RIORI Presents Installment #181: Judd Apatow’s “This Is 40” (2012)



The Players…

Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd, Maude Apatow and Iris Apatow, with John Lithgow, Albert Brooks, Megan Fox, Charlyne Yi, Jason Segel, Chris O’Dowd, Lena Dunham, Melissa McCarthy and Graham Parker.


The Basics…

Middle age creeps into the lives of Pete and Debbie and certain things aren’t so certain anymore. Then again, on the brighter side, some things always are.

The tough stuff? Financial woes, naturally. Parenting headaches. Extended family members always politely but disdainfully asking, “What are you going to do with your life?” Such things can be a melange of hard questions with no easy answers as the reality of your life being half over gradually sinks in. Uncertainty pervades every aspect of your life.

So what’s the good news? The certainty that no matter how nuts and how fast your life is winding down your family and friends will do the best to get your back. Even if you’re both grown-ups and you don’t want them to.

Best embrace that. Won’t come around again.


The Intro…

I’ve done this before, section off the rant. This time out there are stipulations. This iteration should be read as an essay, like for a college course (or an early Kevin Smith film). Gauged and patiently that.

Never fear, however. None of this will be on the final exam.


The Rant, pt. I: Denial and Rationalization…

When I turned 40 I could’ve cared less. Sure, it’s considered a milestone, however as you get older those ages capped with a zero start taking on a less-than-pleasant connotation than your first 30 years. Meaning no one 29 and under trusts you anymore. You’ve seen the tee shirt.

A lifetime ago I covered The Wolverine and went on this fantastic tangent about how the West and the East regard youth. It was an X-Men movie; I was in rare form. To recap, most countries in Asia venerate seniors for their experience, knowledge and all of Grandma’s secret recipes. In the West we praise youth, meaning potential, wide horizons and well-skilled with the ideal time to nuke a Hot Pocket to drippy perfection. Consider the matter of a very young, hotshot lawyer becoming a partner before 30, such skills they have. Success then knowledge! You follow. And it sounds good—and often is—but my bet is on the friendly, tenured philosophy professor whose knows all his students by name and walks 30 minutes to class each day, Red Bull in hand, for reliability.

Yeah, I respect my elders. Even though I ain’t eld. Yet. Put down your Blue Books.

So yeah, when I turned 40 it was just another day. Most people chalk that birthday up to identity crisis. Me? I fixed my old video game consoles from the 8-, 16- and 32-bit years and told my then wife I needed to dress better. So between engaging in another round of Ocarina Of Time and purchasing a few smart sweaters life went on as usual. But it was the year that the fateful age began yelling at me nonetheless.

I had a crap day at work (had quite a few of those back then). Someone leaked that it was my birthday. I gave up counting when 30 rolled around and the Millennials dubbed Interpol as “classic rock.” Kept feeling razzed. Already had enough frustrations in my life—financial, marital, parental, still unable to catch all those stupid Poes—that being treated like a kid almost not a kid. Whatever my fellow deviants’ brand of salt felt ideal to rub into my wounds wasn’t something I needed. That and my back was bothering me.

I was at the barest end of my thirties. I felt that all my efforts to get my sh*t together were in vain. Was drummed out of my first chef’s position. Had kicked the pills but beer always reared its frothy head. Three degrees on my resume but still pulling slave wages for 60-plus hours a week (if it weren’t for overtime I couldn’t pay for jack since the wifey refused to get a job). Stuck at home with my parents with my family in tow after being evicted years back. No social life. No social time (save churning out these screeds, and just barely). A bum knee. Dandruff. An acquired hatred of shrimp cocktail. The list could’ve gone on. I was not a happy camper. I figured while most Gen X thrity-somethings were climbing the corporate ladder, I kept going below decks to scrape out the grease trap.

The following is exaggerated. Makes for a better story. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend:

My fortieth year was the year when my body began to rebel. A decade plus working in kitchens will take its toll as folks who have gone over Kitchen Confidential with a highlighter know. It’s not being on your feet all day—it’s not just that—but it is a piece of the puzzle as the hours upon weeks upon years roll on. All that bending and stretching. Knife cuts and burns. You’re hearing gets low level tinnitus from the constant drone of the hoods. You’re expected to work sick, even if you have a doctor’s note (never happened). However it wasn’t my age that did me in, per se. Just warned me about possible wreck and ruin.

I’ll cut to the chase: had a few falls in my career—physical ones as well as otherwise—which screwed up my lower back. Took to wearing a brace from time to time, but only as a Band-Aid. The joint where I was working come that fateful shift was a wellspring of tumbles for me. Crappy shoes, wet floor, pow, ow. Slipped on the ice off the loading dock. Lost my footing in the stairwell. I’m not a clumsy person, not really, but those imps of the perverse were out to get me. Even after I invested in some better footwear.

The pièce de résistance came when I literally fell out of the kitchen. Like outside. Onto the sidewalk. Mats weren’t laid down flat. Trip and oopsie. Did and somersault and landed on all fours with a mighty pop! I suddenly had no spine. I could not move. All was numb. The wind knocked out of me. I was afraid to move. My coworkers wanted to give me a hand up but I waved them off. I was still assessing the damage.

When I was sure nothing was broken I laid down on the ground. The pain was there, this dull, throbbing, really pissed off pain. The kind that mocks you. I laid there until one of my supers came by. He had back trouble also and sympathized, carefully helped me up. I was scared. With that terrific header I had no idea what had caused what and was afraid to move…period. He helped me fill out the incident report, let me go home, gave me a Vicodin and took me to my car. He asked if I was okay to drive. I was and called him once I got home. There I called the doctor, made an appointment and laid down on my bedroom for a while, letting the pill do its thing. Didn’t really help.

I confessed to the skylight—Roger Murtaugh-style—uttering out loud, “I’m getting too old for this sh*t…”

Quit laughing. It’s no big shocker as you get older you don’t recover from anything fast, and the older you get you may not recover period. I don’t mean the Grim Reaper knocking at your bathroom door, not yet anyway. Just things ain’t gonna be the same anymore. In your 20s you could survive on 3 hours of sleep, Natty Ice, Red Bull and a Snickers bar a week. When you hit 40 you hopefully have learned Red Bull is made from bile, Natty Ice is paint stripper and Snickers bars are made from lies and deception. Better belly up to the trough with strong coffee (for its wake-up call after its wake-up call), Grape-Nuts and Icy Hot applied when needed. Ha ha. You’ll get there you whelps, saving up for your PS5s and perpetual adolescence upkeep. I’m jealous really.

My debilitating fall had much to do with my age. Plain bad luck was closer to the truth. It was more akin to someone who had recently suffered a concussion should not be allowed to take a nap. The grind was all over me, paired with the never-ending stress of being broke and being broke. But really, I think it took that incident to get me to do some real self-assessment. I was talking to a window, let’s start there. An angry back isn’t anything fresh sweaters could remedy. My 20s were long gone; those college days as a punker/raver desperate writer were out to pasture. My 30s were just yesterday when I was doing restaurant work, had a radio show on the side and started this dimwit blog. Then here I was—am—with a bum back, still a bum knee, divorced from both my wife and my job and left wondering “What happened?” All that and me fumbling through Riven again on the PS2 like I did 20 years ago on my PC, which is now scrap.

Kinda like me.


The Rant, pt. II: Acceptance and Capability…

I think that is the crux of the turning 40 dilemma: what happened? It’s around that age when one starts either a full blown or low key existential crisis, whether they realize it or not. You get hair plugs or refurbish old video game consoles respectively. Turning 40 is the gateway to old age, when nostalgia really starts to matter. It’s when you begin to consider fiber more than just an ingredient in morality. It’s when you start voting straight ticket—regardless of the candidates’ Grape-Nut intake—so long as they won’t raise taxes (EG: “Hey, the guy might’ve murdered 30 children and made boxer shorts out of their hides but at least he won’t raise taxes”). Is the Clash really considered “oldies?” Why is it whenever I watch Jeopardy! all the advertisements are peddling heavy pharmaceuticals? How does Wi-Fi work and why can’t I master the 720º? I mean, Tony Hawk is over 40 and he can…because he’s in better shape than me. Strong back. Whimper.

It’s all about insecurity and uncertainty, but without the panache of getting older and therefore wiser living in the Land of the Rising Sun. No. We live in American, Home of the Whopper, and knowing better we still get pissy when the shake machine is down. We’re confused. Hitting 40 does not necessary mean you’re old. It means you’re on your way. Consider this: based on anthropological studies that without readily available food and water sources, modern medicine and reliable shelter the average human lifespan would be approximately 35 years in the wild. See all you birthday buddies? You’d already be a feast for worms by now without aspirin. Now life is simply metaphorically short, but that doesn’t mean you don’t begin winding down at 40. It’s about your perceived obsolescence, reinforced by what Madison Avenue pitches to you and the younger generation no longer regarding you as on the bubble. Recall the retro gaming references I made above; vital to me, maybe to you but most likely not to Gen Z. Or Gen AA. You know, the future consumers. The past is always catching up to you—whether it be in the forms of playing outmoded video games or nasty falls past—and the future is a maw that can’t be fed.

Scary. And inevitable. All apologies.

Despite it all, turning 40 can be fun, at least with us, the rabble that is Gen X. We’ve since reached that cachet of pop culture loaded with high watermarks of hipness. And some were. As we live on, nostalgia is the yardstick by which we measure our cultural awareness. Discounting technological advances it’s safe to assume our parents would never have dreamt that their progeny could make a living blogging about video games of have a YouTube channel devoted solely that is the magic that is James Blunt (with a million-plus subs, and BitCoin out the bum). Nostalgia idealizes the past and fandom defines the present now, and thanks to the Internet and a million ways to be trolled, Gen X is swamped in pop culture as personal definition, then and future.

If you caught my take on High Fidelity way back when, there came a scene where John Cusack’s disenfranchised 30-something character Rob confesses: “I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like…Books, records, films—these things matter. Call me shallow but it’s the f*ckin’ truth.” And it is. At least for forty-somethings like me, barely aware (barring the occasion back injury) we’re getting up there. Probably because there is so much saturation and value of innumerable pop culture touchstones these days. What I mean is akin to every Boomer boasting they were at Woodstock—the first time—there will be a Gen Xer claiming they caught one of Billie Joe’s dirt clods at Woodstock ’94 (and also boast that Dylan was there, not so back in 1969. Nyah). We win. F*ck age and Rogaine. We’re always on the hunt for cool and obscure Americana that memes are made of. Fruitless passion for sure, but at least its passion ignoring you old arse. For instance I studied large wads of Shakespeare in college, but am only able recall famous lines these days (EG: “To be or not to be!” “My kingdom for a horse!” “Stop!” etc). But ask me to flip the switch you can guarantee I’ll shout with Shakespearean gusto: “There are four lights!” You get it or you don’t.

My generation is indeed defined by pop culture, and not the other way around. We don’t create it as much as we engulf it. Every age has their high points and gravedigger lows. It’s all about where we focus the lens and what comes into view. What Cusack said in the movie is apt in keeping Gen X creaking towards obsolesce in check. You doubtless have noticed all the pop culture crap I rattled off above, and doubtless many of my generation raised more than a few eyebrows. You may lurch through your day with aches and pains, but all gets lost in a blur as soon as someone starts quoting lines from Dazed And Confused. Or GoodFellas. Or The Big Lebowski (ah, I can hear them brows a-bristlin’). Pop touchstones are what Gen X social circles run on. And on. And on and on.

I’m guilty of it, too. We are not the generation that sit by the fireside with snifters of brandy, waxing philosophical about which existentialist was correct in gauging the human condition: Kirkegaard or Sartre. No. We don’t even while our time in front of a few eps of Star Trek. We binge from Kirk to Picard to Picard and back again, covered in Cheeto dust. We have 1,000 friends on  FaceBook, but we don’t. Just a feed to 1,000 Trekkies waxing philosophical about things like: “Wait, if Discovery takes place before TOS, then how come Mr Spock only as access to buttons?” And we raise our glasses. Such dialogues in echo chambers is what we’re all about. Hell, we invented the Internet after all, for shopping and stealing music and PornHub and establishing once and for all was Simone de Beauvoir Sartre’s girlfriend or not (not exactly: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/beauvoir). Just like that. Tidbits of trivia define Gen X, and boy are we adept at calling them out. Such goofy knowledge is a clarion call to all other would-be slackers to declare we are alive!

Which kinda makes socializing a one-trick pony, especially regarding relationships. Who we are is what Rob declared/warned us about. It’s more about things than exhaling ideas these days, and you can’t build a relationship on how many still-in-box first gen Transformers you own, how you successfully translated Wookkie into Japanese and how well-versed in how many lead singers Black Flag had and why. Why do we do this? Is this easier than asking, “How’re you doing?” I don’t know. I’ve done similar things in “conversation” as much as the next dork.

And hell, in billions years when the Earth gets engulfed by the expansion of a dying sun and has its atmosphere boiled off like so much toasted bread through fondue, it will not matter who was more vital a human. Cobain or Einstein?

When that time comes, my money would be on Kepler.


The Story…

The dull ticking of the clock is slowing down. Pete and Debbie (Rudd and Mann) are feeling the grinding, almost arresting halt that reaching 40 does to your average Gen X’er with kids, mortgages, business matters and an unhealthy adherence to a fitness regime. Silly biker shorts and all.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. The kids of the 80s had enough to fear already (read: toughen them up for the big bad real world) what with the Cold War and MAD ever looming, the evil specter of AIDS, massive savings and loans collapsing into a financial canyon and the peril of New Coke. The couple should be tougher for it all, and yet someone or something yanked the carpet up from under them.

It’s called a midlife crisis. It’s not just time crawling ever onwards, it also realizing things don’t always work out according to plan, even if you didn’t exactly have one.

Debbie’s fashion boutique is inexplicably losing money despite doing good business. She suspects someone is stealing, like one of her trusted employees. Debbie has trust issues, but not with Desi and Jodi (Fox and Yi). She refuses to not trust them. Ever since Deb was a kid she’s had trust and abandonment issues stemming from when her estranged father, the successful surgeon Oliver (Lithgow) divorced her mom when she was nine. How could she bail on her staff? Um, wait a minnit.

Pete’s indie record label is slumping because he won’t represent new talent, only classic indie rockers…that he likes. Even scoring a record deal with the venerable British rocker Graham Parker (himself) isn’t attracting much business. That and Pete’s financial woes are doubled (if not tripled) by his dad Larry (Brooks) who found himself suddenly in the family way due to an all too successful fertilization procedure. Not to mention Pete is the only typical white male American who even knows who Graham Parker is.

Pete and Debbie hemorrhaging cash all over the place. The spats between their kids Sadie and Charlotte (the Apatow girls) are reaching the intestine of an Olympic event. Deb can’t kick smoking. Pete is addicted to sweets. Both are unable to give up the ghosts that embody daddy issues. And to top it all off, our struggling couple are looking down another daunting deadline:

Pete and Debbie are both turning forty.

Dear Lord, who needs a cupcake? How ’bout a loosey?


The Breakdown…

Apatow. You either enjoy him or don’t. Or merely tolerate him. I think I may be in the latter camp.

I dug The 40-Year Old VirginKnocked Up was enjoyable enough, if that’s the adjective to use. Funny People wasn’t really. Haven’t seen Trainwreck (yet). All the movies in his oeuvre have a sort of “take it or leave it” quality about them. Either go along for the ride or get kicked to the curb, and make sure to establish how not cool you are to appreciate such breathtaking scatological discourse. It’s all about the fractured human condition. Ever hear of Sartre?

This Is 40 follows in Apatow’s usual vein. Clumsy romance, the strains of relationships (both family and romantic), one too many sight gags involving weed and/or booze, megadoses of pop culture references that only…well, a guy like me would get. All of which hangs together in a ramshackle fashion like rats abandoning a sicking ship, yet still makes sense anyway against all odds and breaking many unspoken rules about making movie.

Clutter never has seemed to bother Apatow much, though. His movies will go on as long as they have to in order to make their message known. Or simply entertain you. Or frustrate you. Or whatever. Still, 40 is patchwork entertaining with all the above Apatow hallmarks (including working with the same actors, who are usually great). And discounting all the meatball surgical direction of 40, it all hung together pretty well—like Calder mobile made of fart jokes—but I did have a nagging concern that I just couldn’t shake about 40. It was about the plot.

There wasn’t one.

The flick was strung together by a series of vignettes that did not provide a cohesive narrative, just scenes pertinent to the overarching idea of what Apatow thought it meant to reach middle age. A collage, if you will. If you’ve never seen it (which is unlikely come holiday time) Bob Clark’s perennial fave A Christmas Story toes the same line. It’s also a series of vignettes strung together with a common thread of little Ralphie getting his ultimate Xmas present. Half the film isn’t even about Xmas, let alone the wishes for the ideal gift. There is no plot, just scenes to entertain, not unlike a few of artsy-fartsy Jim Jarmusch’s arthouse cinema for the masses. No story. Nope. Just a theme. And with 40, there was barely even that.

It got tricky fast for Apatow to let me in on where the hell was he going. The man used to be a stand-up comic, and his credentials led to him co-creating the sketch comedy program The Ben Stiller Show back in the 90s. I’m gonna assume that Apatow took something away from Stiller, that is how his directorial style “flows.” 40 plays out like sketchy comedy, one wacky bit precedes another wacky bit. Good for sketch comedy, bad for comedy films. Everything getting disjointed and muddled and all head-scratchy ain’t funny, unless you’re in Monty Python, but they broke the mold.

Okay, okay, okay. There are some one-trick pony comedy upstarts out there that have made painfully funny films based almost totally on one-liners and sight gags. The ZAZ team for one (EG: Airplane!, The Naked Gun series, etc), 99% of Mel Brooks’ catalog and the Marx Brothers’ antics to name a few. I’ve seen most of those kinds of films, and precious few have anything approaching sticking to the narrative.

But they have plots, and Apatow cannot have his both ways. You cannot direct a comedy film comparable to a sketch show, and some splash and dash by introducing insight into the lives of a family in distress and rely on Family Guy-like pabulum/Gen X pop culture conventions to stand in for a cohesive script. 40 came across to me as plundered the endless well of 90s nostalgia to lure us in. But I got tired of South Park after its second season. I got the joke real quick like: enjoying pop culture en masse is always pleasing, and that’s a gyp. The literal translation from Latin is “a return to home.” Sounds like comedy cheating to me. Based on that precept, Apatow was shoehorning gags in the very slight crevices of a potential story. Like with poor Ralphie, there were underlying themes to 40, but there was no underlying direction, which I felt it was so muddled.

There. Now please open your textbooks to page…

BONK!

Moving up to empty bottles now, eh? Hm. Might deserve it.

Since the rant was cleaved in twain and regarded as a term paper I’m going to get all collegiate and analytical on 40‘s ass. After what I was treated to, the curious will thank me later.

What I took away from 40 was a tableau of how white people react to turning forty years of age. That was about it. Scenes upon scenes of the oys and joys of middle aged suburbia and all its trappings with maniac Apatow at the helm. Again, that was pretty much it. Don’t misunderstand me though, there were plenty of laughs—the awkward, self-deprecating kind that is the director’s signature—drawn from a pretty apt portrait of family politics in the 21st Century. The man must’ve taken notes drawn from personal observations of married couples trying to communicate. Poor communication is another well Apatow draws from when creating his comedy worlds. That and, hell, being Gen X himself making movies to personify a whole generation’s cynicism and anxiety.

I spoke of my generation’s obsession with pop culture as identity. There was a subtext to 40 that keenly addressed that trap. Was the film trying to make Gen X feel old, yet still “cool?” Back to that nostalgia fest again. It was one idea of a paltry few that held this sketch comedy together. We can all rally around screaming Pixies’ songs in the car, much to our kids’ chagrin as well as…everything we do to our kids’ chagrin. Gen X is terminally trapped in their 20s, always pushing against that feeling of “What happened?” I do. I have a kid. I like the Pixies and she’s never heard of them, despite the fact she has free reign over my iTunes library and can have access to all their albums including the reunion ones. Means something to me, now and then, but she loves My Chemical Romance and TikToks of MCR and neither of the three things were around in my 20s so I just lean back. Lean back into that trip realm of “What happened?”

