RIORI Vol 3, Installment 97: Taylor Hackford’s “Proof Of Life” (2000)



The Players…

Meg Ryan, Russell Crowe, David Morse, David Caruso and Pamela Reed, with Anthony Heald, Gottfried John and Michael Kitchen.


The Story…

When Alice’s architect husband Peter goes missing into the dense canopy of the Teclan jungle, it’s up to special agent Terry Thorn to get him back alive.

Funny thing is the revolutionaries who abducted Peter want him to remain alive. Good business sense, as all human trafficking blueprints flow.

Can Thorn locate the waylaid Peter in time and fend off advances from desperate housewife Alice?

Stay tuned!


The Rant…

There are a lot of ugly words in the English language. Dismemberment. Murder. Moist. A panoply of them. Being once an English major I too gathered words that would not be invited to my Friends list: Suture. Lonely. Lesion. Hangnail. Literally. All those words describe nasty ideas and poor grammar, and all describe harm in some fashion (including that overused and incorrectly applied adverb, Millennials). Stuff that bums us out an makes us cringe, images of suffering and pain and loss cloud our minds when we hear them.

On the flip side there is a more insidious nature of our emotions being triggered by hear the bad stuff above. Selfishness, another ugly word, crosses our minds:

“Glad it’s not me.”

That being said another nasty term that clouds my brain with fear and loathing (and not just relevant to this installment): kidnap. Separation anxiety in its fullest form. Stolen. Taken away from your life and loved ones, only to become an object, some poker chip by the guy who demands a ransom. It’s akin to slavery; people are not products, and therefore are not meant to be bought and sold. The 13th Amendment has something to say about that skin trade.

Humans dislike captivity. Scratch that. They f*cking hate it. That’s why cons pulling hard time are so grumpy. No Internet, no GrubHub but lots of potential sodomy (traveling tip: soap on a rope). Humans don’t want to feel caged, lost, helpless, alone and deal with pesky hangnails. It’s terrifying, and kidnapping is a bit more brutal than, oh, getting lost in the mall when you were 6, mom and dad seemingly evaporating from existence. No. When you are spirited away by some hooligan low on cash you become a thing. It doesn’t truly matter in such a circumstance that you have a family, you have friends, you have a mortgage and a kid and a dental plan and the next season of Stranger Things to binge on. You are now a commodity. Get used to it. Ugly.

Now you may be thinking, “Hey blogger, what do you know about kidnapping? Were you ever kidnapped? And what’s with all those hangnails? You been juggling potato peelers?”

Actually, yes. Had a lot of pomme gratin to fuss with at work. And shut up. No, I was never abducted. Getting lost driving when the reception kacks out and Google Maps takes a walk makes me worried. Zip ties around my wrists, gagged and a hood over my head sounds like no garden party to me. S&M party maybe, but there’s usually controlled substances involved. Cold oatmeal every noon while rotting in a bamboo cage doesn’t sound very fun.

But I know about getting lost, and I don’t just mean not knowing where you are. We’ve all been lost in that context at least once. Not knowing where you is part of that equation, but not unlike all those cancerous and cuticle terms I mentioned above, being lost is harmful. Like chain lightning all sorts of nasty feelings bombard your brain and push it into panic mode. The greatest fear is that of the unknown, and being yanked out of your comfortable routine into a dark world not of your making, well, the animal inside comes to the fore. Mainly pain and panic.

Consider any and all prominent kidnapping stories ever in the media. Do they ever end well? Even at rescue there is shock and awe and fear and what the crap? Elian Gonzalez in the iconic closet photo with the muzzle of a gun in his face. Patty Hearst—supposedly brainwashed—brandishing a gun during a bank robbery for the Symbianese (whoever they were) on security camera. And there’s that nasty ending to the Lindburgh baby abduction. Despite Argo got it mostly right, those American diplomats did not appear happy when they set foot back on American soil. They looked like foreigners.

