RIORI Vol 3, Installment 46: Jon Amiel’s “The Core” (2003)

The Core

The Players…

Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Stanley Tucci, Delroy Lindo and Bruce Greenwood, with DJ Qualls, Richard Jenkins, Tcheky Karyo and Alfre Woodard.

The Story…

The Earth’s inner core has stopped spinning, and scientist Josh Keyes with his fellow maverick seismologists must discover why before the planet literally falls apart. So by burrowing into the planet’s center in an elite vessel they might dig deep enough to get to (wait for it) the core of the crisis.

I warned you.

The Rant…

A funny thing happened on the way to the Blu-Ray player.

I initially meant to open this week’s salvo with a treatise on the ways and means of a proper disaster film. Then insomnia intervened and the 9-year old woke up multiple times to interrupt dad’s questionable movie watching practices.

It was late. Later than usual for me to hunker down in front of the screen with the disc, the notebook, the essential libations and my pen clutched in my hot little hand. Time for another evening of Press Your Luck via Netflix. It’s the stuff dreams are made of, or nightmares of a frustrated wifey who’d rather  canoodle that accept the vital nature of this blogger’s ongoing opus. Either way, I had beer and a lack of Pop-Tarts.


Midnight was nigh, and I was beat as well as falling behind with my chosen duties. Good thing I had the day off tomorrow; the flick was over two hours long! Could see the sun cracking the horizon by my timetable, including all the pretzels, bathroom breaks and cracking open more truth elixir. Let me tell you, with my nutty watching habits a 90 minute flick can stretch into three hours easily. I have to go outside to smoke, well into the next county it feels. And you can kill a guy anywhere. Go fig.

But twenty minutes into The Core I was interrupted in the worst way. We’re not talking power outages, scratches in the disc (which did happen once or twice truth be told. More on that sh*t later for those cinephiles who can’t afford streaming), or the neighbor kids jacked up on the Mountain Dew and wailing on their guitars for an impromptu garage band practice consisting of and only of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” remixed by Moby.

No. Worse. A nine-year old girl with insomnia. And dad one-third through the movie and halfway in the bag to boot. Not a Pop-Tart to be seen.

She was stressed out. Happens to kids of all ages. Mom started a new job and was gone most of the night. I clocked out late, too, but Grammy and Pop Pop were gracious enough to hold down the fort until I scooped her up. But Mom wasn’t around as she usually was. No one to chit chat with while Dad’s toiling away in the Seventh Level. Chicken nuggets for dinner again (and again). The general household dynamic torn asunder (and her stepsister kept away from yet another weekend visit by her dooshy daddy, but that’s another story). So yeah, kid’s stressed and therefore cannot seek slumber.

She’s vaguely aware of Dad’s clandestine movie habits and plopped down on the couch to both talk about her lousy sleep and wonder what the f*ck Daddy is watching. I explained to her the gist of the movie and asked (for the hell of it) if she’d join me. By that time the flick was on pause for an eternity, blaring a frozen shot of our heroes trying to extricate their high tech tunneling machine from within an enormous geode. For real. After I explained what a geode was I resumed the film. She watched for about ten minutes (The Core is PG-13 BTW, but I’m over 13 and figured it was okay for the kid to follow along. Don’t judge me) before abrupt protestations.

“It’s too loud! It’s too scary! I don’t know what’s going on!”

Through simple serendipity, a nine-year old girl with insomnia summed up the best mindset regarding a good disaster movie beyond any half-baked blather I could muster. Sure, she didn’t “get” the flick (PG-13 mind you. And shaddap) but her reaction purely illustrates how we should all watch a movie like The Core. In simpler terms, get bewildered and bamboozled. Then find more beer. It helps, believe me. Burp.

But in all seriousness, a good disaster flick should be loud, sometimes scary and make you unsure as to which way is up. A healthy dose of suspension of disbelief and a willingness to let your brain be scrambled into submission both help. Go along with it. Follow stupid down the rabbit hole. Allow some (partial) credence for Michael Bay’s oeuvre for a bit. Check your coat at the front desk. Eat the Oreo’s frosting first. Enjoy the bombast and the dumb, if only for two hours. Then you can get back to the Lars Von Trier binge watch. Don’t forget the Cheetos and the Dustbuster.

