RIORI Vol 3, Installment 95: Steven Norrington’s “The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen” (2003)



The Players…

Sean Connery, Shane West, Richard Roxburgh, Tony Curran, Peta Wilson, Stuart Townsend, Jason Flemyng and Naseeruddin Shah.


The Story…

Dateline: Europe, 1899. The United Kingdom in the now. The planet in the abstract. The world may be at war any day now. That is if the mysterious and dreaded terrorist known only as “Fantom” and his minions have their way.

It’s time to act. Under Her Majesty’s blessing, special agent “M” is marshaled into assembling a team, a league of heroes—and a few anti-heroes—of unique, exceptional and extraordinary  acumen to quash any notion of global conflict. To stop Fantom at any cost and bring him to justice.

But what to call this disparate, somewhat ragtag band of heroes? Hmm.


The Rant…

So when, when would he have gotten to this one? Rumor had it that is was such a juicy bite, right? Notoriously so.

A good question.

League was too easy, too obvious a target for one. Had to make my bones literally years back to decide what really was a mediocre movie and one that was just misunderstood. Consider that I started this whole mess back in 2013, when Marvel got their foothold in the movie biz, and then Disney (feeling threatened, as always) wanted in on the action. Then DC heroes got to the silver screen, and saving Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy the Distinguished Competition cinema with sketchy-at-best results. Still, with a relic like League already in the can going on 20 years we can at least tip a hat to the effort of we may have never seen Black Panther. Comic book movies are designed and demand to be seen in a big theater with THX, crystal clear pixelation and a wheelbarrow labored with popcorn. Lotsa popcorn. It takes a keen studio to get that kind of stand-and-deliver chutzpah. And even if League capsized back in ’03, give some props. Passive aggressive props, but acknowledgment for a job, well, done.

I was a multiplex guy back then. Lotta pressure. Back in the day I had at least 3 months to score the latest big deal flick at the local cinema. I recall in high school I got a “student discount” if I presented my high school card to the polite, tired girl at the box-office. Back in the early 90s you could get a big popcorn, small drink and precious few smirks from the bitter staff for around 5 bucks with that card. As long as you had that useless ID card outside the high school campus, cinematic wonders would abound. I was there every Friday with my low-life buddies.

Not just Fridays, mind you. Summertime soon arrived. Time to raid the theatre. Me and buds raped and pillaged that place for all its worth. Blockbusters? There. All the cinematic hullabaloo 90s Hollywood throw at us. The original Jurassic Park, Keanu becoming an action star in Speed. Running around with Forrest Gump. Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum thwarting aliens from vaporizing Earth in Independence Day. Feelin’ hakuna matata with Timon and Pumbaa (hey, they can’t all be grown-up movies). My buds and I? We liked ’em big. The movies, you dope (and yeah whatever). That list has some big titles, demanding the big screen, even Gump (recall the Vietnam chapter?). What cinephile doesn’t like splash and dash, cool fight scenes, crazy F/X and lame but well timed jokes. Hey, who doesn’t? And since only scant few comic book movies every graced the multiplex back then, we’d take what we could get for action heroes that five bucks could offer. Hell, back then a flick like League would have blown our minds and perhaps other body parts, too.

Erm, my best buds were all girls. Moving on.

Back to the future: I think it’s safe to say that League was year zero when the comic book action film met the conventional action movie audience. The review in Maxim hinted at that with sarcasm beyond my big yap can claim (and yes, I had a subscription. What do you read while on the john? Hemingway?). But yeah, yeah, yeah. I know what you’re thinking, regardless of that esteemed rag’s opinions. Rather: but blogger dude, what about the original Spider-Man movie? That dropped a year before League and Spidey was a blockbuster!

You’re right. It was. It was a great movie featuring everyone’s friendly, neighborhood arachnid hero. But that’s just it: everyone in Christendom knows who Spider-Man is. He’s Marvel’s biggest hero. Even if you never read his comics America en masse knows who Spider-Man is, so high-profile he be. Spidey’s story was a safe bet for Hollywood, and how right they were. They got big and nearly big name stars. They found the ideal director in quirk-tastic Sam Raimi. And the CGI was polished to a sheen (for 2002 anyway). In hindsight, the movie served as metaphor for the comic book movie dipping a toe in the sketchy waters of Tinsel Town’s grimy pool, and it paid off. It worked, so let’s open the floodgates. More comic movies, with more challenging stories! And more challenging characters even! Characters we can mold in our own image! Characters no one has never even heard of!

