RIORI Vol 3, Installment 83: Jason Reitman’s “Thank You For Smoking” (2005)

The Players…

Aaron Eckhard and Cameron Bright, with Maria Bello, David Koechner, Adam Brody, Sam Elliot, JK Simmons, Rob Lowe and Robert Duvall.

The Story…

In the competitive market of the tobacco industry, it’s good to have an “in” into the public mind to best promote cancer, heart disease, emphysema and a stinky wardrobe. That’s where guys like lobbyist Nick Naylor steps in.

He’s a shill for cigarettes and a single dad. He has scruples when it comes to rearing his bright son, but when Big Tobacco calls, he’s their sleazy, immoral mouthpiece.

So when the assignment of his career invites getting a very high profile for his efforts how can he convince his son his work is worthy?

Check that. Convince? Try con rather.

Smoke ’em if you got ’em?

The Rant…

Okay. Confession time. Again.

I am a smoker. Twenty years gone. I’m not proud of it but I won’t deny it either. Like the late, great Bill Hicks said, “I’ll smoke. I’ll get the cancer. I’ll die. Deal? Thank you, America.”

The fact that Hicks passed away from pancreatic cancer gives me pause. And some teensy bit of black hope. Denial is more than just a river in Africa.

My ugly habit emerged in my senior year of college. I was studying to become a secondary ed English teacher. Middle and high school students. It was a stress ball of the first degree, the curriculum, the course load. In addition to maintaining steady attendance of my regular classes, I had to shoehorn some time in the morning three hours a day, five days a week as student teacher at the nearest middle school. Those pre-pubers were a handful and a half. Never realized how short we all we back then. And mouthy. And at the dawn of the ‘rents blaming little Johnny and Janie for their sh*tty test scores on Teach being ineffectual whilst ignoring the thumb-worn PlayStation controllers and mouldering library cards. Ah, Millenials. Here’s the world you wrought on the public educational system.

To claim it was all a stress magnet is akin to suggesting that Gordon Ramsay may have a potty mouth. Us student teachers were shoved into an environment that not only took us away from other classes, but our very perception of reality. And let alone declaring said classes as the only classes that mattered at a university that virtually invented the liberal arts education, but also a responsibility of teaching our young charges by proxy. They may have been our kids (our “project”), but it was the host teacher’s class. Big diff, and a hand tying one at that. We as novices were supposed to have said hands on learning how to conduct a class. But the host teacher was stern, ever watching us to make sure we didn’t “undo” all that was learned prior to our intrusion. It was like perpetual internment in the principal’s office. Especially when us would-be educators proved the perfect foil to Teach when mom and dad came calling once again, Wii nunchuck wrapped around their necks.

Sleep deprived, coffee level low, profs scowling. A great many of us took to vices to counter the blows. Some began drinking more. Others turned to pot or even speed, which was hard to come by, but not impossible. Kept one alert, and since Red Bull hadn’t crossed the Atlantic yet it did the trick (not to mention sleep dep’ and teeth grinding). The rest of our lot of us took up smoking. Including me.

I eventually graduated, secondary English ed sheepskin in hand. I’ve since lost it, figuratively as well as literally. But the tobacco habit stuck. I won’t lie to you (this time), but my first forays into cigarettes were less that dignified. Sure, the puffing was mellowing, but the deeper intakes were wrenching. I puked quite a bit, but kept going back. Guess that’s how potent nicotine can be. I learned that drug stimulates your frontal lobes. Meaning it gives your brain a boost, thinking faster. Which is also why a drag clears your head for a bit, until it doesn’t. Then on to the next butt.

In itself, nicotine is harmful in a minor sense compared to way it’s delivered. Tobacco has all that tar that coats your lungs until they look like briquettes, f*cks up your pulmonary system into high blood pressure at best and choking the heart into cardiac arrest at worse. You might lose a lung. You might lose both. You might die.

Yet smokers keep sucking them devil cigarettes up, Grim Reaper be damned.

I know all this, yet I still haven’t quit, even though falling from grace a potential force for good molding minds around the beauty of Shakespeare, Stephen King and how to sight parental forgeries on crappy tests.

I instead entered the culinary world, where me and my misfit peers are poster boys for delinquency in the eyes of the American Lung Association. The booze and speed boosters are there, too. How do you want your steak cooked?

Why is this? I mean, beyond the head rush cigarettes lend? There is open science as to what cigarettes do, their damage and how pernicious their addiction can be. Yet a million miles of voice boxed words are ignored. Guess the research ain’t in yet, as Congress would lead you to believe.

Here’s a tale that may codify the typical tobacco addiction. I mentioned before that my first foray into smoking was less than Hollywood golden days glamourous. For some odd reason (perhaps it was the brand I got introduced to) my smoke of choice was the raspy Kamel Reds. Apart from Lucky Strikes, this was the late 20th Century take on inhaling steel wool soaked in lime juice for a week. I convinced myself they were yummy. After a late night at the cafe I worked at I put out half a pack of these devils and a few more on my way home. It was when the key hit the lock when the buzz rebelled. I darted to the toilet as if all the demons in hell were on my ass, awaiting my supple anus. I puked violently, the sputum reeking of lattes and smoke. I caught my breath, staggered out to the stoop and lit up.

That’s what it’s all about. Unsure on all fronts, but that post-barf cig sure cleared my brain. Of what I wasn’t sure. Here’s my point.

There is no point. Cigarettes are addictive and understandably no good for you, no matter what the lobbyists try to spin. They cause cancer and heart disease. It’s an open secret. So why does Big Tobacco insist on having lobbyists? Isn’t that in the government’s eyes (as well as popular opinion that reads things beyond what’s smeared on a smartphone) kinda suspect? Any cause embroiled in controversy deserves a spotlight, and Big Tobacco has been in the glare for decades. Precious little has happened beyond bigger warning labels. But people don’t really read anymore, right?

How does this happen, this commercial shadowplay? Money. Big money. Big lobbyist spin doctors backed by Big Tobacco backed by smoking assh*les like yours truly. We have met the enemy and they are us. Why does Big Tobacco, Big Pharma and the NRA never lay it down frankly what their agendum is? Bad for business, because we need that rush, keep the demons in our heads at bay and make sure non-Whites stay off their collective lawns.

This isn’t reactionary, populist, Alex Jones bile here. It’s (kinda) the truth. But the research isn’t in yet.

All this schadenfreude is suspect beyond the beyond. And it invites the question: what kind of doosh would promote this trash? Smoking is “cool?” That is so tired. It’s the trite throwaway reason tobacco-shilling rats claim what gets kids to smoke in the first place. On air, on screen. Doesn’t happen much these days. But wait! The endless Internet. YouTube. Vines. WordPress. There are always outlets to let the impressionable public that smoking looks is to be hip!

Nope. Smoking as cool is overrated, as well as wrong.

Millenials most likely never caught that scene in Now, Voyager where a suave Paul Henreid shares a smoke with femme fetale Bette Davis. Looked cool. Too bad most Millenials never saw Now, Voyager starring Paul who and Bette what. In black and white! Anathema. The scene was iconic, and very cool. But unless their Hulu stream is deep, viewers were smoking before the queue caught up.

Folks smoke to reduce stress. Looking cool caught smoking is so 20th Century. Passe. Stress, anxiety, headaches. The stuff of legend to the working class. Nothing cool there. Not to day traders, cops or willing educators. Stress is the total opposite of cool. Neither is the escape, be it cigarettes, beer or reds.

Put that in your pipe, lobbyists. And suck…

Nick Naylor (Eckhardt) is a dream. He’s a death merchant with a heart of gold. He’s a dedicated dad who’s got his son’s best interests in mind. He’s a committed business man committed to wreck and ruin. He’s hopelessly naive and keenly aware of the duties of his chosen profession. Of which is deplorable.

