ROIRI Presents Installment #180: Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” (2019)


The Lighthouse


The Players…

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.


The Basics…

In the late 1800’s on a remote New England island, two USLS employees begin their post as lighthouse keepers for a four-week tour. It’s a straightforward assignment: maintain the facility and keep the light burning. Nothing remarkable. Standard operating procedure.

But when a violent, almost ungodly storm sweeps the island, cuts off supply lines and threatens to pummel their small tower into strewn bricks their post becomes a living nightmare. Now both must try to survive nature’s wrath, being stranded, each other’s fraying nerves and a creeping descent into madness.

Then again, it’s nothing a little alcohol abuse couldn’t remedy.


The Rant…

My mother has a thing for lighthouses. More like a festish really.

Those sturdy, concrete, somewhat phallic sentinels that dot the coastlines. Once the vanguard of maritime safety, now a quaint reminder of a simpler time before radar and GPS. These edifices still have their uses. Landmarks for one, especially considering small craft that may not have a LORAN unit. These days lighthouse beacons serve better as a landmark on the roads than on the shoals. However they are still the idea backup source when modern naval tech fails. Heck, I even learned that 75% of all lighthouses in America are still fully functional navigational aids, kind of like hard copy to go with online purchase. And as I can fondly recall from youth that light was the summertime version of “be home before the street lights come on.” As soon as you could see that beacon spinning, get yer ass home.

I spent many summers as a kid on the Fire Island National Seashore. My grandparents had a summer place there, and there was the iconic Fire Island Light at the far eastern tip of the shoreline. Here’s some history: the tower is 160-plus feet tall and was completed 1858. Pre-Civil War, it was daring feat in concrete. The light’s the second tallest one in New York, and its beacon can cast up to over 20 nautical miles out to sea. The light did crap out in the early 70s, and the tower fell into disrepair. Later, in the mid-80s, the Coast Guard returned the Fire Island Lighthouse to an active navigation aid. Dusted it off, fresh coat of paint and buffed its lenses clean. I recall as a kid the near incessant hum of distant sandblasting at the workers stripped the tower down to bare brick in or to repoint the thing as well as give it said new, high tech coat of paint. Even later in the 2000s the light became a private aid to navigation, a self-sustaining entity from the local historic society. It continues to be on the nautical charts to this day, despite being practically obsolete.

Kinda intersting, huh? Was to my Moms. I don’t sweat other people face to face for opinions on whatever subject RIORI has gotten messed up into week upon week. Apart from recommendations from friends who still don’t understand The Standard (EG: “Yes! The Phantom Menace was lame! Wrong decade! Who are you anyway? Why are you in my freezer? Hand me that popsicle!”). I fly blind. Besides, it’s easier for me to have another “do the research” rather than me scouring the IMDb and its sister sites all weekend long. So I this time out I got either clever or lazy and consulted the mother about her pet interest. Got more than I wished for. Um, you did read the above paragraph, right?

I think that, which may hint at the aforementioned “simpler times,” is what my mother’s infatuation with lighthouses are all about. Like me when I was a kid, she spent her summers on Fire Island with her folks. This was back in the 50s. Then the island was nothing more than a big sandbar; precious little vegetation, just scrub, dune grass and a few stunted pines. At night the twirling beacon lit up the entire bay. No trees mean it cast its light up and down the island every minute or so. The way my mother described it, it sounded like God’s flashlight, inescapable and demanding awe. And also like it came to be with me, you better be home before you can see the beam.

Some more history, according to Moms: back in the 60s the Fire Island National Seashore was founded and set about overhauling the landscape, planting trees. They offered up shade and shelter belts from storms and their root systems did fine job of holding the sandbar together. Due to the new canopy, the almighty Fire Island Light did not lord over island like it used to what with all that fresh canopy. It was also the rise of radar, so ships really didn’t need those huge beacons to navigate at night anymore. The rest is history.

My mother didn’t just spend summers on Fire Island however. From kid to young adult she visited many beaches. She went to camp on Cape Cod, and there were lighthouses. Her in-laws had a summer place on the coast of Maine, and there were lighthouses. She visited the Outer Banks, learned of his maritime history and…you get me. Mom found lighthouses as a touchstone for fond childhood memories: summer camp, swimming at the beach, fresh lobster from Maine (until she discovered she had a shellfish allergy, the hard way). She was—is—an amateur scholar of maritime history and told me how old yet tricky lighthouse technology was and how far back it went in the US, how vital they were for navigation safety back in day. One of little buts of trivia that the one and only George Washington commissioned New York’s first lighthouse at Montauk Point all the way back in 1792. That is some history for a now quaint, obsolete, concrete colonial LORAN unit. But hey, if our first Prez said the Montauk Light was important to national safety are you gonna argue?

Moms brought up one more thing about those old lighthouses: nothing was automatic. No electricity. No running water. No GrubHub. Gotta keep the coals burning to keep the beacon lit. Gotta chip ice off the lenses, lest some poor ship gets blinded and runs aground…or worse. The keepers needed to maintain potable water and sustenance through the lean months, rationing if needs be. Backbreaking, often scary work. There were always storms brewing, and you can’t just call in sick. And there’s always having to sleep light.

The life of a lighthouse keeper was a solitary one, she said. Lonely and miles away from civilization. Always on the edge of the coast. Can you imagine?

“Must’ve been an isolated life,” I nodded assent.

She agreed. Isolation. But who’d want such miserable, dangerous work? What were the benefits, if any?

She wasn’t able to offer up a satisfactory answer, save maybe some people just wanted the solitude.

Wanted? Or needed?


The Story…

The New England coast, circa 1890.

Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) has tired of his years as a lumberjack. In an effort to support himself between jobs on his traveling North, Winslow joins America’s Lighthouse Service for some swift money. It’ll be a temporary job, to be sure. Four weeks tending a lighthouse on some tiny islet to get some money in his wallet and a change of perspective. It seemed simple enough, but that’s how trouble always starts.

Ephraim’s boss, old salt Tom Wake (Dafoe) doesn’t take kindly to landlubbers who just want a fast buck against ships running aground. He is gruff, rude, often drunk and works Ephraim like a pack mule. Wake claims he can’t do much hard labor because of his bum leg, but Winslow believes the old man just likes to bully him. Wake is a seasoned wickie and the lighthouse his wife and the rock it rests upon his brood and needs a young, strong back to keep the home fires burning. It’s an important title being a lighthouse keeper over these treacherous waters. Of course, no one accepts that until things go wrong. Winslow is slow to understand that, even within a month’s tour on their gull splattered rock. Is the pay worth it?

It doesn’t take very long for Winslow to sense something is not right with Wake’s wife and her flock. One evening while doing another chore in an endless parade of them he glances up that shining beacon. He swears he can see Wake, stripped of his clothes and sunning himself against the glare. Winslow is alarmed but shrugs it off as another of the old man’s weird drunken behaviors. He stows the thought away. Then things really begin getting strange.

He can hear forbidden acts through the catwalk that Ephraim is not permitted to see. The gulls scatter and attack him as if with a vendetta. He could swear he saw a mermaid on the shoals and later tentacles slithering across the lenses. Winslow starts to doubt his own sanity, and superstitious Wake offers him no quarter. Save a few snorts of rotgut to clear the head and ease the drudgery.

Something bizarre—perhaps supernatural—is crawling into Winslow’s simple life. And he wants to have a simple one, to be sure, however Winslow should best acquaint himself with that old New England saw:

“The good seaman weathers the storm he cannot avoid, and avoids the storm he cannot weather.”


The Breakdown…

I’m not much for horror films. I like terror films. Perhaps I have brought this up before, but there is a major difference. Sit tight.

Won’t lie to you, Lighthouse was creepy and definitely not for the weak-willed or squeamish. Not a lot of violence, just blink and you’ll miss it, but suffocating with metaphor. This is not some eye-opening, mouth agog holeeey sh*t kind of terror. It’s the kind that sticks to your brain like glue, leaving you wondering what the hell did you cough up 12 bucks to see, boy-howdy terror. Your mind ablaze with images that cannot be cut away since you spend days afterwards obsessing over What did I just watch? No fear, you’ll have no trouble answering that upfront. More on that later.

The Lighthouse was very engaging, and drew you right into Ephraim’s world. Just keep paying attention. Things come fast and furious. It was also a very literate movie, inspired by gothic horror and Jamesian pragmatism turned on its ear. The belief that words and thoughts are tools and instruments for prediction, problem solving, and action are perverted by Max Eggers’ script. The scenarist—the director’s brother, BTW—admitted he was inspired by one of Poe’s fragments “The Light-House,” as well as borrowing thematic ideas by Carl Jung (renown for his interpretations of dreams and man’s symbols). the The final product was nothing like the story—that and there were countless production stalls, never a good thing—and got morphed into a “haunted house” period piece. Makes sense. The movie is a period piece inasmuch as we know that the setting was in New England in the late 1800s, as well as dismantling the mechanics of what isolation does to one’s sanity. Right?

Wrong.

Okay, but it was inspired by Poe’s works? Not exactly.

All right, then The Lighthouse was a “literary” horror steeped in metaphor? Getting warmer.

I found The Lighthouse to be a hybrid terror tale by way of, yes, Edgar Allan Poe and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. More specifically “The Black Cat” meets “The Tell-Tale Heart” meets “William Wilson” meets “The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner.” Right, straight on the nose but apt all the same. Now let’s turn our textbooks to page…

If you’ve ever read these works you know what I mean. If not, here’s the Cliffs Notes: The first is about a guy who almost gets away with murder, the second is about how insidious madness can be, the third is a sort of Jekyll and Hyde cautionary tale and the fourth is about eternal guilt and penance. “An albatross around your neck,” right? Right. All four tales got pillaged to construct the plot of Lighthouse. Not sure if Max meant that, but it was a deft turn of a pen or maybe just cryptomnesia. Either way, he made it work and with a minimum of shoehorning. Not just to scare the bleep out of you but also create a keen amalgam into an clever—if not overdone and bombastic—allegory. Lighthouse is meditation on guilt, grief and retribution. The stuff I mentioned earlier that is a mental wad of spent chewing gum on the underside of your cranial school desk.

So why is The Lighthouse and terror film but not horror?

There is a big diff’ between horror and terror. Horror is offensive, gaudy, violent and bloody. No subtly there. From the Saw series to the ridiculous Final Destination series to the stupid Friday The 13th series to almost anything Eli Roth directs, blood and guts are king. No subtlety, no nuance, definitely no characterization or plot development. Just splatter and arterial spray. Ugh. If that’s your thing, fine. However you are terminally 14 and have a dire, world-ending need to caress a breast, you just want cheap thrills (and you can get that from a well-placed can of Reddi-Wip). BTW, if your date agrees to see one of such movies with you, her chest is nervous with anticipation. Win-win I guess.

Terror? That’s a whole other animal. Watching a terror film you don’t get splatter, you get a racing pulse. You don’t get laid. Small sacrifice. In return you get a rush, a thrill, a story, an interest and a lot of jump scares (which are totally underrated, BTW). And why do jump scares get such a bad rap regarding scary movies? Many classic terror movies are custom made for them. Psycho, Halloween, Alien, The Haunting…

SCREECH…

Robert Wise’s The Haunting is an ideal example of terror. Nowadays we call such subgenera “thrillers,” like Silence Of The Lambs or Get Out. I’m going to lay claim to The Haunting as ground zero for the modern concept of terror films. There may have earlier and maybe done better later, but The Haunting can be the most definitive covering all bases. The bases being building tension (often relentlessly so), firm character development all around (as opposed to cannon fodder), little to no (explicit) violence and letting the imagination fill in the blanks.

Here’s what I mean from our chosen film: the story is that a few paranormal investigators—professional and amateur—spend the night in an allegedly haunted mansion and record their findings. That’s it. However over the course of 2 hours you never see a single ghost. Sure, there is evidence of spirit activity, but nothing concrete. It’s scary as hell as your imagination runs riot trying to fill in the gaps. Was that a ghost? What’s that sound? Hey, where did so-and-so get to? Let’s investigate that locked room. Creepy sh*t. Crawling terror.

The first time I caught The Haunting was on Turner Classic Movies. Long time back, before streaming and DVRs were extant. It was Halloween time, so duh, TCM went through its vaults and aired the very best in scary. Now TCM airs its stuff commercial free. No interruptions to ruin the moment. I’m all down with that, until 30 minutes into the film I had to pee. I held it for another half hour until my teeth were floating, and relieved myself at light speed so not miss much more. I was that drawn into the amazing tension Wise imbued the film with, and nary and arterial spray or chainsaws could be found. My heart was pounding. Go stream it, dammit. And for pity’s sake ignore the 1999 remake at all costs.

Back to The Lighthouse. I felt the movie fell into the terror category, but with overarching senses of horror, allegory and quite a bit of psychological hoodoo. I was almost—almosttempted to spoil a good portion of the plot, so dense, wonky and just a full out Greco-roman clusterf*ck it was to behold. I can get scared witless and cracked up really high by a good terror movie. I’ve never really been outright disturbed by one. But here I am and we all are.

As disturbing as the movie was, I found it owed a bit of thanks to Mad magazine. For a good portion of the film all the hallmarks were present for your standard haunted house tale. Isolation, creepy things in the shadows, hints at supernatural goings on, etc. Typical fare, almost a parody. Also like Mad let’s just throw every cracked idea we got and see what fits into the story and what is just plain weird. The entire first act is relatively lightweight (EG: Winslow doing chores, Wake chewing scenery as the ancient, scuppered sailor, male bonding over a drink, etc) to either fool you into a sense of polite unease or warming up for ramming speed. I thought both.

Then the winds changed. The supernatural (if that what is was) began to crawl into the frame via Winslow’s POV, as well as the subtle-as-neon metaphors. We swiftly learn that Winslow is REDACTED and as his guilt grows he descended further into drink, grief and madness until nothing makes much sense in the final act. The man becomes completely unravelled, aided by Wake who may or may not have the answers to undo Winslow’s drunken frenzy. This movie was terrifying because it was relentless in making you question every little detail to determine what was really going on only to have another piece added (or taken away) to the puzzle. That and there eventually came many scenes that could only be described as “gooey.”

I’ve never been so rattled by a terror film like The Lighthouse. Not for it’s strangeness or outright horror elements. I felt so confused, spun around and bamboozled by what I had watched I fell like I had gone for a tumble in an unbalanced washing machine. Tearing at my hair grumbling, “What the f*ck?” I analyzed it nine ways to Sunday and my brain would not let go until a few days later. That’s a unique scary movie experience. More unique than holding your water for an hour waiting to see a ghost that’s never there.

