RIORI Vol 3, Installment 62: Floria Sigismondi’s “The Runaways” (2010)

The Runaways

Meet The Band…

Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart, Stella Maeve, Scout Taylor-Compton and Michael Shannon, with Alia Shawkat, Riley Keough, Johnny Lewis and Tatum O’Neal (where’s she been anyway?).

The Tour…

What we got here is a biopic about a group of unique, driven and kinda crazy teenage girls as they rise from rebellious Southern California kids to rock stars of the now legendary band the Runaways. Some claim that they paved the way for future generations of riot girrrlz. Some say they were just a jailbait novelty act.

Some of both may be right.

Sound Check…

Okay. Before the expected rock n’ roll movie screed, let us gather ’round the fire and chew this over: why are there so few successful, if not name brand female directors in Hollywood? Scratch that. Why are there so few female directors period? At least, woman who are known instead of novelty. I can think of Kathryn “The Hurt Locker” Bigelow, Jane “The Piano” Campion, Mimi “Deep Impact” Leder and Penelope “Wayne’s World” Spherris. There most likely dozens of others of the fairer sex who helm a mean camera weekly, and we hear nary a snappy one-liner from the dweebs on Hollywood Insider. On second thought, perhaps a good thing that. Keeps street cred.

It’s kinda understood that Hollywood is a man’s man’s man’s man’s world. Been that way for decades. Oh sure, we’ve had bajillion talented women grace the screen, sometimes becoming icons, several legends to aspire to, impeccable craftswomen and Tia Carrare from Spheeris’ flick about the two dolts in the basement. We can only swing for the fences so much, yet with all this acting clout women bring to the medium, actually being in control of a film is trace element stuff. There’s been more sightings of Bigfoot.

So, what’s up? The first argument that might be made by the cigar-chompers is that Americans aren’t interested in movies manned—so to speak—by woman. Erm, The Hurt Locker did well at the box office and scored a li’l something called the Oscar for Best Picture. Certain lame-o’s could make the argument that, well, she was married to James Cameron. Maybe something rubbed off (don’t scoff. I heard this so-called argument once. Sure, it was drenched in alcohol, but so was Dorothy Parker). I’ve heard similar malarkey as if a female director wouldn’t’ve earned her stripes without some kindly gentleman behind the curtain gently pulling some strings. If this sounds sexist it’s because it is.

Or is it something more insidious?

I’m no Alex Jones conspiracy theorist. But I naturally have a theory as to why women behind the camera is regarded as anathema to the Hollywood machine. It’s simple really. Even since Birth Of A Nation (technically the first blockbuster. A skewed, racist and jingoistic blockbuster, but it did well back then nonetheless) Griffith set some standard and has been practiced, if not run riot ever since: boys club. Deviate from that focus back in the day? Hollywood meltdown. Women couldn’t even vote back then, let alone be permitted to make a movie, the high water mark of influential medium of the times (until radio got popular, that is. And God bless Maria Callas). In sum, entrenched sexism from almost a century ago keeps girlies from making their own blockbusteries. If it ain’t broke—and brings in the samoleans—do not fix it. Just get back in the kitchen and where’s my martini?

That’s my take anyway. Maybe I’m way off the mark, but when you get the opportunity to see The Declaine Of Western Civilization, Lost In Translation and/or Lords Of Dogtown afterwards you may have to ask yourself, “What’s up now?”

That being said, The Runaways was directed by woman. A biopic about a seminal all-girl rock band. Telling? Let’s hope so.

Headlining Act…

So after that being said, here’s a pseudo companion piece to the anti-boys club in Hollywood, its brethren can be seen sniffing around Tower Records, Music City, Motown and even (back in the day when they played actual yadda yadda blah) MTV. Namely, it’s tough—exceptionally tough—to get exposure, let alone respect as an all female rock band. There are precious few as any of us audiophiles know. Sure, there’ve plenty of solo artist rockin’ ladies since the genre’s birth. Women like Wanda Jackson, Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Suzi Quattro and other trailblazers established that, yes, girls can rock out, too.

