RIORI Presents Installment #193: Joe Dante’s “Looney Tunes: Back In Action” (2003)


The Film…


The Humans…

Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, Timothy Dalton, Joan Cusack, Heather Locklear, Bill “Goldberg” Goldberg and Steve Martin.


The Tunes…

Joe Alaskey, Jeff Bennett, Billy West and Eric “Not Goldberg” Goldberg.


The Plot…

When Daffy Duck quits his job as second banana at Warner Brothers, security guard DJ gets tasked with keeping that ungrateful quack off the lot.

On the flip side, comedy maven Kate needs Daffy back in the ranks—you can’t have Bugs without Daffy after all—so she and star wascally wabbit Bugs Bunny are on the case.

But this is no simple snatch and grab/road trip. Oh no. The secrets this goony quartet discover along the way might alter the course of history!

And maybe coerce Daffy to come home and renegotiate his contract. Maybe.


The Rant…

Let me share with you my late Saturday mornings back when I was a pup. Betcha most of you out there in the blogosphere have a similar story.

Before Saturday morning cartoons were relegated to cable on the Disney Channel and Nick the major networks gave over their usual airings of game shows and talk shows to broadcasting cartoons from, say, six AM until noon to bring in the weekend for kids like me. We were glad and relieved to get away from schoolroom drudgery for 48 hours (unless that dope of a 5th grade science teacher gave us homework over the blessed weekend. I could’ve cared less about what mitochondria do for the cell. Ugh). giving over to a morning of silliness, action and whatever you could describe Pee-Wee’s Playhouse was. That and too many bowls of neon colored cereal designed to overload your carburetor, God willing.

Getting right to point (for once) my Saturday morning viewing habits concluded with Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends (Iceman and Firestar of the X-Men), The Bugs And Daffy Show and finally Soul Train, where I caught up on the newest rap artists. Then I had to go mow the lawn. That’s how it went for a lot of Gen Xer’s I’ll bet. Not just the lawn mowing, nor grooving to the likes of Run-DMC or Kurtis Blow (an aside: opposite Soul Train was American Bandstand, which I detested. What turned me off was the prattle of America’s oldest teenage dork Dick Clark, which cardboard had more charm), but the immortal Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. The Looney Tunes! Classic and timely in the same package.

Those cartoons had something for everyone, kids and adults alike. Keep in mind that those classic ‘toons were shown after the previews in theaters back in the 1940’s and 50’s, aimed for mass appeal. Well before Pixar. Well before pixels even. For children of all ages. If you consider it, the Looney Tunes were the progenitors for the likes of modern parody and satiric cartoons like The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park. Okay, granted the Looney’s were not as overtly topical or scatological as the aforementioned establishments, but they were damn good at poking fun at…well, everything, at least back in the early 40s. They could also skirt around being subversive when they wanted to (EG: what was with all the cross-dressing?). Some of the best shorts was when the toons directed their mockery at real life celebrities, skewering the pop culture of the day. Example, sister series Merrie Melodies provided “Slick Hare,” which both lampooned and celebrated all the real-life stars in the Warner Studios in the forties. Here’s a sample. Check it.

I’m figuring that was Lauren Bacall as Bogie’s date.

So why have the Looney Tunes endured, while equal acts back then like Woody Woodpecker and Popeye kinda fell into obscurity? Because, Doc, on the most part they could be reinterpreted by each generations’ audience. They were funny, they were topical, both factors carry over, as well as being their being irreverent. I believe that’s the key; the Tunes winking and nudging and trolling and just being zany enough to ignore the rules of physics, both scientific and why the hell don’t any of Wile E’s Acme deliveries never work yet he won’t delete his account profile? And where’s he getting the funding for all the crap? We don’t care. Just keep being funny, guys. Just keep being.

That zaniness paired with irreverence—the self-effacing, wink wink nudge nudge delivery—is why the Toons have survived for so long. Even back in the 90s, with the updated gags of Tiny Toon Adventureswhere Buster and Babs Bunny took cues from Uncle Bugs, there were even more sight gags of social relevance as well as pop culture roasting of the trends of the day (EG: I really dug the ep of TTA when it was all music videos highlighting the goofy brilliance of They Might Be Giants. Buster: “Who are these guys?”). Thus saying, the Tunes can adapt to the times, as well as be revisited in all their silly, non-PC glory from back in the day. Circle of life. As comedy goes, the tropes that got it right as far as staying power goes follows like Monty PythonSNL, MST3K and of course the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies franchise. And how’s this? Relevance, dependability and reinvention, which is all those series had in spades. Still do.

I get it that the Tunes aren’t that sharp to reinvention, despite they originated in the movie theaters, which mocked their output. However when it came time for a live action adaptation (a la Roger Rabbit), which was far overdue for the big screen, how would Bugs and crew adapt this time out? We’re in the 21st Century now, and a lot of the non-PC gags which made the shorts so great back in the day would be taboo now. We’re not talking cancel culture here, and I kinda doubt Yosemite Sam hamming it up as a demented Johnny Reb, the Kaiser’s egotistic WWI pilot or the hare trigger happy outlaw Yosemite Sam we know and love today would translate across the decades. A lot of the Tunes mana was parody, slapstick and occasional satire. All welcome today—I repeat, South Parkbut the Tunes modus operandi was not to offend any sensibilities. They were drawn to be funny, packed fair and square. These days we can plainly see a bit of cultural insensitivity here and there, but it’s there and gone in a flash and not the whole of the short, as opposed to Walt Disney’s “blackface” animation Song Of The South, released in the same period. All anyone got out of that mistake was the catchy “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” song that, admittedly, won the Oscar for best original song. Precious few know that song due to the ultra-conservative take on it. However up the ladder almost anyone knows “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down,” the Looney Tunes theme song. There, now you know the title.

