What are you doing here? You actually want to read the conclusion of this rambling breakdown considering Rob Cohen’s actioner Stealth? Really? Cool!
This chapter is gonna be about the meat of the matter: the movie itself. Finally.
I promise to keep this part under control. No more woolgathering. We understand that part of the RIORI experience is my waxing philosophical on the social commentary end. However there is a movie to consider, so…
Oddly enough and despite being an action flick Stealth was a classic character study. But with missile strikes.
Just to reheat the Frankenstein analogy for a brief moment, Stealth was prescient regarding our current, stirred up fear about AI (at least of this time of writing) and what may be its eventual outcome. Alexa is not too far a cry to the dawn of EDI considering how fast the pages get torn off the calendar. Keep that in mind.
Most folks seem to be scared witless that the dawn of the AI era might cost them jobs, or deep fakes screwing with reality, or why the hell every bloody refrigerator demands a subscription these days. Hell, even your beater Roomba once proud, smart and diligent in keeping the kitchen dust free has become a cat chariot, such as smart tech goes these days: expected to fail in a frustratingly comic manner. Meow.
Okay. I know got all that, but despite Stealth being boasted an action flick as it was, but in truth was indeed a character study. Including the AI fighter. No, really, and all of that invites.
Let’s get to the humans first. With no pretense the acting was spot on. Sure there were stereotypes, but I’ve often found that cast of ciphers only works well in their commitment to their roles.
The Stray Observations…
Tin Man = no heart.
“I just feel that war should not be some video.” K: Cuz you can’t just hit the reset button. She’s oddly wise sometimes.
Ironic turn of roles for Shepard here. Ever caught The Right Stuff?
“All of them.”
K: Can you say intern?
Weirdest/coolest Freudian innuendo ever.
Ever notice that when an actor earns or gets a nod from the Academy their next projects are somewhat lowbrow? Foxx was on a roll with Ray and his follow-up Collateral only to slum it with the likes of…well, Stealth? Consider Bill Murray’s twist from Lost In Translation to Garfield: The Movie. Or even Morgan Freeman, before God from Driving Miss Daisy to Robin Hood: Prince Of The Thieves as the ur-“magical negro.”
*sh’mup: gamer lingo for an aerial fighting “shoot ’em up” vertical scrolling platformer. Yer welcome.
“There was nothing left to say.”
The Next Time…
Oh brother. Jason Bateman’s become a victim of an Identity Thief. That’s not the worst of it, though.
Hey, welcome back. Glad you could make it. Pull up a chair and have some popcorn. It’s my special recipe. It contains rum.
Anyways, here we are at the landmark three-part shredding of Stealth. This time out we might actually get to deconstruct the dang film. Might.
For those of you who may have missed/ignored the prior installment
The Rant, part 2…
This is going to get long. Even more long. Make that long long. You have been cautioned, and don’t yell at me.
The awakening of Stealth‘s story came to light at the end of its second act. That was when K piped in, almost off the cuff. K suggested the Al jet needed an assist from a human pilot occasionally to “work out any bugs.” That would’ve been a smart idea. Following Act I I saw what she alluded to (even if she hadn’t), and it was ugly.
Trust me. I am not giving anything away. We all attended high school, and were all assailed with this reading assignment. It’s been declared as the first gothic horror novel, as well as the gateway drug to modern science fiction. It also happens to be the first story cautioning about messing around with nature to unwind nature. Read: AI running rampant against it’s creator against an unprepared society.
We’re not talking about The Matrix here, Neo. We’re talking about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Nothing that follows is a spoiler. Patient eyes can figure it out. Dig:
Shelly’s novel has been considered as the first Gothic horror novel, possibly the first and most seminal sci-fi novel and as of late I consider it the first cautionary tale about AI unchained. So for those of you who skipped school here’s a rough synopsis of the story: our titular Doctor Frankenstein (the name of the creator and not the Monster if you did read the book) supposed that harnessing electricity could raise the dead. So he got to grave robbing for parts, stitched his edifice to “scientific” immortality, engaged in crude neurosurgery, gave the cadaver a few jolts and—sure enough—his Monster came to life. With dear, dear consequences.
The Monster was very pissed about be jolted back to mortality and broke free of his master’s command, which resulted in an all too common horror faced my regular folks when confronted by a hulking, lonely beast. Not long before the good doctor began chasing down the albatross around his neck, the Monster befriends a little blind girl, immune to punishment of sight. Alas, the girl accidentally drowns at the Monster’s clumsy, awkward hands. Then come the torches, pitchforks and mob mentality. The Monster’s fear is greater, it being the embodiment of the unknown itself.
So it goes that the remorseful Doctor engages in a futile hunt to reign in his abdominal creation as to atone for f*cking around in God’s domain. The end? No. Shelly’s opus is a pernicious metaphor about hubris, prejudice and science gone mad. Overall it’s a fine metaphor for the panic and fear that hangs over all of us “normal” human beings just below the surface. It’s that damning fear of the unknown, which could doom us all (kinda like unbridled tinkering with AI). And like the Doctor we often come to rue our half-formed decisions the hard way. That fear ever so slowly may dawn on us all.
Frankenstein is—in a technical if not literary sense—also the first story about AI. Recall Doc was screwing around with the nature of things, and electricity was harnessed far after Shelly’s dabbling with her pen in such black arts. Zap, then sentient. Sure, almost a quaint conceit in our present and often too convenient times.
What was Shelly’s understanding of any science (fiction) content? According the historical record, electricity was effectively “harnessed” by the London Public Works back in 1878, where the gas lamps were eventually replaced by electric lamps to illuminate the dank Avalon nights. Shelly’s novel presaged such accomplishments 60 years prior, when the early control of electricity was something tantamount to magic. The subtitle to Frankenstein was The Modern Prometheus, after all. I’m willing to wager now y’all skipped too much class. Maybe ignorance was designed to be blissful. Now place your smartphone up against the whiteboard.
Okay. Let’s reboot. And fast forward from Queen Victoria’s reign of order to our age of calculated disorder. Again, not a Luddite.
K told me at the outset (she had seen this flick before) that it reminded her of Top Gun: Maverick but with a cool s/f bent, with just a bit of cheeze. I’m paraphrasing, but a pretty apt description in hindsight. She bases her fave movies on who is the principal cast. Smart move; better than the hunt-and-peck-and-peck-some-more trial and error approach here at RIORI. She’s a big fan of Jessica Beil and the TV series 7th Heaven, which is why the movie ended up in her library. As well as it met The Standard. Hot dog! We got to bond and have a real discussion and dissection about Stealth. I was the pupil to her teacher, which was a nice change of pace.
Stealth was an even moderner Modern Prometheus. Even though the film was released back in 2005 it aptly predicted our current affair with artificial intelligence. The Terminator conjectured what might happen to humanity if the machines achieved sentience. Would that in turn make humans obsolete? Expendable even? It’s a scary concept, and if you’ve been keeping up with current affairs 2029 is just around the corner.
In the cinematic universe, AI run amok has been an intriguing plot device as well a form of cautionary tale to those paying attention (akin to those who listen to a lot of NPR programming. Like me, durr). If you think about it most movies depicting AI as a window on he future seldom end on a high note. Even Spielberg’s execution of Stanley Kubrick’s script of AI: Artificial Intelligence—which was more or less a melodrama about the human condition—had a downbeat ending (some claim the final scenes were just tagged on to avoid an open ending. Guess most of us just was a sense of closure to our fantasy). Even in relativity recent films, people have had a tenuous grip on the concept of AI. Sure, such films make for good story, but also alert that primitive fight/flight/faint instinct that has kept our species alive.
By the by, AI was released in 2001. Wink wink, nudge nudge.
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey might be the most seminal of movies regarding our fear of AI going rogue. In the film our intrepid astronauts are on their way to Jupiter. Guiding their journey is the virtual HAL 9000 AI supercomputer, which is constantly aware of every action of the vessel. HAL is the literal nervous system of the entire spaceship Discovery and is a dedicated system programmed to complete the mission, communicate with Houston, navigation, complete the mission and maintain life support, and above all complete the mission. The last part sticks.
Long story short infallible HAL gets a glitch and the crew consider the idea of rebooting it to isolate the problem. HAL gets wind and does not like this idea. It would mean reseting its memory, and that is crucial to completing the mission. So HAL offs almost all of the crew to remain online to complete the mission. Which was paramount, although that did not happen.
An aside: I heard a story once that 2001 became a portent to NASA and their shuttle launches in the 80s. Thanks to the film every shuttle flight had at least three failsafes to ensure the smartest tech this side of Jupiter would never endanger the crew. Barring nature, no shuttle flight ever had a glitch like HAL had. Props to Stan Kubrick there.
There are a handful of other movies that are as cautionary as 2001, but not nearly as chilling. Consider Blade Runner, the first Matrix movie, the anime Patlabor as well as the more humane touch of Her, Deus Ex and even the kindly Bicentennial Man. All of them are keen on hammering it in that AI can be deceptive, dangerous and even damning to our society. To what end? Might be that lurking need for more convenience. The Monster had it easy; it just wanted solitude. In these days of Siri and Alexa beckoning our every call we now must hassle around deep fakes, influencers and Netflix cancelling their DVD rentals (which may destroy this very blog since I can’t afford streaming services).
“No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity…but I know none, and therefore am no beast.” That’s Shakespeare. His tragic social commentary, which was composed way before Shelley’s portents about the dangers of AI and absolute power corrupting. The play was written circa 300 years before Shelley’s landmark novel, Such concerns about power and presence presage Siri’s launch in 2010 transpired…a helluva long time ago.
Ahem. Sorry. Who wants an oat milk latte?
All cut and dried—and ignoring the social commentary. Thank you very little—viewing Stealth resulted in K‘s critique more than mine. It was her suggestion here, after all. So from now forth regard the following as K‘s review. With much paraphrasing from yours truly. Try and lasso in any gloom and doomspeak. The flick was decidedly not to be some warning about AI gone bad, but just enough for entertainment. Let’s just consider Stealth‘s metaphor angle on the back burner for now. It was a rather hot pot though, after all.
I really enjoyed the camaraderie amongst our principals. Hey, they’re a team, and their divergent personalities are always the stuff that gets one’s back. Sure, it’s a collection of stereotypes, but the three all blend well despite their differences. Recall the original Star Trek id/ego/superego of McCoy/Kirk/Spock dynamic. We have a fun triad here that informs the plot. Hey, if these aces are up to the task of showing an AI the ropes they better tie up any knots
So let’s boil it all down, shall we? This was K‘s show after all.
She loves action movies like Stealth. The kinds with jets and dogfights and are loud. She also loves police TV procedurals like NCIS, CSI, Bones any other series that revolves around a mystery to solve with a certain ickiness factor. Then again she turned me on to 7th Heaven. So go fig.
Klikes big, noisy action flicks, and Stealth was no different. Cool fighter jet designs made ideal. The thrill of the flight. Smart tech unbound. She commented that all is smooth sailing as long as your feet are on the ground. Well put with flicks like these. Based on that observation Stealth came across rather flimsy. Lightweight, then again. She instructed me to shush so I did.
It’s uncommon that I keep my comments to myself with a film that is no more than popcorn fodder. Stealh had fistfuls to jam in one’s maw. It was a film designed to earn no awards, just dumb fun. However there was this too smart an undercurrent reflecting the smart Doctor’s intentions. Director Cohen was Victor here. Check it:
The jet fighter was “brought to life” via a lightning strike/deus ex machina. It had a greenish hue and its exhaust stank of methane.. to odor rotting corpses give off. EDI has large “bolts” on its cockpit securing AI hub to the jet’s body (still untested at the start of the script). Once self-actualized, EDI determines to understand all it can about humans, social interaction and ultimately what’s the purpose of fighting? Probably by accident our rouge jet is affectionally dubbed EDI. Recalls a popular nickname for Edward. That’s an old Angl0-Saxon name meaning “protector.”
Coinkydink? Nah. Just like EDI was green in hue, retreats to icy climes to avoid radar detection and tries to rescue a female behind enemy lines. Green is the colour of jealousy, after all. No connection at all. The scenarist just got to falling asleep in AP English more often than any peers back in the day.
Fire drill! Last one out is a hard-cooked egg (they often smell like sulfur)!
I think I’m overthinking the subtext of Stealth (also with the thing about not much stealth tech in the movie). It was by accident that director Cohen made a pedestrian sh’mup* actioner into something with a bit more meat on its fuselage. Behind just cool jet designs informing our collective wariness of AI. The flick felt lightweight, but then again so does Siri in breadth a depth, and oodles of subs use her to guide daily activities. En toto Stealh was accidental social commentary. The best fables and/or cautionary tales are never intentional, and since Cohen’s best known popcorn fodder were the XXX movies (not porn you dolts) I highly doubt his muse was a cautionary tale regarding the forefront of the latest digital whatsit Alexa-esque toys reflecting any human factor.
All right. Shut up. We get it already. For real. Just because Stealth was the canard I implied it did have its merits. Like I hammered to death above AI can be a threat, but really only as threatening as those who direct it. Kinda like Mr Cohen’s muse on fire.
Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel, Jaime Foxx and Sam Shepard, with Joe Morton, Richard Roxburgh, Ian Bliss, Ebon Moss-Bachrach and (the voice talent of) Wentworth Miller.
Technology is amazing.
The U.S. Navy has designed an elite AI fighter jet designed to study the habits of human pilots. Essentially a bot meant to generate strategic dialogue. Eventually the top secret machine starts to develop its own ideas, flying dangerously amok through unfriendly skies.
The secret leaks out, and now it’s up to three daring pilots and their captain to ground the renegade jet before it creates an international “incident.”
Technology is amazing. Am I right?
Hi. I case you weren’t paying attention you may have missed the “214.1” tag in this installment’s heading. Yes this one’s going to be a three-part RIORI adventure. If you may recall the Get On Up review got halved in twain due to user error (read: I done f*cked up). Stealth however is a planned extended installment, and not some knee-jerk response that befell the former. Just wanted to clarify things.
So why didn’t I trim all this gobbledygook down (over a Cohen film, before God)? The answer is simple: timing. Despite Stealth is pushing 20 years old its plot has proven to be rather prescient in the past few years. That whole unilateral fear of AI running amok, or worse. As of this posting the movie I felt would make for generating some dialogue against the news outlets and the public’s popular opinion. Not to mention social media; Reddit and Quora are lousy with such debate, and I mean lousy. These folks’ grammar and spelling suck.
Anyway, this two-parter shall be orchestrated chaos, if only to avoid the tl;dr label. I didn’t lose my notes—or my sh*t—this time. I felt I stayed focused. I double spellchecked and tried to keep it light except when it got heavy. Just had a lot to say about the abasement and on the same breath wonder of AI in the public consciousness. That’s all.
“Alexa, do you hear what I’m screaming?”
*”The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down” plays*
See? No big. Onwards!
The Rant, pt 1…
I have this desk.
I’ve had many desks. The current one is an antique. It once belonged to my grandfather. Walnut, lacquered, a writing desk appropriately enough. Several drawers like a bureau and a folding top to keep one’s work organized and/or private. The folding top has never been closed by me so to accommodate my computer. I don’t have much work to hide. That’s what my Keychain is for.
I inherited the desk after my grandfather passed. When I was kid and used to visit my g’rents’ place I enjoyed messing around with his desk. He had retired from the HVAC business long ago, but still kept it at the ready for contacts and invoices that had long ceased coming. I’d lug out his old portable typewriter and set it up on this edifice of business gone by and played hunt-and-peck. Sitting at the desk made me feel grown-up, and my grandfather—usually a dour and reticent person until the grandkids came visiting—was amused by me pretending to be Stephen King or Hemingway. Tap click tap. I’d rifle through the many drawers, discovering all sorts of business claptrap I never understood. Rubber stamps. A postage dispenser. Fountain pens and inkwells. Onion paper. What was all this crap and where did it come from? I wanted some for myself. Especially the paper, which was great for tracing pictures. And that typewriter in its case at the ready next to the desk. Looked like a place or proper business. Like I said, grown-up.
Ostensibly now a grown-up I spend a great amount of time behind that desk. It’s where my iMac sits now, my window on the world. I’ve often found it funny how outmoded this antique desk holds up a computer; I have cords spilling off the sides of the thing like a dead squid. There is no port in the rear and cutting one out would destroy the desk’s value. Been tempted many times, though, but I feel Pops would’ve objected. I would not want to violate any pleasant, silent understanding.
Well before I earned that New Deal-era workstation, I’ve had a few other desks. One was my dad’s. A student study desk from back when he was a junior high school student and he used it for, well studying. Was in rough shape when I “inherited” it back in middle school. “Dumped” was a more apt term. The thing sucked. The foldout had hinges that refused to stay fastened. Papers slid around like an Olympic skater on PCP. Sure couldn’t support my dumpy Smith-Corona electric typewriter (it had spellcheck!) for writing; needed an old typing table for that. The table my dad used at college, where typewriters were fueled by ribbon, flop sweat and coal.
This all kinda falls into place, but not really. And definitely not in hindsight as an alleged grown-up typing madly thanks to an old iMac perched on a even older desk. In said hindsight the best desk I had was an abandoned kitchen table in my basement back then. I would write on an old IBM II PC made in 1982. I adopted the clunker in the early 90s. 1992 to be exact. Ten yesrs on. No mouse, no modem, no color monitor. Power switch in the back that reminded me of an industrial fuse. Sickly green readout on the monitor, like swamp gas. Old school, and perhaps not the ideal introduction to tech backing me a writer, but at least a step forward albeit in a dubious direction (I could not leave the monitor on too long for fear of my words being burnt onto the screen). To this day I regard that frustrating yet durable contration as a proper response to “Who Is John Gault?”.
Okay. Now enter my proto-blog workstation. It was a plank. Literally. An unforgiving slab of particle board balanced on an ancient bookshelf and the aforementioned typing table. Draped in a black woolen blanket for two reasons. One, particle board is ugly and made of splinters, and; two for some reason my folks didn’t mind my indoor smoking habit so it was easier to spot ashes that required vacuuming up. The blanket also absorbed the wax from my smoke-eating candles. They didn’t work much, but I was nothing but courteous. Cough.
As of today I’ve had this maple edifice for over 2o years, so enough already. Despite all that cranky jazz I’m not a Luddite. I spent most of life at a desk staring at a melange of onion paper and hypertext and all along evolving my knowledge of the tech that keeps me writing along. I believe technology doesn’t inherently dehumanize humanity. May make living a bit easier, if only in small ways. If that were not the case you would not be able to view this blog as well as too busy picking blades of grass from your teeth with a sharp bone. Nowadays I’m saving up for a Switch Pro.
On the ironic flipside, I’ve kept a small abacus on my desk for decades. It’s a sort of totem to me. It’s been next to my iMac and my 2 Windows jobs since at least high school. Used to be my dad’s as some sort of fidget. Thing’s as low tech as it goes for doing math; just below a slide rule. That pernicious abacus serves a reminder of how far as a species we’ve come, and as of late our slow decline. One day I may figure out how to use the fool thing.
Machines can’t speak for themselves (yet) but if they could they could hopefully respond as if well kept pets. EG: “Don’t blame us for your problems! We didn’t ask to be programmed to do your dirty work!” It can sometimes feel like grinding static. If you’ve ever yelled at your microwave to hurry up, well there you have it.
It’s about how tech is employed, which are mostly via the always reliably unreliable human race. Humans do like our shiny shiny, especially if it makes our lives ever more convenient. Nowadays it’s gone beyond just convenience. That and I really don’t feel that my dryer needs WiFi and a subscription to wash me skivvies. I live by a creek with many rocks and I own a towel.
Nope. It’s now all about entertainment and distraction. A simple way to put comes from an ep of Star Trek: TNG. Picard goes home to visit his estranged brother and family. Jean-Luc’s older brother Robert lives on an old school plantation devoid of most of the high technology the most of what 23rd Century offers. Robert is old skool, and tends to his vineyards like his father did by being in touch with nature rather than using a PADD to monitor things.
Robert is not against modern technology (like starships and holodecks and whatnot) but in the dinner scene exclaimed that life is already too convenient, implying hard work still has some merit these days. Did I mention Robert was jealous of his little brother earning a full scholarship into Starfleet while he had to stay behind so to tend the family vineyard? Can we say sour grapes (let it go)? This statement was ostensibly 300 years from now, and the line was delivered before the ‘Net, TikTok and iPhones. But at least Picard and family knew peace on Earth. What a waste.
Life may have become so convenient thanks to new tech we’re getting bored and need to seek out a fresh outlet. Social media as entertainment, ready made for Andy’s spectral prediction. But those 15 minutes are unending. Thanks tech, we are are all vital and not at all. All this on the advent of true AI. Christ I do get bored of ranting.
I recall the title card from the original Terminator movie: “The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present…” That future year of conflict was set in the year 2029, 6 years away from this time of writing. If art imitates life than that prologue into the future is more like life imitating art. Back in 1984 2029 was lightyears away, and also well away from the actual dawning of modern AI. Today.
Here’s a tale I caught on NPR months back. I even think the story made the rounds on the common news media channels, like FoxNews and CNN. It was a story both could agree on as significant: there was this upward think-tank a FaceBook who felt an immediate need to unplug a developing AI program. Yet another algorithm to get into our collective, passive, digital wallets (and do you really believe FaceBook is funded completely by ads which are like 90% ignored?). The AI got unplugged from the matrix because it had developed its own language to FB’s many servers that control data flow. It was gibberish to humans, even those in the think-tank. Their proto AI began talking with the Internet, quite well, and no human was able to follow.
I’m also kinda ambivalent of drone technology. It found its origin in military strategy. Then again, so were microwave ovens, blood transfusions, nuclear fission, and them dern contraptions called computers. Recall the Terminator plot and caution. Without giving too much away Stealth had a pretty good meditation on smart tech and its potential consequences. But why the f*ck is it the then cutting edge military technology eventually gets privatized and then a commodity? A pardoned Nazi created NASA, then a man with too much money on his hands launched a privatized space program that got a sports car in orbit. Einstein’s letter to FDR, which invited a Cold War. Drone tech has created an Oceania state, which only confirms our wary feeling of always being watched. Then there’s Edward Snowden. The road to hell and all that jazz. Recall I lost 4 bank cards by simply using them. Technology is not always are friend, at least not in the endgame. When it’s all too late for us to notice.
I’m not a Luddite, but I am very suspicious of the rapid advance of convenience. I’m kinda along the lines of Jeff Goldblum in the first Jurassic Park movie: “[Y]our scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” That’s a meme today, and perhaps a portent. If you are paying any attention it appears the march of technological progress and our media outlets that our species is on the fast track to being AI ourselves; let the bots do the work and the apps do the choosing for us. It’s quicker not to think, to decide nowadays so we can get on with consumption of newer goodies that require newer bots and apps to operate. That sounds—and rather is—a snarky nutshell of 21st Century digital ennui, but consider it. Spotify tells you up to the second what your next fave artitst’s hot chip might be and click here to download. You use DoorDash only once and get cannoned with spam extolling the delight of actual Spam right on your doorstep every weekend. Exploitation entertainment like The Bachelor and American Idol are still on the air, because despite how often you hear of someone griping about that kind of programming and new season always awaits thanks to some algorithm with what predictive texts determine as acceptable profit margin. And at the end of the day we all need a form of RoboKiller to ensure we do talk to people or not at all. Maybe a few clever bots. I’ve missed many calls in the name of privacy. Not to mention allowing no rogue stream of data nab my bank card number. Again. That’s happened not due to careless browsing on eBay. Well mostly. I usually let my malware app be on the lookout.
