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


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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.


 

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


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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?!?


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 89: Steve Pink’s “Accepted” (2006)



The Players…

Justin Long, Jonah Hill, Columbus Short, Maria Thayer, Blake Lively, Adam Herschman and Lewis Black, with Anthony Heald, Travis Van Winkle, Mark Derwin, Ann Cusack and Hannah Marks.


The Story…

Graduating high school senior Bartleby is blithely confident he’s gonna get into college. If not the one of choice than surely one of his backups. He’s sure of it. His folks are hoping on it. His little sis is doubtful of it.

Big ups to sis. Even his backup, backup schools said no thanks. According to his mom and dad if Bartleby doesn’t get his rear in gear his future is in beyond doubt. Hello minimum wage job at the Costco.

Not having any of that, Bartleby cooks up a scheme: invent his own college! All he needs are the right papers.

And curriculum.

And campus.

And mascot.

And you get the idea.


The Rant…

Getting into the college of your choice is hard.

Wait. No it’s not. Not anymore. At least not in the conventional way. Listen.

Hold it, I know I’ve regaled you here at RIORI about my collegiate misadventures. Not gonna do that this time out. Well, not much.

As you know, dear reader that I am a cook. I went through culinary school, yeah, but before these dark days I studied and eventually graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in English. Actually, the mouthful on the CV was a Bachelors’ in English & Textual Studies with a focus on Continental Philosophy, minoring in Secondary Education and Creative Writing. Looks good on a résumé, until you have to explain to the interviewer what the whole wad meant. I then went so far as pursuing a Masters’ in Secondary English Education. Needless to say things didn’t pan out. How do you want your steak?

Now. Let’s set the wayback machine to, oh, 100 years ago. Back then, only the well-heeled could afford to send their spawn to college. It was as prestigious as it was expensive. Graduate and head out into the working world and said world was your oyster. Even more so if it was a “name school.” You’d have it made, and make your folks would be proud. Return on investment.

Post WW2, with America’s expanding middle class, average families could better afford their kiddies the opportunities Mom and Dad wanted at their age. It grew easier to find the college of your choice: the GI bill, scholarships (both academic and athletic. Sometimes both), student loan programs, all sorts of gateways to golden educations that would demand careers.

Then came the 60s, the Baby Boomers. Them and their weed and Grateful Dead LPs and vainglorious notions of shaping the future. Getting into college became mainstream. The workforce and the armed forces were no longer the only places to go post-high school (especially when the draft came calling. Saint Stephen with his rose and all). The skies were as high as they were. Opportunity would come knocking with a degree. A world in the making for the Boomers and later their privileged progeny. Right?

Um. I smell grease.

Enter Gen X. College was not an option. It was a directive. The factories and trolling for unexploded ordinances in some rice pattie Dad defended were for the rabble. You are going to college. Why? Good job, steering clear of time clocks and twitchy napalm. We, the parents, are going to be either bled dry or horns-waggled by the nice lady at the student loan citadel. Anything, anything but “do you want fries with that?”.

At the butt-end of the 20th Century, getting into college was no longer precious. It was ironclad; high school grads would go to college, or else. No longer an overt privilege. Dad would call it marching orders, waving a stump he put to best use at the now closed John Deere factory. We saved up for years to have you get to college, against the odds of risking another pattie and having to keep up with the Jones. And the Smiths. Maybe the Millers, too. You call this a report card? How the hell could you flunk lunch? Let’s hope the boards overlook that. And stay away from that manure spreader.

Don’t get stumped (no apologies there). Getting into college these days can be a real boondoggle. Lots of choices, lots of reasons, lots and lots of paperwork. Forget earning the golden ticket to the ideal job. Simply getting accepted is a real job. A chore. And don’t think the Millenials have it any easier. F*cking FaceBook posts have merit now, even if they only consist of videos of cute cats robbing banks, anime style. It went from once tricky and for the rich to the average getting tricky, if not tricked. My folks recently covered my student loan debt. I graduated with that long-winded shingle decades ago. The bill was paid in full in my early 40s, me now as a divorcee, single dad and a lot of cool recipes. None of them concocted based on the musings of Sartre.

I view it this way: back in the day, college was for the privileged, therefore a degree earned was not just accreditation, but esteemed in select, special circles. By mid-century, college screamed opportunity for every young adult! A good job awaits, not the sh*thole GI Dad had to endure at that age. Go get ’em, kid!

Into the 1980s, where college was de riguer for any high school grad and post-grad it was out into the working world and, well, so what? You went to college? And made it through? Fine. What else can you offer?

By the turn of the 21st Century—say, 100 years after the Armistice, with all yer silly iPhones, Nintendo Switches and a sh*tty grasp on proper grammar—you’ve been to college, right? Okay. So what? Where?

Name recognition. Branding. What kind of product are you? That’s not such a new worldview; it goes back aways. You want to be a lawyer? You attend Yale. You want to be an atomic physicist? You attend MIT. You want to be the next Yo Yo Ma? You lug your battered cello to Juilliard. You want to be a cook? You attend Syracuse University and graduate with a Bachelors’ in English & Textual Studies with a focus on Continental Philosophy, minoring in Secondary Education and Creative Writing. You want your steak how? Go Gen X!

Let’s face facts here. Finishing college lost its spark during the Clinton years. Getting accepted somewhere was no longer significant. Earning a sheepskin was akin to having a valid drivers’ license. You drove here so you’re hired. Get this validated. No, the other bit.

Here’s the real truth about college ultimately teaches you. I learned this from a nice girl I dated at SU. She was so nice I had a hard time absorbing her brutal, cynical truth. That being claimed, she had a bruh crush on Leo DiCaprio and spend more time analyzing Titanic than Cameron did post-production. She was a stitch.

She told me that the only thing college really teaches you is how to work a system. You give them what they want, they’ll give you what you want. It’s a business.

My scales fell. I understood she was cute, but also right. And slyly devious as well as practical. And I slept with her. I knew everything then. I was king of the world!

*klonk klonk klonk*

Needed that, thanks.

Wrapping up here before wrapping up later, college is a system to work, a game. A gamble. Getting in somewhere is a fun nightmare. Fun because you are an active subject in your own vetting process. A nightmare because you have a weak flashlight. Before I settled on SU I had to visit a lot of other prospects. There’s a feel to each and every school, and when you feel the right feel you apply.

That’s it. It’s how it’s been for the past quarter century. You find a home away from home. You’re not going to be denied an education; that’s the business before the business. It’s not as if you have a question for your prof pertinent to your midterm that they’re not gonna answer. What’s that? No. You’re going to have to go to Harvard to get that info. Hand in your blue book.

Getting an education at college is the program, the end run. You’re going to learn something. These days it’s the campus, the environment, the feel of the school that makes you want to sign on. That’s key, and f*ck all to my blustering earlier. Still think it’s relevant, if only as a slog to getting into college, but at the end of the day as a prospective college student you ultimately gotta find your niche. A school where you feel you belong.

Once in, limping through your chosen major (mine: waffles and Melville), you pick and choose your personal needs, both in academia and finding your Mark (refer to the Zack And Miri Make A Porno installment. Wear a raincoat). You find your wants over your scholastic needs a lot, be it discovering indie rock, burning, the Greek System, beer bongs, basketball games and/or a creative writing workshop dissecting the works of Sylvia Plath (Cliff Note: she was only great cuz she couldn’t figure out the new oven).

