Thursday, December 31, 2009

AN ELEGIAC ROAD TO NOWHERE: a review of "Adventureland"


The following is one more review of a film that will end up somewhere on my favorites of 2009 list, but it will definitely be there.

It was originally written April 9, 2009


"ADVENTURELAND" 
Written and Directed by Greg Mottola
**** (4 stars)

"Out of college, money spent
See no future, pay no rent
All the money's gone, nowhere to go

Any jobber, got the sack
Monday morning, turning back
Yellow lorry slow, nowhere to go

But oh, that magic feeling...Nowhere to go..."
-The Beatles
"You Never Give Me Your Money"


In 1991, I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I successfully received Bachelors of Arts degrees in English and Communication Arts. I had fallen in love with my then-girlfriend/now-wife and we had both decided to move in together, much to the rage filled incredulity of my parents--a decision that led to my parents and I being somewhat estranged for several years. I had no idea of what I wanted to do with myself but I knew what I didn't want to do. I didn't have an interest in Grad School. As far as I was concerned, I wouldn't rule anything out but the school experience had met a most welcome conclusion for me. I certainly didn't want to return to Chicago, live under my parent's roof and seemingly forever be indebted to their expectations, hopes and goals which would certainly clash with my own still-forming desires. I was confident in my decision, but quite terrified as the nagging voice of doubt questioned my choices. Hollister and I fought the very first night we lived together in a tiny shoe box shaped room in the apartment she shared with her understandably resentful roommates.

On the Monday after my graduation weekend, I grabbed my bike and Walkman and started out for work at my now somewhat contraband--as I was no longer a student-- job at the university's Memorial Library. I rode my bike, dodging the traffic while crossing the large-ish West Washington avenue, to glide down State Street and meet my house of employment which rests on glorious Library Mall. I was listening to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' just released "Learning To Fly" from the "Into The Great Wide Open" album and for some reason, the stars seemed aligned in the singular moment even with so much uncertainty brushing my face like the cool morning breeze. The summer continued onwards as Hollister and I each took our individual and joint baby steps into our adulthoods. We saw movies. We didn't have a car then so we learned to navigate the bus system of Madison Metro. We went to house parties. We loved, fought, and loved and fought again.

And then, I took my first major step. In late July or early August of that summer, and in addition to Holli and I getting our first apartment, I obtained what I consider to be my first REAL post-college job. I became a "Sales Associate" at the University Book Store, located directly across from Memorial Library on Library Mall. This establishment was home to all manner of textbooks, school and art supplies and clothing adorned with University Of Wisconsin iconography. I worked in a department called "General Books," which was essentially a standard mainstream bookstore on the building's second level. I worked at the store for four years and over time, I truly hated it. The customers were not the issue in the least--although there were some that wanted to make me shake some throats. And I had made some good friends as we toiled through our days with an increasing brutal sense of sarcastic detachment that I feel was just a shield against a larger problem. It was a combination of many factors in that particular environment that created a sense of disilusion in my post-college life. That I had followed all of the rules, emerged through a great collegiate experience that deeply broadened my mind and spirit, and I was rewarded by essentially returning to a new approximation of high school where "Paper or Plastic?" and answering the eternal question of the store's bathroom location ruled my days. The world owed me nothing and realizing the harsh truth within the cliche, I was jaded at best and shaken to my core at worst.

I decided to open with that tale from my past because I have returned home from seeing "Adventureland," an outstanding film that perfectly captured the mash-up of excitement and ennui of that age and time of life. Written and directed by Greg Mottola, who previously directed the uproarious "Superbad" (2007) for producer Judd Apatow, I was completely taken with the 1987-set story of James (played by Jesse Eisenberg previously from "The Squid and the Whale"), a college graduate with a degree in Comparative Literature (who also admittedly reads poetry for pleasure), anxious to spend his summer backpacking across Europe to then return in the fall for Grad School in New York with a focus in Journalism. Yet, his plans are derailed when his father's employment has been downsized. Without as much money avaliable in the family finances, and James not even being qualified to work as manual labor, he is forced to obtain summer employment at Adventureland, a dilapidated theme park run by Saturday Night Live's Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig and populated by an assortment of over-educated, disaffected, disillusioned and perpetually stoned young people. James is quickly befriended by Joel (the great Martin Starr from "Freaks and Geeks") a Russian Literature major, filled with ironic quips, who also habitually smokes a pipe and pines for another employee. James also strikes up friendships with Lisa P., the park's resident bombshell; Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the park mechanic, musician and married man who is having a clandestine affair with Em (Kristin Stewart), an intense and deeply troubled young woman he falls in love with.

The film is less about a plot and more of a series of perceptive vignettes that detail James' transformative summer. From intellectually stagnated days at the park, endlessly and maddingly set to "Rock Me Amadeus," to a stream of house parties loaded with alcohol and weed to dull and escape their collective frustrations, to tales of romantic uplift and woe, "Adventureland" not only brilliantly captures a time and a place, it evokes an elegiac spirit seen before in films such as George Lucas' "American Graffiti" (1973) and Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused" (1993).

While this film is definitely a comedy, I urge you to not expect the raucous stylings of "Superbad." This is a decidedly quieter presentation--one that conjures the hazy time of your life when extroverted party anthems shift to introspective acoustic ballads. The post-college malaise of the early '20s depicted in "Adventureland" really belongs in the company of a collection of films that arrived from the early to mid '90s that effectively articulated emotions and simple truths about a period of time in a person's life that are sometimes difficult to pin down. "Sleep With Me" (1994), "Kicking and Screaming" (1995), "Bodies, Rest and Motion" (1993) and of course, Richard Linklater's gorgeous "Before Sunrise" (1995), and the supremely scorching "Clerks" (1994) from Writer/Director Kevin Smith all expressed that push-pull tension at growing up and becoming productive members of the larger society. The ghosts of high school/college hijinks desperately try to remain vivid while the first steps at either realizing or compromising dreams can prove daunting and painful. "Adventureland" is acutely perceptive in this manner. Scenes between James and Em, for instance, are truly lovely as these intelligent, verbose individuals struggle to find the words to express their deepest feelings and hurts with each other and sometimes even themselves.

"Adventureland" also works as a slyly subtle cultural critique at it exists at the dawn of the early '90s recession, where so many college graduates, like James, were forced into jobs that they had not planned for and thus, created a culture of over-educated, under paid, increasingly world weary, distrustful, disenchanted youths in dead-end jobs. Sound familiar? The constant drinking, marijuana usage and vomiting in the film doesn't exist as a punchline but as a condition plaguing our nation's children as they have inherited the mess of wretched excess left to us by the greed, avarice and over-indulgence of the previous generation. Sometimes reality does indeed bite and "Adventureland" understands in ways that the shallow "Garden State" (2004) and just plain awful "Reality Bites" (1994) never had the courage to attempt.

Despite all of the thematic heaviness, the movie is a lot of fun. It is truthful and knowing but gentle as well and a profound affection grows for the cast of characters at the theme park. You like them, you root for them, you enjoy spending time with them and sincerely hope they will one day achieve their dreams and not fall into sorrow at life's first painful curve balls.

Lovingly attentive to period detail without calling attention to itself in that kitchy "Wedding Singer" fashion, a great soundtrack that completely supports the material and one honest portrayal after another, Greg Mattola's "Adventureland" is a beautiful bittersweet comedy that has quickly earned a secure place as one of my favorite films of 2009.

SIDE NOTE: The dreaded "shaky-cam" returns and it did provide a few nausea filled moments. So, sit back from the screen a bit--unlike I did--and I think you'll be fine.

ART AND CINEMA AS REVENGE: a review of "Inglourious Basterds"

Continuing the gathering of previously written reviews of films that I either loved or loathed in 2009, the following is a piece originally written August 23, 2009.

"INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS" Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
**** (4 stars)

Back in my childhood when I was devouring a hefty collection of Marvel comics, I remember a strange series entitled “What If?” The idea behind this series was to create an alternate reality to the existing Marvel mythology by having famous characters either do or not do certain acts that would ultimately derail the events we already knew to be true. For instance, one issue pondered what if Spiderman joined The Fantastic Four? Another asked what if Captain America ran for President? I found myself thinking of this series as I was watching “Inglourious Basterds,” the latest epic from the delirious mind of Quentin Tarantino.

With "Basterds," Tarantino presents to us a fever dream of a "what if" scenario: What if Adolf Hitler did not commit suicide and World War II was actually won in the depths of a movie theater engulfed in an inferno? This revenge plot is set underway by Shosanna Dreyfuss, (Melanie Laurent) a French-Jew Proprietress/projectionist of a Parisian movie theater and the sole survivor of a massacre led by the insidious SS Col. Hans Landa alias “The Jew Hunter” (played brilliantly by Christoph Waltz).

The paths of both characters will also become intertwined with the titular “Basterds, a merciless rag-tag squadron of Jewish-American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (performed with expert swagger by Brad Pitt). Aldo (also known as “Aldo The Apache”) is hell bent on his mass revenge against the entire Nazi party as his crew has become infamous for acts of savage brutality against Nazi soldiers by the ferocious scalping of murdered soldiers and pummeling by a baseball bat to the head, an act carried out by Sgt. Donnie Donowitz alias “the Bear Jew” (Eli Roth). They leave one Nazi alive to spread the word throughout Europe and once the information arrives at the feet of Adolf Hitler himself (Martin Wuttke), the story begins to bring all parties together for a literally explosive climax at the aforementioned movie theater which is set to premiere a new Nazi propaganda film.

To reveal more of how all of these characters cross paths and what occurs throughout their respective journeys would only ruin what is easily one of the most original and bold examples of moviemaking I’ve seen this year, especially coming at a time where we are besieged with adaptations, sequels and remakes more than ever. The sheer orgiastic glee that Quentin Tarantino is obviously having in creating his tall tales is evident with each moment of his films and they always confound any preconceived expectations.