Slow down there.

It’s one thing to cull from the Spidey mythos to make an origin pic accessible to Middle America, and quite the other to tackle Alan Moore’s catalog. Herculean balls in fact. What was Fox thinking about besides its wallet?

Not much else. Ask Sean Hannity, if you dare.

And all did not go very well. At least that’s what the dailies said. And Rotten Tomatoes. And Agent 007 personally. Connery kinda retired after this, making League his swansong. Bummer. Was it that bad? I mean, James Bond never failed a mission (unless you include his girlfriend REDACTED at the end of Casino Royale), but this pastiche made Connery say, “I don’t think I’ll ever act again. I have so many wonderful memories, but those days are over.” That’s a direct quote. Sniff.

From what I gathered about Leaguebefore I sat down and watched it, that is—that down to brass tacks it was the first big cinematic turkey of the new century. The movie became saturated with notoriety as nothing but bombast and artifice, even for being an overt (very overt) popcorn flick. We ain’t talking’ Heaven’s Gate territory here. That infamous film took years to recoup its theatrical release losses against its rental and televised earnings. No. League only lost $12 million at box office to break even. That’s half the budget of most movies today.

WTF? What’s with all the crowing? League would never win Best Picture, even if that’s what Norrington’s aim was. That and the numbers do not reflect rental/streaming sales, so there. How come this flick became a high water mark in the early 00s as “don’t try this at home?” From my myopic view, a movie like League would’ve killed back in the nascent CGI days of 90s cinema. My pals and I caught the original Jurassic Park on opening night. Most of the fervor for me, my friends and doubtless the bodies queued up around the block were enticed by the promise of some new-fangled digital dinosaur action. If the adjacent theater was featuring an action movie where an art deco submarine was the set there would have two Sisyphusian (I just made that word up) lines, all with trembling tickets in there hands.

My point? I think I have one: You can’t be everything to everyone at the best time. So much being a busybody will only run you down, and as for moviegoers will disappoint. Taking risks is good, provided you a have a plan in place (and maybe a backup plan also). Creative license can be a good thing, provided you don’t take too many liberties. And a decent story works wonders against way too much digital F/X. I think League got stoned a la Shirley Jackson because the audience wanted more that the aforementioned splash and dash. To claim modern audiences are more sophisticated in their viewings is a canard. This would explain Adam Sandler’s success as a movie star.

No. The average movie joe likes shiny as much as the next crow, but when the vital basis for a good movie (eg: the script) gets mangled—especially an adaptation—it demands boo/hiss. Recall what I said about Moore redacting his credit from any movie project based on his books? Or Connery’s testament? Or even League‘s box office takeaway? Don’t try to con us, Hollyweird.

All around, ouch…


In a universe parallel to ours…

Literary heroes of our past are the real thing in this alternate present. And it will take some of these extraordinary explorers, fighters and scientists to unite and defeat a creeping evil bent on world war.

So what and why us?

On Her Majesty, Queen Victoria’s secret service, it falls to special agent “M” (Roxburgh) to round up the usual suspects and with crossed fingers mold a real team our of these disparate misfits and adherents to rid the planet of the nefarious and mysterious terrorist Fantom and his technically advanced army. So that’s what.

But why us? Because you are the best and brightest and most screwed up needed to protect our way of life, not just for Britain but for the entire planet.

People like you Allan Quatermain (Connery), rough and ready African hunter; agent Tom Sawyer (West), foreign agent from the Colonies; Nemo (Shah), captain of the high tech nuclear submarine, the Nautilus; Dr Henry Jekyll (Flemyng) and his monstrous alter ego Mt Hyde; the immortal Dorian Gray (Townshend); the stealthy Invisible Man (Curran), and Mina Harker (Wilson), bloodsucking vixen.

Does Fantom stand a chance of world domination against a league of such extraordinary heroes?

Perhaps, if they don’t kill each other first…


Back to our world…

Hey. You know how I like to skewer the actors as the first part of a review? In the immortal words of the late George HW Bush, “Not gonna do it.”

I have next to zero complaints with the acting in this movie. For real. No BS. The cast was great. Misused, but great! There was a chemistry, albeit a tad awkward. The cast really got into their roles, channeling the fictional, literary heroes as we might have read them. Chances are the cast did. They were a circus in the best possible way. I really loved West as Sawyer, devil-may-care and freewheeling like his novel analog, as well as Shah as Nemo, regal but not snooty and very sharp (and knows kung fu!).  It was also nice to see even at his advanced age Connery was still up an action role. But again, all misused. A shame.

