RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 1: Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” (2013)


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The Players:

Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Alice Braga and Sharlto Copley, with Diego Luna, William Fichtner and Wagner Moura.


The Plot:

In the mid 22nd Century, the wealthy elite has divorced themselves from an overpopulated, toxic Earth to live out an exclusive, eternal life of luxury on the space colony known as Elysium. Such an Eden is the envious life of those left behind, and for one Max DeCosta, getting there may be the only chance of saving his own degrading life.


The Rant:

For those who’ve kept paying attention, this is the first installment of the third (and hopefully final) iteration of RIORI. It’s for two reasons, one practical and one we’ll call sympathetic.

First (in short), the practical: I finally fine-tuned the blog to a setup of maximum efficiency and minimal fuss. In real life, I make my living as a cook. That being said, us cooks must work with an economy of motion. I’ve read other blogs out there. No doubt so have you. Some are very pretty, models of webtech, which we should all aspire to. They posess lots of splash-and-dash and eye grabbing visuals that might make your forget you visited a blog to read something above all else…and try to ignore that Disney bug in the corner.

Popular blogs—the ones that might garner sponsors—look quite professional (e.g..: users paid for the premium ticket. I’m broke, so I work with what I got). A great deal of them read like they had the NY Times as underwriters. Well written, user-friendly and just the right amount of eyewash to separate them from the dross. These precious few are the high watermark that us in steerage try to aspire. That and those of us who try to follow grammatical logic (haven’t figured out the “your/you’re/you are” trifecta yet? Go review you Funk’n Wagnalls, and we’ll chat never, okay?). I’d like to think that’s so, such streamlined blogs of untrammeled verbiage. Simplicity and economy.

It’s hard these days of immediate text overflow to differ between good online content when it happens or just a lot of shock-and-awe-with-your-unwanted-selfies-in-that-truck-stop-stall-with-the-crumpmled-tallboys-of-PBR-at-the-heels-of-your-widdershins-Candies. I still suck at it. I am trying to not contribute to it. And about those beer cans? Tsk-tsk.

I’ve always strove towards efficiency and economy. Tried to. I’m no Hemingway, but I think most writers owe him a debt of gratitude in showing how to tell a story with just enough words to convey both meaning and feeling. Following that example—at least when it comes to sheer effectiveness—I’m trying to keep RIORI slim and trim, easy to access and minimal on the sparkly. Trying to. The focus should be on the semi-regular posts—the words and stories—and not the ever-alluring bells and whistles. We can access enough accidental porn via spam, thank you very much.

On the flipside, as a caution, most other blogs I’ve frequented look like a six-year old high on glue let their older sibs smatter their tweets onto solid hypertext to make the galaxy know that their kitty is such a good, good kitty. Such a good kitty. That and there’s a lot of spelling misteaks. I’m not passing judgment; I’m just reporting on what I’ve seen. Just sayin’.

*draws squeegee across monitor, hitches up belt and feels fattened by the marrow than only prime blogging can bring. Checks lock on door*

Ahem…

Second (in long), the sympathetic: The intro page at RIORI shouts its intent, ribald as it is. I’ve made no apologies; I warned you after all, and yet week after week you come back for more abuse. Thanks, by the way. But like the germ for all good stories—at least, I’d like to think this a good story—an original idea never occurs in a vacuum.

In the summer of 2013 I was tasked to work in a glorified snack bar at the country club I chef at. I did it for two summers, which were two summers too many. For one, the kitchen’s heat was insufferable. If you stood still long enough, you could watch hydrogen atoms merge with oxygen atoms and their osmosis would collect on your eyebrows. Yeah, it was hot.

For two, the clientele were basically the Disney Channel audience on speed. Kids aging from afterbirth to frustrated tween demanded at full volume where the f*ck their chicken fingers were. These were the spawn of the alarmingly wealthy; kids always tapping away at their iPhone 6 in 2012. I was the go-to man for “You wanna super-size that?” What I wouldn’t have given for a hankie soaked in chloroform and a polo mallet.

For some perspective, I was once the sous chef at a white tablecloth restaurant complete with a fey sommelier and an ever-changing menu that reflected the months. Not seasons, months. My chef was into a seasonable/sustainable doctrine that hadn’t seen such fervor since the first draft of Mein Kampf. After years of keeping salsify fresh with a milk bath and cultivating mint and sorrel in the restaurant’s backyard, I had to (being a new dad and a newfound family to support) seek out a gig that paid better and eventually promised health bennies.

Enter the club, and the ensuing chicken fingers.

I arrived then at what I now know as the “cattle call.” Summer’s a big deal at clubs. Being an operation based mostly on a summer sport, it would go to follow that during those heavy, hot days, with numerous would-be golfers champing at the bit to play a few rounds, folks might get a slight peckish. The club had several satellite kitchens opened to fill the members’ hungry needs. In turn the place took any willing applicants they could, regardless of experience.

