RIORI Vol 3, Installment 77: Ryan Fleck’s “Half Nelson” (2006)

The Players…

Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps, with Anthony Mackie, Tina Holmes, Jay O Sanders, Deborah Rush and Denis O’Hare.

The Story…

Dan is a teacher and an addict. Drey is one of his students, streetwise and fragile. After Drey finds “Teach” feeding his habit in the girls’ locker room, she unwittingly becomes a conduit for a life-changing lesson.

Rather, it might be something simpler that that. Maybe they both just need a friend.

The Rant…

Okay, for starters: the last installment about Todd Phillips’ Starsky & Hutch sendup was not my best work. I know this. I apologize. I was late and it was tired. Still, the flick was pretty funny. Good time waster. Saturday night and no place to go? Crack a sixer, stream Hutch and giggle some. Lather rinse repeat.

This time out we’re gonna get a bit down. Set the controls for the heart of the navel.

I’m gonna break an unofficial rule here at RIORI, if only for this week’s scratching post. Apart from the weekly victim’s poster shot, there’s never been any graphics here for any installment. This was intentional. Partly because of the out of control JPG feces smeared virtually all across the blogosphere. I often find such pixelation run riot nothing more than a distraction to divert attention away from the writing. And its content. And its merit. And maybe the sh*t had precious little of either so dopey whiz-bang would have to do to get your attention. Hell, that’s easier than actually have to read something. We get bubblegum instead. Regarding all the non-hits I get here I figure that’s a safe assumption. Chew chew chew spit.

RIORI was established as a soapbox to preach the crimes/merits of mediocre films. Never said in The Standard that the blog proper had to show sh*t. That’s the movie’s job. I’m just some hack that’s pretty okay with words. I have no place (nor the talent) to splat sum purty pictures all up in this joint. Still feel too many, if any tears your winnowing attention span from the meat I butcher here. Now get off Snapchat.

Now then.

I’m making an exception this time out. Felt for some whacked out reason that a particular picture well-illustrated the feel of this week’s film. Call it an acid test, and avoid the brown stuff.

So, quick quiz. Anyone out there recognize the picture below? Show of hands:

Wrong. It’s Edward Hopper’s signature piece Nighthawks. He cut it back in 1942 as WW2 was raging overseas. New York was less raging late at night, as indicated by the plaintive faces of the diner’s patrons. Such a scene could’ve gone down anywhere with anyone. Lots of folks claim that that’s the painting’s appeal. It’s a lonely looking, isolated piece, and who hasn’t ever felt alone and isolated? If you say not me, you’re boring and a liar. Which is why you own an XBox One.

According to Hopper’s wife, Edward would write a sort of “bible,” as in Hollywood, not Nazareth. This kind of bible is in essence a script to how he would approach his next project, all players present and at the ready. Hopper was a scenarist as well as a painter, and Nighthawks definitely tells a story, probably (or in spite of) what the painting outright illustrates.

Back in the day, Hopper explained his muse for Nighthawks was the notion of being alone in a crowd. Like in a fishbowl. NYC was and is the most densely populated place in the US of A. Kinda hard to be alone in the crowded belly of that beast. Still, no matter how swollen the population of any gotham may be, there are always those pockets of humanity who don’t (or necessarily want to) feel part of the usual hustle. Some folks just feel outside of it all, by circumstance or choice. All alone in a crowd.

Besides the obvious story stewing within Hopper’s masterpiece of fedoras and coffee cups, there’s a lot of subtle, masked details that reinforce being alone in a crowd. And forget the image takes place at night. That’s a truism. I read about these tips and tricks from an article on MentalFloss, and if you can’t trust those geeks, who can you trust? Not me, that’s for damn sure. Keep reading.

First off, consider the diner’s the blinding lights. Hopper tweaked with a veritable infinite palate of colors and kinds of paint to recreate the blaring glare of the then new fluorescent lights. Ever been in a dressing room? Those bastards reveal everything. I think the damned things add five inches to your waistband faster than binging on fried Oreos basted in fried hot dogs. Those beasts are called “rippers” BTW, which do just that to your arteries. In short, that glare spotlights our diners, which maybe they just don’t want being alone, or maybe it’s just what they need. You be the judge.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Right. The painting.

Everybody is slouching, most notably the server. There are only three reasons in one’s miserable life when you slouch: lower back pain (and you can imagine how much that server demands Tramadol),  resignation to the weight life has placed on one’s shoulders, and sharing a secret. I think all three (well, maybe not the snapping white truss candidate) are in effect with Nighthawks, and all of that screams being alone. And not being particularly keen about that on all fronts. Again, resignation to the all of it all.

(I know. Settle down. I’m being pretty sedate and dull-edged so far this time out. To paraphrase the immortal Bill Hicks: “Don’t worry. There’s dick jokes on the way. I’m a professional.” Now quit yawning; I’m being calculating here, and it’s pertient to the movie. Dick.)

The last, most telling detail in the picture is this (I missed it for years. All hail MentalFloss): there’s no door to the diner. And I own a print of this painting, like every tortured writer does. Mandate (my copy is hanging in the guest bathroom). No entrance, no exit. It’s all plate glass, another new invention back in 1942. Recall what I mentioned about a fishbowl? Here you are. Are our nighthawks isolated, cut off from the dark, late night world or are they imprisoned with their chosen loneliness? Unsure on both fronts, and that I feel is the painting’s hook. It might be what draws your attention. Is the diner a haven or a prison? I’m gonna bet on red.

Where am I going with all this trainspotting (look it up, beyond the Scottish smack metaphors for choosing life)? It’s sometimes being alone is necessary for mental survival. You find yourself alone for myriad reasons. You got dumped. You get lost. There’s that whole Stephen King Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon dire sitch. All such things force you to have to rely on your wits, which all too often turn inwards. Either that or dwell on your solitude (hence the XBox snag earlier). It may be uncomfortable, but it usually and ultimately results in some sort of psychical detox. Hang with no one but yourself for a while and you’re gonna come to some conclusion about the whole life, the universe and everything. Here’s hoping.

