Saturday, January 11, 2020

IT'S GONNA GET LOUD!!: a review of "Uncut Gems"

Screenplay Written by Ronald Bronstein & Josh Safdie & Benny Safdie
Directed by Josh & Benny Safdie
*** (three stars)

There are often times when I go to the movies when I am just in need of something visceral.

Sometimes it is indeed some kind of shoot-'em-up but usually, when I think of something visceral, I tend to envision some sort of adult drama where the audio/visual/emotional content are all equally firing on all cylinders, reaching peaks that could be considered to being either operatic or even feral in nature. I don't mean a slow burn of a film and I definitely do not mean cerebral. I mean...visceral!!!! Where your nerves are on a knife edge and everything feels like a gut punch.

And even so, there is indeed an art to achieving success with that sort of a film as you need a cinematic storyteller who possesses a sense of rhythm, timing, and nuance to augment and then, enhance the drama thus creating that apex of intensity. With Directors Josh and Benny Safdie's "Uncut Gems," I have to give credit when it is due as the twosome do indeed have the filmmaking and storytelling chops to pull off an experience that can elicit a dramatic effect that is borderline anxiety inducing.

And still, the film did not completely deliver the full effect I think the Safdie brothers wished to accomplish, quite possibly due to their relative filmmaking inexperience when compared to someone with the mountainous legacy of Martin Scorsese, clearly a MAJOR influence. But that being said, "Uncut Gems" is indeed visceral, yet one that is relentlessly pummeling. So much so that you may wish to bring some Tylenol along for the ride. 

Set in the year 2012, "Uncut Gems" stars a volcanic Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner, a Jewish-American jewelry store owner in New York's Diamond District, who is also a gambling addict feverishly trying to pay back escalating debts as well as involved in juggling two volatile relationships: one with his soon to be ex-wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) and Julia (Julia Fox), his mistress and employee.

Around Passover, Howard receives a rock containing a rare Ethiopian black opal (i.e. an "uncut gem") hidden inside of a crate of fish. Estimating its value at $1,000,000,  Howard plans to auction the stone and eliminate his debts, which are growing increasingly dire as loan shark Arno (Eric Bogosian) and his quick tempered goons Phil (Keith Williams Richards) and Nico (Tommy Kominik) are rapidly losing patience.

Howard's plans immediately begin to unravel when his friend and associate Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) brings the Boston Celtics' Kevin Garnett (playing himself in a surprising, electrifying performance) into the store and Garnett becomes entranced with the rock and opal, imploring that he borrow it for one night to inspire himself for that nights' basketball game.

And with this one moment, Howard Ratner's descent into his voluminous downward spiral only is just beginning...

The Safdie brothers' "Uncut Gems" is indeed strong stuff but not great stuff. That is certainly not for any lack of trying because they are unquestionably swinging for the fences. But that being said, I just felt that these are extremely talented filmmakers who still have much to learn as their film exists as one with considerable force but without a stitch of nuance and dimension.

As previously stated, it is clear that Martin Scorsese is a major influence for the Safdie brothers but more correctly, it felt as if the final third of Scorsese's now iconic "Goodfellas" (1990), the extended sequence where Ray Liotta is strung out on cocaine and insomnia, trying to evade either real or imagined surveillance while also attempting to master that pasta sauce, is the influence.

Much like that section, and even combined with essentially the entirety of Scorsese's "The Wolf Of Wall Street" (2013), it truly felt like that was the inspiring engine of "Uncut Gems" and while appropriately exhausting, the film (aside from a truly terrific final third) as a whole lacked the rhythm, the music of stress inducing cinematic cacophony that can make the most turbulent, nerve wracking sequences just sing and therefore, become exhilarating cinema to behold. 

As I regard "Uncut Gems," I am instantly reminded not only of Scorsese's aforementioned work, but also recent films like Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash" (2014) and Craig Gillespie's "I, Tonya" (2017) plus older films like Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights" (1997) and "Magnolia" (1999), and even some of Spike Lee's films from "Do The Right Thing" (1989), "Jungle Fever" (1991), "Crooklyn" (1993), "Clockers" (1995) and even more, as they all resoundingly sing with the music contained in the noise of large, over-the-top, passionate lives being lived, fought over and fought for.

All of those films contained a specific ebb and flow in the chaos of their respective stories and styles that gave form, escalation and therefore, truth to the proceedings, allowing the inherent power within each film to rise and grow in intensity and cumulative effects.

The Safdie brothers' "Uncut Gems," however, is a headache inducing barrage of dazzling cinematography courtesy of Darius Khondji, a propulsive electronic pseudo Tangerine Dream score from Composer Daniel Lopatin and furious performances, complete with an endless stream of F bombs and racial epithets and as good as it is, it didn't truly signify much beyond the sheer noise of it all.

Whether through creative intent or by way of the design via sound mixing, "Uncut Gems" is one LOUD movie. So much so that by film's end, I felt as if I had been screamed at continuously for 2 hours and 15 minutes, and no, that is not a good thing. I do deeply appreciate a good "in your face" experience but for this film, there was no ebb and flow as seemingly every single moment within the film functioned at the exact same fever pitch and volume that ultimately kept me at a bit of a distance from fully engaging.

Now, of course, I do have to turn my attention to Adam Sandler, who exactly like the Safdie brothers, has swung for the fences as his performance is truly a grand slam and more than deserving of any attention he receives during awards season. Just as the late, great Roger Ebert once expressed, I also really like Adam Sadler when he is not making "Adam Sandler movies" as he has proven himself to being a skilled dramatic actor in a series of compelling performances in varied films like James L. Brooks' "Spanglish" (2004), Mike Binder's "Reign Over Me" (2007) and of course, Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love" (2001).

