RIORI Vol 3, Installment 83: Jason Reitman’s “Thank You For Smoking” (2005)



The Players…

Aaron Eckhard and Cameron Bright, with Maria Bello, David Koechner, Adam Brody, Sam Elliot, JK Simmons, Rob Lowe and Robert Duvall.


The Story…

In the competitive market of the tobacco industry, it’s good to have an “in” into the public mind to best promote cancer, heart disease, emphysema and a stinky wardrobe. That’s where guys like lobbyist Nick Naylor steps in.

He’s a shill for cigarettes and a single dad. He has scruples when it comes to rearing his bright son, but when Big Tobacco calls, he’s their sleazy, immoral mouthpiece.

So when the assignment of his career invites getting a very high profile for his efforts how can he convince his son his work is worthy?

Check that. Convince? Try con rather.

Smoke ’em if you got ’em?


The Rant…

Okay. Confession time. Again.

I am a smoker. Twenty years gone. I’m not proud of it but I won’t deny it either. Like the late, great Bill Hicks said, “I’ll smoke. I’ll get the cancer. I’ll die. Deal? Thank you, America.”

The fact that Hicks passed away from pancreatic cancer gives me pause. And some teensy bit of black hope. Denial is more than just a river in Africa.

My ugly habit emerged in my senior year of college. I was studying to become a secondary ed English teacher. Middle and high school students. It was a stress ball of the first degree, the curriculum, the course load. In addition to maintaining steady attendance of my regular classes, I had to shoehorn some time in the morning three hours a day, five days a week as student teacher at the nearest middle school. Those pre-pubers were a handful and a half. Never realized how short we all we back then. And mouthy. And at the dawn of the ‘rents blaming little Johnny and Janie for their sh*tty test scores on Teach being ineffectual whilst ignoring the thumb-worn PlayStation controllers and mouldering library cards. Ah, Millenials. Here’s the world you wrought on the public educational system.

To claim it was all a stress magnet is akin to suggesting that Gordon Ramsay may have a potty mouth. Us student teachers were shoved into an environment that not only took us away from other classes, but our very perception of reality. And let alone declaring said classes as the only classes that mattered at a university that virtually invented the liberal arts education, but also a responsibility of teaching our young charges by proxy. They may have been our kids (our “project”), but it was the host teacher’s class. Big diff, and a hand tying one at that. We as novices were supposed to have said hands on learning how to conduct a class. But the host teacher was stern, ever watching us to make sure we didn’t “undo” all that was learned prior to our intrusion. It was like perpetual internment in the principal’s office. Especially when us would-be educators proved the perfect foil to Teach when mom and dad came calling once again, Wii nunchuck wrapped around their necks.

Sleep deprived, coffee level low, profs scowling. A great many of us took to vices to counter the blows. Some began drinking more. Others turned to pot or even speed, which was hard to come by, but not impossible. Kept one alert, and since Red Bull hadn’t crossed the Atlantic yet it did the trick (not to mention sleep dep’ and teeth grinding). The rest of our lot of us took up smoking. Including me.

I eventually graduated, secondary English ed sheepskin in hand. I’ve since lost it, figuratively as well as literally. But the tobacco habit stuck. I won’t lie to you (this time), but my first forays into cigarettes were less that dignified. Sure, the puffing was mellowing, but the deeper intakes were wrenching. I puked quite a bit, but kept going back. Guess that’s how potent nicotine can be. I learned that drug stimulates your frontal lobes. Meaning it gives your brain a boost, thinking faster. Which is also why a drag clears your head for a bit, until it doesn’t. Then on to the next butt.

In itself, nicotine is harmful in a minor sense compared to way it’s delivered. Tobacco has all that tar that coats your lungs until they look like briquettes, f*cks up your pulmonary system into high blood pressure at best and choking the heart into cardiac arrest at worse. You might lose a lung. You might lose both. You might die.

Yet smokers keep sucking them devil cigarettes up, Grim Reaper be damned.

I know all this, yet I still haven’t quit, even though falling from grace a potential force for good molding minds around the beauty of Shakespeare, Stephen King and how to sight parental forgeries on crappy tests.

I instead entered the culinary world, where me and my misfit peers are poster boys for delinquency in the eyes of the American Lung Association. The booze and speed boosters are there, too. How do you want your steak cooked?

Why is this? I mean, beyond the head rush cigarettes lend? There is open science as to what cigarettes do, their damage and how pernicious their addiction can be. Yet a million miles of voice boxed words are ignored. Guess the research ain’t in yet, as Congress would lead you to believe.

Here’s a tale that may codify the typical tobacco addiction. I mentioned before that my first foray into smoking was less than Hollywood golden days glamourous. For some odd reason (perhaps it was the brand I got introduced to) my smoke of choice was the raspy Kamel Reds. Apart from Lucky Strikes, this was the late 20th Century take on inhaling steel wool soaked in lime juice for a week. I convinced myself they were yummy. After a late night at the cafe I worked at I put out half a pack of these devils and a few more on my way home. It was when the key hit the lock when the buzz rebelled. I darted to the toilet as if all the demons in hell were on my ass, awaiting my supple anus. I puked violently, the sputum reeking of lattes and smoke. I caught my breath, staggered out to the stoop and lit up.

That’s what it’s all about. Unsure on all fronts, but that post-barf cig sure cleared my brain. Of what I wasn’t sure. Here’s my point.

There is no point. Cigarettes are addictive and understandably no good for you, no matter what the lobbyists try to spin. They cause cancer and heart disease. It’s an open secret. So why does Big Tobacco insist on having lobbyists? Isn’t that in the government’s eyes (as well as popular opinion that reads things beyond what’s smeared on a smartphone) kinda suspect? Any cause embroiled in controversy deserves a spotlight, and Big Tobacco has been in the glare for decades. Precious little has happened beyond bigger warning labels. But people don’t really read anymore, right?