Misused how? Journeyman director Norrington who had a rep for turning scraps into a viable story did not know what to do with a big budget. Kid in a candy store moment, hungry mouth dripping with gum disease. There’s champing at the bit, and there’s getting in over your head.

For those who don’t know, Norrington helmed the original Blade movie, and did a helluva job. He took a minor league Marvel character and made him a badass, vampire -slaying fool. Even the comics had to take notice as they retconned virtually everything attached their vampire hunter character of the 70s, including the hairstyle. Blade was a surprise hit. Not for the comic book appeal—as I far as I know, there was no such curiosity then in the slick 90s—but for the straightforward, simple, dynamic action flow aided by Wesley Snipes martial arts skills and dry wit. It was kinda the anti-Batman; Blade offing his victims not out of symbolic revenge, but from revenge plain and simple. A nice violent, bloody, kung fu drenched battle between kinda good and kinda evil. Custom made for the 90s crowd like I used to be a member of. It’s still one my go-to movies to watch when I don’t know what I want to watch. It never fails to disappoint.

So kudos for neophyte Norrington back in ’98. You delivered the goods and now the phone won’t quit buzzing, clogged with voicemails from Hollywood. Yer gonna be a hit, kid! Here’s a ludicrous budget. We got Alan Moore on board, as well as 007! We’re going to Africa.

*cue the Toto song. Weezer’s cover or the original, I don’t care*

Okay. Like with the casting I’m not gonna beat Norrington up. Blade was solid; he knew what to do and did it well. He was offered the keys to the kingdom and did his best. Referring back to his sophomore effort, as an early entry into the comic-as-movie device, his reminds me of an actual comic. Not a bad thing. These days if its not as realistic as possible, average comic movies fans quail and mope and return to their basements bedrooms in their parents’ homes.

For real, League has a pretty cool premise. Especially using the tried-and-true “alternate universe” template in S/F. Lotta clay to mold with. Alt-reality is fun, especially once you figure out its alt-reality. Figuring that out? That’s the fun part. The setup reads like that; takes you a few scenes (even beyond the 1899 fact) to get it, and then go along with the ride. It’s rather fun to watch the team form out, all these varied, disparate characters. Sure, been done before, but these goofs are so incongruent you have to ask yourself how can their mission succeed with all these mavericks? A promising start, right?

And also a portent: this was the first (and only) Alan Moore adaptation that credits him. After the dailies for League I can only guess why he pulled his name from the credits for his later cinematic projects. Dum dum dummm.

Anywho…

So this project was cursed. I could lay the fault at Norrington’s feet, but that wouldn’t be fair. Kid in a candy store, remember? What would you do with the legendary Connery et al with all those millions? Right. IHOP. Then filming, with this terribly amusing, eclectic cast that hit almost all the marks. Maybe all the storyboard targets spun too fast for Norrington, because his crew missed a crucial target: editing. Now allow me to crawl up mine own arse.

Hold on. Okay. Let’s put it this way: Any of you out there ever saw the first Star Trek movie? Better yet, the “Director’s Cut?” There was a possibly cool flick in dire need of an editor (perhaps an acting coach also but never mind). Even if you’re not a Trekkie like I am, there are quite a few parallel brain farts in directing that Norrington inadvertently followed after the esteemed Robert Wise took the helm of the big screen Enterprise. Indulge me, will you? Thanks.

It’s all about motion. Stories hinge on that. Pacing. Remember her, my precious cinema bitch? Some key writers in the American literary canon were and are adept at that. A few examples (of course personal)? Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, Charles Bukowski’s Ham On Rye, Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy and Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Say what needs to be said with economy and nothing further. Those books zoom past your eyeballs, and surprise you when you’ve finished. A lot of good movies work that way, too. League was not such a movie.

Back to the Star Trek: TMP analog. There’s an early scene where Scotty and Kirk are taking a shuttle to the refitted Enterprise. Its transporters are down, but that’s a semi-minor plot point. It was more of an excuse to declare lo and behold there’s the starship Enterprise on the big screen. Big as life! For about ten minutes. It took about ten minutes to complete this scene, with way too much time spent on the sexy ILM model giving fan service and Kirk and Scott arriving at the damned vessel. You can even see when the editors had to stretch it and for no reason. It got to yawn.

