RIORI Redux: Barry Levinson’s “What Just Happened?” Revisited


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The Players…

Robert DeNiro, Catherine Keener, Sean Penn, Bruce Willis and John Turturro, with Michael Wincott, Stanley Tucci and Kristen Stewart.


The Story…

Ben’s a harried film producer, and as his latest undertakings instruct, he’s forced to placate a lunatic director, a temperamental actor and an out-of-control production while also courting a studio head and contending with his ex. Both of them. Just a typical week in the life in ol’ Hollywierd.


The Rant (2013)

First off, sorry. I’m in a pissy mood. My back’s f*cked up, my wife’s mad at me for some offhand comment and Lou Reed f*cking died. Does this set the tone for this week’s review? Yep, and too goddam bad. The wife never cared for Lou Reed anyway. But just wait until f*ckin’ Thom Yorke dies. Then maybe I’ll bleed.

Ahem. Hi!

I know next to nothing about how Hollywood runs. From what little I do know is that it runs on money. Big, stupid money. On a budget that compares only with US Air Force cafeteria expenses. Most of the cinematic casual expenditures come out of our collective wallets in the form of tickets, streaming and popcorn. Who really gets paid through all those ducats? Well, actors for one. Overall, they’re the reasons why we go to the flicks. Sometimes we go for the directors, those who spindle the tales that keep us webbed in. The Spielbergs, the Scorseses, the Lucases…those cats. But you know who really keeps us glued?

The producers. The money behind the money. Money behind the likes of poor Ben…

One of my favorite films? Taxi Driver. DeNiro is at his epoch at losing his sh*t in that film. Second is Mean Streets. Third is GoodFellas. Fourth is The Untouchables. Fifth is whatever he’s kicking at that time. Sixth is Taxi Driver.

You get the idea.

What Just Happened? is my umpteenth favorite movie of DeNiro kicking the sh*t out of someone. It’s the first for me rooting for Bob to kick himself in the ass. And boy, does he deserve it.

Never have I seen Bob act quite so callous, disconnected and callow as I did in this hour and 45 minutes. And quite humorously too. ‘Though not quite as humorously as most may gage. Barry Levinson’s work has always been funny. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but snicker-worthy. To my immediate mind, the only overtly funny movie the man has ever made was Rain Man and that won an Oscar, so he scored big there. I guess. Well What Just Happened is a loss leader. You saw the cast. You read the goofy plot. It was based on an esteemed producer’s autobio.

This flick barely made a million at the box office. With that pedigree? The hell?

They all must have been in on the joke. This film was culled by said book of the same name, a tell-all in a library of tell-alls. And the Rogue’ Gallery was delicious, too (go fig). Keener as the shrewd agent, sharp as ever, took great relish in cutting Ben down to size. Character actor Michael Wincott, always a stitch, somehow transcended Tarantino and Vincent Gallo in only two scenes. Toss the final edit wheel over this way, please. And do modern film producers really use BlackBerries in this day and age? I dunno. I ain’t a producer. What do I know?

This review has been sh*tty, I know. I’m just too tired, drunk and bent up to give a clean polish here. All I can say is this: it’s probably easier working behind the stage in Hollywood than in front to make a worthwhile statement. If this concept appeals to you, then go stream the film.

Lewis Allan Reed: RIP, 1942-2013.


Rant Redux (2019)…

I know, I know. Bitter, bitter, bitter. I wasn’t lying then about the whole being pished/Lou Reed kicking the bucket bit influencing my already myopic worldview made complete by an eye patch over my right. It’s why I call alcohol a “performance enhancing drug.” That goes against its clinical definition, but when people get real drunk booze does amplify your emotions to the nth degree, for good and for ill. Actually more like both. My logic here is akin to the shock and awe surrounding the most winningest olympic athlete Michael Phelps getting busted for smoking a joint. Of my understanding (read the Pineapple Express installment), weed is definitely, defiantly not a performance enhancing drug. Phelps is half-dolphin; read it on Reddit.

Here’s my take on booze meets psyche (and I do have a point. Quit squirming): whatever you’re feeling before you hit the bottle gets multiplied tenfold at the end of the night. You feeling good? Chances are you’ll be the god karaoke later on. You feeling lousy? You’ll be crying in your beer with Merle Haggard on rotation on the TouchTunes come last call. Pugnacious? You and the bouncer will become fast friends. In any case, your emotions and convictions get tossed in a Waring blender.

