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

The Players…

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

The Story…

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

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

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

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

The Rant…

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

So. Where would black comedy be without Tarantino today?

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

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

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

*blogger scrubs bile from feet, wipes mouth*

Koff. Sorry there. Been a while.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(There’s a “but” coming.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*rifles through the Good Book*

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

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

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

Kinda like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(You see where this is going, right?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean here:

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

So where’s the issue?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Verdict…

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

Stray Observations…

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

Next Installment…

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



RIORI Vol 3, Installment 53: Louis Leterrier’s “Now You See Me” (2013)

Now You See Me

The Players…

Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco, with Mélanie Laurent, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine.

The Story…

Taking a cue from Robin Hood, master magician J Daniel Atlas and his troupe of illusionists specialize in robbing from the rich—eg: banks to big to fail—and giving to the poor—erm, their audiences. And all the while trying to outwit the FBI agents determined to bring them down and all their hocus pocus.

The Rant…

“The world wants to be deceived.”

PT Barnum said that. To a large extent Hollywood took his notion and ran with it. Occasionally too far.

Saving my trademark salivating and snarling for…well, later, let’s take a practical look into the Hollywood entertainment complex and its machinations. Hollywood is based on deception. For real. En toto. They create stories that are (mostly) fabrications and flights of fancy. Actors are really nothing more than well-trained, well-paid liars. All that CGI sh*t you cream in your jeans over in The Force Awakens? Not there, Luke. Never was. Use the Force somewhere else. Oh yeah, that trick ain’t real neither. Sorry to pop your balloon.

Movies are nothing but two things: entertainment and deception. One might preclude the other, then again…well, later. And boy howdy, do we movie audiences f*cking love to be deceived. We have to be. We want to be. How else could one explain away the jillions of dollars the moviemakers toss around like so many platinum frisbees? All that cheddar better get recouped somehow. Hopefully with a winning hit (which are fast becoming few and far between these days) that’ll perpetuate the movie magic machine. Even a craptastic Adam Sandler flick—which may be a redundancy—that “tanks” still invites enough interest in the great, popcorn-dappled masses to get on Fandango for the advance release of Billy Madison 2: The College Years.

Slow down. That one doesn’t exist. Yet.

As Barnum put it, we want to have the wool pulled over our eyes. We pay our fee, walk into the theatre/rent that disc/stream that movie, suspend our beliefs and off we go into a 100-minute storytime wonderland with a cool plot, nifty acting and/or the occasional dinosaur rampage. All three if you’re lucky. Most of the time, we wanna go catch the pictures for fun and escape. Escape from our boring dinosaur-less lives and be deceived that Chris Pratt can really run that fast. It’s all in fun, it’s all a lie and that’s how we want it. So does Hollywood, so bless (and often curse) them for their tentpole endeavors and finally giving Ryan Reynolds a suitable role exploiting his sophomoric acting chops.

All of that was praise. I think.

As deemed by this blog, a great deal of movie fans drop down a lot of cash annually to be deceived. Often they walk away hoodwinked. These two things are not one and the same. You’ve heard me enough times bemoan the fact that Tinsel Town is nothing but money grubbing, more cash for less art and all of us sheep dutifully march into the lion’s den blindfolded wearing overalls made of pork. A significant amount of the time this is true, but it never stops the (disgruntled) patrons from coming back for more. Why?

Because the lies that are the movies are so much more interesting, sometimes engaging than our daily slog. After a hard, long week at your job, be it fighting fires, shipping out goodies from the local Amazon warehouse or putting spindles in boxes all the while cursing your high school guidance counselor, going out Friday and catching a flick is always a good tonic. We all can’t vault off to the Bahamas, but we can watch Batman duke it out with Superman. In a certain light the latter is far better. The Bahamas actually exist. Come to think of it why has “dinner and a movie” been the go to date for generations? Because it works. Dinner and a show. Comfort. One part real and the other a lie. Balance, and don’t we need more of that in our fractured lives?

