RIORI Vol 3, Installment 36: Jody Hill’s “Observe And Report” (2009)


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The Players…

Seth Rogen, Anna Faris, Ray Liotta and Michael Peña, with Collette Wolfe, John Yuan, Matthew Yuan, Patton Oswalt, Jesse Plemmons and Aziz Ansari.


The Story…

“All the animals come out at night…”

Wait, that’s another story. It’s during the day when the freaks come out to terrorize shoppers at the Forest Ridge Mall. It’s up to bumbling mall cop Ronnie to keep the food court secure and free of vandals, flashers and thieves. He does the best he can, which ain’t too much. His misguided self-importance gets in the way of his duties a lot. That and the belief the hot chick at the make-up counter would ever give him the time of day.

But never mind that. Vandals, flashers and thieves have infiltrated Ronnie’s turf. This means war. And he’s not gonna let any legit cops get in the way of his righting right. By any means possible.

Including Hoverboards. The thieves might’ve gotten away on Hoverboards.


The Rant…

Let’s be perfectly clear on this matter: I’ve never believed in the Oxford comma.

Whew. Glad we got that out of the way. Onwards!

One of my fave films in my all-time, top ten is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (“You talkin’ to me?”). It’s a classic, even to people who’ve never even seen the dang thing, so saturated it’s become in our collective pop cultural landscape. But to be fair, for those who haven’t seen it (fools), here’s the premise: Travis Bickle is an antisocial, emotionally unstable cabbie who can’t relate with anyone. He gets it into his head that if he can complete a quixotic mission to rid the city of filth, he will become self-actualized. And get the unattainable girl. Something like that. There’s a lot of violence and violence, too. Well worth watching.

Taxi Driver was the ur-antihero movie. What I mean by that is there were plenty of films prior where the “hero” toed a very fine line within their role and how to reach their goals. Most of the time it was an “ends justify the means” kinda outlook. The antihero could be just as dangerous as the villians. Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” in the Dollars trilogy. Charles Bronson in the first Death Wish movie. Hell, even later on with Mad Max: The Road Warrior, it got kinda tricky to root for the home team where there was no place to lay one’s head as home. Please refer to your Metallica fake book for further answers.

In light of my 40 years on this planet, after watching 40,000 plus movies (give or take 39,000) I can’t immediately recall an antihero movie to be silly. So obviously goofy an execution that any audience would be hard-pressed to take the demented, clownish antihero seriously. Sure, there’s always been humor—albeit dark and perhaps unintentional—in these kind of movies. I cite The Road Warrior again: the marauders dressed like rejects from a combo cabaret/Wes Craven/bondage festival ravaging the Aussie Outback? Were they menacing because they were generally scary, or so over the top ludicrous you just had sit back, say, “It is what it is” and go with it? Maybe a bit of both. Still, not overtly silly.

Another good example (by my standards, which are very flexible don’cha know) of humor penetrating and otherwise gritty melodrama? Escape From New York. We know the film’s delivery is pretty honky tonk, which is unintentionally funny, but the only gag meant as a gag was the one-liner, “I thought you were dead.” The rest of the time is Kurt Russell shooting, stabbing and limping his way along the wastes of Manhattan. Not many giggles, few and far between. At least on purpose.

But wait, blogger! You forgot about antiheroes like Han Solo and even Frank Drebin from The Naked Gun series! They weren’t dark and dangerous! You forgot to floss too! Broccoli! Gross! Both that and their movies had plenty of humor! Huh? How’s that, huh? Who’s dead, Kent? Who’s dead?

Calm down. And it’s spinach, you dolts. And like I said unintentional humor. Han and Frank were  scruffy and incompetent, respectively. Not necessarily malicious or menacing like Clint, Max and Snake were. Within that context (and giving the raison d’être for this week’s debacle. Not the movie. Maybe this scribble. Pick and choose) this week’s installment examines an antihero in a lighter take of another antihero movie. Observe And Report is a comedy, never fear, but it’s also—

Wait, wait. Hang on. Y’know what? Let’s save that extended commentary for a little later on, post-apocalyptic Australian bikers at my ass be damned.

Fair dinkum…?


There’s something rotten at the Forest Ridge Mall, and it’s not the moldering crap in the China King’s dumpster. Well, it’s not just that.

