RIORI Presents Installment #172: Kasi Lemmons’ “Talk To Me” (2007)



The Players…

Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cedric The Entertainer, Taraji P Henson, Mike Epps, Vondie Curtis Hall and Martin Sheen.


The Basics…

Besides the free three hots and a cot, the best thing about being in prison is you are free to speak your mind. No one will listen. No one will listen, of course unless you cause a scene. Start a ruckus. Make you realize that you are indeed imprisoned. Then there might come some existential frisson and screaming ensues.

Frisson is all prisoner DJ Petey knows, and he’s rough and ready to remind his fellow listening audience/inmates that all is not well in the nation’s capital. Or the country, for that matter. For Petey there are always matters of injustice to address, as well as inject James Brown into the echoing corridors to appreciative lifers.

But on a very rare, if not one-time occasion, Petey’s broadcasts leak beyond the prison walls. Or rather, just the right kind of audience tunes in at the right time.

One from The Outside.


The Foreword…

Hey, welcome back. Glad you could make it.

It took a tad longer than expected, but Volume One of RIORI has been all revisited, revised, updated and forgotten about. We all know it’s bad to dwell on past regrets, but I regret being such a tool years back and there was my way to atone to my loyal readers. Thanks and you’re welcome. It was such a load off my spine.

In retrospect, I was pleasantly surprised at a lot of that rough hackwork. Those very early entries were ostensibly written as movie critiques weren’t all bad. Some were whisky saturated screeds against Hollywood corporate agitprop. Others were mean diatribes. A few were right on base, perhaps then a sign of better things to come. Hell, some even were spelled correctly. Or I just got lucky. Or not. So anyway here we are, back on course to tackle some potential new threats on the mediocre movie horizon. Let’s set our sights on the next Michael Bay project (I hear Bad Boys 3 is right around the corner, and now we’re being lured by Kevin Hart. Scramble the jets!).

But before we go any further, some notes are in order. First, I’ve done away with all that “volume” crap. I only started dragging that line to troll possible subs to sign on thinking I had multiple feeds elsewhere. Of course it didn’t work. It would help if I had multiple feeds. Yeah. Sorry. Didn’t fool me, either. I have the non-comment feed to show for my little subterfuge. And I still pray every night, kids for the blog fairy to come and sweep me off to BloggieLand on gossamer WiFi.

Sigh. A man can dream, right?

Secondly, there is this practice in the comic book industry (lately) that when a new team tackles a long-running series (EG: Spider-Man, X-Men, My Little Pony, etc) they start counting all over again. It’s not issue #26, it’s #1 again. Again. This is a transparent ruse to coerce prospective buyers with the lure of a “new #1.” Number one issues are still quite prized, despite the despotic fandom comic collecting creates amongst like minds, concrete and just plain daffy. Namely, it’s a gimmick that works for new sales and irks the Cheetos-addled. Publishers are all about the bottom line, but comic collecting is still a niche market despite what Disney commands, and f*cking the noble history of our noble heroes quite rankles the geek squad nobly.

The remedy? “Legacy numbering.” About a year or so back, the team behind the most recent volume of The Amazing Spider-Man ran their course. Over ten years they penned the ups and downs of everyone’s fave web-head, and eventually looked for greater peaks to scale. After said decade the writers and artists passed the torch; in specific their run ended with Amazing Spider-Man #801. The new crew began not with #802 but a new #1. It was emblazoned on their first ish…with a byline: Legacy 802. Get it? This run at RIORI was the centennial, but screw any more trolling with quantity over quality. Hell, it might actually cage me a few more new subs. In other words, clean slate. Fair dinkum. Reset your calendars and synch those smartwatches.

Here we are at installment proper #172, and we’re gonna keep it lean and extra mean from now on. Everything has been legacied. No more back issues to collect. Time to get roasting and hope I’m pleasantly proven wrong again. Again. Thanks again for tuning in!

Now where was I? Oh yeah…


The Rant…

I’m not sure if I ever mentioned these stories before (I probably have) but rest assured it is very relevant regarding this week’s movie. Appropriately enough, it’s all about being on the air. The radio, that is. Listen up.

If you think about it, radio has been the free social media landscape before stuff like Facebook, Instagram and even WordPress existed. Radio also happens to be the best, and the Internet has been only aping AM/FM broadcasts since MySpace crept out from under its bits and bytes (MySpace still exists, BTW. Fancy that) is spirit. Our free social media can be the Fresh Kills Landfill online for all to dump in, but I’ve learned that radio lacks a soft white underbelly unlike its online peers. Why?

Maturity. If you wanna get technical radio transmissions are as old as the Universe, and humanity has only learned to harness the airwaves for only a little more than 100 years, and its friend count has never been tallied. Never had to. Radio has been just…there. Spreading news, insight and music from Cape Town to Columbus. For the most part it’s free, cheap and green. And often taken so far for granted its like it never was there. I think Queen wrote a song about that, which inspired a young Steffie Germanotta to pick up a mic. All we hear is…you know the rest.

Wanna know how yours truly first picked up the mic? Too bad. My blog, my rules. Now learn to appreciate the subtle yet convincing grip does duck tape have around wrists and under arms of a Stryker chair. Miss Quinzel? You may dance for me now.

Where was I? Right. Maturity. I speak from experience. In truth, a lot of the radio jive I’m gonna talk about from experience. Now. Here comes the story I think I may have told before but is still relevant to this weeks installment. I was once a radio programmer for our market’s local community radio station. WDIY 88.1 FM, the Valley’s community public radio station. Many choices, real voices. That was us. Is. Still is. WDIY just celebrated in 25th anniversary, and that is quite the triumph in small market, low metro coverage. Consider the MySpace ribbing earlier.

For five years, 2005 to 2009 I was on air, hosting the drive time, AAA music show. I was “Your Friend In The Blend.” “The Blend” was on every weekday, 1 to 4 PM, and I held the crucial Friday slot. I say crucial because to be on air Monday morning or Friday evening is akin to how a good play (or movie) should pan out: if you got a solid opening and a memorable ending, it was worth the time. The rest is just filler. Good filler, mind you, but most folks drive cars and most cars have radio and most folks have jobs and most folks commute to work on Monday to start the slog and speed home on Friday and in-between the radio might be something to tune into for news/music on the go. Stuff like that. My seat also meant some pressure. Gentle pressure mind you. Moreover there was “performance anxiety.” Say and play what sticks and the rest is gravy. And no road-rager will wrap their Benz around a telephone pole, ejecting that iPhone like a shotput. Shoulda stayed tuned in.

Radio may be mature, but it sure takes a lot of on air hours to make the deejay grow up. Hold that: this may sound pretentious (and it is) radio programmers shy away from being labeled “deejays.” What was once the provenance of the disc jockeys on air, to spin tracks of wax as well as wax on spins past that title now refers to the many club types who wheel the steel, host raves, do trivia nights and pull karaoke. I’ve done all of that, and I can understand why the term, “programmer” has been set aside for the people in the broadcasting booths around the world. Heck, even on day one at the station my boss told me to not use the word “deejay.” WDIY never hosted karaoke nights.

But I did. Check it: in and around my “respectable” programming gig at WDIY, I scored some extra cash by hosting karaoke at an old fave bar. I got that opportunity because a local, well-known and respected deejay manned the boards at said club when he hosted that evenings entertainment. Namely, the local bands who’d perform every Friday and Saturday at no extra door charge for the patrons. DJ Rick was a fixture at the club as well as on the air, so he had some pull. That and he and I were huge Pere Ubu fans. Rick even caged me some bootlegs on disc. Best buds.

The setup for a karaoke night is pretty self-explanatory. You might’ve been there one lazy, bored night. A mixing board, mounted speakers, one or two mics, a dedicated drive housing thousands of push button songs, a monitor tele-prompting lyrics for the drunken brave few and some plank to stand on which the lucky losers can caterwaul for three minutes. Only self-checkout at Wegmans is more complicated.

But you need a deejay to hold it all together (EG: the least drunk guy in the room). That was my job. Basically be hall monitor. Queue up the requests, make sure everything worked right and play to the crowd. For example: “Let’s give a big round for Bob! Warren Zevon told him to beware those “Werewolves Of London!” Now howl! Stuff like that. I had to be Alan Freed; all the jokers had to do was try and sing and land in train wreck territory (even though that was part of the fun) and not barf on stage. Good times to be had by all. At least that’s how Rick described it, and the hundred bucks I scored didn’t hurt for such mercenary work. It also covered my bar tab.

If you’ve never done it, don’t believe the haters. Karaoke is capital F fun. Get a little drunk, loosen up, hop on stage and pretend to be Elvis for a few minutes. Hosting it was great. It was like an inebriated middle school talent show. Sure, try to do good but who really cares? We like music and we’re having fun; so what if we suck? Naked naivete and go with it. Stop being a killjoy and grab the mic.

After many, many rounds of hosting karaoke I learned a few things about our brave, sloshy performers. Namely, we have three types of singers. The first being those who can’t sing, but make up for it just by rocking out. Their buddies cheer them on and sometimes sing along also. It’s all a big joke, and usually the performer buys the next round. Good times had by all, esp the host.

The second karaoke fan is a novelty. Happens seldom, but when it happens it’s a Susan Boyle moment. The person grabs the mic and can actually sing. One time this one guy nailed Bon Jovi’s “Blaze Of Glory” so well I felt like I was stranded on the Garden State Parkway. Casual listeners were stirred. Lighters came out. A lot of screaming and clapping, myself included. Those kind of performances are the stuff of legend. Made me glad I took up Rick’s offer. So much fun.

