Tuesday, April 16, 2019

DARK MAGIC: a review of "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald"

"FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD"
Screenplay Written by J.K. Rowling
Directed by David Yates
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
RATED PG 13

Now this was much more like it!

Over two years ago, when we were first introduced to the adventures of Newt Scamander via the film "Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them" (2016), itself the first installment of what is going to be a five part prequel series to the "Harry Potter" saga, all written entirely by J.K. Rowling and directed by David Yates, I was surprisingly underwhelmed. To be true, I was not exactly wringing my hands in anticipation over the prospect of a prequel series in the first place, but as Rowling who had more than earned my devotion through all of her writing to that point and had not let me down yet, I was willing to go with her anywhere she wished to take me.

And yet, that first film, which possessed all of the ingredients for greatness, never achieved any sense of greatness--and not for lack of trying-- as it was all due to a leading character that was uncharacteristically bland and even unknowable, repetitive sequences of all manner of fantastic beasts escaping then being captured and then, escaping all over again and all in the service of a meandering and seemingly over-stuffed plot.

Now, we arrive at Chapter Two, so to speak, and J.K.Rowling and David Yates' "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald" has proven itself to being a dramatic improvement over the first installment. Arriving with a greater heft, zest and an emotional urgency that often surprised me in its stirring vibrancy, I am now beginning to see, and therefore, feel the purpose behind this return to Rowling's hidden world of magical beings and creatures in a story set long before the young heroes of Harry Potter had even been born. Where I was once unimpressed, I am now considerably involved, and most of all, invested, as this film has excitedly prepared me fr the three future installments while also making me anxious to view this one all over again.

Set in 1927, one year after the events of the previous film, "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald," opens with the titular dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald's (played with chilling malevolence by Johnny Depp) blistering escape from imprisonment at the Magical Congress of the United States Of America and his return to building his movement for the societal dominance of pureblood wizards over all non-magical beings. As part of his fascistic plan, Grindewald is in pursuit of the disturbed, tormented Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), thought to have been obliterated in the previous film and whose whereabouts are unknown.

Also in pursuit of Credence are American magical Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who herself is being pursued by her telepathic sister Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) and American baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger), Queenie's secretive, non-magical lover, whose previously evaporated memories of the events of the first film have been romantically restored.

And of course, we have our favorite magizoologist, the awkward, painfully shy and guarded Newt  Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), now based in London and under a travel ban ordered by the Ministry Of Magic due to the explosive events of the first film. Newt reluctantly enlists himself to aid the formidable Hogwarts Professor Albus Dumbledore (now played by Jude Law) in the pursuit of Credence, which itself will contribute to the fight against Grindelwald, with whom Dumbledore shares a difficult, complicated past.

In a story that stretches from America to London to Paris, and filled with labyrinthine family histories, deepening mysteries, mounting doom, simultaneously sobering and terrifying political allegory and a profoundly sweeping and longing sense of romance and growing destiny, David Yates' "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" is a more than worthy addition and extension of  J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World as this second installment not only informs the first film, I greatly appreciated how meticulously Rowling conceived of a history to her own invented universe--much like George Lucas' "Star Wars" prequel trilogy (1999/2002/2005)--and therefore, how handsomely David Yates visualized that history.

As with what we have all come to expect from this series of films, especially with each installment Yates has helmed, "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald" is a gloriously mounted production, filled end to end with seamless special effects, splendid production and costume design, and elegantly Gothic Cinematography by Philippe Rousselot. Whether by greater intention or through the design of Rowling's narrative or even some combination of both, all of the problematic elements of the first film have been eradicated as Yates propels this second chapter with an intense verve that was instantly captivating, and only continued to keep me enormously involved, all the way to the film's startling conclusion/cliffhanger.

All of the film's performances are first rate and filled with a commitment   Mostly, and happily, I found myself greater attached to the character of Newt Scamander himself and therefore Eddie Redmayne's full performance, which I am now gathering is not necessarily a leading performance but one that is an essential piece of a larger ensemble and growing narrative. I struggled with this character the first time around yet this time, I firmly embraced him as I could now see him in a much clearer light as well as one that served a clearer purpose for the larger narrative as a whole.

Indeed, Newt Scamander is that eternal misfit, the one who wishes nothing more than to be left alone to care for his fantastic beasts, perhaps seeing himself more as one of them and less as one of the human wizards he feels to have very little in common with. Close interpersonal relationships for him are rare as he is often so misunderstood and from his own vantage point, humans and their foibles, desires, and faults mean little to him. But he is human, living in a society of humans and what does his reluctance to engage himself within the larger world mean when that very world, and everything inside of it--including the fantastic beasts he loves so dearly--is threatened by a rising fanaticism and fascism? Are the sidelines he craves to cling to a realistic venture in a world like this? 

This quandary is precisely the one Dumbledore has presented to him and over the course of this film Newt is indeed forced to take an active role in the world he wishes to live in, or to eventually be trapped in a world he never made. It is here where both Rowling and Yates have inserted a strong cultural critique and political allegory, as Grindelwald's gradual rise to power and indoctrination of pureblood magical humans into his regime for the purposes of wrestling societal control over all non-magical people through divisive, fear mongering rhetoric showcasing the non-magical as the "other" to be subjugated and ultimately, eradicated. Sound familiar?

Grindelwald's Nuremberg styled rally, depicted late in the film, is clearly designed to evoke responses and comparisons to the fascistic demonstrations of the past and present day, as are other plot points on this wizarding world of the 1920's including the illegality of having magical and non-magical people being able to wed (thus giving the relationship of Jacob and Queenie a more turbulent urgency) and Rowling and Yates also include something that is akin to elements of a slave narrative regarding the complex, intertwined blood lines that exist within the Lestrange family, as represented by Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) and the French-Senegalese wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), who is also on the hunt for Credence and may possess a familial connection to both Credence and Leta.

For Newt, "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald" represents a moral line in the sand, and for that matter, also for Jacob, Queenie, and Leta, as they each reconcile themselves as to which side of history do they wish to align themselves; the side of fear, hatred, racism and totalitarianism or the side who fought, potentially to the death, against everything Grindelwald is and represents.

Even with the precarious state of the world within this film, I was honestly surprised and therefore, greatly pleased that Rowling and Yates were committed to making time for love--albeit an aching sense of romantic longing that allowed "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald" to possess an often painfully melancholic heart, much like what Rowling beautifully executed in the guise of her literary pseudonym Robert Galbraith in the current "Cormoran Strike" novel, Lethal White (2018). 

