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


15754842_PA_Orange-County


The Players…

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


The Story…

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

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

There’s the Great American Novel to write!


The Rant…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*whistling*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the curls are massive…


Shaun (Hanks) has a kind of dilemma.

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

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

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

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

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

So crazy it just might…


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

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

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

There. Whew. Had to let that hen out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gordon Lish? Really?


The Verdict…

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


Stray Observations…

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

Next Installment…

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

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


 

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RIORI Vol 3, Installment 34: Michel Gondry’s “Be Kind Rewind” (2008)

 


0608bekindrewind


The Players…

Mos Def, Jack Black, Danny Glover and Melonie Diaz, with Mia Farrow and Sigourney Weaver.


The Story…

There is a corporate attack on indie films!

No, not that kind. The folks at Be Kind Rewind, a little mom-and-pop video rental, are having trouble keeping up with the Jones’. No one rents VHS tapes anymore, save the shop’s local, loyal, and perhaps misguided patrons. Beyond those folks, and in these days of Netflix deliveries and digital streaming, Be Kind Rewind barely has any legs to stand on. Let alone stumps.

But what about this nefarious corporate plot to destroy the local video mart? Blame the power plant across the way. Clerk Jerry thinks the exposure from high tension wires is playing hell with his brain—by extension his store—and plans to engage in some serious sabotage. If not for the sake of his fevered mind, then in the name of the store and the few who frequent there!

Viva le cinema!


The Rant…

When I was a mere stripling back in the 80s, VCRs finally became affordable at a sane price. Prior to, say, 1980 if you wanted to enjoy the luxury of watching movies in the comfort and privacy of your own mancave, you’d have to shell out enough to afford a new Buick, minus the tires. By the mid-80s, as my dad did understood, all you needed was 500 bucks. This was 80s dollars, mind you. Not cheap, but relatively reasonable (my father got a sharp deal coughing up enough for a high end unit. The thing held up well into the DVD years. It now holds up a steamer trunk in the basement). Yay. Now all the hit titles you wanted were available at the local Blockbuster ready for your couch. Or maybe via your supermarket. Or a few sketchy holes in the wall. Or pawn shops. Or that scabby guy on the street corner outside the CVS with the trench coat and the breath that smells of durian fruit. Multimedia infancy awaits your open arms!

To wit, circa 1985 you could rent a VHS f*ckin’ anywhere. And I wasn’t kidding about the supermarket either. It’s where I checked out the first Batman movie by Tim Burton. I even had a coupon form their circular at the ready. You know, to save a few. Really.

But here I introduce the ultimate bane of renting movies in the 80s. Not all in Heaven is free. We’re not including the sh*tty audio and video quality of the tapes exacerbated by thousands of plays from random strangers. As much of an ass pinch that was, I’m talking about the kryptonite that weakened every avid film renter back then: the dreaded late fee.

*collective screams from folks alive between Reagan and Clinton*

Before Reed Hastings’ ingenuity, your average movie rental had a very small window into which one may watch a movie checked out from the local Fotomat. Two days was the usual time slot. If you didn’t get that tape in your hot, little hands and back to the DMV as fast as your little, furry legs could carry you and—blammo—you get smacked upside the head with a late fee. In 80s bucks it usually meant the GDP of Belgium for having your copy of Top Gun 30 minutes late. You couldn’t even watch movies in your mancave without the doomsday clock ticking in the background. It was kinda hard to immerse oneself in Rain Man knowing you had best vacate the ball before midnight bell tolled. Or 4 PM. Whatever came first.

A lesser trouble with video rentals—although no less aggravating—was that damned time window. And if you checked your watch, you didn’t even get the full two days to enjoy your tape. If you checked it out on Friday at 8 PM, it wasn’t due back on Sunday 8 PM. Oh no. It was due back Saturday at eight. Heaven forbid you rented that copy of The Goonies the night the clocks changed for Daylight Savings. It would be a paradox of Asimovian proportions.

One could see it every Friday at Blockbuster when that week’s new titles dropped. The pressure of the “Two Day” rental looming. Since the video store had around only 50 copies of a fresh release in stock, you could almost guarantee a hot topic then like, say, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves starring Kevin Costner (shut up. It was the second highest grossing film of 1991. Only Terminator 2 topped it, and that tape always pulled a Jimmy Hoffa), would be gonesville before you got there. It wasn’t just because of the limited stock—although that was a prime suspect—but you had to physically wait until a renter dropped off their copy within the allotted time frame. Otherwise fees. Unfair fees. Like when you pay two bucks to a parking meter for an hour of wait time only to have it exceeded and the cop slips a fifty dollar ticket under your wiper. I understand inflation (no I don’t), but really?

Said fees meant that when you had to return Back To The Future before lightning struck you’d miss payments on next month’s mortgage. So return time was—albeit scattershot over the course of your average Friday or Saturday night—quite rigid but also random. I saw many a beleaguered Blockbuster clerk at the return window sweating like a day trader and very pissed off with humanity on numerous Friday nights. I myself once waited—measuring the degree of my smarts—at the same desk for over two hours to get a new release in my hot little hands for that Saturday night’s viewing until my patience paid off. Who-hoo! The 400 Blows, you are mine! I was 12. I thought it was softcore. Forgive me.

So what’s my point with all of this? Faithful readers (all five of you), you know I have some pretzel logic intertwined with my trips down whatever lane takes me at a given moment. The point is thus: it used to be kind of a quest to find the movie you sought at your local VHS emporium, akin to us poor folks scouring the discount DVD aisles at FYE. A search, a goal most holy. We had no Netflix, no Hulu, no YouTube back in the Reagan years. Movies we wanted weren’t a click away; we had no click to speak of. Beyond Blockbuster Video, Hollywood Video and the vagrant with the crack addiction and facial knife scars Video, the file share was dubbed tapes swapped between one another’s living rooms. It was the frontier, sweet Jeebus.

Later when we tired of the big hits, we were pioneers seeking out the indie/foreign sh*t. We had to uncover enclaves of video renters/salesfolk to score the dope we so dearly needed. Hitchcock films pre-PsychoBarry Lyndon from Kubrick. The director’s cuts for films that had no director’s cuts. The local SafeWay was for wanting. Us video renters who were serious in keeping our mitts on a video for as long as we needed, however long that took (admittedly porn didn’t take much time) to dissect and enjoy every angle, we sought out the indie shops.

I recall the ur-speakeasy video shop in my little burg. It was the first video rental—indie or otherwise—in the area, and ultimately the last. It even had a cool, all-knowing name: Omni Video.

