RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 16: Jodie Foster’s “The Beaver” (2011)


The Beaver


The Players…

Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence and Riley Stewart.


The Story…

When depression consumes former business magnate Walter Black, it takes a truckload of booze, an unplugged TV and a Dumpster dove beaver puppet to pull him out of the blackness. At last Walter finds a mouthpiece for his troubles via a puppet’s toothy yap. But his estranged family wonders: who’s doing the talking here? Walter or the Beaver? Seems no one can be certain, least of all Walter. But hell, this mutual relationship sure beats excessive sleep and disaffection. Welcome to a new normal. With buck teeth.


The Rant…

Aeons ago RIORI covered Silver Linings Playbook, a good movie that handled a rather prickly subject: bipolar disorder, often dubbed by the laymen and Jimi Hendrix as manic depression. Leading man Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of bipolar was very accurate, and the film cannily handled the day-to-day struggles a guy like that had to deal with just to get on with life. To say that Cooper’s acting conveyed a manic depressive’s storm and stress quite well is akin to suggesting that the Petronas Towers are a kinda tall. And that kind of understatement is not dissimilar to how the gentry often views someone in the grips of a bipolar episode: freakish or not truly sick since you can’t see any Band-Aids. Snap out of it!

Playbook, though entertaining, was at times a difficult watch. Sure, Cooper’s character Pat was going through personal upheaval (he lost his wife, home and job), but that disorder was only made worse by how Pat was treated by both his family and the community. He was regarded as fragile, unstable or just plain nuts. Damaged goods. There was a sharp note of alienation running through the movie, like others would either rile Pat and/or get his crazy all over them like with an exploding can of Coke. And the alienation wasn’t limited to just Pat’s inner turmoil, either.

I’m not an expert—but I’ve seen one on TV—however I believe that despite the trepidation and judgmental attitude polite society has towards individuals suffering from “mild” mental illnesses, they like to rubberneck. They want to see the car wreck. It’s done either out of sheer curiosity, or reassurance in the vein of, “Whoa, sure glad I ain’t that guy!”

But seriously, we all do crazy stuff now and again.

I don’t think the above attitude is too far removed towards celebs like Mel Gibson, what with his infamous car accident and ensuing drunken, anti-Semitic tirade. A literal car wreck this time. The aftermath was Gibson’s Hollywood career shot to sh*t and all the good, Oscar-winning work got tossed in the trash. Some would say rightly so. But this happened almost a decade ago, and other Hollywood types have done and said a lot of shameful things that hurt their careers only to bounce back later on (e.g. Charlie Sheen, Robert Downey, Jr and to a lesser degree, Mike Tyson) over a longer span of time. So why does Mel have to wear ashes and sackcloth for this long? I mean, Tyson, a champion boxer, beat up his wife. Then he gets a cameo in The Hangover.

Again, no expert here, but I think it might’ve had something to do with Mel having bipolar disorder. That and him making a very public announcement of it, too.

Yeah, Mad Max has gone on record as being a manic depressive. It might explain a few of his acting roles in the past (hard to believe seeing how well put together Martin Riggs was, not to mention how the cracked Mr Rockatansky carried himself in the face of family tragedy) in addition to his fevered directorial projects. A more cynical view could be taken, merely sniffing at Gibson claiming his illness had a direct effect on his undoing, therefore making him exempt from being such a doosh. Sure, his end run was highly publicized, and if all the media vultures picking at his (alleged) f*cked up psyche did any good I’d be first in line for the lab results (“Good news, Mr Gibson! We can rule out trichinosis!”). But sh*tty behavior is sh*tty behavior, and Mel’s antics have stuck to his career like a barnacle on a mid-19th Century ocean going schooner. And it’s drowned him.

Call me a sympathetic fool—or simply, fool—but I can get beyond such media-inflated bullsh*t. I myself a manic depressive can be vouchsafe in giving a Gibson a small pass. Small, mind you. When I get a manic episode, I’m quick to rile, lash out, scream and yell and verbally attack people who get too close to me. I really blow my stack, then crash like hours after emptying the fifth mug of coffee. It’s a typical scenario for a lot of manic depressives, doubtless Mel got that way, too. So I hear ya, Max. I hear ya.

But having the always objective entertainment news crews coming down on you for your trespasses which may have been the result of a bipolar episode doesn’t make the scene seem very sympathic to the plight of a sick man. Or a narcissist assh*le Hollywood type like Mel Gibson. There have been oodles of cases like Gibson’s; he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. With a chopper in the air and half empty bottle of vodka in his crotch. It’s the car wreck thing again, and boy do we lap it up, chew on it and spit it out as soon as the next celeb kicks over a box of kitties. We love the gory details, seeing our Olympians fall, kick ’em a while and then move on to the next victim. We sit away from the action, totally removed from the context and sit all safe and smug in front of a screen assured that he would never be me. Change the channel.

Another take on Gibson’s case could be one of caution. Let’s face it: mental illness is scary. It’s slippery. It’s not like a broken leg, heart attack or cancer treatment. It’s just under the surface, and anyone could be suffering from a holy host of ailments that are not immediately overt and often simply dismissed as personality flaws. Gibson’s drunken, hateful, incoherent babbling could’ve come from anyone’s mouth. You witness behavior like that and you might tell yourself, with only a whit of self-assurednesss, “sure am glad that I’m not like that! In the immortal words of Wallace “Vinizzi” Shawn, “Incontheebable!”

Truth be told, it most likely is both. Because we’re all a bit dotty in head. Whether it’s pro athletes refusing to change their socks during a winning streak to simply crossing your fingers to ensure positive results, we all do illogical sh*t with absolute assurance daily. When was the last time you checked to see if the refrigerator light really went out after you closed the door? I’ll wait.

*upset to see the last can of Crystal Pepsi was snatched up*

Okay. I guess this is a longwinded rant (what? From me? Naw) about judge not lest thee be sumpin’ or other pass the ammo. All the above codswallop was just a setup to the movie meat, y’know. With this week’s send-up, its virtually impossible to separate the artist from the art. We know Mel pulled a colossal f*ck up with his career, which may or may not have been a direct result from not being properly medicated. But the guy’s been in the movies since the late 70s; it’s what he knows. The notion of purging onscreen and really stretching The Method to clean out his closet must’ve really appealed to Gibson’s fractured state of mind. It might’ve also been considered that director Jodie Foster knows a way about how psychologically abused characters tick based on her CV (e.g.: Taxi Driver, The Accused, The One About Fava Beans And Chianti, etc) and might know a trick or three to make such a screwy premise work. There were most likely miles of cracking knuckles knotted into crossed fingers (you kooks, one and all) to see if this cinematic encounter group might gain traction.

