RIORI Presents Installment #195: Bergeron, Letterman & Jenson’s “Shark Tale” (2004)


The Film…


The School…

Will Smith, Jack Black, Robert DeNiro, Renee Zellweger, Angelina Jolie and Martin Scorsese, with Peter Falk, Vincent Pastore, Michael Empirioli, Katie Couric, Doug E Doug and Ziggy Marley.


The Plot…

No one likes a loser, but that’s usually from the loser’s point of view.

Oscar is a little fish in a big ocean. Sure, he has a secure life at the whale wash, but he can’t help but dream about being the cream of the crop on the high cliffs on the Reef. Only to hope for the better.

Lenny is a big fish in a small pool. He’s a disappointment to his Don of a shark, and won’t chomp lesser fish for ethical reasons. Lousy philosophy for an apex predator, and a disappointment to Pop. Only to hope for the worst.

So what are these odd couple of fish coming together gonna do to reach their goals?

Simple: social media and spray paint. Worked for David Flowie.


The Rant…

Got a meaty one for you this week. Ready?

This one was not my idea. I actually wrestled with it. Animated movies are almost unheard of here at RIORI for scrutiny. There was the recent Looney Tunes: Back In Action installment, but that was a mix of live action and cells. There was my take on Pixar’s Brave, which in my opinion was a very creaky, non-Pixar endeavor if there ever was one after the first Cars flick (IE: Cars 2 was deplorable, where the merch hit the stands before the movie proper hit the theatre). I’ve strayed away—mostly—form tackling mediocre animated flicks here because on the whole there is no specific audience. Unlike anime features, where there is a line always in the sand about where the content of a film takes you (EG: Akira and Ghost In The Shell is not Studio Ghibli), American animated films are designed to appeal to both young and old at the same time. Then again, if I have to sit through Frozen ONE MORE TIME I’m gonna have to let it go. Let it all go.

*applause*

Yer welcome.

Shark Tale was a favorite flick for K. She loved this pastiche. Then again, she’s a gourmet regarding animated films. She’s a Pixar junkie, just like me. She is a dyed-in-wool Disney fan. Stone cold. She appreciates my adoration of Studio Ghibli’s output. We both dig the Looney Tunes (well, I dig. She goes along with them). I always have to be on top anyway we dig animated flicks. However there must be a line in the sand. Just because a movie is pixilated or celled does not a good film make. Passable yes, but not necessarily good. Ever watch the House Of Mouse’s output during the 70s? ‘Course not.

It was federal law to watch animated flicks when I was a pup. I was a Reagan Baby, and across the 80s there was a crazy quilt of animated feature films available to entertain and warp me at an impressionable (read: dumb) age. I wasn’t aware at the time, but there were a handful of what could be considered “subversive” films in that animated universe. Don’t quote me on this, but in hindsight the 80s might’ve been the watershed to introduce “adult” concepts into ostensibly movies designed for the junior set. Granted, there were classic Disney films the pushed the envelope. Sleeping Beauty featured baddie Malificent morph into a demonic dragon. Some asshat shot Bambi’s mom. The donkey-as-sin scene from Pinocchio is still harrowing. Hell, Cruella DiVille got her own movie recently, which admits her staying power as a palpable, lizard-like villain. So yeah, Uncle Walt’s early triumphs did not shy away from the more unpleasant aspects of life, real or imagined.

The following is all hindsight 20/20, 30 years on and not so dumb anymore (hopefully less dumb). Although I didn’t take much notice at the time, I’ve since recalled a handful of animated flicks that, well, left a curious taste in my brain. If you’re a member of Gen X you might dig what I’m sharing. Come, walk with me. It’s down a foggy memory lane. I have cookies.

Recall the Rankin/Bass meditation on death and rebirth that was The Last Unicorn. The creepiness of conspiracy and tyranny with The Secret of NIMH, what with its literal backstabbing. Heck, before the first act of the original (animated) Transformers movie began the nasty Decepticons whacked dozens of Autobot stalwarts from the TV series into so much scrap metal (I was really bummed how Ratchet—the Autobots’ medic—got mowed down by the nasty Megatron in gun form, which was based on a Nazi pistol). The flick had a stellar, old skool celebrity voice cast (EG: Orson Welles, Robert Stack and Lionel Stander, all hamming it up and having a blast). Some coarse language and lots of violence pervaded the film rendering our Autobot heroes from the last three sanitized seasons on TV rendered into smoldering slag. And the perquisite, unrelenting, insufferable, cheezy 80s soundtrack courtesy of Vince DiCola to boot. There was me as an eleven-year old: Cool! Ugh.

Finally, the proud, meat-of-the-matter example of us Gen X kids growing up too fast, the original (again animated) G.I. Joe movie had a very terse scene. The climax. It occurred when one of the principal protags—I think was Special Forces agent Flint—got shot by a COBRA operative pointblank and bled out so fast he slipped into a coma. And never returned to the film. Go figure it out.

These were animated flicks. Cartoons. And were acceptable as kids’ “entertainment” by the MPAA. Times sure have changed. Maybe a tad too much.

Word is born. Good luck finding any straightforward “serious” content in kiddie flicks nowadays, save Pixar’s output and much of that is drama driving any conflict. Now for real, I’m not trying to romanticize the past. In fact above I tried to and I don’t feel so romantic. Hold me. It was not that long ago that a hard-nosed plot element made kids think as well as entertain. Again, raise a glass to Pixar, possibly the last bastion in animated studios that “get it.” Good, if not great animated movies are both provocative as well as endearing. Once again with Pixar, the opening montage in Up speaks volumes with no voices to be heard. Prods your brain, invites you into Carl’s worldview and why. Can’t lie that it’s my fave Pixar movie, and always enduring once you own up to the message of loss and redemption. It’s not about cranky Carl. It’s not about Russell and his dim-witted Kevin. It’s all about Ellie. Chew on that.