Read: I was a sucker. But a sucker with a wife and kid. You’ll suckle at anything then.

Two sentences: I needed the job and needed the benefits. I did not need to dunk fries for the children of effete wastrels absconded to the bar because their offspring was a secondhand notion. Not that I’m bitter. Hey, want my recipe for balsamic moules a la basquaise? Of course you don’t. Go to Red Lobster. They won’t have it either.

In spite of the heat and the thankless tasks of feeding, babysitting and allowing my knives getting rusty, I had a simple pleasure in working with some good guys. All of them summer folk and they possessed a resigned, genial, shrug-and-nod attitude to the place. Most of the time working with good people in a sh*tty work environment will make the day feel a lot less like work and more like a day just getting on.

Despite the craptastic, cramped conditions, insufferable heat and nary a sous vide well to temper, it was a well-paid gig. And thanks to the bennies, I’m assured I can always afford to be sick. It was what it was, and I’ve always hated that axiom. I still do, but after the club’s snack bar summers, I’ve learned to understand it. I only pray that you, dear reader, never have to understand it also.

One of the cool guys I suffered through summer with inadvertently planted the seed that would germinate into Rent It Or Relent It. Again, I assure you it’s a good story. Again I at least think it is. Most of the best stories are personal. You still reading? Okay:

Jordan was at least my junior by a decade. I’ll spare you the magnifying lens of nostalgia. The fact that he liked Vonnegut, Neutral Milk Hotel and the works of Terry Gilliam as I did says enough. Good taste, no matter what the age, is always welcome.

I know that Jordan occasionally visits this blog. For any digressions from the conversations we’d had, I’ll employ the Man Who Shot Liberty Valence escape clause: if the legend is better than the facts, print the legend. He’s an honest soul; I’m hoping he’ll forgive any embellishments. Then again, we worked late and were both doped-up with heat. Some things get cloudy.

Anyway, we worked the night shift. We were left alone to close up the place. This permitted some down time and interesting conversations would ensue. Work stories, travel stories, this and that. One night Jordan told me about a movie his friend had seen and he wanted to see also. It was Elysium, and was directed by the guy who brought us District 9. I hadn’t seen 9 yet but heard good things about it and its director, Neill Blomkamp. Jordan had seen that film and was jonesing to catch Elysium. I just kind of shrugged and nodded. I heard some flap about 9, also a lot of quacking about its class warfare theme. From what little I knew of the movie and people’s reaction to it, I was surprised to hear that most people didn’t get the apartheid allegory. Jordan wasn’t surprised at this. He was more along the things of, “You know how people are.” Me? I’ve all but given up.

After Jordan finally saw Elysium and reported back to me, he was kinda bummed. All the hype surrounding Blomkamp’s big-budget, name-actor sophomore effort was for naught. He was disappointed that the film was so, well, blah. It had no real twists and turns, very straight-forward. That and Jodie Foster had this inscrutable accent that was very distracting.

I told Jordan that, yeah, that’s happened to me too. A big deal movie turns out to be not such a big deal after all. This got me to wondering and I shared my thoughts with Jordan. There ought to be some website out there that warns us about seeing “blah” movies. Not movies that outright suck, but disappoint, fluster and lead the audience into a state of post-viewing, “…The f*ck?”

That’s when it hit me. Jordan and I had seen many movies that had this effect. Jillions of them were already floating in under-supervised RedBoxes around the planet, just waiting to be inflicted on unknowing movie watchers. The horror!

I had to do something.

So that’s it. Really. And here we are. Since August of 2013 RIORI has tracked down and picked apart dozens of “blah” movies, all to save you from possibly wasting precious time and money. You’re welcome, by the way. And if you haven’t appreciated my screeds here (yet you keep returning), blame Jordan. It was more or less his idea in the first place.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t as good a story as I had thought. Whatever.

Onto this week’s time waster, the Maguffin that got this ball of wax rolling…


Los Angeles has always been a sprawling city. It teems with millions of people from all over the country—nay—the world to set up shop and try to live out some existence that passes at most productively and at least manageable.

That’s the 21st Century we’re talking about. In the 22nd Century, all LA is meager existence. Meager, poverty-ridden, toxic and diseased. Not just LA, but the Earth as a whole. The world has become an open sewer. The destitute live hungry, diseased lives. And to make matters worse, the way out, the Promised Land mocks the rabble from orbit.

Earth’s ultra-beyond-belief rich established the space colony Elysium as a haven from the scourges that ravage the planet. Every day on Elysium is idyllic, serene and free of worry. Perfect. Magic technology allows Elysian citizens to live in a virtual paradise, free from aging and sickness, not to mention having to intermingle with those dirty savages on Earth below. Elyisum is basically a big “f*ck you” to the troglodytes planet-side. Yes indeed, the rich are different.

