RIORI Vol 3, Installment 92: George Noifi’s “The Adjustment Bureau” (2011)


The Players…

Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Michael Kelly and Terence Stamp.

The Story…

Senator David Norris is on the fast track to politcal success. Dancer Elise Sellas is on the fast track to becoming the elite ballerina on the New York theatre circuit.

It’s not in the plan.

There’s a plan? Sure, David and Elise are destined to fall in love. But not that way.

There’s a plan. There’s always a plan.

The Rant…

“Just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean They aren’t out to get you.”

I’ve always appreciated that little witticism/message scrawled in ragged paint on a faux reclaimed wood panel sold in most Hallmark stores. It’s a curiosity, really if you think about it. I think it’s safe to claim that all of us at one time in our wretched, little lives that someone, maybe someones, hell even something is out to get us. Ruin our day. F*ck around with our credit score. Keying our car. Misspelling your name on that Starbuck’s venti latte (so that Mark gets your hot, foamy comfort rather than you, Matt). Dammit, someone’s out to get me. Rats.

That’s not to say I’m paranoid, it’s just that everyone is out to get me. Kidding (maybe).

Notice that I capitilzed “they” in the opening line. That’s not a typo, nor entirely accurate either. Pertaining to irrational fears of possible persecution, home invasion, wiretapping your kitchen, wiretapping your car, letter bombs stuffed with anthrax, the repo man, wiretapping yor dog, most of all that truck is nothing more than a product of a fevered imagination, maybe a result of brown acid. Or a binge watch of a Dennis Hopper movie marathon.

“I think, you want to know what I think? I think this is a crackpot idea!”

Thanks, Billy.

Paranoia is indeed crackpot thinking, like your meager life matters to humankind at large. Look in the mirror. Go on, go look. I’ll wait.

*sounds of sursurring Atlantic surf*

There. You ain’t special. You’re just another guy trying to make their way in the world, paying taxes, eating pizza and always on the hunt for the ideal parking spot. Like everyone else, even your kids. But on the other side of the coin it nags at you: there’s more than this, so why haven’t I found it? I’m so stressed. Is someone or something getting in my way?

Probably, like you being your own worst enemy and all those mistakes you made in college (like posting your kegstand skills on your LinkedIn profile. While doing a kegstand. Good times, good times, bad résumé). There may very well be a clutch of people who want to make things difficult for you based on your reputation and past bad decisions (read: kegstands). If so, maybe They’re just pissed you stole their parking spot. Being one’s own worst enemy can make Them a convenient excuse for your headaches. Or just plain confuse and/or derail your train of thought.

Face it. Some days it really does feel like the forces are collunding against you. Those bad days messed up with silly frustrations and epic fails alike. Traffic jam miles long on the highway when you’re on your way to that big interview and you can’t call ahead because either the reception is spotty or you failed to properly charge your phone from that all-nighter with Fortnight (and you with that big interview in the morning. For shame). All the coupons you collected for the market are either expired or for stuff the place doesn’t carry. That damned GrubHub delivery guy is clogging your spot again (after returning home to hop back on Indeed. That stupid Ethopian prince charity never panned out. Argh. Little bamboo shoots under the nails are these, and the pain can make you want to shake a fist at the sky. Don’t; it may start to rain. You hear what I’m screamin’?

All this musing on paranoia reminds me of a passage of a fave book of mine: Michael Crichton’s autibio Travels. Quit moaning. True the guy wrote potboilers, but they were very good potboilers (I heard even a few of his books were made into movies). Crichton’s travelogue covers his med school years, getting into writing and his world travels that informed a lot of his novels. Not surprisingly, his trademark frank writing about amazing things holds sway. Besides med school and globetrotting, there are a few paens to other odd situations he got himself into. Like him directing the film The Great Train Robbery starring Sean Connery. Like getting all psychedelic at the Institute Of Mentalphysics in the California desert by talking with a cactus (with, not to). Like the proper way to mentally bend spoons (it requires spirits, and neither of those). And like the time he had to consider his place in the realm of sexual politics.

Before I continue and although I’ve thoroughly enjoyed some of his books—Sphere jumps immediately to mind—I’ve found Crichton to be a very egotistical, sexist, racist writer. His frank technobabble style is so casual it almost reads like a science nerd’s thesis. You don’t understand? Well, haw haw, of course not and take my hand, you quark. Almost all his protags are white males, whose conflicts and foibles take many chapters to reveal. All females and non-whites’ flaws are out there all at once. Almost all his women are capable, but are strung up like Wonder Woman with her gauntlets welded together; impotent. Even in my pet Sphere, the antagonist may or may not be a black guy with an inferiority complex (no, that’s not a spoiler. I couldn’t really figure it out myself). Now, if you can get beyond all that happy crappy, Crichton’s stories are ultimately rewarding, if only with a sour taste in your brain.

Hang on. This is a parable about paranoia. I eventully get somewhere, right? Right? Anyway.

In his Travels, Crichton penned a chapter ominously titled “They.” Sounded like a script for a 1950s s/f B-movie. At first it read like Crichton, recently single, him having trouble making the scene again, naive since being out of the dating game for so long. It was the 1980s, fast to work and late to bed. Our esteemed writer felt truly wide of the mark, even when he managed to score some tail. He claimed to learn then that woman were following the design (albeit with yet to be processed Red Bull) institued by males back when Mike was…male.