Rent-a-cop Ronnie (Rogen) has sworn to protect his mall and its patrons at any cost. He might’ve sworn too much. No vermin is gonna invade his territory of pristine Orange Julius’, Sharper Images and even that annoying Saddamn (Ansari). No vagrants, no delinquents and no thieves allowed.

Oops on the last one.

Someone’s been knocking over store after store under Ronnie’s nose, clearing out thousands of dollars of merch in shoes, jewelry and George Forman grills. This don’t look good for Ronnie’s rep, nor his job security. The general manager figures he better call in the pros; a team of actual cops, headed by the irascible Detective Harrison (Liotta). And Harrison is not gonna let a loser mall cop with delusions of grandeur muck up his investigation. Things don’t look so hot for Ronnie.

But what does look hot to Ronnie? That babe Brandi (Faris) at the makeup counter. Too bad all his meager efforts fail to get her attention. She won’t go on a date with our schlumpy, mildly unhinged Ronnie. He gets it into his head that if can nab the perpetrators himself—maybe even become a cop in his own right—he could score with Brandi. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Oops. What about that perv? Guy’s running around showing more c*ck than a henhouse.

Ronnie’s got a busy week ahead of him…


Here’s the painful truth about this week’s movie. Ready?

Observe And Report is Taxi Driver. For real.

*gasps from the peanut gallery, empty beer cans at the ready*

Hold on there. I am saying Report‘s a comedy. A rather bleak and dark comedy, but a funny film nonetheless. However it is Taxi Driver also. Consider the parallels:

Our hero is unhinged, socially awkward, racist and has delusions of grandeur of cleaning up the creeps that rove into his job. He’s obsessed with both the unattainable girl and stopping the criminals, both may serve a singular need. When all that falls through and he snaps, he ends up rescuing a wayward female and finds a feeling of worth and/or redemption. It’s all rather open-ended, however.

Now. Are we talking about Ronnie Barnhardt or Travis Bickle? Flip a coin.

More parallels in specific: Ronnie and Travis are obsessed with blondes named Brandi and Betsy, respectively who spurn them. Ronnie and Travis pop pills to keep their impulses in check (to no avail). Ronnie comes to the aid of Nell, an sweet-natured, injured girl who’s treated unfairly by her boss. Such is a la Taxi’s pimp Sport taking advantage of his naive charge Iris, played by a very young Jodie Foster  later reduced by Travis (BTW, “Nell” was the name of one of Foster’s movie roles. Just saying). More comparisons can be made.

Report‘s plot is virtually identical to Taxi. They’re two sides of the same coin, to be sure. And, no, Report is neither a rip-off nor outright plagiarism. I didn’t know if director Hill and his crew were paying homage or subconsciously channeling Travis. I’m not sure it was either, but the argument via comparisons can be made in the affirmative. The antihero vibe is there, as this movie is indeed an antihero movie. It’s a black comedy, too, but who says our lead can’t be demented and funny as well?

*”Where’s he going with this? I got a roast in the oven.”*

I’m saying we’re going back to the silly antihero theme, which is few and far between in movie land. Report is both madcap and dark, stupid funny and aggravating, off kilter and subtly disturbing. It’s like watching an ep of The Monkees minus the innocence and music and plus blue language, violence and waaay to many full frontal dick shots. Madcap. Even from the Coen-esque intro we know we’re in for a surreal and crass ride. Again, dick shots. It’s been said what audiences remember most about a film is the opening and the ending. Report‘s got your attention at the outset and sure does set the tone of the film, so be warned. Beyond this point there be dragons. And flashers.

This was the first Rogen vehicle that didn’t fair too well at the box office. The critics were pretty divided, also. Report fell quite comfortably into The Standard’s territory, which is weird. Since his ascent in Hollywood as the reliable buffoon, Rogen’s mostly done no wrong. Until now. Report was his first movie to lose money at the cineplex. Uh-oh. I think I know why. And it wasn’t for too much (wait for it) dicking around, either.

Ronnie is nuts. His is a sad case. It’s cringe-inducing to witness his conduct, his cluelessness, his about to snap. I’m thinking the guy’s core fan base (mostly frat boys I’d wager. Then again I was a frat boy back in the day. We only had Rob Schneider as an option, the poor man’s Sandler. Yes, I did write that) didn’t know what to make of their hero’s…antiheroics. Rogen the endless quip machine as assh*le. As nut job. As disturbing. Not the flavor in Columbus, despite it was some of the best actual acting the man has ever done. We’re supposed to like Ronnie, root for him. It’s not an easy task.