As of this installment, getting into college is simple (if you’re rich, white and male…or poor, black and not male). Smile and nod, and keep in the back of your mind all the well-to-do tags stapled to your nuts back in 1918 after thwarting the Hun and your folks investing in Mr Astor’s furrier enterprise. May seem like ancient junk now, especially facing the impulse to find a college that’s you. Where you can get the best education focusing on your skills and needs. Connect with the right friends that both support/inspire you and/or craft a fake ID before Friday night. Maybe even taken under the wing of an esteemed, ancient and most likely boozy prof exposing you to the hidden social commentary in Raymond Carver’s works as well with Garbage Pail Kids trading cards. Choose that. Go learn.

Smart move. What’s yours now? Want fries/Proust with that?

I was accepted at SU. I learned a lot, both academic and social. I found my niche.

Twenty years on I sear duck breast for $12 an hour and am not at all remotely full of regret or bitter…


College is the melted cheese that covers up all the crap you had to endure those lame four years in high school. This is Bartleby “B” Gaines’ (Long) devil-may-care attitude come graduation. College acceptance? Easy. His apps went out, cluttered with average grades, no unnecessary extracurricular activities, precious few blemishes on his non-existant permanent record and no parking tickets in the student lot on Mondays. Getting accepted should be a breeze.

The only breeze blowing is over the empty mailbox, too weak to raise the red plastic flag. Even B’s backup backup school passes him over. And his parents are mad.

Since no school wants B, he concocts a wild idea. College is all about making yourself, right? Then why not create a college that would accept a mediocre grad like himself? All he needs is some hacked acceptance letter to show his dismayed folks!

“The South Harmon Institute of Technology?”

It fits. He’s up sh*t’s creek anyway. But a letter ain’t enough. B recruits his best bud Schrader (Hill) to snoop around and create a bogus website, find a campus, a student body, a skater half-pipe, the usual to keep this ruse alive and kicking. Thus SH*T is born. All will be well.

Until jillions of washouts from other colleges become barbarians at the gates demanding degrees.

What to do? SH*T has become more than a ruse. It’s fast becoming a sh*tstorm. Now what?

Simple. Launch motorcycle stunts into the student pool with a hella pyrotechnics.

Ain’t “college” fun?


I liked this, heaven help me. And not just based on my broken-wing concept of college life. Well maybe a bit.

I know I’m showing my cards here, but after weeks of shaking my head at my viewing selections I need some comfort food. Namely, a flick devoid of artistic pretensions. Any pretensions really. With Accepted, it made for some decent yuk-yuks. Even if it’s under your pillow or a latent snort when you’re taking a leak. You get where I’m coming from. I hope.

Accepted is a classic comic example of “just go with it.” There are no twists, no “serious” ones you couldn’t’ve predicted. Carbon copy characters/stereotypes with a dash of tokenism you can root for. You know all will end well. It’s a straight line. You might have seen this before. Well, thanks to the ur-college comedy, the green jello snorf of Animal House casts its guitar-smashing shadow over Accepted, as well as all the other college comedies that got thrown up in its fart you have seen this coming. Revenge Of The Nerds, Old School, the original American Pie here. Slobs versus snobs. Freewheeling versus square dealing (or really?). Saddles versus paddles (wait a minute). You get it. Now go with it.

I call Accepted a good Saturday afternoon movie. Off work. No errands. Slouched on the couch and, hey, there’s the remote. Snap on the Netflix feed and there go 90 minutes. The spazzy, overwatered dog can wait at the door. A good waste of time, curled up with a dumb, self-aware comedy. You’re already seen Casino too many times already. Time for some popcorn fodder.

In my opinion there are two types of comedy: clever and intellectual or shameless and derivative. The first is like Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. The second is like John Landis’ Animal House (my fave ever comedy. Shocker there). With Annie Hall, you gotta sift for the joke. With Animal House the joke is all over us. Thankfully, Accepted mimicked Landis’ magnum opus shamelessly and with great aplomb.

Director Pink knew exactly where to come from here. College comedy? Animal House is a safe bet. Any new spin? Um, nope. Enough nope to blatantly rip off tons of scenes and tropes from Landis’ marvel. With no shame. And all for the better.

Justin “I’m a Mac” Long was an inspired bit casting as our hapless B. He’s like Ferris Beuller lite. Rather than winging it in his collegiate charade he’s flying be the seat of his pants to keep his SH*T scheme aloft. A lot of thinking on his feet, which always goes catastrophically right furthering making hole deeper. He’s good at being just on the cusp of awkward (“This is another fine mess…”), stumbling and taking his fellow washouts with him. SH*T is a character in itself, akin to the doctor’s Monster and is always teetering on going on the rampage. B’s never truly cool under pressure, and his provides enough tension with his last-minute, half-baked plotting to keep you interested.

If only as an avatar for featuring a chockful of young stars no sane audience would mistake for actual high school grads. That being said, behold the birth of Jonah Hill’s dry, slacker wit. Hard to believe that super fluffy Hill here would go on to earn an Oscar nom, but gift for one-liners are here. Roughhewn, but here. His nerdy Schrader (a nod to infamous, scandalous scenarist Paul Schrader maybe?) is the “sweat act,” the voice of reason, the guy who got into his first choice real college, the protag’s best bud and the Flounder analog for Accepted. His was the not-so-envious position to picture legit college life against B’s freewheeling experiment in Camp North Star meets Lincoln Tech, which of course is far more liberal arts and precious few pretensions. His head’s in Harmon U, his wing is around B, snarky to the end. After wearing a hot dog suit, where do you think Schrader’s allegiance lies? I think Hill’s role as lovable loser here was his breakout.

Since my brain was turned off from my Scorsese-vision and allowed to just sponge, I let myself pay some attention to the minor players. At first I found them driftwood (read: Lively as the romantic interest who was so much wallpaper, doy), but I eventually warmed up to the supporting cast. At first the aforementioned tokenism is its drab guises told me yeah, okay. These folks are gonna fade into the background. Big ups to scenarist Adam Cooper et al to actually use this dips as essential to the A plot. There was a hint of actual filmmaking going on there. A crossbreed between Annie Hall and Animal House, Jugdish! To put it simply, the intro of lost scholarship Hands and Yale-denied Rory was just, yeah, whatever, B’s fellow washouts. The second act proves different, but in a friendly, soul-searching kind of way. Isn’t that a part of the whole (non) college experience? Between marching band practice and endless philosophy seminars I discovered Bob Mould and Korean food. Guess what went further? Maria Thayer and Columbus Short’s awakening as guru and artisan proved if not honest but refreshing, and not just a gimmick. Simply put, we got some money with our minors. Even the minor minors. I’m not gonna so far as to say the supporting cast was “colorful,” I’m saying Pink, Cooper and our rogue’s gallery were good stretching a cinematic dollar. You didn’t feel ripped off of your two Saturday afternoon dollars. Overall predictable, sure, but yeah. Vacuum the FunYuns off your sweater before your kids want some.