In addition to Jacob and Queenie, whose own relationship is severely tested during this film, we are also given Newt himself, torn by the memories of his past (and possibly lingering) love for Leta Lestrange, who is now engaged to wed Newt's older brother, the British Ministry of Magic Auror Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner). Additionally, there exist Newt's new romantic feelings for Tina Goldstein, who also quietly harbors romantic intentions for him in turn.

We have the shadowy past relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, fully explained within the Harry Potter novels but I would not dare spoil here, of course and yet will undoubtedly have to play a larger role over the next three film installments. And then, there is the story of Credence himself, a figure desperately attempting to understand his own lineage and therefore why he was abandoned in the first place. Credence's search for what is his place in the universe, the existential journey of all of the film's characters, and therefore, for all of us as well. 

Enormously entertaining and strongly substantive, J.K. Rowling and David Yates' "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald" is the installment where this series begins to find its footing, suggesting (hopefully) greatness to arrive over the following three films while also creating a complete, and first rate, cinematic experience in this singular chapter.

J.K., I knew you wouldn't let me down!

Monday, April 1, 2019

SAVAGE CINEMA'S COMING ATTRACTIONS FOR APRIL 2019

The main event is almost here!

While we can easily discuss and even debate the artistic legitimacy of having no less than 21 Marvel Comics films all  now existing as lead-ups, Directors Anthony & Joe Russo's "Avengers: Endgame" is unquestionably the one we have all been salivating to see, especially since the unpredictably devastating conclusion of "Avengers: Infinity War" (2017). 
With a reported running time of more than three hours, "Avengers: Endgame" has been promised by the filmmakers to be the proverbial "line in the sand" for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as this feature will draw to a close certain aspects and characters while setting the stage for what could follow from this point. Whatever the Russo Brothers have planned, it already feels that it will be one to remember as well as experience again and again.

Surprisingly, and since this film will not arrive until nearly the very end of the month, I really have no other films planned to screen in my personal pipeline as the ones I know about have not sparked much of an interest.

Although, there is one...
I stumbled upon a trailer for a new independent film entitled "The Public," Written and Directed by Emilio Estevez, which tackles the American homelessness crisis and the necessities of maintaining our public libraries...and after watching this trailer, I was very intrigued.

Due to the relative "small-ness" of the film compared to something like "Avengers: Endgame" as well as the lack of arthouse cinemas, I am curious if this film will even make the theatrical rounds. But, if it does, and if it indeed makes it to my city, I would love the opportunity to check it out.

With that, this is all I have planned but if something else should arrive, I'll try my best to patch it into this month's activities. So, as always, wish me luck and I'll see you when the house lights go down!

Thursday, March 28, 2019

MIRROR, MIRROR: a review of "Us"

"US"
Written, Produced and Directed by Jordan Peele
**** (four stars)
RATED R

There is an expression that we all tend to utilize when confronted with another individual--usually a loved one--who is behaving in a manner unusual to how we tend to recognize, and therefore understand them. The expression in question that we use to describe the person behaving differently, strangely or even badly, is the following: "You don't seem like yourself."

Over the years, I have come to view that statement as a complete fallacy for the simple fact that no matter how we may be behaving outwardly, no matter how different, strange or badly, no matter how incomprehensible we may seem, we are always ourselves...especially when our behaviors may seem to be bubbling up from the deepest, darkest recesses of our multi-faceted personalities and psyche.

It is through this specific conceptual lens that I found myself staring through as I screened "Us,"  Writer/Producer/Director Jordan Peele's second film and follow up to his box office behemoth, critical smash hit and Oscar winning social horror film "Get Out" (2017). 

Certainly, for the purposes of this review and as a practice of Savage Cinema, I will refrain from any and all spoilers, but what I can tell you at this time is that Jordan Peele is the real deal as he has proven himself to not being a one-trick-pony and there is not one instance of the mythical "sophomore slump" whatsoever. With "Us," Peele has firmly established not only that "Get Out" was no fluke but that he is indeed one of our most inventive, imaginative and blessedly original filmmakers in a world of sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes and re-imaginings.

"Us" is original indeed, as Jordan Peele takes the conventions and aesthetics of the psychological horror thriller and filters them through a ferocious social commentary that this time around is disturbingly grim to an apocalyptic degree. So deeply under my skin this film burrowed that I found myself driving home from the theater in complete silence as I needed to have the time and space to get my thoughts together as well as calm my spirits down from what I had just experienced.

Jordan Peele's "Us" opens in the year 1986 as young Adelaide Thomas, along with her parents, visits a beachfront carnival in Santa Cruz. Adelaide soon wanders off and finds herself inside of a funhouse hall of mirrors, where she is confronted by her own doppelganger. Even though Adelaide is soon reunited with her parents, she remains severely traumatized and unable to speak about her experience.

Flash forward to present day where the adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) is now married to Gabe (Winston Duke) and Mother to their two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). With plans to travel to their Santa Cruz beach house for a summer vacation, as well as meet up with their friends, the perpetually argumentative and inebriated Josh and Kitty Tyler (Tim Heidecker and Elizabeth Moss) and their twin daughters, Cali and Noelle (Becca and Lindsey Tyler), Adelaide continues to grow more unsettled as the memories of her childhood trauma begins to resurface.

And then, on one fateful night, a group of four, red jumpsuit wearing individuals appear in the family's driveway, holding hands. Soon, the home is invaded by the foursome who call themselves "The Tethered" and Adelaide and her family struggle to survive the night as they are under attack by these scissor wielding assailants who nightmarishly look like ghoulish doppelganger versions of themselves.

With the arrival of Jordan Peele's "Us," we are graced with the realization that Peele has unquestionably become a new vibrant creative filmmaking voice filled with intelligence, invention and a fiercely committed intention to weaving purposefully multi-layered material designed to force us to confront the darkest recesses of our shared humanity while also entertaining and making us jump out of our seats in fright.

With just two films, I am amazed with how quickly Jordan Peele has already established his own cinematic universe. While he extends and expands his visual palate to often striking degrees with "Us," both this film and "Get Out" are clearly playing off of each other with his filmmaking aesthetics. From the music from Composer Michael Abels, who also scored "Get Out," to the brilliance of Peele's entire Sound Design team and most certainly, Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis for the striking, almost hallucinogenic mirror imagery that fuels the film's themes of duality, I am unable to stress enough how much "Us" is delivered in a multi-layered style that makes for an experience that demands several viewings.

