftly, if not a bit preachy. Another example of Marshall not sure where to go here. Is Rule a family melodrama, a cautionary tale, a lecture? Is there some mirror action reflecting the Lily/Rachel dynamic regarding the opposite sex? I think so. Is there some kind of unhealthy grieving going on with Mulroney’s “vet” schtick? Maybe, unsure. Is Elwes a sexual predator? Yes and no and ugh. Was Marshall exploiting Lohan’s YA physical attributes here? I say too often and more please. Lots of head scratching, nothing to grab on to. Like I said earlier, well-structured characters delivered by solid actors can elevate a mundane story into interesting entertainment. Short of the mark in Rule, it all being so damned disjointed. Only the work of a Civil War sawbones’ skills could make this movie work. With crossed fingers.

There gradually came a large swath of this movie where I ceased taking notes. It wasn’t as if I oh so engrossed, nor there was nothing else to say. My brain just gave up. I’ve noticed I tend to go on and on and on thrashing movies I dislike, but positive commentary is usually short and sweet. Well, that’s how it should be I think. Good stuff doesn’t need nor invite a ticker-tape. Such flicks speak for themselves. The flipside sometime demands an air strike. Rule fell under the latter. And the irony is that respected actor Fonda caught a lot of heat back in the day with her USO appearance in Vietnam. She got carpet bombed in Rule right that. I almost feel sympathetic.

Now someone get me a glass of water. The breathing method ain’t working here.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. This was awful. Not the worst movie dismantled here at RIORI, but damned close. That is all and good night.

Stray Observations…

  • “If she turns out to be sane…she’s all yours.”
  • Dylan versus Frankenreiter? No question there.
  • “Don’t hit me with fish.”
  • I will not mention the Dread Pirate Roberts.
  • “Not on the mouth.”
  • Jane’s got a nice butt, even at 70. Must’ve been all those aerobic workouts in the 80s.
  • “Go with this one.”
  • I liked not liking Elwes’ sniveling.
  • “Oh, please! You’re a lawyer!”
  • Was it in her contract for Lohan to wear only low-cut?

Next Installment…

Part 1 of a 2 part study examining Spielberg’s missteps (yes, he had a few): The Olympics are supposed to be time for nations to come together for friendly competition and putting politics aside. So what the blue f*ck happened in Munich back in ’72?

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 54: Joel Hopkins’ “Last Chance Harvey” (2008)

Last Chance Harvey

The Players…

Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, with Kathy Baker, James Brolin, Eileen Atkins, Liane Balaban and Richard Schiff.

The Story…

Harvey Shine’s a struggling musician. Okay, a jingle writer for commercials. Ignoring the mundanity of his work, he presently risks losing his plebeian gig to attend his daughter’s London wedding. Like with his winnowing relevance in the digital age, Harvey discovers that he’s not exactly welcome at the festivities. Looks like Harvey isn’t wanted on either side of the Pond.

While in the airport bar (as do where many a magic moment may happen), he meets a lonely lady and finds himself some unexpected romance. Amazing how a nice cuppa tea works wonders.

The Rant…

It’s not easy being alone. Takes a lot of energy. Takes its toll. It’s a full time job in a way.

The roughest thing about being alone is the slow descent. One does not all of a sudden find themselves cut off from their friends and loved ones, like falling into some Cambodian tiger trap. Nope. Loneliness is slow and sneaky, and all too often the lonely one’s fault.

Being alone is akin to a contagion. You get some sort of depressed stink on you, and your support system of friends, co-workers and family slowly catch a whiff and begin to turn their heads away lest they become infected. You friends think you’re just down and need some space. Your business partners take note of your productivity and an intervention may be needed…someday. You stop being invited to special family occasions like Thanksgiving or your nephew’s bris. People begin to claim the sad old saw: he probably wants to be alone. And therefore completing a circle.

Denial sets in. Who needs other people? They don’t want me around anyway, so screw ’em. I have personal matters to attend to. Here in my room I reign supreme. You’re a Simon & Garfunkel lyric waiting to be written. It’s a delicious, vicious circle. I am alone, therefore I want to be alone. I choose it so. I want to ignore all the bulls*it and drudgery that others might impose upon me. The job. The family. I want to escape. Into myself and my own little sphere of value…which was once richer with other people involved. Too bad I’m alone.

Humans are social creatures. We need to interact with others for intellectual stimulus, open dialogue and argue differing opinions. Even some antisocial twit who f*cks with people needs others to bounce their demented issues off of. And consider the hermit who decidedly shuns people for solitude; they balance their cloistered existence against the bullsh*t that chafed them so. People—of all stripes—need other people, for within and without.

But when you’re lonely—and lonely by yourself—all you have to lean on is you, and that can take a psychic toll.

Ahem. Sorry. Been listening to too much early Cure as of late. Let’s lighten it up a shade, for a little at least.

One of my favorite writers Harlan Ellison once wrote in a collection of essays of the difference between being alone and the idea of aloneness. Since I understand that Mr Ellison is a rather contentious individual let me take a moment to say that I am paraphrasing the man’s observations to meet my own ends here, and in no way am attempting to co-opt any observations I read in his essay. It is just that I figured his musings felt relevant to my rant. If any of you out there in the blogosphere find my little shout-out a tad odd let me go on record saying I would never, ever wish to be James Cameron. Or Aaron Spelling either, for that matter. But then again, who would be?

*90210 riff*

Anyway, Ellison once wrote about the differences between aloneness and being lonely. Aloneness is a choice; we all need some time to ourselves to either tackle personal business or just dick around with sh*t that don’t invite other people to come along and muck up your works. Working on your car, writing in a journal (or blog, hey!), making a small meal just for yourself with as much ketchup as you could stand or a Breaking Bad binge watch. Go away, bolt the door and don’t make me throw this heavy, metal bowl of cheesy poofs at your head! I want to be alone!

want to be alone. Garbo notwithstanding when you’re lonely there’s no one to throw the bowl at. Let alone bolt any doors.

That being said, leaving any doors open within your loneliness echoes an actual Simon & Garfunkel song. Well, maybe just a Paul Simon lyric:

“She said losing love is like a window in your heart/everyone sees you’re blown apart/everyone sees the wind blow.”

For Harvey Shine his loneliness, lowliness and isolation really blows, with or without the cheesy poofs and a frustrating bowl to throw…

Harvey (Hoffman) is at an impasse. With his career, with his family, with his very late mid-life crisis. Everything that was once so secure has been unraveling for years and it’s finally caught up to him.

Harvey’s a musician, in a matter of speaking. In his salad days he fancied himself a jazz pianist. But aspiring to be the next Bill Evans wasn’t going to support a wife and daughter so concessions were made. Advertising contracts came beckoning, therefore solid paychecks. But Harvey’s dreams kept needling him, and his wife Jean (Baker) soon felt the sting. They separated, and Harvey carved out his niche in advertising. Writing jingles rather than movements. More things began to slip away.

