Sunday, January 31, 2010

AMERICAN FAMILY: a review of "Rachel Getting Married"

For my final SAVAGE CINEMA installment of the month, I have dug up one from the archives and one I now think should have been included within my "Honorable Mentions" sections of my favorite films of the decade. So, mentally add it to the Time Capsule as it is a wonderful movie.

Originally written March 26, 2009

"Rachel Getting Married" Directed by Jonathan Demme
**** (4 stars)

In 1986, the late, great Gene Siskel and equally great Roger Ebert highly praised a film in which they enthusiastically celebrated its audacity, and appreciated its unpredictability. Its unique style presented through performances, plotting, music, visual motifs, usage of colors, and whip-crack energy created a film in which anything could've happened and it completely lived up to its title. That film was "Something Wild" and it was brilliantly directed by Jonathan Demme, who went onwards to create a variety of films within several genres. From comedies ("Married To the Mob"), to re-makes ("The Truth About Charlie," "The Manchurian Candidate"),to concert films (Talking Heads' "Stop Making Sense," Spalding Grey's "Swimming To Cambodia"), to high profile Oscar winners ("Silence Of the Lambs," "Philadelphia"), to work as a Director-For-Hire (Oprah Winfrey hand picked him to direct the vastly undervalued "Beloved"), to quaint slice-of-life pieces (a beautiful 1980 film "Melvin and Howard"), to even documentaries (2007's "The Man From Plains" about former President Jimmy Carter), Demme is a true cinematic journeyman.

Yet for me, even with casting such a wide cinematic net, I have often been disappointed. Demme has been a director I have ended up appreciating more than actually loving as I have not been as enthusiastic about many of his films since "Something Wild"--and in the case of "Silence Of The Lambs," I even felt his work (and the film itself) was sometimes overrated. (I'm sorry folks. I'm not a fan of that film--I'm MUCH more partial to Michael Mann's underseen 1986 film "Manhunter" which featured the original Dr. Hannibal Lecter portrayed by Brian Cox--but I digress.) Even the films of his that I've loved didn't take me back to the feeling I had when I first saw "Something Wild." Perhaps that is more than a little unfair to him, as it does create a relationship between artist and fan where I am possibly chasing a certain streak of lightning which may never strike in that same way again. But, then I watched "Rachel Getting Married."

The plot of the film is quite simple and straightforward as it depicts the weekend wedding ceremonies of the titular character (portrayed by Rosemarie DeWitt) and in attendance is her sister, Kym (Anne Hathaway) in her first weekend out of drug rehab. The familial tension is immediate from the moment Kym slides into the back seat of her father's (beautifully played by Bill Irwin) car. She heads home, trepidatiously greets her sister and fiancee Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe of the band TV On The Radio), attends an AA meeting where she quickly strikes up a tryst with another member of the program (who is coincidentally a friend of Sidney's), returns home for a dress fitting and the first eruption of long seething sibling rivalry occurs as she usurps the Maid Of Honor role from Rachel's close friend. Shortly thereafter, we arrive at the rehearsal dinner and then something deeply unexpected happens. This particular sequence goes on...and on...and on and it was during the lengthiness of this section where that elusive streak of lightning I had been searching for in Demme's work for many, many years became stunningly apparent to me. It was the complete dissipation of any standard movie conventions.

The screenplay, written by Jenny Lumet (daughter of legendary director Sidney Lumet and the iconic Lena Horne), eschews all familiar movie structure, movements and formulas by making all moments naked and Demme captures and celebrates every possible nuance by leaving all nerve endings exposed. It just snuck up on me and I became entirely engaged in the moments and the people contained within those moments. The result delivered an unmistakable power. Like my reaction to "Slumdog Millionaire," to say much more about the goings on in this film would be unfair to you as I would want for you to experience it as I did--with a modicum of information to allow the film to breathe, resonate and burrow its way into your emotions.

But, there is a lot I feel compelled to say and I don't think it would spoil the proceedings for you. First of all, Anne Hathaway's Oscar nomination for this film was deeply deserved. Like Emile Hirsch's transcendent performance in Sean Penn's "Into The Wild," there has been nothing in Hathaway's back catalog of performances that suggested that she could deliver in this blistering fashion. Kym is by turns enraged, self-righteous, honest to a fault, completely narcissistic and I easily found myself rooting for her the entire time because Hathaway allows us to see her humanity. Kym is in an awful situation by entering a maelstrom of family and the emotions that undoubtedly comes with them. Add to that the conflict of dealing with private demons within a public setting where everyone knows your history, will only see you as the person who created that tragic past and not allow you to evolve. And then, your own family treats you as a ghost when you are sitting at the same table.

That's not to say that Rachel and their father Paul have no rights to feel the way they do. Rachel is petulant, constantly trying to steal the thunder Kym has wrought back onto herself as it is her special weekend. Paul is also in the impossible position of having to support both children's feelings without seeming to favor one over the other while also masking his own emotions. Seemingly minor characters also show great presence. For example, Rachel's fiance Sidney doesn't have much actual dialogue but he is so present. It shows effortlessly that while he is a person who knows a family's entire array of intimacies, he is not a PART of the family yet. And still in such a lovely way, the romance of Rachel and Sidney, as relayed through family and guests, never feels like a convention. It feels as full as life. The inimitable Debra Winger makes a rare screen appearance as Rachel and Kym's mother and while she also has few scenes, you can see and feel their whole history with and without her. "Rachel Getting Married" is an exploration of the high wire act that every family goes through. As if on the tip of a knife's edge, the energy in a room may begin as playful and just one wrong word or moment can make it spiral into crippling despair. Arguments of visceral brutality can suddenly explode into jubulience. Demme captured it all so beautifully in this high wire act of a film which often feels like a documentary that may fall apart at any moment.

The genre of "dysfunctional family films" is a difficult one to pull off successfully. If we take into account that most people that go to the movies have families of their own, it is possible to think that you may be bringing your perceptions and history to the table. Why do some films work for some people more than others? For me writer/director Wes Anderson's "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "The Darjeeling Limited" worked for me in ways that Jodie Foster's "Home For The Holidays," or "The Family Stone" and "Little Miss Sunshine" (I'm sorry folks, I am not a fan of that film) just did not. How did writer/director Noah Baumbach make two films where one ("The Squid and the Whale") deeply resonated and the other ("Margot At The Wedding") just failed for me? "Rachel Getting Married" is a film that doesn't seem to care if its characters are likable or not. It presents a family and people as they are and leaves all impressions up to the viewer...and it feels as if it's a blessing to have almost been invited to a ceremony so intimate and vibrantly open.

Perhaps it is Demme's journeyman status as filmmaker that has allowed for a film such as this one. By crossing genres and giving equal time, attention and empathy to a world's worth of characters over the years, he was able to literally bring it all home where everyone, including the viewer, is a part of an experience that can only be described as communal.

In the rehearsal sequence, Sidney's grandmother expresses to the roomful of people, who come from all walks, ages, and races, "This is how it will be in Heaven--all of us together." I actually flashed to the visions of Grant Park, the night Barack Obama became elected as President. The sea of diversity was a vision of America I have had in my head for my entire life. And this vision of family was one of the most truthful I have ever seen in a film. "Rachel Getting Married" is a remarkable piece of work and quite possibly Jonathan Demme's very best film to date.

SIDE NOTE: I am NOT a fan of the "shaky-cam." I tend to think that it is a sloppy technique that calls attention to itself rather than present a "you are there" quality. While the technique certain did evaporate the "fourth wall" of cinema beautifully, I'm really glad I didn't see this in a movie theater as I think it would've made me nauseous. But, on your televisions it should be just fine.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

ROCK 'EM SOCK 'EM: a review of "Whip It"

“WHIP IT” Directed by Drew Barrymore
*** (three stars)

Never did I ever, ever, ever expect to read the following four words on any movie I would ever had seen within my life time: "Directed by Drew Barrymore." I have a hefty, knee-jerk aversion towards Ms. Barrymore. I think that she is a Hollywood celebrity that just got lucky by coasting so very long on the legacy of her famous family. While she has never derailed any movie I have seen her in, I have never been charmed by her extreme bubbly nature, her faux insouciance, her cloying sexiness and for God’s sakes, she has got to stop lisping like Cindy Brady! I always feel that despite her adult age, she is always performing dress-up in front of a mirror and the effect is irritating to a teeth-gnashing degree. Frankly, I still think that her best acting performance arrived at the age of six when she was featured in Spielberg's “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.” It’s so hard to peak at such a young age. (I apologize for the uncharacteristic snark, but I couldn’t help myself.)

Her career as a Producer felt even worse as her adaptation of “Charlie’s Angels” (2000) was movie-star ego run dangerously amok as it was less of a movie and more of a slumber party she filmed at the complete expense of the audience. It was definitely one of the very worst movie-going experiences I had in the last decade. When the inevitable prospect of Barrymore becoming a Director arose, I shuddered and I thought it would essentially be a project for Barrymore to again play dress-up, this time behind the camera. Well, dear readers, I will always give credit where credit is due and I have to say that “Whip It,” Drew Barrymore’s warm and energetic directorial debut, happily surprised me.

Ellen Page completely fulfills the promise made in her last major starring role in “Juno” with another winning, fully drawn, and completely engaging performance of a teenage girl arriving at a personal crossroads. This time, Page stars as Bliss Cavendar (another improbably named character), a 17-year-old trapped in her restless small town misery of Bodeen, Texas. In addition to suffering the standard high school ennui, Bliss spends her hours as a waitress at a local restaurant and also witheringly as her mail carrier Mother’s (Marcia Gay Harden) eternal project as a beauty pageant contestant. Bliss is desperate to escape her small town trappings and the film opens with her rebellious streak seeping outwards through an act of beauty pageant self-sabotage. Then, one day, on a family shopping trip to Austin, Texas, Bliss’ life is profoundly altered when she captures the seemingly heaven sent vision of Roller Derby skaters—who appear as modern day Amazons and unlike anything that could even be conceptualized in Bodeen. Bliss picks up a Roller Derby flyer, convinces her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) to check out one match with her and by the end, Bliss is hooked.

