Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Fruitvale Station and The Bling Ring

        I Saw a Film Today, Oh Boy

                  Review by Ken Burke            Fruitvale Station

A dramatization of the actual fatal shooting of young African American Oscar Grant III in Oakland, 2009; powerful and engaging without sanitizing a complex protagonist.

                                                                        The Bling Ring

Based on a group of real teenagers in the L.A. area who made a sport of stealing from celebrities' homes; a sad study of empty souls in the flow of media dependency.

[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.

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“Where’s Daddy?” asks very young Tatiana Grant (Ariana Neal), as she’s showering with her mother early in the day of January 1, 2009 at the very end of Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler).  That’s all this sweet young girl knows to ask when her father is not there, as he said he would be, when she greets New Year’s Day.  Relative to the films I’ll be reviewing here, if she were older, she should be also be asking “Where’s decency?” and “Where’s dignity?” because there’s little to be found of either in the offerings under review this week, not because of failings on the part of the very well-focused-filmmakers in both cases but because of the horrible happenings going on in the real stories that inspire both of these intense and/or disturbing cinematic explorations (both of these films make me angry because of what they depict; I offer this reaction as complimentary testimony to the filmmakers that they allow me to lose myself so fully into what they’re presenting on screen as their cinematic structures do such a compelling job of immersing us into the horrible/disgusting social failings that they show).  Regarding the first one to be analyzed here, Fruitvale Station, the situation is just tragic, as a very young Black man, Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan), is chronicled during the last day of his life before being killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) cop in the early morning hours as a new year begins.  Certainly, based on all of the evidence that we have, Oscar did nothing to deserve such a harsh termination, although the after-life jury (if there is such a thing; some of us see nothing but a once-around-the-biosphere-opportunity, no matter how delightfully full or tragically empty it may go while others have deep faith in another version [or more, if you accept reincarnation] of life after death) will have to determine if his assailant truly mistakenly shot him in the back while supposedly reaching for a Taser stun gun or if there were more heinous motives involved that must be answered with greater penalties than the less-than-2-years-served by former-BART-officer Johannes Mehserle as punishment for his involuntary manslaughter verdict.  That more metaphysical “sentence” for Mehserle (depending on levels of existence that are not an area I’ll claim any understanding about after having essentially checked out on any afterlife sense of certainly c. 1976—although it was getting hard for me to find justification from about 1972 on—but I’ll always respect anyone who feels they connect to something more tangible in this area than I do) is something I’ll leave to greater knowledge and context than I currently have, but as far as Coogler’s film is concerned I couldn’t be more satisfied that I have had a chance to understand just a little bit of what the life must be like of those that I rarely have interaction with, those that are in a very different class and social situation than me whose daily life is assumed—by those with the power to make such decisions—as  being marginal and expendable; I’m not saying that a young man such as Grant didn’t have many flaws (as are reasonably noted in this very low-key-but-fundamentally-disquieting film), but as we see in the flow of his last day on Earth (as mostly verified by transcriptions of his actions on New Year’s Eve 2008, despite some minor dramatic-license-events involving a terminally-injured dog [likely a foreshadowing of Oscar’s own unjustified fate], a random encounter with a clueless-fish-fryer-young-woman, Katie [Ahna O’Reilly], in a grocery story, and a New-Year’s-countdown-dance on the BART journey into San Francisco that fateful night), Oscar Grant, despite his previous personal and social failings (drug dealing which lands him in San Quentin a year before the end-of-2008 Fruitvale Station’s events; a sudden-and-unjustified-verbal-swipe at his devoted mother, Wanda [Octavia Spencer, establishing an argument here for another Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, but, admittedly, it’s very early in the awards-contention-year so don’t start counting anyone’s accomplishments before the full brood is hatched] while she’s making the effort to visit Oscar in one of the world’s-intentionally-worst-lockups; cheating on his baby-mamma-but-trying-desperately-to-be-permanent-girlfriend-and-more, Sophina [Melonie Diaz]; resorting to a violent threat to his former boss at Oakland’s Farmer Joe’s grocery store in a poorly-thought-out-but-desperate-attempt to get his job back after being fired for being too-late-too-often), was a decent guy who deserved a full run at life, not a horribly-truncated version of it, as was to be his now-lamented fate.

Essentially, Oscar’s just a man born into a difficult situation who knows that better options might wait for him, although his upbringing in a rough, demanding environment (despite all that his devoted mother tries to do on his behalf); his previously-limiting-decisions to traffic in drugs (as much as he seems to want to leave this trade behind as depicted in a couple of scenes in Fruitvale Station); his easy-to-emerge-volatile-temper (which allows him to lash out at those who try their best to give him support and encouragement, although he consistently shows empathy and love for little daughter Tatiana, despite not always being available or willing to address her perspective on her most-demanding needs), and his lack of clear direction in trying to move beyond his previous dead-end paths don’t lead to any overly-dramatic-change-of-life-moments as depicted here by director Coogler.  Oscar is an everyday guy, akin to the vast majority of us but in his case trying sincerely to navigate past the type of rocks that have crashed against him previously, even in the short span of a 22-year-old-life.  He provides no hesitation in the love for his daughter, generally shows immense respect for his mother and grandmother (Grandma Bonnie [Marjorie Shears], who helps him out with fish-frying-preparation tips for total-stranger Katie), and really wants to make the relationship with Sophina work (as does she, despite their easy frictions, which show her as equally well-drawn, not idealized, by Coogler, with a justifiable temper of her own), even while acknowledging that he brings little to it its success right now, including the non-admission that he’s been fired for awhile from his butcher’s counter job at Farmer Joe’s (a marvelous store—which has offered me no remuneration for this endorsement—for all sorts of consumables in Oakland, CA, with the location depicted in the film as the site I’ve visited the most, a bit up toward the hills from the infamous BART station on Fruitvale Avenue, but there’s also the original location, for anyone close enough to visit, a bit further east on MacArthur Blvd. with more details for both at http://www.farmerjoesmarketplace.com/location.htm).

With what we know about Oscar Grant, he seems to have been sincerely trying to make something more of himself than what society had to offer him at his cramped home in ordinary suburban Hayward, CA (my actual  address as well, although I often say Oakland simply because I worked there at Mills College for 26 years before my recent retirement—and my marvelously-tolerant wife, Nina Kindblad, can verify that I spent far more hours each week at my soul-draining job than I did at home until I was finally liberated last May [although I’ll continue to salute my decades of hard-working and insightful students]—and there’s better name-recognition for Oakland, despite the negative connotations that unfortunately accrue to it [Nina—a proud born-and-raised Oakland woman—has this great t-shirt with Oakland A’s superstar Rickey Henderson on it that says “All I Know about Stealing I Learned in Oakland”—a reference to his all-time base-swiping record that’s one of the reasons he’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame (which we journeyed to Cooperstown, NY in the summer of 2009 to celebrate, a better part of the year that began so sadly with Oscar’s death) but an ironic statement that plays to the outlaw reputation that haunts Oakland—and its Fruitvale neighborhood where Oscar Grant met his demise—back to the 1960s days of the Black Panthers]), but, despite any of his past failures or self-induced limitations (a common inhibition for far too many of us) he was trying to fashion a better future for himself when a situation of tragic coincidence overwhelmed him in the early hours of January 1, 2009 as he and his friends on a BART train back to Hayward from San Francisco (a trip which incorporates the only false note I heard in this film, when Oscar and Sophina referred to it as “Frisco,” rather than “The City” [although that alternative reference is made later in the story], a correction clarified to me when I moved out here in 1984 and which I’ve never heard since, although I can’t speak for how every subculture out here designates our primary Bay Area attraction) get into a documented altercation with a group of White guys headed by a Hayward San Quentin former convict who carries a grudge against Oscar for supposedly being a snitch.  After the confrontation results in the BART train being halted at the Fruitvale station, Oscar and his companions are oddly enough the only ones hauled off the vehicle by the BART police, with documented aggression by now-former-BART-cop-present-soldier-in-Afghanistan Anthony Pirone, fictionalized here as Officer Caruso (Kevin Durand)—the real-life guy now charged with unemployment fraud for continuing to collect his previous checks after beginning his Army service (more on him if you like at http://www.contra costatimes.com/breaking-news/ci_23160079/former-bart-officer-involved-grant-shooting-charged-fraud [a slow-loading link])—while his colleague, Officer Johannes Mehserle (fictionalized in Coogler’s film as Officer Ingram [Chad Michael Murray] because he couldn’t get a release statement from Mehserle), is the one who attempts to handcuff the struggling Grant, then shoots him in the back, supposedly as a result of grabbing his pistol rather than his intended Taser (that’s about all we see of him in Fruitvale Station, although you can begin your exploration about how the real guy was convicted of involuntary manslaughter at http://articles.latimes.com/2010/jul/08/local/ la-me-bart-verdict-20100709, then pursue a very-detailed, well-documented account of the whole Oscar Grant situation at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BART_Police_shooting_of_Oscar_Grant).