Like his daughter Susan (Balaban). It’s been years since Harvey was anything approaching vital in her life. So when Harvey gets an invite to her wedding he views it as an opportunity to stand up again and be dad. Something he could hold onto as a person could ever could, especially as a father.

The nuptials are in London. It’s where the betrothed met. A bit out of the egg for Harvey, but it’s for Susan, dammit! Insecurities be damned. Right, until Harvey finds himself plunked into a hotel a lifetime away from the posh, private guest house. Pariah.

The reception is a disaster. Harvey bails, telling Susan that the reception can wait. He has to get back to New York to handle some business anyway. He understands he’s not wanted and wants to get back to his egg ASAP.

They key to being lonely? It can make you productive under the proper circumstances. Harvey’s proper circumstances is waiting for a belated flight back to JFK and getting wrecked at the airport bar. Another circumstance that falls into play is chatting up statistician Kate (Thompson) on a lark. A final circumstance is that mousy Kate could use a way out of her own loneliness, too. Maybe Harvey could be of help, and in turn help himself?

Maybe. For now, a few shots and a cuppa will work. For now…

How come legacy actors don’t get much respect these days (unless their latest effort has stunk to high Heaven)?

The phrase “legacy actor” is one I made up (I think) in referring to certain actors whose careers have been long, eclectic and often lauded. Maybe an award or two’s been tossed their way to boot. Some of their work can even become the gold standard by which other aspiring thespians try and measure up to. Namely certain actors have a legacy, and their names have vital weight in the Hollywood and/or Broadway community.

Like Dustin Hoffman, of course. Who else would I be talking about here? James Spader? C’mon.

*The James Spader Fan Club are winding up for the beer can pitches*

Folks, please. That’s getting old. And Jon Cryer found work so, huh?

Right. Hoffman. Pretty esteemed legacy actor wouldn’t you say? Oh, and if you’re of the YouTube ADD demographic—which means you like watching things, or at least looking at things—you might wanna check out some of Hoff’s work. You know, to see how it’s done. Myriad actors have looked up to Hoffman’s style and delivery for aeons. His work has mostly been steeped in playing the anti-hero. As Ben Braddock in The Graduate to a divorced single dad in Kramer vs Kramer to out of work tranny in Tootsie to idiot savant in Rain Man to…um…a sensei red panda in Kung Fu Panda, the guy’s been around. And to say versatile would be an understatement and a half. A red panda, I tell you!

But for all his anti-heroics, Hoffman has been self-effacing and compelling. Compelling first and foremost for the whole anti-hero bit. His characters are hard to get behind. Even in his big roles he can come across as annoying or downright ugly. C’mon, Raymond Babbit might’ve been autistic, but it made him no less…pesky. And when he experienced some seriously demented Nazi dental torture in  Marathon Man, a small part of you (admit it) kind of felt he deserved it.

Well, regardless of his irksome roles one cannot deny Hoffman’s legacy. There are but a handful of actors that fall under my umbrella whom have had/still have a legacy. John Wayne, Toshiro Mifune, Katherine Hepburn, Bogey, Jack, DeNiro, Meryl Streep, Mickey Mouse; just to name a few. All have or had carved out a niche in movies that is both wide and enduring, and often a high water mark that other actors try to reach.


Thanks. What precious lines of bullsh*t were those.

So here we reach our quandary. Why don’t legacy actors get their props much anymore? Like I said, a lot of aging actors slow down, make less than compelling films, maybe choose a role (or multiple roles) to just f*ck around a bit and have some fun, grasp at laurels long fallen from the wreath or what appears to be just lost the plot (Pacino, I’m looking at you).

A lot could be argued that most movie attendees have indeed been warped by media saturation—both online and off—and have no patience for work of (gasp) older actors. Nowadays if you’re a successful actor you may at best have ten years in the pocket as relevant or (more accurately) quite bankable. A lot of that has to do with the glammy notions about how Hollywood packages their output. Face facts: one ceases to be “sexy” post 30 years old. We ain’t got the Studio System anymore, where basically a core audience got built up. Nope. Nowadays it’s all flash in the pan. Here’s yer 15 minutes, don’t waste it on saving the whales. Sequel’s be a-callin’.

Cynical? Did you forget where you were? But it is true. Everything has a shelf life, just as everything has a saturation point. These days the latter holds more truth than the former, which in turn directs the former. Legacy stars don’t stand a chance these days. They are old, their Oscars are tarnished, their breasts start to droop and their hair falls out. To wit, the Millenials all let out a collective “Eeyeew.” Then plunk down 12 bucks to watch Scarlett Johannson wink at them. Again. Hey, at least her boobies are still perky and ignore the CV after Lost In Translation.

I figure that’s it with our TMZ, tech gobbling culture. If it ain’t new, it’s through. If you’re old enough to remember Maytag appliances (clothes washers, dryers, digital vibrators, etc) and their “lonesome repairman” commercial campaign then you may get it. The subtext of those ads was Maytag didn’t necessarily have planned obsolescence built into their gizmos; sh*t didn’t go expensive kerboom after five years. Nowadays everything in Hollywood goes splat within ten years. Moreover three. No time to give a nod to the esteemed, older, uglier actors who could act their way out of a Turkish prison. Nope, more money for less art. That may have how it’s been all along.

Now getting back to my original point (I think I may have had one), consider Dustin Hoffman’s legacy. Taking into consideration of the man’s storied and varied career in cinema: he has never been in any of his roles straightforward and not a left-of-center anti-hero. I’m pretty certain in that observation. That’s been his bread and butter since the 60s. It’s his thing, his signature. It’s what makes (most) people want to see his movies. They wanna see Hoffman the passive-aggressive d*ckhole with a few chuckles to feather his cap. That’s been his cachet.

With Last Chance Harvey, I’m sure regarding the above, a little turnabout won’t do much to harm the guy’s vaunted career. In fact, it might help it, sagging as it’s been lately. Red panda, I tell you!

Back to the real, un-pixelated world. In Harvey it’s good to see that even in his twilight years Hoffman has lost none of the awkward intensity that has made many of his roles great. The guy’s style has almost always been twitchy, sometimes odious and barely likable. Of course, that’s what makes for a good anti-hero, a type of character that Hoffman more or less pioneered. His characters often find themselves tripping over their own feet. We watch, we cringe, we snicker. But for all his gangly characters with their hang-ups, issues and occasional, outright histrionic blithering, none of them have ever come across as a serious loser. Teetering on failure maybe, but never a klutzy, grade-A nimbob.

Until now.

Harvey has Hoffman playing against type. Way against type. His dejected husband/father/maker of Tide seem wondrous is unlike any role I’ve seen from the guy. His Harvey’s also very vulnerable, like a raw nerve. Everything in his world has fallen apart, gradually, like a stream’s flow wearing down the rocks. And it’s all his fault through insecurity, anxiety and a trap of loneliness and isolation by his own design. Not your typical hero. Not quite an anti-hero either. With an anti-hero he is either outright unlikeable or toeing the line between principled and nihilistic (think Mad Max or Travis Bickle. Or just read the Observe And Report installment. Again, hopefully).