The place was a shack. It had a cool slanted roof made entirely of skylights, both highlighting the merch and ensure the clerks clear profiles would be well silhouetted so to recount cops to who stole last three copies of Black Christmas. The joint squatted onto a stretch of practical highway in the shadow of the local Burger King, the lord of all it surveyed. It looked like the kind of place to dump a body. Back in my junior high days, me being a budding film buff (translation: score a mint copy of Return Of The Jedi in Korean) me mate and I sought out this relic. Sure, it had dozens of titles on the shelves. Right. Dozens. Like 24, not including pornos. The rest of the joint was cluttered with busted stereo equipment, shoddy VCRs stacked one upon the other like lilting checkers and I think I remember a rim or four to a Ford Mustang against the counter. Quality operation.

We came by having heard of the place with it’s out-of-it films for rent. I remember it as such we were looking for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. A controversial film at the time, which was why we wanted to check it out. The legit operations didn’t carry it, so we sold our white boy, suburban, swingin’-a-dead-cat-by-the-grave souls to Omni in search of our grail. The proprietor grunted and snuffled and didn’t give much a damn about ratings R, PG, X or Grade A; he’d put whatever we had into our paws so long as the price was right (a meager two bucks. Imagine that). We laid out five and crashed through the exit, very swiftly as the homunculus wielding the greasy wrench staggered out of the “sound studio.” A curious oregano-tainted smell followed him. Have a nice day.

Needless to say, we watched Brazil and failed to see what the whole hullabaloo was about. Again, I was 12. Ah well, Star Wars then. Again.

Back in the day, finding videos for an evening’s entertainment wasn’t as easy as Netflix. I’ve been their customer since its inception, 17 years. I only cashed in when the discount with the purchase of my first (and only, and still well-functioning) DVD machine. I suppose me being at the butt end of Gen X only I can truly appreciate the difference between renting VHS at your local church potluck, getting the DVDs you want via snail mail with no fines to streaming sh*t in your sleep, actual paying attention neither required nor necessary (hell, that’s how the Oscars are doled out, if you’re weighing any value in what you rent).

Renting videos for home viewing has come a long way. Hail convenience. Still, actual movie quality and respect for folks who take the overland route homeland to pick ’em apart/love ’em to pieces? It mostly goes unnoticed these days. Hail convenience.

But the quest shall always continue…


Somewhere in a corner of Passaic, NJ a revolution is brewing.

Kindly Mr Fletcher’s (Glover) video rental Be Kind Rewind is under siege. Not by more upscale competition. Not under the push of using 21st Century home video formats (eg: DVDs and digital streaming) rather than his worn-out library of VHS. Okay, maybe there’s a little flak from the city’s zoning commission. But overall, none of that is bearing down on his store’s reputation and imminent survival.

Nope. It’s all Jerry’s (Black) fault, him and his dopey conspiracies.

Jerry and Mike (Mos Def) have been Mr Fletcher’s loyal flunkies forever, and have been committed to shelling out movie fun to the neighborhood for years. But lately Jerry’s had a screw go loose. He’s convinced that the power plant he’s been living under in his beater trailer is messing with his mind. All those kilowatts? Seeping into his skull? Guy can barely think straight anymore. Jerry decides to do something drastic.

He lassos Mike into an act of sabotage: take down the generator. Of course it does not go well, and Jerry gets zapped to high heaven. The result? Well, besides more of Jerry’s manic behavior, he’s been magnetized! And thanks to his clumsiness (and an unbalanced, ionic pudding head), he’s wiped clean every tape in the shop! Blank! What’re they gonna do with no stock? What about their jobs? What’ll they tell Mr Fletcher?

Nothing. The show must go on.

Jerry concocts the wild idea that he and Mike “recreate” the titles of their defunct VHS library. Shoot their own versions! Starring them! Hey, gotta maintain customer loyalty, right?

Mike’s not too sure of this, but he doesn’t want to let Mr Fletcher down, either. What the hell. As a goof, he and Jerry do their best stab at a lo-fi version of Ghostbusters using whatever resources that happen to be lying around. Here’s hoping the neighbors will bite.

To their delight, they do. In fact, their amateur efforts prove to be even more popular and profitable than the polished Hollywood originals! So Jerry and Mike do the next logical thing: expand their fledgling empire. If these two local yokels can do what big deal actors and directors can, then why not let the whole gang in on the act? Friends, Passaic, countrymen, lend us your camcorders!

Everybody wants to be in showbiz…


Y’know, sometimes this blog can be a real drag. Night after night watching mediocre movies in hope that some bright spot pops though the clouds. After weeks of anti-binging on lame cinematic dross, one may as well pray for ever seeing the sun again, if only for single, fleeting beam.

In other words, it’s nice to get a breath of fresh air once in a while. Even if it’s quick, like Be Kind Rewind. Hell, I’ve watched many stinkers in a row, and any bright spot—be it of cinema or what a cop waves in your face well after 2 AM—will grab your attention and right quick. And no, Officer, I’ve been at home, reading the Bible and taking a hi-lighter to the Book of Revelation. Bless you.

So here’s what took a shine to me (haw haw):

I’ll admit it, I was wary about watching Rewind. The last Gondry movie covered at RIORI—the big screen adaptation of The Green Hornet—didn’t really deliver. It wasn’t bad, but I felt its shortcomings resulted from endless manhandling from the production side. That and too much Seth Rogen as Seth Rogen.

It’s wonky plot device of Jack Black’s brain getting magnetized via an analog to how The Flash got his powers didn’t sound so hot either. I guess Barry Allen’s light speed and Jack Black hyperdrive onscreen histrionics created to have the almighty Maguffin shoved into play both are too demented to lend much depth to a neighborhood, ensemble comedy. If there was any depth to delve about a crumbling video store and its patrons, that is.

Finally, I wasn’t too keen on seeing another flick with Jack Black’s signature, over-caffinated shenanigans front, center and behind. Does he improv all his lines? How about his everything? You wanna watch a low-key manic Black? 1998’s Enemy Of The State. Really. He did have an acting career back then.

Well, it took me about to the second act to come around to Rewind. All that fiddle-faddle with the defragged VHS and the kooky idea of amateur recreations of classic (and not so classic) movies was the hook. An Andy Kaufman-esque way of getting the crowd to go along with Gondry’s vision. I got punked. I endured 20-plus minutes of slapstick and forehead-slapping to get to, “Oh, I see.”

I found my patience ultimately rewarded.

Rewind is lighthearted—more so than usual—but more than a little goofy for a Gondry flick. Sure, Hornet was a lark; a tongue-in-cheek action movie with lots of kung fu, car chases, explosions and…Seth Rogen being Seth Rogen. But Rewind is laid back, where the former was manic and often stiff. Rewind‘s a casual affair, once getting beyond the self-conscious silliness. That and keeping the man-who-sh*ts-napalm-as-delivery on a firm leash. A lot of that restraint has to do with Mos Def as Mike, but more on that later.