Let’s expound on that, shall we? My generation is arrested development personified. Apatow gets this, which is why his films soar on wink wink nudge nudge. It’s the same as what I commented about before: Family Guy and South Park humor. Dropping the dime on pop culture without really considering it. It works for us, since we were/are so media drenched. Don’t believe me? My generation created “binge watching.” We also claimed that too much TV made you stupid. Perhaps Apatow’s movies are a reflection of that. At least his characters magnify that conceit.

When I was in college in the late 90s, in my early 20s, I thought I had it knocked when it came to personal identity. I was an English scholar, focused on writing and education. I was in the band and played a few different instruments to varying levels of skill. I was a punker/raver guy, replete with leather, baggy torn jeans, broken wing fashion sense and multiple piercings (most self-administered). I had a healthy library, both books and music. I was a member of the anime club and made sure to keep abreast of what Spidey was up to each and every month. I ran with many crowds but was always myself.

“What happened?”

Maturity. Parenthood. Bills. And being 40 does not warrant one to go around looking like Joey Ramone and Keith Flint had a baby. Both are dead. ‘Nuff said. Still collect comics, though. Those were my halcyon days, but I never realized it until I hit 40. Such angst it well illustrated by Pete and Debbie; they’re not afraid of middle age. They want to scream out loud they are still relevant, if only to themselves.

Pete and Debbie are the self-appointed gatekeepers of cool, despite what they deem cool is lost on the Instagram crowd. Debbie owns a semi-failing chi chi boutique in a business world where such things are no longer viable (that’s what Etsy is for). That and she’s in denial of her actual age. Pete runs a flailing indie record label promoting sundown artists that only he deems worthy based on personal artistic merit when what he needs is a Lady Gaga. I like both Parker and Gaga. Pete’s in denial of being out of touch with an audience. Any audience. Couples always fight about sex and money. Such things are not necessary endemic to a mid-life crisis, but through Apatow’s lens it sure seems that way.

Despite my griping, the man does have a way with a camera. His illustrations of aging Gen X frustrations are attentively apt. I’ve been there. Like parents getting caught by their kids doing anything they don’t want them to see. I’m not just talking about the silly, clumsy REDACTED scene, I’m talking about arguing over non-finances being frittered away by flying in the Rumour to back up Graham like back in the day to a half full club date. Like hacking into the kids iPad to scan their texts, or even monitor the store for possible theft. Don’t these idiots know what’s good for them?!? Sorry guys, your kids don’t care about your fleeting dreams. They care about you and getting fed on a regular basis. Wake up.

But no. No they won’t. They don’t have to. It’s the other side of 40‘s coin. Celebrate and dissect our generation getting old, then go into screaming denial when such an epiphany comes. Although Apatow’s work here is scattershot, his message (if there is one) here is there is always an element of deception creeping in order to keep the status quo status between family, work and ego. Denial is the watchword of 40 and Gen X. All will be well in the end run if we deny an end run.

My take is pretty heavy on such a frayed film. What it lacked in substance, originality and cohesion good jokes and a stellar cast stuck to my ribs. But in the endgame 40 feels like there was no solid story. And in particular no resolution. It just ends. That might’ve been some kind of existential meditation on how life gets frittered away on outside influences, within and without.

So what? Is there a message here with 40? Middle age sucks? Family sucks? Lady GaGa sucks? Everything sucks? Or does it all work out somehow?

Well, recall that this was an Apatow movie so insert dick joke here and go along with the ride.

Get it?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. It’s funny, but needs some Krazy Glue to hold the imperfect narrative together. That and it’s aimed at a specific demographic, insinuated like when I feel a headache coming on and pay close attention to Jeopardy!‘s second commercial break. Here comes the rooster.


The Musings…

  • “Forty can suck my dick!” Yep.
  • As Apatow’s films roll ever onward, he must accept the value of an editor, and not include outtakes and gag reels within the movie. Gag reels go at the end of the movie. This might explain why such a 90 minute movie needlessly bloats into over 2 hours. Just saying.
  • “Sometimes I wish just one of you had a dick.” “Well, we don’t want one.” Modern parenting.
  • I’m actually a big fan of Graham Parker. No, really.
  • “You’re so mean since your body got weird.” Such knows no generation.
  • Scripts are nice sometimes.
  • “Are you trying to start a fight?”
  • Was the entire birthday party scene improvised? I’d like to believe so.
  • “Hello. There are children around.”
  • You ever notice how often I bring up retro gaming as a metaphor and/or barometer of cultural awareness? Um, how old did I say I was again. you nerf herder?
  • “Don’t blink!”

The Next Time…

Dive! Dive! U-571 is a Nazi sub! Launch torpedoes! At her Allied crew! Featuring Jon Bon Jovi! You read that right!


 

RIORI Presents Installment #179: Barry Sonnenfeld’s “RV” (2006)



The Players…

Robin Williams, Cheryl Hines, Joanna “JoJo” Levesque and Josh Hutcherson, with Jeff Daniels, Kristin Chenoweth and Will Arnett.


The Basics…

A classic scenario. An overworked dad needs to reconnect with his family and plans a vacation. You know, to relax and get away from it all. To the perfect vacation spot to chill and definitely get away from it all. But the very reason Dad needs a break follows him down, and such pressure from work defiantly gets him away from all that plagues him.

So now what? Risk his career or risk his family? Both! Let’s rent a clunky RV and head out to Hawaii!

Um, who’s got the map?


The Rant…

As many movies have informed/warned us full-blown family vacations are rarely ever what they’re cracked up to be. Except the whole cracking up part. That’s a given.

Oh sure, it seems like a good idea at first. Whether it’s a road trip with no real destination in mind (or at least mediocre one), a week at the beach, blazing a trail through the great outdoors or dedicating just one weekend to cleaning out under the couch cushions—eventually to the couch itself—to find that dang Amazon Fire remote that got lost one day after the installation. And if that isn’t quality family time, what is (besides also finding all that loose change so one may buy a replacement)?

It’s that nagging “quality family time” bit, that’s what always trips the trip up. As we’ve learned from quarantine (at this time of writing) being cooped up with your loved ones for too long devolves into the love scene from Lord Of The Flies. Whatever skewed and misguided Rockwell-esque dream trip you were imagining stresses you the f*ck out when it doesn’t come to fruition. And why is that? Because Rockwell painted ideals, not actuality, and your imagination has been palsied by too much work, pointless PowerPoint presentations, lousy coffee and those irritating motivational posters that litter your office walls like so many stray bullet holes. One always makes vacation plans when one is desperate to get lost, an end-of-the-rope kinda scenario. How can you think straight when you’re so stressed out? Right.

Getting away from the humdrum is necessary once and again, and of course there are good parts and bad parts to that idea. Especially if you’re strung out at both ends. The good’s obvious: heading away from said humdrum! To the beach for swimming and sun! To the woods for camping and hiking! To Vegas for free shrimp toast and to lose and lose again! Change of scenery is what it comes down too, kinda like that Jimmy Buffet tune, “Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes.” At least that’s what one expects. Hopes.

Now this is the rub. An essential need in going on vacation is a routine. This facet may be why vacations get so damned stressful, Rockwell notwithstanding. Okay, home/work life is getting you down and you demand an escape. Understood. However in order to take a vacation you must leave that routine—that lifeline—at home for a while, which is in and of itself stressful. Sure, you might’ve gotten tired of dopey Reddit forums and resolve to not touch your phone on your getaway, but by day three you’re back at it again, all wiry and frustrated. See where I’m going here? A vacation is as only as relaxing the further you leave your daily routine behind, however in order to enjoy a vacation your daily routine must be put in perspective; you don’t give it up. You can’t. It’s SOP. You can’t appreciate a vacation unless you measure it against your normal life, and that normal life is what you get homesick for by day three. Doubt me? How many times have you been on holiday when someone in your family/party says something like: “Wonder what the others are doing back home?” or “This sure beats your desk job, right?” Folks don’t truly appreciate vacations at face value. All they are is distraction. Distractions that come with distractions, like scrolling trough Reddit again, foaming at the mouth all the while. And of course you all have to come home eventually, lest have the RCMP form a search party.

BTW: Why is it called Reddit when most posts are written by folks who obviously can’t read and simply adore comma faults?

English lessons aside, one takes a vacation to escape the stress and strain of the daily grind. One gauges how good the trip is against your daily grind. Eventually one needs pieces of that daily grind to deal with the stress and strain of a vacation. Out comes the iPad you should’ve left at home and whatnot. Sure, that hotel room sure is sweet, but that’s not your bathroom. Stocked with rinky-dink soaps and shampoo bottles that aren’t your brand and you didn’t bother bringing your brand anyway because, hey, the hotel provides soap.

You get it. You have to take it with you, otherwise you can’t appreciate the getaway, and you need some anchor with a very, very long chain to keep you balanced. Seems like a lot of baggage to carry while you carry your baggage to the trunk of the sighing minivan. You can leave but you can never escape.

I know, I know. I’ve once again shellacked a cynical veneer across a universally wonderful idea like a vacation. But am I wrong? When I was a pup I was glad—happy—to spend another summer on Fire Island (well away from the gay communities, which sounded like fun incarnate but I didn’t know any better). However over the years the conveniences of the mainland ever creeped onto my summer idyll. First it was my CD player. Then the VCR with a clutch of choice tapes. Then the NES (so long sunset watching). Then cable. Then BOOM, I was home again away from home with no homework. At least there were beaches, but being in the sun between 11 AM and 3 PM were bad for my skin and I was working my way through Legend Of Zelda‘s second quest and…

A trap of bringing too much home with me. Some of it by choice, like the Nintendo. Some of it unavoidable, like hanging and dealing with the extended family. Some of it essential, like the Nintendo. You can’t really “get away from it all.” That’s a myth. You always bring something along to ground you, something you. Hopefully it’s something pleasant, like that book you meant to read, or a pair of field glasses to do some birdwatching, or your Nintendo.

CLONK!

Right. Got it.

What I’m getting at is that if you go hit the road, you gotta throw out a safety line; bring along a bit of the home life you’re tired of to take the edge off. Bring something “me.” Your phone, a book, your 3DS, whatever. Better yet, take your vacation alone. Otherwise your time away hearing other mouths whine and warble can be…well, kinda stressful…


Bob Munro (Williams) is an overextended workaholic of which he is keenly aware. He’s been losing touch with his family for years, always in the grind to make him feel like spent coffee dregs. It’s to be understood he’s good worker, and has earned his bones, but his sympathetic side to his burnt out co-workers has earned him the reputation as a softie. It’s all about the bottom line and whom one must answer to.

That one is Bob’s shrill boss Todd (Arnett), a scheming, self-entitled boor who after his business garden party was ruined by Bob’s leftist teenage daughter Cassie (JoJo) Bob must atone for her sins. Guilt by association and all that. Turn over this ailing account Colorado way and maybe, just maybe Bob’ll get back on Todd’s good side (if he even has one).

But wait. Understanding his predicament that work has trumped family for far too long, Bob booked a vacation in Hawaii for the summer. Hawaii and Colorado are not next to each other Bob explains to Todd. But it’s either a fresh proposal or his job, which means surfing has to wait. Is there a work around? Have a cake and share it too?

Sure! Rent a big ol’ dumb RV and rewire the Hawaiian getaway to a cross-country road trip to go “camping” in Colorado. Bob’s long put-upon wife Jamie (Hines) isn’t so sure about the idea and earth-crunchie Cassie and prison thug-in-training son Carl (Hutchinson) hate it. What about Hawaii? What about beaches and surfing? What the blank’s in Colorado that so urgent?

For one, Bob’s career. For two, winning back his family. What’s going to take priority?

Most likely figuring out the dang seat belt on this mother-trucker…


Both Barry Sonnenfeld and Robin Williams are frustrating talents.

On the whole, Barry’s work is ideal for family fun. Big, brash stuff like The Addams Family movies, the Men In Black franchise and the goof-tastic, so-bad-it’s-good send up of TV’s Wild Wild West. He’s never tried to win awards, he just wants to have fun and wants the audience to take his hand. However when the guy gets lazy or simply complacent it shows. “Fun” films like For Love Or Money, Nine Lives and Big Trouble are terrible yawns, as if the director swore off coffee in favor of an evening melatonin regimen. Barry’s either really into his films, or just calls it in. There’s no grey area that says he’s trying. Instead, his movies get trying. His directing style has bipolar 2.

Same could be said of Robin. He had a lot of good roles nailed down, enough to dismiss (but not eradicate) the crapola he churned out either trying to learn how to ply his trade or just pay the wireless bill on time. Consider this: for every Dead Poet’s Society, The Fisher King or Good Will Hunting he has to answer for HookToys and Father’s Day. Granted, the latter movies are not the former, but it was the same Williams all along. The guy wasn’t stupid, but maybe chose to be stupid just to let the manic comic man-child come out and play. It was more bad than good most of the time, and we as the audience were made to suffer. Care to watch Jack again, anyone?

Pairing such manic depressive talents together made for a very schizo comedy with RV. As far as Shakespeare saw it a comedy has a happy ending and a tragedy has a sad ending. RV twists that conceit backwards. It’s a comedy that we wish to end badly. Like with a thud.

Not surprisingly, RV feels cookie cutter. Ever since National Lampoon’s Vacation we all know what to expect from vacation movies. Everything that can and does go awry and all the antics can only be labeled as “zany.” Not funny, mind you, but definitely zany. BTW, what the f*ck does zany even mean? It means clownish, which is an apt term to describe Robin’s acting and Barry’s direction with RV. Except the usual motormouth comic histrionics are missing here, as well as the goofy zest Barry tries to imbue into his craft. Nope, what we got here are two very tired people. The air was out of the balloon before the opening credits were over.

This is a dumb thing to say but Robin was quite adept at tickling our collective funny bone back in the day. No, really. Look it up. Some of his early onscreen fluff—Popeye, Moscow On The Hudson, The Survivors, etc—just that, disposable entertainment, where acting craft came after the chuckles. His schtick both served and later haunted him as well, I feel. Over the years he became less coked-up man-child to solid character actor. He even got an Oscar under his boot. However all that time since Dead Poets’ Society audiences could never truly shake Robin’s—well—zany sense of humor and ADHD timing. Hey, when you land roles in films like Dead Again and The Final Cut it’s doubtful you’re going to reach for your old whoopee cushion any time soon.

So here, with this fluff titled RV a singularity appeared over Robin’s head and delivered a character completely devoid of clownish. In a comedy. A road trip comedy. Instead of rapid fire dialogue chased with quips aplenty we have Robin as frustration incarnate. Mostly with his character’s predicament but perhaps also with his career choices. It’s the first time I ever saw the man work a slow burn rather than manic panic. It’s oddly refreshing, but not for here and not now. Robin sells it so well it never appears like he’s having any fun at being Bob Munro. And he’s not. Even as the rest of the main cast proffer up their uptight, antisocial charm, Robin was living it in this movie. Come to think of it, none of the main cast seemed to having fun. That was sort of an inside joke at the film’s outset, but it sputtered, rusted and went clank by the end of the first act.We’re all in agreement here that Barry prized capital F fun in all his movies. Didn’t happen with RV. It just came across unfocused and wheezing. Ridiculous, and not in the best way.

The flaws with RV are myriad, but ultimately boils down to this fact: the movie just wasn’t funny. Beyond the stiff performances by Robin et al there were a lot of technical hiccups that pulled what few cards the movie had against its chest. Conflict is important is telling stories, even if it supposed to be for laughs. Hard to build that when the director is in a hurry. There was too much foreshadowing, still I couldn’t wait to see how the story would pan out. No surprises at all, but it’s like when my friend spoiled the twist in The Sixth Sense. Okay, I know Bruce Willis REDACTED, now I just wanna how we get there. Seeing everything coming is (say it with me) not fun.

Now hold on there. I’ve only outright hated just one movie here at RIORI (EG: Project X), and have always tried to find something redeeming about a big batch of bleah. Too put it simply, what was wrong with the Gornike’s? Jeff Daniels’ and his film family were a hoot and a holler, and much more interesting than the Munros, as well as enjoyable. The “down home” gig of the Gornikes might be real cornpone, but they’re a lot wiser and happier than Bob and company. Might be a lesson in there somewhere, like there ever is sequel to RV in the works (never gonna happen) ditch the Munros and bring back the Gornikes. Remember that crucial scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation with Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie? There you go.

We were trying to laugh here. We were really trying, but it was all so bland. Robin’s (and Daniels’) comedic talents were all but wasted here. Both called it in to some level. Even decent agents can make mistakes. Despite all the hackery I was really disappointed in Barry’s unfunny direction. Like almost everything Blake Edwards cut after Breakfast At Tiffany’s, the law of diminishing returns (and laughs) can’t be avoided unless you care. Believe in your product, lest no one else will.

Best be getting to returning that rental. Got that deposit and all.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Pretty sluggish and joyless flick for being about a cross-country road trip. Don’t forget to buckle up!


The Musings…

  • “Try to remember we’re not friendly.”
  • The whole RENT ME thing is a decent metaphor for Bob’s predicament. And Robin’s.
  • I lost track of my facepalms.
  • “I’ll get some music!”
  • It’s amazing how technology can date a movie so fast.
  • Why do I get the feeling that the motivation here is all about cleavage?
  • “Wipe your feet.” Thank you unknown Amy Schumer!
  • Okay, the “not meat” scene’s final edit was great.
  • “Honey…honey…”

The Next Time…

Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson are trapped inside The Lighthouse they’re supposed to man through the densest of rolling fog. However insanity can really hamper one’s ability to stay focused.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #177: Brendan & Emmett Malloy’s “Out Cold” (2001)



The Players…

Jason London, Zach Galifianakis, Derek Hamilton, AJ Cook, Flex Alexander, David Koechner and Lee Majors, with David Denman, Caroline Dharvernas, Thomas Lennon, Victoria Silvstedt and Willie Garson.


The Basics…

Once again it’s a story of a venerated mom ‘n’ pop business being shoved aside by some upstart, fancy-schmancy, “better” version, threatening the local, maybe too long-in-the-tooth operation.

What’s that? A restaurant that gives discounts for fire fighters? No. The local hardware store being edged out by some big box store where no employee knows your name? Uh-uh. A giant, corporate multiplex theatre running the beloved drive-in into the ground that still show Saturday matinee double features? Nope.

It’s Bull Mountain, a ski resort in Alaska, being overhauled into a frou frou, gentrified tourist trap. New money in favor of freestyling and jibbing? This will not stand. Not if the reliably unreliable ski instructors at Bull Mountain have anything to say about it.

Let’s hit the slopes!


The Rant, pt. 1…

This is gonna be somewhat academic. Never fear, it’ll be quick. Just a quick pinch.

Hey. Another co-directed movie. Back to back here at RIORI. It’s a coincidence; I pick these films at random. This filming method allows me to wax even more philosophical about how such movies get shot. Call me psychic, but I think Out Cold is not in the same league as The Road. Might be a judgment call, but I’m making it.

In the previous installment I spoke briefly of how does a film achieve synergy with two directors. Two visions, two egos, two potentially hardheaded filmmakers trying to reach an accord to get the job done and done well. Make it seamless, even before the editors take their turn. I turned to Quora last time to get some feedback and most of the forum agreed on compromise and good rapport as vital to get down and get with it. All responses sounded pretty reasonable. I got to wondering if there was something more. I dug in. I am a geek, and it is my duty to spout opinions I deem necessary to share with the lot of y’all about how films get pieced together. I’m doing a public service after all.

Here’s what I extrapolated: if you think about it, and being a movie dork like myself all movies have more than one director. If you consider multiple units or specialized experts (EG: stunts, F/X and post-production to name a few) the majority of American films are directed by several heads put together. Oh sure, the head director gets all the accolades and glory, but what would a film like the original Matrix look like if it hadn’t had Woo Ping Yuan to oversee the stunts and gift his acumen of “wire fu?” Right. In short, it’s all about a group effort to get from studio to streaming. Collaboration and probably some head-butting. That’s the angle I wanna tackle here. Not the head-butting though. Not yet.

