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



The Players…

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


The Story…

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

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

Wait, what?


Intro…

So here we are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, just mostly naked.

Here we go and here we try…


The Rant (2013)

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

Apparently no one told writer/director Zack Snyder this.

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

Behold the opus that is Sucker Punch.

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


Rant Redux (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Revision…

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


Next Installment…

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

For what that’s worth.


 

Advertisements

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



The Players…

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


The Story…

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

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

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

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


The Rant…

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

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

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

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

“Hey!”

“…Yes?”

“Wanna watch a movie?”

No. “Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nate! What movie you wanna watch?”

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

Bedtime Stories, natch.

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

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

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

The brow again. “Huh?

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

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

“No. Go to school.” Door slam.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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


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


The Verdict…

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

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


Stray Observations…

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

Next Installment…

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

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

Look it up.


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 98: David Gordon Green’s “Pineapple Express” (2008)



The Players…

Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, Gary Cole and Rosie Perez, with Kevin Corrigan, Craig Robinson, and Amber Heard.


The Story…

Dale and Saul are the best of buds…so to speak. Dale relishes his unenviable job of a process server, throwing out subpoenas to unsuspecting catchers. Sure, it can stressful, but then there’s his pal Saul with the panacea: a veritable Eden of reefer.

But Saul doesn’t have the green thumb, no. He’s just Amazon. The distributor, and his reach is vast, is only as long as Saul’s supply line runs. And what funds the supply? Right, cold hard cash.

So what does Dale do when on the job? Right. Witness a murder at an alleged drug lord’s mansion. And then what does Dale do in a reefer-induced haze? Right. Seek out Saul and his product for solace. Right?

Nope. And now any hope of safety goes (wait for it) up in smoke.


The Rant

Let us speak frankly now about weed. And I ain’t talking gardening here. Blooms definitely not in the Burpee catalog.

My experiences with mary jane are few and far between. I’ve been partial to the legal, government sanctioned, actually dangerous drugs available at any SafeWay. Booze, caffeine and nicotine, the American Holy Trinity. Sure, I did have my fun with prescription abuse, but the worst that happened there was constant drowsiness and bitchin’ dreams about being awake. That and the patience to read dozens of books at a leisurely clip to which I have no recollection of reading. That sure as sh*t wasn’t amongst the microscopic warnings on the phial. Oh well.

(BTW: why are the risk warnings SO HUGE the legal drugs and f*cking cramped onto a postage stamp for the prescription drugs? Discuss)

I like beer. If you could see me now it shows. Moving on.

Weed. I is a decaf Cheech & Chong routine. For real, every time in my ancient, Phish-loving past I toked and fell fast asleep. Every. Damn. Time. I never felt the dopey joys and goofiness and chilling and ability to dissect every guitar chord on Santana’s self-titled debut along the curves of the Book of Psalms. Nope. Snore, snore and more. Wake up hours later with chili sauce slathering your nose enough times you figure out what a downer apparition you are under the influence of grass.

did sleep well though, complete with some bodacious dreams involving Heather Graham circa 1997.

Even in high school hanging with my stoner friends (I was the lone holdout) I got a metaphorical contact high. First and prob to no surprise I’m pretty liberal in my views about burning. Pot is a controlled substance nowadays, but back then I figured that it should’ve been treated as such. For booze and smokes? You gotta be of a certain age to partake, like 18 or so. You shouldn’t toke and drive, since it messes with your already flawed everyday judgment. You shouldn’t be high in public, because you are irritating and might shut down the local pizzeria. Control the substance. It’s not harmful, but too much weed may make you annoying.

Here’s a story. It’s from college. For those of you who went to one you’ll hear what I’m screaming. It’s one of those “there’s one in every crowd” story. Face it, you’ve been there.

Every solid dorm floor population at college is inhabited by a lot of stereotypes. The go-getter with his scholarship in finance. Some jock, an expert is some lesser-revered team sport (think lacrosse or cricket). The computer nerd with the pale complexion. The bando (raised hand), the artsy queer, the engineer, the etc.

