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


Image


The Players…

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


The Story…

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


The Rant (2013)…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But hopefully with.


Rant Redux (2019)…

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

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

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

Ah crap. That dastardly reading thing again.


The Revision…

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


Next Installment…

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


 

Advertisements

RIORI Redux: Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” Revisited



The Players…

Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Ackerman, Billy Crudup, Jeffery Dean Morgan and Matthew Goode.


The Story…

Adapted from comic laureate Alan Moore’s landmark miniseries, the events that transpire after a superhero is murdered in an alternate universe circa 1985 lead a band of once famed costumed avengers—now outlaws—to solve the mystery. However this is no mere murder, regardless of the victim. There are far more sinister forces at work shadowing this mystery, and very little of it has to do with some dead guy wearing a costume. And a smiley face button.


The Rant (2013)

When I was a pup, I picked up the first ish of Watchmen. Didn’t get it. I guess I was not the target audience. Sold the thing for five bucks. This was 1986 dollars. I was too young to know the oys and joys of beer, drugs and sex. I guess I was a wastrel when it came to comics as well. Who’s the latest X-Man? What’s Spidey up to? What’s sex? They do what? To each other? Eewww.

Ha. Since then, I’ve grown up. Sort of. Through waste and disgrace I now have all 12 issues of Watchmen hermetically sealed in a binder somewhere. First issues. Ugh, the geekiness of it all. Am I boasting? F*ck yeah I am.

So when the whirling dervish that is Zack Snyder got the green light to tackle a full-flung take on the mini-series (which had been languishing in production hell for lifetimes) and plaster it to the silver screen, a million comic geeks over were harping about either two things: this had better work or this ain’t gonna work.

And here I am to declare the results in a sober, reserved geeky mindset. Keep in mind, I’ve been a movie nut well before there were ever comic book movies…

Where to start?

Okay, the plot. It’s painfully simple, right? Painfully simple, which is all but this comic series and ensuing film is. Funny thing is it’s almost impossible to give too much away about the movie for how dense it is for its 2 hour 45 minute running time. I’m actually amazed the studio heads and/or editors allowed this length. Then again, I doubt a movie could do the comic book justice in only 90 minutes. The book and the film are that inscrutable.

My take on certain points of the film is cursory at best, because there is a sickening amount of details crammed into the near three-hour running time. I’ll try to make this work. Remember, I’m not a professional movie critic. Just a loudmouth with a blog.

At its core, Watchmen is a murder mystery. All the allegory and satire is just applesauce. Very good applesauce, mind you. But try telling a neophyte the plot of Watchmen without tying up your tongue and his mind. Right.

There is a lot more going on here than my perfunctory synopsis the story. I can’t explain it all, and that is what is the most damning about this film adaptation. There is too much going on. Props for Snyder trying his hand at it. He did what no other director managed to do thus far. He managed to do what Terry Gilliam, David Hayter, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass could not. He got it on film. Not only that, but he captured the spirit of the comic quite well, if not the complexity.

There is a holy host of touches that make this movie work. The fact things work at all is practically a miracle. It feels like Snyder got into most of the heads of the readers of the series and tried to make celluloid flesh out of what the mind’s ear heard and of what the imagination piqued.

First of all, the voices are important. It’s hard to believe that the dulcet voice of Billy Crudup (Dr. Manhattan) that assured us for everything else, there’s MasterCard would be such an eerie complement to the omnipotent Doctor. There’s a wistful innocence and dare I say pity in Crudup’s performance that marshals up emotions that we as the audience should have for him: pity and awe. On the flipside, Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach snarl was dead on for my mind’s ear. The voice of a demented, so-called hero. The monologue in the prison interview was especially effective. The dialogue was tight and didn’t seem forced or purple, which could be construed that way if delivered by a different actor.

Along with the voices was the music, especially the now-infamous Leonard Cohen romance scene. Some of these songs also appeared in the miniseries proper, also cued up and overlapped as scenes in the book as well as the screen translation. It’s nice to know the writers did their homework. Then again, all that homework might’ve hurt the film some. It’s always difficult to translate a book into a movie. Something’s always going to be either padded or jettisoned (for Watchmen it was the whole “Black Freighter” subplot, which was later and adapted for a straight-to-DVD release). But scenarists Hayter and Tse may have adhered too closely to the source material, not leaving a lot of room for cinematic interpretation. It’s one thing to see the images leap onto the screen. It’s another to have to keep turning the pages.

The sets reflect the hard, colorful angles of the nine panel pages of the original book. Everything sort of takes a kind of surrealist focus, as if to remind the audience that this is—was—not the 1985 you knew. You get the feeling that despite the heavy-handedness of the source material, Snyder’s having a lot of fun making the film. Granted the fun is dark and sometimes demented, but let’s face the truth: sometimes the best kind of fun is dangerous.

I gave up following the movie frame-by-frame along with the original comics I cracked out for the occasion by the third act. Biggest carp? The ending was racist Hollywood, and with that a lot of other stray thoughts clutter up my mind. Being beaten over the head with exacting efforts can leave one woozy.

Do any of these points sell the film for people who’ve never read the comics? Probably not. They are but touchstones of a valiant effort to bring one of the most complex, dense and literate comic books to the screen. So…


Rant Redux (2019)…

Again, I was surprised that I didn’t sound so bloated as I thought. Being a comic book fan I am one of a few individuals that are given a wide berth when it comes to their fetishes (eg: comic geeks, pro wrestling fans, CosPlayers, pedophiles, etc). Meaning I’m faced with a certain degrees of bemusement and “Sir, this an Arby’s” when it comes to my—and others—blathering on about their manic, fevered obsession over the machinations, codex and philosophy about a fictional universe that admittedly stinks to high Heaven of life arrest and taking up indefinite residence in their folks’ basement. Fantasy, exactly. Glad you’re following along.

One of the major achievements of Watchmen I glanced upon was that the dang film ever got made. With Zack Snyder at the helm, of all people. I say that based on past becomes prologue over the years here at RIORI. Snyder is the most scrutinized director here, which says something. Not that all his films are lame (Sucker Punch  was a fine exception), but most are in some way, bland, ethereal and…well, assuredly mediocre passing entertainment. Over the years here at RIORI Snyder’s aforementioned Sucker Punch, his take on Watchmen and Man Of Steel have gone under the microscope, and if The Standard doesn’t change (it won’t) we’re gonna see a lot of more of Snyder’s craft end up here unless his style changes (it won’t).

Still Snyder’s taste for spectacle over craftsmanship suited the abstract Watchmen well enough even I was surprised—surprised the comic series ever made the leap to cinema at all. In the endgame it was a herculean task to rescue Alan Moore’s magnum opus from infinite Production Hell. Watchmen was optioned back in 1986, the year the comic was released and didn’t hit the theaters until over 20 years later. The main reason why it took so long is because Fox failed to secure a director. Those names I mentioned above? All were qualified for the job as far as I was concerned; they could all tackle such a recondite, culty, socio-conscious detective story out of a comic book, before God. But I don’t think seeking the right director was what Fox (later Warner Brothers and later Paramount and even later Warner Brothers) found tricky.

It was the source material. Not so much it being sourced from a vital, however still obscure comic book, no. And not exactly what the plot of the comic book was, either. I feel that the source material’s sophistication and an execution would not have been taken seriously, or at least the studios defiantly did not understand the opportunity because—

*drum roll and drop the mic*

it came from a friggin’ comic book. Up until 1986, the only comic book hero to grace the silver screen was Superman, his cinematic exploits couched firmly in action and fantasy suitable for all ages. What Moore and Gibbons had cooked up was topical, complex, loaded with social commentary, satire and major head-scratching  in equal measures. This was a comic book? Where are the capes,? Joel Silver cried. Why, daddy why?

Yep, believe or not Hollywierd. And they shuffled the option around and around like a hot potato with tertiary syphiliis, too hot for any conventional studio at the time to touch. The aging powers that be deemed Watchmen unfilmable (not out loud) and down to the Seventh Level the script was laid dormant for over two decades. The party line goes that Watchmen was never picked up in a timely fashion for myriad of reasons: all the usual Hollywood folderol. Budget. Casting. Revolving door of perspective directors. Rewrites. Budget. “Creative differences,” and last of all budget.

To wit I say: hogwash. Zack Snyder made the impossible possible and got Watchmen to theaters. Better late than never, especially up against the dimwitted myopia studios have “unfilmable books” (read: return on investment) been regarded, and often incorrectly. If Kubrick could get A Clockwork Orange and Lolita—of all books—to film, one would be hard-pressed to ask, “Hey. What about that Miracle Man guy?” And for better or worse, master weird guy David Lynch got a crack at Dune (much to author Frank Herbert’s dismay. I think the fiasco contributed to his death a year after release. That and the cancer, but the cancer came after the movie, so hmmm). Naked Lunch got the movie treatment, ‘tho I’m still not sure why. Gonzo journalistic epic Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson directed by (once tapped, erstwhile director of Watchmen) Terry Gilliam to good effect. And for some other whacked out reason (other than a bet) Steve Coogan tried his hand a Tristam Shandy but shouldn’t have.

This brings me back to my point: my reluctant praise for Snyder full pulling off the greatest jewel heist in comic book movie history. It was Alan Moore’s K2, and Snyder planted a flag at the summit, for better to worse. I still only claim that because of course the final product could’ve been better, but most audiences’ attention spans with movies have been trained to be reliable only up to 100 minutes. Watchmen was almost three hours long and even within that “restricted” boundary Snyder still did  the best he could with the cards dealt him.

And Snyder did yeoman’s work. Watchmen the movie was acceptable and not uninteresting. All that made a good movie good were in place: good story, decent acting, cool action, pacing, what have you. It was serviceable to the masses and frustrating for the fanboys (like me). But one a final, honorable note Snyder made his mark with graphic spectacle. His version of Day Of The Dead and his breakthrough 300 (technically another epic culled from a graphic novel rather than historical record) with unabashed spectacle. That signature of spectacle sticks around in Watchmen, but this time out Snyder brought out the CGI fireworks and martial arts to accentuate plot points, not as wallpaper (think the birth of Dr Manhattan or the “foreplay” between Nite Owl and the Silk Spectre). I appreciated that; he let the story ride on without a lot of naive audience appealing conflagration for the sake of eyewash. How the studio must’ve hated him for it in a “basic comic book” movie.