Take his first film "Reservoir Dogs," a bank heist story which never shows the audience the botched heist itself. The masterful “Pulp Fiction” also depicts three episodes of redemption set within an otherwise unforgiving underworld of hit men, crime bosses, run down boxers and even (gulp) The Gimp! The blaxploitation genre took a clever spin with “Jackie Brown” showing a certain maturity and humanity within a crime scam plot plus a tender story of unrequited love. And the juxtaposition of samurai epics and westerns with his “Kill Bill” saga speaks for itself in grand, high style. “Inglourious Basterds” is no exception as he effortlessly cross cuts between revenge fantasy, revisionist history and a love for cinema that often recalls the lovely Italian film “Cinema Paradiso” and the end result is a wholly original experience. It demands subsequent viewings and like all of his films, it should be studied by aspiring filmmakers.

Tarantino's writing is in a class of its own as he approaches everything with the detail and precision of a novelist. Every character is richly detailed and the five chapters that structure his movie all feel like completely realized and self-contained short stories that connect to a deeper whole. As a director, Tarantino is a master of tension and release. In several reviews I have mentioned that we are now living in a "Transformers" world. Well...to be more direct, we are living in a Michael Bay world, a director who hasn't met a primary color he doesn't like, has the subtlety of a mack truck to the skull and every single frame of his ear splitting, over-directed, attention defecit films are a climax. Quentin Tarantino just might be in a position to re-educate audiences on how to really create tension, mood, excitement and terror. For those of you expecting "Basterds" to be a wall-to-wall war movie, you will be disapppointed. Yes, there is action. Yes, the violence is sometimes quite graphic and grisly. But this film, with a running time of slightly more than two and a half hours, is a film containing Tarantino's trademark and peerless dialogue spoken by actors at the top of their respective games. There are several very lengthy sequences of characters reciting mountains of dialogue (mostly in German and French) and it may make some audience members squirmish. But, just watch what is happening as Tarantino toys with the audience, presenting situations where crushing violence can erupt at any moment and then it doesn't. Tarantino stretches the tension to its absolute limit and even then the cimactic moment is always shocking, surprising, and sometimes exhilarating. And here is where I can praise the actors on display.

While Brad Pitt has top billing and he is obviously having a ball portraying this redneck soldier, the true stars of the film are Christoph Waltz and Melanie Lauent. Waltz deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance of Hans Landa. He is extremely charismatic, conveying a politeness that travels from simply sinister to terrifying, a fastidiousness that borders on prissiness and a patience that unnerves his victims to their core. (A sequence where he is interrogating another character in a crowded restaurant while eating a strudel is one of his most memorable scenes in a film filled with them.) Waltz handles all aspects to this larger than life character with high finesse. It should also be noted that Waltz speaks in flawless German, French, English and Italian throughout the film and this trait also assists to make the character endlessly unpredictable and deeply frightening.

Laurent is the equally larger than life yet unassuming femme fatale of the piece as well as being one more woman in Tarantino's increasing collection of heroines one should never cross. Her somewhat small frame makes her an opponent one might underestimate but her eyes show the rage inside as she uses her own sense of tunnel vision to avenge the murder of her family in the film's opening massacre. You are with her every step, rooting for her the entire time.

In an interview while making "Kill Bill," Tarantino expressed that he tends to be a lazy indivudal by nature and that the task of making movies is extremely hard work. Because of that, and his love for film, he doesn't want to watse any opportunity given to him and he desires to make every moment a GREAT moment. I wish that level of commitment and love for cinema would rub off on all people who are in the fortunate position to be making movies. Who knows what the end result would be from viewer to viewer, but the desire and the intent is evident and cannot be mistaken. The world of film is lucky to have Quentin Tarantino and "Inglorious Basterds" is one of my favorite films of the year.

But I do have to say, after now three films dealing with a vicious revenge theme, I cannot help but wonder who may have crossed Tarantino in his past and is that person still with us today? Just wondering.

FORMLESS, SHAPELESS, ENDLESS: a review of "Bruno"

As time grows closer for me to reveal my picks for my favorite and least favorite films of 2009, I will post some previously written reviews of some titles that have earned spots on either of those two lists.

Here's the first entry which was originally written November 21, 2009


“BRUNO” Directed by Larry Charles based upon a character created by Sasha Baron Cohen
* (one star)

I have to give it to Sasha Baron Cohen. He is definitely one who does not play things safely and I do appreciate it…even greatly. In these extremely sanitized and homogenous times, I do think we need someone like Cohen who is willing to take his exploits too far. Like Andy Kaufman and even Peter Sellers before him, I feel he is a deeply skilled actor, completely disappearing within the characters he creates and his devotion to their misadventures and their function as social provocateurs is fearless to say the least. That he is willing to take things to the wall, knock the wall down and keep marching full speed ahead is commendable. Yet my reactions to his massive hit comedy “Borat” and even moreso with his latest effort, “Bruno,” have been ones of frustration, irritation, and disbelief. Not through anything that could be deemed offensive, as there is an ocean’s worth of material in “Bruno” meant to shock and offend and with comedy, I tend not to offend that easily. If handled well, through writing, timing and execution, completely inappropriate material can just be the greatest source of laughter. And while I think that Cohen and his Director Larry Charles have made what they set out to accomplish, all of the offending material is entirely for naught as I barely found anything to be actually funny. “Bruno” is simply a shapeless series of stunts that felt wholly false while being held together by not even a shoestring’s worth of narrative and at even a brief 82 minutes, it still felt too long.

Like “Borat,” this new film is shot in a faux documentary style as it follows disgraced Austrian model Bruno (Sasha Baron Cohen) on his voyage to American (with his trusty and eternally fawning sidekick in tow) with his dreams of becoming “uber-famous,” despite having absolutely no discernable talent whatsoever. His ridiculous schemes to reach the top and beyond range from staging a test screening for his disastrous entertainment talk show pilot, to hopefully finding himself kidnapped by Middle eastern terrorist factions (so he can make a hostage film that will be seen around the world) all the way to possibly “curing” his raging homosexuality by becoming straight. We are subjected to tense vignettes meant to draw out the most squirmish of comedy. Bruno sits around the campfire with a small band of hunters trying to engage them in “heart-to-heart” conversations designed to break through their sexual barriers. He takes meetings with Evangelical ministers hoping to “cure” him. He attempts to seduce former Presidential candidate Ron Paul in a hotel room. He crashes a Swingers party, pretending to be straight and gets more than he bargained for when faced with a mad woman brandishing a whip. Its one mishap after another, that despite its bravery, feels so dramatically misguided and not much of the intent is managed honestly.

When “Borat” was released, I was underwhelmed because it was advertised and presented as a sort of 21st century “Candid Camera,” with Cohen completely buried within this strange character, traveling around the country, engaging himself in one situation after another with the unsuspecting public, whose reactions are captured naturally. What was interesting to me about that film were the scenes where we saw those natural reactions. It was an oddball comedy of manners as we saw Americans from different walks of life trying their best to remain stoically polite as the requests made upon them by Borat became more outrageous and how much people revealed about themselves in the process. It was fascinating but not enough to counteract the sequences that felt completely staged, taking away any comic bite. “Bruno” feels almost completely staged and if everyone is in on the joke, there’s no punch line to be found anywhere. The disbelief of any supposed truth in the comedy is blatant, the effect is numbing and the film becomes the definition of tedium as we just wait for scenes to mercifully end.

Take one brief but seemingly endless sequence where Bruno gains the council of a psychic. Bruno asks to speak to the spirit of “Milli from Milli and Vanilli” to gain guidance for how he can become eternally famous. Once the spirit had supposedly been reached, Bruno asks if he can “kiss” Milli in gratitude. The psychic says, “Yes,” and Bruno then goes through an extended pantomime of a kiss to graphic visualizations of fellatio, as the psychic quietly sits back, says nothing and simply waits for Bruno to reach sexual ecstasy. Now, I would believe that the punch line of the scene is not necessarily Bruno’s antics, but the reaction of the psychic. But, as that scene goes on and on and on and on, I could not believe for an instant that this psychic would sit there that long and the entire enterprise falls flat.

Even worse is another sequence where Bruno, after his botched kidnapping bit in the Middle East, returns to the United States with an adopted African child (i.e. Madonna) and appears on a morning talk show (think Maury Pauvich) with an audience made up completely of African-Americans. The sequence ends with a representative of Child Protection Services coming to claim the child away from Bruno and I couldn’t help but to ask myself if we are honestly supposed to think that only Cohen and his film crew were in on the joke. The way the sequence plays, it feels that EVERYONE is in on the joke thus diffusing any dangerous comic possibilities.

Some sequences also are strained attempts to shock the audience as in an early GRAPHIC sequence depicting the sexual acts of Bruno and his Pygmy lover. There is no real context or overall point to the scene. It seems they filmed it because they could. The contained it in the film because they could and for no other reason. It wasn’t offensive to me. It didn’t shock me. It just bored me.

Now, I do have to say that I did think the film as a whole contained two themes worth exploring: a critique of the continued culture of celebrity featuring untalented people who are famous just for being famous (Jon & Kate, Perez Hilton, The “Real” Housewives and so on…) and a critique against a homophobic mindset. Again, I give credit to Cohen, who just does not blink at any instant in his film. He NEVER breaks character and there are some more truthful scenes where I felt he could’ve really placed himself into real danger (as in a sequence where he and his sidekick are chained together in full S&M gear and crash a “God Hates Fags” rally or the bold final sequence staged in a homophobic wresting arena) and he remains focused throughout.

However, many of the sequences in “Bruno” feel as if Cohen, Charles and their crew are staging moments to expose people of their homophobia and it just felt mean-spirited. I may not agree with these people but their opinions are their own and if they are not actively hurting anyone, you just have to let it be and not place them into situations where they are humiliated on movie screens across the world. (But, then it could be argued that those people signed release forms to be in the film so they get whatever comes to them. I agree with that sentiment to an extent but I think you understand what I am getting at.) It just makes Cohen and Charles come off as superior to everyone in the movie and the effect is just smug ugliness.