I found the ultimate appeal of Accepted was the geek factor. Look, if you set the wayback machine to high school, only the precious few found/created their own cliques of like-minded plastics and/or nerds. High school is that tricky time during adolescence as crucible tenuously balanced between the very deep “Who am I?” up against the greater, often superfluous “Who are we and why care?” Such social structures take the back seat with Accepted (this is post-grad ennui we’re lapping at here, not the cool kids’ lunch table). All that is woolgathering. Here we know the dorks will triumph. Accepted is all about how said mutants do so. The model students at the alabaster Harmon U are an afterthought Omega House, and their subplot is mostly forgotten as SH*T evolves into a pseudo-legit school. That’s where the honey is. Pink may be no DeMille, but he knows how to shove around a cast of thousands—okay, hundreds, if that with multiple stunt doubles and pro skateboarders—into the right places. The rabble is as much as much a singular character as, well, you are. The uncertainty of your future. The ensuing circles you run in. The dopey choices you make for good or for ill. If this sounds like a lot of existential hokum, it is. Either flowing from B’s seat of his pants thinking on his feet, or you just being in a potential life-changing clusterf*ck, figuring it all out and keep at least one foot on the ground is relatable for everyone. At it core, watching  Accepted is like talking yourself out of a speeding ticket. And how relieved you feel if you pull it off.

Yeah yeah yeah. I’m going on like Accepted was the second coming of Chaplin’s The Circus. Call it slow burn elation that comes with an entertaining film you don’t have to think about. Accepted is deliberate fluff. It kinda works. I say kinda because if you’re a thinking person, capping the cynicism lens might prove difficult. You gotta be in the right mood to watch this trash. Guess Netflix caught me on a needful day. Don’t forget, this has been done before, shoehorning tropes from milestone movies into lesser specimens, if only they are trying pay homage. The film understands this. It’s all about how the ornaments. Your Xmas tree already lost all its needles.

Just let me quote this once more when it comes to mediocre movies (it should become part of The Standard by now). It’s like the blues: it’s not the notes, it’s how they’re played. Accepted had easy pacing, inoffensive characters, a reliable story device and a thorough stream of chuckles. I started watching Accepted with my cynic lens firmly capped. I plotted on my notebook a “laugh meter” and tacked off every time I giggled. I gave up in the first act. What I sat down for delivered just fine.

So it’s Saturday and you’re waiting for the college boards to call. While you wait (and wait and wait), queue up Accepted as a good waste of time. Lars Von Trier can wait (and wait and wait and…)

*stirs, brushes pretzel salt off crotch*

Where was I? Right. Learning how to work the system while schilling for Apple. Here’s hoping.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Like I said, funny and a fair time waster. Feel feel to pore over the latest from Werner Herzog some Monday evening on PBS.


Stray Observations….

  • “Are you huffing grass?”
  • Bartleby, as in “the scrivener?” As in “ghostwriter?” Hmm.
  • No matter what role Lewis Black plays he’s always Lewis Black. Even for Inside Out. God bless ‘im.
  • “Yeah. In human dollars.”
  • Dr Chilton—er—Dean Van Horn’s motives echo Dean Wormer’s. No Millennial fun of any kind.
  • “I want to learn how to blow sh*t up with my mind!” Hey, who doesn’t?
  • I think Pink has a Cusack crush. He’s worked within and out of that film family before. That’s John and Joan’s sis Ann as B’s mom. She has the best cleavage of them all. Especially John.
  • “This is so cheezy in the greatest way.” The movie in a nutshell.
  • Did they ever clean up that bathroom?

Next Installment…

John Q Archibald takes on the health care system with a very specific agendum: find a way to save his son’s life. Hell, after tossing all those forms to the floor what else would you do? F*cking vote?


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 88: Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close” (2011)



The Players…

Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and Max Von Sydow, with Viola Davis, Jeffery Wright, Zoe Caldwell and John Goodman.


The Story…

A year after the 9/11 attacks claimed his father’s life, young, troubled Oskar finds a mysterious key squirreled away in his dad’s closet. There’s nothing remarkable about this key, save it’s meant for a lockbox, with the name “Black” written on the envelope it was in. But Oskar gets it into his fevered imagination that if he could locate the proper Black this key belongs to, perhaps, just perhaps he can earn a few lost minutes with his late dad.

So our young hero does what any logical, determined and mildly autistic kid would do: scour the five boroughs in search of Mister and/or Missus Black and return the key to its rightful owner.

Piece of cake.


The Rant…

I work with a guy who has Aspergers Syndrome. He’s a pest.

I think he prides himself on it (being pesky, not his condition). He’s loud, garrulous, eager to please, profane and loud. He can also turn on a dime into a petulant bitch if something goes awry with his very practiced routine. He speaks in loud head tones usually reserved for carnival barking, and goes on and on about the obvious. He also has it in his head that if one of us is not responding to he repartee (read: trying to ignore him) we cannot hear him and proceeds to carry on in his indoor voice. You don’t wanna hear his outdoor voice.

Did I mention he’s loud?

Just a mo’. For those who need some science dropped on ya, Aspergers is a low level kind of autism. The guy’s quite highly functional, and capable of a normal work conversation in a normal tone of voice. He’s not antisocial, and a far cry from Raymond Babbit and his Kmart boxers. No. However if his routine is messed up, he gets all grouchy and twitchy and even louder. The dish machine crapped out for the umpteenth time this year, much to his very vocal dismay, even after the old clunker was mended. The garbage disposal hasn’t worked right since.

That’s what he does. He’s a utility man. Washes the dishes, scrubs the pots, mops the floors and does the occasional tinkering. He takes his work very seriously. Almost too seriously. The degree of pride he has in his sanitation skills rivals the discipline a Marine has towards making a bed, snapped sheets and all. Beyond that he labors under the delusion that his expertise takes precedence over the cooks. There’s a degree of truth to this. I’ve often claimed that in a commercial kitchen the dishwashers have the most important job, even beyond the chef’s responsibilities. Think about it: can’t cook nothing without clean pans, right? Right, hence the guy’s overarching pride and free lip-flapping about it. The guy’s a pest.

It’s the nature of the Aspberger beast. The signature behavior of the condition is vigilance in maintaining a routine. That vital routine. If there’s an interruption, those who suffer from this condition can get thoroughly unhinged. It’s all about ritual, like most levels of autism. Recall in Rain Man how aggro Dustin Hoffman got when his TV schedule torn asunder. Aspergers is kinda along those curves, but not out of protection but more for a sense of stability. Until it isn’t.

Now I’m no expert (but I’ve seen them online), and regrettably like most folks what they know of autism is either through Rain Man or Jenny McCarthy, but me being an armchair sociologist I’ve got—and learned through experience thanks to my boisterous co-worker—what divides blown out autism from Aspergers is patterns. Either creating them to drown out the noisome world, a world beyond control and maybe comprehension or maintaining them in order to get through the day. The second isn’t too far removed from the rest of us “normal” people. We follow our own patterns every day. It’s called a routine. Maybe you have one. Maybe I need one. Does The Last Of Us 2 every weeknight at 7.30 (after Jeopardy!, natch) count? Thought not.

However, I think (think, mind you) there’s a third kind of pattern the Aspergers affected follow. Pattern seeking. Keeping an eye out for how maybe A may lead on to B and then on to C and so on. Further trying to make sense of their environment as a mission, where as we kinda bounce between situation to situation. When we drink too much coffee we bolt for the bathroom. We don’t wait until 11 AM, no matter how much our collective bladders scream in tongues.

That makes no sense, but finding a pattern, no matter how minor (or even non-existant) creates a sense of control, even if such control controls nothing. To seek a pattern that may or may not be there is a test of one’s mettle; to make sense of the senseless. Nothing is random. There’s a meaning to everything, if only in the Aspergers mind. This lets the day roll on by.

