Tuesday, June 19, 2018

NOT THAT INCREDIBLE: a review of "Incredibles 2"

A Pixar Animation Studios Film
Written and Directed by Brad Bird
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

First things first. I am certain that many, if not all of you will love this film. It is exceedingly well made and it is bound to make a fortune at the box office, perfectly satisfying all manner of fans who have patiently waited 14 years for this second installment of the superhero family. All of that being said, and for as much as I did like about the movie, I was ultimately underwhelmed.

Now when we first met the Parr family, otherwise known as The Incredibles, featuring Bob Parr a.k.a. the muscle bound Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), his wife Helen a.k.a. the rubber-limbed, super flexible Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), sullen yet force field conjuring, fading to invisible at will teenage daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), rambunctious super speed gifted young son Dash (Huck Milner)and infant Jack-Jack in Writer/Director Brad Bird's "The Incredibles" (2004), we really only had two of Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" trilogy and two of Bryan Singer's "X-Men" entries as part of our superhero landscape populating our national cineplexes. At that time, Christopher Nolan was still one year away from debuting the first entry in his now iconic "Dark Knight Trilogy" and the Marvel Cinematic Universe was four years away from emerging onto the scene as well. Even on television, we were still two years away from NBC's "Heroes."  I think you get the picture.

In 2004, we were also living within a period when Pixar made art films! While I do apologize for the slight and uncharacteristic snark, there is a real point to be made when looking at the artistic to commerce driven trajectory of Pixar over the years, for in 2004, Pixar was still at the forefront of American animated films, setting the GOLD STANDARD by creating works for the ages. Brad Bird's "The Incredibles" was truly one of the very best the studio had released to date at that time.

The combination of super powers, a James Bond styled plotline and the precarious realities and anxieties of a midlife crisis at the core was ingenious and fresh, making "The Incredibles" precisely the type of film experience we hadn't quite seen before. Furthermore, and for as much as I have been critical about the prevalence of Pixar's increasing slate of unnecessary sequels, Bird's film was the sole Pixar entry for me that truly felt to deserve a second chapter.

And yet...

Brad Bird's "Incredible 2" is by no means a failure, or a bad film or even a necessarily disappointing one, so to speak. But it was one that lacked a certain inexplicable spark of life, the very kind that did make the original film so wonderful and unexpected. Could it be that we are unable to throw the smallest pebble and not hit 30 superheros in the movies and television these days? Perhaps, that does steal a bit of thunder from the Parr family. Even so, "Incredibles 2" did have certain roadblocks that not even the super-powered could defeat, making for a film that was truthfully unimpressive.

When we last saw The Incredibles, they had just defeated the villain Syndrome and were preparing themselves for a battle royale with a new enemy named The Underminer (voiced by Pixar good luck charm John Ratzenberger), the mole-like super-villain bent on destruction. "Incredibles 2" picks up directly at that moment, yet unfortunately the family is unsuccessful with stopping The Underminer from robbing the Metroville bank, while amassing a hefty amount of destruction in the process. This defeat for the superhero family forces them, and all superheroes, including family friend Lucius Best a.k.a. Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), to return to seclusion and for the Parr's relocation.

Soon, the family is visited by Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), telecommunication mogul, owner of the DEVTECH corporation and enthusiastic superhero fan, who proposes a publicity stunt to regain the public's trust of superheroes. Helen Parr cautiously takes the bait, returns to her secret identity as Elastigirl, complete with a new costume from a different fashion designer than family designer Edna Mode (voiced by Brad Bird), and departs, leaving Bob to take care of the children, including little Jack-Jack, who suddenly begins to display a series of new and unpredictable powers.

Meanwhile, Helen, while working with Winston and his technological genius sister Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener), soon confronts a new villain known as the Screenslaver, a figure who hijacks and utilizes visual screens to hypnotize and brainwash victims to perform all evil biddings. Will Helen be able to stop the Screenslaver? And even grander, will Violet ever have her first date with the boy of her dreams? And finally, can Bob ever figure out that confounded "New Math"? 

Brad Bird's "Incredibles 2" is a hyper-kinetically paced, imaginatively restless, visually dazzling film that works like the devil to keep the characters, action, and the jokes in constant momentum. With Composer Michael Giacchino's brassy, bombastic score punctuating every solitary moment, the film barely takes a breath, a tactic which works in fits and starts as some sequences are made more dynamic and hysterical in their breakneck agile fluidity while others hurl by with the blur of a whirlwind, where not much sticks to the surface.

For instance, the show stopping sequence where Jack-Jack battles a pesky raccoon was presented with the comical light speed flourish of a classic Looney Tunes short. Yet, on the other hand, I do have to admit that many of the superhero battles, chases, and rescues, while brilliantly animated by those Pixar wizards under Brad Bird's direction, are indeed so propulsive and therefore, so indistinguishable from every other piece of CGI bombast that we always see and have grown accustomed to viewing, that everything hurtled and boomed to no true effect.

And that quality is more than unfortunate as what made "The Incredibles" so special and unique that the superhero angle worked solely because we had the family dynamic of the Parrs as the core, the engine and the soul of the film. For "Incredibles 2," while the family element remains crucial, it just felt that Bird leaned a bit too heavily upon the superhero angle, thus decreasing his film's ultimate impact and overall differentiation from every other superhero film and television show in our midst these days. I have long expressed my feelings of superhero fatigue upon this site and I  guess, I really wasn't terribly interested in learning about more new  heroes and their powers when there was already a more sensational story of a family right in front of us ready and waiting to be told.

Now, that criticism should not be taken that I felt "Incredibles 2" to be a film without any substance. On the contrary, what I enjoyed the very most about the film was how Brad Bird pushed essentially all of his female characters right to the forefront of the film...again slyly giving the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet another would to lick as they still have not yet released a female driven film, unlike DC Comics and Patty Jenkins' "Wonder Woman" (2017).

Actually, and speaking of "Wonder Woman," "Incredibles 2" almost serves some of the same functions as that film presented. As the first film focused upon Bob's middle aged angst, "Incredibles 2" allows Helen to take the center stage as she fully relishes her chance to indulge her own super-heroics and engage in the action and mystery involving the Screenslaver.

Watching her as she races through the city streets on her flashy motorcycle, slyly winking at her young fans and feeling nothing less than euphoria saving the passengers of a runaway train, Helen Parr as Elastigirl not only has tapped into the same emotions that resuscitated Bob in the first film, she has, on a grander level, re-connected with what makes her super-heroic as a woman in the first place. She is amazed with herself and we get the chance to be amazed with her. Even moreso, it feels as if she had submerged qualities of herself while living the life of a housewife and Mother, roles she certainly never admonished at any point in either film but even so...there was something missing in her life.

Becoming Elastigirl full time again has allowed Helen Parr to tap into her strength, her bravery, her ingenuity, cleverness and even a certain (safe for PG rated family films) allure as well as levels of risk taking she had to bury once superheroes became illegals and she had to step into her domestic role full time. Now, Helen Parr is fully empowered and through writing and direction of Brad Bird, Holly Hunter's crackerjack performance and the animators, who, at times, somehow make Helen look like Holly Hunter (especially around her mouth), here is where "Incredibles 2" soars.

To that end, beefing up Violet's role in comedy, bravery and maturity elevates the character, Sarah Vowell's terrific performance and the proceedings of the film as a whole. In actuality, with the film's other major and supporting characters, from Edna Mode, Evelyn Deavor and other super-heroic characters that pepper the film, "Incredibles 2" is, without question, a female driven tale, and the result is indeed more than refreshing.

But why couldn't all of the elements of "Incredibles 2" be this refreshing as well? Again, there's nothing bad, per se. Just portions that pulled the film downwards when it should have only continued to rise higher. Yes, Jack-Jack and the discovery of his myriad of new superpowers was funny but for me, a little of that, and the hijinks that ensued, went a long way. The identity of the Screenslayer was painfully obvious, thus diluting any of the film's central mystery and therefore, just making us wait for the inevitable. But worst of all of the treatment of Bob Parr.

I saw this film on Father's Day of all days and it just struck me sadly that Brad Bird, for whatever reason, could not think of anything else but every single, tired, sad cliche of the ding-dong Dad to trot out. Why did Bob Parr have to be yet another buffoon Dad? He can't care for the baby, he doesn't understand his teenage daughter, he can't follow the New Math, ha ha ha...yawn!!! It was all so..."Mr. Mom" (1983) and even then, it was a little worn out. The Parr family and the film deserved so much better.

Well...as far as where Pixar ranks now, I am certain they will not lose any of their luster, at least at the box office. But, still...I hope they find their way back. Back to when every single film they released was an event. Where every single film they released was a treasure, one to love for now and for always. One to grow with over time and continue to cherish and share no matter what age you are. The wizards at Pixar have been cashing checks for far too long, and what makes it all so saddening is that they have long been in the position of not having to just cash checks with beautifully rendered yet inoffensive, uninspired and at times, forgettable works that aren't that designed to be revisited, let alone revered.

Brad Bird's "Incredibles 2" is a one step forward-two steps backwards kind of a film.  It won't hurt Pixar in the least in the short run (i.e. the commerce) but I would imagine for some viewers like myself, it doesn't quite re-ignite that spark that made us love their films in the first place.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

30 FILMS IN 30 DAYS: DAYS 1-10

Dear readers, this new, exclusive series for Savage Cinema began, believe it or not, through experiences shared via Facebook.

