RIORI Presents Installment #175: Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” (2013)



The Players…

Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine, with Gucci Mane and James Franco.


The Basics…

Spring break. It’s when all the lucky college kids get cut loose from their classes for an idyll on some sunny seashore drenching each other in suntan oil, alcohol and semen. Good, wholesome entertainment to let the pent up collegiate steam loose. If you can afford such debauchery on the beach.

Faith and her friends can’t. They’re broke, but they get it into their heads that unless they have a proper spring break they’ll be nothing but the outcasts they claim to be. But how to get some fast cash and get the hell outta Dodge?

Easy. Knock over the local Tex-Mex joint and abscond with the loot all the way to Miami. Or Aruba. Or jail?

Talk about getting away with getting away with it all.


The Rant…

I never had a proper spring break in college. By proper I mean never a vacation to sunny climes. I either went home or visited my girlfriend. Why? One: I was always broke, and; two, free laundry. I said I was always broke. Could never afford a week-long jaunt to sunny Hawaii. Truth be told I never saw the point. Just to get a week off of school was nice. That and getting stains out of things.

Yes, I visited that girl on occasion. She lived in rural Massachusetts, and no, there wasn’t any beach nearby (and if there was it was March in rural Mass. Wanna go count the mounds of slush on I-95?), but she was a spit away from the college/mafia town of Providence, RI. When Brown University let out its sigh, there were lots of cool shops to hang out at without the usual clogging. There’s something about the shopping district around a college that oozes with possibility of finding something neato in the underbrush that would usually be teeming 51 weeks out of the year. Cafes. Record Stores. Army surplus. May not have be Ixtapa, but I could locate a few pairs of Chuck Taylors in colors that forbade a sensible purchase, which came to around $25. That’s a month’s laundry money, BTW.

Did I want a “proper” spring break? Nope. Beyond the financial matters, I couldn’t justify the need to travel afar only to get pished, laid and sunburnt in some Olympic fashion as R&R from a syllabus. Minus the laurel crown I could do such dissoluteness at school, or rural Mass come to think of it. Sure, getting really away from it is all is great, even necessary once in a while, but when I go on a rare vacation, I don’t want to bring home (as well as the routine there) along for the ride. I travel light, thanks.

Way, way back in The Way Way Back installment I spoke of how vacations, especially those with family, can become a real drudge. You can’t really cut loose and be yourself when mom and dad have you in tow (along with several other generations of unknown relatives, strangers and hangers-on from the parking lot). That must be what the idea of spring break is so appealing, besides booze, babes and beaches. Sure, going to college is the first time “away” from everything for the lucky few, but the luckier few may afford spring break to get away from “themselves” for a while. Or worse turn into themselves for a week, and I ain’t talking nothing ’bout inner reflection.

I remember as a youth back when MTV blah blah blah was interrupted by going live to the scene of the crime: MTV Spring Break. Instead of getting the usual heavy rotation of Pearl Jam’s delightfully disturbing video for “Jeremy,” I had to endure Sodom by the sea with TLC’s sweet “Creep” oozing from somewhere out in the sand. Could’ve been Miami, could’ve been Aruba, could’ve been a sound stage for all I knew. What I learned from all this basic cable televised postcard from sunny bacchanalia was this: college kids’ll do all sorts of stupid things in front of a camera (and this being before social media, my catfishing friends) and the camera laps it up and spits it out. Then it was into my lap. I’m not badmouthing spring breaks, not at all. Let me tell you, due to lake effect climate any time to get away from the chilly gloom of overcast March in Central New York is always welcome, if not essential to maintaining a degree of sanity. It could get so grey somedays that I figured if I slugged a prof square in the nose I get to see some color ooze from his inflamed nostrils. Just saying. And since I was too broke or too afraid of melanoma I went back home to the sunny climes of Southeast PA, where there we fresh leaves on the trees and I could enjoy a Hershey’s Special Dark as a treat and not a K ration to ward off hypovitaminosis D. Did I mention that vital free laundry?

What I had to endure on MTV until my next fave video of the time came on (the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” natch) was a bunch of buzzed, well-tanned, gyrating co-eds wearing bikinis made of what appeared to be unwaxed dental floss. Again, not badmouthing. It just all seemed overrated. Vacations are a need now and again, and destination vacations can be something of an adventure. In the vein of The Way Way Back all that spring break had a lot of baggage to me. Besides escaping the drudgery of classes for a week, what’s the big deal? It’s akin to a girl’s Sweet 16 party; and the big deal is? Guys don’t get a sweet 16. You’re old enough to drive now, that’s good. Cotillions went out of fashion when Hitler was a struggling art student. You don’t always need a vacation, but they sure are welcome in times of stress. You don’t need a reason to party, nor do you have travel afar and snort up Euros to have an “adventure.”

Must be some status symbol. It ain’t cheap to hog an entire Caribbean idyll for 7 days, but since the ‘rents are footing the bill go hog wild. Whether a camera crew will be there to cover the whole wad…well, no. That’s what smartphones are for: to document dumb things. And onto Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and the FBI fingerprint database we go go go. Must look good to all us yutzes with fresh sheets and nowhere else to go come springtime. Might make the underprivileged feel left out of the loop, all that sun and fun and…well, freedom! Freedom to get trashed with impunity. Free to sleep (or at least pass out) on the beach. Free to get into all kinds of mischief, proper and/or unhealthy. Maybe even if you get lucky, it could wind up criminal.

Criminally free!

So for instance, let’s consider Faith and her posse’s dilemma.


The Story…

Everyone needs some time to blow off steam. A break from the norm. A break period. This goes for overextended parents, overworked social media specialists, overtaxed teachers and their burnt out students alike. Especially students at the college level what with day in/day out lectures, papers, study groups, insomnia, too much Red Bull and not enough White Claw. That’s what spring break is for. To get away from it all, break from the norm and blow off billowing clouds of steam. At least, that’s what Faith’s friends are all about.

Faith (Gomez) is understood to be a “good girl.” Studious, spiritual and unremarkable. She always seems just outside of her social circle of Brit, Candy and Cotty (Benson, Hudgens and Korine, respectively), who are privately wild but are too broke—all are too broke—to cut loose escape their humdrum coed lives. Typical. The good life always just out of their reach, or simply some time in the sun.

As spring break approaches, Faith gets it stuck into her head that unless she and her BFFs get a spring break themselves, regardless of their lack of funding, something’s gotta give. Faith has always been, well, one of the faithful, but her code of conduct has kept her from breaking loose for the past three years. Whether under pressure from her crew or the Word, Faith gets a hot nut to tear off to Sodom by the sea in sunny Florida. But there still is the more issue. How to scare up some cash fast? Ask Grandma for more birthday money?

Nope. Let’s knock over the local taco joint. All four of us. Smash and grab. Whaddya say, girls?

To quote Elwood Blues: “We’re on a mission from God.” We need to get away with getting it all.

The four pull off their scheme, and now have enough dough for fun in the sun. However as we all should understand, power corrupts. The rush of being criminals have left the taste of wanting more in Faith’s friends, and Faith just wants to lie in. Nope. Not if demented, curious pusher “Alien” (Franco) has his way. And his way is very sketchy and very charismatic. These fresh pieces of chicken have had a taste of the wild life, and Alien wishes to utilize their “talents.”

Faith has had enough. Her ideal spring break has stretched beyond a week, and no one can say why we can’t all go home?

Power, corruption and lies. Like Cotty says, “Spring break forever, bitches…”


The Breakdown…

Oh. My Lord.

All right, let’s talk about trash films. I don’t mean “trashy” films, they all ramshackle, lo-fi and accidentally deviant. I’m talking about “trash films” as a genre. I’m talking (and bowing) to the likes of ugly auteurs—and their cinematic spawn—like Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol and the godfather John Waters. Misfits who cooked up such bad taste to celluloid that you could never unsee them. And wouldn’t want to. “Deviant” as pejorative as a salute of respect. Such calculated garbage was both decried and embraced as art (not that they would ever agree). It was cohesive smut with a solid story, a keen acumen or purpose and actors willing themselves to be willing. The matter that the matter of their final product was about sh*t taking a sh*t and then consuming said sh*t cries…

Sh*t happens? Well, okay. Onto the next act. Wipe away any excess KY from your lobes. Smile!

Director Korine is a fanboy. Or as Warhol would utter, “a dilettante.” And trying too damned hard to offer up satire and trash as social commentary with all the nuance of a Karen Carpenter diet plan. My first hyper-judgmental reaction to Breakers that it was stupid, but maybe I might have been too soon to count it out. I mean, there was a bit of a hullabaloo when this thing got released, but as I watched and kept watching I learned that its content and story were the driving force behind all Breakers‘ reputation. Me? I found it trying very hard to pander to an audience that was sketchy at best versus Tarantino on estrogen.

No. The real deal squeal was that the sweet, little Disney darling Selena Gomez was in an R-rated movie about she and her friends doing bad, bad things. I’m not gonna expound on that…much. Look, the woman was 20 years old when she starred in Breakers, many, many miles away from Waverley Place. Deal. Even Shirley temple grew up to be an ambassador, a role even more mature that Selena cavorting about in a bikini for 90 minutes (all right, that and playing with illegal firearms). The whole shaming/blowback of Gomez’ script selection is akin to Nickelodeon’s Jennette McCurdy of iCarly infamy. Her spin-off show more or less hit the skids due to bad PR about the Internet leaking naughty images of McCurdy. What?!? On the Internet?!? That never happens, and she was only 21 at the time! For shame Sam fans, and quick! Clear your browsing history!

What is it about grown Disney actresses that they feel it necessary to star in a never subtle trashy flick to declare their independence as a “serious actor?” Not to mention crawling out from under the image of the House Of Mouse (EG: Lohan, Lovato and now Gomez and Hudgens)? I suppose it’s that years of portraying wholesome young Disney ingenues may result in typecasting. That and playing such roles can get pretty darn boring. Not challenging. What better way to cut all ties with a turn in a flick like Breakers? Or like Twisted Nerve? Or like The Canyons? All of these movies are a U-turn from their starlets Disney beginnings. Not all of those films are trashy, per se, but an extreme breakaway from family-friendly fodder. And a lot of those “grown-up” roles in “mature” films have a lot of creakiness and growing pains. You can take the girl out of the theme park, but…

That being said, in some respects Breakers is self-aware and anti-Disney…to a degree. We’re not busting on Herbie: Fully Loaded here, not trashing any Disney formula or legacy. Director Korine is (with a heavy hand) decrying all that is romanticized about spring break—if, based on my teen TV watching habits, there is such a theme—and plays the “very bad things” with the elan of an 80’s teen sex romp, complete with the jarring MTV editing and/or Tangerine Dream-esque soundtrack. It’s all been done before and a lot better. Subtly can go a very long way, rather than this ham-fisted cautionary tale.

Yes. Breakers is at its core a “trash film” with a conscious. There is nothing to glorify these nymphets criminal acts and hyper-sexed debauchery, but nothing beneath warning that Gomez and company are gonna get busted. No sense of retribution of any kind, which leaves the plot open-ended and rambling. Really, the whole wad got less interesting when Gomez—ostensibly the reason butts got into seats here—went up and REDACTED, and then the gyre began to widen. If there is a message Korine was reaching for here is a forced “say so long to your youth.” Trash film and social commentary don’t marry well. Unless they do, but they don’t here.

Overall, I had a difficult time understanding where director Korine was taking me. Granted I probably wasn’t the target audience; I dislike Meghan Trainor, find White Claw to be Kool-Aid for the Bukowski set, gave up on my Instagram account long ago and never saw any iteration of the High School Musical franchise. In short, didn’t really care that Gomez and Hudgens starring in this pastiche. Just wanted to see the fallout, and The Standard was screaming at my to obey. The pacing was languid—sluggish would be a better word—the girls had no personality (they call could be interchangeable) and the story didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. This was a PG T&A cakewalk with some T, rudderless story that dies in the second act and a short bus version of a John Waters trash film ethos. The difference there is snappy trash and morbid, moribund trash. Gloomy does not equal edgy here.

On a bright note, Franco stole the (small) show with his turn as Alien. He had fun with role, chewing scenery with a Shatner-like aplomb, only creepier. And is he ever creepy, right down to those nasty trailer park dreads and his garish grille. Beyond creepy, he sure as sh*t was committed to the role; you can barely recognize him here. Perhaps a similar motivation drove Franco to take the role after being cast as a lovable goofball ever since Whatever It Takes. Heck, the only sorta edgy role prior to Breakers is his PG-13 portrayal of Harry Osborn in Spider-Man 3If Franco was champing at the bit for a role of extreme makeover Breakers was it (and his play with Mane was delight, albeit dark but the most animation that came from this trifle). While Gomez accidentally stumbled onto edgy territory for just being herself (read: there), Franco threw the kitchen sink out of the window. He left a bad taste in my mouth, and that’s a good thing here.

The best description in the endgame I’d apply to Breakers is an attempt at Korine trying to be Michael Mann from the 80’s for the 21st Century. Grim, gritty and blurry with synths. But a lack of real substance in this trash film does not make it have substance. Granted, Devine eating doggie-doo does not have the cachet of Joe Pesci’s “how am I funny” improv rap, but both scenes are similar because they are both hard-to-take, kinda frightening and cannot be unseen. That, and they’re both relevant to the story writ large. Weak tantalizing does not a good trash film make, especially if making an obvious buck is sort overt with Breakers.

Look, truth be told, I didn’t want to watch Breakers. Yes, it fell under the aegis of The Standard and I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t curious about how Alex Russo/Beezus handled herself in a big girl role, but my cynicism demanded justification. It was justified and now I wanna watch that old ep of Walker: Texas Ranger when Gomez was just a glint in Disney’s cash register.

And remember, like RIORI Chuck Norris never sleeps. He waits. Hopefully for a better movie than Breakers.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. A hoodwink. Not only Gomez is still just Gomez, but the story is a lame MTV weekend.


The Stray Observations…

  • “This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
  • The opening montage perfectly illustrates why other countries hate America.
  • Is that an El Camino?
  • Alien: the “anti-Wooderson.” Alright?
  • Every sort of sexual perversion, and yet—and yet—no dick shots.
  • Alien: actually the “anti-Logic.”
  • Makes my tits look bigger.” That’s it. We’re done here.

The Next Time…

We go on The Road with Viggo Mortensen, looking for America and unable to find it anywhere.

No. Really. Literally anywhere.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #173: David Gordon Green’s “Your Highness” (2011)



The Players…

Danny McBride, James Franco, Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel and Rasmus Hardiker, with Justin Theroux, Damien Lewis, Toby Jones and Charles Dance.


The Basics…

Sibling rivalry. Anyone who’s had one often shares the oys and joys about the black sheep competing for attention and praise with the white knight. So to speak.

Prince Thadeous has always been blanketed in the shadow of his brother, the golden boy Prince Fabious. Fabious is as noble and fair as Thad is a lout. Seeing no real pressure into saving damsels in distress or doing his part for king—his father, mind you—and country, Thad is comfortable, if only to be spiteful, gambling, getting stoned and practicing at being a professional lothario. King Dad always asking no one what he did to deserve this clown and possible heir apparent? Who knows what may happen to the kingdom after he is gone and Fabious fails to return from slaying the dragon? The castle converted into an opium den, forsooth?

Well, thank Heavens that Fabious is around, and has his kindly betrothed Belladonna to keep him grounded…until a nasty wizard kidnaps her and Fab loses his sh*t.

Only now can Thad be of any use to his baby bro, let alone the kingdom, in getting Bella back home safe as well as ensure he doesn’t get banished. No more foot rubs, wine or wizard weed. It’s time for Thad to earn his royal bones. Or else get packing.

Who says chivalry is dead?


The Rant…

What ends with fantasy films and their fandom begins with hearth baked pizzas.

Wait! Please come back!

Thank you, and leave your shoes by the door. This might get a bit sticky. And will get a bit bizarre.