That being said, riddle me this. Did The Core takes nods from the pyrotechnics that came before? Was the same demented structure of chaos and creation take hold? Did Gene Hackman let go of that valve at the right time?

Perhaps. First, let’s dig a bit deeper…

Ill winds are blowing through Earth’s ionosphere. Solar winds.

Peculiar environmental phenomena have been popping up around the globe as of late. Auroras over Washington. Birds losing their ability to navigate. Earthquakes nowhere near tectonic activity. What’s worse Wi-Fi keeps crapping out everywhere. What the hell’s going on?

Dr John Keyes (Eckhart) has a theory. Being a seismologist, he’s pretty in touch with how the Earth eats, breathes and occasionally farts. By all the disparate chaos suddenly plaguing the planet, he has a theory. The outer core of the Earth, the part that controls its EMF, has stopped its rotation. That means in three months everything on Earth that is powered by electricity will halt. Within a year, the sun’s radiation will burn our world to a crisp. Ouch.

What to do to avoid this calamity? Well first, don’t panic. Second, convince the powers that be that this is an apocalyptic threat. Third, don’t panic, for surely there are a collective of science geeks out there who are sharp enough and nuts enough to correct the problem. Namely, and essentially jump-starting an entire planet. No sweat, right?

Keyes (with his maverick theories) gets indoctrinated into a military cabal—which is never a good sign—to initiate a mission to delve into Earth’s inner core to “reactivate” its rotation. Among Keyes’ rogue’s gallery, we have assembled quite the unique crew. We have Conrad Zinksy (Tucci), the preeminent seismologist on the planet to guide the insane mission to tunnel into the Earth (backed up with his supreme arrogance). His former, alienated genius Watson to his Holmes, Dr “Brazz” Brazelton (Lindo) has devised a means to travel into the Earth’s mantle—a nigh indestructible machine—and hopefully intervene with the globe’s eminent failure. And lastly, but not most leastly former space shuttle pilot Major Rebecca “Beck” Childs (Swank) to guide Brazz’ experiment home.

So we got the know-how, we got the tech and we got the mission. Get Earth’s core a-swirling again. But it’s never that easy, is it? ‘Course not. We gotta toss in some MIC intrigue and a giggling robot for the kiddies.

Wait. No giggling robot? Well is is a PG-13 flick after all. Movie sign!…

What I was rambling about earlier with my reluctant, sleepless sidekick holds true regarding disaster films. Too loud. To perilous. Confusion is scads. Believe it or not these are good things to have with such films. Suspension of belief is paramount.

If you were young enough to remember them (and sure as sh*t I wasn’t), TV mogul Irwin Allen of Lost In Space fame got a wild hair up his ass and got into the motion picture action. His notable contributions were The Poseidon AdventureThe Towering Inferno and to a lesser extent The Swarm (hell, at least that muckity-muck got Henry Fonda some work). All were a melange of let’s throw sh*t at a wall and see what sticks, hopefully running down to the floor in a gooey mess. A mess the audiences would love to slop around in.

To wit, Allen’s cinema schlockfests were dappled with a cast of thousands (often with name stars like Gene Hackman, the aforementioned Henry Fonda and even Paul Newman for pity’s sake), all put in perilous positions of penultimate tragedy with a lot of splash and dash in between to culminate in a satisfying ending. Lotsa pyrotechnics and histrionics in there for good measure, too. Plus a lot of cheesy dialogue to boot. Y’know, to lighten the load. Hoorahs all around.

All Allen’s potboilers are fun so long as you don’t think too much about you willingly subjected yourself to. That’s the key, and director Amiel tapped into this philosophy very keenly with The Core. Keep it fun, keep it fast, keep it dumb. In that order. Works well, which is why the peanut butter and jelly sandwich has endured for almost a century. Please trim off the crust. We don’t require anything that resembles substance here. It’s barely an afterthought.

