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


The Film…


The Players…

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


The Plot…

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

Only Britain would go to Nixon.


The Rant…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the flipside.

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

Yes.

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

You guessed it. Richard Milhaus Nixon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Story…

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

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

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

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

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

We’re going live in three, two, one…


The Review…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Verdict…

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


The Stray Observations…

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

The Kudos…

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

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


The Next Time…

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


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


The Movie…


The Players…

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


The Story…

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

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

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

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


The Update…

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

*clackboard*


The Rant…

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

Here we go…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ho ho ho.

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

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

….

…..

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

It didn’t go as planned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Review…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…I did it again, didn’t I? No matter…

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Final Analysis…

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


The Stray Observations…

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

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

The Next Time…

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

Thanks for coming along.


 

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



The Players…

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


The Basics…

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


The Rant…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Apology…

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

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

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

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

Until then, stay tuned. 🙂


The Next Time (God willing)

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

Read: “passing.”


 

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



The Players…

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


The Basics…

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

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


The Rant…

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

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

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

“So?”

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

*crickets*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To what end I ask?

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

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


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

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

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

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

Sigh.

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



The Story…

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


The Breakdown…

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

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

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

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

Ahem.

*raps pointer on chalkboard*

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

There are reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Verdict…

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


The Musings…

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

The Next Time…

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


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



The Players…

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


The Basics…

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

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

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

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

He was never heard from again.


The Intro…

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

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

Stop cheering.

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


The Rant…

What is it about movies involving discovery seem so sexy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or not, nor ever. Their loss.


The Story…

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Breakdown…

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

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

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

Get it?

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

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

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

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

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

BUT…

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Verdict…

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


The Musings…

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

The Next Time…

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


 

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



The Players…

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


The Basics…

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

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

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


The Rant…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*raps chalkboard with pointer*

Settle down. And who stole my goddam apple?

All right then.

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

Still with me? Good. Moving on.

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Story…

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

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

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

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


The Breakdown…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay. Let’s talk nuts and bolts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to throw in the towel. Ha.


The Verdict…

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


The Musings…

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

The Next Time…

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


 

RIORI Presents Installment #184: Josh & Benny Safdie’s “Good Time” (2017)



The Players…

Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Buddy Duress, Taliah Webster and Jennifer Jason Leigh.


The Basics…

When Connie’s clever bank heist goes all pear-shaped, his special needs brother Nicky accidentally takes the fall. So from jail to the bail bondsman to the company of strangers Connie tears around New York burning lean tissue into the night to secure Nicky’s bail all the while the loot keeps expanding and retracting as the traffic lights change.

If it sounds complicated, it isn’t. It’s just madness.


The Rant…

Do you ever get the impression that people who are “slow” understand a lot more than they let on?

I understand using the term slow hinges on risking the PC police ramming down my door, but let’s be frank: straight to the point is always best, and special needs could be applied to a junkie as well as a person with trisomy 21. Nothing has done more to pervert communication in America than political correctness and hindering swift communication. You bet your Funk and Wagnalls.

So let’s just keep using the term slow for now without meaning any insult to anyone. Except lousy drivers, you know who you are. No, slow in the intimation that some folks, well, aren’t in a manic hurry to have an idea. Heck, I’ll go you one further. Doesn’t it seem like those who are slow are more thoughtful and deliberate in making up their mind, like not wanting to waste time going off half-cocked? I used to work with a young woman who had Down Syndrome, and was very methodical in getting work done. She was a server assistant at some restaurant, and I regret I can’t recall her name. Unlike the demonstrative, polite even game show host-like demeanor to wait on the guests and perhaps also fluff some egos, server assistants were relegated to the scullery, out of sight and out of mind. They pick up the dirty dishes when the meal is done and eventually haul the bus bin back to the dishwasher. They also reset the table; lay down fresh napkins and forks and whatnot after a thorough wipe down as well as pick up any trash wantonly fell to the floor. Chairs got a wipe, too. Not a glamorous job, but necessary all the same.

This girl—let’s call her Sue—had Down Syndrome. “Slow.” She made far less than the regular servers meaning next to nothing. She was 23 and I learned this was her first job. She had a 9th Grade education and she was a marvel to watch her work.

You see, SAs are the at the very bottom of kitchen hierarchy. The cooks make the food, the servers wait on the guests and the assists are basically the clean up crew. Like I said the job consists of breaking down tables and get them all spiffy again for incoming guests. Lay out fresh flatware, buff the classes to make sure they shine, arrange the plates in the traditional Continental style most restaurants prefer, folding napkins just right, that kind of consideration. Not to mention that almighty, healthy wipe down of the table first, natch. Very direct, very simple and very important. And so often eluded the other SAs who had such a hot nut to dart out to the loading dock for a quick smoke and a Tweet. And me to rightfully get on their ass for shirking.

I had never worked with anyone more deliberate and exacting than someone who was deemed slow that was Sue. She was methodical but not slow, dragging a simple task out. I’d often have to remind Sue to tend to her own tables rather than the rat trap, ramshackle mine collapse a few feet away. It might’ve been her eagerness for those who want to prove their salt, or just do a good job or just simply earn their own money and have a say in how to spend it. You know, like all of us. And every time her tasks were completed she was always quick to tell me, “All set!” Other “normal” servers left me to wondering.

Enough with the Hallmark card moment. It’s a curiosity that people who are “normal” regard the other side with either condescension or childlike good intentions. I’m talking both experts and yahoos like you and you. It’s curious how selected people are capable of seeing a responsibility to carry on as if nothing’s wrong or out of place. Not to sound all treacly but perhaps the slow people are better in touch with reality than others. A simple plan, minus all the horses*t we think is so vital (like that Tweet in your head that might cure rickets if you could spell rickets after all those White Claws). For instance, most of us are not well aquatinted with how to milk a cow, but I guarantee that there’s an autistic out there who never did before but becomes a whiz when listening to the Talking Heads. For a stouter argument how could Asperger’s Syndrome Dan Ackroyd assume the role of Elwood Blues without his trusty police badge in his pocket? Not kidding there. Look it up.