And WALL-E is all about conspicuous consumerism. And Charlie Chaplin. Sorry about the headache.

Enough about Pixar. I mean enough about Pixar. Time to talk about the competitors, specifically DreamWorks. They’re the guys responsible for fodder like Shark Tale.

I will be polite. I am allegedly an adult now. If I was able then to deal with one of my fave actors Jeff Bridges as Prince Lir getting gored by the devil Red Bull and reviving in the drink, I can play nice now (sh*t, tell me your best bar story). I’ve learned/understood a few things as of late regarding modern animated films. I’ll get back to that after this one thought:

I never killed the school back in my junior high days suffering under the influence of watching Voltron. Nowadays I suffer this…


The Story…

Oscar (Smith) has always dreamed he’d hit it big someday. Instead of toiling at Mr Sykes’ (Scorsese) Whale Wash he rather be with his head in the clouds. Jet set. Living a life of luxury at the top tier of the Great Reef. But nooooo, whales are endangered and need regular flossing. Crap in a hat.

Lenny (Black) is a shark of ethics, and has never wanted a piece of the action like his pop, Don Lino (DeNiro). Lino is the head of the local shark Mafia and his cosa nostra shakedown is pretty straightforward: gobble up fish. It’s what sharks do, except pacifist Lenny, disgrace to The Family. All he wants out of his miserable existence is to have dad’s respect. Be someone, but that means putting his conscience aside. What to do?

Well, as comedy of errors go, both Oscar and Lenny meet at the crossroads of fate. Square peg Lenny feels he has no business with the sharks, and Oscar has no business with his head in the clouds of the rich and famous. Due to accidental destiny, between them both Oscar succeeds in reaching the high life thanks to Lenny’s bumbling, and Lenny finds a new family amongst the lesser fish of the reef.

Until Don Lino and his crew come looking for his cowardly son. And the wrasse-hole that “slayed” Lenny’s big bro Frankie (Empirioli).

Now it’s all up in the foam. Well, thank goodness what the right swatch of blue can do.


The Review…

Picking it up now, there were quite a few detractors who regarded Transformers: The Movie as nothing more than a glorified toy commercial. They weren’t entirely wrong. As a kid what I dug about the film (besides the collateral damage and Spike shouting “sh*t” out of panic) was not so much the prospect of new toys on the horizon and new eps on TV. Nope, it was the movie’s introduction of new characters. Consider this, really do. When you consider a film to claiming “a cast of thousands” (hyperbole aside) don’t you groan a bit at the claim? I understand it’s an old gimmick, and now a cheesy cliche, but really. Most films seldom have too many principals. If you think about it Star Wars: A New Hope only had seven leads. The film series invites grand things, but with a small, core cast. Luke, Han, Leia, Threepio, Artoo, Obi-Wan and Vader. Everyone else is just gravy, no matter how core Peter Cushing’s role of Moff Tarkin was central to the plot. Lesser fans of the movie forget about him regardless. Fanboys…never say much either. Hope was no Spartacus, and for good reason.

The core cast thing works wonders for most live-action films. There may be a lot of secondaries and extras (EG: every Woody Allen, Robert Altman and/or Lawrence Kasdan film) in big flicks with big stories, but that eyewash is only there as filler. When that formula goes awry—read: David Lynch’s Dune or DeMille’s The Ten Commandments as examples—it’s akin to getting dinner at your local Italian red sauce joint where the menu folds out like a road map atlas with over a hundred meal options taunting you. You eventually just settle on the lasagne. Like last time. Every time. Too many options.

Ah, but for animated movies it’s practically de riguer to have a “cast of thousands.” It’s always the more the merrier. Consider this, Disney’s first theatrical, animated release was Snow White & The Seven Dwarves. The title alone speaks of a broad spectrum of players. Okay, maybe not, but back in 1937 a full length feature film that was fully animated was an unusual achievement. And never mind Snow or her charges, or the Wicked Queen or Prince Charming. Instead recall that this was the 30s. There were no such tech as we have today for sound effects. An unholy host of “extras” provided bird whistles, other nature sounds and even singing as backdrop to match the soundtrack. I recently checked the manifest of voice actors, et al that provided sound for Snow White. It took 20 people—voice actors and F/X crew alike—to imbue the film with the warmth we all recollect from seeing Walt’s big deal animated movie. Not a thousand people, but you get it, and it set a standard being followed my modern animated films to this day.

*crickets*

Okay, okay. In short if you’ve ever seen the Toy Story films, the Shrek movies, the Madagascar flicks, Sing, Over The Hedge, and if you wanna count Despicable Me with its myriad Minions a big animated voice cast works. It’s required these days. You gotta have that cast of…tens to make sure they are sewn into the tapestry of the story. And naturally there are no small roles, small parts, just small attention spans. Those help also when trying to digest so much technicolor upchuck.

Swing and a miss.

A big vocal cast to a big feature animated movie. Sometimes it works and sometimes it “works.” Shark Tale was on a fence here. It’s not the notes its how you play blah blah blah. There was no economy of dialogue here to warrant a big cast, except for cheap, there-and-gone gags. That and this high profile cast of yeoman voice actors didn’t help move the story along. Good thing there wasn’t much of a story I guess. Look, for once I’ll upchuck all of the lousy parts from this week’s hanging and get on to the praise. Both are in equal parts BTW. I’d like to be mannered this time out.