The chapter spoke about guys in the 1980s trying to catch up with the career minded women who wanted it fast and quick rather than time consuming courting. It read all very sexist, like males were incapable of recognizing their emotional needs, and they  had it all together. The whole chapter read like a scared man who failed to try and understand female needs. He summed his experiences up with an inability to keep up with this “new kind of woman.” That being the career-driven, freewheeling and often “macho” kind of female that for good or for ill—in Crichton’s view—are climbing all over the early-80s social scene. And him getting lost in the shuffle.

Nonetheless it’s a thoughtful piece, “They.” Not necessarily a paranoid caution, but something to give one pause. I’m not talking about shoulder pads, feathered hair and lugging around an Osborne “laptop” on the way to the shareholders’ meeting who won’t give a nice guy a second glance circa 1984.  No. It’s about becoming vaugely aware that there might be a section of society at large that may indeed be scoping you out, sizing you up and maybe just plain getting in your way.

To paraphrase Hugh Jackman in Swordfish: “Stop f*cking up my chi.”

(Go with me here. I’m rolling.)

The curious thing about feeling paranoid, no matter who your They are, it’s never truly about They are “out to get you.” Get you. Okay, how? I barely get myself sometimes. Some nameless, faceless cabal are out to f*ck up your life because they don’t get you? They don’t even know you. All They might do—if They indeed are truly laying in wait to jam their SUV into your usual/infrequent parking spot bearing bags from Chipotle—is interfere. Mess up your schedule. F*ck with your system. Make you question sh*t you’re usually pretty sure about, like it being impossible to wiretap a Corgi. All that jumping. Really? They don’t know you.

Or do They? When the world feels like its conspiring against you, how come it feels so damned personal? So f*cking specific? Lightning struck thrice. Again with the fist. It makes a rational person begin to question the very fabric of their reality. He or she may not be paranoid, but dammit there sure are times when They might be creeping at your doorstep. Rearraging your sh*t. Shuffling up your well laid plans. Your routine getting shifted. Your familiar patterns get all out of order.

Sometimes, sometimes, such things being so out of order at times you—a normally rational person—wonder if some They is treating your daily affairs like a game of Yahtzee.

“Paranoia: you only have to be right once to make it all worthwhile…”

Politics is a dirty business, so it has been said. Makes strange bedfellows, too I’ve heard. Cliches aside, when one gets into the public eye goodbye privacy, hello microscope. You get to be a scion of virtue, too. At least to an adoring crowd.

Senator David Norris (Damon) knows this. He also knows how to politick. Using his “local guy from Red Hook” persona, Norris drums up the average New Yorkers into cheers and possible votes. He’s on the fast track, until some dirty laundry from his college days (inexplicably) comes back to haunt him, and may destroy his political career. Where’d that come from?

David’s fortunes seem to change meeting up with an aspiring dancer, Elise Sellas (Blunt). She’s lovely, vivacious and just the kind of girl David needs to be with to get both his head together and well as his frustrated heart. Elise comes and goes like the wind, and if it wasn’t for a fateful bus ride David may have never seen Elise again.

Well, that was how it was supposed to be.

David quickly learns that not everything a matter of chance. The sudden dirt a while back, once thought dead and buried? Elise meeting him in the mens’ room at one of his big deal speechs? Harry (Mackie) metaphorically falling asleep “at the wheel” and spilling the wrong coffee?

Strange things are afoot for David, and it all began by being on time. For some future…

This was different for me. In many ways.

I didn’t know at the outset that Bureau was based on a Philip K Dick story. Dick was a legendary s/f writer. I even read a few of his stories, and saw all of the movies based on his works. The list is short, but telling. Granted his name isn’t household regarding film adaptions like, say, Stephen King, Harry Potter or 3/4 of the Marvel titles out there, including those yet to written. Still, the fact that any of Dick’s esoteric s/f stories got the Hollywood treatment surprises me.

I say telling because most, if not all of Dick’s library regard reading it requires scratching one’s head into psoriasis. His isn’t casual s/f, and barely user friendly. Yet their adaptations into film usually work well (I credit the directors). I’ve seen Blade Runner (fave go-to film and duh), Total Recall (the first one. Can’t believe I have to quantify that), Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly (an early installment here at RIORI, and not a good one) and Bureau. So when I finally discovered Dick posthumously wrote the screenplay, I was like: “Oh. Okay.” Found this out after a 24 hour pause then on with the second act. The film made a lot more sense. Not in story, but in execution. Here’s what we got back from the lab:

Real quick. I feel it worth mentioning that Dick was a writer who was always asking questions. Primarily his muse was always demanding of him, “What is reality?” I also feel it worth mentioning Dick was a paranoiac, speedfreak and riddled with phobias (eg: he could eat in front of other people. Guess ol’ Phil wasn’t much of a “foodie”) that no doubt informed his work. All of his adapts have taken his musings to heart; from Blade Runner to Bureau, Dick’s films love to blur the edges about what you see is what you see. Now activate the esper machine, please.