And the burners. You know the kind. Two seconds behind the matter at hand. Their glow-in-the-dark Dead posters hung upside down. Facial tics like moss growing on the wrong side of the tree. Wake and bake. They’re like anti-KISS Army; unlike those manic fanatics who wake, wash and dress like Gene and Paul do everyday, the burners smirk and giggle since Gene don’t bow to the delights of their chosen high despite they snore “Detroit Rock City” in their sleep, sometime after lunch.

There is an argument I lean towards when those admonish the others for toking. Weed can be psychologically addictive. Y’know, like cigarettes, coffee, heroin and binge watching Game Of Thrones. Of which is the worst I cannot say, but when you firmly believe you need to maintain your habit on an hourly basis, then yeah, you have an addiction. My father watches BBC America every night on PBS. It’s an awful show, and he’s not British. What gives? Then again I a lot myself nightly bouts with Jeopardy! So who’s to say what?

We all have our addictions. It’s only when the habit supersedes getting on in the day that it may get troublesome. Especially that if such practices rub you raw, consider the others in your ever dwindling circle that find you increasingly annoying. So here comes the wake ‘n bake tale of grue. Not so much an after school special but an inevitable facepalm.

A room over from my freshman squat were the ideal Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Can’t remember their names, but it doesn’t matter. As I said, you know the type. Glazed eyes, snickering at nothing funny, reeking of patchouli, snickering at nothing funny. Study hall. Domino’s would call the floor asking when we’d like to place our order. Not kidding, there.

We’d have these dumb floor meetings. The RA would rally us every Friday to talk turkey. Mostly domestic 20th Century skills about keeping house. Cleaning up trash. No loud music after 10. Don’t use Canadian quarters in the Coke machine. Bring us together so that we may agree.

It was always eye rolls. But to Zig and Zag it was a circus. Giggling, impatience, odors of spoiled incense and Europe ’72 oozing from every pore. The funniest thing about a career pothead (besides his sidekick) is that they are convinced no one else figures that they are high. Pretty funny, and very annoying. Ain’t this as funny as ever? No, and nope. The joke’s on…whatever.

Like I said about these two jokers. They were in the room next to mine. Always with live recordings on their jambox, day and night and day. Going to actual classes ended…come to think of it, I don’t remember if the guys ever went to class, or if they ever registered. No matter. All I knew then was they bivouacked next door and really liked Santana. I know this for sure because said group invited my first and only convo with Tweedlewhomever. Like most white folks, they all look alike to me.

I had a substantial CD collection then. I was alternating between American Underground bands like the Replacements and Buffalo Tom against classic rockers like Hendrix and the Who. And Santana. This dope caught wind that I had the remastered disc of Carlos and Co’s debut album replete with live tracks from the original Woodstock concert. Trace element stuff back then. I was a feather in my cap, and I played those live tracks to death. Awesome.

I had the door to my room open one evening, that Santana album on repeat when Dee sauntered by. He poked his shaggy head in the doorway and used it to brace himself. I regarded him curiously.

“Hey man,” he drawled. “That Santana?”

I nodded. “Remaster. Got live tracks from Woodstock.”

“Cool, cool. Can I borrow it?”

I hesitated. Hey, at least give me that credit. “Yeah, sure.”

“Like now, man?”

Right now?”

“Yeah. Big study session. Carlos relaxes me. Is it cool?”

Without realizing what I was doing I turned off the stereo, ejected the disc and case and handed to him. At this point anything to make him leave. He smelled like a fart in a car, and was creeping me out. He was interrupting all the nothing I wasn’t working on.

“Thanks, man.” His tipped a salute with the case, leered and dragged himself down the hall. I closed the door.

Now I may know what you’re all thinking: and he never saw his blessed Santana CD ever again. Nope. It was in exile; even I had forgotten about it for some weeks. But one night I got to studying and felt peckish. I went next door with a keen awareness of what laid in wait: very odd, confused hospitality. I shoulda figured out the scene earlier. Once when the Domino’s delivery guy dropped off that evening’s feast it was my turn to pay. He sent me on my way with the pizzas and fistful of coupons. We were such good customers; he told me to spread the clippings around my floor. Sure, okay. Whatever. Save a few bucks next night.

So after the extra extra cheeses were demolished I passed around the coupons and took it on myself to drop the rest off at my dormmate’s rooms. Those who weren’t in I just slipped them under the door. Had to get rid of them somehow.