But what about the band, Elwood? Few and very far between, like catching a homer on Mercury.

What gives? Beyond the Go-Go’s, the Bangles, L7…uh, the Shaggs and our movie’s subject matter how many all-female rock acts can you name? And no, Hole doesn’t count. Sorry. I don’t care who was at the boards. Neither do Josie and the Pussycats. Grow up.

*coyote howls in the night*

For the wasted, drunken life of me I have no answer either. In the past here I’ve made no bones about being a geeky, obsessive, amazed he’s not a virgin audiophile. I’ve got scads of female artists clogging my LP collection/iTunes account as far and wide from Patsy Cline to Marianne Faithfull to Feist. All great performers, and all walking a lonesome road. Hundreds, if not thousands of female rockers and singers have made their mark on their own, but a collective as band? Not so much.

Again: why?

I could reheat the Hollywood boys’ club mentality here, but making movies and making music are two different things, barring the whole entertainment biz and fleecing folks courtesy of Ticketmaster (bow down to your master). Not too different, mind you. Both are all about bread and circus against your humdrum facio. Both are about creativity as business as usual. Both may enlighten and educate (like about maybe why the blankety-blank concert tickets cost so damned much. I know it’s U2, but still). But why is it we’ve had innumerable ensemble films cast with almost exclusively women that did well with both the critics and the box office takeaway with nary a blink? Steel Magnolias, Bridesmaids, even f*cking Mystic Pizza held their own pretty well. Folks seem to line up in droves for synched stuff like that. So how’s that queue for the Babes In Toyland reunion tour?


Or at least some crickets. Look, it’s been a foregone conclusion that rock and roll has been a man’s world since its inception. Thank or blame Elvis, Little Richard, The Killer, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly or Bill Haley. It’s been a leather clad sneer with three chords since “Rocket 88.” A very large glass ceiling was set up well before the term was coined. But the funny thing about rock and roll since its birth was that if you had the talent, the drive and the attitude anyone could make it. Unlike classical music, you didn’t necessarily need an education to, well, rock out making music. Beyond rudimentary instrumental proficiency, the ability to pick out a choice wardrobe and maybe write a few ditties, to be a successful rock star was to gain an audience. Grab their sweaty attention. Have some showmanship, for crap’s sake.

Or showwomanship. If a door would open…

“Girls don’t play electric guitars.”

Upon such claims legacies are built. Some ignoramus says you can’t, so therefore you do. That’s what Joan (Stewart) figures. Playing folk tunes will not be her trade. She likes Chuck Berry. She likes the Stones. She eventually likes the Sex Pistols. She does not care for Joni Mitchell. Joan wants to rock out, find a band, be loud and obnoxious. Too bad it seems her vagina stands in the way.

Cherie (Fanning) is weird. She loves glam rock, the big glittery mess that never quite jumped the Pond. She’d love to jump off herself elsewhere than the hell that is SoCal suburbia. It’s normal for a teenaged girl to want to be elsewhere, no matter how cushy here is. But Cherie’s home life sucks; if Fixer Upper existed back in 1975, her home would be number one with a bullet. Cherie’s pop-rock mentality needs an outlet, so clubbing the LA strip seems a good plan. Might meet another like-minded, wannabe pop star.

Enter trashy and creepy music producer Svengali Kim Fowley (Shannon). He knows what’s hip. He knows the ins and outs of the biz. He knows what the crowds want before they know they want it. He knows he likes Joan’s pitch. He really knows he likes Cherie.

The kids’ve been doing some busking. Well, f*cking around in a beat up trailer, making their rock noise and generally kicking up a racket. This racket intrigues Fowley (not to mention the abundance of adolescent snatch within his greasy reach). An all girl rock group? Could be the next big thing. Could just be a novelty act. But Joan has the chops and Cherie has the desire. There really might be something to click here.