That being said Middle America, a great many slow people and doing pretty good not under a heel, and most don’t want your sympathy. A while back I learned that my g/f was diagnosed by an expert. I mean, come on, her diagnosis was along what her concerns were about balancing her budget to make rent, maintaining proper work relations to earn a raise and binging enough of The Vampire Diaries to zone out after the workday. Traumatizing. How did you spend you summer vacation?

Maybe all those slow people in society actually have the right idea. Hope for the best and worry about the worst when it comes. Saving their dollars for a car one day rather than blowing it on, say, a new PS5. The one with the disc drive. Sue might’ve had Netflix, and would have movie night every Saturday with her girlfriends, binging on the flicks of that month’s heartthrob (Brad Pitt’s always a safe choice, or Cary Grant). No time for workplace gossip; gotta earn some keep. Gotta stock up at Wegmans for Taco Tuesday. DSW is having a sale and some new Danskos are in order lest we slip on the floor.

Myself? I yell at my phone. My eBay auctions aren’t panning out well. Traffic is scary. I’m sick of reading labels on groceries in so doing lying to myself about watching what I eat. My hair’s going grey. Presidential debates. Maybe I need a PS5. The one with the DVD drive, natch.

I’m not f*cking deifying people with special needs. Sure, there are plenty of Sues out there, but just as many people as indignant us who don’t want a pat on the head and a liver snap on their tongue. Nope. Seems to me from what I’ve experienced slow people have a very keen, very fast bullsh*t detectors, honed to a razor’s edge whenever normal life tries to give them a raw deal. They may be childlike, yes, but I never knew a child to shy away from making their demands known and don’t talk down to me. I can do algebra, Dad. You can’t balance your checkbook so you save up for that PS5. Slow folks know what the game’s about and are quick to say so.

Which is why they are such lousy accomplices on a bank heist.


The Story…

Constantine Nikas (Pattinson) is a hood. There’s no other word. He’s not a thug, not a tough, not even a criminal in the traditional sense. Connie’s a hood. A conniver, a schemer, a charlatan. And a loving brother.

Connie’s bro Nicky (Safdie) has special needs. He’s not too swift on the uptake, but quite aware when there’s trouble afoot. Especially when the trouble is in the form of his hood brother.

The trouble Connie’s cooked up is a half-baked scheme to rob a bank. Despite the fact that Connie is whip-smart, he has a hard time figuring out what to do next, in crime and in time. He strong-arms Nicky into being his literal partner in crime. Despite the heist goes off without a hitch, the overly exuberant Connie neglects the fact his brother is slow-witted, as well as having a solid moral compass and ends up screwing the pooch.

Everything goes to sh*t. Nicky lands in jail and is beaten to a pulp. Connie didn’t nab enough cash to make Nicky’s bail. And in all the mix-up Connie abducts Nicky from the hospital only to discover that he kidnapped the wrong patient. Now comes the wheeler-dealer Connie, crusading to scrounge up enough cash by any means possible, including more theft, credit card scamming, doping up security guards and even getting a questionable hairstyle.

All in the name of saving Nicky, who wouldn’t’ve been in the mess it wasn’t for…you know.


The Breakdown…

I’ve the impression that with his Twilght years behind him Robert Pattinson has been trying very hard to shed the sparkly shadow that was Edward. Trying to distance himself from moody, dreamboat status and illustrate he’s no one trick pony. In fact, refute me in saying that Pattison has been very determined to prove himself a serious actor.

Wait, that’s not quite right. The claim of “serious” actors usually entails trading up lightweight roles for dramatic ones. It’s not necessarily the roles that prove or break an upgrade, but the setting. Consider this: Adam Sandler made his bones in the 90s doing infantile, screwball comedies. Some were unintentionally funny, but you can only trip over the ottoman one so many times. Like Tom Hanks learned, Sandler could apply his comic trade into other kinds of movies. Sure, most have been for lacking (EG: Spanglish, Reign Over Me, Funny People, etc). Regardless of what script Sandler was entangled with, he was still Sandler. The actor never changed, just the act. Someone should inform the future Batman that he should give Edward a pat on the back for inviting such an opportunity.

In the interim Pattison has been stretching himself (or perhaps just retooling his acting chops) into roles that Sandler wouldn’t approach with a red hot chili pepper. Pattison has been outright defiant in carving out a niche in the “serious” acting world. Post-Twilight Saga, I’ve caught Pattinson in some very terse and challenging roles. His turns in Cosmopolis, The Lighthouse and here with Good Time are definitely, if not defiantly away from YA vampires vs werewolves a la Montegues vs Capulets soap operas. Then again, you could consider his brooding breakout role might’ve informed his later projects. I say this is fine.

Best way to put it I think. Look, you can go a few routes as an actor with a solid cachet. You could go the Mickey Rourke route, buy a gold-plated Rolls, sell yourself short as Harley Davison, get into boxing, win a one-off award in a semi-biographical indie film and wind up as an Iron Man adversary so obscure that even the most dyed-in-wool Marvel Zombies never even heard of him.

Or…

You could use that cachet for more challenging, interesting roles on indie films to sharpen your chops for audiences that want to see some extra cheese on their pizza. I’m not saying playing against type, mind you. Pattinson’s Connie is just a natural extension of Water For Elephants and The Rover: expect something different every time, but it’s still Pattison. Again, the actor never changed. He morphed into a protean performer who has and is trying at anything. From what I’ve seen, he’s pretty good at delivering.

Which leads to Good Time. It’s Pattinson’s show all the why. It’s a turgid character study to be sure, but it sure is a deceptive one. I don’t mean Connie’s a scoundrel (which he is), and I don’t mean he tries to hoodwink people (though he does), but his motives for knocking over a bank is just not for the hell of it. Well it’s not just that.

