RIORI Redux: Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly” Revisited


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The Players…

Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane.


The Story…

Fred Arctor is an undercover cop—a narc—in a world where almost everyone is addicted to Substance D, a drug that produces split personalities in its users. “Fred” sets up an elaborate sting to nab a notorious drug runner named “Bob.” But when almost everyone is a D addict, and its makes you schizo, then how can one tell who’s really who? Especially when it comes to your personal identity, or whoever you are that day.


The Rant (2013)

Phillip Kindred Dick: What is reality? The universal muse of the late sci-fi writer. Most if not all of his work wrangled with this question. As far as I know, three of his works have been translated to film. There was this little known work called Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? Later on the book was adapted for the screen, entitled Blade Runner. Maybe you’ve heard of it. The film was a real sleeper that eventually knocked the socks off of a generation of movie-goers that were too young to see said film in an actual theater. This seminal feature was a key example of Dick’s muse in action.

Later there was this Spielbergien effort called Minority Report that refused to generate the Hollywood dollars requiring it to be big hit, despite having Tom Cruise attached to it. It was another take on how Dick’s philosophy regarded human’s responses to seeing their potential future. Even though the film handily addressed the whole yin-yang of stimulus/response, it was awash in a sci-fi, crime caper guise that was too loud to let Dick’s voice be properly heard. It was still pretty good though, regardless.

Now we have this film, A Scanner Darkly.

Richard Linklater: What the hell is happening…ah, who cares? Indie darling of the mundane. All of his work has dealt with, or rather shrugged off this question. First there was Slacker, which garnered some attention, as well as a few honors. The follow-up Dazed and Confused, criminally ignored at the box office upon release, eventually repealing any critical scorn a full twenty years later to earn the Criterion Collection special treatment with double disc set with all the bells and whistles. It sold well.

All Linklater’s films tackle the human condition, usually in the form of ongoing dialogue reflecting his characters personalities despite them all being two-dimensional. His actors are generally reactive, only displaying any unique personality traits when in context with of other characters reactions. No one really initiates anything in his movies, only responds. His Waking Life is a ideal example of his oeuvre, where the “protagonist” spends the movie simply just listening to others speak about academic as well as pop philosophy. Linklater’s films seldom have a plot; they’re only interconnecting vignettes spliced with My Dinner With Andre-like commentary. Most are pretty good though, BTW.

And now this film, A Scanner Darkly.

Me: I streamed this? A humble yet snarky blogger of film criticism using free social media like a cheap, lazy podium upon which to spout prophetic about this culty film here and the failed blockbuster that. All of my work a big, smelly fart.

And yet this film, A Scanner Darkly.

The first thing that grabs you about this movie is that, “Hey! It’s animated! Woo-hoo! Bring on the dancing squirrels!”

Stop. Put down the pipe. There’s a bit more going on here. You may have to, regrettably, sober up. The thing is called rotoscoping.” an animation technique in which animators trace over footage, frame by frame, for use in live-action and animated films, like this one. In other words, turning live-action into cartoons. Linklater conducted a brilliant job here. After the first half hour, if yer not rockin the ganja, the background blends into the foreground into an oily montage of shadows and strangely patterned textures (especially with the actors’ faces). It can get a little unsettling at times also, not mention just plain trippy. And honestly, I’m not so sure that the “scramble suit” or hallucinogenic sequences would’ve worked as well outside animation. In simpler terms, Scanner’s not a cartoon, but a graphic novel coming into life.

You regularly abstemious (look it up) users out there might have taken note of the phrase “the background blends into the foreground.” How rotoscoping works, at least by my by eye, is that you tend to look out for the still shots in the frame that unconsciously grounds you to the forescape of the moving characters. In simpler terms, Keanu seems more like Keanu when he’s got a background behind him, be it in the scramble suit or curling his arm around Donna/Audrey/Hank? That’s how I saw it. Then again, I had no access to Substance-D.

Dick was never appreciated in his lifetime. He was more or less a cult writer. So much so that he had the dignity to die before Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? translated to the silver screen as Blade Runner. It became a beloved film decades after he got some common sense and kicked off. Him dying did great by his rep. Only Frank Herbert did somewhat better.

Ahem.

About the goddam movie. Visually, well, that’s the only trump its got going for it. There’s a very cool premise locked up in visual haberdashery (again, look it the hell up). Keanu is as wooden as ever. The only roles he seems to get stuck with is Neo, a Ted Logan clone, or a Neo clone. Or a Neo clone. He might be able to stretch (might be able to) if he’s taken out of the fantasy/sci-fi genre. He did pretty good in the goofy rom-com Something’s Gotta Give, hitting on Diane Keaton. But here he’s still stiff, struggling. So is Winona Ryder as Bob’s sorta girlfriend, who later turns out to be…ah, you’ll see it. Only the secondary characters of Downey, Harrelson and Cochrane do anything to spice up this film based almost solely on visuals.

I could go on, but this film committed the ultimate sin in my movie-watching mind: it bored me. Despite all the cool visuals, it was boring. It was like a stupid Michael Bay movie sans the big budget: lots of things to look at, and not much else. Listen Linklater, Waking Life was a bold, intriguing experiment, albeit not very cohesive. That was the point. I got that. This time out, continuity, acting and plot should’ve been the point. You culled from a very smart author whose works already translated to film quite handily. You already got your rewards, now try not to beat us over the head with the trophy.

Seven years from now…


Rant Redux (2019)…

This installment was more-or-less in the same vein as my What Just Happened? screed. I was pissed, I was drunk and despite the blurry vision (mentally as well as physically) I feel ripped off.

I had seen quite a few Linklater films before Scanner. I liked his friendly, offbeat, subversive style, populated by interesting characters. Not likable, mind you. I’ve already gone on record that the old saw about writing is one has to make their characters likable. Utter fallacy. Case in point in the pantheon of movie baddies: Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, Pinhead and Freddy Kruger did precious little noble things in their cinematic universe, yet they are iconic and revered by many a film buff. Why? Lord Vader was Shakespearean. Lecter was a meditation on sanity and its role in society. Pinhead was all about sexual freedom. And Freddy was the best Jungian metaphor to bullying this side of any YA novel. Very interesting.

Which is odd since a director like Linklater decided to do a soft S/F film based on one of the more outwardly weird names in the genre’s pantheon. I guess now he was looking for another challenge. I hope.

It’s curious I say that now because the old rant still rings true. My opinion of the film has not changed. I wouldn’t watch it again, and felt like Linklater was using the carrot and the stick. Might’ve been his point, but I don’t know. We are dealing with Dick adaptation here; he liked to keep you guessing and second guessing. That was his muse.

Which now with some distance that might’ve been Linklater’s also. It was a pretty accurate meditation on “what is reality,” Dick foremost message to spread. But in reflection I don’t think Linklater was the guy to try this. There wasn’t much soul here, and despite the rotoscoping twist he applied in Waking Life, where that was daring and enhanced the vignette’s subject matter, Scanner‘s application felt like a gimmick. A very clever gimmick, but one all the same and it didn’t do much to progress the plot. Disappointing.

Go watch Waking Life instead for a better, cleaner, animated, Dickless take on how reality works. And I will not apologize for that pun.

That’s the best pun you’ve never heard.


The Revision…

Rent It or relent it?: Sustained: Relent it. Lots of potential and lots of wandering. Viewing of this movie requires patience, a high pain threshold and ample Starbucks Doubleshot at your elbow. Again, too bad.


Next Installment…

Drum roll…

The ultimate apology/revision RIORI will ever give as we enter—re-enter—Oblivion.


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 78: Francis Lawrence’s “Constantine” (2005)



The Players

Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Shia LeBeouf, Djimon Hounsou, Tilda Swinton and Peter Stormare, with Max Baker, Pruitt Taylor Vince and Gavin Rossdale (yeah, that guy from Bush).


The Story…

In a world ruled largely by what is and what’s not, an eccentric, troubled private detective with a taste for the supernatural finds himself on his latest paranormal-tinged case: an investigation of a murdered suicide victim.

Say what now?


The Rant…

I’m a lapsed Christian. Been so for quite some time, at least since dinner.

It’s not like if I fell out of love with the church (but she’s never returned my calls, so there), just away. I was raised Episcopalian, which is the American version of Anglicism, the church of England. Very similar practices, but with less heavy accents. Either way this branch of Protestantism is pretty straightforward: study and try to follow the teachings of Jesus, apply them towards peace and understanding to friends and enemies alike and attend mass every Sunday to compare hats. It’s a social affair as much it is a spiritual one. Enlightenment and handshakes all around. Amen.