Director Coogler, who’s transformed his own background (among other relevant influences) in community-based work at San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall and his study at the famed University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts into this feature-film debut, made a great impact before Fruitvale Station ever opened commercially by winning both the 2013 Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic work, along with the Prize of the Future (Best First Film) accolade from this year’s Cannes Film Festival (when it was simply called Fruitvale) in their Un Certain Regard showcase (which also included Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring).  All of this recognition is well-deserved because Coogler, along with his powerfully-effective cast, has accomplished the commendable task of building not only sympathy for a far-too-young-victim of a violent crime but also connecting (without grandstanding) Oscar Grant’s situation to the vastly-larger circumstances of young, unknown, seemingly-disposable people (except to the family and friends who know firsthand the valuable lives being lost all too soon in our unforgiving urban deathtraps)—no matter what their ethnic background or social circumstances, but far too often low income/jobless, lower-class (even though we try to deny that such a designation exists in our society) young men, often of color (although there are plenty of destitute young Whites who fall by society’s wayside also).  Oscar Grant was, for those not living in the San Francisco Bay Area and attuned to both the demonstrations/riots that occurred after his death and the frustrated response to Mehserle’s involuntary manslaughter conviction (for which he was sentenced to 2 years, but served only 11 months combined with his incarceration awaiting trial), an almost obscure blip in the larger cultural awareness of continuing hostility within U.S. race relations (even the actors in this film admitted upon taking their roles that they’d never heard of the Oscar Grant situation but were moved by the script and wanted to be part of the ensuing film), but—with the related concerns/demonstrations (some of which have gone violent in Oakland, just as did some of the large group responses to Grant’s death and Mehserle’s relatively light sentence, although in defense of the angry-but-law-abiding-citizens of Oakland, there is evidence that much of the violence has come from self-described anarchists who enter the city, instigate havoc, then leave) coming out in current days about the not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman in his killing of Treyvon Martin (officially recognized as self-defense, I guess), despite the conflicting evidence that could have led to a verdict of at least manslaughter (as happened with Meserle, but there both the numerous cell-phone videos of the Fruitvale incident—with actual footage used to begin Fruitvale Station so that we're constantly aware of Oscar's fate throughout the film, with the accompanying emotional resonance as it builds up to what we, but not the characters, know is inevitable—and the defendant’s own justification almost required some sort of homicide conviction, unlike the Zimmerman-Martin situation with contrasting interpretations of the events, leaving the final unraveling of the evidence tapestry to the 6-woman jury, who appear to have been swayed by Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law)—we can only appreciate all the more the effective exploration that we have of Oscar Grant’s last hours, a day that likely seemed predictably pedestrian in the context of his previous life but one that helps build empathy for him in his unjustified death even as we admire Coogler for not making Grant into some sort of noble martyr (although we understand that many young people of color are killed, almost as martyrs, either because their mere presence is so uncomfortable to some Americans with greater resources and power who somehow feel threatened by these “intruders” on their "traditional" culture—despite this increasing demographic simply “being here” rather than “coming to conquer”—or because they sadly eliminate each other in endless gang wars that substitute for any reasonable sense of achievement and progress in a materially-driven, accomplishment-based society).

When all is said and done, Oscar was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time without having done anything to merit his fate (just like Doughboy’s [Ice Cube] needlessly-terminated brother, Ricky [Morris Chestnut], in John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood [1991; another powerful feature-film-debut from a young Black director who got the opportunity to hone his skills in the well-respected USC film production program] where Doughboy notes after watching the morning TV news that they either “Don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s goin’ on in the hood,” concerning the horrible situation that has hit his family with seemingly no impact on even the local neighborhood, let alone the greater urban community or nation at large [clip at http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=BQdE0_Hy10M]), but while that’s a tragedy for anyone who ends up in a body bag such as Oscar does after the dedicated workers at Alameda County’s burdened Highland Hospital (the subject of the marvelous documentary, The Waiting Room [Peter Nick, 2012], reviewed in this blog in our October 24, 2012 posting) do everything they can to save him, his actual demise (and ones portrayed in a more fictional manner, such as in Boyz N the Hood and many others that followed, usually from Black directors trying to force attention on a too-long-neglected aspect of our social fabric) raises consciousness of a much larger, centuries-old context in our not-yet-post-racial society.  Fruitvale Station is essentially a simple, quiet, yet horrifying story of contemporary urban America where nothing is quite what it should be, yet no one seems fully to blame nor able to improve the situation.  There are no social histrionics here, just a well-crafted look at a tragic death that should impact all of us, even if we wish to think that this is just about “somebody else.”

The last thing that the teenage thieves in The Bling Ring want is to be dismissed as merely “somebody else,” when they can be respected for their transgressions (at least within their own small social circle, but, apparently for one of them, Nicki Moore [Emma Watson, who’s making us forget about her long-standing Harry Potter Hermione Granger role as quickly as possible with her self-centered schemer act in The Bling Ring and her fierce survivalist turn as a catastrophe-challenged version of herself in This Is the End [Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen; reviewed in this blog in our June 20, 2013 posting], in the culture at large also as her [their?] crimes are simply the first part of an ongoing manufactured-celebrity-career that should be attended to and respected by the “lesser beings” among us [essentially, with attention going to those who create followed activities on social media sites and larger-audience news media outlets with second-class status accruing to those of us who simply follow the antics of the initiators rather than taking command of the media world like they do]).  As with Fruitvale Station, this film is also based on real events, teenage thievery from Southern California celebrities' homes (roughly mid-2008 to mid-2009, so that Oscar Grant’s tragic end happens in roughly the center of their self-obsessed spree), which you can explore more in detail if you like at http://www.policymic.com/articles/44817/the-bling-ring-movie-where-is-the-real-life-bling-ring-today as well as in the second Bling Ring video clip recommended below in which actual Blinger Nick Prugo recounts some of their exploits.  His name is changed by Coppola to Marc Hall (Isreal Broussard), just as all of them have been somewhat fictionalized so that in the photo above we have (from left) Chloe no-surname (Claire Julien), Sam Moore (adopted sister of Nicki, played by Taissa Farmiga, actual sister to well-known star Vera Farmiga), Nicki, Rebecca Ahn (Katie Chang), and Marc, but if we went by real names and appearances Chloe and Sam would be brunettes with the names of Courtney Ames and Tess Taylor (both relatively minor players in the gang; Tess was never even charged with a crime), Nicki would be Alexis Neiers (who served a mere 30 of her assigned 180 days and distances herself from the film’s celebrity-in-training depiction of herself), Rebecca would be Rachel Lee (the as-depicted-ringleader, who served 2 of a 4-year sentence), and Marc would need to go blonde as Nick (and might could drop the sense of suffering when last we see him being bussed away in his new orange prison outfit given that Nick only served a few days due to good behavior and work credit—although those more pro-social qualities might be accurate, as in the film he’s shown as the one least comfortable during the robberies [yet he indulges actively in the loot, especially a pair of red high heels that may be a clue to some of his other interests]); Nicki/Alexis’ little sister Emily (Gabrielle Neiers, played by Georgia Rock) apparently went along on some of the heists but was never charged.

