RIORI Redux: Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid And The Whale” Revisited


Image


The Players…

Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Klein, with Stephen Baldwin.


The Story…

This is a story with an insightful look at the crumbling marriage between a self-centered novelist (whose career is on the wane) and his up-and-coming writer wife. In the meantime, the warring couple’s two sons get caught in the crossfire, which is where, as always, things get complicated.


The Rant (2014)

Here’s a new one for you. A film that did quite well at the box office (its production budget of a mere $1.5 million yielded over $7 million domestic total gross), received rave reviews, sported an excellent cast…and no one has ever heard of it.

Ooooo. Chills, right?

What is it about indie films that get people’s hackles up? A great deal of the public’s perceptions is that indie films can be artsy-fartsy, pretentious, twee vanity projects aimed a very narrow audience of either highbrow snobs or annoying hipsters that disdain anything considered “mainstream.” Which is rather appropriate considering these are the types of characters that inhabit the world of The Squid And The Whale.

The above claim is not without merit. A great many of indie films earn those epithets. But I don’t think Squid is one of them. I don’t think so. Although this is indeed an indie film, it isn’t in any immediate danger of being considered darling.

This movie is decidedly a character study, and both Daniels and Linney are two of my fave character actors. They tend to pop up in films that often place them in roles against type, whatever that may be. These types happen to be a couple who are so unhealthy for one other you cannot possibly pick a side. Unlike their kids.

Once upon a time in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in the mid-80’s…

There are some movies you can dislike, but not exactly hate. Something tells me that this is often a side-effect of a lot of indie films, especially comedy-dramas like Squid. They get wrapped up in their needs to be left of center in their execution that sometimes it just leaves a bad taste. I’m really diffident about Squid. I mean, it was a fine film. There was a lot more to love than hate. But still, there were these conventions in place that, although I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, seemed trite and frankly frustrating. Then again, some were plain as day.

The good first, and there is much of it. Daniel steals the show as Bernard, so full of himself, all his intellect just a suit of emotional armor that over the years has developed quite a few chinks. His pontificating on…well, everything is both hilarious and enervating. I think we’ve all known someone like Bernard in our lives (I know I have; it’s me). The kids are amazing actors too. Walt is trying so hard to imitate/please his father he comes across as subtly confused for the first two acts of the film. You don’t know if his whole personality is wrapped up in emulating his father or just placating his ego. And Frank is so oddly steely yet innocent you can’t really pity his young person for how he handles (or doesn’t handle) his family’s breakup. When you can’t pity a wide-eyed, adorable moppet, that’s good acting.

The performances are all cringe worthy, which makes them all the more relatable. This is a good thing. Really, I was wincing with almost every scene of the picture, tantalizingly aware of every nuance and pointed barb. Everything Bernard says made my eyes roll…or cringe. With Bernard, rarely has rationalizing sound so…so reasonable. And yet so cutting you want to smack him in the puss with a dead salmon.

A lot of the acting is done here with the eyes. Every member of the Berkman clan has a signature gaze that conveys their personalities very well. Bernard is remote, Joan is maudlin, Walt is indignant and Frank is…intoxicated. It’s like the four seasons, and this dynamic makes for an engaging series of purchases to hang on to. Walt’s pleading look especially. It’s a defiant front to anything that might put his father in a displeasing light, even if he sees it himself. His self-righteous and fragile fury is frustratingly simple to taste, and he justifies his attitude as a cracked mirrior image of Bernard. Walt takes several social liberties with the cloak of mock maturity. To put it plainly, the Berkman’s are not really Floyd fans.

And now the rougher stuff, and there is much of it. There is next to no chemistry at all between Bernard and Joan. Maybe this makes for an ideal portrait of divorce, but it’s overly antagonistic for cinema. You don’t really root for these two to get back together, but a part of you kind of wishes it. At least that’s the Hollywood conceit. This dynamic may or may not be considered brilliant by most audiences, but I found it a tad confusing. The film, to me, was more about the kids.

Speaking of Joan, I expected Linney to play more of a role here in Squid. Most of the time she seemed relegated to the side in favor of Daniels’ screen time. Again, maybe this was another metaphor; Bernard’s ego so inflated it pushed Joan out of the picture, figuratively and literally. If this were the case, a very clever metaphor. If not, maybe Daniels was counting lines. At any rate, Linney seemed wobbly enough to pitch over at any given moment. I guess she was the allegorical squid here.

The tennis/ping-pong as metaphor for the kids interacting with their quarreling parents is a not so subtle message. In fact it’s rather on the nose, and possibly insulting to less lenient filmgoers. This beat was hit upon time and time again, until the driving force was dried up, as well as a bunch of other bits here and there that were delivered a tad predictably. Also, on another hand (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) quite a few “ewww” moments in this movie I just didn’t expect. I’m not sure if there were done for graphic effect or just to set the audience off-kilter.

I don’t know if all the carps I’ve listed here either amount to great cinema storytelling or a ball of confusion. Maybe that’s what Baumbach was trying to convey, and how fragile relationships can be. Or maybe it’s another indie mindf*ck that one comes to expect with these kinds of films. On the whole, Squid was supremely acted at its core (which matters most in a character study), surrounded by a sticky coating of indie trappings not easily palatable by hipster or mainstream audiences alike.

Damned hipsters. Those cold, evil hipsters…


Rant Redux (2019)…

Nope. Got this one, too. Another lucky shot. Also, it seemed years ago when I got a little more specific in what made a movie mediocre or not according to the Standard it actually made sense. Heard that stuff’s called constructive criticism, and my 11th grade English teacher was right. Dang it.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: rent it. A very keen character study of divorce in revolt. That’s the best way I can describe Squid, and it’s a compliment.


Next Installment…

It’s the final revision of RIORI‘s first volume of posts, featuring Will Smith as “vampire” slayer in I Am Legend. After this chapters closes, we’ll get on to some new stuff.

You have been warned.


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 58: Woody Allen’s “To Rome, With Love” (2012)


To Rome With Love


The Players…

Woody Allen (surprise), Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page, with Alison Pill, Flavio Parenti, Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi.


The Story…

A washed-up record producer discovers a potential new star in the toilet. A young architect battles feelings for his girlfriend’s gal-pal as well as the advice of his wiser self. An average guy suddenly finds himself hounded by paparazzi, which is the ultimate mixed blessing for an average guy.

Only in the Eternal City, me amico. Let’s take a tour, shall we?


The Rant…

About a billion years ago here at RIORI (volume one’s fourth installment to be exact) I covered Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris. I argued that although the film was well received, it met The Standard by being “too smart” for the rabble. Most of Allen’s films are like that, even the goofy ones like Bananas or Sleeper. To quote Bill Hicks, I’ve noticed a certain anti-intellectualism in this country ever since 1980 to be sure. Nowadays I understand the need for most folks to check in and check out with some mindless cinematic drivel now and then (mostly now).

Smart movies are few and far between these days. Been that way for a while really, well sooner than 1980. When I say smart, I’m not necessarily talking intellectual, dense, snobby sh*t the likes that Lars von Trier, Louis Malle or even Werner Herzog put out. And if any of you out there in the blogosphere recognize those names, don’t fret none. You just like smart films. You ain’t no snob or nothing. Sorry to burst your bubble.