Kidnap is a dirty word. Lost is a dirty word. As is alone, isolated and trapped. Rips humanity from you. Sounds dramatic, a bit too much? Maybe, but recall that “glad it’s not me” comment? Well, granted the topic of kidnapping is hardly water cooler conversation, but the notion of being marooned, emotionally and physically? Like when the reception craps out, how vulnerable common folks can be caught unawares by desperate forces can be felt and more often than not tap a basal fear. Glad it’s not me is a surface touch, not unlike one’s reaction to that last snap of Elian. In a breath later:

“That could have been me.”

Shudder. Then back to the cubicle.

We all love the car wreck, so long as we weren’t in the damned thing. And just like the traffic slowing to a dead crawl, gradually glancing at the scene you’re glad it wasn’t you. But there is a corollary to your relief: someone knew the person in that car, and won’t know the difference between a fatality or a trip to the ER.

That could be me. I could be gone. I could be there. I’m glad I’m here. Otherwise, just like lesions, hangnails and kidnappings you just as quickly—perhaps unbeknownst to your loved ones—could end up…gone.

Ugly…


The country of Tecala is in trouble, from within and without. If the ineffectual government is unable to quell the yelling of the ELT rebels, the country’s infrastructure is a mess, especially managing its natural resources. That’s where Peter (Morse) and Alice (Ryan) have moved to Tecala. It may prove to be another success story in Peter’s CV.

You see, the man has built up quite the reputation as an architect; a dambuilder that has trotted the globe (with his long-suffering wife in tow) coaxing wells and moving rivers so the local can have access to fresh water. Yes, he’s made quite a name for himself. However now residing in Tecala, his successes have made him marked man.

The ELT fund their little revolution via ransoms. Human trafficking. Kidnapping. They’ve found an ideal mark in Peter, someone who could be pawn in their game. He’s nabbed and spirited away to their camp, and the demands come rolling in.

Alice is at her wits end. Enter Terry Thorn (Crowe), a former Aussie special agent adept in these kind of circumstances. The Bowman’s new home becomes ground zero for fielding phonecall demands, going into the field and picking off the testy rebels. She sees Terry as the man Peter should be: take charge, not negotiate, let alone kiss ass and suck up to rules that demand snipping a lot of red tape.

Alice demands action. First to let Terry do his job, then maybe get Peter back alive.

Maybe, on both counts…


I read on AllMovie that Proof Of Life was a sort of return to form for director Hackford. The man made his name with films like An Officer And A Gentleman and Against All Odds portraying relationships in peril. Bad love, failing marriages, misguided coupling, etc. Desperation is his muse. Proof is classic Hackford, but don’t call it a comeback. Tension and anger and the futility of living is his stock in trade, with a coda of possible grace. His stuff keeps you rubbing your (emotional) sweaty palms. True, his stuff may come perilously close to soap opera territory, but a solid script often elevates the drama to cinematic satisfaction.

*crickets*

Yeah. Not here. Sorry.

You might have forgotten how preachy Hackford can get without a well fleshed-out script keeping his ire in check. I’ve seen a lot of Hackford’s films, and there’s always some message and/or social commentary lurking behind the clackboard. Usually such doggerel is kept in check by an aforementoned solid story, but when the story is too broad Hackford has a field day. Put Officer against Bound By Honor? We needed more Lou Gosset. And a kick to the crotch.

Metaphors aside Proof needed such a kick. In spite of Proof‘s dire content there’s a serious lack of necessary urgency demanded by stories like this one. Most of the second act, where Terry in full is introduced, is bookended by a lot of exposition. Proof was cut in 2000, back when Crowe was riding high from his lead in Gladiator, back when he was likable, bankable and not hurling phones. Crowe got labelled as an action hero, albeit a surly one, His presence as special agent dispatching the baddies with extremely extreme prejudice seemed a natural character extension of a desperate Roman general exiled to gladiatorial combat. A special ops guy? Skilled in hostage negotiation? How could that fail?

