RIORI Vol 3, Installment 88: Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close” (2011)



The Players…

Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and Max Von Sydow, with Viola Davis, Jeffery Wright, Zoe Caldwell and John Goodman.


The Story…

A year after the 9/11 attacks claimed his father’s life, young, troubled Oskar finds a mysterious key squirreled away in his dad’s closet. There’s nothing remarkable about this key, save it’s meant for a lockbox, with the name “Black” written on the envelope it was in. But Oskar gets it into his fevered imagination that if he could locate the proper Black this key belongs to, perhaps, just perhaps he can earn a few lost minutes with his late dad.

So our young hero does what any logical, determined and mildly autistic kid would do: scour the five boroughs in search of Mister and/or Missus Black and return the key to its rightful owner.

Piece of cake.


The Rant…

I work with a guy who has Aspergers Syndrome. He’s a pest.

I think he prides himself on it (being pesky, not his condition). He’s loud, garrulous, eager to please, profane and loud. He can also turn on a dime into a petulant bitch if something goes awry with his very practiced routine. He speaks in loud head tones usually reserved for carnival barking, and goes on and on about the obvious. He also has it in his head that if one of us is not responding to he repartee (read: trying to ignore him) we cannot hear him and proceeds to carry on in his indoor voice. You don’t wanna hear his outdoor voice.

Did I mention he’s loud?

Just a mo’. For those who need some science dropped on ya, Aspergers is a low level kind of autism. The guy’s quite highly functional, and capable of a normal work conversation in a normal tone of voice. He’s not antisocial, and a far cry from Raymond Babbit and his Kmart boxers. No. However if his routine is messed up, he gets all grouchy and twitchy and even louder. The dish machine crapped out for the umpteenth time this year, much to his very vocal dismay, even after the old clunker was mended. The garbage disposal hasn’t worked right since.

That’s what he does. He’s a utility man. Washes the dishes, scrubs the pots, mops the floors and does the occasional tinkering. He takes his work very seriously. Almost too seriously. The degree of pride he has in his sanitation skills rivals the discipline a Marine has towards making a bed, snapped sheets and all. Beyond that he labors under the delusion that his expertise takes precedence over the cooks. There’s a degree of truth to this. I’ve often claimed that in a commercial kitchen the dishwashers have the most important job, even beyond the chef’s responsibilities. Think about it: can’t cook nothing without clean pans, right? Right, hence the guy’s overarching pride and free lip-flapping about it. The guy’s a pest.

It’s the nature of the Aspberger beast. The signature behavior of the condition is vigilance in maintaining a routine. That vital routine. If there’s an interruption, those who suffer from this condition can get thoroughly unhinged. It’s all about ritual, like most levels of autism. Recall in Rain Man how aggro Dustin Hoffman got when his TV schedule torn asunder. Aspergers is kinda along those curves, but not out of protection but more for a sense of stability. Until it isn’t.

Now I’m no expert (but I’ve seen them online), and regrettably like most folks what they know of autism is either through Rain Man or Jenny McCarthy, but me being an armchair sociologist I’ve got—and learned through experience thanks to my boisterous co-worker—what divides blown out autism from Aspergers is patterns. Either creating them to drown out the noisome world, a world beyond control and maybe comprehension or maintaining them in order to get through the day. The second isn’t too far removed from the rest of us “normal” people. We follow our own patterns every day. It’s called a routine. Maybe you have one. Maybe I need one. Does The Last Of Us 2 every weeknight at 7.30 (after Jeopardy!, natch) count? Thought not.

However, I think (think, mind you) there’s a third kind of pattern the Aspergers affected follow. Pattern seeking. Keeping an eye out for how maybe A may lead on to B and then on to C and so on. Further trying to make sense of their environment as a mission, where as we kinda bounce between situation to situation. When we drink too much coffee we bolt for the bathroom. We don’t wait until 11 AM, no matter how much our collective bladders scream in tongues.

That makes no sense, but finding a pattern, no matter how minor (or even non-existant) creates a sense of control, even if such control controls nothing. To seek a pattern that may or may not be there is a test of one’s mettle; to make sense of the senseless. Nothing is random. There’s a meaning to everything, if only in the Aspergers mind. This lets the day roll on by.

Take Oskar Schell, for example…


Since the 9/11 attacks, nothing makes sense to young Oskar (Horn). But it should. It better.

Oskar lost his dad Thomas (Hanks) when the Towers fell, and with that tragedy he lost his best friend.

He suffers from Aspergers Syndrome, a mild form of autism. His dad was tuned in to what made his nervous son tick: Oskar being ultra-curious about everything, Thomas devised all sorts of activities relating to the City’s geography, history, topography, etc. “Never stop searching,” was Dad’s mantra. And Oskar took it to heart.

Maybe too well.

