RIORI Vol 3, Installment 40: Brett Ratner’s “Red Dragon” (2002)

Red Dragon

The Players…

Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson and Harvey Keitel, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anthony Heald and Mary-Louise Parker.

The Story…

To know the mind of a killer, one must understand a killer.

FBI agent Will Graham knows this all too well. His final capture which sent him into retirement was the infamous serial killer Dr Hannibal Lecter. “The Cannibal” almost sent Will to his grave. Instead, Lecter merely left Will with a scarred body and an even more scarred psyche.

Now there is a new killer on the loose, and Graham gets dragged back into active duty. This “Tooth Fairy” seems to have the same tastes, so to speak, as our dear doctor. So Will seeks out his old adversary for some insight into the motives of his quarry. You know, to help with the manhunt.

Seems like Graham doesn’t understand as much as he should.

The Rant…

I don’t think there have been a lot of Best Picture Oscars in the past 30 years that have truly earned the award. I mean the Oscars are nothing but a high school senior year popularity contest, right? Minus the beer bust on Friday at Kevin’s place since his ‘rents are in Barbados. Best Pics in my observation are nominated on popularity (eg: box office booty), critics’ nose-out-of-joint say-so (I’m not in the Academy, so my say-so is worth f*ck-all. By proxy, I’m more qualified, so nyah) and the dotty senility of a clutch of old, white, rich guys who don’t even have to watch the nominees (refer to my Crash installment. I’m too damned lazy to repeat myself).

Bitter? Me? Naaah.

What I’m saying is there are some movies that are so monumental of course they’d win awards, no matter how irrelevant and empty such trinkets are. I am of the George C Scott school regarding awards and self-congraduations: just stay home from the bells and whistles (never get invited anyway. Sulk). Great sh*t doesn’t need to advertise they’re great. They speak for themselves.

By my measure—and my standards, which are hopelessly myopic, thank you—precious few grand films have come down the pike lately. By lately I mean in my lifetime, all forty angry, drunken, flatulent years. Across this continuum, we’ve had “what the hell” winners like Dances With Wolves, The English Patient, Driving Miss Daisy, 12 Years A Slave and the original Rocky. Yes, that Rocky.

I await your beer cans. I am not afraid. I’m wearing Gallagher concert gear.

Those films are a small sample of good movies, but really haven’t endured. It’s no mystery that I find Wolves treacly and somewhat insulting, but it’s still decent. Worthy of all that praise? Let’s put it this way, quote from it. Anything but “Tatanka.

*whistling wind*

Okay, weak sauce. But what I’m driving at is a lot of those Best Pics haven’t really saturated the pop culture consciousness, as if they’ve always been there. Or the pop scene couldn’t’ve existed without these films, so entrenched they are in our short attention span, microwave mac n’ cheese, Nickelback downloading hive mind. The comprehensive list is short, but potent. Casablanca, Gone With The Wind, The Godfather 1 & 2, Lawrence Of Arabia, the original (can’t believe I have to quantify that) Ben-Hur are prime examples. Precious few other capital Q quality movies have dropped in our laps that had no other option but to win Best Picture. Few and far between, but since the bicentennial we have had The Deer Hunter, Gandhi, Amadeus, Unforgiven to impress eternal upon our collective, popcorn-drunk brainpans.

Oh, and The Silence Of The Lambs. Can’t forget that one.

*our blogger finally approaches his point, and the crowd lets out a sigh of relief*

Stick around. I’m baking cookies.

Ah, Lambs. A perfect example of an enduring movie. Quarter century old and it still resonates with the movie munching public. Even folks who’ve never even seen the thing (for shame) can quote it verbatim, Agent Starling. I’m not gonna wax rhapsodic about the film, except the for that fact is that it’s the wifey’s fave film, which says something. Maybe that she’s a Virgo. But I am gonna go on about Anthony Hopkins’ performance as the infamous cannibal. It’s pertinent to the rest of this screed, never worry. So regardless what your personality makeup is, Lambs packs a punch. Along that line, no one out there in the audience has more (of a twisted) personality that Dr Hannibal Lecter, Hollywood’s favorite serial killer.

The most fascinating thing I ever heard about how the character is regarded is that Lecter was the guy you wished you knew. The man with the grace, intelligence and poise who would be the ideal person to spend an evening with over wine and cheese. This is naturally thanks to Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning performance, and although I cast a cocked brow at the Academy, they didn’t have rocks in their heads back in ’91. Hopkins’ charm sold the character, and Lecter is a very scary customer. Hollywood lore says that Hopkins only had like 20 minutes of screen time, but boy did he make the most of it.

So how did those scant 20 work so coldly effective? I think I have an idea. This theory’s based on an actual interview with Hopkins, and how he approached the character of Lecter. When he initially read the the script for Lambs he was uncomfortable with the character. Appalled might’ve been a better word. The party line went that Lambs’ babbling director Jonathan Demme was a fan of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, the biopic about the Victorian prodigy with elephantiasis John Merrick. In that film, Hopkins portrayed his sympathetic benefactor Dr Treaves. Demme suggested to Hopkins that Lecter is Treaves, in reverse. Play him that way.

It worked. Lecter was well-mannered, considerate, insightful…devious, manipulative and twisted. Come into my parlor, said the spider to Clarice. That combo of sweet with the bitter made for a delicious, scary villian. And he was behind bars! The real terror was Buffalo Bill skinning girls (and a moment of aforementioned rocks in the head back then Ted Levine wasn’t nominated for his freakish performance. No justice, I tell you), not that you cared with Lecter scheming behind the plexiglass barrier. The anti-Treaves method worked wonders.

Which is why we still talk about the movie—and the character—to this day. Now, with such a compelling character as Lecter we hated to see him go. Although Lambs didn’t (immediately) invite a sequel, although the ending left that open (and it eventually showed up in the form of Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, not to mention the TV series to a degree) doubtless Hollywood was champing at the bit to keep Lecter in the minds of moviegoers. Well, word on the street was that Hannibal failed to deliver, both the novel and the film (perhaps that trifle will be cast asunder at RIORI in the near future. Cross your fingers), and the nascent franchise seemed dead in the water.

Then Hollywood decided to employ a device I loathe: the prequel. It didn’t work with Star Wars, and if that ain’t a red flag I don’t know what is. Maybe that Rob Zombie Halloween remake. Some folks never learn. I believe that prequels are not just milking cash cow, but strangling the udders until they bleed. Can’t expand the story further? Retrofit! Fix what’s not broken! Muddy the waters! Freebird!

Deceive. I hate deception. Especially flagrant deception, in plain sight and a big middle finger to the moviegoing public. When a good movie comes out, and there is actual room for a sequel (eg: the original Star Wars or Godfather movies), it works once in a while. But for every The Road Warrior we get Ghostbusters 2.

That being said, and simply put, extending a movie’s story is a tricky, often faulty undertaking. Most of the time sequels are all about bigger, better, faster, more. Prequels try even harder. They are mercifully scant, but when they do pop up…well, law of diminishing returns. Think Attack Of The Clones, Prometheus and Monsters University. Superfluous, annoying and an obvious cash grab. If there really is another story to tell before the here and now, it helps if there is a legit story to draw from.

Might be a good thing that Lambs author Thomas Harris wrote Red Dragon first…

FBI profiler Will Graham (Norton) has a problem, and it’s behind bars. It’s also in his mind. Furthermore, it’s not an “it,” but a he. His last case.

Dr Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Hopkins).

Graham has the skill—or perhaps curse—of malign empathy towards killers. He can get inside their heads, imagine how they operate, understand their motives. But all that sifting takes a psychic toll. It’s taken Graham to the brink more than once. Even the most skilled of manhunters need help in sorting disgusting matters out. Which is why he sought out Lecter.

Once. And it nearly killed him.

You see, Graham was being aided by Lecter in cracking a case of serial killer terrorizing the Baltimore area. Him being the preeminent forensic psychologist in the country, of course his insight would be invaluable. It was. All too much. Graham uncovered Lecter was the killer, flaying his victims and devouring their organs. Graham’s oversight nearly cost him his life at Lecter’s hands, but not before sending him to the loony bin.

After that, retirement, but not before stints in a medical and mental hospital. Psychic toll.

Graham was over with it. Forget the FBI. Retreat to Florida with his wife Molly (Parker) and young son Josh. Fix boats to pay the bills. In sum, recuperate, and let the nutjobs alone.

Then his old boss Jack Crawford (Keitel) shows up with a pair of photographs. Two families, slain in a gruesome fashion. Jack needs Graham’s old magic back; this case is hard to crack. At first, Graham balks. He was done after Lecter. Jack insists. This new freak, dubbed “The Tooth Fairy” (Feinnes) is crafty, and Crawford needs Graham’s unique skill set. Will he lend a hand, if only as a consultant?