How does this happen, this commercial shadowplay? Money. Big money. Big lobbyist spin doctors backed by Big Tobacco backed by smoking assh*les like yours truly. We have met the enemy and they are us. Why does Big Tobacco, Big Pharma and the NRA never lay it down frankly what their agendum is? Bad for business, because we need that rush, keep the demons in our heads at bay and make sure non-Whites stay off their collective lawns.

This isn’t reactionary, populist, Alex Jones bile here. It’s (kinda) the truth. But the research isn’t in yet.

All this schadenfreude is suspect beyond the beyond. And it invites the question: what kind of doosh would promote this trash? Smoking is “cool?” That is so tired. It’s the trite throwaway reason tobacco-shilling rats claim what gets kids to smoke in the first place. On air, on screen. Doesn’t happen much these days. But wait! The endless Internet. YouTube. Vines. WordPress. There are always outlets to let the impressionable public that smoking looks is to be hip!

Nope. Smoking as cool is overrated, as well as wrong.

Millenials most likely never caught that scene in Now, Voyager where a suave Paul Henreid shares a smoke with femme fetale Bette Davis. Looked cool. Too bad most Millenials never saw Now, Voyager starring Paul who and Bette what. In black and white! Anathema. The scene was iconic, and very cool. But unless their Hulu stream is deep, viewers were smoking before the queue caught up.

Folks smoke to reduce stress. Looking cool caught smoking is so 20th Century. Passe. Stress, anxiety, headaches. The stuff of legend to the working class. Nothing cool there. Not to day traders, cops or willing educators. Stress is the total opposite of cool. Neither is the escape, be it cigarettes, beer or reds.

Put that in your pipe, lobbyists. And suck…


Nick Naylor (Eckhardt) is a dream. He’s a death merchant with a heart of gold. He’s a dedicated dad who’s got his son’s best interests in mind. He’s a committed business man committed to wreck and ruin. He’s hopelessly naive and keenly aware of the duties of his chosen profession. Of which is deplorable.

Nick is a lobbyist on the part of Big Tobacco. His job? Use his gift of gab to both decry and admit to the ups and downs of smoking in the same sentence. He’s very good at this spin, much to the chagrin of the people (barely) close to him. Like his son.

Nick’s job security is in flux. Turns out the Millenials are cleaning up their act. Smoking ain’t as “cool” as it used to be. Media, both open and social are decrying cigarettes and in turn folks are hanging up their Bics. Nick’s boss B.R. (Simmons) has made/concocted a scheme to secure their post. He sends Nick on his way to meet The Captain (Duvall), a venerated tobacco baron. The Captain has a ploy to make smoking “cool” again: get cigarettes in the back in the movies. Worked in his youth. So say Nick, how’s your generation coughing lately?

This would be Nick’s ultimate pitch, against all odds for his odious career to really take flight. Too bad tough-on-tobacco (the fantastically named) Senator Ortolan Finisirre (Macy) has his dander up. The opposite of Nick’s crusade, the senator views his crushing Big Tobacco would make his mark in the Senate.

And the race is on, all the way to the very Kool Hollywood…


There is comedy and there is black comedy. And there is tar black comedy.

Hang on. Before we go any further let me light up.

*cough, hack, spit*

Ever watch a black comedy whose premise is so wicked, so demented, so sensible you don’t know when to laugh? Thank You For Smoking is all that and more. Its send-up is so ridiculous, so absurd and so composed (not to mention dry) you have a hard time drawing the line between yuk-yuk and huh? Smoking makes you think so long go with it. Turn off, tune in, light up.

Smoking is the fine debut directorial effort of Jason Reitman. This movie is more or less his acid test. He went on to better things (Young Adult jumps immediately to mind, also covered here), but this his rough draft for future comedic triumphs. All the hallmarks are present. Very dry, wry humor. Offbeat without a Wes Anderson bent. His characters caught in moral trap of their own doing (and often undoing). It’s all naked here. Perhaps a tad too naked.

I make this claim based on after watching Smoking it creeped at corners that Reitman the younger had something to prove. He’s had some big shoes to fill with dad Ivan “Ghostbusters” Reitman and mom Genevieve “Casual Sex” Robert. Despite his stiff delivery with Smoking Jason honors no allegiance to the ‘rents. His idea of desperate comedy sniffs more of Jim Jarmusch than Jim Carrey. His muse is so dry it chafes. Smoking screams that. It also screams, “Wait, this is funny?”

And, surprise, Smoking was funny, but definitely not laugh out loud. Not even a snicker. The humor is passive. You can’t believe what you’re watching. We’re supposed to get behind a mealy-mouthed spin doctor who is a committed Dad who treats his child as a client to make him sympathize with the nature of his odious profession?

Uh, yeah.

You just gotta go with that. There are no overt one-liners to chuckle at. No sight gags (not really). Nothing broad. It’s all prickly and pointed. So much that you forget Smoking‘s supposed to be a comedy.   A black comedy. And we ain’t talking mid-80s Eddie Murphy fare.

Simply put, Smoking is not funny. Except when it wants to be. Hint at rather.

Ultimately, Smoking is a character study, right down to the voice-overs. That’s where to humor rears its cancer-ridden agendum. The banter amongst the caricatures. The desperate stereotypes. The flat affect of “just a job to do.” In the face of these very basic tropes, you gotta pay attention here. I mean, if you do laugh, it happens in the next scene.