As venerable as the Looney Tunes franchise is it’s still lucrative. Still appealing. Consider the Space Jam sequel. Heck, when ten-year-old me was wedged between Peter Parker and Don Cornelius I thought the Tunes were new-fangled, custom made for Saturday mornings. What a shock it was to find Bugs and Daffy were older than my parents. And yes, sometimes the gags haven’t aged well, or at least inspired by arcane studio system trivia from back in the very day. All things considered, the Tunes back on the silver screen was a long time coming. So did Bugs, Daffy and the whole crew have the moxie to pull it of like back in the good ol’ days?

Let’s find out, folks…


The Story…

You’ve heard about things in threes? Beware, beware. But what about things in fours? Or fives even?

DJ (Fraser) is a crummy, clumsy stuntman at Warner Brothers studios. After one too many botches, he’s relegated back to his original job: security guard. He’s not very good at that either. It’s really embarrassing since his dad Damien Drake (Dalton) is their superstar action spy leading man…who scored his klutzy son the guard job in the first place. The apple fell far from the tree regarding DJ.

Meanwhile…

Daffy Duck (Alaskey) has had it being second fiddle to Bugs Bunny (also Alaskey), always enduring Elmer’s shotgun blasts to his feathered face. Daffy’s fed up and won’t renew his contract with the Warners for another season unless he gets his props. WB’s exec of comedy Kate (Elfman) is now tasked to get the duck back in action because, hey, without Daffy Bugs has no cachet. So she and the rabbit jailbreak from the studio to catch up with their duck amok.

Meanwhile…

JD received an urgent message from his superstar dad to come back home…with stowaway Daffy in tow. Dad’s mansion is a tribute to Damien…with a lot of odd decorations. After Daffy accidentally trips a secret message, turns out Damien is a for real spy, and has crucial info regarding the Acme Corporation’s nefarious Chairman (Martin) and his latest plan to generate more nefarious revenue. The Acme Corp? Don’t they fund the Looney Tunes? Oh yeah, and Damien is in their clutches.

Meanwhile…

Looks like it’s up to DJ and Daffy to complete Damien’s mission, not to mention Kate and Bugs’ mission hot on their trail to secure their jobs.

Meanwhile…

What the hell’s a Blue Monkey…?


The Review…

Right off the bat, I must say that this flick wasn’t for everyone. It’s clear that I’m an ardent Looney Tunes fan, but I feel for most my ardor runs very close to culty territory. Most folks I’ve found regard Bugs and company as quaint. A portrait of the animated comedy of yesteryear. In their time the Tunes were cutting edge. Not nearly as polished as their Disney rivals, and all the better for it. Let’s put it this way: no matter how new fangled the latest smartphone gets, the old model that fit the bill (and your palm) was the best phone you ever had, despite its limitations. Mine was my old iPhone 5. It was perfect, and I’m sometimes tempted to assault eBay for a retro purchase. The Tunes aren’t considered flashy now, or even en vogue as far as cartoons go, but they were solid pieces of animated comedy. Always reliable for a laugh. If you disagree you have no sense of humor. You are, as it’s been said, a maroon.

The raw animation of the Tunes couldn’t hold a blowtorch to Mickey’s motley crew, all watercolors and chirpy dialogue. However, the best take on how the Tunes trumped Disney when it came to humor came from disgraced comic Louis CK. His was something along the line of “Bugs Bunny is f*cking funny! Mickey Mouse is like: ‘Oh! Too much water!’.” When I claim that Chuck Jones was a genius the gentry responded with polite indifference: “Didn’t he own that kiddie pizza place?” Most folks don’t know (let alone care) what an acme* is anyway.

So yeah, the Tunes haven’t been much of a going concern lately what with every big budget animated feature having tossed pen to cell into the Dumpster decades ago. Along with my busted iPhone 5, with the ghost of Steve Jobs cackling. Agony. Sure, as of the time of this installment the Space Jam sequel is on it’s way, featuring this generation’s best b-ball players alongside the Tunes. Brand new live action married to CGI animation that is often better than expected. However, there is something to be said about the organic charms of the Tunes old skool cell animation. For one, it was pretty damned good animation. Again, not as polished as Disney, but what the Tunes lacked in technical merit they made up for it in spades when it came to tongue in cheek fun. Tunes tries a good deal to recapture that lightning in a bottle, even with CGI enhanced whatsits. Director Dante got the manic feel right, that zaniness across the board, but the execution felt a bit forced. It scanned like he had a dire mission to bring the Tunes to a 21st Century audience, where everything was madcap, frenetic and ultimately too busy to sit back, inhale and laugh. Blink and you’ll miss it. Tunes was indeed witty, but there was this Doppler effect that when a gag launched, it took a few long seconds to catch up with it. It got kinda exhausting. I’m all for swift pacing, but the parallax shift in Tunes got hard to take let alone me following the story. That was my immediate carp with Action. I wished it would have slowed the f*ck down. ADHD makes for a bad mindset when it comes to watching (and dismantling) any movie, but all was not lost on a Ritalin smoothie. I know that I’m always harping on pacing either making or breaking a flick, and Tunes was hell bent on recreating the zaniness we know and love from the originals at mach 10. The gags and one-liners in Tunes were delivered at such a frenetic pace it left one’s brain swirling on an existential Tilt-A-Whirl. What I’m saying is I needed some breathing room. Ever take in a Michael Bay movie? Get tired of all the boomy things? Me too. It kinda ruins the narrative, even when it doesn’t really matter. Like with The Island.