I met resistance at the door of my music critic’s room. I was surprised. I knew these guys were usually on something, but I couldn’t place what. I was too dumb then to fully understand what patchouli incense was really for, other than for attracting a bull yak in the time of the rut. I tried to shove the coupon under the door, but something was in the way. I poked around and figured it was some fabric. A towel. I gave up, looking quizzically at the piece of paper like one does when the Coke machine won’t accept that wrinkly dollar bill. I saw that the edge was discolored, wet. I raised and eyebrow, harrumphed and went back to my room. I tossed the coupon on the floor. One would figure two potheads would eagerly trudge at a chance for cheap pizza.

Many moons later and about the peckish order, I wanted my Santana album back. It had been weeks since I loaned it out and I was for wanting. I went around the corner and knocked on their door. No surprise a live Dead bootleg was warbling from within. And again with the yak bait. I knocked again.

A shuffle, then a stuffy, “Who’s that?”

“Me.”

“You?”

“Yeah. Can I have my Santana disc back?”

Silence. I knocked again.

“Who’s that?”

I rolled my eyes. Dave’s not here. “I want my Santana disc back. Please.” I’m nothing but polite.

The music went off and the door unlocked. I pushed against but it got stuck. I looked down. Lo and behold a wet towel, as well as a miasma of incense that could keep Dracula at bay. I saw the room was dim; the blinds were closed. Day-glo Henrdrix poster on the wall…as well as an elaborate hand painted mural of a Dead concert as if conjured up by Lewis Carroll. Pizza boxes piled by the closet. I guessed they found that coupon.

My fellow fanboy cursed the glare from the unforgiving halogens in the hallway. It was my turn to lean in the door. He looked at me perplexed.

“What’s up, man?”

“My Santana CD. May I have it back now?”

“That was yours?”

“…Yeah.”

“Hold on.” He kicked away the fallout and found the disc, handed it to me. “Sorry, man. I forgot about it.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I didn’t even get a chance to hear it. But thanks, dude.”

“You’re welcome.” I let him slink back into his lair. Jerry and the guys kicked back into life. I went back to my stereo and kicked Carlos back into life. To this day the liner notes of that remastered disc still smell like spoiled oregano. Good times, good times.

Not long after that meet-and-greet, the Tweedles left campus. And no surprise, not of their own choosing. Not actively, at least. They were expelled, but not so much for getting caught schmokin’ than for never going to class. And vandalism. I will admit I embellished describing the Santana CD story, but the pothead’s room? Amazing. Decked out like an opium den minus the opium. In brighter light the mural was amazing, the stink was glorious and maintenance would’ve had to tear up the floor tiles for sanitation’s sake. All in all awesome, but what a waste.

On the whole, most burners are a kind, mellow lot. Casual and conversational, with a lot of cool stories and great jokes. Chill. It’s only when pot becomes their life and wife that stoners can become obnoxious, where everything is funny, including wreck, ruin and expulsion. Not even making casual use of weed legal could undo that. It’s like if a user, pot or otherwise, is making life troublesome for at least one other person then it becomes an issue. If one’s—pardon the pun—dopey antics, no matter how benign start to rankle someone (even if they’re high as sh*t) it might be time to say when.

Take Dale and Saul, for instance…


“You’ve been served!”

Sounds kinda like a superhero battle cry. But nope, it’s just pothead process server Dale Denton (Rogen) doing his ugly job. Hence the weed. You think you could remain sane being called a*shole on an hourly basis and not partake to remain calm? Right. Pass the Dutchie on the left hand side.

Saul (Franco) is Dale’s left hand. He’s the hookup, with a veritable forest of rare weed to cure every ill. Sure, Saul is just as—if not more—dopey than his numero uno customer Dale, but he’s a kindly, generous soul. No harm to anyone. He wants to invest his cut of sales to get his Grammy Faye into a better retirement community. Aw. See, kind?

Dale’s job ain’t as kind. He’s Saul’s remora. It’s symbiotic. Dale needs the weed to tolerate the job. Saul provides the balm to salve his wounds. Easy.