Too bad the takeaway proved him wrong. Chin up, Zack. Later on you’ll be back on par soiling Superman’s cape and f*cking up the non-existent DC Cinematic Universe with such joie de vivre.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: Rent it. It’s a good movie, even if it was only made against all odds. Will it please fanboys? Hells no. Is it a cool murder mystery? Yep. Erm…sue me.


Next Installment…

I take another Drive with Ryan Gosling as my murderous Uber. This was the first movie I watched based on someone’s recommendation. Said recommendation was from the unofficial co-founder of RIORI, the mischievous Jordan. He was upset that I didn’t like Drive. Maybe this time around I won’t be sippin’ on the sizzup for a less hazy judgment. Maybe.


 

RIORI Redux: Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch” Revisited



The Players…

Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung, with Oscar Issac, Carla Gugino, Jon Hamm and Scott Glenn.


The Story…

Wrongly institutionalized after an accidental killing, a young girl known only as “Baby Doll” is slated for lobotomy. She’s nuts. She creates her own reality. She had nothing doing will denying her lecherous, drunken foster uncle getting cut out of the will. Nothing.

Baby Doll isn’t taking this lying down (so to speak), and naturally and aims to escape her prison as well as take a bunch of her fellow young female inmates along for the ride. But a ride it is, especially when Baby and her buddies have to dance their way out and in of her mental phantasms.

Wait, what?


Intro…

So here we are.

This was supposed to be the 100th Installment here at Good Ol’ RIORI. Truth be told, what with me manipulating the structure of the so-called “volumes” here, we passed that landmark, like, fifty Installments ago. Weren’t you keeping track? I barely was. The snowdrift of mediocre movies I scrambled through has left my head a tad hazy. Too much underrated exposure to Aaron Eckhart and/or Scarlett Johansson I guess.

Instead, I’m opting to review and overhaul the first 17 Installments—the so-called Volume 1 of RIORI—for your viewing pleasure and mine own edification. The first volume consisted of posts on FaceBook. Basically extended screeds until I got wise and created a WordPress account to little fanfare. At first. I just cut-and-pasted my crap onto WP pages and figured that’s that, and went on to clamber up higher cliffs.

However, it always chafed me that the first “volume” here was a such a raw and naive attempt. The posts were too short, sophomoric and responding to the NOW culture that social media cultivates. In short, I was dumb and in a hurry. Why? Like all avid, would-be blogging Hemingways I had a message to spout and an ego to feed. And let’s face facts, FaceBook posts and blog posts are the same thing: ego massage. We all think our innermost opinions are an essential, Wikipedia-esque vitality the ‘Net needs. Hence the proliferation of funny cat videos on YouTube. I enjoy them too. Give in to the guilt.

At time of this pressing, a few months back on the Cooking Channel, food geek and scientist Alton Brown wisely decided to escort himself away from the role of game show host to get back into the kitchen. Being a cook, his Good Eats series was de riguer viewing through the aughts. The show was a treat, even if you weren’t some aspiring foodie (read: culinary snob in training). Brown’s witty discection about cooking worked on a Mr Wizard cum Kids In The Hall level that was entertaining as well as educational. Good TV overall, as well as scarce. Bam!

The aforementioned few months back involved Brown in “reloading” episodes of his original show. Correcting mistakes, tweaking formulas, adding new recipes and cleaning out his decade old erlenmyers stained with glace. That’s what I’m gonna do here: flesh out the bare bones that made this blog such a limping success. I think it’ll serve both as a revue of those heady days back in 2013 and an intro to all my new FaceBook followers to the glorious pile of cowpies I’ve had to scoop up over the last 6 years. Remember social media: fluff the ego.

So now, a hundred-plus Installments under my belt, and have since learned that deeper delving into a mediocre movie oft requires more than two paragraphs and a slump home, I’m gonna upgrade those lowly first 17 Installments. Polish them, groom them, apply mascara and hopefully expound upon my grand experiment. This time employing spellcheck and be naked of hubris.

Well, just mostly naked.

Here we go and here we try…


The Rant (2013)

Horror master Stephen King once wrote in his Bare Bones memoir that one of his biggest and earliest fears was losing your mind. Going insane. Having the cheese fall off one’s cracker. He did admit that the fear was viewed through naive eyes. One does not lose their minds in one fail swoop, like on an episode of the Twilight Zone or something. King addressed the process of going mad brilliantly in his classic, The Shining. As it became with Jack Torrence, psychosis happens across a continuum, develops like a malign dream, is a sickness. Insanity is not like breaking a limb, sudden and immediate. It’s deliberate and slow. To quote Riff-Raff, “Madness takes it toll.”

Apparently no one told writer/director Zack Snyder this.

It seems after Snyder’s sudden and runaway success with his 300 he earned carte blanche to indulge his cinematic id. Shoot a movie that popped from his fevered imagination fully-formed like Zeus’ siblings from Cronos’ cloven skull. One with even more spectacle than the crimson Battle of Thermopylae could deliver. A phantasmagoria of dragons, ninjas, robots, fighter planes and of course, girls with guns. The hallucinations of a diseased mind hyped up on truck stop speed and espresso.

Behold the opus that is Sucker Punch.

The title alone says something. An unfair blow to the gut. That’s more or less what this film delivers. It meets the standard of poor reputation, sad box office draw, critical lambasting and naturally going way, way over budget. So begins the inaugural installment of RIORI. Hooray!…

…*tumbleweeds roll across webpage*

Plot make any sense yet? There’s a plot? Is one even necessary? If the above sequence of events seem disparate from a single film, you’d be wrong. It’s more or less how Sucker Punch plays out. All at once. That rigmarole is a single film, one and the same.

WTF? Uh-huh. Yeah.

Sucker Punch has got to be one of the most demented sci-fi/fantasy/action hybrids I have ever seen (as if I’ve seen many sci-fi/fantasy/action hybrids at all).

The story is inscrutable, the acting both entrancing and repellant, the sets off-the-wall amazing and depressing and the F/X so beyond over the top you cease to have a suspension of disbelief. You have to go with it because otherwise, if you think about what’s going on too much, your brain would pop and spurt out of your ears like so much hot cerebral tapioca.

In short, Sucker Punch is awesome.

Sometimes you just wanna be entertained. Sometimes you need a big old guilty pleasure to make the day ease by a little smoother. Sometimes you feel like having your senses and sanity assailed, whipped with a cat o’ nine tails made of cobras wielded by a nude, immolated dominatrix that can juggle chainsaws, do origami with her toes and has a PhD in metaphysics whose name is Sheila. This is the movie for you.

Say what you want about Snyder’s infamous cinematic flair for visually going over the edge, he’s damned good at what he does. Punch has got something for everyone, except much consistency, substance or sense. The movie’s nothing short of utter nonsense, relying almost totally on the applesauce that usually complements a film’s key components like plot, acting, three-act structure, catering, etc. Epic special effects and big stupid surround sound eruptions. Martial arts and trench warfare. Robots and rockets. And of course, girls with guns in skimpy/tight outfits. Not to mention also that this film was dropped at the beginning of spring, before God, when most filmmakers are just putting out dandruff made last year. What balls it takes to make a film that is completely devoid of all the niceties and pretensions of polite, professional cinema. It’s oddly refreshing and to a lesser degree…quite mature.

I know. Calling out Sucker Punch’s execution as mature seems like a lot of hogwash considering Snyder’s debut was the 2004 remake of Dawn Of The Dead. Almost all of the Living Dead movies (save the original) are nothing more that puerile exercises in adolescent salivations for gore and mayhem. But to just toss everything out the window, simultaneously hurling sh*t at a wall just to see what’ll stick is a stance of defiance that only the most courageous, confident and maverick filmmakers command.

There is a ridiculous amount of heavy-handed symbolism, granted, as if even the most water-headed filmgoer can hitch a ride and take it all the way to the end of the line. Such handholding can come across as insulting at best and sturdily mawkish at worst. Such sophomoric storytelling is usually accompanied with a three season deal for a reality show on some Fox network, usually resulting in a book deal with Snooki (oops). Such rampant juvenilia usually hawks a big gob at any sane movie watcher. And yet, it does take guts (maybe not much brains) and a self-assuredness that only comes with a measure of wisdom. It also takes being stubbornly attached to your vision, no matter how myopic it may seem. In sum, Snyder is f*cking crazy. Bold, but f*cking crazy all the same.

Enough pontificating. What made the movie so “awesome?” Well, beyond the visual and sonic treats there’s…uh…nothing else really. The plot is wafer thin, moving along like sludge, only in place to be used as a medium to bounce from a scene of action, titillation, more action or another sequence that hopefully results in a lot of sh*t going kerblooey.

And the acting? Who cares? Only Jena Malone and Scott Glenn have any real acting chops. You might remember Malone portraying Jake Gyllenhaal’s girlfriend in Donnie Darko. She’ll be in the forthcoming Hunger Games sequel too, and possesses both earnestness and sass that works pretty well with her character Rocket here in Punch. Glenn’s been all over the place, known for playing grizzled characters, like Jack Crawford in The Silence Of The Lamba and Capt. Mancuso in The Hunt For Red October (guy seems to like working with Hollywood adaptations of novels). I enjoyed Glenn’s goofy cameos in the film quite a bit; an anchoring factor in a film that is always threatening to come off the tracks. Other than those two, the rest of the cast is only there to look pretty (they succeed. Duh).

The cinematography was mounted on a careening roller coaster. Very well, I might add. Nothing stays still for very long here in the world(s) of Punch. It’s a very, almost exhaustively kinetic film. Two hours freaking jet by watching this travesty. The frenzied action scenes are only interrupted by the “B” plot of the girls trying to flee the bordello/asylum/Babydoll’s ailing mind/who the f*ck knows awash in greys and silvers and a lot of dour expressions, an ethereal “reality” invading our crack-addled amusement park. This tries to be congruent and symbolic of the “A” plot, or is it the “C” plot? Christ, I couldn’t keep track. If this is Snyder’s attempt at auteur filmmaking…

Forget it. I should just stop trying. There are no redeemable “serious” filmmaking machinations at work in Sucker Punch. The only constant in the film is that there is a whole winking and nodding aspect of the feature that repeatedly shouts at you, the audience, are in on the whole messy jest. The unfortunate part is that the joke is without a punchline. Snyder gave us nothing to hang onto. Again, was that the point? The whole movie was pointless.

And rising above all this degradation was a solid two hours of entertainment.