Bureau is no different. The very slight undercurrent of paranoia looms large here. To think there is some omniscient team regulating reality, well that’s all about They, isn’t it? I say undercurrent for this film is pretty low-key for a s/f thriller. We got no Tom Cruise juggling balls here, literally or metaphorically. No. We have Damon’s scales fall from his eyes about how the “real world” works and off he goes, back to work and stalking Blunt again. In another movie of this ilk there’d be some drop and panic. Some all-powerful entity pulling humanity’s puppet strings to some end—good or evil, who knows?—might just give pause to the protag who stumbled on to such machinations.

With Bureau? Nope. This is an odd combo of mystery and rom-com, minus the com part. Heck, the hottest moments don’t start coming until well into the second act. Most of the time we’re wondering what’s so special about David that the Bureau takes interest in his career and nascent relationship with Elise. And what’s so special about Elise that also caught the eye of the men in the hats. We’re mostly left to scratching our heads, with no real answers in sight. If they ever come.

Not to say that Bureau is some sort of canard. The jagged story is engaging, but it requires patience. Meaning there was me, with furrowed brows and “What am I watching here?” bouncing around my brainpan. Any suspense in Bureau is created by the looming undertow of paranoia, psychology and passive aggression. All of it. All decent suspense films like to play with your head. Bureau decidedly does not play with your head, and that gets unsettling. Especially when our heroes go back to life as usual after being exposed to the real reality. After digesting all the craftiness the Bureau employs to keep reality on the straight and narrow, our pawns carrying on with their existence (a manipulated one) feels very…weird. Unsettling. The abnormal is the new normal, so don’t behave abnormally, David.

About Damon. After all these years I’ve never warmed up to his smarm. Most his memorable roles required him to be a callow youth (even into his late 30s. Ever see The Departed? Kinda distracting) against near insurmountable cinematic goobley-gook. Portraying a salt-of-the-earth politician, job requirements are lip service and charming the public? Smarm works here. And what is smarm but the behavior of a repentant assh*le? Well, assh*le may be a bit much regarding David’s everyday conduct, but said conduct is endearing when couched in insecurity. David’s whole world has gone all topsy-turvy, and believes (correctly) that forces are colluding against him. When all that artifice gets stripped away he is exposed. Naked. Volitile. Scared. Damon’s smarminess becomes the ideal gateway to earn the audiences sympathy. Clever. The same thing didn’t work in The Departed, remember? Sure different kind of movie, but same Damon. Turning Matt on his ear was a good thing, otherwise I’d keep replaying the scene where the Agents were slapping him around. Hell, after sitting through Good Will Hunting one too many times I’d be first in line to slap that smug grin off his puss.

I wasn’t familiar with Emily Blunt’s work prior to Bureau, but she earned me as a fan here (enough to be charged to see Mary Poppins Returns this Xmas. It was awesome, BTW). It’s always a treat to discover an actress who can pull of smart and sweet in the same breath. Such characters are so rare it takes and obscure Dick adapt to present one. Her steely Elise was the perfect foil to Damon’s overgrown gamin grin. Good chemistry, and I think the casting director earned their stripes pitting these two against each other. Granted their fractured relationship is the Maguffin here, front and center, but there was enough nuauce to let us know not all is as it seems, let alone theirs is just a fling. It’s the lurking paranoia again. Coincidences don’t just happen in David’s world. They are structured, and flinty Elise is the fulcrum on which David’s world now balances.

Sounds like heavy sh*t, right? Considering the source material and the whole “They are out to get you” stance, you may be right. Me? Wasn’t so sure. For such dire sequences to happen for the Bureau, there’s a kind of light-heartedness to the whole affair. So the speak. I took some patience, but I eventually realized that Bureau managed to (just barely) deftly blurred romance against s/f. Right, it was without the -com; precious little humor lurking within this grey movie. But in the final act we got the “love conquers everything” without the schmatlz and sniffles. That there’s a fluffy trifle, but for a Dick script? That’s…well, heavy. Overall I dug that.

Mackie is fast becoming a fave actor of mine. His Harry sets the wheels in motion, and across the film he’s the only emotional construct of the Bureau. He’s the canary in the coalmine, chirping about danger. A metaphysical babelfish, alluding to all that the Norris matter isn’t so simple by keeping him and Elise apart. Mackie is adept at using his body at converying emotion, especially his eyes. His is all so subtle, you’re not sure what you’re watching until you do. I know that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and it’s probably all about believing it when you see it, but as the painter Frank Stella once said, “What you see is what you see” (that’s an eponym from Travels. See? Full circle).

I was gonna talk about the tech side of Bureau (I dug the camera work), but that’s seconadry stuff, better suited for a Cameron tech splash. No. The only machine at work here in Bureau was…um. Okay. Ever seen a movie that was creepy yet not? The creepiness factor here is made known by making the abstract plot so…so rationalBureau is supposed to be high concept s/f, but picking at the scab of paranoia that haunts all of us? There is someone not only out to get you, but to lead you lemming-like to your ulimate fate? Feels that way sometimes, right? If not often. And chances are you won’t earn your audience back and Emily Blunt chose the ladies’ room.

I think this intallment has been one of my better ones. Sometimes laying off the snark and jokes makes it easier to explain what I got out of a film and maybe you, too. But it’s not like I’m directing you to watch Bureau. I’ll advise, but never demand, control you to watch a film I broke down here at RIORIB.

