Monday, July 26, 2010

FAMILY TIES, FAMILY VALUES: a review of "The Kids Are All Right"

"THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT" Co-Written and Directed by Lisa Cholodenko
**** (four stars)

As critical as I am, and continue to be, over the generally sorry state of current Hollywood films, I am equally critical (and at times, even more so) of comparatively lower budgeted independent films. Where Hollywood sleepwalks through tired formulas, clichés and dead end sequels, reboots and re-imaginings, I sometimes find myself even less tolerant of independent films’ lesser qualities. It seems to me, that while some independent filmmakers go out of their collective ways to rub it in the audience’s faces that they exist outside of the emptiness of Hollywood, they forget about the basic storytelling that houses basic emotions, so much so that the films in question become smug, masturbatory exercises in hipster quirk. Self-consciously quirky characters race through self-consciously quirky plots doing self-consciously quirky things while speaking self-consciously quirky dialogue. It is enough to make me want to hurl something at the screen, since the entire proceedings seem to stem from some self proclaimed industry of cool.

I would like for you to please take a few moments and think about a few fairly recent independent films, some of which have many elements I admired, some of which irritated me to no end. While I realize that I just may be in the minority for most to all of these films, I hope you will see the point I am trying to illustrate. For me, “Garden State” (2004), “Lars and the Real Girl” (2007) and especially, “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004) and the highly celebrated “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006), while each containing some good points, were essentially extended whimsical eccentricities that all substituted pseudo colorful characters and situations for provocative subject matter and complex adult emotional themes. If those films carried even a shred of authenticity. If they carried any approximation of real emotions and life as it is really lived instead of the insufferable posing, the prefabricated attitudes and again, the smug buckets of quirk, all of those aforementioned films would have sailed into being some of my favorite movies.

Given the current state of Hollywood and independent films these days, I sometimes wonder if critics tend to over-praise when something fairly decent comes along. I can easily understand the sentiment for movie critics as they have to see everything and suffer through so many unwatchable time wasters that I am certain that anything different may feel like a cinematic breath of fresh air. That said, I do tend to remain skeptical as I ponder which film to see next. In regards to Writer/Director Lisa Cholodenko’s extremely well reviewed new film “The Kids Are All Right,” I have to admit that I was feeling that very skepticism when I entered the theater. I was preparing myself for the smug onslaught of the self-congratulatory quirk, just ready to seethe against it and hate it. What I happily received, was an enormously engaging, extremely funny, deeply perceptive and open-hearted film that for me, is undoubtedly one of 2010’s very best films.

Annette Bening and Julianne Moore luminously star as Nic and Jules, a longtime upper middle class married couple. Nic, a physician, is the tightly wound family breadwinner while Jules, earthier and usually in a state of transition, has decided to begin a new landscaping business venture. The two are Mothers to the titular kids, Joni and Laser (played by Mia Wasiowska and Josh Hutcherson), half-siblings conceived through artificial insemination from an unknown sperm donor. The kids are typical teenagers with typical teenage lives filled with questionable friendships, hidden crushes and for Joni, who has just reached the age of 18, is now spending her last few weeks at home before leaving for college. The sensitive, athletic, 15 year old Laser has begun to grow curious about the existence of his birth Father and convinces his somewhat uninterested sister to investigate.

Enter the swaggering “shaggy dog” Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a chef, restaurant and organic co-op farm owner who one day receives a phone call from Joni, expressing a desire to meet. Surprised and curious to meet the living results of his sperm donation at the age of 19, Paul meets both kids and the threesome begin to create a tentative relationship, which eventually works its way back to Nic and Jules. The arrival of Joni and Laser’s Father first causes minor tremors and ultimately throws the entire family into a disorder of such proportions where all five participants are confronted with past and current life choices, the consequences from those choices and new questions concerning their respective futures as individuals and as a family.

“The Kids Are All Right” effectively bridges the gap between Hollywood features and independent films by being an enormously entertaining family comedy-drama where all of the complex family dynamics are beautifully and succinctly presented as raw and as real as life itself. It is not a film about huge revelations or prefabricated, hyperbolic drama as the relationships between all of the characters are inherently dramatic enough. There are no tragic secrets to unearth and no major surprises. Moreover, and so thankfully, there is not even one, solitary moment of self-congratulatory and smugly presented quirkiness on display whatsoever.

Let me just take you back to the Oscar nominated “Little Miss Sunshine,” a film that mostly kept me at arms length. For me, that was a film where the self-congratulatory and smugly presented quirk was on dangerous display as we had to deal with a collective of characters that existed only as post-ironic words on a poster board. We were all inundated with Greg Kinnear’s “Failed Motivational Speaker,” Paul Dano’s ”Nearly Mute Flight School Hopeful,” Alan Arkin’s “Lecherous, Foul Mouthed Grandpa,” and worst off all, Steve Carrell’s “Suicidal Homosexual Proust Scholar.” It was exhausting and oft putting to me because these characters solely existed between quotation marks. They were so busy dancing around the screen with top hats, tails and canes carrying neon signs crowing about how unique they were that they, never for even one minute, functioned as approximations of real people. “The Kids Are All Right” wisely and greatly sidesteps that crucial error by having their character’s traits stem from who they are internally, not externally.

“The Kids Are All Right” is a film that wants to engage with you as it explores behavior, the tenuous dance of intimacy between consenting adults and the delicate balancing act all families have to endure. Cholodenko and her writing partner Stuart Blumberg insightfully explore, in a very clever manner, where exactly do our own personal character traits originate from. Through Joni and Laser, we are subtly shown the variety of mannerisms, expressions, faults, temperaments and predilections of all three of their parents and how those very traits are reflected back in turn and in sometimes, very painful and explosive fashions. Cholodenko suggests that the kids are definitely all right, as the parents are the ones who are going through an emotional upheaval. Joni and Laser have a sense of themselves the three adults pointedly do not as Nic, Jules and Paul are all experiencing waves of their respective midlife crises, that ultimately leads them to indulge in highly questionable decision making.