At any rate, all this overly elaborate editorializing may fly in the face of what I’ve been rambling on about for the past few minutes. Maybe Punch wasn’t intended to be the masturbatory effort Snyder barfed out, rife with neon symbolism, feminine fantasies, an examination of mental illness and hallucinations of sphinx-like splendor. Maybe all Snyder wanted to do was deliver shock and awe. Visual and sonic bombast. A manga come to life. Scott Glenn in period garb. An excessive blow to the senses. Maybe stuff like that.

Sometimes that’s all you really need to be entertained, I suppose.


Rant Redux (2019)

When I re-read this pastiche, I was actually kinda surprised my “economy” of words summed up pretty well the essence of Snyder’s fever dream. I guess now that sometimes less is more, especially the face of the f*cking huge undertaking Sucker Punch must’ve been. After watching it again, the word big is an apt term for this mind-bending, very entertaining fiasco. Punch was the classic example of form following function, But the actual function was mired in such popcorn existentialism that I must’ve left the masses blind. Here we are, a bit budget popcorn flick that requires further examination. Wrong flavor for this kind of phantasmagoria.

Classic qualifications for a “cult film.” We’ll see if that prediction bears fruit in 2021. Maybe 2029 to be safe.

But yeah, I found that if you read between the stilted lines there was some very real feminist navel-gazing going on there. Not a bad thing. I found upon repeated views that it made the mess more palatable. It is odd to actually dissect a crazy, fantasy actioner like Punch as if deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls. Okay, maybe not that intense, but to simultaneously ask an audience to go along with this disjointed tale (which may be a manifestation of a diseased mind in abject fear for their sanity. Or not) as well as look for the loose nuts and bolts might be too much of a task for yer average Twizzler gobbler, like me.

The key term for Punch is existential. I swallowed wheelbarrow loads of Sartre and Kierkegaard back in college to recognize the bad faith that resonates in all of us, even in the movies. For the uninformed, the term “bad faith” was coined by none other that Jean-Paul himself; only this very moment matters. What’s past is past and gone. What may be, may be, but unattainable. Only NOW matters, and there is a very thick vein of NOW bleeding throughout Punch. Babydoll’s fate is moments away, but does what went down—no matter how tragic—means nothing now, and what might happen is an unattainable fever dream. If you doubt me, examine the editing (if you can with that salt and fake butter on your lashes).

I feel it is now time to admit that I’ve presently mastered the art of spewing bile and bullsh*t in equal doses. See what a difference six years make? You’re welcome.

At its heart, I think Punch is indeed akin to an existentialist play, one that navel gazes about being and nothingness, what it means to be human and its frailty and the price of true freedom. I know, heady sh*t from a Snyder film, but if you take the longview virtually all of Snyder’s movies question the human condition and what exactly is that anyway? 300, Watchmen, Man Of Steel, even his version of Dawn Of The Dead is about survival as well as maintaining one’s individualism against oppression (okay, Dracula 2000 barely scratched at that, but it did lead to sharper, not necessarily better things). There’s that metaphor careening through Snyder’s output, for good or for ill. It’s only his Punch that such a vision truly gels. And oy, it can be a headache to follow.

Punch is unique in its execution, ignoring the crazy, over-the-top, sumptuously rendered CGI action sequences. No. After watching and considering (and reconsidering) the movie’s flow, Punch tells a non-linear story. But instead of flashing forward and backward again through time (a la Quantum Leap), we go sideways. Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time (sub Babydoll for Billy). The story does trudge along a straight line, but with truly demented road stops along the way. This direction is not as difficult to follow as, say, The Fountain was executed. But once Punch diverges, you have to follow the context. Quickly. Even moreso than Aronofsky’s celestial mindf*ck.

The ozone trips that take place in Babydoll’s psyche/dance routines are all bristling with dire individualism. Seeking freedom, seeking self. Yeah, yeah. Lemme crawls out of my colon and face the sunshine. To be blunt, Snyder was exploring the “feminine mystique” from a guy’s POV. With lotsa booms and lotsa bullets. Lemme explain this in plain terms:

Back in the 1960s, writer and nascent feminist Betty Friedan penned the social examination The Feminine Mystique, questioning why the postwar homemaking women were so dissatisfied with their comfortable, modern convenience lives. Friedan called it “the problem that has no name.” Gender roles on the other shoes, usually wingtips: “What do women want?!?” Even modern women could answer that, but they knew that something was missing in their Better Homes And Gardens idyll lives.

Fast forward 50 years, director Snyder thought he had an answer—maybe a theory not unlike Friedan’s, but with more CGI aggression—and wanted to send a message/spin to arrested development, popcorn-munching Middle American movie goers that not only do women want to display themselves as strong, capable, assertive people but also heroes trying to escape social oppression based on centuries of patriarchal mores and control.

I’m back in my rear again, right? Too bad. You read it, you can’t unread it.

Punch is an over-the-top James Cameron movie, steeped in Snyder’s lack of subtlety. I cite Cameron, that old taskmaster, as a signature of his movies he always has a strong female protagonist. Always. Either some innocent who rises to the occasion or a tough-as-nails female who is still female. Think of his take on Ripley in Aliens, and her foil Vasquez. Or Sarah Connor in The Terminator and its sequel; she’s gets to be yin and yang. Of cast-iron bitch Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in The Abyss. Or even funny lady Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies. Snyder had a statement to make in Punch, but was bleary-eyed in his execution. Cameron is like a knife. Snyder is like a stapler: I’ll pin a few things up here and there, you tell me what pages made sense. Snyder leaves it up to you…and maybe himself.

This is all a good thing. Really. I’m not bashing Snyder here (not this time) for his subtle-as-neon execution, script or production. Not at all. Punch was very entertaining, and that’s the ultimate goal of all movies. Shoving a erstwhile, CGI manifesto of a cinematic feminine mystique…well, I figure it would confuse most casual audiences. Not to sound any more high-minded than that I have already, but I studied wads of existentialist philosophy in college so I suppose I was inadvertently pre-programmed to enjoy Punch at the outset, even if I didn’t know that at the time. I mean, duh, females can be action heroes while still maintaining  mystique. I’m a guy. I can’t really get that, but I can respect that. Especiallly with awesome action scenes and rather pithy moments of sexy self-examination. Punch overall is a deconstructionist “girls with guns” melodrama. Snug clothes around a healthy female form is also a spoonful of sugar.

Sorry, I’m a guy. Deal with it, ladies of various strengths.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: Rent it. I even own a copy of Punch in my hard library, and has fast became a go-to flick when I need an action fix, like with the original Blade or The Matrix. It’s a guilty pleasure and I’m wearing a sh*t-eating grin proudly.


Next Installment…

We continue reconsidering director Zack Snyder’s muse with his take on Watchmen. Think what you may, but do acknowledge he got that project out of Production Hell and into cinematic flesh, warts and all.

For what that’s worth.


 

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



The Players…

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


The Story…

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

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

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

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


The Rant…

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

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

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

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

“Hey!”

“…Yes?”

“Wanna watch a movie?”

No. “Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nate! What movie you wanna watch?”

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

Bedtime Stories, natch.

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

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

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

The brow again. “Huh?

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

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

“No. Go to school.” Door slam.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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


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


The Verdict…

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

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


Stray Observations…

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

Next Installment…

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

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

Look it up.


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 78: Francis Lawrence’s “Constantine” (2005)



The Players

Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Shia LeBeouf, Djimon Hounsou, Tilda Swinton and Peter Stormare, with Max Baker, Pruitt Taylor Vince and Gavin Rossdale (yeah, that guy from Bush).


The Story…

In a world ruled largely by what is and what’s not, an eccentric, troubled private detective with a taste for the supernatural finds himself on his latest paranormal-tinged case: an investigation of a murdered suicide victim.

Say what now?


The Rant…

I’m a lapsed Christian. Been so for quite some time, at least since dinner.

It’s not like if I fell out of love with the church (but she’s never returned my calls, so there), just away. I was raised Episcopalian, which is the American version of Anglicism, the church of England. Very similar practices, but with less heavy accents. Either way this branch of Protestantism is pretty straightforward: study and try to follow the teachings of Jesus, apply them towards peace and understanding to friends and enemies alike and attend mass every Sunday to compare hats. It’s a social affair as much it is a spiritual one. Enlightenment and handshakes all around. Amen.

As nice a sentiment as that is, over time I tired of church, but not tired of the above things. Definitely not the hats; coonskin goes a long way. Don’t misunderstand me here; nowadays I’m pretty much an atheist. It’s not the whole, “If there is a God then how come there is so much suffering yadda yadda yadda you’ve heard it…” Shut it. Bad sh*t happens because people, not some omnipotent deity make it rain on other people. This a simple construct as well as popular one for the ago non- or no-longer believer. It sure is trite. Call that mindset your typical “gateway drug” into questioning faith. It’s the Busch Light version of Martin Luther and his hammer. Still, that precept in all its iterations is a good question as to why some folks leave faith behind. Or pull a 180. Why is the world so topsy-turvy when most of us seek spiritual enlightenment? The whole peace, love and understanding matters of unity. What’s so funny about that?

*wink*

Even me being a lapsed Christian, to this day (and call it judgmental; JC would waggle a finger at me for this one) I’m a pretty good armchair/inflatable pulpit kinda rainmaker when it may why push comes to shove between faith up against the often ugly reality about living on Earth. The other plane can wait for now.

Although I’m not a believer in God, I am quite the fan of his son. Whenever I’ve read the Bible, the Four Gospels always appealed to me. Jesus’ best buds Matthew, Mark, Luke and John waxing poetic about their times hanging with the big man. Taken as a whole, the Gospels play out like a G-rated Tarantino flick. In so saying, John says, “I remember the time Jesus and me did…” Then Matt says, “Waitaminnit, that’s not how I remember it.” Then Luke raises his hand, “Uh, guys…?” And Thomas grouses, “You guys are full of sh*t.”

JC’s times with his apostle wingmen are a big road trip, with essential Christian lessons learned along the way. And with every good road trip you gotta have the guy that takes the wheel. In this light—as one of several—the New Testament is like a Hallmark card given at the right time. The Old Testament may be a series of cautionary traffic cones, but the next chapter is the open road, full of possibilities. I like that with Jesus as the wheelman. A guiding force for good without the messianic complex, so to speak. This I can get behind, with or without proper worship.

Then there’s that 180. The collective who takes the Bible’s stories beyond way too serious. I think it was Voltaire that said, “One does not read the Bible for its text.” Namely, read between the lines you dweebs. You know the crap I cited above about hats? Yeah. I figured out that there are two types of Christians. On one hand we have the believers that congregate to engage in both worship and social congress, trying to understand one another’s differences and find some common ground. On the other we have folks who’ve gone through the Book of Revelation with a highlighter. Yeah, I think I’d rather hang around the coffee urns post-sermon. We got enough issues already to waste time planning for Armageddon, and again you don’t need church to try and reconcile with all that sh*t. War, disease, fake news, GMOs, being actually concerned about Miley Cyrus’ career path. We all got our spiritual bags full of cracked eggs.

