Saturday, August 11, 2018

GROWING UP LONELY IN THE DIGITAL AGE: a review of "Eighth Grade"

Written and Directed by Bo Burnham
**** (four stars)

"...they're quite aware of what they're going through..."
-David Bowie ("Changes") 

I hated eighth grade.

Out of all of my years of schooling growing up, regardless of varying levels academic difficulty, there was no other year in my memory and reality that, to this day, instills such intense emotions. I remember that school year of 1982-1983 in full details, from its confounding, confusing beginnings to its miserable end absolutely vividly, completely and painfully--made even morseo, due to its arrival after the joyride that was seventh grade.

It was a year that served to fully pummel my already precarious sense of self-confidence. Aside from my strong performance in a brutal French class, my especially poor academic standing that year only felt fit to fuel a certain sense of early adolescent apathy that clashed with the increasingly enraged demands and palpable disappointment of my extremely strict and academically driven parents, who themselves were public school high school educators who rightfully had no time or money to waste upon my hefty private school tuition if I was not going to bother to either fully apply myself.

Yet, even with the relentless "under the microscope" attention from my parents to contend with, it was the social life at school that quickly became an emotional minefield, so much so, that I firmly believe that this particular year set the stage for many issues that I have lived with long into adulthood. Issues of body image, of racial identity and self-acceptance, of interpersonal fairness, of social competitiveness with peers or otherwise and always feeling undervalued and unaccepted, to even issues with self-parenting of which I am admittedly unforgiving and to my own detriment. It was also the year during which I had my heart so broken that it paved deep trenches into what I felt not only what love and relationships could or could not be, but even to questioning the value of love in the first place as there are no guarantees for love's reciprocation or endurance no matter how much or how deeply you give love to that other individual.

Frankly, that year nearly broke me as it hurt so constantly and seemingly endlessly. In fact, I have long realized that perhaps I was not alone in my feelings for when I attended my 20th high school reunion, I had a powerfully insightful conversation with a lovely classmate who, at the time of the reunion, was a professional therapist.

"What happened to us, Scott?" she asked.
"How do you mean?" I asked in return.
"Well, it felt like in 6th and 7th grade,  we were all friends and then, we got to 8th grade and we all just hated each other. I really had no idea of what happened or how or why. "

I knew exactly what she meant.

I hated eighth grade. And yet, for as much as I hated it, thank God that there was no such thing as Social Media at that time!

Dear readers, please allow me to tell you about how much I loved "Eighth Grade," the filmmaking debut from Writer/Director Bo Burnham. This is easily one of the finest films of 2018 as well as existing as one of the saddest due to its painfully perceptive approach which often feels like a "fly-on-wall" documentary rather than a fictionalized narrative.

What Burnham has achieved is a film that is exceedingly lived in and emotionally wrestled with yet is also meticulously observant that it simultaneously has much to say about the conclusion of the Middle School experience, itself a period of life that rarely receives any media attention in the movies or television, as well as our ever increasing cultural dependence/addiction towards Social Media. And yet, even with its tendency to cut to the bone in full recognition on what it means to be 12 or 13 years old, "Eighth Grade" also represents that exquisite splash of adult wisdom that allows the film to have some modicum of hopefulness, that light at the end of the tunnel, that signifies that this precarious time can be survived. This is a powerfully remarkable film.

"Eighth Grade" stars the wonderful Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day, who we witness during her final week of Middle School all the way through to her graduation, with the anticipations and fears of entering high school looming largely.

While essentially plotless, Burnham creates a "slice of life" experience that allows us a front row seat into Kayla's emotionally and turbulently awkward social experiences and relationships with classmates as well as her single Dad, Mark (an equally terrific Josh Hamilton) as well as her vibrantly alive inner world, which is fretfully, anxiously, hopefully, and often distressingly attempting to make sense of her life.

While at home, Kayla creates a collection of You Tube videos which are designed to serve as messages of advice for social acceptance by one's peers to her peers (and all of which conclude with her personal sign off "Gucci!"), it is advice that she is barely able to utilize for herself when in public.

In her videos, Kayla is rather loquacious and socially astute, yet in person, she rarely speaks a word, preferring to remain silent to the point of being nearly invisible...except when she is presented the bewildering public "award" of "Quietest Student" during an all school assembly. And in later scenes as she attempts to catch the attention of the skinny, sleepy eyed popular bad boy Aiden (Luke Prael), or when she reluctantly attends a highly popular classmate's pool party, words fail her, she is unable to connect to anyone and just regard how she folds her body inwards upon itself, as if she could box herself into nothingness. And then, poor Kayla's social anxiety mounts until that blessed moment when she can return to the cocoon of her Smartphone, walling out the real world as she seeks some sense of validation in the virtual world, while taking her pain and angrily lashing out against her loving, yet equally awkward, Dad in the process.

Earlier this summer, I criticized Brad Bird's "Incredibles 2" for existing as yet another movie to trot out cliched attitudes about Fathers yet since then, I have been so very pleased to see movies that do present Fathers in more favorably realistic fashion, serving as a much needed antidote.

Specifically, I am surprised to see that "Eighth Grade" is actually the third film I have seen in these few moths that features a stirring Father/daughter dynamic, from movies as varied as John Krasinski's thriller "A Quiet Place" and Brett Haley's exquisite quasi-musical "Hearts Beat Loud." In fact, as I watched "Eighth Grade," my mind turned often to "Hearts Beat Loud" as that film could almost serve as a sequel, or  better yet, a companion piece to the events depicted in "Eighth Grade" as Fathers are so deeply in love with their children and yet are housed with an aching pain of not being able to fully connect with their respective daughters, and therefore, fearing a loss of parental access, let alone communication. And yet, within "Eighth Grade" there is that elephant in the room, the elephant so large that it possesses space so enormous that it threatens to separate us from each other entirely.

If there has ever been a film that could serve as an indictment of Social Media, Bo Burnham's "Eighth Grade" could very well be that film as I do not think that I have ever felt such dismay at the sight of those glowing Smartphone and laptop screens as I did during this film. Burnham's film feels to be of a piece with David Fincher's "The Social Network" (2010) and Spike Jonze's "Her" (2013), as both of those films serve as cultural warnings through their visions of our society at the dawn of Social Media and a darkly imagined future, respectively.

Yet, what warning could serve the greatest impact but to present the world as we know it just as it is regarding our over-reliance, and again, I feel that Burnham is arguing is actually a societal addiction to Social Media, an addiction that is indeed fueling a certain spiritual decay? Through the character of Kayla Day,  her daily journey is a mirror of our own as our nothing less than our sense of existentialism is now being found, and nurtured, such as it is, within the digital world and we are all left feeling somewhat emptier in the process. 

I think one of the most telling sequences in the film regarding this concept exists within the aforementioned birthday pool party sequence when the birthday girl Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) opens up her presents in full view of her guests as her Mother not-so-surreptitiously snaps photos, most likely to upload, thus continuing an on-line narrative about the wonderment of her and  her daughter's lives, yet in actuality, everyone seems to be miserable as the jaded Kennedy openly scoffs at Kayla's gift, thus humiliating her.

At school, Kayla attempts to try to connect with classmates but they are all lost in their phones. Another sequence late in the film and set at the local shopping mall, where Kayla has been invited by the affectionately chirpy high school student Olivia (Emily Robinson) to join her and her high school friends in the Food Court, all of the kids discuss the times during which they were first exposed and allowed to utilize Social Media, during which we learn that Kayla first used Snapchat while in the 5th grade. 

Beyond those sequences, Kayla is rarely seen without her phone and earbuds, the synthetic glow illuminating her sadness day and deeply into the night and with no sense of absolution. Her Dad, Mark is also not immune as he also retreats to  his digital world late at night, with that same synthetic glow illuminating his sadness after another evening of being unable to connect with Kayla. And so, in "Eighth Grade," Bo Burnham has expertly fashioned an examination of a culture consumed with loneliness within the very medium that was supposed to bring us all together and for those in early adolescence, the misery of not ever being able to get away from the social dynamics that are hurting us in the first place.

Even with all of this material, it could be argued that Social Media does indeed serve a certain purpose for even though Kayla is consumed with loneliness, she does utilize Social Media, her You Tube channel and videos specifically to work out her issues, her problems, her fears and possible solutions to each area...even if she is unable to bring them into fruition in the real world. Essentially, her videos become messages of self-affirmation. In many ways, Kayla is the embodiment of the David Bowie quotation that has opened this posting and has iconically, served as the opening statement to the ultimate cinematic exploration of adolescence,  John Hughes' "The Breakfast Club" (1985).