So. It’s our rouges’ gallery mannerisms that carry the giggles. Character study, remember? Our antihero Nick. He’s our avatar through the dingy business of tobacco-pushing. He’s also the spearhead through this kooky cast of opportunistic, shallow government slimes to get a grip on all the ends that justify the means. All as cool and calm as winds across the Mojave.

That said, I think we found Eckhardt’s hacky acting niche. I’ve labeled the man reliably unreliable. Almost whatever score he blows based on coming across all plastic. For every exception (The Core, The Dark Knight) he drops the ball more than he catches (The Black Dahlia, Battle: Los Angeles). The guy’s talented, as well as narrow and compartmentalized. Flat affect, all the time. His agent must have a 20-20 lazy eye. Or Aspberger’s.

The flat presence works to his advantage in Smoking. Eckhardt’s Nick is a cypher. Add on what you may.  And that niche mentioned above? Being smarmy. He’s soaking in it. As well being in complete, convincing oblivion to it. It’s his job. He’s very good at. And it’s never about the smokes, not really. It’s about having purpose, regardless of the ends. Which are always quickly justified in the next choked breath.

The passive sense of humor here is Nick’s responses to his peers and superiors. Eckhardt is defiantly not funny. His Nick is anti-funny. It’s circle, quick with either a quip or a one-liner making smoking a worthwhile hobby—er, habit rather. While Nick sounds like Fox News, his supporting cast babbles like…well, Fox News about opportunism. Such opportunism paints Nick as the innocent here. There’s a Monty Python meets Woody Allen humor at work. Like I said about Reitman’s slow out of the gate start, the humor is dry but the premise is so preposterous. If Smoking as a whole wasn’t ridiculous (and being very good at that), the supporting cast would justify it as so based mostly on Nick’s passive responses to the weirdness he’s been dealt in the name of climbing the career ladder.

For the nonce, Nick is surrounded by a circus of oddballs directing his possible promotions, and he boinks off all of them and never really taking the baton. Simmons is his usual clipped, blustery self. Duvall chews scenery as the stereotypical Southern tobacco baron, mint juleps at the ready. Fellow spin doctors Bello and Koechner are the The Three Stooges in two, babbling about misery and corruption as business as usual while Nick quietly chews a steak. A cameo by Stanley Tucci as an anti-smoking terrorist. Sam Elliot as Sam Elliot. Nick’s whole mouthpiece is here’s another fine mess I’ve gotten myself into. The ping-pong ball delivery is where Smoking gets it’s irreverence. You don’t root for Nick. You’re not allowed to. But you’re allowed to boo and laugh at him, so hapless is his crusade backed by all these morons.

Overall, there is a veneer of some kind of satire happening. Big shocker. It’s razor thin between a PSA and a terminal facepalm. Here’s where Reitman may be pushing too hard. I say if there were any more symbolism here the script would’ve been transcribed via semaphore. Smoking‘s humor may be arid, satirical, absurd and trace but it’s supposed to be an outright comedy. Doesn’t fully reach that, what with being in the valley of the shadow. If Reitman was reaching for a black comedy subtly was absent. Based on that precept, Smoking is disagreeable but not unlikeable. That lack of subtlety was part of the gag, but was omnipresent and therefore got kinda tired. Fast.

So this installment’s been mixed. Since I know that Reitman was bound for greater things I give a pass to Smoking‘s pitfalls. I’m the sympathetic sort. I did get the joke, even without a single laugh. Big problem with the flick is that for all the manic, passive nonsense Smoking was busy, busy, busy. Too much happening all at once. Right. Pacing was rough. Like I said I got the joke…in the next scene.

This might be my most clinical take ever at RIORI. Might be because I’m a customer of folks like Nick and am trying to rationalize something. Maybe the film made me squirm with guilt of my nicotine habit. Maybe its chafing humor laid a giggle in my brain but my lungs were too weak to cough out an actual laugh. Whatever. Truth be told, Smoking was too loony, subdued and justifying the Ministry of Silly Walks to have me walk away with a feeling of contentment. Smoking made me feel both ugly and cynical at the same time. Credit Reitman’s yeoman’s work.

Light ’em up.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A sympathetic rent it. Consider this film a dry run for Reitman. Also the most pointed, absurdist PSA committed to film. Don’t smoke if you’re a burgeoning educator. And do smoke if you’re a burgeoning educator. A guy like Nick’ll get your back. Cough.


Stray Observations…

  • “Please don’t ruin my childhood.”
  • Aw crap. Katie Holmes. With Eckhart. All we need is Aniston for the ideal trifecta of gah.
  • “If you argue correctly you’re never wrong.” Not quite Hallmark territory. Even better.
  • The Birks might have been a bit too much.
  • “Get your ass on the next flight to Winston-Salem!”
  • I don’t think Nick’s kidding about his motive of “population control.”
  • “It’s an inside joke.”
  • Who isn’t slimy in this movie?
  • Angel wings on Joey’s back? We get it.
  • This movie felt like slow-burn (so to speak) Jerry Maguire in reverse.
  • “You wanna hug me here?”

Next Installment…

The Grey wolf is the second most specialized member of the genus Canis, after the Ethiopian wolf, as demonstrated by its morphological adaptations to hunting large prey, its more gregarious nature.

Like lost, injured and frostbitten humans.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 75: David Cronenberg’s “A History Of Violence” (2005)



The Players…

Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, Peter McNeill and (eventually) William Hurt, with Ashton Holmes, Greg Bryk, Heidi Hayes and Stephen McHattie.


The Story…

Dateline: Middle America. A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere.

Tom is a humble businessman and decent family guy. Runs the local diner in his simple, small town. He’s got a sweet wife and a pair of weisenheimer kids to keep him on his toes. A well-respected member of the community. And isn’t that usually how it all starts?