Graham has a family, too. But before he takes Jack up on his offer, he feels he needs some unique skills for his own use. This Tooth Fairy is cagey, and his pattern stinks of an old adversary. A very smart, clever and devious adversary. Someone who may be better than him at getting into crazies’ heads.

“Dr Lecter, there is someone here to so see you…”

I’d be remiss in my duties to point out, as far as prequels go, Red Dragon the novel was made into a film once before back in the 80s. A very good film, BTW. Michael Mann (of Miami Vice fame) directed  Manhunter back in 1986, five years before Demme’s Lambs. In Manhunter we were introduced to our best bud Lecter in the form of the brilliant Irish character actor Brian Cox. Cox’s Lecter was pissy, mocking and devoid of all charm that Hopkins had. He was great. After watching Red Dragon, I wondered that beyond Treaves, maybe Hopkins took some cues from Cox for a proper delivery before Clarice carefully descended into the basement and got jizz flung at her hair. Maybe.

Manhunter was a product of its time, and it showed. This is a good thing. It was a very 80s film, down to the fashions and synth-driven soundtrack. The cast was awesome, too. As Graham we had William L Peterson pre-CSI, the late, great character actor Dennis Farina as the dour Crawford, and looming large and creepy Tom Noonan as the Tooth Fairy (he later portrayed Frankenstein’s Monster if that tells you anything. Okay, it was in The Monster Squad, but come on).

Manhunter was an angular, engaging, hard to watch (in a good way) kinda film. I own it. I love it. Some folks claim that in some ways it’s superior to Lambs. Some say. Both are very different animals, though. It’s kinda of hard to believe that the character of Lecter (thanks to Hopkins) was nothing but charming and quietly menacing. Cox’s performance was a sarcastic, angry, trolling doosh, well met since he was pissed at Graham for capturing him.

This was not lost on Hopkins in Red Dragon. Must’ve seen Manhunter as research. Hopkins affects the same vitriol as Cox did. His Hannibal is f*cking pissed being behind bars, and spews his ire all over Norton’s Graham. He does it with the old Hopkins/Lecter charm, though, but here it’s soured. Where Hopkins was a smooth smoothie in Lambs, he’s crude and rude in Dragon, happily taunting his nemesis at every opportunity. Sure, Graham’s Tooth Fairy case piques Lecter’s intellect, but most it serves as the MacGuffin: revenge on his captor. Lecter taunts Graham, rather than goads Starling. Hannibal’s not scary here. Instead he’s funny, but not ha-ha. He mocks Will with his wit. He’s angry, and at every chance he snipes and snarks. And what better way to torment a scared person on the edge with a well-placed barb? Hell, I use that all the time. Sometimes even here.

Before we delve deeper into bedrock, let me me scatter some gravel. Remember what I said about Manhunter being a product of its time? Dragon has that, too. I’m not talking pop culture fingerprints, though. Director Ratner (whom I wish would’ve shown more verve after this film. X-Men 3? Blargh), with thanks to the scenarists cut a clean film that has tons of 80s touchstones without blaring them. Subtle old school touches are myriad in Dragon. The cars, the fashions, those blocky computers and VHS tapes aplenty. You almost forget that this film was cut in the early aughts. Of course it helps that at the outset, Lecter’s capture happened in 1980.

That’s another thing. Here’s where the prequel aspect actually comes into good use. In Lambs again, Hopkins’ Lecter was slender, almost gaunt. Spending years in captivity will do that to you (prison food sucks, and no liver or fava beans either). In Dragon, Lecter looks well-fed, so to speak, and still has dark hair. One would assume a cannibal deprived of his menu would slim down behind plastic. In Dragon, not long after his capture, one might assume that Lecter would be peeved being deprived of his “luxuries” and look a tad chubby. Of course, this in reality would be due to Hopkins hitting Old Country Buffet with his millions, but let’s not split hairs. Pass the gravy.

Norton as Graham on the other hand is a different case. In Manhunter, Petersen’s Graham was a cold, distant, haunted person. He maintained a flat affect throughout the film that made him haggard, scared and enervated, No surprise with the Lecter case he carried around in his head. The show was over, but not upstairs. Petersen’s Graham was disturbed. Norton’s Graham is cool. Where Petersen was on the edge of cracking up, Norton is collected (albeit barely). Norton has a rep for being difficult, and has a penchant for playing weird characters. Our baby-faced protag has donned the mask of neo-Nazi Derek from American History X, Dr Bruce “The Incredible Hulk” Banner and Fight Club‘s narrator. FBI profiler Will Graham ain’t too far a stretch, still he lacks the personality tics expected of a cop nearly killed by his arrest, only to have tea with him later. The saving grace here is whenever his Graham has to (reluctantly) interact with Lecter he looks visibly upset, if not scared, all set jaw and on the verge of cringing. His cool demeanor gets disrupted. It would’ve been better if the curled chin and glassy look were used more often over the course of the film.

Norton was no Petersen, but Dragon had a different flavor. Manhunter‘s Graham was emotional. Dragon‘s Graham was clinical. That’s it. Dragon is more a straightforward crime drama than Lambs was all drama and scary. Here we have fast-paced, where Lambs was careful and deliberate. Dragon wasn’t made to win Oscars. It was made to thrill.

Urgency is the watchword here. When Crawford shows up at Graham’s door he’s quick to inform him that they have a scant three weeks to find the Tooth Fairy before he kills again. The race is on, and it only lets up in fits and starts when we gotta give face time to our pair of serial killers. Everything in Dragon is bounce, bounce, bounce and the editing is fantastic. Usually a breakneck speed that Dragon sails at would derail most crime dramas. There is a lot of info dump here, but the delivery is so fluid you have little trouble following the narrative. In fact, Ratner’s skill at pacing is so good here that the hints and subtleties register moments later with an “Ah ha!” You figure out what’s happening in a flash and it gives you a sense of satisfaction. I’m on to you, Tooth Fairy! Chewy this, and I’m not apologizing for that one.

Something else worth pointing out. This is a DeLaurentiis production. For those out there that this fact fails to send a chilling chuckle down your spine, lemme tug on your coat a bit. That name has been synonymous with distributing low rent, chewing gum for the mind movies for half a century. Some of that studio’s output has been noteworthy for that. The good: Blue Velvet, Evil Dead 2 and (wait for it) Manhunter. The bad (and they are criminally bad): Maximum Overdrive, Earth Girls Are Easy and the Pumpkinhead franchise. All those disparate movies, however, have a signature thread running through the cinematic tapestry: cheesiness. For good and bad. Virtually every one of the DeLaurentiis films have a happy degree of movie gouda.

The rub? It works both ways. Dragon has some of that cheeze. There’s a campiness nipping at the heels in Dragon. As interesting as the acting is, its all one curd away from seagull-splaterring onto your shoes. Then again, it works here. There’s a sort B-movie aspect to Dragon, in a good way. Example? The supporting cast.

Example? Feinnes as the Tooth Fairy (AKA Francis Dolarhyde, one of the best character names this side of a Pynchon novel) is really enjoying his role here, which is really creepy. Sure, we all know serial killers are nuts and scary, but Feinnes really digs in here. His Dolarhyde is a slow burn, only to get bonkers all alone. Graham documented the handiwork while Dolarhyde was pumping iron and getting berated by his dead grammy. It’s the whole letting your imagination filling in the blanks. When Feinnes is on screen, we know he’s…off. The whole pie scene alone is quite chilling. His is almost a stereotype, but with the whole “Ah ha!” thing I mentioned earlier paired with the cheese Dolarhyde is not menacing as much as he is freaky. In the end, almost a thing of pity. And isn’t the best way to appreciate a character? Sympathy? Who’s with me?

There’s a few hiccups here, though. There always are. It’s understood by this point that Dragon plays on Manhunter‘s legacy with a lot of winks and nods. It’s almost as if the movie assumes you’ve seen the other version, inviting if not daring you to stab a finger at the screen. While Manhunter took a few liberties with the source novel, it was its own entity. It maintained the spirit of the story if not the letter. Dragon on the other hand follows Harris’ book almost note for note, scene for scene. If you read the book, it’ll be either very satisfying to see Ratner got it “right” or frustrating for the film being so literal in its execution. In fact, there are only two scenes I can recall in Dragon that weren’t pulled directly from the text: the first scene and last scene. How Graham nabbed Lecter and the ensuing psychological damage was touched upon in the novel, made flesh with the opening. The final scene is a sop/snicker for Lambs fans. The first works while the last is merely cute.

