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



The Players…

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


The Story…

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

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

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

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

Let the shames begin.


The Rant…

I was a Reagan Baby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m losing a lot you.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting a life…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Verdict…

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


Stray Observations…

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

Next Installment…

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


 

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RIORI Vol 3, Installment 95: Steven Norrington’s “The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen” (2003)



The Players…

Sean Connery, Shane West, Richard Roxburgh, Tony Curran, Peta Wilson, Stuart Townsend, Jason Flemyng and Naseeruddin Shah.


The Story…

Dateline: Europe, 1899. The United Kingdom in the now. The planet in the abstract. The world may be at war any day now. That is if the mysterious and dreaded terrorist known only as “Fantom” and his minions have their way.

It’s time to act. Under Her Majesty’s blessing, special agent “M” is marshaled into assembling a team, a league of heroes—and a few anti-heroes—of unique, exceptional and extraordinary  acumen to quash any notion of global conflict. To stop Fantom at any cost and bring him to justice.

But what to call this disparate, somewhat ragtag band of heroes? Hmm.


The Rant…

So when, when would he have gotten to this one? Rumor had it that is was such a juicy bite, right? Notoriously so.

A good question.

League was too easy, too obvious a target for one. Had to make my bones literally years back to decide what really was a mediocre movie and one that was just misunderstood. Consider that I started this whole mess back in 2013, when Marvel got their foothold in the movie biz, and then Disney (feeling threatened, as always) wanted in on the action. Then DC heroes got to the silver screen, and saving Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy the Distinguished Competition cinema with sketchy-at-best results. Still, with a relic like League already in the can going on 20 years we can at least tip a hat to the effort of we may have never seen Black Panther. Comic book movies are designed and demand to be seen in a big theater with THX, crystal clear pixelation and a wheelbarrow labored with popcorn. Lotsa popcorn. It takes a keen studio to get that kind of stand-and-deliver chutzpah. And even if League capsized back in ’03, give some props. Passive aggressive props, but acknowledgment for a job, well, done.

I was a multiplex guy back then. Lotta pressure. Back in the day I had at least 3 months to score the latest big deal flick at the local cinema. I recall in high school I got a “student discount” if I presented my high school card to the polite, tired girl at the box-office. Back in the early 90s you could get a big popcorn, small drink and precious few smirks from the bitter staff for around 5 bucks with that card. As long as you had that useless ID card outside the high school campus, cinematic wonders would abound. I was there every Friday with my low-life buddies.

Not just Fridays, mind you. Summertime soon arrived. Time to raid the theatre. Me and buds raped and pillaged that place for all its worth. Blockbusters? There. All the cinematic hullabaloo 90s Hollywood throw at us. The original Jurassic Park, Keanu becoming an action star in Speed. Running around with Forrest Gump. Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum thwarting aliens from vaporizing Earth in Independence Day. Feelin’ hakuna matata with Timon and Pumbaa (hey, they can’t all be grown-up movies). My buds and I? We liked ’em big. The movies, you dope (and yeah whatever). That list has some big titles, demanding the big screen, even Gump (recall the Vietnam chapter?). What cinephile doesn’t like splash and dash, cool fight scenes, crazy F/X and lame but well timed jokes. Hey, who doesn’t? And since only scant few comic book movies every graced the multiplex back then, we’d take what we could get for action heroes that five bucks could offer. Hell, back then a flick like League would have blown our minds and perhaps other body parts, too.

Erm, my best buds were all girls. Moving on.

Back to the future: I think it’s safe to say that League was year zero when the comic book action film met the conventional action movie audience. The review in Maxim hinted at that with sarcasm beyond my big yap can claim (and yes, I had a subscription. What do you read while on the john? Hemingway?). But yeah, yeah, yeah. I know what you’re thinking, regardless of that esteemed rag’s opinions. Rather: but blogger dude, what about the original Spider-Man movie? That dropped a year before League and Spidey was a blockbuster!

You’re right. It was. It was a great movie featuring everyone’s friendly, neighborhood arachnid hero. But that’s just it: everyone in Christendom knows who Spider-Man is. He’s Marvel’s biggest hero. Even if you never read his comics America en masse knows who Spider-Man is, so high-profile he be. Spidey’s story was a safe bet for Hollywood, and how right they were. They got big and nearly big name stars. They found the ideal director in quirk-tastic Sam Raimi. And the CGI was polished to a sheen (for 2002 anyway). In hindsight, the movie served as metaphor for the comic book movie dipping a toe in the sketchy waters of Tinsel Town’s grimy pool, and it paid off. It worked, so let’s open the floodgates. More comic movies, with more challenging stories! And more challenging characters even! Characters we can mold in our own image! Characters no one has never even heard of!

Slow down there.

It’s one thing to cull from the Spidey mythos to make an origin pic accessible to Middle America, and quite the other to tackle Alan Moore’s catalog. Herculean balls in fact. What was Fox thinking about besides its wallet?

Not much else. Ask Sean Hannity, if you dare.

And all did not go very well. At least that’s what the dailies said. And Rotten Tomatoes. And Agent 007 personally. Connery kinda retired after this, making League his swansong. Bummer. Was it that bad? I mean, James Bond never failed a mission (unless you include his girlfriend REDACTED at the end of Casino Royale), but this pastiche made Connery say, “I don’t think I’ll ever act again. I have so many wonderful memories, but those days are over.” That’s a direct quote. Sniff.

From what I gathered about Leaguebefore I sat down and watched it, that is—that down to brass tacks it was the first big cinematic turkey of the new century. The movie became saturated with notoriety as nothing but bombast and artifice, even for being an overt (very overt) popcorn flick. We ain’t talking’ Heaven’s Gate territory here. That infamous film took years to recoup its theatrical release losses against its rental and televised earnings. No. League only lost $12 million at box office to break even. That’s half the budget of most movies today.

WTF? What’s with all the crowing? League would never win Best Picture, even if that’s what Norrington’s aim was. That and the numbers do not reflect rental/streaming sales, so there. How come this flick became a high water mark in the early 00s as “don’t try this at home?” From my myopic view, a movie like League would’ve killed back in the nascent CGI days of 90s cinema. My pals and I caught the original Jurassic Park on opening night. Most of the fervor for me, my friends and doubtless the bodies queued up around the block were enticed by the promise of some new-fangled digital dinosaur action. If the adjacent theater was featuring an action movie where an art deco submarine was the set there would have two Sisyphusian (I just made that word up) lines, all with trembling tickets in there hands.

My point? I think I have one: You can’t be everything to everyone at the best time. So much being a busybody will only run you down, and as for moviegoers will disappoint. Taking risks is good, provided you a have a plan in place (and maybe a backup plan also). Creative license can be a good thing, provided you don’t take too many liberties. And a decent story works wonders against way too much digital F/X. I think League got stoned a la Shirley Jackson because the audience wanted more that the aforementioned splash and dash. To claim modern audiences are more sophisticated in their viewings is a canard. This would explain Adam Sandler’s success as a movie star.

No. The average movie joe likes shiny as much as the next crow, but when the vital basis for a good movie (eg: the script) gets mangled—especially an adaptation—it demands boo/hiss. Recall what I said about Moore redacting his credit from any movie project based on his books? Or Connery’s testament? Or even League‘s box office takeaway? Don’t try to con us, Hollyweird.

All around, ouch…


In a universe parallel to ours…

Literary heroes of our past are the real thing in this alternate present. And it will take some of these extraordinary explorers, fighters and scientists to unite and defeat a creeping evil bent on world war.

So what and why us?

On Her Majesty, Queen Victoria’s secret service, it falls to special agent “M” (Roxburgh) to round up the usual suspects and with crossed fingers mold a real team our of these disparate misfits and adherents to rid the planet of the nefarious and mysterious terrorist Fantom and his technically advanced army. So that’s what.

But why us? Because you are the best and brightest and most screwed up needed to protect our way of life, not just for Britain but for the entire planet.

People like you Allan Quatermain (Connery), rough and ready African hunter; agent Tom Sawyer (West), foreign agent from the Colonies; Nemo (Shah), captain of the high tech nuclear submarine, the Nautilus; Dr Henry Jekyll (Flemyng) and his monstrous alter ego Mt Hyde; the immortal Dorian Gray (Townshend); the stealthy Invisible Man (Curran), and Mina Harker (Wilson), bloodsucking vixen.

Does Fantom stand a chance of world domination against a league of such extraordinary heroes?

Perhaps, if they don’t kill each other first…


Back to our world…

Hey. You know how I like to skewer the actors as the first part of a review? In the immortal words of the late George HW Bush, “Not gonna do it.”

I have next to zero complaints with the acting in this movie. For real. No BS. The cast was great. Misused, but great! There was a chemistry, albeit a tad awkward. The cast really got into their roles, channeling the fictional, literary heroes as we might have read them. Chances are the cast did. They were a circus in the best possible way. I really loved West as Sawyer, devil-may-care and freewheeling like his novel analog, as well as Shah as Nemo, regal but not snooty and very sharp (and knows kung fu!).  It was also nice to see even at his advanced age Connery was still up an action role. But again, all misused. A shame.

Misused how? Journeyman director Norrington who had a rep for turning scraps into a viable story did not know what to do with a big budget. Kid in a candy store moment, hungry mouth dripping with gum disease. There’s champing at the bit, and there’s getting in over your head.

For those who don’t know, Norrington helmed the original Blade movie, and did a helluva job. He took a minor league Marvel character and made him a badass, vampire -slaying fool. Even the comics had to take notice as they retconned virtually everything attached their vampire hunter character of the 70s, including the hairstyle. Blade was a surprise hit. Not for the comic book appeal—as I far as I know, there was no such curiosity then in the slick 90s—but for the straightforward, simple, dynamic action flow aided by Wesley Snipes martial arts skills and dry wit. It was kinda the anti-Batman; Blade offing his victims not out of symbolic revenge, but from revenge plain and simple. A nice violent, bloody, kung fu drenched battle between kinda good and kinda evil. Custom made for the 90s crowd like I used to be a member of. It’s still one my go-to movies to watch when I don’t know what I want to watch. It never fails to disappoint.

So kudos for neophyte Norrington back in ’98. You delivered the goods and now the phone won’t quit buzzing, clogged with voicemails from Hollywood. Yer gonna be a hit, kid! Here’s a ludicrous budget. We got Alan Moore on board, as well as 007! We’re going to Africa.

*cue the Toto song. Weezer’s cover or the original, I don’t care*

Okay. Like with the casting I’m not gonna beat Norrington up. Blade was solid; he knew what to do and did it well. He was offered the keys to the kingdom and did his best. Referring back to his sophomore effort, as an early entry into the comic-as-movie device, his reminds me of an actual comic. Not a bad thing. These days if its not as realistic as possible, average comic movies fans quail and mope and return to their basements bedrooms in their parents’ homes.