However, on night on the prowl, doped out of his mind on the latest breed o’ weed Pineapple Express—very new and very trace—Dale starts to get the paperwork ready to deliver to one Ted Jones (Cole) when shots ring out. Jones plugs a guy in the head and Dale sees it all, freaks and speeds off, dropping the tell-tale joint on the driveway. Not cool.

Not ever cooler is when Jones investigates the screeching and finds a spent roach on the ground. Sniff, sniff.

“Pineapple Express.”

See, Jones is a big deal drug dealer in weed, and Saul is his pusher as Dale is the mark. And eyewitness to a murder. Ted’s killing.

Uh, Dale better call Saul…and both get the f*ck out of town.

Who said pot was harmless…?


I may have mentioned this before (and probably have indeed), but doesn’t Rogen play the same guy in all his movies? I know it’s nice to find steady work, but as an actor with a solid schtick rather than a range you’re gonna close a lotta doors. Then again, no one has ever lost money in Hollywood underestimating audiences’ intelligence. Well, maybe once or twice.

Rogen has a good thing going over the past decade. His motormouth humor isn’t for everyone, and even gets a bit degrading for me sometimes, but does sell tickets. At the end of the day I find Rogen funny and sometimes approaching witty in a blend of “aw shucks/are you insane” repartee. His stuff’s usually good with the right co-star. You gotta have one for a buddy movie, right? In Superbad it was Bill Hader, and it was Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 50/50. Such pairings that didn’t work was Adam Sandler in Funny People and especially not Katherine Heigl in Knocked UpDefinitley not her, even if she weren’t a she. Vote’s still out on that, too.

Face it, buddy comedies are almost exclusively the man cave of the sprawling studio lots. So gotta get a good foil to your straight man. A Costello to his Abbott, a Spock to his Kirk, a Stimpy to his Ren (okay, not the best example there). If Rogen’s Dale is an immature, churlish goof with a weed habit. The Murtaugh is his Riggs is slacker, skittish (but still mellow) with a weed habit and business Franco’s Saul. I was pretty surprised how well the two got on together, especially since I never figured his usual yuk-yuks border on ribald. His and Rogen’s oddball, passive-aggressive, bird-pecking-croc-teeth is the centerpiece of this movie.

It also might’ve been the only thing of merit, also.

While watching Express (for the second time, mind you. Caught in theatrical release and wasn’t bowled over. Guess I should’ve smoked up first, but that sh*t’s harder to sneak in than a cold six. This precept has been tried an tested. Yer welcome) there came a nagging at me. And no, it wasn’t the kid yanking on my earlobe for her iPad so she can watch The Loud House (j/k, she’s a SpongeBob fan. watch The Loud House. Grew up with sisters. ‘Nuff said).

(note to self: cut back on parenthetical references)

Express felt a little lopsided, like more was going on elsewhere in film land than what I was immediately seeing. As metaphor, my car has a “dead bulb” warning glowing on my dash, but for the life of me I cannot locate it. Headlights are fine, blinkers re fine. I even asked the kid to check out the rear lights as I applied the brake. Nothing. But something is up. I guess Express cam across a little stilted because that director Green is better known for dramas than screwy stoner action-comedies. A shot in the dark, but hey. Throughout the whole movie there was this Sisyphus-like weight threatening to derail the whole story. I couldn’t figure if this was some proto-meta, Kaufman-esque gag about how too much weed can ruin your perception of the reality of your surroundings. Or maybe it was just shoddy camera work, I dunno. Still, cool to ponder, eh?

Wake up. I got Oreos.

So right, we got a really Laurel and Hardy action going on here. Despite the minor, but still smelling overarching pretentious of our director I must give credit to this dopefest—literally and figuratively—is that is does have a cool mystery vibe going on. It’s paper thin (Dale witnesses a murder, Ted is a bad dude, Carol’s a crooked cop. Saul is just Saul, etc) but enough to let Express survive. It’s a burner Sherlock mystery. Again maybe a metaphor for the Down syndrome goldfish memory of most stoners, but there’s enough silliness to keep things afloat. Barely.