*cue Black Sabbath riff*

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It takes time and attention to get going, but once Bureau does, you’re going to watch it again to break it down. And again. And again. And…

Stray Observations…

  • “This is the job.”
  • Men in fedoras in the 21st Century. Never a good sign.
  • “You’re bald.” Damon’s characters have always been good at busting balls. It’s disarming.
  • Why does it seem that would-be politicians running for office are often undone by past impetuousness of a long ago youth? Judge Kavanaugh, I’m looking at you.
  • “I just felt like someone was watching us.”
  • She was barefoot in the mens’ room?!? Gross!
  • “You matter, David. You really can.”
  • Editing blooper: Damon’s model of smartphone switches back and forth on the bus ride. Call me dork.
  • “That is…totally unexpected.”

Next Installment…

Bruce Willis wonders where The Kid in him went. Good thing a screechy Spencer Breslin appears to answer and horrify him. Where’s the dog?

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 77: Ryan Fleck’s “Half Nelson” (2006)

The Players…

Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps, with Anthony Mackie, Tina Holmes, Jay O Sanders, Deborah Rush and Denis O’Hare.

The Story…

Dan is a teacher and an addict. Drey is one of his students, streetwise and fragile. After Drey finds “Teach” feeding his habit in the girls’ locker room, she unwittingly becomes a conduit for a life-changing lesson.

Rather, it might be something simpler that that. Maybe they both just need a friend.

The Rant…

Okay, for starters: the last installment about Todd Phillips’ Starsky & Hutch sendup was not my best work. I know this. I apologize. I was late and it was tired. Still, the flick was pretty funny. Good time waster. Saturday night and no place to go? Crack a sixer, stream Hutch and giggle some. Lather rinse repeat.

This time out we’re gonna get a bit down. Set the controls for the heart of the navel.

I’m gonna break an unofficial rule here at RIORI, if only for this week’s scratching post. Apart from the weekly victim’s poster shot, there’s never been any graphics here for any installment. This was intentional. Partly because of the out of control JPG feces smeared virtually all across the blogosphere. I often find such pixelation run riot nothing more than a distraction to divert attention away from the writing. And its content. And its merit. And maybe the sh*t had precious little of either so dopey whiz-bang would have to do to get your attention. Hell, that’s easier than actually have to read something. We get bubblegum instead. Regarding all the non-hits I get here I figure that’s a safe assumption. Chew chew chew spit.

RIORI was established as a soapbox to preach the crimes/merits of mediocre films. Never said in The Standard that the blog proper had to show sh*t. That’s the movie’s job. I’m just some hack that’s pretty okay with words. I have no place (nor the talent) to splat sum purty pictures all up in this joint. Still feel too many, if any tears your winnowing attention span from the meat I butcher here. Now get off Snapchat.

Now then.

I’m making an exception this time out. Felt for some whacked out reason that a particular picture well-illustrated the feel of this week’s film. Call it an acid test, and avoid the brown stuff.

So, quick quiz. Anyone out there recognize the picture below? Show of hands:

Wrong. It’s Edward Hopper’s signature piece Nighthawks. He cut it back in 1942 as WW2 was raging overseas. New York was less raging late at night, as indicated by the plaintive faces of the diner’s patrons. Such a scene could’ve gone down anywhere with anyone. Lots of folks claim that that’s the painting’s appeal. It’s a lonely looking, isolated piece, and who hasn’t ever felt alone and isolated? If you say not me, you’re boring and a liar. Which is why you own an XBox One.

According to Hopper’s wife, Edward would write a sort of “bible,” as in Hollywood, not Nazareth. This kind of bible is in essence a script to how he would approach his next project, all players present and at the ready. Hopper was a scenarist as well as a painter, and Nighthawks definitely tells a story, probably (or in spite of) what the painting outright illustrates.

Back in the day, Hopper explained his muse for Nighthawks was the notion of being alone in a crowd. Like in a fishbowl. NYC was and is the most densely populated place in the US of A. Kinda hard to be alone in the crowded belly of that beast. Still, no matter how swollen the population of any gotham may be, there are always those pockets of humanity who don’t (or necessarily want to) feel part of the usual hustle. Some folks just feel outside of it all, by circumstance or choice. All alone in a crowd.

Besides the obvious story stewing within Hopper’s masterpiece of fedoras and coffee cups, there’s a lot of subtle, masked details that reinforce being alone in a crowd. And forget the image takes place at night. That’s a truism. I read about these tips and tricks from an article on MentalFloss, and if you can’t trust those geeks, who can you trust? Not me, that’s for damn sure. Keep reading.

First off, consider the diner’s the blinding lights. Hopper tweaked with a veritable infinite palate of colors and kinds of paint to recreate the blaring glare of the then new fluorescent lights. Ever been in a dressing room? Those bastards reveal everything. I think the damned things add five inches to your waistband faster than binging on fried Oreos basted in fried hot dogs. Those beasts are called “rippers” BTW, which do just that to your arteries. In short, that glare spotlights our diners, which maybe they just don’t want being alone, or maybe it’s just what they need. You be the judge.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Right. The painting.

Everybody is slouching, most notably the server. There are only three reasons in one’s miserable life when you slouch: lower back pain (and you can imagine how much that server demands Tramadol),  resignation to the weight life has placed on one’s shoulders, and sharing a secret. I think all three (well, maybe not the snapping white truss candidate) are in effect with Nighthawks, and all of that screams being alone. And not being particularly keen about that on all fronts. Again, resignation to the all of it all.

