RIORI Vol 3, Installment 58: Woody Allen’s “To Rome, With Love” (2012)

To Rome With Love

The Players…

Woody Allen (surprise), Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page, with Alison Pill, Flavio Parenti, Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi.

The Story…

A washed-up record producer discovers a potential new star in the toilet. A young architect battles feelings for his girlfriend’s gal-pal as well as the advice of his wiser self. An average guy suddenly finds himself hounded by paparazzi, which is the ultimate mixed blessing for an average guy.

Only in the Eternal City, me amico. Let’s take a tour, shall we?

The Rant…

About a billion years ago here at RIORI (volume one’s fourth installment to be exact) I covered Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris. I argued that although the film was well received, it met The Standard by being “too smart” for the rabble. Most of Allen’s films are like that, even the goofy ones like Bananas or Sleeper. To quote Bill Hicks, I’ve noticed a certain anti-intellectualism in this country ever since 1980 to be sure. Nowadays I understand the need for most folks to check in and check out with some mindless cinematic drivel now and then (mostly now).

Smart movies are few and far between these days. Been that way for a while really, well sooner than 1980. When I say smart, I’m not necessarily talking intellectual, dense, snobby sh*t the likes that Lars von Trier, Louis Malle or even Werner Herzog put out. And if any of you out there in the blogosphere recognize those names, don’t fret none. You just like smart films. You ain’t no snob or nothing. Sorry to burst your bubble.

No. It’s okay to like smart films, but what do I mean by smart? Simple. Movies that don’t insult your intelligence. In fact, flicks that may tickle your frontal lobes and even make you think a little. Not in a cram for midterms kind of way, but a movie that may simply make you say, “Huh…” and then go about your day leaving a warm fuzzy somewhere in your cockles. If you can locate them. Where the hell are the cockles of your heart anyway? Probably near the sphincter.

Those flicks are few and far between. Poignant, tender, ribald and a lot of other adjectives you don’t use on a yearly basis. Mostly it’s a lark to hover into such a movie’s orbit. Based on The Standard’s criteria it’s happy hap hunting to track down one of these nuggets. They are there if you want them. Ask Fandango, and try to steer clear of the latest Sandler car wreck.

Woody Allen’s stuff has always been smart, from the dour Interiors to the delightful Annie Hall. Not intellectual per se, but decidedly not dumb (including the screwy sh*t like Take The Money And Run, again Bananas and the to recall a personal fave Sleeper). Sometimes that’s all it takes to have a smart film: not be dumb. In these times where Kevin James has a movie career and Michael Bay just basically exists, not being dumb at the cinema is trace element stuff. You occasionally need a sharp film to wipe away the kernels but not something regarding a beard-growing competition at the local craft beer plank. To be plain, smart movies are all about having a chuckle and knowing why.

The whole connect the dots nature of modern comedies sour me. I like my dumb sh*t as much as the next dude, and for all my slagging on the guy Sandler’s pretty funny (when he’s not forcing it). Still, and there’s always a still, you gotta take a left turn occasionally. So back to Allen. Smart films incarnate, and although I’m a bit of a fanboy, I’d be a liar to not claim his stuff’s a reliable source of cinematic entertainment even if sometimes his oeuvre may require a slide rule. Again, no matter. If the film’s satisfying, who cares?

Speaking of satisfying cinema, Allen’s last movie (and only movie) that went under the knife here at RIORI was Allen’s Midnight In Paris remember. To review the thing in brief, watching 2010 Owen Wilson carouse with the intelligentsia of 1920’s Paris was a lot of fun, even if you didn’t know that Gertrude Stein coined the phrase, “There’s no there, there.” You didn’t need a Masters’ in English lit to be down with Midnight In Paris (tho’ it might’ve helped), but if you were a patient soul in need of a chuckle and a low tier course in existentialism, then boom. Court dismissed.

