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


The Film…


The Players…

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


The Plot…

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

Only Britain would go to Nixon.


The Rant…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the flipside.

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

Yes.

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

You guessed it. Richard Milhaus Nixon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Story…

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

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

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

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

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

We’re going live in three, two, one…


The Review…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Verdict…

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


The Stray Observations…

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

The Kudos…

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

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


The Next Time…

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


RIORI 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 3, Installment 82: Ron Howard’s “The Missing” (2003)



The Players…

Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Aaron Eckhart, Eric Schweig, Jenna Boyd, Evan Rachel Wood and Val Kilmer.


The Story…

Being a single parent—needless to say such—is a tough, often thankless job. At its worst, sometimes not even a rewarding one. This can be said especially when a family is splintered.

Maggie is a frontier doctor, a healer on the fringes aiding anyone who needs her help. Her rigid patience knows no illness. But when her estranged father Sam rides into her farm—a man very mixed up about who he is and why—her patience is tasked.

Maggie is not thrilled about his out of nowhere visit. Sam abandoned her long ago, and she’s tried to provide for her family as best as he didn’t. She tries to chase him away, but he came calling from exile for a very specfic purpose.

That purpose is made known when Maggie’s eldest daughter Lily goes…missing.


The Rant…

Here’s a milestone. Well over 100 movies scanned here at RIORI and never once did a western cross my path. I think that says something, either reflecting my tastes or The Standard bows to cowboys and Indians. I often don’t.

Westerns. Never been a big fan of the genre. Sure, I enjoy a good oater now and again. I fact, I have a few select movies. The list is short because when it comes to this particular genre, I’ve had to sift through a lot of trail dust to find a gold nugget. Namely, I don’t “get” most westerns.

It’s been said that the western movie is the genre that just won’t die. Funny phrase, considering how many of such films built the backbone of summer blockbuster season from the 70s until now. Think about it. Westerns were a hip thing post-war until the early 70s until a rogue shark took the bite out of them. Ha ha and shut up. If you want to get technical, the longest running program in the history of broadcast media was Gunsmoke. A radio drama in the 40s that evolved into a TV series in the 50s. The show ran until 1975. By the math Gunsmoke was the longest running series in the history of a serialized programs. That’s over a quarter century. Granted, Gunsmoke wasn’t a movie, but its long run illustrated the appeal of the western. Even The Simpsons has yet to catch up.

So why won’t the western die? I think it’s because the genre is very homespun. It’s based on truth and imagined truth that could’ve only happened in America. Sure, other cultures have their signature histories to draw from when it comes to filmmaking. The samurai film comes to mind. India has its Bollywood. There’s the “wire-fu” police action flicks in China. The myriad war movies from countries all over the globe (a prime example: Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot illustrating the exploits of a reluctant Third Reich submarine crew). All are made inherent to their own unique culture. The American western is no different. Consider this: John Wayne could not have been born in Belgium. Marion Morrison maybe, but not the Duke.

That being said, the reason the western won’t roll over and die from a rattlesnake bite is that it’s a uniquely American genre. Sure, there have been lots of western plots lifted from foreign films (eg The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful Of Dollars, etc), but the transplant is couched in a scenario that is distictly American. The gunslinger as knight, exchanging the blade at the hip for a pair of sturdy Colts in the holsters. It ain’t exactly swords n’ sorcery, but the idea hangs on myth, legend and truth. Historical escapism, if you will.

Maybe this displacement and ideation with the western is the notion of the lone hero, serving king and country. The almighty “law.” America never had knights, samurai or stormtroopers (not the Star Wars kind, you dip). Warriors who swore fealty to their masters, bound by a sense of honor to guide them. Now it’s understood that the western idealized the notion of the lone gunman, a solitary force for good against corruption trampling the common folk. If you’ve read your history (and sure as hell I didn’t), most fabled lawmen were less than savory characters. Heroes not. I mean, Bat Masterson got his name for pistol-whipping felons rather than shooting them outright (might be viewed as virtuous, but it sure had to hurt to twitching). The real Jesse James was a merciless crook, not some Robin Hood (prob’ because there was no real Robin Hood). Hell, even the virtuous Wyatt Earp began his career in law enforcement as a gambler. As far as cinematic entertainment goes, most of our Old West “heroes” were scoundrels and scofflaws before seeing the light. Such as it were.