As nice a sentiment as that is, over time I tired of church, but not tired of the above things. Definitely not the hats; coonskin goes a long way. Don’t misunderstand me here; nowadays I’m pretty much an atheist. It’s not the whole, “If there is a God then how come there is so much suffering yadda yadda yadda you’ve heard it…” Shut it. Bad sh*t happens because people, not some omnipotent deity make it rain on other people. This a simple construct as well as popular one for the ago non- or no-longer believer. It sure is trite. Call that mindset your typical “gateway drug” into questioning faith. It’s the Busch Light version of Martin Luther and his hammer. Still, that precept in all its iterations is a good question as to why some folks leave faith behind. Or pull a 180. Why is the world so topsy-turvy when most of us seek spiritual enlightenment? The whole peace, love and understanding matters of unity. What’s so funny about that?

*wink*

Even me being a lapsed Christian, to this day (and call it judgmental; JC would waggle a finger at me for this one) I’m a pretty good armchair/inflatable pulpit kinda rainmaker when it may why push comes to shove between faith up against the often ugly reality about living on Earth. The other plane can wait for now.

Although I’m not a believer in God, I am quite the fan of his son. Whenever I’ve read the Bible, the Four Gospels always appealed to me. Jesus’ best buds Matthew, Mark, Luke and John waxing poetic about their times hanging with the big man. Taken as a whole, the Gospels play out like a G-rated Tarantino flick. In so saying, John says, “I remember the time Jesus and me did…” Then Matt says, “Waitaminnit, that’s not how I remember it.” Then Luke raises his hand, “Uh, guys…?” And Thomas grouses, “You guys are full of sh*t.”

JC’s times with his apostle wingmen are a big road trip, with essential Christian lessons learned along the way. And with every good road trip you gotta have the guy that takes the wheel. In this light—as one of several—the New Testament is like a Hallmark card given at the right time. The Old Testament may be a series of cautionary traffic cones, but the next chapter is the open road, full of possibilities. I like that with Jesus as the wheelman. A guiding force for good without the messianic complex, so to speak. This I can get behind, with or without proper worship.

Then there’s that 180. The collective who takes the Bible’s stories beyond way too serious. I think it was Voltaire that said, “One does not read the Bible for its text.” Namely, read between the lines you dweebs. You know the crap I cited above about hats? Yeah. I figured out that there are two types of Christians. On one hand we have the believers that congregate to engage in both worship and social congress, trying to understand one another’s differences and find some common ground. On the other we have folks who’ve gone through the Book of Revelation with a highlighter. Yeah, I think I’d rather hang around the coffee urns post-sermon. We got enough issues already to waste time planning for Armageddon, and again you don’t need church to try and reconcile with all that sh*t. War, disease, fake news, GMOs, being actually concerned about Miley Cyrus’ career path. We all got our spiritual bags full of cracked eggs.

All that’s out there, and was another nail in the cross—again, so to speak—of me quitting the church. The whole “if there is a loving God” schpiel eventually found me as a cop-out. All that bad sh*t above happens in this world is caused by people, not crafted from some prankster on High. I figured if that one attends church to learn the straight and narrow, that’s a waste of time. You learn that path by wandering through the world, taking in the sights, sizing up what you see and hear. If you found the right path then you’d find your way to a house of worship. If you need to understand how to get along with people and two hours every Sunday fits the bill, you are a far more enlightened person than me or anyone that reads this blog.

Yeah, so the whole “making excuses” factor soured me. That and Thomas’ potty mouth. I didn’t believe I had to attend church to understand the basal concept of good versus evil, or how to try and get along with different people, or not burn anyone at a stake. Attending church boiled down to the whole hat thing again. I read the Bible on my own, most of which I dug. Understood JC was a cool guy, a philosopher and an agitator to the rather unbalanced status quo of the Roman Empire. No one needs to attend church to get all that. At the end of the day, I figured out church as that hat thing. Old hat.

One final significance that turned me off to church: the routine. Scolding sin and looking for the highest tree to lasso. When I was a wee one sitting in the pew (quit giggling), trying to soak up so much ballyhoo I could’ve sworn I was getting the stinkeye from the prominent gatekeepers attendant by the altar, not to mention the prelate himself at the lectern delivering tales of hellfire and brimstone to a quivering congregation. Needless to say, I didn’t feel right welcome. Not JC territory for me, even at the age of nine.

So what does all my mucky muck have to do with lapse in faith? Well, it’s not a lapse in faith per se. Despite all the nastiness on the planet and my cynical worldview, I still have faith in humanity. There’s still compassion out there, practiced by decent, caring people, Christian or no. Be it St Jude’s Hospital, Habitat For Humanity, Greenpeace or Black Lives Matter, caring folks with the need to communicate a message of trust and understanding to everyone is out there. Kinda like what our wheelman might do.

No. I lost faith in the church, an entity that was once open but is now insular, in bed with the state and casting out when they should be opening up. Not all churches are like that, but I’ve driven by many monolithic edifices dedicated to worship (most with Wi-Fi) and couldn’t help but wonder where all that money came from to build those fortresses on such prime real estate and where it could’ve been spent otherwise? Tax free?

Slow down there. Before I crawl any further up thine own arse about this whole struggle with belief, I’ll sort of wrap up with the following warm fuzzy. And it has nothing to do with my keeping Super Mario Bros on my NES on indefinite pause for the duration of one Sunday’s eucharist cuz I finally made it to world 8. That kind of sounds like religious fervor. Not a prayer circle or nothing, but what the hell, I was 12.

It’s about retirement, both literal and spiritual. Too much of everything, yet still committing self to spirit. Possibly a metaphor for bailing on the need for turtleneck sweaters between 9 and 11 in the morning on any given Sunday. We’ll even let go of the suspect prime real estate for now.

Recall overly stern minister I rambled about? After he retired I learned on the sly that there was a sort of witch hunt upon his flock. I knew I felt uncomfortable during service, and what was told spoke millions as well as calmed me. I was f*cking 9, yet in the swim of the hat checking that was floating around the congregation.

Turned out the senior members of the congregation didn’t want kids in worship; too much of a potential ruckus. Ban ’em, down to Seventh Level with ya little booger-eaters. Even as a kid I knew that was dopey. How are you gonna replenish the crop without fresh seeds? Not a direct quote there, but really? Segregation at church? Isn’t that a part of both what the Apostles and the Founding Fathers fought against (and if you can’t trust GW and JC then who can you)? So the proverbial seed of doubt was sown, and I was merely nine. Church ain’t the place to be. The physical building at any rate.

Fortunately the edict was short lived. As a kid—ignoring the witch hunt—I kinda found church comfy, albeit boring. We all went through the motions, sure, hearing about sin and redemption and WWJD? No joke here, but hanging close with all the parishioners felt good, like family Thanksgiving. It was probably herd mentality all the way, but I received some succor from the rhetoric. For a time. What I learned about the minister and his elite guard, church wasn’t the nest it was supposed to be. It was a crucible.

*insert dramatic tympani bellows here*

The game changer was the old codger’s replacement. He was a soft-spoken man, Southerner with a lilting accent and a bit of a hangdog. He wasn’t the aggressive peddler in sin and strife like his precursor, all self-righteous with St Peter on speed dial. No. The new guy was gentle, reserved and gave the finest sermons I ever heard. I was still a kid and at that time an acolyte who lit the candles and fidgeting before the altar during service (what with that massive reminding crucifix hanging over my head. Another good reason to dodge church: the possibility of being smitten), but had a keen enough ear toward a good story when I heard it. Brimstone or thankfully no.

Our Southern gentleman preacher’s sermons were the kind of thing I could get around, loaded with questioning and light on the sinning. Sure, he’d always start his schpiel with some Biblical references, but we were in church so it felt superfluous. Guess he was filling some sort of Episcopalian counting coup quota. But the bulk of his sermons were steeped in social commentary. A lot of it political, which flew in the face of proper sermonizing. Separation of blah and blah, right? Stuff like our leaders’ civil intentions towards their constituency, and were they walking along the path of the Savior. Or educators’ rolls teaching faith without “teaching faith.” Or the one sermon that really stuck with me (despite me being whelp cowing under the cross, literally and figuratively) was about divorce as sin. Was it? That covenant between man and woman under the watchful eye of God, broken? Don’t ask why some snot-nosed young snot like me paid attention, but that might’ve been our genteel preacher presented his sermon like some closing argument in trial court. He weighed the evidence, tempered it with just enough emotion to make it go down smooth and delivered his answer:

“Is divorce bad? Yes. Is it a sin? No.”

This frankness was a lot more assuring than me bound for the lake of fire for playing doctor with that cute girl down the lane. Kidding. I didn’t live on a lane. It was a drive.

