RIORI Presents Installment #192: Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” (2008)


The Film…


The Players…

Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfadyen, Rebecca Hall, Oliver Platt, Toby Jones and naturally Clint Howard.


The Plot…

In 1977, with Watergate still heavy on America’s mind, journeyman television personality David Frost is curious about Nixon’s unwillingness to discuss the scandal. He manages to convince the disgraced president for a few interviews to allow the man a chance to set the historical record straight. Warts and all.

Only Britain would go to Nixon.


The Rant…

Yeah, yeah. I’m still tweaking the site. I’m trying to make it read a little more efficient, read more pro and lend a hand to any newbs that link here. Ain’t that a great line of bullsh*t or what? Now on with this week’s lucky contestant.

Every time I watch the news—which isn’t often—I ask myself, “Who in the world would want to be the President?” After air traffic controllers, EMTs and javelin catchers the presidency must be the most stressful job in the world. Sure, there are perks. Nice house, Air Force One, Camp David, unlimited travel opportunities, the occasional park named after you and whatnot. However most of the time it’s being under constant scrutiny, tons of desk jockeying, dealing with skeezy lobbyists and not to mention skeezy heads of state from around the world, always butting heads with Congress, signing more stuff and being blamed for the sh*t the previous president set in motion, which overrides your original platform. Small wonder Reagan got addicted to jelly beans, LBJ to Fresca and JFK to Marilyn Monroe. We all seek release in our own way.

Do you want to know what I think the biggest thing that’s a strike against being president? Tough, shush and listen: it’s the lack of privacy. You would always be under the microscope by the government, your constituents and the media in equal, oft strident measure. Understanding the president is the international face of America they gave up their privacy as soon as they were sworn in, if not even on the campaign trail. Here’s the Oval Office, friend. This is as small as your world gets now, plus you better lose that ashtray.

Like with any other public office, the President’s face is omnipresent. State Of The Union? The President. A memorial speech? The President. To apply weight to a PSA? The President. The opening pitch at the Nationals opening season? The Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn? A summit? A press conference? Prez Prez Prez. Whew. With all that public spectacle the President deserves some privacy. Like that’s ever going to happen. Here’s a minor example of what I’m getting at: you may recall when President Clinton adopted his dog Buddy and they went jogging together (with an unobtrusive coterie of Secret Service agents along for the ride) in the early morning? No big deal; folks jog with their dogs all the time. Ah, but this was the President going for a jog, with the First Dog in tow, no less. Out came the jogging camera crew to cover…how Bubba and Buddy went for walkies.

That kind of jive is unquestionably silly. A man and his dog. A matter of state. The internet cracked in half. Whatever and change the channel. The guy in the Oval Office needs to feel normal now and again. To get away from it all once on a while, hence Camp David, and even that isn’t sacred anymore. Jeez, where does the uber-stressed out uber-politician find some R&R?

They don’t. Not really. The last time I heard that some President got any quality time was when Teddy Roosevelt went camping or hunting a jillion miles away from a newspaper. Or tubby Taft being the ultra baseball nut (he was the first Prez to throw the first pitch of the season, as well as accidentally creating the seventh inning stretch) and never missing a home game for the Washington Nationals. Or even when Obama played Wii Sports with Sasha and Malia before bed. And how the hell do I know all this crap if we’re talking about possible Presidential privacy?

Wanna lead the country? Take down that Facebook page. Ain’t gonna need it no mo’.

Here’s the flipside.

There are many adages regarding how those in high places must be careful when minding their productivity and quality therein. “Who watches the watchers themselves?” “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” “No, I am your father!” Warnings and cautions to those in power better watch their ass when it comes to public relations. And let’s face facts, many presidents were caught with their pants down, so to speak. Jefferson, JFK and Clinton all got tagged as cheaters. Lincoln had clinical depression. Grant was a functioning alcoholic. Both Hayes and Dubya’s ascent to the throne were in question. Obama smoked. Trump once hosted a reality show. No one’s perfect, but to have their dirty laundry aired by the papers, the radio, Fox News and Google? Where does it stop? Should it? Should the Prez be accountable for every bare scintilla of action, which may effect the government in particular and the republic as a whole?

Yes.

Sometimes those angular secrets reveal the intentions or even the true nature of the President. Either some hidden agendum or a skeleton in the closet (“Mr Jefferson? Sally Hemings on line 2. It’s a girl!”) may affect the normally rational judgment we hope our elected leaders posses. Or not. Most of us couldn’t be bothered by what gets churned out on Capitol Hill so long as our roads are paved and the price of Arizona tea never goes up. But there are inner workings, always inner workings that drive the president beyond his public office. It’s called being human, and most humans regardless of title have at least one hidden agendum in the closet. The best presidential example?

You guessed it. Richard Milhaus Nixon.

This choice is not just because of this week’s movie. Nor is it how his administration crashed and burned into scandal and dust. It’s about how “the mighty have fallen.” Drop the portcullis. Release the hounds. Unleash the Kraken. The failed Nixon administration and the ensuing folderol is a shame really. Nixon was born to politic, but the demons that plagued him from the past came to the fore once in office. Heist by his own petard and boy did the man go down in flames, and not some blaze of glory. Go f*ck off America. And Cambodia. And Laos. And accountability. Dammit, Tricky Dick, WTF went wrong?

To keep it short, it was an open secret that Nixon kept a list of his enemies towards the end of his time in the White House. He had over 20 names on the list, including trusted NPR columnist Daniel Schorr and beloved leading man Paul Newman (?). I forget who stated this regarding Nixon’s list, but if a man has to make a list of his enemies he has too many enemies. Rev Martin L King was also skeptical about Nixon’s intentions regarding his politics, him telling a Nixon biographer, “If Richard Nixon is not sincere, he is the most dangerous man in America.” MLK passing judgment. Consider that for a brief moment.

I did some honest research before tackling this installment. Since I wasn’t around when Watergate went down, I bounced around from site to site to get the whole picture. And boy, that picture was drawn by dozens of artists on retainer. Way too many details. So much so that when I unravelled the matter, I still felt there was more to the story. I even asked a few co-workers about the scandal who were around when I wasn’t.

For the uninformed (read: me) back during election year 1974, when Nixon was pursuing a second term, he and his cronies wanted to dig up some dirt on his possible rivals come November. The DNC was being held at the Watergate Hotel, so via espionage and burglary five thieves busted into the complex with the aim to wiretap the place so the committee to re-elect Nixon could get some straight dope from those on his Enemies List. They were caught red-handed, hired by the goons in Nixon’s inner circle. Understanding the dire fix he was in, definite impeachment looming large, Nixon had to decide to either sh*t or get off the pot. He got off the pot, resigned and took flight.

My older co-workers agreed, “Yes. That was pretty much it.”

Watergate was a warning beacon and/or a cautionary tale of when the President’s right to keeping certain things private—under wraps—could turn rotten, or at least misguided. Despite my limited understanding of Nixon’s rise and fall, I could not but help to view him as a tragic figure. I’m talking his foibles, not how he conducted business. I mean, one did inform the other, but keeping it all bottled up was Nixon’s ultimate downfall. Which is sad. He was probably the most qualified person to be President than any other in the 20th Century. He served in the Navy, becoming a decorated lieutenant post-Pearl Harbor (despite being a birthright Quaker, who do not condone violence in any form). He had a sterling record as a California congressman and later in senate (despite his very far right leanings, even for the 1950s). He was Ike’s VP. Despite losing to Kennedy in 1960 he handily won the 1968 election by a virtual electoral landslide (his 301 votes to Humphrey’s respectable 191 and Wallace’s paltry 46). In power he upgraded Medicaid and even helped the EPA get off the ground. And in 1972 only Nixon could go to China, literally.