Ahem. The story. Shark‘s is a tried-and-true plot device. Read: boring. Our two misfits from opposite sides of the tracks do some wheeler-dealing to get in good graces with the right crowd. In this case, Oscar wants to make a name for himself and Lenny wants to be accepted for who his. It’s a riff on Trading Places, or Strangers On A Train, or A Bug’s Life, before God. It’s been done before and with more panache, but was lost on Shark. It’s merely a canvas for wisecracking and getting all goofy on yo ass. There ain’t much meat on this whale fall, and for all it pluses, there is way to much filler and pandering to kids and adults alike. The story is stale and no amount of pop culture asides can redeem this tale twice told ten times over. A shame.

It’s understood that I am an unabashed Pixar fan. Beyond the cutting edge CGI, Pixar’s flicks have healthy, well-built stories with fleshed out characters and a certain plot pinion—the almighty Maguffin—that informs the entire story. With Up, Coco, Inside Out, WALL-E et al, there was a single trigger to set the story in motion. EG: Millie’s death, Coco’s fading memory of her beloved Hector’s music, Riley’s troublesome move and solitude against conspicuous consumerism respectively. Unlike Shark, these stories don’t use tropes as a crutch, but as a launchpad.

This is my issue with DreamWorks’ animated movies. It kinda goes along with the line about “cast of thousands.” As of late, there is only one DreamWorks animated I’ve loved, and oddly enough the plot is based on a million other stories (EG: our protagonist put in a responsibility to care for a troubled pet), as with a fave of mine How To Train Your Dragon, which had some weight being based on a series of books. It was a boy and his dog, classic. It’s that blues riff again. Unfortunately most of DreamWorks CGI output lacks nuance, since nuance doesn’t sell well with most animated films for a fast buck. Think again about Despicable Me and its sequels following the laws of diminishing returns.

DreamWorks as well as other animated studios of a similar ilk (EG: Illumination with those damned minions again) cage way too many pop culture riffs to serve as humor. Think Family Guy. At least with Disney/Pixar there’s some breathing room, some satori with tasteful exposition. With most DreamWorks animated flicks it’s all about flash, dash, splash and being utterly disposable. Sometimes such disposable fluff’s a welcome thing, but when there is precious little meat on the plot to begin with, and all that flash gets hella boring f*cking quick. I mean name one memorable scene in DreamWorks’ production catalog beyond Fiona singing the bird to death. Right. Gimmicks as entertainment. All of Shark‘s pop culture refs would go over the kiddies’ heads, and just came across as trying too hard.

Rough, I know. However the big deal redeeming factor of Shark is its animation. The whole movie is f*cking beautiful. The whole show is very pretty, very colorful, very vibrant. Luscious is the watchword with Shark, and majority of the budget been spent on pixels upon pixels. Sure wasn’t invested in sharp scenarists (ow!). It’s a gorgeous movie. I can’t stress that enough.

Beyond just being lovely to look at, the animation was also quite clever. Unlike Finding Nemo, our fishy friends in Shark are over top anthropomorphic and all the better for it. I loved how the character’s faces resembled their flesh-and-blood human counterparts. Oscar looked like Smith. Lenny looked like Black. Don looked like DeNiro (note the birthmark on the cheek). Check out Mr Sykes’ bushy brows. And Lola was Jolie. Amazing, and very amusing. I ain’t made outta stone, people.

Natch, voice acting always brings out the best in actors with unique voices and their cadence. For example with Shark, Smith got to ham it up to 11, channeling his inner Fresh Prince. His spin seemed almost cathartic. Let’s expel some serious goofiness akin to primal scream therapy. Well, that and taking time to skewer his public image. As did the supporting cast, especially Black whose squeaky Lenny was barely recognizable as Black himself (and for a first, no histrionics. Didn’t think it was in him).

Here’s another nifty example about healthy self-parody Shark permitted our vocal cast. For years Jolie has more or less having her acting chops be waylaid by her looks. Here we have a great parody of that dilemma. In the endgame her best roles downplay her pretty face. Ever see Malificent? What’s I’m saying—despite the weak story and splash and dash—is that the voice actors get to tear it up, make fun of their public image, or embrace it with more cheeze than the Kraft conglomerate. Yeah, the pop riffs were lame, but the execution was a delight. Kind of a weird paradox.

So what’s my final word? Well, Shark was madcap, exquisitely beautiful to watch, funny in fits and starts, freaking loud in execution (like sporting an orange shirt at the beach) and definitely all about style over substance. K loves this movie, probably for the same reasons I’ve been all meh about it. Still, what I loved about Shark was not what she liked. Call this a lesson in cinematic life: it takes all kinds. A kinds of takes. Get it?

Go fish.


The Verdict…

A mild relent it. This ain’t Pixar territory here, and that’s okay. On another hand Shark Tale should be mandatory viewing for every budding CGI animation student.


The Stray Observations…

  • “Is that supposed to be the Titanic?”
  • “That’s not how you sing that song, mon.”
  • “Nobody loves a nobody.”
  • Danger: Heavy Load.
  • Echo!
  • “Go be useless somewhere else.” I must use that line at work.
  • License plate. Ever see Jaws? Heh.
  • Crazy Joe. Sorry, not sorry.
  • What was that thing a while back when Scorsese derided the MCU as “not cinema?” Huh.
  • The Whale Wash is like a dentist appointment from Hell.