A year after his father’s untimely death, with great trepidation Oskar snoops into dad’s closet, untouched by time. Inside he finds a curious blue vase, which slips through his shaky hand and shatters onto the floor. Inside Oskar finds something odd: a small envelope, and inside a small key. No clue was this unlocks. The only hint is the name “Black” on the envelope. The kid’s intrigued. Obviously this key was important to Dad. But why? And what for?

One of Dad’s missions impressed into Oskar’s impressionable, amateur urban explorer imagination was to find the “Sixth Borough,” whatever that meant. Maybe if Oskar can find the owner of the mystery key he might unlock the mystery of the Sixth Borough. If so it might mean some lost time earned back to be with Dad for at least 8 minutes or so.

So a year after the Worst Day, Oskar goes questing for a Best Day. Finally again.

Have key, will travel…


Two words: Oscar bait.

I’m not talking about the main character, either. You may know what I’m referring to. If not, here we go again you yobs. How long have you been visiting here? Really? How many hours? Ah. My bad. Now zip it.

There are movies made to make you think. There are movies to make you feel. There are movies about slobbery aliens hell-bent on global conquest but not before absorbing all the Ben & Jerry’s through their mucus membranes and eventually chomping off Aaron Eckhart’s bobble head (which might also make you think and feel something). We can only hope.

Now we know Hollywood is a business first and a creative outlet last. Marketing fits in there, too somewhere; Black Panther tee shirts made in Vietnam don’t come cheap. Wait, yes they do. Anyway Tinsel Town does its damdest to separate movie audiences from their cash on La La Land’s final product: entertainment. Thinking and feeling is all well and good so long a profit gets made. And that is the end to Hollywood’s means. They don’t expect, nay demand their goods win awards. That’s just icing on the cake, fringe benefit, lagniappe. Bruce Willis shooting things is what the public demands. And more popcorn. Lots more popcorn. And the ninth Harry Potter, God willing and crossed fingers, ya muggles.

Safe to say Hollywood doesn’t waste time and money on artsy-fartsy sh*t. Until it does.

The Blind Side. The Soloist. Crash. What do these flicks have in common? Well, they either got nominated for or won Best Picture. They were also painfully obvious, super transparent attempts to garner some statuettes come February. They starred surefire bankable casts, straight line plots dealing with heavy matters and helmed by name directors. Oh, and they were all pretty easy to digest. And dropped in December, wink wink. Desperate cries for attention from the Academy. Sometimes said cries were even heard. A Beautiful Mind anyone?

Not to say those films were bad. I saw the above and was entertained. I also felt hamstrung by lack of organic storytelling involved. I think that’s the key to any successful Oscar nom: don’t force sh*t. Don’t hammer me over the head with social commentary, try to rape my tear ducts over manufactured tragedy, rip me off, cast Jennifer Aniston, whatever. Don’t make me aware of connecting any dots.

Fluffy movies, those with organic narratives, likable unwrought characters and a lack of pretense can win Best Picture also, sometimes seemingly by accident. Forrest Gump, Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven. All got accolades without padding or pandering. Baiting.

Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close commits these crimes, and worst of a presented in a sort of “What’re ya talkin’ ’bout?” kinda shrug. We got Tom Hanks, we got Sandra Bullock, we got 9/11. What more could you need?

Cohesion, for one.

You get the feeling of how a lot of disparate elements were shoehorned into Loud‘s plot, which is pretty aimless to begin with. All through the first act I kept asking myself, “What is going on here?” Despite the story is a straight line (with a few crucial flashbacks), it keeps wandering. We get the whole key thing, right. I’d call the pacing slow. Well, that’s not quite right. Patient is a better word. You have to have some to get through to the second act.

Cobbled together how? Well, first of all our “lead” Hanks. The teaser. Also the Maguffin that sets things in order and not the key (by extension, Hanks is the key as far as Oskar is concerned). Hanks is a terrific, fun actor. Our generation’s Jimmy Stewart. The star of such classic Americana like Big, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13 and Saving Private Ryan. Wonderful films. With that CV alone no shocker he built up his acting chops to win a pair of Oscars. Good for him. Far cry from Bosom Buddies I tell ya.

So we’re fishing for Oscars. What’s Hanks up to? Wake him up. Dustbust the cheetos off his sweater. The guy who did Billy Elliott? I’m in. How much screen time? What? Um, okay. Gimme the cheetos.

Hanks spends about maybe 15 minutes in the movie, half of them in flashbacks. Audience suckered? Check. His is nothing but a glorified cameo. Admittedly, Hanks makes the most of those precious minutes. His Thomas plays as mature Big (albeit kinda flat), fully engaged in his son and always applying Oskar’s “condition” to his benefit. Wide-eyed wonder stunted by anxiety. Turn a negative into a positive. Thomas is the one guy in the galaxy that gets his son, and Oskar’s is keenly aware of this fact. Even though we have Hanks for precious little time, it’s time well worth having. Even if it’s only a tease.

