RIORI Vol 3, Installment 80: Ridley Scott’s “Matchstick Men” (2003)



The Players…

Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman, Bruce Altman and Bruce McGill, with Sheila Kelley and Beth Grant.


The Story…

Roy’s a professional con man struggling with three distinct issues. One, well being a con man. Two, rampant OCD. And three, meeting the daughter he never knew he had.

Poor Roy inadvertently jeopardizes his tightly organized and artificially controlled life when the very not artificial concept of fatherhood chafes his orderly scamming lifestyle. Beyond it all, man’s got a right to earn a living, whatever that is, be it against a Nabokov book waiting to happen or not.

Wait! What? Huh?

*washes hands with vigor*


The Rant…

My first intro to Ridley Scott was at a precocious and waaaaay too f*cking young age.

It was the early-80s. VCRs were finally affordable to middle class schlubs like my Dad. We got a quality Maganox VHS unit at an 80s steal around $700. Thing was worth more, reliable, durable and even survived well into the DVD age. Sure, we had to clean the soot out of its chimney once every month to maintain picture clarity, but this slab could stop an assassin’s bullet and still be able to set the timer for that week’s SNL installment. We didn’t need an app for that.

Video rentals were like mushrooms back then: sprouting up everywhere in places you were surprised to find them. Sure, there were a few chains like Blockbuster, Hollywood. But also local mom-and-pop movie dealers, the local libraries, even supermarkets before God. My father got a membership with local mom and pop (who also sold bagels if my memory serves, which it doesn’t). Friday evening came and he, me and sometimes my screechy sisters would wander in and scope out a few tapes for the weekend. My father being a shrewd customer—one who had access to a phone—would be one to literally call it in. Do you have this movie? You do? Could you please hold it for me? Be your best friend. Thanks. See you later. Hey, do you have any cinnamon raisins left?

Back to Scott. And the worst night of my pre-pubescent life.

It was of course a Friday night. Late night. Mom and the screechies cacked out hours ago. Even at age 10 I had the nite owl blood in me. Insomniac. Still am; started writing this week’s screed at 12.30 AM. But it’s Friday and I’m off work tomorrow, so yay me.

Didn’t have a store to mind when I was 10, and on those Fridays back in the day my Dad made his prerequisite calls to the Bagelsmith to see what was fresh and ready for pick-up. He would roll out around 6-ish and come back a half-hour later with a pair of tapes. If the kids didn’t come along for the ride-and-pick we were not supposed to. My father’s selections were his and his alone. Wonder where I learned about insomnia and the power of holding the remote.

I got curious, of course.

A few times Dad let me squat down in the wee hours to watch what he was watching. At 10 I was into The Karate Kid, Star Blazers and Chilean snuff films (kidding. Discovered Star Blazers when I was 8). It was mostly aboveboard stuff. Dad was Dad. He was older. He could rent PG-13 movies with impunity. The R-rated stuff was trace element. My father was a pretty liberal guy when it came to me joining him for his late night viewing frenzy. If a movie was rated R he followed the rule to the rote: Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Namely, he was over 17, I wasn’t. He was there as the guardian with the membership card and I found my snot-nosed self being “accompanied” by him into the Friday night cinematic chop shop. To his credit he always assured me that if what were watching turned out to be too scary/violent/sexy/redolent of poppy seeds we could turn it off. Sounded like a challenge. My father challenged me to Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, The Graduate and Gene Hackman in general. Sweep the leg, Johnny.

This was I how I was unravelled by Ridley Scott. When I was 10 I could give the barest rodent scintilla about who directed a movie so long as that movie was cool. The names Scorsese, Kurosawa, Spielberg and Scott were all but pidgin to me. I liked sci-fi, comedies and sci-fi comedies (bless you, Spaceballs). What Dad had cued up on the capstans made me stand at attention that there was an almost monolithic man/woman behind the cameras demanding where the story would go. The director. And the first director’s name I ever learned was Ridley Scott. By now you’re prob’ scratching yer scalp wondering, “Whatever Ridley Scott movie could lobotomize a 10 year old so?” If Dad were present and it was late, then it must have been rated R. And since you were under 17 and required an accompanying parent or adult guardian, Dad understood his responsibility and assessed that I may have been hip to this proviso, his late night rental. You lucky, insomniac scamp, you.

So if this gets too scary, here’s my arm. Squeeze if you have to.

Alien.

It was Alien. I was 10. He let me watch Alien. Did I mention I was 10? I “slept” post-viewing with my bedroom light burning until morning. My Mom poked her head in the door early the following Saturday morning and asked a “sleeping” me why the light was on all night. Then:

“Have you been up all night?”

“…Uh-huh.”

“Why?”

“…Dad showed me a scary movie.”

She rolled her eyes. “Better go talk to him.”

“I liked it, but…”

It must’ve been around 10 AM. “Go get some sleep.” And echoing down the hall came: “Oh, honey!”

The image of a freaked out Sigourney Weaver burned in my head. I could relate with that skittish, everything may fall apart at the last minute feeling. Remember the film’s final act? Uh, yeah. I wasn’t well until Sunday night when school was looming anew. Boy, did I have a movie to tell my friends about. And said nothing.

The movie stunned me so with both its claustrophobia as well as grotesquerie—and with me being “man enough” to watch it—I kept Alien to myself. It scared me sh*tless, and I survived it, well below the 17-year old water line. Felt like a right of passage, watching a serious R-rated movie intact. And beyond enduring the visceral viewing, I enjoyed it. To this day Alien is my favorite scary movie (and I don’t even like scary movies, at least not the exhibitionist kind. I demand good acting, decent pacing and an acceptable plot, like the original cuts of The Haunting or Halloween), and I relish any opportunity to punish the Alien-uninitiated for a virgin viewing. My stepkid found it “okay.” She liked Aliens better, and voiced so. Philistine. She was thirteen at the time. I earned my stripes at 10, so there.

Besides Alien scaring the sleep out of me, it injected a need to figure out what the hell did a movie do to make me take notice. Sure, I always got some entertainment from watching movies, mostly the age appropriate, non-arm clinging kind. At the then time I think my fave film was the original Ghostbusters (a sucker for Bill Murray ever since I saw Meatballs. Saw it at summer camp. Where else?). Paranormal comedy grabbed me as a kid, and taught me to not cross the streams. Heard it was bad. I guess that fave flick planted an embryo as to how did this awesome movie happen?

But Ghostbusters didn’t entrance me, not like Scott’s sophomore effort did. I was still 10, remember? A fresh Lego kit held my attention more. I knew how to put those little, plastic bricks together to create a satisfying whole. The instruction manuals helped. Was there an instruction manual out there to instruct how a cool movie tickled my fancies?

Fast forward…

I don’t believe in “auteur theory,” where the director of a movie is claimed to be the “author” of the film. If that were the case there’d be no closing credits. Even the average movie-goer is sharp enough to know the director may get the biggest slice, but there are also other folks billed as actors, writers, producers, caterers, etc that made a major contribution to the final product that you eventually get to hem and haw and keep the light on all night for. In a fair and just cinematic world (with an often exception to Tarantino, Kubrick and Hitchcock), a film’s opening credits would read directed by/written by/produced by in the same frame.

*burp*

Whoever, right? Didn’t know the why before Alien. After watching it was like tossing those old ELO albums out the window after hearing the first Ramones album. A punch to the gut. Who was behind this awesome/scary/dad arm-clinging movie?

Ridley Scott. The first director after Spielberg that demanded of a young me what a director/”auteur” did to place an indelible stamp on my freaked out, insomniac forehead, watching the lazy ceiling fan slowly swirling above a bare light bulb hoping beyond hope that its glare would keep any slobbering xenomorph from creeping out of the closet and ripping my ribs into jello. Hearing my mother’s scolding meant it worked.

Fast forward a year, maybe two. A buddy of mine who was keen to sci-fi as I was got hip to some cultish movie. Caught a snippet of it on HBO, a free weekend. Remember those? The snippet proper was a caution about the film containing graphic violence. I wasn’t hip to the phrase “graphic violence,” but it sounds devilishly good to me. My friend told me it was on heavy rotation on HBO then. I didn’t have premium cable at my house; his den was the golden gate, decades before parental controls.

At the right time, we nipped the scene where Priss—

“What are you two watching?!?”

We switched the proper Atari toggle.

In harmony, a la Bosom Buddies: “Nothing.”

Blade Runner. Also not healthy for 10-year old boys. Dangerous fun. A mind warp of a movie. Starred Han Solo, so there.

So that’s what it’s all about. A signature, a statement, a reason to deny sleep. Took me decades to decode that whole wad. I wasn’t some amateur film critic at 10; barely one at 40. But across the decades being drawn to certain movies, defying the Kobra Kai, I think I got it: there are no auteurs, just directors with a grip. Like on my dad’s arm.

Ridley Scott taught me about signature, an aesthetic. Us movie watchers are well aware if not forewarned by a certain director’s style, muse, statement, motive. Spielberg has his. So does Scorsese. As do Carpenter. So did Kurosawa, Ford, Hill, Ashby, Hitch, Kubrick. Including the guys on this plane: Weir, Lynch, Nolan, Argento, (sigh) and Bay. Style. Eventually you wait on baited breath for any of the above icons to unbridle their freshest horse. You know what arm to cling on.

But like with The Color Purple, The Last Temptation Of Christ, Dr Strangelove, The Quiet Man, Big Trouble In Little China, Rear Window, High And Low, The Last Detail….and Matchstick Men, a signature director sometimes needs a left turn to remind us that they are human. Directors are not infallible. Sometimes they take on projects that might be left of center, against their grain. Spielberg had his 1941. Carpenter has his Prince Of Darkness. Kurosawa had his Ikiru. And Scott had his Matchstick Men.

All passable movie entertainment, but also strain against the directors’ trademark style. It’s good to challenge yourself as a director, tackling a project that may or may not be their usual flavor. Often it’s a good thing. Spielberg directing The Color Purple, a Jewish director exploring racism and same sex romance. Nolan tackling a comic book icon like Batman and making a psycho-thriller rather than Donner’s Superman sparkle. And Scott helming a goofy crime caper, rather than his usual epic-style Blade Runner. Or even Gladiator.

After viewing Matchstick Men something told me that Scott got to grabbing at our arm. So come, take my hand. Just take off your shoes before you lay foot on the carpet…


Roy Waller (Cage) is a criminal. A con artist, scamming innocents out of their hard earned cash so to better his business acumen. He’s also a neurotic mess. OCD. Anxiety ridden. Maybe a guilty conscious at work? Whatever. There’s always a job to get done. And therein lies a new problem. Good Lord.

Roy’s partner in crime Frank (Rockwell) is tired of the small scams. Cheating old ladies out of their insurance money? Small potatoes. Frank wants a big mark, namely in the form of a high roller (McGill), a treacherous duck to be sure. But Roy is not so sure, especially since that letter dropped out of the mail slot onto his beloved carpet.

The anonymous letter claims that Roy has a child. A teenaged daughter named Angela (Lohman) who wishes to know him. Gulp. A spanner in his nefarious works.

Roy’s therapist (Altman) encourages him to reach out. He suggests it might be a healthy change, engaging with someone who won’t outright contribute to his anxious life of crime.

Roy reluctantly concedes. He meets Angela after school one day and puts on his best new dad face, tics and twitches in full force. He discovers she’s a pleasant, well-adjusted teenaged girl who always wanted to meet her estranged dad. Angela is disarming, and her connecting to Roy’s life of angst mellows him somewhat. Whew.

As way leads on to fatherly way, Roy ‘fesses up and informs Angela of his chosen profession. She’s intrigued. To his surprise, Angela wants in on the action. Roy’s unsure. Frank’s really unsure; Angela’s sticky fingers might muddy the waters, distracting Roy further from his big scam, as well as some forward motion.