An argument could be made that The Beaver was vicarious group therapy for Mel, as well as a half-ass apology for his multiple incidents of very public douchebaggery. Again, we all do crazy sh*t. Shameful, nasty, stupid crazy sh*t. It’s part of what makes us human. Now utilizing the voyeuristic aspect of watching movies in the dark—say like with a film about a distraught Mel Gibson battling depression with suicidal ideations—perhaps The Beaver was designed, in part, to get the hoi polloi to ask a question about themselves:

“Hey. Could become like Gibson?”

Relax. Deep breaths. There, there.

Looks like you could use a puppet…


Walter Black (Gibson) once had a life. He was loving family man, caring husband and successful businessman. He had the ideal white picket fence existence. Crushing clinical depression took all that away.

Walter’s gone now. The man he once was has disappeared. His family doesn’t recognize him anymore. His employees no longer respect nor understand Walter’s checking out. He’s gotten therapy and the proper medications, but nothing’s working. All he seems to do to cope is sleep. A lot. It’s his only escape. And his chosen escape is cutting himself off from his wife and kids. His ever-patient—some may claim overly patient—wife Meredith (Foster) eventually has her fill of her moping, disaffected husband and shows him the door. His sickness is hurting the whole family, and as an act of preservation she gives Walter the boot in hopes he’ll return with his sh*t together someday.

That someday happens right quick. Not long after his eviction, Walter decides to end it all. But not before a cocktail! Many cocktails. Like a box of vodka cocktail. He clears out the trunk of his car to make room for that evening’s going away present and chuck any crap into a Dumpster. Inside the bin he finds a curious thing: a dingy beaver hand puppet. Without thinking about it too much, he scoops up the puppet, puts it on and drives off to oblivion in the form of a cheap motel room with basic cable. Don’t forget the booze.

It might’ve been the vodka mixing with his pills. I might’ve been Walter was so distraught at losing all sense of self. It might’ve been the eventual botched suicide attempt. Hell, it might’ve been the bonk on the head when the TV fell over on him. Whatever the reason, when Walter wakes from his stupor, the puppet is talking to him. To him. The Beaver. And what the Beaver has to say to Walter makes some good sense.

So Walter wants to escape his funk, reconnect with his family and get his business back on its feet? The Beaver tells him that what’s been working has not been working and some drastic changes are in order. You have a wife, kids and employees to connect with, and your voice has been muted by your blackness, Black. So why not let the Beaver speak for Walter, get across all his concerns and fears and maybe be a mouthpiece simply to voice…Walter’s voice. His true, long lost voice. So crazy it just might work; nothing else has.

“Whaddya say, sport…?”


It’s of public record that Mel Gibson is mentally ill—bipolar disorder, to be specific—which may or may not excuse his very public acts of antisocial behavior over the past few years. While watching The Beaver it is virtually impossible to separate Gibson’s f*ck-ups and the f*cked-up-ness of Walter Black’s turbid life. One could make a very valid argument that The Beaver was made as an apology from Gibson for his bad behavior. Also, his performance as Walter/Beaver might also be construed as an attempt towards recovery. Public therapy, if you will. Illustrate to the curious rubberneckers that, hey, I f*cked up. I’m f*cked up. And it looks like this.

That being said, maintaining objectivity watching The Beaver—separating the actor from the role—is a Herculean task. This movie dropped not longer after Mel’s failing to play well with others, and the whole show is shrouded by this turn of events. This was the major grumble surrounding this flick. At first glance, The Beaver could rightly be seen as an obvious cover/exposé towards Gibson’s troubles made manifest in cinemas around the country. I however think that this mass exercise in schadenfreude reflected audiences’ already wobbly notions about mental illness. There’s this irrational—one may say crazy—fear that mental illness is contagious, like the flu. You don’t wanna get any of that on ya. Yet folks still slow down to see the car wreck. So how much of The Beaver‘s maligned rep was based on it being a lackluster film, Mel’s open letter to America or very small bamboo shoots under well-heeled American fingernails?

Not sure. But keep in mind: The Beaver is a movie first.

All right. Had to get that out there. Thanks for your patience. Now…

Once you’ve shaken away the cobwebs and unpopped kernels from your skull (there you go), we can get to the meat of the matter: The Beaver as film. I gotta say, after 70-plus installments here at RIORI, and good chunk of them comedies, The Beaver is far and away the darkest comedy I’ve ever reported on. It’s black comedy, almost charcoal. C’mon, when the opening montage is a harrowing day-to-day take on the misfirings of a clinical depressive ending in two botched suicide attempts only to have Bucky Beaver as newly appointed life coach, you understand where the writer wanted to take you. And it only gets more bizarre from there on out.

Now I’ll admit my mindset going about watching this pastiche was not unlike the unwashed masses’. I’m a fan of the Mad Max movies, and the first two Lethal Weapon installments were a lot of goofy fun. And let’s not forget the epic Braveheart, best pic for 1995 (Oscars matter for some, but not me really. Minus the statue, Braveheart is a kick-ass film, so much so it inspired Scotland in earning its independence. Really). But I was also curious to see how Gibson was going to pick up the shattered fragments of his career. I wasn’t anticipating him to screw the pooch; he’d done that well enough in real life. I wanted to see how post-assh*le Gibson carried a new movie.

He did it quite well.

The Beaver might’ve been released a little too soon for a public image, but it was rather canny on Gibson’s part to tackle this kind of role with his rep still mired in a swamp of bad publicity. Doubtless this was still weighing on the audiences’ collective minds, too. Regardless, Gibson’s acting prowess has never been better. Unquestionably for his Walter, Mel had a very deep well to dip from. Of course he was drawing from recent events, but in the film his actions and executions are never so blunt. You can actually drum up sympathy for a charter portrayed by an (alleged) anti-Semite. And you don’t feel dirty for it. I know, it takes a compassionate, empathetic mind to go with that. I have my bias. I fessed up back in the Silver Linings Playbook installment that I have bipolar disorder, so I guess I already have the proper frame of mind ready to watch and understand a movie like The Beaver.

Going with the car wreck analogy, watching Walter fumble through the film with a goddam plushie on his arm—the voice of reason, no less—demands attention. It’s so damned weird you can’t help but watch, and I ain’t talking about just the movie, either. I’d like to believe that some aspect of The Beaver’s appeal stems from the audience just waiting for Mel to crack up again. I know I did. And how ludicrous is that anyway? The whole thing is scripted and directed to make Walter walk the plank, not William Wallace. It’s kind of like with the movie Apollo 13; you know the astronauts get home safely, but the film is cut in such a way that you can’t help suspend your beliefs.

The Beaver works on that level, too, but in reverse. We know Mel’s f*cked up aboveboard. We don’t know Walter’s ultimate fate. You gotta believe that director Foster (who did a pretty good job all things considered) used Mel’s scrapes to push the story along. It might have been a little too deliberate, and any allusion comes across with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer smashing a watermelon (yes, a Gallagher reference. If you can think of a better metaphor call my agent. Just let me get one first). Still, couched in Gibson’s performance, and not necessarily his public fallout, The Beaver manages to hold its own pretty well. The whole damn thing would tear apart at the seams without Mel and his furry alter-ego riding point. Thanks to his conviction, The Beaver could either be extremely belittling to depressive or complete, f*cking genius.