My reaction to “Bruno” is not a passionate one. It is more matter of fact and the facts are as follows: I hardly laughed in this film. I didn’t enjoy this film. And despite Cohen’s courage and comic savagery, I hope this is the end of these sorts of projects for him and his talents can be served better elsewhere.

“Bruno” is easily one of the worst films of 2009.

HOTEL CALIFORNIA: a review of "Funny People"

Originally written August 2, 2009

"FUNNY PEOPLE" Written and Directed by Judd Apatow
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

In 2005, while on the verge of continuing his landmark and then still rising cable comedy series, Dave Chappelle abruptly walked away from it all and ventured for a short period in South Africa--all to the tune of losing a reported $50 million dollars. He has since been seen publicly rarely. Aside from the amazing film "Dave Chappelle's Block Party," a terrific two-hour guest spot on "Inside The Actor's Studio" and some surprise stand ups gigs here and there, all has been quiet. I have had the suspicion that this is probably how he may have wanted it all along and I wonder if he is a happier man because of that one major life decision. I thought of him quite a bit as I watched the life of comedian George Simmons (Adam Sandler) in Writer/Director Judd Apatow's bold, warm and sprawling new comedy-drama, "Funny People."

Simmons is the epitome of a man who has everything and nothing. As the film opens we see the funny kid he once was, making prank phone calls to the amusement of his friends, become the world famous stand up comedian who has carved out an enormously lucrative movie career making dumbed down, family-friendly comedies such as one that depcicts him as a "merman" and another where he is transformed into a baby but with his adult head and sensibilities. He lives in a veritable palace by the ocean, his personal Xanadu like Charles Foster Kane's in "Citizen Kane" and yet, it is a black hole. He has no friends. No family. No one to confide in even if he would. All that tends to comfort him are being surrounded by the comedians that have inspired him and mostly, images from his past projected onto an arsenal of flat screen televisions, the sound echoing through the room and empty hallways of the cocoon that Holllywood built. Then one day, he receives the life-changing news that he is suffering from a rare form of lukemia and the prospect does not look promising.

He soon crosses paths with Ira (Seth Rogen), an up and coming stand up comedian who has a day-job at a Los Angeles deli counter and sleeps on a fold out hide-a-bed in an apartment with two extremely competetive and more successful roommates (played respectively by Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman). After watching Ira's brief comedy set, Simmons invites him to write some jokes for new stand up material and ultimately hires him as his assistant.

What could have easily become either a run-of-the-mill vulgar comedy, maudlin tear jerker or hybrid of both, "Funny People" wisely sidesteps all of those potential landmines to build a rich tapestry of characters who are quite possibly being held up as a giant warning sign in our extensively fame obsessed culture. In some respects, this could be a companion piece to Cameron Crowe's beautiful "Jerry Maguire," as amongst that film's many themes and concerns is the idea of maintaining a sense of integrity in a world that doesn't value it and doesn't want you to have it. Apatow's Los Angeles could also be a visual representation of The Eagles' classic "Hotel California," where nothing is ever enough and souls are sold by the second. In the case of "Funny People," it suggests that while it may be too late to save Simmons' soul, we need to focus our attention to Ira, who skin is too thin for Hollywood's brutality.

The world of the comedy clubs is presented as one of continuous one-upsmanship feuled through male rage. The film's endless penis jokes really shows how life is just an equally endless pissing contest. Ira's home life and roommate relationships is one of constant competition: Who wrote the funnier joke? Who has the television show? Who makes the most money? And worst of all, who will sleep with the cute, acerbic, comedianne (played deftly by Aubrey Plaza) first, despite the fact that Ira is nursing a crsuh on her?

By the time Ira has become not only George's whipping boy but sole confidant in the world, the film takes another surprising turn as we visit the Marin County home of Laura (terrifically played by Leslie Mann), George's ex-flame and former actress who is now unhappily married to travelling businessman Eric Bana. It is in this last third where we see that Ira's soul hangs in the balance as he takes a front row seat to the human damage that fame, money and self-aborption has cost all of them.

While the material is melancholy and goes down some dark holes, the film is indeed a comedy and a highly successful one. Judd Apatow's writing and direction remains controlled, non-judgemental, deeply insightful and even loving of its characters and situations. It never condescends to anyone and mostly, I applaud the great risk Apatow has taken in his own growth as a filmmaker. Even after writing and directing "The 40 Year Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up," producing many strong current comedies like "Superbad" and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall, to even his great work in television with the short lived collegiate set "Undeclared" and the brilliant high school woes of "Freaks and Geeks," "Funny People" is an achievement. It is by far his most mature work. There are a variety of themes and stories floating around this movie and Apatow handles them--and an epic two and a half hour running time--with confidance. For those expecting a typical Sandler comedy, they will be disappointed but patient viewers will be rewarded with a film to savor and even re-visit.

Adam Sandler is a comic actor who I have usually appreciated most in films that are not the typical Adam Sandler movie (i.e. "Punch-Drunk Love," "Reign Over Me") and his performance as George Simmons quite may be his finest hour. It is equally risky as Simmons is not a likebale man. He is filled with self-loathing and is manipulative, ego-driven, self-serving, and often extremely cruel and mean to Ira--and the film makes no apologies for his behavior. In fact, when Simmons receives the additional life-changing news that his disease has gone into remission, his behavior actually becomes worse. There is no major Hollywood transformation to George Simmons. He is simply more informed and Sandler handles all of the many layers effortlessly.

Rogen is continuing to come into his own as an actor. As Ira, he has dialed his now-familiar mannerisms way back and has found a guilelessness to root for. In many ways, he is like Steve Carrell's Andy from "Virgin" and Apatow remains quite protective and understanding of him. We care for Ira and his beliefs as well as his attempts to find the most humane answers to certain tricky emotional relationships. Watch him closely during the Marin County sequence and you will see a genuine sense of concern he has for how certain decisions could potentially affect everyone. In fact, he is the one character in the movie not entirely motivated by fame or money and you wonder how far into Simmons' world will he descend into.

Leslie Mann (Apatow's real-life wife) is the movie's secret weapon! Tart tongued, sensitive, nobody's fool, a great romantic lead and strong comedic actress, you wonder just how George Simmons could have ever let this one slip through his fingers and you can also see how much Apatow adores her (and also his children who make return appearances). Any film would brighten up with her presence and I hope more filmmakers jump at the chance to have her adorn their films.

I highly reccommend this film to anyone who not only wants a great laugh, but who also wants to hear strong dialogue and see a multi-layered story that is heartfelt. If this is where Judd Apatow has landed with his third directorial effort, I cannot wait to see his fourth!

THE ART OF CULINARY COMMUNICATION: a review of "Julie and Julia"

Originally written on Dcember 29, 2009

“JULIE AND JULIA” Written and Directed by Nora Ephron
*** (three stars)

I never expected that I would have seen this film. When I saw the trailers before its summer theatrical release, I just knew it would be something that may be entertaining and may even be quite good, but alas something that just was not my cup of tea. I was certain that I would not be the audience for a movie like this. And then, a package from my Father-In-Law arrived in the mail for the holidays. Inside was a copy of this film on DVD. My wife explained to me that her parents, like millions of others, were both tremendous fans of Julia Child’s eternal cooking manual and subsequent television program and perhaps that was the reason he had sent this film to us. (I have since learned that he purchased copies of this movie and mailed it to several people as their respective Christmas presents.) Now that this movie was sitting on our cluttered kitchen table (which I must say, is rarely used for actual eating as it houses bills, magazines and all manners of other domestic artifacts), there was no getting away from it and perhaps, it was a sign. Happily, I am here to inform you that “Julie and Julia,” the latest film from Nora Eprhon, Writer/Director of “Sleepless In Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail,” and Writer of Director Rob Reiner’s 1989 classic “When Harry Met Sally,” is a bonafide charmer that illuminates and satisfies.

Meryl Streep stars as the immortal Julia Child, before culinary, literary and television stardom, during her days in Paris in the late-1940’s/early 1950’s as she attempts to discover her purpose in life. After humorously declaring that what she wants most out of life is to eat, she decides to learn how to cook and ultimately begin the voyage of writing her famous cookbook. Amy Adams also stars in the present day material, set just a short period after 9/11, as Julie Powell, who in order to gain newfound purpose in her life at she approaches the age of 30, creates a blog where she vows to cook her way through the entirely of Julia Child’s cookbook within a one year time frame. The film deftly alternates between both periods, as we view both women navigate themselves towards their respective goals as well as through their personal love stories with their respective husbands (Stanley Tucci stars in the period era as Paul Child, Julia’s diplomat husband and Chris Messina features in the present as Powell’s endlessly patient and long-suffering husband, Eric).

Much beyond the act and art of cooking and a celebration of food, at its core, “Julie and Julia,” is a dual tale of two women on the cusp of transformation. Both women were secretaries for government agencies, as we learn of Child’s tenure in the Secret Service (where she met her husband) and as we also view Powell’s soul-crushing cubicle life. What we are witness to is the proverbial “benchmark moment,” their individual lines in the sand as they have simultaneously reached stages where their lives were about to change. The movie is not heavy handed with this depiction, as it is indeed a Nora Ephron film. It skates along under the guidance of the lightest of cinematic hands. That is not to say that “Julie and Julia” lacks depth. Certainly for any viewers who find the sights and suggestions of food to be of the most sublime imagery, there is a hefty amount to savor as all of the sequences are lovingly filmed. Like the reality program “Top Chef,” the act of watching someone blissfully swallowed by cooking is a nearly contagious one. What really surprised me about this film and my reaction to it was how we are able to view these two woman use whatever tools they had at their disposal in order to complete and realize their dreams.