No. It’s okay to like smart films, but what do I mean by smart? Simple. Movies that don’t insult your intelligence. In fact, flicks that may tickle your frontal lobes and even make you think a little. Not in a cram for midterms kind of way, but a movie that may simply make you say, “Huh…” and then go about your day leaving a warm fuzzy somewhere in your cockles. If you can locate them. Where the hell are the cockles of your heart anyway? Probably near the sphincter.

Those flicks are few and far between. Poignant, tender, ribald and a lot of other adjectives you don’t use on a yearly basis. Mostly it’s a lark to hover into such a movie’s orbit. Based on The Standard’s criteria it’s happy hap hunting to track down one of these nuggets. They are there if you want them. Ask Fandango, and try to steer clear of the latest Sandler car wreck.

Woody Allen’s stuff has always been smart, from the dour Interiors to the delightful Annie Hall. Not intellectual per se, but decidedly not dumb (including the screwy sh*t like Take The Money And Run, again Bananas and the to recall a personal fave Sleeper). Sometimes that’s all it takes to have a smart film: not be dumb. In these times where Kevin James has a movie career and Michael Bay just basically exists, not being dumb at the cinema is trace element stuff. You occasionally need a sharp film to wipe away the kernels but not something regarding a beard-growing competition at the local craft beer plank. To be plain, smart movies are all about having a chuckle and knowing why.

The whole connect the dots nature of modern comedies sour me. I like my dumb sh*t as much as the next dude, and for all my slagging on the guy Sandler’s pretty funny (when he’s not forcing it). Still, and there’s always a still, you gotta take a left turn occasionally. So back to Allen. Smart films incarnate, and although I’m a bit of a fanboy, I’d be a liar to not claim his stuff’s a reliable source of cinematic entertainment even if sometimes his oeuvre may require a slide rule. Again, no matter. If the film’s satisfying, who cares?

Speaking of satisfying cinema, Allen’s last movie (and only movie) that went under the knife here at RIORI was Allen’s Midnight In Paris remember. To review the thing in brief, watching 2010 Owen Wilson carouse with the intelligentsia of 1920’s Paris was a lot of fun, even if you didn’t know that Gertrude Stein coined the phrase, “There’s no there, there.” You didn’t need a Masters’ in English lit to be down with Midnight In Paris (tho’ it might’ve helped), but if you were a patient soul in need of a chuckle and a low tier course in existentialism, then boom. Court dismissed.

I heard that a lot of Allen critics and pundits alike regarded To Rome, With Love as a companion piece to Midnight. I didn’t see it. Sure both were tributes to the feeling of the cities, atmospherics and aesthetics, but the tenor of the movies were as different as gauffes slathering in vanilla creme and chocolate covered espresso beans. Truth be told, Paris was about smart and Rome was about “Huh…”

That and Rome had way more music and even more sexual frustration…


Ah, Rome. The Eternal City. Very little has outwardly changed here in the past few millennia. Most of the great architecture still stands, if not still being used. The people are philosophical as ever, as well as passionate over culture, ideas of romance and hospitality (mostly regarding family meals). It’s a vibrant place despite the age. In fact, it’s history makes its contemporary culture all the more vibrant. Ask Hailey (Pill) who accidentally met her future finance Michelangelo (Parenti) there.

Since their only daughter is getting hitched, it would behoove Hailey’s mom Phyllis (Davis) and dad Jerry (Allen) to jump the Atlantic and check out what’s so special about Michelangelo and his beloved home. Turns out a lot, especially for Jerry’s ears. Oh yeah, and the forthcoming nuptials, too. But first, what’s that angelic singing coming from Michelangelo’s family shower?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, established architect of shopping malls John (Baldwin) excuses himself from his wife and guests to go on a little nostalgic walking tour. He lived in Rome years ago in college, and reflection compels him to walk the back alleys of his callow youth. He bumps into Jack (Eisenberg), a young architectural student who not only is on the same studies as John once was, but quite the fan of John’s work. Jack invites John back to his place, and down the rabbit hole they go.

In yet another quarter of the city, Leopoldo (Benigni) is your average, everyday office clerk. He lives with his average, everyday wife and kids. He drives the same average, ordinary car to said average, ordinary office job battling the average, ordinary rush hour traffic every day. Every day. Everyday. Leo’s a no-one, a typical Roman citizen. Nobody would pick him out of a lineup for doing anything remarkable.

Except the paparazzi. Apparently tired of the dirty laundry celebrities toss, Leopoldo is one day swept away from his drudgery to become the guest on the local news channel. When interviewed he’s asked about his morning routine: breakfast, shaving, picking out his wardrobe as if it were all vital information. According to the media it is, and by fault of his mundane existence Leopoldo becomes an overnight sensation. His wife and kids have to battle away cameras at the breakfast table. The world comes to him asking advice on how to best butter toast. He never has to wait for a restaurant reservation. Models slither around him. What a treat for such a lowly nobody!

But is this all there is?

According to a local traffic cop, not quite and not exactly…


Considering the (very mild for a change) rant, my take on To Rome, With Love is kinda akin to an AllMusic review to one of my choice albums.

Go with me here.

For those not in the know—and regarding how old and defunct the band is, no shock—there was this post-punk band Gang Of Four that created a minor stir back in the butt end of Britain’s punk craze. Their lyrics were very political, but delivered with a healthy dose of funk and groove which made the medicine go down. The AllMusic critic with their review cited their ironically titled sophomore effort Solid Gold‘s lyrical content was less “you’re all a bunch of mindless puppets” and more “think about it.” I guess it goes to say that it’s far easier to get a message across with the carrot and not the stick.

Even though Woody Allen’s muse is very much carrot, the stick comes in handy to prod the audience to attention. Worked well for Midnight In Paris. For To Rome, With Love? Not as much. Too much carrot, not enough stick.

I’ll get this out of the way: Rome‘s a pretty okay movie. Okay. It wasn’t compelling as Paris was, but then it was a rather different movie. What got retained from its “sister” movie was it being easygoing and inviting, besides the lovely setting. There’s warmth here, and a devil-may-care flow of the narrative. I mentioned Jim Jarmusch’s style, and we have segues like his films, moving from one chapter to the next. Rome‘s bookends are far gentler, making the intertwining factor easier to swallow. I’m not saying everything is seamless, but thanks to the atmosphere you kinda go “huh” rather than “what?” as Allen takes us on the trip. It’s essential to the narrative of course.

But of course this is a Woody Allen movie, which are often funny and they are narcissistic. Rome is Allen’s view of what the city means running perilously close to parody. Ostensibly Rome is a rom-com, but most of the com part comes from classic Allen one-liners. Sure, Begnini is a stitch as always (he’s a demented riot here) but again, Allen film, and his wry wit and neurotic self sets the timbre of this movie, not to mention virtually all his films (Interiors was the blunt exception). Not that this is a bad thing. Far from it. I hate to keep hammering on the notion that Rome is the flipside of Paris. Perhaps so, especially considering the style of offbeat, winking, goofy humor in play. But with Allen being slick as he can be the proper message and/or tone of Rome is akin to Paris‘ but much more subtle. What the hell, the man just follows his muse.

Both movies are about fantasies. Paris‘ was more overt, with 21st Century Gil jaunts back to early 20th Century Paris’ writers, actors and idols. Rome‘s corners aren’t nearly as square. We have Jerry’s infatuation with Mic’s dad’s gift, which might lift him out of resented retirement. John and Jack meeting each other with a sci-fi taste of future shock, only the way ’round. Leo’s camera barrage. All are fantastical, but within mental walking distance. With Gil we know. With this rabble, again, “huh.” It gets very existential, but not as hard-nosed as Paris delivered.