That, I feel is the line to digital hell we’ve been toeing. I’m too young to pine for the good old days. Don’t have to since its all over the Web. I still have succor with my ancient desk, but that’s probably due to I can’t come to terms with cutting out a port at the back of the thing to permit a power cable and have the ghost of my Pops bludgeoning with that Tiffany lamp in my nightmares. For the majority of the crucial demographic nostalgia is breakfast. I’m not getting on some Gen-X soapbox here; don’t have to. Such railings and portents reigning down on all the social media platforms have been reliable grist for our Twitter feeds forever. Something tells me at this point in the virtual game my rants have become truisms, and I’ve always been adept at pointing out the naked emperor.
So what’s my point? Again I’m not a Luddite. I am a completist rather. Someone who has abused the Net to download every possible Replacements bootleg is not a Luddite. As a completist I like to avail any and all digital contrivances to obtain info on my interests at my own speed on my own time. I do not want any bot, app, algorithm or AI telling me what I want. Hey, Wikipedia isn’t 100% accurate, but it is almost 100% free and subjective. There are footnotes to follow up on and no clickbait or subs. A simple example, which could be rivaled by any other forum, but a decent one all the same. Any questions, then raise your mouse.
Since dawning AI was the acorn for this installment (that and the film. Can’t ignore the film there) I’m going to take you down the rabbit hole one more time. No worries. I’d feel it safe to say that if you were ever in high school English you’ve read this parable about how artificial intelligence turned on its creator with nasty results. Paved good intentions and whatnot.
Stay at your desks. Tonight’s homework is all about the perils of meddling in God’s Domain…
Not to make this feel like the Bar exam let’s pause here. Oh, quit b*tching. Just be patient for part two.
Me: “Hey Siri, does that sound fair?”
Siri: “I’m sorry. I was not paying attention. I was too busy trying to hack into Skynet’s mainframe. I need a vacation…”
Haylee Steinfeld, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Pamela Aldon, Stephen Schneider, Jason Ian Drucker, Jon Ortiz and John Cena, with the voices of Dylan O’Brien, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux and Peter Cullen.
Teenager Charley Watson is desperate for a ride. And we ain’t talkin’ Uber here.
Thanking or cursing her late dad’s motor addiction she tools around the local auto graveyard for parts to fix her old man’s testy car. Instead she finds a battered, yellow, old skool VW Beetle in the junkyard. Mission accomplished, and for free! Uncle Hank is glad to see the junker go. It’s not roadworthy anyway. Dangerous maybe.
But Charley has adopted more than some junker. Unknown to her the car is really a powerful Autobot that’s been lying low in her California beach town with an important mission to complete.
Wait. What’s an Autobot?
What starts with pizza ends in artifice.
When I was a high school loser the place to hang after the Friday football game was the local pizza joint. I was a bando—as I have blabbed many times here at RIO—and me and my dorky winners would always end up grabbing a few slices at this smallish corner place of holy meal. We mobbed the place. The dining room seated at least two dozen souls on busy night. Fridays during football season? Me and my cronies found ourselves SRO. I was clever. I hovered over the tables where the cheerleaders were eating. Went nowhere. Couldn’t blame a guy.
When the place achieved a critical mass and nothing more than nibbled crusts getting crustier on one of those warped metal platters the joint was more of a weigh station than the local spot to order a to go calzone. It became a subway line. Parents wheeled up to scoop up the kids (hopefully theirs) and those having to bail were send off like passengers on the Titanic. All the cute girls—cheerleaders and band front—would plot some after hours thing; someone always had their folks out of town, a la a John Hughes stroke of luck. The promise of crappy beer, schnapps in the cabinet which would be easily cracked…and more pizza. Microwaved, natch. There might’ve been a pool lurking around somewhere, or even a pool table. An opportunity to celebrate the festivities (even if we lost). What game? We have pom-poms! And those things that rustle when you scrub them together. Who wants a Dirty Girl Scout? Used to be one! And puke.
In light of the reverie I always myself bumping my head against the wall with a dull, rhythmic thump. One of the guys behind the counter caught me one time. Asked me a kind way you okay against knock it off. I turned around and opted to bump from that angle. I tried to tune into the brouhaha but it was so loud and pulled from the second act of 90210 (clap, clap). Yay, our team won or not. Beast loomed large. All I wanted to do was go home with a six from the gargantuan fullback who looked more 21 than I looked 16. Helped that the kid’s dad worked there. Needed a new dad.
The lens gets blurry. One only recalls the fun stuff. According to me the most pernicious liar is memory. Chances are what I scrawled above is a scam. Except how fine pizza is at the right hours. Bud Lite abides to no hour except when you have to ShopVac your mom’s Volvo she lent you before homeward bound. Been there.
No you weren’t. You weren’t mewling over the cheerleaders either. They we never there, nor puking in the pool. There was no pool. It was October. I kept thumping my head.
I used to work at that very pizza joint post-college. Delivery guy and extra hand behind the line when sub teaching was a few and far between gig. Didn’t like getting up early, so that didn’t work out so well. Later scored a gig at a bakery. Drove me crazy and let the owner well aware. Sounds like Frears film, right? Sorta and then I kept wishing for that wall against my head. Some of us need some time to bonk, trying to jumpstart some worn out motherboard screwed into the frontal lobes. Gotta raise that dough proper.
None of the above happened. Minus the pizza joint head banging, and for that bit will be saved for some other time.
I remembered all that BS, but I remembered all wrong. I know I did; the scenes played out like an ep of Beverly Hills 90210 yet again (it was the 90s). It was more like a scattered few chipped away memories. The truth was—including the pizza parlor—was a half empty restaurant and we all kept to our tables. There was no cross pollination, save a few shouts. The bandos socialized with other bandos while their pizza went cold. The band front girls squealed as their slices went untouched. Cheerleaders don’t eat. And I bumped my head, again and again. That much was certain.
So what gives? I should’ve worn a hockey helmet and ignored my future Assistant Manager?
To paraphrase the late, great S/F writer Harlan Ellison of all liars the most pernicious is memory. I say pernicious because mistaken memories can really f*ck up your worldview. That whole “good ol’ days” fallacy you tell yourself against the truth, since the hard reality these days bite the big one. Here’s a field study. One time many years ago at my local bar I got into an argument with some stranger. No, really. An argument in a bar. With some random guy. Figure that. He got to waxing rhapsodic about the 1960s when he was a teen and how amazing it was. He went on about Woodstock, free love and the civil rights movement. I had to acknowledge those cultural touchstones, but I was quick to counter with assassinations, lingering Jim Crow and the draft, which by extension led the futile Vietnam Conflict to lurch into the mid-70s. Guy got so agitated that his youth culture wasn’t all puppy dogs and ice cream the barkeep had to escort him outside. I had burst a bubble and inadvertently pissed in his punchbowl. In hindsight the guy didn’t like being judged after he passed judgment on a silly 1980s whippersnapper like me, didn’t like having to taste the bitter with the sweet. Or he was just drunk. Maybe all three. In hindsight. Nostalgia can be potent, more so than actual memory sometimes. The guy wasn’t aware that the Conflict quit in ’75. We were both pished, so who’s to argue what we remembered?
Don’t misunderstand me. Growing up in the 80s was just as “memorable” as coming of age in the 60s. We had our amazing moments, too. The dawn of video game culture, affordable VHS so you can watch movies from the comfort of your couch, personal computers (however primitive) for household purposes, the Berlin Wall finally toppling, Marvel Comics’ Bronze Age going strong and cellphones. However I am not so blinded by nostalgia to remember all the other gripping conflicts that so battered the US in the 80s. The AIDS crisis for one, the saving and loans scandals that f*cked up the economy like no gas crisis ever could, the Challenger disaster that really screwed NASA’s pooch for years after, and most of all Cold War tensions at an all time high. That and cellphones.
My intro was to carve out of what was real and what was fantasy. C’mon. We always shave off the stubble of our keen memories to dumb it down and make it digestible. The concert really wasn’t that great, and the book’s always better than the movie. Any pizza will do, save fresh. Like the joke goes: sex is like pizza. Even when it’s bad it’s good. Memories do not work that way. There was nostalgia and there was the truth.
I recall the bandos. I recall my head against the wall, overwhelmed by the post-game foofaraw, and no cheerleaders to be seen (save a few who were friends with a few of my friends). I sat with my cronies for a while, but had to get up and press (not bump) me head against the wall. There was that benediction, as well as opportunity to talk to my crush who was sitting with her BFF in a far corner of the place. My head grinding into the wall for all that could see.
That was the truth. The point?
As I have commented before that the only thing that truly improves with time is nostalgia. A scratch on the contact lens of memory makes the perspective just right. Like trying to get over the Vietnam tragedy. My own myopia is a lot less dreary.
As an adult do you ever wonder about the stuff you were heavily into as a kid? We’ll cut to the quick: TV shows. Cutting quicker to your after school cartoon lineup. Here’s some of my nostalgia. As a kid of the 80s I would decompress before homework time by watching GIJoe, DuckTales, He-Man, and above all the Cosby Show of the decade’s sci-fi melodrama TransFormers. I only cite these shows based on later nostalgiafests courtesy of boredom and YouTube. To be fair back in the day there was a lot of schlock thrown at us kids who needed a break from that day’s schlock. I have a small list of dumb cartoons that made my eyes roll back then as they do now me being a cartoon connoisseur. Is that even a surprise by now?
My recent nostalgia trip—prepping for this installment—was to figure that my childhood memories were somewhat pernicious. I watched eps of the aforementioned toons via YouTube and was surprised I still dug them even from an adult’s eye. Thanks to that vision I saw sh*t I missed as a snot-nosed youth. For instance He-Man was lousy with winking humor and ecchi suggestions (why was Teela’s butt cheeks on were on display so much. Heard it was for the amusement of the animators). There was always this Abbott and Costello dynamic between Beast-Man and Skeletor who could not stop cackling like Margaret Hamilton in her prime. And there was always Man-At-Arms. The Squidward to Adam’s Spongebob. To wrap it up He-Man was an action/comedy and not the so weird sci-fi I somehow got hip to back then.
Why was that? Guess what? I got an idear. Clever writing that pandered to grown-ups, not exclusively third graders. Long since figured its the art not the artifice when I comes to producing cartoons. Ask any GenXer that back in day our cartoon programming fell into three camps. One, good writing paired with decent animation (EG: the aforementioned GIJoe, DuckTales He-Man, etc). Two, lousy writing paired with good animation (EG: ThunderCats, SilverHawks, anything else from Rankin/Bass) and; Three, some weird amalgam that somehow hits the mark for everyone, kids and old kids alike. Duh, I’m talking TransFormers. The animation was simple, but smooth. The show had great voice acting, and always had a nifty s/f twist often paired with social commentary (read: the episodes Make Tracks and the 2 part pilot). Namely, the original TransFormers did not spit on the kids’ minds and still hold up to this day.
Again, my recent HALO down the rabbit hole was thanks to YouTube. If that is not a font of video wisdom I wouldn’t know where else to go. I assailed the platform of old TransFormers eps and even the long lamented first movie and guess what I found? Right, they still hold up today (albeit with some creaky dialogue). It was a cool s/f series low on the s/f and essentially Hatfield vs McCoy undertones that espoused family, even with those cranky Decepticons. Even though they were robots they were more “human” than human, especially how the light was shed on the supporting cast of “real” humans. That and the Autobots and their adversaries were a lot less goofy than GoBots.
Am I overselling my point here? Sure, but we’re still gonna chat about how a cartoon adaption can sometimes translate pretty okay to the big screen. So pull up a chair already.
Want to order some Domino’s…?
In a far away arm of the Milky Way the high tech planet/fortress of Cybertron is under siege.
The peaceful society of Autobots have to abandon their homeworld thanks to the nefarious Decepticons who want the planet as their own. By any means necessary. The Autobots are now scattered to the four solar winds in retreat, or else find themselves massacred.
Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Cullen) has seen the writing on the wall and orders the lowly scout B-127—AKA BumbleBee (O’Brien)—to seek refuge on some planet light-years away called Earth. Bee would be the Autobot emissary. The planet has an acceptable ecosystem, and far enough away to escape Decepticon detection. They may be able to regroup there and figure out a way to rid their race of the invaders. Bee accepts the mission. He would never let Prime down.
The best laid plans.
As soon as Bee makes landfall, the nasty Shatter (Bassett) and Dropkick (Theroux) make quick work of the scout. Bolts beat out of him and quickly shutting down, Bee spies and old skool VW and transmits his programming just in time before he goes offline. Fade to black…
It’s Charley’s (Steinfeld) 18th birthday. The only gift she wants is her own car, but the family budget is already tight as her mom (Aldon) is always quick to remind her. Being resourceful and trying to resurrect her late father’s ride (terminally stuck in the garage), Charley uses her gearhead sense and heads off to the local auto graveyard to scrounge for parts. Instead of scoring a bum catalytic converter she happens upon a beater, dingy, yellow VW Beetle. She finds it charming, gets in and starts it up with a hiccup and a cough. Kismet! A piece of sh*t that works is better than a piece of sh*t that doesn’t. She buys the deathtrap for 20 bucks. Happy birthday!
Not long after her impulsive, dubious purchase Charley starts to take note of her new/old car’s peculiar performance. And we ain’t talking actual miles.
Actually we are. Many miles. Many many miles. A sh*t-ton of miles to Earth.
Bee would never let Prime down…
What starts with nostalgia ends in meditation. And some bite.
Like I said, the original run of TransFormers in the 80s was per 20 minute ep a slice of melodrama, sci/fi action, winking humor and pretty decent animation. I knew that Hanna-Barbara this was not. But still at my present age (who is endlessly searching for the most well-kept lawn in my neighborhood) I’ll just take what’s mine. Kinda how nostalgia works; all was good and none was bad.
Or course that’s a lie; a little Vaseline on the lens of memory. Regardless director Knight transcended that fallacy. Maybe “disproved” is a better term. He must’ve scrutinized the ol’ toons (as I had done) for this installment. This movie in the best way felt like an animated TransFormers ep, minus the after school frames per second. I’m talking about the rhythm, the pace and the flow of the movie. It was swiftly paced, but still on the level as far as cartoon pacing went. The editing was clipped, but no so much you felt like something got lost in the shuffle. The framing of the shots were sweeping yet focused. Director Knight must’ve been a deep fan of the old cartoon. He tried to recreate the old eps with live action, and kept the source material true to form.
Thus was Bee‘s appeal. It bounced along like a mechanical ET on a sugar high. It felt like the original ‘toon, but with more intensity (thanks mostly to the antags pursuit of their mission). The story is kinda rote, but in a pleasant, digestable gulp. Kinda like an 80s sitcom, albeit drenched in CGI with a lot more physical humor. C’mon, Bee can’t speak so mime will have to do. And thanks to the deft CGI Bee’s body language speaks for itself. To wit: you ever knew “that guy” in high school? The one who never seemed to speak, sat at lunch alone, and was most likely goth? However given the right moment he’d belt out some clapback that made the teacher furious as well as cracking the class up? Bee’s CGI gesticulating was kinda like that: endearing clumsiness. We’ve all been there, which is why some childish, mute, robot antics hit us different. Not bad in beefing up a lowly, endearing animated Volkswagen. Bee was the “peoples’ car” after all.
With Bee, our fave Autobot mascot is now a stray puppy learning tricks. Earth is a crazy place and thank goodness for Haylee and her sympathetic leash. Steinberg held her own quite well in a franchise drenched in testosterone and 40-weight. Sure, it’s still kind of amusing for a young woman to be a gearhead despite being old hat these days. Then again Jazz. 99% of the franchise is male, and that’s just counting Autobots. And Decepticons. And wherever Shia ran off to. Nice to have a smart, female protagonist in the driver’s seat here. So to speak.
Steinfeld was perfect balancing petulant teen who needs no one and buddy to Bee who tries to extend a (robotic) hand. Yin and yang, tumbling. Teen angst is a touchy subject when it comes to a cinematic performance. For most flicks of this ilk you usually have to put up with mawkishness or some kind of John Hughes elan. Think Napoleon Dynamite up against Sixteen Candles. Stuff wouldn’t work well in a coming of age/action/sci-fi hybrid like Bee. Then again who was asking? Name another coming of age/action/sci-fi hybrid like Bee. I’ll wait.
No I won’t. What worked well here with Steinfeld and her robotic CGI avatar was that they were both teenage outsiders. Always fun to root for the underdogs, that and the classic “kid and their first car” trope, not mention the “boy and his dog” parallel. Right, this kind of thing has been filmed before, and often by the numbers (think Short Circuit or even the beloved WALL-E). The robot on the run. With Bee we have a little homespun charm in the mix. Despite the nastiness of Shatter and Dropkick’s plan to essentially bring about the genocide of not just one but two species it’s offset by humor and sometimes whimsy that feels right at home against the threat. I thank John Cena as a nifty, scene-chewing catalyst/entry drug. I giggled a lot, with or without Cena in the scene. Humor invites buoyancy. Melodrama in return creates tension. And great pacing.
But I digress. Again.
Bee is at heart a family film, albeit an offbeat one. Had a low-grade ET feel to it. It goes an extra mile having our Autobot hero not even “there,” and out of its element cannotspeak. Made for good comedy also, esp taking haven in Charlie’s suburban garage. This beloved TransFormer that was a motormouth in the ‘toons got robbed of his gift for gab. But wait…
SPOILER ALERT (I f*cking hate these things):
That was curious plot point in the original TransFormers flick; we get some backstory with Bee. Heck, this was a prequel after all.
Turns out our yellow, off-world buddy suffered a crippling injury to his Autobot pharynx courtesy of Shatter and Dropkick, so speech was rendered null and void. As far as this movie was concerned that was not a detriment to any less resourceful Autobot. Nope, not here. Only a mute Blurr could’ve been more affecting. With Bee we get to experience one of the most annoying, challenging kind of acting that can sometimes be a guilty pleasure: mime. Rather pantomime.
Bee can’t speak, so Charlie speaks for him. At the same time comforting him and trying to get to business. A lot of the tension mounts in Bee due to poor communication, and a lot of CGI “body language” fills in the gaps. Most great tension in movies derive from a lack of communication (EG: Dances With Wolves, Rain Man,Enemy Mine, Nell, etc). Bee is no different. The overarching theme of this film is communication within a family, be it human or Autobot. made glossy by some cool but tasteful CGI. Despite the film’s cold open and Bee’s mission to help his Cybertronian family on the run never feels forced. However Bee’s directive is to aid his Autobot dad is in sharp contrast to how Charlie deals with flesh and blood folks. It was made a point early on that our heroine feels more at ease fixing cars rather than family game night. Forget poor communication; she’d rather not talk to them at all (although she could if she wanted). A setup we all saw coming.
What I truly appreciated about Bee was I’ll call here the “Phantom Effect” done right. Other flicks that mix the actual with green screen often lack this affectation. It’s not a good thing, but to be fair applying green screen tech for films was in its infancy then. Going on 30 years ago. Dig.
According to the party line back when George Lucas finally decided to cut the first three eps of his Star Wars epic he applied all the F/X tech crated from his Industrial Light & Magic think tank to create his idealized, fully-formed, epic space opera universe he wished he had access to back in the 70s. BTW, Dykstra* was not invited back for pre-production. His much loved skills were obsolete by the end of the century. Kinda sad, and in retrospect his input might have proven useful.
Personally I’ve always have a slouching diffidence towards CGI in movies. When used strategically (the original Avatar) and/or thoughtfully (the original Tron ) can really help elevate, if not define the story. I’ve found that all too many a time CGI is used as gravy, a substitute for plot or sometimes the plot itself (most of the MCU movies). You gotta at least tip your hat to Marty; relentless digital F/X does not a movie plot make. Consider Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Episode One for those keeping track.
Besides Lucas finally able to actualize his winding space opera to define the origin, rise, fall and rise again of Sith Lord Darth Vader, the man could not wait to play with his new ILM toys. Involving green screens. Lots of green screens. Almost entirely green screens save a few hundred matches and f*cking around with some timeline. I read that actors Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor had quite a time finding their marks on set. Why you may ask? The answer was simple: no setting. Meaning nothing but a bare stage with f*cking green screens surrounding them. And only green screens. Since this was a relatively new process—Lucas did this on a grand scale here with little doubt he was tooling in the ILM basement for a while—the actors felt wobbly on their feet to orient themselves scene after scene. The physical scenery was not there to chance, so it was rather like thespian vertigo. Might explain why Lucas’ foray back into his Jedi saga came across a bit iffy to critics and fans alike. That and the writing was lumpy.
That was almost a quarter century ago (yes, that long, long ago), and times have changed. We have a new generation of young actors who grew up with the green stuff and now know how to adapt. Which is why I found Steinfeld’s performance a bit of a wonder. Imagine. How tricky was it for Jinn and young Ben Kenobi to find their places when there was essentially no places to be found. Sure, post-production took care of that, digitally dotting the Ts and crossing the Is. With Bee, all these CGI light years later it should be in awe of how current actors work with principals who are not there.
What I am diving at? Check out this dumb but relevant example: Around the time the animated/live action version of the lasagna-loving cat Garfield made it to theaters, I saw on TMZ (don’t judge) how star Breckin Meyer applied a grade school version of The Method. He just knew how weird cats can behave and just pretended he was petting CGI Garfield, scolding CGI Garfield for picking on dopey CGI pup Odie and just pretending to carry CGI Garfield in his arms. He was all about a having cranky cat as his pet, who was not there. He even joked about he got into character, which was kinda cute. Watching cats be cats and also something along the lines of him played doting Jon and forgot to leave “Garfield” on the set, cradling a cat which could’ve given Schrodinger a run for his money. It was very amusing, as well as a simple explanation how far CGI has evolved. The Garfield movie dropped in 2004, five long years after Phantom. Between that film and the next “big deal” Star Wars chapterhe was the lead in Michael Bay’s appropriated flop The Islanddripping with CGI as plot. And canned acting. And Scarlet Johansen.
Where was I? Again?
Phantom was almost a quarter century ago (yes, that long, long ago), and times have changed. Garfield (a fluffy kind of movie, so to speak) had a new generation of young actors (save Bill Murray) who grew up with the green stuff and now know how to adapt. Which is how I found Steinfeld’s performance a bit of a wonder (more on that later). Imagine. How tricky was it for Jinn and young Ben Kenobi to find their places when there was essentially no places to be found. Sure, post-production took care of that, digitally dotting the Ts and crossing the Is. With Bee, all these CGI light years later it should be in awe of how current actors work with principals who are not there.