Yes, the many sequences of Powell’s cooking connect her emotionally to the world of Child’s past but the film is also a passionate statement to the devotional act and the power of writing as a communicative art. As with cooking, there is a deep craft to writing letters, the film suggests, a craft that has quite possibly been lost in the age of Twitter. We see and hear Child’s letters to her pen pal who eventually assisted her in finding a publisher. We also witness letters Paul Child sends to his twin brother back in the states and the ultimate publication of those letters are read by Powell to her husband. The love of words and the love conveyed through the words translate extremely well through the screen. Perhaps, as Powell is a frustrated novelist, her scenes as she compulsively writes and publishes her blog to absolutely anyone who may take the time and patience to read it struck a chord with me as I sit here and compulsively write and publish these film reviews for anyone who is willing to take the time to read them.

All of the performances are simply lovely. What can be said of Meryl Streep that hasn’t already been said? I have mentioned before that sometimes I am a bit resistant to her as she sometimes strikes an “Actor’s Studio” vibe with me. But, again, she surprised me by making Julia Child so much more than an imitation or caricature. We are given a woman who is a societal misfit due to her height and of course, that oddity of a voice, and yet, instead of waiting for society to accept her, she courageously blazed her own trail without hesitation and made society conform to her.

Much has been written about Amy Adams’ performance as Julie Powell and not in a terribly forgiving light as Powell is presented as being quite narcissistic, immature, a bit whiny, inconsiderate of her husband and in the words of one of her closest friends, “a bitch.” It has been argued that because of those qualities, it was difficult to become engaged with Powell and thus, we are left with only half of a good movie. While I truly understand the criticisms, I am inclined to disagree as I actually enjoyed her sequences even more than the Child sections of the film. Yes, Julie Powell is all of those aforementioned qualities and she does become somewhat insufferable. But, also the film never shies away from those qualities or glosses them over. It is indeed quite critical of her behavior and when her husband leaves her after a conflict, you do side with him. But in her and Ephron’s defense, how many films have we all seen that presents a male artist of some sort who is consumed by their work and we are always asked to understand and accept their questionable and damaging behavior? This film makes the same case of Powell. She does cause some internal damage to her personal and professional life but we also see that this project is her calling, her purpose and it must be met in every conceivable way…and how could such a calling be debated? In order to make this character soar, you need the right actress to hit the right notes and Adams’ performance was beguiling to me. It actually reminded me quite often of Meg Ryan’s most affectionate performances. Adams does indeed dance to the edge of chirpy mania but she always finds her footing and makes her obsessions tangible to the audience.

Another treat this film served was in its depiction of the husbands. Men typically get short shrift in the movies as their roles as Fathers or romantic partners are always shown as stupid man-children who don’t understand the definitions of responsibility, commitments or maturity. Chris Messina and Stanley Tucci remedy that image in two supporting roles that convey a palpable warmth and endearment towards their partners. Tucci is especially effective as he knows fully well that this is Streeps’s movie and he wisely chooses not to compete with her—as I imagine the real Paul Child behaved with the real Julia. What he does show to us, however, is a man so completely in love with his wife. He wants nothing but her happiness and her chance to see her goals through to their natural fruition. We see his eyes and we feel that love and I wish that more filmed love stories were written and acted this simply and truthfully, acknowledging the passage of time of shared lives being lived.

Now, I do have to say that even though the film runs slightly over two hours, it did feel long at times. It did also suffer a little bit from false endings as a few times I expected the end credits to scroll and then, another scene would pop up or the realization that Powell hadn’t completed that final recipe yet would occur.

Yet these are minor quibbles in an otherwise charmng and enlightning little movie that earns all of the good sentiments and good will it is seeking from the audience.

IT'S ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS...BUT THEN THEY START TALKING: a review of "Avatar"

Originally written on December 23, 2009

“AVATAR”
Written and Directed by James Cameron
**1/2 stars (two and a half stars)

I really wanted to love this movie. Man, did I want to love this movie. I pulled for it, rooted for it, hoped and continue to hope. Unfortunately, it was to no avail. Ever since the fall of 1984, when I was 15 and skeptically entered a screening of “The Terminator,” I exited a supreme fan of Writer/Director James Cameron. From the terrifying war saga of “Aliens” (1986) to the underwater mysticism of “The Abyss” (1989), to “Terminator 2” (1991), the rare sequel that massively improves upon the original, to the exciting spy comedy of “True Lies” (1994) and of course, the king of the Hollywood epics, “Titanic” (1997), James Cameron has hurtled himself to the top echelon of big budget filmmakers. He has deftly and superbly combined personal artistic visions with groundbreaking technological leaps and I have been left breathless each and every time.

Yet, by the end of the 2 hour and 45 minute running time of “Avatar,” Cameron’s latest grand vision and his first narrative feature film in 12 years, I shrugged my shoulders in a disinterested fashion and left the theater with an emotion that could be described as indifferent at best and apathetic at worst. “Avatar” is by no means a bad film. It is not a failure in the least and I would not discourage anyone from seeing it, even if I could. However, for all of the sound, vision, spectacle and fury, I was completely detached emotionally from the experience. No matter how hard it and I tried, I could not get myself lost in this film, I just didn’t care much for anything that happened to any character in it and it resulted in a forward thinking behemoth of a movie without the most basic and necessary element: a heart.

Set 154 years in the future and after a continuing energy crisis has ravaged and depleted Earth’s resources, humans have selfishly set their sights upon the moon of Pandora, an ecological wonderland containing a precious mineral that could save the planet. Of course, Pandora is not a threat to Earth in any way; yet, the military and mass corporations of our planet are more than willing to forcefully extract said mineral by any means necessary (think Vietnam or Iraq). That includes an imminent war with the indigenous, primitive beings of Pandora known as the Na’vi; striking 10 feet tall blue skinned creatures with somewhat feline facial features and huge glowing soulful eyes. Pandora’s atmosphere is toxic to humans, so in order to covertly navigate the world, Earthlings are able to visit and explore “Matrix-style” via an “avatar,” a being of merged human and Na’vi DNA.

Enter Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington), a paraplegic Marine lured to Pandora by scientists (represented by Sigourney Weaver’s gruff Dr. Grace Augustine), the nameless mass corporation (represented by Giovanni Ribisi’s greedy and soulless Parker Selfridge), and the military (represented by Stephen Lang’s sadistic Col. Miles Quaritch) to take part in the Avatar program, of which his now deceased twin brother scientist was at the forefront. Being used as a pawn for all sides, Sully is instructed to merge with his avatar, infiltrate and study the Na’vi in order to conquer them from within. Initially, Sully agrees, as through his avatar, he is now able to experience life in ways he is unable to as a human. Yet, his inner conflict rises as he grows to respect and cherish the world of Pandora, the ways of life of the Na’vi as well as his growing love affair with warrior Neytiri (beautifully played through motion capture techniques by Zoe Saldana). As the film continues onwards towards the inevitable genocide of the Na’vi and the climactic and extended war sequence, Sully is trapped in the middle between his duty to his home planet and the survival of his new allegiances, their home and the love of his life.

On many levels, what Cameron presents to us is a complete and undisputable triumph as his visual aesthetics, mastery of special effects and revolutionary motion capture techniques make “Avatar” an event movie that must be seen on the large screen. For a film that reportedly cost $300 MILLION dollars to produce, you can see every solitary penny on the screen. Nothing has been wasted and the time, effort, sweat and endurance is on equal display as the film’s cost. The sights, creatures and landscapes of Pandora are a sight to truly behold, as they are as lush and minutely detailed as anything seen in George Lucas’ recent “Star Wars” prequel trilogy. Not even a blade of grass looks out of place.

I will admit that at first, the sight of the Na’vi was a tad jarring as they completely stood outwards from the real actors and sets—the effect was not initially a seamless one. As the film continues and we are placed on Pandora for elongated periods, the deep textures of the Na’vi strongly reveal themselves and the avatar characters, which bear the likenesses of Worthington and Weaver, are extremely impressive in their realism. James Cameron’s overall vision and attention to visual detail cannot be questioned or debated. He is assuredly one of the miniscule directors working today who are able to wrap their heads effectively around material this vast and complex.

So, what went wrong? Many years ago, George Lucas explained in an interview that his reliance on his revolutionary special effects was simply a means to an end for they only exist as a storytelling tool. As he succinctly put it, “A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” I am not suggesting that “Avatar” lacked story, plot, characters, or their motivations. Quite the contrary, there’s more than enough story to go around in this film and themes of ecological preservation, deep criticisms of faceless, monolithic corporations, cautionary views of technology and man’s arrogance due to an over-reliance on technology echoes sentiments expressed in nearly all of Cameron’s previous work. All of the ingredients are here. The problem is that for all of the arduous energy placed into the visual presentation, that same level of detail was not present in the actual WRITING of the story.

James Cameron, who has written nearly all of his films, has typically been given a sense of short shrift for his screenwriting. He has been criticized for being too simplistic and not nearly eloquent enough. I whole–heartedly disagree with those sentiments as I have felt that his writing has perfectly fit the type and style of films that he makes. His writing may not be subtle but it effectively represents a personal vision. Whenever I have seen a James Cameron film, I have never felt that I am viewing a soulless enterprise like say…the “Pirates Of The Caribbean” series, for instance. His films are as personal as any low-budget independent feature to me and I have often felt that the criticisms have been unfair.

Cameron took much heat for his screenwriting of “Titanic” and since that film, being the biggest box office hit of all time; it is definitely the 800-pound gorilla in the room, an endlessly easy target. For me, as I ruminate over my impressions of that film, I felt Cameron’s writing was at his finest and at times, even poetic. I believed what his characters said and the words he chose to place in his actor’s mouths never took me out of the story he was attempting to tell. I felt that he struggled over every word and every act of staging sequences of cataclysm where the film didn’t exist as just another disaster movie. I thought his usage of a love-story was a great move as it placed humanity into what had essentially become a modern myth, thus placing the tragedy at the forefront and making it real. The present-day sequence where we are shown via computer of how exactly the iceberg impacted the ship and how that moment affected the ultimate destruction of the ship was a masterstroke of storytelling. Once we were placed into the past and the iceberg struck, we had an intimate knowledge of the situation that the characters did not, which elevated the sensation that death was coming and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. Finally, I felt that having the technique of making steerage passenger Jack and high-class Rose race around the boat from top to bottom, dramatically and persuasively presented the theme that when death comes calling, all societal divisions and differences mean nothing. All of those examples came straight from Cameron’s writing and unfortunately, I felt none of that painstaking commitment to the writing in “Avatar.”