Actual acting. Rogen can’t act. Sorry to pop your bubble. It’s true. Oh sure, he’s funny, a one man Jerry Lewis movie tempered with the charm of the Three Stooges on a blind date with their cousins funny. But he only acts as Rogen, take it or leave it. If he’s not careful, his agent will doom him to being himself up to when the heart attack hits, maybe four more hits into his contract. Seemed to me that Rogen tried to stretch himself here in Report. Perhaps a bit too much for the mainstream media vultures. Um, fans. I meant fans. Smells like his fans didn’t go along for the ride with Ronnie. Not enough Paul Blart, I guess.

Which is too bad (not the missing Blart bit), because Rogen really did apply himself here. There was his usual histrionics, yes, and very much welcome by yours truly. But I also liked the creeping menace Ronnie was dragging behind him, not unlike—you guessed it—our favorite cabbie Travis. A good example of Ronnie blowing his cool in his usual slapdash manner is the scene where he comes to Nell’s “rescue,” which is redolent of the shootout in Taxi. Before Ronnie goes off pop, you can see him mulling over what to do next. It’s acting you seldom see Rogen do, and it was lost on the masses. A shame really.

I didn’t intend for this installment to pick apart Rogen’s performance, but already dropping Taxi Driver a million and a half times here it didn’t feel necessary to go into Report‘s finer details. All I can say about that is the film was good. A bit creaky at times, until you figure out where the whole thing is going, but still funny in the endgame. Also funny if you view the movie’s humor as a thickly disguised veneer covering the fact that our goofy, silly antihero character is crazy and willfully unaware of how dangerous he could be in different circumstances. Like becoming an actual cop. Shiver.

I know. Heavy sh*t for your almost run-of-the-mill Seth Rogen film. He ain’t gonna win any Oscars for his performance, and critical respect is but a parsec away, but it was kinda cool to see the guy act as well as be funny. Such things are possible in our impatient culture of gnat-like attention spans.

Rogen acts. Huh. Go figure.

*splat*

Hey! I just got pig sh*t on my shirt! And it fell from the sky!

Ah well, maybe a real rain will come down and wash the filth—

*incoming beer cans*

Whaddya want me to say?!? “That’ll do pig?”

Barbarians. Where’s my truncheon?


The Verdict:

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a cleverly disguised black comedy. Most folks didn’t get it. Doubts even here if they ever would. Just never confuse stupid with stupid. And that’s one to grow on.


Stray Observations…

  • Did Rogen actually gain  weight for this role?
  • “You’re just drunk, mom.”
  • “My dick is brown, you dumb motherf*cker!”
  • It sounds as if Morphine did the soundtrack. Amazing since their bass player has been dead for over a decade.
  • “Good luck with the crack.”
  • WE ACCEPT. Get it?
  • I once knew a guy who was so hard up to be a cop. He applied twice to the academy and tanked; lousy on admission, which is code for “unfit.” He also often spoke unfavorably about non-Whites. Wonders abound why he didn’t pass.
  • “I party like this only every four to six hours.”
  • The wifey loved this flick, “every inch of it.” I know this from being awakened by her cackles of joy against my Resperidone induced slumber. That’s how funny it was. Wish I was awake for the third act.
  • “Gotta get back to work.”

Next Installment…

Any responsible radio host must be mindful about what they say on the air. Robin Williams should be exceptionally careful. Who knows what The Night Listener hears when he tunes in to his show?


RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 27: Paul Haggis’ “Crash” (2004)


Crash


The Players (we got us some live ones here)

Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, William Finchter, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate, Michael Peña and Shaun Toub.


The Plot…

In post 9/11 Los Angeles, superficially separate from that national tragedy, tensions erupt when the lives of a Brentwood housewife, her district attorney husband, a Persian shopkeeper, two cops, a pair of carjackers and a Korean couple converge during a 36-hour period.


The Rant…

Now that Oscar time is upon us, I felt it proper to tackle a film that once won the Academy Award for Best Picture. ‘Tis the season.

When I was younger, no bigger that this, the Oscars were not to be missed. As a teen, I made it my quest to make sure that I saw all the movies nominated for Best Picture of the given year. Didn’t matter the actors, the directors, the plot or the hype, I saw ‘em all, if not in the theatre then eventually on video. I figured being a movie geek it was no less my patriotic duty to see these films, lest I be left out of some pop cultural loop. These movies were supposed to be the big deal, the crème de la crème, the sh*t that separated the wheat from the chaff. I also assumed seeing them made me more cultured than the dilettantes that wanted to be—bah—merely entertained.