The flipside, however is this, loneliness’ brother in Mensa: aloneness, which might have been what Hopper was trying to illustrate (so to speak). There’s a difference between being alone and aloneness. A big difference. The best explanation of the divide between the two came from esteemed, cranky futurist writer Harlan Ellison. I’m going to paraphrase to avoid possible litigation. Being alone is seldom a choice. It’s circumstantial, and you’re usually a victim of it. Reactive.

Aloneness is proactive. Ellison cited choosing to make a small meal just for his own pleasure (and palate) a fine definition. I choose to eat alone. Could get a dinner date if I wanted to. I just don’t want to. I’ll take a swim in my own fishbowl, thank you. You can go f*ck off and call Papa John’s. I got a hankering for paella, and I don’t wanna share. Nope.

But like with Nighthawks’ aloneness—if this what was Hopper was driving at—it can be a double-edged sword. It can trap you. The XBox thing again (I’ll stop now). Too much time chosen to be alone—cut off—morphs into being alone, koo koo JJ Abrams device not withstanding. How’s that? Well, inviting deliberate antisocial behavior for one; getting trapped in a cycle of behaving like a doosh to serve its own ends will seldom get you on any Senior Superlative lists. Finding yourself blowing off your buddies one too many times, well-dedicated to said trainspotting (not choosing life, Renton. Look it up already) with leveling up your Hunewrl ace avatar on Phantasy Star Blue (blogger’s hand held high).

Or trickle towards aberrant behavior, the self-destructive kind. Be it via too many nights with the…PS4 or sitting in bed reading one too many James Patterson potboilers in rapid succession and/or find yourself abusing yourself in a motel room, tired of waiting for that tardy call girl and couldn’t afford Spectravision. Pretty lonely place is they still have Spectravision. Tawdry stuff like that. Could happen to us all. Where’s a late night, 24 hour diner when you need one? At least they have other people and hash browns.

If the aloneness goes terribly awry, you could always get messed up with substance abuse. Not such a far cry is you think about it. OD on selected solitude for too long, you need an out. Stimulus. Refire those cylinders double-quick. Most drug tales mention the need to “get out.” No matter what opium den you’re on the nod in, surrounded by a bevy of well-used puke buckets, drug abuse is a surefire way to justify, if not “earn” that aloneness. Never fear, you’re not alone here. Wreck invites wreck. I should know.

Confession time, and maybe a bunch of you yahoos out there smelled something. I am a recovering addict, and was quite alone—by “choice”—with my pills, my liquor and my Sega Dreamcast. It was a long time back; I’m feeling better now. But that kind of aloneness the denizens of Hopper’s masterwork would probably opt out of.

That’s enough for now.

Abrupt? Sure, but it’s a good way to avoid graphics. Quit chewing on the bubblegum. The actual outside world can get too loud. Might be a good idea to seek out some anti-haven, like a late night diner to hang with strangers with a lot on their minds, too. And don’t sweat none. Just read the synopsis and I’ll meet you on the other side.

Just breathe, have another mugful against that comfortable night, and find some escape where you can…

Dan Dunne (Gosling) is an excellent history teacher. Vibrant, engaging and gets through to his inner city class with humor and passion. Most of his jaded students are down with his lessons and pull okay grades. The rest? Well, Mr Dunne sure is funny, so we’ll hang back and hang around. Guy’s got a weird energy.

It’s unfortunate that Mr Dunne’s passion for teaching is fueled by more than sh*tty teachers’ lounge coffee.

Mr Dunne is also the girls’ basketball coach. One of his star players is the quiet, surly Drey (Epps), also one of his history pupils. Drey is whip-smart, but sodden with the trials of having divorced/absentee dad Frank (Mackie) who may or may not be dealing drugs. It is what it might, and Drey hates feeling the pressure of what that “might” might mean.

“Teach” is a self-declared expert in that field. After a winning b-ball game, Dan “celebrates” the victory with some well-earned drags from a crack pipe. Things do not got well. As he nearly OD’s Drey comes looking for a decent stall to take a leak. She finds Teach squirming, ill and a far cry from the dynamic history teacher taken for granted. He looks scary, and Drey is rightfully scared.

They exchange stares, and a silent deal is struck. Drey will keep Teach’s addiction secret, and he’ll give her the proper attention and respect.

After he clears up first, of course…

So yeah, we got another character study on our hands here. Been running rampant lately.

I might have brought this up before, but there is a madness to my method when I pick the weekly flick and kneel before the guillotine. Beyond The Standard’s standards, my selections are bookended in a pattern. Drama then comedy, heavy against light, rumination and later some farting. Yin and yang. Circle of life, Simba.

So yeah, mentioned this in the Scott Pilgrim vs The World installment. To keep it simple, I was strung out and rudderless. No job, no prospects, and struggling to detox on my own. Wasn’t easy; no insurance to afford rehab. Began re-frequenting my old comic shop as a lark. The cranky owner sensed something and offered me a job. First one I had in years.

And now to not keep it simple. Make sure your seats are in the full, upright position.

Oh yeah, the following, rambling diatribe would’ve been better attached to the rant proper above. But my imp of the perverse screeched pishaw and insisted I trick the readers into your subtle-as-neon segue pairing real, personal strife against fake, well-acted strife courtesy of Ryan “Mickey Mouse Club” Gosling.


Here’s how getting dry goes. For the first 2 days after keeping the bottle corked, you get all anxious. A pattern is being altered. The thing about drinking is that it is on a very strict schedule, if you’re a pro. It’s kind of like a workout. A shot at 9 AM. A few cocktails at lunch, between noon and one (two if you got nowhere else to go, and you don’t). Happy hour kicks at five. Or if you want to be left alone for the later hours (when whiskey and DreamCast wait patiently) around 8. Then you wake up with an angry, black ball of pain behind your eyes, ready to get back on that horse.

Day 3 is when the trembling starts. Your nerves and muscles don’t know what to do with themselves. Sweats are common, smelling of residual booze once trapped in your pores. Hello, they’ve unleashed the Kraken. You stink of piss, and not just from your crotch, either. This is nature’s detox. What the liver couldn’t take anymore (it’s more akin to air being slowly released from a balloon) is now pissing out of you pale skin. Needless to say, it’s unpleasant.