The Next Time…

Why didn’t the folks at Disney call the sequel Tron 2.0 instead of Tron: Legacy? Some people don’t have a Clu.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #186: Ron Howard’s “Cinderella Man” (2005)



The Players…

Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Bruce McGill, Paddy Considine, Craig Bierko and naturally Clint Howard somewhere in the mix.


The Basics…

The Great Depression hit America hard, but determined albeit washed-up boxer James J Braddock hit back harder.

After suffering a career-ending injury in the ring, not to mention the nation’s economy going to hell, James still pressed on to keep his family together and well away from Hooverville. Of course it was a struggle, especially when it came to finding dependable work with a bum wrist, but James had weathered trouble before he was rich and famous. Now he’s going to have to start over. No depression of any kind will keep him from taking care of his family. He’s waiting for the next round.

It’s kind of funny, however, that a streak of bad luck could sometimes lead to a “lucky break,” even if in a left-handed sort of way.


The Rant…

It’s been said that Ron Howard is unique in the pantheon of great directors. He makes movies that are crowd pleasers as well as critical darlings. It doesn’t really come as much of a surprise really. Howard has been on sound stages ever since he played little Opie on The Andy Griffith Show (now try to get that theme song out of your head) and later as average Joe High School Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. He was raised in front of the camera with his baby bro Clint under the watchful eye of their character actor dad Rance. It was a sort of family industry. So after being in front of the camera for years, it came as not much of a surprise that Ronnie wanted to get in on some movie action. With his CV, Howard was more than up to the challenge.

Howard’s breakthrough film Splash was a hit. I caught it at the drive-in when I was kid where I got to see a young Tom Hanks flexing his comic chops. I didn’t get the whole art and craft of filmmaking when I was 8, but I knew what I liked and I liked Tom Hanks. He was silly. The rest of America felt that way, too and so the guy’s star rose high enough to eventually team up with a well-seasoned Howard a decade later to deliver Apollo 13. Both movies were big treats and critical smashes. The left-of-center fairy tale romance that was Splash and the nail-biting adventure in NASA history that was Apollo 13 both had something going for them, and it wasn’t Hanks. Okay, it wasn’t just Hanks.

Let’s reel back a bit. Splash was an auspicious start for a director to be noticed. It helped, no doubt, Howard’s education forged in TV and film for decades offered perspective. With that backlog, Ron’s created a bag of tricks to make most of his films the Pied Piper to America’s willing audience. A lot of great directors have one. It’s called their signature. You know when you’re watching a Scorsese film (or a Kubrick, Hitchcock, Burton or Carpenter film) before you read the credits. Howard has a signature: quality. Regardless of the story, casting, staging, lighting, choreography or stubborn prima donnas, he more times than not makes a movie that is satisfying. Fleshed out, driven of purpose and above all pleasing to the eye. Many great directors achieve these things, but Howard manages to always execute his films with warmth. That’s the ticket, that’s his signature.

Sidebar: It’s been said that Howard is the model to which all child actors should aspire. Ron has no drug rap, no criminal record, an all around nice guy, caring dad with his daughter Bryce making her own splash in Hollywood, and a guy driven of purpose: to make good movies for everyone to enjoy, audiences and critics alike. However I’d like to believe to former trumps the latter. Let’s face facts: Howard’s films are to simply be enjoyed. Just sayin’.

Howard’s covered a lot of thematic territory over the past forty years. He’s done romance (the aforementioned Splash), comedy (Parenthood), fantasy (Willow), action (Backdraft), thriller (Ransom), biopic (Pavarotti) and sci-fi (Cocoon). All of them with varying degrees of success, thanks mostly to the skill of delivering warmth. However one genre that has never betrayed Howard’s vision is that of historical drama. Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon, A Beautiful Mind, Far And Away and this week’s victim. Granted not all of these films have been great, nor exactly warm, but they were executed well and very shrewdly.

This is the part where the rant ceases being a Hallmark card.

Here’s what I mean by Howard being shrewd regarding those dramas. Being shrewd is the antithesis of being warm. From my understanding Howard stays faithful to the history of the story but also knows when to deviate from fact to make better fiction. It’s like what that oft-misquoted quote is from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. I’ll maul it a bit more here: “When the legend is better than the facts, print the legend!” He’s been known to do some sweetening with his historical dramas, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing when done right. Heck, a lot of good directors deviate from the story for a better film (EG: Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is both a watered down and over the top reinterpretation of Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness). Often that’s how it goes down. On occasions, however translating the legend gets clunky (check out the U-571 installment, for example). Shoehorning. Not warm, neither shrewd. Not in Howard’s bailiwick.

Being forewarned what follows are spoilers. Kinda. The difference between spoiling and clarifying depends on which story you stumbled onto first: the movie or the source. Avert your eyes if you must, but there’ll be no blue book waiting after this history lesson. The following may, may be considered spoilers, but not in the sense that I am giving away any crucial info to ruin your day. I’m divulging the mundane, historical record that got tweaked in contrast for a juicier filmgoing experience. Now shaddap and watch this filmstrip.

*raps chalkboard with pointer*

Settle down. And who stole my goddam apple?

All right then.