I bumbled around Reddit for clear, informative and above all non-geeky discourse. Kinda hard to do on those forums, because once a know-it-all chimes in, all the know-it-alls chime in effectively shoving the sane and non-salivating voices away leaving shavings of uniformed opinions, informed options, half-baked opinions and opinions strewn all over the cutting room floor. Reasonable discourse, professional input and proper grammar jumped ship months ago.

Fortunately that didn’t happen in the forum I uncovered. Again, it was on Reddit (yes, I was surprised, too). Here’s what I learned: most of a director’s job is to work solely with the actors. They drive the story, right? So the director drives them. Any other technical aspect of shooting the film is handled by the other directors and their crew. Keeping that in mind, it’s a pretty straightforward albeit time-consuming skill to be Scorsese or Spielberg or Waters. Of course some directors do better PR than others; they are behind the camera and have learned how to be in front of it also. Two heads are better than none only works if the directors are keeping their foci on the game and not fretting about the nits and nats of production. That stuff the other dudes are in charge of. Or if there’s some bad vibes (brewing) between the pair the end result might be both losing sight of the common goal. Or one of the co-directors is goldbricking. That’s pretty much how the road to Development Hell is paved according to the actors and amateur auteurs on Reddit.

I think that was the first and perhaps only time that social media was helpful, no BS and well-constructed. Glad I wasn’t investigating how best to feed a fussy cat. Maybe next time.

What’s beneficial to a movie directed by two people? And what is unique in getting such films made? Synergy, plain and simple. It’s that two heads thing. Sometimes it does benefit production if one director focuses on the acting and the other supervises the tech stuff, so long in the endgame they’re on the same page. Must work well with co-directors who are related (EG: the Coens, the Wachowskis, the Hughes, etc), since they “get” each other hopefully. You’re more likely to be open to opinion/criticism to some you really know and trust. What’s more is that the two directors have different skillsets in getting the job done. Citing the Coens again, ever notice in the opening credits of their films you see a lot of “co-this” and “co-that?” The brothers trade off one another very well, and since neither brother is solely in charge of directing or writing or producing a different movie twice, you get a good mix. The best of both worlds if you will.

Well, that’s kind of how the Reddit discussion spelled out. Sounded logical to me, but I have a theory of my own (of course). The subject matter of the movie. Dig this: we all liked the original Matrix. Existential Philip K Dick-like hard sci-fi with cool fight scenes that also tickled your intellect some. Good fun. And the “brothers” should’ve stuck with sci-fi. Instead they delved into high fantasy. Both genres share similarities, but it’s like comparing a Ferrari to a Volkswagen. Sure, they’re both cars, well-designed, well-built and guaranteed to get you from A to B in a timely fashion (however the Ferrari will prob get you there faster). But they’re not the same. The “sisters” may have put their all into Speed RacerCloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending, but they missed the mark, because they didn’t understand the nuances of the fantasy genre. Fantastical doesn’t automatically mean fantasy. And no budget set aside 70/30 for CGI can fix a marred script.

The putting together of heads works the best when the co-directors are working in a genre they’ve proven successful with prior. Never minding the Coens, we’ve had Faxon and Rash’s The Way, Way Back, with their experience in quirky comedy in writing Little Miss Sunshine came in handy. Hoofer Gene Kelly wanted to cut a musical like the flicks he performed in, so he hooked up with his choreographer Stan Donen to co-direct Singin’ In The Rain, one of the greatest movie musicals ever (and one that still holds up to this day). There’s the original Poltergeist, with Tobe “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” Hooper at the helm and master fantasist Steven Spielberg (with the always scary Jaws under his belt) as his wingman. Let’s not forget the Hughes Bros with twisting, cringeworthy drama (in the best way) with Menace II Society, From Helland The Book Of Eli. They’re good at being gritty, and none of the team players I mentioned here didn’t really stray from a winning formula.

I guess some genres prove more flexible for co-directors. Or how they get flexed. One thing’s for certain it’s all about the synergy between co-directing seminal horror, resolute drama or silly, lowbrow slobs vs slobs comedies. Which brings us to…


The Rant, pt. 2…

Whew. Done with that. Sorry for being so academic. Time to get to the real meat of this week’s matter. Huh-huh. Meat.

Okay, classic formula: slobs vs snobs comedy. Lotta golden examples out there in Movieland. We’ve had Animal House (prob my fave comedy, always reliable), Caddyshack, Meatballs, Revenge Of The Nerds, Stripes, Trading Places, etc. The list goes on, mostly with good results. Sure, the formula is always the same, but need I remind you how the blues are played? Nah. What would be simpler is to say how the game is played, interpreted, tweaked, sent on its ear and still have some great lowbrow humor, lumpy fart jokes and new, devilish applications of beer. It’s the slob-com CV.

However—

Drop that sandwich. Won’t be that guy. Not another fussy list with an answer key. You all out there know good from bad, and since slobs vs snobs comedies are fairly straightforward/unsophisticated I ain’t gonna wax philosophical about either good or bad. I did enough waxing above, so much so I need new eyebrows. Let’s just play it as it lays: slob comedies are joyfully dumb, will never win any awards and that’s the idea, on both fronts. It’s stupid fun, and we all need that now and again.

Since these premises are always broad, loaded with misfit characters plucked right from the funny pages and always have a happy ending. It’s the old blues schtick again. Endlessly riffing on tried and true notes. However none of these films are interchangeable. Oh sure, the setup is always the same, but there always has to be some kind of cagey nature as the plot unfolds. Most slob coms have a sort of improv voice to them (and many are loaded with such on-the-fly scenes), almost like watching a stand-up comedy act. Yes, and a lot of the bits are populated with erstwhile comics; think Saturday Night Live alumni (EG: Bill Murray, John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, etc). In any event, there’s always this overarching feeling in such comedies that anything can go wrong at a given moment, and usually does.

A good slob com requires spontaneity. I know, I know. Most comedy does. It’s gotta. You need to keep that ball of wax a-rollin’ along. Some kind of comedies require a slow burn or some time to digest what just happened (most of Woody Allen’s funnies came to mind). Black comedies make you feel uncomfortable about laughing (think Harold And Maude, MASH or Withnail And I). Don’t get me started on those Monty Python flicks. However like those rapid-fire ZAZ comedies, any lull in the shenanigans and we immediately lose interest. If a good portion of a slob com requires a nonstop slough of dick jokes, boozing it up and pratfalls any exposition crashes the roller coaster ride. Don’t believe me? Watch Animal House again. Every darn scene is either snide, gross, scatological and has plenty of collateral damage. No time to sit back and chew it over. We gots horses to murder.

Okay, so speed is crucial, as well as a nervous anticipation of everything going off the rails. Bad taste in humor, natch. A feeling of winging it and often does. All these elements make up the backbone of a slob com. My rules. I call it like I see it. Nyah. Refute me.

But every experiment in madness needs an out of control control. What happens when a slob com is a hit-or-miss? That’s also an aspect of the genre; let’s throw these jokes against the wall and see what goes ker-splat. I mean what happens when a slob com may come across as unhinged and maybe unfocused? Like fog on little cat’s feet? Or rather tracks in the snow?

I’m glad you asked.


The Story…

Ah, the Great Outdoors. And nothing is as great as winter in Alaska. Especially if you get to spend the days outdoors at the Last Frontier’s no frills ski resort: Bull Mountain. That’s how Rick (London) and his ski bum buddies feel. Fresh powder, thrashing and beer. Lotsa beer. Lotsa snowboards. Lotsa goofing off. Life is grand.

Rick has all he needs, as does his low-life chums. We have Luke (Galifianakis), the resident practicing boozer, approaching pro. His dizzy bro PigPen (Hamilton), who’s better at shredding than…everything else. Cutie pie Jenny (Cook) who can drink anyone under the table and into the basement. Klutzy Anthony (Alexander), who prob should stick to double planks. So out-of-the-closet barkeep Lance (Denman) that he’s in desperate need of a BJ with a mustache. And slightly demented Stumpy (Koechner) expert on all things Bull Mountain, booze and not knowing what time zone he’s in.

Despite the colorful cast, willing to be willing, the mountain’s not profitable. It’s bleeding cash. Owner Ted Muntz (Garson)—who ungratefully inherited the place from his late, drunken, ski-crazy father—is setting his sights higher. Bull Mountain should be sold off to a resort franchise, attract a monied clientele instead the dippy locals and low-rent tourists. And boorish, wealthy entrepreneur John Majors (um, Majors) with his resort empire crossing the Lower 48 has his checkbook at the ready.

Majors first wants to know if his potential investment has…well, potential. So Ted shackles Rick into giving Majors the dime tour. Rick’s not so keen on Bull Mountain get all yuppied up, but Majors hints that if he helps sway the locals into buying into his franchise, there might be some nice kickbacks waiting.

Rick’s torn. A better job drenched in cappuccino, or the lure of seasonal debauchery, shreddin’ the gnar and more debauchery? What’ll his crew think if he turns to the Dark Side? What’ll his rent say when it’s due again? “What about last month?” What’s a professional slacker snowboard slinger to do?

Seek wisdom within what ol’ Papa Muntz always said after he had a few and a few more:

“Bull Mountain! Don’t go changin’!”


The Breakdown…

There’s another thing that gives the slob com that je ne sais quoi: the cast. I think the wing trait of a slob com is likable, relatable characters regardless whether being heroes or bullies. Just as long as both camps are cheerfully goofy and clueless. You know what the literal translation of je ne etcetera is? “I do not know what.” That’s pretty accurate for a film of this ilk. And boy, does Out Cold have that I don’t know what going for it big time.

So we got slobs vs snobs for the New Millennium, and wouldn’t ya know it but it’s Meatballs on ice. Like that prerequisite, perennial rainy day at camp movie, Cold has its alluring charm. The movie has a homespun feel to it, mostly thanks to its lowbrow but not dumb characters and their jokes. In addition to the yuk-yuks the Malloy brothers cut their teeth on snowboarding videos so they knew a few things (what did I say about synergy?), there was a certain feeling of whimsy during the run of the show. The cast felt like family, directed by family. I guess Cold is best described as “chummy.” Equal parts goofy and friendly, an ideal combo. You’d like to hang with these dudes, if only for one night out. And only one.

Okay. We got the likable characters down, even the rotten ones like Lee Majors’ Majors (Christ, that’s confusing. Was it intentional?) and the icky Thomas Lennon’s toady act. To think after years of being a TV action star, Majors missed his chance at comedy until here, and his does a good job at it, too. C’mon, there’s nothing funnier in villain being boorish, snarky and quick with a quip. Majors did this is spades, and with nary a Million Dollar Man joke cracked. Majors’ role was a highlight of the goofy fun. You wanted to shake his hand and slap him at the same time.

The rest of the friendly, albeit bland crew were witty in fits and starts. The pacing was sluggish, and had definite feelings of “get on with it” even if I knew all would out in the end. Still, the folks were likable. Heck, this was London’s best role since Dazed And Confused, sorry to say. At least it didn’t go straight to SyFy. Truth be told, I liked all the characters…in a muted way. Maybe I could see where all of it was going as I have seen it before, but there was a general lack of tension in Cold. Right, we had gags aplenty, dappled with sexual dalliances, alcohol abuse and Galifianakis and Hamilton taking turns doing a two-man Three Stooges routine so may argue tension in a comedy like this alien.

WRONG!

Tension is what drives story, and regardless of how dopey, mindless, vulgar and of no redeeming quality a comedy is tailored, there has to be some trouble to overcome. I can’t beat on this chevaline enough, but regardless of genre, pacing and tension are key—key!in how this dope values his flicks. As I said above any slowing down and/or reflection in a slob com dooms it to the bargain bin. Hell, I think that’s where I scored it. At Costco. On Betamax. It skipped.

Sigh. Anyway…

I had a funny thing going on regarding the technical aspects of Cold. There were none. The Malloys got their start in commercials, and the camerawork proves thus. I did like the ski tricks, and the opening scene is doubtless a first in skiing comedies (yes, there have been others, like Hot Dog! and Ski Patrol, neither are worth mentioning here), but the shredding is more of a bookend to an otherwise rote sports comedy. Kinda like a philistine Maltese Falcon. It looked like the directors were trying to sell me something, like snowboards or how snowboarding is cool or how cheap-ass beer is cool or somehow the toilet brush that was Zack’s beard was cool, which may explain the follicular explosion of the past few years. tLike I said, all slobs coms are interchangeable, so even if the skiing shenanigans were cool, I wasn’t buying into it. Hell, I wasn’t even shopping. I just came here to laugh. I didn’t need passive product placement.

I did find myself giggling however, then later laughing out loud (the Casablanca nods were pretty clever). The humor was lowbrow, but not dumb. In truth the wisecracking was pretty sharp, esp thanks to Majors and Galifianakis’ motormouth delivery and the dopey innocence of the rest of the cast. Sure, the dire situation of Bull Mountain getting yuppified was always floating in the background, but it was pressing enough an issue to disrupt the laughs and stupidity. Like I said, all slob coms are the same. Cold must’ve been the most laid back pervy yukfest I ever saw. Truth be told, it was the silliest movie I ever chilled out to. Must’ve been that I dunno what.

Whatever, Cold teetered on the precipice of boring, but ultimately saved by the dopey et al recipe and a likable cast. Might be a gateway to a full blown 80s style comedy revival. Maybe not. Cold does make for a decent Saturday afternoon movie. It gratefully never takes itself, you know.

Don’t forget the beer. And to wax down.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. Sure, nothing new here, but the cast was cool and I am a sucker for comedies like this. Might’ve been funnier if I were pished before I hit play. Wait…I think I was.


The Stray Observations…

  • “Are you sniffing me?” The dice have been cast.
  • I love that Eve 6 song, God help me.
  • “I am not gonna take romantic advice from somebody who cannot spell romantic or advice…or bong.”
  • I thought black dudes didn’t ski. It’s a new world.
  • “Speaking of testicles, let’s get a beer.”
  • Best gag/outtake reel I’ve seen in a while (that wasn’t animated).
  • “Hey, retard…”
  • Ah, chatrooms. Once the 7th level of the Web.
  • “It’s called the ’80s! Ford was president, Nixon was in the White House, and FDR was running this country into the ground!”
  • Derek Hamilton, the poor man’s Crispin Glover.
  • “I don’t have to write a test to tell ya I take drugs!”
  • I love that Andrew WK song, God help me.
  • “Seize the carp!”

The Next Time…

We bow before the Lords Of Dogtown in awe of their smith grinding, acid drops, bitch slaps and other skateboarding moves, the likes of Nature has never seenAs is it written.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #173: David Gordon Green’s “Your Highness” (2011)



The Players…

Danny McBride, James Franco, Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel and Rasmus Hardiker, with Justin Theroux, Damien Lewis, Toby Jones and Charles Dance.


The Basics…

Sibling rivalry. Anyone who’s had one often shares the oys and joys about the black sheep competing for attention and praise with the white knight. So to speak.

Prince Thadeous has always been blanketed in the shadow of his brother, the golden boy Prince Fabious. Fabious is as noble and fair as Thad is a lout. Seeing no real pressure into saving damsels in distress or doing his part for king—his father, mind you—and country, Thad is comfortable, if only to be spiteful, gambling, getting stoned and practicing at being a professional lothario. King Dad always asking no one what he did to deserve this clown and possible heir apparent? Who knows what may happen to the kingdom after he is gone and Fabious fails to return from slaying the dragon? The castle converted into an opium den, forsooth?

Well, thank Heavens that Fabious is around, and has his kindly betrothed Belladonna to keep him grounded…until a nasty wizard kidnaps her and Fab loses his sh*t.

Only now can Thad be of any use to his baby bro, let alone the kingdom, in getting Bella back home safe as well as ensure he doesn’t get banished. No more foot rubs, wine or wizard weed. It’s time for Thad to earn his royal bones. Or else get packing.

Who says chivalry is dead?


The Rant…

What ends with fantasy films and their fandom begins with hearth baked pizzas.

Wait! Please come back!

Thank you, and leave your shoes by the door. This might get a bit sticky. And will get a bit bizarre.

I went on record with the Oz, The Great And Powerful installment that I’m not much for fantasy films, but I’m not made of stone either. Certain flights of cinematic fancy do tickle me. The original Wizard Of Oz, natch. The Thief Of Arabia is a stone cold classic and was way ahead of its time regarding special effects and minimal cheeze, proving fantasy can ne more than just kids’ stuff. There’s Krull (a prime example of a movie that has “cult fave” smeared all over its noble gob). The Neverending Story was dark, twisted and pretty cool for that. The Princess Bride? Nuff said. And if we accept the Star Wars saga as fantasy and not sci-fi (or a religious doctrine to its fans akin to the followers of Scientology, which was esablished by a S/F writer to boot), I enjoy that stuff, too. And I do not care whether Han shot first or not. Quit whining. It’s just a movie, invest in some Clearasil and just have fun.

Those “true” fantasy franchises, however, are lost on me. Never seen a Tolkien flick, but I did read The Hobbit when I was 12 (it was a qualification then for pre-teen boys), which gave me the general flavor of such stories (that I didn’t take to). Those Divergent series diverge. Who’s Harry Potter and why is Danny Radcliffe starkers on broadway for Equus? Sounds muggle-y to me. I like to keep my feet on Earth, so to speak, when it comes to fantasy films. To wit, some of my fave films are fantastical, albeit a bit dark, weird, dystopian and sometimes outright weird. Films like Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix trilogy and innumerable anime movies and OVAs that wrangle with the human condition in rather inhospitable settings. Most of the works of Hayao Miyazaki oeuvre follow this principle of humanity borne from fantastic stories; Totoro is a fine demonstration.

I need to have a foot in reality when watching a fantasy movie. The plot device of Bastian reading The Neverending Story cum narrator is a fine example, especially since I saw it as a kid and knew what it was like (and still do) to get wrapped up in a good book. I need a tether like that. I’m not really capable of suspending my disbelief so far as to embrace an entire virtual world of swords and sorcery. Ask any Game Of Thrones follower; to get it is akin to cramming for the SATs 1 hour before the test and the reefer buzz has yet to wear off. I don’t want homework, I want a good movie without water wings, crib notes and the salivating dork screaming in my ear every nanosecond every detail before I register a detail, Cheeto dust staining my jaw an unnatural orange color.

Look, I’m not decrying the genre. I can’t hate a dish I’ve once only merely picked at. I guess my beef is the whole “grandiose” delivery of modern fantasy films, like their release is on par with unravelling DNA’s double helix (and believe me, some of the fans look and act like there’s an extra chromosome floating around in there somewhere). I cannot handle the Nuremberg fandom. I need to see bubbles popped. Like with The Princess Bride. Or even Blade Runner 2049. Light some fire under my ass and grab my attention.

In the best, worst Princess Bride way, Your Highness had a freshly filled Zippo giving me a colonoscopy.

But wait, you may be asking me, “Hey blogger, what does lighting farts have to do with coal fire pizza?”

I’m glad you asked…and boy, this will be ever the dumbest comparison to what’s up and what’s down I had suffered. So join me.

I live in a community where pizza is a big deal. That’s true for a lotto places, like New York or Chicago or Rome. However where I live is not as big as those metropolises; our collective populace wouldn’t even scratch the census forms. Nevertheless, we got mom-and-pop pizza joints out the wazoo and up the ying yang round these parts. I know this to be solid, as I did the math:

Offering comparisons, The Big Apple has a population of 8.3 million souls (calculated in 2017). Where I hail from the greater metro area inhabits 840,000. One fifth of NYC, give or take. According to Quora, there are approximately 32,000 pizza joints in the five boroughs. That’s a lotta cheese. My stomping grounds has, according to Google, (with me adjusting for ads, random hits and dead ends. I have to much spare time) over 70,000 restaurants that sell pizza, including franchises. Where I live covers a bit over 42 square miles; the Five Boroughs covers a bit of 300 square miles.