Pills? Pills are different. They know no schedule. If one exists, it’s based on…whenever. My choice was Valium. Want the world to go away in a hazy shade of winter? There you go. Everything goes numb. Takes a few drinks to get all empty-headed; give it an hour maybe. One Valium and where did the last 5 hours go? Who gives a f*ck? All the voices become an echo. All the images have afterimages. You feel like warm caramel. Thank you sir may i have another…

Kicking against the pricks, as Nick Cave quoted. Trying to tame an unruly animal. That’s what addiction’s all about. First you get high to feel good, then you keep getting high to not feel bad. Push and pull, and despite what Hollywood may make you believe (e.g.: The Man With The Golden Arm, Requiem For A Dream, and [of course] Trainspotting), getting high is decidedly not a social affair. Addiction is usually a solitary affair. Even Renton had monologues.

No. Addictions are private things. Even in a crowd, kinda like that Hopper picture. Alone in some crowd. Even though the lines, trips, binges and whatever else you rub into your belly can waffle between closed doors or beer busts, you are always alone. Your needs, your fix, your complete understanding all these other creeps have no idea what you’re on about let alone what you’re onit’s always a private affair.

(There’s this film thing coming on down the line. Dick jokes, remember?)

Quick tale from my time in AA, which I sanely quit after 6 months. Wait. Quit? Six? “Sanely?” Yep. Drumroll.

I spent 6 months in the program, trying to dry out and get some insight. Neither happened. Here’s why: I joined up as an addict with other addicts. Had to clean up my act. That’s what I told my eventual sponsor, at any rate. Last time he called me was April of this year. I joined up in the winter of 2014. Alone in some crowd me, I guess.

I bailed after that scant half year for 2 reasons. One, it was depressing. Addicts talking about their addiction which had become their new addiction. I could not bear an hour of sad drunk stories by three different, ostensibly now cheery recovering alcoholics (which would never fail to bring up an endless recovery, like it was some damned vision quest) drying out their laundry for a bunch of strangers (anonymous, remember?) of their failings thanks to John Barleycorn. Oh, and forsaking the Bible. Did I mention that Bible bit? Nope.

Let me tell you this, thine padawan: month after month after spilling the beans that hit the floor 5, 10, eighty years ago does not invite therapy. It does the opposite: an hour of whining with no practical advice (save from example to not butt chug beers in parochial school) is just that, whining. All those poor sods who testified were alone. In a crowd. Of strangers who hopefully took away something. Like a rash of the psyche. Now let’s hold hands and recite the Lord’s Prayer. Too bad if you’re Jewish. Or Muslim. Or Native American, for f*ck’s sake.

I told you that hot mess to tell you this tepid mess. The second thing. There was one and only one AA meeting that offered some good advice. Came from a old man, lived alone, no one else to talk with save his fellow nighthawks. His words stuck with me, and although I still hit the bottle (mostly when I get all wordsmith-y here at RIORI), it’s in kind amounts. And when I enjoy my beer, the man’s simple soliloquy echoes in my brain.

“Every time I wanna reach for the bottle, I pick up a book instead. Never knew how much was there to learn out there.”


And I took it, if only as durable yeoman’s work. Sh*t, it was the only bit of non-self righteous advice I ever got from that monkey house. Those 2 sentences served me a lot better than, “…And when I rammed that third school bus of kids, y’know, the one that runs at 3 AM…” (applause and hold hands). So I went home and picked up a book or two, found them heavy and decided to get back into writing again instead.

Healthy BS, right? Sure it is. Never curled up nice and stinky in the girls’ bathroom of some dumpy high school mainlining scotch into my c*ck, right? Hail Columbia.

There was a movie in here somewhere, right?

*looks down the neck of a spent Sam Adams*

Nope. Not there. Now here. And rewind.

Half Nelson is yet another character study. I say that so drab possibly due to watching way too many character study dramas here at RIORI. Again, The Standard said nothing about genres, and it seems when it comes to possible mediocrity in drama character studies are the default. Come to think of it, most dramas are character studies, just less naked than comedies or slasher flicks. For films like Nelson it’s a slow wind up before the pitch.

Nelson takes its time. From the get-go you understand that Dan is just a part to play. It’s as if he wakes up, curses the clock, rubs his gums and dons a cape to be ultra-teacher-man, a force he’s fully invested in since the truth is pretty f*cking lame. Dan’s real reality is that he walks around in a narcotic fog most of the time, fooling himself he’s a dynamite teacher (and according to the scenes in the classroom, he is). He’s just not invested in it. His job is merely hang time between the next fix and self-loathing. That being said, Gosling as scuzzy here—an endearing rapscallion, really. He’s not overtly malicious—is far better than the scuzzy Driver in Drive (Installment 2, volume 1). Two opposing animals, but violence is still violence, whether by crowbar or crackpipe.

Nelson creeps. It sometimes gives you the creeps, but not in some Freddy Kruger kind of way. There is no outright horror, just a slow descent into doom. We learn quick that Dan is doomed. Feels doomed rather, and is passively crying out for help. So passive in fact that his demeanor yells “do not touch me. Please.” The chat he has with his former lover in the park, how she found her new man in REDACTED results on bleak congrats and a whirlwind take on that’s not his thing. Of course she cries a little. It’s kind of expected. And Dan expects it. And later retreats to his hovel to be alone again, the madding crowd of life at bay.

That’s telling. Addiction makes you numb to yourself. I know. You read the other sh*t above, right? Surprise, it’s pertinent here for Nelson. It has the creeps, but this movie is ultimately less creepy than dire. It’s like Rickie Lee Jones’ first album. Disarming in its frankness. We’re talking “warts and all” here. Even though Dan comes across a decent person, you can tell “Teach” is a veneer. The cokefiend always reigns supreme.

Like the scene where Drey accidentally witnesses her role model writhing in drug sickness. Let me tell you: Epps was a revelation. She’s adept at being equally hard and soft. BTW, do you know what a “drey” is? A squirrel’s nest, where the skittish creatures may call home, atop the trees and away from the possible dangers on the streets. Unsure if the scenarists were aiming for such a metaphor, but Epps is equally skittish and concerned with Dan, the most reliable father figure she’s ever known. But she also knows it’s all just a skein; Dan is broken inside. So is she, and better at hiding it with school, b’ball and ignoring her real Dad who might be some pusher. Chuck E’s in love supreme.