Plenty. Denude Crowe of his ballsy balls and his signature grimace and he’s a bureaucrat. With access to firearms. When he needs them. And when David Caruso goads him, like some bully’s toady, champing at the bit to get his old partner back into the fray.

To whit I ask: why? This is the primary problem I sniffed at in the first act. Sure, Terry was well-equipped to head the Bowman abduction case, but I never found it clear why he was the guy to spearhead the hunt. And with all dramas, the protag usually gets emotionally invested in his mission. For two thirds of the film Terry is rote. Apart from a skirmish scene in the second act, Terry is inert. Another hostage negotiation, another day at the office. What’s for dinner?

So there. We have weak tension here, despite the film’s plotting. At least by the second act, which became a crucial line of demarcation by my viewing; for such and intense story there is a surprising lack of urgency. And even after Proof grinds into second gear, Peter’s abduction seems even less urgent than Terry dicking around with his contacts. That and dealing with Meg Ryan making goo-goo eyes at him, and she comes across as all at sea with this drama (BTW, the romantic element was totally unnecessary and pointless). Ryan is a lead in a cameo role. I wished Oliver Reed had more unnecessary screen time.

I found the acting between the leads clumsy and without chemistry. Their banter was a slog, and muddied up an already muddy story. To be fair, Hackford’s best work has always been gratingly edgy, but his edges are all square here, like he was trying to “play it safe” against the then hot topic of exile and abduction in the shadow of the Gonzalez case. The kid was dragged back to Cuba in June of 2000. Proof dropped in December of the same year. I doubt one did not inform the other. Play on a fresh media storm that may be translated to film? Been done before. But why does everything in Proof seems rote, safe? Hackford has never been one to flinch, and his social commentary has always been naked. But never paint by numbers. I was bored and cheated here. We needed more boom with the subject matter, less bust.

Of course, all was not lost in Tecala. Besides the editing being very good, Morse was very engaging as captive Peter. He’s always had a stiff presence, Not really a bad thing; precious few actors can make bland so endearing. I’ve appreciated Morse all the way back to his salad days as Dr “Boomer” Morrison on St Elsewhere. He made being bland interesting, which makes him so protean. You’d never finger him  out as a perp in a police lineup. He’s everyman, minus leading male. That’s an asset, and why really good character actors succeed. As it’s been incorrectly said in writing, make your characters likable. Wrong. Make them interesting. Morse as Peter was interesting by being bland and relatable. True most of us have never tasted the hell of forced captivity, but Morse well-illustrated the “glad it’s not me” edict. Big ups to Morse.

This movie was all about distance. Kidnapping, captivity, wrenched out of the nest, distance. As Thorn is active, Peter is passive. And back and forth, never really connecting. That may be just a machination of the story, but what went down in the third act should’ve informed the first two acts: action. Swift and deliberate. There’s a worldbuilder gone asunder! Heavy stakes. Instead we get a smarmy Caruso (is there any other kind?) trying to prod uber-agent Thorn to pick up a rifle again and pick off brown people for the sake of picking off brown people. Sure, socio-politcal commentary. Sure, hostage negotiations. Sure, government intrigue. Sure, needless goo-goo eyes. If indeed Proof was Hackford’s return to form, he should’ve kept the box top in plain sight when assembling the jigsaw puzzle. Regarding Officer and Odds, Hackford seemed to opt to distance himself from his muse. Proof was rote, dull for too long and if any social commentary was to be made we could’ve all watched CNN for two-plus hours for far-removed storm and stress in small countries populated with subjugated brown people.

Might be more urgent. You might feel about all such stuff, “Glad…”

Ugly.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. You want a solid kidnap flick? Watch Jack Lemmon sweat in Missing. Proof just lets you sweat in desperation to “get on with it!”