As with his predecessor "Get Out," "Us" is best experienced with a modicum of information so as to not dilute the overall effect. That said, and for me, the ultimate effect of this film was profoundly unsettling. Unlike "Get Out," where Peele's social commentary about race, racism and being Black in a post-Obama America was the ingenious engine that drove that film, Peele wisely did not return explicitly to that conceptual well. Even so, the racial politics of "Us," while more subtle are no less seismic.

As often announce upon this page, representation is everything and with "Us," Jordan Peele has given us a mainstream horror film that just happens to feature an African-American family in the leading roles as well as existing as the core of the film inits entirety. To that end, and in its own matter-of-fact aesthetic, Peele has delivered a window into an area of African-American culture that is not often presented: the image of an affluent, upper middle class, college educated, two-parent Black family with the ability to take a summer vacation and even purchase a boat--all aspects that are never even blinked at with films starring White protagonists. To that end, Peele's inclusion of cultural signposts such as Gabe's Howard University sweatshirt as well as the family's love of Luniz's "I Got 5 On It" were most welcome due to the utter normalcy of their presentation (despite Adelaide's odd inability to snap her fingers on beat...) 

Oh, how I wish I could express some more explicit thoughts about Peele's motifs within "Us," from the presentation of rabbits, the 1986 Hands Across America campaign, Adelaide repetitively finding herself chained, the recurring notion of events happening within 15 minute time frames (plus whatever you may have caught that I missed) but again, I do not wish to spoil.

That being said, I do think that what I am able to present to you is the film's primary theme of the duality that exists within ourselves, no matter how virtuous or venomous we may be, either separately or simultaneously. What I am speaking of is essentially the darkest corners of ourselves, the areas of ourselves that we do not wish to legitimize but we all know exist within ourselves.

In fact, at this time, I do invite you to please take a moment to do something that I am certain will be unpleasant for you. There is no need or request for you to share, but for right now, I am asking you to just ponder over your lives and experiences and take a moment to think of the very worst thing you have ever done, the ugliest thoughts you may have harbored, the very things about yourself that you would never, ever wish for anyone to know.  The pieces of ourselves that we generally strive to temper, to contain and to even bury. Now that you have taken this moment, and fully understanding that even these reprehensible aspects are as much a part of you and I as our wonderful attributes, just imagine if those dark seeds grew and took a larger shape, either in yourselves or within society.

For me, Jordan Peele's "Us" takes the concept of being's one own worst enemy to a grander, more insidious and even subterranean depths where the rapacious, shadowy souls that make up The Tethered serve nearly the same function as The Sunken Place in "Get Out"--the dark pit where we lose ourselves and are therefore consumed by some other hungry entity that has been wrestling for control.

Here is where Peele infuses the bloodletting horror with an equally brutal gut punch of cultural social commentary: that even with as much affluence and objects of materialism we may surround ourselves with, no one is immune or safe from their own worst impulses. From here, Peele expands his scope as as "Us" made me think about how our darkest selves have been manifested throughout social media and comment threads, where the lens of anonymity has emboldened so many to cast any sense of caution, decorum, respect, dignity and humanity to the four winds and spew every conceivable vomitous thought.

And certainly, what of our social political discourse in the Trump era, leading with the Commander In Chief himself, continuously emboldened by the roars of his adoring crowds as well as any perceived political victories, to continue to unapologetically fire off everything from innocuous insults to blusteringly blown dog whistle language which then emboldens supporters and true believers to do the very same in the real world, thus inciting increased fear, division, wrath, anger, and rage. With that, Jordan Peele's "Us" extends largely from a stylish, grotesquely effective horror thriller into a punishing societal warning that our apocalypse will not only arrive from our own hands but if we continue upon this path, it will be imminent. 

As his conduits, Peele struck gold with his entire cast, who all perform double duties as their primary characters plus their shadow selves of The Tethered. Yet, Lupita Nyong'o performance as Adelaide and her shadow self known as Red is remarkable to behold and I have to say that her physical and vocal mastery in both roles is gradually becoming more apparent to me as I recall the film...also a tremendous reason "Us" demands subsequent viewings.

You know, I think I may have expressed more than enough as I urge you, even those of you who are not horror film fans (like myself as I give the genre a wide berth generally), to see a ferociously original film that speaks directly to this moment in time in our shared existence in the 21st century.  Jordan Peele's "Us" is a film of even greater intensity than "Get Out" as he has indeed ratcheted up the scare factor and the violence (bloody but not gratuitous). But it is also a film of great humanity through its artistry, humor and overall humanity despite the dire and doom throughout.

And for me, it is already one of 2019's very best films.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

BLAST FROM THE PAST: a review of "Captain Marvel"

"CAPTAIN MARVEL"
Based upon the Marvel Comics series created by Stan Lee & Gene Colan and Roy Thomas & Gene Colan
Story by Nicole Perlman & Meg LeFauve & Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Screenplay Written by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
*** (three stars)
RATED PG 13 

With only a tad more steps forwards before we arrive at Anthony & Joe Russo's "Avengers: Endgame," we have to take several steps backwards.

While that statement was not necessarily designed to speak to the overall quality of Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "Captain Marvel," the latest addition to the ever expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, it would also not be mistaken to attribute a critique to that statement either. With "Captain Marvel," what we have here is a film that takes bold steps while also functioning as yet another placeholder before the real main event. Its slightly akin to doing some more homework before being allowed to go to the party.

That said, what Boden and Fleck have achieved, and quite deftly, is a more unique and subtly feminist take upon the well worn origin story and classic Marvel styled existential crisis, making for  a most formidable hero, and for quite a lengthy stretch of "Captain Marvel," I felt that the film would be equal to her. But, even the most powerful superhero in the universe is not impervious to the cliches and trappings of the comic book film genre.

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "Captain Marvel" reaches backwards in time nearly 25 years to 1995 during which Earth finds itself caught in the middle of an intergalactic war between two extraterrestrial species, the militaristic race known as the Kree and their arch-adversaries, the shape-shifters known as the Skrulls.

Kree soldier Vers (Brie Larson), who serves under the command of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), her mentor and trainer, suffers from nightmares and fractured memories of Earthling Air Force pilot Carol Danvers--a person whose life she is unable to recognize. During a skirmish with the Skrulls, Vers is subjected to a mental probe thus triggering more submerged yet fragmented memories. Vers soon escapes and in her battle with the Skrulls, she crash lands in a Los Angeles Blockbuster Video Store.

Investigating the disturbance at the video store is low level S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and recent recruit Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) who immediately become embroiled in the Skrulls' relentless pursuit of Vers, thus forcing a team-up between Vers and Fury.

Utilizing her extracted memories, and through a series of crucial reunions, devastating betrayals and indispensable new alliances, the existential mysteries of Vers' true identity and history will all formulate into the realization of her fullest potential and capabilities as Captain Marvel, a hero poised to end all wars for the good of the universe.