Of course. Moviegoers embrace the lie because the alternative is the timeclock. Barnum knew this. Hollywood knows this. Hell, you know this. It’s the reason why we go see sequels. It’s why ILM exists, and spends its largesse on community projects. It’s why Brad Pitt makes more per film than the GDP of Belize. We need these lies, if only to counterbalance the truths of our unglamorous lives. It’s mental survival in a sense.

To wrap up this kooky, little intro let me tug on your coat a bit again about how we need the lie, the deception of movies. When I was a teen I got hip to James Bond movies. That’s some escapism there, my friend. Action, exotic locales, hot babes, cool tech, funny one-liners, villians you love to hate, nutty world domination plots and our suave 007 at the heart of all the madness. Whenever I felt crummy, I popped a Bond film into the player. Every time I believed the lie, from Connery to Moore to even Craig today and away I went. Bond got to do all this cool sh*t while driving a flash car that sported a flamethrower, kung fu-ing the girl would would later he’d be smooching and literally getting away with murder. He had a license to kill! Later on me and my married friends wondered where we could acquire such a license.

Kidding. Sorta. But again about the deception, next to nothing in the Bond films was/is very plausible (checked in on that license thing on the Black Internet. Zilch, but I now own the prototype Juno probe. Took what I could get), but that’s the point. The utter outlandishness of the films enhanced my need for cinematic lying. These days I’m not as impressionable, but the lie still works on me. As it does you. And thank heavens for it.

Now then, onto this week’s lie. And watch my hands as they never leave my wrists…

Prestidigitation. Know what that means? Sleight of hand. And that means? Legerdemain. Um, and that?

Fast fingers. Quick on your feet. Slick. Knowingly practical at deception. In other words, it’s how magicians make a living. Foolin’ ya.

J Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg) is a master of this deceitful craft. As are his ex Henley (Fisher), a glammy escape artist, Merritt (Harrelson), a self-described mentalist (whatever that is) and Jack (Franco) the greatest pickpocket since the Artful Dodger. Together they tout their act as The Four Horsemen, and are Vegas-level magicians extraordinare.

Lately, despite their sold out shows, Atlas and crew have an itch they can’t scratch. It’s not the next big act to pluck. They need a bigger rush. Make their theatrics more…homespun. Sure, they can hypnotize, mesmerize, spin and twirl, but card tricks and chained to the tracks can only go so far in the shock and awe department. Atlas thinks it’s high time to bring his circus to the masses, minus tickets.

Fast forward. On multiple occasions, and around the globe, the moneychangers find their vaults raided if not emptied. And for every one of the Horseman’s shows, audience members suddenly find themselves in the black, as if by…well, you know.

FBI agent Rhodes (Ruffalo) and his team do not take kindly to a bunch of high-end birthday party entertainers robbing millions and pissing it away on strangers. How can this be happening? How can this be real? And why the hell ex-magician cum Penn And Teller clone Thad Bradley (Freeman) constantly hounding Rhodes on misdirection?

Could it be the Four Horseman’s crimes aren’t truly crimes? Is there more than meets the eye? What’s up with the Robin Hood gimmick? Where the f*ck did all that money go? Will Bradley ever leave Rhodes alone?

All of this and maybe if Rhodes is able to unlock the mystery…

I like magic tricks. I like going “Huh” and “Whoa!” and “How’d he do that?”

Last year at Bethlehem, PA’s Musikfest while waiting for a show to start, me, the wifey and the kid happened upon a street performer, one of many many. He was a magician/comedian/contortionist who looked like Screech and dressed like Richard Simmons. His jokes went that way, too. Regardless of his endearing, self-deprecating schtick the guy did demonstrate some great tricks. Some were explicable (like uncurling himself from a toilet seat, which had to hurt) and some weren’t (like swallowing and entire, fully inflated ballon with nary a pop). We three were delighted, and came back the next night to see him perform again. Alas, he had moved on.


Which I how I ended up not liking Now You See Me much. It’s endgame was not “Cool!” and more like “What the hell?” Then I scratched my head, and not because of the nits.