Kinda like Winslow.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. I only say “mild” because there was a lot of studying—both during class and for homework—to follow the movie. Otherwise, it was quite an experience in terror.


The Musings…

  • “Keeps ’em…stupid.”
  • Was there a reason why the film wasn’t full screen?
  • I wondered how Dafoe affected that voice. He indeed sounds like an old salt, no pretense.
  • “Had enough of trees, I guess.”
  • No matter the place or time, you got to appreciate a good drinking song.
  • Pattinson’s contempt is smeared all of his face: “I don’t have time for this crap…”
  • “Yer fond of me lobster!”
  • Pattinson’s makeup is impressive. He looks more like a cadaver as the films rolls on.
  • Provisions.
  • “…I ain’t want to be stranded here with some damn lunatic!”

The Next Time…

You’re still working at what is not your dream job. You kid is a holy terror, both at home and school. You’ve never, ever, ever successfully maintained a balanced budget. And you still surf Reddit for “all the answers.”

Yep, This Is 40.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #175: Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” (2013)



The Players…

Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine, with Gucci Mane and James Franco.


The Basics…

Spring break. It’s when all the lucky college kids get cut loose from their classes for an idyll on some sunny seashore drenching each other in suntan oil, alcohol and semen. Good, wholesome entertainment to let the pent up collegiate steam loose. If you can afford such debauchery on the beach.

Faith and her friends can’t. They’re broke, but they get it into their heads that unless they have a proper spring break they’ll be nothing but the outcasts they claim to be. But how to get some fast cash and get the hell outta Dodge?

Easy. Knock over the local Tex-Mex joint and abscond with the loot all the way to Miami. Or Aruba. Or jail?

Talk about getting away with getting away with it all.


The Rant…

I never had a proper spring break in college. By proper I mean never a vacation to sunny climes. I either went home or visited my girlfriend. Why? One: I was always broke, and; two, free laundry. I said I was always broke. Could never afford a week-long jaunt to sunny Hawaii. Truth be told I never saw the point. Just to get a week off of school was nice. That and getting stains out of things.

Yes, I visited that girl on occasion. She lived in rural Massachusetts, and no, there wasn’t any beach nearby (and if there was it was March in rural Mass. Wanna go count the mounds of slush on I-95?), but she was a spit away from the college/mafia town of Providence, RI. When Brown University let out its sigh, there were lots of cool shops to hang out at without the usual clogging. There’s something about the shopping district around a college that oozes with possibility of finding something neato in the underbrush that would usually be teeming 51 weeks out of the year. Cafes. Record Stores. Army surplus. May not have be Ixtapa, but I could locate a few pairs of Chuck Taylors in colors that forbade a sensible purchase, which came to around $25. That’s a month’s laundry money, BTW.

Did I want a “proper” spring break? Nope. Beyond the financial matters, I couldn’t justify the need to travel afar only to get pished, laid and sunburnt in some Olympic fashion as R&R from a syllabus. Minus the laurel crown I could do such dissoluteness at school, or rural Mass come to think of it. Sure, getting really away from it is all is great, even necessary once in a while, but when I go on a rare vacation, I don’t want to bring home (as well as the routine there) along for the ride. I travel light, thanks.

Way, way back in The Way Way Back installment I spoke of how vacations, especially those with family, can become a real drudge. You can’t really cut loose and be yourself when mom and dad have you in tow (along with several other generations of unknown relatives, strangers and hangers-on from the parking lot). That must be what the idea of spring break is so appealing, besides booze, babes and beaches. Sure, going to college is the first time “away” from everything for the lucky few, but the luckier few may afford spring break to get away from “themselves” for a while. Or worse turn into themselves for a week, and I ain’t talking nothing ’bout inner reflection.

I remember as a youth back when MTV blah blah blah was interrupted by going live to the scene of the crime: MTV Spring Break. Instead of getting the usual heavy rotation of Pearl Jam’s delightfully disturbing video for “Jeremy,” I had to endure Sodom by the sea with TLC’s sweet “Creep” oozing from somewhere out in the sand. Could’ve been Miami, could’ve been Aruba, could’ve been a sound stage for all I knew. What I learned from all this basic cable televised postcard from sunny bacchanalia was this: college kids’ll do all sorts of stupid things in front of a camera (and this being before social media, my catfishing friends) and the camera laps it up and spits it out. Then it was into my lap. I’m not badmouthing spring breaks, not at all. Let me tell you, due to lake effect climate any time to get away from the chilly gloom of overcast March in Central New York is always welcome, if not essential to maintaining a degree of sanity. It could get so grey somedays that I figured if I slugged a prof square in the nose I get to see some color ooze from his inflamed nostrils. Just saying. And since I was too broke or too afraid of melanoma I went back home to the sunny climes of Southeast PA, where there we fresh leaves on the trees and I could enjoy a Hershey’s Special Dark as a treat and not a K ration to ward off hypovitaminosis D. Did I mention that vital free laundry?

What I had to endure on MTV until my next fave video of the time came on (the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” natch) was a bunch of buzzed, well-tanned, gyrating co-eds wearing bikinis made of what appeared to be unwaxed dental floss. Again, not badmouthing. It just all seemed overrated. Vacations are a need now and again, and destination vacations can be something of an adventure. In the vein of The Way Way Back all that spring break had a lot of baggage to me. Besides escaping the drudgery of classes for a week, what’s the big deal? It’s akin to a girl’s Sweet 16 party; and the big deal is? Guys don’t get a sweet 16. You’re old enough to drive now, that’s good. Cotillions went out of fashion when Hitler was a struggling art student. You don’t always need a vacation, but they sure are welcome in times of stress. You don’t need a reason to party, nor do you have travel afar and snort up Euros to have an “adventure.”

Must be some status symbol. It ain’t cheap to hog an entire Caribbean idyll for 7 days, but since the ‘rents are footing the bill go hog wild. Whether a camera crew will be there to cover the whole wad…well, no. That’s what smartphones are for: to document dumb things. And onto Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and the FBI fingerprint database we go go go. Must look good to all us yutzes with fresh sheets and nowhere else to go come springtime. Might make the underprivileged feel left out of the loop, all that sun and fun and…well, freedom! Freedom to get trashed with impunity. Free to sleep (or at least pass out) on the beach. Free to get into all kinds of mischief, proper and/or unhealthy. Maybe even if you get lucky, it could wind up criminal.

Criminally free!

So for instance, let’s consider Faith and her posse’s dilemma.


The Story…

Everyone needs some time to blow off steam. A break from the norm. A break period. This goes for overextended parents, overworked social media specialists, overtaxed teachers and their burnt out students alike. Especially students at the college level what with day in/day out lectures, papers, study groups, insomnia, too much Red Bull and not enough White Claw. That’s what spring break is for. To get away from it all, break from the norm and blow off billowing clouds of steam. At least, that’s what Faith’s friends are all about.

Faith (Gomez) is understood to be a “good girl.” Studious, spiritual and unremarkable. She always seems just outside of her social circle of Brit, Candy and Cotty (Benson, Hudgens and Korine, respectively), who are privately wild but are too broke—all are too broke—to cut loose escape their humdrum coed lives. Typical. The good life always just out of their reach, or simply some time in the sun.

As spring break approaches, Faith gets it stuck into her head that unless she and her BFFs get a spring break themselves, regardless of their lack of funding, something’s gotta give. Faith has always been, well, one of the faithful, but her code of conduct has kept her from breaking loose for the past three years. Whether under pressure from her crew or the Word, Faith gets a hot nut to tear off to Sodom by the sea in sunny Florida. But there still is the more issue. How to scare up some cash fast? Ask Grandma for more birthday money?

Nope. Let’s knock over the local taco joint. All four of us. Smash and grab. Whaddya say, girls?

To quote Elwood Blues: “We’re on a mission from God.” We need to get away with getting it all.

The four pull off their scheme, and now have enough dough for fun in the sun. However as we all should understand, power corrupts. The rush of being criminals have left the taste of wanting more in Faith’s friends, and Faith just wants to lie in. Nope. Not if demented, curious pusher “Alien” (Franco) has his way. And his way is very sketchy and very charismatic. These fresh pieces of chicken have had a taste of the wild life, and Alien wishes to utilize their “talents.”

Faith has had enough. Her ideal spring break has stretched beyond a week, and no one can say why we can’t all go home?

Power, corruption and lies. Like Cotty says, “Spring break forever, bitches…”


The Breakdown…

Oh. My Lord.

All right, let’s talk about trash films. I don’t mean “trashy” films, they all ramshackle, lo-fi and accidentally deviant. I’m talking about “trash films” as a genre. I’m talking (and bowing) to the likes of ugly auteurs—and their cinematic spawn—like Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol and the godfather John Waters. Misfits who cooked up such bad taste to celluloid that you could never unsee them. And wouldn’t want to. “Deviant” as pejorative as a salute of respect. Such calculated garbage was both decried and embraced as art (not that they would ever agree). It was cohesive smut with a solid story, a keen acumen or purpose and actors willing themselves to be willing. The matter that the matter of their final product was about sh*t taking a sh*t and then consuming said sh*t cries…

Sh*t happens? Well, okay. Onto the next act. Wipe away any excess KY from your lobes. Smile!

Director Korine is a fanboy. Or as Warhol would utter, “a dilettante.” And trying too damned hard to offer up satire and trash as social commentary with all the nuance of a Karen Carpenter diet plan. My first hyper-judgmental reaction to Breakers that it was stupid, but maybe I might have been too soon to count it out. I mean, there was a bit of a hullabaloo when this thing got released, but as I watched and kept watching I learned that its content and story were the driving force behind all Breakers‘ reputation. Me? I found it trying very hard to pander to an audience that was sketchy at best versus Tarantino on estrogen.

No. The real deal squeal was that the sweet, little Disney darling Selena Gomez was in an R-rated movie about she and her friends doing bad, bad things. I’m not gonna expound on that…much. Look, the woman was 20 years old when she starred in Breakers, many, many miles away from Waverley Place. Deal. Even Shirley temple grew up to be an ambassador, a role even more mature that Selena cavorting about in a bikini for 90 minutes (all right, that and playing with illegal firearms). The whole shaming/blowback of Gomez’ script selection is akin to Nickelodeon’s Jennette McCurdy of iCarly infamy. Her spin-off show more or less hit the skids due to bad PR about the Internet leaking naughty images of McCurdy. What?!? On the Internet?!? That never happens, and she was only 21 at the time! For shame Sam fans, and quick! Clear your browsing history!

What is it about grown Disney actresses that they feel it necessary to star in a never subtle trashy flick to declare their independence as a “serious actor?” Not to mention crawling out from under the image of the House Of Mouse (EG: Lohan, Lovato and now Gomez and Hudgens)? I suppose it’s that years of portraying wholesome young Disney ingenues may result in typecasting. That and playing such roles can get pretty darn boring. Not challenging. What better way to cut all ties with a turn in a flick like Breakers? Or like Twisted Nerve? Or like The Canyons? All of these movies are a U-turn from their starlets Disney beginnings. Not all of those films are trashy, per se, but an extreme breakaway from family-friendly fodder. And a lot of those “grown-up” roles in “mature” films have a lot of creakiness and growing pains. You can take the girl out of the theme park, but…

That being said, in some respects Breakers is self-aware and anti-Disney…to a degree. We’re not busting on Herbie: Fully Loaded here, not trashing any Disney formula or legacy. Director Korine is (with a heavy hand) decrying all that is romanticized about spring break—if, based on my teen TV watching habits, there is such a theme—and plays the “very bad things” with the elan of an 80’s teen sex romp, complete with the jarring MTV editing and/or Tangerine Dream-esque soundtrack. It’s all been done before and a lot better. Subtly can go a very long way, rather than this ham-fisted cautionary tale.

Yes. Breakers is at its core a “trash film” with a conscious. There is nothing to glorify these nymphets criminal acts and hyper-sexed debauchery, but nothing beneath warning that Gomez and company are gonna get busted. No sense of retribution of any kind, which leaves the plot open-ended and rambling. Really, the whole wad got less interesting when Gomez—ostensibly the reason butts got into seats here—went up and REDACTED, and then the gyre began to widen. If there is a message Korine was reaching for here is a forced “say so long to your youth.” Trash film and social commentary don’t marry well. Unless they do, but they don’t here.

Overall, I had a difficult time understanding where director Korine was taking me. Granted I probably wasn’t the target audience; I dislike Meghan Trainor, find White Claw to be Kool-Aid for the Bukowski set, gave up on my Instagram account long ago and never saw any iteration of the High School Musical franchise. In short, didn’t really care that Gomez and Hudgens starring in this pastiche. Just wanted to see the fallout, and The Standard was screaming at my to obey. The pacing was languid—sluggish would be a better word—the girls had no personality (they call could be interchangeable) and the story didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. This was a PG T&A cakewalk with some T, rudderless story that dies in the second act and a short bus version of a John Waters trash film ethos. The difference there is snappy trash and morbid, moribund trash. Gloomy does not equal edgy here.

On a bright note, Franco stole the (small) show with his turn as Alien. He had fun with role, chewing scenery with a Shatner-like aplomb, only creepier. And is he ever creepy, right down to those nasty trailer park dreads and his garish grille. Beyond creepy, he sure as sh*t was committed to the role; you can barely recognize him here. Perhaps a similar motivation drove Franco to take the role after being cast as a lovable goofball ever since Whatever It Takes. Heck, the only sorta edgy role prior to Breakers is his PG-13 portrayal of Harry Osborn in Spider-Man 3If Franco was champing at the bit for a role of extreme makeover Breakers was it (and his play with Mane was delight, albeit dark but the most animation that came from this trifle). While Gomez accidentally stumbled onto edgy territory for just being herself (read: there), Franco threw the kitchen sink out of the window. He left a bad taste in my mouth, and that’s a good thing here.

The best description in the endgame I’d apply to Breakers is an attempt at Korine trying to be Michael Mann from the 80’s for the 21st Century. Grim, gritty and blurry with synths. But a lack of real substance in this trash film does not make it have substance. Granted, Devine eating doggie-doo does not have the cachet of Joe Pesci’s “how am I funny” improv rap, but both scenes are similar because they are both hard-to-take, kinda frightening and cannot be unseen. That, and they’re both relevant to the story writ large. Weak tantalizing does not a good trash film make, especially if making an obvious buck is sort overt with Breakers.