In comparison to all of Cameron’s previous films, I was stunned at how poorly written it was. “Avatar” is run rampant with clich├ęs, flat characterizations, and a shameless calculated effort to revive the love-story magic of “Titanic.” When one character explains the significance of the phrase, “I see you,” you can practically hear Cameron thinking, “This will be my ‘You complete me’!” It rang wholly false (and you may want to skip out of the theater quickly before the end-credits song begins to warble much like Celine Dion’s “Titanic” hit). Remember, no one expected “Titanic” to become the hit that it was whereas this time, it felt as if Cameron was attempting to manufacture that elusive lightning in a bottle just as he had manufactured the world of Pandora.

For all intents and purposes, “Avatar’ is a futuristic version of “Dances With Wolves” yet unfortunately, Cameron didn’t play around with that formula in the least, which made the film exhaustively predictable. Everything happens the way you would expect it to happen without any deviation and that even includes the protracted war sequence, which follows all of the pre-requisite stages of victory, failure, and tragedy in the exact order that you would expect to see them. Because of that, I felt something I have never felt in a James Cameron film: boredom.

Throughout the film, I wondered what if Cameron had taken a slightly different approach to his own material. Perhaps instead of having Sam Worthington as a surrogate for the audience to step into the world of Pandora, what if we saw the story entirely from the point of view of the Na’vi? What if he immersed us in their world, experiences and language from the outset? I think that might have played with the story’s formula effectively and raised the emotional stakes without having to sacrifice any of the themes he wanted to present. I often thought of this past summer’s horrifically sensational “District 9,” directed by Neill Blonkamp. This was another science fiction film, which indeed shared similar themes with “Avatar,” including man’s inhumanity as well as the depiction of a human caught in between duties to his race and the plight of aliens. “District 9” played with the formula enough to make that film a unique and unforgettable experience while also employing some of the most photo-realistic CGI effects I have ever seen…and at a fraction of the budget allotted to “Avatar” to boot! Cameron is a much better storyteller than he is on display with “Avatar” and it was disappointing.

Most shockingly, “Avatar” hosts painful—and I mean, PAINFULLY bad dialogue. To clarify, I don’t mean the corny, flat, 1930’s “Flash Gordon” inspired dialogue of the “Star Wars” saga. I mean that Cameron’s dialogue for “Avatar” is probably some of the worst I have seen in any film this year and it completely undercut the heights he had scaled visually. The dialogue let his actors down terribly and reduced nearly all of them to cardboard. Sigourney Weaver is a formidable presence and her role as Ellen Ripley in “Aliens” has become iconic. Yet here, Weaver is stranded and unconvincing. Even worse is the film’s sadly uncompelling lead. Sam Worthington hardly makes an impression as he is forced to utter the most obvious declarations and dumbed down musings of the “I’m just a grunt” variety that would give any Marine a bad name. Jake comes off as frankly…stupid for much of the time and he was no one I really wanted to follow. It was as if Cameron simply scribbled something down just to get his characters to move on towards the very next spectacle he wanted to SHOW you. Because his actors were saddled with the most ridiculous utterances, I couldn’t believe anything they were saying. At the screening I attended, by the film’s final third, a patron began cackling loudly and often. While it was deeply irritating, I have to say that I almost felt like joining him.

I will say that Stephen Lang and Zoe Saldana, somehow transcend the unfortunately weak dialogue and characterizations. Lang brings a loathsome energy to his one-note military villain. Moreover, Saldana is definitely the shining star of the entire film as she has somehow embodied her alien character with ferocious passion and empathy. She nearly makes her a believably flesh and blood creature you feel for. Alas, she cannot save the entire production single-handedly.

If Cameron’s actual writing was pitched at the exact same level as his visuals and direction, “Avatar’ would definitely be a seismic film for the ages. Yet for me, as it stands, I unfortunately have to utilize a “Titanic” metaphor. If “Avatar” is the mighty ship setting sail into our collective multiplexes with Cameron the filmmaker at the helm, then Cameron the writer is the proverbial iceberg that seriously damaged and nearly sunk the whole enterprise.

Again, this is not a disaster. Just a fumble from a filmmaker who always makes a spectacular touchdown.

(SIDE NOTE: I did not see this film in 3D. I tend to think of 3D as nothing but a gimmick—and I really don’t want to fool around with putting on glasses over my real glasses. Mostly, no technique can make up for bad writing and in this case, even enhanced visualizations couldn’t make up for the lack of literate power.)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2000-2009 TIME CAPSULE PART ONE: The Most Honorable Of Honorable Mentions

Where do I even begin?

While recently watching the blessedly revamped "At The Movies" with film critics Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott, I was a little taken aback that the two were beginning to compile their favorite films of the decade. Surely, this period of time isn't coming to a close already?! So, for the past several weeks, I have watched them reveal their choices and it has certainly made me begin to think about what I would put into a cinematic time capsule if I could. I will try my best to not allow this listing to spiral onwards through the NEXT decade but I will also not limit myself to just 10 picks. It will be a multi-part listing, delivered in sections as to not overwhelmen you dear readers. My official selections features 25 titles (to be revealed soon) and the first two sections will be devoted to the films and filmmakers that didn’t quite make the top 25 but deeply deserved recognition, respect and continued revelry.

As I compiled my listing, I tried to think of several factors which indeed confused my wife a little bit. You see, I do tend to make a “Favorites Of The Year” list each year around Oscar time and she felt that I should just review my old listings, pick the features that ranked #1 and that would ultimately be the ones for the time capsule. I explained to her that it wouldn’t and couldn’t quite work like that as there are some films that I did love during a particular year that I have not seen since and simply do not plan on doing so. They seemed to be the best of its particular moment in time and perhaps not quite the ones that would be preserved in my own film-going history. So, I thought of the films that may have been game-changers and ground breakers. I tried to think of the films that have continued to resonate and reveal themselves to me. I tried to think of the ones I keep returning to, the ones that altered my perceptions, the ones that at times made me almost forget that I was even sitting in a movie theater.

Remember, I am not claiming these as "THE BEST" or "THE WORST" with any authority as I have not seen every film released over the last ten years. these are just what affected me most in my journeys as a viewer.

Without further hesitation, I am happy to present to you…

A COLLECTION OF MOST HONORABLE FILMS & FILMMAKERS FROM 2000-2009

THE FILMS OF CLINT EASTWOOD


I had to start strong with this section of honorable mentions and it is difficult for me to think of too many filmmakers more honorable than Clint Eastwood who, at the age of 80, is making what I feel to be are the very best films of his life! Once my final listing of 25 films is revealed, it may seem strange that not even one of his films is represented. This is simply because I just could not think of which film affected me more than another. To me, 2003’s “Mystic River,” 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby,” 2006’s dual World War II features “Flags Of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” and 2008’s twin successes of “Changeling” and “Gran Torino” are all of a piece. (I still have not had the opportunity to see “Invictus” yet.)

With this collection, Eastwood has beautifully continued to explore the history and cycles of violence (while also toying with the history of his own violent film personas) to a near Shakespearean level of pathos and tragedy. He has continued to posses one of the surest and strongest cinematic hands working today through his always fair-minded conviction in his stories as well as his deep trust in his actors and stories. He never overplays his hand or allows melodrama to weigh down the material. His clear-headed storytelling style should be studied by all young filmmakers, especially as we live in a cinematically hyperactive “Transformers” era.

Clint Eastwood remains a filmmaking giant as this body of work proves.

“REQUIEM FOR A DREAM” (2000) Directed by Darren Aranofsky

This film didn’t make the final 25 just because it is an experience so unpleasant that I know for certain that I will never put myself through it ever again. That said, I cannot deny its power and cinematic brilliance. Aranofsky’s tale of addiction doesn’t break new ground as far as being a cautionary tale of the most brutal order but its commitment to its idea on a visual level is unrepentant in its urgency and unlike any other film released this decade. The film’s final third, entitled, “Winter,” (and set to a grinding score by The Kronos Quartet) is harrowing to an almost unwatchable degree. Special mention must be given to Ellen Burstyn for her fearless swan-dive of a performance as a woman addicted to diet pills in order to fit into a certain dress for a hoped-for television appearance on a game show and ultimately falls into madness as she is haunted by terrifying hallucinations and finally, subjected to nightmarish electro-shock therapy. For anyone who has suggested that this film glorifies drug and alcohol usage, they have not seen this film. You don’t even want to ingest caffeine after seeing it.

“SCHOOL OF ROCK” (2003) & “BEFORE SUNSET” (2004) Directed by Richard Linklater

Over the last ten years, Writer/Director Richard Linklater has continued on his journeyman path between studio films, independent features and even forays into roto-scoped philosophical features (“Waking Life” from 2001 and “A Scanner Darkly” from 2006) The two films featured here are my favorites from this era.

“School Of Rock,” while being a tour de force for Jack Black as well as a love letter to rock and roll, transcends its formula not only by being fall-down funny, but also by giving us a terrific ode to the art of teaching and education. Linklater suggests that the best teaching experiences are the ones that are shared between teachers and students, and the high style and energy between Black and his merry band of would-be rock stars is infectious to a near euphoric degree.