For as much as we in the audience ache with and for her, we can also see that Kayla Day is a girl who knows herself and her limitations extremely well, therefore knowing precisely what she is going through as well as the problem solving she undertakes in order to emotionally survive this painful time. On a more crucial level, and during a truly frightening extended sequence set in the back seat of a car between Kayla and a high school boy, regarding how she navigates this predicament showcases a palpable strength that she (and we in the audience) possibly never realized she possessed.

It felt so fitting to see "Eighth Grade" on the very day before the ninth anniversary of John Hughes' passing as this film could possibly owe its own existence to the game changing sextet of high school films Hughes wrote, produced and directed (twice with the aid of Director Howard Deutch) during the mid 1980's as Hughes possessed the audacity to not only create films for a teenage audience that expressed distinctly that the lives and experiences of adolescents were worth exploring. Furthermore, and within those films, Hughes created a collective of strong female characters during an age and genre in film when females (often nameless) solely existed to satisfy the prurient interests of the teenage boys in the audience as well within the films themselves.

Since that specific time, which for me concluded with Cameron Crowe's golden "Say Anything..." (1989), which itself held a terrific central heroine as played by Ione Skye, we have been given creative films with three dimensional heroines and viewpoints as varied as Mark Waters and Tina Fey's "Mean Girls" (2004), Will Gluck's "Easy A" (2010), James Ponsoldt's"The Spectacular Now" (2013), Kelly Fremon Craig's "The Edge Of Seventeen" (2016) and Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird" (2017).  And now, Bo Burnham has deftly picked up that mantle and has created one of the best young female characters I have seen in film due to the sheer purity of the conception of Kayla Day and Elsie Fisher's miraculous performance of her.

Elsie Fisher's performance is one of expert authenticity as she never once strikes a false note or delves into hyperbole or melodrama. Again, she creates a piercing realty of the type that I had to check and re-check to see that she is indeed a gifted actress and that this film is not a documentary.  Fisher ensures that you understand and sympathize with Kayla every moment of the film, even during points when she is infuriating and downright cruel to her Dad, lending to many moments when you would just wish to reach into the film to try and offer this girl some comfort. Believe me, Fisher is so powerfully effective that in the moment when Kayla is invited to the mall, meaning that finally, at long last, she may have found a real life friend, she will just shatter you with her vulnerability and you just wish for her full acceptance and overall happiness.

To that end, when she faces disappointments or is confronted with her own wishes for herself as evidenced through the school assignment of a time capsule made in 6th grade to be re-opened before the 8th grade graduation, Kayla Day's existential crisis reaches a certain pinnacle as she is forced to ask herself serious questions concerning her own sense of self-worth, whether she is deserving of love and acceptance and whether she could ever truly be the person she wishes to become, the self-described "Coolest Girl On Earth"--yet, not through any sense of prefabricated popularity but what I felt to be a certain sense of self-assuredness and accomplishment. 

Bo Burnham's "Eighth Grade" took me directly back to that wretched school year of my past, PTSD flashbacks and all. But, Burnham achieved this feat with a superior artistry and empathy that did serve to beautifully soothe the wounds of the past. Yet most importantly, and just as what Richard Linklater achieved with his masterpiece, "Boyhood" (2014), Burnham delivered an intelligent, deeply felt, richly sensitive chronicle of a young girl with a matter-of-fact quality that perfectly allowed the inherent drama of the story, character and age to present itself without provocation.

For those Middle School years are more than turbulent enough.

Thursday, August 2, 2018


The "dog days" of Summer have arrived and with that, our movie season tends to slow down a bit before ramping up again for the Autumn. Thankfully, there are three films that I wish to screen for certain this month and hopefully, I am able to get to all of them, with Spike Lee's "BlacKKKlansman" being top priority!!!

Yes in deed, when Spike Lee releases a film (which has been in short supply in recent years compared with his prolific output 20-30 years ago) it is an event unquestionably and with this, a 1970's period piece based  upon true events yet designed to provide a commentary upon our increasingly divisive racial politics in 2018, it could not have arrived at a better time.

In addition...

1. Writer/Director Bo Burnham's "Eighth Grade" is already receiving enormous critical praise as well as from audiences and that film, which has just arrived in my city is already upon my personal want-to-see list...even if the thought of reliving my eighth grade is giving me PTSD flashbacks.

  2. "Juliet, Naked," Director Jesse Peretz's adaptation of the outstanding Nick Hornby novel is also one t hat I must make time for once that film arrives in my city as well.

And then, there my annual tribute to Writer/Producer/Director John Hughes, who passed away nine years ago on August 6th, and whose work will forever be an inspiration for everything I write. I hope to be able to fit this in this month because I wanted to take this tribute to celebrate what is my #1 favorite film from John Hughes..."She's Having A Baby," which reached its 30th anniversary this year.

So much to get to in a month that will provide a lot of transitions to be certain as Summer winds down and heads into Fall. As always, please do wish me luck and I'll see you when the house lights go down!!

Monday, July 30, 2018

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!!: a review of "Mission: Impossible-Fallout"

Based upon the television series created by Bruce Geller
Written and Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
**** (four stars)

I just cannot believe it! I saw it with my very own eyes and I still cannot believe it!!

Dear readers, for all of the Summer movies in recent years that you and I have all seen, for all of the bombast--CGI or otherwise--and for all of the sound and fury that shakes the walls of or local cineplexes, how many of those films are ones that are truly memorable, let alone ones you would salivate over to see again? The very films of the type that feel like the ones of say 30-40 years ago, where filmmakers consistently took the task of creating exciting, thrilling, and even revolutionary forms of sheer popcorn entertainment seriously. Regardless of any behind the scenes Hollywood business shenanigans, when Summer arrived, it is always a joy to be filled with a level of anxious anticipation for the latest cinematic event, and more often than not, we were all rewarded with movies that exceeded all expectations and even changed the game at times.

Now, we have more than enough "event movies" but too few that are really of any consequence as we are given the latest CGI bludgeoning that feels to exist to simply shatter box office records rather than give the audience an experience to remember. It all feels so cynical, so mercenary, so impersonal that it is clear that so many films being made are being created by those who feel the audience exists as nothing but product and not as people deserving of great entertainment.   

Thankfully, we still have Tom Cruise.

For whatever reasons, it is clear that whatever attracted him to making movies in the first place remains the hotly pumping engine that fuels his continuity, which often feels simultaneously feverish and devotional. For all of his larger than life celebrity and tabloid controversies, I d feel that it has often been lost just what a kinetic, magnetic movie star and first class actor he actually is. Even when a film in which he is involved turns out to not be terribly successful or is even a bad film, I would dare absolutely anyone to question his commitment as Tom Cruise has not ever once displayed anything that could be considered "phoned in" or lazy. Frankly, I believe that one could easily discern just how much he deeply cares for his own craft as well as doing his finest work to try and ensure a great time at the movies for all of us.

With his "Mission: Impossible" series, which he rebooted from the classic television series beginning with Brian DePalma's "Mission: Impossible" (1996), Tom Cruise has taken his signature franchise and has essentially achieved the seemingly impossible...again and again and again. While DePalma's film and John Woo's "Mission: Impossible 2" (2000) were loads of fun, it was when Cruise teamed up with J.J. Abrams for "Mission: Impossible III" (2006), when the series truly shifted into a higher gear altogether as that excellent film was topped by Brad Bird's "Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol" (2011) and topped even further in the series' fifth chapter, Christopher McQuarrie's "Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation" (2015).

And now, with McQuarrie's "Mission: Impossible-Fallout," Tom Cruise has achieved the seemingly impossible again as this sixth installment is far and away the very best of the series to date and furthermore, I feel it has raised the series bar to the heights set by the likes of Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" (2008) and Sam Mendes' "Skyfall" (2012), which for me, remains the finest  James Bond adventure I have ever seen. Speaking of 007, and for that matter, Jason Bourne, I think it just may be time for both of them to just come in from the cold as Cruise's super-spy Ethan Hunt has outpaced both of them furiously, tirelessly and relentlessly. There truly is no reason for any film series--especially in its sixth installment--to be any good at all. But "Mission: Impossible-Fallout" has completely, entirely and undeniably accomplished its mission and then some.