Let’s talk more about young Ms Epps. Never have I seen such a pouty face express such distress and hope so well. Epps is diminutive, a tomboy and clearly is bearing a shield against her world. Her Drey was intense, so much so that she borders on unpleasant. But don’t confuse unpleasant with being uninteresting. Gosling may have been the lead, but Epps was the star. Her performance as the just-barely-holding-it-together, feigned-tough-as-nails girl from the streets was just as fragile and empathetic as Gosling’s, but digesting her struggles made Dunne’s addiction weak in comparison. Oh, you’re addicted to blow? At least you can afford blow. And my daddy might be your connection, you liar you. Yeah, like that.

It’s not all scorn and sullen with Drey, though. Despite she discovers Dan is an addict she doesn’t shun the guy. He’s Teach first, and has been the only decent male role model she’s know for a time. This may sound kinda weird but after the whole “busted” scene Epps not only warms up to Gosling but sorta becomes his life coach. Think about it: your kid’s teacher spends upwards to 6 hours a day in close proximity with your child, hopefully imparting knowledge and cultivating a skillset that’ll get said kid through life. This is low-rent parenting, to be sure, but still the teacher is in charge of your son/daughter/antelope for one quarter of the day. He/she should be a pillar of strength, both educated and moral. Dan is one half, and Drey takes up the reigns for the other. That being said, an argument could be made that Dan is passively using people to find a center. Drey may be, too. Some sort of reverse Lolita complex at the fringes here. Or maybe it’s just ships in the night. Like trawler against dinghy, but still who knows? How they interact with one another, naked makes for delicious tension as well as the hook. You want—need to know where their story is going. I did.

I sense a certain reaching for elegance in Nelson. Yeah, it’s gritty. Often filthy. Still hope nips at the corners, like some Shar Pei demanding a yapping b’room break at her choice tree. Direct elegance regarding one of the best stories ever written about such codes: cold and hot, yin and yang, good and evil. That stuff again.

Robert L Stevenson’s The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde.

Stop, stop, stop. Slow down and quit chewing on the carpet. I ain’t making outright comparisons, nor implying writer/director Fleck lifted his sh*t from this tale twice told ten times. No. That filth and hope dynamic? Aye, there’s the rub. It’s a good rule to follow in a dramatic character study that you need some solid foils. Despite Stevenson’s book having the two foils as one, it nailed the notion of black and white being inseparable. That being said, we got some heavy-handed stereotyping going on here with Nelson, but it’s well-crafted. Strung-out white guy with a decent education that granted his decent job, his own place, no reason to shave and miles of coke at the ready. But his own place is a rathole, he re-wears his shirts based on how bad the pits stink and his bookshelf is choked with books he read ages ago, with no new editions on anything.

And snort.

Drey lives in a solid apartment where the laundry gets done, albeit in “the projects” (a throwaway term these days in movies concerning black people. Might as well use the phrase “in exile”). She has an absentee mom due to her grueling work schedule, but she always finds the time to make the time. Sure, the cooking may suck, and the dirty dishes require a cold chisel to get them approaching clean. Drey has a mild shield against all of this domestic crap (which in turn might be the ultimate mystical crap), her casual father, Frank. And how keen is a name like that towards Drey’s odd family dynamic? It’s not too many lollipops; that’s done the most damage. It’s the overbearing uncertainty of everything. Consider the dinner scene dichotomy. But overall Drey knows she can rely on Teach.

Hope vs despair. Who’s gonna win? Neither, and that’s where our quandary. Nelson is a film about being alone, by choice or by defense and smeared across a tricky social spectrum. Yet, it really ain’t all that tricky to divine.

I know I’ve been rather cagey in picking Nelson apart. Apart from the Nighthawks/Jekyll And Hyde/addiction stories, my take on the movie is that despite its tropes, in encompasses all the jazz I’ve been waxing poetic for for the past jillion paragraphs. You can kind of see where it’s going, but it doesn’t. Nelson is sneaky. It’s creepy, dire and plays on your expectations like a well-conducted orchestra. It manages to transcend its trappings thanks to the honest, unlikely chemistry between Dan and Drey. After all, “Daniel” is Hebrew for “God is my judge” and “Drey” (short for Andrea) is derived from the Greek word for “warrior.” Yeah, I actively looked that up. We got a tale in duality here; better honor it with pointed symbolism.

And Nelson is pointed. All the angular, myriad yet tired devices used here are used well. Well-crafted, like I said, but still derivative. Don’t make me remind you again about the blues. The strengths of this film lie squarely on the shoulders of our leads. If almost loathe to admit that here with Nelson dang, Gosling can act. It’s mostly thanks to Epps, though. I’m quite the fan now, even though this was her ostensible film debut. She carried herself with iron and grace. Beyond all the heavy-handed shame and squalor, Epps’ performance guides the Finding Forrester-esque plotline towards the divine.

Am I overselling this? Maybe, and don’t whine. Considering how some geeks dissect the first Star Wars trilogy against the prequels against The Force Awakens, my woolgathering is tame. But on the whole a solid story is a solid story, regardless of its trappings. This may have been yet another character study, but the characters made it work.

As well as the atmosphere which wore the cloak of selective solitude, nasty duality and clinging to non-life. Nelson isn’t necessarily a dark film, but it sure is grey. We do get elements of light here and there, but they are short and ultimately fleeting with shadows creeping at the corners. It’s all a good thing. Despite itself.

Now it’s time to hit a meeting, then a diner, then my navel and finally a fresh bottle.

I have another movie to screen. I need to get alone.

And I don’t own an XBox.

Dick joke…

Guy goes to a plastic surgeon. Complains that his penis is too small and is rather insecure about this. Doctor recommends a radical procedure. Take the tissue from a baby elephant’s trunk—won’t hurt the elephant, won’t hurt you—and implant the tissue into your penis. Success rate is high, you’ll be twice the man you were. Literally.