It’s that kind of story, that kind of meditation on life, love and leaving that was mostly absent in my family’s church. I know now that I don’t need to attend mass to get my fill of Jesus’ many road trips, nor do I need mismatched worship against hidden secular agendum. I don’t need the teachings of the Bible as an excuse for humans’ deplorable behavior. And I don’t need some omnipresent overlord with His magnifying glass to ensure we all keep in line. That’s all bullsh*t. We’re in charge of our own destinies without churches, hopefully going forward with decency and common sense. That’s me.

To conclude, and in respect to this week’s wad of dough, there was that 180 I spoke of. I don’t really need to expound on those “true believers” motives, or motivations for that matter. I can’t exactly pin it down, but I’m sure I heard it somewhere, maybe in high school history class: Our puritanical Puritans who we asked to leave England and set up shop here had a very dire version of practicing their baleful version of Christianity. Their sermons consisted of hellfire and brimstone, to be sure. But to have to listen to passages of how much God hates you, you willful sinner. How you are a mere insect hanging by a thread over the Inferno, and the Man Upstairs cannot wait to cut the cord and only eternal prayer may—may—save your eternal soul, well that kind of mindset JC might argue against.

Good faith and good PR. Might be a better weapon against Satan and his mighty, tempestuous hordes of demons at his beck and call. Y’know, personal faith to thwart evil. Integrity over temptation. Righteousness over sloth. Belief against the inevitable.

Prayer against…


The trouble with knowing you’re wrong is that you’re often right.

John Constantine (Reeves) is damned. Damned if he does and damned if he does. He’s a detective. A very unique detective. He doesn’t specialize in theft, infidelity or even murder. No, not outright. He specializes in weird crimes that no one else can handle. Mostly because they involve the supernatural, the occult and slapping demons in the puss.

You see, John has the ability (maybe curse) to see what the normal world can’t. Or won’t. Demons, angels and everything in between are naked to him, as are the crimes on this plane they commit. He takes on the odd cases involving exorcism, magic, ley lines out of whack and nasty imps from the underworld hell-bent of corrupting mortal beings. It can get messy.

And not just in the ectoplasmic sense. Detective Rachel Dodson (Weisz) seeks out John’s unique talents.  Turns out her sister Isabel (also Weisz) after being committed to an asylum takes a swan dive into the facility’s pool. From ten floors up. Rachel refuses to believe this was a suicide, them both being devout Catholics. Isabel would never take her own life, no matter of disturbed she may have been.

Rachel suspects some otherworldly force drove Isabel to jumping. At first, John is skeptical. Sound like a traditional suicide to him. But over the week since, and weird demonic crimes popping up at an inexplicable rate, there might be something…unnatural attached to Isabel’s death.

Maybe supernatural might be a better term.

So John lights up and also lights up…


We never talked about the occult or the paranormal, beyond the devil’s antics and the seven deadly sins in church. Which is kinda odd. There are plenty of opportunities to teach the mortal plane about storm and strife with the addition of demonic activity to drive the point home.

Sure, there are significant tales from the chapters of the Good Book that highlight spectral incursions. The temptation of Christ courtesy of a jealous Satan. The temping snake in Eden. Even the donkey Uber telling Joe and Mary the way to Bethlehem. Lots of weird sh*t in the Bible as head-scratchers, courtesy of the paranormal.

Not much was delved into when I was a church-goer. Too bad, for if this element was examined further I might be still attendant. Why? Consider the nightly news. A diluted version of sin and strife to be sure, but also as entertainment. JC feeding Satan his hydra-like c*ck of his own ass? What leaves more of an impression? Probably more than the potential financial turnouts on NBR. Go invest elsewhere.

This week, I invested in Francis Lawrence’s Constantine for a fix of demonic incursion and intrigue. That and a little police procedural thrown in. I’ll admit, I was a tad bamboozled. Based on my viewing of Lawrence’s take on I Am Legend, I expected a weird amalgam of sci-fi, Lovrecraftian sensibilities and human drama.

Instead, and within 12 minutes there was a stink of cheeze.

At the outset, Constantine felt deliberately comic-bookyI don’t care if this film was lifted from DC’s mature Vertigo imprint, where those titles aim beyond the PG-13 crowd. Any hack can warp a serious comic into drivel if they don’t understand the nature of the medium. Fortunately, a great many filmmakers did get it (eg: Watchman, From Hell, Scott Pilgrim vs The World, etc), and were fearless in their execution.

Constantine has the stale scent of holding back met with fumbling fingers. Like clumsily unhooking a bra after prom.

Now to be fair, Constantine was cut during the fallow days when comic book movies were just beginning to come into vogue and most directors didn’t know what they’d gotten their hands on. Sure, some guys like Bryan Singer got it with his take on the X-Men and some guys like Bryan Singer didn’t with his take on Superman Returns. We’re talking uneven stories at best back then (if not now, come to think of it). There wasn’t a proper template established yet. From what I’ve observed most early comic book movies couldn’t—or outright wouldn’t—stray far from the “comic book” aspect of the movies’ source. The bombast, the action, the bing boom splat. The subtlety of Adam West.

I’m not claiming that director Lawrence wrote it in, but there was an air of Constantine playing it safe by delivering the straight line. What’s worse the film appears to be trying real hard to rise above the underpinnings that Batman And Robin staked down almost a decade prior. Barring any neon upchuck, Constantine overplays the action and undermines a lot of the human drama that makes comic book movies tick (as well as actual comic books). The first Spider Man flick illustrates this tenet. This lack (or at least, rather weak feeling) of organic drama and character development makes the movie feel strained,  compensating with lots and lots of F/X and speed while muddling the razor thin plot. It’s forced atmosphere of urgency. Simply put, Constantine is the first boring exciting movie about demons I’ve ever seen. Sure, I don’t have much of a reference point, but ride with me already.

And the ride through Constantine was a bumpy one. A lot of stalled pacing, like when a car slips out of gear and you have to turn the engine over again (my ride’s stick; best analogy I could think of). Like I said, forced urgency. Funny considering the balance of power between angels and demons existing on our plane with their tips and tricks. Figured those stakes would ramp up something. I said the film was trying too hard to be suspenseful and mysterious, but on the flipside I also felt director Lawrence was holding back. He was shackled to the preconceived notions of what—at the time—a comic book movie should be. Lawrence is a stylish director, but his work has a fair amount of substance only accented with style. I repeat, his take on the umpteenth iteration of I Am Legend was chockful of style balanced well with human drama substance. Seeing that film was a dire character study with only Will Smith and a loyal German shepherd as the primary cast for most of the movie, the guy knows the balance of the human factor against the, well, inhuman factor. Looks like with Constantine the human part got gobbled up by the inhuman splash and dash. But again, Legend was released after Constantine, so it stands to reason that the man might’ve learned a thing or three after this pastiche.

In retrospect, that’s kind of a shame. Again I profess that comic book trappings of the time undid a lot of this movie. Lawrence is too sharp a director to let things get out of hand, but again that comic book prejudice. Blame may be placed at the feet of test audience (I’ll have something to say about that Neilsen nightmare some other time), who may have wanted Exorcist lite, but with more boomy things. And that might be where Lawrence met some middle ground between “Slow down there” and “Get on with it.” I appreciated the restrained use of the slam-bang CGI action. Constantine’s descents into the underworld were swift and sharp. Plot points and not just some phantasmagoria to tantalize us with wanton pixels. I liked that aspect; it felt like evidence of how the action would play out in I Am Legend. Sparse and essential to captivate and maintain interest in the story. Worked for me.

Some more strained positivity: truth be told, okay. It takes a while; slow burn. Maybe too slow, but the intrigue eventually rises. Even if only halfway through the second act. I didn’t get where the flick was going. It felt aimless, lacked oomph. Where the hell are we going with this (so to speak)? Eventually got an inkling that Constantine was trying to be an action movie, not really. Forgetting comic book bias for a minute, the movie was in actuality a murder mystery, gussied up with Peter Stormare as REDACTED and minus a spine. It took a while to come to this conclusion, but I got. Then I tried to keep on to that. That was the tricky part.

Reeves seems a bit too slick to pull off gumshoe, paranormal or no. He’s been in the shadow of Neo’s leather coat a bit too long. Constantine is supposed to be gritty; guy’s like a paranormal MacGuyver. But he’s too smooth, regardless of how used to he is with dealing with the occult, demons, angels and maintaining a balance between plains. Reeve’s Constantine is irritated, not wizened by a lifetime of battling endless evil. And all he has to show for it is a hopeless addiction to cigarettes and their REDACTED. Guy should’ve been more pissy. Just saying.

Weisz doesn’t fare much better. She comes across as too willowy to be taken seriously as a grizzled cop, and eventually descends into reactive, damsel-in-distress territory. Sure, she’s easy on the eyes but her on screen time just grates. Despite her matter is the movie’s maguffin she sure seems overly passive in solving her sister’s “murder.” She’s a tag-along, made worse by her gaping over the supernatural stuff that is Constantine’s (stale) bread and butter. Too bad there.