Bliss then lies about her age and tries out for the perpetually losing squadron, the Hurl Scouts. The rag-tag members include Maggie Mayhem (nicely underplayed by SNL’s masterful Kristen Wiig), Rosa Sparks (rapper Eve), Bloody Holly (stunt woman Zoe Bell), Smashley Simpson (Barrymore, who wisely gave herself a small role) and coached by the grumpy Razor (an effective Andrew Wilson-brother of Owen and Luke). Bliss, of course, makes the team, re-names herself “Babe Ruthless,” and spends two nights of her week, secretly shuttling back and forth on the elderly occupied Bingo Bus to her personal Mecca of Austin to compete with her newfound tribe against all manner of Roller Derby foes, most notably the caustic, prickly Iron Maven (a great Juliette Lewis). And she even has time to strike up a romance with Oliver (Lando Pigg), a guitarist of an indie-rock band, to boot.

Yet, spreading her wings so widely and quickly (and combined with that rebellious nature) does have it share of consequences. Many conflicts do arise for Bliss as she certainly worries what will happen once her parents discover her true whereabouts and activities and the Hurl Scouts uncover her real age. On a deeper level, Bliss struggles with the questions of parental expectations vs. her personal desires, and living a life through someone else’s plans for her rather than allowing herself the risks of seeing her dreams take flight.

In past reviews, I have often decried the lack of originality when it comes to today’s Hollywood cinema as well as a certain level of laziness in the presentation. That said, I will say that when I go to a movie, all I really want, more than anything in the world is to just be told a story as best as it can possibly be told—and that includes movies that adhere to a certain formula. “Whip It” is pure formula. There are no real surprises. You can guess the obstacles and outcomes easily and certain conclusions are blindingly apparent. The victories and heartaches all occur when you would expect them to. But, what makes this film succeed and what Barrymore has done so effectively is to play down the formula and allow the screenplay, story and characters (very well written by Shauna Cross and based upon her novel) to breathe and unfold naturally. All of the film's big moments are not telegraphed to the audience nor are they presented in gigantic neon signs, instructing viewers how to feel. Barrymore's entire cast allows these characters to exist as real people with real desires living in a real world. Most impressive are the tensions, confrontations and reconciliations between Mother and daughter as nothing is ever forced or allowed to slide into melodrama and one scene late in the film, as the two sit and talk on their kitchen floor, possesses a quiet beauty.

Barrymore’s life on movie sets has served her extremely well and she has obviously tapped into the great connections she has made over the years by recruiting a fine cast and stellar crew, from top to bottom, to bring this story to vivid life. The performances are uniformly strong. The Roller Derby sequences are well paced, gloriously shot, edited, and always makes the viewer feel that they gliding along with the Hurl Scouts or right in the middle of the action without that “Bourne Identity” shaky-cam. The wall-to-wall soundtrack of classic rock, punk, alternative and hip-hop lovingly served as sonic wallpaper, always present to push scenes along, comment on the action or just envelop the film in a inviting communal bond.

Mostly, for a film is set in the 21st century, here is once again a film that looks and feels as if it could’ve been made in the 1970’s, arguably Hollywood’s last “Golden Age” where even formula pictures could become high artistic triumphs. While “Whip It” may not be scale those heights entirely, due to some forced humor here and there (a food fight sequence, for instance, is just unfortunate), Drew Barrymore provided me with a movie and a leading character I could truly empathize with. Beyond that, it was obvious, as I watched the proceedings, that Barrymore really desired to not allow any movie star ego into the mix. I believe that she really wanted to gain credibility and that she honestly wanted to perform a good job with a task that either so many have failed at on their first attempt or was used as an extension of vanity. The work and the love contained within the work is all over the screen and once the end credits began, I was indeed won over by its charm and skill.

I have to say that I am quite surprised with the film’s weak box office reception last fall. In addition to Barrymore’s continued popularity, the film seems to be the perfect combination of a personal story with a tale of female empowerment that could appeal greatly to teenage girls. Thanks to DVD, perhaps “Whip It” will find a considerably larger audience that will embrace it…and it truly deserves to find that audience.

As for Ms. Barrymore, she still irritates me to no end but maybe she can leave acting behind and become a Director full-time. Based on this film, I think she could have a shot at a really impressive career.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A TRIBUTE TO AND PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST: a review of "Michael Jackson's This Is It"

In honor of the DVD release, here is my review, straight from my archives.

Originally written October 29, 2009

“MICHAEL JACKSON’S THIS IS IT” Directed by Kenny Ortega
**** (4 stars)

“Michael Jackson has been a part of your life for your entire life.”

My Mother said those words to me the very afternoon the world heard that Michael Jackson had died. I cannot say enough how surreal that news was to receive. I was standing in the checkout line at a neighborhood grocery store and this gentleman behind me had just slowly hung up his cell phone and said out loud, possibly even just to himself, “Michael Jackson died?!” Even after having several months to process, the news still does not seem that real to me. With the new documentary/concert film/behind-the-scenes hybrid “Michael Jackson’s This Is It,” lovingly compiled and directed by Jackson’s stage show co-director/collaborator Kenny Ortega, I have to admit that I was sufficiently fooled into thinking for a while that Jackson was still with us on this Earth, just waiting to unleash his newest creation. Throughout the film, you can feel his creative spirit had newfound laser focused clarity and building force. It seemed as if with this planned final concert series, Jackson was set to re-assert his position and prove for once and for all that he was one of the GREATEST entertainers of all time as well as a deeply complex artist in his own right. Based on the footage shown, Jackson’s fans would have easily remained enraptured. But, the skeptics, of which I was one, would have been put into their places and a new generation of fans would be born. This would have been one hell of a show!

It should be stated that this film goes beyond the superficial value of a puff-piece, solely designed to continue deifying Jackson for his fan base. This is also not a ghoulish affair or one that feels exploitative. It is not a film where mourning is present. This film is one of celebration—for the audience to celebrate the music and staggering talent this man has left behind for all of us and also, to celebrate the work, diligence, commitment and class that is present in the creative process itself. This film is a portrait of an artist at work and it is entirely fascinating to watch.

This film will quickly silence the voices who were whispering the idea that Jackson may have been too frail to perform. From what is shown, for nearly two hours, we see a man in complete and full command of his gifts and it is enlightening to see just how perceptive he was over every single detail of this new production. The film opens with a rehearsal of “Wanna Be Starting Something.” His voice sounds tentative and a little ragged with the beat but we can see he is most likely saving his voice for the actual performances. Jackson dances around the stage in a fashion that suggests that he is possibly trying out certain movements to see which will work best with the overall material. Yet, as the sequence carries onwards, we realize that Jackson is not just trying out movements. He is actually DIRECTING everything occurring behind him. Every twitch, swivel, arm, leg and hand motion, vocal grunt and hiccup is a command to his band, singers and squadron of dancers. Like James Brown and Prince, Jackson operates as a four star general. When a keyboardist questions Jackson over how he wants a particular section to be played, Jackson quickly answers, “I want it how I wrote it.” The instruction never sounds as if it is coming from a tyrannical taskmaster. Just firmly stated and encouraging as well.

Early in the film, the dancers are told that they are to act as “extensions” of Michael Jackson himself and it is clear, perhaps even moreso than ever, that the entire show is an extension of the man, his past achievements, his signposts to the future and overall hope for the world. The stage feels like Jackson’s playground and with this film, we are invited to re-visit old toys and see the new ones. All of the classic songs are here, played with a freshness and forceful vitality that elevates and transcends anything that would have been thought as nostalgic. We do not see a man resting on his past laurels and bringing the old tricks out for one last chance at adoration. Jackson is still probing. He is searching. He is reaching for something to create a rich, emotional experience for an audience and it certainly looks as if all of the proverbial stops had been pulled out. This is evidenced through many new-filmed sequences especially for the show that would have created a nearly interactive experience between stage and screen. The horror show of “Thriller” has been updated to include ghost brides and husbands to sail over the audience as 3D film technology showers all manner of creeps and corpses at you. There’s even a giant spider that hurls itself at the screen from which Jackson emerges on the stage without missing a moment. An epic re-invention of “Earth Song,” complete with gorgeously profound new film footage, is very moving indeed. And he even interacts with Humphrey Bogart and Rita Hayworth for “Smooth Criminal.”

However, it is not all about flash and empty style. Most sequences are devoted to getting the music and choreography just right. Scenes of going over and over a keyboard pattern or working with the backup singers or encouraging his two lead guitarists, including a striking blond flamethrower named Orianthi, to swing for the fences. Hearing the music dissected and with the amazing clarity of the full performances is revelatory. Like the recently released Beatles remasters, it is an eye (and ear) opening experience to hear how complicated these well known songs are as musical compositions and the updated additions honor the original versions while also moving them forwards. I guess I never realized how sublime “Human Nature” really is. The aforementioned “Wanna be Starting Something” is even more aggressive. The new heavy funk coda to “Thriller” would make even Prince snap his neck to the rhythm! In fact, what was extremely touching was to see how the film and Jackson himself give so many participants the time to shine therefore making this film a tribute to them as well. Also enlightening and joyous to see were the moments when Jackson relinquished his own rehearsal restrictions and just let himself be carried away by the music, most notably a staggering solo dance set to only the tight drum pattern of “Billie Jean.” After schooling everyone in attendance, he muses softly that he thinks he may have found “a feel for this.” I laughed out loud in amazement at the understatement.

Near the film’s conclusion, the entire creative team bands together for some inspirational words from Jackson and Ortega and it was then, I was transported back to the present and realized that all of this work would never see the audience as intended as its creator left us too soon. “Michael Jackson’s This Is It” is paramount to Jackson’s deeply rich artistic legacy and the reality that he has inspired more people than we could every possibly know. From singers, songwriters and dancers and choreographers, certainly. But also, filmmakers, set designers, costume designers, digital artists and all in between. This film depicts the celebratory efforts to get it together and we can all bask in his energy with this tasteful and elegant elegy.