Not Harvey. He’s dejected and not quite a victim of circumstance. He’s not pleasant. Mostly a basset hound in an ill-fitting suit. Uncomfortable in his own skin. How the hell are we supposed to rally around such a drudge when he’s the Academy Award winning version of Lt Barclay from Star Trek: TNG?

(If any of you out there got that reference bless you and get out of Mom’s basement more often.)

But seriously, how? That’s where the acting comes in. For all of Harvey’s flaws, he’s clumsily self-conscious, sympathetic despite his hell by design, trying to do what (he believes) is the right thing. He jaunts off to London as a second-class citizen to his daughter’s wedding, whose step-family receives better than he ever did. He needs a hug.

The vulnerability is the key. Of course we’ll all felt like Harvey once in a while. We don’t want to admit to that, feeling all lonely and all at sea with ourselves, but it’s a reality. Face it, fess up and go along with the story. Harvey is fifth wheel syndrome run rampant, and all the better for it.

Since we’ve established that Harvey is a film about juxtapositioning an actor known for less than traditionally vulnerable roles/a lonely schlub who needs a break character study it might be prudent to  point out that Harvey‘s plot is terribly derivative. Wait, what? Yep. It’s your typical redemption story. Loser makes good, finds love, revamps his ailing family life and career. That’s not a spoiler; watching the movie you know that’s gonna happen. Sure, Harvey is a bit predictable, but it’s excellently staged. Credit the acting. In the endgame, it’s the only thing that’s holding this trifle together.

To paraphrase Bill Hicks: there’s snarky jibes on the way. Relax. Don’t want to lose any (more) of you.

Right. Character study. Hoffman is our avatar about the lovelorn and lonely. But this ain’t just about Harvey. We have Kate, too, don’t forget. Thompson is an esteemed actress in her own right, and much more than Kenneth Branagh’s former squeeze. Think she nabbed a few of them superfluous Awards too for her screen time. Seen a bit of her sh*t. Her stock in trade has been in histrionics (at least by what I’ve seen). Sure, she can be reserved, but it’s usually tempered by letting edginess sneak out from the corners of her mouth, like spitting out a chew.

For Harvey, that cutting is still present but is now tempered by fragility. Wait, that’s not quite it. Brittleness is a more apt term. Her Kate is lonely like Harvey. She’s frazzled and awkward and loveless and looking down the barrel of middle age…wait, that shot went off years ago. And she’s feeling all of it, from her dead end job, crapping out on the dating scene and her codependent mother who is practically gaffer-taped to her mobile phone’s speed dial (or whatever they call it these days. Last I checked cell phones didn’t have dials, even back in 2008). Kate’s on the fast track to becoming what lesser PC-philes used to call an “old maid.” Like Donna Reed in It’s A Wonderful Life‘s alternate reality. She needs a hug.

So of course both the twain shall meet. For a film like Harvey it’s not only inevitable, it’s essential.

To claim that the movie is star-crossed is and an understatement. Actually, it’s more like…well…I’m not sure what to call it. Two lonely people finding each other, and in turn finding themselves? It’s the stuff of a billion rom-coms, even one as bittersweet as this. Harvey‘s protags aren’t star-crossed. They’re destined to find each other. It’s along the movie’s inevitable curves.

What makes this usual schlock work so well—if at all, incredibly—is due to one thing, and for the first time in this blogger’s grumbling it’s not the pacing (although pretty good. A tiger cannot change its Fruit Stripe gum wads). It’s the editing. Took me a bit to pick up on it, kinda like an “icebox moment” in a Hitchcock flick.

Movie sign! Time for a little annoying film trivia courtesy of yours only! Oh, shut up. Been pretty sober (at least in print) in analyzing Harvey. Time to shake off the fleas.

Hitch coined the term based on his hopes that after a person got home after the movie one would suddenly recall an inconsistency in his movie that would be the antithesis of Kafka’s third act gun rule (look that one up on your own time, buster), maybe when the viewer was reaching for some chicken out of the icebox. There’d be a pause, a head scratching and a general malaise of “wait a minute…”

Harvey‘s icebox moment is a bit more accessible. And you don’t have to pay that much attention, but you should because the film’s editing is the pinion upon which the whole story spins. Harvey is excellently staged, yes, but also excellently edited. Never before in my immediate memory have I ever seen such a film that was cut so well (beyond the technical aspect sh*t) that it was a story element in and of itself. Let’s face facts, no one really cares about good editing until Oscar season, and even then the honor usually falls under Best Picture. Harvey won zero awards in the red carpet sense, but its trimmings were f*cking vital in how the story played out. And not in an overt, pandering way, either. Even I, your ever diligent OCD movie dork missed the cues at first, but in simpler terms Harvey’s editing is smart. Amazing even.

Every scene is framed according to the troubles our protags are wrestling with, balanced against one another revealing their personal hells. We have Harvey. He is alone, he is a drudge, he is ostracized by his family. We have Kate. She is alone, she’s put upon, she is rapidly hurdling towards in an aforementioned less-PC world could consider “old maid” territory. And back and forth and back again we go for the better part of the first act. These cuts show and never tell what’s afoot here. We know these kids are unlucky in love (the bar scene is heartbreaking, as well as it’s reflection at the reception scene), but director Hopkins never takes that frozen chicken’s ire out on a right cross to the temple. Like I said, took me a bit to catch the drift, but when I did, whoa daddy here’s where drama happens. Like a cherry blossom, and no I ain’t being overly poetic, ya dips.

All the rapture I’ve slathered over Harvey for the past nine years doesn’t mean nothing stank in Denmark. Of course not. Even the greatest of movies (which this nugget is far from) has a few rats in the cellar. What? You’ve read this blog enough before. Unless the movie under the ‘scope that week is either truly deplorable, gets my socio-commentary dander up into overdrive or is just a non-stop 100 minute facepalm I only bitch and moan with such aplomb such as Londoners didn’t do during the Blitz. The flipside is me trying to be polite—equitable even—and point out, “Hey, wait a minute…” even with a decent movie. And decent Harvey is, but there’s stuff there that made my eyes roll. Minor, but there. So here they were.

Harvey’s eager desperation seemed a might pathetic. We get the fact the guy’s a failure by his own design, and we are well aware of the magic movie laws dictating that deep sh*t will ultimately yield fallow compost. However keeping them cards too close to the director’s chest might result in his hand being forced. Hoffman’s a gifted actor, and his CV might exceed Hopkins’. Hell, it might even exceed Hopkins’ life, but he’s the director and maybe well-acquianted with his lead’s delicate past and reluctance for going after the jugular.