Actual celebrities whose homes were broken into by these vapid adolescent thrill-seekers also appear in The Bling Ring, either in quick cameos (Paris Hilton) or in archival footage (Lindsay Lohan, Audrina Patridge); other victims noted but not shown were Orlando Bloom and Megan Fox.  As I noted at the head of this review, these films stir a lot of anger in me because of what they depict:  a brutal killing of an unarmed young man in Fruitvale Station and the also-wasted lives of the Bling Ringers, although a waste fueled by self-indulgence and empty-headed celebrity worship rather than a socially-encouraged physical assault on their very existence as was the case with Grant.  I don’t have much good to say about the materially-obsessed media stars who inspired the Bling Ring either, based on the ridiculous amount of expensive stuff that literally litters their expansive homes, where these dummies don’t even bother to turn on their alarm systems or close/lock all of the entrances to their spiffy palaces—Prugo even verifies that the seemingly idiotic act of leaving a key under the front doormat was exactly what they found at Paris Hilton’s home, despite the enormous stash of high-priced clothes, jewelry, and other ostentatious displays of wealth that led these bold kids to repeatedly steal millions of dollars of swag from her, probably without her even noticing that any of it was missing because she’d be so distracted by all of the images of herself that fill her huge home; but I shouldn’t just dump on Paris because we see that the lesser-affluent can be just as mindless when Rebecca and Marc first go on their thieving excursions and find unlocked cars in upscale neighborhoods where the owners have left wallets full of credit cards for the kids to steal and abuse; insurance agents must make a fortune in Los Angeles county.

My next explosion of wrath is aimed at the parents of these thieves, with the understanding that I know this is a film “based on real events,” rather than any sort of a researched documentary, so I know that the specific characters in Coppola’s film are exaggerated versions of the actuals, just as others likely are composites at best if not complete fabrications needed for narrative compression and impact, but fictional or not they represent the realities that spawned the real Blingers (including their actual attendance at Indian Hills High School, an alternative attempt to deal with teens who had been in trouble with the law or expelled from other schools, especially in the affluent community of Calabasas, a bit west of L.A. proper but in easy proximity to the targeted celebrities whose addresses and out-of-town schedules were easy to locate on our infamous Internet).  Hopefully, Leslie Mann’s character as Laurie Moore—mother to Nicki, Sam, and Emily—is more of a creative-license fabrication than a modified depiction because her home-schooling methods of teaching positive role modeling with paste-up posters of Angelina Jolie and her pseudo-spiritual outlook on life just give me a good dose of nausea.  (Her mantra: “And so it is” [a sort of twist on Walter Cronkite’s decades-ago-nightly-newscast-ending “And that’s the way it is”], which Nicki channels in her post-arrest TV interviews as a means of craftily explaining how she was seduced by negative aspects of our culture, led astray by troubled friends, and put into challenging situations that will help her growth toward useful social leadership, a gush of bilge water that would be hilarious if it weren’t mouthed by so many actual “celebrities” in the vast media machine that haunts all of our lives—a soulless, brainless culture personified most recently [to my purposely-isolated-as-much-as-possible-for-someone-who-still-wants-to-explore-the-cinematic-aspects-of-contemporary-culture-attitude, so God knows what other idiocy has been perpetrated by a famous figure in the last few days] by Amanda Bynes' latest insanity, who tweeted that “Barack Obama and Michelle Obama are ugly!” supposedly because the President didn’t “fire the cop who arrested [her]” in 2012 for drunk driving and sideswiping a police car [see http://www.nydailynews. com/entertainment/gossip/amanda-bynes-barack-obama-michelle-obama-ugly-article-1.1393107]; she’s also tweeted her “ugly” evaluation about a long list of other celebrities—most of whom have much better claim to that title than her work has yet shown me, although I’ve managed to stay blissfully removed from a good bit of it [while admitting that she was quite effective as Tracy Turnblad’s friend, Penny Lou Pingleton, in the 2007 movie musical version of Hairspray (Adam Shankman; based on the 2002 Broadway musical, itself based on the 1988 John Waters original film which used music as a constant narrative presence but isn’t a full musical substituting sung numbers for standard dialogue as do the later adaptations—if any of that matters to you)]).

While watching The Bling Ring I had to constantly remind myself that Coppola is showcasing the worst aspects of a generation that she’s now a bit too old (at age 42) to truly be a part of but is still young enough to depict in a manner that “rings” ruefully true.  It was just a horrible waste of lives, ambitions, and purposefulness evaporating up on the screen as these intelligent, resourceful, and determined kids found nothing more useful to do with their time than become sycophants to a media-constructed, media-dictated culture of excess based on emptiness.  Worse yet, their parents apparently have no idea where they are most of the time, including being regulars at trendy clubs where their underage status prevents nothing in terms of easy entrance, substance consumption (to parallel the flashy consumption of clothes either stolen directly from their idols or bought with cash taken from those easily-accessible homes or acquired by selling some of their swag, sometimes on card tables at the beach), and plotting for their next heist.  I realize as I read this that I sound like I’m morphing into my mother (rest her soul) at her most autopilot level of damning diatribes, but, damn it, with all that’s still so wrong in our supposedly-advanced-world (beginning with the circumstances that could so easily result in the death of a not-much-older “kid” such as Oscar Grant) it just infuriates me to see so much emphasis on “bling” in our celebrity-addled culture, but then it becomes worse when all these actual-age kids want to do is rake off a good chunk of that booty for themselves (about $3 million worth in their year of living deliriously) without even doing the little that someone like Paris Hilton did to become famous enough to “earn” those excessive rewards.  I know that capitalism breeds contempt for those who haven’t somehow taken (validly or not) their piece of the pie—and certainly Nicki wants to enter the world of celebrity-presence so that the reward of glamorous presents will put her in league with Paris and Lindsay—but it just becomes disgusting when you’re forced to wallow in it for 90 min., even if the intent is to fuel such disgust, or at least try to achieve a level of sociological distancing from it.

My final stomach-grinding spate of disgust toward the contents of The Bling Ring comes in the latter portion of the film when a combination of surveillance cameras and some door-pounding police work finally lead to enough leads to start bringing in the Ring, especially as they turn on each other (and turn into bawling babies in the process, especially Nicki who alternately cries out for the comfort of her mother and her lawyer).  Not only do these little punks (Now I’m dangerously close—maybe one bridge game away [even though I purposely never learned to play] to that mother-morphing I was admitting earlier; is this an automatic side effect of being old enough to sign up for Medicare?) feel they’re entitled to reap the benefits of those they emulate so closely as to feel that they are somehow part of their idols’ entourages they also have the gall to deny their crimes, spouting faked innocence and indignation/grief that they would be so wrongfully accused.  (Full confession here:  this type of crap really pushes my buttons because of a situation in my family that I won’t detail because it’s too hideous, but let’s just say that I have a felonious relative safely locked away in prison for committing a grotesque crime yet claiming innocence to this day, even to the point of being included on websites of supposedly-wronged victims of the legal system thereby drawing sympathy from unsuspecting strangers who might even be tricked into contributing toward legal aid; in that this circumstance boils up more anger in me than all of what’s been previously discussed put together I’ll simply move on to other comments because I’m too unobjective on this point to even stay quiet about the actual situation so I’ll just say that I’m disgusted enough when someone commits a crime and somehow feels justified that their obsessions outweigh the needs of their victims but when the perp then tries to hide behind a cloak of false innocence—especially when later revelations make the deed too public to further deny so guilt is finally, begrudgingly admitted—I get mad enough to want to flip the switch on the electric chair even though I have little defense for the value of capital punishment.)  Fortunately for some avenues of justice in our current focused-upon films, these cries of innocence weren’t enough to gain reprieves for the Bling Ring, although most of them didn’t serve much jail time and, as depicted, only Marc seemed to even consider any remorse for his actions while the girls mixed denial with obliviousness during their trials and afterward.  Coppola finds the effective closing notes with these ending self-absolutions and Nicki’s absurd self-evaluation, making it clear that there’s nothing glamorous nor alluring about the ambitions (or lack thereof) and negative accomplishments of these high-society thrill seekers.  All we see are shallow lives filled up with consumable crap (as well as rationalization crap to justify it all), so maybe The Bling Ring will serve as an encouragement to aspirationally-challenged youth to set their sights on something higher than the top shelf in an overloaded shoe closet.  I can only hope so, but even that all just seems like a superficial moral exercise about superficiality when compared to the sociocultural horror that underlies the shocking death of Oscar Grant, not only a subtler moral lesson but also one with ultimately a lot more significance for us in the audience to internalize and act upon.