Look, truth be told, I didn’t want to watch Breakers. Yes, it fell under the aegis of The Standard and I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t curious about how Alex Russo/Beezus handled herself in a big girl role, but my cynicism demanded justification. It was justified and now I wanna watch that old ep of Walker: Texas Ranger when Gomez was just a glint in Disney’s cash register.

And remember, like RIORI Chuck Norris never sleeps. He waits. Hopefully for a better movie than Breakers.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. A hoodwink. Not only Gomez is still just Gomez, but the story is a lame MTV weekend.


The Stray Observations…

  • “This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
  • The opening montage perfectly illustrates why other countries hate America.
  • Is that an El Camino?
  • Alien: the “anti-Wooderson.” Alright?
  • Every sort of sexual perversion, and yet—and yet—no dick shots.
  • Alien: actually the “anti-Logic.”
  • Makes my tits look bigger.” That’s it. We’re done here.

The Next Time…

We go on The Road with Viggo Mortensen, looking for America and unable to find it anywhere.

No. Really. Literally anywhere.


 

RIORI Redux: Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” Revisited


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The Players…

Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson and Max von Sydow, with Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley and Ted Levine.


The Story…

US marshal Teddy Daniels’ latest case takes him to a forgotten corner of New York’s fog-shrounded waterways. His assignment? Investigate the disappearance of a patient from a hospital for the criminally insane. But not long after landfall, it appears to Teddy his efforts are going to by compromised by the evasive resident psychiatrist…as well as his disturbing visions.


The Rant (2013)

Ever experience déjà vu? You know, that feeling of uneasy familiarity, like you’ve done this or that once before? Of course you have. You’re having it right now. You’re reading another one of my screeds here at RIORI buttered with my signature ribald, snappy repartee. Welcome back!

Seriously though, before I delve into the déjà vu enigma some more, I think I need to clarify something. These reviews were reserved for films that “had a dubious reputation or lacked box office mojo.” Shutter Island definitely did not suffer from a lack of mojo. When all was said, done and tallied, this little film walked away with over a hefty $128 million at the box office. This little psych-thriller here had a budget of around $80 million. Not bad. Didn’t hurt that it was directed by Scorsese and starred his current protégé DiCaprio.

What did hurt Island in my view is based on this story I heard from a friend of mine. Let’s say she had an interesting experience when seeing this movie in the theatre. Seeing. Not saw. As in “during the movie proper.”

Hm. BTW, we ain’t talking about yelling at the screen as if the actors can hear, or some nabob yakking on his phone. We’re talking about a dissatisfied customer. If any movie, successful or no, could upset a viewer in frustration then the movie gets the autopsy here. That and another buddy of mine insisted I see it and blog about it. You’re welcome, Rios.

So anyway, here’s what she told me:

It was your typical Friday night out at the multiplex. The big deal release at the time was Marty’s Shutter Island, which I heard was Marty’s first psycho-thriller (Cape Fear doesn’t count. That was a remake). The turnout was big—full house. My friend found a seat at the back of the theatre; that what was left that night, the place was so packed. It inadvertently gave her the cat’s bird seat to witness what would transpire later on.

About halfway through the film, a patron, obviously displeased, got up and shouted to no one in particular, “Does anyone f*cking get what is f*cking going on in this film?!” This outburst generated a bigger audience reaction than the action of screen. He threw his popcorn to the floor, spat out a few more profanities and promptly stormed out of the theatre. I think she mentioned something about even Leo losing his motivation. One could make the argument that Scorsese’s latest film succeeded in creating psychological tension, but I don’t think that’s what he had in mind. Well, for the sake of this installment it sounded like a dubious enough rep for me.

Sigh. I wish I had gotten as torqued as that angry stranger in the darkness with his strewn popcorn.

I too, after sitting through this movie, had similar sentiments. And a feeling of déjà vu. I had seen this movie before. Or at least, this kind of movie. And despite the trademark storytelling verve Scorsese imbues into most of his movies, Island was based on very few original plot lines.

But before I get all bitchy, first here’s the good stuff.

I don’t know who the location scout was for the movie, but they did a brilliant job of finding an ideal setting for madness. The whole sanitarium compound has a great, Lovecraftian feel. Craziness dripping from every pore. Even the main characters seem a little…off, as though a reflection of the island’s inhabitants. Slow tracking shots makes whole scenes seem isolated from reality. You really can pilot Teddy about the complex with the sense of solitude. And not the kind you want. Creepy is the watchword.

There’s some brilliant editing, especially the flashback sequences to Teddy’s army days and wife’s tragedy. Things seem to flow pretty well also, albeit a bit quickly. At certain points some scenes seem rushed, especially when Teddy and his sidekick Chuck (Mark Ruffalo, who is a solid presence) are casing the joint. Speaking of acting, Kingsley’s performance is at his most sinister here, vacillating between paranoid and professional. This is a guy who you can’t f*ck around with, because he can see all and know all on the island. Shiver.

Second, the bad stuff. The main offense? This film is unoriginal. I could not shake that feeling of déjà vu watching it. I knew that this kind of story has been told before, and not just in the typical, snobby, “there are only so many plots out there yadda yadda blah.” No. I had seen this movie before, a dozen different ways. The best and immediate example I can recall is with Hitchcock’s Vertigo. I could cite quite few more films (without revealing the plots) that have used the exact same formula that Island employs. Angel Heart for one. The Machinist—which I reviewed here before—is another. The whole psychological “lost time” gimmick has been used with varying degrees of success before. But it has been done before. You would think Scorsese would have figured that out by now.

Shutter Island suffers greatly from déjà vu. This all had been done before. And it’s a real shame, because there’s a great deal of capital Q quality in this film. The acting’s good. The casting great. The atmosphere is suitably creepy. But the film lifts dozens of tropes from other films that may have done it better. It doesn’t make sense knowing of Scorsese’s encyclopedic knowledge of film technique that he cut Island the way he did. Maybe he was just f*cking around, nodding and winking to Hitch. I hope so, rather than f*cking around at the audience’s expense, not unlike represented by the anonymous, angry filmgoer’s philosophy. As for me, the only “lost time” I got from this movie was 2 hours and 18 minutes.

So…

Ever experience déjà vu? You know, that feeling of uneasy familiarity, like you’ve done this or that once before…?


Rant Redux (2019)…

This movie was another recommendation by a co-worker who got hip to what I was doing online (no, the legal, orangutan-free stuff) and threw me this curveball: namely a film wrote and directed by an esteemed, successful director starring his latest protege, an esteemed and successful leading-man type guy who was once King of the World. Sounded promising. I like Marty’s films, and Leo has been a sturdy character actor for over a decade even before Island hit theaters. And a noir mystery to boot? What would go wrong?

Quite a bit. But not with the movie; within the blogger’s palsied mind.

You saw how I was playing up the deja vu aspect of both the film and my impression thereof? Kept bitching I’ve seen this before, this type of plot. I was right, but not in a cynical sense. Observe:

You ever see a film you just didn’t “get” upon your first viewing? Yeah, sure, the flick was all right, but you walked away wanting. Something felt amiss, unsatisfying. And some imp of the perverse kept poking your temporal lobes insinuating that you (dum dum dummm) missed something? You dolt, you should’ve never refilled your Cherry Coke at the soda fountain at the beginning of the second act, but that super-fangled thingamadoo has over five jillion soda options where could concoct tonics that have no place in nature you don’t give a sh*t, right. But still, orange-cherry Sprite with almonds!

But I digress. We’ve all seen films like that. They make us feel stupid. Not insulted like whatever sugar-coated bile Michael Bay keeps conning the general public into consuming. No. Movies that make you second guess. On the whole, I kinda like that. It’s usually a good film that makes you question it, rather than question yourself, “Lord, what have I done?!? Will the sun come up tomorrow? Will they cancel breakfast? And who is they anyway? Mommy…” When a good movie makes you feel as if you missing something, you may have well did…for now. Give it a moment, an hour, a week. It’ll come to you.

Me? Got a few examples. Might’ve mentioned the phenom before. Like with The Blair Witch Project. The final scene stumped me, until I was perched on the end of my bed, wondering what the f*ck did I watch last night? That guy REDACTED when the camera crapped out. I sat up. I remembered earlier in the film.  I solved the puzzle without rearranging the stickers. I got it. In the endgame it wasn’t a waste of a ticket and I ain’t that so dumb after all, Jenny.

Perhaps you like the cut of my jib. You get it. Ain’t it fun? Here’s another one: when me and my stepkid watched Hitchcock’s Vertigo for the first time. Vertigo is considered Hitch’s finest achievement, ‘tho it took years for the dilettantes to play catch up. The stepkid was into murder mystery films at the time, so I set up a double feature of Vertigo and Read Window. After watching Vertigo we did a double take at each other. We didn’t get it. It wasn’t bad, but there was something amiss. Oh, well. I plopped Window in the machine shortly after (saw it many times over already. Yes, I set her up) and she really dug it. But Vertigo challenged us, and we didn’t “get it” outright. Oh, fie.

Took me half a damned year to trip the tumblers. At our time of viewing, Vertigo usurped Citizen Kane as the best American movie ever. I was baffled as to why…until I got it. If you are familiar with the demented comedy stylings of the late, great Andy Kaufman, then how Vertigo delivered its package might be analog to the Man On The Moon’s pranksterism; the joke was always on you. Once you figured that bit out, and you weren’t a blockhead, you got the joke. Hitch was f*cking with your sense of reality with Vertigo, and therein lay the mystery to be solved, which was impossible. Did this all happen, or was Jimmy Stewart so delusional that he didn’t know he was delusional? Terry Gilliam’s dystopian time travel movie 12 Monkeys followed the same line. Quite well I may add.

Lastly, and since we’re deconstructing a Scorsese film, his apology Oscar awarding winning The Departed pulled a fast one. In the final scene how did Dignam know to  REDACTED  Sullivan? It might’ve has something to do with all that journaling REDACTED did and ultimatly got mixed in the mail. I caught The Departed in the theatre with a pair of my low-life buddies, us scratching our heads over how Dignam knew? We nodded assent in confusion and headed out to our respective cars to head on out to our choice watering hole to further dismantle the film.

It dawned on me a mile down the road. I caught up with them at the immediate red light. I honked and they rolled down their window, “What?!?”

I rolled down my window, sat on the sill and hollered at them: “It was his REDACTED!”

They screaming in forehead-slapping laughter, and we tore out of there. Good night spent. I needed a new seat belt thereafter. Thank God for duck tape and crossed fingers.

Now. Speaking of both Hitch and Marty, we arrive at Shutter Island. This is what I missed the first time out. I missed this: homage. It took me an eon to realize that Island was designed to be an homage to both film noir and Hitchcock. Which is why, to me, it felt so familiar. So deja-vu. Sorry, Rivers. I was unfair, and needed the edge of my bed for a little.

That being said, here’s what I learned seeing with a well-squeegeed eye: Island is a tribute, an homage, an experiment regarding “The Master Of Suspense.” To say that Scorsese is a film historian as well as acclaimed director is akin to describing oxycontin as “relaxing.” The man’s a cinematic encyclopedia; he’s done his research. Again the reason that Island gave me deja vu upon initial viewing was because, well, this kind of story had been done before (eg: Hitch’s Vertigo, as well as Nolan’s Memento, Welles’ The Third Man and a good chunk of the Jason Bourne movies): displaced hero stuck in their own imagination and everything, everything may or may not be a delusion. On a very basal, relatable tableau there was an ep of Star Trek: TNG (quit groaning) entitled “Frame Of Mind” where Cmdr Riker was trapped in a nightmare of his own making just to anchor himself to reality, which he a bit of trouble crawling out of. Our Teddy Daniels is cut from the same bolt as Riker, Scotty Ferguson, Leonard Shelby, “Harry Lime” and Matt Damon/Jeremy Renner/Joey Sack O’Donuts whatever. It’s a good device, which is why it pops up in so many suspense films. Marty understood this trope, gave it his own spin, smiled and hoped you liked it. Once I crawled out my arse and smelled my poop, I got it.

I guess it goes to say that a smart director knows his way around a tried-and-true suspense device like displaced person-or-persons unknown. And it took a dumb, rube movie critic to catch up.

Gonna smack him upside his melon when I see him next.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Overrulled: Rent it. I again say sorry, Rivers. I got it now. A technical, loving tribute to Hitch well done is always a treat. That doesn’t mean I want my mind f*cked over every time. I’m still recovering from Detective Pikachu.


Next Installment…

We thumb through the Silver Linings Playbook again to find (shocker) the blogger was trying to hoodwink you. What Standard?


 

RIORI Redux: Brad Anderson’s “The Machinist” Revisited


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The Players…

Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Aitana Sanchez-Gijon, John Sharian and Michael Ironside.


The Story…

Industrial machinist Trevor Reznik has been suffering from insomnia for a year. His physical and mental health have all but wasted away. So much that when he keeps finding cryptic Post-Its creepily popping up in his apartment suggesting his next courses of action, he asks himself is it just the lack of sleep, or has his mind really gone? Who’s leaving these notes? What are they trying to say? And what’s with the kooky new guy at work who knows too much about Trevor’s plight? It’s impossible to keep it all clear.

If only he could sleep on it.


The Rant (2013)…

Ever have insomnia? Sure you have. I’ve had many a sleepless night, none of it romantic. And the next day…well, let’s just say that sleep dep’ makes everything really neat. The sunlight seems brighter. The sounds seem noisier. The idea of breakfast makes you wanna puke. Or that’s just your vacant stomach demanding caffeine. Anyways, you plum don’t feel like yourself. It feels like a second reality. The kind you wish you could wake up from.

If you’re a casual watcher of psycho thrillers, this film’s for you. Otherwise it requires an attention span. Like I said, Bale is a fright, both physical (especially physical) and mental. Quick to rile, slow to even out, paranoid and prone to rage. Like I said, the ravages of insomnia. What’s amazing about this film is how deep Bale’s commitment was to this role. He’s tense, intense and minus pretense (how’s that for pseudo-alliteration?). A tragic figure of his own undoing. His capacity for frothing rage in the face of paranoia is just a shade over the top. That’s a minor carp overall. But it’s also kinda handy since there is not a single scene which Bale is not in. You really ride along with Reznik’s character, through the ugly and the…other stuff.

The only problem with this film is the pacing, and it’s not by much. Bale is so quick to rile it becomes bookmarks for each chapter of the film. Don’t get me wrong, Bale nails paranoid anger very well, but when it repeats itself to the point of minute-on reaction, well the novelty runs thin after awhile.

Otherwise the acting was impeccable. It was difficult not to relate to any of the characters. Like I said, Bale embodies the sleepless nights and the trippy days we’ve all had because of it. He carried the whole film, and quite well and tastefully too. Strong shoulders, even in light of the juicy paranoia that Reznik starts to inhabit well too quick.