Okay now. Where to begin? Allen’s cheesewheels always starred a mishmash of prominent actors (of their time) pitted against/collaborating with lesser knowns. Again, Amiel took notes. We have the notoriously reliable unreliable Aaron Eckhart as our reluctant hero. I have no love lost on Eckhart. Virtually every film he’s been in he seems out of place. Worse, like bewildered he’s even in a movie to begin with. How the hell did I end up here? Well, in Core, that flappable nature finally comes to good use. What I mean is that you ever catch Battle: Los Angeles? Right. I ain’t supposed to be here. Based on that, Core presents us with Eckhart’s best, most accessible acting until The Dark Knight got released. His skittish, nerdy scientist might be the go to for geek freak as soon as Jeff Goldblum retires. Eckhart here never overplays his hand. Read: he doesn’t ham it up, despite the fact that there are plenty of chances to chew the drywall. His Dr Keyes is the only solid voice of reason—therefore the pinion—which the movie turns. It’s almost as if Eckhart is aware that Core is an Allen rip-off, so he plays the part right. He’s our Dr John Robinson, minus a spine. Underdogs always play well at the ticket taker, don’cha know. Worked for me. I found his acting fun.

And fun is the watchword towards our remaining cast members. Be mindful that The Core‘s plot is ludicrous, so the actors better shape up to carry this farce to the bitter end with elan or at least  marginal competence. Overall, they’re likable. No, I mean it. For the film’s contexts the cast and crew of the Virgil are all enjoyable (even Tucci’s snot. I enjoyed his smarm). The key to this is stereotyping. I know, I was just as surprised as you are. If The Core is a nod to Allen disaster flicks, then there better be a disparate mishmash of oddballs and heroes at the ready, all of which possess that certain something that makes it all click. What is this magic ingredient?

Simple. Stereotyping.

Why do we stereotype? Because it’s easier and it’s quicker. With the rapid fire pace The Core delivers, really deep character study is superfluous. Just go along with the reluctant hero-moustache twirling rapscallion-maverick scientist-plotting MIC types. And a girl. Gotta have a girl. Helps if she’s pretty, and carrying around an Oscar adds a bit of street cred, too. The Core‘s casting is straight out of a John Hughes reunion, chockablock with all the dopey sci-fi stereotypes you can shake a stick at. And all of them reassuringly cheesy with faceplam-worthy dialogue to boot. Makes the mission go down a bit easier overall. So to speak.

Still with all the B-movie histrionics, wonky characters and implausible…everything, The Core is lacking in a few basic, first grade elements that could’ve elevated it to Irwin Allen fractured glory. I’m always talking about pacing here at RIORI. How it’s absolutely essential to drive the plot. Now The Core does have decent pacing, but there is some noticeable sputtering throughout the thing. To wit, is there such a thing as reserved urgency? If so, then this movie has it. Right, right, we know the Earth is doomed. The thinktank is working on a rescue plan. Things seem very dire. Then why are all these folks so damned rational about it? I know our crew is composed of steely military types and MIT misfits known to be more mindful that emotional. But this is a movie, too. If this were the ideal disaster flick, there’d be sufficient freak-outs countered by urgent emotional face-slapping to quell the rantings (“Forget him! He’s gone!” “No he’s not!” – Hicks and Vasquez from Aliens, BTW). Nope. Some shouting, but that’s about it.

An aside: despite the dynamite casting, we have a glaring issue. I don’t care about her Oscars. Hilary Swank seems really out of place here. Even if she got her start as The Next Karate Kid, action apparently isn’t her strong suit. Most of the film Beck seems wobbly, detached and wooden. The look on her face most of the time says, “Stupid agent.” Even Alfre Woodard—one of my fave actresses—who is on par with Swank’s dramatic chops snarls a lot better that Hilary does. Other than Swank, as I’ve pounded on, the rest of the cast was great.

One more thing for the bitch board: Amiel may have been trying to honor Allen’s disaster flicks with The Core, but overall his work came across as “Poor Man’s Emmerich.” Noodle that one. Sure, the action plays out smooth, but the direction was also kinda tame. It was as if Amiel was playing it safe, holding back. I know that sounds hard to believe after my glowing shiny shiny, but there’s this feeling of drawing the whole thing out (at 2 plus hours running time, this isn’t such a stretch. So to speak). A little too much roominess for all the ensuing pyrotechnics. It can make for a sort of uneven viewing experience, a la that “reserved urgency.” Emmerich throws everything and the kitchen sink out the freakin’ window with his bread and circuses. Amiel should’ve cranked up the nutty a bit more is all. Just sayin’.