Yes indeed, the justly beleaguered social network does also possess some elements that I still find deeply enjoyable about my daily visits to the site. One of which has been this shared series where friends nominate friends to share their favorite albums, books, or movies with each other. Of course, I am unable to just leave well enough alone for this is indeed my wheelhouse and I do just love to share and share. And so, I decided to share 30 favorite movies over a 30 day period, which then inspired me to house everything here on this blogsite as well.

As with all of the content of Savage Cinema, these are solely my opinions based upon my personal tastes, so there is no need or desire for debate. Just the enjoyment of film and the memories that those films have created with me as well as for you.

Here are the first 10!

-Honestly, this is a beautiful film. One that far extends from the television specials and creates a palate that is undoubtedly cinematic. It is a musical, it is educational (I learned all about "I Before E, Except After C" from this movie), and of course, it is funny. But it is the painful pathos of the story--Charlie Brown discovers his strength as an excellent speller and travels to compete in a spelling bee, only to lose in the last moments over the most crushing word: "beagle"--that drives to the core of Schulz's trademark melancholia. It is a film about what it means and feels like to succeed, to fail and to get up once again, dust yourself off and try again.

2. "BREAKING AWAY" (1979)
-I first saw this film at the age of 10 at a friend's birthday party. Siskel & Ebert had already long raved about the film but it was indeed something that felt foreign due to its overall quiet and even fragile, melancholic tone which made me feel throughout the entire film that tragedy was just around the corner and that someone invariably would die. 

And yet, nothing like that happened...perhaps...

This coming-of age film about four newly high school graduate Bloomington, Indiana teenagers, featuring Dennis Christopher as the Italian obsessed, bicycle enthusiast and also starring the exquisitely cast Jackie Earle Haley (from "The Bad News Bears" series), the lanky Daniel Stern, and Dennis Quaid (who made me think that he was Han Solo's slightly younger brother) as his best friends was a summertime ode to the end of childhood with uncertain, rapidly approaching futures for these four young "townies" surrounded in their home city by wealthier college students and the class/existential tensions that ensue.

It was also the film where Paul Dooley portrayed the cantankerous Dad to Christopher, who was often hilarious but on a dime commanded authority. Never will I forget the moment when he puts his son in his place when he proclaims with finality. "You're not a "Cutter." I'm a "Cutter.""

And the sequence where Christopher pedals his bike to 50 miles an hour right alongside a semi with Italian operatic music on the soundtrack remains euphoric.

3."DIVA" (1981)
based upon the novel "Diva" by Delacorta

This was the very first foreign film I ever saw and again, it was entirely due to the rave reviews from Siskel & Ebert that made me want to try a movie experience unlike anything I had even attempted before.

This gorgeously stylish French thriller involves a moped driving postal worker obsessed with an opera singer and who has covertly created a bootlegged cassette of one of her live performances as she is an artist who notoriously refused to have ANY of her performances recorded. His postal bag, which contains the bootlegged tape becomes mixed with another bag, which leads our young hero into a dark underworld of cops, prostitutes, crime rings, and a particularly nasty dark glasses wearing assassin.

It is a film of high style and astounding visual sheen, filled with stunning cinematography, set design and sound and oh man...one of the most visually arresting chases (detectives on foot, the postal worker on his moped and through the Paris metro system) I have ever seen in a film. Honestly, if not for Siskel & Ebert, I woud have never even known about this film, let alone have even seen it. My cinematic education was extended greatly by them and this movie.

4. "48 HRS." (1982)

-Two words: Eddie. Murphy.

To think, not only was this film Murphy's feature film debut, he was ONLY 21 years old at the time and I am hard pressed to think of a debut performance that was so explosive, so profoundly confidant yet supremely hungry. You COULD NOT take your eyes off of him even if you wanted to and why would you anyway as Eddie Murphy indeed was that proverbial lightning in a bottle, who could handle comedy, drama and action with a superior ferocity.

I saw this film opening weekend at the age of 13, just before Christmas time and the entire experience pinned me to my seat! This violent thriller about an angry, alcoholic, "hot dog" San Francisco cop Jack Cates, (Nick Nolte) who reluctantly enlists the aid of convict Reggie Hammond (Eddie Muphy) to track down prison escapee and cop killer Albert Ganz (James Remar) in the ticking clock of 48 hrs was one of Director Walter Hill's very best films as it was an outstanding entry in his filmography of "urban Westerns."

This is an unquestionably electrifying film where the violence is appropriately brutal, the relentlessly vulgar yet compellingly REAL dialogue (complete with all manner of sexual/sexist and what would now be shockingly racist insults and diatribes) pops like firecrackers, Remar's rabid menace made for a GREAT screen villain (despite his minimal screen time) and the white hot chemistry between Nolte and Murphy practically burns the screen.

And then...as the centerpiece is Eddie Murphy's "star is born" sequence set inside of a redneck bar where he verbally annihilates the clientele. To see THAT, and in a predominantly Black movie theater to boot...absolutely UNFORGETTABLE.

To this day, "48 Hrs." remains my favorite Eddie Murphy starring film.

5. "FAME" (1980)

Long before the television show, the reality talent/contest show and even the motion picture re-make, there was this film, a decidedly adult film about a collective of young hopefuls attending High School of the Performing Arts in New York City.

I first saw this film in Chicago's gorgeous McClurg Court theater as a double feature with another film that will appear upon this list in the future. I was probably 11 years old and it remains one of my most favorite film going experiences of my life, not only as a rock musical but as one of the films that ushered me along into considerably more challenging, grittier, darker, tougher material.

"Fame" is so much more than a coming of age film for this band of the young, talented and hungry--from aspiring musicians, dancers, comedians, actors--and the relationships they formulate with their prickly, uncompromising teachers. It is a film, with its episodic narrative that covers the auditions, all four years of high school and the graduation ceremony, where what is celebrated and depicted to a grueling degree is the actual work and training one has to undergo in order to pursue and possibly capture that elusive fame...and that failure just may be more imminent for some of the film's characters

Beyond that, I sat in that theater and was exposed to issues pertaining to illiteracy, homosexuality, inter-racial dating, pornography, alcohol and drug abuse while also witnessing building friendships and character arcs that showcased a level of development that I had not experienced before.

And then, there were the songs themselves...WONDERFUL songs and the finale, with "I Sing The Body Electric" remains one of the most stirring conclusions I have been thrilled to witness.

6. "SIGN O' THE TIMES" (1987)

In honor of what would've been Prince Rogers Nelson's 60th birthday, I turn to one of the best concert films I have ever seen.

While Director Albert Magnoli's "Purple Rain" (1984) will always remain Prince's finest screen offering, "Sign O' The Times" runs an exceedingly close second as it is a scorching document of Prince as a titanic musical artists and visionary the likes of which we will never see again--a fact that still leaves me in awe as well as now makes me tear up a bit when I watch it now knowing that he has passed away.

With a shoestring narrative to connect the live material, Prince and his extraordinary band, which includes the brilliant Eric Leeds on saxophone, Atlanta Bliss on trumpet and the film's two MVPs the acrobatic dancer named Cat and of course, the inimitable Shelia E. on drums, run through the lion's share of his masterpiece double album released earlier the same year on a eye popping stage set designed precisely like the iconic album cover.

It is a film that is often visually and emotionally overwhelming to the finest degrees as it is a nearly orgiastic sea of colors, sights and sounds with Prince at the center of the cyclone showcasing exactly why he was the best as we witnessed him, in seeming effortlessness, as the finest singer, dancer, choreographer, guitarist, keyboardist, drummer, and bandleader on the planet.

I saw this film three times at the long defunct University Square 4 theaters on the UW-Madison campus and trust me, I, and the audience, COULD NOT sit still throughout.
Genuinely, rapturously exhausting!

7. "BRAZIL" (1985)

"That was probably the best film I have seen in the last five years. And I never want to see it again."

My Dad said those words once we left the Biograph theater in Chicago after finally seeing the controversial yet rapturously acclaimed film from Terry Gilliam, who was already riding high due to his surrealistic, satirical animation for Monty Python's Flying Circus and the success of his equally surreal fantasy film "Time Bandits" (1981). Yet, "Brazil" was a wholly different beast of a film and cinematic experience entirely as it was a deep dive into an Orwellian/Kafkaesque abyss of crippling bureaucracy, political savagery, grotesque satire, and debilitating madness.

Gilliam's film, set in a dreary, dystopian society "Somewhere In The 20th Century," depicts the nightmarish odyssey of low-level government employee Sam Lowry (beautifully played by Jonathan Pryce), a mild individual who attempts to survive or escape his life of drudgery via his vivid, reoccurring daydreams starring himself as a winged warrior flying high above the clouds and rescuing a damsel in distress. A mindless yet devastating bureaucratic error (I'll never forget the names of "Buttle" and "Tuttle" ) send Sam into a life altering experience that involves political terrorists (Robert De Niro), duplicitous colleagues (a surprisingly sinister Michael Palin) and an encounter with Jill (Kim Greist), a freedom fighter who strikingly resembles the woman in Sam's dreams.