My biggest carp with Express is there’s quite a bit of filler. Scenes that have no point, crammed into the lacy plot. I didn’t really see the point of Dale’s dating Angie in the movie; he’s already very immature and petulant. It’s also safe to assume that a lot of the banter between Rogen and Franco was improv, but too much of it jumps the shark. When that crap goes down, the decent chemistry between Rogen and Franco become stale Martin and Lewis (in a word, annoying, and gimme back my Santana CD). If any wit seems stilted sometimes blame bad directing or an editor asleep at the reel.

Come on. That is the greatest pun you will ever hear in this installment.

Anyway, this action/mystery/comedy flows at a leisurely pace. Perhaps another analogy. This film made me think too hard, because I wasn’t high at the time. Clever device? If there’s some precious direction at work in Express I must’ve been too lucid to find it funny. The movie was funny, but there was too much passive winking that I snuck up on and examined to much.

Let me put it this way: as of this post, the hot ticket at the multiplex is Avengers: Endgame. I haven’t watched a Marvel movie in the theatre since the first Iron Man film back in 2008 BC. Being a comic book collector, I had seen other adaptions before the MCU got revved up, to see what was “right” and what was “wrong.” It’s the only form of snobbery I have: if a movie is based on pre-existing material (Shakespeare’s plays, Stephen King’s novels and/or Stan Lee’s superhero stories) I will scour it rather than just sit back and enjoy it. I can’t help it. Entertainment takes a back seat for studying up for the Bar exam. I overanalyze things (it’s kinda what RIORI and The Standard is all about). I found myself picking apart Express with the lucidity required to strip the Thanksgiving turkey carcass of its oysters because most folks don’t know that turkeys have oysters.

Remember, oreos.

So exactly why does the wit seem stilted? Why was my mantra watching Express was, “Something is missing here?” Must’ve been my imagined device at work. Watched the flick too deeply that Corrigan and Robinson were secretly the real stars of the movie (or at least the yin to Dale and Saul’s yang). Then again I may spotted Green’s established, aforementioned artistic pretentions at full flow here, behind the scenes. Everything is kind until it’s not (the final scene was the best part, clear as a bell). The gauzy direction must’ve put off a lot of folks by The Standard’s stake. But chances are they weren’t high, like me, and missed the chucklefest for that very loss. I dunno.

Welp, that being said I’m gonna go watch One Crazy Summer for the umpteenth time and then try to solve Fermat’s last theorem. Again.

Dude, marvelous.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. A kind rent it. See it with a bud. Hey, where’s them oreos at?


Stray Observations…

  • “Dopest dope I ever smoked.” Dude, movie in a nutshell.
  • Where’d Saul get the pickles?
  • Why is every vehicle here a period car?
  • So. Many. Payphones.
  • “I used to use this little gun when I was a prostitute.” Shrug.
  • “Watch your head.”
  • Is all the bush supposed to look phallic?
  • “Yeeeah. If you could roll out those 18 bales of kush by 9:30 that would be greaaat (sorry, couldn’t resist).”
  • I never did test the high beams.
  • “Teamwork!” “Yes!”

Next Installment…

Adam Sandler has cooked up a few Bedtime Stories to share with his kid. What’s endearing about that is the tales were intended to be just stories.

Gumballs, anyone?


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 97: Taylor Hackford’s “Proof Of Life” (2000)



The Players…

Meg Ryan, Russell Crowe, David Morse, David Caruso and Pamela Reed, with Anthony Heald, Gottfried John and Michael Kitchen.


The Story…

When Alice’s architect husband Peter goes missing into the dense canopy of the Teclan jungle, it’s up to special agent Terry Thorn to get him back alive.

Funny thing is the revolutionaries who abducted Peter want him to remain alive. Good business sense, as all human trafficking blueprints flow.

Can Thorn locate the waylaid Peter in time and fend off advances from desperate housewife Alice?

Stay tuned!


The Rant…

There are a lot of ugly words in the English language. Dismemberment. Murder. Moist. A panoply of them. Being once an English major I too gathered words that would not be invited to my Friends list: Suture. Lonely. Lesion. Hangnail. Literally. All those words describe nasty ideas and poor grammar, and all describe harm in some fashion (including that overused and incorrectly applied adverb, Millennials). Stuff that bums us out an makes us cringe, images of suffering and pain and loss cloud our minds when we hear them.

On the flip side there is a more insidious nature of our emotions being triggered by hear the bad stuff above. Selfishness, another ugly word, crosses our minds:

“Glad it’s not me.”