Perhaps that’s the trick why the western movie won’t roll over and die. Paired with the faulty notion of honor against evil and being a (mostly) unique American concoction of history mixed with legend that holds its appeal. Probably not much different that the occasional period piece by Kurosawa. After all, a ronin works for money, not to honor the emperor. I don’t think supporting your local sheriff has much pull on presidential policy. But in the final analysis, we plop down our ducats for popcorn and trail dust. That’s that. Entertainment. Uniquely ‘Muricun. Pass the sarsaparilla and nachos.

And me? I feel the issue I take with westerns is most seem repetitive and carbon copy; the tropes are almost always front and center. Sure, cinephiles rave on about Clint’s spaghetti years, the Duke’s powerhouse, revisionist stuff like Stagecoach, The Searchers and True Grit (and to an extent, his first leading role Tall In The Saddle, the meta western). High Noon is a classic for its social commentary. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid for it’s irreverence. Unforgiven for being just plain bad ass. But people get in a twist over the classics. The Magnificent Seven, Rio Bravo, the aforementioned Leone “Dollars Trilogy.” These are all high watermarks, if not boilerplate. And aren’t they really few and far between?

Truth be told, in the heyday of westerns a saturation point reached a fever pitch in the mid-50s until the late 60s. Blame the godly presence of the Duke and the vicarious appeal of mean ol’ Clint. We remember the good stuff fondly and forget about trash like the recent Lone Ranger debacle. Memory sees with a blurred lens.

Why I ask? Why is there such a narrow window of successes in westerns? I mean, they do happen. Even a blind squirrel blah yadda yak. Because the good sh*t regarding westerns buck the trend. Face it. What I’ve learned from watching westerns with my father from childhood into adolescence, a great many of the movies retread over one another. The tropes are dyed in steel wool. Loner cowboy, seething villain, gunplay, plots involving kidnapping/treasure/the natives being restless, etc. I feel 90 percent of westerns are a revolving door, and the only reason the genre refuses to die is because it buoyed by the above gold standards. It’s kinda like reverence for Lipps Inc’s “Funkytown.” Great song, but what else? Flash in the pan and all that it delivers. Comparing that to westerns we’d all like to hear “867-5309/Jenny” over and over again than the repetitive catalog of Counting Crows. Talk about a long December.

Hey. Even I’m not totally immune to the lure of a good, unique hoof-in-mouth. I may be a cynic, but I’m a movie fan first. Second. Sorry, my cynicism overrides all. Surprise. Now sit still or else I peel off more duct tape. Struggling will only make it hurt more.

So. The westerns I’ve truly taken to heart? I mean barring the biggies already mentioned here’s the short list and why. Mine’s a very short list. Snap out of it, and please wipe the Cheetos residue from your chest. Thank you.

Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado. It’s the “greatest hits” package of westerns. Every trope, gadget and cliche litter this little gem. And I love it. The cast is awesome (Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover and a refeshingly emotive young Kevin Costner). There’s a lot of humor, sometimes winking. Lots of flashy gunplay. A despicable, heavy villain (Brian Dennehy). A rather tricky plot, too. You don’t really get the stakes until well into the second act. It’s a satisfying slice of western hodgepodge, even if you don’t dig westerns. Silverado is a post-modern western that wears it’s heart on it’s sleeve. I recommend it for a lazy Saturday afternoon. Red River it ain’t, but yee-ha all the same.

Peter Hyams’ Outland, a sci-fi take on High Noon. A lot of folks back in the day panned Outland as a rip-off, despite it’s timely tale of subjugated laborers with no union support as well as starring my main man Sean Connery. But it retains a certain charm, soft High Noon in outer space. Talk about frontier territory. I know, I know. The setting is a mining facility on the Jovian moon Io (mining and westerns go together like PB and J), so there’s an eye-roller. A funny one. We also have 007 as a disgruntled marshall. Marshall, not cop. Regional police force, transient. Drifter? Peter Boyle as the tyrannical general manager, always turning a blind eye to corruption (which feeds his wallet). And Connery’s O’Neill having something to prove, if not against the corrupt system then to himself. And his girl grizzled Doctor Friday in the form of Frances Sternhagen who’s tired of the sh*t afoot at Con-Am 27 who lends a hand. Sounds like a western to me. It’s best to watch this B-movie pastiche as not a SF movie but…, well, you know. Outland is revisionist, post-modern western. It has that going for it, which is nice.

Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. ‘Nuff said.

Notice none of those three movies were cut during the halcyon days of Hollywood’s Death Valley days. Silverado was released in 1985, and Outland in 1980 (the tail end of the SF boom thanks to Star Wars: A New Hope). Saddles dropped in ’74, a year effectively removed from the days when John Wayne and Clint chomping on a beadie were long gone. That’s how my mind works, even after seeing the “classics” of the genre. And I only caught High Noon for the first time on Amazon Fire last month. Good movie. Slow learner.

In the longview, seeing the classic westerns preps you for seeing the post-modern ones. They stink of a history there, be it Vaseline streaked across the the lens of memory (historic as well as cinematic). But it creaks the door open, invites curiosity. Help yourself. Westerns can be a melange of fun, revisionist history, recalling young America as lawless and on the fringes. Using too much dynamite paired against making the decision to name a lone wolf Two Socks. These touchstones are a patriotic reminder and appeal as to why the western genre just won’t die.

I’m not anti-western, but such movies and all their retreads better try real hard to reel me in. It’s too bad, but there’s a lot of dross to sift through regarding most westerns. Most folks don’t have the patience and simply look for the tin badge.

Loss leader. Based against the above criteria, it was kinda like…


Maggie (Blanchett) is a frontier doctor. A healer to the locals. From bloodletting to amputation to infected tooth extraction she does it all. Not that she’s comfortable with it, nor her small family either. She could do better. But it pays the bills, and she’s very good at her practice. Maggie feels her work is essential to keeping her fragile family together.

Mentioning fragile, one day Maggie’s estranged father Sam (Jones) wanders onto her farm with no fanfare. She’s displeased, this wastrel daring to ride into her life of career and quaint domesticity. A world away from the whirlwind of her youth that Sam invited.

An uneasy alliance is granted, with Maggie’s beau Brake (Eckhart) does the Christian thing and lets Sam crash in the barn. Under his watchful eye Sam lets Brake in on some science; he didn’t come here on some whim. The wind blew him here, to protect his lost family.

Brake hears Sam out, and figures he means well but is also full of crap. Brake feels his resolve is enough to protect his adopted family. But from what? Unsure.

Brake’s daughter Lily (Wood) can’t stop bemoaning her mixed family’s life arrest. If Maggie is such a gifted healer, why the hell are they all stuck in the middle of nowhere? The city beckons, with opportunity and away from all these diseased Indians. Lily soon has her fill and bolts. And disappears.

Gone.

Sam sniffed at something, so he asks of his estranged daughter to join together and go find Lily. Because who took Lily is far worse than any infected teeth that need pulling…


I won’t lie to you (much), but I caught The Missing in its first theatrical run. It was 15 years ago, and memories get blurry. When I was sifting through potential RIORI subject matter via Box Office Mojo and The Numbers The Missing popped up. By its budget against its gross I was surprised how much of a mediocre tally the film received. It was a Ron Howard movie, after all. And Opie rarely lets an audience down.

I recalled digging The Missing. Then again I was hopelessly hooked on Valium and whiskey at the time, so my memory of the show might’ve been a bit hazy. I remembered Jones as a wannabe Apache. I didn’t remembered how I got home from the multiplex. Let’s just say I was glad my apartment didn’t have a pool in the backyard.

*takes the life jacket off*

Anyway, my fractured memory recalled The Missing being pretty good, despite what the Tomatometer claimed. And me not being a big fan of westerns, the fact the movie left a positive impression that rekindled my memory here. A woozy impression, to be sure, but also inviting enough curiosity to take a chance and watch it again. Standard be damned?

15 years can be a long time, especially without downers as a crutch. Let me address you wastrels burnt out on weed for the umpteenth time at the local midnight viewing of Rocky Horror, stuff can look at lot clearer when you wipe off your metaphorical eyes. So I bellied up, took a squeegee to my bleary, doubtful eyes and tackled The Missing for a second time. And this time I paid attention. So here’s what I saw.

It was a different kind of movie this time around. What I once saw as engaging turned out to drag. Being under-initiated with the so-called “nuances” of westerns, this time out and many moons later I found my attention wavering. To the point, it took four nights to watch The Missing, interrupted by the need to sleep. In my bed, instead of on the couch with the remote stuck to my hot little hand, Cheez-It crumbs littering the carpet. Well, okay. The crumbs were already there (my nonexistent Dustbuster broke).

