RIORI Presents Installment #181: Judd Apatow’s “This Is 40” (2012)



The Players…

Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd, Maude Apatow and Iris Apatow, with John Lithgow, Albert Brooks, Megan Fox, Charlyne Yi, Jason Segel, Chris O’Dowd, Lena Dunham, Melissa McCarthy and Graham Parker.


The Basics…

Middle age creeps into the lives of Pete and Debbie and certain things aren’t so certain anymore. Then again, on the brighter side, some things always are.

The tough stuff? Financial woes, naturally. Parenting headaches. Extended family members always politely but disdainfully asking, “What are you going to do with your life?” Such things can be a melange of hard questions with no easy answers as the reality of your life being half over gradually sinks in. Uncertainty pervades every aspect of your life.

So what’s the good news? The certainty that no matter how nuts and how fast your life is winding down your family and friends will do the best to get your back. Even if you’re both grown-ups and you don’t want them to.

Best embrace that. Won’t come around again.


The Intro…

I’ve done this before, section off the rant. This time out there are stipulations. This iteration should be read as an essay, like for a college course (or an early Kevin Smith film). Gauged and patiently that.

Never fear, however. None of this will be on the final exam.


The Rant, pt. I: Denial and Rationalization…

When I turned 40 I could’ve cared less. Sure, it’s considered a milestone, however as you get older those ages capped with a zero start taking on a less-than-pleasant connotation than your first 30 years. Meaning no one 29 and under trusts you anymore. You’ve seen the tee shirt.

A lifetime ago I covered The Wolverine and went on this fantastic tangent about how the West and the East regard youth. It was an X-Men movie; I was in rare form. To recap, most countries in Asia venerate seniors for their experience, knowledge and all of Grandma’s secret recipes. In the West we praise youth, meaning potential, wide horizons and well-skilled with the ideal time to nuke a Hot Pocket to drippy perfection. Consider the matter of a very young, hotshot lawyer becoming a partner before 30, such skills they have. Success then knowledge! You follow. And it sounds good—and often is—but my bet is on the friendly, tenured philosophy professor whose knows all his students by name and walks 30 minutes to class each day, Red Bull in hand, for reliability.

Yeah, I respect my elders. Even though I ain’t eld. Yet. Put down your Blue Books.

So yeah, when I turned 40 it was just another day. Most people chalk that birthday up to identity crisis. Me? I fixed my old video game consoles from the 8-, 16- and 32-bit years and told my then wife I needed to dress better. So between engaging in another round of Ocarina Of Time and purchasing a few smart sweaters life went on as usual. But it was the year that the fateful age began yelling at me nonetheless.

I had a crap day at work (had quite a few of those back then). Someone leaked that it was my birthday. I gave up counting when 30 rolled around and the Millennials dubbed Interpol as “classic rock.” Kept feeling razzed. Already had enough frustrations in my life—financial, marital, parental, still unable to catch all those stupid Poes—that being treated like a kid almost not a kid. Whatever my fellow deviants’ brand of salt felt ideal to rub into my wounds wasn’t something I needed. That and my back was bothering me.

I was at the barest end of my thirties. I felt that all my efforts to get my sh*t together were in vain. Was drummed out of my first chef’s position. Had kicked the pills but beer always reared its frothy head. Three degrees on my resume but still pulling slave wages for 60-plus hours a week (if it weren’t for overtime I couldn’t pay for jack since the wifey refused to get a job). Stuck at home with my parents with my family in tow after being evicted years back. No social life. No social time (save churning out these screeds, and just barely). A bum knee. Dandruff. An acquired hatred of shrimp cocktail. The list could’ve gone on. I was not a happy camper. I figured while most Gen X thrity-somethings were climbing the corporate ladder, I kept going below decks to scrape out the grease trap.

The following is exaggerated. Makes for a better story. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend:

My fortieth year was the year when my body began to rebel. A decade plus working in kitchens will take its toll as folks who have gone over Kitchen Confidential with a highlighter know. It’s not being on your feet all day—it’s not just that—but it is a piece of the puzzle as the hours upon weeks upon years roll on. All that bending and stretching. Knife cuts and burns. You’re hearing gets low level tinnitus from the constant drone of the hoods. You’re expected to work sick, even if you have a doctor’s note (never happened). However it wasn’t my age that did me in, per se. Just warned me about possible wreck and ruin.

I’ll cut to the chase: had a few falls in my career—physical ones as well as otherwise—which screwed up my lower back. Took to wearing a brace from time to time, but only as a Band-Aid. The joint where I was working come that fateful shift was a wellspring of tumbles for me. Crappy shoes, wet floor, pow, ow. Slipped on the ice off the loading dock. Lost my footing in the stairwell. I’m not a clumsy person, not really, but those imps of the perverse were out to get me. Even after I invested in some better footwear.

The pièce de résistance came when I literally fell out of the kitchen. Like outside. Onto the sidewalk. Mats weren’t laid down flat. Trip and oopsie. Did and somersault and landed on all fours with a mighty pop! I suddenly had no spine. I could not move. All was numb. The wind knocked out of me. I was afraid to move. My coworkers wanted to give me a hand up but I waved them off. I was still assessing the damage.

When I was sure nothing was broken I laid down on the ground. The pain was there, this dull, throbbing, really pissed off pain. The kind that mocks you. I laid there until one of my supers came by. He had back trouble also and sympathized, carefully helped me up. I was scared. With that terrific header I had no idea what had caused what and was afraid to move…period. He helped me fill out the incident report, let me go home, gave me a Vicodin and took me to my car. He asked if I was okay to drive. I was and called him once I got home. There I called the doctor, made an appointment and laid down on my bedroom for a while, letting the pill do its thing. Didn’t really help.

I confessed to the skylight—Roger Murtaugh-style—uttering out loud, “I’m getting too old for this sh*t…”

Quit laughing. It’s no big shocker as you get older you don’t recover from anything fast, and the older you get you may not recover period. I don’t mean the Grim Reaper knocking at your bathroom door, not yet anyway. Just things ain’t gonna be the same anymore. In your 20s you could survive on 3 hours of sleep, Natty Ice, Red Bull and a Snickers bar a week. When you hit 40 you hopefully have learned Red Bull is made from bile, Natty Ice is paint stripper and Snickers bars are made from lies and deception. Better belly up to the trough with strong coffee (for its wake-up call after its wake-up call), Grape-Nuts and Icy Hot applied when needed. Ha ha. You’ll get there you whelps, saving up for your PS5s and perpetual adolescence upkeep. I’m jealous really.