Enough woolgathering. Let’s screw the nuts and bolts together. Big surprise but this is yet another character study, then again not really. Kinda hard to spin a tale about someone suffering from depression without examining their character. And boy is Walter a character. But not really. The first act establishes Walter’s predicament, and briskly rolls along into his new role, or what looks like his new psychosis. We see the Beaver as the “new Walter,” but really it’s the old Walter with a fresh coat of paint. We’re led to believe that the Beaver represents Walter’s true inner psyche, but since we’re given very little backstory (by the Beaver, no less) about Walter’s downward spiral, all we know is the Beaver outright. We have a character playing a character playing a character. But despite all this circular illogic, Gibson’s acting has never been better. Sure, post-puppet he doesn’t play like a depressive. Instead Walter seems to manifesting a split personality. But that personality is vibrant, funny and compelling. Scary even. And Gibson spins it with equal parts humanity, vulnerability and enough verve to make the hardened racist-Mel hater allow pause.

But…

Again, a lot Walter’s plight is too deliberate. Mel might be good, but he only makes the best of what he’s given. Now keep in mind his backstory against the movie, which might raised a cocked brow as to the sincerity of his acting proper; The Beaver could be viewed as Mel’s public apology, or possibly the best mental illness PSA ever cut (e.g.: the Today show scene). With that there’s a lot of opportunities for obvious symbolism cloaked in being clever. There’s lot of pushing the issues beyond Walter’s coping mechanism. His failing marriage, his checking out as a dad and his crumbling toy empire. There are waaay to many touchés; too many internal barbs poking at Walter’s past failings. Twisting the dagger, downplaying Walter’s issues. All of these points in the storyline have this before-and-after dynamic between scenes so you get kind of a multiple “icebox moments” (the whole kitchen table/ TV scene is a good example). It’s a lot of subtle hand-holding, like director Foster had an overly sensitive grasp on the story. As if the audience either needed training wheels to be made aware how tenuous Walter’s grip is on his “new life” with his family. It’s a little insulting.

And to use the term “insulting” regarding Foster’s steady hand is mildly fitting and a bit confusing. Inappropriate even. Foster’s not ignorant of how to shoot a film about “a mind out of joint.” Her directorial debut was a small film called Little Man Tate. Maybe you’ve seen it. In the film Foster portrayed a single mom whose son was a prodigy. You know the kind. Accelerated in school yet still a boy with all the growing up issues that bookend that. Brains before maturity and all it offers of denies.

The Beaver is the other side of the fence. Chemically imbalanced rather than advanced intellectually. Yeah, we know the general public is fascinated with genius, as much they are repelled by emotional problems. Tate was thoughtful, sober and had more than a few warm fuzzes. The Beaver by contrast is nettlesome (look it up; I’m running low on adjectives), and its sparse warmth is hard-won and fragile. It’s like Foster wanted it both ways here; sweet and sour. Too bad The Beaver is more the latter than the former. The whole kid gloves thing.

Beyond Foster’s unaware prejudice, what I personally found engaging about The Beaver was its spin on the whole “crazy is contagious” undercurrent. Here the prejudice was put to good use, as far as driving the plot. To me, the star of the show was Anton Yelchin’s Porter. Him keeping tabs on his dad’s crazy, logging all his issues and making damn sure not to go down that route. And all the time banging his head against a wall. Literally. Across the span of 90 minutes, we watch Porter categorically dismiss his nutty father, yet himself manifest symptoms (beyond the head banging sans a Quiet Riot soundtrack) of bipolar disorder. The clipped speech, the lashing out, making impulsive decisions, rapid cycling. And the whole head banging thing. Did I mention that? Such behavior echoes the whole “sins of the father” dynamic. Curiously enough, it’s the one piece of symbolism in The Beaver that isn’t written out for the audience since it crawls across the duration of the movie.

What makes this parallel work is thanks to Jennifer Lawrence’s character Norah, the supposed unattainable girl. Over the course of the story, another parallel’s established. In contrast to Walter and Meredith’s fragile and frigid marriage, Porter and Norah’s relationship (although platonic at first) possessed the emotional give-and-take that has been so lacking in the former. There’s genuine warmth here, doubtless due to Lawrence’s magnetism as an actor. To use a cliche, Norah brings out the best in Porter, which he naturally botches due to his implied antisocial tendencies. And BTW, doesn’t “porter” mean “carrier?” Like he’s got the potential crazy gene just under the surface?

So it’s implied there’s a yin/yang analogy between Walter and Porter. Unlike Porter and Norah’s burgeoning relationship—and this movie’s all about relationships, warped as they may get. A beaver puppet gaffer-taped to Mel Gibson’s arm being the most obvious—what Walter and Meredith has is a very strained couplehood. The troubles are only magnified by the obvious fact that Gibson and Foster have weak chemistry. On a technical side, it feels like Foster would rather be behind the camera for The Beaver. For a good portion of the movie, her Meredith’s renewing relationship with Walter gets sidelined for Porter’s sub story, which is a tad more palatable than their struggling to pick up the pieces. That line, “Black, party of two” speaks volumes.

Even though I’ve given The Beaver an overall positive (though sterile) review, it’s the final act of the show I took a real issue with. We go down the rabbit hole. Hard. This might’ve been the stuff that sent the movie straight into the pooper and out unclean for Standard material.

After 75 minutes of depression, displacement, mania and wounded family disfunction, we get fed just plain bizarre. What I alluded to earlier comes to the fore here. Jarring questions slap the audiences’ brainpan. Is Walter merely depressed? Does he have some sort of personality displacement? Or is he REDACTED? The fallout is disturbing and clubs us over the head so suddenly, so strangely we are left to question that was what we saw what we saw? The heavy-handed humor about mental illness we got served gets clipped off so sharply it went against the whole message of the movie, convoluted that it ended up becoming. This was the only real pooch-screw in an otherwise compelling and at times enjoyable movie. I’d like to say more, but my dislike of spoilers means REDACTED Deal.

I think I’ll cut it off here. I’ve already chewed The Beaver into wood chips at a metaphysical level to death. Just two more things about how polite America may or may have not chewed on The Beaver, so to speak.

It’s no surprise that the masses did not “get” nor wanted to “get” this movie. The screed from AllMovie was less than charitable and might’ve been viewed to reinforce the insensitivity the nation has towards people suffering from “issues.” Read it. I refer to that site all the time when considering weighing opinions. I found it cold, harsh and had nary a whit of anything remotely positive regarding The Beaver. They gave it two stars out of five. What’s curious is that the personal reviews’ accumulated points earned the movie three-and-half. This could be the car wreck theory in action, but I don’t know.

