RIORI Vol 3, Installment 94: Jake Kasdan’s “Orange County” (2002)


15754842_PA_Orange-County


The Players…

Colin Hanks, Jack Black, Catherine O’Hara, John Lithgow, with Schuyler Fisk, Lily Tomlin, Harold Ramis and Kevin Kline.


The Story…

Ah, SoCal. Perfect place for sun, surf and simply goofing off. Ideal for your average high school grad…if you wanna go nowhere fast.

After a tragedy in his young life, Shaun snaps to reality right quick. He figures out almost too late that there’re more to life than sun, surf and simply goofing off.

There’s the Great American Novel to write!


The Rant…

What seems like a lifetime ago I dreamed of being a writer. Well, “dreamed of” may be a bit inaccurate. You’re reading this blog I’ve been toiling at for over 6 years. Most of it contains words. I suppose you could claim RIORI as writing. Y’know, like the comments section on a YouTube channel, or the blurbs on Facebook.

I, then/still demanded paper. Remember paper? It’s not just for your stinky ass anymore. It’s been also used in books. Hypertext with ink. You know. I wanted to write books. Big novels all about the human condition and short stories all about, well, the human condition. And robots. Always enjoyed science fiction.

I wanted to write like my author idols did. Carver, Vonnegut, Bukowski, Ellison and King. Create creeping tales of the desperate and torn characters on their quest for self-reliance, truth and maybe even robots. Didn’t really pan out that way. I have a few struggling manuscripts gathering dust on a thumbdrive somewhere, and a clutch of ancient short stories taking up rent on my hard drive forever. At least they’re finished. And one novel, actually. And if I have to edit the 500-plus thing one more time into the creek she goes.

Writing is tough stuff. I screamed back in my Finding Forrester installment BCE that writing is a chore. A craft. That being said it takes years of ink to figure it out. Find a voice. Find a style. Find a publisher. Takes a lot of time, anxiety and alcohol (which may explain all my typos). Not an easy venture. Worthwhile maybe, but never easy.

Here’s a tale from the vault: post-grad 1998. I was big into the sadcore band Galaxie 500. Obsessed would be e better term. I had a germ of an idea based around some disparate couple from the 90s falling all over each other at a dying Galaxie 500 club date at a bar I was at in Colorado. From humble beginnngs do legacies start.

Fast forward to 2013. The short story bloated to a 500-plus page novel (might of mentioned that). A lot of the human condition poked its ugly head from the sewers. Got out of control. It’s complete, but totally not ready to publish.

Anxiety, remember? Every writer is driven by fear. Is this right? Was that right? Where’s the wine (worked for Bukowski)? None of it is easy. Writing is a craft and not a gift. Even that lyrical prose of Fitzgerald took a long time to weave between holding Zelda’s hair and assuring her Earth wasn’t Neptune. There’s always writers’ block.

What I am getting at? Besides my S/F fetish I love reading and writing as a wonderful outlet. All you ametuers like me dig that score. Think about it beyond the basic words-on-paper final product. The creation. You build worlds. Characters to do your bidding. Vent. Explore places you’ve never been, or perhaps ever. As a writer you get to play God (a wonderful example of this paradigm is Stephen King’s short story “Umney’s Last Case” from his Nightmares And Dreamscapes collection. Check it out; I’ll wait).

*whistling*

All sounds pretty sweet, right? But it is not easy. When you get to wallow in some literary success it is rewarding. And all that time churning it out to reward a friend or stranger. But Connery put it best to his young charge Rob Brown:

“Women’ll sleep with you if you write a book?” Jamal asked.

And Forrester replied, “Women will sleep with you if you write a bad book!”

With a female shaped like an ampersand. Swaddled in Nestle’s Crunch. And hopefully with a willing vag.

Crude? Yes. True? Affirmative. There is glamour in writing, even with mediocre work (looking at you, Danielle Steele and/or John Grisham, who both have yachts). From what I’ve seen Big Deal writers can get the rock star treatment. Book signings with a queue of rapturous fans going out the door and onto the freeway. At events like sci-fi conventions, certain writers are treated like royalty, up on stage with a panel of their peers, geeky slobbering audience hanging on every word. Heck, my buddy Stephen King holds a contest to have a campfire with some lucky fans to exchange scary stories.