To wit, the watchword employed to Good‘s tawdry tale is intrusion. Pattinson’s Connie can’t help but get in the way of things. Leave well enough alone. Like that surly drunk and your favorite bar threatening you over who really knows about peanut butter (the creamy vs chunky debate rages ever onwards). His wingman cools him off and excuses himself to take a leak, and as soon as the bathroom door wheezes shut it’s, “Jif, you motherf*cker!!!” Let it go and leave it alone. Things are going go from bad to dumb to desperate to what else could go wrong?

This may sound like a criminal caper gone wrong, like Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan or the Coen’s Fargo. It is, but not in the way those films lead you. There’s a clear motive, albeit hazy. You gotta pay attention to the cold open and the final scene. More on that later, for at the outset of the movie your focus is on the intrusion and the icky intensity of Connie that feels like a cold lick on the cheek. Almost from the get-go we learn that this is Connie’s show all the way.

Good kinda goes for a 21st Century Taxi Driver feeling. There’s sweat and grit and a palpable sense of dread. Our protagonist invites all this, but does not exactly initiate it. He falls into it, one after another hurdle to rescue Nicky that he falls victim too and has to clamber a way out if it only get tripped up again and again, patching up the dike as the storm seethes. Connie may be driven and clever, but keeping his eyes on the prize results in some scathing criminal activity. We’re talking major cringey here. I felt like facepalming many times over the course of Good but I didn’t. Why? Not sure. I was unable to quit rubbing my face while watching. Again, why was that? Tension? Embarrassment? Defeat? Perhaps getting caught up in the twisted life Pattinson imbued into Connie tricked me that he was a decent guy forced to do whatever it takes to set things right.

Nah. Connie’s a hood, and his motives are highly personal. Read: selfish. You can be selfish for the right reason, though. Even if you’re not aware. I felt that Connie was all too aware from the get go; he has a conscience and he hates it. His only redeeming quality is his dedication to his slow bro Nicky (who in fact may be nothing more than the Maguffin here). I felt that such dedication came at a price. Ever read Of Mice And Men? Or see a screen adaptation I recommend the version starring Sinise and Malkovich)? Good has an overarching feel of the frantic George trying to reign in the sweet, oafish brother Lannie who also has special needs and a certain strength that invites trouble. Nicky didn’t invite it, but he expected it, and here comes best bro Connie. The best laid plans, which may be why Nicky REDACTED in the opening scene as Connie interrupted his appointment. Also consider the final scene where Nicky is back at another appointment having to come to terms with his REDACTED and it’s all right to express yourself out loud.

So. That’s the major chunk of how if not for Pattinson, Good could’ve come across rote like some dissonant crime capers do. Think Woody Allen’s kinda dorky directorial debut film Take The Money And Run or Harold Ramos’ clunky The Ice Harvestboth trying to be clever and trying too hard. Good‘s not a comedy, though. Not in the conventional sense. Good is a true comedy of errors, where payback is always a bitch and someone always gets hurt. Often the wrong people.

One more thing before we wrap this up. It’s regarding The Standard, which I haven’t mentioned in quite a while. Figured all nine of you already read homepage. One of the tenets of The Standard is a movie’s overall poor box office takeaway (domestic) that gets the standard substandard RIORI treatment. But I’ve been thinking: does limited engagement really warrant that part? Earnings aren’t everything. Yes, I know Good was an indie, but…

Maybe I should rethink my drink. Until then, I understand using the term poor hinges on risking the indie director’s guild ramming down my door, but let’s be frank…


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Unlike the dour solo performance in Cosmopolis, the vivid misadventure with Good really let’s Pattinson flex his thespian muscles. Without any gold-plating.


The Musings…

  • “What’re you thinking about?” “Nothing.”
  • Nice earrings. Hoops to studs. Gotta mix it up, y’know?
  • “I gotta come clean to you ’bout something.” Riiight. 
  • What? No 555?
  • “Don’t be confused. It’s just gonna make it worse for me.”
  • Was that EMT smoking? Sets the tone of the entire movie right there, “F*ck this…”
  • “It’s been a big f*cking night!”

The Next Time…

Thunderbirds are go! F-A-B!”

What the heckin’ all that even mean?


 

RIORI Presents Installment #182: Jonathan Mostow’s “U-571” (2000)



The Crew…

Matthew McConughey, Harvey Keitel, Jake Weber and Bill Paxton, with TC Carson, Dirk Cheetwood, Will Estes, Tom Gulry, Jon Bon Jovi(!), David Keith, Jack Noseworthy, Erik Palladino, Dave Power and Matthew Settle.


The Briefing…

At the height of World War II, the Germans ruled the Atlantic with their U-Boat corps. The Nazis own the Atlantic from just beneath the surface. The subs are cutting off supply lines and ruining the Allied fleet via stealth and torpedoes, instilling fear and risk in all who traversed the ocean. According to the Admirality, it will take more brains than brawn to earn the upper hand.

The Nazis’ submariners have intelligence in spades, thanks to their Enigma codex. No Allied force can unscramble the Reich’s next mission until it’s too late due to the machine’s spell-bending, and yet another U-Boat sinks another Allied ship down to Davy Jones’ Locker, all hands lost.

What the US Navy needs is a break, that and a so-crazy-it-just-might-work mission to hijack a U-Boat, steal one of those Enigma contraptions and crack those secret orders wide open, potentially saving hundreds of lives in the process.

The US Navy requires seasoned crew of skilled sailors to handle such a daring mission. But where to find such skilled sailors? Nowhere, but this is war, and it’s always country before self, so we best take our chances on Lt Tyler’s very green crew.


The Flap…

I’ve never been much for war pictures. Not sure why. I’ve seen a great many of them, some held in very high esteem according to movie geeks more seasoned than I. I have seen and enjoyed Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now (a favorite of mine, which may be Coppola’s finest moment), M*A*S*H, The Longest Day and Born On The Fourth Of July to name a few. All good, if not great movies revolving around our species’ endless need to divide and conquer. The stuff gets you on a gut level, primal and also basal. On the flip side combat movies are easy to digest; all the drama and action is a lot sexier than seeing any actual combat. Go ask any Vietnam veteran.