Second, if all my bullish*t sounds like some reactionary defense of Mel Gibson, it’s not. C’mon. Drunk driving? Racist epithets? I may be liberal in thought and action, but even I have limits (a few, but some). In the final analysis, manic depression or not, Mel was behaving like yet another over-privileged, ego-driven, Hollywood shill who felt that the rules didn’t blah blah blah. Whatever. I’m in no place to judge. Mel’s really not up the cross.

He just filmed it.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. There’s half a good (however flawed) movie here. The other half—and don’t take my word for it this time here—is a rather interesting way of cleaning out one’s closet. Now let it go and watch The Road Warrior again for Mel wreaking some real damage.


Stray Observations…

  • “She got me out of the Dumpster.”
  • Cute metaphor with the leak. Empty pillow, absent wife, house going to sh*t. Okay, sometimes the obvious crap works.
  • “It’s very big in Sweden.”
  • It’s oddly comforting to hear the grumbling of Max Rockatansky again, even if he’s all fuzzy.
  • “I’ve been doing yoga…”
  • Didja notice the bit wid’ da insulation, mate?
  • “I don’t want to celebrate 20 years of marriage with a puppet.” Not outside the bedroom anyway. Zing!
  • Walter? Walker? Mad Max allusion? The most lightweight installment of the original series? Right, I’m reaching.
  • “People seem to love a train wreck…when it’s not happening to them.”

Next Installment…

Edward Norton has one more day before hard time beckons at the 25th Hour.


RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 1: Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” (2013)


113036r1


The Players:

Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Alice Braga and Sharlto Copley, with Diego Luna, William Fichtner and Wagner Moura.


The Plot:

In the mid 22nd Century, the wealthy elite has divorced themselves from an overpopulated, toxic Earth to live out an exclusive, eternal life of luxury on the space colony known as Elysium. Such an Eden is the envious life of those left behind, and for one Max DeCosta, getting there may be the only chance of saving his own degrading life.


The Rant:

For those who’ve kept paying attention, this is the first installment of the third (and hopefully final) iteration of RIORI. It’s for two reasons, one practical and one we’ll call sympathetic.

First (in short), the practical: I finally fine-tuned the blog to a setup of maximum efficiency and minimal fuss. In real life, I make my living as a cook. That being said, us cooks must work with an economy of motion. I’ve read other blogs out there. No doubt so have you. Some are very pretty, models of webtech, which we should all aspire to. They posess lots of splash-and-dash and eye grabbing visuals that might make your forget you visited a blog to read something above all else…and try to ignore that Disney bug in the corner.

Popular blogs—the ones that might garner sponsors—look quite professional (e.g..: users paid for the premium ticket. I’m broke, so I work with what I got). A great deal of them read like they had the NY Times as underwriters. Well written, user-friendly and just the right amount of eyewash to separate them from the dross. These precious few are the high watermark that us in steerage try to aspire. That and those of us who try to follow grammatical logic (haven’t figured out the “your/you’re/you are” trifecta yet? Go review you Funk’n Wagnalls, and we’ll chat never, okay?). I’d like to think that’s so, such streamlined blogs of untrammeled verbiage. Simplicity and economy.

It’s hard these days of immediate text overflow to differ between good online content when it happens or just a lot of shock-and-awe-with-your-unwanted-selfies-in-that-truck-stop-stall-with-the-crumpmled-tallboys-of-PBR-at-the-heels-of-your-widdershins-Candies. I still suck at it. I am trying to not contribute to it. And about those beer cans? Tsk-tsk.

I’ve always strove towards efficiency and economy. Tried to. I’m no Hemingway, but I think most writers owe him a debt of gratitude in showing how to tell a story with just enough words to convey both meaning and feeling. Following that example—at least when it comes to sheer effectiveness—I’m trying to keep RIORI slim and trim, easy to access and minimal on the sparkly. Trying to. The focus should be on the semi-regular posts—the words and stories—and not the ever-alluring bells and whistles. We can access enough accidental porn via spam, thank you very much.

On the flipside, as a caution, most other blogs I’ve frequented look like a six-year old high on glue let their older sibs smatter their tweets onto solid hypertext to make the galaxy know that their kitty is such a good, good kitty. Such a good kitty. That and there’s a lot of spelling misteaks. I’m not passing judgment; I’m just reporting on what I’ve seen. Just sayin’.

*draws squeegee across monitor, hitches up belt and feels fattened by the marrow than only prime blogging can bring. Checks lock on door*

Ahem…

Second (in long), the sympathetic: The intro page at RIORI shouts its intent, ribald as it is. I’ve made no apologies; I warned you after all, and yet week after week you come back for more abuse. Thanks, by the way. But like the germ for all good stories—at least, I’d like to think this a good story—an original idea never occurs in a vacuum.

In the summer of 2013 I was tasked to work in a glorified snack bar at the country club I chef at. I did it for two summers, which were two summers too many. For one, the kitchen’s heat was insufferable. If you stood still long enough, you could watch hydrogen atoms merge with oxygen atoms and their osmosis would collect on your eyebrows. Yeah, it was hot.

For two, the clientele were basically the Disney Channel audience on speed. Kids aging from afterbirth to frustrated tween demanded at full volume where the f*ck their chicken fingers were. These were the spawn of the alarmingly wealthy; kids always tapping away at their iPhone 6 in 2012. I was the go-to man for “You wanna super-size that?” What I wouldn’t have given for a hankie soaked in chloroform and a polo mallet.

For some perspective, I was once the sous chef at a white tablecloth restaurant complete with a fey sommelier and an ever-changing menu that reflected the months. Not seasons, months. My chef was into a seasonable/sustainable doctrine that hadn’t seen such fervor since the first draft of Mein Kampf. After years of keeping salsify fresh with a milk bath and cultivating mint and sorrel in the restaurant’s backyard, I had to (being a new dad and a newfound family to support) seek out a gig that paid better and eventually promised health bennies.

Enter the club, and the ensuing chicken fingers.

I arrived then at what I now know as the “cattle call.” Summer’s a big deal at clubs. Being an operation based mostly on a summer sport, it would go to follow that during those heavy, hot days, with numerous would-be golfers champing at the bit to play a few rounds, folks might get a slight peckish. The club had several satellite kitchens opened to fill the members’ hungry needs. In turn the place took any willing applicants they could, regardless of experience.

Read: I was a sucker. But a sucker with a wife and kid. You’ll suckle at anything then.

Two sentences: I needed the job and needed the benefits. I did not need to dunk fries for the children of effete wastrels absconded to the bar because their offspring was a secondhand notion. Not that I’m bitter. Hey, want my recipe for balsamic moules a la basquaise? Of course you don’t. Go to Red Lobster. They won’t have it either.

In spite of the heat and the thankless tasks of feeding, babysitting and allowing my knives getting rusty, I had a simple pleasure in working with some good guys. All of them summer folk and they possessed a resigned, genial, shrug-and-nod attitude to the place. Most of the time working with good people in a sh*tty work environment will make the day feel a lot less like work and more like a day just getting on.