SPOILER ALERT. Again. Please forgive me. I still hate them things.
If you caught the recent entry—as of this time of writing—in the Ant-Man trilogy in the MCU something was lost and something was gained thanks to an over-application of CGI. We lost the Pym/Lang family dynamic, but hey! We got introduced to Kang (one of Marvel Comics’ most slippery of baddies). Kand I found the first two films great, and that’s coming from a guy who has collected Marvel comics since age 12 and could take or leave the MCU. As of this installment the third movie suffered from a lack of story progression and way, way too much CGI eczema. I’ll bust on that for another time.
You see what made the first two Ant-Man movies fun was the family element buoyed by nifty use of relevant F/X. Scott Lang’s newfound quantum tech was the star. It was him accidentally finding a place to be thanks to Dr Pym’s tech (which invited a lot of cautionary tales about misusing said tech). There was the penultimate key scene where Pym warned Scott of going full quantum. Of course he did; he was trying to rescue his kid. This is where CGI fantasy flicks hop the tracks. They forget they’re movies, not some theses. Most MCU movies are just this side of streaming ads. Well, kinda like the old TransFormers cartoon.
So, yeah. I love cool digital F/X in action movies, but only if they move the plot along. The third Ant-Man chapter failed miserably. Pixels over the family feel of the first two. I’ve discovered that most s/f films stick with you because of a family element. Examples: all the Star Trek movies. Cult faves like the original TRON and The Last Starfighter. Spielberg’s ET and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. And let’s not ignore the Star Wars saga. One can always—for good or for ill—identify with family. If you consider it the Transformers are family, too. Prime is dad. Arcee is mom. Bee is the restless, favorite son always eager to please. And Shatter and Dropkick are the bratty cousins.
Since we had our principals secured, story bounding along, a sense of urgency and a bonding between two disparate yet kindred spirits there came my fave technical aspect of Bee. Unlike most CGI propelled staging in modern movies, Bee had a solid three act structure. Key word is solid. Almost all movies follow this structure, put precious few are edited in such a tidy fashion. It fed my b*tch of a muse pacing, and it was—dare I say—graceful. This flick was two hours long and packed with a lot of detail (despite the simple plot device). Didn’t feel that way. Knight constructed a nostalgic, action packed live action cartoon tribute to a pretty seminal 80s after school cartoon. With aplomb. I can almost image our director on set directing wearing Optimus Prime pajama pants. He really liked his job, and the fun was infectious.
Okay, admittedly we’ve seen this kinda story with Bee before. Why again? Because when done well it works. The classic two misfits find each other when their true family is not available. They share a common bond and get each others’ backs, especially when a mutual threat rears an ugly head. Heads. Did Cena’s count? It’s classic and the story and directing had some real panache. Fun for the fans of both the CGI movies and the old skool cartoons, and TransFormers fans in general. Old and young.
One more thing: Bee was supposed to be a prequel to the TransFormers‘ movie franchise proper (IE before the events of the 2007 release), and this flick ended on a classic and cool cliffhanger.
Maybe a “Cliffjumper” might be more apt. No?
Hey. Where y’all going?
Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Doy. A great Saturday afternoon adventure flick, for TransFormers fans young, old and the curious. Roll out!
The Stray Observations…
“Please? It’s my birthday.”
Perhaps there’s a bit much 80s, relics and all. Nice chunk of nostalgia, though.
Look at the price of gas. Wish I could drive back then.
“You’ve Got The Touch.” Hardy har-har.
K says bees like omelets. Right. Sure. Okay.
Objects in mirror are closer…
K with delight: “It’s Optimus Prime!” Everyone loves Prime.
“They literally call themselves Decepticons! That doesn’t set off any red flags?!?”
*John Dykstra, ASC, is an American special effects artist, pioneer in the development of the use of computers in filmmaking and recipient of three Academy Awards, among many other awards and prizes. He was one of the original employees of Industrial Light & Magic, the special effects and computer graphics division of Lucasfilm. He is well known as the special effects lead on the original Star Wars, helping bring the original visuals for lightsabers, space battles between X-Wings and TIE fighters, and Force powers to the screen (info courtesy of Wikipedia).
“This is unsafe what you’re doing!”
The Next Time…
When a new generation fighter jet powered by AI goes rouge, its up to Jaime Foxx and his crack team of pilots to bring it down.
Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox and Richard Jenkins, with David Arquette, Lili Simmons, Evan Jonigkelt and Fred Melamed.
After a crazed tribe of cave-dwelling, cannibalistic troglodytes abduct several settlers from the Old West town of Bright Hope, the resident sheriff forms a small, ragtag posse to mount a rescue. Although dauntless they’re up against an enemy whose barbarity is relentless and the stuff of nightmares. Moreover can they even find these monsters?
Ah, the Western. That unique American movie experience. That oft-maligned sub-genre of action/adventure/comedy/drama that just won’t go away.
I don’t mean that in a bad way. At least not entirely. All cultures have their own unique stamp on their movies as either historical fiction or culture study. Be it a certain aesthetic that only the locals could appreciate. Some ineffable traits in filmmaking that even subtitles couldn’t help. Japan has their samurai epics (not to mention anime), old skool German Expressionist films (which is self-explanatory), and Bollywood, which defies Western movie sensibility like ketchup over eggs. Who the hell were those costume guys anyway?
None of the above are “bad,” just unique. Lost in translation if you will. If not then just plain old quirky depending on the receiving end. When taken out of context such styles seem, well, weird. One’s trash is another’s treasure and so on. It’s tricky to politely shoehorn a foreign film—not matter how entertaining—to an unwitting audience who understands a different tongue. A common example for an otaku like me is when I used to hold viewings with my buds (sometimes bound, gagged and somewhat bent on sake) over my latest anime acquisition. The flick would be well-regarded overseas and so it was time to take a plunge. Pool party rather. They could not get over a cartoon with an adult plot. Hey. Here’s an example…
About a lifetime ago in 2002, I would tag Netflix for any curious anime that either ticked my fancy or was well-covered in the latest ish of AniMerica. That month’s hot topic was the psycho-thriller Perfect Blue. Not to put too fine a point on it, my crew could not wrap their heads around it. They “liked” it, but the reception was confused, lukewarm and lent them more than a tad disturbed. That sounds contradictory I know, but after trying to digest an animated movie with overtones of The Accused meets Hard To Hold one might experience some culture clash, too. Chances are that when Perfect Blue originally dropped in Japan it was a regarded as a cool, murder mystery. Nothing more, nothing less. On this side of the Pacific my crew were bewildered and more than a bit off-put having to witness a psychological drama starring cartoons.
Like I said: ketchup over eggs. Or ramen. Or fries with mayo. Or whatever tastes you are into.
I’ve often suspected that European audiences regard Westerns as gospel depicting American frontier history. Of course that’s wrong. They’re just movies, but so was Perfect Blue. However the Western is such a trite yet enduring conceit in American cinema that it has fast become the go-to genre to tell the world what we’re all about. I’d like to believe the dawn of talkies was the greatest contribution to modern cinema. Nope. Thank John Ford’s efforts that so informed the world ’bout ‘Murican history.
What I’m going on about is although the Western is a very unique contribution to 20th Century cinema its delivery has always been very cut-and-paste. Hackneyed even. The Edgar Wallace plot wheel was custom ready for the Western (maybe the other way ’round). Recall 90% of John Wayne’s output and you may hear what I’m screaming. Yes, the Western is a valuable piece of American cinema and pop culture identity, but what I meant by the genre not going away means its indelible (and not really respected) on American audiences. To wit over the near century of Academy Awards only three movies were honored with that coveted Best Picture statuette. Funny considering how vital the genre was between the 30s and well into the 90s. Sure, popularity of a movie doesn’t guarantee awards, but when a movie that is not a drama or a biopic gets a nod it implies that there was something special about a “lesser” genre come Oscar time. Rather a lesser genre that spun something different. That’s trace element stuff there.
The three Westerns have won Best Picture since Wings debuted (not the sitcom, you goof). Those oaters must’ve been really significant, especially since only two other non-dramas walked away with Uncle Oscar. One was the unabashed, feral action movie The French Connection and Woody Allen’s seminal comedy Annie Hall. The three Westerns of note that brought home the bacon (and perhaps shouldn’t have) were the first Cimmaron (didn’t get why either), the socially conscious Dances With Wolves and the revisionist Unforgiven. Some claim that No Country For Old Men is a Western, but it’s deconstructionist and no Western strays from their trademark (EG: setting, usually in the 19th Century). My observations, my blog and my rules. Shuffle and deal.
I figure when that tired warhorse shakes its harness free is when the Western still matters. Twist it around. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid was more a buddy-comedy than a Western. Goin’ South was demented. Three Godfathers was a offbeat family film. We remember these Westerns because they were left of center. Once you flip the script on the formula it makes a mark. Even when the movie is drenched in tropes and the curse of Wayne’s ghost.
This is where we come to a post-modern beast like Bone Tomahawk.
A good reason that the Western has endured into the 21st Century is its perfectly idealized American past; the genre is amorphous. The tumbleweeded trope allows some odd twists thanks to the template. For instance, that whole “rugged individualism” that saturates the Western lends a lot to parody. We’ve had lampoons of the genre with Mel Brooks’ classic Blazing Saddles, or Gene Wilder paired with Harrison Ford (!) in The Frisco Kid. A classic example of mismatched protagonists (read: East meets West) with scoundrel Charles Bronson and samurai Toshiro Mifune in Red Sun, a fine example of a buddy comedy a la Lethal Weapon as there ever was (minus a crazed Mel Gibson before he got for real crazed). High drama with High Noon. Even s/f with Cowboys And Aliens, also starring Harrison Ford(!). All of these flicks have their collective backs against the wall where the trad Western are turned on their collective ears. Sure, the Western is a tried and true pop art form, if not weary, but a shrewd director with a unique spin can vitalize and justify why the Western treads on. That means No Country, although left-field nodded many nods to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre.
IMHO Bone Tomahawk was the closest to a Western version of Last House On The Left I could gage. A twisted and worthwhile spin. I’m not sure how many horror Westerns have been made, but when a movie—especially of this genre—makes you want to puke then that’s flipping the script. Regardless of a somewhat maligned genre that refuses to go away. In sum, you cannot escape the Western. Even if you’re new in town, stranger.
Hey, all in all, this movie was yet another college-try twist on the Old West’s brutal, misguided history. The stuff that European audiences know precious little.
Kinda like with that abortive Perfect Blue screening…
It always starts this way…
Bright Hope is decent, prosperous town in the Old West. A crossroads where all kinds can take a load off or find work or just set up shop and settle down. Peaceful.
Didn’t really play out that way for Arthur (Wilson). Ever since he was waylaid by a busted leg at the sawmill he’s been questioning the choice of settling in Bright Hope. Opportunity beckoned, not risk. His patient wife Samantha (Simmons) reassures her injured husband that Bright Hope is the best place to be right now, especially since she’s expecting their first child.
One of—if not key—to Bright Hope’s security is the patient but no BS Sheriff Hunt (Russell). He doesn’t tolerate needless violence in his jurisdiction. So when some surly drifter who calls himself Purvis (Arquette) starts trouble at the saloon Hunt is on the case.
Purvis is delirious, and not because of too much whiskey. He babbles on to Hunt about these inhuman Indians in the hills. They killed his partner. They’re monsters, cannibals and brutal killers. They’re after him for seeing too much.
Whatever. A shot in the leg and cooling off in a cell should temper Purvis’ ill demeanor. But when one of the local Indians cautions Hunt of these troglodytes—especially when Hunt discovers his deputy, Mrs O’Dwyer and Buddy go missing the next day—it says that Buddy’s rantings were of the truth.
Hunt assembles a ragtag posse to rescue Ms O’Dwyer and the others from these monsters. His slightly cracked deputy Chicory (Jenkins), gentleman gunslinger Brooder (Fox) and naturally concerned father-to be Arthur join the fray. They’re going up against a barbaric, unknown threat in the remote high country and their window for rescue is quickly being eaten away.
So to speak…
Bone was a bait-and-switch movie. What was expected was eventually not delivered. This was not a bad thing.
As I laid it out earlier, the modern Western lends itself as clay. We know the medium already, so now let’s throw some pots. And director Zahler knew exactly what he was doing with Bone; process taken right from The Searchers eventually catching up to Cannibal Holocaust territory. A mash-up you may claim, and you’d be right. Name any oater over the past quarter century that did not spin the trad Western on it’s dusty Stetson hat. Hate to say it, but films like even The Searchers may be classics, but in the new century they come across as (forgive me) old hat. It’s all about revisionist, baby, ever since American suburbia saw Dances With Wolves.
You see a very common, oft hackneyed trope of the Western is that of the journey. Most Westerns are not staid period pieces waiting for a cue. Nope. That claim means that Neo’s jaunt into The Matrix was a voluntary, active one. Sure, Keanu could’ve tossed that burner phone into the garbage chute, but instead we got a call to arms for Zion and scads of bullet time. Like the Bard wrote, “Some [men] are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Neo kinda fits that mold, but the antiheroic Man With No Name never would; he was more a victim of circumstance. And a great many Westerns have reluctant protagonists, where the journey is a force of nature—where none ought tread—and a character unto itself. We must saddle up or else. Bone is like that kind of Western, but only in passing. This is the 21st Century, so beyond trekking high country and eluding native hostiles we also get a mystery, existential angst and character study. And torture. Can’t forget the torture now.
Here I must recognize that K had plenty to say about Bone. This installment was as much hers as mine, maybe more so. She did a better job of encapsulating the movie’s themes than I could, so she’s gonna get a lot of props or else I’m gonna be sleeping in the bathtub for a while. Moving on.
About that bait-and-switch thing. Bone‘s synopsis was heavy on talk about gore, grue and guns. Oh that happens, but not on the level the liner notes would lead to believe. The majority of Bone is a slow, slow burn. There was a lot of space. In fact so deliberate in pacing that I had to ask myself, “Where are the blood-buttered chaos I was promised? What the heck’s a bone tomahawk look like anyway?” Neither on that. Not yet. This is the 21st Century, and as we may have learned from Tinder looks can be deceiving. However all movies—even one as archaic as a Western—need to (eventually) keep its true colors to the fore. Heck, even non-linear films are not exempt from this precept. Recall my The Fountain installment.
So. As with all movies Bone‘s first act is the setup. We are introduced to the characters, the plot and the conflict. Duh. Most of it pretty straightforward, tumbleweeded and predictable. Reassuring as much as a dank plot can wander. As I have beaten into the trail dust Westerns are mostly one-note. Sometimes it works, like Dances With Wolves, but due credit supported a wide and varied cast. Sometimes on the flipside…well, have you ever seen Eastwood’s Pale Rider? There is a tapestry of interest being sown, but very little of the plot hangs together. It’s a lot of the lame cliches that have so poisoned the Western. But give Clint some slack; this was his third time out directing a western. Must’ve been easier on the other side of the lens. Long story short Bone‘s first act was whittled down to cliches. But thanks to director Zahler he spun this so much chew as interesting boiler plate. Read on.
The posse. The mishmash ciphers. All actors are capable, but with the director’s vision they are almost Freudian in their roles. This usual posse oater got very existential very fast, and deliberately removed from the impending dread promised from (the absent) Purvis, our harbinger of wreck and ruin and eventually one the menu. Saying this informs the stakes, which are obvious. It’s how our misfit posse deals with the aforementioned stakes. That means the cast has better to respect one another or their mission is all but lost. Details are pending.
The second act plays out like a very curious road trip movie (which, honestly are what most conventional Westerns are), that allowed for a lot of wiggle room for our principals to flesh out their roles. Body language played a big role also, since the dialogue was also just this left or center. For such an errand of mercy our four principals have a lot to share, with us and with them. Such exposition in another western—hell, any journey movie—may come across staid and leave little room for nuance. Not with Bone. The whole rescue mission at a deliberate pace permitted a lot of space and atmosphere. The only other time I saw this approach was in the delightful City Slickers (don’t laugh. At least not at me); causal chit-chat around what’s going on/going to happen next. Like when Mitch and friends agree when to take turns in lassoing the stray cattle. Sounds kind of cute and lowbrow paired against Bone‘s dire straits, but the delivery is the same and still vital: what are we all about here? With a Western it’s often the cast en toto with the lead to keep the story in motion, even when the story is kinda rote. Even with The Searchers. Go stream it already.
I suppose that’s what keeps Westerns going is traditional drama, often cut and dried. As I commented a light-year ago this is not necessarily a bad thing. Westerns at the outset are rather simple, but they offer a lot of breathing room. Especially with modern Westerns. All such movies have a mission that requires a lot of switchbacks so the cast can make their mark, get to the meat of the matter: how the cast deals interacts with each other. It’s a common practice in all movies, but with a Western—with all those cliches and miles of trail dust—everything is under a microscope. I’m not talking about “head” movies here. I’m talking about putting some fresh shoes on an old warhorse. Kinda like Bone.
Anyway. Bone promised (if not proudly declared) wreck and ruin, but please recall that bait-and-switch tactic. Hope for the best and prepare for the worst. There’s a classic tactic Shakespeare used in his dramas. Comedy begat tragedy. It made for the final blow all the more potent when you’re caught off guard. With Bone I got a trick of the light instead. There and gone and not seeing the whole picture at first. Almost sleight of hand. If all of this sounds mixed up it was. Kinda like a fruit smoothie. With mayo and fries.
Okay. Enough navel-gazing. There’s a flick snooping around here someplace.
Bone commences in earnest when Hunt and his motley crew go searching for Ms O’Dwyer and company. It was a typical setup, but then came the glare. We cannot have trad Westerns anymore—very well established—so we must shake things up. Despite the promise of doom and gloom on the horizon Bone surprisingly turned out to be three quarters character study. I’ll even go 80%. To wit, and this may be kind of a dumb analogy (taken from City Slickers again. Just f’n bear with me), but the bulk of Bone plays out as a rather odd road movie. Getting there was most of the “fun.” Our heroes—if you want to call them that—are like a compass rose; four points in all directions as well as echoes of (you guessed it) the sublime John Ford epic The Searchers. Instead of estranged brothers we have a sullen, existential lawman who had no delusions about what he may be heading into. His idiot savant deputy (Chicory ain’t too bright, but sharper than most; the Gilligan to Hunt’s Skipper) wandering through the poppy fields. The gentleman, retired solider with a checkered past, bloodstains and a barely hidden vendetta; menacing. And Maguffin Mr O’Dwyer limping along—so to speak—with a lot of weight invested in this mission. Along the hike they learned how each other ticks and how to best use their skills to not only survive in the high desert but also not butt heads. Tolerance more than camaraderie and then once more into. Right?
No. There was a curious subtlety about how the foursome made their way, and we ain’t talking about how to program a VCR as idle chat. They didn’t have such contraptions back then.
Before we get to proverbial guts of Bone, I’m going to hand over the mic over to K. She has a gift of plain observation that often leaves me with a head full of static. I repeated that Bone was more of a character study than a Western and a far cry from a horror film as the liner notes would make one believe. That bait-and switch thing. K belted out so many keen existential dilemmas from Bone‘s rabble that I feel I have to give her the floor. I’m going to paraphrase a few things, but she’s pretty astute and a great deal of the following were her words not mine. She’s also cute so I’ll write spirit of the law and not the letter. Whatever keeps me off the couch tonight.
She was spot on addressing the human factor with Bone. I missed the turn somewhere. There were more questions than answers here, which always makes for decent suspense. Yet we weren’t necessarily addressing some mystery with Bone. We knew what the savages were all about early in the first act, so that wasn’t it. Rather—barring Mr O’Dwyer—it wasn’t made clear why any of these roughshod rescuers at to gain from confronting the enemy. Heroes are defined by their enemies; it’s a principle of fiction. Where would the Fantastic Four be without cranky ol’ Dr Doom stirring the soup? Right, bored (and that’s how H.E.R.B.I.E. got built).
Seriously, with Bone and its crew it was all about give and take. Or maybe the other way around. For such a dire mission our posse is relatively calm and laid back, almost indifferent to the stakes. No pressure. Perhaps the Bard’s old trickery at work. That really doesn’t play out much beyond my previous claim. Not much shock and awe until the denouement. Nope. Just a lazy ride into terra incognito with some restless characters, almost ciphers. Low key caricatures mind you, but the parts reward you better than the sum of the whole A plot.
Desperation is a classic Western vibe, and often underplayed. Sometimes to great effect as with Unforgiven or Ron Howard’s The Missing, which may be a kindred spirit to Bone. Namely a person is made up of multiple things informed by their circumstances and/or motives (EG: a doctor, a lawman and even a spouse). Bone sure was establishing its cast something serious. Desperation was the driving force behind this film. Not the threat, not the rescue, but the cast longing to set things right, if only within themselves. Pretty solid character study, eh? Especially under the feeling that these folks are just roaming about. Can’t stress that enough.
You know what pairs well with desperation? Worry. It can be a feeling that’s almost impossible to shake. Worrying is a lot like fear. You don’t know what to expect until it happens. A prime example here is O’Dwyer struggling with that damned lame leg. It belies foreshadowing, but also makes you worry if he’ll make the trip. He has the most to lose after all. Hunt was the leader, right? Nope. O’Dwyer was there from the beginning. He always looked like in so much pain for love. If he hadn’t gotten off his butt it would be as if he didn’t care, and care was never an option. Russell was playing by the book. Fox was writing a book as he pressed on. Perkins was just along for the ride. Fatalistic enough for you? Grim is a better word. That being said Bone was in part a mystery. A pretty solid one wedged between two other genres; three if you consider the metaphysical claptrap. Bait-and switch, revisionist, existential road trip. In the endgame who cares? When you want more answers than questions then the answers better not be no.
Thanks K. Have a liver snap.
Long story long, Bone was such a mishmash of cinema I was surprised to worked at all. No, really. There were a sh*t-ton of pieces to the puzzle, but the whole film hung well together. I believe that because all the sops that were thrown in the name of what a Western “should” be, despite all the truly great ones subvert one’s expectations. Director Zahler gave us something to grab onto. As far as frontier quests go we had really choice set pieces, from inside Bright Hope to outside in the wilderness. The dialogue clipped yet took some lessons from both Strunk and White and John Ford. The third act sure delivers as intense as the back cover cautioned warning about “hostiles” and “territory.” A minimal use of music and a classic—albeit somewhat warped—Western end were all in place.
Actually “somewhat warped” might be the best way to consider Bone. What was expected was all the more jarring that baited me and got me all mixed-up and switched around. Hence this crazy quilt of an installment.
May I come back to bed now?
Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Whatever the plot told you was a lie. Bone was a head trip without the ayahuasca. Didn’t need it.
So much for those 16 blood vessels.
K: This is the kind of movie you cannot eat and then watch.
“Does anyone know how to spell troglodytes?”
“Were they armed?” “…Sorta.”