Then the dreaded then.

I feel this is where karaoke gets a bad rap. It’s all fun and games until we lose an eye. Then we play marbles. Some folks who religiously attend karaoke are like the Blues Brothers: on a mission from God. The fervor is real, but God took a nap an aeon ago. These guys suck all the fun out of the room, stinking of White Claw and daddy issues. They get up on the plank and start singing as if they are really reaching for something, like Simon Cowell is out on the floor somewhere playing foosball or whatever. Simply put, karaoke is all about drunken fun, not getting a free ride to Hollywood. Here’s a tale and a coda about what I think getting lost in sound should go.

Here is a fine example of when the train runs off the tracks. One time where crash and burn was expected, and the stoic deejay had to lend a hand. One karaoke night, the bar was a desert. There were the usual yokels at the bar to be sure, but the floor was a ghost town save one table of eight drunken revelers. It was a birthday party, and the lucky b’day boy had turned 21. He and his party took turns at the mic, the quality of their singing getting ever shriller with each new pitcher. Good times.

I became not the host but a jukebox. The sloshy revelers barked at me to play a certain tune on spec and then fell on the mic and proceeded to warble before I had the chance to turn the monitor and the mic on. It became like playing Tetris, only I was the sole brick. I tried to remain pro—mature—about the debacle. Hey, like I said, when things go “wrong” with karaoke sometimes it’s for the better.

The birthday boy was dared into covering a song near impossible to do drunk, let alone sober. His celebratants demanded I cue up the infamous stream-of-consciousness anti-pop that is REM’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Four minutes of manic, blurred social commentary culminating in a shout-out to Leonard Bernstein. And this dweeb accepted the challenge. Hail Columbia. He went on record saying he couldn’t really read the monitor. All three of them. Facepalm, but hey, a job’s a job and a song’s a song. I cringed and queued up Mike Stipe and the boys, fingers and toes crossed.

I’d like to say Mr 21 actually did okay. I’d like to say that. In reality it was a shambles, rubbernecking all the way. The song is tricky enough to sing sober. I recall one time catching REM on an MTV Unplugged session and even Michael had the lyrics he had written himself taped to his mic stand. Our birthday boy was taped to the mic stand himself; it supported his woozy weight. Blowing verse after verse and me feeling genuinely sorry for the guy (his friends at the table weren’t much help, mocking him the entire time) I jumped up from behind the deck like a spring and grabbed the other mic. I could read the monitor, but the song was so burned into my consciousness I really didn’t need it. I did an impromptu duet with the guy, me egging him on and singing fractured harmony. It was great fun, and when we had finished the table was on their feet cheering and the dude gave me a hug and bought me a beer. All in a night’s work.

What does my whole riff on karaoke have to do with the radio? A couple of things. One, being the obvious, there’s a good chance any would-be karaoke artist heard their quarry on the radio and was thereby inspired. The second is a bit trickier, and it’s all about communication and that maturity thing. Indulge me.

Besides hearing the daily dirt on NPR, radio can enlighten. It’s mature. I base this claim on a very eloquent, if not spot on claim from musician Richard Carpenter. He was once asked to say which medium he liked better: television or radio. He immediately said radio. Why? “Because the pictures are better.” He cited a Spike Jones number he caught once as a kid on a local radio broadcast, and what a Barnum-esque fever dream got injected into his brain. Carpenter claimed it was that broadcast that made him want to play piano. Not sure of the solid truth behind that tale, but Richard was correct: the pictures are better. They cement any sound into thought, which may bely inspiration and then bely creative output. For good or for ill, but radio doesn’t lie. The broadcasts might, but the reactions don’t.

Radio is mature. It let’s your ears do the talking. You hear songs, you hear news, you hear talk and your imagination fills in the blanks. C’mon, if you’ve ever seen the flick American Graffiti with legendary deejay Wolfman Jack at the boards, spinning tunes and baiting listeners, you’d never pick him out of a police lineup for being remarkable. The only real gesture of man behind the myth was to offer Richard Dreyfuss a melting popsicle. That might be poignant but I don’t know. My worldview is often that way. Shocker.

Radio is free. One of my fave movies is Talk Radio (and probably the only Oliver Stone film I’ve ever enjoyed, and not pummeled by). Despite its subject matter, when I was in high school and caught it on late night TV, with Eric Bogosian ranting and Alec Baldwin reeling, I wanted to be a part of that insidious free and ultimately mature medium of delightful and dire expression. I got my wish 20 years later. My dream had a long gestation period until maturity.

Yeah, yeah. I’ve been on the nose and flowery, but this is what I’m driving at: those sounds you tune into when you can, they’re not just voices in the fan. There are people behind those sound waves. Not just performers but storytellers. Think of that scene in A Christmas Story, where Ralphie and Randy curl up to the cathedral radio to tune into Little Orphan Annie. The boys are rapt, the pictures are better and the on-air adventures are free for all imaginations.

Finally, and perhaps is the core spirit of radio (a la Rush perchance) that it demands a part of your attention that is very hard to ignore, and the messages broadcasted can be very persuasive to listeners curious for new sounds or an echo chamber for their own soundtrack. Radio can also be coercive, subversive and intrusive. It may be a mature medium—the most mature, says I—but only a mature voice can truly scratch at your grey matter.

Which is only barely a centimeter from your itching scalp.


The Story…

Prison sucks. Not only for the obvious reasons (solitary confinement, crap food, soap crises, no cable, etc), but rather its demoralizing. An inmate is just another disenfranchised citizen made more so. Rehabilitation? Nuts. You’re just off the street into a new neighborhood, which might be safer than your old stomping grounds. This time the locks always set.

Feels that way to Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene (Cheadle). He’s been lifer all his, well, life. Another population statistic. Just another successful con to fall to The Man, whomever that is these days. And these days have got Petey all astir. Sure, he may be tucked away from all the tumult that is the 60s, but he’s got an ear. And a mind. And a mouth. And thanks the prison system a microphone.

You see, Petey has special dispensation as the prison’s radio DJ, spinning tunes and mouthing off to his brothers in stir. It’s the only luxury they truly have in the joint, and how the boys love to tune in to Petey’s soulful playlist and bittersweet rants. His voice is a steam valve to vent all the pent-up frustration his fellow cons simmer with even before lock up. And Petey has a captive audience, indeed and so to speak. Too bad it seems like no one on the outside can tune into Petey’s show.

One day the outside comes in. Dewey Hughes (Ejiofor) reluctantly visits his brother Milo (Epps) in the joint, only to be drawn by his brother’s tales of woe to his cracking up at the “tell it like it is” broadcast of the DJ. See, Hughes is the program director at the struggling but once vibrant WOL-AM radio station out of Washington, DC. His job is essentially figure out what’s hip to the listening audience. WOL’s star has been falling, and Hughes’ boss, Mr E G Sonderling (Sheen) demands some new life be injected into their format. Needless to say, Dewey wasn’t listening to Milo much. Nor his boss’ really. Petey’s voice was too loud.

Way leads on to way, and recent parolee Petey shows up at WOL’s door, much to Dewey’s surprise (to say the least). Their current morning show DJ is stuck in the past, and WOL needs to be in the present. They’re getting their ass’ whupped by the rival station. Dewey correctly claims that no one listens to Nat “King” Cole on the radio anymore. The only King folks wanna hear in ’66 is Martin Luther, Jr preaching the truth. WOL needs a preacher from the streets. And DC needs a wake up call to all the junk that few can tell it like it is:

“I’ll tell it to the hot, I’ll tell it to the cold. I’ll tell it to the young, I’ll tell it to the old. I don’t want no laughin’, I don’t want no cryin’, and most of all, no signifyin’. This is Petey Greene’s Washington!”

You heard it here DC, like it or not.


The Breakdown…

For anyone out there who frequents RIORI on a semi-regular basis, you know I have a few man-crushes on certain actors. To me, these fortunate few always deliver the goods, acting wise. Their films may be dopey, but their performances are always fun and engaging. I’m talking about Dwayne Johnson, Sean Connery and my main man here with Talk To Me, Don Cheadle. I’ve been waiting for a decent film with him at top billing since the Soderbergh Ocean’s 11 trilogy. He delivered here, as I hoped he would.

But why here, why now? I mean, the guy has had a long, storied career. Over thirty years with the usual ups and downs (mostly downs), but always working, always plugging. He’s always solid, but often left of center in the general feeling of his roles, whether it be Boogie Nights or Reign Over Me or even his Marvel movie appearnces. So as game an actor as I claim Cheadle to be, what’s up with his rather spotty output?

I have a theory. It’s a good one, I think. You know how some esteemed directors find their protege/muse in an actor and can elicit the best out of them? They test them? Right. Not an uncommon thing in cinema, but seldom this mutualism resulted in the stuff of Hollywood lore (read: great movies and bales of tickets sold wherein). I’ll call it the “John Wayne/John Ford” thing. Not catchy, I know, but it’s to the point and shut it and lissen ‘hup.