No matter. The dice are cast. Roy opts for some responsibility. Angela takes to the con like a duck to water. Frank flails his hands in frustration.

Again, no matter. Roy’s carpet needed a shampoo anyway…


Like I mentioned, Ridley Scott’s style operates on an epic level. Even the simplest of his films (like this one) approach a grand scope. Unlike Alien (still epic, yet deceptively simple), Matchstick Men is a diversion. Here his big idea concept is intact, but married to an overtly simple story. And he keeps it that way, to his delight.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Not necessarily.

Recall the “left turn” notion about how some directors with their signature often attempt to shed their audience? Men is one of those kind of films. Outright, what business does the director of AlienGladiator and Kingdom Of Heaven have fiddling around with some crime caper? Guess he felt like he needed a cinematic colonic. A directorial equivalent of Dylan’s Self Portrait album. Maybe he just liked the script. Or maybe wry comedy was something he felt like dabbling in. Or maybe for him just cut loose and have some fun.

And Men is fun. Funny, rather. Offbeat. Not the flavor in Columbus. Definite lo-fi aesthetic as far as Scott’s work goes. It’s a nice change, albeit incongruent with the guy’s signature oeuvre. It kinda shows. Again, not really a bad thing. But it sure plays out as odd.

Men is pretty light-hearted for Scott, relatively speaking. One, it’s a comedy. Don’t recall anytime him attempting this. Granted, it’s kind of a black comedy, and Scott is no stranger to being dark. But there’s an uncharacteristic sunny side to this offbeat caper (and “offbeat” is nearly verboten in Scott’s catalogue). And I’m gonna use the term “offbeat” a lot here. Fair warning.

That being said, Men is shot with the exactitude Scott always employs, like the cheap scalpel to the high school fetal pig autopsy. His high concept vision of cinema verité is intact. His characters are mismatched chess pieces. The story is straightforward enough—

*tires screeching to a halt*

Therein lies the trouble. It’s been relayed that Scott is a director of big concepts. Men is anything but. It’s straightforward, almost formulaic. Doesn’t really marry well with the director’s accepted raison d’etre. Simply put, Scott directing a flick like Men don’t make much sense. Still, he did a good job being in the shallow end of the pool.

I think most of the heavy lifting in this featherweight caper rests on the cast. They’re more of a distraction than an asset to moving the story along. And the story—as I noted—is quite simple and straightforward. We’ve seen crime capers like this before. Men swings evenly between Paper Moon and unevenly towards The Professional. But like with those movies, it’s the cast that somewhat strains in rising above The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, the ur-crime caper. So then, let’s dismantle Men‘s rogues gallery, shall we?

First and foremost Cage’s bread and butter is weird roles. We ain’t talkin’ Raising Arizona or Wild At Heart weird here. His Roy however seems custom made to tickle his muse. Cage is also well-known for his deft physical comedy chops. How’s it look here painted with OCD? Right. Ugly funny. The hook here is Roy’s mania, not the con game that soaks the plot. Roy’s OCD is played as comic, but ultimately is sad and scary. He’s supposed to be the guy we get behind? It’s a key plot device overall, but beneath Scott and no less tragic. We ain’t talking Maximus tragic, but it’s enough to allow us sympathy for our twitchy protag. Roy’s OCD may be played as comic, but ultimately it’s sad and scary. Recall the hook. He’s supposed to be the guy we get behind? Good plot device done well, but beneath Scott’s skills. No less tragic, though.

Now being a sudden dad is a responsibility you can’t con. Trust me, I know. The con makes Roy approach stable, making up sh*t. It’s reality that’s his downfall. That being said, Lohman has an honest taste for her role as Angela (and for the life of me I can’t shake the hand of the casting director enough. How did they make a twentysomething successfully come off as a 16-year old high school skater chick? I credit strategic bandages and hair flairs). Funny without being cute or openly naive. If you pay close attention through Angela Roy isn’t really the “hero.” Lohman carries the second and third acts. Roy’s just eyewash. Very funny eyewash, but the con nonetheless. Makes for a jovial, R-rated Brady Bunch feel. That being said, neurotic Cage and loose cannon Lohman paired against each other have a genuine chemistry. Yep. Thank or blame Scott going out on his demented, xenomorph-less shingle.

Men is Elmore Leonard on Xanax. It’s kinda madcap. Another divergence for Scott, and he’s faring well here. The plot is bone simple. You might’ve seen this movie before. I know I have. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. The Fisher King. The original Rush Hour. Mutant buddy movies. Barring Rockwell as Cage’s confidant, Men is a warped buddy movie all the way. But that’s a conceit. Despite the odd mixture of character play, this was relatively straightforward. You can see where this is going a light-year away, with a few twists to keep your attention. I figure this movie floundered because it was too “not Scott” to attract the usual fans. That and the poor press. So much for Ridley stretching himself short.

A coda: it’s in the final act where Scott’s edge finally surfaces. It’s all the better for it, annulling the first two derivative acts of cat, mouse and vacuum. It’s also a shame that Men is merely a curiosity for both Scott and his audience. Again, unsure if Scott needed some diversion from his stock-in-trade epic style. Although uncomfortable, Men has its merits. It’s akin to Bob Dylan’s Street Legal album. Most musicians would kill for this best stuff. But it’s Scott here. Playing it safe? Not really. Entertaining some trifle? Sure, but such a thing is not where Scott should tread. Oh well.

Needless to say, Men didn’t keep me up all night, fan swirling in agony. Scratching my head? Somewhat. It was okay, but for lacking.

What I’m driving at is I opined for tasteful violence paired with chuckles. But this wasn’t a Tarantino flick. It was a Ridley Scott flick with a diluted epic feel.

Screw it. This was hardly epic. Or clever. Or beyond rote.

“Sometimes the cold makes the blade stick.”


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it, if only for another side of Scott you’ve never seen. I hope I never see it again. Twitch.


Stray Observations…

  • “One, two, three.”
  • Ever wonder how crazy people conduct their outwardly “normal” lives? You found this blog, didn’t you?
  • Rockwell is not an actor. He is a voice.
  • “That was a good day!”
  • I feel for poor Roy. I really do. I just didn’t want to be felt. Or burlap either.
  • Cage has been balding for, like, 20 years now.
  • “I’m in antiques.”
  • She turned the key three times.
  • The art of the dry swallow personified.
  • Altman is a passive deus ex machina. That’ll be $125 please.
  • “Your turn.”
  • Like the soundtrack. Very Rat Pack-esque.
  • It’s odd. Cage’s twitchiness never really becomes distracting. It’s like a character unto itself. Think Mr Hyde.
  • For all of his roles has Rockwell ever combed his hair?
  • “Pygmies.”
  • “You’re not a bad guy. You’re just not a very good one.” Ouch.
  • Lohman fake cries really well.
  • “You didn’t take yer pills, didja?”

Next Installment…

Giving sanction to an alien en route to a sci-fi convention? That’s like an ironic spin on robbing Peter to pay Paul.


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RIORI Vol 3, Installment 73: Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths” (2012)



The Players…

Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Olga Kurylenko, and Woody Harrelson, with Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish and Linda Bright Clay (if you squint just right you might spy the venerable Harry Dean Stanton, too).


The Story…

The hardest part about writing a story is the first page. Struggling scenarist Marty’s been experiencing this trouble for months, due to both writer’s block and hangovers. One my preclude the other.

Marty’s wingnut pal Billy is willing to help his wingman. Bill’s big on ideas, low on cash, dotty in the head and quite absent of scruples. The best gig this loser has isn’t wielding a pen but a dognapping scheme on the side. Scour the parks, make a mark and wait. His benefactor Hans has the connections (and if you can’t trust a guy named Hans, who can you?).

Then Billy makes the wrong connection; absconding with a psycho mobster’s prize shih tzu. Things just go into the supper bowl from there on.

Think this action’ll help Marty’s floundering script? If you have to ask, it’s obvious you’re not a dog person.


The Rant…

This one may ramble, ever moreso that usual. I hope your patience will be rewarded. I got fresh ginger snaps baking right now.

So. Where would black comedy be without Tarantino today?

Please flip open your textbooks to the chapter on mimicry and tribute, please.

I’ve gone on record that I think Tarantino is a hack, both here at RIORI and at several bars where I can clearly illustrate only with words what the bottom of a bottle of Bud looks like right before it gets impacted into your cheek. Folks got strong opinions about the man’s work. I do too, so start crushing your spent beer cans into hockey pucks now. I’m just about getting used to the outcome.

Still, I must admit he’s a clever, entertaining hack. Plenty of aspiring Hollywood scribes out there are still mixing their instant Ramen with their Tide at the laundromat. Tarantino did his salt mine service, as well as scrutinizing the old school movie sh*t that spoke to his inner muse. And it’s a damn good thing for him that Colombus, Ohio’s regular movie-going populace never listened to the Meters or saw Scream, Blacula Scream! Hence the Emoji Movie. Want fries with that? Of course we can super-size it. What’s a library?

*blogger scrubs bile from feet, wipes mouth*

Koff. Sorry there. Been a while.

So Q’s a big deal, his twitchy craft drawing thousands to the multiplex. I don’t mind that; it’s perfectly okay to have a favorite filmmaker. Yours creates worlds that speak to you, entertain you, maybe titillate you, with or without the red drape over the lamp. Taratino creates worlds all right, mostly violent, twisted and sometimes pervy worlds. A lot of his flicks are the equivalent of slowing highway traffic to catch a look at the car crash in the oncoming lane (and please quit doing that. I’m in a hurry and Shake Shack is only open so long).

But here is where I take issue with the man’s movies. When I call him a hack I don’t mean in the traditional, pejorative sense. To clarify, in Hollywood parlance a “hack” is a writer that churns out scripts for cash rather than creative ends, and integrity is a four-letter word. The term can be applied to writers in general, but the insult holds a lot of traction in Hollywood, probably due the large imbalance between good movies and poor excuses for poor excuses (every Alien vs Predator flick springs immediately to mind.) There’s a holy host of hacks out there in Tinsel Town pounding keyboards for a paycheck first with nary a muse to be seen. Unless you count the paycheck. I would.

Before I further clarify Q’s style of scribbling in relation to hackiness, I’m gonna cite an ideal punching bag when it comes to punch up. This screenwriter has been almost solely responsible for a wide smattering of unsatisfying, mediocre pap polluting silver screens as far away as Neptune. This odious creature came to my attention/rekindled my dislike courtesy of a blurb from The AV Club, so if you take issue with what I’m about to say, blame (or bless) Alex McLevy.

This scenarist isn’t know for black comedy, nor for winking pop culture splash, dash and thrash either. However he has had a dripping paw in many, many movies over the past 20 years that were—how shall we say this gently—total sh*t. From Batman & Robin to the recent release and would-be Stephen King franchise The Dark Tower that’s gone all pear-shaped. His scripts are crapola, and his cachet mostly rides on the Oscar he got for A Beautiful Mind, which won Best Pic for 2001. I could hem and haw, but to get the meat of the matter (as well as desperately keeping on topic) we must understand the difference between being a hack out of of creative naiveté and a need to keep the wallet full.

I don’t think Q’s of the former. I think Akiva Goldsman is. And there is a point to all of this schpiel about black comedy and hackery. There is.

Yeah. So Goldsman. Yikes. Him. You betcha. The master of spinning the Erle Stanley Gardner plot wheel. The resident epitome of hack writing. I’ll save the laundry list of his cinematic crimes for some other time. Not the point here. I’m gonna focus on that statue he finagled out of the dotty, old Academy; the one for Beautiful Mind‘s script. Again, Ron Howard’s feather-in-the-cap was a good movie. The acting was sterling (big ups to Paul Bettany and well-deserved bow to Jennifer Connolly. Ed Harris was along for the ride, too. Nuff said). Goldsman’s typing was well done.