*blogger now considers taking the cards so close to his chest and tossing them into the Cuisinart for good*

Don’t misunderstand me. For the first act I found Now exciting and fun. Sure, it was in a fast and loose, cheap kinda fun, but it was about rogue magicians! What’s not to dig?

Well, trying to keep up such a pace—or with such a pace—got rather exhausting. You know how when you see a magician perform and you’re hyper-vigilant in your gaze? You wanna catch him in the act and always fail? That’s how I felt watching Now‘s progression. At first, the movie’s rapid fire pacing was easy to follow. I thank the music. But over the next hour-plus I felt that either I should be part of the ADHD Millenial generation or in need of a Red Bull injection to my femoral artery. Both maybe. I know I claim by this movie buff that pacing either makes or breaks a picture. With Now, I never felt so dizzy or exhausted by such breakneck speed of plot. In reflection, the film’s whirlwind pace might’ve played into the entire subterfuge schtick of the alpha plot. I’d like to believe that. Until I can stop my head from spinning long enough to maybe accept this idea, get me a bucket.

That was my only real significant grievance (but not the last) with Now; the sh*t came down so fast and furious I had precious little time to digest what was happening. I like a little wiggle room with my movies to, I don’t know, absorb and appreciate what I’m watching. Didn’t get breathing room with Now. I know director Leterrier made his mark in frenetic action films (and I dug his Incredible Hulk flick pretty good), but I think his manic delivery was his undoing here. We got a film about magic tricks wrapped around a mystery with a chewy center involving revenge. It’s all a mystery, and we need some oxygen to search out the damned mystery’s clues. Not gonna happen here. Gotta give Gen Z the Pop Rocks enema before selfie number 17 in front of the soda machine in the lobby gets on Snapchat.

Call me bitter. I dare you.

Anyway. As cool as the concept was, and the hook had me I realized at the 45-minute mark that Now‘s plot made little sense. The Four Horsemen’s shows were both stage and show and had an urgency to create financial ruin for those who invited it. Fine. Why? There was a warped Maguffin dropped at the film’s outset, but so little was offered it made this guy confused for too long watching this movie. Again, I assume it might have had something to do with the underlying “not is all that is seems” theme. I still was rendered unsure. It’s a sweet paradox, makes you think too much.

The other day at work my boss was trying to bamboozle a co-worker with the classic “Schrodinger’s Cat” riddle. After confusing the other guy he asked me, “Hey, is the cat over here or over there?”

I answered yes. I think I won a prize. The tickets stopped rolling in for a full minute.

This wonky example pretty much describes the plot progression of Now. Is the movie good? Yes, until it’s not. And when it’s not, recall when it was good and hang on to that until the film’s not good again. It’ll approach sense in the next scene. I need an Advil. Another Red Bull might help, too.

What was the best part of Now was our ensemble cast. I’ve been trying to steer clear of waxing rhapsodic about a flick’s acting for the past few installments, I know. But we got us an ensemble cast here, littered with myriad talents that have no sane reason for being in a movie together. So cut me slack at bit, please? Thanks.

So then, I’ll break a promise. Does Eisenberg have to play skittish in all his roles? Some sort of contractual obligation? Despite or thanks to his signature twichiness Eisenberg’s delivery as Atlas was prime magician role incarnate. Smartass and always knowing the game was afoot three paces ago (mostly because it was his footprints). His Atlas was also not very likable. Sleazy and very obvious in being into his gig to only serve his own ends. As much as I enjoy magicians, they are a shady lot. Atlas was shady, but also a bit more than cocky. Ostensibly he was the villain in Now‘s rogues’ gallery, and I must admit that a greasy adversary does a good crime caper make.