I went on record with the Oz, The Great And Powerful installment that I’m not much for fantasy films, but I’m not made of stone either. Certain flights of cinematic fancy do tickle me. The original Wizard Of Oz, natch. The Thief Of Arabia is a stone cold classic and was way ahead of its time regarding special effects and minimal cheeze, proving fantasy can ne more than just kids’ stuff. There’s Krull (a prime example of a movie that has “cult fave” smeared all over its noble gob). The Neverending Story was dark, twisted and pretty cool for that. The Princess Bride? Nuff said. And if we accept the Star Wars saga as fantasy and not sci-fi (or a religious doctrine to its fans akin to the followers of Scientology, which was esablished by a S/F writer to boot), I enjoy that stuff, too. And I do not care whether Han shot first or not. Quit whining. It’s just a movie, invest in some Clearasil and just have fun.

Those “true” fantasy franchises, however, are lost on me. Never seen a Tolkien flick, but I did read The Hobbit when I was 12 (it was a qualification then for pre-teen boys), which gave me the general flavor of such stories (that I didn’t take to). Those Divergent series diverge. Who’s Harry Potter and why is Danny Radcliffe starkers on broadway for Equus? Sounds muggle-y to me. I like to keep my feet on Earth, so to speak, when it comes to fantasy films. To wit, some of my fave films are fantastical, albeit a bit dark, weird, dystopian and sometimes outright weird. Films like Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix trilogy and innumerable anime movies and OVAs that wrangle with the human condition in rather inhospitable settings. Most of the works of Hayao Miyazaki oeuvre follow this principle of humanity borne from fantastic stories; Totoro is a fine demonstration.

I need to have a foot in reality when watching a fantasy movie. The plot device of Bastian reading The Neverending Story cum narrator is a fine example, especially since I saw it as a kid and knew what it was like (and still do) to get wrapped up in a good book. I need a tether like that. I’m not really capable of suspending my disbelief so far as to embrace an entire virtual world of swords and sorcery. Ask any Game Of Thrones follower; to get it is akin to cramming for the SATs 1 hour before the test and the reefer buzz has yet to wear off. I don’t want homework, I want a good movie without water wings, crib notes and the salivating dork screaming in my ear every nanosecond every detail before I register a detail, Cheeto dust staining my jaw an unnatural orange color.

Look, I’m not decrying the genre. I can’t hate a dish I’ve once only merely picked at. I guess my beef is the whole “grandiose” delivery of modern fantasy films, like their release is on par with unravelling DNA’s double helix (and believe me, some of the fans look and act like there’s an extra chromosome floating around in there somewhere). I cannot handle the Nuremberg fandom. I need to see bubbles popped. Like with The Princess Bride. Or even Blade Runner 2049. Light some fire under my ass and grab my attention.

In the best, worst Princess Bride way, Your Highness had a freshly filled Zippo giving me a colonoscopy.

But wait, you may be asking me, “Hey blogger, what does lighting farts have to do with coal fire pizza?”

I’m glad you asked…and boy, this will be ever the dumbest comparison to what’s up and what’s down I had suffered. So join me.

I live in a community where pizza is a big deal. That’s true for a lotto places, like New York or Chicago or Rome. However where I live is not as big as those metropolises; our collective populace wouldn’t even scratch the census forms. Nevertheless, we got mom-and-pop pizza joints out the wazoo and up the ying yang round these parts. I know this to be solid, as I did the math:

Offering comparisons, The Big Apple has a population of 8.3 million souls (calculated in 2017). Where I hail from the greater metro area inhabits 840,000. One fifth of NYC, give or take. According to Quora, there are approximately 32,000 pizza joints in the five boroughs. That’s a lotta cheese. My stomping grounds has, according to Google, (with me adjusting for ads, random hits and dead ends. I have to much spare time) over 70,000 restaurants that sell pizza, including franchises. Where I live covers a bit over 42 square miles; the Five Boroughs covers a bit of 300 square miles.

Do you see what I getting at here? Yes, my math is fuzzy, but if those numbers are correct (and my Calculator app isn’t using Romal numerals again), all adjusted it seems like a relative one to one ratio. We got a lot of pizza joints with a very large, very vocal crowd who can’t wait to crow about where to get an awesome pie, and how your pet choice is substandard. In sum, toss a rock in the air and it’ll most likely land on the roof of a pizza shop ’round here. That or a Denny’s.

Must be only Naples that crows about pizza more than we in the LV do. Not sure why. I think all the red sauce joints were set up in direct retaliation to the original, local fare. Down with PA Dutch pickling f*cking everything—even scrapple. We want baked, circular things that serve as a platter! Stop eating hog maw! You have Wegman’s! And refrigerators! Have a slice and don’t goddam smother it in brine!

Maybe like that. In essence, PA Dutch cuisine is akin to a short bus food truk menu. That was not a misspelling.

Back to the point, such as it is: we got a lotta fans arguing over the same thing as microcosm for the country’s largest city/cultural tossed salad about—of all things—freakin’ pizza. Such fandom and dedication can lead to some very healthy, hearty and misguided stances on who’s the best and why and the differences that make it worth debate. It’s never neapolitan versus deep dish, never crust versus sauce, never a pie cut into eight slices has fewer calories than one cut into ten (it’s a thing here). It’s about a dozen local joints all in competition for your dollar and your palette, and we’re all willing, vocal guinea pigs champing at the bit for a slice and extolling it against your friend’s slice for the same reason. Around here, it’s like the old joke: “What does pizza have in common with sex?” “Even when it’s bad, it’s good.”

My take on all this pizza doggerel? Where does my loyalty lie? Easy. Coupons and Grubhub.

*cold winds whistle through the canyon*

So what’s all this jazz have to do with fantasy film fandom? Be patient. Like a boomerang with a sex drive: it’ll come to you.

In the past two decades or so my city’s downtown was undergoing gentrification. You know: out with the chains and in with the local businesses. Focusing on local history as commerce and generally giving the whole neighborhood a fresh coat of paint. Along with new stores of course came unique shopping opportunities which eventually leads to tourism. A good example of this is how Times Square kicked out the whores and junkies and replaced them with the brightest neighborhood in the world, even after Vegas. In fact, one snow cannot set up business on or near the Square without paying a pretty penny for plasma JumboTron advertising. Considering that, it’s in part how BubbaGump Shrimp Company came into being. I’m just as offended as you are.

So now with my downtown got a wake up call and brushed the eye boogers from it’s new, authentic gas-powered street lights (which stay on 24/7, like some spiritual collective pilot light to make sure we’ll see more money to burn from eager albeit naive tourists. Is there any other kind?), the local restaurant scene began to grow also. There were a few (read: two) bistros that were tentpoles for dining out before the whitewashing. Now there are dozens, all of different gastronomical stripes vying for your dollar, as well as the vital out-of-town cash. We have the bistros, the wine bars, the regular bars, the ma-and-pa Italian joints, the tapas place, the grand hotel and Subway. Now foodies stick out their necks and tongues to both hail and decry all these new places to gorge their tummies and egos until the Rapture.

And of course and you guessed it…

For those of you who have copped a squat here at RIORI before you know that my day job is a cook. I know a bit about food and restaurants. I’ve seen how the sausage is made, both literally and figuratively. Tony Bourdain notwithstanding, restaurant kitchens are indeed a hotbed of culinary experiments, hopefully yielding yummy plates to sell. There’s a lot of heat, hazards and harsh language as well. To call a restaurant kitchen on a busy Friday night organized chaos is to fancy the Atlantic Ocean as damp. Yet through all that wreck and ruin, we’ll get your food out fast and make is seem effortless. We hope.

I feel I’m losing some you. Fear not, I always have a point to make, no matter how flaccid.

Of course the pizza crowd wasn’t left out of this gourmet uprising. We had three new, upscale Italian places that served pie: the coal oven place, the wood oven place, ultra high tech gee whiz bucky gizmo brick oven place (at the place worked at for a time. Guess who thought our pizzas were the best?) and the old stalwarts which had been around forever and outlasted most marriages. You know the places: nuttin’ fancy but reliable. Only the Pyramids are more eternal.

Soon foodies chewed their way out of the wainscot trumpeting about which was better: coal, wood, brick or Mario’s? In my culinary circle, these debates got as intense as the SALT talks, but much more dire. With all the pizza joints in town—”upscale” and otherwise—those who claimed to “know pizza” inside and out and were not flummoxed over the end scene of Inception knew and told all about man and god and mozzarella. It got so crazy that a custom order pizza place opened adjacent to my favorite coffee shop. And really, does tuna and pine nuts really scream “yummy” to you (I sh*t you not. That was two of too many options you had to punish your dinner guests with)? My neighbor was one of the few who got caught up in the folderol and kept putting his two cents in whenever we invited him over for pizza…which gradually began to happen less and less.

The debate was on. Which method of baking a pizza was best? Coal, wood or whatever? Let me tell you something about baking a pizza: all you need is a good, hot oven, regardless of the fuel. Oh sure, burning wood some argue imbues a unique smoky signature on the pie. Well, yeah, however it is usually overrun by the sauce and the cheese and those other goodies you slap on it. Best to reserve that for the cappicola.

No. How it is baked has nothing to do with fire source. All one must do is properly gauge the temperature, the timing and keep that brick hearth scrubbed. Lather, rinse repeat. No mesquite, anthracite or Kingsford necessary. Just steady heat and steady hands.

*pant, pant*

Here is what I am getting at, the parallels of pizza and fantasy films. Dismissing the toppings, the methods and for God’s sake all the albacore and pignolas, all pizzas are the same, even if we feel different. Yes, there are endless variations on a theme, and we have of faves, but at the end of the day its always crust, sauce, cheese, not necessarily in that order. Debating this and debating that ruins one of the simple culinary delights of the past few centuries. Shut up and eat.

That being said, at their base all fantasy films are the same, inasmuch as they virtually all start with the same device—the same Maguffin, if you will—to get the Sisyphusian rock rolling: SOMEONE/THING NEEDS TO BE RESCUED. The key word is “rescue.” Not found, not avenged, not destroyed. RESCUED. Has a romantic air, doesn’t it? Saved, protected, liberated. Better than conquered, acquired or, well, lost. For want of a nail and all of that.

I can hear the grumbles now. Stale, half-eaten crusts clattering onto your plates. “The hell you talking’ ’bout, blogger? You can’t compare Monty Python’s Holy Grail to Excalibur to The Princess Bride to the Tolkien movies!”

Au contraire. I can and I will fantasy geeks. And I deliberately truncated the Pythons’ film title just to get your anal anuses all taut and mean. You’re welcome.

Rescue, that’s the rub. There is always something to rescue in a fantasy film. Frodo’s gotta rescue Middle Earth from the doom of Sauron. Westley’s gotta rescue Buttercup. Dorothy has to basically save herself. Prince Colwyn has to rescue his bride Lyssa (refer to the Westley/Buttercup paradigm). Bastian has to rescue Fantasia from The Nothing. The list goes on and the formula for a fantasy film never really diverges much from SAR. Then again some films do stand out and others doth fizzle (EG: the lines of my long-winded pizza metaphor above, duh). That and until The Lord Of The Rings epic made it to theaters, the genre was usually derided to the dollar bin at Best Buy before the tickets had been sold. A genre not to be taken seriously has never been taken seriously. Often for good reason.

Okay. Ignoring all the precious few good fantasy films that exist, the rest of the rabble demands rescuing. They are all one-note. The plot device is always the same. Everyone has a British accent—even on planet Krull. The rest is always swords and sorcery. Sometimes even the mundane of these work (EG: Conan The Barbarian), but more often not (EG: Conan The Destroyer) and just call it all in. Fantasy flicks are supposed to be the penultimate genre of escapism (the peak being horror films, letting out the terrified animal inside you. Snarl), but when it’s all couched in amazing CGI trying to run interference with the same ol’ dopey rescue quests, you gotta stick a pin in it.

Of all the convention subcultures—Trekkies, cosplayers, comic book geeks, Furries, the KISS Army, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc—fanatics of the Renaissance Faire and/or LARPing get very touchy about Outsiders who don’t get their fetish, and quick to rile if questioned about its value. With other groups I mentioned (perhaps excluding the Latter Day Saints) the response is usually a shrug, sigh, too bad you don’t get it, your loss. And back to shopping for that all elusive whatsit one can only buy at cons at shameless prices. Like the time I got my replica Star Trek: TNG chirping combadge back in high school. Don’t judge, and I wish you’d get me.

Folks who delve into fantasy do it hardcore. Escapism is a f*cking job for these hapless souls. One must wonder why LARPers pay more on a suit of armor made from polycarbonate fiber that is also used on the stealth bomber than they would on food and rent? So they can render themselves invisible to the Orc Ninjas and SCUD missile launches?

Hold on. That was mean. I of all people should not be bashing strangers with their predictions for D&D, Tolkien and Arthurian legends. I have a basement full of comics, every Sega console ever made daisy-chained to my TV and way, way, way too many albums in my iTunes and vinyl library. I shouldn’t judge either. Still I stand by my claim that fantasy filmgoers have been ripped off time an again by way of the superior pizza argument: it’s all the f*cking same, just different pixelated toppings. You’re all getting duped, you cinephile muggles you. Stand up and be counted. And admit it: you kinda did like Krull, didn’t you? Betcha bought the game version for the Atari 2600.

I have now officially dated myself and forget to bring flowers.

We’ve established I’m not the big fantasy film fan because one: I need to have at least one toe in the relevant, and; two: the thread through virtually all epics are all about the rescue. Hollywood should try and rescue moviegoers with some fresh concepts. To be sure, there have been films who’ve skewered the genre to good to even great success employees the mead-soaked goodness of comedy. Spoonful of sugar and all of that, and Mary Poppins rocks.

Monty Python And The Holy Grail, Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, The Princess Bride and now Your Highness all sent up the stuffy fantasy genre with a little pin pricking. Often most fantasy films come off rather pompous, as if engaging a viewing of such a film is tantamount to deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls. Come on, even Elvis poked fun at his own dancing. And granted Grail got made and broke the mold, but the imitators came a-calling. Let’s face it, the genre is to rich to not poke fun at. Our suspension of disbelief goes into overdrive when we watch such movies, because none of it exists or could ever exist. This can get exhausting, so let’s lower the bar a little for everyone with some chuckles.

So how does all this deconstruction of pizza snobbery relate to fantasy filmmaking? Again, like the old joke: How is sex like pizza? Even when it’s bad, it’s good. And if the wrong crowd starts to get all up in sweaty arms about either, remember to rescue them from their one vitriolic fanboy-ism with hard truth. Namely, it’s only dinner and a movie; shut up and chill. For the love of all that is holy. Tolkien was writing his retirement fund, not a third testament. Papa John’s pizza is only good for dipping that lovely crust into that soufflé cup of delicious, carcinogenic oil and yellow dye number 5.

In the endgame, how relevant is a tale of pizza pairing with a tale fantasy to getting the munchies?

Ask the wizard who sold you his weed. Or mozzarella.


The Story…

Like Mel Brooks told us, “It’s good to be the king!” Old Mel was right, but he never knew about the plight of poor King Tallious (Dance), blessed and cursed with two sons. Blessed because noble Fabious (Franco) is the apparent heir apparent. The stories of his valiance are legend, and he has the kindness and charisma to back it up. He is the King’s favorite son, you know.

Which means…

To Fabious’ yang is his older brother yin Prince Thaddeus (McBride). Thad is the epitome of the green-eyed monster. So what if Fab is an incredible warrior? So what if he’s handsome and brave? So what if he scored his hot fiancée Belladonna (Deschenel) on personalty, fealty and nice hair? In his grumpiness, Thad would was while the day away drinking, hittin’ that wizard weed and chasing tail. Hence the King’s double-edge sword of family affairs.

What boorish Prince Thad needs is a dose of reality. The King is sick of his slovenly son Thad lounging around, taking the wrong advantages a prince can mooch off. He needs a role model, or rather the threat of being disinherited and let lovely Fabious have everything…especially if this new/only quest proves successful.

Which quest? Well, the nasty sorcerer Leezar (Theroux) kidnaps Bella on the day of her nuptials with a wicked, world-conquering scheme on his mind. So, duh, Fabious must rescue her and embarks on (another) quest of dire consequences. But this time, it’s gonna be family affair. Thad is reluctantly in tow so he can see how a real bold prince behaves in times of crisis…but moreover to not to written out of the will. Eye roll and put the mead down for a small spell.