Maybe not. For after considering Harvey’s sea change in life by the third act, one gets the impression that Hoff’s iron will regarding character acting got willingly rusty. We got plenty of a taste of Harvey’s dire straits from the get go. Do we need a reaffirmation of his insecurities—albeit in a sunnier light—later on after he woos the girl? Right. It should be about trepidation, reluctance to take a plunge no matter how desperate the need is. We don’t need sniveling, no matter how sweet-natured.

Um. That’s about it for the bitch department. Huh. You’re welcome? Who’s up for golf?

After all I said and what was watched this film made me smile in spite of me. Yeah, it’s derivative, but please refer back to my “predictable” comment. Almost all rom-coms are connect the dots, regardless of the skills delivered by the cast, the director, the writers and/or the scouts. Sometimes though, all the essential pieces fall into place. I’ve learned that with a rom-com this can be a very dodgy undertaking. Thanks to (or more often no thanks) established gimmickry solid with the genre most cast and crew play it all fast and loose for maximum laughs, minimal pathos and an inevitable butt shot, gender regardless. Hopkins’ was a nice tonic to all that soap opera folderol. Harvey was thoughtful, clever and overall satisfying entertainment. By the way legacy, actor Dustin Hoffman was our awkward lead. That means something in these days of Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johannson.

One more thing: of course everything works out. That’s not a spoiler. That how all rom-coms end.

Precious few deserve to though.

Now if you’ll excuse me I am lonely and I need to hit up the nearest airport bar. Maybe Emma Thompson will be there. Or Dustin Hoffman. Or Heather Graham circa 1997. I ain’t picky.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Smart, stinging and sweet. Funny too. It’s flicks like this one that reassure/justify my scribblings here at RIORI. That and I’ve been hard up for a non sh*t-bag movie here in ages, so I’ll take what the queue sends.

Stray Observations…

  • “Enjoy London.”
  • The wedding bartender’s looks are priceless.
  • “I’ve always enjoyed stationary.” Wink wink.
  • God, Thompson was looking cute here. Not bad for 51.
  • “If that’s for me I’m in the shower.”
  • Beware of Poles bearing smoked gifts.
  • “Carry your books?” Too goddam sweet.
  • Never realized before how short Hoffman was. Or how tall Thompson was rather.
  • “You do know this is the children’s table?”

Next Installment…

I can’t think of a clever teaser for a movie titled The Last Mimzy.

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 52: Ryan Murphy’s “Eat Pray Love” (2010)

Eat Pray Love

The Players…

Julia Roberts, with James Franco, Javier Bardem, Viola Davis, Billy Crudup, Richard Jenkins, Sophie Thompson, Luca Argentero and Gita Reddy (just because).

The Story…

Based on the memoir of the same name, Liz dumps her immature husband in search of truth and fun. Go globetrotting to the corners of the Earth to “find herself,” whatever that means anymore.

However we all know that to know ourselves, the truth lies within and yadda yadda yadda. Who wants gelato?

The Rant…

We’ve all made bad choices.

Sticking with a career we hate. Dropping out of school. Mixed up in a sh*tty relationship that goes on too long. That tribal tat on your face. Writing a blog about mediocre movies. What have you. Life’s filled with bad choices, as if to offset the positive ones. Funny thing that, good choices are their own reward, but seldom immediate. Chances are you didn’t realize you made one until well into the positive circumstances said choice provided. Like until you get a promotion, or see your kid graduate from college, or finally score that top 10 hit. Stuff like that takes some time to achieve, but all the sweeter with the waiting.

Bad choices? Ah. A bit more slippery.

I’d like to think most folks who find themselves in an existential pickle kinda knew what they were signing up for, and the throughput arrives rather quickly. Sometimes not even unexpectedly. For example you might’ve gotten hints at the outset your new girlfriend might have some daddy issues based on all the portraits of him scattered around her apartment. All of them of him glaring at the lens. Maybe you keep finding cashing missing from your wallet, a reflection of how often your kid goes missing, usually to the neighbors’ garage. You know, the one with three angry pitbulls tied to a semi-truck hub in the fenced off, neglected, dirt patch of a backyard. Or perhaps when your boss calls you into the office one day after sick leave and politely, but forcefully, requests you tell him what meds you’re on (true story!).

An unhealthy dose of denial precludes the slipperiness. Those nagging doubts you squeeze into the basement of your cerebrum. The mounting evidence of dishevelment that you keep excusing. That rattlesnake in your bed you woke up to. Twice. Nah, none of this can be happening. Roadbumps along the road of life these are. Hey, where’s my wallet?

If you’re a thinking person, you may eventually realize you’re embedded in a sh*tstorm of your own making through poor decisions. That it’ll be a hard way out, if you ever want out. Truth ultimately wins out though, and it’s yours to behold. Now there’s this man in the mirror calling, and you’d wish to put him on hold. Indefinitely.

This is part of the lesson where you feel you need to perform some dreaded “soul searching.” You wake up one morning and make a new choice: take stock of your life. Might be a bad choice again, the desire to ask yourself, “What went wrong?” Or, “What did I do to deserve this?” Or most likely, “What do I do now? Where do I go from here?”

That’s easy: escape. Leave it all behind and start over somewhere else. Sure. That’s the ticket. Pull up stakes and start a new life, with or without the witness relocation program. Lots of people dissatisfied with their station in life consider travel. Get away from it all, literally. But there are roadblocks. Finances, for one. You’re tied to that sh*tty job, therefore the finance thing keeps churning. Dump the spouse and/or kids? Not happening…yet. You have all these anchors, all of them feeding into if not cementing your crummy, soul-crushing, confusing life. The life you so desperately want to escape. Quite the conundrum.

So, travel. Imagine if, if you had the wherewithal to set foot out of the nest. Get miles, maybe countries away from your troubles. Experience cultures alien to your own. Meet people totally unlike anyone in your craptastic circle of friends. Hell, get a decent meal instead of those endless Lean Cuisines choking up your freezer. But pause, this might just be a case of the grass being greener. Face it, it’s hard to separate yourself from your lousy life decisions when anything, anywhere else would be better than here.

Your life—the life you wished you had before the fallout of your own design—might be out there waiting for you to catch up. It’s a scary prospect however to make that leap into the unknown. As much as you might hate the stupid decisions that have held you down, it’s familiar. You (think you) have control of your situation, and for all its flaws it’s comfortable.

You gotta get out of that comfort zone. Ain’t done you much good, has it? So yeah, leave. Leave it all behind. Find yourself. All over again. Make this choice a good one. But be careful, in your goal of learning who you once were and what could be, you might not like what you find.

Or maybe not…

Liz Gilbert (Roberts) is an esteemed, successful travel writer. She’s in a nice marriage with Stephen (Crudup), her slightly petulant husband. Her apartment is perfect, complete with the kitchen of her dreams. Money in the bank. Reputation impeccable within the writing community. Wanting for nothing.

Then how come Liz is miserable?

She knows she has the ideal, cosmopolitan life. Why should she be miserable? Well, she’s a travel writer and for far too long Liz got mixed up in setting down roots in a world that doesn’t fit. So she decides to make some very rational, practical decisions to turn things around.