But like I said with the supporting cast, ah, therein lies some rub.

I really dug Swinton as the reluctant angel, the oracle. Here’s a good (if not the only) example of mystery that the movie was ostensibly pushing. Her screen time was brief, but crucial. I’ve always enjoyed Swinton’s air of nervous dignity, codified by her later performance in Michael Clayton (check it out. I’ll wait). Sometimes less is more, especially in an overwrought comic book movie like this one.

Hounsou as Papa Midnite was a trick, the Huggy Bear of the underworld underworld. Sharp, flinty and has seen too much. Barely tolerating every aspect of his being. Sure, he’s the man with the plan, but the plan’s been leased out to “forces” beyond his command. Papa can see the horizon, but not the dawn, and makes no bones about that to our pretty hero with something on his shoulders. That and Hounsou is something our lead is sorely lacking: he’s tough.

What really surprised me was Gavin “Everything Zen” Rossdale as the schemin’ demon Balthazar. His show was quite affecting. I am as shocked as you may be that Mr Stefani could pull off such a scuzzy, intriguing performance. Rossdale’s Balthazar reminded me of a riverboat gambler: all about the stakes before the prize. His motivation was like that quote, “some goals are so worthy, it’s glorious even to fail.” Might sound high-minded about a Brit grunge also-ran’s acting debut, but he played his sh*t to the hilt and the rest of the cast should’ve taken notice. F*ck Razorblade Suitcase BTW. Don’t care what the critics said. Neither did they.

Erm, I’m gonna leave Shia as Spanky, er, Chas the cabbie alone. Can’t win ’em all.

Stormare was a trip. He’s always bleakly funny. From Grey in Fargo to the cosmonaut in Armageddon, his lot is humor, and always necessarily left of center. Sinister humor here. Even though his presence is made known in the third act, it was worth the wait, at least for this blogger who was biting his nails not out of suspense but of desperation (at least I was feeling something). Stormare was perfectly cast for his role, and played it to the hilt as well as teetered on cheesy. But good cheesy, his stock in trade. These supporting characters (even the annoying Max Baker) almost, almost redeemed this whole paranormal rigamarole. Can’t cross the Mississippi in three small steps and all. Splash.

Despite the sick supporting cast trying to hold it all together, Constatntie’s final act eventually devolved into murky/busy. Too many ends to tie up. It was as if Lawrence threw down his bullhorn, threw up his hands and just threw up. There was too much to wrap up in a few scenes, like a Buzzcocks song with too many lyrics and not enough notes. A tempest of sluggish, fast and harried. Yeah, we got our resolution but what the hell happened? Without giving anything away I felt all bamboozled. Not to mention cheated. Constantine felt muted at times, subdued, retrained. Then we flipped the coin and got jagged, unhinged action, not necessarily fun or coherent. Not sure in the grand scheme if this was the redeeming factor in an uneven paranormal crime procedural, or just illustrating the studio wasn’t exactly sure how to open this Pandorum. Truth be told I would’ve preferred more key restraint, namely with our cast. Like it seems with pleasantly schlocky flicks like this the leads grate while the supporting cast is cast in a more flattering light. Too bad even that appeal was so incongruent. Gave me a headache.

I know, I know. I’ve been real cagey with this installment; giving you mostly bones with very little meat. That word “incongruent” best describes Constantine. But it ain’t all a snarky labyrinth; my screed might be read as a passive way to suggest you all seeing Constantine without a lot of personal investment. Take it that way. Don’t misunderstand me (any more than you already have), this movie is subpar as both an action movie as well as a comic book adaptation. It does retain a certain charm, however; consider Constantine as an acid test for how far comic book movies have come over the past decade-plus. Sure, it’s heavy on the bombast and light on the human—and/or inhuman—factor, but there’s that charm thing hanging in the ether. Watching Constantine is akin to a one night stand: sure, it’s fun while it lasts, as long as you abandon all thoughts of commitment the next morning.

Don’t forget to leave cab fare on the pillow, fer Christ’s sake.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Cast this demon out. Sorry, Neo.


Stray Observations…

  • “You goin’ down?” “Not if I can help it.”
  • Always wondered what do non-smoking actors smoke when they smoke in the movie?
  • “I need to eat.”
  • Cow tipping (rimshot)!
  • “Two hundred dollar shirt, by the way.”
  • Okay. The tub scene was disturbing.
  • “Not bad, kid.”
  • “It’s called pain. Get used to it.”

Next Installment…

Once upon a time, there was an Irish vacuum cleaner repair man that met a florist who loved to play piano…

That sounds promising.


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 32: Howard Deutch’s “The Replacements” (2000)


Replacements one sheet


The “Players” (get it?)

Keanu Reeves, Gene Hackman, Brooke Langton, Orlando Jones, Jon Favreau, Rhys Ifans and Jack Warden, with Fazion Love, Ace Yonamine, Troy Winbush, David Denman and Michael Jace (plus John Madden and Pat Summerall, naturally).


The Story…

The Washington Sentinels have gone on strike, but the game must go on. Especially since the playoffs are a mere few weeks away. F*ck throwing in the towel, Sentinels’ owner Ed calls on and old coaching buddy of his, Jimmy to rally up some scabby troops and assemble a working team. Albeit a team of washouts, criminals, head cases, drunken soccer stars, former sumo wrestlers, a deaf halfback and of course a quarterback with a sketchy history.

Uh, maybe “working” is a relative term here.


The Rant…

Americans love an underdog story, especially in cinema. It’s a tried-and-true trope—gimmick is probably a better word—of having some misfit (or group of misfits) struggle against societal odds in a clumsy way only to later have THAT BIG MOMENT where everything bonks together and happily ever after pass the gravy. It’s an old story employed as long as the lifespan of your average Twinkie. Wholesome goodness.

The underdog story has also been played the f*ck out in Hollywood. It had its time, its moments. It even won an Academy Award or two (think Forrest Gump or the original Rocky) when done tastefully. But the underdog tale is a horrible cliche, run amok for way too many years at the multiplex. Sure, audiences never seem to get sick of the formula, but I consider that way of thinking and feeling in a stark contrast to how True Americans ultimately embrace—and eventually deject—the hardscrabble hero for a given, very short time frame. It’s happened before and sure as sh*t it’ll happen again. And again. And I hate you all.

The “American Dream” is based on a work hard/get ahead ethos. It usually also stems from the successful being borne into a meager existence. Folks like Abe Lincoln, JC Penney, Sir Richard Branson and even the McDonald brothers are good examples. The “humble beginnings” story is a delicious one in fiction, too. Including the two films above, you can probably name endless movies of this ilk; people overcoming great odds to becoming a success, with all the ups, downs and trappings that go along with it.

America laps this crap up, in the movies and other media outlets. We love to raise the underdog upon our shoulders in praise, and later toss them into the gutter when they get too successful, famous and eventually ubiquitous. The relationship sours. No surprise that Steve Jobs was lionized after the success of the iPod, iPhone, iBlender, etc only to be picked apart as some Machiavellian control freak when Apple replaced morality in the country. And after he died? Whoo boy, media field day. No wonder Wozniuk stayed in the basement.

Why is this? I mean, there are plenty of entrepreneurs et al that avoid this spin cycle. Ben and Jerry still make great ice cream, despite being retired but keeping their company’s charitable causes on point. No matter how pretentious the U2 guys get, they still keep their heads from getting relatively too far into the clouds and still release solid (not necessarily great) albums while being philanthropic. Even the late, hard-working Paul Newman kept his humility regarding his craft and his charities.

Does generosity have something to do with it? Work hard, get ahead, later share the wealth in a Carnegie sense? Avoid the egotistical muck that gets smeared all over Access Hollywood? Maybe. But the phenomenon of the underdog roller coaster persists notwithstanding. It’s almost as if Americans want to see their heroes fail. An ongoing cycle of schadenfreude. Praise Kanye at first and strip him to the bone later (even if he hadn’t invited it. Picking on poor, little Taylor. The nerve). Hell, you bought his f*cking albums already. Where do you think that bank account and ego come from, in that order? Blame yourself folks, and be patient for the next man on a white horse to ride into Hollywood.

What’s my point? None really. Does the underdog film appeal to us because of the above, heartwarming template? Does the opposite in reality stem from jealousy? Is it all just of us watching Springer? I’m no social critic—not professionally at any rate—but I think the underdog tale is a very vicarious one. Most of us wake up everyday feeling like a Tom Waits lyric, but hope later in the day we’ll write Rain Dogs. That’s why we put the album on.