Throughout the film, I kept thinking about what my Mother had said to me the day Michael Jackson died. I grew up listening to the Jackson 5 at home and on cross country family car trips via 8-track tapes. I had seen them on three different occasions at the Mill Run Theater, which my memory tells me was a smallish venue complete with a large disco ball and the show was in the round. I remember the last time I saw them, before the act graduated to stadiums, as the entire audience danced their way out of the theater and into the night with “Shake Your Body Down To the Ground” as a communal soundtrack. I had completely adored the film version of “The Wiz,” I felt the earth shift from its’ natural axis while Jackson performed the moonwalk for the very first time on television and loved him as the world did during the entire “Thriller” experience. Then, beginning with “Bad,” I began to disengage as the music just didn’t reach me. And when the controversies, of which too much ink has been spilled, began to rise and rise and rise, I felt so confused and just sorrowful for him. The moment his death was announced, I couldn’t help but to begin to re-evaluate what he meant to me and I began to listen again—to favorites as well as the unfamiliar. I realized then that he was our modern day Icarus. Our greatest example of our “build-it-up-tear-it-down” culture and it just seemed fitting to honor what he gave to the world, which was the purity and bottomless joy of his art.

“This Is it” is a simple title with so many possible meanings. It is the announcement of a curtain call as well as an artistic line in the sand as Jackson had planned to continue recording. Yet it is also possibly a call to all of us to live our lives as richly as possible because each moment is all we have. We will never truly know what his life was like off stage—and frankly, I am not interested in the least. But, in this film, during his time when he had the opportunity, the passion and feverish drive to create, he did not in any way look like a man who was about to pass on. Yes, I realize that out of the 100 hours of reported footage, we are only graced with two of those hours but I feel that Director Kenny Ortega has given us a gift.

My mother was absolutely right. Michael Jackson has been a part of my life for my entire life…and he will remain here for the rest of my life.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

LONE WOLVES: reviews of "The Hurt Locker" & "Big Fan"

“THE HURT LOCKER” Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

It has been a long time coming for Director Kathryn Bigelow and I am happy that she is finally getting the recognition she has long deserved, especially being one of the strongest in what has essentially been a male dominated genre: the action film director. She has toiled away for many years with 1991’s surfing, shoot ‘em up “Point Break” (starring Keanu Reeves and the late Patrick Swayze) and 1995’s “Strange Days” (a futuristic thriller written and produced by her ex-husband James Cameron) as her high points. Now, she returns with “The Hurt Locker” an Iraq war themed drama filmed with absolutely blistering fury.

The story is firmly centered around three soldiers on their 39-day tour of Iraq. The squadron includes the steady and responsible Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (an excellent Anthony Mackie), the increasingly rattled Specialist Owen Eldridge (played effectively by Brian Geraghty) and bomb tech, Staff Sergeant William James (played by Jeremy Renner), the team leader and wild card who consistently tempts the fates of himself and those around him to near devastating degrees.

Bigelow has achieved something extremely special as “The Hurt Locker” works as a straight-forward action film, a war movie and psychological drama all in one. Like Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg before her, Bigelow places us right on the ground with the soldiers, giving us the horrific unpredictability of war and indisputable experience of how death can strike at any second. Each day is a mountain to be climbed and by day’s end, when life still remains, the body--as it restores itself through a punishing tension and release--gears itself up for another climb. The film is divided into sections presenting the count of remaining days of their tour and as the clock winds down to zero, the tension mounts as there are no guarantees in this specialized existence.

Renner does absolute wonders with his matter-of-fact performance as Sgt. James. His sleepy eyes and quiet voice certainly may make him one to be underestimated. Yet, he walks with rock star swagger and careless abandon despite death’s breath on his face every day. While he performs heroic acts and is willing to place himself at the forefront of danger, he never carries himself as a hero. In fact, he is a bit too relaxed considering his knife's edge responsibility of diffusing all manner of explosives; a trait which has definitely made him ferociously reckless as he has become addicted to the adrenaline rush, regardless of who is around him. Renner also quietly and effectively presents a man whose psychological scars are beginning to present themselves as he makes brutal errors of judgment during this tour. Yet, this life has become the only one that makes sense for him.

Bigelow, while creating a film that is decidedly apolitical, accomplishes two feats. While she certainly is showing appreciation, support and sympathy for the young people who selflessly place their lives on the line each day for us at home, she is also critical of the toil it places upon these people. For Sgt. James, the task of making life and death decisions has become a newfound normalcy, whereas the task of choosing a breakfast cereal from a grocery shelf has become daunting and crippling.

If I had anything to quibble about—and it is a light quibble at that—the episodic nature of the film did decrease any sustained tension for me, as the film as a whole just didn’t give me the cumulative effect, I think Bigelow may have desired. Some scenes did grow to a certain tedium here and there, as they all followed a formula of reaching a bomb and then going through the experience of diffusing it. That said, individual sequences (especially the opening two sections) are near excruciating in their tension.

Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial skill is punishingly masterful throughout and the film's final shot is a killer.

“BIG FAN” Written and Directed by Robert Siegel
*** (three stars)

Alone he sits in a tiny booth as a parking lot attendant, listening to the belligerent sonic wallpaper of AM radio sports call-in programs, while scrawling his thoughts onto a note pad. His contact with the outside world is purposefully minimal as he encapsulates himself within his composition and unshakable faithful support of his beloved football team, the New York Giants. Each day he continues to listen and write. He waits for his shining moment-like Clark Kent emerging from that phone booth as Superman-where his devotion and the power of his words will vanquish all forms of opposition towards his team. Once he has returned to the home he shares with his Mother deep into the evening, he gradually and defiantly places his telephone call into the talk shows of which he is a regular participant and known to all as “Paul From Staten Island.” His calls are not simply an extension of some hobby as the radio airwaves are his personal arena, his front lines of battle against anyone who dares to defy the power of the Giants and Quarterback Quantrell Bishop, in particular. His arch-enemy is the unknown “Philadelphia Phil,” fan of The Philadelphia Eagles. His name is Paul Aufiero and he is the compelling subject of Writer Robert Seigel’s debut directorial effort, “Big Fan,” an effective and dark character study that explores the dangerous levels of hero worship to which Paul descends.

Comedian Patton Oswalt (who also provided the voice of Remy the rat from Pixar and Brad Bird’s ”Ratatouille”) contributes a performance of surprising depth and complexity as Paul, another in a long-line of cinematic lone wolves. In fact, he appears to represent some sort of middle ground between two of Martin Scorsese’s classic characters--Travis Bickle (“Taxi Driver”) and Rupert Pupkin (“The King Of Comedy”), respectively—due to his feverish passion for the Giants and his increasing dissatisfaction with worlds outside of his own head space, which includes the family he was born into. In addition to living at home with his Mother, who is indeed a constant source of irritation as she constantly berates him, Paul is treated as the black sheep of his miserable family. His brother is a highly paid shyster and his mopey sister is married to a chain store owner and all of them endlessly goad Paul into trying to better himself in any conceivable fashion. However, he is just not interested and more than anything, he desires to be left to his own devices.

The central conflict of the film revolves a life changing moment when Paul and his sidekick Sal (played by Kevin Corrigan) spot Paul’s hero Quantrell Bishop (played by Jonathan Hamm) and tail him all the way into a Manhattan strip club. Finally delving up the nerve to approach his hero, the meeting erupts into a shocking act of violence that could possibly culminate with Bishop’s expulsion from the Giants. Here is where the film begins to take its several sharp conceptual turns. Paul fades into a growing depression and we are left to question whether it stems from the failed meeting with his hero or from the fact that Bishop may no longer be allowed to play, thus resulting in a series of losses for the Giants. Paul sidesteps cooperation with an investigating detective, sadly withdraws even more into his insular world and even his talk-show swagger suffers as a result of the controversy. And then, there is a confrontation to be had with Philadelphia Phil (a terrific Michael Rappaport)…

Strangely, I can relate to a guy like Paul…a little bit. Since we are all being honest here at “Savage Cinema,” I am certain that you would be able to relate to Paul, if even only a little bit, as well. For the life of me, I cannot remember the quotation about the negative aspects of circling terribly close to your own personal heroes but that insight came to mind often during this film as I traced my own history of hero worship. My love of the late John Hughes has been well documented, for instance. I also thought of concerts I have attended where the sight of an artist in person, who had previously only existed in a photograph or mostly as a voice through a set of speakers or headphones, is indeed a jarring one. It is almost a spirit made flesh. I also found myself returning to vivid memories I have of my own Father, who actually once trailed after the limousine carrying one of his heroes, jazz legend Miles Davis! At long last, on a completely different occasion, the two men finally met and shook hands (as did I as well, at the age of 17 when the weight of meeting the mountainous talent of an innovator like Davis was completely lost on me). “Big Fan” strongly explores the line where appreciation transforms to obsession and natural curiosity can be perceived as stalking..and madness may only be a few steps away.

Perhaps even Paul is aware of the lines blurring as there exists a particularly fascinating tidbit to this man. Despite his intense devotion to the Giants, he never actually attends a game within the stadium. He and Sal sit in his car and watch the proceedings via a small television powered by his car battery. It is as if he may feel that the Giants would be better served by him outside rather than in or maybe it is another way of keeping the world away or furthermore, he fears being in such close proximity to the love of his life. That's terrific material to explore and present and it is all to the credit of Oswalt and Siegel's impressive feature. After performing the hefty comedic task of serving as Senior Editor of the satirical newspaper The Onion for many years, it is more than impressive to witness Robert Siegel’s perceptive and insightful takes on members of society’s fringes with this film and his screenwriting of last year’s ”The Wrestler” starring Mickey Rourke.

As I think of those last images of Paul in “Big Fan,” I couldn’t help but to wonder that if he were more well-adjusted, and owned a computer, he could possibly channel his energies into something like…say, a blog concerning the wide world of sports in general and the New York Giants in particular. Yet, the film seems to be arguing that Paul is as adjusted as he is able and even wants to be. He truly has no interest in reaching out. This is a story of a man trying to keep the world away as much as possible so he can be free to live within the world of his making peacefully.

He is disturbed but there is something somewhat honorable about the guy. It may not appear to be much of a life to you and me, and maybe not even to Paul himself, but somehow he seems content and perhaps that is good enough to just let the man simply be.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

THE BEAUTY OF A CHILD'S EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE: a review of "Where The Wild Things Are"

As I am composing my list of the Top 25 films of the decade and will subsequently make my list of my favorite films of 2009, here is a review of a film that has the honor of earning a spot on both lists.