But I’ve writing to be a humble, lonely craft. Mostly because it is not easy, but it also takes its toll on one’s imagination. That is the hardest part. Getting lost. Losing sight of the story, which often leads to writers’ block, which is even harder to cope with. Look at me: every novel I started is still in a holding pattern. Low-grade writers’ block. It happens from time to time, which is another aspect of the craft of writing makes it not so easy. Example? I’ll mention my main man Stephen King again. He’s knows some sh*t. He explained in his bio that when block hits, he goes for a long walk to mull things over. A significant time he did his walk (and it didn’t involve any auto accident) was back in the 70s when was laboring over his tome in progress, the jillion-pages of The Stand. He hit a rut and went for his walk, then came across a solution.

Spoiler (as if you read anything on paper anyway).

Blow up the protags. He then carried on his apocalyptic vision. You do what you gotta do. Namely find the right inspiration to alleviate the not easy part of writing. It’s what gets you started, what keeps you going and above all your environment. Hopefully a comforting, clear one. Like a walk in the woods. Or curled around a craft beer at your local watering hole. Or even the beach.

When the curls are massive…


Shaun (Hanks) has a kind of dilemma.

Senior year. Time to goof off with a vague sense of leaving the nest and pursuing a future. But the surf beckons, as does beer busts, canoodling with his girlfriend and getting a tan. But even a beach bum such as Shaun knows there’s more to life (especially after one of his best friends kicks it in a surfing accident). Life is short.

One afternoon on the beach, mulling over an existential crisis, Shaun comes across a beaten copy of Straight Jacket, a novel written by one Martin Skinner (Kline), a prof at the esteemed Stanford University. Shaun can’t put it down, and it inspires him towards a station in life: he decides to become a writer. If only to score a chance to be near his literary hero at Stanford.

That’s one part. The other part is this: his whacked out family. As well as his daffy guidance counselor (Tomlin) who inadvertently sent him down the river. Listen:

Shaun needs approval (and cash) to go to Stanford. Good luck there. Especially when his counselor f*cks up mailing his impeccable transcript to the wrong college. HIs mom (O’Hara) is too nuts with separation anxiety. His dad (Lithgow) is too much of a workaholic to care. His bro Lance (Black)? Perpetually hungover. Commence with the hair tearing. Stanford? So out of reach.

Until Shaun’s always upbeat girlfriend Ashley (Fisk) gets resourceful. Why not just drive out to Palo Alto and plead your case to Prof Skinner in person, Shaun?

So crazy it just might…


Orange County did not hold my attention. If you are folding laundry during your viewing of a movie, it is not doing it for you. I did and it didn’t.

The plot is razor thin, a throwback to 80s John Hughes’ films. How? His works almost exclusively being hinged on memorable characters. In fact, I think all his movies were character studies. The plots were simple. The Maguffins were direct. The cast were almost always misfits. Kasdan had a a lot of misfits to rearrange here, but the puzzle was missing a lot of pieces. Namely, no chemistry. Not a whit. These folks were wacky and funny and had no business sharing a scene together. Boom.

Harsh? Sure, but not as grating as the disjointed humor. Look, the plot for Orange has been used many times. Beat the clock. A good many Hughes films played this game also. Sixteen Candles, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, Planes Trains And Automobiles and such. Even his script for perennial favorite Xmas comedy Home Alone was also based on this precept. It worked for those movies because they followed the three-act structure. Namely something will happen/something is happening/something will get resolved. This does not happen with Orange. It’s all one big first act, taking off and going nowhere.

There. Whew. Had to let that hen out.

However it can’t be ignored there was a movie there. Not much of a story, but a movie. It’s slightly goofy bent attracted my attention at first only soon after having saying. “Please, don’t be a ‘trying to be hip’ movie.” It tries, all right. I just could not escape the feeling that this has been done before (Brian Robbins’ mediocre The Perfect Score) and done better (eg: Steve Pink’s Accepted, also torn to shreds here. Wasn’t bad). I think I was correct there, which is unfortunate to have such a stale plot driven by—can’t be denied—a great and totally misused cast. It’s one thing to take a rinky-dink script and spin into a wonderful tale populated with talented unknowns. Kasdan did the direct opposite with Orange.