Max DeCosta (Damon) is an ex-con trying to live the straight and narrow in a shanty town of overpopulated, deteriorating LA. His days consist of work and his nights of sleep, thankful to have that amidst of all the sh*t he has to swallow. In the face of soulless police robots randomly attacking the poor populace to air pollution that could choke a walrus, Max considers himself one of the “lucky ones.”

Until an industrial accident takes that little bit away from him.

After suffering a lethal dose of radiation poisoning at the plant where he builds said robots, he’s facing at most five days to live. Now sick, Max knows of illegal “immigrants” hot-wiring shuttles to get to Elysium and access to their healing tech. Most of these “escape routes” are blown out of the sky, and those that do make it there are captured and are trucked right back down to sh*tty ol’ Earth again. If they’re lucky.

Facing a grim fate, Max hangs up his goody-two-shoes schtick, seeks out help to get to Elysium and fix himself before time runs out. He’s not sure what’ll kill him first: the radiation, the robots or the missiles. What Max is sure of is that he’s not going to kick off anytime soon, and flawless Elysium holds the solution…


There’s nothing quite like a sci-fi parable. When you think about it, almost all sci-fi stories are parables. Leave the dictionary alone; I got your back.

A parable is an allegorical story. Y’know, one with a message. It’s usually steeped in social commentary and a lot of “look out, you could be next” symbolism. Most sci-fi, which is usually designed for outright escapism, can be some pretty dark stuff. A lot of sci-fi books/films almost always have a shade of darkness to them. The 1984 adaptation’s a good example, so is THX-1138, Blade Runner, The Terminator, The Day the Earth Stood Still (not the one with Keanu, you simp), Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Silent Running, even Starship Troopers and the original Godzilla, before God. Sniff around and you’ll probably find more examples. The future’s not all bright and sunny most of the time in the not-too-distant.

After District 9, Neill Blomkamp established himself as an astute observer of class warfare via sci-fi allegory (despite the fact that a lot of moviegoers missed the point. In some way, I guess that’s good; apartheid was vile, and since now a generation doesn’t get it…well, let’s call that a semi-good thing with an added plus of disregarding certain U2 albums). Elysium isn’t all that different than 9. It’s more pointed, but has a more straightforward story than its kin. That’s sometimes welcome, especially if it’s executed with a keen sense of purpose. In the case of Elysium, that purpose is to entertain first and preach later. Sometimes parables don’t have to be serpentine in getting a message across. Sometimes directness paired with action film implementation is all you need to get by. It’s a lot more fun that way.

Elysium starts off with some very compelling visuals. The trading off between Earthscape and the space colony is very earnest in setting up boundaries via the issue of unlawful “border crossing”. Elysium itself looks like, well literally, Elysium. The curling space colony recalls Larry Niven’s Ringworld saga, doubtless an inspiration for Elysium. It looks like a perfect world, in reflection of the sh*tastic life on Earth. Those rouge shuttles remind me too much of the open-air caravans of migrant workers being trucked back and forth between the Cali border and home to Mexico. I guess Blomkamp did a good job. Future LA looks like it’s begun to revert back to its natural desert climate, all dust, dirt and desperation. This future looks just plain worn out, I like grimy sci-fi; please refer to your Blade Runner notations.

There’s some darkness here with a crude sense of humor—usually delivered by the symbolic robot paradigm—that gets rather chilling after a while. The humans on Earth are the horde, totally worthless and easily expendable (save for Max; he is our hero after all). The automatons act more human—at least regarding being fully functional and sinister like their masters—than that of their flesh-and-blood counterparts, especially when it comes to quelling the mob.

Elysium plays out a like the proto-Philip K Dick story. Dick’s muse was “what is reality?” If the world of Elysium reflects Dick’s hard-nosed sense of existential muckraking, it’s taking a backseat with the pointed commentary. The metaphors of Elysium are as obvious as an exploding cigar at a state funeral, but executed with the élan of the original Die Hard; Max is the utmost reluctant hero. He ain’t fighting to win, he’s fighting to quit puking. Through his trials, Damon’s Max acts with a serious “What the f*ck is happening?” vibe. Such disbelief reflects the audience’s expectations—Max is doomed, he gets wired up (meta-allegorical considering that robot-producing Armadyne caused his plight in the first place), tears through dusky LA nigh invulnerable, desperately searching for a way out with a lot of emotional obligation involved.

I think I might have just described all of John Wayne’s early vehicles. The Duke was always the strong, silent type, and Damon seems like he’s channeling a taste of that in his Max. However he doesn’t have a heart of gold by any means, only a sense of conscientiousness and more than a little need for retribution. He’s a unwilling hero with a purpose, albeit one who’s MO is highly personal. It a literal matter of life and death.