As do the tropes that can stink up a decent, left-of-center western. Must sound like my sophomore, somewhat sober viewing of The Missing made for a fallen-scale, lousy viewing experience. Not at all and not really. Turned out my muddy memory was too off the mark. True, a lot of Missing was derivative, but I found it was all about the packaging. Yet again, like the blues: it’s not the notes, it’s how they’re played.

Missing does possess all the bored hallmarks of a typical western, the kind I bitched about. The movie’s a bit too straightforward at times, but its saving grace is that it retains its own signature. There is a lot of “displaying” here. We do have “show” but its often interrupted by too much “tell.” But when “show” comes into play, Missing can be exciting as well as harrowing. A lot of Missing is staging. Stages set for big deal ugliness (eg: Brake’s undoing, Lily’s captivity, Kilmer opening fire on Jones, etc), but it sometimes feels like it takes for-bloody-ever to get there. This is a tale of urgency overall; a teen girl REDACTED by a psycho Apache. She must be found at any cost. Provided that cost can be cashed via tracking shots. And Jones playing cowboy and Indian.

Stuff like that made Missing all gummy, slowed things down and placed the necessary urgency on pause. Watching Missing recalled the minor gripes I had with some of Howard’s other efforts; fun films that stretched, as if to allow breathing room to assure the audience that all will be well, stay in your seats. Putting aside the dark matter of Howard’s more grim features like Missing, there is always this “sunniness” that can’t be escaped. An optimism against ugly circumstances. That helped buoy the film, considering that Missing possessed the stinging crime of sluggish pacing. I often had a feeling of “get on with it” watching Missing, yet I could not but help feel a need to pay attention, no matter how much of a chore it was (pacing, remember?). That Howard optimism kept me watching, the seed planted in back that I knew things would work out, but how?

That was the hook that kept me engaged, over the boring, stereotypical western gimmicks that could either float or sink a genre film. Wait. That isn’t exactly accurate. Missing played out as a western, but at heart it was a mystery. Missed that the first time. And I liked how the mystery unfolded, better than the trite western movie gobbledygook. One had to shift their view to appreciate Missing. All the western schtick was eyewash, blurring the corners and denying the conscientious western fan…well, everything. I say again, Missing ain’t no oater. It’s a whodunnit, and for all the better.

I liked how the mystery unfolded. To be sure, the movie drags a lot, but only against western expectations. I heard once on NPR that it’s better to watch the first six Star Wars out of order so to appreciate the series better. Namely, don’t watch The Phantom Menace to Return Of The Jedi straight through. Mix the chapters up (can’t recall the order suggested. Sorry you geeks). Twitch out the already established expectations. Might let you see the Jedi vision quest in a different light. Watching The Missing is kinda like that. Once you understand all that staging is bleeding western movie and all the snores they create, drop the sandwich and get your Hercule Poirot on. Follow the clues as to why Lily was nabbed and follow the trail. Hey, Tommy Lee Jones is your wingman. Should be a cool trip.

And Jones was quite the trip. Weak and willing. Shiftless and transient. Hangdog a mile wide, almost as practice for No Country For Old Men. Whipped dog, shuffling back into his past. And that hair, either a really good wig or a dedication to the role. Whatever. We get the impression that Sam had a more fulfilling experience with his adopted Apache family that with his daughter. Little wonder why Maggie has such contempt for her absentee dad. And Jones appeared to have been doing okay. Maudlin, but okay.

Okay. So Jones is Jones. Fine. But here Cate is Cate, and very well played as such. Her Maggie is fragile without being weak. Uncertain without waffling. Driven yet quiet. Desperate in the best way to characterize Maggie. Not sweating bullets over the fate of Lily, but more like the Talking Heads’ rendition of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River” (how’s that for left field?). Battling against the unsure. The stakes are dire, and Maggie is barely holding her own, but she never breaks. Just bends, usually under the reluctant sway of estranged dad Sam. She’s a strong lead with a long shadow.

The only carp I have with Maggie’s character could be laid at the feet of the scenarists. Meaning how often does she need to hammer on Sam about him being a crappy father? It borders on whining, especially in the light that Sam is trying to reach out and amend (despite his dubious motives). At the outset we get it; Sam went off the reservation. And Maggie never got over it. It’s a significant plot point, to be sure, but her nagging does a lot to undo her independent strength at the lead. Maybe there was a motive there, but I just didn’t see one. Hers is again a minor carp, but it was like a splinter in my heel. I could walk, but not very fast. It f*cked up the pacing. Sorry.