Zing!

I reckon director Dante was just as much a fanboy as I, and earned his bones with Tunes covering the spread of the WB cartoon universe. Hell, these characters made me laugh as a child of the 80s, and were created in the 40s before my parents knew how to eat solid foods. There’s a lot to digest here (pun intended) canon wise, and like I implied Dante made sure we suffered an overdose. That’s either a delight or a caution depending where you’re perched on the fence. Dutifully, Dante’s output has been pretty hit-or-miss. All of the fantasy films he’s helmed over the years have been a bit fevered, attempt to reconstruct an homage (or mimicry) to Spielberg. However, unlike Steve’s flights of fancy films, which always had a thread of “seriousness” to them (read: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial and even Hook, before God) Dante’s catalog lacks no such pretense. I’ve gathered he’s made films based on cutting his teeth with the B-flicks he loved as a kid. That shows; there’s a teenage guile behind his camera work, snickering all the while. His sh*t won’t win awards, and it doesn’t matter. Ain’t you having as much fun as I am? Your loss. Like with his Innerspace, The ‘Burbs and Matinee (a very telling culprit in his oeuvre), his muse is an amusement park, freewheeling against Spielberg joyously navel-gazing. That sort of aesthetic explains his directing Tunes. It invited migraines, but it worked. Pass the Advil.

To his credit however, Dante did a decent job honoring the legacy as well as acknowledging the fans, Red Bull enemas notwithstanding. What was great about this movie was that virtually ALL of the Looney Tunes got screen time, even the obscure ones like dopey Beaky Buzzard and outlaw Nasty Canasta. Tunes was a who’s who in WB toon-dom, perhaps an urgent plea to indifferent Millennials to get off TikTok for a blip toiling over their lame animations (mostly ripping off the Toons at the outset. It’s a judgement call, but I’m making it) and embrace the feels of old skool animation. Tunes did have a certain scent of catching up the under-informed how vital these characters were and still are. Perhaps not on a collegiate level, but it was very obvious Dante loved and respected the Looney Tunes and wanted to share all with an unassuming love letter. A frothing frenzy of a love letter, but in good spirit dang it.

I figured that Tunes was another nod to all the goodies Dante scooped up and digested as a teenager. My eye spied a fanboy a mile away, and not just towards Looney Tunes. Nope. Tunes was dappled by many nods to classic scenes from the WB vault. Dante was a fan. The riff on Psycho‘s infamous shower scene, maverick and influential filmmaker Roger Corman shows up, a black-and-white Kevin McCarthy shows up at Area 52 lugging an alien pod. And that Pixar dig. The guy did his homework. Not necessarily about out of time pop culture, just to know what to dapple the LT universe with. A tribute, you see. However Dante’s wink wink nudge nudge schtick got to be somewhat tiresome after a while. In other words from fellow LT fans: “We get it.” I guess sometimes there’s always too much of a good thing. Ah, me.

It’s easy to say that the voice cast performed admirably. Alaskey was the primary voice of the Tunes, but the others (particularly West, who has a résumé a mile long, from Ren & Stimpy to Futurama) did their yeoman’s work. I remember seeing Alaskey on several stand-up comedy shows as an impressionist. His bit about Jack Nicholson as Eddie Haskell coming on to Leave It To Beaver‘s June Cleaver was hilarious, as well as Edith Bunker from All In The Family reciting Juliet’s soliloquy from Shakespeare’s best known romantic tragedy was truly inspired, not to mention Ralph Cramden deconstructing the events surrounding Laura Palmer’s murder in Twin Peaks. The guy knew voices, and not just sounding like the characters. The man could enunciate. He had nuance. He wasn’t just sounding like Bugs Bunny, he was Bugs. And I was nothing short of impressed that Alaskey was not only Bugs, but Daffy, and Sylvester, and Tweety, and… Well, the voice crew were no Mel Blanc, but then who could be? Daffy was his usual apoplectic slapstick. Bugs was all cool and detached. Taz slobbered a lot, all in the best honor to Blanc’s polymorphic vocals. Who could ask for anything more? Alaskey was a student, as was West. I’ve seen quite a few YouTube interviews with the man as to how he developed his voice. It was akin to method acting, only with your throat (he voiced Elmer Fudd, ha ha ha). It must’ve been a bit tricky when the casting call came down for all those voices. Wiser heads prevailed. Good job, Mary.