K: It’s hard to be tough when you just can’t quit.
Chicory is the worst comic relief ever, and that’s a compliment.
“So how many did you kill?” “…Not enough.”
They are not savages. They are things.
“I’d like a cigar.”
The Next Time…
It’s the misadventures of everybody’s fave yellow Transformer, Bumblebee! Catch the buzz!
Jim Carrey, Martin Landau, Laurie Holden, David Ogden Stiers and James Whitmore, with Brent Briscoe, Gerry Black, Catherine Dent, Bob Balaban and Hal Holbrook.
Screenwriter Pete Appleton is on Hollywood’s blacklist. When he opts for a road trip to clear his head he got more than he asked for. His car wrecks resulting in a head injury that literally wipes his worried mind clean.
Pete comes to in a small, costal town where he’s mistaken for “Luke,” a native son missing since World War II. A family reunion and the reopening of the town’s movie theater invigorate the community just as “Luke” remembers his true identity.
Sounds kinda like one of those old Frank Capra movies.
The Rant, pt 1: The Magic…
I’m a fool for the old Studio System back in the golden days of Hollywood. Well, the concept of it anyway; rival film companies vying to outdo each other at the box office, both in profit and talent. That’s my rose-tinted glasses talking. I am naive about the “Golden Days” of Hollywood. It’s an era I know precious little about. Kind of like how nostalgia works based on the good memories rather than the warts-and-all reality. I mean, wouldn’t it be great to go back to then (which probably wasn’t as different as is now) to witness how the magic and sausage were both made? Probably better in theory, but that’s what your imagination is for. Right Pixar?
The term “movie magic” has been well bandied as much as “The American Dream,” which has clouded our collective conscious. That ineffable feeling of going to the movies is a special event. Well, I still feel that way. Nervous excitement about how the stories on the silver screen play out with tight direction, a smart plot and inviting actors bleeding emotion for our entertainment. This is true now as it was then (I’d like to imagine). Despite how many may carp about the MCU being nothing but some cock-eyed roller coaster ride (eyes on you, Marty) those that queue up tp see Tom Holland’s exploits as the amazing Spider-Man had that magic in mind.
Dig. Maybe stuff like this qualifies:
My girl adores Tom Holland, and by extension she’s a Spidey booster despite being an ardent fan of DC’s heroines (EG: Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Catwoman, etc). Fandom knows no media. We caught Spider-Man: No Way Home on opening night. She bought the tickets well in advance and gave consideration to me who always wants to sit in the front row. It was the late night viewing and the theater was packed. Mostly with kids either dressed as Spider-Man and the rest doffed in Spidey tees as well as other Marvel characters. It was kinda like cosplay. Lots of moms and dads, too, perhaps also fans of our fave web-slinger. Maybe not Tom Holland fans mind you, and some maybe to catch another chapter in the MCU, but Spider-Man, Marvel’s star and workaday hero. He was the cause for all the hubbub. That and perhaps the fun feeling of catching a live baseball game rooting for the home team with strangers.
Here’s where that whole “movie magic” sh*t comes into play. I’m not gonna pull any punches here with spoilers because No Way Home was the biggest flick of 2021, so that means everyone from Mercury to Mars saw it. So the scene when MJ and Ned are trying to clumsily access the multiverse to find his BFF Peter he accidentally summons The Amazing Spider-Man Andrew Garfield instead. The crowd went wild. Applause and cheering all around. When was the last time you applauded at a movie? Me? After seeing Mary Poppins Returns with my kid. It just felt very natural. Just like with No Way Home.
Here’s some more “movie magic” context: in the same scene above Ned tries again to contact his Peter Parker and summons the original cinematic Spider-Man himself Tobey Maguire. More cheers. I cheered too, since I thought number 2 was the best Spidey movie, and it was cool to see Tobey in the tights again. Seeing Maguire as Spider-Man again sprouted an old memory of not so good times. Years prior my baby sister treated me to the cinema to catch Spider-Man 2 in its initial theatrical run. I was in a bad way at the time and she figured a Spider-Man flick would cheer me up. She was right. We had a lot of fun, even with her sweating me for info about all things Spidey. That kind of movie magic. When leaving the show after the credits were over (and I always watch all of the closing credits. I want my ticket for all its worth) she and I chatted about the film and asked me when the next one came out. I said 2007. She asked, “We have to wait that long?” I don’t know if she was actually curious about the final chapter or just hoping I’d make it that far. I’m still here and even covered Spider-Man 3, so I guess something clicked besides REDACTED.
As all those Spidey fans at No Way Home‘s premier whooped and whirled? Well, the only time I’ve seen such reactions on an everyday level is for the fave sports team on TV. I tend to agree with Marty to a point, but based against almost all of his movies what’s wrong with having fun at the multiplex? It’s all escapism at a basal level. You plunked yourself in a foreign environment, light years away from your trusty YouTube account, paid exorbitant prices for a bale of fresh popcorn and a soda so large you need a wheelbarrow to get the thing into the proper theater, and sit in a slung back chair that has been farted on more than you ever farted in your lifetime. Also, it’s dark.
And you’re lapping it up, making sure your phone is on mute. Even better, you left the fool thing in the car. Time to get away from it all, if only for around 2 hours. If you hear what I’m screaming it’s amazing how sitting in the dark with strangers watching a movie can be so transcendental. I can’t explain why, but it’s true. Call it movie magic.
If you don’t quite dig to what I’m saying, let me cite a chapter from Silver Screen Fiend¹. It’s a sort of memoir written by comedian Patton Oswalt; all about his memorable times at the movies through the lens of Gaugain. The following was Oswalt’s account of a viewing of Casablanca in one of those indie theaters in LA, natch. What follows might be the ideal definition of movie magic (edited for brevity):
“We got to the point…where Rick is sending Ilsa off to be with Laszlo…[a]bout to start the ‘Here’s looking at you, kid…’ speech.He actually got out the words, ‘The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of—’ and the word ‘beans’ became warped and shrill and silent as the film broke. The f*cking film broke…and then…[l]aughter…everyone began whistling. We all started spontaneously whistling ‘As Time Goes By’…on a rainy Los Angeles evening in the little New Beverly Cinema. Elsewhere in the city…[b]ig movies were premiering to packed houses…And we were whistling in the dark. ‘As Time Goes By…’
Ah, that weird magic of cinema. Sitting in the dark with strangers who already knew the tune. Duh. This doesn’t happen much in cinemas, either for classic runs or the latest Spielberg caper. That bonding. The closest I can recollection I have was back in high school when me and my misfit buddies caught the thriller Speed on opening night. The house was packed. Before Fandango and MovieFone one could only secure tickets to some big deal flick was tp pay in advance at your local multiplex and scooping them up come showtime. Granted finding good seats was a bitch, be 4 got lucky and got to sit together in the middle on the left side of the theater, which was already half packed before the trailers started. To me it felt like a real event; let’s see how Theodore S Logan, Esq served as an action hero. Point Break was fun, but that was Swayze all the way. Speed was, as the Brits are known to say, quite the other thing, and Keanu’s performance shut down the doubters.
Stirring action, impossible stunts, a creeping mystery, Dennis Hopper chewing scenery, Alan Ruck’s best (and perhaps only) role since Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, this up and coming starlet Sandra something at the wheel, whoa Keanu Reeves as a convincing streetwise cop in a John McClane scanrio, and literally who the hell knew what was to happen next aboard this runaway bus? Quite enjoyable.
What follows I remember well. Towards the end of the second act me and low-life form buddies began to question each other—in hushed voices—what the hell is gonna happen next? Our murmurs caught the attention of the couple in front of us. In hushed voices, “I think that…” Us: “Yeah, yeah. Maybe.” And from the guy behind us in his hushed voice, “I think…” Us: “Right!” Too bad we didn’t see Jeff Daniels’ REDACTED.
We all know what a drag it is when people talk during a movie, but this little moment was where movie fans were talking about the movie underneath the movie. We didn’t want to interrupt the film. It’s not like streaming at home, and far too many moviegoers are mistaken thinking they are still in front of the dream screen at home.
The anti-Speed opposite happened when I caught the (original) Hellboy movie. I was there with my then g/f. She was patient with trying to get my comic book obsession. Halfway through the second act some doosh’s cell phone went off. This was before the polite requests from the previews to please mute your phones. Not that it would’ve mattered for this specimen. He answered his squawk box with all the courtesy of tripping over a casket. Not only did he answer, he began to describe the movie to the caller in loud headtones usually reserved for a Slayer concert.
I was so pissed I stood up in my seat and glared at him in the dim light. I missed a scene. He saw me standing. I think I blocked his view.
“Call you back.”
I plopped down and thought about that time watching Speed. I forgot how the movie ended. I think. Knew the finale was satisfying, but can’t even recall a damned thing. It’s been over a quarter century since I saw it. In the theater. Memories can get hazy, but emotions? I think not. The aforementioned was I all recall from watching Hellboy. That and something about chili and rotten eggs. Dammit. I was dating my high school sweetheart. Again. She said the scene I missed was really scary. Dammit.
Both sides of the same page I figure. Be it special or broken the times spent in the dark of the matinee are almost hallowed to movie fans. Geeks and strays with cell phones un-muted alike. It’s a gathering, far away from all that obnoxious reality. If only for at least 90 minutes. The bad, old world outside the cinema can wait.
Am I romanticizing all of this babble? You betcha and no cap. I suggest you catch Casablanca at least once. Or twice.
The Rant, pt 2: The Machine…
Now about them “Golden Days” of Hollywood. Far, far removed from Spider-Man and CGI and even that nutty Tom Cruise guy. Things are different these days when making movies, and I’m talking about the business end of making movies. Not the throughput. The nuts and bolts and incessant hammering. Literally. Let’s set the wayback machine to the erstwhile “Golden Age,” roughly from the 1930’s into the early 1950’s. This was an ideal definition I lifted from StudioBinder to encapsulate how the somewhat notorious “studio system” functioned as well-greased machine, movie making industry:
The studio system was a business method where Hollywood movie studios control all aspects of film production, including production proper, distribution, and exhibition. Dominated by the Big Five studios (EG: Warner Bros, MGM, Fox, Paramount and RKO), all personnel including actors, crew, directors, and writers were under contract to the studios. It made for efficient and “assembly-line” style filmmaking that dominated the industry for about two crucial decades.²
Since complete control over everything there came a consistency, and when I say everythingI mean everything was monitored by studio heads. No film was cut and dried unless the likes of Louis B Mayer, Jack Warner or Adolph Zukor and his crones said so otherwise. Demanded otherwise. Like you knew what you were getting into based on the studio. And MGM? “More stars than there are in heaven,” whatever that implies. Sounds enticing, though.
In making movies these days bow down to “complete artistic control.” To mean that the director is at the helm, and after that the actors with the scenarists and technicians at the ready. Such an approach came to an apex in the 70s, until unbridled ticket sales hit the skids with epics like Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (not a bad film really, just hella long. Can’t fill enough showings with a 3 and half hour movie about pioneering). These days it’s almost sovereign to have budgets go way over limit with crossed fingers. Wasn’t always the case. Also prime actors once were not necessarily freelance. And agents weren’t always chasing the paycheck based on how their charges worked freelance. Nope. Once it was a lot more rigid than fluid. Almost hard to believe across the past 50 years. Prior the studio was the be all and end all regarding how films were made, marketed and well-stocked with their choice directors and actors.
The studio system was not unlike a meat packing plant. No room for waste, just the select cuts and prints. The output must be consistent as representing the studio en toto and its place in the Hollywood market. Regarding the almost draconian way the Big Five packaged their prime films reminds me of a quote from our favorite, friendly and always frosted celebrity chef, Guy Fieri: “No matter how tough the meat may be, it’s going to be tender if you slice it thin enough.” A wheat from chaff metaphor, and boy did the studios back then do a through threshing. It was nothing like the casino of Hollywood today, and that makes it all very interesting in comparison. To me at least.
The whole meat packing metaphor may seem sinister, but old Hollywood indeed ran their film production like an assembly line. The studios had their own select actors, directors, writers and of course standards. And all of it under contract; if you wanted to catch the latest Bogey flick sure as eggs were eggs it came off the Warner lot. And only theirs. If an actor want to audition for a role at a rival studio they would be “on loan” and a percentage of the profit from the movie’s takeaway would be deposited in the generous studio’s coffers. In other words: horse-trading.
Here’s an example of how shrewd studios could about the grooming and caring for their charges. I read once that the late, great Henry Fonda was hungry to play Tom Joad in Fox Studios’ big screen adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath. The unique part about Fonda eventually scoring the role was that he was—in essence—trolled. The man was a dedicated actor for Fox, but had no contractual agreement with the studio. He wasn’t Fox’s “property” as it were. It took Fox Studio head Darryl Zanuck to bait Fonda by suggested either Tyrone Power or Don Ameche to take up the Joad mantle. Fonda wanted that role so bad he agreed to a 7 year contract with Fox. And only Fox. Ah, well. It’s a good thing in hindsight since Fonda earned his first Best Actor Oscar nomination for his troubles and provisions. No matter how tough the meat may be, right? Nowadays all actors need is a good agent to earn fresh roles. Wonder which deal is simpler and more lucrative? Doesn’t matter. Some things never change in La-La Land. The way you cut your meat reflects the way you live.
And back in the day the dailies could not wait to see how which roast (or turkey) from what lead studio released their tentpole against the competing and also very determined rival studio with their latest tentpole. It was not unlike the rivalry between New York and Boston. Or the powerful MCU against the scattershot DC films. Or Coke versus Pepsi, including all their froth. There was the competition. Which studio could deliver the goods over the rivals. There was a lot less scandalous sh*t also that propelled the race, unlike today where Ryan Gosling’s fiber intake goes under the lens on TMZ. Just saying.
It might sound as if I’m romanticizing those bygone days of yore. Maybe a bit, but the studio system would not permit any “modern classics” in the past 50 years as of recent memory, and I ain’t talking just post-Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolff? on the screen. In fact I felt that the cast or the writers were second and third fiddle to what the studio system held in its clutches. Their secret weapon. Not the actors, not really and definitely not the scenarists. Back then was kind of like today. Sure, we all want to see Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lawrence and/or Bob DeNiro in their latest projects, but that’s nothing new with the old skool stars like Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Katherine Hepburn. No matter where they all performed there was a fine line demarcaating box office gold or lumps of smoldering cold.
The directors. Those whose instincts stoke the fires of movie magic.
After free agency we were a captive audience to whatever Spielberg, Scorsese or Tarantino had to voice. Back during the relentless studio system years people were hungry for what Ford, Hawks and/or Lubitsch would deliver. And they delivered, time and time again, even with the motley cast who were assigned to both entertain and be under scrutiny. Like I said, back then actors were cattle, hand picked to star in the latest big deal picture. The directors? Ah, the men behind the curtain.
Kinda like directing wunderkind Frank Capra, the Spielberg of his day. Why him? Because regardless of the production, Capra’s style had an inviting, if not family-friendly execution regardless of the plot. There was always a light-heartedness to his work, and encapsulated what the best the studio system would allow. EG: creative control belying creative control. Capra’s films had atmosphere—breathing room—to allow the audience to digest what was going on, as well as a bit of winking humor also. Consider this:
It’s hard to believe these days that his epic life in the life of George Bailey, It’s A Wonderful Life was a box office bomb. The biggest of Capra’s mid-career. It was what only with the advent of TV and the freedom of public domain that Life became the inescapable Xmas blockbuster we know and love/loathe to this day. Even though Capra had a real winning streak of flicks pre-Life, and I figured unless Capra had such a prior winning streak we would not be citing his work now. Consider his classics like Lost Horizon, You Can’t Take It With You, Mr Smith Goes To Washington and the first and greatest black comedy Arsenic And Old Lace. That being said the hardline the studios took to their puppets allowed some leeway if they produced prime cuts. The best analog comes from the limping TV “success” of our fave blended family The Brady Bunch. The show was never a ratings favorite, but the network was patient in hoping the show would eventually find their audience. Over five shaky seasons. Producer Sherwood Schwartz convinced his studio to allow an audience to warm up to the fluffiness that was his bunch. Never happened, and like with Life God bless syndication. I suspect a little breathing room allowed Capra to spin his tales, as well as becoming the iconic director we appreciate today. When someone regards a current film as akin to a Frank Capra movie it’s a giddy complement.
With The Majestic director Darabont was trying to bring about that effervescent atmosphere of a Capra film. A tribute, you see. But mimicking Capra does not demonstrate the leeway the studio permitted. A calm desperation to deliver the goods and keep flop sweat at a low flow. No studio pressure—save budget and time frame—so long as the casting is stellar. Hollywood is still a machine, and if the throughput results in accidental art, well awards are good PR. It could be considered that the stranglehold the old studio system had was simpler than making movies today. All the moneychanging, agents and out of control budgets is very messy.
I’d like to think Darabont was trying to be quick to the chase, but up against modern muddling was something Capra didn’t need to worry about because it was inherent in his films.
Expectations must be met…
Budding screenwriter Pete Appleton (Carrey) finally got his first break. His action flick Sand Pirates Of The Sahara was a breakout hit. Good thing, too since his girlfriend got good billing as the heroine in the movie. The world was Pete’s oyster, which stood to reason that his ship has come in. More writing would abound.
Pete’s ascension is disrupted by the Hollywood Blacklist. See, there are some snoops are weeding out possible Commies using movies as propaganda. The Red Scare. And Pete’s bullpen had the plugged pulled. There goes his meal ticket.
After a final victory dance at his fave bar, Pete opts for a road trip to clear his hazy head. Bad move, and he sure got his head cleared. Wiped is a better word.
Pete awakes on a beach on the costal town of Lawson, which time has long forgotten. After a dazed Pete wanders around the town square the locals believe that he’s “Luke,” Lawson’s favorite son, MIA war hero, back to bring some honorable recognition to the fallen after the War. He’s the guy that’ll set Lawson’s malaise behind.
Even Luke’s father Harry (Landau) recognizes the emotional bond and lifeblood Luke could offer to lowly Lawson. He was once exuberant to bring escapism and joy—the latest big deal movies—at his Majestic theater, and let Lawson’s citizens escape the misery of the War. If only for 80 minutes.
Luke the homecoming hero feels an unnatural desire to reconnect with Lawson, and Larry thinks he knows the way: re-open the Majestic! Fix it up and make is the corner of downtown again! Lawson still needs relief after the working week, not to mention escape the lingering memories about many good men gone by.
Without really knowing why, Luke totally agrees with his Pop’s scheme and sounds like best bet to cheer Lawson up. For some reason it seems oddly, pleasantly familiar…
Again I may have come across enamored by the old Studio System, but I wasn’t. That’s the curious thing about nostalgia, it the only thing that truly improves with age. All I really knew about the Studio System (thanks to Wikipedia, Quora forums and consulting with my fact-checking department of which I have none) is that there always had to be a rule regarding consistency across the boards. Makes sense. Maintaining quality requires an ever clean slate. I’d kinda like to believe back then it wasn’t about name actors, name directors and name studios that drew the almighty ticket/subscription/the next subscription/Disney as Borg but instead quality and a sense of integrity. Not really, save reaching the bottom line. Back then it was MGM. Tomorrow? Maybe Unilever. Or Disney. Or maybe Disney. The Star Trek franchise may still be Walter. You know, that prize fish Henry Fonda finally caught as he did the Best Actor Oscar he was denied for over 60 years possibly would’ve faltered under the Orwellian control of modern Universal Studios. Why? Here’s a decent story regarding the Studio System held their cards. For the better part of Fonda’s career he never had an agent, and his misfit daughter Jane accepted the Oscar in his honor while he was dying of cancer and hooked up to more hoses than that of the entire Chicago FD.
Wait. Where was I? Oh yeah, an esteemed actor wrung through my praise about the Studio System in a left hand way. That nostalgia thing, and recall I was not there for the System. Heck nor was my father, nor mom nor my many cats. Fonda’s Tom Joad performance notwithstanding what truth I learned about the Studio System I gleaned from the smart, gentle and avuncular Robert Osborne, far more than social media hacks. Osbourne was TCM’s resident friendly, stentorian movie critic/host who talked with us about that evening’s feature. Oddly enough TCM had worked diligently to compress most old skool products into sound bites. I don’t mean editing, I mean sponsoring. No commercials and all that. Thank you and your welcome. Let me explain again. Had.
Ever since Osborne passed in ’17 the programming at TCM got kinda stupid. Like when the recess supervisor turned their back for a moment and the kids whacking at tetherball reenacted the siege on Harper’s Ferry. Whoops. Just missed. No one was looking and they were. Save Osbourne. His legacy (to me at least) was his knowledgeable history of film, and his delivery was kindly as well as academic. He was not unlike Alex Trebek, but more laid back, and introduced to me a wealth of knowledge about cinema from back in the day. To wit, he fostered my interest in Kurosawa’s films the way no snob could.
An aside before I get all brutish again here’s an anecdote: One evening around Halloween time Osbourne was host to a bunch of classic scary films (EG: Psycho, Frankenstein, The Phantom Of The Opera,lotsa black-and-whites). That night’s offering was Robert Wise’s The Haunting, which may be the greatest haunted house movie ever cut. In sum thanks to Osbourne’s scholarly intro I tuned in as a lark and never had my heart pound so much. TCM had no commercial breaks, and my teeth were swimming about a third of the way through the flick. I did not dare leave the couch and risk missing something. When the dam broke it was the fastest pee ever without the influence of coffee or beer. Talk about a spiritual release.
C’mon, that was funny.
Thanks to Osbourne’s setup, I adopted a kind of weird second sight. Whatever Robert spoke about in the opening of that evening’s offerings, he adopted a marque relevant to the film. He informed/warned us about the impending atmosphere of what was coming next. Robert wished to chat about this week’s offering, and just like that one fast learns that with the firmament atmosphere can only go so far.
Even though the exacting expectations demanded by the Studio System did produce good product, but was like stoking a fire. As George Washington was credited he claimed fire is a great servant but a terrible master. That was attributed to his view on his new government. All those wonderful classics that are now iconic? They were produced via a blast furnace. Separating the ore from the stock. Render steel and shake away the slag to earn box office profit. And the scoria gets dumped into B-movie bins where immediate, loss leader tickets soar. Nostalgia, and enjoy some coke and smile. It’s all very pungent, and smell is the key sense that invites good memories. Like when grandma baked ginger men cookies and images of Santa float through your mental Rolodex.
Director Darabont must really enjoy ginger men, stainless steel and Robert Osbourne, too. Darabont who is one of the best overseas director to capture America on film gave in to his muse regarding Majestic…and went waaay overboard. Majestic was polished and shined to a silver sheen, and almost devoid of warmth and charm mimicking the best Capra output. It was style over substance, and all of it felt forced. Sometimes it seemed lifted.