All these political accomplishments, and still. Talking about his “Enemies List” opens a door into a very successful politician and a very insure man. With Watergate, his demons were laid bare, and they had been lurking al along. Recall MLK’s comment. As Prez, Nixon cut a presence. He had a unique voice and mannerisms that exuded assuredness. He truly mastered the “bully pulpit” stance that Teddy Roosevelt pioneered almost 80 years hence. Nixon was good at spin. He was also adept at denial. The man had many bones to pick from dinosaurs in his youth. After all I looked up on the man I got the impression that what got Nixon into politics—and he was very good at it—was not a desire to serve his country, but rather prove to all those “enemies” from his past, “See? How ya like me now?” That skein got unwound very fast in 1974. More like a tidal surge from a man’s tortured mind. It’s all very sad in hindsight.

And consider this: if Nixon did own up to his crimes? If he did apologize for his malfeasance? Would he seem sympathetic?

Like I said, it would be up to the court of public opinion to decide. Not an impeachment hearing…


The Story…

Not long after President Gerald Ford—perhaps the last just man in Sodom—pardoned Richard Nixon (Langella) for his involvement in the Watergate Scandal, the outrage bubbled up. What the hell really happened? Wiretapping? Where are those tapes? What’s on ’em? What are you hiding, Dick? The impeachment never happened, but there was still the court of public opinion to answer to. You were our elected leader and you abused your power! Understandably, Americans were very upset the President tried to hoodwink them, and instead of standing trial, Nixon resigned and fled. In the endgame there was no apology for the man’s misdeeds.

It was more like the reckoning. It was true Nixon never owned up to his alleged crimes; the man was proud and wanted his stained reputation cleansed. If not for the public’s satisfaction but for his. Nixon was firmly convinced he had served his country well, therefore deserving a modicum of respect. An opportunity to explain to America his side of the story may improve his image, which had been tarnished for far too long. Yes, Watergate was a huge mess, but even the lowest of the low is entitled to at least one second chance. Right?

Enter David Frost (Sheen). A ribald TV personality from the UK, Frost’s equally at home emceeing game shows as he was conducting talk show interviews. A clown, for lack of a better term. Fluff was his medium, aided well with having a nose for the next hot property that came down the pike. Ever opportunistic, Frost hatched the idea that would make him a legit (or at least respectable) TV journalist. He watched Nixon’s resignation on the tube and had a corker of an idea: sit down with the disgraced former President and interview him. Get the scoop on all that went down leading up to Watergate. The ratings would be huge! As well as a chance for Frost to crack America.

It took a few years, but Nixon caught wind of this upstart young Brit’s plan to bring the true Nixon to the masses. Nixon figured Frost as an easy mark, a lightweight, and in front of the camera he could spin whatever came to his mind while this whippersnapper could just sit still, cringe and experience Nixon The Man in full force! The former president could explain away everything while this limey tot would have to just sit still and quiver whilst being broadcasted to millions of Americans. To Nixon this would be the best of both worlds: speak his peace and demonstrate the authority that his f*cking former subjects refused to respect.

Such scheming didn’t account for two things: Frost’s artless on air ambition, and Nixon’s failure to understand he’s not President anymore.

We’re going live in three, two, one…


The Review…

Ron Howard is no stranger to historical fiction. I examined his biopic Cinderella Man here, much to my delight. His Apollo 13 was a real crowd pleaser. His Far And Away not so much, but at least we got a history lesson on how the Howard family set down roots in America. A Beautiful Mind won a (dubious) Best Picture Oscar, and introduced most of us to the almost forgotten mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr. He explained away better than anyone the intractable Moby-Dick by recounting the maritime exploits that inspired the novel with In The Heart Of The Sea. Howard even directed a pair of documentaries regarding the Beatles and Jay-Z (read that again). Safe to say the guy knows his stuff and has his thesis on its way to the AFI. Probably already there, with a program at the ready in Howard Film Studies.

After watching many, many of his films I believe I understand Howard’s appeal. Ron spent so much of the time in his youth starring on TV shows (EG: from Andy Griffith to Happy Days) that how a studio works to create a solid investment—hopefully a profitable one—there must be an efficient formula to get the job done. Such an ethos plays out in practice with his films. His movies are of middlebrow entertainment, aided by keen scenarists, solid actors and overall an engaging story. Not a lot of flash and splash (in fact, most of his films that apply that kinda formula ain’t that good. Read: The DaVinci Code movies), and whatever style gets spun a decent amount of substance makes up for any of the usual Hollywood trappings. I’m thinking about those comments Scorsese made about the MCU not being cinema. Whatever that means, especially regarding Howard’s output. Movies are meant to entertain first, and maybe become examples of art. I figure Howard just wants to direct good stories. And if the films get an award? That’s nice, but awards are fleeting in showbiz, whereas maintaining a good reputation is priceless.

So the numero uno appeal of Howard’s movies is their efficiency. The pacing is always spot on. His best films are like playing Ocarina Of Time (“Hey! Listen!”): just challenging enough, yet still rewarding. Your curiosity never wavers about what the next scene’s gonna deliver. However…this gets formulaic. The best directors always play their hands. It’s their signature, but sometimes it works through innovation, not revolution. Spielberg has been getting away with faces of shock and awe ever since Duel. Namely, we expect a certain madness to our fave directors’ methods. I now claim that when some sort of twist invades a good directors’ manque, makes them think twice, proposes a challenge, ah! Something to be reckoned with! Gimme a shot. Like all good directors try. Hey, Coppola was the pinnacle of mediocre until he was handed the script to The Godfather films. I’d like to believe that Howard rose to a similar challenge with Frost/Nixon. Seemed that way to me.

So what was different this time out for Richie Cunningham? Frost/Nixon‘s script. It was based on a stage play. And it showed in the best way possible. Instead of applying the term “pacing” as the ace in my hole of movie watching, substitute “efficiency.” Howard’s overall directorial style is efficiency; can’t say that enough. On the whole precious little screen time was wasted filler; scenes there just to pad out the story for story’s sake, not a movie. Efficiency is the watchword of any play. There are no second takes in a play. There are no editors. Even the director is relegated to the wings when the curtains go up. This spirit carried over with Howard’s approach. Nixon had a solid docudrama feel, a Ken Burns type air, but not handling the subject matter. The direction. Every shot, every scene, told a very deliberate story. Deliberate, doubtless with Howard’s experience in TV. This was a movie about a series of TV interviews, correct? The connective tissue between Frost’s drive, Nixon’s “charm,” and the whole production is about seeing. There were plenty of shots regarding Clint Howard as the director of the interviews tugging at both Frost and Nixon equally, for production value. This whole affair was about image, not truth, justice and Nixon having his way. Nixon was compartmentalized like a proper three act play. Here and now. Take. Here and now. Take. And so forth. Sounds boring, but don’t confuse boredom with efficiency. With Howard at the helm, Nixon was—as jazz fans understand—in the pocket.