All that’s out there, and was another nail in the cross—again, so to speak—of me quitting the church. The whole “if there is a loving God” schpiel eventually found me as a cop-out. All that bad sh*t above happens in this world is caused by people, not crafted from some prankster on High. I figured if that one attends church to learn the straight and narrow, that’s a waste of time. You learn that path by wandering through the world, taking in the sights, sizing up what you see and hear. If you found the right path then you’d find your way to a house of worship. If you need to understand how to get along with people and two hours every Sunday fits the bill, you are a far more enlightened person than me or anyone that reads this blog.

Yeah, so the whole “making excuses” factor soured me. That and Thomas’ potty mouth. I didn’t believe I had to attend church to understand the basal concept of good versus evil, or how to try and get along with different people, or not burn anyone at a stake. Attending church boiled down to the whole hat thing again. I read the Bible on my own, most of which I dug. Understood JC was a cool guy, a philosopher and an agitator to the rather unbalanced status quo of the Roman Empire. No one needs to attend church to get all that. At the end of the day, I figured out church as that hat thing. Old hat.

One final significance that turned me off to church: the routine. Scolding sin and looking for the highest tree to lasso. When I was a wee one sitting in the pew (quit giggling), trying to soak up so much ballyhoo I could’ve sworn I was getting the stinkeye from the prominent gatekeepers attendant by the altar, not to mention the prelate himself at the lectern delivering tales of hellfire and brimstone to a quivering congregation. Needless to say, I didn’t feel right welcome. Not JC territory for me, even at the age of nine.

So what does all my mucky muck have to do with lapse in faith? Well, it’s not a lapse in faith per se. Despite all the nastiness on the planet and my cynical worldview, I still have faith in humanity. There’s still compassion out there, practiced by decent, caring people, Christian or no. Be it St Jude’s Hospital, Habitat For Humanity, Greenpeace or Black Lives Matter, caring folks with the need to communicate a message of trust and understanding to everyone is out there. Kinda like what our wheelman might do.

No. I lost faith in the church, an entity that was once open but is now insular, in bed with the state and casting out when they should be opening up. Not all churches are like that, but I’ve driven by many monolithic edifices dedicated to worship (most with Wi-Fi) and couldn’t help but wonder where all that money came from to build those fortresses on such prime real estate and where it could’ve been spent otherwise? Tax free?

Slow down there. Before I crawl any further up thine own arse about this whole struggle with belief, I’ll sort of wrap up with the following warm fuzzy. And it has nothing to do with my keeping Super Mario Bros on my NES on indefinite pause for the duration of one Sunday’s eucharist cuz I finally made it to world 8. That kind of sounds like religious fervor. Not a prayer circle or nothing, but what the hell, I was 12.

It’s about retirement, both literal and spiritual. Too much of everything, yet still committing self to spirit. Possibly a metaphor for bailing on the need for turtleneck sweaters between 9 and 11 in the morning on any given Sunday. We’ll even let go of the suspect prime real estate for now.

Recall overly stern minister I rambled about? After he retired I learned on the sly that there was a sort of witch hunt upon his flock. I knew I felt uncomfortable during service, and what was told spoke millions as well as calmed me. I was f*cking 9, yet in the swim of the hat checking that was floating around the congregation.

Turned out the senior members of the congregation didn’t want kids in worship; too much of a potential ruckus. Ban ’em, down to Seventh Level with ya little booger-eaters. Even as a kid I knew that was dopey. How are you gonna replenish the crop without fresh seeds? Not a direct quote there, but really? Segregation at church? Isn’t that a part of both what the Apostles and the Founding Fathers fought against (and if you can’t trust GW and JC then who can you)? So the proverbial seed of doubt was sown, and I was merely nine. Church ain’t the place to be. The physical building at any rate.

Fortunately the edict was short lived. As a kid—ignoring the witch hunt—I kinda found church comfy, albeit boring. We all went through the motions, sure, hearing about sin and redemption and WWJD? No joke here, but hanging close with all the parishioners felt good, like family Thanksgiving. It was probably herd mentality all the way, but I received some succor from the rhetoric. For a time. What I learned about the minister and his elite guard, church wasn’t the nest it was supposed to be. It was a crucible.

*insert dramatic tympani bellows here*

The game changer was the old codger’s replacement. He was a soft-spoken man, Southerner with a lilting accent and a bit of a hangdog. He wasn’t the aggressive peddler in sin and strife like his precursor, all self-righteous with St Peter on speed dial. No. The new guy was gentle, reserved and gave the finest sermons I ever heard. I was still a kid and at that time an acolyte who lit the candles and fidgeting before the altar during service (what with that massive reminding crucifix hanging over my head. Another good reason to dodge church: the possibility of being smitten), but had a keen enough ear toward a good story when I heard it. Brimstone or thankfully no.

Our Southern gentleman preacher’s sermons were the kind of thing I could get around, loaded with questioning and light on the sinning. Sure, he’d always start his schpiel with some Biblical references, but we were in church so it felt superfluous. Guess he was filling some sort of Episcopalian counting coup quota. But the bulk of his sermons were steeped in social commentary. A lot of it political, which flew in the face of proper sermonizing. Separation of blah and blah, right? Stuff like our leaders’ civil intentions towards their constituency, and were they walking along the path of the Savior. Or educators’ rolls teaching faith without “teaching faith.” Or the one sermon that really stuck with me (despite me being whelp cowing under the cross, literally and figuratively) was about divorce as sin. Was it? That covenant between man and woman under the watchful eye of God, broken? Don’t ask why some snot-nosed young snot like me paid attention, but that might’ve been our genteel preacher presented his sermon like some closing argument in trial court. He weighed the evidence, tempered it with just enough emotion to make it go down smooth and delivered his answer:

“Is divorce bad? Yes. Is it a sin? No.”

This frankness was a lot more assuring than me bound for the lake of fire for playing doctor with that cute girl down the lane. Kidding. I didn’t live on a lane. It was a drive.

It’s that kind of story, that kind of meditation on life, love and leaving that was mostly absent in my family’s church. I know now that I don’t need to attend mass to get my fill of Jesus’ many road trips, nor do I need mismatched worship against hidden secular agendum. I don’t need the teachings of the Bible as an excuse for humans’ deplorable behavior. And I don’t need some omnipresent overlord with His magnifying glass to ensure we all keep in line. That’s all bullsh*t. We’re in charge of our own destinies without churches, hopefully going forward with decency and common sense. That’s me.

To conclude, and in respect to this week’s wad of dough, there was that 180 I spoke of. I don’t really need to expound on those “true believers” motives, or motivations for that matter. I can’t exactly pin it down, but I’m sure I heard it somewhere, maybe in high school history class: Our puritanical Puritans who we asked to leave England and set up shop here had a very dire version of practicing their baleful version of Christianity. Their sermons consisted of hellfire and brimstone, to be sure. But to have to listen to passages of how much God hates you, you willful sinner. How you are a mere insect hanging by a thread over the Inferno, and the Man Upstairs cannot wait to cut the cord and only eternal prayer may—may—save your eternal soul, well that kind of mindset JC might argue against.

Good faith and good PR. Might be a better weapon against Satan and his mighty, tempestuous hordes of demons at his beck and call. Y’know, personal faith to thwart evil. Integrity over temptation. Righteousness over sloth. Belief against the inevitable.

Prayer against…


The trouble with knowing you’re wrong is that you’re often right.

John Constantine (Reeves) is damned. Damned if he does and damned if he does. He’s a detective. A very unique detective. He doesn’t specialize in theft, infidelity or even murder. No, not outright. He specializes in weird crimes that no one else can handle. Mostly because they involve the supernatural, the occult and slapping demons in the puss.

You see, John has the ability (maybe curse) to see what the normal world can’t. Or won’t. Demons, angels and everything in between are naked to him, as are the crimes on this plane they commit. He takes on the odd cases involving exorcism, magic, ley lines out of whack and nasty imps from the underworld hell-bent of corrupting mortal beings. It can get messy.

And not just in the ectoplasmic sense. Detective Rachel Dodson (Weisz) seeks out John’s unique talents.  Turns out her sister Isabel (also Weisz) after being committed to an asylum takes a swan dive into the facility’s pool. From ten floors up. Rachel refuses to believe this was a suicide, them both being devout Catholics. Isabel would never take her own life, no matter of disturbed she may have been.

Rachel suspects some otherworldly force drove Isabel to jumping. At first, John is skeptical. Sound like a traditional suicide to him. But over the week since, and weird demonic crimes popping up at an inexplicable rate, there might be something…unnatural attached to Isabel’s death.

Maybe supernatural might be a better term.

So John lights up and also lights up…


We never talked about the occult or the paranormal, beyond the devil’s antics and the seven deadly sins in church. Which is kinda odd. There are plenty of opportunities to teach the mortal plane about storm and strife with the addition of demonic activity to drive the point home.

Sure, there are significant tales from the chapters of the Good Book that highlight spectral incursions. The temptation of Christ courtesy of a jealous Satan. The temping snake in Eden. Even the donkey Uber telling Joe and Mary the way to Bethlehem. Lots of weird sh*t in the Bible as head-scratchers, courtesy of the paranormal.

Not much was delved into when I was a church-goer. Too bad, for if this element was examined further I might be still attendant. Why? Consider the nightly news. A diluted version of sin and strife to be sure, but also as entertainment. JC feeding Satan his hydra-like c*ck of his own ass? What leaves more of an impression? Probably more than the potential financial turnouts on NBR. Go invest elsewhere.

This week, I invested in Francis Lawrence’s Constantine for a fix of demonic incursion and intrigue. That and a little police procedural thrown in. I’ll admit, I was a tad bamboozled. Based on my viewing of Lawrence’s take on I Am Legend, I expected a weird amalgam of sci-fi, Lovrecraftian sensibilities and human drama.

Instead, and within 12 minutes there was a stink of cheeze.

At the outset, Constantine felt deliberately comic-bookyI don’t care if this film was lifted from DC’s mature Vertigo imprint, where those titles aim beyond the PG-13 crowd. Any hack can warp a serious comic into drivel if they don’t understand the nature of the medium. Fortunately, a great many filmmakers did get it (eg: Watchman, From Hell, Scott Pilgrim vs The World, etc), and were fearless in their execution.