As do and especially your perceptions. To wit, I watched this film in an already crap state of mind and halfway in the bag and therefore somewhat incapable of seeing Happened for what it was, which was two things: a meditation on the squishy, flexible strategies which big Hollywood deems appropriate for public consumption, and rumination on big names in small films. The first part is the real meat of the story, which swiftly becomes Ben’s white whale: dealing with Willis’ oddball behavior so that the damned film can be finished. Fine. The story is the stuff of many movies: making movies. From Sunset Boulevard to The Player Hollywood is an existential being unto itself. Make movies to make money to make more movies to make more money to make…it is a maw that cannot be fed, ever.

Director Levinson is no stranger to satire. Virtually all his films explore—or at least poke fun at—our culture’s accepted social cowardice. From obvious films like Wag The Dog, Disclosure and Good Morning, Vietnam to more “subtle” swipes with Diner, Toys and What Just Happened? Levinson has always been an imp of the perverse behind the camera. Happened is no different, it just takes its good ol’ time getting to the pie throwing.

Such pies here include puncturing the false pretense that making movies is akin to curing cancer (but won’t since research is so much more lucrative. Hence a sequel starring AIDS). Making movies isn’t that important, but existential Hollywood would never admit to that, that 5-ton whale in the room mewling and demanding more body lotion and fresh krill. Ben knows he’s in a world of hurt, totally unable to keep work at work etc. The satire here saturates every action, every cliche, every word of Ben’s hellish workaday world and we get ringside seats. Happened plays out as a cringy scales-falling-away day in the life of what every film fan understands, but never ever wants to admit to. We know there’s a lot of chicanery spread about getting a movie made, but to get such a low-key yet graphic diagram thereabouts? Ugh. It hurts. Ben is our knowing, wizened avatar, already well-acquainted with the man behind the curtain. And like Ben, he’s a figment also.

Upon review it’s best to watch Happened as a docudrama, a cautionary tale, a satire. At the end of the day it may not be the best satire on how the sausage is made in Hollywood; there have been far better (eg: Swimming With Sharks, The Player, even Sunset Boulevard, before God). But it is classic, easily digestible satire in the Levinson tradition, even if it’s subject matter is a niche market. The film worked, but creakily and not for everyone.

Maybe even me. I still grind my teeth at the thought of this movie. Was that the point, Barry? Bob?


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Overruled: a mild relent it. Despite all it’s craftsmanship, the film committed a mortal sin: it was boring. Clever? Sure. Amusing? Kind of. Engaging? It wandered.

However, Happened did offer up an opportunity for dialogue about big stars in small films, and how it reflects on their long and varied big release careers, as well as the reliable satirical Levinson edge (if only to on the nose). If you watch the film as if in a film class, it works. But who wants to take notes while watching a movie?

Oh yeah. Right.


Next Installment…

We return to the angular world of Jim Jarmusch, where Bill Murray peddles a bouquet of Broken Flowers to his lost loves that he never loved anyway.


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 10: Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are” (2008)


Where the WIld Things Are


The Players…

Max Records, Katherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara and Forest Whitaker.


The Story…

Max has had it with being a nobody in his neighborhood. His big sister dumps him in favor of playing with her friends. His mom looks as if she’d rather be with her new boyfriend. And Dad…?

Max imagines running away to a some far-off land where fantastical beasts may crown him as their king. They would play rumpus, build forts and discover secret hideaways. Sounds good, but really is that all there is to being the king of the beasts?


 

The Rant…

Children’s books, by design of necessity, are short. The stories within are usually quick ones and seldom, if ever, delve deep into the Graham Greene of things. Sure, kids books often have poignant messages, life lessons to learn and adorable anthropomorphic creatures coaxing the young eyes to read ever further. They’re also chockablock with amazing artwork, lets not forget, which is the usual culprit that grabs the youngin’s attention in the first place.

But one thing is an immutable truth: kids’ books are f*ckin’ short. We don’t want attention spans to be taxed or eyes to become strained. We want a five to ten minute respite from chaos and screeching that only a Shel Silverstein or a Dr. Suess could deliver to frantic parents everywhere. Kids want a quick break to let their imagination grow fallow, if only for a bit. Only daydreaming is faster. And cheaper.