Take Oskar Schell, for example…


Since the 9/11 attacks, nothing makes sense to young Oskar (Horn). But it should. It better.

Oskar lost his dad Thomas (Hanks) when the Towers fell, and with that tragedy he lost his best friend.

He suffers from Aspergers Syndrome, a mild form of autism. His dad was tuned in to what made his nervous son tick: Oskar being ultra-curious about everything, Thomas devised all sorts of activities relating to the City’s geography, history, topography, etc. “Never stop searching,” was Dad’s mantra. And Oskar took it to heart.

Maybe too well.

A year after his father’s untimely death, with great trepidation Oskar snoops into dad’s closet, untouched by time. Inside he finds a curious blue vase, which slips through his shaky hand and shatters onto the floor. Inside Oskar finds something odd: a small envelope, and inside a small key. No clue was this unlocks. The only hint is the name “Black” on the envelope. The kid’s intrigued. Obviously this key was important to Dad. But why? And what for?

One of Dad’s missions impressed into Oskar’s impressionable, amateur urban explorer imagination was to find the “Sixth Borough,” whatever that meant. Maybe if Oskar can find the owner of the mystery key he might unlock the mystery of the Sixth Borough. If so it might mean some lost time earned back to be with Dad for at least 8 minutes or so.

So a year after the Worst Day, Oskar goes questing for a Best Day. Finally again.

Have key, will travel…


Two words: Oscar bait.

I’m not talking about the main character, either. You may know what I’m referring to. If not, here we go again you yobs. How long have you been visiting here? Really? How many hours? Ah. My bad. Now zip it.

There are movies made to make you think. There are movies to make you feel. There are movies about slobbery aliens hell-bent on global conquest but not before absorbing all the Ben & Jerry’s through their mucus membranes and eventually chomping off Aaron Eckhart’s bobble head (which might also make you think and feel something). We can only hope.

Now we know Hollywood is a business first and a creative outlet last. Marketing fits in there, too somewhere; Black Panther tee shirts made in Vietnam don’t come cheap. Wait, yes they do. Anyway Tinsel Town does its damdest to separate movie audiences from their cash on La La Land’s final product: entertainment. Thinking and feeling is all well and good so long a profit gets made. And that is the end to Hollywood’s means. They don’t expect, nay demand their goods win awards. That’s just icing on the cake, fringe benefit, lagniappe. Bruce Willis shooting things is what the public demands. And more popcorn. Lots more popcorn. And the ninth Harry Potter, God willing and crossed fingers, ya muggles.

Safe to say Hollywood doesn’t waste time and money on artsy-fartsy sh*t. Until it does.

The Blind Side. The Soloist. Crash. What do these flicks have in common? Well, they either got nominated for or won Best Picture. They were also painfully obvious, super transparent attempts to garner some statuettes come February. They starred surefire bankable casts, straight line plots dealing with heavy matters and helmed by name directors. Oh, and they were all pretty easy to digest. And dropped in December, wink wink. Desperate cries for attention from the Academy. Sometimes said cries were even heard. A Beautiful Mind anyone?

Not to say those films were bad. I saw the above and was entertained. I also felt hamstrung by lack of organic storytelling involved. I think that’s the key to any successful Oscar nom: don’t force sh*t. Don’t hammer me over the head with social commentary, try to rape my tear ducts over manufactured tragedy, rip me off, cast Jennifer Aniston, whatever. Don’t make me aware of connecting any dots.

Fluffy movies, those with organic narratives, likable unwrought characters and a lack of pretense can win Best Picture also, sometimes seemingly by accident. Forrest Gump, Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven. All got accolades without padding or pandering. Baiting.

Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close commits these crimes, and worst of a presented in a sort of “What’re ya talkin’ ’bout?” kinda shrug. We got Tom Hanks, we got Sandra Bullock, we got 9/11. What more could you need?

Cohesion, for one.

You get the feeling of how a lot of disparate elements were shoehorned into Loud‘s plot, which is pretty aimless to begin with. All through the first act I kept asking myself, “What is going on here?” Despite the story is a straight line (with a few crucial flashbacks), it keeps wandering. We get the whole key thing, right. I’d call the pacing slow. Well, that’s not quite right. Patient is a better word. You have to have some to get through to the second act.

Cobbled together how? Well, first of all our “lead” Hanks. The teaser. Also the Maguffin that sets things in order and not the key (by extension, Hanks is the key as far as Oskar is concerned). Hanks is a terrific, fun actor. Our generation’s Jimmy Stewart. The star of such classic Americana like Big, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13 and Saving Private Ryan. Wonderful films. With that CV alone no shocker he built up his acting chops to win a pair of Oscars. Good for him. Far cry from Bosom Buddies I tell ya.

So we’re fishing for Oscars. What’s Hanks up to? Wake him up. Dustbust the cheetos off his sweater. The guy who did Billy Elliott? I’m in. How much screen time? What? Um, okay. Gimme the cheetos.

Hanks spends about maybe 15 minutes in the movie, half of them in flashbacks. Audience suckered? Check. His is nothing but a glorified cameo. Admittedly, Hanks makes the most of those precious minutes. His Thomas plays as mature Big (albeit kinda flat), fully engaged in his son and always applying Oskar’s “condition” to his benefit. Wide-eyed wonder stunted by anxiety. Turn a negative into a positive. Thomas is the one guy in the galaxy that gets his son, and Oskar’s is keenly aware of this fact. Even though we have Hanks for precious little time, it’s time well worth having. Even if it’s only a tease.

The flip side (or should I say “blind” side. Heh) is our supporting actor, Bullock. Not a real big fan of hers.  Everything since Speed has been meh. Take it or leave it. She’s a solid actor, don’t get me wrong. Sort of journeyman, though. Here’s the check, play rom-com/action/drama/sci-fi/fantasy/snuff film/whatever. Sure, she has range. Too bad it’s all the same. She’s reliable, and a lot of times I feel underused. Like here in Loud she is painfully underused, if at all. She’s just wallpaper for the first two acts, and makes a poor grieving widow that. It’s tough to invest yourself in a leading character if said character isn’t there. I mean in the Gertrude Stein sense, doy. Bullock’s presence was the break glass in case of an audience’s waning attention span. Strike two.

Another gimmick to get the Academy’s attention: debut role of a child actor. It worked for Anna Paquin, Tatum O’Neal and the moppet that was Ricky Schroeder before he grew up and threw himself into populist doggerel. Horn holds his own well enough, but his Oskar is unlikeable. Insufferable would be a better word. Now I know I gave the lowdown on how Aspergers makes a person poised to be overly affable and cranky in the same breath. I never experienced “royal pain in the ass” from my co-worker. For most of Loud I couldn’t stop asking, “Will I ever be down with Oskar?” Nope, and my inability to engage with Oskar made his quest not engrossing but more along the lines of a Python-esque “Get on with it!” The reason behind why the above actors worked because their roles were not precocious or saccharine but endearing. Oskar is none of these things, just a pain. Strike three.

