RIORI Vol 3, Installment 80: Ridley Scott’s “Matchstick Men” (2003)



The Players…

Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman, Bruce Altman and Bruce McGill, with Sheila Kelley and Beth Grant.


The Story…

Roy’s a professional con man struggling with three distinct issues. One, well being a con man. Two, rampant OCD. And three, meeting the daughter he never knew he had.

Poor Roy inadvertently jeopardizes his tightly organized and artificially controlled life when the very not artificial concept of fatherhood chafes his orderly scamming lifestyle. Beyond it all, man’s got a right to earn a living, whatever that is, be it against a Nabokov book waiting to happen or not.

Wait! What? Huh?

*washes hands with vigor*


The Rant…

My first intro to Ridley Scott was at a precocious and waaaaay too f*cking young age.

It was the early-80s. VCRs were finally affordable to middle class schlubs like my Dad. We got a quality Maganox VHS unit at an 80s steal around $700. Thing was worth more, reliable, durable and even survived well into the DVD age. Sure, we had to clean the soot out of its chimney once every month to maintain picture clarity, but this slab could stop an assassin’s bullet and still be able to set the timer for that week’s SNL installment. We didn’t need an app for that.

Video rentals were like mushrooms back then: sprouting up everywhere in places you were surprised to find them. Sure, there were a few chains like Blockbuster, Hollywood. But also local mom-and-pop movie dealers, the local libraries, even supermarkets before God. My father got a membership with local mom and pop (who also sold bagels if my memory serves, which it doesn’t). Friday evening came and he, me and sometimes my screechy sisters would wander in and scope out a few tapes for the weekend. My father being a shrewd customer—one who had access to a phone—would be one to literally call it in. Do you have this movie? You do? Could you please hold it for me? Be your best friend. Thanks. See you later. Hey, do you have any cinnamon raisins left?

Back to Scott. And the worst night of my pre-pubescent life.

It was of course a Friday night. Late night. Mom and the screechies cacked out hours ago. Even at age 10 I had the nite owl blood in me. Insomniac. Still am; started writing this week’s screed at 12.30 AM. But it’s Friday and I’m off work tomorrow, so yay me.

Didn’t have a store to mind when I was 10, and on those Fridays back in the day my Dad made his prerequisite calls to the Bagelsmith to see what was fresh and ready for pick-up. He would roll out around 6-ish and come back a half-hour later with a pair of tapes. If the kids didn’t come along for the ride-and-pick we were not supposed to. My father’s selections were his and his alone. Wonder where I learned about insomnia and the power of holding the remote.

I got curious, of course.

A few times Dad let me squat down in the wee hours to watch what he was watching. At 10 I was into The Karate Kid, Star Blazers and Chilean snuff films (kidding. Discovered Star Blazers when I was 8). It was mostly aboveboard stuff. Dad was Dad. He was older. He could rent PG-13 movies with impunity. The R-rated stuff was trace element. My father was a pretty liberal guy when it came to me joining him for his late night viewing frenzy. If a movie was rated R he followed the rule to the rote: Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Namely, he was over 17, I wasn’t. He was there as the guardian with the membership card and I found my snot-nosed self being “accompanied” by him into the Friday night cinematic chop shop. To his credit he always assured me that if what were watching turned out to be too scary/violent/sexy/redolent of poppy seeds we could turn it off. Sounded like a challenge. My father challenged me to Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, The Graduate and Gene Hackman in general. Sweep the leg, Johnny.

This was I how I was unravelled by Ridley Scott. When I was 10 I could give the barest rodent scintilla about who directed a movie so long as that movie was cool. The names Scorsese, Kurosawa, Spielberg and Scott were all but pidgin to me. I liked sci-fi, comedies and sci-fi comedies (bless you, Spaceballs). What Dad had cued up on the capstans made me stand at attention that there was an almost monolithic man/woman behind the cameras demanding where the story would go. The director. And the first director’s name I ever learned was Ridley Scott. By now you’re prob’ scratching yer scalp wondering, “Whatever Ridley Scott movie could lobotomize a 10 year old so?” If Dad were present and it was late, then it must have been rated R. And since you were under 17 and required an accompanying parent or adult guardian, Dad understood his responsibility and assessed that I may have been hip to this proviso, his late night rental. You lucky, insomniac scamp, you.

So if this gets too scary, here’s my arm. Squeeze if you have to.

Alien.

It was Alien. I was 10. He let me watch Alien. Did I mention I was 10? I “slept” post-viewing with my bedroom light burning until morning. My Mom poked her head in the door early the following Saturday morning and asked a “sleeping” me why the light was on all night. Then:

“Have you been up all night?”

“…Uh-huh.”

“Why?”

“…Dad showed me a scary movie.”

She rolled her eyes. “Better go talk to him.”

“I liked it, but…”

It must’ve been around 10 AM. “Go get some sleep.” And echoing down the hall came: “Oh, honey!”

The image of a freaked out Sigourney Weaver burned in my head. I could relate with that skittish, everything may fall apart at the last minute feeling. Remember the film’s final act? Uh, yeah. I wasn’t well until Sunday night when school was looming anew. Boy, did I have a movie to tell my friends about. And said nothing.

The movie stunned me so with both its claustrophobia as well as grotesquerie—and with me being “man enough” to watch it—I kept Alien to myself. It scared me sh*tless, and I survived it, well below the 17-year old water line. Felt like a right of passage, watching a serious R-rated movie intact. And beyond enduring the visceral viewing, I enjoyed it. To this day Alien is my favorite scary movie (and I don’t even like scary movies, at least not the exhibitionist kind. I demand good acting, decent pacing and an acceptable plot, like the original cuts of The Haunting or Halloween), and I relish any opportunity to punish the Alien-uninitiated for a virgin viewing. My stepkid found it “okay.” She liked Aliens better, and voiced so. Philistine. She was thirteen at the time. I earned my stripes at 10, so there.

Besides Alien scaring the sleep out of me, it injected a need to figure out what the hell did a movie do to make me take notice. Sure, I always got some entertainment from watching movies, mostly the age appropriate, non-arm clinging kind. At the then time I think my fave film was the original Ghostbusters (a sucker for Bill Murray ever since I saw Meatballs. Saw it at summer camp. Where else?). Paranormal comedy grabbed me as a kid, and taught me to not cross the streams. Heard it was bad. I guess that fave flick planted an embryo as to how did this awesome movie happen?

But Ghostbusters didn’t entrance me, not like Scott’s sophomore effort did. I was still 10, remember? A fresh Lego kit held my attention more. I knew how to put those little, plastic bricks together to create a satisfying whole. The instruction manuals helped. Was there an instruction manual out there to instruct how a cool movie tickled my fancies?

Fast forward…

I don’t believe in “auteur theory,” where the director of a movie is claimed to be the “author” of the film. If that were the case there’d be no closing credits. Even the average movie-goer is sharp enough to know the director may get the biggest slice, but there are also other folks billed as actors, writers, producers, caterers, etc that made a major contribution to the final product that you eventually get to hem and haw and keep the light on all night for. In a fair and just cinematic world (with an often exception to Tarantino, Kubrick and Hitchcock), a film’s opening credits would read directed by/written by/produced by in the same frame.

*burp*

Whoever, right? Didn’t know the why before Alien. After watching it was like tossing those old ELO albums out the window after hearing the first Ramones album. A punch to the gut. Who was behind this awesome/scary/dad arm-clinging movie?

Ridley Scott. The first director after Spielberg that demanded of a young me what a director/”auteur” did to place an indelible stamp on my freaked out, insomniac forehead, watching the lazy ceiling fan slowly swirling above a bare light bulb hoping beyond hope that its glare would keep any slobbering xenomorph from creeping out of the closet and ripping my ribs into jello. Hearing my mother’s scolding meant it worked.