After thwarting a robbery at his diner—with uncharacteristic, ninja-like precision—Tom becomes a media sensation. How does a lowly hash-slinger bring down a pair of nasty crooks on the run with their own weapons and a well-placed carafe of the daily brew? It’s a good question.

Pointed even, since when Tom’s rescue gets filters through the national networks curious folks from out of town seek him out. Serious folks. One might regard them as…not nice.

Namely, such gentle thugs didn’t drive cross-country for Tom’s revered cuppa joe and a slice of pie.

They’d rather have a slice of him.


 The Rant…

This has happened here at RIORI before, when I’m not sure how to kick things off. But after watching barely the first act of A History Of Violence, something stirred my curiosity.

*pats comfy, leather couch*

Let’s sit, talk. Brandy might be served later if you’re nice.

I touched upon this matter years back in my typical byzantine way when I covered the film adaptation of Bryan O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim vs The World graphic novel series. Despite the movie being helmed by the darling director Edgar Wright I hated the thing. Found it stupid. Any postmodern pop-culture disections were lost on me. Now I ain’t dumb, but maybe Wright’s intentions were made to make me feel that way. Heck, this is more or less a left-handed apology to a respected friend who loved the thing. Sorry there, Fish. Ships in the night and all.

Pilgrim was based on a graphic novel series. Not comic book, BTW. For some odd reason both media are cut from a different cloth sewn to the same cape. I have watched an ample amount of comic book adaptations here, almost required by law to feature a superhero’s antics (e.g.: Spider-Man 3, Green Lantern, Superman Returns, Man Of Steel, Iron Man 2, etc). Also have seen quite a few graphic novel takes to boot (e.g.: Watchmen, From Hell, Cowboys And Aliens, the aforementioned Scott Pilgrim, the forthcoming V For Vendetta [mark your calendars!]) including today’s steak on the grill. Now it may be the medium, but despite which aisle of Wegman’s you’re snooping, films based on comic books tend to be action-packed and lighthearted in the endgame. Movies lifted from graphic novels tend to be more, well, graphic. Heavy drama, sex and shooting, navel gazing the human condition. Stuff like that. Despite one medium ain’t far removed from the other side of the coin—the content may be similar, if only ratcheted up to 11 on the novel end—when it comes to making the pluck into film what’s with the odd balance of power? Why are comic book flicks up and graphic novel flicks down? Why, I ask you, why?

I know. Such a question ain’t really that important so long as the film adapt stayed faithful to the spirit of the book if disregarding the letter. About half of the comic/graphic movies seen here at RIORI earned a “rent it” (an aside: this being the 21st Century, and Blockbuster has been shaken to dust, I’m kinda finding it silly to call our little cinematic whistle-stop RENT IT Or Relent It. But STREAM IT Or Relent It doesn’t really have the same cachet, does it?). That being said, it’s most likely the subject matter that cuts the mustard and not the source material’s format. One would think.

*tumblin’ tumbleweeds*

Okay, confession time. The above jazz has precious little to do with this week’s flick. Very little. We’re talking trace elements here. So why’d I bring it up? Let’s call it snacking on some crow, and we’ll reserve the bones for stock later.

If you may recall a century ago I covered the aforementioned Edgar Wright’s take on Scott Pilgrim vs The World. I did not like it, and wasted no blood shaking it down for its lunch money. Not long after the posting a long distance friend of mine complained about my complaints. He though the movie was great and a very faithful adaption to the spirit of the comic, if not the letter. Well, I often respect the guy and heard him out. His argument was valid, and gave me enough pause to consider Pilgrim again. Not reconsider it, mind you but hear my friend’s measured words.

In hindsight, Pilgrim was a good movie, and its interpretation of the graphic novels did it honor. Am I saying I like it now? Nope. Just really wasn’t for me. Sometimes that happens: a decent film gets in my crosshairs and I have a hard time hitting the broad side of a barn. At high noon. With a sniper rifle. That and with the Pilgrim movie, director Edgar Wright and his style kinda chafes me. Kinda. The man’s talented, obviously, but akin to my Tarantino autopsy with the Seven Psychopaths installment Wright like Tarantino might be too clever for his own good. Namely, the two directors are wunderkinds and particularly adept at going for the jugular, tempered by what their shrewd, pop culture-saturated muse whisper—scream, rather—in their heads, tempered with honey. Buckwheat honey. The bittersweet stuff.

Some directors are calculating, if only under the skin. Folks like Tarantino, Wright, Scorsese, Kurosawa, Nolan, Kubrick and Hitchcock got the gears a-turning when it comes to getting their sh*t in the can. Their work can get a bit esoteric, but there’s always a well-drawn blueprint to their work. I ain’t talking style, not exactly. I’m talking execution. In short, c’mon, 2001: A Space Odyessy was not some lark. Wonderous to be sure, but not off the cuff (Christ me even writing that makes me smell the fecal matter rising). You get the drift.

Then there’s the flipside: directors whose work is a bit looser, more organic. Following the senses. Those guys behind the lens are myriad, and their muses alternate on being on an opiate or a few shots of Jager, chased with a pan of brownies (and not the magic kind, either). Their films follow some sort of emotional straight line, and despite how pro their films come across there is the barest scintilla of either winging it, dropping everything to go where their senses tell them to go, and even despite the toughness of their plots there’s sometime a ragged glory humor just below the surface.

No shock here, but I be talking about the likes of Crowe, Zemekis, Burton, Miyazaki, Capra…

…And David Cronenberg.

A-ha! Point en route! Thanks for your patience, and I’m talking to me.