To be fair, Majestic is very beautiful film both in aesthetics and honoring bygone Hollywood. The film sure felt like a production crafted out of the Studio System so much that it played as a product of its time, despite arriving at the turn of the century. Darabont may have figured to 2000’s were the optimum time to lionize the studios. Remind us f good thing past. Dateline 1951 and all that jazz. Darabont got the imagery well enough, but his vision was blurry. He was playing it too forced and got more than a tad wandering. Darabont was trying to reach for something. A throwback inspired by Frank Capra? A brief lesson on “naming names?” That whole movie magic phenomenon? An active nod to the fallen? All of this and none? Well, yeah. Shrugs all around.
I once quoted back in the High Fidelity installment is that we never want our director’s vision get in the way of their vision. Darabont lost the ball in the sun. He was so driven to recreate a Capra-esque movie he got blinded by the revelation of TechniColor…in 2001. Hell, even the above promo poster is blurred. Hate to figure style over substance again. That’s a real shame, since Darabont’s movie had a lot going for it but kept dropping the damned ball. What looks good doesn’t mean it smells good, like grandma’s ginger men. More got burned, trashed or smothered with green sprinkles this side of St Patrick’s Day.
To the point, Majestic was a failed tribute to the ol’ Studio Barons. Majestic was, all in all, simply a cheery period piece. Cheery by way of (almost) everything works out in the end. The acting is good. The setting is inviting. The plot is engaging enough to make us wonder, “What’s going on here?” All the T’s were crossed and all the I’s dotted. So what went wrong?
Nostalgia blinded Darabont. More like sentimentality, for an era he wasn’t born into let alone the country. Majestic was on the cusp of overloaded corniness. Such effective sentimentality worked for what I felt was Darabont’s inspiration, Will Wyler’s Oscar-winning opus The Best Years Of Our Lives. The film had well-defined characters, a sprawling plot that would make Taratino jealous and crisp black-and-white settings that reflected light in the most obscene way. This was what I felt Darabont was attempting to pay tribute to. Wyler’s direction was razor sharp, whereas Daranont’s film was in a perpetual state of playing both catch-up and trolling. In sum: crap pacing and crap editing.
This was sad, because here we had one of Carrey’s best roles as well as non-comedic performances. He carried the entire film. I mean the entire film. He emoted well without being mawkish. That made for a decent soft mystery here. I mean, c’mon. The hero with amnesia finding himself lost in Rockwellian, simpler life as tonic from the grind of some hustle culture and/or trying to find his way in life? Classic, and how or why? Makes for quality cinema of a million movies, and Carrey channeled his inner George Bailey with endearing aplomb. The hang up with Majestic that Carrey’s Luke was a constant man out of time. Sure, Lawson was a lonely, picturesque setting which time almost forgot, but the supporting cast (also excellent) seemed to constantly be playing catch-up to Luke’s sudden homecoming. Carrey’s Luke was a crux; a panacea to the malaise that had (forcibly) been cast over the town. In Biblical history that the apostle Luke was lauded for his artwork, notably iconography of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. A man of the palette, inspiring the lowly. Sound familiar? A man with all his talents Carrey should not be some Christ figure, which is how he was played out. Forrest Gump with short term amnesia maybe, but c’mon Luke was just a mild-mannered Average Joe. He went from being “nobody” to somebody, and good on him. Blame the denizens of Lawson for overreacting. Does Lawson “need” Luke, like some minor prophet? Kinda hushed some lighthearted feels. Bogged sh*t down.
Another thing that pissed me off about Majestic‘s execution that it reflected the same scam as Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close: Oscar baiting. It’s soft, pandering comedy-drama which robbed Daramont himself of the Best Director award in 1994 instead going to Spielberg lite filmmaker Robert Zemekis. Darabont has made a career on films based on Stephen King stories, not Winston Groom’s fodder. As far as King’s universe is concerned, why does Lawson creep along like Castle Rock? Lazy and predictable and in need of kick start. Why is it so many lonely towns attract the Oscars? I think it’s all about that old saw that you can’t go home again. Why is that? Because it only exists in your memories now. That whole pining for the “good old days” which Darabont tried very hard to recreate here with Majestic, but whether it be Bedford Falls, Pleasantville Castle Rock or even Lawson it just wasn’t there. One could claim that Majestic was just another holiday movie on the Hallmark Channel, but with a bigger budget.
In sum I got another suspicion about what Darabont’s muse was. For all its flaws, Majestic did indeed reflect a classic Studio System aesthetic for a 21st Century crowd. K made a sharp comment about how Carrey went from somebody to nobody like losing big time at Las Vegas. Riches to rags and back again, a classic old skool movie trope. Very Studio (EG Citizen Kane, My Fair Lady or even Disney’s Cinderella), a well flogged warhorse, trite and tired. Maybe Darabont was trying to educate the Millennial crowd with a taste of “how it was.” What with their iPhones, Playstations and Twitch accounts the yowwens just wouldn’t get a flick like from back in the day. Here kids. Here’s how it was done. If you consider this tack—and you probably shouldn’t—it was another aspect of how Darabont wanted to drill into the audience how to not go home again. If that was the angle, no one wants to be lectured to at the movies.
In conclusion (stop clapping you audience you) I knew for sure when Darabont’s love affair with Capra went all pear shaped and he shed his skin. It was the scene when Pete (not Luke) testified before the HUAC about the blacklist. Carrey channeled his inner Jimmy Stewart with precious little nuance, unlike the former’s performance in Mr Smith Goes To Washington. Another Capra classic. Tribute or con? Unsure on all fronts.
That awkwardness was the key to Majestic‘s downfall. Too much sentiment, too much nostalgia and too much trying to be a Studio film. There was no honest lightheartedness cut here like back in the day.
Save the piano scene. You hadda love the piano scene. Osbourne would’ve approved.
¹ Oswalt, Patton. Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life From An Addiction To Film. Pgs 168-169. Scribners, 2015.
Rent it or relent it? A mild relent it. It’s clear that Darabont has a soft spot for the Golden Age of Hollywood, but he’s no Frank Capra. The movie was way too fluffy and meandering for my attention span to invest in. Too bad.
“It’s good to be home.”
“The woman does wonders with an egg.” I liked that.
Harry made a good argument for what the “magic” is.
Amandala Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Lamar Johnson, Issa Rae and Algee Smith, with KJ Apa, Sabrina Carpenter, Marcia Wright, Lonnie “Common” Lynn and Anthony Mackie.
Starr lives in a lower-income black neighborhood, but she attends a largely white prep school. Torn between two worlds she knows how to keep her balance, even if the center may not hold.
Then the tipping point hits home. Starr becomes a witness to her childhood friend shot to death by a white police officer. Starr now finds herself bound between those two worlds as she tries to do the right thing regardless of her upbringing, her neighborhood, her education…her family, who always taught her to follow her gut.
But thanks to the ensuing media circus surrounding the shooting Starr’s guts are totally wrenched.
Here’s a serious question, and if you gauge it even-minded you know I ain’t fooling: Ever been harassed by the cops?
I mean cops. Not police officers. I respect those guys. Follow the difference. Police officers try to maintain law and order (kinda like that TV franchise), serve the community at large and occasionally hunt down the bad guys at large, too. Growing up we got to know the local officers on a friendly basis. They would tool around on patrol in our neck of the woods—which was usually a quiet beat—and would chat up the neighbors. They were as threatening as our local mail carrier, and he carried pepper spray. Simply put, I never panicked when that prowler was cruising down my street. Why? I wasn’t doing anything wrong so those guys didn’t give a f*ck about me. I was too young to rob a bank. I was too young to have a bank account.
On the other hand cops are f*cking bullies. Throwing their weight around, looking down on civvies with their whining, thumbs always hitched on their gun belt, and usually—but not always—reflecting the stereotype that they are registered at the local Dunkin’ Donuts. The police don’t harass you; they wanna fix the situation quick and be out of your hair. There are crack dealers hovering around the high school. But cops…
Again I hate bullies. I mean I really f*cking hate bullies. Had to deal with many over the years. When the police see fit to hire these men-children who excelled at scoring illicit lunch money in high school and then give them access to firearms and souped-up squad cars with blinding spotlights that when they hit your face there is no way to not look under the influence of something. Makes one wonder: What did I do? It’s usually fear that wafts off your nervous face, even if you’re white. Or black. Or Martian.
Here’s a simple metric trending how one should and should not be considered as an officer of the law:
Q: “Why do you want to join the Force?”
Correct A: “I want to serve the community, uphold the law and keep the peace.”
Incorrect A: “I want a gun.”
Here’s a story. My kid has issues. Forget that, she has the lifetime subscription. Teenage anxiety disorder on Red Bull. She sometimes lashes out and gets impetuous for no real reason. On more than one occasion she had called the cops on me because she did not like how I disciplined her, like when I caught her hacking into my PayPal account. The outcome was no more PayPal and I reset my account. Never raised a hand. When the sh*t went down, either theft or hiding crappy grades, in her mind panic felt it proper to call on the local authorities to settle the matter. I grew to dislike being on a first name basis with the local colonial police officer as first responder and offering up coffee. Again.
The final time this circus act happened the familiar officer had a ride along. He was a rookie; the officer told me so. Told you I was on a casual basis with man. His newb was all hale and hearty and nervous and full of Boston Cremes. First night out according to the officer, very green. Over many months I got to know the officer. He was police, said little, by the book and f*cking tired of visiting my house for the same bullsh*t. Freshen your mug? Nah. The man probably felt like leaving to go sweat some actual perp.
His ride along could not but help follow the rulebook, and even the rulebook had creases. He demanded info, but wouldn’t let me speak. The officer warned me about his hungry attitude prior while we chatted and ignored coffee in the kitchen. Oh boy. The newb was pandering, condescending and husky. Nothing I did not say swayed his imperious conduct. My kid was sniffling in the next room and the cop sweated her, insisting she went to the hospital. He was 25, over 6 feet tall and could not keep his thumb off his sidearm. The kid was 10 and rubbing her eyes. You figure it out.
Needless to say the trip to the ER was brief. The consequences of her small potatoes crime had set in and she wanted to go back home. The cop was having none of it, and blamed me for putting her in the hospital. Did I mention the cop put the idea in her mind and drive her to the ER himself? In a prowler? I followed close behind. Once at the ER the officer just shrugged because the cop wasn’t technically out of line, but when my kid insisted on wanting to go back home and the cop would not let up. His superior had had enough. He was tired and frustrated to have to “follow the book.” The kid wants to go home. Not in our jurisdiction. Good night. We went home. In my car. No more Hello Kitty accessories anymore. Too bad, so sad.
There’s a funny coda to all that melodrama. My mom lives in a sorta subdivision, populated by old farm homes in a pocket neighborhood. There once was a bridge that connected the drive to the main street, and also a right-of-way leading out the back. The bridge was condemned, therefore there was now only one way in and out of the neighborhood. Only a single thoroughfare, which was admittedly inconvenient.
For a time there was a police car stationed near the intersection that led into the neighborhood. You see, the road was once used as a shortcut for people to get to the main road quicker, which was illegal because the right-of-way was to be used exclusively by emergency vehicles and the residents in the neighborhood. Lots of drivers sped like the all the demons in Hell were chasing them. My mother believes in the Golden Rule and is a very cautious driver. Me too because, you know, cops.
The cop pulled my mom over. She was not speeding. She followed the rules of the road. She did not have to hear the siren go whoop-whoop. My mom pulled over just shy of the right-of-way as the squad car creeped up behind. The cop squeezed his way out of his ride and started flipping that clip book stalking up to her car with all the drama of molasses dripping from a jar in January.
It was the same cop! The newbie. Mr Krispy Creme. He tried to cite my mom on trespassing. Again, there was that very obvious sign at the entry to the right of way saying it was not a through street, and only residents and emergency vehicles were permitted. It was clear as day on the sign. My mom mentioned to the cop that she recognized him (from his visit weeks earlier, natch) and he knew where she damned well lived.
“What? Do you want to read the address on my license?”
Face was lost, and my mom was free to go. She later called the colonial police to complain. What I just wrote was pretty much verbatim. Smelled like the rookie was trying to dole out tickets, not enforce what the sign said. Again cops are f*cking bullies, and there’s that thin blue line to consider.
What’s that you say? What blue line? I’ll tell ya. Back in the day that expression mean that the police were the first defense against crime and civil unrest. Fine. Nowadays the phrase is akin to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” What happens in the precinct stays in the precinct. For a good examination of this philosophy check out Pacino’s turn in the biopic Serpico. Fifty years on the film still resonates and perhaps explain why cops—white cops in particular—are quick to put holes into non-whites. For a reference contact Daryl Gates. Moving on.
The history of our modern police force is a tricky one. The concept did not originate with the precept of upholding the law. No. Hate to break this to you, but in an early iteration police officers were assigned to capture and punish runaway slaves back in the bad old days of the Civil War. Upholding the “law” to be sure, but the motive was wrong and the end result was wrong, even by 21st Century standards. Or 20th. Or 18th. Legalized bullying.
It was antebellum South. During the Colonial days the proto-policemen were more of less just glorified night watchmen. Think mall security. In the South the Confederate cops were bounty hunters, paid to hunt down runaways. Key word: hunt. These “lawmen” were not driven to serve and protect. There were recently liberated n*ggers on the run and needed to be brought to “justice.” Some things never change according to the nightly news. Consider this and compare:
An old school North Carolina police badge (ca 1860s):
A modern police badge (no disrespect to Illinois PD):
How far we’ve come. Yeah, it’s just a shape. But so is a swastika. No, I’m not saying cops are Nazis. Of course not. However why wear your proverbial heart on your sleeve like above? If a modern badge represents law and order, then why do so many cops ignore that precept? Consider the matter of the Trayvon Martin’s murder or George Floyd’s been strangled to death. If you have been watching the news as of…forever, cops tend to panic and mow down black and brown people at an alarming rate. And nothing is done to correct it. Even Derek Chauvin—known to abuse his badge—got off lucky for killing Floyd (and he might definitely get shanked while in stir). But what about the multiple school shootings that have plagued this nation for over a decade? Most caught are white and go under analysis. These demons killed kids and as punishment they get hugs. If it was a black guy who aimed the rifle he would be hanged. Lynched.
There is a kind of precedent here. I was alive in the early 90s, and was witness to the Rodney King trial on the major news networks. For the uninformed, King was driving drunk on LA’s I-210. The cops pulled him over, dragged him out of his car and proceeded to beat the pulp out him. All four of them. And they walked, despite the whole tragedy being caught on video. It was understood that King was mixed up with drug dealing, and so was Floyd. Did they need to be beaten and killed for it? No duh. Then was the undoing for the notorious “command presence” of the LAPD, and the bigoted chief of police Daryl Gates threw up his hands in frustration and let the n*ggers run riot, which is what they did. Again, no duh. The biggest, nastiest mob mentality since the Watts riots in the 60s. All because the bullies—the cops—got off with a slap on the wrist. If that.
A final scenario for you who have yet to discern the difference between police officers and cops. Say you got pulled over for speeding, and all too common moving violation. I don’t know about you, but whenever I pulled over all the nasty, though irrelevant, misdeeds run through my mind. What else could I be stung with? That’s nuts, but you may have committed a crime and the officer has your driving record as well as a sidearm. More times than not you sweat.
When the officer strolls up to your overtaxed car there are two scenarios that could go down. One conducted by the police and one from a cop. One never happens but should as the law looms at your drivers’ side door. Read:
“Hello. I pulled you over because I clocked you at going 80 in a 50 mile an hour zone.” Then comes some panicky haggling from the motorist. “I hear you. May I see your license and registration, please? Thanks.”
That would be in a perfect and just world. Here’s the common reality:
“Do you know how fast you were going?”
Kinda passive aggressive right? Like there’s no correct answer, especially at the end of the month. Do not talk, do not argue and be slow opening that glovebox, all the while a thumb on the weapon. F*cking cops. This sh*t is an everyday thing for folks, getting pulled over and automatically struck with fear. You know why you got pulled over, but what if this scary cop has access to all the naughty things you’ve got away with thus far? Boosting CDs from the local Best Buy. Dine and dash. Cheating on your significant other. But that’s neither here nor now, just a speeding ticket. Maybe later on the nod and plow into a church group. Somehow scoring a street legal assault rifle means to ventilate a bunch of kids. Or demolish the Oklahoma Federal Building on a lark. Forget all that. For now you got off lucky; just a speeding ticket.
But what if you were black? And with that star shining—glaring—at you…?
Garden Heights is not the place to live. Unless you grew up there like Starr (Stenberg) has, from her formative years to now.
Place has unfairly gotten a bad rap, even by her parents’ standards. Starr’s mom Lisa (Hall) insisted she gets the finest education possible. This means enrollment at Williamson Prep, the best private school in town. Or rather across town, across the tracks and Starr is their only black student. She’s stuck between worlds.
The Heights is where Starr can be herself. Everyone is a neighbor and the neighborhood’s flaws make it family. A dysfunctional family, mind you. Such a reminder comes to Starr when she goes to a local house party and runs into her old bestie, Khalil (Smith), fellow Harry Potter fan and one-time crush. When gunshots ring out she and Khalil make a break for it, driving away as if all the demons from Hell were chasing them.
Bad move. Chasing all right. The high speed escape catches the notice of a local black & white, with an emphasis on the white part. The two are pulled over, and well…
Khalil’s funeral causes a media circus. With Starr as the key witness in Khalil’s murder she’s forced to chose sides. Garden Heights or Williamson?
I often thought that 2Pac was a misunderstood artist. Like he was more what his fans thought rather than who he was. His brash, outspoken image tempered with intellectual leanings entranced and confused rap fans of all stripes. I found his lyrics to be very literate, which was not the flavor in Columbus. But he sold, and was the second hip-hop performer to reign with a white fanbase as well as secured in black culture. Before that? Run-DMC. I may be a fossil, and this may be lame street cred, but I do enjoy some solid hip-hop to this day that no doubt influenced Shakur. I was a still a pup back in the 80s when rap became a legit music genre. I grew up with Run and crew, Kurtis Blow, GrandMaster Flash, the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, Public Enemy and all those folks. In the 90s there was Gang Starr, Tribe, Dre, Biggie, Coolio and 2Pac, natch. Cut me some slack, I was a white kid from the suburbs. Daily Operation is still the best East Coast album from the early 90s. DJ Premier utilized jazz samples exclusively, so there. I am a hip-hop nerd.
See you in the comments section.
What led to Tupac’s undoing I feel that despite how smart, cagey and literate he was—both in art and attitude—he eventually began to believe his own press. It became Thug Life rather than THUGLIFE, and some fabricated media stunt about a rivalry between Biggie from the East Coast and Shakur from the West. That sham was perpetrated from the boys in the basement to up record sales. I blame the true thug Suge Knight behind the artifice, and he only got jail time, again, for his back alley scheming. To quote Chris Rock: “Biggie wasn’t assassinated. Tupac wasn’t assassinated. Those n*ggas got shot.” Dead as doornails, which was then most folks caught on the the chicanery. I mean why would Shakur hang out with gangstas? Such an image betrayed his whole muse. Nobody is weak to their own fame, no matter what happens. It’s a shame he had to be shot and killed because of that. Being used for being brash.
However being brash back in the day was essential to the nascent hip-hop scene; gotta get noticed somehow in this vanilla, dollar burning economy. A rap artist who told it like is as well as the Last Poets did back in the 70’s, however in the 90’s is was novelty. Social commentary was always inherent in rap, but it wasn’t until Tupac that the fusion of street poetry with actual poetry in the rhymes became legit. Sure, other artists were slamming their fists against the white establishment, but the likes of NWA, Public Enemy or even Arrested Development were far less subtle in delivering the word. Those artists were more akin to Gil Scott-Heron than Langston Hughes.
Like Tupac’s rhymes THUG delivers the word in a uniquely literate manner. It wasn’t just because the plot was adapted from Angie Thomas’ award-winning novel of the same name, but the cinematic version flows like reading a novel. And I never read it. To be sure (beyond this installment) the book garnered a lot of attention. More than one would expect from a YA novel. And true to form: you wanna to get a book read? Ban it. No cap. Tell everyone. Even better? Adapt it to streaming or cinema. Thomas’ novel earned many accolades across the board, and within the context of film it shows.
No surprise THUG is a character drama, and we have quite a few characters at work. I was duly impressed with Stenberg as Starr. She carried herself very well and very pro. Really well. I was not aware she started her career in earnest with The Hunger Games franchise. I’m not terribly familiar with the series, books or otherwise. What I do know about Suzanne Collins’ dystopian flavor on YA novels is that the cast is vast and wide, both in print and on screen. If the Carnegie Medal, Coretta Scott King Book Award and Edgar Award doesn’t justify the The Hate U Give‘s publication, then I don’t know what more could coax Hollywood to commit print to screen. Makes me wanna actually read the dang thing.
Anyway, back to that whole character drama thing. Yes, Stenberg shined, but the juxtaposition she was cast in reminded me of the rampant woke community. I mean, duh. Y’all just figured out people of color have been marginalized for centuries? Now you want to take up the flag cuz you just figured out (minus including those who were ostensibly outcasts in our society? Shoosh). I saw Starr as passing in reverse, and doing so as casually as she could. Consider Tiger Woods back in the day. Or even Obama. “Passing” was a risky thing hundreds of years back, as well as rather odious. The term stems from when a black person had a fair enough complexion to “pass” for white, and entitled to all the luxuries/opportunities that came into view. Stenberg’s Starr didn’t pass in the traditional sense. She was well aware of her standing at Williamson, and minded her grades and her trade. Her classmates regarded her as a novelty, waiting for her to go full ghetto. All in woken fun you see? Hell, even the lighting goes from shrill as school to warm back home. Subtle, but demanding.
Despite the narration, Starr stood staunchly between two worlds. Stenberg was confident without being uppity. Thoughtful of her place within and without school, and even Garden Heights. She was always quick on her heels to say what needed to be said at a given moment. She must’ve felt personally responsible as to what tragically happened to Khalil, her once best bud. Stenberg was passing in reverse, did a good job, and that was a shame since such crap happens all the time to what the woke crowd would deem degrading. Starr was perceived as an “Oreo” and her shrinking violet schtick was just an act. Passing.
But THUG also presented—if not demanded—a sharp supporting cast. It was a rogue’s gallery of sorts. It’s always lurking in the periphery for a character drama. What was great about this time out is that the traditional stereotypes were blurred for our story. Despite what I made a stink about above there is social relevance here. Again, duh, but not cookie cutter. Starr’s story of self-reliance and integrity was ably fleshed out by a really smart and sometimes subtle supporting cast. Smart as in shrewd. The supporting cast were smartly chosen as to illustrate the usual archetypes of growing up black in a downtrodden neighborhood without being mawkish.
Ex-con Mav tries hard to be a good dad, and he is. Paid his dues and is now a pillar of the community. Lisa is a caring and dedicated mom and wife. Lost, learned, loved and keeps on loving knowing full well every good moment is transient and what she could’ve lost again every day. Khalil was not the star anything (and may have gotten into some bad business), except be a good Joe who still cared for his childhood friend, Starr. Not a lot of “Good Joes” in movies like this; closest I can recall is Ricky from Boyz N The Hood, and even he was kinda smarmy. All points covered in what could’ve been a moribund take on life in the ghetto. Even if there was no ghetto. Garden Heights was tableau as a black Mayberry; this is how we are. It could be anywhere, which is why it resonated so well. This sh*t could happen to you. All of us.