That being said another nasty term that clouds my brain with fear and loathing (and not just relevant to this installment): kidnap. Separation anxiety in its fullest form. Stolen. Taken away from your life and loved ones, only to become an object, some poker chip by the guy who demands a ransom. It’s akin to slavery; people are not products, and therefore are not meant to be bought and sold. The 13th Amendment has something to say about that skin trade.

Humans dislike captivity. Scratch that. They f*cking hate it. That’s why cons pulling hard time are so grumpy. No Internet, no GrubHub but lots of potential sodomy (traveling tip: soap on a rope). Humans don’t want to feel caged, lost, helpless, alone and deal with pesky hangnails. It’s terrifying, and kidnapping is a bit more brutal than, oh, getting lost in the mall when you were 6, mom and dad seemingly evaporating from existence. No. When you are spirited away by some hooligan low on cash you become a thing. It doesn’t truly matter in such a circumstance that you have a family, you have friends, you have a mortgage and a kid and a dental plan and the next season of Stranger Things to binge on. You are now a commodity. Get used to it. Ugly.

Now you may be thinking, “Hey blogger, what do you know about kidnapping? Were you ever kidnapped? And what’s with all those hangnails? You been juggling potato peelers?”

Actually, yes. Had a lot of pomme gratin to fuss with at work. And shut up. No, I was never abducted. Getting lost driving when the reception kacks out and Google Maps takes a walk makes me worried. Zip ties around my wrists, gagged and a hood over my head sounds like no garden party to me. S&M party maybe, but there’s usually controlled substances involved. Cold oatmeal every noon while rotting in a bamboo cage doesn’t sound very fun.

But I know about getting lost, and I don’t just mean not knowing where you are. We’ve all been lost in that context at least once. Not knowing where you is part of that equation, but not unlike all those cancerous and cuticle terms I mentioned above, being lost is harmful. Like chain lightning all sorts of nasty feelings bombard your brain and push it into panic mode. The greatest fear is that of the unknown, and being yanked out of your comfortable routine into a dark world not of your making, well, the animal inside comes to the fore. Mainly pain and panic.

Consider any and all prominent kidnapping stories ever in the media. Do they ever end well? Even at rescue there is shock and awe and fear and what the crap? Elian Gonzalez in the iconic closet photo with the muzzle of a gun in his face. Patty Hearst—supposedly brainwashed—brandishing a gun during a bank robbery for the Symbianese (whoever they were) on security camera. And there’s that nasty ending to the Lindburgh baby abduction. Despite Argo got it mostly right, those American diplomats did not appear happy when they set foot back on American soil. They looked like foreigners.

Kidnap is a dirty word. Lost is a dirty word. As is alone, isolated and trapped. Rips humanity from you. Sounds dramatic, a bit too much? Maybe, but recall that “glad it’s not me” comment? Well, granted the topic of kidnapping is hardly water cooler conversation, but the notion of being marooned, emotionally and physically? Like when the reception craps out, how vulnerable common folks can be caught unawares by desperate forces can be felt and more often than not tap a basal fear. Glad it’s not me is a surface touch, not unlike one’s reaction to that last snap of Elian. In a breath later:

“That could have been me.”

Shudder. Then back to the cubicle.

We all love the car wreck, so long as we weren’t in the damned thing. And just like the traffic slowing to a dead crawl, gradually glancing at the scene you’re glad it wasn’t you. But there is a corollary to your relief: someone knew the person in that car, and won’t know the difference between a fatality or a trip to the ER.

That could be me. I could be gone. I could be there. I’m glad I’m here. Otherwise, just like lesions, hangnails and kidnappings you just as quickly—perhaps unbeknownst to your loved ones—could end up…gone.

Ugly…


The country of Tecala is in trouble, from within and without. If the ineffectual government is unable to quell the yelling of the ELT rebels, the country’s infrastructure is a mess, especially managing its natural resources. That’s where Peter (Morse) and Alice (Ryan) have moved to Tecala. It may prove to be another success story in Peter’s CV.