Like I said before, it took me a bit to cozy up to Rewind, and only after I figured out what the film really is. Be Kind Rewind is what I like to call a “neighborhood movie.” The immediate setting of the film is a character in itself, no less than the principal players. For example, consider Spike Lee’s very hot afternoon around Sal’s Pizza in Do The Right Thing. Or Wang and Auster’s metaphysical Smoke, where the cigar  shop in a Brooklyn corner is tentpole to the story proper (made concrete by Harvey Keitel’s character’s daily morning snapshot ritual of his store). We had Rocky running around South Philly. Maybe even the 4077th in MASH (the movie not the TV show, you hipsters. Play nice), its endless drab canvas curtains against the antics of Trapper John, Hawkeye and Duke (again, movie, and shave off that beard) with their vaudevillian nose-thumbing at ineffectual authority.

Rewind also has this feeling of cozy community at its heart. All the players here are pretty relatable, and could be found in Downtown, Anywhere, USA. You know the kinds, folks you could pick up out of a line up, pointing a finger and saying, “Yep, that’s him. I know that guy.” We have ourselves an ensemble cast to play with. Not to worry, they’re not all characters off an old Edgar Wallace Plot Wheel. There’s some actual warmth here, where one could easily slide into the background yet still have some small value. It helps you find a window to invest some time with the townsfolk in Passaic and actually care about their lives, too. And this in a Jack Black vehicle! I just as shocked as you are.

What starts with a zany premise gently evolves into nostalgia, always a powerful potion to gain an audiences’ sway. Like I recounted in my above, fevered, drunken, rambling tale of glory in pre-Netflix movie rental acquisition (is that a great line of bullish*t or what?), sometimes seeking out a movie—be it in a theatre, Blockbuster or hole-in-the-wall behind the Chow Mien Palace—is better than actually seeing the bloody movie. It can be a shared experience, later to be recounted with fellow distant film fans within the neighborhood. We found it! The Lost Dutchman’s Mine! Don’t tell anyone! And Brazil shoved into the VCR! Ha-ha! Hail Satan!

So, like the folks in Mr Fletcher’s Jersey neighborhood, relying on the only—however obsolete but still amaranthine (look it up, you hipster trash)—video shop to spend an evening away from their dreary routine. They are us. They are the neighborhood, and since the newsstand and soda fountain have gone the way of the T Rex, all can chew the fat about sh*t they saw Friday night. I know I’m leaning well into the wind with sentimentality, but before FaceBook, The Walking Dead and urgent, instant music opinions (things which never had a physical gathering place) the local vid store was the place to go to share pop culture opinions with strangers and regulars alike. And record stores don’t count, either. Not really. Face it: you only argued with yer bud about the merits of Permanent Waves against Moving Pictures in the store, them or the clerk. Negative to comic shops, too. All you need there is matching sneakers and welcome to the cult. You still sporting that scruffy thing on your jaw?

Simply put, Gondry did a very good, pleasantly subtle job making Be Kind Rewind the center of the neighborhood over a continuum, not some vital historical edifice (though later it was but not really but definitely later. Just wait and see and mind that return fee). The homey atmosphere was achieved with charm, winks and nostalgia for things now so long gone. And never in hurry. It was helped with some pretty decent acting from our leads who are known for not being—what’s the word?—contained. It looks like Gondry had a leash all right, but slack. Maybe only as tight as necessary.

So what about Mos and Black, our heroes? The odd couple. Movie fanboys incarnate. Who’d’ve thunk a streetwise rapper and Bozo-on-speed would have such decent chemistry? Sure, it’s in a Three Stooges Minus One kind of way, but tempering their usual personas, Gondry coaxes a mild but self-conscious silliness as well as a “kids in a candy store” vibe. It’s cute, and by this I mean endearing. It’s understood they’re both cinema buffs, otherwise they wouldn’t be at Mr Fletcher’s dying albatross. They may misunderstand each other outright, but when the “opportunity” to recreate the movies comes to the fore, both concede and get down to business: having fun. Even this being a film with Black’s over enthusiasm, only to be tempered by Mos’ hangdog and hidden grin, it’s akin to my video rental store paradigm. Movies bring strangers and weirdoes together, for better or worse.

Rewind is the anti-High Fidelity. I know, I know. That’s another Jack Black quip-fest I covered here. Shut it. I’m going to make it relevant (try to). Instead of ugly snobs scaring off business/snaring customers into their trace element, arcane knowledge of movies gone by, we get Mike and Jerry sharing the wealth. Movies all around for anyone who likes ’em, bush league or major! The film’s heart feels to me a tribute to DIY filmmaking; those goofy kids back in the 70s with their Super 8s trying to be Camino. Witnessing Mike and Jerry’s ramshackle yet entertaining efforts—and eventually the entire neighborhood’s contributions—it slowly but surely came to my attention that Rewind was a secret love letter to us old fuds from Gen X—perhaps before then—although streaming video is convenient, it lacks interaction. It denies the time to reflect. Sorta like social media; immediacy does not necessarily mean urgency, if you hear what I’m screaming. In other words, rub some elbows now and again.

At the end of the day, Rewind spoke to the movie geek in me, and not in an ugly, pointed way like, say, Altman’s The Player (he directed MASH, right?). I guess the best word to describe Rewind is a term I know I have never used here at RIORI without a scintilla of irony: whimsical. I started out hating this movie, off-put by Black’s usual schtick, Mos’ slouched performance and what seemed to be the usual “community, unite!” paradigm. Okay, there was a decent helping of that codswallop, but it was a cute bait-and-switch. A ruse. Rewind was all and none of that. It moment by moment became the oft-dreaded “feel good” movie, but also holding some weight within social commentary. Honest, emotional weight. That’s usually better than just a nostalgia trap, don’cha think?

Rewind‘s a specimen that you just gotta see to get. It’s understood by now that the thing appealed to my inner (and ofter outer) movie geek. It did it slowly though, carefully and thoughtfully. Gondry tricked me into this film. I couldn’t stand the first act. You? Stand it. It’ll be rewarding, I assure you.

But this fu*king copy of Brazil—gummed up with peanut butter and too much porn—in my dad’s VHS I got is over 30 years late (even ignoring the Y2K scam). And this f*cking trunk is f*cking heavy. Guess I own the fool tape now. And it’s in Portuguese, dammit. Not the trunk. Korean, as usual.


 The Verdict

Rent it or relent it? Rent it (so to speak). It takes a while to warm up, but Be Kind Rewind is ultimately satisfying. Just be patient, unlike Blockbuster on a Friday night with those checked out copies of Dances With Wolves. Damn you, Costner. Damn you to heck.


Stray Observations…

  • Wait. Was that Steve “The Colonel” Cropper on the train? By golly, it was. Awesome!
  • “Why does it do that when you do that?” To get to the next act, duh.
  • “I like your ensemble.” Wink.
  • The “pizza effects” were funny and brilliant. A salute to the lo-fi ethos at work.
  • “It’s a country, not a verb!” That’s what I told ’em!
  • Is all of this simply a nod of appreciation for all DIY filmmakers out there? I’d like to know so.
  • “He don’t like remakes…”
  • Film brings people together. You’re reading this blog, ain’t ya?