Rant Redux (2019)…

The above take on The Machinist was direct and concise. Upon review, it was too direct and concise. There was a lot more going on beneath the surface with this movie, which was its raison d’etre; all is not as it seems.

Uh, duh.

In retrospect, I’m gonna dub Machinist‘s style as “Hitchcock with teeth.” Fangs is more like it. It’s an engaging, unpleasant mystery minus any McGuffin. To review, that was a term Hitch himself coined describing the plot device that drives the story. Kinda like the schematics to the first Death Star in Star Wars: A New Hope, or the titular Maltese Falcon. Can insomnia be considered that? I guess kinda sorta not really, but Reznik’s lack of sleep does push the story along. Following that line of logic, and Anderson’s tip of his sombrero to the Master, it’s the grimy, creepy atmosphere that drives the plot. The sticky, ugly cramps of not knowing if your awake or dreaming. More to the point, it’s that icky, universal feeling of being too damned tired to think straight. You know when you can’t sleep and all you can think about is getting to sleep? It bites. No slang here. Andersen delivers Hitch with teeth.

The hardest part to take in Machinist is how everything comes undone/comes into focus at the very butt end of the third act. In the last twenty minutes—if that—the true story comes at you with a slap. Wake up. The climax rightfully undoes what we have be watching for the past 90 minutes, and you realize all that was window dressing, entwined with a psychotic, nightmare mystery. I felt generally disturbed at the finale.

And cheated. Machinist tried to follow the same tack as Nolan’s Memento, but without the clever gimmick of amnesia. Most of us have never suffered terminal short-term memory loss; all of us have suffered from insomnia, and in a weird way the side effects are low-level similar. The hazy, gauzy disconnected world of Reznik reflects ours after no sleep for too long (kinda like Hell Week when I was rushing my fraternity, and that’s another story). In simpler terms, and us as the audience: “The f*ck is going on here?” It’s not out of frustration, not stemming from a hard-to-follow Lynch/Tarantino hybrid, not even old school Hitch bamboozling you with Vertigo.

Nope. Machinist preys on the warped perceptions of reality that come about after wrestling with your sweaty pillow and losing. What I’m getting at is Machinist is creepy, curious, terse and uncomfortable. And crams a lot of mystery in a rather short running time. It’s one of the those flicks you gotta rewatch to “get it.” If that.

There. I think that fleshes things out a bit better than Christian Bale’s gaunt frame. Now get some sleep. Again.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: rent it. Watch it twice to appreciate its Hitchcock love letter. After a good night’s rest, doy.


Next Installment…

Through a cracked mirror Ryan Reynolds seemed like a good choice as Green Lantern. It was a case of fanboy blogger’s very green writing. Shut up.


 

RIORI Redux: David Fincher’s “Zodiac” Revisited


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The Players…

Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr, Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, with Brian Cox, Charles Fleischer, Elias Koteas and John Caroll Lynch.


The Story…

A notorious serial killer known only as “The Zodiac” is on a creepy spree in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s left several victims in his wake and taunts police of his motives with letters and ciphers mailed to newspapers. It’s only when crossword freak cartoonist Robert Greysmith accidentally cracks the Zodiac’s code that both the media and the police gets a lead. However, following the lesson of history, the case still remains one of San Francisco’s most infamous unsolved crimes.


The Rant (2013)

Let’s, you and I, talk about fear.

Okay, that line there is one of my favorites in the entire English language. I boosted it, not surprisingly, from an intro to one of Stephen King’s books. But still, let’s talk about fear, you and I. I’m not really talking about the fear of the unknown, although that’s a popular one and one of the most basal. I’m talking about the fear of being hunted. Like prey. Like you’re being followed. That liquid, paranoid panic you get at the base of your stomach. That you are one of a millions other souls our there that could, under the proper circumstances, end up no less that someone’s trophy. That eerie obsessed feeling, where the fight, flight or faint instinct should kick in at any moment. You want to hide, but there’s no place to go. You want to run, but you’re in the crosshairs. You are being watched, prodded, toyed with. Hunted. You are made to feel a victim of some fate breathing down your neck, almost literally. Haunted. The slight, breathless pants on your shoulder of a person or persons unknown that want to get you. Harm you. Even kill you.

For no apparent reason at all. You’re just prey. Game.

That’s what San Franciscans must’ve felt like back in the 1960’s when some hunter of men took to task terrorizing the Bay Area with the bizarre, groundless and still unsolved murders as the Zodiac killer. Part documentary, part psychological thriller, part one man’s obsession, Zodiac is David Fincher at the top of his game, carefully and quietly ratcheting up the dread level over two plus worthwhile hours.

It’s unfortunate that this film fell into the bracket of “poor box office” tallies.

Zodiac may have fallen victim to the “too intellectual” tag, or the long running time turned people away (seems most audiences have only enough of a fluid attention span to fill a thimble), or how the film moves at its own languid pace, possibly inviting boredom in some. I don’t know. Just conjecture. One thing this guy is sure of: Zodiac is a great, thrilling and sometimes rather scary film.

Dread is the watchword of this film. Not terror, per se, and definitely not serial killer horror like, say, The Silence of the Lambs. But dread. That looming fear of something horrible that could happen if you would let your guard down. Epitomizing this feeling is Robert Graysmith, portrayed by Gyllenhaal, a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle and avid puzzle wonk. Graysmith is the unlikely protagonist of this story (and also the real-life counterpart who wrote the book upon which the film is based), more or less tumbling over the Zodiac’s intentions by the anonymous threat letters that get mailed to the paper declaring the killer’s motives, intentions and nary a whit of his identity. Gyllenhaal plays skittish very well, like a kid on the outside of the club. That haunted look hangs on his face, exemplifying that dread as we the audience are meant to feel. As was said, Graysmith is puzzle geek, and when the Zodiac sends cryptic ciphers along with his threatening letters, the challenge of cracking the code becomes an obsession.

Greysmith’s aide-de-camp in this escapade is crime beat reporter, the effete and boozy Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr., in a role that somehow mirrors the character of Tony Stark he would portray a year later in 2008’s Iron Man). Cynical, crass and opportunistic, Avery plays the perfect foil to Graysmith’s boy scout like demeanor. Somehow they trade barbs with each other over the Zodiac’s motives and identity with each accompanying letter, as well as when the body count starts to rise. All of Zodiac’s intensions are posted to the Chronicle’s editors, leaving our intrepid newsies at the frontline of what the killer might do next.

Of course, all Avery and Graysmith can do is speculate and play around with screwy codices. On the frontline is Det. Dave Toschi, portrayed gamely by future Hulk Mark Ruffalo. He and his partner, Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are the cops that get the call about a murder of a cabbie in downtown San Fran, connecting it with the Zodiac killings. Ruffalo’s performance of Toschi is just great, unlike the wary wounded Graysmith, Ruffalo is the warm and steady straight man caught up in the mystery, just trying to do his job to nab the criminal at large. Ruffalo has the feeling of stability you need in this dreadful business in hopes that there will be an end to this mystery, even though the Zodiac case is still unsolved to this day.

Zodiac starts as a crime drama, and ends as a docudrama. The first act’s pacing feels a bit rushed, but it flows. For a crime investigation film, the pace has to be swift, but there’s a lot, a lot of info that needs to be core dumped on the audience to get what the hell is happening, and there’s a sort of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it velocity that zips by in the first act. Fincher’s films are almost always clinical pieces of technical exactness, and Zodiac is no exception. It has all the hallmarks of a Fincher film, from the muted color scheme to the surgical precision of the camera work. It makes for an excellent documentary film, as if cut for a PBS production, but with excellent acting and a bigger budget.

The core trio of actors all play well off each other, which is surprising considering how different each one’s personality is. Graysmith’s boy scout to Avery’s rake to Toschi’s procedural give the audience a united front of cracking the code of the Zodiac, so to speak. Each actor has his place in handling the mystery, and although it’s ostensibly Gyllenhaal’s show, Ruffalo’s treatment of the film is what kept me engaged.

Not to dismiss Gyllenhaal. He’s just so great in this. He brings that haunted innocence he used so well in Donnie Darko to the fore here. As Graysmith, he becomes so obsessed with uncovering the mystery of the Zodiac that he loses almost everything he holds dear, from his job to his family. He becomes his own pawn in the Zodiac’s game, almost to the point that Toschi seems to let Graysmith do his dirty work. Let the crazed kid hunt the identity of the hunter. The case dragged on for years with nary a break until it was all but swept under the rug. Graysmith’s crusade, Gyllenhaal’s obsession is what pushes the movie forward. The game.

The prey comment I made earlier may be the crux of the whole Zodiac m.o., both as crime and film. From what little I know about profiling serial killers, they all take some trophy, some winning from their prey. The Zodiac’s was the game. The toying with – hunting – other humans. Sport. The cryptic letters and ciphers. Game. Thumbing his nose at the authorities, taunting them, daring them to try and stop him. The short story “The Most Dangerous Game” is commented on often in the film, and is used as an analog for the killer’s motives. A key scene, and maybe the best in the movie, is the interview between Toschi and Zodiac suspect Arthur Leigh Allen. Allen has the history and hallmarks of a hunter, and dearly enjoys messing with the officer’s heads. Poking holes and creating new ones in the fabric of their investigation. This scene may be the lynchpin of the whole movie, if not the case at large. The play was the thing with the Zodiac. A game to play that ends up playing you. Making you question your safety, your security. Making you feel like prey.

Yes, Zodiac is a truly fine film, or rather three films in one. There’s the obvious mystery story, Graysmith’s Moby-Dick-like crusade and the game of the hunt. All three meld well into one very satisfying narrative, complete with all the custom touches of a masterful director at the wheel. Zodiac is a tight and sometimes harrowing journey, just like cat-and-mouse game the Zodiac put San Fransisco through some 40 years ago. Times of dread into paranoia into being haunted.

Or hunted.


Rant Redux (2019)…

Yeah, I got this one right out of the gate. This might’ve been a sign of me learning to not blog like some frothing yo-yo later on. Might.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: rent it. Boom.


Next Installment…

We retool The Machinist (rimshot).


 

RIORI Redux: Nicolas W Refn’s “Drive” Revisited


Image


The Players…

Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Oscar Isaac, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks.


The Story…

Hollywood stuntman by day, getaway driver by night. Our man is the go-to guy, the all-purpose wheelman to get you the hell out of Dodge. No connections, and that’s how he likes it. It is, until his solitary life is disrupted by his cute neighbor and her young son. He quickly learns that, hey, maybe starting a friendship ain’t so bad after all. His newfound peace is shattered, however, when her violent husband is released from prison hell bent on a family reunion, whether mommy wants it or not. This reminds our man why it’s better to stay disconnected.


The Rant (2013)

In keeping up the general gist of this blog, I’m rambling through various recent movies of dubious reputation or had been lacking in box office mojo. Here’s the thing though: I already knew Drive was a noteworthy picture a few years ago, and had tallied up some relatively decent cheddar at the multiplex to boot—for a minor film. Of course, despite what Hollywood thinks, just cuz a movie makes a few ripples doesn’t mean it was any good. How else does that explain Rob Schneider having a career?

It’s was the critics’ responses to Drive that tweaked me, or at least what they didn’t say. The general public were up and down. The critics were all over the map. For example, good ol’ reliable Rotten Tomatoes gave Drive 93% while the audience gave it an average 78%. IMBD users, 7.9/10. Metascore, 78/100. Seems few can agree to disagree here.

Help is on the way.

That’s what I’m here for: to help people. Really. Or at least not to have you waste your hard-earned (or stolen) cash on the next stream. Well, that and give me a forum to spout my half-baked opinions about movies, shaking a fist into the air, railing like an angry shepherd under the black, starry sky, cursing Hollywood for inflicting the likes of Grown-Ups 2 and another useless remake/reboot because the folks in Tinsel Town are under the impression that we’re either all stupid, drooling inbreds or have memories the likes of retarded goldfish, slothfully dragging our popcorn-addled carcasses to the omegaplex devoid of any independent thought. Entertain us, o heathen warlords of the silver screen after our almighty, slippery ducat. Aye, there be yer zombie apocalypse.

Where was I? Right. Help. Here we go…

First and foremost, Drive is an homage to 80’s style thrillers, right down to the synth heavy score. To Live And Die in L.A. immediately comes to mind. From the metallic blue of the L.A. skyline to it’s sepia toned daytime desert climes. The pacing is as tight as the car chases. And the acting as wooden as the Sequoia National Forest. This pseudo-noir flick makes for neat cat and mouse antics through the City of Angels, but that novelty runs out of gas (ha!) pretty damned quick. Gosling’s performance as the Driver. Ugh. Where to begin? Is his portrayal supposed to be so stiff? I know he’s supposed to be this icy, introverted tough guy, but comes across as flat as the L.A. freeway and he never seems to blink. And when he does show emotion—a smile here, a tear there—it comes across as just plain creepy. Carey Mulligan is just vapid wallpaper. Why was Hendricks in this movie, other than to get offed? Her role was very pointless and was no more than a glorified cameo.

Cranston is criminally underused here and just comes off as some kind of caricature. The old mentor schtick doesn’t usually improve with age, and his staggering about the set came across as comical without being funny. On the bright side, Brooks and Perlman are just as amusing as ever, especially Brooks in a wiseguy role. However Brooks is so unconvincing as a killer mobster (even when does kill and do mobster things), that it’s unintentionally funny. I have a soft spot for Ron Perlman, so it’s tough to say rotten things about his acting, even though he was kinda goofy. Sorry.

You can’t talk about this movie without commenting on its violence. There’s a lot of it, and, yeah, it’s gratuitous. It’s also boring. You get numb to the Driver’s antics real quick. He’s not a fun date. And the motel scene; when did he become Rambo? What was that pledge earlier in the film that “I don’t use a gun”? Oops. He uses sharp implements and shoes a lot too. Cold-blooded and unconvincing.

Harsh, you say? Tough, My review. Nyah, nyah, nyah. I still haven’t figured out the disparity between the critics and the audience. I’m part of the audience here, not a professional critic. Let’s just put it this way: I didn’t fall for Drive‘s alleged art house pretensions. It was just a poorly acted, violent, rip-off of other motor n’ mobster movies that came before it, mostly in the cocaine-fueled 80’s. Kinda like the soundtrack.


