RIORI Vol 3, Installment 88: Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close” (2011)



The Players…

Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and Max Von Sydow, with Viola Davis, Jeffery Wright, Zoe Caldwell and John Goodman.


The Story…

A year after the 9/11 attacks claimed his father’s life, young, troubled Oskar finds a mysterious key squirreled away in his dad’s closet. There’s nothing remarkable about this key, save it’s meant for a lockbox, with the name “Black” written on the envelope it was in. But Oskar gets it into his fevered imagination that if he could locate the proper Black this key belongs to, perhaps, just perhaps he can earn a few lost minutes with his late dad.

So our young hero does what any logical, determined and mildly autistic kid would do: scour the five boroughs in search of Mister and/or Missus Black and return the key to its rightful owner.

Piece of cake.


The Rant…

I work with a guy who has Aspergers Syndrome. He’s a pest.

I think he prides himself on it (being pesky, not his condition). He’s loud, garrulous, eager to please, profane and loud. He can also turn on a dime into a petulant bitch if something goes awry with his very practiced routine. He speaks in loud head tones usually reserved for carnival barking, and goes on and on about the obvious. He also has it in his head that if one of us is not responding to he repartee (read: trying to ignore him) we cannot hear him and proceeds to carry on in his indoor voice. You don’t wanna hear his outdoor voice.

Did I mention he’s loud?

Just a mo’. For those who need some science dropped on ya, Aspergers is a low level kind of autism. The guy’s quite highly functional, and capable of a normal work conversation in a normal tone of voice. He’s not antisocial, and a far cry from Raymond Babbit and his Kmart boxers. No. However if his routine is messed up, he gets all grouchy and twitchy and even louder. The dish machine crapped out for the umpteenth time this year, much to his very vocal dismay, even after the old clunker was mended. The garbage disposal hasn’t worked right since.

That’s what he does. He’s a utility man. Washes the dishes, scrubs the pots, mops the floors and does the occasional tinkering. He takes his work very seriously. Almost too seriously. The degree of pride he has in his sanitation skills rivals the discipline a Marine has towards making a bed, snapped sheets and all. Beyond that he labors under the delusion that his expertise takes precedence over the cooks. There’s a degree of truth to this. I’ve often claimed that in a commercial kitchen the dishwashers have the most important job, even beyond the chef’s responsibilities. Think about it: can’t cook nothing without clean pans, right? Right, hence the guy’s overarching pride and free lip-flapping about it. The guy’s a pest.

It’s the nature of the Aspberger beast. The signature behavior of the condition is vigilance in maintaining a routine. That vital routine. If there’s an interruption, those who suffer from this condition can get thoroughly unhinged. It’s all about ritual, like most levels of autism. Recall in Rain Man how aggro Dustin Hoffman got when his TV schedule torn asunder. Aspergers is kinda along those curves, but not out of protection but more for a sense of stability. Until it isn’t.

Now I’m no expert (but I’ve seen them online), and regrettably like most folks what they know of autism is either through Rain Man or Jenny McCarthy, but me being an armchair sociologist I’ve got—and learned through experience thanks to my boisterous co-worker—what divides blown out autism from Aspergers is patterns. Either creating them to drown out the noisome world, a world beyond control and maybe comprehension or maintaining them in order to get through the day. The second isn’t too far removed from the rest of us “normal” people. We follow our own patterns every day. It’s called a routine. Maybe you have one. Maybe I need one. Does The Last Of Us 2 every weeknight at 7.30 (after Jeopardy!, natch) count? Thought not.

However, I think (think, mind you) there’s a third kind of pattern the Aspergers affected follow. Pattern seeking. Keeping an eye out for how maybe A may lead on to B and then on to C and so on. Further trying to make sense of their environment as a mission, where as we kinda bounce between situation to situation. When we drink too much coffee we bolt for the bathroom. We don’t wait until 11 AM, no matter how much our collective bladders scream in tongues.

That makes no sense, but finding a pattern, no matter how minor (or even non-existant) creates a sense of control, even if such control controls nothing. To seek a pattern that may or may not be there is a test of one’s mettle; to make sense of the senseless. Nothing is random. There’s a meaning to everything, if only in the Aspergers mind. This lets the day roll on by.

Take Oskar Schell, for example…


Since the 9/11 attacks, nothing makes sense to young Oskar (Horn). But it should. It better.

Oskar lost his dad Thomas (Hanks) when the Towers fell, and with that tragedy he lost his best friend.

He suffers from Aspergers Syndrome, a mild form of autism. His dad was tuned in to what made his nervous son tick: Oskar being ultra-curious about everything, Thomas devised all sorts of activities relating to the City’s geography, history, topography, etc. “Never stop searching,” was Dad’s mantra. And Oskar took it to heart.

Maybe too well.

A year after his father’s untimely death, with great trepidation Oskar snoops into dad’s closet, untouched by time. Inside he finds a curious blue vase, which slips through his shaky hand and shatters onto the floor. Inside Oskar finds something odd: a small envelope, and inside a small key. No clue was this unlocks. The only hint is the name “Black” on the envelope. The kid’s intrigued. Obviously this key was important to Dad. But why? And what for?