So much hero worship can send the movie experience into ultra-overdrive. For example, we learn that the Tooth Fairy’s motives lay in “seeing” things. And, boy, there sure are a lot of pictures and home videos in the victims’ houses. The clever subtlety is there, but as satisfying as it is to catch it, there’s not a lot of time to digest it all. Ratner’s roller coaster flow had a tendency to get a bit too fast paced. Like if you’re not familiar with Manhunter it’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. I admit I had to do a bit of explaining here and there when I sat down and watched Dragon with the wife and stepdaughter (don’t worry. She’s sixteen. Not the wife). That’s not fun (not the wife).

Sometimes it felt like Ratner let the actors take over the movie. The lunatics took over the asylum, almost literally. As much fun as it was to watch our cast dig in, the narrative occasionally felt muddled for it, often overtaken by a bit too much symbolism (somewhat more soft selling to Manhunter) and scenery chewing. The “lady dressed by the sun” paired later with Reba and the fire scene was a tad heavy-handed. Then again, “Ah ha!” Again. It could get a shade busy and tiresome. It all came to a head with the super tense ending, which was very good, but it also had the taste that this scene was what the movie was ultimately leading to, not necessarily the journey. Virtually all our cast were in the direct spotlight, recapping their reasons for being. Considering Ratner’s style, though it was a good way to go regardless.

So no, Dragon is not Lambs. It doesn’t try to be. Dragon may be more demented than Lambs, but such a film should be. The latter was approaching art. The former was meant to entertain, and that it did. Quite well, in fact. With a guy like Lecter, you need both sides of the plate to really dig in after all. Delightful and goofy supporting cast both. Cheese with the chianti. In further fact, Lambs might’ve started the whole modern serial killer drama template as we know it. Style over style over substance in the finest way. Without Lambs, we’d have no Se7en, no American Psycho, no Henry.

And no Red Dragon, either. Full circle, that.

“Dream much, Will?”

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a high octane thriller, more so paired against Lambs’ slow burn. Dragon‘s worth your while, so long as you pair the right wine with the proper cheeze. Visit your dentist while you’re at it.

Stray Observations…

  • I have that book. I also have no idea what human flesh tastes like. Probably like chicken.
  • “Where’s the dog?”
  • What’s with the mini-gallows?
  • “Would you give that up?”
  • The sniffing thing in both movies. Continuity?
  • “What was your trick?” “I let him kill me.”
  • Notice the sweat stains and tell me Graham’s not scared.
  • “I have no pity” I saw Schindler’s List. Gotcha.
  • Bless you, 666.
  • “You’re so sly, but so am I.” I mentioned this film caged a lot from Manhunter.
  • That billboard is a tad early.
  • “How ’bout an exclusive?” Hoffman is so slimy here he has algae stuck to his brow.
  • “I’ve been there myself.”

Next Installment…

“Heaven and Earth are heartless, treating creatures like Straw Dogs” – Su Zhe

RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 17: Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” (2002)

25th Hour

The Players…

Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin and Brian Cox.

The Story…

After years of making a mint in the drug trade, Monty Brogan’s luck has run out. The cops were tipped off to his crimes, and now Monty’s facing a stint for seven years up river. With only one day of freedom left, Monty wants to reconnect with his estranged friends for one last night on the town.

The Rant…

Sometimes I get the feeling that Spike Lee gets a bad rap, and for the life of me I can’t understand why.

I say “feeling,” being based on his years in the industry, Lee’s personality tends to override his artistic credentials. That and I think his terse, naked, in-yo-face directorial style makes folks uncomfortable. This isn’t because Lee’s films are no-holds-barred social commentary (which they often are), but more the tenor of his films makes the general public look inside themselves in trying to identify with Lee’s characters. And Lee’s characters are seldom flat, easy to understand stereotypes. Almost his entire dramatis personae are hard-edged, conflicted, very real people with very real issues, both emotional and situational. Lee’s work has always held up a mirror for America’s audiences, and sometimes America doesn’t like what it sees. At least, what they see in themselves.

For example—probably the primary one—take Lee’s classic Do The Right Thing (duh, of course I’m gonna start there). That volatile, long, hot summer day of antagonism and racial prejudice really smacked people around back in the 80s. These days the film might come across a little preachy for today’s audiences, and at times may been seen as comical, sometimes delving perilously close into self-parody.

Regardless of how Thing was or might be perceived, it can’t be denied that the movie struck a chord with audiences of all stripes, and not in some squishy, Forrest Gump kind of way. That subtle-as-a-flying-mallet delivery Lee’s been engaging in for over a quarter century is his stock in trade. Like I said, perhaps audiences and Hollywood alike attach his confrontational nature and perceived vitriol directly with his public image and/or dire filmography. It’s no secret that Lee is outspoken, sometimes brash and very opinionated (for all the right reasons), but beyond that he’s a storyteller with something to say, and obviously a man with a lot on his mind.

I think Lee’s rep is yet another example of both Hollywood’s mill-churning, entertainment media’s less than objective marketing or image and a hostile, ignorant audience who can’t face the man in the mirror. I’ve watched a lot of Lee’s movies—not all. There are only so many hours in a life—and what I’ve walked away with from all of them is being entertained (granted in a discomforting way), having some thoughts provoked, some really 3D character acting and the feeling the guy never gets his due. Sure, Lee’s respected in the film world, but not so much within the glitzy Hollywood club. In fact, Lee’s CV reads as anti-Hollywood, especially since almost all his work is set in and around NYC. Being removed from Tinsel Town’s ethos of bigger, better, faster, shinier, more Lee’s carved out a unique voice in the filmmaking community. And all that being outspoken has done him good as well as earned some derision.

I want to talk about that in specific. Okay, I said that Lee’s adept in holding up the mirror. Also the general public doesn’t like that too much; they’d rather sit in their comfy couches of ignorance and judgment and not have their coats tugged on. I think that’s where the often naked hostility towards Lee’s films in general and Lee in specific comes into play. As the media hypes it, we’re being told to confuse the artist with the art. Again, Lee’s obstinate and firm in his beliefs, and his movies illustrate that, but you’d be hard pressed to argue that whenever he gets in front of the camera to talk at—not to, at—ET or Hollywood Insider two faces are being shown. One of the man and his muse, and the other the social mirror. Lee’s canny in this light; the whole “no such thing as bad press” bullish*t. Give the buzzards what they want to hear and give the plovers the chance to hear what he has to say.

Do I have to explain the “plover” metaphor? It’s a positive one. Let’s leave it at that. You go f*ck around on Wikipedia on your own time.

At the end of the day, discounting all the media muck that gets shoveled Lee’s way, his work is vital, seminal, intriguing and always well-shot and well-acted. It’s also ugly, but in a good way. People need the mirror now and again, and Lee is adept at polishing it.

Part of the skill is directly related to where he shoots most of all his movies: NYC. Growing up in Brooklyn you can be sure as eggs is eggs that Lee quickly gained a significant view on the City’s ebbing and flowing, the millions of souls. There is no other city on Earth where such a diverse, disparate population converge and, more often, collide. Do The Right Thing was the penultimate sentiment regarding this dynamic, and the film’s outcome was all too common, the message all too biting.

There is a bitter, brittle undercurrent to Lee’s films. Despite the City being a melange of cultures, ostensibly trying to cohabitate with one another, it seldom works out that way. With all those differences, things just don’t seem to want to iron out. The endgame is more often conflict and further aggression than “Kumbaya.” But that’s how it goes. No pity in the big City.

This bitterness seems to be all well and good for Lee’s films that primarily star black characters. Here we go with the mirror again. It’s all too easy for Middle America to accept black characters as aggressive, fractured and torn. I mean, that’s how its been for centuries in the good ol’ USA, right? Blacks are marginalized and naturally are pissed off and unafraid to make their voices heard (at least within the past 50 years). More or less, this has been Lee’s oeuvre, for good and for ill. Despite all the feathers ruffled from Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X—his best movie, IMHO. Awesome—Jungle Fever, and Bamboolzed (okay, that was one deliberate ruffling, with ridges), folks have grown to accept, albeit not completely by any means, Lee’s characters being disenfranchised. It’s as if average white audiences who take in Lee’s films are either doing so out of curiosity, bleeding heart liberal guilt or the movies’ reputation.

That itself is curious, because whenever Lee’s flips the coin and has a primarily white cast, there’s an uproar from the other side of the fence. Even if all of Lee’s trademarks are present, no matter how well the movie is executed, no matter how f*cking good it is, the guy can’t win (although he never comes across as wanting it both ways). In such a case, that outspoken social critic takes even more flak now for having fractured, alienated white characters face struggles and prejudices within their own ranks.

It’s probably an open secret that black audiences have embraced Lee’s work as their own. And just their own. After years of Lee filming stories of inner city blacks with all the strife and triumph so keenly, to cast a bunch of white folks in a Lee movie may be perceived as betrayal, as well as more passive fuel for a fire. Same goes for the entertainment media. What business does Lee have in filming a movie about whites’ issues? He ain’t white. So says most of his black fans, too, I’ll bet.