Guy opts for the procedure and it’s a success. He’s feeling so confident about his new manhood that he asks that cute co-worker girl on a date. She accepts.

So they’re at this posh restaurant, drinking and laughing. The server sets down a basket of breads on the table and walks away. The moment he leaves the guy’s dick springs up from under the table, grabs a roll and yanks it below decks.

Guy is red with embarrassment. The girl is bemused.

“Hey,” she says, “Do you think you could do that again?”

Through tight lips the guy says, “Um, I’m not sure. I don’t think my ass could handle another roll.”

Rimshot. Groans. Small bow.

Stray Observations…

  • That wobbly Homocide-esque camera work is distracting. Maybe for a reason?
  • “I hate…” Palm wipe.
  • Gosling has all but mastered the art of being distant here.
  • “Is that gum in your mouth?” Teachers.
  • That tic, the collar sniff.
  • “You shoulda seen the wall.”
  • Right on the nose. Sorry.
  • “One thing doesn’t make a man.”
  • Trainspotting: engaging in an activity one thinks is important, but is in reality a waste of time.
  • “You have a good night.”

Next Installment…

Keanu Reeves is John Constantine, Hellblazer. Con man and occult detective, keeping the forces of evil at bay for just the right price.


RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 19: Roland Emmerich’s “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004)

The Day After Tomorrow

The Players…

Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ian Holm and Kenneth Welsh, with Emmy Rossom, Sela Ward, Dash Mihok and Jay O Sanders.

The Story…

Something’s a-stirrin’ in the Atlantic Ocean, and it ain’t just the tuna running.

When Jack Hall, a roguish climatologist and his team nearly perish in an ice flow cracking off the Antarctic shelf, he takes this to be a sign (at the very least) that his theories on climate change might be correct. Despite his credentials and impeccable data, Hall’s claims don’t do much to sway the US government into taking action. There’s been evidence for decades that global warming is a very real thing, and all of Hall’s research might be on to the reason why and maybe how to fix it.

And it’s not just all about a drastic increase in greenhouse gasses.

It’s far worse.

The Rant…

If you’ve been paying attention, the subject of climate change has been quite the hot topic—so to speak—in recent years, both in the scientific and political communities alike. Some claim global warming is due to man-made pollution. Others say it’s part of a natural cycle. A few say both. Most stamp their feet and say neither and return to that Game Of Thrones marathon and their Chex Mix.

Me? I don’t know what to think. I’m no climatologist. I’m not a politician, either (thank you and you’re welcome). But I’ll tell you what I know. Say you work in high places, and some Poindexter with multiple PhDs and a particle collider at the ready approaches you with some data suggesting a possible global catastrophe, wouldn’t you, as an elected government official serving the people’s interests, take at least some pause?

I would. And I have only one term limit: my life, and want to keep it as long as possible.

Hmm. I think this might be my first openly political diatribe here at RIORI. Sure, I’ve dabbled in the kiddie pool of partisan social commentary before. Hell, it’s part of this blog’s raison d’être (and movies. Can’t forget about movies). But actually taking a deliberate stand on a social issue? Not sure.

Too bad. I’m drunk and here we go.

Here’s a tale courtesy of the way-back machine. When I was a kid, way back in the bad ol’ 80s, I became aware of this environmental crisis which swiftly became a major buzz during the drowsy end of the Reagan years. Scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. This layer of weird oxygen surrounds the planet serving to deflect most of the sun’s harmful radiation. Without it, all of humanity would be one big, walking melanoma. Down at the South Pole it went missing, and kinda began to f*ck sh*t up.

And the hole was getting bigger.

And later another hole over the Arctic joined the party.

Then Tibet got bit.

What was up? Turned out that all those aerosol cans of Aqua Net, Lysol and Silly String (yes, Silly String) sprayed over the decades were the culprit. Or rather, what made the stuff spray was to blame. The propellant those things used to pssssht were called chlorofluorocarbons. CFCs. They were found to basically eat ozone when their residue reached the upper atmosphere. And this only took—give or take—a little over fifty years to happen. A veritable blink in Earth’s history. All from a few hundred thousand A/C units churning Freon on a daily basis.

When all the research got added up, the US and many other industrialized nations quickly put a moratorium on CFCs. The disuse of said chemicals didn’t halt the damage to the ozone layer, but it was slowed. But the damage was done, and is still there. The consequence has been, besides the Dali Lama’s bros needing SPF 10,000 to work tai chi, an increase in potential global warming.

This was over thirty years ago, and efforts were made to fix it. Thanks in no small part to the vigilant guys in white coats.

So now. It’s thirty years later. Efforts were made back then and the environmental issue of depleting ozone got addressed, including the offensive chemicals being banned. Still global warming exists. Persists. And the majority of our present elected leaders are breaking their knuckles from jamming their fingers into their ears with force greater than tearing a phone book in two drawn between a pair of tanks (go watch the MythBusters ep). Um, huh? The scientists so esteemed then are but witches and goblins these days as regarded by House and Senate. There is no proof. Look at this snowball I brought in to this hallowed hall of government. Well, if said snowball hailed from Phoenix during July then I might be a tad concerned.

Where did this willful ignorance come from? Sean Hannity? Look, if there were any immediate threats to life on this planet, and the nerds came a-callin’ with their clipboards and slide rules to the powers than be and said, “Wait!” Well, you with your doctorate from Georgetown and not MIT, might be wise to take at least some heed.

Politicians are supposed to uphold the public need—the so-called “greater good”—for their constituency. If some well-educated, well-meaning dude—an expert in their field—pays you a call and tugs on your coat about a potential danger to your much-needed voting community, again, wouldn’t you take pause? At least to prolong the lives of the electoral season ticket holders? Some that even work for ExxonMobil or BP? Some that might be lobbyists possibly holding the unedited cut of the Zapruder film?

I dunno, maybe. Just maybe.

There. Lecture over. Please pass in your Blue Books and class dismissed.