To end where we started I’ll just give you a link to the song that provides this review’s title, The Beatles’ haunting “A Day in the Life” presented as just an aural focus on its disturbing lyrics with no illustrative visuals at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-Q9D4dcYng.  The allusions that John and Paul wrote about in this elusive musical editorial are very different from the specifics you’ll encounter with Fruitvale Station and The Bling Ring, but in spirit it’s all part of the same continuum (as is everything if you want to really get metaphysical about it, but there’s only room for so much heaviosity in one review so let’s just fade out into contemplative silence with that final piano chord for now; in fact, I’m going to stay faded out for the next few weeks with my own extravagant indulgence, a retirement vacation in Hawaii—don’t worry about the costs; I've learned where Paris Hilton’s door key is so I just took a few inches of diamonds from her cookie jar—but I’ll be back in mid-August with more reviews, assuming I don’t get caught up in some monster vs. robot battle along the Pacific Rim.  If so, I should be properly pickled in Mai-Tais to be able to absorb it, so count on seeing me again after a few weeks in the wonderful land of aloha—stolen, of course, from the natives, just in case you think I’ve already forgotten everything I wrote about in the above review [in what may well sound like a strident, preachy tone, I admit] while yearning for the siren call of those tropical waves, a privilege I wish I could share better with the Oscar Grants of the world who can't even escape to San Francisco without wondering if they'll ever return home).

If you’d like to know more about Fruitvale Station here are some recommended links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k88HlIeGywA (19:36 from Democracy Now! With some commentary on the film and an interview with director Ryan Coogler)

If you’d like to know more about The Bling Ring here are some suggested links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3ZEoao7jvM (a trailer for the film embedded in a Clevver News featurette hosted by Katie Krause, ironically illustrating the superficiality that this film does a successful job of exploring)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psI4MTnTtoc (ABC Good Morning America news featurette from a few years ago on real Bling Ringer Nick Prugo about how and why they did it)

As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control, as well as difficulties we’ve encountered with the Google RSS Feed Alert when used in conjunction with iGoogle and Google Reader.

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

White House Down, The Lone Ranger, and The Heat

      To Serve and Protect

                Review by Ken Burke          White House Down
If D.C.'s legislative process seems a mess just wait until you see the latest problems for the Executive Branch.  A great thrill ride that leaves us a couple of points to ponder.

                                                                     The Lone Ranger

A Pirates of the Caribbean-type voyage to the Old West as the famous Masked Man and a new interpretation of Tonto ride the plains for justice against a railroad baron.

                                                                     The Heat

Mismatched buddy cop comedy puts funny females in the lead for great laughs, decent action, and a gnawing awareness that it’s all just to set up another conflict scene.

[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.

We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting.  But please be aware that the links we recommend in our reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge.  Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage.  Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the brilliance.]
Galilean Critics Association, cultural/media analysts, c. 33 A.D.
Working Motto: "Judge not, lest ye be judged."
(contemporary film critics groups have evolved a different philosophy)

Because the Two Guys in the Dark cinema explorations have now been posted for a bit over a year and a half I’ve just made a couple of changes to help with clarity/ information/
reader context  (the alert at the top of this review about our ongoing tally of review results so that you can easily compare your responses to ours [OK, mine, but we’re all still waiting for that special moment from Pat—note the About Me sidebar to your right if you’ve forgotten about my long-lost partner, on the left of our photo—in the meantime, our friend and colleague, Richard Parker, of San Antonio, TX, continues to fill in nicely on many occasions so it’s at least 1 ½ Guys in the Dark (No offense intended, rj).  I also considered changing our site name to The Better Two and a Half Men but didn’t want to risk CBS intellectual property lawyers or Charlie Sheen suddenly feeling protective of old territory, as he may have been doing last spring with Lindsay Lohan—a bit more on her below.  No!  Not her “below”!  I mean farther down in the review!  Geez!  No wonder I can’t get Google to sanction the purity of this site for advertising.  Just to be safe, I’ll save Lindsay and The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola) for the next review; sorry to get your hopes up.] on everything that we’ve reviewed and a reminder that we/I/my cats can’t keep checking back on old link suggestions to make sure they’re still active—although in tallying some things for my own edification I did find that the “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” connection to the March 16, 2013 Oz the Great and Powerful review and the “Keep the Customer Satisfied” connection to the June 12, 2013 The East review had been pulled from YouTube so I put in other versions of those to replace them; if anyone notifies me of any other situations like this I’ll do the best I can to respond, but I have no control over the actions of the Web police) in the weekly opening and closing remarks and taken another one of my own accountings of how our reviews match up to the critical world at large.  Of 166 Two Guys reviews that I’ve written, 108 (65%) of them are in line with at least 1 average from the primary movie review summary sites, Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, and Movie Intelligence (this last one sadly now defunct as of the end of June 2013, along with all of their vast data base); at times we match 2 or all 3 of our more publicized colleagues but 1 is enough for Two Guys bragging rights about opinion compatibility given how infrequently these review collections resemble each other (I doubt that anybody ever lost a dime betting on the herd mentality of film critics; as you can see from the image directly above, our heritage has included fierce debates about process and results for eons [by the way, my 166 tally doesn’t include the analyses of the 5 nominees for 2011 Live Action Short Films in that there weren’t enough published rankings of them for reasonable comparison, but they’re also included in our reviews summary, listed with Tuba Atlantic in the 3 ½ star group]).  

         But where I’m not in line with my critical brethren I tend to be more generous, in that of the other 58 of my reviews—including the 3 in this posting—I gave 38 of them higher rankings than what I found in these summary sites while 2 of mine sort of fall in the middle of the vast range of these other reviewers’ summaries.  All of this is long-winded prelude (Do you expect anything else?) to my admission up front on this review cluster that I’m being far more lorgiving than the other knife-wielders at large out there in that on a 100-point scale my numbers come out to about 80 for White House Down and The Lone Ranger, 70 for The Heat, whereas the Tomato tossers gave scores of 47, 25 (“Bad news, Kemosabe.”), and 63 respectively to these 3 movies while the menacing Metas gave scores of 52, 36 (a “cloud of dust” indeed), and 59.  So, I’m way out of the majority with my comments here, but that doesn’t keep me from having thoroughly enjoyed all 3 of these mostly-mindless divergences with their common connection to law enforcement at the local, regional, and national level along with the calculated but connective absurdities, nor does it keep me from encouraging you to indulge in at least 1 of them for a break from the summer heat, especially if you don’t have a body of water bigger than a bathtub available otherwise.