When Lee’s urban historical Summer Of Sam dropped in 1999 there came this unnecessary foofaraw about, “Hey, where are all the black people?” This came from audiences and reporters alike, like Lee was unqualified to shoot a film about a very real piece of immediate history in his hometown (one which he lived through). I guess the whole race thing got stuck to Lee’s ass like an infected carbuncle so much he shouldn’t be allowed to “branch out.”

It’s not as if Sam deviated so far from Lee’s style as to be an affront. For those who haven’t seen the movie here’s a simple synopsis: a docudrama illustrating the social climate and paranoia in a Brooklyn neighborhood during the murder spree by the serial killer the Son Of Sam. It had a predominantly white cast, featuring Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, John Leguizamo and Jennifer Esposito. And Lee got grief for this.

Why? The movie was pointed and great, with all Lee’s hallmarks of social commentary and culture clash. It still rolled like a Lee film, and with all great directors, don’t they usually have an élan that reeks of a signature style? I mean, Scorsese didn’t get much friction for The Age Of Innocence (a film about classism) and critical acclaim for Taxi Driver (a film with quite a few racial undertones). It’s not like he took a lefty and cut a Sandler lowbrow comedy (I know, redundant). So why did Lee get grief?

He went and held the mirror directly in front of white people, and white people only. And him being a black man? The nerve! Just when you think you understood Spike Lee—whoops!—he goes and turns the tables. But not really; you just had your attention elsewhere.

Without going too far into it (that’s what the later gnashing is for), 25th Hour saw the same bullish*t. It’s why it fell under The Standard. That and the low score at the box office. Here were have another New York Story, featuring troubled white folks. But this is Spike Lee, and the cast doesn’t overall matter. Hour, like Sam (like Do The Right Thing, etc) is about NYC, the people who live there and what they must do to survive, race and class serving as the wallpaper. It’s still signature Lee commentary and story all the way, regardless of who starred in it.

All in all it really doesn’t matter; the race relations, the urban blight, the classism, etc. Lee’s been all about the City first, and whatever social issues he wants to address rides on the five boroughs’ back. Black or white (or Asian of Latino or Muslim or what have you), Lee’s muse has always been the people of New York and how they (try to) relate to one another. Seems to me that’s Lee’s whole raison d’être, regardless of what his audiences—the media or the ticket holders—feel. Lee’s main character has always been the City.

Not some drug dealer losing his freedom. Not really…


Monty Brogan (Norton) has led a pretty good life. Nice apartment. Cool car. Loyal pooch. And his relationship with his high school sweetheart, Naturelle (Dawson), has been nothing but loving and committed for years.


Monty’s lived the good life at his own peril. Dealing drugs to make a living can do that. Someone tipped off the cops, and after a raid on Monty’s apartment—yielding a discovery of a crazy stash of heroin and an even crazier amount of laundered money—the smooth operator gets dragged downtown.


“Don’t even think of leaving town,” comes the order. Monty’s now facing at least seven years for his misdeeds. At least that. The evidence is damning, and the likelihood of Monty throwing himself at the mercy of the court for a wrist slap is not looking too good. With all that dope and cash? Pipe dream.

So now looking down the barrel of pulling hard time—and with his soft looks and cocky personality—losing his freedom for his crimes might be the easier thing about being incarcerated. The possibility of Monty ending up being married to the man with the most cigarettes seems more likely. The whole notion of “not leaving town” feels increasingly more laughable.

Monty chooses the only sensible thing to do with his last day of freedom. He rounds up his buddies Jake (Hoffman) and Frank (Pepper) for one last night on the town. Monty and his childhood friends’ lives diverged in very different ways, to say the least. Jake is a respected, albeit milquetoast English teacher with a Lolita complex. Frank is a manic, smarmy day trader who routinely mainlines Red Bull into his femoral artery and ego. Well aware of Monty’s fate, both feel it proper—nay, necessary—to pay a kind of favor to Monty. Call it for old times’ sake. Perhaps the last time.

Beyond this final boys’ night out Monty has a few, final loose ends to tie up. Show his wingmen the perks of an exclusive, underworld nightclub. Make some sort of amends with his brittle Pop (Cox) who tried and failed to steer Monty right. Most importantly, figure out who the f*ck ratted him out.

It’s gonna feel like a short night for Monty Brogan, but not long enough…

Feels like I got a bit too academic with the intro. I mean, there’s a lot to dig into regarding Spike Lee’s moviemaking. A lot to break down. Still, I needn’t throw one of Ebert’s many, many books at your face. But you gotta admit, with Lee’s stuff there’s a lot to plumb, even with his less than even hand at storytelling.

Lee’s got this knack—or curse, deepening on whom you ask—for being blunt. His sledgehammer-like delivery is what knocks audiences to the floor. Now I know I quail on and off and on again about my favorite aspect about a movie’s narrative (and no, I’m actually not talking about pacing for once) a lot, but here it really matters. As far as Lee’s style goes.

Subtlety. The kind of stuff in a movie like a Highlights For Children‘s “Hidden Pictures” segment. You know, pictures within pictures. I know that sounds like a Rush lyric, but noodle it out. Lee’s work is always up in your grill, next to no subtlety. It’s all there for you. In Hour, Lee affects a sort of Hitchcock-esque method of dropping the dime without placing the call. Hour is rife with obvious bits and pieces alluding to the undercurrents of the story, but delivered in an, “Oh, I get it” kind of way.

Call it “overt subtlety.” Yeah, I know. A contradiction in terms. Shut it. The devils in Hour are not just the details, but like chess pieces, how they are placed. Played.

At the opening of the film (hell, even before the movie properly starts) we see the Touchstone logo backed by the sounds of a dog being pummeled. The opening scene? Monty rescues said dog who later becomes his pet. Not sure of the symbolism, but it’s there. Maybe it relates to the whole post-9/11 NYC seam that wends its way in and out of the ensuing movie. Maybe. I dunno.

Other bits of Lee’s overt subtlety; his approach at restraint? Well, we all probably remember the symbolic spotlights strategically placed and shining where WTC 1 and 2 once stood. There’s the scene where Monty’s sitting on a bench denying one of his “customers” a fix while we see out protag staring balefully out at the river, the bars of the railing framing his face. Bars? Hmm. Also the trophy scene, towards the rear. The way out, Monty. You took it. It’s all excellent framing, and it’s maintained throughout the duration of the film. It’s a tad chewier than any trash can thrown through a window.

All such scenes are delicious wallpaper—bookends, rather—to the acting. No one in the world of Hour is an empty shell, waiting for the audience to pour all their pathos into the actors like some sort of emotional canteen. They’re all solidly, fully-formed people right out of the gate. Norton’s portrayal of Monty, despite all shiny on the outside is showing signs of tarnish, wears his heart on his sleeve regardless of his trashy circumstances (slick drug dealer and a guy trying to be decent alike). He knows his life’s been sh*t, but he keeps his cool. Until he can’t.

The late Hoffman as Jake. God, he was a good actor, what with his honest, melty face. Very versatile, despite the roles he got dealt (either louts or effete snobs. Sometimes both). Here in Hour, he excels at playing the innocent, even in a winking manner. His Jake is Humbert Humbert, minus the outright perviness yet still broken and creepy (despite the object of his misplaced affection, Paquin’s Mary, his modern day bipolar Lolita). Jake should be the kind of guy within Monty’s circle that has earned the most esteem. But for all his image of scholarly reticence, Jake is desperate, fragile and quite f*cked up. He wears that ball cap as a shroud. You want to put your arm around him, reassure him everything’s gonna be okay. Jake needs a few stiff drinks in him, but you know just one’s gonna make him toss his cookies.

It’s the unexpected opposite of what you’d get out of Pepper’s Frank. Within the first 30 seconds of his appearance, Pepper is totally forgiven for playing a part in Battlefield: Earth. His fast-talking, greasy, unshaven Frank is the proper emotional crutch Monty leans on. Despite his whiplash delivery (and strung-out temperament), Frank plays d’Artagnan to Jake’s schlumpy Porthos, always Monty’s biggest booster no matter what’s gone down in the past, for better or worse. His sharp features with that glare illustrates the realist (his make-up job is crucial), and is at times not so subtle about reminding Monty of what’s at stake. Been at stake. For better or worse? Feels like worse here, but it’s never going to be truly over with this guy. All these guys.

Frank’s role here may also be part of the post 9/11 undercurrent I mentioned earlier. Sure, he’s slicker than snot, but look where his apartment’s located. Overlooking Ground Zero (that little chat he has with Jake burns, and all the more crucial for it). Seems like Frank’s edginess is deliberately forced, a carefully assumed stance. It was the World Trade Centers that were knocked down. Is the stricken trader the post-9/11 straw man? Is the allegory in overdrive, despite the time frame? You decide.