My debilitating fall had much to do with my age. Plain bad luck was closer to the truth. It was more akin to someone who had recently suffered a concussion should not be allowed to take a nap. The grind was all over me, paired with the never-ending stress of being broke and being broke. But really, I think it took that incident to get me to do some real self-assessment. I was talking to a window, let’s start there. An angry back isn’t anything fresh sweaters could remedy. My 20s were long gone; those college days as a punker/raver desperate writer were out to pasture. My 30s were just yesterday when I was doing restaurant work, had a radio show on the side and started this dimwit blog. Then here I was—am—with a bum back, still a bum knee, divorced from both my wife and my job and left wondering “What happened?” All that and me fumbling through Riven again on the PS2 like I did 20 years ago on my PC, which is now scrap.

Kinda like me.


The Rant, pt. II: Acceptance and Capability…

I think that is the crux of the turning 40 dilemma: what happened? It’s around that age when one starts either a full blown or low key existential crisis, whether they realize it or not. You get hair plugs or refurbish old video game consoles respectively. Turning 40 is the gateway to old age, when nostalgia really starts to matter. It’s when you begin to consider fiber more than just an ingredient in morality. It’s when you start voting straight ticket—regardless of the candidates’ Grape-Nut intake—so long as they won’t raise taxes (EG: “Hey, the guy might’ve murdered 30 children and made boxer shorts out of their hides but at least he won’t raise taxes”). Is the Clash really considered “oldies?” Why is it whenever I watch Jeopardy! all the advertisements are peddling heavy pharmaceuticals? How does Wi-Fi work and why can’t I master the 720º? I mean, Tony Hawk is over 40 and he can…because he’s in better shape than me. Strong back. Whimper.

It’s all about insecurity and uncertainty, but without the panache of getting older and therefore wiser living in the Land of the Rising Sun. No. We live in American, Home of the Whopper, and knowing better we still get pissy when the shake machine is down. We’re confused. Hitting 40 does not necessary mean you’re old. It means you’re on your way. Consider this: based on anthropological studies that without readily available food and water sources, modern medicine and reliable shelter the average human lifespan would be approximately 35 years in the wild. See all you birthday buddies? You’d already be a feast for worms by now without aspirin. Now life is simply metaphorically short, but that doesn’t mean you don’t begin winding down at 40. It’s about your perceived obsolescence, reinforced by what Madison Avenue pitches to you and the younger generation no longer regarding you as on the bubble. Recall the retro gaming references I made above; vital to me, maybe to you but most likely not to Gen Z. Or Gen AA. You know, the future consumers. The past is always catching up to you—whether it be in the forms of playing outmoded video games or nasty falls past—and the future is a maw that can’t be fed.

Scary. And inevitable. All apologies.

Despite it all, turning 40 can be fun, at least with us, the rabble that is Gen X. We’ve since reached that cachet of pop culture loaded with high watermarks of hipness. And some were. As we live on, nostalgia is the yardstick by which we measure our cultural awareness. Discounting technological advances it’s safe to assume our parents would never have dreamt that their progeny could make a living blogging about video games of have a YouTube channel devoted solely that is the magic that is James Blunt (with a million-plus subs, and BitCoin out the bum). Nostalgia idealizes the past and fandom defines the present now, and thanks to the Internet and a million ways to be trolled, Gen X is swamped in pop culture as personal definition, then and future.

If you caught my take on High Fidelity way back when, there came a scene where John Cusack’s disenfranchised 30-something character Rob confesses: “I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like…Books, records, films—these things matter. Call me shallow but it’s the f*ckin’ truth.” And it is. At least for forty-somethings like me, barely aware (barring the occasion back injury) we’re getting up there. Probably because there is so much saturation and value of innumerable pop culture touchstones these days. What I mean is akin to every Boomer boasting they were at Woodstock—the first time—there will be a Gen Xer claiming they caught one of Billie Joe’s dirt clods at Woodstock ’94 (and also boast that Dylan was there, not so back in 1969. Nyah). We win. F*ck age and Rogaine. We’re always on the hunt for cool and obscure Americana that memes are made of. Fruitless passion for sure, but at least its passion ignoring you old arse. For instance I studied large wads of Shakespeare in college, but am only able recall famous lines these days (EG: “To be or not to be!” “My kingdom for a horse!” “Stop!” etc). But ask me to flip the switch you can guarantee I’ll shout with Shakespearean gusto: “There are four lights!” You get it or you don’t.

My generation is indeed defined by pop culture, and not the other way around. We don’t create it as much as we engulf it. Every age has their high points and gravedigger lows. It’s all about where we focus the lens and what comes into view. What Cusack said in the movie is apt in keeping Gen X creaking towards obsolesce in check. You doubtless have noticed all the pop culture crap I rattled off above, and doubtless many of my generation raised more than a few eyebrows. You may lurch through your day with aches and pains, but all gets lost in a blur as soon as someone starts quoting lines from Dazed And Confused. Or GoodFellas. Or The Big Lebowski (ah, I can hear them brows a-bristlin’). Pop touchstones are what Gen X social circles run on. And on. And on and on.

I’m guilty of it, too. We are not the generation that sit by the fireside with snifters of brandy, waxing philosophical about which existentialist was correct in gauging the human condition: Kirkegaard or Sartre. No. We don’t even while our time in front of a few eps of Star Trek. We binge from Kirk to Picard to Picard and back again, covered in Cheeto dust. We have 1,000 friends on  FaceBook, but we don’t. Just a feed to 1,000 Trekkies waxing philosophical about things like: “Wait, if Discovery takes place before TOS, then how come Mr Spock only as access to buttons?” And we raise our glasses. Such dialogues in echo chambers is what we’re all about. Hell, we invented the Internet after all, for shopping and stealing music and PornHub and establishing once and for all was Simone de Beauvoir Sartre’s girlfriend or not (not exactly: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/beauvoir). Just like that. Tidbits of trivia define Gen X, and boy are we adept at calling them out. Such goofy knowledge is a clarion call to all other would-be slackers to declare we are alive!

Which kinda makes socializing a one-trick pony, especially regarding relationships. Who we are is what Rob declared/warned us about. It’s more about things than exhaling ideas these days, and you can’t build a relationship on how many still-in-box first gen Transformers you own, how you successfully translated Wookkie into Japanese and how well-versed in how many lead singers Black Flag had and why. Why do we do this? Is this easier than asking, “How’re you doing?” I don’t know. I’ve done similar things in “conversation” as much as the next dork.