Oops. We’re losing crucial ground here in search of a statue. Our leads dash any sense of wonder that goes along with the (admittedly interesting but still hampered) plot line. Like I spoke about above, we’re seeking patterns in Loud. Trying to make sense out of the chaotic world. Horn’s Oskar may be a pain in the ass, but he’s at least an interesting pain in the ass. That only goes so far. As I said, the plot is a straight line and made kinetic/muddled by Oskar’s fractured view of the world. What the disturbed kid needs is a foil. Someone to aid him in his quest and help put things in perspective.

Help is on the way.

He shows up in the middle of the second act, and just in time. Max Von Sydow’s mute renter is just what the doctor ordered for Loud. Sydow was nominated for Best Supporting Actor here, and what I saw he was the only one who deserved mention. I never knew how great an actor the man was until I had to watch his face, that craggy, haunted face. He saves the movie from itself I felt. Here’s an honest soul who speaks volumes without speaking. His backstory is steeped in finding, maintaining patterns also. There’s the scene when Oskar meets the renter and fast learns of his curious condition (his troubles with communication reflects Oskar’s) via the notebook he scribbles in to “speak.” Oskar takes note of the hundreds upon hundreds of old notebooks climbing the walls in the renter’s tiny flat. Looks like Oskar’s not the only one who can’t let go of the past and is having trouble what path to follow towards the future.

Of such dysfunction bonds are borne. The renter manages to coax a bit of the kid in Oskar. There’s curiosity, intellect, anxiety and a quest for purpose. The stuff Thomas tried to imbue in his awkward son. Sydow gets this, and assisting Oskar in his quest might help the boy better understand the big, bad, chaotic world. If it weren’t for Sydow’s performance, Oskar would just be a snot and we’d have nothing to hang onto with Loud. Once the renter takes center stage the whole tenor of the film changes. One I enjoyed watching, if only for a limited time.

Speaking of limited time in the good acting department, Loud‘s casting director was very wise to cast Wright as REDACTED. I love Wright. I think he’s been great in every film I’ve seen him in, even the ones that were lame. The guy is very versatile. Although the scene he’s in is technically not the final scene, it was. It presented a sense of closure to Oskar’s mission, and if there is a message to Loud it’s that closure doesn’t exist. The whole cast is wandering, looking for logic that’s not there, nor ever will be. Wright’s hangdog and eventual glow speaks volumes for a bored audience. Considering that, maybe director Daldry was just trolling us all along. Well, minus the bait-and-switch with Hanks. Looking for hope leads nowhere, but that doesn’t mean we stop searching.

It’s been said that the point of a journey is not to arrive (yeah, yeah. Rush lyric. Shaddap). As we follow Oskar up and down the boroughs, looking for helpful patterns, Loud insists at a lot of messages beyond the futility of closure. What is this movie all about? Redemption? Learning how to stop grieving? Learning how to grieve? A maudlin celebration of NYC’s diversity? Oxymorons? Once I was lost, then yadda yadda yadda? Can’t say anything for sure here. All I knew for sure was that Loud was two hours and three minutes of my life I wanted back. Maybe that and Hanks.

You don’t have to be mildly autistic to connect the dots with Loud. Might help. Might also help if Hollywood quit trying to openly dupe us with the carrot and the stick.

Oh, and that ever elusive statue. Need one? Go check out the local cemetery.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Don’t get baited.


Stray Observations…

  • “There’s no such thing as trouble today.”
  • “Schell” is German for “ringing.” As in your ears.
  • Either Oskar better have Aspergers otherwise he’s just really f*cking annoying. Great acting? Toss up.
  • Released on the tenth anniversary, no less.
  • “We need to talk.” “About the mausoleum?”
  • Was that the Wendy’s girl?
  • “I just wanted the lock.”
  • That goddam tambourine.

Next Installment…

Good news! Justin Long and his friends got Accepted into the college of their choice!

Well, of their making would be more accurate.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 87: Kevin Smith’s “Zack And Miri Make A Porno” (2008)



The Players…

Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks, with Craig Robinson, Jason Mewes, Jeff Anderson, Traci Lords, Katie Morgan, Ricky Mabe, Brandon Routh and Justin Long.


The Story…

Zack and Miri are the best of buds, childhood friends, roomies. Inseparable.

And very, very broke. Their financial squeeze gets so bad that their apartment’s utilities shut off, one by one, in the dead of winter. Dire straits. How can they cough up the cash to make ends meet, let alone survive?

Grouchy Zack muses one night there are plenty of people out there who make a mint without working at all. Especially actors. Hey, maybe he and Miri can make a quick buck to set things right by making a cheapo movie.

Miri scoffs. A movie? Really? What kind of movie?

…You read the title, right?


The Rant…

I might have told this story before. If so, forgive me. After over 100 installments here at RIORI the memory gets blurry. Gets more difficult to separate the chaff from the chaff. Still, I think the following are good stories, and might, might be relevant to this week’s assignment. Here’s hoping with crossed fingers and fewer hurled beer bottles. Am wearing a hockey helmet now, BTW. Make up your own jokes.

Back in college in the ancient 90s I was a barista. Real deal and no visor to be found. Local cafe, owner owned and operated. Sumptuous temple for fair trade coffee well before Whole Foods raped your wallet dry. Back then working there had a coolness cachet, minus the embroidered apron. Scammed my way in due to being a good customer. One of the few favors my then girlfriend did for me was bringing me to the place on our first date. It fast became my hangout for both studies and chewing the fat, getting wired all the while. We may talk about the other favors she gave me later, you dogs.

She swallowed. Moving on.

I donned the non-apron my sophomore year. Most of classes ended around 4, so I had the evenings free, which is when the mercurial owners plunked me behind the line. Let me tell you, working under a pair of recovering junkies installed quite a serious work ethic in me, the FNG, not seen since a binge watch of “My Little Pony.”

I have no idea what that means. Neither did they. Seems fitting nonetheless.

The joint was a fishbowl; a demented microcosm of campus life inaction. A good thing. It was this aspect that attracted my then squeeze and her urging to hang out there. Like I mentioned, a true favor. And I am approaching a point here. Figured I’d politely warn you in advance this time out. You’re welcome; please stay awake.

I’ll spare any introduction to the demented “Cheers”-esque cast of regulars that frequented the place (at least in specific). The joint was called the Coffee Cave. Quaint. It squatted in the basement of the local liquor/lottery ticket/cigarette/sodomy vendor. Beneath this haven of sin was a low-slung cafe delightfully reeking of spent cigarettes, fresh baked scones, high end java and endless prattle about courses, bookended by the profs often holding court and in need of a fix. Japanese exchange students holed up with the Anglo architect study. The Arabian business uber-grad with the large, friendly who shamelessly brought his own lunch to the cafe (which irked the owners to no end). Drunken sorority babes every Friday eve requesting elaborate drinks while the winggirl snorted coke off the ceramic top of the “ladies'” room toilet. The homeless demanding said scones, and a wailing wall for budding and failed romances alike. Good times. Saw some things. Learned some things.

One of the things I saw was a movie at my girlfriend’s apartment. The Cave had no TV. At her behest; raving about it and demanding me to see it. It was so me. It was so Mark! It was a quest, for truth and fun. So she planted me in chair, duct taped my eyelids open and made me watch Clerks.

Thanks, babe. Lather rinse repeat.

I’m not gonna say that Kevin Smith’s Clerks was some sort of revelation. But Jess was right. It was so me. It was so Mark. I watched it many times between Coffee Cave jaunts, occasional classes and ever dwindling BJ sessions. Kidding. I watched Clerks over and over often.