Divorce Stephen. Shack up with hot, young aspiring actor David (Franco) to shake away the divorce blues. Listen to her best buddy Delia’s (Davis) advice and get off her ass, go visit the world again. This time minus any writing assignments. Check out Italy, India and Bali. Soak up some culture. Find a guru. Find a nice guy whose not obsessed with tomorrow.

Get a good meal for f*ck’s sake…

Christ, this one was dreadful.

Again, showing my hand, but man.

Hey, I like TV travelogues. Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and A Cook’s TourNational Geographic ExplorerThe Jeff Corwin Experience. Anything about places and people and things that if I had the time and money I’d go there in a hot minute. But I’m broke, haven’t accrued enough frequent flyer miles and can only speak three languages: American, Canadian and British. That and I hate jet lag.

I figured that based on my passive-aggresive wanderlust and wishing I was wrestling with giant frogs in the Yucatan and later chowing down on Montreal poutine slathered with salsa and mushrooms Eat Pray Love would be right up my alley as well as conveniently following The Standard. Heck, the movie was based on the best-selling, real life memoir by the actual Liz Gilbert. She lived what she wrote about, after all. And this movie adaptation starred America’s reliable sweetheart Julia Roberts! What could go wrong?

Right. Plenty.

I’m going to try, try not to slam Eat Pray Love into the dirt too hard. I understand it is my custom to get into a frothing frenzy here at RIORI when I watch a really crappy film. The kind you feel cheated for having seen, and I can’t remember the last time I took apart some mediocre movie here that didn’t enrage me in the last month or so (I have a lot of imaginary ticket stubs to throw in the faces of a lot of imaginary ushers). No. I’m going to try to be methodical in my analysis of Eat‘s pitfalls with a minimum of bile.

Why? Because this movie was a sad waste of potential. It had the air of doing the right thing, but its execution and overall tenor was so treacly, sour and worst of all boring (I know, how can a travelogue be boring?). It could have been a lot better. Obviously so.

Eat‘s biggest crime was that it was derivative. Very derivative. The wifey sat down with me to watch the thing for the first half hour. She gave up in disgust and stomped out of the room. She’s the one who labeled the movie derivative. After 30 minutes, and she almost never watches the movies I destroy with me for any appreciable amount of time (half hour or no). She found the first half hour of Eat lame, stupid and—you guessed it—derivative. She was quite correct, and I reached the same correct conclusion 90-plus minutes later. Well, truth be told, it took me over three hours to watch the thing in full. My attention kept wandering, and the viewing was interspersed with way too many cigarette, snack and bathroom breaks. Whether I needed them or not. I rationalized I needed them to get through the drudgery.

Sorry. Getting bitter. But disappointing movies do that to me. Now let’s get technical.

When I—she—said Eat was derivative here’s what the vibe was. Well after that crucial half hour mark, yet well-established within those 30 minutes there was a stink of Hollywood tampering. I’m not talking about director Murphy taking a lot of liberties with the source material. I never read the book myself, but I knew it was a hot ticket at Barnes & Noble since the last Ice Age, apparently something sweating to be made into a movie or TV series or video game or something. Hollywood apparently was champing at the bit. Taking any liberties here was most likely a tricky prospect at best (where was Liz gonna go first? Venus?). Still, I smelled that a travel movie would be more about the destination, and not the traveller. I mean, Bourdain made his shows about the places and people with him just as a witness. All he added was snarky commentary and cursory explanations about cultural and historical hot points. It wasn’t him yammering on and on and on about himself; the places he visited did the talking.

Murphy sure didn’t take hints from Bourdain. More like he took orders from the studio for Eat. Marching orders.

Eat may have been about Liz’ adventures, but sure as sh*t is wasn’t about Liz. At least not directly. Here’s where the derivations commenced. Dissatisfied woman looking down the barrel of a mid-life crisis. Looking in the mirror and asking where her dreams went. Burns old life to the ground. Shacks up with various men of vitality (through her rosey lenses). Reasserts who she is via escape. Start over elsewhere in unfamiliar climes of her dreams in search of happily ever. As Bourdain quoted, “Go bamboo.”


The whole “fish out of water” bit has been done to death ten times over, and it ain’t any better for the eleventh time. Liz as the innocent abroad is a character so tired it went to bed and tossed the alarm clock in the toilet years ago. Recalling the whole “let the pictures do the talking” aesthetic when doing a travelogue, it’s never the destination but the journey. Everything, everything in Eat is punctuated by Liz’ wonder, angst, fears and waaay too much about her and her anxieties. The real Liz’ story is probably just as personal, but well lacking on her focus on…her. The places she went are the stars of the show I’ll bet. Her reflecting on the when and where is where we learn who Liz is and maybe was. Felt like Murphy deemed this as too heady and made Roberts the absolute center of her travels.

If this was the case (and it sure tasted that way) then our avatar Roberts was not invested in her role. What’s made Roberts a go-to actress for the past quarter century is her skill at conveying both humor well-paired with vulnerability. This holds true as far back as Pretty Woman well into Notting Hill and even her other biopic Erin Brockovich, of which she won an award. There’s a passive self-consciousness in her selected roles. Passive. Her Liz is so painfully self-aware there is no charm. At the outset our heroine both equally, stereotypically fragile and resolved. Cut and dried. There is no humor, at least nothing that sticks. There is no subtlety. Roberts’ Liz is just going through the motions, motions completely out of synch with a travel movie about self-discovery. It’s understood that people travel to get out of their comfort zone and maybe learn something about themselves in the process. Liz’ globetrotting in Eat is rote; it is precisely what audiences are supposed to expect. It is what Murphy’s vision is. It is connect the dots. It is not about the journey, it is about Liz. And only Liz. Roberts is completely reactive in Eat and her signature fragile charm is all but absent. She’s a cipher for a thousand dissatisfied housewives, passport at the ready or no. Her acting is shameful here. Roberts has a lot of strong, emotional attributes. Being willowy is not one of them.

Since Roberts’ failings as she was directed really bogged down the film there must be a counterbalance. Despite Murphy’s style reeking of hackwork, a great deal of Eat‘s technical execution was quite good. There was a lot of what I call rolling camera work. You know, trying to maximize space with great cinematography, thereby essential to tell the story beyond the story. Remember Eat is a story of exploration, be it within and without. Since Liz is bounding around the globe trying to find her own private Shangri-La we better f*cking get eyeballs full of expansive swaths of local color. The rolling camera work succeeds. Everything feels intimate yet wide. There’s plenty of time allowed to absorb where Liz is and what she sees. It’s the only aspect of a travel story where the place outshines the traveler, and it makes for a pretty picture. But just that. Granted Roberts’ performance unfortunately enhances this effect, but without her indifferent screen presence this effect wouldn’t have worked as well. Odd really. I took what I could get here.