This review was originally written October 18, 2009

“WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE” Directed by Spike Jonze
**** (four stars)

Years ago, I took a classroom of three and four year olds to see a live action theatrical presentation starring the illustrated children’s book characters from the “Franklin” series. It was, at times, an interminable sixty-minute production featuring all of the familiar characters romping around the stage in a plot stitched together from possibly five “Franklin” books and surrounded by a elaborately designed day-glow set and of course, this had to be a musical that featured 900 songs as well. The children ate it up entirely and even asked for seconds. Once we arrived back at school, I asked each child which part of the show was their most favorite. And here is where the children surprised me with their insight yet again. Most of the children expressed to me that their favorite among favorite moments in the entire show was a sequence where Franklin, abandoned by all of his friends and misunderstood again by his parents, sings a lament while seated on a small rock. Out of all of the manufactured joy on display, out of all of the life-sized animal figures springing happily about, out of all of the sights and sounds bombarding their every synapse, the favorite moment was one of sadness and feeling alone. What is it inside of children that made them instantly connect to that emotional state and even derive enjoyment and consolation from it? I had no answer and was even unsure as how to pursue it with them. So, I simply asked each child why they liked that part and none of them were really able to articulate their reasons other than, “it was my favorite.” That particular experience rushed to my brain as I sat through Director Spike Jonze’s brilliantly knowing and empathically wonderful film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, “Where The Wild Things Are.”

At the film’s opening we are introduced to Max (played with a refreshing purity by newcomer Max Records), a child of unannounced age but it obviously at the simultaneous dusk/dawn of childhood and early adolescence. His inherent feral-ness is evident immediately through his disruptions of the film’s opening studio credits and our first sight of him is his playful terrorization of the family dog. We next see him in a small snow bank across the street from his home building an igloo fort and it is through this simple act of play where the immediacy of Max’s everyday life comes into strong, cemented focus. He is ignored by his older sister, who is now spending time with her age group. His Father is absent. The anxiety of his increasing knowledge of the life cycle shown through his gloomy schooling as he sits in class listening to the doom sayings of his Science teacher. His Mother (the great Catherine Keener), though loving, is often preoccupied, alternately understanding, confused and angered by Max’s behavior and is now dating a new suitor (in a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” appearance by Mark Ruffalo). After an explosive confrontation between Mother and son, Max runs away from home, climbs aboard a boat, sails into stormy waters to find himself on an island populated by a collective of monsters currently embroiled in a heated, destructive conflict mostly orchestrated by the melancholy Carol (beautifully voiced by James Gandolfini). Through sheer creative force, Max rescues himself from surely being eaten by declaring himself their King and bellowing the now immortal line, “Let the wild rumpus start!”

What happens through the remainder of the film is not expressed by an actual plot. Narrative does not drive this film. In addition to recalling the inner/outer travels in Sean Penn’s “Into The Wild” and even the Mother/child conflicts of the John Hughes/Chris Columbus collaboration “Home Alone,” this film mostly reminded me of Sofia Coppola’s “Lost In Translation.” “Where The Wild Things Are” is a film about a feeling, or many feelings, as this is a parable dictated by the instantaneous mood swings experienced by all children. It felt like a travelogue through Max’s competing emotions as times of day, the weather, physical landscapes of deserts, the woods, and protective caves plus the well characterized Wild Things (voiced by Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper and Lauren Ambrose along with Gandolfini) all represent different aspects of Max’s emotional states. What made this inner epic stick firmly was the level of truth on display. Through dirt clod fights, massive fort building, campfire conversations and interpersonal conflicts, there was never a moment that felt fabricated, inauthentic or misrepresentative of what this child is going through.

Jonze and his co-screenwriter Dave Eggers have fashioned a beautiful landscape on many levels. The starkness of the opening sequences gives the story and Max’s emotional domain a respectful gravity that carries seamlessly to his island adventures. Also, a masterstroke and a tribute to Jonze’s tenacity during the film’s production, was the decision to have the Wild Things exist as real, tangible creatures through costumes and only using CGI for facial expressions and mouth movements. Again, this allowed the story to have the required gravity and to not float away into fantasia. No matter how foreign anything appeared to be, we are always and solidly placed into a real world because everything Max and his new friends feel is something anyone could relate to. Even their collective manner of speech is childlike, possibly also bordering on adolescence, by always remaining clear and straightforward.

The goat creature Alexander is anxious and consistently ignored while the horned Judith is petulant and confrontational. The winged Douglas and the long-nosed Ira are methodical and tender where The Bull is silent, sitting back and regarding all before and around him. Carol is closest to Max in terms of his desires, fears, inner confusion and constant hopes that everyone will just stay together and sleep soundly in a wooly pile forever and the fragility of those hopes makes for a character-and time of life-that is quietly honest and heartbreaking.

Of course, the biggest question that has been and will most likely continue to be asked is whether this film is appropriate for children and whether it will be too frightening. While more sensitive children may be put off by the monsters, I think that most children will relate to the presentation of this material quite easily as they are going through the exact terrain that Max is. While some may not quite be able to articulate it themselves, they can easily look at the screen and fully understand what it means to be in complete control of your emotions or be utter folly to their whimsy. To soar above it all or be almost swallowed by them completely only to emerge again. To feel unconditional love so powerfully that words need not be uttered.

Jonze has given his audience the respect, dignity and comprehension that children do indeed understand their surroundings, the people and places within their lives and their continuous search of how they fit into their individual grand schemes. Jonze understands not only the magic that occurs when children are given the opportunity to just play but also the lessons they are teaching themselves through their play. They have the ability to build self-regulation and control and comprehend what it means to spiral out of control and the consequences of doing so. The film also depicts very well how something that may not be that significant to an adult is devastating to a child. The presentation of how explosive tantrums can erupt and how children return from those elevated and furious states leaves all of us more informed. Like those students I took to that “Franklin” show, they understood and I think young viewers of this film will do the same.

For those expecting a neon colored, musical romp through the trees will be disappointed as this is not an experience of forced merriment. “Where The Wild Things Are’ is not a “dark” ride but a truthful one filmed with a bittersweet, autumnal glow that could not be any more perfect. When it was announced a film version would be made of this book, I worried and wondered how were these filmmakers going to adapt a book that contains only 10 lines into a two hour motion picture. We have all seen the sad results of movies and plays like that (the stage production of “Go Dog Go!” is the single worst show I have ever seen. Complete misery!). But, Spike Jonze and his collaborators, by remaining faithful to the source material and the childhood experience itself, have fashioned a tale that can exist on its own terms alongside the book. It is a film that children can grow with and for adults to return to as the inner journey and all of the wild things contained therein, exists for us all.

“Where The Wild Things Are” has beautifully sailed to being one of my favorite films of the year.


Now, we reach what I have already referred to as the tip-top as I am now ready to present to you my absolute TOP 25 favorite films between the years 2000-2009. So, without further hesitation...

25. "WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE" (2009) Co-Written & Directed by Spike Jonze
The most recent release on the list and what an achievement, as it is easily the best film about childhood I saw this past decade. Spike Jonze, co-writer Dave Eggers and their collaborators fashioned an inner epic that is artistically challenging and emotionally satisfying while also being enormously entertaining. Recalling more impressionistic films aimed at children, like 1980's "The Black Stallion," there is not one false, crass, cynical or callous moment. There are no pop-culture jokes or forced toilet humor on display. It also brilliantly discovered how to make a nearly two-hour film from a ten minute book. "Where The Wild Things Are," a film of profound understanding and sadness, gives audiences, and younger audiences in particular, a film that is not disposable but one they can continuously have a relationship with. This is a film to savor, explore, grow with and cherish.

24. "SPIRITED AWAY" (2001) Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
I never saw this film in the movie theater and not for any reason that I am able to recall. When I did finally see it at a dear friend's house, I was so overcome with its fantasy and beauty that I rented it from my video store the next day to see it again two more times and then, I ended up purchasing a copy within a week. Miyazaki's tale of a somewhat spoiled 9-year-old girl's surreal journey towards self-discovery, inner strength and resolve was triumphant proof that the great animated experiences of the 21st century are not solely computer driven as his hand-drawn jewel of a film is as lush and vibrant as anything the wizards at Pixar can produce. In addition, Miyazaki is a masterful storyteller combining whimsy, grand humor, dark visions and sublime emotional power through characters and situations that are often poetic in their knowingness and beauty.

23. "THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN" (2005) Co-Written & Directed by Judd Apatow
I wish that the genre of comedy received more respect than it normally does as it is truly one of the most difficult genres to pull off successfully. Think at all of the movies you have seen and how many of those movies are comedies--not movies with comedic elements but flat-out comedy films in the fullest of their intentions. Now that you have performed that task, how many of those comedies have actually been funny and continue to be funny, even if you have seen them endlessly? Comedy is a deeply subjective format as it is all comes down to a matter of taste. Like the previous entry, I actually did not see this film in the thetare as I had been burned one too many times by alleged comedy films during which I laughed intermittedly to not at all. Once I did discover this film upon its DVD release, I kicked myself for not having seen it in the theater as I could not stop laughing--and after having seen it several times over the years, Judd Apatow's debut feature film as a director ranks as the funniest film I saw during this past decade. The comedy holds up strongly as I am still discovering new and priceless lines of hysterical dialogue, created jointly through improvisation by the film's brilliant cast and the terrific script by Apatow and the film's star Steve Carell. And yet, the film exists as much more than a string of gags. It celebrates and respects the film's hero by never making his predicament something to laugh at while also perceptively probing into a man's private sexual fears. You root for him, his romance with Catherine Keener and the fact that he sticks to his principles and just doesn't lose his virginity to anyone makes this film one of the finest romantic comedies of the decade as well.

22. "CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON" (2000) Co-Written & Directed by Ang Lee
Director Ang Lee has consistently proven to be one of our most challenging and diverse filmmakers as he jumps from one stylistic genre to another, all the while exploring his constant theme of repression-something he explored extremely well with his unique version of Marvel Comics' "Hulk" from 2003 and of course, the groundbreaking "Brokeback Mountain" from 2005. Yet, I felt he expressed it at his absolute finest with this dazzling hybrid of gloriously choreographed and executed martial arts, evocative mythology, and mostly, the painfully poetic love story of missed opportunities, tragic loss and of course, repressed emotions of characters who can literally fly to the tops of trees yet are unable to speak their true feelings to the ones closest to their hearts.