And hell, in billions years when the Earth gets engulfed by the expansion of a dying sun and has its atmosphere boiled off like so much toasted bread through fondue, it will not matter who was more vital a human. Cobain or Einstein?

When that time comes, my money would be on Kepler.


The Story…

The dull ticking of the clock is slowing down. Pete and Debbie (Rudd and Mann) are feeling the grinding, almost arresting halt that reaching 40 does to your average Gen X’er with kids, mortgages, business matters and an unhealthy adherence to a fitness regime. Silly biker shorts and all.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. The kids of the 80s had enough to fear already (read: toughen them up for the big bad real world) what with the Cold War and MAD ever looming, the evil specter of AIDS, massive savings and loans collapsing into a financial canyon and the peril of New Coke. The couple should be tougher for it all, and yet someone or something yanked the carpet up from under them.

It’s called a midlife crisis. It’s not just time crawling ever onwards, it also realizing things don’t always work out according to plan, even if you didn’t exactly have one.

Debbie’s fashion boutique is inexplicably losing money despite doing good business. She suspects someone is stealing, like one of her trusted employees. Debbie has trust issues, but not with Desi and Jodi (Fox and Yi). She refuses to not trust them. Ever since Deb was a kid she’s had trust and abandonment issues stemming from when her estranged father, the successful surgeon Oliver (Lithgow) divorced her mom when she was nine. How could she bail on her staff? Um, wait a minnit.

Pete’s indie record label is slumping because he won’t represent new talent, only classic indie rockers…that he likes. Even scoring a record deal with the venerable British rocker Graham Parker (himself) isn’t attracting much business. That and Pete’s financial woes are doubled (if not tripled) by his dad Larry (Brooks) who found himself suddenly in the family way due to an all too successful fertilization procedure. Not to mention Pete is the only typical white male American who even knows who Graham Parker is.

Pete and Debbie hemorrhaging cash all over the place. The spats between their kids Sadie and Charlotte (the Apatow girls) are reaching the intestine of an Olympic event. Deb can’t kick smoking. Pete is addicted to sweets. Both are unable to give up the ghosts that embody daddy issues. And to top it all off, our struggling couple are looking down another daunting deadline:

Pete and Debbie are both turning forty.

Dear Lord, who needs a cupcake? How ’bout a loosey?


The Breakdown…

Apatow. You either enjoy him or don’t. Or merely tolerate him. I think I may be in the latter camp.

I dug The 40-Year Old VirginKnocked Up was enjoyable enough, if that’s the adjective to use. Funny People wasn’t really. Haven’t seen Trainwreck (yet). All the movies in his oeuvre have a sort of “take it or leave it” quality about them. Either go along for the ride or get kicked to the curb, and make sure to establish how not cool you are to appreciate such breathtaking scatological discourse. It’s all about the fractured human condition. Ever hear of Sartre?

This Is 40 follows in Apatow’s usual vein. Clumsy romance, the strains of relationships (both family and romantic), one too many sight gags involving weed and/or booze, megadoses of pop culture references that only…well, a guy like me would get. All of which hangs together in a ramshackle fashion like rats abandoning a sinking ship, yet still makes sense anyway against all odds and breaking many unspoken rules about making movie.

Clutter never has seemed to bother Apatow much, though. His movies will go on as long as they have to in order to make their message known. Or simply entertain you. Or frustrate you. Or whatever. Still, 40 is patchwork entertaining with all the above Apatow hallmarks (including working with the same actors, who are usually great). And discounting all the meatball surgical direction of 40, it all hung together pretty well—like Calder mobile made of fart jokes—but I did have a nagging concern that I just couldn’t shake about 40. It was about the plot.

There wasn’t one.

The flick was strung together by a series of vignettes that did not provide a cohesive narrative, just scenes pertinent to the overarching idea of what Apatow thought it meant to reach middle age. A collage, if you will. If you’ve never seen it (which is unlikely come holiday time) Bob Clark’s perennial fave A Christmas Story toes the same line. It’s also a series of vignettes strung together with a common thread of little Ralphie getting his ultimate Xmas present. Half the film isn’t even about Xmas, let alone the wishes for the ideal gift. There is no plot, just scenes to entertain, not unlike a few of artsy-fartsy Jim Jarmusch’s arthouse cinema for the masses. No story. Nope. Just a theme. And with 40, there was barely even that.

It got tricky fast for Apatow to let me in on where the hell was he going. The man used to be a stand-up comic, and his credentials led to him co-creating the sketch comedy program The Ben Stiller Show back in the 90s. I’m gonna assume that Apatow took something away from Stiller, that is how his directorial style “flows.” 40 plays out like sketchy comedy, one wacky bit precedes another wacky bit. Good for sketch comedy, bad for comedy films. Everything getting disjointed and muddled and all head-scratchy ain’t funny, unless you’re in Monty Python, but they broke the mold.

Okay, okay, okay. There are some one-trick pony comedy upstarts out there that have made painfully funny films based almost totally on one-liners and sight gags. The ZAZ team for one (EG: Airplane!, The Naked Gun series, etc), 99% of Mel Brooks’ catalog and the Marx Brothers’ antics to name a few. I’ve seen most of those kinds of films, and precious few have anything approaching sticking to the narrative.

But they have plots, and Apatow cannot have his both ways. You cannot direct a comedy film comparable to a sketch show, and some splash and dash by introducing insight into the lives of a family in distress and rely on Family Guy-like pabulum/Gen X pop culture conventions to stand in for a cohesive script. 40 came across to me as plundered the endless well of 90s nostalgia to lure us in. But I got tired of South Park after its second season. I got the joke real quick like: enjoying pop culture en masse is always pleasing, and that’s a gyp. The literal translation from Latin is “a return to home.” Sounds like comedy cheating to me. Based on that precept, Apatow was shoehorning gags in the very slight crevices of a potential story. Like with poor Ralphie, there were underlying themes to 40, but there was no underlying direction, which I felt it was so muddled.

There. Now please open your textbooks to page…

BONK!

Moving up to empty bottles now, eh? Hm. Might deserve it.

Since the rant was cleaved in twain and regarded as a term paper I’m going to get all collegiate and analytical on 40‘s ass. After what I was treated to, the curious will thank me later.

What I took away from 40 was a tableau of how white people react to turning forty years of age. That was about it. Scenes upon scenes of the oys and joys of middle aged suburbia and all its trappings with maniac Apatow at the helm. Again, that was pretty much it. Don’t misunderstand me though, there were plenty of laughs—the awkward, self-deprecating kind that is the director’s signature—drawn from a pretty apt portrait of family politics in the 21st Century. The man must’ve taken notes drawn from personal observations of married couples trying to communicate. Poor communication is another well Apatow draws from when creating his comedy worlds. That and, hell, being Gen X himself making movies to personify a whole generation’s cynicism and anxiety.