Essentially working as a more direct sequel than past installments, "Mission: Impossible-Fallout" picks up two years after Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his IMF team--Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames)--plus the superior additional aid of former MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca  Ferguson) apprehended anarchist/terrorist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). Since that time, the remains of Lane's organization The Syndicate have splintered and formulated a new organization of terrorist cells known as The Apostles, who have planned to sell three plutonium cores to the mysterious fundamentalist John Lark, who, of course, plans to create three nuclear devices.

Hunt and his IMF team go on the globetrotting chase--from Berlin to Paris to London and finally, Kashmir--alongside an unwanted guest, CIA operative August Walker (Henry Cavill) who has been instructed by CIA Director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) to serve as a shadow for Hunt. And then, there is the surprising return of Ilsa Faust, yet whose side is she working for?

While the race against time plot is simple enough to explain and furthermore to understand as you watch, it is in the execution where Christopher McQuarrie's "Mission: Impossible-Fallout" finds its complexities as well as its gravity. With this film, McQuarrie, the only director to helm two installments in this series, takes the opportunity to delve into Ethan Hunt's backstory and psychology, therefore giving this film a greater, more personal purpose and urgency to superior effect.

And "superior" is indeed the perfect adjective that I can use in order to describe the experience that s "Mission: Impossible-Fallout." It is indeed a superior effort as well as superlative, outstanding and formidable. As previously stated,  both James Bond and Jason Bourne are left far behind in the dust as this new Ethan Hunt adventure is the type of first rate, top tier and defiantly non special effects/CGI driven entertainment that is rarely seen anymore.

I wish for you to think of all of the times you have gone to the movies in recent years and just remember the last time you were truly awed by the spectacle upon display. The times when your eyes absolutely POPPED with wonder, amazement and that "How did they do that????" sense of awe. Yes, we do still have those films but in an age where special effects are not that special anymore as they have become so commonplace that we see them everywhere, even in the most innocuous television commercials, they have lost considerable luster. Even the nature of stunts and action sequences have lost their nature to keep our pulse rates pounding due to sloppy direction, poor choreography, through ADD editing and for quite some time, the dreaded shaky cam (a trend that has thankfully subsided).

"Mission: Impossible-Fallout" suffers not even one of those specific fates as McQuarrie, Cruise and working with their expert team have delivered a sleek, beautifully orchestrated experience that more than gets the job done with several "How did they do that?????" sequences. But it is all not simply razzle dazzle. I loved how McQuarrie figured out how to not solely make great action sequences as he accomplished brilliantly within "Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation." This time around, he has deduced how to make those on a more character and story driven level so we are still learning about the characters even as we are sitting upon the edges of our seats.

To that end, McQuarrie achieved the same feats that he performed so successfully in "Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation" as well as his other Tom Cruise starring action thriller, "Jack Reacher" (2012) as he utilizes the mayhem to allow the story to keep being told visually, unlike most action films in which the movies seem to halt for a fight/shootout/chase sequence. For McQuarrie, every element is a proponent of the crucial storytelling.

From its intense opening sequence to its often gasp inducing, furiously white knuckle climax and everything in between--from HALO jumps through lightning stricken clouds, an exhausting motorcycle chase through Paris, a punishing fist fight in a nightclub Men's Room, for instance--the strict attention to the motivations, obstacles, inner fears and demons and the severely raised stakes for all of the characters involved, thus making a film where you give a damn about the individuals involved and the various predicaments they are engaged with.

I also greatly appreciated how McQuarrie utilized this film to thread backwards to elements of the past five films, all the while allowing us some crucial bread crumbs into the character of Ethan Hunt and what precisely makes him tick, what makes him risk life and limb again and again as he consistently chooses to accept each mission when others would have long walked away. And why is it so paramount to him that saving EVERY life is greater than the "greater good" when dealing with...ahem...impossible global situations?

Truthfully, like Bond and Bourne, Ethan Hunt is essentially an enigmatic sort of character as we have never learned terribly much about him over these 20 plus years, Yet, with this series, it strongly feels like all we need to discern about him is entirely through his actions and intrepid, dogged (and some would say, damn foolish) determination rather than through a lot of superfluous expository dialogue--although late in this film, Luther has a lovely monologue that does provide some well deserved texture.

To that end, it is amazing and perhaps, intentional that the character of Ethan Hunt carries many of the same attributes as his portrayer Tom Cruise. As with Hunt, we really do not know, and frankly, have never really known terribly much about Tom Cruise aside from what has been reported and alluded to in entertainment magazines and tabloids. He is a figure for whom we really do not understand precisely what makes him tick, especially for these movies in which he has risked his life for the sake of our entertainment and the process of making potentially great movies.

Why does Tom Cruise do what he does? I mean--honestly. Why? Really...why? It's only a movie. And he's not getting any younger! In the grand scheme, it is not important whatsoever but over and again through the years, and even now as he performed a High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) jump from an airplane (a process that he performed 100 times in order to obtain the three shots needed for the film and without the aid of a green screen), for instance, I have regarded him in interviews with a blindingly gleeful expression that exudes, "I can't wait for an audience to see this!!!"

And with that, there is that peerless, unstoppable level of commitment that is Tom Cruise and how he brings that idiosyncratic quality to all of his movies, especially with what has now become his signature series. He is having an absolute blast of a time making the impossible possible and we get to have that theater seat to regard him in his glory certainly, but more generously, for the film and the audience overall.

I also liked how he even weaved potential self-reflexive elements into the film, as in commenting upon his age (his aches, pains and groans) to even within some of the high octane action sequences themselves--most notably, the climactic helicopter battle, during which Hunt coaches himself in how to fly the chopper, itself a funny commentary about Cruise's past film roles, because really...Maverick from Tony Scott's "Top  Gun" (1986) doesn't know how to fly a helicopter?

This is the inexplicable magic that surrounds Tom Cruise and the "Mission: Impossible" series, a love for the movies so pure that he is willing to undergo all manner of stunts and pain in order to give us a film to remember during a time when so many movies are not even worth remembering. And now, with Christopher McQuarrie's astounding  "Mission: Impossible-Fallout," we have been given a film that makes us believe the wholly unbelievable, even when we are seeing everything unfold right before our very eyes.


Sometimes, sequels can be fun!

At this time, I would like to unveil the first part of my second set of 30 favorite movies in 30 days special feature for you. As with the first three part batch, I am trying to only feature films that I have not already written about at length upon this blogsite to simply offer some variety and to also give you a peek into which films have shaped my life throughout my life.

And so, here we go again!

For years I have wondered if John Cusack ever felt as if he was owed some sense of creative restitution.

"Grosse Point Blank," starring John Cusack as Martin Q. Blank, a hitman undergoing an existential crisis who returns to his hometown of the wealthy Michigan suburb of Grosse Pointe to attend his 10th high school reunion and possibly earn redemption from the girl he mysteriously abandoned on prom night (a wonderful Minnie Driver) to enlist in the army, was indeed the very first time I ever experienced the concept of an assassin struggling with depression and undergoing therapy sessions.

This film pre-dates "The Sopranos" (1999-2007) as well as Harold Ramis' "Analyze This" (1999) and "Analyze That" (2002), and while I cannot be certain if Cusack and his co-horts arrived at the concept first, it was an ingenious one as it gave me a film that was entirely fresh and utilizing this unique conceit to brilliantly explore that palpable anxiety of what just may be that very first reunion since graduating from high school, as we take stock of our lives and internally struggle with who we once were in comparison to what we have become and will we be judged by the peers we grew up with.

Throughout this film, we often hear Martin Blank utter the words, "It's not me," conveying a different meaning each time it is uttered while also presenting a certain detachment he wishes to create between his actions and the truth of himself, as he is slowly re-discovering with the aid of his admittedly fearful therapist Dr. Oatman (the great Alan Arkin) in scenes that just crackle with comedy and tension. That very tension extends itself to the fullness of his return home as he realizes that he has grown more disconnected to his past, and therefore himself, than he could have imagined with his Father now dead, his mentally unstable Mother in an assisted living facility and the home he grew up in now a convenience 7-11 type store via a real estate deal brokered by childhood buddy Paul Spericki (a crackerjack Jeremy Piven).

Congeal all of this material with the violence of his post high school life, we arrive at the expertly staged high school reunion sequence during which Martin has a moment holding a classmate's new baby. As the strains of Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure" blares in the background, Martin stares quizzically at this baby who stares right back at him, and their wordless exchange, possibly signifying Martin's search for his long abandoned innocence or wondering just how one can grow from that blank slate to the homicidal tendencies afflicted young man he has become, "Grosse Point Blank" has truly ascended into a film that is explicitly one-of-a-kind.