Despite the craptastic, cramped conditions, insufferable heat and nary a sous vide well to temper, it was a well-paid gig. And thanks to the bennies, I’m assured I can always afford to be sick. It was what it was, and I’ve always hated that axiom. I still do, but after the club’s snack bar summers, I’ve learned to understand it. I only pray that you, dear reader, never have to understand it also.

One of the cool guys I suffered through summer with inadvertently planted the seed that would germinate into Rent It Or Relent It. Again, I assure you it’s a good story. Again I at least think it is. Most of the best stories are personal. You still reading? Okay:

Jordan was at least my junior by a decade. I’ll spare you the magnifying lens of nostalgia. The fact that he liked Vonnegut, Neutral Milk Hotel and the works of Terry Gilliam as I did says enough. Good taste, no matter what the age, is always welcome.

I know that Jordan occasionally visits this blog. For any digressions from the conversations we’d had, I’ll employ the Man Who Shot Liberty Valence escape clause: if the legend is better than the facts, print the legend. He’s an honest soul; I’m hoping he’ll forgive any embellishments. Then again, we worked late and were both doped-up with heat. Some things get cloudy.

Anyway, we worked the night shift. We were left alone to close up the place. This permitted some down time and interesting conversations would ensue. Work stories, travel stories, this and that. One night Jordan told me about a movie his friend had seen and he wanted to see also. It was Elysium, and was directed by the guy who brought us District 9. I hadn’t seen 9 yet but heard good things about it and its director, Neill Blomkamp. Jordan had seen that film and was jonesing to catch Elysium. I just kind of shrugged and nodded. I heard some flap about 9, also a lot of quacking about its class warfare theme. From what little I knew of the movie and people’s reaction to it, I was surprised to hear that most people didn’t get the apartheid allegory. Jordan wasn’t surprised at this. He was more along the things of, “You know how people are.” Me? I’ve all but given up.

After Jordan finally saw Elysium and reported back to me, he was kinda bummed. All the hype surrounding Blomkamp’s big-budget, name-actor sophomore effort was for naught. He was disappointed that the film was so, well, blah. It had no real twists and turns, very straight-forward. That and Jodie Foster had this inscrutable accent that was very distracting.

I told Jordan that, yeah, that’s happened to me too. A big deal movie turns out to be not such a big deal after all. This got me to wondering and I shared my thoughts with Jordan. There ought to be some website out there that warns us about seeing “blah” movies. Not movies that outright suck, but disappoint, fluster and lead the audience into a state of post-viewing, “…The f*ck?”

That’s when it hit me. Jordan and I had seen many movies that had this effect. Jillions of them were already floating in under-supervised RedBoxes around the planet, just waiting to be inflicted on unknowing movie watchers. The horror!

I had to do something.

So that’s it. Really. And here we are. Since August of 2013 RIORI has tracked down and picked apart dozens of “blah” movies, all to save you from possibly wasting precious time and money. You’re welcome, by the way. And if you haven’t appreciated my screeds here (yet you keep returning), blame Jordan. It was more or less his idea in the first place.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t as good a story as I had thought. Whatever.

Onto this week’s time waster, the Maguffin that got this ball of wax rolling…


Los Angeles has always been a sprawling city. It teems with millions of people from all over the country—nay—the world to set up shop and try to live out some existence that passes at most productively and at least manageable.

That’s the 21st Century we’re talking about. In the 22nd Century, all LA is meager existence. Meager, poverty-ridden, toxic and diseased. Not just LA, but the Earth as a whole. The world has become an open sewer. The destitute live hungry, diseased lives. And to make matters worse, the way out, the Promised Land mocks the rabble from orbit.

Earth’s ultra-beyond-belief rich established the space colony Elysium as a haven from the scourges that ravage the planet. Every day on Elysium is idyllic, serene and free of worry. Perfect. Magic technology allows Elysian citizens to live in a virtual paradise, free from aging and sickness, not to mention having to intermingle with those dirty savages on Earth below. Elyisum is basically a big “f*ck you” to the troglodytes planet-side. Yes indeed, the rich are different.

Max DeCosta (Damon) is an ex-con trying to live the straight and narrow in a shanty town of overpopulated, deteriorating LA. His days consist of work and his nights of sleep, thankful to have that amidst of all the sh*t he has to swallow. In the face of soulless police robots randomly attacking the poor populace to air pollution that could choke a walrus, Max considers himself one of the “lucky ones.”

Until an industrial accident takes that little bit away from him.

After suffering a lethal dose of radiation poisoning at the plant where he builds said robots, he’s facing at most five days to live. Now sick, Max knows of illegal “immigrants” hot-wiring shuttles to get to Elysium and access to their healing tech. Most of these “escape routes” are blown out of the sky, and those that do make it there are captured and are trucked right back down to sh*tty ol’ Earth again. If they’re lucky.

Facing a grim fate, Max hangs up his goody-two-shoes schtick, seeks out help to get to Elysium and fix himself before time runs out. He’s not sure what’ll kill him first: the radiation, the robots or the missiles. What Max is sure of is that he’s not going to kick off anytime soon, and flawless Elysium holds the solution…


There’s nothing quite like a sci-fi parable. When you think about it, almost all sci-fi stories are parables. Leave the dictionary alone; I got your back.

A parable is an allegorical story. Y’know, one with a message. It’s usually steeped in social commentary and a lot of “look out, you could be next” symbolism. Most sci-fi, which is usually designed for outright escapism, can be some pretty dark stuff. A lot of sci-fi books/films almost always have a shade of darkness to them. The 1984 adaptation’s a good example, so is THX-1138, Blade Runner, The Terminator, The Day the Earth Stood Still (not the one with Keanu, you simp), Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Silent Running, even Starship Troopers and the original Godzilla, before God. Sniff around and you’ll probably find more examples. The future’s not all bright and sunny most of the time in the not-too-distant.

After District 9, Neill Blomkamp established himself as an astute observer of class warfare via sci-fi allegory (despite the fact that a lot of moviegoers missed the point. In some way, I guess that’s good; apartheid was vile, and since now a generation doesn’t get it…well, let’s call that a semi-good thing with an added plus of disregarding certain U2 albums). Elysium isn’t all that different than 9. It’s more pointed, but has a more straightforward story than its kin. That’s sometimes welcome, especially if it’s executed with a keen sense of purpose. In the case of Elysium, that purpose is to entertain first and preach later. Sometimes parables don’t have to be serpentine in getting a message across. Sometimes directness paired with action film implementation is all you need to get by. It’s a lot more fun that way.

Elysium starts off with some very compelling visuals. The trading off between Earthscape and the space colony is very earnest in setting up boundaries via the issue of unlawful “border crossing”. Elysium itself looks like, well literally, Elysium. The curling space colony recalls Larry Niven’s Ringworld saga, doubtless an inspiration for Elysium. It looks like a perfect world, in reflection of the sh*tastic life on Earth. Those rouge shuttles remind me too much of the open-air caravans of migrant workers being trucked back and forth between the Cali border and home to Mexico. I guess Blomkamp did a good job. Future LA looks like it’s begun to revert back to its natural desert climate, all dust, dirt and desperation. This future looks just plain worn out, I like grimy sci-fi; please refer to your Blade Runner notations.