Fast forward a year, maybe two. A buddy of mine who was keen to sci-fi as I was got hip to some cultish movie. Caught a snippet of it on HBO, a free weekend. Remember those? The snippet proper was a caution about the film containing graphic violence. I wasn’t hip to the phrase “graphic violence,” but it sounds devilishly good to me. My friend told me it was on heavy rotation on HBO then. I didn’t have premium cable at my house; his den was the golden gate, decades before parental controls.

At the right time, we nipped the scene where Priss—

“What are you two watching?!?”

We switched the proper Atari toggle.

In harmony, a la Bosom Buddies: “Nothing.”

Blade Runner. Also not healthy for 10-year old boys. Dangerous fun. A mind warp of a movie. Starred Han Solo, so there.

So that’s what it’s all about. A signature, a statement, a reason to deny sleep. Took me decades to decode that whole wad. I wasn’t some amateur film critic at 10; barely one at 40. But across the decades being drawn to certain movies, defying the Kobra Kai, I think I got it: there are no auteurs, just directors with a grip. Like on my dad’s arm.

Ridley Scott taught me about signature, an aesthetic. Us movie watchers are well aware if not forewarned by a certain director’s style, muse, statement, motive. Spielberg has his. So does Scorsese. As do Carpenter. So did Kurosawa, Ford, Hill, Ashby, Hitch, Kubrick. Including the guys on this plane: Weir, Lynch, Nolan, Argento, (sigh) and Bay. Style. Eventually you wait on baited breath for any of the above icons to unbridle their freshest horse. You know what arm to cling on.

But like with The Color Purple, The Last Temptation Of Christ, Dr Strangelove, The Quiet Man, Big Trouble In Little China, Rear Window, High And Low, The Last Detail….and Matchstick Men, a signature director sometimes needs a left turn to remind us that they are human. Directors are not infallible. Sometimes they take on projects that might be left of center, against their grain. Spielberg had his 1941. Carpenter has his Prince Of Darkness. Kurosawa had his Ikiru. And Scott had his Matchstick Men.

All passable movie entertainment, but also strain against the directors’ trademark style. It’s good to challenge yourself as a director, tackling a project that may or may not be their usual flavor. Often it’s a good thing. Spielberg directing The Color Purple, a Jewish director exploring racism and same sex romance. Nolan tackling a comic book icon like Batman and making a psycho-thriller rather than Donner’s Superman sparkle. And Scott helming a goofy crime caper, rather than his usual epic-style Blade Runner. Or even Gladiator.

After viewing Matchstick Men something told me that Scott got to grabbing at our arm. So come, take my hand. Just take off your shoes before you lay foot on the carpet…


Roy Waller (Cage) is a criminal. A con artist, scamming innocents out of their hard earned cash so to better his business acumen. He’s also a neurotic mess. OCD. Anxiety ridden. Maybe a guilty conscious at work? Whatever. There’s always a job to get done. And therein lies a new problem. Good Lord.

Roy’s partner in crime Frank (Rockwell) is tired of the small scams. Cheating old ladies out of their insurance money? Small potatoes. Frank wants a big mark, namely in the form of a high roller (McGill), a treacherous duck to be sure. But Roy is not so sure, especially since that letter dropped out of the mail slot onto his beloved carpet.

The anonymous letter claims that Roy has a child. A teenaged daughter named Angela (Lohman) who wishes to know him. Gulp. A spanner in his nefarious works.

Roy’s therapist (Altman) encourages him to reach out. He suggests it might be a healthy change, engaging with someone who won’t outright contribute to his anxious life of crime.

Roy reluctantly concedes. He meets Angela after school one day and puts on his best new dad face, tics and twitches in full force. He discovers she’s a pleasant, well-adjusted teenaged girl who always wanted to meet her estranged dad. Angela is disarming, and her connecting to Roy’s life of angst mellows him somewhat. Whew.

As way leads on to fatherly way, Roy ‘fesses up and informs Angela of his chosen profession. She’s intrigued. To his surprise, Angela wants in on the action. Roy’s unsure. Frank’s really unsure; Angela’s sticky fingers might muddy the waters, distracting Roy further from his big scam, as well as some forward motion.

No matter. The dice are cast. Roy opts for some responsibility. Angela takes to the con like a duck to water. Frank flails his hands in frustration.

Again, no matter. Roy’s carpet needed a shampoo anyway…


Like I mentioned, Ridley Scott’s style operates on an epic level. Even the simplest of his films (like this one) approach a grand scope. Unlike Alien (still epic, yet deceptively simple), Matchstick Men is a diversion. Here his big idea concept is intact, but married to an overtly simple story. And he keeps it that way, to his delight.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Not necessarily.

Recall the “left turn” notion about how some directors with their signature often attempt to shed their audience? Men is one of those kind of films. Outright, what business does the director of AlienGladiator and Kingdom Of Heaven have fiddling around with some crime caper? Guess he felt like he needed a cinematic colonic. A directorial equivalent of Dylan’s Self Portrait album. Maybe he just liked the script. Or maybe wry comedy was something he felt like dabbling in. Or maybe for him just cut loose and have some fun.

And Men is fun. Funny, rather. Offbeat. Not the flavor in Columbus. Definite lo-fi aesthetic as far as Scott’s work goes. It’s a nice change, albeit incongruent with the guy’s signature oeuvre. It kinda shows. Again, not really a bad thing. But it sure plays out as odd.

Men is pretty light-hearted for Scott, relatively speaking. One, it’s a comedy. Don’t recall anytime him attempting this. Granted, it’s kind of a black comedy, and Scott is no stranger to being dark. But there’s an uncharacteristic sunny side to this offbeat caper (and “offbeat” is nearly verboten in Scott’s catalogue). And I’m gonna use the term “offbeat” a lot here. Fair warning.

That being said, Men is shot with the exactitude Scott always employs, like the cheap scalpel to the high school fetal pig autopsy. His high concept vision of cinema verité is intact. His characters are mismatched chess pieces. The story is straightforward enough—

*tires screeching to a halt*

Therein lies the trouble. It’s been relayed that Scott is a director of big concepts. Men is anything but. It’s straightforward, almost formulaic. Doesn’t really marry well with the director’s accepted raison d’etre. Simply put, Scott directing a flick like Men don’t make much sense. Still, he did a good job being in the shallow end of the pool.

I think most of the heavy lifting in this featherweight caper rests on the cast. They’re more of a distraction than an asset to moving the story along. And the story—as I noted—is quite simple and straightforward. We’ve seen crime capers like this before. Men swings evenly between Paper Moon and unevenly towards The Professional. But like with those movies, it’s the cast that somewhat strains in rising above The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, the ur-crime caper. So then, let’s dismantle Men‘s rogues gallery, shall we?

First and foremost Cage’s bread and butter is weird roles. We ain’t talkin’ Raising Arizona or Wild At Heart weird here. His Roy however seems custom made to tickle his muse. Cage is also well-known for his deft physical comedy chops. How’s it look here painted with OCD? Right. Ugly funny. The hook here is Roy’s mania, not the con game that soaks the plot. Roy’s OCD is played as comic, but ultimately is sad and scary. He’s supposed to be the guy we get behind? It’s a key plot device overall, but beneath Scott and no less tragic. We ain’t talking Maximus tragic, but it’s enough to allow us sympathy for our twitchy protag. Roy’s OCD may be played as comic, but ultimately it’s sad and scary. Recall the hook. He’s supposed to be the guy we get behind? Good plot device done well, but beneath Scott’s skills. No less tragic, though.