It’s the flesh and blood actors I want to talk about now, and the casting was right inspired. Fraser has been underrated for his skill with physical comedy. Doubtful? Check out Encino Man, George Of The Jungle (hey, that Eiffel Tower rescue scene. Did you think? Nah) or Monkeybone. Sure, none of them were designed to earn awards (let alone recognition), but they do illustrate Fraser was at home with the Tunes. When you consider it, most of Fraser’s memorable roles have an element of physical comedy (think Airheads, The Mummy and even him being rather aloof in Crash). His toony body language worked well in context with Tunes. It helped that his DJ took nothing seriously, even when trying to, which resulted in a seamless performance when interacting with his animated co-stars. Best proof? Check out the fight scene between DJ and Nasty Canasta. Again, seamless. Fraser was the ideal guy as our beleaguered protagonist.

Speaking of goony, it appeared that old skool, “wild and crazy guy” Steve Martin reared his madcap head as Mr Chairman of Acme Corp. If you ever caught Martin’s old comedy shows back in the 70s, you understood he played to the crowd a lot, as if breaking some fourth wall. Only Martin could make that dumb arrow-through-the-head gag funny. The look of Mr Chairman was “my look is my act look.” The thick horn rims, the Prince Valiant haircut gone horribly awry, the twitchy gesticulations of a six year old desperately in need of a public restroom. It’s all there, and Martin played to the hilt, not giving a damn how annoyingly cringy he got. In sum, Mr Chairman was a dopey bad guy we all would like to smack in the face with a flounder. Too bad he’d probably enjoy it. We all love a villain we love to hate, even if it was the live action cartoon like Steve Martin. Thumbs up overall.

Nonentity Jenna Elfman starred here in Tunes also. Moving on.

Okay, okay. Minus the dig at Elfman and her Sprite commercial appeal, Tunes did a decent job bringing Bugs and the gang into the 21st Century. Considering the last time they were on the silver screen was with 1996’s Space Jam (not to mention that sequel again right around the corner at this time of writing), Dante did a solid job representing all the glorious goofiness of the Tunes in the theater, even without Air Jordan. Yes, there were hiccups (EG: the pacing required crystal meth to follow, the action-comedy came across as forced, Jenna Elfman was cast, etc), but if you’re a fan of the Tunes, this was the greatest hits album. Not a fan? A simple curiosity with a lot of dumb jokes. It’s a good lazy Saturday afternoon movie. Perfect for after the debut of the new LL Cool J single and later on when the backyard needed mowing.

That’s all folks!

(C’mon. You gotta gimme that. 🙂


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. Looney Tunes are a unique taste. I love ’em, however their return to the silver screen lacked a lot of the charm the original shorts had. Still, the Loonies are like pizza: even when it’s bad it’s still better than no pizza.


The Quips…

  • *The highest point. The pinnacle. Yer welcome.
  • “I found Nemo!”
  • Elfman is not hot. Don’t believe whatever hype.
  • “You got rid of our best duck.”
  • Lotsa cool cameos here, wide and varied and prob’ LT fans themselves.
  • “Y’know, I’m getting really tired of throwing you out of the car.”
  • Dalton’s better here as a spy than he was as 007.
  • “Shh. I’m about to defy you.”
  • I loved the vintage horror aliens (as well as Robbie the Robot’s cameo) on the rampage.
  • ” – Run! –”
  • Wait a minnit. That’s an Indian elephant.
  • “I did not order the pendulum of doom!”
  • This sure ain’t no Roger Rabbit.

The Next Time…

Welcome to Paterson NJ, where we spend a week with Paterson the man. Bus driver by day, poet by night. Where to?


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 27: Paul Haggis’ “Crash” (2004)


Crash


The Players (we got us some live ones here)

Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, William Finchter, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate, Michael Peña and Shaun Toub.


The Plot…

In post 9/11 Los Angeles, superficially separate from that national tragedy, tensions erupt when the lives of a Brentwood housewife, her district attorney husband, a Persian shopkeeper, two cops, a pair of carjackers and a Korean couple converge during a 36-hour period.


The Rant…

Now that Oscar time is upon us, I felt it proper to tackle a film that once won the Academy Award for Best Picture. ‘Tis the season.

When I was younger, no bigger that this, the Oscars were not to be missed. As a teen, I made it my quest to make sure that I saw all the movies nominated for Best Picture of the given year. Didn’t matter the actors, the directors, the plot or the hype, I saw ‘em all, if not in the theatre then eventually on video. I figured being a movie geek it was no less my patriotic duty to see these films, lest I be left out of some pop cultural loop. These movies were supposed to be the big deal, the crème de la crème, the sh*t that separated the wheat from the chaff. I also assumed seeing them made me more cultured than the dilettantes that wanted to be—bah—merely entertained.

I was a little snot then. No surprise. I’m a bigger snot now, but my motives have changed. Call it maturity.

I seldom pay any attention to the Academy Awards now. Unless it’s an Oscar-nominated film that just happens to hove into my radar, I could give two moldy sh*ts if it won anything. It’s most likely coincidence than anything. The last film I saw that won Best Picture was Argo in 2012, and I saw that one for the reasons I snuffled at when I was younger: I was invested its story, but definitely not in Affleck (though he did handily direct it, I’ll credit him that much). The only other Oscar nom I saw within recent memory was American Hustle, and that one for it being a David O Russell piece, as well as me being quite entertained by his Silver Linings Playbook (see Installment #7). Neither movie captured my interest by promise of accolades, red carpets, flashing cameras and a lot of self-patting of the backs. No. I simply wanted to check ‘em out, regardless of unbridled popular opinion, possible awards be damned.