I was a little snot then. No surprise. I’m a bigger snot now, but my motives have changed. Call it maturity.

I seldom pay any attention to the Academy Awards now. Unless it’s an Oscar-nominated film that just happens to hove into my radar, I could give two moldy sh*ts if it won anything. It’s most likely coincidence than anything. The last film I saw that won Best Picture was Argo in 2012, and I saw that one for the reasons I snuffled at when I was younger: I was invested its story, but definitely not in Affleck (though he did handily direct it, I’ll credit him that much). The only other Oscar nom I saw within recent memory was American Hustle, and that one for it being a David O Russell piece, as well as me being quite entertained by his Silver Linings Playbook (see Installment #7). Neither movie captured my interest by promise of accolades, red carpets, flashing cameras and a lot of self-patting of the backs. No. I simply wanted to check ‘em out, regardless of unbridled popular opinion, possible awards be damned.

It’s taken a few years, but I’ve figured out that the Oscars are a puerile, politically correct, dog and pony show of ego and hubris. That and most pictures nominated for anything are filler. I mean, you gotta fill up three to four interminable hours of honoring entertainment for entertainment’s sake with something besides the parade of who’s wearing what (and endless, pointless musical numbers). At the end of the day, the Oscars have less to do with movies and more—much more—to with Entertainment! Being entertained with the glitz and glamour, the who’s-who of celebs, the expensive clothes and exercises in narcissism. The movie aspect part are just the thumbtacks holding the poster to the marquee. In short, whatever gets a nomination doesn’t really matter. You only tune in for the show, not justification by both the public and Hollywood as to what passes for “art.”

The last Oscar presentation I actually tuned in to was to see if Argo got the coveted stamp of approval, seeing the story was so solid and deserved some more press. The first fourteen hours on the broadcast was an endless montage of shiny faces, dumb jokes, words of praise from Hollywood types congratulating each other as if they found the Lost Dutchman Mine, the aforementioned musical bits and a smattering of movie stuff now and again. The only thing I saw that was actually entertaining was seeing Jennifer Lawrence trip onto the stage. That was merely a bonus.

Here’s a bit of cinema trivia: Did you know that the bigwigs at the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences are not even required to watch the films that are chosen for Best Picture? It’s true. The so-called guidelines for a nom are dictated by a very simple edict: the movie had positive word of mouth (read: what the critics said) and decent enough box office takeaway. That’s it. If any of those old, doddering, white males happen to actually see a picture, well then bully for them. They were most likely checking in on their investments. The nomination process is akin to the beleaguered high school teacher tossing the midterm essays down the stairwell and whichever paper lands on the ground floor gets the A. At the end of the day, Oscars are dime-a-dozen based on a 12 dollar admission and what some paid film nerd said.

But there’s another, more sinister aspect of Oscar nominations that really has jacksh*t to do with actual movie merits. It has to do with keeping up appearances. Hollywood is all about image, after all. It’s also about making obscene amounts of money (and blowing it as well, either on many of the specimens covered here at RIORI or up collective LA noses. Bam!). In case you don’t recall the whole Mel Gibson/anti-Semitic very public douchebaggery from a while back, convey the wrong image and bye-bye career. And the most prickly of all things regarding image are the studio heads’ PR. They put on their Sunday best all of the time in order to coax cash from us. Heaven forbid they present a poor, socially irrelevant, insensitive and/or downright stupid face to the buying public. They have to hold something up to ward off bad press, and to even think of perhaps sometimes once in a while not backing a movie with a message…?

Well, here we go.

Here’s a Hollywood mentality that adheres to the Oscar tenet; it goes something like this: Last year, in 2013, 12 Years a Slave won best pic. This probably didn’t happen based on the struggling criteria I’ll lay out soon enough. It most likely happened because—hand to God—anyone on the Oscar committee wanted to snub a film that tackled an issue so serious as slavery. I mean, dismiss that and you could alienate a chunk of the movie-going consumers, and no producer worth their salt wants that. You dig?

Now.