(There’s a “but” coming.)

But, our hero scribe took a lot of liberties with the story. Either out of Hollywood sweeting or smoothing some edges. Sure, seeing Russell Crowe as mentally unbalanced mathematician struggle through…everything made for some gripping drama. I’m not one to nitpick. Much. No more than your average touring funk band passing whoever’s number. But not long after watching Mind with my then-girlfriend (who thinks Connolly is the bee’s knees; her fave film is Labyrinth, and Bowie wouldn’t be kicked outta the bed for eating crackers, no way) was studying psychology foe school, and the chapter came up about aberrant behavior came to the fore. She was assigned to deconstruct a movie that portrayed a character with mental illness, preferably a biopic (EG: Girl, Interrupted, Awakenings, The King’s Speech, the aforementioned Mind and etc) and later sift through the actual history of the case file.

After being over my girl’s shoulder, I learned that Mind could’ve been an even better picture if Goldsman didn’t muddy the story with Hollywood claptrap.

Example: in the second act, Nash’s wife Alicia has all but had it with her damaged hubby. But her REDACTED eventually wins the day. In reality the woman kicks Nash out for him to wander the world, later divorcing him. He’s eventually let back into his home (sans children. The real life Nash’s had no children) but only as a boarder. For like 13 years. They ended up “dating” for the rest of their days, even though Nash had many breakdowns and only got proper medication 20 years after his first schizo episode.

Is that black comedy? Very. Roll the rock away from the cave black, but not funny. In light of this historical info I felt that Goldsman’s script was for lacking. Wait. Did I feel that way prior to reading the historical record? No. Afterwards? Kinda. Didn’t care for the sweeting, or the hoodwink across my eyes realizing the the story could’ve been even more affecting. But in hindsight—and in a very oblique way—Goldsman’s final draft was blackly funny. Perverted even. After watching Russell Crowe love and care for people who were REDACTED (not sorry for this. Folks complain about spoilers more than jock itch, including females) than his own hottie wife? Not funny, but black and indeed comic.

BTW, the whole REDACTED exchange scene? Fabrication, even beyond Hollywood. Then Goldsman wrote into the ground I, Robot, I Am Legend and Transformers: The Last Knight to mention a few (2 of which came under my scalpel here already. Shiver now). Why Hollywood commits so many millions of ducats to placate this scribe escapes me. Then again I voluntarily watched a pair of them and scrawled about it here, mostly under the effects of sodium pentathol and whiskey. Kidding. I don’t drink spirits anymore.

Um. It’s not all bile here. Really. Patience pays, like I’ve heard about how it’s at at the local hospital. Back to hackery:

Ultimately we now come back to Quentin. Another writer cum director that saved Hollywood from itself, with all its tired plots, derivative storylines, banal dialogue and less than hip soundtracks featuring the dulcet tones of Steve Winwood post-Spencer Davis and Warren Zevon post-Warren Zevon. Tarantino made his mark with verve and flash; snappy witticisms, films rife with pop culture nods as well as its satires, warped plot lines and casts of thousands of left-of-center minor soon to become major players again. That and Sam Jackson and lots of that good old-fashioned ultra-violence. But with cheeseburgers!

Sounds snippy, doesn’t it? However if you think about it though there’s a lot of truth going on there. So much that Q’s maiden voyage of soon to be superstar mayhem got the square peg/round hole treatment from director Scott. Romance failed to figure what he had his hands on then, him being such a flashy filmmaker. I’m not saying Tony Scott’s a bad director. I’m shouting it.

True, the gateway drug for some was Scott’s True Romance. A film directed by a man who should’ve never directed it (tho’ he did a good job) backed by a script the scribe should’ve directed (but his Hollywood eyeteeth had yet to shed) by Tarantino. True Romance illustrated keenly that the slick hand of Tony Scott only caressed this flick courtesy of the soft massage he smoothed over Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop 2 (like there were a lot of unanswered Axel-esque questions still stabbing at the firmament). From Tarantio’s demented pen it was a byzantine (surprise) crime caper good horribly right involving gangland heavies, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it plot twists, Val Kilmer as Elvis and comic books (surprise?). The plot revolves around wayward lovers Christian Slater and Patrica Arquette on the run from, basically, themselves. Theirs is just the quotation marks that bookend the wily antics of the supporting cast (big ups to Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken. The “interrogation” scene was worth the asking price alone).

Q’s story was good, executed with much flash. Scott’s direction was stiff and an extension of how totally out of his element he was directing a madcap Taratino script. Mr Top Gun tried quite hard to make Romance an action film until the stitching showed. Understood, it was entertaining, but Romance didn’t really stick with you. You kinda forgot it a week later, like some carton of lo mein in the back of the fridge. You know, the carton that sprouted tentacles? Pass the soy sauce.

Hold it. Before I lambast Q some more and Scott quite less, let’s reheat this: what is black comedy? Well, we ain’t talking Richard Pryor here (but if you considered his act that supposition may be not that far removed). We’re basically talking about laughing at death. And crime. And infidelity. And any unpleasant subject that disrupts our typical happy moral existence. As far as movies and their stories go, Tarantino didn’t invent this subgenre. Making light of tragedy goes back to Shakespeare (e.g. Measure For Measure, The Taming Of The Shrew, Othello, etc), if not further.

*rifles through the Good Book*

Consider the tale of Christ’s passion. No, really. There’s a warped humor in that mythos. We have the alleged son of God as irritant to the status quo. Guys, you don’t need to have fealty to the emperor. He don’t care about you none anyway. Just be kind and compassionate to your neighbors and maybe we’ll all be better for it. Love is all you need, right Thomas?

Nope. Three nails, hung in the hot sun until you suffocate. Ugh. That spear sure stings, I’ll wager.

In the final act however JC rolls that rock away from the cave to the astonishment of his best buds and says, “Been there, done that. My Dad loves me and loves you all. But the next time you f*ckers see me you better jump.”

Kinda like that.

A good story, smeared with some rather ill-fitting concepts about how we’re supposed to get along but take great pleasure in not. Jesus playing poker with Death and rapping Him on the knuckles with a ruler. Bittersweet? Sure, but so is black comedy.

That’s been Q’s ace up his sleeve. He’s made silly of tragedy, to clever ends by the way. In his magnum opus Pulp Fiction as prime—if not seminal—example all the cards are on the table, smearing Taratino’s malign and prickly id for all the world to see, especially Middle America. How the Wolf cleans up the car. How Butch rescues Marcellus, considering the implements of destruction. How Mia responds to a shot to the heart. Stuff like that, and all of it black. Quite black. We’re talking charcoal here. Accidental shootings, sodomy and drug overdoses are decidedly unfunny. Unless played by the proper hand.

That’s the key: a smart scenarist that can wrap a chewy center around a delightful chocolate coating of irony and winking. I begrudging credit Q as quite adept at this feat. Such style has influenced countless “edgy” directors and writers in his wake. Some for the better, most for the snore. So much so that a holy host of filmmakers often get catch a bad case of the Tarantinos. Roger Avery, sometimes Guy Ritchie and maybe our guy on the chopping block, today’s hero Martin McDonagh. Sometimes it’s okay, the rest of the time it’s fanboy worship.

So how is black comedy supposed to work? Simple. Despite all the blood, guts and failed genital piercings, black comedy must be funny. Comedy is comedy. It can be a tough row to hoe. For all the dubious praise and credit I unloaded on Q, his influence is inescapable as well as earned. As well as winningly funny. Without his demented scripts we wouldn’t have entertaining flicks about murder and mayhem and all the chuckles they warrant like Doug Liman’s Go, Guy Ritchie’s Snatch and (maybe, we’ll see) this week’s gonzo platter Seven Psychopaths. All were amusing, all were left-of-center, all were a gunshot wound buffet. Not bad for a pop culture Cuisinart filmmaker like Tarantino. I mean, for a hack.

So does my litany say that hackery and black comedy are intertwined somehow?

Maybe. All those non-linear, divergent plot threads often muddy already muddied, blood-stained, clogged with dead dog’s bodies waters.

Sorry. That might be a tad stony. Someone send up a flare…


Marty (Farrell) has a problem. Problems. He’s a Hollywood screenwriter, struggling with his latest story. Writer’s block. That’s one.

The other might be a drinking problem. Might be a two.

Or his pesky tagalong buddy Billy (Rockwell) who wants to offer his BFF writing advice, despite being unable to put a paragraph together without using profanity like quotation marks. Probably a third.

The aforementioned love affair with the bottle made Marty’s gritchy wife Kaya (Cornish) bail. Winking at a fourth.

Billy’s also a leech, unable to hold down any real job. All he really has going for him is this kooky dognapping scheme when where all goes well, he takes away a meager handful as his “benefactor” Hans (Walken) “reaps” the “rewards.” That’s way too many legit quotation marks. Definitely a fifth.

(You see where this is going, right?)

It all gets ugly when Billy nabs the wrong pooch. Crazed gangster-type Charlie’s (Harrelson) prized shih tzu Bonnie is a jewel in Hans’ crown and a bullet for Billy’s head. Naturlly a worried Billy pulls Marty into his demented circle. Quite the sixth.

At the end of several very long days, Marty finds himself along with Billy and Hans on the run from Charlie’s goons, malice on their minds and a mission to rescue Bonnie at all costs, guns at the ready. And still no damned script near done.

That’s seven. Quite a handful—fistful—of goofy problems for poor Marty. And all he wanted to do was finish the stupid script. If he gets out of this scrape it might make a helluva story…


Okay. This one is black. But not bleak. There is a difference.

First, let’s talk about Tarantino some more. Right, so I called him a hack. He is, and here’s why (but not really. My viewpoint gets rather blurry so cut me some slack): it’s a foregone conclusion that scenarists create scripts based on a few standards. I do the same here, but for free! You’ll be reimbursed somehow for your curious patience.

The standard as I call them are simple: create an entertaining story to be made into a movie, let your creative (if sometimes manic) muse channel your creative energy into the creation of said script to be the backbone of a good movie, and may your finished product may be able to elevate a humdrum movie into a machine that churns out the tickets.

I did not mention creative ego. I also did not mention placating said ego. A well-written, successful movie should be the scenarist’s final reward for hard work done. A nice, shiny statuette that looks dandy on the mantlepiece or the back of the guest bathroom’s toilet would be nice reward, too. The guest bathroom, not the statue. If you got a guest bathroom it prob’ means you have a nice house and maybe entertain a lot. Enjoy scooping out your guest’s “rainbow trout” floating in the bowl come Sunday. I am a very petty man.

Speaking of being petty, I find most of Q’s very entertaining films satisfying a very basal need. Namely his, and they also are myriad.

I call out Tarantino as a hack because almost all of his work contains not so very subtle but incredibly winking nod to his pet subjects. Namely almost outre film genres (EG: blaxploitation, spaghetti westerns, giallo, etc) riddle his “high concept” work. That and a lot of fanboy-ism. To put it simply, Q’s  a hack for not churning out scripts for money. He does it to stick a middle finger up the jocks’ assh*les that bullied his geeky ass so brutally in high school. That might actually be on record somewhere.

His films aren’t films. They’re revenge for a miscast youth. Spielberg’s flicks may be steeped in childhood tribulations and personal obsessions, but there’s precious little finger-waving in his output. Q’s a hack for willfully not pulling up his pants. He’s a show-off, and that’s why I begrudgingly like his output. As do every frat boy and wayward high school nerd who worn bondage pants in the 90s just after they eventually got hip to the Desendents.