For "Uncut Gems," the character of Howard Ratner is, at long last, an opportunity for Sandler to flex his creative muscles and he proves himself to being more than up to the task as he unleashes a cauldron of feral energy that is undeniably riveting to watch and wholly magnetic as you are unable to take your eyes away from him regardless of whatever and whomever is around him.

The film's final third, which I have already alluded to, is downright remarkable. Conceptually, the Safdie brothers' story has reached a certain pivotal apex involving the mistress, the loan shark and his goons, a crucial basketball game and there's Adam Sandler delivering a true tour de force of a performance that honestly served as a multi-layered running commentary of the story's events as well as his on-going existential crisis. That was exhilarating as well as brilliantly stress inducing as I also seriously wondered just how many takes did Sandler perform to make this sequence what it is...and furthermore, how did he not spontaneously combust while performing it!

Adam Sandler is absolutely sensational creating one of those larger-than-life, miscreant characters who should not be able to survive even one minute in the world but somehow, by the skin of their teeth or the skill of their rapid fire mouths, somehow lives to scrape through another the skin of their teeth or the skill of their rapid fire mouths. He more than lives up to everything the Safdie brothers throw at him and for that, I do hope the trio will join forced for another film and perhaps, the entire proceedings can be that elusive masterpiece.

The Safide brothers' "Uncut Gems" is a good film. No question. Just one that didn't entirely involve me yet rather, exhausted me from its harshly persistent rancor.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020


HAPPY NEW YEAR and of course, now that we are officially in the year 2020, HAPPY NEW DECADE as well!

I will keep this short and sweet for all of you at this time. For January, this will be a month of catch up and some compiling. To catch up, there are some more 2019 films that will go into wide release this month and I would like to see those before I make my official Savage Scorecard series ready for you.

And even then, it is time for me to begin compiling and writing my new Time Capsule series as I pour through my favorite films of the decade between 2010-2019.

That is more than enough to keep me busy, so as always, I simply ask for your well wishes and again, as always, I will see you when the house lights go down!!!!!!

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

WHO DUNNIT?: a review of "Knives Out"

Written and Directed by Rian Johnson
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

This is one of those movies that is going to be very difficult to write about but will definitely be one that I am more than certain that you will thoroughly enjoy.

First of all, in our current age of sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes, re-imaginings and all things franchised, I am still just unable to express to you enough what it means to me to be able to see something fresh and original again. While 2019 has possessed its small share of those sorts of films, they are in increasingly short supply, meaning that the arrival of something heretofore previously unknown is all the more welcome.

And so, Writer/Director Rian Johnson, fresh from his controversial, polarizing and for me, completely triumphant "Star Wars: Episode VIII-The Last Jedi" (2017), has now returned to Earth to inject new cinematic life into the classic all-star murder mystery genre with "Knives Out," a genre that admittedly never held much interest for me. Well, leave it to Johnson to craft an enormously vibrant experience that not only possesses an instantly engaging mystery but an intense yet playful agility with toying with the genre in which the central mystery houses additional mysteries and everything is held superbly aloft by a top to bottom terrific cast of characters and Johnson's inventive storytelling.

Just in the event that there are still some of you who have not yet seen this film, I will keep the plot description to a minimum. Wealthy and famous mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is celebrating his 85th birthday and has invited his family to his mansion for the festivities. By the morning after his birthday, Harlan will be found dead in his study, apparently by suicide.

Assigned to the investigation of Harlan's death is Detective Lt. Eliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and his partner (and Harlan Thrombey fan) Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) plus a surprise visitor, the anonymously hired Private Investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig).

After a series of interviews with Harlan's family members, Blanc concludes that Harlan Thrombey death was not a suicide but a murder, which of course, leaves quite a number of suspects who include: Harlan's daughter and real estate mogul Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis) plus her husband Richard (Don Johnson) and their spoiled, spiteful "black sheep" son Ransom (Chris Evans); Harlan's youngest son and CEO of Harlan's publishing company, Walter (Michael Shannon), Harlan's daughter-in-law and lifestyle "influencer" Joni (Toni Collette) and then, we also have the Thrombey house staff, most notably, young Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), Harlan's night nurse, trusted confidant and friend.

Rian Johnson's Knives Out" may on the surface seem to be another version of a dusty Agatha Christie mystery but trust me, Johnson has fully invigorated the material while clearly honoring the tone, style and tenor of what Christie's body of work has achieved. Meticulously written and directed by Johnson, beautifully photographed by Cinematographer Steve Yedlin, augmented by a stunning set design and again, filled end to end with first rate performances from the entire cast, "Knives Out" is a classic murder mystery that is also as up to the minute as the daily news as the film also serves as a morality play that could easily make this film a great part of a double bill with Bong Joon-ho's superlative "Parasite." 

And really, if I say any more than that, I will certainly spoil the fun and you know I would never wish to do that for you!!!

Just please allow me once again, especially as this review is going to be the last one in 2019, to extol my extreme pleasure with being witness to a film that is untethered to any previously created material, making for one of the more unique movie experiences I have had in this cinematic year. Rian Johnson's joyously fresh approach within a most familiar genre makes the entire proceedings feel completey anew. In doing so, we are now as excited about the material and story as he and his cast obviously are and I would be hard pressed to find any viewer who feels that this cast is not having a whale of a time.