You see, the man has built up quite the reputation as an architect; a dambuilder that has trotted the globe (with his long-suffering wife in tow) coaxing wells and moving rivers so the local can have access to fresh water. Yes, he’s made quite a name for himself. However now residing in Tecala, his successes have made him marked man.

The ELT fund their little revolution via ransoms. Human trafficking. Kidnapping. They’ve found an ideal mark in Peter, someone who could be pawn in their game. He’s nabbed and spirited away to their camp, and the demands come rolling in.

Alice is at her wits end. Enter Terry Thorn (Crowe), a former Aussie special agent adept in these kind of circumstances. The Bowman’s new home becomes ground zero for fielding phonecall demands, going into the field and picking off the testy rebels. She sees Terry as the man Peter should be: take charge, not negotiate, let alone kiss ass and suck up to rules that demand snipping a lot of red tape.

Alice demands action. First to let Terry do his job, then maybe get Peter back alive.

Maybe, on both counts…


I read on AllMovie that Proof Of Life was a sort of return to form for director Hackford. The man made his name with films like An Officer And A Gentleman and Against All Odds portraying relationships in peril. Bad love, failing marriages, misguided coupling, etc. Desperation is his muse. Proof is classic Hackford, but don’t call it a comeback. Tension and anger and the futility of living is his stock in trade, with a coda of possible grace. His stuff keeps you rubbing your (emotional) sweaty palms. True, his stuff may come perilously close to soap opera territory, but a solid script often elevates the drama to cinematic satisfaction.

*crickets*

Yeah. Not here. Sorry.

You might have forgotten how preachy Hackford can get without a well fleshed-out script keeping his ire in check. I’ve seen a lot of Hackford’s films, and there’s always some message and/or social commentary lurking behind the clackboard. Usually such doggerel is kept in check by an aforementoned solid story, but when the story is too broad Hackford has a field day. Put Officer against Bound By Honor? We needed more Lou Gosset. And a kick to the crotch.

Metaphors aside Proof needed such a kick. In spite of Proof‘s dire content there’s a serious lack of necessary urgency demanded by stories like this one. Most of the second act, where Terry in full is introduced, is bookended by a lot of exposition. Proof was cut in 2000, back when Crowe was riding high from his lead in Gladiator, back when he was likable, bankable and not hurling phones. Crowe got labelled as an action hero, albeit a surly one, His presence as special agent dispatching the baddies with extremely extreme prejudice seemed a natural character extension of a desperate Roman general exiled to gladiatorial combat. A special ops guy? Skilled in hostage negotiation? How could that fail?

Plenty. Denude Crowe of his ballsy balls and his signature grimace and he’s a bureaucrat. With access to firearms. When he needs them. And when David Caruso goads him, like some bully’s toady, champing at the bit to get his old partner back into the fray.

To whit I ask: why? This is the primary problem I sniffed at in the first act. Sure, Terry was well-equipped to head the Bowman abduction case, but I never found it clear why he was the guy to spearhead the hunt. And with all dramas, the protag usually gets emotionally invested in his mission. For two thirds of the film Terry is rote. Apart from a skirmish scene in the second act, Terry is inert. Another hostage negotiation, another day at the office. What’s for dinner?

So there. We have weak tension here, despite the film’s plotting. At least by the second act, which became a crucial line of demarcation by my viewing; for such and intense story there is a surprising lack of urgency. And even after Proof grinds into second gear, Peter’s abduction seems even less urgent than Terry dicking around with his contacts. That and dealing with Meg Ryan making goo-goo eyes at him, and she comes across as all at sea with this drama (BTW, the romantic element was totally unnecessary and pointless). Ryan is a lead in a cameo role. I wished Oliver Reed had more unnecessary screen time.

I found the acting between the leads clumsy and without chemistry. Their banter was a slog, and muddied up an already muddy story. To be fair, Hackford’s best work has always been gratingly edgy, but his edges are all square here, like he was trying to “play it safe” against the then hot topic of exile and abduction in the shadow of the Gonzalez case. The kid was dragged back to Cuba in June of 2000. Proof dropped in December of the same year. I doubt one did not inform the other. Play on a fresh media storm that may be translated to film? Been done before. But why does everything in Proof seems rote, safe? Hackford has never been one to flinch, and his social commentary has always been naked. But never paint by numbers. I was bored and cheated here. We needed more boom with the subject matter, less bust.