Do you see what I getting at here? Yes, my math is fuzzy, but if those numbers are correct (and my Calculator app isn’t using Romal numerals again), all adjusted it seems like a relative one to one ratio. We got a lot of pizza joints with a very large, very vocal crowd who can’t wait to crow about where to get an awesome pie, and how your pet choice is substandard. In sum, toss a rock in the air and it’ll most likely land on the roof of a pizza shop ’round here. That or a Denny’s.

Must be only Naples that crows about pizza more than we in the LV do. Not sure why. I think all the red sauce joints were set up in direct retaliation to the original, local fare. Down with PA Dutch pickling f*cking everything—even scrapple. We want baked, circular things that serve as a platter! Stop eating hog maw! You have Wegman’s! And refrigerators! Have a slice and don’t goddam smother it in brine!

Maybe like that. In essence, PA Dutch cuisine is akin to a short bus food truk menu. That was not a misspelling.

Back to the point, such as it is: we got a lotta fans arguing over the same thing as microcosm for the country’s largest city/cultural tossed salad about—of all things—freakin’ pizza. Such fandom and dedication can lead to some very healthy, hearty and misguided stances on who’s the best and why and the differences that make it worth debate. It’s never neapolitan versus deep dish, never crust versus sauce, never a pie cut into eight slices has fewer calories than one cut into ten (it’s a thing here). It’s about a dozen local joints all in competition for your dollar and your palette, and we’re all willing, vocal guinea pigs champing at the bit for a slice and extolling it against your friend’s slice for the same reason. Around here, it’s like the old joke: “What does pizza have in common with sex?” “Even when it’s bad, it’s good.”

My take on all this pizza doggerel? Where does my loyalty lie? Easy. Coupons and Grubhub.

*cold winds whistle through the canyon*

So what’s all this jazz have to do with fantasy film fandom? Be patient. Like a boomerang with a sex drive: it’ll come to you.

In the past two decades or so my city’s downtown was undergoing gentrification. You know: out with the chains and in with the local businesses. Focusing on local history as commerce and generally giving the whole neighborhood a fresh coat of paint. Along with new stores of course came unique shopping opportunities which eventually leads to tourism. A good example of this is how Times Square kicked out the whores and junkies and replaced them with the brightest neighborhood in the world, even after Vegas. In fact, one snow cannot set up business on or near the Square without paying a pretty penny for plasma JumboTron advertising. Considering that, it’s in part how BubbaGump Shrimp Company came into being. I’m just as offended as you are.

So now with my downtown got a wake up call and brushed the eye boogers from it’s new, authentic gas-powered street lights (which stay on 24/7, like some spiritual collective pilot light to make sure we’ll see more money to burn from eager albeit naive tourists. Is there any other kind?), the local restaurant scene began to grow also. There were a few (read: two) bistros that were tentpoles for dining out before the whitewashing. Now there are dozens, all of different gastronomical stripes vying for your dollar, as well as the vital out-of-town cash. We have the bistros, the wine bars, the regular bars, the ma-and-pa Italian joints, the tapas place, the grand hotel and Subway. Now foodies stick out their necks and tongues to both hail and decry all these new places to gorge their tummies and egos until the Rapture.

And of course and you guessed it…

For those of you who have copped a squat here at RIORI before you know that my day job is a cook. I know a bit about food and restaurants. I’ve seen how the sausage is made, both literally and figuratively. Tony Bourdain notwithstanding, restaurant kitchens are indeed a hotbed of culinary experiments, hopefully yielding yummy plates to sell. There’s a lot of heat, hazards and harsh language as well. To call a restaurant kitchen on a busy Friday night organized chaos is to fancy the Atlantic Ocean as damp. Yet through all that wreck and ruin, we’ll get your food out fast and make is seem effortless. We hope.

I feel I’m losing some you. Fear not, I always have a point to make, no matter how flaccid.

Of course the pizza crowd wasn’t left out of this gourmet uprising. We had three new, upscale Italian places that served pie: the coal oven place, the wood oven place, ultra high tech gee whiz bucky gizmo brick oven place (at the place worked at for a time. Guess who thought our pizzas were the best?) and the old stalwarts which had been around forever and outlasted most marriages. You know the places: nuttin’ fancy but reliable. Only the Pyramids are more eternal.

Soon foodies chewed their way out of the wainscot trumpeting about which was better: coal, wood, brick or Mario’s? In my culinary circle, these debates got as intense as the SALT talks, but much more dire. With all the pizza joints in town—”upscale” and otherwise—those who claimed to “know pizza” inside and out and were not flummoxed over the end scene of Inception knew and told all about man and god and mozzarella. It got so crazy that a custom order pizza place opened adjacent to my favorite coffee shop. And really, does tuna and pine nuts really scream “yummy” to you (I sh*t you not. That was two of too many options you had to punish your dinner guests with)? My neighbor was one of the few who got caught up in the folderol and kept putting his two cents in whenever we invited him over for pizza…which gradually began to happen less and less.

The debate was on. Which method of baking a pizza was best? Coal, wood or whatever? Let me tell you something about baking a pizza: all you need is a good, hot oven, regardless of the fuel. Oh sure, burning wood some argue imbues a unique smoky signature on the pie. Well, yeah, however it is usually overrun by the sauce and the cheese and those other goodies you slap on it. Best to reserve that for the cappicola.

No. How it is baked has nothing to do with fire source. All one must do is properly gauge the temperature, the timing and keep that brick hearth scrubbed. Lather, rinse repeat. No mesquite, anthracite or Kingsford necessary. Just steady heat and steady hands.

*pant, pant*

Here is what I am getting at, the parallels of pizza and fantasy films. Dismissing the toppings, the methods and for God’s sake all the albacore and pignolas, all pizzas are the same, even if we feel different. Yes, there are endless variations on a theme, and we have of faves, but at the end of the day its always crust, sauce, cheese, not necessarily in that order. Debating this and debating that ruins one of the simple culinary delights of the past few centuries. Shut up and eat.

That being said, at their base all fantasy films are the same, inasmuch as they virtually all start with the same device—the same Maguffin, if you will—to get the Sisyphusian rock rolling: SOMEONE/THING NEEDS TO BE RESCUED. The key word is “rescue.” Not found, not avenged, not destroyed. RESCUED. Has a romantic air, doesn’t it? Saved, protected, liberated. Better than conquered, acquired or, well, lost. For want of a nail and all of that.

I can hear the grumbles now. Stale, half-eaten crusts clattering onto your plates. “The hell you talking’ ’bout, blogger? You can’t compare Monty Python’s Holy Grail to Excalibur to The Princess Bride to the Tolkien movies!”

Au contraire. I can and I will fantasy geeks. And I deliberately truncated the Pythons’ film title just to get your anal anuses all taut and mean. You’re welcome.

Rescue, that’s the rub. There is always something to rescue in a fantasy film. Frodo’s gotta rescue Middle Earth from the doom of Sauron. Westley’s gotta rescue Buttercup. Dorothy has to basically save herself. Prince Colwyn has to rescue his bride Lyssa (refer to the Westley/Buttercup paradigm). Bastian has to rescue Fantasia from The Nothing. The list goes on and the formula for a fantasy film never really diverges much from SAR. Then again some films do stand out and others doth fizzle (EG: the lines of my long-winded pizza metaphor above, duh). That and until The Lord Of The Rings epic made it to theaters, the genre was usually derided to the dollar bin at Best Buy before the tickets had been sold. A genre not to be taken seriously has never been taken seriously. Often for good reason.

Okay. Ignoring all the precious few good fantasy films that exist, the rest of the rabble demands rescuing. They are all one-note. The plot device is always the same. Everyone has a British accent—even on planet Krull. The rest is always swords and sorcery. Sometimes even the mundane of these work (EG: Conan The Barbarian), but more often not (EG: Conan The Destroyer) and just call it all in. Fantasy flicks are supposed to be the penultimate genre of escapism (the peak being horror films, letting out the terrified animal inside you. Snarl), but when it’s all couched in amazing CGI trying to run interference with the same ol’ dopey rescue quests, you gotta stick a pin in it.

Of all the convention subcultures—Trekkies, cosplayers, comic book geeks, Furries, the KISS Army, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc—fanatics of the Renaissance Faire and/or LARPing get very touchy about Outsiders who don’t get their fetish, and quick to rile if questioned about its value. With other groups I mentioned (perhaps excluding the Latter Day Saints) the response is usually a shrug, sigh, too bad you don’t get it, your loss. And back to shopping for that all elusive whatsit one can only buy at cons at shameless prices. Like the time I got my replica Star Trek: TNG chirping combadge back in high school. Don’t judge, and I wish you’d get me.

Folks who delve into fantasy do it hardcore. Escapism is a f*cking job for these hapless souls. One must wonder why LARPers pay more on a suit of armor made from polycarbonate fiber that is also used on the stealth bomber than they would on food and rent? So they can render themselves invisible to the Orc Ninjas and SCUD missile launches?

Hold on. That was mean. I of all people should not be bashing strangers with their predictions for D&D, Tolkien and Arthurian legends. I have a basement full of comics, every Sega console ever made daisy-chained to my TV and way, way, way too many albums in my iTunes and vinyl library. I shouldn’t judge either. Still I stand by my claim that fantasy filmgoers have been ripped off time an again by way of the superior pizza argument: it’s all the f*cking same, just different pixelated toppings. You’re all getting duped, you cinephile muggles you. Stand up and be counted. And admit it: you kinda did like Krull, didn’t you? Betcha bought the game version for the Atari 2600.

I have now officially dated myself and forget to bring flowers.

We’ve established I’m not the big fantasy film fan because one: I need to have at least one toe in the relevant, and; two: the thread through virtually all epics are all about the rescue. Hollywood should try and rescue moviegoers with some fresh concepts. To be sure, there have been films who’ve skewered the genre to good to even great success employees the mead-soaked goodness of comedy. Spoonful of sugar and all of that, and Mary Poppins rocks.

Monty Python And The Holy Grail, Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, The Princess Bride and now Your Highness all sent up the stuffy fantasy genre with a little pin pricking. Often most fantasy films come off rather pompous, as if engaging a viewing of such a film is tantamount to deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls. Come on, even Elvis poked fun at his own dancing. And granted Grail got made and broke the mold, but the imitators came a-calling. Let’s face it, the genre is to rich to not poke fun at. Our suspension of disbelief goes into overdrive when we watch such movies, because none of it exists or could ever exist. This can get exhausting, so let’s lower the bar a little for everyone with some chuckles.

So how does all this deconstruction of pizza snobbery relate to fantasy filmmaking? Again, like the old joke: How is sex like pizza? Even when it’s bad, it’s good. And if the wrong crowd starts to get all up in sweaty arms about either, remember to rescue them from their one vitriolic fanboy-ism with hard truth. Namely, it’s only dinner and a movie; shut up and chill. For the love of all that is holy. Tolkien was writing his retirement fund, not a third testament. Papa John’s pizza is only good for dipping that lovely crust into that soufflé cup of delicious, carcinogenic oil and yellow dye number 5.

In the endgame, how relevant is a tale of pizza pairing with a tale fantasy to getting the munchies?

Ask the wizard who sold you his weed. Or mozzarella.


The Story…

Like Mel Brooks told us, “It’s good to be the king!” Old Mel was right, but he never knew about the plight of poor King Tallious (Dance), blessed and cursed with two sons. Blessed because noble Fabious (Franco) is the apparent heir apparent. The stories of his valiance are legend, and he has the kindness and charisma to back it up. He is the King’s favorite son, you know.

Which means…

To Fabious’ yang is his older brother yin Prince Thaddeus (McBride). Thad is the epitome of the green-eyed monster. So what if Fab is an incredible warrior? So what if he’s handsome and brave? So what if he scored his hot fiancée Belladonna (Deschenel) on personalty, fealty and nice hair? In his grumpiness, Thad would was while the day away drinking, hittin’ that wizard weed and chasing tail. Hence the King’s double-edge sword of family affairs.

What boorish Prince Thad needs is a dose of reality. The King is sick of his slovenly son Thad lounging around, taking the wrong advantages a prince can mooch off. He needs a role model, or rather the threat of being disinherited and let lovely Fabious have everything…especially if this new/only quest proves successful.

Which quest? Well, the nasty sorcerer Leezar (Theroux) kidnaps Bella on the day of her nuptials with a wicked, world-conquering scheme on his mind. So, duh, Fabious must rescue her and embarks on (another) quest of dire consequences. But this time, it’s gonna be family affair. Thad is reluctantly in tow so he can see how a real bold prince behaves in times of crisis…but moreover to not to written out of the will. Eye roll and put the mead down for a small spell.

And who knows? If both pull off rescuing the hapless Bella from Leezar, who’s to say that Thad’ll ask if she has a sister? Again, who says chivalry is dead?

Perhaps like Prince Thad’s number here.


The Breakdown…

Right.  But since you’re still here, thanks for listening.

The whole genre of fantasy is decidedly one-note to me. Someone/something has to be RESCUED in order to set right what has been wronged. And be it D&D geex or pizza-faced freaks, you have reach a crisis and not take sh*t so damned seriously. Sometimes this staid genre needs to be rescued from itself. Even in spite of itself. Happily, Your Highness aims to let air of the balloon and into your whoopee cushion. Its goal was to walk alongside comedic romps like The Princess Bride, Monty Python And The Holy Grail and even Robin Hood: Men In Tights to a small degree. Sweep away the pompous dust that has long settled on spent carcasses like Dragonslayer and The Beastmaster.

At least I think that was Highness’ goal.

Let’s get this out of the way: even though I’m not big on fantasy films I’m not a hater. Just isn’t my thing. Sure, like I said a few I enjoy and am well-versed enough in the genre to connect the lines and dot the Ts about what makes the magic work. I’ve said enough about the rescue thing, but there also many other tropes fantasy has to have or it just ain’t the surreal deal. Stuff like swords and sorcery, fantastic beasts of legend, raw noble-on-noble action and British accents. And by the way, why do all actors in fantasy films affect a British accent anyway? Even with non-Albion legends like Troy, et al. Hell, Krull‘s setting wasn’t even on Earth. Must be something about sounding both regal and amused at the same time.

Highness has those two qualities in spades, but in an offbeat package you’d probably expect from director Green. There is a lot to be amused about here, but not out and out ha-ha. Mostly snickering and eye-rolling. We get it; the movie’s whole spin is mocking the fairy tale adventure combo meal with extra mutton. Duh. For all it’s winking however, Highness somehow misses the mark of true parody and convention smashing, and I don’t mean crashing TrekCon dressed like Boba Fett wielding two rather large jugs of some blue Molotov cocktail straight outta Mandalore.

Have I got yer breeches in a twist yet, nerds? Cool!

Yeah, so since our expectations were more or less met when we heard about the movie, Highness is silly. Not exactly funny. More like lewd and ridiculous. It’s gotta be something screwy if we’re gonna parody some tired, old genre. Mel Brooks was a genius at it, as is former Python Terry Gilliam, albeit with a darker vision. And a zany one regarding the ZAZ team (EG: Airplane!, The Naked Gun and Top Secret!). I feel what made all their parodies work and work so well is because the creators took their subject matter seriously.

The what now?

Sure. There is a serious side to comedy, especially in the realm of parody. It helps that you do your movie genre device homework before you get to the skewering. There first must be a respect to the old warhorses, and then slaughter them with extremely extreme prejudice. For example, Brooks knew his way around a Western, and how to correctly lampoon it with Blazing Saddles (even the title sez it all). Party line goes that he even wanted The Duke himself John Wayne to be cast as the Waco Kid. Wayne found the script hilarious but was afraid it would affect his movie rep. “I’ll be the first in line to see it!” he told Brooks, so if that kind of endorsement doesn’t ring true, then old Mel was probably ghostwriting (he wasn’t BTW; that was Richard Pryor). Nearly all of Brooks’ parodies are informed—if not steeped—in traditional genre formats and tropes. You gotta be wise to know when to call out the naked emperor. Highness does a decent college try at it, but like with the last time Green teamed up with Franco and McBride for his stoner/action/comedy mishmash Pineapple Express he just, just missed the mark. Almost there, but no banana. Or pineapple for that matter.

Yes, Highness delivers the goods in bitch-slapping the tired, overblown mystique of fantasy films, but its execution is too overarching. It’s too wink-wink-nudge-nudge get-it-audience see how clever we are at poking fun at fantasy films? That was the same impression I had with Pineapple, also. “Yeah, yeah. I get it already.” Having this type of attitude is why I got tired of South Park after its second season. I get it already. I’m in on the joke. Green and crew were just plain trying to hard. Despite Green approaching getting it “right,” too many of the gags, concepts and dialogue seemed half-baked.

Segue…

So to speak, McBride is the only thing spot-on about Highness that Green invested himself in: Thad’s droll, cynical, naked emperor-like disdain for this whole misadventure. Not to be crawling up thine own arse too much, McBride’s mornings are akin to a Greek chorus, expounding the truth to the audience against all this drama and outright nonsense. EG: You can’t bullsh*t a bullsh*tter, and Thad is having none of this, missing bride or no. Sure, he’s not outright funny here, but his Laurel and Hardy-esque “another fine mess” attitude is the best thing in this movie nudging the audience (but his lech routine does get rather tiring. Echoes of South Park, season three). In Thad’s philosophy, the joke’s truly on all of us. All 12 bucks of it.

Speaking of acting, consider McBride’s foil, Franco. The dashing warrior to the debauched, black sheep of the royal family. It took a while for me to get some shine to Fab. Like the execution, Franco’s almost got the right idea. He’s almost hamming it up. Almost. It would’ve been better if he did. Fab’s got the Strider blues bad, and more freak outs over “why is this quest so trying!” would’ve been welcome. Fabious is self-parody as Prince Wonderful and all. Franco should’ve let it all out and get to Shatner scenery chewing. Overall though, Franco’s Fab was just naive and pouty enough to make we wanna reach into the screen and slap his candy-ass around. It’s not a John Wayne endorsement of effective emoting, but I’ll notch it up to a B-.

Biggest quibble over Highness? Bingo: slow pacing. Not good. I say this based on how the third act panned out. Despite the simplicity of the plot (essentially a Renaissance Faire meets a Gallagher concert), the story took its sweet ol’ time to unfold. There was a lot of dead air trying to deliver those winky winky jokes I keep going on about. True, the other fantasy fable foibles I said that worked didn’t overtly sacrifice genre for yuks-yuks (The Princess Bride is still a Chuck Jones style romp with the edges sanded off), but they sure didn’t drag for two actsI kept tweaking the timer to not keep track of how long the film elapsed. Again, not good.

I can’t bring myself to bash Highness too hard, though. Why? Because what Green and Company got right, they did so with elan. Moments few and far between, but still there. Eventually. For instance, although it took awhile, I did like the progression of Thad finally getting a pair…sorta. Or Portman’s backstory taking its time…sorta. Or Lazarr’s mommy issues…sorta. You get it. There was a head of steam slowly boiling away in Highness until the third act, but I never saw it coming. That’s a glaive (French for “double-edged sword,” as well as the mystical boomerang thingy in Krull. Multitasking). It’s cool to get a surprise ending, and the final act was indeed fun, but where the hell was the snappy fun two acts ago? The plot to Highness is threadbare and hackneyed and decidedly so on purpose. Green could’ve baited us a little with the barest scintilla of twists. Yes, the film is a gag reel, but it still should act like a movie first.

All in all, the recurring theme of Highness was “almost.” It almost, almost made it. Almost. Still, the thing didn’t stink like a hillock of orc dung. Wasted potential maybe, but not outright sh*t. In the endgame Highness was a good, late night time waster. Pair this with Pineapple Express for a midnight double feature. They’re almost companion movies anyway. Almost.

Ah well. Paraphrasing Sean Connery in Finding Forresterthis ain’t exactly a pizza question: Who wants more mead?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild relent it. Stick with the classic Brooks-type parodies first, then burn one and appreciate Your Highness. Kaff!