Max as everyman—at least him an example of the rot that plagues future LA—is in stark contrast to our villain, Foster’s Secretary Delacourt. She epitomizes everything that is wrong with Elysium society. I love villains whose motives are despicable but are executed under the belief that what they’re doing is for the good. That’s more or less how serial killers operate. Delacourt is a conniving, opportunist zealot disguised in a thousand dollar suit and a perfect coif. She’s power hungry without the frothing at the mouth and mustache twirling. Despite being the voice of reason and law in Elysium, she’s underhanded and self-righteous, couching her power plays in the name of “the greater good.” She’s a sci-fi version of one of those Fox News pundits who think they know which way to steer America while advancing their personal gain and ever inflating their—as Bill Hicks once put it—“fevered egos.” In the case of Elysian society’s betterment, Delacourt “knows what’s best,” enough to employ mercenaries to destroy the hijacked shuttles and hack into the brains of politicos that stands in the way of her private agendum. It’s okay though, she only has the “children’s’ interests” in mind. Mwa-ha-ha.

Both Max’s and Delacourt’s aims are clearly set, and the pacing reflects that; Max is not one to go off half-cocked, nor is Delacourt. Again, I lean back onto my bitchy muse of engaging cinema: pacing. Elysium has a leisurely pace, with no hurrying the story despite Max’s impending death. However it feels appropriate. Max is just chattel, like the rest of the scrubs downstairs. Why should his life be any different? But it is his life, and Max has the right to survival regardless of his predicament. Even with all the chase scenes and gunplay, Elysium’s pace is methodical. Scene by scene follows Max’s progression from average joe to techrat fighter to revolutionary (as well as reflecting Delacourt’s nefarious chess games) is very deliberate and engaging. It may play out to some as too straightforward and predictable, but it has a progression that is executed with precision and simplicity. Not all parables have to be so forthright to get their message across. Saying that, Elysium is very satisfying.

So after sweating it out in the infernal snack bar, a good way to kill time and keep my hand in the writing game emerged. Once during that humid summer I brought in manuscripts of some of my completed short stories and novel I had labored over for year. I let Jordan and the servers peruse them in a half hidden way to fluff my ego under the guise of healthy criticism. Jordan saw through that ruse as easily as most people eat food, breathe and go into spiraling credit card debt. You know the thing about fooling most people yadda yadda yadda.

Still, Jordan planted the germ and I guess I’m forever in his debt. That and he got me to see a sturdy little sci-fi action flick, which I enjoyed even if he felt gypped. No matter. What did eventually matter (after getting RIORI off the ground, off of FaceBook and onto a practical blog) was that I got out of that damned sweatbox snack bar with most of my sanity intact. I’m still a cook, and still endure the stressors that come with it—excluding my dubious choice of voluntarily watching dubious movies—but at least I don’t have to beg to have an audience pore over my diatribes and endless pontificating about what you fools should see and/or steer clear of like a hooker ninja with both ADHD and the siff.

The club kitchen still rolls on and I with its endless punches. I’m still in good financial standing if it comes to contracting said STD, and I try to flee from chicken fingers as long as I can.

But sometimes I miss the mint.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a solid, grounded sci-fi parable, with very little preaching. Nothing is out-of-sorts, the acting is solid and the pacing is precise. Such things appeal to me. Welcome to Volume Three!


Stray Observations…

  • Foster is struggling with her accent, whatever its supposed to be. Speaking of which, what the hell’s Kruger’s?
  • “Now it’s time for the real fun…”
  • Carlyle’s got a nice ride.
  • I need a gun like that. F*ckin’ Canada geese.
  • Nice football metaphor there, Spider.
  • Max tearing off that robot’s head was really satisfying.
  • Um, how can a car outrun an aircraft that can reach supersonic speeds in 15 seconds? Biodiesel, I tell ya. Biodiesel.
  • “What’s in it for the hippo?” An honest, tender, fleeting moment.
  • Palm trees. Nature’s icon of the idle rich, even off-world.
  • “It’s just a flesh wound, mate!”
  • Elysium: any place or state of perfect happiness; heaven. It could only happen in outer space.
  • “You wouldn’t believe what I’m looking at right now.”
  • I tried very hard to make this installment as well written as I could. I’ll admit I’m a hack, but most hacks try to do well. Consider this all a tribute to my fellow misfit Jordan, who just did what he did. We all need some friendly inspiration now and again (“Could I interest you in a little pot?”). Keep enjoying SD, Jordan, and don’t follow my errors.

Next Installment…

Oye ¿como va, Spanglish? De nada, you gringos.


 

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…