We’ll begin these proceedings with Roland Emmerich’s White House Down (which I saw, in true patriotic fashion, a week ago on July 4), where he at least leaves the shell of the building standing unlike with its total destruction by aliens in his independence Day (1996)—and, unlike Emmerich’s long-ago crisis movie or this spring’s earlier assault on D.C., Olympus Has Fallen (Antoine Fuqua; review in our April 12, 2013 posting), no aliens, from outer space or North Korea, are our primary problems this time (although there are a couple of thugs who sound to me like they’re speaking Russian; apologies to our Slavic comrades if I got that wrong)—but who needs aliens when we have enough homegrown traitors to produce the worst day ever for Presidential-residence-tour-guide Donnie (Nicolas Wright)—until his own heroic action toward the end of the crisis.  By now, you know enough from the trailer giveaways of the hostile takeover and attempt to assassinate the Prez (Jamie Foxx), along with my now-in-your-face-up-front warnings to expect spoilers aplenty, so if you haven’t seen this movie yet and intend to you’d better bail out now because I’m just going to cut to the chase, following Emmerich’s lead as his chases in and around this national monument are so effectively done that there’s no point in trying to be cautious about revelations if I want to talk about why this cognitive-vacation/emotional–thrill-ride is seriously worth your diversionary attention, even if it won’t ever be considered at year’s end as anything but a rip-roaringly-successful example of the Crime genre’s Supercop subgenre where some high-ranking legal authority (although the more famous ones like San Francisco police detective Harry Callahan or British secret agent 007 James Bond generally have more authority than White House Down’s central protector-protagonist, John Cale [Channing Tatum], who begins our tale simply as a member of the U.S. Capitol Police force assigned to protect Speaker of the House Eli Raphelson [Richard Jenkins]) must function as a merely-human-but-still-extraordinary superhero to protect some assigned jurisdiction (from a city to the planet) from some sort of criminal/political mastermind.  In this case the jurisdiction is physically the White House but conceptually the authority of the Presidency as officer Cale happens to be on a tour with his President-Sawyer (clear surrogate for Barack Obama)-idolizing daughter, Emily (Joey King), after having been denied his long-dreamed-of-opportunity to put his patriotism and 3 military tours in Afghanistan (winning a Silver Star in the process) to work as a newly-appointed member of the Secret Service (because he’s been too much of an independent operator for his superiors’ preference, yet he’s also facing distain from both Emily and her mother, Melanie (Rachelle Lefevre)—divorced from Cale—because he gives too much attention to his job [just like actual Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) in the too-close-for-comfort story of Olympus Has Fallen]).  But just like SS (for those of us old enough to remember the Nazis’ premiere destruction squad, I’d still like to find some other name/abbreviation for this vital U.S. security force as the use of this shorthand is very disturbing) Agent Banning from Olympus ... (but aren't all of our heroes from some version of Olympus?), Cale is surprisingly (but dramatically) on his own in trying to thwart the most-devastating-break-in that the Free World could imagine while evil terrorists disrupt the stability of the highest levels of our government as a prelude to accomplishing even more nefarious actions while our superior military is stuck outside the House’s fence as seconds tick down to grim destruction (while an unhelpful, conservative Speaker of the House—Trumbull [Morgan Freeman] in the earlier movie, Raphelson in this one—complicates things drastically for the First Guy and his last-chance savior (although I only could go with 3 stars for the earlier movie because it just took itself so damn seriously while Emmerich knows how to slip in some tongue-in-cheek humor [especially Foxx’s just-barely-disguised portrayal of our real President, grabbing a handful of Nicorette gum before trying to escape from the White House, putting on his glasses before shooting one of the terrorists, and losing the handheld missile launcher as our heroes try to blast through the White House fence], helped nicely by the comic abilities of Foxx and Tatum, while Agent Banning and President Asher [Aaron Eckhart] in Olympus Has Fallen are required to keep it deadly serious—which would be the right response if the invasion situations themselves in both cases weren’t so extreme—so that a little carefully-placed humor helps keep the audience in a receptive mood for stretching the tension to the breaking point before all trauma is resolved).

While there’s a lot to be attracted to in terms of cast quality and well-orchestrated destruction scenes, such as the military trying to get into the White House to provide a rescue of President Sawyer and the tourists hostages—including Emily—even as Cale and Sawyer try to escape across the House grounds in an armored vehicle while being pursued by squads of the terrorists, the ultimate focus of the success of this movie—the one that seems to have eluded my more critical critic colleagues—is on the marvelously-well-functioning chemistry between Tatum and Foxx.  They quickly establish a camaraderie that transcends Chief Executive and concerned citizen, work together to overcome the foes that have invaded the U.S.’s ultimate sanctuary, and bring rough justice to the traitors that have brought on all of this havoc.  The chief perpetrators are Speaker Raphelson, who sets himself up to become President after thinking that Sawyer will be killed and directing one of his computer-savvy henchmen to take out Air Force One so that Vice President Alvin Hammond (Michael Murphy) is removed from the line of succession, and SS Chief Walker (James Woods)—still mourning the loss of his military son killed in Middle East action in a clandestine operation authorized by Sawyer and under the influence of his powerful war-machine buddies to launch additional missile strikes on specific Islamic targets in an attempt to either eradicate those they perceive as America’s eternal enemies or at least keep international war in escalation mode so as to preserve the need for our expensive weapons of mass destruction (much as I cheered this condemnation of the war hawks, right-wing extremists, and other yahoos who enabled the Raphelson-Walker plan, it’s clear that the ideology here is just as extreme and fanciful left-wing—especially with the whole internal-terrorist-plot hinging on an internal Dick Cheney-like rejection of Pres. Walker’s plan to bring peace to the Middle East by withdrawing all American armed forces, a joint operation with the President of Iran—as was the conservative denunciation by Clint Eastwood of criminals’ potential legal rights in Dirty Harry [Don Siegel, 1971])—functioning as the lynchpin of the plot.  Despite the stereotypical left-wing Hollywood (But these are my people, bless their hearts!) denunciation of those so-called “patriots” who would subvert our government just because they don’t agree with the policies of those “deluded liberals who are hastening our doom”—policies that I admit may not play all that well in the vast American territory between our 2 coasts—and the highly-idealistic (improbable) ending where all of the planet’s major nations accept President Sawyer’s peace plan, I still found the action, acting, pyrotechnics, and constant orchestration of suspense and impactful stress-resolution to be wonderfully entertaining and adrenalin-stimulating.  As long as you don’t mistake White House Down for anything except an extreme fictionalization of how Obama and his political opponents approach policies as each side sees the world from a particular perspective, I think you’d find this movie to be excruciating-but-fulfilling entertainment, even if you can see the end coming from far away atop the Washington Monument (which survives quite nicely here unlike the damage meted out to it in Olympus Has Fallen; unfortunately, the Capitol doesn’t fare quite so well, but the explosion that damages the dome is really just a diversion to unsettle the White House occupants so that their safety can be more easily compromised by the hidden infiltrators that are under Walker’s distorted command and others who pose as technicians updating the President's movie screening room [another nice in-joke, as is the fleeting reference to the White House being blown up in Independence Day by one of the characters]).

While Tatum and Foxx successfully command their majority share of screen time (and even King as Emily becomes a media sensation by sending insider video of the hostage situation to YouTube [hers sure didn’t get deleted for copyright infringement concerns as have some of the Two Guys-recommended links, so, Tube-posters, get yourself a 12-year-old girl to manage your homemade music videos], after which it goes viral on news outlets), there are others who also make the best of their opportunities in White House Down, such as the aforementioned Jenkins and Woods.   However, the publicists connected to this movie don’t seem to want to provide much diversity in the images they allow to promote it so I’ll just use this shot of Secret Service Deputy Special Agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal)—who turns down Cale’s application for the SS but comes to regret her decision later, especially after President Sawyer essentially overrules her and brings both Cale and Emily onto the First Helicopter as they all leave the carnage that is the badly-abused White House at the end of the movie—to stand in for other A-list stars Jenkins and Woods, who, like Gyllenhaal, have major roles to play in this continuingly unfolding drama.  Gyllenhaal’s Agent Finnerty (a surname that consistently distracts me because it’s the same as one of my Dad’s Army buddies from his South Pacific WW II combat years, although the stories of their exploits were always about shenanigans during training in the Southern California desert [when their assumed destination was North Africa] and Hawaii, not the grim battles in the Philippines [where Dad did win the Purple Heart and the Silver Star] with the details of death and injury respectfully kept to a minimum) provides essential cell phone information to Cale and his “package” from her bunker base while Woods is effective as a cold-blooded traitor who assumes he’s doing something ultimately more beneficial than what the President’s policies can offer our country, just as Jenkins is willing to sacrifice lives, stability, and the Constitution in favor of his own decisions (maybe there’s a place for him in Egypt now; sorry if that comes off as offensive, but nothing that’s been going on with one of our most important Mideast “allies” seems above harsh commentary at this point) to keep his military-industrial buds in the sweet flow of cash, no matter how detrimental such a “strategy” might be to the world at large.  Like Olympus Has Fallen, White House Down offers a lot of potential food for thought beyond its loud surface appetizers about corrupted officials and easily-compromised protocols.  While we may be skeptical that deadly assassins could infiltrate the South Korean President’s entourage in the earlier movie or that both a major political leader and a sworn protector of the nation could turn so callously against the system they have chosen to respect and protect, the destabilizing events of these monument-destroying movies give us pause to wonder how secure our systems of protection are if some of our chief defenders are the ones who choose to go rouge.  The events may be exaggerated—and certainly are played for applause and laughs in White House Down when long-distressed White House guide Donnie finally gets to clobber redneck terrorist Killick (Kevin Rankin) with a priceless clock after this racist jerk has previously destroyed valuable property just because it matters not at all to him—but with all governments having suffered harm from spies who choose to divulge state secrets to political enemies how do we know that we can trust a high government official just because they’ve passed some security clearance?