As for the girl he left behind, the now radio DJ Debi Newberry, who specializes in the alternative music she and her classmates grew up with, has her own conflicting issues from the past and present to deal with once Martin returns and the chemistry Minnie Driver establishes with Cusack throughout is electric, making them a couple to root for.

As directed with a terrific snap and spark by George Armitage, the film is exceedingly witty, intelligent and absurd as its rapid fire dialogue, social/political satire (as evidenced by Dan Aykroyd's fast talking, psychotic performance as Martin's rival assassin), explosive violence (Cusack's high school hallway fight sequence during the reunion is especially brutal and beautifully choreographed), truly lovely romantic comedy, exquisite soundtrack and pitch perfect generational perceptiveness, made "Grosse Point Blank" not only one of the very best films of the 1990's but one that has only continued to endure strongly.

Incidentally, I saw this film on opening day when I was 28 years old and I kid you not, when I returned home from the film, what should be awaiting me in my mailbox but an invitation to my own 10th high school reunion--a prospect that, I have to admit, terrified me. Thankfully, and with my cherished friend Kristy at my side, we went...and it was surprisingly warm, with all anxiety quickly fading away.

I like to think that there was no cosmic accident that this film arrived in my life when it did. In fact, I like to think that it actually helped.

Spike Lee's fifth "Joint" was also one of his most incendiary and most misunderstood projects, even to this day.

First of all, the film, despite its brilliant title, a colloquialism describing inter-racial relationships, was NOT an indictment of ALL inter-racial relationships. It was an admonition of relationships that are solely based in racial curiosity and mythology and having nothing to do with anyone's content of character.

The film's story of Harlem architect Flipper Purify (an outstanding Wesley Snipes) who begins a doomed affair with his Bensonhurt based Italian-American temp secretary Angie Tucci (an equally wonderful Annabella Sciorra) was the hook but what Lee truly had up his sleeve was an impassioned outcry against the destruction of African-American communities due to the crack epidemic, and how these two situations are juxtaposed against each other in terms of the respective sense of outrage within both Black and White communities. Critics have long complained that Lee's films are over-stuffed with ideas. I feel that Lee's films are meticulously layered and for a film like "Jungle Fever," repeated viewing are essential to tracking all of the conceptual threads.

Just regard the characters' reactions to race as opposed to drug abuse. Throughout the film, we are witness to families being torn apart--Angie is beaten within an inch of her life and thrown out of her house by her own Father once her relationship with Flipper is revealed while Flipper's wife Drew (an explosive Lonette McKee) holds a "war council" of Black women in her living room (itself a scene unlike anything you will see in the movies) after ejecting her philandering husband from the home.
Another relationship that is shown as a counterpoint to Flipper and Angie is the one starring Angie's tender yet strong hearted ex-boyfriend Paulie (John Tuturro) and the crush he houses upon African-American businesswoman Orin Goode (Tyra Ferrel)--a relationship in which he would withstand the relentless teasing and physical violence brutally inflicted upon him by his Italian friends just to have a date with her. THAT relationship Lee implies, is pure and therefore will endure but for Flipper and Angie, there is nothing but sorrow.

And even then, the layers of intentions within Flipper and Angie are complex. Yes, Flipper may be curious about being with a White woman but for Angie, Flipper represents a way out of her dead end life in servitude to her Father and brothers...and in the end, she just may really have fallen in love with him. But by then, it is all too late, as people's reactions, obsessions and fury tear them apart.
Meanwhile, there is Flipper's brother Gator (a breakthrough Samuel L. Jackson), a crack addict and it is HIS storyline, which includes a bravura seven minute length sequence set to Stevie Wonder's "Living For The City," in which Flipper tracks him down into the voluminous crack den known as the Taj Mahal and then, his final, fatal confrontation with their parents, the Good Reverend Doctor (the late Ossie Davis) and his wife Lucinda (the late Ruby Dee), where Spike Lee proclaims is where we should REALLY direct our collective ire.

As people are riveted and distracted by color, the true destruction lies in the very thing that is given offhanded remarks and exceedingly less attention throughout. And it all culminates in the film's devastating final shot, which is Flipper's fever dream howl into the abyss. It is a film that left me shaken to the core and accented beautifully by Steve Wonder's "Feeding Off The Love Of The Land," his finest song since his 1970's winning streak.

Unforgettable and wrenching.

A superbly mesmerizing film of deeply haunting poetry, existentialism, philosophy, graceful violence and wry social commentary of the real and imagined worlds of gangsters and samurai warriors.

This wholly unique film would be completely one-of-a-kind if it had emerged from the cinematic mind of Jim Jarmusch...yet, as I still think about this film, it feels to be the very type that could have ONLY emerged from Jarmusch. Utilizing his trademark meandering and minimalist style, Jarmusch weaves a hypnotic spell with his tale of Ghost Dog (a tremendous Forest Whittaker), a New Jersey hitman who works as a retainer for a local mobster and views himself as a samurai warrior, religiously adhering to the "Hagakure," a spiritual guide book.

While the film's gangster plot finds Ghost Dog as a marked man by the Mafia. we view what could have been a cliche ridden experience through the completely innovative, unconventional and unpredictable viewpoint of Jarmusch who delivers an anti-hero who just may be mentally ill. communicates his business dealings solely through homing pigeons, is indeed a ruthless assassin and for the finest sequences in the film, the friendships he builds and holds with a French speaking ice cream man (Isaach De Bankole) and Pearline (Camille Winbush), a girl to whom he loans the book "Roshomon," relationships that signify the poignant truth of how we are sometimes able to completely understand when we have no idea of how to understand.

Fueled by a gritty and succulent score by The RZA of Wu-Tang Clan, "Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai," with its dream-like aesthetic merged with its hard nosed streetwise brutality allowed Jim Jarmusch to create a mobster/Japanese swordsman hybrid that truly insinuates itself underneath your skin with a meditative luxuriousness that remains unchallenged to this day.

"DIE HARD" (1988)
Based upon the novel "Nothing Lasts Forever" by Roderick Thorp
When this film was first released--actually 30 years ago to this very day (July 15, 1988 to be exact)--I wanted nothing to do with it and it had everything to do with Bruce Willis.

In 1988, I really could not stand Bruce Willis. I was not a fan of him on television's "Moonlighting" and please do not get me started on his...ahem..."singing" career. But mostly, those first trailers and commercial made the film look as if it was going to be yet another self-serious Right Wing fantasy film of the sort that was horrifically prevalent during the 1980's (and without the high comical self-awareness of what Arnold Schwarzenegger was releasing). Yet, the reviews were generally good...good enough to sway me to see it one evening at Chicago's McClurg Court theater, and I was skeptical all the way in. How thrilled I was t be proven dramatically wrong.

John McTiernan's "Die Hard" remains one of the best action thrillers I have ever seen due to its commitment to character, story, performances and sensational cinematography over an endless barrage of mindless violence. And to my surprise, Bruce Willis as John McClaine, the everyman cop thrust into the extraordinary situation of those nasty Eastern European terrorists attempting a grand heist as they hold hostages--including McClaine's estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia)--inside of the Los Angeles skyscraper Nakatomi Plaza was just fantastic in the role.

Bruce Willis combined a working class stiff charm, street smarts, dry wit and an impressively non-superheroic quality that made the wild situations, fights, shootouts and rooftop explosions remained grounded as John McClaine was a hero who was vulnerable, frightened, and easily wounded (him being barefoot was a masterstroke and that shot of choosing hacked up feet on broken glass or certain death was a great moment). Add to that the brilliant relationship he created with Reginald VelJohnson as police Sgt. Al Powell, the one man on the outside of the building working in solidarity via walkie talkie.

And I would be remiss if I did not pay homage to the late, great Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, one of the movies' finest screen villains, a self described "exceptional thief" and then some, whose sinister style and charm made him seem like a python in human form, meticulously waiting for the precise moment to strike yet always the deadliest man in the room.

The action was relentlessly intense, supremely well staged and choreographed and filled with jump-out-your-seat-and applaud moments that makes summer movies great art as far as I am concerned. John McTeirnan's "Die Hard" is indeed a grand slam of a film that STILL holds up to this day.


Based upon characters created by George Lucas, Gloria Katz & William Huyck
Sometimes favorite movies can be the very films that really aren't that successful.