I heard that a lot of Allen critics and pundits alike regarded To Rome, With Love as a companion piece to Midnight. I didn’t see it. Sure both were tributes to the feeling of the cities, atmospherics and aesthetics, but the tenor of the movies were as different as gauffes slathering in vanilla creme and chocolate covered espresso beans. Truth be told, Paris was about smart and Rome was about “Huh…”

That and Rome had way more music and even more sexual frustration…

Ah, Rome. The Eternal City. Very little has outwardly changed here in the past few millennia. Most of the great architecture still stands, if not still being used. The people are philosophical as ever, as well as passionate over culture, ideas of romance and hospitality (mostly regarding family meals). It’s a vibrant place despite the age. In fact, it’s history makes its contemporary culture all the more vibrant. Ask Hailey (Pill) who accidentally met her future finance Michelangelo (Parenti) there.

Since their only daughter is getting hitched, it would behoove Hailey’s mom Phyllis (Davis) and dad Jerry (Allen) to jump the Atlantic and check out what’s so special about Michelangelo and his beloved home. Turns out a lot, especially for Jerry’s ears. Oh yeah, and the forthcoming nuptials, too. But first, what’s that angelic singing coming from Michelangelo’s family shower?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, established architect of shopping malls John (Baldwin) excuses himself from his wife and guests to go on a little nostalgic walking tour. He lived in Rome years ago in college, and reflection compels him to walk the back alleys of his callow youth. He bumps into Jack (Eisenberg), a young architectural student who not only is on the same studies as John once was, but quite the fan of John’s work. Jack invites John back to his place, and down the rabbit hole they go.

In yet another quarter of the city, Leopoldo (Benigni) is your average, everyday office clerk. He lives with his average, everyday wife and kids. He drives the same average, ordinary car to said average, ordinary office job battling the average, ordinary rush hour traffic every day. Every day. Everyday. Leo’s a no-one, a typical Roman citizen. Nobody would pick him out of a lineup for doing anything remarkable.

Except the paparazzi. Apparently tired of the dirty laundry celebrities toss, Leopoldo is one day swept away from his drudgery to become the guest on the local news channel. When interviewed he’s asked about his morning routine: breakfast, shaving, picking out his wardrobe as if it were all vital information. According to the media it is, and by fault of his mundane existence Leopoldo becomes an overnight sensation. His wife and kids have to battle away cameras at the breakfast table. The world comes to him asking advice on how to best butter toast. He never has to wait for a restaurant reservation. Models slither around him. What a treat for such a lowly nobody!

But is this all there is?

According to a local traffic cop, not quite and not exactly…

Considering the (very mild for a change) rant, my take on To Rome, With Love is kinda akin to an AllMusic review to one of my choice albums.

Go with me here.

For those not in the know—and regarding how old and defunct the band is, no shock—there was this post-punk band Gang Of Four that created a minor stir back in the butt end of Britain’s punk craze. Their lyrics were very political, but delivered with a healthy dose of funk and groove which made the medicine go down. The AllMusic critic with their review cited their ironically titled sophomore effort Solid Gold‘s lyrical content was less “you’re all a bunch of mindless puppets” and more “think about it.” I guess it goes to say that it’s far easier to get a message across with the carrot and not the stick.

Even though Woody Allen’s muse is very much carrot, the stick comes in handy to prod the audience to attention. Worked well for Midnight In Paris. For To Rome, With Love? Not as much. Too much carrot, not enough stick.

I’ll get this out of the way: Rome‘s a pretty okay movie. Okay. It wasn’t compelling as Paris was, but then it was a rather different movie. What got retained from its “sister” movie was it being easygoing and inviting, besides the lovely setting. There’s warmth here, and a devil-may-care flow of the narrative. I mentioned Jim Jarmusch’s style, and we have segues like his films, moving from one chapter to the next. Rome‘s bookends are far gentler, making the intertwining factor easier to swallow. I’m not saying everything is seamless, but thanks to the atmosphere you kinda go “huh” rather than “what?” as Allen takes us on the trip. It’s essential to the narrative of course.