Stray Observations…

  • “I’m on my way to the airport.”
  • Morse’s dye job fools no one, especially since he’s been totally bald since 12 Monkeys. And that wig wasn’t any better. Just sayin’.
  • “I am not getting pregnant again in the Third World.” Wait, what?
  • You know, I’m getting real tired of seeing terrorists portrayed as fanatical savages…kinda like the Minutemen were. Ouch.
  • “What kind of stress are we talking about?”
  • Who’s really corrupted here?
  • “Your toilet.” Yes, yes indeed.
  • Oh sh*t. Claymore.
  • “You never get a pretty picture, okay?”
  • Why is Caruso so good at being slimy?
  • “These pigs are lucky to have you.” Zing!
  • A corollary: precious few “terrorists” have been portrayed as non-jokes in old Hollywierd. The Hurt Locker, Three Kings and Munich portray the other as adversaries, not enemies. Chew on that.
  • “Nothing.”
  • The 13th Amendment, Section 1: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Since Tecala doesn’t exist, well…
  • “That was fun.” “Yeah!”

Next Installment…

All aboard the Pineapple Express! Next stop…uh…I fergot…


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 7: Zack Snyder’s “Man Of Steel” (2013)


ManofSteelFinalPoster


The Players…

Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane.


The Story…

In yet another revival (and by revival we mean crossed-fingers in hope of keeping a possible cash cow of a franchise aloft) of the Superman legend, a wayfaring Clark Kent must keep his alien origins and fantastic powers hidden from the world at large. But when the nefarious General Zod plans to conquer Earth…well, you know.


The Rant…

Hmm. According to my records, this would be the third Zack Snyder film to go under the microscope here at RIORI. Also, this would also be one of several (and several more in my Netflix queue) movies based on comic books to go under the aforementioned lens o’ snark. I don’t know if it’s too soon to spot patterns here, but on both points, it seems rather suspect Zack keeps crossing my path. I’ll let you know more when my tests get back from the lab (no, not those tests. Jeez).

Something else I feel I should mention which is kinda off track. I’ve been getting a bit of flack about maintaining this weblog; about keeping the posts coming at a regular rate. Not to whine, but I have a job with a ridiculous schedule, which does not lend itself much time to sit down and actually watch these darned films. I usually get up at the ass-crack of dawn every morning and it’s only late at at night that I can wrangle the TV away from my family, let alone on a weekend for an evening’s viewing (I know I could just stream them on my iPad, but I got a big-ass TV with surround sound, so nyah). I’m tryin’ okay? Feel free to leave any comments behind to smack my wrist.

Moving on…

Why is it such a hit-or-miss prospect with comic book movies? Also, since the turn of the century, why weren’t more comic book movies made before? I know, I know. We had Richard Donner’s take on Superman and Tim Burton’s gothic Batman films, but that was it for over 20 years. Now since 2000, we’ve been inundated with the lot of ‘em. Took a while. You’d think they’d be naturals for cinema; they’re already storyboarded for pity’s sake. Some would argue that the special effects required for today’s comic book movies just weren’t available back then, but I think that’s weak sauce. Like I said, the early Superman and Batman films did just fine. Maybe mainstream audiences would turn their nose up at such a niche market? Not if it was marketed right, and most were. Maybe it was finding the right actors? That’s what casting agents are for, and to continually hammer this nail: Michael Keaton as Batman? Well, yeah.

I think Richard Donner had a stroke of genius in casting Christopher Reeve as the Caped One. An unknown actor who was mostly skilled in soap operas took to the skies with flourish and humor (and what else are superhero films but gussied up sci-fi melodramas?). Some of the more plausible comic book heroes were portrayed by actors who weren’t necessarily household names at the time (i.e.: Hugh Jackman, Tobey Maguire, Brandon Routh, etc.) as opposed to big name stars (I’m looking at you Affleck). When you cast an unknown, there are no preconceived notions about how the actor acts. It’s a clean slate. It works doubly so when the actor is put to task to portray an already established character, like Superman.