In this case, I turn to "More American Graffiti," the sequel to George Lucas' timeless, iconic and yes, innovative "American Graffiti" (1973). I first saw the film on television as a child, possibly on the NBC Monday night movie or something like that. Now with my inexplicable fascination with the events of the later 1960's, the movie was a draw for me and I was riveted to the screen from beginning to end (and even with the commercials) and especially remaining gobsmacked as I sat through all of the end credits which featured Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone"--incidentally, the very first time I had even heard of Dylan (I had to ask my Dad once I could get words out of my mouth..."What IS this?" I asked. "That's Bob Dylan!" he answered)

Now time has proven that this sequel is a far inferior film to Lucas' original. But it was no mere nostalgia trip as it took the innovations of the original film (the wall-to-wall soundtrack and moreso, the cross-cutting of multiple storylines and characters) and extended far beyond them, weaving a tapestry unlike anything I have seen in a film either before or since.

Utilizing the original film's jarring and even tragic epilogue as a base, B.W.L. Norton's "More American Graffiti" updates the stories of nearly all of the film's characters (Richard Dreyfuss sat this film out) on four consecutive New Year's Eves from 1964-1967, crosscutting between all of the years, making the film appear as if everything is occurring simultaneously when they were actually not. Yes, the wall-to-wall soundtrack and the voice of Wolfman Jack return as well but visually is where the film standouts supremely. To avoid any such confusion about time lines and such, each New Year's Eve is given a distinctive cinematic look.

So, Paul LeMat's drag racing John Milner and his sweet flirtation with a Swedish girl is featured in a sun drenched California tone, which is a great juxtaposition to a fact that the audience knows that he does not--this is the last day of his life. The nerdy Toad (Charles Martin Smith) and his misadventures in Vietnam (which includes the faking of his own death so he can desert) is filmed in a handheld newsreel footage style. The characters played by Ron Howard and Cindy Williams, now a miserable married couple, as Howard's boorish husband in unable to adjust to Williams' growing independence as a woman and how they each find themselves caught up in a wild campus protest is filmed in a more traditional style. And most audaciously, we have Candy Clark, now a San Francisco hippie and her adventures which is filmed in a glorious triple split screen evoking what we saw in Michael Wadleigh's brilliant "Woodstock" (1970) documentary.

As I said, I was mesmerized as a child and every time I have seen it since, even with its flaws (some underdeveloped characters and some flat moments here and there), I remain mesmerized as it is indeed a film of terrific energy augmented by high, forward thinking cinematic style from B.W.L. Norton, who was handpicked by George Lucas to create this film (although apparently Lucas was extremely hands-on as he edited the screenplay, the final film and even shot some of the Vietnam footage himself).

Kaleidoscopic, heartfelt, and again, extremely innovative, I still stand by B.W.L. Norton's "More American Graffiti" as a landmark movie experience in my life.

"JFK" (1991)
"We're through the long glass here, people. White is Black and Black is White."
-Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner)

It felt to be more than appropriate to feature this specific film at this specific time in our collective national and even world history as we have just experienced the sound and vision of the current President of the United States openly denouncing the country he has been elected to lead in favor of appeasing a national foe. It would be unthinkable but for this particular President, the unthinkable has become a new "through the looking glass" reality every single day. The longer it continues, we will only have ourselves to blame and yet, in some ways, we have already found ourselves in similar spots.

Oliver Stone's gargantuan "JFK," which follows the pursuit by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner in one of his finest performances) for the truth concerning the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. In a mammoth three hour film that is part detective story, part political thriller and part hallucinogenic fever dream, Stone, with his all star cast and cinematic wizardry that meticulously blends a variety of film stocks, B&W and color and jaw dropping editing, weaves a hypnotic, kaleidoscopic vision that places us in the maelstrom of political conspiracies within political conspiracies and the effect was exhilarating, exhausting and electrifying filmmaking and storytelling.

Yes, and despite the large box office success and industry awards, Oliver Stone took a beating with this film as historians charged him with grossly negligent historical discrepancies, charges I have long felt to be completely unfair due to the story he was telling and the message he was so passionately trying to convey.

For me, "JFK" is not designed to be a documentary or even necessarily a docudrama. This film is truly an impressionistic painting of Stone's own viewpoint of that specific period and what it meant and still means to him. And in doing so, Stone is essentially using his film to scream from a self-made pulpit, exclaiming that he does not believe the official Warren Commission report that claims that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and if there are those who feel the same, then we, as Americans, owe it to ourselves and our country to search for the truth.

Because, as I look at this piece of or nation's history and the preposterous of the Warren Commission report (really.."magic bullet," anyone?), I felt that Oliver Stone offered a provocative quandary for everyone watching the film, especially Americans. Enduring the assassination of a President is of course unthinkable. But how about enduring your own government conspiring against the very people who elected them to become public servants? When faced with the easy, identifiable monster (in this case, Oswald) against something that feels to be unfathomable and not tangible (a massive conspiracy by your nation's government), what would you believe? Or in this case, what have generations of Americans chosen to believe? Or better yet, what is EASIER to believe?

For that, combined with a Herculean filmmaking aesthetic, Oliver Stone's "JFK" is a masterful, titanic achievement.

As I like to tell my younger friends, I am old enough to remember a time in which there was no such thing as "Ghostbusters." And once it entered the world, it was AWESOME!!!

Released in the summer of 1984 when I was 15 years old, Ivan Reitman's "Ghostbusters" was the cinematic surprise I do not think that nearly anyone was ready for but was resoundingly embraced as it really is a near perfect film as well as being the full culmination of the OG "Saturday Night Live " movies, which began with John Landis' "National Lampoon's Animal House" (1978) and "The Blues Brothers" (1980) and continued with Harold Ramis' "Caddyshack" (1980) and Reitman's "Meatballs" (1979) and "Stripes" (1981).

Honestly, WHO KNEW that a big budget, special effects heavy comedy with elements of horror and starring that peerless wiseacre Bill Murray alongside his co-horts Dan Aykroyd and the late Harold Ramis would really amount to much. Even for me, who worshiped these comedic heroes, I had no clue as to what would be unleashed. The stars were in absolutely astonishing alignment as the final results were undeniably magical, so magical that even all of the main principals have really been unable to recapture what they harnessed in this original film ever again.

And really, in some ways, it really should not have worked at all. A story in which it is established that the paranormal and metaphysical are real and tangible and the scares are honest while having all manner of Tom Foolery at the core, striking that extremely tricky balance of having a laugh at the spooks and specters while also establishing the ghosts as real malevolent threats. To Murray's endless stream of brilliant and often ad-libbed one-liners flowing freely through a film where the apocalypse via a giant Marshmallow Man is imminent and with an insanely catchy theme song to boot?

"Ghostbusters" gave the world something so unique, so inventive, so out of the box and so downright joyous in its madhouse glee that all we could do was to be swept away by the cheerful audacity of the experience. And now, we are able to see this film as being fully representative of a time in which originality and creative risks were more embraced by Hollywood.

It may seem silly to those who just weren't there during its original release but "Ghostbusters" was just a beautiful time at the movies, where the level of entertainment could send you over the moon...laughing hysterically all the way.

So, what is life but a morass of bodily functions...and fish.

Unlike the universally beloved "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975) and what is considered to the very best Python effort with "Monty Python's Life Of Brian" (1979), the final film from Monty Python's Flying Circus is not nearly as adored but I do believe it was the most audacious, riskiest, innovative, inventive, nastiest, most surreal and possibly, the most faithful Python effort as it returned to the sketch format of their iconic television series to an often uproarious (and sometimes stomach churning) effect.

Accompanied by Terry Gilliam's bizarre, brilliant short feature "The Crimson Permanent Assurance," which actually invades the main feature at one point, "Monty Python's The Meaning Of Life" is a series of sequences that are loosely structured by the film's titular theme which explores existence from birth to death with episodes devotes to war, sex, extravagant musical sequences, live organ transplants, disgusting amounts of gluttony, surrealist animated sequences, death inducing dinner parties (beware the dreaded salmon mousse), Heaven as conceived as a garish Las Vegas showcase, the anarchistic breaking of the fourth wall and other oddities that defy classification ("fishy, fishy,") yet congeal into an experience that has remained unforgettable.

By straddling the hilarious, the philosophical and the extremely profane, it is a film that may even deter Python devotees, let alone novices. I remember my Dad being decidedly confused and even alarmed by the film. "These British!!! They just take everything too far. I mean---WHY is any of this even funny?" he exclaimed after walking out from the Ford City movie theater.