         The concept of ideologically-motivated infiltration is treated a bit more plausibly in Olympus Has Fallen, simply because it seems more likely that dedicated North Koreans would try to find a way to disrupt our presence in Asia than any U.S. President (Obama included) would actually seek to withdraw the entire American military presence from the Middle East, but as leakers Assange and Snowden have showed us (whatever your feelings may be about their sedition or patriotism motivations), it’s not so easy to assume that our secrets are secure, our leaders are uncompromisable, nor our inner sanctums are impenetrable.  Even more so than Olympus Has Fallen, White House Down is an active, clever, amusing, entertaining, and unsettling fiction, with seemingly unsolvable situations of desperation that are finally brought to closure—especially with the presumed-dead President Sawyer figuratively yanking the rug out from under newly-installed-President Raphelson in the climatic scene—but despite all of its constantly-pounding approaches it transcends mere escapist entertainment and reminds us that vigilance is something we can never take for granted, especially with all of the competing interests—both foreign and domestic—that have their own agendas in contrast to what many of us feel comfortable with and accepting of.

I’m not making any arguments here in favor of current-news-concerns about blanket NSA surveillance of domestic communications nor of tortuous approaches to information-gathering that were criticized (although not always understood as such) in the marvelous Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012; reviewed in this blog in our January 7, 2013 posting), but I am saying that beneath the wonderfully-escapist surface action of White House Down, an adrenalin-rush that holds up extremely well during its entire 131 min. running time, there are some plausible concerns here about how our governmental structure works, especially in times of unanticipated crisis.  You may not agree that it was noble of former Attorney General Eliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to resign rather than fire Watergate independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox on October 20, 1973, as ordered by President Nixon (in my blatantly partisan opinion, still the most dangerous and destructive—as opposed to most clueless, which he certainly was not—President that has ever infected Washington, D.C.), but in my biased view, unless we continue to have people of principle safeguard the complex and vulnerable institutions of our government, as various civil servants do when circumstances call forth for them to act, we could easily slip down the slope from well-crafted, entertaining White House Down-style fiction into situations of calamity from within or without.  Enjoy the exciting rush of such a well-produced entertainment diversion for now but just hope (and/or pray, depending on your worldview) that such seemingly-extreme events could never come to pass with real deluded fingers on the missile-launch buttons, such as were portrayed here until last-second rescue by the combined forces of Cale and Sawyer (and, again, I admit, had the circumstances been reversed and some left-wing radicals were trying to structure something such as a 9/11-like domestic attack to be blamed on GOP-type leaders [as the White House takeover in this movie was crafted to be blamed on Islamic terrorists, despite their non-involvement, so as to arouse hostile public response] in order that a G.W. Bush-surrogate leader would have been portrayed as heroically rising to the occasion, I wouldn’t have bought into it, so despite the effectively-arranged events of White House Down for me, the underlying political implications may be unacceptable if you’re about to start a militia march on Washington to protest Obamacare).

         If you can somehow just accept this fictional assault on everything that’s symbolically important to the U.S.A, however, no matter your political stance, I think you’ll find it to be a powerful piece of cultural-ritual-restorative entertainment, as explosions, fires, and firearms successfully keep you off-balance until the forces of justice (or at least of fatherhood, if that works better for you in these circumstances) finally prevail.  If nothing else, it’s nice to see an intellectual President properly kick some butt for a change; I say damn the critical majority (and the tepid box-office response so far), full speed ahead to the theatre.  But not before considering my usual-yet-silly musical interlude, this time as suggested in its intentionally-absurd manner by the movie itself as its closing-credits tune of the Rolling Stones “Street Fighting Man” (originally on the 1968 Beggar’s Banquet album) which you can get at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EFfEl9 ozno from their Steel Wheels Tour at Wembley Stadium, London, on August 24, 1990 with the ever-wonderful inflatable wolves; however, for comparison here’s a version from 1969, just prior to the disaster at their Altamont concert, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHugEELD8o8, along with 1 from the 2013 50th anniversary tour (essentially what I just saw live about 2 months ago here in Oakland) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vlbFntpgv-w, recorded on May 25 at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre.  (I mean, if you’re going to march on Washington you might as well have a traveling tune to keep up your spirits, even if you're ambivalent about the "Satan's spell" of those old Brits.)

Back on movie-focused-attention, though, if you truly want to follow my offbeat-attendance-advice (and help bail out another successful adventure story, for my tastes at least, that has been battered even worse by critical consensus than White House Down and is woefully distant from its needed budget recoup—only about $49 million domestically so far compared to a whopping $215 million costs [even worse than the losses suffered so far by White House Down, where the domestic take of about $50.5 million falls well short of the $150 million it took to produce]), then let me try to encourage you to saddle up for a ride with Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp as the “mysterious masked man” and his “faithful Indian companion, Tonto” in the latest version of The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski).  This rousing tale of the old west, told with even more intentional humor and exaggerated circumstances than White House Down, has been almost beaten into the ground by the film critics establishment, whom I guess just don’t want to accept a sly retelling of a long-standing American hero who now proves to be more na├»ve and unsympathetic than we’ve previously come to know him to be, although that makes for some effective humor for me regarding how long it takes John Reid (Hammer as the titular Ranger) to realize how corrupt the system is that he hopes to defend, especially after his Texas Ranger brother and the rest of his posse are mercilessly gunned down by the materialist forces of fierce-capitalist-railroad-magnate, Latham Cole (Tom Wilkerson), and his despicable, murderous outlaw brother, Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner).  Again, I’ll give you no plot-revelations-relief, so read on at your own risk as we note how idealistic-attorney-soon-to-be-prosecutor Reid accompanies his Ranger brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), to the desolate area of Colby, TX in 1869 (which I might as well note right now seems at best to be in the desolate Big Bend country a bit southeast of El Paso [but even with that possible location I can testify that the local landscape isn’t nearly as powerful as the New Mexico/Utah Monument Valley locations where the movie was actually shot] and nowhere close to the movie’s route of the Transcontinental Railroad, unless we’ll dealing with some Southwest branch that goes north to link up with the actual junction at Promontory Summit, Utah; for that matter, as a native Texan I’m not familiar with any place called Colby [and if map references can come up with the tiny berg of Clyde—roughly 3,000 population—where first my grandmother and then my parents lived for many years, with no mention of Colby then it must really be just a wide spot in the road, if it even exists—OK, I’m prepared for the onslaught of mail from insulted Colbyites, so bring it on!] with the only reference I can find to any of this being the current Texas Rangers baseball player named Colby Lewis, a pitcher who’s presently on the Disabled List, due back in action at the end of July (when I hope he struggles, as I continue to disparage my home state and root my adopted Oakland A’s on to victory over their closest rivals]).

         There is a Colby, Kansas, a bit south of the actual railroad line, but that’s probably just pure coincidence; apparently the masterminds behind this movie needed to link their devious railroad plot with the original concept of the lone Texas Ranger surviving an ambush attempt, then plotting revenge behind the disguise of a small mask (just as Superman became Clark Kent for all these decades with a simple pair of glasses and combing the hair off his forehead—a stroke of genius!), as he and Tonto go about bringing truth, justice, and the American way to the Old West.  (Wait a minute, that’s Superman too!  Oh, right, what we need here is “a fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty ‘Hi-yo, Silver,’ ” which we eventually get by the end of the movie, but only after a lot of humorous deconstruction of what we’ve come to expect of this iconic, mysterious defender of justice through various radio, film, and TV incarnations since 1933.)  Here, however, the Ranger and Tonto barely tolerate each other at times until they finally join forces against Cole, Reid has to be convinced to wear the mask that he feels is inappropriate for an agent of the law, and hardly anyone in the wilderness territory clandestinely dominated by Cole and brother Butch is anything but a scoundrel or a pawn, although the Chinese laborers building the railroad and the Comanches who are falsely accused of breaking their treaties (so that Cole can force them off of his anticipated valuable railroad land) are presented in a sympathetic light (almost patronizingly so, but once again you know what to expect from those—my—gal darned [see, Google, I'm trying to clean it up ... sometimes ... so how about allowing those ads?] Hollywood liberals).