Nick is a lobbyist on the part of Big Tobacco. His job? Use his gift of gab to both decry and admit to the ups and downs of smoking in the same sentence. He’s very good at this spin, much to the chagrin of the people (barely) close to him. Like his son.

Nick’s job security is in flux. Turns out the Millenials are cleaning up their act. Smoking ain’t as “cool” as it used to be. Media, both open and social are decrying cigarettes and in turn folks are hanging up their Bics. Nick’s boss B.R. (Simmons) has made/concocted a scheme to secure their post. He sends Nick on his way to meet The Captain (Duvall), a venerated tobacco baron. The Captain has a ploy to make smoking “cool” again: get cigarettes in the back in the movies. Worked in his youth. So say Nick, how’s your generation coughing lately?

This would be Nick’s ultimate pitch, against all odds for his odious career to really take flight. Too bad tough-on-tobacco (the fantastically named) Senator Ortolan Finisirre (Macy) has his dander up. The opposite of Nick’s crusade, the senator views his crushing Big Tobacco would make his mark in the Senate.

And the race is on, all the way to the very Kool Hollywood…

There is comedy and there is black comedy. And there is tar black comedy.

Hang on. Before we go any further let me light up.

*cough, hack, spit*

Ever watch a black comedy whose premise is so wicked, so demented, so sensible you don’t know when to laugh? Thank You For Smoking is all that and more. Its send-up is so ridiculous, so absurd and so composed (not to mention dry) you have a hard time drawing the line between yuk-yuk and huh? Smoking makes you think so long go with it. Turn off, tune in, light up.

Smoking is the fine debut directorial effort of Jason Reitman. This movie is more or less his acid test. He went on to better things (Young Adult jumps immediately to mind, also covered here), but this his rough draft for future comedic triumphs. All the hallmarks are present. Very dry, wry humor. Offbeat without a Wes Anderson bent. His characters caught in moral trap of their own doing (and often undoing). It’s all naked here. Perhaps a tad too naked.

I make this claim based on after watching Smoking it creeped at corners that Reitman the younger had something to prove. He’s had some big shoes to fill with dad Ivan “Ghostbusters” Reitman and mom Genevieve “Casual Sex” Robert. Despite his stiff delivery with Smoking Jason honors no allegiance to the ‘rents. His idea of desperate comedy sniffs more of Jim Jarmusch than Jim Carrey. His muse is so dry it chafes. Smoking screams that. It also screams, “Wait, this is funny?”

And, surprise, Smoking was funny, but definitely not laugh out loud. Not even a snicker. The humor is passive. You can’t believe what you’re watching. We’re supposed to get behind a mealy-mouthed spin doctor who is a committed Dad who treats his child as a client to make him sympathize with the nature of his odious profession?

Uh, yeah.

You just gotta go with that. There are no overt one-liners to chuckle at. No sight gags (not really). Nothing broad. It’s all prickly and pointed. So much that you forget Smoking‘s supposed to be a comedy.   A black comedy. And we ain’t talking mid-80s Eddie Murphy fare.

Simply put, Smoking is not funny. Except when it wants to be. Hint at rather.

Ultimately, Smoking is a character study, right down to the voice-overs. That’s where to humor rears its cancer-ridden agendum. The banter amongst the caricatures. The desperate stereotypes. The flat affect of “just a job to do.” In the face of these very basic tropes, you gotta pay attention here. I mean, if you do laugh, it happens in the next scene.

So. It’s our rouges’ gallery mannerisms that carry the giggles. Character study, remember? Our antihero Nick. He’s our avatar through the dingy business of tobacco-pushing. He’s also the spearhead through this kooky cast of opportunistic, shallow government slimes to get a grip on all the ends that justify the means. All as cool and calm as winds across the Mojave.

That said, I think we found Eckhardt’s hacky acting niche. I’ve labeled the man reliably unreliable. Almost whatever score he blows based on coming across all plastic. For every exception (The Core, The Dark Knight) he drops the ball more than he catches (The Black Dahlia, Battle: Los Angeles). The guy’s talented, as well as narrow and compartmentalized. Flat affect, all the time. His agent must have a 20-20 lazy eye. Or Aspberger’s.

The flat presence works to his advantage in Smoking. Eckhardt’s Nick is a cypher. Add on what you may.  And that niche mentioned above? Being smarmy. He’s soaking in it. As well being in complete, convincing oblivion to it. It’s his job. He’s very good at. And it’s never about the smokes, not really. It’s about having purpose, regardless of the ends. Which are always quickly justified in the next choked breath.

The passive sense of humor here is Nick’s responses to his peers and superiors. Eckhardt is defiantly not funny. His Nick is anti-funny. It’s circle, quick with either a quip or a one-liner making smoking a worthwhile hobby—er, habit rather. While Nick sounds like Fox News, his supporting cast babbles like…well, Fox News about opportunism. Such opportunism paints Nick as the innocent here. There’s a Monty Python meets Woody Allen humor at work. Like I said about Reitman’s slow out of the gate start, the humor is dry but the premise is so preposterous. If Smoking as a whole wasn’t ridiculous (and being very good at that), the supporting cast would justify it as so based mostly on Nick’s passive responses to the weirdness he’s been dealt in the name of climbing the career ladder.

For the nonce, Nick is surrounded by a circus of oddballs directing his possible promotions, and he boinks off all of them and never really taking the baton. Simmons is his usual clipped, blustery self. Duvall chews scenery as the stereotypical Southern tobacco baron, mint juleps at the ready. Fellow spin doctors Bello and Koechner are the The Three Stooges in two, babbling about misery and corruption as business as usual while Nick quietly chews a steak. A cameo by Stanley Tucci as an anti-smoking terrorist. Sam Elliot as Sam Elliot. Nick’s whole mouthpiece is here’s another fine mess I’ve gotten myself into. The ping-pong ball delivery is where Smoking gets it’s irreverence. You don’t root for Nick. You’re not allowed to. But you’re allowed to boo and laugh at him, so hapless is his crusade backed by all these morons.

Overall, there is a veneer of some kind of satire happening. Big shocker. It’s razor thin between a PSA and a terminal facepalm. Here’s where Reitman may be pushing too hard. I say if there were any more symbolism here the script would’ve been transcribed via semaphore. Smoking‘s humor may be arid, satirical, absurd and trace but it’s supposed to be an outright comedy. Doesn’t fully reach that, what with being in the valley of the shadow. If Reitman was reaching for a black comedy subtly was absent. Based on that precept, Smoking is disagreeable but not unlikeable. That lack of subtlety was part of the gag, but was omnipresent and therefore got kinda tired. Fast.

So this installment’s been mixed. Since I know that Reitman was bound for greater things I give a pass to Smoking‘s pitfalls. I’m the sympathetic sort. I did get the joke, even without a single laugh. Big problem with the flick is that for all the manic, passive nonsense Smoking was busy, busy, busy. Too much happening all at once. Right. Pacing was rough. Like I said I got the joke…in the next scene.

This might be my most clinical take ever at RIORI. Might be because I’m a customer of folks like Nick and am trying to rationalize something. Maybe the film made me squirm with guilt of my nicotine habit. Maybe its chafing humor laid a giggle in my brain but my lungs were too weak to cough out an actual laugh. Whatever. Truth be told, Smoking was too loony, subdued and justifying the Ministry of Silly Walks to have me walk away with a feeling of contentment. Smoking made me feel both ugly and cynical at the same time. Credit Reitman’s yeoman’s work.

Light ’em up.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A sympathetic rent it. Consider this film a dry run for Reitman. Also the most pointed, absurdist PSA committed to film. Don’t smoke if you’re a burgeoning educator. And do smoke if you’re a burgeoning educator. A guy like Nick’ll get your back. Cough.