And I could easily understand. Remember those bodily function? The Python's truly conceived of a quite grisly, messy film indeed as their vision of the life experience was a bounty of sperm, blood and vomit, so much so, that even I shielded my eyes during the horrific Mr. Creosote restaurant scene (even as I laughed myself sick). "Well..." I began in my best 14 year old budding Siskel & Ebert film enthusiast, "I think that everything is SO extreme and SO absurd that the ONLY reaction is laughter."

My Mom, however, had a completely different and entirely surprising reaction, especially as I figured she hated the entire thing from end to end. "I thought it was quite poignant."

And yes, it was.

Despite the brutal satire of a piece like "Every Sperm Is Sacred" and the puerile charm of "The Penis Song," we are also given what just may be Eric Idle's finest musical composition, "The Galaxy Song," an absolute marvel that deftly explains the Science and mysticism of the universe and existence itself in under three minutes. Additionally, the mayhem gives pause to a lovely animated moment in which a tree in autumn loses its leaves, each one falling to the ground while wailing a final cry before reaching the ground. Somehow, someway, a film this purposefully disjointed is richly, beautifully connected, allowing us to think about the course of our lives, and despite any interpersonal, cultural, racial and sexual differences, the existential trajectories are so very much the same.

Shortly before the release of the film, I saw a profile of the six man troupe on an episode of "20/20." As I watched, there was a portion in which the educational backgrounds of the Pythons were discussed--revealing that these were distinctly serious learned individuals. My Mom, who was grading homework at the time, looked up and said, "Well, that explains it. Those people have to be GENIUSES in order to be that ridiculous!"


"Monty Python's The Meaning Of Life" in unrepentant and unapologetic in the finest fashions and remains a testament to the superior talents of these peerless satirists, writers, and actors, all of whom were crucial in shaping my sense of humor but a certain altered yet perceptive way of viewing the world...bodily functions and all.

On the afternoon of July 3, 1985, I believed that I held the greatest secret in the world. Yet shortly thereafter, the world knew.

Yes indeed, on that summer's afternoon when I was 16 years old, I ventured to the Ford City movie theater to take in a screening of "Back To The Future," the latest production from Steven Spielberg and the follow-up directorial feature from Robert Zemeckis, who had previously helmed "Romancing The Stone" (1984). It was a film I really knew nothing about going into it other than Spielberg's pedigree and the fact that my man Michael J. Fox, who I LOVED from television's "Family Ties," was starring in his first major film role. And to that end, perhaps really nobody knew anything about it because maybe that (plus the impending 4th of July holiday weekend) was why there was absolutely NOBODY in that movie theater other than myself that afternoon. It felt like a private screening made just for me and once the film concluded, I was stunned that I was alone because again, for me, this was the movie of the year and eventually it would become the #1 highest grossing film of 1985 plus being a critical darling as well. But for that afternoon, knowing that no one else knew about it alongside me just made the day more special.

"Back To The Future" stars the outstanding Michael J. Fox as 16 year old Marty McFly, whose wholly unexplained yet completely believable best friendship with the town's local eccentric scientist Dr. Emmet "Doc" Brown (the wonderful Christopher Lloyd), lands him in a life altering, time shifting adventure via the Doc's improbable time machine--a modified DeLorean powered by stolen plutonium running at a speed of 88 miles per hour--in which he ends up 30 years in the past, circa 1955 and attending the same high school as his own parents, the gorgeous Lorainne Baines (Lea Thompson) and the nerdy, Science and Science-Fiction loving bookworm George McFly (Crispin Glover).

Yet, his accidental presence spoils Lorainne and George's first meeting, therefore altering the course of events that would eventually have the two teens falling in love at the school's Enchantment Under The Sea dance, which woud then ultimately erase Marty from existence. And so, it is up to Marty to sway the intense crush upon him courtesy from his own Mother-to-be towards the geek who would one day become his Father. But, then, there are other, even more perilous matters including the town bully/date rapist Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) to contend with and even moreso, somehow returning to 1985 without plutonium but by being in the right place at the right time to be hit by a bolt of lightning.

Robert Zemeckis' film is absolutely ingenious and through the excellent performances from the entire cast, his relentlessly inventive direction and the air-tight screenplay by himself and writing partner Bob Gale, "Back To The Future": was an instant film for the ages as it combined whimsy, edgy comedy, social satire, cultural commentary, action, suspense, an enormous heart, downright delirious romanticism and one surprise after another after another after another that never let up until the end credits hit the screen.

And yet, aside from the superior spectacle of the entire enterprise was the brilliant core of the piece: Would you or could you be friends with your own parents if you happened to be teenagers at the same time? Beyond that, the even greater time machine aspect of the film which was the impossible perspective of a teenager seeing his parents as they once were as the exact same life period: flawed, insecure, risky, reckless, nervous, anxious, and oh so, beautifully lovestruck.

It is truly rare to find movies that are so instantaneously outstanding on a variety of levels (let alone one that can spawn a trilogy as classy as this one) but "Back To The Future" indeed was that film, the one that came seemingly out of nowhere and the one I just wanted to tell EVERYBODY about....that is after I could hold onto it just for myself even for a short while.

DAY 10
Sometimes, there are those movies that I will sit down and watch every single time I just happen to stumble upon it as it is so riveting and compulsively watchable. This is indeed one of those movies.

Billy Ray's "Shattered Glass" is a docudrama centered upon the actions of Writer Stephen Glass, once the shining star reporter for The New Republic during the 1990's, who, in actuality, fabricated 27 of the 41 stories he wrote, in part or entirely.

First things first, Hayden Christensen can act! Yes, the man took a beating for his portrayal of the doomed Anakin Skywalker in two of George Lucas' "Star Wars" prequels (as far as I am concerned, undeservedly so) but for this film, a real story set within an extremely real world, Christensen absolutely nailed the multi-layered levels of privilege, narcissism, utter cunning, unctuous neediness, undeniable magnetism and an unquestionably powerful ability for self-preservation and survival that enabled this journalistic figure to have gotten as far along as he actually did...especially given the journal's meticulous, exhaustive process for quality control and accuracy.

In turn, this was also the very first film in which I took serious notice of Peter Sarsgaard who portrays New Republic lead editor Charles "Chuck" Lane to riveting effect, making this film also function as a mystery thriller as Lane slowly pieces together Glass' journalistic and therefore, ethical fraudulence.

Billy Ray wisely never allows the film to fall into needless melodrama or hyperbole, always ensuring that the film flows with a quietly intense seriousness and an forthright agenda of just allowing the tale to be told as succinctly and as honestly as possible...much like the finest journalism. This is a cleanly direct.presentation that always finds me glued to the screen in full amazement that this situation actually happened.

Quite the contrary in our age of fake news, which now makes this excellent film serve as somewhat of a lament for what seems to be a (sort of) bygone era in writing, journalism and the reporting of the news.

Stay tuned for Part Two!!!

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

STICK TO THE SCRIPT: a review of "Sorry To Bother You"

Written and Directed by Boots Riley
**** (four stars)

Please allow me to bookend this latest posting with a personal story...

In the Summer of 1988, I was 19 years old and obtained employment working in the call center of Ticketmaster set in a large conference room itself inside of a tall downtown Chicago office building. It was a drought Summer, weeks upon end of high heat, humidity and arriving to work, after riding the CTA and the L trains to work, drenched in my own sweat only to begin drying/cooling myself off via the hand blowers in the swanky men's restrooms...much to the chagrin of the side eye gazing fat cats who entered and exited to sight of my African-American self armed with my smart aleck late teenage grin and dry commentary, "It's a bit hot out there."

My job was indeed what you might imagine it to be. Eight hours of talking on the phone to people desiring tickets to some sort of event, including that Summer's most coveted, tickets to the first Chicago Cubs night game with lights inside of Wrigley Field on August 8, 1988 (I'll never forget that date as long as I live!).  Anyhow, one day, I answered my telephone line with my standard Ticketmaster greeting and I was then met with the voice of a woman who sounded older (perhaps late middle aged to just close to elderly) who inquired about tickets to an event to which I no longer remember. But her second request was something that I will never forget, even if I tried.

"I'd like to speak to someone White," she said.

I'll leave you with that as a bit of a cliffhanger as I wish to get to the film at hand.

"Sorry To Bother You," from hip-hop musician turned Writer/Director, Boots Riley arrives with this spectacularly audacious filmmaking debut that not only inspired the anecdote I began to share with you, it unrepentantly kept my head spinning throughout and afterwards. First things first, Riley has helmed not only my favorite film of 2018 so far, it is by far one of the finest films of this movie decade of 2010-2019.