I find it suspect that any film that has a message or a “cause” to rally around immediately trumps other films that struggle with concepts of “engaging plot” or “good acting.” I suppose this now sets me up via a knee-jerk reaction that I am a bigot and racist. Not anymore than the average person, but for f*ck’s sake and after all it’s just a damned movie, not a march on Selma. That being said, 12 Years was not a bad movie. Along the Academy’s so-called standards, it did extend a message that ultimately making white people look and feel guilty was good trade. For comparison, 2013’s nomintaed American Hustle didn’t make white people look guilty. Stupid maybe, but not guilty. One should not have to have one’s attention and conscience wrenched away from plot, acting and the overall execution of a particular movie in order for said film to be regarded as “good” and/or “noteworthy.” None of this socio-pop rhetoric escaped the notice of the Academy, or critics for that matter.

Here. I’ll go you one further:

Set the way-back machine to a quarter century ago, circa 1990. The best picture for that year was Dances with Wolves. Again, not a bad movie. But Kevin Costner’s acting was his usual wooden emoting, and he was nominated for Best Actor. Go fig. His direction won Best Of, quite the feat for a first time director (by the way, Hitchcock and Kubrick never won an Oscar. Just sayin’), and all that sweeping prairie did indeed do wonders for the lens. I’ll give Mary McDonnell’s portrayal of Stands-With-A-Fist worthy of the statuette, too. But the film hasn’t really aged well. These days it tastes self-indulgent and simultaneously comes across as pandering and somewhat demeaning to Native peoples, making aspects of such cultures seem dignified in its simplicity against the progress of greedy white people. I’m not saying that’s how it is. I know sh*t about the Sioux and would be first in line for a spanking. But anyway and overall, it was a decent movie. Just a decent movie. And just a movie, not revisionism nor retrograde propaganda, as some of the pundits made claim. Or merely perceived.

Another Best Picture nominee in 1990, however, was a fantastic movie.

Unlike Wolves, it had a unique story, great acting, superlative direction, and ended up being packed to the gunwales with critical praise. And it sure as sh*t has aged well, even endured. In fact, it hasn’t aged at all.

The movie was GoodFellas. It was Scorsese’s finest. It didn’t win. I figure the message of rooting for a strung out Ray Liotta would send a bad message.

And here’s a final story and a caution.

Years ago swimming clumsily about in an alcohol-soaked haze, I was at my local watering hole working my way through a Henry Rollins travelogue and several pints of lager. My on-again, off-again bar buddies brought up one of my favorite subjects: movies (duh). One of these guys wasn’t a close relation. In fact, the dude only ever engaged me in a friendly way over pop culture factoids. We got to talking about Martin Scorsese’s movies—Taxi Driver, Casino, etc.—when I said of myself that I had never seen GoodFellas. Here’s the caution: I absolutely despise it when people chew you out about never have seeing a noteworthy film (“You’ve never seen The Godfather?!? What are you, retarded?”). Putting you on the spot like that is not only mean, but unconditionally impolite. Not to proffer myself up, but when that kind of thing happens in conversation, my default response is more or less, “You should check it out. You’ll like it.” Simply embarrassing a guy will probably not only put him or her off to your so-called recommendation, but will also be demeaning as well. Don’t be that guy.

Well, following that guy’s directive or else, I added GoodFellas to my Netflix queue and waited for a lonely night (of which I had many) to crash and watch it. When I finally did, it was after a laborious pub-crawl, ending well after 2 AM. Maybe 3. I ended up along with the couch, cracked open a fresh bottle of Jameson’s and plunked GoodFellas into the player. Despite how drunk I was, I was absolutely glued to the screen. I polished off the whisky, collapsed into bed and remembered the entire movie the next day, with trembling opinions on my tongue I could not wait to share with the guy who made it my civic duty to watch this film. It’s one of my more pleasant memories from those dark days with the bottle.

Needless to say, Crash did not have the same effect as GoodFellas did (the being captivated part, not being intoxicated). The only reason I even got my hands on Crash was that it was a gift from my wife’s mother’s misguided mind. I say misguided because the woman would randomly pluck DVDs for sale off the rack at the local CVS just to have them, only later to pawn them off on, well, me. To put this into perspective, my eccentric—and that’s being polite—mother-in-law does not own a DVD player. Yeah, you figure it out.