But the rock and roll world might be reluctant to embrace the Runaways (that’s what Kim dubbed his quintet of harlots). An all girl band? Really. Rockers are supposed to be tough, swarthy men in leather who if they couldn’t f*ck you, they’d eat you alive. Teenage girls? Get real.

Well Joan, Cherie and the rest are getting real.

Regardless, girls shouldn’t like Bowie…

I heard this story once that pretty well sums up Joan Jett’s cachet in the rock and roll world.

It was on a Henry Rollins speaking date. He was telling the audience of the time he was with the USO, touring the Mideast and entertaining the troops. Rollins said he found the expereince so enjoyable and interesting he phoned his agent to schedule another tour for later in the year.

There was a pause. Rollins’ agent informed him, “Nobody goes twice except for Joan Jett.”

To which Hank responded, “Good for Joan, she rocks.”

That says it all for me about Jett nee Larkin. Well, that and her whole ethos on her signature song “Bad Reputation.” She rocks indeed. And doubtless has stories of her own to share with us troops, which might explain the zeal in getting Joan and the girls’ backstory to celluloid.

The last biopic we covered here at RIORI was a rock n’ roll tale, too: the winding Tolkien-esque epic I’m Not There, ostensibly about Bob Dylan. Where that film was an exercise in fantastic indulgence and mind warping notions about who Mr Zimmy was—is—The Runaways is a straightforward rock bio. For kids!

Uh, no. Not really. Not at all actually. I can’t really compare There with Runaways. At all. The only real diff I can call out between these two flicks is thus: one is stylized and the other tries to be stylized. You ever have that happen? Watch a movie based on true events and scam a scent of “this stinks of bullsh*t” against another film that smells like freshly laundered…laundry? Runaways has the former smell, like what we’re watching is fluffed up for audience satisfaction. It’s not overtly a bad thing, but it can get to be an annoying one. Especially when the present film is pretty entertaining, but the show is seedy and not meant for everyone. And I ain’t talking Scorsese/Last Temptation Of Christ either.

This is the deal. Some biopics can be enlightening, enjoyable, educational even. But it all depends on how the “truth” is couched to make it tasty to an audience. Runaways, though entertaining, has more than a whiff of bending/embellishing the truth, whatever that may be. Namely, it came across as somewhat fake; too much embellishment, too much titillation. I don’t care how much of it was actual (and maybe few of the crowds), but there was this mist of “I ain’t buying this” hanging over my gourd.

By using the word stylized here I’m describing the director’s execution based not on her vision per se, but her background. Sigismondi’s style comes from the school of cutting music videos. She’s in good company (David Fincher) and not so good company (Michael Bay). Both those guys have made their mark (or stain if you consider Bay’s oeuvre) in Tinsel Town, so there is legitimacy of cutting your teeth as a director of twenty one pilots’ latest hit.

However Sigismondi’s style is a drawback as well as a fallback. Sure, this is her debut flick, and the story is probably one close to her heart. She loves music, perhaps a Jett fan and might also had to put up with the push and push of directing a kind of high profile music doc from old men who are tone deaf. It’s just a thought, but by the way Runaways plays out there is a brittleness as well as the over-embellishment/smells kinda like bullsh*t factor lurking. Let’s start the vetting process, shall we?

First off, it felt like the setup was a bit on the nose. True, most bands are brought together in an organic way. I know (for a fact) that Fowley arranged Jett, Currie, Ford and the rest as a publicity stunt, but I’m gonna bet it wasn’t all staged. A lot of Runaways feels staged. Going through the numbers. Dribs and drabs of truth polished to make the whole schmeer hang together. The smelly part. It might’ve been intentional; a semi-subliminal message from Sigismondi illustrating the sexism run rampant in both making films and/or albums. The setup might’ve been on the nose, but if you sat back for a time, watched and took a whiff you might hear what the director was screaming (even if was merely a murmur.