I found another key aspect of this play-to-film wonderfully curious. Howard is known to have a gentle but omnipresent hand on his cast members. Not like that, you pervs. The actor whisperer. Since Nixon was based on historical events, Howard managed to coax honesty out of a parcel of rogues who have in other films acted like…themselves, only here to frame the narrative. Not to crack wise, but to commit.

Here’s what I’m screaming: Rockwell, Platt and Sheen are loose cannons. It’s their stock in trade. Yet with Nixon they were playing muted versions of their schtick. We traded comedy for the gaunt sweat act. Rockwell’s characters are usually blowhards and Platt’s are as equally blustery. Sheen knows no bounds as a a fixture of quirky cinema (EG: Midnight In Paris, The Underworld movies as well as The Twilight Saga). The only quirks here with Nixon is playing shallow and way out of his league as Frost. This is our protagonist? The guy to get the job done? He’s as equally ineffective has Nixon to get a straight story. And yet it works. These ruffians are the cinematic version of the Classic muses: Practice (Frost), Memory (Reston) and Song (Platt). All foils to Tricky Dick, our Melpomene here. The muse of tragedy. And what’s more Classic than a three act drama after all? More on those three stooges later.

And calm down. There’s drunken ranting on the way. Relax. I’m a professional.

Speaking of Nixon’s portrayal, Langella is a character actor extraordinaire. If the guy can be Skeletor, he can be Nixon without any air of mimicry. Despite the truth that Nixon’s personality and mannerisms are so entrenched in America’s pop culture (read: like Star Trek, Star Wars and the purple stuff vs Sunny D debate) that him bringing something new to the screen is nothing short of engaging. Nixon was a human being, after all. Shoddy president, sure, but someone was demonized as he was back then was still a person with feelings like all of us. Thanks in part to the story’s timeline, Langella pulls of a Nixon that most Americans may have never seen: not being the president, at least not in body. Langella pulls off the charm and cagey personality of the late Nixon, as well as his well honed, lizard-like guardedness that became all he was post-Watergate. Langella’s Nixon oozes charisma and menace in equal measure, all the while ratcheting up the tension so the audience may get the to see him crack, given enough of Frost’s rope if at all. In sum, Langella was great at being Nixon the performer.

As Langella’s foil, Sheen did a remarkable job of both overcoming and mining from his fanciful roles that prepared him for assuming Frost’s mantel. Sheen’s Frost quickly learned he is way in over his head with his pet project. The man was so hungry for the interviews he’d do/pay almost anything just to prove he’s legit. No shocker that the very few had much faith in Frost, and for good reason. Sheen delivered his character as shallow as a carnival barker, which isn’t straying from the truth. On some level Sheen’s Frost had the media cache of Rod Roddy, and a lot of back alley dealing was done in order to fund his little, dangerous venture. Um, I’m no tele-journalist, and perhaps back in 1977 things worked differently, but would bush league Frost make a Faustian bargain just for ratings?

Yes. And he did. The watchword regarding Sheen’s performance as Frost is shallow. Almost plastic. Desperate and insecure, and his swinging lifestyle made by his journeywork had in no way prepared David for his Goliath. Sheen is codependent (he never seemed to be alone with himself), buoyed by a carefully etched personality and a wooden smile. Frost’s jet-setting image was a very obvious, but less engaging affront. It’s him trying to dress the part (K)but the imperious attitude that has served him so well in the past is flayed naked when it gets down to the nitty-gritty of hard journalism. Sheen’s Frost was shallow; he was entrenched in it. Always with the grin. I kept waiting for Frost to crack well before Nixon might. You noticed how his posture kept changing during the shoot? (K). Like Nixon, Frost was a human being, too. Sheen was awesome as a flawed crusader, but just as imperfect as his opponent was. We earned his sympathy, but it took until the end of the second act. Before that I wanted to slap Sheen silly enough to knock the Valence off his scalp.

Beware of things in threes. The third leg of this potential media blunder stood on Kevin Bacon’s Jack Brennan. Nixon’s lap dog. Bacon, as we all understand and six degrees notwithstanding, is probably the most successful, viable character actors over the past 50 years. And why not? What can’t he do (besides surviving the first Friday The 13th movie)?

Bacon’s Brennan is the Spock to Frost’s Kirk and Nixon’s McCoy. He’s the superego. The negotiator and the one member of the cast who truly understands the make or break nature of Frost’s project. That lap dog crack wasn’t to be snarky. (K) If the interviews make Nixon look bad it’ll make Brennan look very bad, the one who never abandoned the man the rest of an underserving country did. Loyalty, no matter how blind, and anything less would be turning his back on his country. And Nixon. Jeez Brennan is so dedicated a confidant to the former president he even sounds like Nixon. In politics as well as potboiler TV journalism Brennan can see the whole picture. The man has a great deal invested in not only serving Nixon, but protecting an image.

Bacon is stern, passionate and supposedly painted as an antagonist. His Jack doesn’t really come across that way. There’s another major reason why Bacon has been such an in demand character actor for decades. He’s very versatile. Although his Jack a dedicated officer, he’s conflicted. Some other infected his Commander In Chief into impropriety. Bacon plays Brennan not as some blind patriot, but hopes the interviews go well, exonerate Nixon and reassure Jack that he wasn’t backing a losing horse well after the race ended. Bacon’s careful image is so practiced and polished that if its stretched too far it’ll break. The creeping stress and strain Bacon exudes is chaffing against his kind and professional appearance. Overall watching Bacon squirm and sigh and sometimes crack a smile displays the very best of his versatility. If you doubt this, recall his performances in Tremors, Footloose, Stir Of Echoes and/or Diner. Greatest hits here with Jack Brennan. He was the fulcrum upon which two uber-egos are teetering.

Okay, enough man crushes. Since Nixon was ostensibly based on a play there are only small roles, never small actors. The trio of Frost’s coterie/brain trust that was Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell and Matthew Macfadyen provided a sturdy backbone to keep time on task, not fluffing Frost’s jittery ego. Sure, their his entourage, but not in it for fortune and elbow-rubbing. There’s a mission here, which is proudly introduced by Sam Rockwell’s Reston. He’s a holdover from the self-righteous crusading against The Man yippie, cynical and bitter. I love it when Rockwell gets to be Rockwell. His style is almost always pleasantly unhinged that comes across natural. He’s the kind of character actor that thrives on assuming a role that is not outside his schtick. If you’ve ever seen The Way, Way BackSeven Psychopaths,or Matchstick Men (all covered here, duh) then you know what I mean. His part kinda gets the ball rolling if you consider it.

Oliver Platt is famous for his onscreen prattle, and with Nixon it’s no different. The mouth that walks like a man. He may be considered comic relief, but under the circumstances of Frost’s baby he’s not intentionally funny. His bluster and “what the hell are we doing here, man?” You ever seen Apocalypse Now, with Dennis Hopper as the photojournalist? Platt was like that, only less manic. His was more like his gorge was always on the way to being buoyant, and it took Rockwell and especially Macfadyen to reign him in.