The flip side (or should I say “blind” side. Heh) is our supporting actor, Bullock. Not a real big fan of hers.  Everything since Speed has been meh. Take it or leave it. She’s a solid actor, don’t get me wrong. Sort of journeyman, though. Here’s the check, play rom-com/action/drama/sci-fi/fantasy/snuff film/whatever. Sure, she has range. Too bad it’s all the same. She’s reliable, and a lot of times I feel underused. Like here in Loud she is painfully underused, if at all. She’s just wallpaper for the first two acts, and makes a poor grieving widow that. It’s tough to invest yourself in a leading character if said character isn’t there. I mean in the Gertrude Stein sense, doy. Bullock’s presence was the break glass in case of an audience’s waning attention span. Strike two.

Another gimmick to get the Academy’s attention: debut role of a child actor. It worked for Anna Paquin, Tatum O’Neal and the moppet that was Ricky Schroeder before he grew up and threw himself into populist doggerel. Horn holds his own well enough, but his Oskar is unlikeable. Insufferable would be a better word. Now I know I gave the lowdown on how Aspergers makes a person poised to be overly affable and cranky in the same breath. I never experienced “royal pain in the ass” from my co-worker. For most of Loud I couldn’t stop asking, “Will I ever be down with Oskar?” Nope, and my inability to engage with Oskar made his quest not engrossing but more along the lines of a Python-esque “Get on with it!” The reason behind why the above actors worked because their roles were not precocious or saccharine but endearing. Oskar is none of these things, just a pain. Strike three.

Oops. We’re losing crucial ground here in search of a statue. Our leads dash any sense of wonder that goes along with the (admittedly interesting but still hampered) plot line. Like I spoke about above, we’re seeking patterns in Loud. Trying to make sense out of the chaotic world. Horn’s Oskar may be a pain in the ass, but he’s at least an interesting pain in the ass. That only goes so far. As I said, the plot is a straight line and made kinetic/muddled by Oskar’s fractured view of the world. What the disturbed kid needs is a foil. Someone to aid him in his quest and help put things in perspective.

Help is on the way.

He shows up in the middle of the second act, and just in time. Max Von Sydow’s mute renter is just what the doctor ordered for Loud. Sydow was nominated for Best Supporting Actor here, and what I saw he was the only one who deserved mention. I never knew how great an actor the man was until I had to watch his face, that craggy, haunted face. He saves the movie from itself I felt. Here’s an honest soul who speaks volumes without speaking. His backstory is steeped in finding, maintaining patterns also. There’s the scene when Oskar meets the renter and fast learns of his curious condition (his troubles with communication reflects Oskar’s) via the notebook he scribbles in to “speak.” Oskar takes note of the hundreds upon hundreds of old notebooks climbing the walls in the renter’s tiny flat. Looks like Oskar’s not the only one who can’t let go of the past and is having trouble what path to follow towards the future.

Of such dysfunction bonds are borne. The renter manages to coax a bit of the kid in Oskar. There’s curiosity, intellect, anxiety and a quest for purpose. The stuff Thomas tried to imbue in his awkward son. Sydow gets this, and assisting Oskar in his quest might help the boy better understand the big, bad, chaotic world. If it weren’t for Sydow’s performance, Oskar would just be a snot and we’d have nothing to hang onto with Loud. Once the renter takes center stage the whole tenor of the film changes. One I enjoyed watching, if only for a limited time.

Speaking of limited time in the good acting department, Loud‘s casting director was very wise to cast Wright as REDACTED. I love Wright. I think he’s been great in every film I’ve seen him in, even the ones that were lame. The guy is very versatile. Although the scene he’s in is technically not the final scene, it was. It presented a sense of closure to Oskar’s mission, and if there is a message to Loud it’s that closure doesn’t exist. The whole cast is wandering, looking for logic that’s not there, nor ever will be. Wright’s hangdog and eventual glow speaks volumes for a bored audience. Considering that, maybe director Daldry was just trolling us all along. Well, minus the bait-and-switch with Hanks. Looking for hope leads nowhere, but that doesn’t mean we stop searching.

It’s been said that the point of a journey is not to arrive (yeah, yeah. Rush lyric. Shaddap). As we follow Oskar up and down the boroughs, looking for helpful patterns, Loud insists at a lot of messages beyond the futility of closure. What is this movie all about? Redemption? Learning how to stop grieving? Learning how to grieve? A maudlin celebration of NYC’s diversity? Oxymorons? Once I was lost, then yadda yadda yadda? Can’t say anything for sure here. All I knew for sure was that Loud was two hours and three minutes of my life I wanted back. Maybe that and Hanks.