Stray Observations…

  • “Please don’t ruin my childhood.”
  • Aw crap. Katie Holmes. With Eckhart. All we need is Aniston for the ideal trifecta of gah.
  • “If you argue correctly you’re never wrong.” Not quite Hallmark territory. Even better.
  • The Birks might have been a bit too much.
  • “Get your ass on the next flight to Winston-Salem!”
  • I don’t think Nick’s kidding about his motive of “population control.”
  • “It’s an inside joke.”
  • Who isn’t slimy in this movie?
  • Angel wings on Joey’s back? We get it.
  • This movie felt like slow-burn (so to speak) Jerry Maguire in reverse.
  • “You wanna hug me here?”

Next Installment…

The Grey wolf is the second most specialized member of the genus Canis, after the Ethiopian wolf, as demonstrated by its morphological adaptations to hunting large prey, its more gregarious nature.

Like lost, injured and frostbitten humans.

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 82: Ron Howard’s “The Missing” (2003)

The Players…

Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Aaron Eckhart, Eric Schweig, Jenna Boyd, Evan Rachel Wood and Val Kilmer.

The Story…

Being a single parent—needless to say such—is a tough, often thankless job. At its worst, sometimes not even a rewarding one. This can be said especially when a family is splintered.

Maggie is a frontier doctor, a healer on the fringes aiding anyone who needs her help. Her rigid patience knows no illness. But when her estranged father Sam rides into her farm—a man very mixed up about who he is and why—her patience is tasked.

Maggie is not thrilled about his out of nowhere visit. Sam abandoned her long ago, and she’s tried to provide for her family as best as he didn’t. She tries to chase him away, but he came calling from exile for a very specfic purpose.

That purpose is made known when Maggie’s eldest daughter Lily goes…missing.

The Rant…

Here’s a milestone. Well over 100 movies scanned here at RIORI and never once did a western cross my path. I think that says something, either reflecting my tastes or The Standard bows to cowboys and Indians. I often don’t.

Westerns. Never been a big fan of the genre. Sure, I enjoy a good oater now and again. I fact, I have a few select movies. The list is short because when it comes to this particular genre, I’ve had to sift through a lot of trail dust to find a gold nugget. Namely, I don’t “get” most westerns.

It’s been said that the western movie is the genre that just won’t die. Funny phrase, considering how many of such films built the backbone of summer blockbuster season from the 70s until now. Think about it. Westerns were a hip thing post-war until the early 70s until a rogue shark took the bite out of them. Ha ha and shut up. If you want to get technical, the longest running program in the history of broadcast media was Gunsmoke. A radio drama in the 40s that evolved into a TV series in the 50s. The show ran until 1975. By the math Gunsmoke was the longest running series in the history of a serialized programs. That’s over a quarter century. Granted, Gunsmoke wasn’t a movie, but its long run illustrated the appeal of the western. Even The Simpsons has yet to catch up.

So why won’t the western die? I think it’s because the genre is very homespun. It’s based on truth and imagined truth that could’ve only happened in America. Sure, other cultures have their signature histories to draw from when it comes to filmmaking. The samurai film comes to mind. India has its Bollywood. There’s the “wire-fu” police action flicks in China. The myriad war movies from countries all over the globe (a prime example: Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot illustrating the exploits of a reluctant Third Reich submarine crew). All are made inherent to their own unique culture. The American western is no different. Consider this: John Wayne could not have been born in Belgium. Marion Morrison maybe, but not the Duke.

That being said, the reason the western won’t roll over and die from a rattlesnake bite is that it’s a uniquely American genre. Sure, there have been lots of western plots lifted from foreign films (eg The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful Of Dollars, etc), but the transplant is couched in a scenario that is distictly American. The gunslinger as knight, exchanging the blade at the hip for a pair of sturdy Colts in the holsters. It ain’t exactly swords n’ sorcery, but the idea hangs on myth, legend and truth. Historical escapism, if you will.

Maybe this displacement and ideation with the western is the notion of the lone hero, serving king and country. The almighty “law.” America never had knights, samurai or stormtroopers (not the Star Wars kind, you dip). Warriors who swore fealty to their masters, bound by a sense of honor to guide them. Now it’s understood that the western idealized the notion of the lone gunman, a solitary force for good against corruption trampling the common folk. If you’ve read your history (and sure as hell I didn’t), most fabled lawmen were less than savory characters. Heroes not. I mean, Bat Masterson got his name for pistol-whipping felons rather than shooting them outright (might be viewed as virtuous, but it sure had to hurt to twitching). The real Jesse James was a merciless crook, not some Robin Hood (prob’ because there was no real Robin Hood). Hell, even the virtuous Wyatt Earp began his career in law enforcement as a gambler. As far as cinematic entertainment goes, most of our Old West “heroes” were scoundrels and scofflaws before seeing the light. Such as it were.

Perhaps that’s the trick why the western movie won’t roll over and die. Paired with the faulty notion of honor against evil and being a (mostly) unique American concoction of history mixed with legend that holds its appeal. Probably not much different that the occasional period piece by Kurosawa. After all, a ronin works for money, not to honor the emperor. I don’t think supporting your local sheriff has much pull on presidential policy. But in the final analysis, we plop down our ducats for popcorn and trail dust. That’s that. Entertainment. Uniquely ‘Muricun. Pass the sarsaparilla and nachos.

And me? I feel the issue I take with westerns is most seem repetitive and carbon copy; the tropes are almost always front and center. Sure, cinephiles rave on about Clint’s spaghetti years, the Duke’s powerhouse, revisionist stuff like Stagecoach, The Searchers and True Grit (and to an extent, his first leading role Tall In The Saddle, the meta western). High Noon is a classic for its social commentary. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid for it’s irreverence. Unforgiven for being just plain bad ass. But people get in a twist over the classics. The Magnificent Seven, Rio Bravo, the aforementioned Leone “Dollars Trilogy.” These are all high watermarks, if not boilerplate. And aren’t they really few and far between?

Truth be told, in the heyday of westerns a saturation point reached a fever pitch in the mid-50s until the late 60s. Blame the godly presence of the Duke and the vicarious appeal of mean ol’ Clint. We remember the good stuff fondly and forget about trash like the recent Lone Ranger debacle. Memory sees with a blurred lens.

Why I ask? Why is there such a narrow window of successes in westerns? I mean, they do happen. Even a blind squirrel blah yadda yak. Because the good sh*t regarding westerns buck the trend. Face it. What I’ve learned from watching westerns with my father from childhood into adolescence, a great many of the movies retread over one another. The tropes are dyed in steel wool. Loner cowboy, seething villain, gunplay, plots involving kidnapping/treasure/the natives being restless, etc. I feel 90 percent of westerns are a revolving door, and the only reason the genre refuses to die is because it buoyed by the above gold standards. It’s kinda like reverence for Lipps Inc’s “Funkytown.” Great song, but what else? Flash in the pan and all that it delivers. Comparing that to westerns we’d all like to hear “867-5309/Jenny” over and over again than the repetitive catalog of Counting Crows. Talk about a long December.

Hey. Even I’m not totally immune to the lure of a good, unique hoof-in-mouth. I may be a cynic, but I’m a movie fan first. Second. Sorry, my cynicism overrides all. Surprise. Now sit still or else I peel off more duct tape. Struggling will only make it hurt more.

So. The westerns I’ve truly taken to heart? I mean barring the biggies already mentioned here’s the short list and why. Mine’s a very short list. Snap out of it, and please wipe the Cheetos residue from your chest. Thank you.

Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado. It’s the “greatest hits” package of westerns. Every trope, gadget and cliche litter this little gem. And I love it. The cast is awesome (Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover and a refeshingly emotive young Kevin Costner). There’s a lot of humor, sometimes winking. Lots of flashy gunplay. A despicable, heavy villain (Brian Dennehy). A rather tricky plot, too. You don’t really get the stakes until well into the second act. It’s a satisfying slice of western hodgepodge, even if you don’t dig westerns. Silverado is a post-modern western that wears it’s heart on it’s sleeve. I recommend it for a lazy Saturday afternoon. Red River it ain’t, but yee-ha all the same.