Now 21 films strong, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is firmly established as the top tier with regards to our comic book movie genre as they are consistently handsome productions that are exceedingly well cast and more often than not, superbly plotted and executed with skill, imagination and with Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" (2017) and Anthony & Joe Russo's "Avengers: Infinity War" (2017), a deeply surprising and enormously welcome amount of personal vision and storytelling risk taking.

Where Marvel has its considerable faults lies in the fact that there is a certain sameness to the films regarding character arcs, plotting, visual aesthetics and the fact that at times, that aforementioned feeling of doing homework creeps in, especially, when all you may be wishing for is that forward momentum instead of having to learn more rules, powers, weaknesses and dynamics to fully understand not only the film you are watching but also to see how it will lock into the expanding building block nature of the series as a whole.

At its very best, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "Captain Marvel" is both refreshingly ambitious as well as sharing a certain tedium, which honestly never settles in until the obligatory extended climax. As with all of the past Marvel features, Boden and Fleck have helmed a glistening production, augmented by strong performances (the chemistry between Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson is warmly engaging), seamless special effects (the de-aging process for Jackson and Clark Gregg is especially stellar), and armed with a quiet confidence that felt to be breezy in its sly, matter-of-fact style, which did add a welcome droll sense of humor to the proceedings overall.

With its placement within this Marvel film series, Boden and Fleck have delivered an installment that essentially serves as a sequel and a prequel as "Captain Marvel" simultaneously sets up the stage for the events to come in "Avengers: Endgame" by crafting a dual origin story of both our titular heroine and Nick Fury, who in this film is 25 years younger and has the usage of both of his eyes (although we do learn how he does come to wear his ever present eye-patch).

I definitely appreciated how Boden and Fleck did not utilize a heavy hand with any sense of '90's nostalgia as "Captain Marvel" is indeed a (gulp!) period piece. All of the details (especially the music selections) felt to be true without turning the film into a funhouse parody of 1995, a very wise decision so as to not become a distraction while also providing some clever pop cultural touchstone humor (I chuckled at the slowness of floppy discs loading information into computers compared to the instantaneous speed of 2019--ahhh memories!).

At its very best and most ambitious, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "Captain Marvel" is indeed a dazzling statement that should really put the horribly misguided misconception that films about female superheroes as the leading characters are creative and box office poison to rest once and for all. In fact, and in comparison to Patty Jenkins' outstanding "Wonder Woman" (2017), I feel that Boden and Fleck have created an even more subversively feminist cinematic experience than Jenkins (although I do feel that Jenkins made an exceedingly better film).

Essentially, with "Wonder Woman," any sense of a feminist statement was wrapped up entirely within the film's title as well as the character's name. For "Captain Marvel," we have a comic book film starring a superhero who just happens to be a woman. At no point within the film do any characters comment and reflect upon Vers' womanhood--and for that matter, any of the film's female characters from Kree to Skrulls to Earthlings, most notably Vers/Carol Danvers' best friend and Air Force pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), her daughter Monica (Akira Akbar) and definitely, the wonderful Annette Bening who appears in an extremely pivotal role regarding Vers' existential journey. No woman is objectified or sexualized and are all presented as steadfast individuals all fighting for their respective causes--just as if all of these characters had been portrayed by men.

But all of that being said, all of these characters are women and that in and of itself is a powerful form of representation that is not typically witnessed within mainstream motion pictures and definitely not within big budgeted franchise productions. And just as with "Wonder Woman," I can only imagine what seeing this film feels to young girls to witness and unquestionably adult women who have seen more than their fair share of blockbuster movies without any significant women represented whatsoever. Taking that in mind, Boden and Fleck's approach is indeed more subtle in its vision but no less powerful than what Patty Jenkins accomplished with "Wonder Woman."

The existential journey of Vers/Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, like all of our Marvel heroes, is a voyage of self-discovery and the realization of one fullest potential. Yet to see this journey represented by a woman was palpable, certainly as much as what we all experienced with "Black Panther" and its representation of African culture, history, political structure and technology  juxtaposed against the lives of African-Americans cut off from our own culture and history through enslavement. In short, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's"Captain Marvel" is the rare Marvel film that is actually about something other than heroes and villains.

With many terrific sequences that are as primal as they are psychedelic and presented courtesy of beautifully edited suites by Editors Elliot Graham and Debbie Berman, we are given the full odyssey of Vers at key moments in her life that reverberate, repeat, play off of each other and build like repetitive movements within a jazz or orchestral composition. In some ways, "Captain Marvel" served the same purpose as a film like Harold Ramis' "Groundhog Day" (1993) as we are given key moments that continuously repeat themselves through Vers' life until she is at last able to piece the fragments of her memories together, merge them with her life in the present to fully determine who she will become in the future.

Who am I now? Who was I? Who am I destined to be? Again, the signature existential journey/crisis of all Marvel heroes (as well as for all of us in the audience) but again, to see it in full representation by a woman felt refreshing to say the least.

And even within the story itself, there are these crucial, and again, subtle touches that I thought were speaking to the female experience in a male dominated society. What I am referring to is how the Kree, through their training of Vers, continuously instruct her to keep her emotions buried in order to exert the fullest amount of control as a soldier. During the course of the film, we discover the complete intent of those instructions from the Kree but what emerges when Vers finally taps firmly and unapologetically into her emotions and combines them with her already formidable abilities, is a woman at her most invincible.

Brie Larson, with her wry charm and adorned for much of the film in a baseball cap, leather jacket and Nine Inch Nails t-shirt, perfectly embodied this character who demonstrates that Captain Marvel is at her most indestructible when her emotions join her ingenuity, strength, fearlessness, boldness, relentlessness, agility, integrity and empathy--a discovery she arrives at through a powerful love for herself, her friends and compatriots and the universe itself. And when her hands and eyes begin to glow like the brightest light of the sun and she soars through the galaxy as the unstoppable force of nature she is, that is when "Captain Marvel" begins to soar...sort of.

As previously stated, one of Marvel's weakest points with their films has been their climax sequences, which more often than not exist as sound and light shows and do not provide the sense of awe and exhilaration necessary to send you out of the theater high above the clouds. Now, this aspect is not exclusive to Marvel as it is indeed more of a symptom of 21st century movies as these bombastic conclusions are just the norm and often, to a numbing degree.