But on the whole it was a good movie. Really. Watchable, intriguing and tough with the fun (two onions and a bottle of vodka. Hell of a Saturday night). It’s kinda plastic; a stiffness surrounds the production, but the acting saves the thing against Sigismondi’s Taylor Swift training. Truth be told (I do that sometimes), at the outset I wasn’t sure if this flick was a way for Fanning and Stewart to shed their sweetie pie images. If that was the case it felt a tad forced, but not boring. Sure, maybe our leads were entering unknown territory and had some rightful trepidation (especially regarding the non-rock and roll stuff), but need I remind you it was hard to tell what was “true,” what was Sigismondi’s underscore and what was Hollywood.

Example? You know, between the wobbly yin/yang sh*t I’ve been alluding to? Here we go and fasten up: we have a lovely dichotomy pairing carefree, adolescent with a nascent, serious, adult rock and roll life. Maybe that was what Fowley was mining. History tells the tale that Fowley was less then gracious when it came to fostering his musical undertakings. It was all business, nothing but and exploitation was the keynote address. Shannon channels such cutthroat sleaze with aplomb. I liked Shannon as sleazy. It was a nice contrast to his “serious” roles, and his feline, scuzzy and almost paternal nature made him a breakout star after he’d already broken out. Prob’ from a failed stint in rehab. He’s kinda the villain here, what with his careless care he attends to his latest band/stunt, but not overtly. He’s mostly just smog hanging over every effort the Runaways make towards legitimacy.

Using Shannon as example, the flipside is thus: his hamming it up in his scuzzy way fun, but ofter overwrought to the point you had a hard time telling the truth from “the truth” from an agendum. Like I said, I’m not sure if Sigismondi’s muse drove her to shoot stuff like that, but it entertaining. It was also pantomime. That’s what it felt like to me, and Runaways had an overall feeling of uncertainty about it. What was truly at work here? It wasn’t just a rock doc—that goes without saying—but what was the director trying to tell us? Show us?

Speaking of legitimacy, I tossed off a line earlier pertaining to our female leads, Fanning and Stewart about trying to shed their cutie image. Nothing like lesbionic scenes to cut that cloth (to shreds). But before we cut into that, let’s talk upfront acting. C’mon. I’ve heard once that it’s vital to a film, even if…whatever.

The good? Stewart as Jett was quite convincing. True I don’t know the real life counterpart personally (goddam caller ID), but I do recall her music videos on MTV back in the day. Real Joan had swagger, she was a badass. Is. If not for the tough covers that made her solo career (and later also with her Blackhearts), and even then if it was simply aping for the camera, she carried herself as the real deal. Hell, she was once the only musician that went on USO tours more than once. Girl likes to rock, and bring it to hungry audiences even with the threat of gunfire. You go girl.

Stewart must’ve watched a lot of Jett’s old vids to get the tone right. For most of her roles (okay, Bella), she’s played kind with a shade of anger. Not here. She’s like a bundle of nails plugged into some C4. Tough, smart and barely—barely—containing teenage glee at the prospect of picking up her axe and bonking some drunken party boy on the head with the neck after he tries a grope. Like the original, real life band (and just a shade above Lita Ford), Stewart as Jett wants it. Not at any cost, but just enough of that moxie that the on screen band feels all the more real. Necessary. Stewart’s take was very satisfying with no bullsh*t.

The bad. In short, Fanning tries to be a sex kitten, but comes across as a weak suburban Lolita. The waifish innocence air only goes so far. Despite her being a big Bowie fangirl, she comes across as reluctant to…everything (especially the rock and roll front woman deal). Everything about rock. Most likely, Fanning had hot nut to take a large step away from her cutesy girl image Sure, her uncertainty factor is played out well over the course of the film, but she can’t seem to escape the message of “I don’t belong here,” and not just her character either. Am I saying she was a bad fit? Not exactly, but there definitely was a lack of confidence going on. It got distracting. Fanning did hold her own, but it was fragile. Wobbly.

