Monday, October 9, 2017

MORE HUMAN THAN HUMAN: a review of "Blade Runner 2049"

"BLADE RUNNER 2049"
Based upon characters and situations from Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Story by Hampton Fancer 
Screenplay Written by Hampton Fancer & Michael Green
Executive Producer Ridley Scott
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
**** (four stars)
RATED R

One of the most disturbingly risky and audacious sequences that I think that I have ever seen within a movie arrived in Steven Spielberg's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" (2001), his grippingly dark, adult fable about a synthetic boy (an outstanding Haley Joel Osment) programmed with the ability to love and who essentially spends eternity discovering what it means to be human as well as attempting to finally have the love for his Mother reciprocated back to himself.

Yet, what was so gravely striking about the film's final sections, all of which occurs in an irrevocably altered post-climate change affected Earth, is the sequence that takes place 2000 years after the extinction of all human life. In a film that had already demanded so much of the audience's willingness to follow this particularly grim tale, to ask viewers to continue to be invested in an experience that had extinguished human beings and therefore, evolved beyond humanity while also discerning ways to uphold humanity was undeniably polarizing to say the least. Now, that we have arrived with "Blade Runner 2049," I would not be the least bit surprised if those feelings of audience polarization will rise once again.

Dear readers, I am of the age where I would have been old enough to have experienced Ridley Scott's iconic science-fiction thriller "Blade Runner" (1982) upon its initial release. As a matter of fact, I was all of 13 years old, already a science-fiction fan and more than eager to see any new vision that was ready to hit the silver screen. While my overall impression of the film at that time was not fully formulated due to its adult driven themes and ambiguities, it went without question whatsoever that I had witnessed a film unlike any other that had preceded it--and that even included both George Lucas' "Star Wars" (1977) plus Lucas and Irvin Kershner's "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), as those films were truly fantastical fairy tales that happened to be set in a galaxy far, far away.

Ridley Scott's"Blade Runner," while set in the year of 2019--which at the time sounded like a million light years away from 1982--was a film that had its feet firmly planted on Earth, with its evocative future vision that found the Los Angeles of the future drenched in constant neon accented rainfall, an over-populated landscape that had veered demonstrably Asian, as well as a disheartening increase in commercial advertisements. As for the more fantastical elements, albeit ones designed to force us to take a hard gaze at our own relationships with our own humanity and inhumanity, Scott gave us the "replicants," synthetic beings from the Tyrell Corporation that were devised as being slave labor that was "more human than human," an element that dangerously came to pass as the four year life spans of each replicant began to announce themselves in violent revolts, forcing them to be "retired" by police detectives known as the titular "blade runners."

While not a box office success at the time, "Blade Runner" has  more than deservedly earned its massive reputation as being one of the most influential science-fiction films ever made. With regards to the cinematography, special effects, an aesthetic that splendidly merged 1940's film noir with the futuristic, there simply was not a film that looked or felt anything like "Blade Runner," and with the juggernaut of a film score by Vangelis, there also just was not any film anywhere that sounded remotely like "Blade Runner" either.

Throughout the years, I have seen "Blade Runner" countless times and truth be told, I have not been awaiting a sequel to the film at all primarily because in its own melancholic dreamlike way, the film felt complete as is. But that being said, the original film--especially with the superior Director's Cut--was certainly open ended enough thematically and conceptually, that any further installments felt to be more than possible and perhaps, even justified. Thankfully, with "Blade Runner 2049," Executive Produced by Ridley Scott and directed astoundingly by Denis Villeneuve, already riding high after the brilliance of his previous film "Arrival" (2016), we have the rare sequel that more than honors the previous installment as well as Philip K. Dick's source material.

Denis Villeneuve's "Blade Runner 2049" grandly builds, expands, and enhances all that we know about the futuristic existential journeys of human beings and replicants and creates an experience that is undeniably mountainous in its scope and impact. Without hyperbole, Denis Villeneuve is a creative force to be reckoned with and then some as his vision has elicited something that could only be described as "awesome." Trust me, dear readers, "Blade Runner 2049" is a voluminous experience simultaneously designed to enthrall, disturb, provoke, challenge and saturate all of your senses.

Picking up 30 years after the events of the first film, with newer, obedient model replicants now integrated into society, "Blade Runner 2049" stars Ryan Gosling as K, a replicant blade runner for the LAPD, who is assigned to hunt down and "retire" rogue older modeled replicants as he investigates the growing replicant freedom movement. Discriminated against by his human co-workers (often being referred to with the pejorative "skin job"), K returns home each night to the comforts of his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), a product of the Wallace Corporation, the company that has usurped the now bankrupt Tyrell Corporation and is led by the blind inventor cum messianic meanufactuer Niander Wallace (Jared Leto).

Upon "retiring" a rogue replicant connected to the freedom movement, K discovers a box which contains what appears to be  human remains inside. The contents of that very box propels K into an odyssey which not only threatens the balance of power between humans and replicants, but also into an existential crisis based in lost dreams, memories that may be real or implanted, identities and self-perceptions that may not be what was once considered to be true and yes indeed, the whereabouts of Detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), long gone for 30 years.

Denis Villeneuve's "Blade Runner 2049" is a triumph of ambition, artistry and most purposeful ambiguity. On a purely technical level, you would be hard pressed to find another film released this year (or possibly within the last several years) that is this visually dynamic as Villeneuve and the extraordinary Cinematographer Roger Deakins have fashioned a sublime collection of dreamworld imagery and dazzling sequences that more than honors all that Ridley Scott devised in the original film--in fact, I think Villeneuve and Deakins utilized Scott's work as a brilliant leaping off point, devising the imaginary future of an imaginary future world. The effect is often mind boggling in its execution.

Additionally, Composer Hans Zimmer is on a creative role!!! Following his incredible, downright anxiety inducing score for Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk," Zimmer, working in collaboration with Composer Benjamin Wallfisch, has devised a film score that fully honors the innovation and haunting beauty of Vangelis' score to the original film by building and expanding upon it, now creating something that sounds like what one friend described as "metallic whale songs." While that may sound completely unpleasant to some of you, for me, the tactic worked sensationally and the sound worked in full tandem with the visuals, both enhancing each other to their elegant breaking point. As far as I am concerned, come Awards season, if Roger Deakins and the team of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch are not recognized, cinematic crimes would be more than apparent.

With all of the technical and aesthetic qualities in place, Denis Villeneuve's "Blade Runner 2049" certainly treasures Scott's (and Vangelis') film noir/Fritz Lang qualities as the gracefully flying automobiles and the constant rainfall continue as conceptual touchstones for the story. But Villeneuve extends himself from Scott's vision by taking what was once intimate in its impressionism and stretching the canvas to create something that is essentially operatic in style and most importantly, the story, themes and concepts.

Returning to the opening of this posting regarding Steven Spielberg's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence," I would not be surprised to find movie going audiences as equally polarized in their opinions towards "Blade Runner 2049" as they were for Spielberg's opus. Denis Villeneuve has certainly not made his motion picture an easy ride for the audience, so to speak, as the film is not a "turn your brain off and watch the pretty pictures" experience. "Blade Runner 2049" demands that its audience pay attention and have a visceral and cerebral relationship with the experience as it is clearly designed to be something to fully immerse oneself inside of. Yet, the film is populated with a collective of characters, several of which may or may not even be human but are all upon their individual quests to devise what humanity (and therefore, inhumanity) may represent.