For Marvel, it is the ending of CGI overdrive that we have seen literally 20 times over and in doing so, this did rob "Captain Marvel" of some of its power and its tremendous sense of good will it had so richly earned over 75% of the film, and most of the film's action felt akin to a now classic chase thriller like Andrew Davis' "The Fugitive" (1993). I guess what I am saying is that I needed the film to continue to ascend as Vers continued to become her greatest self and what was received felt to be more of a leveling off and the stagnated move ending cataclysm that has become the standard, for better or for worse.

And so, with Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "Captain Marvel," here we are at the precipice of "Avengers: Endgame" with the entrance of the hero who was sent a distress call at the conclusion of "Avengers: Infinity War." While her debut solo entry was not as grand of an entrance as it could've been, it was strong enough to warrant the following...

...Thanos had seriously better watch his back!

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

ONCE THERE WERE DRAGONS: a review of "How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World"

"HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD"
Based upon the book series by Cressida Cowell
Written and Directed by Dean DeBlois
*** (three stars)
RATED PG

With all due respect to my beautiful grey cat named Rigby, I wish to take some moments to speak about my sleek black cat named Jada.

Jada has been my beloved friend for almost the full 14 years of her life. She is a very mischievous cat, one who always races away from me should I attempt to capture her for an embrace. Yet once fully retrieved, she is a ball of affection, kneading and purring profusely, her wet nose pushing gently at my glasses, the top of her head making forceful connections with my chin. Typically, she is an especially quiet cat as she is nowhere near as talkative as Rigby. But by mealtimes, she more than makes her presence and demands for food known. Jada has a ravenous appetite, gobbling up her daily meals within what feels to be a blink of an eye and then races away to the basement door behind which sits Rigby who is leisurely eating his meals, the very meals that Jada would devour herself if she could somehow break through the door.

Jada is pleasantly plump but do not let a little chubbiness fool you as she is still able to fly through the house at the speed of light.  She trails (or herds) me wherever I go. She often sits near me in an old black chair as I write these reviews. She sleeps alongside me in bed. And on the living room love seat each night, Jada has permanently claimed her space with me, whether next to me or on top of me as she drapes her body over my shoulder, stretching her front legs and paws down my chest towards my stomach. While she can exude such sweet loyalty, she can definitely be more than a little cross as her tail can deliver several slow, curling warnings to not disturb her rest, especially if one of her enormously expressive eyes opens into a furrowed slit.

I have taken this time in describing my blessed companion because when I first saw Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders' masterful, resplendent "How To Train Your Dragon" (2010), the first chapter in the film trilogy involving the young Viking Hiccup and his unexpected friendship with the sleek, black Night Fury dragon named Toothless, there was one moment in particular when Toothless curled up for a rest, eyes and tail settling around himself and I vividly remember remarking to myself, "That's Jada!!!" And in turn, as I am unable to help myself, I will often call Jada "my little Toothless" as she regards me with a quizzical expression before settling down over my shoulder once again.

And so, I have to admit that I was a little apprehensive to see Dean DeBlois' "How To Train Your Dragon; The Hidden World," as it is indeed the final chapter in the story of Hiccup and Toothless. Of course, as I had adored the original film as well as DeBlois' superb "How To Train Your Dragon 2" (2014), I was more than thrilled to see a new episode. But as I had loved the friendship of Hiccup and Toothless so very much, complete with its reminders of my own relationship with Jada, I was unsure as to how emotionally powerful such a conclusion would potentially be.

Yes, with "How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World," Hiccup and Toothless' journey does indeed reach its enormously effective and tender hearted conclusion but that being said, the film in its entirety does not quite scale the extreme heights of its predecessors. This is certainly not a quality that ultimately derails all that had arrived before, and this third installment is not a disappointment whatsoever. I feel that overall, DeBlois has unquestionably created a fine ending to an especially classy film trilogy during an era where so many films, animated or otherwise, have forsake the art in favor of commerce. With "How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World," we are given a film that  show us handsomely how the two can co-exist.

Picking up one year after the events of the second film, which concluded with Hiccup (again voiced by Jay Baruchel) becoming the Chief of his Viking village of Berk and Toothless ascending to becoming the Alpha of all dragons, the island of  Berk has now become over-populated with dragons due to Hiccup's rescue missions with his dragon rider friends and all in the service of his dream to create a full human/dragon utopia.

Meanwhile, the evil Grimmel the Grisly (voiced by F. Murray Abraham), in cahoots with warlords, holds in captivity a white Night Fury dragon, who will be used as bait to attract and capture Toothless, thus leading to the full destruction of the dragons in their entirety.

After surviving an attack on Berk by Grimmel, Hiccup decides to lead his village and the dragons to "The Hidden World," a secret, safe haven for dragons to exist peacefully, a world once described to him as a small child by his now deceased Father Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler in flashback sequences).

And as for Toothless, his life takes quite the unexpected turn once he does meet the white Night Fury (dubbed a "Light Fury"), and who soon reciprocates his affections. But as Night Furies mate for life, what does this new romance mean for the friendship between Toothless and Hiccup?

Just as with the previous two installments, Dean DeBlois' "How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World" is a meticulously detailed, lushly animated, lovingly realized escapade with a powerful attention to story, character, locale and emotion. Additionally, I continue to be engaged with the variety of dragon species presented in the film, each type given its own distinct personalities and attributes.

To that end, I appreciated how DeBlois has allowed his human characters to grow with each film, and with regards to "The Hidden World," Hiccup takes an even larger stage into his adulthood as he deeply wrestles not only with how he chooses to lead the Vikings as their young Chief, undeniably within the shadow of his deceased Father, but also his building romance with the courageous, spunky Astrid (engagingly voiced by America Ferrera), a love story that foreshadows their future marriage and eventual co-leadership of their tribe.

Of course, the enormously beating heart of this film lies within three interlinked love stories. In addition to the aforementioned union between Hiccup and Astrid, we are of course invested with Toothless and the Light Fury, which in turn fuels, informs and advances the central love story between Toothless and Hiccup to its beautifully earned tear stained finale, a conclusion that wonderfully plays into the mythology of dragons and precisely why we are unable to view them anymore.

With the luxurious Toothless, who for me, has been one of the most captivatingly realized animated creatures I have been fortunate enough to witness, I continue to be thankful and amazed with how DeBlois has refused to make him "cartoonish," so to speak, always treating him as if he were a real, living, breathing member of the animal kingdom with his own characteristics, behaviors, attributes and qualities that are completely idiosyncratic to himself and his species...as well as with the Light Fury.

I adored their romance, their dynamic with each other, their humorous mating rituals and dance of attraction which literally takes to the skies in several of the series' breathtaking, dazzling flying sequences. And again, the animation is simply astounding as both Toothless and the Light Fury communicate without spoken words and entirely through stunning body language that does indeed communicate all we need to know to understand their courtship.