 Next Installment…

“We cannot glimpse the essential life of a caged Animal, only the shadow of its former beauty.” – Julia Allen Field


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 26: Rob Letterman’s “Gulliver’s Travels” (2010)


21170487_PA_Los_viajes_Gulliver_1


 The Players…

Jack Black, Jason Segel, Emily Blunt and Chris O’Dowd, with Amanda Peet and Billy Connelly.


The Story…

When slacker mail room clerk Lemuel Gulliver want to impress his crush, the newspaper’s travel writer, he tries his hand as a travel writer himself. She gives him a “fluff assignment” about goings on in the Bermuda Triangle, and not wanting to lose his chance Gulliver jumps at it. If only to impress a girl.

After getting sucked into the weirdness that is the Triangle, Gulliver washes ashore on the isle of Lilliput, populated by tiny people who are none too happy now having a giant on their hands. Not to mention Gulliver unhappy in wondering how he’s going to get home again.

There’s a girl waiting, y’know.


The Rant…

Hey. Here were go with another flaky cinematic adaptation of a famous, if not revered author. If only for one book. Well, it worked for Dalton Trumbo.

Aaaand here come the Obscurity Police, ready to club me with the latest Grey installment.

*wards them off with a battered copy of Gravity’s Rainbow; screaming*

That’s better. Pynchon. Works every time. Now then:

I’d be remiss in my duties to not mention that I failed to mention that the last installment covering The Raven was serendipitous. At the time of that post, it was Edgar Allan Poe’s 207th birthday, spot on. I didn’t know at the time. It was a crummy gift (even though the movie was okay. Just okay), but how appropriate and lucky I took apart a film loosely based on Poe’s works on his b’day.

Well  thought so.

Speaking of loose adaptations, betcha most of you read Jonathan Swift’s satirical opus Gulliver’s Travels back in high school English. If you were me, instead of studying the book…let’s not go there. Even if you never read Swift’s novel, you probably know about the part where our hapless hero washes ashore on the island of Lilliput populated by tiny, tiny people. The image of the now giant Gulliver strapped down, dozens of micro people flittering around the giant has become part of pop culture. Not to mention an eternal metaphor for…something.

Sure, the book was full of cool adventures, but most readers had to be reminded that Travels was intended as a satire. Social commentary couched in silliness. When I was conscious in class, I learned that the conflict between the Lillputians and their enemies the equally tiny Blefuscudians, which Gulliver became entangled, was the result of a disagreement of the proper way to crack an egg. Absurd.

*crickets*

It’s true; read it. The Lilliput/Belfescu conflict was supposed to represent the acrimony between the UK and France over…nothing really. At the end of the day, nothing vital. Just culture clash, really. So went Gulliver’s other travels, Swift flipping the bird to stuffy British society between tending to his clergy with his day job as a minister.

*more crickets*

It’s true; read it. That metaphor is classic (not the clergy thing), which is why the tale has inspired countless movie versions, both live-action and animated. I remember as a kid a live-action version of the story starring the unimpeachable Peter O’Toole as our titular adventurer. It only tackled the Lilliput arc (as most have done), but it was a great version. I only found out later—when I woke up—after reading the book how close to the book the moviemakers got. And it didn’t stop with the O’Toole version and now the Jack Black movie. Gulliver’s Travels has been adapted to TV, film and even radio thirteen times. Told you it was a potent tale, literary accuracy or no.

Where am I going with all this you may ask, as well as where are my slippers? Despite the fact Gulliver is a delicious tale to reinvent, the satirical element—the book’s original selling point—often gets lost in the shuffle. I’ve found that only for satire to work there needs to be just enough humor to balance any rancor, not matter how tame. I’m not talking a Carlin screed here (even though he was able to temper his ire with quieter, sillier bits), but I only think Gulliver on film works best when there is low-level silliness, not fart jokes and our hero pissing on things.

Wait, what?

Oh. Well, I did say when I first actually read the book…nothing I should mention here…


Terminally stuck in the mail room at the New York Tribune, lowly slacker Lemuel Gulliver (Black) gets a fire under his ass from his new boss. Gulliver’s rudely informed that he’s a going-nowhere loudmouth, and’ll probably be stuck in the trenches forever unless he mans up and gets a pair. Y’know, make a first move.

That almost being a dare, Gulliver hits up on his crush Darcy (Peet), the resident travel writer for a date. Instead he stumbles into getting assigned a fluff assignment to Bermuda to investigate a story about its infamous Triangle. Hey, whatever works.

So with passport in hand, a mediocre at best command of being a reporter, Gulliver sets sail into the heart of the matter. The heart turns out to be a typhoon that scoops him ashore on the tiny island of Lilliput with its equally tiny denizens. By accident, Gulliver is now the mountain of a man he should’ve aspired to be in the first place. And it fits him as well as being strapped to the earth against his will.

Might as well be back in the mail room and that “Guitar Hero” session.


Okay, so the whole satire angle went totally out the window with this version of Gulliver. But this was supposed to be a family film, so we gotta dumb it down a bit. Maybe a lot. But as stupid as the source material could be stripped, this Gulliver could’ve been a lot worse. You’re in for a typical Jack Black ad-libbed quip fest. What else did you expect? Bertolt Brecht’s Baal on ice?

*even more crickets*

Wake up. It’s almost lunchtime.

Even though Black is known, if not infamous for playing randy, snarky assh*les, his schtick actually marries well to a “family” flick like this one. The man’s bread-and-butter is playing overgrown kids after all. It’s just odd here in Gulliver to not hear any blue language (kind of a relief actually). We got Black making an attempt to play it straight—be the everyman—and try and be relatable rather than repellant. I ain’t saying Black as an actor is repellent. He’s terribly amusing, if not hilarious in the proper film (e.g.: High FidelitySchool Of RockTropic Thunder, etc), but I think we’re all kinda used to the sh*tstorm he brings to his films. That’s a complement, BTW.

Toned down Black (just enough) is pretty palatable. Gulliver features Jack Black Lite. Sure, his character is an obnoxious clown, but he also manages an air of innocent sweetness. Really. Sweet Jeebus he comes across as likable here. I know. I’m just as shocked as you. Hell, it’s a family film, and the schlumpy dude is a big kid. A very big kid in Lilliput anyway. He’s got a sweetness here in a chummy sense, not sugary. If it weren’t for Black—I can’t believe I’m saying this—there’d be very little for this movie to hang on to. Sure, the supporting cast (especially Segel) is entertaining and goofy, but without Black’s left-handed charm to grab onto, everything would descend into slapstick. For almost 90 minutes.