Curiously enough, for all of its diversionary entertainment with scenes especially of train-based chases, derailments, and collision disasters, The Lone Ranger presents a serious consideration of the clash between worldviews and their accompanying enhancements that hark back to the silly situation in Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2003) when Donald Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), the completely fictional twin brother of somewhat-fictionalized-real-life author Charlie Kaufman (also played by Cage), talks about his absurd script (although it sells, even as brother Charlie continues to struggle with his attempt to adapt the non-fiction The Orchid Thief), The 3, which features a "battle between motors and horses, like technology vs. horse."  In The Lone Ranger essentially that’s what’s going on as well, as our post-Civil War, increasingly-westward-focused nation was in the process of replacing agrarian and frontier ideals with the necessary-but-disruptive rewards (for some, as Cole so blatantly shows with his strong-arm tactics to take control of the railroad from the other directors) of increased industrialism and the imposition of “civilization” on the American Dream of open spaces and rugged individualism.  (A passing ideal no longer appropriate for the corporate structures of the post-19th century world here or anywhere else—despite the current resistance from Tea Party-type revisionists, with spirited then melancholy tributes to both the spirit of the frontier and its inevitable demise presented in a pair of John Ford/John Wayne classics, Stagecoach (1939) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962), both of which are more thoughtful than the “Mr. Ranger’s Wild Ride” [which may be on hold at Disneyland given the feeble box-office take of this current movie] but that was intentional in all cases, with the earlier Ford piece offering a needed Depression-era sense of community building without institutional interference, the later film acknowledging that the Kennedy “New Frontier” needed to replace the nostalgia of the old one, and this current CGI extravaganza [at least I hope that no one—not even a stunt person—was actually galloping a horse along on a moving train] simply using nostalgia as a postmodern trope that probably has more appeal for those of us old enough to not only remember Nazis but true postmodernism instead of its self-perpetuating-media-strategy-recycling transformation that has given us a production that reassembles much of the creative team of the successful Pirates of the Caribbean series but relocates that swaggering attitude into a story just historically removed enough from the current favored flavors of younger audiences so as to have nothing tangible enough—not even a well-known amusement park ride—to relate to).  None of this is intended to denigrate The Lone Ranger (you can get plenty of that elsewhere if you like) but just to note that what likely appeals to me in terms of action, swagger, and reimagined familiarity certainly isn’t connecting in terms of either box-office or critical appeal, in both cases increasingly determined by a considerably younger demographic than me, whose investment in the flow of cotemporary cultural trends (more on that with the upcoming The Bling Ring review as well) isn’t flowing successfully to the desired demographic, even with the intended allure of another off-kilter Depp character and the danger of runaway trains (which are impressive seen against a stark desert landscape but still limited in scope compared to the complex meta-collisions we’ve already witnessed this summer with Iron Man 3 [Shane Black], Star Trek Into Darkness [J.J. Abrams], and Man of Steel [Zack Snyder].)

Leave it to me to take what’s clearly intended as a profit-centered escapist mining of American cultural heritage and attempt to impose historical-perspective-significance onto it, because most of what would likely appeal to anyone who’s willing to buck the other critics and take my advice to appreciate this loud, silly reinvention of an older generation’s (or two) character will likely accept this potentially-engaging/possibly-bloated return to the days of yesteryear not for any of what it might imply about the steady challenge to avoid corruption in the American character (if the serious reality lurking between the noisy exterior of White House Down doesn’t already tell you that this is a lost cause) but instead for the brashness of a story where a dedicated agent of the law (who insists on arresting Tonto again even after he saved Reid’s life just because he was previously in custody when the two of them met in the movie’s first ill-fated train ride) decides that true justice can be achieved only if he and his Indian friend function instead as vigilante outlaws, where Tonto is portrayed in these (appropriately) politically-correct times by someone not clearly of Native American heritage (although Depp does have some Indian blood—I wonder if it’s more than my prized 9%—and was inducted into the Comanche Nation during the filming of The Lone Ranger) and as a cynical, somewhat parody of a shaman walking around with a dead bird on his head (although, again, the story notes his distancing from everyone around him because he was seduced long ago by Cole and Cavendish to reveal the source of a silver lode that will eventually allow Cole to buy control of the railroad, trading a cheap pocket watch for this valuable information only to have the greedy, soulless brothers massacre all of the child’s tribe so that no one else would learn the location of this treasure), and where there are consistently-satisfying scenes of impressive landscape, heart-pounding-train-based calamities, and an appropriately-constructed (not overused) device of switching from 1869 to 1933 San Francisco where a young boy at a carnival encounters a pedestrian Wild West display of mediocre panoramas, except for the one where the seeming wax statue of an Indian is actually the very old Tonto, who tells the boy the story of the apparently-forgotten Lone Ranger with several comic interruptions into the main tale when Tonto’s explanations don’t always add up (now why a human being would spend his day just standing in an exhibition only to leave it all behind at the movie’s conclusion as he packs a bag and suddenly is walking through that same desert territory under the end credits is something that the boy also needs to ask about, but by now he’s too enthralled with Tonto’s tale and, besides, full logic and clarification is no more the order of the day here that it was a few centuries earlier with Depp playing pirate in the Caribbean).

The kid might also ask who had the great idea to replace one of Helena Bonham Carter’s (playing the nobody’s fool madam, Red Harrington) legs with a wooden structure that doubles as a shotgun when needed, allowing her to contribute to the chaos which just builds and builds at the end (accompanied, of course, by a long version of the finale of the William Tell Overture [by Gioachino Rossini for the William Tell opera (1829) where this piece represents the Swiss victory over Austrian occupation] not like the full rendition of the multi-movement piece you’d find at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g6gzgcGrE2M, a version of 11:10 duration by the Neponset Valley Philharmonic Orchestra (Boston, MA) from Feb. 13, 2011, but the part that most of us will recognize which begins at 7:48 in that clip and was used to introduce the old Lone Ranger TV show [watch at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCO6smQrjJ8] or if you want repetition of this “instant classic” to keep pumping up your adrenalin all day and all of the night here’s a     10-hour version of just the finale at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2f0f6x7wlyI) as trains race along on parallel tracks, the Ranger rides the great horse Silver (who’s depicted as a spirit animal here, giving Tonto reason to give more credence to this “kemosabe” than he normally would have [a name, which, in the old stories of the Lone Ranger supposedly means “trusty scout” or “faithful friend” in the Potawatomi language—not that Tonto seems to have traveled to the upper Midwest to be familiar with it, although in his Southwestern world it may also have derived from the Spanish “Que no sabes,” that is, he who doesn’t understand or is an idiot (an interpretation offered by Sherman Alexi, noted Native American writer, poet, and filmmaker [Smoke Signals, 1998]); in this telling of the Ranger story, Tonto simply says it means “wrong brother,” in the sense that he hoped to work with Ranger Dan Reid to get revenge on Cole and Cavendish rather than this lawyer who was inducted into the Ranger force to ride on the hunt for Cavendish and his thugs just before the attack of Butch’s gang and the ensuring massacre that sets the rest of the movie’s events in motion, but no matter what “kemosabe” is supposed to mean it’s clear that “tonto” is Spanish for “stupid,” “crazy,” or “fool,” so the in-joke insults continue, even as Reid acknowledges to us that he’s cognizant of Spanish]) on top of one of the trains, a huge bridge is destroyed by dynamite, Cole and Cavendish finally meet their just fates, Tonto gets a new watch (one that was intended for Cole), and the frontier is left in the hands of unconventional lawmen who might have launched a great new series here but whose after-expenses losses will likely confine them to the desert shadows in favor of yet-another-milking of the Pirates franchise (maybe Depp can find a role for Hammer and they can continue their partnership under different circumstances; Hammer could be a clandestine crime fighter by night but during the day work at a bank as a “loan arranger”—sorry, couldn’t resist despite the lameness involved, which most other critics would say is appropriate for this installment of The Lone Ranger, so I’m just trying to fit in).  [Sorry for the slight format shift on this paragraph; just another example of Google revenge for my snide asides, I guess.]

         Despite the drubbing this active-but-silly-movie has received—and the reality that there are some aspects of violence in it that might be very off-putting for some audience members (Butch actually cutting Dan’s heart out in order to kill him—not shown graphically but clearly there to imagine—the after-the-fact shot of the slaughtered members of Tonto’s tribe, the later massacre when the angry Comanches attack the Army, thanks to Cole’s deception about broken treaties, with machine guns viciously taking down everything in their path, just like the climax of The Wild Bunch [Sam Peckinpah, 1969])—I still enjoyed the hell out of it, with all of its exciting last-minute rescues, its circular rather than linear plot presentation, its previous western movie implications (including the passing connection to Ford’s My Darling Clementine [1946] when John and Dan’s widow, Rebecca [Ruth Wilson], rekindle the romance they shared years before she married Dan but duty calls and he rides off with Tonto at the end, just as Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp had left Clementine [Cathy Downs] behind years earlier in typical American overage-adolescent fashion, resisting the “taming” that comes with marriage and family as long as possible in favor of the freedom of wandering adventure) and Ranger lore (including silver bullets, as this precious metal figures prominently throughout the plot), and highly recommend it; if you see it, whether you agree with my recommendation or not, there’s a definition of “kemosabe” awaiting that you can appropriately attach to me, depending on how this train ride/wreck works out for you.