A smart director knows how to work their leads; the strengths and weaknesses and how to coax the best out of both, and sometimes its the je ne sais pas we as the audience actually knew what was there all along, even if we didn’t. Or really never considered. Point being, legendary, eclectic director John Ford was a notorious taskmaster, abusing and using and coaxing his charges to give it their all. Some fared better than other prima donnas, like The Duke. I’d like to believe there was a quiet, workmanlike respect between the two. It radiates out of their combined output. Meaning when Ford directed the swagger out of John Wayne, John Wayne the solid actor came to the fore, and not the typewrote cowboy/soldier cipher. Consider Stagecoach, the meta-Western as we know and loathe it today. Consider The Quiet Man, Wayne’s best role with economic dialogue and body language; no posturing, save the flashback sequence. Consider The Searchers, the anti-Western decades before Clint’s equally tantalizing Unforgiven. Ford coaxed The Duke out of Wayne, and the results were nothing less than splendid.

Fanboy-ism? Perhaps, but consider further:

Legendary cult director John Carpenter found his Wayne in Kurt Russell. With him under the wing, Russell starred in three of Carpenter’s best flicks—one of which Russell hilariously aped The Duke—to revelatory levels. Carpenter pulled Russell from the mire of Disney-esque, fam-friendly fodder to the penultimate cult anti-hero Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, all head-butts and blasphemes aplenty. Along with the terror of his version of The Thing and the Chuck Jones-style “kung-foolery” of Big Trouble In Little China, Kurt Russell became a solid action star and no longer filler.

Here’s another great example of the Ford/Wayne dynamic in modern film: the esteemed Martin Scorsese has done this twice with a pair of opposite pole actors, one method, one protean (or maybe just misguided). First he took the relatively unknown, journeyman actor Robert DeNiro and converted/revealed him as the troublesome Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta; all damaged, rough and tumble, sympathetic guys. Marty’s second iteration was with Leo DiCaprio, Mr Terminal Boyish face cum teen actor into fiery Amsterdam, eccentric aviator Howard Hughes and earnest, doomed Danny Castigan. Marty coaxed them both out of the shadows into the spotlight, and the pair returned their accolades in kind.

Get it now?

Okay. Cheadle is one of those actors: find a left of center director who takes Cheadle under their wing (EG: Soderbergh, Anderson, Lemmons, etc), he’s permitted to shine. Don’s not just Detective Walters, he gets to be Cheadle. He’s not Miles Davis, but you wish he were. After watching—and enjoying—Talk, director Lemmons was just left of enough to let Don be Don be Petey. In the immortal words of John “Joliet Jake Blues” Belushi: “Elwood, go nuts.” Boom.

And indeed boom is Talk, but it is measured. The real Greene was a larger than life figure in broadcast radio, which eventually grew into an Emmy-award winning talk show career. The movie isn’t a rags-to-riches story by any means, nor is it some swaggering tribute to the “man against The Man” biopic. Not really. At its core, Talk is a biography, but dramatically dappled with the social commentary, race relations and political spin that neither the government nor its voters—what the hell—left from right is. It’s all about parallels and blurred lines. And a director must be cautious in cutting a bio film occurring in the USA’s cultural upheaval that was the 60s. It’s been a popular well to dip from for Hollywood, to the point of balefully tantalizing. A good example of a director culling history to their own ends in the name of film/personal agendum is most of Oliver Stone’s output, which are often ham-fisted in delivery as well as preachy. For every Platoon we have a Born On The Fourth Of July. For every JFK we have a Nixon. For every Talk Radio we have a script for Conan The Barbarian. Biopic directors have a tough choice choosing from entertaining, informing and railing. The trick is to get a game cast (like we have here) and let organic, organized chaos run rampant.

Since Talk—being a biopic—is naturally a character drama, it’s not just Cheadle the axis upon which the movie spins, it’s the entire ensemble. All of the cast. They all have to be in place to make the movie work as well as it does. Well, okay, to be honest, Cedric and Hall were underused IMHO (more on that later), but they were more or less just symbolic foils of style over Petey’s substance. Yin, yang and of that jazz. There’s just enough ham and cheese to be digestible here. The others, who let’s face it, are steeped in the social message movie tropes (EG: the uptight boss, the hungry ladder climber, the wild girl with a heart of gold, that other guy, etc), but are delivered with such elan you can’t help but follow along. Sure, they might be cyphers, but they are fleshed out; everyone has a backstory here. Even that other guy.

Before I go on about acting (esp Cheadle, doy) I have to point this out: this film is well staged and well framed. Since the bulk of the movie is shot in tight spaces (EG: the broadcasting booth, dive bars, prison cells, etc), reflecting the solitary confinement of both people on the fringe and radio personalities (often one and the same, Bernstein). Voices heard and unheard and should be heard. The scenes created a very episodic feel through the acts, kinda like radio programming. For instance: in the first act, I felt that Lemmons’ direction was simply “go for it.” If this film is about an outrageous person, frame it as such and whet the audiences’ appetite. Remember Pirate Radio? Right, but done better here and with some purpose. Where those DJs were caricatures in which hijinks had to ensue, Lemmons’ presents us with a sense of urgency, all or nothing. This dynamic does well in introducing Petey’s inner circle, new and old, straight and chased alike.

Consider Ejiofor’s Dewey. No offense intended, but the man plays an excellent Tom; a black man “passing” in the corporate media world. He’s very self-aware of his position, he responsibilities and his “place” within the job. Moreover, his duty to the people is what drives him for the most part. Mostly his people, as if to compensate for striving. And as he strives as the (devil’s) advocate for Petey at WOL, Dewey not so secretly—but subtly enough—wishes he had Petey’s new gig, later almost living vicariously through his loudmouth, ex-con bullhorn but still playing the porch nigga scam to his disgust. Although he cares deeply about getting a message out (as well as crushing the competition), he wants to play it safe and let Petey do the dirty work. Dewey is a seat-of-his-pants wheeler dealer; his motives aren’t really suspect, but the motivation itself might be: does he want WOL to succeed with a fresh, hip, with it new DJ for the people? Or does Dewey need Petey to speak the words he wished he could speak but constrained by his responsibilities? Might make sense considering all the misguided faith Dewey has in Petey, criminal record or no (or one he “wished” he had kept). At first I thought this movie was all about Petey. In the endgame it was really all about Dewey.

I really dug Martin Sheen as WOL’s put upon general manager Sonderling. It might be Sheen’s best role since The West Wing. He may be a hot mess, but he understands what’s at stake if WOL doesn’t evolve with the times. No matter how many times Sonderling calls in security to escort the crude Petey away, he’s always willing to let him back into the booth. You get the feeling the man knows what’s what, but his hands are tied by FCC rules and regs, as well as losing face within the broadcasting community by using a stunt like putting an ex-con and his outspoken, prison-drenched ghetto speak about how f*cked up the nation is. He’s hip to what’s changing in DC, but he doesn’t want to lose his job over saying so. Petey is his avatar, not unlike Dewey if you think about it, so he takes the necessary risk. Sometimes you gotta loose a finger—or some face—to save a hand.

Henson is also a choice actress of mine. Believe it or don’t. But she does have range, and can be very funny without being comical as here with Talk. Despite Petey’s wiseacre style, Vernell is the comic relief, but not so much as to crack wise in turn but pop some bubbles. She was Miss Reality Check. Sure, Henson was brassy, sassy and no fool, but was also the yin to Dewey’s yang for keeping Petey in check and on the ground professionally. Need Petey be reminded how much WOL’s security would love to drag their fresh-faced DJ back to the clink and the brink. If Petey was meant to “tell it like it is” then Vernell was meant to tell Petey what it is, and Henson did so with a streetwise verve.

And now Cheadle’s performance, natch. I’ll try and not gush, but again it sure was fun to watch the man live up to his potential. If you think about it, Cheadle has done a lot of road work in biopics. From portraying Sammy Davis, Jr in The Rat Pack, Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda, and post-Talk Miles Davis for Miles Ahead (BTW, was Talk a dry run for Miles Ahead? Discuss) the guy is seasoned in playing real people as other people. If you think about this, it must be pretty tricky to act as a real figure would rather than what a fictional character would do. You’re trying to pay homage to a real public figure in history; there’s a small but very vocal audience out there waiting for you to f*ck it up or be bound for glory (in that order, always). And f*ck-ups occur with stunning, disappointing regularity in Hollywood biopic output. I mean, for every Talk To Me we have a Wired, inch for inch. Recalling the whole comic book folderol, we sickos kinda wanna see our heroes fail on the big screen. It’s always a big breath-grabbing whew when a filmmaker dodges that bullet. Even with a cult icon like Petey, Cheadle plays it straight, so even the ignorant “gets it.” After all, that was the real Petey’s motivation: for the right folks to get it.

I think I got it pretty good. Beneath the pseudo-rags-to-riches biopic, we have the art of the steal. Namely, who’s conning who and how? Sure, Petey is a miscreant with a mile long rap sheet, but that’s the obvious thing. Radio may be mature and free, but it lies a lot too. Misinforms you. Sways you. Derails your train of thought sometimes. That’s part of the point, but do those on air voices want to just tell ya or sell ya? Here’s a few examples: at the end of the first act, I loved the scene where Petey is “escorted” to the broadcast booth. It’s almost akin to his being let free from prison into another box. Another golden moment was when Petey was “legit” on the air with no heroics (well, maybe for Dewey, all flop sweat). Which one’s real? The first time Petey sat in the WOL chair he REDACTED, despite having another captive audience at his whims. What gives? Is the voice of the people and its delivery all a scam? Who’s conning who in the endgame? Do you hear what you want to hear? Do the broadcasts speak the truth or just feed you? Is Dewey living vicariously through (his idol) Petey? That may go to say sure, regarding the historical fact that Dewey later went on to REDACTED in real life. Is the voice of the people for the people, for the speaker or just an echo chamber. To be blunt, memes originated in the 70s and all social media is an sounding board. Or karaoke night.