For real, League has a pretty cool premise. Especially using the tried-and-true “alternate universe” template in S/F. Lotta clay to mold with. Alt-reality is fun, especially once you figure out its alt-reality. Figuring that out? That’s the fun part. The setup reads like that; takes you a few scenes (even beyond the 1899 fact) to get it, and then go along with the ride. It’s rather fun to watch the team form out, all these varied, disparate characters. Sure, been done before, but these goofs are so incongruent you have to ask yourself how can their mission succeed with all these mavericks? A promising start, right?

And also a portent: this was the first (and only) Alan Moore adaptation that credits him. After the dailies for League I can only guess why he pulled his name from the credits for his later cinematic projects. Dum dum dummm.

Anywho…

So this project was cursed. I could lay the fault at Norrington’s feet, but that wouldn’t be fair. Kid in a candy store, remember? What would you do with the legendary Connery et al with all those millions? Right. IHOP. Then filming, with this terribly amusing, eclectic cast that hit almost all the marks. Maybe all the storyboard targets spun too fast for Norrington, because his crew missed a crucial target: editing. Now allow me to crawl up mine own arse.

Hold on. Okay. Let’s put it this way: Any of you out there ever saw the first Star Trek movie? Better yet, the “Director’s Cut?” There was a possibly cool flick in dire need of an editor (perhaps an acting coach also but never mind). Even if you’re not a Trekkie like I am, there are quite a few parallel brain farts in directing that Norrington inadvertently followed after the esteemed Robert Wise took the helm of the big screen Enterprise. Indulge me, will you? Thanks.

It’s all about motion. Stories hinge on that. Pacing. Remember her, my precious cinema bitch? Some key writers in the American literary canon were and are adept at that. A few examples (of course personal)? Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, Charles Bukowski’s Ham On Rye, Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy and Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Say what needs to be said with economy and nothing further. Those books zoom past your eyeballs, and surprise you when you’ve finished. A lot of good movies work that way, too. League was not such a movie.

Back to the Star Trek: TMP analog. There’s an early scene where Scotty and Kirk are taking a shuttle to the refitted Enterprise. Its transporters are down, but that’s a semi-minor plot point. It was more of an excuse to declare lo and behold there’s the starship Enterprise on the big screen. Big as life! For about ten minutes. It took about ten minutes to complete this scene, with way too much time spent on the sexy ILM model giving fan service and Kirk and Scott arriving at the damned vessel. You can even see when the editors had to stretch it and for no reason. It got to yawn.

What was worse was this: on Star Trek: TOS the Enterprise was goin’ places. Due to the budget, jetting off to another crisis zone was implied with stock footage behind a cheap wall of stars that the Enterprise was on its way. Not unlike any other Trek TV/movie series. There are only two TOS episodes that required actual motion of the crew to move the plot along. Balance Of Terror, the best sci-fi submarine drama ever made, and The Ultimate Computer surrounding events of war games go awry. The rest of the other 78 eps? We be going places via your mind. Take the sugarcube. Let your imagination fill in the gaps using so much bread crumbs.

One more paragraph then we’re done. TMP was stagnant. Mostly because the new fangled Enterprise didn’t go anywhere. The warp drive was f*cked up until Spock fixed it, and when the Enterprise reached her quarry, they all got stuck again. Mired in the gullet of a biomech alien for the next two acts. The only time we got to see the new Enterprise zip off into the outer rims was within the last five minutes of the movie! And Kirk behaving like a dickhead for 2 and half hours! I am entitled to more popcorn, dammit.

Done. You get it. Now here’s me pulling the same punches with League:

The Nautilus crawling up the Venetian canals is a prime example. Long talks that serve no purpose is another. Too much exposition. Too much showing off the latest CGI chrome. Too many explosions paired against too much untrimmed fat. Too much tell, too little show. That is not how stories are told. It’s a crime. Show don’t tell like the Rush tune warned. You may have the coolest cast on hand, the best F/X money can buy, a very simple good vs evil plot on hand also. But to deliver a film—action sci-fi comic book whatsit or whatever—that wastes the audiences’ time? The aforementioned goes down the crapper. That’s what League got bogged down with. Too much down time. I understand being a comic geek that Moore’s work demands patience to digest everything. We have only two hours here; let’s point the grout with a lot of exposition…and slow…things…dooowwwnnn. Flipping such downside to the upside, though: it invites curiosity. Kinda like reading the fortune after you smashed and ate the cookie: what fun! Now what?

Act two. I think I now understand why League took such a drubbing at the box office: too much tell and not enough show. The lumbering and rather aimless plot only cradles action for action’s sake. Kinda like how the song-and-dance scenes in Mary Poppins Returns only bookend another rather aimless plot (but those scenes were awesome). Even if the most derivative and/or lame story has to follow a straight line. Even non linear stories (like Aronofsky’s The Fountain or Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction) have a thread to follow. Unless it’s an anthology film, plots should not wander. Break that rule and the audience’s attention will wander. Like I did with League. By act two I could not get what was going on. Blame lies in again too much exposition and wasted dialogue at that. I don’t care about our characters’ back story the third time around. Or describing things we can see on the screen. Or open monologue to explain what’s going on/what’s next. Where’s the mystery? Where’s the surprise? Where’s the tension and where is my Diet Coke? We need an editor.

*facepalm*

Okay. Now what?

This. The tech angle. The usual third act. All action films use backdrops as extras. Saharan dunes don’t need craft services. Nowadays CGI is paramount to creating a viable action film. Back in the Stone Age of ’03 we still had to go on location to set the pace. And by the way League’s sets are impressive. You could with your keen eye back then separate the pixels from the actual. The sets are nice, very nice. Grey’s library should’ve invited an Oscar nod. Too bad the intelligentsia with the bankroll doesn’t read.

Bitter? Nah.

Well, yeah, after taking in League. It helped to digest the mildly cartoony CGI by reminding myself League was cut in 2003. Cutting edge then, and held up pretty well. This was thanks mostly to Norrington’s tasteful hand at employing CGI F/X for emphasis, not run riot like the Star Wars prequels. Here’s a few examples I found very cool: the Invisible Man’s entry is stunning, heck, CGI or no and that literally painted on face was alien enough to drive the point home how warped he became. A gentle mad scientist and a warning to science. That was a gold star.

Dr Jekyll “hulking out” into Mr Hyde was kinda frightening. As it should be! I read the book. I saw John Malkovich get all twisted in Mary Reilly. The book was chilling. Malkovich’s performance was demented. Curran’s Hyde was…a monster, enhanced by tightly wound CGI metamorphosis. Curran behaving like a junkie, his serum calling to him, alluding to not knowing what might happen if he “Hydes out” again. That plot point I liked.

One more thing, though not related to F/X but relevant to our dramatic personae.

[Fair warning: the following contains fanboyism. You have been warned.]

The varied cast paints a picture, encapsulating the up-and-comers against an action film icon: 007 himself, Sean Connery. I love Connery. He’s probably my fave actor. Probably because he’s always be able to play tough but really is witty and a rapscallion. Towards his end of his turn as James Bond—he was getting bored of the role and didn’t want to get typecast—he decided to turn is his license to kill (what sane person would do that?) to look towards dramatic and comedic roles. Connery being protean only returned to an action role (007 no less) for Diamonds Are Forever because he and the studio disliked George Lazanby’s take as James Bond and he felt he had to mop up (the character and doubtless his bankroll).

Sean hung up proper Bond (Never Say Never Again doesn’t count. Even by Connery) in 1971 with Diamonds. Precious few action roles followed since, some good (The Untouchables, sadly his only Oscar), some notable (Outland), some weird (Zardoz), some silly (Entrapment), some decent (The Hunt For Red October), some culty (Highlander) and some poking fun at him (Indiana Jones And The Last Crudsade). That last nod is what brings us back to League. There were quite a few allusions—from Connery himself, not Quatermain—that he’s getting too old for this sh*t. I found that to be a passive but kind farewell to the spotlight, action or no. I’d like to think so. Connery came full circle and this was his last (live action) movie. He’s retired now, Sir Thomas. Good idea to bow out after this pastiche, but thanks for the ride. No shocker he was the tentpole for League.

Whew. Sorry.

So what have we learned? Well, I tend to ramble. That and a cool script executed with poor efficiency makes for a slog of an action film. Smart use of period CGI can make a difference. Alan Moore never lent his name to credits for movie adapts of his comics. Don’t ramble. League, though mildly entertaining as well as frustrating, was still oddly humorous, barely. It was mostly entertaining, though I had to change contacts after squinting down a cohesive plot. League was, overall, mostly interesting but wobbly on the entertaining angle. I guess in some way it was a vital literary history lesson.

That’s a cheap shot, I know. Recall my chosen myopia about 2003 CGI? I gave it a pass, and eventually acceptance. But the plot and actors? Spent. Blah. Damn. A shame. The Clash’s triple album Sandinista! reminds me of League. The album ran over 2 hrs, 30 mins. 28 songs. Only a fraction of them would be better spent on a tighter album. League might have scored better under the two hour mark. Less can always be more.

Ignoring old skool CGI.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A very mild rent it. Mentally trim the fat and there’s a fine actioner. Think too much about what you’re watching and hello aneurism. A few beers help. Like maybe nine. Go Cubs! (burp)


Stray Observations…

  • “Regale me.”
  • BTW, it’s Quatermain, not Quartermain. I’ve made the same mistake, too.
  • “Call me Ishmael, please.”
  • Impressive beard. Puts most Millennials to shame. Men included.
  • “If you don’t do it with one bullet, don’t do it at all.” Connery summing up the CV of every hitman.
  • Are Fantom’s goons proto-Nazis?
  • “I’m not much of a drinker.” Ha ha.
  • I don’t think the Venetian canals are that deep.
  • “He’s stolen us, and we let him.” That is a good line.
  • REDACTED as traitor? Did not see that coming. Really.
  • “We’ll be at this all day.” I wish.
  • Wasn’t that how Moriarty met his end in the last Sherlock story? Fall from a frozen cliff? Hmm.
  • “Then the game is on.”

Next Installment…

Topher Grace would love to ask Teresa Palmer, “Take Me Home Tonight.” But Anna Faris is standing next to him yakking so forget that.


 

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


15754842_PA_Orange-County


The Players…

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


The Story…

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

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

There’s the Great American Novel to write!


The Rant…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*whistling*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the curls are massive…


Shaun (Hanks) has a kind of dilemma.

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

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

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

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

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

So crazy it just might…


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

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

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

There. Whew. Had to let that hen out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gordon Lish? Really?


The Verdict…

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


Stray Observations…

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

Next Installment…

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

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


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 93: Jon Turteltaub’s “Disney’s The Kid” (2000)


The-Kid-poster-art


The Players…

Bruce Willis and Spencer Breslin, with Emily Mortimer, Lily Tomlin, Chi McBride and Jean Smart.


The Story…

Russ Duritz is not a happy man.

Sure, he lives in an nice home, drives a cool car and is above all a successful businessman. But all at the expense of being terminally stressed, insomniac, no social life and married to his job. His fortieth birthday is days away, and that is usually a time for reflection, which he does as one would bat away a gnat.