Amongst Monty, Frank and Jake we get the classic balance of id/ego/superego. Think Star Trek. Frank is irascible Dr McCoy, Jake is the thoughtful Spock and Monty is our relatable everyman Kirk. I’m not aware of many movies that work this triad so well as is done with Hour. We had Ferris, Cameron and Sloane, Chief Brody, Hooper and Quint. Even Harry, Ron and Hermoine. All good examples of movie trios bouncing their personalities off one another creating great tension, humor and unity. Monty, Jake and Frank is another fine example. Despite their obvious differences, and where the paths of their lives took them, these guys are friends.

This friendship is like a fresh dartboard. All the shots are clean. Sure, Monty’s frayed friendships feel like their failing further (especially when Jake and Frank become passive sounding boards), but putting Monty’s plight and his interactions on the back burner, Hour‘s alpha plot is really just a vehicle to drive through Lee’s true muse here: New York. Like I said earlier, this film isn’t really about Monty’s waning freedom. It’s about the City, a character in and of itself trying to deal with the wounds inflicted in the fall of 2001. Hour is a post-9/11 snapshot, plain and simple. Sure, there’s a lot of great pathos and intriguing characters, but all that is merely a device for Lee to convey his signature social commentary. And his commentary is always about “us.” In this case, the us isn’t just Monty and Co. It’s the tapestry of people, a microcosm of the planet as a whole, that is New York in relation to “them.” It’s the intangible them that upset the balance of the City and the country? No, it’s always been us according to Lee. And he may be right.

I’m gonna segue into the tech stuff of Hour now (I know you’ve been wringing your greasy, little hands in anticipation). Lee’s always been adept in using cinematography. Hour‘s no less exceptional, and we’re not just talking the skyline here. All the close-ups and face time are wonderfully framed. It’s like every conversation had let’s us in on a secret, being it intimate details, heartfelt hands on the shoulder or screeching rants.

Speaking of rants—which serve as Lee’s aforementioned social critique and plea for understanding—Monty’s (infamous) racist soliloquy in the mirror deriding every single minority group in the City (and perhaps outside of it, too) is reminiscent of Do The Right Thing‘s endless racial criticism. Hour‘s tirade-cum-montage is another piece of Lee’s post-9/11 deconstruction. The City is fractured, but it needs everyone to make it right again. Or at least tolerable.

However Lee isn’t without a reflective side here (for once). The opposite of Monty’s screed comes in the form of his Pop’s homily towards the end of the film regarding REDACTED. Like the City, the rest of the country is a crazy quilt of humanity, and by Lee’s lens the answers don’t necessarily lie outside New York, but maybe an idea does (by the way, I feel Brian Cox is a highly underrated character actor. Hey, if the guy was the first to portray Hannibal Lecter on screen doesn’t count for something, I can’t say what would).

Other cool technical flourishes I dug about Hour are many, but since we’re heading into a length that would give Tolstoy a run for his rubles I’ll try and reel it back. This film has some of the best flashback editing I haven’t seen since the original Highlander. That’s a complement. Most of the time in movies, the need to show backstory rather than tell it can be abrupt if not jarring. No so with Hour. In fact, scene moves from scene so deftly it takes a moment or two to understand we’ve shifted the story back a few years (or forward in some cases). All of it enriches Monty’s tale of rising and falling and perhaps heading towards redemption. There’s a definite trail of breadcrumbs here, but where it leads is uncertain. I like that.

We got some smart music going on here. I’m a Terence Blanchard fan, so sue me. The opening theme is menacing as well as insinuating. Let’s prime the pump for our ensuing voyage into the belly of the broken beast that is post-9/11 New York. The soundtrack creeps and crawls in and out of the scenes, almost a character unto itself. Sure, sometimes the music gets cranked up to 11 needlessly (barring club scenes and antisocial activities), but overall Blanchard’s score, well, scores the goal of wry grunge that accompanies the movie’s heavy story.

There are some aspects of the story that even Lee couldn’t resist pressing his thumbs into. Like all the small social interactions. It was kind of hard to separate the everyday things from happening anywhere else but New York. Maybe it’s Lee wearing his heart on his sleeve again. I don’t know, but I got the suspicion that a lot of the more intimate dialogue in the movie (e.g.: the excellent bar chat, the strategic humor, etc) could only have happened in the City. Lee’s got a keen ear for New York patois, and it’s adding to the ambience just reinforces the director’s entrenched affinity for his hometown. Call it soft Spike, and it’s a balm to the near relentless stress of the alpha plot. It’s where the humanity comes through, which is the sub-theme of the story proper.

The final act of Hour (save the mirror rant) was considered the most controversial by the general public (as far I know from Twitter feeds). There were the three crucial scenes strung together. First, Monty uncovering who the stooge was and discovers his lost humor and honor in the process; second, the “rescue brawl” between Frank and Monty, and; third, Pop’s montage. All three are intense, and all three fail to wrap up the story. This is a good thing, if not the inevitable.

One last time, the underlying message of Hour is about how the City and its denizens are trying to recover from 9/11. All is uncertain. When Monty finally learns who the stooge is, it doesn’t rectify his impending prison sentence. Sure, he rediscovers a sense of humor about things, and maybe some sense of honor lost along the way, but it don’t get him any closer to regaining a life. It’s a tad obvious if you pay attention.

When Monty begs Frank to beat the stuffing out of him so to appear “hard” to his future inmates (good make-up artist. Blech), how’s that for a direct punch (sorry) about a wounded city? I’d like to think we all have a bit of fight in them like Frank: reluctant but was always brewing. When we are hurt, we want to lash out, swing at ghosts, but it never leads to anything. Only desperation and a feeling of emptiness and futility. Especially so when even after you release it all that’s left is a lingering sense of hurt.

I adored the final montage. It’s the opposite en toto of the mirror scene. Pop’s bittersweet monologue paints a picture of hope to be found within the future; the possibilities that could be in moving forward and getting on with life, even if that life isn’t “yours.” It’s a beautifully etched notion of “life goes on.” And it does, but sometimes painfully and reluctantly.

Downbeat, I know. But Lee’s snapshot does not lend a silver lining. Nor should it. Sometimes his brusque, outspoken, mirror-holding style works wonders, especially for a painfully real illustration of a broken man, broken friendships and a broken city. I guess at the end of the day, Hour tells not only a story of loss but also of possible recovery. Lee’s mirror is still reflecting, but this time out there’s a little grime smeared on its surface. Not unlike the view from Frank’s apartment.

Let’s leave it at that. I’ve already gone on too long with this installment. I think all the bases were covered, and maybe re-covered three times over. Sorry. I guess I did too much navel-gazing dissecting Hour, but there was a lot going on here. The movie was engaging, thought-provoking and more than a little disturbing. And all for the better.

One more thing. It was hard to take apart Hour while being a smartass. I know my trademark snark was all but absent this time out. Too bad.

I didn’t feel the movie deserved it.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Big shocker, there. Despite the heavy atmosphere, Hour had an engaging story, great acting and all the hard-angled, poignant hallmarks of a Spike Lee film. With or without black people.

Stray Observations…

  • “Just curious…”
  • What was with the double shot embrace thing? I mean, I took apart virtually every nut and bolt in Hour, yet this obvious bloop escaped me.
  • “I wanna be that girl in the X-Men.” She’ll be by in the next scene.
  • BTW, Paquin does not look 17.
  • “You got all kinds of nights.”
  • Two phones.
  • “Look out for your field trip.”
  • This film illustrates all the proper scenarios for taking a drink. Some things are a dying art.
  • “You’re not gonna be there tomorrow, and there’s only tomorrow.”
  • There was something about the bathroom scene in the club, besides the obvious Hitchcock element.
  • “The leash is yours.” Enjoy your life.
  • First saw this movie as part of my wife’s Ed Norton binge years ago. He’s her have actor.
  • “Cool dog.”

Next Installment…

We pay a visit to Jeff, Who Lives At Home with his Mom. Still.

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 30: Richard Curtis’ “Pirate Radio” (2009)


The Players…

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Sturridge, Nick Frost, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans and Kenneth Branagh.

The Story…

It’s the mid-Sixites, and the British music scene is in trouble. At the peak of Britain’s burgeoning rock n’ roll vanguard, the BBC won’t permit even an hour of the music to ride their airwaves across the land. Across the land, yes, but on the North Sea it’s another matter, and it’s up to the crew of the Radio Rock and others to broadcast pop music to a grateful public whether the Great Empire wants it or not.

The Rant…

Many musical musings this time out here at RIORI. Me just blogging out again. But never fear, it’s all in the spirit of this week’s installment since our movie’s about music in general and radio in specific. Just figured I’d offer up y’all some backbone to show I know what I’m talking about. Or at least slather some healthy bullish*t around to give the impression I do.