Anyway, Mom’s “heartfelt” gift or no, I eventually watched Crash because: A) Hey, free movie, B) It won Best Picture despite my appreciation for Brokeback in tandem with bewilderment that that film didn’t win; and C) There was nothing else to do that night. In addition, my girl said something along the lines of “What the hell…”

This week’s installment, as you haven’t guessed already, is about a picture that, when the lots were drawn, won the vaunted Oscar for Best Picture of the year and didn’t really deserve to win. Not on merits alone, no, but based on the cagey way the Academy doles out the statues. It wasn’t a bad film, but is was a safe film. And here’s the curious part—based partly on my past determination to catch all the Oscar-nominated Best Pictures—I kind of fell into both the Brokeback and Crash viewings by accident. One by way of my fiancée, and the other via a gift from her demented mom who watches movies as frequently as the rest of us go ice fishing in July.

My girl had seen Brokeback Mountain, and insisted, nay, demanded that I watch it with her. Indeed I did. It was really good. I mean great, the stuff award-winning films should be made of. I say that it should’ve won Best Picture that year, being 2005. It didn’t, and most likely because the Academy codgers didn’t want to risk praising a film about gay cowboys, narrow as their view was. Instead, the award went to Crash, another one in the camp of 12 Years: a pretty good flick, and also far more anodyne than a love story between two shepherds.

Like I said, I fell into watching Crash instead of actively seeking it out. It wasn’t like my quest of my salad days. No. And I remember this time being quite sober. I watched Crash because, more or less, “What the hell…”


Los Angeles is a tangled city. Desert city. It’s not supposed to be there. Gets cold at night. Maybe the mad snarl of people who reside there are not supposed to be there either. A lot of lives cross a lot of lives in that desert city that should not exist. Populated with people that should not be there. Carrying out existences that are foreign, albeit very, very local. Despite of, or perhaps because of it, the social climate—thousands of people interact with one another in ways that might under other circumstances would be disparate—is also fractured.

It all ends with a car crash, and concludes another day-and-a-half whirlwind of human traffic in the City of Angels. Detective Graham Waters (Cheadle) staggers from the scene of the accident while his partner Ria (Esposito) decides to have it out the angry Asian lady who wedged her bumper into their door. Conveniently enough, the accident happens at crime scene of yet another anonymous dead black man. This time, however, Waters believes he knows this mystery body.

In fact, he’s sure of the identity.

Rewind two days ago…

In another, more well-lit part of town, Rick and Jean Cabot (Fraser and Bullock) are concluding a night out. Yet another function to better Rick’s face in the undying camera flashes that come with being the local DA. Also enjoying a night out, both of them dueling philosophy and the perils of being the only two black dudes in the whitest part of town, Anthony and Peter (Ludacris and Tate) amble down the boulevard towards their next job: Rick and Jean’s Lincoln.

Elsewhere…

Daniel (Peña), a locksmith in a beat-up part of the city has just tried to secure the backdoor to shopkeeper Farhad’s (Toub)—an Arab immigrant—meager convenience store. No go. It’s the door that’s damaged, not the lock. Daniel, all too used to frequenting operations in shady parts of town (places he’s worked to get out of), patiently informs Farhad it’s not the lock, but the door. He doesn’t take this well, and such his business’ safety a concern, what with all the Arab hate crimes that have popped up recently, wants nothing to do Daniel’s recommendation. So much so that Farhad has recently procured a gun to ensure his property’s safety. But not his sense of security, and it seems Daniel the former gangster whose trying to walk the straight-and-narrow may now be the brunt of his frustration.

Somewhere else…

Police officers Ryan and Hansen (Dillon and Philippe) get the call about the Cabot’s carjacking and are on the lookout for a couple of African-American men cruising about in the stolen SUV. Ryan, being ever shrewd, pulls over a vehicle that fits the description. But not the couple. Well-to-do and noted TV producer Cameron Thayer and his wife Christine (Howard and Newton) are not two black males. But they are black, and that’s good enough for Ryan, especially when he frisks Christine, much to her protest and Hansen’s reluctance to agree to the search. But after all, Ryan is just doing his civic duty. Right?

In another place…almost another world…

Los Angelinos are simply trying to make their days run into the next. Social interactions are fractured, isolated. Sound bites. Some of those sound bites are loud and grating. Most are quieter. Pretensions, assumptions, asides, slurs. Stereotypes. “The Man”, n*ggers, sp*cs, sl*nts, r*gheads. All alive and well across the square miles. More often than not their paths cross, and not in a convivial way. Or a gentle one. Sometimes the paths don’t intersect so much as collide.

LA is a tangled city. Maybe it’s been borne that way for a reason…


Crash is not a bad movie. It is actually quiet a good movie. It also has a singular glaring fault that is at odds with the engaging story arcs and solid performances.