(I know. Settle down. I’m being pretty sedate and dull-edged so far this time out. To paraphrase the immortal Bill Hicks: “Don’t worry. There’s dick jokes on the way. I’m a professional.” Now quit yawning; I’m being calculating here, and it’s pertient to the movie. Dick.)

The last, most telling detail in the picture is this (I missed it for years. All hail MentalFloss): there’s no door to the diner. And I own a print of this painting, like every tortured writer does. Mandate (my copy is hanging in the guest bathroom). No entrance, no exit. It’s all plate glass, another new invention back in 1942. Recall what I mentioned about a fishbowl? Here you are. Are our nighthawks isolated, cut off from the dark, late night world or are they imprisoned with their chosen loneliness? Unsure on both fronts, and that I feel is the painting’s hook. It might be what draws your attention. Is the diner a haven or a prison? I’m gonna bet on red.

Where am I going with all this trainspotting (look it up, beyond the Scottish smack metaphors for choosing life)? It’s sometimes being alone is necessary for mental survival. You find yourself alone for myriad reasons. You got dumped. You get lost. There’s that whole Stephen King Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon dire sitch. All such things force you to have to rely on your wits, which all too often turn inwards. Either that or dwell on your solitude (hence the XBox snag earlier). It may be uncomfortable, but it usually and ultimately results in some sort of psychical detox. Hang with no one but yourself for a while and you’re gonna come to some conclusion about the whole life, the universe and everything. Here’s hoping.

The flipside, however is this, loneliness’ brother in Mensa: aloneness, which might have been what Hopper was trying to illustrate (so to speak). There’s a difference between being alone and aloneness. A big difference. The best explanation of the divide between the two came from esteemed, cranky futurist writer Harlan Ellison. I’m going to paraphrase to avoid possible litigation. Being alone is seldom a choice. It’s circumstantial, and you’re usually a victim of it. Reactive.

Aloneness is proactive. Ellison cited choosing to make a small meal just for his own pleasure (and palate) a fine definition. I choose to eat alone. Could get a dinner date if I wanted to. I just don’t want to. I’ll take a swim in my own fishbowl, thank you. You can go f*ck off and call Papa John’s. I got a hankering for paella, and I don’t wanna share. Nope.

But like with Nighthawks’ aloneness—if this what was Hopper was driving at—it can be a double-edged sword. It can trap you. The XBox thing again (I’ll stop now). Too much time chosen to be alone—cut off—morphs into being alone, koo koo JJ Abrams device not withstanding. How’s that? Well, inviting deliberate antisocial behavior for one; getting trapped in a cycle of behaving like a doosh to serve its own ends will seldom get you on any Senior Superlative lists. Finding yourself blowing off your buddies one too many times, well-dedicated to said trainspotting (not choosing life, Renton. Look it up already) with leveling up your Hunewrl ace avatar on Phantasy Star Blue (blogger’s hand held high).

Or trickle towards aberrant behavior, the self-destructive kind. Be it via too many nights with the…PS4 or sitting in bed reading one too many James Patterson potboilers in rapid succession and/or find yourself abusing yourself in a motel room, tired of waiting for that tardy call girl and couldn’t afford Spectravision. Pretty lonely place is they still have Spectravision. Tawdry stuff like that. Could happen to us all. Where’s a late night, 24 hour diner when you need one? At least they have other people and hash browns.

If the aloneness goes terribly awry, you could always get messed up with substance abuse. Not such a far cry is you think about it. OD on selected solitude for too long, you need an out. Stimulus. Refire those cylinders double-quick. Most drug tales mention the need to “get out.” No matter what opium den you’re on the nod in, surrounded by a bevy of well-used puke buckets, drug abuse is a surefire way to justify, if not “earn” that aloneness. Never fear, you’re not alone here. Wreck invites wreck. I should know.

Confession time, and maybe a bunch of you yahoos out there smelled something. I am a recovering addict, and was quite alone—by “choice”—with my pills, my liquor and my Sega Dreamcast. It was a long time back; I’m feeling better now. But that kind of aloneness the denizens of Hopper’s masterwork would probably opt out of.

That’s enough for now.

Abrupt? Sure, but it’s a good way to avoid graphics. Quit chewing on the bubblegum. The actual outside world can get too loud. Might be a good idea to seek out some anti-haven, like a late night diner to hang with strangers with a lot on their minds, too. And don’t sweat none. Just read the synopsis and I’ll meet you on the other side.

Just breathe, have another mugful against that comfortable night, and find some escape where you can…

Dan Dunne (Gosling) is an excellent history teacher. Vibrant, engaging and gets through to his inner city class with humor and passion. Most of his jaded students are down with his lessons and pull okay grades. The rest? Well, Mr Dunne sure is funny, so we’ll hang back and hang around. Guy’s got a weird energy.

It’s unfortunate that Mr Dunne’s passion for teaching is fueled by more than sh*tty teachers’ lounge coffee.

Mr Dunne is also the girls’ basketball coach. One of his star players is the quiet, surly Drey (Epps), also one of his history pupils. Drey is whip-smart, but sodden with the trials of having divorced/absentee dad Frank (Mackie) who may or may not be dealing drugs. It is what it might, and Drey hates feeling the pressure of what that “might” might mean.