And who knows? If both pull off rescuing the hapless Bella from Leezar, who’s to say that Thad’ll ask if she has a sister? Again, who says chivalry is dead?

Perhaps like Prince Thad’s number here.


The Breakdown…

Right.  But since you’re still here, thanks for listening.

The whole genre of fantasy is decidedly one-note to me. Someone/something has to be RESCUED in order to set right what has been wronged. And be it D&D geex or pizza-faced freaks, you have reach a crisis and not take sh*t so damned seriously. Sometimes this staid genre needs to be rescued from itself. Even in spite of itself. Happily, Your Highness aims to let air of the balloon and into your whoopee cushion. Its goal was to walk alongside comedic romps like The Princess Bride, Monty Python And The Holy Grail and even Robin Hood: Men In Tights to a small degree. Sweep away the pompous dust that has long settled on spent carcasses like Dragonslayer and The Beastmaster.

At least I think that was Highness’ goal.

Let’s get this out of the way: even though I’m not big on fantasy films I’m not a hater. Just isn’t my thing. Sure, like I said a few I enjoy and am well-versed enough in the genre to connect the lines and dot the Ts about what makes the magic work. I’ve said enough about the rescue thing, but there also many other tropes fantasy has to have or it just ain’t the surreal deal. Stuff like swords and sorcery, fantastic beasts of legend, raw noble-on-noble action and British accents. And by the way, why do all actors in fantasy films affect a British accent anyway? Even with non-Albion legends like Troy, et al. Hell, Krull‘s setting wasn’t even on Earth. Must be something about sounding both regal and amused at the same time.

Highness has those two qualities in spades, but in an offbeat package you’d probably expect from director Green. There is a lot to be amused about here, but not out and out ha-ha. Mostly snickering and eye-rolling. We get it; the movie’s whole spin is mocking the fairy tale adventure combo meal with extra mutton. Duh. For all it’s winking however, Highness somehow misses the mark of true parody and convention smashing, and I don’t mean crashing TrekCon dressed like Boba Fett wielding two rather large jugs of some blue Molotov cocktail straight outta Mandalore.

Have I got yer breeches in a twist yet, nerds? Cool!

Yeah, so since our expectations were more or less met when we heard about the movie, Highness is silly. Not exactly funny. More like lewd and ridiculous. It’s gotta be something screwy if we’re gonna parody some tired, old genre. Mel Brooks was a genius at it, as is former Python Terry Gilliam, albeit with a darker vision. And a zany one regarding the ZAZ team (EG: Airplane!, The Naked Gun and Top Secret!). I feel what made all their parodies work and work so well is because the creators took their subject matter seriously.

The what now?

Sure. There is a serious side to comedy, especially in the realm of parody. It helps that you do your movie genre device homework before you get to the skewering. There first must be a respect to the old warhorses, and then slaughter them with extremely extreme prejudice. For example, Brooks knew his way around a Western, and how to correctly lampoon it with Blazing Saddles (even the title sez it all). Party line goes that he even wanted The Duke himself John Wayne to be cast as the Waco Kid. Wayne found the script hilarious but was afraid it would affect his movie rep. “I’ll be the first in line to see it!” he told Brooks, so if that kind of endorsement doesn’t ring true, then old Mel was probably ghostwriting (he wasn’t BTW; that was Richard Pryor). Nearly all of Brooks’ parodies are informed—if not steeped—in traditional genre formats and tropes. You gotta be wise to know when to call out the naked emperor. Highness does a decent college try at it, but like with the last time Green teamed up with Franco and McBride for his stoner/action/comedy mishmash Pineapple Express he just, just missed the mark. Almost there, but no banana. Or pineapple for that matter.

Yes, Highness delivers the goods in bitch-slapping the tired, overblown mystique of fantasy films, but its execution is too overarching. It’s too wink-wink-nudge-nudge get-it-audience see how clever we are at poking fun at fantasy films? That was the same impression I had with Pineapple, also. “Yeah, yeah. I get it already.” Having this type of attitude is why I got tired of South Park after its second season. I get it already. I’m in on the joke. Green and crew were just plain trying to hard. Despite Green approaching getting it “right,” too many of the gags, concepts and dialogue seemed half-baked.

Segue…

So to speak, McBride is the only thing spot-on about Highness that Green invested himself in: Thad’s droll, cynical, naked emperor-like disdain for this whole misadventure. Not to be crawling up thine own arse too much, McBride’s mornings are akin to a Greek chorus, expounding the truth to the audience against all this drama and outright nonsense. EG: You can’t bullsh*t a bullsh*tter, and Thad is having none of this, missing bride or no. Sure, he’s not outright funny here, but his Laurel and Hardy-esque “another fine mess” attitude is the best thing in this movie nudging the audience (but his lech routine does get rather tiring. Echoes of South Park, season three). In Thad’s philosophy, the joke’s truly on all of us. All 12 bucks of it.

Speaking of acting, consider McBride’s foil, Franco. The dashing warrior to the debauched, black sheep of the royal family. It took a while for me to get some shine to Fab. Like the execution, Franco’s almost got the right idea. He’s almost hamming it up. Almost. It would’ve been better if he did. Fab’s got the Strider blues bad, and more freak outs over “why is this quest so trying!” would’ve been welcome. Fabious is self-parody as Prince Wonderful and all. Franco should’ve let it all out and get to Shatner scenery chewing. Overall though, Franco’s Fab was just naive and pouty enough to make we wanna reach into the screen and slap his candy-ass around. It’s not a John Wayne endorsement of effective emoting, but I’ll notch it up to a B-.

Biggest quibble over Highness? Bingo: slow pacing. Not good. I say this based on how the third act panned out. Despite the simplicity of the plot (essentially a Renaissance Faire meets a Gallagher concert), the story took its sweet ol’ time to unfold. There was a lot of dead air trying to deliver those winky winky jokes I keep going on about. True, the other fantasy fable foibles I said that worked didn’t overtly sacrifice genre for yuks-yuks (The Princess Bride is still a Chuck Jones style romp with the edges sanded off), but they sure didn’t drag for two actsI kept tweaking the timer to not keep track of how long the film elapsed. Again, not good.

I can’t bring myself to bash Highness too hard, though. Why? Because what Green and Company got right, they did so with elan. Moments few and far between, but still there. Eventually. For instance, although it took awhile, I did like the progression of Thad finally getting a pair…sorta. Or Portman’s backstory taking its time…sorta. Or Lazarr’s mommy issues…sorta. You get it. There was a head of steam slowly boiling away in Highness until the third act, but I never saw it coming. That’s a glaive (French for “double-edged sword,” as well as the mystical boomerang thingy in Krull. Multitasking). It’s cool to get a surprise ending, and the final act was indeed fun, but where the hell was the snappy fun two acts ago? The plot to Highness is threadbare and hackneyed and decidedly so on purpose. Green could’ve baited us a little with the barest scintilla of twists. Yes, the film is a gag reel, but it still should act like a movie first.

All in all, the recurring theme of Highness was “almost.” It almost, almost made it. Almost. Still, the thing didn’t stink like a hillock of orc dung. Wasted potential maybe, but not outright sh*t. In the endgame Highness was a good, late night time waster. Pair this with Pineapple Express for a midnight double feature. They’re almost companion movies anyway. Almost.

Ah well. Paraphrasing Sean Connery in Finding Forresterthis ain’t exactly a pizza question: Who wants more mead?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild relent it. Stick with the classic Brooks-type parodies first, then burn one and appreciate Your Highness. Kaff!


The Stray Observations…

  • “God, if your mother could see you now.”
  • There’s something about the lighting…
  • “Teamwork!”
  • McBride stares really well.
  • “Magic…motherf*cker.” Hell to the yeah. I mean: uh-oh.
  • Lame Indy tribute there.
  • “To the f*ckening!” Best. Bedroom line. Ever.
  • The chase scene was good. Nothin’ fancy, just meat and no filler.
  • “And if your vagina is anything like my hand, there will be no problem.” Kinda sez it all.
  • It felt like Franco improv’d everything, with not a lot of conviction. Remember the “serious side of comedy” thing? Yeah.
  • “This quest sucks!”

The Next Time…

“I do so like green eggs and ham! Thank you! Thank you Sam-I-Am!”

That Dr Suess line is how the writers’ named the movie I Am Sam. Sorry to ruin that.


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 98: David Gordon Green’s “Pineapple Express” (2008)



The Players…

Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, Gary Cole and Rosie Perez, with Kevin Corrigan, Craig Robinson, and Amber Heard.


The Story…

Dale and Saul are the best of buds…so to speak. Dale relishes his unenviable job of a process server, throwing out subpoenas to unsuspecting catchers. Sure, it can stressful, but then there’s his pal Saul with the panacea: a veritable Eden of reefer.

But Saul doesn’t have the green thumb, no. He’s just Amazon. The distributor, and his reach is vast, is only as long as Saul’s supply line runs. And what funds the supply? Right, cold hard cash.

So what does Dale do when on the job? Right. Witness a murder at an alleged drug lord’s mansion. And then what does Dale do in a reefer-induced haze? Right. Seek out Saul and his product for solace. Right?

Nope. And now any hope of safety goes (wait for it) up in smoke.


The Rant

Let us speak frankly now about weed. And I ain’t talking gardening here. Blooms definitely not in the Burpee catalog.

My experiences with mary jane are few and far between. I’ve been partial to the legal, government sanctioned, actually dangerous drugs available at any SafeWay. Booze, caffeine and nicotine, the American Holy Trinity. Sure, I did have my fun with prescription abuse, but the worst that happened there was constant drowsiness and bitchin’ dreams about being awake. That and the patience to read dozens of books at a leisurely clip to which I have no recollection of reading. That sure as sh*t wasn’t amongst the microscopic warnings on the phial. Oh well.

(BTW: why are the risk warnings SO HUGE the legal drugs and f*cking cramped onto a postage stamp for the prescription drugs? Discuss)

I like beer. If you could see me now it shows. Moving on.

Weed. I is a decaf Cheech & Chong routine. For real, every time in my ancient, Phish-loving past I toked and fell fast asleep. Every. Damn. Time. I never felt the dopey joys and goofiness and chilling and ability to dissect every guitar chord on Santana’s self-titled debut along the curves of the Book of Psalms. Nope. Snore, snore and more. Wake up hours later with chili sauce slathering your nose enough times you figure out what a downer apparition you are under the influence of grass.

did sleep well though, complete with some bodacious dreams involving Heather Graham circa 1997.

Even in high school hanging with my stoner friends (I was the lone holdout) I got a metaphorical contact high. First and prob to no surprise I’m pretty liberal in my views about burning. Pot is a controlled substance nowadays, but back then I figured that it should’ve been treated as such. For booze and smokes? You gotta be of a certain age to partake, like 18 or so. You shouldn’t toke and drive, since it messes with your already flawed everyday judgment. You shouldn’t be high in public, because you are irritating and might shut down the local pizzeria. Control the substance. It’s not harmful, but too much weed may make you annoying.

Here’s a story. It’s from college. For those of you who went to one you’ll hear what I’m screaming. It’s one of those “there’s one in every crowd” story. Face it, you’ve been there.

Every solid dorm floor population at college is inhabited by a lot of stereotypes. The go-getter with his scholarship in finance. Some jock, an expert is some lesser-revered team sport (think lacrosse or cricket). The computer nerd with the pale complexion. The bando (raised hand), the artsy queer, the engineer, the etc.

And the burners. You know the kind. Two seconds behind the matter at hand. Their glow-in-the-dark Dead posters hung upside down. Facial tics like moss growing on the wrong side of the tree. Wake and bake. They’re like anti-KISS Army; unlike those manic fanatics who wake, wash and dress like Gene and Paul do everyday, the burners smirk and giggle since Gene don’t bow to the delights of their chosen high despite they snore “Detroit Rock City” in their sleep, sometime after lunch.

There is an argument I lean towards when those admonish the others for toking. Weed can be psychologically addictive. Y’know, like cigarettes, coffee, heroin and binge watching Game Of Thrones. Of which is the worst I cannot say, but when you firmly believe you need to maintain your habit on an hourly basis, then yeah, you have an addiction. My father watches BBC America every night on PBS. It’s an awful show, and he’s not British. What gives? Then again I a lot myself nightly bouts with Jeopardy! So who’s to say what?

We all have our addictions. It’s only when the habit supersedes getting on in the day that it may get troublesome. Especially that if such practices rub you raw, consider the others in your ever dwindling circle that find you increasingly annoying. So here comes the wake ‘n bake tale of grue. Not so much an after school special but an inevitable facepalm.

A room over from my freshman squat were the ideal Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Can’t remember their names, but it doesn’t matter. As I said, you know the type. Glazed eyes, snickering at nothing funny, reeking of patchouli, snickering at nothing funny. Study hall. Domino’s would call the floor asking when we’d like to place our order. Not kidding, there.

We’d have these dumb floor meetings. The RA would rally us every Friday to talk turkey. Mostly domestic 20th Century skills about keeping house. Cleaning up trash. No loud music after 10. Don’t use Canadian quarters in the Coke machine. Bring us together so that we may agree.

It was always eye rolls. But to Zig and Zag it was a circus. Giggling, impatience, odors of spoiled incense and Europe ’72 oozing from every pore. The funniest thing about a career pothead (besides his sidekick) is that they are convinced no one else figures that they are high. Pretty funny, and very annoying. Ain’t this as funny as ever? No, and nope. The joke’s on…whatever.

Like I said about these two jokers. They were in the room next to mine. Always with live recordings on their jambox, day and night and day. Going to actual classes ended…come to think of it, I don’t remember if the guys ever went to class, or if they ever registered. No matter. All I knew then was they bivouacked next door and really liked Santana. I know this for sure because said group invited my first and only convo with Tweedlewhomever. Like most white folks, they all look alike to me.

I had a substantial CD collection then. I was alternating between American Underground bands like the Replacements and Buffalo Tom against classic rockers like Hendrix and the Who. And Santana. This dope caught wind that I had the remastered disc of Carlos and Co’s debut album replete with live tracks from the original Woodstock concert. Trace element stuff back then. I was a feather in my cap, and I played those live tracks to death. Awesome.

I had the door to my room open one evening, that Santana album on repeat when Dee sauntered by. He poked his shaggy head in the doorway and used it to brace himself. I regarded him curiously.

“Hey man,” he drawled. “That Santana?”

I nodded. “Remaster. Got live tracks from Woodstock.”

“Cool, cool. Can I borrow it?”

I hesitated. Hey, at least give me that credit. “Yeah, sure.”

“Like now, man?”

Right now?”

“Yeah. Big study session. Carlos relaxes me. Is it cool?”

Without realizing what I was doing I turned off the stereo, ejected the disc and case and handed to him. At this point anything to make him leave. He smelled like a fart in a car, and was creeping me out. He was interrupting all the nothing I wasn’t working on.

“Thanks, man.” His tipped a salute with the case, leered and dragged himself down the hall. I closed the door.

Now I may know what you’re all thinking: and he never saw his blessed Santana CD ever again. Nope. It was in exile; even I had forgotten about it for some weeks. But one night I got to studying and felt peckish. I went next door with a keen awareness of what laid in wait: very odd, confused hospitality. I shoulda figured out the scene earlier. Once when the Domino’s delivery guy dropped off that evening’s feast it was my turn to pay. He sent me on my way with the pizzas and fistful of coupons. We were such good customers; he told me to spread the clippings around my floor. Sure, okay. Whatever. Save a few bucks next night.

So after the extra extra cheeses were demolished I passed around the coupons and took it on myself to drop the rest off at my dormmate’s rooms. Those who weren’t in I just slipped them under the door. Had to get rid of them somehow.

I met resistance at the door of my music critic’s room. I was surprised. I knew these guys were usually on something, but I couldn’t place what. I was too dumb then to fully understand what patchouli incense was really for, other than for attracting a bull yak in the time of the rut. I tried to shove the coupon under the door, but something was in the way. I poked around and figured it was some fabric. A towel. I gave up, looking quizzically at the piece of paper like one does when the Coke machine won’t accept that wrinkly dollar bill. I saw that the edge was discolored, wet. I raised and eyebrow, harrumphed and went back to my room. I tossed the coupon on the floor. One would figure two potheads would eagerly trudge at a chance for cheap pizza.