It is a film of enormously winding suffocating ducts, horrific plastic surgery, bottomless red tape, terrorist bombings, totalitarian government retribution, orchestral dream sequences and a dynamic, horrifying, hallucinatory climax where Gilliam pulled out all of the stops, leading to a shattering conclusion that delivers the brutal truth of what happens to dreamers in a viciously realist society.

Blending elements of 1940's film noir, visionary science fiction, and his trademark absurdist satire, Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" is quite possibly his greatest cinematic achievement to date in a long career that has seen exceedingly original artistic highs AND lows. Yet to see it at the age of 16 and to have my building world view so affected, confirmed, and re-shaped, and my senses altered to the point of being blasted apart, Gilliam was yet another filmmaker who illustrated to often head spinning degrees precisely what the movies could be and how stories could be told...uncompromisingly and unrepentantly.

Two years before John Hughes arrived and change the genre forever, the very first teen film that I honestly loved was this one, a raunchy, hilarious, breezy yet deeply perceptive and brutally honest hard R rated episodic joyride through one year at the titular high school.

While I had not (and would not) experience any of the drug and sex fueled adventures in this film for myself, what impressed me so tremendously, and what made me return to this film over and over again was how real it all felt. I had watched essentially every teen film that was being released at that time--the terrible, stupid entries in the "teen sex" genre, yet THIS one was the one that felt to understand what it was REALLY like to spend day after day in those hallways and classrooms. Credit obviously goes to Cameron Crowe, who famously spent one year posing as a high school senior and wrote the original book on which this film is based.

The authenticity in every moment, even a throwaway shot of a classroom of kids happily sniffing the ink scent of the mimeograph machined paper copies, was paramount and it won me over. Yet Crowe tapped into something deeper and what really is the core of the film: these kids were part of a generation who just did not simply attend school--they had coveted jobs at mall, cars, and adult sexual relationships, all of which were utilized as extensions of social status, yet they were clearly too young to even understand the weight of what they were experiencing. THOSE were the "fast times."

Seeing the school year fall of BMOC Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold), from losing his girlfriend and job (as well as the humiliation of being caught having a masturbatory fantasy by the object of his affection), was palpable even as we laughed. The film's primary love story between shy boy Mark "The Rat" Ratner (Brian Backer) and virginal Freshman (and Brad's little sister) Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as they are respectfully being coached by their older best friends and would be sexual experts, velvet voiced ticket scalper Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) and the stunning, yet unreachable to high school boys Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates), provided high and often shocking comedy--carrot blow jobs in the lunchroom, Damone's humiliation with premature ejaculation--yet, the tension, awkwardness, embarrassment and pain, heavily witnessed in Stacy's abortion and Damone's cowardliness, was right on the money.

It was in the sensitive yet (again) honest direction by Amy Heckerling, in her filmmaking debut, who made this material soar so highly, by being uncompromising in its honesty, and most importantly, to be the rare female in a male dominated genre that was consistently cruel to girls and women, and utilizing the requisite T&A in ways to subvert and provide commentary upon sex, nudity and sexual relationships. With that, she also had the uncanny ability to allow her film to fly by as luxuriously as a seaside California breeze. She ensured that the film's constant soundtrack was perfectly on point, that every performance was golden, and that the dialogue remained endlessly quotable.

And of course, there is no way to forget Sean Penn as the mighty Jeff Spicoli, the stoner surfer always at odds with his uncompromising History teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) as he just wants to have "tasty waves and cool buds" and even some pizza in the classroom. I'm telling you every single teenaged stoner character from Bill & Ted to Wayne & Garth and Beavis & Butthead owe every single one of their moments to the character of Jeff Spicoli.

Based upon the novel by Walter Farley

It is a film I really haven't seen since childhood yet the memories and impressions of it remain large and with so many things in my life, I have to thank my Dad for seeing this one.

Even with the rave reviews from Siskel & Ebert, I really was not that swayed to see it as the subject matter did not quite interest me. But for my Dad, the name "Francis Ford Coppola" was all he needed and so, opening weekend, my family went to the Evergreen Plaza movie theater as we so often did and had a cinematic experience unlike anything I had yet seen. It was truly unforgettable.

Set in 1946, this adaptation of the classic novel stars Kelly Reno as Alec Ramsay, who is traveling with his Father by steamer and is captivated by a wild black stallion caged below deck. After a tragic shipwreck, Alec awakens upon a deserted island with only the horse as the only sign of life from the boat.

What struck me so deeply was how, over the course of what I am remembering may have been an hour of the film's running time, there was no dialogue as the film only consisted of the boy and the horse and the tentative bond the two formed during their period of shared isolation. It was magical. It was mystical. It was primal, elegant, and soul shaping cinema as I was being taught not only of the inexplicable union humans and animals can formulate but how to tell stories on a purely visual level and the effect was mesmerizing and haunting.

Even as I sat viewing the film and the story progressed back to land with Alec and the horse returning home, meeting a retired jockey and race horse trainer played by Mickey Rooney and participating in a horse race, while I was still enormously engaged, I remember sitting there just marveling at how much I loved the more esoteric sections of the film...the the point of wishing that maybe the ENTIRE film had solely been about the boy, the horse and the island.

That said, the overall experience, like all of the very best films, altered my perceptions of what movies could actually be and in the case of "The Black Stallion," it was that movies designed for children could aspire to be artful and not trite, simplistic, or disposable. That children were as deserving of the highest quality of material just as adults and I loved how the filmmakers all adhered to creating a vision that aspired to greatness at all times.

Carroll Ballard's "The Black Stallion" will forever remain the film where, for me, movies became more than just something to watch. Movies could be poetry.

Thanks Dad.


This is quite possibly my favorite film and I celebrate it today as it was released on this date back in 1982.

For me, it is a film of such blinding beauty and poetic perfection that I have only seen it three times in my life--and I even own it--for fear of perhaps, over-watching it and therefore, possibly diminishing its power. It is crystalline to me. It is a jewel.

Steven Spielberg, like George Lucas, had long become a hero to me by this point in his career and once seeing this film, he re-confirmed his status as a cinematic artist who was second to none. I do understand that for some this film may be terribly sentimental, and that's fine. But for me, it is a film of such intense loneliness, for the boy still reeling from his parent's divorce and the alien, separated and accidentally left behind by his kind. Their connection and subsequent friendship moved me in ways I really had not imagined that I could have been moved and even thinking about it at this time, I get those chills--all cynicism washes away and my nerve endings are exposed. Spielberg created an experience of beautiful fragility and resonance, while also crating a companion piece to two other films that just may make this list.

I cannot fully express to those who were not alive at that time the awesome power of this film over the culture but perhaps this will suffice. My cousin Susan saw this film at an advance sneak preview when those events were kind of the norm. She called me afterwards to tell me how much she loved the film but there was another point she felt that she had to make. After seeing "E.T.," she and her date waited to see the main film that had been screening but the response to "E.T." was so euphoric, it was shown again, to which she and her date watched it all over again.

Just piercing in its richness, elegance, compassion and tremendous empathy.

Stay tuned for part 2!

Monday, June 11, 2018

GETHSEMANE: a review of "First Reformed"

Written and Directed by Paul Schrader
**** (four stars)

It feels more than coincidental that after returning home from seeing Writer/Director Paul Schrader's quietly explosive "First Reformed," that I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and came across a headline from USA Today in reference to the recent suicides from both fashion designer Kate Spade and chef/author/television personality Anthony Bourdain. The title read as follows: "Americans Are Depressed And Suicidal Because Something Is Wrong With Our Culture." 

Amen to that.

Dear readers, it is of no secret or revelation to any of you out there that we are living in extraordinarily anxiety ridden times, and without question, the rapid increase entirely due to the reality TV performer currently occupying The White House. The dark side of history is rancorously repeating itself in horrifically dramatic fashion with our nation becoming increasingly isolationist upon the world's stage, and more fascistic and nationalist internally, despite an elevated level of resistance. With our level of discourse breaking down ferociously, we have reached the through-the-looking-glass era of not simply the inexplicable concept of "post-truth," but more tragically, a level of tribalism that really only serves to eliminate any sense of nuance, making conversations irrelevant as everything is placed into an "EITHER/OR" category, completely detonating the complexities of the human experience.

With regards to the topics of religion, morality and spirituality in the 21st century, the tribalism, as far as I am concerned, has been so terribly co-opted and bastardized, that the so-called discussion being had are shamelessly simplistic, so shameful especially when exploring topics that are, by their nature, infinite.

I have long spoken about our cultural sense of spiritual decay upon this blogsite and how the movies have addressed this specific quality of American life but I feel that what Paul Schrader has achieved with his latest film is to force audiences back into having spirited, meaningful, engaged conversations and debates about our place in existence that extends far beyond proclaiming that absolutely anyone who believes in God to being unintelligent or one that has weaponized theology to advance an intolerant agenda.  These are topics too complex to be handled so easily. These are topics to be rigorously wrestled with and Paul Schrader's "First Reformed"  is indeed a film exceedingly worthy of its subject matter as he has unleashed a work of disturbingly wrenching anguish, confusion, frustration, anger, powerful doubt and absolution.

Paul Schrader's "First Reformed" stars Ethan Hawke in one of the finest performances of his entire career as Reverend Ernst Toller, a pastor at a tiny upstate New York parish, once a stop on the Underground Railroad and is a current tourist attraction yet a barely present congregation, that is soon to reach its 250th anniversary and reconsecration ceremony.