Now being a sudden dad is a responsibility you can’t con. Trust me, I know. The con makes Roy approach stable, making up sh*t. It’s reality that’s his downfall. That being said, Lohman has an honest taste for her role as Angela (and for the life of me I can’t shake the hand of the casting director enough. How did they make a twentysomething successfully come off as a 16-year old high school skater chick? I credit strategic bandages and hair flairs). Funny without being cute or openly naive. If you pay close attention through Angela Roy isn’t really the “hero.” Lohman carries the second and third acts. Roy’s just eyewash. Very funny eyewash, but the con nonetheless. Makes for a jovial, R-rated Brady Bunch feel. That being said, neurotic Cage and loose cannon Lohman paired against each other have a genuine chemistry. Yep. Thank or blame Scott going out on his demented, xenomorph-less shingle.

Men is Elmore Leonard on Xanax. It’s kinda madcap. Another divergence for Scott, and he’s faring well here. The plot is bone simple. You might’ve seen this movie before. I know I have. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. The Fisher King. The original Rush Hour. Mutant buddy movies. Barring Rockwell as Cage’s confidant, Men is a warped buddy movie all the way. But that’s a conceit. Despite the odd mixture of character play, this was relatively straightforward. You can see where this is going a light-year away, with a few twists to keep your attention. I figure this movie floundered because it was too “not Scott” to attract the usual fans. That and the poor press. So much for Ridley stretching himself short.

A coda: it’s in the final act where Scott’s edge finally surfaces. It’s all the better for it, annulling the first two derivative acts of cat, mouse and vacuum. It’s also a shame that Men is merely a curiosity for both Scott and his audience. Again, unsure if Scott needed some diversion from his stock-in-trade epic style. Although uncomfortable, Men has its merits. It’s akin to Bob Dylan’s Street Legal album. Most musicians would kill for this best stuff. But it’s Scott here. Playing it safe? Not really. Entertaining some trifle? Sure, but such a thing is not where Scott should tread. Oh well.

Needless to say, Men didn’t keep me up all night, fan swirling in agony. Scratching my head? Somewhat. It was okay, but for lacking.

What I’m driving at is I opined for tasteful violence paired with chuckles. But this wasn’t a Tarantino flick. It was a Ridley Scott flick with a diluted epic feel.

Screw it. This was hardly epic. Or clever. Or beyond rote.

“Sometimes the cold makes the blade stick.”


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it, if only for another side of Scott you’ve never seen. I hope I never see it again. Twitch.


Stray Observations…

  • “One, two, three.”
  • Ever wonder how crazy people conduct their outwardly “normal” lives? You found this blog, didn’t you?
  • Rockwell is not an actor. He is a voice.
  • “That was a good day!”
  • I feel for poor Roy. I really do. I just didn’t want to be felt. Or burlap either.
  • Cage has been balding for, like, 20 years now.
  • “I’m in antiques.”
  • She turned the key three times.
  • The art of the dry swallow personified.
  • Altman is a passive deus ex machina. That’ll be $125 please.
  • “Your turn.”
  • Like the soundtrack. Very Rat Pack-esque.
  • It’s odd. Cage’s twitchiness never really becomes distracting. It’s like a character unto itself. Think Mr Hyde.
  • For all of his roles has Rockwell ever combed his hair?
  • “Pygmies.”
  • “You’re not a bad guy. You’re just not a very good one.” Ouch.
  • Lohman fake cries really well.
  • “You didn’t take yer pills, didja?”

Next Installment…

Giving sanction to an alien en route to a sci-fi convention? That’s like an ironic spin on robbing Peter to pay Paul.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 24: Joel Schumacher’s “Trespass” (2011)

 


trespass_cr


The Players…

Nicolas Cage, Nicole Kidman, Ben Mendelsohn, Liana Liberato and Cam Gigandet, with Jordana Spiro and Dash Mihok.


The Story…

When wealthy diamond merchant Kyle Miller returns home to his personal Fort Knox one evening, he finds more than a lukewarm pot roast awaiting him. A typical night after work in his fortress becomes a hostage crisis of the first order.

Thieves infiltrate his home, take him and his wife hostage and proceed to dissect the house for a serious diamond score. But it quickly escalates from a battle for the Miller’s freedom and possible lives to a battle of wills. Turns out the Millers and the thieves have very divergent reasons to keep the diamonds with their rightful owners.

Namely nobody.


The Rant…

All right. Let’s talk about directing.

I guess it’s weird for after nearly a jillion installments of RIORI that your sometimes humble blogger is getting around to how a film is directed. I admit I don’t know the barest scintilla of rodent rectum about how a film is, well, filmed. I understand it involves some guy (it’s almost always a guy. Womens’ Lib only got as far as the boardroom it appears in ol’ Hollyweird), that lens hanging from his neck and possesses an imperative to shove actors around as his charges to speak and move to best move the script along. I’m paraphrasing here. Remember: rodent rectum.

I’ve heard of an old saw saying that the director is the “author” of the movie. All that prodding and chess-like moves amongst the actors, camera techs, writers and caterers converge to create a story. This concept is often referred to “auteur theory.” The whole “directer-as-author” of the movie.

I think this is all bullish*t. If you’ve ever stuck around for the end credits rolling—and watching Ferris Bueller for the umpteenth time don’t count, sorry—there is this massive list of folks that had a hand in making a movie possible. Hence the term credits. Plural. And the director’s name isn’t often listed then, save if it wasn’t dropped in the opening credits. My point is dozens of people contribute to getting the movie from stage to screen. Why does the director get almost all the credit?

I think it has something to do with creating a signature. All that pulling and poking ultimately makes the final say (pre-editing, o’ course) in what makes the final cut. But just the director? What about the scenarist? Without a good script as the baseline—you know, the f*cking story?—where does the director start?

This undoes auteur theory (and Peter Bogdanovich can go suck it) as far as I’m concerned. But the signature thing remains. I mean, when you watch a Martin Scorsese movie, be it Taxi Driver or GoodFellas or even The Age Of Innocence, you know damn well as fast that it’s a f*cking Scorsese film. There’s a signature. A feel. It’s what gets butts in the seats as endgame. An amalgam of writing and prodding. Direction. And in the final analysis, the pairing of these two elements create said signatures.

Hold on. I hear some you bitching, “Wait. What about genre directors, like James Cameron with his SF/action-adventure pics (and yes, that includes Titanic, sorry to admit if only for the third act)? Or John Hughes with his teen comedies? Or even Scorsese himself with his urban dramas, Johnny Boy? What about them, smart guy?”

Okay, first gimme back my beer. Second, genre doesn’t dictate signature, you follow? Spielberg, Zemekis and Gilliam have all tackled different genres. But they all have a unique spin and style. Comic book and SF writer Peter David (met the man once. Cool dude with a jaw that would not quit. Not that way, you perv) dropped this science once saying that not only is auteur theory bunk, but also making a film is really a collaboration between director and scenarist that “writes” a movie. If you want to properly credit the masterminds behind a movie, the opening should conclude with “A Film By Whoever and Some Other Guy.” Between such two nabobs—splat—we get either Oscar gold or Velveeta.

It depends on the meeting of the minds in how the aforementioned signature is created. Really classy directors bring aboard really sharp writers to make their vision come to life. Like Scorsese and Schrader. Or Cameron and Hurd. Or Zemekis and Some Other Guy. Banging those yin/yang heads together can make for some really good movies.