I spoke of my generation’s obsession with pop culture as identity. There was a subtext to 40 that keenly addressed that trap. Was the film trying to make Gen X feel old, yet still “cool?” Back to that nostalgia fest again. It was one idea of a paltry few that held this sketch comedy together. We can all rally around screaming Pixies’ songs in the car, much to our kids’ chagrin as well as…everything we do to our kids’ chagrin. Gen X is terminally trapped in their 20s, always pushing against that feeling of “What happened?” I do. I have a kid. I like the Pixies and she’s never heard of them, despite the fact she has free reign over my iTunes library and can have access to all their albums including the reunion ones. Means something to me, now and then, but she loves My Chemical Romance and TikToks of MCR and neither of the three things were around in my 20s so I just lean back. Lean back into that trip realm of “What happened?”

Let’s expound on that, shall we? My generation is arrested development personified. Apatow gets this, which is why his films soar on wink wink nudge nudge. It’s the same as what I commented about before: Family Guy and South Park humor. Dropping the dime on pop culture without really considering it. It works for us, since we were/are so media drenched. Don’t believe me? My generation created “binge watching.” We also claimed that too much TV made you stupid. Perhaps Apatow’s movies are a reflection of that. At least his characters magnify that conceit.

When I was in college in the late 90s, in my early 20s, I thought I had it knocked when it came to personal identity. I was an English scholar, focused on writing and education. I was in the band and played a few different instruments to varying levels of skill. I was a punker/raver guy, replete with leather, baggy torn jeans, broken wing fashion sense and multiple piercings (most self-administered). I had a healthy library, both books and music. I was a member of the anime club and made sure to keep abreast of what Spidey was up to each and every month. I ran with many crowds but was always myself.

“What happened?”

Maturity. Parenthood. Bills. And being 40 does not warrant one to go around looking like Joey Ramone and Keith Flint had a baby. Both are dead. ‘Nuff said. Still collect comics, though. Those were my halcyon days, but I never realized it until I hit 40. Such angst it well illustrated by Pete and Debbie; they’re not afraid of middle age. They want to scream out loud they are still relevant, if only to themselves.

Pete and Debbie are the self-appointed gatekeepers of cool, despite what they deem cool is lost on the Instagram crowd. Debbie owns a semi-failing chi chi boutique in a business world where such things are no longer viable (that’s what Etsy is for). That and she’s in denial of her actual age. Pete runs a flailing indie record label promoting sundown artists that only he deems worthy based on personal artistic merit when what he needs is a Lady Gaga. I like both Parker and Gaga. Pete’s in denial of being out of touch with an audience. Any audience. Couples always fight about sex and money. Such things are not necessary endemic to a mid-life crisis, but through Apatow’s lens it sure seems that way.

Despite my griping, the man does have a way with a camera. His illustrations of aging Gen X frustrations are attentively apt. I’ve been there. Like parents getting caught by their kids doing anything they don’t want them to see. I’m not just talking about the silly, clumsy REDACTED scene, I’m talking about arguing over non-finances being frittered away by flying in the Rumour to back up Graham like back in the day to a half full club date. Like hacking into the kids iPad to scan their texts, or even monitor the store for possible theft. Don’t these idiots know what’s good for them?!? Sorry guys, your kids don’t care about your fleeting dreams. They care about you and getting fed on a regular basis. Wake up.

But no. No they won’t. They don’t have to. It’s the other side of 40‘s coin. Celebrate and dissect our generation getting old, then go into screaming denial when such an epiphany comes. Although Apatow’s work here is scattershot, his message (if there is one) here is there is always an element of deception creeping in order to keep the status quo status between family, work and ego. Denial is the watchword of 40 and Gen X. All will be well in the end run if we deny an end run.

My take is pretty heavy on such a frayed film. What it lacked in substance, originality and cohesion good jokes and a stellar cast stuck to my ribs. But in the endgame 40 feels like there was no solid story. And in particular no resolution. It just ends. That might’ve been some kind of existential meditation on how life gets frittered away on outside influences, within and without.

So what? Is there a message here with 40? Middle age sucks? Family sucks? Lady GaGa sucks? Everything sucks? Or does it all work out somehow?

Well, recall that this was an Apatow movie so insert dick joke here and go along with the ride.

Get it?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. It’s funny, but needs some Krazy Glue to hold the imperfect narrative together. That and it’s aimed at a specific demographic, insinuated like when I feel a headache coming on and pay close attention to Jeopardy!‘s second commercial break. Here comes the rooster.


The Musings…

  • “Forty can suck my dick!” Yep.
  • As Apatow’s films roll ever onward, he must accept the value of an editor, and not include outtakes and gag reels within the movie. Gag reels go at the end of the movie. This might explain why such a 90 minute movie needlessly bloats into over 2 hours. Just saying.
  • “Sometimes I wish just one of you had a dick.” “Well, we don’t want one.” Modern parenting.
  • I’m actually a big fan of Graham Parker. No, really.
  • “You’re so mean since your body got weird.” Such knows no generation.
  • Scripts are nice sometimes.
  • “Are you trying to start a fight?”
  • Was the entire birthday party scene improvised? I’d like to believe so.
  • “Hello. There are children around.”
  • You ever notice how often I bring up retro gaming as a metaphor and/or barometer of cultural awareness? Um, how old did I say I was again, you nerf herder?
  • “Don’t blink!”

The Next Time…

Dive! Dive! U-571 is a Nazi sub! Launch torpedoes! At her Allied crew! Featuring Jon Bon Jovi! You read that right!


 

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 Vol. 3, Installment 6: JC Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year” (2014)


A Most Violent Year


The Players…

Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola and Albert Brooks.


The Story…

When successful businessman Abel Morales is up against the wall regarding his dwindling fortunes due to extortion, he has to make a tough decision. The law is investigating the legitimacy of his practices. The Teamsters may or may not be strong-arming his drivers and fleet of trucks, hijacking them. He might have been unwittingly connected to Mafia undercurrents. Abel must decide whether to fight back with the law on one side, or a gun on another.


The Rant…

I grew up in a town that was slowly going under.

It was once a proud city, a model of industrial success and opportunity. A destination for urban prosperity as well as a shining example of what hard work, a decent chamber of commerce and a fine education system could accommodate. For the better part of a century, my hometown was textbook USA with all the fineries that went with it.