And speaking of Macfadyen—the aide de camp—his icy logic keeps Frost in check (there’s a kind of mechanics at work here with Nixon, don’t you think). His Burt is the antithesis of Jack. Where Brennan was active, trying to be “the man behind the man,” Birt was the man behind the curtain. Always reigning in Frost’s frustrations and anxieties. Keep the eyes on the prize. Birt reminded me of Mr Spock, and that’s a complement. Someone had to keep Frost out of the clouds. Truth be told Macfadyen was more like Mr Data, telling it like it is, and with a conviction so stern you could not but help to listen to him when he was on screen. Macfadyen was the tonic that the rest of the cast needed, as did we. Escape the silly flights of fancy and get back to work, people!

So that’s the cast. Like I said, Nixon was based on a stage play, so there were no small roles. Solid acting all around. Sounds like I have no gripes. Psych!

The technical aspect of Nixon was a bit dodgy. The air of crusading got a bit repetitive and tiring. A lot of spinning wheels. It felt like after a while we knew the film’s outcome, but not in the way Howard’s Apollo 13 did. We know the crew of the Odyssey REDACTEDNixon got very busy at times. The bottom end of the second act got rather frenetic, our intrepid rubes trying to get their sh*t together after the early interviews turned into Nixon spin doctoring. Call this nervous tension. If all of these histrionics are designed to make us all uneasy, only to make the final reveal all the more rewarding, then the job got done. If only in a cheaped fashion. It’s a minor carp, but it still stuck at me. Talk about a literal media circus.

The key scene in the entire movie may be the best, but also may have been totally fictionalized. Nixon as I repeat was based on a stage play of the same name, and as with plays there’s no room for “filler.” However with the shrewd and efficient Howard at the helm, he know how to bring his audience back down to Earth.  By this I mean he permits his oft wizened protagonists [EG: Jim Lovell, John Nash, The Grinch (no fooling here), etc] a small window of opportunity/redemption to turn things around in their favor. This tactic plays out in what I’ll call the “drunk dial” scene. If this was a true story, it was a vital foreshadowing of the final interview. If Howard made it all up…it would still be cool.

We’ve been led across an hour and 45 minutes of post political posturing and way too many 70’s era fashions. There better be a glitch in the Matrix if we’re gonna wrap up little slice of while we’re still young. We’ve learned the stakes grow ever hight as one interview becomes another interview. We still don’t truly understand what the endgame is. Frost seeking legitimacy or Nixon demanding redemption? Until the call.

I won’t give it away. The crux of the whole story resting a single scene and I’m gonna blow the load? That’s worse than spoiling. That’s just a dick move (no pun intended).

Keeping it simple: Frost gets to passively bleed a tipsy Dick dry before their last on air day together. That’s it, that’s all and pay attention when that scene arrives. Howard efficiency at its best. And it sure would’ve been a cool story if it ever was.

I guess I should wrap up now. I’ve been longwinded but surgical in this week’s installment. The subject matter demanded it. There were no easy answers from Nixon. I think that one message I could’ve walked away with it’s always very hard to have that talk with the man in the mirror. The guy that knows everything. Every little detail, speck, foible and good deed in the reflection.

Sure beats being grilled in a stranger’s house by some limey playboy with a perm.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, indeed. Although Nixon was dense as well as cluttered in equal doses, Howard’s trademark efficient direction made for a very absorbing historical. Funny thing though is it still had that tightness and intimacy that comes with a play. Guess I’ve watched My Dinner With Andre once too often. Inconceivable!


The Stray Observations…

  • Sheen has perfect, distracting hair.
  • “You and Vidal Sassoon.”
  • Nice metaphor with The Great Escape there.
  • “I got six.”
  • Does Kevin Bacon ever age?
  • “I wouldn’t want to be a Russian leader. They never know when they’re being taped.”
  • (K) Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
  • Rockwell has a good shaggy hippie look going on, because a decade after the Summer Of Love is what he looks like.
  • “Can I play Deep Crack?”
  • Sometimes a cigar is not a cigar.
  • “Those are real Bunnies?”
  • Hey, Platt does a good Nixon. Maybe better than Langella.
  • “No holds barred.”

The Kudos…

And so concludes our series of pulverizing biopics and fictional histories here at RIORI. I never knew how much of you in the blogosphere were so interested in such movies. The hits have been crazy. Thanks. Guess I should try this again sometime. Perhaps with a different genre. We’ll see.

Thanks again for tuning in and all the likes. We should do this more often. 🙂


The Next Time…

And now for something completely different. It’s time to bone up on some classic animated comedy for the New Century. It’s the Looney Tunes: Back In Action! Catch it, Doc!


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 49: Harold Ramis’ “The Ice Harvest” (2005)


The Ice Harvest


The Players…

John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Platt, Ned Bellamy, Mike Starr and Randy Quaid.


The Story…

Clueless attorney Charlie Arglist embezzles $2 million from a mobster. Not a good life decision. Yet he keeps examining gift horses’ teeth. Nevertheless and with the swag in tow, sleazy Charlie plans to skip town with the girl of his misbegotten dreams. That is until the cops get nosey, as is their job.

Smart time to just follow advice from the Steve Miller Band.

Get it? I luv being funny and clever.


The Rant…

I work for the 2%.

It’s not something I’m proud of. In fact serving the gold-plated denies me everything I stand against. Self-righteous entitlement. Conspicuous consumption. Asparatame. But this guy’s gotta make a living, the one with the beater car and the beaten credit score. I have a wife and kid to support, and since they enjoy electricity so much I have to keep us financially solvent. That and beer and smokes aren’t free. Funny, neither is Netflix. So heigh-ho, heigh-ho.

That’s most of us. Most of us with bills for power, gas and medical care best pull down a 40-plus hour week lest we fall behind in car payments, credit card bills, mortgages and your bookie’s tab. We need to buy groceries, pay for education and doctors, gas for the car and the occasional indulgence, like a short vacation and/or your weight in dark chocolate for those late night cravings. These things require money, hence why we work. Sure beats being broke, living in the streets and scoring what few coins certain intimate services to strangers may provide.

Most of us just struggle along. A lot of us doubtless wish we get a bigger slice of the pie. Very few of us ever do. Wealth usually only comes to those who are lucky, crafty and/or inheriting daddy’s empire. And such riches are often pissed away like hair down the shower drain. Get me, I don’t take issue with wealth, though. It’s not like I’m some radical, left-winged Abbie Hoffman clone denouncing the disparity between the haves and have-nots. Okay, I’m not radical. Can’t ride a skateboard. But I’d be hard-pressed to deny that in these United States the rest of us would be pretty grateful for a large injection of cash to lighten the load and get that chocolate. We’d could cut a large check to a cause to benefit humanity, like find a cure for AIDS or alopecia. We’d love to own an island and maybe establish an endangered species rescue colony. We’d love to have a custom X-Wing.

Nah. Dreaming of that stuff is something we all do once in a while. I think about that X-Wing thing daily, though, all painted up like the Sgt Pepper’s album cover.

I do take issue is how big money is misspent, if not outright abused. Banks too big to fail failing and crushing the housing market. Big Pharma taking careful measures to amp up prices for “research” and at the same time curing nothing so to maximize profits. The fatuous upper crust building actual gold-plated bunkers for when the inevitable happens and the rabble reenacts the French Revolution. Cake and everything.

Don’t even get me started on what Uncle Sam pisses away every minute.

But in the long run for most folks—2% or otherwise—too much money too fast makes you f*cking stupid. I’m not talking about tools who blew their lottery winnings on wine, women, song and an X-Wing painted up like the Sgt Pepper’s album cover. Not day traders who sweat their own piss 25/8 into the next share onto share until they have an aneurism all in the name of some third-world start-up. Not even the upper echelon who think they are invulnerable to social mores and…wait, they are. Sh*t, that’s stupid.