Speaking of timing, I must talk about the technical sh*t at work here. Don’t worry, I’ll be back to smashing to other stuff in due course. I just can’t resist a good segue.

Gulliver is a pretty straightforward movie. Not a lot twists and turns, at least none that would blow the kiddies’ minds. But against that the pacing is too swift. I know this is supposed to be a family-friendly flick, quick enough to battle against bathroom trips and the youngin’s attention spans can’t be taxed too much, but give the editor an Ativan, will ya? Rapid fire cuts and leaps can really take its toll on anyone no longer Santa Claus eligible. What I’m sayin’ is give the ‘rents a break already. Gulliver clocks in at an efficient 85 minutes; I’d actually appreciate a few more to calm sh*t down. But that’s just me (a parent, thank you).

A few other things: much to my surprise, this fluffy little film was pretty faithful to the source material. Some of the notable things anyway. The loopy life of Lemuel and his hard-on for Darcy is out of Hollywood, but several of the (mostly) humorous bits were left intact. For instance? The literal piss takes. At first I was cheesed at sticking in a schtick like that, but it was in canon. Really. So was the boat-tugging in the battle at sea scene, and of course the iconic Gulliver-strapped-down bit. Overall I was surprised how many details director Letterman included in his movie spun from Swift’s tale, cleverly applying the size-difference in nifty ways. The coffee montage was great I have to admit, as was the beach house thing. Usually when a book churns through the spin cycle—especially a family movie—a lot of crap gets excised in favor of poop jokes and/or extraneous, Cheez-Whiz dramatics. Don’t misunderstand, Gulliver has its fair share of poop, but even minor concessions made to the source material against Black’s shenanigans it seems almost…respectful. I like that.

Back to the cast. Even though our females leads, Blunt and Peet (which sounds like a home and garden chain) are not much more than wallpaper. Peet and Black have no believable chemistry even with the short screen time, and Blunt is a wooden bodice. Girls, who needs ’em? There is a buddy movie undertone to Gulliver. Y’know, guys and chicks and how to nab ’em. Sure, it’s tired, but pairing Black with mini-Segal makes it work somehow. It was amusing to see Segel playing it straight for once as the lovelorn, earnest Horatio. And Black being the wingman made it feel okay. A kind of dopey okay, but harmless enough. I’ll give it a pass.

O’Dowd however has nothing earnest going for his Admiral Edward. He was such a rich ham and quietly stole the show. What amazed me (and still does; can’t explain it) is that for all Edward’s stuffy, effete Britishness toeing the line of stereotype—think John Cleese meets Margaret Thatcher. Okay, don’t—his performance alternates between brash and all three Stooges. Snicker worthy, not laugh out loud, but enough of those snickers throughout the film to leave an impression. He’s really fun to hate, too. Always a good thing when it comes to booing and hissing the snotty bad guy.

Back the tech stuff again. The only real issue I took with Gulliver‘s delivery is when the third act finally rolls around. Here we descend into outright silliness. I kinda alluded to you watch a film like this with the proper mindset. Read: card-carrying goofball Jack Black as giant; put away your SAG cards. Like all proper three act plays, here’s where it all comes to a head. A very silly head, and I done like’d it. Sue me. Remember, family film. “Epic” showdown with the baddie? Check. Guys get the girls (not matter how superfluous they are here)? Check. Jack Black murdering a rock song with lots of air guitar? Um, duh. F*cking inevitable. He might’ve even done it in that indie drivel Jesus’ Son I covered back during the Ice Age. Oh, well.

In any case, despite—or maybe because of—Letterman’s straight arrow execution, there were enough tweaks and winks slid into his imagining of Gullver to get the audience scratching their collective chins. Amusing is the watchword here, and it was. Cinematic merit? With Jack Black? You’re really asking this? Pishaw. Gulliver decidedly wasn’t a popcorn flick. Gummi Bear flick is more apt.

Okay, class dismissed. Next week, Beckett’s take on Hansel & Gretel. Whatever you do, don’t eat the downspouts.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, with reservati. Yeah, yeah. Shaddap. Cynical snot like me digging fluff like this? What? You don’t like Gummi Bears? Philistine.


Stray Observations…

  •  “…You’re never really going to get bigger than this.” Foreshadow much?
  • Hey. Whatever happened to “Guitar Hero” anyway? I mean, sure it wasn’t in canon. But still. Guess Swift was a Wii kinda guy.
  • “Inside the castle voice, please.” I’m using that from now on with the kid.
  • Does adding Coffee-Mate to the filter actually work? (later) Nope.
  • Need a flexible, inoffensive British dude as authority figure? Get me Billy Connelly!
  • “But Vice President Yoda can run things without me for a while.” That is a line any sane person would never expect to ever hear in a film with the proper prescription.
  • Prince. Works every time. Ever see Pretty Woman? Scored Roberts three grand.
  • Mini, mini Kiss!
  • Segel’s accent is great, and doesn’t betray his usual patois. It enhanced his character really. Go fig.
  • “Gulliver, you work in the mail room.” “Not today I don’t.” Almost badass, for a family film anyway.

Next Installment…

London comes tumbling down in a Reign Of Fire. The fault lies with the dragons. And Christian Bale. Curse you, Bale.


RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 36: Stephen Frears’ “High Fidelity” (2000)


High-Fidelity-poster-art


The Players…

John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Jack Black and Todd Louiso, with Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lisa Bonet, Sara Gilbert, Joan Cusack and Tim Robbins.


The Story…

Once again, cranky audiophile Rob Gordon has been dumped by…oh, it doesn’t matter. They’re all the same, ever since middle school. After this latest failure of a relationship, Rob decides to do some soul-searching; to figure out what’s gone wrong in his life when it comes to the opposite sex. It may be a lack of maturity. Or his caustic attitude. Or most likely, he identifies better with the music in his unfeasible record collection than actual socializing. Whatever the reason may be, Rob’s going to be adrift and alone forever if he doesn’t take off the headphones.


The Rant:

Here we go again with another music-themed movie, and you just know your not-so-humble blogger is going to either rail on and on about corporate rock and/or rail on and on about his psychotic record collection.

Nope.

Not this time. Not gonna do it. We’ve got something else under the lens today: movies based on pre-existing media. In the case of High Fidelity, books.

With any movie adaptation of a pre-existing literary form—a Shakespearean play, a novel, a comic book, etc.—the director has to walk a very loose tightrope, but a tightrope nonetheless. I say loose because we have two sides of an audience to reach here—most of whom are fickle—and we best be flexible.

On one side, the audience that knows the source material, wants to see the director’s vision and interpretation of said source as close as possible, hopefully satisfying the need (sometimes obsession) to see if he got it “right.” People want to see the director’s vision not getting in the way of…well, the director’s vision. You don’t want to have a color-by-numbers, scene-by-scene exact duplication of the original material. That’s a cop-out, especially to those who already read the book and probably loved the book like chocolate, sex and sex-covered chocolate.