Most movies are not short. Decidedly so. If they were, at least in today’s market, they’d probably not have much of a client base. Too many other mobile distractions to contend with, like kids books. It is a very precarious thing to stretch a 30-page, less than 100 words, heavily illustrated, razor-thin missive into a precise 88 minutes of celluloid glory. Standalone it hasn’t worked yet; you gotta add a lot of breadcrumbs to that meatloaf. So far there have been the bastardization of several of Dr. Seuss’ most beloved tales (How The Grinch…, Cat in the Hat, The Lorax, etc.) that have illustrated this point. His books went through the Hollywood meat grinder and out came the gristle. What the brevity and efficiency of a children’s book has on the page does not marry well to cinema. Screenwriters have to apply a lot of padding, altering the script to miles away from the original, concise plot and hire a lot of dippy-ass tunesmiths to churn out the shiny for little kid ears. The junior target audiences that were entranced by the source material in the first place, now yanking a recalcitrant mom and/or dad to the multiplex in a frothing frenzy are en route to a let down. It’s inevitable.

God, this sh*t pisses me off. Let’s face facts. Once here I claimed that Hollywood erroneously views us  moviegoers as stupid. So under this premise the average adult moviegoer adult is stupid, then according to marketing the kids must be f*cking brain-dead. They’ll watch any colorful dreck that gets smeared on the screen and has a toy and cereal tie-in. Here’s a common fallacy: kids are stupid. I was a teacher once. Kids—and it seems the younger they are, the harder it is to bullsh*t them—are a lot smarter than they let on. Most are actually a lot smarter than most adults, like George W, Donald Trump and Donald Sterling. I’ve been privy to a lot of movies aimed at kids. Being a dad, I seldom get a say in what movie to go out and see nowadays. What I watch is almost always animated, Disneyesque, hyper and pandering. Funny thing here is kids know they get short-changed pretty soon on in the movie. Here’s a common conflict in regarding, say, a Seuss adaptation: “This isn’t how it was in the book! The book was much better!” This is usually followed by a scowly pout and an eventual smattering of Twizzlers ricocheting off the other sibling’s head, which proves to be much more entertaining than the movie slipping off the sprockets. They squirm in their seats. They get bored and say so. They want to leave and start whining about it. And Mom or Dad try to hush them, knowing full well that they ain’t gonna recoup the twenty plus dollars wasted on this time spent in the dark. Mom and Dad are forcing them to watch the car wreck out of spite at this point. The kids know they got gypped. Like I said, smart.

Pillaging Maurice Sendak’s magnum opus was not particularly smart, either. And it wasn’t pillaged well to boot…


Max (Records) is your typical, nine-year-old (at least he looks nine) kid, full of unhinged energy and idful abandon. He likes to terrorize the family pet, incite snowball fights with his big sister’s friends, and be the lord of a fantasyland of his own creation, much to the exasperation of his mom. You know, standard kid stuff.

So Max is attention starved. Not surprising with his older sister Claire more interested in hanging out with her friends and mom (Keener) being a harried single parent trying to juggle both career and homestead with equal attention. Max being in the middle—or at the bottom of the totem pole, depends where you’re looking—he acts out often. He can be defiant, mouthy and even violent. Looks like a Ritalin candidate if there ever was one.

One evening, dressed in his signature wolf costume, Max is feeling particularly punchy since Mom’s male “friend” has come over for dinner, hogging his spotlight. Feeling slighted, he tears it up, howling and standing on the dinner table and actually assaulting Mom with a wolf bite to the shoulder. That’s enough. Mom is furious and Max is chased out of the house, scrabbling through the streets, tears streaming down his face. He’ll show them. He’ll run away from home and they’ll all be sorry. He’s the king of the beasts, not some beastly kid.

After hitching a ride on a sloop on the beach, Max sets sails to points afar, places where he will be appreciated and understood. Enduring an interminable transatlantic stormy passage, Max washes up on the shores of a remote island, and quickly discovers that he is not alone. The island is populated by fantastic beasts, all of whom seem out of sorts, like they need some guidance. Max knows what to do. He has found his people. Let the wild rumpus begin…!


Like I said, children’s books are short, and the movies based on those books need a lot of applesauce to fill up time. Most of the time it’s dreadful (I cite the adaptation of The Lorax as a good example), stuffed to the gunwales with bad jokes, extraneous dialogue, crappy musical montages and additional, irrelevant plot points separate form the source material added just to, well, stretch it out. To be fair, there are exceptions to this issue. For one, I thought the adaption of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs was in some ways superior to the book, it being very funny, nodding an winking and even providing an actual explanation and backstory (e.g.: plot) to the hijinks in Chewandswallow. But this is an exception. Usually a lot of padding robs the original story of its power that so entranced the audience in the first place. This practice seems very shady to me, as if the powers that be added crap to just to pander to the kiddies’ imagination that absorbed more emotional stimulus in fifteen minutes by merely reading the source material. Competition for attention, as well as flammable dollars. It’s like they know, and probably full well, that by adding all the claptrap will keep the keys jingling in front of their juvenile audience.