Yeah, Talk is a character study, duh. Of course I’m going to cite the acting as vital. However, there is always a flipside. Remember that stereotype thing earlier? Right. Lay some blame at Cedric and Hall’s feet. Those two were wasted opportunity, yo. At first glance, these two characters are representative of the stereotypes Petey likes to rail against. We have suave, soulful playa Nighthawk pimping his word and his persona as a voice of the people, a voice representing their needs and sympathies through music and pillow talk (again, shades of Pirate Radio). In simpler terms, showman and caricature. Hall is the opposite, of the old skool and old guard about what he thinks the people want to hear: dulcet tones of black crooners of yesteryear. Soul fool to ease the soul. More like comfort food, which we know in the end is decidedly not good for you. Two ends Petey is struggling against in the black community, style over substance and vice versa.

It’s a good social theory I feel (sure), but how Hall and Cedric were used just as cyphers was boring. We’re getting slapped around for the first act how vital these two programmers are to the WOL family. How? Nighthawk is a comic book character and Sunny Jim is your grandad, and neither were really convincing as the voice of the left or the right. Sure, it was hinted at, and both are competent character actors, but neither Hall or Cedric really got into character. They just filled time and space to suit the narrative. That and Petey was the center of the story, overarching and vocal, which didn’t give let alone permit Hawk and Sunny to shine. They were eyewash. Maybe ear-wash even. I dunno. Hey, if this was the only real gripe about the flick, consider me charitable.

There’s always the technical part to consider in a period piece like Talk. It covers the mid to late 60s and beyond. Y’all know what that entails: social unrest, bitter race relations, marches on Washington in protest of Vietnam, pot, free love and LBJ. That’s just for starters and not necessarily in that order. The best way to wallpaper rough times such as those is with the pop culture therein. Stuff we the average, in-the-know-thanks-to-social-media-you-tube-crazy-cat-memes 21st Century joes and janes should recall from the recent history books. Stuff like the great costuming and makeup with the film. Can’t forget the soundtrack (IE: Terence Blanchard did the soundtrack. That’s capital Q quality there) rife with James, Sly, the Chambers, the Reverend and Marvin. Use a little nostalgia to make the make the urine of the dirty past go down a little easier. And there is a lot of social commentary to digest. The 1960s were not all peace and love, and least not for non-Anglos. What better place—if only through happenstance—to have Washington be the setting? If Talk is a biopic with a message, where else and time to reflect the neo-tumultuous times in these our Millennial United States? Who do you trust when FoxNews propaganda fuels the fires of racial unrest, when music is more commercial than ever as commodity over expression? When the maturity of radio is sidelined to the proverbial echo chamber? Folks like Petey and his kind are redolent of a voice of the people we so desperately need now. So who’s conning who?

…That was deep (*burp*). Weren’t we talking about some movie?

Said plain, Cheadle delivers the goods with the right director. A patient one, and one who understands what’s at stake balancing entertainment with a message, and not making it some mawkish crusade highlighting the protagonist as some saint. Cheadle’s Petey is decidedly not, nor is he the voice of his people. If he was, he wouldn’t be on the radio. He’d be at the Lincoln Memorial. Instead of an simmering throng he gets a microphone, he gets to be a figure without being seen; his audience never sees an ex-con. Oh sure, he screams he’s a “miscreant” all movie long, but that label doesn’t really befit him. He’s just another cog in the disinformation machine, and that’s as timely as Reddit nowadays, if only for an hour and then forgotten. It’s Cheadle’s Petey’s tough naïveté that’s the appeal, and we always root for an underdog, no matter how disenfranchised or ragged. Lemmons let Cheadle be Cheadle, with patience, and out came a great perforamce that informed the rest of the cast and the message of the movie with minimal bubbles.

The final act runs out of steam, though. I wonder if that was the point. I think so. Being on air takes a lot out of you. I know; I used to try and take a nap after my show, mostly behind the wheel en route to my real job. The final scenes pass in a blur, where Petey REDACTED and his other side of the coin Dewey gets a comeuppance. Like that scene, Talk can get exhausting, and stuff doesn’t always pan out the way it’s planned. The final act illustrates that well. Being a voice in the ether can take its psychic toll; cracking wise and spouting truth can wear the speaker down. It can wear the audience down also, but both always tune back in the next time. We wouldn’t want to miss a possible chance for the right message to be called out and the right ears hear it. If only for a little bit, and not to get conned by doggerel again.

Huh. Covered a lotta kooky ground this time out. Let’s see we have the maturity of radio, the seduction of radio, The Duke, The Admiral, doggerel (can’t believe I had to use that term) and Cheadle—finally—in his element. Hope it added up to some sense, now that we’re all back on board with fresh installments of RIORI. Let’s hope I can keep it on a steady wavelength.

And this I just gotta say: “Don’t touch that dial!”

*rimshot/crushed, hurled beer cans*


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Turn on, tune in, drop by for the flipside. Finally a role worthy of Cheadle’s talents. Oh yeah, support your community radio station, lest Billie Ellish have a fruitful career. Shudder.


The Stray Observations…

  • “Wake up, goddammit!”
  • Barring QuestLove, whatever happened to the afro? I’m kinda serious.
  • “Did he jus’ say ‘blue blazes’?”
  • That tune playing in the background of that decisive pool game was “Chinese Checkers” by Booker T & The MGs. Clever. And nine-ball is a lucky man’s game.
  • “Watch your language!”
  • All through the movie this was nagging at me: Dewey sports some cool hair. It’s all about the sideburns, baby.
  • “That white boy he was with…?”
  • Great edit: Vernell’s apartment to Dewey’s door.
  • I’m the people.”
  • Yes, that is the original cut of “Tainted Love” playing. No surprise that it punctuates that key scene. Also clever.
  • “Now we’re even.”
  • Oh God, the riots…left out of the history books. Sheen’s response to Cheadle’s eloquent soliloquy is priceless.
  • “Hey, Dave.”
  • Petey Green: The black Lenny Bruce? Or the proto-Pryor?
  • “Was it free p*ssy day or sumpin’?”
  • Fun fact: director Lemmons played Clarice Starling’s roomie Ardelia in The Silence Of The Lambs.
  • “Do you mean I get a job or what?”

The Next Time…

“I doth decree that thou shall not parody Excalibur, The Sword And The Sorcerer and especially The Princess Bride!”

“As you wish, Your Highness.


 

RIORI Volume 3, Installment 8: Mike Binder’s “Reign Over Me” (2007)


Reign Over Me


The Players…

Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle, Jada Pinkett Smith, Liv Tyler and Saffron Burrows, with Robert Klein, Melinda Dillon and Donald Sutherland.


The Story…

After a chance run-in with his old college roommate, Alan tries to reconnect with his friend who’s since fallen on hard times. But his old buddy Charlie wants nothing doing, regardless of how his life’s fallen into ruin. As far as Charlie’s concerned, all he needs is his music, video games and a kitchen to remodel. But Alan thinks there’s something more going on…and not just with Charlie.


The Rant…

I’m not entirely sure how Adam Sandler has had a successful movie career.

I’m not going to lambast the guy; that’s too easy. We all know his comedies are exercises in dumb, sophomoric, scatological and generally adolescent crapola. We know this. So does Sandler, as evidenced in recent, questionable newswires. He understands this very fact, and makes little to no apologies for his junk. Hell, if morons want to go to the movies to see Sandler act moronic himself, that’s their lookout. Sandler’s wisely adopted the classic “Hey, if you don’t like my sh*t, don’t go to the theatre” attitude. I’ve seen a few of his flicks, and some I’ve found fun—if taken with the right amount of salt. And weed. But overall they’re dumb with a capital Q, and that’s the point. His is mindless entertainment. You know what you’re in for when you go to a Sandler comedy, and it ain’t gonna be Shakespearean. It’s gonna be stupid, all pratfalls, farts and Adam’s signature screeching. And really, let’s face it, we all need a can of PBR to chase the single malt now and again, right?

Like I said, Sandler’s funny films—up until recently—do good business. But is it because they’re really funny? No, not really—at least not consistently. Sandler also doesn’t score many points for originality, either (wasn’t Blended essentially a re-write of 50 First Dates, Drew Barrymore notwithstanding?). As of late, Sandler’s audience has been drying up, perhaps finally getting hip to how old the joke’s become. And that’s just it, my opening statement: how has Sandler maintained a successful movie career for so long?

Every pop culture trend has a limited shelf life. If you’re an actor and get, say, seven years in the spotlight, you’re a true success. It’s even better if you score a few Oscars in the interim. Some actors’ work is best regarded within particular decades. Tom Hanks, for example, ruled the 90s with charm and chameleon-like acting chops; he’s like the modern day Jimmy Stewart. Pacino’s halcyon days were in the 70s. Hell, Shirley Temple held sway throughout the 30s—FDR even gave her a commendation for keeping morale up on the homefront. Barring Temple, the above actors are still active, but their cachet is waning (or with the case of Pacino, hurtling into self-parody and a never-ending toilet paper roll of sh*tty scripts). I’m not gonna bury the man before he’s dead, but along my argument, can you recall a truly noteworthy performance by Hanks in the past five years?

You chew on it; I’ll wait here.