As Benoit Blanc, Daniel Craig is obviously having a blast, clearly more fun than he has had in years, especially after having to descend into intense gloom as James Bond over and again. To that end, it was just wonderful to seeing the likes of the equally intense Michael Shannon and Toni Collette have the opportunity to loosen up while also fully serve their characters as fully as we know they are able. And oh the pleasure it is to witnessing a discovery! Ana de Armas is an actress I am not familiar with whatsoever and she held the screen with her wonderfully multi-layered performance with compelling ease and charm like a longtime screen veteran!!

Honestly, dear readers, there really is not much more than I can say other than the following: It is imperative for all of us who love the movies to keep lining up to support films that do not have any pre-conceived notions and perceptions. It is a dangerous time for the movies right now as the franchises are increasingly being made and as a result are filling our theaters at the expense of every other movie that we could see also. For me, one of the greatest joys in going to the movies is when I am not really sure of what to expect at all. When the anticipation mounts and the unadulterated elation that occurs when I am just so happily surprised when a cinematic story is so superbly well told.

Rian Johnson's "Knives Out" is indeed the type of film that exists when a filmmaker of Johnson's skill is allowed to create and play and invite us into his cinematic party, making for an experience that we never may have seen coming but are just thrilled we were here to receive it.

Monday, December 30, 2019


It almost didn't happen at all.

Dear readers, I wish for you to take a little peek behind the curtain for just a moment so that you are more able to gather a sense of who I am and therefore, the reason for the significance of this posting. I am not, and have never been, a person who really exuded a large amount of confidence. I am cautious to a fault. I have always struggled with issues of self-esteem. I am tentative in my approach. I am one who is able to rationalize myself out of anything at all.

Certainly, I have made it through my life this far, to the age of nearly 51, with some level of engagement and how could I not? I don't live in fear but I am not one who could ever consider himself to being seen as "fearless." Where others would immediately take that dive off into the deep end, I am the one who would beg off, preferring to remain safely upon dry land. In many ways, I am just fine with that. But other times, I do kick myself internally, frustrated that I will always hold myself back when I could just take that risk and leap outwards.

I bring this to your attention at this time because I am thinking to those crucial moments on the early morning of December 30, 2009, as I sat in my parents' basement during a holiday visit. I was 40 years old and I had an idea of possibly, maybe beginning a blogsite where I could write film reviews. I knew what it would be called and I knew in my heart of hearts that I could do it. I knew that I possessed some aptitude with writing and having an outlet to write about the movies I saw and the films that I loved felt like the full manifestation of what I had essentially been doing inside of my head ever since I was a child.

I knew that the world had no use for even one more person writing about the movies. I knew that I would not garner worldwide attention. I knew that in the grandest scheme of things, no one would ever really care. But, I knew I wanted to do it anyway and in that purity...why not?

And yet, there was this lack of courage to deal with...and deal with...and deal with. This creature that lives inside of my brain who is always there to tell me that what I am thinking of is not worth the trouble, that it is not worthy of attention or even acknowledgement so just give up.

But then, somehow, someway, I would receive encouragement. First, from my childhood friend and classmate Margaret Pattison, who thought enough of the little reviews I had posted upon Facebook as being worthy of attention. Secondly, from childhood friend and classmate Stephanie Werhane, who told me exactly how to make the blogsite space in the first place. And so, just that level of initial encouragement pushed me to create the site, name it "Savage Cinema" and write the initial post...

...and then, it almost never happened.

I wish I could fully express to you how difficult it was for me to hit the "Publish" button on that very first posting, the one that would make Savage Cinema a real thing, a real project that existed in the world. I was terrified. What if people just hated it? The internet has long proven itself to being a viciously cruel place of senseless vitriol and regardless of how much I desired for Savage Cinema to exist as a safe, respectful corner of the internet, I had no control over what people may think or choose to say to me if they wished. And the thought of being virtually decimated was more than enough for me to forget the entire project.

I sat at the computer and stared at the "Publish" button for what felt like eons even though it was most likely only for a few minutes. And still so, so scared at potential failure, I pressed the button and Savage Cinema was officially born...and here I am, looking back at those moments, now a full 10 years later. 10. YEARS. LATER.

Dear readers, Savage Cinema is 10 years old today and it is a milestone I never in a million years ever thought would exist for me and anything I had ever involved myself with. I am feeling so many emotions as I write to you--pride, amazement, disbelief--but, please know that I am so humbled with this achievement because I owe every bit of it to you, all of you who have ever taken time out of your lives to devote to anything that I have written. With everything in the world competing for your attention, everything that is demanding of your attention, it is not lost upon me that not one of you need to utilize your energy upon me and my pursuits whatsoever.

And yet, you have and for that my gratitude is bottomless.

Because of you, I continue to write.
Because of you, I have built up my courage.
Because of you, I have created a second blogsite devoted to music entitled Synesthesia.
Because of you, I continue to push myself into being a better writer as I wish for you to not only feel the devotion I have for the movies but also for the devotion I have for the process of writing.
Because of you, Savage Cinema will have amassed 772 postings and counting, a number I never once conceived of as I sat there so frightened to even try and press that "Publish" button 10 years ago.

Because of you, I have reached 10 years of Savage Cinema.

As I continue to move forwards, I will keep my initial pledge to you exactly the same as when I began. To try and write as best as I am able. To keep this site a home that is safe and positive and to always know that whenever I have negative criticism to offer, that there is a way to be honest, unmerciful and artful---snark for snarks sake has no place here.

As I have always expressed to you, I am no film critic or historian. I am just a film enthusiast, a person who loves going to the movies and being spellbound by some cinematic story in a darkened roomful of strangers just like you. Savage Cinema is a home for me to share with you and I hope that you reach back and share with me in return. And believe me, I sincerely hope that all of you can feel my thankfulness for your friendship and support.