That must be it. I’m no soldier, but despite all the violence and the human factor under the lens, war on film doesn’t look that…real. I know, I know. They’re movies. What’s reality got to do with it, Tina? I’m not talking about historical accuracy or torsos being shredded by tripping a claymore in full THX, dang it. Nope. I need my war movies ugly, sweating of desperation and dire consequences. I need drama without soliloquy. In short, I need grime in my war films. I think you know what I’m screaming. Grimy.

I guess that the only war movies that stuck to my ribs revolve around submarines. Now we’re talking grime. I have never, ever seen a “pretty” submarine war flick. Everything is wet, from sea bilge to dripping pipes to the de rigueur hull breach to perspiration f*cking all over the flinty, terrified crew. Grimy. I think it must have something to do with all that claustrophobia, all that canned air. Tension is guaranteed to get ramped up real quick, and the pipes and wheels looming all over the cast like some mocking maze. There’s an immediate understanding of no escape. Always acting on your feet, as it were. Such anti-romanticism might’ve been the result of reading Tom Clancy’s The Hunt For Red October one two many times. Hey, it was a good book. Drew me in and made me wonder what kind of movie it might make.

Segue…

There are many more sub movies out there, but I can safely count on one hand a few silent service action movies that always keep ratcheting it up just one notch more, meter by meter below. All that sweat, all that grime. There’s the immortal Das Boot by Wolfgang Petersen (IE: pronounced “Volf-gong Pay-der-sen” for you exacting film nuts out there), the grimiest, most intense and probably most historically accurate, sh*tty depiction about being on a submarine crew. Disenfranchised Nazi submariners just trying to survive below decks and f*ck all to the missions the Reich command, so long as their Navy looks good regardless of who’s stretching their necks for Germany. These Nazi submariners fight for home and hearth and bloody hate their mission. Suck it in; its war.

The movie adaption of Red October was unpretentious and satisfying, had perfect pacing and starred an amazing cast with my man Sean Connery, the underrated Scott Glenn and a whipper-snapper Alec Baldwin as the ideal Jack Ryan, man without a country (BTW, it’s odd now to figure such an adored comedic actor was once an action star. And shot people to boot). The movie was a classic cat-and-mouse caper, with a dash of social commentary thrown in for good measure. All the characters had a history, all the subplots added up to a rewarding whole and despite the clean undersea scene, there was lots of sweat. Sure, the Red October and the Dallas looked like luxury liners, but still felt cloistered and desperate. Lotsa sweat, man. Lotsa sweat. Did I mention the director helmed the original Die Hard? There ya go and check it out.

Technically not a submarine thriller, James Cameron’s The Abyss (his best film. Refute me) is an awesome undersea survival movie. Claustrophobia reigns, as well as an undersea rig ready to tear apart at the reams, pressure reigning down from above and below. Most folks balk at The Abyss, all pissy about not seeing enough undersea aliens. They missed the point. Alien contact is the icing. The crew surviving long enough to have a third encounter is the cake. The protagonists are not the aliens; they’re men, just as on shore. That mess and it’s a pretty great homage to The Day The Earth Stood Still, so long as you watch the three-plus hour directors version. Never fear. It’s a Cameron flick. It’ll flow by like Taco Bell through the orifice of your choice, voluntary or otherwise. You’re welcome for the visual. Moving on.

It’s all about the cramped quarters. Modern nuke subs have a crew complaint at a little over 130, including officers. The average length of a modern Ohio class-sub is approximately 560 feet. The actual space for actual humans to function is no larger than a dog park. For 130 bodies. No room for a beer bust, or pooper scoopers. Can you feature that? The graduating class of some suburban high school crammed into a nuclear powered tin can, which is more or less and inverted balloon (like a jet airliner fuselage holding back all that pressure) with foreign objects ready to scar all that steel and carbon fiber.

You wanna talk about pressure? I’m not just talking about structural integrity here, but pressure on the sailors brave and daring enough to submerge in those old-fashioned diesel and electric powered subs of yesteryear, the kind that were swifter above the surface than below the waterline. Sonar was fuzzy, if even available and when you’re using bumps and bonks as a mean of rough navigation. And if gets too dicey to got to periscope depth that lumbering drone of a battleship can be easily confused by whale song. Until the depth charges start falling.

You wanna talk about pressure? Sweat, stink and swearing. If Petersen’s movie was the acid test, then a tour under the sea is akin to living in a mouldering YMCA pool locker in July. One could practically smell the fungus and foot rot. I would not at all be surprised by all the frayed nerves, patchy facial hair and having a short, profane order from Herr Kapitän or the cook. From stealth breeds bravado, and that invites death by torpedo or crush depth.

You wanna talk about pressure? From what limited civvie understanding I have about submarines is that they are all are haunted, and death is omnipresent. I wouldn’t bother shaving either. Haunted by way of compressed, grimy humanity squeezed into a unforgiving microcosm of fear, perspiration and the glory of the hunt. Happens little, worth the wait and risk.

After all this folderol, it might—barely—suggest I have some big message to get across. Of course not. Said all that had be said about the pressure of being on a sub crew/recreating that isolation and scene chewing required to make a film recreation palpable. There are precious few, and precious few further. Will U-571 make the grade?

Dive! Dive!


The Mission…

Britain is starving for ammo, food and sundries. The Blitz left London in pieces, and the rest of England didn’t fare much better. True the bombing ruined the Realm, but without proper supplies the country can’t even think of rebuilding.

It’s all because of those damned Kraut U-boats. Sneaking up from nowhere and torpedoing supply ships to so much flotsam and jetsam, score of lives taken. The Admiralty is furious at such audacious, cowardly warfare, not to mention quite scared of it also. To wit, the Treaty of Versailles never said boo about submarines. Furthermore, how it is those damned Axis subs can always, always thwart the Allied missions before the fool things haven’t even been carried out?

The US Navy has a hunch. It’s the Nazi’s blasted Enigma codex. Unbreakable. Thanks to that hellish gizmo the Axis are able engage the Allies under the seas faster than the wind blows. The Enigma can most likely predict that, too. Blast!

What the Allies can only hope for is a lucky break…and they get one.