One strange night, Russ discovers an intruder in his posh pad. It’s just an eight-year old boy named Rusty. Before he calls the authorities Russ senses something odd about this kid. That and the toy plane he’s clutching. That and it feels all so familiar. Didn’t he have one of those planes when he was Rusty’s age? That was over 30 years ago.

Wait a minute.


The Rant…

My birthday’s coming up, and that always puts me in a philosophical mood. One more year down. How many more to go? Rate I’m going, this might be the final installment of RIORI. Hope not, not while Scarlett Johanson still breathes and squeezes into black latex. That’s not being charitable, BTW.

On the whole, birthdays are fun even if you don’t celebrate them. You can, rest-assured some dork at your workplace caught wind of your b’day and ordered some cake for your grey ass and all worker friends. Some of those worker friends might take you out for a few after shift for whist and beer. Good times. Maybe your fam will get you a gift. If you’re lucky another cake, ice cream this time. All nice gestures. Once more around the sun. You survived! And back to churning out shrimp cocktail the following day. Maybe this year will be better.

I don’t do anything for my birthday anymore. The last significant birthday deed was renting a car when I turned 25. Didn’t bother campaigning for the presidency at 35. By my record, I’d only rate as the valet at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Heard that diplomats drive some fly rides. All those Accords. When I turned 40 I went to work and got a gift of thorough indifference. Now get to deveining those 10 bales of shrimp.

I hate shrimp.

So I get all reflective come birthday time. Surprise, surprise I tend to get maudlin, too. If you’re a thinking person, you probably do too come that time of year. Reflecting on the time gotten away. Example, I never really wanted to be a chef. It was during the great recession when I made my decision to attend culinary school. The work I was outwardly qualified had dried up, so onto the fallback career. I had studied to be an educator, but again, recession. And we all know schools take the biggest hit when the well is running dry. In short I missed out, and consider that often.

Might be the same for you. The older of us I mean, when the Interweb required a plug. The years wear on and on, and your memory gets longer. You reflect on past glories (like that time at Polk High…), your salad years at college, planting pearls here and there, your high school crush and where they are (prob married with a litter of troglodyte kids. Stupid vaccinations). Former employment, good jobs and sh*tty ones alike. Heck, you learned a lot from both and maybe took away something (like a girlfriend, which was your undoing at your late place of employ. Oops. Love you, Kay). Even mundane stuff like your first piece of sh*t car you bought with your own money, drove to death for years until it imploded outside the DQ you used to take aforementioned crush to every Friday back then. Always check the fluid level in the radiator, always. A Yugo is a rather fragile piece of junk.

Or a fave read you didn’t quite get, but the journey was fun (I’m teething through my third stab at Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. A little luck would be welcome). Or a movie that stabbed you into reality. Or lost friends, lost jobsand lost opportunities. The stuff that makes you stare into the morning mirror. Face it, getting older sucks, but chewing over a lost past sucks even more. The truth digs, as does scraping that dull razor across your neck before you dash to work a devein more shrimp.

I hate shrimp. Did I mention that?

Let’s put the moaning and groaning on hold. When your b’day rears its mocking face again, it’s not all gloom and doom in said mirror. You’ve learned a lot, experienced a lot over the years. You are definitely wiser now than in your callow youth then. The mistakes and successes from the past has molded you into a fuller person. You’ve read a lot of cool books, seen many cool movies, met several cool people and rubbed your eyes enough to understand streaming Netflix’s Runaways into bingeworthy results in a dramatic loss of Cheetos. For shame. Still, another lesson learned based against the wisdom accumulated via many birthdays hence. Such knowledge is a good thing, esp considering your next job interview.

As a caution, I recall something I mentioned about my dislike for the cockroaches of the sea, AKA shrimp.

*sound of beer cans being stomped on*

Time to stop with the editorial. Truth be told, birthdays are ultimately there to remind you of stuff. Mortality. Fortune. Lessons learned and not. Where to go from here. But mostly reflection. And that reflection is usually couched in the existential, “What happened and what if?” I feel that “if” often revolves around the halcyon days of youth. Childhood. Then the scene was wide open. Green fields. Delightful ignorance. NES taking prioriety of school performance (as it should be!). Time to fritter time for wondering. Right? Them’s were the days. No bills. No work. No taxes. No parenting. Just you, sixth grade bullying and Mega Man 2.

But that “if” only occurs after many, many calendar pages get torn off and tossed in the dustbin. Nowadays you look around and weigh things. To cut it short, you wanted to be an astronaut. Now? You want fries with that? Okay, maybe it ain’t that bad. Fries are yummy, after all. I read once an editorial by the late, great s/f writer Harlan Ellison was his definition of success as an adult is an extension of your passions as a kid. I’m paraphrasing. Example: if your fave toy was Legos, you’d grow up to be an architect. If your rode a pet horse then, you’d be a rancher now. If you played drums all the way into high school you might, might find yourself opening for a fledging Gaslight Anthem in some dive bar in Devil’s Crevice, NJ. Stuff like that. Makes sense in a way.

But if you’re like me, birthdays find yourself under you own microscope. How’d I do? I hate to get all negative, but I think a great many of us, despite great reserve, start shaking their fists heavenwards, tempting a storm. Where did my life go? Where did my dreams go? Who the f*ck are the Gaslight Anthem?

The flipside is true also, I think. No matter one’s accomplishments, there’s a nagging voice all about, “Where do the years go?” You presently have a good job, money in the bank, a nice family, a reliable car and a vintage, working NES in the man cave. But is this all there is? I’m still not an astronaut, dammit.

Well, not yet.

Or not then…


Image is everything, at least according to Russ Duritz (Willis). He’s a special consultant, an “image consultant,” as it were. His job entails dispensing advice how to make the bad look good, both literally and metaphorically. Make the questionable appear legit. Recommend the right haircut. Russ makes his living based on artifice. And he does not care for it lately.

He might be good at his job of constructive schadenfreude, but it sure makes a lonely life regardless of his acumen. He’s fast approaching a Jerry Maguire moment, as well as an impending 40th birthday. It’s that age where youth is over, and now the past. Bitter nostalgia.

One night after sweating over his latest mark, the TV starts blaring. He follows a trail of popcorn and discovers some 8-year old kid (almost 9) named Rusty (Breslin) has set up shop in his living room. Russ grills him. Where did you come from? What are you doing here? Where’d you get the popcorn?

Rusty doesn’t know. He just found himself in Russ’ pad, dicking around with his toy plane, and feeling very lost. So Russ sweats the kid like one of his vainglorious clients. What’s your scene? You lost? Why do you look so damned familiar?

Well, after sharing stories (and scars, and birthmarks, and memories), it smells like Rusty is Russ, 30 years behind. A pudgy, curious, scared l’il Russ, had inexplicably been warped from the 1960s into the smack dab of the 00s. Face to face with his cranky future self. Russ wonders if there’s a lesson happening here.

A piece of that insists that many major errors went down between Rusty growing into bitter Russ. It’s a nasty image.

And where the crap is Chester anyway…?


Years ago, there was some Disney-smelling junket heavily promoting The Kid. From that I learned that WIllis took the role of Russ to be involved in a movie that his kids could watch with no grease. I guess after a stream of successful R-rated action/violent/weirdo movies like Pulp Fiction, 12 Monkeys, The Fifth Element, The Sixth Sense, and/or Unbreakable The Kid would be okay for Scout to see. She was 11 when Kid dropped. Okay there.

I’m willing to wager that Scout, Rumer et al knew Dad made his mark as a tough guy action type starring in defiantly R-rated movies. As well he did and still does. Kids ain’t dumb. Maybe the idea (ploy?) was to ingratiate his brood at take them on a family-friendy field trip. Is it a coincidene that Willis divorced from Demi Moore the year Kid was released? Probably. Makes me wonder though. Divorced dads circle the wagons often.

So what if this was a deperate plea. Before John McLane ever uttered a “Yippee-ky-ay, mofo” he was comedic actor. Really. I know. I’m just as surprised as you are. It’s hard to remember Wills as bumbling dick opposite Cybill Shepard on TV’s “Moonlighting.” Or his first starring movie role as loser-in-love paired against a very hot Kim Basinger in Blake Edwards’ screwball rom-com Blind Date (highly underrated in my book, esp if you dig Laurel & Hardy). Willis’ second onscreen role was in Sunset, a swipe at old school Westerns, where he played the role of Tom Mix, a bloated John Wayne-esque superstar who eventually quit Hollywood and ran away to join the circus. Literally. In simpler terms, Willis got his start as a clown. Then Hans and crew took over and looted Nakatomi Tower. Merry Xmas, an action stalwart is born, for good or for ill. What did Scout think, all too young to see Die Hard?

I’m betting nothing. Chances are she never saw Blind Date. Most of you didn’t either. Doesn’t matter. I’m also betting the laundry list above of Willis’ first foray into movies are on no one’s key Willis top tens. So for whatever reason—kiddies squealling or no—with Kid, Bruce jumped feet first back into the comedy meatgrinder. After over a decade of thrwarting terrorists, bouncing through time and rescuing his dad’s poop-stained watch it was time for a change. And, boy, Bruce needed a refresher course on how to use those atrophied comic chops.

For being promoted as an effervescent family comedy, Kid sure is dour. That’s what I tasted at the outset. A sort of mean-spiritedness. We understand Russ is not a happy camper, but to let his regret and passive-aggressive bullying drive his character does not a family friendly protag make. Willis is the anti-Willis here; no clowning to be seen. Heck, even John McClane was a warmer Joe than fussy Russ, and folks were trying to kill him. So now we’re supposed to get behind this guy ready to crack up? Yep. All lights are go. It’s a Disney film, after all. Do not stray from the course.

It’s a drudge, I won’t lie, but Kid is a drag from go, mostly from Willis being such a Sour Patch Kid. Between the decade of Blind Date and Die Hard 2, Willis lost all but his basal comic skills (read: one liners) essential to a flick like this. If Willis’ duty was to star in a family film with his kids in mind, chances are his kids didn’t want to smell and acrid flak. That being said, Willis is too brittle here to make a polite impression. Right, all our jobs suck, including the ones that do indeed suck. The action genre has been kind to Bruce, but not to his range. Watching this makes one pine for David Addison. Willis’ rusty gift for comedy is, well, very rusty here.

Speaking of Rusty, here we have an alternate, and a much needed foil at that. Young Spencer Breslin. Genius role of casting. Cutting to the meat, I expected the diminutive version of Russ to be petulant, whiny and addicted to his own boogers. I was pleasantly surprised, nay, shocked that Breslin was not only down to earth but dare I say endearing and (urgh) cute. Remember how Tom Hanks nailed the whole man-child schtick in Big? Right, except here with Rusty it flipped the script. How can such an honest, nice, mostly well-behaved 9-year old morph into the crank that is Russ?