Jim Lovell did not say, “Houston, we have a problem” in Apollo 13. In reality it was, “Houston, there is a problem.” The tweaking of the line made it more personal, y’know? More urgent. Mathematician John Nash’s long-suffering wife Alicia stood by him as he wrestled with schizophrenia in A Beautiful Mind. In reality she divorced him unable to endure the stress of it all (they later reconciled and John lived as her boarder for the rest of his days. They had no kids. That and the whole pen exchange was totally made up). Holding it all together was the underlying story in the movie, and what can be accomplished if you keep plugging away. Divorce is the antithesis of that, head against the wall. Nixon admitted he was involved in a cover up, not a victim of one. Cinderella Man got its fair share of massaging also.

Still with me? Good. Moving on.

It’s a tricky thing. There’s always that whole thing about creative license balancing the historical record. Let’s face facts, most movie goers who like biopics could give two sh*ts about the Wikipedia page. They want to be entertained, rightly so and have never read a Marvel comic book in their lives (or a book at all). The historical facts attached to/inspiring the movie only really apply to the curious, and curious I am. Curious enough to share some Cinderella Man factoids. Not to decry Howard’s direction. Quite the contrary. How he was cagey in tweaking just the right “facts” to deliver a better movie. One that draws you in. This is important. Duh.

Here’s the story of Cinderella Man. The historical record is telling. Yes, Braddock revived his boxing career and won the Heavyweight Title against Max Baer in 1935. Okay. Baer was never the assh*le he was portrayed be in the movie. Sure, he was a rock star boxer, but still a professional athlete. When he knocked out and ultimately killed his opponent, Baer was very distraught by the accidental death. He even gave up boxing for a while. When returning to the ring before the title bout, Baer contacted Braddock of putting the championship fight on hold due to Baer’s fears, worry and knowing Braddock was no longer in his prime.

That Max Baer makes for a sh*tty villain. “Pussy” may be a better word. But there are no “villains” in boxing. This wasn’t the WWE. Baer was not Braddock’s nemesis, he was his opponent. But a movie about a comeback kid needs an antagonist. Bingo, Baer the pompous asshat was borne, and someone to boo at and call a bum or palooka or whatever pussy terms they used back in the day. Conflict is what drives a story and earns an audience. Being a good sport on the losing end does not. Howard knew this, and we—I—bit.

That’s just a small sample of Howard’s shrewdness when it comes to tweaking the facts to promote the legend. It’s safe for me to assume/speak for all of you that history can be pretty boring. It’s been said that the victors write the history, and I believe there are very few accurate stories in history that are exciting as the legends. Good examples? There were not just three hundred Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae. Leonidas and his army had scores of vassals, squires, cheerleaders, caterers, etc to get the job done. Marie Antionette was not so flippant as so suggest the hungry Parisians without access to bread should eat cake instead. In truth the doomed lady-in-waiting allegedly declared, “Let them eat the crusts (from the paté).” Yeah, just as insensitive (if not more so) but not as tantalizing as cake. Einstein never defined insanity. The source is attributed to part of the Narcotics Anonymous manifesto dating back to the early 1980s. Guess Einstein was sexier.

You follow? With historical drama, you gotta spin to sell it, but it has to be the right kind of spin. The record is almost always a straight line. Facts don’t entice as much as tears in the fabric do. A director needs a little wiggle room (read: creative license) to make the facts read out like a legend. People like to believe in legends, get behind them, wish they were the real thing. Howard got that, which is why Apollo 13 was a summer blockbuster as well as Oscar fodder.

If we’re talking spin, that’s kinda like how James J Braddock’s story dropped. And rose up.


The Story…

In the mid-1920’s “The Bulldog Of Bergen,” James J Braddock (Crowe) was the toast of Heavyweight Championship Boxing. Wiry, fast and could take a licking and keep on hitting. He had it all. Fame. Fortune. His devoted wife Mae (Zellweger) and three wonderful kids at his side. A nice house in Jersey, money in the bank, and James on the up and up in practicing the “sweet science.” The fortunes a wishful man dreams about.

That was all before the Great Depression hit, financially ruining James’ family. Not to mention his career. The Braddocks sold virtually everything to survive, including their liquid income, solid income and family home. Matches dried up. James was feeling the strain, physically, emotionally and most of all paternally. It was in his final fight he broke his right wrist, effectively ending his career. So much promise broken by so much pressure. All of it textbook tragic.

Years later, James is pulling itinerant work at the docks, One afternoon he’s visited by his old friend and trainer Joe Gould (Giamatti). Despite James being cut loose years ago from the boxing commission, Joe’s wrestled up a bout for James to score some quick cash. That’s what friends do in hard time. The opponent is just some chump, but the kitty is a healthy $250. James says he’ll give it shot hoping for some groceries for the next month or so. There are four mouths to feed. As well as a dream deferred.

Of such humble beginnings—or second chances—a legend can be borne. Again.


The Breakdown…

Cinderella Man may not be Ron Howard’s best movie, or the most praised, but it is the probably the most quintessential.

All the director’s skills are on naked display here, but nothing is overplayed. Man never wears out its welcome. There have been oodles of historical dramas that freely overplayed their hands, even those made by great directors. Kubrick’s Spartacus, with its soap opera trifecta of Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons (no, not that one) and Tony Curtis. Zwick’s Civil War masterpiece Glory that—how can I say this?—seemed more about alienation than honor at times. Mank’s Cleopatra, the end.

Man never hammers down how downtrodden and maudlin Crowe’s Braddock was. As of this installment Cinderella Man dropped in 2005, 15 years ago. Those in the know have heard that Crowe can have quite the temper. I’m not sure if this is true. Back in the years he could do know wrong in the early aughts, his onscreen personas overrode any offscreen antics. As I like to way too many times say never confuse the artist with the art. Considering here with Man, whatever hothead Crowe is on his days off, that rumor only enhances his performance as Braddock here.