On the other side, you don’t want the director to deviate so far from the original idea so to mangle the script, use lame dialogue, and stick in some artistic “flair” that either Hollywood insisted on adding like a happy ending, general sweetening or Jennifer Aniston. That or placating the director’s muse excitedly sh*tting on his head. It’s a delicate balance, and the pissy audience that already read the book—Harry Potter fans, Game of Thrones disciples, Walking Dead adherents and/or Fifty Shades of Grey very desperate housewives—wants it both ways. When it doesn’t work out, it’s usually the audience’s fevered fanboy-ism that’s to blame. Not that they’d ever admit it.

That being said, there have been several notable book-to-film adaptations; some were stellar or at least satisfying. Sam Raimi’s Spider Man 2 springs immediately to mind. My opinion is best validated by rumor having it that when original Spidey artist John Romita, Sr. caught a sneak peak of the film, his comments were more-or-less, “I drew that…Drew that…That too…etc.” Sounds like the movie straddled the line well to me. Other highlights include MASH, the Godfather and the original Die Hard; yes, Die Hard was based on a book. I read the book after seeing the movie like, oh I dunno, a jillion times. I can safely say that here’s one instance where the movie version is superior. All the humor and vulnerability of Bruce Willis’ iconic, relatable everycop John McClane were absent in the book, as well as the hero being actually named “John McClane.”

As a control, Forrest Gump is not a good example. The touchy-feeliness of the movie version was sentimental Hollywood claptrap, which reliably raked in the dollars and awards; the novel was pessimistic with a capital P, Jenny. Another bad example, oddly enough, is Die Hard 2. Yes, yes, it was based on a book, too. A very good book, BTW. Hack director Renny Harlin chewed it up and spat it out and made a good, taut action/thriller novel into the ur-Michael Bay summer blockbuster. Lots of boom, bullets and bad dialogue. Yippee-ki-yay.

So why do some adaptations work and others limp? Like I said, walking the tightrope. There has to be enough cuts from the original roast to remain true to the spirit of the book, yet have enough directorial sensitivity to respect the lifted material while still adding a unique spin. This is usually done with visuals, dialogue and above all else acting. That and a kick-ass screenwriter like Ted “The Silence of the Lambs” Tally or Richard “The Quiet Man” Llewellyn don’t hurt none. All of it as a whole must be executed with extremely extreme prejudice. In simpler words: don’t dupe the audience. There’s a good chance they already read the book well before the movie hype hit the dailies. Ask any Shakespeare aficionado. Or Spider-Man fanboy.

Some books-turned-movies use the device of a narrator, and sometimes it works. Fight Club employed a narrator (to go so far as to credit Edward Norton simply as “Narrator”), so did Forrest Gump (and despite that movie’s squishiness, it worked too) and also Taxi Driver, A Christmas Story, The Big Lebowski, Apocalypse Now, GoodFellas and—before God—Dances with Wolves. These all worked. High Fidelity uses a narrator too. What separates this movie from the others is the deliberate shattering of “the fourth wall.”

For those who don’t know the reference, I’ll share. Look, it’s not as if the readers out there on the Interweb are thick, it’s just I want to be clear. I gather that most of us are of decent intelligence; of a curious nature that draws the lot of y’all to sh*t-digging social experiments like this one. I can get obtuse in my rumination at RIORI, so I’m making a point out of this one. It’s vital to the movie as a whole.

The “breaking of the fourth wall” is a theatrical reference in which a player steps out of character to directly address the audience. Bill Shakespeare (him again) did this often, like in his drama Othello where the baddie kept telling the audience about his nefarious plans, mwa-ha-ha. The best example used I can recall in modern cinema is in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Our protag makes asides to the audience enhancing the action to what’s happening (or will happen) onscreen. For High Fidelity, not unlike Day Off, it augments the comic aspects of the movie. Unlike Fidelity, all the wink-wink/nudge-nudge bets are off.

All right, lecture’s over. Hand in your blue books.

*cheers, applause, sighs of relief, lines to the bathroom*

Hmm. It seems like I’ve already chewed apart our latest installment before the synopsis is out there. Glad you caught me…


Laura (Hjejle) left. She finally had her fill of Rob (Cusack), his musical obsessions and his generally mopey attitude. She’s just another failed relationship in Rob’s seemingly endless line of failed relationships. Now he’s alone, bitter and the only companionship he can find is his unwieldy record collection.

What went wrong?

Rob now plays out days at his semi-failing record shop, Championship Vinyl, dealing with the snobby opinions of his “musical moron twins,” blithering Barry (Black) and milquetoast Dick (Louiso). Nights are spent organizing and reorganizing his LPs, ruminating over the notion that maybe he’s doomed to live alone forever.

Again, what went wrong?

In a rare moment of clarity, Rob does some soul-searching. He recalls his “top five, all-time breakups,” and how they happened. His sifts through his address book and decides to track down his exes to see if there was a pattern forming; what led to his undoing and lowly state. Sure, it might be painful to go down memory lane, facing some ugly truths about his relations with the opposite sex. But you know what they say: pain means you’re growing.

Rob figures it’s time to man up, stare down adulthood, get some maturity and, well, face the music…


I read High Fidelity well after I saw the movie. A lot of people—the aforementioned fanboy audiences— always claim that the book is always better than the movie. Fidelity is an exception to that belief. I’m not saying that either one was superior to the other. I’m saying with Fidelity as a whole, it didn’t really matter.

The movie is very faithful to the book. Very faithful. Like I said, I read the book after I saw the movie, and it made no difference. That’s how faithful Frears’ adaptation was. There were only three differences between the book and the movie:

  1. The setting. Nick Hornby’s book took place in London. The movie is set in Chicago. Cusack, who co-wrote the screenplay, is a native Chicagoan, as well as a handful of the other actors (Robbins et al). They were all once part of a troupe in the Windy City, and it was at Cusack’s behest that these folks could add something to the movie, enhance the set as tableau. Like the book, London was much a character as Chicago is here. Director Frears—who is English—was originally rather diffident about shooting an English story in an American city until he read the script and met the cast. In the end, where High Fidelity takes place was irrelevant. Some stories, like Hornby’s delightful novel, are universal. Life, love and leaving. That’s what Fidelity is all about.
  2. One scene from the book was deleted, and one was added. In the book, the chapter where Rob went record hunting at a spurned wife’s exes fire sale of his record collection was left out. The subplot about Rob producing a pair of burgeoning amateur musicians was added. Both were metaphor for Rob’s life arrest and eventual getting on with life. Both worked well, and;
  3. In the book, he was Rob Fleming. In the movie, he’s Rob Gordon. Not sure why this was done.