Like I said, foil. Russ would not be such a hard case without Rusty nagging is aging ass. The movie’s called The Kid, right? That kid ain’t Rusty. It’s the idea Rusty represents to Russ: curiosty and wonder. Image consultant? Yeah, that’s a thing. Molding reality to fit your quarter. Artifice. Kids don’t pull that. If some yowwen steps up and tells you flat out you’re fat, you are. Enjoy those Cheetos, m’man. Breslin comes more across like, “Can I have some Cheetos?”

Russ can’t make a viable smoothie from Cheetos. You get it.

(BTW, Mortimer is totally out of place here. She’s the female. She’s just there. If you’re not doing anything to actviely drive the plot, back to the trailer with ya. That’s all. Moving on.)

This is a time-out-of-joint morality tale. Russ is a jerk, and his life reflects that. Rusty’s a simple kid, seeing the world how it is and how it should be a lot cooler. Right, right, right. If only Russ would owe up to his junior version and aim to change his wicked ways, would Rusty get…what? His toy plane back? The coolest dog ever? Nope. No wishes to made on Rusty’s star. Just Russ wrangling with his believed wasted past. It’s kinda bitter sweet, but it mostly tastes bitter.

Speaking of bitter (me? Nah), there are some pummeling fouls to Kid‘s execution. Drum roll…the pacing! It’s poor. I mean desititude. Things are waaay too drawn out, like we the audience are too slow to get what’s going on. Truth be told, most of the time wtching the movie I was, “Where are we going with this?” Kid meanders, and if you’re a thinking person you’re quoting Python halfway through the second act: “Get on with it!” The film’s all languid and lazy for its own ends, but to what? Zzz.

All that rot about pacing brings us to the third act. It takes forever to heat up, but it does. Thankfully. Some just reward crawling through this dour kiddie flick. If the only rest of the movie was like this, because the finale was actually pretty satisfying in it’s standard Disney way. For those of you wringiing your hands in anguish for the first two-thirds of the movie wondering when, oh when will Bruce ever warm up to Rusty, your patience is sort of rewarded.

We get to the bottom of this time-hopping mystery with gusto and info overload. After an interminable slog through “are we there yet?” director Turtletaub finally lets up have the scales fall from our tired eyes and see the drama and humor the story taunted us with all those zillion hours before. Chemistry blooms between our May-November pair of Billy Pilgrims. The guts of the matter is smeared all around, barely hinted at earlier. That doofy biplane bit gets explained (sort of). It’s like a three ring circus with all three rings shoved together into one big wad. I have to admit, I kinda enjoyed the resolution, disjointed as it was.

Sigh. “If I only knew then what I know now.” There’s a classic. Well, you gotta give Kid credit for turning that saw on is dull blade. Rusty knew more than Russ forgot on his march to middle age. Sure, unconvential, and at many times a bit to conceptual and overreaching. If this was the family flick Willis was aiming for, the scenarists should’ve steered clear from Sartre as a refernece.

Ah, well. Got the dog, right?

(That was not a spoiler! You saw that crapola coming a lightyear away!)


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Too. Damned. Slow. Especilly for a family film. From Disney, no less. Bad dog. Bad, bad dog.


Stray Observations…

  • “Nice tie.” Ugh.
  • Willis is a lefty? Huh.
  • “We are up.”
  • There’s a diner on the airstrip? Of course not (wink).
  • “I don’t have time to go crazy!”
  • The bullying thing. Is Russ’ grown up job a passive-agressive version of smacking down playground thugs from recesses long gone? I’d like to believe so.
  • So that’s the best way to use a treadmill. Smart kid.
  • Hey! Melissa McCarthy! Gotta start somewhere, right?
  • “Holy smokes!” That’s an expression which needs to come back.

Next Installment…

Colin Hanks needs to escape dull Orange County, and his enrollment into Stanford might be just the ticket out.


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 92: George Noifi’s “The Adjustment Bureau” (2011)


TheAdjustmentBureau-PosterArt_CR


The Players…

Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Michael Kelly and Terence Stamp.


The Story…

Senator David Norris is on the fast track to politcal success. Dancer Elise Sellas is on the fast track to becoming the elite ballerina on the New York theatre circuit.

It’s not in the plan.

There’s a plan? Sure, David and Elise are destined to fall in love. But not that way.

There’s a plan. There’s always a plan.


The Rant…

“Just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean They aren’t out to get you.”

I’ve always appreciated that little witticism/message scrawled in ragged paint on a faux reclaimed wood panel sold in most Hallmark stores. It’s a curiosity, really if you think about it. I think it’s safe to claim that all of us at one time in our wretched, little lives that someone, maybe someones, hell even something is out to get us. Ruin our day. F*ck around with our credit score. Keying our car. Misspelling your name on that Starbuck’s venti latte (so that Mark gets your hot, foamy comfort rather than you, Matt). Dammit, someone’s out to get me. Rats.

That’s not to say I’m paranoid, it’s just that everyone is out to get me. Kidding (maybe).

Notice that I capitilzed “they” in the opening line. That’s not a typo, nor entirely accurate either. Pertaining to irrational fears of possible persecution, home invasion, wiretapping your kitchen, wiretapping your car, letter bombs stuffed with anthrax, the repo man, wiretapping yor dog, most of all that truck is nothing more than a product of a fevered imagination, maybe a result of brown acid. Or a binge watch of a Dennis Hopper movie marathon.

“I think, you want to know what I think? I think this is a crackpot idea!”

Thanks, Billy.

Paranoia is indeed crackpot thinking, like your meager life matters to humankind at large. Look in the mirror. Go on, go look. I’ll wait.

*sounds of sursurring Atlantic surf*

There. You ain’t special. You’re just another guy trying to make their way in the world, paying taxes, eating pizza and always on the hunt for the ideal parking spot. Like everyone else, even your kids. But on the other side of the coin it nags at you: there’s more than this, so why haven’t I found it? I’m so stressed. Is someone or something getting in my way?

Probably, like you being your own worst enemy and all those mistakes you made in college (like posting your kegstand skills on your LinkedIn profile. While doing a kegstand. Good times, good times, bad résumé). There may very well be a clutch of people who want to make things difficult for you based on your reputation and past bad decisions (read: kegstands). If so, maybe They’re just pissed you stole their parking spot. Being one’s own worst enemy can make Them a convenient excuse for your headaches. Or just plain confuse and/or derail your train of thought.

Face it. Some days it really does feel like the forces are collunding against you. Those bad days messed up with silly frustrations and epic fails alike. Traffic jam miles long on the highway when you’re on your way to that big interview and you can’t call ahead because either the reception is spotty or you failed to properly charge your phone from that all-nighter with Fortnight (and you with that big interview in the morning. For shame). All the coupons you collected for the market are either expired or for stuff the place doesn’t carry. That damned GrubHub delivery guy is clogging your spot again (after returning home to hop back on Indeed. That stupid Ethopian prince charity never panned out. Argh. Little bamboo shoots under the nails are these, and the pain can make you want to shake a fist at the sky. Don’t; it may start to rain. You hear what I’m screamin’?

All this musing on paranoia reminds me of a passage of a fave book of mine: Michael Crichton’s autibio Travels. Quit moaning. True the guy wrote potboilers, but they were very good potboilers (I heard even a few of his books were made into movies). Crichton’s travelogue covers his med school years, getting into writing and his world travels that informed a lot of his novels. Not surprisingly, his trademark frank writing about amazing things holds sway. Besides med school and globetrotting, there are a few paens to other odd situations he got himself into. Like him directing the film The Great Train Robbery starring Sean Connery. Like getting all psychedelic at the Institute Of Mentalphysics in the California desert by talking with a cactus (with, not to). Like the proper way to mentally bend spoons (it requires spirits, and neither of those). And like the time he had to consider his place in the realm of sexual politics.

Before I continue and although I’ve thoroughly enjoyed some of his books—Sphere jumps immediately to mind—I’ve found Crichton to be a very egotistical, sexist, racist writer. His frank technobabble style is so casual it almost reads like a science nerd’s thesis. You don’t understand? Well, haw haw, of course not and take my hand, you quark. Almost all his protags are white males, whose conflicts and foibles take many chapters to reveal. All females and non-whites’ flaws are out there all at once. Almost all his women are capable, but are strung up like Wonder Woman with her gauntlets welded together; impotent. Even in my pet Sphere, the antagonist may or may not be a black guy with an inferiority complex (no, that’s not a spoiler. I couldn’t really figure it out myself). Now, if you can get beyond all that happy crappy, Crichton’s stories are ultimately rewarding, if only with a sour taste in your brain.

Hang on. This is a parable about paranoia. I eventully get somewhere, right? Right? Anyway.

In his Travels, Crichton penned a chapter ominously titled “They.” Sounded like a script for a 1950s s/f B-movie. At first it read like Crichton, recently single, him having trouble making the scene again, naive since being out of the dating game for so long. It was the 1980s, fast to work and late to bed. Our esteemed writer felt truly wide of the mark, even when he managed to score some tail. He claimed to learn then that woman were following the design (albeit with yet to be processed Red Bull) institued by males back when Mike was…male.

The chapter spoke about guys in the 1980s trying to catch up with the career minded women who wanted it fast and quick rather than time consuming courting. It read all very sexist, like males were incapable of recognizing their emotional needs, and they  had it all together. The whole chapter read like a scared man who failed to try and understand female needs. He summed his experiences up with an inability to keep up with this “new kind of woman.” That being the career-driven, freewheeling and often “macho” kind of female that for good or for ill—in Crichton’s view—are climbing all over the early-80s social scene. And him getting lost in the shuffle.

Nonetheless it’s a thoughtful piece, “They.” Not necessarily a paranoid caution, but something to give one pause. I’m not talking about shoulder pads, feathered hair and lugging around an Osborne “laptop” on the way to the shareholders’ meeting who won’t give a nice guy a second glance circa 1984.  No. It’s about becoming vaugely aware that there might be a section of society at large that may indeed be scoping you out, sizing you up and maybe just plain getting in your way.

To paraphrase Hugh Jackman in Swordfish: “Stop f*cking up my chi.”

(Go with me here. I’m rolling.)

The curious thing about feeling paranoid, no matter who your They are, it’s never truly about They are “out to get you.” Get you. Okay, how? I barely get myself sometimes. Some nameless, faceless cabal are out to f*ck up your life because they don’t get you? They don’t even know you. All They might do—if They indeed are truly laying in wait to jam their SUV into your usual/infrequent parking spot bearing bags from Chipotle—is interfere. Mess up your schedule. F*ck with your system. Make you question sh*t you’re usually pretty sure about, like it being impossible to wiretap a Corgi. All that jumping. Really? They don’t know you.

Or do They? When the world feels like its conspiring against you, how come it feels so damned personal? So f*cking specific? Lightning struck thrice. Again with the fist. It makes a rational person begin to question the very fabric of their reality. He or she may not be paranoid, but dammit there sure are times when They might be creeping at your doorstep. Rearraging your sh*t. Shuffling up your well laid plans. Your routine getting shifted. Your familiar patterns get all out of order.

Sometimes, sometimes, such things being so out of order at times you—a normally rational person—wonder if some They is treating your daily affairs like a game of Yahtzee.