It’s also why I often play the curious motorist, stuck in sluggish traffic and needing to know why I’m gonna be late to work. Again. Always on the scan for the flickering klaxons (that’s what they’re called) spinning on the squad car on the shoulder that has either pulled over a drunk driver, at the scene of twisted metal or just some poor schlub with a bum rear tire. I don’t really want to see this, but the rest of Middle American traffic patterns have already clogged the thruway and now I must plug in the Bluetooth and call in. That and check out the carnage. Not by choice, mind you. Really. And pay no mind to the dude behind the dude.

I don’t care for Tarantino’s work, and feel guilty for watching his pr*ck flap about for over two hours. And yet somehow dig it. I don’t suckle like most of his frat boy fans (despite me being a frat boy once), but I feel I’m pretty good at seeing Q still wears tighty-whiteies. That and I already had the entire Meters catalogue (on CD) in my collection pre-1993. I was band geek; leave it alone.

Sigh. That being said, Seven Psychopaths‘ director McDonagh caught a bad whiff of Tarantino’s spent typewriter ribbon (I’m willing to bet that the man still churns out his stories via typewriter; that would be the hip thing to do, right?). Martin’s script/direction sure felt like Tarantino wishful thinking to this dolt here.

I mean here:

Our story has it all regarding black comedy paired with hackery. And yet…and yet the final product did not suck. Sure. It was derivative Tarantino, maybe just a shadow. Still these days it’s tough to cut a film like Seven without echoing/nodding to Q’s fidgety output. Especially considering all the mockery was there. No clear hero? Check. Wonky, wandering premise? Double check. Eclectic, at-odds casting? Yeah. Christopher Walken? Need I say more?

So where’s the issue?

At the end of the day, none really. It’s been beaten to death that Tarantino’s scribblings have spawned an unearthly amount of hacks taking their swing at the next big Pulp Fiction maladjustment. However with Seven, and McDonagh in specific, I gotta reload this popgun and aim: it ain’t the notes, it’s how they’re played.

In order to be good at riffage, you need to be very good at your axe and have a keen ear to absorb what sounds exciting and timeless. Director McDonagh kinda, sorta succeeds here, if you count aping Tarantino success. Maybe so; mimicry and flattery and all dat gobbledygook. Still, Seven feels like McDonagh is banging away warped AC/DC chords in his parents garage. But then again, Angus Young’s licks weren’t terribly complex in the first place. And they sounded good. Still do. Now here:

Black comedy? Seven is more like a spoof. Like I said, all the elements are in place. A sensitive, whacko mobster after the guys who pilfered his prized pooch as Ponzi scheme? There’s a plot out of an ish of mid-90’s Mad magazine, and plays that way, too. Wait, hold on. That’s not quit true. Seven reminded me more of a descent into a demented version of a Hope/Crosby “road movie” from the 40s: Road To Singapore, Road To Rio, Road To Compton, etc (cue golf swing).

For those when need to know where that goofy analogy comes from, curl up by the fire, honeychile. Venerable comedian/actor Bob Hope and just as venerable singer/actor Bing Crosby teamed up together for a bunch of these road movies back in the 40s, where the plots were interchangeable and always involved our hapless heroes in wonky, silly circumstances simultaneously on the run from someone to somewhere to somewhere else. They were huge cash cows and virtual pop culture staple in the American movie-going congress. So much so that their oddball influence convinced some nabob at Colombia (namely one Warren Beatty who produced the mess) to do a tribute in the form of a little film failure called Ishtar. It also had its two leads (again Beatty with a confused Dustin Hoffman) on the run and plopped into terra incognitaDirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap it wasn’t. Sounds like the stuff Goldsman would thrive in, like pinworms in an infant’s stool.

That being said (no, not the pinworm sh*t), Seven in a way revives the old gold-hearted crooks on the lam schtick, only with a sticky black center. And again, it kinda works. As black comedies go, this is light (or perhaps light-hearted) on the black, and dished out with some strategy.

Like with Tarantino’s signature casting-style, Seven would be a truly derivative absurdist comedy without our motley crew. If you think about it—but not too much, mind you—Q’s capers would be pretty straightforward action-dramas if it weren’t for his irreverent characters. Well, Seven is no different. In fact, if it weren’t for its oddball cast, there really wouldn’t be much of a movie, just an overwrought Monty Python skit. Seven barely missed being tagged a bigger budget remake of Death;s dinner scene from The Meaning Of Life.

Think I might be crawling up mine own arse here. To quote Grail: “Get on with it!”

Right. The cast. Meat and potatoes. Our crew is comprised of unpleasant people, some less than others. It’s kinda odd. Our protag Marty played by an ornery, drunken Farrell is supposed to be the “hero.” Of what? He’s the lead, sure, but he’s also co-dependent, both on the bottle and Rockwell’s dopey Billy. How are we supposed to get behind such a wishy-washy lush?

Ah ha. That is the trick, the ace up McDonagh’s sleeve. What sets his cast apart—from Colin all the way to Woody—from the standard Tarantino cast of thousands is along with Marty no one here earns our sympathy. Hell, even Jules and Vince on their way to the first hit have a friendly rapport (French burgers and such), and even more telling—which also earns the audience’s sympathy for these two hoods if only for a nanosecond is the throwaway line: “Let’s get into character.” The hit is their job, not who they are, especially considering Jules “trying to be the shepherd” at movie’s end.

(Damn. My anus is really dark. And warm, too.)

Marty and company are all heels (save Hans, but only a little bit). These hoodlums are bleakly funny, but no one would ask them to house sit, lest they want the liquor cabinet ransacked, all their teenage daughter’s panties gone and landing on Etsy and the big plasma TV destroyed, screen impaled by an errant tennis racquet with one of Steffy’s thongs wrapped around the handle. Let alone dog sit.

I do paint a picture, don’t I? But really, for all of Marty’s addictions, Billy’s idiocy, Hans’ smarminess and Charlie’s hair-trigger there is no “getting into character.” It’s already ready already. All McDonagh gave us was a goofy script with a lot of one-liners/sight gags, the strategic plot twists and an eventual shootout, OK style in the final act. No more, no less.

So what was so enjoyable about Seven? Glad you asked and I appreciate your saintly patience. That thing above: strategy. Although it takes a bit to sink in/gel, you figure out across 100 minutes that Seven is indeed a spoof. A really subtle, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, ham-fisted spoof, but a joke nonetheless. The over-arching strategy here? Seven thrives on meta-humor. Uber-meta-humor. We’re talking if you don’t get it, you’re not seeing it, not hearing it and/or totally ignorant to Tarantino’s stock in trade. And f*cking Pulp Fiction was sodden with meta humor (you ever notice that all the servers at Jack Rabbit Slim’s were dead celebrities from the 50s? No? You proved my point).

Seven is one big winking joke, but still a funny one. By the second act I found myself laughing out loud at our madcap cyphers. Not so much for the aforementioned wisecracks, pratfalls and very cold-blooded scenes involving blood, cancer and betrayal, but for the “I saw what you did there!” moments. Namely, I was laughing in spite of myself and the wit. Not sure if one precluded the other. Not matter, funny is funny and quietly mocking a subgenre—a rapidly hackneyed one—is, well, black. Spitting in Satan’s eye and the Dark One planting a smoldering cloven hoof into your anus. Which may explain my warmth.

Speaking of warmth, even though our gonzo cast aren’t the most original, fleshed-out folks, McDonagh found a way to keep these seamy miscreants enjoyable. Sympathy may be hard to come by with Marty and company, but our canny director created a very resourceful work-around to make us curious about these clods.

Farrell, Rockwell et al simply play themselves. Especially Walken and Harrelson, whose on screen charcters are virtually inseparable from who they are as “real people.” Got a heavy feeling a lot of this flick’s dialogue was off-the-cuff (particularly regarding Walken’s signature stammering delivery). You wanna little madcap dash with your heist scheme gone wrong? Make sh*t up as you go, Hell, worked on Who’s Line Is It Anyway? Minus the dognapping thins (but I’ll betcha Proops had a bit waiting in the wings).

Rockwell being Rockwell, virtually all his roles hang on him being a wordsmith at best and a motormouth at best. You think the story is demented? Well so is Rockwell’s Billy, Marty’s doofus foil and aide de camp. He’s the passive protag here, second fiddle. But ultimately Seven is his movie. Like how he stole the show in The Way Way Back (that installment is kicking around here somewhere), Rockwell comes across as naturally dumb, smartass, clueless and very cagey all at once. We understand his Billy to be the (potential) wild card, but like all his mouthiness, his role is shuck-and-jive. Namely, he’s naturally wonky so much he’s clever. Yeah, he was also the funniest.He’s a naturally funny actor. Not comedic, but funny. In the head funny. Don’t give Rockwell the keys after you’ve been drinking. It’ll only result in finding another one of Steffy’s thongs stashed in the glove box, stinking of formaldehyde.

Now Walken, like in all his roles, regardless of genre is unnaturally funny. I ain’t talking unintentionally funny, like how Hope made Bing look silly in Road To Cleveland (that might have been a real movie. Might). I’m screaming regardless of the movie, regardless of the role Walken is an ill-fitting suit. From The Dead Zone to Communion to True Romance to that nifty Fatboy Slim music video when Chris got to show off his dance moves the man is so endearingly awkward that you can’t help but grin whenever he’s on the screen. No different here in Seven. It’s always David Byrne-style “How did I get here?” with Walken, and even though his smarmy Hans endears enough clean sympathy here there’s always this undercurrent of “This is not my beautiful wife!” Even though Hans’ beautiful wife is well aware how he got here. If this makes no sense, big deal. You just gotta see Walken’s Hans to taste the meta.

Woody’s Charlie is so casual, which is what makes him scary. I’m not talking in-yo-face, absurdist, Mickey Knox scary. No. We all were introduced to Harrelson as the simple-minded hick Woody Boyd back on Cheers. His casual obliviousness endeared almost to idiot savant level on that classic sitcom populated by a lot of misguided barstool philosophers. Despite Cheers was ostensibly a comedy, the addition of Boyd to the cast invited a catch-you-off-guard kind of humorous character. Irreverent, sweet and like a lost puppy (let that go. It’s just a metaphor, dammit). Woody Boyd as Charlie is no different; not such a big leap. Charlie is Harrelson is Boyd: sweet, confused and child-like. Did I also mention psychotic? Yeah, he was a fun “villain.” Keep that gun clean, there.

All right, there’s a few takes on our usual suspects (Farrell was a tad wooden and the females were simply wallpaper. Hell, Cornish was barely paste). We gotta mention some technical aspects. It’s already agreed upon that Seven is a bottom-feeding, winking joke (and all the better for it), but some props must be given to McDonagh for tweaking a little mood-making for shots and staging and of course pacing. Despite the film’s trademark lack of trademarks the director has gotta spin some spin, right?

Uh-huh. Two major things about Seven‘s atmosphere crawling up on me. First, the lighting. Something about it, like it never quit. Very little shadow here, almost as if it played into McDonagh’s “You get it, right?” aesthetic about his take on black comedy and how he was blatantly ripping off/scewering Tarantino’s tropes. Don’t miss a thing here. Take the shade off the lamp, you’re naked now. It was another piece of the puzzle that made me giggle all the more when I felt I shouldn’t have. Sometimes covert clever can be more inviting than overt “clever.”

The second thing that swirled about my prickly movie-chewing muse watching Seven was its pacing. It was odd. Not dragging (although the final act kinda scraped bootheels in the sand), just odd. It kinda ping-ponged, but neither too fast nor too slow nor just right. It created some genuine unease in the watching that the characters’ predicament did decidedly did not. Some boat-rocking on par with eating that chili burrito before getting on the Coney Island Cyclone; something’s not gonna end well and it might require tossing away a shirt. You gotta create tension somehow in a film? Isn’t f*cking with the flow of the story a sharp way to do so? Works better than a knowing cast of goofballs contradicting one another’s motives. I’ll take what I can get.