However, unlike The Lorax, Wild does decidedly not pander to the kiddies. It does the direct opposite. It barely panders to kids at all. It does however f*ck with the source material just enough to make itself feel overblown and stodgy. Jonze went and took a universally adored book and went and put it through the existentialist Cuisinart. The final result was an intractable movie ostensibly aimed at kids and families, but ended up as a freshman year philosophy treatise on phenomenology.

Wake up.

Okay, enough babbling. Wild is a bloated attempt to simultaneously cash in on a generation’s nostalgia and wax philosophical about the ways of childhood anger and fear. That’s it. Adolescent and mopey. This film uses Sendak’s book as an excuse, not an homage, as a means to an end for Jonze’s jaundiced vision. He went and made a metaphysical kids movie. While this counts for originality (as far as adaptations of childhood literature go), it makes for lousy storytelling.

Yeah, I know. I’m being pretty awful here, trashing an honest attempt to bring the book to life. Wild misses the mark in its stilted execution, and sucks all the wonder away in a very angular fashion. It’s so goddam serious. There is not much connection to the sweet yet salty Sendak tale, and is padded with philosophical drivel with all the subtlety of a fart at a funeral. The pacing is languid, like walking through syrup. Even the wild thing beasties seem half asleep in their activities most of the movie. This wasn’t the movie to watch late at night. A cough syrup cocktail works just as well to drift off that sitting through Wild (don’t ask me how I know this).

I’ll quit masticating on the movie for a bit and talk about the good stuff. There are some notable goodies in Wild. Max’s acting was pretty good. At least he channeled storybook Max’s vital aspects to live action—the childish raving, trying to be a good boy, and the innocent regret for his actions. Our lead is not easily likeable nor immediately endearing at first glance, but he wins your over and makes for a good vehicle to serve the audience. On this level, Jonze (whose spelling I’ve always thought pretentious) at least recognized on a vestigial level that Wild was supposed to be a kids movie, so he let his lead run riot. Records’ performance was the only refreshing aspect of the whole movie.

There are also some stunning visuals. The seams separating CGI from live action is virtually untraceable here. A high note. The wild things themselves are rendered almost hair for feather with such exactitude you have to get that Jonze is truly trying to convey the message of the book. He overdoes it, but he wasn’t dressing Mike Myers up as a winking cat. Simply put, the Sendak creations look quite Sendak. At least on these grounds, Jonze remembered his muse, and didn’t swat it.

Overall, there is an inherent sweetness to the film, but it’s too bad it’s just so forced. There is a message Jonze keeps trying to hammer into the audience’s skulls, almost like cinema verite with a rather blurry concept of dealing with childhood anger. After watching Wild you kind of wish there was a dippy song-and-dance montage placed in the story just to lighten it up a bit. This flick was too heavy, both in philosophy and execution. It was the cinematic equivalent of eating a heavy meal. Too much padding, in a non-kid way.

Throughout the film I found myself asking myself, “Why is this film boring?” The answer is that it felt more like a symposium than a family film. It was dour and ponderous, and there definitely wasn’t enough rumpus. For a kid film, it sure wasn’t kid friendly. Three-quarters into the movie, I hit MENU and skipped to the end. Dissatisfied with the conclusion, I turned it off, put down my pen and decided to go to bed, tiring of feeling vicious.

When I got to my room, my dinner was still hot.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Better you go reread the book instead. To your kids. They’ll thank you.


Stray Observations…

  • “I don’t think the crazy’s been eliminated.”
  • Writing a kids book within a movie based on a kids book? Pretty clever (and cute) meta.
  • “All right tree. We’ll settle this later.”
  • Jonze got his start directing music videos (e.g.: Beastie Boys, Dinosaur Jr, etc). It shows here.
  • Did I mention the sick amount of padding in adaptations like this? I might’ve missed mentioning something.

Next Installment…

Who killed Elizabeth Short, AKA The Black Dahlia? Gonna get all true crime up in yo’ ass.


RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 10: Barry Levinson’s “What Just Happened?” (2008)


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The Players…

Robert DeNiro, Sean Penn, Bruce Willis, John Turturro and Katherine Keener.


The Story…

Ben’s a harried film producer, and as his latest undertakings instruct, he’s forced to placate a lunatic director, a temperamental actor and an out-of-control production while also courting a studio head and contending with his ex. Both of them. Just a typical week in the life in ol’ Hollywierd.