Okay. Time to catch the meat, whatever that means.

It’s the tech stuff. The alternating small and large things that serve as the glue that holds the whole film wad together. The things between the lines, and I ain’t talking Fowley’s cocaine habit here. So at heart, Runaways is a curious amalgam of a weird coming-of-age story paired with the rough chemistry (if any) of the leads with very divergent goals. That’s how it works in a band, I guess. Identity crises up against the folks that help forge one’s identity. Sounds a bit cerebral, but then consider the social circles you ran with (or against) back in high school and maybe you get it. A band’s a family, and in the Runaways’ case it’s a family teetering on dysfunction. Our cast is very fragile, so from such brittleness delicious tension occurs. We get slammed around with the band trying to “make it” so often here that the smaller, more precious things here might get lost in the shuffle. It’s sad quite a bit of that spice should’ve stayed lost, or at least remained allusions.

Remember back when I hinted at that with a bio certain things are eyewash embellished by the Hollywood machine? Right. Runaways has a cornucopia of that. Most of it focusing square in the eye of the sex and drugs and rock and roll ethos. Well, mostly the sex part. Here was the speed bump that distracted this viewer. For the first act or two, it’s screamingly obvious that Fowley has more on his mind than producing and all-chick rock band. He wants to market jailbait snatch. So natch, with all these cutie pies stuck practicing in a sweaty, beater trailer (and still practicing in said trailer after they’d “made it.” Go Fowley), it’s a matter of course before the youngins’ start playing tab B, slot B.

Right out there: the lesbian overtones are overwrought and unconvincing. I don’t care which way Joan Jett swings. I don’t even know, but again I’m also unsure if this matter was steeped in fact, Sigismondi or Hollywood. Sex sells, after all, and same sex sex sells like ice cream in hell. I don’t think Jett is gay—but she co-produced the film which implies she gave the go-ahead with tawdry tale—but I don’t really know. It’s kinda like my ancient dissection of Lady In The Water: ever want a story so wonky to be believable? Yeah. Same here. I got to thinkin’ the whole man-on-no one action was more of a concoction of the facts jammed into a Waring blender. Who knows? Might’ve been true, but in the endgame the whole sexploitation aspect of the film was less about titillation and more akin to the director’s subtle Selby-esque tone about morality and decay. Two things rife with and odds with each other in the rock and roll world. You could only imagine what fit hit the shan when the Runaways were all in synch. Of course not I’m talking about band practice.

Put simply, as interesting as Runaways was, there was this gauze coating the whole affair. We got the greatest hits, but never a satisfying deep track. I mean, the film descended into your typical rock bio by act three: the fights, the fallout, the rehab. Corner store stuff, like there was more behind the curtain, but not “sexy” enough to film. The show here was for lacking, but in only the nitpicky way I get. Often. After the wifey and me discussed the film afterwards (and her being a Stewart fangirl), she gave it a mixed reaction. I hoped for something a bit more solid, but sometimes good news if just above a C. Besides, it was only the second time she sat down with me and put up with her hubs’ odd hobby. She’s into astrology and I an never one to judge. For now.

Still unsure about that would triad perhaps underpinning Runaways, its motives. Was is an exaggerated rock doc? Was it the director sending a message disguised as fangirlism, like the goofs get from dissecting Kubrick’s The Shining one to way many times? Was this another sampling of male Hollywood smacking the mug of coffee out a young director’s hand. Hell, even Fincher marched of the set two-thirds of the way through his debut, Alien 3. Something to do with studio meddling. Go fig. I dunno. I’m only here to call out what I see. Runaways, though good, had a lot of shadows and fog.