I’m thinking the corruption of the underdog stems from said dog believing his or her own press. Enough people deify you, you’ll claim you wrote the Bible. Take for instance this pop culture example: we have two musicians. Both worked together. Both got terribly famous, wealthy and eventually revered for their work. When they parted ways and pursued solo careers, both maintained their cachets and appeal as music makers. Barring tragedy (one lost his wife to cancer, the other was killed), their legacies were secured, and integrity mostly intact. However one got a lot of sh*t for being outspoken while the other dodged most of the slings and arrows of universal fame for the remainder of his years.

One was Paul McCartney, the other John Lennon.

How did one get public grief while the other (barring dying young) mostly avoided the media mill post-Beatles? I don’t know. Best ask George Harrison…um, back in 99.

All right. Enough bullish*tting. Onto this week’s installment. Not sure if the ensuing torches and pitchforks are relevant to my ramblings, if only to reinforce that the underdog sports comedy is a warhorse beyond being bound for the Elmer’s factory.

Hell. Well anyway, it’s time for kickoff…


Pro athletes can be a fickle, spoiled lot. Even though they work hard getting pummeled on a weekly basis, one can’t ignore Bentleys going unpolished or mansions with two of the three pools with busted filters. They want more money; equal wages for equal time. And what’s that birdsh*t still doing on my digital sundial?!?

Strike, strike, strike.

The Washington Sentinels’ owner, Ed O’Neill (Warden) won’t have any of this pouting and pussing out. Playoffs are in a month, by God, and we’re gonna have a team to play. What to do?

Desperate times and all. Ed calls on his old coaching bud Jimmy McGinty (Hackman) for just the ticket. Jimmy’ll assemble a motley crew of players who don’t need their Maseratis detailed, Swedish masseuses on their glutes and stock indexes checked every time they fart. No. Jimmy’s got the action. Get hungry players; the guys who love football and wanna be champs, if only for a little while.

Ed’s wary of this. Who exactly does Jimmy have on his roster?

Well there’s Cliff Franklin (Jones), who can run like the wind and catch like a blind quadriplegic. We got insaniac cop Dan Bateman (Favreau) who lives to…hurt things. With some mild, legitimate pro sports experience there’s lushy, chain-smoking Welsh soccer star Nigel “The Leg” Gruff (Ifans). And our quarterback, the sullen, maybe cursed Shane Falco (Reeves) with a big chip and a long hangdog. They all wanna play bad. Maybe they’ll only just play bad. Either that or head back to their cells.

What could possibly go wrong?

Offsides


All right. I kind of knew what I was getting into when The Replacements arrived, and I wasn’t disappointed. This meant I expected to be disappointed, and the movie delivered.

Let’s forget most of the philosophizing from above for a few. Most of it. A lot of heady crap for a throwaway sports comedy, right? Disregarding my usual, subtle-as-neon social commentary, the whole underdog thing only works when the dog in question (or in the case of The Replacements, the whole pack) is fleshed-out. Rocky Balboa was a Regular Joe. Forrest Gump was “stupid.” Delta House were a bunch of losers. We know this why? Backstory and good characterization. The Replacements’ cast—although not boring. Stereotypical yes, but not boring—only comes across as half-baked. And not in the Jim Breuer sense either.

Back in the day (the late 70s to be exact) a underdog sub-genre took the cinemas by storm: the underdog sports comedy. It all started with the original Bad News Bears (I can’t believe I have to preface a title that way. Everything is being remade and rebooted at such a rate I can’t keep count let alone keep the sh*t in my queue), the ur-ne’er-do-well does well sports comedy, of course cast with insufferable imps that eventually grow on you. Bears was the gateway—for good or for ill—for movies like Slap Shot, North Dallas Forty, The Longest Yard and so forth. What made these retreads work was good characterization and a degree of wonkiness with the characters that made the show a decent one.

What made The Replacements tank was a dearth of consistently notable characters. The older films weren’t fun because they were underdog stories (although they were), rather the dogs in question were really f*cked up. Remember what I said about believable characters in film? They don’t have to be likable; they have to be relatable and interesting. I mean, the footballers in The Longest Yard were bloody convicts, before God (and forget the Sandler remake, please?). Not a lot of nice guys in those classic flicks (the National Anthem brawl in Slap Shot? Very patriotic), and the better for it.

Replacements major faux pas is setting us up with drab, stereotypical characters that are written to be likable. If you wanna have an underdog sports comedy, you need to have a cast of miscreants that get under your skin at first and gradually win you over. I’m not saying this as an absolute, but it worked pretty good in the past.

Maybe more simply, Replacements had boring, color-by-numbers characters.

This was quite the shame, too, since the eclectic cast was stellar and totally misused. If they all were better written their predictable stereotypes could have been more palatable. Even funny, if only on an inconsistent tilt.

The other major blight on this movie was it was totally formula in action here. I know, I know. Kinda alluded to that issue before. Just was girding myself for the slaughter waiting on my DVD player. I packed my rucksack well. Sure enough, I got me predictable dialogue, paper thin plot—muted, too, like the movie was bored with itself—its inevitable outcome and trying too hard to recreate the feel of those old skool sports comedies. Even my wife said it was boring, and she usually likes…movies not like this. So my disappointment was well prepped.

But here’s the hell of it: The Replacements was funny, if only in fits and sputtering starts. Despite being an obvious Major League rip-off (which oddly was a late-entry sports movie that worked), where that film’s silliness was inspired and a decent homage to its ancestors, almost everything in Replacements is rote and smelled like the crew was asleep at the wheel. If the few funny moments were buttered over the course of the movie we might’ve had a football Major League to enjoy. We didn’t.

I know. I’m slagging on this week’s travesty pretty hard. It took me three nights to finish it, I was that bored. But I gotta be fair, even a blind squirrel finds a nut with a chewy nougat center rolling around outside the multiplex once in a while. What few moments of funny were good, they were pretty damned amusing. Thankfully, almost inevitably these yuk-yuks came from the eclectic cast; they managed to extricate themselves once in a while from the corporate Hollywood mire now and then.

The biggest treat in The Replacements was Favreau’s maniac performance as…well, a maniac: the unhinged Dan Bateman. Prior to this movie, Favreau made his mark portraying lovable, schlumpy losers (e.g.: Swingers, Very Bad Things, PCU). Not here. His Bateman is a wild dog of a nut job, hamming it up and behaving like a toon out of Wacky Races. Sure, his character is a cipher, but sometimes you need a little chewing gum once in a while. Just go along with Favreau and roll your eyes.

Speaking of an actor being out of place with himself, how did Hackman get conned into this movie? I figure he just wanted to catch his breath and have some fun. If you consider Hackman’s fifty-plus year career, the man’s been riding on a sine wave of great films balanced against stuff like The Replacements. Most esteemed career actors have a CV that can get scattershot. I mean, Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda didn’t quit drilling once they hit oil. Once you thought their roll slowed down—bang—out popped a “comeback” role.

Not so with Hackman. Consistent peaks and valleys across the board. Yeah, Replacements was a valley, but still he delivered his best. His best just being Gene Hackman. The Conversation and/or Unforgiven The Replacements ain’t. Then again, that’s not a fair comparison (duh). What Hackman brings to this movie is Hackman. His work is like sex: when it’s good, it’s great. When it’s bad, its still pretty good. And I’d be hard pressed to think otherwise that the man was off on a goof here. I mean, look at the throwback Bear Bryant hat he’s sporting. A nodding wink, fer sure.

Despite the goofiness, Hackman and even Reeves maintain their cachet. Like I said in the Watcher installment, Keanu is a passive actor; everything happens to him and he initiates nothing. His Falco is no different. C’mon, he’s yanked back into the fray with reluctance. He’s riddled with doubt and under confident. He’s the primo underdog here (would that make him an omega dog? Nah, sounds like a reject from the X-Men). That being said, Reeves is in his element here, as usual. It ain’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s kind of comforting in a way, especially since he’s portraying a classic reluctant hero type here. It offsets the motley crew, begrudgingly highlighting them. When you got a heavyweight like Hackman and welterweight Reeves on the marquee, its easy to ignore the minor players. Unless you’re bored with the marquee.

That’s where I felt Jones and Ifans entered stage right. I spoke of my affinity for Ifans’ comic talent before, and it’s still intact here. He has got to be the best peacock plunked down into American cinema. I don’t know how he fares as a star in the UK on his own, but when cast in an American film his simultaneous fish-out-of-water/this is my pond (bitch!) attitude is both endearing and forehead slapping. I find he’s only funny when totally out of place against American actors. His incongruity as Gruff the “football” player clearly not belonging in the Yank camp shows off some knowing goofiness that landed The Replacements a simple Three Stooges feel. Ifans was a stooge of one, and that’s a complement.