In addition to the replicant blade runner K, his love interest is a hologram, who in one striking sequence merges herself with a flesh and blood person in order to experience a sense of sexual intercourse with K. Another stunning section set within the post-apocalyptic Las Vegas, all bathed in clouds of golden dust and augmented by bizarre Kubrick-ian erotic sky scraping statues, finds K surrounded by human artifacts like jukeboxes and jittery holograms of Elvis Presley and dancing girls on stage. Yet, what of the toy horse that K discovers? Could that have emerged from a real or implanted memory or else from some far away dream that may or may not have been his own?

With the original film, at least within the Director's Cut version, Ridley Scott created the possibility that the human detective of Rick Deckard just may have indeed been a replicant, which in turn asks of all of us in the audience if indeed we are all replicants. This existential quandary also sits at the heart of "Blade Runner 2049" with the film's primary characters but additionally, I think that Villeneuve has also created a certain cultural commentary that questions the status of reality itself or at least our perception of reality as we are living our lives increasingly inside of a virtual world or worlds with our smartphones, mobile devices and social media.

Villeneuve's dreamworld aesthetic and measured pacing also contributes to the blurring of reality, dreams and unreliable memories, which at times over the course of this nearly three hour film provides fits and starts that are lulling and jarring--as if rapidly falling out of one dream and crashing into the next. From a character standpoint, I also feel that by blurring the identities of his cast in regards to whether they are human, replicant or otherwise, we are then further forced to ask of ourselves what is human in the first place and furthermore, if we can find it within ourselves to care for a figure who is a hologram more than an actual human, then what indeed is humanity itself?

That is the heart is the finest science-fiction as far as I am concerned: the posing of the eternal questions to explore and debate over and again and decidedly not how many alien ships can be destroyed. Yes, there is quite a bit of bang for the buck in "Blade Runner 2049," but this is a film of atmosphere presented with the utmost artistry.

At this time, I have to give credit to Ryan Gosling for the superior quality of his performance as he is a fine actor, who like Emma Stone, seems to have become more than a little self-aware, therefore diminishing the fullness of his acting. As K, Gosling is perfectly cast as his appearance looks to be a hair synthetic, much like his surroundings, which makes his crisis of self all the more compelling. As for Harrison Ford, what a pleasure it was to witness him eliciting a tough, gritty, deeply haunted performance that truly fills in considerable gaps in the 30 years between the events of the first and current films. As with his reprise of Han Solo in J.J. Abrams' "Star Wars: Episode VII-The Force Awakens" (2015), it was wonderful to see Ford not only revisit a character he invented with a sense of newfound gravitas but to elicit a rich performance again, the kind of which has been rare in recent years.

Denis Villeneuve's "Blade Runner 2049" for all of its razzle dazzle is not a film that is designed to shatter box office records, much as it was with the original film. But, I do think that if given an honest chance and opportunity, movie goers will find themselves enveloped in a cinematic universe unlike any other, one that will insinuate itself into your subconscious and alter your perceptions. Again, this film represents the finest of what we have witnessed at the movies in 2017, films that adhere to a artistic vision rather than box office. What Villeneuve has created is no mere cash grab but a work of art that is indeed built to last.

SAVAGE POSTSCRIPT
While my rating of the film is clearly highly recommended, I do have to warn you that the sound mix of "Blade Runner 2049" is EXTREMELY LOUD!!!! I spent much of the film with my fingers over my ears as the sonics were ear shattering.

This film is designed to be seen and experienced on the large screen but you may wish to take some ear plugs.     

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

BLAND BILLE JEAN: a review of "Battle Of The Sexes"

"BATTLE OF THE SEXES"
Screenplay Written by Simon Beaufoy
Directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton
** (two stars)
RATED PG 13

While I have never existed as anything resembling a sports fan what soever throughout my life, I certainly will always pay my respects to those figures who elevated and transcended the games in which they were associated, for their skill, determination, physicality and athleticism all congealed into the artistic.

Even as a small child in the 1970's, I was more than aware of individuals who accomplished athletic feats that were seemingly impossible, therefore changing the games as they had once been known. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius "Dr. J" Erving, Walter Payton, Olympian Nadia Comaneci and of course, the Greatest Of All Time, Muhammad Ali dominated not only their respective sports but all corners of American culture as well. Even in my very young life, with a then extremely limited world view, combined with that aforementioned non-interest in sports, not acknowledging those sports figures and others was an impossibility to be certain.

And without question, tennis legend Billie Jean King was one of those crucial figures who transcended the sport and pushed the world forwards.

Because of who she is and what she did indeed achieve during the 1970's and throughout the remainder of her life thus far, Billie Jean King demands a film that is the equal of who she is and what she endured and overcame. Unfortunately, "Battle Of The Sexes," from the directing team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton is not that film.

Now, let me preface by explaining to you that what Faris and Dayton delivered is not a bad film in the least. It is just not an inspiring one or even one that is terribly interesting or involving, quite the surprise given the subject matter and provocative elements inherent within the material itself.  In fact, it often elicited yawns. Decidedly not for the story of the life being told but for the dryly and dangerously pedestrian way in which the story was presented.

Framed directly with the backdrop of the 1970's sexual revolution and the rise of the Women's Liberation movement, "Battle Of The Sexes" stars Emma Stone as the inimitable Billie Jean King, who at the start of the film has become the Women's Tennis World Champion but soon becomes embroiled in a grander fight for equal pay when she angrily discovers that male tennis players will be competing for a cash prize that is eight times larger than the prize the women will be competing for.

When United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) big-wig Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) refuses to make the cash prizes equal for both the male and female players, King, alongside her business partner Gladys Heldman (a strong Sarah Silverman), set out to formulate a rival Women's Tennis Association league, augmented with the self-created Virginia Slims tour, a package wooing the finest female athletes to their new corporation, although King would have to endure a drastic pay cut in the process.

Meanwhile, 55 year old male tennis pro Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is finding himself at his own personal crossroads. His tennis career essentially finished, he is biding his time in an emasculated existence, toiling away in a meaningless office job and essentially living off of, and gambling away, the fortunes of his wealthy and domineering wife Priscilla Wheelan (Elizabeth Shue...sigh).

Riggs, clearly filled with equal parts bluster and boredom, challenges the ever rising star of 29 year old King to a  gender themed tennis match, playing up the titular battle of the sexes. Although at first she refuses, Riggs' defeat of Australian tennis champion Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), raises King's ire and soon, the match is a go, becoming a cultural, socio-political and media sensation, a tennis match eventually viewed by an estimated 90 million people around the world.

Yet, for both Riggs, and especially for Billie Jean King, the real battles are occurring off of the tennis courts, as King, married to World Team Tennis co-founder and attorney Larry King (Austin Stowell), is privately yet turbulently wrestling with questions concerning her sexual identity as she finds herself attracted to and beginning an affair with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton's "Battle Of The Sexes" is a more than well intentioned, workmanlike sports docudrama that simultaneously evokes the tenor, tonality and look of the early
1970's with skillful craftsmanship, as well as devises a narrative that also showcases just how far we have and have not progressed in almost 45 years regarding women 's rights, equal pay between men and women and most certainly, the nature of closeted and open homosexuality and lesbianism for public figures, regardless of any increased prevalence within the media in the 21st century.

In fact, it would not be remotely far-fetched to make the connections between the film's pubic competition between a blowhard, self-described chauvinistic media hog against a woman determined to break the glass ceiling within the sports industry against a viciously fought Presidential election in 2016. Perhaps, that was indeed the intent of this film in the first place, even though it was filmed before the election came to pass entirely.