Toller, a former military chaplain, is a solitary figure, undergoing a crisis of faith as he continuously wrestles with the demons of his past from his failed marriage, and the death of his son as a soldier in Iraq to his current pressures at maintaining his parish while being seated in the immense shadow of the parent mega-church, Abundant Life with its 5000 person congregation, state of the art facilities, charismatic Pastor Jeffers (a surprisingly excellent dramatic performance by Cedric Kyles, most famously known as Cedric The Entertainer) and shadowy financial backer/petroleum executive (Michael Gaston). In his solitude, Toller takes to alcohol and has diligently committed himself to keeping a handwritten journal over the time span of one year to chronicle all of his epiphanies, doubts, fears, and revelations, making the intense intimacy of the experience akin to a consistent source of prayer.

Amanda Seyfried portrays Mary, a pregnant member of Toller's diminishing congregation who asks the troubled pastor for assistance with counseling her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), a radical environmentalist who strongly feels against the idea of bringing a child into a world he reasons is about to collapse. This fateful meeting brings all of the elements of Toller's world crashing together, leading to a spiritual crisis that may prove to be unrepentantly cataclysmic.

Despite the turbulence of the story and material overall, Paul Schrader's "First Reformed" is a somber, measured, often meditative experience. It is a quiet film, filled with an almost Kubrick-ian stillness yet it is one where that aforementioned turbulence is always simmering under the surface and gradually begins to brood and boil over as if we were regarding a thriller.

In fact, I was often reminded of Writer/Director Darren Aronofsky's theological head spinner horror show "mother!" (2017) and notably, Writer/Director Jeff Nichols' excellent psychological thriller "Take Shelter" (2011), about a man (played by Michael Shannon) who obsessively builds a bomb shelter in his backyard to potentially survive the apocalypse he is certain is forthcoming yet in actuality, he maybe experiencing hereditary schizophrenia. Reverend Toller feels to be cut from a similar cloth as his odyssey showcases a certain descent into spiritual, physical and psychological despair and meltdown as he attempts to reconcile the full purpose of his life and of existence itself in a world where his personal tragedies have occurred and have left him a more isolated individual, ready to keep people at arms length, possibly to shield them from his own spiritual torment.

Essentially, the spiritual conceit and internal struggle of existing within a world that happens to not adhere to one's personal expectations is Paul Schrader's primary theme, most often tackled in collaboration with Martin Scorsese in "Taxi Driver" (1976)," "The Last Temptation Of Christ" (1989) and "Bringing Out The Dead" (1999), all of which Schrader wrote. With "First Reformed," the character of Reverend Toller, and the film as a whole, serves brilliantly as a companion character and piece to figures and themes contained in all three Scorsese films (possibly resembling "Bringing Out The Dead" the most), as the spiritual qualities, from the story and concepts to the religious allegories and symbolism contained throughout, are the engine in which the personal stories are divulged.

Comparisons between Reverend Toller and Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) from "Taxi Driver" have already been made in some reviews of "First Reformed," but again, I tend to think of Toller as being more similar to the insomniac, burnt out, grief stricken ambulance paramedic Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) in "Bringing Out The Dead," a taciturn man in the role of a caretaker, perhaps too sensitive for the mad dog world that surrounds him yet fitfully carries onwards hoping to help and to  heal while desperately attempting to retain his sanity. But then...for that matter, perhaps Toller is not solely similar to Frank Pierce but maybe what if Pierce was unable to keep his wits together and drifted into madness a la Bickle?

Yes...that's it! This is the mental, emotional and spiritual plane where Toller lives, one where personal and global conflicts and tragedies dare to clash against his personal belief system as Pastor, making his allegiance to his faith worth fighting for...even when his health, sanity and humanity are compromised. 

It would not be any stretch to take in the Biblical allegory contained in the characters of the young married couple that prove to be the ultimate catalyst for Reverend Toller's story and conflict. Who else is the pregnant Mary but a reference to Mother Mary herself? And therefore, who else is the eco-warrior Michael but a Earthly version of the archangel, the protector and leader of the forces of good against evil? Their allegorical roles are purposeful, lending "First Reformed" an element of the surreal (especially within one bizarre sequence late in the film as well as its ambiguous ending moments) that works powerfully alongside the tangible, ultimately making Reverend Toller's slow unraveling provocatively urgent, palpable and understandable.

Ethan Hawke's performance is masterful and unprecedented for him as I simply do not recall a time when he has dug this deeply as well as created a character so unlike what we tend to expect from him. Reverend Toller certainly carries the same level of fierce intelligence and spirited, fervent philosophical qualities as Hawke's celebrated past characters from Director Peter Weir's "Dead Poet's Society" (1989) to most certainly, several of his collaborations with Writer/Director Richard Linklater from his one sequence in the animated dream state of "Waking Life" (2001), to the extended works in "Boyhood" (2014) and the romantic trilogy of "Before Sunrise" (1995), "Before Sunset" (2004) and "Before Midnight" (2013).

In those features, Hawke portrayed characters, right or wrong, who displayed a full command of their respective levels of intellect as well as a strict connection to their worldviews. But with his work in "First Reformed," we see a Ethan Hawke character whose intellect, worldview and overall faith in himself and his established belief system is challenged to the point where everything he believes can potentially fail him and the effect is gradually crippling. In doing so, Hawke's performance is one where all of his standard mannerisms have been extinguished leaving him a compelling study of coiled tension, as he feverishly tries to keep himself together as his interior anguish overtakes him.

Where the philosophical conversation and debate between Toller and Michael early in the film invigorates him, Ethan Hawke, through a careful, steady, nearly minimalist unveiling, delivers a performance where he is rigorously wrestling with his faith and reason in an environment, both local and global, that may no longer have interest or use in someone like him. And it is that precise level of societal spiritual decay that confounds him and leads him into an existential crisis that propels him down a path he may have never conceptualized that he would ever embark upon in the first place.

Reverend Toller is a character looking out into the world and wondering aloud what has happened to us as a species. What have we become? How can we claim at all to be children of God if we treat his Kingdom with such vulgar disregard? And even then, is it possibly God's plan to destroy His own creation and if it is, then what is Toller's purpose at all in this world?  The answers he provides for himself are chilling to say the least and Ethan Hawke meets each moment with superb authenticity, authority and audacity and I seriously hope that he is remembered during awards season.

Paul Schrader's "First Reformed" not a histrionic experience whatsoever. This is decidedly NOT a "fire and brimstone" kind of film. I wish for you to think of what Schrader has achieved as being akin to a sermon--albeit an intensely solemn, disquieting sermon that if fully designed for audiences to become engaged with, to discuss and debate, to get angry with and to even be confused by. Schrader knows fully well that there are no easy answers to be had in a film like this one and how wonderful it is to have a filmmaker of his pedigree in our sequel/comic book/special effects driven cinematic era who feels that it is imperative to create a work that speaks directly to the current, turbulent pulse of modern society.

And how refreshing and oddly comforting it is to have a film such as this, struggling right along with us.

Saturday, June 2, 2018


And the Summer Movie season continues...

For quite some time, I have not taken in the latest offerings from Pixar as I just have not been terribly interested in their output in recent years, so much so that I never even gave the critically acclaimed hit "Coco" (2017) a chance. Such as it is when you lose your trust due to a steady stream of unimaginative lunchbox movies.

Even so, there's no way that I could conceivably stay away from Brad Bird's "Incredibles 2" as the previous installment was undoubtedly one of Pixar's finest, and honestly one of the very few in their filmography that could truly lend itself to having a sequel in the first place. Here's hoping that Bird can deliver the goods.

In addition to that film, I am also hoping to screen the following selections... 

Director Martin Neville's documentary about the life and philosophy of Fred Rogers, the kind souled creator of PBS' "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" has been earning rave reviews ever since its journey on the festival circuit at the start of this year. As Rogers was a staple and essential figure of my own childhood, seeing this film is an imperative. 

I knew nothing about this film until perhaps two days ago when I stumbled upon a trailer...and after those two minutes, I was hooked and was ready to purchase a ticket. "Hearts Beat Loud," Co-Writer/Director Brett Haley's film about a Father/daughter songwriting team, already received its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and now that it is being fully released to the world, here is hoping it is as wonderful as the trailer suggests.

And then...there is Writer/Director Ari Aster's debut feature, "Hereditary," a new horror film that also received its first screenings at the Sundance Film Festival as well as rave reviews and already, some Oscar buzz. Even so...it does indeed look to be unspeakably terrifying and you know me and horror films. Hey, I haven't even see "A Quiet Place" yet as I felt I just might be too worked over in the theater. So...we'll see about this one. 

With that, my cinematic hopes and dreams for the month are all set. So, as always please do wish me the best of luck and good health and I'll see you when the house lights go down!

Monday, May 28, 2018

SOME PEOPLE CALL ME THE SPACE COWBOY: a review of "Solo: A Star Wars Story"

Based upon characters and situations created by George Lucas
Screenplay Written by Jonathan Kasdan & Lawrence Kasdan
Directed by Ron Howard
**** (four stars)

"Never tell me the odds!!"
-Han Solo ("Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back")

And it's a good thing they didn't because if anyone ever fully believed in Han Solo, it was always Han Solo.