Rant Redux (2019)

Okay. I’ll admit it. I was too harsh. I think I was too eager to gnash my teeth and get all Lewis Black on this film for two reasons: 1) I was all too quick to latch on, remora-like, to the inconsistencies in the plot and trumpet about them, and: 2) a neophyte to blogging I wanted to make a stink so readers would “notice me” by trashing a noteworthy film. In simpler terms, I was a snot and strutted about, Mr Movie Know-It-All, openly pissed about no being allowed at the cool kids table at lunch in 7th grade. Wah.

Before I go on with this stroll down memory lane I feel it proper to give a shout out to the “silent partner” in the creation of RIORI, one Jordan Harms. I told about the inspiration for this blog in Vol 3’s installment about Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium. Back then Jordan was hot to trot to see said film as how much he loved the director’s District 9. The day after he caught the movie I asked him about it. He shrugged. It was okay. Meh. He looked let down. That’s when I asked no one the apocryphal question, “There oughta be a website out there that warns about mediocre movies.” Boing. And here we are.

There’e more to that than that. I’ve understood that to truly enjoy another’s company, you gotta be down with their quirks. If you can get beyond others’ fears, concerns, ideologies and tastes no matter how warped you can find a cool friend amongst all their personal bouts with life. Another aspect of getting to know a person is sort of a silent matter; you don’t wanna bring it up in casual conversation because it it ultimately private and others Just. Won’t. Get it. And I ain’t talking sexual preferences or who your fave X-Man is. Sometimes that’s one and the same. Eeyew.

Jordan had a condition to compartmentalize social interactions to quick, smart conversations that overarched the need for him to hit the head. Often. A lot. Like go off the grid a lot. In and out of the kitchen was he, returning with a look of satori on his face; he had just realized something. Like a lot of us he did his best thinking in the bathroom, and would often return to work with a pithy thought or two to share. The man always had something on is mind. I liked that.

Once he laid it out thus: what makes a movie mediocre? Well, bad reviews for one, but that’s always subjective. Lousy acting? Sure, but sometime a good story can make lame acting tolerable. And the story? Of course, but one can run the acting thing in reverse. And there’s always the return on investment: the box office takeaway. That’s a key thing there, the almighty ducats. This became one of the Five Pillars of The Standard. If a movie walked away breaking even or scratched a surface then something mediocre was afoot. Just because most American audiences are dumb they’re not dumb. They knew when they get ripped off. I highlighted that on the start page. Jordan and I couldn’t ignore that factor, so I looked up Box Office Mojo and The Numbers to do the math for some movies’ budgets against what they actually earned.

That being said, smaller indie pictures don’t nestle easily into Avengers: Endgame territory. Budgets for smaller films tend to be modest, and if such an indie film catches fire, well the spread between the budget and the takeaway can be like David and Goliath, minus the head injuries. At least the literal ones.

Drive was such a film that caught fire. Kinda. We’re dealing with low numbers into not so low numbers, but all with critical praise, name actors and a hook that I completely missed with my first viewing. In fact, I got it after I send the disc back to Netflix (no, this caveman still doesn’t have streaming on his TV and I refuse to watch a movie on my iMac. It feels like homework). I had already written the installment above and posted it begrudgingly because I didn’t…I was lazy. Jordan was the one who suggested Drive, and was rather dismayed I didn’t like it. He told me so on Facebook, and if you can’t believe that then, well.

In hindsight the installment for Drive was sour grapes. I nitpicked. I groaned. I panned. And I totally missed the point until a day later after the post was in the can. I base the revelation after the time I caught The Blair Witch Project in theaters. Sure, the movie was spooky and weird but didn’t really stir the blood. The most I can say about that was dissecting the movie with my pals at the cafe across the street from the only theater in town that showed the darn thing. We mostly didn’t get it, but it sure was different.

It was only a day later, sitting on the edge of my bed before sleep (no, really) that I got it. There was a plot point about the Blair Witch allegedly making her potential victims to stand in the corner, like a bad pupil would. So when in the very last scene REDACTED. I froze, replaying the scene in my mind. Holeee sh*t. I got it. A day late and ten dollars short but I got it.

That’s kinda the delayed reaction I had from watching Drive. Understood there was a lot of melodrama and excessive violence that I carped about. I also bitched about other things that I did not immediately get a la Blair Witch. I even quacked about it in the original rant, rather snarky for my usual custom. I called Drive “pseudo-noir flick.” I was almost right. Drive is “neo-noir,” a good enough phrase to contain the style of a modern take of the 1980’s style thrillers. That stuff about To Live And Die In LA was not a swipe. Not now anyway. Drive takes its hints from half-forgotten 80s “classics” like Die In LA, as well as ThiefNight Hawks and Manhunter. Products of their time given a shave and a massage for the 21st Century with Drive.

Christ, I was so caviling. So smug. Look, I know it was just a movie critique, but it is the duty of the critic to broadcast their truth in an unbiased way at the outset. I think since it was Jordan’s recommendation I had a bias at the beginning to like it, so not to offend his bathroom wisdom. I guess I overanalyzed things. I finally figured out that with all its flaws, just go with it. We’re aiming for atmosphere here, not philosophy.

My biggest carp with Drive was the acting. I called it wooden. It was. But I later understood why: Drive is a tribute to the plastic nature of the 80s flicks and their artifice. If the only true drama laid out by flicks such as To Live And Die In LA as front-and-center a drug dealer getting a shotgun blast to the groin, you really couldn’t care less about how the actor screamed and screamed. The violence Gosling dispenses is a head nod, not a high five. The stereotypes, like Albert Brooks heavy Bernie work because the entire cast are ciphers channelling the soiled glam and glitz of those skeezy neo-noir flicks from the Reagan administration. Via such hamminess, it’s a love letter. I got it. I get that now, end of the bed or no.

I owe an apology to the bathroom sage Jordan. I credit him for helping to establish The Standard, and relent the crap I spewed about Drive out of spite. Hey, it was my third installment. Sue me. Again. My lawyer’s on retainer.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Overruled: Rent it. I learned you must be in the right mindset to dig a film like Drive. In 2013 I was defiantly in the wrong mindset. And high. Did I mention that?


Next Installment…

We take an Uber around Midnight In Paris again. Woody Allen was the first esteemed filmmaker I tackled, and I hope I did a good job. I think I did. I also think I was a blowhard that farted pretension and took the edge off with metaphysical bumper cars.

Get it?


 

RIORI Redux: Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” Revisited



The Players…

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


The Story…

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


The Rant (2013)

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

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

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

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

Where to start?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rant Redux (2019)…

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

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

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

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

*drum roll and drop the mic*

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Revision…

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


Next Installment…

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


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 65: James Mangold’s “Identity” (2003)

 

 



The Suspects…

John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, John C McGinley, John Hawkes, Clea DuVall and Rebecca DeMornay, with Jake Busey, William Lee Scott, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Bret Loehr and Alfred Molina.


The Story

Ten strangers find themselves stranded at a remote desert motel during a raging storm a million miles from nowhere. They soon find themselves the target of a deranged murderer, and any one of them could be the killer. As their numbers thin out, the travelers turn on each other rather than trying to figure out who the real killer is.


The Rant…

Everybody loves a mystery. You ever take a moment as to ask why?

Is it your curiosity being piqued? The thrill of discovery? Nabbing the bad guy? Finally locating the lost TV remote (it was in the freezer, and that pint of Ben & Jerry’s you grabbed in a drunken haze is under the couch. Was)?

One of the best examples of illustrating the appeal of a mystery I caught—surprisingly—on an ep of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the cold open we learn that Captain Picard is mucking about on the holodeck, playing detective. He’s invited his friend Guinan to join him, since she expressed interest in what the appeal is humans see in solving a mystery.

They find themselves at gunpoint by some digitally-rendered tough promising hurt, demanding info on whatever. Suddenly a shot smashes through the window and the thug goes down. Picard is excited, much to Guinan’s confusion. She asks what’s next, and he asks who was this guy? What did he want? Why was his trying to kill us?

Picard lays it out, “We have to look for clues!”

Guinan asks, “And that’s fun?”

Picard grins and says, “And that’s fun.”

There is your geek-out moment for the day.

*takes small bow*

Forgetting the fact that Sir Patrick Stewart teamed up with Whoopi Goldberg to solve a murder in holographic, VR 1940’s San Francisco (there’s your second), that installment of ST:TNG was right. What’s the fun of a mystery, besides (hopefully) solving it? The thrill of the hunt. Pitting your wits against the quarry. See what you’re made of. Some guy has been killed. Whodunit? You up to the challenge, Sherlock?

By extension mystery movies are fun for the same reason, duh. It’s not like in reality, where detectives have a crime to crack, sure. A murder, theft, missing person, where their tub of Cherry Garcia got to, etc. With the real cops there’s a lot of pounding the pavement, jockeying the phone and lots and lots of paperwork. Briscoe and Logan made it look intense and fun, and you didn’t see them much at their desks did you? There were perps out there to shake down, dammit!

As much fun as the original Law & Order could be, the hour-long procedural (50 minutes, actually), barely half of your average episode were given over to the cops sniffing out the guilty party. With a mystery movie you not only get a lot more time to expand on character development, twists and turns, intrigue and do so blissfully devoid of commercial interruption. Speaking of which, how come there’ve never been an Ben & Jerry’s TV ads?

I’ll stop that now.

Time does make the difference. As analog to real life, certain infamous serial killer cases are still open, even years after the killings have ended. The Zodiac Killer, the Alphabet Murders, Jack the Ripper. I’m no forensic scientist, but what’s the sense in this? Okay, maybe the survivor’s have a bone to pick, awaiting closure. These almost-cold case files have been active for decades (and in a certain light, Jack’s conviction has been centuries in the making) to no avail. Why? Because the more time given over to cracking a case the greater the likelihood of it happening. In simpler term, tackle a mystery over a continuum permits more “study.”

Character study, psychological study, even a study of setting. Stretch it out, stir the pot and the mystery gets drawn out. In a good way. In a good mystery movie there must be room to breathe, space to let us buffs round up the usual suspects, take in as many clues as possible and time to cogitate what the blue f*ck’s going on. You gotta mull it all over in more that the almost half hour Dennis Farina and Michael Imperioli had.

Another key aspect of a good mystery flick—as demonstrated in the holodeck microcosm—is you should keep the setting tight. Small. Confined. Almost a character unto itself. It cuts away the distractions, the fat. The clunky mysteries I got subjected to often had this sprawling tableau. Fletch (which was really more a comedy with the mystery chewy center) wandered everywhere, from LA to Provo, UT. The Forgotten (which rambled on and on, despite the cool premise). Final Analysis (quit bumbling all over Boston Town). You get the idea.

Here’s when the isolation worked, almost to transcendent levels. Rear Window (Jimmy Stewart’s dumpy apartment and a trusty pair of binocs). Murder On The Orient Express (it’s a train, dummy). Memento (Guy Pearce’s bloody mind). It keeps us cinema detective focused; on the case, as it were.

The final key to a good mystery movie is an eclectic rogue’s gallery. In virtually every notable mystery flick we got us a freakin’ tossed salad as supporting cast. Again, Rear Window was a good example. The goofy Murder By Death and Clue were populated by real rogue’s galleries, despite both being parodies. The Usual Suspects was a given. The mishmash of disparate personalities keeps you guessing as to—you guessed it—whodunit.

That being said, Identity follows this formula to a T. We got a timeline to try and follow. We got an isolated scene of the crime. We got our weirdos. So the movie must’ve played out in classic fashion, and you kept guessing and scratching your head for the duration, right?

Well…let’s step onto the holodeck, shall we…?


Not much happens at Larry Washington’s (Hawkes) lonesome motor lodge. He’s planted in the middle of the Nevada desert, just south of nowhere. Like the Paul Simon song says: it’s a long, lonely life.

That is, until the storm hits.

Down the road apiece, nervous George (McGinley) and his family’s ride has a flat. He and his wife go out into the driving rain to inspect the damage, which is when George’s wife gets hit by Ed’s (Cusack) limo hauling fussy, near washed up actress Caroline Suzanne (DeMornay). She demands Ed leave it as a hit and run. Nothing doing. George’s wife is in mortal peril and needs help. A hospital beckons.

Too bad all the roads are washed out. Looks life Larry’s motel beckons instead.

Upon arrival Ed and crew meet with surly Detective Rhodes (Liotta) tasked to escorting violent criminal Robert Maine (Busey), all grinning and nuts. Faulty newlyweds Ginny (DuVall) and Lou (Scott), whose bickering belies a deeper problem. Paris (Peet) the hooker, who’s either on the run or planning to “get lucky” in Sin City. Now thanks to impartial Mother Nature all of them are stuck with Larry’s hospitality for the night.

But the night is not still in the desert, despite the rain.

Paraphrasing Keanu, strange things are afoot at Larry’s motor lodge.

Caroline’s desperate to calling her agent in LA. She scrambles out into the brush trying to find better reception for her cell phone. Then she ends up in one of the motel’s dryers, not choosing to do laundry, let alone find the rest of her body.

Great. We got a killer on our hands. Where’s Maine at?

He escaped the cuff attached to the plumbing only to find himself literally chewing on death.

What about Rhodes, his escort? He’s got a habit of disappearing.

And what the hell’s in Larry’s freezer?

It’s murder by numbers. One, two, three.

All apologies to Sting…


Identity is a modern day, B-movie, Hitchcock pastiche. This is not a bad thing. In fact, such a mish-mash makes the flick kinda fun. Kinda.

Like I said above, Identity has all the hallmarks of your classic—albeit simple, if not formulaic—mystery movie. Admittedly, the film’s story was lifted from the Agatha Christie classic And Then There Were None. But again this book was caged more times than a shoplifter rampant in a Wal-Mart populated by blind sales reps so let’s give that a pass, shall we? Identity is a classic but hackneyed story played out already a dozen times over. We’ll give that a pass, too. Hell, if it’s a formula that works, roll with it. Like I’ve been fond of saying regarding a film’s originality, it’s like the blues: it’s not the notes, it’s how they’re played.

Despite Mangold being a solid director, he’s probably also a tad tone deaf. At least here.

Now. Either the guy was a total rip-off artist and hack with Identity, or f*cking brilliant in the movie’s delivery. At the outset the movie’s intro smacks of something, but it just might be every mystery movie ever made needed to introduce our future victims, yet just twistedly cheezy enough to keep you watching. Mangold sets the stakes fast, if a bit comically. Of course nothing is as it seems to be, within the story and without. The tension and intrigue begins to pile on, but in such a ramshackle fashion you’re not as to take it seriously or find it all laughable. Maybe Identity‘s supposed to be seriously laughable, I dunno. Middle America’s vote is still out on this one.