What I’m saying is a lot of people reach for some pretty dumb ends to collect and lose money. I often believe it’s done with a half-baked, shortsighted and head-in-the-clouds kinda daydreaming about what a huge stack could offer. Sports cars you can’t afford the upkeep for. Same for a massive summer bungalow on the beach. Any number of flash accessories to live out your revenge fantasy on all the kids that kicked you out of the playground in grammar school. Sh*t like that. Where to get that quick fix of cash to fill that personal emptiness?

Nowhere. You can’t. Unless you inherit it or bet what little money you had right (e.g.: win the lottery or on Wall Street, whichever gamble you prefer), you’ll get the cash through long hours at your place of employ, scrimping and saving where you can, favors from your bank maybe (if you got one), but more likely relatives and patient friends and forgoing any luxuries like a new XBox One, ordering out for pizza and/or sleep. Big wealth doesn’t just come out of the ether. So much that in our so-called classless society, the majority of Americans will earn what their earning right now until retirement. If they get there.

Most of the time the big money stays right where it is, in a relatively tight global network that’s enthrall to the 2%. You’ve heard it before, and it’s not some outlandish Alex Jones-esque conspiracy theory either. It’s more like an open secret. Six empires control everything, and the profits en toto. Disney, Viacom, etc. Pulling the (purse) strings. The kind of blinding avarice the rest of us covet is always going to be out of reach. So for a reality check, keep punching the clock, wasting cash on hand on stupid scratch-offs and deny yourself that good night’s rest. Your dreams will still be there in the morning before the coffee’s ready.

After many years working for the upper 2% I learned something. Now I’m a bit of an armchair philosopher, meaning I call it like I see it. This is what I saw, and it’s based on personal and against experiences prior to catering to the Robin Leach crowd, BTW. Just roll with me a bit longer.

We all have addictions. Be it poker, Pokemon Go or substance abuse. I’m not sure about the second one, but the others have an option of rehab. You can fess up to your problem, seek out a support group and hopefully get your sh*t together. I have an addiction; I drink too much. I had a co-worker once who was a recovering junkie sharing a house with other recovering junkies. I’ve been to meetings and have sought council. Same with my old friends. There is a way out, once you owe up to the addiction and admit you need help. Society scorns addicts, also knowing full well what their cravings do may lead to either criminal acts and/or bodily harm. Theirs or others (others seem to take precedence). But there are outs, places to commune with other addicts, share stories, drum up mutual support. Hopefully this leads to recovery, or at least a semblance of one.

Here’s the hard truth. Groups only work so far. You actually need that social stigma—that guilt and remorse—to take action and clean up your sh*t. Loose the booze. Drop the needle. Fold. Otherwise it’ll lead to not just a loss of the plot or actual physical harm (yours or the bum you snow over for coins that may lead to another fix of crack), but the gentry looking down its collective nose at you. Scorn. It can be quite the potent motivator to find the straight and narrow.

However there is one addiction that has no cure, simply because it is both encouraged by society (if not revered) and even held in esteem. It’s the addiction to wealth. Enough is never enough. Such a junkie never views themselves as sick, despite having more directly demands having even more. Gone are the days of philanthropy. If a millionaire spreads his billfold wide, there’s usually some PR detachment  waiting with a phalanx of CNN and Fox News cameras at the ready. There’s really no such thing as altruism anymore.

Barring Warren Buffet, too many of the 2% need a detox. You don’t need a gold-plated bunker. You don’t need an island chain in the South Pacific to serve as a driveway for your platinum Maserati collection (which you never drive and never will). You moms don’t need titanium strollers for you 11-year olds. But no plebeian American turns a nose up at this. Amassing wealth is the ‘Murican dream. Smartly managing it? Keep sleeping, and enjoy your Big Mac for breakfast each and every morning.

There is no cure for wealth addiction. There is no end, no matter how many Powerball tickets you scratch. And f*ck all who get in the way of the dividends. Including the housing market.

*pant, pant*

To be fair, some enterprising people do profit wildly from outlandish schemes now and then while staying within the margins. Even a blind squirrel and so on. Some were no accidents. Some get-rich-quick strategies actually paid off without resorting to the Wall Street casino. Some stupid, but eventually fruitful (in no small part to the low-hanging fruit mentality of our blessed country. Quick n’ cheap) ideas that let the coins roll in if only for a short time. Pet rocks, Tamagotchis, Seward’s Folly, etc, at least those fortunes—however hair-brained the motives—had a plan in place, real or projected. Not just it’ll-come-to-ya finger crossing, but a drive. Careful designs in motion. There are the people who just wanna make a quick buck, skim off the top, con, swindle and scam. On the spot and with zero plan what to do once they get their mitts on some cash, if they ever do. Looking up to Rupert Murdoch or our present GOP talking head as if to aspire to be Jesus, Mohammed or John Lennon. It’s okay, no treatment needed there. Brass rings await.

The lower 98% thinks along these lines, I’ll bet. Not all, of course. I still have to work, sleep and keep studying frame by frame every scene of The Sting over and over again in order to locate my own pet rock. If we all had more, what should we really do with it? And how do we get to it? How do we keep it? Is a plan necessary? Do I have a problem? Why are low income folks eating out of McDonald’s Dumpsters to survive? Why should anyone feel compelled to build a gold-plated bunker when titanium is so much stronger, not to mention cheaper? Sh*t, why should any high profile mover and shaker feel compelled to build a bunker in the first place? That says something about who has too much and who has too little if you ask me.

So. Where do we 98% start? Where’s an ample supply of cash at to get our teeth fixed or our car to work or coffee in our mugs? Where can we find our ugly quick fix and “get ahead?”

Well, if you’ve been paying attention over the past few decades, outright theft’s been a pretty reliable tactic…


Charlie (Cusack) has a problem. A few actually. One, he’s broke. Two, he needs cash and quick. Three, he’s a mob lawyer. And four, he just embezzled over $2 million dollars from his best client Bill Gerard (Quaid). Bill’s not the most understanding person in the world, so when he finds out where his finances went, Charlie’s going to have to face his fifth problem: getting away with it, scott free.

He also hates being stuck in Kansas, but that’s another thing entirely.

Okay, so Charlie has the money. He and his fixer friend (and Bill’s illict porn distributor) Vic (Thornton) have concocted a wily scheme of  getting their swag and themselves the hell out of Dodge. Well, will finalize how to get away. Of course, there are always snags in pulling off a heist like this.

Like Charlie being a nervous nelly about getting caught. Like the thug who’s pursuing Charlie and Vic to less than gently shake them down. Like Charlie’s crush on stripper Renata (Neilsen), who has less than a heart of gold and a way of pouring honey in Charlie’s ear. Like having to babysit drunken buddy Pete (Platt), who just won’t shut up about Charlie’s shady career choice. And of course Bill inevitably tracking the the dopey pair down.

All on an Xmas Eve…


Don’t misunderstand. The Ice Harvest is a comedy. A dark comedy. Very dark. We’re talking charcoal here. This ain’t no How To Train Your Dragon here, bucko (shout-out to Lex).