Let’s talk about the casting, shall we? You know how I do love to bitch about pacing and put the actors through the wringer. This may not have been his first role, but Tom’s kid Colin Hanks as the only port in the storm here; his first leading role and role of note. He holds his own well here with Orange as he holds all of Orange together. And only him. And that’s a shame. Not that Hanks doesn’t do the “frantic graduating high school senior” trope well (he does), but rest of the players either perform as wooden or stereotypical (eg: crazed suburban mom, workaholic dad, Leslie Mann being all slutty, etc). That being pointed out, I noticed certain “tics” Colin inherited from his famous dad. A big success in Tom’s acting is having a “rubber face.” That’s not some pejorative. Hanks has had a very expressive face (career wise) since the eldritch two seasons of “Bosom Buddies.” Tom’s best roles always involving him freaking out. I’m not saying Colin doesn’t “freak out” in Orange (he does), but the “tics” leading up to them smack of dad’s are even a little more pronounced, like he’s trying to channel angst from his stiff cast members. In other words, Colin’s the only honest actor here. Everyone else seems tired. Really bothered me.

Leseee. We have O’Hara here, the queen of pee-your-pants-funny freak out. She excels at crazy. Remember the Harry Belafonte scene in Beetlejuice? That was her. Manic mom on a quest for Culkin in Home Alone? That was her. Early SCTV? That was her. Boozy, opting for no medication codependent suburbia divorcee? Nope. At least not here with such a schtick. Over the top, that was the problem. I know that what described does not allow subtly, but the pill-popping divorcee mom popping pills to deal with the divorce has been done to death by lesser moms than O’Hara’s.  In sum, she was boring and predictable.

John Lithgow, perhaps one of the best, most versatile character actors ever, is a painfully wooden cipher here. Selfish, workaholic dad, divorced, trophy wife, ignored his son in love but not in money, soft ice cream machine in the sauna, etc. You’ve seen it before. You can seen Lithgow straining against the script, some light shining through, but I’d like to think his gruff nature as Bud is channeled frustration at his agent. I’m getting all forlorn here.

The only play-against type role here is that Jack Black wasn’t really funny. A first. His manna. Second billing. Moving on.

Tech stuff! This is the “Warning: Science Content” part of the installment, akin to when Mythbusters needed to explain the details of an experiment before the program took a left turn into the “What can we make go boom this week?” show. As a dejected fan, I’m not bitter. Anyway.

It’s curious. We have a great ensemble cast, misused. We have untried but sturdy lead who does a good job. We have a “name” actor betraying his accepted histrionics. The essential pieces of a movie hopped the tracks. All we’re really left with the director’s view of the lens. He did a good job. Jake Kasdan is the usually solid and reliable director Lawrence Kasdan’s son. Lawerence cut his teeth on ensemble pieces like The Big Chill and Silverado (one of fave westerns, and I really don’t like westerns). And like those movies, Jake’s Orange is not for lacking with an eclectic cast. Poorly used eclectic cast but good actors all around.

Kasdan the younger seemed the ideal guy to move a project like Orange right along. Jake cut his teeth directing episodes of the cult/sociological TV series Freaks And Geeks, and as the title says…well, you get it. The paradox of Orange laid not with the transparent plot nor even the rip-off acting as problem; I sniffed something else. Yes, it was the pacing and, yes it was rushed, but I don’t think “rushed” is the right word for what really went wrong here.

Orange was harried. There felt like something twisted was afoot in the film’s production, and I had an inkling what. Can’t prove it and don’t dispute me.

Something was trying too hard. Y’know how I like to badger my little badger pacing, like, all the damn time? This time out with something like Orange needed less editing. The movie unfolded like a cheesy Carver story. There could’ve been a new spin on the old trope here. Like I said, John Hughes made his career on this gimmick. Instead not unlike Carver’s editor Gordon Lish’s scorned earth approach to trimming the author’s stories, Orange was peeled down (ha!) till the bone was showing by editor Tara Timpone all jacked up on th’ Mountain Dew. The running time was barely 90 minutes, and that’s usually reserved for animated flicks. Wanna know what I think happened? Really raunchy and thereby pithy sh*t was slashed so Orange  could get a PG-13 rating instead of an R.