 It is not like me to take note of an accomplishment. Yet, this time, I really needed to because looking back over these last 10 years, I can see concretely see the accomplishment.

Are you ready for the next 10 years? Let's get there together...


Thursday, December 26, 2019

GENTLENESS, PATIENCE, SILENCE AND GRACE: a review of "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood"

Based upon the Esquire magazine article "Can You Say...Hero?" by Tom Junod
Screenplay Written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue & Noah Harpster
Directed by Marielle Heller
**** (four stars)

I have to say that I was very unsure about the purpose of making this film.

Before any of you dear readers begin to raise any sense of ire, please allow me to explain. You see, with regards to the life, work and teaching of Fred Rogers, I truly felt that as far as having a film was concerned, that feat was already beautifully achieved just one year ago with Director Morgan Neville's remarkable, enlightening and resoundingly emotional documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" (2018), a film I listed near the very top upon my Top Ten Favorite Films of 2018.

When I had first read that a new film, a dramatic narrative feature film starring Tom Hanks as the beloved Mr. Rogers would be made, I was admittedly unsure. For as much as the casting felt to be perfect, I wasn't sure if we necessarily needed this film since the documentary had just arrived and truly seemed to fill that specific space. Would a film about Mr. Rogers starring Tom Hanks be remotely as effective or would it just exist as trite, Oscar bait?

With the arrival of Director Marielle Heller's "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood," my questions have been answered and beautifully so. Not only is Heller's film vital and resonant, therefore making its existence necessary, it is a film that works exquisitely in tandem with the documentary while also existing as its own confident cinematic experience. Beyond that, it is a gentle, deeply empathetic and quietly wonderful film that truly feels as if Fred Rogers had written it himself as it, again, feels to be conceived in the fullness of his generous spirit.

Fashioned and structured as if we are watching an episode of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," Marielle Heller's "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" opens just as the television program, with visions of the toy buildings, streets and cars leading into the house where Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) arrives and enters, singing his treasured theme song ad changing from his street clothes into more comfortable sweater and sneakers.

From this point, we are son introduced to the character of Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), an award winning journalist for Esquire magazine, who is currently in the throes of a deep internal crisis. Married to public attorney Andrea Vogel (a warmly rich Susan Kelechi Watson) and an ambivalent new Dad to their son Gavin, Lloyd, despite his good fortune, is miserable, sardonic, has slowly begun to amass a dark reputation as an embittered writer.

Lloyd reaches his critical point while attending his sister's wedding, when he is surprised by the arrival of his long estranged Father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), whose philandering and alcoholism forever damaged the family. The reunion quickly leads to a fistfight. Further attempts from Jerry to reconcile are met with intense refusal. And rapidly, Lloyd's anger, resentment and inability to forgive begins to overtake his spirit.

By either fate, design (or maybe even some divine intervention, perhaps?), Lloyd is soon instructed by Ellen, his friend and Editor (Christine Lahti) to meet, interview ans write a profile about Fred Rogers for the magazine's special celebration of real life heroes, assignment Lloyd meets with reluctance and skepticism. 

And then, Lloyd meets Fred Rogers and their first brief interview tentatively leads to becoming a dialogue which then becomes a new foundation for Lloyd to begin the process of reconciling himself with his past, his present and his Father.

Marielle Heller's "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" is truly a lovely, deceptively "little" film that does indeed carry quite a large reach. It is an aesthetic triumph certainly as the meticulous work from Production Designer Jade Healy, which is lovingly established via all of the miniature sets to the full recreation of the entire "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" television experience--from the stage sets, television studio design and of course, all of the elements within the Land Of Make Believe--is instantly recognizable, immersive and unquestionably worthy of any awards season attention.

As previously stated, Heller stages and sequences the film as if it we are watching an extended episode of the television series, from the transitions to even occasional digressions from the film's main plotline, as just like the original series, when Mr. Rogers would presents some filmed sequence of something that is clearly of interest to himself that he wishes to share with all of us. In the case of this film, we are given a sequence with a string quartet on stage, for instance. It is a sequence that does nothing to drive the story but exists as a means of allowing us a time to pause, to intake, to engage and enjoy with the inherent beauty of regarding musicians creating and Mr. Rogers, like ourselves, happily lost in the act of listening.

For all of the acknowledgments "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" has already received from critics and viewers who have remarked that the kindness displayed throughout the film is a perfect antidote to the rampant venom and vitriol that is marking our societal and even spiritual decay in the 21st century, to which I agree, I think the film succeeds in also strongly feel that what Heller has achieved so beautifully is to display how much could be gained if we all honestly took the time to devote ourselves to the act of listening to one another.

Like our central figure of Fred Rogers, Heller's film is a patient, thoughtful, often very quiet film that is in no hurry and is so wisely understated, understanding that all of the drama is inherent and does not need to be pushed. Yet, as a stand-in for the audience, the character of Lloyd is absolutely perfect as a representation of what it feels like to grow and age in an increasingly anxious world while still feeling like who we once were as small children, people still so very much in need of support, guidance, empathy and just having our deepest feelings and fears acknowledged and understood by someone...anyone.

While Tom Hanks is obviously receiving all of the attention for his performance (more on that shortly), I think the star of the film is indeed Matthew Rhys, whose journey from cynic to someone more compassionate, while more than familiar, is one that unfolds in this film with such grace, gentleness and an uncanny touch of soul that speaks directly to the existential crisis that is housed inside all of us.