Peter Hyams’ Outland, a sci-fi take on High Noon. A lot of folks back in the day panned Outland as a rip-off, despite it’s timely tale of subjugated laborers with no union support as well as starring my main man Sean Connery. But it retains a certain charm, soft High Noon in outer space. Talk about frontier territory. I know, I know. The setting is a mining facility on the Jovian moon Io (mining and westerns go together like PB and J), so there’s an eye-roller. A funny one. We also have 007 as a disgruntled marshall. Marshall, not cop. Regional police force, transient. Drifter? Peter Boyle as the tyrannical general manager, always turning a blind eye to corruption (which feeds his wallet). And Connery’s O’Neill having something to prove, if not against the corrupt system then to himself. And his girl grizzled Doctor Friday in the form of Frances Sternhagen who’s tired of the sh*t afoot at Con-Am 27 who lends a hand. Sounds like a western to me. It’s best to watch this B-movie pastiche as not a SF movie but…, well, you know. Outland is revisionist, post-modern western. It has that going for it, which is nice.

Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. ‘Nuff said.

Notice none of those three movies were cut during the halcyon days of Hollywood’s Death Valley days. Silverado was released in 1985, and Outland in 1980 (the tail end of the SF boom thanks to Star Wars: A New Hope). Saddles dropped in ’74, a year effectively removed from the days when John Wayne and Clint chomping on a beadie were long gone. That’s how my mind works, even after seeing the “classics” of the genre. And I only caught High Noon for the first time on Amazon Fire last month. Good movie. Slow learner.

In the longview, seeing the classic westerns preps you for seeing the post-modern ones. They stink of a history there, be it Vaseline streaked across the the lens of memory (historic as well as cinematic). But it creaks the door open, invites curiosity. Help yourself. Westerns can be a melange of fun, revisionist history, recalling young America as lawless and on the fringes. Using too much dynamite paired against making the decision to name a lone wolf Two Socks. These touchstones are a patriotic reminder and appeal as to why the western genre just won’t die.

I’m not anti-western, but such movies and all their retreads better try real hard to reel me in. It’s too bad, but there’s a lot of dross to sift through regarding most westerns. Most folks don’t have the patience and simply look for the tin badge.

Loss leader. Based against the above criteria, it was kinda like…

Maggie (Blanchett) is a frontier doctor. A healer to the locals. From bloodletting to amputation to infected tooth extraction she does it all. Not that she’s comfortable with it, nor her small family either. She could do better. But it pays the bills, and she’s very good at her practice. Maggie feels her work is essential to keeping her fragile family together.

Mentioning fragile, one day Maggie’s estranged father Sam (Jones) wanders onto her farm with no fanfare. She’s displeased, this wastrel daring to ride into her life of career and quaint domesticity. A world away from the whirlwind of her youth that Sam invited.

An uneasy alliance is granted, with Maggie’s beau Brake (Eckhart) does the Christian thing and lets Sam crash in the barn. Under his watchful eye Sam lets Brake in on some science; he didn’t come here on some whim. The wind blew him here, to protect his lost family.

Brake hears Sam out, and figures he means well but is also full of crap. Brake feels his resolve is enough to protect his adopted family. But from what? Unsure.

Brake’s daughter Lily (Wood) can’t stop bemoaning her mixed family’s life arrest. If Maggie is such a gifted healer, why the hell are they all stuck in the middle of nowhere? The city beckons, with opportunity and away from all these diseased Indians. Lily soon has her fill and bolts. And disappears.


Sam sniffed at something, so he asks of his estranged daughter to join together and go find Lily. Because who took Lily is far worse than any infected teeth that need pulling…

I won’t lie to you (much), but I caught The Missing in its first theatrical run. It was 15 years ago, and memories get blurry. When I was sifting through potential RIORI subject matter via Box Office Mojo and The Numbers The Missing popped up. By its budget against its gross I was surprised how much of a mediocre tally the film received. It was a Ron Howard movie, after all. And Opie rarely lets an audience down.

I recalled digging The Missing. Then again I was hopelessly hooked on Valium and whiskey at the time, so my memory of the show might’ve been a bit hazy. I remembered Jones as a wannabe Apache. I didn’t remembered how I got home from the multiplex. Let’s just say I was glad my apartment didn’t have a pool in the backyard.

*takes the life jacket off*

Anyway, my fractured memory recalled The Missing being pretty good, despite what the Tomatometer claimed. And me not being a big fan of westerns, the fact the movie left a positive impression that rekindled my memory here. A woozy impression, to be sure, but also inviting enough curiosity to take a chance and watch it again. Standard be damned?

15 years can be a long time, especially without downers as a crutch. Let me address you wastrels burnt out on weed for the umpteenth time at the local midnight viewing of Rocky Horror, stuff can look at lot clearer when you wipe off your metaphorical eyes. So I bellied up, took a squeegee to my bleary, doubtful eyes and tackled The Missing for a second time. And this time I paid attention. So here’s what I saw.

It was a different kind of movie this time around. What I once saw as engaging turned out to drag. Being under-initiated with the so-called “nuances” of westerns, this time out and many moons later I found my attention wavering. To the point, it took four nights to watch The Missing, interrupted by the need to sleep. In my bed, instead of on the couch with the remote stuck to my hot little hand, Cheez-It crumbs littering the carpet. Well, okay. The crumbs were already there (my nonexistent Dustbuster broke).

As do the tropes that can stink up a decent, left-of-center western. Must sound like my sophomore, somewhat sober viewing of The Missing made for a fallen-scale, lousy viewing experience. Not at all and not really. Turned out my muddy memory was too off the mark. True, a lot of Missing was derivative, but I found it was all about the packaging. Yet again, like the blues: it’s not the notes, it’s how they’re played.

Missing does possess all the bored hallmarks of a typical western, the kind I bitched about. The movie’s a bit too straightforward at times, but its saving grace is that it retains its own signature. There is a lot of “displaying” here. We do have “show” but its often interrupted by too much “tell.” But when “show” comes into play, Missing can be exciting as well as harrowing. A lot of Missing is staging. Stages set for big deal ugliness (eg: Brake’s undoing, Lily’s captivity, Kilmer opening fire on Jones, etc), but it sometimes feels like it takes for-bloody-ever to get there. This is a tale of urgency overall; a teen girl REDACTED by a psycho Apache. She must be found at any cost. Provided that cost can be cashed via tracking shots. And Jones playing cowboy and Indian.

Stuff like that made Missing all gummy, slowed things down and placed the necessary urgency on pause. Watching Missing recalled the minor gripes I had with some of Howard’s other efforts; fun films that stretched, as if to allow breathing room to assure the audience that all will be well, stay in your seats. Putting aside the dark matter of Howard’s more grim features like Missing, there is always this “sunniness” that can’t be escaped. An optimism against ugly circumstances. That helped buoy the film, considering that Missing possessed the stinging crime of sluggish pacing. I often had a feeling of “get on with it” watching Missing, yet I could not but help feel a need to pay attention, no matter how much of a chore it was (pacing, remember?). That Howard optimism kept me watching, the seed planted in back that I knew things would work out, but how?

That was the hook that kept me engaged, over the boring, stereotypical western gimmicks that could either float or sink a genre film. Wait. That isn’t exactly accurate. Missing played out as a western, but at heart it was a mystery. Missed that the first time. And I liked how the mystery unfolded, better than the trite western movie gobbledygook. One had to shift their view to appreciate Missing. All the western schtick was eyewash, blurring the corners and denying the conscientious western fan…well, everything. I say again, Missing ain’t no oater. It’s a whodunnit, and for all the better.