Constantine has the stale scent of holding back met with fumbling fingers. Like clumsily unhooking a bra after prom.

Now to be fair, Constantine was cut during the fallow days when comic book movies were just beginning to come into vogue and most directors didn’t know what they’d gotten their hands on. Sure, some guys like Bryan Singer got it with his take on the X-Men and some guys like Bryan Singer didn’t with his take on Superman Returns. We’re talking uneven stories at best back then (if not now, come to think of it). There wasn’t a proper template established yet. From what I’ve observed most early comic book movies couldn’t—or outright wouldn’t—stray far from the “comic book” aspect of the movies’ source. The bombast, the action, the bing boom splat. The subtlety of Adam West.

I’m not claiming that director Lawrence wrote it in, but there was an air of Constantine playing it safe by delivering the straight line. What’s worse the film appears to be trying real hard to rise above the underpinnings that Batman And Robin staked down almost a decade prior. Barring any neon upchuck, Constantine overplays the action and undermines a lot of the human drama that makes comic book movies tick (as well as actual comic books). The first Spider Man flick illustrates this tenet. This lack (or at least, rather weak feeling) of organic drama and character development makes the movie feel strained,  compensating with lots and lots of F/X and speed while muddling the razor thin plot. It’s forced atmosphere of urgency. Simply put, Constantine is the first boring exciting movie about demons I’ve ever seen. Sure, I don’t have much of a reference point, but ride with me already.

And the ride through Constantine was a bumpy one. A lot of stalled pacing, like when a car slips out of gear and you have to turn the engine over again (my ride’s stick; best analogy I could think of). Like I said, forced urgency. Funny considering the balance of power between angels and demons existing on our plane with their tips and tricks. Figured those stakes would ramp up something. I said the film was trying too hard to be suspenseful and mysterious, but on the flipside I also felt director Lawrence was holding back. He was shackled to the preconceived notions of what—at the time—a comic book movie should be. Lawrence is a stylish director, but his work has a fair amount of substance only accented with style. I repeat, his take on the umpteenth iteration of I Am Legend was chockful of style balanced well with human drama substance. Seeing that film was a dire character study with only Will Smith and a loyal German shepherd as the primary cast for most of the movie, the guy knows the balance of the human factor against the, well, inhuman factor. Looks like with Constantine the human part got gobbled up by the inhuman splash and dash. But again, Legend was released after Constantine, so it stands to reason that the man might’ve learned a thing or three after this pastiche.

In retrospect, that’s kind of a shame. Again I profess that comic book trappings of the time undid a lot of this movie. Lawrence is too sharp a director to let things get out of hand, but again that comic book prejudice. Blame may be placed at the feet of test audience (I’ll have something to say about that Neilsen nightmare some other time), who may have wanted Exorcist lite, but with more boomy things. And that might be where Lawrence met some middle ground between “Slow down there” and “Get on with it.” I appreciated the restrained use of the slam-bang CGI action. Constantine’s descents into the underworld were swift and sharp. Plot points and not just some phantasmagoria to tantalize us with wanton pixels. I liked that aspect; it felt like evidence of how the action would play out in I Am Legend. Sparse and essential to captivate and maintain interest in the story. Worked for me.

Some more strained positivity: truth be told, okay. It takes a while; slow burn. Maybe too slow, but the intrigue eventually rises. Even if only halfway through the second act. I didn’t get where the flick was going. It felt aimless, lacked oomph. Where the hell are we going with this (so to speak)? Eventually got an inkling that Constantine was trying to be an action movie, not really. Forgetting comic book bias for a minute, the movie was in actuality a murder mystery, gussied up with Peter Stormare as REDACTED and minus a spine. It took a while to come to this conclusion, but I got. Then I tried to keep on to that. That was the tricky part.

Reeves seems a bit too slick to pull off gumshoe, paranormal or no. He’s been in the shadow of Neo’s leather coat a bit too long. Constantine is supposed to be gritty; guy’s like a paranormal MacGuyver. But he’s too smooth, regardless of how used to he is with dealing with the occult, demons, angels and maintaining a balance between plains. Reeve’s Constantine is irritated, not wizened by a lifetime of battling endless evil. And all he has to show for it is a hopeless addiction to cigarettes and their REDACTED. Guy should’ve been more pissy. Just saying.

Weisz doesn’t fare much better. She comes across as too willowy to be taken seriously as a grizzled cop, and eventually descends into reactive, damsel-in-distress territory. Sure, she’s easy on the eyes but her on screen time just grates. Despite her matter is the movie’s maguffin she sure seems overly passive in solving her sister’s “murder.” She’s a tag-along, made worse by her gaping over the supernatural stuff that is Constantine’s (stale) bread and butter. Too bad there.

But like I said with the supporting cast, ah, therein lies some rub.

I really dug Swinton as the reluctant angel, the oracle. Here’s a good (if not the only) example of mystery that the movie was ostensibly pushing. Her screen time was brief, but crucial. I’ve always enjoyed Swinton’s air of nervous dignity, codified by her later performance in Michael Clayton (check it out. I’ll wait). Sometimes less is more, especially in an overwrought comic book movie like this one.

Hounsou as Papa Midnite was a trick, the Huggy Bear of the underworld underworld. Sharp, flinty and has seen too much. Barely tolerating every aspect of his being. Sure, he’s the man with the plan, but the plan’s been leased out to “forces” beyond his command. Papa can see the horizon, but not the dawn, and makes no bones about that to our pretty hero with something on his shoulders. That and Hounsou is something our lead is sorely lacking: he’s tough.

What really surprised me was Gavin “Everything Zen” Rossdale as the schemin’ demon Balthazar. His show was quite affecting. I am as shocked as you may be that Mr Stefani could pull off such a scuzzy, intriguing performance. Rossdale’s Balthazar reminded me of a riverboat gambler: all about the stakes before the prize. His motivation was like that quote, “some goals are so worthy, it’s glorious even to fail.” Might sound high-minded about a Brit grunge also-ran’s acting debut, but he played his sh*t to the hilt and the rest of the cast should’ve taken notice. F*ck Razorblade Suitcase BTW. Don’t care what the critics said. Neither did they.

Erm, I’m gonna leave Shia as Spanky, er, Chas the cabbie alone. Can’t win ’em all.

Stormare was a trip. He’s always bleakly funny. From Grey in Fargo to the cosmonaut in Armageddon, his lot is humor, and always necessarily left of center. Sinister humor here. Even though his presence is made known in the third act, it was worth the wait, at least for this blogger who was biting his nails not out of suspense but of desperation (at least I was feeling something). Stormare was perfectly cast for his role, and played it to the hilt as well as teetered on cheesy. But good cheesy, his stock in trade. These supporting characters (even the annoying Max Baker) almost, almost redeemed this whole paranormal rigamarole. Can’t cross the Mississippi in three small steps and all. Splash.

Despite the sick supporting cast trying to hold it all together, Constatntie’s final act eventually devolved into murky/busy. Too many ends to tie up. It was as if Lawrence threw down his bullhorn, threw up his hands and just threw up. There was too much to wrap up in a few scenes, like a Buzzcocks song with too many lyrics and not enough notes. A tempest of sluggish, fast and harried. Yeah, we got our resolution but what the hell happened? Without giving anything away I felt all bamboozled. Not to mention cheated. Constantine felt muted at times, subdued, retrained. Then we flipped the coin and got jagged, unhinged action, not necessarily fun or coherent. Not sure in the grand scheme if this was the redeeming factor in an uneven paranormal crime procedural, or just illustrating the studio wasn’t exactly sure how to open this Pandorum. Truth be told I would’ve preferred more key restraint, namely with our cast. Like it seems with pleasantly schlocky flicks like this the leads grate while the supporting cast is cast in a more flattering light. Too bad even that appeal was so incongruent. Gave me a headache.

I know, I know. I’ve been real cagey with this installment; giving you mostly bones with very little meat. That word “incongruent” best describes Constantine. But it ain’t all a snarky labyrinth; my screed might be read as a passive way to suggest you all seeing Constantine without a lot of personal investment. Take it that way. Don’t misunderstand me (any more than you already have), this movie is subpar as both an action movie as well as a comic book adaptation. It does retain a certain charm, however; consider Constantine as an acid test for how far comic book movies have come over the past decade-plus. Sure, it’s heavy on the bombast and light on the human—and/or inhuman—factor, but there’s that charm thing hanging in the ether. Watching Constantine is akin to a one night stand: sure, it’s fun while it lasts, as long as you abandon all thoughts of commitment the next morning.

Don’t forget to leave cab fare on the pillow, fer Christ’s sake.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Cast this demon out. Sorry, Neo.


Stray Observations…

  • “You goin’ down?” “Not if I can help it.”
  • Always wondered what do non-smoking actors smoke when they smoke in the movie?
  • “I need to eat.”
  • Cow tipping (rimshot)!
  • “Two hundred dollar shirt, by the way.”
  • Okay. The tub scene was disturbing.
  • “Not bad, kid.”
  • “It’s called pain. Get used to it.”

Next Installment…

Once upon a time, there was an Irish vacuum cleaner repair man that met a florist who loved to play piano…

That sounds promising.


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 69: Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” (2006)



The Players…

Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, with Ellen Burstyn, Mark Margolis, Stephen McHattie, Cliff Curtis and Sean Patrick Thomas.


The Story…

Across a millennium, a simple man searches for an eternal life. From a 16th Century Spanish conquistador serving to save his queen to a 21st Century forensic oncologist seeking a cure for his wife’s cancer to across the Universe as a 26th-century wanderer of the cosmos.

In quaint terms, he’s on an odyssey. But for this well beyond space and time.

It’s for love.

How far would you go?


The Rant…

I think about mortality a lot. I’m human. It’s what I do.

Our days are numbered. If you take a breath and think about it: what did I do today? Was it worthwhile, meaningful? Was another punch in the timeclock any closer to finding fulfillment? Was that smoke break really worth the ten minutes? Five minutes?

*cough*

Not really. Not at all. The days are numbered, and what went down today went down permanently. We’re all gonna go one day. How we get there is courtesy of time, nature and self-destructive tendencies. We’d all like to die in our sleep. Most of us seek out a metaphorical car crash. It’s all only a matter of time, and time always, always catches up with the lot of us.