Harvest‘s comedic tone isn’t something I’m used to in a Harold Ramis movie. The humor is so dry it practically chafes. I’m accustomed to Ramis’ movies to be a little madcap, be it nutty plots, snarky dialogue and over-the-top goofball characters. With Harvest, you’d never find the likes of Al Czervik, Carl Spackler or Clark Griswold with their loony comedy cachet. Nope. You would find…well, Charlie Anglist and Vic Cavenaugh, and all the silliness that entails.

Which isn’t much. Or at least being very different form Ramis’ previous efforts.

Harvest a very low-key affair compared to the late, great Ramis’ other movies. Very low-key. This film barely plays like a comedy at all. There are snappy lines, amusing characters and almost noir-ish story playing out. The movie’s source material was Scott Phllips novel of the same name. Never read the thing, but what I got out of Ramis’ adaptation is that Phillips must have a grim sense of humor.

Grim is one of the watchwords here. From the get-go you know this crime caper is bound to fail, it’s only a matter of when. That uncommon dry humor works well for this tale of the wages of sin. It doesn’t ever lighten the load, and that creepy vibe is only amplified for it. One of the major scenes in the film—and doubtless the funniest—is when Vic and Charlie get into a gunfight with Bill’s heavy locked in a trunk. It’s a demented scene, to be sure and rather funny. But these guys are going to kill the guy in the trunk lest he takes out Charlie and report back to his superior about the missing cash. That sounds like something out of a Tarantino flick. The Ice Harvest is a comedy, written by the guy who gave us Caddyshack and the original Ghostbusters. Despite the grim air, this film is meant to make you laugh. Sometimes you do, but mostly you just cringe.

The other key term attached to Harvest is demented. The whole story—set up in the opening with Cusack Coen-esque voice over—is so going to be a paper moon for Charlie. We’re let in on the little secret here and there by the nonsense that routinely pops up in our “hero’s” post heist. Pete’s drunken raging. Renata’s fake 1940’s bombshell schtick. Officer Tyler popping up at the most inopportune times. And of course it’s Christmas in Middle America, all honest and friendly. Nothing in Harvest is simple angst and evading the law/mobster. It’s all about the dry and often unhinged humor designed to discomfort. If Ramis was trying to make Coen Brother pastiche or simply try to stretch himself as director, he succeeded in fits and starts with Harvest.

A lot of what makes this grim, demented, black chucklefest work is (no surprise here) acting. We don’t have a traditional rogue’s gallery here, and Charlie the nebbish is hardly a steel-in-his-veins protagonist. No need nor want. Here we get a neurotic, white collar thief with a crush on a stripper with way too much easy money and not a safe to found. Dillinger he ain’t. I’ve always loved Cusack’s nervous, awkward energy. When either he gets antsy or really into a role, it’s all about scenery chewing without the chewing. A lot of mugging, albeit controlled. A lot of apologetic looks. Flat affect smiles. He seems to enjoy dropping things. He also is very funny when he is cranky. His Charlie has gotten himself  into such a bucket of syrup he can only surrender to the madness of it all and devolved into all Three Stooges. Not the physical aspect, mind you. Just the inevitable beat-downs, social and otherwise. His hangdog is a mile wide and we’re supposed to root for him. We can’t, and that’s fine.

Charlie’s ying to his yang is Vic. Mister smooth smoothie (so we’re led to believe). He knows all the chords, and will play them all the way to the Kansas border. Vic gives the air of cool, calm and collection. He has no doubt he and Charlie’s windfall will make it over the border. It’s all a ruse, though. Vic is just as fragile as Charlie, knowing Gerard’s flunkie is just around the corner to off them, even from within a trunk.

To give you an idea as to how detached a role like Vic’s could be portrayed, I submit Exhibit A: Sam Raimi’s 1998 crime caper gone awry A Simple Plan. Played opposite against a manic Bill Paxton (like there’s any other kind) as a stooge who ended up blowing the whole crime. Here Thornton is the polar opposite, never a jitter to be seen, but the endgame is the same. He knows more than he lets on, at least by what he thinks he knows. The end result is Thronton as a used car salesman selling hoopdies from an empty lot. Not quite sleazy, but cool enough to pull Charlie along into this mess. Both characters are the opposing sides of the same coin. It’s implied that this inside job wasn’t Charlie’s idea seeing how Vic is so clinical about the whole dangerous undertaking. And his fast-talking and angular logic and everything’s-gonna-be-alright delivery just rankles Charlie more, fraying his nerves. That’s funny stuff—a Fargo inspired Abbott and Costello bit—ignoring the heavy pall over Wichita Falls.

The final leg of this triangle is Nielsen’s sultry, conniving dancer Renata. Her femme fatale act is the culmination of a billion Rita Heyworth fanfics. That’s funny without being funny, and her schtick still falls along the lines of dark comedy. Such a caricature starring in a film post-1975 would be laughed off the screen and the screen then burn the screen. Beyond goading Charlie to waltz into her web of shear camies and legs, Neilsen’s best offer to Harvest in the wink-wink, nudge-nudge department is the anti-Elsa a la Casablanca. She’s the reverse, and if you think about it Harvest is a screwy take on Curtiz’ masterpiece. A dire getaway. The woman to leave behind. A lost fortune. Considering this scenario, author Phllips is a genius. How it panned out along Ramis’ storyboard, not so much.

If there is some theme to Harvest is that it’s about a lot less than purloined money. It’s pacing is helpful in unraveling this. Sluggish, like the Kansas winter that slows everything to a crawl. It’s about identity. It’s about trust. It’s about avarice and keeping enemies closer. It’s about army training, sir. The 2 mil is just the Maguffin. What surrounds it is an opportunity for a character study. That and a meditation on greed, lust, trust and what ends people will go to become so closed-fisted. The classic It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was a better example of this with a lot more laughs.

So truth be told, Harvest ain’t all that funny. Icky, dire and left-of-center amusing, but I didn’t laugh outright once. Some snickers, sure, but for a black comedy, Ramis should’ve stuck with what he knew, not cross the streams (it would be bad) and inject just a shade more dementia to rub against the grim.

There was a listless feeling, foot-dragging that made Harvest one shade off brilliant, of which Ramis was. All the hallmarks were there for a Coen Bros/Bob Rafelson/Hal Ashby anti-comedy to be in place. It’s too bad too much Red Harvest keep sneakin’ around the perimeter.

Nice try Harold, wherever you may be. A solid effort, built upon thin ice.

*cue dead drop with a splash*


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Another one: relent it, but with reservations. It’s always a dodgy affair when a genre-established director take a left turn. The turn here was a sharp one, but the driver was halfway asleep. Damned f*cking black ice.


Stray Observations…

  • “Mom, I gotta go…”
  • Nielsen has one of the lousiest American accents I’ve ever been exposed to. Heard that clucking as far back as Law & Order: SVU.
  • “It’s God’s birthday!” Wait, what?
  • At last, an honest cinematic depiction of your typical, average American holiday dinner. Rockwell quality that.
  • Pay phones? In the 21st Century?
  • “It’s surprisingly spacious, Vic.”
  • I can’t believe the Kafka gun tenet was quite literally put to use here. Surprising.
  • “Only morons are nice on Xmas.”

Next Installment…

Most major wars are fought deep in the trenches. When battle literally comes down in LA, soldiers take to the Skyline. Even if that means battling crazed, cannibal aliens from out of our galaxy.