At heart, Fidelity is not a music movie. Right. It does have the soundtrack of my dreams, even Katrina & the Waves and “Most of the Time” is one of my fave, latter-day Dylan songs. But it’s not a music movie. It’s a story about personal responsibility and belated growing up.

It’s a lot of other things, too. Fidelity is a love story to and within Chicago, but the opposite of Ferris Beuller. Frears turned out to be wrong, all right. The setwork is great, and the backdrop of the city makes for a lovely sofa. The setting doesn’t really matter, but it helps the movie took place in a city as diverse as Chicago.

Almost as diverse as Rob’s infeasible record collection. Both are as much characters in the movie as the actors. Rob’s music collection is so intertwined with his personality—and his troubles—it’s like he can’t divorce himself from self-absorption steeped in adolescent fantasies and motives. His whole “art of the mixtape” schtick comes across as both solace and salvation, a la a teen brooding in his room after being not invited to the jocks’ beer bust. In the end, it’s all just juvenile and for naught, especially for a mid-30s bachelor and record geek.

Another thing: most importantly Fidelity is a character study, and without a primo cast like this one, there’d be just another Gen X nostalgia cash cow being milked here. Usually the director guides the actors. According to Frears, Fidelity was the other way around. And the whole thing rests on Cusack’s shoulders. If a lesser actor was employed the whole thing might’ve torn apart at the seams.

Rob is a walking headache. Leave it to Cusack to deliver his role with a slumped-shoulders, Holden Caulfield affect. No matter how old he or his story gets, Rob’s terminally in the 7th grade. It drums up sympathy for a character who really is a drudge, cranky and generally not a guy you’d want to share a beer with. His character does a lot of acting with a hangdog and a blank, baleful, hundred-mile stare. It’s paramount to breaking the fourth wall.

Oh yeah, that. The whole narrator thing? Key.

The DVD release of Fidelity has clips and commentary from Cusack and director Frears. Frears was a fan of the book and always wanted to make it into a movie, but was afraid that all of “the good stuff” would have to be left out. It was Cusack’s idea to do the whole narration thing. That way, all the exposition that was so vital to the book was left in, delivered in this very clever, non-intrusive way to convey Rob’s angst. It’s very subtle, thanks to Cusack’s alternating manic and meandering delivery. His monologues are like the confessionals of a middle schooler, which Rob ostensibly still is. It works well with the theme of life arrest. Rob’s just a “victim of circumstance,” with circumstances he’s created. He’s boxes himself in with his own rationalizing, and gets it intimate with the audience.

Fresh-faced Hjejle is great as Laura. She’s very disarming, kinda like a Gen X Isla. Laura is oddly strong, yet vulnerable. You get the feeling that she doesn’t want to leave Rob, she just has to so to maintain her sanity. It’s tough to be in a long term relationship with someone who just doesn’t get commitment, that it’s not just about you anymore. Rob is all about “you,” meaning him. Laura, whether Rob knows it or not, keeps him grounded. She’s never shown to be the bad guy. She bails, and it’s not for wondering why.

Black and Louiso are the Laurel and Hardy in Fidelity. Dick and Barry are yin and yang. Black is delightfully toxic. His acerbic wit and classic music snob blathering is both hilarious and cringe-worthy. I think we all know someone like Barry. They are all alone in a crowded record store. If only more actors could be as charmingly hammy as Black. And he actually has a good singing voice. It’s a bit schlocky, but entertaining, not unlike Tenacious D. Isn’t that what matters?

Louiso’s Dick is so self-effacing and passive it’s like he’s hiding inside his clothes. Dick is the anti-Barry. He’s still a music snob, but he assumes the timid, quiet stance. He likes letting lesser-knowing music buffs in on obscure bands as some secret, trace element stuff. It’s along this line that gets Dick a date. To wit, Louiso and Gilbert have an honest chemistry, and their budding relationship reflects Rob’s failed ones in understated, sweet contrast.

There’s a lot of nice touches about relationships in Fidelity. It’s a gentle movie, kinda tender, despite the prickly subject matter. It’s also a guy movie, with Cusack being the spot-on, typical thirty-something man-child, awash in insecurity, facing middle age and exuding weltschmerz from every pore. Us guys get that way. Rob’s love/hate relationship with his music reflecting his love/hate relationship with his past relationships; it’s never blunt, and paired with the smart narration, the message comes across with great humor and flintiness with being preachy. It’s the whole “adding the egg” metaphor here (see the All Is Lost installment). I love the dry humor. It does a great job escalating the tension within the first two acts as it eventually tempers the third descending into sweetness without being saccharine.

To wrap it up, there’s one word to describe Fidelity: satisfying. The story is solid, the acting great, the pacing perfect and it has an intelligent, thoughtful streak running throughout. High Fidelity is probably in my top-five, desert island movies.

Now where could I hook up the DVD and the stereo on a desert island? Well, thank God for Wi-Fi.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Go read the book, too. Check out either one first. And take off those damned headphones.


Stray Observations…

  • “She liked me. She liked me. She liked me. At least I think she did…” No one really ever graduates middle school.
  • Every scene in the store, club or apartment features at least one album I own. I don’t know whether that’s comforting or really, really sad.
  • “A Cosby sweatah!”
  • That Slits album has been bouncing all over the sets. Who wants to wager director Frears is a fan?
  • “How can someone who has no interest in music own a record store?” The very sage Jack Black. Dumbass.
  • Keen use of the Beta Band there. Yeah, I have those albums too.
  • “Do you have soul?” “That all depends…”
  • Jones says “F*ck!” better than I’ve ever heard it anywhere.
  • Rob all alone in the record store. His castle, his prison.
  • “My guts have sh*t for brains!” Hornby.
  • I do miss mixtapes. I’ve made my fair share of mix discs, but it’s just not the same.
  • “I’d never thought I’d say this, but can I go to work now?”

Next Installment…

“Who, as they sung, would take the prison’d soul and lap it in Elysium?” That’s John Milton. Who’d’ve thunk he was into Matt Damon movies?


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 1: Alison Maclean’s “Jesus’ Son” (2000)


Image


The Players…

Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, Denis Leary, Jack Black, Dennis Hopper and Holly Hunter.


The Story…

FH is a well-meaning drug addict who stumbles backward into redemption. We’re not even close to talking about a twelve-step here. Amid his life’s wreckage of addiction and co-dependency, a near-fatal car crash and a chance to save a child’s life force FH to examine his existence and its meaning, if there’s anything to find at all.


The Rant…

Hey! So begins Volume Two of Rent It Or Relent It! This week’s entry is the first one designed with this blog in mind. No repaginating needed! Yeah, I know. Not kind of a big deal. I just figured I’d mention it since we’re starting over with “Installment 1” again and I didn’t want no confusion. I hear ya. When Marvel Comics does this kind of thing, it irritates me, too. So let’s just move along, shall we…?