Okay, all right. I know I touched upon this downbeat feeling back with the Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World installment. Yeah, bummer. Best way to earn more subscribers, like introducing to an unwitting crowd the Wii U, New Coke or Gary Cherone fronting Van Halen (Christ, that dates me). Y’all don’t need anymore reminding that we’re all just a-passin’ through. Life’s short, as it goes, so you better take advantage of all the cool sh*t life has to offer you, like chocolate, thumbs and the Switch. Have fun while it lasts.

That being said, I’m now gonna twist that sentiment around in the spirit of this week’s film. The opposite. The age-old fantasy: immortality. To live forever.

Imagine the possibilities, Highlander. Never dying, being an everlasting witness to history. Wander the world, explore, experience all—and I mean all—of life’s comedies and tragedies. And never growing older, either. All the BBQ you could stomach. Playing Gears Of War 5437 in your head. I mean literally in your head thanks to that cybernetic uplink. Visit the Mars Colony for the ultimate tanning bed. And watch that bank account mature there, boy-o.

Of course, no one really contemplates the downside of immortality. For one, after you’ve travelled the Seven Seas seven hundred times over, the novelty wears thin (probably after the hundredth time over). Boredom sets in, and you with all the time in the universe. It’s akin to some blurb I caught from some no-name movie (surprise). A kid supposes that if some comic book super-villian did conquer the world, then what? Set up some real estate agency?

Same with the whole immortality deal. Great. Eternal life. Time enough at last and throw the glasses to the sidewalk. Now what? The travel thing would indeed get dull after a while. So would all that reading, movies, YouTube and tweets. You can only look at so many kooky kitty videos before you start hacking up bezoars yerself. And a lost library book would destroy your credit history forever. Noodle that one.

Another thing: relationships. Friends. Sure, you’re here on Earth until the sun goes nova, but everyone you’ve ever met will be long gone by then. You grow lonely in a massive crowd, feeling like an Edward Hopper painting. There was clever movie released a while back called The Man From Earth based on sci-fi great Jerome Bixby’s story (he’s the guy that penned the mirror universe ep of the original Star Trek where we all learned goateed Vulcans are logically evil). It highlights another unique dilemma for being immortal: not leaving a trail. In the flick our protagonist, one Prof Oldman (get it?) purports to be thousands of years old to his closest friends. You get around across millennia you’re bound to leave some footprints. There’s only so many places you can “hide” (even across the Seven Seas). Someone’s gonna get wise to something like, “Hey, how come our good buddy the professor still looks thirty-five twenty years after his fortieth birthday?” Or something like that. Being immortal must get hella lonesome, especially when it means you gotta haul up stakes pretty often to avoid the prying eyes of the men in white coats (who may either be nosy scientists or the guys with the thorazine). Being a fugitive is no fun. Ask Dr Kimble.

And romance? Love? Forget it. For all its delicious campy cheesiness the original Highlander made a good point of rejecting love if you’re immortal (or maybe it was just Connery delivering the lines) because it’ll just shatter you in the end. Your love’s end. Consider all your beloved relationships—family and friends alike—as a constant reminder in the back of your head that your eternal time on this plane is just a series of funerals waiting to happen. You go on, they don’t. Even harder as I said when it concerns a romantic interest. For most finding the right partner is both a virtue and birthright to all thinking people. Hell, even the ones that don’t think and would’ve voted for Trump anyway (zing!).

Truth be told, I don’t think living forever is worth the trouble. Especially if it means never fully creating a solid link with anyone. Like I said, they go and you go on. And on. And on and on and on.

What you need is that special one, if such an individual exists. That special someone who makes you live. Truly live. Who’ll go on and on with you. Not necessarily immortal, but the feelings that stir your lonely soul keep you going on and on. The seas are in the doldrums. You’ve encountered too many curious people. You’re without a country. But that special other? Ah, that is something to really live for. And screw the bank account.

All it takes, you learn, is to find the right place to search…


The Kingdom of Spain in under siege. Not by some invading army, but insurrection. The Inquisition is bent on weeding out any suspected heretics from desecrating the Church and all it stands for. At all costs.

Tomás (Jackman) and his fellow conquistadors have been tasked by Queen Isabella (Weisz) on a perilous quest at her behest. She has taken hiding within a spiritual stronghold, a monastery, plotting a dire, yet benevolent scheme to free Spain from the Inquisition’s wrath. She has learned of a legend in far off New Spain. A story of a fabled Tree Of Life, which any who would taste the mystic sap would live forever. A demonstration of such wonder would show her chained subjects that there is no such thing as Death. Only endless Rebirth, like the true Good Book promises.

Tomás and his colleagues travel to points West in search of the Tree. But the native Maya are hostile and very reluctant to have Outlanders dare suckle at this divine fountainhead. Tomás is wounded in battle, and now the Tree is his only hope of both survival and rescuing his beloved Queen and country…

Tommy (Jackman) is a brilliant and maverick oncologist. He’s onto a theory of applying holistic medicine in destroying cancer cells with chimps as his test subjects. At first his scientific endeavors are regarded as both flights of fancy and terribly unconventional, not to mention motivated beyond medical understanding.

The naysayers would be correct. Tommy’s wife Izzi (Weisz) is dying of brain cancer. If Tommy could peg the proper mixture, perhaps he could save her. He tries a sample of some unique resin from a rare tree that only grows in one part of South America on a fresh chimp. Within days, its cancer is in immediate regression. Better! After a follow-up examination, the primate’s cancer is completely gone! Izzi may now have a chance…

Lonesome cosmic traveller Tom-Creo (Jackman) has been put to task under his own mission to ensure the Tree Of Life has safe passage to the legendary nebula where creation and extinction converge. If they arrive, his lost love Iz-Creo (Weisz) may be born anew. However it will take an incredible amount of spiritual stamina and never forgetting to ensure the Tree makes it home. Again…

The Kingdom of Spain in under siege. Not by some invading army, but insurrection. The Inquisition is bent on weeding out any suspected heretics from desecrating the Church and all it stands for. At all costs.

Tomás (Jackman) and his fellow conquistadors have been tasked by Queen Isabella (Weisz) on a perilous quest…


Believe it or don’t, The Fountain is director Aronofsky’s most accessible picture. Pi was a critically darling mindwarp, and Requiem For A Dream was so f*cking harrowing (but good) that I’d never want to watch it again. Maybe not even Cubby, either. His viewing might’ve been the culprit in his demise. Damned evil carnivorous fridge.

Against his other two disgustingly esoteric, abstract films Fountain has a precious thing the other two lack: beauty. And in spite of all the time hopping, that and its very non-linear storytelling Fountain ultimately makes…sense, if only resulting in a groundswell of human emotions. Most of them positive, warm and fuzzy. Sure, Requiem made sense (e.g.: don’t do drugs), but was delivered in such a belt-sander-to-your-testicles way you’d never want to make sense of it again. Ever. Damned evil carnivorous fridge.

But yes, beauty. Alluded above Aronofsky’s films are angular and not warm. They hatefully challenge you, with often well reward. Fountain had a similar vein but with a warm, gooey center. Not saccharine, mind you, but unlike his first two films Fountain is inviting, not coercive. Sure, it’s still trademarked angular, and the non-linear plot may screw with perception, but there is a frickin’ warmth here that was sorely lacking in his other films. Probably because movies revolving around mathematics and drug abuse don’t really invite warmth. Been there, seen that.

Something to consider with viewing The Fountain is this: the (very) non-linear storyline. I’ve read somewhere that the old saw is that folks who don’t appreciate abstract art won’t like non-linear stories. I feel non-linear movie storytelling is, at its core, and educated risk. It requires a director’s faith in a curious, patient audience (which are damned hard to come by these days). I claim “educated” in reference to a healthy ego of a daring—if not left-of-center—filmmaker that if they cut it, and cut it just right, the proper audience will be in attendance. This usually guarantees lousy ticket sales, but that was never really the goal. The point was assuming a calculated risk of sharing an idea, a vision on the proper people whose heads wouldn’t hurt much by being entertained in such a fashion.

*burp*

That was deep. Then again, so was The Fountain. But not in some Sartre-esque, existential quarry down the rabbit hole kind of way. Okay, a bit. But not really. Non-linear, remember?

The only linear, unwavering theme of the movie was the sense of dedication. Commitment. Sure, the love thing was there, easily relatable. However over the course of the film’s millennium the one true, direct motivation for Jackman’s and Weisz’ relationship to revolve around—the axis—was an undying commitment to maintain their relationship. Look, you don’t have to be “in love” to keep your loved ones close. You just wanna be there for them when A) you very much care about their well-being, and/or: B) you just want to make sure they’re safe from harm. Come to think of it, that might be the reason for the NRA’s being. Shudder and moving on.

Thanks to the clean, unpretentious acting from the Wolverine and Dr Evelyn Carnarvon it was obvious to understand such. This was cool. Here in the States, our Aussie and Brit are best known for roles in action films (I know, I know. Weisz was merely introduced to us Yanks cleanly with 1999’s The Mummy, but it was a decent hello all the same. Led to her starring in films like this one). Both have some charm here. Yes, there are harrowing, marrowing bones thrown about to keep the Aronofsky edge there, if only on the fringe. But I also smelled an intellectual bent; some sort of “open your mind, Quaid” feeling. Also, something told me that Aronofsky’s cast gave themselves wholly and completely to his direction. Come, take my hand.

Jackman gets to shine here, even without song and dance. Another despite: despite Jackman being familiar to millions as an action guy in the States, he’s best know Down Under as literally a song and dance man. Musical theatre. I think I caught a glimpse of his dancing talent as Conan’s guest. Guy could kick. You’d never figure him for a guy with adamantium claws and a hair trigger. Nor would you here. There’s that intensity he’s known for, but with Fountain the better term is driven. It’s this drive to save Izzi that…well, drives the story. We get that this is a love story, no matter how esoteric that thing is, but the motivation behind it here is delivered so well by Jackman in his multiple roles. He’s always determined, always honest and always knows he’s against the clock. His multi-Tom role is dappled with ego, fragility, grief and that all-important determination. And not in just saving Izzi, but saving himself as well. From what? Dealing with loss, which we all eventually in varying points of “success.” Jackman’s shining, squinty eyes speak volumes, as well as the crack-ups off screen, so to speak.

I think I figured out what the key theme of Fountain was thanks to Jackman: that commitment thing. Right, love’s easier to digest, despite how abstract a concept that can be. It’s more than who gets to hold the remote. Commitment is underrated against love in the abstract, and Aronofsky chose to give his spin. If you care about somebody, and they need your help, you do your best to try. Perhaps against all odds, but you’ll take the time to try and maybe succeed. Not as sexy as love, but perhaps more endearing than a peck on the cheek or scattered sheets to tuck back in the next morning.