Crowe has an ability to be earnest, whichever role he’s chosen (since LA Confidential. We’ll ignore Romper Stomper and especially Virtuosity today) and that’s a key aspect of his Braddock. He does eager and determined well in equal doses, most likely like any real working Joe in those times; reality versus finality. Despite his reputation, Crowe’s Braddock is rather nondescript after the cold open. We get the underdog treatment, but Howard being shrewd he pulls back the melodrama just enough to educate us that, yes, James is not totally out, but a guy who is down on his luck. And there was a great deal of luck to be down on in the Braddock household. He’s just doing what to do to get by with his family. It felt like polished cast James lugged was a kind of albatross, a reminder of what went wrong. We’ve all been there (and many are still there, thank you COVID) asking “What did I do to…?B

Between Crowe’s earnest performance and Howard knowing how to spin a yarn, our hero is neither a sad sack nor bitter. Like I said determined, as well as unsure of himself after such a crushing loss of his career and his home. Vulnerability; it works every time. Crowe’s roles have been rough and tumble for years, only hinting at enough vulernabilty to make us get behind him. Recalling everyone’s fave boxing story to glory RockyMan is unabashedly romantic, and also it’s the most likable Crowe has even been as an actor, and that’s saying something. No tossed phones nothing.

Crowe’s foil Zellweger was an odd casting choice at first. She seemed somewhat out of place. Her Mae was a little too precious, however still held enough on her own. Odd casting call for the first act, but her performance as Mae does grow on you. I could think of a dozen other actresses to play Mae (oddly enough Lizzy Caplan topped my list, with Emily Blunt a close second. Must be the hair), however with time and how the plot unwound I kinda got why Miz Renee got picked. Her character unfolds gradually over the three acts, like in Shakespeare but written by Ring Lardner. Mae knows more about what’s unfolding before James, or we do. The undercurrent, the tension of what is truly at stake with James’ second chance—earning more money at the risk of his own safety—is a proud and well presented Howard touch regarding family being stronger together than apart (EG: having the kids go stay with Mae’s sister “for a bit” is not an option in the Braddock home). You can see this tack in some of Howard’s other movies, like Apollo 13 or even Cocoon and Willow. This is technically a family film, but not in Disney fashion. Overall, Zellweger had the good head on her shoulders and proved to be more than just a concerned housewife. I was surprised.

The last leg of this troika is Giamatti’s Joe Gould, the Dr McCoy of the central players. Let me get this out front: I love Giamatti. He’s in the same caliber of the late, great Sean Connery. Meaning Paul’s been in a lot of questionable films, but he’s always good. I love his “gift for gab” in all his roles, and his Joe Gould is no exception. Probably the best role he got to demonstrate his verbiage. His motormouth delivery as a huckster and trying to be a decent, well, “Joe” in hard times when his friend James is covered in existential mud. If you consider it, Joe was James’ saving grace and unflappable in his ability to get back into the ring. James was under confident, Mae was scared and Joe was the attaboy huckster. I like that kind of graceful comic relief. Sometimes we all need a buddy without realizing it, especially from a familiar well that’s always there to dip in.

Okay. Let’s talk nuts and bolts.

Howard is notorious for establishing the ideal settings for his stories. Among location directors, scenarists, second units and/or very good sound staging he gets the job done, and the dreary world of Man is no exception. The period pieces are great, doubtless enhanced with tasteful CGI. Howard’s Great Depression here is repression, opression. The ultimate gambit of the haves being so ignored that the downtrodden are everyone’s out for themselves. The first act of Man is about futility and desperate measures, all sepia toned and glaring, almost like foreshadowing to James’ downfall.

It’s all gradual. It’s enticing you. It’s enlightening. It’s the hook. Like Crowe’s earnest Braddock, Howard lures you in with atmosphere and especially scenery. In the second act—after Braddock got his second chance and scored—the sepia tones gave way to sharper hues, hinting at he future. The fog is lifting. James won a few matches. Earned money to pay the bills. Some sunshine of the man’s back. And notice how the boxing audience gradually gets larger and larger. Another Howard trick: get behind the hero, be a part of the moment. I was.

Now the meat of the matter, the Maguffin. The boxing scenes. Granted we never see James punch frozen cattle carcasses, but the mounting matches fit that bill. Those near knuckle bouts were exciting and visceral, and I was never into boxing save Nintendo’s “Punch Out!” (and I never won). I sure as sh*t got amped watching these bouts, especially for the amazing editing and clever use of effects. Meaning when James shattered his wrist in his “last bout” we got an azure X-ray snap of the injury. Later on in the comeback fights, we get the cerulean flashes every time James takes a hit, and comes blinding with the final bout. It’s almost overwhelming, the hurt, the hurt, the hurt. But as fans we know why and who Braddock is: a fighter, but not for the purse. Not for milk. Not to be defeated.

Yes, the fighting scenes were exhilarating, and the tender moments of family and just getting by were kindly sentimental but never schmaltzy. The balance between pathos and desperate struggle was neatly packaged making for great tension. Another aspect of this balance was the pacing, my pissy muse. Man had a feeling of a classic three act play, where everything lined up just right to tell the narrative. Now not everyone knew the history of James Braddock like we did the failed mission of Apollo 13 where it was all over the TV news back in 1970. Braddock’s story was far more prosaic that the misadventures of astronauts. That was the key to Man’s simple wonder. It’s a underdog/comeback story with a nice, neat gift-wrapped happy ending standing above romanticizing the past and plunking the right amount of history into the story to make Crowe’s Braddock seem like a neighbor. That is what makes a shrewd director great. Focus on the story and don’t forget who you’re sharing it with.