Dear readers, I have long staked my claim with the hefty and skeptical opinion that ever since Disney purchased Lucasfilm, the organization would find some ways to ruin a cinematic series that has meant the world to me ever since I was eight years old when George Lucas' original 1977 film entered our consciousness and for me, changed the way I experienced the movies forever. I have been fearing that with their rapid release schedules, "Star Wars" fatigue would lessen any sense of enthusiasm, especially for a series that has classically not been so ubiquitous at the cineplexes until recently, with the arrival of J .J. Abrams' "Star Wars: Episode VII: The  Force Awakens" (2015) and Rian Johnson's "Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi" (2017) with Gareth Edwards' stand alone "Rogue One: A  Star Wars Story" (2016) tacked into the middle.

Thankfully, all three of those releases have more than proven themselves both financially and artistically (aside from the so-called "fans" who will never be satisfied with any "Star Wars" film made past 1983), with "The Last Jedi" in particular existing as the film that was the most surprising in terms of delivering creative and storytelling risks as well as its divisive reaction among viewers. While that sense of ubiquity still unnerves me regarding Disney's ownership of "Star Wars," future film trilogies from Rian Johnson as well as another from HBO's "Game Of Thrones" creators  David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, which claim to extend the "Star Wars" universe by pulling far, far away from the Skywalker saga (which Abrams says his "Episode IX" due in 2019 will firmly conclude) sounds more than promising.

But then...there are these stand-alone features to deal with, films that continue to mine the original trilogy yet for what purpose other than to fuel financially driven nostalgia? Yes, "Rogue One" found a clever, sideways angle and what resulted was a stirring war film possessed with an astounding, escalating urgency. A proposed solo Obi-Wan Kenobi film possibly bringing Ewan McGregor back to his Jedi cloak has potential. But regarding Han Solo? Really??

Look, just like you, I know than Han Solo is the coolest hot shot pilot in the galaxy, a scoundrel that cannot be topped and portrayed to iconic fashion by Harrison Ford. A...ahem...solo prequel film, to my sensibilities just sounded like overkill, especially since the story of Han Solo came to its dramatic conclusion in "The Force Awakens." Trying to find someone who could possibly fit into Ford's massive shoes notwithstanding, a Han Solo prequel film? I just could not see it and I have wondered very openly about its overall raison de'etre, mostly because, and regardless of how cool he is, there really is not much to that character all. He is the fast talking, high flying, deeply cynical space cowboy with the heart of gold--an archetype more than anyone fully fleshed out--which is perfect for the fairy tale/space opera universe that "Star Wars" is. What do we really need to know about him that we already do not? The prospect sounded pointless to me.

And even then, there was the troubled production of the film during which much ink has already been spilled concerning the firing of the film's original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who retain Executive Producer credits), and the emergence of Ron Howard as their replacement, who not only finished the film but helmed copious re-shoots (reportedly 70%) to boot. Add to that the loss of actor Michael K. Williams due to scheduling conflicts, forcing a re-conception of a character that was re-cast with Paul Bettany and rumors of leading actor Alden Ehrenreich needing an acting coach, it was truly feeling as if the Force was not going to be with this film whatsoever.

So, with utter, jaw dropping surprise, and more than a little bit of shock and amazement, Ron Howard's "Solo: A Star Wars Story" is absolutely terrific!!! It is a white knuckle thrill ride of an experience that performs the splendid double duty of delivering a certain level of nostalgia while also giving us a more askew view of this galaxy far, far away that we know so well.

And first things first, Alden Ehrenreich is the real deal!!! Certainly he will never erase Harrison Ford from our hearts and consciousness and nor should he...and furthermore, it is no mere imitation of Ford's work either. Remember, this film is not entitled "Ford: A Star Wars Story" but "Solo," and Ehrenreich works like the devil to embody this character with a freshness that makes our interstellar pilot feel new again. Trust me, if you were as skeptical as I have been, you may find yourself incredibly satisfied and downright thrilled with what Howard has delivered as "Solo: A Star Wars Story" makes for one enormously entertaining addition to the "Star Wars" cinematic canon.

Set a full 10 years before the events in George Lucas' "Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope" (1977) and opening with the sparks and flashes of a land speeder being hot-wired and stolen, Ron Howard's "Solo" blasts out of the gate with the aforementioned Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo at perhaps age 25, caught in a universe where the Empire has complete control, a variety of warring crime syndicates have sprouted and where our would-be pilot and his lover Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) plot their escape from the clutches of a vicious crime lord, a beginning which soon finds our hero thrust even deeper into the criminal underworld with the shadowy organization of the Crimson Dawn becoming increasingly oppressive.

Han's adventures soon have him aligned with the mercenary Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his crew, which includes his lover Val (Thandie Newton). We discover just how Han became first acquainted with the mighty Wookie Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo officially taking over for Peter Mayhew) as well as the dapper smuggler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). We discover just how Han became owner and pilot of the Millennium Falcon and how he indeed won the ship from Calrissian, the original owner. Did Han really make that legendary Kessel Run in 12 parsecs? How did Han even become christened with his surname? Those questions and more are all answered, while new mysteries and surprises are unveiled in Han Solo's odyssey.

Ron Howard's "Solo: A Star Wars Story" is first rate entertainment which ultimately more than earns its status within the "Star Wars" universe as it is unquestionably a film of intense purposefulness instead of existing as the cynical money grab it could have easily been. Perhaps due to the intensity of the behind the scenes production, Ron Howard has been infused, and therefore has infused the film itself with a visceral urgency that has the film propelled with a pace and structure that feels like flying through hyperspace. This film truly moves like white lightning and everyone from the cast to Howard, easily helming his best film in many years, are all invigorated superbly.

With a plot that involves explosive schemes and heists, shootouts, chases, captures, narrow escapes and even a train robbery, and populated by all manner of criminals, gangsters and other ne'er do wells, the rapid movement and excitement of "Solo" feels like it owes as much to Steven Spielberg's "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" (1981) as it absolutely does to the 1930's serials that informed "Star Wars" at its purest inspiration.

Howard presents one exhilarating action set piece after another, including all sorts of cliffhangers for Han and his compatriots to get themselves in and out of and it is this specific whip crack element to the film that makes "Solo" a somewhat faster, lighter affair as it is the "Star Wars" film that has nothing to do with Jedi Knights, The Force, light sabers, mysticism and the building grandeur of the overall Skywalker saga. "Solo" is a heist film, a space Western and it makes no apologies for being anything but a rip roaring blast of an experience.

Even better, and working beautifully alongside Cinematographer Bradford Young, "Solo," much like "Rogue One" before it, is (slightly) a more adult film, or at least incorporates the characteristics of film noir, as it is sinister, scrappier, grittier, grungier and even a sexier ride in the "Star Wars" universe that what we are more accustomed to viewing. Additionally, the film provides us with another sideways and more grass roots (or sand pebble) level view of the growing Rebellion against the Empire while also utilizing both Chewbacca and Lando's fiercely militant self-made droid co-pilot L3-37 (a terrific Phoebe Waller-Bridge) as representatives of resistance and emancipation as they each attempt to free their equally enslaved species. This tactic gives the film a strong foundation that gives the light speed action some (again) purposeful weight.

And still, none of this would be worth watching at all if we did not have a central figure to latch ourselves onto and it is of tremendous credit to both Screenwriters Jonathan Kasdan and his Father, the great Lawrence Kasdan, the man who co-scripted Han Solo's adventures in Irvin Kershner's "Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), Richard Marquand's "Star Wars: Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi" (1983) and "The Force Awakens," to greatly devise of Han Solo's full backstory. Therefore, it is of nearly heroic quality that I must extend to Alden Ehrenreich a rapturous salute as, for me, he instantly stepped into the soul of this character and wore it like the baddest leather jacket in the galaxy.

Alden Ehrenreich as Solo provides the requisite arrogance, rock star swagger, scruffy attractiveness, roguish charm and has infused it with a necessary naivete, innocence and even romanticism that showcases that he is not nearly the outlaw he keeps proclaiming himself to being. In fact, the core to Han Solo in this film is really nothing more than to just make enough money to buy a starship and whisk Qi'ra away for the two of them to travel the galaxy in full freedom, much like the troubles teens of a Bruce Springsteen song or The Animals' "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" (1965).  Ehrenreich's chemistry with Emilia Clarke also provides the film (and the series as a whole) with a element of romantic and sexual heat that provides the film with an added urgency and even heartache.

In doing so, we are witness to a Han Solo that really is not too far removed from the farmboy Luke Skywalker, a child in an adult universe, and a dangerous one at that with its gangsters and mercenaries, but by hook or by crook, he is gonna be the best damn pilot in the galaxy with his girl by his side. Ehrenreich completely nails this aspect of the character while also giving what we already know about Han Solo a sensational workout as his gets himself into and miraculously out of jams by sheer force of will (as well as with that quick blaster and smart mouth) and the plain ol' dumb luck that Solo himself would scoff at. I can not tell you enough how against the idea of this film I have been for years now, especially for ANYONE taking over the role that has been so ingrained. What Alden Ehrenreich achieved was magical for it made me feel just as I did when I was a child all over again.