Henry Cavill did so. But quite left of center. More of that later. This was a Zack Snyder film after all, so what would you expect?

There’s no need to get into the movie’s baseline. We get it. Dying planet. Lost civilization. Last hope. Earth bound. Kind couple. Great power. Humanity lessons. Alien origin. Learn, adapt, overcome. Behold, Superman. Now let’s get onto the meat.

I’m not going to overview the story here. It’s not done out of contempt, believe me. It’s just that, like with my critique of Superman Returns, the folderol of explaining the history of Superman is pretty superfluous. If you’ve been extant for the past 75 years, you know who Superman is. Now let’s get on to it.

Man Of Steel is at heart an existential drama. For 75% of the movie, we get to mull over who Superman is when he’s decidedly not Superman. Henry Cavill, like Brandon Routh is an extraordinary find. An actor devoid of a complex résumé to pick apart. Clean slate. And here we have an incredibly malleable story. We start at Krypton’s end, a very stylized setting which, I gotta admit, is pretty striking. It echoes the first movie, but in a very stark way, kind of like David Lynch’s take on Dune. But it also has the intended thrill of a Zack Snyder spectacular. The whole wad is muted in colors as well as performances (save Shannon’s). In fact, the whole damned movie is pretty stark, but it works to its advantage. Again, more on that later.

Apart from the scenery chewing form Shannon, life on Krypton varies from cyber-idyllic to Orwellian nightmare, and a lot of climate-change prophesying to hit a message—some message about ignorance—home. Don’t know why. Figures it’s trying to connect Earth and the homeworld, well, home. Probably a disconnect attached to the Moses-like analogy suggested by the comics.

I’m looking too far into this. Onto Cavill…

He did a serviceable job. He didn’t honor the legacy of Reeve (or even Routh), but he got to the aforementioned meat of the story; the stuff the whole Superman sh*t pivots on. It’s namely the light of hope, the beacon, that could ignite the ideals of humanity into both light and action…only to be ignored. But Supes just keeps on tryin’, one crumbling building at a time.

But Steel was also very dry. It almost chafes. Man of Steel is a rather dour film, almost overly serious, almost pulse-pounding, almost a blockbuster. But we can’t blame Cavill. He made for a rather…different Superman. A reluctant hero, all at sea about his station in life, and well aware that he is not of this Earth. A lot of soul searching goes on here, and Cavill acts with his face so well, you can go along for the ride. He’s got a certain magnetism about him that makes the audience actually curious about what’s going to happen next to the po’ faced, conflicted Kryptonian.

The first act is very subdued. Keen on the angst. An image that sticks with me is Clark finding himself on the beach of New England fishing village, looking for clothes to replace the stuff he lost rescuing a bunch of oil drillers. He’s kind of lost, at odds with himself, and the dulcet tones of Chris Cornell’s “Seasons” illustrate that no matter how powerful Clark is, he still feels lost, on the outside.

Unlike its predecessor Superman Returns, Man Of Steel generates empathy for our hero, not awe. It’s gotta be hard with all those crazy powers to keep it under wraps in a prejudiced world, even if you’re just trying to do things for the greater good. Cavill does angsty very well, above the usual cliché that has become with reluctant heroes an overdone device. He made a “different” kind of Superman. One overly reluctant; uncomfortable having powers and not really reconciling with that fact. He’s definitely feeling his alien roots up and down here; being an outsider. It’s kind of weird watching a superhero wandering around in existential crisis. It’s hard to root for this Superman, only to pray instead.