I liked how the mystery unfolded. To be sure, the movie drags a lot, but only against western expectations. I heard once on NPR that it’s better to watch the first six Star Wars out of order so to appreciate the series better. Namely, don’t watch The Phantom Menace to Return Of The Jedi straight through. Mix the chapters up (can’t recall the order suggested. Sorry you geeks). Twitch out the already established expectations. Might let you see the Jedi vision quest in a different light. Watching The Missing is kinda like that. Once you understand all that staging is bleeding western movie and all the snores they create, drop the sandwich and get your Hercule Poirot on. Follow the clues as to why Lily was nabbed and follow the trail. Hey, Tommy Lee Jones is your wingman. Should be a cool trip.

And Jones was quite the trip. Weak and willing. Shiftless and transient. Hangdog a mile wide, almost as practice for No Country For Old Men. Whipped dog, shuffling back into his past. And that hair, either a really good wig or a dedication to the role. Whatever. We get the impression that Sam had a more fulfilling experience with his adopted Apache family that with his daughter. Little wonder why Maggie has such contempt for her absentee dad. And Jones appeared to have been doing okay. Maudlin, but okay.

Okay. So Jones is Jones. Fine. But here Cate is Cate, and very well played as such. Her Maggie is fragile without being weak. Uncertain without waffling. Driven yet quiet. Desperate in the best way to characterize Maggie. Not sweating bullets over the fate of Lily, but more like the Talking Heads’ rendition of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River” (how’s that for left field?). Battling against the unsure. The stakes are dire, and Maggie is barely holding her own, but she never breaks. Just bends, usually under the reluctant sway of estranged dad Sam. She’s a strong lead with a long shadow.

The only carp I have with Maggie’s character could be laid at the feet of the scenarists. Meaning how often does she need to hammer on Sam about him being a crappy father? It borders on whining, especially in the light that Sam is trying to reach out and amend (despite his dubious motives). At the outset we get it; Sam went off the reservation. And Maggie never got over it. It’s a significant plot point, to be sure, but her nagging does a lot to undo her independent strength at the lead. Maybe there was a motive there, but I just didn’t see one. Hers is again a minor carp, but it was like a splinter in my heel. I could walk, but not very fast. It f*cked up the pacing. Sorry.

Missing made me understand why Eckhardt is a better better supporting actor that a lead. Remember him as Harvey Dent/Two-Face in The Dark Knight? Exactly and there you go. Ignoring the glowing praise I gave him as the lead in The Core (that flick’s goofiness let his on screen awkwardness shine), every other film I’ve seen with the guy as leading man was clunky and off-putting (and a lot of his flicks have showed up here a RIORI a bit too often). He’s a lot better as a sideman. His Brake (telling name) for the first act reels the desperation in. A calm voice of reason. Things go off the tracks pretty fast with Missing. It’s good to have a person to put things in perspective, even if your valorous efforts results in you ending up as smoked REDACTED. In the endgame, Eckhardt’s character set the pace for the hunt for Lily, and a fire under Maggie’s ass. Preserve the family, at all costs. Brake showed the way into the plot. Eckhardt should be hired for more roles like this, even at the cost of reeking of bacon. Watch the thing.

Even though Howard’s films can get edgy, pointed but still remain fun, Missing doesn’t pan out that way. It’s bleak, downtrodden and outright brutal at times. I know I said that the majority of Richie’s films possess a shine of optimism, that all will work out well in the end. That plays out here, too, but it’s all hazy. We know Lily will get rescued, that much is certain. This is a Ron Howard film, after all. But everything is delivered in a gauzy fog. There’s this pall cast over the movie, definitely casting curtains of the hope. Missing is a meditation on rape culture. How females are subjected and subjugated as entertainment. Granted, Lily is dragged into a market of snatch for sale, but such a plot device (book or movie) is a prevalent and popular one, and not well wedged into Howard’s oeuvre. Namely, it gets icky.

Rape culture is a vicious, pernicious plot device applied in many non-R rated flicks regarding how the male/female dynamics may play out in relation to…well, relationships. Superbad is a fine example; score booze to score babes. The convo between Jake and Farmer Ted after the party went tits-up in Sixteen Candles. All of the original Porky’s. The threat of Lily getting sold off is a major plot point for Missing, if not the plot point. Hell, she’s the MacGuffin here, which sets the story in motion. Ugly. We’re set up to believe this is a family drama, and we get some rube photographer ready and willing to take a casual snap of Chidin’s harem. Giggle, giggle. This is indeed ugly, cleverly undoing Howard’s PG-13 history. I’m not sure that even Howard was aware of the hornet’s nest he kicked. It undid the shine, made Missing creepy and left fans uncertain. I liked that, but I wasn’t sure I liked it.

The Missing is Howard’s first uncertain picture. The optimism is there, but only on the fringes. The casting was secure, as was the straightforward story. The pacing was mostly okay (when Cate didn’t sermonize). Framing was impeccable.

So why did I feel unsatisfied?

Maybe this time out I was clean, able to see the chinks in the armor. Missing was still a solid movie, with its moments and its head-scratchers. It was awkward at times, like about what was trying to be said. Was it a family drama, a rescue mission, post-modern western, a meditation on rape culture? Not sure on any fronts. Guess that’s the movie’s major flaw. It didn’t know what it was supposed to be.

Neither did I. But I liked it. Still liked it.

Pass the roofies.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, but with blinders. There’s a lot going on here if you’re observant. And if you’re not, have another. At least Eckhardt doesn’t hang around long. Not as long as Jones’ hair.

Stray Observations…

  • “I’m afraid we have just enough food for a family.” The table is set.
  • Blanchett’s facial emoting is incredible. Never overwrought.
  • “You’ll live.”
  • The blanket scene. Something about it.
  • “I don’t know her name!”
  • The production quality isn’t as “grainy” here as with most post-modern westerns. Might be a result of modern camera work.
  • “Let him go. I don’t care.”
  • Jones growls too much. At times it gets hard to understand his lines.
  • “No.”
  • As always with a Howard film, great cinematography.
  • “They are enlisted men.”
  • Dot is a junior badass.
  • “I asked you if you wanted some sage on your fish.” Oddly, this moment seemed to capture the feel of the entire film.

Next Installment…

Aaron Eckhart (sigh) is a shill. Not that time this time. He’s going to the line for big tobacco, and bid all Thank You For Smoking. Cough.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 46: Jon Amiel’s “The Core” (2003)

The Core

The Players…

Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Stanley Tucci, Delroy Lindo and Bruce Greenwood, with DJ Qualls, Richard Jenkins, Tcheky Karyo and Alfre Woodard.

The Story…

The Earth’s inner core has stopped spinning, and scientist Josh Keyes with his fellow maverick seismologists must discover why before the planet literally falls apart. So by burrowing into the planet’s center in an elite vessel they might dig deep enough to get to (wait for it) the core of the crisis.

I warned you.

The Rant…

A funny thing happened on the way to the Blu-Ray player.

I initially meant to open this week’s salvo with a treatise on the ways and means of a proper disaster film. Then insomnia intervened and the 9-year old woke up multiple times to interrupt dad’s questionable movie watching practices.

It was late. Later than usual for me to hunker down in front of the screen with the disc, the notebook, the essential libations and my pen clutched in my hot little hand. Time for another evening of Press Your Luck via Netflix. It’s the stuff dreams are made of, or nightmares of a frustrated wifey who’d rather  canoodle that accept the vital nature of this blogger’s ongoing opus. Either way, I had beer and a lack of Pop-Tarts.