*crickets*

Yeah. Me neither.

Despite some awesome Tom Hanks movies—running the gamut of roles and styles starting with Big in 1988 and winding down with Cast Away (“WILSON!”) in 2000—I think Hanks’ time in the spotlight is fading. I hope I’m wrong. I don’t want the guy to ultimately be best remembered for just Forrest Gump and “Houston, we have a problem.”

That’s not a bad thing, really. Examples? Even though he took up some really dumb roles at the end of his life/career, Marlon Brando will always be remembered fondly as Vito Corleone (or Col. Kurtz, or f*cking Jor-El, depending on who you ask). Regardless of DeNiro’s roles over the past 20 years delving into inane comedies or playing second fiddle to Bradley Cooper or Ben Stiller, most of us will always recognize Bob as Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta or Johnny Boy. All of those were great—if not signature—roles, and ultimately Brando is resting soundly, legacy secured.

Here. I know. I ramble. Let’s put it into simpler terms: consider the career lifespan of a rock star. If you’ve maintained the spotlight for three to five years, moved a million units, get a gig promo’d by Ryan Seacrest and hobnobbed with Kanye and Kim, then good on you; you made it. But precious few of us can be Bowie. Hell, most of us are Imagine Dragons.

So how come Sandler hasn’t become Hollywood’s latest iteration of “Radioactive” by now?

I know, I know. I hear ya screaming. It’s the whole Hollywood profit margin guided by either “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” or “If it works, beat it into the ground” in full operation, right? But if the actor or rock star examples above illustrate our ADHD cultural shelf life, then why haven’t we got sick of Sandler’s antics yet? I mean, we trade in our PlayStations every three to four years. Since Sandler’s rise into his heyday 20 years ago, there’s been four PlayStations (more if you include the Vita. I don’t), and at least with those consoles its media evolves, gets smarter and more sophisticated. Folks like that kind of thing, except when it comes to Adam Sandler’s film output apparently. There they like that as progressive as stone wheels-and-axles. Or a PSX.

Don’t get me wrong. I reassure you I don’t hate Sandler. I might hate some of his movies, but I’m not so out of joint to deny he’s a talented, funny guy. For instance, I liked The Wedding Singer and his screwball sports comedies The Waterboy and Happy Gilmore (or as I like to call it, Caddyshack for the 90s), not to mention that his salt mine years on SNL were great. But we’re still talking shelf life here, so here’s what I’m asking:

How can Sandler’s movie career be totally one-note yet has thrived for over twenty years?

Sandler—by conscious choice or an accident of design—has honed his on screen persona as loveable loser/irresponsible man-child to a razor sharp edge. He has played the same guy in almost every one of his 40-plus(!) movies, and we can always count on Adam to always deliver these goods in all of his movies—all of them:

  • Screaming,
  • Speaking in a funny voice,
  • Doing something musical,
  • Engaging in light physical comedy, and;
  • Acting all childlike.

In the face of examples presented by Hanks, Pacino and DeNiro with their films of diminishing returns and the present, increasing resentment of Sandler’s oeuvre—the audiences increasingly bored, and the plots (such as they are) growing beyond repetitive—his goofball act slogs ever onwards. By and large, his sh*t still sticks. Christ, even when he flexes his acting chops and tries his hand at a dramatic role, Sandler gets no quarter nor respect. He does get a response, however (mostly out of critical disbelief he’s actively trying to avoid peeing on camera), but the general public—his core fan base, rather—demand fart jokes, and the promise of serious drama as departure unpalatable.

As a professional actor, attempting to stretch and branch out, it’s become Sandler’s tender trap, what with the dyed-in-wool snot rockets on command. The people have spoken; they want belches. But now with 20 years under his belt, Sandler wants critical respect, even if it flies in the face of—defies—his lucrative cinematic legacy. Butt jokes and all.

Sandler’s stint in Reign Over Me is no different a situation. Well, maybe a little…


Success can be defined in quantitative measures in our society. What you do for a living. How much you earn. Where you live. What freedoms these things offer. Dr. Alan Johnson (Cheadle) can answer all these things with an affirmative. He’s a prominent cosmetic dentist. He has a nice Park Avenue apartment. He has his beautiful wife Janeane (Smith) and his equally wonderful daughters. He has money in the bank, a good reputation in his field, a nice ride and all the bells and whistles that a successful life allows.

Then how come Alan feels so bloody tight, trapped and depressed?

One day on his ride home from work stuck in the usual rush hour gridlock, Alan spies some guy on a scooter recklessly weaving around the stuck cars, oblivious to the traffic. Alan knows this guy. It’s Charlie Fineman (Sandler), his old roomie from dental school. Alan tries to flag him down, but Charlie’s oversized headphones cut him off from Alan’s cries, and from most of the world, too.

Lately, Charlie’s been zipping around Alan’s homebound route a great deal. Eventually Alan catches up with his old pal and asks him what’s up, what’s been going down? At first, Charlie is in a haze; he doesn’t recognize Alan. Charlie barely recognizes reality. The well-heeled Alan, all nice haircut and perfect cut of suit, tries to press Charlie. How have you been? What’s happened? How’s your family and why aren’t you listed in the directory of practicing dentists?

All Charlie can do is hitch on his headphones and get back on the scooter.

Alan asks around. What the hell happened to Charlie? He used to be an eager student and eventually a success story in the dental field. He had achieved the standing Alan now enjoys light-years before he even smelled a partnership. Now Charlie’s a disheveled mess instead. Again, what the hell happened?

9/11.

Charlie lost his entire family when the planes hit. He also lost most of his sanity. He quit his practice. He gave in to his hobbies as lifestyle, such as it is. He shut out the world. Alan learns it’s PTSD; Charlie copes as well as he can with music, video games, government stipends and endlessly overhauling his kitchen.

It’s terrible. Despite Alan’s material success against sympathy, he reaches out to his old, wounded friend, hoping to get Charlie reacquainted with reality. Alan also hopes—learns—that reconnecting with his old roomie might give him some perspective on his present, boring, probably needlessly stressful life.

After all, Alan is still successful. He still has his wife, daughters, prestige and an office with his name on the door. All Charlie has is a drumkit, a PlayStation and a never-ending kitchen. And a sh*t-ton of memories he wishes he could shake…


Reign Over Me was a tragic waste of time.

(Oops! Did I give away my review already?)

Seriously. Sh*t, we had a veritable goldmine here to plumb. Post-9/11 New York? PTSD echoing the tragedy soldiers from the Mideast return home to face? How the mentally ill are both maligned and feared by the upwardly mobile?

Funk dat. We got Shadow of the Colossus instead. That and Bob Seger.

Oy. Reign falls under the auspices of what I’ll call the Lady in the Water syndrome (go read the review). This film had such great promise, and it dropped the ball more times than Manhattan has every New Year. The premise was ideal, with a classic, no-fail storytelling device: friendship and salvation. And director Binder screwed the whole pooch using a very deliberate and forced execution. His execution muddied the movie waters with cloying, inorganic drama, half-baked, inconsistent characterization and a sputtering pace that makes the film drag in most places and skitter away elsewhere. Reign is riddled with flaws, and it’s really a shame because the story had such promise…if it made some sense.

I don’t want to tear apart Reign just yet. I do want to spend my opening sortie picking apart the good —or at least noteworthy—aspects of the film. Since first and foremost this is a buddy movie/character study at heart—a very odd buddy movie, mind you—we have to talk about the acting. Naturally, Sandler and Cheadle’ characters.

All right. Y’all know I’ve got a man crush on Cheadle. I’ve also mentioned before here at RIORI that Cheadle is a fine actor that almost always gets stuck in dumb roles. He should get a new agent. Here his Alan is our Everyman; it’s kind of a stereotype—man who has everything feels trapped by his success—but Cheadle delivers it in a very down-to-earth way. I’d use the “have a beer” analogy here, but Binder already has a scene like that in Reign. Even though Cheadle’s had a track record for lame roles, he’s always good, and can make the most mundane character a little more three-dimensional.

The key to Cheadle’s acting style, I feel, is his earnestness. I’ve never seen him play out of character (even when he should, like in Iron Man 2). His Alan is no different. Our protag is solid; all the conflicts Alan faces—from a crisis at work to his straining marriage to helping Charlie—are handled in a candid manner, with Cheadle working the plain, but pretty good and clever. I’ll give Binder’s direction that much—dialogue with utmost conviction and sympathy. Cheadle is as reliable as ever in Reign. At the end of the day—or movie—solid acting is more important than “good” acting regarding Reign. Good acting is subjective, but a guy like Cheadle is dependable enough to give the audience the proverbial “goods.”

However, what’s also reliable in Reign is Sandler’s usual histrionics. Those five things I listed above about fixtures in Sandler’s comedies? Welp, they’re all present and accounted for here. All in all though, regarding Sandler’s performance, it’s nice to see the guy try and sort of stretch himself as an actor. But even here in Reign, Sandler gives us his usual man-child schtick, albeit wrapped in a veil of “maturity.” In another movie, in another light, Charlie would be no different than Billy Madison. Think about it: Charlie as PTSD victim. He wraps himself up with his video games, record collection and drumkit. Whenever he gets mildly agitated, he screams and tears about. He has this fetish for root beer. He even ogles women with no shame (and isn’t Charlie a guy who supposedly misses his wife more than anything in the world?). In the context of Charlie it works it fits and starts, but when you think about it, it’s still Sandler doing Sandler.