Even so, having a dramatized document showcasing how the trials and tribulations of the Women's Liberation movement did indeed produce a victory to serve as a source of solace and inspiration during a time when that very same movement faced a crushing failure, is a terrific conceit to augment the story of Billie Jean King. But unfortunately I felt that "The Battle Of The Sexes" fell dramatically flat and more surprising to me was how uninspiring the film actually was...and those feelings had nothing to do with knowing the outcome even before entering the theater.

For those of you who have seen Director Michael Showalter's "The Big Sick" this year, just think of how aching, riveting, unpredictable, romantic, comedic, dramatic and supremely heartfelt that film was even already knowing that the real life participants in that film's love story are indeed married and even co-wrote the screenplay. The magic of that film was all in the storytelling.

By comparison, what Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton created with "Battle Of The Sexes" was essentially a meticulously designed period piece, filled end-to end with the finest production design, excellent sun baked cinematography by Linus Sandgren to the AM Gold styled soundtrack sprinkled throughout (Elton John's "Rocket Man" was a nice touch..but honestly, where was John's "Philadelphia Freedom," written specifically for Billie Jean King?), but with all of the tension, drama, urgency and thus, the palpable inspiration drained from the proceedings.

One major misstep, as far as I was concerned was the actual climactic tennis match sequence between King and Riggs. Certainly I do not think that Emma Stone and Steve Carell would have had to become tennis champions in order to portray their roles but I definitely would have found the film more convincing if the film stars were more overtly prevalent in the athletic sequences. The way Faris and Dayton have chosen to film the major tennis match is to have most of the action viewed from a distance, one would think because that way, editing would be drastically reduced and we could more easily follow the ball, so to speak. That being said, at such a distance, it is easy to deduce that we are not even watching Stone or Carell at all but more than likely their stunt doubles, with only cut away close ups of the film's stars scattered throughout. This approach did not to involve me in the match itself but to distance me from it because I was unable to "buy the fantasy" of what I was being presented on the silver screen.

Another significant problem with the film, unfortunately, is Ms. Emma Stone. Don't get me wrong. I have been enamored with the talents of Ms. Stone ever since her debut in Director Greg Mottola and Producer Judd Apatow's raunchy teen comedy "Superbad" (2007). Yet, as of late, she seems to have found herself in somewhat of a creative rut, much like Anne Hathaway, another young, exceedingly talented actress who has become a little more than self-aware in her choices and performances overall.

Yes, Emma Stone delivers a good performance and I do believe that her scenes with Andrea Riseborough are among the film's best, most sparkling work. Yet, for all of her obvious skill, which is on display throughout the film, I guess I felt that I was watching Emma Stone playing Billie Jean King, instead of watching her become Billie Jean King.  There was nothing lived in about Stone's performance and it just left me wanting because a shag haircut and round glasses are just not enough to emulate a full, three dimensional picture of a life. By this stage of her career, Emma Stone really needs to dig a bit deeper and not simply coast upon her powerful magnetism. I know she has another great performance within her but her portrayal of Billie Jean King was just not one of them.   

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton's "Battle Of The Sexes" was as dry as the desert, utilizing none of the innovation found in their previous film, the beautifully dark literary fantasy love story "Ruby Sparks" (2012) and taking what could have been truly exciting and invigorating filmmaking and storytelling some and turning Billie Jean King's historic tale and victory into a sadly pedestrian, completely inoffensive, straight up the middle of the mass audience PG 13 road.

"Battle Of The Sexes" was banal, often a tad boring and frankly, it felt like a TV Movie Of The Week from the 1970's rather than a film about the 1970's in 2017. But then again, there was much of television during the 1970's that was more daring and groundbreaking than any one moment in this movie and therefore, the life of Billie Jean King. Truly unthinkable to me considering we have a story and film that contains themes of sexism, feminism, athleticism, competition, a sexual identity crisis and awakening, scenes from two marriages, a budding love story and gambling addiction and even so, the effect was as regarding sun saturated wallpaper for two hours.

Billie Jean King deserves so much better.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

SAVAGE CINEMA'S COMING ATTRACTIONS FOR OCTOBER 2017

Let's keep this cinematic train rolling, shall we?

While we are definitely at a crossroads with the state of the cinema these days with originality fighting for space and relevance against the painfully tried and true, I really wish to believe that originality will win the day in the long run because let's face it, which movie do you think will still be talked about after 2017: "mother!" or "The Emoji Movie"?

I rest my case.

That being said, there is no reason to believe that ALL sequels are cinematic wastelands, as already one upcoming sequel feature is earning reviews that are ecstatic.

1. "BLADE RUNNER 2049"
Dear readers, I cannot say that I have necessarily been salivating over a sequel to the 1982 Ridley Scott directed cinematic wonderment that remains a seismically influential work of art to this day. That being said, now that the film is just about to arrive, I am enormously interested and more than ready to return to this wholly unique cinematic universe, this time directed by Denis Villeneuve, who already made a powerful mark within the science fiction genre with last year's outstanding "Arrival." 
2. "THE FOREIGNER"
I have to admit, the trailer had me more than intrigued. Under the direction of Martin Campbell, who previously helmed "Casino Royale" (2006), one of the finest James Bond thrillers in recent years, we now have this new political thriller which seems to showcase star Jackie Chan in a more subdued, dramatic fashion than I have ever been used to seeing and I am hoping that the film as a whole succeeds in the same fashion while also providing some urgent action.
3. "THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US"
OK...could you have two more attractive leads in your film?!   Even so, this survivalist tale starring Kate Winslet and Idris Elba, also caught my attention and I hope the script and performances will outweigh any cliches I fear may make their ways into the proceedings.

With that, October is more than full for me, so again wish me good health and luck and and as always, I'll see you when the house lights go down!!!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

LOVE YOUR MOTHER: a review of "mother!"

"mother!"
Written and Directed by Darren Aronofsky
*** (three stars)
RATED R

O...K....well, I can at least say that I haven't seen anything quite like that before.

Writer/Director Darren Aronofsky's "mother!"--complete with the juxtaposition of the lower case "m" and exclamation point--is a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience that seems to only come around every once in a grand while. It is an experience that is unabashedly and unapologetically bonkers, yet one that is indeed purposefully so, ensuring any potential audiences that Aronofsky is not trying to just pull the rug out from under you. There is indeed a framework and storyline here, albeit one that is entirely employed as a metaphor. For what, I have my ideas but I do not wish to fully share them with you so as not to lead you into an interpretation at the expense of your own but to also not diminish whatever impact the film may make upon you. (Basically, if you do see the film and wish to hash it out with me, just let me know!)

Essentially, the bottom line for me is that while the film is being linked to Aronfsky's past efforts like "Requiem For A Dream" (2000) and "Black Swan" (2010) as far as tonality is concerned, "mother!" does not measure nearly as highly in quality or in the overall devastating gut punch and altered senses both of those films delivered. That being said, "mother!" conceptually goes eons beyond both of those films as what begins as a paranoid psychological thriller eventually builds into something that is indeed indescribable--so much so that I am not certain as to precisely what I am going to share with you at this time.

Even so, "mother!" is a unrepentant testament to the necessity of having filmmakers who defiantly utilize the canvas of the silver screen to express themselves artistically, box office receipts be damned. I have to give credit where it is due and to Darren Aronofsky, he unquestionably plowed full speed ahead with only the fuel of his dark, disturbing and delightfully demonic imagination to propel him.

"mother!" stars Jennifer Lawrence in the titular role (she, as with every character in the film, is nameless) as she serves as the second wife of a middle aged poetry writer known only as Him (played to unnerving perfection by Javier Bardem). The couple live within a completely isolated in the woods and fields Victorian mansion, once burned to ashes (along with Him's first wife), but is being fully refurbished solely by mother as Him struggles with a powerful case of Writer's Block, leaving himself distant, inattentive and even dismissive of the devoted mother.