What was worse was this: on Star Trek: TOS the Enterprise was goin’ places. Due to the budget, jetting off to another crisis zone was implied with stock footage behind a cheap wall of stars that the Enterprise was on its way. Not unlike any other Trek TV/movie series. There are only two TOS episodes that required actual motion of the crew to move the plot along. Balance Of Terror, the best sci-fi submarine drama ever made, and The Ultimate Computer surrounding events of war games go awry. The rest of the other 78 eps? We be going places via your mind. Take the sugarcube. Let your imagination fill in the gaps using so much bread crumbs.

One more paragraph then we’re done. TMP was stagnant. Mostly because the new fangled Enterprise didn’t go anywhere. The warp drive was f*cked up until Spock fixed it, and when the Enterprise reached her quarry, they all got stuck again. Mired in the gullet of a biomech alien for the next two acts. The only time we got to see the new Enterprise zip off into the outer rims was within the last five minutes of the movie! And Kirk behaving like a dickhead for 2 and half hours! I am entitled to more popcorn, dammit.

Done. You get it. Now here’s me pulling the same punches with League:

The Nautilus crawling up the Venetian canals is a prime example. Long talks that serve no purpose is another. Too much exposition. Too much showing off the latest CGI chrome. Too many explosions paired against too much untrimmed fat. Too much tell, too little show. That is not how stories are told. It’s a crime. Show don’t tell like the Rush tune warned. You may have the coolest cast on hand, the best F/X money can buy, a very simple good vs evil plot on hand also. But to deliver a film—action sci-fi comic book whatsit or whatever—that wastes the audiences’ time? The aforementioned goes down the crapper. That’s what League got bogged down with. Too much down time. I understand being a comic geek that Moore’s work demands patience to digest everything. We have only two hours here; let’s point the grout with a lot of exposition…and slow…things…dooowwwnnn. Flipping such downside to the upside, though: it invites curiosity. Kinda like reading the fortune after you smashed and ate the cookie: what fun! Now what?

Act two. I think I now understand why League took such a drubbing at the box office: too much tell and not enough show. The lumbering and rather aimless plot only cradles action for action’s sake. Kinda like how the song-and-dance scenes in Mary Poppins Returns only bookend another rather aimless plot (but those scenes were awesome). Even if the most derivative and/or lame story has to follow a straight line. Even non linear stories (like Aronofsky’s The Fountain or Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction) have a thread to follow. Unless it’s an anthology film, plots should not wander. Break that rule and the audience’s attention will wander. Like I did with League. By act two I could not get what was going on. Blame lies in again too much exposition and wasted dialogue at that. I don’t care about our characters’ back story the third time around. Or describing things we can see on the screen. Or open monologue to explain what’s going on/what’s next. Where’s the mystery? Where’s the surprise? Where’s the tension and where is my Diet Coke? We need an editor.

*facepalm*

Okay. Now what?

This. The tech angle. The usual third act. All action films use backdrops as extras. Saharan dunes don’t need craft services. Nowadays CGI is paramount to creating a viable action film. Back in the Stone Age of ’03 we still had to go on location to set the pace. And by the way League’s sets are impressive. You could with your keen eye back then separate the pixels from the actual. The sets are nice, very nice. Grey’s library should’ve invited an Oscar nod. Too bad the intelligentsia with the bankroll doesn’t read.

Bitter? Nah.

Well, yeah, after taking in League. It helped to digest the mildly cartoony CGI by reminding myself League was cut in 2003. Cutting edge then, and held up pretty well. This was thanks mostly to Norrington’s tasteful hand at employing CGI F/X for emphasis, not run riot like the Star Wars prequels. Here’s a few examples I found very cool: the Invisible Man’s entry is stunning, heck, CGI or no and that literally painted on face was alien enough to drive the point home how warped he became. A gentle mad scientist and a warning to science. That was a gold star.

Dr Jekyll “hulking out” into Mr Hyde was kinda frightening. As it should be! I read the book. I saw John Malkovich get all twisted in Mary Reilly. The book was chilling. Malkovich’s performance was demented. Curran’s Hyde was…a monster, enhanced by tightly wound CGI metamorphosis. Curran behaving like a junkie, his serum calling to him, alluding to not knowing what might happen if he “Hydes out” again. That plot point I liked.

One more thing, though not related to F/X but relevant to our dramatic personae.

[Fair warning: the following contains fanboyism. You have been warned.]