You don’t have to be mildly autistic to connect the dots with Loud. Might help. Might also help if Hollywood quit trying to openly dupe us with the carrot and the stick.

Oh, and that ever elusive statue. Need one? Go check out the local cemetery.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Don’t get baited.


Stray Observations…

  • “There’s no such thing as trouble today.”
  • “Schell” is German for “ringing.” As in your ears.
  • Either Oskar better have Aspergers otherwise he’s just really f*cking annoying. Great acting? Toss up.
  • Released on the tenth anniversary, no less.
  • “We need to talk.” “About the mausoleum?”
  • Was that the Wendy’s girl?
  • “I just wanted the lock.”
  • That goddam tambourine.

Next Installment…

Good news! Justin Long and his friends got Accepted into the college of their choice!

Well, of their making would be more accurate.


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RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 27: Paul Haggis’ “Crash” (2004)


Crash


The Players (we got us some live ones here)

Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, William Finchter, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate, Michael Peña and Shaun Toub.


The Plot…

In post 9/11 Los Angeles, superficially separate from that national tragedy, tensions erupt when the lives of a Brentwood housewife, her district attorney husband, a Persian shopkeeper, two cops, a pair of carjackers and a Korean couple converge during a 36-hour period.


The Rant…

Now that Oscar time is upon us, I felt it proper to tackle a film that once won the Academy Award for Best Picture. ‘Tis the season.

When I was younger, no bigger that this, the Oscars were not to be missed. As a teen, I made it my quest to make sure that I saw all the movies nominated for Best Picture of the given year. Didn’t matter the actors, the directors, the plot or the hype, I saw ‘em all, if not in the theatre then eventually on video. I figured being a movie geek it was no less my patriotic duty to see these films, lest I be left out of some pop cultural loop. These movies were supposed to be the big deal, the crème de la crème, the sh*t that separated the wheat from the chaff. I also assumed seeing them made me more cultured than the dilettantes that wanted to be—bah—merely entertained.

I was a little snot then. No surprise. I’m a bigger snot now, but my motives have changed. Call it maturity.

I seldom pay any attention to the Academy Awards now. Unless it’s an Oscar-nominated film that just happens to hove into my radar, I could give two moldy sh*ts if it won anything. It’s most likely coincidence than anything. The last film I saw that won Best Picture was Argo in 2012, and I saw that one for the reasons I snuffled at when I was younger: I was invested its story, but definitely not in Affleck (though he did handily direct it, I’ll credit him that much). The only other Oscar nom I saw within recent memory was American Hustle, and that one for it being a David O Russell piece, as well as me being quite entertained by his Silver Linings Playbook (see Installment #7). Neither movie captured my interest by promise of accolades, red carpets, flashing cameras and a lot of self-patting of the backs. No. I simply wanted to check ‘em out, regardless of unbridled popular opinion, possible awards be damned.

It’s taken a few years, but I’ve figured out that the Oscars are a puerile, politically correct, dog and pony show of ego and hubris. That and most pictures nominated for anything are filler. I mean, you gotta fill up three to four interminable hours of honoring entertainment for entertainment’s sake with something besides the parade of who’s wearing what (and endless, pointless musical numbers). At the end of the day, the Oscars have less to do with movies and more—much more—to with Entertainment! Being entertained with the glitz and glamour, the who’s-who of celebs, the expensive clothes and exercises in narcissism. The movie aspect part are just the thumbtacks holding the poster to the marquee. In short, whatever gets a nomination doesn’t really matter. You only tune in for the show, not justification by both the public and Hollywood as to what passes for “art.”

The last Oscar presentation I actually tuned in to was to see if Argo got the coveted stamp of approval, seeing the story was so solid and deserved some more press. The first fourteen hours on the broadcast was an endless montage of shiny faces, dumb jokes, words of praise from Hollywood types congratulating each other as if they found the Lost Dutchman Mine, the aforementioned musical bits and a smattering of movie stuff now and again. The only thing I saw that was actually entertaining was seeing Jennifer Lawrence trip onto the stage. That was merely a bonus.

Here’s a bit of cinema trivia: Did you know that the bigwigs at the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences are not even required to watch the films that are chosen for Best Picture? It’s true. The so-called guidelines for a nom are dictated by a very simple edict: the movie had positive word of mouth (read: what the critics said) and decent enough box office takeaway. That’s it. If any of those old, doddering, white males happen to actually see a picture, well then bully for them. They were most likely checking in on their investments. The nomination process is akin to the beleaguered high school teacher tossing the midterm essays down the stairwell and whichever paper lands on the ground floor gets the A. At the end of the day, Oscars are dime-a-dozen based on a 12 dollar admission and what some paid film nerd said.