“Teach” is a self-declared expert in that field. After a winning b-ball game, Dan “celebrates” the victory with some well-earned drags from a crack pipe. Things do not got well. As he nearly OD’s Drey comes looking for a decent stall to take a leak. She finds Teach squirming, ill and a far cry from the dynamic history teacher taken for granted. He looks scary, and Drey is rightfully scared.

They exchange stares, and a silent deal is struck. Drey will keep Teach’s addiction secret, and he’ll give her the proper attention and respect.

After he clears up first, of course…

So yeah, we got another character study on our hands here. Been running rampant lately.

I might have brought this up before, but there is a madness to my method when I pick the weekly flick and kneel before the guillotine. Beyond The Standard’s standards, my selections are bookended in a pattern. Drama then comedy, heavy against light, rumination and later some farting. Yin and yang. Circle of life, Simba.

So yeah, mentioned this in the Scott Pilgrim vs The World installment. To keep it simple, I was strung out and rudderless. No job, no prospects, and struggling to detox on my own. Wasn’t easy; no insurance to afford rehab. Began re-frequenting my old comic shop as a lark. The cranky owner sensed something and offered me a job. First one I had in years.

And now to not keep it simple. Make sure your seats are in the full, upright position.

Oh yeah, the following, rambling diatribe would’ve been better attached to the rant proper above. But my imp of the perverse screeched pishaw and insisted I trick the readers into your subtle-as-neon segue pairing real, personal strife against fake, well-acted strife courtesy of Ryan “Mickey Mouse Club” Gosling.


Here’s how getting dry goes. For the first 2 days after keeping the bottle corked, you get all anxious. A pattern is being altered. The thing about drinking is that it is on a very strict schedule, if you’re a pro. It’s kind of like a workout. A shot at 9 AM. A few cocktails at lunch, between noon and one (two if you got nowhere else to go, and you don’t). Happy hour kicks at five. Or if you want to be left alone for the later hours (when whiskey and DreamCast wait patiently) around 8. Then you wake up with an angry, black ball of pain behind your eyes, ready to get back on that horse.

Day 3 is when the trembling starts. Your nerves and muscles don’t know what to do with themselves. Sweats are common, smelling of residual booze once trapped in your pores. Hello, they’ve unleashed the Kraken. You stink of piss, and not just from your crotch, either. This is nature’s detox. What the liver couldn’t take anymore (it’s more akin to air being slowly released from a balloon) is now pissing out of you pale skin. Needless to say, it’s unpleasant.

Pills? Pills are different. They know no schedule. If one exists, it’s based on…whenever. My choice was Valium. Want the world to go away in a hazy shade of winter? There you go. Everything goes numb. Takes a few drinks to get all empty-headed; give it an hour maybe. One Valium and where did the last 5 hours go? Who gives a f*ck? All the voices become an echo. All the images have afterimages. You feel like warm caramel. Thank you sir may i have another…

Kicking against the pricks, as Nick Cave quoted. Trying to tame an unruly animal. That’s what addiction’s all about. First you get high to feel good, then you keep getting high to not feel bad. Push and pull, and despite what Hollywood may make you believe (e.g.: The Man With The Golden Arm, Requiem For A Dream, and [of course] Trainspotting), getting high is decidedly not a social affair. Addiction is usually a solitary affair. Even Renton had monologues.

No. Addictions are private things. Even in a crowd, kinda like that Hopper picture. Alone in some crowd. Even though the lines, trips, binges and whatever else you rub into your belly can waffle between closed doors or beer busts, you are always alone. Your needs, your fix, your complete understanding all these other creeps have no idea what you’re on about let alone what you’re onit’s always a private affair.

(There’s this film thing coming on down the line. Dick jokes, remember?)

Quick tale from my time in AA, which I sanely quit after 6 months. Wait. Quit? Six? “Sanely?” Yep. Drumroll.

I spent 6 months in the program, trying to dry out and get some insight. Neither happened. Here’s why: I joined up as an addict with other addicts. Had to clean up my act. That’s what I told my eventual sponsor, at any rate. Last time he called me was April of this year. I joined up in the winter of 2014. Alone in some crowd me, I guess.

I bailed after that scant half year for 2 reasons. One, it was depressing. Addicts talking about their addiction which had become their new addiction. I could not bear an hour of sad drunk stories by three different, ostensibly now cheery recovering alcoholics (which would never fail to bring up an endless recovery, like it was some damned vision quest) drying out their laundry for a bunch of strangers (anonymous, remember?) of their failings thanks to John Barleycorn. Oh, and forsaking the Bible. Did I mention that Bible bit? Nope.

Let me tell you this, thine padawan: month after month after spilling the beans that hit the floor 5, 10, eighty years ago does not invite therapy. It does the opposite: an hour of whining with no practical advice (save from example to not butt chug beers in parochial school) is just that, whining. All those poor sods who testified were alone. In a crowd. Of strangers who hopefully took away something. Like a rash of the psyche. Now let’s hold hands and recite the Lord’s Prayer. Too bad if you’re Jewish. Or Muslim. Or Native American, for f*ck’s sake.

I told you that hot mess to tell you this tepid mess. The second thing. There was one and only one AA meeting that offered some good advice. Came from a old man, lived alone, no one else to talk with save his fellow nighthawks. His words stuck with me, and although I still hit the bottle (mostly when I get all wordsmith-y here at RIORI), it’s in kind amounts. And when I enjoy my beer, the man’s simple soliloquy echoes in my brain.