But of course this is a Woody Allen movie, which are often funny and they are narcissistic. Rome is Allen’s view of what the city means running perilously close to parody. Ostensibly Rome is a rom-com, but most of the com part comes from classic Allen one-liners. Sure, Begnini is a stitch as always (he’s a demented riot here) but again, Allen film, and his wry wit and neurotic self sets the timbre of this movie, not to mention virtually all his films (Interiors was the blunt exception). Not that this is a bad thing. Far from it. I hate to keep hammering on the notion that Rome is the flipside of Paris. Perhaps so, especially considering the style of offbeat, winking, goofy humor in play. But with Allen being slick as he can be the proper message and/or tone of Rome is akin to Paris‘ but much more subtle. What the hell, the man just follows his muse.

Both movies are about fantasies. Paris‘ was more overt, with 21st Century Gil jaunts back to early 20th Century Paris’ writers, actors and idols. Rome‘s corners aren’t nearly as square. We have Jerry’s infatuation with Mic’s dad’s gift, which might lift him out of resented retirement. John and Jack meeting each other with a sci-fi taste of future shock, only the way ’round. Leo’s camera barrage. All are fantastical, but within mental walking distance. With Gil we know. With this rabble, again, “huh.” It gets very existential, but not as hard-nosed as Paris delivered.

All right, where does the differences end? Here. Unlike ParisRome is feel good, a rarity for most of Allen’s films (at least consistently over the past 20 years). Rome is a trifle, light as air and never cribbing from Othello. Whereas Paris was heady and all philosophical, Rome is whimsical and philosophical. Sure, that social content is still there, but if you take the darn thing serious you’re wasting your time. And admittedly knowing where Allen comes from he tries to take his audience on a serious trip dappled with enough humor to fool you. Kinda like the joke’s on us. I repeat Rome is silly, but charming and still has all those Woody Allen thingies bouncing around.

What I’m getting at is that although Rome was entertaining, often vibrant, rather funny and typical Allen this flick was mostly for diehard fans. It wasn’t as lush as Paris (or Annie Hall, for that matter) despite the cool setting. Nor was it as thought provoking. Nope. Rome was a lark. A pretty good lark, especially with the whole John/Jack (get it?) chapter, but overall it was fanboy film. Betcha the hoi polloi waked out of the theater scratching their collective heads, maybe stumbled online to RIORI and read the opening manifesto. Yeah, it was that kind of movie.

There. There’s a f*cking sober, thoughtful review for you. Take ’em as they come, cuz I get pissy not being evil. Leave the gun and take the damned canoli already.

Sorry. Wrong film.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. Rome was overall a mild film, with some yuks-yuks and clever musings on identity and existentialism. Plus the backdrop was great. But this a film for fans only, not casual Allen viewers.

Stray Observations…

  • Jesse Eisenberg, twitchy as ever.
  • “Someone dead?”
  • The “shower scene” is the most sensible, ridiculous piece of comedy I have ever seen.
  • “Can you imagine working all that time on your back?” “I can.”
  • Nice touch with the thunder there.
  • “Milly! Milly! Milly!”
  • A kind of reserved Begnini is nice, but still why does having Roberto in this film confuse my brainpan into watching a Jarmusch chaptered film?
  • Page is every woman every guy has ever dated.
  • “You can f*ck me in the car. I’m okay with that.” Told ya.
  • Awesome stare, Alec. Simply awesome.
  • “There are many stories the next time you come.”

Next Installment…

Hey, remember when we were kids and used to play Cowboys & Aliens? No? Sorry, wrong planet.

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 48: Breck Eisner’s “Sahara” (2005)


The Players…

Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz, Lennie James, Lambert Wilson, Rainn Wilson (no relation) and William H Macy, with Glynn Turman and Delroy Lindo.