“Paranoia: you only have to be right once to make it all worthwhile…”


Politics is a dirty business, so it has been said. Makes strange bedfellows, too I’ve heard. Cliches aside, when one gets into the public eye goodbye privacy, hello microscope. You get to be a scion of virtue, too. At least to an adoring crowd.

Senator David Norris (Damon) knows this. He also knows how to politick. Using his “local guy from Red Hook” persona, Norris drums up the average New Yorkers into cheers and possible votes. He’s on the fast track, until some dirty laundry from his college days (inexplicably) comes back to haunt him, and may destroy his political career. Where’d that come from?

David’s fortunes seem to change meeting up with an aspiring dancer, Elise Sellas (Blunt). She’s lovely, vivacious and just the kind of girl David needs to be with to get both his head together and well as his frustrated heart. Elise comes and goes like the wind, and if it wasn’t for a fateful bus ride David may have never seen Elise again.

Well, that was how it was supposed to be.

David quickly learns that not everything a matter of chance. The sudden dirt a while back, once thought dead and buried? Elise meeting him in the mens’ room at one of his big deal speechs? Harry (Mackie) metaphorically falling asleep “at the wheel” and spilling the wrong coffee?

Strange things are afoot for David, and it all began by being on time. For some future…


This was different for me. In many ways.

I didn’t know at the outset that Bureau was based on a Philip K Dick story. Dick was a legendary s/f writer. I even read a few of his stories, and saw all of the movies based on his works. The list is short, but telling. Granted his name isn’t household regarding film adaptions like, say, Stephen King, Harry Potter or 3/4 of the Marvel titles out there, including those yet to written. Still, the fact that any of Dick’s esoteric s/f stories got the Hollywood treatment surprises me.

I say telling because most, if not all of Dick’s library regard reading it requires scratching one’s head into psoriasis. His isn’t casual s/f, and barely user friendly. Yet their adaptations into film usually work well (I credit the directors). I’ve seen Blade Runner (fave go-to film and duh), Total Recall (the first one. Can’t believe I have to quantify that), Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly (an early installment here at RIORI, and not a good one) and Bureau. So when I finally discovered Dick posthumously wrote the screenplay, I was like: “Oh. Okay.” Found this out after a 24 hour pause then on with the second act. The film made a lot more sense. Not in story, but in execution. Here’s what we got back from the lab:

Real quick. I feel it worth mentioning that Dick was a writer who was always asking questions. Primarily his muse was always demanding of him, “What is reality?” I also feel it worth mentioning Dick was a paranoiac, speedfreak and riddled with phobias (eg: he could eat in front of other people. Guess ol’ Phil wasn’t much of a “foodie”) that no doubt informed his work. All of his adapts have taken his musings to heart; from Blade Runner to Bureau, Dick’s films love to blur the edges about what you see is what you see. Now activate the esper machine, please.

Bureau is no different. The very slight undercurrent of paranoia looms large here. To think there is some omniscient team regulating reality, well that’s all about They, isn’t it? I say undercurrent for this film is pretty low-key for a s/f thriller. We got no Tom Cruise juggling balls here, literally or metaphorically. No. We have Damon’s scales fall from his eyes about how the “real world” works and off he goes, back to work and stalking Blunt again. In another movie of this ilk there’d be some drop and panic. Some all-powerful entity pulling humanity’s puppet strings to some end—good or evil, who knows?—might just give pause to the protag who stumbled on to such machinations.

With Bureau? Nope. This is an odd combo of mystery and rom-com, minus the com part. Heck, the hottest moments don’t start coming until well into the second act. Most of the time we’re wondering what’s so special about David that the Bureau takes interest in his career and nascent relationship with Elise. And what’s so special about Elise that also caught the eye of the men in the hats. We’re mostly left to scratching our heads, with no real answers in sight. If they ever come.

Not to say that Bureau is some sort of canard. The jagged story is engaging, but it requires patience. Meaning there was me, with furrowed brows and “What am I watching here?” bouncing around my brainpan. Any suspense in Bureau is created by the looming undertow of paranoia, psychology and passive aggression. All of it. All decent suspense films like to play with your head. Bureau decidedly does not play with your head, and that gets unsettling. Especially when our heroes go back to life as usual after being exposed to the real reality. After digesting all the craftiness the Bureau employs to keep reality on the straight and narrow, our pawns carrying on with their existence (a manipulated one) feels very…weird. Unsettling. The abnormal is the new normal, so don’t behave abnormally, David.

About Damon. After all these years I’ve never warmed up to his smarm. Most his memorable roles required him to be a callow youth (even into his late 30s. Ever see The Departed? Kinda distracting) against near insurmountable cinematic goobley-gook. Portraying a salt-of-the-earth politician, job requirements are lip service and charming the public? Smarm works here. And what is smarm but the behavior of a repentant assh*le? Well, assh*le may be a bit much regarding David’s everyday conduct, but said conduct is endearing when couched in insecurity. David’s whole world has gone all topsy-turvy, and believes (correctly) that forces are colluding against him. When all that artifice gets stripped away he is exposed. Naked. Volitile. Scared. Damon’s smarminess becomes the ideal gateway to earn the audiences sympathy. Clever. The same thing didn’t work in The Departed, remember? Sure different kind of movie, but same Damon. Turning Matt on his ear was a good thing, otherwise I’d keep replaying the scene where the Agents were slapping him around. Hell, after sitting through Good Will Hunting one too many times I’d be first in line to slap that smug grin off his puss.

I wasn’t familiar with Emily Blunt’s work prior to Bureau, but she earned me as a fan here (enough to be charged to see Mary Poppins Returns this Xmas. It was awesome, BTW). It’s always a treat to discover an actress who can pull of smart and sweet in the same breath. Such characters are so rare it takes and obscure Dick adapt to present one. Her steely Elise was the perfect foil to Damon’s overgrown gamin grin. Good chemistry, and I think the casting director earned their stripes pitting these two against each other. Granted their fractured relationship is the Maguffin here, front and center, but there was enough nuauce to let us know not all is as it seems, let alone theirs is just a fling. It’s the lurking paranoia again. Coincidences don’t just happen in David’s world. They are structured, and flinty Elise is the fulcrum on which David’s world now balances.

Sounds like heavy sh*t, right? Considering the source material and the whole “They are out to get you” stance, you may be right. Me? Wasn’t so sure. For such dire sequences to happen for the Bureau, there’s a kind of light-heartedness to the whole affair. So the speak. I took some patience, but I eventually realized that Bureau managed to (just barely) deftly blurred romance against s/f. Right, it was without the -com; precious little humor lurking within this grey movie. But in the final act we got the “love conquers everything” without the schmatlz and sniffles. That there’s a fluffy trifle, but for a Dick script? That’s…well, heavy. Overall I dug that.

Mackie is fast becoming a fave actor of mine. His Harry sets the wheels in motion, and across the film he’s the only emotional construct of the Bureau. He’s the canary in the coalmine, chirping about danger. A metaphysical babelfish, alluding to all that the Norris matter isn’t so simple by keeping him and Elise apart. Mackie is adept at using his body at converying emotion, especially his eyes. His is all so subtle, you’re not sure what you’re watching until you do. I know that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and it’s probably all about believing it when you see it, but as the painter Frank Stella once said, “What you see is what you see” (that’s an eponym from Travels. See? Full circle).

I was gonna talk about the tech side of Bureau (I dug the camera work), but that’s seconadry stuff, better suited for a Cameron tech splash. No. The only machine at work here in Bureau was…um. Okay. Ever seen a movie that was creepy yet not? The creepiness factor here is made known by making the abstract plot so…so rationalBureau is supposed to be high concept s/f, but picking at the scab of paranoia that haunts all of us? There is someone not only out to get you, but to lead you lemming-like to your ulimate fate? Feels that way sometimes, right? If not often. And chances are you won’t earn your audience back and Emily Blunt chose the ladies’ room.

I think this intallment has been one of my better ones. Sometimes laying off the snark and jokes makes it easier to explain what I got out of a film and maybe you, too. But it’s not like I’m directing you to watch Bureau. I’ll advise, but never demand, control you to watch a film I broke down here at RIORIB.

*cue Black Sabbath riff*


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It takes time and attention to get going, but once Bureau does, you’re going to watch it again to break it down. And again. And again. And…


Stray Observations…

  • “This is the job.”
  • Men in fedoras in the 21st Century. Never a good sign.
  • “You’re bald.” Damon’s characters have always been good at busting balls. It’s disarming.
  • Why does it seem that would-be politicians running for office are often undone by past impetuousness of a long ago youth? Judge Kavanaugh, I’m looking at you.
  • “I just felt like someone was watching us.”
  • She was barefoot in the mens’ room?!? Gross!
  • “You matter, David. You really can.”
  • Editing blooper: Damon’s model of smartphone switches back and forth on the bus ride. Call me dork.
  • “That is…totally unexpected.”

Next Installment…

Bruce Willis wonders where The Kid in him went. Good thing a screechy Spencer Breslin appears to answer and horrify him. Where’s the dog?


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 91: Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!” (2009)



The Players…

Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Melanie Lynskey and a holy host of stand-up comics from the past 25 years.


The Story…

Ah, America’s Heartland. The Breadbasket, when most of the agriculture that sustains our fine nation is harvested for food, medicine and other vital consumer goods. And one of the most revered (and sometimes reviled) food production conglomerates Arthur Daniels Midland—ADM to you—is responsible from getting all that fresh corn to your tables. And cereal. And sodas. And Twinkies. And plastics. And so on.

But all is not well ADM. Vice President and corporate ladder climber Marc Whitacre smells a rat in his silo, and calls in the FBI to do their thing. Suddenly Marc is a whistleblower with dreams of rewards and promotions in protecting the interests of ADM.

Better wish him into the cornfield.


The Rant…

Out of general courtesy I’ll apologize for my long absence. I could tell you what I’ve been up to, but I know you don’t care. So let’s get to the matter at hand, shall we?

It’s funny. Steven Soderbergh evolved from art-house obscurity to award-wining director in only a few key strokes. Yeah, yeah. Lotsa directors get this left-handed complement. This guy named Spielberg jumps immediately to mind (though his oeuvre was never art-house; Night Gallery was as close as it got, but his ep starred Joan Crawford in her very twilight years. I guess that counts for something). This dude named Zemeckis went from slumming it with Used Cars to rocket to fame with the Back To The Future trilogy, not mention later on some commercial and critical goo-ga with a little film called Forrest Gump, Lieutenant Dan! Kurosawa wanted to be a painter; directing movies was a far flung second. Good thing he stunk at watercolors.

Considering the “meteoric” rise to fame and fortune of the esteemed above, most of their success laid in crafting films that both garner critical acknowledgment and a fun with a capital fun for audiences. Critical praise is easy to follow. The highbrow says what’s good and/or bad with a film and we grok them. What makes a person justify MoviePass’ existence is such a director getting the butts in the seats. Now, no one may argue that Saving Private Ryan is a critical delight, but it’s also a lot of fun. Harrowing fun, mind you, but entertainment is entertainment. And the box office results don’t lie. You did not need some PhD in film take their swipes. So there.