One evening, there is a surprising knock upon the door, revealing the presence of Man (Ed Harris) who proclaims to be a physician and is in need of shelter for the night. To mother's incredulity, HIm allows Man to not only stay for the night but for an extended period during which the two strangers carry one and cajole as if they had been long lost friends. Soon, there is a second knock revealing Man's wife, Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), filled with dark moods, alcohol, sexual energy and an uncomfortably intrusive nature regarding the intimacies of mother and Him's marriage as well as the contents of Him's writing study, most notably a stunning crystal object that sits upon a bookshelf, which Him is exceedingly protective of.

Man and Woman's invasive presence, of which mother grows increasingly disturbed, especially in light of Him's continuous and unexplained hospitality, leads to bouts of almost crippling paranoia during which mother intakes some strange powder  mixed with water in order to settle her gradually unhinged nerves. Soon, Man and Woman's adult sons arrive uninvited (played by Domhnall Gleeson and Brian Gleeson) then setting off a chain reaction of events that may prove to unravel mother altogether.

Darren Aronofsky's "mother!" definitely earns its exclamation point as it is indeed a full throttle cinematic experience unlike anything else playing in theaters at this time or perhaps for many, many years. It is as if Aronofsky channeled Edward Albee's Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (1962), Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree (1964), Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" (1968), Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs" (1971),  and most of Ken Russell's filmography, and blended them into a cinematic stew, resulting in a work that would be unimaginable if not for the fact that we are able to watch it unfold.

Like Ellen Burstyn in "Requiem For A Dream" and Natalie Portman in "Black Swan," Aronofsky is giving us a front row seat into the theater of the fractured mind complete with a fever nightmare logic that includes a vaginal looking blood stain on the floor that is unable to be fully cleaned, repeated symbolism of broken glass and spilled water, images of a womb inside the deep recesses of the house and a bloody heart flushed down a toilet. Yes, "mother!" is that kind of a movie and I really haven't even begun to scratch the surface of the brazen imagery and set pieces that occur and which are exhibited to increasingly punishing degrees of torment and terror.

Working effectively with Cinematographer Matthew Libatique and the film's absolutely brilliant sound design, Darren Aronofsky effectively repeats the same unsettling slights of hand that made "Black Swan" such a hallucinatory experience. Just as with that film, the camera is place closely to Jennifer Lawrence's head, therefore, we are essentially her "eyes," seeing everything just at the moment the character experiences whatever vision that threatens her psyche. Additionally, the sounds of and around the house itself almost becomes another character or element to mother's splintering mindscape, making the film consistently place itself into varying states of psychological unease and distress.

Jennifer Lawrence impresses once again in a role that does feel more archetypal than anything necessarily "realistic." Remember, this film is utilizing a certain dream logic and so, Lawrence is extremely effective conveying the presence of an individual trapped in a world that is not of her making and those dream like frustrations of people not exiting when ordered, performing actions that you wold never wish and not ever listening to any word you are saying even when screaming your lungs out (reportedly Jennifer Lawrence ruptured her diaphragm while making the film--believe me, I thin I know in which scene this occurred). "mother!" succeeds greatly when tapping into that specialized level of inner anxiety and mental meltdowns.

But, "mother!" is not a re-tread of "Black Swan" as Aronofsky plunges into a narrative that is truly aiming high and truthfully, his ambition is something to be applauded even if it not as successful as he certainly intended it to be (at least for this viewer). For you see, and without providing any spoilers, Aronofsky has peppered his film copiously with religious and Biblical symbols, making "mother!" function as an allegory as well as a frightening ride through the madhouse.

Now again, I will refrain offering up my interpretation of the film in full but I do think that for all of the brutality upon display, and some of it is excruciating, Darren Aronofsky has created a film that is impassioned and believe it or not, supremely humane. In many ways, it feels like the perfect film for 2017 as I do think it does address a certain societal, humanitarian and even spiritual decay at work in the world today as nothing less than the cyclical nature of existence comes into play just as much as issues of marriage, the balance between artists and fans as well as the relationship between the artist and their own work and creative process.

I am wondering if Darren Aronofsky was attempting to craft something that could possibly sit within the same, dark existential cinematic universe as something equally polarizing as Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" (2008) or Terrence Malick's "The Tree Of Life" (2011). Yet, with both of those films, their structures and conceptions were noting less than air-tight whereas with "mother!," the film heads in to an arena of where essentially anything goes (and Lord, does it) and while I could kind of, sort of, see what he may have been devising by film's end, I didn't much care or better yet, I was not as voluminously affected as I am certain Aronofsky was working overtime to achieve.

Darren Aronofsky's "mother!" is a film I guess that I appreciate more than actually like and frankly, it was definitely not something I enjoyed, so to speak. But, as I always say, art should not always make you feel comfortable and I do commend Aronofsky (and especially Jennifer Lawrence's fearless performance) for not taking the easy way at any conceivable point with this film. We really need films like this one. The type of films that can really shake us up, work us over and blast us out of any sense of movie-going complacency where we are not challenged or provoked, even if it is to the point of exasperation, frustration or even anger.

Even with its flaws, "mother!" will undoubtedly provoke you, if not flatten you.

SAVAGE POSTSCRIPT
Without giving anything away, I do wish to send out a bit of a warning to those of you who may be pregnant or are sensitive to certain imagery and themes regarding childbirth and babies. I would recommend you give this film a pass for just that reason. What occurs late in the film is truly horrific. You have been warned as "mother!" is a hard R rated experience.

Monday, September 11, 2017

SEND IN THE CLOWN: a review of "It"

"IT"
Based upon the novel by Stephen King
Screenplay Written by Chase Palmer & Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman
Directed by Andy Mushicetti
**** (four stars)
RATED R

When it comes down to the core, it is sometimes amazing that any of us survive childhood.

Sad to say but it is indeed painfully true, the world is not designed for children. And frankly, how could it be? Children do not design the world, its successes, failures, rules and expectations as we know them. Through their individualized states of growth and development, children are consistently designing and re-designing the world as they know it, as they learn it, re-shaping their emerging world view based upon the experiences given to, or for some, inflicted upon them.

Childhood, for all of its sense of wonder and hopefulness, there is as much if not more to worry about, to struggle with and ultimately, to fear, be it basic needs for human acceptance by family, friends, peers and society all the way to those fears that are wholly irrational, emerging from who knows where, and remaining for who knows how long if not forever.

"It," Director Andy Muschietti's adaptation of the iconic 1986 Stephen King novel, is a cage rattler to say the least as the embodiment of evil, which exists in the form of the malevolent, ravenous Pennywise the Clown, is indeed an exceptionally formidable villain within the horror film genre. Yet what makes this film scale to the heights of the genre, as well as Stephen King film adaptations, is the strict attention Muschietti has given to the collective of children around whom this story revolves, thus making an effective and often tender drama about the dark side of childhood and how the young are able to persevere and even overcome the unthinkable in a cruel, decidedly adult world.

Andy Muschietti's "It" more than deserves your attention and I am thrilled to see the already overwhelmingly positive critical and box office response to the film for I feel that it (ha ha) has transcended its genre and genre trappings, while also upholding them triumphantly as we are given a rightfully terrifying experience that it by turns horrifically entertaining while also existing as a poignant meditation on confronting one's childhood fears to allow the beginnings of adulthood, let alone survival.