Oh yeah. One more thing. Since Seven‘s story hinges on Marty’s failure to cut a script again and again and again, a question began to curl around brain stem halfway through the film. Was this all in Marty’s head? He’s a drunkard, restless and obsessed with finding a way through to completing the script. And everyone he deals with seems so wrote and reflecting the troublesome psychopaths he’s trying to rein in, would it not be too far a cry that his adventures are nothing more than his frustrated psyche trying to find some sort of escape? I mean, the final act wraps up in the desert, almost all Rimbaud-like (including Marty’s hair). If that were the case, wouldn’t all the black nightmare comedy, derivative characters (including the Quaker Billy suggested that also suggested his real life) and overall disconnected, dysfunctional, inebriated malaise he suffers over may bow down to a dreamlike existential crisis?

Hey. Wait. I don’t recall eating granola bars. Uh-oh.

That’s the weird thing about black comedy, hackery and meta-humor. Alone it’s all pretty straight forward. Piss on the devil’s tail and avoid the pitchfork. Write fast but not well and avoid critical scorn while laughing all the way to the bank. Joke about sh*t that was never intended to be funny until the right joker comes along. All a bit esoteric, sure, but no real mystery there.

The mystery arrives, and hopefully in an entertaining fashion, when you don’t know where the f*ck to start looking. And where to start looking first, if ever. Seven was like hearing the joke about the aristocrats. I’m getting offended, but please tell me where I’m going?

Good news. Wipe your brow. You’re not on the Road To Perdition.

Hang on. Was that an actual movie? Or was it Metacritic?

Paw!


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Yeah, it’s a canard in the best, middling Taratino sense, but also funny enough as an okay waste of a Saturday afternoon. Just don’t forget to curb yer dog.


Stray Observations…

  • “One cancer ward, comin’ up!” Worst. Cocktail. Ever.
  • “I don’t have a drinking problem! I just like drinking!” The first step.
  • Walken has got to be the best near-physical actor ever.
  • “He’s from Ireland.”
  • Zack. Hommage to Tom Waits’ first film role?
  • “Okay. You seem normal.”
  • Mac is one sick bastard, God bless him.
  • “A little.”
  • The scene with the wheelchair was some delicious tension.
  • “This dog is my Patti Hearst!” Cue cheesy poofs.
  • Farrell should’ve stuck with small films. Gives him more room to actually act than just be handsome.
  • That whole “one eye” bit? Yeah, that’s from a Tom Waits lyric. Full circle!
  • “Want some people, Billy?” “Why not?” Just say no.
  • NO SHOOTING. Enough, already.
  • “I wanna know what happens in the end!”

Next Installment…

Can Abby Breslin uncover the pseudo-mystery of who her mom really is? Definitely, Maybe, kinda like what the blue stripe sometimes says. And how Dad may snivel.


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 59: Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys And Aliens” (2011)


Cowboys & Aliens


The Players…

Daniel “James Bond” Craig, Harrison “Han Solo” Ford, Olivia “that hot chick from House” Wilde, Sam “Justin Hammer of SHIELD” Rockwell and Clancy “Mr Krabbs and/or Kurgen” Brown, with Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, Adam Beach, Noah Ringer and Abigail Spencer.


The Story…

An amnesiac gunslinger stumbles into the Wild West town of Absolution, where he’s confronted by two potent adversaries. One is Boss Dolarhyde, a ruthless cattle baron who holds the town in sway, and God help anyone who crosses him or his family.

The other is invading aliens from outer space.

Wait, what?


The Rant…

Me and sci-fi movies have been buddies for decades. Ever since I caught ET back when I was six in the theatre I felt the nip and took its hand. It’s regarded as a classic now, but back then it was a gamble for both Spielberg and an S/F crowd raised on nasty aliens bent on world domination. Now Steve struck a poignant nerve with his prior S/F epic, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. That flick illustrated that Spielberg knew a thing or three about aliens being messengers of benevolence, fostering communication between worlds for the greater good. Only Robert Wise’s classic The Day The Earth Stood Still topped Encounters when it came to addressing such a concept.

Smart stuff.

ET wasn’t much different than Encounters, if not in execution than in tone. Also about communication and understanding ET was a lot less heady than Encounters, and perhaps more accessible to the mainstream. That may explain why back in ’82 ticket takers at the local megaplex had to wear riot gear for fear of getting trampled by overly eager crowds to see if the alien critter got home (to say nothing of Reeses’ Pieces sales at concessions). The crowds in the early 80s dug S/F flicks, a genre once maligned as being puerile at best and mouth-breathing at worst. But thanks to Star Wars: A New Hope, folks came in droves to S/F movies, appetites whetted by not only Hope (or simply Star Wars back then, before Lucas went bonkers), the aforementioned Encounters, the gothic, terrifying Alien, technically the original Superman film (Kal-El was from off-world y’know), Disney’s first PG film, the dark and sinister The Black HoleStar Trek made it to the big screen—for good and for ill. My kingdom for an editor—and heck, even 007 went into space with the loveably goofy Moonraker. Virtually all of these ventures, big and not so big alike, had success with the whole ticket sales thing. Some even got a little critical notice. It looked like for the most part S/F movies were getting their due. The geeky shadow they cast (barring 2001: A Space Odyssey. That one always gets a pass. Do not dispute me) wasn’t so scary as before. Believe it or not, although ET was the culmination of S/F movies as thoughtful and smart, Hollywood (still) wasn’t convinced of it not being a turkey. Unsure if the muddled masses could take in the story of a castaway alien “so ugly it’s cute” stranded in Levittown with his pet/guru human. Word has it the whole wad worked, quite well, and kicked John Carpenter’s sharp remake of The Thing—you know, the one with the vile, shapeshifting, un-cute alien that engulfed its victims and assumed their identities in an arterial spray of gore and puke. Good sh*t—out of the multiplex faster than you could say, “I thought you were dead.”

All of that smart stuff.

And when S/F is thoughtful and smart, we’re best buds. Thick as thieves. Pick my brain and stretch my imagination, please, cute and not cute critters regardless. Although I’m rather choosy about what S/F movie I feel like subjecting myself to, truth be told it’s always been like how RIORI operates: a gamble. There are those films that are required viewing in the genre, unimpeachable without a roll of the dice. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Forbidden Planet, Star Wars: A New Hope, Planet Of The Apes (sans Marky Mark), The Day The Earth Stood Still (minus Keanu), Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (excluding that wiry chick from Burn Notice/Scent Of A Woman, whichever you saw first), etc. There are scores more we could name, and despite the arched brow the masses often give the genre, it’s been a popular if not profitable one for over a century. A good example? Remember Voyage To The Moon? ‘Course not. You were barely an itch in your granddady’s crotch, but that novelty was technically a sci-fi flick. With pretty cool costumes for the time. 1902 to be exact. Film dork me.

Just being a smart-ass there. Breathe.

However did you notice that a few selections of the new wave of S/F flicks back then didn’t really cut the mustard in the “smart” department? It’s like the whole Highlights For Children “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” feature. One of these things is not like the other. No one could argue that Moonraker was intelligent, nor The Black Hole being a thinly veiled Biblical morality tale featuring obnoxiously cute robots with Disney eyes to boot. And Star Trek‘s leap into the void? Three words: creaky and dull. Hey, you can’t always shoot for the stars and not expect to miss the sun. Your shot may end up in a black hole. Sorry.

Let’s face it. Despite all the boundary breaking from back in ’82 my film buddy—how can I say this without have the ACLU come down on me like a ton of bricks for being “insensitive”—often rides the short bus. For every sharp S/F flick out there dozens—maybe hundreds—of wampa dung lurking in the shadows waiting to malign the genre ever further. Such may lay claim to some whiz-bang, crazy F/X, improbability factor looming large and just can’t wait to be committed to celluloid and be just plain dumb. I suspect a lot of directors who get handed the reigns to an S/F script assume all bets are off.  The wild flying monkeys trapped in my brain will finally have their voices heard! Call Scarlett!

Such bets often are off. Way off. We’re talking Saturn 3 off. Precious few filmmakers understand the golden gift of opportunity that fate and investors have bequeathed to them with an S/F project. Existentialist musings and the need for us all to communicate and better ourselves. Funk dat. It’s time for splatter and little matter. Just gimme that budget/wheelhouse and let’s see what sings beyond the blue horizon. Bring on the dancing blue horses.

Always wanted to wedge “bequeath” into this blog somehow, sometime. Scratch another one off the bucket list. Again, Mister smart-ass. What else did you expect?

Still, I have to wonder in light of too many dopey, misguided S/F movies made at the hands of some dopey, misguided director that if my pet film genre will forever smolder in the Seventh Level. I might have mentioned this prior (in fact I know I have) but it takes a sharp filmmaker to understand S/F ain’t all about aliens, spaceships and trying to convince us that Daryl Hannah can act. Well it’s not just that. Like all films, S/F is about stories, and about the human factor in particular. Standouts like 2001 was existentialism incarnate, not the Monolith doing its thing. Noted otherwise Michael Bay’s The Island was not about existentialism. It was about motorcycle chases, ripping off an even sh*ttier movie and forever chasing the butterfly that is Scarlett Johannson as a competent actress. Trust me, I saw both movies. Guess which one left tissue scarring?

(That smarts.)

In any event, my drunken wingman has had such a sh*t rep for so long it comes as only natural for the rabble to throw up their collective arms and shrug, “What the f*ck. This Lucy flick stars Scarlett what’s-her-tits. It’ll do.” Smart, thoughtful S/F is few and far between, and it only gets press when it’s smart and thoughtful. That and the CGI is used to enhance, not drive.

Yeah, yeah. Bitch, bitch. Welcome to my worldview. You made the hit and stuck around. Who’s the bigger dunce? Who’s so whip-smart here?

I call dibs, because I’m going to contradict myself…now!

Ignoring my preaching, sometimes we indeed do need a dumb, fun, socially non-redeeming S/F film to roll down the pike and goofily explain what a pike exactly is beyond an oversized spear and then get a cream pie to the puss. Dumb stuff, guilty pleasures, crap you’d be rather embarrassed to be caught watching and immediately hitting eject and slamming disc one of the remastered first season of Star Blazers. That kinda thing in the S/F world. Here’s a few trifles of questionable sci-fi, if only mentioned to explain why it took me until 18 to know what a bare breast felt like: Event HorizonLifeforce, Meteor, Outland (both starring Sean Connery! Joys aplenty!), Supernova and The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension. All choice schlock recommended by yours truly. Not the groping part, but yeah. All of them things are pure, dumb S/F fun, essential viewing as any Lucas-fueled phantasmagoria. Have I ever led you wrong before?

Shut up.

But what really constitutes “dumb fun” in S/F? It isn’t just moronic plots, hammy acting and laughable effects. Although those things help, I think the ace in the hole to ridiculous, head-slapping, MST3K-worthy material is a complete and utter lack of plausibility.

Huh? What’s that you say? It’s S/F. All of that truck is implausible. Alien life? That was a weather balloon. Interstellar travel? We can get only as far as the moon. Artificial intelligence? Um, does Siri count?

No, no, no. Chill. Have a cuppa. Shut the f*ck up. What makes good S/F work are a canny handling of the said human factor and (you guessed it) the barest scintilla of plausibility. I’m not saying that what’s depicted in most S/F movies could come to be. Alright, to be fair 2001 is very plausibleand if you consider the Star Trek franchise (old and new) who knows if we won’t be hoppin’ galaxies in 400 years? Those two examples stand out in the pantheon of S/F movies because it lends a feeling of “Huh…” to the audience, as if considering, “Well, what if?” or, “Hey, why not?” For example, it’s no coincidence that Chief Engineer LaForge of the Enterprise-D kept tabs on sh*t using a touchscreen tablet (it’s called a PADD in TNG parlance) and 20 years later in the real world we’re all toting iPads and/or Galaxies. A good example of plausibility in the perhaps not too distant made flesh. Digital. Smart tech. Whatever.