Keeping in mind The Standard (which we haven’t kept in mind for a coon’s age) dictates an assignment due to mixed reviews, Identity is the first flick here to deliver mixed signals. Messages, even. Here’s a way to twist the whole Ten Little Indians dynamic: troll the audience. I ain’t talking twists and turns here. I’m talkin’ playing on the audiences’ expectation. Tomfoolery over intrigue. Tugging your coat rather than planting seeds. In simpler terms: nyah nyah nyah.

It’s kinda cool in a way. Really.

I’ve seen other Mangold’s movies (including The Wolverine, which was covered here. He did a good job, and his latest Wolverine installment Logan is getting rave reviews) and he does above average yeoman’s work. He’s a journeyman director, like Richard Donner or Alan Smithee.

*pause for effect*

And the man’s pedigree is a varied one. We can go from Walk The Line to Knight And Day in a single breath, and go along with it with a tenuous grin. I mean, “Oh sh*t, where are we going?” There’s a difference (but very slight) between winking at the audience and tying the string around their loose tooth. Oddly, both often have the same effect.

So which side of the coin clattered down with Identity? We land on the edge, my popcorn-addled flock. Mangold is no doubt trolling us here, but it’s done in spite of ourselves. We know where we’re going here. We know that any one of these dweebs could be the killer, especially since motive is absent (that a spoiler?). We expect twists and turns to obfuscate the killer’s identity.We have established tension, but it’s a tad weak, and you could see it all coming. Yet we didn’t expect to find Caroline’s REDACTED. Most murder mysteries ain’t so graphic nor wink-wink, nudge-nudge in the same breath. Here’s a cute sample of Mangold f*cking with us, but not necessarily messing with our mind. Not outright. It’s the comic booky fun at work with Identity.

Identity is kind of chimera. An idle fancy. It’s as if Mangold asked himself, “How far can I stretch the audience’s suspension of belief?” It’s a puzzle, not a mystery. Identity is a Rubik’s Cube, not a chess board. It’s obviously inspired by Christie, but also Rashomon; the story is slick and slippery. You can’t get a tack. Mangold relies on trickery rather than intrigue. There’s a kind of goofiness to the movie. That B-movie flavor I alluded to above. Despite the dire stakes, some madman (or men) skulking around offing Larry’s guests, there’s a cardboard cheesiness lurking just below the surface. It has the feeling of formula, yet dodges it. Admittedly, I have to dig that.

And, doy, I gotta address our dramatis personae. We’ve got the best ensemble cast here that I’ve seen in a long time. At first, these actors have no business whatsoever sharing screen time together. Later we understand that anyone could be the killer; they’re all stereotypes after all. But again with the blues. For example, I often forget how protean Cusack can be, despite his comic bent. Liotta is so good at being mad. Hey, Peet can act (color me surprised)! DeMornay’s still alive (not for long here, ha ha) and is still hot! And McGinley set aside his desperate sarcastic schtick for being desperate and period. Okay, Busey is still weird, but still our cast is so colorful it gives us a little sugar to go down with the urine. Yeah, there’s a game afoot, but someone lost the instructions.

That lack of solid misdirection in Identity, paired with Mangold’s cagey direction makes this goofy murder mystery all the more sweet, if only barely palatable. The film insults our intelligence, yet you feel you gotta go along with it. What I’ve been pummeling for the past lifetime is thus: a good movie mystery can adhere to all the rules I laid out before, misstep and still be entertaining with the right director lording over a mediocre story. Better than the sum of its parts? I don’t know. Half the movie’s parts are stuck in transit from eBay with Identity.

The best thing I feel about Mangold’s direction and therefore Identity‘s atmosphere is that it never takes itself too seriously. It straddles the ridiculous. It has a steady, creepy funny vibe. A combo seldom found in anything Miss Marple ever unraveled. Even the big reveal is laughable, as if, “Oh James, you got us. Pop the balloons.” He got us all right. The finale is such a joke you’ll slap your head in disgust for falling into his trap. For following along. Going with it. D’oh!

Identity is a clear sample of having the joke on you. I might’ve overplayed my hand here. I had to be careful and select my words very carefully to not give away the progression of the mystery. And it wasn’t truly a mystery, either. It was a shuck and jive, and the attentive audience kept looking for a partner at the junior high dance. You’re better off glued to the wall, watching the few, brave characters on the floor.

In the end, with Identity connect the dots, erase, suspend what you expect then accept it, slap your head and laugh and then get pissed for being hoodwinked. It’s a good waste of time.

Just leave Larry’s freezer alone.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Never have I laughed so hard at myself for taking a murder mystery seriously. The mystery is really, “Why the f*ck did you watch this? For DeMornay’s boobies?” Uh, yeah.


Stray Observations…

  • “Did you feel that?” Kinda cheesy, but it worked.
  • Even for 2003, that’s an awful big cell phone there.
  • “I wish I had beige.”
  • This mess is like a murderous Gilligan’s Island on crack.
  • “I am very f*cking calm!”
  • Mangold indeed shows his strengths here, well put to his Wolverine movies.
  • “I don’t know if I’m comfortable with guard duty, per se.”
  • Kinda glad George got his. He got quite annoying quite fast.
  • “We’re all in Nevada.”
  • Does Cusack ever age?
  • “Yeah.”
  • So after all that’s said and done Malcolm is truly in the middle?

Next Installment…

Who would’ve know Mike Judge’s Idiocracy would prove so prescient so fast? Ask Putin (burn!).


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 41: Rod Lurie’s “Straw Dogs” (2011)

 


Straw Dogs


The Players…

James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgärd and James Woods, with Dominic Purcell, Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Drew Powell and Laz Alonso.


The Story…

Who says you can’t go home again? Well, that’s exactly what David and Amy aim to do.

After her father’s passing, Amy inherited his house in rural Mississippi. So she and David uprooted themselves from LA to start a new life away from the trappings of crowded, urban blight. It should prove to be an idyllic life, hopefully mending a rift in their tenuous marriage.

It’s unfortunate that the locals don’t cotton well to city slickers. It’s also unfortunate that Amy’s old high school sweetheart Charlie’s been bitten by the green-eyed monster. It’s really unfortunate that David isn’t a football fan.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to leave home behind. Far, far behind.


The Rant…

Okay, sorry it took so long to get around to this week’s mashup. For reasons I will explain later, the gap in time between Red Dragon and Straw Dogs is due to my cinematic ignorance.

*gasps*

Yeah, despite all my charms, trivia and thousands of hours wasted watching movies instead of doing something really productive (like finding the cure for rectal cancer and/or Rob Schneider), even I fall out of the loop once in a while. Hey, you can’t be expected to see everything, especially since movies have been around for, what, at least 30 years? That’s a lotta VHS to unfurl. Besides, my NES ain’t gonna play itself and Yoshi’s getting hungry.

What?

So, no. I haven’t seen everything. Working on it, but it’s a long road to walk. It takes patience, undying curiosity and some moronic drive to keep at a blog like this. Lots of potholes. Sometimes there are a few setbacks. Like what, you may ask? For the first time I ain’t talking ’bout a movie you should not view near an open flame holding a Molotov cocktail. Worse.

I’m talking about remakes.

*screaming, rending of garments, passive urination*

Yeah, I feel the same way. See, Hollywood’s gone remake happy over the past decade. With greater and greater diminishing returns, BTW. Don’t misunderstand me; remakes of classic films have their place, even not so classic films. But as I pointed on in my I Am Legend installment, things can get out of hand. I cited with that remake review that in 2004 alone (you know, over a f*cking decade ago), there were about 40 remakes, sequels or prequels churned out. Even the Coen brothers got in on the act back then.

*screaming, rending of garments, passive urination*

Who had the asparagus? Anyway, I ask myself: what gives? What’s with all these unoriginal films? Was there really a demand for Total Recall ver 2.0? What about that Spider-Man reboot a mere three years after the last one? The new RoboCop anyone? Surprise, surprise, I have a few theories. Pull up a chair.

*screaming, rending of okay you get it*

For one, I think remakes are somewhat cheaper to produce than original movies. Not in budget per se, but I’m willing to wager a silk pyjama that it’s quicker to churn out an adaptation of a previously penned, established storyline. I highly doubt we had a scenarist burning lean tissue into the night pumping out the script for the fresher, shinier The Fog or Halloween (sorry, Mr Zombie). There was already an outline. Color by numbers and fill in the blanks, and pray the audience is either curious enough to see the train wreck or ignorant of the original.

That leads to my second premise. Never in the history of the human race have we been so blessed with so much immediate, instant access to info as we have now. And people are dumber than ever for it. The number one Internet search in 2015? Funny animal pictures. Screw mapping the human genome, Angry Cat needs its own movie! On Lifetime, for f*ck’s sake! We have the history of the world at our fingertips, and the butt end of Gen X into the Millenials don’t know jack.

It makes for good business. Hollywood is doubtless aware of this social learning curve (or gap, as it were), and lately have hedged their bets on the public’s willful ignorance to drop slop done before—some sh*t that was only middling the first time out—and wait for the dollars to ooze in. And cross their fingers anyone between the ages of 15 and 50 do not have Netflix streaming, YouTube or any of Leonard Maltin’s film guides. Can’t be many with those kicking around, right?

Most moviegoers have attention spans of gnats with ADHD. With so much media saturation, surely Tinsel Town can get away with slipping us a mickey now and again. Like every summer. And winter. Sometimes fall, too. Only spring before Daylight Savings take effect. Folks got so much stimulus bombarding their brainpans—I repeat, Hollywood is keenly aware of this—that a virus uploaded into the palsied minds of casual movie fans is a safe bet for some fast cash. Hollywood Trojan horses these needless remakes to empty the uninformed pockets. And the hell of it, this wouldn’t be an issue of most of these remakes were actually ripe for revision, let alone good. The many my idiot self has seen over the past decade have been neither.

Of course there have been exceptions. But before I get to my limited, hopelessly biased list permit me to enlighten you further about the nature of remakes. Here, put on this pair of Depends. Right. My take is this: if a director/writer gets a wild hair up their ass and feel the need to boldly go where someone has gone before, they sure as sh*t better have something new to add to the mix. You can’t just do boilerplate. You can’t just connect the dots. And you not to have any delusions of homage ricocheting about your vodka and blow addled imagination (I’m not saying such directors are addicts. I’m not saying they’re not, either. If the spoon fits use it).

A director and/or scenarist must give their unique spin to the original product. Either enhance the storyline, rely on an impeccable casting director or simply put a signature stamp on the final product, wrapped up in a nice, neat, tasteful package that actually brings something fresh to the table. It’s been done before, and maybe can be done again. Lately though? I have my doubts.

Some cool remakes over the past few years? Glad you asked. Here, let me loosen those restraints a bit. Okay, let’s play compare and contrast. You learned math in elementary school, right? Same rules.

Scorsese’s The Departed (which won Best Picture in 2006. Marty’s apology Oscar, BTW) was lifted from a Chinese gangland flick called Infernal Affairs. Besides Scorsese’s signature stamp, the film worked well thanks to the tight performances from DiCaprio and Nicholson (Jack’s best sh*t in years if you ask me). We also had Ocean’s 11, also under the helm of solid director Soderbergh and the charms of Clooney and Co. Hell, even the 1996 take on The Birdcage was wild, wooly and witty. These are but a scattered few winners.

But despite my focus on recent remakes, there are quite a few notable flicks remade well prior to the Internet generation. I mean, hey, did you know The Wizard Of Oz was done four times? It’s true. The first was a silent version. The next was a talkie, but sans the high tunage and technicolor extravaganza that we got with Judy Garland and her amazing pipes for the third, definitive version (and let’s not forget The Wiz, awash in R&B and overtones of urban blight).

Casablanca was done three times. Not including the iconic classic, the source material was the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, which was done twice before Elsa got on that plane. Michael Curtiz’ masterpiece almost didn’t get made, BTW. Something about lousy casting or something. What do I know?

We had The Front Page against His Girl FridayThe Man Who Knew Too Much was done by Hitch twice (three times if you remember Billy Bob Thorton’s effort). Seven Samurai got morphed into The Magnificent SevenThe Hidden Fortess borne Star Wars: A New HopeThe Good, The Bad And The Ugly wrought Yojimbo. The list goes on.

Another aspect of the remake hangs on the wobbly pretense of basing films on pre-exisiting texts. I’ve seen three interpretations of Hamlet on the silver screen (two with casting mistakes of Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh portraying the titular tragic hero. Hamlet was a teen. Gibson was straight off the Lethal Weapon train. He was way too old for that sh*t). Speaking of Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet has numerous incarnations. Not just Shakespeare but a lot of great films were lifted from great literature. Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness was adapted for Apocalypse Now. Bloch’s Psycho became flesh by Hitchcock (and we’re gonna ignore the frame by f*cking frame remake with a miscast Vince Vaughn). And the last time we were out, we were introduced to Hannibal Lecter’s salad days via Manhunter and Red Dragon, both based on Thomas Harris’ novel.

It’s fortitudinous really that Red Dragon was the previous whipping boy at RIORI. It makes a good companion piece to this week’s beauty and ruin, this Straw Dogs remake. Remember eons back when I said I haven’t watched everything? Before I watched Red Dragon I had already seen Manhunter many years prior. If you read the installment, I felt compelled to compare the older version with the new one. Directors Mann and Ratner brought different meals to the table, their own visions. Both were good, but markedly different. I had read Red Dragon miles before I saw the films, and dug each version’s unique take.

I never read Straw Dogs‘ source material, Gordon Williams’ The Seige Of Treacher’s Farm. Didn’t have immediate access to it. F*ck, never knew the film(s) were based on it until the end credits. More importantly, regarding the viewing of Rod Lurie’s remake of Straw Dogs—

(here it comes)

—I never saw Sam Peckinpah’s original. I can’t see everything. I heard about the original with the Director’s Cut reissue in Entertainment Weekly back in the mid-90s (when I still read that rag), and the plot intrigued me. But I lived in a cultural armpit of Pennsylvania, and Netfilx didn’t exist and the local Blockbuster was stocked to the rafters with endless copies of Ghost, so I missed that bus. But like I said at the beginning of this screed, know that Lurie’s version was a remake, and me never seeing the original, and me being well-versed with Manhunter serving as a tonic to my Red Dragon review, I decided I’d be remiss in my duties to take apart Lurie’s version without being acquainted with Peckinpah’s film. So I took the time to sit down and watch the original. A copy of Williams’ Siege wasn’t to be found at the library as a control, either. Which explains the delay in churning out this installment regarding Lurie’s “vision.”