But there’s another, more sinister aspect of Oscar nominations that really has jacksh*t to do with actual movie merits. It has to do with keeping up appearances. Hollywood is all about image, after all. It’s also about making obscene amounts of money (and blowing it as well, either on many of the specimens covered here at RIORI or up collective LA noses. Bam!). In case you don’t recall the whole Mel Gibson/anti-Semitic very public douchebaggery from a while back, convey the wrong image and bye-bye career. And the most prickly of all things regarding image are the studio heads’ PR. They put on their Sunday best all of the time in order to coax cash from us. Heaven forbid they present a poor, socially irrelevant, insensitive and/or downright stupid face to the buying public. They have to hold something up to ward off bad press, and to even think of perhaps sometimes once in a while not backing a movie with a message…?

Well, here we go.

Here’s a Hollywood mentality that adheres to the Oscar tenet; it goes something like this: Last year, in 2013, 12 Years a Slave won best pic. This probably didn’t happen based on the struggling criteria I’ll lay out soon enough. It most likely happened because—hand to God—anyone on the Oscar committee wanted to snub a film that tackled an issue so serious as slavery. I mean, dismiss that and you could alienate a chunk of the movie-going consumers, and no producer worth their salt wants that. You dig?

Now.

I find it suspect that any film that has a message or a “cause” to rally around immediately trumps other films that struggle with concepts of “engaging plot” or “good acting.” I suppose this now sets me up via a knee-jerk reaction that I am a bigot and racist. Not anymore than the average person, but for f*ck’s sake and after all it’s just a damned movie, not a march on Selma. That being said, 12 Years was not a bad movie. Along the Academy’s so-called standards, it did extend a message that ultimately making white people look and feel guilty was good trade. For comparison, 2013’s nomintaed American Hustle didn’t make white people look guilty. Stupid maybe, but not guilty. One should not have to have one’s attention and conscience wrenched away from plot, acting and the overall execution of a particular movie in order for said film to be regarded as “good” and/or “noteworthy.” None of this socio-pop rhetoric escaped the notice of the Academy, or critics for that matter.

Here. I’ll go you one further:

Set the way-back machine to a quarter century ago, circa 1990. The best picture for that year was Dances with Wolves. Again, not a bad movie. But Kevin Costner’s acting was his usual wooden emoting, and he was nominated for Best Actor. Go fig. His direction won Best Of, quite the feat for a first time director (by the way, Hitchcock and Kubrick never won an Oscar. Just sayin’), and all that sweeping prairie did indeed do wonders for the lens. I’ll give Mary McDonnell’s portrayal of Stands-With-A-Fist worthy of the statuette, too. But the film hasn’t really aged well. These days it tastes self-indulgent and simultaneously comes across as pandering and somewhat demeaning to Native peoples, making aspects of such cultures seem dignified in its simplicity against the progress of greedy white people. I’m not saying that’s how it is. I know sh*t about the Sioux and would be first in line for a spanking. But anyway and overall, it was a decent movie. Just a decent movie. And just a movie, not revisionism nor retrograde propaganda, as some of the pundits made claim. Or merely perceived.

Another Best Picture nominee in 1990, however, was a fantastic movie.

Unlike Wolves, it had a unique story, great acting, superlative direction, and ended up being packed to the gunwales with critical praise. And it sure as sh*t has aged well, even endured. In fact, it hasn’t aged at all.

The movie was GoodFellas. It was Scorsese’s finest. It didn’t win. I figure the message of rooting for a strung out Ray Liotta would send a bad message.

And here’s a final story and a caution.

Years ago swimming clumsily about in an alcohol-soaked haze, I was at my local watering hole working my way through a Henry Rollins travelogue and several pints of lager. My on-again, off-again bar buddies brought up one of my favorite subjects: movies (duh). One of these guys wasn’t a close relation. In fact, the dude only ever engaged me in a friendly way over pop culture factoids. We got to talking about Martin Scorsese’s movies—Taxi Driver, Casino, etc.—when I said of myself that I had never seen GoodFellas. Here’s the caution: I absolutely despise it when people chew you out about never have seeing a noteworthy film (“You’ve never seen The Godfather?!? What are you, retarded?”). Putting you on the spot like that is not only mean, but unconditionally impolite. Not to proffer myself up, but when that kind of thing happens in conversation, my default response is more or less, “You should check it out. You’ll like it.” Simply embarrassing a guy will probably not only put him or her off to your so-called recommendation, but will also be demeaning as well. Don’t be that guy.

Well, following that guy’s directive or else, I added GoodFellas to my Netflix queue and waited for a lonely night (of which I had many) to crash and watch it. When I finally did, it was after a laborious pub-crawl, ending well after 2 AM. Maybe 3. I ended up along with the couch, cracked open a fresh bottle of Jameson’s and plunked GoodFellas into the player. Despite how drunk I was, I was absolutely glued to the screen. I polished off the whisky, collapsed into bed and remembered the entire movie the next day, with trembling opinions on my tongue I could not wait to share with the guy who made it my civic duty to watch this film. It’s one of my more pleasant memories from those dark days with the bottle.