Many moons later and about the peckish order, I wanted my Santana album back. It had been weeks since I loaned it out and I was for wanting. I went around the corner and knocked on their door. No surprise a live Dead bootleg was warbling from within. And again with the yak bait. I knocked again.

A shuffle, then a stuffy, “Who’s that?”

“Me.”

“You?”

“Yeah. Can I have my Santana disc back?”

Silence. I knocked again.

“Who’s that?”

I rolled my eyes. Dave’s not here. “I want my Santana disc back. Please.” I’m nothing but polite.

The music went off and the door unlocked. I pushed against but it got stuck. I looked down. Lo and behold a wet towel, as well as a miasma of incense that could keep Dracula at bay. I saw the room was dim; the blinds were closed. Day-glo Henrdrix poster on the wall…as well as an elaborate hand painted mural of a Dead concert as if conjured up by Lewis Carroll. Pizza boxes piled by the closet. I guessed they found that coupon.

My fellow fanboy cursed the glare from the unforgiving halogens in the hallway. It was my turn to lean in the door. He looked at me perplexed.

“What’s up, man?”

“My Santana CD. May I have it back now?”

“That was yours?”

“…Yeah.”

“Hold on.” He kicked away the fallout and found the disc, handed it to me. “Sorry, man. I forgot about it.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I didn’t even get a chance to hear it. But thanks, dude.”

“You’re welcome.” I let him slink back into his lair. Jerry and the guys kicked back into life. I went back to my stereo and kicked Carlos back into life. To this day the liner notes of that remastered disc still smell like spoiled oregano. Good times, good times.

Not long after that meet-and-greet, the Tweedles left campus. And no surprise, not of their own choosing. Not actively, at least. They were expelled, but not so much for getting caught schmokin’ than for never going to class. And vandalism. I will admit I embellished describing the Santana CD story, but the pothead’s room? Amazing. Decked out like an opium den minus the opium. In brighter light the mural was amazing, the stink was glorious and maintenance would’ve had to tear up the floor tiles for sanitation’s sake. All in all awesome, but what a waste.

On the whole, most burners are a kind, mellow lot. Casual and conversational, with a lot of cool stories and great jokes. Chill. It’s only when pot becomes their life and wife that stoners can become obnoxious, where everything is funny, including wreck, ruin and expulsion. Not even making casual use of weed legal could undo that. It’s like if a user, pot or otherwise, is making life troublesome for at least one other person then it becomes an issue. If one’s—pardon the pun—dopey antics, no matter how benign start to rankle someone (even if they’re high as sh*t) it might be time to say when.

Take Dale and Saul, for instance…


“You’ve been served!”

Sounds kinda like a superhero battle cry. But nope, it’s just pothead process server Dale Denton (Rogen) doing his ugly job. Hence the weed. You think you could remain sane being called a*shole on an hourly basis and not partake to remain calm? Right. Pass the Dutchie on the left hand side.

Saul (Franco) is Dale’s left hand. He’s the hookup, with a veritable forest of rare weed to cure every ill. Sure, Saul is just as—if not more—dopey than his numero uno customer Dale, but he’s a kindly, generous soul. No harm to anyone. He wants to invest his cut of sales to get his Grammy Faye into a better retirement community. Aw. See, kind?

Dale’s job ain’t as kind. He’s Saul’s remora. It’s symbiotic. Dale needs the weed to tolerate the job. Saul provides the balm to salve his wounds. Easy.

However, on night on the prowl, doped out of his mind on the latest breed o’ weed Pineapple Express—very new and very trace—Dale starts to get the paperwork ready to deliver to one Ted Jones (Cole) when shots ring out. Jones plugs a guy in the head and Dale sees it all, freaks and speeds off, dropping the tell-tale joint on the driveway. Not cool.

Not ever cooler is when Jones investigates the screeching and finds a spent roach on the ground. Sniff, sniff.

“Pineapple Express.”

See, Jones is a big deal drug dealer in weed, and Saul is his pusher as Dale is the mark. And eyewitness to a murder. Ted’s killing.

Uh, Dale better call Saul…and both get the f*ck out of town.

Who said pot was harmless…?


I may have mentioned this before (and probably have indeed), but doesn’t Rogen play the same guy in all his movies? I know it’s nice to find steady work, but as an actor with a solid schtick rather than a range you’re gonna close a lotta doors. Then again, no one has ever lost money in Hollywood underestimating audiences’ intelligence. Well, maybe once or twice.

Rogen has a good thing going over the past decade. His motormouth humor isn’t for everyone, and even gets a bit degrading for me sometimes, but does sell tickets. At the end of the day I find Rogen funny and sometimes approaching witty in a blend of “aw shucks/are you insane” repartee. His stuff’s usually good with the right co-star. You gotta have one for a buddy movie, right? In Superbad it was Bill Hader, and it was Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 50/50. Such pairings that didn’t work was Adam Sandler in Funny People and especially not Katherine Heigl in Knocked UpDefinitley not her, even if she weren’t a she. Vote’s still out on that, too.

Face it, buddy comedies are almost exclusively the man cave of the sprawling studio lots. So gotta get a good foil to your straight man. A Costello to his Abbott, a Spock to his Kirk, a Stimpy to his Ren (okay, not the best example there). If Rogen’s Dale is an immature, churlish goof with a weed habit. The Murtaugh is his Riggs is slacker, skittish (but still mellow) with a weed habit and business Franco’s Saul. I was pretty surprised how well the two got on together, especially since I never figured his usual yuk-yuks border on ribald. His and Rogen’s oddball, passive-aggressive, bird-pecking-croc-teeth is the centerpiece of this movie.

It also might’ve been the only thing of merit, also.

While watching Express (for the second time, mind you. Caught in theatrical release and wasn’t bowled over. Guess I should’ve smoked up first, but that sh*t’s harder to sneak in than a cold six. This precept has been tried an tested. Yer welcome) there came a nagging at me. And no, it wasn’t the kid yanking on my earlobe for her iPad so she can watch The Loud House (j/k, she’s a SpongeBob fan. watch The Loud House. Grew up with sisters. ‘Nuff said).

(note to self: cut back on parenthetical references)

Express felt a little lopsided, like more was going on elsewhere in film land than what I was immediately seeing. As metaphor, my car has a “dead bulb” warning glowing on my dash, but for the life of me I cannot locate it. Headlights are fine, blinkers re fine. I even asked the kid to check out the rear lights as I applied the brake. Nothing. But something is up. I guess Express cam across a little stilted because that director Green is better known for dramas than screwy stoner action-comedies. A shot in the dark, but hey. Throughout the whole movie there was this Sisyphus-like weight threatening to derail the whole story. I couldn’t figure if this was some proto-meta, Kaufman-esque gag about how too much weed can ruin your perception of the reality of your surroundings. Or maybe it was just shoddy camera work, I dunno. Still, cool to ponder, eh?

Wake up. I got Oreos.

So right, we got a really Laurel and Hardy action going on here. Despite the minor, but still smelling overarching pretentious of our director I must give credit to this dopefest—literally and figuratively—is that is does have a cool mystery vibe going on. It’s paper thin (Dale witnesses a murder, Ted is a bad dude, Carol’s a crooked cop. Saul is just Saul, etc) but enough to let Express survive. It’s a burner Sherlock mystery. Again maybe a metaphor for the Down syndrome goldfish memory of most stoners, but there’s enough silliness to keep things afloat. Barely.

My biggest carp with Express is there’s quite a bit of filler. Scenes that have no point, crammed into the lacy plot. I didn’t really see the point of Dale’s dating Angie in the movie; he’s already very immature and petulant. It’s also safe to assume that a lot of the banter between Rogen and Franco was improv, but too much of it jumps the shark. When that crap goes down, the decent chemistry between Rogen and Franco become stale Martin and Lewis (in a word, annoying, and gimme back my Santana CD). If any wit seems stilted sometimes blame bad directing or an editor asleep at the reel.

Come on. That is the greatest pun you will ever hear in this installment.

Anyway, this action/mystery/comedy flows at a leisurely pace. Perhaps another analogy. This film made me think too hard, because I wasn’t high at the time. Clever device? If there’s some precious direction at work in Express I must’ve been too lucid to find it funny. The movie was funny, but there was too much passive winking that I snuck up on and examined to much.

Let me put it this way: as of this post, the hot ticket at the multiplex is Avengers: Endgame. I haven’t watched a Marvel movie in the theatre since the first Iron Man film back in 2008 BC. Being a comic book collector, I had seen other adaptions before the MCU got revved up, to see what was “right” and what was “wrong.” It’s the only form of snobbery I have: if a movie is based on pre-existing material (Shakespeare’s plays, Stephen King’s novels and/or Stan Lee’s superhero stories) I will scour it rather than just sit back and enjoy it. I can’t help it. Entertainment takes a back seat for studying up for the Bar exam. I overanalyze things (it’s kinda what RIORI and The Standard is all about). I found myself picking apart Express with the lucidity required to strip the Thanksgiving turkey carcass of its oysters because most folks don’t know that turkeys have oysters.

Remember, oreos.

So exactly why does the wit seem stilted? Why was my mantra watching Express was, “Something is missing here?” Must’ve been my imagined device at work. Watched the flick too deeply that Corrigan and Robinson were secretly the real stars of the movie (or at least the yin to Dale and Saul’s yang). Then again I may spotted Green’s established, aforementioned artistic pretentions at full flow here, behind the scenes. Everything is kind until it’s not (the final scene was the best part, clear as a bell). The gauzy direction must’ve put off a lot of folks by The Standard’s stake. But chances are they weren’t high, like me, and missed the chucklefest for that very loss. I dunno.

Welp, that being said I’m gonna go watch One Crazy Summer for the umpteenth time and then try to solve Fermat’s last theorem. Again.

Dude, marvelous.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. A kind rent it. See it with a bud. Hey, where’s them oreos at?


Stray Observations…

  • “Dopest dope I ever smoked.” Dude, movie in a nutshell.
  • Where’d Saul get the pickles?
  • Why is every vehicle here a period car?
  • So. Many. Payphones.
  • “I used to use this little gun when I was a prostitute.” Shrug.
  • “Watch your head.”
  • Is all the bush supposed to look phallic?
  • “Yeeeah. If you could roll out those 18 bales of kush by 9:30 that would be greaaat (sorry, couldn’t resist).”
  • I never did test the high beams.
  • “Teamwork!” “Yes!”

Next Installment…

Adam Sandler has cooked up a few Bedtime Stories to share with his kid. What’s endearing about that is the tales were intended to be just stories.

Gumballs, anyone?


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 52: Ryan Murphy’s “Eat Pray Love” (2010)


Eat Pray Love


The Players…

Julia Roberts, with James Franco, Javier Bardem, Viola Davis, Billy Crudup, Richard Jenkins, Sophie Thompson, Luca Argentero and Gita Reddy (just because).


The Story…

Based on the memoir of the same name, Liz dumps her immature husband in search of truth and fun. Go globetrotting to the corners of the Earth to “find herself,” whatever that means anymore.

However we all know that to know ourselves, the truth lies within and yadda yadda yadda. Who wants gelato?


The Rant…

We’ve all made bad choices.

Sticking with a career we hate. Dropping out of school. Mixed up in a sh*tty relationship that goes on too long. That tribal tat on your face. Writing a blog about mediocre movies. What have you. Life’s filled with bad choices, as if to offset the positive ones. Funny thing that, good choices are their own reward, but seldom immediate. Chances are you didn’t realize you made one until well into the positive circumstances said choice provided. Like until you get a promotion, or see your kid graduate from college, or finally score that top 10 hit. Stuff like that takes some time to achieve, but all the sweeter with the waiting.

Bad choices? Ah. A bit more slippery.

I’d like to think most folks who find themselves in an existential pickle kinda knew what they were signing up for, and the throughput arrives rather quickly. Sometimes not even unexpectedly. For example you might’ve gotten hints at the outset your new girlfriend might have some daddy issues based on all the portraits of him scattered around her apartment. All of them of him glaring at the lens. Maybe you keep finding cashing missing from your wallet, a reflection of how often your kid goes missing, usually to the neighbors’ garage. You know, the one with three angry pitbulls tied to a semi-truck hub in the fenced off, neglected, dirt patch of a backyard. Or perhaps when your boss calls you into the office one day after sick leave and politely, but forcefully, requests you tell him what meds you’re on (true story!).

An unhealthy dose of denial precludes the slipperiness. Those nagging doubts you squeeze into the basement of your cerebrum. The mounting evidence of dishevelment that you keep excusing. That rattlesnake in your bed you woke up to. Twice. Nah, none of this can be happening. Roadbumps along the road of life these are. Hey, where’s my wallet?

If you’re a thinking person, you may eventually realize you’re embedded in a sh*tstorm of your own making through poor decisions. That it’ll be a hard way out, if you ever want out. Truth ultimately wins out though, and it’s yours to behold. Now there’s this man in the mirror calling, and you’d wish to put him on hold. Indefinitely.

This is part of the lesson where you feel you need to perform some dreaded “soul searching.” You wake up one morning and make a new choice: take stock of your life. Might be a bad choice again, the desire to ask yourself, “What went wrong?” Or, “What did I do to deserve this?” Or most likely, “What do I do now? Where do I go from here?”

That’s easy: escape. Leave it all behind and start over somewhere else. Sure. That’s the ticket. Pull up stakes and start a new life, with or without the witness relocation program. Lots of people dissatisfied with their station in life consider travel. Get away from it all, literally. But there are roadblocks. Finances, for one. You’re tied to that sh*tty job, therefore the finance thing keeps churning. Dump the spouse and/or kids? Not happening…yet. You have all these anchors, all of them feeding into if not cementing your crummy, soul-crushing, confusing life. The life you so desperately want to escape. Quite the conundrum.

So, travel. Imagine if, if you had the wherewithal to set foot out of the nest. Get miles, maybe countries away from your troubles. Experience cultures alien to your own. Meet people totally unlike anyone in your craptastic circle of friends. Hell, get a decent meal instead of those endless Lean Cuisines choking up your freezer. But pause, this might just be a case of the grass being greener. Face it, it’s hard to separate yourself from your lousy life decisions when anything, anywhere else would be better than here.

Your life—the life you wished you had before the fallout of your own design—might be out there waiting for you to catch up. It’s a scary prospect however to make that leap into the unknown. As much as you might hate the stupid decisions that have held you down, it’s familiar. You (think you) have control of your situation, and for all its flaws it’s comfortable.

You gotta get out of that comfort zone. Ain’t done you much good, has it? So yeah, leave. Leave it all behind. Find yourself. All over again. Make this choice a good one. But be careful, in your goal of learning who you once were and what could be, you might not like what you find.

Or maybe not…


Liz Gilbert (Roberts) is an esteemed, successful travel writer. She’s in a nice marriage with Stephen (Crudup), her slightly petulant husband. Her apartment is perfect, complete with the kitchen of her dreams. Money in the bank. Reputation impeccable within the writing community. Wanting for nothing.

Then how come Liz is miserable?

She knows she has the ideal, cosmopolitan life. Why should she be miserable? Well, she’s a travel writer and for far too long Liz got mixed up in setting down roots in a world that doesn’t fit. So she decides to make some very rational, practical decisions to turn things around.

Divorce Stephen. Shack up with hot, young aspiring actor David (Franco) to shake away the divorce blues. Listen to her best buddy Delia’s (Davis) advice and get off her ass, go visit the world again. This time minus any writing assignments. Check out Italy, India and Bali. Soak up some culture. Find a guru. Find a nice guy whose not obsessed with tomorrow.

Get a good meal for f*ck’s sake…


Christ, this one was dreadful.

Again, showing my hand, but man.

Hey, I like TV travelogues. Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and A Cook’s TourNational Geographic ExplorerThe Jeff Corwin Experience. Anything about places and people and things that if I had the time and money I’d go there in a hot minute. But I’m broke, haven’t accrued enough frequent flyer miles and can only speak three languages: American, Canadian and British. That and I hate jet lag.