It’s taken a few years, but I’ve figured out that the Oscars are a puerile, politically correct, dog and pony show of ego and hubris. That and most pictures nominated for anything are filler. I mean, you gotta fill up three to four interminable hours of honoring entertainment for entertainment’s sake with something besides the parade of who’s wearing what (and endless, pointless musical numbers). At the end of the day, the Oscars have less to do with movies and more—much more—to with Entertainment! Being entertained with the glitz and glamour, the who’s-who of celebs, the expensive clothes and exercises in narcissism. The movie aspect part are just the thumbtacks holding the poster to the marquee. In short, whatever gets a nomination doesn’t really matter. You only tune in for the show, not justification by both the public and Hollywood as to what passes for “art.”

The last Oscar presentation I actually tuned in to was to see if Argo got the coveted stamp of approval, seeing the story was so solid and deserved some more press. The first fourteen hours on the broadcast was an endless montage of shiny faces, dumb jokes, words of praise from Hollywood types congratulating each other as if they found the Lost Dutchman Mine, the aforementioned musical bits and a smattering of movie stuff now and again. The only thing I saw that was actually entertaining was seeing Jennifer Lawrence trip onto the stage. That was merely a bonus.

Here’s a bit of cinema trivia: Did you know that the bigwigs at the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences are not even required to watch the films that are chosen for Best Picture? It’s true. The so-called guidelines for a nom are dictated by a very simple edict: the movie had positive word of mouth (read: what the critics said) and decent enough box office takeaway. That’s it. If any of those old, doddering, white males happen to actually see a picture, well then bully for them. They were most likely checking in on their investments. The nomination process is akin to the beleaguered high school teacher tossing the midterm essays down the stairwell and whichever paper lands on the ground floor gets the A. At the end of the day, Oscars are dime-a-dozen based on a 12 dollar admission and what some paid film nerd said.

But there’s another, more sinister aspect of Oscar nominations that really has jacksh*t to do with actual movie merits. It has to do with keeping up appearances. Hollywood is all about image, after all. It’s also about making obscene amounts of money (and blowing it as well, either on many of the specimens covered here at RIORI or up collective LA noses. Bam!). In case you don’t recall the whole Mel Gibson/anti-Semitic very public douchebaggery from a while back, convey the wrong image and bye-bye career. And the most prickly of all things regarding image are the studio heads’ PR. They put on their Sunday best all of the time in order to coax cash from us. Heaven forbid they present a poor, socially irrelevant, insensitive and/or downright stupid face to the buying public. They have to hold something up to ward off bad press, and to even think of perhaps sometimes once in a while not backing a movie with a message…?

Well, here we go.

Here’s a Hollywood mentality that adheres to the Oscar tenet; it goes something like this: Last year, in 2013, 12 Years a Slave won best pic. This probably didn’t happen based on the struggling criteria I’ll lay out soon enough. It most likely happened because—hand to God—anyone on the Oscar committee wanted to snub a film that tackled an issue so serious as slavery. I mean, dismiss that and you could alienate a chunk of the movie-going consumers, and no producer worth their salt wants that. You dig?

Now.

I find it suspect that any film that has a message or a “cause” to rally around immediately trumps other films that struggle with concepts of “engaging plot” or “good acting.” I suppose this now sets me up via a knee-jerk reaction that I am a bigot and racist. Not anymore than the average person, but for f*ck’s sake and after all it’s just a damned movie, not a march on Selma. That being said, 12 Years was not a bad movie. Along the Academy’s so-called standards, it did extend a message that ultimately making white people look and feel guilty was good trade. For comparison, 2013’s nomintaed American Hustle didn’t make white people look guilty. Stupid maybe, but not guilty. One should not have to have one’s attention and conscience wrenched away from plot, acting and the overall execution of a particular movie in order for said film to be regarded as “good” and/or “noteworthy.” None of this socio-pop rhetoric escaped the notice of the Academy, or critics for that matter.

Here. I’ll go you one further:

Set the way-back machine to a quarter century ago, circa 1990. The best picture for that year was Dances with Wolves. Again, not a bad movie. But Kevin Costner’s acting was his usual wooden emoting, and he was nominated for Best Actor. Go fig. His direction won Best Of, quite the feat for a first time director (by the way, Hitchcock and Kubrick never won an Oscar. Just sayin’), and all that sweeping prairie did indeed do wonders for the lens. I’ll give Mary McDonnell’s portrayal of Stands-With-A-Fist worthy of the statuette, too. But the film hasn’t really aged well. These days it tastes self-indulgent and simultaneously comes across as pandering and somewhat demeaning to Native peoples, making aspects of such cultures seem dignified in its simplicity against the progress of greedy white people. I’m not saying that’s how it is. I know sh*t about the Sioux and would be first in line for a spanking. But anyway and overall, it was a decent movie. Just a decent movie. And just a movie, not revisionism nor retrograde propaganda, as some of the pundits made claim. Or merely perceived.

Another Best Picture nominee in 1990, however, was a fantastic movie.

Unlike Wolves, it had a unique story, great acting, superlative direction, and ended up being packed to the gunwales with critical praise. And it sure as sh*t has aged well, even endured. In fact, it hasn’t aged at all.