Soderbergh went from art-house whatever to major player in a few, mere steps. Out Of Sight and Traffic were terrific, bringing home the accolades and the profitable turnout. Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s Elevenfor good and for ill—made remakes a viable commodity in Tinsel Town. Hell, his remake spawned an entire franchise, and don’t let Sandra Bullock turn you off, wildcat. The ticket sales didn’t lie. Soderbergh may be onto something in making his movies get rave reviews and audiences wetting their diapers with aplomb. In simpler terms, he made a splash.

(Don’t groan. That is the best pun you’ve ever heard all hour.)

To wit, I breathe a sigh of frustration. A good director should rest on that: good at directing movies. Spin the tale. Let the actors roam. Get Junkie XL to cut the soundtrack. That sort of thing. Critical acclaim and audience satisfaction are not mutually exclusive. Wait, actually the audience matters most than any shiny shiny from the front row. I’m willing to betcha audience hoo-ha is more potent than critical blah. Remember, I’m no critic, just an observer. Movie critics make money. I sell blood to pay the rent. Kidding. It wasn’t my blood.

That being said (not the blood thing, not yet), I feel that the rabble may influence the highbrows more than they’d like to admit. What do these dopes with their Big Gulps and Trump bumper stickers know about cinema? Precious little, and that’s okay. Soderbergh’s CV, to them, came fully formed like Zeus hatched from Cronos’ skull. Tight drama, tight action. It works for me, too. Good movies are good movies, no matter how wobbly the director finds themselves on the front row at a Stones’ concert. Shouting out requests. And being heard. The snots with their columns may often bow down not to the doyens of cinematic f*ckery: the fickle, salt-of-the-earth, flavor-in-Columbus crowd. Them’s with their faith in MoviePass, y’all. Butts squarely in the seats.

What I am ultimately driving at is that cagey directors like Soderbergh made his name by not giving a sh*t about critical praise. They want to serve their muse and get others to go on the trip (not necessarily in that order). If he got some, hooray. I don’t give a sh*t if he was the first director to shoot a film on Mars with the remaining Monty Python troupe members recreating a live-action musical version of Akira. It would be entertaining, even without heavy drugs. And why do I claim this silliness? Because Soderbergh knows how to create films that are both solidly entertaining and innovative. And please the popcorn munchers and the highbrows in equal measure. Only Spielberg has straddled that line so well, but it took him a bit longer. I mean it took 11 years of films for Soderbergh to win his Best Director Oscar. It took Spielberg 25 years. That says something about canny filmmaking like Soderbergh: critical and commercial delights. Not an easy task to accomplish ever in Hollyweird when the bottom line is the bottom line.

This isn’t fandom gushing here. It’s respect, a hard won commodity in the realm of movie making. Which is oddly almost a thankless job in Hollywood. Can we say “creative differences” anyone? Ask Richard Donner about his truncated work on the blockbuster Superman II. Considering Soderbergh’s canon is full of quirky and edgy undertones his films deliver. The money. Hollywood might say thank you and not call on Richard Lester for Ocean’s XVIII.

It’s not like Soderberg is one of those crazy taskmasters like Hitchcock, Kubrick and Ford were, nor is he one of those odious filmmakers that subscribe to auteur theory. He just wants to makes films that serve his muse (and often id) and hopes the audience takes his hand holding the clapperboard. This apparent, amiable not giving a sh*t execution of his movies can make Soderbergh seem like some roguish dooshnozzle to the cinematic elite. Praise is given, sometimes reluctantly, and just like with all our successful heroes we can wait for the opportunity to take them down a peg or two.

Which is why when a popular, respected director with all but praise to their profession drops a turd in the punchbowl, Variety is all over it like Oprah on a powdered doughnut. Not every director has a sterling record. For every Raging Bull a New York, New York creeps behind. Scorsese had string of winners before the stinkers, and when the hose came out the furor of the guy “losing his touch” eclipsed the relatively recent, “no duh” praise to Taxi Driver, Mean Streets and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. The snobs accused and blamed Scorsese for calling it in, or worse. And boy did they sh*t the bed for it. Especially after Raging Bull was released.

I do have a point coming. Relax. Lemme take a bathroom break first…

*zip*

That’s better. Better to pissed off than pissed on I say. What, heard that one before?

Sometimes an esteemed director “takes a risk.” Deviating from their usual bread and butter. Kinda like when horror porn enfant terrible Eli Roth to a break from stuff that bleeds all over stuff that bleeds and chose to be Halloween prankster and gave us the big adapt of The House With A Clock In Its Walls (starring Jack Black, no less). Eyebrows were raised. Was this some sort of joke? Yes, it was and I, for one, went along with it. Good movie. Lotsa creepy crawlies and frights and Black as the bumbling, chubby warlock. My kid thought it was too scary, and informed her of what kind of movies the director usually made. She said no thanks.

And no thanks to me either. I’ve seen a few of Roth’s output. I like scary, not vomit inducing. But him “taking a risk” directing a PG Halloween movie with magic and mayhem (“playing against part” if you will) well outside his comfort zone certainly got folks to take notice, of only for the wrong reason: how could Mr Hostel become Willy Wonka?

Granted, Roth isn’t really an esteemed director. Infamous and a grade A schlockmeister to be sure, but still the guy has a rep, a cachet. I think my above example rings true for those filmmakers are godheads to film geeks like you, me and them. Take Spielberg. For the first 15 years of his profession as director his stock in trade was in sci-fi and action/adventure flicks. When he strayed into the field of drama, people (and critics) went bugf*ck, to put it mildly. And based on a book! Written from the POV of a black woman! Quincy Jones did the soundtrack while John Williams cried in his beer! And introduced to the world to an edgy comic as a victim of domestic abuse!

World, meet Whoopi. Whoopi, meet the world and don’t let Oprah run you down.

Talking about taking a risk. The Color Purple must’ve invited more scrutiny about it was made (and by who) than the merits of the movie proper. What right does this 30-something, Jewish white boy have documenting the black experience? According to my fact checking department (of which I have none) the black community did scratch their heads as a collective whole as to what to make of this guy Spielberg taking such a “risk?” Well, even though I don’t give much credence to the AMPAS and its doctrine, Purple was nominated for 11 Oscars as well as cleaning up at the box office. Who wants some Selsun Blue?

Soderbergh is also know for being “risky” when helming a film. I’m not talking outright subject matter (although it’s well-understood his muse straddles a line between intimacy and sexuality), or even the story. He’s just so very staunch in his belief of let the creator create, regardless of their endeavors. It’s called integrity, my fellow popcorn munchers and to be a successful filmmaker in an industry that is always in a hot hurry to sell the newest “it” requires two things: a vision and a maverick conduct. Whenever Soderbergh takes his risks, it often comes up in the dailies he challenged himself a tossed off feel. Soderbergh’s manna has always been intrigue and tenuous relationships in his work. Makes no diff if it’s with Ocean’s (insert number here), Oscar winner Traffic or his take on Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic, existential sci-fi Solaris. Whatever it takes and go with the flow or blow.

That being said, comedy? Um, terra incognita. Sure, the Ocean’s movies had some funny stuff, but it was a crime caper first and foremost. Already established by 2009 as a director of merit, whose films are dense, terse character studies (even his Solaris, quit groaning) to tackle a comedic story based on real events inspired by It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad WorldWell, really?

Talk about “taking a risk” even though bowing down to a comedy is rarely regarded by the bent-nosed critics as such. For ardent fans of a director with a signature style it mostly requires extra Selsun Blue. For a director like Soderbergh who likes to challenge himself as his audience, going screwball might smell like career suicide. Especially casting a former captain of the proto Enterprise as a G-Man sans the holo avatar. But here we go.

Try not to notice Damon’s coif…


Mark Whitacre (Damon) is a rising star at ADM. He’s affable, knowledgeable and driven. He has his eyes on the stars, and maybe his head in the clouds.

Mark’s a rising star ADM. Good rep, astute, bright future awaits.  His boy scout mentlality and respect for his benefactors suddenly turns him into whistleblower when a rumor of ADM’s primary crop—read: corn—is being tampered with (maybe by Monsanto’s industrial operatives).

In hopes of gaining a lucrative promotion and becoming a hero of the common people, Mark inadvertently reveals his penchant for helping himself to the corporate coffers and threatens to derail the very investigation he helped to launch.

Well, what investigation? The FBI’s, of course. Special Agent Brian Shepard (Bakula) suspects that ADM is doing some price fixing, and because of Mark’s sterling record he might be the ideal—

Oh, you get it…


Hmm.

Soderbergh may make good, terse dramas and bouncy actioners. Comedy? Well, let’s just say the apple rolls away from the tree. And rolls.

Getting to the point Informant is screwy yet stiff. That odd combo seems to work here, but only to a degree. It feels kinda like an ep of “The Kids In The Hall.” Subtley surreal but not as overt. What am I watching? A comedy or sorts. It’s dry, mostly. I like dry humor. My humor is dry. The Informant is so dry it chafes. It gets a bit off-putting after a while.

I lay blame at the script. The story can’t make up its mind if the Informant! is a scrweball comedy, a manic caper when All The Presidents’ Men meets the Coen Bros circa The Big Lebowski (what else?), or a character study of a nice guy who wants to seen as nice and agrees to everything except using the common sense God gave Sylvester the cat. In short, the focus of the movie bounces back to the “A” plot, which is pretty straightforward after careening around in the B-plot, Mark’s fevered delusions of success. Informant! gets all scrambled, yet that may be the point. We’re looking at a man who is failing upwards but has convinced himself what he is doing working for the FBI (eg: climbing the corporate ladder, being an advocate on behalf of ADM, being a doting family man, etc) is the “right” thing, despite losing himself in his delusion.

Let’s cut to the chase: this is a decidely odd movie. Silly, really. It’s tough to follow the straight line towards what Soderbergh (tried) to get across here. Chuckles, sure. Maybe social commentary. Perhaps just an outlet for Damon to cut loose. Aye, that may be the rub.

Let’s talk about Damon for a moment. He’s the pinion upon which the whole wad spins, right? His Mark is an amalgam of Mr Slate from The Flintstones and Bud Abbott; superiority and insecurity’s hold on it personified. And what’s the most interesting— if not the most amusing—aspect of Informant! is the relation between how Mark’s grasp on the reality of his (self-inflicted) surroundings makes his “waking” life all the more surreal, which he does not acknowledge. With much force. His voice-overs are less random synapses of rationalization but rather a steam vent opening. Mark’s monologes are nothing but rationalizing, convincing himself if the right guy for the job. The “nice” guy.