I figured that based on my passive-aggresive wanderlust and wishing I was wrestling with giant frogs in the Yucatan and later chowing down on Montreal poutine slathered with salsa and mushrooms Eat Pray Love would be right up my alley as well as conveniently following The Standard. Heck, the movie was based on the best-selling, real life memoir by the actual Liz Gilbert. She lived what she wrote about, after all. And this movie adaptation starred America’s reliable sweetheart Julia Roberts! What could go wrong?

Right. Plenty.

I’m going to try, try not to slam Eat Pray Love into the dirt too hard. I understand it is my custom to get into a frothing frenzy here at RIORI when I watch a really crappy film. The kind you feel cheated for having seen, and I can’t remember the last time I took apart some mediocre movie here that didn’t enrage me in the last month or so (I have a lot of imaginary ticket stubs to throw in the faces of a lot of imaginary ushers). No. I’m going to try to be methodical in my analysis of Eat‘s pitfalls with a minimum of bile.

Why? Because this movie was a sad waste of potential. It had the air of doing the right thing, but its execution and overall tenor was so treacly, sour and worst of all boring (I know, how can a travelogue be boring?). It could have been a lot better. Obviously so.

Eat‘s biggest crime was that it was derivative. Very derivative. The wifey sat down with me to watch the thing for the first half hour. She gave up in disgust and stomped out of the room. She’s the one who labeled the movie derivative. After 30 minutes, and she almost never watches the movies I destroy with me for any appreciable amount of time (half hour or no). She found the first half hour of Eat lame, stupid and—you guessed it—derivative. She was quite correct, and I reached the same correct conclusion 90-plus minutes later. Well, truth be told, it took me over three hours to watch the thing in full. My attention kept wandering, and the viewing was interspersed with way too many cigarette, snack and bathroom breaks. Whether I needed them or not. I rationalized I needed them to get through the drudgery.

Sorry. Getting bitter. But disappointing movies do that to me. Now let’s get technical.

When I—she—said Eat was derivative here’s what the vibe was. Well after that crucial half hour mark, yet well-established within those 30 minutes there was a stink of Hollywood tampering. I’m not talking about director Murphy taking a lot of liberties with the source material. I never read the book myself, but I knew it was a hot ticket at Barnes & Noble since the last Ice Age, apparently something sweating to be made into a movie or TV series or video game or something. Hollywood apparently was champing at the bit. Taking any liberties here was most likely a tricky prospect at best (where was Liz gonna go first? Venus?). Still, I smelled that a travel movie would be more about the destination, and not the traveller. I mean, Bourdain made his shows about the places and people with him just as a witness. All he added was snarky commentary and cursory explanations about cultural and historical hot points. It wasn’t him yammering on and on and on about himself; the places he visited did the talking.

Murphy sure didn’t take hints from Bourdain. More like he took orders from the studio for Eat. Marching orders.

Eat may have been about Liz’ adventures, but sure as sh*t is wasn’t about Liz. At least not directly. Here’s where the derivations commenced. Dissatisfied woman looking down the barrel of a mid-life crisis. Looking in the mirror and asking where her dreams went. Burns old life to the ground. Shacks up with various men of vitality (through her rosey lenses). Reasserts who she is via escape. Start over elsewhere in unfamiliar climes of her dreams in search of happily ever. As Bourdain quoted, “Go bamboo.”

Sigh.

The whole “fish out of water” bit has been done to death ten times over, and it ain’t any better for the eleventh time. Liz as the innocent abroad is a character so tired it went to bed and tossed the alarm clock in the toilet years ago. Recalling the whole “let the pictures do the talking” aesthetic when doing a travelogue, it’s never the destination but the journey. Everything, everything in Eat is punctuated by Liz’ wonder, angst, fears and waaay too much about her and her anxieties. The real Liz’ story is probably just as personal, but well lacking on her focus on…her. The places she went are the stars of the show I’ll bet. Her reflecting on the when and where is where we learn who Liz is and maybe was. Felt like Murphy deemed this as too heady and made Roberts the absolute center of her travels.

If this was the case (and it sure tasted that way) then our avatar Roberts was not invested in her role. What’s made Roberts a go-to actress for the past quarter century is her skill at conveying both humor well-paired with vulnerability. This holds true as far back as Pretty Woman well into Notting Hill and even her other biopic Erin Brockovich, of which she won an award. There’s a passive self-consciousness in her selected roles. Passive. Her Liz is so painfully self-aware there is no charm. At the outset our heroine both equally, stereotypically fragile and resolved. Cut and dried. There is no humor, at least nothing that sticks. There is no subtlety. Roberts’ Liz is just going through the motions, motions completely out of synch with a travel movie about self-discovery. It’s understood that people travel to get out of their comfort zone and maybe learn something about themselves in the process. Liz’ globetrotting in Eat is rote; it is precisely what audiences are supposed to expect. It is what Murphy’s vision is. It is connect the dots. It is not about the journey, it is about Liz. And only Liz. Roberts is completely reactive in Eat and her signature fragile charm is all but absent. She’s a cipher for a thousand dissatisfied housewives, passport at the ready or no. Her acting is shameful here. Roberts has a lot of strong, emotional attributes. Being willowy is not one of them.

Since Roberts’ failings as she was directed really bogged down the film there must be a counterbalance. Despite Murphy’s style reeking of hackwork, a great deal of Eat‘s technical execution was quite good. There was a lot of what I call rolling camera work. You know, trying to maximize space with great cinematography, thereby essential to tell the story beyond the story. Remember Eat is a story of exploration, be it within and without. Since Liz is bounding around the globe trying to find her own private Shangri-La we better f*cking get eyeballs full of expansive swaths of local color. The rolling camera work succeeds. Everything feels intimate yet wide. There’s plenty of time allowed to absorb where Liz is and what she sees. It’s the only aspect of a travel story where the place outshines the traveler, and it makes for a pretty picture. But just that. Granted Roberts’ performance unfortunately enhances this effect, but without her indifferent screen presence this effect wouldn’t have worked as well. Odd really. I took what I could get here.

Still Eat was derivative, it’s biggest sin. Murphy either dropped the plot (literally) or was charmed by the producers holding the pennies (one of whom was Brad Pitt, BTW. Does he really need more cred by now?) to make a “safer” picture. At any rate, Eat‘s end-run was dull and predictable, overly so. We’re even talking right down to Liz REDACTED, thereby turning her life around. Such a trope is f*cking stale, and derivative of a million “get away from it all” stories. A movie about world travel? How could that be boring? Well, it could’ve been a lot more interesting if Eat didn’t play out so safe. By safe I mean tepid, sappy and a healthy dose of pandering to Middle American audiences. Did I mention the pacing was like syrup? Again, stoning offense for a travelogue; it’s all about forward motion in the final analysis.

Eat was intermittently interesting, if not entertaining. When Liz wasn’t moping about, Murphy’s limited skills did indeed shine. He had a keen eye for capturing the vibrance of places afar for us poor, myopic American schlubs stuck in the McDonald’s drive-thru queue. But the other side of the coin demanded so many eye-rolls. At his hand, Eat‘s potential to be truly eye popping was hampered by his moving Roberts from position to position and insist the throughput was held exclusively in her eyes. Very little reflection, precious little. At least anything convincing, therefore meaningful.

In conclusion Eat was a drag, and claiming also a big let-down (if regarding this installment, quite the truism). It was boring. It lost the plot, well before one got established. I hope the real Liz Gilbert was well compensated for the probable bastardization of her beloved, best-selling book. So much potential was wasted here. So much. I know I said earlier I’d keep the ire to a minimum, and I’d like to believe me being clinical here achieved that. Still Eat was the kind of movie I’d be screaming in tongues about with paroxysms of frustration and where the f*ck the last 2 hours went. Longer including a pack of smokes, many beers, a ham sandwich and a small load of laundry. My attention was not held.

That being said, I think I’ll get back to polishing some mirrors, ask myself why I got that tribal tat back in the 90s and locate some really decent pasta. Barring watching a decent movie, what else is there?

Getting my wallet away from those pitbulls. That’s what.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. F*cking frustrating. Anathema to any proper tale of travel, not to mention the “Cinderella story” interwoven into the traveling fabric. Any smart person will hate this movie. There. There’s the bile.


Stray Observations…

  • “You wanted that toaster!”
  • Ever wonder if Roberts gets smile cramps?
  • “Do you need a Xanax?” “Always.”
  • First time I ever watched a movie without watching it. Sandwiches can’t make themselves.
  • “She thinks I changed my name to ‘Motherf*cker’.” Had to laugh at that.
  • Jenkins’ soliloquy is the best acting in the entire film.
  • “Do you always talk in bumper sticker?”
  • However cheesy, Liz’ adventures in Rome sure looked appealing.
  • “My place.”
  • Who thinks the real Liz Gilbert should be given her own show on the Travel Channel? Hands?
  • “See you later, alligator.”

Next Installment…

Like all good illusionists declare, “Now You See Me, now you don’t.” Let’s hope it’s not how I may feel about this movie.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 29: Henrik Genz’ “Good People” (2014)


42822_GOOD PEOPLE_VOD


The Players…

James Franco, Kate Hudson, Sam Spruell, Omar Sy and Tom Wilkinson.


The Story…

In spite of being down and out in London, Tom and Anna keep trying to make ends meet all the while holding on to a dream of financial freedom. It’s the same old tale. One needs money to spend money to earn money.

By accident they discover their boarder came into some money. A lot of money. A big sack of a lot of hidden money. Too bad for him he’s dead.

Or is it? As Tom and Anna look into each other’s eyes, with all their financial woes nipping at their heels, almost psychically they ask each other: Too bad he’s dead?

The gangsters who got played don’t want  like to take time out. And dead or alive, that missing cash is gonna find it’s proper way home. Most likely behind the muzzle of a shooter aimed straight at Tom and Anna’s heads.


The Rant…

You’ve done this. I’ve done this. It pisses us off so that any adjectives would be useless in this occasion.

*checks scrotum. sighs in relief*

But not that. You’re welcome. So here it comes:

“The book was so much better than the movie!”

Gah. I hate that. Don’t you? And you’ve probably exclaimed such sh*t yourself. God knows I have. We ain’t perfect.

Before I go any further down the rabbit hole, let me riddle you this: you ever found yourself get into an interest, hobby and/or fetish by accident? You know, like Pokemon cards, the films of Lars von Trier or even an unnatural obsession with Ben & Jerry’s Willie Nelson’s Country Peach Cobbler ice cream (sure as rain I did)? Just happened to stumble onto them, and got hooked.

Well this little pre-intro is for you. Sit back a spell and let me tell you a tale. Not to worry, it’s not gonna be like my sloppy, gonzo Reign Of Fire installment I did last month. Truth be told, I’m still embarrassed about that one. But anyway and onwards, here’s my entry drug story.

I don’t watch much TV. Very little in fact. The term “binge watching” is both confusing and anathema to me. When I was a kid, too much television would render your brain into Reddi-Wip. Nowadays TV binging is an app. I don’t get it. I stay away from the screen not because the medium is redolent with crap—and 90% of it is—and I’m not ignoring the remaining 10% that is definitely not crap (e.g.: The Walking Dead, Hell On Wheels, Longmire, Homeland and others of that ilk), even though most of them on premium cable. I just…don’t watch TV. My screen’s nothing more than a platform to watch movies or play Nintendo nowadays. But there was I time I often curled up with the remote.

I had to settle with basic cable years ago. Couldn’t afford an HBO/Starz/Showtime/Spice Channel package, so I hunkered down with the History, Discovery and Travel Channels. It was kinda in that order actually. Got my history fix about the world (till Axe Men took over), got my weird science view of the world (till MythBusters became the “what can we blow up this week?” show) and got to virtually travel the world (till Bourdain threw up his arms and followed his wallet. CNN must pay better).

For all my muted ire, the Travel Channel served my vicarious needs best. Sh*t, I couldn’t gallivant off to Morrocco, Paris and/or China at the drop of a hat. But I could go there on TV, even via a distilled version. Better than scouring ancient editions of Nat Geo and wondering why why why? Simply put, an hour of No Reservations, Bizarre Foods, Off Limits, Made In America or Hidden City gave me a nice, simple time wasting away from my boring, sorry existence in my little ville. TV is escapism, right? Better choose your escape right, especially if you only has basic cable. I played the cards I got dealt. No serious complaints here, for real.

I sense a disturbance in The Force. No wait. That’s just gas. But I do sense a question:

Hidden City?”

It was a short-lived series. Barely two seasons. Its premise began with having our host trot around to  major American metros as well as milder fields of grain. Our avatar collected the poop on three significant crime stories that were illustrative of the selected city’s historical periods, or a backwater scandal that precious few had ever heard of. A gold star from me with my diligent, suburban, white guy denial to the producers who thunk up that sh*t. And I caught Hidden City in my 30s. No one really graduates high school.

So how’d I get hip to this unfairly truncated series? One, by accident. A combination of late night/after work channel surfing. Second, the surfing landed on the Travel Channel having a program almost over covering the whacked-out murder case of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Or course I have the LP, and read the Savage book twice over, so my interest was piqued. Our host was sweating the former lead singer of a cultish punk NY band I enjoyed for years, “Handsome Dick” Manitoba of the late, lamented Dictators. At the time of the airing, Manitoba had since hung up his microphone and upgraded himself into a nightclub owner. His place catered to the old guard and curious alike about how the Lower East Side sounded back in the day. The guy vocally assaulted the host in a timber I knew well and had no qualms about giving his angle of the the Sid and Nancy deaths.

Oh yeah. The host? Sorry to leave him out. Name was Marcus Sakey. Co-producer of the show as well as an esteemed shortlist writer of crime fiction. Stuff like Good People. Good book.

He was the guy who let me know it was okay to sport my triple lobe piercings again (thereby warding off middle age a bit longer than necessary). That is was okay to lay the Pynchon down and indulge in some ribald tales of shiftless motherf*ckers coming down hard of unsuspecting—but still sympathetic—innocents. To slum really, and turn off the English major for a week or so and just chew on a satisfying book.

So I’ve read all of Sakey’s books, even me not being a real crime fiction fan, and I’ve dug ’em all. Listen, and not to be pointed, but when you’ve read too many cookbooks, Stephen King and Raymond Carver fiction as if have (not a brag. I think those claims barely register as even approaching a boast, really) as well as my very fair share of Marvel titles, an enema like Sakey’s work can really do a stressed-out brain good. To drive it home, when I read Sakey’s stuff in bed, the wife would caw after well too late, “Honey, turn off the light.”

That’s a good read. Needless to say I recommend Sakey to anyone who wants “a good read.” Hell, even I turned my taciturn, urban historical, McCollugh-lovin’ dad into reading Sakey’s debut The Blade Itself. Soon after the man finished the novel (in a record three days), he asked me plainly, “He write anything else?” I loaned him my copy of At The City’s Edge. And Good People. And the other books, all of which the man got rather bulimic over. Mission accomplished.

But in all honesty, Sakey’s most recent efforts—his mild take on S/F—Brilliance and A Better World read like a standard X-Men crossover series, but both were still fun. Isn’t that really what entertainment is all about? Regardless of media, so long as you find your parking space—or the right time to abuse TV—so long as you don’t drop your keys en route to the car. So long as you find said keys en route to your car. Or so long as you have a car to drive home, did you have yourself a time before?

You should “forget” the movie as soon as you leave the cineplex. You should “lay the book down” as soon as you’ve finished it. You should ignore the people who made the matter mind. You should…

Wait. ‘Sup? Good People? Sure, I read it. It got made into a movie, right? Kewl. Sakey doing the narration or somthin?

Sakey. The writer.

What do ya mean “who”?

Ask Handsome Dick Manitoba, you f*cks!

“Talk, talk, talk, keeps getting in the way…”


We all know living expenses in America can get so heavy it may crush you. Well, for Tom and Anna Wright (Franco and Hudson) the notion of relocating to London from their beloved Chicago has proven to be more of a syphon than a fiscal haven.