Unlike the novel, where the first half of the events occurs during the 1950's, Andy Muschietti's "It" opens on a dark, stormy day in the town of Derry, Maine in October 1988 as 7 year old Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) takes a paper sailboat made for him by his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) out to play and race in the street gutters. After the boat accidentally falls down a drain, Georgie is soon lured closer to the opening by the sinister visage of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (an excellent Bill Skarsgard), who lurks inside the sewer pipes while holding the boat as bait. When Georgie reaches forwards to retrieve his boat, Pennywise bites off his arm and drags him into the sewer for consumption, only leaving behind a pool of blood to wash away in the rain.

Devastated, consumed with grief and still determined to find his younger brother alive, Bill Denbrough exits Derry Middle School and enters the seemingly endless Summer of 1989 alongside his misfit group of friends, the relentlessly foul mouthed Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), the hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff), who is half-heartedly studying for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah.

Yet, carefree days are not remotely in the cards for the quartet as they are relentlessly hunted and hazed by The Bowers Gang, a group of older boys led by the increasingly sadistic Henry Bower (Nicholas Hamilton). To make matters even worse, the boys are subjected to a series of intensely horrifying hallucinogenic visions, all starring the sinister Pennywise and his eerie, floating red balloons, visions also experienced by the chubby, friendless library dweller Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), an African-American out of town outcast Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) and finally, the town's so-called "bad girl," the perpetually bullied at school by kids and abused at home by her Father, Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), all of whom soon join forces with Bill and his friends to form "The Losers Club."

After confessing to each other their clown centered traumas, The Losers Club realize that the entity, which they name "It," has existed with in Derry for potentially centuries as an over-arching evil force that comes out of hibernation every 27 years to feast upon children before returning to a dormant state. Yet, even with this newfound knowledge about their home town and Pennywise now realizing his key foes, will The Losers Club be able to face tier fears together in order to destroy the clown once and for all?

Now, dear readers, if you have followed this blogsite for its duration, you know very well that I am one that tends to give the horror film genre a wide berth as I do not find myself to be one who enjoys the sensation of being scared. Yet, every so often, I will take the plunge because I may detect something larger at work that would make for a cinematic experience well worth enduring the shocks to the system. Andy Muschietti's "It," as previously stated, is not simply one of the finest Stephen King adaptations to ever hit the silver screen, it is also one that has quickly raced to the top ranks of the horror film genre for me as Muschietti has paid crucially equal attention to the story, characters and their overall development as he has to the luxuriously presented nightmarish episodes on display.

Working tremendously with Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, "It" is a darkly elegant production that houses a tale of psychological and supernatural terror that is as wholly involving and as visually crisp and stark as say a film like Director Alan Parker's "Angel Heart" (1987) or even Director Adrian Lyne's "Jacob's Ladder" (1990).

While not a voluminous horror freight train like the late Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg's "Poltergeist" (1982), Muschietti has delivered a supremely haunting and unsettling feature, one that does indeed burrow under the skin while it consistently makes you jump out of it. There are no cheap tricks and while the film definitely earns its hard R rating, I never felt that there was anything gratuitous as the scares and graphic violence was always story and character driven, each and every incident based within the real and imagined nightmares The Losers Club are forced to face down in order to survive the Summer of 1989.

I have to inform you that I have not read the novel or have I seen the original 1990 television mini-series starring Tim Curry in his celebrated performance as Pennywise, so I have nothing to compare Muschietti's theatrical film version to. I have also not seen the Netflix series "Stranger Things," something that certainly owes its existence to Stephen King's novel. But all of that being said, Andy Muschietti's version stands powerfully tall upon its own cinematic feet as eh has created a film that feels to be powerfully organic and despite its status as an adaptation, it feels to be just as powerfully original.

As Pennywise, Bill Skarsgard makes for an appropriately haunting presence, one that is constantly felt even when he is not on-screen for long stretches of time. Yet, when he does appear and re-appear, in all manner of shape shifting and logic defying formations, he is exceedingly horrific and not just as a more than frightening enough clown, whose  hunger for children is evidenced by occasional flashes of drool and rows upon rows of  sharp teeth.

In Skarsgard's hands, Pennywise is the unrelenting embodiment of evil itself, an entity (and metaphorical representation) that does indeed alter shapes, forms and intensity for obstacles that are tangible and even irrational. The twisted face in a creepy painting, a fear of germs or a shower of blood bursting upwards from a bathroom sink drain houses the same threat as larger issues of parental neglect, mourning, incest, racism, and most of all, the Darwinian brutality of early adolescence.

Throughout "It," Muschietti doesn't pull any punches with the kids in the cast whatsoever, a tactic that not only feels correct given the source material but also one that remarkably never felt to be exploitative. Trust me, dear readers. If "It" was nothing more than a 2 hour plus horror feature that offered nothing else but creative ways to terrorize a collective of children, I would not be endorsing this film so highly or let alone would have even seen it. Yes, the grotesque, gruesome tribulations The Losers Club faces and endures are worthy of any adult feature, therefore ensuring that Pennywise remains a most dangerous force. But, what Muschietti remains so wise and palpably empathetic about is how these children bond with each other to face and endure a world that is harshly indifferent or overtly cruel to them.

In "It," there is not one adult worthy of trusting, making a scary world, regardless of any evil netherworld clowns. For the seven kids of The Losers Club, every adult is either neglectful, wrathful, duplicitous, distrustful or they are ones who openly engage in some manner of abuse towards their own children, from psychological, physical and sexual or in the case of Beverly, all three. Bill, however, remains the group leader and anchor as his quest to defeat Pennywise happens to be the most personal of crusades as his grief over his younger brother is the fuel to his engine, and the catalyst  to the adventure as a whole.

Even with all of the horrors the children encounter, I was so very pleased to witness how much attention Muscietti gave to all seven kids in regards to their overall humanity regarding the trials of early adolescence. Certainly comparisons to Rob Reiner's "Stand By Me" (1986), itself based upon the Stephen King short story "The Body" are paramount as well as intended, and Muschietti lives up to that film's legacy beautifully with a tonality that perfectly weaves that evocative spell of an endless summer, where the roads stretch for miles upon miles, the days are filled with adventures and boredom, and armed with only a bicycle or one's own two feet as means of transportation to nowhere in particular.

The cast of young actors as led by Jaeden Lieberher are uniformly perfect as their relationships, vulgar banter, touching affection and interpersonal tensions towards each other combined with their odyssey allowed "It" to also earn a place alongside films like Michael Ritchie's "The Bad News Bears" (1976), Peter Yates' "Breaking Away" (1979), John Hughes' "The Breakfast Cub" (1985), Richard Donner and Steven Spielberg's "The Goonies" (1985), J.J. Abrams' "Super 8" (2011) and most certainly, Paul Feig and Judd Apatow's priceless television series "Freaks and Geeks" (1999-2000).  For all of the horror, Andy Muschietti's "It" possesses much heart and humor, most especially once Beverly joins the ranks of  The Losers Club, throwing a kink into the otherwise all male collective as well as providing a bit of a heart tugging romantic triangle between Beverly, Bill and Ben.

The power of "It" does not rest with Pennywise. The power rests with The Losers Club and rightfully so, for without their sense of humanity, all of the inhumanity presented would mean absolutely nothing. And I deeply appreciated that the film's final scene was not one of grim cataclysm but one that landed on a perfect, melancholic grace note, the very kind that greets all of us at Summer's end.

By now, I am certain that all of you are aware that what we have at present is not the full story of "It," as the second half will undoubtedly follow within the next year or two. But for now, Andy Muschietti has given us a grand feature, one that simultaneously serves itself as a complete tale as well as one that confirms that we are only at the beginning of a greater, even more horrifying journey for our heroes into their respective adulthoods.