Lesser can be said of Fisher and James’ little bro. Both were mostly wallpaper. Henley’s job was to look good (which she did) and Jack’s job was to be raffish (and look good, which he did. Don’t judge me). I understood the need for a team of tricksters to pull off their heists. We gotta have various facets of a hive mind to better understand—despite the difficulty—the motives behind the crime. Sure, plenty of crime capers have involved a single mastermind…wait, they don’t. There’s always a holy host of miscreants shouting at each other to establish motive and possible outcome (usually bad). Think Reservoir Dogs, The Usual Suspects or even Heist. Myriad weirdoes wending and winding around each other to find their quarry as well as accusing each other about who scored said quarry before the other guys did. Fisher and Franco were merely distractions, and possibly elements of the whole misdirection theme of the movie. Maybe. Mostly I found the two superfluous, and nowhere approaching Mr Pink.

Harrelson was me. Moving on.

Lastly the pinion on which Now spins, Mark Ruffalo’s Dylan Rhodes (a name that irked me for some reason). I’ve never seen the guy ham it up so much as I did here. It was tough to divorce myself from his  performance in Zodiac‘s Det Tocchi to let in the manic agent Rhodes. Right to the quick Ruffalo’s Captain Kirk-like scenery chewing was unlike anything I saw the guy do before in any of his roles. It was rather annoying, yet compelling. Again the misdirection thing, which came to an abrupt resolution in a fast, forced, final fifteen minutes (pretty good alliteration there, huh?) was likely the reason for Ruffalo to act so damned crazy. I got tired of his determined cop schtick right quick since it was made up of a dozen different determined cop schticks I’ve seen over the years. Then again, maybe the guy was just having some fun. But at my expense and winnowing attention span.

The rest of Now, since the meat of the show has been flayed, dribbles down into tedium. The fast paced first act? Well the next few were so jacked up on the Mountain Dew I had precious little time to enjoy the stunts, tricks and Fisher’s low cut blouses. I kept feeling like I was falling behind, misdirection theme be damned. When watching a magician pull their trade there has to be a small space left to breathe, you know, to absorb and then appreciate the trick. Rampant collateral damage and warp-speed editing can throttle you. Did with me. Cough.

And in defiance of Now‘s lightspeed pacing, the movie began to feel stretching. There was a lot of info dump at work, and over the course of two hours no matter how quick the action was there felt like a great deal of plot development was both rushed (to maintain the film’s rapid fire action) and sluggish (to reflect for a little to long via exposition, to keep the audience in the know). If Now was supposed to be a kinda Robin Hood tale then for what end? You can’t just rob and pillage for the sake of the story and expect to hang up abruptly to consider why. It got jarring towards the end, and ultimately made for an exhausting viewing experience. In sum, regardless of the quick pacing Now ended up stretching. It became a slow crawl to get to the heart of the “real” story, whatever it was.

Now, Now‘s biggest crime in my opinion is what has been used prior in other, more satisfying crime capers (eg: again The Usual SuspectsSe7en and to a degree Fight Club): explaining the motives as well as the tricks used against you to f*ck with your head. You don’t just explain eeverything. At least in one, lethal does. Now tries to make up for all its trickery in a rapid clip expo that should’ve taken a half an hour in maybe, oh, twenty seconds. That deal completely undid the f*cking entirety of the movie’s raison d’etre. If this was a film about deceiving the deceived, wouldn’t it have been more fair to let in a little light here and there so that us brave few that still have a Twitter-less attention span could deduce what might have been happening? Maybe then a full explanation about the past few of your precious little 90 minutes would be necessary. Me? I like to come to my own conclusions on my own time. Makes for a more satisfying movie watching experience. I graduated from spoon fed Gerber at least since senior year.

Damn. Here was a movie I should’ve liked. Instead I got fed tedium and fatigue. A fast paced movie nonetheless! Now had a lot to offer and enjoy, but after watching it I felt wasted and in need of Vivarin and some thumbing through Houdini’s bio with a highlighter with the crew of Hardball at my defense. Put plainly a movie about magic should not hoodwink the audience by waiting for the sleight of hand to. Take. It. Down. A few. Notches.

Now sleep!

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Trickery can only go far, even within Hollywood deception. The Four Horsemen used their magic to make money disappear? Where’d my 100 minutes go, huh?