But it was true. Learning to serve the hoi polloi was akin to scenes of frustration Dante and Randall had serving the trogs that hoved into the Quick Stop. Indie coffee shops were all the rage back in the Clinton years. Had the aforementioned cachet of cool, to which I lay the thanks or blame on Jen Aniston and her dippy, very white crew from Friends (mostly blame. Those stiff hairstyles, ugh). Every cloud has a silver whatever. That fact, and me being horribly droll about my new passing parade’s antics. What, me worry? What began as a comfy job swiftly became a life awakening in the Cave. No health bennies, to be sure. But the place did have one killer benefit (besides free espresso).

Enter Mark. Him Randall to my Dante. Love at first bitch.

I met him one night at the Cave. Might’ve been Sunday, the slow night. Mark was a grad student, tax law. Head in hand poring over some massive tome that smelled of manipulative English. Beige ballcap planted firmly on his head hanging over said textbook, a thick folder at his elbow vomiting paper. I roused him.

“You Mark?”

He snapped his neck awake and stared at me. I introduced myself.

“I’m riding shotgun with you tonight.”

“You’re the new guy…”

From simple greetings, bonds are borne.

I’ll spare some more details (save my “inspirational” schpiel about colleges parse out degrees of esteem while others withhold info based on tuition. He liked that). To wit, Mark was the Yin to my Yang. No surpirse he was a Clerks devotee also. We had a time recreating scenes from Clerks a la our own unique élan, quoting the movie’s lines ad nauseum:

“Cute cat. What’s its name?” “Annoying customer.”

“This job would be great if it weren’t for the f*cking customers…”

“Title does not dictate behavior.”

“I’m not even supposed to be here today!”

And so on. Our quoting got old to the crowd fast. Savages.

I was the cranky straight man, he was the loose cannon. Our scenes against each other were wondrous. Definitely a “you shoulda been there” scene. The shenanigans were jokes for ourselves alone. If a person outside played along, they’d give us a tip. If not they’d walk out in a huff, ordering nothing and leaving us two stooges laughing, same shared joy. Like I alluded, the owners were odd ducks. They suffered us goons well. They had to. Maintenance at the clinic and all.

Mark and I devised all sorts of gags. Alternating between jockeying the counter jibing customers and our homework assignments (read: goofing off), we would get all vaudeville on the pulsing flow of caffeinated humanity. Here’s a taste of Mark and our theatre. The counter where the register was was oddly tall. We had to lean into it to serve an order. I had to step onto the baseboard to make eye contact. This design oddity gave Mark and I an idea. Hence the levitation trick. Ready?

The owners had a pair of stools. They could sit in relative comfort serving their marks. When they were away, Mark and I used them as props. For the levitation trick. Always guaranteed a tip. Always. Here’s the setup. Recall the high counters. I would perch myself atop one of the stools, heels into the crosspieces between the legs. Mark stood a few feet away, warming up his “psychic powers,” which involved a lot of him adjusting his cap just right. To balance his chi, of course.

Copperfield stabbed his hands at me and with great strain induced me to wobbly “float” behind the high counter, trying to balance my gangly self on the crosspiece. The show culminated on me losing my balance and crashing on the floor. Sometimes it was deliberate. Always got a laugh, even from the customers. Nickels came pouring in.

Not all was fun and games. A certain nasty contingent always descended on our grotto every, every Friday and Saturday night: the aforementioned drunken sorority girls, schooled by the manners of Sex And The City. Multiple extras faded into the cityscape yet still on the set. Their 15 minutes. Here we went:

(flip of the hair) “I’d like a decaf half-caf mocha latte with cinnamon, vanilla, and nutmeg. Don’t forget the foam, and not too much. Skim milk, please. And don’t forget the mutton scraps.”

Sleepy-eyed me or Mark would slowly rotate towards the vacuum carafes filled with house blend, stagger for a house mug and plop it before the Carrie Bradshaw wannabe.

“Buck fifty. Try it.” I’d slink away and jack up the volume on the beater tape player that provided fractured ambiance to the Cave. My selection was early Replacements. Mark loved ska. The girls cowered at both.

“This wasn’t what I asked for (sniff).”

“It’s what you need. And I know what you need.” Grin.

Squeaking and fleeing. Stil got a tip, TP dragged by a heel.

And so on.

Mark and I became fast friends. Study buddies. Drinking buddies. Even dueling Dr Phils regarding romance. He hated my girlfriend. I envied his fiancee. We both agreed women were nuts, and would never appreciate the wisdom of Randall.

Why the heck am I telling you this? Two reasons. First, the right kind of movie can draw to people together, like iron filings to a magnet. C’mon, how many times have you gotten into a debate about a certain movie, its pros and cons with another cinephile? Very rarely does such fevered didactics result in fisticuffs, drunk or otherwise drunk. Boom. You make a fast friend (and a swift summation of their personality) going over the well trod territory that is The Godfather, Taxi Driver, MASH, 2001: A Space Odyssey and, yes, even Clerks. I’m not comparing Kevin Smith’s opus to slackerism to those cinematic pinnacles, but mention the flick and here comes the gasoline to your book of matches. Agree to disagree? Perhaps, but a feeling of kindred spirits almost always come calling.

Second, films such as Clerks sort of serve as a kind of acid test as to who you—and/or your friends—are. It’s like a kind of malign Kinsey report. I’m not talking sexual positions, but rather exposure of the idful aspects of one’s personalty, shoved away until the proper valve is released. Drunk or otherwise drunk.

*klonk*

Hey! A full one! Thanks, ladies!

Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is that certain films speak to certain audiences. And what they take away can be terribly influential on their worldview. Clerks did for Mark and I, as it did for hundreds of wage slaves in the vast wastes of America.

However, a filmmaker’s voice can often become a sounding board for its devotees. It can sometimes get toxic, making fans into cyphers. We all know someone like Dante Hicks. We very well may be Dante Hicks. But not every cultish Clerks fan can be Dante; they ain’t fans anymore, but lacking a personalty and super glued to their pet films. Examples may include Star Wars, Star Trek, Game Of Thrones, X-Files and Kevin Smith disciples.

Sometimes as a director, in the face of their own success must either shed an audience (the one that made them a household name and stupid rich) and branch out or succumb to their own Scylla and Charybdis, sally forth and churn out product with their naked signature. Many great directors have reinvented themselves many times over and have found success without compromising their vision. Spielberg (of course), Scorsese, Zemekis, Eastwood, Kubrick and Altman to name a few. Hell even John Waters and John Carpenter wandered away from doggie poo and Kurt Russell eventually.

In the shadow of Clerks accomplishments, Smith has been making the same movie ever since, with varying degrees of success. And beyond the social structure the Quick Stop invited, Smith became a victim of his own vision. Having Jay and Silent Bob guest in virtually every Red Bank movie didn’t help either.

No conversations needed between dweebs, Smith has a signature that he’s become a prisoner of. Comic books, Star Wars, f*cked up sexual innuendos, weed and the wonder and versatility of vaginas. This has become his oeuvre, much to the delight of teenage/college age mallrats everywhere.

So. With this week’s installment, does Smith rise above or keep on slumming? Or perhaps something more sinister and calculating?