Midnight was nigh, and I was beat as well as falling behind with my chosen duties. Good thing I had the day off tomorrow; the flick was over two hours long! Could see the sun cracking the horizon by my timetable, including all the pretzels, bathroom breaks and cracking open more truth elixir. Let me tell you, with my nutty watching habits a 90 minute flick can stretch into three hours easily. I have to go outside to smoke, well into the next county it feels. And you can kill a guy anywhere. Go fig.

But twenty minutes into The Core I was interrupted in the worst way. We’re not talking power outages, scratches in the disc (which did happen once or twice truth be told. More on that sh*t later for those cinephiles who can’t afford streaming), or the neighbor kids jacked up on the Mountain Dew and wailing on their guitars for an impromptu garage band practice consisting of and only of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” remixed by Moby.

No. Worse. A nine-year old girl with insomnia. And dad one-third through the movie and halfway in the bag to boot. Not a Pop-Tart to be seen.

She was stressed out. Happens to kids of all ages. Mom started a new job and was gone most of the night. I clocked out late, too, but Grammy and Pop Pop were gracious enough to hold down the fort until I scooped her up. But Mom wasn’t around as she usually was. No one to chit chat with while Dad’s toiling away in the Seventh Level. Chicken nuggets for dinner again (and again). The general household dynamic torn asunder (and her stepsister kept away from yet another weekend visit by her dooshy daddy, but that’s another story). So yeah, kid’s stressed and therefore cannot seek slumber.

She’s vaguely aware of Dad’s clandestine movie habits and plopped down on the couch to both talk about her lousy sleep and wonder what the f*ck Daddy is watching. I explained to her the gist of the movie and asked (for the hell of it) if she’d join me. By that time the flick was on pause for an eternity, blaring a frozen shot of our heroes trying to extricate their high tech tunneling machine from within an enormous geode. For real. After I explained what a geode was I resumed the film. She watched for about ten minutes (The Core is PG-13 BTW, but I’m over 13 and figured it was okay for the kid to follow along. Don’t judge me) before abrupt protestations.

“It’s too loud! It’s too scary! I don’t know what’s going on!”

Through simple serendipity, a nine-year old girl with insomnia summed up the best mindset regarding a good disaster movie beyond any half-baked blather I could muster. Sure, she didn’t “get” the flick (PG-13 mind you. And shaddap) but her reaction purely illustrates how we should all watch a movie like The Core. In simpler terms, get bewildered and bamboozled. Then find more beer. It helps, believe me. Burp.

But in all seriousness, a good disaster flick should be loud, sometimes scary and make you unsure as to which way is up. A healthy dose of suspension of disbelief and a willingness to let your brain be scrambled into submission both help. Go along with it. Follow stupid down the rabbit hole. Allow some (partial) credence for Michael Bay’s oeuvre for a bit. Check your coat at the front desk. Eat the Oreo’s frosting first. Enjoy the bombast and the dumb, if only for two hours. Then you can get back to the Lars Von Trier binge watch. Don’t forget the Cheetos and the Dustbuster.

That being said, riddle me this. Did The Core takes nods from the pyrotechnics that came before? Was the same demented structure of chaos and creation take hold? Did Gene Hackman let go of that valve at the right time?

Perhaps. First, let’s dig a bit deeper…

Ill winds are blowing through Earth’s ionosphere. Solar winds.

Peculiar environmental phenomena have been popping up around the globe as of late. Auroras over Washington. Birds losing their ability to navigate. Earthquakes nowhere near tectonic activity. What’s worse Wi-Fi keeps crapping out everywhere. What the hell’s going on?

Dr John Keyes (Eckhart) has a theory. Being a seismologist, he’s pretty in touch with how the Earth eats, breathes and occasionally farts. By all the disparate chaos suddenly plaguing the planet, he has a theory. The outer core of the Earth, the part that controls its EMF, has stopped its rotation. That means in three months everything on Earth that is powered by electricity will halt. Within a year, the sun’s radiation will burn our world to a crisp. Ouch.

What to do to avoid this calamity? Well first, don’t panic. Second, convince the powers that be that this is an apocalyptic threat. Third, don’t panic, for surely there are a collective of science geeks out there who are sharp enough and nuts enough to correct the problem. Namely, and essentially jump-starting an entire planet. No sweat, right?

Keyes (with his maverick theories) gets indoctrinated into a military cabal—which is never a good sign—to initiate a mission to delve into Earth’s inner core to “reactivate” its rotation. Among Keyes’ rogue’s gallery, we have assembled quite the unique crew. We have Conrad Zinksy (Tucci), the preeminent seismologist on the planet to guide the insane mission to tunnel into the Earth (backed up with his supreme arrogance). His former, alienated genius Watson to his Holmes, Dr “Brazz” Brazelton (Lindo) has devised a means to travel into the Earth’s mantle—a nigh indestructible machine—and hopefully intervene with the globe’s eminent failure. And lastly, but not most leastly former space shuttle pilot Major Rebecca “Beck” Childs (Swank) to guide Brazz’ experiment home.

So we got the know-how, we got the tech and we got the mission. Get Earth’s core a-swirling again. But it’s never that easy, is it? ‘Course not. We gotta toss in some MIC intrigue and a giggling robot for the kiddies.

Wait. No giggling robot? Well is is a PG-13 flick after all. Movie sign!…

What I was rambling about earlier with my reluctant, sleepless sidekick holds true regarding disaster films. Too loud. To perilous. Confusion is scads. Believe it or not these are good things to have with such films. Suspension of belief is paramount.

If you were young enough to remember them (and sure as sh*t I wasn’t), TV mogul Irwin Allen of Lost In Space fame got a wild hair up his ass and got into the motion picture action. His notable contributions were The Poseidon AdventureThe Towering Inferno and to a lesser extent The Swarm (hell, at least that muckity-muck got Henry Fonda some work). All were a melange of let’s throw sh*t at a wall and see what sticks, hopefully running down to the floor in a gooey mess. A mess the audiences would love to slop around in.

To wit, Allen’s cinema schlockfests were dappled with a cast of thousands (often with name stars like Gene Hackman, the aforementioned Henry Fonda and even Paul Newman for pity’s sake), all put in perilous positions of penultimate tragedy with a lot of splash and dash in between to culminate in a satisfying ending. Lotsa pyrotechnics and histrionics in there for good measure, too. Plus a lot of cheesy dialogue to boot. Y’know, to lighten the load. Hoorahs all around.

All Allen’s potboilers are fun so long as you don’t think too much about you willingly subjected yourself to. That’s the key, and director Amiel tapped into this philosophy very keenly with The Core. Keep it fun, keep it fast, keep it dumb. In that order. Works well, which is why the peanut butter and jelly sandwich has endured for almost a century. Please trim off the crust. We don’t require anything that resembles substance here. It’s barely an afterthought.

Okay now. Where to begin? Allen’s cheesewheels always starred a mishmash of prominent actors (of their time) pitted against/collaborating with lesser knowns. Again, Amiel took notes. We have the notoriously reliable unreliable Aaron Eckhart as our reluctant hero. I have no love lost on Eckhart. Virtually every film he’s been in he seems out of place. Worse, like bewildered he’s even in a movie to begin with. How the hell did I end up here? Well, in Core, that flappable nature finally comes to good use. What I mean is that you ever catch Battle: Los Angeles? Right. I ain’t supposed to be here. Based on that, Core presents us with Eckhart’s best, most accessible acting until The Dark Knight got released. His skittish, nerdy scientist might be the go to for geek freak as soon as Jeff Goldblum retires. Eckhart here never overplays his hand. Read: he doesn’t ham it up, despite the fact that there are plenty of chances to chew the drywall. His Dr Keyes is the only solid voice of reason—therefore the pinion—which the movie turns. It’s almost as if Eckhart is aware that Core is an Allen rip-off, so he plays the part right. He’s our Dr John Robinson, minus a spine. Underdogs always play well at the ticket taker, don’cha know. Worked for me. I found his acting fun.