Adulthood...hmmm...come to think of it, this is a more terrifying period of life than childhood, so I ca only imagine what it could possibly be like for The Losers Club!

Friday, September 8, 2017

SAVAGE CINEMA'S FAVORITE MOVIES: "SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND" (1978)

"SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND" (1978)
Screenplay Written by Henry Edwards
Directed by Michael Schultz
RATED PG

One of Savage Cinema's Favorite movies?! Yes, dear readers, you did read this correctly. Yes. You. Did! And now, after nearly 40 years since its original release, I feel that it is time to just come out, loud and proud, and say it.

Director Michael Schultz's critically lambasted, box office failing musical fantasy "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," long regarded as existing as one of the very worst movies ever made, is indeed one of my favorite movies. And at this time, I firmly need you to understand that I do not love this film through any sense of irony, kitsch  or as some strange guilty pleasure or through some self-conscious hate-viewing. I love this movie as honestly and as completely as I do any other film that I have loved and to this day, it still feels as a knife in the heart whenever I still read the vicious reviews and interpretations of the film, which have seemed to grow in their excessive harshness over the years.

But yes, back in 1978, what a disaster this film was. It was dead on arrival with critics as well as at the box office, quite the surprise as the film was produced by Robert Stigwood (who passed away in 2016), who was already riding extremely high upon the music and cinematic hog with his music business dealings with the likes of Cream, Blind Faith and The Bee Gees and film productions of Norman Jewison's "Jesus Christ Superstar" (1973), Ken Russell's "Tommy" (1975), John Badham's "Saturday Night Fever" (1977) and Randal Kleiser's "Grease" (1978), which I believe was the highest grossing box office movie musical of all time for 30 years, until the release of "Mamma Mia!" (2008), and incidentally, was released in the very same summer at the ill fated "Sgt. Pepper."

I saw "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" at the age of 9 in the summer of 1978 during a family vacation to a reunion in Detroit, Michigan. It was a film I was desperate to see ever since I had spotted the television commercial for the film. At this point in my life, I had not yet discovered my passion and reverence for all things related to The Beatles, so they were not the draw for me at all--my love for The Beatles arrived some time after seeing the film, thanks to my Dad.

But it was also with great and endless gratitude towards my Dad that I even saw the film at all. My parents more than knew how much I had wanted to see the movie (and they also knew my disappointment when we drove directly past the theater showing "Sgt. Pepper" and landed at the one showing "Grease" instead--maybe that is what led to my still lackluster opinion of that movie, despite the glowing soundtrack album. ) Yet, while in Detroit, and on one evening when my family did decide to go to the movies, my Mom relented to take my cousin to see "Jaws 2" (1978)--no way was I going to see the man eating shark sequel--while my Dad took me to "Sgt. Pepper" in the same multiplex.

As I sat, for nearly two full hours, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" more than exceeded my every wish for what it could possibly be, and that was even considering the negative reviews I had already read from the late, great Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert back home in Chicago. It was as all consuming an experience as I have had with any of the movies that has supremely shaped my life. I was just in awe with every song, every spectacle, every sight, image and moment and by film's end, I just wanted even more or even just the chance to see it all over again (something that I was not able to do for quite a number of years afterwards).

And therefore, I was so confused as to why critics hated it so much. If it was supposed to be so bad, then, how was it that I only saw greatness? Was there something wrong with me? I didn't know. I didn't comprehend anything about the nature of personal tastes or any platitudes about the eye of the beholder or one person's garbage is another person's masterpiece. I just knew that I loved it and I became obsessed...powerfully obsessed as I just wanted that cinematic fairy dust to linger for as long as possible.

As I previously stated, at that time, I was fortunate to see the movie only one time but I kept that magic in my head and heart throughout the rest of that summer through copious listenings to the soundtrack album (on 8-track, no less and to the annoyance of many family members), Screenwriter Henry Edwards' novelization (which I completely devoured in one night), the "behind the scenes" keepsake book entitled The Official Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Scrapbook and I even purchased a complete set of trading cards!! And still, the word throughout the vast sea of pop culture entertainment from film critics to the music and entertainment press, the movie was terrible to the point of being unwatchable and soon, the film's failure nearly ended the careers of many of the principals involved, including poor Sandy Farina, who in her first film role portrayed the lovely Strawberry Fields, and afterwards, never acted in film again.

By the time fall arrived and it was time to head back to school to begin 4th grade, I just knew that I had to keep quiet about my passion for this film. The student body at my school was especially savvy and sophisticated, including areas of pop culture, so I knew that they knew the word on the street was that "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was THE movie to avoid at all costs and since I did not wish to be ostracized, I kept my feelings to myself.

And as I look back upon that time, what a shame it was to feel that way at all. That something as simple as a movie, and one that brought so much joy to me, was something I felt I had to conceal just to continue to be accepted by my peers because the larger society deemed the film to be just that unthinkable, that horrific, that horrendous.

To this day, I still cannot understand why the vitriol against this movie remains so vicious, as if the film possessed absolutely no redeeming social value whatsoever, to the point that it is a crime against humanity. Look, dear readers, I will never be able to convince you that this film is a good film. I am just saying that out of all of the movies that have been made, there is no way to express to me that this film, a film that is indeed as innocent as a fairy tale, could be terrible and as many reviews have proclaimed as being completely incoherent. Incoherent?! It made total sense to me when I first saw it and I was noting more than a child. Perhaps that is the lens in which this film should be viewed and taken in--through the spirit of a child.

Michael Schultz's "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" opens near the conclusion of World War I as the titular band with their magical instruments and music literally inspires all combating forces to lay down their arms, thus ending the war--a feat repeated during World War II.  Yet despite the global fame and influence of musically spreading love and joy throughout the world, Sgt. Pepper remained a humble, hometown boy from the mythical Midwestern locale of Heartland U.S.A.

Upon Sgt. Pepper's death in 1958, the beloved musician entrusted the four magical instruments of his band (a cornet, tuba, drum and saxophone) to Heartland, which would protect the city in peace and love forever. As extra support, a magical weather vane in the shape of Sgt. Pepper was erected on top of the City Hall, always pointing to signs of goodness or trouble on the horizon. Finally, Pepper's grandson Billy Shears (Peter Frampton) was further entrusted to begin a new version of the band with his best friends The Henderson brothers, Mark (Barry Gibb), Dave (Robin Gibb) and Bob (Maurice Gibb)--while Billy's jealous and money-hungry step-brother Dougie (Paul Nicholas) appointed himself as the band's manager.

Upon the band's debut performance in the town square, and under the loving eyes of Heartland Mayor (and the film's narrator) Mr. Kite (George Burns) and Billy's true love, the beautiful Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina), the new Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heats Club Band is an instant sensation, immediately coming to the attention of the sly Los Angeles record producer/mogul B.D. Brockhurst (Donald Pleasance) who demands the band's arrival into the big city to make an album and begin a tour.

While the band is off in L.A., seduced by money, drugs, women--most notably recording stars Lucy and the Diamonds (portrayed by Dianne Steinberg and Stargard, respectively) and being put through their paces of endless recording, touring and adoring fans, danger has risen its ugly head in Heartland.

The aptly named Mean Mr. Mustard (Frankie Howerd) has arrived to corrupt Heartland through the theft of the magical instruments, which rapidly transforms the idyllic community into a vulgar playground of winos, pimps, hookers, casinos and a giant sized hamburger smack in the middle of the town square, complete with oozing globs of vinyl mustard dripping downwards.