To that end, we completely understand precisely why the Light Fury does not trust Hiccup, for why would she as she has been held captive, and will soon be killed by humans? To that end, and most urgently, we understand the quandary that Toothless faces as he is forced to choose between his love and his best friend. And animals being animals, hard wired through DNA to be whom they are, the choices are inevitable even as both he and Hiccup are equally afraid of having to confront farewells.

Even with all of this wonderment, I was softer on this film than the previous two chapters essentially because for every thing that indeed happens within this film, not terribly much happens. In fact, "The Hidden World" quite often reminded me of my feelings with Pixar and Lee Unkrich's "Toy Story 3" (2010), another highly entertaining, exceedingly emotional film that also felt to be more than a little padded as the rampant hijinks that took up much of the film did feel to contain more than a little conceptual wheel spinning.

With "The Hidden World," I had the same emotions as so much of the film is essentially a series of ambush attacks and escapes and all at the service of sustaining a fairly generic good vs. evil battle with a fairly generic and frankly, uninteresting villain in Grimmel the Grisly. Because of this quality, the film dragged a bit when I felt it should have continued to soar.

In retrospect, I wonder if this film even needed to have a villain at all! What if the film simply excised Grimmel and kept every other element? That would've altered some of the frame work of the series as the Viking battles have been integral to the overall plot and dragon mythology. But even so, perhaps if the film  had been even more daring and riskier, it could have had a greater potential with being something more triumphant that what it actually was.

The beauty of this series has always been the core relationship between Hiccup and Toothless and therefore, a mirror to the bond we formulate with our animal companions every day. With Dean DeBlois' "How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World," I could not help but to think about if Jada, Rigby and I were ever to be separated for an especially extended period, and then, if we were to be reunited, would they remember me? Would all that I gave to them throughout our lives be returned back to me? Or were the feelings of love just projections I placed onto them to invent a bond that truthfully never existed?

In my heart, I feel that Jada and Rigby would remember me, for sometimes, when Rigby sees me after a time when we have been apart, I look to his eyes and his gaze honestly feels as if he hasn't seen me in a year, when it has only been a few hours in a day. And also, when, on a Friday night, after yet another achingly long week, as I ease back to rest upon the love seat, Jada will blissfully appear, climb me, settle in upon my shoulder and begin to purr emphatically, as if she is soothing me for the night in a fashion that feels to be nothing less than nurturing.

Our bond with animals is something that exists of such purity and while I will never understand it, I remain so thankful to be a part of its power and exquisite grace. With "How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World," it is unquestionably this very power and exquisite grace that is paramount and provides a level of ache, sorrow and uplift that is truly rare for any film, animated or otherwise. The film's final moments are crystalline in their utter beauty and in doing so, Dean DeBlois celebrates and upholds the bonds we create and share with animals brilliantly, for these are the bonds which are unbreakable.

Friday, March 1, 2019

SAVAGE CINEMA'S COMING ATTRACTIONS FOR MARCH 2019

Now that everything regarding the 2018 movie year has officially been completed with the Academy Awards and my own Savage Scorecard series residing in the recent past, I can now fully focus all of my energies upon the 2019 movie year, which this month already houses two extremely anticipated films.

At this point, I would be hard pressed to think of too many other movies yet to be released this year that are as anticipated as Writer/Director Jordan Peele's "Us,"  his follow-up to the astounding "Get Out" (2017). As I have always said, I tend to give horror films a wide berth as I typically do not enjoy the sensation of being scared. BUT...This is Jordan Peele we're talking about and with one film, I am ready to follow him anywhere. So, let's hope Peele does not  hit the dreaded "Sophomore slump" with his latest feature.

Of course, there is also the latest Marvel Comics entry, the 1990's set "Captain Marvel" starring Brie Larson in the titular role and what will also be the precursor to the upcoming Avengers movie in April 2019.

With those two movies plus "How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World," this is more than enough for me to sink my teeth into this month. So, as always, please do wish me good luck and god health and I will see you when the house lights go down!!! 

Friday, February 22, 2019

SAVAGE SCORECARD 2018: MY TOP TEN FAVORITE FILMS OF 2018

At last!!! We have reached the top, my personal Top Ten Favorite Films of 2018. As always, I have listed where you can find the full reviews for each film should you wish to read them.

Let's get started!

10. "THE FAVOURITE"  DIRECTED BY YORGOS LANTHIMOS
Rapacious and wrathful. Ravenous and feral. Unapologetic and unrepentant. And absolutely, bloody brilliant. Yorgos Lanthimos' "The Favourite" is the historical costume period drama that I really have a strong feeling that we have all wished to see as he ruthlessly showcases all of the raw emotions and reprehensible actions that would otherwise be repressed.

With a startling trio of fearless and rightfully Oscar nominated performances from Olivia Coleman, Rachael Weisz and Emma Stone, as characters all jockeying for power and control over each other while navigating various levels of greed, jealousy, self-righteous entitlement, enraged self-preservation, "The Favourite" is tremendously and refreshingly unorthodox in its open display of gluttonous, lusty, profane vulgarity--a perfect juxtaposition of the regal surroundings and royalty of the characters. While easily his most accessible feature to date, Lanthimos continues to provoke and challenge as he weaves a social satire that just may be designed to mirror the sheer, unrelenting ugliness of our current political dialogue by driving his characters and us in the audience deep into the figurative and literal filth of things and the effect is wildly, provocatively liberating and even surprisingly poignant to view and, I would imagine, for the actors to perform.

Yorgos Lantimos' "The Favourite" is a viciously fang baring dark comedy that plunges its venomous bite repeatedly and rapturously. 
(Originally reviewed December 2018)


9. "THE HATE U GIVE"  DIRECTED BY GEORGE TILLMAN JR.
George Tillman Jr.'s excellent, pitch perfect adaptation of the outstanding debut novel from Angie Thomas, is an urgently stirring and sobering standout that explores with deftness and honesty the realities of racial code switching, police brutality and racial profiling, the urgent necessity of the survival of working class Black communities and Black families, the legacy and continuation of Black activism and all at the center, a fully three dimensional 16-year-old Black female leading protagonist we would follow absolutely anywhere.