The Story…

While investigating the history of a lost Civil War treasure ship in Egypt, adventurer Dirk Pitt stumbles upon an epidemic that’s contaminating the water table. And the story goes ever deeper, with evil industrialists, power hungry warlords and even the desert itself hell-bent on keeping Pitt from his quarry and stemming the epidemic.

Just yer typical day at NUMA.

The Rant…

When I was li’l kid, VCRs were a big deal.

In the early to mid 80s these miraculous home video watching gizmos were (finally) sold at reasonable prices. A decent machine could set you back $400 in 80s dollars. Not everyone in your neighborhood to afford one though, despite all the video rentals popping up everywhere. There were videos a-plenty to be rented at Blockbuster, The Wall, Hollywood Video, your local supermarket, the veterinarian, Neptune, etc. But of course you still had to have the damned player. What to do? What to do?

One could rent a unit for an unreasonable price in questionable condition for maybe 24 hours. More if you were sly enough to rent one when Daylight Savings ended. But that was a crapshoot with an emphasis on crap. Back in the Stone Age my dad rented a machine and a bunch of flicks to watch for my tenth birthday party. I’ll spare you the details. My dad got the overheated thingamabob to work with a hack akin to jamming a matchbook in your car’s tape deck (and if that analogy doesn’t date me, no girl ever will). Not long after that we got our own VHS. Better safe and alla dat.

Another popular remedy for the video deprived was a neighborhood viewing party. The folks who had the VCR would invite friends over with a selection of rented tapes. Votes were taken, snacks were eaten, and a consensus was reached on to watch that night. Democracy in action. Warms your heart to be in these United States. Amen.

*Where the f*ck is he going with this? I swore I saw Penelope Cruz’ name up there. Get to it.*

Getting to it. It was at one of these particular parties that I first caught Raiders Of The Lost Ark. My buddies’ folks got a fresh machine and they invited my ‘rents, my sisters and me to hunker down in front of the boob tube for a night’s insanity. First time I got see Indy in action. The whip. The hat. The snakes. Boy howdy.

I didn’t get it.

Settle down. I was ten. I mean, I had a vague idea of what was going on well before the Nazis’ faces melted like chocolate bunnies in a blast furnace. I mostly wondered what Han Solo was up to in the desert there. The guy who made the film—Spiel-something. Maybe you’ve heard of him—did that flick I saw with the boy and his pet alien which I found funny and also made me fall in love with Drew Barrymore. I was six. Don’t judge me.

Anywho, that big rock thing was cool. The rest of Raiders failed me. I was ten then. I had bigger concerns regarding where’d I’d score more Nerds candy and when the local pool would open for the summer. Them Lego models ain’t gonna build themselves, neither.

So I saw it, mostly just to know I saw it. Bucket list entry number jillion in the can. But just because I didn’t “get” Raiders didn’t mean I didn’t dig it. Well, not in the traditional way. Either due to the ragtag video/audio quality of the movie, I got it into my sugar-deprived, pre-puber skull that action movies should look like this. I don’t mean how Raiders looked. I mean the aesthetic. Adventure movies should look grainy, ragtag and knockabout. It enhanced the rough-and-ready flavor of Raiders for me. I may not have gotten the movie, but I did like what I saw. Melting Nazis and all.

I guess it’s hindered my views on adventure flicks over the past three decades. I could’ve gotten behind a lot more films like Raiders if I wasn’t looking through a cracked TV screen. I have, but the weird bite I got from Indy’s first cinematic adventure (or The Thief Of Baghdad, or the live-action The Jungle Book, or the original Clash Of The Titans) left an indelible mark on my movie mind. Adventure movies should be scruffy, ramshackle, unpretentious and devoid of anything slick. They should be all about gee whiz bucky gizmo splash and dash and flair. No sweetening. Never sweetening. Never shine the corners. Keep it grubby. Make it earthy, chewy even. Indiana Jones was filthy and sweaty for the better part of Raiders (so was Marion if you thing about it). I liked the grime. Sure, the action was cool even if the plot eluded my juvenile mind, but I thought the whiz-bang was better for the quality of the video, audio and (now understood to be) DIY special effects.