All of us carry our own share of baggage. All of us, at one point or another, have felt ourselves to being broken. While Heller does utilize some surreal touches to illustrate Lloyd's inner crisis, what I loved was how she, and therefore, Rhys work with quiet and silence, allowing us the time and space to engage with or inner spirit just as the character is performing for himself...and only because Mr. Rogers has taken the time and effort to engage, to listen, to feel, and to provide comfort just by being so present.

Lloyd's pregnant pauses in his conversations with Mr. Rogers are our own pregnant pauses. When Mr. Rogers asks of Lloyd to take one full minute to go into the silence of himself and think about all of the people in his life who have each contributed into making Lloyd the man that he is, Heller and Rhys perform the remarkable feat of having all sound drop away and let the film exist in pure silence and we regard the man internally taking stock of his life in real time...just as we are performing for ourselves in the audience.

As for Tom Hanks, the excellence of his performance is extends far beyond imitation, even though his interpretation is often eerie in its perfection of the real Fred Rogers' vocal mannerisms and physicality. Hanks somehow has found a way to embody Fred Rogers from the inside out, and especially strong accomplishment due partially to the iconic status of this figure and partially due to the fact that this film is not a biographical drama or necessarily even about Fred Rogers in the first place. 

For as much as we witness Fred Rogers' relationship with Lloyd as one where Lloyd is the beneficiary of Rogers' kindness and counseling, Tom Hanks ensures that Fred Rogers is always presented as human while most people may view him as a saint. In doing so, we witness moments when Rogers is visibly thankful that he himself is a person who wishes to be as seen just as anyone else in the world.

I enjoyed a scene during the creation of an episode during which Mr. Rogers is planning to erect a tent, a task which ultimately proves unsuccessful and even frustrating. As his television crew questions whether he wishes to re-take the scene, Fred Rogers demurs and says that it is better to show his audience of children how sometimes things do not go as planned and how we figure out ways to overcome failure. On a larger scale, when Lloyd genuinely suggests to Rogers that being the person and public media figure he is must carry a significant burden, Fred Rogers' reaction at being seen, honestly seen is enlightening in its graciousness and gratefulness.

With Tom Hanks' performance, we witness that even as he aids Lloyd and his beloved audience of children, he subtlety illustrates that the act of being "Mr. Rogers" to the world while living life as Mr. Rogers must have taken its toll on some level, making him a figure who was always, and crucially, one of the rest of us. A person who never spoke down to anyone because, quite possibly, he was always speaking to himself along with us every single time, illustrated beautifully by Heller as she focuses her camera upon Mr. Rogers singing and puppetering out of view instead of his puppet creation Daniel Tiger during a Land Of Make Believe segment. 

Marielle Heller's "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" is a film that works as the gentlest and all inclusive Sunday service sermon. There is no proselytizing or any stitch of dogma. Just genuine care and concern and love for one's fellow human being, all of whom are just trying to get by day-by-day.

As evidenced in Fred Rogers' painfully, gorgeously fragile musical composition entitled "Am I A Mistake?," a sentiment that we all harbor as we try to understand our own existence, Heller's film exists not solely as a tribute to Mr. Fred Rogers, but as a work that provides us the warmest, strongest embrace and the most sympathetic set of ears in these very dark times in which we live. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

THE FORCE WILL BE WITH US...ALWAYS: a review of "Star Wars: Episode IX-The Rise Of Skywalker"

Based upon characters and situations created by George Lucas
Story by Derek Connolly & Colin Trevorrow and Chris Terrio & J.J. Abrams
Screenplay Written by Chris Terrio & J.J. Abrams
Directed by J.J. Abrams
**** (four stars)

Enthralling, extravagant, enormously entertaining, explosive, exhilarating, excessive and exhausting, we have reached the conclusion of the story, 42 years in the making, set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

I vividly remember the year 1980, the year in which I was 11 years old and was already salivating with anticipation for the release of what was then the second "Star Wars" film, "The Empire Strikes Back." It was within the corresponding TIME magazine article, written and published just before the film's release, where I (and therefore, everyone) discovered precisely what series creator George Lucas had in mind regarding the further adventures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo and their friends as they continued their battles against the Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader.

The article revealed that Lucas' plans were essentially delivered within that film's opening text crawl as we would all see the words, "Episode V." At that time, George Lucas announced that his vision for "Star Wars" would consist of three different trilogies, a whopping nine films overall, and that we were (then) currently viewing the middle trilogy, with Episodes I-III focusing on the times before Luke Skywalker and Episodes VII-IX focusing on our central triumvirate at their advanced ages. That news blew my mind apart, just as it did for all of my friends, and, as I would presume, everyone of my generation whose lives were forever transformed by the original, inaugural 1977 film. It also made me perform some serious mathematics at the time because if each film took three years to make and then, there were obviously seven more films to go, then I would be...32 years old when the whole thing was said and done in the year 2001?!

It just felt so impossible, so inconceivable and still so incredible to behold, I was ready to spend my life taking this ride into this cinematic universe that had so enraptured and enveloped me from that very first film on its' opening day, no matter how long it took to play out and however old I was once the finish line had been reached.

As of this writing, I am 50 years old and the "Star Wars" saga has taken its fair share of twists and turns over these past 42 years, with all manner of stops and starts and even Lucas' self-removal from the creation of the films altogether. But, here we are, Episode IX, fully graced with the title "The Rise Of Skywalker," is finally in the world and as advertised, it is indeed the epic conclusion to the full story of the Skywalker family, which, by no small feat whatsoever, has been valiantly brought to us by Director J.J. Abrams.