There’s some darkness here with a crude sense of humor—usually delivered by the symbolic robot paradigm—that gets rather chilling after a while. The humans on Earth are the horde, totally worthless and easily expendable (save for Max; he is our hero after all). The automatons act more human—at least regarding being fully functional and sinister like their masters—than that of their flesh-and-blood counterparts, especially when it comes to quelling the mob.

Elysium plays out a like the proto-Philip K Dick story. Dick’s muse was “what is reality?” If the world of Elysium reflects Dick’s hard-nosed sense of existential muckraking, it’s taking a backseat with the pointed commentary. The metaphors of Elysium are as obvious as an exploding cigar at a state funeral, but executed with the élan of the original Die Hard; Max is the utmost reluctant hero. He ain’t fighting to win, he’s fighting to quit puking. Through his trials, Damon’s Max acts with a serious “What the f*ck is happening?” vibe. Such disbelief reflects the audience’s expectations—Max is doomed, he gets wired up (meta-allegorical considering that robot-producing Armadyne caused his plight in the first place), tears through dusky LA nigh invulnerable, desperately searching for a way out with a lot of emotional obligation involved.

I think I might have just described all of John Wayne’s early vehicles. The Duke was always the strong, silent type, and Damon seems like he’s channeling a taste of that in his Max. However he doesn’t have a heart of gold by any means, only a sense of conscientiousness and more than a little need for retribution. He’s a unwilling hero with a purpose, albeit one who’s MO is highly personal. It a literal matter of life and death.

Max as everyman—at least him an example of the rot that plagues future LA—is in stark contrast to our villain, Foster’s Secretary Delacourt. She epitomizes everything that is wrong with Elysium society. I love villains whose motives are despicable but are executed under the belief that what they’re doing is for the good. That’s more or less how serial killers operate. Delacourt is a conniving, opportunist zealot disguised in a thousand dollar suit and a perfect coif. She’s power hungry without the frothing at the mouth and mustache twirling. Despite being the voice of reason and law in Elysium, she’s underhanded and self-righteous, couching her power plays in the name of “the greater good.” She’s a sci-fi version of one of those Fox News pundits who think they know which way to steer America while advancing their personal gain and ever inflating their—as Bill Hicks once put it—“fevered egos.” In the case of Elysian society’s betterment, Delacourt “knows what’s best,” enough to employ mercenaries to destroy the hijacked shuttles and hack into the brains of politicos that stands in the way of her private agendum. It’s okay though, she only has the “children’s’ interests” in mind. Mwa-ha-ha.

Both Max’s and Delacourt’s aims are clearly set, and the pacing reflects that; Max is not one to go off half-cocked, nor is Delacourt. Again, I lean back onto my bitchy muse of engaging cinema: pacing. Elysium has a leisurely pace, with no hurrying the story despite Max’s impending death. However it feels appropriate. Max is just chattel, like the rest of the scrubs downstairs. Why should his life be any different? But it is his life, and Max has the right to survival regardless of his predicament. Even with all the chase scenes and gunplay, Elysium’s pace is methodical. Scene by scene follows Max’s progression from average joe to techrat fighter to revolutionary (as well as reflecting Delacourt’s nefarious chess games) is very deliberate and engaging. It may play out to some as too straightforward and predictable, but it has a progression that is executed with precision and simplicity. Not all parables have to be so forthright to get their message across. Saying that, Elysium is very satisfying.

So after sweating it out in the infernal snack bar, a good way to kill time and keep my hand in the writing game emerged. Once during that humid summer I brought in manuscripts of some of my completed short stories and novel I had labored over for year. I let Jordan and the servers peruse them in a half hidden way to fluff my ego under the guise of healthy criticism. Jordan saw through that ruse as easily as most people eat food, breathe and go into spiraling credit card debt. You know the thing about fooling most people yadda yadda yadda.

Still, Jordan planted the germ and I guess I’m forever in his debt. That and he got me to see a sturdy little sci-fi action flick, which I enjoyed even if he felt gypped. No matter. What did eventually matter (after getting RIORI off the ground, off of FaceBook and onto a practical blog) was that I got out of that damned sweatbox snack bar with most of my sanity intact. I’m still a cook, and still endure the stressors that come with it—excluding my dubious choice of voluntarily watching dubious movies—but at least I don’t have to beg to have an audience pore over my diatribes and endless pontificating about what you fools should see and/or steer clear of like a hooker ninja with both ADHD and the siff.

The club kitchen still rolls on and I with its endless punches. I’m still in good financial standing if it comes to contracting said STD, and I try to flee from chicken fingers as long as I can.

But sometimes I miss the mint.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a solid, grounded sci-fi parable, with very little preaching. Nothing is out-of-sorts, the acting is solid and the pacing is precise. Such things appeal to me. Welcome to Volume Three!


Stray Observations…

  • Foster is struggling with her accent, whatever its supposed to be. Speaking of which, what the hell’s Kruger’s?
  • “Now it’s time for the real fun…”
  • Carlyle’s got a nice ride.
  • I need a gun like that. F*ckin’ Canada geese.
  • Nice football metaphor there, Spider.
  • Max tearing off that robot’s head was really satisfying.
  • Um, how can a car outrun an aircraft that can reach supersonic speeds in 15 seconds? Biodiesel, I tell ya. Biodiesel.
  • “What’s in it for the hippo?” An honest, tender, fleeting moment.
  • Palm trees. Nature’s icon of the idle rich, even off-world.
  • “It’s just a flesh wound, mate!”
  • Elysium: any place or state of perfect happiness; heaven. It could only happen in outer space.
  • “You wouldn’t believe what I’m looking at right now.”
  • I tried very hard to make this installment as well written as I could. I’ll admit I’m a hack, but most hacks try to do well. Consider this all a tribute to my fellow misfit Jordan, who just did what he did. We all need some friendly inspiration now and again (“Could I interest you in a little pot?”). Keep enjoying SD, Jordan, and don’t follow my errors.

Next Installment…

Oye ¿como va, Spanglish? De nada, you gringos.


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 35: Robert Schwentke’s “Flightplan” (2005)


Flightplan_vodkeyTT_c


The Players…

Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sean Bean, Erika Christiansen and Kate Beahan with Greta Scacchi and Marlene Lawston.


The Story…

On a trans-Atlantic trip back home—and fresh from her husband’s funeral no less—Kyle Pratt and her 6-year old daughter, Julia will try their best to get back to New York with a sense of normalcy in check. Then Julia disappears, vanishes en route. Now Kyle has to frantically piece together the events, or lack of them, to find her daughter.

Wait. What daughter?