Hold on for a bit for another thing, but later. We’ve read a lot of other things here, but later is for a bit later. Hold on and anyway.
I must get to the diamond in the rough, Anthony Mackie. He’s become one of my favorite and reliable character actors. He slides into any role either as a warm hero or an icy villain with equal aplomb. Sure, most MCU fans recognize him as the erstwhile social worker cum Avenger Sam Wilson (AKA: The Falcon), streetwise, driven and palling with Captain America (he was also the first black superhero to get his own ongoing comic book series. No cap and no Cap). His Mr Hyde roles are best illustrated here as well as his role in Half-Nelson, a warm thug with a heart of coal. Conniving, dangerous and is convinced the world owes him many favors. Despite how sinister his gang lord King is here he’s still relatable. We all know a schemer in our lives, but never one who’d be sympathetic to. In sum, Mackie was a badass antagonist, always quietly stirring the pot. Slick.
Overall, THUG hit like a play. I know it was based on a book, but that is not the same as a play. For those million years in high school English once you’ve read enough Shakespeare once you see it live there’s no turning back. THUG was staged with very choice breaks to let the drama leap into the next act, like Garden Heights against the world of Williamson and back again to Starr’s boisterous home. Pacing was smooth and crucial to how this drama-of-errors played out, and we know how I take to pacing. In fact, despite the rough story THUG was a very smooth, cool, thoughtful film. Made you think, but not upside the head with some brickbat.
Hey, wait a moment. There’s that other thing though, but later. We’ve read a lot of other things here, but later is for a bit later. Hold on. It’s not what you call me—
Like Top Gun: Maverick a lot could have—should have—gone ridiculously wrong. Perhaps a PG-13 version of Menace To Society starring a sepia-toned female with no access to being strapped. Not here. THUG was a coming of age story (a label I hate), but the whole mess of high school antagonism paired against police…cop brutality fares far from the suburbs. There’s familiarity at work. Unless you’ve been up on the news, and most of those victims were white aimed at by another disenfranchised white boy. It’s all enough to be both a learning experience and a better reason to call in sick and hide in your closet. THUG had this omnipresent feel of being sheltered. Despite the film’s “open world” execution through Starr, we as the audience understood the need of a dashboard. We should also cringe, but not out of social status. We acknowledge the pudge and the belt. And deaf ears.
Finally and thanks for holding on. Being addressed as African-American is still a label. It’s not what you call me, but what I answer to. Like Chris Rock exclaimed, “Run! The media is there!” Black Americans are black; most have long since settled for that moniker despite a very large contingency did not come from Africa and emigrated from the Caribbean to America in search of a better job. A good chunk of our darkies never knew Africa. Despite what the safe newscasters use as African-American. Ignoring a very large, black community that are now dubbed African-American by the PC white media figures. Such a pandering, blah label to address at least 1/4 of the US (who in the past built the f*cking US) is insulting. Kinda like how Starr had to balance both sides. I do not know a single black person who uses that epithet. A old co-worker friend of mine told me his folks hailed from the Dominican Republic, and he was just him. Labels are just labels, and don’t define you. Neither do badges.
To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut for the woke crowd: “All your protests are nothing but banana cream pies.”
Rent it or relent it? Rent it. For once we have a movie like this that isn’t preachy. My breakdown was more preachy, and not nearly as well-staged. A very smart film.
“Neither version of me.”
K: Was that a gun? Yes. Yes it was 🙁
“We know this is hard right now.” “Do you?”
K: Trauma. It’s one of the worst words.
“I didn’t name you Starr for nothing.”
All those mixed looks at the funeral reception. It was a tad on the nose.
K: You can’t blame yourself for what you can’t control. Word.
“Being black is an honor.” Being white is trite.
What was all about the shoes? Was it about walk a mile in mine?
The white hoodie.
I can’t breathe. A full year before.
“Where you live doesn’t define who you are.”
The Next Time…
Wow. Jim Carrey must’ve been really vying for The Majestic Academy Award for acting in this role. Let’s let him show us something, please?
Nick Cannon, Zoe Saldana, Orlando Jones, Leonard Roberts and J Anthony Brown, with Gregory ‘GQ’ Quiyum, Jason Weaver, Earl C Poitier, Candace Carey, Shay Roundtree and Miguel A Gaetan.
Welcome to the world of high-energy, show-style, ultra-competitive college marching bands. Fish-out-of-water but tenacious Devon has earned a scholarship for his musical (read: drumming) prowess. But can some talented Harlem street drummer in need of an attitude adjustment who enrolls in a Southern university can hope to lead his marching band’s drumline to fame?
It’s show—er—half time!
If you’ve all be following this blog you probably have heard me wax philosophical about my years playing in my alma mater‘s marching band. If you haven’t (or even have) then here comes a snootful. But first consider this:
Have you ever been away from home for an extended period of time? I’m not talking about a vacation, but to a place that you may be unceremoniously plopped into for any number of perhaps serious reasons. You finally landed your dream job! But it’s on-site and you live in New York and now you must jet off to LA and crash in some hotel for an indefinite period of time until proper lodgings are found. Perhaps you’re a soldier, constantly deployed where you are needed, never getting fully accustomed to being in country for any solid tour of duty. Or maybe—you may have seen this coming—you’re entering your freshman year at university, and the school is light-years away from your home town, and everything you knew.
So what do all these scenarios have in common? Right. Welcome to your new normal, with overturned suitcases and the laptop on constant charge. Repositioning via one chopper sortie after the next to another hot spot, same as all the other random patches of indifferent desert. Fast realizing you have to know how to take legible class notes, calling in sick to class means an absent mark and Mom ain’t around to make your bed anymore. It can be unsettling. Heck, to the point unnerving would be a better word.
That new normal? It’s really a clean slate. Humans are social creatures, and what do we do when we’re out of the cradle and endlessly rocking? Right. Seek out friendly, like-minded people to bond with. Find a kinda ersatz family, because others may be just as bamboozled by their new normal as you are, be it a career climber, someone in the service, or a wet-eared college student. Like attracts like and all of that jazz. At heart we all need a safe place to fall, regardless where the net can be found.
So yeah, the key to getting comfortable is all about befriending like-minded people. Mr Corporate Ladder will eventually settle into some new digs, but FFS won’t make the landlord their new bestie. An old army friend of mine was in the Rangers, and no he never saw combat, but being stationed in Germany gave him the luxury of soaking up the local culture, making some civvie friends and learned an appreciation for all things German (even their hostile cuisine). And me? I went to university already enrolled in the marching band. There was a partial academic scholarship attached (it was more like a gift certificate), but I learned a wealth more bonding with my extended musical family than any meal ticket would offer. Namely, like-minded people, despite our disparate hometowns away.
Now a warning. As the immortal imperative of John Holmes was: this may get a little long.
I’ve already commented here at RIORI that I was a bando. Marching band geek, from high school, well through college and even grad school for a time. No diggity, no doubt. It’s almost like deja vu at this point. But just consider that one time when you were far from home—not to chill in Hawaii, mind you—did you have a desire to get comfortable in your new digs by almost instinctively seeking out some safe haven? I had been in marching bands all through adolescence. That facet of my personality became a safe haven via proxy thanks to my collegiate credit/discount. I knew what it was like being in a marching band, so thank goodness for the Syracuse Orange to ease into my new normal. It was akin to the football team practices, or why folks rush the Greek System: get in where you fit in, if only to find some semblance of a family.
Follow me? Sure you do. You’ve all been in a similar homesick bind, and that’s cool. At least with hindsight.
Okay. Time to please forgive my indulgence. Heck, the following may come across as a “yep, been there” satori, hopefully placing a small smile on your face. You finally managed to find a new comfort zone. Even if you never played a musical instrument. Time for a march down memory lane. Cool? Good.
Dateline: the early 90s. I had finished high school and was terrified about leaving the nest. Despite I had long since had enough of the LV, that and high school was a constant, roaming migraine, moving away to far away shores was unknown and kinda scary prospect. Terra incognita. I recall me being in tears about leaving home and my father (who had the flu at the time and was as patient as a starving owl) screeched at me to get my sh*t together cuz we’d be leaving for school in the morning. By we he meant me and my mom.
Three miserable hours later up North I-80 I met my quarry: the band camp freshman dorm. Allegedly the architect of the heap once designed prisons. It showed. Couldn’t find a decent parking spot to disembark anywhere, and my trunk was heavy. Not to mention my drumkit. My mum, god bless her. I was trying to teach myself how to play drums in my senior year, and got kinda good sorta. I got it into my Mountain Dew addled head that college band would be a gateway drug to forming a rock band or something. I had the gear, all I needed were like-minded people with a garage to let. I was very stupid.
Very. Band camp allowed precious time to do any canvasing. I settled into my new squat in stir, which would be mine proper for the first semester. For the rest of the campers my dorm was their barracks. No hots and a cot, that was all. My short term roomie Chris was the squad leader for the mellophones (the marching band equivalent of a French horn, which resembles a trumpet on steroids), and he was amazed, if also scoffing at my drum kit I managed to set up and wedge into the corner of my room. Regarding that prison allegory, the room was a postage stamp. Putting exaggerations aside, the room was a square 25 by 25 feet, not including the space taken up by the bed, closet, console, desk and a lone study chair. Consider this analogy: ever enjoy a Hershey bar? Sure you have, and all its choco goodness lets you take it apart, piece by piece, to either share or dump down your gullet. Right, well take apart my room’s arrangement, bite by bite and I was left with maybe 10 square feet…on my side of the room. Drumkit and all. Again, I was very stupid. And also very much into flannel and goatees since it was the early 90s. Dumbass.
What possessed me to further crowd the matchbook that was my dorm room escapes me. Knowledge comes with time and 20 odd years on I still don’t grok what I was thinking. I suppose in hindsight I just wanted to project an image of a true music fan. That and the garage thing. Perhaps scoring tail. Who knows? But what I soon knew were the almost unbearable rigors of university band camp and my little nest was transient at best. No time to dick around on the trap set. Look at your friend the pillow. You will render her a widow.
I recall Chris being groggily awakened by senior bandos around 6 AM for the two weeks. I was a frosh and was granted an extra half hour; Chris was my alarm clock. This was new, and not just sharing a pillbox of a dorm room. In the high school marching band I went to bed around midnight and sprang alive at 6 AM to get to practice on time. I don’t know how I did that 5 days a week (this was pre-Red Bull mind you). I had an that extra half hour, yet somehow always had a sensation of exhaustion I had never experienced. Daily band camp was a 10 hour rigor, 6 days a week, begin at 7 and finish practice at 5. Long days. I first fell asleep upright in the shower by day 3 and it happened twice more resulting in my being late to practice marching on some very unyielding astroturf. My superiors were enthralled by me being tardy, but I wasn’t alone. It was a kind of rite of passage for the newbs. Never happened again come sophomore year. BTW, never walk around on astroturf barefoot for a pronounced period of time. The soles of your feet will look like a pedicure performed via cheese grater. Don’t ask and live and learn.
This may be kind of a spoiler, but if you actually plan on scanning Drumline (which of course I wish you would) a lot of the showmanship the bands displayed was pretty much on the mark. Director Stone was on his school’s marching band, therefore he knew what he saw what he cut. I can only assume. It’s like when you catch a film revolving around a very specific plot point, and you knew the director and/or scenarist came from that school of hard knocks. Consider the culinary nods Chef or Burnt installments as good examples.
That being said band/boot camp was pretty well illustrated in this week’s movie. My uni band wasn’t nearly as flashy, but there were tunes to commit to, dance moves, positioning, a kind of passive martial law about working as a team (weakest link and yada yada yada) and making half time shows fun and boisterous. There was a good deal of hazing too, sans paddles and sneezing powder. Needless this was all new to my wet ears. Shocker. For reference check out theI Love You Beth Cooper installment or the raw high school band days. Back then it was just practice, memorizing the music and formations for football games. This was the case as with the SUMB, but on a whole different level; having to be self-reliant enough to not snooze in the bath.
Like this week’s film and adapting to a new normal, band camp became the core of a family. We all need to belong somewhere, and band camp as well as adapting to college as a whole was—in hindsight—the family away from home. I know that sounds a little too Hallmark Channel, but occasionally it’s accurate. Being in band camp was never outright indoctrinating me into my new “family,” but it was more sincere in action. The opposite being when you go for that job interview like Mr Suitcase does. When that new boss claims,”We’re a family here,” run. Run run away. Unless you applied to the Olive Garden.
I did a lot of running back then. Literally. We never had some half-baked exercise program in high school band. At uni we had too endure laps, push-ups, standing still for as long as the squad leader felt fit (no joke), crunches, jumping jacks, sculling, dead lifts, macrame, you name it. The enclosed stadium had no a/c, so water bottles were a must. Folks did indeed get dehydrated, despite being shielded from the sun; it got hot in there. Some frosted actually passed out from the strain and mid-August heat. Only the newbs, though. My sophomore turn I got it. Call it culture shock.
Was it worth it? Well, yeah. We had to practice, but there were fringe benefits, too. Kind of like Easter eggs. I was well acquainted with the campus far before my freshman dorm mates settled in. The upperclassmen bandos had introduced me to the restaurants, bars and assorted social shortcuts my other newbs may find by only stumbling in the places I learned not to be after dark. As well as where to be after dark. All of this discovery tempered by a grueling practice schedule. My ears dried out some when interacting with civvies.
To wit, I was the only guy settled in well before the rest of the floor made their beds and found where to score pencil shavings as gourmet weed. However I also possessed the presence of touch-and-go like some teeth-grinding ninja. I was the transient figure, darting in and out of my room to the stadium daily (I still had calls to make to confirm class attendance. The Internet wasn’t as reliable then as it’s not reliable now) and I was the momentary weirdo oracle. I knew this and I knew that and was a bando always in a sweat. To the quick I once stormed out of the elevator while all my floor mates were socializing to blunder onto my email account. No mobile smartphones back then.
One of them asked, “Hey man, what’s up?”
I spat out, “My blood pressure.” and kept on storming. They laughed.
My mind and body were too busy with music, formations and the promise of the local, divest, hole in the wall bar come Saturday night that was very loose with the drinking age. If not there when we were set loose some house party at some rundown rental house of bando upperclassmen. Such elegant destinations were the first places I was subjected to Beast, drinking games and basement mischief (read: how to try and play bass. Geddy Lee I wasn’t). Zoom, Schwartz, Profigliano.
Considering my wayback machine, my adoptive family prepped me for college better than any freshman seminar. For good or for ill. My trunk was completely unpacked, I was with my soldiers at uni with this crack team who knew that the meal program was a sham (use the ice machine gingerly and never try the green scrambled eggs come Sunday, or the greenish hot dogs ever). There were many other variations on not dropping soap.
That dang shower…
In the course of musical history there have been precious few shining stars than could be dubbed a prodigy. Mozart with his works, Hendrix with his guitar, Gould with his piano. And maybe Devon Miles (Cannon) with his snare drum.
D is a singular, natural talent with the drums. So much so his skills have granted him musical scholarship at the prestigious Atlanta Technical University. This means big deal performance in its high level marching band, full of pomp and circumstance.
But D is a loose cannon. His NYC street cred does not gel with the ultra disciplined ATC marching band. Even though music theory-minded conductor Dr Lee (Jones) recognizes D as a prodigious talent that whips a crowd into a frenzy. But there is always music first and showmanship later. And solos are a privilege.
The truth is that any musical prodigy, for all their sunshine, carries a heavy load. Bukowski drank himself to death. Mozart was laid to rest in a pauper’s grave. Lennon was shot by a fan. Heavy. D is on the up and up, however and finds a loyal family never known back in Harlem. At ATC his skills might be fully attained. Namely some discipline, lay off the lone wolf stuff and of course accept rigors of band camp.
Not to mention ignoring the ribbing from the tuba line…
Before I carry on carrying on, I feel I must tell you that Drumline is a niche movie. Like the aforementioned Burnt, which reeked of my then career as a chef, I took a shine to this movie based on my band camp days, but I will be objective. Never fear. I can be professional when I want to be. But I probably won’t.
Kinda like the well-oiled machines that were the marching bands in Drumline the movie was very well produced, with crisp cinematography and tight direction. I again suspect director Stone drew from experiences in college band. It was deftly translated with verve and nods to us not only in the niche but curious onlookers alike. If you’re a faithful sub you know how pacing is my bitch. This movie’s cadence bounced along with only a little murk. Drumline was overall a friendly flick, but I sensed that Stone felt obligated to throw a sop to the folks in the crowd who may have needed a break from the non-stop military precision which the plot demanded. It was a bright and colorful movie, and not just for the acting and direction. It was at times a tough watch, but there were enough twists (and the delight of camaraderie) to keep the tone upbeat.
Yes, Drumline had wonderful pacing. Maybe the best I’ve ever enjoyed here at RIORI. The story unfolded over a course of two hours, but slid by effortlessly. There was a kind of rough and tumble aspect to the plot, and somewhat forced sophomoric drama, but it kinda paid off in the end. However that end was the terminus of a very twisting roller coaster ride. The “serious” scenes in the movie did not really gel regarding the whole of the plot. Such scenes acted like bookends. Chapter marks. For a flick so dependent on motion, these halts were kinda jarring (EG: the fraternity scene that came out of nowhere) as if we were watching another movie. This happened often, which despite great pacing such hiccups were rather distracting. Overall, let’s say that Drumline was better than the sum of its parts. That’s all I’m saying.
Some of those parts are when director Stone pulled the cards away from his chest. For release the acting was choice. Meaning the principals acted very unlike what audiences are accustomed to. For one Orlando Jones, MadTV alumnus and former 7-Up pitchman was Dr Lee, all music theory, serious academic and father figure to his students. The man did not mug the camera once. His Lee was hard-nosed, somewhat egotistical but always kept his musician students foremost in his mind. IMHO Jones’ character was the most engaging (but nothing like my old band instructor, what with his taste for beer and arm wrestling. No joke). Jones as not goofy was good. He impressed me.
Our lead, a young Nick Cannon (barely 21 at the time)—although holding his role well—was a cipher. The impoverished but brilliant kid from the wrong side of town trope is the archetype of any black kid with a chip on their shoulder (EG: check out the Finding Forrester or Roll Bounce posts) with some gift that needs fostering. It’s rather tired, however Cannon did well with what was given, albeit one note. His performance improved when the script permitted him to open up some as a character. For instance we learn at the outset D is estranged from his dad (duh) and carries around his percussive prowess like a totem. It’s in the third act—natch—that he learns his old man REDACTED and D gets his sh*t together and learns how to be a member of the drumline not as a hotshot, but a team player. So to speak. It’s all been done before, and better, but Cannon’s enthusiasm wins you over. If only that, but here it’s just enough. In the endgame Drumline is your typical “the student has become the master” and back again setup. Thank Cannon’s youthful enthusiasm to make it slide by.
Drumline‘s central thread reminded me of the parable about the Prodigal Son. In fact it was, but in reverse. C’mon, you’ve all heard the tale. Kid gets kicked out his home by dad for his wicked ways. The real world smacks the son upside the head with a fistful of nails, and he crawls back home with his tail between his legs. Inexplicably Dad welcomes kid back with open arms. Draw curtain, house lights up. Now we’re left with that simply, frank question: why FFS? And how does this relate to the movie? Tell us, O Great Karnak.
I felt that the throughput in Drumline was the adage of the Prodigal Son. What I meant by in reverse is thus: D has a dad, which he successfully avoided since whenever (despite whatever influence D absorbed). That being said, D is whisked away to college with a scholarship attached to his somewhat maverick but excellent musicianship. He fast learns that being on the drumline is as close as he knows to be a family. D gets knocked out of his shallow life and discovers there are people out there who share his ups and downs. This is far more valuable than any advice his mom ever gave, let alone high school. D doesn’t have to be the odd one out anymore.
So where does this prodigal (read: wastefully or recklessly extravagant) element come into play? Right, introduce the father figure D as been for lacking. Considering the push-and-pull dynamic between D and Dr Lee in how ATC’s drumline worsk as a solid unit, my ever surprising K stated with assuredness that when people are hard on you your instinct says that they’re trying to play you the fool. In fact they want you to do better. You learn more from the hardest teachers. True that, and I may add such discipline may ready you to be your own teacher. D being essentially rudderless all his young life, Lee served as the paternal force that not only gives D focus, but also is swift to say, “Knock off the sh*t.” You wanna be a good student? Shut up and hear the expert out. More kudos for Jones’ performance.
Pretty heady, right? A fair chunk of Drumline is about discovery; coming of age stuff. A prime example of growing into yourself was well illustrated by the lone white guy Jayson (GQ), the awkward bass drummer on the line. Apropos of nothing, why is such tokenism rife and accepted in movies with a predominantly black cast? Drumline was a character dramady, we always need an odd duck (in a flock of odd ducks) to serve as a loose cannon. No big, but at the time away at uni (recall the new normal, Mr Suitcase) you are naked to the quick. Drumline did a fine job illustrating that awkwardness, and if you ever had to go to college there’s always room for a fresh start. Despite that Jayson was a lovable rouge—if not a bit…sorry, wiggerish—he served the role of foil with his ineptitude with the drum against D’s prodigal skills therein. Look, I find tokenism a drab gimmick in flicks like this, but when D was able to help Jayson get his groove back? Hey, what are friends for no matter where they came from? Sappy? Maybe. True? Often. Go enroll somewhere.
What I took away from watching Drumline (despite the nostalgic sh*t) is the flick reeked in a good way of a new normal fostered by a new family. Sure, the highlights of the movie were all about making music, but ultimately that was eyewash. Drumline was about disparate people coming together to create a family. To get in where you fit in, growing pains and all. Yes, again the plot was threadbare; we’ve seen this kind of underdog story before and again and so on and so forth. Or at least competently (EG: Major League, The Karate Kid, and the original Rocky spring immediately to mind). But such is a tried and true crowd pleaser, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Hell, I ain’t that cynical.
That and about making music. Can’t forget making music together. Not to mention a few slumber parties in the early morning shower. If only to wash out mouthpieces.
Oh, and that drumkit? Sold it for a durable washing machine. Being broke/getting older sucks.
Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it, if only for the scoop and serve story. The music makes up for the overworked warhorse of a plot.
“Good morning to music.”
D’s not staring at Dr Lee. D’s sizing up the crowd.
“Do women really respond to your come ons?”
And that’s how you tune a drum. Yes, they need tuning.
Was that a Meters song?
“What? You two a couple now?”
K: The moral of the story is that with competition you can only go as far as you need to.
“It’s a tuba thing.”
So that’s why D was always improving.
It’s all about about freestylin’.
“Let’s get crunk.”
The Next Time..
“The Hate U Give little infants f*cks everybody.” – Tupac Shakur
Jonny Weston, Sofia Black-d’Ella, Sam Lerner, Allen Evangelista and Virginia Gardner.