Now there’s a director who follows his senses. Organic like peat moss. His muse reeks of absinthe and pancakes, and what she tells him to is akin to like making gumbo: yeah, throw that in. No one saw it hit the floor. Cronenberg’s final products are twisted, scary, gross and so wonderfully violent your very soul needs a shower after watching one of his works. That’s a complement, BTW.

What I always dug about the man’s films was their acorn. You know, which may grow into the mighty oak? Yeah, only his glen is populated by some stunted growth. Short bus bonsai. His stuff is like xenogenesis; the offspring doesn’t resemble the parent. And the whacked out thing is if you chew on it, what his muse informs him (regardless and in spite of the weird sex, nasty violence and an overall “what the hell?” feeling) is, yes, personal but also prosaic.

Cronenberg has gone on record saying most of his catalog that is his fistful of acorns stemmed from pretty average, simplistic stuff. His adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone was less about sci-fi and precognition but growing old. The televised pulsing, mutant labia in Videodrome was inspired by the “off-air” TV programming he saw as a kid, like pirate radio broadcasting from out in the aether (that and as an aside he might’ve been a big Blondie fan). His puke-tastic version of The Fly was a meditation on the AIDS crisis in the mid-80s. Scanners was of shades regarding both drug abuse and the plight of Holocaust survivors. Relatively straightforward things. But get them into Cronenberg’s Cuisinart imagination, boink! And barf sometimes.

The guy excels at organic as well as weird. It’s understood he sharply executes his babies with a laser scalpel, but as for subtlety…well, there ain’t much there. Unless you scrape underneath the surface, not unlike a scratch off ticket promising big bucks on the outside but a lone dollar beneath. That’s also a complement. Keep track.

Now then.

*shakes sheets free of cracker crumbs*

This week’s shingle. We got all the poised hallmarks of a Cronenberg film. Intrigue? Check. Odd? Double check. Brick-to-the-head violence? Duh. Re-imagining themes so to properly appease/warp his muse? The Dead Zone, The Fly and the cryptic Cosmopolis (what else would you expect from a DeLillo book as movie?) are all re-interpretations. The guy is season in twisting things around to appease his demented muse covered in peat, thumbtacks and a hairshirt. The man has a gift for the emotional, but disregarding his inspirations, his movies are indeed organic. One might claim inorganic. I’m leaning that way.

So where the f*ck am I going with all this? Nowhere really, and that’s no shock. Kinda but not like Cronenberg’s output. This isn’t fanboy-ism. More of a cautionary tale. Not a warning though, either. It’s this: re-interpretations in film can be a dodgy thing. As I mentioned in the High Fidelity installment, another adaptation of book-into-film, we don’t want the director’s vision get in the way of the director’s vision. From a director who ultimately has made a career of re-interpretation films, you’re gonna get the Forrest Gump treatment regarding a box of chocolates served via rock tumbler.

You never know what your gonna get. Barring a coffee pot to the temple, Jenny…


Tom Stall (Mortensen) is the picture of quaint domesticity.

He and his wife Edie (Bello) are Town Square fixtures, proprietors of the Millbrook Diner, providing coffee and pie at friendly prices. They have a pair of great kids, reserved son Jack (Holmes) who takes after his dad. And squeaky Sarah (Hayes) who, of course, takes after mom.

Sure, there are hiccups. Jack get bullied by the resident alpha male jock Billy (Byrk) who has no toleraace for being bested on the baseball diamond. Sarah has nightmares. Apart from that, it’s life as usual in the Stall homestead in Millbrook, Indiana.

Until a pair of drifters wander into the Diner for more than just pie and a cup of joe.

Turns out these two are vicious criminals, and mince little words with Tom how they’re going to dismantle his business and friends. Faster than one could say “this will not stand” Tom dispatches these creeps with the efficiency of an assassin. He sends one to the hospital and the other to the grave. Tom saves the day, his business and his friends. For his heroics, modest Tom becomes a media sensation. The man who wouldn’t take it, fought back and triumphed.

That leaves a question hanging, though. How did Tom do all that superspy stuff? He serves pie for a living. He’s not James Bond. Even Tom can’t explain his actions away. But soon after an individual visits Millbrook to provide some some answers, whether Tom wants any or not.

Yet another day at the Diner, Tom plays host to a stranger. A haggard, eerie tough who calls himself Fogarty (Harris), and appears to know a lot about Tom and his history. More than Tom may know about himself. Or wants to.

Or should…


Scott Pilgrim vs The World this ain’t.

No surprise there, and nary a drumkit to found. However kinda tying into my weird, dodgy schpiel about graphic novels versus yadda yadda yadda is how a graphic novel feels. Sure, it’s self contained; you don’t have to wait for the fresh ish next week and “what happens next?” There’s no comic code to adhere to, so we get blood, sweat, tears and guts to relish. Sometimes we get unconventional artwork to pore over (think The Dark Knight Returns or, well, Scott Pilgrim). But the main thing I think about how graphic novels are unique in the realm of comics is how claustrophobic they can feel. It might be that self-contained thing, as well as the creators can let their id run riot, decidedly apart from mainstream books. I’m not sure, but I know that from reading Eisner’s, Miller’s and Moore’s work I don’t want to feel like someone’s looking over my shoulder reading their sh*t. Curious about Spidey’s exploits this week? Check it out. Rorschach on the prowl in the City, sniffing out conspiracy? Go away. Under the sheets with a flashlight here.

That’s the flavor of isolation I got from watching History. Granted, I never read the source material, but the film was tight, angular. Difficult to watch, and I’m not referring to the content. It was how it was packaged. There was a lot of intrigue, namely “wait a minute, what’s going on here?” There was definitely something afoot (and very odd) about how Tom thwarted the baddies; it was so sudden and left-of-center. Out of nowhere. Isolated. The hell?