Flap is that there is a stranded U-Boat floating in international waters, with “precious cargo” aboard. Now is the Navy’s chance. Take the boat, disable the crew and abscond with the Enigma. Straightforward, and with as little grease as possible.

Heading up this secret mission is the seasoned and hale Lt Cmdr Dahlgren (Paxton). Despite the need-to-know basis of the mission, and due to a lack of sailors, Dahlgren is hampered with a very green crew save his aide-de-camp Lt Tyler (McConughey) and grizzled Chief Klough (Keitel). The rest are green-gilled and literally wet behind the ears.

No matter. Service first, and so the mission proves successful…until Dahlgren and crew are holed by a German torpedo, and their boat is sinking fast. What to do now?

Right. The American crew has no other choice but to commandeer the Nazi vessel and sail safely back to the United Kingdom with the Enigma intact.

And hopefully themselves, too.


The Report…

Beyond being some submarine caper, U-571 is a measured—very measured—character study, even with the wartime histrionics. Meaning there is no wallpaper here regarding roles. Everyone in the movie has a purpose, kinda like being on a sub crew. These men (beyond the headliners) are well-formed characters with personalities and foibles of their own. Barring how odd that sturdy character actor David Keith and cinematic fringed leather jacket novelty Jon Bon Jovi evaporate from the plot, these swabbies feel like real people. Smart way to have an audience invest their two-plus hour attention well beyond the stretching point. That being said, the time just flew by. Economical pacing considering the closed quarters and skirting-close-to-formula plot.

(Another moment of your time. I’d feel remiss in not bringing this point up at least once here picking apart U like so much leftover Chinese food. Pick, pick, picky, but I feel it necessary.

Not surprisingly, and since the film did the research as U was based on actual events. Whether or not the events coalesced into a feasible whole? Don’t ask me. It’s understood, however, that films based on “true” events are more often than not subjected to “creative liberties” and sweetening. Y’know, make it all sexier like. However again, this was a war movie “inspired by true events.” That being said, I understand why its release in the United Kingdom ruffled a few feathers. A whole chicken coop’s worth. According to the historical records, the erstwhile true events were based upon the exploits of the desperate British Navy, not an American crew. Sweet.

I’m the last person you’d ever mistake for a patriotic flaggot, but I feel their ain’t enough Stevia in the solar system to warrant such a gauche move. And not even a proper send off before the credits roll. Like we couldn’t have taught Mac a British cum Fort Worth accent, alright? Alright. Alright lame.)

Where were we? Right. Movie. That thing.

I didn’t find U to be your typical submarine actioner. Shocking. I got the feeling that director Mostow wanted to bring some zing back to war movies with as little navel (naval?) gazing as possible. This movie dropped two years after Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, both high watermarks of existential combat cinema. Mostow brings the flash not just with terse action scenes, but that character interplay thing. Felt like he was going with some solo vision, sorta indie feel here, all stripped down. It kinda worked. More on that later.

Like the above pair, you get drawn into the drama by getting drawn into the characters’ heads (literally in Red Line and to excess) with U. I repeat: everyone has their place, but their place is based on immediate action—duty—which invests you into what happens next. Here, it’s down to the wire. Sure, Mac, Pax and Sport are the stars and that gets butts in the doors, but the supporting crew keeps you seated. Worked for me. plays like a play: deliberately staged and structured. It’s a nice change from the beyond crazy cray-cray 90s sweatfests so rampant since Sly Stallone hurtles towards Social Security eligibility (“I am the law!”). Burp.

U is an odd duck of an action film, not so often these days. Heavy on the drama, characterization and kerboom in that order. I stand by my conviction that if weren’t for Mostow shoving around fully fleshed out characters this would be just another sweaty Bruce Willis shoot ’em up. Nope. You actually have a modicum of care, if not concern for the sailors, even on both sides of the wire. Namely I appreciated all angles of the cast and how they were used. Not liked mind you. Watching the cast interacting with one another, the plot weaving in and out, it was not dissimilar to watching a chess match. Back and forth, back and forth. Run to the fore of the sub for extra weight. Thinking on one’s feet as to how to fix the diesels. Low level “sonar.” All these tasks cut workmanlike and with precision, and I repeat all of the casting was competent and well-executed.

A minor carp was the whole “liked mind you” crack. Here’s an example: McConaughey has always oozed slick confidence from his roles. Not here; he’s all anxiety and stress. Never seen him so grim. Serious, but a capable action hero. Not great, but serviceable. As great as the casting was, everything felt rather five degrees off cool. Slighty off and awkward. Keitel feels kinda out of place here (despite, or because of him being the sole voice of reason), but just because he’s Keitel, not someone like Sport for example. The rest of the swabbies don’t have a lot of backstory, but that didn’t feel like a detriment to me based against how well the cast worked together. I know that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but if you catch the movie you might see what I mean.

On, and that “other side of the wire” bit? I appreciated how the Nazi submariners all had beards. No washing or shaving on a U-boat. A touch of humanity to a piece of the Reich’s more infamous elements of blitzkrieg. Mostow took some obvious cues from Das Boot. You almost feel bad for the Germans. That’s good direction. It’s also a bittersweet conceit that the Axis submariners are sailors first, not wind-up toys for the Reich. I felt that humanizing the enemy made the tension all the more palatable; these are people, sailors like Tyler’s crew. This notion perhaps filled in the blank I mentioned before. I know that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but if you catch the movie you might see what I mean.

Uh, right.

This was an action movie, right? So where would an action flick be without its bucket of tech stuff to play with? Right! Hot Topic!

BONK

Thanks. From what I know about submarine architecture (which isn’t much. Most of it came from movies) quarters are always cramped, stations are relegated to a single chair and every inch of available space is designed for keeping the boat afloat and the crew alive. Again, Das Boot comes closest to this miserable truth. Heck, the sets of Red October were f*cking palatial compared to the workshop function over form that was U. And since this movie dropped circa 2000 we got really good models, not CGI. I dug that. Made the underwater scenes all the more real and seminal. Desperation does not let up. Grimy, remember? Claustrophobic of course, but the sets made the mission all more dire, like could rip apart at the seams at any moment…and almost does. The plunging depth charges, the winding torpedoes, and the B plot matters with keeping the diesels and batteries online and the boat alive. It was intense, resulting in excellent pacing. Right in the butter zone for an undersea action caper. I was grinding my teeth a lot, despite my dentist’s warnings about watching too many sub movies.