Ain’t nostalgia great? And I never got beat up by bullies and had my GoBots stolen. Weep.

Keeping my palsied view on how adventure films should look and feel, I’ve kept my eyes out for some glints from the sun, regardless of when a film was released. Trying to combat my myopia I guess. Beyond that ten-year-old-kiddie bias I still am a sucker for silly swashbuckling. At heart, who isn’t that loves movies?

That being said, no surprise here that during my movie sifting, Raiders kindred spirit Sahara caught my attention. Story sounded cool. Exotic locations. 12st Century swashbuckling. Hell, Matt McConaughey starring as an action hero? With Steve Zahn no less as his derring-do sidekick no less (I’m as shocked as you are)? Into the queue with you, Sahara.

Did the flick match up with the hazy, grainy memory of yours truly’s rough-and-ready ideals?

Definitely sorta…

The Natural Underwater &  Marine Agency (or NAMBLA. Sorry, couldn’t resist), better known as NUMA, is the authority concerning undersea excavation for lost treasures and edifices from ancient civilizations. Underwater archaeologists is a simpler and more apt title for their elite crew. And the most elite—and most driven—diver is Dirk Pitt (McConaughey). Sure, uncovering lost history on the ocean floor is wonderful for science and scholars, but at heart Pitt is a treasure hunter, a modern day pirate. But instead of stealing elicit booty it’s the thrill of the hunt that drives him. It’s that rush that’s taken him and his NUMA crew to the Sahara in search of a lost treasure ship. The CSS Texas, a Civil War Confederate ironclad that disappeared from the historical record 130 years ago. As well as the planet.

Wait a minute. Ironclads weren’t designed for ocean-going travel. And to Africa no less? What’s up with that?

There’s the mystery. The Texas was laden with thousands of dollars in gold coinage, ostensibly minted to “fund” the CSA’s desperate armed forces. Locating such a score is too much for Pitt to resist, no matter how cockamamie the historical record is. There’s a lost ship packed to the gunwales with gold out there in the Sahara, and by God Pitt and the NUMA crew are going to find it!

It’s never that easy.

World Health Organization (not NAMBLA) Dr Eva Rojas (Cruz) has more pressing matters on her mind. Bigger than lost gold. A terrible plague has been ripping through Mali, leaving its victims blind, crazed and ultimately dead. She and her associate Dr Frank Hopper (Turman) suspect something more sinister is afoot with this epidemic. It’s spread too fast, too sudden to be considered a natural phenomenon. Rojas decides it’s necessary to travel deeper into Mali to better assess the damage. But Mali is war-torn, thanks to the charismatic and psychotic Major Kazim (James) who appears to have some personal stakes in keeping this plague—and any potential treatment—off any record.

When Dr Rojas digs a little too deeply Kazim’s thugs aim to take her out. Only by happenstance NUMA and Pitt come to her rescue. Eva finds herself on NUMA’s flagship and welcomed aboard by Pitt’s goofball aide-de-camp Algiers “Al” Giordano (Zahn). She explains her strange circumstances and Al figures that maybe his best bud Dirk and him might be able to lend a hand. Hell, they were going upriver anyway. Traveling into dangerous, fractured Mali to find a cure for a plague? No sweat.

So long as they find some lost treasure along the way…

Right here’s a prime example why RIORI exists. Sahara was too big to fail, and yet it did. Financially, if not with the fun factor. It has nothing really to do with gaging the movie’s quality, but it did pique my interest. Here’s the numbers.

If we recall The Standard, any clunky movie that hovers into my view might have a poor (but not necessarily awful) box office turnout. Sahara did indeed fit the bill under that criterion. But here’s the weird thing—maybe another telling thing about Hollyweird’s ever-increasing sense of overblown entitlement to more money for less art, and f*ck you general public—by the numbers the movie did do well at the theaters. At least on the surface.