However—and there is always a however here. It’s almost RIORI’s reason for being—there are some director’s signatures that are at best infamous and at worse insulting. Like “Here America. Some more mindless pap designed to make you feel ever stupider and rob you of your cash/time. Again. More nachos?” I think such sh*t directors are less than discerning when it comes to scripts. I ain’t talking the journeymen guys who show up to just get the job over and done, only later to queue up for the paycheck, well aware merch with cover the budget over actual ticket sales. Also perhaps such hacks have such a dangerously fevered imagination that their latest work may be the pinnacle—their cherry on the sundae—of their legacy. Stupid egos that desperately need deflating, but there’s nary a needle in sight.

I’m looking at you Schumacher. So have a lot of other movie fans.

Joel Schumacher is the consummate hack. He churns and burns. He cranks out derivative movie after baffling movie. When his stuff is good, it’s okay. When it’s bad (and it often is), it’s insulting and embarrassing. Here I will mention Batman And Robin and that will be all. I don’t think his output hangs on his scenarists. I don’t think he cares.

Granted a lot of directors hire on questionable screenwriters. I mean, although I enjoy quite a few of Roland Emmerich’s potboilers, I don’t think the guy gives in to lousy scripts. He just puts them into his Cuisinart and cranks out fun, for good or for ill. Schumacher on the other hand seems so blinded by his maverick and alleged talents that any ol’ scribbles will satisfy his fevered muse. See Mommy? Look how clever I’m directing! Christ.

It’s amazing how with the first shots of a movie a director makes his signature known. If you’re familiar with a given director—cinephile or no—you can figure out in second-31 what you’re in for. Again with the examples: Scorsese’s Taxi Driver with its rain. Cameron’s The Abyss with its claustrophobia. Spielberg’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark with its Amazon tomb.

Can any one of you recall an inviting opening in a Schumacher film? Probably not. But you have an indelible image of bat nipples forever scarring your brain. Now there’s a directorial signature, regardless of the writer. Regardless of anything resembling considerate filmmaking.

Hey, Mom! Lookee what I’m directin’ now…


A man’s home is his castle, as the old saying goes. For affluent diamond merchant Kyle Miller (Cage), his home is more like a fortress.

Miller has been a prominent, if not the prominent diamond dealer on the West Coast millions, millions of dollars in industrial grade diamonds have passed under his monocle over the years. To say his reputation precedes him is akin to saying the Sahara is a tad warm.

With all that money and all that responsibility, Kyle’s spacious mansion serves as the hub of his business. The man needs to keep his property under tight scrutiny, and his state-of-the-art “smart house” not only provides home and hearth for him, his wife Sarah (Kidman) and teenage daughter Avery (Liberato) but also every angle of modern security systems that tech can offer.

Neither his wife nor daughter are completely aware about the delicate balance Kyle must maintain between security and “security.” Nor do they fully understand Kyle’s obsession with “need to know” information. There’s the matter of business security, but virtually blocking out the world? They suspect Kyle is hiding something beyond the diamond vault.

Actually, it’s more like they’re all hiding something. And what they’re hiding is just what master thief Elias (Mendelsohn) and his crew aim to find out.

A man’s home is his castle, as the old saying goes. But with the Miller’s high-end, Fort Knox-esque compound riddled with (almost) impenetrable security protocols, their castle may just end up being their—and their intruders—prison.

On second thought, crucible seems more apt…


Like with The Watcher, there was a good idea under all the gunk in Trespass. Where the former film was cluttered with cliches and lackluster acting that brought the film down, Trespass took a left turn. Its plot was a good one, and has been applied forever before. Crime caper with psychological drama generated by a Stockholm Syndrome hostage crisis shaken and stirred with a Rashomon-like multi-perspective story device. To greater or lesser degrees, Courage Under Fire, Memento and even Clue were pretty decent examples. Despite those movies’ possessing the above criteria, regardless of genre, they made senseTrespass played out like a poor man’s Panic Room slapped together against a circus-like version of Misery. This should sound cool. It ain’t.

Before I go off on a (further) rant, let’s carefully take Trespass apart, top to bottom.

First, the core of a good idea getting lost in the shuffle. Trespass had a very good storyline, used before and mostly foolproof. Hostage crisis getting increasingly tense played against a heist that goes awry. Pretty basic stuff, until the histrionics start. Referring back to Rashomon—essentially a murder mystery—the small cast does a lot of finger pointing as to who killed whom and for what reason. All the dramatis personae have highly personal reasons to unravel the truth/mete out justice (or at least just deserts). Rather simple in the endgame.

Trespass was decidedly not simple. The film had its expected twists and turns when it came to a mystery movie. We had that whole basic hostage crisis thing going on and a pseudo-Stockholm plight (poor Sweden) allowing claustrophobic tension. Common tropes.

We also got Schumacher’s kitchen sink storytelling gone all pear-shaped. Trespass had to be the most convoluted movie of its ilk, and to stir the soup further only in fits and starts. The movie was like an onion in reverse. Instead of peeling back the layers, Schumacher kept on adding layers only to later peel them back. And eventually cutting the proverbial onion in half come the third act. He made simple characters and their motives basic at first, then upped the ante with highly personal stakes, then tore them away and back, then laid the butter on thick, then crumbling the muffin up and descending into directing an action movie. There was such a rapid sh*tstorm of onion-flavored vinaigrette that come credit time I scratched my dizzy head and asked, “Um, what just happened?” And not in a fun way either, say like with the oddly amusing No Way Out or even the chilling Blair Witch Project. Trespass played like it had no way…okay, that’s cheesy. Well simply put, Schumacher tried to jam in too much into a film that required a scraped-to-the-metal execution. Worked for the Oscar winning Rashomon (and I’ll try to quit referring to that film from here on out. Try).

Next, the acting. Such a caper film demanded efficiency. The character’s backstories should’ve been stripped to the bone. Too much data overload and one tends to get lost. A lot of that doesn’t necessary pertain to the characters’ backgrounds per se. It’s how it’s conveyed, and a great deal of that depends on the actors themselves, or at least their acting styles. Trespass has the fortune (and perhaps misfortune) of two established Oscar winners as the leads. Despite the fact that Trespass is Schumacher’s attempt at a grim B-movie potboiler, some reliable A-listers signed on. We got Nic Cage (who has made questionable movie after questionable movie for the past 20 years ever since he got his statuette for Leaving Las Vegas) and Nicole Kidman (who looks like here she’s either chasing a paycheck or wouldn’t pony up for Swedish massage. I guess that’s sorta Stockholm-like). One has made a career of manic overacting to the edge of ridiculously entertaining. The other…is from Australia.

Speaking of chasing a paycheck, Cage hasn’t seemed to turn down a script in the past two decades either. Instead of tearing the guy a new one, I gotta face up and say that Cage is a hella fun actor. Sure most of his…okay almost all his roles have been dopey at best for years now, but he’s such a ham it’s hard not to like his work. Call it Shatner Syndrome here. His overacting is the stuff or greatness, and his exaggerated body language is almost clownish, but oddly effective (however I felt Nic’s injured, inflamed hand was a shade much). Here in Trespass, was Cage channeling H.I. from Raising Arizona in an upwardly mobile guise? How different is that character than manic, panicky, rubbery Kyle? Granted the motivations were different in Trespass, but a Cage performance is a Cage performance, tongue-in-cheek histrionics and all of that. As always, Cage is at least his most—wait for it—cagey (I regret nothing).

Kidman wanted to be elsewhere. Anywhere else besides the Trespass sound set. For such a dynamic actress, she sure was going through the motions here. From the glassy stares to the almost willowy presence to her stock damsel in distress cum mama bear stance all of it came off as dry, boring and not believable. A shame. I can understand a high-profile actor slumming once in a while for fun. I can even understand Kidman wanting to have a little fun like Cage has been (like he needs more fun in his work there, Johnny Blaze), but she sure didn’t look like she was having fun. She barely seemed awake.