Let’s just say it’s rough being a victim of your own success…


It sucks being broke. Despite hard you labor at your sh*ttastic, menial job, barely hovering over minimum wage, you walk away with hemorrhoids, pennies and a hefty unpaid bar tab. Gets even more difficult when you gotta mutually shoulder the bills with another broke-ass wage slave who happens to be your roomie. And your best bud.

This is Zack’s (Rogen) ugly mantra he carries around all day. It’s not too far removed from his best bud Miri’s (Banks) mindset. Childhood friends, been through thick and thin ever since grammar school. Now as adults, their flat on edge of being disconnected it’s now white agony in the wallet. No shiny lemonade stand on the corner is gonna fix their mess. They face facts, they’re losers, broke and behind the eight ball.

One fateful eve, Zack and Miri attend their high school reunion, if only revel in their peers’ crappy lives at the open bar. Mostly for the open bar. Miri secretly harbors her crush with the studly Bobby (Routh). Her ultimate goal is to score with him. Zack’s quarry is just the bar. While he quaffs his beer he strikes up a conversation with the creepy Brandon (Long). Turns out he’s a porn star and makes sh*tloads of money in his chosen profession. And is also Bobby’s boyfriend.

(fast forward a few miserable, embarassing hours)

Zack and Miri are crying in their beers at the local watering hole. Zack laments on their lack of funds some more, bitching how that f*ggot Brandon is a pervert. A rich pervert. Miri just whines over Bobby. Then Zack comes up with a daring plan to get them out of poverty.

We should make a porno!”

Miri scoffs, but they both want heat and water. According to Brandon making a porno on the cheap is easy, and can be very lucrative.

So what could possibly go wrong…?


We’re probably all familar by now with Smith’s irreverent style of filmmaking. It’s the tenet upon which I slam pimply fanboys. Yep, “irreverent” is the watchword of Smith’s style. It was the column upon which the empire was built. It also might be why Mallrats made any money. I’m still hoping it was for Stan Lee’s cameo.

But again, a filmmaker’s signature can only work for so long. Like I noted Speilberg et al effortlessly switched gears many a time with some good results. Unlike Smith’s naked muse, those guys had their vision on a string, which threaded through all their works in a subtle, background style. Smith’s end is Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots. Go along for the ride, you cretins! You want art? Come and get it! If you consider finger painting art. Up on the fridge it’ll go.

And like magnets to a fridge, Zack follows the same template that Clerks established. Don’t know ’bout you but I outgrew Clerks‘ schtick years ago. Hopefully a lot of those absent-minded fanboys jumped ship a while ago also. Played against Smith’s Zack he defiantly screams no. Smith is like Willy Wonka here. What you’re about to ingest is decidedly not good for you. Come along for the ride, you innocents.

Um, the innocents grew up. We saw Zack coming from a mile away. And we were high AF.

Besides being a retread of Smith’s well worn signature, Zack tries to shoehorn a Jerry Maguire-esque warm fuzzy feeling shrouded with being vile. Give the people what they want, despite the people outgrew Bluntman And Chronic back in the late 90s. Smith is deaf to this.

Zack is a cipher. Clerks lite, wrapped up in a cute romcom. Before I stroke the blade across my bilious strop, let me point out something about Smith’s signature I could never ignore in his films, including the good ones: duality between the leads. An existential Abbott and Costello bit.

Keeping in mind the classic “Who’s On First?” The whole key to the act is the frustation Bud and Lou have with miscommunication. A simple setup, but the bit’s hilarious (and probably spawned Three’s Company for ill or for ill). It’s all left hand/right hand, and the crowd is easily lured into the joke. And really it’s a simple setup, as is Zack. The major difference is that “Who’s On First?” requires your attention. With Zack all it requires is nodding. The way Smith drives his characters is nothing new since Clerks (all right, maybe Chasing Amy. I’ll give that one a pass). We know where we’re going, and Smith is straining to be clever; his irreverence schtick is wearing thin.

Zack we find is a crossbreed of Clerks. It plays like a slacker-meets-white trash rmeta ewrite of Chasing Amy, minus the lesbionics. It’s like ten years later. Kevin, get a new muse already. And Abbott and Costello don’t count; funny folks have been ripping them off for decades. Go ask Mitch Hedberg. Oh yeah, you can’t. He’s dead. As well as Smith’s schtick, hopelessly entrenched in the 90s. Like Mark and me. Not a good endorsement.

Neither is this: Zack is too patchy. There’s this slapdash feel to film, precious little segue between scenes and acts. Felt like a lot of first takes were used that required a second. Or third. Or never. Who edited this? The Red Bull, uh, bull? Guess Smith wanted to push the spontaneity of the movie (let’s face it: imminent poverty’ll make you think on your feet tout suite). And as for porno movies from what I’ve seen…I mean what my friends have told me that not a lot of planning goes into making them. The plot’s always the same: barely there. At least Zack has a leg up on most skin flicks. Most, and just one leg.

Now one could argue that Zack might be a swipe at Smith’s culty fanbase. I’m going to. It could be an Andy Kaufman-esque practical joke all us Clerks adherents, Star Wars freaks and comic book geeks. I mean, note the hockey stick as boom mike on Zack and Miri’s makeshift stage. They got the guy who played Superman 2.0 as Miri’s “one that got away.” Super overt Star Wars references. You get the idea. It’s all part of Smith’s signature, and may be a deliberately skewed delivery. For those who might get it. At any rate it’s all irreverent. Take a deep breath, Jedi maniacs. The first; episode six. Not the new—

Ferget it. My underwear’s showing.

Zack is stupid, but not dumb. If my above hypothesis holds any eternally fresh milk, Smith may very well  be trying to pants his key audience, and in the process, himself. Maybe he was trying to shed an audience al a Dylan’s Self Portrait. Maybe Smith just wanted to f*ck around. Maybe I’m over-thinking things. I tend to do that. Do I?

Save it, you in the back.

But wait, let’s take a few to explore this hypothesis further. This’ll be for all those conspiracy theorists/MSTies/slavish Smith adherents. Kinda like with the Self Portrait analogy. Was Smith trying to shed an audience, pull some Kaurman-esque prank and/or evacuate his directorial bowels of all the crap that’s been loaded on him since Clerks? Hell, since Mallrats (still can’t figure out why folks like that turd in the punchbowl). As I wandered through Zack, and after some chewing afterwards, I somewhat rethunk my MO in taking apart Zack. Somewhat.

Years back I caught an episode of NPR’s On The Media. The subject was the Star Wars franchise (The Force Awakens was hurtling towards multiplexes as he spoke). The guest advised listeners it would be better to watch the first six eps not in chronological order. Something about watching the overarching storyline out of synch did a better job of arranging subplots in a fashion that made the character development more assured. Face it A New Hope‘s cast of dozens—heroes and villains alike—don’t have a very chewy (pardon the pun) backstory. This gets some correcting in Empire, but still the guy’s argument sounded solid. Can’t remember the order he recommended, so whatever.

That being said, if there is such a thing as a Smithy-verse, then Zack is the tipping point where all the man’s films up until that point get all ironical. He takes the audience on a round the world trip up his rectum. Which is probably much more amusing to Smith than his duped apostles. That and maybe there’s some cinematic incest with Jay and Silent Bob in almost every one of his f*cking movies. Connection? Coincidene? I’ll wager not.