Missing made me understand why Eckhardt is a better better supporting actor that a lead. Remember him as Harvey Dent/Two-Face in The Dark Knight? Exactly and there you go. Ignoring the glowing praise I gave him as the lead in The Core (that flick’s goofiness let his on screen awkwardness shine), every other film I’ve seen with the guy as leading man was clunky and off-putting (and a lot of his flicks have showed up here a RIORI a bit too often). He’s a lot better as a sideman. His Brake (telling name) for the first act reels the desperation in. A calm voice of reason. Things go off the tracks pretty fast with Missing. It’s good to have a person to put things in perspective, even if your valorous efforts results in you ending up as smoked REDACTED. In the endgame, Eckhardt’s character set the pace for the hunt for Lily, and a fire under Maggie’s ass. Preserve the family, at all costs. Brake showed the way into the plot. Eckhardt should be hired for more roles like this, even at the cost of reeking of bacon. Watch the thing.

Even though Howard’s films can get edgy, pointed but still remain fun, Missing doesn’t pan out that way. It’s bleak, downtrodden and outright brutal at times. I know I said that the majority of Richie’s films possess a shine of optimism, that all will work out well in the end. That plays out here, too, but it’s all hazy. We know Lily will get rescued, that much is certain. This is a Ron Howard film, after all. But everything is delivered in a gauzy fog. There’s this pall cast over the movie, definitely casting curtains of the hope. Missing is a meditation on rape culture. How females are subjected and subjugated as entertainment. Granted, Lily is dragged into a market of snatch for sale, but such a plot device (book or movie) is a prevalent and popular one, and not well wedged into Howard’s oeuvre. Namely, it gets icky.

Rape culture is a vicious, pernicious plot device applied in many non-R rated flicks regarding how the male/female dynamics may play out in relation to…well, relationships. Superbad is a fine example; score booze to score babes. The convo between Jake and Farmer Ted after the party went tits-up in Sixteen Candles. All of the original Porky’s. The threat of Lily getting sold off is a major plot point for Missing, if not the plot point. Hell, she’s the MacGuffin here, which sets the story in motion. Ugly. We’re set up to believe this is a family drama, and we get some rube photographer ready and willing to take a casual snap of Chidin’s harem. Giggle, giggle. This is indeed ugly, cleverly undoing Howard’s PG-13 history. I’m not sure that even Howard was aware of the hornet’s nest he kicked. It undid the shine, made Missing creepy and left fans uncertain. I liked that, but I wasn’t sure I liked it.

The Missing is Howard’s first uncertain picture. The optimism is there, but only on the fringes. The casting was secure, as was the straightforward story. The pacing was mostly okay (when Cate didn’t sermonize). Framing was impeccable.

So why did I feel unsatisfied?

Maybe this time out I was clean, able to see the chinks in the armor. Missing was still a solid movie, with its moments and its head-scratchers. It was awkward at times, like about what was trying to be said. Was it a family drama, a rescue mission, post-modern western, a meditation on rape culture? Not sure on any fronts. Guess that’s the movie’s major flaw. It didn’t know what it was supposed to be.

Neither did I. But I liked it. Still liked it.

Pass the roofies.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, but with blinders. There’s a lot going on here if you’re observant. And if you’re not, have another. At least Eckhardt doesn’t hang around long. Not as long as Jones’ hair.


Stray Observations…

  • “I’m afraid we have just enough food for a family.” The table is set.
  • Blanchett’s facial emoting is incredible. Never overwrought.
  • “You’ll live.”
  • The blanket scene. Something about it.
  • “I don’t know her name!”
  • The production quality isn’t as “grainy” here as with most post-modern westerns. Might be a result of modern camera work.
  • “Let him go. I don’t care.”
  • Jones growls too much. At times it gets hard to understand his lines.
  • “No.”
  • As always with a Howard film, great cinematography.
  • “They are enlisted men.”
  • Dot is a junior badass.
  • “I asked you if you wanted some sage on your fish.” Oddly, this moment seemed to capture the feel of the entire film.

Next Installment…

Aaron Eckhart (sigh) is a shill. Not that time this time. He’s going to the line for big tobacco, and bid all Thank You For Smoking. Cough.