The varied cast paints a picture, encapsulating the up-and-comers against an action film icon: 007 himself, Sean Connery. I love Connery. He’s probably my fave actor. Probably because he’s always be able to play tough but really is witty and a rapscallion. Towards his end of his turn as James Bond—he was getting bored of the role and didn’t want to get typecast—he decided to turn is his license to kill (what sane person would do that?) to look towards dramatic and comedic roles. Connery being protean only returned to an action role (007 no less) for Diamonds Are Forever because he and the studio disliked George Lazanby’s take as James Bond and he felt he had to mop up (the character and doubtless his bankroll).

Sean hung up proper Bond (Never Say Never Again doesn’t count. Even by Connery) in 1971 with Diamonds. Precious few action roles followed since, some good (The Untouchables, sadly his only Oscar), some notable (Outland), some weird (Zardoz), some silly (Entrapment), some decent (The Hunt For Red October), some culty (Highlander) and some poking fun at him (Indiana Jones And The Last Crudsade). That last nod is what brings us back to League. There were quite a few allusions—from Connery himself, not Quatermain—that he’s getting too old for this sh*t. I found that to be a passive but kind farewell to the spotlight, action or no. I’d like to think so. Connery came full circle and this was his last (live action) movie. He’s retired now, Sir Thomas. Good idea to bow out after this pastiche, but thanks for the ride. No shocker he was the tentpole for League.

Whew. Sorry.

So what have we learned? Well, I tend to ramble. That and a cool script executed with poor efficiency makes for a slog of an action film. Smart use of period CGI can make a difference. Alan Moore never lent his name to credits for movie adapts of his comics. Don’t ramble. League, though mildly entertaining as well as frustrating, was still oddly humorous, barely. It was mostly entertaining, though I had to change contacts after squinting down a cohesive plot. League was, overall, mostly interesting but wobbly on the entertaining angle. I guess in some way it was a vital literary history lesson.

That’s a cheap shot, I know. Recall my chosen myopia about 2003 CGI? I gave it a pass, and eventually acceptance. But the plot and actors? Spent. Blah. Damn. A shame. The Clash’s triple album Sandinista! reminds me of League. The album ran over 2 hrs, 30 mins. 28 songs. Only a fraction of them would be better spent on a tighter album. League might have scored better under the two hour mark. Less can always be more.

Ignoring old skool CGI.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A very mild rent it. Mentally trim the fat and there’s a fine actioner. Think too much about what you’re watching and hello aneurism. A few beers help. Like maybe nine. Go Cubs! (burp)


Stray Observations…

  • “Regale me.”
  • BTW, it’s Quatermain, not Quartermain. I’ve made the same mistake, too.
  • “Call me Ishmael, please.”
  • Impressive beard. Puts most Millennials to shame. Men included.
  • “If you don’t do it with one bullet, don’t do it at all.” Connery summing up the CV of every hitman.
  • Are Fantom’s goons proto-Nazis?
  • “I’m not much of a drinker.” Ha ha.
  • I don’t think the Venetian canals are that deep.
  • “He’s stolen us, and we let him.” That is a good line.
  • REDACTED as traitor? Did not see that coming. Really.
  • “We’ll be at this all day.” I wish.
  • Wasn’t that how Moriarty met his end in the last Sherlock story? Fall from a frozen cliff? Hmm.
  • “Then the game is on.”

Next Installment…

Topher Grace would love to ask Teresa Palmer, “Take Me Home Tonight.” But Anna Faris is standing next to him yakking so forget that.


 

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 4: Gus Van Zant’s “Finding Forrester” (2000)


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The Players…

Sean Connery, Rob Brown, F Murray Abraham and Anna Paquin, with Busta Rhymes, Michael Pitt and Michael Nouri.


The Story…

Reclusive, award-winning novelist William Forrester wants to have nothing to do with the outside world, at least as far as the other side of his apartment’s window. It’s only when literally a thief in the night loses his bag of writings in his flat that William considers reaching out. Turns out the burglar is named Jamal, and he has considerable writing talent. William decides to mentor the youngster, who harbors a passion not usually associated with the thug kids in the neighborhood. Sure, Jamal likes basketball well enough, but William fast discovers the kid’s real muse: he’s obsessed with words.