We’re not talking about that here. We be talking, “Oh, come on!” with laughs all around. Utterly unbelievable sci-fi gobbledygook and all its brain-melting glory. It’s vital now and again for any die-hard S/F fan, or regular Joe for that matter. Gotta have the bitter with the sweet to best taste the difference and spit or swallow. There ya go.

Okay. We’ve beaten that horse into glue. Horse sense maybe, or just horse smarts. How smart are horses anyway? Ever see how they behave in westerns? All it takes is a well placed sugarcube and water it won’t drink when you show it to them.

Right.

What does all this gibberish about good ‘n dumb S/F over thoughtful and provocative all mean here anyway? I mean, we get the whole “so bad it’s good” concept, but what am I really yammering about? Is it a retread of the lesson about in order to appreciate the good you gotta have some…I said that already? Well it’s still true. At it’s core, like all genres, S/F is meant to entertain. However unlike other, more mainstream films the genre demands—I mean demands—almost total commitment to suspension of belief with just enough wiggle room to allow “Huh..” When this precious balance is upset in watching S/F movies, the results can be disastrous, to both mind and body. I mean, c’mon, MASH was one of the most misguided S/F movies ever…

What?

Oh. Huh. Well as a S/F epic, that thing sucked on toast. Sure was funny, though. Riotous even. Like this week’s vaunt into the void.

Now draw…


Arizona. The late 1800s.

You wake up in the middle of the desert. No shoes, no ride, no memory. All you have is the shirt on your back, a mouthful of sand and a weird manacle affixed to your wrist. And it doesn’t want to come off. Where were you?

You make your way to a frontier town called Absolution in search of provisions, a bath and who the f*ck you are. The first place you break in to is occupied by a concerned, rifle-weilding preacher named Meacham (Brown). Despite you have no recollection of this man—or anyone for that matter—he sure as sh*t knows who you are. By reputation alone, Meacham marks you as the infamous outlaw and thief Jake Lonergan (Craig) and gives you a warning about shacking up in Absolution. This here was once a proud mining town until the stock wore out. Now it’s Col Dolarhyde’s (Ford) personal playground, and f*ck all that gets in his way. If Meacham’s offering any absolution for your amnesiac circumstance it’s just don’t get mucked up with Dolarhyde family affairs.

Whatever. All you want is a bath and drink, not necessarily in that order. Also figuring how to get this screwy gizmo off your arm. It stings. Almost feels like what they call over the telegraph wires “electrical.” Anyway, booze.

Isn’t always the way? You’re just trying to unwind, have a drink, contemplate your non-circumstances when the local sheriff crashes in the bar—and a weird, sultry lady (Wilde) lurking behind—ready to string you up for being an outlaw you can’t remember being. Absolution is Dolarhyde’s town, as has no recourse for infamous criminals. In spite of Dolarhyde’s guerrilla tactics regarding civic responsibilities, you’re the dunce that gets dragged off to the pokey. It might’ve had something to do with besting the Colonel’s drunken son Percy (Dano) in the town square, but you suspect it has something more to do with your rep. That and being The Outsider.

You quickly discover that while rotting in chains you are nothing of an outsider compared to the marauders Dolarhyde’s been trying to stop for months. Slaughtering his herd, scorching his land and ransacking his gold mining operation the good Colonel and this thugs have been trying to ferret out of Absolution. You’re supposedly a vicious criminal and master thief with an infamous gang at your hand, and the ideal prime suspect in mucking about with Dolarhyde’s affairs. You might be the outsider all right, with a missing history, but at least you came from somewhere.

The real Outsiders are only not from Absolution, they’re not from around these parts at all. Quite literally.

So when the paddy wagon you’re chained in (and with the son of the local heavy that caused all your woes) gets set on fire from a barrage of some sort of controlled lightening shot from an airship no one has even seen the likes of before, you have to ask your amnesiac, troubled past, incarcerated self this:

How the hell did I end up here?…


Before we swoop in and take Cowboys & Aliens by the metaphorical horns (heh), I always feel compelled to point out a literal comic book adapted into a motion picture, usually regarding movies that the average, upstanding citizen did know was a comic book movie (e.g.: Bulletproof Monk, From Hell and, yes Cowboys And Aliens).

Usually these nuggets slip under the radar because of their weird and/or mature content. Sometimes they’re books adapted from lesser known publishers (seems DC and Marvel already have the lion’s share of promotion out there in La-La Land. Batman? Spider-Man? Perhaps you’ve heard of ’em). Sometimes they don’t play as “comic-booky” as the more popular films of their ilk (Kick-Ass anyone?). Sometimes they’re so oblique without a popular cache that you just watch and go, “Whatever. This’ll work.”

Okay, Cowboys does fall under the aegis of all these factoids. I admit I went into watching this with eyes wide shut about the movie’s origins, but I plucked it not so much for it falling under the auspices of The Standard. That, of course, was part of the autopsy, but what really piqued my interest about Cowboys had precious little to do with the dailies I used to scan back in my comic shop monkey days. No.

It was something I caught by accident on the History Channel. Back when they aired actual history, BTW. Those were the days.

The program was called UFO Hunters or something like that. Guess now it was the dry run for the immensely but not understandably popular series Ancient Aliens, the show that tackles the mysteries of the Nazca Lines up against incredible hairstyles. Similar to its progeny, Hunters investigated UFO happenings, then and now, from around the US (and sometimes in other countries) by way of the detective work, forensic science, and/or interviewing eyewitnesses. If none were available—read: dead—scouring the historic record served in a pinch. From the ep I caught, it was a pretty cool show, with none of the foaming histrionics that’s Ancient Aliens’ signature. That and the Greek guy’s impeccable, trapped in a wind tunnel coif.

The scene of the crime for the episode I got sucked into was Aurora, Texas, an nice little patch of nowhere in the Lone Star state just north of who cares and a little west of where are we? The town’s claim to fame (as well as the raison d’etre for the producers to film there, natch) was a report of a saucer crash that occurred so long back it became less of the historical record and more like a beloved urban legend. According to the show, the Aurora incident (nicknamed “Roswell, Texas”) was a bit of both. Stories naturally got scrambled over time, but one thing could be agreed upon by Aurora’s legacy: something fell out of the sky back then.

And back then was in 1897, a full fifty years before the Roswell Incident.

The details were hazy, and shifting to and fro by the locals, but the thing that was certain that an airship of curious design crashed and burned in Aurora and its crews’ remains appeared unlike anything on Earth. That’s right. There were passengers aboard that UFO. Some declared them as “not of this earth” if not “Martian” outright. The bodies were given a proper, Christian burial in the local cemetery of all things, but not before the rough-and-ready media swarmed Aurora for news of the strange airship from out of space and its alien visitors.

That’s the bulk of the tale. A close encounter of the third kind. Talk to Spielberg. But the devil’s in the details. After the crash there were tales of unusual properties regarding the metals used in the construction of the airship, radiation poisoning from improper disposal of the wreckage resulting in maladies in the locals as mundane as advanced arthritis to more serious like birth defects to…other things. No to mention that one of the bodies interred was an “infant.” It is to wonder and have that mousse at the ready.

I think the key thing to consider about the Aurora Incident is that the locals, back in 1897, had next to no concept whatsoever as to how to comprehend a flying machine. This was in the middle of nowhere. No proper airships crossed their clouds resembling anything like a steady schedule. The Wright Bros were to take flight only a mere 6 years after the incident, and even then the general public failed to believe their feat real. With photos no less. Yet the testimonies of Aurora’s denizens fell in line with your contemporary mass UFO sighting, proper burials notwithstanding. In short, no matter how rural, isolated and not-20th Century folks might’ve been, they knew that weird sh*t had rained down from space onto Aurora, and most of it was far from explicable. So call Robert Stack already.

Okay. What the f*ck does this MUFON wet dream have anything to do with “dumb, fun” S/F and this week’s pile? Glad you asked.

The movie Cowboys And Aliens was inspired by a graphic novel inspired by supposedly true events. Read: the Aurora Incident. Big surprise. Author Scott Mitchell Rosenberg once commented that his comic was inspired by what may or may have not happened in Aurora all those decades ago. If you took in what I intimated earlier, Rosenberg considered the ramifications of pre-Industrial age folk encountering technology and essentially a home invasion of the like they simply could not comprehend. I’m paraphrasing here, as well as taking great liberties with Rosenberg’s musings. Still, such a notion could be akin to the events relayed in the original Terminator or how a few of the key players in Seven Samurai got offed by gunfire rather than swordplay (or got offed at all). How does the average Joe and Jane wrap their minds about alien (so to speak) tech interrupting—if not disrupting—their everyday existence? By Rosenberg’s vision, not well. That doesn’t mean the incurring party takes it lying down, of course.

Such is the stuff of fun. Stand offs. Fisticuffs. Get off my land. As for the silly S/F factor? Uh, the movie’s called Cowboys And ALIENS in case you forgot. You did, didn’t you? You and yer Pokemon Go. Focus!

Funny thing though (almost retracting everything I said above), Cowboys was not dumb. It was pretty sharp actually. The concept may have been dumb and silly, but put into the proper perspective the thing had clear eyes.

The nifty thing about Cowboys is that it’s two movies in one. On one hand we got us the classic Western tropes. Mysterious drifter. Scowling bully that holds the hapless denizens of a dying town in his sway. Gunplay. Whiskey. All the essentials. They’re played out in the traditional fashion but lacking any corn that a less canny director than Favreau could not resist. All of Absolution is grim and gritty, worlds—if not light-years—away from some S/F plot with marauding alien invaders mining for REDACTED.

The first act plays out kind of like classic Eastwood “man with no name” Westerns. We have a grim anti-hero, past a mystery, handy with a gun and carrying a sense of purpose. The big difference is for most of the movie is that Jake’s past really is a mystery, and even though later the pieces fall back into place, that mystery drives a great deal of the tension in the tale. At least the existential part of it. If Jake and Co were immediately plunked into extra-terrestrial hijinks there’d be no human drama, and Cowboys would swiftly mosey (if you can do that) into the overwhelming fast and stupid S/F I cautioned about before.

This whole setup surprised me, though. Well, I kinda knew what I was in for with a movie called Cowboys And Aliens. It starred James Bond and Indiana Jones. Jon Favreau—who helmed Iron Man, Zathura and the latest incarnation of The Jungle Book—knew a trick or ten about directing spectacles without processing them into rancid Velveeta. It was based on a graphic novel (heard that’s a safe gamble nowadays for movie fodder). Having human drama paired with only essential Western devices as launchpad into some space swashbuckling would usually lead into cinematic giblet gravy, and the reason I thought that (or at least took pause) was while I read the opening credits. I really do that by the way. I still don’t know what an ACE is.

The screenwriter/producers for Cowboys were the infamous glimmer twins of less-than-subtle S/F and fantasy flicks: Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. A true mixed blessing. I’ve mentioned in the past for my fondness of Fringe, that warped X-Files meets Twilight Zone hybrid that Mr Spock occasionally popped up in. That show was good, but their other efforts were often received with ambivalence. The Star Trek reboot (which Mr Spock also occasionally popped up in) which was more about pyrotechnics and winking nods to Trekkies than drama. The seventh installment in the Star Wars franchise, The Force Awakens resulted in more questions than answers and even more plot holes. Lots of pyro and winking also. The manic Now You See Me, which went under the lens here at RIORI and I needing an Ativan after its viewing. Their sh*t can be mad entertaining, but as for nuance and grace, their sledgehammer-subtle concoctions can make for a grueling experience on the imagination—info dump upon info dump—and a need to have great patience, pay attention and try to keep up lest you miss something whizzing by at breakneck speed, which you need a crate of Red Bull at the ready because Adderall can get pricey.