Next scene.

I meant that metaphorically. Slow down. This is a Cronenberg flick; there’s always more than meets our eyes. History way be another adaptation/reinterpretation, but we’re gonna get spin. According to the director, he delved into Darwinian theories of evolution. Cronenberg surmised from this that there’s always gonna be a stronger bastard bent on wrenching power from lesser, more unfortunate f*ckers. Hmm. Sticks well to how simple Tom gradually realizes his inner power. Not sure History book writers had that in mind when pen met page, but when Cronenberg stuck his beady eye into the lens, all bets were never there.

Regardless being a maverick at spin, I did smell some more traditional filmmaking under the surface. Perhaps homage from Cronenberg, the protean. The film did have a connecting style. History kinda had an “Old West” feel. Specifically the “Man With No Name” spaghetti Eastwood oaters. Maybe too on the nose, but that’s Tom’s motivation in the proverbial nutshell, down to living in some podunk “frontier” town visited by unsavory strangers. You gotta have some anchor with a Cronenberg flick, Darwinian process or no.

That setup serves the film well. Again, an anchor. Quite useful considering how strategically sh*t goes off the rails later. But keep in mind the Old West schtick. Cronenberg has always defended his stock-in-trade demented works are based on personal, if not prosaic things. For example, his grotesque take on The Fly. It’s easy to dismiss/blame one’s impulses on some outside stimulus. The man’s fooled no one and everyone. He thrives on exaggeration and that may be his best, “modest” trademark in his work.

Huh? Watchu mean modest? There is precious little modesty in Cronenberg’s outings. When one employs rotten hot dogs and a well-placed shotgun blast to replicate a head exploding due to too much psychic intrusion the notion of being modest of craft kinda goes out the window. Yeah, I guess so, but maybe it’s all about which window.

Alright, enough anal spelunking. Cronenberg’s works are modest, reserved even. And History is no different. Going all the way back to Scanners, something’s always lurking, creeping under the floors and around the corners. The Stall’s life of quaint, small town domesticity is a ruse, to be sure, but before the diner “home invasion” scene yet after the stage setting opening sequence we get a weird, static and isolated feeling. Right, we’re establishing the stakes as setups are wont to do, but innocence is but a visage here. For all. The Stalls are classic mom and pop, yet it feels forced, like any small crack will make the dam fail. We have this creeping dread of artificiality permeating…f*cking everything. It’s claustrophobic, as a graphic novel is to be read. It’s winking melodrama. It’s a Cronenberg film; there are certain expectations. History‘s suspense doesn’t come from the impending doom, not really. It comes from that frail cardboard feeling which makes us know that all’s not well. Even before Harris shows up (and well before Hurt finally shows up) something is decidely “not right” with Tom, or Edie for that matter. The tension is like caramel, oozing and sweet. More like bittersweet really.

And the best aspect of such is our Danish Aragorn Viggo (I’m gonna address him as Viggo from here on. One, cuz I like his first name and; two, I keep misspelling his last). Like the lurking, static visage of the Stall’s small town idyll, we know even before a shot is fired or a carafe smashed that Tom is—as the British say—something else altogether. His homelife feels ill-fitting. His marriage seems too nice. His kids need to be there. And Viggo with his mile-long stare and aw-shucks self-effacing makes it all the more odd. Reserved. Modest. And of course it makes his Jason Bourne freakouts all the more harrowing.

The flipside of Viggo’s earnest performance and skilled killer in hiding—both within and without—is a distinct issue I took with History: I felt I’d seen this before. Sure, plenny’o films borrow/make a nod to previous films covering similar subject matter. It’s when the pinion upon which the whole plot spins like a warped 45 screams to my attention span that this is not a new thing. Despite all his solid fragility and earnest deception, Viggo devolves into a white picket fence Jason Bourne. Don’t get me wrong, Viggo’s Tom was engaging, but not wholly original. I mean carbon copy unoriginal. Then again, Cronenberg adaptation/reinterpreation of a graphic novel delivered with the unassuming whacked-out modesty. Christ, it can confusing talking about Cronenberg’s output. See-it-to-believe-it thing going on.

Back up. For the underinformed, the Bourne books/movies revolve around the exploits of a superspy with amnesia named Jason Bourne. Guy has no idea who his is or from whence he came, but he sure done good at hurtin’ peoples and guns are shiny. Viggo’s a lot like Bourne. A lot like Bourne. It takes longer here for our reluctant “hero” to come to terms with his history. Right, History is based on a graphic novel, and Cronenberg shoots it as such, but unless the movie script deviated way left from the written plot does everybody know something about Tom except Tom himself? I’m not saying this flaw is naked, but the whole “I’ve seen this before” feeling was both insidious and rather unfair. You’d think under Cronenberg’s lens, his keystrokes of reinterpretation, perversion and modesty (and we’re gonna ignore the source material here on out. You didn’t read it either, admit it) he would not play it so safe and in a sense squander our lead’s acting chops to be just some Bourne cypher. Viggo was still interesting though, sold his Tom well. I suppose that was enough for me not to chuck my embossed hardcover copy of Ludlum’s The Bourne Supremacy at the screen. You know, the one no one read? Including Ludlum?

Viggo’s foil, Harris’ Fogarty is also another thing entirely. Consider this: what we have here is essentially a comic book movie, and stars not one but two Oscar winners. It’s been well documented here I’ve taken the George C Scott stance about how the self-aggrandizing, back-patting nonsense detracts from just watching and simply enjoying the whole movie experience.