“Before Sunset” is Linklater’s elegant sequel to his 1995 European set love story, “Before Sunrise.” Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reprise their roles (and even co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater), as star-crossed lovers Jesse and Celine, now in their 30s, as they meet again in Paris after their blissful Viennese night together ten years before. The gaunt features of their bodies and the lines in their faces say it all as the youthful dreams of the 20’s have led to 30’s realities, romantic disappointments and confusion as well as a near midlife malaise. After a film so briskly and effectively told, I am hoping that Linklater, Hawke and Delpy occasionally reprise their roles in the future and report back to the audience the triumphs and frailties of their advancing ages.

THE FILMS OF CHRISTOPHER NOLAN

What an audacious talent we have in this filmmaker! He boldly arrived, seemingly from the ether in the year 2000, with a brilliantly conceived and executed thrilled called “Momento,” a film presented backwards chronologically and through the perceptions of a haunted man with short term memory loss.

From there, Nolan has been continuing to alter our perceptions of how rousing, electrifying and vividly intense films can be, not through an over reliance on special effects, ADD influenced editing techniques and a punishing soundtrack, but through carefully stylish directions and endlessly inventive storytelling. These films would not be worth re-visiting without the grounding of their excellent screenplays of which Nolan has always written or co-written. Nolan would earn his place on my list with only his revolutionary re-invention of Batman with “Batman Begins” (2005) and “The Dark Knight” (2008), but he has also delivered with two unusual thrillers this decade. “Insomnia” (2002), stars Al Pacino as Detective Will Dormer who is sent to Nightmute, Alaska—where the midnight sun never sets—to investigate a murder potentially caused by Robin Williams, in a rare dark turn. And we also have been blessed with “The Prestige” (2006), the disturbing tale of dueling magicians played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman.

Based upon the hair-raising teaser trailers for his summer 2010 feature, “Inception,” I am hoping Christopher Nolan will continue to blow my mind for the next decade but for this decade, it has simply been a gift to sit through his motion pictures, one of which has earned a high ranking slot on my top 25!

THE FILMS OF M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN

I think M. Night Shyamalan has been treated quite unfairly since his arrival into our cinematic consciousness with 1999’s juggernaut “The Sixth Sense.” He has been painted as wholly arrogant, in love with his storytelling techniques and now, with only one major box office success since, (“Signs” from 2002) he has thus been branded a one-trick pony, forever in a stranglehold by his own surprise endings. For me, Shyamalan has been so much more than his surprise endings. Yes, the ending of “The Sixth Sense” was a doozy to say the least and I just deeply appreciated how this man was able to weave a tale so effectively that I could not see what was dangling right in front of my eyes. But, what that film also presented was an emotional tale about how the threads of communication need to always be tended and nurtured between us if we are to ever fully understand and empathize with one another.

This dual level of storytelling has continued through his films ever since and while people are trying to outfox him by searching for that surprise ending—sometimes there hasn’t even been one—audiences and critics, who have been reviewing a perceived personality at that, have often missed what is happening in front of their eyes.

“The Lady In the Water” (2006), what was Shyamalan has always said it would be: a fairytale. While dark, it was a sweet fantasy to return a water-nymph to her home as well as an impassioned plea for community. Unfortunately, that sweetness was sabotaged by an ad campaign making it appear to be the scariest film since “The Exorcist,” which it wasn’t and audiences supremely stayed away.

“The Happening” (2008), was Shyamalan’s ecological horror film and first R rated movie, (yet as R rated movies go, it was a soft R) whose overall thoughtfulness was ignored as well the skill in which it was executed. For all of the flash and desensitizing carnage depicted in modern day torture porn features, perhaps Shyamalan’s visions seem comparatively quaint. But for me, in “The Happening,” the sight of a tear in a car roof, or the otherwise commonplace image of wind rustling through the trees did trigger a certain sense of fear that while not overwhelming, was indeed primal.

Shyamalan’s very best features of this decade were also extremely underrated. 2000’s “Unbreakable,” starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, was one of the three best comic book films of the decade (and I would also say that the terrific television series “Heroes” owes that film a tremendous debt). But, I would say that his much maligned “The Village” (2004) just may be the most resonant of the decade as it is ultimately a chilling story about the nature of fear itself, how fear is utilized, how fear can be used to control others and how it can dominate oneself. This film was released at the emotional height of the Iraq War and the pain and justified paranoia of 9/11 remained at the forefront of our collective cultural consciousness. It was difficult for me to not divorce the messages of this film from what was happening politically in our society and I found “The Village” to be a daring statement made during a time when such statements were vehemently discouraged..

M. Night Shyamalan once alluded that his filmmaking style is perhaps like enjoying a certain flavor of wine that no one else enjoys. I know that while watching his movies, I enjoy similar cinematic flavors. I am not one for horror films, and I don’t necessarily like being scared in movie theaters but I do thoroughly enjoy the way Shymalayan plays with my mind and his directorial hand has continued to remain steadfast. I believe he is making the films he wants to make, in the exact way he wants to make them and that should be commended in my eyes.


Stay tuned for the continued listings of the Most Honorable of Honorable Mentions coming soon...

A BLESSING IN MEMORIAM



In the previous post, I mentioned my affection for the writing of John Hughes and how his writing has served as an inspiration for me over many, many years. At this post, I would like to present a lengthy tribute I wrote in honor of John Hughes after his untimely passing in August.  I am placing it here on "Savage Cinema" for a specific reason...

Sometimes, when I am gearing myself up to write or if I am not feeling terribly motivated to write a review or even pursue my creative writing, I often think about Hughes and wonder what he would have done. That answer is simple: he was a writer and he would've kept writing for as long as possible. It is that sentiment that I would like to use as a blessing to begin work on this blog.

If you are a fan of John Hughes, I hope you like this tribute. Furthermore, as you read it, I hope that you will take the time to think of anyone that has positively influenced your life. From either someone in your family or circle of friends to anyone else in the world be it a political figure, artist, athlete, anyone living or dead, anyone that you have connected with on some level.

In honor and in memorium, here is my tribute which was originally written between August 6, 2009-August 9, 2009...


"MY HERO: A TRIBUTE TO JOHN HUGHES 1950-2009"

When I arrived home from work and an afternoon dentist appointment, on Thursday, August 6th, my wife greeted me at the door with a solemn look on her face and quietly said to me, "Scott, I'm sorry but I have some bad news. John Hughes just died."
"What?!" I said quietly, simply stricken with the obvious disbelief at what Holli had just said to me.
"He had a heart attack in New York City," she said and with that I went straight to our computer to see what news I could find and at that time, it was not much more than what she said to me. John Hughes was visiting family in New York, went for a morning walk and suffered a fatal heart attack. He was only 59 years old.
To anyone that has ever known me, Writer-Producer-Director John Hughes made an impact on my life of such importance and profoundity that there are so many parts of who I am that would not have emerged if not for him and his work. I never met him, although I deeply wanted to, for no other reason than to have the opportunity to have a few moments with him to just say, "Thank you." While I have always known the likelihood of that wished for meeting would never happen, now that he is really gone, the finality has stopped me cold. So, if you don't mind, I hope you will allow me to take some of your time as I would like to express what he meant, and still means, to me.

PART ONE: 'PLEASE ALLOW ME TO INTRODUCE MYSELF...": WHEN I FIRST SAW "SIXTEEN CANDLES"

My introduction to the work of John Hughes was inauspicious. I, of course, had seen "National Lampoon's Vacation" (based on Hughes' childhood family trips) and "Mr. Mom" (based on Hughes' experiences as a house-husband raising his two sons) but had no idea of the creative force behind them. In 1984, I was 15 years old and my Freshman Year at the University Of Chicago Laboratory Schools was beginning to hit its final paces as we all edged our way towards summer vacation. I was excitied for the summer movie season, especially for "Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom," and I was a bit curious about "Sixteen Candles," a film I had seen commercials for and I knew had been receiving some surprisingly good reviews considering the film was part of a genre that rightfully had little critical respect as most of those movies during that period had no respect for the audience they catered to. And then on one evening, I received a fateful phone call from my cousin Adam.

"Hey Scott!" he began. "I wanted to tell you about this GREAT movie I saw last night.""What is it?""'Sixteen Candles'!" he announced.
"Oh yeah. I really want to see that. It looks really good."
Then, the conversation took an unusual turn.
"You don't understand," Adam said. "When I tell you that this was a great movie, what I mean is that this movie is for YOU!"
"Huh?" I squeaked out in an appropriately confused manner. "What do you mean it's for me?"
"I sat through this movie and the whole time, I thought to myself, 'This movie is for Scott! This movie IS Scott!' You HAVE to see it."
Adam had a certain seriousness in his tone that was typically unlike him. Although he was my cousin, I saw (and still see) Adam as an older brother figure. He was someone who, in my eyes, was much cooler than I could ever hope to be, more experienced, more knowledgable, more of just...EVERYTHING and I always felt so graced when he would be willing to spend time with me. Whenever he happened to have advice he was willing to share, I grabed it with both hands, always feeling that if I were to not take heed, any subsequent failures would've been from my own undoing at not listening when I had the chance. With that brief phone conversation, I really had no idea of what he was talking about and for reasons I just do not know to this day, "Sixteen Candles" passed me by on its theatrical release and I never saw it.

Later that year, in the first part of my Sophomore Year (possibly in the early winter), "Sixteen Candles" arrived as a home video release. One Friday evening, my Dad and I went to a local video store and rented three films for the weekend, of which "Sixteen Candles" was a selection. That night, my Dad watched his movie as I quickly fell into an after dinner slumber on the basement couch. I came to at around 1:00 a.m. to the sight of "SCTV" on my screen with the volume turned down fairly low. My parents had long retired for the night and as I became more alert, I impulsively decided to give "Sixteen Candles" a try. I placed the videotape into my VCR and began to watch.