I hate that. It’s only done to net a larger audience. More money for less art. Sigh.

Enough playing Fox Mulder. Halfway through the movie I was forced to come to the conclusions that: 1) this is a “trying to be hip” movie. With dysplasia, 2) there might’ve been something seriously lost here due to the editing. Or wasted, 3) great cast, all for naught, and; 4) Lithgow is a genius. I’ve probably painted a real skewed view on how I received Orange. Duh. It was psychologically confusing (as was overall stupid, sorry). I know this installment has been a bit schizo. I felt Orange to be, besides very meh, an exercise in cognitive dissonance; two or more things were contradictory for me here and I got all bamboozled. And bored. And I need a Tylenol enema. Really reaching with this one.

Gordon Lish? Really?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Orange was boring, confusing and tired, even with the reliable (muted) goofiness from Jack Black. When the DVD crapped out in the third act, I didn’t even consider notifying Netflix. And yes, I am one holdout out of 3 million subscribers that still risk it with the damned discs.


Stray Observations…

  • “Do you want me to get naked and start the revolution?” Works every time.
  • “I’m gonna assume you read all my fanboy-ism for Stephen King. I know a lot of folks believe he’s kinda a hack. He can be, but I thank him all the same for being the first writer I ever paid attention to, regardless of his hack scary and sci-fi stories. Yes, he’s written sci-fi. And fantasy. And articles for the NY Times magazine. Top that, Dickens!
  • “You stole my Palm Pilot!” How to date a movie: mention period tech.
  • Barring Social D, I hate the soundtrack.
  • Notice the untamed eyelids?
  • adore Lithgow. So should you, philistine.
  • Notice the reclining statue?
  • And the socks?
  • “I gotta get outta Orange County.” Word.

Next Installment…

When evil rears is many hydra’d head to destroy the world, you better seek the aid of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen!

Just bone up on your popular 19th Century fiction first.


 

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RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 10: Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are” (2008)


Where the WIld Things Are


The Players…

Max Records, Katherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara and Forest Whitaker.


The Story…

Max has had it with being a nobody in his neighborhood. His big sister dumps him in favor of playing with her friends. His mom looks as if she’d rather be with her new boyfriend. And Dad…?

Max imagines running away to a some far-off land where fantastical beasts may crown him as their king. They would play rumpus, build forts and discover secret hideaways. Sounds good, but really is that all there is to being the king of the beasts?


 

The Rant…

Children’s books, by design of necessity, are short. The stories within are usually quick ones and seldom, if ever, delve deep into the Graham Greene of things. Sure, kids books often have poignant messages, life lessons to learn and adorable anthropomorphic creatures coaxing the young eyes to read ever further. They’re also chockablock with amazing artwork, lets not forget, which is the usual culprit that grabs the youngin’s attention in the first place.

But one thing is an immutable truth: kids’ books are f*ckin’ short. We don’t want attention spans to be taxed or eyes to become strained. We want a five to ten minute respite from chaos and screeching that only a Shel Silverstein or a Dr. Suess could deliver to frantic parents everywhere. Kids want a quick break to let their imagination grow fallow, if only for a bit. Only daydreaming is faster. And cheaper.

Most movies are not short. Decidedly so. If they were, at least in today’s market, they’d probably not have much of a client base. Too many other mobile distractions to contend with, like kids books. It is a very precarious thing to stretch a 30-page, less than 100 words, heavily illustrated, razor-thin missive into a precise 88 minutes of celluloid glory. Standalone it hasn’t worked yet; you gotta add a lot of breadcrumbs to that meatloaf. So far there have been the bastardization of several of Dr. Seuss’ most beloved tales (How The Grinch…, Cat in the Hat, The Lorax, etc.) that have illustrated this point. His books went through the Hollywood meat grinder and out came the gristle. What the brevity and efficiency of a children’s book has on the page does not marry well to cinema. Screenwriters have to apply a lot of padding, altering the script to miles away from the original, concise plot and hire a lot of dippy-ass tunesmiths to churn out the shiny for little kid ears. The junior target audiences that were entranced by the source material in the first place, now yanking a recalcitrant mom and/or dad to the multiplex in a frothing frenzy are en route to a let down. It’s inevitable.