That whole bit wasn’t conceived to be negative. After coming so far with RIORI I’ve learned how to write as a doosh without being a doosh. Well, still learning I guess. I’m not the biggest Damon fan. Sure, he’s a solid actor, reliable. And very predictble. Damon’s performance is so un-Damon it makes solid Damon almost unrecognizable. It’s a good thing. It allows young Jack Ryan (or even younger Illario) to go again his grain. Mark is the funniest thing about Informant! and he makes this flick ne big facepalm. Mark is insecurity incarnate, and also pulls of nerdy very well. Damon’s the only animated person here. Everyone else—including the much more earthy Bakula, who looks like he his head far from the clouds—are just dolts. Wallpaper. Makes Damon’s Mark all the more, well, marked. Is it a coincidence that stand-up comics comprise the supporting cast? They’re all laughing at him. I was. That was about it.

Again it was kinda tricky to follow where Soderbergh was going here. Right, comedy. But what kind? Was this some kind of corporate Three Stooges bit? Was it all about a fish out of the wrong water? A middle finger to the ardent Soderbergh audience? You can almost hear the dominos tumbling down. What adds to any comic unease is the incessant babble of Marc’s voiceovers, almost pleading for both sympathy for his plight as well as making a case for his criminal acts. Laughs in finger-pointing or you don’t know what else to do? Me? I caught the gig, but missed the show. A tight director like Soderbergh needs to be looser to pull of a giggle fest. Or a facepalm.

This movie is silly, and it’s hard to tell if that was on purpose. Knowing it was based on real events, were the real Mark’s escapades that hair-brained or was some sweetening spread across the script? Granted a lot of scenarists take liberty with the source material (eg: that pen trading thing in A Beautful Mind? Never happened, nor the ceremony ever existed. Sorry, Montblanc). I figured the writers of Informant!  did their darndest to make the film laughable. Under comedy-rube Soderbergh Informant! played out as laughble.

Like Bakula’s ‘do.

“Al? You there?”


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. This is a first. The Informant! (despite my grumpier, assured yammerings over lesser movies) is the first flick here that was just not my thing. It was a solid film, well cut, but had a hard time holding my attention or churning up laughter. Despite my steaming, I can still recognize what I recognize.


Stray Observations…

  • “What else is there?”
  • Corky?
  • Bakula sports an amazing hairstyle, akin to pro football coach crica 1976. Must’ve leapt there for ideas.
  • “This involves price fixing in the lycene business.” Hide the children.
  • “You let me know about it, and I’ll tell my Dad.”
  • Pay phones. Stupid things.
  • The way Mark’s brain is wired you can almost hear the fuses blowing.
  • Never trust a guy who says, “Trust me” holding a large glass of whisky.
  • Remember Woody Allen’s Sleeper? Yep.
  • “Well, I think maybe I should go back to the hospital.”

Next Installment…

Matt Damon (and Emily Blunt) is on the run from The Adjustment Bureau. Wow! So?!?


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 90: Nick Cassavetes’ “John Q” (2002)



The Players…

Denzel Washington, Kimberly Elise, James Woods, Robert Duvall and Ray Liotta, with Anne Heche, Eddie Griffin and Daniel E Smith.


The Story…

It’s a good thing that John has a solid job to pay all his bills. Too bad his hours were slashed at the plant.

It’s a good thing John has years of experience at his job to find something better to cover all those bills, as well as his family’s needs. Too bad he has too much experience, and other folks might need a job more than he does.

It’s a good thing that when John’s young son Mike fell prey to a serious heart condition, he’s sure as sh*t he’s got medical insurance to cover the kid’s treatment. Too bad it’s the wrong medical insurance, wrapped around paperwork that keeps Mike from getting said treatment.

It’s a good thing John knows some diplomacy, trying to negotiate with the hospital bigwigs about he can afford Mike’s heart transplant. Too bad it all falls on deaf ears, expenses, possible litigation and bureaucracy having a firm hold.

It’s a good thing John knows the way back to the ER and how to handle a gun…


The Rant…

I don’t like my job much. It’s a boring grind, mindless and my skills as a chef have gone to rust all for it. I have a good résumé, all the right references and a lot of my coworkers ask me this as much as I ask myself: “What are you doing working here?”

My answer is always the same, with no sniff of irony, “I need the health bennies.” Sure, there’s that Roth IRA plan waiting for me when my teeth become gums guaranteed by my place of employ, but in the here and now I have expensive meds to take and my kid has expensive meds to take and personal physicians don’t do barter, no matter how much jade I’ve hewn from the quarry.

You see, unless you toil in a restaurant with Emeril’s name hanging over the door (or any brandname operation), chances are as a cook you’re looking down the cold barrel of Medicare to help stave off the bleeding (so to speak) when you’re, well, bleeding. So forget the “so to speak” gibberish. It is spoken. If you do not have a salaried job (and sometimes if you do), American medical insurance takes a large chunk out of your paycheck. I have great coverage; it takes away a third of my earnings. I can safely say I can always afford to be sick. It’s the gas gauge in my car I keep an eye on every day. That and how much I have left in my phials.

Good medical insurance does indeed lend a feeling of security—no matter what deductions scream—but, yikes it sure is an expensive feeling. Especially when you consider your monthly budget, parsing out your remaining earnings on food, gas, phone bills, wi-fi service, pony rides, cigarettes and yer beloved TiVo recording all those future Game Of Throne eps your Netflix account is already streaming for you. At the same price. Papa John’s every night ain’t scratch neither.

Seriously though. Health insurance is vital to everyone in our country, in our world, but can cost a literal arm and leg to access it. Well, here in America anyway (I hear it’s tad simpler in Canada. And in Sweden. And in Israel), but I might start to digress. I recently had the joy of trying to update my health services for a corporate takeover. The business I started my job with lost their account and new bosses with their new ways of doing things began to roll in. Us workers under the old account were given the option to be hired by our place of employ proper, therefore offered the (limited) options of fresh health insurance under their rules. There was a meeting. Sorry I didn’t tell you. You get the memo?

One option was to use the company’s network insurance. Quite inexpensive, but limited. The network was small, and we could only get totally total coverage at one of their satellite operations. All three of them in my neck of the woods. I didn’t know how far their power truly reached, but it was decidedly not outside the neck of my woods. Namely, if I were to visit my sis out in California and got hit by a truck, I’d be way out of that neck. The price is right, but no thanks. And did you get the license number? Owie.

The other option was the outside provider. Not as cheap, but further reaching. But not as cheap. Not cheap. Far less cheaper than I was earning via the account I was hired under. How less cheap? Let’s put it this way: one third of my biweekly paychecks were raped and pillaged on the off chance that my daughter and I got raped and pillaged. It evened out overall with affording monthly meds, seeing doc for the sniffles and reconstruction surgery when my jaw got smacked by that mace. However it cost more for me to be on their plan, despite they offered the same coverage as my old plan did with the old account. And I still had to reapply. Ugh. Can we say paperwork? Try online form-filling. I actually hit a 404 error filling out the sh*t on the website, even following the instructions. It was all Greek to me. Really. An icon of Hippocrates blinked on the screen, giggling and flipping me off.

So here’s the deal: the other plan both winked at and guaranteed I definitely would get an uppercut with a mace sometime in my future. Maybe out in California sometime. There was a lot of gloom and doom that this plan would guarantee full coverage for…taking at least half my earnings with it. That meant a spike in my med costs, even more paperwork and no more pony rides. What to do, what to do?

I took the third option: kept my current plan outside of network and settled with just a third out of my wallet. And serious pills below the $20 range. It’s a Capital Blue company. Status quo. I f*cking know it works. It’s like American Express. Don’t leave home without it. Now I can visit sis in San Fran and afford treatment for that impending road rash.

But what a headache for it considering we might be dealing with matters of life and death down the line. Unfortunately for most American citizens, and despite my typical jocular bulls*t, getting decent health insurance under the circumstances I told would be a dream come true. My bitching about some paperwork was just that. It was an inconvenience and a matter of budget-tweaking. I have NO IDEA how much it costs to keep an HIV positive patient alive, but I’ll wager a lot. Maybe spent on prolonging a morphine-drip dream of seeing a sister in California. Some year, if they have one. Or merely a month. Bet their parents do. No vay-cay for them. Just crossed fingers and no cars in the garage attached to the family home with a triple mortgage. They have insurance, too. Still the debt keeps getting deeper.

Ever ask why? Maybe you shouldn’t.

I used to make this joke about why congress should ratify nationalized health care. This was before Obama took the horns, and kept taking the horns. I argued for national health care because hospitals could only make a profit on living patients. The ones that die get off scot free. This did not generate much chuckles. The thing about profit did. Hospitals are businesses. Their commodity is healing. Their product is sick people treated into well people. Their uptake is healing…and treatment. Especially treatment. All those pills and PT and lab work and concessions to the students and scalpels and jello and wings and all that folderol THAT’S where the money comes in. Insurance just scrapes the frost from the Chubby Hubby. Namely, you know how much a fresh MRI unit costs? No? Ever try to buy a Raptor stealth fighter jet? No? Exactly. BTW, treating HIV costs a lot more annually, ignoring meds.

Now let me tug on your coat about the government remora eels known as lobbyists. Despite the Obama Administration’s best plans, longview and intentions there was no freakin’ way Barack and Co would ever get nationalized health care ratified into law. The fact that Obamacare even got a foot in the legislative door was nothing short of a miracle. Why is that you ask? Well I’m no pundit, but I am a bit of an armchair politician, and I’ve been pretty ‘woke about why some things get passed through congress like poop through a goose and why other result in constipation.

History lesson: way back when Ulysses Grant was president, when he wrapped up work for the day he’d head on down to DC’s esteemed Willard Hotel for some brandy and cigars with friends. He’d hang out in hotel lobby to chill and forget about politics for the day, but some government types liked working off the clock. These folks were dubbed “lobbyists” reflecting their nerve to meet with the prez after hours, pushing their personal agendum and even buying drinks for Grant in hopes to curry favor as well as get him lit (which really didn’t require the rabble’s help).

There. Making a leap getting Grant sloshed was the midwife for today’s toadies influencing the president’s agenda with wads of money (gratis, of course so long as their backs are sufficiently scratched). Said money is more often than not promised by the lobbyist’s sponsors, eg: big business. That’s sort of an open secret here in our fading republic. The philosophy of our country has always been capitalism, and that philosophy informs business. And if some entity can find a way of influencing our government, their agenda can be far reaching. So much so that who provides your phone service, what fruit you buy and how Nintendo USA had the gall to leave out VIII of their classic Final Fantasy package for the Switch might’ve had something to do with a lobbyist’s slimy efforts. Who does Coca-Cola want as president? Who does Disney want a secretary of commerce? Who would Peapody Energy like to installed as the new secretary of the interior?

And who does Merck et al want to oversee the FDA?

Not who the politicians think are capable. And certainly not who voters may want.

“After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world.” That quote is attributed to Calvin Coolidge. You how, the president that more or less harbored in the Great Depression? Yeah, that was almost a century ago. And without that one third being garnished from your wages to pay for the sniffles you might end up greatly depressed, too. Thank Monsanto for that.

Good thing Pfizer has a pill for you. Lists for about $5000 a dose, but you privatized health insurance may cut that price in half. May.