The Rant…

First off, sorry. I’m in a pissy mood. My back’s f*cked up, my wife’s mad at me for some offhand comment and Lou Reed f*cking died. Does this set the tone for this week’s review? Yep, and too goddam bad. The wife never cared for Lou Reed anyway. But just wait until f*ckin’ Thom Yorke dies. Then maybe I’ll bleed.

Ahem. Hi!

I know next to nothing about how Hollywood runs. From what little I do know is that it runs on money. Big, stupid money. On a budget that compares only with US Air Force cafeteria expenses. Most of the cinematic casual expenditures come out of our collective wallets in the form of tickets, streaming and popcorn. Who really gets paid through all those ducats? Well, actors for one. Overall, they’re the reasons why we go to the flicks. Sometimes we go for the directors, those who spindle the tales that keep us webbed in. The Spielbergs, the Scorseses, the Lucases…those cats. But you know who really keeps us glued?

The producers. The money behind the money. Money behind the likes of poor Ben…


Ben (DeNiro) is a wayward Hollywood producer who’s reputation is far more valuable than any increment of money he earns on a project. And the word “project” serves as an acceptable epithet for any film that’s gonna tank before it reaches the cutting room floor. As for what has presently been laid at his feet, Ben’s gotta make a marketable film out of an artsy-fartsy ‘aueter’ piece of sh*t. Oy, I’ve seen them many times over. Maybe you have too. Listen, just because they went to Cannes doesn’t mean they’re all winners. Pulp Fiction won the Palm d’Or, for example, a fine piece of f*cking filmmaking if your attention span is that strained. And I liked Pulp Fiction. F*cking Beetlejuice went to Cannes, so shut up. And if you are enamored of Beetlejuice, you take this f*cking blog WAY too seriously.

Anyway, about Ben. He’s been trying to restore his place in the pantheon of power players in Tinsel Town. And failing gloriously. He’s a passing presence in his second marriage, the one with two kids. An offhand glance with his first marriage, the one with the moody teen (portrayed by a pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart). And a total misfit amongst his true family of agents, fellow producers, directors, and petulant actors (Willis and Penn). Hung up and overstretched, what’s a flayed Hollywood producer whose worth more dead than alive can do?

Lose his sh*t. DeNiro is good at that…


One of my favorite films? Taxi Driver. DeNiro is at his epoch at losing his sh*t in that film. Second is Mean Streets. Third is GoodFellas. Fourth is The Untouchables. Fifth is whatever he’s kicking at that time. Sixth is Taxi Driver.

You get the idea.

What Just Happened? is my umpteenth favorite movie of DeNiro kicking the sh*t out of someone. It’s the first for me rooting for Bob to kick himself in the ass. And boy, does he deserve it.

Never have I seen Bob act quite so callous, disconnected and callow as I did in this hour and 45 minutes. And quite humorously too. ‘Though not quite as humorously as most may gage. Barry Levinson’s work has always been funny. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but snicker-worthy. To my immediate mind, the only overtly funny movie the man has ever made was Rain Man and that won an Oscar, so he scored big there. I guess. Well What Just Happened is a loss leader. You saw the cast. You read the goofy plot. It was based on an esteemed producer’s autobio.

This flick barely made a million at the box office. With that pedigree? The hell?

They all must have been in on the joke. This film was culled by said book of the same name, a tell-all in a library of tell-alls. And the Rogue’ Gallery was delicious, too (go fig). Keener as the shrewd agent, sharp as ever, took great relish in cutting Ben down to size. Character actor Michael Wincott, always a stitch, somehow transcended Tarantino and Vincent Gallo in only two scenes. Toss the final edit wheel over this way, please. And do modern film producers really use BlackBerries in this day and age? I dunno. I ain’t a producer. What do I know?

This review has been sh*tty, I know. I’m just too tired, drunk and bent up to give a clean polish here. All I can say is this: it’s probably easier working behind the stage in Hollywood than in front to make a worthwhile statement. If this concept appeals to you, then go stream the film.

Lewis Allan Reed: RIP, 1942-2013.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Despite all it’s craftsmanship, the film committed a mortal sin. It was boring. Clever? Sure. Amusing? Kind of. Engaging? Hardly.


Stray Observations…

  • “Stress. Builds up. See you later.”
  • Willis looks like a homeless Santa with that beard.
  • DeNiro really trimmed down for this role. What for?
  • “Feet are connected to the soul.” So are shoes.
  • Wait. Is that the Police playing at the funeral?
  • Nothin’ like slaggin’ on ol’ Hollywood at Cannes to get a standin’ O.
  • “Life’s not bad. I’m in France.”

Next Installment…

Bill Murray goes door to door peddling Broken Flowers. Dumbass.