The Rant…

I’ve never cared for air travel. Now don’t misunderstand me. I am amazed that such a thing exists. Think about it. When you take a flight, you’re basically defying God and nature, and yet it’s all so simple. Birds have been doing it for millennia. Adjust to air currents, ride the warm air while deflecting the cold, bend this way and that and voila, you’re up in the air. Amazing, yet so basic.

Sometimes I wish I were born twenty or thirty years earlier in regards to air travel. Back in the day, travelling by jet was a big thing. Often a sumptuous thing. People actually got dressed up for the opportunity. And the hospitality was impeccable. Friendly stewardesses smiling, refilling your drinks with no cutoffs, actual meals on china with real silverware (AKA, weapons of mass destruction), endless cigarettes, hot towels for your face, and somehow the latest news from your fave periodical before they hit press. Luxury personified.

These days, not so much.

If you survive the ass-raping at TSA, finagle your luggage at baggage claim for under 50 dollars, and  present your driver’s license (to board a vehicle not designed for the roads) over a dozen times to disagreeable wage slaves who hate every single traveler, such luxury of speed and efficiency went out the portal aeons ago for you. Your grandparents used to wear ties and hats on board. Now you wear a furrowed brow.

These days when us passengers are dragooned into the sterile fuselage, we get frustrated and violated—even after the ass-raping—with cramped seats, overworked and rightly surly flight attendants, sh*tty, mid-level movies displayed directly in front of you which you couldn’t ignore if you tried, and instead of a hot towel for your face, a barren safety lecture with no smiles in sight greeting you upon your butt being stuck into a seat that would be small for a leprechaun.

When I have to fly, I always pick an aisle seat. It’s not like I get vertigo looking out of the window at the wing. I’m just not genetically designed to wedge myself into the matchbox seat allowed in Tourist. I need to swing my legs out into the aisle to permit blood flow below my crotch. I’ll deal with the flight attendant’s duties of shoving the beverage cart down the lane, only to ask me to swerve back into rank. These lost seconds assure I’ll be able to actually walk again in a few hours.

There are always exceptions, of course. It can’t be kidney-crunching every flight. Once, I had a genuinely pleasant flight. From the aisle, of course. On my way home from a trip to Colorado, I got plunked down next to a stranger, like most of us do. Usually these are people we forcefully ignore, what with their drooling on the flat pillow—which could be used as a flotation device—snoring into your face and smelling like dead shrimp. Not the case with guy I had the fortune of sharing seats.

Seats. Plural. We had lucked out. The plane wasn’t at full log-jam capacity, and he and I had a row to share. Him on the wing side, I on the aisle. We flipped up the armrests and had a comfortable dialogue for the next three hours. We chatted about our jobs, places we’ve been, musical tastes and other errata that are usually associated with a Palahniuk single-serving friend. I figured that since we were permitted our legs to breathe, we could get chummy too. He was a nice guy, and the last and only nice guy I ever sat with on an airplane. Usually I’m stuck with a family member. Where are those damned peanuts?

But the above tale is a rarity these days. Air travel ain’t what it used to be. Modern marvels of technology have become routine. These days, when we board a plane, it’s the little things we get on the ground that make us smile (we can get good peanuts anywhere down there). And as for that lame “sandwich” us passengers are now supposed to eat? These days, thanks to rampant fear of terrorism in the skies and the need to maximize the profits, air travel has become a slog. It’s akin to riding a metro bus: dingy, airless, customary and generally not fun. Stick us in an aluminum can with processed air, lumpy seats, no real, mature meals and an endless stream of The Simpsons shoved into your unwilling view. I’d prefer thumbscrews.

A major issue—if not the major issue—I take with being in a plane is the claustrophobia. No matter how large the jet is, it always feels so damned cramped. It’s most likely about all the bodies being ass-to-elbow for hours and hours. The air is recycled and gets rather stale after a while, the stuffiness enhancing the already close quarters. It’s like the passengers are all in a large, tubular, plastic bag of goldfish won at a carnival; pick you up, hold still in a tight space as the oxygen levels get low, plop back down again somewhere else, leaving you disoriented. But none for the wear when you finally get home.

But all that confined space can really grate on you, almost to the point that you can forget you’re flying, actually on your way to a destination. I took a red-eye once—more like a black-eye—to Hawaii. This was from the East Coast. Twelve hours, most of it over the barren Pacific, and me with my long legs getting nary a reprieve. Since the plane wasn’t at full occupancy, I must’ve changed seats a dozen times, to stretch my legs a get a change of scenery.

What scenery?!? Another headrest? The f*cking wing again, this time on the other side of the plane? And all those on-flight magazines and puke bags all look alike to me. No matter where I moved, that feeling of claustrophobia was inescapable. It was another world, one populated by strangers and endless rows of identical seats. The narrow aisles went on forever, but the ceiling is so low, and five feet in front of you was no different than five feet behind. It’s not just the claustrophobia; you feel cut off from reality.

It’s enough to make any seasoned traveler lose their mind…


Aerospace engineer Kyle Pratt (Foster) made a hard choice. Two of them. Letting go of her steady life in Berlin, and also her husband, who ended his own life. Now having no roots to hold her to her ex-pat life, she opts for the second choice: go home to New York with both her daughter and husband’s casket in tow and maybe begin again. Or return to the womb. Some things are not really clear.

Halfway through the trans-Atlantic flight, the worst happens to a new single mom: her daughter disappears. Not gone, not missing. Disappears. She’s not even on the flight manifest. After losing her husband, the thought of losing the next piece of her now frail family is unconscionable. Kyle wakes up to a blank seat and head full of grief and bewilderment. And a lonesome teddy bear. And panic.

Solitary passenger Gene Carson (Sarsgaard) is taken with Kyle’s plight, and offers his best to keep her grounded. Turns out he’s the air marshal, and summons the captain (Bean) to both assist in locating the lost child and keeping the passengers calm.

After scouring the plane for the missing Julia (Lawston) with no luck, Kyle is smacked upside the head with the evident truth: there was no Julia Pratt accounted for in the flight’s passenger count. Not at all. A frantic search of the plane ensues, with no lost child found. Kyle begins to question her own sanity, as well as how she got to this point.

The jet of her own design might just be her own padded cell…


Apart from the vibe I was trying to oh-so-subtly intimate with the intro, I was alluding to—however vaguely—my affinity for Hitchcock’s middle works, from 1950 to 1960.

These were “The Master’s” golden years as far as I’m concerned. Prob’ a lot to other Hitch junkies too. The first Hitch film I snagged in full (which was for a college English class no less; I had before gleaned scenes on afternoon cable from North By Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and even Frenzy) was Rear Window. One of two of the man’s best. The other being Psycho. By the way I refuse to believe the present-day hype surrounding Vertigo, usurping Citizen Kane as the best film of the 20th Century. My stepdaughter said “meh” to Vertigo and I believe her. My wife’s response to Psycho, however, was better; she couldn’t sleep for days. Anyway Window was superb, for simply its economy. At the time, it was Hitch’s most expensive set; the whole thing was crammed into one indoor movie lot. I once heard a bit of lore that during filming the intense, deliberate lighting got so hot that it set off the fire sprinklers. Hitch, ever the dapper gent, produced an umbrella and instructed the crew to keep rolling. Remember the thunderstorm sequence in Window? There ya go. Economy.