Now, you wanna know what I think? I think Kidman and Cage were a ruse. Trespass was really a stage for newb actors, a launchpad. You know what a “springboard” movie is? Probably not, since I made up the term. But since I’ve seen more movies than Alex has raped, so I think I’m entitled to a few creative liberties here and there. So listen up, bitches. There is probably a proper term for a movie/role that brings attention to an actor. I’m calling it the springboard. I’m not talking about a “breakout role” here, like Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. I’m talking about an actor who rises above the dreck and stands out, maybe even eclipsing the big name stars. Mendelson did this here. His Elias was the only engaging character in all 91 minutes of Trespass. Sure, he might’ve had a young Tom Waits as a vocal coach, but Mendelsohn’s Elias infused the corny, often lame dialogue (amidst even the rest of the cast) with a degree of charm and and honesty that he was the only role that felt fleshed out, even if he was still the stock, desperate thief. Also, how he carried himself screamed desperate criminal (and the electrical tape thing was a nice touch). He and his fellow villains may be stock, and Mendelsohn comes across as a poor man’s Gary Oldman, but hell, at least the whole lot are interesting, if only for being campy. Like I’ve said, though: it ain’t the notes, it’s how they’re played. Mendelsohn gave us a good jam session in Trespass, and I’d like see him in more movies (just not like this one).

Now it be time for the technical stuff here, so let’s go to the tool bench. I said earlier that Trespass felt like Schumacher’s attempt at a B-movie potboiler. A deliberate attempt. He sorta succeeded here. Trespass possesses all the trademark cheese that comes with a low budget thriller, and these were good things believe it or not. Actually, the weak stuff balanced out the better stuff pretty well. It all resulted in some dumb fun, with the emphasis on dumb.

Trespass played out like a 21st Century take on Ten Little Indians. Except instead of murder, we got vengeance. Everyone in the cast—everyone—has their own motives to keep the diamonds where they are (even though the diamonds are a sort of Maltese Falcon seeing that REDACTED). I’ll tell you this, the body count is low, but in the tradition of most B-movie fodder, there is so much over emotive folderol the cheese level got raised to Pepper Jack Velveeta and whatever violence goes down it’s less cringe and more “Huh?” I figure there’s a time for Tim Roth’s dying words and one for a cream pie to the face.

The dialogue is incredibly lame and overreaching, but dotted with enough clever shots that the final result in overall corny, but not outright insulting. In other words, we got you the best knock-knock joke you’ve never heard. Curious? Where you going? Kinda funny sh*t, intentional or otherwise. And what makes it really funny is how overwrought it all was. Schumacher was attempting towards an intense, desperate measures duality thriller. How our cast expressed themselves played out like a fifth grade play, but so goofy you couldn’t help but play along in turn (check out some of the select quotes below).

I think the critic at AllMovie missed the point here. He lacerated this trifle. True, Trespass is a crappy movie, virtually branded with The Standard on its reel (or whatever they use these days. Holograms?). But maybe seeing this gunk required the proper lenses. Is there such a thing as a comedic thriller? Maybe, if you count every Friday The 13th installment after the one with Corey Feldman (it’s true. Look it up if I don’t believe you). Overall, Trespass falls under the aegis of the “Saturday Afternoon Movie.” You could crash in front of F/X come 2 PM and waste some time. You’d never drop ten bucks to see this stuff in the theatre. But maybe you could point your soon-to-be former friends.

So it goes. No worries. The next time out, Schumacher will get ever more clever and lure you in again. Maybe next time it’ll be Henry Ibsen with robots.

*spit take*

Dumbasses.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. You want a good, amusing diamond heist film? Try…anything but this. There is such a thing as trying to be too clever, cushioned by cheeze or…Gotta go. Mom’s pounding at the door, screaming about abusing creative license. And my REDACTED.


Stray Observations (No notable moments, just quotes)

  • “Mom’s being arbitrary and inflexible.” Hooked On Phonics worked for Avery.
  • “I stay stupid, you go to jail.” Stay stupid, Nic. Keep staying stupid.
  • “What’nd he good??”
  • “That’s the way you want it, yuppie?” Who uses the term “yuppie” anymore?
  • “Or the kid.”
  • “Hey buddy, cuz I want to tell you a story.”
  • “You have an assh*le for a doctor.” Not a bad thing for a proctologist though.
  • “Don’t ya just love surprises?”

Next Installment…

RIORI is gonna take a break for a while so me and the fam can take in some guaranteed fun films—ones that don’t (and shouldn’t) bear much scrutiny—for a change. I need to educate the wifey on the wonders that are the key James Bond flicks. Also, since the 8-year old has been pestering me about The Force Awakens, I feel obligated to introduce her to the original trilogy, as well as the prequels (shaddap).

So Merry Xmas for now. See you next year. When we return—and maintaining a sense of continuity, at least at my end—Star Wars fans asked what went askew with the prequels? It might’ve been a virulent Attack Of The Clones. Let’s misuse The Force now, dig it.

Laters.


RIORI Volume 3, Installment 9: Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass” (2008-2010)


Kick-Ass


This installment—despite the venom—is dedicated to the memory of Jeff, who kept me in comics for over a decade and gave me a job when no one else would. He rivaled me in opinions, but was far more polite. He will be missed.


The Players:

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Mark Strong and Nicolas Cage, with Clark Duke, Evan Peters and Lyndsy Fonseca.


The Story:

One day comic book geek Dave Lizewski gets an idea. How come no one in the real world ever tried to be a real-life superhero? If you think about it, Batman was just a normal guy with a lot of tech. Anyone could be Batman. But what about your average Joe who had no bankroll and was simply inspired by a sense of justice and impatience for what legit law enforcers do? That and just wanting to make a difference; to do the right thing. Or maybe just want to crack a bunch of assh*les into submission for being bully assh*les. At any rate, Dave wonders. So then he gets a costume, an alias and a shadow MySpace account.


The Rant (Oh, yeah. Yes, indeed)

Be warned. Beyond here there be dragons.

Wait. We’re gonna talk about movies, right?

Shut up. Sit down. Eat your gruel and pray I don’t release the rape-monkeys while you slumber. Now, hard to port. And steady on.

Truth be told, and this may come as a surprise, I’m not an easy person to get along with. My sunny disposition has proven to be rather off-putting with the general public. I’ve always adopted a rather shambolic attitude regarding social mores. Not antisocial, per se, just confused. I’m sure a great deal of y’all feels that way sometimes, too. Me? That’s pretty much SOP for me. No malice present, mind you, but I’m often quite confused as how to play well with others. Big shocker there. Suppose I’m better off left to my own devices. You should see my music collection.

Simply put: leave me be. Not “Go Away!” or “F*ck off!” Though admittedly I feel that way often, but I’m usually more polite than that. To paraphrase Garbo: let me enjoy my aloneness. With all this Wi-Fi, smartphone, Xbox, Kindle, World Wide Web doggerel—where I couldn’t be alone if I tried, even without a link, and there’s always sat tech lurking above—privacy has become more precious than currency. Don’t believe me? Two questions then: 1) How much to you pay for your mobile service?

Sh*t. That much? Ever hear of TracFone?

2) When was the last time you struck up idle chit-chat on a public mass-transit service to while away the time instead of nose deep in your iPhone, scouring Twitter feeds?

Can’t, can you? Well neither can I. Me? I usually try to pleasure myself on the E, but there apparently are laws in effect about that. Here? In America? Well, at least I still have my iPhone…until we go into a tunnel. Then, since the lights are off…Hello, teacup poodle.