Needless to say, Crash did not have the same effect as GoodFellas did (the being captivated part, not being intoxicated). The only reason I even got my hands on Crash was that it was a gift from my wife’s mother’s misguided mind. I say misguided because the woman would randomly pluck DVDs for sale off the rack at the local CVS just to have them, only later to pawn them off on, well, me. To put this into perspective, my eccentric—and that’s being polite—mother-in-law does not own a DVD player. Yeah, you figure it out.

Anyway, Mom’s “heartfelt” gift or no, I eventually watched Crash because: A) Hey, free movie, B) It won Best Picture despite my appreciation for Brokeback in tandem with bewilderment that that film didn’t win; and C) There was nothing else to do that night. In addition, my girl said something along the lines of “What the hell…”

This week’s installment, as you haven’t guessed already, is about a picture that, when the lots were drawn, won the vaunted Oscar for Best Picture of the year and didn’t really deserve to win. Not on merits alone, no, but based on the cagey way the Academy doles out the statues. It wasn’t a bad film, but is was a safe film. And here’s the curious part—based partly on my past determination to catch all the Oscar-nominated Best Pictures—I kind of fell into both the Brokeback and Crash viewings by accident. One by way of my fiancée, and the other via a gift from her demented mom who watches movies as frequently as the rest of us go ice fishing in July.

My girl had seen Brokeback Mountain, and insisted, nay, demanded that I watch it with her. Indeed I did. It was really good. I mean great, the stuff award-winning films should be made of. I say that it should’ve won Best Picture that year, being 2005. It didn’t, and most likely because the Academy codgers didn’t want to risk praising a film about gay cowboys, narrow as their view was. Instead, the award went to Crash, another one in the camp of 12 Years: a pretty good flick, and also far more anodyne than a love story between two shepherds.

Like I said, I fell into watching Crash instead of actively seeking it out. It wasn’t like my quest of my salad days. No. And I remember this time being quite sober. I watched Crash because, more or less, “What the hell…”


Los Angeles is a tangled city. Desert city. It’s not supposed to be there. Gets cold at night. Maybe the mad snarl of people who reside there are not supposed to be there either. A lot of lives cross a lot of lives in that desert city that should not exist. Populated with people that should not be there. Carrying out existences that are foreign, albeit very, very local. Despite of, or perhaps because of it, the social climate—thousands of people interact with one another in ways that might under other circumstances would be disparate—is also fractured.

It all ends with a car crash, and concludes another day-and-a-half whirlwind of human traffic in the City of Angels. Detective Graham Waters (Cheadle) staggers from the scene of the accident while his partner Ria (Esposito) decides to have it out the angry Asian lady who wedged her bumper into their door. Conveniently enough, the accident happens at crime scene of yet another anonymous dead black man. This time, however, Waters believes he knows this mystery body.

In fact, he’s sure of the identity.

Rewind two days ago…

In another, more well-lit part of town, Rick and Jean Cabot (Fraser and Bullock) are concluding a night out. Yet another function to better Rick’s face in the undying camera flashes that come with being the local DA. Also enjoying a night out, both of them dueling philosophy and the perils of being the only two black dudes in the whitest part of town, Anthony and Peter (Ludacris and Tate) amble down the boulevard towards their next job: Rick and Jean’s Lincoln.

Elsewhere…

Daniel (Peña), a locksmith in a beat-up part of the city has just tried to secure the backdoor to shopkeeper Farhad’s (Toub)—an Arab immigrant—meager convenience store. No go. It’s the door that’s damaged, not the lock. Daniel, all too used to frequenting operations in shady parts of town (places he’s worked to get out of), patiently informs Farhad it’s not the lock, but the door. He doesn’t take this well, and such his business’ safety a concern, what with all the Arab hate crimes that have popped up recently, wants nothing to do Daniel’s recommendation. So much so that Farhad has recently procured a gun to ensure his property’s safety. But not his sense of security, and it seems Daniel the former gangster whose trying to walk the straight-and-narrow may now be the brunt of his frustration.

Somewhere else…

Police officers Ryan and Hansen (Dillon and Philippe) get the call about the Cabot’s carjacking and are on the lookout for a couple of African-American men cruising about in the stolen SUV. Ryan, being ever shrewd, pulls over a vehicle that fits the description. But not the couple. Well-to-do and noted TV producer Cameron Thayer and his wife Christine (Howard and Newton) are not two black males. But they are black, and that’s good enough for Ryan, especially when he frisks Christine, much to her protest and Hansen’s reluctance to agree to the search. But after all, Ryan is just doing his civic duty. Right?