The Rant…

Let me tell you the first truth about writing. It’s f*cking hard. Don’t let any dilettante tell you that it’s easy breezy lemon squeezy. Just let your emotions flooow, like a smooth river of caramel dotted with the sweet, sweet morsels of words and words and words. Ah, you can practically hear birds chirping.

A big firm no. Trying to drum up, coax and often cleave words onto a page takes one part crazy, one part driven and one very big part passion. To hole yourself up for hours—days—manipulating those words and create a cohesive narrative takes time, time, practice, effort, coffee, time, barbiturates and time. The life of a writer is not easy, and f*cking all writers say that. Those that like to go rafting down the Cadbury Creek say nay-nay and it’s all about what you feel and stuff. This is the romantic twaddle that gets foisted onto authors by the readers, wishing they could do what they won’t. Which all leads back to cleaving bullsh*t.

But when it’s cut well, like a surgeon with a hawkeye, then all that bourbony sweat and coffee breath and a lion tamer-like will to get the words onto the paper, then yeah, it feels that breezy…to the reader. The hardest part about performing an art is to make it look effortless. That’s why it’s called art. Craft is a better term actually regarding writing. Craft is the job. The story is the art, the throughput. And in writing, a flowing story is tirelessly hewn from that rugged block of the English language.

So how does such a chore of a craft make for a decent movie? Well, to start to answer that we first gotta read between the lines…


Jamal Wallace (Brown) is your average, likable kid. Middling high school student, down with basketball and bumming with his crew. It’s kind of a façade though. Jamal is privately bookish and always scribbling in his journals, hauling them around with him in his omnipresent backpack. He harbors a desire to be a writer, and all those journals serve to get out all those words that so plague his adolescent mind about life, love and leaving.

There are all sorts of pockets of humanity hidden away in the tenements in Jamal’s Bronx neighborhood. The local haunts for all the kids, the basketball court, the high school and the creepy apartment with the even creepier recluse who spies on everybody with binocs via a curiously clear window.

One night, Jamal’s crew puts him up to a dare: sneak into “The Window’s” flat and steal some goodie to prove he was there. Of course this does not go well. Jamal is chased out of the apartment leaving his backpack—and all his journals—behind. When he eventually does retrieve his pack (or rather  unceremoniously dropped on him) and his treasured journals, he finds “The Window” has given them the red pen treatment, scrawling literary criticism across the crinkled pages.

After timidly trying to apologize for his trespassing, Jamal discovers “The Window” is a rather unpleasant, very reclusive crank who goes by the name of William Forrester (Connery). The guy’s got some hefty opinions on writing in general and Jamal’s writings in specific. After taking in the criticism and with some coaxing, Jamal asks Forrester for some tips and tricks. And boy, does he have some.

Turns out that Forrester is a writer of some repute, who successfully wrote his Great American decades ago and has been pulling a Thomas Pynchon ever since. He never goes out, whiles the days away bird watching, spying on the neighborhood and writing missives that no one will ever read all the while curled up with his handy rocks glass of scotch. Unsurprisingly, he has no real friends to speak of outside of his personal library. Jamal’s conciliatory visit comes as more an incursion to the cloistered writer.

Maybe a little guidance should be in order. A little help from Forrester might give Jamal the boost he needs in his budding writing career. And a little boost from Jamal might give crotchety Forrester a little attitude adjustment. Maybe he’ll even get out of the house more. Here’s hoping…


Oooooo, the critics hated this movie.

It was lacerated for being too derivative of Van Zant’s previous Oscar-winning film Good Will Hunting (maybe you’ve heard of it). True, Forrester was released barely three years after Will and their plotlines are very similar. Forrester has often touted at Van Zant’s other feel good mentor picture, which sounds kind of disparaging. It is, seeing how both films follow the same pattern; no awards for originality here. This mentor/protégé dynamic has been used before. It’s also sort of timeless and sometimes tiresome, too. So sure, the movie is derivative.

But it’s good derivative.