The Stray Observations…

  • “God, if your mother could see you now.”
  • There’s something about the lighting…
  • “Teamwork!”
  • McBride stares really well.
  • “Magic…motherf*cker.” Hell to the yeah. I mean: uh-oh.
  • Lame Indy tribute there.
  • “To the f*ckening!” Best. Bedroom line. Ever.
  • The chase scene was good. Nothin’ fancy, just meat and no filler.
  • “And if your vagina is anything like my hand, there will be no problem.” Kinda sez it all.
  • It felt like Franco improv’d everything, with not a lot of conviction. Remember the “serious side of comedy” thing? Yeah.
  • “This quest sucks!”

The Next Time…

“I do so like green eggs and ham! Thank you! Thank you Sam-I-Am!”

That Dr Suess line is how the writers’ named the movie I Am Sam. Sorry to ruin that.


 

RIORI Redux: Barry Levinson’s “What Just Happened?” Revisited


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The Players…

Robert DeNiro, Catherine Keener, Sean Penn, Bruce Willis and John Turturro, with Michael Wincott, Stanley Tucci and Kristen Stewart.


The Story…

Ben’s a harried film producer, and as his latest undertakings instruct, he’s forced to placate a lunatic director, a temperamental actor and an out-of-control production while also courting a studio head and contending with his ex. Both of them. Just a typical week in the life in ol’ Hollywierd.


The Rant (2013)

First off, sorry. I’m in a pissy mood. My back’s f*cked up, my wife’s mad at me for some offhand comment and Lou Reed f*cking died. Does this set the tone for this week’s review? Yep, and too goddam bad. The wife never cared for Lou Reed anyway. But just wait until f*ckin’ Thom Yorke dies. Then maybe I’ll bleed.

Ahem. Hi!

I know next to nothing about how Hollywood runs. From what little I do know is that it runs on money. Big, stupid money. On a budget that compares only with US Air Force cafeteria expenses. Most of the cinematic casual expenditures come out of our collective wallets in the form of tickets, streaming and popcorn. Who really gets paid through all those ducats? Well, actors for one. Overall, they’re the reasons why we go to the flicks. Sometimes we go for the directors, those who spindle the tales that keep us webbed in. The Spielbergs, the Scorseses, the Lucases…those cats. But you know who really keeps us glued?

The producers. The money behind the money. Money behind the likes of poor Ben…

One of my favorite films? Taxi Driver. DeNiro is at his epoch at losing his sh*t in that film. Second is Mean Streets. Third is GoodFellas. Fourth is The Untouchables. Fifth is whatever he’s kicking at that time. Sixth is Taxi Driver.

You get the idea.

What Just Happened? is my umpteenth favorite movie of DeNiro kicking the sh*t out of someone. It’s the first for me rooting for Bob to kick himself in the ass. And boy, does he deserve it.

Never have I seen Bob act quite so callous, disconnected and callow as I did in this hour and 45 minutes. And quite humorously too. ‘Though not quite as humorously as most may gage. Barry Levinson’s work has always been funny. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but snicker-worthy. To my immediate mind, the only overtly funny movie the man has ever made was Rain Man and that won an Oscar, so he scored big there. I guess. Well What Just Happened is a loss leader. You saw the cast. You read the goofy plot. It was based on an esteemed producer’s autobio.

This flick barely made a million at the box office. With that pedigree? The hell?

They all must have been in on the joke. This film was culled by said book of the same name, a tell-all in a library of tell-alls. And the Rogue’ Gallery was delicious, too (go fig). Keener as the shrewd agent, sharp as ever, took great relish in cutting Ben down to size. Character actor Michael Wincott, always a stitch, somehow transcended Tarantino and Vincent Gallo in only two scenes. Toss the final edit wheel over this way, please. And do modern film producers really use BlackBerries in this day and age? I dunno. I ain’t a producer. What do I know?

This review has been sh*tty, I know. I’m just too tired, drunk and bent up to give a clean polish here. All I can say is this: it’s probably easier working behind the stage in Hollywood than in front to make a worthwhile statement. If this concept appeals to you, then go stream the film.

Lewis Allan Reed: RIP, 1942-2013.


Rant Redux (2019)…

I know, I know. Bitter, bitter, bitter. I wasn’t lying then about the whole being pished/Lou Reed kicking the bucket bit influencing my already myopic worldview made complete by an eye patch over my right. It’s why I call alcohol a “performance enhancing drug.” That goes against its clinical definition, but when people get real drunk booze does amplify your emotions to the nth degree, for good and for ill. Actually more like both. My logic here is akin to the shock and awe surrounding the most winningest olympic athlete Michael Phelps getting busted for smoking a joint. Of my understanding (read the Pineapple Express installment), weed is definitely, defiantly not a performance enhancing drug. Phelps is half-dolphin; read it on Reddit.

Here’s my take on booze meets psyche (and I do have a point. Quit squirming): whatever you’re feeling before you hit the bottle gets multiplied tenfold at the end of the night. You feeling good? Chances are you’ll be the god karaoke later on. You feeling lousy? You’ll be crying in your beer with Merle Haggard on rotation on the TouchTunes come last call. Pugnacious? You and the bouncer will become fast friends. In any case, your emotions and convictions get tossed in a Waring blender.

As do and especially your perceptions. To wit, I watched this film in an already crap state of mind and halfway in the bag and therefore somewhat incapable of seeing Happened for what it was, which was two things: a meditation on the squishy, flexible strategies which big Hollywood deems appropriate for public consumption, and rumination on big names in small films. The first part is the real meat of the story, which swiftly becomes Ben’s white whale: dealing with Willis’ oddball behavior so that the damned film can be finished. Fine. The story is the stuff of many movies: making movies. From Sunset Boulevard to The Player Hollywood is an existential being unto itself. Make movies to make money to make more movies to make more money to make…it is a maw that cannot be fed, ever.

Director Levinson is no stranger to satire. Virtually all his films explore—or at least poke fun at—our culture’s accepted social cowardice. From obvious films like Wag The Dog, Disclosure and Good Morning, Vietnam to more “subtle” swipes with Diner, Toys and What Just Happened? Levinson has always been an imp of the perverse behind the camera. Happened is no different, it just takes its good ol’ time getting to the pie throwing.

Such pies here include puncturing the false pretense that making movies is akin to curing cancer (but won’t since research is so much more lucrative. Hence a sequel starring AIDS). Making movies isn’t that important, but existential Hollywood would never admit to that, that 5-ton whale in the room mewling and demanding more body lotion and fresh krill. Ben knows he’s in a world of hurt, totally unable to keep work at work etc. The satire here saturates every action, every cliche, every word of Ben’s hellish workaday world and we get ringside seats. Happened plays out as a cringy scales-falling-away day in the life of what every film fan understands, but never ever wants to admit to. We know there’s a lot of chicanery spread about getting a movie made, but to get such a low-key yet graphic diagram thereabouts? Ugh. It hurts. Ben is our knowing, wizened avatar, already well-acquainted with the man behind the curtain. And like Ben, he’s a figment also.

Upon review it’s best to watch Happened as a docudrama, a cautionary tale, a satire. At the end of the day it may not be the best satire on how the sausage is made in Hollywood; there have been far better (eg: Swimming With Sharks, The Player, even Sunset Boulevard, before God). But it is classic, easily digestible satire in the Levinson tradition, even if it’s subject matter is a niche market. The film worked, but creakily and not for everyone.

Maybe even me. I still grind my teeth at the thought of this movie. Was that the point, Barry? Bob?


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Overruled: a mild relent it. Despite all it’s craftsmanship, the film committed a mortal sin: it was boring. Clever? Sure. Amusing? Kind of. Engaging? It wandered.

However, Happened did offer up an opportunity for dialogue about big stars in small films, and how it reflects on their long and varied big release careers, as well as the reliable satirical Levinson edge (if only to on the nose). If you watch the film as if in a film class, it works. But who wants to take notes while watching a movie?

Oh yeah. Right.


Next Installment…

We return to the angular world of Jim Jarmusch, where Bill Murray peddles a bouquet of Broken Flowers to his lost loves that he never loved anyway.


 

RIORI Redux: Woody Allen’s “Midnight In Paris” Revisited


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The Players…

Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cottiliard, Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill, Corey Stoll, Adrien Brody and Kathy Bates.


The Story…

Would-be novelist Gil visits Paris with his fiancé and her family to soak up the local culture. One night, after too much family time, Gil hitches a ride in a classic Peugeot and finds himself magically transported back in time to the Paris of the 1920’s. Gil finds rubbing elbows and trading drinks with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and other luminaries of the ex-pat Jazz Age sure beats yet another jaunt to the Louvre.


The Rant (2013)…

I only like good movies. I often scan AllMovie or Netflix to see if my opinions of movies match up with what either the critics’ takes are or what audience ratings indicate. But are the films good because they jibe with what strangers have to say? Because there are other like-minded people out there with agreeable opinions such as my own? Is this snobbery? Everyone thinks that his or her tastes are great. Folks can get pretty heady about such stuff.

I dunno. Maybe. Like I said, I only like good movies.

Maybe I was little too harsh in my last installment, covering the mindwipe that was Drive starring Ryan Gosling and Bryan Cranston. It wasn’t all bad. It had its moments. It just wasn’t what I wanted to expect (and I didn’t really know what to expect). I still wouldn’t recommend it though. What I’m saying is a little thoughtfulness in my critiques might be a welcome thing. I can rail with the best of them, and when a film is disjointed, poorly paced, fails to follow interior logic, or if the acting is just plain dumb, I get cranky. But still, I feel a little thoughtfulness can go a long way.

Which brings us to this installment. Midnight In Paris was not a critical dud, and audiences happily plunked down their monies to catch it. So how does this film fall under the aegis of “dubious reputation of lack of box office mojo?” One small thing that I intend to expound upon for as many paragraphs as it takes. That thing the audiences were complaining about—if you can believe this coming from Woody Allen’s oeuvre—that it was “overly intellectual.”

Like this is a crime. We as filmgoers are already fed to the choking point—mostly during summer—with so much pabulum already, one would think a intellectual film that did well at the box office would be a good thing. I think it is. I’ve seen enough lowbrow films in my day (and don’t get me wrong, I find I like any Adam Sandler movie that has him playing a sport delightful. Too bad there are, like, only two) to bang my head against the wall and spit up my popcorn, threatening to walk out of the theatre. But I also like my Fellini, Kurosawa and, yes, Woody Allen films too. Most of those are thoughtful, smart pieces of cinema that could be or were popular.

So what’s wrong with “smart film?” Does it make the average moviegoer feel dumb? I heard somewhere that there was a theater warning patrons that Terrence Malick’s Tree Of Life had, not graphic violence, sexual situations or extreme language, but “philosophical overtones and existential themes”. Stop the projectors! This was a warning. A warning. To average citizens. About smart sh*t in a Brad Pitt movie. Huh? This is a bad thing, apparently, according to the laymen.

Here’s a fact: people are stupid. I don’t mean people in general. I mean the collective sheeplike hive mind that is the nebulous concept of “people” is what is stupid. “What do they know?” is a phrase bandied about by all of us at one point in time. “They” is people, and if people are made to feel stupid, then they get what they deserve, and’ll probably miss out on cool sh*t and die angry.

Before I go off on another bilious tear, let me say that tempering thoughtfulness with intellectualism made Midnight In Paris a small gem. And if this premise appeals to you, apparently it didn’t appeal to the masses. Well, some of the masses. I guess I’m one of the few that found it appealing; otherwise I wouldn’t have rented it. Woody Allen’s films have almost always been intellectual, even the dumber stuff like Bananas and Sleeper. Midnight In Paris is the only movie in his filmography that I know of that has been so overtly intellectual. At lease, appealing to the intellectuals out there.

Am I saying that I’m an intellectual? Hell to the yeah. The notion of conversing about writing and getting tight on absinthe with Papa Hemingway charges me up. Watching Gertrude Stein argue with Pablo Picasso about each other’s interpretations of a portrait? Bring it on. Having Dali want to do and abstract portrait of me? “The Temptation of St. Anthony” is my favorite painting.

Does all that bother you? All that name-dropping? It would bother me too if I were outside the circle that Allen tries to condense into an hour and thirty minutes. It’s easy to see why folks could get alienated. The whole film is virtually a holy host of 1920’s celebs, too many for the hoi polloi. Too many writers, too many artists, too many non-Internet (save Wikipedia) connects to catch up with the times.

Enough about the dividing lines. What brought this film together for any smart audience to appreciate?

For one, the opening montage is great. Dozens of scenes showing off everything you need to know about Paris. The winding streets, the cafes, the out of the way places. Here is the setting. Adjust to it for the next 90 minutes, yer gonna be walking it. Good news is you won’t sweat.

Owen Wilson is at his Owen Wilsoniest here. Charmingly awkward. Wilson always has this air of “I’m in the wrong place” in most of his films, and it works really well as he Billy Pilgrim’s it between 2010 and 1920. This awkwardness translates into childlike wonder when Gil goes back in time and hobnobs with the writers and artists he meets, especially when he starts crushing hard on Picasso’s dame, Adriana (played gamely by a lovely Cottiliard). Yet on the flipside, this is a more mature Wilson, not so quick to act goofy and clueless to grab a laugh. This is not a laugh-out-loud film, but using Wilson as a guide, you get snickers. Following his childlike enthusiasm for this newfound world, you have to laugh inspite of yourself. It’s hard to be cynical with a movie like this one.

It’s the 1920’s, right? That means jazz and gin and flappers. The costumes are great. Everyone is nattily dressed in the attire of the times. Sumptuous attention to details. The backdrops to Gil’s fantasy world are so inviting that even if you’re not a big deal reader or even writer, you’d like to dip your toes into a party where the Charleston rules and gins flows like icy water. And as always, Allen’s soundtrack is  tasteful and thoughtful as ever, too.

Notable acting is key. Head and shoulders over the cast is Corey Stoll as Earnest Hemingway. His script is tight, just like his prose. And he has this stare that is just so convincing. Allison Pill as Zelda Fitzgerald is a hoot too, flapper incarnate and perpetually drunk and borderline psycho. Good stuff.

The whole film had a sophisticated Twilight Zone feel. Man hates present. Man visits past. Man wants to stay in past. The past in not where he belongs. The film questions the idea of a “Golden Age.” I’ve read somewhere that a Golden Age is when you were 12 years old. Despite the fact Gil is well over twelve when he takes his stroll into the Parisian version of the Zone, his juvenile enthusiasm is infectious.

Even if you’re not a self-proclaimed intellectual, you can appreciate what’s going on. This movie isn’t about who you rub elbows with, it’s about being comfortable with yourself. In your own shoes. Hell, there’s a message we all should hear once in a while. With or without the bathtub gin.

But hopefully with.


Rant Redux (2019)…

Pretty accurate here. This might’ve been the first time I “reigned it in” and cut back on my acidic custom. I figured I’d let the movie speak for itself. Sure, I came across as a lout and a pretentious one at that at the outset, however I think that was what I was going for. Well, that and taking a swipe at Joe Six Pack for permitting eight—eight and counting—Fast And Furious movies to be unleashed on a witting audience (read: unwashed masses who hate foreign films because, A) It requires reading, and; B) They fail to posses the proper perspective that Die Hard is a foreign film in Thailand. Let that sink in). Even though Paris was an American film, translation might’ve been lost on ardent MAGA hat-wearing ciphers. Sure, knew all the literary guest stars in the flick, but then I again I read stuff on my iPhone as supplemental to my print library; no one reads anything anymore by my account unless it’s on a smartphone screen. I was an English major in college, so there. And that’s another story covered elsewhere in this blog.

So yeah, Paris was a delight for the literary set, as well as Allen fans. It was a funny, smart film with a kind message. If you think about it, a lot of movies with some sort of social message can be a subtle as a fart in car, with the same inevitable atmosphere. Oliver Stone’s movies are terribly preachy, no matter how entertaining they can be (and they can be), and Spike Lee’s tendency for overarching social/racial/sexual politics may make for good movies, but they tend to chafe (which is often the director’s aim). Woody Allen’s movies have, on the whole, played out like an Andy Kaufman bit; the joke’s on you, and I hope you get it. Allen’s muse, however, avoids the sledgehammer to the big toe approach for tweaking the notion at large at how reality should play out. Even his “best” movie, Oscar winner Annie Hall was a more-or-less straightforward romantic comedy with all the trappings therein, but Allen could not help but thumb his nose at the audience with fantasy elements and cartoons, before God. Takes a keen mind to “get it.” Paris didn’t need much “getting” at the outset; it slid into pure, time-traveling fantasy. Only in the third act did the message leak through: be yourself where you are right now. It’s a good message, and miles away from Hallmark card pap.

That is usually a good device for most “uplifting” comedies, like anything involving a golden retriever. But as I said, it takes a smart film to suggest a smart sentiment like that and not sound preachy, treacly or run its ass over clean carpets. And is funny. Allen is always funny, even in passing, and although an acquired taste it’s better to learn about existentialist ennui his way than re-reading Sartre’s No Exit.

Ah crap. That dastardly reading thing again.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: Rent it. It’s still a smart, funny flick. Especially for the literate type. And hopefully for the literate curious.


Next Installment…

We check up on Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jnr and Mark Ruffalo’s fruitless hunt for the Zodiac Killer. Last I knew, the case’s still open.


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 99: Adam Shankman’s “Bedtime Stories” (2008)



The Players…

Adam Sandler, Keri Russell, Courtney Cox, Richard Griffiths, Guy Pearce and Russell Brand, with Jonathan Morgan Helt, Laura Ann Kesling, Teresa Palmer, Lucy Lawless and Jonathan Pryce.


The Story…

Simple hotel handyman Skeeter’s life is turned upside down when kindly escapism intrudes on his boring life.

When his big sis Wendy has to go out of town, she taps Skeeter to babysit her kids for the week. He fast understands he has the “privilege” to get the kids to settle into bed by way of some wild-eyed bedtime stories (with the kids helping, natch). They love it, and Skeet finds this a lot more satisfying than banging water heaters into compliance.

But one night after one too many fantastic stories they began to manifest into reality. All the phantasmagoria that put his niece and nephew to bed are made whole, and now seemingly leading him on some sort of wacky vision quest.

Huh. Well, losing your mind is better than scrubbing another toilet.


The Rant…

Bedtime Stories was another movie I caught in home release/pre-RIORI days: one DVD of many DVDs scattered across the family room carpet of my then girlfriend’s apartment. Mom never picked anything up. It was kind of like, “don’t pick anything up. You’ll f*ck up the system.” Sure, half the discs were scratched to hell, their cases long since lost, but what remained was ready entertainment/distraction to a harried mom in need of a quick fix to the main vein thanks to the electronic babysitter. But one time, I was the babysitter. Flesh and blood and dreadfully analogue.

I wasn’t ready to be a stepdad. Hell, back then I wasn’t ready to be a dad, period. I was still immersed in the epic drama that was being in tech support for a mobile phone company, freelance writer for the local community press and eternally leveling up my HUnewearl OC on Phantasy Star Online 2.0 for Dreamcast from 1 AM to snore. Usually accompanied by a bottle of Jameson’s. What a dreadful apparition was I.

In hindsight, being a “babysitter” to my girl’s eldest daughter—my erstwhile stepdaughter—taught me how to be a dad. I realized outright that she was not my kid, so I had no legs to stand on assuming a fatherly posture. She tested me, always testing me. Being rude, being snarky, screaming and metaphorically kicking me in the shins everyday. My flesh-and-blood one-year old, she with finding ways to steal cereal under mom’s and my noses and swollen diapers one would have to don a hazmat suit armed with a geiger counter to inspect, she wasn’t as nearly as challenging as it was to get into my step’s good graces.

Serendipity dawned with all those DVDs splayed all over the carpet, my step accustomed to feeling bored and slapping in a disc without a blink. Mom told me that her youngest was bored: go watch a movie with her. I had just gotten off work, still in my togs, reeking of sweat and yeast (I was a baker at the time) and making sure the beater couch that served as my beater bed held fast to the floor by my sodden gravity. I had no attention span.

“Hey!”

“…Yes?”

“Wanna watch a movie?”

No. “Okay.”

She beamed and rifled through the library, found her quarry and held the case against my face. I can still smell the spine.

“This one’s my fave right now. Can we watch it?”

My bleary eyes widened. Bedtime Stories. Adam Sandler. Throw me back into the mill.