“Every time I wanna reach for the bottle, I pick up a book instead. Never knew how much was there to learn out there.”


And I took it, if only as durable yeoman’s work. Sh*t, it was the only bit of non-self righteous advice I ever got from that monkey house. Those 2 sentences served me a lot better than, “…And when I rammed that third school bus of kids, y’know, the one that runs at 3 AM…” (applause and hold hands). So I went home and picked up a book or two, found them heavy and decided to get back into writing again instead.

Healthy BS, right? Sure it is. Never curled up nice and stinky in the girls’ bathroom of some dumpy high school mainlining scotch into my c*ck, right? Hail Columbia.

There was a movie in here somewhere, right?

*looks down the neck of a spent Sam Adams*

Nope. Not there. Now here. And rewind.

Half Nelson is yet another character study. I say that so drab possibly due to watching way too many character study dramas here at RIORI. Again, The Standard said nothing about genres, and it seems when it comes to possible mediocrity in drama character studies are the default. Come to think of it, most dramas are character studies, just less naked than comedies or slasher flicks. For films like Nelson it’s a slow wind up before the pitch.

Nelson takes its time. From the get-go you understand that Dan is just a part to play. It’s as if he wakes up, curses the clock, rubs his gums and dons a cape to be ultra-teacher-man, a force he’s fully invested in since the truth is pretty f*cking lame. Dan’s real reality is that he walks around in a narcotic fog most of the time, fooling himself he’s a dynamite teacher (and according to the scenes in the classroom, he is). He’s just not invested in it. His job is merely hang time between the next fix and self-loathing. That being said, Gosling as scuzzy here—an endearing rapscallion, really. He’s not overtly malicious—is far better than the scuzzy Driver in Drive (Installment 2, volume 1). Two opposing animals, but violence is still violence, whether by crowbar or crackpipe.

Nelson creeps. It sometimes gives you the creeps, but not in some Freddy Kruger kind of way. There is no outright horror, just a slow descent into doom. We learn quick that Dan is doomed. Feels doomed rather, and is passively crying out for help. So passive in fact that his demeanor yells “do not touch me. Please.” The chat he has with his former lover in the park, how she found her new man in REDACTED results on bleak congrats and a whirlwind take on that’s not his thing. Of course she cries a little. It’s kind of expected. And Dan expects it. And later retreats to his hovel to be alone again, the madding crowd of life at bay.

That’s telling. Addiction makes you numb to yourself. I know. You read the other sh*t above, right? Surprise, it’s pertinent here for Nelson. It has the creeps, but this movie is ultimately less creepy than dire. It’s like Rickie Lee Jones’ first album. Disarming in its frankness. We’re talking “warts and all” here. Even though Dan comes across a decent person, you can tell “Teach” is a veneer. The cokefiend always reigns supreme.

Like the scene where Drey accidentally witnesses her role model writhing in drug sickness. Let me tell you: Epps was a revelation. She’s adept at being equally hard and soft. BTW, do you know what a “drey” is? A squirrel’s nest, where the skittish creatures may call home, atop the trees and away from the possible dangers on the streets. Unsure if the scenarists were aiming for such a metaphor, but Epps is equally skittish and concerned with Dan, the most reliable father figure she’s ever known. But she also knows it’s all just a skein; Dan is broken inside. So is she, and better at hiding it with school, b’ball and ignoring her real Dad who might be some pusher. Chuck E’s in love supreme.

Let’s talk more about young Ms Epps. Never have I seen such a pouty face express such distress and hope so well. Epps is diminutive, a tomboy and clearly is bearing a shield against her world. Her Drey was intense, so much so that she borders on unpleasant. But don’t confuse unpleasant with being uninteresting. Gosling may have been the lead, but Epps was the star. Her performance as the just-barely-holding-it-together, feigned-tough-as-nails girl from the streets was just as fragile and empathetic as Gosling’s, but digesting her struggles made Dunne’s addiction weak in comparison. Oh, you’re addicted to blow? At least you can afford blow. And my daddy might be your connection, you liar you. Yeah, like that.

It’s not all scorn and sullen with Drey, though. Despite she discovers Dan is an addict she doesn’t shun the guy. He’s Teach first, and has been the only decent male role model she’s know for a time. This may sound kinda weird but after the whole “busted” scene Epps not only warms up to Gosling but sorta becomes his life coach. Think about it: your kid’s teacher spends upwards to 6 hours a day in close proximity with your child, hopefully imparting knowledge and cultivating a skillset that’ll get said kid through life. This is low-rent parenting, to be sure, but still the teacher is in charge of your son/daughter/antelope for one quarter of the day. He/she should be a pillar of strength, both educated and moral. Dan is one half, and Drey takes up the reigns for the other. That being said, an argument could be made that Dan is passively using people to find a center. Drey may be, too. Some sort of reverse Lolita complex at the fringes here. Or maybe it’s just ships in the night. Like trawler against dinghy, but still who knows? How they interact with one another, naked makes for delicious tension as well as the hook. You want—need to know where their story is going. I did.

I sense a certain reaching for elegance in Nelson. Yeah, it’s gritty. Often filthy. Still hope nips at the corners, like some Shar Pei demanding a yapping b’room break at her choice tree. Direct elegance regarding one of the best stories ever written about such codes: cold and hot, yin and yang, good and evil. That stuff again.