A final note, I appreciated how not glamorous it was to be on Tyler’s crew. Again noted with Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line had nary an iota of the “glory of war” glam and glitz. Neither does U. I appreciated seeing how beat up the crew was. War’s never about charm. When this movie was released it was on its own. Not every action/war movies needs a “message.” The mission alone speaks volumes to us civvies, if we pay attention. Since U was “based on actual events” any head-scratching, speechifying or sloganeering would not fit in. Hell, even though this film had a “happy ending,” there wasn’t much to be happy about.

Relieved maybe. I had no fingernails after watching U.


The Material Condition…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a solid, straightforward action movie with a great cast. No muss, no fuss. A Saturday afternoon movie. Call it a cinematic shore leave.


The Scuttlebutt…

  • “Everything’s in German!” Well, duh!
  • Um, I don’t believe that conventional crockery were ever used on subs (EG: Navy mugs lack handles).
  • The mock shield reveal. Ugly, ain’t it?
  • Zippos are temperamental.
  • “How wise is that, Lieutenant?” “Not very.”
  • It took me, like, two-thirds into the movie to notice Tyler wearing the Captain’s hat. Guess I was too caught up elsewhere.
  • The ring exchange.
  • No submariner would ever be so reckless with firearms as illustrated here.
  • It’s still hard to believe Paxton is gone. Sorely missed.
  • “Keep working.”
  • One would think more than just one of the crew knew German.

Forward…

Why the heck are we reading about some doofy rom-com starring Diane Keaton and Mandy Moore?

Because I Said So!


ROIRI Presents Installment #180: Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” (2019)


The Lighthouse


The Players…

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.


The Basics…

In the late 1800’s on a remote New England island, two USLS employees begin their post as lighthouse keepers for a four-week tour. It’s a straightforward assignment: maintain the facility and keep the light burning. Nothing remarkable. Standard operating procedure.

But when a violent, almost ungodly storm sweeps the island, cuts off supply lines and threatens to pummel their small tower into strewn bricks their post becomes a living nightmare. Now both must try to survive nature’s wrath, being stranded, each other’s fraying nerves and a creeping descent into madness.

Then again, it’s nothing a little alcohol abuse couldn’t remedy.


The Rant…

My mother has a thing for lighthouses. More like a festish really.

Those sturdy, concrete, somewhat phallic sentinels that dot the coastlines. Once the vanguard of maritime safety, now a quaint reminder of a simpler time before radar and GPS. These edifices still have their uses. Landmarks for one, especially considering small craft that may not have a LORAN unit. These days lighthouse beacons serve better as a landmark on the roads than on the shoals. However they are still the idea backup source when modern naval tech fails. Heck, I even learned that 75% of all lighthouses in America are still fully functional navigational aids, kind of like hard copy to go with online purchase. And as I can fondly recall from youth that light was the summertime version of “be home before the street lights come on.” As soon as you could see that beacon spinning, get yer ass home.

I spent many summers as a kid on the Fire Island National Seashore. My grandparents had a summer place there, and there was the iconic Fire Island Light at the far eastern tip of the shoreline. Here’s some history: the tower is 160-plus feet tall and was completed 1858. Pre-Civil War, it was daring feat in concrete. The light’s the second tallest one in New York, and its beacon can cast up to over 20 nautical miles out to sea. The light did crap out in the early 70s, and the tower fell into disrepair. Later, in the mid-80s, the Coast Guard returned the Fire Island Lighthouse to an active navigation aid. Dusted it off, fresh coat of paint and buffed its lenses clean. I recall as a kid the near incessant hum of distant sandblasting at the workers stripped the tower down to bare brick in or to repoint the thing as well as give it said new, high tech coat of paint. Even later in the 2000s the light became a private aid to navigation, a self-sustaining entity from the local historic society. It continues to be on the nautical charts to this day, despite being practically obsolete.

Kinda intersting, huh? Was to my Moms. I don’t sweat other people face to face for opinions on whatever subject RIORI has gotten messed up into week upon week. Apart from recommendations from friends who still don’t understand The Standard (EG: “Yes! The Phantom Menace was lame! Wrong decade! Who are you anyway? Why are you in my freezer? Hand me that popsicle!”). I fly blind. Besides, it’s easier for me to have another “do the research” rather than me scouring the IMDb and its sister sites all weekend long. So I this time out I got either clever or lazy and consulted the mother about her pet interest. Got more than I wished for. Um, you did read the above paragraph, right?

I think that, which may hint at the aforementioned “simpler times,” is what my mother’s infatuation with lighthouses are all about. Like me when I was a kid, she spent her summers on Fire Island with her folks. This was back in the 50s. Then the island was nothing more than a big sandbar; precious little vegetation, just scrub, dune grass and a few stunted pines. At night the twirling beacon lit up the entire bay. No trees mean it cast its light up and down the island every minute or so. The way my mother described it, it sounded like God’s flashlight, inescapable and demanding awe. And also like it came to be with me, you better be home before you can see the beam.

Some more history, according to Moms: back in the 60s the Fire Island National Seashore was founded and set about overhauling the landscape, planting trees. They offered up shade and shelter belts from storms and their root systems did fine job of holding the sandbar together. Due to the new canopy, the almighty Fire Island Light did not lord over island like it used to what with all that fresh canopy. It was also the rise of radar, so ships really didn’t need those huge beacons to navigate at night anymore. The rest is history.