God, this sh*t pisses me off. Let’s face facts. Once here I claimed that Hollywood erroneously views us  moviegoers as stupid. So under this premise the average adult moviegoer adult is stupid, then according to marketing the kids must be f*cking brain-dead. They’ll watch any colorful dreck that gets smeared on the screen and has a toy and cereal tie-in. Here’s a common fallacy: kids are stupid. I was a teacher once. Kids—and it seems the younger they are, the harder it is to bullsh*t them—are a lot smarter than they let on. Most are actually a lot smarter than most adults, like George W, Donald Trump and Donald Sterling. I’ve been privy to a lot of movies aimed at kids. Being a dad, I seldom get a say in what movie to go out and see nowadays. What I watch is almost always animated, Disneyesque, hyper and pandering. Funny thing here is kids know they get short-changed pretty soon on in the movie. Here’s a common conflict in regarding, say, a Seuss adaptation: “This isn’t how it was in the book! The book was much better!” This is usually followed by a scowly pout and an eventual smattering of Twizzlers ricocheting off the other sibling’s head, which proves to be much more entertaining than the movie slipping off the sprockets. They squirm in their seats. They get bored and say so. They want to leave and start whining about it. And Mom or Dad try to hush them, knowing full well that they ain’t gonna recoup the twenty plus dollars wasted on this time spent in the dark. Mom and Dad are forcing them to watch the car wreck out of spite at this point. The kids know they got gypped. Like I said, smart.

Pillaging Maurice Sendak’s magnum opus was not particularly smart, either. And it wasn’t pillaged well to boot…


Max (Records) is your typical, nine-year-old (at least he looks nine) kid, full of unhinged energy and idful abandon. He likes to terrorize the family pet, incite snowball fights with his big sister’s friends, and be the lord of a fantasyland of his own creation, much to the exasperation of his mom. You know, standard kid stuff.

So Max is attention starved. Not surprising with his older sister Claire more interested in hanging out with her friends and mom (Keener) being a harried single parent trying to juggle both career and homestead with equal attention. Max being in the middle—or at the bottom of the totem pole, depends where you’re looking—he acts out often. He can be defiant, mouthy and even violent. Looks like a Ritalin candidate if there ever was one.

One evening, dressed in his signature wolf costume, Max is feeling particularly punchy since Mom’s male “friend” has come over for dinner, hogging his spotlight. Feeling slighted, he tears it up, howling and standing on the dinner table and actually assaulting Mom with a wolf bite to the shoulder. That’s enough. Mom is furious and Max is chased out of the house, scrabbling through the streets, tears streaming down his face. He’ll show them. He’ll run away from home and they’ll all be sorry. He’s the king of the beasts, not some beastly kid.

After hitching a ride on a sloop on the beach, Max sets sails to points afar, places where he will be appreciated and understood. Enduring an interminable transatlantic stormy passage, Max washes up on the shores of a remote island, and quickly discovers that he is not alone. The island is populated by fantastic beasts, all of whom seem out of sorts, like they need some guidance. Max knows what to do. He has found his people. Let the wild rumpus begin…!


Like I said, children’s books are short, and the movies based on those books need a lot of applesauce to fill up time. Most of the time it’s dreadful (I cite the adaptation of The Lorax as a good example), stuffed to the gunwales with bad jokes, extraneous dialogue, crappy musical montages and additional, irrelevant plot points separate form the source material added just to, well, stretch it out. To be fair, there are exceptions to this issue. For one, I thought the adaption of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs was in some ways superior to the book, it being very funny, nodding an winking and even providing an actual explanation and backstory (e.g.: plot) to the hijinks in Chewandswallow. But this is an exception. Usually a lot of padding robs the original story of its power that so entranced the audience in the first place. This practice seems very shady to me, as if the powers that be added crap to just to pander to the kiddies’ imagination that absorbed more emotional stimulus in fifteen minutes by merely reading the source material. Competition for attention, as well as flammable dollars. It’s like they know, and probably full well, that by adding all the claptrap will keep the keys jingling in front of their juvenile audience.