WHAT! WHAT? Oh c’mon. We’ve all been there. Right? Anyway…

To put it quaintly—and as if to forgive my bile—I’m your typical Gen X survivor (you’re welcome for the Internet, by the way). We were the test group for online video games, rudimentary smartphones, iBooks and midwife for not only the 21st Century but also reintroducing the term “friend” a verb. Our gen perfected cynicism, misunderstood irony, and always had the last word on everything, especially when it wasn’t permitted. We’re also the final generation to give two sh*ts what our parents accomplished for American culture. In the final analysis, Boomers got everything handed to them on a silver platter, resulting in Fox News, willful ignorance of the AIDS crisis, using racism as good business ensuring that both Alex Jones and Lady GaGa alike have an enduring entertainment career and environmental degradation. I’m a dad now. Explaining conservation of resources to an 8-year old is tough when all her peers’ mommies drive Sherman tanks to school, replete with enough ribbon decals to cure the worlds’ physical maladies via psychic conflagration. “Why is your car so small, Dad?” “So you can drive your own small car in a decade. One that hopefully runs on dreams, starlight and whatever makes Rockefeller’s progeny bleed from the eyes and sh*t solar power. How was school?”

Such a worldview invited, then polluted the pop culture landscape for about a quarter century. That was that until the Millenials became the desired demographic. Then their zeitgeist swept our once landmark, hardnosed worldview to the next ironical graphic tee at Hot Topic. Or derelict at your local Salvo’s.

Not that I’m bitter.

I’m not, really. It’s just the natural, social progression of American society as we know it. The passing of the torch. It’s how it all works. What’s curious about it this time is that Gen X seems more actively reluctant to carry on said torch than the Boomers were post-WW2. After all, the Boomers were handed that silver tray, one that always seemed a tad too empty, despite the fact the tray was f*cking silver. That flame burned us to the core, which resulted in a lot of deviant pop culture touchstones of our own gratefully in turn pissing off our parents as they had infuriated theirs. The wheel goes ‘round and ‘round.

(“Um, is this moron going to talk about a movie soon or what? I mean, my iPhone is at 21%, and there are, like, a jillion cute cats on YouTube to scan.”)

SMACK!

Shut up. Pull up your pants. Those ain’t cats you be watching on your Galaxy’s feed, despite what mental_floss told you. But never fear, I like boobies too. You’re secret’s safe until my wife gets home (she doesn’t read this blog anyway, so tee-hee! Now about those “cats”)…

I’m awake! Damned Lego Jurassic World!

Ahem (*adjusts toupee*)…

The pop culture cachet Gen X consisted of bragging about how The Others were there to wake up to Hendrix at Woodstock. How The Graduate spoke—however incorrectly—to them. When weed was free, the Pill was at its apex and both the war in Vietnam and King’s marches sowed the seeds of white, liberal, bleeding heart guilt.

The legacy resulted in QVC, miles of cable TV broadcasting AU’s of sh*t deep (“The Real Housewives of Augusta, Maine!” How chowda really feels…er…tastes!) and letting AIDS become pandemic, but we cured boners. Oh, that and Kevin Costner’s career. And the Boomers’ never apologized for any of it. They were too busy setting up teleplays for thirtysomething, and if that last reference is lost on you, good. Trust me. I mean it).

*calming down, deep breaths, ease down, Ripley*

So where is all this vitriol coming from, and what does it have to do with another comic book adaptation to movie? In two words: cynicism and capitalism. But not mine and not really the bottom dollar. More like heartbreak on both levels, and how becoming disillusioned can happen so very fast.

No surprise here at RIORI that I’ve tackled and inordinate amount of movies based on comic books. Now I’m not sure that all the comic movies that have gone under the lens here are based on the surfeit of comic movies since 2000, or the fact that with this glut, a lot of them tend to suck based on hurried production, lousy scripts, or actors and directors unsure how to handle the source material. Not sure on any of these fronts.

The pertinent movies I’ve scanned here kinda fell 50/50 along the rent it/relent it scale. Then again, I’m just one guy, and an amateur to boot, so my opinions tend to be raw, angry, a bit uniformed, sometimes half-baked and generally abrasive like a Soft Scrub colonic. I make no apologies, and yet still here you are again.

I think why so many comic movies visited here is due to the overabundance. It’s akin to the TV-to-movie adaptations of the 90s I spoke of in the Green Hornet installment. Too many, too much. Hollywood’s been dipping into an endless well of pre-storyboarded scripts from the houses of Marvel, DC and sometimes the second tier publishers a bit of more than could ever be chewed by a plesiosaur with bulimia. This saturation of the market is nothing new. Beyond the “beat it into the ground” mentality of capitalism, there comes this sort of panic when driving, leaping on and eventually falling off some pop cultural bandwagon. The bigwigs in Hollywood know on some level that this comic movie cash cow will dry up someday, and now are urgently milking it for all its worth as we speak. A tipping point will be reached, the bubble will burst, audience’s tastes will change (most likely due to boredom created by overexposure and increasingly lame scripts), but never fear: Hollywood already has the Next Big Thing already ready already. Right now it’s just a matter of finding new and creative ways to empty our wallets. That’s how it’s always been anyway.

That being said, here we reach the inevitable.

Although I’ve never been a fan of the trickery advertising and marketing use to sell us sh*t we don’t need and manipulate our perceptions of reality—c’mon, do all those ladies on the beach really enjoy Coors Light that much?—I do understand how it works. Mostly. The general gist I get from the execution of commercials and the like is to inform, entertain, entice and hit you over the head many, many, many times to hypnotize you and get you hooked on whatever product and blah blah blah. Ads are designed to keep the cash flowing. Duh. I may not like marketing, but I’m not so far up my ass to deny that it works.

What really chafes me about advertising, marketing and the unavoidable selling of a given product isn’t the actual use of subterfuge to make money. It’s the scheming itself I hate. Very talented and intelligent people concocting very creative ways to get unwitting audiences to buy sh*t, effectively spitting on their (increasingly waning) intelligence. And it’s all a terrific waste of said talent and intelligence. F*ck, we could’ve gotten to Mars by now if the maintenance of this whole energy drink craze didn’t take precedence. Sure, folks in marketing may explain all the science and sociology into selling a Big Mac is fascinating, complex and echoing decades of psychological research in action. But it’s still just a Big Mac. Looks like the lunatics have taken over the asylum in this sense; the sellers are selling themselves on the idea that selling is vital to humanity. It’s delusional. It’s willfully ignorant. It’s a waste.

This scheming behind pushing comic movies reached a head for me several years ago. It probably reached a head with a lot of comic fans with different occasions over the past decade, not to mention anyone entrenched in a niche market that all too quickly went mainstream and got watered down for it (e.g.: body modification, “alt”-rock, Anthony Bourdain’s travelogues, cupcakes, etc). It was a moment, a revelation about how deeply the Hollywood machine operated regarding its comic movie goldmine, and about how incredibly cynical marketing people could execute their…well, their schemes. I’m not being paranoid; I just call it like I see it.

Yet another time at my comic shop, Jeff and I were chewing the fat about the then recent mini-series Kick-Ass. Not surprisingly, we found it quite enjoyable (unlike its follow-up series, which came across as both derivative and overly violent for violence’s sake, but that’s another thing entirely). We were respectful fans of the writer, Scottish scribe Mark Millar, and the artist, Marvel legacy John Romita, Jr. Millar’s claim to fame was penning Marvel’s epic Civil War mini-series, and Romita followed in his dad’s footsteps illustrating The Amazing Spider-Man. Needless to say, both guys are very talented, and natural fan favorites.