All that was on its way out when I moved there.

I didn’t know that at the time, but once I entered high school, the corruption flaking off at the corners became evident. Crime rates increased, the roads became veritable sh*tty golf courses of potholes, the cops more interested in busting non-whites for being non-white rather than tackling bigger issues like nascent gang violence and the drug trade. And the local gentry—with their suburban dollars—engaging in that perennial pastime called white flight didn’t help much either.

The town fell asunder. Local pundits—not much removed from the nameless, faceless “they” which was always being accused of causing the rot—threw up their collective hands and resigned themselves to the classic defense of “things ain’t what they used to be.” Then they went back to nursing their beers and openly hating negroes.

I think on some level that this malaise and acquiescence by the townies of dwindling returns planted the seed of my eventual hard-on for sketchy neighborhoods, their potential dangers, and an overall curiosity regarding urban corruption in cities larger than mine. I was a lilywhite, suburban kid, residing in one of the more well-heeled residential neighborhoods on the fringes of the city, far removed from the grime and blight downtown. At that age, center city was terra incognito, no man’s land, not the place for a well mannered me. Hell, back then my world ended about two blocks south of my home, bordered by a very busy street. That was the line of demarcation in my wanderings around my squeaky clean neighborhood.

The whole street thing and admonishments from the who’s who regarding the dark, urban underbelly of our slowly going south town also had an influence on my attraction to seedy sections of a city. On a very low level—basically a gateway—any time at that impressionable age I got to cross that demon street, I felt I was getting away with something. Something bad. I was going where I wasn’t supposed to be. Granted, this was very weak sauce. Across the street was a neighborhood almost exactly like mine. No Hell’s Kitchen there. But as I got older, and eventually earned a driver’s license, I’d find myself following my senses and exploring ever further into the belly of the beast. This didn’t stop within my hometown. Oh, no. Before Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations ever hit the air, your humble movie-basher would one way or another find himself in the seamier sections of New York, Boston, San Francisco and Honolulu even, looking for truth and fun.

You don’t have to be part of some Nat Geo expedition to the Yucatan to discover bizarre wildlife. Sometimes all you have to do is simply go “downtown,” if you have one. One of the many reasons I had for poking my nose into places I had no sane right to be was discovering said wildlife, usually in some back corner of the demimonde. Here’s a story about one such adventure. Perhaps—if you were lucky—you might know what I’m talking about; the surreptitious joys of both “getting away with it” and/or “being where you’re not supposed to be.”

Granted Honolulu is not South Central LA, but in the vein of our urban explorer adventure—and not to implicate myself in past incidents of a dubious nature—let’s just go with it. I figure a tale about scouring the back streets of some tourist town might be easier to digest than, say, avoiding hoodlums while trying to…uh, let’s let that hang in the air. Honolulu is figuratively and literally a sunny place, and we’ll make this late night excursion a positive one.

In some ways, the touristy town is a bit of a slum unto itself. There, most of the side neighborhoods were made not of crumbling, burnt-out buildings but endless, endless, identical hotels, restaurants and gift shops. Sterile. Plain. Somewhat intimidating, all those glaring lights and tall, tall white monuments to disposable dollars. The place eventually felt like the set of cautionary movie Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. On the other side of that same coin think Pete Seeger: “Little boxes, little boxes…”

When I was fortunate enough to visit Hawaii, I was held up in the local Hilton complex. Not hotel. Complex. Tourism is a compartmentalized business. The resort does not want its guests to leave the property, running the risk of them spending dollars at some off-site restaurant or bar. They want to keep the money circulating right there and only there. After all day wandering the grounds, exploring every nook and cranny, I came to that conclusion. The place had restaurants, bars, pools, gyms, even a mall for f*ck’s sake, and all of it under the banner of Hilton. Barring going to the beach, there really was no reason to go explore the town. You had everything there for your touristy dollar delights.

Which was reason enough for me to get the hell out of there for a while.

Later that night your typical Pacific rainstorm began pummeling the town. Drove a lot of the people indoors. Not me. I knew from my urban exploring that when the rain comes down, the rats come out of their holes in the wall. With all its shiny, cleansed, inescapable edifices of combustible dollars everywhere, I knew that Honolulu had to have its local color hidden away somewhere. So in the rain, my backpack filled with comics, pens and my notepad, I left the Hilton and wandered over to a small, independent bookshop across the street. I asked the guy at the counter where a haole like me could find some local action. He kind of smirked and directed me to a bar down the road. I thanked him and bounded back into the storm again, rain pissing down and me dodging cabs.

The further I got down the street, getting ever soggier, I saw that the hotels began to thin out giving way to smaller shops and parking lots. The lights of the hotels still shone brightly, but the shadows got progressively longer, blurring into the puddles. Par my tour guides directions, I took a left at a light and stumbled down the side road towards my destination. What I found looked very out of place wedged between two other monolithic but less luxurious hotels. I mean very out of place. I think the bar was located under a parking deck. There was nothing more to give a passerby an indication that it was a legit watering hole save the lone window with a neon Corona sign lit up and an open door permitting weary music droning from within. I had found my quarry. I was a shade disappointed at first. If this is what the downtrodden neighborhood of Honolulu was, it was no more skuzzy than my bar back East.

Inside, the place was low slung. The ceiling was only about a foot higher than I was. Corny trinkets of Hawaiian kitsch littered the walls. Peeling linoleum floor. A fogbank of blue haze from endless cigarettes. Rickety wooden stools circling the bar that had seen better days, their foam seats spilling out from tears in the vinyl. I liked the place immediately. Looking around, the bar crowd didn’t seem like a touristy bunch. I distinctly remember seeing a few cooks and valets, still in uniform, drinking beer, playing pool and just shooting the sh*t. This must’ve been where the working class—the underside—of Honolulu tourism went to get away from it all. I grabbed the first stool I saw, ordered a beer (they surprisingly had the local brand I enjoyed back in PA) and got out a few comics to pass the time.