My first reaction during the opening sequences of the film was unadulturated hilarity. This film was FUNNY! The story was an instant grabber, the character of Samantha Baker (beautifully portrayed by Molly Ringwald) was instantly likeable and the film was presented in a heightened slapstick style with simply unbelievably razor-sharp terrific dialogue that kept me laughing often, vigorously and loudly...so much so that at one point, I woke up my Mom who then stood at the top of the basement stairs wondering in a most annoyed fashion just what was I doing. I apologized and I would explain it to her later. I tried my best to keep it down afterwards but it was extremely difficult.

The point at which the film changed into something magical was a quick moment after foreign exchange student Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe) happily drives away in Samantha's Grandfather's car with his busty "new style American girlfriend." As Samantha watches them quickly sail away, she sighs at the end of an excruciatingly frustrating day involving a frantic family, an older sister's wedding plans, the endless pursuit by Freshman Farmer Ted otherwise known as "The Geek" (Anthony Michael Hall in a blistering star-making performance) and an earth shattering crush on Senior Jake Ryan (Michael Shoeffling), and says...

"The Donger's been here for only five hours and he's got somebody. I live here my whole life and I'm like a disease."

That one moment made me realize that I was seeing something truly, deeply special and I'll explain why.

I will first say that while I did have some good times in high school, had some great experiences with friends and relationships I'm proud to have to this day, it is a period I would never return to if I could. I've always said that it wasn't a tortured existence and I still hold that opinion but it was a time when I didn't feel comfortable in my own skin. Certainly not a revolutionary thought when thinking of their own adolescence but for all of us, our insecurities are our own and so completely individualized. For me, the crosses I felt I had to bear were endless.

I never felt that I could wear clothes well as I was always trying to figure out what my "look" could be. I had my baseball cap and that was somewhat of a trademark but the rest of me felt extremely self-conscious and I needed significant help and I wanted to get away from the Izod look my parents had foisted on me forever.

I had my weight issues to deal with and sometimes I just wanted to hide away (and I DREADED the swimming unit in gym class--locker room horrors, being so exposed in front of girls, you name it). I felt that would always be a factor in tryng to be a romantic possibility to girls and it always made me feel so sad. Of course, girls were a tremendous issue as I didn't feel attractive or interesting enough for them. I thought I could be if given the chance, as I was interested in falling in love and having the potential of being someone's boyfriend. My heart had already been broken and I was scared. Then, in the back of my mind I couldn't help but to wonder if my race would have anything to do with a girl not wanting to give me a chance. I was an African-American in a predominatly white high school and I couldn't help it, that feeling was there. The heart wants what it wants and I was afraid that someone else's heart wouldn't want me.

Then throw in all of the academic pressures of attending this well-known private school which was designed to prepare you for college. I was an average student, still trying to find my way and I instinctively knew that there would always be someone better at something than myself. My parents were relentlessly strict and didn't give an inch on my education (and rightfully so). That said, they were at times cruel with their demands and repercussions when things didn't pan out as they felt they should. So, I always felt that I was a constant source of disappointment to them. I wasn't going to be a doctor. I wasn't going to be athletic. I loved movies, music and books and somewhow the writing bug was beginning to emerge in me. I was a heart-on-sleeve romantic (and still am) and I felt I was everything my parents DIDN'T want me to be.
And then, I didn't even live near my friends who all resided in beautiful Hyde Park. It wasn't that much of a problem (and though it was surprisingly one of my Dad's regrets that we didn't live there) but it did keep me at a certain distance, somethng I cherished but also something that made me feel lonely sometimes.

While I had my stint as a drummer in my rock band, Ground Zero and and my "SNL"/"Monthy Python" inspired and increasingly ironic and sarcastic humor to assist me, it wasn't much and I felt so visible and invisible and I just didn't know where I could fit, if at all. So when Samantha Baker said that line of dialogue, it made me look at this character, as well as mysellf, and I honestly out loud said to no one, "That's it! That's how I feel." In just those two lines of stunning dialogue, the confusion, heartache, loneliness and insecurity I felt about myself and my time in school was communicated back to me and for once, I didn't feel alone in the world.

I kept watching, continuing to laugh harder and harder but my heart kept pounding more urgently for Samantha to find happiness. For someone to just listen to her, to understand what she is feeling, to take her aside and see her for the winning personality I could easily see in her. And then, it happened, one of the most romantic sequences I have ever seen in any film. The wedding is over, the patrons are driving away and Samantha faces one more disappointment as she just misses giving her wildly inebriated sister her wedding veil. As cars drive away, it is slowly revealed--to The Thompson Twins' slow, dreamily synthetic "If You Were Here"--that a shiny red sports car with Jake Ryan standing outside of it is waiting for her and only her. And then, the film's gorgeous final shot of Samantha and Jake siting on a table top with a birthday cake between them and the freeze frame on their kiss, so long awaited, so truthful, so deserved and earned. Yes, it was fantasy but it gave me hope that I could also have that moment one day.

As the end credits rolled, my heart was lifted and I just couldn't speak. I was elated with what I had seen and as I thought about it all, I realized that in addition to being one of the funniest films I had ever seen, in addition to having some of the most unique and instantly quotable dialogue I had heard in any movie, so much of it, no matter how outlandish situations became, felt to be the most correct depiction of teenagers I had ever witnessess on film. I had LOVED "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" (directed by Amy Heckerling and written by the GREAT Cameron Crowe), "Valley Girl" (directed by Martha Coolidge) and the still influential and almost European feeling "Risky Business" (written and directed by Paul Brickman) but "Sixteen Candles" was something on another plane. I knew people like the ones in that film. We did those things. We spoke like that. And most importantly, this movie presented how I felt as I navigated those school hallways every single day, like nothing else I had ever seen. Adam was entirely correct. This movie was for me and I hadn't seen anything like it before. At that moment, I felt compelled to discover who could have been responsible for something so perceptive and true to my heart. I rewound the tape to the opening credits and saw the notification "Written and Directed by John Hughes" and thought to myself, "I have to remember this guy's name."

I watched "Sixteen Candles" four times that weekend and I rented it over and over and over. At school, I told anyone within earshot about it and I just wanted absolutely everyone to see it (if they already hadn't). I just couldn't imagine that anyone would not be able to see what I saw and feel how I felt and while most people really liked it a lot and it was talked about, I never had the sense that it was as beloved as I had felt about it. I may be wrong but it seemed like it was something special, just for me.


PART TWO: METAMORPHOSIS, A LIFE FOREVER TRANSFORMED
A few months later, in February 1985 (after I had turned 16 years old), "The Breakfast Club" was released and this time, I was ready! Adam and I went opening weekend and afterwards, my life had been deeply altered. Once again, it was extremely funny but John Hughes had created something that shook me to my core. I had never seen any film that took the issues of my age group so seriously and so tenderly. I felt that Hughes was giving respect to the audience by not treating us as a product but as people with real issues and problems that were as weighty as any adult issue. For the brain, athlete, princess, basket case, criminal and all of us in the audience, this film empathized and challenged us to think about sexual competition and expectations, parental pressures, the agony of the high school social structure, the fury of peer pressure, child abuse, issues of suicide as well as life-long ideas about compassion, acceptance and tolerance. Hughes and his unbelievable cast made a beautifully realized piece that still rings true and amazes me with its subtle complexity. I rewatched it last winter after not having seen it for many, many years and one little moment jumped out. At the film's start where the five students are being dropped off to report to their Saturday dentention, only John Bender (iconically played by Judd Nelson) arrives without a parent. Even the strange, silent and stunning Alison (Ally Sheedy) whose speaks of how her parents ignore her arrives with her parents. Bender does not and the rage he actually doesn't give voice to thorughout the film and whatever terrors await him at home informed that character intensely.

Surprisingly, Adam actually didn't like it much as he said he couldn't relate to it very well. But that was OK for me as it felt more personal, more "for me" in that the film was ultimately a symbioitc experince as I could pour out my heart to it and it did the same in return. It communicated in such a direct, honest, complex, sympathetic, non-condescending, non-judgemental way. It made me feel a little more secure with myself by showing me that it was Ok to feel how I felt and it taught me to begin to believe in myself, that the person I was was an OK person to be. As before with "Candles," once "The Breakfast Club" hit video, I watched it over and over and over and over. I even watched it once with my parents hoping they coold spot me in it but they said nothing about it.

Shortly after the theatrical release, John Hughes made a rare television appearance on a local Chicago news program. I couldn't wait to see him as I was curious what he looked and sounded like. When I saw this tallish man, wearing a jean jacket adorned with a Chicago flag pin, with long shaggy brown hair, owl shaped-horn rimmed glasses, and this quiet, deep and articulate voice, I was beyond happy. He just seemed to be so cool, like a big brother or cool uncle and perfectly seemed to fit any fantasy I had of what this writer/director could be like in person.

PART THREE: GET TO KNOW YA...AND MYSELF

For the remainder of high school and afterwards, I saw every John Hughes film either on its opening weekend or at special advance preview screenings as every film was a new entry to my inner high school survival guide. The cheerfully vulgar and uproarious "Weird Science" (1985) dealt with issues of self-esteem, while 1986's "Pretty In Pink" (tenderly directed by Howard Deutch) was an aching love story that was also an exploration of peer pressure and the class issues that divide us. "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (also from 1986) was a joyride in every sense of the word and was an antidote to my difficult Junior Year of high school. Euphoric, jubullient, hysterical, and philisophical, it was also a love story to Chicago as well as a beautifully bittersweet portrait of a friendship on the cusp of transformation. Film critic and columnist Richard Roeper has hailed it a "suicide prevention film," and I would have to agree. The wistful "Some Kind Of Wonderful" from 1987 (also directed with great empathy by Howard Deutch) was Hughes' ode to individualism and praising who you are as a person over any status you may hold within any group--and Mary Stuart Masterson's performance as the outcast Watts the Drummer Girl remains one of my favorite Hughes characters as she always remained true to herself and her loyalties even when her heart was breaking.