"The Rise Of Skywalker" is indeed a terrific film, as it is resoundingly well made, furiously presented and in complete reverence to the universe George Lucas built. But that being said, the film is not quite as smooth of a ride as Abrams' "Star Wars: Episode VII-The Force Awakens" (2015) or Writer/Director Rian Johnson's polarizing "Star Wars: Episode VIII-The Last Jedi" (2017), which, in my opinion, absolutely soared, nearly redefining what a "Star Wars" movie could actually be.

But any struggles have got to be evident when any filmmaker has taken up the intense, immense challenge of completing a nine chapter story that they never even began in the first place. Yet, once those final end credits began to pepper the galaxy of stars, my heart was profoundly full and face was flush with tears.

"Star Wars: Episode IX-The Rise Of Skywalker" opens one year after the events of "The Last Jedi" as the decimated forces of the Resistance, still under the steady guiding hand of General Leia Organa (the late, great Carrie Fisher), are preparing to make their last ditch effort against the fascistic First Order and Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

As our heroes Finn (John Boyega), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and BB-8 gear up for what will essentially be the Resistance's last stand against galactic tyranny, Rey (Daisy Ridley), more advanced than ever in the ways of the Force will also come to the fullness of terms with her identity, history and legacy, as well as her connection with Kylo Ren.

But even greater (and not a spoiler, so do not worry), is the orchestration of all of the events by the nightmarish influence of the resurrected Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, clearly relishing every moment), and his Final Order, which threatens to engulf the galaxy in 1000 generations of the Sith forever.

I have to say at the outset that I do not envy J.J. Abrams one bit because when conceiving of an ending, how does one even begin? I really began to house these feelings even more as I have re-watched "The Last Jedi" several times over these past two years, and what continues to strike me so powerfully about that film is its sense of completeness. Yes, there are the obvious plot threads that are left open at that film's conclusion, but what Rian Johnson grandly accomplished for me was to deliver a "Star Wars" movie that was so full, in and of itself, that by its final shot, we had a vision that encapsulated the entirety of the "Star Wars" experience so thoroughly that I literally wanted for nothing and if the films ended there, I would have been sated.

Rian Johnson's "The Last Jedi" was the singular "Star Wars" film that simultaneously honored, celebrated and most importantly, challenged its own legacy and existence, therefore, allowing whatever that followed the freedom to be potentially anything at all.

Now, we now that these films were not created in their respective vacuums, so to speak as both J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson were aware of what each other was doing within their respective films. Even so, I can only imagine how daunting it must have been to take up the mantle to finish the entire saga, especially after Johnson's idiosyncratic definitiveness. Yet, I can also imagine that one cannot be tentative about something like this and one just needs to get to the business of the thing and make the movie. Or as Yoda once said long ago, "Do or do not. There is no try."

With "The Rise Of Skywalker," J.J. Abrams hits light speed from the film's first moments and does not let up for a solitary second. Trust me, this is not hyperbole from me. Abrams' pacing is white lightning as he propels us from one moment to another with such whiplash inducing alacrity that it is almost counter productive to the entire proceedings.

I am actually surprised that I am making this kind of an observation but there were points where I wanted him to actually slow down. Of course, the urgency of the film's plot dictates the pacing to a degree but mostly, "The Rise Of Skywalker," as least for much of its first half, felt like an orchestra of ideas, plot points, revelations, confrontations and surprises that all arrived with the same fever dream intensity and therefore, without much nuance and the result undercut its own sense of awe from time to time.

Yes, J.J. Abrams flies so fast that he nearly careens off of the rails. This film has marked, for me, the very first time that I have had the odd sensation of watching Abrams struggle as a storyteller as he throws so much at us so rapidly that at best, it carried the "we-have-so-much-to-get-through-in-just-so-much-time" effect, and at its worst, it felt like the first time a "Star Wars" movie was trying to sneak something past me through the sheer...ahem...force of its own velocity.

No matter what has ever occurred within the previous eight chapters and two stand alone features, I always have felt that, for better or for worse, George Lucas believed in his own material. That other filmmakers within this expansive saga believed in their own material. With "The Rise Of Skywalker," J.J. Abrams blinks a little, (or mistakenly allowed the voices of the fan community get in his ear) as if he doesn't quite believe the revelations he is unveiling, as the film seemed unwilling to take a moment of pause to allow its story to resonate fully.

As you can see from my personal star rating, I have awarded the film with my highest posting of four stars but as I have often expressed on this site, star ratings are arbitrary and not all four star movies are the same. In the case of this latest, final trilogy in the Skywalker saga, "The Rise Of Skywalker" falls a tad short from its two predecessors, but that being said, once the film settles and allows itself to grow quiet, to meditate within itself, to bring its core themes to their fullest fruition, man does this film RISE!!!

All of the action sequences, costumes, set designs, visual effects are the pinnacle of their dazzling wonderment. Jedi Master Composer John Williams should receive a special award celebrating the unparalleled skill and beauty to which he has told the entirety of this nine chapter saga musically, where all of his signature themes are felt within every synapse and nerve ending. But it is through J.J. Abrams' entire cast, all of whom work wonders, thus ensuring our connection to these characters remains paramount amidst all of the pyrotechnics, interstellar dogfights, shoot-outs, predicaments and escapes and most certainly, the whirlwind lightsaber duel set atop the ruins of the fallen Death Star in a howling sea storm.