One of Dad’s missions impressed into Oskar’s impressionable, amateur urban explorer imagination was to find the “Sixth Borough,” whatever that meant. Maybe if Oskar can find the owner of the mystery key he might unlock the mystery of the Sixth Borough. If so it might mean some lost time earned back to be with Dad for at least 8 minutes or so.

So a year after the Worst Day, Oskar goes questing for a Best Day. Finally again.

Have key, will travel…


Two words: Oscar bait.

I’m not talking about the main character, either. You may know what I’m referring to. If not, here we go again you yobs. How long have you been visiting here? Really? How many hours? Ah. My bad. Now zip it.

There are movies made to make you think. There are movies to make you feel. There are movies about slobbery aliens hell-bent on global conquest but not before absorbing all the Ben & Jerry’s through their mucus membranes and eventually chomping off Aaron Eckhart’s bobble head (which might also make you think and feel something). We can only hope.

Now we know Hollywood is a business first and a creative outlet last. Marketing fits in there, too somewhere; Black Panther tee shirts made in Vietnam don’t come cheap. Wait, yes they do. Anyway Tinsel Town does its damdest to separate movie audiences from their cash on La La Land’s final product: entertainment. Thinking and feeling is all well and good so long a profit gets made. And that is the end to Hollywood’s means. They don’t expect, nay demand their goods win awards. That’s just icing on the cake, fringe benefit, lagniappe. Bruce Willis shooting things is what the public demands. And more popcorn. Lots more popcorn. And the ninth Harry Potter, God willing and crossed fingers, ya muggles.

Safe to say Hollywood doesn’t waste time and money on artsy-fartsy sh*t. Until it does.

The Blind Side. The Soloist. Crash. What do these flicks have in common? Well, they either got nominated for or won Best Picture. They were also painfully obvious, super transparent attempts to garner some statuettes come February. They starred surefire bankable casts, straight line plots dealing with heavy matters and helmed by name directors. Oh, and they were all pretty easy to digest. And dropped in December, wink wink. Desperate cries for attention from the Academy. Sometimes said cries were even heard. A Beautiful Mind anyone?

Not to say those films were bad. I saw the above and was entertained. I also felt hamstrung by lack of organic storytelling involved. I think that’s the key to any successful Oscar nom: don’t force sh*t. Don’t hammer me over the head with social commentary, try to rape my tear ducts over manufactured tragedy, rip me off, cast Jennifer Aniston, whatever. Don’t make me aware of connecting any dots.

Fluffy movies, those with organic narratives, likable unwrought characters and a lack of pretense can win Best Picture also, sometimes seemingly by accident. Forrest Gump, Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven. All got accolades without padding or pandering. Baiting.

Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close commits these crimes, and worst of a presented in a sort of “What’re ya talkin’ ’bout?” kinda shrug. We got Tom Hanks, we got Sandra Bullock, we got 9/11. What more could you need?

Cohesion, for one.

You get the feeling of how a lot of disparate elements were shoehorned into Loud‘s plot, which is pretty aimless to begin with. All through the first act I kept asking myself, “What is going on here?” Despite the story is a straight line (with a few crucial flashbacks), it keeps wandering. We get the whole key thing, right. I’d call the pacing slow. Well, that’s not quite right. Patient is a better word. You have to have some to get through to the second act.

Cobbled together how? Well, first of all our “lead” Hanks. The teaser. Also the Maguffin that sets things in order and not the key (by extension, Hanks is the key as far as Oskar is concerned). Hanks is a terrific, fun actor. Our generation’s Jimmy Stewart. The star of such classic Americana like Big, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13 and Saving Private Ryan. Wonderful films. With that CV alone no shocker he built up his acting chops to win a pair of Oscars. Good for him. Far cry from Bosom Buddies I tell ya.

So we’re fishing for Oscars. What’s Hanks up to? Wake him up. Dustbust the cheetos off his sweater. The guy who did Billy Elliott? I’m in. How much screen time? What? Um, okay. Gimme the cheetos.

Hanks spends about maybe 15 minutes in the movie, half of them in flashbacks. Audience suckered? Check. His is nothing but a glorified cameo. Admittedly, Hanks makes the most of those precious minutes. His Thomas plays as mature Big (albeit kinda flat), fully engaged in his son and always applying Oskar’s “condition” to his benefit. Wide-eyed wonder stunted by anxiety. Turn a negative into a positive. Thomas is the one guy in the galaxy that gets his son, and Oskar’s is keenly aware of this fact. Even though we have Hanks for precious little time, it’s time well worth having. Even if it’s only a tease.

The flip side (or should I say “blind” side. Heh) is our supporting actor, Bullock. Not a real big fan of hers.  Everything since Speed has been meh. Take it or leave it. She’s a solid actor, don’t get me wrong. Sort of journeyman, though. Here’s the check, play rom-com/action/drama/sci-fi/fantasy/snuff film/whatever. Sure, she has range. Too bad it’s all the same. She’s reliable, and a lot of times I feel underused. Like here in Loud she is painfully underused, if at all. She’s just wallpaper for the first two acts, and makes a poor grieving widow that. It’s tough to invest yourself in a leading character if said character isn’t there. I mean in the Gertrude Stein sense, doy. Bullock’s presence was the break glass in case of an audience’s waning attention span. Strike two.