Lastly, I don’t believe that Jett is gay. No matter if, but I don’t think she’d exploit that fact to sell records and piss on Fowley crippled ass.

Okay, maybe that second half.

The Take…

Rent it or relent it? Another mild rent it. Definitely one for the fans, but still watchable overall. After a chat, the wifey gave The Runaways a B-. I found that pretty accurate.


  • “Places everyone!”
  • Remember phones with dials that hung on the wall? I barely do.
  • “I want what he’s wearing.”
  • The wifey claimed that Shannon as Fowley reminded her of Buffalo Bill from The Silence Of The Lambs. Very astute.
  • “Quite a presence…”
  • Hey. Was that Shaun White?
  • I gotta admit, the first gig/beer can battle made me laugh.
  • “You’re taller.”
  • Very cool hair all around.
  • You know, I never liked those twin-necked guitars either.
  • “…Don’t abuse me.”
  • I think I know why the Runaways were “Big In Japan.”
  • “I learned how to use chopsticks.” No, not relevant to the above.
  • She’s wearing the coat.
  • “This is my life.”

Next Stop…

“Four score and seven years ago, I slew many a bloodsucking freak.” So said our esteemed president Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Emancipate that, bitches!

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


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.

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 7: Zack Snyder’s “Man Of Steel” (2013)


The Players…

Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane.

The Story…

In yet another revival (and by revival we mean crossed-fingers in hope of keeping a possible cash cow of a franchise aloft) of the Superman legend, a wayfaring Clark Kent must keep his alien origins and fantastic powers hidden from the world at large. But when the nefarious General Zod plans to conquer Earth…well, you know.

The Rant…

Hmm. According to my records, this would be the third Zack Snyder film to go under the microscope here at RIORI. Also, this would also be one of several (and several more in my Netflix queue) movies based on comic books to go under the aforementioned lens o’ snark. I don’t know if it’s too soon to spot patterns here, but on both points, it seems rather suspect Zack keeps crossing my path. I’ll let you know more when my tests get back from the lab (no, not those tests. Jeez).

Something else I feel I should mention which is kinda off track. I’ve been getting a bit of flack about maintaining this weblog; about keeping the posts coming at a regular rate. Not to whine, but I have a job with a ridiculous schedule, which does not lend itself much time to sit down and actually watch these darned films. I usually get up at the ass-crack of dawn every morning and it’s only late at at night that I can wrangle the TV away from my family, let alone on a weekend for an evening’s viewing (I know I could just stream them on my iPad, but I got a big-ass TV with surround sound, so nyah). I’m tryin’ okay? Feel free to leave any comments behind to smack my wrist.

Moving on…

Why is it such a hit-or-miss prospect with comic book movies? Also, since the turn of the century, why weren’t more comic book movies made before? I know, I know. We had Richard Donner’s take on Superman and Tim Burton’s gothic Batman films, but that was it for over 20 years. Now since 2000, we’ve been inundated with the lot of ‘em. Took a while. You’d think they’d be naturals for cinema; they’re already storyboarded for pity’s sake. Some would argue that the special effects required for today’s comic book movies just weren’t available back then, but I think that’s weak sauce. Like I said, the early Superman and Batman films did just fine. Maybe mainstream audiences would turn their nose up at such a niche market? Not if it was marketed right, and most were. Maybe it was finding the right actors? That’s what casting agents are for, and to continually hammer this nail: Michael Keaton as Batman? Well, yeah.

I think Richard Donner had a stroke of genius in casting Christopher Reeve as the Caped One. An unknown actor who was mostly skilled in soap operas took to the skies with flourish and humor (and what else are superhero films but gussied up sci-fi melodramas?). Some of the more plausible comic book heroes were portrayed by actors who weren’t necessarily household names at the time (i.e.: Hugh Jackman, Tobey Maguire, Brandon Routh, etc.) as opposed to big name stars (I’m looking at you Affleck). When you cast an unknown, there are no preconceived notions about how the actor acts. It’s a clean slate. It works doubly so when the actor is put to task to portray an already established character, like Superman.