My mother didn’t just spend summers on Fire Island however. From kid to young adult she visited many beaches. She went to camp on Cape Cod, and there were lighthouses. Her in-laws had a summer place on the coast of Maine, and there were lighthouses. She visited the Outer Banks, learned of his maritime history and…you get me. Mom found lighthouses as a touchstone for fond childhood memories: summer camp, swimming at the beach, fresh lobster from Maine (until she discovered she had a shellfish allergy, the hard way). She was—is—an amateur scholar of maritime history and told me how old yet tricky lighthouse technology was and how far back it went in the US, how vital they were for navigation safety back in day. One of little buts of trivia that the one and only George Washington commissioned New York’s first lighthouse at Montauk Point all the way back in 1792. That is some history for a now quaint, obsolete, concrete colonial LORAN unit. But hey, if our first Prez said the Montauk Light was important to national safety are you gonna argue?

Moms brought up one more thing about those old lighthouses: nothing was automatic. No electricity. No running water. No GrubHub. Gotta keep the coals burning to keep the beacon lit. Gotta chip ice off the lenses, lest some poor ship gets blinded and runs aground…or worse. The keepers needed to maintain potable water and sustenance through the lean months, rationing if needs be. Backbreaking, often scary work. There were always storms brewing, and you can’t just call in sick. And there’s always having to sleep light.

The life of a lighthouse keeper was a solitary one, she said. Lonely and miles away from civilization. Always on the edge of the coast. Can you imagine?

“Must’ve been an isolated life,” I nodded assent.

She agreed. Isolation. But who’d want such miserable, dangerous work? What were the benefits, if any?

She wasn’t able to offer up a satisfactory answer, save maybe some people just wanted the solitude.

Wanted? Or needed?


The Story…

The New England coast, circa 1890.

Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) has tired of his years as a lumberjack. In an effort to support himself between jobs on his traveling North, Winslow joins America’s Lighthouse Service for some swift money. It’ll be a temporary job, to be sure. Four weeks tending a lighthouse on some tiny islet to get some money in his wallet and a change of perspective. It seemed simple enough, but that’s how trouble always starts.

Ephraim’s boss, old salt Tom Wake (Dafoe) doesn’t take kindly to landlubbers who just want a fast buck against ships running aground. He is gruff, rude, often drunk and works Ephraim like a pack mule. Wake claims he can’t do much hard labor because of his bum leg, but Winslow believes the old man just likes to bully him. Wake is a seasoned wickie and the lighthouse his wife and the rock it rests upon his brood and needs a young, strong back to keep the home fires burning. It’s an important title being a lighthouse keeper over these treacherous waters. Of course, no one accepts that until things go wrong. Winslow is slow to understand that, even within a month’s tour on their gull splattered rock. Is the pay worth it?

It doesn’t take very long for Winslow to sense something is not right with Wake’s wife and her flock. One evening while doing another chore in an endless parade of them he glances up that shining beacon. He swears he can see Wake, stripped of his clothes and sunning himself against the glare. Winslow is alarmed but shrugs it off as another of the old man’s weird drunken behaviors. He stows the thought away. Then things really begin getting strange.

He can hear forbidden acts through the catwalk that Ephraim is not permitted to see. The gulls scatter and attack him as if with a vendetta. He could swear he saw a mermaid on the shoals and later tentacles slithering across the lenses. Winslow starts to doubt his own sanity, and superstitious Wake offers him no quarter. Save a few snorts of rotgut to clear the head and ease the drudgery.

Something bizarre—perhaps supernatural—is crawling into Winslow’s simple life. And he wants to have a simple one, to be sure, however Winslow should best acquaint himself with that old New England saw:

“The good seaman weathers the storm he cannot avoid, and avoids the storm he cannot weather.”


The Breakdown…

I’m not much for horror films. I like terror films. Perhaps I have brought this up before, but there is a major difference. Sit tight.

Won’t lie to you, Lighthouse was creepy and definitely not for the weak-willed or squeamish. Not a lot of violence, just blink and you’ll miss it, but suffocating with metaphor. This is not some eye-opening, mouth agog holeeey sh*t kind of terror. It’s the kind that sticks to your brain like glue, leaving you wondering what the hell did you cough up 12 bucks to see, boy-howdy terror. Your mind ablaze with images that cannot be cut away since you spend days afterwards obsessing over What did I just watch? No fear, you’ll have no trouble answering that upfront. More on that later.

The Lighthouse was very engaging, and drew you right into Ephraim’s world. Just keep paying attention. Things come fast and furious. It was also a very literate movie, inspired by gothic horror and Jamesian pragmatism turned on its ear. The belief that words and thoughts are tools and instruments for prediction, problem solving, and action are perverted by Max Eggers’ script. The scenarist—the director’s brother, BTW—admitted he was inspired by one of Poe’s fragments “The Light-House,” as well as borrowing thematic ideas by Carl Jung (renown for his interpretations of dreams and man’s symbols). the The final product was nothing like the story—that and there were countless production stalls, never a good thing—and got morphed into a “haunted house” period piece. Makes sense. The movie is a period piece inasmuch as we know that the setting was in New England in the late 1800s, as well as dismantling the mechanics of what isolation does to one’s sanity. Right?

Wrong.

Okay, but it was inspired by Poe’s works? Not exactly.

All right, then The Lighthouse was a “literary” horror steeped in metaphor? Getting warmer.

I found The Lighthouse to be a hybrid terror tale by way of, yes, Edgar Allan Poe and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. More specifically “The Black Cat” meets “The Tell-Tale Heart” meets “William Wilson” meets “The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner.” Right, straight on the nose but apt all the same. Now let’s turn our textbooks to page…

If you’ve ever read these works you know what I mean. If not, here’s the Cliffs Notes: The first is about a guy who almost gets away with murder, the second is about how insidious madness can be, the third is a sort of Jekyll and Hyde cautionary tale and the fourth is about eternal guilt and penance. “An albatross around your neck,” right? Right. All four tales got pillaged to construct the plot of Lighthouse. Not sure if Max meant that, but it was a deft turn of a pen or maybe just cryptomnesia. Either way, he made it work and with a minimum of shoehorning. Not just to scare the bleep out of you but also create a keen amalgam into an clever—if not overdone and bombastic—allegory. Lighthouse is meditation on guilt, grief and retribution. The stuff I mentioned earlier that is a mental wad of spent chewing gum on the underside of your cranial school desk.