And the hell of it all, I liked Sandler as Charlie. For real. Here’s a role where Sandler’s gig was actually put to some good use. I’ll agree his act is threadbare, and trying it out in a “serious” role was a shaky prospect at best, but you know what they say in storytelling: write what you know. Sandler knows how to be an adolescent goodfball, very well I might add. He just rolled with it in Reign—with mixed results—and it more or less resulted in a Sandler character that was at somewhat sympathetic and tolerable. He even had some good moments, too. Not many, but the few present worked well (e.g.: the therapist’s waiting room scene). So it wasn’t a total wash.

But…

Unlike Cheadle, Sander plays out of character a lot. I blame the writing. The narrative started to get real sloppy by the second act. The seams got frayed, and Charlie vacillated between disturbed and surprisingly lucid (all this from reconnecting with Alan? And wait. Going to therapy? Just like that?). I’m no expert, but Charlie eventually appears to be suffering from more than PTSD, and PTSD isn’t like psychosis, not really. I dislike how mental illness if often portrayed in movies as either being plum crazy or just plain sick. Reign is guilty of that. We know Charlie’s been through some sh*t, but excluding very little backstory, he just comes across as textbook nuts most of the time. Charlie’s inability to relate to anyone (except under certain circumstances) comes and goes at will halfway through the film, surprisingly not for the ever-patient Alan to take note. Seemed rather convenient to me.

Reign is your basic character study/buddy movie, right? Well, it’s mired in arrested (character) development. Both of our leads play children masquerading as adults. Alan is repressed and wants to lead a carefree life like Charlie seems to have. Charlie is unhinged and without a family to ground him—to give his life purpose—and basically retreats to his bedroom and bolts the door. Retreat, both “good” and “bad” is the axis of this movie. That’s the general undercurrent I felt in Reign, and that would be a reliable fulcrum for a story to balance.

But Binder blows it, time and again, with a lot of rambling in a script that never feels balanced. There is the overarching feeling of “play it fast and loose” pervading the entire damn movie. The opening scenes feel rushed in setting up the backstory. The 9/11 tragedies seem more like an inconvenience and/or wallpaper rather than being the movie’s Maguffin. Reign is interspersed with honest pathos but sandwiched between layers of filler—a lot of saccharine filler. The wobbly nature of the script leaves you never really sure of where the film is going. The meandering can become actually jarring, due to its ensuing frustration as the audience gets lost or forgotten about entirely. And a lot of the “message” (whatever it is. Even that ultimately gets confusing. Is it the healing power of friendship? Sympathy for the lost? Sandler can act when he really tries? I couldn’t keep track) gets delivered with ham-fisted empathy via a jumbled plot seemingly thrown together by the third act. By and large, everything feels forced.

I’m feeling that the only reason this movie got any press was that our established goofball Sandler was going to “play it straight” in a rare dramatic role. He didn’t (but tried), and the script betrayed him. Also, and once again, Cheadle got the short shrift. Granted, neither of them did any fart jokes, but both actors were either underused—their talent downplayed—or maybe under the delusion that a film tackling New York 9/11 matters automatically meant playing in Reign was a noble gesture and tribute. Didn’t they read the script before signing on? Could they have?

Call me cynical (no, really), but I think that the only reason Reign got any kind of praise is for employing post-9/11 sympathies on us. If Charlie had been a homeless vet…well, that’s been done before. If it was a role akin to DeNiro in Awakenings…uh, that’s already been done, too. PTSD afflicted guy from the WTC attacks? With Sandler? Hollywood gold!

Hey. Don’t throw the beer cans at me. Aim for Binder.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. This movie is awful. It’s pandering, in poor taste and awful…not unlike the majority of Sandler’s “funny” films. Blech. What a shame.


Stray Observations…

  • “I hated kitchen talk.”
  • I know that yellow diner. Then again, so does half of Manhattan.
  • “Get a new shrink. Get several.”
  • I envy Charlie’s hair. I tried to achieve that kind of mane in my post-punk phase…in 1999. Slap me.
  • “You need some Mel!”
  • Why is Liv Tyler in this movie? She’s not a very convincing shrink. Discuss.
  • “Nobody has the right to look that good.”
  • Admittedly, Quadrophenia is one of my favorite albums.
  • “You don’t like this?” “I don’t like remembering.”
  • (Later, in the third act) Oh, God. Is Burrows still in this movie?
  • “Can we go get Chinese now?”
  • No visible facial wounds from that street…apprehension? Bad editor. Bad, bad editor.
  • “You used to take sh*t from everybody…but you were great at it!”
  • It’s a Madison 23 Production, doubtless a nod to the 23rd anniversary of Sandler’s break throughmovie, Billy Madison. Now stop looking at me, swan.
  • “It’s a kitchen, sweetie.”

Next Installment…

Hey! It’s time for another Kick-Ass comic book movie adaptation! Again! Comic books! All right! Here, at RIORI! Again! We get a lot of ‘em! Yet again! C’mon!

Sigh.


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…


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 23: Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man 2” (2010)


Iron Man 2


The Players…

Robert Downey, Jr, Mickey Rourke, Gwynth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johanssen and Sam Rockwell (with of course Stan Lee).


The Story…

So now the world’s aware of his identity as Iron Man, Tony Stark must contend with both his declining health, a would-be nemesis with ties to his father’s legacy and keeping the straight image of legit industrialist and armored avenger. That and keeping his boozing in check.

A tale of vengeance and fathers and scotch? To the movie mill!


The Rant (and it is indeed a rant)

What is it about sequels that polarize us so? A good story demands. The audience wants to know, “Then what happens?” A sh*t story demands…not a lot. At least, along thinking man’s curves. Hollywood has probably churned out more sequels than original movies, not that story has demanded it. That was never really the case. Hollywood exists, like any other enterprise, to make a profit. And if one of their properties wants to go franchise (with a healthy backing on name recognition, like say…Marvel Comics), they sally forth in hopes to make a profit on the value of “Then what happens?”

Since the first X-Men movie, Hollywood got hip to the idea of making movies from comic book plots. Nowadays, they’re expected fodder come summertime (at least). And since most comics are serial, there’s always gonna be another story the Wednesday next. There’s always the “The what happens?” at the end of every comic book story arc. Movies? It’s a gamble. Depends on how well the story was executed. Spider-Man demanded a sequel, since it was so well done and Spidey’s universe is rife with stories to draw from. The X-Men franchise demanded a sequel simply because the cast was so huge and ever expanding therefore demanding more story and more story and more story (fact: writer Chris Claremont was the head writer for X-Men for sixteen years straight. A feat no other comic book writer may ever top). The Fantastic Four…ummm, I’m gonna go watch Blade again.

Needless to say the proliferation of comic book movies, with their already storyboarded scripts, offer up sequel opportunities a-plenty. Like I hinted at above, sequential stories can be a crapshoot. It’s a checks-and-balances system of “can we make some money?” versus “is it worth trying?” The first Iron Man movie was very rewarding. Logic in Hollyweird dictates that if it worked the first time, it’ll work the second. And the third. And the fourth. And therefore is how the Fast and Furious legacy began. But seriously, like other superhero crusades, Iron Man also has a rich history to mine. Not as well known as, say, Spider-Man, but still being extant for almost fifty years counts for something, right?

Right. So, about the sequel thing. There are precious few sequels that are worth their salt in the history of film. The Godfather, Part II, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, from what I’ve heard The Lord of the Rings, pt. III (I was never much for fantasy. See the Oz, The Great and Powerful installment) was pretty decent, and a good portion of the James Bond and The Thin Man movies was a lot of fun, if they even count as sequels. Still, I think most (thinking) movie-going folks raise an eyebrow whenever the story is expanded, even if there is enough grist in the mill to keep it going.

Me? I think I’ve always been suspect of sequels, since so many of them seem to obey the law of diminishing returns. More money for less art and all that jazz. Diluted story, continuously wrung dry by the likes of Bay and others of his ilk. If there’s the “Then what happens?” feeling going on, I’ll play along. But five-plus installments of Saw? Endless derivatives of Halloween? Transformers 8: When Tickets Cost Fifty Bucks to Stream (I f*cking hate Michael Bay), then I get not only suspect, but downright hostile (surprise!). Sequels are generally put out to empty our pockets, regardless of “Then what happens?” Such cases reminds me of when my kid is wont to ask about a favorite story. But she’s seven, and after the ending of a seriously closed book. But since Iron Man is aimed at alleged grown-ups, and has a full and somewhat unplumbed history to draw from, even I was curious as to…well, you know. Scuttlebutt told me that this sequel was inferior, tired, Standard-worthy material. Welp, here’s what I divined.

But first, to the synopsis…!


Tony Stark (Downey) has been outed. By himself. He is indeed the armored adventurer Iron Man. And, oh, what a wonder he has done as his cyborged self to better the world with his high tech hubris. Peace in the Mideast! A deterrent to possible nefarious nuclear activity in North Korea! A danger to your liquor cabinet! It seems that with great power…oh, save it for another guy. Stark just wants to have fun as a superhero, a household name brand and a potential franchise. However, it’s very unfortunate that he’s been heist by his own petard.

Turns out that the very tech he created to maintain his mini arc reactor heart is also killing him, as well as any excessive activity in his Iron Man suit. He knows time is running out, possibly for himself and the half-life on his Iron Man tech. After all, he learned from his father Howard (Mad Men’s John Slattery, cool cameo!) that the future is possible, if you learn how to mine it. That being claimed, it could only be a matter of time for another questing soul could capture the science that made Stark Industries so proud and powerful.