*audience rushes towards the exit, some trampled into a molasses-like smear, now unable to catch the latest Michael Bay movie staring Jim Carrey*

Like I said, I’m neither a scientist nor a politician. I don’t know what’s going on, except that something is going on. In the sky and/or in the halls of Congress. But I reiterate, I’m no expert. If I want to get some facts on climate change, I think it best I consult a real expert.

Good thing I got Dennis Quaid on my contacts list…

The life and work of a dedicated scientist can be harsh. The life and work of a dedicated paleoclimatologist (say that five times fast) screams harsh.

Ask Dr Jack Hall (Quaid). He’s been globetrotting for years, lifetimes away from friends and family, all in search of clues. Clues to how our planet works. Clues to how our endless ice ages advanced and retreated. Clues to what makes the ocean currents tick. And after many years, while posted in Antarctica, Jack might have found some answers. Finally. In the form of a vast chasm that nearly swallows up his entire research party.

Wait. The clues weren’t leading up to this. The Shackleton ice shelf is breaking off into the ocean? Like that? Christ. More clues abound.

Hall has been studying the Earth’s ancient past it see if climate change then predicts climate change now. According to his data, the answer is yes but a helluva lot faster than a few millennia. We’re talking decades now. Maybe just decade. No matter when, the issue of global warming demands attention now. But for all his skills and exhaustive research, Hall’s warnings go all but unheeded by a US subcommittee headed by the man himself, veep Becker (Welsh).

With the global economy on his mind, and America’s place in it, Mr Becker recognizes a potential grave matter in a global catastrophe. However there isn’t enough resources going around to just jarring shift the world’s industrialized nations into a realm of tree huggers. Besides, the planet has fared far worse before humans began littering its atmosphere with greenhouse gases. How dire could this matter be? How rapid could these climate shifts move?

In a word: very.

Despite Congress bending an ear backwards, Hall has at least one advocate in the form of Dr Terry Rapson (Holm). Rapson is more or less Hall’s spiritual mentor regarding climate affecting the planet and vice versa, and since taken a shine to Jack’s work. His experience studying the ocean, particularly the ebb and flow of the North Atlantic Current might be pertinent to Hall’s theories. Perhaps it’s not just global warming that’s messing around with Mother Earth, and it might go beyond the polar caps melting at an alarming rate. Rapson warns there’s a distinct chance that rapid climate change could disrupt the planet’s oceans, namely the currents that serve as Earth’s natural thermostats. If the currents begin to shift—or even fail—we could see a precipitous decline of the world’s temperature, heralding in a new, aggressive ice age.

Chilling. Literally. But Hall and Rapson’s theories are just that: theories. Global warming is unfounded. Ocean currents interrupted is the stuff of textbooks. And neither of these are compelling enough to get the world’s governments’ collective heads together and be proactive. Hall and Rapson, frustrated in their acts of environmental futility, bang their heads against the wall and wonder what’s it gonna take to make the powers that be understand a potential ice age is in the immediate future?

Well, the North Atlantic Current failing is a good start. Tornadoes ripping the West Coast apart might work. How about hurricanes the size of Greenland spewing ice, covering the Northern Hemisphere in fatal, white, fluffy stuff?

Maybe someone’ll pick up the phone then. Right after they find their mittens…

A few months back I dismantled another Roland Emmerich disaster film, White House Down. The movie was a hilarious, unapologetic Die Hard rip-off, with all the hallmarks of an Emmerich big screen clusterf*ck. We had memorable characters spewing chewy dialogue, rife with cheese-tastic one-liners. There were stunts a-plenty that flipped the laws of physics the bird. A bare thread of a plot that strung (heh) the offhand story together. And of course, lots and lots of collateral damage. Let the wild rumpus begin (sorry, wrong movie. Don’t care)!

All the above are trademark Emmerich popcorn fodder. He’s a master of disaster. His neo-catastophe epics harken back to The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, only with big name stars and better pyrotechnics. His movies are designed to be loud, brash and fun, with zero philosophizing and the barest scintilla of coherence. You gotta be in the right mindset to catch one o’ Ronnie’s movies (namely being unpretentious and unplugged). Sometimes you need Solaris, but other times you want Event Horizon.

Emmerich understands this. His work fills a void in the cinematic universe: big, dumb, explosive fun. IMHO, he is the 21st Century king of the “Saturday Afternoon Movie.” You know. Steamy summer weekend. Bored? Have time to kill? Need to unwind? Stream Independence Day on a lazy Saturday. There ya go. It is here where the proverbial hog rolls in its waller. All we need to complete the scene is a sixer. Or a twelver. Whatever works.

*shakes head with a crooked smile*

For some odd reason, The Day After Tomorrow missed working by a hair. And considering the above criteria of a signature Emmerich boomfest, I think I figured out what was lacking this time out. I think I also figured out why a good chunk of his movies do work.

I mean, let’s face facts. All of Emmerich’s films are derivative. This is the point. Let’s keep and maintain the story at its absolute baseline. Let’s amp up the F/X to a ludicrous level. Let’s play connect-the-dots with story progression. Let’s just have fun, people.

But whatever we get out of his films, let’s not ever do these two things:

  1. Get all serious, and;
  2. Have boring, stock characters.

Day committed both these crimes, and that’s why it swiftly got bogged down resulting in a 2-plus hour long slog.

First things first (and this might be a first). Here’s an action movie with a sociopolitical/environmental message. Been done, and seldom well (Steven Segal’s On Deadly Ground springs immediately to mind, unable to be redeemed even by Michael Caine’s gravitas). It’s a tricky thing to make a mainstream movie with a serious message to get out to the masses. Socially relevant movies are as old as the medium (e.g. Birth Of A Nation) and all over the place. If you take a breath, all movies are socially relevant, from Silver Linings Playbook to the Watchmen adaptation (you can read those reviews here :)). Movies are farting out loud with social issues; the skill is executing such a movie without being too obvious or—heaven forbid—preachy. Emmerich’s movies are at their best when they don’t tax your neocortex too much. When they don’t act as a churchkey popping open a fresh can of paint. We want popcorn. We want jokes. We want boom. Boom, I tell you!

We don’t want the Weather Channel, no matter how well the writers did their homework.