Orlando Jones still thinks he’s on the set of MadTV here. His Franklin is a rubbery clown, and since seeing his versatility on television with his protean comic talents, I liked his Dangerfield-esque delivery in the movie. The only problem with his delivery in The Replacements is that you can’t appreciate it unless you base it against his work on MadTV. It’s kind of a detriment, and otherwise his Franklin is just another nervous Nelly. His performance well illustrates the schizo nature of the film: The Replacements can be an amusing film, so long as there’s some context, like with Ifans. Or Hackman. Or even Love, for Pete’s sake. You really shouldn’t have to do homework to appreciate those guys’ efforts with ha-ha.

I guess that’s the biggest issue with The Replacements. You shouldn’t have to try and find the funny here. Gaging that, it ultimately comes down to not the underdog schtick, the prickly casting or the derivative plot. I walked into all of that sh*t with eyes wide open. No. You shouldn’t have to study a dumb comedy to figure out what to laugh at. Eyes wide open I knew what to expect. I didn’t think it was going to be so hard to understand why.

The Replacements is a hollow affair, and the actors clash violently against a tried-and-true plot device. The movie was an exercise in desperate tedium, baiting yours truly with precious few chunks of comic gold. Yet it still supplied the warm fuzzy that accompanies an underdog sports comedy. Christ, it was exhausting.

So was this installment. File it under unnecessary roughness.

Oh, shut up. I’m tired and you’re ugly.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it, but with reservations. Huh? I know. There’s some nuggets here amongst the silt. The Replacements is a lazy Saturday afternoon movie, one designed to get you away from the Internet porn and lawn darts for a bit. I sure wouldn’t pay the the 30 cents to download it though.


Stray Observations…

  • What’s up with the soundtrack? It’s both out of place and eerily appropriate. Here’s a movie made in the 00s with an 80s-flavored soundstripe. I kinda dig it.
  • “By Welsh standards.”
  • Nice boots there.
  • “Thunderstruck!”
  • He we have Jon Madden at his most sedate.
  • “You’re late.” “Car trouble.”
  • Admittedly, the “I Will Survive” bit in holding best showcased Jones’ comedic talents.
  • “Nothin’ like a good bar brawl. Avoid them at all costs.” So that’s what I did wrong.
  • This is a PG-13 movie straining to be an R. The MPAA lost here.
  • “Let’s play football, bitch.”

Next Installment…

Hey. Wouldn’t accidentally traveling back to Medieval France disrupt history’s Timeline? Not to mention Paul Walker’s credibility as a bankable actor? Ces’t la vie.


RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 22: Joe Charbanic’s “The Watcher” (2000)


TheWatcher-PosterArt


 The Players…

James Spader, Keanu Reeves, Marisa Tomei, Ernie Hudson and Chris Ellis.


The Story…

Unhinged, insomniac former FBI profiler Joel Campbell can’t shake the feeling that he’s being watched.

After failing to capture a serial killer on his home turf in LA, he ends up in Chicago, disgraced and with a headful of chemicals barely keeping crippling migraines and PTSD at bay. His old case has gone cold, but some nut job is still out there somewhere preying on unsuspecting women.

He knows this because of a few incriminating photos sent to his flat via FedEx for his eyes only. All anonymous women, slain in an identical fashion. Joel recognizes the handiwork; the killer is back in his life again, baiting him. Taunting him. The game isn’t over yet, since all the vics are local. It would appear that Joel’s not the only one to drag unfinished business to Chicago.

Looks like the case has heated up again.


The Rant…

This is gonna be quick. Relatively speaking.

I wasn’t sure as to what angle I could take for handling The Watcher. One was I could consider the serial killer murder mystery; what makes it work and what doesn’t. The other I could ruminate over what makes a bad murder mystery bad and the opposite so.

After some hand-wringing, I’m going to try to join the two together. But again, don’t worry. This is gonna be quick.

A year or so back, I covered the Hughes Bros’ From Hell at a friend’s behest (you’re welcome, Rivers). It was the big screen adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name, and it—both the book and the film—delivered a tasty, lush murder mystery surrounding the weird case of Jack The Ripper. The first “celebrity” serial killer, and analyzing the mythos behind him. Save Heather Graham’s cheesy performance, the movie had all the hallmarks of your classic whodunnit. It was a satisfying, albeit strange mystery movie.

From Hell could be considered a modern day primer for the genre, a good starting point. Sure, all the tropes and trappings were there, but there are only so many ways you can send up a murder mystery. The story progression is always the same: innocent victims, dedicated investigator, examine evidence/search for clues, hunt, chase, capture, lather, rinse, repeat. That’s any ep of CSI right there.

The rest is all style. Ultimately, that’s what’s gonna keep you glued. The original Law And Order didn’t have 20 seasons fer nuffin. It was a pretty stylish show, so much so that audiences forgot about its grittiness and absence of glamour after a while. It became part of the tapestry, a surefire formula in the best sense. With the grim nature of the cases, and continuous rotation of characters, you had to rely on some flair to keep folks coming back every week (even if it meant the cases getting increasingly more lurid).

This conjecture could be extended to serial killer movies/TV. The story is a warhorse, so only with a little spark can elevate the lame episode of The Profiler into the quirky, cultiness of Dexter (I know the finale bit the big one, but it took several seasons to get there. And y’all kept tuning in each week, so who’s the stooge? And he might be coming back, BTW). When creating a decent serial killer show or film, you gotta give a little spin. I’ve heard having some really f*cked up, memorable characters mucking about the crime scene often does the trick.

Consider those movies now, and of course I’m thinking about The Silence Of The Lambs and need not go into further detail. From Hell had quite a few weirdoes also, including the suspects. The list of successful killer movies—or at least moderately successful, if only notable—has a relatively short list, though. The Usual Suspects, Psycho, Se7en, M, Halloween. They all have a little twist, a little flair, a strange-ass cast that make the audience go, “Huh? Wait a minute” (especially that Michael Myers dude. What’s up with him?). I feel it’s the cast that makes the murder movie enjoyable or at least palatable. Unique, if not gonzo characters can elevate a tired storytelling device into good—if not high—entertainment vaulting over the common coffee and donut trappings.

So back to TV land, the primary gateway into the kooky world of killers and their hunters. While Law And Order’s homicide procedural as drama might have set the mainstream gold standard, it also galvanized every homicide investigation cliche within and without the cordon, and probably an extension into movies (remember 2001’s Along Came A Spider or even Primal Fear?). Such cliches yielded us The Black Dahlia, Hannibal (the movie, and maybe the TV show), to a degree the Saw franchise and every movie Eli Roth ever wrought. Those films not only are terribly cliched but also stock and desperate imitators of other, better films and television. It’s all about shock, awe and grue, peppered with stupid characters and sh*tty dialogue (and I mean that literally about Roth’s characters. Dumber than a sack of hammers dipped in Krazy Glue. What a fine mess, Ollie).

Most of all, they have cardboard and imitative characters. Cliches.

Getting back to From Hell and its brethren, an unsettling weirdness in their casts keeps an audience captivated. We’re all already familiar with the Law And Order and/or Hannibal Lecter clones. We can smell a schtick a mile away, even if you’ve never even seen a Hitchcock flick. We’re well acquainted with the innocent vics etc setup from above. Minus “flair,” their characters are ciphers, and the story swiftly gets flat. It’s not just we know somebody (or bodies) got murdered and the case must be cracked. We gotta to have a fresh horse to gallop out onto the range.

Someone should’ve clubbed Charbanic over his melon with this concept…


Retired FBI agent Joel Campbell (Spader) can’t sleep. His fevered mind won’t let him.

Campbell hung up his badge after failing to capture a serial killer back in his hometown of LA. The killer’s last victim was none other than Joel’s girlfriend, whose killer at the end of pursuit just…walked away, mocking him. It was too late to nab the prolific killer, one David Allen Griffen (Reeves), and ultimately too late for Campbell to regain a sense of normalcy. He relocated to Chicago, to get a full time zone away from his shattered life, as well as Griffen, whose case swiftly went cold.

In fact, the killer evaporated off the grid.

Then Campbell starts getting mail.

Between lackluster therapy and an addiction to a pharmacy’s worth of pills, Campbell does his best to get a grip on reality. He lost his girl, his job and his home. And all of this he blames on the elusive Griffen, who as far as he knows is either still out there strangling women or has turned into a ghost.

Then mail arrives. FedEx’d photos of dead girls. All strangled, all local.

A lifetime ago, Campbell failed to catch a killer who took his life away in Southern California. Now the same killer has moved to the Midwest.

The past followed Campbell. Literally, and in all the guises.


Okay, now a bit on the chin about what makes a good serial killer/murder mystery not work.

First, watch one too many eps of Law And Order. Second, be a neophyte film director with a CV that includes creating videos for Creed. Creed of all bands! Third, be totally ignorant of my tenets above. Sure, my words ain’t gospel, but I have on pseudo-good authority that what I wrote before was fairly accurate (if you can’t trust your barkeep, who can you trust? Your minister? Get behind me, Satan).