In 2005, Sahara opened at number one at the box office. Good for the cast and crew. Opening weekend yielded almost $20 million. Again, not bad. The overall takeaway when the sun set was approximately $120 million. Impressive. Where’s the whole “sh*tty turnout” argument? That big buck-twenty is a lot of cheddar. ‘Splain dat away, Mr Smartass Movie Guy!

This is where that damned devil math comes in. Despite Sahara faring pretty well here and abroad, its gargantuan budget of $130 million for production and over $80 million in distribution expenses the film barely recouped half of its original budget. Sahara lost about $105 million at the end of the day, and contested by various accounting firms as to what the ultimate fallout was. I think there was even some government oversight committee slapped together to get to the financial bottom as to what’s up with certain big-budget flicks’ production waltzing with box office failure.

You can at least credit Sahara for originality in that regard.

Okay. Back to me being judgmental and vicious.

Sahara did offer the epic sweep of a globetrotting adventure movie, replete with intrigue, action, cool toys, a dashing hero, a Costello to his Abbott, and a nasty villain we love to hate. All necessary things, BTW (and having Cruz aboard didn’t hurt none, neither). However, it wasn’t terribly original. But what the hell? Sure, treasure hunt movies are not a new thing. Hell, all of the Indiana Jones movies were about our titular archaeologist pursuing some ancient, valuable trinket, gewgaw and/or dangerous religious doohickey. Well worn ground here. Even Dirk Pitt’s alter ego, adventure writer Clive Cussler might be pointed out in a line up for being a fart away from Ian Fleming. And I ain’t talking in the Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang sense. He wrote the source material, by the way. Not Fleming. Focus, people.

So yeah, Sahara didn’t score any points in the originality department. There are only so many ways you can toss that pizza, really. It was fun, though. Kinda. Watching it I wasn’t actively thinking about Indy, nor my antediluvian VHS days either. In all honestly it was hard to do either, but more on that later. It’s that dang “kinda” qualifier that plagued my viewing experience. I wanted to get into Sahara, but I found it a challenge to get and/or keep engaged in the movie. Let alone follow the complicated, if not byzantine plot. Plots.

I coined a phrase in my noggin watching Sahara, mindful of my criteria regarding adventure movies (including the grainy, rough-and-ready stuff): the flick had a certain flair, sorta there. It wasn’t like Sahara was trying hard to be Indy turf or a Roger Moore-era 007 experience (yes, I said Moore and not Connery. Ever see The Man With The Golden Gun? Boom). In fact it moved along pretty nicely, thank you.

Just not consistently.

That’s a big uh-oh considering adventure movies. Sahara felt, well, constipated. Struggling under its own weight. Other adventure films have a pretty straight line to follow. A to B quest, and whatever hijinks ensue to give it some necessary flair. Again with Raiders (let’s just use that as our yardstick. Not sure if a lot of you ever caught Alan Quartermain serials), Indy and Marion are off to find the Ark. There was no real need for her bar burning down. Nor Indy slugging it out with the bruiser under the flying wing. There’s a school of thought that suggests even Indy himself wasn’t essential to the plot (but who else could deliver those high decibel, meaty punches?). But they added spice—flair—to an otherwise pretty run-of-the-mill actioner.

Sahara has some of that flair (the opening scenes, Eva stuck in the well, the raid on the solar farm, Dirk and Al jerryrigging that “skiff”) but due to sluggish pacing in fits and starts—including the chase scenes, of which there are many—it gets all bogged down. A lull in the breeze whispers at the corners, and a lot of that is straying from the tried-and-true and definitely unoriginal formula of decent adventure films: following that straight line.

Sahara‘s plotting is rather convoluted. I mean it’s easy to follow where the story is going, but there are so many jerks and jabs it’s akin to watching a UFC match on Valium. That looked cool. What was it? Whatever. Pass the Doritos.