There’s nothing wrong with having a big deal disaster film tackle so prickly a matter as climate change. Al Gore and friends did a pretty good job. If you think about it (something I don’t openly endorse regarding an Emmerich film), Earthquake and The China Syndrome were about environmental disasters, and both achieved what Day failed to: generate interest.

As I’ve said before, the glue that holds a story together and keeps it humming along, be it novel or movie, is tension. For all the chaos seeing Mama Nature at her worst time of the month, Day suffers from an acute lack of urgency. I know. Despite at the outset Hall and Rapson tell us about the ensuing weather calamity, when the sh*t goes down there’s a lot of tripping over feet. Stuttering. Sure, there are a lot of the the key Emmerich touches of crash and wow, but they stagger. Why? Mostly lousy editing.

Day comes across as too self-aware, especially with the heavy-handed environmental message in tow. The self-aware factor in Emmerich’s movies are always there, though. It’s that when it’s winking, it works. The goofiness factor of his films—be it with story, acting or pyrotechnics—make the flaws go down a lot easier. Just a little bit of sugar with the urine.

Day lacks that. It’s a fickle movie, in mood and execution. The film’s whole atmosphere, so to speak, is cranky and pessimistic. The story drags out in a terribly over-serious, PSA kind of way. It’s a cautionary tale with a very large budget and banks of digital tech (over)driving the message home. Now a lot of Emmerich’s films—if not all—have a message of caution. Be it the dread of an impending alien invasion, science going too far or governments sleeping with the enemy, it’s all a hook for his movies. It mostly works, but when his stuff gets too self-aware (read: self-important) as it does in Day, the helium goes out of the balloon. The urgency gets lost in the scuffle, and the actions scenes are like so many bookends encapsulating the message, always with the message. In short, Day got too serious for its own good.

Secondly, a great deal of Emmerich’s success relies on his movies’ casting. There’s a lot of awkward wedging of human drama into Day, video feeds or no, which ain’t Emmerich’s typical MO. It’s not organic here like his usual fare, for all its wanton and welcome (and in this case, needful) silliness. So take pause and listen up. I know you’re not gonna like this, and it might want to make you slam the book shut forever. I’m telling this for your own, movie-going good. It is true, but it is not necessarily fair:

Independence Day was a ridiculous film with a scattershot plot lifted from a billion S/F “alien invasion” films. It was derivative. It was obvious. And if you took a nanosecond to pick apart the plot holes, a singularity would occur over your head and all your memories would be transmogrified into the liner notes of a mid-70s Rush album.

But it sure was fun. Vintage Emmerich. Damn the torpedoes!

Why did ID4 work, what with all its contrivances? Casting. The folks at the casting call did their homework when it came to selecting dramatic personae for the mid-ninties update of Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers. We had fresh-faced Will Smith in all his winking, charming glory. We had eternal nerd Jeff Goldblum. There was the poor man’s Harrison Ford, stony Bill Pullman. Whack job Randy Quaid, Sage Judd Hirsch. Oscar-winner Mary McDonnell. The late, great character actor James Rebhorn as the irritant. Then piece-of-ass-of-the-moment Vivica A Fox. ID4 even had Commander Data, for Pete’s sake. With that eclectic line-up, how could a summer movie not entertain?

All of Emmerich’s movies feature ramshackle casting; folks you’d never see communing together except at a bar. With the example of ID4, it was a fun film, but not a good film. It was redeemed by its colorful cast. Pitting Kurt Russell and James Spader against the tranny from The Crying Game was great, chewy fun for Stargate (it didn’t spawn multiple TV series for nothing). Foxx and Tatum in White House Down made for a funny Abbott and Costello dynamic. Such casting saved potential turkeys from the sticky cinema floor because it kept the movies engaging. The characters held our attention, and quite well.

The casting aspects never quite gel in Day. It’s not for lacking a great cast, the classic Emmrich ace-in-the-hole. I love Dennis Quaid, and he’s no stranger to sci-fi action films. I remember his roles in nifty B-movie homages like Dreamscape, Enemy Mine, Wilder Napalm and Innerspace. Hell, there was that recent s/f calamity tale Pandorum where he got to play the demented bad guy. His bro did great in ID4. With Dennis’ credentials, he should’ve been a round peg here.

Nope. His Jack Hall, although in reliable Quaid form, is stiff, disconnected. He doesn’t really engender much empathy from the audience. Sure, he’s the pinion on which the plot spins. He’s a got a solid backstory (also derivative, but I’ve already hinted at giving Emmerich a pass about this). He’s got family issues. He’s got drive. And he is wanting for an emotional investment from the audience. The Quaid movies I mentioned above were fun because he hammed it up some. This is an Emmerich film. Isn’t the hero supposed to crack wise with regularity? Not with Hall. It’s all shrugs and worry. Again, I blame the subtle-as-neon message up against the neck. It robs the movie of any potential verve.

Let’s talk about the rest of our players, shall we? Like I intimated, Day isn’t lacking for an eclectic cast. Holm is a delightful character actor, and I remember him best from his role as the psychotic android in the original Alien as well as the fidgety priest in The Fifth Element. His acting chops are terribly underused here. His Rapson was so terribly laid-back in Day, the calm voice of reason and/or herald of impending danger. Sure, it’s nice to have at least someone keeping their sh*t together in the face of impossible odds of survival, but I’ve watched Holm freak out, and it would’ve added some spice here. Kinda like smooth operator Captain Kirk losing his crackers in the original Star Trek ep “The Enterprise Incident” (what? Too abstract? Too bad, film nerds).

What I found rather amusing about the casting in Day (besides trying to accept him as a teenager) was seeing Jake Gyllenhaal in all his pre-Oscar glory. Jeez, Bubble Boy has come a long way. In Day, young Jake doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself. His character is terribly awkward, and not because of his obvious geekiness. He appears aware that he was too old to play a teen, and being a young man unable to convince himself of acting so otherwise. That and his Sam is a cipher. Isn’t the whole strained father/son dynamic over and done yet? I know that Emmerich likes to play with classic Hollywood character tropes, giving spin. No spin with Sam. He’s rote, that and totally lacking any chemistry with Quaid, especially when their interactions get mawkish by the third act. It’s a shame what with these two usually reliable actors.