The movie was GoodFellas. It was Scorsese’s finest. It didn’t win. I figure the message of rooting for a strung out Ray Liotta would send a bad message.

And here’s a final story and a caution.

Years ago swimming clumsily about in an alcohol-soaked haze, I was at my local watering hole working my way through a Henry Rollins travelogue and several pints of lager. My on-again, off-again bar buddies brought up one of my favorite subjects: movies (duh). One of these guys wasn’t a close relation. In fact, the dude only ever engaged me in a friendly way over pop culture factoids. We got to talking about Martin Scorsese’s movies—Taxi Driver, Casino, etc.—when I said of myself that I had never seen GoodFellas. Here’s the caution: I absolutely despise it when people chew you out about never have seeing a noteworthy film (“You’ve never seen The Godfather?!? What are you, retarded?”). Putting you on the spot like that is not only mean, but unconditionally impolite. Not to proffer myself up, but when that kind of thing happens in conversation, my default response is more or less, “You should check it out. You’ll like it.” Simply embarrassing a guy will probably not only put him or her off to your so-called recommendation, but will also be demeaning as well. Don’t be that guy.

Well, following that guy’s directive or else, I added GoodFellas to my Netflix queue and waited for a lonely night (of which I had many) to crash and watch it. When I finally did, it was after a laborious pub-crawl, ending well after 2 AM. Maybe 3. I ended up along with the couch, cracked open a fresh bottle of Jameson’s and plunked GoodFellas into the player. Despite how drunk I was, I was absolutely glued to the screen. I polished off the whisky, collapsed into bed and remembered the entire movie the next day, with trembling opinions on my tongue I could not wait to share with the guy who made it my civic duty to watch this film. It’s one of my more pleasant memories from those dark days with the bottle.

Needless to say, Crash did not have the same effect as GoodFellas did (the being captivated part, not being intoxicated). The only reason I even got my hands on Crash was that it was a gift from my wife’s mother’s misguided mind. I say misguided because the woman would randomly pluck DVDs for sale off the rack at the local CVS just to have them, only later to pawn them off on, well, me. To put this into perspective, my eccentric—and that’s being polite—mother-in-law does not own a DVD player. Yeah, you figure it out.

Anyway, Mom’s “heartfelt” gift or no, I eventually watched Crash because: A) Hey, free movie, B) It won Best Picture despite my appreciation for Brokeback in tandem with bewilderment that that film didn’t win; and C) There was nothing else to do that night. In addition, my girl said something along the lines of “What the hell…”

This week’s installment, as you haven’t guessed already, is about a picture that, when the lots were drawn, won the vaunted Oscar for Best Picture of the year and didn’t really deserve to win. Not on merits alone, no, but based on the cagey way the Academy doles out the statues. It wasn’t a bad film, but is was a safe film. And here’s the curious part—based partly on my past determination to catch all the Oscar-nominated Best Pictures—I kind of fell into both the Brokeback and Crash viewings by accident. One by way of my fiancée, and the other via a gift from her demented mom who watches movies as frequently as the rest of us go ice fishing in July.

My girl had seen Brokeback Mountain, and insisted, nay, demanded that I watch it with her. Indeed I did. It was really good. I mean great, the stuff award-winning films should be made of. I say that it should’ve won Best Picture that year, being 2005. It didn’t, and most likely because the Academy codgers didn’t want to risk praising a film about gay cowboys, narrow as their view was. Instead, the award went to Crash, another one in the camp of 12 Years: a pretty good flick, and also far more anodyne than a love story between two shepherds.

Like I said, I fell into watching Crash instead of actively seeking it out. It wasn’t like my quest of my salad days. No. And I remember this time being quite sober. I watched Crash because, more or less, “What the hell…”


Los Angeles is a tangled city. Desert city. It’s not supposed to be there. Gets cold at night. Maybe the mad snarl of people who reside there are not supposed to be there either. A lot of lives cross a lot of lives in that desert city that should not exist. Populated with people that should not be there. Carrying out existences that are foreign, albeit very, very local. Despite of, or perhaps because of it, the social climate—thousands of people interact with one another in ways that might under other circumstances would be disparate—is also fractured.

It all ends with a car crash, and concludes another day-and-a-half whirlwind of human traffic in the City of Angels. Detective Graham Waters (Cheadle) staggers from the scene of the accident while his partner Ria (Esposito) decides to have it out the angry Asian lady who wedged her bumper into their door. Conveniently enough, the accident happens at crime scene of yet another anonymous dead black man. This time, however, Waters believes he knows this mystery body.

In fact, he’s sure of the identity.

Rewind two days ago…

In another, more well-lit part of town, Rick and Jean Cabot (Fraser and Bullock) are concluding a night out. Yet another function to better Rick’s face in the undying camera flashes that come with being the local DA. Also enjoying a night out, both of them dueling philosophy and the perils of being the only two black dudes in the whitest part of town, Anthony and Peter (Ludacris and Tate) amble down the boulevard towards their next job: Rick and Jean’s Lincoln.