Still Eat was derivative, it’s biggest sin. Murphy either dropped the plot (literally) or was charmed by the producers holding the pennies (one of whom was Brad Pitt, BTW. Does he really need more cred by now?) to make a “safer” picture. At any rate, Eat‘s end-run was dull and predictable, overly so. We’re even talking right down to Liz REDACTED, thereby turning her life around. Such a trope is f*cking stale, and derivative of a million “get away from it all” stories. A movie about world travel? How could that be boring? Well, it could’ve been a lot more interesting if Eat didn’t play out so safe. By safe I mean tepid, sappy and a healthy dose of pandering to Middle American audiences. Did I mention the pacing was like syrup? Again, stoning offense for a travelogue; it’s all about forward motion in the final analysis.

Eat was intermittently interesting, if not entertaining. When Liz wasn’t moping about, Murphy’s limited skills did indeed shine. He had a keen eye for capturing the vibrance of places afar for us poor, myopic American schlubs stuck in the McDonald’s drive-thru queue. But the other side of the coin demanded so many eye-rolls. At his hand, Eat‘s potential to be truly eye popping was hampered by his moving Roberts from position to position and insist the throughput was held exclusively in her eyes. Very little reflection, precious little. At least anything convincing, therefore meaningful.

In conclusion Eat was a drag, and claiming also a big let-down (if regarding this installment, quite the truism). It was boring. It lost the plot, well before one got established. I hope the real Liz Gilbert was well compensated for the probable bastardization of her beloved, best-selling book. So much potential was wasted here. So much. I know I said earlier I’d keep the ire to a minimum, and I’d like to believe me being clinical here achieved that. Still Eat was the kind of movie I’d be screaming in tongues about with paroxysms of frustration and where the f*ck the last 2 hours went. Longer including a pack of smokes, many beers, a ham sandwich and a small load of laundry. My attention was not held.

That being said, I think I’ll get back to polishing some mirrors, ask myself why I got that tribal tat back in the 90s and locate some really decent pasta. Barring watching a decent movie, what else is there?

Getting my wallet away from those pitbulls. That’s what.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. F*cking frustrating. Anathema to any proper tale of travel, not to mention the “Cinderella story” interwoven into the traveling fabric. Any smart person will hate this movie. There. There’s the bile.

Stray Observations…

  • “You wanted that toaster!”
  • Ever wonder if Roberts gets smile cramps?
  • “Do you need a Xanax?” “Always.”
  • First time I ever watched a movie without watching it. Sandwiches can’t make themselves.
  • “She thinks I changed my name to ‘Motherf*cker’.” Had to laugh at that.
  • Jenkins’ soliloquy is the best acting in the entire film.
  • “Do you always talk in bumper sticker?”
  • However cheesy, Liz’ adventures in Rome sure looked appealing.
  • “My place.”
  • Who thinks the real Liz Gilbert should be given her own show on the Travel Channel? Hands?
  • “See you later, alligator.”

Next Installment…

Like all good illusionists declare, “Now You See Me, now you don’t.” Let’s hope it’s not how I may feel about this movie.

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 49: Harold Ramis’ “The Ice Harvest” (2005)

The Ice Harvest

The Players…

John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Platt, Ned Bellamy, Mike Starr and Randy Quaid.

The Story…

Clueless attorney Charlie Arglist embezzles $2 million from a mobster. Not a good life decision. Yet he keeps examining gift horses’ teeth. Nevertheless and with the swag in tow, sleazy Charlie plans to skip town with the girl of his misbegotten dreams. That is until the cops get nosey, as is their job.

Smart time to just follow advice from the Steve Miller Band.

Get it? I luv being funny and clever.

The Rant…

I work for the 2%.

It’s not something I’m proud of. In fact serving the gold-plated denies me everything I stand against. Self-righteous entitlement. Conspicuous consumption. Asparatame. But this guy’s gotta make a living, the one with the beater car and the beaten credit score. I have a wife and kid to support, and since they enjoy electricity so much I have to keep us financially solvent. That and beer and smokes aren’t free. Funny, neither is Netflix. So heigh-ho, heigh-ho.

That’s most of us. Most of us with bills for power, gas and medical care best pull down a 40-plus hour week lest we fall behind in car payments, credit card bills, mortgages and your bookie’s tab. We need to buy groceries, pay for education and doctors, gas for the car and the occasional indulgence, like a short vacation and/or your weight in dark chocolate for those late night cravings. These things require money, hence why we work. Sure beats being broke, living in the streets and scoring what few coins certain intimate services to strangers may provide.

Most of us just struggle along. A lot of us doubtless wish we get a bigger slice of the pie. Very few of us ever do. Wealth usually only comes to those who are lucky, crafty and/or inheriting daddy’s empire. And such riches are often pissed away like hair down the shower drain. Get me, I don’t take issue with wealth, though. It’s not like I’m some radical, left-winged Abbie Hoffman clone denouncing the disparity between the haves and have-nots. Okay, I’m not radical. Can’t ride a skateboard. But I’d be hard-pressed to deny that in these United States the rest of us would be pretty grateful for a large injection of cash to lighten the load and get that chocolate. We’d could cut a large check to a cause to benefit humanity, like find a cure for AIDS or alopecia. We’d love to own an island and maybe establish an endangered species rescue colony. We’d love to have a custom X-Wing.

Nah. Dreaming of that stuff is something we all do once in a while. I think about that X-Wing thing daily, though, all painted up like the Sgt Pepper’s album cover.

I do take issue is how big money is misspent, if not outright abused. Banks too big to fail failing and crushing the housing market. Big Pharma taking careful measures to amp up prices for “research” and at the same time curing nothing so to maximize profits. The fatuous upper crust building actual gold-plated bunkers for when the inevitable happens and the rabble reenacts the French Revolution. Cake and everything.

Don’t even get me started on what Uncle Sam pisses away every minute.

But in the long run for most folks—2% or otherwise—too much money too fast makes you f*cking stupid. I’m not talking about tools who blew their lottery winnings on wine, women, song and an X-Wing painted up like the Sgt Pepper’s album cover. Not day traders who sweat their own piss 25/8 into the next share onto share until they have an aneurism all in the name of some third-world start-up. Not even the upper echelon who think they are invulnerable to social mores and…wait, they are. Sh*t, that’s stupid.

What I’m saying is a lot of people reach for some pretty dumb ends to collect and lose money. I often believe it’s done with a half-baked, shortsighted and head-in-the-clouds kinda daydreaming about what a huge stack could offer. Sports cars you can’t afford the upkeep for. Same for a massive summer bungalow on the beach. Any number of flash accessories to live out your revenge fantasy on all the kids that kicked you out of the playground in grammar school. Sh*t like that. Where to get that quick fix of cash to fill that personal emptiness?