21. "I'M NOT THERE" (2008) Co-Written & Directed by Todd Haynes
This is one of perhaps two or three films I saw this decade that I felt was a bit ahead of the curve, as if it was something that most modern filmmaking needs to catch up to. I was definately confounded when I first saw this chronologically and narratively jumbled exploration of Bob Dylan, featuring no less than seven actors--including a striking and eerily perfect Cate Blanchett--portraying Dylan or his personas during seven specific sections of his life between the 60's to perhaps the mid 70s. It is alternately and often inscrutible, glorious, poetic, infuriating, challenging, demanding, open, and impenetrable...much like Dylan's music. In fact, the film feels like you are swimming inside of a Dylan song, with perceptions and meanings shifting with each listen or viewing, as the case is with this film. It requires revisiting and intense scrutiny but also, it is audio/visual trip that you can easily allow to wash over you.

20. "INTO THE WILD" (2007) Written & Directed by Sean Penn
Sean Penn's greatest achievement as a filmmaker arrived with this spiritually haunting film based on the true story fo Christopher McCandless, a young college graduate, who donated his entire savings to charity, and made a two-year hitch-hiking journey towards Alaska to live in the wilderness. Emilie Hirsch gave a performance of such intensity, weight, daring and fearlessness that nothing in his prevous roles had even suggested he had the ability. Additionally, Penn's muscular filmmaking took full advantage of Hirsch's performance coupled with its masterful cinematography to present the unforgiving aspects of nature while also ultimately being a film about the complex nature of forgiveness.

19. "NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN" (2007) Written & Directed by
Joel and Ethan Coen
In a film career of eccentric, varied and usually excellent and unparalleled quality, the Coen brothers' thriller stands near the top of their nearly unequaled ouvre. It is a film of daring existential bleakness as it seemed to be about the escalating nature of violence in our country and the unending, unrepentant, ever-shifting and increasingly incomprehensible nature and face of evil. Javier Bardem's chilling performance is one of film's most terrifying villains and the Coen's dark vision has rarely been more uncompromising, intense and brutal.

18. "Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN" (2001) Co-Written & Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
The presentation of movie sex was altered superbly with this film as it often was so uncomfortably real and raw that I felt like a voyeur, witnessing acts not meant for my eyes. At the same time, it never felt pornographic, a feat due to the bottomless emotional honesty on display in a story about two teens who embark upon a life-changing summer road trip with an enigmatic older woman. In addition to sex, the film exposed truths about love, loss, mortality and even detailed the last embers of an adolescent friendship. The film never made any false moves or blinked at its own daring. This was a film meant to transport and transform and it accomplished both tremendously...and, I must say most movie sex on screen since this film is comparatively trite in its unrealistic, plastic glossiness.

17. "MOULIN ROUGE" (2001) Co-Written & Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Now, that's entertainment!!! The star-crossed and tragic love story of courtesan Satine and romantic poet Christian went far beyond just being a movie. This ultra-musical was an EXPERIENCE of the tallest order where everything was presented in CAPITAL LETTERS, with the BIGGEST, BRIGHTEST colors of them all. This film had supreme confidence to go along with its high style. It was unafraid to be the grandest spectacle on the planet by artistically swinging for the fences and having a heart as big as the world. This was one of those movies where I nearly forgot I was sitting in a movie theater as it was enveloping and all-encompasing.

16. "THE DEPARTED" (2006) Directed by Martin Scorsese
From one of the greatest American filmmakers of all time comes a crime thriller that showed effectively that when Hollywood wants to get it right, they can do it brilliantly. Here was a film where absolutely everyone brought their "A" game and weaved a complicated symphony of a crime epic with Scorsese as the feverish meastro, holding it all together and making the proceedings sing with beautiful profanity, explosive violence, excellent performances from top to bottom, and an air-tight screenplay that unfolded one incredible surprise after another.

15. "SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE" (2008) Directed by Danny Boyle
I nearly kicked myself for waiting to see this film for as long as I did. Truly one of the greatest film experiences I had over the past ten years, as Boyle's harrowing fable re-defined what modern motion pictures could be. The story plunged deeply into my heart as the cinematography, editing, music, performances and ingenious screenplay made this film take flight and soar higher than most films I have seen. From the title you already know the outcome but it was the journey that made the film unique and lead towards an uplifting conclusion that was hard-fought and earned.

14. "THERE WILL BE BLOOD" (2007) Written & Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
From one of my favorite filmmakers came another film I thought was ahead of the curve as its storytelling approach seemed to look back and simultaneously move a few steps ahead of all other modern releases. Daniel Day Lewis gave a performance of volcanic maleavolence in a movie which seemed to be an exploration of capitalism's birth in our country and the spiritual decay left in its wake. The final 30 minutes fly into near Stanley Kubrick territory, with a bizarre and disturbingly cold finish that made me question if God himself had been symblically and effectively destroyed. Bold, brilliant, unapologetic filmmaking, masterfully executed and in full demand of subsequent viewings.

13. "HIGH FIDELITY" (2000) Directed by Stephen Frears
It is quite rare for any movie based upon a novel to rise to any level of strong quality as a work that not only represents the source material well but stands up as an excellent work in its own right. Stephen Frears' adaptaion of the great, great, great Nick Hornby novel is the prime example of such a rarity emerging lovingly into pristine focus. John Cusack starred, co-wrote and produced the story of a Rob, a music and list-making obsessive, record store owner and recent breakup casualty, trying to make sense of his romantic life as he ages into his 30s. Beyond being one of the best romantic comedies of the decade through its sometimes uncomfortable honesty and simple truths about men and the devotions they have to their obsessions, this was a film that compassionately spoke to a generation, all attempting to find meaning and sigificance in their work, lives, and loves. Transplanting what I thought was quintessentially British material to my beloved and gorgeously represented home town of Chicago, lost not even one note in this terrific translation.

12. "RATATOUILLE" (2007) Written & Directed by Brad Bird

For all of the magic the folks at Pixar have been able to conjour time and again, there is something truly visionary when Brad Bird is at the helm. This film was my absolute favorite film of the year it was released and it is my favorite Pixar movie to date. The tale of Remy the rat's quest to become a master chef in Paris was not only delightfully told, it had a surprising level of sophistication in its storytelling which ultimately became a near dissertation on the nature of individuality and great art. As usual, the visual presentation was an absolute jewel as Paris has hardly looked to glowing in the movies. I was stunned at how jaw droppingly photo-realistic the streets, architecture, skylines, foliage were. Yet, with all great movies, everything comes down to story, characters and the emotion all of the combined elements can create for the viewer. As stated in the film, not everyone can become a great artist but great art is everywhere. For me, "Ratatouille" is art of supreme greatness and timelessness.

11. "VANILLA SKY" (2001) Written & Directed by Cameron Crowe
This section of my Top 25 will conclude with a film that was one of the most polarizing of the decade and one that just missed the Top 10 by the skin of its teeth. I revisit this film at least once a year and I always find some new detail or insight that I had not noticed during the previous viewing. Cameron Crowe fashioned a reverential and deeply personal remake of Alejandro Amenabar's excellent "Abre Los Ojos" from 1997, which details the melancholy, darkly existential tale of a playboy who figuratively and then, literally sleepwalks through his life as he slowly discoveres the value of all that is real in the world. Tom Cruise gave a fever dream of a performance as David Aames, a man who is slowly growing aware of the futility of his too charmed lifestyle only to be undone by the consequences of his own recklessness. With this adaptation, Crowe brilliantly took the feverish, nightmarish pace of the original and slowed it down to create an unshakeably haunting resonance. Also, Crowe added a strong commentary of our relationship with all manner of pop culture and how it works to define us, our feelings, our relationships and how we see the world. Additionally, the film was a treatise to the emptiness and non-existence of casual sex as well as a heady mind-trip of a movie that dovetails through sequences of suicide, murder, lost love, failure, science-fiction, and nightmares and heading all the way to an ethereal ending that also reached a near Stanley Kubrick level. Perhaps people bying a ticket to see a Tom Cruise film didn't expect something so challenging but really folks, I have seen this film so many times and the rewards I have received from it are endless. Maybe I should put it in my DVD player right now and I hope you do as well...

Coming soon...THE TOP 10 FILMS OF 2000-2009!!!

Monday, January 18, 2010

A '70s LUNCHBOX DREAM OF LOST INNOCENCE: a review of "The Lovely Bones"

“THE LOVELY BONES” Co-Written and Directed by Peter Jackson
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

This review comes to you with the slightest of trepidation. Yet I do have a question for you. Have you ever seen a movie, read a book or heard a song and your reaction to it was the complete opposite of the majority’s opinion? Think hard, because I really mean the complete opposite. Let me quickly recount to you a story from my past of a film I have seen that I had that very reaction to. I’ll try to be brief about it as I have detailed that experience within an original short story I wrote years ago and I do not wish to digress too grandly. It is a film I am absolutely certain that I am the only one to have ever appreciated it. The film is question is “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” released in the summer of 1978 and starring Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees. It has long been regarded as one of the worst films ever made yet when I saw it, at the age of 9, I responded to it in the most loving way. I adored that film and became quite obsessed with it. I cannot explain why or how but that presentation appealed to me in an inexplicable way. It reached me and possibly no one else and aside from family and perhaps two friends, no one really knew how much I loved that movie for fear I would be exiled from humanity. As an adult, I have seen it again many times and I can truly understand all of the criticisms hurled its way…and yet, I still have a fondness for it, despite some sequences that verge on being despairingly awful.

I have had what could possibly be a similar reaction to Writer/Director Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones,” a strangely evocative adaptation of the Alice Seabold novel. I must say that something odd has occurred between the time Jackson announced that he would film this project and the release. The announcement came with a wave of excitement for Jackson as he had previously helmed the highly received “Heavenly Creatures,” from 1994, which told the true story of two murderous teenage girls. It seemed that after making the Middle Earth fantasias of “The Lord Of The Rings” plus a three hour passion project epic that was his “King Kong” remake, “The Lovely Bones” seemed to be the perfect “small” project for Jackson to sink his teeth into. Then, the reviews started coming out and their near violent reaction (especially from NPR and Roger Ebert) has made the consensus strongly debate whether Jackson was ever the right director for this adaptation. I’ll address those concerns a bit later but I have to say that while it is an odd film containing tones and sequences that really should not work together, I was indeed very moved and found myself going with its unique and singular flow very easily.