Of course, I also have to spend some time with Donald Glover, who is obviously having his own spectacular time right now with his work on television's FX series, the outstanding "Atlanta," on which he serves as Creator/Executive Producer/Writer/occasional Director and leading actor, plus his work in the music with his Childish Gambino persona, currently  riding a torrential wave with his latest powder keg single "This Is America." Stepping into the shoes of the iconic Billy Dee Williams is unbelievably daunting to say the least but in his portrayal of Lando Calrissian, Glover slides into the role (and the capes!) as easily as the finest silk sheets!!!!

Like Ehrenreich, Donald Glover nails the swagger, the butter smoothness, the implied sexuality (apparently he is pansexual!) as well as that "I'm making this up as I go along" quality that endears us to him as well as making him a figure to seriously keep your eyes upon. Glover's chemistry with Ehrenreich is sound and solid and I sincerely hope that we are able to have another adventure in the future with these two..or even a Lando Calrissian film!

By this time, I am certain that reading those specific words from me may be more than a bit startling, considering the way this posting began. But that is how it is when filmmakers deliver the goods. Sometimes, you leave wanting for nothing because the filmmakers have left no stones unturned and providing the most complete experience one could ask for. Other times, filmmakers deliver the goods by leaving you with that inexplicable feeling of wishing yo cold stay with these characters a bit longer, not wanting for the fantasy to end, ultimately that there may one day be even more.

Ron Howard's "Solo: A Star Wars Story" certainly does set itself up for more young Han Solo adventures and this time, I hope that these films actually get made because against all odds, the Force remained strong!

Monday, May 14, 2018

HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY: a review of "Tully"

Screenplay Written by Diablo Cody
Directed by Jason Reitman
*** (three stars)

It is a strange thing to say but I have to admit that despite the greatness that I have seen this year with the likes of Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" and Anthony and Joe Russo's "Avengers: Infinity War," two spectacular entries from Marvel's superheroes and Wes Anderson's latest and absolutely brilliant stop-motion fantasia, "Isle Of Dogs," I am more than anxious and ready to see a film that was about...well...people.

The return of Screenwriter Diablo Cody and Director Jason Reitman, the team who has already delivered the outstanding teen pregnancy film "Juno" (2007) and the even better, decidedly darker and teeth baring "Young Adult" (2011), is exceedingly most welcome and anticipated for me and for a good stretch, "Tully," their third collaboration to date, showcases their uniquely sharp, perceptive and probing explorations into the lives and times of 21st century girls and women.

Yet, even as good as "Tully" is, the film is not quite in the same league as their previous two films together. Not in terms of content, which remains as provocative as ever, but solely in the fullness of its execution, which left me wanting considerably when it was all said and done. That being said, "Tully" is a slice of life film that just may delve a bit closer to the bone than you may realize--especially for any of  you who happen to be Mothers. In seeking films that are about people and life as it is honestly lived, any collaboration between Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody would be more than worth your time and attention and "Tully" indeed fits the bill.

"Tully" stars Charlize Theron in an absolutely searing performance as Marlo, a not-so-young and severely overwhelmed Mother of two children, including her son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) who is clearly existing somewhere upon the Autism spectrum (yet is still undiagnosed) and prone to frequent tantrums and meltdowns, making him a strong risk for  being expelled from  his school due to the lack of resources to properly aid his needs.

Her loving yet essentially inattentive husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is barely present as he works during the day and detaches by gaming at night, therefore leaving Marlo to her own devices with the child rearing, that will soon grow to three children due to a pregnancy that may have been unplanned, and the housework, which has become a impossibility of keeping up with. 

By the arrival of the third child, and with Marlo gradually losing her grip due to sheer unending exhaustion, she and Drew are given a suggestion by her wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass), a telephone number of a "night nurse," a figure who will aid Marlo with the baby and the house between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 6 30 a.m., thus allowing Marlo to sleep.

While at first a tad reluctant, Marlo eventually makes the phone call and soon thereafter, in the night, at their doorstep arrives Tully (Mackenzie Davis), the very "night nurse" who will help re-structure Marlo's life.

That is indeed the basic plot line of Jason Reitman's "Tully" and I will refrain from revealing more so as to not produce spoilers regarding some surprises along the way as well as seriously upending revelations that occur during the film's final third. What I am able to convey to you is that the film strongly feels very much of a piece with both "Juno" and "Young Adult," again making the cinematic partnership of both Reitman and Diablo Cody notable, refreshing, compelling and artful.

Essentially, the first element about the film that impressed me greatly was the fact that I really do not think that I have seen Motherhood depicted in such an unglamorous, unsentimental fashion. In fact, Reitman and Cody's presentation suggests that "Tully" just may be the first film, this way of the independent cinema leanings towards the mainstream, that is delivering Motherhood at its most truthful, and they could not have possessed a better conduit than the terrific, downright fearless Charlize Theron.

For an actress of Charlize Theron's status and statuesque beauty, it is more than easy to possibly forget just how serious of an actress she actually happens to be. Just as she achieved so extraordinarily in Patty Jenkins' "Monster" (2003), Theron has again undergone a full physical transformation in order to embody the character of Marlo on the surface.

Yes, Theron has gained a significant amount of body weight to give the realistic appearance of a woman's figure after her third childbirth but even further, it is a performance which contains not a stitch of vanity as she is more than willing to appear as "unattractive" as possible. At one point, her daughter Sarah (Lia Frankland) questions pointedly "What's wrong with your body?" as Marlo is seated at the family dinner table in her dirty bra, her stomach protruding, her torso sweaty and filthy, her unwashed hair and blankly cold visage suggesting something akin to catatonia.

While that line of dialogue receives a brutal laugh, it is presented at nowhere near the expense of Marlo's dilemma. Is it basically the question Marlo is asking of herself internally as she regards the person she once was in her 20s perhaps, while comparing her to the person she is at this point of her life. Deeply loving her family but questioning if she can even survive the endless responsibilities of three young children in constant states and levels of very specific needs.

What is there for her to do when Jonah unleashes an explosive letdown when presented the prospect of parking in a different lot at school? Or how is she to keep herself, including her rising fury, together when during a meeting with Jonah's school Principal (Gameela Wright), she is facing down the reality of Jonah's expulsion despite the protests pf how much their family is loved by the school community?

And then, there is the downright masterful sequence early in the film where Reitman presents a brilliant montage, which to me suggested the furiously compulsive, potentially fatal montage of Roy Scheider's punishing daily regimen as depicted in Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz" (1979).   Yet unlike that film's cocaine addled tortured artist/filmmaker/choreographer, in "Tully," we witness the constant yet debilitating normalcy of Marlo's life.

Feeding and pumping and changing the diapers and repeat and repeat and repeat ad nauseum, Marlo's body essentially becoming less human and more machine, albeit a machine that is threatening to completely malfunction at any given moment. In fact, as I regarded Theron as Marlo, and especially in the film still image that adorns this posting, I could not help but to think of Marlo as being precisely the type of woman that Theron's one-armed warrior driver character of Imperator Furiosa was attempting to rescue in George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road" (2015).

The magic of Charlize Theron's performance is not simply the physical aspect, which again does convey the physical results of not simply childbirth but the mental and physical fatigue and even anguish that Marlo is drowning inside of. Theron performs Marlo from the inside out giving us a character that at all times feels tremendously lived in. Nothing ever felt to be prefabricated, hyperbolic or remotely dishonest whatsoever and truthfully, her performance is so richly layered and compulsively watchable, I sincerely hope that she is remembered next year during awards season.

For the second major element that I deeply appreciated witnessing within "Tully" was indeed the relationship that formulates between Marlo and Tully. These are two women at completely different life stages, that are refreshingly not at odds with each other but ones that feel to be powerfully supportive, understanding and non-judgmental and also remarkably in sync despite their obvious differences, Tully in her late 20's, often filled with sage like wisdom despite her lively, carefree attitude and Marlo, possibly around 40 years old and consumed by her life and dilapidated state of mind and physicality.

As with scenes presented within both "Juno" and "Young Adult" and especially in "Up In The Air" (2009), Reitman's finest film to date, we are given lovely moments of Marlo and Tully simple talking and relating to each other in a fashion that truly showcases how real, 21st century women speak, think and feel. Sadly, still such a rarity in cinema but thankfully, we do have a writer as strong as Diablo Cody who is able to have her stories realized for mass audiences. Representation matters which makes her creative presence essential.

As it stands, Jason Reitman's "Tully" is a fairly quiet film. An especially perceptive and observant experience that unfolds leisurely and due to its overall tone, it often feels quite gentle...yet deceptively so. In fact, Reitman and Cody's story is exceedingly more harrowing than it may seem and as previously stated, I do not think that I have witnessed a film portrayal of Motherhood so grueling, so unflinching in its defiant lack of romanticism. In fact, it could be argued that the film is not explicitly a film about Motherhood per se but more truthfully, a film about sleep deprivation, postpartum depression and even debilitating mental illness, a quality this film has already received some criticism based upon its depiction.

As for me, I had no issue with how this aspect was necessarily presented but how it was handled ultimately, especially once the film reaches its final third and those aforementioned plot developments of which I will not spoil for you. What bothered me, and increasingly so now that I have had ample time to ponder the film since seeing it, is the rather rapid and downright tidy way "Tully" concludes, wrapping itself up in a bow that is distressingly too clean based upon everything that has already occurred in the story.