Tom’s a journeyman landscape artist. Anna’s a part-time schoolmam. Between them both might be thruppence to rub together. No luck there, especially when the eviction notice gets served. Here is where everything should and shall go down the tubes. Tom’s latest restoration job’s run out of funding. Anna’s meager hours can’t pay the bills. The only steady income comes from their basement boarder, Ben, who’s been quiet for weeks.

Literally weeks. What’s been going on down there? And why is that damned TV so loud?

Tom and Anna unravel that riddle. Ben’s dead, drug overdose. But he was kind enough to leave behind a sack of £44,000 as a parting gift. Good thing, too, since they’re about to lose everything. This money is just the ticket to eradicate all their debts. Continue Tom’s current restoration project. Get the fertility aid Anna’s been wanting. Hell, pay back some kindness to Anna’s sister in the form of a new washer. Wipe everything clear.

Save the thugs from a crime ring who really want that swag back. As well as the dope Ben stole on his final murderous job. Tom and Anna got gold in their eyes, and the head of a drug empire, the mysterious  “Khan” (Sy) has retribution in his. He wants it all back, and doesn’t care if the innocent Wrights are nothing more than casualties.

It’s been said that money is the root of all evil. That’s an error. It goes that the love of money is the root. Too bad for Tom and Anna they have to understand this little axiom a shade too late…


So, yeah. “The book was so much better than the movie!”

There have been exceptions. We’ve had numerous Shakespearean plays adapted for the screen with maybe more flair than what The Globe offered (check out the 80s BBC version of Taming Of The Shrew starring John Cleese as Petruchio. Hilarious). Die Hard was terrifically better than the source novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Rod Thorpe. And the stage drama Everybody Comes To Rick’s melded quite well with the scenarists assigned to Casablana‘s production. Hell, if we can weld a 15 line poem into an epic like Gunga Din then there’s hope for all.

More often in Movieland things go wrong along such curves. Not unlike for our wayward Tom and Anna in Good People, hundreds of folks in Hollywood negotiating million dollar deals lose sight of the endgame. I’m talking about actual profit by way of replay value and enduring art, but the final product’s throughput lacks something. We’ll warp the source material just enough to accommodate a story easier to digest and not endangers potential ticket sales. We’ll let the director follow his vision, no matter how hairbrained it is. We’ll cram the actors into discomfort to ensure they’re characters are palatable, safe. And if the film proper was spawned from a pre-existing text, it tends to be de rigeur to f*ck with said source just enough to fit under the cookie cutter.

Despite my snobbery of adherence to the source text, I do occasionally appreciate, even like, some spin given in tweaking the story ever so slightly to make it fit on screen. However the hard part about watching a movie based on a book you’ve already read said book is that you can’t help but see/be on the lookout for discrepancies in the plot. Hell, that kind of thing ruined The Ten Commandments for me.

Seriously, perceptions get scrambled for us poor reader/viewers. It might be more cringeworthy to witness this in action for dorks like me, but it’s an absolute ripoff to casual audiences. Even if you never read Good People, you would eventually suspect that the film version is half-baked. Everything in Good People the film feels stiff. Unlike my valentine the book, which was simple, fluid and punchy in the best way. What I’m getting at is this shouldn’t’ve been so hard to make page translate to screen here. Where the book was straightforward in plot, tone and characterization, the film version plays like a warmed-over Guy Ritchie flick minus the winking, all-important humor. And the misfit characters. The cast of Good People are just misfit.

Even the opening: dry. I wasn’t digging the opening scene right off. Set up like a stock crime caper, sprinkled with just enough violence to get your attention. The almighty hook. Didn’t work on me. Things didn’t really improve from then on. Not surprisingly I’ve got a laundry list of how this movie let me down. Indulge me, won’t you?

*pats head*

Gracias. The biggest crime here within a crime caper is People‘s lack of honest tension (at least by when timecode 37.00 rolled about, thereabouts. I was patient, and if I was watching the timer a problem was slinking up). The flick was going way too slow. We’re supposed to have a desperate thriller here. Instead we got steady paces. People was creeping predictability. There’s a big difference between being predictable and straightforward. When a director tries to be edgy on purpose—and don’t lie, you can tell the difference between watching Taxi Driver against, say, Superman Returns—you can smell it like a fart in car. People suffered greatly in that department. It played like Law & Order: London, even down to the lighting, all grey and muted (what’s up with that trick? Sure, it worked in Se7en, but how?). People’s biggest crime was playing by-the-numbers. Rote. A straight-to-video kind of feel. Not a good time-waster.

Based against my already-read-the-book prejudice, it’d be hard for the casual People watcher to fail to ignore the dry film’s other faults. C’mon. You’ve seen enough crime thrillers to recognize multiple turds in the punchbowl. For one, we got a lot of stilted dialogue. There’s too much telling, not enough implying. With a crime story, we shouldn’t—can’t—have our cast declaring all their intentions and emotions. We gotta have intrigue, mystery, fear and the all important tension. You have the leads broadcast f*cking everything, well flush. Let’s take a ride on the tedium train. Choo-choo. Derailment.

Also, quite foreign-sounding director name is a portent for not getting America genre films. Racist? Perhaps. I’d rather call it “lost in translation,” kind of like arguing with a customer care rep stationed in the Indian subcontinent. Nuances and axioms get run through the rock tumbler. Just sayin’.

People wasn’t a total shambles. though. Like with any bitter there’s a residue of sweet. Kind of like the relief that comes after passing a kidney stone. There were some bright spots in acting here, almost as a rebellion against the dross. Franco was as smarmy/likable as ever. Granted his charm cracks through his bland Tom only in drips and drabs, but it’s reassuring that he’s still in there somewhere. I’m for any kind of anchor in the otherwise talented cast to moor onto. I mean, we had Tom Wilkinson before God and our lifeline was the New Goblin. I thought I’d never say this—nor anyone else in the solar system—but may the heavens bless James Franco for slightly redeeming this staid movie. Pineapple Express was pretty okay, too.

Hey. What’s key to all good crime capers? Interesting villains. Admittedly, People‘s bad guys are derivative in their motives and portrayals. But they are not wholly uninteresting. And played pretty well, too. Although it took a while to warm me up, Spruell (despite his middle-aged Opie looks) eventually morphed into a rather scary character. His Jack stole Sy’s head baddie Khan’s thunder who was little too rough-edged to be a convincing, smooth operator drug king pin. Jack being calm throughout all his nefarious deeds does a decent bad guy make. Since People was shot in London (instead of the book’s hometown of Chicago, where it was probably too costly to shoot People, BTW), I came to wonder if Spruell was an in-demand actor in Britain. One can only hope.

Hudson was pretty and wooden. Moving on.

Well, at least the third act had juice, despite getting all McGuyver as resolution (which was also oddly predictable. Franco should’ve sported a mullet all along). If only the first hour-ten had the spark of the final 20 minutes then this movie would’ve been worthwhile. Okay, the big confrontation smelled of watered down Die Hard, but at least it had motion, unlike the rest of People. You gotta respect the Kafkaesque rule of having the gun on the shelf in the first act going ka-blam in the third. I have to respect and admit that’s classic. At least director Genz didn’t watch every film in the Ritchie canon.

So here we are, a Sakey fanboy feeling scammed and a possibly frustrated audience tossing popcorn buckets at the screen. Like I mentioned, you needn’t have read Good People to feel ripped off by watching this movie. In a way this review is a shifty method of denouncing cable TV. Damn you, Sakey, gently lulling me into fandom with a few eps of Hidden City. Then again if you’re a Franco-phile (I will not apologize for that one), blame his charming ass. If you’re a Kate Hudson fan, I can’t help you; there is no such thing as a Kate Hudson fan. Despite the reliable star power, the simple yet botched plot and eventually satisfying conclusion, People was a serious letdown overall. I recommend y’all to read Sakey’s books instead, if only as a can of Glade to the film.

Oh yeah. One last thing.

Dick Manitoba’s band, the Dictators? They cut a track called “Sleepin’ With The TV On.” It mentioned the Thin Man films, which is worthwhile watching.

Good People wasn’t. And Sid was innocent.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it, doy. Serious letdown here, for Sakey fans and crime thriller fans alike. How the f*uck do you botch such a simple, if not well-worn premise? I blame EarthLink tech support outta Mumbai. That chick really tried to scam me.


Stray Observations…

  • “Tonight…someone’s gonna get pregnant.” Smooth.
  • Cute with the “All Gamblers…” sign hovering over the windfall.
  • Franco’s got a winning smile. Admit it.
  • That’s dirty pool! Sorry, couldn’t resist.
  • “Promise me you won’t kill us.” “…No.” Like that’s ever worked anyway.
  • I kinda dug the soundtrack. I did suit the (attempted) mood of the film.
  • “Guns are for pussies.” Tell that to John McClane.
  • “Honey! I’m home!” Roll eyes.
  • “Are you alright?”

 

Next Installment…

A decent woman would regard golddigging as despicable and could be an act of Intolerable Cruelty to the poor man with the wallet. But if she could actually get her mitts on the pursestrings, well, um…Better call George Clooney. Works every time. Right?


RIORI Volume 3, Installment 7: Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 3” (2007)


Spider-Man 3


The Players…

Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Hayden Church, Topher Grace and Bryce Dallas Howard, with Rosemary Harris, JK Simmons and James Cromwell (I think Stan Lee’s somewhere in the mix, too).


The Story…

Spidey returns yet again, now to take down not one, but three super-powered menaces who threaten his life and loved ones. But is his night job getting the better of him? And what’s with those nagging voices in his head and that alien symbiote—er—monkey on his back?


The Rant…

This might be a continuation of my screed back with the Green Hornet installment. Y’know, the whole rhetoric about Hollywood adapting old TV and radio shows into big budget films? Okay, maybe not a continuation. More like an extension.

But first—and as always—some editorial related to this week’s feature. This is, as they say, par for the course.

Over a decade ago, when I was adrift, boozy and generally depressed, my baby sister did me a favor. I didn’t realize it at the time (back then, I failed to realize virtually anything), but she was extending a hand.

My sis had always been my biggest booster. Even as kids she almost always sided with me against whatever nefarious schemes my other sister plotted against me (and perhaps her, too). My baby sis was vocal, impudent, and stubborn and after puberty kicked in, could be a royal bitch. That being said, she’s been my wingman for many-a-year.

Later in life, me being rudderless in my 20s, she still gave me quarter. To this day, now mostly cleaned up, gainfully employed and an awkward but pretty decent family man, I have no idea how she had suffered me for so long. I did her no favors, except maybe to serve as a warning, making her laugh, and never making her feel dumb (she’s dyslexic, and has always felt insecure about her learning disability. Recalling that I have an English degree from a prestigious school and work in a kitchen, one could only say, “You want fries with that?” If that isn’t a learning disability…).

No matter. My sis always stood up for me, even with my being deep in the trenches of substance abuse and clinical depression. She would often tell—nay, scream—to our parents about my condition, and made claim that I deserved sympathy rather than disdain. Sometimes her arguments even worked, despite her betting on a very obvious losing horse. We should only be so lucky to have a sibling that’ll go to the ropes for you like that.

One day, in 2004, she showed up at my flat. It was late afternoon on a weekend, and I was hungover, the sun blearing my eyes as it could only do after 8 hours with a dozen beers and half a bottle of Irish whisky in my gut. With no pretense, she said I looked like sh*t, needed a shower, shave, tooth brushing and clothes that didn’t smell like smoke and belches. Something like that. I’m not sure; it was a bright day. What was up, besides a reluctant me?

Paraphrasing, she said, “Get cleaned up. We’re grabbing dinner, and then we’re going to go to the movies.”

“What for?”

She scowled. “You need it.”

I forget where we ate. We tried to chew the fat like we once always did. She talked about school and her current job. I talked about how I wasted my degree and my almost non-existent job besides exercising my elbow. But over some nice food and bright lighting, our usual repartee resurfaced and we shared stories, compared notes, bagged on the middle sister and griped about mom and dad. The basics.

Then came the matter of the movie to see. I had no cable, and usually dicked around on the Internet for…well, nothing. Just surfed it, looking for Nirvana somewhere (and I ain’t talking Kurt Cobain). I had no real clue what was out, nor did I care. I was probably on my way to saying, “Pick something” when she suggested:

“The new Spider-Man movie’s out.”

She knew I was a comic collector. She wasn’t much for reading them (or regarding her troubles, books in general), but was curiously fascinated why some drunken, pill-popping, quite literate college grad halfway to a Masters’ if he could only get up before noon guy like myself would collect and read essentially coloring books populated with characters sporting skin-tight suits, weird powers and often limitless bank accounts. I was a reader; she wasn’t really. But she was always and still is the curious sort. Enough so to actually prod me out of my basement squat to get my ass out to the multiplex for my own good.

Now I thought the first Spider-Man movie was great. Maguire really surprised me, as did Defoe. I always thought that Sam Raimi was an inspired, thoughtful, and very funny director. I had heard about the sequel but would’ve rather stood in bed. To this day, I simply cannot go to the movies alone. Watching them at home alone is one thing, but going to the theatre? That’s a social thing. Passively social, but we can’t have an audience of one can we?

I think my sister knew this, what with my early cinema habits already established. I had dragged her along to endless, stupid pictures as a kid just to have someone to chat with after the show. Y’know, to share opinions. It was now time to return a favor. So after our dinner at some local eatery, off we went to the newly built (stadium seating!) multiplex to grab Spider-Man 2. I had my endlessly patient wingman with me. We bought a bag of popcorn each, plus a prerequisite bag of red Twizzlers for me—which I usually devour before the previews are over—and some sturdy large sodas. We were wired for sound.

Finding seats in a movie theatre is never a problem for me. I always sit in the front row, which is usually vacant. Why sit in the back to recreate the small screen action you get daily in your living room? Let me put it this way: when the original Star Wars trilogy was re-released in theatres back in the late 90s, with all their remastered sound and CGI enhancements, I plopped my ass in the front row so to look up Harrison Ford’s nose. Any questions? So me and sis hunkered down in the front row—me ignoring her protests—and waited for the show to begin.

I’ll spare you the intimate details, but getting to see Spidey 2 was the first time in a long time I had a really fun time with another person without the bottle. My sister was sympathetic. She liked action movies. She thought Maguire was a cutie. She even asked me, politely, many times over the movie for deeper details about what was going on. She knew this was yanked right out of the comics. Maybe she was just appealing to my ego…or id, rather.

After we sat through the credits (I always do this. I ain’t wasting one cent of my 12 bucks), we stepped out into the light, me getting all rhapsodic about the film. My sis was listening to me. I wouldn’t say intently, but since she was well aware of the state I was in, letting me yammer endlessly about a subject—and a film—I enjoyed without a drink could only be helpful. I answered some more polite comic book questions, and then she asked me one.

“When does the next movie come out?”

I was quietly stunned. I couldn’t be sure if she was just humoring me or really had a nice time at the flicks with her damaged big bro. But let’s face facts: my sister was too sharp a cookie to just humor me. She and I really had a fun time. I love movies and comics, and after many times hunkering down with me and my beater VCR at home for that weekend’s rental, not to mention every Wednesday after school that’s week’s haul of new issues, I’d be pretty dumb to assume she didn’t pick up on a few things.

So when she asked when the next Spidey flick came out, I was no less than amazed. Me being in the field (when I was working semi-part-time at the local comic shop, with access to the industry previews and related Hollywood scuttlebutt), she knew I must’ve heard something. The fact she was even curious piqued my interest.

I guess on some low level, her interest in forthcoming comic book movies tapped into an interest I made a great investment into when I was working at my then low-level job as a bookseller at the local comic shop. Even more simply, just hearing curiosity about a future comic book movie from a layman (or laywoman) not only kept my spark alight but also offered hope regarding bringing the wonderful, crazy-ass world of comic books to the masses.

Christ, I was so drunk and naïve. Thanks, sis, regardless.

That was over seven years ago. Since then, the cinemas come summertime have been choked to the rafters with comic book superhero movies. It’s enough to make even the die-hard collector sick. There was one point in time that a movie adapted from a comic book story was a momentous thing. Nowadays, it’s pedestrian; we expect a few comic book movies between May and August to clog our screens. The novelty is over. Even when a beloved family member drags you out of the abyss to rekindle a sense of lost wonder…well. Let’s just say these days the wonder is seriously lacking.