Another gimmick to get the Academy’s attention: debut role of a child actor. It worked for Anna Paquin, Tatum O’Neal and the moppet that was Ricky Schroeder before he grew up and threw himself into populist doggerel. Horn holds his own well enough, but his Oskar is unlikeable. Insufferable would be a better word. Now I know I gave the lowdown on how Aspergers makes a person poised to be overly affable and cranky in the same breath. I never experienced “royal pain in the ass” from my co-worker. For most of Loud I couldn’t stop asking, “Will I ever be down with Oskar?” Nope, and my inability to engage with Oskar made his quest not engrossing but more along the lines of a Python-esque “Get on with it!” The reason behind why the above actors worked because their roles were not precocious or saccharine but endearing. Oskar is none of these things, just a pain. Strike three.

Oops. We’re losing crucial ground here in search of a statue. Our leads dash any sense of wonder that goes along with the (admittedly interesting but still hampered) plot line. Like I spoke about above, we’re seeking patterns in Loud. Trying to make sense out of the chaotic world. Horn’s Oskar may be a pain in the ass, but he’s at least an interesting pain in the ass. That only goes so far. As I said, the plot is a straight line and made kinetic/muddled by Oskar’s fractured view of the world. What the disturbed kid needs is a foil. Someone to aid him in his quest and help put things in perspective.

Help is on the way.

He shows up in the middle of the second act, and just in time. Max Von Sydow’s mute renter is just what the doctor ordered for Loud. Sydow was nominated for Best Supporting Actor here, and what I saw he was the only one who deserved mention. I never knew how great an actor the man was until I had to watch his face, that craggy, haunted face. He saves the movie from itself I felt. Here’s an honest soul who speaks volumes without speaking. His backstory is steeped in finding, maintaining patterns also. There’s the scene when Oskar meets the renter and fast learns of his curious condition (his troubles with communication reflects Oskar’s) via the notebook he scribbles in to “speak.” Oskar takes note of the hundreds upon hundreds of old notebooks climbing the walls in the renter’s tiny flat. Looks like Oskar’s not the only one who can’t let go of the past and is having trouble what path to follow towards the future.

Of such dysfunction bonds are borne. The renter manages to coax a bit of the kid in Oskar. There’s curiosity, intellect, anxiety and a quest for purpose. The stuff Thomas tried to imbue in his awkward son. Sydow gets this, and assisting Oskar in his quest might help the boy better understand the big, bad, chaotic world. If it weren’t for Sydow’s performance, Oskar would just be a snot and we’d have nothing to hang onto with Loud. Once the renter takes center stage the whole tenor of the film changes. One I enjoyed watching, if only for a limited time.

Speaking of limited time in the good acting department, Loud‘s casting director was very wise to cast Wright as REDACTED. I love Wright. I think he’s been great in every film I’ve seen him in, even the ones that were lame. The guy is very versatile. Although the scene he’s in is technically not the final scene, it was. It presented a sense of closure to Oskar’s mission, and if there is a message to Loud it’s that closure doesn’t exist. The whole cast is wandering, looking for logic that’s not there, nor ever will be. Wright’s hangdog and eventual glow speaks volumes for a bored audience. Considering that, maybe director Daldry was just trolling us all along. Well, minus the bait-and-switch with Hanks. Looking for hope leads nowhere, but that doesn’t mean we stop searching.

It’s been said that the point of a journey is not to arrive (yeah, yeah. Rush lyric. Shaddap). As we follow Oskar up and down the boroughs, looking for helpful patterns, Loud insists at a lot of messages beyond the futility of closure. What is this movie all about? Redemption? Learning how to stop grieving? Learning how to grieve? A maudlin celebration of NYC’s diversity? Oxymorons? Once I was lost, then yadda yadda yadda? Can’t say anything for sure here. All I knew for sure was that Loud was two hours and three minutes of my life I wanted back. Maybe that and Hanks.

You don’t have to be mildly autistic to connect the dots with Loud. Might help. Might also help if Hollywood quit trying to openly dupe us with the carrot and the stick.

Oh, and that ever elusive statue. Need one? Go check out the local cemetery.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Don’t get baited.


Stray Observations…

  • “There’s no such thing as trouble today.”
  • “Schell” is German for “ringing.” As in your ears.
  • Either Oskar better have Aspergers otherwise he’s just really f*cking annoying. Great acting? Toss up.
  • Released on the tenth anniversary, no less.
  • “We need to talk.” “About the mausoleum?”
  • Was that the Wendy’s girl?
  • “I just wanted the lock.”
  • That goddam tambourine.

Next Installment…

Good news! Justin Long and his friends got Accepted into the college of their choice!

Well, of their making would be more accurate.


Advertisements

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 3: Darnell Martin’s “Cadillac Records” (2008)


Image


The Players…

Adrien Brody, Jeffery Wright, Columbus Short, Mos Def, Eaamon Walker, Cedric the Entertainer and Beyonce Knowles.


The Story…

The history of Chess Records over the course of three decades reveals the rise (and occasional fall) of Chicago musical luminaries such as Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Etta James, all planting the roots of rock n’ roll…and the notoriety that can come with it.