Yeah, so these two lovable dunderheads penned Cowboys’ script. I repeat, I took pause at that. Then I crossed my fingers, recalling the best eps of Fringe and just shrugged, deciding to go with this and see where it went. The first thing I noticed after our hero crawls out of the desert is what the movie didn’t have. Not outright anyway. Knowing my Kurtzman-Orci track record I guessed the nasties from the great beyond would descend upon Arizona and start vaporizing cacti by the score before the bloody credits were over. Then Mr Spock would pop in.

Quite the other thing. The opening is gradual, the pacing is steady, there’s room to breathe and time to figure out what is up. We find our bewildered Jake marooned. We see him get into scrapes that suggest his troubled past. We get him to Absolution—a town name as subtle as a fart at a funeral—where he comes to a crossroads and the pieces/mysteries start falling into place. All at the speed of mind. I thank Favreau for this. Like before, the guy has a talent for spectacle, but his directing allows breathing room. That comment about CGI enhancing rather than driving a S/F flick? There ya go.

Consider this the calm before the storm. Right, it being the type of movie it is, we’re gonna get some pyros eventually. What I dug about the action in Cowboys is that it’s almost exclusively Western-style. Barring the weird manacle that blasts lasers, Jake prefers his sidearm to do the talking. In actuality, its both in tandem, but the gunplay is straight out of the old West. That little bit is a good example of how Favreau’s lens works here. There’s a canny fusion of Western and S/F action playing through Cowboys.  The man with no name that everyone knows. The outlaw as the “chosen one” in a greater, world-bending scheme. The humans and the aliens feuding over the same property, and it isn’t plutonium. There’s a lot of stereotypes and tropes with both genres, but they get so bent and twisted Cowboys comes over as fresh and thrilling not eye-rolling and a burlap sack of yawns. As I am accused of saying way too damned often, it ain’t the notes, it’s how they’re played. By melding these two tried and true warhorses—so to speak—we got ourselves a pretty deft, if not unusual S/F caper. With whiskey.

And a crackerjack cast, too. Yeah, yeah. I’ve already dropped the alter-egos here, but separate the actors from their iconic roles and you’re in for a surprise: character acting! Neither Craig nor Ford are known for deviating from their signature styles. They’re not like, say, Paul Giamatti or Forrest Whittaker, whose roles and delivery roll with the tide. No. We know Craig as tough, smug and gruff. We know Ford as tough, funny and gruff. We know Wilde as willowy and rather wooden. Um, as far as Cowboys‘ principal players roll, two out of three ain’t bad.

Craig’s Jake is tough, sure. He’s a gunslinger, first line of the CV. He’s also vulnerable, with no memory of his past and reminded of something he’s supposed to remember strapped to his wrist. Walking contradiction, and also shouldering this feeling of malaise that he deserved whatever has happened to him. This later dissolves into having the holes plugged (it’s almost inevitable), but while we get there we have a protag that is scared, fragile and despite carrying a piece is unlike any prominent role Craig has had before. Okay, maybe Mr X in Layer Cake comes close, but really can you picture Bond riddled with angst? Not for an entire picture. Maybe that’s why Craig looks so gaunt here. Well, that and being stranded in the desert.

Ford was having some fun here as the despotic Col Dolarhyde. Playing the baddie, the heavy, chewing it up. Folks are accustomed to Harry playing rapscallions and rough-and-tumble heroes, often possessing an air of insecurity and/or reluctance. Han didn’t want to get mucked up in the Rebellion. Indy just wanted to go on a cool expedition, not mess with Nazis. President Marshall just wanted Gary Oldman to get off his plane (who wouldn’t?). Virtually all of Ford’s roles have been him reacting to something, not being pro-active. It’s worked. But getting the opportunity to play the bad guy? A vicious cattle baron whose name is quivering fear on all the locals’ lips? Boy howdy does Ford do a fun job, all growly and menacing and ruthless with his enemies. One wonders why Ford didn’t try this schtick before? You can only run away from so many snakes before becoming one. That almost made sense. Quick with a gun, with a threat and an ultimatum, very few actors could pull off this 180 Ford did in such a fun way.

Wilde is kind of creepy here. It suits her enigmatic character, but let’s call a spade a shovel: the girl is eye candy. She’s stiff, she’s not natural, she overreaches. Again, it mostly works here considering her role. It just isn’t particularly enjoyable. Sure, she’s purty, but that’s where all her presence lies. This can be traced all the way back to he salt mine years up against cantankerous Hugh Laurie in House. Come to think of it, didn’t her character only made it onto Greg’s team because of her looks? Foreshadowing? Regardless of whatever, wedged between Craig and Ford, Wilde gets lost in the shuffle.

Besides the action sequences of scary, ravaging aliens and hell bent for leather outlaws Cowboys had oodles of tech points that were not only winning but essential to movie’s mood. Like I said before, we’re dealing with Western tropes here, so if there are going to be stereotypes they better be good, attentive, substantial ones.

There are, breathe easy. What Western would be complete without a convincing setting (at least as far as what we expect to see in a Western)? Right. A backlot. Not here in Cowboys. The landscapes are sweeping and stunning demanding our attention, “Damn, we’re in God’s country.” Big sky and exposed, the whole county screams isolation with only mere handfuls of folks trying to live. Looks like a good place where no one will look for a good place. Great cinematography is all I’m sayin.’

Like most Westerns Cowboys‘ pace is rather slow. It can make it feel edgy. There’s always either been a big blow out in act one, scene one of a Western (e.g.: Silverado, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, etc) or some slow build to a super major blow out (e.g.: The Wild Bunch…’nuff said). Then we get a Western that creeps, builds, takes its time even in light of the urgency. Looks like Kurtzman and Orci took a few pages from the old playbook and put ’em to good work without rendering them in the summer blockbuster blender. Sometimes you can have an even hand and not show it right away without bumming out the audience. Oh, and the sh*t really picks up later so have that with a slice of cake.

There’s lots of nice touches through Cowboys (the surgeon scene is a good example) that make its world-building barely skirt the mindless S/F fun mark. This film isn’t mindless. It is chewing gum for your mind. You dig Western films? Good. You dig S/F films? Also good. You dig movies about alien invaders trying to wipe out the townsfolk of a remote mining village and the quickdraws band together in a Seven Samurai-esque union to take the freaks down? Very good. You want it all stupid or do you want it “stupid?” Keep working that gob in your jaw and all will be well in viewer land.

Cowboys plays with a clever, entertaining, stupid, serious fun. Its a weird movie, but of the best kind. Think Independence Day, but with horses. It’s such a wonky, if not schizo movie that you’ll swear you’re watching two separate films. But they fold over well with each other, and that’s nice. Two flicks for the price of one.

Oh, and it’s dumb, too. Sometimes you gotta put your Fellini away (cuz he never did S/F).


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Cowboys is so freakin’ rife with all the goodies and baddies of both genres you’d have to be some sorry son of a bitch stick in the mud to not turn on, tune in and get yer mind a-chewin.’ Yee-haw.


Stray Observations…

  • “English.”
  • An interesting note: Wilde looks as if she’s wearing minimal makeup. Attention to period detail, or for some…other reason. Hmm.
  • “Give me your hand!” No.
  • The knife scene. Shades of classic Ford. We do miss them.
  • “God don’t care what y’are, son. Only who you are.” Best Hallmark card never written.
  • Of course the hat floats.
  • Ayahuasca. It works every time.
  • Nice shot, Doc. Nice shot.
  • “You’d better hurry.”

Next Installment…

Bob Dylan claims “I’m Not There” in his biopic. To a certain degree he’s right.


RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 34: Nat Faxon & Jim Rash’s “The Way Way Back” (2013)


TheWayWayBack-PosterArtVOD


The Players…

Liam James, AnnaSophia Robb, Steve Carrell, Toni Collette and Sam Rockwell, with Rob Corrdry, Amanda Peet, Zoe Levin and Maya Rudolph.


The Story…

A terse summer vacation ensues when 14-year old Duncan is suffered by his ineffectual divorcee mother, her assh*le boyfriend, his petulant teenage daughter, their drunken neighbor, and their cadre of wasteful friends on a trip to the beaches of Long Island. The only thing that could make the trip bearable would be—oh, I dunno—a cute girl next door and a reckless water park employee. Trust me, it works every time.


The Rant…

At their most basal, summer family vacations mostly suck. Sure, you get away to the beach or the lake house for maybe a month, but that also includes having to deal with the members of your extended family that, a) you have seldom seen in years, who know less about you as an individual than you do, and; b) imply a need to act as if such interactions are as normal as breathing.

It gets all cramped. You all start assuming roles, a pecking order. That and most of the cast of characters feel compelled to acting out of character, which further muddies the social waters. You ask yourself why you weren’t just left alone between May and August with the Wii and plenty of Netflix streaming in your own den. Yet there is this prerogative. We’re getting out of the house, to points afar, and we’re gonna have FUN, dammit!

Nothing is less fun than mandatory fun, especially when you’re in your teens.

Here we go again on the way-back machine. Your friendly blogger mines his past to make relevant this installment’s existence…

When I was a kid, about a billion years ago, my grandparents had a monthly rental at a beach community—an incorporated summer village—on New York’s Fire Island. Quit snickering. It’s not all gays and syringes on the shore. Okay, it’s not just that.

The little ville of under 200 was called Saltaire, a little pun openly denied it being dubbed after some seaside town in the UK. Whatever. Fire Island itself is wedged between Coney Island and the Hamptons, and is a protected national seashore. The summer villages were established before Parks & Recreations clamped down in the 1960s. Fire Island is about 25 miles long and a mere quarter mile deep. A barrier island; a big dune bolstered by an aquifer and a lot of scattered cottages floating above, all waving a finger at petulant Momma Nature. The place really shouldn’t be there, it defying tides, climate change and hurricanes.

But there it was, and for me almost a decade of summers. Simple, squat beach coming homes settled against the Atlantic dunes. Some even might’ve had cable. These idylls, pieces of summer humanity bookended by seagull splattered protected dunes and unique species of both waterfowl and pine. To give you an idea about how removed Saltaire was from civilization, there were no cars. There were only boardwalks, quite literally made of boards. The only real motor vehicles around were a pair of beater, MacGyver’d pickup trucks that collected the garbage every Monday. Those and the occasional Rascal scooter. The rest of the time it was bicycles and flip-flops.

It was nice for a kid. I was especially lucky to get away for a month every summer from my boring inland existence to have access to not one, but two beaches to slop around in. To the south was the grey, unpredictable Atlantic, rife with seashells and angry waves that made bodyboarding a Knievel-like activity. To the north was the bay, clouded with jellyfish and puddled ferry exhaust but still some really good fishing. It was like a Caribbean red-headed stepchild, with more seaweed.

Hey. Here’s a fave tidbit of mine regarding the frontier nature of my summer ventures. Fire Island is less than 25 miles outside the City. It’s cradled by the Atlantic and Long Island’s Great South Bay. Winds there reign. A/C was not necessary in Saltaire. The two bodies of water acted like Freon, and with the prevailing winds, the entire island was buffeted all the time by a steady breeze. The temp on Fire Island was usually 15 degrees cooler than in the City, with next to no humidity most of the time.

Here’s another (hey, I’m only trying to establish rapport here): back in the day, cable TV was an expensive rarity out there, and the Internet was nary a wet dream. To get in touch with the outside world, you needed a solid, CRT TV with a pair of rabbit ears. Aerials. Back then, TV freqs still rode on airwaves, and you had to hook up your set with this doohickey to capture said waves to get broadcasts. Being so near the City, one could scoop up programming for free. Really. No cable fees. No HBO either, but hey, we all gotta make sacrifices. I used to get my Law & Order fix this way with virtual crystal clear reception aided by a few strands of aluminum foil. That and I also had the rowdy NYC rock and talk stations (which is where I first heard Howard Stern and the Greaseman) on the radio to comfort me.