In fact, I think that "Tully," which runs a scant 96 minutes, could have benefited from actually being longer--perhaps a full two hours--a length that would have allowed Reitman and Cody to give as much weight to the film's back end as they did with the film's beginning and middle. Granted, there was nothing that necessarily derailed the film for me. I certainly did not feel cheated. I just left the theater with a feeling of "And that's it?" A feeling of unfulfillment. A feeling that not every storytelling stone had been turned.as effectively as possible. The very stones that can change a good film into a GREAT film and all elements considered, "Tully" is a good film. 

Regardless, I do not wish to deter you from seeing a film this unique and honest, even though I felt the final sections were too pat and simplified. What Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody achieved for their third collaboration is a film experience that is most welcome, especially as films of this sort are becoming increasingly in short supply these days. As I have stated many, many times upon this site, I just do not see the point in having films about the super human exist at the expense of other films.

In fact, if "Tully" accomplished anything, it is the compassionate understanding that simply being human, especially being someone's Mother and surviving to tell the tale, is possibly the most heroic thing one can do.

Friday, May 11, 2018


following a screening of
MAY 5, 2018

I believe that the Universe just somehow knew that I needed this night.

For the better part of 35 years, I have been a tremendous fan of John Cusack. In a strange way, as we both hail from the city of Chicago and are around the same age, it is almost as if we have grown up together--although we have never met. As he was a young actor making his way through the movie industry, amassing his specialized and often subversively idiosyncratic filmography and catalog of characters, there I was, like so many of you I would imagine, watching  his progression, all the while being entertained, entranced and at times, enraptured.

While I definitely noticed him in both Lewis John Carlino's "Class" (1983), as one of Rob Lowe and Andrew McCarthy's prep school characters' sidekicks (he performs a nifty, sneaky trick with a lit cigarette) and of course, John Hughes' "Sixteen Candles" (1984) as one of Anthony Michael Hall's geeky sidekicks (the one adorned with a Chicago WLS T-shirt), it was his first starring role in Rob Reiner's outstanding college campus set, classy romantic comedy/classic road movie hybrid "The Sure Thing" (1985) that made me a Cusack devotee for life. And afterwards, I purposefully sought out any films in which he appeared, for his style, skill, and superlative charisma, was and remains, second to none, completely unique and unparalleled.

My high school years were populated with repeated viewings of the surreal slapstick of both Savage Steve Holland's "Better Off Dead" (1985) and "One Crazy Summer" (1986), while during my college years, Cusack was my guide and conduit to a wider variety films, filmmakers, and subject matter from the gonzo record industry/music video satire of Bill Fishman's "Tapeheads" (1988), the elegiac baseball drama of John Sayles' "Eight Men Out" (1988), the nuclear bomb historical drama of Roland Joffe's "Fat Man And Little  Boy" (1989), the updated film noir of Stephen Frears' "The Grifters" (1990) and without question, the glorious climax to what I refer to as "The Golden Age Of Teen Films," Cameron Crowe's sublime, exquisite directorial debut "Say Anything..." (1989). 

Those were the formative years, both for John Cusack and myself, and I would say that we each continued to seek and search as we aged, again with me watching and experiencing as Cusack alternated between projects from auteur filmmakers such as Woody Allen's "Shadows And Fog" (1991) and "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994), Clint Eastwood's "Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil" (1997) and Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" (1998), high profile big budget blockbusters, most notably Simon West's "Con Air" (1997), more (and frankly, bland) romantic comedies and exceedingly more interesting, darker, intensely challenging independent fare, with Spike Jonze's "Being John Malkovich" (1999) easily existing as one of Cusack's highest achievements.

Yet for me, and despite what may constitute as two of Cusack's career best performances, as the older, psychologically damaged Brian Wilson in Bill Pohlad's extraordinary "Love & Mercy" (2014) and as the Chicago inner city activist preacher in Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" (2015), the pinnacle of John Cusack's film career feels to rest within the films that have been the most personal as they tend to be movies he has produced and at times, co-written himself, most notably George Armitage's "Grosse Point Blank" (1997) and Joshua Seftel's "War, Inc." (2008), Cusack's blistering political satire.

And on the evening of May 5, 2018, I was extremely fortunate enough to have been able to see this beloved actor/writer/producer/political activist LIVE on stage at Madison, WI's historical theater the Orpheum, located in the heart of beautiful State Street for an extended conversation and Q&A session following what just may be my favorite film in his vast filmography, the blissfully seminal ode to male arrested development and music obsession, the masterful "High Fidelity" (2000).

Adapted from the peerless Nick Hornby novel and as directed by Stephen Frears, "High Fidelity" exists as one of the very best films I saw in the decade of 2000-2009, and nearly 20 years after its initial release, its supreme hold has not loosened even one bit. Having the opportunity to see and hear John Cusack speak about the film live and in person was an imperative. Yet, unfortunately, for quite along spell after the show was first announced, it seemed as if I would have been unable to attend as the show's cost was truthfully out of my affordability due to other and more pressing life expenses.

But as I stated at the outset of this posting, I think the Universe was looking out for me, knowing that, perhaps, I was in due of a pick-me-up as I have admittedly been in a bit of a funk due to a lengthier than desired winter and furthermore, professional dissatisfaction that have made me even seriously question the trajectory of my life--a quandary that the fictional Rob Gordon, as portrayed by John Cusack, could easily relate to himself.

So, imagine my elation, the night before the show, when I received notice that I had actually won a local contest in which the prize was two tickets to see the film and the man himself!!! As my wife was uninterested in attending, my partner for the event was obvious...who else could I ask but my dear friend from college and student radio as well as fellow music obsessive and John Cusack devotee, the world famous DJ Kelly Klascus, from WLHA-FM student radio, and the annual WLHA Resurrection/Reunion weekends as broadcast upon Madison's WSUM-FM.

Returning to the idea of the Universe perhaps glancing my way for a moment, please allow me to extend and expand upon that thought. On Saturday, May 5th, it felt as if the Universe was shining a bit of extra light upon the city of Madison itself as it was an absolutely glorious day, with blissfully warm temperatures, low humidity, cool breezes and nothing but smiles and good feelings wherever I ventured throughout the day from morning to evening.

By the time I arrived at the Orpheum, picked up my tickets from Will Call and awaited Kelly's arrival, I stood outside the theater and struck up an impromptu conversation with a lovely young woman named Sierra, who had driven to Madison from Rockford, IL. (birthplace of Cheap Trick!) and was carrying a copy of the "High Fidelity" soundtrack album on double vinyl! I could not help but to remark upon her album as I had never seen a vinyl version and she happily explained that she purchased it as an exclusive Record Store Day item two years ago, an anecdote which then found her practically gushing with excitement with anticipation for this evening's event, as the ticket (plus the VIP upgrade allowing her to partake in a Meet & Greet/photo op portion with Cusack) was presented to her as an early wedding present from a friend. In addition to sharing stories about how personal the film was for each of us, she then showed me a Call Sheet/Screenplay excerpt from the film, loaned to her from a friend who was an on-set extra in "High Fidelity," an item she hoped that she could possibly get Cusack to sign and then return to her friend.

Not terribly long after our conversation, the doors opened, we went inside and our separate ways and I waited for Kelly, who arrived shortly thereafter.

Now as you can see from the picture of my tickets, there were concrete restrictions in place regarding any photographs or recordings, so because of that, I do not have any images from the even itself to share with you...aside from the next photo...
...which I captured covertly, a pre-show image displaying a series of John Cusack related trivia questions to play while passing the time.

And after finding our seats on the main floor of the theater, just one section away from the section closest to the stage, and sharing stories, popcorn and beverages, the seats filled, the house lights went down and "High Fidelity" began...

Truth be told, I was admittedly unsure as to how I would feel watching "High Fidelity" again, a film I first saw on its opening weekend and countless times afterwards at home, as the film on this evening was essentially a two hour preamble to the main event itself. I didn't fear that I would necessarily be bored, so to speak. I was just...unsure.

Yet, within the film's first few moments as John Cusack as the miserable Rob Gordon delivers his first monologue to us in the audience, as The 13th Floor Elevators wail "You're Gonna Miss Me," any uncertain feelings were washed away. As the first image of Cusack emerged upon the screen, shrieks loudly blasted through the audience, effectively and immediately lifting up the energy of the event as a whole.

From scene to scene, you could feel how invested everyone happened to be with the events that unfolded in the fractured romance of Rob and Laura (Iben Hjejile), and his day-to-day misery at his floundering record store Championship Vinyl and the hysterical yet strained friendships he shares with his employees: the meek, reserved Dick (Todd Louiso) and the explosively raunchy contrarian Barry (Jack Black in his star turn).

Compounding matters even further is Rob's quest of self-discovery, primarily regarding his relationships with women from the past (as played by Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta Jones, Joelle Carter) and present (Lisa Bonet, Natasha Gregson Wagner), the humiliating possibility that Laura may have romantically moved onwards with the supremely unctuous Ian (Tim Robbins), facing the even greater fear of the future moving forwards while potentially leaving him behind and of course, the quandaries that arise when attempting to create the perfect mixtape. 