Unlike Will, Foresster has two things going for it: a lot less melodrama and no Ben Affleck. Also, it’s got Sean Connery! I love Sean Connery. He’s my favorite actor. You can always count on him to deliver the goods. Sure, a lot of his films have sucked big donkey d*ck, but he’s always good—solid, engaging and humorous. What else could you ask for from an actor? And he was James Bond, after all. Street cred. His performance as Forrester here was nothing short of a miracle. Here’s a guy asked to portray what has to be the utmost perfect stereotype of the wise reclusive writer, from being surrounded by books, wearing the robe all day and nursing a nice little drinking problem. And yet it works, because Connery makes the role his own. He plays irascible well as he does thoughtful. His character follows the basic tenet that all writers strive to follow: he shows, not tells. He delivers his lines with wit and sincerity that you could swear it was his own words, not a script. When you think about it, with his 50-plus acting career, Connery really has nothing left to prove. He can and has chosen roles that simply please him. If indeed he had anything left to prove, he could’ve hung up his hat with You Only Live Twice (my fave 007 movie. It’s got karate!). At this point in his vaunted career, Connery’s chosen roles are being Connery. He’s an icon, and he’s aware of it. Just hand him the script and he’ll take the movie from there.

My fawning explains why the Forrester stereotype worked here. You would be correct in claiming that Connery’s titular role is a cipher. To my immediate memory, I can’t recall any movie about writers that didn’t showcase the “the brilliant author” as anything else but quirky, private, antisocial, phobic and (perhaps) harboring an addiction (e.g.: Wonder Boys, Adaptation, Shakespeare In Love, American Splendor, The Shining, Sunset Boulevard and on and on). Connery apparently does, and does it quite well. So how now, Brown Cow? Why doesn’t his Forrester come off as a total caricature?

In a word, earnestness. Sean believes in the man that is Forrester, but not so seriously to make him a man made from stone. Connery injects just enough snark here—almost as a wink to the audience—to make him grounded, relatable. Sure, some could even regard Forrester as a hipster (and I f*cking hate hipsters), but Connery is too sharp to play that card so close to his chest. Remember what I said about him choosing his own roles? He knows what’s going on, his career being so long. In sum, Sean’s self-consciously hamming it up. He understands the stereotype. He understands himself and his acting style. He understands what audiences expect of him. He understands not to give a f*ck and just have some fun. Sean ain’t gonna win no awards here in Forrester, and he don’t give a sh*t anyway. We’re all here to have fun, Ms. Moneypenny (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Now here’s the part where I’m gonna employ my best impression of Roger Ebert crawling up his own ass. Ready?

At the other end of the table, Rob Brown’s performance is noteworthy in that this was his first movie, and had next to no training for the role, the polar opposite of our leading man and the perfect foil. Story goes that Brown tried out for the part just to earn some cash to pay a cell phone bill. It paid off, if you’ll pardon the pun. So by way of overages, we got ourselves a pretty decent young actor. Brown’s Jamal is totally relatable without ever being stereotypical or boring. Sure, Jamal could be any black teen hailing from a crappy neighborhood in the Bronx. Therein lies the key. Even if Brown had no formal training, he picked up pretty quick the paradoxical way of Jamal’s personality. On the outside, yeah, Jamal is average in every sense. Another black kid from the inner city who plays basketball like countless black kids from the inner city who play basketball. Big deal. It’s Jamal’s mannerisms that carefully give away where his real comfort zone lies, but because of his surroundings, it’s not really attainable. Since we understand at the outset that Jamal is a closet bookworm and quite smart, it’s easy to see why he kind of keeps his intellect in check—keeps it under wraps is more like it. His hiding comes across sort of like a social survival skill. Where Jamal lives, being wise is not wise. It’s not appreciated, let alone wanted. It’s only in fits and starts—where a situation moves him—that he expresses himself naturally. Jamal is keenly aware of this outsider status, and goes to certain lengths to hide it. Watching Brown’s expressive facials are paramount to understanding the character as opposed to dialogue and body language. You can’t teach this; it’s a natural gift, and it takes years for a seasoned actor to hone this skill. Some nobody that spent his bucket of minutes trumped dozens of child actors catching 10 percent.

The only times when Jamal’s hidden personality fuses with reality is around Forrester. Not at first, of course. Since this movie is a character study/buddy movie, we need to have that “getting to know you” tension established in order to find the eventual mutual camaraderie and (sometimes sappy, even here) friendship that the audience craves for movies like Forrester. To claim that Forrester brings Jamal out of his shell is a bit of a truism. Such a dynamic is expected here; it’s what the movie’s all about, not writing. Writing is the shared passion of our two leads, and like with most friendships first we establish a common ground, then we explore it further (farther, sorry). Once this is set down, the inevitable happens. Here in Forrester, thanks to our tenderfoot/veteran balance of actors, an otherwise derivative plot is elevated to a really fun character study. Slowly under Forrester’s acerbic tutelage Jamal comes out of the proverbial shell, both with his writing and understanding that it’s okay to be brilliant in fits and starts. After all, Forrester is “brilliant,” but also antisocial and harboring a not so subtle drinking habit. I guess Van Sant’s trying to drive the point home that all creative types have their vices, whether it being scotch, basketball or an inability to express oneself in a emotionally productive manner. In the cloister of “The Window’s” labyrinthine apartment of books, typewriters and multiple TVs, I also guess that Jamal understands it’s okay to explore that stifled part of his personality, and maybe it might be his key to his way out of…something.