So there’s your weekly dose of bile courtesy of yours truly. Don’t misunderstand me, and I do repeat, that chunk o’ change that gets taken out of paycheck every other week is welcome, if not vital. Meds are expensive, as are trips to the emergency room as well as just a simple physical at your family doctor. What I’ve been railing about for the past three days is why the shrugging necessity to petrify middle America’s tax bracket persists. It’s bad business, Cal, and encourages if not perpetuates a system that demands profit over human rights. Open question I know, and has only a glancing relevance to this week’s movie. But it’s been something I ask every time I have to open up an envelope with a little window in it and then do some fuzzy math over what I have to go without this week. Hopefully not the pony rides.

Oh yeah. Did I mention I work at a hospital…?


Bills, bills, bills. Flows in like the tide into the Archibald home, and it’s always a tidewater surge.

John (Washington) and Denise (Elise) have been feeling the pinch. John’s hours have been cut at the factory, and Denise got let go from her previous job to start a meagre one as a clerk at a supermarket. But these new developments don’t keep their spirits down. Sure, being under-empolyed bites—especially in the wallet—but they’re a tight knit family, and John puts on a brave face for their rambunctious son Mike (Smith). Through a set jaw John is quick to assure that everything’s gonna work out okay.

Life’s not that easy.

What would’ve been a picturesque scene for the Archibald’s turns into a parent’s worst nightmare. At Mike’s typical Little League game he crashes onto the baseline between second and third. This was no fall. John tears onto the field to find his son dazed, turning blue and unresponsive. Panic ensues.

After the ambulance races Mike to the ER, the diagnosis is less than optimistic. Esteemed cardiac surgeon Dr Raymond Turner (Woods) tells the Archibalds the worst. Mike’s heart is three times its normal size, forcing Mike’s body to work overtime. When Denise demands what’s that mean Dr Turner explains that Mike’s respiratory system has been taxed into cardiac failure. Unless gets a heart transplant and fast, Mike is never going to play baseball again. Or breathe.

Thank God John still has his health insurance with the factory. Too bad Mike’s crucial operation isn’t covered by his HMO. Denise has got a good plan waiting for her at the market, but she just started and it won’t kick in until the 90 day mark. Meanwhile bouncing between the hospital, seeking extra employment, wrangling with bureaucratic nonsense and not getting Mike on the organ recipient waiting list the Archibald’s son is wasting away.

So what does a dad do when his son’s life is in danger? What does he do when he’s gone through the correct channels to get the treatment he desperately needs? When all else fails on the side of decency what does one do?

He does the decent thing, but not necessarily the right thing.

Desperate times and all…


John Q is a message movie, and the message is as subtle as a flying mallet. It’s heavy-handed, the setup is on the nose, more than a bit preachy, a tad saccharine and when on the mark blood pumping but still plastic. Then again, such a sledgehammer approach might’ve primed a kickstart. But all was, all in all, a message movie. And such a movie often gets played like trying to cross a Laotian farm without stepping on a landmine: step cautiously, thine director, lest you get heist by your own petard.

I read that director Cassavetes along with his screenwriting partner based the script on events surrounding the director’s daughter (minus the whole taking the ER hostage thing, natch) who suffered from a congenital heart disease. Chances are that the director overdosed—so to speak—on hospital yin and insurance yang that got smeared all over a rather pedestrian final draft like a Pollock mural. Still, Q is still engaging, despite the subtle as neon speechifying the cast oozes at every turn. This is a message movie, and Cassavetes either had an axe to grind or a flare to launch. Both is my guess. His aim kinda sucked.

So what, you may ask, makes a good message movie? Well, IMHO, make the message unfold over the course of the story. Example? All The President’s Men. We know the story’s all about Nixon’s shadowy infiltration of the DNC. The message comes along as we follow the intrepid duo of unflappable journalists Woodward and Bernstein unravelling and exposing the crime.

In The Heat Of The Night might overtly be about racism, but it’s a police procedural first with the issue of race differences fleshing out the story (recall the scene when TIbbs slaps back and Sheriff Gillespie doesn’t know how to react?) There is a lot of examining racial prejudice in Heat, but it’s also about putting aside differences to find a common good. Gillespie didn’t make his appearance with guns blazing screaming, “I don’t trust no n*ggers!” He could’ve. It was implied, but (to paraphrase Gertrude Stein) it wasn’t there there.

And overall, Philadelphia was about prejudice, discrimination, Jason Robards’ rich vocals and injustice. Prejudice over AIDS victims. Discrimination against gays, Robards raising his hand to remind us all he co-starred in All The President’s Men and all that crap which leads to a victim getting picked by the system. Precious little inside the courtroom screams about homophobia, AIDS and whatnot. Courtrooms scene were key, yes, but at heart and even mentioned in the movie is to let Andy Beckett get his job back. None of these films slam you with the message front to back, and not all of them are subtle. But they let you breathe and put the pieces together yourself.

Ah, and speaking of Philadelphia, Denzel co-starred in that one as the slimy, ambulance-chaser who takes on Tom Hanks’ case. Washington’s been in a lot of message movies according to his CV. There was Philadelphia obviously. Malcolm X (for he was robbed of a Best Actor trinket), a movie smashing the erroneous conceit of the “white man’s burden.” The Seige that presaged the reactionary tactics of halting terrorist actions on the homefront. Flight plundered the dramatic up and downs—again, so to speak—of when one too many is one too many, despite the outcome of any action. And all of St Elsewhere.

So did Denzel take this role for the message? Well, he’s always been a dependable, entertaining actor. His charm and charisma always takes the audience in. Denzel is always a relatable actor, even against type. That’s his universal appeal.  he might’ve been showing a few threads on the seat of his actor/activist pants when he picked up his role as John. That guy’s a cipher; the voice of a million frustrated, frantic John Q’s as dad trying to perform the impossible for is child. You’ve heard folks clamor, “I’ll do anything for my baby!” As John, Denzel takes this to heart a hundred-fold. And comes off as a little frayed. There’s a palpable taste of going through the motions here, most likely invited by Cassavetes’ et al didactic script. But it is Denzel’s motions (as well as the rest of the stunning cast) that rise this affair a bit above a modern day, sorta prescient Dog Day Afternoon.

So speaking I enjoyed how fast John’s impulsive plan starts unravelling. It’s a reversed/reflection of the medical bureaucracy that he wrangled with earlier on in the movie. Those scenes were the only scenes that implicated future events, not spray painted with a red circle and a line through it.

I’ve shared my opinion of Denzel having a warm softie for a message movie. Don’t deny this, Denzel in Q is him as his Denzelious (that’s a word now). I’m not certain that Denzel is a sucker for a message movie, but if his CV is any indication, the man has something on his mind. And he is very good at getting behind that message, whatever it may be at a given movie (even this rather pedestrian affair). John is a passionate man, but not a pushover. As the story unfolds after little Mike gets the dire diagnosis, we see John jump through hoop after hoop, desperate to get his kid on the donor list. He is gradually ground down to desperation, and when he mounts his siege against the he comes across as almost, well, rational. You find yourself asking—and well behind John and his motive—well, what would I do?

I think this arises due to Denzel’s earnestness as an actor also. It’s easy to get behind his outwardly easygoing nature. And like with the Shakespearian trick of having tragedy following comedy as a narrative device, once Denzel disarms you he can roll in and start gnawing on the scenery. Earnestly, of course. For such an insane plot as has, you better be convinced that all is lost in order to stay interested. It helps with Denzel’s hangdog dragging you along.

It’s funny. Not shoving Denzel aside, has a killer cast. It’s almost wasted on this sometimes pedantic social commentary. Okay, is, well, okay. And stellar actors make with what they’ve been dealt the best/worst way possible: behave like canards. I mean, didn’t Duvall play this character already with Falling Down? The man’s got a great presence as well a prickly sense of humor but a little less bluster and speechifying would’ve been welcome. The same goes for the quirky Woods, the hammy Liotta, the slimy Heche, the smartass Griffin and the almost willowy Elise. All are good and all underused, feeling shoehorned into the message than introduced to the story. It’s a shame, and often jarring. But some light shines through the cracks here and there. That “simple” convo justified Liotta being in the film alone, as well as Duvall’s economical delivery of his lines. Barking, pointed but also human. That and we have Denzel, so all was not lost.

Okay, we’ve established too many times that Q is about as subtle as a hammer to a thumb. It’s all about the message, the message, the message. But for all its preachiness, the film delivers it in a compelling way. The pacing is perfect, no matter the context. It does deliver on drama (can’t lie, the third act had my heart pounding) and that feeling of the clock is ticking up against obstacle after obstacle as John’s mind races for a solution out of his mess which might be his undoing, as well as Mike’s. But on that same token gradually descends into formula, if not bathos. You start to see what’s coming not long after Denzel pulls the gun on Woods. It get broadcasted. In comes Duvall’s negotiating, Liotta’s swagger and the deus ex machina for little Mike from the cold open. It gets a sorta Law And Order feeling as it rolls along, procedural with only the cast keeping the center held. A well-paced PSA. It kinda worked.

In these our United States with its never-ending public health crisis, who’s ever thought to go to John’s extremes? Hell, who hasn’t? Denzel made the drama and mechanics palpable, but he and the cast were struggling against Not with, there’s a diff) the director/screenwriter’s preaching his word bureaucracy and state. Denzel and co might’ve been in it for the message, but got handed a lame duck. Too bad. Q was watchable, sometimes enjoyable but too often felt painted on.

Oh, and about that insurance story about me seeking a cure for the sniffles? Right. Turns out when the account turns over and I’m formally signed on, I’ll have to pore over massive amounts of emails directing me to website after website for full disclosure of tax records, criminal records, child abuse clearance, physical results, pony ride expenses and even more light years of hypertext. And I’ve been a registered conscript there for over two years. I know the president of the hospital personally. He knows I’ve never killed anyone. Yet.

Just send me another email, HR. I know where the ER is, and I ain’t sick.

*click-click*


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. John Q was competent, had decent (albeit wooden) drama and made ya think a little. It was mediocre, but was buoyed by the great cast. As well as some wish-fulfilling, Maybe.


Stray Observations…

  • “Here we go.”
  • Heche’s niche was in sleaze. She never really realized this and therefore her career went aloha. As did Ellen.
  • “You may be overqualified, but we’ll keep your application on file.” Don’t let the door slam your ass on the way out, punk.
  • Pay phones?!?
  • “Please sit down.” Three of the ugliest word combos ever.
  • love James Woods. Did you know he has an 180+ IQ? Really! Ignore his résumé for a fart.
  • “Welfare? We both have jobs!” “That’s too bad.” And too real and often.
  • Saw the good doctor against that lit cross. Wanna bet his future?
  • “Don’t have it!”
  • Epidural. Another ugly word.
  • “I’ll buy ya a steak.”
  • This took me a lot of notes and many stray observations for how dense this film grew.
  • “I’m not taking no for an answer.”

Next installment…

Matt Damon is The Informant! Wow! So?!?