The Rant…

I love music. I love movies too, but it’s only a close second. The reason why this blog is about movies is because I can wrap my head around that art form. Music is just so wide and varied and freakin’ complicated that I lack the verbiage to document opinions about it. Music just goes on forever, but there is a starting gate somewhere for the first motion picture. I can go from there. Anyway, anyone who knows me knows that I am a rock n’ roll guy. Have been since I got a hold of dad’s Elton John tapes (yes, tapes). Love rock n’ roll; it’s in my DNA. But I do have a great deal of respect for the genre’s progenitors. Cats like Chuck Berry (possibly the world’s first guitar hero. Ask Keith Richards), Louis Jordan (a personal favorite of mine), Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Ruth Brown and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins—to name a few—I have easily and often cut my teeth on again and again. There could be no rock without these folks.

When I was younger in my music collecting, I was a completist. Got into a band and/or singer I liked? Had to collect the back catalogue. Delving further into sniffing about a band’s roots, I’d investigate their influences. For instance, I discovered Kraftwerk by way of Joy Division by way of New Order. That kind of sifting. I learned that the thrill of the hunt (both finding records and tracing a band’s roots) could be just as bracing as the albums I’d eventually come to wear out.

This detective outcropped to where the music physically came from. As a kid and up until now, I always dug maps. I have an outdated atlas from NatGeo kicking around somewhere, battered from my endless searching. Nowadays I occasionally like to futz around with Google Maps. Y’know, because it’s cheaper than actually travel, an the satellite images fascinate me. Now granted as a kid, I couldn’t just hop on a plane to England to visit Elton’s hometown, but it gave me a sense of wonder to hear where my musical idols came from, hence the map thing. Next best thing to being there: artists bios and a place they called home. To put it simply: “The Beatles are cool. Where the heck is Liverpool?”

Paired with my twin interests in music and travel (if only in my mind), I later heard about places where certain kinds of music originated. Face it, America is a big place, populated with all sorts of creative weirdoes. Regardless of which coast you hail from, there’s gonna be a local music scene that’s uniquely, well, unique. Places like the rustic Mississippi Delta, good ol’ Memphis, Tennessee, New York’s downtrodden Lower East Side or the raked suburbs of Los Angeles. A good portion of most modern rock music can be traced back to such places. And from those places came legendary recording studios like Sun Records and Stax in Memphis, Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Abbey Road in London, or Hitsville USA in Detroit.

Not to mention Chess Records, the home of Chicago electric blues…


Leonard Chess (Brody) is a humble junk dealer, living the typical hardscrabble existence in the dumps of Southside. Needless to say, he’s broke and has very little prospects. Okay, none. What he really wants to do is open a nightclub for the musicians to play the “race music” he so enjoys, but first he’s gotta save his pennies for someday.

McKinley Morganfield—better known to his friends as Muddy Waters (Wright)—is a broke-ass sharecropper from the Mississippi Delta, living a thankless, backbreaking existence hoeing rows and earning nary a penny for his labors. What he’d rather be doing is strumming on his beater guitar, and maybe earn a living off of that someday, too. But first things first he’s gotta get off the farm.

Fast-forward a few years. Chess dumped the dump and got his bar; Waters got off the plantation, guitar in tow. The first settled down and dug in. The second got himself up Chicago way, playing his axe in street, hopeful to score a deal with his rip roaring slide guitar licks. After a fateful evening of improv at Chess’ bar where a weary Southern black guitar slinger meets a working class white Jewish barkeep…well let’s just say that from such humble beginnings, legacies are born.

Chess takes interest in Waters’ jamming and suggests they cut a record together. At first Waters is confused. What’s a curious peckerwood Jewish bartender know about music? Turns out a lot. Not long after Chess cuts a hit for Muddy, he starts to wrangle in other bluesy talents from around the Chicago circuit. There’s Little Walter, diminutive harp player and Waters’ aide-de-campe; Howlin’ Wolf, a burly blues singer from down Mississippi way; bluesman Willie Dixon who quickly becomes the house songwriter; upstart guitar slinger Chuck Berry who ushers in a new kind of music dubbed “rock and roll.” And lastly blues chanteuse Etta James, whose heartbreaking vocals could pull the tears from the stoniest of eyes. Yes indeed, the fledgling Chess Records roster quickly become synonymous with rhythm and blues.

Over the next few decades, Chess Records is peerless in it attraction and distribution of all kinds of “race music,” pioneering sounds and bringing to the masses the styles of Chicago electric blues, jump blues, early rock ‘n roll and whole slew of other styles that take the nation by storm. But all is not golden in Camelot. With great fame and fortune can come high peaks, yes, but also some crushing pitfalls. The life of a popular musician can swim in fortune and fame, but also foster loss, deception and the occasional tragedy. Not got for business, and nothing can last forever.

So the short, influential life of Leonard Chess and his recording studio was once the house of blues, molding the culture of Chicago’s music scene for decades to come, shared success and failure equally. Not all of it was wine, women and song. Well, most of it was. But for a time, the musical nexus of America was a dumpy recording studio in Chicago’s south side…


The frank plot outline above is in direct response to a Hollywood device I’ve always had trouble with: the ensemble biopic. Whereas a biopic with one central character, say the big screen story of Walk The Line, has a fulcrum to pivot on (i.e. Johnny Cash), a story involving a family like the Chess Records players tends to lack a tentpole for which the entire story can hang. To remedy this problem, the movie employs another device that I sometimes take issue with: a narrator.