Despite the dumb and corn (or perhaps because of it), I dug The Core. So to speak. I’ll stop that now. It’s a complete waste of time. The acting is silly. The story is demented. The F/X were awesome. Just toss the remote over your shoulder—after you’ve grabbed a cold six first—watch and let your cranium fill with Oreo filling. Some action movies are dramatic. Some are violent. And some are just unapologetically stupid. That being said, Irwin Allen would’ve approved of The Core.

Now if it only had a Leslie Nielsen cameo. Box office gold.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Its flaws make it great. Like with Pacific Rim, don’t think too hard about it. Just go with it. Better get two sixers for optimal viewing pleasure. Play it safe.

Stray Observations…

  • “There’s nothing on the other side of the equal sign.” I suck at math, too.
  • “Unobtainium?” Isn’t that the crap the bad guys were mining for in Avatar? Cameron, first the Harlan Ellison swipe and now this?
  • “God, I hate this sky.” F*cking smog I tell ya.
  • This must be the first disaster movie ever that has a simulator of an imaginary machine. Told you Amiel was kind of playing it safe.
  • “All right. I’m hitting him again.”
  • Wouldn’t Journey To The Center Of The Earth be a better title? Ah, right. Been done and has too many words for modern Pokemon Go audiences.
  • “After that it gets bad.”

Next Installment…

“Better leave her behind with The Kids Are All Right.”

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 11: Brian de Palma’s “The Black Dahlia” (2006)

Black Dahlia

The Players…

Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank and Mia Kirschner.

The Story…

A pair of LA detectives go undercover to solve the mystery of a murder of an unknown Hollywood starlet. No big deal, really. Just another kid from outta town who lapped at the wrong end of movie star promise, right? Well as the small investigation deepens, the answer becomes decidedly no. A very heavy no. Looks like the late chanteuse has some very serious connections in ol’ Tinsel Town. She operated pretty fast for a nobody.

Was she a nobody?

The Rant…

To be read in the style of James L. Cain (ahem):

LA is a spectator city. The kind of sprawl that either invites or repels lowly nobodies full of dreams and slim billfolds, seeking fame or fortune out here in the hidden desert. It’s the place where both dreams and delusions hold sway like girls hold hands between playground swings. This is the place where dreams are built regardless of grip. Hollywood. It screams attention. It’s the hub of a million failed fantasies, and barely a keyhole view into the very few fortunate souls who managed to “make it” by sweat, grit or luck. The very few can intoxicate any hopeful Sally from the Midwest, the usual token swept up in the dime matinee back home. That’s the place where the germ of the seed of the idea of getting out of the two-pit clodhopper drag gets born. There is golden gleam in the eye of the lens and the eye of the hopeful in that willful daughter. The glint of opportunity. Of riches and status and flashbulbs galore. It all just has to take a chance encounter with one of thousands of scouts to pick you out of a crowd, brand you as “the one” and get you a quick, direct and ultimate seamy deal with a nobody that posesses the other kind of lens and then you’re to the quick. The first bite of the spectator city. Here is where dreams are made real, encouraged by dire need and a hopeful grasp at the hem of the Warners’ coat. Leo the Lion roaring in your mind. RKO spitting static across the planet. Republic and its goddam eagle. And a tugging at your hip that brings it home in a hurry. It’s still all a dream, but a salty, sweaty dream. In LA, where all things are possible depending on which side of the lens you are. You find yourself woozy, under the spell of the potential limelight, that dream so close to your grasp you miss the reality. The fact that you’re fresh meat. That you have no pedigree. That you’re fresh of the bus, reeking of turnips. That you’re an easy mark. That the dream is just a delusion. It’s the thing that kept you off the spike. To endure the endless belt across your back. To someday spit in the eye of your old man who couldn’t f*ck you but damn well made sure you knew what his shoe across your backside felt like. In Hollywood, yes, there is the oasis. Anything to get out of Kansas alive. It may not work out. It may be an encounter with fate. Hell, you might get lucky and Selznick might frequent that fruit stand you hit up for second apples. Maybe you’ll just be practical and hold onto the four dollar flat with the lumpy bed and keep the offhand rain off your broke ass. But LA is a spectator city. It’s just champing at the bit to See. You. Fail.