Boy, is Crash hella preachy.

I’m not talking about preachy in dialogue, but in message, and that message is about as subtle as a fart at a funeral. Crash is bigotry incarnate, and in f*cking overdrive. I understand that writer/director Haggis was trying to drive home the “we’re all so different/we’re all the same” message—in passing, he stated he was more-or-less trying to bring back the “grit” to ensemble films about LA that often paint a sunny image of glamour to the city. There is a certain degree of forced grime to this movie—but ends up being pedantic. Crash is always on the nose. Here is racism under the glass. A “message” film is always perfect fodder for the wary Oscar committee. Yeah, it’s preachy and pedantic, but that makes it no less interesting. And it’s very well acted.

This is all about character drama. There really is no plot, just message. Crash is compromised of a series of intertwining vignettes. It’s odd how the movie manages a narrative structure based solely on the slow, disparate chapters that hold it together so well. There is some deliberate subtly here, and it mostly works. Character nuances, convincing dialogue, a lot of great facial expressions, all of this adds to the richness of the tapestry. Now if only that pesky message wasn’t so damned inescapable. We get it, we get it. So, what? Nobody in LA likes each other?

Crash is too pointed in its commentary. Pointed, but oddly digestible. I think it might be the snappy repartee. Overall I credit this almost exclusively to the acting. Like I said: no plot. The actors had better be damned engaging in order to hold an audience. And man, is this flick rife with characters.

I read somewhere that in writing, in order to create memorable, relatable characters (note I didn’t specify likeable characters), you had to make them big. Over the top types whose emotional motivations must be so extreme that making them stereotypes you don’t even recognize. Stuff like that. Crash is f*king littered with these stereotypes (the rookie cop, his bigoted superior, the affluent, insecure black guy, the introverted detective, the hotheaded Arab shopkeeper, etc.). And all the better for it, especially when you have a primo cast like this.

Don Cheadle (ostensibly the axis of the film), as I have said in past installments is a choice actor of mine. He’s always played subtle, reserved characters. I have never seen him portray a character that ever loses his composure, even when upset. Hell, even when duking it out with Tony Stark as War Machine in Iron Man 2, Cheadle was holding back. He’s finally used well here, the everyman an audience can find themselves in comfy shoes. He sees the world with a mind gritting its teeth however, and the tension is quite protean. He’s handed a lot of bullsh*t, and being forced to smell it in a town infamous for being sh*t-tastic, he bears it well and does a convincing job as our avatar of being smeared with hate and disgust around every corner.

Matt Dillon’s racist cop Ryan is awkwardly tender and conflicted. He does know compassion, but such is a weakness. What better moral fulcrum than a veteran LA cop? At least over the past 3 decades in a city not regarded fondly for its racial harmony. Again, the guy with power and prejudice is a tasty character to follow, because it’s so prevalent in the real world, and so juicy to hate. But Dillon acts more or less in his ways out of his character’s “duty” rather than outright hatred. Cops are usually heroes in these commercial films right? Let’s face it; playing against type is always engaging.

I think although I’m not sure that the “inner city philosopher king” bit was codified here. It’s almost a caricature. I’d like to think that is got hot with Ice-T, sprouted by way of the Last Poets. Here we got Luda’ and Tate. They’re the Abbott and Costello of angry black thugs. They’re the—pardon me—black comic relief. We gotta have these guys intertwining here to be a pressure valve to let the steam out. Without it, all this drama would be too overwhelming to take. It’s a Shakespearean thing, so don’t argue.

Peña is fast approaching one of my favorite character actors. His Daniel is the movie’s soft spot. Family man, hard-working, trying to atone for past transgressions. Like the comic relief, you need to have a soft, squishy role to lean on, and the scene with his daughter at bedtime, though tired, is touching. Dad’ll make everything better.

Lastly, I liked Howard’s portrayal of the successful black yuppie, unsure of his stature. Does it hinge on his status as a producer, or a good boy for playing the white man’s game, sacrificing his dignity in return? That’s a fair question I think, and Howard’s responses makes it no less easy to answer.