Now don’t get me wrong, a lot of good movies have employed a narrator to great effect. Forrest Gump is a good example, and so was Fight Club (odd that these two movies were adaptations of novels, where narrators are indispensible. Hmm). In Cadillac Records, Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer, adopting a rather off-putting caricature of your stereotypical bluesman) serves as the voice and storyteller of Chess Records’ rise and fall. Here’s the issue: stories about places, and the ensemble of players within, seem to employ a narrator when the story is too varied and needs a focus. In other words, the story can’t stand by itself. Cedric does a serviceable job as Records’ spinner of tales, but ultimately wasn’t necessary.

There’s enough going on in and around Chess to scoop up your attention just by itself. Take the opening credits. Cinema verite of the sounds, sight and songs of the subject matter. The montage was very indie, which set my mind up for some expectations. Namely, the needful drive to set the film apart form Hollywood biopics ran fast and loose, which is an affliction of most indie films. Another trouble with biopics is you gotta embellish and exaggerate the story, since the reality is probably a lot more mundane. For instance, we can’t have many scenes where Chess is negotiating contracts with the potential talent (which must always be more involved than what Hollywood portrays, doubtless with lawyers stinking up the joint) or the unglamorous trials of touring via bus to points afar. You get what I mean; you gotta strip the story down to meat and bone and spice up the meat to make the story tastier.

From the opening credits we sure do get fast, loose and spicy. Scene upon scene serving as touchstones for the origins of Chess Records. Chess in the junkyard, Waters on the plantations. Chess in the bar, Waters on the Chicago streets. The struggles, successes and women (of which there is a lot) come in at rapid clip. It feels like this movie is in a hurry. And it is, trying to cram in as much info as possible to bookend the scenes that matter most: the musical ones. No real surprise there, but before I get too academic about it all (and I’ve noticed with these reviews my voice has been getting more uptight and stentorian with each passing week. Sorry about the lack of snark. I’m gonna try an fix that later on), I gotta get down with the film’s more accessible points beyond the technical crap.

Stuff like dialogue, which at the outset is none too promising. I’m not saying the writing is shoddy (which it kinda is), but how it’s delivered. Wright makes for an outstanding Muddy, but his delivery is rather unconvincing, not unlike the rest of the cast. He’s like your stereotypical journeyman blues guy, rough on the outside due to hard promises, golden on the inside for his gift for creating joy from his axe. Now Wright made for a damn fine Muddy Waters, all gritty and downbeat, but he had to work with what he was given, and he comes across rather one-note. A good note, but narrow all the same. As an aside, I’ve seen a couple of films here at RIORI that Wright starred in, and he is fast becoming a favorite character actor of mine. He’s very versatile in his work, and is more the less the lead of the picture, shouldering out Oscar winner Brody.

Brody as the titular music tycoon is sort of blah despite being the alleged center on which the whole story spins. Wright steals the show. As do most of the other players. Hot-headed Columbus Short as Little Walter is all fire and naïveté and plays the Flava Flav to Waters’ Chuck D. Another subtly impressive role was Eamon Walker’s portrayal of Howlin’ Wolf. Walker is an imposing charater, darker and deeper than Muddy. He was kind of scary too, not unlike the mountain of the actual man.

Here’s a treat: Mos Def as Chuck Berry. What a hoot. He’s the comic relief, all freewheeling and pop star without a whit of irony. Def has a nice Berry voice, not on point but you gotta give credit where it’s due. It’s kind of hard to screw up a role of a musician when you’re a musician yourself. But on the other hand there’s Beyonce at Etta James. The less about that the better. She’s a singer. She’s a singer playing a singer. She’s all melodrama and singled dimension. She’s got sass but should stick with singing, which for the most part she does belting out James’ signature tunes with aplomb.

Okay. There. We’ve covered the acting bases. The acting is scattershot overall, and not many of the characters (save Wright) are consistency convincing. Records is movie with an ensemble cast. The cast doesn’t play well with—off—each other. Moving on.

There’s a lot of Hollywood trappings in Records also, despite it being an indie film. For instance, the old tried and true schtick of crossing the race barrier. The film makes no bones about both Chess and Waters being on the outside, but of course between their synergy, both rise to fame and fortune. There are again stereotypical scenes addressing race relations and how music transcends all and blah blah blah. It’s a very tried trope. To trim up the film, maybe it should have been avoided altogether. I mean, c’mon. Hell, these are black blues singers working with a Jewish guy during the height of racial segregation in urban 1960s Chicago, on the air or otherwise. What the hell do you thinks gonna happen? The whole race card game is played, Hollywood. We get it. Stop reminding us. Or at least save it for one of Ken Burns’ epic PBS documentaries. Not all music stories need to be so drenched in tragedy. Not to downplay it (because without that tension, would the music have been so seminal?) but it’s stale.