All of that being said, it is without question one of the most WTF films I have seen, leaving me ultimately shaken and slapped around with an expression that could only be read as, "What the hell did I just watch?!" Boots Riley has created an astoundingly singular vision that not only speaks to this specific moment in our cultural history in the 21st century but to all of what has happened in the past as well as what will obviously continue to play out in the future. While the film is indeed a comedy, a satire, Boots Riley's "Sorry To Bother You," despite the politeness of its title, is decidedly take-no-prisoners in its extremely dark, absurdist vision in which we are all subjects as well as entirely complicit. This is fearless filmmaking at its most ferocious.

Set within a satirically askew version of Oakland, California, Boots Riley's "Sorry To Bother You" stars Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius Green (say his name a few times and roll it around your mouth to catch its clever meaning) nicknamed "Cash," who lives in his Uncle Sergio's (Terry Crews) garage, has a stable, loving relationship with his artist provocateur girlfriend Detroit (the amazing Tessa Thompson) and is desperately looking for a job, any job, in which he can finally pay off his debts to his Uncle, move out of the garage and begin his life in earnest.

Cassius eventually lands a job with RegalView, a telemarketing office, where he and his co-workers earn money on commission, a difficult task to achieve with all of the potential customer hang-ups. But, even so, Cassius remains steadfast, "sticking to the script" as instructed but to no avail. One day, Cassius is counseled by his friend and co-worker Langston (Danny Glover) to utilize his "White voice" when conducting phone calls. Not "Will Smith 'White'" as Langston conveys, but a voice that suggests ease, pride and a worry free outlook that would assuage potential customers' to buy what Cassius is selling.

Soon, Cassius, having discovered his "White voice" (as voiced by David Cross), becomes a telemarketing sensation and is promoted to the title of "Power Caller," acquiring copious riches and a new lifestyle but one where he leaves behind his struggling best friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), Union organizer Squeeze (Steven Yeun) and his co-workers who have now begun to strike against RegalView, therefore making Cassius a "scab."

As far as the overall plot of the film is concerned, what I have described is only just the tip, not much more than what you would find in the film's trailers and  honestly, I am not certain that I could really describe anything else without producing major spoilers as well as possibly making you think that you would not wish to see such a film in the first place. But, what I can tell you is the following: Boots Riley's "Sorry To Bother You" is the absolutely perfect next phase in a series of dense, disturbing satirical works like Spike Lee's incendiary "Bamboozled" (2000), the novels of author Paul Beatty, most notably his searing and pungent The Sellout (2015), the early 1970's albums of Funkadelic, Erykah Badu's grim "New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)" (released February 26, 2008), Childish Gambino and Director Hiro Murai's brilliant, and brutally controversial "This Is America" music video from earlier this year and of course, Jordan Peele's "Get Out" (2017).

Yes, there are indeed severe twists and turns within "Sorry To Bother You" that might suggest the world of a thriller or even science fiction horror. But, I would not quite classify the film as anything like those genres, even though it does indeed house elements from all three. For me, the overall tone of the film, especially in its unmentionable conclusion is the tone of a very bad dream from which poor Cassius Green is unable to awake himself from. In fact, I nearly titled this posting "Nightmares From The Sunken Place," in order to convey a certain tonal description as well as conceptual. But that being explained to you, Boots Riley has conceived of a heavily layered film thematically and conceptually, more than worthy of exploration, discussion, and debate as well as repeated viewings.

Through the surreal odyssey of Cassius Green, "Sorry To Bother You" openly confronts themes discussing the dehumanization of cultural appropriation, reality television, the current status of hip-hop and rap music, capitalism at its most brutal regarding the subjugation and abuse of workers, and perhaps most savagely, the dehumanization of not ever taking a stand. Boots Riley's searing outlook, which contains a high rated television show entitled "I Got The S#*@ Kicked Out Of Me," a conspiracy plot that would make even the climax of "Get Out" shudder and of course, that "White voice," which grows more sinister the more often we hear it, serves as a warning to all of us that the idea of "sticking to the script," i.e. just blindly obeying the status quo is what will ultimately cause our societal downfall.

Even so, essentially all of the characters have some sort of hustle to play in this hostile world from RegalView itself and most obviously, the character of Steven Lift (Armie Hammer), the psychotic CEO of WorryFree, a company which promotes lifetime employment promises the ability to no longer worry about paying bills but is in actuality a sort of interment camp whose obedient army of workers are essentially legal slaves.

But, even Union leader Squeeze has eyes on stealing Detroit away from Cassius, and Detroit herself, who admonished Cassius for his over-reliance upon his "White voice," possesses a "White voice" of her own--the sound of an upper crust British woman, designed for the wealthy to purchase her agitprop artwork. And yet, Riley may be arguing, at least those characters, right or wrong, have all devised of ways in which they will indeed engage with the game of life instead of life eventually happening to them, unlike Cassius Green, who ends up trapped in a word he never quite made...and certainly never dreamed would ever occur to himself.

As Cassius Green, at this stage, there really is no other actor I could even think woud be more perfect for this role, and film overall, than Lakeith Stanfield as his work in both "Get Out" and as the kind-hearted, philosophical stoner Darius on FX/Donald Glover's outstanding series "Atlanta," and especially in the current season's jaw dropping "Teddy Perkins" episode, has made him tailor made for an experience as one-of-a-kind as "Sorry To Bother You."  Stanfield's earnestness and level of sympathy as Cassius Green is fully ingratiating, making his choices or even lack of choices completely understandable to us in the audience, especially as we all know that he is being exploited by the powers-that-be.

The initial conflict for Cassius, and the beginning of his dehumanization, is the level of code switching he has to perform in order to just earn a living. As Dave Chapelle once wryly joked during his brilliant appearance upon Bravo television's "Inside The Actor's Studio,"  "Every Black person in American is bilingual. We can speak street vernacular and we can speak 'job interview'." The truth of that statement is unquestionably perceptive as well as exhausting, for that level of always being so painfully self-aware as to know when and how to alter the perceptions and prejudices, whether real or imagined, of those towards yourself depending upon situations and environments, often leads to devastating levels of identity crises, making people of color in particular endure endless questions of ethnic "authenticity."

And yet, Boots Riley is wise enough to place into the film that this specific quandary is not exclusive to people of color for White people also possess their own "White voices," thus making this aforementioned quandary entirely...human. For we all wish to become more than our own self-perceptions, to live up to a certain idealized inner vision or cultural expectation, these days expressed profusely through social media as we are all presenting the best, yet highly edited versions of ourselves to the world. Yet for some, to what end?

For Cassius Green, an individual who at the start of the film is essentially an ingenue, one who is constantly fearful of the future, of mortality, of the sun exploding and the universe ending altogether leaving him more insignificant to human existence than he already feels. He wishes to engage and feel like his life has meaning but he indeed, over the course of the film, allows himself to become swept away by all manner of circumstances and never truly awakens until it is too late. Certainly it will be that third act of the film that will make some of you wonder if Boots Riley's vision has flown off of the rails, even for a film as strange as this one. But do trust me, just go with it as Riley has a clear, razor sharp agenda at work and his visual metaphors to explore the brutality at work from corporations towards its workers who are only viewed as labor and not as human beings are as justified as they are horrific.

For all of the deadly serious commentary, the film remains playful. With early scenes that have Cassius in his call station literally dropping into the lives he is interrupting, to the political firecracker earrings Detroit adorns herself with, combined with the film's production and costume design, color schematics and Doug Emmett's brilliant Cinematography among a myriad of other sight gags and plays on words, Boots Riley's "Sorry To Bother You" often feels and even looks like something we may have previously experienced in something like Spike Jonze's "Being John Malkovich" (1999) or Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" (2004), both of which were written by Charlie Kaufman. As with those specific films, Riley's film follows its own dream/nightmare logic with an un-ironic matter of fact quality merged with a cinematic inventiveness and ingenuity that is bracing to behold.

There is no question about it, for his filmmaking debut, Boots Riley showcases a staggering confidence and an unshakable, unrepentant tenacity with his bizarre yet crucially potent film, which, should be noted, he actually originally wrote in 2012, had published in McSweeney's, yet recorded as an album with his band The Coup (essentially creating a soundtrack for the film that had yet to be made) before receiving funding to make his film as envisioned. His intense persistence has more than paid off as "Sorry To Bother You" is exceedingly unlike any other film released so far this year or within the past several years, most definitely since Yorgos Lanthimos' "The Lobster" (2015).