My favorite John Hughes film is unquestionably 1988's "She's Having A Baby," his most personal film, highly autobiographical and starring Kevin Bacon as Hughes stand-in Jefferson "Jake" Briggs struggling with growing up, a young marriage, impending fatherhood, life desires of becoming a writer and what it means to love and be loved. It was Hughes at his most brilliant with his finest writing, and strong directorial risks with madly inventive surreal touches, including a Buzby Berkley styled dance routine on suburban lawn with lawn mowers, lemondade and sprinklers. For me, there is no finer moment in a John Hughes film than the climax, shatteringly set to Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" (which was written especially for the film), where Jake is worridely waiting in the hospital as his wife Kristy (Elizabeth McGovern) is experiencing a difficult and potentially life-threatening delivery. Jake sits and ponders all of the mistakes he had made over the course of their five year marriage. How he hadn't trusted enough. How he hadn't loved enough. How he hadn't given enough and how Kristy had evolved to a place that he was resisting. As Ferris said poignantly, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it." Jake realizes that being so deeply into his own miseries, he was missing what was in front of him and now, he could possibly lose it all. The sequece is a majestic piece of editing, cinematography, music, emotion and passion and I was so proud of Hughes for reaching so high and deep and bringing it all to us so honestly. "She's Having A Baby" is one of my favorite movies ever and it's box office failure surprised me and saddened me. It has been so underseen and underappreciated and I couldn't help but to wonder what would have happened to Hughes had it been a financial and critical success. But, we do have this film and I just watched it again yesterday in his honor.

During that period (and beyond) I scoured newspapers and magazines of all sorts for any interviews, behind the scenes information and tidbits that would help me understand this man who seemed to understand me so amazingly well. (After building up such a massive collection of material, I created two giant scrapbooks to contain it all--and I still have them today and contributed much of it to "The John Hughes Files.")

I discovered that his own teen years were spent in the Chicago's northern suburbs and that he still lived there with his wife and two sons (Northbrook, IL). I learned that he once worked for the famous Leo Burnett advertising agency and he was actually responsible for the legendary Edge-test shaving ad (the one with the man stroking his face with a credit card to determine the beauty of the clean, close shave).

I found out that he was a writer/editor for the National Lampoon magazine and during the historic Blizzard of '79, Hughes remained at home with his family, happily writing away and decided at the age of 29 to take a life risk. He quit his lucrative advertising job to devote himself entirely to writing. I learned about his process and discovered how, in his own way, he was changing the way I saw movies as a whole as well as changing the way I saw myself.

Cinematically, John Hughes returned the focus of film authorship to the writer by challenging the "auteur theory" which states that a movie's true "author" is the director. Tiring of seeing the writer being the least important person involved with the filmmaking process, Hughes somehow wrestled control for himself and even with films that he did not direct, they bear his signature from cinematography, music, editing, advertising and overall sensibilities. His work led me to the works of other filmmakers of all sorts and just like watching and reading the reviews of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, watching Hughes' films were great lessons in movie making. Personally, each film experience left me filled with such happiness as they were all elixirs of truth. John Hughes provided me with a new found perspective of the experience I was going through. He gave me counsel, solace, comfort, understanding and much needed humor, as he taught me to mine any situation for humor while also embracing the times that were painful. He taught me to try and not take everything so seriously, that things were able to be laughed at in some way. Each film was like a quiet message to my heart that said, "Believe in yourself for this shall pass." Yes, a simple sentiment but one I needed. He was a sage to me. He was a poet, a philosopher, and stand-up comedian all in one.

John Hughes was my personal modern day Shakespeare, an ordinary self-made man who had been blessed with a literary talent. I obsessively wrote quotations from his arsenal of endlessly quotable dialogue on classroom chalkboards and notebooks for the remainder of high school and I can still quote his films to this day.

He taught me social life-lessons about humanity and how before we tear someone apart, to just take a moment and think about how a singular act of self-serving cruelty can damage another human being who may be just as confused as you are. Think of that amazing sequence from Hughes' masterful "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" where purple faced advertising exec Neal Page (Steve Martin) viciously unloads on the socially awkward shower curtain ring travelling salesman Del Griffith (heartbreakingly played by John Candy) in a hotel room. During the brutal soliloquy, Hughes keeps cutting back to Griffith, to show us the hurt and pain from Page's words. And valiantly, Del Griffith remains standing and says simply, "I like me. My wife likes me." I have hardly seen a moment of individuality of such empathy and strength and that message prevailed throughout his work as he championed the outsider, the outcast, the confused and the awkward. And as always, it forced his characters and audience, in an entertaining way, to take hard looks at themselves and ask the hard questions about their own sense of humanity.

Hughes was definately an individual as tried his best to march to his own beat. He told his stories his way. But even in his personal life growing up, he was a character. He actually never went to his own prom as he and the love of his life, Nancy, were denied entrace due to Hughes' cowboy boots and Nancy's bell bottoms. He was thrown out of a Buddhist temple duriing his teen years by actually angering a monk by figuring out the sound of one hand clapping (a finger snap). In his professional life, he was adored by actors and yet he enraged studio heads by not always dancing to their tune. And even in retirement, he followed his heart. As the quality of his work and box office response was declining, Hughes was reflective as he said in another interview, "I don't see doing movies past 50. When I feel that I have lost my voice, I'll go away in a puff." And that he did, retiring to northern Illinois with his family, completely away from Hollywood, and owning a farm. I longed for him to come back and possibly just make one more film. One final statement, but it was not to be and his actions were the final statement after all.

John Hughes also instilled a pride in me for my hometown of Chicago, Illinois as he gloriously presented it in film after film for the world to see. He showed me to take stock of where I was and to find the beauty in lives lived in areas where regular people do regular things and are just trying to go through their lives like I am. I LOVED that he shot most of his movies in Chicago while also living there. It just made him that much cooler to me.

John Hughes exposed me to so much new music, so many artists of unquestioned individuality. How my musical horizons widened due to him and the music he listened to and personally handpicked for his stories! I marveled at stories of Hughes' office which was reportedly filled floor to ceiling with albums and his religious jaunts to Chicago's Wax Trax for any and everything. The songs and bands he chose to pepper his films with invited me to try music I otherwise would never have heard and much of remains my favorite music to this day. Over ten years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, who comprise the English band Everything But The Girl, after a concert. I clumsily told them that I became a fan simply because I had loved their song "Apron Strings," which was used for Hughes' "She's Having A Baby," and had listened to them ever since. Thorn nicely replied back to me, "That's a really GREAT movie. We loved doing it." A miniscule moment but one of connection and I just loved it.

John Hughes' unparalleled writing inspired me to try and find my voice with creative writing and during and after those years, I wrote six short screenplays, and eventually two more and intimately personal screenplays of epic length. I am still very slowly hacking away from time to time at a novel of equal intimacy. I don't know if I would have really found that part of myself if not for him.

PART FOUR: MY HERO

I have had many heroes in my life from friends, colleagues, mentors, artists of all sorts from filmmakers, authors and musicians and my Dad is simply the greatest man I have ever known--a feeling that has been a long time coming but so unshakeable in its certainty. But now, I honor and remember this man, Mr. John Hughes who understood me at a pivitol point in my life and his understanding allowed me the first chances I had in beginning to understand myself. He never was celebrated that much and he never won any Oscars or literary prizes but he was my hero and inspiration. I am forever thankful that he had the chance and was willing to share his talent, skill, sensitivity and humor with the world.

I have shed some tears in light of this news. When John Lennon was murdered in 1980, I was 11 years old and numbed. Michael Jackson's death six weeks ago forced me to re-evaluate so very much about this extremely complicated figure and I am happily singing his songs again. But Hughes' passing has deeply affected me because in an inexplicable way, and although we never ever met and am certain never knew I existed, John Hughes was my friend.

I am tearing up as I write this now simply because I miss my friend.

JOHN HUGHES R.I.P.

A SORT OF MISSION STATEMENT

"Be honest and unmerciful."
-Lester Bangs
"Almost Famous"

As I have taken my first steps into the virtual world of blogging, those words from Writer/Director Cameron Crowe's beautiful film entered loudly into my brain. As I think about those adjectives to be used when reviewing movies, I am conscious enough to note that I want to be responsible with how I reach and convey those "honest and unmerciful" revelations.

At this time, I turn to "Jerry Maguire," another of Mr. Crowe's films that has been a profound influence on my life, as I am now attempting to craft a sort of mission statement. This is simply my plan and wishes for this site and my full intent of what I will try my best to bring to you.

The internet can often be a dark place, filled with oceans of vitriol and venom. I do not want to contribute to that atmosphere in the least. I want "Savage Cinema" to always remain a positive sphere. I hope that if anyone responds to my reviews, they can be critical but just be respectful. I pledge to do the same in return.

As I have stated in my welcome message, I am not a film critic or expert. These are simply my opinions, written in the best way that I am able. There is a massive responsibility to being honest and unmerciful with one's opinions and I am of the belief that there is always a way to say something and express oneself. There is no need to be vicious just for the sake of doing so and I will try my best to be as eloquent as I am able with the writing. (Unless I see a film that truly deserves an interminable pounding...then, the gloves are off!)

My writing influences are vast but I will name a few. John Irving is my favorite author with others such as Nick Hornby, Zadie Smith, Roberto Bolano, J.D. Salinger, Jay McInerney, following closely behind. Judy Blume was a hero to me as a child growing up in the 1970s.

For filmmakers, Lawrence Kasdan planted a seed that blossomed once I became acquainted with Cameron Crowe and so eternally, with the great John Hughes, who sadly passed away this summer. There are many others but those gentlemen loom largest for me.

But, for the act of film criticism, I could not grow up in Chicago without the massive influence of Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel. These two critics presented a passion towards film that was unquestionable and the way they bridged the gap between the emotional and intellectual observations of film deeply resonated within me.

With my writings, I ask just to be invited into the neighborhood of these immensely talented people as I will try my very best to make what I write thorough, personable and enjoyable, as well as honest and unmerciful.

Well...what more is there to say?

Let's get started shall we...