And fun is the watchword towards our remaining cast members. Be mindful that The Core‘s plot is ludicrous, so the actors better shape up to carry this farce to the bitter end with elan or at least  marginal competence. Overall, they’re likable. No, I mean it. For the film’s contexts the cast and crew of the Virgil are all enjoyable (even Tucci’s snot. I enjoyed his smarm). The key to this is stereotyping. I know, I was just as surprised as you are. If The Core is a nod to Allen disaster flicks, then there better be a disparate mishmash of oddballs and heroes at the ready, all of which possess that certain something that makes it all click. What is this magic ingredient?

Simple. Stereotyping.

Why do we stereotype? Because it’s easier and it’s quicker. With the rapid fire pace The Core delivers, really deep character study is superfluous. Just go along with the reluctant hero-moustache twirling rapscallion-maverick scientist-plotting MIC types. And a girl. Gotta have a girl. Helps if she’s pretty, and carrying around an Oscar adds a bit of street cred, too. The Core‘s casting is straight out of a John Hughes reunion, chockablock with all the dopey sci-fi stereotypes you can shake a stick at. And all of them reassuringly cheesy with faceplam-worthy dialogue to boot. Makes the mission go down a bit easier overall. So to speak.

Still with all the B-movie histrionics, wonky characters and implausible…everything, The Core is lacking in a few basic, first grade elements that could’ve elevated it to Irwin Allen fractured glory. I’m always talking about pacing here at RIORI. How it’s absolutely essential to drive the plot. Now The Core does have decent pacing, but there is some noticeable sputtering throughout the thing. To wit, is there such a thing as reserved urgency? If so, then this movie has it. Right, right, we know the Earth is doomed. The thinktank is working on a rescue plan. Things seem very dire. Then why are all these folks so damned rational about it? I know our crew is composed of steely military types and MIT misfits known to be more mindful that emotional. But this is a movie, too. If this were the ideal disaster flick, there’d be sufficient freak-outs countered by urgent emotional face-slapping to quell the rantings (“Forget him! He’s gone!” “No he’s not!” – Hicks and Vasquez from Aliens, BTW). Nope. Some shouting, but that’s about it.

An aside: despite the dynamite casting, we have a glaring issue. I don’t care about her Oscars. Hilary Swank seems really out of place here. Even if she got her start as The Next Karate Kid, action apparently isn’t her strong suit. Most of the film Beck seems wobbly, detached and wooden. The look on her face most of the time says, “Stupid agent.” Even Alfre Woodard—one of my fave actresses—who is on par with Swank’s dramatic chops snarls a lot better that Hilary does. Other than Swank, as I’ve pounded on, the rest of the cast was great.

One more thing for the bitch board: Amiel may have been trying to honor Allen’s disaster flicks with The Core, but overall his work came across as “Poor Man’s Emmerich.” Noodle that one. Sure, the action plays out smooth, but the direction was also kinda tame. It was as if Amiel was playing it safe, holding back. I know that sounds hard to believe after my glowing shiny shiny, but there’s this feeling of drawing the whole thing out (at 2 plus hours running time, this isn’t such a stretch. So to speak). A little too much roominess for all the ensuing pyrotechnics. It can make for a sort of uneven viewing experience, a la that “reserved urgency.” Emmerich throws everything and the kitchen sink out the freakin’ window with his bread and circuses. Amiel should’ve cranked up the nutty a bit more is all. Just sayin’.

Despite the dumb and corn (or perhaps because of it), I dug The Core. So to speak. I’ll stop that now. It’s a complete waste of time. The acting is silly. The story is demented. The F/X were awesome. Just toss the remote over your shoulder—after you’ve grabbed a cold six first—watch and let your cranium fill with Oreo filling. Some action movies are dramatic. Some are violent. And some are just unapologetically stupid. That being said, Irwin Allen would’ve approved of The Core.

Now if it only had a Leslie Nielsen cameo. Box office gold.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Its flaws make it great. Like with Pacific Rim, don’t think too hard about it. Just go with it. Better get two sixers for optimal viewing pleasure. Play it safe.

Stray Observations…

  • “There’s nothing on the other side of the equal sign.” I suck at math, too.
  • “Unobtainium?” Isn’t that the crap the bad guys were mining for in Avatar? Cameron, first the Harlan Ellison swipe and now this?
  • “God, I hate this sky.” F*cking smog I tell ya.
  • This must be the first disaster movie ever that has a simulator of an imaginary machine. Told you Amiel was kind of playing it safe.
  • “All right. I’m hitting him again.”
  • Wouldn’t Journey To The Center Of The Earth be a better title? Ah, right. Been done and has too many words for modern Pokemon Go audiences.
  • “After that it gets bad.”

Next Installment…

“Better leave her behind with The Kids Are All Right.”

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 11: Brian de Palma’s “The Black Dahlia” (2006)

Black Dahlia

The Players…

Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank and Mia Kirschner.

The Story…

A pair of LA detectives go undercover to solve the mystery of a murder of an unknown Hollywood starlet. No big deal, really. Just another kid from outta town who lapped at the wrong end of movie star promise, right? Well as the small investigation deepens, the answer becomes decidedly no. A very heavy no. Looks like the late chanteuse has some very serious connections in ol’ Tinsel Town. She operated pretty fast for a nobody.

Was she a nobody?

The Rant…

To be read in the style of James L. Cain (ahem):

LA is a spectator city. The kind of sprawl that either invites or repels lowly nobodies full of dreams and slim billfolds, seeking fame or fortune out here in the hidden desert. It’s the place where both dreams and delusions hold sway like girls hold hands between playground swings. This is the place where dreams are built regardless of grip. Hollywood. It screams attention. It’s the hub of a million failed fantasies, and barely a keyhole view into the very few fortunate souls who managed to “make it” by sweat, grit or luck. The very few can intoxicate any hopeful Sally from the Midwest, the usual token swept up in the dime matinee back home. That’s the place where the germ of the seed of the idea of getting out of the two-pit clodhopper drag gets born. There is golden gleam in the eye of the lens and the eye of the hopeful in that willful daughter. The glint of opportunity. Of riches and status and flashbulbs galore. It all just has to take a chance encounter with one of thousands of scouts to pick you out of a crowd, brand you as “the one” and get you a quick, direct and ultimate seamy deal with a nobody that posesses the other kind of lens and then you’re to the quick. The first bite of the spectator city. Here is where dreams are made real, encouraged by dire need and a hopeful grasp at the hem of the Warners’ coat. Leo the Lion roaring in your mind. RKO spitting static across the planet. Republic and its goddam eagle. And a tugging at your hip that brings it home in a hurry. It’s still all a dream, but a salty, sweaty dream. In LA, where all things are possible depending on which side of the lens you are. You find yourself woozy, under the spell of the potential limelight, that dream so close to your grasp you miss the reality. The fact that you’re fresh meat. That you have no pedigree. That you’re fresh of the bus, reeking of turnips. That you’re an easy mark. That the dream is just a delusion. It’s the thing that kept you off the spike. To endure the endless belt across your back. To someday spit in the eye of your old man who couldn’t f*ck you but damn well made sure you knew what his shoe across your backside felt like. In Hollywood, yes, there is the oasis. Anything to get out of Kansas alive. It may not work out. It may be an encounter with fate. Hell, you might get lucky and Selznick might frequent that fruit stand you hit up for second apples. Maybe you’ll just be practical and hold onto the four dollar flat with the lumpy bed and keep the offhand rain off your broke ass. But LA is a spectator city. It’s just champing at the bit to See. You. Fail.

Back to the 21st Century.