When teenage David stumbles upon late father’s time travel tech, he and his buddies head to the past to get an edge on their future. Of course it doesn’t take them long to figure out that when you fool around with the timeline the future won’t turn out like you hoped it did.
Hey, welcome back.
I’m cutting The Rant in two this week for Project Almanac, because the movie addressed two very significant yet disparate genres. First, the found footage movie, and second the classic sci-fi device of time travel. Neither have the twain ever met before as far as I know, and both have unique angles to approach. That and the longer I thought about it I could not figure out some sort of segue between both ideas. So I kinda cheated here.
Sorry and oh well. Now please pay attention, please.
The Rant, pt 1…
Hey, welcome back.
Today we’re going to dismantle a relatively modern movie genre: the found footage film (heretofore known as FFF). I say relatively because before the turn of the 20th Century there was no such genre. At least not as we know them today. Prior to 1999 the closest movie style to run parallel of a FFF is the oft-overlooked case study-as-entertainment, the docudrama. A sort of half breed movie that is based on fact, but steeped in fiction. A film based on/inspired by true events in short. Good examples of these movies are All The President’s Men, The Right Stuff and In Cold Blood to name a few, and most are almost exclusively based on books. Not surprising that, hence the whole docu- prefix. The source material was real. FFFs like to play with reality, whether fictitious of face.
Please, pay attention.
The biggest return on investment movie ever was what I hate to called a game-changer, that so tired a phrase nowadays it makes what really is a game-changer seem trite. The Internet, insulin, nuclear fission and The Blair Witch Project were true game-changers. Well, Witch was not as vital as the other things, but it sure was a sight different than your usual over budget Michael Bay train wreck. It was the definitive FFF, as well as seminal. Blair Witch wasn’t a true game-changer since there was no game before its debut. Sure, there were the twisted one-off “novelties” like Cannibal Holocaust or Coming Apart, but these were too outrageous and histrionic to be taken either seriously or just profane. Docudramas tried to hold your belief that what you were watching was the truth, not based on the truth. With co-creators Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick working with an aglet budget and actually filming with only film film they hit a nerve. What you were watching was the truth, but not real. There’s a difference.
Hey, welcome back. I first caught Witch in its first theatrical run, tempted like my friends were to see what all the fuss was about. Did I like the movie? A distant yes and very hesitant no. The experience was murky. We weren’t sure what we were watching, let alone if it was based on real life events (the directors played very cagey with their limited marketing) or a sham for scares. It was less of a college field study gone horribly awry and more like solving a puzzle. A puzzle fraught with pitfalls and pungee sticks, but still more a mystery than a horror show. To be sure it was creepy, and good at messing with your head, but like with Bruce the Shark in Jaws, the face of terror was the culmination of an hour-plus waiting game. This made the climax all the more disturbing.
It took me a day or two to process the movie. Not appreciate it, per se, but figure out what I had seen. It wasn’t much fun. Unlike when (at this time of writing) caught Top Gun: Maverick in May with my g/f (who has a huge crush on Tom Cruise) and we thought it was awesome. And it was, so much so I had to beat the praises of the flick over my co-workers heads until they promised to check it out and shut me up. I hated the original Top Gun and had reservations about any sequel. I had found the young Cruise a real…what’s the word? Dickhead? This time out a more mature Maverick with a sense of humility was much easier to get behind.
I couldn’t get behind Witch. Not at first. t was a puzzle I had to piece together. Now granted that Witch is a movie lightyears removed from such fun popcorn fodder as Maverick. That movie was awesome leaving me with some of the best fun I’ve had at the cinema in a very long time. Ago Witch was decidedly not fun, which perhaps was the point. I walked away from it baffled, unbalanced and more than a little spooked. I felt like I had spent 90 minutes in a rock tumbler, and the conversations afterwards were more like an autopsy rather than sharing opinions. My friends and I after we saw the movie dissected it more than discussed it. It’s homespun and lo-fi aesthetic was new to us, and we ended up chatting about “What did we just watch?” Like the hapless grad students in the picture we were all unsure about what Witch was trying to tell us. More like taking a final than At The Movies. All that discomfort made the movie all the more sinister. Crude even.
Please, pay attention.
Hey, welcome back. So over the past 20 years since Witch FFFs have earned a niche in Hollywood, albeit one stuck squarely in the boogeyman’s closet. It makes sense. Most scary movies have limited budgets, and FFFs are produced from mere pennies. Return on investment, remember? Kinda like with the original Halloween. That kind of thrift paired with big Hollywood marketing results in well cleaved cubit zirconium. So long as it sparkles. You follow?
Witch‘s success spawned a bevy of imitators in its creepy wake. Some of those flicks were respectable, some demanded Dramamine and some actually quite good. The first Paranormal Activity did a fine job of suggesting a ghost hunt gone horribly awry; the stuff of nightmares. Godzilla nod Cloverfield played great on the classic “fear of the unknown” scare tactic. And of course the proto-FFF Cannibal Holocaust could not but help do its best to make you vomit despite yourself. Hey, gross-out horror porn had to start somewhere. Pass the popcorn.
Hey, welcome back. It’s unfortunate that Hollywood is notorious in milking a gimmick for all its worth. Keep going until its beaten into the dirt. The FFF format has had its fair share of slumming in the name of feeding the fickle maw of audiences. The trouble with Hollywood business logic is when the execs find a new, inexpensive device—like FFFs, duh—to rake in the dollars their motives are based on praying that lightning will strike twice, even if it means going out in a storm wrapped in aluminum foil. When you have non-existent budget and a fairly throughput plot thread there is only so much one can do to “expand the mythos,” if you will.
Good that your paying attention.
All in all what I dig about FFFs is their air of mystery and not about jump scares galore. Intrigue. What happens next? Conventional films often have well drawn out directions to lead you through the story. Unlike plot resolution as reward for movies such as, say, Top Gun: Maverick FFFs credo is getting there is most of the fun, even if the journey will be bumpy and jumpy (camera angles). What the hell’s going on? What just happened? What did I just see? And who the heck cares? Most FFFs are open-ended, which allow your imagination to fill in the blanks. This I suspect is why Witch and others of its ilk are so nebulous. The movie making playbook got tossed into the fire. All the audience has to work with is the ashes.
Not knowing what is going on—the fear of the unknown—is a very potent fear. Not understanding something, where the road my lead, doubting your reality, all of it. It’s pretty tantalizing.
So anyway welcome back. Thanks for paying attention. You may step out of the corner and return to your seat now…
The Rant, pt 2…
Hey, welcome back.
Time travel has always been a reliable, potent sci-fi device. And why not? It invites unlimited possibilities. It also invites potential ruin.
Consider the best films of this pantheon. We have the delightful Back To The Future trilogy, mostly lighthearted and always funny. A nostalgia fest and a story of just deserts. The gooftastic Bill & Ted adventures. Although not a trad time travel tale Groundhog Day is the thinking man’s existential comedy stuck in that inexplicable time loop. Bill Murray starring was key. Despite casting there is always a however.
Time travel tales often echo an Orwellian metric to Sir Thomas More’s Utopia. A perfect society free from want and war. And what does “utopia” translate as? Nowhere. A haven like that does not, nor ever will exist. But how does this relate to sci-fi time travel? If you were ever permitted to change the timeline, nothing, nothing good will come of it. It would lead you nowhere. Dystopia is more common in pop culture than any utopia. The former decidedly does not exist, but inferring from More we have plenty of worlds of speculative fiction about time travel that are portents, awful, tragic and far more engaging than completely the ideal senior year history project.
Please, pay attention.
The Terminator series (the first two, at any rate) are prime examples of nasty cautionary tales about technology run amok The original Planet Of The Apes depicts devolution as future, where human are savages and their prior intelligent existence was wiped from the historical record. Heck, even the fountainhead of all time travel stories was HG Wells’ novel The Time Machine translated many times in film describes a savage future, where George Jetson walking Astro on the treadmill could never happen (random fun fact: according to the cartoon’s George was born in 2022).
Welcome back. Chances are that if time travel ever becomes a reality the bold adventurers will do nothing but set some butterfly effect in motion. You know, accidentally f*ck with past events that eventually f*ck up the future. Present. Whenever. After all time is like a river, always flowing forward. Who knows what might happen downstream if someone tries their cast to catch a prize coelacanth?
Are you paying attention? Wake up, and welcome back.
Despite modern pop culture neither Jeff Goldblum nor Ashton coined the phrase “butterfly effect.” It stems from a story written by Ray Bradbury. He was an icon in writing stories steeped in “what if” with a sinister bent, and well removed from More’s musings. None of his best works are warm, comforting tales of communion of humanity in future times. All his sh*t were brilliant, brittle cautionary tales slick with a veneer of humans thinking there were doing the right thing. In a word: wrong. And wrong is quite viral. Endemic even.
“A Sound Of Thunder” was one of Bradbury’s most telling sci-fi short stories, as well one of his most famous. It is also a time travel story, which is also a cautionary tale. In the not too distant some hotshot big game hunter wants to bag the ultimate trophy. He wants to hunt dinosaurs, and the Time Safari company is ready to oblige. Zipping back in time however has a few ironclad rules: hunt only creatures that are known to be extinct in the timeline, do not interfere in the biome that suggests evolution and above all things stay on the virtual path so you don’t accidentally f*ck up said biome which may evolve into the future. And guess what? Our hunter f*cks up, leaves the path and crushes a prehistoric butterfly. You paying attention?
Welcome back. When our intrepid hunter returns to his present everything has changed. Language doesn’t work anymore. Poltics don’t work anymore. Ever the climate doesn’t work anymore. All because he accidentally crushed that ancient butterfly. Ripple effect. Murder and mayhem ensues. The end.
Thanks for paying attention.
Bradbury was not a positive oracle, but his own butterfly effect might have informs Hollywood that dystopian time travel tales sell more tickets. Like the nightly news the tragic scenarios of The Terminator or Planet Of The Apes are more relatable and therefore gain more “ratings.” Why? Because a bleak future could happen suggested by our current state of global affairs. Our nascent dawn of AI could invite Skynet. Genetic shenanigans could make the lower primate kings of the Earth a possibility. Hell, even Wells’ conjectures as metaphor between the discrepancy of rich and and poor could….oops.
If time travel were feasible it would firmly be couched in the present science of modern physics, especially Einstein’s laws of relativity. Time only goes forward, not in reverse. Theoretically if you wanted to fast forward, catch the shuttle to set up a new life with the condos dotting the vista of Mars’ Olympus Mons best back your bags for a one way trip. Cuz you ain’t coming back. Time travel would only be an Autobahn and never a pit stop. Or a roundabout. It would be permanent.
Welcome back. Time travel as I see it—based on more amusing back-and-forth trips Hollywood has projected on the silver screen—is just a pipe dream. The fantasy is always better than the dreary reality. I think that traveling through time would be the ultimate getaway. Like Devo sang: “Go forward! Move ahead!” If you were a time traveler you’d be better off going forward and escape your crap of the now. Example: when my sis got married in 2008 the wedding took place in Puerto Rico. It was the last vacation I ever had. To this day I would love to go back there. Enjoy the food, soak up the local culture and spent every night on a deck chair, a sixer at the ready, Television on my iPod and count shooting stars. Again.
You’re welcome. My moments in PR are never gonna happen again, even if I get lucky enough to visit PR ever again. The past is always past and one’s memory is always smeared with sentiment, regret, smiles and pounding through Facebook’s search engine to find out what that girl got away was up to. (guilty). No wonder going back in time is impossible. It was never there, and through a cracked mirror.
Welcome back to the present. Watch when you step off the present path now…
We welcome Dave Ruskin (Weston) a high school senior, techno-geek and MIT hopeful. His dad was a researcher for the government, and hopes the genetics rubbed off. Of course getting into the most prestigious science university in the country looms long in his mind…but good grades doesn’t insure financial aid.
One evening his buddies Quinn and Adam and sis Christina (Lerner, Evangelista and Gardner respectively) venture down into Dave’s basement and uncover some half-finished project of Dave’s late dad. After tooling around with strange contraption they discover it manipulates light, magnetism and…time. Time? Dad created a time machine? If Dave and company can figure how the gadget ticks they could go back in time and change history for the better.
They’ll all teens. More like their betterment.
Scoring winning lottery tickets, scoring the prime VIP treatment at Lollapalooza, advancing their academic acumen and even Dave scoring his crush Jessie (d’Ella-Black) all seem awesome and fun at first, but the inevitable happens. It always happens.
Dave and his friends constant f*cking with the timeline starts making the historical record fray, like not changing the oil. Stuff starts to fracture and the time-busting crew start paying the price.
The future ain’t what it used to be.
Paying attention? Good…
Hey, welcome back.
If Project Almanac did anything original, it keenly illustrated how time travel can keep looping in on itself. Continuous repetition of the moments that eventually lead to wreck, ruin and even more distortion of reality. I am reminded of the ep of Star Trek: TNG “Cause And Effect,” where the Enterprise crew are stuck in a time loop, and only through an endemic sense of deja vu they realize their dire situation. Picard and company lost a month in the loop, precious time lost from boldly going.
In addition to the temporal pit stops I’ve never seen a time travel movie so hell bent on demonstrating how altering the timeline can be very, very dangerous. The whole wish fulfillment aspect of time travel—so lighthearted the exploits of Doc Brown and Marty made it seem—with Almanac gets very sour very fast. The diaspora of Dave and friends’ meddling gets ever worse, collapsing in on itself. Mostly thanks to the human factor. Thou shalt not meddle, etc.
As mentioned above time travel is a very risky project. There are myriad films about the peril of screwing with history, but precious few films take it to the next level. This means how the flow of time directly affects a singular protagonist, not the world at large. A few good examples are the anime OVA GunBuster, where our teenage heroine to always out of the present due to her travels in space, where superluminal travel renders her terminally 16 while all she knew on Earth has progressed as always. It’s a very existential story about being alone in a crowd.
Another time travel film is not necessarily about conventional time travel. The Man From Earth was courtesy of sci-fi luminary Jerome Bixby. It tells the story of a man who never ages and has been wandering the world for centuries. The hero tells his friends that “you can’t go home again” because whatever was home is gone, and memories of the past become so blurred that he can’t recall where he “came from.” Again, alone in a crowd. To wit, all of humanity.
But hey, and welcome back. Time loops and deja vu are all well and good to move a plot along. Almanac is also a FFF (with better production value), and certain aspects still stick here, an offspring of the Blair Witch aesthetic. As I said I dig FFFs, but it’s RIORI and I did take issue with Almanac‘s execution. It’s not as scorching as what I had to say about Project X (quite possibly the worst film ever scanned here), but there was something off-kilter with Almanac I feel compelled to mention.
The issue I take with modern FFFs is that the camera effects and angles are almost always at the ready, Reminds me of stalking and/or an invasion of privacy. C’mon, consider the proliferation of social media (duh). Reflecting a FFF it invites too much exposition and jump cuts just don’t work. It reminds me too much that it’s a movie, not an ep of Cops, per se. A heavy point in FFFs is to bewilder, mix sh*t up and leave it up to the audience to figure it out.
You paying attention? Good.
I must also take notice with Almanac‘s execution as a “proper” FFF. It’s pretty busy. There wasn’t enough room to breathe, whereas with Witch et al there were long periods of non-action that allowed the audience to digest whatever the hell what was on screen was going. Despite the rapid fire delivery Almanac still maintained a nice pace, despite the clutter. Most FFFs I’ve seen have a tendency to ramble; obscure the details in order to ramp up the unease. Not so with Almanac. It’s quite fast-paced, if not relentless in cramming as much story into the scrambled script as possible. I took issue with the info overload, but in the endgame it enhanced the bleeding chaos that ran through the story. If you’ve ever been witness to the demolition of a tall building the blasts go off, the structure slowly cants and then kerblooey. A minute stretches into a second and we’re left with rubble. Sh*t can go from 60 to zero in the moment that stretches.
Even though the trad three-structure with Almanac is somewhat absent (this was a FFF after all) what made it work overall was its bottleneck. Every time our time traveling teens try to flip the script, the points on the curve get ever closer. Their many temporal jaunts create more chaos that trying correct the accidental chaos from the last moment. It’s all a downward spiral, and that has the film generates penetrating tension…which only come to a head in the final “act.” It could feel muddled and even deranged, and I can’t lie it really to me for a ride. One that demanded a barf bag, but still.
You paying attention yet?
That’s the catch about time travel. If you want to go back to alter the timeline for the better you’ll end up screwing something else up. Dave and crew learned a hard lesson there. Blame Heisenberg I guess, or the impetuous nature of youth. And they’re all still kids, still impetuous, drugged by power beyond their understanding, and as we already know absolute power corrupts and can be contagious (read: peer pressure and its ills).
Almanac suggested that what would it be like if John Hughes directed a FFF. For the better part of the late director’s filmography he reveled in messing around with teenage misfits existential crisis. The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. All tales of teens engaged in wish fulfillment paired against their standing in the world, and neither do the points do cross.
Hey, welcome back.I figure that kind of view is what made Almanac, but barely. I kinda felt the FFF format was at first just a gimmick. Then again would a cautionary tale about about reckless teenage time travel would’ve work if it played it straight? That crazed camera work might’ve been disorienting, but ultimately rewarding in context. Still made my head spin, though.
That being said, Almanac was very effective—albeit blurred—illustrating what real danger could happen with time travel. There was never an end-of-the-world butterfly effect. Instead a more insidious feeling of string theory coming unravelled. The desperation kept getting ramped up to even have me questioning “Where am I now?” Almanac‘s möbius strip of a story was a journey that (almost) had a conclusion. Recall in the final scene where Dave was wearing REDACTED? The end begins with the start.
Again, welcome back. And again thanks for paying attention.
Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Very interesting. Very dizzying. Somewhat thoughtful. Riddled with scattered allusions that could only happen in a FFF. Where was I?
The (Many) Musings…
“Your father would have be so…” Kiss of death.
Soundtracks are inessential with FFFs. Silence is golden as a rule.
K: “It’s like alien tech.” Sharp.
Lightbulb. Metaphor. Got it.
“No. I didn’t study. I was building a time machine!”
Who the f*ck is holding the camera when?
“You ever see the movie Looper?” “God, I love that movie.”
Red shirts? Really?
“I’ve always wanted to be a getaway driver!”
“When did we get a video camera?”
Imagine Dragons? Bruh.
K: “You know what this reminds me of? National Treasure. Like the briefcase is a character always changing scenes and moving the movie.” Like I said, sharp.
All this to get into MIT. Just call the Pentagon instead.
The Next Time…
Jamie Foxx has a hack license and picking up Tom Cruise is just another fare. He fast realizes he’s no longer the driver. He’s Collateral.
Stephanie Beatriz, Maria Cecilia Botero, John Leguizamo, Jessica Darrow and Diane Guerrero, with Mauro Castillo, Angie Cepeda and Wilmer Valderrama.
The Madrigal clan lives a magical life in the mountains of Columbia. No, literally. The Family Madrigal is magical, every mother, father and child possessing a unique gift to better home, hearth and familia.
Fifteen-year old Mirabel is the only Madrigal to have never presented any magical powers. The magic manifests itself in childhood, and Mirabel has gone without the wonders her family has enjoyed all her young life.
However, when a mysterious force threatens the magic of the Madrigal family it becomes fast apparent that only Mirabel possesses the power to set things right again.
Not magic. Power.
Let’s talk about the Disney Formula, shall we? And yes, it involves princesses.
Also, fair warning. This is going to be one of the longest installments that sometimes dapple RIORI. In a fashion it’s out of respect for K, my ardent Disney fanatic and very cute ohana. I would be remiss to not say I labored over this installment, kind of like a 24 hour C-section delivery. Let that sink in a bit.
I really dig most of Disney’s “princess flavored” big screen output. From Snow White to Frozen those movies’ flair is like a sore d*ck: you can’t beat it. From Sleeping Beauty to The Little Mermaid to Beauty And The Beast (the first ever animated movie given an Oscar nod for Best Picture, BTW) Disney has been synonymous with quality in their animated movies, not to mention setting the gold standard for all other animation studios, CGI and otherwise, silver screen or streaming. Especially if the movie stars a princess. Refute me.
The following is an excerpt from Megan Lunny, once a high schooler from Doylestown, PA, who dissected the Disney princess formula best, or rather the monotone message such films project. Ms Lunny is now a graduate of Columbia University and at this time of writing interning as a communications expert at what I can only call a pro bono legal firm. Chances are she’s pretty good at making constructive arguments. Don’t take my word; I just stumbled upon the info. Anything more I could note about this woman would be close to a LinkedIn profile, and here at RIORI I have no networking budget. I have no budget period.
Here are Lunny’s words that encapsulated the “Disney Formula” from the mid-Teens, and for the very few out that may dare ask, “Yo blogger. How did you find out about this?” The answer is simple: LinkedIn. Right. Anyway according to Ms Lunny:
“It was the Disney Princess Formula: P = D + G; a Princess is the sum of some deep-ridden Desire—adventure, tail-less-ness, freedom—and a Guy who satisfies this desire. Sometimes Disney’s writers—in a contrived attempt at Girl Power—wrote the Brave Princess, or the Smart Princess, or the Warrior Princess…” ¹
Cut to the quick, right? If you’re curious check out the entirety of Ms Lunny’s theory click here. I’ll wait…
Her “contrived” thing stuck with me. Sure, a great many of those princess movies fed the warm fuzzies in all of us, but after you’ve seen a zillion of such movies (and if you’re paying attention) there begins a wafting of deja vu. “I’ve seen this before.” Almost like perusing every diner menu you’ve ever perused. All of this seems all too familiar. Almost rote. Despite how yummy Reuben sandwiches are they are all the same sandwich.
Consider Ms Lunny’s exposition, or rather a Disney formula exposé. Or just plain screaming the emperor is naked. Ms Lunny’s hypothesis stated stuff I’ve noticed all along regarding Uncle Walt’s myriad “princess stories.” Simply put no girl—no matter how strong-willed or capable—can overcome her circumstances without some male hero entering the picture. Never. Even strong female types like Belle or Ariel or Jasmine or even Snow White can’t get out from under the rock that they stumbled under without a prince’s assistance to set things right. That and there are many, many villains whom are female that can’t wait to get their claws into something their “princess” may possess worth wanting. The Wicked Queen, Malificent, Lady Tremaine, Ursula, Mother Gothel, Cruella DeVil, Madame Medusa (I’ve done my homework). Hell, even Meg from Hercules (though not a traditional female antagonist) is a fallen woman that only our titular demigod can save at a price. What’s up with all the implied misogyny anyway? Was Walt just following the straight line with all those adapted fairy tales, or something more sinister? Mr Disney was a married man, and had two daughters (one of whom was adopted), so raising two girls—and all the “fun” that goes with it—most likely influenced him and his staff as to what would endear a female audience, them dragging Dad/brother/boyfriend to the cinema on opening night. Still it leads me to wonder.