Nowhere. You can’t. Unless you inherit it or bet what little money you had right (e.g.: win the lottery or on Wall Street, whichever gamble you prefer), you’ll get the cash through long hours at your place of employ, scrimping and saving where you can, favors from your bank maybe (if you got one), but more likely relatives and patient friends and forgoing any luxuries like a new XBox One, ordering out for pizza and/or sleep. Big wealth doesn’t just come out of the ether. So much that in our so-called classless society, the majority of Americans will earn what their earning right now until retirement. If they get there.

Most of the time the big money stays right where it is, in a relatively tight global network that’s enthrall to the 2%. You’ve heard it before, and it’s not some outlandish Alex Jones-esque conspiracy theory either. It’s more like an open secret. Six empires control everything, and the profits en toto. Disney, Viacom, etc. Pulling the (purse) strings. The kind of blinding avarice the rest of us covet is always going to be out of reach. So for a reality check, keep punching the clock, wasting cash on hand on stupid scratch-offs and deny yourself that good night’s rest. Your dreams will still be there in the morning before the coffee’s ready.

After many years working for the upper 2% I learned something. Now I’m a bit of an armchair philosopher, meaning I call it like I see it. This is what I saw, and it’s based on personal and against experiences prior to catering to the Robin Leach crowd, BTW. Just roll with me a bit longer.

We all have addictions. Be it poker, Pokemon Go or substance abuse. I’m not sure about the second one, but the others have an option of rehab. You can fess up to your problem, seek out a support group and hopefully get your sh*t together. I have an addiction; I drink too much. I had a co-worker once who was a recovering junkie sharing a house with other recovering junkies. I’ve been to meetings and have sought council. Same with my old friends. There is a way out, once you owe up to the addiction and admit you need help. Society scorns addicts, also knowing full well what their cravings do may lead to either criminal acts and/or bodily harm. Theirs or others (others seem to take precedence). But there are outs, places to commune with other addicts, share stories, drum up mutual support. Hopefully this leads to recovery, or at least a semblance of one.

Here’s the hard truth. Groups only work so far. You actually need that social stigma—that guilt and remorse—to take action and clean up your sh*t. Loose the booze. Drop the needle. Fold. Otherwise it’ll lead to not just a loss of the plot or actual physical harm (yours or the bum you snow over for coins that may lead to another fix of crack), but the gentry looking down its collective nose at you. Scorn. It can be quite the potent motivator to find the straight and narrow.

However there is one addiction that has no cure, simply because it is both encouraged by society (if not revered) and even held in esteem. It’s the addiction to wealth. Enough is never enough. Such a junkie never views themselves as sick, despite having more directly demands having even more. Gone are the days of philanthropy. If a millionaire spreads his billfold wide, there’s usually some PR detachment  waiting with a phalanx of CNN and Fox News cameras at the ready. There’s really no such thing as altruism anymore.

Barring Warren Buffet, too many of the 2% need a detox. You don’t need a gold-plated bunker. You don’t need an island chain in the South Pacific to serve as a driveway for your platinum Maserati collection (which you never drive and never will). You moms don’t need titanium strollers for you 11-year olds. But no plebeian American turns a nose up at this. Amassing wealth is the ‘Murican dream. Smartly managing it? Keep sleeping, and enjoy your Big Mac for breakfast each and every morning.

There is no cure for wealth addiction. There is no end, no matter how many Powerball tickets you scratch. And f*ck all who get in the way of the dividends. Including the housing market.

*pant, pant*

To be fair, some enterprising people do profit wildly from outlandish schemes now and then while staying within the margins. Even a blind squirrel and so on. Some were no accidents. Some get-rich-quick strategies actually paid off without resorting to the Wall Street casino. Some stupid, but eventually fruitful (in no small part to the low-hanging fruit mentality of our blessed country. Quick n’ cheap) ideas that let the coins roll in if only for a short time. Pet rocks, Tamagotchis, Seward’s Folly, etc, at least those fortunes—however hair-brained the motives—had a plan in place, real or projected. Not just it’ll-come-to-ya finger crossing, but a drive. Careful designs in motion. There are the people who just wanna make a quick buck, skim off the top, con, swindle and scam. On the spot and with zero plan what to do once they get their mitts on some cash, if they ever do. Looking up to Rupert Murdoch or our present GOP talking head as if to aspire to be Jesus, Mohammed or John Lennon. It’s okay, no treatment needed there. Brass rings await.

The lower 98% thinks along these lines, I’ll bet. Not all, of course. I still have to work, sleep and keep studying frame by frame every scene of The Sting over and over again in order to locate my own pet rock. If we all had more, what should we really do with it? And how do we get to it? How do we keep it? Is a plan necessary? Do I have a problem? Why are low income folks eating out of McDonald’s Dumpsters to survive? Why should anyone feel compelled to build a gold-plated bunker when titanium is so much stronger, not to mention cheaper? Sh*t, why should any high profile mover and shaker feel compelled to build a bunker in the first place? That says something about who has too much and who has too little if you ask me.

So. Where do we 98% start? Where’s an ample supply of cash at to get our teeth fixed or our car to work or coffee in our mugs? Where can we find our ugly quick fix and “get ahead?”

Well, if you’ve been paying attention over the past few decades, outright theft’s been a pretty reliable tactic…

Charlie (Cusack) has a problem. A few actually. One, he’s broke. Two, he needs cash and quick. Three, he’s a mob lawyer. And four, he just embezzled over $2 million dollars from his best client Bill Gerard (Quaid). Bill’s not the most understanding person in the world, so when he finds out where his finances went, Charlie’s going to have to face his fifth problem: getting away with it, scott free.

He also hates being stuck in Kansas, but that’s another thing entirely.

Okay, so Charlie has the money. He and his fixer friend (and Bill’s illict porn distributor) Vic (Thornton) have concocted a wily scheme of  getting their swag and themselves the hell out of Dodge. Well, will finalize how to get away. Of course, there are always snags in pulling off a heist like this.

Like Charlie being a nervous nelly about getting caught. Like the thug who’s pursuing Charlie and Vic to less than gently shake them down. Like Charlie’s crush on stripper Renata (Neilsen), who has less than a heart of gold and a way of pouring honey in Charlie’s ear. Like having to babysit drunken buddy Pete (Platt), who just won’t shut up about Charlie’s shady career choice. And of course Bill inevitably tracking the the dopey pair down.

All on an Xmas Eve…

Don’t misunderstand. The Ice Harvest is a comedy. A dark comedy. Very dark. We’re talking charcoal here. This ain’t no How To Train Your Dragon here, bucko (shout-out to Lex).

Harvest‘s comedic tone isn’t something I’m used to in a Harold Ramis movie. The humor is so dry it practically chafes. I’m accustomed to Ramis’ movies to be a little madcap, be it nutty plots, snarky dialogue and over-the-top goofball characters. With Harvest, you’d never find the likes of Al Czervik, Carl Spackler or Clark Griswold with their loony comedy cachet. Nope. You would find…well, Charlie Anglist and Vic Cavenaugh, and all the silliness that entails.

Which isn’t much. Or at least being very different form Ramis’ previous efforts.