Elsewhere…

Daniel (Peña), a locksmith in a beat-up part of the city has just tried to secure the backdoor to shopkeeper Farhad’s (Toub)—an Arab immigrant—meager convenience store. No go. It’s the door that’s damaged, not the lock. Daniel, all too used to frequenting operations in shady parts of town (places he’s worked to get out of), patiently informs Farhad it’s not the lock, but the door. He doesn’t take this well, and such his business’ safety a concern, what with all the Arab hate crimes that have popped up recently, wants nothing to do Daniel’s recommendation. So much so that Farhad has recently procured a gun to ensure his property’s safety. But not his sense of security, and it seems Daniel the former gangster whose trying to walk the straight-and-narrow may now be the brunt of his frustration.

Somewhere else…

Police officers Ryan and Hansen (Dillon and Philippe) get the call about the Cabot’s carjacking and are on the lookout for a couple of African-American men cruising about in the stolen SUV. Ryan, being ever shrewd, pulls over a vehicle that fits the description. But not the couple. Well-to-do and noted TV producer Cameron Thayer and his wife Christine (Howard and Newton) are not two black males. But they are black, and that’s good enough for Ryan, especially when he frisks Christine, much to her protest and Hansen’s reluctance to agree to the search. But after all, Ryan is just doing his civic duty. Right?

In another place…almost another world…

Los Angelinos are simply trying to make their days run into the next. Social interactions are fractured, isolated. Sound bites. Some of those sound bites are loud and grating. Most are quieter. Pretensions, assumptions, asides, slurs. Stereotypes. “The Man”, n*ggers, sp*cs, sl*nts, r*gheads. All alive and well across the square miles. More often than not their paths cross, and not in a convivial way. Or a gentle one. Sometimes the paths don’t intersect so much as collide.

LA is a tangled city. Maybe it’s been borne that way for a reason…


Crash is not a bad movie. It is actually quiet a good movie. It also has a singular glaring fault that is at odds with the engaging story arcs and solid performances.

Boy, is Crash hella preachy.

I’m not talking about preachy in dialogue, but in message, and that message is about as subtle as a fart at a funeral. Crash is bigotry incarnate, and in f*cking overdrive. I understand that writer/director Haggis was trying to drive home the “we’re all so different/we’re all the same” message—in passing, he stated he was more-or-less trying to bring back the “grit” to ensemble films about LA that often paint a sunny image of glamour to the city. There is a certain degree of forced grime to this movie—but ends up being pedantic. Crash is always on the nose. Here is racism under the glass. A “message” film is always perfect fodder for the wary Oscar committee. Yeah, it’s preachy and pedantic, but that makes it no less interesting. And it’s very well acted.

This is all about character drama. There really is no plot, just message. Crash is compromised of a series of intertwining vignettes. It’s odd how the movie manages a narrative structure based solely on the slow, disparate chapters that hold it together so well. There is some deliberate subtly here, and it mostly works. Character nuances, convincing dialogue, a lot of great facial expressions, all of this adds to the richness of the tapestry. Now if only that pesky message wasn’t so damned inescapable. We get it, we get it. So, what? Nobody in LA likes each other?

Crash is too pointed in its commentary. Pointed, but oddly digestible. I think it might be the snappy repartee. Overall I credit this almost exclusively to the acting. Like I said: no plot. The actors had better be damned engaging in order to hold an audience. And man, is this flick rife with characters.

I read somewhere that in writing, in order to create memorable, relatable characters (note I didn’t specify likeable characters), you had to make them big. Over the top types whose emotional motivations must be so extreme that making them stereotypes you don’t even recognize. Stuff like that. Crash is f*king littered with these stereotypes (the rookie cop, his bigoted superior, the affluent, insecure black guy, the introverted detective, the hotheaded Arab shopkeeper, etc.). And all the better for it, especially when you have a primo cast like this.

Don Cheadle (ostensibly the axis of the film), as I have said in past installments is a choice actor of mine. He’s always played subtle, reserved characters. I have never seen him portray a character that ever loses his composure, even when upset. Hell, even when duking it out with Tony Stark as War Machine in Iron Man 2, Cheadle was holding back. He’s finally used well here, the everyman an audience can find themselves in comfy shoes. He sees the world with a mind gritting its teeth however, and the tension is quite protean. He’s handed a lot of bullsh*t, and being forced to smell it in a town infamous for being sh*t-tastic, he bears it well and does a convincing job as our avatar of being smeared with hate and disgust around every corner.

Matt Dillon’s racist cop Ryan is awkwardly tender and conflicted. He does know compassion, but such is a weakness. What better moral fulcrum than a veteran LA cop? At least over the past 3 decades in a city not regarded fondly for its racial harmony. Again, the guy with power and prejudice is a tasty character to follow, because it’s so prevalent in the real world, and so juicy to hate. But Dillon acts more or less in his ways out of his character’s “duty” rather than outright hatred. Cops are usually heroes in these commercial films right? Let’s face it; playing against type is always engaging.

I think although I’m not sure that the “inner city philosopher king” bit was codified here. It’s almost a caricature. I’d like to think that is got hot with Ice-T, sprouted by way of the Last Poets. Here we got Luda’ and Tate. They’re the Abbott and Costello of angry black thugs. They’re the—pardon me—black comic relief. We gotta have these guys intertwining here to be a pressure valve to let the steam out. Without it, all this drama would be too overwhelming to take. It’s a Shakespearean thing, so don’t argue.