In another place…almost another world…

Los Angelinos are simply trying to make their days run into the next. Social interactions are fractured, isolated. Sound bites. Some of those sound bites are loud and grating. Most are quieter. Pretensions, assumptions, asides, slurs. Stereotypes. “The Man”, n*ggers, sp*cs, sl*nts, r*gheads. All alive and well across the square miles. More often than not their paths cross, and not in a convivial way. Or a gentle one. Sometimes the paths don’t intersect so much as collide.

LA is a tangled city. Maybe it’s been borne that way for a reason…


Crash is not a bad movie. It is actually quiet a good movie. It also has a singular glaring fault that is at odds with the engaging story arcs and solid performances.

Boy, is Crash hella preachy.

I’m not talking about preachy in dialogue, but in message, and that message is about as subtle as a fart at a funeral. Crash is bigotry incarnate, and in f*cking overdrive. I understand that writer/director Haggis was trying to drive home the “we’re all so different/we’re all the same” message—in passing, he stated he was more-or-less trying to bring back the “grit” to ensemble films about LA that often paint a sunny image of glamour to the city. There is a certain degree of forced grime to this movie—but ends up being pedantic. Crash is always on the nose. Here is racism under the glass. A “message” film is always perfect fodder for the wary Oscar committee. Yeah, it’s preachy and pedantic, but that makes it no less interesting. And it’s very well acted.

This is all about character drama. There really is no plot, just message. Crash is compromised of a series of intertwining vignettes. It’s odd how the movie manages a narrative structure based solely on the slow, disparate chapters that hold it together so well. There is some deliberate subtly here, and it mostly works. Character nuances, convincing dialogue, a lot of great facial expressions, all of this adds to the richness of the tapestry. Now if only that pesky message wasn’t so damned inescapable. We get it, we get it. So, what? Nobody in LA likes each other?

Crash is too pointed in its commentary. Pointed, but oddly digestible. I think it might be the snappy repartee. Overall I credit this almost exclusively to the acting. Like I said: no plot. The actors had better be damned engaging in order to hold an audience. And man, is this flick rife with characters.

I read somewhere that in writing, in order to create memorable, relatable characters (note I didn’t specify likeable characters), you had to make them big. Over the top types whose emotional motivations must be so extreme that making them stereotypes you don’t even recognize. Stuff like that. Crash is f*king littered with these stereotypes (the rookie cop, his bigoted superior, the affluent, insecure black guy, the introverted detective, the hotheaded Arab shopkeeper, etc.). And all the better for it, especially when you have a primo cast like this.

Don Cheadle (ostensibly the axis of the film), as I have said in past installments is a choice actor of mine. He’s always played subtle, reserved characters. I have never seen him portray a character that ever loses his composure, even when upset. Hell, even when duking it out with Tony Stark as War Machine in Iron Man 2, Cheadle was holding back. He’s finally used well here, the everyman an audience can find themselves in comfy shoes. He sees the world with a mind gritting its teeth however, and the tension is quite protean. He’s handed a lot of bullsh*t, and being forced to smell it in a town infamous for being sh*t-tastic, he bears it well and does a convincing job as our avatar of being smeared with hate and disgust around every corner.

Matt Dillon’s racist cop Ryan is awkwardly tender and conflicted. He does know compassion, but such is a weakness. What better moral fulcrum than a veteran LA cop? At least over the past 3 decades in a city not regarded fondly for its racial harmony. Again, the guy with power and prejudice is a tasty character to follow, because it’s so prevalent in the real world, and so juicy to hate. But Dillon acts more or less in his ways out of his character’s “duty” rather than outright hatred. Cops are usually heroes in these commercial films right? Let’s face it; playing against type is always engaging.

I think although I’m not sure that the “inner city philosopher king” bit was codified here. It’s almost a caricature. I’d like to think that is got hot with Ice-T, sprouted by way of the Last Poets. Here we got Luda’ and Tate. They’re the Abbott and Costello of angry black thugs. They’re the—pardon me—black comic relief. We gotta have these guys intertwining here to be a pressure valve to let the steam out. Without it, all this drama would be too overwhelming to take. It’s a Shakespearean thing, so don’t argue.

Peña is fast approaching one of my favorite character actors. His Daniel is the movie’s soft spot. Family man, hard-working, trying to atone for past transgressions. Like the comic relief, you need to have a soft, squishy role to lean on, and the scene with his daughter at bedtime, though tired, is touching. Dad’ll make everything better.

Lastly, I liked Howard’s portrayal of the successful black yuppie, unsure of his stature. Does it hinge on his status as a producer, or a good boy for playing the white man’s game, sacrificing his dignity in return? That’s a fair question I think, and Howard’s responses makes it no less easy to answer.