Stray Observations…

  • “Too many French people in that room.”
  • Strangest post-Katrina fund raiser I’ve ever seen.
  • “I like squirrels. I’m not a frat guy.” Sounds like a confession to me.
  • That’s how I take my coffee, plus three sugars.
  • They had to kiss.

Next Installment…

A trip to London could be a new chance at love for Last Chance Harvey.

RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 12: Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly” (2006)


The Players…

Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane.

The Story…

Fred Arctor is an undercover cop—a narc—in a world where almost everyone is addicted to Substance D, a drug that produces split personalities in its users. “Fred” sets up an elaborate sting to nab a notorious drug runner named “Bob.” But when almost everyone is a D addict, and its makes you schizo, then how can one tell who’s really who? Especially when it comes to your personal identity, or whoever you are that day.

The Rant…

Phillip Kindred Dick: What is reality? The universal muse of the late sci-fi writer. Most if not all of his work wrangled with this question. As far as I know, three of his works have been translated to film. There was this little known work called Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? Later on the book was adapted for the screen, entitled Blade Runner. Maybe you’ve heard of it. The film was a real sleeper that eventually knocked the socks off of a generation of movie-goers that were too young to see said film in an actual theater. This seminal feature was a key example of Dick’s muse in action.

Later there was this Spielbergien effort called Minority Report that refused to generate the Hollywood dollars requiring it to be big hit, despite having Tom Cruise attached to it. It was another take on how Dick’s philosophy regarded human’s responses to seeing their potential future. Even though the film handily addressed the whole yin-yang of stimulus/response, it was awash in a sci-fi, crime caper guise that was too loud to let Dick’s voice be properly heard. It was still pretty good though, regardless.

Now we have this film, A Scanner Darkly.

Richard Linklater: What the hell is happening…ah, who cares? Indie darling of the mundane. All of his work has dealt with, or rather shrugged off this question. First there was Slacker, which garnered some attention, as well as a few honors. The follow-up Dazed and Confused, criminally ignored at the box office upon release, eventually repealing any critical scorn a full twenty years later to earn the Criterion Collection special treatment with double disc set with all the bells and whistles. It sold well.

All Linklater’s films tackle the human condition, usually in the form of ongoing dialogue reflecting his characters personalities despite them all being two-dimensional. His actors are generally reactive, only displaying any unique personality traits when in context with of other characters reactions. No one really initiates anything in his movies, only responds. His Waking Life is a ideal example of his oeuvre, where the “protagonist” spends the movie simply just listening to others speak about academic as well as pop philosophy. Linklater’s films seldom have a plot; they’re only interconnecting vignettes spliced with My Dinner With Andre-like commentary. Most are pretty good though, BTW.

And now this film, A Scanner Darkly.

Me: I streamed this? A humble yet snarky blogger of film criticism using free social media like a cheap, lazy podium upon which to spout prophetic about this culty film here and the failed blockbuster that. All of my work a big, smelly fart.

And yet this film, A Scanner Darkly.

The first thing that grabs you about this movie is that, “Hey! It’s animated! Woo-hoo! Bring on the dancing squirrels!”

Stop. Put down the pipe. There’s a bit more going on here. You may have to, regrettably, sober up. The thing is called rotoscoping.” an animation technique in which animators trace over footage, frame by frame, for use in live-action and animated films, like this one. In other words, turning live-action into cartoons. Linklater conducted a brilliant job here. After the first half hour, if yer not rockin the ganja, the background blends into the foreground into an oily montage of shadows and strangely patterned textures (especially with the actors’ faces). It can get a little unsettling at times also, not mention just plain trippy. And honestly, I’m not so sure that the “scramble suit” or hallucinogenic sequences would’ve worked as well outside animation. In simpler terms, Scanner’s not a cartoon, but a graphic novel coming into life.