The above was written under the terrible influence of duress, nicotine, whiskey and bile for the slice of life that was de Palma’s The Black Dahlia. My sh*t was homage, not unlike what the “Demon Dog of Crime Fiction,” James Ellroy does to pay the bills. To be honest, I’ve never read a single Ellroy novel in my life. All I know about the guy is his pedigree. That and his big screen adaptation of LA Confidential more or less launched the American careers of Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe (for good or for ill). He’s like the E L Doctorow of LA crime fiction (Doctorow is the only analog I can think of…since I’ve read his sh*t). It’s kind of hard to gage a writer on reputation alone, but from what I gleaned from The Black Dahlia adaptation, it’s a f*ckton of difficulty to raise the spirit of a book to the celluloid reality of a movie. It’s like a crane extricating a garbage scow from Boston harbor. At low tide. Dead fish f*cking everywhere.

Here’s the deal. I’ve already skewered films here at RIORI that were based on pre-existing media. You get expectations. For this entry, I’m engaging in an act of bad faith. Have never read an Ellroy novel, but do know of his credentials. Know his esteem. Understood that if you f*ck with his material, you’re gonna get drivel. I had no expectations, no understanding…and yet I got drivel from a director whose resume reads like a Sunday drive down the coast of Calais on June 6 circa 1944. In short, I know de Palma has a very short list of good films that keep his resume aloft while in the meantime he directs chunks of ABC gum.

The Black Dahlia was an exceptionally chewy wad…

It’s Los Angeles, 1945. The war is over, and LA has evolved into a powerhouse of business and industry. Apart from oil, the biggest business is showbiz. Hollywood over all. It’s the lure of glitz and glam that enthrall the most game of would-be it-girls. All that money, all that fame, is all a perfect stew for an underworld of sex and scandal. That and the occasional dead body of an unknown, defeated actress discovered in a forgotten part of the city.

Elizabeth Short (Kirschner) was just one of a thousand Hollywood hopefuls that hopped a bus from the Midwest to break into the movies with stars in her eyes, youthful naïveté, and a half-baked idea of seeking fame without talent. She came to the big city, did some screen tests, had reality smack her upside the head and got work in stag films. Some budding acting career. Oh, and then she was found eviscerated in a field somewhere.

It’s just another murder mystery in LA, but still, the grisly nature of the crime…it’s unlike anything the LAPD has ever seen before. Time to get the Force’s best and brightest on the case. Or we hope they’re the best and brightest. This case is going to be one for the angels.

Detectives Dwight “Bucky” Bleichart (Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Eckhardt) are old chums that go back a ways, from their salad days as boxers up until their turn as cops. They have a palpable rivalry, and have an unconventional method to their madness. This isn’t your average murder case, after all, and as Blanchard’s marriage to Kay (Johansson) begins to suffer due to his obsession with the sensational crime Bucky discovers a troubling link between the victim and the mysterious Madeleine Linscott (Swank), a prominent socialite and the daughter of one of the town’s most connected key players…

I’ve kept the synopsis straightforward, with a minimum of my usual purple prose. I don’t want to talk about the actual movie much. It made me mad. The Black Dahlia is the most unintelligible, inscrutable wandering crime drama I have ever seen (for this blog anyway). I had to watch it twice just to make sure it wasn’t me but the movie that was so confounded. I had no idea where this film was going, the narrative was so sloppy. And what really pissed me off is for a two-plus hour murder mystery movie, the Maguffin was touched upon for maybe 15 minutes. It was a soap opera bookended by a grotesque murder that neither lead seemed very invested in. Not so much a murder mystery than a character study, with characters I invested very little in.

In short, I didn’t like The Black Dahlia.

First off, the film employs a rather dubious device: narration. It’s got the Blade Runner principle going for it, flat and mostly a distraction. Hartnett’s delivery is in such a low voice it sounds more like an incoherent croak. I pointed out in my ripped seam for Cadillac Records, narration can be a rather tricky thing to use to enhance and/or embrace a story. The narration here was less of an embrace and more of a ball gag.

Hartnett himself seems out of his element here, awkward. He’s got the looks of an aged-out Disney Channel sitcom star. What’s more is here’s one of the few character types in Hollywood that is a stereotype but endlessly fun to watch: the tough gumshoe. Hartnett could’ve chewed it up a little better by adding a little ham.

Speaking of ham, we have the seasonally unreliable Aaron Eckhardt as Hartnett’s foil. If Hartnett underacts, then Eckhardt goes over the barrel with goofiness. The boxing scene alone was an embarrassment. Here we have him chewing scenery and vacillating between clown, cop and supposedly devoted romantic. Neither he nor Hartnett were very convincing, let alone comfortable in their roles.

Johansson is one of two (two!) femme fatales in the movie, and boy is she awkward. It’s as if she’s trying to acclimate to her new found “It girl” status. A simple, semi-sleepy indie film like Lost in Translation may work for an underspoken role like that one demanded. To flip the coin and be sassy as well as demure here didn’t show her having much range, just a cute face.

A surprise however was that Kirschner had the best scenes in the movie, albeit the shortest (and in flashback no less). She acts very well because the role itself demands actual acting. The hungry young starlet is a classic movie staple that can veer close to cliche, but Kirshner puts it out as the first naive nymphet whoever tries these stunts and trappings that come with the archetype and might fail. There is a sense of urgency. A keen eye should be on baited breath to taste what happens next. After all, she is the Black Dahlia. The movie’s reason for being. Too bad it forgot that.

I don’t want to get into Hilary Swank at all.

The Black Dahlia is a half-baked attempt at noir (not unlike my overwrought intro to this week’s installment). There’s an attempt to create a period piece here, but it’s too angular. There are all the trappings of lousy noir here, despite the cool camera trickery and good cinematography (the only things I’m certain that I liked about the movie), namely trying too hard to be hard-boiled and atmospheric. There’s no atmosphere here. No subtlety. Like with the opening scenes of a street riot with none of the authorities doing anything to quell the mob, the film beats you about the head with questions like “What the hell is going on?” or “What is trying to be said?” Such questions I was keenly aware of every time a scene was cut to frame the softer, “human” sides of the characters. This is supposedly meant to build up a backstory, but all it did was confuse me further.

A lifetime ago I reviewed another true crime murder mystery, Zodiac. That film also examined the civilian lives of the protagonists minus the “period melodrama” as I call it. It kept the tension hotter than the deliberate melodrama in The Black Dahlia.

So I had a very hard time following the narrative. I had very little emotional investment in the characters. I had expected to see a murder mystery movie. Instead I got flash, a poor script, lousy acting and—you guessed it—bad pacing. Tsk tsk tsk. This was a very wobbly, under confident, soulless movie that was relentless in its wandering storyline and unreliable in not only keeping my attention, but also an ability from keeping my gorge buoyant.

The only thing that was reliable in the film was de Palma’s flair for violence. Lucky you.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Do I have to say it? Please, relent it. I’ll believe that James Ellroy deserves better.

Stray Observations…

  • “She won’t mind.” The most efficiently clinical post-war medical examiner ever.
  • kd lang. A little on the nose, yes. But she sings well, so I’ll give it a pass.
  • “Old beef. Pot roast tonight?” Quite clever. I credit Ellroy.
  • Kevin Dunn is a very underrated and reliable character actor. He only may have spent maybe 5 minutes on screen but was efficient and smart. Worthy of the ticket.
  • “Hollywood’ll f*ck you if no one else will.” Again, Ellroy I hope.
  • I love how back in the old days the movie marquees would announce who the stars of the film were. Unlike today as it is an unwritten rule to declare unapologetically the reasons you went to see the film. It’s (hopefully) the acting, of course!
  • What is it that makes two women making out such a turn-on? Never worked for me. It’s just two more women who have no need for me. No double kisses for the critic.
  • My wife caught maybe seven minutes of the movie and called it out as dumb. I was stupid and watched all two hours, twice. My wife’s a smart guy.
  • “There are so many pretty things here…”

Next Installment…

Yours truly, From Hell, Jack the Ripper…