So I used to be a DJ. Wait, that’s not quite right. Let’s back that up a few years…

I came from a musical family, although they didn’t know that at the time. At a formidable age, I took up interest in playing the saxophone. My inspirations were humble. In grade three, I knew nothing about John Coltrane, Charlie Parker or my personal sax god Wayne Shorter. When I was a kid, the keen sounds that horn player Kirk Pingelly of INXS made was my bag, not to mention Greg Ham from Men At Work. Those guys and the cool outro courtesy of Ronnie Ross on Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side.” Sax was my second instrument, thought. The first being was my parents’ turntable.

I was properly corrupted at a young age. In their youth, my dad was into folk-rock—Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, the Mamas & the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, Pete Seeger—and the Stones. My mom grew up with the Beatles and Motown. Her first concert was catching the Four Tops at college. To this day, whenever “It’s The Same Old Song” comes on the radio, usually in the car, she starts fingerpopping and swiveling in the seat like an 18-year old. It’s always pleasantly embarrassing. I, however, was a Stax guy, Soulsville, USA. Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, Booker T, early Aretha. Those cats. To that, my mom passes me a cocked eye. We could both do worse.

Sure, I dug the Stones, the Beatles, Sam & Dave, Bob Dylan and many others from the ‘rents halcyon days. My uncle turned me on to Carlos Santana. I am forever in his debt, and he is never getting his first pressing of their self-titled debut ever back. But without my very uncool parents, separated from their LPs shoved back into the closet, too busy raising my sisters and me, I guess I’d never develop a pair of ears.

Thanks to this restless intro into pop music, I would have never picked up the sax, messed around with the drums (thanks to both Neil Peart and Stew Copeland), tried to play the piano (blame Bruce Hornsby) and pluck limply at a guitar (damn you, Carlos). I tried and failed to reproduce the music from my—and my parents’—youth, save the fact I eventually nailed Ross’ outro. And learned about ‘Trane and Bird and Wayne. Call it growth. Due to the exposure, my nascent interest in music resulted in a massive, quite unhealthy record/cassette/CD/download collection.

In hindsight, I suppose all of that got me the gig at the radio station.

Fast forward to 2005. I landed a show as a DJ on the local community radio station’s pop/rock block. There, the term DJ was reserved for guys who either wheel the steel at clubs or host drunken karaoke nights on Fridays at the local bar. Here’s an aside, and I’ll have many regarding pop music: karaoke, despite its nerdy connotations, can be really quite fun. I hosted a few nights at my local bar armed with a crate of CDs of both popular and semi-obscure artists that the drunken, fun-loving crowd might be able to rally around. The folks who wanted to get on the mic were divided into two camps. One were people, inhibitions loosened by liquor, who wanted to just have a laugh and try to be rock stars for a few minutes. C’mon. Who doesn’t want to be one at least once?

I remember this one time I was behind the deck and feeling sorry for a guy who was fumbling through the stream-of-conscious lyrics of R.E.M.’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It.” I jumped up on stage, grabbed a mic and gave him a hand, trying my best with Mike Mills’ backing harmony. When it was done, he laughed heartily and bought me a beer. The audience cheered and clapped. We all had fun. Mission accomplished.

On the other side of the stream, there were karaoke folks who were sullen and determined. When they got on the stage (or riser, as it often was), they performed as if they were reaching for something. Like Simon Cowell was in the audience somewhere, taking notes and tugging at his groin. This crew was not going to have fun. They shrilly tired to reproduce what they saw on American Idol, or what they thought they saw. They clearly weren’t drunk enough, or maybe too much. Ugh. In any event, they were decidedly not having fun. And when I had to repeat that there weren’t any awards given out (e.g.: no free booze) and it was all in fun, I often had my shirt collar dragged into an outraged Bo Bice wannabe’s face and forced to defend my sexual preference. Good times. Anyway, it paid my bar tab. And I had the chance to share mostly musical stories, dappled with a touch of high school nostalgia with a lot of drunken, giddy karaoke aidoru about what the song they attempted meant to them. It was like my early days with the sax. It was hard to not like these people.

That’s what DJs do: play music in hope to make listeners feel good.

When I eventually landed on the radio, I found out we called ourselves “programmers.” On air, my peers and I just played music, plain and simple. Mine was an eclectic show, playing mostly rock n’ roll, with a healthy dose of folk, singer/songwriter stuff, blues and other errata that was either deemed tasteful or noteworthy by what AAA (adult album alternative) standards dictated. In short, I was more or less free to play whatever the hell I wanted provided there was no illicit content (no cussing, pervy sex or Primus). It was enjoyable; my peers and me filled the ears of hundreds of listeners across three counties who had a penchant for the old, obscure, underground and up-and-coming musicians who otherwise wouldn’t find a spot on any local commercial radio station. We affectionately termed it as “left of the dial,” parlance coined by college radio stations and/or oddballs like us, using a signal usually below 100 mHZ, FM.

It wasn’t a paying gig. All of us programmers were compensated with free brand new CDs, old LPs that were bound for the dustbin, the occasional free tickets to local shows and/or interviews with the musicians who were playing at said local venues. It was how I got to meet the Black Keys before their meteoric rise to Madison Square Garden fame. Good for them; never have I known a band more deserving of the recognition they’ve since received. Pat and Dan are nice guys. I didn’t have to buy a single album for over five years, and my music collection skyrocketed. As well as my tastes and horizons. I’m not bragging, but in my music collection, I literally have thousands of CDs (2057 by last count, most of which are downloaded into my iTunes account, and I go nowhere without my iPod), hundreds of LPs and dozens of mixtapes kicking around. From the 101’ers to Warren Zevon. And the number is ever increasing. I think I might need some professional help.

Okay. Here comes the bitching.

I thoroughly dislike commercial radio. Why? I’m glad you asked. Besides the repetitive, numbing format/playlists, I hate the commercials, or at least the babbling. I know it pays the bills. In comparison to my station, being public, local business’ paid a flat annual fee to have their names mentioned at regular intervals during certain shows as “sponsors,” not unlike PBS. They donated a $1000 a year, give or take, and everyday at a selected time they would get their shout out. It was all neighborhood operations, so we kept it close to home. Go local! But unlike commercial stations, we’d never keep on blabbing up until the lyrics hit, say, on the opening bars to “Stairway to Heaven.” I think most commercial programmers just love to hear their own voice, and listeners distinctly do not. We wanna hear the music, unless you enjoy being buffeted by AC/DC’s Back in Black (just the four major hits) everyday three times a day every f*cking week. You can set your watch by it. I once made an on air bet with myself: play fifty songs within the allotted three-hour time slot. I spoke little; announced the forthcoming songs, backlisted the rest, gave weather, traffic, station ID at the top of the hour per FCC regs and the occasional promo here and there…and kept my prattle to a minimum. You tune in for songs, not schpiel, right? Well, the best I ever got was 47 songs, which is sh*t-ton more than your average commercial station can do three hours, let alone six. To wit, commercial radio is all about yapping and selling anything but the music. Music is merely a bookend between adverts.

Here’s an aside before I get too deep in snarky rambling: I had a buddy, a fellow programmer for the local “classic rock” affiliate. The term “classic rock” either refers to any rock music created between when the Beatles landed on the US shores up until Led Zep broke up, plus a few “modern classics” that did some hefty, pre-iTunes sales, and some out of it. I mean, I love Everclear’s jaunty tune “Santa Monica,” but as a classic? I guess I’m too old. Or too young.

Anyway my buddy ran the monitors at my local watering hole where I did karaoke as the sound guy for all the free shows local bands performed every Friday and Saturday night. Free live music is good, right? Not to him. Yeah, it brought a little extra coin to his pockets, but mostly he (we) had to endure endless covers of Tom Petty, the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Puddle of Mudd (the f*cking “She Hates Me” single just doesn’t want to die). It was all cover bands, playing the same warhorses that were trotted out on a daily basis by his host station. He hated it; he kept a brave face, schilling for his station and manning the boards. But he hated it. Both he and I tired of said songs, and when a cool local cover band performed a left field tune, most of the would-be movers and shakers in the crowd would go “meh” and get back to their beers, much to our chagrin. The cover bands weren’t all one trick ponies. One group I enjoyed was fronted by an affable guy named Mike. He listened to my radio show and when his band performed at my bar, he was always sure to include “Life During Wartime” and “Sweet Jane” is his set whenever I came around. The rest of the regulars waited for a familiar tune that they had heard a thousand times over for free on the radio, not regarding any cover charge instead. I guess that familiarity doesn’t breed contempt in all people. At least, people who don’t listen to music so much as they understand certain sounds in the barest Pavlovian sense.