It’s all well-acted, if only in a Hemingway-esque sense (“Kill your darlings. Kill, kill your darlings”). What I mean is that Papa’s words, no matter how simple, cut. Crash has good facetime. Almost all the actors here work with a flat affect, save Terry Howard and Ryan Philippe (whose bright-eyed, naive rookie cop needed a good slappin’ now and then. Mostly now). It’s a blank slate. It’s gonna be you the audience to cringe and scowl and exasperate to fill in the blanks. Let’s face the stink: racial stereotypes are engaging because—like Avenue Q taught us—we’re all a little bit racist. If you say, vehemently, “Not me!” you’re a liar and you’re boring. Crash is nothing but your reflection, and it’s hard to take. It’s also very real, palpable and hard-hitting.

Yeah, Crash relies on shock value to create often false tension and drama. I say “false” because you can see a lot of the tensions between the characters coming from a light-year away. Kind of like that thing in horror movies when the main character investigates the strange noises in the basement defended by a lone candle. You want to bonk some of these folks over the heads for being too much “in the message.” And I guess that falls in line with the big bugaboo in Crash: that damned message.

Like I said with Dances with Wolves, a message film is a safe bet. I don’t think Haggis set out to lecture and bait us with cray-cray social commentary, nor do I believe he was creating a machine to suck up statuettes. Even the late, esteemed critic Roger Ebert bet the farm on Crash to be the headliner for that year’s Oscars. He probably made that bet based on a decent story, good acting and snappy dialogue, not on the whole “racism is bad” theme. We know racism is bad (I’ve often heard the same about cigarettes), but dealing with it creates delicious tension. It’s just such an overdone thing, and we’re getting hacked to bits with it here. With Brokeback Mountain as the favorite—which was, in fact, a more arty and obtuse film with an even more intense message to convey, albeit a helluva lot more subtle—Crash upsetting the public opinion applecart screams “safe.” A simple message, a high-end ensemble cast and executed with élan and sturdiness. This is a prime formula for a good movie. It’s also very easy to do, and also relying on a lot of shock-and-awe can easily bamboozle and guilt rich, white Hollywood into recognizing that a film can make them feel guilty about being rich and white. It almost screams white male guilt; “We’re not racist. Look how we honored this movie. Please don’t spend your money on a film by the rival studio.” It also makes Hollywood look hollow—which it is—to pat Crash on the back for being so bold as to address the race issue once and for all. Again. Now, whose buying?

Despite—or perhaps because of—all its stereotypes, archetypes, prototypes and typewritten scenes and characters (read: the message notwithstanding), Crash is quite a good morality play. It may be up in your grill and on the nose, but its solid acting can forgive most of the relentless hammering. It also keeps the meandering storyline in check bookended with the aforementioned racial undercurrents. Crash is well-assembled, well-acted and well executed overall. If it could only turn down the neon a bit here and there, it might’ve been a better contender for the award.

Preach on, brotherman, preach on.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It is a good movie, albeit a tad pandering. Did it really earn the award? No, not really. Thank the suits at Paramount or wherever. You’re probably better off with Heath and Jake bumping very uglies. But overall, yeah, it’s okay. But do maintain your guard. Crash is fast approaching Dances with Wolves territory. In fact, it just did. Whoosh…


Stray Observations (lots of good quotes here)

  • “In LA, nobody touches you…”
  • It seems that any “intertwining storyline” movie since Pulp Fiction—nay, since Rashomon—is an obvious shoo-in for a Best Picture nom. Books do it all the time, that’s why they’re books. I suppose most movie moguls don’t ever f*ckin’ read. That’s what a staff is for.
  • “You could be right.”
  • I used to go with a girl that looked a lot like Sandra Bullock, but with larger breasts. Unlike Jean Cabot, she turned out to be an unrepentant harridan (no hard feelings) thanks to the open coffer that is the Internet. I have no idea what that even means. I do drink while watching these things, y’know.
  • “…Like a gun.”
  • And, of course, it’s Christmastime.
  • “Do I look like I want to be on the Discovery Channel?”
  • The highway rescue scene is the core of this movie, in the face of all the preaching. Remember that thing about “actions speak louder than words?” Yep.
  • “I love hockey.”
  • Mark Isham’s soundtrack is great. I don’t think he gets enough props for his movie work.
  • “A harsh warning.
  • There are a lot of nice touches here (the wedding ring, the kids coming home from school, etc.) that highlight family. It’s almost a hidden message here, in the background of all the noise. Kinda like a good bass player.
  • “You embarrass me.”
  • Wait. Was that Counselor Troi?
  • “It’s a good cloak…”

Next Installment…

Look out! It’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World! Actually it’s more like Scott Pilgrim versus a girl. And a guy. And some twins. And…