Citing the Law And Order formula again, at its inception the series slowly redefined and came to refine the gritty, urban cop show. And over 20 seasons, the show codified the homicide investigation cliche. Dogged detectives, investigations with twists and turns, the psychology of tracking down the killer and all of the fallout therein. The show’s long shadow eventually touched—some would say tainted—every show of its ilk since. This could also be said of seminal serial killer movies like LambsSe7en, etc. These films and the show created a well to draw from. In the case of the Watcher’s production, the well was drained.

Director Charbanic watched Briscoe and Logan battle wits a shade too many times. His directorial debut is rife with FBI manhunter cliches. Soaked in them is more apt. We ran the whole gamut with Watcher. Tortured, determined FBI investigator with a checkered past. Smooth, giddy, nutball killer with their quirks. Doubtful local law enforcement at first uncooperative until realizing their need for the aforementioned damaged agent’s “special skills.” Multiple damsels in distress. And all shot with jagged, “edgy” camera work. There’s even substance abuse, before God, as if all the other sh*t wasn’t churning up enough muddy waters. Watching all this was an exercise in self-flagellation, and Christ my head was hurting after 90 minutes of it.

Actually, “hurting” isn’t the best metaphor. You know how damp sandpaper feels when you rub your thumb across it? Try it, I’ll wait…Get it? That’s how my mind felt after watching this claptrap. Irritated. Chaffed. Extremely worn.

I point out irritated. The Watcher had a germ of a good idea going on, only to be bogged down—collapsed—with a billion L&O cliches. In all honesty, the movie played like an overly long ep of the series. Well, Watcher played more like a warmed-over installment of Law And Order: Criminal Intent, one starring Jeff Goldblum (the show was running on fumes by that time anyway).

But there was a good idea there, lost in the tidal surge of cliches, overwrought acting and note-by-note manhunting by the unconventional, screwed up FBI profiler. The concept of codependency between the hunter and the hunted—one has no purpose without the other—isn’t a common story device. Sure, it’s been done before (e.g. Angel Heart kinda), but infrequently enough to create a palette for a creative director and scenarist to play “What If?”

Charbanic and Co failed miserably here. Excluding the trite delivery, Watcher felt like that they only read the instructions and forgot to play the f*cking game. Everything went tits-up here. The Watcher committed to most serious crime when making a film. No, not crappy pacing (that actually worked here). The Watcher was boring. An exercise in tedium. And the movie had so much wasted potential.

Let’s start with the casting. Like I said above, get a wonky cast and let them wander, not confine them, to make a serial killer tale interesting. This cast, oddly enough, was great and totally chained to the director’s myopic vision as how such characters should behave.

And boy, was the casting nutty. We had James Spader as the strung-out, haunted FBI agent. I like Spader. I enjoyed his roles in his 80s heyday. Sure, he played mostly douchebags, and possessed the same halted delivery as here. But he had an edge to his usually wooden performance. He’s the thinking man’s Billy Zabka.

Not here. There’s no edge. Any reptilian acting is muted like a molasses enema, trapped in Charbanic’s, well, trappings. You can almost see Spader struggle to pull off the stereotype of f*cked up lawman tempered with his infamous smarminess, and forced to fall flat on his face (in several scenes literally). Come to think of it, Spader’s Campbell spends more time trying to hide under his coat than generating sympathy from the audience. One would expect a tormented FBI cop working towards redemption would gradually come out of his shell. This sort of happens, but in a very sluggish way. Spader’s Campbell looked so haggard, but not like being taunted by personal demons or the killer. He, like me, was bored.

Spader was just one example of The Watcher‘s underused cast. We also have Reeves’ Griffen to consider. Okay, here it is flat out: within ten minutes we know that Keanu is not a convincing serial killer. I guess that’s no surprise. The man’s made a career of playing the innocent, not the aggressor. Even as Neo in The Matrix series, his characters are often placed in passive roles, finding themselves in bewildering circumstances (e.g. the Bill And Ted movies, SpeedJohnny Mnemonic, Something’s Gotta Give, etc). Sure, a handful of roles he plays an action hero, but often reluctantly. Reeves’ acting style is never in your face. One may be led to suspect him being aggressive isn’t his style.

After watching Reeves’ Griffen slither and carouse (closest verb I could find here that applies), this deal is definitely not his style. His stilted delivery as vicious serial killer out to taunt his nemesis just doesn’t wash. Again, the idea of his character keeping up the game just to have a purpose in life, as well as serving as an unwanted yin to Spader’s yang had some potential. In The Watcher, this novel concept is ruined by the wooden dialogue and even more foresty acting. If there is only one aspect of Reeves’ hollow performance is that he looked like he was having fun playing against type. Whoa.

Funny thing is—and perhaps this might be a subtext within a good murder mystery/serial killer film—Reeves might have been better utilized if he remained in the shadows. You know, kind of like in Jaws, keeping the shark off camera for two-thirds of the movie until it was “ready” to be seen (and boy, was Roy Scheider’s reaction shot was great. Even more so that it was honest; it was the first scene “Bruce” made its presence known). Generates some good tension there, let’s the audiences imagination run wild for a bit. A lot of good serial killer flicks keeps the killer waiting in the wings. I mean, how many prominent scenes was Buffalo Bill in with  Lambs? Three, four? The scenes of the abduction, the well, the dance and the final confrontation. Only Lecter got more camera time.

Reeves’ Griffen might’ve been better as the voice at the end of Campbell’s phone. Or just a silent package of photos of his dirty work. Or even only headshots on FBI dossiers. Nope. Griffen’s all over this so-called mystery, in glaring light and dancing with his vics, put down by big-ticket actor Reeves time chewing scenery with ground down teeth. At least I found Keanu never breaking a sweat interesting, oozing his green charisma before strangling the objects of Griffen’s affection. Best, if not only good thing about his performance.

Simply put, the acting is not convincing. There’s nothing worse than an interesting cast wasted on a lame movie. And the rest of that cast is indeed interesting. Watcher sports an Oscar winner (Tomei), a reliable, friendly character actor (Hudson) and a hammy, relative unknown (Ellis, who indeeds hams it up in a very fun way, what with the Southern accent rooted in the Windy City). These folks have absolutely no business being a movie together. With Watcher, they still didn’t, but it would’ve been a sh*t-ton better in the hands of a director whose resume didn’t highlight wasting time directing 90s bands on their way to the bargain bin.

All this half-baked acting contributes to no sense of urgency here. We’re dealing with a vengeful serial killer, right? Then why the hell is the dramatic personae practically sleepwalking through the story, playing color by numbers? One could fault Charbonic’s neophyte standing as a straight-to-video auteur (apart from the cast, The Watcher has its own bargain bin looming behind production) on his first outing away from the MTV soundstage. Maybe there was a bad case of the Lenny Briscoes driving this movie’s motivation. Maybe it was Keanu being terribly miscast, even though he made the best of his circumstances? Doubts even here.

A thing about how high-profile Reeves landing in this pile of cow flop. Coming off his success with the first Matrix movie, you’d think Keanu would have had the pick of the litter with his next project. A serial killer mystery sounded cool, and Reeves was approached with the script. He turned it down; the story failed to catch his interest (who says the guy’s not bright?) and walked away. Yet here he was, giving his best, lukewarm Albert DeSalvo.

You might’ve heard about this. The party line went that a so-called friend of Reeves forged the actor’s signature to sign on for Charbanic’s exercise in apathy. Instead of getting into some messy, expensive legal harangue, Reeves sighed, shrugged his shoulders and—splat—hello, David Allen Griffen. And some really lame dancing.

Little doubt that Reeves’ star power permitted The Watcher to take the top spot at the box office its opening weekend. Littler doubt that the movie’s craptastic, well, everything caused its early demise therein. According to Box Office Mojo‘s numbers, The Watcher toppled precipitously a 36% plunge by its second week in theaters, and so forth and so on. The film barely made it above budget in returns. Hell, at least Reeves knew what he was getting into and tried to make the best of it (or deliberately tanked it out of spite).

The same can not be said of Charbanic and his crackerjack crew of hacks. They probably were so ecstatic to make it to the big time with all their shiny, new toys that they let their Law & Order fan worship bulldoze away any clear sense of purpose (not to mention the inclusion of an intrusive soundtrack and some really awful CGI). I mean, why does this movie even exist? Nothing really fresh was brought to the table. What was brought had been seen a hundred times before with much better quality. If my above argument about a good serial killer flick deserves strange characters, then why pick such an eclectic cast and not unitize them? Sure, Spader and Reeves played against type. Okay. But both wooden as a pair of cutting boards. How did the crew get The Watcher so scrambled and so pat with such decent resources?

