In his thirteenth year of intergalactic badassery, shiny-eyed outlaw Richard Riddick (Vin Diesel) has escaped from Planet PG-13 (where he was marooned in the 2004 Chronicles of Riddick) and made his way back to the grottier R-rated universe of the first Riddick film, Pitch Black. Why he should be doing this is a mystery understood only by the series’ star and its director, David Twohy. Diesel already has one blockbuster franchise going (the recent Fast & Furious pulled in more than $400-million worldwide), and at this point, after a nine-year hiatus, the Riddick films seem unlikely to cohere into anything similar. One can only assume that Diesel’s formidable box-office clout makes him a hard man for Universal to say no to.
The movie is fun, in some ways. At the end of Chronicles, you may recall, Riddick had become king of the Necromongers, or whatever. But now his nemesis, Commander Vaako (Karl Urban in a don't-blink cameo), has pulled the throne out from under him and had him transported to a faraway planet distinguished mainly by matte paintings and other low-budget fakery. Riddick awakes with a broken leg (on which he performs a gruesome patch-job) and proceeds to confront a series of indigenous monsters: slithery snake-fish, scorpion-headed puddle serpents, and a ferocious pack of neo-hyenas. These computer-generated creatures are blended into the action with great skill (the hyenas, especially, seem near-real); but the one-after-another battles go on too long, and even at this early point the movie appears to be foundering.
Fortunately, the desolate planet turns out to be a pit stop for interstellar bounty hunters, and things liven up when Riddick is joined by two spaceships' worth of them. One vessel is captained by a jabbering idiot named Santana (Jordi Mollà, enthusiastically overacting); the other is helmed by the less-nutzoid Boss Johns (Matt Nable), who holds a long-simmering grudge against Riddick that dates back to Pitch Black. Johns' motley crew of space thugs includes a bulked-up sniper named Dahl (Katee Sackhoff, channeling Jenette Goldstein's butt-kicking Vasquez in Aliens). Since this is a guy movie to its core, Dahl gets a quick topless scene. (Of the other five briefly-glimpsed women in the cast, four are nude and one is shot in the back.)
Diesel exudes his usual grumpy charisma—he really is an action man like no other. But he and Twohy, chastened by the commercial disappointment of the big-budget Chronicles, appear to have given up on elaborating the Riddick mythology. And so our man spends the rest of the movie picking off his pursuers one by one. The ways in which he does this aren't especially inventive (apart from slicing one dumbbell's head in half with a machete), but they're useful in padding out the film to a seriously overlong two hours.
Even more seriously, this is a really crappy-looking movie. Twohy has previously demonstrated a flair for alien environments; but the colors here are so drained and musty that we might as well be contemplating the many varieties of cardboard. The picture definitely doesn’t justify another sequel, but who knows. As Riddick tells one timid character, "Leave God out of this—he wants no part of what happens next."
You might expect a two-hour-plus biopic about a writer who turned his back on fame and virtually disappeared to be dry going. In Salinger, his new film about that man—J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye—director Shane Salerno employs every possible strategy to juice things up. Along with many montages of magazine covers, newspaper clips and old photographs and documents, there are also dropped-in sound effects, beauty shots of the snowy New Hampshire countryside in which the writer secluded himself, and cheesy staged scenes of a Salinger-like figure brooding at his typewriter. There's also a score by Lorne Balfe that's so swollen with portent in some places that it wouldn't be out of place in a big-budget thriller (like Inception or the Sherlock Holmes films, to which Balfe previously contributed).
Some of these elements do work, and the movie is often absorbing. But much of the biographical information conveyed is by now well-known: Salinger's traumatic combat experiences in World War II, his meeting in Paris with Ernest Hemingway (who read his unpublished writing and liked it), his disgust with the soapy 1949 movie that was made from one of his stories (it soured him on Hollywood for the rest of his life), and his longtime attraction to much younger women.
As familiar as a lot of this material is, however, it’s still edifying to hear first-hand interview accounts of it from people who knew Salinger (his New Hampshire neighbors recall him as a rather chipper fellow), or whose adolescence was deeply affected by Catcher in the Rye. ("Like my whole generation," says screenwriter Robert Towne, "I thought he was talking to me.") Gore Vidal turns up to insist that Salinger wasn't really a recluse ("He appears when he wants to"); and E.L. Doctorow observes that, in any case, "Reclusivity is a great public-relations device." Also weighing in, to varying effect, are Tom Wolfe, Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and—yet again—Joyce Maynard, the writer who briefly lived with Salinger in the early '70s and later auctioned off his love letters to her at Sotheby's. (The letters were bought by a wealthy Salinger admirer who returned them to the author.)
The film does offer one significant nugget of information: Over the course of his long seclusion, Salinger never stopped writing; now, according to director Salerno, citing two unidentified sources, several of his unseen latter-day stories are scheduled to be published between 2015 and 2020. If so, they'll be of considerably more interest than anything in this film.
It is of course ironic that Salinger, who died in 2010, should now be stripped of the privacy he so valued in life. (Salerno has also fashioned his years of research into a fat biography, written with David Shields, which was published earlier this week.) It's difficult to imagine what such confirmed enemy of the great American publicity machine would have made of all the loose-lipped testimony on offer here. Well, no it isn't: Salinger would pretty surely have been aghast.
In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey
John Fahey, who opened up glorious new possibilities for the acoustic steel-string guitar in the 1960s and '70s, was a man of odd parts—a credentialed musicologist (his UCLA master's thesis was on Delta legend Charley Patton); a modest indie entrepreneur (he founded two specialty labels, Takoma and Revenant); and a composer of broad musical affinities (from blues to Bartók, and even Rod Stewart).
He was also a hopeless drunk and occasional pillhead—a difficult man to assist in establishing a viable career. But he managed to record more than 30 studio albums, and his eloquent finger-picking (in a self-taught three-finger style) and slashing slide-guitar excursions, together with the clarion harmonies he created through various non-standard tunings, established him as a godhead of what is now known as American roots music. And in James Cunningham's fond new documentary, In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey, those unfamiliar with the man's work can discover why.
The film is agreeably compact, tracing Fahey's life from his childhood in suburban Maryland (where he came to revere the box turtle as a totem of the Great Creator) to his alcoholic later years living in a crummy motel room, but still searching out rare records. There's a considerable amount of performance footage, from club dates and old TV shows, that splendidly demonstrates his ringing instrumental technique and the complex structure of his compositions (some of the best of which are preserved on '60s albums like Requia, The Yellow Princess, and—his biggest hit—The New Possibility, a collection of Christmas excursions). And there are admiring words from a number of musicians, among them Who leader Pete Townshend, who says Fahey "created a new language, modally speaking." Townshend also recalls Fahey being sent a copy of the Who's Tommy album, and the polite but noncommittal letter he subsequently received. ("He obviously didn’t like it," Townshend says).
We learn of Fahey's childhood love of bluegrass music, and his later, life-changing discovery of country blues (he says he cried upon first hearing Blind Willie Johnson's "Praise God I'm Satisfied"). He talks about seeking out blues survivors Bukka White and Skip James, and we learn about his complete indifference to fancy guitars. ("It's not about what you own; it's about what you play.") In this old interview footage, we also sense Fahey's discomfort with human interaction, and at one startling point we find out what made him that way: "My father was a pederast," he says, in a mild passing comment.
This documentary is a fine memorial for a unique musician. Fahey died in 2001, but his work, after all these years, still dazzles.
(Blind Joe Death is being given a slow roll-out around the country, in tandem with a shorter film about Wilco guitarist Nels Cline.)