Sitting there, I couldn’t help but get a feeling of déjà vu. This was my first time to the Aloha State, so I knew it was impossible for me to have ever visited this bar before. However, looking around, the joint looked vaguely familiar. I scanned the place for clues. Couldn’t put my finger on it, but…

My investigation and comic book reading was loudly interrupted by a commotion at my back, right where the door was. I turned, as well as most of the locals, to see what was up. These two dudes, dressed head-to-toe in San Francisco 49’ers gear, were whooping it up. The had a wagon in tow—a red Radio Flyer, no lie—with a large, cartoonish, Grandmaster Flash boombox inside. It was playing Billy Joel at 11. These two guys cranked up the volume further, started doing this insane dance and began to karaoke over Billy, hollering improvised lyrics over “We Didn’t Start the Fire” praising the 49er’s. The crowd loved it. They clapped and cheered. Between songs, Frick and Frack did a pseudo Abbott and Costello routine, cracking jokes about (you guessed it) the 49er’s. Folks bought them beers, they danced around appreciatively, and after 15 minutes out the door they went, boombox still blaring.

The bartender told me that those guys were regulars. They hailed, naturally, from San Fran, but always took a monthly vacation to Honolulu, espousing the wonders of the 49er’s wherever they went. I thought that was hilarious and the barkeep agreed. He was a nice guy, laid-back, and was honestly curious about my comics and what I was writing in my notebook. I asked him about the local scene in town and he gestured around his bar and said that this was pretty much it. Most tourists didn’t come to his place, rather mostly hotel employees and a few other locals. I mentioned that this was my first time in Hawaii, but I could swore that his place was familiar.

The guy smiled and pointed to the wall over the pool table. There were a series of framed photos hanging up. I squinted to make them out through the clouds of smoke. A few of them were headshots, all signed. Tom Selleck. Jon Hillerman. Orson Welles (Orson Welles?). A shot of a red Ferrari speeding down a road. It slowly dawned on me.

I turned back to the bartender, pointing over my shoulder at the pictures.

“Are you saying…?” I pointed to the floor. “This is the place?”

The guy smiled proudly and nodded his head. “Aloha, buddy. Welcome to Hawaii.”

I was in the bar that was used in the TV show Magnum PI. I saw that show as a kid. It was pretty cool. For those who want to know, Magnum was this action/comedy show about the escapades of a posh private investigator played by Tom Selleck. His character was a combination of James Bond coolness, Indiana Jones scruffiness and just enough humor to make him a relatable Joe. Beyond that, it was all fast cars, luxurious Hawaiian manses, pretty girls and foiling the exploits of drug runners and murderers. Magnum had a buddy who ran a bar in town, and it was there our hero visited to kick back and have a few, as well as gather scuttlebutt on the local criminal element. Some of the scenes were shot on location in the very bar I was slowly getting tight at.

I returned there the next few nights to hang with the townies, shoot pool, wax philosophical and occasionally discuss the merits of one Magnum episode compared to another with the barkeep. It was nice that the second night I came by—that night’s weather was classic early spring Hawaii: breezy and in the 70s—the bartender recognized me immediately and plunked my beer of choice right in the spot I was sitting in the night before. I kinda doubt I would’ve gotten that kind of royal treatment at one of the Hilton’s sponsored bars.

That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about when I mean sketchy neighborhoods. Granted, that little piece of the city was far from bullet-ridden. But it was a low level thrill to get out of that cushy cloister and sought out what the locals did, whatever it was they sought, happening in a dive bar once featured on a mid-80’s glam cop show. It was a more lighthearted affair then being in “the bad part of town” at night.

Trust me: been there, done that.

Now it wasn’t as if I was trying to score dope or solicit a hooker when the shadows grew longer and then went away. I was usually the wheelman for such adventures. My then loser friends were junkies and pill-poppers; I stuck to the legal drugs. My willingness to drive into the center of night, either hanging out at bars, clubs and all-night diners afterwards, was just the logical—if not socially unhealthy—extension of me “crossing the street” from my college days well into my 20s.

Now listen, I’m not trying to romanticize urban degradation and alienation. Well, maybe a little. Dive bars, empty bus stations, the subway, all these places at night held a sort of magic for me. I created a fantasy world of urban decay in my fevered, Hubert Selby, Jr imagination. This was especially solidified in my years at college, when I was exploring the punk rock scene in NYC at the tail-end of the 70’s, spilling over into the early 80’s. Not the scene per se, but first the bands. The Ramones, Talking Heads, Television, Richard Hell, Dead Boys, early Lou Reed, those guys were my soundtrack. The sordid adventures at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City where these bands cut their teeth. Jim Carroll living at the movies. I actually did a pair of papers on the social climate of the City for my classes. Needless to say, my research became an enthusiasm. When I get into something it fast becomes a fetish. I scooped up literature on the scene and culture about back in those dying days of disco, delved into it. The stories in Legs McNeill and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me became like gospel, ever fueling my skewed romantic fantasy of the Lower East Side becoming not unlike an asphalt Eden for rogues like me (or thought they were). A good example of at what level my Darwinian mind was working, check out Jim Jarmusch’s debut film Permanent Vacation. Says it all there.

So this week, driven by my still present but usually checked keenness for a crumbling New York between 1976 and 1982, we’re going back in time. Back to a place I’d like to think I visited, explored across the street, when the City was not as “nice” as it is today. Where Travis Bickle still drives a cab and shoots pimps, where Times Square could only be described as “sticky,” where the Ramones wanna take us to Rockaway Beach and where the Statue of Liberty’s torch was unlit.

All that kind of paints a warm, homey picture. Doesn’t it?…


New York, 1981. Winter. The year has gone on record as the peak of a crime wave that enveloped the city for the better part of a decade, and businessman Abel Morales (Isaac) is feeling the pinch. Abel may be the last just man in Sodom. He’s the owner of Standard Oil, a heating fuel company servicing the five boroughs, and has been quite successful for the past 15 years of operation. His is the typical American success story; immigrant does good, becomes a lucrative businessman, gives back to the community, takes care of his employees and has never forgotten where he came from.

Despite this dignified reputation, Abel and Standard Oil are falling victim to said criminal undercurrents plaguing his industry. Or rather, the drivers of his fleet of trucks. There are reports in the shipping business that the Teamsters are engaging in “questionable” business practices. Abel’s oil trucks are getting hijacked and robbed of their contents. Drivers being assaulted and sent to the hospital. What’s more is that Abel’s bank account is taking the hit from two angles. One, the theft of his product, and; two, the city’s legal system running more or less a dragnet through businesses like Abel’s to look for any signs of price gouging, embezzlement, tax evasion and/or extortion. All of this after Abel has just secured the rights to a new property to accommodate his expanding empire.

Abel is made to feel guilty by association. His books are clean, as well as his standing in the business community, and makes no bones about having himself or Standard Oil anything to hide. But the trucks keep getting jacked, and the fuel goes missing. This invites the big questions—the gorilla and elephant f*cking on the edge of Abel’s desk—like who’s commandeering the trucks and where is the oil going?