The enchanting Saoirse Ronan stars as Susie Salmon (“Like the fish,” she says to us) in a story set in Pennsylvania 1973 yet narrated from her place in the hereafter. Susie is a picture of innocence and wonderment living in an idyllic suburban town, the kind of which I am not certain even exists in quite the same way anymore. She has two siblings, loving parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz), a boozy, free-spirit Grandmother (Susan Sarandon) plus a newfound hobby of photography and healthy crushes on both David Cassidy plus a very real high school dreamboat from England (nicely played by Reece Richie). Susie is the embodiment of purity and pre-pubescence, with her gangly arms and legs and undeveloped figure which is attached to her na├»ve worldview—which, the film seems to be arguing is a virtue and a right of childhood. One day, one her way home from school, she makes the tragic error of trusting the company of George Harvey (an effectively unnerving Stanley Tucci), the peculiar man who lives alone in the green house across the street from her family. Unbeknownst to Susie, Mr. Harvey is a serial rapist and murderer and she is the next on his lengthy list of victims.

After her death, Susie is lost within the “in-between” as she watches the goings-on of her family, disintegrating from grief and mourning, as well as Mr. Harvey, from the vantage point of an unearthly gazebo. From here, Susie has the choice to either have her soul move onwards towards Heaven or to remain watching over her family and subsequently not allowing any of them to heal and move onwards themselves.

The first hour of the film captured me instantly as it depicted a 1970s that exists as a beauteous hazy glow within my memory, as that decade held my formative years and it is a time I am forever linked with emotionally. As Susie explained, it was a time where children’s faces hadn’t appeared on milk cartons yet. There was an innocence to the depiction that I know just does not exist in the same way in the 21st century and it indeed took me back. (I concede that perhaps it is not a realistic interpretation of the period but somehow, it worked for me and I responded positively to it.)

By the time Susie makes her fateful meeting with Mr. Harvey, the film immediately turns appropriately grim and squeamish. Weisz and especially Wahlberg, who gives one of his strongest performances, very well play the reactions of parental loss. And then, the part of the film that has seemingly lost most people that have viewed it arrives: Jackson’s visualization of the “in between,” which has jokingly been referred to as looking like a Claritin advertisement—a criticism that does hold some truth but I also found it to be quite haunting and melancholy. There are celestial vistas abound with shifting seasons, leaves collectively whooshing away from solitary trees plus a creepy lighthouse containing a dark door leading to…oh well, you’d just have to see it for yourselves.

As I have previously stated, I was honestly swept up in the film’s rhythms and although there is this outcry against the movie I do not agree with, I think I understand it. I think it is a fair debate to have about whether Peter Jackson was the right director for this material as his artistic choices have been brutally ravaged for possessing a certain softness and supposed lack of maturity throughout. Maybe he wasn’t the right director. Maybe there wasn’t a certain realism or grittiness that most people thought this material should have; especially when the lead character has been raped and murdered yet the rape is never mentioned (although it is well suggested by the quick shot of Mr. Harvey’s unfastened belt buckle) within the film.

Yet, I think what Jackson has done was to tap into a particular spirit inside of Susie, and he allowed that to guide the making of his film. In regards to the rape, I know that I would have found no entertainment or real artistic value in watching this pretty child brutalized and stuffed into a safe. I felt that Jackson handled that material thoughtfully and executed it with just enough force so as to not become irresponsible. It seemed as if he thought about the well being of his actress as well as his audience, something Terry Gilliam completely neglected to do with his beyond repugnant “Tideland,” which also featured the story of a young girl surviving through a tremendously dire experience.

For me, the heavily criticized sequences of the “in-between” represented Susie’s soul at the time of her death. Yes, I can understand any resistance to the New-Age feel of the proceedings and I will say that I really didn’t like the casting of another girl Susie interacts with, as she indeed appears to desire to play some sort of other-wordly “My Little Pony.” However, the “in-between” is childlike because Susie was a child upon her death. She was not mature, her Earthly life was a candy-colored haven, and I felt for her loss deeply. It saddened me that here was this beautiful girl who would never see her endless rolls of film developed, and she would never kiss the boy who loved her. The crime of that loss was felt even as the film segued from the very real scenes on Earth (including Wahlberg’s obsessiveness and a great sequence where Susie’s sister Lindsey sneaks into Mr. Harvey’s house to discover any possible evidence to handover to the police) to the psychedelic landscapes that felt like a 70s lunchbox dream.

In fact, the entire movie, at times felt like a 1970s artifact. Like a film from eccentric British director Ken Russell (who directed William Hurt’s first film, the bizarre “Altered States” from 1981 as well as the 1975 adaptation of The Who’s rock opera “Tommy,” which is one of my favorite films of all time). Or better yet, one of those lavishly decorated double rock albums, complete with gatefold and exquisitely designed lyric sheets. Mostly, instead of the type of drama that everyone would be moved by and would most certainly be destined to win Oscar after Oscar, we have one of those elusive ”love-it-or-hate-it” movies of which there really is no in-between.

I would like to think that Jackson really went out on a creative limb with this film that houses strong performances from the entire cast combined with a hallucinogenic heavenly vision set to Brian Eno’s incredibly moody, ethereal score. But, such risks are not looked upon favorably in today’s Hollywood, and for better or for worse, I’ll take this vision over some homogenized version any day.

Is “The Lovely Bones” really as horrible as many reviews have been declaring? I really do not know and I am confused that my reaction was so profoundly different than most others. I have not read the source material and I knew very little about it when I entered the theater. I do wonder what fans of the book thought about it.

I have to say that throughout, I could not help but to think of a girl I know. She is the 9-year-old daughter of a dear colleague. Susie strongly resembled this child I know as she has gangly arms and legs and much of what I know of her is a devotion to Hannah Montana and all things of candy-colored girlishness. She also is a budding photographer and each time I have had the pleasure of seeing her, watching her grow up, I am startled by her purity, her beauty and that elusive innocence that has not yet become tainted or jaded. The horror I felt of anything taking her innocence away translated to the screen as I watched Susie struggle with who she was, what had happened to her and where she was headed.

If that was what I felt and took away from the experience, maybe Peter Jackson was the right director all along…

Sunday, January 17, 2010

SONG FOR THE UNREQUITED: a review of "(500) Days Of Summer"

Recently made available for home viewing on DVD, here is my review, originally written July 26, 2009

"(500) DAYS OF SUMMER" Directed by Marc Webb
*** (three stars)

"Don't you know that a love unrequited is still love in the end?"
-lyrics by Moe Berg
"Man's Best Friend"
by The Pursuit Of Happiness

I completely understand a man like Tom Hansen because I AM Tom Hansen. Not literally of course but emotionally. In the new film "(500) Days Of Summer," we are invited into the inner romantic world of Mr. Hanson (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a greeting card writer and hopeful architect, who dives heart first into the sea of love and loss with the elusive Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). As the film opens, we are warned that this film will not be "a love story," and this is no false advertisement. What we have is a film that not only works as an antidote to the glut of so-called romantic comedies that have plagued theaters for years, but essentially as a film about memory, perceptions and the moments that create and destroy a relationship.

Tom first meets Summer during a team meeting at the greeting card company. For a reason that can only be unexplained, Summer happens to be the type of woman who possesses a certain je ne sais quoi that allows men of varying ages to fall for her and Tom is no exception. He's intrigued but her aloof nature keeps him away even after a brief, charming first discussion at an office party. Then, the fateful day arrives in a shared elevator as Tom, listening to The Smiths on his headphones, attracts a momentary compliment on his musical taste by Summer. Once she exits the elevator, it's all over and his simmering crush begins to blossom into much more.

As the two continue to get to know each other at a karaoke bar, Tom reveals himself to be a hopeless romantic, one who believes in fate and true love while Summer does not in the least. Summer makes it abundantly clear that she is a woman who has no interest in love, or boyfriends and as the product of divorced parents, she even curiously challenges his feelings about love and the lack of reality contained therein, to which Tom replies, "It's love. Not Santa Claus."

The remainder of the film is presented as a challenge to Tom's romantic beliefs and his love for Summer in particular through an ingenious fashion of non-linear storytelling. The hopscotch nature of the presentation (through title cards reading "Day 288," Day 1," "Day 400," and so on) provides a terrific emotional tension as Tom attempts to figure out not only where it all went wrong but if the person he fell in love with was even the person he thought she was in the first place. Moments that were playful during the beginning stages are tiresome by the end and the jigsaw puzzle of the film's construction allows us to be a part of emotions Tom cannot quite see coming and the effect is heartbreaking. It is here where the film shines most. Director Marc Webb shows a perceptiveness not typically seen in movie love stories and his sensitivity brings out some virtuoso sequences including a post-coital dance number, a travelogue through sorrowful foreign films in which Tom is the star, and one outstanding split-screen section that details Tom's expectations for a night with Summer against the reality of the same night with Summer.

Gordon-Leavitt handles the role with an earnestness that is never cloying but sympathetic to those of us out there--myself included--whose ideas of love were indeed formed by film images (For me, one of the most romantic scenes in any film is the final shot of "Sixteen Candles" as I wanted to be the boy who gets the girl and sits on a table top waiting for that life altering kiss.) and pop songs. Sad songs do indeed say so much but it may not be the best thing to live a life by. In fact, Tom just may be a cinematic cousin to John Cusack's Rob Gordon, the romantically challenged and compulsive list maker from the brilliant "High Fidelity." I have walked in Tom's shoes, shared his hopes and hurts, still understand where it all originates from and how it may have been a damaging thing to let songs and images be a romantic guide in the real world where the perfect chorus doesn't exist and the love struck fade out typically doesn't arrive. "(500) Days Of Summer" is perfectly in tune with those emotions and the people who hold those emotions so tightly and wear them on their sleeves.