Despite patience being a virtue, I think I might’ve made a big mistake…


City life isn’t for everyone. David and Amy Sumner (Marsden and Bosworth, respectively) quietly fled crowded, polluted LA to Amy’s family home in rural Mississippi. They want an idyll life, far from the stress and strain of the West Coast.

Speaking of strain, their marriage is an uneasy relationship. It’s reflected in their move, as well as a change in direction. David’s a screenwriter, tired of playing the Hollywood game. He throws himself into a new, personal project: a historical documentary, miles away from the glitz he tiredly has churned out. Amy focuses on the restoration of her late dad’s homestead, as well as rediscovering her roots.

Speaking of roots, the locals don’t take kindly to outsiders. David’s viewed as some Calfornia “cream puff” and Amy is little more than eye candy. Especially to Charlie (Skarsgärd), her old flame from their high school days. As more or less a favor, Charlie and his crew have been hired to help Amy achieve her dream by restoring the barn adjacent to the antebellum mansion. This permits Charlie and his cronies ample time to ogle Amy and intimidate David.

Speaking of intimidation, what starts out as an tenuous relationship with Charlie and the locals slowly escalate into psychological warfare. They don’t like wussy David. They want Amy on a platter. They want them gone. Who needs some f*ggoty Hollywood sh*t mucking about town? He don’t even like football. And how the f*ck did he score that blonde cupcake? Charlie and his buds have malice on their minds, and the Sumners need to be taught a lesson and chased out of the f*cking county as fast as f*ck as possible. Or else.

Speaking of else—

The Sumners don’t wanna know what else…


After watching this version of Straw Dogs, I performed an about face and checked out the original. I told you all that. I’m telling you this again for a good reason. About halfway through Peckinpah’s version, I paused it. I was mad. I was mad not about the quality of the 1971 version, which was intriguing. And outright I’ll say Dustin Hoffman made for a much more interesting David than Cyclops did (big shocker there), as well as rural Cornwall as setting. No. I was mad because Lurie’s version was identical to Peckinpah’s. Not slightly. Not passingly. Completely.

Like I said earlier, if you’re gonna do a remake of a classic film you sure as sh*t better bring some twists and turns to story. Otherwise, you have a Gus van Zant travesty on your hands, and a lot of dissatisfied (thinking) movie fans. Rage and ruin. Overturned popcorn buckets. Bitching like mine. Screaming. Rending of garments. Passive pee covering the theatre floor. You thought it was sticky already? Boy, howdy.

Sorry.

Lurie’s Dogs was less of an homage and more like a rip-off, but it wasn’t a total loss. Quite the contrary, at least until the second act (more on that later). At the outset though, the film had nice rising action. There was some good, icky tension between Charlie and company with the Sumners. The whole feeling of unwelcome was palpable, and made me cringe in the best way possible. The menace was there, with Skarsgärd operating with smarm and disdain disguised as Southern Hospitality. Upping that ante was a signature, over-the-top performance of James Woods as redneck ringleader Coach Hadden (with my takedown of White House Down, Woods always makes for an exceptional villain with his shuck and jive, interspersing humor within his odious shenanigans).

The tech stuff was in there where it mattered, too. The editing was smooth, almost seamless along with steady camera work. The soundtrack was great, really highlighting the tension. The landscape was beautiful; give that location scout a hug. All these things worked well.

But only so far.

I fast learned by watching Peckinpah’s film that Lurie’s version was missing the point. 2011’s Dogs was ostensibly meant to be an extension of Peckinpah’s meditation on violence and how the kindest of people could resort to desperate measures. Instead, we get violence for its own sake here. There’s too much of a Hollywood stamp: shock and awe as a substitute for substance. Days of the true psychothriller are gone. If one happens to pop up unexpectedly, the media practically lunges at it like a starving tiger. In the meantime we get a lot of flash, dash and viscera to keep the masses entertained. Truth be told, Lurie’s Dogs didn’t quite follow that line, but the movie felt as if scene upon scene was staged for some sort of explosion later on. There was no slow build after act two. The delivery was halting, and began to lose steam. There’s a difference between foreshadowing and Kafka’s Gun theory and setting up your marks. Like I said, a remake like this hung its bets on an audience not in the know to sell tickets.

That and the help of a very pretty cast.

That’s the major crime here in Dogs. Our dramatis personae. The acting is rather stiff, and our leads are horribly miscast (save Woods, who chews so much scenery it’s a wonder he’s not crapping out drywall). Dogs relies more on name recognition and face value than a coherent ensemble. This is especially true regarding True Blood‘s Skarsgärd. I have to admit—and I am straight as an arrow, regardless what the wifey believes—his Adonis-like looks and build are distracting, and doesn’t a country bumpkin make. Even when he’s being sinister Skarsgärd lacks menace, and that lack made for a very late-in-the-show unconvincing heavy, as well as the cheesiest REDACTED scene ever (the original’s scene made me want to puke, if that tells you anything). The final execution feels like a sick teen comedy. Minus the rococo angst.

Yes, I actually wrote that line. Back to the prettiness.

Marsden is totally out of his element here. In the original, Hoffman’s David is a nerd to be sure, but he’s also wary about his circumstances. He carried an air of suspicion. Marsden by contrast is just clueless. He keeps asking for it from the locals. Over and over and over again, as a square peg to a trapezoidal hole. It doesn’t take long until wanna smack him, over and over again more than the rednecks who’ve targeted him. Sure, his naiveté works with great humor in the first act, but the joke is old by the second. His innocence is ultimately not endearing. He doesn’t engender sympathy. He’s hollow and stereotypical. He didn’t even shoot lasers from his eyes. Gyp.

Even though I’m not a fan of Marsden’s and Skarsgärd’s acting, they weren’t dull. Stereotypes maybe, poor fits both, but even with their faults they did sh*t. Bosworth (of whom I am not a fan period) is so passive it’s almost as if she’s not there. Frankly, at this point in the game I felt any other actress would’ve fit the bill. Pick one. Anyone. Just make sure they have a little confidence and not screaming potential victim. I mean, it’s inevitable bad things are going to happen Amy. I just don’t want to see it coming a light-year away.

Okay. And now for something completely different. Ignoring its flaws, Lurie’s interpretation was, in all honesty, not that bad. Barring the whole second act thing I keep flogging, the movie as a whole was entertaining. It’s not like a “more than the sum of its parts” scenario. But everything hung together pretty well for the most part. Again like the dichotomy of Red Dragon was made to entertain while The Silence Of The Lambs was made to penetrate, both Dogs follow that mold. Peckinpah’s film was awash in social commentary. Lurie’s film simply hoped to thrill. I am loathe to admit it did, despite the poor cast and graphic violence for shock’s sake. The original film was far cleaner in its execution. Only by act three the fit hits the shan. Lurie’s aforementioned icky tension shows the movie’s hand too soon. It would’ve been better with a slower build up and less of that scene building.

In sum, the message of violence here in Dogs gets a bit too on the nose for Lurie’s interpretation. I hate to keep comparing apples to kumquats, but the original film was about “chronicling the beast within.” Lurie’s film just can’t wait to blood butter everything. Meaning breathe it in, punk. There’s an after school message here. A blood-soaked message to be sure, which in turn hides the true meaning of Dogs. What began with good, icky tension ends up with forced, cloying suspense. It’s like a timer went off, and stuff quits making sense. Sh*t descends into mediocrity. Even though there are (vague) motives for the locals to target the Sumners, said motives never really gel. Despite the obvious machinations put into motion, you walk away with “Huh?” Does this movie want to endear contempt for everyone involved? If you can’t get behind anyone then when the climax hits it lands with a fizzle, not a roar. Like I said, at least Hoffman was interesting. Marsden needs a spanking.

This movie ultimately made me feel scummy, like I needed a shower afterwards. It wasn’t the violent climax that upset me. It was the message, glorifying violence. Don’t misunderstand me. I like a decent splatter flick on occasion as well as the next idjit, but a little depth wouldn’t hurt neither. At the end of it all, Lurie’s Dogs remake initially had a lot going for it. Really. I dug it until…well, you know. Its undoing (besides the floundering cast) was reveling in sex and violence, with nary a whit of irony. Some films embrace this, sometimes with a modicum of success. Some of them even remakes, too. One out of three ain’t bad for this Dogs.

But hey, Lurie’s take had zydeco music. That’s sumpin’ different at the table.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A reluctant relent it, and it’s a real shame, too. Here was chance to make a remake about a vital topic. Instead we get Hollywood’s idea of depth. Lurie did an admirable job, just not a respectful one. If you gotta watch it, watch both.


Stray Observations…

  • “You know what? I’m gonna drive.”
  • Hipster music. What better way to alienate oneself from the Skynyrd lovin’ locals?
  • “Thought you was off duty.”
  • Marsden may be a nebbish, but Bosworth is a stick.
  • “Sorry ’bout Flutie.” Keep the change.
  • All of a sudden David becomes John McClane. Zydeco can do that to you.
  • “Shoot anyone that isn’t me.”
  • Stalingrad. I get it, I get it.

Next Installment…

I got a feeling that this film titled Project X has nothing to do with experimental, super smart chimps. Monkey business maybe, but no chimps. Broderick reference!


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 40: Brett Ratner’s “Red Dragon” (2002)


Red Dragon


The Players…

Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson and Harvey Keitel, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anthony Heald and Mary-Louise Parker.


The Story…

To know the mind of a killer, one must understand a killer.

FBI agent Will Graham knows this all too well. His final capture which sent him into retirement was the infamous serial killer Dr Hannibal Lecter. “The Cannibal” almost sent Will to his grave. Instead, Lecter merely left Will with a scarred body and an even more scarred psyche.

Now there is a new killer on the loose, and Graham gets dragged back into active duty. This “Tooth Fairy” seems to have the same tastes, so to speak, as our dear doctor. So Will seeks out his old adversary for some insight into the motives of his quarry. You know, to help with the manhunt.

Seems like Graham doesn’t understand as much as he should.


The Rant…

I don’t think there have been a lot of Best Picture Oscars in the past 30 years that have truly earned the award. I mean the Oscars are nothing but a high school senior year popularity contest, right? Minus the beer bust on Friday at Kevin’s place since his ‘rents are in Barbados. Best Pics in my observation are nominated on popularity (eg: box office booty), critics’ nose-out-of-joint say-so (I’m not in the Academy, so my say-so is worth f*ck-all. By proxy, I’m more qualified, so nyah) and the dotty senility of a clutch of old, white, rich guys who don’t even have to watch the nominees (refer to my Crash installment. I’m too damned lazy to repeat myself).

Bitter? Me? Naaah.

What I’m saying is there are some movies that are so monumental of course they’d win awards, no matter how irrelevant and empty such trinkets are. I am of the George C Scott school regarding awards and self-congraduations: just stay home from the bells and whistles (never get invited anyway. Sulk). Great sh*t doesn’t need to advertise they’re great. They speak for themselves.

By my measure—and my standards, which are hopelessly myopic, thank you—precious few grand films have come down the pike lately. By lately I mean in my lifetime, all forty angry, drunken, flatulent years. Across this continuum, we’ve had “what the hell” winners like Dances With Wolves, The English Patient, Driving Miss Daisy, 12 Years A Slave and the original Rocky. Yes, that Rocky.

I await your beer cans. I am not afraid. I’m wearing Gallagher concert gear.

Those films are a small sample of good movies, but really haven’t endured. It’s no mystery that I find Wolves treacly and somewhat insulting, but it’s still decent. Worthy of all that praise? Let’s put it this way, quote from it. Anything but “Tatanka.

*whistling wind*

Okay, weak sauce. But what I’m driving at is a lot of those Best Pics haven’t really saturated the pop culture consciousness, as if they’ve always been there. Or the pop scene couldn’t’ve existed without these films, so entrenched they are in our short attention span, microwave mac n’ cheese, Nickelback downloading hive mind. The comprehensive list is short, but potent. Casablanca, Gone With The Wind, The Godfather 1 & 2, Lawrence Of Arabia, the original (can’t believe I have to quantify that) Ben-Hur are prime examples. Precious few other capital Q quality movies have dropped in our laps that had no other option but to win Best Picture. Few and far between, but since the bicentennial we have had The Deer Hunter, Gandhi, Amadeus, Unforgiven to impress eternal upon our collective, popcorn-drunk brainpans.

Oh, and The Silence Of The Lambs. Can’t forget that one.

*our blogger finally approaches his point, and the crowd lets out a sigh of relief*

Stick around. I’m baking cookies.

Ah, Lambs. A perfect example of an enduring movie. Quarter century old and it still resonates with the movie munching public. Even folks who’ve never even seen the thing (for shame) can quote it verbatim, Agent Starling. I’m not gonna wax rhapsodic about the film, except the for that fact is that it’s the wifey’s fave film, which says something. Maybe that she’s a Virgo. But I am gonna go on about Anthony Hopkins’ performance as the infamous cannibal. It’s pertinent to the rest of this screed, never worry. So regardless what your personality makeup is, Lambs packs a punch. Along that line, no one out there in the audience has more (of a twisted) personality that Dr Hannibal Lecter, Hollywood’s favorite serial killer.

The most fascinating thing I ever heard about how the character is regarded is that Lecter was the guy you wished you knew. The man with the grace, intelligence and poise who would be the ideal person to spend an evening with over wine and cheese. This is naturally thanks to Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning performance, and although I cast a cocked brow at the Academy, they didn’t have rocks in their heads back in ’91. Hopkins’ charm sold the character, and Lecter is a very scary customer. Hollywood lore says that Hopkins only had like 20 minutes of screen time, but boy did he make the most of it.

So how did those scant 20 work so coldly effective? I think I have an idea. This theory’s based on an actual interview with Hopkins, and how he approached the character of Lecter. When he initially read the the script for Lambs he was uncomfortable with the character. Appalled might’ve been a better word. The party line went that Lambs’ babbling director Jonathan Demme was a fan of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, the biopic about the Victorian prodigy with elephantiasis John Merrick. In that film, Hopkins portrayed his sympathetic benefactor Dr Treaves. Demme suggested to Hopkins that Lecter is Treaves, in reverse. Play him that way.

It worked. Lecter was well-mannered, considerate, insightful…devious, manipulative and twisted. Come into my parlor, said the spider to Clarice. That combo of sweet with the bitter made for a delicious, scary villian. And he was behind bars! The real terror was Buffalo Bill skinning girls (and a moment of aforementioned rocks in the head back then Ted Levine wasn’t nominated for his freakish performance. No justice, I tell you), not that you cared with Lecter scheming behind the plexiglass barrier. The anti-Treaves method worked wonders.