The waters got rather muddied with Sahara. I think I’m not making much sense here, getting to the very nubbin of truth, but the whole plot was schizo. Sahara‘s promises of straight action and adventure got dashed with the “evil corporation” story. I mean the “ravaging warlord” story. No, it was the whole “Civil War legend/river-runs” story that popped up in and out of the main plot proper (if there really was one). It was all tad tricky to follow. Sahara didn’t have a throughput. It had a chess match. With camels. That much I was certain. There were camels. And that nebbish from The Office, too.

I’m also not sure if the heavy, micro-managed story sunk a lot of Sahara‘s flair and fun. Like I said, those things were there. But under the weight of the story’s delivery, a lot of the verve and urgeny got lost in the mix. Most of the humor fell flat, as well as being too broad. Our cast, although competent if not likable, felt held back (save Zahn, who’s a great character actor. Too bad he doesn’t catch a lot of work. He’s hilarious). If director Eisner was aiming for a 21st Century Raiders feel, he did it with a muted style. Some flair, sorta there. Blame the scenarists.

What I’m getting at is that Sahara was somewhat low-key for a supposedly rowdy action/adventure. I think think I know why, too. Boink, big surprise. The ostensible alpha plot of Pitt and Co searching for the lost treasure ship swiftly gets sidelined by the beta plot about the plague. With that, the whole adventure film feel slips into a socio-politco-eco meditation Trojan Horsed onto my TV. If an action flick has a message, it shouldn’t be overt. Gets in the way of the explosions, distressed damsels and dancing tigers on angel dust. The plot got convoluted, the treasure hunt thing got backburner’d and my attention drifted too often.

You get what I’m screaming now? If my childhood standard of how adventure films should look, sound and especially feel then Sahara grew not rough and tumble enough. It came across as ultimately overwrought and overproduced, like when George Lucas would not. Quit. F*cking around with the original Star Wars trilogy. That’s another thing. Sahara‘s big budget execution left nary a whit of character. All that cash made damn sure that all the bells and whistles were in full blare as the kitchen sink got tossed out the window and hopefully stuck. Sahara tried to have its cake. Tried to make too much sense. A lot of the adventure stuff got lost with the many diverging and converging plot threads, too much exposition, simultaneous languid and ADHD pacing (with the precious few scenes of serious action) and trying to convey a message, before God. In that vein, too much expo kills an action movie. It’s called an action movie, remember? Shut up and dance, already.

Where was the scruffiness? The feeling of adventure? The underlying lo-fi ethos that didn’t rely on CGI? The quirks and jokes and plausible denial that, yeah, Indy can cling to that sub’s conning tower all the way across the Mediterranean? It was there once and a while (and what was there was great), but the output was dizzying, and not it a whip-cracking kind of way. All the cool sh*t got hampered by the stuff I just mentioned. All of Sahara‘s clean and dense delivery didn’t leave a lot of room for unnecessary bits like shooting the swordsman to expedite matters. Hey, we all cross the median once in a while.

In other words, Sahara lacked charm. With all the potential, where was the charm here? Sahara didn’t have much, if any, that’s what. It lacked spark. It didn’t have that homespun quality that I enjoy, if not expect in adventure movies. Sahara was excessive, overly laden with expo and a rather heavy-handed message. It was too long, or at least felt that way. Too many intertwining plot threads. Too complex for your average, workaday adventure flick. Too much time demanding audiences to think. Death at the box office there. Sahara could’ve been so much more, if only it used less.

I’ll reel it back. Sahara had its fair share of obvious bright points. On the good side, Sahara‘s casting was impeccable. C’mon. Raiders had a super cast, from Ford to Black to Elliot for Pete’s sake. Despite the swamp our heroes had to muck through, at least Eisner knew how to assemble a great adventuring cast. I feel it was the best part of the movie.