Economy is the name of the game in Flightplan. The claustrophobia I talked about earlier was the raison d’être for the film’s life. Here we have Jodie Foster, escaping from a tight life in Berlin (it’s hinted at that it wasn’t her idea) to get back “home” with the only remaining vestige of what home now is: caring for her daughter. Every scene on Flightplan is tight, economical.

Right. Foster’s character is supposed to be a aeronautics engineer, who conveniently designed the plane (an obvious dues ex machina if there ever was one) she’s riding in, and not so subtly knows the ins-and-outs of the jet so to assure her frenzied mind that little, lost Julia is somewhere aboard. What’s cool here, however, is the bowels of the plane is like world unto itself; an alternate reality that seems to be a metaphor for Kyle’s sense of displacement. But her mania comes across as overwrought (although sympathetic, which I value with Foster’s acting chops). Foster, as always, gives it her all, but it doesn’t seem necessary for Flightplan.

This is where the movie starts going south. We got a strong plot device (the classic “little girl lost” scenario), a capable cast, a great setting…and the plot begins to fizzle out against Foster’s emoting. Don’t misunderstand me; you all saw her as Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs. Again, right, Oscar-worthy. Here she’s trying to recoup those past glories—quite well, I may add—against a bunch of newbs. Save Sean Bean’s icy Captain Rich. However, the only remarkable role Bean has ever offered in my cinematic mind was as 006 in GoldenEye. Not a bad role, but nothing to truly commit to his CV. If there are any doubts, refer to my little screed about Bay’s The Island.

Flightplan really loses its gas when entering into the second act revolving around Foster’s cracking up. That is all we’re given. Bean, Sarsgaard, Christiansen, all of them become wallpaper. Foster’s restrained scenery-chewing distracts us from the actual story, which hasn’t really gotten anywhere yet. For the first third of Flightplan, we as the audience are awash in boredom and a color-by-numbers sub-Hitchcock mystery. Only Foster’s tense performance is keeping us afloat. She does a good job, but admittedly Foster’s Kyle is rigid and distant, and not just beyond the frozen feeling of loss stated earlier. Despite her usual flair for convincing drama, Foster’s trick bag seems out of place on this plane. Based against these dramatis personae, hers—again—doesn’t seem necessary.

In the name of not throwing out spoilers, I’m gonna keep the Flightplan’s villain’s name anonymous. Yes, there is one; wouldn’t be much of a mystery with out one, right? And I hate spoilers just as much as the next popcorn-head. Comics writer Peter David put it best: they’re not spoilers, they’re ruiners. I had a friend blow the ending of The Sixth Sense for me (back when Night made movies you actually wanted to see). She assumed I had already seen it and, well, you know. Although that totally didn’t trash the movie for me, I would’ve preferred to come to my own conclusions. I’m gonna assume that you are the same way, so:

Okay, we know Julia’s gone missing, and obviously there’s foul play afoot. However the villain’s motives are not made clear. Even when we see what they’re up to, it’s still not clear. I’m not saying the motivations should be crystal—there’d be no mystery if it all made sense right away—but they should at least be, y’know, understandable.

This “twist” is not subtle enough; you get no room to figure it out. The rollover is just so blunt that you’re not left with an “ah-ha” moment. It’s more like “…The hell?” This is where the film goes completely off the rails. Nothing makes much sense after the climax. Sometimes it works when the director is diligent in leaving a few ends untied and not let the villain explain their motives. I mean, I love Hitchcock’s work, and homage is welcome when it’s done right. Director Schwentke is trying to do something right, if only in pulses. It’s just that climax.

Some of those pulses include the whole Arab/suitcase thing. Granted it’s a distraction technique, and any moviegoer world their salt would get that immediately. But it works here, especially when it’s revisited several times over the course of the movie. Playing on people’s prejudices is always a great way to get the juices flowing, and it looks no better when a crazed passenger can’t find her kid and is just champing at the bit to find someone, anyone to blame.

One technical thing I really enjoyed from Flightplan is the editing. It’s some of the best I’ve seen. For such a small set, a lot can be said for spacing out scenes almost chapter-like to escalate the tension and further move the story—however incoherent—along. Even with the smooth editing, however, the story has hiccups. The first two acts are nothing but Foster freaking out, Sarsgaard and Bean trying to bring her back to earth and this hammering the point that Julia is missing, Julia is missing. Okay, we get it. F*cking find her already. You gotta have the patience of Job to get to the meat of the story, and when it arrives—such as it is—you’re almost relived to (cue Monty Python) get ON with it! Flightplan would’ve worked better as a fourth season installment of the original Twilight Zone. Y’know, the hour-long eps. And in ratings competition with The Alfred Hitchcok Hour. The editing may have been cool, but a lot of the final product should’ve been left on the cutting room floor.

Flightplan’s Hitchcock influence is inescapable, not unlike the claustrophobic conditions on a long flight. Like Hitch, the cinematography is all hard angles, the set is virtually monochrome, drab, and cluttered with mirrors and reflections to allude to that the characters’ are not all they seem to be. All this may be tribute, but if the story is sloppy, or redundant and just plain confusing…well, there’s a difference between escalating tension via subterfuge versus plain bamboozlement.

Regardless of Flightplan’s faults, it wasn’t a total waste of time. You get to see Jodie Foster lose her sh*t, which she’s quite good at. The set work was cool as well as the aforementioned editing. The acting was overall decent, and the directing serviceable. Sure, it was mediocre and derivative Hitchcock, but honestly, you don’t see many movies like this made much anymore, probably because it’s been done better. But Flightplan could’ve been a lot worse.

Got my peanuts. You may now return your stewardess to her original, upright position.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, believe it or not. Even boiled-over Hitchcock is better than no Hitchcock at all. And since the Millennial generation approaches Hitchcock as much an artifact as Paul McCartney, any gateway to great films can benefit from some rumor and sigh.


Stray Observations…

  • “How loud do these headphones go?” “Not quite loud enough.”
  • I liked the strategic “turbulence.” A little deliberate, but it works.
  • “Sure he did.”
  • Those damned kids…
  • “It’s not like she lost her Palm Pilot.” How’s that for dating a movie?
  • Despite his sleepy features, Sarsgaard’s has efficient acting with his eyes. They pierce, almost to offset Foster’s wide-eyed glare.
  • “Take her belt or shoelaces or something?” The only humor in the film. Even I laughed.
  • Slow clap…

Next Installment…

John Cusack has no luck with women. It seems the only faithfulness he can muster is some High Fidelity for his most recent, decent, departing girlfriend. His dedication/obsession with her might be even higher than towards his record collection. Might.