Robert L Stevenson’s The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde.

Stop, stop, stop. Slow down and quit chewing on the carpet. I ain’t making outright comparisons, nor implying writer/director Fleck lifted his sh*t from this tale twice told ten times. No. That filth and hope dynamic? Aye, there’s the rub. It’s a good rule to follow in a dramatic character study that you need some solid foils. Despite Stevenson’s book having the two foils as one, it nailed the notion of black and white being inseparable. That being said, we got some heavy-handed stereotyping going on here with Nelson, but it’s well-crafted. Strung-out white guy with a decent education that granted his decent job, his own place, no reason to shave and miles of coke at the ready. But his own place is a rathole, he re-wears his shirts based on how bad the pits stink and his bookshelf is choked with books he read ages ago, with no new editions on anything.

And snort.

Drey lives in a solid apartment where the laundry gets done, albeit in “the projects” (a throwaway term these days in movies concerning black people. Might as well use the phrase “in exile”). She has an absentee mom due to her grueling work schedule, but she always finds the time to make the time. Sure, the cooking may suck, and the dirty dishes require a cold chisel to get them approaching clean. Drey has a mild shield against all of this domestic crap (which in turn might be the ultimate mystical crap), her casual father, Frank. And how keen is a name like that towards Drey’s odd family dynamic? It’s not too many lollipops; that’s done the most damage. It’s the overbearing uncertainty of everything. Consider the dinner scene dichotomy. But overall Drey knows she can rely on Teach.

Hope vs despair. Who’s gonna win? Neither, and that’s where our quandary. Nelson is a film about being alone, by choice or by defense and smeared across a tricky social spectrum. Yet, it really ain’t all that tricky to divine.

I know I’ve been rather cagey in picking Nelson apart. Apart from the Nighthawks/Jekyll And Hyde/addiction stories, my take on the movie is that despite its tropes, in encompasses all the jazz I’ve been waxing poetic for for the past jillion paragraphs. You can kind of see where it’s going, but it doesn’t. Nelson is sneaky. It’s creepy, dire and plays on your expectations like a well-conducted orchestra. It manages to transcend its trappings thanks to the honest, unlikely chemistry between Dan and Drey. After all, “Daniel” is Hebrew for “God is my judge” and “Drey” (short for Andrea) is derived from the Greek word for “warrior.” Yeah, I actively looked that up. We got a tale in duality here; better honor it with pointed symbolism.

And Nelson is pointed. All the angular, myriad yet tired devices used here are used well. Well-crafted, like I said, but still derivative. Don’t make me remind you again about the blues. The strengths of this film lie squarely on the shoulders of our leads. If almost loathe to admit that here with Nelson dang, Gosling can act. It’s mostly thanks to Epps, though. I’m quite the fan now, even though this was her ostensible film debut. She carried herself with iron and grace. Beyond all the heavy-handed shame and squalor, Epps’ performance guides the Finding Forrester-esque plotline towards the divine.

Am I overselling this? Maybe, and don’t whine. Considering how some geeks dissect the first Star Wars trilogy against the prequels against The Force Awakens, my woolgathering is tame. But on the whole a solid story is a solid story, regardless of its trappings. This may have been yet another character study, but the characters made it work.

As well as the atmosphere which wore the cloak of selective solitude, nasty duality and clinging to non-life. Nelson isn’t necessarily a dark film, but it sure is grey. We do get elements of light here and there, but they are short and ultimately fleeting with shadows creeping at the corners. It’s all a good thing. Despite itself.

Now it’s time to hit a meeting, then a diner, then my navel and finally a fresh bottle.

I have another movie to screen. I need to get alone.

And I don’t own an XBox.

Dick joke…

Guy goes to a plastic surgeon. Complains that his penis is too small and is rather insecure about this. Doctor recommends a radical procedure. Take the tissue from a baby elephant’s trunk—won’t hurt the elephant, won’t hurt you—and implant the tissue into your penis. Success rate is high, you’ll be twice the man you were. Literally.

Guy opts for the procedure and it’s a success. He’s feeling so confident about his new manhood that he asks that cute co-worker girl on a date. She accepts.

So they’re at this posh restaurant, drinking and laughing. The server sets down a basket of breads on the table and walks away. The moment he leaves the guy’s dick springs up from under the table, grabs a roll and yanks it below decks.

Guy is red with embarrassment. The girl is bemused.

“Hey,” she says, “Do you think you could do that again?”

Through tight lips the guy says, “Um, I’m not sure. I don’t think my ass could handle another roll.”

Rimshot. Groans. Small bow.

Stray Observations…

  • That wobbly Homocide-esque camera work is distracting. Maybe for a reason?
  • “I hate…” Palm wipe.
  • Gosling has all but mastered the art of being distant here.
  • “Is that gum in your mouth?” Teachers.
  • That tic, the collar sniff.
  • “You shoulda seen the wall.”
  • Right on the nose. Sorry.
  • “One thing doesn’t make a man.”
  • Trainspotting: engaging in an activity one thinks is important, but is in reality a waste of time.
  • “You have a good night.”

Next Installment…

Keanu Reeves is John Constantine, Hellblazer. Con man and occult detective, keeping the forces of evil at bay for just the right price.