However, unlike The Lorax, Wild does decidedly not pander to the kiddies. It does the direct opposite. It barely panders to kids at all. It does however f*ck with the source material just enough to make itself feel overblown and stodgy. Jonze went and took a universally adored book and went and put it through the existentialist Cuisinart. The final result was an intractable movie ostensibly aimed at kids and families, but ended up as a freshman year philosophy treatise on phenomenology.

Wake up.

Okay, enough babbling. Wild is a bloated attempt to simultaneously cash in on a generation’s nostalgia and wax philosophical about the ways of childhood anger and fear. That’s it. Adolescent and mopey. This film uses Sendak’s book as an excuse, not an homage, as a means to an end for Jonze’s jaundiced vision. He went and made a metaphysical kids movie. While this counts for originality (as far as adaptations of childhood literature go), it makes for lousy storytelling.

Yeah, I know. I’m being pretty awful here, trashing an honest attempt to bring the book to life. Wild misses the mark in its stilted execution, and sucks all the wonder away in a very angular fashion. It’s so goddam serious. There is not much connection to the sweet yet salty Sendak tale, and is padded with philosophical drivel with all the subtlety of a fart at a funeral. The pacing is languid, like walking through syrup. Even the wild thing beasties seem half asleep in their activities most of the movie. This wasn’t the movie to watch late at night. A cough syrup cocktail works just as well to drift off that sitting through Wild (don’t ask me how I know this).

I’ll quit masticating on the movie for a bit and talk about the good stuff. There are some notable goodies in Wild. Max’s acting was pretty good. At least he channeled storybook Max’s vital aspects to live action—the childish raving, trying to be a good boy, and the innocent regret for his actions. Our lead is not easily likeable nor immediately endearing at first glance, but he wins your over and makes for a good vehicle to serve the audience. On this level, Jonze (whose spelling I’ve always thought pretentious) at least recognized on a vestigial level that Wild was supposed to be a kids movie, so he let his lead run riot. Records’ performance was the only refreshing aspect of the whole movie.

There are also some stunning visuals. The seams separating CGI from live action is virtually untraceable here. A high note. The wild things themselves are rendered almost hair for feather with such exactitude you have to get that Jonze is truly trying to convey the message of the book. He overdoes it, but he wasn’t dressing Mike Myers up as a winking cat. Simply put, the Sendak creations look quite Sendak. At least on these grounds, Jonze remembered his muse, and didn’t swat it.

Overall, there is an inherent sweetness to the film, but it’s too bad it’s just so forced. There is a message Jonze keeps trying to hammer into the audience’s skulls, almost like cinema verite with a rather blurry concept of dealing with childhood anger. After watching Wild you kind of wish there was a dippy song-and-dance montage placed in the story just to lighten it up a bit. This flick was too heavy, both in philosophy and execution. It was the cinematic equivalent of eating a heavy meal. Too much padding, in a non-kid way.

Throughout the film I found myself asking myself, “Why is this film boring?” The answer is that it felt more like a symposium than a family film. It was dour and ponderous, and there definitely wasn’t enough rumpus. For a kid film, it sure wasn’t kid friendly. Three-quarters into the movie, I hit MENU and skipped to the end. Dissatisfied with the conclusion, I turned it off, put down my pen and decided to go to bed, tiring of feeling vicious.

When I got to my room, my dinner was still hot.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Better you go reread the book instead. To your kids. They’ll thank you.


Stray Observations…

  • “I don’t think the crazy’s been eliminated.”
  • Writing a kids book within a movie based on a kids book? Pretty clever (and cute) meta.
  • “All right tree. We’ll settle this later.”
  • Jonze got his start directing music videos (e.g.: Beastie Boys, Dinosaur Jr, etc). It shows here.
  • Did I mention the sick amount of padding in adaptations like this? I might’ve missed mentioning something.

Next Installment…

Who killed Elizabeth Short, AKA The Black Dahlia? Gonna get all true crime up in yo’ ass.