I heard this story once from hair metal band Poison’s guitarist, CC DeVille (just go with me here). He recounted when he was a kid and just learning the instrument, he’d constantly be listening to his guitar heroes—Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards to name a few—on his turntable and try to mimic what he heard. Pretty common practice for a budding axe slinger. According to the guy, he had every possibility to be a great guitar player, but what he heard and what he created was a matter of getting it all scrambled in his head (well before any cocaine habit). I think DeVille later averred that if he just practiced more on his own style rather than trying to be Hendrix, he might’ve gotten on to something better. Paraphrasing here.

Maybe Charbanic shouldn’t’ve watched Red Dragon for that 101st time. That and keep away from Creed songs.

A few licks of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” might’ve done some good. Now sweep the leg, Johnny.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? What do you think, huh? And Keanu needs to get better friends.


Stray Observations…

  • “Nothin’ like a serial killer to kick off the holiday season.” My sentiments exactly.
  • The right cross with the stereo was the only thing that grabbed my attention here. It was pretty cool, tho’.
  • “Yet you make it here every week.”
  • Wait. First in one scene the car’s window is smashed, then in the next scene its healed. Bad editor!
  • “You’re paperwork.”

Next Installment…

Just My Luck, I gotta watch another dippy Lindsay Lohan movie.


RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 12: Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly” (2006)


Image


The Players…

Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane.


The Story…

Fred Arctor is an undercover cop—a narc—in a world where almost everyone is addicted to Substance D, a drug that produces split personalities in its users. “Fred” sets up an elaborate sting to nab a notorious drug runner named “Bob.” But when almost everyone is a D addict, and its makes you schizo, then how can one tell who’s really who? Especially when it comes to your personal identity, or whoever you are that day.


The Rant…

Phillip Kindred Dick: What is reality? The universal muse of the late sci-fi writer. Most if not all of his work wrangled with this question. As far as I know, three of his works have been translated to film. There was this little known work called Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? Later on the book was adapted for the screen, entitled Blade Runner. Maybe you’ve heard of it. The film was a real sleeper that eventually knocked the socks off of a generation of movie-goers that were too young to see said film in an actual theater. This seminal feature was a key example of Dick’s muse in action.

Later there was this Spielbergien effort called Minority Report that refused to generate the Hollywood dollars requiring it to be big hit, despite having Tom Cruise attached to it. It was another take on how Dick’s philosophy regarded human’s responses to seeing their potential future. Even though the film handily addressed the whole yin-yang of stimulus/response, it was awash in a sci-fi, crime caper guise that was too loud to let Dick’s voice be properly heard. It was still pretty good though, regardless.

Now we have this film, A Scanner Darkly.

Richard Linklater: What the hell is happening…ah, who cares? Indie darling of the mundane. All of his work has dealt with, or rather shrugged off this question. First there was Slacker, which garnered some attention, as well as a few honors. The follow-up Dazed and Confused, criminally ignored at the box office upon release, eventually repealing any critical scorn a full twenty years later to earn the Criterion Collection special treatment with double disc set with all the bells and whistles. It sold well.

All Linklater’s films tackle the human condition, usually in the form of ongoing dialogue reflecting his characters personalities despite them all being two-dimensional. His actors are generally reactive, only displaying any unique personality traits when in context with of other characters reactions. No one really initiates anything in his movies, only responds. His Waking Life is a ideal example of his oeuvre, where the “protagonist” spends the movie simply just listening to others speak about academic as well as pop philosophy. Linklater’s films seldom have a plot; they’re only interconnecting vignettes spliced with My Dinner With Andre-like commentary. Most are pretty good though, BTW.

And now this film, A Scanner Darkly.

Me: I streamed this? A humble yet snarky blogger of film criticism using free social media like a cheap, lazy podium upon which to spout prophetic about this culty film here and the failed blockbuster that. All of my work a big, smelly fart.

And yet this film, A Scanner Darkly.

The first thing that grabs you about this movie is that, “Hey! It’s animated! Woo-hoo! Bring on the dancing squirrels!”

Stop. Put down the pipe. There’s a bit more going on here. You may have to, regrettably, sober up. The thing is called rotoscoping.” an animation technique in which animators trace over footage, frame by frame, for use in live-action and animated films, like this one. In other words, turning live-action into cartoons. Linklater conducted a brilliant job here. After the first half hour, if yer not rockin the ganja, the background blends into the foreground into an oily montage of shadows and strangely patterned textures (especially with the actors’ faces). It can get a little unsettling at times also, not mention just plain trippy. And honestly, I’m not so sure that the “scramble suit” or hallucinogenic sequences would’ve worked as well outside animation. In simpler terms, Scanner’s not a cartoon, but a graphic novel coming into life.

You regularly abstemious (look it up) users out there might have taken note of the phrase “the background blends into the foreground.” How rotoscoping works, at least by my by eye, is that you tend to look out for the still shots in the frame that unconsciously grounds you to the forescape of the moving characters. In simpler terms, Keanu seems more like Keanu when he’s got a background behind him, be it in the scramble suit or curling his arm around Donna/Audrey/Hank? That’s how I saw it. Then again, I had no access to Substance-D…


Keanu portrays undercover cop/dealer Fred/Bob. A narc/dealer trying to get to the bottom of a Substance-D ring in LA using a stealth “scramble suit” to infiltrate the dealer’s inner circle. Problem is twofold, Substance-D makes you schizo, but also heightens your sense of “reality,” depending on the circumstances. Fred/Bob hunts down the drug cookers in the form of the manic Barris (Downey) and paranoiac Luckman (Harrelson). Fred/Bob infiltrates their stupid ring. No, I mean stupid. These guys are idiots. How this pair failed to get shot out of general principle is beyond me. I mean, watch the bicycle scene, really. Get it? Good.

Regardless of Bob’s? Fred’s? Whoever’s deep cover, he becomes dependent, not addicted (there is a difference here) to Substance-D (to whit, this critic is unsure if the drug even exists) and drifts between a comfortable reality (work, girlfriend [Ryder], car), an uncomfortable reality (work, girlfriend, car) and a substitute reality (farm). WTF? And there’s some work, a female and a combine involved.

Or is there? Dun-dun-duuun. Goddam it Phil Dick…


Dick was never appreciated in his lifetime. He was more or less a cult writer. So much so that he had the dignity to die before Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? translated to the silver screen as Blade Runner. It became a beloved film decades after he got some common sense and kicked off. Him dying did great by his rep. Only Frank Herbert did somewhat better.

Ahem.

About the goddam movie. Visually, well, that’s the only trump its got going for it. There’s a very cool premise locked up in visual haberdashery (again, look it the hell up). Keanu is as wooden as ever. The only roles he seems to get stuck with is Neo, a Ted Logan clone, or a Neo clone. Or a Neo clone. He might be able to stretch (might be able to) if he’s taken out of the fantasy/sci-fi genre. He did pretty good in the goofy rom-com Something’s Gotta Give, hitting on Diane Keaton. But here he’s still stiff, struggling. So is Winona Ryder as Bob’s sorta girlfriend, who later turns out to be…ah, you’ll see it. Only the secondary characters of Downey, Harrelson and Cochrane do anything to spice up this film based almost solely on visuals.

I could go on, but this film committed the ultimate sin in my movie-watching mind: it bored me. Despite all the cool visuals, it was boring. It was like a stupid Michael Bay movie sans the big budget: lots of things to look at, and not much else. Listen Linklater, Waking Life was a bold, intriguing experiment, albeit not very cohesive. That was the point. I got that. This time out, continuity, acting and plot should’ve been the point. You culled from a very smart author whose works already translated to film quite handily. You already got your rewards, now try not to beat us over the head with the trophy.

Seven years from now…


The Verdict…

Rent It or relent it?: Relent it. Take your time if you must. Watch it as a fan of Linklater’s, like me. Drink some espresso. You’ll need it. I figure if you go hunt down the book, like always, it’ll be more rewarding. Don’t fear, Dick’ll stay dead.


Stray Observations…

  • Rory Cochrane: Linklater stalwart.
  • “There is no sheep.” Thanks, Neo.
  • Robert Downey, Jr.’s , manic delivery has worked for almost thirty years. Amazing. This schtick has never gotten old, and is malleable enough to fit into any type of film. I suppose that is what constitutes good acting.
  • Hey! It’s Alex Jones! Hide yer wimmen’s uterus…
  • Again, I’m not sure the “scramble suit” would’ve worked as well outside traditional animation. Nowadays, every animated film gets plucked off an iPad for seamless symmetry. The kaleidoscopic effect was so weird, so “primitive” that anything otherwise might have ruined the subplot if it were anymore refined.

Next Installment…

Tom Cruise approaches Oblivion. As well as Tom Cruise.