In the end run, however, I think we all want to tuck those sheets back in with hopes they’ll be unfurled again tomorrow night. It might go on. It will go on. Like Tom and Izzi are deemed to go on and on and on throughout the film. Such a view is terribly engaging. Commitment leads to hope, and hope may lead to commitment. The odd cycle of events in Fountain kinda reflects that, I think. But what do I know? The divorce papers haven’t been served yet and I’ve never been to South America.

It’s all really engaging here, especially since Aronofsky isn’t trying to beat our heads in over his latest project. By the by, was Fountain his attempt at a summer blockbuster? Sure, it dropped in late November, but had all the hallmarks due for a Memorial Day release. I think I got this impression based on how BIG the world(s) of Fountain was. We had elements of proto-swashbuckling, Crichton-esque science not-ready-to-but-may-run-amok and celestial exploration. Such sh*t screams for popcorn in a multiplex in a 90 degree-plus soaked July Saturday afternoon. Why this was no the case was an idyll I scribbled down in my notes: “This movie placed me into a philosophical mood.” Such twaddle is DOA at the box office around the Fabulous 4th, yet somehow is welcome towards the end of the cinematic year.

What’s up with that? The Fountain was not any semblance of shoo-in for the Oscars. Sure, it had symbolism aplenty gone wonderfully awry, which is kittens lapping at the saucer for the Academy. It was what I dubbed “automatically stylish,” which such an idea should on the flip side inform the palsied Academy, “Hey, check this out…” It was well-crafted, intriguing and deep in the best sense without pretense. Best of all: no damned evil carnivorous fridges.

It was lovely. Beautiful. And thanks to the script and acting, accessible. An adverb and two adjectives I’ll bet Aronofsky never considered prior to this film. We may have squirmed with praise about a number that has no end and witnessing meatball surgery on Jared Leto, but with Fountain we should squirm with delight and awe.

Good work here. And I reiterate, one of my fave paintings is Dali’s The Temptation Of Saint Anthony. Kinda abstract.

Believe it or don’t, The Fountain is director Aronofsky’s most accessible picture…


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s great, if you make the commitment. And the time. Get it? The time? I’m so clever and obnoxious.


Stray Observations…

  • “I just need to dig a little.”
  • A bald Jackman does a Kain make. Get it? “Cain?” Oh, whaddya know from witty?
  • Hwoo… Is he dead?”
  • It’s amazing how a sense of relief cascades.
  • Couldn’t help but feel that Jackman’s portrayal of a conquistador was spot on, if only by Hollywood standards. Hugh’s was of good standard.
  • Aronofksy crammed a lot into a mere 90 minutes. It felt miles long. This is a good thing.
  • “There’s time. We have time.”
  • Mark Margolis was a character actor I’ve adored without never learning his name. Until now. Thanks, Darren.
  • Aronofsky’s pulling a Shyamalan here. In a good way, don’t sweat.
  • “I’m here…for her.”
  • I penned this scribe with my left hand in a brace. How’s the penmanship? I’m a righty, BTW.

Next Installment…

If LiLo has to abide by another, obnoxious Georgia Rule she’s gonna lose her sh*t. And her career. And her sobriety. And…


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 63: Timur Bekmambetov’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (2012)


22355852_pa_abrahamlincolnv


The Players…

Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Anthony Mackie and Rufus Sewell, with Marton Csokas, Jimmi Simpson and Erin Wasson.


The Story…

Abraham Lincoln. Honest Abe. Our 16th president. The Great Emancipator. And with his mystical axe a righteous slayer of the undead demons in the night, too.

Say what?

But what would drive the Rail-Splitter to take up his version of a oaken stake and hack his way through the evil droves of nocturnal blood sucking freaks?

Well, a vampire killed Abe’s mom, duh. That and protecting the Union. So how would you react?

Correct. Cleave a great swath through the corruption. It is for…the living rather to be dedicated…to the unfinished work which they who fought…have thus far so nobly advanced.

That’s from the Gettysburg Address. Proving Abe knew his sh*t about battling vampires. The end.


The Rant…

Ah, the vampire movie. A perennial Hollywood favorite. Seems like one graces America’s silver screens every other year (which I guess is why they’re called perennial). There’ve been so many iterations of the vampire flick that I don’t think any sub-genre of the movie hasn’t been tackled. Well, maybe not a musical. Some undead La-La Land.

…Hang on there.

*flip flip, click click*

Sh*t. We gots two, at least. I Kissed A Vampire and Suck: A Vampire Rock Musical Comedy. I kid you not and creep on over to the IMDb if you doubt me. Just not yet. Read on. I’m bleeding here (get it?).

So yeah, vampire flicks have been all over the movie landscape since FW Murnau’s fired the first shot with his seminal Nosferatu almost a century ago. There now must be thousands of undead cinematic offspring lurking in the shadows, and all with their own unique stamps, spins and sucks. Some good, like the original, uber-creepy Dracula starring uber-creepy Bela Lugosi as our beloved Count. Or the snappy, Brat Pack-esque The Lost Boys featuring both Coreys (this matters to certain factions of Gen X. Mostly the lonely ones)! And the punky, funky yin to Jack Bauer’s yang Near Dark. We had the cheeky and silly Fright Night (the original one. I’ve been finding myself using that quantifier a lot these days). Or the ludicrous actioner Blade, starring Wesley Snipes as the titular vampire hunter is all his martial arts/pre-tax trouble glory. And everything in between. Something for everyone.

Right. Now the other side of the coin. Y’know how it goes, folks: for every clean wipe you suffer a bout of explosive diarrhea, Kenny. You’re welcome.

The schlocky Dracula 2000, illustrating what a hot commodity Gerard Butler became (for a single film). Eddie Murphy’s turn in Vampire In Brooklyn, foreshadowing his decline as a Hollywood commodity (with no end in sight. Sigh). The incongruent Underworld franchise. Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead And Loving It was a super-duper waste of potential. I guess Breaking Dawn, pt 2 falls in there somewhere, too. And everything in between. Something for everyone.

So now here’s the biggie: why are there quite literally thousands of vampire movies? I know what you’re thinking. It’s them appealing details about eternal life, sexual freedom, blood and guts, bats and givin’ ya a good scare or three. All that truck adds up to “no sh*t, Sherlock” to the thinking vampire movie buffs. All twelve of you.

What I’m driving at is with a vamp flick those above facets are freakin’ mandatory by Federal law (that’s a joke, but perhaps a truth, too). You’re gonna get a taste of a few, if not all of them in your average undead fest. Like that old Prego pasta sauce ad said: it’s in there. Now all the filmmakers had to do was couch the goodies in a plot that kept your attention. If you were lucky, it’d be entertaining.

Here’s the thing. The “couching.” As far as drama goes there are only two kinds of plots: tragic and comic. Some writers have extended the count to 20. It doesn’t really matter what the plots reflect; the number simply invites this cinematic question. It’s the question that all—all—directors and scenarists ask when they undertake a movie:

“What can I bring to the table?”

The random list above of good and not so good vampire flicks is a fine example of this. Again, we know what to expect from a vamp movie. Sex and blood and guts are sovereign. It’s how it’s delivered. It’s what’s brought to the table. It’s not about re-spoking the wagon wheel. It’s about thoughtful innovation.

Considering the vampire movie template, such films are no different than your average western. Or spy flick. Or crime caper. Or Adam Sandler scatological comedy, farts—I mean warts and all. It’s the cinematic equivalent of that old, trashy joke: we’ve already established that, now we’re just haggling over a price. Attempting to overturn an almost century old formula is an exercise in futility. Might be why some vamp movies soar and others sink. Sure, acting, direction, story, dancing horses all come into play. That’s a given. It’s what’s brought to the table, the latest idea—no matter how Hollywood hair-brained—about how to spin a tried and true formula into something fresh. Again.

Me? I figure why the vampire theme is so attractive and potent—separate from the tropes—is that the canvas has been spread so wide any director worth their salt and is interested in the genre will say, “Sh*t, can do that!” Directors far and wide, esteemed ones like Francis Coppola and schlockmeisters like Roger Corman have taken a stab (ha!) at vampire-as-movie challenge. Like above, some good, some not so much. Again, the appeal beyond the obvious? You got a whole mythos to cull from. Keep the king and queen in set and let the pawns charge up the board. One space at a time. Add your spin. Take the tired tropes and turn them on their ears. Mix it up. Give it a personal stamp. Sign your signature. Make gravy with the lumps.

Above all, make a well-trod warhorse trot again. Take the well established archetype of the vampire movie and give it clever spin; use a device more original that how fast to build the body count. Very few have done that. Shadow Of The Vampire did it. Near Dark did it. Hell, Mel Brooks’ anti-epic tried and failed gloriously. Nowadays (and those nowadays have been nowadays for over 50 years, if not longer) it’s all about the stamp and the twist. Despite the clutch of vampire movies that have came along since the turn of the century (e.g.: Underworld, Byzantium, 30 Days Of Night, etc), precious few have really cleared the tabletop for their feast for the senses. I mean that dishing it out when it comes to being innovative with the formula. Few and far between.

Small wonder why it took so long for this blogger to cover one…


Abraham Lincoln (Walker) was born into humble means. At an early age he learned about and fast understood the values of hard work, justice and family. Bright kid. Might be destined for great things someday. Growing up poor does set a determined spirit in motion, after all.

So does the death of one’s mother.

Naturally such a loss would change the course of thinking in a young boy’s mind and a more rapid step in his heart. Especially when said boy was witness to how his beloved mother met her fate. The doctor said it was blood poisoning. He was not incorrect; young Abe spied the pestilence that took his mother. An intruder skulked into their log cabin home and…bit her. The next morning she was at death’s door, which opened wide swiftly.

The doctor said it was blood poisoning. He was so right.

Fast forward many years. Lincoln is an aspiring lawyer and has made his way to Springfield, Illinois to set about future plans. Whilst setting up stakes, a curious stranger named Henry Sturges (Cooper) confronts Lincoln. He’s a man who…knows things. Knows things like how Lincoln’s mother met her fate. Like how Abraham has a burning need to solve the mystery…and exact revenge on her toothy killer.

With no pretense, Henry tells Abraham a vampire took his mother.

Ridiculous. There’s no such thing as vampires. But then again, how else could Abraham explain away what he saw done to his mother all those years ago? Henry goads him, believes his story and offers some “training” to Abraham to battle these nasties of the night.