Man had just the right amount of melodrama, action and bending the truth to be a real crowd pleaser. I sure was pleased, and quite satisfied. Good story, good execution. The most straightforward Ron Howard film ever. And in these times of bloated biopics, where the lead is granted to win the Oscar, it’s a relief to have a very good film win zilch.

“I want to go out like a champion. I want to be carried out.”

Time to throw in the towel. Ha.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? An absolute rent it. You’ve probably figured out when the installment is this sober (even if I wasn’t) I loved the movie. I scored a hard copy off eBay. Nuff said.


The Musings…

  • The milk thing.
  • “I got in a fight…”
  • For a Kiwi, Crowe does a good Joisey accent.
  • “Hey Joe, this is Joisey.” See?
  • Lotta good accents here.
  • “Welcome to Noo Yawk.”
  • I’ll stop now.
  • “I won.” Mug. Delightful.
  • The empty apartment thing.
  • “We all know the name of the game, and it sure as hell ain’t pugilism.”
  • Was there some sort of Chariots Of Fire, Jew versus Catholic undercurrent going on? Well, Braddock did use the orthodox position and that is the greatest Dad joke about religion and boxing you will ever read today.
  • “I think I can go a few rounds with a dancing Baer.”
  • The good luck handshake thing.
  • “Milk.”

The Next Time…

Another historical drama! Cool! This time we follow Charlie Hunnam deep into the Amazon searching for The Lost City Of Z! Catch it!


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 20: George Clooney’s “Leatherheads” (2008)


Leatherheads


The Players…

George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, John Krasinski and Jonathan Pryce.


The Story…

Professional football back in the 20s was just finding its feet. Back then, despite its small fan base, pro ball was more of a novelty than anything. Most folks smirked; no way that guys would ever be paid to play ball, not with the competition of college football riding so high. But it looks like the fans demand pro football…all twelve of them.

So spunky sports reporter Roxie has this nose for news, and to grab a scoop on the possibility of a real American pro football league sounds delicious. She seeks out Dodge, a too-old-to-play rapscallion about the potential future of football as proper spectator sport.

Roxie fast learns she should’ve double-checked her resources.


The Rant…

Two things:

  1. Sorry I’ve been away from so long. I just put in 21 days in a row at work (which must violate the Constitution is some way, shape or form) and sleep was a more precious commodity than blog upkeep. Besides, I had no damn time to watch any new films, so get off me.
  2. I’ve been derelict in my duties. I’ve been comparing the trade and this blog looks very primitive. I wish I knew more about customizing on WordPress but I’m too damned busy elsewhere (life, work, kid, whatever comes after lifeworkkid) to make these posts look snappy. A web pal of mine says it’s all about the content, but what good is the content if its packaging is lame? I could use some suggestions and input into making RIORI more shiny.

Back to movies…

This is not my first comedy I’ve covered. It is however the screwiest comedy I’ve ever covered. Leatherheads is a comedy in the most earthy way: madcap. No redeeming dramatic factors backing it up. Sure, we have he classic hero-villain-intermediary triad working, but it’s all very squishy. More on that later, but now it’s time for the traditional intro:

I’ve never been a football fan. I know it sounds very not ‘Mericun to not be into football (and not be “accused” of being gay for it) in these our United States. Sorry. The closest I ever got into football was in college cheering on the Syracuse Orangemen every Saturday from the end zone as a member of the marching band. And here’s something for you: it’s hard to get behind college football on the idiot box when you get prime seats gratis for four years where the ref can actually hear your protests about fouls. Beyond that catbird seat, I could give two sh*ts about football.

That is not to say that I’m not interested in the history of the game. Football’s the biggest commodity in pro sports as far as I understand. Think about how much Super Bowl ad spots go for and you get what I’m saying. Its influence is huge, and has weaved endless threads into our national conscious that can never be undone.

Like I said, I don’t really like football, but I sure as hell can’t deny it. Something as big as pro football had to start somewhere. The acorn and the oak and alla dat. I‘d like to imagine the history of the pro game began with a bunch of hardscrabble youths took to warping British rugby into the game as we know it today. Maybe it was just a bunch of guys (let’s face it, it had to be guys. Not men, but guys) who liked getting down and dirty and playing in the mud. Or perhaps it was just some knuckleheads who plum enjoyed smashing into things.

I think the last part is the closest analog to the truth as far as Leatherheads goes…


Dodge Connelly (Clooney) is washed up. Or at least very close to the shoreline. He could have dedicated his life after the Great War to some noble effort like curing some disease or erecting mighty buildings. Nope. Instead he opted for punting the pigskin in the haphazard world of fledgling professional football. He’s past his prime, on the far side of forty and has absolutely no clue how to contribute to society in a meaningful fashion. And besides, it’s not as if pro football has any hope of being a big deal after all, not with college ball being so popular, and those kids are amateurs.

Dodge is the captain of the Duluth Bulldogs, a team so low on the tier they can barely afford a pot to piss in. While there’s no real money to be made in pro ball, Dodge and his cohorts—ahem, teammates—work with what they have (even if it’s only one ball) and just try to have fun, not giving a damn. But Dodge, who let’s face it, has very little good years left in him (not as if there were a lot in the first place), is stubborn. He figures with the right marketing, pro ball could not only become a legitimate enterprise but also a profitable one. He figures all he needs is the right kind of player. Someone that crowds could rally around, want to see him shine on the field. A football star. That’s the ticket. Don’t you know Dodge has the perfect player in mind.