This be frontier days.

A good portion of the time was spent away from the TV (and my blessed Nintendo), and being hunkered down with my folks, my sisters, my aunts, their kids, my mom’s parents and the occasional, extra member of my extended, unknown family that I only saw every third Xmas. The place my grandparents rented was pretty accommodating for all these bodies. I at least had a bedroom all to myself, which was often empty because, hey, two beaches. But every night it was sovereign that all 800 of us sat down and had dinner. First and foremost to eat, then to squeeze out whatever convo we could to extol the value made with our day.

This sucked. It was like your third stroll through the SATs. Sure, dinner chat was nice, but having to justify how meaningful your day was praise Jesus? Why? What for? Such a slog. And an embarrassing one at that. With these strangers? We all have to open up? Where’s my Nintendo? I’ve yet to beat Zelda on the Second Quest!

Here the respite of the beach became stifling, us having to make the elephant-in-the-room social mixing every dinner. Trying to maintain a faux-Norman Rockwell-esque image was quite the stressor. C’mon, let’s face facts. As much as you may love your family, being in close proximity with them for too extended a period can drive you all to a scene out of Lord of the Flies. My escape? A lot of the times, I scammed a meal at one of my friends’ places. Sometimes I even cooked. Really, anything to avoid the Gregory House routine. I just wanted to have my own summer, especially when I was a teenager. I needed to be far away from these strange adults what with their pretensions and an inability to socialize without wine and beer.

All right. Maybe back then I didn’t really think that way. Girls and scoring free beer were foremost on my puberty-ridden mind. What I did know that a vacation was supposed to be a getaway far away from what troubled you. Especially off the mainland…


Duncan (James) is on the summer vacation from hell. He finds himself wedged in the airless car with his timid, divorcee mother Pam (Collette), her boorish new boyfriend Trent (Carrell), and his stuck-up daughter Steph (Levin). Duncan and Trent do not get along at all, and now they’re both on their way to three months of antagonism. Duncan wanted to spent his summer with his dad out in California, but no go. Pam wants to establish a new family dynamic with Trent and Steph. Besides, Duncan is only 14, so what say does he have?

After barely a week at Trent’s Long Island summer shack, Duncan soon realizes that this trip is an outing for grown-ups only. He spends his days watching his mom, Trent and his buddies Kip (Corddry) and Joan (Peet) get drunk, high and adolescent along with their boozy neighbor Betty (Janney) who serves as the ringleader for this endless bacchanal. Duncan grinds his teeth and broods and knows if he doesn’t get out this place soon he’s gonna starting looking for a rifle and a clock tower.

At least Duncan finds an ally amidst all this sh*t. Betty’s leggy daughter Susanna (Robb) has been in his place before for many of these summers, and has been so ignored and jaded by these so-called vacations that she’s resigned herself to being a second-class citizen. In her droll manner Susanna puts it best, “It sucks here.”

Having had his fill, Duncan steals a bike and pedals into town for some action, anything else than feel alienated. He stumbles into the local pizza joint for a slice when a ruckus over at the Pac-Man machine catches his ears. Roguish Owen (Rockwell) is rocking the game and gets all philosophical over this arcade classic with the awkward Duncan. Owen recognizes Duncan as one of the hundreds of bored teens he’s seen on vacation here. Turns out, Owen is a manager at the local water park, and offers up Duncan the chance to swing by. Looks like this kid needs a little fun.

Finally, some adult who takes interest in Duncan’s lousy predicament! Duncan finishes up Owen’s game and later scoots over to Water Wizz to see what he’s all about. Turns out there is a side to the town that actually cares about what teens really want out of their summer: breakdancing…


I had a unique opportunity when watching The Way Way Back. I usually watch my movies alone, late at night when I won’t be interrupted. I get all curled up with my pen, clipboard and a few shots of Irish whiskey. Not the case this time.

My Dad had stopped by earlier. He crashed shortly after dinner and came to around midnight for a raid on the fridge. I had already bunkered down with the BD player and my drink, when he wandered into the den and asked what was up. I explained my blog activity. He saw Steve Carrell on the screen and made himself at home on the sofa. Until two in the morning, after the movie had concluded, I shared my first social viewing of the next subject here at RIORI. It reminded me of dinners at Saltaire, but not nearly as excruciating. There was some prodding, like this was a klatsch, but more often than not I kept my comments to myself. Most just went on the clipboard.

As grateful as I am for having my folks introduce me to the magical world of movies at a young, water-headed age, they are INSUFFERABLE to watch actual movies with. I always get an endless bombardment of questions. What’s going on? Who’s that guy? What just happened? What year is this? No, I mean it. Is it 1982 or 2026? What’s this lump on my thigh? Got any more whiskey? A piece of advice: if you really want to watch a movie, do it alone. Unless it’s porn. Then have a trio handy.

Here’s how Back managed to fit under the guidelines of The Standard. The movie was sort of well received, even though its feel had been done before. It wasn’t a flop, but there was a definite round peg/square hole thought process going into the marketing of Back, and its returns reflected that. The producers had a wonky idea in unleashing this little caper on a maybe-suspecting public that may have led to its early theatrical run demise. Back was dropped in the middle of the 2013 summer blockbuster season. A dinky little indie film about a disaffected teen—a tried-and-true but overdone movie device—had to go up against the likes of Pacific Rim, Despicable Me 2 and The Lone Ranger (okay, maybe not such a big threat there). What were the powers-that-be smoking to think that Juno Lite could compete against giant robots, train chases and…well, another Steve Carrell vehicle? This took some balls. Not a lot of brains, but a certain amount of cajones. Well, following your balls makes way for pulling a lot of boners.

Oh, shut up. That’s the best pun you’ve ever heard.

Anyway, a few scenes into The Way Way Back, I got a feeling of—to paraphrase Kurt Cobain—“this smells like Little Miss Sunshine.” I didn’t know until later that co-writer/directors Faxon and Rash wrote Sunshine’s screenplay. I figured that I enjoyed that pastiche well enough that I would enjoy Back, too. I’ll admit, not at first. I felt there was something lacking here, but I couldn’t be sure what. Admittedly, Back is slow to get started and find its footing. The humor takes a while to warm up, but when it eventually does, its momentum is gleeful and sunny without being too cloying.

Back is at heart a character study. It’s got a great ensemble cast, and the plot—approaching but not quite arriving at a derivative coming-of-age story—is well handled by these misfits. At times Back comes perilously close to self-parody; although the cast acts well enough, their roles are stereotypical (James’ awkward teen, Robb’s near-dream girl status, Collete’s willowy divorcee, etc). But there’s some meat on the bones, so I went along with second course.

Steve Carrell as Trent is a delight. He plays smarmy very well, and it’s nice change of pace for him to play against type. Carrell made his mark on The Daily Show playing a bumbling, nervous sort with a streak of naïveté sneaking in the background. With that job and later the movies roles he’s had, he’s carved out a niche as being cuddly. Not here. Trent is a blustery, prickly, condescending lout to everyone, and saves his best sh*t for Duncan. He delivers his cutting remarks with patronizing aplomb. My father’s comments about Trent—being an ardent Carrell fan—with increasing disbelief was repeating “What an assh*le!” punctuated with some giggles. Here Carrell plays a villain we love to hate, and that’s lots of fun.

Our two teen leads, James and Robb, play their ill at ease and snarky characters respectively with ease. I liked how their characters were so down with each other. There’s really no flirtation between them (well, not at first), just two shoved aside kids who befriend each other through their lonesomeness and shared unhappiness. Misery loves company and all that. It’s often how you make friends for the duration of a lousy family vacation in an unfamiliar place. And you can practically taste Duncan’s awkwardness on his little jaunt. F*ck, you can see it. Does James have a hunchback with that posture? And his flat affect throughout most of the film becomes such a badge of honor that when he actually cracks a smile, it’s almost jarring.

Robb has a subtle sass. Her aloofness and sarcasm teeters towards another teen stereotype: the unattainable girl next door. What’s nice here is that Faxon and Rash turn this concept on its ear. It is Susanna that seeks out Duncan, rather than the other way ‘round. Sensing his despair, Susanna figures she’s found a sympathetic ear to bend. Her mom and dad are recently divorced too, so there you have it. It’s the subtle touches here and there that makes Back work.

What’s not subtle at all in Back is Rockwell’s Owen, the slovenly, unhinged Water Wizz manager. I really liked him. A lot. His Owen was a f*cking riot, and Rockwell walked away with the movie. He had the best lines, and delivered them with such offhand, wicked humor that I was snickering then eventually laughing out loud. He reminded me of Bill Murray in Meatballs, alternating between d*ckhead and brotherly with equal effectiveness. Why isn’t he in more movies? He’s got “reliable character actor” written all over him.

What I got out of Back, if there was any real message to convey, was an examination of outsider status. Duncan and Susanna feel neglected and dissed. Trent crowbars his way into Pam’s already fragile state-of-mind, as well as Kip, Betty and Joan beating her over the head with wine, weed and all-night parties on the beach. Owen just loves being the rogue monkey, and flaunts being an oddball to any willing audience (or unwilling, as his long-suffering girlfriend Caitlyn, played gamely by Maya Rudolph). The entire cast is made up of fishes out of water, and we all at some point in or lives feel left of center. Pick your character from Back’s cast and play piggyback.

There are some films that challenge you, what with terse characters, labyrinthine plotting, dark humor and/or gut-wrenching dramatics. Back has none of that, and sometimes that works. Back is equal parts juvenile and dramatic, both with a light, offbeat touch (e.g.: the breakdancing scene). Yes, it’s offbeat, but manages to steer clear of the hackneyed term “quirky” that so plagues films like this one. I think “quirky” has replaced “original” as the go-to word to describe an indie film that defies a once undeniable uniqueness, at least by the pros. No, Back is not original, but it does have enough body to kept it afloat. I wouldn’t mind watching it again, so I got that going for me. Which is nice.

I know I’ve been pretty reserved and polite in this review. Back put me in a mellow mood that lasted until the next day. A first. And frankly I needed a break. After three crappy movies in a row, Back was a welcome respite. Not to worry though. I’m looking down the barrel of an action flick staring former Oscar shoo-in Jodie Foster. Next time I’ll return to being snarky and vicious. Promise.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Yeah, it takes a while to build up steam. But if you’re patient, it’ll ultimately be rewarding. Just keep holding…and holding. Still holding. Okay, you’re cleared for holding…


Stray Observations…

  • Did I mention that Back had some really good pacing? The movie ran a little over 90 minutes, and for this story, that was the Goldilocks zone.
  • “Not even food courts are safe.”
  • Pac-Man as philosophy? Candy Land as metaphor? I played a lot of video and board games at Saltaire. None of them spoke to me beyond “destroy your opponent.” Wait a minute…
  • “Enjoy therapy.”
  • The plate-clearing scene. Almost heartbreaking.
  • “The car’s just the right amount of sh*tty.”
  • A Fleetwood Mac reference?
  • It took me a while to divine the meaning of the movie’s title. On the road trip to Saltaire, we borrowed my grandparents’ huge Ford LTD wagon to transport all our sh*t. The trunk was so spacious, it even had a flip up seat like a Murphy bed, facing backwards. We commonly called this sitting in “the way, way back” of the car. The movie starts with Duncan balefully staring out from the way, way back, and (SPOILER) concludes that way too. A better metaphor than Candy Land, I think.

Next Installment…

Jodie Foster’s kid’s gone missing on her cross-country flight! This wasn’t in the Flightplan!