*squinting*

However, when a pair of prominent, award-winning actors grace a sort of nondescript comic film you gotta pay some attention. Especially when one of said actors is the well-esteemed Ed Harris. Big fan here. He’s another actor who’s always elevate a mediocre movie from a possible sewer line. Namely, not unlike my main man Sean Connery, some of Harris’ movies may suck, but he’s always good. And hell, both he and Sean made an actual good movie out of Michael Bay’s doofy The Rock. No duh thank him and aging 007.

Anyway to the meat, laid-back Harris feels more intense than Harris-Harris. His Fogarty was f*cking chilling, and the hell of that his character was so plain, so quietly assured. Sure, Fogarty looked like he took a flaming Cuisinart to the face, but it was his demeanor, like a librarian behind that face that was so unnerving. Enough to make Tom quietly doubt and shiver over this “Pete” guy he was accused of being. Harris is the merry imp, well acquainted with rules of the game and therefore adept at breaking them when necessary. He was supposed to be the heavy here, but was instead lightweight. I guess let sleeping dogs whatever.

When the final act eventually rolled around (and despite that Crononberg does indeed enjoy his weird shit) I think I figured out the straightforward muse that tugged at the man’s director chair, and it wasn’t simply Darwinism. History is all about idful catharsis. It ain’t some subtle lesson here: we are all capable of violence, pre-programmed or defensive. We all like to pretend, either literally or metaphorically as Tom does that we’re all even keeled, and attempt to create an environment that fosters that idea. Nope. Like Tom, we’re all delusional: sh*t happens, trains jump the tracks, fire, ruin and supernova may take us all. First things first, though: bare the fangs. The ones we forgot we had.

After all the folderol you may ask, “So blogger, was the movie good? And you got anymore Mallomars?”

Answer: it was okay and no (those tasty cookie mutants went off the market around a lifetime ago. I’m sad, too). Okay because of the Bourne stink, as well as the morality play I just smeared all over above. All of it was executed real good, but it also was not that original, even for the director’s style. Seemed like Cronenberg was as ever delving into the well of personal truth via mimicking a graphic novel’s take on whatever. It felt like a solid Cronenberg flick, with all earmarks unpierced, with a great cast and solid pacing. But felt like a solid Cronenberg flick, with all earmarks unpierced, with a great cast and solid pacing and the shadow of Matt Damon waiting in the wings with a clapboard at the ready.

Needed more cool hand Harris. And more stairway f*cking.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Another mild rent it (what is it, three films in a row?). A good movie, as only Cronenberg can spawn. But there was this creeping feeling of “Haven’t I seen this before?” nipping at my brain. A good time waster, but I’d rather watch his adaptation of Naked Lunch again. And I read the book prior. Movie made no sense either. Good work, Dave.


Stray Observations…

  • “There’s no such thing as monsters.” Uh-huh, right.
  • Best/worst puke take I ever saw.
  • “We never got to be teenagers together.” And best/worst subtle romance line I’ve ever heard.
  • Tom is delusional. In at least three different ways.
  • “We’re tourists.” And we are.
  • Liked the Yeungling shout-out. Reminded me of home, minus the crashing dishes.
  • “Then we deal with it.” Click.
  • There’s lots of small symbolism here.
  • “Nice gate.” …Yep.
  • That look. That gun. That is all.

Next Installment…

We’re on the case with Starsky & Hutch, their cool ass muscle car and nary a whit of irony.


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 17: Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” (2006)


WTC


The Players…

Nicolas Cage, Michael Peña, Maggie Gylllenhaal, Maria Bello, Michael Shannon, Frank Whaley and Stephen Dorff.


The Story…

Transit cops John McLoughin, Will Jimeno and their team are trapped beneath the rubbled of felled WTC 1 in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Now, instead of helping survivors, they are survivors themselves in need of rescue. Can the other first responders get to them before time runs out?


The Rant…

When I was in college, I was required to take a psych course. I was matriculating in education, and basic psychology was one of the prerequisites of the program. It was essentially there to give students a better understanding of how the mind operated, if only on a basic level. I learned quite a bit, but not enough to list it all here. In fact it’s mostly been forgotten. But I do recall learning about a particular phenomenon of memory. It’s a relatively new concept in psychology, new as far as immediate media access is concerned, called a “flashbulb memory.” Such memories are more or less a collective one, revolving around a significant social event to which many people were made aware, usually through the media, especially through radio, television and most recently the Internet. Events like the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion…and 9/11.

Around the time the Towers fell, I was still deep in my anarchist, punker days I had carried around  since college. Terribly cynical and a general malcontent (not much has changed, BTW, save the waistline). When I was roused that fateful morning by one of my roommates who was both an insomniac and a TV addict, I stared at the screen seeing the Manhattan skyline razed and said, “I’ll be damned.” Not the most pithy of statements, I know. I had a very political head at the time and tried to keep abreast of the social strife going on in the Middle East via web boards and whatever CNN sputtered out. Namely, I had heard of Osama bin Laden prior to 9/10. Call it cynical, but at the time with all my nascent Wolf Blitzer-esque bravado, I wasn’t surprised by the attacks. I didn’t really suspect a home invasion at the time, but I wasn’t surprised that it eventually happened. To me, it was only a matter of time before the fit hit the shan, all the US’ (let’s call it out) mucking about in the Mideast where we clearly had not been wanted. On this level however, it was awesome (and by the way, “awesome” does not automatically mean “cool” you hipster f*cks).

As I said, I was terribly cynical at the time. I don’t remember driving to work that day, but I do remember having to stop at a gas station for cigarettes or something…

Look, I was going to share a bit of personal shame here about what I said to the lady clerk about the attacks, but hindsight is 20/20, and I was completely insensitive. No. I was a dick. And after watching World Trade Center, I feel like more of a dick than ever.