*readers stir from their snoring and drooling*

Welcome back. Your fly’s open.

Back to the technical stuff. Regarding the character that is Brown’s Jamal: that’s this trouble with the label “relatable”; it’s a tag that often means cookie-cutter. C’mon, that whole “relatable” tag has been so bandied about so much regarding leading men that it has ceased to maintain relevance. I already went on and on and on about Brown’s excellent delivery, and what made it excellently relatable was Jamal’s insecurities and uncertainty. It was naked, but only if you had a keen eye. Forrester’s schtick was as subtle as neon. With his expressive eyes, honest curiosity and truly down-to-earth demeanor, Brown is a delight. In short, good job kid. You won me over, and this coming from an ardent Connery fan.

Okay, now any story about stories needs a foil, a dastardly villain. We need an Iago here, a Moriarty, a Milton-esque Satan. F Murray Abraham’s Dr Crawford fits the bill here. Abraham is an accomplished, Oscar-winning actor. His Professor Crawford villain here is ham-fisted, greasy and utterly laughable. He’s fun to dislike. Small wonder here that the guy probably relished the role. Crawford is all moustache-twirling and effete and offers a performance so eye-rolling it provide a great deal of unintentional humor. I think we’ve all probably had a teacher along the way like him. All of such credentials lend Abraham into the Velveeta wing of Hollywood’s best worst overactors. Like I implied, I think the guy knew what he was getting into as Forrester’s Salieri (had to mention it at least once. Now shaddap), so I’d also like to think the guy’s attitude to approaching the project was more or less, “What the hell?” So he got all campy and Snidely Whiplash and we were all there to lap it up like fresh cream. Cheesy? Sure. But no less fun.

There are a lot of other little perks to this movie. Devil in the details and all. Jamal’s hidden library. The “ghost” story. Delivering groceries. Jeopardy! Busta as the voice of reason. Crawford’s stupid tea ritual. Paquin’s perky boobs. And something else quite noteworthy? The soundtrack. Painted with the tunes of Miles Davis with the guitar stylings of Bill Frisell, my favorite jazz guitarist (don’t have one? Get one), the music plays layers of jaunty groove and accents all over the urban landscape. It plays as an actor in its own right. And it only gets played when Brown is on screen, usually alone. Representative of our conflicted hero’s mind? You decide.

You got to have a really hard heart to dislike this movie. I for the life of me failed to see any overt issues with Forrester‘s storytelling. The words from the critics seemed like a lot of nitpicking to me. I will admit, Forrester does get treacly at times, but’s often redeemed by our two leads’ hard-won, mutual respect and snappy dialogue. I mean, it’s just a buddy flick, pure and simple, with no pretenses to win any awards. Lighten up. Connery and Brown have a really good chemistry, totally believable. The script is simple, streamlined and deft, and if missing lofty goals about the human condition in the abstract ruins a character study, I say with Forrester let it be ruined. The direction is economical with a minimum of pandering. Forrester might get a bit touchy-feely and maudlin at times, but it’s got Sean Connery. ‘Nuff said.

I’ll be honest, if you don’t like this film you’re a cynical dickhead. And I’m a cynical dickhead.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Call me biased but I’m a sucker for both buddy movies and films about writing. Moreover, it’s one of my guilty pleasure favorite films. Sorry for the hoodwink, but not really.


Stray Observations…

  • Forrester’s apartment looks a lot like my old place during my post-grad days. I didn’t want many visitors either.
  • “Not exactly a soup question.”
  • Punch the keys for God’s sake!” Not as easy with a PC. Or with a typewriter either, those first few pages.
  • There is the scene where Forrester slides a book back into its proper place on the shelf. When I showed my girlfriend the movie, she exclaimed, “That is so you!” We broke up.
  • What the hell is that fiddle at the party? I want one.
  • “You’re the man now, dawg!”

Next Installment…

We’re gonna be rollin’ in Cloverfield, as found footage films go super-sized.