Mustard then delivers the instruments to the increasingly evil forces of the demented Dr. Maxwell Edison (Steve Martin), the creepy brainwashing master Father Sun (Alice Cooper) and finally, the Future Villain Band otherwise known as F.V.B. (Aerosmith), all in cahoots to build a youthful fascist army designed to take over the world, while endlessly voicing their organization's soulless chant, "WE HATE LOVE! WE HATE JOY! WE LOVE MONEY!!"

And to make matters even worse, Mustard has fallen in love with Strawberry Fields and wishes to steal her away from Billy Shears for his own nefarious purposes.

From this stage, the band's adventures continue into a rescue mission to retrieve the instruments, a benefit concert featuring Earth, Wind and Fire to save Heartland and a final battle with F.V.B. during which Strawberry Fields falls to her death, sacrificing her life to save Heartland.

After the funeral, a despondent Billy then attempts to commit suicide by leaping to his own death but is then saved by the spirit of Sgt. Pepper (Billy Preston), who emerges from the magical weather vane to then further vanquish evil, literally resurrect Strawberry Fields and transform us all into the stars (albeit of the 1970's) of our dreams with a finale designed to evoke the iconic Beatles' album cover.

And they all lived happily ever after. The end.

You see? That's the movie, as told through 29 songs by The Beatles but performed by the film's stars and re-arranged and produced by the fifth Beatle himself Sir George Martin, and aside from George Burns' aforementioned narration and some occasional title cards, absolutely no dialogue whatsoever.

If you think about it, the film is essentially a live action version of the animated fantasy "Yellow Submarine" (1968) and frankly, aside from the songs and the characters that populate them, Michael Schultz's film really has nothing to do with The Beatles or the album from which this film was inspired. In fact as Robert Stigwood explained himself in the Rolling Stone magazine behind the scenes article entitled "Sgt. Pepper Taught The Band To Play," written by Ed Zuckerman and published April 20, 1978, months before the film's release, "What we're doing is enhancing and drawing a dream around those songs."

Precisely. A dream.

Michael Schultz's "Sgt" Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is a child's dream starring some of the greatest songs ever written as the soundtrack, albeit ones not performed by their originators, a quality that does indeed lend itself to the film's overall dream world aesthetic. No, it is not nearly as titanic as "Tommy," but truth be told, this was the film that superbly led me to "Tommy."

To this day, I still feel that Schultz, working alongside Cinematographer Owen Roizman, helmed a beautifully lensed film filled with vivacious colors, dazzling costumes, innovative and imaginative set designs, simple yet evocative visual effects and innovative camerawork. Then and now, I absolutely LOVED the entirety of the "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" sequence where the band first lands in L.A. and is fully taken in, and surreptitiously led, to sign the recording contracts via copious drugs, wine, and Lucy and her sexy Diamonds, within a gently suggested orgy sequence concluding with a drugged Billy Shears entangled with Lucy upon a giant revolving bed shaped like a vinyl record.

The band's rise to stardom sequence, featuring "Polythene Pam," "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window," a mellow "Nowhere Man" and a vibrant reprise of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is wonderfully performed and exquisitely staged. Aerosmith's "Come Together" sequence is a perfect slice of rock and roll villainy as the band, adorned in their fascistic wardrobe, performs atop towers of coins with Strawberry Fields chained to a neon dollar sign (and it also contains a cheeky fight sequence pitting Frampton against Steven Tyler).

Alice Cooper's "Because" sequence, while brief, remains one that is just dark enough to ensure his nightmare reputation is intact. And the Heartland funeral sequence for Strawberry Fields, encased in a glass coffin and set to "Golden Slumbers" and "Carry That Weight," which is then followed by Frampton's poignant "The Long And Winding Road" and The Bee Gees' powerfully faithful "A Day In The Life" is beautifully elegant and heartbreaking indeed--never will I forget how devastated I was as that most impressionable 9 year old swept away in music and fantasy.

And you know, I would imagine that Schultz included one of the first pop culture nods to the then one year old "Star Wars" (1977) within this film and yes, there are several wildly overt and even subtle references to The Beatles' iconography in this non-Beatle film (look at the wardrobe given to Frampton and The Bee Gees during the funeral sequence and tell me that they were not inspired by The Beatles' final photo sessions). Truth be told, what Michael Schultz devised in "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," from its whimsy and frivolity, which was based as much in silent film slapstick comedies as it was with the rock opera format, seemed to owe just as much, if not a tad more to The Monkees' television show than The Beatles. Prefab Four indeed!

Maybe that was a major issue for filmgoers and music fans back in 1978, for in the world of pop culture, this film arrived a mere eight years after The Beatles' break-up, so cultural wounds were still pretty fresh and all four Beatles were still alive, and making music apart from each other. Perhaps a film like this felt like an insult, especially due to its rock opera format and the complete re-makes of the songs themselves, which often felt like a pseudo disco/MGM musical styled hybrid.

With Sir George Martin at the helm, however, I felt that the music itself was in the best of hands and the sonic quality did indeed have much more to do with the 1970's jazz fusion work with Jeff Beck (who does perform as a session musician on the soundtrack) he was producing than what he accomplished in the 1960's with The Beatles. I guess you could say that these versions possessed a studio slick Steely Dan quality rather than anything really Beatle-esque, especially with the likes of session musician greats like drummer/percussionist Bernard Purdie, guitarist Larry Carlton, keyboardist Max Middleton and drummer Jeff Pocaro to name a few.

With the involvement of musicians of this particular caliber, the Beatles' music was then able to shape sift into something different altogether--the extended "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and "Mean Mr. Mustard" are particularly dazzling--while also retaining the bulletproof magic of the compositions by John Lennon and Paul McCartney along with George Harrison's "Here Comes The Sun," performed warmly by Sandy Farina.

While Earth, Wind And Fire (who perform "Got To Get You Into My Life"), Billy Preston (who triumphantly performs "Get Back") and Aerosmith (who perform "Come Together") are the most faithful (and some would say least offensive versions), the film's stars, Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees, do perform the material with reverence and place their individualized stamps on the proceedings as Frampton played most, if not all, of the guitar solos, and The Bee Gees devised of some highly imaginative vocal harmonies and passages, including those for Mr. Mustard's slightly kinky Computerette companions.

But still, Schultz's film does have a story to tell and the songs needed to reflect the musical fantasy on display. Steve Martin's unhinged version of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," for instance, to me felt to be just right for a song a character who is indeed a homicidal psychopath. Alice Cooper's exceedingly creepy version of "Because" certainly fit his nightmarish image and gave the film itself its darkest passage. By contrast, Sandy Farina proved herself to have a rich, lovely voice, absolutely perfect for a fairy tale princess like Strawberry Fields.

Even so, I know that legions of listeners felt these film versions to being bastardizations of the iconic, timeless originals and to that there is no reason to argue, as I agree to the untouchable greatness of what The Beatles accomplished themselves. And yet, somehow I was, and am still, able to separate the movie from the originals quite easily. Perhaps it had something to do with seeing the film and hearing the soundtrack album first and then going backwards to hear where everything had originated from--sort of like reading the novel after seeing the film from which it was adapted.

Or perhaps it was the fairy tale whimsy, which may make everything feel weightless to a degree that many may have felt insulting to The Beatles' legacy. I don't know. For me, as a child and even now, the innocence of  Schultz's film (despite the nods to the tame references to illicit substances and adult sexuality) is what gives the film flight instead of being empty headed in its frivolity. In fact, I think this is why the film has a heart as wide as the open skies, again, just like a fairy tale.