Anna (Chastain), Abel’s well meaning but hardnosed wife, isn’t helping the circumstance any. She’s Abel’s secretary, who’s all too willing to remind him of Standard’s predicament, as well as their dwindling profits and insurance losses, and the payment on new home they bought in the suburbs, and the needs and safety of their kids, AND the intruder that was sent in the night to “send a message” to Abel and his family.

That violation is the final straw. Abel can’t protect his drivers, can’t protect his investments, can’t even protect his family. His once sterling reputation is fast going down the tubes, hot on the heels of his profits. There’s foul play afoot, but the law is more concerned if Abel is cooking the books rather than concerned with dozens of injured drivers. This can’t keep happening. Abel’s fortunes, his home, his investments are evaporating, and the County of New York wants more. The trucks have to roll. It’s winter, and customers need Abel’s fuel to keep warm. He can’t afford protection for his workers.

1981 was one of the worst years for violent crime in the City. Since the cops are doing next to nothing to protect Abel’s interests, he decides to take the law into his own hands. Fight fire with fire, and arm his drivers with guns…


Not that long ago, I was pining for a hopefully good movie to scan here at RIORI within a seemingly endless mire of slop. It was during a dry spell, like when the new releases arrive in March. I’m not entirely certain of when, but I recall at least three, maybe four films I saw in a row that really taxed my usual good humor. Then came a buoy in this sea of mediocrity. It came in the form of JC Chandor’s All Is Lost (Vol. 2, Installment 18…the first entry I got some actual feedback).

Let me tell you: voluntarily doing this gig can take a lot out of you. It’s not unlike you’ve driven on a very straight, always predicable stretch of highway. You know where the tight curves are, where the cops have their speed traps and where the best place on the road to score some cheap soft serve for the kids. Then there are the potholes, the construction crews, the traffic and the inexplicable gridlock on the eastbound lane when an accident occurs on the westbound lane. The highway’s the same, and you know it well when you’re travelling at a rapid clip. It’s the above glitches that can really take the wind out of your sails. Or gas from you tank, or whatever.

All Is Lost was a fine, solid film. In this day and age, that says a lot. Mostly today’s directors are tossed laurels and in the short line for Oscar nods when their work becomes noteworthy. The promise of an Oscar, a Golden Globe, even a People’s Choice Award seems to become the end all and be all regarding recognition to a director, justifying his or her work. I don’t think that’s the case with Chandor.

The Standard dictates lame box office draw and/or critical response to make the movie hit the list. All Is Lost was a great movie, the critics lauded it, and old smoothie Robert Redford got to shine. But it didn’t do well at the theatres, not in a profitable way. Neither did A Most Violent Year. Again we had critical praise and a engaging story, but no popular audience to rally around it. What’s going on here? Poor marketing?

Maybe. More like, sort of.

Seems to me that Chandor’s films only get limited releases in major cities. Places like LA, Chicago and of course NYC. It’s kind of hard to gain exposure, as well as recouping your losses, when your movie only plays in ten US cities for maybe two months. I remember here in my neck of the woods, All Is Lost only played at the local art house cinema, and for only one week. Recalling earlier about the cultural mindset of my town, the fact there’s even an art house cinema around is remarkable. What’s more is that a few of the locals even caught All Is Lost is nothing short of miraculous.

So I don’t think Chandor is in the biz to earn a lot of awards and make boatloads of cash. A Most Violent Year barely made a dent in the Hollywood marketplace, and that’s pushing it. Its budget was $20 million. Its gross was $5,700,000. Worldwide. Ouch. I think, for circumstances surrounding films like A Most Violent Year, The Standard may have to be tweaked. I mean, you really can’t fault a film’s lousy box office performance if said film only got shown on a dozen screens in, well, art house cinemas. Fault for poor marketing maybe, but not for the film’s quality.

And Year is definitely a quality film. It’s not a good as All Is Lost, but Year is a totally different animal, even though there are similar themes.

Like survival. Abel’s story isn’t life-and-limb like Redford’s plight, but he is struggling to keep his business alive—his livelihood—against odds he has no control against despite his best actions and intentions. In a certain light, trying to make it against the backdrop of grimy NYC can be just as harrowing. Instead of being lost at sea, life in the City keeps safety and sanity at an arm’s length. In Year, it’s New York vs. Abel.

The City in winter 1981 mirrors my fascination with urban decay quite keenly. I don’t know whom the people responsible for location settings were, but they deserve a medal. The climate adds dinginess to all the scenes. Grey ice and clouds permeate almost every shot. You get a real taste for this in the opening montage. We have Abel doing his morning jogging routine. He runs along the streets; first in his affluent, suburban neighborhood (it looks like Staten Island), then later a residential neighborhood, then the main drag—it being bookended by grim-looking, possibly vacant brick buildings—until his jog ends in a very crappy neighborhood, the aforementioned buildings looking like they’ve been made out of graffiti. He then turns around and heads back along the same route. And all this time, there’s the snow, first white and fluffy and terminating in dirty puddles under steel grey skies and coppery sunlight. It looks so cold—weather and social climate alike—that you can practically see your own breath.

In the vein of setting the scene, Year’s editing is simply amazing. There’s this constant, constant pendulum swing between scenes (with some very cool cuts; juxtaposing Abel’s arrival in his Cadillac against his trucks pulling out really grabs your attention). It’s throughout the film. We have the suburban homes; we have the blighted, abandoned buildings. We have quiet winding streets in the nice part of town; we have the smoggy, congested traffic on the highway. We have warm, comfy offices indoors and cold industrial warehouses outside. This back and forth motion might sound disorienting, or at worst some cloying director’s trick to send a little too obvious a message, but it never comes across that way. Obvious allusions or no, it’s never intrusive or distracting. It’s sets a rhythm, one inviting the audience to determine the inner dynamics of the plot.

Isaac’s performance is a rare treat. Here’s a character that comes across as everyman, especially with his compassion and sincerity but simmering with tension. Abel comes across having a very difficult time coming to grips with his problems, but must at all times maintain his composure. Sure, he conducts himself and his business with this brave face and the weight of Standard’s reputation—it’s winter, and these hijackings are not going to result in his customers freezing to death. But then there’s the back alley dealings; off-the-record conversations with his workers and competitors (later culminating with the dire need for Abel to arm his drivers). Isaac presents his whole image with a controlled rage, just winking at us below the surface. The angst he must have reflects the climate of the City as it was then. So Abel may be an openly sincere urban oil magnate, but there’s this lingering…something.