All right, where does the differences end? Here. Unlike ParisRome is feel good, a rarity for most of Allen’s films (at least consistently over the past 20 years). Rome is a trifle, light as air and never cribbing from Othello. Whereas Paris was heady and all philosophical, Rome is whimsical and philosophical. Sure, that social content is still there, but if you take the darn thing serious you’re wasting your time. And admittedly knowing where Allen comes from he tries to take his audience on a serious trip dappled with enough humor to fool you. Kinda like the joke’s on us. I repeat Rome is silly, but charming and still has all those Woody Allen thingies bouncing around.

What I’m getting at is that although Rome was entertaining, often vibrant, rather funny and typical Allen this flick was mostly for diehard fans. It wasn’t as lush as Paris (or Annie Hall, for that matter) despite the cool setting. Nor was it as thought provoking. Nope. Rome was a lark. A pretty good lark, especially with the whole John/Jack (get it?) chapter, but overall it was fanboy film. Betcha the hoi polloi waked out of the theater scratching their collective heads, maybe stumbled online to RIORI and read the opening manifesto. Yeah, it was that kind of movie.

There. There’s a f*cking sober, thoughtful review for you. Take ’em as they come, cuz I get pissy not being evil. Leave the gun and take the damned canoli already.

Sorry. Wrong film.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. Rome was overall a mild film, with some yuks-yuks and clever musings on identity and existentialism. Plus the backdrop was great. But this a film for fans only, not casual Allen viewers.


Stray Observations…

  • Jesse Eisenberg, twitchy as ever.
  • “Someone dead?”
  • The “shower scene” is the most sensible, ridiculous piece of comedy I have ever seen.
  • “Can you imagine working all that time on your back?” “I can.”
  • Nice touch with the thunder there.
  • “Milly! Milly! Milly!”
  • A kind of reserved Begnini is nice, but still why does having Roberto in this film confuse my brainpan into watching a Jarmusch chaptered film?
  • Page is every woman every guy has ever dated.
  • “You can f*ck me in the car. I’m okay with that.” Told ya.
  • Awesome stare, Alec. Simply awesome.
  • “There are many stories the next time you come.”

Next Installment…

Hey, remember when we were kids and used to play Cowboys & Aliens? No? Sorry, wrong planet.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 53: Louis Leterrier’s “Now You See Me” (2013)


Now You See Me


The Players…

Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco, with Mélanie Laurent, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine.


The Story…

Taking a cue from Robin Hood, master magician J Daniel Atlas and his troupe of illusionists specialize in robbing from the rich—eg: banks to big to fail—and giving to the poor—erm, their audiences. And all the while trying to outwit the FBI agents determined to bring them down and all their hocus pocus.


The Rant…

“The world wants to be deceived.”

PT Barnum said that. To a large extent Hollywood took his notion and ran with it. Occasionally too far.

Saving my trademark salivating and snarling for…well, later, let’s take a practical look into the Hollywood entertainment complex and its machinations. Hollywood is based on deception. For real. En toto. They create stories that are (mostly) fabrications and flights of fancy. Actors are really nothing more than well-trained, well-paid liars. All that CGI sh*t you cream in your jeans over in The Force Awakens? Not there, Luke. Never was. Use the Force somewhere else. Oh yeah, that trick ain’t real neither. Sorry to pop your balloon.

Movies are nothing but two things: entertainment and deception. One might preclude the other, then again…well, later. And boy howdy, do we movie audiences f*cking love to be deceived. We have to be. We want to be. How else could one explain away the jillions of dollars the moviemakers toss around like so many platinum frisbees? All that cheddar better get recouped somehow. Hopefully with a winning hit (which are fast becoming few and far between these days) that’ll perpetuate the movie magic machine. Even a craptastic Adam Sandler flick—which may be a redundancy—that “tanks” still invites enough interest in the great, popcorn-dappled masses to get on Fandango for the advance release of Billy Madison 2: The College Years.

Slow down. That one doesn’t exist. Yet.

As Barnum put it, we want to have the wool pulled over our eyes. We pay our fee, walk into the theatre/rent that disc/stream that movie, suspend our beliefs and off we go into a 100-minute storytime wonderland with a cool plot, nifty acting and/or the occasional dinosaur rampage. All three if you’re lucky. Most of the time, we wanna go catch the pictures for fun and escape. Escape from our boring dinosaur-less lives and be deceived that Chris Pratt can really run that fast. It’s all in fun, it’s all a lie and that’s how we want it. So does Hollywood, so bless (and often curse) them for their tentpole endeavors and finally giving Ryan Reynolds a suitable role exploiting his sophomoric acting chops.

All of that was praise. I think.

As deemed by this blog, a great deal of movie fans drop down a lot of cash annually to be deceived. Often they walk away hoodwinked. These two things are not one and the same. You’ve heard me enough times bemoan the fact that Tinsel Town is nothing but money grubbing, more cash for less art and all of us sheep dutifully march into the lion’s den blindfolded wearing overalls made of pork. A significant amount of the time this is true, but it never stops the (disgruntled) patrons from coming back for more. Why?

Because the lies that are the movies are so much more interesting, sometimes engaging than our daily slog. After a hard, long week at your job, be it fighting fires, shipping out goodies from the local Amazon warehouse or putting spindles in boxes all the while cursing your high school guidance counselor, going out Friday and catching a flick is always a good tonic. We all can’t vault off to the Bahamas, but we can watch Batman duke it out with Superman. In a certain light the latter is far better. The Bahamas actually exist. Come to think of it why has “dinner and a movie” been the go to date for generations? Because it works. Dinner and a show. Comfort. One part real and the other a lie. Balance, and don’t we need more of that in our fractured lives?

Of course. Moviegoers embrace the lie because the alternative is the timeclock. Barnum knew this. Hollywood knows this. Hell, you know this. It’s the reason why we go see sequels. It’s why ILM exists, and spends its largesse on community projects. It’s why Brad Pitt makes more per film than the GDP of Belize. We need these lies, if only to counterbalance the truths of our unglamorous lives. It’s mental survival in a sense.

To wrap up this kooky, little intro let me tug on your coat a bit again about how we need the lie, the deception of movies. When I was a teen I got hip to James Bond movies. That’s some escapism there, my friend. Action, exotic locales, hot babes, cool tech, funny one-liners, villians you love to hate, nutty world domination plots and our suave 007 at the heart of all the madness. Whenever I felt crummy, I popped a Bond film into the player. Every time I believed the lie, from Connery to Moore to even Craig today and away I went. Bond got to do all this cool sh*t while driving a flash car that sported a flamethrower, kung fu-ing the girl would would later he’d be smooching and literally getting away with murder. He had a license to kill! Later on me and my married friends wondered where we could acquire such a license.

Kidding. Sorta. But again about the deception, next to nothing in the Bond films was/is very plausible (checked in on that license thing on the Black Internet. Zilch, but I now own the prototype Juno probe. Took what I could get), but that’s the point. The utter outlandishness of the films enhanced my need for cinematic lying. These days I’m not as impressionable, but the lie still works on me. As it does you. And thank heavens for it.

Now then, onto this week’s lie. And watch my hands as they never leave my wrists…


Prestidigitation. Know what that means? Sleight of hand. And that means? Legerdemain. Um, and that?

Fast fingers. Quick on your feet. Slick. Knowingly practical at deception. In other words, it’s how magicians make a living. Foolin’ ya.

J Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg) is a master of this deceitful craft. As are his ex Henley (Fisher), a glammy escape artist, Merritt (Harrelson), a self-described mentalist (whatever that is) and Jack (Franco) the greatest pickpocket since the Artful Dodger. Together they tout their act as The Four Horsemen, and are Vegas-level magicians extraordinare.

Lately, despite their sold out shows, Atlas and crew have an itch they can’t scratch. It’s not the next big act to pluck. They need a bigger rush. Make their theatrics more…homespun. Sure, they can hypnotize, mesmerize, spin and twirl, but card tricks and chained to the tracks can only go so far in the shock and awe department. Atlas thinks it’s high time to bring his circus to the masses, minus tickets.

Fast forward. On multiple occasions, and around the globe, the moneychangers find their vaults raided if not emptied. And for every one of the Horseman’s shows, audience members suddenly find themselves in the black, as if by…well, you know.

FBI agent Rhodes (Ruffalo) and his team do not take kindly to a bunch of high-end birthday party entertainers robbing millions and pissing it away on strangers. How can this be happening? How can this be real? And why the hell ex-magician cum Penn And Teller clone Thad Bradley (Freeman) constantly hounding Rhodes on misdirection?

Could it be the Four Horseman’s crimes aren’t truly crimes? Is there more than meets the eye? What’s up with the Robin Hood gimmick? Where the f*ck did all that money go? Will Bradley ever leave Rhodes alone?

All of this and maybe if Rhodes is able to unlock the mystery…


I like magic tricks. I like going “Huh” and “Whoa!” and “How’d he do that?”

Last year at Bethlehem, PA’s Musikfest while waiting for a show to start, me, the wifey and the kid happened upon a street performer, one of many many. He was a magician/comedian/contortionist who looked like Screech and dressed like Richard Simmons. His jokes went that way, too. Regardless of his endearing, self-deprecating schtick the guy did demonstrate some great tricks. Some were explicable (like uncurling himself from a toilet seat, which had to hurt) and some weren’t (like swallowing and entire, fully inflated ballon with nary a pop). We three were delighted, and came back the next night to see him perform again. Alas, he had moved on.

Sigh.

Which I how I ended up not liking Now You See Me much. It’s endgame was not “Cool!” and more like “What the hell?” Then I scratched my head, and not because of the nits.

*blogger now considers taking the cards so close to his chest and tossing them into the Cuisinart for good*

Don’t misunderstand me. For the first act I found Now exciting and fun. Sure, it was in a fast and loose, cheap kinda fun, but it was about rogue magicians! What’s not to dig?

Well, trying to keep up such a pace—or with such a pace—got rather exhausting. You know how when you see a magician perform and you’re hyper-vigilant in your gaze? You wanna catch him in the act and always fail? That’s how I felt watching Now‘s progression. At first, the movie’s rapid fire pacing was easy to follow. I thank the music. But over the next hour-plus I felt that either I should be part of the ADHD Millenial generation or in need of a Red Bull injection to my femoral artery. Both maybe. I know I claim by this movie buff that pacing either makes or breaks a picture. With Now, I never felt so dizzy or exhausted by such breakneck speed of plot. In reflection, the film’s whirlwind pace might’ve played into the entire subterfuge schtick of the alpha plot. I’d like to believe that. Until I can stop my head from spinning long enough to maybe accept this idea, get me a bucket.

That was my only real significant grievance (but not the last) with Now; the sh*t came down so fast and furious I had precious little time to digest what was happening. I like a little wiggle room with my movies to, I don’t know, absorb and appreciate what I’m watching. Didn’t get breathing room with Now. I know director Leterrier made his mark in frenetic action films (and I dug his Incredible Hulk flick pretty good), but I think his manic delivery was his undoing here. We got a film about magic tricks wrapped around a mystery with a chewy center involving revenge. It’s all a mystery, and we need some oxygen to search out the damned mystery’s clues. Not gonna happen here. Gotta give Gen Z the Pop Rocks enema before selfie number 17 in front of the soda machine in the lobby gets on Snapchat.

Call me bitter. I dare you.

Anyway. As cool as the concept was, and the hook had me I realized at the 45-minute mark that Now‘s plot made little sense. The Four Horsemen’s shows were both stage and show and had an urgency to create financial ruin for those who invited it. Fine. Why? There was a warped Maguffin dropped at the film’s outset, but so little was offered it made this guy confused for too long watching this movie. Again, I assume it might have had something to do with the underlying “not is all that is seems” theme. I still was rendered unsure. It’s a sweet paradox, makes you think too much.

The other day at work my boss was trying to bamboozle a co-worker with the classic “Schrodinger’s Cat” riddle. After confusing the other guy he asked me, “Hey, is the cat over here or over there?”

I answered yes. I think I won a prize. The tickets stopped rolling in for a full minute.

This wonky example pretty much describes the plot progression of Now. Is the movie good? Yes, until it’s not. And when it’s not, recall when it was good and hang on to that until the film’s not good again. It’ll approach sense in the next scene. I need an Advil. Another Red Bull might help, too.

What was the best part of Now was our ensemble cast. I’ve been trying to steer clear of waxing rhapsodic about a flick’s acting for the past few installments, I know. But we got us an ensemble cast here, littered with myriad talents that have no sane reason for being in a movie together. So cut me slack at bit, please? Thanks.

So then, I’ll break a promise. Does Eisenberg have to play skittish in all his roles? Some sort of contractual obligation? Despite or thanks to his signature twichiness Eisenberg’s delivery as Atlas was prime magician role incarnate. Smartass and always knowing the game was afoot three paces ago (mostly because it was his footprints). His Atlas was also not very likable. Sleazy and very obvious in being into his gig to only serve his own ends. As much as I enjoy magicians, they are a shady lot. Atlas was shady, but also a bit more than cocky. Ostensibly he was the villain in Now‘s rogues’ gallery, and I must admit that a greasy adversary does a good crime caper make.

Lesser can be said of Fisher and James’ little bro. Both were mostly wallpaper. Henley’s job was to look good (which she did) and Jack’s job was to be raffish (and look good, which he did. Don’t judge me). I understood the need for a team of tricksters to pull off their heists. We gotta have various facets of a hive mind to better understand—despite the difficulty—the motives behind the crime. Sure, plenty of crime capers have involved a single mastermind…wait, they don’t. There’s always a holy host of miscreants shouting at each other to establish motive and possible outcome (usually bad). Think Reservoir Dogs, The Usual Suspects or even Heist. Myriad weirdoes wending and winding around each other to find their quarry as well as accusing each other about who scored said quarry before the other guys did. Fisher and Franco were merely distractions, and possibly elements of the whole misdirection theme of the movie. Maybe. Mostly I found the two superfluous, and nowhere approaching Mr Pink.

Harrelson was me. Moving on.

Lastly the pinion on which Now spins, Mark Ruffalo’s Dylan Rhodes (a name that irked me for some reason). I’ve never seen the guy ham it up so much as I did here. It was tough to divorce myself from his  performance in Zodiac‘s Det Tocchi to let in the manic agent Rhodes. Right to the quick Ruffalo’s Captain Kirk-like scenery chewing was unlike anything I saw the guy do before in any of his roles. It was rather annoying, yet compelling. Again the misdirection thing, which came to an abrupt resolution in a fast, forced, final fifteen minutes (pretty good alliteration there, huh?) was likely the reason for Ruffalo to act so damned crazy. I got tired of his determined cop schtick right quick since it was made up of a dozen different determined cop schticks I’ve seen over the years. Then again, maybe the guy was just having some fun. But at my expense and winnowing attention span.