What, another precious indie film? Hey, in case you hadn’t noticed, these little buggers have been popping up lately all over movieland, like mushrooms on cow turds. The fun mushrooms, mind you. And like those funky beauties, such small budget, little known actor, inscrutably scripted movies can either mess with your mind or alter your perception, in any order.

Drug allusions aside (yes, that was what they were), it’s only proper that we delve into a film about substance abuse. On the other side of the screen, dummy. Now put down the beer bong and listen up. Why proper? These flicks seldom make much coin at the box office. That’s usually because no one shows up to see them. The Standard dictates the reception had to either be tepid or outright hostile. I never said you’d ever had to hear of the damned movie (please refer to the The Squid And The Whale entry for a good example. Uh, the only example I got actually).

That kinda brings me to a point. I used to be a deejay at our local community radio station and NPR affiliate (BTW, we preferred to call ourselves “programmers” since deejay has either become trite or an epithet for the mixmasters at rave-ups, but that’s for another day). With NPR came their news programs, human-interest stories and the like. There were often movie reviews and interviews with the stars of the reviewed movie. That’s where I heard about The Squid and the Whale and also Jesus’ Son. Jeff Daniels and Billy Crudup were interviewed respectively. After listening to these shows (and this was years before weblogs came to the fore) I got to wondering, “Who’s this for?”

The “who” in question was the target audience. NPR listeners are a cagey lot. They’re not usually the first to bow to the will of pop culture. I figured if a movie got press on NPR, it was: a) of some good critical repute; b) going to get limited release, and/or; c) was made with built-in obscurity in mind. I suspected Jesus’ Son wasn’t intended to be a big release movie. Being affiliated with part of the NPR audience, I assumed this movie would’ve naturally appealed to my and others’ ersatz hipster pretensions.

I think I was looking too hard…


FH (Crudup, whose character’s name is oddly never mentioned in the film) is a slow-witted man-child seemingly drifting through life, love and addiction. Never one to stay in one place too long, nor does he seem aware that he’s doing it, FH touches hands of everyone he meets in a languid, faraway notion. We’re not tugging heartstrings here; FH is a buffoon and overall irritant. And he’s not your typical poster child for decrying drug use. He’s kind of just…there.

Anyway, amid all the random people he bumps into and scrapes he gets into, he does find love in the form of somewhat unstable Michelle (Morton), an erratic party girl with a healthy smack addiction that FH immediately takes a shine to. Naturally in love, he engages in the habits of heroin shooting and pill popping that Michelle is hip to, and becomes readily addicted to addiction and all the pitfalls that accompany it.

Michelle drifts in and out of his life (or perhaps the other way around) while FH follows a scenic and winding road through perdition by ways of keeping his multiple habits going. Whether he’s deconstructing homes with buddy Wayne (Leary) for scrap to sell for dope money, working as an orderly with whack job Georgie (Black) for ready access to pills, or finding redemption in an old age home with fragile widow Mira (Hunter), FH is seemingly doomed to be rudderless. He’ll just keep on wandering, leading a terminal existential crisis while never being released from adolescence. Or truly free from chemical dependency…


Huh. Sounds like the story would appeal to the NPR crowd. Too bad it was a load of drivel.

Our hero Crudup possesses the clear eyes and rubbery face of an adolescent. The awkward innocent to all the events that fall at his feet. He’s never proactive. This breaks a principal tenet of story: you can’t have heroes being acted on all the time to capture either sympathy and/or attention. Maybe this was what the director was intending, but 90 minutes of it was really grating.

Heroes are supposed to wade through the plot for us; take us on their journey. Problem: there was no plot. Jesus’ Son was nothing more than a series of vignettes. Again, more off-kilter episodes that FH just wanders into following the direction of addiction (which was mostly a pretty tame portrayal) wherever it may take him. Jesus’ Son is the flipside of the grimy, urban drug drama Panic In Needle Park. Where that movie was harrowing and unlikeable in a gripping way, Son plays out like Forrest Gump on smack. It was more or less a comical take on substance abuse, and not with a whit of irony.

Speaking of irony, only not really, why was Jack Black in this movie? I know it was another non-plot point of FH’s quest for drugs, and Black is notorious as an amped up clown in his roles, but never have I seen him so shoehorned into a character that tries to lean on his strengths as a comic actor in such an inappropriate manner. Watching the movie you expected him to bust out with air guitar, which would’ve been apropos of anything and yet you’d expect it. It was another lull in the movie’s meandering pace.

Before I overload the bitch switch, there were several highlights that just couldn’t be ignored in the film. Shot in muted colors, Son had a real 70’s feel to it, appropriate because of the timeline. There was a gritty, earth tone hue to the set and it coaxed out a very laidback vibe that married well to the narrative, such as it was. Another great visual aspect was the make-up job. For such a slanted comic affair on drug use, the etchings of FH’s rubbery face over what felt like months highlighted his progression into substance abuse with disturbing accuracy.

The movie is kinda rife with cameos, and the best performance was the one delivered by Dennis Hopper. Ironic that one of cinema’s most offbeat, unhinged personalities provided a little stability in an otherwise frayed film. He only had like 12 minutes of screen time, but he made them the most memorable. Almost always a gold star for Hopper.

Apart from all that, there wasn’t much to like about this movie. It really tried my patience. Crudup isn’t much of a leading man, and his dopey (ha!) character FH was neither endearing nor sympathetic. He’s just a wistful moron, even more so when he kicks his drug habit. His interactions with his fellow cast members lacked chemistry, and the results were a pretty wooden affair. The pacing, although good, was too slipshod to hold my attention. Don’t get me started on the narrative flow. The whole mishmash caused me to drift in and out of the story, not unlike FH’s journey.

Oh well. To be perfectly honest, despite what I’ve written about,  I really don’t remember a lot of this movie. I used to suffer from this malady due to watching movies drunk, and only having a passing notion to what I thought I had seen. Jesus’ Son was accompanied only by Snapple, and it didn’t stick so well either. I guess I may have to give up reviewing indie films for this blog. They only scratch the surface of The Standard anyway, and viewing them requires a kind of eye that has willingly fallen blind by me. If so, then I can go back to being snarky and vicious, which is the waller I was happily floundering around in when I began this here project.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Not everything pitched on NPR is of a culturally enriching endeavor.


Stray Observations…

  • “Somebody’s going to get hurt over this.”
  • I hope that the patient with cerebral palsy was not intended as comic relief. It seemed just on the cusp of inappropriate.
  • “Where’s my hunting knife?”
  • Another thing: this entire movie had a very disjointed three-act structure. It was very difficult to discern where the climax was, if there was any at all.
  • The title Jesus’ Son was a lyric lifted from the Velvet Underground song “Heroin,” and not of some messianic undertone. At least, not directly. Trivia!
  • “What a lousy birthday.”

Next Installment…

Brandon Routh is no Christopher Reeve (but he tries) as Superman Returns.