War is hell.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 43: Chris Columbus’ “Bicentennial Man” (2000)


Bicentennial Man


The Players…

Robin Williams, Sam Neill, Embeth Davitz and Oliver Platt, with Wendy Crewson and Stephen Root.


The Story…

It takes a lifetime to grow up. The world is cluttered with social mores, cultural differences and how to manage your emotions. There’s a lot to learn, well beyond the lifespan of your average human.

But what about being not an average human? Heck, what about not being human at all? If your timeline was infinite, could you eventually become self-actualized?

Andrew’s curious enough to give it a try.


The Rant…

That whole “self-actulization” thing above is a popular psych term about trying to reach one’s full potential. The term was coined by one Kurt Goldstein, an organismic theorist (I have no clue what that is either) describing self-actualization as either/or expressing one’s creativity, quest for spiritual enlightenment, pursuit of knowledge, and the desire to give to society. Mother Teresa territory, that. In this day and age of rampant narcissism, damaging senses of entitilement and folks unable to put down the goddam smartphones, such an ideal is lost—or at least ignored—by most sentient creatures.

But wait! Help is on the way (if you read)!

In many bilious rants here I’ve screamed about how tech has been dehumanizing us as a culture. I’m not a Luddite though. Far from. I can’t leave my home without my iPhone, even if it’s out to check on the lawn (it’s still there. Google Maps located it). First thing in morning I scan the NOAA website for the next few day’s angry, unforgiving climate. I have every console Nintendo ever made, even the NX which drops next year (I have connections, meaning a running truck on the corner. Ask for “Slinky”). When technology is used wisely and in the proper hands, we’ve walked away with precision surgical robots, soldier-saving scout drones and Pandora. When misused…well, ask the residents of Hiroshima what’s up.

Seems to me the only folks who were truly sharp about the use and misuse of tech kept the actual gear at an arm’s length. I’m not talking rocket scientists. I’m talking science fiction writers. Old school guys like Clarke, Niven, Ellison, Dick and Asimov to name a few. They had their proverbial fingers all over cautionary tales of science run amok and how it could impact an unwitting humanity (“I’m sorry, Dave…”).

Asimov looms large over this select group of leftist, humanitarian scribes. His classic Robot trilogy is still the first and last word about the use and abuse of artificial people. Androids serving the whims of an often lazy human society and what might happen if yadda yadda yadda change the channel.

Asimov’s works have been translated to cinema once or twice. I skewered I, Robot here, ostensibly based on the books of the vaunted S/F writer. Big surprise the film didn’t really do the man’s ideas justice. His meditations on what it is to be human and what may happen when we give it away is still the gold standard on this philosophy, like I said. Instead we got a miscast Will Smith and low-light distillation under the microscope, all mashed up in the Hollywood Cuisinart.

Not that I wasn’t totally let down by Robot. It had some sharp action sequences up against a few sops to Asimov fans. Which in turn muddled movie proper. But enough about that. Instead, let’s just focus for a few microns on Asimov’s muse. Namely, his substituting robots as metaphor for the human condition. It’s often a lot easier—if not sacrosanct—to analyze humanity displaced with aliens, AI and/or androids. It’s like pointing out the naked emperor the other way around. Deconstructing the pettiness and frailties of humanity in mechanical avatars goes down a bit easier than a witch trial. Or an all-you-can-eat night at Old Country Buffet, right? Who’s with me?

*earbuds being jammed into skulls*

So you don’t care for the cornbread stuffing. Whatevs. Still, it’s a lot more fun and chewy to ask what it is to be human without actually being human. Think about that. If you were an android, you’d never have to concern yourself with eating, sleeping, your sh*tty job, taxes, the crabs, getting sick, growing old and shuffling off this mortal coil. Imagine the possibilities! With that titanium frame and all the time in the galaxy, you could explore the moons of Pluto, dismantle the AIDS virus, out-Proust Proust with the ultimate novel or even unravel the machinations of how time travel may work. Hell, even figure out what the f*ck the inside of a Hot Pocket is really made of (my guess is potting soil and week old semen. Don’t ask).

But really, under Asimov’s philosophies as an android, what could you do with all that freedom and all that time? Your human condition in an undying avatar wandering the world. The years. The decades. What would you do?

Remember that thing about self-actualization? What if not having a self at the outset would be the greatest advantage? Pure tabula rasa. What if time was not an object?

The centuries await…


Richard Mark (Neill) figures his well-to-do family needs to keep up with the Jones’. He solicits NA Robotics for his very own android valet. You know, to perform the domestic tedium to free up his wife and kids’ time to pursue other interests via tasking Andrew (Williams) to do android things.

That’s its name. Andrew. Andrew the android. Cute, right?

At first Andrew is simply positronic hired help. But Mark notices over time that Andrew starts to affect human tendencies, like developing an affinity for music, taking up woodcarving and stranger still an almost paternal affection for Mark’s children. Rather than being disturbed by Andrew’s very un-android behavior, Mark encourages it. Soon Andrew becomes less of an automaton and more of a family member. In such a liberal environment, the possibilities intrigue Mark. He explains to Andrew that given enough time—which indeed Andrew has, thanks to design—he could quite possibly achieve the ultimate dream of all people on the planet: true self-actualization.

This understandably intrigues Andrew in return. So he sets about on his quest towards humanity.

It first involves some clock making…


Let me get this out the way first. Despite my cynical, snarky demeanor, I’m quite the sentimental softie at heart. And yes I have one, you pricks. I hate seeing people hurt and in pain. I’m truly upset about the proliferation of plastic trash clogging our oceans to go so far as to try and recycle everything, including Saran Wrap (it’s a losing battle, what with all of those bodies to dispose of. So I’ve heard. Hey). The current Syrian refugee crisis pisses me off, and the local story about some inner city kid finding salvation in his cello playing simultaneously warms and amps me.

I’ve even cried over a few movies, too. Quit snuffling your nose; you’ve done it, too. Admit it. I am. Here’s a short list and why (and I’m going to forgo my usual REDACTED gimmick. In other words, spoilers ahead): the final act of my favorite film, The Fisher King, when two-plus hours of comic tragedy ends with bittersweet romantic triumph (one of the few Terry Gilliam movies to actually have a happy ending). The scene in Jerry Maguire (shut it) when Cuba’s character recovers from his near debilitating injury to finally figure out what’s what. All of Grave Of The Fireflies made me willingly lose hope.

I can now say that Bicentennial Man tops the list. It’s a good thing and I have no shame. So f*ck you.

But before we reach for the Kleenex, we better take apart how I got to such a lowly, squishy state.

Chris Columbus always struck me as a very methodical director. Journeyman, to be sure, but just because you get the megaphone slapped into your paw doesn’t mean you’re a capable director with a certain sense of, well, direction. Hell, the dude who helmed the biggest comedy ever (Home Alone. Really) as well as the most winning movie series to date (the Harry Potter films. Remember them?) knows a few tricks. Tell the folks in Tinsel Town. Here, this is your folding chair, sit. This is a slate. Clack. Now make us some money. People love those Henry Porter flicks. Get to work, bitch.

Not fair. Not every director is designed to shoot Oscar fodder. With Columbus it’s a good thing. Lacking industry mooring (at least as far as moneychanging name rec goes), the man’s work can slip under the radar, make solid films and have folks walk away satisified wondering not who made the film, but when the next one will drop.