The rest of Now, since the meat of the show has been flayed, dribbles down into tedium. The fast paced first act? Well the next few were so jacked up on the Mountain Dew I had precious little time to enjoy the stunts, tricks and Fisher’s low cut blouses. I kept feeling like I was falling behind, misdirection theme be damned. When watching a magician pull their trade there has to be a small space left to breathe, you know, to absorb and then appreciate the trick. Rampant collateral damage and warp-speed editing can throttle you. Did with me. Cough.

And in defiance of Now‘s lightspeed pacing, the movie began to feel stretching. There was a lot of info dump at work, and over the course of two hours no matter how quick the action was there felt like a great deal of plot development was both rushed (to maintain the film’s rapid fire action) and sluggish (to reflect for a little to long via exposition, to keep the audience in the know). If Now was supposed to be a kinda Robin Hood tale then for what end? You can’t just rob and pillage for the sake of the story and expect to hang up abruptly to consider why. It got jarring towards the end, and ultimately made for an exhausting viewing experience. In sum, regardless of the quick pacing Now ended up stretching. It became a slow crawl to get to the heart of the “real” story, whatever it was.

Now, Now‘s biggest crime in my opinion is what has been used prior in other, more satisfying crime capers (eg: again The Usual SuspectsSe7en and to a degree Fight Club): explaining the motives as well as the tricks used against you to f*ck with your head. You don’t just explain eeverything. At least in one, lethal does. Now tries to make up for all its trickery in a rapid clip expo that should’ve taken a half an hour in maybe, oh, twenty seconds. That deal completely undid the f*cking entirety of the movie’s raison d’etre. If this was a film about deceiving the deceived, wouldn’t it have been more fair to let in a little light here and there so that us brave few that still have a Twitter-less attention span could deduce what might have been happening? Maybe then a full explanation about the past few of your precious little 90 minutes would be necessary. Me? I like to come to my own conclusions on my own time. Makes for a more satisfying movie watching experience. I graduated from spoon fed Gerber at least since senior year.

Damn. Here was a movie I should’ve liked. Instead I got fed tedium and fatigue. A fast paced movie nonetheless! Now had a lot to offer and enjoy, but after watching it I felt wasted and in need of Vivarin and some thumbing through Houdini’s bio with a highlighter with the crew of Hardball at my defense. Put plainly a movie about magic should not hoodwink the audience by waiting for the sleight of hand to. Take. It. Down. A few. Notches.

Now sleep!


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Trickery can only go far, even within Hollywood deception. The Four Horsemen used their magic to make money disappear? Where’d my 100 minutes go, huh?


Stray Observations…

  • “Too many French people in that room.”
  • Strangest post-Katrina fund raiser I’ve ever seen.
  • “I like squirrels. I’m not a frat guy.” Sounds like a confession to me.
  • That’s how I take my coffee, plus three sugars.
  • They had to kiss.

Next Installment…

A trip to London could be a new chance at love for Last Chance Harvey.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 39: David Fincher’s “The Social Network” (2010)


The Social Network


The Players…

Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Tyler Pence and Max Minghella, with Brenda Song, Rashida Jones and Rooney Mara.


The Story…

Harvard sophomore and computer wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg almost single-handedly creates social media with his revolutionary FaceBook program and all the responsibilities and woes that entails.

That’s basically it, folks.


The Rant…

I have a love/hate relationship (status) with FaceBook. Maybe you do, too.

Like the rest of y’all, I use FaceBook for chatting with friends, news feeds, pop culture pap, promoting blogs and reassurance that I am not alone in this cold, cruel world without having to actually interact with human beings. That and nurturing a low-level feeling of narcissism. Like the rest of y’all.

I logged on as a FaceBook member back in 2009, two years after its launch, which is a century in a tech savvy game of catch-up. Did my research first, though. At first I was dubious about the new program. I had my times with MySpace and found it no better than anonymous catalog mailings and highway billboards: sh*t in my face I would rather ignore. Where’s the chicks? My sister indirectly wound me into the web. Email suggestion. Checked it out, met Tom and signed up.

And here my troubles began.

Little sis was—and still is—a Facebook junkie. Posting stuff seemingly every five minutes, of things grand and mundane by whatever standard she follows. From what I’ve seen, a lot of FaceBook friends (okay, all of them) can’t discern the difference between noteworthy events in their lives and meaningless dreck. Here’s an example I cooked up years ago when FaceBook was in its infancy, and its users were all so enraptured by the idea they could share every-bloody-thing about themselves and smear it all over the Web, whether you wanted to know or not:

Say you happened upon a really good sandwich shop. Chances are you’d tell your buddies all about it and recommend the ham on rye. Normal. Using FaceBook as extension of this common, casual interaction with others, if you would regale every single person you knew—and didn’t know—with your find where to get the ultimate Reuben, you’d be regarded as a nutjob. I enjoy sandwiches as much as the next guy, but I don’t need you on my lap telling me how to do so.

FaceBook is an open forum. People tend to forget this. Doubtless you’ve come across someone’s post about something you did not want to know about, like multiple videos of them getting that neck goiter incised. Or some guy dressed as a chicken, drunk and singing Rick Astley tunes. Or some heartbroken doof confessing—probably also drunk—their hatred of the opposite sex and how they’ll never get their original pressings of the entire Nickelback catalogue on Edison coil back from their evil, evil ex. We don’t want to see this sh*t (okay, maybe the chicken guy), yet we do—like or unlike, leaving comments as warranted—and inadvertently encourage our “friends” in being attention-starved narcissists that won’t quit poking people or posting funny cat videos. The ones with the goiters. You’ve seen it; you can’t un-see it.

It’s the Warhol theory in action, only 15 minutes isn’t enough. Thanks to FaceBook, users need perceived fame fed into their collective egos 24/7. The feeds have interrupted—some may say corrupted—how people have traditionally communicated for millennia: verbally. The intelligentsia has been bemoaning the death of conversation forever. With FaceBook, such concerns have accelerated into almost self-parody. Many of my FaceBook friends I have had to cut loose. Why? There’s a rather big difference between a post about someone’s new baby and…well, that Reuben sandwich.

FaceBook isn’t exactly an even give-and-take between users. It’s become more of a pissing contest with who has the “cooler” story, which memes are the most amusing and how many friends one can accrue online. Or at the end of the day merely a sounding board, in which the user really doesn’t give a f*ck about who is listening. Maybe it comes down to just some sort of desperate popularity contest. Listen, there is no way you can have 4,000 friends unless you’re the focal point of a major religion, like Moses or Elvis. It’s all malign self-importance unchained. At the end of the day, whenever that comes.

It’s really a shame though, since there are some very good, very practical things about FaceBook. Its network has allowed people to catch up with old friends and distant family members, too far away to visit (think about soldiers overseas). Infinite hits to expand your sphere of knowledge (good and bad). Breaking news customized to your concerns. Chickens singing “Never Wanna Give You Up.” All vital things this in our cyber global village. But all these links gets me to wonder: what are long term ramifications going to be regarding America’s ability to communicate freely under a constant spotlight? Privacy is at a premium lately. How much do you really want to give away? And what exactly would that stuff be?