The story of Starr Carter (a sensational Amandla Stenberg), who lives in the fictional working class Black community of Garden Heights yet attends school in a wealthy, predominantly White prep school and becomes a first hand witnesses the brutal murder of her childhood friend/first love by a White police officer is an up to the minute and piercingly humane message from the Black Lives Matter movement to a world that still refuses to regard the full value of Black people as human beings. And in addition, we are not only given another outstanding portrait of a Father/daughter relationship but of involved, engaged, loving and protective Black Fathers as Russell Hornsby's performance as Starr's former gang member/ex-con now neighborhood grocery store owner named Maverick was award worthy.
(Originally reviewed November 2018)


8. "EIGHTH GRADE"  DIRECTED BY BO BURNHAM
Meticulously observed, richly perceptive, deeply aching and featuring an impeccable, remarkable leading performance by Elsie Fisher, Bo Burnham's "Eighth Grade" is a marvelous slice-of-life film so astute and accurate to the turbulence and fragility of life at the end of Middle School that it nearly functioned as a documentary.

Fisher stars as Kayla Day, as we follow her through her final week of eighth grade as it is filled with all manner of painfully awkward situations and relationships with her classmates as well as with her single Dad (a lovely Josh Hamilton) and mostly, her vibrantly alive inner world which is fretfully, anxiously, hopefully trying to make sense of herself.  In addition to housing another excellent Father/daughter story, Burhman has also utilized "Eighth Grade" as a powerful cultural commentary about our societal addiction to social media and how, as a result, we have become more disconnected and cripplingly lonelier.

Bo Burnham's "Eighth Grade," so sad yet still hopeful enough to illustrate that this time of life can be survived, was so authentic that it gave me PTSD flashbacks to my own year in eighth grade.
(Originally reviewed August 2018)

7. "ISLE OF DOGS"  DIRECTED BY WES ANDERSON
With all due respect to those of you who still adore Pixar and especially those whose collective jaws dropped with "Spider Man Into The Spider Verse," but I am sorry, Wes Anderson's "Isle Of Dogs" was not only one of the very best films of the year, it was without question, one of the most original films of the year, animated or otherwise.

As for originality, it should be celebrated that in our time of sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, re-imaginings, and everything being based from a previously released book, cartoon, toy or amusement park ride, "Isle Of Dogs" emerged from nothing else other than the zestful, unfiltered imagination of Wes Anderson.

This tale of a dystopian Japan set 20 years in the future, where dogs have been exiled to the isolated Trash Island due to a mysterious "dog flu" for which there is no cure and is feared will transfer to the human population. Yet, the determined 12-year-old Atari takes to the skies towards the island to find his dog and is soon befriended by a quintet of abandoned canines (voiced by Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban and in a terrific performance, Bryan Cranston). This by itself would be more than enough for any film but Anderson ingenuously delivers a storytelling feast involving conspiracy theories, Japanese folk tales, non-linear storytelling structures, a 12-year-old American exchange student freedom fighter, cannibalistic dog pack, kidney transplants and whatever else flowed through his feverishly inventive brain and every little detail worked tremendously.

As for a work of animation, "Isle Of Dogs" is resplendent and especially so as a work of the painstaking process of stop-motion animation. The amount of visual details within each and every frame of this film is staggering and I feel is just a gift to behold for my eyes luxuriously soaked in every beauteous image.

And yet, it is not all just canine hijinks, as Wes Anderson, true to his idiosyncratic form and dry, droll wit has indeed lovingly crafted a dark, melancholic affair that speaks directly to the bonds shared between ourselves and all of our animal friends, plus also existing as an allegory to our real world stresses of climate change and immigration. This is a deliriously inventive work more than worthy of our collective celebration as it is a cinematic universe unlike any other and created and presented with boundless energy, zeal and blissful imagination.
(Originally reviewed April 2018)


6. "IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK"  DIRECTED BY BARRY JENKINS
A work of staggering elegance, grace, pain and palpable tragedy, Barry Jenkins' follow up to his  Oscar Best Picture winning "Moonlight" (2016) is the sumptuous adaptation of the James Baldwin novel which was not only a stunningly languid film about the Black experience, it was far and away one of 2018's most artfully humane films.

Set in early 1970's Harlem, this story of 19-year-old Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and 22-year-old Alfonso "Fonny" Hunt (Stephen James), whose tender, pure romance is supremely tested when Fonny is wrongly arrested and imprisoned for rape is a testament to the power, strength and most importantly, the endurance of love within Black romantic relationships and Black families within a cruelly indifferent and punishing White society.

With its non-linear structure, luxurious tempo, luscious cinematography and Composer Nicholas Breitell's sweeping, aching score which evokes the sound of Black American sorrow itself, "If Beale Street Could Talk" is a film of devastating beauty, tremendous empathy, and mournful truth. It is indeed a work of art so lavish that it exists as a richly expressionistic tone poem.
(Originally reviewed January 2019)


5. "A STAR IS BORN"  DIRECTED BY BRADLEY COOPER
It is rare that a film just flat out announces its own sense of greatness from the very first frame. Bradley Cooper's "A Star Is Born" is precisely one of those very rare films and this one was an undeniable powerhouse. Itself the fourth remake of the classic rise and fall musical drama, Cooper, armed with an astonishingly high confidence, crafted a classic Hollywood melodrama and up to the 21st century minute rock musical weaved in poignant and potent themes of fame and celebrity, alcoholism and addiction, fading male dominance and rising female empowerment, a smashing love story and damn, Cooper can sing too!!!

On top of it all is indeed the debut acting performance of Lady Gaga herself, as the aspiring singer/songwriter that Cooper's veteran country rock star takes under his wing and soon becomes her lover. She is absolutely, positively sensational, unquestionably proving that she indeed has the acting chops to deliver a full, three dimensional, multi-layered performance as skilled as any veteran actress.

What we have with "A Star Is Born," is swing for the fences filmmaking, over-flowing with bravado, style and heart as it effortlessly merges the melodrama, the magical and rock film authenticity the likes of which I have not seen since "Almost Famous" (2000) and even "Purple Rain" (1984)--and tremendous kudos to both Cooper and Gaga for singing LIVE during every musical sequence in the film!!

A motion picture event of splendid reach and depth, Bradley Cooper's "A Star Is Born" is exactly the movie "Bohemian Rhapsody" wished it could have been!
(Originally reviewed October 2018)


4. "BLACK PANTHER"  DIRECTED BY RYAN COOGLER
The greatest film of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe for certain. A comic book based film that fully transcended its own genre, Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" is monumental and majestic movie making. The first Marvel film that is truly about something other than heroes and villains, and with aims even greater and higher than the full representation of Black people within a major big budget superhero film release, Coogler lovingly imagines the fictional African nation of Wakanda, a technology advanced utopia that affords viewers the Afro-Futurism "What If?" concept of what a Black world may have been like if we had not ever been colonized, stolen, enslaved, murdered or has our bloodlines diluted through rape.