Please, no. “Sure thing.” What a guy does to score some goodie points with the girlfriend, moreover her kid. I’d rather vacuum at that point, but all those DVD cases everywhere. Resistance was futile.

She turned on the tube, fed the machine and swung the remote the way a samurai dispatches a disloyal retainer. The kid also found a way to make the lights dim low. There was not a dimmer switch to be found. Kids are crafty that way. And then: movie sign!

After the 90-plus minute slump through Bedtime Stories (and I was sorely in need of one myself) my bleary eyes were cheered. Not so much by the movie (which I could barely watch) but by the sweet, dopey grin the stepkid shined at me. She was so used to the electric babysitter solo, her baby sister demanding all of the time to wretched diapers and endless bottles and screaming her first word which roughly translated into A*SHOLE that anyone, anyone who had a more than one word vocabulary would sit and cradle her. On the other hand, this crafty moppet found her mark in me. Could’ve been worse.

So could’ve been the movie. But first, more about the stepkid. Chill. It’s relevant.

She was my first experience in parenting, and for seven years I raised her as my own until she decided to live with her real dad. I never tried to be her dad. That was impossible, and she knew it. Instead, I was big brother. I’d give advice and listen and just hang with her and make sure she got to school on time, do her homework, eat her veggies, detail my 20 year old Volvo. The basics. I remained on the level with her for seven years, and it was a silent agreement.

And it worked well. In truth is was actually easier to deal with my then one-year old than the seven-year old. As I said, always testing me. All of mom’s old boyfriends dropped out of sight; when was I gonna drop out too? I wasn’t. I didn’t. Between the first year of arguing, defiance and yelling (and that was mostly her not me) I half my own, proved myself, taught her some match and drove her to school and did a bunch of other dad stuff. I eventually won her trust and even now as she fast approaches 20 and into the working world, we still message each other via Facebook or share the occasional phone call (she mostly wants career advice. I tell her don’t open a restaurant. You out there should not either, all you delusional Michael Symons you).

Now rewind back to the mid-aughts. Not only did I explode into an immediate family with a daughter barely two, but a precocious seven-year old who knew how to work mom over like a Mafia capo with a jack handle and need to collect, but busted knees would work in a pinch. Okay, maybe not that bad, but she did have mom wound around her finger.

Ahem. Homey don’t play that. You can’t bullsh*t and bullsh*ter kid. C’mere, we gotta talk.

And talk we did. This is how understandings are formed and trust is built. What I learned with the stepkid as “parent” I adopted later for my kid kid. So far, no body piercings. Guess my plan of action worked.

Back to the whole movie matter. Bedtime Stories. I never read the stepkid bedtime stories. Not directly. As you now have probably figured out I am the Ken Jennings of cinematic non sequiturs and arcane knowledge about movies the like no Magic: The Gathering player would (or should) have about their fetish. I have an encyclopedic knowledge of truly useless film facts stored to the rafters in my beer-addled cranium. And like those comic book geex who get into a frothing frenzy about who’s stronger: Superman or Thor, I can’t wait for an opportunity to spew forth my bilious film facts to an unwitting audience. Back then I had an unwitting audience of one with enough DVDs to have Reed Hastings on call when they needed to refresh the library with every Disney release since “Steamboat Willie.”

Yeah, so a lot of movies, and the stepkid watched a movie an afternoon between getting home from school and homework time. I usually got off work about the same time, dragged my flour-drenched carcass home and fell upon the couch as if brained. In sum, all I wanted to do was examine the backs of my eyelids. But noooo…

“Nate! What movie you wanna watch?”

Groan. “Your call,” I said to the cushion.

Bedtime Stories, natch.

We watched. She liked. I was bleary. But I did “see” it. Then she asked me the apocryphal question, with arched brow, “Whadja think?”

I lied. I barely registered it. But it was kind of like a cut you didn’t knew you had until you see the blood. Yeah, that happened.

“I liked it,” I fibbed. “Hey, wasn’t Skeeter’s dad British?”

The brow again. “Huh?

And doped on inadequate sleep I told her about Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. And something about Infiniti commercials about the clock. And she asked me about the clock. And I said the clock is what the time says. And the next thing I recall I was barely awake at the wheel taking the stepkid to school.

She once asked me, “Can we watch Brazil?”

“No. Go to school.” Door slam.

Fast forward. The step kid’s “bedtime stories” was me dissecting the movies we watched. After the umpteenth Disney Bataan Death March I took the thing apart for the stepkid. The bitter and the sweet. The weird thing was she liked it. She liked hearing the dope on how her DVD library (and a lot of ancient VHS also. I had a lot of bedtime stories’ plots to cull from) came to be. So much that eventually she asked me mid-movie, paraphrasing, “What’s up with that?” And I would make an effort to give her the skinny.

Granted, these moments were not traditional bedtime stories. Homework was looming, and the sun was still up. But me getting down with my erstwhile daughter about mutual appreciation for movies, good or not, upholding the agreement of “I ain’t dad and you ain’t mine but we be cool” through a shared moment? Sounds like a bedtime story to me.

Two final things before the evisceration: One, I have to repair my daughter’s 3DS within the month, and; two, as a parent or surrogate, take what you can get from the kid on any kind of intimate level. You might learn something. I learned how to parent by proxy over movies. Sort of.

Considering the first time I “watched” Bedtime Stories, and now relating to Skeeter by proxy, I guess it’s still sort of. And me still with crossed fingers whenever my kid wants to go to the multiplex. Frozen 2 drops this Thanksgiving. Shiver…


Skeeter Bronson (Sandler) knows the hospitality biz is demanding. Not just demanding of a luxury hotel are the skills of the management, concierge, maids, chef and crew and even the detective. No, and not just. Skeeter knows the real deal behind keeping a sumptuous hotel running smoothly is the deft hands of the handyman. Skeeter is the Sunny Vista Nottingham’s maintenance man. He’s Sir Fix-A-Lot.

Skeeter was earmarked by his late hotelier dad (Pryce) to manage the Nottingham, but…well, things didn’t pan out. The little motor lodge that family built was bought out by Sunny Vista, its property transformed into a luxury liner of a posh hotel. It’s there that Skeeter whiles away his days unclogging drains and changing light bulbs. Leaves precious free time for a real life. It’s a good thing Skeeter’s big sis Wendy (Cox) offers her put-upon bro a break: whenever he stops by for a visit, Skeeter gets to tuck her kids into bed and let his imagination run riot, spinning the craziest bedtime stories this side of the Brothers Grimm by way of Monty Python.

Fate is a fickle mistress for Skeeter. He was robbed of his rightful place as manager of the Bella Vista when Nottingham took over years back. Almost by accident, he gets a challenge from present manager Barry (Griffiths): how to make the hotel more attractive to families? The more Barry goes on—and how snooty concierge Kendall (Pearce) harrumphs—the more the scenario echoes a bedtime story he told Pat and Bobbi (Helt and Kesling, respectively) just last night. Coincidence?

Nope. Across the ensuing week to the final challenge (and across multiple bedtime stories) Skeeter tries to attain the future he was supposed to have as Dad wanted.

Oh, the power of a child’s imagination. As well as Pat and Bobbi’s too…


Okay, here’s the poop. And you prob smelled it a mile away already. Bedtime Stories is an Adam Sandler vehicle. Nuff said.

Let’s be kind for once. It is the ultimate tonic against all the Sandler bashers out there. He is an easy mark, after all. Actually, he’s a punching bag. Sandler has sat upon arrested-development-as-entertainment laurels well back into his SNL salad days. Being juvenile has been—and still is—his stock-in-trade. I’m not made of stone (sandwiches maybe, but never stone), and shudder to think I have hung up movie snobbery years ago. But suffice to say Sandler’s schtick has served him well with a few movies. I have thoroughly enjoyed—and still do—Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy and The Wedding Singer (Sandler’s Citizen Kane, BTW). Those movies stuck because there was a vein of humanity running through those stories. Sure, he was dopey throughout those flicks (esp Waterboy), but there was also sweetness and a little range set aside for Sandler’s characters. Some growth, if you would. A small amount of depth.

It’s amazing what a little bit of depth can do for a living cartoon like Sandler. Such scraps served him well as a comedic actor rather than a one-joke one-off like his inaugural Billy Madison (a movie I’ve punished myself with one too many times trying to get the joke. I never could. Stop looking at me swan). And in the final analysis, almost all of Sandler’s comedy movies—and the characters he plays—are all pretty one-note. It’s always been the sweet and insufferable goof in equal doses. Right, sometimes it works (if you’re still in a frat, even at age 30) but most of the time we get it already. With Stories, as well as the three films of his I actually liked, a little bit of depth can go a long…wait, that’s too much. It can go a medium way.

One would be hard pressed to deny that Sandler’s Skeeter cowed to the House Of Mouse’s standards and practices. Sandler plays nice here with the machine. Stories‘ tone is family friendly, at times fluffy and well-paced. It also looked like Sandler toned down his usual sophomore schtick just enough to settle in with a PG movie with kiddies and wish fulfillment in mind. Sandler is not (for once) a crass, callow man-child. He’s just, well, Uncle Skeeter. Humorous and harmless and light on the goofiness (save the fantasy sequences. Stuff like that has to be a bit goofy. It’s a Disney precept, after all ). He’s earnest here. That must be a first. Sandler carries an entire movie—no less a Disney movie—with nary a dick joke to be uttered. And it actually worked.

No. Really. It was very refreshing to have Sandler’s trademark juvenile snark toned down and actually digestible (we’ve let Brand handle the nonsense this time around). To what end? Read folks, the watchword: sweet, and hopefully not saccharine. Actually, a better word to describe Stories is pleasant, mostly due to Sandler’s wide-eyed Skeeter. I know, I am just as shocked as you are. We got us a low key adolescent Sandler. I can’t stress this fact enough. Sure, the flick is nutty and silly but not in a scatological way. The cryovacked corpse of Uncle Walt would never approve.

(Look: I know I’m being rather sober here. This is a Sandler vehicle I have positive things to say about. I’m concentrating. Please, be seated.)

What I feel I took to so well here was how the plot rolled along with a winking, almost meta kind of pace. A certain kind of clever at play. Stories is unabashed in its Disney-flavored delivery. We are all in on the joke that this fantasy film is just that, cast and audience together. Just go with it. Not every movie is meant to win awards. Hell, most movies that do win awards shouldn’t’ve. The last time, to immediate memory that Academy got it right was awarding Billy Wilder’s The Apartment with Best Picture 1960. And I wasn’t even extant then. Oh, and did you hear the rumor that the AMPAS is toying with the idea of the Oscar category for “Most Popular Film of the Year?” For f*ck’s sake, just look at the ticket sales! First the Oscars lose their host and then lose their marbles. Anything to get the Millennials tuning in. It’s granted those doddering, old blind duffers on the committee never heard of YouTube. Or Hulu. Or Netflix, before God…

But I digress.

What’s good to go along with here is the family-style cast. Sure, the warm fuzzies of family permeate Stories like cheesecake permeates Oprah. It’s a given. But it’s never overarching as in similar fare like the dire Eddie Murphy vehicle Imagine That or the witlessness of Spielberg’s dreadful Hook. Overt fantasy takes the backseat in Stories letting the cast stretch out a little, work the beta plot some, do some pretty decent acting and keep the ham to a sandwich with Swiss (minimal) cheese.

Hey. Speaking of the cast, not only was I surprised at finding Sandler endearing (shoot me now), but his support had some glowing moments, too. Here: Mister Memento Pearce seems waaay out of his element here, which is smart. Smartly smarmy. I don’t care for Pearce’s wooden acting talents, but I did like not enjoying him here. Sure, he played the “bad guy” to the hilt, but with a one-man Three Stooges air about him. Big fish, no pond. You wanted to slap the sh*t-eating grin off that stump of a jaw. It’s always fun to have a villain we love to hate. Dustin Hoffman has made a mint on that precept in almost all his movies, and he got “awards” for his trifles. Pearce just sneers and our fists clench. Good work, in any event.

Okay. Now here’s a thing I detest in family friendly movies: endearingly cute kids with doe eyes, speech impediments and treacly smiles. I appreciated—despite how moppet they are—Skeeter’s niece and nephew being as plain as they were. It’s the go with it philosophy Stories entertains. The kids are just…there. It’s refreshing. Sure, they are twin oracles to the Maguffin of Skeeter earning his worth, and they mat be cute, but you don’t feel the need to slap them for their very presence. Save that truck for Kendall. Heh.

Oh BTW, the former Mr Katy Perry co-stars here as…some guy. Kudos. Moving on.

I could say more, but I’m tired. Bearing this fluff anymore scrutiny would waste time. This ain’t a Fellini film. Overall Stories was a decent waste of time. Like the first time I had to watch it, flour glued to my sweaty Crocs. Not a bad film. Not great either. There was a certain butter zone consisting of comedy, fantasy and family that somehow, miraculously (and with a PG Sandler in the wheelhouse) worked. Disposable. A pretty okay flick to check out (with some kids, duh) on a rainy Saturday afternoon. If only to kill 100 minutes or until bedtime, whichever come first.


Postscriptum: I dedicate this installment to my erstwhile stepdaughter Lex who made me watch this movie at age 7 and still mentions it to me via Facebook Messenger at age 19. Guess I did something right.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Sure, fantasy fulfillment movies under the aegis of Disney aren’t for everyone (esp if you are the “butt-chug champ of the world” at your local chapter), but this was a harmless, entertaining pastiche so I’ll forgive it.

Oh, I’m sorry! Damn bus driver drives like an animal!


Stray Observations…

  • “Goofy’s the new handsome.” And so it begins.
  • No TV, but a giant iMac.
  • Despite being a sight gag for the Santa Claus eligible, what was the point of Bugsy? I mean, I still believe in Santa. No, really.
  • “What? The clown died?”
  • Falco! Cool!
  • I think this installment has the most italics ever.
  • “As in gumball weird?”
  • Midgets in a Gremlin. Sigh.
  • Light bulb. Clever. Really.
  • “Where’s the arc?” Oh, Russell you.
  • Is Wendy eating nuts there? Oh yeah, “vacation.”
  • Keri Russell is eternally cute. She’s every girl who told you, “Call me” and you foolishly tried to.
  • “I’m innocent!” Oh, Russell you.
  • Sandler flipped the bird there for a nanosecond. You saw that?
  • Pryce has a very convincing American accent. I’ve found a lot of actors from lands afar have a tricky time expressing the melange that is the American accent. Here’s an example. It’s regarding two leads in the sci-fi series Fringe. Both of them are Aussie speaking American. One could and one could not. Stream an ep and you’ll see what I mean.
  • “I can’t read.” Oh, Russell you.
  • Whatever happened to rollerblades anyway?
  • “This is spooky.”

Next Installment…

In honor of what would’ve been the 100th Installment of RIORI (we actually reached that landmark eons back, considering all three volumes), we’re going to stroll into nostalgia/road repair territory by revisiting the early, raw and often sh*tty first volume of RIORI. So it’s gonna be Zack Snyder’s opus Sucker Punch revisited. As well as the other 16 train wrecks. You’re welcome.

Within a week’s time, we’ll commence with my trepanning.

Look it up.


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 98: David Gordon Green’s “Pineapple Express” (2008)



The Players…

Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, Gary Cole and Rosie Perez, with Kevin Corrigan, Craig Robinson, and Amber Heard.


The Story…

Dale and Saul are the best of buds…so to speak. Dale relishes his unenviable job of a process server, throwing out subpoenas to unsuspecting catchers. Sure, it can stressful, but then there’s his pal Saul with the panacea: a veritable Eden of reefer.

But Saul doesn’t have the green thumb, no. He’s just Amazon. The distributor, and his reach is vast, is only as long as Saul’s supply line runs. And what funds the supply? Right, cold hard cash.

So what does Dale do when on the job? Right. Witness a murder at an alleged drug lord’s mansion. And then what does Dale do in a reefer-induced haze? Right. Seek out Saul and his product for solace. Right?

Nope. And now any hope of safety goes (wait for it) up in smoke.


The Rant

Let us speak frankly now about weed. And I ain’t talking gardening here. Blooms definitely not in the Burpee catalog.

My experiences with mary jane are few and far between. I’ve been partial to the legal, government sanctioned, actually dangerous drugs available at any SafeWay. Booze, caffeine and nicotine, the American Holy Trinity. Sure, I did have my fun with prescription abuse, but the worst that happened there was constant drowsiness and bitchin’ dreams about being awake. That and the patience to read dozens of books at a leisurely clip to which I have no recollection of reading. That sure as sh*t wasn’t amongst the microscopic warnings on the phial. Oh well.

(BTW: why are the risk warnings SO HUGE the legal drugs and f*cking cramped onto a postage stamp for the prescription drugs? Discuss)

I like beer. If you could see me now it shows. Moving on.

Weed. I is a decaf Cheech & Chong routine. For real, every time in my ancient, Phish-loving past I toked and fell fast asleep. Every. Damn. Time. I never felt the dopey joys and goofiness and chilling and ability to dissect every guitar chord on Santana’s self-titled debut along the curves of the Book of Psalms. Nope. Snore, snore and more. Wake up hours later with chili sauce slathering your nose enough times you figure out what a downer apparition you are under the influence of grass.

did sleep well though, complete with some bodacious dreams involving Heather Graham circa 1997.

Even in high school hanging with my stoner friends (I was the lone holdout) I got a metaphorical contact high. First and prob to no surprise I’m pretty liberal in my views about burning. Pot is a controlled substance nowadays, but back then I figured that it should’ve been treated as such. For booze and smokes? You gotta be of a certain age to partake, like 18 or so. You shouldn’t toke and drive, since it messes with your already flawed everyday judgment. You shouldn’t be high in public, because you are irritating and might shut down the local pizzeria. Control the substance. It’s not harmful, but too much weed may make you annoying.

Here’s a story. It’s from college. For those of you who went to one you’ll hear what I’m screaming. It’s one of those “there’s one in every crowd” story. Face it, you’ve been there.

Every solid dorm floor population at college is inhabited by a lot of stereotypes. The go-getter with his scholarship in finance. Some jock, an expert is some lesser-revered team sport (think lacrosse or cricket). The computer nerd with the pale complexion. The bando (raised hand), the artsy queer, the engineer, the etc.

And the burners. You know the kind. Two seconds behind the matter at hand. Their glow-in-the-dark Dead posters hung upside down. Facial tics like moss growing on the wrong side of the tree. Wake and bake. They’re like anti-KISS Army; unlike those manic fanatics who wake, wash and dress like Gene and Paul do everyday, the burners smirk and giggle since Gene don’t bow to the delights of their chosen high despite they snore “Detroit Rock City” in their sleep, sometime after lunch.

There is an argument I lean towards when those admonish the others for toking. Weed can be psychologically addictive. Y’know, like cigarettes, coffee, heroin and binge watching Game Of Thrones. Of which is the worst I cannot say, but when you firmly believe you need to maintain your habit on an hourly basis, then yeah, you have an addiction. My father watches BBC America every night on PBS. It’s an awful show, and he’s not British. What gives? Then again I a lot myself nightly bouts with Jeopardy! So who’s to say what?

We all have our addictions. It’s only when the habit supersedes getting on in the day that it may get troublesome. Especially that if such practices rub you raw, consider the others in your ever dwindling circle that find you increasingly annoying. So here comes the wake ‘n bake tale of grue. Not so much an after school special but an inevitable facepalm.

A room over from my freshman squat were the ideal Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Can’t remember their names, but it doesn’t matter. As I said, you know the type. Glazed eyes, snickering at nothing funny, reeking of patchouli, snickering at nothing funny. Study hall. Domino’s would call the floor asking when we’d like to place our order. Not kidding, there.

We’d have these dumb floor meetings. The RA would rally us every Friday to talk turkey. Mostly domestic 20th Century skills about keeping house. Cleaning up trash. No loud music after 10. Don’t use Canadian quarters in the Coke machine. Bring us together so that we may agree.