Colombus’ whimsical style suited Bicentennial Man to a T with a capital T. I’ll admit it. I was skeptical at first. The whole I, Robot thing still had a bad taste in my ass, and the prospect of watching Williams as a cute robot mince through the decades with his signature manic delivery didn’t smell too good either. But this was a Columbus movie, and even with all the histrionics that fantasy and a screaming pre-pube Macaulay Culkin can prove, the guy has a steady hand. Granted its a hand clutching a Snickers bar, but sweetness can be potent with the right pancreas.

At its core, Man is a meditation on the nature of humanity. Kinda heady stuff for a family film, which is what Man ostensibly is. Mostly it’s a story of self-discovery, one of the oldest plot devices in Christendom. It’s the tale that’s launched innumerable directorial careers. Hey, when you think about it, it’s launched all directorial careers. So even though Columbus is an established workaday director, legacy secured, résumé solid, why tackle such an old warhorse?

Because has that soild, semi-Disney flair. Some may call his deal sappy. Others slick. But in the endgame, a good delivery is a good delivery, especially when the director has a unique toolbox to draw ideas from. With Man Columbus demonstrates his skill. Here, take my hand. I’ll show you a world of pure imagination.

Too much? Shut up. I told you about the Jerry Maguire thing. Go with it.

Of course Man is a character study. It’s nothing but. It’s essential. Hey, we’re following the lifespan of a near immortal android here. Chances are we got a lot of time on our hands here following the exploits of our vanadium friend. It’s a good thing that our avatar is the late, great Robin Williams. Whether it was Williams’ ongoing efforts to stretch out and distance himself from Mrs Doubtfire territory (also directed by Columbus, oddly enough), or Columbus’ hand both reigning him in and harnessing his skills, it was tough imagining anyone else besides WIlliams playing Andrew.

When he wasn’t employing his trademark zany, unhinged, I-need-Limictal act Williams could be a thoughtful funnyman as well as actor. The man could be very good at channelling the child within as with his roles in HookJack and The World According To Garp (one out of three ain’t bad here). Who better to play an adult child, albeit made of circuits? And Andrew is a child, believe me. Over the course of Man we watch him grow, mature and evolve from automated whatsit to fully-formed individual. If it wasn’t for Williams’ honest and endearing delivery, Man would’ve gone sh*te over shovel before the opening credits finished.

Back to Williams’ comic style as it pertained to Man. Knowing the man’s usual act, Columbus spinning it reverse made a whole new funny. Andrew’s reactive nature is in stark contrast to Williams’ usual histrionics. For once he’s not mugging the camera, bouncing around the set and bursting into impressions. No. We’re watching Andrew, not Williams here. Andrew is passive, sometimes a student, sometimes an object of ridicule. He’s a robot. He takes orders, not give them. He’s restrained, as was Williams’ winning performance. Being the brunt of humor isn’t something I’ve ever recalled in one of Williams’ roles. He’s proactive, but his Andrew certainly ain’t. It was refreshing, and nary a scream was belted.

Columbus was shrewd with his pile of parts as far as coaxing the required earnestness and innocence as any Pygmalion should be. Bits and pieces are carefully dropped along Andrew’s journey in regards to his developing “humanity.” It’s the softest sell of the philosophy of identity I’ve ever seen. It’s a good thing. Man‘s quietly engaging in no small part to Williams. Can’t stress this enough. Hell, even Williams’ voice suits Andrew well.

I’ll quit gushing. In all honesty, Man followed the same template as Forrest Gump. One could even get the impression that Columbus had a case of Zemekis envy going on here. Yes, Columbus’ work can be sweet-natured, but sometimes there’s an overspill of schmaltz. A lot of on the nose imagery. I mean, the clock thing wasn’t real subtle there. Neither was the cross generational joys of implied incest (I call ’em like I see ’em, folks. Not sorry). Sure, this is a voyage of discovery, right? As engaging as Man wasit had a tendency to wander. Probably hard to avoid covering a timeline of two centuries. Still, as absorbing as Man was, in excess of two hours I did drift. There was a lot of proverbial ground to cover, and some fat should’ve been trimmed. We didn’t need to know in depth the technical aspects—literally—of Andrew’s evolution. And the whole familial generations intertwining sometimes got confusing.  That and we delved—nay, plummeted—into forced social commentary in act three. These carps are minor, but glaring.

I’m compelled to give a few small shout-outs to the supporting cast. Hey, it was Williams’ show all the way, but a lead is only as good as whom they have to bounce off of. For instance, Sam Neill is not a great actor, but he’s always solid and enjoyable. He exudes just enough confidence here as a kind patriarch and a man of principle, as well as being left-thinking enough to know an opportunity when he sees one. Based against his Mark’s reticence, it’s really quite remarkable that he’s Andrew’s biggest advocate in letting the android discover his own humanity. This from a guy who learned his lesson about advocating evolution through science after nearly getting chewed to death by velociraptors. You learn, you grow.

I really liked the angular chemistry between Oliver Platt and Williams. This might’ve been the first time in my viewing practices that an ancillary character arrives so late on the scene and yet felt so necessary as well as there all along. Platt’s Rupert had a nifty combo of anxiety, wonder and drive that mirrored Andrew’s mission, but with a healthy dose of deadpan humor. Deadpan is not something Williams did well. Off and on, but not consistently over his wildly eclectic film career. Deadpan Platt works wonders with this stuff, as he did here. Self-deprication paired with the manic fervor of Q (Desmond, not DeLancie) made his Rupert fun. Brittle fun, mind you, but fun nonetheless.

I think that’s all. Covered what was necessary for this journey. Watching Man was emotionally exhausting, but overall worth it. I’ll take any emotional investment created by a movie over your best star power, F/X or gratuitous baring of firm breasts (one out of three ain’t bad). I’m a pretty cynical bitch, but show me a film like this and I will tear up as Johnny Rotten would after hearing Terry Callier’s latest album. Namely, let any pre-conceived expectations go.

Man‘s a sweet film, but hey, it’s a Columbus movie. So shake a hand.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Hope you like cotton candy. You’ll be swimming in it. My d*ck has the cavities to prove it. Enjoy the visual and get that sh*t checked.


Stray Observations…

  • I loved the fact that Andrew affected the same gait throughout his transformation. Once a ‘bot always a ‘bot.
  • “Chickens do not have lips.” Old gag. Still funny.
  • Root’s best acting I’ve ever seen, and I tend to get out much.
  • “You too?”
  • In a CGI world, there’s something to be said for good animatronics, prosthetics and make-up.
  • “You can’t invest your emotions in a machine.” Hear that? Now drop your iPhones.
  • “One is still all thumbs.” Confucius left out that one.
  • “I don’t have a mucus gland.” Useful during allergy season if you think about it.
  • I know that beach. I’ve been there.
  • “Did he not breast feed?”
  • Has Bradley Whitford ever aged? Or not play a schmuck?
  • “Shut her off or I will.”
  • I appreciated the practical touches here to the future cityscapes.
  • “It’s huge…but lovely.”
  • I couldn’t help but feel a taste of incest in Andrew’s quest for humanity.
  • “I’m done.”

Next Installment…

Say it with me, folks: “I’ve had it with these mother f*cking Snakes On [A] mother f*cking Plane!”

Forgive the brackets.