So Kick-Ass wrapped up its six-ish run, and we were weighing its merits and drawbacks. The book’s print run started in February 2008 and concluded exactly two years later in February 2010. Apparently Millar and Romita were in no hurry to rush their project, which mind you was only six issues long. After waxing philosophical about this trifle, Jeff dropped some science on me. It turned out that Kick-Ass was to be adapted into a movie. Big shocker, that. It was going to hit theaters in May, right when the summer blockbuster season got going.

Wait a minute.

Kick-Ass took its grand old time dripping onto the shelves over the course of two years. That’s including inking, editing, distribution, coffee breaks, etc. It was going to be committed to cinema in three months after its conclusion? You know the average schedule for filming a movie? About three to five months, not including post-production. So either the film version of Kick-Ass was already in the works before the book was officially completed, or a movie was being made in conjunction with the book all along. Or can we say “rush job?” Like on with mainlined crystal meth paired with a butt-chugged Red Bull chaser rush job? There are always budgetary matters to consider, after all. And don’t ask me how meth could be mainlined. Some things are best left to Walter White’s grandkids.

Well, it turned out that the second part was the case. The Millar/Romita book was created independently of the movie script, which in turn was written by director Vaughn and Jane Goldman. Simultaneously, by the way. The film version of Kick-Ass went into production in 2008, the debut year of the comic. Recalling what I said earlier about marketing schemes, and this might be a myopic view—and mine mostly are—but doesn’t it seem a tad suspect to make a comic movie and its printed counterpart across a two year run at the same time? Was Hollywood hedging its bets, capitalizing the comic movie phenom with this plan? In sum, were they planning this all along, a set up to make uber-bucks by following a successful mini by an award-winning team only to stoke the fires for fast business at the multiplex three months after the series concluded? Was Hollywood just striking while the iron was hot?

If that was the case, then where was the f*cking iron?

How terribly cynical is that? And trust me, I know cynicism. Hollywood being so assured to rake in comic movie bucks optioned off the film rights to a book that wasn’t even finished. This is either an exercise in gall, greed, both or awaiting the day to day f*ck you to the audience and extrude their collective wallets via their collective rectums.

Well, to be fair, there was a precedent set back in the day, so it’s not a recent ploy to excite an audience. On the other hand, for the following example, “excite” might be the wrong word. Let’s try “coax.”

In 1968, director Stanley Kubrick and sci-fi scribe Arthur C Clarke teamed up to direct and write 2001: A Space Odyssey, respectively. The book and the film were released to public at the same time. Although the film/book project took the same time to produce as Kick-Ass (about two years, from 1965 to ’67, with necessary editing for its ’68 springtime release date), it wasn’t done out of a dire need to rake in cash. Back then, a movie made a jillion bucks because it was a good movie. 2001 was a great movie, despite its production nightmares, and was visionary, intriguing, weird, satirical and the first sci-fi movie to be both practical in handling possible future tech and the human condition within, as well as respecting the science part of science fiction.

But it wasn’t made to make money first and art second in any overt fashion. And actually, 2001 was no blockbuster. It only got its steam up a year later in 1969 with a lot of thanks to hippies toking up in the theatre. Hey, whatever works. Now where’s my Nutella? And that flexible poodle?

Again: SMACK!

Sorry. Back to being crass and hard. Just please, lay off the jellyfish. And your stomped f*cking beer cans. This time I mean it.

I’ll get to my point. There’s really nothing wrong with Hollywood multi-multi-tasking. Books into movies as par for the course business—comic or otherwise—has been a Hollywood staple since at least Burnett and Alison’s big screen adaptation of their play Everybody Comes To Rick’s (you probably know it better as Casablanca. You don’t? Now you are first in line for castration via broken Snapple bottle. You’ll thank me later). Need I remind you: the movie biz is all about biz, making a buck. Said bucks result in more movies, hopefully good ones. What’s wrong is applying the 21st Century version of 1970s remote environmental bracelets that give emotional feedback from test audiences who’re selected to hear the latest Alice Cooper single first, therefore dictating cleaner production for a cleaner, better selling album. Or just whether to keep beating the fad cash cow into hamburger dollars.

BTW: The whole bracelet thing? True. In the 70s. What, you thought that pedometer in your Apple Watch didn’t have a beta test? Or in that case, a f*cking gamma test?

Christ, I’m tired. This InfoWars fusillade has left me drained. Probably you too. We better curl up with this week’s movie. After all my frightening gloom and doom, here’s hoping this time out—regardless of my whining for the past eleven years—this adaptation thumbed its nose against the almighty cash moo and delivered a consistent, fun story. And since it’s a comic movie, let’s steer clear of the often usual clumsy execution too many of these films get smeared.

It’s actually surprising that Kick-Ass as a movie was ever made, regardless of the production time/dollars spent/dollars recouped/scheming…


Geeky fanboyism can go too far.

High schooler Dave Lizewski (Taylor-Johnson) is your painfully average teenaged guy. He trudges through his classes with all the enthusiasm of a slug. His goofball buddies Marty (Duke), Todd (Peters) and him futz around on social media and hang out after school at the local comic/coffee shop, sipping lattes and wondering who’d win in a fight, Superman or Thor. He’s got a crush on a typically unattainable girl. He’s got an unfeasible comic book collection. And he pounds his penis into pudding to Internet porn like it’s a crime nightly. Completely average sh*t. Y’know. You get it.

Maybe it was too many lattes, but more likely was where those drinks were quaffed. Dave asks his cronies one day, “How come no one’s ever tried being a superhero?” To wit, his worthy constituents rebut: they’d their asses kicked or killed, let alone have to deal with the real law enforcement showing up and dragging their sorry butt to jail. Or worse.

A valid argument. But Dave still asks himself, “What if?” The idea of fighting crime by wit and by grit with a kick-ass costume—

That’s it! Batman was a regular guy, with just a cool outfit and cool weapons to make his mark on Gotham. If only on lark—but probably more so to combat the crushing average-ness of his teenaged so-called life—Dave dons a cool costume and a pair of makeshift truncheons and goes on nightly patrols. You know, searching for lost pets, picking up others’ litter and intervening in gang fights. Which is how Kick-Ass was born. Well, that and Dave’s escapades get caught on people’s smartphones, get uploaded to YouTube, go viral and so on and so forth.

However, not everyone is impressed my Kick-Ass’ vigilantism. Underworld boss Frank D’Amico (Strong) has had his cocaine trafficking interrupted indirectly by Dave. That gangland crap? Looks like Kick-Ass smacked the wrong guys with his clubs that time. Frank’s miffed by this, so to exact some off-the-books justice himself, he sends out his thugs in search of Kick-Ass to put a stop to his putting a stop to things. Send a message; the guy’s been f*cking with the wrong assh*le.

What Frank doesn’t know that another would-be costumed hero—make that two—are secretly gunning for him for much bigger crimes than paltry drug trafficking. Inspired in part by Kick-Ass’ adventures, disgraced cop Damon Macready (Cage) and his daughter-cum-sidekick Mindy (Moretz) don costumes and secret identities of their own to take out D’Amico, by any means possible and screw the law. Beware the might of Big Daddy and Hit Girl!

Little doubt all four of these personalities will clash on the streets sometime and it’s anyone’s guess who’s going to triumph and who’s going to get their ass—

Well, you know…


I gotta tell you after watching Kick-Ass I can say this without pause: this was the funniest comic movie I ever saw. Funnier that the original book.