This unrelenting dark tension underpins the film. I’m not talking about the tautness by scenes of legal finagling, hijacking and home invasions. It’s this inescapable, grim feeling that not all as it seems. It’s uncomfortable, to say the least. What we see with our cast are people up against a wall, indifferent social institutions and rampant crime chewing away at their stability and security. But is that what we’re really seeing?

A seed is planted early. A scene when Abel comes before the local legal representative, the lawyer lays claim that Standard Oil’s business practices may or may not be legal. But what’s the law being bent, and what’s the motive? Abel appears confident in himself being a legitimate businessman, but there’s something else there underlying his assurance. Isaac’s delivery is ever so slightly quavering, there and gone. Doubt is raised. Doubt to Abel’s operations, the lawyer’s intentions, Abel’s recent and possible future investments. Things start coming into question. Something is, to put it plainly, not right. But it’s impossible to determine what, even over the duration of the film. Even when the story is “resolved” questions remain. Year is unsatisfying, but not in a bad way. More like a pleading way.

Another similarity with All Is Lost is the “man alone” conflict. No matter what Abel does to counteract all the tensions that bear down on his life—which cause it to gradually unravel—he gets no quarter. There are precious few scenes of outright violence in Year, ironically enough, but it always seems to be lurking around the corner. The possibility of danger bursting forth is always there, but seldom actually breaks the surface. Most of the time it’s Abel trying to hold it together, get a grip, try to find a way out. Hold his own, especially when the law starts leaning into him and making unscheduled visits to his home. No one seems to be on his side, save his vampy wife Anna.

Now Chastain’s character is an interesting mix of uncertainty and pragmatism. If Abel is the humanist, relying on himself putting his best foot/face forward, then Anna is the realist. She knows all about shifty lawyers and business’ being strong-armed. Anna’s the daughter of a mobster, and that tidbit’s not really brought to the forefront of the action, but like Abel’s tight visage, Anna tries to maintain a front of dedicated wife, mother and a model of quaint domesticity (albeit being luxurious). At first glance, Anna looks like she’s turned her back on her Mafia ties, but how she “advises” Abel’s conduct—business and otherwise—suggests an agendum. Like with Abel’s brave face, Anna’s gentle pressing implies something below the surface. Nothing concrete, mind you, however there is a scene when the law comes to the Morales’ home unannounced and two things occur (SPOILER ALERT):

First, Abel and Anna quickly stash the records of Standard Oil’s accounts under the deck, afraid what the lawyers/cops might find. Why? Nothing solid’s been stated about possible criminal acts, so what do the Morales’ have to hide?

Second, Anna gives a kiss off to the lawyer that’s conducting the investigation. First admonishing him and his flunkies for scaring her kids, and second—more sinisterly—reminds him of where she came from/who she knows. If she openly disinherited herself, and makes no bones about it, then why “pull rank?” Also, as an extension, how come she seems to know more about the kind of criminal dynamic Standard Oil has been besieged with if she’s never tried to affiliate herself with the Family? All these implications generates succulent tension, questioning the truth of the matter and being left with a feeling of dread that picks at your brain for days.

Year was a contemplative flick, all right. It made you think as well as question the nature of Abel and Anna’s surroundings, and what their true motives are. I mean, I’m writing this installment about a week after seeing the movie, and the flick’s still picking. That’s a sure sign of a good movie; that it leaves you with something wanting, but not lacking.

A while back I said RIORI was swearing off indie movies. With their limited releases circuiting small theatres, the results of small returns and quirky reviews almost guarantee Standard material. Year wasn’t an indie film. It did have a limited release, yes, but I’m not certain that that would’ve had a significant impact on the movie’s performance overall. The film did have difficult subject matter, with the grim and deceptive plot doing the average moviegoer no favors. But still, when you drop $20,000,000 on your film, and it only recoups a quarter of its budget, it’s glaring. Except it was a good movie. Challenging, yes, and relentlessly grim at times, but not so inaccessible to drive away the laymen.

Hm. I could say that there’s no accounting for taste, especially these days. Then again, I’m not so certain that folks would get a charge out of exploring the sticky underbelly of urban society with its crack pipes, angry whores, crooked cops and the last good deal gone down. Besides, NYC in Year was light years away from a darkened corner of Honolulu (or a good chunk of New York of today, for that matter), inviting wreck and ruin to a fool like me.

In reflection, my whole obsession with some William S Burroughs romance of skuzz in the big city was pretty juvie. My hometown was going down a slippery slope when I was a kid, and is still ever hurtling towards the Seventh Level. That’s just depressing when you think about it, and my old stomping grounds are not unique in their squalor. Right now, there are more sketchy neighborhoods than fully drawn ones back home looking more and more like winter NYC 1981 every year, even if it’s summertime.

After watching this cinematic exercise in extreme street-crossing, I came to a simple conclusion: Hawaii is a sunny place, filled with happy people, cool dive bars, occasionally Tom Selleck and nary a pile of dirty, gravel-ridden, week old snow to be found.

I’m never going back there again.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a downer of a movie to be sure, but still engaging. It leaves you with more questions than answers, and you’ll probably want it that way. Sorry for being so straight this time out; the film demanded some somber reflection. Next time it’ll be all fart jokes and malice. You have my word. 🙂


Stray Observations…

  • Brooks is barely recognizable here, save his down in the dumps demeanor. And is that his real hair?
  • “Stare longer than you should.”
  • I love that coat Abel’s wearing, like, for 90% of the film. It’s like his shield, and he seldom takes it off in front of some guy with clout. Your move, punk.
  • “It’s not like when we was driving.”
  • It’s all soft conversations here. No one really ever raises their voice in anger. Sure, there’s sniping, but never screaming. Until there is.
  • “F*ck you!” “You’re welcome!”

Next Installment…

Tobey Maguire dons the tights for the last time in the infamous Spider-Man 3.


RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 3: Nicolas W Refn’s “Drive” (2011)


Image


The Players…

Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, 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…

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.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. All the hype surrounding this flick was for naught. It suffers a weak case of the Tarantinos and the acting is lifeless at best, downright insulting at worse. And way too needlessly violent for my tastes. I kept looking at the time, waiting for it to end. Again, sorry.


Stray Observations…

  • Saw that slap coming.
  • Was it me, when Perlman gets his comeuppance, or does the Driver look and act like Michael Myers from the Halloween movies?
  • I got the scorpion symbolism, all right? I know the story of the scorpion and the frog, okay? So dippy.

Next Installment…

We go for a stroll with Owen Wilson at Midnight In Paris.