I don’t think FaceBook founder Mark Zuckerberg fully considered the human factor when creating his social medium. Then again, maybe he did. All too well. After all, FaceBook was borne out of revenge; drunk dialing for the Internet generation. Hacking the Net to smear a girl is the ultimate form of: look at what this bitch did to me, America (or at least Harvard)! Like? Unlike? Comments?

Be careful which computer nerd you spurn in this day and age, ladies…


Harvard University, 2003.

Computer science sophomore and hacking wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) has been having trouble with his girlfriend, Erica (Mara). She can’t stand him anymore. He’s smug. He’s condescending. He thinks his genius is being undermined by the college community. That and he’s practicing a nice, little drinking problem. She dumps his ass.

And so begins the greatest form of mass communication since Gutenberg’s moveable type. From such humble origins. legacies are borne.

In a fit of drunken pique, Mark cracks into Harvard’s network and proceeds to rearrange the chess pieces to smear Erica all over the campus. It was a simple algorithm, Mark’s his roomie Eduardo (Garfield) happen upon his buddy’s malfeasance, and is immediately taken with the potential of Mark’s duct tape and baling wire hack. If Mark’s “Facemash” can unite the campus’ thirst for dirt, then what about airing laundry at other schools? And why stop at schools? Ed comes from not only a family with deep pockets, but also a business acumen that rivals any average student at Harvard. This includes the ridiculously affluent Tyler and Cameron Winkelvoss (Spence and Hammer, respectively), who claim that they were the ones who suggested Mark’s new social media experiment as theirs. Well, only when nerdy Zuckerberg starts making some capital with his hacking.

No matter this. With Ed’s business smarts, Mark being a prodigy (with a keen though misguided grasp on the social sways towards your average college kid) and later lessons learned by a smarmy, once-keys-to-the-kingdom Napster founder Sean Parker (Timberlake), their social network will become too big to fail.

So forget the green-eyed Winklevoss’. Forget Harvard’s reqs and regs regarding Internet protocol. Forget your best buddy all hesitant in his understanding how to keep a fledgling Internet startup afloat. Forget you’re schmoozing with the first big file-sharing success story with the first big fail. Forget all that.

Harness your ego and especially forget Erica. She’s already forgotten you.

Unlike


Okay. Here’s a sort of companion piece to the whole “sandwich example” from above. It’s how the human factor gets ignored by the “men in the white coats.” And I ain’t talkin’ Bellevue bound here. Then again, I may be.

Many years past, I had a job in tech support for a mobile phone company. This was in the early aughts, when the first gen smartphones came on the market. Basic gizmos these; talk, text, web. That was it. No apps to speak of, let alone the concept of what an “app” was. I was a go-to guy to crack the hard nuts only the most affluent of customers demanded. It was a real latchkey operation back then. New tech rolling out faster than the tech guys—like me—could absorb and apply to the paying public.

The big new thing—only big when these new smartphone doohickies had actual keypads, not tap 3 three times to get F—was texting. It was more private than a phone call. When you place a call, half of the conversation might be heard by an inappropriate audience. Texts were quiet, and a bit more polite than an actual phone call when the recipient might’ve been in a place where chatting on a cell would be considered rude. Like in a movie theatre, or even in a surgical theatre for that matter.

Learned that one of the primary reasons for texting (it was called SMS then. Short messengering service) was to make cell phones accessible for the deaf. Can’t hear? No big. Just fire off an SMS and boom, target acquired. Clever, if not brilliant. Those dinosaur, brick, actual cell phones couldn’t accomplish that, let alone hold battery power beyond an hour. All hail technology.

That being said, here’s where the “men in white coats” theory comes into speculative practice. Some uber-smart dorks in lab coats reflecting on their work:

“Hey. Y’know, this SMS for the deaf is great. Now folks who can’t hear can utilize the mobile phone tech we devised. It’s all good.”

“…Well. I’m not so sure.”

“What’s that?”

“You know, people can abuse technology, as well meaning as our intentions.”

“What are you saying?”

“I mean, this SMS program is great, but what about cell phone users who can hear?”

“You’re losing me.”

“It might be quicker, and less intrusive, for anyone to fire off a text to communicate rather than place a call.”

“Your point?”

“My point is this: what if some people decide to send a text at an inappropriate time?”

“Like how?”

“Say, while driving. They feel the need to send a text while driving.”

“Oh, come on! Who’d be so stupid to use SMS while driving? You don’t see people reading the Times behind the wheel, do you?”

Splat.

The guys in the white coats forget the human factor; they forget the rest of mongrel America isn’t as smart as they are. That we have to put red octagon magnets on our bumpers to remind other drivers to STOP TEXTING. By the way, that cup of McDonald’s coffee you have between your thighs is mighty hot.

What’s my point? I feel that most movers and shakers (especially in the tech biz) fail to consider the human factor and how the average joe thinks and reacts. Sure, Robert Goddard just wanted to demonstrate rocket science as a valid endeavor. I don’t think he anticipated Werner von Braun’s efforts with taking large chunks out of London.

A bit harsh maybe, and probably something of a stretch, but I don’t think Zuckerberg was fully aware of what beast he unchained when FaceBook went public back in 2007. How could he? He’s waaaaay smarter than the rest of we unwashed masses. He had no time for f*cking around with Skyrim on the PS3. There were worlds to build. Here, have a smoothie.

I did say fully aware, however. The film repeatedly points out—at least as far as the script read—that Zuckerberg and his cronies knew what kind of dirt their peers wanted dished out online. Booze, babes and silly cat videos. Maybe chickens, too. Almost a decade on and it looks like those geeks were spot on; thumbs on the pulses of a million mouse shuffling hands. So not all dangerously intelligent computer dorks are very far out of the loop. Sometimes it pays to leave the D&D once in while.

This back and forth dynamic—a push and pull—of how those who create and understand the tech between those who use it (with limited to little regard of its potential) drives much of the plot in The Social Network. That, and piercing character study of the cast’s mindsets and motives; immaturity and hubris braced against being driven to succeed and profit. It’s the classic argument of new science in action: could we versus should we. And then what could we do next? When people are this creative and intelligent, they tend to forget how ignorant the general public is.

But maybe not this time out. Consider Zuckerberg’s muse. Girl trouble. And booze. In bersabee* veritas.

What I like most about David Fincher’s films is their deliberate, calculated, almost clinical style. It’s his signature. From Se7en to Zodiac to Fight Club, everything is precise, clean and well-paced without feeling rushed.  There’s a rhythm, a momentum. His execution is an even flow of urgency, always dusted with a little dark comedy to unnerve you back to reality, if only for a moment. Network is no different, yet it does have a different timbre than that of the director’s other works.

Network might be the first “straight” film in Fincher’s oeuvre. A surreal air always hangs over the man’s movies like a mist. There’s a haunted feeling in watching, say, The Game or Panic Room, as if something is always going to go horribly wrong (and often does) in the next scene. That Hitchcock air is mostly absent in Network, but not The Master’s skills channeled by Fincher; the movie is cold, menacing and exciting, cut with a very deliberate sense of purpose. Yet it still feels like something is going to fall off the hinges at the fringe of each scene. The deft tension is still there. It’s definitely a Fincher flick, but the rules have changed. Not to mention the subject matter. Strange things are afoot at Harvard, but it’s not about serial killers lurking in the shadows. Not this time.