Which is why we still talk about the movie—and the character—to this day. Now, with such a compelling character as Lecter we hated to see him go. Although Lambs didn’t (immediately) invite a sequel, although the ending left that open (and it eventually showed up in the form of Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, not to mention the TV series to a degree) doubtless Hollywood was champing at the bit to keep Lecter in the minds of moviegoers. Well, word on the street was that Hannibal failed to deliver, both the novel and the film (perhaps that trifle will be cast asunder at RIORI in the near future. Cross your fingers), and the nascent franchise seemed dead in the water.

Then Hollywood decided to employ a device I loathe: the prequel. It didn’t work with Star Wars, and if that ain’t a red flag I don’t know what is. Maybe that Rob Zombie Halloween remake. Some folks never learn. I believe that prequels are not just milking cash cow, but strangling the udders until they bleed. Can’t expand the story further? Retrofit! Fix what’s not broken! Muddy the waters! Freebird!

Deceive. I hate deception. Especially flagrant deception, in plain sight and a big middle finger to the moviegoing public. When a good movie comes out, and there is actual room for a sequel (eg: the original Star Wars or Godfather movies), it works once in a while. But for every The Road Warrior we get Ghostbusters 2.

That being said, and simply put, extending a movie’s story is a tricky, often faulty undertaking. Most of the time sequels are all about bigger, better, faster, more. Prequels try even harder. They are mercifully scant, but when they do pop up…well, law of diminishing returns. Think Attack Of The Clones, Prometheus and Monsters University. Superfluous, annoying and an obvious cash grab. If there really is another story to tell before the here and now, it helps if there is a legit story to draw from.

Might be a good thing that Lambs author Thomas Harris wrote Red Dragon first…


FBI profiler Will Graham (Norton) has a problem, and it’s behind bars. It’s also in his mind. Furthermore, it’s not an “it,” but a he. His last case.

Dr Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Hopkins).

Graham has the skill—or perhaps curse—of malign empathy towards killers. He can get inside their heads, imagine how they operate, understand their motives. But all that sifting takes a psychic toll. It’s taken Graham to the brink more than once. Even the most skilled of manhunters need help in sorting disgusting matters out. Which is why he sought out Lecter.

Once. And it nearly killed him.

You see, Graham was being aided by Lecter in cracking a case of serial killer terrorizing the Baltimore area. Him being the preeminent forensic psychologist in the country, of course his insight would be invaluable. It was. All too much. Graham uncovered Lecter was the killer, flaying his victims and devouring their organs. Graham’s oversight nearly cost him his life at Lecter’s hands, but not before sending him to the loony bin.

After that, retirement, but not before stints in a medical and mental hospital. Psychic toll.

Graham was over with it. Forget the FBI. Retreat to Florida with his wife Molly (Parker) and young son Josh. Fix boats to pay the bills. In sum, recuperate, and let the nutjobs alone.

Then his old boss Jack Crawford (Keitel) shows up with a pair of photographs. Two families, slain in a gruesome fashion. Jack needs Graham’s old magic back; this case is hard to crack. At first, Graham balks. He was done after Lecter. Jack insists. This new freak, dubbed “The Tooth Fairy” (Feinnes) is crafty, and Crawford needs Graham’s unique skill set. Will he lend a hand, if only as a consultant?

Graham has a family, too. But before he takes Jack up on his offer, he feels he needs some unique skills for his own use. This Tooth Fairy is cagey, and his pattern stinks of an old adversary. A very smart, clever and devious adversary. Someone who may be better than him at getting into crazies’ heads.

“Dr Lecter, there is someone here to so see you…”


I’d be remiss in my duties to point out, as far as prequels go, Red Dragon the novel was made into a film once before back in the 80s. A very good film, BTW. Michael Mann (of Miami Vice fame) directed  Manhunter back in 1986, five years before Demme’s Lambs. In Manhunter we were introduced to our best bud Lecter in the form of the brilliant Irish character actor Brian Cox. Cox’s Lecter was pissy, mocking and devoid of all charm that Hopkins had. He was great. After watching Red Dragon, I wondered that beyond Treaves, maybe Hopkins took some cues from Cox for a proper delivery before Clarice carefully descended into the basement and got jizz flung at her hair. Maybe.

Manhunter was a product of its time, and it showed. This is a good thing. It was a very 80s film, down to the fashions and synth-driven soundtrack. The cast was awesome, too. As Graham we had William L Peterson pre-CSI, the late, great character actor Dennis Farina as the dour Crawford, and looming large and creepy Tom Noonan as the Tooth Fairy (he later portrayed Frankenstein’s Monster if that tells you anything. Okay, it was in The Monster Squad, but come on).

Manhunter was an angular, engaging, hard to watch (in a good way) kinda film. I own it. I love it. Some folks claim that in some ways it’s superior to Lambs. Some say. Both are very different animals, though. It’s kinda of hard to believe that the character of Lecter (thanks to Hopkins) was nothing but charming and quietly menacing. Cox’s performance was a sarcastic, angry, trolling doosh, well met since he was pissed at Graham for capturing him.

This was not lost on Hopkins in Red Dragon. Must’ve seen Manhunter as research. Hopkins affects the same vitriol as Cox did. His Hannibal is f*cking pissed being behind bars, and spews his ire all over Norton’s Graham. He does it with the old Hopkins/Lecter charm, though, but here it’s soured. Where Hopkins was a smooth smoothie in Lambs, he’s crude and rude in Dragon, happily taunting his nemesis at every opportunity. Sure, Graham’s Tooth Fairy case piques Lecter’s intellect, but most it serves as the MacGuffin: revenge on his captor. Lecter taunts Graham, rather than goads Starling. Hannibal’s not scary here. Instead he’s funny, but not ha-ha. He mocks Will with his wit. He’s angry, and at every chance he snipes and snarks. And what better way to torment a scared person on the edge with a well-placed barb? Hell, I use that all the time. Sometimes even here.

Before we delve deeper into bedrock, let me me scatter some gravel. Remember what I said about Manhunter being a product of its time? Dragon has that, too. I’m not talking pop culture fingerprints, though. Director Ratner (whom I wish would’ve shown more verve after this film. X-Men 3? Blargh), with thanks to the scenarists cut a clean film that has tons of 80s touchstones without blaring them. Subtle old school touches are myriad in Dragon. The cars, the fashions, those blocky computers and VHS tapes aplenty. You almost forget that this film was cut in the early aughts. Of course it helps that at the outset, Lecter’s capture happened in 1980.

That’s another thing. Here’s where the prequel aspect actually comes into good use. In Lambs again, Hopkins’ Lecter was slender, almost gaunt. Spending years in captivity will do that to you (prison food sucks, and no liver or fava beans either). In Dragon, Lecter looks well-fed, so to speak, and still has dark hair. One would assume a cannibal deprived of his menu would slim down behind plastic. In Dragon, not long after his capture, one might assume that Lecter would be peeved being deprived of his “luxuries” and look a tad chubby. Of course, this in reality would be due to Hopkins hitting Old Country Buffet with his millions, but let’s not split hairs. Pass the gravy.

Norton as Graham on the other hand is a different case. In Manhunter, Petersen’s Graham was a cold, distant, haunted person. He maintained a flat affect throughout the film that made him haggard, scared and enervated, No surprise with the Lecter case he carried around in his head. The show was over, but not upstairs. Petersen’s Graham was disturbed. Norton’s Graham is cool. Where Petersen was on the edge of cracking up, Norton is collected (albeit barely). Norton has a rep for being difficult, and has a penchant for playing weird characters. Our baby-faced protag has donned the mask of neo-Nazi Derek from American History X, Dr Bruce “The Incredible Hulk” Banner and Fight Club‘s narrator. FBI profiler Will Graham ain’t too far a stretch, still he lacks the personality tics expected of a cop nearly killed by his arrest, only to have tea with him later. The saving grace here is whenever his Graham has to (reluctantly) interact with Lecter he looks visibly upset, if not scared, all set jaw and on the verge of cringing. His cool demeanor gets disrupted. It would’ve been better if the curled chin and glassy look were used more often over the course of the film.

Norton was no Petersen, but Dragon had a different flavor. Manhunter‘s Graham was emotional. Dragon‘s Graham was clinical. That’s it. Dragon is more a straightforward crime drama than Lambs was all drama and scary. Here we have fast-paced, where Lambs was careful and deliberate. Dragon wasn’t made to win Oscars. It was made to thrill.

Urgency is the watchword here. When Crawford shows up at Graham’s door he’s quick to inform him that they have a scant three weeks to find the Tooth Fairy before he kills again. The race is on, and it only lets up in fits and starts when we gotta give face time to our pair of serial killers. Everything in Dragon is bounce, bounce, bounce and the editing is fantastic. Usually a breakneck speed that Dragon sails at would derail most crime dramas. There is a lot of info dump here, but the delivery is so fluid you have little trouble following the narrative. In fact, Ratner’s skill at pacing is so good here that the hints and subtleties register moments later with an “Ah ha!” You figure out what’s happening in a flash and it gives you a sense of satisfaction. I’m on to you, Tooth Fairy! Chewy this, and I’m not apologizing for that one.

Something else worth pointing out. This is a DeLaurentiis production. For those out there that this fact fails to send a chilling chuckle down your spine, lemme tug on your coat a bit. That name has been synonymous with distributing low rent, chewing gum for the mind movies for half a century. Some of that studio’s output has been noteworthy for that. The good: Blue Velvet, Evil Dead 2 and (wait for it) Manhunter. The bad (and they are criminally bad): Maximum Overdrive, Earth Girls Are Easy and the Pumpkinhead franchise. All those disparate movies, however, have a signature thread running through the cinematic tapestry: cheesiness. For good and bad. Virtually every one of the DeLaurentiis films have a happy degree of movie gouda.

The rub? It works both ways. Dragon has some of that cheeze. There’s a campiness nipping at the heels in Dragon. As interesting as the acting is, its all one curd away from seagull-splaterring onto your shoes. Then again, it works here. There’s a sort B-movie aspect to Dragon, in a good way. Example? The supporting cast.

Example? Feinnes as the Tooth Fairy (AKA Francis Dolarhyde, one of the best character names this side of a Pynchon novel) is really enjoying his role here, which is really creepy. Sure, we all know serial killers are nuts and scary, but Feinnes really digs in here. His Dolarhyde is a slow burn, only to get bonkers all alone. Graham documented the handiwork while Dolarhyde was pumping iron and getting berated by his dead grammy. It’s the whole letting your imagination filling in the blanks. When Feinnes is on screen, we know he’s…off. The whole pie scene alone is quite chilling. His is almost a stereotype, but with the whole “Ah ha!” thing I mentioned earlier paired with the cheese Dolarhyde is not menacing as much as he is freaky. In the end, almost a thing of pity. And isn’t the best way to appreciate a character? Sympathy? Who’s with me?

There’s a few hiccups here, though. There always are. It’s understood by this point that Dragon plays on Manhunter‘s legacy with a lot of winks and nods. It’s almost as if the movie assumes you’ve seen the other version, inviting if not daring you to stab a finger at the screen. While Manhunter took a few liberties with the source novel, it was its own entity. It maintained the spirit of the story if not the letter. Dragon on the other hand follows Harris’ book almost note for note, scene for scene. If you read the book, it’ll be either very satisfying to see Ratner got it “right” or frustrating for the film being so literal in its execution. In fact, there are only two scenes I can recall in Dragon that weren’t pulled directly from the text: the first scene and last scene. How Graham nabbed Lecter and the ensuing psychological damage was touched upon in the novel, made flesh with the opening. The final scene is a sop/snicker for Lambs fans. The first works while the last is merely cute.

So much hero worship can send the movie experience into ultra-overdrive. For example, we learn that the Tooth Fairy’s motives lay in “seeing” things. And, boy, there sure are a lot of pictures and home videos in the victims’ houses. The clever subtlety is there, but as satisfying as it is to catch it, there’s not a lot of time to digest it all. Ratner’s roller coaster flow had a tendency to get a bit too fast paced. Like if you’re not familiar with Manhunter it’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. I admit I had to do a bit of explaining here and there when I sat down and watched Dragon with the wife and stepdaughter (don’t worry. She’s sixteen. Not the wife). That’s not fun (not the wife).

Sometimes it felt like Ratner let the actors take over the movie. The lunatics took over the asylum, almost literally. As much fun as it was to watch our cast dig in, the narrative occasionally felt muddled for it, often overtaken by a bit too much symbolism (somewhat more soft selling to Manhunter) and scenery chewing. The “lady dressed by the sun” paired later with Reba and the fire scene was a tad heavy-handed. Then again, “Ah ha!” Again. It could get a shade busy and tiresome. It all came to a head with the super tense ending, which was very good, but it also had the taste that this scene was what the movie was ultimately leading to, not necessarily the journey. Virtually all our cast were in the direct spotlight, recapping their reasons for being. Considering Ratner’s style, though it was a good way to go regardless.

So no, Dragon is not Lambs. It doesn’t try to be. Dragon may be more demented than Lambs, but such a film should be. The latter was approaching art. The former was meant to entertain, and that it did. Quite well, in fact. With a guy like Lecter, you need both sides of the plate to really dig in after all. Delightful and goofy supporting cast both. Cheese with the chianti. In further fact, Lambs might’ve started the whole modern serial killer drama template as we know it. Style over style over substance in the finest way. Without Lambs, we’d have no Se7en, no American Psycho, no Henry.

And no Red Dragon, either. Full circle, that.

“Dream much, Will?”


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a high octane thriller, more so paired against Lambs’ slow burn. Dragon‘s worth your while, so long as you pair the right wine with the proper cheeze. Visit your dentist while you’re at it.


Stray Observations…

  • I have that book. I also have no idea what human flesh tastes like. Probably like chicken.
  • “Where’s the dog?”
  • What’s with the mini-gallows?
  • “Would you give that up?”
  • The sniffing thing in both movies. Continuity?
  • “What was your trick?” “I let him kill me.”
  • Notice the sweat stains and tell me Graham’s not scared.
  • “I have no pity” I saw Schindler’s List. Gotcha.
  • Bless you, 666.
  • “You’re so sly, but so am I.” I mentioned this film caged a lot from Manhunter.
  • That billboard is a tad early.
  • “How ’bout an exclusive?” Hoffman is so slimy here he has algae stuck to his brow.
  • “I’ve been there myself.”

Next Installment…

“Heaven and Earth are heartless, treating creatures like Straw Dogs” – Su Zhe