Daisy Ridley has taken her three film arc in the odyssey of Rey, from desert scavenger to Jedi Knight, and has performed brilliantly, making this journey of mythological self-discovery succeed as equally as it is a story of empowerment and independence. Her determination pulsates and radiates from the screen resulting in one of the richest acting performances within the entire series. To that end, Adam Driver is molten lava! He remains as outstanding as ever as his raging internal conflict, combined with his intimidating physicality and presence, has made Kylo Ren the saga's most turbulent member of the Skywalker clan as well as its most compelling and magnetic. When he is on screen, you hardly look at anything else.

Carrie Fisher...

Of course, to again witness the sight of the late Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa, who passed away in 2016 after the filming of "The Last Jedi," is fraught with a tremendous bittersweetness. In a film that already possessed considerable cinematic mountains to climb, I do give great credit to Abrams to did execute some striking movie magic through the insertion of unused footage from "The Force Awakens" in a creative, inventive and story driven fashion, allowing us to luxuriate in her gravitas and allow her a proper farewell.

And of course, I would be more than remiss if I did not express how wonderful it was to witness the  smooth as the silken cosmos Billy Dee Williams in his grand return as Lando Calrissian. It appeared that he was as thrilled to be back in the cape as well as in the seat of the Millennium Falcon as we are to see him again. And in the spirit of the film's finality, just regard the strength of his performance as he wordlessly observes all around him. He captures the poignancy and poetry of the character, the fullness of the story and most importantly, our relationship to all we have seen and experienced throughout this entire journey.
In his review of "Return Of The Jedi" (1983), the late, great Roger Ebert took notice of a throwaway yet profound moment that occurs after Luke Skywalker has escaped from and vanquished the  fearsome Rancor while trapped in the bowels of Jabba The Hutt's lair. It is a moment when the Rancor's keeper comes upon the creature's lifeless body and then breaks down in sobs as this was his pet. Ebert remarked that within the "Star Wars" universe, everyone loves someone.

Despite its flaws, J.J. Abrams' "The Rise Of Skywalker" is indeed a testament to the love that flows throughout the entire saga within all of the characters and it is because of that purity of heart, the notion that the act of love towards one another is the only thing that will save us from the end is a core theme and message that permeates from fantasy into our very grim realities of the 21st century.

As tyranny rises and fascism knocks louder and louder upon our doors, the film, through the Resistance and their battle against the Final Order, passionately expresses that we are only as alone as we may think. Part of what makes such evil succeed is to convince the masses that their numbers are greater than they actually are so how do we combat something that feels insurmountable? the case of "Star Wars," all we need to do is to look at the all of the misfits, outcasts, loners and cast aways who all found each other, banded together and found the drive within themselves to become unlikely heroes, all standing upon the shoulders of each other as well as all who came before themselves. With "The Rise Of Skywalker," we have reached the culmination of this journey and it is the love that J.J. Abrams clearly holds for "Star Wars," a love that mirrors the love we hold for it ourselves and which shines as brightly and as powerfully as the most luminous lightsaber through one exquisitely presented grace note after another.

J.J. Abrams' "The Rise Of Skywalker" certainly shakes the theater walls with copious excitement and several stand up and cheer moments. But, the sheer emotion of the film is staggering as it fully earns any and all tears we may happen to shed as we experience and remember and know so completely that The Force will be with us...always.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

OPEN SEASON: a review of "Queen & Slim"

Story by James Frey & Lena Waithe
Screenplay Written by Lena Waithe
Directed by Melina Matsoukas
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

I have said it before upon this site, and here I am having the need to express these thoughts once again. I distinctly remember the night on July 13, 2013 when George Zimmerman was found not guilty for the murder of 17 year old Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012. I remember seeing the verdict on television and thinking out loud...

"It is now 'Open Season' on Black people."

Again I have to express that in the time since that horrific, seemingly impossible verdict, we have seen the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, a protest that has, in equal measures horrific and seemingly impossible, has received considerable push-back and outright derision. Police shootings, and therefore murders, of unarmed Black people, and with no sense of legal retribution have grown to levels I feel are at an epidemic, especially as these crimes against humanity have seemingly grown more bold and brazen, precisely because they are now being filmed and even still, there is no sense of justice.

And again, I have to express that gun laws have become lessened just as "Stand Your Ground" laws have only become more enforced. And just having the now routine images and news stories about White people having the police called to investigate Black people for having a barbecue, for entering their own homes, for taking a nap in a student commons area and so on, have all made me more fearful for my own safety than I have ever been in my lifetime.

My skin color and size have never been more apparent to me as I have grown more, and rightfully, paranoid with how others may perceive me without ever speaking one word to me and how they may or may not react to me upon seeing me. And again and again, I have to express that the sight of police cars as I am driving, especially at night, give me serious pause, making me wonder with fright, what would I do if I were to be pulled over. Would any moment like that be the final moments of my life? This is being Black in America, right NOW in 2019.

Yes, I felt the intense need to say those words all over again.

Tapping into this terrifying, mournful, maddening and now expected aspect of what it means to be Black in America, we arrive with Director Melina Matsoukas' "Queen & Slim," an atmospheric, meditative road movie during which our titular characters find themselves up on a date and then, the subjects of a manhunt over the course of six days in the blink of an eye. It is a sobering, somber film that is by turns crackling with energy, poetic in its pathos, and submerged in the life and pain of two African-Americans in a world they never made that has now turned its cross-hairs upon them.  Beyond that, Matsoukas and Writer Lena Waithe have perceptively and wisely created a film that explores the subjective nature of prejudices and stereotypes in a deft fashion that smartly and uncomfortably involves the audience as well, forcing us to examine ourselves as we regard this doomed affair.