So why is The Lighthouse and terror film but not horror?

There is a big diff’ between horror and terror. Horror is offensive, gaudy, violent and bloody. No subtly there. From the Saw series to the ridiculous Final Destination series to the stupid Friday The 13th series to almost anything Eli Roth directs, blood and guts are king. No subtlety, no nuance, definitely no characterization or plot development. Just splatter and arterial spray. Ugh. If that’s your thing, fine. However you are terminally 14 and have a dire, world-ending need to caress a breast, you just want cheap thrills (and you can get that from a well-placed can of Reddi-Wip). BTW, if your date agrees to see one of such movies with you, her chest is nervous with anticipation. Win-win I guess.

Terror? That’s a whole other animal. Watching a terror film you don’t get splatter, you get a racing pulse. You don’t get laid. Small sacrifice. In return you get a rush, a thrill, a story, an interest and a lot of jump scares (which are totally underrated, BTW). And why do jump scares get such a bad rap regarding scary movies? Many classic terror movies are custom made for them. Psycho, Halloween, Alien, The Haunting…

SCREECH…

Robert Wise’s The Haunting is an ideal example of terror. Nowadays we call such subgenera “thrillers,” like Silence Of The Lambs or Get Out. I’m going to lay claim to The Haunting as ground zero for the modern concept of terror films. There may have earlier and maybe done better later, but The Haunting can be the most definitive covering all bases. The bases being building tension (often relentlessly so), firm character development all around (as opposed to cannon fodder), little to no (explicit) violence and letting the imagination fill in the blanks.

Here’s what I mean from our chosen film: the story is that a few paranormal investigators—professional and amateur—spend the night in an allegedly haunted mansion and record their findings. That’s it. However over the course of 2 hours you never see a single ghost. Sure, there is evidence of spirit activity, but nothing concrete. It’s scary as hell as your imagination runs riot trying to fill in the gaps. Was that a ghost? What’s that sound? Hey, where did so-and-so get to? Let’s investigate that locked room. Creepy sh*t. Crawling terror.

The first time I caught The Haunting was on Turner Classic Movies. Long time back, before streaming and DVRs were extant. It was Halloween time, so duh, TCM went through its vaults and aired the very best in scary. Now TCM airs its stuff commercial free. No interruptions to ruin the moment. I’m all down with that, until 30 minutes into the film I had to pee. I held it for another half hour until my teeth were floating, and relieved myself at light speed so not miss much more. I was that drawn into the amazing tension Wise imbued the film with, and nary and arterial spray or chainsaws could be found. My heart was pounding. Go stream it, dammit. And for pity’s sake ignore the 1999 remake at all costs.

Back to The Lighthouse. I felt the movie fell into the terror category, but with overarching senses of horror, allegory and quite a bit of psychological hoodoo. I was almost—almosttempted to spoil a good portion of the plot, so dense, wonky and just a full out Greco-roman clusterf*ck it was to behold. I can get scared witless and cracked up really high by a good terror movie. I’ve never really been outright disturbed by one. But here I am and we all are.

As disturbing as the movie was, I found it owed a bit of thanks to Mad magazine. For a good portion of the film all the hallmarks were present for your standard haunted house tale. Isolation, creepy things in the shadows, hints at supernatural goings on, etc. Typical fare, almost a parody. Also like Mad let’s just throw every cracked idea we got and see what fits into the story and what is just plain weird. The entire first act is relatively lightweight (EG: Winslow doing chores, Wake chewing scenery as the ancient, scuppered sailor, male bonding over a drink, etc) to either fool you into a sense of polite unease or warming up for ramming speed. I thought both.

Then the winds changed. The supernatural (if that what is was) began to crawl into the frame via Winslow’s POV, as well as the subtle-as-neon metaphors. We swiftly learn that Winslow is REDACTED and as his guilt grows he descended further into drink, grief and madness until nothing makes much sense in the final act. The man becomes completely unravelled, aided by Wake who may or may not have the answers to undo Winslow’s drunken frenzy. This movie was terrifying because it was relentless in making you question every little detail to determine what was really going on only to have another piece added (or taken away) to the puzzle. That and there eventually came many scenes that could only be described as “gooey.”

I’ve never been so rattled by a terror film like The Lighthouse. Not for it’s strangeness or outright horror elements. I felt so confused, spun around and bamboozled by what I had watched I fell like I had gone for a tumble in an unbalanced washing machine. Tearing at my hair grumbling, “What the f*ck?” I analyzed it nine ways to Sunday and my brain would not let go until a few days later. That’s a unique scary movie experience. More unique than holding your water for an hour waiting to see a ghost that’s never there.

Kinda like Winslow.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. I only say “mild” because there was a lot of studying—both during class and for homework—to follow the movie. Otherwise, it was quite an experience in terror.


The Musings…

  • “Keeps ’em…stupid.”
  • Was there a reason why the film wasn’t full screen?
  • I wondered how Dafoe affected that voice. He indeed sounds like an old salt, no pretense.
  • “Had enough of trees, I guess.”
  • No matter the place or time, you got to appreciate a good drinking song.
  • Pattinson’s contempt is smeared all of his face: “I don’t have time for this crap…”
  • “Yer fond of me lobster!”
  • Pattinson’s makeup is impressive. He looks more like a cadaver as the films rolls on.
  • Provisions.
  • “…I ain’t want to be stranded here with some damn lunatic!”

The Next Time…

You’re still working at what is not your dream job. You kid is a holy terror, both at home and school. You’ve never, ever, ever successfully maintained a balanced budget. And you still surf Reddit for “all the answers.”

Yep, This Is 40.


 

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



The Players…

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


The Basics…

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

That’s what’s what, bro.


The Rant…

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

BONK!

*needle screeches across the record*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Story…

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Breakdown…

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

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

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

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

Two.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sigh. Round and round and round.

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

I can survive on this opinion.


The Verdict…

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


The Musings…

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

The Next Time…

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

That usually means poison ivy.