Back to the 21st Century.

The above was written under the terrible influence of duress, nicotine, whiskey and bile for the slice of life that was de Palma’s The Black Dahlia. My sh*t was homage, not unlike what the “Demon Dog of Crime Fiction,” James Ellroy does to pay the bills. To be honest, I’ve never read a single Ellroy novel in my life. All I know about the guy is his pedigree. That and his big screen adaptation of LA Confidential more or less launched the American careers of Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe (for good or for ill). He’s like the E L Doctorow of LA crime fiction (Doctorow is the only analog I can think of…since I’ve read his sh*t). It’s kind of hard to gage a writer on reputation alone, but from what I gleaned from The Black Dahlia adaptation, it’s a f*ckton of difficulty to raise the spirit of a book to the celluloid reality of a movie. It’s like a crane extricating a garbage scow from Boston harbor. At low tide. Dead fish f*cking everywhere.

Here’s the deal. I’ve already skewered films here at RIORI that were based on pre-existing media. You get expectations. For this entry, I’m engaging in an act of bad faith. Have never read an Ellroy novel, but do know of his credentials. Know his esteem. Understood that if you f*ck with his material, you’re gonna get drivel. I had no expectations, no understanding…and yet I got drivel from a director whose resume reads like a Sunday drive down the coast of Calais on June 6 circa 1944. In short, I know de Palma has a very short list of good films that keep his resume aloft while in the meantime he directs chunks of ABC gum.

The Black Dahlia was an exceptionally chewy wad…

It’s Los Angeles, 1945. The war is over, and LA has evolved into a powerhouse of business and industry. Apart from oil, the biggest business is showbiz. Hollywood over all. It’s the lure of glitz and glam that enthrall the most game of would-be it-girls. All that money, all that fame, is all a perfect stew for an underworld of sex and scandal. That and the occasional dead body of an unknown, defeated actress discovered in a forgotten part of the city.

Elizabeth Short (Kirschner) was just one of a thousand Hollywood hopefuls that hopped a bus from the Midwest to break into the movies with stars in her eyes, youthful naïveté, and a half-baked idea of seeking fame without talent. She came to the big city, did some screen tests, had reality smack her upside the head and got work in stag films. Some budding acting career. Oh, and then she was found eviscerated in a field somewhere.

It’s just another murder mystery in LA, but still, the grisly nature of the crime…it’s unlike anything the LAPD has ever seen before. Time to get the Force’s best and brightest on the case. Or we hope they’re the best and brightest. This case is going to be one for the angels.

Detectives Dwight “Bucky” Bleichart (Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Eckhardt) are old chums that go back a ways, from their salad days as boxers up until their turn as cops. They have a palpable rivalry, and have an unconventional method to their madness. This isn’t your average murder case, after all, and as Blanchard’s marriage to Kay (Johansson) begins to suffer due to his obsession with the sensational crime Bucky discovers a troubling link between the victim and the mysterious Madeleine Linscott (Swank), a prominent socialite and the daughter of one of the town’s most connected key players…

I’ve kept the synopsis straightforward, with a minimum of my usual purple prose. I don’t want to talk about the actual movie much. It made me mad. The Black Dahlia is the most unintelligible, inscrutable wandering crime drama I have ever seen (for this blog anyway). I had to watch it twice just to make sure it wasn’t me but the movie that was so confounded. I had no idea where this film was going, the narrative was so sloppy. And what really pissed me off is for a two-plus hour murder mystery movie, the Maguffin was touched upon for maybe 15 minutes. It was a soap opera bookended by a grotesque murder that neither lead seemed very invested in. Not so much a murder mystery than a character study, with characters I invested very little in.

In short, I didn’t like The Black Dahlia.

First off, the film employs a rather dubious device: narration. It’s got the Blade Runner principle going for it, flat and mostly a distraction. Hartnett’s delivery is in such a low voice it sounds more like an incoherent croak. I pointed out in my ripped seam for Cadillac Records, narration can be a rather tricky thing to use to enhance and/or embrace a story. The narration here was less of an embrace and more of a ball gag.