The entire structure of the film follows the "Once upon a time..." and "...they lived happily ever after" framework, with all manner of darkness and tragedy thrown into the middle of the film, as if our heroes are going into the deep dark woods, from the corruption of the Hollywood record industry to the gradual descent into the villains' great evil lairs and of course, Strawberry's death.

And really, what else is the romance of Billy Shears and Strawberry Fields one that is pitched at a child's fairy tale level? All we really needed to see and feel was a genuine warmth between Peter Frampton (who truly dialed down his rock star swagger in favor of small town boyish charm) and Sandy Farina (who exudes sweetness). We didn't need anything approaching "realistic," so to speak, for this is not an "adult relationship." The romance of Billy and Strawberry is an evocation of a fairy tale's version of true love, with hand holding and swinging in circles by the lake at sunset.

While Strawberry Fields may seem to be too terribly passive and the eternal damsel in distress throughout the film, I do think that she is actually the hero of the film as we see her grow from passivity to proactiveness. If not for Strawberry Fields, Billy and the Henderson brothers would never have known about Mr. Mustard's nefarious plans and takeover of Heartland. It was Strawberry who snuck out of Heartland ("She's Leaving Home") to travel to L.A. alone, wrestle Billy back from Lucy's clutches, help find and secure the magical instruments and later saves Billy's life, and Heartland, by sacrificing herself.

As for Billy Shears, Frampton's work during the funeral and near suicide sequence is quite touching as I do think he captured not just the sadness but the level of guilt he feels for Strawberry's death, as well as the guilt he feels for leaving her behind in Heartland as he and the band chased rock and roll glory plus also allowing himself to be seduced by Lucy. No, this is nothing earth shattering and no, it isn't the greatest romance to hit the silver screen. But, I bought it!! And it moved me...like a fine love song.

So...even after all of this analysis, I also cannot help but to wonder just one, final element that really cannot be ignored. The budget for "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was 12 million dollars, which back in 1978, was a massive budget--especially one afforded to a Black director (reportedly the most ever allotted to a Black filmmaker at that time). Yes, dear readers, Michael Schultz is indeed African-American and at that time, he was most famous for bringing classics of Black cinema to life, from the wonderful Chicago adolescent nostalgia of the excellent "Cooley High" (1975), the day long working class, music drenched ensemble comedy "Car Wash" (1976), landmark vehicles for Richard Pryor with "Greased Lightning" (1977) and "Which Way Is Up?" (1977) and even another terrific, yet Motown produced musical fantasy, the Kung Fu dream world of "The Last Dragon" (1985).

Maybe...just maybe...there was more than a little race based resentment for this Black filmmaker "coloring outside of the lines," so to speak, in the rock music format...and The Beatles, no less! Something that would have been considered to have been unforgivable in 1978, unlike a White filmmaker taking on a Black themed musical, like the late Sidney Lumet (who was indeed married to Lena Horne) helming the all African-American cast of "The Wiz" (1978) or even Bill Condon's "Dreamgirls" (2006).

So, just think about it for just a moment...a Black filmmaker is given an amount of money he is "not supposed" to have to make a movie he is "not supposed" to make featuring music he is "not supposed" to be listening to. While I certainly do not wish to read terribly much into the failure of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," I cannot help but to not ignore that the cards were definitely stacked quite highly against Michael Schultz.  Whether race played a factor into some of the initial response to the film, I will never know but I am unable to discount the possibility. As for the continued pummeling the film has received over these past 39 years, especially now in 2017, I would gather that most viewers wouldn't even know Schultz's race and frankly, I do feel that there is a level of "piggybacking" with the extreme negativity to this film because its reputation has long been set in stone.

As I stated earlier, there is no way possible that I could convince you that this is a good movie, due to its reputation. But, I am able to say the following: I have been watching movies for 39 years since first seeing "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," from all manner of film styles, genres and eras and I am well versed in the movies and what it takes to make a good movie, let alone a great one. I have had more than enough opportunities to view films that are infinitely better than Michael Schultz's film as well. More importantly, I have seen so many films over these past 39 years that are truly unwatchable. Films that are demonstrably worse in quality than any one moment in "Sgt. Pepper." And with all of that being said, and with how terrible this film is supposed to be...it still has endured the test of time!!

Michael Schultz's "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," for all of its detractors, has withstood nearly 40 years of cinema and criticism and people are still watching and discovering it, where so many of this film's contemporaries have vanished into the ether of time. For Pete's sakes, the film has even been issued to the Blu-Ray format and has also been included within the Netflix catalog as well! It has not been forgotten or lambasted into oblivion. It still exists, and for me, I cannot help t feel a little bit of vindication--perhaps...possibly...maybe...I was not the only person in the world who fell in love with this movie after all.

Dear readers, this posting arrives to you as honestly as everything else that I have written upon Savage Cinema since its inception. I love this film. So very much. So very truly. What has inspired this posting is the fact that I re-watched the film nearly two weeks ago, after not having seen it in many years. And still, my reaction remains one of great positivity, of happiness and enjoyment, of a splendid time guaranteed and fully received.

I found myself reaching for my copy of the movie as the events of 2017 were becoming too overwhelming to digest. The President and his endless lies, narcissism, cruelty and stupidity. The threat of nuclear war with North Korea. The sight of neo Nazis marching in the streets during broad daylight. I could go on but why bother? The times that we are living through are more than terrifying. And so, very late one night, something told me to head into my basement and pluck this movie from my shelves...and I did as internally suggested. I placed it into my DVD player, began watching and just like that, I was 9 years old again. Not courtesy of nostalgia. Just solely due to a musical fantasy of the utmost innocence and joy that I could forget the troubles, the worries, and the uncertainty to just have a cinematic bedtime story told to me again.  

And if that ability is not the quality of a great film, regardless of what anyone else even thinks about it, then I do not know what is. Michael Schultz's "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is a film that makes me feel happy. Then. Now. And I am certain, for always.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

SAVAGE CINEMA'S COMING ATTRACTIONS FOR SEPTEMBER 2017

And now, we move onto September and the Fall Movie Season, which I sincerely hope contains as many terrific, innovative release as I was so very happy to experience during the Summer. But I do have a question...what's with all of the scary films being released right now???
1. "IT"
-I have never read the Stephen King novel and I have also never seen the memorable 1990 television miniseries either so my knowledge of the evil entity of Pennywise the clown and his battle against a collective of characters during childhood and adulthood is scant at best. The trailers preceding this film, as directed by Andy Muschuietti, have been especially effective and the early critical buzz plus King's own endorsement have made me more than curious to try this out despite my natural avoidance of films of this sort. Maybe the possibility of a potentially excellent film is Pennywise's taunting red balloon?
2. "mother!"
-Here we go again...Writer/Director Darren Aronosfky, whose psychological horrorshow "Black Swan" (2010) remains one of the very best films of the decade between 2010-2019  as far as I am concerned, returns with another psychological thriller, albeit one that has been purposefully top secret. I am intrigued, to say the least to what paces he will place Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem and us in the audience through.
3. "THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES"
Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris return with their sports docu-drama which traces the the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell). And then, we have...

4. "AMERICAN MADE" 
..."American Made," a biographical crime thriller reuniting Director Doug Liman and Tom Cruise in the true story of a former TWA pilot who became a drug smuggler for Pablo Escobar in the 1980s. After a string of franchise based action films, it will be great to see Cruise potentially chomp into a pure dramatic acting role again.

And with that, the month feels to be set and with all of the happenings in my very real world responsibilities, I hope that I am able to keep up. As always, I'll see you when the house lights go down!!!!