Someone did, and has passed it onto the son. Unfortunately, this son is a tad more maleficent than Howard’s.

Howard Stark’s industrial fortune was co-built with a very silent partner. Anton Vanko, lost in the shuffle that is the march of progress, becomes the flipside of Howard’s rich empire; destitute, dying and wasting away with his son Ivan (Rourke) in a hovel in a forgotten part of Russia. Upon his deathbed, Anton urges his son to follow his footsteps and continue the research that he started in hopes for Ivan to carve out a slice of the good life denied him by the whims of fate. And the Stark family. With a grinding of metal teeth and a taste for vengeance on Tony Stark, Ivan sets to work on said research, a virtual mutation of the arc reactor, this time with energies flowing outwards instead of in.

That’s not all which is amiss and unawares in Tony’s world. His Iron Man tech has also drawn attention from Congress, seen as a portable WMD worn by its maverick and often-reckless owner. With such unregulated power running through Stark’s enterprise (like he one made one suit, please), it was only a matter of time before the powers that be and the US military wanted a piece of Iron Man.

Now our hero finds himself attacked on both fronts. One side from a would-be avenging enemy that demands his share of the glory, and the other flak from the country he tries to defend. That and there’s this business of trying to run a trans-global company dynasty with his own body betraying him. Anthony Stark has seen it rough playing the hero, but is it his own humility and mortality going to be his downfall?…


As far as sequels go, Iron Man 2 is just okay. Then again, most sequels are just okay. As I mentioned above, sequels are a hit-and-miss kind of venture. The producers of Iron Man 2 tried to make lightning strike twice by repeating a mistake that happens with sequels to successful original movies: simply repeat the formula. What worked so well with the first Iron Man film is that everything was new. I mean, the plot wasn’t. There are only so many plots Hollywood writers can draw from, and the “humbled hero redeemed” is a classic theme and was put to good use with energy and humor in Iron Man. The second time around, well…It’s not so new anymore.

Iron Man 2 establishes a new concept I’d like to dub “sophisticated camp.” There’s a lot of cartoony flash-and-dash here, underlined with some drama that could be regarded as tongue-in-cheek. At least I thought so. This film feels a lot more carefree than the first, and it moves at a breakneck speed. Not as, dare I say, “heady” at the first Iron Man with its pseudo-socio-political undertones. Iron Man 2 has rapid-fire pacing, and I was unsure if I could keep up, let alone appreciate it. Despite that this movie was more freewheeling than the first, it lacked the verve of the first movie. This sequel played like a by-the-numbers action movie, period, with a lot of meta, subtle in-jokes and the crashing of metal on metal. Like I said, repeat the formula.

However, I liked the feel of the movie. Its breezy nature, though at times teetering on plain goofy, was what felt like a good waste of time. Part of the thanks falls to the director for that one. Jon Favreau has a style that is whimsical yet demands your attention very sternly. The scenes may be full of unrestrictive joking, winking, speeding and hamming it up, it does get in the pocket where the fun meets the drama (such as it is). There is substance behind all the antics, but it takes a keen pair of eyes and ears to grab onto it.

Speaking of the humor rife throughout the film, there were a lot of little touches that I dug. I already mentioned the in-jokes, but there are also quite a few clever verbal segues and cues. One I liked was shortly before our villain Whiplash AKA Ivan Vanko exacts revenge on Tony with his new weapon, hanging out in the pit crew on the Grand Prix wearing a helmet with “Intervention” emblazoned on its brim is pretty witty.

Since we’re talking about Whiplash, I really enjoyed Mickey Rourke’s portrayal of Iron Man’s new foe. Rourke was never considered the strong, silent type back in his heyday. But it worked here. He was menacing and funny, and used that battle-scarred mug of his to great effect (boxing sure took its toll on Mickey, eh?). He did have a certain presence in the movie. Was it charming? In a whacked-out kind of view, yeah. Right. He was fun. What makes me wonder is why the studio chose such an obscure villain as Whiplash to be the antagonist of this film? Because he looks cool has my vote.

More on the acting. Downey as Stark is smarm incarnate. He’s like the cool kid in high school with the flash wheels and the blonde, dimwitted cheerleader girlfriend in the trunk. The Family Stark abode was the place to go when his parents were out of town and the keg was in the basement. Downey is a great actor. He’s always been left-off-center funny but can really tear into it when he has to. You can see he relishes this role. An aside: when I first caught wind that Downey was going to portray Iron Man, I thought it was a stroke of genius. My fellow comic book heads hemmed and hawed, for reasons I never got (comic nerds are a cagey lot). But look: here’s actor with a well known, well publicized substance abuse problem, has had scrapes with the law and habitually shot himself in the foot due to his own hubris. Sounded like Stark material to me.

Don Cheadle is a criminally underused, underappreciated actor. He is very literate, earnest and confident. He replaced Terrence Howard from the first film as Rhodey/War Machine here, and it was for the better. Despite the fact Howard looked more like Rhodes in the first film, Cheadle is better at delivering lines. Howard bounced back and forth from stern to…stern to…did he even enjoy the role? Cheadle really dug into his role. Then again, I think his delivery was troublesome and it’s mostly due to him undertaking mediocre roles. He’s better than that. (About the debut of War Machine: it was somewhat in line with the canon. But the mano y mano scene was kind of corny. I mean, really. Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots?)

Sam Rockwell as Hammer was the wild card. He’s a wheeler-dealer, and that kind of characterization stinks of a summer movie, this kind of heavy. It was kind of a bait-and-switch, with Whiplash seemingly posing as the head baddie (remember Christopher Walken in Batman Returns? Uh-huh). Rockwell is too hammy. Professionally, I’m a cook. The other day I nicked my thumb (just bear with me). It happens. However as a cut heals, and has to be sealed under a bandage. A certain “scent” of the healing sets in. The wound absorbs the toil of the day. The day consists of maybe 12 hours on average. That means very many times dipping it into salt wells. It stings and so does the smell of the wound. So smells Rockwell’s performance. I guess what I’m saying is I could’ve done without Rockwell as Hammer. I mean the role was good, just poorly acted.

By the way, Scarlett Johannsen is in Iron Man 2. Moving on.

For years in the comic book, it was kind of an open secret that Tony Stark was Iron Man. I liked the fact in the film that him outing himself did not result in the usual crap storyline of now the hero’s friends and family are in mortar peril. Stark just uses it as a smart business ploy. And this could be his undoing in a different way. If there is a message to Iron Man 2, it’s the classic we have met the enemy, and he is us. I suppose you have some have some meat on the well-chewed bone to satisfy the human equation.

But overall, this sequel lacks gas. The first film worked better because of more internal drama. You know, the human factor. This one traded in spectacle. Pretty good spectacle, but you can’t dig for gold in a silver mine (yeah, yeah. An Elton John lyric. I’m not beneath some things). If anything, Favreau with all his wonder-dealing is too slick. With all its whiz-bang, the movie’s a bit clunky. Despite all the snappy dialogue, there is too much exposition. In the final analysis, Iron Man 2 is schizo movie. There’s a lot to enjoy here, but it’s been done before and better. There’s a lot to carp about here (there’s a shock), but it’s mostly minor. But there’s a lot of it.

*shrug*

I guess I really wanted to like Iron Man 2. A part of me still does. Did Favreau capture lightning in a bottle the first time? Kinda, yeah. But was this sequel another exercise in separating the audience from their money, capitalizing on the ravenous appetites of more noise? Naw. We were operating on the “Then what happened?” dynamic. And there always more to happen in a comic book franchise.

I heard there was a third installment of Iron Man. Hmmm…


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Coin flip. It depends on what you’re tastes are. I’m gonna relent it. But if you want to watch it, be sure you’re wearing the proper lenses.


Stray Observations…

  • John Slattery as Howard Stark! Garry Shandling as Sen. Stern! Stan Lee as Larry King! Exclamation points!
  • “I’ve successfully privatized world peace.” Ironic Nixon salute.
  • Once when I was musing with comic book dealer Jeff (shortly before the first Iron Man came out) I claimed, “You know who’d make a good Jarvis? Paul Bettany.” When I finally saw the movie and read the closing credits, I accidentally smacked my fiancée in the face with surprise. Guess I won…something.
  • “Don’t say wind farm; I’m already feeling gassy.”
  • I love the soundtrack.
  • “Sir, I’m gonna have to ask you to exit the donut!” Only Sam Jackson (that and the Pulp Fiction throwback).
  • “Coffee Bean?” More meta for Marvel zombies.
  • “Why is drone better?” “People make problem.” Yep.
  • I was a kid in the 80’s and getting into comics when I first read Iron Man I thought he was a black guy. Then I didn’t know of any black superheroes, so I was entranced. Later I learned that Tony Stark was MIA as Iron Man due to his alcohol abuse, and Rhodes took over for a time. I was bummed that Iron Man was originally a white guy. Needless to say that since then, I’ve been a big backer of War Machine in the funny pages. He came across as more focused, tougher…and sober. And he had a bigger armory.
  • “Nice work, kid.”
  • By the way, Black Widow is a lot older than she seems.

Next Installment…

What, another comic book film? Not again! Aw, c’mon. You gotta get into The Spirit of things!


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 14: Domenic Sena’s “Swordfish” (2001)


Swordfish


The Players…

John Travolta, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle with Sam Shepard and Vinnie Jones.