But, something kept me at a distance from fully embracing this film. Actually, a few things. Tom frequently takes in emotional counsel from his 12 year old sister, Rachel (played by Chloe Moretz). Whle Moretz contained a spunkiness that reminded me fondly of a young Jodie Foster or Tatum O'Neal and I look forward to seeing her in the future, the character felt completely like an indie-film creation: all prefabricated quirk and no reality whatsoever. Her precociousness is overdone and her romantic world-weariness is unfounded and too terribly contrived in a film of such emotional honesty. Even worse is the actual conclusion, of which I will of course not spoil but it left me smacking my forehead in a state of disbelief. It too was terribly contrived and felt so terribly false after travelling through all of the honesty beforehand.

But, I have to say most of all I hated Summer Finn. I REALLY hated Summer Finn (her love for Ringo Starr notwithstanding). This is of no fault of Zooey Deschanel who plays this tricky role to perfection. We never really see her as she really is since we are seeing her entirely through the filter of Tom's memories (much like Kate Winslet's Clementine from "Eternal Sunshine Of The
Spotless Mind"). We see how he perceived her to be and that makes her character as elusive as love itself. I get that. But still I just HATED her. I hated her callousness which continues into a selfish emotional cruelty that made me want to shout at the screen for Tom to run from her as fast as he is able. Yes, she is up front with him about her intentions of not being interested in romance but it is a romance they have whether she is willing to admit it or not and his feelings are equally valid. She is never honest about her emotions for him, her intentions and even a crushing moment late in the film that was truly painful. Is it possible that I am channeling my own past and present romantic pains and confusions into this film? Possibly so and maybe we're supposed to anyway. It is true that this film is not a love story but a love story is the core of the piece and I couldn't get past my growing distaste for this woman who plays with Tom's heart just as a disinterested cat toys with a ball of yarn. I couldn't have much stake in the relationship as it all felt so one-sided. But then again, it IS one-sided as we only see Tom's side of the story. It would be interesting to see Summer's side with a possible "(500) Days Of Tom." But for this film, he loved her, I hated seeing his heart broken and because there was no way into Summer's mind in ANY way, it hurt the film overall for me.

That said, it is a film worth seeing if not for anything else but to get a story where love is confusing, messy and gets the intimacy dance so right. It is nowhere in the same league as the aforementioned "Eternal Sunshine" and "High Fidelity" or even "Chasing Amy" or "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." But, it is inventive, quite funny, warm hearted, perceptive about a generation raised through the ashes of divorce and so truthful about how we remember the loves of our lives, especially the ones that deeply broke our hearts.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

THE GRAND RETURN AND ELEGIAC FAREWELL OF TWO DREAMERS: a review of "The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus"

“THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS” Co-Written and Directed by Terry Gilliam
**** (four stars)

Director Terry Gilliam has been one of my favorite filmmakers of all time for much of my life. His legendary history as a member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, where he provided all of the sardonic, bizarre, and sometimes inexplicable animation, fed my sensibilities with brilliant anarchistic humor at an absolutely perfect period in my life. But, it was through his satirical, surrealistic and visionary films where I felt that I had found somewhat of a kindred soul as well as a filmmaker to follow and support to the end. Paying for a ticket to one of his films was akin to taking a trip into the rabbit hole of his endlessly ingenious mind and spirit. Beginning with 1981’s “Time Bandits,” continuing with the Orwellian nightmare of “Brazil” (1985), and concluding with 1989's “The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen” (the fantastical epic which I actually saw eight times in the theater) provided me with supreme wonderment and reverential inspiration as the three films formed a trilogy that depicted the battle between the dreamer and the rational world. His next three films, “The Fisher King” (1991), “Twelve Monkeys” (1995), and “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas (1998), were no less challenging or bold as they formed a new trilogy set within the American landscapes of the present, past and an especially grim future. Gilliam’s colossal battles with Hollywood studios over the years have reached a near mythical quality as they have all been tales of creativity vs. unadulterated commerce, making the success of his final products profoundly victorious. Unfortunately, his reputation—however truthful or not-- as a difficult, madman genius painfully caught up to him.

This past decade has not been kind to Gilliam, as more than one of his films has befallen some tragic conclusion one of kind or another. “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” ended its filming only after a mere six days, due to all manner of casualties, including no less than the death of his elderly leading actor. Several other projects have all ended up in some level of Hollywood's "Development Hell." Then, seven years after “Fear and Loathing…,” Gilliam returned with 2005’s “The Brothers Grimm,” (starring Matt Damon and Heath Ledger). It was sadly a so-so affair, that seemed as if studio heads had Gilliam’s creativity bound and gagged. During a halt in that film’s production, due to more studio battles, Gilliam charged headlong into the nasty and repugnant “Tideland” (also from 2005), and the less said about that film, the better. It seemed as if Gilliam’s fortunes would never turn right again after the tragic death of Heath Ledger, midway through the filming of his latest flight of fancy, “The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus.” Yet, he regrouped, re-wrote the screenplay, called on the assistance of Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law and I am deliriously happy to deliver the news that Terry Gilliam has emerged with his finest work in eons. I hope that Ledger is smiling broadly from the great beyond at the finished work as it further confirms what an enormous talent we have lost in him. Most importantly, it is a celebratory experience as we can bask and appreciate Ledger’s skill as well as enjoy the revival of Gilliam’s creativity with an eternal ode to the power of storytelling and imagination.

The plot is classic Gilliam and highly accessible to fans of his past work. Christopher Plummer gives a rapturous performance of great depth as Dr. Parnassus, the leader of a sideshow troupe, which consists of the virtuous Anton (played by Andrew Garfield), the diminutive and cantankerous Percival (a surprisingly good Verne Troyer) and his daughter Valentina (the feisty, lovely, and moony faced Lily Cole)-who dreams of the simplicity of a stable, non-transient lifestyle. The foursome travel via a dilapidated wagon from town to town with “The Imaginarium,” where paying customers can disappear through a magic mirror and emerge within the contents of the Doctor’s mind, results of which could prove beauteous or threatening based upon any choices the customer makes while inside. Unfortunately, no one is paying and the troupe hungrily carries onwards. Complicating matters is Dr. Parnassus’ dark secret. Many years ago, he made a pact with the devil, known as Mr. Nick (a slithery and sinister Tom Waits), for immortality. Years after the life-changing deal, and upon seeing the woman who would claim his heart, Parnassus made a secondary deal with Mr. Nick; his immortality for youth in exchange for the soul of Parnassus’ daughter when she reaches the age of 16, an age she will reach within a scant three days time, at the start of the movie. Always eager for a new wager, Mr. Nick slightly alters the deal, to which Parnassus compulsively agrees: If Parnassus is able to deliver five souls by the end of the three days, Valentina’s soul will remain safe. If not, all bets are off. With five new souls to obtain, and no interested customers, all hope appears to be lost and Dr. Parnassus loses himself in bottomless drink and regret. Suddenly, the troupe discovers the sight of the enigmatic and shady Tony (Heath Ledger), hanging by a noose from a bridge in the rain. He is rescued, and claims to be an amnesiac upon interrogation. Tony joins the troupe on their journeys, much to Anton’s jealousy, Percival’s suspicions and Valentina’s lusty curiosity and delight. Tony feels that he has the perfect way to increase business for the group, an offer Dr. Parnassus cannot refuse if he wants to save Valentina’s soul, but will he be able to succeed in time?

Trips within the Imaginarium contain the meticulously visual splendor that is Gilliam’s trademark and of which he has few peers. For what I believe may be his largest excursions into CGI technology, Gilliam uses the special effects to vivid delight, with sights sometimes appearing as if Lewis Carroll fell straight into “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” Yet, Gilliam does not make the same mistake that James Cameron recently made with “Avatar” (I’m sorry to keep beating up on that film, dear readers, but I feel that the comparison is just.) as his screenplay creatively and thematically supports the story and vice-versa. Depp, Farrell and Law appear individually in three of the film’s Imaginarium sequences as various incarnations of Tony—an effect I found to be surprisingly seamless as they all represent versions of Tony’s duplicitous nature.

As praised as Terry Gilliam has consistently been for his visual aesthetics, he has often been criticized for narrative structures described as “ramshackle.” For me, that has never been a source of derision as all of his films are designed to unfold as if being lost in a dream. There is also a child-like energy to his work, as it often recalls the manner in which a small child would detail a story to either you or me. They are, at times, feverishly presented and detailed, posses many challenges to follow, there are leaps in logic as well as faith and their unfiltered arrival is something to treasure. At its core, and among it’s themes of mortality, “The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus,” is a story in love with the power and process of storytelling and how the act of storytelling sustains the overall survival of humanity.

As previously stated, Plummer’s performance is a wonder as he displays a level of perseverance while he also plumbs the depths of longing and hopelessness. Yet, whenever he begins to weave the tale of his misguided past and the consequences now placed upon Valentina, we are instantly captured by the gravity of his storytelling. His scenes with Waits’ Mr. Nick are all terrific as they contain a grim playfulness that never grows ponderous while also not derailing its epic nature.

Then, there is Mr. Ledger and what a talent we have lost in him! As with last year’s iconic performance as The Joker in "The Dark Knight" and before that, with his emotionally resonant role in Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain,” Ledger impresses again with his ability to completely embody a character, leaving no trace whatsoever of anything that came before. While some may feel that his somewhat manic delivery and herky-jerky mannerisms are nothing but a flail, they are all at the service of a character whose motives are never clear, at times even to himself. Tony is a constantly evolving character and the freedom Gilliam gives Ledger to explore and create manifests an especially fruitful collaboration between Director and Actor. It is a shame that we will not be able to see more such collaborations in the future.

The guest appearances by Depp, Law and Farrell are touching indeed as they are all in the service of paying tribute to a fallen artistic comrade. All three, in their brief sequences, capture Ledger’s mannerisms and vocal inflections, making it appear beautifully as if we are indeed seeing the character of Tony via shifting personalities and motivations, and not three or four different people entirely. An opening scene where a belligerent drunk vanishes inside of the Imaginarium only to discover he has a completely different face and further scenes where characters remark upon Tony’s different visages in the hallucinogenic sections are a testament to Gilliam’s commitment to his material and devotion to ensuring that Ledger's last work on film would not become lost or disgraced.