It was always eye rolls. But to Zig and Zag it was a circus. Giggling, impatience, odors of spoiled incense and Europe ’72 oozing from every pore. The funniest thing about a career pothead (besides his sidekick) is that they are convinced no one else figures that they are high. Pretty funny, and very annoying. Ain’t this as funny as ever? No, and nope. The joke’s on…whatever.

Like I said about these two jokers. They were in the room next to mine. Always with live recordings on their jambox, day and night and day. Going to actual classes ended…come to think of it, I don’t remember if the guys ever went to class, or if they ever registered. No matter. All I knew then was they bivouacked next door and really liked Santana. I know this for sure because said group invited my first and only convo with Tweedlewhomever. Like most white folks, they all look alike to me.

I had a substantial CD collection then. I was alternating between American Underground bands like the Replacements and Buffalo Tom against classic rockers like Hendrix and the Who. And Santana. This dope caught wind that I had the remastered disc of Carlos and Co’s debut album replete with live tracks from the original Woodstock concert. Trace element stuff back then. I was a feather in my cap, and I played those live tracks to death. Awesome.

I had the door to my room open one evening, that Santana album on repeat when Dee sauntered by. He poked his shaggy head in the doorway and used it to brace himself. I regarded him curiously.

“Hey man,” he drawled. “That Santana?”

I nodded. “Remaster. Got live tracks from Woodstock.”

“Cool, cool. Can I borrow it?”

I hesitated. Hey, at least give me that credit. “Yeah, sure.”

“Like now, man?”

Right now?”

“Yeah. Big study session. Carlos relaxes me. Is it cool?”

Without realizing what I was doing I turned off the stereo, ejected the disc and case and handed to him. At this point anything to make him leave. He smelled like a fart in a car, and was creeping me out. He was interrupting all the nothing I wasn’t working on.

“Thanks, man.” His tipped a salute with the case, leered and dragged himself down the hall. I closed the door.

Now I may know what you’re all thinking: and he never saw his blessed Santana CD ever again. Nope. It was in exile; even I had forgotten about it for some weeks. But one night I got to studying and felt peckish. I went next door with a keen awareness of what laid in wait: very odd, confused hospitality. I shoulda figured out the scene earlier. Once when the Domino’s delivery guy dropped off that evening’s feast it was my turn to pay. He sent me on my way with the pizzas and fistful of coupons. We were such good customers; he told me to spread the clippings around my floor. Sure, okay. Whatever. Save a few bucks next night.

So after the extra extra cheeses were demolished I passed around the coupons and took it on myself to drop the rest off at my dormmate’s rooms. Those who weren’t in I just slipped them under the door. Had to get rid of them somehow.

I met resistance at the door of my music critic’s room. I was surprised. I knew these guys were usually on something, but I couldn’t place what. I was too dumb then to fully understand what patchouli incense was really for, other than for attracting a bull yak in the time of the rut. I tried to shove the coupon under the door, but something was in the way. I poked around and figured it was some fabric. A towel. I gave up, looking quizzically at the piece of paper like one does when the Coke machine won’t accept that wrinkly dollar bill. I saw that the edge was discolored, wet. I raised and eyebrow, harrumphed and went back to my room. I tossed the coupon on the floor. One would figure two potheads would eagerly trudge at a chance for cheap pizza.

Many moons later and about the peckish order, I wanted my Santana album back. It had been weeks since I loaned it out and I was for wanting. I went around the corner and knocked on their door. No surprise a live Dead bootleg was warbling from within. And again with the yak bait. I knocked again.

A shuffle, then a stuffy, “Who’s that?”

“Me.”

“You?”

“Yeah. Can I have my Santana disc back?”

Silence. I knocked again.

“Who’s that?”

I rolled my eyes. Dave’s not here. “I want my Santana disc back. Please.” I’m nothing but polite.

The music went off and the door unlocked. I pushed against but it got stuck. I looked down. Lo and behold a wet towel, as well as a miasma of incense that could keep Dracula at bay. I saw the room was dim; the blinds were closed. Day-glo Henrdrix poster on the wall…as well as an elaborate hand painted mural of a Dead concert as if conjured up by Lewis Carroll. Pizza boxes piled by the closet. I guessed they found that coupon.

My fellow fanboy cursed the glare from the unforgiving halogens in the hallway. It was my turn to lean in the door. He looked at me perplexed.

“What’s up, man?”

“My Santana CD. May I have it back now?”

“That was yours?”

“…Yeah.”

“Hold on.” He kicked away the fallout and found the disc, handed it to me. “Sorry, man. I forgot about it.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I didn’t even get a chance to hear it. But thanks, dude.”

“You’re welcome.” I let him slink back into his lair. Jerry and the guys kicked back into life. I went back to my stereo and kicked Carlos back into life. To this day the liner notes of that remastered disc still smell like spoiled oregano. Good times, good times.

Not long after that meet-and-greet, the Tweedles left campus. And no surprise, not of their own choosing. Not actively, at least. They were expelled, but not so much for getting caught schmokin’ than for never going to class. And vandalism. I will admit I embellished describing the Santana CD story, but the pothead’s room? Amazing. Decked out like an opium den minus the opium. In brighter light the mural was amazing, the stink was glorious and maintenance would’ve had to tear up the floor tiles for sanitation’s sake. All in all awesome, but what a waste.

On the whole, most burners are a kind, mellow lot. Casual and conversational, with a lot of cool stories and great jokes. Chill. It’s only when pot becomes their life and wife that stoners can become obnoxious, where everything is funny, including wreck, ruin and expulsion. Not even making casual use of weed legal could undo that. It’s like if a user, pot or otherwise, is making life troublesome for at least one other person then it becomes an issue. If one’s—pardon the pun—dopey antics, no matter how benign start to rankle someone (even if they’re high as sh*t) it might be time to say when.

Take Dale and Saul, for instance…


“You’ve been served!”

Sounds kinda like a superhero battle cry. But nope, it’s just pothead process server Dale Denton (Rogen) doing his ugly job. Hence the weed. You think you could remain sane being called a*shole on an hourly basis and not partake to remain calm? Right. Pass the Dutchie on the left hand side.

Saul (Franco) is Dale’s left hand. He’s the hookup, with a veritable forest of rare weed to cure every ill. Sure, Saul is just as—if not more—dopey than his numero uno customer Dale, but he’s a kindly, generous soul. No harm to anyone. He wants to invest his cut of sales to get his Grammy Faye into a better retirement community. Aw. See, kind?

Dale’s job ain’t as kind. He’s Saul’s remora. It’s symbiotic. Dale needs the weed to tolerate the job. Saul provides the balm to salve his wounds. Easy.

However, on night on the prowl, doped out of his mind on the latest breed o’ weed Pineapple Express—very new and very trace—Dale starts to get the paperwork ready to deliver to one Ted Jones (Cole) when shots ring out. Jones plugs a guy in the head and Dale sees it all, freaks and speeds off, dropping the tell-tale joint on the driveway. Not cool.

Not ever cooler is when Jones investigates the screeching and finds a spent roach on the ground. Sniff, sniff.

“Pineapple Express.”

See, Jones is a big deal drug dealer in weed, and Saul is his pusher as Dale is the mark. And eyewitness to a murder. Ted’s killing.

Uh, Dale better call Saul…and both get the f*ck out of town.

Who said pot was harmless…?


I may have mentioned this before (and probably have indeed), but doesn’t Rogen play the same guy in all his movies? I know it’s nice to find steady work, but as an actor with a solid schtick rather than a range you’re gonna close a lotta doors. Then again, no one has ever lost money in Hollywood underestimating audiences’ intelligence. Well, maybe once or twice.

Rogen has a good thing going over the past decade. His motormouth humor isn’t for everyone, and even gets a bit degrading for me sometimes, but does sell tickets. At the end of the day I find Rogen funny and sometimes approaching witty in a blend of “aw shucks/are you insane” repartee. His stuff’s usually good with the right co-star. You gotta have one for a buddy movie, right? In Superbad it was Bill Hader, and it was Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 50/50. Such pairings that didn’t work was Adam Sandler in Funny People and especially not Katherine Heigl in Knocked UpDefinitley not her, even if she weren’t a she. Vote’s still out on that, too.

Face it, buddy comedies are almost exclusively the man cave of the sprawling studio lots. So gotta get a good foil to your straight man. A Costello to his Abbott, a Spock to his Kirk, a Stimpy to his Ren (okay, not the best example there). If Rogen’s Dale is an immature, churlish goof with a weed habit. The Murtaugh is his Riggs is slacker, skittish (but still mellow) with a weed habit and business Franco’s Saul. I was pretty surprised how well the two got on together, especially since I never figured his usual yuk-yuks border on ribald. His and Rogen’s oddball, passive-aggressive, bird-pecking-croc-teeth is the centerpiece of this movie.

It also might’ve been the only thing of merit, also.

While watching Express (for the second time, mind you. Caught in theatrical release and wasn’t bowled over. Guess I should’ve smoked up first, but that sh*t’s harder to sneak in than a cold six. This precept has been tried an tested. Yer welcome) there came a nagging at me. And no, it wasn’t the kid yanking on my earlobe for her iPad so she can watch The Loud House (j/k, she’s a SpongeBob fan. watch The Loud House. Grew up with sisters. ‘Nuff said).

(note to self: cut back on parenthetical references)

Express felt a little lopsided, like more was going on elsewhere in film land than what I was immediately seeing. As metaphor, my car has a “dead bulb” warning glowing on my dash, but for the life of me I cannot locate it. Headlights are fine, blinkers re fine. I even asked the kid to check out the rear lights as I applied the brake. Nothing. But something is up. I guess Express cam across a little stilted because that director Green is better known for dramas than screwy stoner action-comedies. A shot in the dark, but hey. Throughout the whole movie there was this Sisyphus-like weight threatening to derail the whole story. I couldn’t figure if this was some proto-meta, Kaufman-esque gag about how too much weed can ruin your perception of the reality of your surroundings. Or maybe it was just shoddy camera work, I dunno. Still, cool to ponder, eh?

Wake up. I got Oreos.

So right, we got a really Laurel and Hardy action going on here. Despite the minor, but still smelling overarching pretentious of our director I must give credit to this dopefest—literally and figuratively—is that is does have a cool mystery vibe going on. It’s paper thin (Dale witnesses a murder, Ted is a bad dude, Carol’s a crooked cop. Saul is just Saul, etc) but enough to let Express survive. It’s a burner Sherlock mystery. Again maybe a metaphor for the Down syndrome goldfish memory of most stoners, but there’s enough silliness to keep things afloat. Barely.

My biggest carp with Express is there’s quite a bit of filler. Scenes that have no point, crammed into the lacy plot. I didn’t really see the point of Dale’s dating Angie in the movie; he’s already very immature and petulant. It’s also safe to assume that a lot of the banter between Rogen and Franco was improv, but too much of it jumps the shark. When that crap goes down, the decent chemistry between Rogen and Franco become stale Martin and Lewis (in a word, annoying, and gimme back my Santana CD). If any wit seems stilted sometimes blame bad directing or an editor asleep at the reel.

Come on. That is the greatest pun you will ever hear in this installment.

Anyway, this action/mystery/comedy flows at a leisurely pace. Perhaps another analogy. This film made me think too hard, because I wasn’t high at the time. Clever device? If there’s some precious direction at work in Express I must’ve been too lucid to find it funny. The movie was funny, but there was too much passive winking that I snuck up on and examined to much.

Let me put it this way: as of this post, the hot ticket at the multiplex is Avengers: Endgame. I haven’t watched a Marvel movie in the theatre since the first Iron Man film back in 2008 BC. Being a comic book collector, I had seen other adaptions before the MCU got revved up, to see what was “right” and what was “wrong.” It’s the only form of snobbery I have: if a movie is based on pre-existing material (Shakespeare’s plays, Stephen King’s novels and/or Stan Lee’s superhero stories) I will scour it rather than just sit back and enjoy it. I can’t help it. Entertainment takes a back seat for studying up for the Bar exam. I overanalyze things (it’s kinda what RIORI and The Standard is all about). I found myself picking apart Express with the lucidity required to strip the Thanksgiving turkey carcass of its oysters because most folks don’t know that turkeys have oysters.

Remember, oreos.

So exactly why does the wit seem stilted? Why was my mantra watching Express was, “Something is missing here?” Must’ve been my imagined device at work. Watched the flick too deeply that Corrigan and Robinson were secretly the real stars of the movie (or at least the yin to Dale and Saul’s yang). Then again I may spotted Green’s established, aforementioned artistic pretentions at full flow here, behind the scenes. Everything is kind until it’s not (the final scene was the best part, clear as a bell). The gauzy direction must’ve put off a lot of folks by The Standard’s stake. But chances are they weren’t high, like me, and missed the chucklefest for that very loss. I dunno.

Welp, that being said I’m gonna go watch One Crazy Summer for the umpteenth time and then try to solve Fermat’s last theorem. Again.

Dude, marvelous.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. A kind rent it. See it with a bud. Hey, where’s them oreos at?


Stray Observations…

  • “Dopest dope I ever smoked.” Dude, movie in a nutshell.
  • Where’d Saul get the pickles?
  • Why is every vehicle here a period car?
  • So. Many. Payphones.
  • “I used to use this little gun when I was a prostitute.” Shrug.
  • “Watch your head.”
  • Is all the bush supposed to look phallic?
  • “Yeeeah. If you could roll out those 18 bales of kush by 9:30 that would be greaaat (sorry, couldn’t resist).”
  • I never did test the high beams.
  • “Teamwork!” “Yes!”

Next Installment…

Adam Sandler has cooked up a few Bedtime Stories to share with his kid. What’s endearing about that is the tales were intended to be just stories.

Gumballs, anyone?


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 96: Michael Dowse’s “Take Me Home Tonight” (2011)



The Players…

Topher Grace, Anna Faris, Teresa Palmer, Dan Folger, Chris Pratt and Michael Biehn.


The Story…

MIT grad Matt has a hot degree on his wall, a go-nowhere sh*t job at a video store and his self-confidence resembling his dreams of success: fractured. He needs a lucky break.

One day, Matt’s old high school crush Tori visits the store. An awkward reunion and moments later Matt is lying his ass off about his future job at Goldman Sachs. The things guys’ll say to nab a pretty girl.

And the yang to Tori’s ying is Matt’s sarcastic sister and co-worker Wendy, always dispensing advice to her hapless bro. Like telling him what a tool he is and Tori is still way out of his league. Thanks, sis.

Now what? Believe in his lie to nail Tori or get his ass as far away from VHS as possible? And what’s this about a Labor Day reunion party?

Let the shames begin.


The Rant…

I was a Reagan Baby.

Vox populi dubbed me as Generation X, the aimless children of the Baby Boomers expected to do less with their lives due to the conspicuous consumption of their parents. Gloom and doom. Dial-up Internet, rollerblades and Adam Sandler as a successful movie star earning a salary equal to the GDP of Honduras. We mastered cynicism as well as sarcasm and irony also. Sorry and you’re welcome.

Since there was so much negativity and disdain spread like so much soft butter slathered over my generation, I have come to hate that Gen X epithet. I prefer the term above. It’s a term Dave Chappelle coined on his wonderful but ill-fated sketch comedy show in the early aughts. The turning of a phrase—literally and metaphorically—set my imagination in motion. “Reagan Babies.” Curious way to put it, but it stuck with me. So much so it got my mind reeling back towards a scene in Richard Linklater’s period piece Dazed And Confused. The geeks of the graduating class were musing over the “every other decade theory.” To wit, the 60s were awesome, the 70s sucked and maybe the 80s would be radical.

I’ve chewed on that theory for years. Why? Let’s put it this way: every decade in America as sort of a signature over the past hundred years. From the war years with FDR’s assuring fireside chats to the post-war 50s with the kind, conformist atmosphere paired with the interstate system under Ike (small wonder why the mutant, art deco automobile took shape) to the tumultuous 60s with its assassinations and Woodstock to Tricky Dick and the grimy 70s giving birth to cinema nouveau, punk rock and calamari. All different shades of the same America every 10 years. And not.

As a disenfranchised denizen of Gen X, I was raised as a Reagan Baby. I was in diapers in the 70s, but was kicking around with Transformers and Nintendo into the  next decade. There was a definite shade of society brewing under the arthritic eye of our 40th prez, still regretting leaving Hollywood for politics and winning the California gubernatorial chair. I bet he missed slapping Angie Dickenson (he in turn started on Russia instead). Such sleepiness enabled a radical, day-glo, junk bond, Duran Duran-like culture of freewheeling spending, MTV, Gordon Gecko-esque bacchanal of plastic living. Disposable fun and a lot of six-pack rings choking otters but saving the whales instead. Cold War jitters. If the end of days is nigh, why not guzzle wine coolers?

Stuff like that. It was my first home. My second was college in the 90s, but I’ve already covered that territory.

The 80s were glitzy, a second Golden Age. When Top Gun was the film on everybody’s lips. The decade began with Reagan being wounded and Lennon getting murdered. It ended with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Exxon struggling to clean up a spill. It was indeed a plastic time, malleable, false. The only tremor of fear was nuclear holocaust, which might have ushered in such notorious selfish navel-gazing. And Duran Duran. If we’re all gonna go let’s make it big. Like that Wham! album.

I’m losing a lot you.

But don’t doubt me. I was there…and then later. Both the key 80s John Hughes movies (eg; Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club et al) have the same zing-zang as the nostalgia flicks (eg: The Wedding Singer, 200 Cigarettes et al) about 80s pop culture do. There and gone, only punctuated by music videos, Swatches, Calvin Klein and…well, wine coolers. Fads, trends, flash, dash and gone. Disposable, and quite fun. Doy. Reckless and stupid. Everyone’s brains were on hold. Like the Circle Jerks screamed, “Deny everything!” Sounded good at the time. And it worked. Until Kurt Cobain. Ah well. All things must pass.

The 80s were all about artifice as far as I’m concerned and/or learned. A short-lived Gilded Age. But it sure was fun. Carefree. No recycling programs but Steve Guttenberg as a vital Hollywood commodity. I guess you have to have been there, or at least heard about it and nod your head. A simpler time, devoid of streaming video, the Internet and Guttenberg. Just VHS on Fridays, Bartles & Jaymes at the local fern bar, Super Mario Bros 2 and impending nuclear annihilation. Good times, good times.

I know I’m painting a satiric picture, but so was Take Me Home Tonight aiming at. So now go with it, you dorks…


Ah, the hell that is the post-grad years. Get your diploma from an esteemed educational institution only to find some lowly part-time job at the mall. No benefits in sight, no vacation time, no respect and minimum wage all the way. Yee haw. Feels like your four years were a waste. And they were.

So Matt (Grace) earns his keep alongside his pesky sister Wendy (Faris) at the local video shop, eking out some sort of living. Wendy’s cool with just having a job, but Matt is growing increasingly bitter having a degree from MIT under his belt and shilling John Hughes’ greatest hits day in and day out. Even his dopey friend Barry (Folger) has a cherry gig selling cars and he’s borderline retarded, a constant reminder to Matt that he never mentally graduated from 5th grade. Computer science anyone?

Nope. Only copies of Wall Street if you don’t mind. Matt has begun to mind a lot of things, hence the bitterness. And jealousy. And feeling scared all the time.

Speaking of which, Matt has come to the determination that despite his education, he’s learned nothing. All he thinks about between pushing fresh copies of Ferris Bueller is where did all the time go? He had his eyes so fixed on his potential future he forgot all he had in the past. Which wasn’t much, but high school was better than his dead-end future. He always got into the best kind of trouble with his demented best bud, Wendy always got his nerdy back and there was always Tori (Palmer) hovering in the ether. The lovely Tori, so close yet so far.

High school crushes can be fun in a sick sort of way, and Matt has held on to that kind of nauseous torch for a long time. Too long.

So when Tori tells Matt about this Labor Day party with all of his high school idiots (after greasing Tori’s wheels with the big lie he works for Goldman Sachs) he figures grab Barry and Wendy and get all nostalgic, point and laugh, getting pointed and laughed at and maybe bag Tori in the process.