Now Welsh as VP Becker was a stitch. There was a none-too-subtle analogy going on there with a Cheney/Bush portrait (and Perry King as the bewildered Prez with maybe only one line of stumbling dialogue drove the point home). Welsh was the only interesting character in the whole movie. Sure, he was the “bad guy” and they always get the best lines, but it was how they were delivered that mattered. It’s easy to peg a villain that twirls his mustache. It’s more interesting to try and peg an antagonist who carries themselves so calmly and rationally as an antagonist. Remember Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter? He wasn’t the villain. Ostensibly it was Buffalo Bill, but Lecter was calm and calculating. Bill was clearly disturbed. Who won the Oscar? Now no, Welsh didn’t eat anyone, but he exuded slimy confidence of a dyed-in-wool politician that would never accidentally shoot a hunting buddy in the face. This appeals to me (not the shooting-in-the-face part. Sorry).

Sela Ward was pretty. Moving on.

Enough grousing. There were some aspects of Day I dug. You gotta find the sweet amidst the bitter, right? I think I spent enough time being bitter here for now. Instead, how ’bout those signature Emmerich F/X? As always, strategic and dazzling. The weather effects are great. They’re also totally plausible. Over the top, yes, but the “atmospheric anomalies” kind of reminded me of a Jack Kirby comic. What he drew didn’t exist, but looked like it should. Even those multiple tornado touchdowns in LA could never happen (based on the laws of physics, which are rigorously never adhered to in an Emmerich movie, thank God) looked like they should’ve happened, at least within the context of the story.

Apropos of nothing, I’d be remiss to mention that Day—for all its awesome spectacle—got a lot of flak for so much urban collateral damage so relatively soon after 9/11. This must’ve hurt the box office takeaway. I don’t think any terrorist attack undercurrent was part of Emmerich’s story, but people can be a might fickle regarding a city under siege, be it a bomb or a hurricane. This possible oversight on the studio’s behalf might’ve done some damage to the movie’s rep (but I think the fragile acting might’ve been a more likely culprit).

Day did have another significant thing going for it. My darling, bitchy muse pacing was sated here. Despite the bumbling plot and protracted running time, the movie had a mostly smooth pace. I know, I know. How can that be with all my moaning and groaning about lackluster story and clunky acting? Well, we understand the plot was convoluted and at times felt kind of non-linear (not to mention lacking in following interior logic, but hey again, Emmerich movie), but it strangely all hung together well. The subplots, though generally unnecessary, didn’t muddle the flow of the film. The overall muted acting didn’t distract from the story’s momentum. Despite all the other hiccups, Day rolled along with nary a hitch in context. I think that last bit’s the key. In context. I guess with this aspect, the sum was greater than its parts. If only in this aspect.

Lightening up, let’s not forget the funny. Like with all Emmerich films, there’s a good deal of humor in Day. I’m not gonna get into (again) the whole Bill Shakespeare thing. I lamented earlier that this film needed a healthy dose of silliness. While not on par with the hijinks of ID4Day had its tongue-in-cheek moments. Seems all that overarching self-awareness wasn’t lost on our heroes winking understanding about how ridiculous and surreal their circumstances are. And they are ridiculous. Emmerich hasn’t lost sight of screwiness here, even though it gets all bleary with needless melodrama and an overly serious message. Some comedy is better than none when the entire planet’s atmosphere is malfunctioning, I guess.

I’ve found precious few directors who can so cleanly set up shop the way Emmerich does, making their movies their signature own. Spielberg, Scorsese, Zemekis, Gilliam, Fellini and Kurosawa are others (not to name-drop). Now I’m not placing Emmerich in their camp, not exactly, but you have to respect a filmmaker who knows his station and can sell it so well to audiences. To be so unashamed to lay it so think like so much peanut butter that audiences get all up in that. Like I said in the White House Down installment, Emmerich’s stuff is such silly fun, and not designed to win any awards (barring Best Visual Effects and most ka-booms per frame).

With Day, the man slipped up a bit. Sure, all the nuts and bolts were there to make it another surefire Emmerich blockbuster, but the parts weren’t connected properly. Too many loose ends. Too much philosophizing. Not enough one-liners. No Jeff Goldblum. You hear what I’m screaming.

I repeat, Emmmerich is the modern day king of the disaster film (maybe the only king), a sub genre that’s been more or less absent until his rise to power with ID4. We need chaos and creation like his. We need stupid stunts and even stupider jokes. We all need to sit back, get all comfy with our Slim Jims, turn on one of his films and let them delta waves do their thing. It’s just that simple. And Day was not. It was a fantastic, visually-rich disappointment. It was also a movie of contradictions in execution. Smooth pacing, jerky storyline. Great cast, lame acting. Interesting plot, preachy story. Again, screaming.

If there was one message I got from Day—besides the subtle-as-neon enviro one—it was this. One for Emmerich, actually: You be you, so don’t make us think. Keep that ID4 sequel nice and goony and maybe I’ll return your calls, just so long as a colossal electric storm doesn’t drop over the Eastern seaboard and generates enough amps to create an EMP to wipe out all the cell towers from here to Venus.

Don’t forget to recycle!

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Sorry, folks. If you’re looking for style over substance, look elsewhere. Just watch out for the storm front first.

Stray Observations…

  • I really dug the opening credits. Cool camera work.
  • Emmerich sure likes to do a lot of globetrotting in his movies.
  • Nice touch with the tree flick in the foyer.
  • Erasing the Hollywood sign? Roland you sly devil, you.
  • “So much for one in a billion…”
  • What was Tomita up to between here and Karate Kid 2?
  • “Terrible weather!” “Tell me about it!”
  • Amazing service that lady in the library has.
  • “We’re all gonna need it.”
  • “There’s a whole section on tax law down here we can burn.” Come to your own conclusions.
  • “Just dropped in to do a little shopping.”
  • Thank you for not showing Sanders’ impact. A rare display of restraint on Emmerich’s part.
  • “Have you ever seen the sky so clear?”

Next Installment…

Disney leads Pixar Studios into a Brave new world, and the results are rather pretty. Maybe too pretty.