Yes indeed, "Black Panther" is a passionately personal artistic socio-political statement in the guise of a blockbuster as the meticulous design (sets, clothing, languages, color schemes, music, dialects, tribal markings, rituals, customs, ancestry, legacies) merged with the connection and divide between of Black Africans and Black Americans richly fuel the narrative far above and beyond the standard heroes and villains narrative.

As our titular hero, we have T'Challa the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), heir to the Wakandian throne after the assassination of his Father and Erik "Killmonger" Stevens (a searing Michael B. Jordan), the film's antagonist and representation of the painful realities of the Black experience, an African-American who has been stripped of his culture with no ability to fully access his ancestral birthright and armed with a fury that is self-righteous and rightful--therefore, making him the most complex villain in the Marvel film series to date and furthermore, making their dichotomy less Professor Xavier and Magneto and decidedly more akin to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" is a film about cultures, both real and imagined, lost and found, subjugated, humiliated, eradicated and yet maintained, sustained, and poised for the fullness of ascension. It is also the story of a new King, determining precisely how he should reign, through inclusion or isolationism. And it is a superhero movie where the most powerful elements have nothing to do with superheroics whatsoever. A truly magnificent achievement.
(Originally reviewed February 2018)


3. "WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?" DIRECTED BY MORGAN NEVILLE
An astoundingly beautiful documentary that fully made me completely re-evaluate and re-engage with the iconic Public Television figure whose program existed as his life's mission, to help children, and therefore, absolutely all of us, understand our own individualistic and inherent value as human  beings and to be acknowledged as such with ever present grace, acceptance and unconditional love.

The story of Fred Rogers, the ordained minister and life long Republican who created, wrote, hosted and performed the one-of-a-kind and frankly, radical and revolutionary children's television show "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was nothing less than revelatory, entrancing, sobering and undeniably moving as there was unquestionably not even one dry eye in the theater--and that included mine and repeatedly so.

I believe that the outpouring of emotion for this film and the power it definitely harbored is precisely due to the intense and even anxiety ridden nature of our current times and social landscape which does reveal a certain spiritual decay and existential pain housed within all of us as our discourse has shattered, our tribalism has become more impenetrable and our compassion for each other and ourselves has deteriorated considerably. What Director Morgan Neville has accomplished through his briskly paced, and artfully engaging is to celebrate this gentle giant who endlessly found cause to celebrate the world in which he lived and the people who populate it, solely through the belief that everyone is deserving of love and also, that we are all capable of loving.

An antidote to our horrific landscape and a cinematic crime that the Academy Awards neglected to nominate this wonderful film for an Oscar.
(Originally reviewed June 2018)


2. "BLACKKKLANSMAN"  DIRECTED BY SPIKE LEE
A filmmaker of unrelenting fearlessness, audacity, inventiveness, creativity and yes, fair mindedness, Spike Lee emerged this year with one of the finest films of his entire ouevre as "BlacKKlansman" is extraordinary, exhilarating and downright essential movie making.

Based upon the improbable, absurd yet defiantly true story of Colorado Springs Police Detective Ron Stallworth, John David Washington stars as Stallworth who infamously infiltrated the Colorado Springs chapter of the KKK..and yet, Stallworth is Black. To continue the investigation into the KKK, which soon leads to none other than KKK Grand Wizard David Duke himself (Topher Grace) and the uncovering of a domestic terrorism plot, Stallworth continues to communicate with the organization via telephone while White, Jewish Police Detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) portrays Stallworth in person.

Being provocative, confrontational, and controversial is indeed to be expected from an new "Joint" from Spike Lee but with "BlacKKKLansman," he has only continued to explore the turbulent landscape of race and racism in America with integrity, soulfulness, peerless skill, and a multi-layered purposefulness that this time, deftly illustrates the differences and similarities between the 1970's Black Power/Civil Rights movement and the White supremacy groups with images and rhetoric of racial self-love and self-preservation. Yet, Lee is rightfully wise to also showcase the subtle difference between the two, as being Pro-Black does not mean being Anti-White and White supremacy is the self-preservation of a race at the expense and eradication of all other races. 

Within the characters of Stallworth and Zimmerman, we are given two individuals, through serious self-examination, who come to the realization that when it comes to upholding social justice, there is no standing upon the sidelines, and that prejudices and racist tendencies are closer than one may have ever expected to experience around and even within themselves. 

Racial code switching, the pressures of being the first and only Black face in a White environment, and perceptions of race from oneself as well as those who surround you, all within a narrative and period piece purposefully designed to run concurrently with the continuously unfolding events of right here and now in the 21st century, Spike Lee's "BlacKKKlansman" is a brilliant slow burn of a film which builds into a towering, invigorating, dynamic and infuriating inferno.   
(Originally reviewed August 2018) 

1. "SORRY TO BOTHER YOU"  DIRECTED BY BOOTS RILEY
For my number one favorite film of 2018, I turn to Boots Riley's unrepentantly WTF debut feature, a film of such tremendous audacity and anxiety that it is also one of the very best films I have seen within this decade.

The odyssey of Cassius Green (played by Lakeith Stanfield), who takes a job as a telemarketer and gains financial glories only after learning to utilize his "White voice" to attract customers, is an astoundingly singular cinematic vision that not only speaks directly to this specific time in our collective cultural history in the 21st century but also to all that has happened in the past and what will play out in the future.

While it is a film about racial code-switching and the perceptions and prejudices about and concerning African-Americans, Riley has crafted an insidious fever dream of razor sharp agitprop that eviscerates reality television, cultural appropriation, the desperate status of current hp-hp and rap music and at its most feral, the full dehumanization of rampant capitalism and even worse, the full dehumanization of not ever taking a stand.

Presented as a social satire yet utilizing techniques of magical realism, surreal thrills and even science-fiction horror, Boots Riley has weaved an uncomfortable, disturbing, oft-putting, often surprising nightmare of a film that supplies a major plot twist you will never see coming that flies the film completely through the looking glass and yet, superbly continues and even cements its message during which every character is complicit and is transformed by the knowledge that blindly adhering to the status quo is precisely what will cause our societal downfall. 

No, this film is not for everyone and nor should it be as it is film designed to provoke and turn your brain inside out with a heartfelt fury. Despite the politeness of its title, Boots Riley's "Sorry To Bother You" is everything but.

This film is a cinematic Molotov cocktail.
(Originally reviewed July 2018)

There you have it. 2018's Savage Scorecard series is now complete thus making full breadth and space for the 2019 movie year!