Carter Rutherford (Krasinksi) is a war hero, athlete, scholar and all around the envy of everyone. He’s handsome, modest, a real Boy Scout and before his college years had concluded, was capable of whipping the crowds into a fomenting frenzy playing college ball. How about football as a career? Please. Carter has more that tossing around the old pigskin lined up for his future. Well, not if Dodge has anything to say about it. He’s sure he found his golden boy. Now how to convince him to join the Bulldogs in hopes to make pro football legit?

Yet is Carter’s rep as shiny as it seems? Can he really be America’s son? Dodge certainly thinks so, but not spunky news reporter Lexie Littleton (Zellweger). She smells a rat. There’s something fishy about Carter’s war story, and he may not be the golden boy the public esteems. No matter to Dodge. Carter’s his man, warts and all. But the dauntless reporter wants the truth, for is Carter too good to be true?

What to do? What to do? Hell, let’s just work it out on the field…


I liked this one. I’m not one for screwball comedies, and Leatherheads came perilously close to that, but on the whole it was a witty little film. It wasn’t outright funny, but always on the cusp of going off the tracks. Whether or not this was director Clooney’s intentions I have no idea. But I did like this one.

Leatherheads is Clooney’s third film he directed, and this time it feels like he tried to apply a few things he learned from the Coen Brothers (down to hiring some of the same actors). It’s got that left-of-center feel like most Coen comedies possess, and Clooney does well with the fast talking, carnival barker type delivery and dialogue he affected in their movies. Even the editing seems Coen-ish. Hard to figure if this was a Clooney project alone or a wink and a nod to the Brothers themselves. Either way it doesn’t matter. Leatherheads moves swiftly along with its story with highly quotable, snappy dialogue, sight gags, hammy acting and borderline screwball antics. Couldn’t help but smile during this movie.

However not all is fair in love, football and acting. Again, I don’t know if Clooney was shooting for this, but the leads feel like they’re adhering to stereotypes on purpose. For instance, Zellweger has the right attitude as the spitfire His Girl Friday. Too right an attitude. Clooney is the loveable ruffian, and Krasinski with the most sincere face. These are archetypes in cinema, inescapable no matter how you dress them up. But there’s no real flair to any of these characters. Nothing that would make them stand out in a police line up for committing anything remarkable. There needed to be a little more meat on the bones for me to really embrace the acting, which was serviceable but like I said, needed more oomph.

One thing this movie does well is illustrate the hardscrabble life pro football had, all low rent and humble, well, well before the multi-billion dollar industry it is today. And speaking of dollars, I uncovered a possible argument why Leatherheads didn’t score many points (ha!) at the multiplex. In an interview Clooney said that he made this movie with a specific age bracket in mind, the oh so lucrative 50 to 80 year-old demographic.

*screeching of tires*

What the what? That kind of marketing would get you killed in war! Deliberating aiming beyond the apocryphal 25 to 40 year old demo is akin to Hollywood budgetary suicide! Did they even have movies fifty years ago? What in the name of Heisman was Clooney thinking? A surefire way to meet The Standard is to lose money on an earnest project. Clooney succeeded, but what guts. In a world of youth and glam overly revered in Hollywood that to make a film with grandpa in mind is so crazy that it almost worked.

Admittedly Leatherheads tried a bit too had to be old-timey, right down to the font used for the opening credits. There’s a certain Marx Brothers quality to the film, and that also is an acquired taste (one I have) for an older audience. Like I said, there’s an underlying madcap tone to the whole picture, humor steeped in pop culture from many moons ago. Leatherheads is not a laugh out loud comedy. Sure, it’s funny, but it goes for the element of “smart” funny that values wit over fart jokes. It’s all a very slick affair.

Perhaps that senior citizen factor failed because it alienated a good percentage of moviegoers. Who really wants to see gutbucket football in action from three generations ago, besides Gramps, me and football enthusiasts? Good question. In the long run it doesn’t really matter, because a good movie is a good movie. Leatherheads is not a great movie, and can be a bit creaky at times, but I liked it. A solid okay would be the best way to describe it.

So what have we learned?

Working 21 days in row sucks and keeps me away from movies and RIORI (as well as food, drink, sleep, sex and sanity), my blog needs a new coat of paint and Leatherheads was a solid, yet mediocre film with a few highlights.

Overall it’s good to be back. Sorry I was away for so long. I left kisses on the pillow.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Leatherheads may have an acquired taste, but it won’t be a bitter one (insert clever football analogy here, ‘cause I can’t think of one. Not a fan, remember?).


Stray Observations…

  • The filmmakers neglected the actual gridiron pattern on the field that was standard for football back in the day. Someone was asleep at the wheel.
  • “You went to college?” “Colleges.”
  • Hey! It’s Vinnie Delpino, Doog!
  • “I didn’t come over here to be insulted.” “There where do you usually go?”
  • I loved the set pieces and costumes. Someone sure didn’t skimp in the wardrobe department.
  • “I don’t drink.” “You will.”
  • I didn’t give much of a shout out to Jonathan Pryce’s performance as promoter CC Frazier. He’s very dry and sullen. I like that in a classic antagonist.
  • “There’s always baseball.”

Next Installment…

Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow. Kinda says it all, doesn’t it?