Peña is fast approaching one of my favorite character actors. His Daniel is the movie’s soft spot. Family man, hard-working, trying to atone for past transgressions. Like the comic relief, you need to have a soft, squishy role to lean on, and the scene with his daughter at bedtime, though tired, is touching. Dad’ll make everything better.

Lastly, I liked Howard’s portrayal of the successful black yuppie, unsure of his stature. Does it hinge on his status as a producer, or a good boy for playing the white man’s game, sacrificing his dignity in return? That’s a fair question I think, and Howard’s responses makes it no less easy to answer.

It’s all well-acted, if only in a Hemingway-esque sense (“Kill your darlings. Kill, kill your darlings”). What I mean is that Papa’s words, no matter how simple, cut. Crash has good facetime. Almost all the actors here work with a flat affect, save Terry Howard and Ryan Philippe (whose bright-eyed, naive rookie cop needed a good slappin’ now and then. Mostly now). It’s a blank slate. It’s gonna be you the audience to cringe and scowl and exasperate to fill in the blanks. Let’s face the stink: racial stereotypes are engaging because—like Avenue Q taught us—we’re all a little bit racist. If you say, vehemently, “Not me!” you’re a liar and you’re boring. Crash is nothing but your reflection, and it’s hard to take. It’s also very real, palpable and hard-hitting.

Yeah, Crash relies on shock value to create often false tension and drama. I say “false” because you can see a lot of the tensions between the characters coming from a light-year away. Kind of like that thing in horror movies when the main character investigates the strange noises in the basement defended by a lone candle. You want to bonk some of these folks over the heads for being too much “in the message.” And I guess that falls in line with the big bugaboo in Crash: that damned message.

Like I said with Dances with Wolves, a message film is a safe bet. I don’t think Haggis set out to lecture and bait us with cray-cray social commentary, nor do I believe he was creating a machine to suck up statuettes. Even the late, esteemed critic Roger Ebert bet the farm on Crash to be the headliner for that year’s Oscars. He probably made that bet based on a decent story, good acting and snappy dialogue, not on the whole “racism is bad” theme. We know racism is bad (I’ve often heard the same about cigarettes), but dealing with it creates delicious tension. It’s just such an overdone thing, and we’re getting hacked to bits with it here. With Brokeback Mountain as the favorite—which was, in fact, a more arty and obtuse film with an even more intense message to convey, albeit a helluva lot more subtle—Crash upsetting the public opinion applecart screams “safe.” A simple message, a high-end ensemble cast and executed with élan and sturdiness. This is a prime formula for a good movie. It’s also very easy to do, and also relying on a lot of shock-and-awe can easily bamboozle and guilt rich, white Hollywood into recognizing that a film can make them feel guilty about being rich and white. It almost screams white male guilt; “We’re not racist. Look how we honored this movie. Please don’t spend your money on a film by the rival studio.” It also makes Hollywood look hollow—which it is—to pat Crash on the back for being so bold as to address the race issue once and for all. Again. Now, whose buying?

Despite—or perhaps because of—all its stereotypes, archetypes, prototypes and typewritten scenes and characters (read: the message notwithstanding), Crash is quite a good morality play. It may be up in your grill and on the nose, but its solid acting can forgive most of the relentless hammering. It also keeps the meandering storyline in check bookended with the aforementioned racial undercurrents. Crash is well-assembled, well-acted and well executed overall. If it could only turn down the neon a bit here and there, it might’ve been a better contender for the award.

Preach on, brotherman, preach on.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It is a good movie, albeit a tad pandering. Did it really earn the award? No, not really. Thank the suits at Paramount or wherever. You’re probably better off with Heath and Jake bumping very uglies. But overall, yeah, it’s okay. But do maintain your guard. Crash is fast approaching Dances with Wolves territory. In fact, it just did. Whoosh…


Stray Observations (lots of good quotes here)

  • “In LA, nobody touches you…”
  • It seems that any “intertwining storyline” movie since Pulp Fiction—nay, since Rashomon—is an obvious shoo-in for a Best Picture nom. Books do it all the time, that’s why they’re books. I suppose most movie moguls don’t ever f*ckin’ read. That’s what a staff is for.
  • “You could be right.”
  • I used to go with a girl that looked a lot like Sandra Bullock, but with larger breasts. Unlike Jean Cabot, she turned out to be an unrepentant harridan (no hard feelings) thanks to the open coffer that is the Internet. I have no idea what that even means. I do drink while watching these things, y’know.
  • “…Like a gun.”
  • And, of course, it’s Christmastime.
  • “Do I look like I want to be on the Discovery Channel?”
  • The highway rescue scene is the core of this movie, in the face of all the preaching. Remember that thing about “actions speak louder than words?” Yep.
  • “I love hockey.”
  • Mark Isham’s soundtrack is great. I don’t think he gets enough props for his movie work.
  • “A harsh warning.
  • There are a lot of nice touches here (the wedding ring, the kids coming home from school, etc.) that highlight family. It’s almost a hidden message here, in the background of all the noise. Kinda like a good bass player.
  • “You embarrass me.”
  • Wait. Was that Counselor Troi?
  • “It’s a good cloak…”

Next Installment…

Look out! It’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World! Actually it’s more like Scott Pilgrim versus a girl. And a guy. And some twins. And…