But this is a good thing…


Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. New York. Jet airliners have crashed into the World Trade Centers. Lower Manhattan is in utter chaos. What should’ve turned out to be a routine day for Port Authority police officers Sgt. John McLoughlin (Cage), Officer Willy Jimeno (Peña) and the rest of their fellow cops has turned into the most urgent, most dire assignments they have ever faced.

McLoughlin and the rest of his first responders are called in on crowd control and to make sure WTC 1 is evacuated safely. Unbeknownst to McLoughlin, this was not an accident; the towers were specifically sighted, and the structural integrity of the building has been compromised beyond expectation. The tower falls, but not before McLoughlin and crew escape to safety of the elevator towers as the building comes crashing down around them.

Hours later, the officers wake up trapped and pinned down by rubble. McLoughlin, Jimeno and others are alive, but barely. Choking on the remains of the building, hopelessly trapped, and slowly having their strength winnowing away, its up to a helpless McLoughlin to keep his men alive on morale alone until a rescue team comes to extricate them from the bowels of the fallen buildings. If they can find them in time, if at all…


Oliver Stone’s direction has never been considered subtle. It’s about as delicate as a flying hammer, and plays pretty fast and furious most of the time. Also, he always seems to plug some kind of “social message” in all his movies, cold, hard and calculating. Sometimes this urgency makes for exciting cinema; sometimes it can fly by in a blur tough to digest. World Trade Center is the first Stone flick I have seen that bucks the trend. This movie has nuance, warmth and above all heart. If there is a message here, it is the classic pairing of the triumph of the spirit and the power and strength of family.

It’s a warm film regardless of the tragedy, but Center is not without moments of true tension. It’s tempered by the back and forth dynamic of scenes between the trapped officers and the homefront of their concerned and understandably scared families. It’s not unlike the Shakespearean tactic of bookending scenes of comedy between scenes of tragedy. Now I’m not claiming that Stone is Shakespeare, but Center does have the similar hallmarks of up and down to create good tension as well as good pacing, which the movie has in spades. There is never a dry moment as Stone cranks up the tension to the ultimate release in the end.

It also helps that the script is tight. Center does run perilously close to descending into utter bathos, but what keeps that at bay is the consistent screenwriting. The events of the film were based on the actual accounts of the real McLoughlin and Jimeno, after all. You want to make a movie based on true events, as always, go to the source. This is the sign of a good script; you know the officers got out alive, but the mounting tension keeps you glued. It worked for me.

Center is at its core a family drama. It’s less of a tribute to the fallen, more of testament to the power of love, loyalty and the good old ties that bind. The solidarity between Cage and Peña, struggling to maintain sanity as well as their lives reflects the tight bond that cops, fire fighters, EMTs, etc. create by working as a, well, family. And on the other side of the coin, it’s the families desperately waiting for news of rescue…well, it’s the usual message of families coming together and you know the rest. It’s kinda soft-edged for Stone material, but it’s pulled off pretty well with a minimum of corn.

On the technical side, I’ve always found Stone’s films to have excellent cinematography. The opening montage of pre-attack New York is both breathtaking and charming. Seemingly endless shots of the City in all its clean and grubby glory. Everything in this film seems framed perfectly, and a great lot of the story comes from these images.

However Center is a very difficult film to watch. It isn’t a whole lot of fun (which is I guess expected considering the subject matter). The scene where WTC 1 collapses, it is to rip your armrest to shreds. Seeing Cage and crew pinned in the bowels of the rubble, it exudes helplessness and fear. There is that ever creeping sense of all is lost that pervades the story. At times is feels that the only thing keeping Center aloft is the knowledge that these guys got out alive. It can be uncomfortable.

The only carp I have with this movie is the acting. It comes through as a tad wooden and stereotypes are played up a bit. I’m thinking that part was again a not so subtle effort by Stone to generate sympathy, which would’ve been there all along if the acting was more natural. Let the actors do their thing, Ollie. It’ll happen (I’ve heard Stone is notorious for micromanaging his cast).

Maybe the tepid response to the film was because it was too soon. Made five years after the attacks, the dust still hadn’t settled yet. Crowds probably stayed away for fear it was going to be a typical Stone docudrama about the Taliban’s saber rattling and W’s failure to respond swiftly. It wasn’t, surprisingly so. It was a heartfelt drama with that whole triumph of the human spirit jazz going on. It can come across as cheesy sometimes, but it didn’t here.

I know this review has been a rather sober one, but like everyone else in America, I’ve been living a life post-9/11, in some ways the ultimate flashbulb. If I could go back and smack myself all those years ago, I would. I guess this review is more or less an apology to no one and everyone, and a sign of respect for people who can muster up indomitable strength under the shadow of tragedy.

Don’t worry. Next time out I’ll try to be a bitch.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s an emotional roller coaster, but well worth the fare. So watch it with this in mind: I can never apologize enough for the sh*t I said to the lady at the gas station.


Stray Observations…

  • At the time of the attacks, I was working tech support at a mobile phone company. For us, 9/11 was the slowest day ever. It’s still a mystery today for me.
  • “God’s will isn’t done for me!”
  • I will never forgive the louts who failed to perform sufficient follow-up investigations of the ’93 WTC attacks further than nabbing a few perpetrators. It’s a very black mark on the Clinton administration.
  • “We are Marines. You are our mission.” Oo-rah.
  • For one of the greatest 9/11 rescue tributes, I highly recommend Vol. 2, #36 of The Amazing Spider-Man from Marvel Comics. Don’t you f*cking laugh.

Next Installment…

Robert Redford is all at sea, all alone and seemingly All Is Lost.