Matt (I’ll refer to him as that because I have a bitch of a time spelling McConaughey) was a damn good maverick hero. He sure seemed to like being Dirk Pitt (even though his delivery was a lot like Wooderson only with money and a boat. Still trying to score that almost out-of-reach opportunity. All right, all right, all right). Matt’s glee was infectious, and a far cry from his more “serious” roles as of late. You couldn’t wait to hang out with this Dirk guy, either across the ocean or at your neighborhood cookout. Matt was cocky without being a doosh. He was sharp in a MacGuyver sense. He played the whole leading man/rogue thing to the hilt. It was a lot of fun to watch.

Now Steve Zahn’s Al was a stitch. The guy’s come a long way since Caroline In The City. Right, he’s supposed to be Pitt’s best bud and sidekick. Zahn’s Al is played like an even balance between clueless and the man behind the curtain. Batman couldn’t truly be Batman without trusty Robin. Or Bucky Barnes. Even Clifford the big, red dog. Zahn got all the best lines, and toed the line between dolt and savant equally well. Who knew how vital the right ballcap could be in social interactions?

Cruz, despite being the implied lady in need of a hero, held herself well. Both with character and devotion to the cause (message) without overplaying her hand. Maybe like you, I got acquainted with Cruz via psychodrama Vanilla Sky or the hard-edged Blow. The woman could never carry a movie, but pair her with the right actors? Box office gold. She’s a very good supporting actress, protean in all her roles. Her Eva is no different. If you consider it, she is the impetus that gets Sahara off and running, not some lost Confederate gold. Despite the pregnant plot, Cruz’ Rojas was the most effervescent element to keep the movie afloat despite its own weight.

So needless to say, I loved Sahara‘s cast. Macy was fun. James was menacing. Lambert was slime. Wilson was the resident dork. Despite all the hallmarks of a straight ahead adventure film getting hot and heavy with Sahara, Eisner sure was a whiz when it came to working his chess board. It kept the film on track—albeit against the sandy grain of the story—which in turn allowed that vital flair now and again. Gave me enough hope to keep watching the thing.

It’s that kind of smarts that made Sahara so disappointing to me. I had to watch the movie twice (never a good sign) to both “get” the plot and see if I missed any flashes in the pan. I did and I didn’t. Overall, neglecting my myopic view regarding watching adventure flicks via sh*tty magnetic tape equating quality, Sahara was a good, bloated, overreaching flick with a great cast and a plot as thick as molasses in January with too big a budget to demand urgency. Like I said, schizo. Frustrating.

So thank you. This installment was brought to you courtesy of a little smear of Vaseline on the lens of memory. VHS sucks on toast against DVDs, Blu-Rays, YouTube feeds and bedeviled childhood wonder. Be kind, rewind.

*whip crack*

“I am so tired of being shot at!”

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it, but with reservations. Sahara tried hard to be fun. But it tried. Half the time it was fun, then that pesky plot kept rearing its head. Mind the mixture. It’s good it fits and starts, but then that’s what I’ve heard about smack. Party at the Moon Tower then.

Stray Observations…

  • “Hey, my dad collects coins.”
  • I do love the 70s soundtrack.
  • That was the silliest chase scene ever.
  • That whole “Dirk Pitt Adventure” tag in the opening credits: was Sahara supposed to launch a franchise? For those not paying attention, it didn’t.
  • “You should put the money to better use…”
  • Breck? Isn’t that a kind of shampoo?
  • “I have some bad news about your boat…”
  • “Nobody cares about Africa!” All too true.
  • I gotta admit, the improvised windjammer scene made me smile.
  • “I’ll get the bomb. You get the girl.” “Deal.” Go! Team! Venture!
  • “Hi! How are ya?”

Next Installment…

You can’t keep anything quiet in a small down, be it an affair, a crime or an insistent need to abscond with millions of dollars to get the f*ck out of said small town. The Ice Harvest is on deck, folks. I’ll think of a more clever tagline the next time out. Peace and chicken grease, bitches.