So what’s going on with this change-up? First, Network‘s a biopic. This stuff really happened, albeit gussied up with some Hollywood flair and Fincher’s sense of vision. The film was based on a book, after all, and a far cry from a Fitzgerald novella. The whole docudrama aspect could be applied to Zodiac, Fincher’s other esteemed true crime drama. However the differences between that film and Network are Zodiac was scary and highly stylized. Network is a legal caper punctuated with the thrill of discovery against genius run amok. It’s a lot of other things, too, somewhat removed from Fincher’s established comfort zone, but I’ll get to that later. Stay logged in.

The second bit is that we have a legal drama on our hands. One buttered with psychological overtones aplenty, to be sure, but huge wads of Network‘s story revolves around FaceBook’s ownership, intellectual property rights and copyright law. Uh, kinda boring off the set of Law And Order: Wall Street (da-dum). Not here. Snappy dialogue and pacing correct any yawns produced by “who did what now?” and “why did they do what now?” The many scenes that bookend the tech stuff and the human factor are brightly lit, confining rooms where the powers that be try to outmaneuver the power that is, namely Zuckerberg’s shrewdness, smarts and savviness. It’s sorta like an underdog theme, but not like with The Replacements. Sure, the implied underdog is Zuckerberg, but all the legal probing and deliberation only makes Mark looking like he holds all the cards. And he does.

None of that sh*t above would’ve been easy to digest without Eisenberg’s brilliant performance as Mark. I mean, scant few of us know the guy personally (one jillion friends online or no), but our lead’s portrayal of Zuckerberg is terribly convincing of being the man himself. I’ll admit I’m not in loop about Zuckerberg’s personal life, despite his public image, but Eisenberg’s approach to the character is spot on in us knowing a guy like Mark; a person who’s your typical computer geek (mercifully avoiding the stereotype), too smart for his own good and possesses that impetuousness of youth. C’mon, we all know a guy like Mark, and despite how odious his behavior can be throughout the film, his quirks make the character relatable.

Quirks like Eisenberg’s clipped, punctuated speech. It’s akin to programming code, reflecting his whole identity. That identity is also insecurity personified, only redeemed by his work, which never ends. He has to constantly announce his genius, onto to have it rebuked by authority and peers alike. The guy is driven, you bet, but driven by what? Ego? Greed? A need to prove something? Maybe all three. Guess one has to be a bit Madoff to pull off his antics. It’s Eisenberg’s nervous and swift delivery that keeps the story chugging along at a brisk pace, an extension of Fincher’s craft.

Our other two leads don’t fare as well. Garfield and Timberlake are capable actors (I know. I’m as shocked as you are), but they don’t seem to have the verve as Eisenberg does. It’s not that they’re characters aren’t dynamic (which they are), it’s just they seem muted and a bit incongruent paired against Eisenberg’s Mark. Maybe this was done on purpose. In fact, I’m certain of it. We got the id/ego/superego dynamic going on. We dig that Mark’s the ego part already. Fine. Eduardo is the pinion on which the moral compass spins. The voice of reason. Mr Spock. Sean’s idful, and even though I fail to buy that the real Parker was that reckless, it was actually kinda fun watching Timberlake all loose and insinuating, leading a naive Mark down the trail to ruin. His Sean was like a smarmy Johnny Cochrane (is that redundant?), all fast talk and a prime example of the man on the white horse. Even though JT was a cipher (as was Garfield), he did a much better job in Network than he did with In Time. That thing’s kicking around here somewhere. Don’t watch it.

In addition to the psychological/legal drama Network is also a cautionary tale. No duh, and not just about what happens when unrivaled greed has no checks and balances. That and mucking about on the Web stealing virtual panties. It’s the human factor again, unpredictable and unchecked when the latest, shiny thingamawhatsit comes down the pike. Network showed very pointedly the possible future of a disconnected social media culture. Like now. Disconnected as far as actual human interaction goes these days. The whole “Fashmash” deal in the first act is prescient of all the psychological damage FaceBook can cause. It’s a cool foreshadowing, but chilling as well.

Network is perhaps the first mainstream film about programming that doesn’t dumb down nor mystify the impact of hacking within the Web. That being said, I cannot wait for the day when Hollywood finally puts the whole “computer hackers as gods” motif/fallacy to bed. Until then, which may never come, we can thank Fincher for his clinical, almost “coded” examination of the human factor nipping at the edges of too much smarts meeting too much tech revo too damned fast. Network isn’t The Matrix, but it does share a similar scope: tech as religion, and its acolytes. The movie is almost the origin story of a religion; look how quickly the students of Harvard and later elsewhere took “the facebook” to heart and it virtually single-handedly became gospel.

Christ, now I’m sounding preachy, and using too many religious metaphors in rapid succession. Good Lord.

I’m willing to wager that in 100 years FaceBook will be regarded as much as the Dutch East India Company is today: world-owning, too big to fail and its crown usurped by the never-ending march of (techno) progress. In the meantime, thanks to Mark and this movie we probably have a better idea where all this social media is headed. FaceBook has drastically altered the world’s way in which we communicate. Correctly, unambiguous and self-serving as it may be.

Well, at least no one’s crashed a car commenting on a singing chicken meme.

Just now.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Network is a very interesting flick, and not your usual Fincher flavor either, which all helps in the end. I understand that “interesting” doesn’t necessarily jibe with “exciting,” but when the only action scene in the film involves rowing, and you still find the rest exciting, for Pete’s sake like it.

Get it? Ha-ha. Who wants a smoothie?


Stray Observations…

  • “I don’t want friends.”
  • Eisenberg’s delivery reminds me of Clu’s in the original Tron.
  • “It was Caribbean Night.”
  • Song’s come a long way from the Disney Channel, man.
  • “This is not spam.” Yet.
  • Is this the ultimate nerd revenge fantasy? Maybe, because it actually happened.
  • “We have groupies.” Hmm. Foreshadowing?
  • The Winklevoss’ meeting with the prez was f*cking hilarious. Fincher’s knack for dark comedy doesn’t fail him.
  • “Fashion is never finished.”
  • Keen use of the club music. It’s almost like a supporting character.
  • “I’m 6’5″, 220 and there’s two of me.”
  • Is Zuckerberg borderline autistic?
  • “I remember something about a trombone.”
  • The soundtrack is great, courtesy of Trent “Nine Inch Nails” Reznor. He won an Oscar for his work here, so I guess not everything about the Academy’s standards is stodgy.
  • “I don’t torture chickens.” Alice Cooper must be relieved.
  • And yet Erica is still unimpressed with Mark’s smarts. Maybe not the ultimate nerd revenge fantasy after all.
  • “I’ll send flowers.”
  • *Latin for beer. Get it? I love being funny and clever.

Next Installment…

Dr Hanninal “The Cannibal” Lecter (before the fava beans) reluctantly lends his intellect to help the FBI nab the serial killer known only as “The Tooth Fairy.”

Ahem, waitaminnit. I mean: “…the great Red Dragon.

Yeah. That sounds cooler.


RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 17: Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid And The Whale” (2005)


Image


The Players…

Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Klein, with Stephen Baldwin.


The Story…

This is a story with an insightful look at the crumbling marriage between a self-centered novelist (whose career is on the wane) and his up-and-coming writer wife. In the meantime, the warring couple’s two sons get caught in the crossfire, which is where, as always, things get complicated.


The Rant…

Here’s a new one for you. A film that did quite well at the box office (its production budget of a mere $1.5 million yielded over $7 million domestic total gross), received rave reviews, sported an excellent cast…and no one has ever heard of it.

Ooooo. Chills, right?