Let’s rewind to a few weeks ago, wrangling with the lumpy execution of the movie version of The Green Hornet. When the TV-as-movie fad died a horrible, grateful death in the late 90s, Hollywood looked ever onwards into the new century for other established pop culture touchstones to revamp into mindless twaddle. So enters the comic book movie.

Hold it, hold it, hold it. Hear me out. I’m not gonna slag on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not entirely, and definitely not paired against the display of clemency my sister offered. Where I’m going this week has very little to do with comic books and their film adaptations. However since nostalgia for the Millenial generation is breakfast, I figured I’d delve into today’s skewering by comparing it to a pop culture phenomenon that the kids could rally around and recall fondly, like lunch. Now dig this:

Most comic book films have been very entertaining, even successful. However, for every Avengers there’s been a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The early-2000’s comic movies were stepping stone and stumbling blocks until the studios figured out how to open the Pandora’s box they received. Nowadays, especially since Disney acquired the rights for Marvel comic adventures, such adaptations have become well marketed, hugely popular, guaranteed profitable cash machines. That’s until the bubble eventually bursts. And it will.

Before Disney picked up the tab, like I said. comic movies were a dodgy undertaking at best. Comic book readers were dedicated fanboys with an unhealthy, encyclopedic knowledge of the arcane intricacies of a fantasy world thatonce would result in being ostracized by the general public at best and result in atomic wedgies in the boys’ bathroom at worst. Probably due to restraints with licensing, actual comic book property rights then were either too expensive to acquire, or—more accurately—such adventures were regarded as too outré for mainstream audiences and therefore not very hot commodities (Oops!). The succeeding film adaptations weren’t lifted from the Big Two—DC and Marvel—comic books, but instead from newspaper serials from yesteryear. Most of these plots might’ve been already in the public domain by then. We had Dick Tracy, The Shadow and The Phantom. The X-Men, Spider-Man and even Blade franchises were miles away, waiting for the next century. So audiences got what was available, based on established, albeit old, creaky comic strip panels.

Why these ancient, half-forgotten comic strip/old-timey heroes? Well, besides Supes, Spidey and Wolverine being too exclusive or expensive to acquire at that point, the chosen few were, well, ancient and half-forgotten, ripe for the picking to do a modern-day spin, as well as fodder for the older generation who might want a li’l bit of that nostalgia bite I mentioned earlier. That, and I can’t hammer this enough, were probably cheaper and most young 90’s audiences never ever heard of the Shadow of the Phantom (I know I didn’t) so it would be a perfect opportunity to—let’s face it—cash in on the ignorance of the crucial 13 to 25-year old demographic.

Nowadays, this Millenial demo can’t wipe their collective asses without staining the next ­Superman movie script. In the 21st Century, we’re f*cking inundated with comic book movies. Every summer, Disney or Warner Brothers rolls out a bunch of new blockbusters adapted from the endless well from the House of Marvel or their “Distinguished Competition.” After the success with Guardians of the Galaxy­—a comic book series so forgotten and obscure I doubt without the Marvel bug in the opening credits no one would’ve been the wiser—it seems as if all bets are off. Hollywood has finally seen the light/dollar signs, and comic movies are not only here to stay, but practically endless. All of it capitalizing on some form of nostalgia, for younger generations or the current regarding comic book fans: nostalgia is Wednesday last when the new sh*t hits the shelves.

A good example of how entrenched the pop culture mind is to comic book movies is all the hullabaloo surrounding Ben Affleck’s turn as Batman after Christopher Nolan’s expertly executed films. People who don’t even read comic books—let alone read period—are all a-flutter about this state of affairs. Based on all the press, twittering and newswires, one wonders why—barring copyright bullsh*t—comic movies weren’t jumped on years sooner?

For those not in the know—and I mean pre-Internet youths—I mentioned that in the latter days of the 20th Century, the nostalgia market bit big. Hollywood decided to create big budget adaptations of not only nearly forgotten radio serials and limping comic strips, but also classic TV shows. Like I alluded to earlier, Hollywood wasn’t sure what to do with the Tim Burton Batman Rubik’s Cube they were offered. I reiterate, the acquisition money was either not there or not seen as a return-on-investment.

You’d think a comic book head like me would be jumping out of his skin with glee with all the press comic books have been garnered with over the past 10 years. Finally! Our medium is being accepted into Middle America! It’s like cappuccino, Candies and flossing on a daily basis! And soon this stupid gluten-free fad will die like the pet rock! Time for elation! I should be celebrating!

Ser-prize. I’m not. But I always try to make my argument as palatable and informed as a Bill Hicks monologue.

*drum roll*

I blame all of the ballyhoo surrounding the comic book movie phenomenon and all its marketing a result of the misperception of comic book as not a vital American art form. It’s disposable. Trash. It’s junk culture and deserves to be treated as such. Nostalgia for adults who fondly remember those 10 cent issues of Fantastic Four that so enriched a lazy, Saturday afternoon. If comic books are so easily dismissed as puerile, adolescent fantasy, however, then how come we queue up in droves every summer to see Spidey thwart Doc Ock or witness Batman punish the Joker? People of all ages plop down hard-earned money to catch these films. Everyday people, non-readers of comics love these movies. Hollywood is walking away with wheelbarrows full of cash. It’s all so prevalent that comics are a valuable art form that we are bludgeoned to death with cinematic comic book adaptations every year for the past 15 years. I mean, f*cking Ant-Man is getting his own film! Ant-Man! Kiddie bed sheets are already being spindled for sale before the film actually drops!

Sigh.

All right. You ought to be used to it by now. The following is more social commentary on how commerce and art are never mutually exclusive things than a movie review and blah blah blah. Like I’ve already said, Hollywood is based on making money, not art. If any art trickles out of their machine, then bravo. But the bottom dollar, and all those people who help make it happen, must be attended to first. It’s the reality of capitalism, but sadly it also makes us all shallow.

Sorry, but we Americans are a shallow, impatient lot, and are quickly dismissive of the artists and their work that so richly enhance our cultural tapestry. When that tipping point is reached, then and only then we jump onto the trendy bandwagon that might ultimately prove profitable, monitorial or of a fruitful social contract. That’s unfortunate, to say the least. These days, art is a hard-won, futile endeavor. And pop-art—Warhol notwithstanding—is just so much clutter against the day. We blindly need the next big thing quickly before it gets stale in the next half-hour. Our media reflects this, probably since and due to the Internet gaining traction.

Here’s a little story about the dollars and sense regarding the takeaway from a big-budget comic book movie and how they shape—or warp—our pop culture. It’s not quite pertinent to the Spidey matter soon at hand, but it does shed a little light on the mass-media mentality of our nation.

The profits made from actual comic book sales—the actual issues—have zero bearing on the profit margins of Sony, Disney, Universal or any other Hollywood superhero movie-making studio. The ink-and-paper books themselves are published independent of the parent company’s say-so. Sure, DC has access to WB’s marketing and advertising budget, and they are the avatar of Batman, but that’s not where the studio makes its money off comic books. They make it from merchandizing (video games, clothing, beer cozies, etc). Your average ish of ­Batman costs three bucks. You wanna know how much money DC makes on that sale? Three bucks. What does DC’s parent company Warner Brothers make on that sale? Nothing. What did WB make on the last Batman release? The GDP of Belize. What did DC make? Zilch.

Here’s the curious thing about marketing and franchising: the creators of the source material seldom see the financial reaping of their efforts. Example? Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster received none of the marketing dollars their creation spawned. Not even from the first Christopher Reeve movie. None. According to the party line, in their later years, Siegel had to borrow money from patient DC execs to pay the bills and Schuster died in a VA hospital unnoticed. It was only after their fall that both men received posthumous recognition and reparations for their families. Their grandkids now earn millions. Schuster was unable to pony up for dialysis.

Here’s my point.

Comic book movies and their ensuing merchandizing pay into nothing regarding publications. In short, Marvel, DC and others make no money from the movies their books are based. And very little promo goes into pushing book sales. Besides, if Sony pushes the book, it would detract from ticket sales, right? Sad, but true.

I’ve told here that I used to work at a comic shop. Back in 2007, when Spider-Man 3 crashed onto the screen, we set up a display of classic 80’s Spider-Man issues when he was sporting the black costume, like in the movie where (SPOLIER!) the outfit later became the symbiote Venom, Peter Parker’s Mr. Hyde. It was in hope to capitalize some sales on the movie’s (misguided) popularity. The original issues are valued between 30 and 50 bucks today, miles away from the original 75-cent asking price.

We didn’t sell a one. We did sell the action figures, though. Disney made money. We didn’t. And every Wednesday since, when I go to buy my weekly haul, those 80’s issues are still hanging on the damn wall. Meanwhile Target sells out of those Avengers PJ’s at an alarming rate.

Ahem…Sorry. I was talking about movie adaptations, right?

Despite all the shock-and-awe comic book movie ticket sales make these days, that wasn’t the case not too long ago, and it always starts in the trenches. Hollywood tried to take some tentative steps into the superhero waters at the end of the 90’s. Most with middling results. Back then, I figure the kiddie stigma of comic books was too much of a turn off, and therefore too much of a risk to take investments seriously. Amazingly enough, nowadays Oscar-noms like Robert Downey, Jr., Mickey Rourke and Gwyneth Paltrow all show up in the same Iron Man film. The same film! Go figure. I’d like to think that the whole disgrace attached with the mainstream, movie-going audience with comic books has eroded.

Nowadays, I feel there is too much bombast, too much hype surrounding every release of a comic book movie. The aforementioned “Affleck as Batman” controversy illustrates this. It’s this expectation of the annual comic book movie releases that has resulted in the erosion of their magic of the books at their core; the fantastic stories of sci-fi, fantasy, urban crime, espionage and even soap opera drama paired with amazing art is the allure of the comic book. It’s not about hype and shock and awe. At least, it shouldn’t be.

We all know that familiarity breeds contempt. A lot of comic book movie plots are of course lifted from the source material, but a lot of those stories are retreads of established tropes within the comic medium. Comic storytelling is a lot like playing the blues: it’s not the notes, but how you play them. Most audiences don’t care about the playing, just the notes. That and all the spectacle modern comic book movies have. You know, lots of explosions, crazy stunts, one-liners and over the top derring-do with ever thinning character development and nuance.

The summer superhero blockbuster attendance has become de rigueur for the herd. The actual comics are ignored. The respect and appreciation is out the window. The screens are alight with CGI histrionics and tangled plot lines. The magic is dwindling, and everything has to be bigger, better, faster, more in order to fill the studios’ coffers.

Sorry, sis, but I think this shark jumping commenced with the release of Spider-Man 3…


Looks like Peter Parker’s (Maguire) luck is improving. He’s doing well in college. He’s got his own place to call home. Work is steady at the Daily Bugle. He and Mary Jane (Dunst) are in a happy relationship. What’s more is that after years of derision, Parker’s web-slinging alter ego Spider-Man is finally getting the respect and appreciation he deserves! Spidey’s saved New York on more than one occasion, so a little public adoration is in order. Finally, Pete’s usual bad “Parker luck” isn’t snapping at his heels.

But wouldn’t you know it; things can only stay so good for Pete only so long. Old demons come back to haunt our hero from distant and not-so-distant spaces, including even outer space.

When Pete’s former best bud Harry (Franco) discovered that his wingman turned out to be Spider-Man—the person who allegedly murdered his father, the original Green Goblin—he forged out a plan using his dad’s tech to devise new, meaner Goblin gear, as well as plot for vengeance. Needless to say, Peter and Harry’s friendship has been strained.

Also, former petty thief Flint Marko (Church) is on the lam. A questionable escape from the law into a nuclear test range—and the ensuing, inevitable accident—renders Marko as an atomically unbalanced creature made of sentient sand. Now he has the power and ability to knock over as many banks as he wants. And as sure as sh*t not even Spider-Man’s gonna get in his way.

Also, Pete has new competition at the Bugle. Upstart photographer Eddie Brock (Grace) has been snagging up close and personal shots of Spidey in action, and better than Pete’s work ever was despite the personal connections. Brock’s work is so good that the Bugle’s head honcho J Jonah Jameson (Simmons) grants the freelancer a full staff job—something that’s been eluding Parker for years. But it seems belying Brock’s maverick tactics he has something far more sinister brewing than a personal agendum.

ALSO, Pete himself has been going through some changes, like a personality crisis. Awakening one morning after a long night of web-slinging (and thereby crashing in his Spidey duds), Peter is stunned to find that his usual red and blue ensemble has been replaced—transformed—into a slick ebony number. This new outfit fits great, like a glove. But the longer Peter wears it, the more he notices he feels increasingly aggressive, removed…alien even.

Hey! Waitaminnit! Where’d that black suit come from in the first place?

ALSO


Movies have been paramount in shaping American pop culture, almost as much as (and far longer than) television. Marketing the hell out of it results in a modern day equivalent of a Van Gogh exhibit at Madison Square Garden. Spectacle. It’s what all of us as the collective wants: entertainment en masse. Anything to distract us from boring classes, sh*tty jobs, traffic, bad fast food and coming home to endless repeats of Naked & Afraid. Touchstones from our imagination past—a lost childhood—that could bring smiles to our wizened, cynical mindset and the ever-deepening crevices in our faces is what we’re really looking for.

Director Sam Raimi understands this. He’s like the ring master in a circus, rallying all the entertainers at his command to dance, jump, sing and sling webs for you. At any cost. Costs like, in the case of Spider-Man 3, solid writing, character development, coherent plot and above all else showmanship and a respect for the movie making craft. Raimi delivers boom here in a very big, very confusing way.

Story goes that Raimi has a three picture contract with Sony to direct the Spidey films. It looks like he—an ardent Spider-Man fan, and it really shows in the first two films—had a lot, like I mean a lot of ideas to throw at our beloved wall-crawler to get him into pickle after pickle in hopes of certain triumph. Seeing that his time was up, Raimi and his brother Ivan concocted a “plot” in 3 to jam as many ideas they thunk up as possible, kind of like a crazed episode of Supermarket Sweep (YouTube that. You won’t believe it until you see it). The final edit is one very busy, busy movie. I understand that the Raimi’s are fanboys, but recall I worked at a comic store once. I love Spidey, but I wasn’t one of those fans who got into a heated argument in the store, like about who was stronger: Thor or Superman. When I say heated, I mean such sh*t almost came to blows and I had to eject these mouth-breathers from the shop with all the gentleness of Ed Norton regarding Jared Leto as “unwanted.” In simpler terms, my respect for the character never turned into a fomenting frenzy, and I just read the books smiling with brows arching ever so often. I never had some a personal bias.

Spidey 3’s execution is not unlike a fanboy kerfuffle. Sam and Ivan have such a reverence for the character that they put him into maximum overdrive for over two hours, chucking darts at a target already clogged with darts to make sure their final, dying testament to Spider-Man on film doesn’t go unheard. The final product that is Spider-Man 3 is an exhausting—not exhaustive, as the Raimi’s hoped—movie. And like I said, very busy.

The third installment of the franchise is a lot more light-hearted than the first two, however. Even from the start, there’s even a promise of cheese. Spidey’s a public hero now! He’s on the cover of every magazine! Fan worship personified! It already feels more “comic booky” than the first two movies. And after all, the darkness that permeated the second movie probably needed a lighter touch the third time around. You gotta bookend tragedy with comedy. It worked for Bill Shakespeare, and allegedly his stuff’s worthwhile. So let’s lighten up here, get a bit goofy, have some splash and dash. And we have Raimi, under the big top, orchestrating all this organized chaos into one big fanboy festival. Enjoy, ladies and gentlemen!

We would, if given the time.

Scattershot is the feel of Spidey 3. All the action, comedy and drama—which the movie has in droves—comes across as disjointed. Due to the speed of the movie—the pace is fast. Too fast, even—all the good stuff whips by in a tidewater surge so that the audience can have a hard time keeping up. Like I said, the Raimi-helmed Spidey movies were at their end, and Sam and Co. weren’t gonna let the ghost die without doing a signature kitchen sink sendoff. There’s a lot to digest here, and one can sense that Raimi was under the gun (by himself and/or Sony) to cram as much superheroics into 120-plus minutes that could fit, even with a lot of loose ends flapping out from under the bulging suitcase lid. All that baggage (ha!) made for an extremely fast and sloppy execution.