The Story…

Either Gabriel Shear is a brilliant revolutionary or some nut who’s read one too many Ayn Rand novels. He’s determined to get his mitts on $9 billion in a secret DEA account so he can use it to fight terrorism, or so he claims. He may lack the hacking skills, but is exceptional in the HR department. So he recruits—read: blackmails—encryption expert (and supposedly reformed felon) Stanley Jobson to digitally crack the government mainframe. Okay, maybe Gabe’s read Snow Crash too often, rather.


The Rant…

It’s been a week.

I understand a lot of blogs delve into the personal. Almost all do. RIORI was decidedly not to be one of those kinds, outside of personal takes (and attacks) on questionable cinematic efforts. But I am not made of stone, and personal things happen. First and foremost, blogs are, quite simply, designed for venting. So, three things:

First, my wife is ill.

Second, Tommy Ramone died.

Third, you ever have a movie you wanted to like based on, say, vague reputation alone? I mean a movie that had repute for being…somewhat off kilter. Views of it were so divisive you told yourself, “Hell, I gotta check that out!” So contrarian you just had to make up your own mind, regardless of eventual irrefutable proof that the movie was indeed a bucket of doggie-doo? Ha! A challenge!

No? The hell you say.

A few months back I tackled a film that fell under that criteria. It was Lady In The Water courtesy of M Night Shyalaman (stop groaning). There was a film with such a wonky premise, it just had to be either misunderstood or just plain quirky, designed with the MST3K crowd in mind. You just wanted to like it, and like a clean wipe after battling it out with Taco Bell, it just did not come through. You’re welcome for the visual by the way.

Before I get even more obvious in my opinion about Swordfish, here’s what happens…


Stan Jobson (Jackman) is washed up. And in need of a wash, appropriately enough. Living low on the totem pole does not suit him, but it suits him better than lockdown in federal prison. Stan used to be one of the most feared computer hackers in Christendom, but as in cybercrime is wont to happen, you get sloppy, you get busted. Stan was sent away to Leavenworth for a stint. In the interim, he lost everything, home, life, freedom and family. Now he churns out a meager existence as a grease monkey for oil rigs. No glamour there, and a far cry from cyberspace to which he is permanently banned, lest he end up back in the clink.

One day, a curious stranger comes calling at his beater trailer home. A sultry woman named Ginger (Berry) with really great legs offers our downtrodden former cracker an offer. You want your life back, as well as your estranged daughter? Pay a call to her boss. He’s a man in need of Stan’s unique talents.

Gabe Shear (Travolta) is kind of a techrat. Better known as a cyberterrorist. An info broker of the blackest level. He’s got a not so hidden agenda of upending America’s data flow for the better of society, as far as he’s defined it. Stan’s the man to crack code faster than a jackrabbit on Mountain Dew. If Stan can bust into the US Treasury, the DoD, hell, the US airspace grid with nary a fart, then cracking for the “greater good” should pose no challenge. Under Gabe’s promises and afforded clout, maybe Stan can get his record expunged, his daughter back and perhaps a slice of the pie he could get under the aegis of the Bill of Rights rather than Honor Among Thieves that has done so well for him.

Sounds like Easy Street, right? But as with Gabe’s agenda, there are hitches, catches and bugs to unwire. As Stan jacks back into the matrix, he fast becomes a pawn in a greater game of chess that tosses zeroes and ones faster than the lives of average Americans or a madcap version of Pong. All in the name of the 21st Century balances of power…


Christ, this movie was stupid. I heard of its ill repute years ago. Perfect for Standard material.

Director Sena’s oeuvre has never been mired with the trappings of “smart cinema.” Mostly it’s been in defiance of it. And a lot of the time, his sh*t’s a good thing. Pure popcorn, lots of excess, just-don’t-think-too-hard-and-you’ll-have-fun kinda movies. It’s odd he never got slated to direct one of those endless Fast And Furious movies. But truth be told, I really liked his remake of Gone In 60 Seconds. Heck, the star of that flick wasn’t Nic Cage but the Shelby Cobra I’d give my left nut to own. However while 60 was an exercise in silly fun, Swordfish was just an exercise in silly.

There’s a very on-the-nose Matrix feel here. Like computers and their hacking are now still things of the proto-future. Look, I can jack into dozens of online sites, cleanly or otherwise. I’ve expanded my music collection a hundredfold simply by dropping twenty-five bucks. Once. Five years ago. If I’m gonna get busted by the FCC for claiming this (and I really can’t since I paid at the outset to do so, as well as sharing data I also pay into), I’m already at the end of a very, very long line of Internet abusers who can operate faster than the glacial pace of our government’s overseers who are still using pencils to rewind cassettes back into obedience for their Walkmans.

*wink*

In other words, Swordfish’s idealization as future in motion was already outmoded by 2001. Hey, remember Napster? So it doesn’t hold up well with the Skype generation. And yes, I have a Skype account but never use it. Turns out I’m too ugly, even for cyberspace (probably because I still use the term “cyberspace”).

Anyway…

Swordfish has a forced sense of urgency. Tension in a story should be organic. The forces on the outside should nudge the protag into action naturally, not shove him into the head of the line like, say, in a movie queue. From the opening scene, as well as it’s executed (and it’s done very well, I must say), there should be no need for kick-in-the-balls action as Swordfish clumsily does, again and again. It folds out that all of the scenes of drama are bent over the railing with awkward action, like as if Sena suspected we needed a kick to follow the story (the cat-and-mouse tagging in the interrogation room scene being an ugly example) with splash that insults subtlety. It makes for a headache after a while.

Not to say that there aren’t some nice touches throughout the movie. For one, the pacing bounds along effoertlessly with very little hiccups. Another bit is that there is a plethora of post-millennial touchstones present, as if to deliberately set the stage (to become dated, though). Plus Vinnie Jones is a good actor on presence alone. It’s the thematic things that work well here. It’s called world-building, and essential to movies like this. Despite it’s now dated trappings, Swordfish uses a classic sci-fi device for a non-s/f movie: the world within a world. Better examples of this are The Matrix, Tron and to a quite lesser degree, Innerspace. Although Swordfish isn’t science-fiction, the sub-world of hacking and the black Internet and the culture that pervades it has a nice analog to folks who’d usually turn down a free ticket for, say, JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. But future shock can only go so far to grab the audience’s attention.

By 2001, the Internet was as pervasive as athlete’s foot in a locker room, almost inescapable. Sena does provide a nice air of post-techno modernism, which does accent the paranoia and pleasure of computers reigning most of all of our lives. One scene I dug but don’t quite know why is Stan assaulting Gabe’s flashy banks of monitors and computers trying to hack code and gain access to where he should not be going. Jackman takes turns talking to himself, chain smoking and hitting liquor in a manic fashion reflecting the speed at which computer tech takes us. Then again, I might be looking to hard for smart in a film designed to be anything but.

Swordfish’s number one crime, despite wooden characters and really cheesy acting is the dialogue. The dialogue sucks. It’s laughable and clichéd and sounds first draft from the intern’s typewriter (yes, typewriter. That’s how low it gets). Save Travolta, and only very little, all the characters stumble over their lines like wading through a minefield with their laces tied together. This is especially bad on behalf of Jackman, whose US accent, by the way, fools no one. At least his was proto-Canadian in X-Men. Here he has no accentuation at all, just flatness. Cheadle runs a close second with his manic special agent jargon and tough guy posturing. I don’t even think Cheadle was having any fun chewing the scenery, and he’s usually a damn fine actor, eloquent, especially with delivering his lines.

And we’re not gonna stop whipping this horse. The whole damn story is derivative and stale. Ruined hero, chance for redemption, get life back, blah blah blah, clever rogue offering an offer that can’t be refused blah. It’s all been done before, and in much better ways. Sena thought that gussying up this trope with technobabble might make it seem hip. Listen, Hollywood gets in a few snippets of “cutting edge” tech speak and thinks they wrote the bible. Like tech, storylines can and will become obsolete—read: irrelevant—quite fast. Sena’d like to think he’s clever. He’s not.

Yep. Swordfish deserved The Standard treatment. Everything I had either heard or was implied turned out to be true. If you wanna rent this movie be prepared for a unique experience: a very trying high-octane action film that has plodding action tripped up by dumb acting and dumber dialogue. Yet it has good pacing. Go fig.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. This film is stupid. Mildly entertaining, but still stupid.


Stray Observations…

  • For the record, I did not co-opt Travolta’s opening monologue as the foundation of RIORI. Just a happy coincidence. Great minds and all, but I’m not crediting Travolta’s.
  • “You’re f*cking up my chi.” The perfect bumper sticker for the 00’s.
  • A lifetime ago the film to see about proto-hacking into the “information superhighway” was 1992’s Sneakers. Good movie, but now unfortunately dated. Swordfish plays out a lot like Sneakers in spirit, except here pro hacking garners a lot more T&A.
  • Halle Berry’s tits. There ya go. Yer welcome. By the way, there’s a film going on. Strap up. Also, what was the book’s title?
  • “I can’t drive this thing!” “Learn.”
  • Did Dell bankroll this movie? Doesn’t it simply illustrate how frangible their products are?
  • The title Swordfish borrows from a Marx Brothers bit from the movie Horse Feathers. It pertains to the password in order to get into an exclusive club. Trivia!

Next Installment…

Witness Lindsay Lohan’s career plummet even deeper into The Canyons.