Fueled by revenge and justice also, Henry takes him under his wing, learning the tricks and trade of hunting the undead. But Lincoln fast learns that it takes a lot more than skill with a blessed axe to take out these beasties. It takes a certain prowess. A kind of diplomatic one. Henry informs Abraham that there is a great deal more to the vampires’ agendum than merely feeding.

Simply put, politics breed strange bedfellows. Especially when there’s the whole of the Union to be under siege in the name of power.

And sustenance…


Recall again what I said about bringing life to the vacant table that is the vampire movie. I never figured a fresh breath would come from a bastardized History Channel miniseries. Circa 2005, naturally. Well, okay, regarding the current programming codswallop of a once proud network. We do have one axe man here.

Aw, shut it. That was the best gag you’ve read here in a fortnight. Moving on.

Big surprise here, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter definitely brought something different to the table at the vampire feast. Heck, with a title like that what’d you expect? I bet folks came in droves to catch it at the local multiplex by the title alone, even if they didn’t like vampire movies.

Well, that didn’t happen, hence why it’s in the canon of The Standard. However many movies taken to task here to try and improve/expand on Dracula’s legacy, sh*tty returns does not a boring movie make. Moreover, an interesting movie, even within the confines of the well-worn vampire movie blueprint. Even if the movie in question didn’t exactly light up the night.

The point I’ve been meandering towards for the past decade from that whole table discussion is thus: same old story, unique execution. Lincoln pulls this trick off almost brilliantly. Adapted for the screen from Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel of the same name, director Bekmambetov (how’s that for a mouthful?) execution of the story is nothing short of miraculous. C’mon, consider the premise. Hell, consider the freakin’ title. Our esteemed 16th president is a statesman by day and Buffy by night. Timur (gonna refer to him by that from here on out) had some stones to cut what he did. Kinda like Abe’s trusty axe.

It worked, amazingly enough. If only just.

A lot of it had to do with the acting. More like the casting. For instance, Ben Walker as Abe was a find, akin to a low-level discovery of Chris Reeve portraying the Man of Steel. I enjoyed how earnest and naive Walker’s manner was. He also looks like Lincoln, and carries himself as the president we (think) we know in an uncanny fashion. This is especially true as the movie stretches. Walker divides himself between modest and dedicated politician against pure action hero when it comes to slaying the evils of the night. Well, Honest Abe was a man of action, so we have that, which is nice.

One might regard such a role—such a performance—as schizo as they come. But it works, barely. A lot of things in Lincoln barely work, and again I think it comes down to the acting by a very eclectic cast. The casting director earned his pay with their roundup. Apart from Walker, the supporting cast was a weird, delightful melange of folks who did not belong together in the same movie. Yet they were, and proved to be the glue that (just) held the film together.

I really dug Sewell as vampire leader/lord of the manse. He seemed so logical, so gentle in his demeanor (a Southern gentleman vampire. Why not?) as well as his scheming. His Adam was one cool character, not the occasionally hot-headed Abe. Sewell was an ideal foil to, well the idealistic Walker. Another good piece of a good vampire flick? Make the lead bad guy charismatic, always more so than the hero.

Cooper as the ruffian Van Helsing element in another instance. Of course we gotta have the guy behind the guy as expert in destroying vampires. But it’s a nice twist that Cooper’s Henry REDACTED as the opposite of the somewhat gallant Walker’s Lincoln. Another vamp trope; you just gotta have the keen-eyed, seasoned hunter in the film somewhere to pass on his legacy. It’s always fun to see how the sausage is made (unless it’s actual sausage). It’s also kinda fun to watch lanky Walker try to  learn anti-vampire ninjutsu as the hands of scruffy, dandy Cooper. He was fun, teetering on hammy. Cooper has the tendency to overplay his hand though (despite trying keep it close to his chest) like why I REDACTED his cachet above. You kinda want a guy like Henry to keep the cards close to his chest, but like the whole atmosphere of Lincoln you just—must—go along with it. Embrace the absurdity. Keep a pokerface like no doubt Timur and the rest of the crew had to.

We’ll tackle those details later. Now let’s tug at the tapestry proper. Lincoln, at its core has a cozy, subtle B-movie flavor (regardless of the title). Despite a (most likely) hefty budget, the thing plays out as if shoestring. We have corny dialogue, but it’s fitting. Charming even. All the settings appear pulled off the Gone With The Wind backlot with a little bit of Glory thrown in. Even the dusky costumes seem hack and stereotypical, like what you were expecting to see. This whole “barely works” charm binds the film together. Again, barely. Threadbare sometimes.

This may sound like bitching. Not really. Moaning maybe, but then again that’s a sound you want to hear in bed. That’s what I’m getting at: Lincoln is a made-to-order guilty pleasure. There is so much off with this movie that you can’t help but watch and wait on baited breath for the whole sh*tstorm to collapse. But it never does, and that’s a really odd way to hold an audience’s attention. Despite all the action and intrigue I watched the thing perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop. Incredibly it never did. The laces must’ve been too snug.

That tightness results from a constant, palpable tension running through the whole flick. All the way through Abe is either hunting or fleeing from the demons—literally and figuratively—that drive him. It’s constant, almost relentless. Tension is what drives a story after all. But then again, there’s this goofy undercurrent that distracts us enough to lend a “what the heck?” aspect in and erstwhile action-cum-history lesson. That alone keeps one glued. It’s all very byzantine, and trying to describe it’ll make you sound as nuts as an almond grove.

Still I’ll try. Further.

I think I’ll call this whole affair “frontier Fringe.” You like that? We have an interesting alt-history at work here, a malleable tableau. Supernatural activity in the prebellum South. Undead nasties attempting to usurp power from the Union via the Civil War. And the director and scenarist having keen eyes and ears considering the historical record and how it can be properly twisted to suit the narrative. No easy feat, then again not something invited by your fire sale vampire movie. It allows just enough breathing room political science to temper all the craziness. Call the whole wad Ken Burns meets Tim Burton (he co-produced the damned thing BTW). It’s what is brought to the table personified. And it works well. Mostly.

I keep saying that. It’s an insistence that Lincoln is not a good movie. It isn’t, but it’s also not lousier than the sum of its yadda yadda. It has the hallmarks of a summer blockbuster and was released in June, but smells like a September leftover and the returns reflected that. It’s a vampire movie, but smeared with a bit too much commentary to really take off. We have a lot of cool action scenes, staggered between Edward Herrmann-esque narrated History Channel outtakes. Lincoln is entertaining to be sure, but often bewildering.

It’s a chimera, but not like it’s better than the sum of its parts. It’s Lincoln‘s determination to be straight-faced and utterly entrenched in its execution and conviction. It’s a vamp film with a pokerface, and after all my ribbing it’s a better film for it. Kinda like Evil Dead 2 or Big Trouble In Little China (admittedly one of my fave films. Get off me; my blog, my rules), it’s a mash up of several genres, all surprisingly well intertwined. I know I’ve been smacking Lincoln around for the past 80 paragraphs, but that’s mostly out of the aforementioned bewilderment that the thing worked. Again barely. The whole “barely” thing stems from my expectations that the movie will fall flat on its ass for the duration of the viewing. It never did. Pokerface. Grim determination. You will f*cking accept and like what we’re doing here. Either that or the Bog of Eternal Stench for you!

You gotta respect a filmmaker who does that. Someone who shoves the chloroform-soaked celluloid in you face and makes you submit to a ridiculous premise. Sure one dappled with a stellar cast, crazy action, nods to history, Civil War battles, a revenge story and vampires vampires vampires, but crazy nonetheless. It often results in some rather curious technical things.

For instance, remember my muse? That cagey bitch whose always testing my patience: the pacing. It’s  a kinda slow, if not creeping build up. The story really only catches fire in the second act, and even then there’s this lugubrious feeling crawling around, all drab and listless. Another aspect of the “barely” descriptor. Such sludge actually works despite itself. It holds the serious action back, so when the sh*t gets real, you’re glued to the screen. I suppose it’s all about trickery courtesy of Timur and Co.

And what would a vampire flick be without blood and guts? Right, an aerobics video. Lincoln can get stylishly gruesome at times. Violent, yes, but with flair. Timur smartly holds back on the vampires chomping on necks. Instead we get vamps as viruses, surreptitiously sneaking around, draining life and only baring fangs for a menacing effect, like who’s the boss here. It sure ain’t Tony Danza, thank goodness.

This clever device really stirs the blood (so to speak). It’s cool to have intrigue over immediate action in a vampire flick. It worked quite we in the 1931 Dracula. What’s going on? There’s more going down than just Abe hacking away and trying manage a war torn republic. The scenarists were pretty smart in incorporating the politics of the day (or properly lifting sh*t from the source novel) to set up the stage in the third act. I dug the “slaves vs masters” allegory regarding humans vs vampires. The war between the states became the war between the “states” if you catch my drift. It’s clearly disguised as a history lesson (consider the Gettysburg Address scene, which was beautiful, BTW). All the key facts are in place, just dressed up in a different skin. It adds a little weight to the scattershot execution, forgiving some faults.

I guess that’s the whole deal to enjoying Lincoln, besides the action and the acting. Forgiving faults is just another piece of suspending belief. Like I kept hammering, this film barely worked. But it did work. The premise was ludicrous. The acting, though good, was stone-faced as if daring you to defy the gravity of this work. The action grew so over the top that it dared you to join the ride. All this sh*t tempted you to throw up your arms and give up (or simply throw up). Didn’t play that way for me, and since I’m so terribly cynical you should surrender to the absurd and give Lincoln a chance.

Take a bite, if you will.

Okay, now that is the best gag you’ve heard in a fortnight.

BTW, what’s a fortnight?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Another mild rent it. It’s not that Lincoln teetered on crappy, but came across as rather fragile at times. That was distracting. Still, it was stupid fun and that counts for something. Barely.


Stray Observations…

  • Nice shot there, Abe. Your quest has begun.
  • “That hat makes you ridiculous.”
  • It’s tough to watch Simpson act and not think of the McPoyle brothers. Want some milk?
  • New Orleans? Really? Despite actual historical significance did Anne Rice catch a whiff of this movie?
  • “I work nights.”
  • Nice out, Will.
  • And nice out, Abe.
  • The burning trestle scene was over the top. Way over the top.

Next Installment…

For the uninformed, “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll” (switch the italicized words around for our next feature) is a tune by Vaughan Mason and the Crew, celebrating the joys of rollerskating. Also for the uninformed, roller skates were the precursor to rollerblades. Um, again for the uninformed…