Most of all, and deeply felt, "The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus" is a highly personal work. Terry Gilliam is Dr. Parnassus, an aging wizard of the cinema whose sense of wondrous abandonment and rollicking storytelling is increasingly out of step with our “Transformers” age. As Parnassus appears at the end of the film in a shining, illustrious section of London clothed in rags with his travelling wagon just ready to burst apart for good, he is emotionally bruised and battered-yet he remains standing--I could not help but to think of Gilliam himself. He too remains standing, after all of his trials and filmmaking tribulations that would have ended many other careers long ago.

Gilliam's gift is his artistry and ability to transfer his dreams to celluloid for our entertainment and consumption. All we have to do is purchase a ticket and I am anxious to purchase a ticket for a return trip to this and future Imaginariums for as long as he chooses to create and share.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

OLE! OLE! OLE!: a review of "Invictus"

"INVICTUS" Directed by Clint Eastwood
**** (four stars)

Definition of "invictus": from the original Latin-unconquer, unconquerable, undefeated

“Make a stand
Before you fall
Your country needs you
To play football
Wake up,
Can’t you hear the call
All for one & One for all”

-Big Audio Dynamite
“Union, Jack”

Extraordinary! Clint Eastwood has beautifully done it again! It is truly amazing to me to think of the immensely high creative streak Eastwood is currently enjoying. With one prolific release after another, Eastwood has consistently proven that he is in the highest ranks of American Filmmakers working today. As I have said many times before, younger filmmakers desperately need to be studying his films and taking copious notes as Eastwood continues to demonstrate, without the need of technical razzle-dazzle, the gift he has for unfolding strong, clear storytelling with an intense commitment to story, characters and emotion. With his latest masterful directorial effort, “Invictus,” Eastwood not only displays those aforementioned gifts again but also his fair-minded worldview with a stirring and soulful historical and political experience that inspires tremendously.

“Invictus” opens with a simple and succinct combination of information and imagery that successfully sets up the social-political landscape of South Africa. The date is February 11, 1990. We are witness to two sets of boys, playing rugby amongst themselves, only being separated by fences and the small width of a road. One set of children are White students, behind their sturdy fence, playing on lush and carefully tended green grass. The other set of children are Black, behind a dilapidated chain link fence, playing on sun-drenched dead grass. Suddenly, a motor cavalcade ushering recently emancipated political prisoner Nelson Mandela (portrayed by the always graceful and transcendent Morgan Freeman) interrupts both sets of play; a deft presentation of a seismic act that immediately ushers in the dawning of a new era.

As leader of the African National Congress (ANC), Mandela successfully negotiated to create the country’s first multi-racial elections; another seismic political shift that provided the nation’s majority of Black people the right to vote. After his subsequent election as President in 1994, we are witness to his first day in office and the seemingly insurmountable task of leading a nation and exacting reconciliation and unity across a land torn by Apartheid.

We are next introduced to the eight members of Mandela’s newly integrated Security team, which now consists of Black ANC activists and White Afrikaner police officers that once would have arrested the Blacks or members of their families. Their relationship is forced and tenuous, mirroring the South African society itself, which is consumed with fears of racial unrest and retribution on both sides.

Soon, Mandela emerges with a unique venture to help heal South Africa. He takes a meeting with Francois Pienaar (a strong and solid Matt Damon), the son of racist Afrikaner parents and the habitually disgraced Captain of the Springboks, the consistently losing official South African Rugby team. Mandela instills in Pienaar a mission: to lead the Springboks into competition and ultimate victory in the 1995 World Cup. It is at this particular point where Eastwood brilliantly deviates from the standard Hollywood form and even corrects some typical Hollywood crimes, usually made for reasons of box office commerce. (And I apologize in advance for this somewhat lengthy digression.)

I have long held a contention with Hollywood films that attempt to tell the story of a non-White race or individual yet the perspective is shown exclusively through the eyes of the White lead (i.e. the box office draw). Now, don’t get me wrong. There are several of those films that I have loved and still enjoy including Kevin Costner’s gorgeous Western epic from 1990, “Dances With Wolves.” I have also thoroughly enjoyed Director Edward Zwick’s stellar motion pictures, 1989’s “Glory,” (featuring Matthew Broderick along with Denzel Washington), 2003’s “The Last Samurai” (with Tom Cruise) and 2006’s “Blood Diamond” (with Leonardo DiCaprio); three films which evoke the David Lean epics of the past. That said, my main issue with “Blood Diamond,” as well as movies like “Cry Freedom” and in its own way, the current box-office behemoth, James Cameron’s “Avatar,” is a certain over-reliance of utilizing White actors to tell non-White stories. Honestly, if I am going to see a film about Steven Biko, then why am I forced to see it through the eyes of the Kevin Kline’s journalist, as depicted in “Cry Freedom”? Or how about Director Norman Jewison’s 1999 film, “The Hurricane”? While a good film, which starred Denzel Washington as wrongly imprisoned boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, why did much of that film have to be focused on the viewpoints of the three White Canadians who fight to have him freed? It is as if Biko and Hurricane were sidelined within their own stories.

Returning to Zwick’s “Blood Diamond,” despite DiCaprio’s blistering performance that I could not take my eyes off of, here was yet another story about Africa and the turmoil that directly affects Africans but uses DiCaprio as an audience through-line and insurance for any box-office earnings. I just wanted the film to be about Djimon Honsou’s searing fisherman character and have DiCaprio be the supporting character. I think it would have been an even ore effective film. And I still contend that my enjoyment of “Avatar” would have been increased ten-fold if Cameron had immersed the audience in the world and culture of the Na’Vi from the outset, making his film a more emotionally resonant film for the ages than simply a technical masterpiece.

Again, thank for allowing me my digression as I am getting to the point at hand. In a standard Hollywood version of the subject matter presented in “Invictus,” Matt Damon would not only have been the box-office draw, but he would undoubtedly have been the lead character and provided the full perspective. Nelson Mandela would have been a supporting character at best, and the overall tenor of the film would ultimately have been a by-the-numbers underdog sports epic with the political scenery of South Africa existing only as a backdrop.

However, Clint Eastwood does not make that misguided error in the least. Damon is the supporting character and Eastwood’s focus is placed firmly on Mandela, as well as the people and politics of South Africa and how the Rugby team is used as a political tool to encourage people to rally behind something and unite, while not realizing that they are uniting. A victory in the World Cup is more important than the innocuous act of just winning a game. The win would be used as a symbol of national pride and the first steps a nation can use to heal itself and move forwards. This juxtaposition of perspectives has been an Eastwood trademark as of late, with 2008’s American/Hmong culture clash of “Gran Torino,” and so electrifying in the twin 2006 World War II epics, “Flags Of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” which told the story of the war from American and Japanese perspectives. Eastwood’s ability and willingness to view an issue from many vantage points makes for insightful, thought-proving cinema while not lessening any entertainment value and “Invictus” is definitely one of his very best.

There is no one else who could have portrayed Nelson Mandela but Morgan Freeman, as I cannot think of another actor who possesses his level of gravitas and ability to find the humanity within. His Mandela is presented sometimes as a sage, sometimes cryptic yet always loving, patient, and crafty as well as being a savvy politician with a decidedly foxy sense of humor. Freeman embodies his spirit completely. It is a sight to not simply witness but also to feel and he makes Mandela a flesh and blood creation and less of an icon. Yet, there is also admittedly something other worldly about him as every meeting takes on an air of disarming transformation. When Pienaar tells his girlfriend after his life-altering initial meeting with Mandela that he was “the greatest man I have ever met,” you believe every word, as we feel equally transformed. Pienaar’s visit to Mandela’s cell of 27 years provides him with infinite inspiration and purpose to dig deeper within himself and find a strength he otherwise may not have used or even known that he contained. Just watch the short scenes where Mandela negotiates with his staff, or with his Security team, or with patrons at a Rugby match and especially when he shakes the hands of every Rugby player. He addressing the players each by name, and everyone with a kindness meant to show inclusiveness for all who choose to accept it.

Matt Damon provides another effective performance as we view a man at a point where his life begins to carry a newfound sense of purpose and responsibility. He rises to the challenge, inspires others to do the same and takes each moment as one to gain knowledge from. I must also make special mention of two actors completely unfamiliar to me. Tony Kgoroge and Adjoa Andoh, portray the leader of Mandela’s Security team and Chief advisor respectively, in equally excellent performances, as they both portray characters whose own political viewpoints are challenged by Mandela’s urgency for peace.

Aside from Eastwood’s long known history as a Republican, I really know nothing of his personal politics. Perhaps that really is not of any importance as I am reviewing a film and not the man behind the film. Yet, I feel confidant that if his films are of any indication, he is quite possibly a truly fair minded and ethical man. He is matter-of-fact with his presentations, never condescending, never taking leaps into proselytizing. He just gives us the characters, and situations and lets them play out as naturally as possible. Even with “Invictus,” it never feels like a history lesson. We can see people really thinking abut their situations and lives. The game sequences are thrilling with how much is at stake politically. And the themes of forgiveness, as portrayed through the lens of man who forgave the nation who imprisoned him, resonates the most and even gave me much to ponder within myself and my country that I love so much.

Who knows what Clint Eastwood thinks about the current state of American politics. But, somehow I could not help but to wonder if Eastwood’s film is a way of holding up a mirror to ourselves. Often as I watched, my mind traveled back to the night of November 4, 2008 when Barack Obama won the endless, bitter election we had all experienced and became the first Black President in the Unites States of America. I could not help but to wonder as I watched that night, as well as during his inauguration, what may have been going through his mind during those moments. Certainly, there’s the seemingly insurmountable responsibility of handling our devastated economy plus two wars of course, but also attempting to correct some of the historically rooted divisions that run across our great nation. If Mandela was able to find forgiveness and then find himself in the position to lead the country into the beauty of unity and pride, then couldn’t we, the United Sates of America should be able to find it within our deep resolve to pull off the same feat? I think that Eastwood is ultimately showing with this film, to anyone willing to watch and understand, that there are larger, more important issues than party lines and personal politics if we are to prosper and survive. At this course in our history, we are truly on a precipice of renewed unity or eternal division, and the life of our country hangs in the balance.

Nelson Mandela’s empathy and ability to look beyond differences for a larger societal triumph is a lesson we can all gather seeds from as we plant our love of a nation’s potential and utilize incisive tools to gain redemption from our troubled, violent history.

Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” has closed out his remarkable decade of film in high style as it is easily one of his and 2009’s very best gifts.