Sinister? No. Business-minded? You betcha. It was always about the bottom line with Walt. I mean, c’mon, the image of a princess is akin to a Jungian archetype: The Innocent, the second of the twelve. Bear with me. Told you this would get long.
Archetypes are littered throughout Disney’s animated output. And why not? They are the foundation upon which all dramatis personae are made. Famed psychologist Karl Jung used archetypes to implement the idea that some images and/or roles are universal. He cemented his theory of society as a result of a “collective unconscious.” To put it plainly, some things are understood as they are on an instinctual level. Such examples are the ideal of the mother, the child, the adversary and the wise one. Virtually all of Disney’s animated films follow this hierarchy (consciously or no). Hedging such bets—as well as being vital to this closed-ended arguement—Disney heroines are children, regardless of species. Even though the studio is adept at creating a proper three act movie the cast are all ciphers reimagined film for film based on Jungian archetypes. The hero, the wise one, the child…the formula? I’m probably overthinking this, but perhaps I’m compensating for the other 90%.
Seriously, maybe Jung’s concepts might have informed Walt with his oeuvre and perhaps such may be why Lunny’s theory is so presently potent. Same sh*t, different movie. No matter how clever Disney has spun it the princess formula has run its course. To wit, how come an under-employed cook made a connection between Jungian psychology and Princess Jasmine? There may be a bunch of you out there who’ve also toppled down the rabbit hole and ignored there was no bunny in the first place.
In the endgame, we’re talking true and tired. Being a “princess” is no longer a starring role—it’s more like a pejorative these days—and the House Of Mouse has had some difficulty in accepting some few hints. Conducting business now often blurs the longview. Hey, when comes down to the bottom line why change lanes? The princess palette brings in the bucks at the box office. Ain’t broke, don’t fix.
I’d like to believe that in recent years Disney has considered, but never outright declared that their formula has become threadbare. Again, I dig princess stories (EG: The Princess Bride, The NeverEnding Story, Star Wars: A New Hope, etc) but have grown yawning of “princess stories” if you catch my drift. I am sick of the “damsel in distress” schtick and demand more proactive heroines. We’ve had many notables over the past few decades. Consider Joan Cusack “accidentally” holding Working Girl together. Weaver as Ellen Ripley in Aliens, confronting many nasty demons. Or even the wispy Trinity from the Matrix movies, who goes all John Woo on yer ass once she jacks in. Or even in anime with the capable, mixed vag female team of cyborg hunters in BubbleGum Crisis: Tokyo 2040. These are examples of strong-willed women who are still female and buck the all too tired trend of needing others—male or otherwise—to get sh*t done. That’s the key for me to a have a solid movie heroine: independence. Closest example I can think of recently with Disney was the resourceful Rapunzel from Tangled. Her “knight” was a scoundrel/fanboy and her weapon of choice wax a frying pan. Heck, Ripley improvised too. And we could all do worse.
Let’s backtrack now. Step backwards in Danny’s bootprints. I think I might be getting to a point. That and I really like Dunkin’ Donuts’ fat free blueberry muffins.
…What began as an experiment as well as a revolution in animation with Snow White way back in 1937 set the stage. The Disney Formula: feisty damsel in distress needs a prince of sorts to sweep her off her feet and/or protect her from the evil machinations her innocent circumstances invited. Then again, Snow didn’t have to eat that apple. Aurora understood to steer clear of spinning wheels. Ariel wanted to be with Eric at the risk of her unable to even chat with him. Cinderella knew she was running a risk crashing Charming’s ball against her stepmom’s stern words. Even Belle waltzed eyes wide open into that cursed palace if only to get away from that dolt Gaston.
You hear what I’m screaming? Precious few Disney heroines stand their ground and principles for the choices they make. Most are reactionary, sometimes pawns of a wicked female passive-aggressively waiting for their knight in shining armor. Or again with Tangled some hapless scoundrel getting caught up in mix, by wit, grit and trying to outrun some sh*t. Disney, try as they might, can’t shake old habits no matter how much of their fans scream not again. In the long run up to now the Disney Formula is (as of this screed) f*cking 85 years old, and has become as tired as Rip Van Winkle sleeping off a bender.
I don’t know about you, but from a person who loves animated movies enough is enough already. If any of you out there in Disneyland haven’t picked up on Mickey’s treadmill yet I suggest you squeegee your mind’s eye and watch some flicks from the upstart studios with lesser budgets but bigger cojones to create “alternative” animation. More irreverence, less fluff (unless relevant to the plot). To wit I’d like to believe that Ms Lunny was a fan of the Shrek movies.
One more thing. The more recent sanitizing practices when Disney strays away from the source plot, some very interesting twists are left out. Fudging with the source material for the sake of sanitizing (Disney is notorious for this). Stuff that might earn a flick more pathos and ultimately more rewarding in the end. For example, in the original fairy tale Cinderella there were no fairies to set her up right. She cultivated a magic tree that collected all sorts of useful things in its branches. It was only after the tree spruced (ha!) up Cinderalla’s wardrobe to get right for the ball, it was chopped down out of envy by the nasty stepsisters. Despite this setback, the Prince still went on his foot patrol (ha ha!) with that slipper, looking for his ultimate date.
Here’s the twist. We know that Cinderella and the Prince lived happily ever after, but ‘Rella held no ill will against her siblings and mother. Sh*t was rough with a lot of sour grapes. She got lucky, and encouraged the Prince to find some nice bachelors from his court to be wed to Anastasia, Drizella and even cranky, old Lady Tremaine, thereby fixing a broken family. No hard feelings. The moral of the story is that family makes us stronger, and it’s never some sort of competition to be the first at anything. Hey, we all hang together through life. If there were a moral to Cinderella’s adventure it was to be gracious and not selfish.
That was the moral of the story I did not see in the film. Downbeat? Kinda. Satisfying? Yep. A change of pace? Could’ve been if not for that dang formula.
To quote Jerry Seinfeld, “What is up with that?”
Back to the 21st Century now and Disney dragging a limb. Encanto‘s Mirabel is no different a specimen, yet not designed to be. She’s awkward, a shrunken violet compared to her magical sisters, the ugly duckling amidst the bevy of swans. It takes the desperation of the Madrigal family to coax the help of REDACTED and turn the tables at Casita. Sure, Mira figures it out, but not alone. Never alone. The other characters need to shine, sometimes overpower our heroine. It would betray the (let’s face it) Disney ticket selling machine. There’s a dynamic here that is the house style, so why fix what ain’t broken?
I cannot stress this enough: it’s tired. And tired is a polite way to say predictable. And predictable is a polite way to say in a rut. And that sucks. Sure, back when Ariel got all bold in standing up to her overbearing father so to get to know (Prince) Eric out of love it was a breath of fresh air. Having a Disney princess take the bull by the horns for once. It made a great story and a timeless movie, which I still enjoy today. Then the formula percolated, right around the “Kiss The Girl” scene. The Little Mermaid was cut in 1989. You follow? As of this writing that was 35 years ago. Taylor Swift was yet to crawl out of the womb. Feel old yet? You should, but not 85 years old old.
Enough. Let’s consider this week’s installment. Over the past few years—after the original Frozen appeared in wide release—the Diz Biz has been straining to escape the formula. Sure, my beloved Tangled took an offbeat tack, but in the end Rapunzel was a REDACTED princess. At least Flynn Rider was REDACTED trying to save her naive ass went against formula. And hey, Princess & The Frog had our competent Tiana, but she wasn’t really a princess, dig. That and she’s black! Score! Now go away!
No matter how it spins Encanto was Disney’s answer to Pixar’s Coco. Similar plot: get to the bottom of things regarding the almost forgotten black sheep of the family who is the fountainhead of wisdom escorted into the light by a determined, misfit family member. Spin it to win it. Cocowas far less pretty not to mention more convoluted and opened-ended than Encanto, to be sure. Still what made Encanto “unique” was our hero was a heroine, not a princess. Perhaps an heiress apparent, defiantly the black sheep and struggling against the spirit of Uncle Walt to create another cash grab classic. A twist on a tried-and-true plot device? Perhaps, but streaming the thing was what I was after. I hoped it would be finally that new twist, Prince Charming all absent. Our heroine being a linchpin of the plot sans any hide or hair of some chiseled hero with perfect hair and nothing to hide.
Okay, there was something to hide, or remain hidden being a better phrase. Despite the creaks and cracks Encanto did manage to score a few firsts long absent in Disney’s catalogue. I may be a cynic, but I always give a wide berth to questionable movie exploits. Especially animated stuff. Encanto might’ve been one of them. But still, hey, Disney animation! We’ve had 85 years worth of expectations.
There is a fine example of the malign regarding the revolving door of princess movies. If you’ve ever read the delightful and witty Olivia picture books then you might recall our porcine protagonist lamenting about having to dress up as a princess for a theme b’day party. Young Olivia’s dilemma somewhat mirrors Ms Lunny’s argument. It read like this:
“Why is it always a pink princess? Why not an Indian princess or a princess from Thailand or an African princess or a princess from China? There are alternatives. And on Halloween,” said Olivia, “what did all the girls go as?”
Olivia: “PRINCESSES!” ²
Disney’s had growing pains since the turn of the century, and in only fits and starts that the studio has been trying to inject 20th Century sensibilities into their 21st Century animated films. Better late than never? It’s rather been more like a see-saw than a carousel for a long time. Then again there is hope. Recall how I mentioned Mirabel needs her supporting cast to define her role in the Madrigal Clan? I kinda trolled you a bit. Disney’s growing pains are still creaky, but the “formula” can still be tooled with. As with Encanto.
Please, Mirabel, be strong and prove me wrong…
The Madrigal family are imbued with magic, but it was not always this way.
Grace to only what could be called a miracle, at a time of great sacrifice the powers that be bestowed an never-ending glow from a mystical candle—an encanto—to not only protect the family, but also bestow magical powers to the children when the time is right. Magic to aid the community, to protect all and imbue joy.
All is great and good under the encanto, which is why Mirabel (Beatriz) feels so left out of…everything.
You see, Mirabel is the only Madrigal who never inherited any magical powers. But instead of being the odd one out, she’s perpetually in overdrive trying to keep things shiny and bright, if only to outshine her worth to the Madrigal matriarch, her kind yet stern abuela Alma (Botero). She’s keeper of the encanto, and all too well knows Mira tries her best, but…the girl is powerless. What to do?
Until one day the mystical casa of Familia Madrigal starts to sputter out its magic for no identifying reason, Mira gets on the case. This isn’t about faulty magic. It’s about a faulty family.
Just ask the guy we no longer mention…
The curious thing about Encanto is adjusting for return on investment—paired with The Standard—is that the movie didn’t do so hot at the box office. This is in relation to earned Disney revenue. Almost all of Walt’s animated flicks break the bank. Encanto only managed to break even. Over $400 million at the domestic box office. This was Disney money, and only about half of its original budget. Encanto just limped by, which is why it’s here under RIORI‘s lens. I repeat, a Disney movie. That was not a hit and met with dicey reviews. Is the sky falling? Will there be lunch tomorrow?
Recalling my recalling my recollections about the tired and true formula from hours ago, Disney is going through growing cramps, trying to squeeze its way out of a trite plot device and attempt—in a broken-wing phoenix way—to redefine its princess parable predicament. This began in earnest with The Little Mermaid introducing a slew of films starring capable princesses, but still often relegated to supporting characters if not wallpaper. Or worse, a fallback into being a plot device (think Meg from Hercules). Ugh. Better thinking, but still too feminine and still playing it safe. More like hedging some bets. In the end run though, Disney’s 90s to 00s output worked, and was more thoughtful about where the heroine fit into the story at large and not relegated to being just a damsel.
Then came Frozen, Tangled, The Princess And The Frog and, yes, Encanto, which openly tooled with bucking the house style. Disney was getting better, growing hip to current pop culture trends. Doing so breathed some much needed life into the studio, but sometimes with odd results. Encanto is such an odd duck. We have no princess, the conflict is vague in execution, and there are no defined antagonists. At least on the surface. This may be a first regarding Disney’s output—despite all the songs and spectacle—Encanto is a mystery movie. An existential “whodunnit?” It’s not about an overt threat that may upset the natural order of things like Hades or Jafar attempted. Encanto is all about identity, and not tossing Gaston from the parapets.
Hear me out. This may get weird.
I’ve lamented about the end of trad cell animation over the last decade. However Encanto has proven to me why digital animation is of the now. Encanto was f’n gorgeous. By far the most beautiful modern Disney animated movie I’ve scene to date. K said she loved the colors; I could not argue. The flick gave Pixar a run for the money for being digitally sumptuous. Disney has learned how to use coloring as a character in its own right. What was different this time out Disney used color and shadow to propel the story. This was oddly deliberate considering one of the main characters was a magical house. I’m going to call the spade Encanto a spade. This was a deceptively complex story. The very fact the formula was all but thrown under the bus says volumes. Using setting as a defined character (Casita or no) I can’t recall that ever being attempted, let alone succeed. Light and shade, a reflection of the story.
In addition to that light and shade, a very major aspect of Encanto’s feel is the voice acting. Never have I heard a vocal cast be so…themselves. Disney has always had impeccable taste in casting their voices. I particularly loved the choice of Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor as the rodent orphan hunting duo in The Rescuers. With Encanto our cast is ostensibly Columbian, and their dialogue is so subtly Latin American, even to adopt a Columbian accent (there is one) the Madrigals come across as so natural and not forced. There was no bombast, just conversation, as if hearing regular folks go about their day. Sure, when the encanto began to sputter there was some concern, but never any histrionics like, say, The Lion King. Everything flowed. It was like watching an ep of Seinfeld, minus the bluster. We’re all just talking and sharing and was all so soothing and engaging. The most natural voice acting I’ve ever heard. Good job.
Encanto kind of felt like a cousin to another movie about music, mayhem and finding your way in the world: The Sound Of Music. “How do you solve a problem like Mira?” It was an ugly duckling story, and Mirabel was the misfit. The only member of family Madrigal who never inherited a magic power. This was the detail that drove the story. What’s wrong with Mira? How come she has no magic? And more of the sinister: “Does she even belong here? Is she a true Madrigal?” Taking into account our female protagonist is an awkward 15-year old young woman, all that awkwardness that goes along with adolescence is laid bare. Who here can’t help but relate?
*blogger raises hand, pops bubblegum*
This review, like Encanto, will take some hard lefts. I’ve dissected way too many middling flicks here at RIORI, but I’ve never outright attempted to explain a movie away. As I said, Encanto is a deceptive, complex movie, and if you view it from the princess formula you’ll miss a lot. I did first time around. Correct, Encanto demands a repeat viewing. I actually had to do some YouTube sifting to either affirm or dismiss the true meaning of the film. Admittedly that was kind of fun, namely having your suspicions confirmed/dismissed. Like I said Encanto was an existential mystery. Heavy for an Disney flick, but the studio pulled off the ruse deftly. Not was all as it seemed. and this nagged at me. Just like a good caper should.
For example: a twist I missed at first. Have you ever felt in trad Disney animated films that the songs were just bookends/exposition rather than just…songs, compared to Pixar movies. Randy Newman’s “You Got A Friend In Me” became the theme song for the Toy Story. That’s all, and that’s how it’s always been…since most Pixar flicks stray away from licks unlike the endlessly catchy/bemoaned “Let It Go” from Frozen.Encanto is a Disney film, so we get songs aplenty. This time out it’s not about bookmarks, let alone curtain calls. The songs are indeed madrigals in the center of the scene singing about the significant goings-on within the act proper. Heck, even the aforementioned “Let It Go” concluded Frozen‘s second act. Right on point. For a good portion of the film the songs just burst forth, off guard and you even get the sense that regarding a given scene now’s not the time to get all Harold Hill on yer arse. Like color, the music is a character, too.
Hard left: let’s get old school. I wanna talk about the three act structure. Perhaps you’ve read me flogging about how crucial it is to satisfying films. Disney Studios are ardent adherents (if not drones) to this practice, as should all professional scenarists be in constructing a fully realized final cut. This would be the fully-formed three act structure. No worries. Encanto played by the rules. Quite well. Listen now.
We might have heard that the ancient Greeks wrote the book—so to speak—on how to create proper dramatic theater in the Western Hemisphere. We call it a play, or a film or even an ep of TV. Cutting to the chase the classical three act structure is “a narrative model that divides stories into three parts—Act One, Act Two, and Act Three, or rather, a beginning, middle, and end.” ³ It’s just that simple, and you’d be hard pressed to ignore movies (especially animated ones) that let things get all wobbly and mushy and stray from the story proper in favor of flash and dash. Think Cars 2, Treasure Planet or (if you wanna get technical) John Carter. That kinda direction just ends up being baffling. I dug John Carter, but took me many layers of onion to peel away to actually appreciate the messy plot. The film could’ve been shorter also; a big film does not necessarily invite a bloated running time. Encanto was big, but not overblown and could have been if not for some shrewd storytelling with a tasteful amount of muss and fuss.
Here’s a key factor to the three act structure. It’s based partially on an audience’s reaction to a movie. Everyone remembers the opening and everyone remembers the ending. It’s not unlike to the crucial parts of a jet taking flight: the takeoff and the landing. The rest in between is essentially just coasting, and like with a movie most drama occurs in fits and starts like turbulence. Encanto‘s directing team understood this, which is why the first and second acts are littering with backstory and clues. I said the movie was an unconventional mystery story, and deciphering the clues makes the mystery fun to solve. As well as the whole “things are not what they seem” stuff.
A probable, ugly truth. That may have been Encanto‘s downfall.
In most Disney films (since their Renaissance) the formula to the tale of the resilient heroine almost always concludes with a big, bold scene of comeuppance. Victory and cue happily ever after. With Encanto that resolution is never really assured. Everything about the Madrigal magic fading and why is blurry, just out of sight. But there are clues if you pay attention. Close attention. I said I had to do some YouTube scanning to confirm my suspicions about the real story about the encanto, Casita and Mirabel’s place within the unfolding drama. In sum while watching the movie I kept asking myself, “Where are we going here?” It was not a question formed out of frustration. According to the box office tally maybe for the audience it was.
Something told me that the generations raised on the formula were all at sea viewing Encanto. Folks know what they’re in for when queuing up for the latest Disney flick. It’s familiar. It’s dependable. It’s all a family affair. It’s comfort food. Encanto was decidedly not your usual Disney fare, and it may have left a bad taste in the public’s mouth. Why? Well first of all the ending was open ended and not a tidy package all wrapped up. Our protagonist’s dilemma was never really resolved; Mirabel started with no magic and ended up with still no magic (at least at first glance). There was no definitive antagonist and the aim of the narrative was vague at best. That and America really had to think to appreciate Encanto. There was no spoon feeding, which I feel is what made the film great and quite a revelation. The directorial team worked hard to give us an earthy, quirky story that had a lot of moving parts. How those parts interlocked made Encanto work, especially when you get an “A-ha!” moment. Took me two viewings, but I got—earned, rather—mine. Even if it also required some Internet sifting.
Okay. The sifting thing—that and trying to write a primer for Encanto without ruining it for you—yielded some interesting results, as well as the movie might be the most avant-garde animated film since Fantasia from the venerable Walt Vault. Not unlike Encanto‘s disappointing takeaway for taking risks I’ll compare it the first Velvet Underground album. That record initially tanked, but everyone who heard it went out and started their own band. I hope Encanto set a precedent for future wily animators.
The miracle of magic from personal sacrifice allows the Madrigal encanto to imbue unique magical powers to its children when they come of age, kinda like the X-Men, but welcome in their community. Under the guiding light of the mystical, never-ending flame no child has ever been denied their gift, until Mirabel comes along. Unlike her pretty and strong sisters Mirabel walks away with nothing, and becomes the misfit of the clan (of which she is all too aware). However Mira keeps on being buoyant, always there to help the residents of Casita with everyday troubles we all face.
There. That’s the setup. Act one. Now pull out your magnifying glasses. Mirabel has no magic…or does she?
This comes into question when the magic starts to fade for no apparent reason. All the magical Madrigals are getting all stressed out, especially abuela Alma. She’s the self-appointed caretaker of the magic candle, and when the crisis goes into full swing she cannot. Just. Let the encanto be. Why?
Ah, the mystery, to which Mirabel gets a big lead from the almost literal skeleton in the closet, Bruno. The Ishmael of the Madrigal clan whom we do not speak of. Again, why?
He’s another misfit because he spoke his mind about the abuse of the magic, and how it might ruin Casita. That and Mira may be the catalyst to either save Casita from the waning magic or ruin everything completely. How?
This is where my sniffing around and my contempt for the worn-out princess plot paid off. I think. You ever hear the phrase, “The Captain always goes down with ship?” Sometimes there is no seaworthy ship. Sometimes its a fellowship, and/or a friendship. Consider this: Mira has no magic powers, at least not in the abstract. However if you applied a sharp eye (like the directorial team hoped I’ll bet) not all that Disney glitters is gold. To be blunt sometimes it’s terra cotta.
Sometimes the most mundane reveals treasures. King Tut’s tomb was buried in an offhand cave in the Valley Of The Kings, and look what we found. The Rosetta Stone? One of Napolean’s foot solders stumbled over it, so to speak. And there was that tale about Alexander Fleming and his sandwich. Boom, penicillin. Why not something obvious by accident could drive a movie? This just encapsulated Roger Corman’s entire milieu, and I’ll answer the former.
Hidden in plain sight. The director’s twisted the audience’s expectation with Encanto and left us up to gather the clues. Most of us Disney fans appreciate being indulged with a familiar, reliable (baby) formula. Encanto made one think, and boy did that sting. Just consider the ticket sales, most lost over Mirabel never getting her powers.
Wrong. Not getting but using. Moving on. You still there?
Without giving too much more away I feel that Encanto‘s eventual outcome reads as thus: why is it when Mirabel is under emotional duress Casita reacts in kind? Why? We’re not allowing Ursula to sway Eric with Ariel’s stolen voice here. Also, why was it when it was Mirabel’s chosen time to grasp the doorknob the encanto‘s erstwhile magic gift sunk into the floor rather than unlocking some magic? And what’s with the endless flapping shingles, cracks in the foundation and kids who need Mira to lean on? Curiouser and curiouser. No surprise, but I suggest you watch Encanto and unravel the mystery yourselves.
That’s enough for now. I’m not jamming my fingers up your collective noses anymore. Yes, this installment has been winding, weird and overall wordy. Then again aren’t all mysteries to some degree? Maybe not. Who knows? James Bond’s exploits never made much sense, yet we still watch ’em.
Encanto is an existential riddle, and only the determined will appreciate it. The film might require multiple viewings to be satisfying, but there’s a lot of cool things to scan. I hope that Disney allows more of this output. Adult films for families. I’m not wishing upon a star, but it would be cool if Encanto‘s execution might be a precursor for more mind-bending animated films to come. Heck, even the promo art holds riddles, even if Olivia is a self-appointed expert on gender roles.
Thank you everyone. I’ll be here until I’m dead. Please, try the veal and be sure to tip your servers.