Hartnett himself seems out of his element here, awkward. He’s got the looks of an aged-out Disney Channel sitcom star. What’s more is here’s one of the few character types in Hollywood that is a stereotype but endlessly fun to watch: the tough gumshoe. Hartnett could’ve chewed it up a little better by adding a little ham.

Speaking of ham, we have the seasonally unreliable Aaron Eckhardt as Hartnett’s foil. If Hartnett underacts, then Eckhardt goes over the barrel with goofiness. The boxing scene alone was an embarrassment. Here we have him chewing scenery and vacillating between clown, cop and supposedly devoted romantic. Neither he nor Hartnett were very convincing, let alone comfortable in their roles.

Johansson is one of two (two!) femme fatales in the movie, and boy is she awkward. It’s as if she’s trying to acclimate to her new found “It girl” status. A simple, semi-sleepy indie film like Lost in Translation may work for an underspoken role like that one demanded. To flip the coin and be sassy as well as demure here didn’t show her having much range, just a cute face.

A surprise however was that Kirschner had the best scenes in the movie, albeit the shortest (and in flashback no less). She acts very well because the role itself demands actual acting. The hungry young starlet is a classic movie staple that can veer close to cliche, but Kirshner puts it out as the first naive nymphet whoever tries these stunts and trappings that come with the archetype and might fail. There is a sense of urgency. A keen eye should be on baited breath to taste what happens next. After all, she is the Black Dahlia. The movie’s reason for being. Too bad it forgot that.

I don’t want to get into Hilary Swank at all.

The Black Dahlia is a half-baked attempt at noir (not unlike my overwrought intro to this week’s installment). There’s an attempt to create a period piece here, but it’s too angular. There are all the trappings of lousy noir here, despite the cool camera trickery and good cinematography (the only things I’m certain that I liked about the movie), namely trying too hard to be hard-boiled and atmospheric. There’s no atmosphere here. No subtlety. Like with the opening scenes of a street riot with none of the authorities doing anything to quell the mob, the film beats you about the head with questions like “What the hell is going on?” or “What is trying to be said?” Such questions I was keenly aware of every time a scene was cut to frame the softer, “human” sides of the characters. This is supposedly meant to build up a backstory, but all it did was confuse me further.

A lifetime ago I reviewed another true crime murder mystery, Zodiac. That film also examined the civilian lives of the protagonists minus the “period melodrama” as I call it. It kept the tension hotter than the deliberate melodrama in The Black Dahlia.

So I had a very hard time following the narrative. I had very little emotional investment in the characters. I had expected to see a murder mystery movie. Instead I got flash, a poor script, lousy acting and—you guessed it—bad pacing. Tsk tsk tsk. This was a very wobbly, under confident, soulless movie that was relentless in its wandering storyline and unreliable in not only keeping my attention, but also an ability from keeping my gorge buoyant.

The only thing that was reliable in the film was de Palma’s flair for violence. Lucky you.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Do I have to say it? Please, relent it. I’ll believe that James Ellroy deserves better.

Stray Observations…

  • “She won’t mind.” The most efficiently clinical post-war medical examiner ever.
  • kd lang. A little on the nose, yes. But she sings well, so I’ll give it a pass.
  • “Old beef. Pot roast tonight?” Quite clever. I credit Ellroy.
  • Kevin Dunn is a very underrated and reliable character actor. He only may have spent maybe 5 minutes on screen but was efficient and smart. Worthy of the ticket.
  • “Hollywood’ll f*ck you if no one else will.” Again, Ellroy I hope.
  • I love how back in the old days the movie marquees would announce who the stars of the film were. Unlike today as it is an unwritten rule to declare unapologetically the reasons you went to see the film. It’s (hopefully) the acting, of course!
  • What is it that makes two women making out such a turn-on? Never worked for me. It’s just two more women who have no need for me. No double kisses for the critic.
  • My wife caught maybe seven minutes of the movie and called it out as dumb. I was stupid and watched all two hours, twice. My wife’s a smart guy.
  • “There are so many pretty things here…”

Next Installment…

Yours truly, From Hell, Jack the Ripper…