I know. You probably wouldn’t expect a movie/comic titled Kick-Ass to be a laugh riot (okay, maybe a little), but that’s what it was. Now Millar and Romita’s book had its chuckles, but something about having those panels made flesh—and occasionally padded, I’ll admit it—and dialogue spoken aloud (also with some enhancements) made the whole tangled mess hilarious. There’s something about pairing witty/cheesy dialogue with gutbucket violence that makes me laugh. And you’d be a hypocrite and liar to deny this yourself.

Most comic movies toe the line between following the original script and the cinematic adaptation approaching a modicum of sincerity. This movie came across as sincere without being neither pandering nor unfaithful with concessions to sweetening the plot. To be fair there are a few too many Hollywood touches (recall what I said about scheming?). There’s quite a bit of extraneous dialogue used to verbally express what could’ve done simply with action, like the audience needs to be spoon fed (that little speech Kick-Ass gives after the first gang fight? I don’t recall it that way from the book, but I guess I’m splitting hairs). But I guess that’s a minor carp in the end-run. There’s nothing really wrong with using systematic corniness to enhance a comedy, which beneath the superheroic/violent action surface, Kick-Ass is at heart.

And goofiness abounds amidst all the busted bones, spit teeth and microwave hijinks. For instance, Nic Cage’s post-Oscar downward spiral into a mire of schlock finally comes to good use here. His stuttered, clipped speech might be considered an homage to Adam West (vis-à-vis Big Daddy’s costume). Talk about systematic corn (and speaking of costumes, you gotta admit it, Kick-Ass’ duds are ridiculous). Moretz’ kewpie doll demeanor would normally be grating as an eternally, one-note little girl assassin. Then again that whole assassin thing does help make the medicine go down easier, and she gets some killer (ha!) one-liners. I couldn’t help but giggle for the duration of the movie with clowns like these in action.

For all the pounding and bloody noses, Kick-Ass­ can credit it a lot of its action and pacing to technical flourishes that don’t come with a shattered clavicle. Some of the more compelling things in the film are subtle. They’re kinda like a variation on a Hitchcock-esque “icebox moment.”

(Oh sh*t. Here comes the cinema geek trivia. It’ll only sting for a moment. Now shut up and put down that damned iPhone already.)

Alfred Hitchcock was notorious in sticking throwaway scenes in his movies more or less as a joke for himself. Something off in the film stuck in an audience’s mind—almost subliminally—well after the movie was over and they were back home. It was only until after the person was home and metaphorically reaching into the fridge for a snack—the proverbial icebox—when they went, “Wait, what?” I had a similar experience after seeing The Blair Witch Project; the final scene when Mike was standing in the corner (no, that’s not a spoiler. You have to see the movie to get it. Just drink your beer) was my icebox moment.

That being said, Kick-Ass employs a few pseudo-icebox tricks for its duration. For all the sloppy, frenetic action, most of the acting is keenly conveyed via facial expressions. It’s kinda curious in a so-called action movie that most of the action scenes are stock while the characters’ mugs do most of the twisting and turning. Taylor-Johnson, Moretz, Strong (who’s a lot of fun to hate, BTW; that plastic jaw) and Cage’s there-and-gone mugging tell worlds beyond the story proper, as if to passively remind you you’re supposed to be on the joke. Any movie with such tasteful violence and colorful language hopes you catch up.

Another icebox trick, sort of: the framing of the scenes. They’re laid out like comic book panels, all square and mostly center-forward, with the characters faces and bodies directly front and center. Yeah, yeah; sure, sure. One could argue this thing’s done in almost all movies (and you’d be right), but most other films could employ asides and overheards. Kick-Ass doesn’t. Go on, watch it again. The action’s always overtly front and center. Hell, by contrast John McClane snuck around corners.

For all of Kick-Ass’ ass-kicking, there are a few weak moments, which indeed f*ck with my pacing muse. The second act is kinda slow, as if director Vaughn and Co. felt it necessary to slow the barrage down and let the audience breathe. I dig that Shakespearean tactic, but it plays too long. I mean, do we really need Dave’s monologue to explain everything that’s running through his ass-kicking mind? We should be already well acquainted with his motives. C’mon. Show, don’t tell.

I already delineated in the High Fidelity installment that the director must be careful to apply their own spin on the source material (book, play, comic, etc) without spinning too far off course and alienate a good chunk of the audience already familiar with the original material. When the third act hit, it really began to deviate from the book. This made me cranky. Without even knowing the comic, one can feel the switch in tension; the deviation. It almost proved my whole aforementioned scheming ploy. If it wasn’t for the overall smart, crisp editing of the thing, I might’ve threw my arms up in revolt, if only to honor my comic geek credentials. Almost.

However, Kick-Ass overall appeased my inner (not to mention outer) comic book geek. Call me biased, but this film properly sandwiched scenes from the book against Vaughn’s concepts. It was almost seamless for both the comic book fan and quite seamless for mainstream audiences. Simply put, Kick-Ass was satisfying. It wasn’t arresting, profound or possessing any redeemably qualities. But that was the point. It was about spectacle. Clever spectacle, mind you. Kick-Ass both appeases and insults the comic audience. Is it all one big joke? I’d like to think so. Now ride with it.


Afterwords…

If you saw the header for this week’s installment, you understand my go-to guy for comics passed away suddenly. It seemed oddly fitting—not to mention coincidental—that I took apart a comic movie based on a mini-series we had quite a good time dissecting, seeing how long it took for the print run to finish. I really don’t have any emotional attachment to Jeff paired with this movie—I received the bad news the day after I viewed it—so my judgment of Kick-Ass wasn’t really all that skewed.

However actually seeing it and tearing it to shreds, I can say that as far as comic movies go, yeah, Kick-Ass was pretty good. I don’t think Jeff ever got around to seeing it, which is unfortunate. Not that he missed a stellar movie, but with my hopes that if he did he might remember the debates we got into about the fool thing.

I’d like to hope for that.

Jeffery D Rabkin (1957-2015). He kicked ass.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. I’d call Kick-Ass a solid “Saturday afternoon movie.” Tired of Internet porn and keying cars? Put your lazy Saturday afternoon to good use and plunk this in the player. Or stream it. Or whatever. Christ all these tech shifts can drive a man to throw beer cans at strangers.

Haven’t you gotten tired of that yet? Damn.


Stray Observations…

  • MySpace? Yep, definitely 2008.
  • “…And a pack of Twizzlers.”
  • Moretz gots sum knife skillz. That ain’t no CGI.
  • “That is one gay looking taser.” Is there any other kind?
  • After Catherine Zeta-Jones in High Fidelity, Fonseca lays the best f-bomb ever. She also shouts “f*ck” real well, too.
  • “What a doosh.” Always funnier with a kid.
  • Most blue language I’ve ever heard in a f*ckin’ comic movie.
  • “F*ck you, Mr. Bitey!”
  • And to think a year later we’d have Strong as an honorable member of the Green Lantern Corps. Wait a minute…
  • “Kinda feeling the cape.”
  • More comic movies need hand bra scenes.
  • “A bazooka…Okay?” Strong seemed to get the best lines, as all villains often do.
  • Um, did anyone else catch the thing where an 11-year old drove a custom Mustang? I’ll wager you paid attention to her flipping a billasong, right? Yep, me too.
  • “I think I’m in love with her, dude.”
  • When did Moretz first get pretty? Hick. When did she first get awesome? Here. Weigh those claims, but she still won’t respond to your voicemail.
  • “It sucks that you’re gay.” Aaaand smirk.
  • Gnarls Barkeley? Yep, definitely 2009.
  • “Show’s over, motherf*ckers.”

Next Installment…

Somewhere between Michael Douglas’ elephantine, infeasible novel and Tobey Maguire’s deft storytelling the truth lies for these Wonder Boys.


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.