Henry Cavill did so. But quite left of center. More of that later. This was a Zack Snyder film after all, so what would you expect?

There’s no need to get into the movie’s baseline. We get it. Dying planet. Lost civilization. Last hope. Earth bound. Kind couple. Great power. Humanity lessons. Alien origin. Learn, adapt, overcome. Behold, Superman. Now let’s get onto the meat.

I’m not going to overview the story here. It’s not done out of contempt, believe me. It’s just that, like with my critique of Superman Returns, the folderol of explaining the history of Superman is pretty superfluous. If you’ve been extant for the past 75 years, you know who Superman is. Now let’s get on to it.

Man Of Steel is at heart an existential drama. For 75% of the movie, we get to mull over who Superman is when he’s decidedly not Superman. Henry Cavill, like Brandon Routh is an extraordinary find. An actor devoid of a complex résumé to pick apart. Clean slate. And here we have an incredibly malleable story. We start at Krypton’s end, a very stylized setting which, I gotta admit, is pretty striking. It echoes the first movie, but in a very stark way, kind of like David Lynch’s take on Dune. But it also has the intended thrill of a Zack Snyder spectacular. The whole wad is muted in colors as well as performances (save Shannon’s). In fact, the whole damned movie is pretty stark, but it works to its advantage. Again, more on that later.

Apart from the scenery chewing form Shannon, life on Krypton varies from cyber-idyllic to Orwellian nightmare, and a lot of climate-change prophesying to hit a message—some message about ignorance—home. Don’t know why. Figures it’s trying to connect Earth and the homeworld, well, home. Probably a disconnect attached to the Moses-like analogy suggested by the comics.

I’m looking too far into this. Onto Cavill…

He did a serviceable job. He didn’t honor the legacy of Reeve (or even Routh), but he got to the aforementioned meat of the story; the stuff the whole Superman sh*t pivots on. It’s namely the light of hope, the beacon, that could ignite the ideals of humanity into both light and action…only to be ignored. But Supes just keeps on tryin’, one crumbling building at a time.

But Steel was also very dry. It almost chafes. Man of Steel is a rather dour film, almost overly serious, almost pulse-pounding, almost a blockbuster. But we can’t blame Cavill. He made for a rather…different Superman. A reluctant hero, all at sea about his station in life, and well aware that he is not of this Earth. A lot of soul searching goes on here, and Cavill acts with his face so well, you can go along for the ride. He’s got a certain magnetism about him that makes the audience actually curious about what’s going to happen next to the po’ faced, conflicted Kryptonian.

The first act is very subdued. Keen on the angst. An image that sticks with me is Clark finding himself on the beach of New England fishing village, looking for clothes to replace the stuff he lost rescuing a bunch of oil drillers. He’s kind of lost, at odds with himself, and the dulcet tones of Chris Cornell’s “Seasons” illustrate that no matter how powerful Clark is, he still feels lost, on the outside.

Unlike its predecessor Superman Returns, Man Of Steel generates empathy for our hero, not awe. It’s gotta be hard with all those crazy powers to keep it under wraps in a prejudiced world, even if you’re just trying to do things for the greater good. Cavill does angsty very well, above the usual cliché that has become with reluctant heroes an overdone device. He made a “different” kind of Superman. One overly reluctant; uncomfortable having powers and not really reconciling with that fact. He’s definitely feeling his alien roots up and down here; being an outsider. It’s kind of weird watching a superhero wandering around in existential crisis. It’s hard to root for this Superman, only to pray instead.