You regularly abstemious (look it up) users out there might have taken note of the phrase “the background blends into the foreground.” How rotoscoping works, at least by my by eye, is that you tend to look out for the still shots in the frame that unconsciously grounds you to the forescape of the moving characters. In simpler terms, Keanu seems more like Keanu when he’s got a background behind him, be it in the scramble suit or curling his arm around Donna/Audrey/Hank? That’s how I saw it. Then again, I had no access to Substance-D…

Keanu portrays undercover cop/dealer Fred/Bob. A narc/dealer trying to get to the bottom of a Substance-D ring in LA using a stealth “scramble suit” to infiltrate the dealer’s inner circle. Problem is twofold, Substance-D makes you schizo, but also heightens your sense of “reality,” depending on the circumstances. Fred/Bob hunts down the drug cookers in the form of the manic Barris (Downey) and paranoiac Luckman (Harrelson). Fred/Bob infiltrates their stupid ring. No, I mean stupid. These guys are idiots. How this pair failed to get shot out of general principle is beyond me. I mean, watch the bicycle scene, really. Get it? Good.

Regardless of Bob’s? Fred’s? Whoever’s deep cover, he becomes dependent, not addicted (there is a difference here) to Substance-D (to whit, this critic is unsure if the drug even exists) and drifts between a comfortable reality (work, girlfriend [Ryder], car), an uncomfortable reality (work, girlfriend, car) and a substitute reality (farm). WTF? And there’s some work, a female and a combine involved.

Or is there? Dun-dun-duuun. Goddam it Phil Dick…

Dick was never appreciated in his lifetime. He was more or less a cult writer. So much so that he had the dignity to die before Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? translated to the silver screen as Blade Runner. It became a beloved film decades after he got some common sense and kicked off. Him dying did great by his rep. Only Frank Herbert did somewhat better.


About the goddam movie. Visually, well, that’s the only trump its got going for it. There’s a very cool premise locked up in visual haberdashery (again, look it the hell up). Keanu is as wooden as ever. The only roles he seems to get stuck with is Neo, a Ted Logan clone, or a Neo clone. Or a Neo clone. He might be able to stretch (might be able to) if he’s taken out of the fantasy/sci-fi genre. He did pretty good in the goofy rom-com Something’s Gotta Give, hitting on Diane Keaton. But here he’s still stiff, struggling. So is Winona Ryder as Bob’s sorta girlfriend, who later turns out to be…ah, you’ll see it. Only the secondary characters of Downey, Harrelson and Cochrane do anything to spice up this film based almost solely on visuals.

I could go on, but this film committed the ultimate sin in my movie-watching mind: it bored me. Despite all the cool visuals, it was boring. It was like a stupid Michael Bay movie sans the big budget: lots of things to look at, and not much else. Listen Linklater, Waking Life was a bold, intriguing experiment, albeit not very cohesive. That was the point. I got that. This time out, continuity, acting and plot should’ve been the point. You culled from a very smart author whose works already translated to film quite handily. You already got your rewards, now try not to beat us over the head with the trophy.

Seven years from now…

The Verdict…

Rent It or relent it?: Relent it. Take your time if you must. Watch it as a fan of Linklater’s, like me. Drink some espresso. You’ll need it. I figure if you go hunt down the book, like always, it’ll be more rewarding. Don’t fear, Dick’ll stay dead.

Stray Observations…

  • Rory Cochrane: Linklater stalwart.
  • “There is no sheep.” Thanks, Neo.
  • Robert Downey, Jr.’s , manic delivery has worked for almost thirty years. Amazing. This schtick has never gotten old, and is malleable enough to fit into any type of film. I suppose that is what constitutes good acting.
  • Hey! It’s Alex Jones! Hide yer wimmen’s uterus…
  • Again, I’m not sure the “scramble suit” would’ve worked as well outside traditional animation. Nowadays, every animated film gets plucked off an iPad for seamless symmetry. The kaleidoscopic effect was so weird, so “primitive” that anything otherwise might have ruined the subplot if it were anymore refined.

Next Installment…

Tom Cruise approaches Oblivion. As well as Tom Cruise.