Harvest a very low-key affair compared to the late, great Ramis’ other movies. Very low-key. This film barely plays like a comedy at all. There are snappy lines, amusing characters and almost noir-ish story playing out. The movie’s source material was Scott Phllips novel of the same name. Never read the thing, but what I got out of Ramis’ adaptation is that Phillips must have a grim sense of humor.

Grim is one of the watchwords here. From the get-go you know this crime caper is bound to fail, it’s only a matter of when. That uncommon dry humor works well for this tale of the wages of sin. It doesn’t ever lighten the load, and that creepy vibe is only amplified for it. One of the major scenes in the film—and doubtless the funniest—is when Vic and Charlie get into a gunfight with Bill’s heavy locked in a trunk. It’s a demented scene, to be sure and rather funny. But these guys are going to kill the guy in the trunk lest he takes out Charlie and report back to his superior about the missing cash. That sounds like something out of a Tarantino flick. The Ice Harvest is a comedy, written by the guy who gave us Caddyshack and the original Ghostbusters. Despite the grim air, this film is meant to make you laugh. Sometimes you do, but mostly you just cringe.

The other key term attached to Harvest is demented. The whole story—set up in the opening with Cusack Coen-esque voice over—is so going to be a paper moon for Charlie. We’re let in on the little secret here and there by the nonsense that routinely pops up in our “hero’s” post heist. Pete’s drunken raging. Renata’s fake 1940’s bombshell schtick. Officer Tyler popping up at the most inopportune times. And of course it’s Christmas in Middle America, all honest and friendly. Nothing in Harvest is simple angst and evading the law/mobster. It’s all about the dry and often unhinged humor designed to discomfort. If Ramis was trying to make Coen Brother pastiche or simply try to stretch himself as director, he succeeded in fits and starts with Harvest.

A lot of what makes this grim, demented, black chucklefest work is (no surprise here) acting. We don’t have a traditional rogue’s gallery here, and Charlie the nebbish is hardly a steel-in-his-veins protagonist. No need nor want. Here we get a neurotic, white collar thief with a crush on a stripper with way too much easy money and not a safe to found. Dillinger he ain’t. I’ve always loved Cusack’s nervous, awkward energy. When either he gets antsy or really into a role, it’s all about scenery chewing without the chewing. A lot of mugging, albeit controlled. A lot of apologetic looks. Flat affect smiles. He seems to enjoy dropping things. He also is very funny when he is cranky. His Charlie has gotten himself  into such a bucket of syrup he can only surrender to the madness of it all and devolved into all Three Stooges. Not the physical aspect, mind you. Just the inevitable beat-downs, social and otherwise. His hangdog is a mile wide and we’re supposed to root for him. We can’t, and that’s fine.

Charlie’s ying to his yang is Vic. Mister smooth smoothie (so we’re led to believe). He knows all the chords, and will play them all the way to the Kansas border. Vic gives the air of cool, calm and collection. He has no doubt he and Charlie’s windfall will make it over the border. It’s all a ruse, though. Vic is just as fragile as Charlie, knowing Gerard’s flunkie is just around the corner to off them, even from within a trunk.

To give you an idea as to how detached a role like Vic’s could be portrayed, I submit Exhibit A: Sam Raimi’s 1998 crime caper gone awry A Simple Plan. Played opposite against a manic Bill Paxton (like there’s any other kind) as a stooge who ended up blowing the whole crime. Here Thornton is the polar opposite, never a jitter to be seen, but the endgame is the same. He knows more than he lets on, at least by what he thinks he knows. The end result is Thronton as a used car salesman selling hoopdies from an empty lot. Not quite sleazy, but cool enough to pull Charlie along into this mess. Both characters are the opposing sides of the same coin. It’s implied that this inside job wasn’t Charlie’s idea seeing how Vic is so clinical about the whole dangerous undertaking. And his fast-talking and angular logic and everything’s-gonna-be-alright delivery just rankles Charlie more, fraying his nerves. That’s funny stuff—a Fargo inspired Abbott and Costello bit—ignoring the heavy pall over Wichita Falls.

The final leg of this triangle is Nielsen’s sultry, conniving dancer Renata. Her femme fatale act is the culmination of a billion Rita Heyworth fanfics. That’s funny without being funny, and her schtick still falls along the lines of dark comedy. Such a caricature starring in a film post-1975 would be laughed off the screen and the screen then burn the screen. Beyond goading Charlie to waltz into her web of shear camies and legs, Neilsen’s best offer to Harvest in the wink-wink, nudge-nudge department is the anti-Elsa a la Casablanca. She’s the reverse, and if you think about it Harvest is a screwy take on Curtiz’ masterpiece. A dire getaway. The woman to leave behind. A lost fortune. Considering this scenario, author Phllips is a genius. How it panned out along Ramis’ storyboard, not so much.

If there is some theme to Harvest is that it’s about a lot less than purloined money. It’s pacing is helpful in unraveling this. Sluggish, like the Kansas winter that slows everything to a crawl. It’s about identity. It’s about trust. It’s about avarice and keeping enemies closer. It’s about army training, sir. The 2 mil is just the Maguffin. What surrounds it is an opportunity for a character study. That and a meditation on greed, lust, trust and what ends people will go to become so closed-fisted. The classic It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was a better example of this with a lot more laughs.

So truth be told, Harvest ain’t all that funny. Icky, dire and left-of-center amusing, but I didn’t laugh outright once. Some snickers, sure, but for a black comedy, Ramis should’ve stuck with what he knew, not cross the streams (it would be bad) and inject just a shade more dementia to rub against the grim.

There was a listless feeling, foot-dragging that made Harvest one shade off brilliant, of which Ramis was. All the hallmarks were there for a Coen Bros/Bob Rafelson/Hal Ashby anti-comedy to be in place. It’s too bad too much Red Harvest keep sneakin’ around the perimeter.

Nice try Harold, wherever you may be. A solid effort, built upon thin ice.

*cue dead drop with a splash*

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Another one: relent it, but with reservations. It’s always a dodgy affair when a genre-established director take a left turn. The turn here was a sharp one, but the driver was halfway asleep. Damned f*cking black ice.

Stray Observations…

  • “Mom, I gotta go…”
  • Nielsen has one of the lousiest American accents I’ve ever been exposed to. Heard that clucking as far back as Law & Order: SVU.
  • “It’s God’s birthday!” Wait, what?
  • At last, an honest cinematic depiction of your typical, average American holiday dinner. Rockwell quality that.
  • Pay phones? In the 21st Century?
  • “It’s surprisingly spacious, Vic.”
  • I can’t believe the Kafka gun tenet was quite literally put to use here. Surprising.
  • “Only morons are nice on Xmas.”

Next Installment…

Most major wars are fought deep in the trenches. When battle literally comes down in LA, soldiers take to the Skyline. Even if that means battling crazed, cannibal aliens from out of our galaxy.

War is hell.