After suffering humiliation, envy, ire and humiliation it’s time for Matt to get aquatinted with another dreadful post-grad anxiety:

Getting a life…


Let me tell you a quick one. It’s not from my college days, don’t fret none. It’s a post-grad one, and after watching Tonight I initially gave great sympathy to Topher Grace’s character, Matt.

I took a part-time job at our local Suncoast Video at the mall for some semblance of an income. It was approaching the holidays, I love movies, they we hiring and I hated DIVX, which the manager declared we would never carry. It was a rip off. I agreed and signed on. Minimum wage here I come.

(Apropos of nothing that has to do with this installment, I recommend any twenty-something plus to take a job in retail. If only like for a few months. You will learn cruelty, embarrassment, courtesy and cynicism in mere weeks you were never exposed to over several years. The phrase “the customer is always right” is wrong. It is a mantra you hum to yourself so you don’t leap over the counter and brain some assh*le screaming at you for not having the Director’s Cut of Armageddon (including the matter his taste in action movies bite the big one). Your brain will melt. Your spine may fuse. You will fast learn to understand/despise Clerks. All fun and games and a kinda paycheck. Only Marine training is as severe.)

So yeah, at the outset of Tonight I figured Matt was the guy for me. Or so I thought. Movie sign!

I gotta say it out loud: Tonight has been done before and much better, or at least against movies with more meat on their bones. The whole “high school nerd has their coup de grace at the reunion, etc” is a fave comedy well to draw from from and has been a fairly reliable yukfest/pathos party movie device. Relatively recent offerings like Young Adult, I Love You Beth Cooper and to an extent Superbad were ranging from great to good to passable. There is this same theme, but those films had enough original meat to chew on. Like a fancy dish served with a different menu, as long as there’s consistency and character it oughta still be yummy.

Tonight, however is neither original, consistent nor possessing much character, cast included. To be blunt, Tonight was a shameless nostalgia flick. Unlike the spicy curry that was the unexpected fun of The Wedding SingerTonight reeks of the sour smell hanging after the meal. I understand it’s kinda funny I’m citing hack comedic actor Sandler’s best Hollywood outing as some grail, some high watermark as 80s nostalgia fest go, but it’s true here. Whereas Singer was very self-aware and in overdrive, something informed me that Tonight was trying way too hard to play catch-up. Or rather bait the audience.

I’ll try to keep this concise (try to), since the movie stole 2 hours from my meagre existence, I won’t inflict that same kind of a drain on your patience. The biggest trouble I had watching Tonight was that is hard to tell where we were going. Not exactly dragging, but just plain slow. Tonight worked by its own pace, irrespective of the audience’s attention. Walking through silly putty. We’re gonna get to a point somewhere. I guess I had been trained to watch flicks like this by the aforementioned Wedding Singer, American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused, etc for seeing the characters act in character according to the pop culture cues from the decade filmed (eg: Billy Idol’s [hilarious] cameo, Wolfman Jack’s infinite broadcasts and Aerosmith tickets, respectively). The world of Tonight, ostensibly set in the mid-to-late 80s comes over like the story could have happened anywhere at anytime. A choice soundtrack and period clothes alone does not a convincing, engaging period movie make. The story of Tonight could’ve taken place anywhere at any place in time. This is not good for a period piece: no period. Sure, the hairstyles and fashion are on the mark but it’s all artifice. It’s bait. It’s the kind of gimmick that nabs folks (well, like me) into a kind feeling of “been there, done that.” I’ve washed my car, but so did the nasty senior girls did in Dazed And Confused. You would not want to watch my YouTube feed of me scrubbing through Shammy Shine.

In sum, not an original period film. It also felt like director Dowse contracted a case of the Apatows. The flicks he writes, produces and/or directs are dappled with interesting characters. Ciphers maybe, but all jacked up on the Mountain Dew. His goofballs are given twists and actual personalities. Our leads are struggling against the script. Grace was having a really hard time endearing sympathy. Sure, his case was sad sack and his motivation towards redemption is a classic device (eg: getting the girl), but his performance is so plain and wooden…hell, color by numbers. He didn’t seem to be enjoying the role. I know his character was a beaten-down type, but this didn’t smell like method acting. Stank of boredom.

Who cast Dan Folger? Never mind and moving on…far, far away.

Our leads, Teresa and Topher maintain a simple chemistry. No dynamics. She is no pixie dream girl, just casual. But honestly, wouldn’t all guys rather have a kind girl than some prom queen? The unattainable is always the most desired. A given, and a crucial plot device for flicks such as this. But there is precious little tension here. Barry trying to score as the lothario he is is much more interesting (based on his f*cking up) as our noble leads reconciling romantic urges. Like I said, this could happen anywhere, anytime. I’m selling my Wang Chung LPs now I feel so cheated. And a lot of skin showing in the third act won’t make up for it. Nyah.

As sweet (believe it or not) as Tonight tries to be it never goes anywhere. Precious little tension and a confusing pace. I had no second to spare as to ask myself, “Where are we going here?” That being said Tonight was blah. And as “sweet” as this movie tried to be, romance and wine coolers and the sweet, sweet sounds of Soft Cell, as a period flick it never went anywhere.

I was trolled. Or as they say with the way-back translator, psych!

You’re welcome for that one, grown-up Gen X.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Yawn. I got trolled by nostalgia for almost 2 hours. 2 hours! Gyp. Where’s my copy of Dazed And Confused?


Stray Observations…

  • Teresa Palmer: the budget Kristen Stewart (seriously, I thought it was Bella all along).
  • “They stole my youth.”
  • Huh. Tanning beds. Almost forgot about those.
  • “Test drive?”
  • I’ve played the penis game. As have you. Admit it.
  • Got a few “verbal sight gags” goin’ on here.
  • “I’m going to try this.”
  • Where’s the Eddie Money song.
  • “You’re gonna look great in an apron.” Ouch!
  • All right, that math scene was brilliant. Revenge of the nerd.
  • “Nice shades, as*hole!”
  • Dan Folger: the budget Jonah Hill. Offensive and yet not funny.
  • “It’s a great night for this, huh?”

Next Installment…

It’s one thing to pay off a ransom to a kidnapper. It’s another thing to search for any Proof Of Life.


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 94: Jake Kasdan’s “Orange County” (2002)


15754842_PA_Orange-County


The Players…

Colin Hanks, Jack Black, Catherine O’Hara, John Lithgow, with Schuyler Fisk, Lily Tomlin, Harold Ramis and Kevin Kline.


The Story…

Ah, SoCal. Perfect place for sun, surf and simply goofing off. Ideal for your average high school grad…if you wanna go nowhere fast.

After a tragedy in his young life, Shaun snaps to reality right quick. He figures out almost too late that there’re more to life than sun, surf and simply goofing off.

There’s the Great American Novel to write!


The Rant…

What seems like a lifetime ago I dreamed of being a writer. Well, “dreamed of” may be a bit inaccurate. You’re reading this blog I’ve been toiling at for over 6 years. Most of it contains words. I suppose you could claim RIORI as writing. Y’know, like the comments section on a YouTube channel, or the blurbs on Facebook.

I, then/still demanded paper. Remember paper? It’s not just for your stinky ass anymore. It’s been also used in books. Hypertext with ink. You know. I wanted to write books. Big novels all about the human condition and short stories all about, well, the human condition. And robots. Always enjoyed science fiction.

I wanted to write like my author idols did. Carver, Vonnegut, Bukowski, Ellison and King. Create creeping tales of the desperate and torn characters on their quest for self-reliance, truth and maybe even robots. Didn’t really pan out that way. I have a few struggling manuscripts gathering dust on a thumbdrive somewhere, and a clutch of ancient short stories taking up rent on my hard drive forever. At least they’re finished. And one novel, actually. And if I have to edit the 500-plus thing one more time into the creek she goes.

Writing is tough stuff. I screamed back in my Finding Forrester installment BCE that writing is a chore. A craft. That being said it takes years of ink to figure it out. Find a voice. Find a style. Find a publisher. Takes a lot of time, anxiety and alcohol (which may explain all my typos). Not an easy venture. Worthwhile maybe, but never easy.

Here’s a tale from the vault: post-grad 1998. I was big into the sadcore band Galaxie 500. Obsessed would be e better term. I had a germ of an idea based around some disparate couple from the 90s falling all over each other at a dying Galaxie 500 club date at a bar I was at in Colorado. From humble beginnngs do legacies start.

Fast forward to 2013. The short story bloated to a 500-plus page novel (might of mentioned that). A lot of the human condition poked its ugly head from the sewers. Got out of control. It’s complete, but totally not ready to publish.

Anxiety, remember? Every writer is driven by fear. Is this right? Was that right? Where’s the wine (worked for Bukowski)? None of it is easy. Writing is a craft and not a gift. Even that lyrical prose of Fitzgerald took a long time to weave between holding Zelda’s hair and assuring her Earth wasn’t Neptune. There’s always writers’ block.

What I am getting at? Besides my S/F fetish I love reading and writing as a wonderful outlet. All you ametuers like me dig that score. Think about it beyond the basic words-on-paper final product. The creation. You build worlds. Characters to do your bidding. Vent. Explore places you’ve never been, or perhaps ever. As a writer you get to play God (a wonderful example of this paradigm is Stephen King’s short story “Umney’s Last Case” from his Nightmares And Dreamscapes collection. Check it out; I’ll wait).

*whistling*

All sounds pretty sweet, right? But it is not easy. When you get to wallow in some literary success it is rewarding. And all that time churning it out to reward a friend or stranger. But Connery put it best to his young charge Rob Brown:

“Women’ll sleep with you if you write a book?” Jamal asked.

And Forrester replied, “Women will sleep with you if you write a bad book!”

With a female shaped like an ampersand. Swaddled in Nestle’s Crunch. And hopefully with a willing vag.

Crude? Yes. True? Affirmative. There is glamour in writing, even with mediocre work (looking at you, Danielle Steele and/or John Grisham, who both have yachts). From what I’ve seen Big Deal writers can get the rock star treatment. Book signings with a queue of rapturous fans going out the door and onto the freeway. At events like sci-fi conventions, certain writers are treated like royalty, up on stage with a panel of their peers, geeky slobbering audience hanging on every word. Heck, my buddy Stephen King holds a contest to have a campfire with some lucky fans to exchange scary stories.

But I’ve writing to be a humble, lonely craft. Mostly because it is not easy, but it also takes its toll on one’s imagination. That is the hardest part. Getting lost. Losing sight of the story, which often leads to writers’ block, which is even harder to cope with. Look at me: every novel I started is still in a holding pattern. Low-grade writers’ block. It happens from time to time, which is another aspect of the craft of writing makes it not so easy. Example? I’ll mention my main man Stephen King again. He’s knows some sh*t. He explained in his bio that when block hits, he goes for a long walk to mull things over. A significant time he did his walk (and it didn’t involve any auto accident) was back in the 70s when was laboring over his tome in progress, the jillion-pages of The Stand. He hit a rut and went for his walk, then came across a solution.

Spoiler (as if you read anything on paper anyway).

Blow up the protags. He then carried on his apocalyptic vision. You do what you gotta do. Namely find the right inspiration to alleviate the not easy part of writing. It’s what gets you started, what keeps you going and above all your environment. Hopefully a comforting, clear one. Like a walk in the woods. Or curled around a craft beer at your local watering hole. Or even the beach.

When the curls are massive…


Shaun (Hanks) has a kind of dilemma.

Senior year. Time to goof off with a vague sense of leaving the nest and pursuing a future. But the surf beckons, as does beer busts, canoodling with his girlfriend and getting a tan. But even a beach bum such as Shaun knows there’s more to life (especially after one of his best friends kicks it in a surfing accident). Life is short.

One afternoon on the beach, mulling over an existential crisis, Shaun comes across a beaten copy of Straight Jacket, a novel written by one Martin Skinner (Kline), a prof at the esteemed Stanford University. Shaun can’t put it down, and it inspires him towards a station in life: he decides to become a writer. If only to score a chance to be near his literary hero at Stanford.

That’s one part. The other part is this: his whacked out family. As well as his daffy guidance counselor (Tomlin) who inadvertently sent him down the river. Listen:

Shaun needs approval (and cash) to go to Stanford. Good luck there. Especially when his counselor f*cks up mailing his impeccable transcript to the wrong college. HIs mom (O’Hara) is too nuts with separation anxiety. His dad (Lithgow) is too much of a workaholic to care. His bro Lance (Black)? Perpetually hungover. Commence with the hair tearing. Stanford? So out of reach.

Until Shaun’s always upbeat girlfriend Ashley (Fisk) gets resourceful. Why not just drive out to Palo Alto and plead your case to Prof Skinner in person, Shaun?

So crazy it just might…


Orange County did not hold my attention. If you are folding laundry during your viewing of a movie, it is not doing it for you. I did and it didn’t.

The plot is razor thin, a throwback to 80s John Hughes’ films. How? His works almost exclusively being hinged on memorable characters. In fact, I think all his movies were character studies. The plots were simple. The Maguffins were direct. The cast were almost always misfits. Kasdan had a a lot of misfits to rearrange here, but the puzzle was missing a lot of pieces. Namely, no chemistry. Not a whit. These folks were wacky and funny and had no business sharing a scene together. Boom.

Harsh? Sure, but not as grating as the disjointed humor. Look, the plot for Orange has been used many times. Beat the clock. A good many Hughes films played this game also. Sixteen Candles, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, Planes Trains And Automobiles and such. Even his script for perennial favorite Xmas comedy Home Alone was also based on this precept. It worked for those movies because they followed the three-act structure. Namely something will happen/something is happening/something will get resolved. This does not happen with Orange. It’s all one big first act, taking off and going nowhere.

There. Whew. Had to let that hen out.

However it can’t be ignored there was a movie there. Not much of a story, but a movie. It’s slightly goofy bent attracted my attention at first only soon after having saying. “Please, don’t be a ‘trying to be hip’ movie.” It tries, all right. I just could not escape the feeling that this has been done before (Brian Robbins’ mediocre The Perfect Score) and done better (eg: Steve Pink’s Accepted, also torn to shreds here. Wasn’t bad). I think I was correct there, which is unfortunate to have such a stale plot driven by—can’t be denied—a great and totally misused cast. It’s one thing to take a rinky-dink script and spin into a wonderful tale populated with talented unknowns. Kasdan did the direct opposite with Orange.

Let’s talk about the casting, shall we? You know how I do love to bitch about pacing and put the actors through the wringer. This may not have been his first role, but Tom’s kid Colin Hanks as the only port in the storm here; his first leading role and role of note. He holds his own well here with Orange as he holds all of Orange together. And only him. And that’s a shame. Not that Hanks doesn’t do the “frantic graduating high school senior” trope well (he does), but rest of the players either perform as wooden or stereotypical (eg: crazed suburban mom, workaholic dad, Leslie Mann being all slutty, etc). That being pointed out, I noticed certain “tics” Colin inherited from his famous dad. A big success in Tom’s acting is having a “rubber face.” That’s not some pejorative. Hanks has had a very expressive face (career wise) since the eldritch two seasons of “Bosom Buddies.” Tom’s best roles always involving him freaking out. I’m not saying Colin doesn’t “freak out” in Orange (he does), but the “tics” leading up to them smack of dad’s are even a little more pronounced, like he’s trying to channel angst from his stiff cast members. In other words, Colin’s the only honest actor here. Everyone else seems tired. Really bothered me.

Leseee. We have O’Hara here, the queen of pee-your-pants-funny freak out. She excels at crazy. Remember the Harry Belafonte scene in Beetlejuice? That was her. Manic mom on a quest for Culkin in Home Alone? That was her. Early SCTV? That was her. Boozy, opting for no medication codependent suburbia divorcee? Nope. At least not here with such a schtick. Over the top, that was the problem. I know that what described does not allow subtly, but the pill-popping divorcee mom popping pills to deal with the divorce has been done to death by lesser moms than O’Hara’s.  In sum, she was boring and predictable.

John Lithgow, perhaps one of the best, most versatile character actors ever, is a painfully wooden cipher here. Selfish, workaholic dad, divorced, trophy wife, ignored his son in love but not in money, soft ice cream machine in the sauna, etc. You’ve seen it before. You can seen Lithgow straining against the script, some light shining through, but I’d like to think his gruff nature as Bud is channeled frustration at his agent. I’m getting all forlorn here.

The only play-against type role here is that Jack Black wasn’t really funny. A first. His manna. Second billing. Moving on.

Tech stuff! This is the “Warning: Science Content” part of the installment, akin to when Mythbusters needed to explain the details of an experiment before the program took a left turn into the “What can we make go boom this week?” show. As a dejected fan, I’m not bitter. Anyway.

It’s curious. We have a great ensemble cast, misused. We have untried but sturdy lead who does a good job. We have a “name” actor betraying his accepted histrionics. The essential pieces of a movie hopped the tracks. All we’re really left with the director’s view of the lens. He did a good job. Jake Kasdan is the usually solid and reliable director Lawrence Kasdan’s son. Lawerence cut his teeth on ensemble pieces like The Big Chill and Silverado (one of fave westerns, and I really don’t like westerns). And like those movies, Jake’s Orange is not for lacking with an eclectic cast. Poorly used eclectic cast but good actors all around.

Kasdan the younger seemed the ideal guy to move a project like Orange right along. Jake cut his teeth directing episodes of the cult/sociological TV series Freaks And Geeks, and as the title says…well, you get it. The paradox of Orange laid not with the transparent plot nor even the rip-off acting as problem; I sniffed something else. Yes, it was the pacing and, yes it was rushed, but I don’t think “rushed” is the right word for what really went wrong here.

Orange was harried. There felt like something twisted was afoot in the film’s production, and I had an inkling what. Can’t prove it and don’t dispute me.

Something was trying too hard. Y’know how I like to badger my little badger pacing, like, all the damn time? This time out with something like Orange needed less editing. The movie unfolded like a cheesy Carver story. There could’ve been a new spin on the old trope here. Like I said, John Hughes made his career on this gimmick. Instead not unlike Carver’s editor Gordon Lish’s scorned earth approach to trimming the author’s stories, Orange was peeled down (ha!) till the bone was showing by editor Tara Timpone all jacked up on th’ Mountain Dew. The running time was barely 90 minutes, and that’s usually reserved for animated flicks. Wanna know what I think happened? Really raunchy and thereby pithy sh*t was slashed so Orange  could get a PG-13 rating instead of an R.

I hate that. It’s only done to net a larger audience. More money for less art. Sigh.

Enough playing Fox Mulder. Halfway through the movie I was forced to come to the conclusions that: 1) this is a “trying to be hip” movie. With dysplasia, 2) there might’ve been something seriously lost here due to the editing. Or wasted, 3) great cast, all for naught, and; 4) Lithgow is a genius. I’ve probably painted a real skewed view on how I received Orange. Duh. It was psychologically confusing (as was overall stupid, sorry). I know this installment has been a bit schizo. I felt Orange to be, besides very meh, an exercise in cognitive dissonance; two or more things were contradictory for me here and I got all bamboozled. And bored. And I need a Tylenol enema. Really reaching with this one.

Gordon Lish? Really?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Orange was boring, confusing and tired, even with the reliable (muted) goofiness from Jack Black. When the DVD crapped out in the third act, I didn’t even consider notifying Netflix. And yes, I am one holdout out of 3 million subscribers that still risk it with the damned discs.


Stray Observations…

  • “Do you want me to get naked and start the revolution?” Works every time.
  • “I’m gonna assume you read all my fanboy-ism for Stephen King. I know a lot of folks believe he’s kinda a hack. He can be, but I thank him all the same for being the first writer I ever paid attention to, regardless of his hack scary and sci-fi stories. Yes, he’s written sci-fi. And fantasy. And articles for the NY Times magazine. Top that, Dickens!
  • “You stole my Palm Pilot!” How to date a movie: mention period tech.
  • Barring Social D, I hate the soundtrack.
  • Notice the untamed eyelids?
  • adore Lithgow. So should you, philistine.
  • Notice the reclining statue?
  • And the socks?
  • “I gotta get outta Orange County.” Word.

Next Installment…

When evil rears is many hydra’d head to destroy the world, you better seek the aid of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen!

Just bone up on your popular 19th Century fiction first.