What really sinks Records is too much melodrama and (you guessed it) slow pacing. Again with the pacing. There’s a lot to say about the history of Chess Records, and Cedric does his damndest to keep us apprised, but every scene is just slammed onto the screen as if the director is gonna run out of film. There’s a lot say, all right, but as an audience we don’t want to feel hurried. Watching the movie I had this recurring feeling that I had missed something. Out of breath is a bad way to watch a movie.

I love music. I want to love movies about music (not movie musicals, I generally think that sh*t’s corny). I wanted to love Cadillac Records. I didn’t. The music Chess put out hit close to my LP collection heart, but the tale of how those tunes were spun were hampered with Hollywood stereotypes and rushed production.

You know what? It takes dozens of takes to get a movie right. Sometimes with a song you can do it unjust  one. Maybe I should just’ve stuck with the albums.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Despite my enthusiasm for the subject, relent it. The film is too rushed, too staged and too fragile.


Stray Observations…

  • Mos Def as Chuck Berry. Is it a bad thing that all my fave hip-hop artists become actors? They always quit rapping.
  • “There’s your riff right there.” “Ain’t nothing to that.” Understatement of the career.
  • That tear. “She’s gonna need milk.”
  • Hot sauce. Yes. Some cultural touchstones really do transcend barriers.
  • “Skinny motherf*cker…”

Next Installment…

Aspiring writer Rob Brown is Finding Forrester to be a misanthrope, a crank and quite possibly the best teacher he’s ever had.


RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 15: M Night Shyalaman’s ”Lady In The Water” (2006)


Image


The Players…

Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeffery Wright, Bob Balaban, Jared Harris…and M. Night Shyalaman.


The Story…

Nothing much ever happens at Cleveland’s apartment complex, his home and his work. Endless days consist of fixing leaky pipes and skimming out the pool. Sure, it’s a living, a simple existence and Cleveland wouldn’t really want it another way. Sort of. So when a water nymph pops up in said pool one night and tells him her desperate tale of escape and peril, his simple world is totally upended. To say the least.

Wait. What?


The Rant…

Poor Night. After being slathered with praise for his Oscar-nominated opus The Sixth Sense, he just hasn’t been able to make lightening strike twice. Don’t get me wrong, his follow-ups Unbreakable, Signs, and to a lesser extent The Village were all fine films. But audiences are a fickle bunch. They want the goodies delivered twice, thrice and over and over again. Some directors can do this effortlessly with no question (Spielberg) regardless of whatever pap they churn out (Always, Hook, Jurassic Park 2 etc). But not poor Night, seemingly always living in a private hell of his own making, shadowed by ghosts and a psychic Haley Joel Osment.

Whilst The Sixth Sense was more or less a high concept Twilight Zone episode, Lady In The Water plays kinda on a fairy tale Night cooked up for his kids. How’s that for a healthy ego? Pretty damned good considering the literal ghosts at his back. F*ck the critics, I’m gonna base my next failure—ahem—feature on this!

Bad idea, dad…


Cleveland Heep (Giamatti) is your average maintenance man for an average apartment complex in a perfectly average corner of Philadelphia. (I’d be remiss to not mention that Night shoots all his films in southeastern PA. Guy wants to work close to home.) His days run seamlessly into the next, unclogging toilets, changing light bulbs and trying to enforce the rules of the roost. Cleveland’s life is very…average. Crushingly so.

One night Heep is patrolling around the complex’s pool, trying to catch any after hours swimmers. Pool closes at 7 don’t ya know. Well sure enough, someone…or something is mucking about in the water, and when Cleveland goes to investigate…

…He wakes up in his apartment dazed, confused and to a naked, young woman dripping water and looking spooked. Things could be worse, but definitely not weirder. The woman calls herself Story (Howard). If ain’t on the nose just like cocaine on Truman Capote’s, I don’t know what is. Story is fearful, wistful and has a certain aura about her. What’s more is the she seems to know things about Cleveland’s history that he’s tried to forget. And…wait. What the hell? Where did Story freaking come from?!?

Well after taking her in, Cleveland discovers that she is, surprise, not what she seems. He does a little sniffing around, and discovers (with thanks to the Asian tenants with the oddest bedtime story recollection ever) that Story is a “narph,” better known as a water nymph in the Western tongue. Story desperately needs to get back home, but forces beyond her control are colluding against her. So it’s up to Cleveland, as he reluctantly discovers, to draw upon knowledge of myth and legend to return Story to her realm and ultimately fulfill a prophecy, which could either save or damn both of their worlds.


Uh…yeah.

The circumstances described at butt end of the synopsis is usually when Night’s movies come off the tracks. Lady is no exception. I know it’s early in the film, but the sh*t gets really weird really quick, and not in a fun way, either.

I’ve found that with Night’s better films, the weirdness is creeping, not like being slapped in the puss with a dead haddock, all slimy and smelly. It’s called building tension, if not atmosphere. Sure, we can be dropped into the thick of it in, say, action movies. But with fantasies like Lady, we need a slow climb with some significant backstory. Since fantasy and its cousin sci-fi work in worlds of their own separate  from conventional drama and comedy, we need a steady climb in such a film from the mundane to the fantastic. Within context, of course.

(The following malarky is loaded with spoilers.)

A good example? The twin intros of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I say “twin” because the opening with the proto-humans struggles to survive and the eventual arrival of the Monolith then paired expertly executes backstory that will only reach fruition within context later in the film.