Our final exploration in this review concerns a train wreck of character-clash-proportions-extraordinaire between a successful-but-cocky-therefore-isolated-FBI-agent-on-the-prowl-for-a-promotion, Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock), and a complete-human-mess-but-fiercely-effective-Boston-cop, Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy), in Paul Feig’s female buddy comedy, The Heat.  Both of these actors (I don’t care for the diminutive form of “actress” unless the context absolutely requires it) are well-established, well-appreciated, and well-versed in comic endeavors with their most famous laughfest roles being in Miss Congeniality (Donald Petrie, 2000) for Bullock (where once again she was an FBI agent but undercover as a fish-out-of-water-beauty-pageant-contestant) and Bridesmaids (Feig, 2011) for McCarthy (in a scenes-stealing supporting role where her girth never impedes her self-image nor her voracious libido); together they provide the perfect combination of irritating propriety—no matter what self-doubts may be pushed way down below the surface (Bullock)—and uninhibited outer confidence—no matter what sense of personal failure must be ignored (McCarthy)—in a situation where federal and local criminals intersect in Boston, forcing these two to work together despite their mutual distain for each other which just sets us up for the calculated absurdities of these 2 trying to negotiate investigative procedure, all-night bonding in a locals bar (with a horrible subtext about the kinds of “establishments” where the patrons are allowed to consume so much booze that they end up sleeping in the bar—even though the evidence of their increasingly discombobulated evening is so hilarious that you hesitate to raise such concerns), and their final decision to actively join forces to take down the local drug lord, Simon Larkin (Taran Killam; but he hides under the identity of DEA Agent Adam throughout most of the movie) who’s causing chaos in the community and even tried to kill Mullin’s brother, Jason (Michael Rappaport), a druggie ex-con who tried to snitch on the standard arrival-of-the-huge-contraband-shipment in an attempt to help his sister (even though she’s the one who busted him before, in an attempt to get him away from dangerous influences, a decision that doesn’t sit well with most of her family [with long-lost Jane Curtin as Mullins’ mother getting some great cheap shots at her daughter—as you can see from a scene included with my movie clips cluster-link-recommendation below]).  These 2 night-and-day protagonists are very competent in what they do, although each is absorbed in her individual obsessively-plotted or brutally-intensive manner, but given that they’re not accomplishing enough on their own to really get the traction they need in this increasingly complicated case they finally start working more effectively together, almost to the point of success but also almost to the point of death as they are initially outmaneuvered but finally manage to gain the upper hand in a last-minute rescue of Jason at the hospital that ends with capture of the secretive drug kingpin and the secured friendship of our former law-enforcement antagonists (leading to Ashburn conveniently transferring to Boston, a nice $86 million at the domestic box-office after only 2 weeks for The Heat [easily erasing the $43 million budget—Lone Ranger-makers, take note that maybe you should have found a way to reduce your train-wreck budget (in all senses of the phrase), even though I still (singularly?) applaud your results], and strong rumors that a Heat sequel may be in the works—a much better idea than the male “bonding” going on in The Hangover Part II and Part III [Todd Phillips, 2011 and 2013] neither of which we bothered to review, as you may have noticed, despite McCarthy’s appearance in the final (? we can only hope) chapter of that other franchise]).

When The Heat finally cools off, we know it's provided some great scenes for a couple of top-notch A-list performers (with sufficient, although not particularly noticeable, help from their adequate supporting cast, although it was a pleasure to see Curtin again, if only briefly, and newcomer Spoken Reasons has some effective scenes as small-time crook Rojas who has bad interactions with our esteemed lawkeepers), whose characters are nicely-delineated through their well-written dialogue (although a lot of that bar scene had to be at least somewhat improvised) as well as the way in which their personalities are shown rather than always explained to us by other characters.  (Ashburn doesn’t even have her own cat, just a neighbor one that occasionally shares her apartment—leading to a great short scene within the final credits where Mullins tries to bring the kitty to Boston for her only to realize after the “catnapping” [as contrasted to my cats, who just plain nap most of the time—except when they’re doing their patented pathetic whines for food or a trip outside]; Mullins keeps enough firepower in the refrigerator of her battle-zone apartment to help now-Secret-Service-Agent Cale should the President ever experience any complications in Boston [but no jokes about the Marathon bombings; that was sick, serious business].)  The main limitation for me with The Heat is that beyond the clashing/raucous encounters between the prime protagonists (including the worst attempt at a tracheotomy [by Ashburn] that has likely ever been committed to celluloid) the plot itself isn’t particularly interesting nor coherent, but Bullock and McCarthy make up for that in such a compelling manner by pushing every scene for intended comic effect even as serious matters involving death and dismemberment keep intruding on the hilarity.  The Heat is little more than a decently-crafted vehicle for these solid stars to play effectively off of each other, but their interchanges are so well-timed, well-reacted-to, and well-followed-up with their next oil-and-water reaction that we’re easily willing to sit through some drug-trafficking-hierarchy-mumbo-jumbo in order to get to the next opportunity for these 2 to unload on each other (although we also slowly build sympathy for them as well as we learn that Ashburn was a frequently-relocated foster child and Mullins—well, again, take a look at her family in the recommended movie clips below).  Talent this well-honed needs an opportunity to express itself in something less grotesque than Identity Thief (Seth Gordon; reviewed in this blog in our February 14, 2013 posting, gaining a 3-star rating largely on the determination of McCarthy and Jason Bateman to transcend mediocre material) or less saccharine than The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock, 2009) despite the Best Actress (see, here I need to be specific with this suspect terminology) Oscar win for Bullock.  It’s encouraging that they’ll likely revisit these Heat roles, but in the meantime, just like the Beatles told us at the end of Yellow Submarine (George Dunning, 1968), we need to go out singing so how about Eagles member Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-mU-YSk32I, the official video of his tune (in glorious VHS, it looks like) used in the soundtrack of another law-and-order movie, Beverly Hills Cop (Martin Brest, 1984), with a good bit of Eddie Murphy and company footage included as well.  Stay warm until I return with that promised review of The Bling Ring and its decadent Hollywood lifestyle (paired with the more-serious-based-on-facts-film, Fruitvale Station, about horrible, controversial events right here in Oakland).

If you want to explore White House Down further here are some suggested links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXufri0Ts3c (a bit longer trailer than normal but it gives you a fairly complete overview of the movie, except for the final rescue scenes)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-ieLuFUKNo (a trailer comparison of the two White House crisis movies this year, Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, both of which involve an assault on the President’s residence along with holding [or attempting to] the President hostage, but both movies also have more dangerous motives of even greater harm from their crazed antagonists)

If you want a further return to those thrilling days of yesteryear regarding The Lone Ranger here are some suggested links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJpS6mSZy9o (Grace Randolph gives a 3:51 history of the Lone Ranger concept as it morphed into the current movie, although this featurette was made in late 2011)

If you think you can stand more of The Heat here are some suggested links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_YOzpisYMc (please be forewarned that this trailer maintains the salty language from the original R-rated movie so you can get a better taste of how it actually comes across in the theatre)

I couldn’t find any other video clips that were that interesting for The Heat so here are a few short clips from the movie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49xZSX-5_Fo (hostility within McCarthy’s family, followed by) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgF0f5huY8M (Bullock not having a very successful conversation with McCarthy’s family; there are some other clips that pop up on this one that you might want to explore also), then we have http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2oq2edLdNo (bar dancing), and  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVuyuRht2fg (awkward moment between Bullock and an FBI coworker)

As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control, as well as difficulties we’ve encountered with the Google RSS Feed Alert when used in conjunction with iGoogle and Google Reader.

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at kenburke409@gmail.com.  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.