Of course, all was not lost in Tecala. Besides the editing being very good, Morse was very engaging as captive Peter. He’s always had a stiff presence, Not really a bad thing; precious few actors can make bland so endearing. I’ve appreciated Morse all the way back to his salad days as Dr “Boomer” Morrison on St Elsewhere. He made being bland interesting, which makes him so protean. You’d never finger him  out as a perp in a police lineup. He’s everyman, minus leading male. That’s an asset, and why really good character actors succeed. As it’s been incorrectly said in writing, make your characters likable. Wrong. Make them interesting. Morse as Peter was interesting by being bland and relatable. True most of us have never tasted the hell of forced captivity, but Morse well-illustrated the “glad it’s not me” edict. Big ups to Morse.

This movie was all about distance. Kidnapping, captivity, wrenched out of the nest, distance. As Thorn is active, Peter is passive. And back and forth, never really connecting. That may be just a machination of the story, but what went down in the third act should’ve informed the first two acts: action. Swift and deliberate. There’s a worldbuilder gone asunder! Heavy stakes. Instead we get a smarmy Caruso (is there any other kind?) trying to prod uber-agent Thorn to pick up a rifle again and pick off brown people for the sake of picking off brown people. Sure, socio-politcal commentary. Sure, hostage negotiations. Sure, government intrigue. Sure, needless goo-goo eyes. If indeed Proof was Hackford’s return to form, he should’ve kept the box top in plain sight when assembling the jigsaw puzzle. Regarding Officer and Odds, Hackford seemed to opt to distance himself from his muse. Proof was rote, dull for too long and if any social commentary was to be made we could’ve all watched CNN for two-plus hours for far-removed storm and stress in small countries populated with subjugated brown people.

Might be more urgent. You might feel about all such stuff, “Glad…”

Ugly.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. You want a solid kidnap flick? Watch Jack Lemmon sweat in Missing. Proof just lets you sweat in desperation to “get on with it!”


Stray Observations…

  • “I’m on my way to the airport.”
  • Morse’s dye job fools no one, especially since he’s been totally bald since 12 Monkeys. And that wig wasn’t any better. Just sayin’.
  • “I am not getting pregnant again in the Third World.” Wait, what?
  • You know, I’m getting real tired of seeing terrorists portrayed as fanatical savages…kinda like the Minutemen were. Ouch.
  • “What kind of stress are we talking about?”
  • Who’s really corrupted here?
  • “Your toilet.” Yes, yes indeed.
  • Oh sh*t. Claymore.
  • “You never get a pretty picture, okay?”
  • Why is Caruso so good at being slimy?
  • “These pigs are lucky to have you.” Zing!
  • A corollary: precious few “terrorists” have been portrayed as non-jokes in old Hollywierd. The Hurt Locker, Three Kings and Munich portray the other as adversaries, not enemies. Chew on that.
  • “Nothing.”
  • The 13th Amendment, Section 1: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Since Tecala doesn’t exist, well…
  • “That was fun.” “Yeah!”

Next Installment…

All aboard the Pineapple Express! Next stop…uh…I fergot…


 

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



The Players…

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


The Story…

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

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

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

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

Let the shames begin.


The Rant…

I was a Reagan Baby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m losing a lot you.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting a life…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Verdict…

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


Stray Observations…

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

Next Installment…

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


 

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



The Players…

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


The Story…

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

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

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


The Rant…

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

A good question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slow down there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All around, ouch…


In a universe parallel to ours…

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

So what and why us?

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

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

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

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

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


Back to our world…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anywho…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*facepalm*

Okay. Now what?

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

Bitter? Nah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whew. Sorry.

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

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

Ignoring old skool CGI.


The Verdict…

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


Stray Observations…

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

Next Installment…

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


 

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


15754842_PA_Orange-County


The Players…

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


The Story…

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

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

There’s the Great American Novel to write!


The Rant…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*whistling*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the curls are massive…


Shaun (Hanks) has a kind of dilemma.

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

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

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

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

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

So crazy it just might…


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

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

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

There. Whew. Had to let that hen out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gordon Lish? Really?


The Verdict…

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


Stray Observations…

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

Next Installment…

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

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