For a film that is this enormously entertaining, it is also a potently introspective one and I would like to think that quality was not lost on this night's audience.  Yes, there were many cheers and eruptions of laughter, but more often than not, the audible responses from the audience, including myself, felt to arrive from a distinctly knowing place, for, in many ways, we have all been where these characters happen to be throughout the film.

When I first saw the film in 2000 on its opening weekend, I was 31 years old, with the story and characters hitting me precisely where I lived, so to speak. Now, nearly 20 years later as I am knocking on the door of 50, the film still hits me precisely where I live on a variety of levels, most specifically, my music obsessiveness. Yet, this time around for me, and I would imagine for Kelly and for what I would further imagine for the greater part of this night's audience, and even for John Cusack himself, "High Fidelity" now serves as a film of reflection, seeing how we all were, seeing how we have changed and crucially, how we haven't, for better or for worse.

Like Rob, I have found that I am at my happiest when I am either writing or being a radio DJ, yet my professional life has merged the state of being in a occupational rut into one that is indeed existential. I wonder how many people in the audience might have been able to say the same...or not. Are you existing in the exact station in life that you wish to exist within? Are you content or stagnated? Easily inspired or profoundly discouraged? Those very questions do indeed rest at the heart of the film and those feeling were more than palpable to me.

For that matter, I do wonder just how John Cusack himself may be feeling about his own current professional status. Maybe he is exactly where he wishes to be at this stage of his life and career. But I would not be surprised if more cynical folks out there (you know who you are) might not have thought of an event like this as existing as a way for Cusack to continue to market himself and retain some sense of celebrity cache as his profile in Hollywood has dwindled considerably since he is not as present in high profile films nearly as much as he used to...whether by design or not, I'll never know.

Furthermore, there are the societal changes to consider as well as "High  Fidelity" in the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp for some viewers could be seen as a slightly dicey affair. I do have to say that the vehement cheer that arrived after the character of Liz (Joan Cusack), mutual friend of Rob and Laura--albeit more Laura's than Rob's--blasts into Championship Vinyl after learning about four of Rob's transgressions and with the force of a sonic boom explodes, "Hi Rob...you FUCKING ASSHOLE!!!!" was palpable in its righteous anger. But then, after seeing Rob's silent reaction, some sense of rising fury quickly transformed into laughter, keeping us still attached to Rob's story...such is the magic of Nick Hornby's source material certainly. But this feeling also pertains to the magic of John Cusack unquestionably, and in doing so, I found myself losing myself inside of "High Fidelity" even more completely than I have in quite some time.

You  know, I have to admit that I enjoyed watching, and was moved by "High Fidelity" so much that I almost forgot that there was more in store for the night. Almost...

As Love's "My Little Red Book" from the film's end credit scroll pounded through auditorium speakers, the movie screen lifted upwards to reveal the simple stage set of two chairs and a table bathed in a dramatic blue hue--a set up reminiscent of Bravo's "Inside The Actor's Studio." Soon, the music faded and the evening's host and moderator, Jim Healy, Director of Programming for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cinematheque walked on stage and then introduced Mr. John Cusack to the stage, to the sight and sound of rapturous applause and in some sections, a standing ovation.

For 60 minutes, Cusack, dressed with causal sharpness in a black jacket, black shirt, blue jeans and a black baseball cap puled down low, superbly held court, engaging Healy and all of us in the audience with a conversation that centered around "High Fidelity," but often found itself weaving in and out of various films from his career, with Savage Steve Holland's "Better Off Dead' (1985) clearly receiving the the most enthusiastic applause and even various audience member cat calls of the now iconic line "I want my two dollars!!!" to even another audience member who shouted "Lane Meyer for life!!!!," referencing Cusack's character from that film.

Cusack took everything in stride throughout this portion of the evening with an attitude that felt to veer between graciousness and a modicum of aloofness yet always respectful, to the audience, to  Healy and to whatever subject matter he was discussing in the moment. With regards to "Better Off Dead," a film he has long derided, he admitted that is it wonderful when anything you did over 25 years ago is not only remembered but enjoyed and acknowledging that fact, he wouldn't step on anyone's toes. Furthermore, he conceded that the film did indeed house a certain purposeful surreal quality that just was not really executed during that time period, and especially in films designed for teenagers. And for having that specific point of view, he could appreciate the effort.

John Cusack also remained respectful yet pointed when discussing his time in Hollywood, then and now, giving praise when it was due yet never delving into trash talking and negativity when approaching subject matter that could have easily fallen into the vitriolic. With "High Fidelity," he had nothing but the highest praise for Nick Hornby's source material of course, but for also Music Supervisor Kathy Nelson, who was the key figure who was able to acquire all of the songs Cusack and his writing partners Steve Pink and D.V. DeVincentis hand picked for the film, co-star Jack Black, who Cusack admitted he had to truly coerce into making the film as Black, surprisingly was not feeling confident enough with his skills (plus being a tad fearful of the very British Director Stephen Frears), and also, the music if The Kinks for always getting the film itself out of any editing and pacing quandaries.

Cusack also gave us an insight into the tricks of the Hollywood trade as he divulged that he never had one conversation with filmmaker Mike Newell, who is listed as an Executive Producer of "High Fidelity," but in actuality had nothing to do with the film whatsoever, but is credited due to some Hollywood legal-ease. To that end, he conversely had nothing but top compliments for then Touchstone Pictures studio head Joe Roth, a figure who represented a markedly different time period in Hollywood when massive tentpole films could be made directly alongside smaller, more personal passion projects, like "High Fidelity" was for Cusack, and without any industry political interference. By contrast with Hollywood in 2018, Cusack expressed matter-of-factly, " 'High Fidelity' woud never get made today."

Jim Healy and John Cusack's conversation was sometimes peppered with, and at other times guided by a series of question we in the audience had the chance to write down and place into a box before showtime. I was beyond thrilled when my friend Sachi Komai, co-owner and operator of the local small business art store Anthology, also located upon beautiful State Street, had her question asked directly--QUESTION: Would he ever consider doing a sequel or a prequel to any of his films? ANSWER: He'd love to. He'd really like to do a follow up to Mikael Hafstrom's psychological thriller "1408" (2007).

Another audience question asked what his favorite concerts and his answer included, but was not limited to, the likes of The Clash, The Pogues, Public Enemy, Fishbone, and Nirvana. And one more question humorously asked if he remembered the first time he was recognized in public as well as the first time he was not recognized? His answer essentially expressed that he has been recognized and not recognized during times and periods when he is met with the opposite of his expectations. As for me? Well, I would like to think that my question was answered indirectly as it fell within the conversation itself, which was if he would ever with to team up with Cameron Crowe again. ANSWER: He'd love to but has not been asked yet.

One aspect of the conversation that I enjoyed listening to was when subjects turned towards politics and his activism, which has extended itself into the writing of various pieces for The Huffington Post, his work as a board member of the Freedom Of The Press Foundation,  and his engineering of a meeting between Author/human rights activist Arundhati Roy and Edward Snowden in Moscow, which ultimately resulted into a book Cusack co-authored with Roy entitled Things That Can And Cannot Be Said (2015). I deeply appreciated the depth of his convictions when he stated that he felt that it was his duty to take is level of being in the public eye and utilize his voice to speak out against injustice, especially right now as we have "a fascist...a Nazi" in power in the Oval Office, a figure whom Cusack strongly (and truthfully, in my opinion) feels would resort to violence if all of the legal battles do not fly in his favor.

Yet every moment was not drenched in seriousness as John Cusack also showcased his sardonic humor throughout. When lightly questioned by Jim Healy about his stage work with Tim Robbins and their respective theater companies, Cusack quipped, "Yes...I'm a proper actor." And when Healy asked if Cusack still studied acting techniques, he replied through a snort of laughter, "No!!!" eliciting a huge burst of laughter from the audience. 

Once the 60 minutes or so had been completed, John Cusack was thanked and he left the stage as the theater was quickly emptied and prepared for the audience patrons who were upgraded for the V.I.P. portion of the night, which included photos with Cusack plus autographs. Kelly and I exited the theater and headed out of the Orpehum and into the beautiful late Spring night to the sounds of a young jazz combo performing just across the street.

As we watched the band, I ruminated over the event and felt more than pleased with how everything had turned out, in addition to winning tickets as well. While I did not meet the man, John Cusack delivered all I could have wished for with a cherished, brilliant film combined with an overall presentation that enhanced and re-confirmed what I already loved about this actor and his public persona.

And oh yes...what of Sierra from Rockford, IL?

As Kelly and I were heading for our cars, Sierra found us as she was behind us, presumably heading back to her own car. She was over the moon as she had just not only met John Cusack herself, and had her soundtrack album plus her friend's call sheet autographed, she expressed  how very nice he was. Believe me, I was so, so happy for her knowing just what the film means to her and how she was not disappointed in meeting her idol face-to-face. But then, yet another surprise occurred, when there the three of us were, standing and talking just off of State Street by the parking ramp when a friend of Sierra's from 10 years prior, and unseen since, happened by coincidence to be standing just nearby. An emotional reunion ensued and after all shaking hands and making introductions, Kelly and I left the friends to themselves and began to venture to our respective homes and families.

It really was indeed that kind of a night. One the Universe graciously gifted as as, for me, it was just what I needed.

Cue the music of Stevie Wonder...