Millions of years later we have the metaphorical jump cut leading into the heralded, ballet-esque docking sequence between the shuttle and the space station, which serves as the second intro. In Kubrick’s version of 1999, space travel has become so routine that the miracle of tech doesn’t even touch Dr. Floyd or his companions imaginations. Being on their ISS is just work. It takes 20 more minutes of keen exposition until sh*t gets weird, and by that point in the film Kubrick has laid the groundwork for the proceeding sci-fi mystery.

(Spoiler alert over. You may now return your stewardess to her upright position.)

In sum, Night, you just can’t drop weird out of the sky and expect us to just roll along with it. Especially when you continue to lay on the weird all rich and thick-like. Both the audience and the cast can’t digest/process it very well.

Speaking of casting, I love Paul Giamatti, but it’s a plutonic relationship (he never returns my calls anyway). He’s far and away my favorite character actor. His work is almost always delightful, humorous and often separate from the film he’s in. He always gives it his all, regardless of the pap smear he’s gotten himself shackled into. This takes chutzpah. It takes a lot of gumption as an actor to throw yourself into a role for a film with a lot of rusty gears grinding against it. You gotta respect that. Especially if the actor is the only redeemable facet of the film.

Like I said earlier, Night conceived this movie on the basis of a story he made up for his children. Now, just because a tall tale enthralls young ears at home does not mean it will gain traction outside the house, especially considering the multiplex. I looked up the disparity of budget versus gross for Lady. Production budget, $70 million. Domestic total gross, a little over $42 million. Ouch. Even taking in the worldwide gross, this movie took in only a little over $2 million profit. That’s the price of certain actors’ trailers. In other words, a pittance. Even simpler: dud.

For all its canny flourishes, solid acting and outstanding cinematography, Lady is (if you’ll pardon the pun) dead in the water. And the funny thing is I had high hopes for this movie. The premise is just so mysterious and wonky, it had to provide some crazy fantasy elements to tickle the mind. Plus it stars Paul Giamatti! And Bryce Dallas Howard is naked! It’s something I wanted to recommend to others with great enthusiasm!

What went wrong?

Well first things first, I’d like to say (and he probably would, too) that M. Night Shyalaman is the Hitchcock of the supernatural film. That’s a fair comparison I think, if you consider The Master’s mid-period films of the Fifties. Night employs a lot of deliberate camera angles, centering elements of the scene to either drop hints about future plot points or to frame the actors (a good example of this in action is Hitchcock’s classic, Rear Window). There are always elements of mystery in his films, paranormal or otherwise. And he always likes to make a cameo in each of his works. Or co-star, as it would appear in Lady. Nope, it wasn’t enough Night made a big budget movie based on a kiddie story, but he had to contribute large chunks of dialogue and plot progression as well. This sort of hubris might’ve offended a certain portion of the movie going audience. The phrase, “Who does he think he is?” seems apt. Just cuz it worked for Hitch, well, you know (that and Alfred never uttered a syllable of dialogue in his films. Smart).

Now don’t get me wrong on that paltry matter. Lady is superbly, well, filmed. It’s crisp and clean. The CGI is an accent, not filler. And the acting by the cast (save Night) is well done. It’s the damned plot that’s hair-brained. This film is so f*cking obtuse. It commits another cardinal sin in my book about bad films: it fails to maintain its interior logic. I know it’s a fantasy film, but watching the story progress is like watching someone patch up a leaking dam. There are corners cut to cram in each element of Night’s supposed fairy tale, seemingly shoehorned into being for the sake of…what? His vision? His kids’ expectations? The fact the audience would lap it up like so much melting ice cream?

Examples: Like all of Night’s films, there is that pervasive weirdness. It oozes from every pore of every frame. It usually works. But not weirdness for its own sake. Like I said, pieces of the story are introduced suddenly, thrown against the wall and maybe they’ll stick and forgotten to only later take up a different tack in the movie. Also, it’s odd (to say the least) how everyone in Cleveland’s apartment complex easily, unquestioningly goes along with Story’s, well, story in trying to make the fable come to life. Is it because Night’s moral of the movie is to say that some fantastic stories should be true? It’s as subtle as a fart at a funeral here. Way too much exposition takes up the second act, mostly consisting of a lot of mumbo-jumbo to allegedly push the fractured plot ever onward. If you’re paying attention, it becomes headache inducing. Again I say: hubris.

Lady In The Water is a waste of a good idea. In execution, it was a shambles. I think we might need more fantasy films at the box office nowadays. True escapism. And based on something else besides Tolkien. Small praise for Night in trying to fill this void, but he tried in a very clumsy fashion. Too bad.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Ever saw a movie you wished you could recommend but in good consciousness could not? This be it.


Stray Observations…

  • Howard looks incredibly young without any make-up (or at least minimal coverage). She was around 25 years old when this film was shot; she looks bloody sixteen here.
  • The casting director must’ve had a field day with this movie. The sheer abundance of faces here is amazing, extras and all.
  • “Thank you for letting me wear your beautiful shirt.”
  • Night has the most on screen time here than he’s had in any other of his films. It seems that the more face time he gets, the poorer the return at the box office. I think I discovered a corollary.
  • The verdict for Lady from my stepdaughter was “Awesome!” She’s thirteen. Maybe I wasn’t the target audience.
  • Damned sprinklers!