Another contrast to Superman Returns; that film nodded a lot to the mythos. Man Of Steel seems hell-bent on retconning it. To clarify, “retconning” (short for retroactive continuity) is the practice of comic book writers to take creative license and alter a significant plot device or a piece of a character’s mythos to better serve current storylines. For example, Uncle Ben never told Peter Parker “that with great power comes great responsibility;” it was in narration, not dialogue. Later it was changed to Uncle Ben. That being said, Steel takes pains to hammer the point home that this is the definitive Superman story. Or at least it should be.

But I’m not sold on the whole Kryptonain history/embellishment either. There is a definite feel of Snyder trying to put a square peg in a round hole. By reinventing the wheel, and with it’s slate-grey view of the world, the entirety of what makes Superman fun has been stripped away. This is one of Snyder’s more serious efforts. Deliberately so. And that is funny to say since most of Snyder’s films have serious undertones, but peppered with frivolity. None of that claptrap in Steel. We’re down to business here, and that business is becoming Superman in a hard, cold world.

Oh, and also thwarting General Zod’s quest to conquer the planet.

Steel got a lot of flak—and I mean a lot flak—for gratuitous amount of collateral damage during the big fight scenes between Supes and Zod’s cronies. As was said by the pros, a lot of collateral damage. Spectacle over sensibility. Even made me squirm. Not to say that the fight scenes weren’t exciting. Snyder hasn’t lost his flair for action while trudging through the existential swamp. Exciting yes, but also overwrought. More hammering away at the heaviness of the movie’s tone. They don’t just have to be action shots, they gotta feel as if every punch means something.

Enough about the melodrama, let’s talk about the acting. We’ve already dissected Cavill enough, and he is handily backed up by a variety of solid actors. It took a while for the new Jor-El (Crowe) to earn my attention. For me, Crowe will always be Maximus. Unlike that gladiator, Crowe was more soft spoken as Jor-El, the avatar of all things Kryptonian. The quiet way about him (even when sh*ts hitting multiple fans) I found rather, dare I say, charming. And Crowe is not a charming guy.

A lot of scenery chewing from Shannon, and the climax is the stuff of…well, comic book heads would leap out of the seats in horror, spilled their Jubjubes everywhere: SUPERMAN DOES NOT KILL! (screams, rending of garments.) Even I had trouble with that one. But overall, Shannon was a fun villain, one you love to hate but also one with a very specific agenda. His motives are clear, his execution flawless and he has a commanding presence necessary for general and/or comic book villain. I like that earnestness.

Amy Adams was a misstep in casting. She’s a great actress (and even did some voice acting for Justice League Unlimited. Really) but lacks any believable drive to get to the heart of the Superman scoop. It’s almost all a walk in the park as her Lois Lane just happens to be in the right place at the wrong time on he trail of the alien.

As for technical flourishes, there was a lot of neat camerawork and editing in Steel. Seeing how the plot for the first act of the movie is not linear, it took a lot of cool edits to keep the story floating (e.g.: Kal’s Earthfall, the “toner” bit). Along with tasteful uses of flashbacks, the flow of the film was right on. Two-and-a-half hours moved by rather smoothly. Good pacing.

This has had to be my most arch, stern, under the microscope kind of review. Man Of Steel is definitely not your father’s Superman movie. Any maybe that’s for the best. This was an interesting spin on the Superman mythos, highlighting the Kryptonian side rather that the adopted humanity Clark Kent so embraces. It made for a stark action movie, a lot of fist wrenching and teeth grinding, but it wasn’t boring.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a character study of what it’s like to be a superhero with lots of stuff going boom. ‘Nuff said (wait, that’s some other comic publisher).


Stray Observations…

  • Did the “scout ship” set borrow from Alien? Sure looked that way, and no doubt tying into the whole alien motif of the film.
  • Enough with the Jesus Christ imagery already.
  • This has got to be the best role Costner’s had in years.
  • “A good death is its own reward.” Yeah. I know. Badass.
  • What? No spitcurl?
  • “Nice suit, son.”
  • My pen died.

Next Installment…

We go over the rainbow with James Franco AKA Oz, The Great and Powerful.