So then, keeping all the above dreck in mind let me now properly dissect Zack. No duh Smith has his sticky fingerprints all over the place. He directed, wrote and—key here—edited Zack. Okay, ipso facto we had no Silent Bob, but we did have Jay cum (ha!) Lester. And his schlong. The plot (such as is) is relatively simple and straightforward enough to pad is with lots of crude humor and examining the human condition. And another competent, if miscast crew of slacker oddballs. All securely stationed in Smith’s wheelhouse. Heck, even the flick appears that the director always the same camerawork. Who was the cinematographer? Silent Bob?

Oh yeah.

Anywho, other noteworthy contributions from Smith. There’s a brittle sweetness to Zack. We fast learn that our sad sack protags are up sh*t’s creek, wallets as flotsam. Relatable, and please tell Verizon’s billing department to quit calling me. Their lives didn’t pan out as planned, as if they had a plan. Gen X ennui. Their jobs suck and as we know are not keeping the lights on. Maguffin? Desperate times call for desperate measures! Improbable leap to cutting a porn flick! Get rick quick scheme!

Kinda predictable, which what makes it accessible to all you berserkers in Smithville out there, as well as the general public…who wanted to learn how a porn was made. Hell, Zack co-stars Traci Lords, so we have an authority on the subject, thank Heaven.

I’m guessing this semi-standard plot was borne out of Smith’s need to make his own Self Portrait with everything, everything in overdrive here. So we can put the mediocre plot aside and be tricked by “The Mighty Quinn.”

You get what you think you’re paying for.

This is the second ensemble film Smith has cut, and it’s damned good ensemble, if underused. Dogma had the better cast, since in essence that was a road trip movie, which allowed the players to be introduced like pepperoni on a pizza and allowing subplots to bubble up smoothly. Zack is a straight line, permitting precious little—dare I say—growth with our characters. Felt like Smith was in some sorry of hurry to splatter the screen with all his demented ideas in the name of, “Now f*ck off, fanboys!”

So since Zack in an ensemble film with a threadbare plot, most of our concerns are directed through the cast. Here is the part where either Smith was bored or brilliant (I’m leaning towards the latter now, BTW). I’m thinking both; let’s take a few big/medium faces, throw ’em in the gooey existential Cuisinart and let it rip.

First and foremost on my mind watching this was how sorely Robinson was wasted here. Guy’s damn funny, like pre-Family Feud Steve Harvey. If Def Comedy Jam was still on the air, he’d be a header. He only gets dribs and drabs of snicker-worthy quips. Again, maybe that was Smith’s intent, and from here on I’m gonna cite the director’s probable joke on us as His Intent. It’ll save room in the Cloud. Thank me later.

His Intent was fleshed out to a degree by casting Rogen. Look, I know a lot of actors make their mark and their money by playing a type and sticking with it for the better part of their careers. Mostly comic actors, mostly. It worked (and still sorta works) for Adam Sandler, especially since his stabs at drama have bit the big one. Same with Jim Carrey, who broke the mold by portraying Andy Kaufman in Man On The Moon (a weird comic playing a weird comic. Not much of a stretch). Even the late, great Richard Pryor’s best role was…Richard Pryor in JoJo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. And that wasn’t him as Black Bart in Blazing Saddles. Get yer history straight, you philistines.

But does Rogen have any depth? I mean, I know he made an earnest attempt in 50/50 to not be a yob throughout the whole film. This might be the wrong movie to invite this question, but I gotta consider His Intent again. I always harbored the belief that Rogen improvs his lines. All his lines. If so, worked wonders in Superbad, his delicious awkwardness in Knocked Up and his non sequiturs in The Forty-Year-Old Virgin. But not so much with Funny People, The Green Hornet and here. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m a fan of the guy, and his schtick mostly works. Except here, where his motormouth gimmick comes across as just that: a gimmick. Rapid fire, impoved quips can only go so far for this guy, and Christ was he laying on thick. Who is Zack Brown, really? Do we care? Should we? Unsure on all fronts.

Let’s talk dialogue. It’s there. It’s loud and puerile, all that chatter about dingles and holes and mammaries that are perky. I read the title as did you. But this may be a first only only for me: there’s too much profanity. I grok Zack‘s reason for being surrounds the cast’s naughty bits and where they go. Salty talk goes with the territory; I ain’t deaf. But all of the blue language got numbing after a while, a blue blur of angst and innuendo. This was profanity overload, and it went from jarring to distracting to boring across three acts. Truth be told, I couldn’t pick up any line that wasn’t delivered with needless volume to forward the actors’ motivation, which was quite clear. Shakespeare this wasn’t. Shocker. Ah, well. F*ck off, fanboys, remember?

Banks is too pretty to be vulgar. With all its ribald humor, Zack pulled another miscast—maybe deliberately—by making Miri Zack’s foil. She does well with the lines she was given, albeit delivered in a anxious sense. Fish out of water. This isn’t the crone you’re looking for (admit it, that was clever). Truth be told I found Banks outfunnied Rogen, the vet. Sure, she’s done comedies before, mostly rom-coms but stuff made to amuse is made to amuse. Gotta give her props for the clown college try, despite the fact she looks like the terminal cheerleader captain. Still, she cussed with the best of ’em, God bless her.

In another film of this ilk (minus any maps of Hawaii on some silicone chick’s REDACTED), there might have been a little more romantic meat on the bones (heh). Even as Zack was over-the-top raunchy, some rules in the romantic comedy subgenre need to be obeyed to maintain cohesion. At its core, Zack is a rom-com. A dirty, demented rom-com directed by Kevin Smith, but a rom-com all the same. Again, if the following was part of His Intent, he did a good poor job of execution here. The latent sexual tension, for instance, coming to light is too abrupt (like everything else here. At least Zack is somewhat consistent). If there was a real message to this film then its a safe, universal one: sex changes everything, both figuratively and literally here in Smithworld. It’s not a bad note to wrap up on, but remember you gotta put that any everything else in Zack in the proper context. A little Vaseline over the lens focused at Red Bank helps.

So here are, near the end this week. After dismantling Zack what have we learned? Not much really. The whole caper was so cynically transparent, but did allow His Intent to run riot. If that was the objective. Mediocre sex comedy or brilliant practical joke? You decide. Still, likely both if you’d ask me. And I don’t care if you didn’t. I’ve got lasagne and you don’t. Neener neener.

In conclusion (for really real this time), Smith’s cachet is thumbing a nose and a middle finger to subtlety with Zack. Outright flushed down the sh*tter really. It was His Intent with Zack, calling out shots in the Foreign Man’s accent all the way (the Intent, not Latka). I’m almost sure of it. Betcha Zack frustrated a lot of Smith adherents out there, if not pissed them off. If so, good for the man. Sometimes you need a creative colonic now and again. Ask Dylan.

Snoochie boochies.

*klonk*


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it at your own peril. Big Smith fan? You’ve been warned. Casual Smith fan? Go watch Clerks. Again.


Stray Observations…

  • Primus? Really? Well this is a Kevin Smith movie.
  • “Can’t you see we talkin’, White?”
  • Thanks there, Alanis.
  • Was casting Brandon “Superman” Routh another flagrant “touch” as him being Mr Right that got away? Geek chic meta.
  • Even at 40 years old, Lords still look like a teen here. A teen that shoplifted the local Hot Topic, but adolescent nonetheless. Creepy that.
  • Wait for the third chorus.
  • “I love the movies.”

Next Installment…

Oskar is autistic, Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close to recovering those lost eight minutes. All he has to do is find the right lock.