It is a testament to the unfiltered originality and creativity upon display that we so rarely see in 2018 with all of our sequels, prequels, franchises, remakes, re-boots, and re-imaginings. It is simply an amazing feeling to be surprised by anything in the movies anymore and "Sorry To Bother You" is over-flowing with vehement surprises in a film that blisters and bruises with utter madhouse fury.

Now, as for the conclusion of that Ticketmaster story I began with, when the customer on the other end of the telephone line requested that she speak with a White representative. To that request, I responded, "I'm ready to help you."

"You're White?" she asked.

"Yes I am," I said. And with that, we proceeded with her transaction in full. Once the tickets had been purchased, the means of retrieval were effectively set up and payment had been made, the customer thanked me profusely for my efficiency, to which I thanked her for performing her business with Ticketmaster. Just before ending the phone call, I quickly yet with calm professionalism stated,"Ma'am, I have one final t hing to share with you about our transaction this afternoon."

"Yes?" she questioned. 

"I wanted to inform you that you have been speaking with a Black person for this entire telephone call. Have a wonderful day and thank you for calling Ticketmaster."


True story. I promise you. And hey, there was no way that I was going to ever, in that context, stick to that script.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

SILENCE IS (ALMOST) GOLDEN: a review of "A Quiet Place"

Story by Bryan Woods & Scott Beck
Screenplay Written by Bryan Woods & Scott Beck and John Krasinski
Directed by John Krasinski
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

It is a concept so ingenious that I cannot believe that I haven't already seen it.

John Krasinski's surprise smash hit horror/thriller "A Quiet Place" is a film that I did indeed want to see this  Spring but truth be told, I actually avoided because I was...well...too scared to check it out in the theater. You see, and as I have previously written upon this blogsite, I am not really a fan of horror films for a variety of reasons. But mainly, I hate their preponderance of displaying relentless amount of gore as a substitute for storytelling, especially the equally relentless and reprehensible amount of violence against women.

Most of all, I just do not like the sensation of being scared. Yes, psychological thrillers and levels of intensity are one thing and neither of those elements are necessarily ones where the intent is to make you fearful of something. Of course, I have seen many horror films, both terrible and iconic, but that being said, there was something within the concept of "A Quiet Place" that made me feel that perhaps it would be better for me to watch at home.

Now that I have finally seen the film (at home), and now know what the fuss is all about, I am happy to add my voice to the chorus of those who have embraced the film as a first rate example of what the whole genre can accomplish at its finest. Almost. Now do not worry that I will be raining upon this particular parade but there were some nagging issues I had with the film that kept me from going over the top with it. That being said, what John Krasinski achieved was indeed exceedingly effective, stylish, innovative and rightfully, honestly scary.

Set in the near future after an unknown apocalypse has unleashed a race of blind, ravenous creatures who hunt by sound have seemingly wiped out most of the Earth's population, "A Quiet Place" stars John Krasinski and Emily Blunt as Lee and Evelyn Abbot, a scientist and doctor, respectively who are still attempting to survive in this horrific new world with their family, which includes young son Marcus (Noah Jupe) and their deaf teenage daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds).

Walking barefoot everywhere they travel, including around their own house, and speaking exclusively in sign language, playing board games with soft pieces, dancing to Neil Young ballads played solely in headphones, and "living" life in all manner of ways as to not utilize any sounds to attract the aliens, the Abbot family's intensely precarious existence continues  relatively peacefully...

...until Day 472.

For those of you who have still not seen the film, I will leave the plot description at that point so as not to either spoil or reveal terribly much to dull your own reactions. But that said, John Krasinski's "A Quiet Place" is indeed extremely effective, perhaps a bit more style over something completely substantive but even as an exercise in style, Krasinski shows that he is a director with skill to burn.

Again, and while I am completely unsure if a concept like this one has been executed in the past, I have to say that I am surprised that I have not seen a film quite like this before, which made the experience of seeing "A Quiet Place" quite the treat even as it made me jump out of my seat. First of all, great mention must be given to the film's stellar sound design which surprised me in various fashions. In actuality, even with the lack of very much spoken dialogue at all, the film is actually NOT a full fledged silent movie, essentially what I was wondering it would be and precisely why I stayed away from seeing it in theaters as I just didn't wish to be startled again and again by sonic jump scares. Composer Marco Beltrami's unsettling score is prevalent but never over-bearing. Aside from the music, what Krasinski has achieved is much more complex and often brilliant in keeping you off guard sonically.

I enjoyed how deftly Krasinski established the rules of this new terrifying world. About how sound is used, how it travels, how day-to-day life can exist without sound plus on a more cyclical and existential level, how natural sounds have become the world's soundtrack once again. I liked how human sounds can be masked by louder natural sounds like a rushing river or even a small waterfall, therefore keeping the Abbot family safe but also, and more poignantly, eliciting precisely what has been lost in human life when we are no longer able to truly give voice to our existence, except under supremely controlled circumstances.

Furthermore, there is the character of Regan, who is indeed performed by a real world deaf actress. Having ALL sound drop away, gives us in the audience a perfect simulation of what the world "sounds" like to her plus simultaneously raising the dramatic stakes considerably as she will never be able to hear a monster approaching her. This quality does indeed give "A Quiet Place" a specific gravity that makes it stand out more than just being a thrill ride. 

With a framework that recalls films like M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs" (2002), Francis Lawrence's "I Am Legend" (2007), John Hillcoat's "The Road" (2009), Jeff Nichols' "Take Shelter" (2011) as well as various early Steven Spielberg films in which ordinary people find themselves faced with extraordinary circumstances, "A Quiet Place" is brisk, inventive and unquestionably grueling during several sequences, mostly involving Emily Blunt's character as she attempts over and again to evade the monsters after finding herself in one horrific predicament after another. And in doing so, Krasinski conceives of one ingenious yet always conceivably narrow escape after another, especially with humans making or not making sounds are key to survival.

But again, I turn to the Abbot children in which they embody the more painfully allegorical elements of the story, for what does it mean to try and raise children in a world that is doomed? I can only imagine what the deep, psychological inner lives of parents are in our current 21st century landscape with all manner of political, environmental, cultural and societal horrors as constant elements of our everyday lives. Even with my one step-removed as being a preschool teacher, I am profoundly troubled with the world the very small will be growing up into and  how will all caring adults and especially parents be able to protect them. John Krasinski's "A Quiet Place" is a deeply perceptive allegory to the fears and sacrifices of parenthood and the frightening possibility that for all of our best efforts, we just might not be able to keep our children safe from danger and maybe even death. If anything is the true engine of the film, it is that very concept, which Krasinski never exploits but always keeps powerfully intense.

To that end, I have to give the film credit for being yet another film I have seen this year, much like Brett Haley's wonderful "Hearts Beat Loud," that has proven itself to working as a celebration of the role of Fathers as the film does indeed house an urgently aching dynamic between Krasinski's Father character and the deaf Regan, who are each undergoing a bruised dynamic that will play out over the course of the film in degrees that are deeply touching while keeping you biting your nails.

Now even with such praise from me, I did have some issues with the film, some of which I can (sort of) wave away but another, much ire burdensome quality, that I did feel undercut the entire success of the film as a whole. Without delving into spoilers, I will say that there were certain lapses in logic that kind of irked me, situations and plot points that felt to be more than contrived in order to solely keep the action and intensity rising. Like for instance, why would the family ever allow themselves to be separated for extremely extended periods of time? Why would Regan be allowed to wander around at night all alone? And then, if the family has to occasionally creep to a now abandoned pharmacy to keep stocked up on medications, why not stock up on contraceptives?

Yes, I can kind of let those pieces go to an extent. But, what I really did not like was the film's ending, which of course, I will not reveal here but I will say is annoyingly abrupt, leaving the film open for a sequel (which is already in development with Krasinski directing again). Basically, I felt a tad cheated. Like I sat through this entire movie only for it to not only be unfinished but to exist as just a tease for a second and potentially more movies, the way Hollywood likes to run things these days. Not every movie deserves a sequel and for a film that is pretty tightly wound, and uses its 90 minutes running time to the very best of its advantages, I just wished that the film would have possibly been a tad longer so as to fully complete the story instead of setting us up for yet another franchise. It felt disingenuous and even a little cheap, which is a shame as it already had so much good going for it.

Even with those criticisms, I cannot begin to try and turn you away from John Krasinski's "A Quiet Place," an extremely taut, gripping, relentless and refreshingly original thriller from the end of the world that again proves what a gift the  movies can be these days when filmmakers are allowed to truly invent rather than remake, re-create and re-imagine.