In what way? Well, for one, the dialogue is more stilted, and delivered with a degree of woodenness you couldn’t find even in Shasta State Park. Our characters seem to be out of character for most of the film. Maguire’s wide-eyed looks and demeanor are more pronounced. Dunst has gotten all fluffy, even more so than before. Franco just grinds his teeth a lot (and I really don’t enjoy Franco as cranky). Even Simmons’ Jameson—some ideal comic relief in the other films—being relegated to the sidelines with not a lot of scene-chewing (but some succulent hammy) lines. Besides body language, most acting stems from delivering dialogue, and although our cast tries to do their best, what falls out of their mouths feels half-baked and off the cuff (or in the case of Harris’ Aunt May, obviously staged). All this being delivered at blinding speed, like the editors were jacked up on mainlined Red Bull with no sleep for a week.

Second, the plot is sketchy. Well, maybe not sketchy. Underdeveloped, yes, and delivered in the aforementioned frenetic style, but also hard to put a finger on. It’s hard to say what Spidey 3 exactly about. Is it an action movie? A tale of revenge (the Harry and Marko sub-stories)? A romantic triangle (and what exactly was the purpose of introducing Gwen Stacy into the mix)? A psychological character study? Yes and no to all. Nothing really solidifies, either due to the breakneck pacing, jumbled script or Raimi hearing the clock ticking in the background. This Spidey is under a self-imposed deadline, and there’s no real time for subtly, human drama or even action scenes that don’t seem confined.

I’m going to do something here at RIORI that I’ve tried real hard to not do—but reluctantly have—for the past 50-plus installments. I have to include spoilers. Have to. There are so many particular scenes in Spidey 3 that throw the movie off the tracks I’d be hard pressed not to get into specifics without getting into specifics. So if you wanna read on, you’ve been warned.

About the action scenes, like the one in the first act with Spider-Man versus the new Goblin. They seem a bit chaotic. They look cool, but awkwardly choreographed. Almost everything is in your face with pyrotechnics abounding, racing through Manhattan’s back alleys (which almost gave me vertigo) and again going too fast to really follow what’s going on. Yeah, yeah. We know Harry’s going on a revenge tear, but there’s no clear stakes defined, none beyond the “you will pay for killing my father” schtick. Not only is that trope tired, it makes Franco’s character really one-note. The same goes for Spidey’s other enemies. Marko may be a sad story of humanity, but the whole super-powered villain with the heavy heart is all the Sandman is. Likewise with the revenge-plotting Eddie/Venom. Is it just me that found Brock’s axe to grind came about a little too quickly, intensely and shallow? Besides, it took weeks for Peter to feel the effects of the space symbiote. It took Eddie about 30 seconds. Hurry, hurry. Clock’s a-tickin’! Sure, Brock’s been humiliated and fired, but to plot to kill Peter/Spidey? Seems a bit drastic to me. Overall, it made for a cluttered—and notably more violent—action movie.

All that’s boring, and along with the narrow portrayals of Mary Jane, Aunt May, Gwen, Eddie and, yes, even Peter himself. Maguire, for instance, acts a lot with his face. I mean a lot. His boyish looks and wide-eyed expressions are both endearing and telling. But he’s forced to work with shoddy lines, and delivers them in a bored, “anywhere but here” way (although I kinda liked smarmy, infected Peter. That acting at least had some depth). Even though our cast’s roles have been well-defined in the first two films, that doesn’t mean we stop expanding their personalities. People grow, people change, they have lives. Raimi tries to keep a few sparks there, and throws us a bone once in a while, but our actors’ lots in life are concrete here with little room to grow further. Hell, even the addition of ancillary characters like Gwen, Capt. Stacy and (let’s face it) Eddie and May aren’t really fleshed out nor serve a purpose to drive the already schizo plot. They’re used as wallpaper, and virtually unnecessary to the story.

Lastly, Spidey 3 does a lot to undo all the hallmarks of the Spider-Man saga from the first two films (and the comic book history in general). There’s no heart in 3. There’s a lot of staged emotion, interspersed between the action scenes if only to give the crowd a moment to breathe. But it’s most of those moments where the legacy of the prior movies gets sullied. I know, we’re not talking a remake of Citizen Kane here, but Spidey 1 and 2 got so many things right by Raimi’s sincere and respectful treatment of the Spider-Man story, it’s baffling to re-retcon elements of the whole series to service such a muddled storyline.

For instance, now the iconic kissing scene from the first movie is parody in the third? The whole Marko killing Uncle Ben undoes a lot of the pathos and Spidey’s raison d’être attributed to our hero’s origin in the first movie also. Since when his Harris’ earnest portrayal of a strong woman trying to cope with loss become so damned weepy? All that and then the nerve of Raimi employing dues ex machina at the end of the third act is insulting and weak. The whole execution of these points kicks the reverence and respect Raimi had in the first two movies into the sewer…not unlike a washed away Sandman. Could that be considered art imitating life? Hmmm.

It was reported that Raimi tried to do too much with this film. He later admitted in an interview that he’d bitten off more than he could chew. The result was Spidey 3 never seems to get anywhere. It’s not as organic as the first two. The whole ball of celluloid leaves you unsatisfied, but not necessarily wanting more. What a drag. And what a lousy way to end a really fun movie franchise. As I said, my sis and I never got to see Spidey 3 in theatres, despite her polite curiosity and anticipation. I never got around to seeing it either, until now. Things in threes, I guess.

Although I’m not a fan of it, I think if only the studio heads would reboot the Spider-Man franchise. Undo the damage the final original chapter inflicted. Start over fresh. Cast some unknown British kid as Spidey and former In Living Color alum/Ray Charles-impersonator to play Electro. That and get Forrest Gump’s mama to be Aunt May.

Sounds crazy. Who’d wanna screw with Spidey’s movie legacy any further?

Huh? What’d you say?

…Oh, f*ck


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Spidey deserves better for his first, last time out. Now get out of my store.


Stray Observations…

  • It’s funny that Dunst, a blonde, plays a redhead and Howard, a redhead, plays a blonde. Neither dye jobs are very convincing.
  • “D’you smile? Just kidding.”
  • Franco has one of the most honest smiles in Hollywood, I feel.
  • “He likes my shirt.”
  • Nice musical touch there with the marching band.
  • “I am French.” God bless Bruce Campbell.
  • Trivia! Director Sam Raimi always includes his favorite, old beater ’73 Oldsmobile Delta 88 in all his movies, save the western, The Quick and the Dead. We saw Uncle Ben driving it in the first movie, as well in the flashbacks here.
  • “’Nuff said.” I laughed out loud.
  • Pay phones? In 2007? And in NYC no less? You’d figure Pete could at least afford a TracFone on what the Bugle pays him.
  • I loves me some Chubby Checker.
  • That’s it; it’s official. Goth haircut paired with Gerard Way fashion sense equals evil.
  • “Where do all these guys come from?”

Next Installment…

“Only love can bring the rain that falls like tears from on high. Love, Reign Over Me…” Aw, sh*t. Sandler’s gettin’ all serious again.


RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 8: Sam Raimi’s “Oz, The Great And Powerful” (2013)


0613_OztheGreatandPowerful01


The Players…

James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King and Tony Cox.


The Story…

Circus magician and professional scoundrel Oscar Diggs is magically transported to the Land of Oz. Mistaken for the prophesied wizard send to vanquish the three witches manipulating the land, Diggs reluctantly uses his illusionist skills and resourcefulness to become the savior the residents have been hoping for. Hell, beats the circus racket, as well as all those piles of elephant poop.


The Rant…

I’ve never been much for fantasy films. The Lord of the Rings trilogy never caught my attention. I’m not a Game of Thrones viewer. A good portion of Disney’s bread-and-butter animation films are lost on me. I recently went to a viewing of Maleficent (the kids dragged me to it. Oh, the burdens of dadhood) and found it meh. My brain just isn’t wired to go along for the ride amongst dragons and wizards and elves and the rampant pixie dust imagination of your average male sixth-grader (admit it, a Piers Anthony book is kicking around in your attic somewhere. Admit it!).

Of course there are always exceptions. There’s gotta be, otherwise you have nothing to measure the silly against. I’m an unabashed fan of How to Train Your Dragon and when the sequel comes out this summer, me and the stepkid are gonna be at the multiplex already frothing with popcorn. The Neverending Story of my youth was pretty cool, and still holds up to this day, even with the Kajagoogoo soundtrack. Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is a perfect film (don’t argue). Ah yes, and of course, there’s The Wizard of Oz.

The movie has been pleasing audiences for 75 years now. 75! Its songs alone are the earworms a thousand musicals later to contend with, no part in fact to Judy Garland’s pipes. Its ridiculous Technicolor sets are so beyond gaudy they’re mesmerizing. And the acting’s pretty good too. It’s not really a fantasy film at heart—it’s a Broadway musical gussied up with a big budget and ever bigger sets. It’s kind of laughable now to think that Oz was a flop at the box office. It was, and only through the miracle of television that the movie is now heralded as the classic it is today.

Why do I mention all this crap and what relevance does it have on this week’s movie selection (besides the prequel crap, and the setting, and the characters and the you get the idea)? Based on the above goodies from the original, you can’t get lightning to strike twice, no matter how hard you try. Yet I don’t think director Raimi was really trying to recapture the childish wonder of 75 years past. He’s an eccentric filmmaker (read: Evil Dead and Spider-Man movies), and with an odd view of the world through the camera lens lends itself to making some pretty odd movies; curious and demented movies this side of Tim Burton (and at least Burton tried to make weird relevant). Raimi’s vision of Oz was less than a wondrous fantasyland of munchkins and ruby slippers, but more of a fever dream acid trip of he demanded the world of Oz should be. This film wasn’t retconning the original Oz, but rather blazing a trail through weirdness, childhood be damned. Actually, it was more like stomping a trail down the yellow brick road…


Oscar “Oz” Diggs (Franco) is a middling circus magician circa the early 1900s. He’s less of a magician and more of a con man, a rapscallion and an self-entitled, self-important buffoon. Always scheming to get a bigger piece of the pie, grabbing the most desirous of women, demanding the spotlight and (surprise) never wanting to get his hands dirty. He’s always got his head in the clouds, just waiting for that lucky break that’ll escalate him to his notion of “the big time” and out of his penny ante outfit. His dreams may be big, but Oz’ prospects are small.

One day, after a particular nasty run-in with the suitor of one of the many naïve girls Oz tries to woo (I gotta gets me a few music boxes), he escapes his rightly deserved beating by hitching a ride in a hot air balloon. His getaway is clean, until he gets scooped up in one of those unpleasant Kansas twisters (a twister, Dorothy!) and thrown clear over the rainbow.

Oz lands in a multihued landscape of bizarre creatures, exotic flora and Mila Kunis doffed in scarlet. Where the hell is he? Why, fans of the first film knows this is the merry old land of Oz, and Oz himself is naturally confused as well as delighted. This world shares his name, as well as what the witch Theodora (Kunis) tells, also a prophecy foretold by her sisters. A wizard will arrive from lands afar to rescue the citizens of Oz from a very wicked witch (this world seems to run lousy with witches) as it is written. Guess who’s the lucky contestant?

Of course no hero should go so foolishly into battle without some trusty friends in tow. After saving his life, Finley (Braff) the flying monkey pays a life debt to Oz and will be his trusty servant, whether his wants it or not. And after demonstrating some of his “magic” to the crippled China Girl (King), he gains a rather delicate of body but strong of heart cheerleader in the best sense. Finally, Glinda (Williams) the Good Witch (continuity!), who naturally leads the trio along on their quest to the straight and narrow.

Now Oz the Great, as he’s been shunted into the title, must now not only be worthy of literally living up to his name, but also let a little humility into his ego while simultaneously using his cunning as an illusionist to stop the spell of dark magic from corrupting the land of Oz…


From the get-go Oz has Raimi’s eccentricities firmly in place. The prologue alone is a good primer for any of his works. The cartoonish nature of his lead, the rubbery dialogue and, of course the outlandish nature of the plot going joyfully off kilter. All we need now is Bruce Campbell (wait! We do! Let’s play “spot the cameo!”).

Oz sure is a pretty film. There is heavy duty CGI going on here, like all the sets were designed with Prang in mind. It’s almost a bit too much to take. But there are nice touches with the analog bits that do the original film justice (I’m a sentimental sap). The movie tries to match the explosive brightness and kaleidoscopic fever dream that was the original film. It succeeds in many places, but it’s like there’s too much green screen. Is it intentional? It makes the movie appear kind of pulled from a comic book, that or a Maurice Sendak story. Thanks to that splash there is an oddly organic plot development following along here, and since it was based on a mishmash of L Frank Baum’s books (a more accurate interpretation of the writer’s somewhat brooding series), Raimi played fast and loose with his colorful toys.

On another hand, the acting’s a lot of fun. I mean a lot of fun. It’s the best thing the film’s got going. Raimi has a knack for bringing out the best in his cast, and Oz is no different. Franco here is equal parts charming and greasy, sporting the classic “I’m not from around here,” manqué personality. He’s got a good endearing vibe around him, despite being a charlatan. After all, his trip through Oz is a kind of voyage of self-discovery, and discovering who you are and who you can truly be is the classic stuff of fairy tales. He’s a thief with a heart of gold, but it takes time to see it.

Braff and King’s characters are the yin-yang to Franco’s hero. Braff is amusing as Franco’s aide-de-camp. He’s not funny (not like John Dorian funny, but close), but amusing, adding just a touch of empathy for our dauntless Oz. Then there’s the tragic figure that is China Girl. King’s voice acting is so sweet and heartbreaking as the voice of Oz’ consciousness you gotta have a heart of ice to not be touched even a little bit.

I think the three actresses playing the witches—Kunis, Weisz and Williams—are the trifecta of cool. They’re kind of like a more benevolent trio of Weird Sisters, a la Macbeth. All three steal the show, even if it takes Kunis’ charater to play catch up in the third act of the film. Glinda was pretty badass in a gentle way (as well as respectful of Billie Burke’s iconic role), whereas Evanora chews scenery with aplomb. Some pretty cool witches I say.

One of Oz’ biggest issues is that, well, there’s no sense of wonder here. It’s just a thinly veiled action movie. The fantasy ends with the aforementioned backdrops. However there are those moments, which echo the original film that make this version seem worth our attention. Oz is a lot of contradictions rolled into one story. It might puzzle the casual filmgoer not acquainted with Raimi’s style of cinema, but it can entrance as well as repel, kind of like the smell of gasoline (how’s that for simile?).

Like with my list of fantasy films I could get behind, it’s hard to distance yourself from the spell of nostalgia in giving this film a frank assessment. Ostensibly, this is a kid friendly movie. On another hand, Raimi’s left of center humor as well as direction shove the film into the right of the PG-13 crowd and up. It’s always about what is lacking rather than what is fresh, and which may or may not be better, and the audience Raimi is aiming for here is rather schizo. I dunno. Oz left me scratching my head in places and cheering in others. But it wasn’t terrible—there were far too many redeeming factors in the acting that could excuse the plot. I guess all I can say was I wanted a modern day taste of what the classic three-quarter century years young classic did to me when I was a pup.

Right. Being terrified of flying monkeys.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It ain’t half bad. It’s definitely entertaining in a rather difficult way, but fun nonetheless. Just don’t expect any true movie magic. Or songs.


Stray Observations…

  • “I think green is my favorite color.” Directorial meta?
  • Yep. Flying monkeys are still freaky, and not that funny.
  • “Let’s go kill ourselves a witch!”…tra-la-la. A keen example of Raimi’s style of humor. Sorry kids.
  • Does Danny Elfman have to score only weird films? He does a great job, but it’s not gonna win any Oscars. He might be onto something.
  • “Remind me to show you sometime.” Smooooth.
  • “The only person you can’t fool is yourself.” And that’s one to grow on.

Next Installment…

We head off to the red planet courtesy of John Carpenter (yay!) to go bust the Ghosts of Mars.