In a small Cleveland, Ohio restaurant, sit Queen (played by Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (played by Daniel Kaluuya), out on what is essentially a blind date and the date is going badly. It is an evening already fraught with mixed messages, misrepresentations, and a tension that could be considered sexual or even romantic if not for the obvious fact that the two clearly are not finding a connection.

Queen is a criminal defense attorney, who at this time is despondent due to a lost case earlier in the day, while Slim is an employee of Costco. Slim prays before eating his meal. Queen does not and appears irritated to be in the presence of something so private and possibly foreign to herself. Queen, clearly disapproving of the meager quality of the restaurant, openly questions whether the establishment was all Slim could afford, to which he replies that he chose this restaurant because "It is Black owned." Touche. Trying to work a new angle, Slim asks Queen why she decided to swipe on his photo and call him to which she replies that in his profile photo he looked "sad" and that she felt sorry for him. Ouch.

They finish eating and Slim begins to drive Queen home, a jaunt that is beginning to feel interminable and is undoubtedly not going to lead to anything remotely intimate. As the car sways in the late night traffic due to a mini-tiff between the two, Queen and Slim are soon pulled over by an antagonistic--and White--police officer, leading to an altercation that leaves the police officer dead and Queen and Slim now on the run, their lives upended forever.

Melina Matsoukas' "Queen & Slim" is an evocative, nuanced experience that combines the epic nature of the road movie with the intimacy of a relationship drama as filtered through the lens of the Black Experience. Certainly, comparisons to Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) will be made by viewers as well as some of the characters in the film itself. But for me, Matsoukas created an experience that is more in line with Dennis Hopper's "Easy Rider" (1969) and definitely Ridley Scott and Writer Callie Khouri's now iconic "Thelma & Louise" (1991), films where outsiders, disenfranchised and the discriminated find themselves all on the wrong end of America's malevolence and all to a tragic effect.

The tragedy of Melina Matsoukas' "Queen & Slim" does not arrive through any sense of conceptual unpredictability. The tragedy arrives in real-as-life inevitability. It would not prove itself to be any sort of a spoiler to suggest that the film concludes with grim inevitability, for any one of you who has been paying any attention whatsoever to the social/political/cultural/racial events of our modern times, the outcome of Queen and Slim's journey is as brutally obvious as it is honest.

In fact, what Matsoukas has accomplished is presenting yet one more impassioned film that is effectively designed for the Black Lives Matter era, a film that walks cinematic hand in hand with Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station" (2013) and George Tillman Jr.'s "The Hate U Give" (2018), as they each are the screams of the Black community to the nation at large that we are human beings deserving of living life as much as our White counterparts.

To that end, Matsoukas' film works powerfully alongside Steve McQueen's "12 Years A Slave" (2013) and even Damon Lindelof and HBO's shockingly outstanding "Watchmen" television series. She and Waithe depict precisely that for Black people in America, even in the 21st century, we are never as free as we think or as free as we wish ourselves to being as our lives can change in a split second for no other reason than for the color of our skin and the ignorance, fear, prejudices of those who project their demons onto us as well as a social/political infrastructure that is purposefully designed against us.

At its core, I feel that "Queen & Slim" is an exploration of perceptions and the subjectivity that allows us to place a certain significance upon individuals when they could possibly be the furthest from the truth...and at times, without any conceivable knowledge of the truth. Just take the film's opening sequence at the diner. Lena Waithe's screenplay writing is never more riveting and brilliant than in that first scene when every line of dialogue is a firecracker that blows up any pre-conceived perceptions both Queen and Slim have towards each other.

Certainly, as they are pulled over, the perceptions of fear and racism from the police officer's vantage point are obviously the engine driving the confrontation. As the twosome go on the run and their story via the police officer's dash camera which recorded the altercation hits the media, everyone that views the footage is then able to dream up their own individualized perceptions and misconceptions about Queen and Slim, neither of whom are outlaws by an stretch of the imagination. But only we in the audience know that to be a fact. Yet, even so, we, sitting comfortably in our movie theater seats are not let off of the hook as we do not even learn of these two characters' real name until the film's final moments, showing us how little we all knew of these two human beings relentlessly hunted down like game.

Matsoukas and Waithe continue this conceptual thread throughout the Queen and Slim's odyssey via the characters they meet along the way, from a mechanic, a teenager, the intensely complicated existence of Black police officers when played against White police officers and the African-American community to a White couple (played by Chloe Sevigny and, surprise, surprise, Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers) in Florida to whom the twosome are directed for sanctuary. 

For me, the most compelling figure was of Queen's Uncle Earl (played by a superbly magnetic Bokeem Woodbine), an Iraq war veteran suffering from PTSD, who is now living in a small New Orleans home now living out his existence as a pimp. This character was one deserving of his own feature film as richly conceived as he was in a few brief scenes. On sight, we have formulated a perception and then we are challenged as we learn more and more of his backstory, as it plays out with his conflicted relationships with the women in his life, while he also provides Queen and Slim with crucial aid on their escape.

And through everything we experience, so richly through Matsoukas' direction, Waithe's strong script, as well as Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe's stunning visuals (I swear every time the color blue appeared, I felt chills of impending doom) and the diverse and exquisitely curated collection of songs that provide's our titular characters with their musical voices, the performances of Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith hold us powerfully as through them, we see the humanity that the world refuses to acknowledge.

When will the world acknowledge our humanity? This is the plea of Melina Matsoukas' "Queen & Slim," where the only moment of freedom arrives in the rush of the breeze upon the skin through a open car window in a world where freedom should exist within every moment we take a breath.