My friend was encyclopedic in rock knowledge. We would talk it up, he’d share stories about his days as a roadie for this band and that, the concerts he’d seen. He was once even so kind as to burn a pair of live Pere Ubu bootlegs onto disc for me, we being the only Ubu fans in the county, maybe the state. Regardless he loathed the format at his job, for the same reasons I did as a listener. But he, unlike me, had no choice. He had to talk it up on air, interrupting songs to promote the local auto dealers and just avoid the dreaded dead air. He had to drag out “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “American Girl,” “Rag Doll” and countless pabulum to make sure that the said car dealerships could keep paying the bills. Unlike me, I could spin Pere Ubu for my audience all day; they loved that sh*t.

That’s how commercial radio in my little ville went for decades. Even more so that when the evil Clearchannel, with its endless hydra-like tentacles clutched the majority of commercial stations, making sure that Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, One Direction and Adele have careers until Rapture. All in the name of profit, not music. Not really.

Let me drop some science on you, for those who care to actually listen to what commercial radio stations play: more than a decade ago, radio conglomerate Clearchannel more or less bought out (i.e. leverage gained) 90% of all commercial radio stations in the United States. Their format was profit expanse, never musical variety. They deemed what pop songs should be played that would get the most listener’s attention, and thereby would ramp up advertising increases to the hilt. Most of these radio stations only had a playlist of maybe 100 songs, and would grind them into the dirt until the listening public got bored and threatened to tune out. Then there would be a new crop of American Idol winners (and some of the flotsam), and the cycle would be born anew.

In sum, Clearchannel could give two sh*ts about music, so long as they can rake it in. And boy, do they rake it in. Sh*t as well as money.

Why do I dislike—hate—commercial radio? Well, besides the endless commercials, it’s killing music appreciation. Radio is the last free media in the world, and most folks get their minds wiped on a daily basis with the same 100 songs, often from multiple stations. Be it in our cars, at work (at the kitchen where I work, there’s a crappy little clock/radio that belts out late period Aerosmith and Back In Black with aplomb. I wanted to flush that thing down the toilet. I once vacuumed-sealed it in a plastic bag and headed for the men’s room, but my boss caught me, snatched back the radio bound for the sewers and chased me away. Meanwhile I stole its batteries. Tee-hee!) or at home. Clearchannel and what few of its ilk now pay the stations to play pop music with additional revenue to promote whatever artists they see fit to attract the most listeners for optimum times of day. In the biz, we call it “drive time.” What’s more lulling than being stuck in traffic, desperate for any distraction beyond not rear-ending the car in front of you? Hey. The radio. Click.



And to think, back in the early days of rock radio, to play such “drivel” was almost considered a crime. Radio was—and technically still is—a free market, and back then, unbound by the whims of big business, to be paid to play rock n’ roll was against the law. At lot of the early rock n’ roll DJs lost their careers if they we caught dead playing music backed by money from the studios. It was called “payola” back then. Nowadays it called “business.” Pioneer and seminal rock DJ Alan Freed paid the ultimate price for “accepting bribes” to play certain singles: he lost his career and eventually his life, all for trying to broaden the musical landscape with the devil’s music.

One time on the air, I had a birthday tribute show for Freed, playing old school recordings of one of his many live rock n’ roll parties. The likes of Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and of course Elvis would grace the airwaves, whipping the throng of already screaming teens into frenzy. One could feel from the lo-fi, dissonant tapings how rock n’ roll really irritated grown-ups back then. It was righteous. Nowadays, it’s business as usual, and all the numbing for it.

History lesson: it was even worse over in Britain in the dark, early days of rock broadcasting. At least in the US there were a handful of minor rock stations working their way through the country’s airwaves, bothering grown-ups and exciting kids alike. At least those stations were on land. In the UK, back in the 60’s, rock radio was more or less an overseas venture. Literally, over seas. Broadcasting rock music was illegal on British shores. Ah, but offshore was a different story, as this installment will soon report on.

Can you imagine that? Now here in the US we have an official constitution that grants freedom of expression, i.e. music, for anyone that wishes to sing, play and hear all different kinds, for good or ill. And a country, a culture much older than the United States’, oft-regarded as more “civilized” that us barbaric Yanks gives the hammerdown to freedom of expression. It seems that in to 1960’s, Brits were overwhelmingly partial to classical music, especially symphonies and opera (which is kinda funny since Germany is the home of many of the great composers, and Italy is top notch in performing opera. Germany and Italy. Two countries not terribly kind to the UK in the 20th Century. Hmmm…). And then these upstarts, these hooligans, these kids have the gall to create and perform this ragged, raunchy and very loud pop music that originated in the Colonies? The outrage!

Yes, outrage is just what the stuffy, old white men needed in their faces—and ears—in the middle of the ‘60’s. The Beatles, the Stones and their friends made damn sure of that.

Today we have thousands of commercial radio stations churning out pap in order to sell cars, pharmaceuticals, insurance and other very grown-up stuff under the aegis of Clearchannel. And Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, Nickelback and an unholy host of others have million dollar careers at the expense of good taste and discerning audiences. Can you just imagine over sixty years ago that to play the claptrap listed above would deserve jail time? Well, these days it should. But back in the day? In Britain? The home of the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, the Kinks and the Dave Clark Five? In the bloody 1960’s? Then? It was a stoning offense (pardon the pun).

Huh. Sounds like back then, rock n’ roll was doing its good number in the United Kingdom. AS IT WELL SHOULD…

Dateline: Britain. 1966. The House of Lords has a crisis on their hands. Not unemployment. Not health care. Not even football rioting. It’s a crime, but no-one can prove it. Under no one’s oversight, a group—nay, a veritable society—of ne’er-do-wells have taken over the UK’s radio waves, broadcasting filth and degradation to any innocent, proper British citizen to hear through the convenience of modern radio technology. The nerve!

Who are these dastardly smut peddlers? Ex-cons on the lam who managed to cobble together scrap transmitters to spew forth their filth? Fifth columnists with propaganda to smear and disrupt fine British normalcy? The sexual conquests of the Queen?

Worse. Pirate radio stations that broadcast rock ‘n roll music, the latest scourge to corrupt the Great Empire. And these pirate DJs immediately and easily damage anyone who has access to a radio. My, think of the children!

At least, this is what the folks on the SS Radio Rock are hopefully trying to do.

Lead by ex-pat American DJ, “The Count” (Hoffman) with his rabble crew of DJs and misfits at the ready, they do their damndest to broadcast the needful rock ‘n roll to a nation desperate to loosen up. It’s unfortunate that powers at the BBC are not in touch with the greatest art form since the Mona Lisa to rally fine Brits into mirth and merry. But never to fear: the Count and his crusaders are filling this niche, broadcasting rock from a ramshackle boat in the North Sea with the wonderful pummeling from homegrown rock bands like the Kinks, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Manfred Mann and a few scraps from the States. It’s what the nation wants! All 25 million of them, give or take.

Parliament does not agree. In fact, they aren’t even listening.

So Sir Alistair Normandy (Branagh), tight in the britches if there ever was such, sees a way into the upper echelons of Parliament with a new crusade: get rock radio off the air, cast away ships like the Count’s even though they aren’t really breaking any maritime or broadcasting laws. For real. This new music is tearing apart the social fabric of the United Kingdom! Isn’t it?

Some folks just don’t know what’s good for them…

Got up this morning. Checked the weather online, email. Made coffee. Tended the fire. Put side one and then side two of the Who’s Quadrophenia on my recently unearthed turntable and considered last night’s viewing.

Pirate Radio was not what I expected. What was promised did not pan out the way I hoped. It was supposed to be the classic “snobs vs. slobs” story. We got uptight white men in authority trying to maintain the status quo; on the other side of the fence our loveable, yet dimwitted rabble-rousers hell bent on bucking the system. Think Meatballs, Caddyshack and the granddaddy of ‘em all, Animal House.

Radio turned out to be a bit of a bait-and-switch.

Let’s backtrack a bit, almost noting a portent of things to come. In the original UK release, Radio was titled The Boat That Rocked. A fair enough name, with a clever play on words. That title promised, well, rock ‘n roll at its most basal. A party! A loud, awful rant ‘n rave-up against the gentry, authority figures, something.

Something is what was lacking.

Director Curtis has made a name for himself with British comedies (Love Actually, Notting Hill). His work’s pretty good. I enjoyed Notting Hill quite a lot. It’s one of my wife’s fave films, and one of Julia Roberts’ best roles I think, so he’s done some good. Not award-winning good, but still satisfying. However (here it comes), I’ve noticed his best work stems from limited casts. You know, the traditional antag/protag axis, with some fluffy actors in between to act as the peanut butter to so much jelly. For Radio, he tackles an ensemble cast. And here is where, as the Brits say, everything goes all pear-shaped.