Next Installment…

An M Night return engagement! Will and Jaden Smith figure out how to live life After Earth.


 

RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 11: Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers” (2005)


Image


The Players…

Bill Murray, Jeffery Wright, Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton.


The Story…

After being dumped by yet another girlfriend, serial bachelor Don figures simply he’ll be alone forever. It’s probably easier this way. But when an anonymous letter arrives one day and tells him he has a 19-year-old son out there, Don sets out on a cross-country journey to confront his past—and a few old flames in the process. Mom’s out there, too, you know.


The Rant…

First off, I want to apologize for the last installment. It was hastily written under the influence of alcohol and hubris. Mostly alcohol. Also having one of your most fave rock n’ roll icons die of cancer would sour anyone’s day. If I were a professional, I would say that the last installment was very unprofessional. But I’m not, so I’ll simply say sorry for being a dickhead. Okay? Good.

Anyway, on with the show.

Relationships are hard. Believe me, I know. I’m in one. Sometimes I can recommend it. Other times, meh. But here’s a relationship that hopefully none of you will ever have. One with yourself. It’s ugly, and gets stale really fast…


Poor Don Johnston (Murray). He sucks at relationships in a habitual way. Can’t stay with one woman for any appreciable amount of time, and sure enough, they all eventually leave, sick of his sorry ass. Seems Don is trapped as a career bachelor, hopelessly stuck in an affair with himself and his past. And he’s a chump for it.

One day, Don receives an odd letter in the mail. A pink letter. No name. No return address. Handwriting unfamiliar. Message damning. It’s from an old flame, casually informing Don that he has a 19-year old son by her, whomever she may be. This lights a fire under his ass, and Don seeks out his security expert neighbor Winston (Wright) for advice. Of course, who else? He recommends to Don that he goes through his little black book of memories and seek out any female potential leads from his past to locate his quarry. Sure. Seems logical. So with nothing but hazy recollections of his failed relationships as his guide, Don goes on a cross-country adventure hunting for the mother of his mystery son.

And he finds out that each relationship ended for a reason. Sometimes a very good reason…


This movie did not clean up at the box office. Blame the director.

Jim Jarmusch has been long derided or complemented (depending on who you ask) as an indie darling. The long tracking shots. The signature fade out. The quirkiness. Jarmusch has never made any big coin from his films. His reputation almost precludes this. And I’m a fan of his work. Flowers is a pseudo art house film, not meant for all audiences despite how charming and unintentionally funny Murray is.

Not to mention that I’m a fan of Bill Murray, especially his “late period” stuff, when he hung up screwball for leading man as average Joe. If Murray here were anymore disconnected, his head would fall off. He is as wry as ever, lugging around that look on his face that screams befuddlement and self-absorption. Carrying that ridiculous bouquet of pink flowers (get it?) as his calling card, going door-to-door to all his exes, each one getting worse and worse than previous? It all but practically shouts “kick me.” And Bill is a delightful stooge with a bullseye taped to his ass. It’s really all an exercise in vanity as well as hopelessness. You never get a feeling of rooting for Don, and you don’t have to. He’s not likeable in any immediate way, but as I said before, it’s Murray, and he’s always charming.

Rounding out the cast is a flighty Sharon Stone, a vacant Frances Conroy, an aloof Jessica Lange and an outright hostile Tilda Swinton (whom I couldn’t even recognize at first glance). It’s as if each woman represents a chapter in Don’s life of bad breakups and past mistakes. In fact, that’s exactly what it is. No hidden subtext there. As a tonic, Jeffery Wright is hilarious as Don’s “life coach” and guide on his journey of self-discovery and madness. I don’t know what accent that is he’s using, but it’s oddly appropriate.

This whole movie has a surrealist Wes Anderson kinda feeling, maybe because of Murray. Little touches here and there painting different flavors of bizarre domesticity play out like a reel of Don’s history of crawling up his own ass. Maybe this film is about self-discovery. Maybe it’s a cautionary tale. Maybe it’s the oddest road trip movie ever filmed. I don’t know. What I’ve learned after watching Flowers is this: don’t chase down your past. What you may find is nothing more than yourself. That can be ugly.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. But hard choice this. Jarmusch’s films are decidedly not for everyone, especially those who have short attention spans. Let’s say if you’re a fan of Jarmusch, then see it. It’s got all his trademarks, good and bad. If you’re not a fan…What the hell, rent it anyway. It’s an interesting little piece of cinema, and consider it training wheels for other quirky indie films out there.


Stray Observations…

  • Bill Murray has mastered the hangdog. I think you could trace that all the way back to Carl Spackler from Caddyshack infamy. Something about Murray’s eyes when he delivers dialogue.
  • “Don’t worry. I’ll monitor your house everyday.” We all need a neighbor like Winston. We do. Save the accent.
  • “I’m a stalker. In a Taurus.”
  • That’s Murray’s actual son with the scene outside the cafe. The whole film’s about a family affair, right?

Next Installment…

Keanu Reeves looks through A Scanner Darkly. Whoa.