It’s all well-acted, if only in a Hemingway-esque sense (“Kill your darlings. Kill, kill your darlings”). What I mean is that Papa’s words, no matter how simple, cut. Crash has good facetime. Almost all the actors here work with a flat affect, save Terry Howard and Ryan Philippe (whose bright-eyed, naive rookie cop needed a good slappin’ now and then. Mostly now). It’s a blank slate. It’s gonna be you the audience to cringe and scowl and exasperate to fill in the blanks. Let’s face the stink: racial stereotypes are engaging because—like Avenue Q taught us—we’re all a little bit racist. If you say, vehemently, “Not me!” you’re a liar and you’re boring. Crash is nothing but your reflection, and it’s hard to take. It’s also very real, palpable and hard-hitting.

Yeah, Crash relies on shock value to create often false tension and drama. I say “false” because you can see a lot of the tensions between the characters coming from a light-year away. Kind of like that thing in horror movies when the main character investigates the strange noises in the basement defended by a lone candle. You want to bonk some of these folks over the heads for being too much “in the message.” And I guess that falls in line with the big bugaboo in Crash: that damned message.

Like I said with Dances with Wolves, a message film is a safe bet. I don’t think Haggis set out to lecture and bait us with cray-cray social commentary, nor do I believe he was creating a machine to suck up statuettes. Even the late, esteemed critic Roger Ebert bet the farm on Crash to be the headliner for that year’s Oscars. He probably made that bet based on a decent story, good acting and snappy dialogue, not on the whole “racism is bad” theme. We know racism is bad (I’ve often heard the same about cigarettes), but dealing with it creates delicious tension. It’s just such an overdone thing, and we’re getting hacked to bits with it here. With Brokeback Mountain as the favorite—which was, in fact, a more arty and obtuse film with an even more intense message to convey, albeit a helluva lot more subtle—Crash upsetting the public opinion applecart screams “safe.” A simple message, a high-end ensemble cast and executed with élan and sturdiness. This is a prime formula for a good movie. It’s also very easy to do, and also relying on a lot of shock-and-awe can easily bamboozle and guilt rich, white Hollywood into recognizing that a film can make them feel guilty about being rich and white. It almost screams white male guilt; “We’re not racist. Look how we honored this movie. Please don’t spend your money on a film by the rival studio.” It also makes Hollywood look hollow—which it is—to pat Crash on the back for being so bold as to address the race issue once and for all. Again. Now, whose buying?

Despite—or perhaps because of—all its stereotypes, archetypes, prototypes and typewritten scenes and characters (read: the message notwithstanding), Crash is quite a good morality play. It may be up in your grill and on the nose, but its solid acting can forgive most of the relentless hammering. It also keeps the meandering storyline in check bookended with the aforementioned racial undercurrents. Crash is well-assembled, well-acted and well executed overall. If it could only turn down the neon a bit here and there, it might’ve been a better contender for the award.

Preach on, brotherman, preach on.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It is a good movie, albeit a tad pandering. Did it really earn the award? No, not really. Thank the suits at Paramount or wherever. You’re probably better off with Heath and Jake bumping very uglies. But overall, yeah, it’s okay. But do maintain your guard. Crash is fast approaching Dances with Wolves territory. In fact, it just did. Whoosh…


Stray Observations (lots of good quotes here)

  • “In LA, nobody touches you…”
  • It seems that any “intertwining storyline” movie since Pulp Fiction—nay, since Rashomon—is an obvious shoo-in for a Best Picture nom. Books do it all the time, that’s why they’re books. I suppose most movie moguls don’t ever f*ckin’ read. That’s what a staff is for.
  • “You could be right.”
  • I used to go with a girl that looked a lot like Sandra Bullock, but with larger breasts. Unlike Jean Cabot, she turned out to be an unrepentant harridan (no hard feelings) thanks to the open coffer that is the Internet. I have no idea what that even means. I do drink while watching these things, y’know.
  • “…Like a gun.”
  • And, of course, it’s Christmastime.
  • “Do I look like I want to be on the Discovery Channel?”
  • The highway rescue scene is the core of this movie, in the face of all the preaching. Remember that thing about “actions speak louder than words?” Yep.
  • “I love hockey.”
  • Mark Isham’s soundtrack is great. I don’t think he gets enough props for his movie work.
  • “A harsh warning.
  • There are a lot of nice touches here (the wedding ring, the kids coming home from school, etc.) that highlight family. It’s almost a hidden message here, in the background of all the noise. Kinda like a good bass player.
  • “You embarrass me.”
  • Wait. Was that Counselor Troi?
  • “It’s a good cloak…”

Next Installment…

Look out! It’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World! Actually it’s more like Scott Pilgrim versus a girl. And a guy. And some twins. And…


 

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.