Another contrast to Superman Returns; that film nodded a lot to the mythos. Man Of Steel seems hell-bent on retconning it. To clarify, “retconning” (short for retroactive continuity) is the practice of comic book writers to take creative license and alter a significant plot device or a piece of a character’s mythos to better serve current storylines. For example, Uncle Ben never told Peter Parker “that with great power comes great responsibility;” it was in narration, not dialogue. Later it was changed to Uncle Ben. That being said, Steel takes pains to hammer the point home that this is the definitive Superman story. Or at least it should be.

But I’m not sold on the whole Kryptonain history/embellishment either. There is a definite feel of Snyder trying to put a square peg in a round hole. By reinventing the wheel, and with it’s slate-grey view of the world, the entirety of what makes Superman fun has been stripped away. This is one of Snyder’s more serious efforts. Deliberately so. And that is funny to say since most of Snyder’s films have serious undertones, but peppered with frivolity. None of that claptrap in Steel. We’re down to business here, and that business is becoming Superman in a hard, cold world.

Oh, and also thwarting General Zod’s quest to conquer the planet.

Steel got a lot of flak—and I mean a lot flak—for gratuitous amount of collateral damage during the big fight scenes between Supes and Zod’s cronies. As was said by the pros, a lot of collateral damage. Spectacle over sensibility. Even made me squirm. Not to say that the fight scenes weren’t exciting. Snyder hasn’t lost his flair for action while trudging through the existential swamp. Exciting yes, but also overwrought. More hammering away at the heaviness of the movie’s tone. They don’t just have to be action shots, they gotta feel as if every punch means something.

Enough about the melodrama, let’s talk about the acting. We’ve already dissected Cavill enough, and he is handily backed up by a variety of solid actors. It took a while for the new Jor-El (Crowe) to earn my attention. For me, Crowe will always be Maximus. Unlike that gladiator, Crowe was more soft spoken as Jor-El, the avatar of all things Kryptonian. The quiet way about him (even when sh*ts hitting multiple fans) I found rather, dare I say, charming. And Crowe is not a charming guy.

A lot of scenery chewing from Shannon, and the climax is the stuff of…well, comic book heads would leap out of the seats in horror, spilled their Jubjubes everywhere: SUPERMAN DOES NOT KILL! (screams, rending of garments.) Even I had trouble with that one. But overall, Shannon was a fun villain, one you love to hate but also one with a very specific agenda. His motives are clear, his execution flawless and he has a commanding presence necessary for general and/or comic book villain. I like that earnestness.

Amy Adams was a misstep in casting. She’s a great actress (and even did some voice acting for Justice League Unlimited. Really) but lacks any believable drive to get to the heart of the Superman scoop. It’s almost all a walk in the park as her Lois Lane just happens to be in the right place at the wrong time on he trail of the alien.

As for technical flourishes, there was a lot of neat camerawork and editing in Steel. Seeing how the plot for the first act of the movie is not linear, it took a lot of cool edits to keep the story floating (e.g.: Kal’s Earthfall, the “toner” bit). Along with tasteful uses of flashbacks, the flow of the film was right on. Two-and-a-half hours moved by rather smoothly. Good pacing.

This has had to be my most arch, stern, under the microscope kind of review. Man Of Steel is definitely not your father’s Superman movie. Any maybe that’s for the best. This was an interesting spin on the Superman mythos, highlighting the Kryptonian side rather that the adopted humanity Clark Kent so embraces. It made for a stark action movie, a lot of fist wrenching and teeth grinding, but it wasn’t boring.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a character study of what it’s like to be a superhero with lots of stuff going boom. ‘Nuff said (wait, that’s some other comic publisher).

Stray Observations…

  • Did the “scout ship” set borrow from Alien? Sure looked that way, and no doubt tying into the whole alien motif of the film.
  • Enough with the Jesus Christ imagery already.
  • This has got to be the best role Costner’s had in years.
  • “A good death is its own reward.” Yeah. I know. Badass.
  • What? No spitcurl?
  • “Nice suit, son.”
  • My pen died.

Next Installment…

We go over the rainbow with James Franco AKA Oz, The Great and Powerful.