As Stein coined, there’s no there, there. We have a great opportunity to capitalize on a bunch of askew, drunken, offbeat punters and all the quasi-drama that occurs between pints and spliffs and the latest by the Who. What we get instead is—again what the Brits call it—just naff.

I guess it pans out to a lot of wasted opportunity. For instance, Hoffman does his best Murray The K. He’s having a great time, and it’s infectious. After the fact, we know now that Hoffman died from drugs. There were “certain signs” (not unlike Brain Jones) in the characters he played that was prescient. He tended to play unlikeable characters most of the time. For example, remember his young snotlout in Scent of a Woman or incompetent cop in Nobody’s Fool, or his Oscar-winning role as Truman Capote? You don’t? Hit reverse.

Well not here. Hoffman’s channeling Alan Freed, and with an infectious—although stereotypical—beat that invites all the rock ‘n roll such a film should be lousy with. Face it, unlike most commercial pop stations these days, there is a helluva lot less necessary screaming done to whet the listeners’ appetite than…well…when we anticipate yet another AC/DC standard.

The funny thing about Curtis’ direction is from his prior films that he’s great with two-to-three camera intimacy. Aboard the Radio Rock, intimacy is shunted down the head. We got here an wild crowd of rock fans; drunken DJs, would-be-failed-to-be-dreaming pop stars, awkward straights denied a BBC seat, and stoners acting…stoned, rotating Dead and Hendrix albums with (literal) naked and unaware aplomb. And no one on the ship is remotely aware of this. Everything is compartmentalized, like a warbled installment of Monty Python. Nothing blends. It’s all scene-to-scene, camped out by a clutch of characters in search of some motivation. In short, there’s only style and no substance. Curtis fails to establish 3-D characters.

Good thing at least that Radio Rock‘s soundtrack is killer. Too bad there’s not enough of it.

Again with the bait-and-switch. I figured that Pirate was gonna be an early rock ‘n roll showcase. Hell, I half-expected Little Richard to show up with a baby grand slung around his neck. No such animal, birdman. In Hollywood fashion—and I blame none of the cast and crew—the selected music was cued up to bookend certain scenes. There was a thorough lack of spontaneity associated with rock here. However, what was selected was pretty fine. But that really has no bearing on the narrative.

Were all old school rock stations really like this? Maybe. I hope so. I know from experience that radio jocks and their itinerant family can be quite the circus. Pirate’s best feature, as well as its flaw, is its notable cast. It’s mostly a boy’s club, and not all performances are good, but they are noteworthy.

Despite the lack of cohesion and interplay with the varied cast, there are a few standouts. Bill Nighy as Quentin, the formal station manager/captain of the Radio Rock brings his usual proper, Albion regality to the crew. He quips some good one-liners, and his dry delivery is always amusing. Goofball Nick Frost is a roly-poly card. His sleazy, self-described ladies’ man Dave outstrips Hoffman, ostensibly the rowdiest of the crew. Seeing Dave in his skivvies, and later out of them is a cheap joke, but it oddly works here. It’s definitely memorable.

On the flipside, Tom Sturridge’s young Carl is the Maguffin that gives Pirate its raison d’être. He’s quite bland however, and interchangeable with any mop-topped teen actor that could’ve been plopped onto the set. His sleepy performance makes the film kinda drag (as well as thin plot and bored pacing, but more on that later), and he plays Carl with a predictably that’s not annoying, but lackluster and slow. It makes for one the oddest coming-of-age stories I’ve ever scene.

I loved Rhys Ifans’ legendary disc jockey Gavin. Old school DJs were revered almost as actual rock stars in their own right. Their on-air personas were avatars, midwives to the actual artists. It was like they were making the music. Think Wolfman Jack. Playing to the mic is really the only music actually created by DJs, and Gavin sees himself, as his listeners do, as a rock icon. Outrageous outfits, signature routine and shagging his way through groupies is very rock n’ roll, and his self-important peacock act is a hoot. In a way, Ifans uses physically comedy in the same dry way as the British use verbal humor. He’s a clown; a very lean, wiry and rigid clown, but a clown all the same.

Some technical things I dug: I liked the lilting camera work, replicating the rise and fall of the sea. A nice touch this “rocking.” The shots from all angles on the deck really give the feeling that the Radio Rock is really out there, all at sea, so to speak. These folks are rebels, cast-offs, and the only place they can find haven is out on the rolling blue. This isolation reinforces a tight, family atmosphere, cutting them away from society. Hmm. Maybe I’m looking too deeply here, having some poetic notion about pirate radio, which these guys were supposed to deliver.

However, despite the pointed freewheeling atmosphere the cast is supposed to generate, British stuffiness and its nonstop dry humor pervades the scenes. There is rigidity to Pirate that can’t be shaken, and the story’s lack of natural flow can alternately be pokey and jarring. The plot drags and wanders, sputters and stops. It’s almost like watching a sketch comedy show with only mild laughs. Although the cast is colorful the unnecessary feeling of restraint here keeps them from really cutting loose. Very un-rock n’ roll. These folks are supposed to be loveable, but for lack of even flow, it’s too forced. My complaint is what other critics complained about: as actual people we’re supposed to care about, the crew of the Radio Rock is two-dimensional. With what we expect and what we are given, there’s nothing much to hang it all together with these people. It’s all scant substance, and that’s really a shame.

Pirate upholds a lot of corny English institutions in their comedy. There isn’t any depth to Branagh’s Sir Normandy; he’s just another stuffed shirt, and his motives to crackdown on the Radio Rock is ill-defined behind the stereotypical character of “The Man.” From the cluttered scenes of how the music invades the UK’s shores and its citizens illustrates a good thing, the “bad thing” about what rock is doing is never hammed up or made clear here, which I think would’ve done a lot for the story in the tension department. This was one of the many ways which Pirate’s plot was weak and wandering.

Once again, I ride out the old warhorse called pacing. There was next to no sense of urgency to the exploits of the Radio Rock. At least not until the very end, and by then it was too late. The meandering and yet stifling storytelling made for the voyage about the Radio Rock akin to the Middle Passage. There was no glue that held the interesting characters together, the plot engaging or the supposed humorous antics between the two coming. Like I said, the movie at times was languid or worse, outright halting. This made for a slow pace, only kickstarted a sputter with the occasional period rock number (of which there was precious little).

The other night, with my overpowered, retrofitted Sansui amp, jerry-rigged to accommodate my iPod, my family and I had a very loud British Invasion dance party—almost to shake the blues in my head away from the previous night’s viewing. We were all jumping around, and I scooped up my kid (she is getting heavy, believe me) and we rocked out to “My Generation.” I lifted her up and wobbled her down to John Entwistle’s thunderous bass runs. She laughed and screamed a lot. I put the Stones’ “Satisfaction” next on rotation and tried to explain what a “signature song” was. She didn’t get it. No matter. She liked it anyway.

That’s what matters about rock. Not its history. Not the details, not really. Not even the format, be it vinyl, digital, broadcast or what have you. It’s about the songs, right there and then. I’ve often mused that humans are the only creatures that make music for reasons other than just getting laid. I mean, it helps (as my wife and mother of my child found out), but overall it’s the almighty song that gets us into a twirl. Rock n’ roll is supposed to do that, and its DJs are its messengers. After the performer, it’s the guys that get in on the airwaves (for free) that make a difference. The folks aboard the Radio Rock did their best, but I think an actual docudrama about British pirate radio would’ve been a better tribute, not a stammering comedy as it was here. Pirate’s gimmickry and lack of cohesion got real old real quick.

And I hope I die before I get old.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Despite all its charms, it’s a rock ‘n roll movie minus the roll. Rock it has; too bad that’s just the station ID.

Stray Observations…

  • “Do you know what a lesbian is?”
  • Is Branagh supposed to look like Hitler? I figure the Brits were never subtle in their comedy (think Benny Hill).
  • “Governments loathe people being free.” Sounds like a Bill Hicks tag. And a good one.
  • I love the mod fashions, especially the ladies’. Nothing screams 60s British hip like go-go boots and vinyl dresses.
  • Otis Redding. Works every time.
  • Muddy Waters’ “I’m a Man” dropped 11 years after this movie takes place. Way to go, A&R guys.
  • Here’s another: “Won’t Get Fooled Again” wasn’t cut until five years after the events on this boat. Again A&R guys, again. Cat Stevens, too.
  • Was that Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue (1980) doing literally floating about the set? Only dorky dickheads like me would—did—notice this. Hey! You! With the beer cans! I said my apologies after the Control installment! Ow!
  • “Do what you gotta do…chicken!”
  • The kids are alright…

Next Installment…

We’re shipped out to the Mideast with Jake Gyllenhaal and his fellow Jarheads.