What is it about indie films that get people’s hackles up? A great deal of the public’s perceptions is that indie films can be artsy-fartsy, pretentious, twee vanity projects aimed a very narrow audience of either highbrow snobs or annoying hipsters that disdain anything considered “mainstream.” Which is rather appropriate considering these are the types of characters that inhabit the world of The Squid And The Whale.

The above claim is not without merit. A great many of indie films earn those epithets. But I don’t think Squid is one of them. I don’t think so. Although this is indeed an indie film, it isn’t in any immediate danger of being considered darling.

This movie is decidedly a character study, and both Daniels and Linney are two of my fave character actors. They tend to pop up in films that often place them in roles against type, whatever that may be. These types happen to be a couple who are so unhealthy for one other you cannot possibly pick a side. Unlike their kids.

Once upon a time in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in the mid-80’s…


Bernard Berkman (Daniels) is an effete, arrogant snob. He is also a writer of some repute, or at least he used to be a lifetime ago. He now whiles away his days with teaching, giving book readings to somnolent college kids and dispensing culturally pithy dribble to anyone within earshot. And collecting ego-deflating rejection letters for his more recent submissions. His wife, Joan (Linney) is a shrinking violet of a woman, relegating her days to playing the mom role, being passive aggressive to her callow husband and making an ever increasing new life as a promising writer. The relationship has been going south for over a decade, the clash of personalities once so energizing has degraded into all out head banging. Joan can’t stand her husband’s insecurities and aloofness, and Bernard is blinded by jealousy of what may or may not have been Joan’s dalliances with other men. After one particularly heated argument about the aforementioned issues, Joan and Bernard decide to divorce, very much not amicably. Separate lives, separate homes, even sharing the family cat, before God.

By the way, they have two teenaged sons.

To say that lines have been drawn is a gross understatement. The elder son, Walt (Eisenberg), is a carbon copy of his pompous dad, lapping up whatever terse, groundless tenets he has on man, God and Proust. It’s hard to tell if passively hot-headed Walt is truly mirroring his father, or just being a sycophant. Either way, it’s a mutual relationship, and naturally Walt claims disdain for his alleged unfaithful, weak-willed mother, despite whatever pretentions Bernard may or may not have instilled in him.

Younger and at first glance innocent son Frank (Klein) is reclusive—withdrawn and confused by all the new status quo of separation. He chooses to side with his mother, who is far less judgmental than his domineering dad (who seems to have more time for Walt anyway). To deal with his alienation, Frank takes up activities of a dubious nature—to say the least—either to express his pent-up frustrations or as a means of drawing attention. Either way, the whole divorce has shattered something loose in Frank’s pubescent mind.

What with all the roadrunning, the kids being pumped for info as to what the other parent is doing, Bernard’s failing career, Joan’s budding one, Frank screaming into puberty and Walt trying to act like what his father would deem mature, it’s only a matter of time before something gives…


Sigh.

There are some movies you can dislike, but not exactly hate. Something tells me that this is often a side-effect of a lot of indie films, especially comedy-dramas like Squid. They get wrapped up in their needs to be left of center in their execution that sometimes it just leaves a bad taste. I’m really diffident about Squid. I mean, it was a fine film. There was a lot more to love than hate. But still, there were these conventions in place that, although I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, seemed trite and frankly frustrating. Then again, some were plain as day.

The good first, and there is much of it. Daniel steals the show as Bernard, so full of himself, all his intellect just a suit of emotional armor that over the years has developed quite a few chinks. His pontificating on…well, everything is both hilarious and enervating. I think we’ve all known someone like Bernard in our lives (I know I have; it’s me). The kids are amazing actors too. Walt is trying so hard to imitate/please his father he comes across as subtly confused for the first two acts of the film. You don’t know if his whole personality is wrapped up in emulating his father or just placating his ego. And Frank is so oddly steely yet innocent you can’t really pity his young person for how he handles (or doesn’t handle) his family’s breakup. When you can’t pity a wide-eyed, adorable moppet, that’s good acting.

The performances are all cringe worthy, which makes them all the more relatable. This is a good thing. Really, I was wincing with almost every scene of the picture, tantalizingly aware of every nuance and pointed barb. Everything Bernard says made my eyes roll…or cringe. With Bernard, rarely has rationalizing sound so…so reasonable. And yet so cutting you want to smack him in the puss with a dead salmon.

A lot of the acting is done here with the eyes. Every member of the Berkman clan has a signature gaze that conveys their personalities very well. Bernard is remote, Joan is maudlin, Walt is indignant and Frank is…intoxicated. It’s like the four seasons, and this dynamic makes for an engaging series of purchases to hang on to. Walt’s pleading look especially. It’s a defiant front to anything that might put his father in a displeasing light, even if he sees it himself. His self-righteous and fragile fury is frustratingly simple to taste, and he justifies his attitude as a cracked mirrior image of Bernard. Walt takes several social liberties with the cloak of mock maturity. To put it plainly, the Berkman’s are not really Floyd fans.

And now the rougher stuff, and there is much of it. There is next to no chemistry at all between Bernard and Joan. Maybe this makes for an ideal portrait of divorce, but it’s overly antagonistic for cinema. You don’t really root for these two to get back together, but a part of you kind of wishes it. At least that’s the Hollywood conceit. This dynamic may or may not be considered brilliant by most audiences, but I found it a tad confusing. The film, to me, was more about the kids.

Speaking of Joan, I expected Linney to play more of a role here in Squid. Most of the time she seemed relegated to the side in favor of Daniels’ screen time. Again, maybe this was another metaphor; Bernard’s ego so inflated it pushed Joan out of the picture, figuratively and literally. If this were the case, a very clever metaphor. If not, maybe Daniels was counting lines. At any rate, Linney seemed wobbly enough to pitch over at any given moment. I guess she was the allegorical squid here.

The tennis/ping-pong as metaphor for the kids interacting with their quarreling parents is a not so subtle message. In fact it’s rather on the nose, and possibly insulting to less lenient filmgoers. This beat was hit upon time and time again, until the driving force was dried up, as well as a bunch of other bits here and there that were delivered a tad predictably. Also, on another hand (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) quite a few “ewww” moments in this movie I just didn’t expect. I’m not sure if there were done for graphic effect or just to set the audience off-kilter.

I don’t know if all the carps I’ve listed here either amount to great cinema storytelling or a ball of confusion. Maybe that’s what Baumbach was trying to convey, and how fragile relationships can be. Or maybe it’s another indie mindf*ck that one comes to expect with these kinds of films. On the whole, Squid was supremely acted at its core (which matters most in a character study), surrounded by a sticky coating of indie trappings not easily palatable by hipster or mainstream audiences alike.

Damned hipsters. Those cold, evil hipsters…


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? I recommend this film without truly liking it. Rent it, but you only need to watch it once.


Stray Observations…

  • Oh, Lord. Wine coolers…
  • Is all the camera work here done with handhelds? I think they are. Tell me if I might have missed any scenes that were steadycam.
  • “Since when do you drink beer?” “Since recently.”
  • The soundtrack here is wonderful. Wistful, solemn and desperate. Cut by Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500 and Luna fame, two pet favorite bands of mine. Check out some of their albums; you might like them.
  • The movie was only an hour and fifteen minutes, but seemed like longer. Not that it dragged, but instead a lot of characterization was crammed in there real good. Maybe the best aspect of the film.
  • “Don’t be difficult.”
  • Oh, Lord. Mr. Mister…

Next Installment…

Will Smith declares I Am Legend against a horde of post-apocalyptic vampires. What could go wrong?