And finally, the film gives us a great love story, the kind of which we rarely see and I certainly do not especially mean because the two women are lesbians. What I am talking about is the following. With all of the movies out there that depict the act of falling in love, I have rarely seen a film that took the time to devote itself entirely to the act of staying in love, the work it takes to maintain and nurture and the precarious ebb and flow of marriage. With Nic and Jules, we are witnessing a stage where their love is ebbing more than flowing and Paul’s arrival serves as the tremendous catalyst to unearth past desires, long simmering resentments and entrenched disappointments with each other.

Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are a formidable pair as they have crated a relationship and marriage that feels real and lived in. Bening is outstanding as Nic, who is a defiantly difficult and prickly character to play, a feat which she handles with nothing but the highest of grace notes and completely without cloying award-season attention grabbing. Bening’s Nic is a demonstrably Type A character. She is a perfectionist, a control freak, and a woman who is not only struggling with the transition of her oldest child leaving the nest but also the lack of control she is able to place upon an evolving household and ever-shifting family roles. She is petulant, scornful, self-involved, condescending towards Jules’s waywardness, and is simultaneously resentful of her role as the breadwinner yet unwilling to relinquish her power. And her obvious alcoholism, fueled by her anger, frustrations and fear with her world sliding out of her control is unnerving. Yet, Nic is no monster as she is also seen as a fiercely loving Mother to her children and wife to Jules. Annette Bening hits every single note of this character to complete perfection, and if she does indeed receive attention during awards season, all of it is well deserved.

Julianne Moore is Bening’s equal as she is attempting to refigure her life, yet again, in the shadow of Bening’s lack of support and past disappointments. Her consistent wanderlust leads to her budding relationship with Paul, and allows her to feel a sense of reward and validation that Nic has long ceased giving to her. I am certain that there will be some controversy with Jules’ decisions throughout the film (which I will not reveal here) as how they relate to past film clichés concerning the treatment and depictions of lesbians. For me, I took all of her choices as relationship and life driven and not sexually driven. That no matter who gave her the attention, respect and again, the validation that she lacked, be it male or female, the same choices and consequences would have been made. For Jules, she has reached the point in her life, for better or for worse, where the emotional red lights of her life necessitated crossing. Julianne Moore injected a wise, painful comedic energy that served as a great counterpoint to Bening’s severity.

Like Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick in last year’s extraordinary “Up In the Air,” Bening and Moore jointly depicted the types of emotionally complex 21st century women that are on rare display in movies. And I especially loved how Cholodenko chose to film both of these beautiful women by allowing us to see all of the amazing lines of age in their faces and bodies by having the camera up so close and personal. No CGI air brushing allowed!

Mark Ruffalo gives one of his finest performances to date as Paul, the “go with the flow” sperm donor. While he is a certain type of ramshackle free spirit, he also possesses complex layers as he is a man who is a shrewd romantic player and businessman who has certainly run more than his fair share of emotional red lights. With the arrival of Joni and Laser, Paul is now confronted with the choices he has made in his past, issues of responsibility and remorse in ways he had never experienced before, and discovering, perhaps for the first time, what he just may really want out of life. He is the embodiment of the cliché, “Just because you can make a baby it doesn’t automatically make you a Father.” His confrontation with that reality places the disastrous consequences of his own emotional recklessness center stage especially once the lives of his own children are involved.

And special mention must go out to Mia Wasikowska, who is definitely a young talent to watch for. Her strong portrayal of Joni gives audiences the perfect opportunity to witness was was tragically not seen in her starring role in this year's terrible "Alice In Wonderland."

For those who are wanting a film that functions as a soapbox bellowing, Rainbow flag waving political smart bomb, “The Kids Are All Right” is decidedly not that movie and surprisingly, there have been a few complaints that the film doesn’t exist as such and doesn’t go far enough in being the ultimate lesbian parenting film. But for me, it is the act of not functioning as a message movie that makes it earn its obvious political status and statements. It is a simple movie with complex themes and relationships that beautifully shows exactly how life is lived and how people behave, especially when they are all trying to do the right thing by themselves and others. It is a film in the exact same league and excellence as Jonathan Demme’s extraordinary “Rachel Getting Married” (2008) with its depiction of a modern American 21st century family, the values contained therein and how those family nuances and alliances rapidly shift at the speed of love.

I cannot express to you enough the almost spiritual lift I feel when I see what I perceive to be a great movie! The sensation never fails and I am so excited to share that with you, while hoping that you will see it and feel the same. Certainly, there’s no visual flash in "The Kids Are All Right" that requires you to see it on the big screen, but I gently urge you to take a chance and spend some time with a film that will give you equal and ample doses of humor, insight, perceptive viewpoints and honest emotion. When a film of this quality come along, I believe it is our duty as consumers to go out to the theaters and support it, thus allowing the opportunity for more films of this level to be created and released.

Movies are too expensive and our time is too precious to waste it on movies that you forget once you leave the theater. "The Kids Are All Right" is a film to embrace, to debate over, to have a relationship with and most of all, it is definitely one to remember.

Friday, July 23, 2010

STRIKE OUT: a review of "Cop Out"

"COP OUT" Directed by Kevin Smith
* (one star)

I have to begin this review by asking what I believe to be are two essential questions, especially after having sat through this time waster. The first is an eternal one. Why are certain films given the green light to be funded and created while others languish in "Development Hell"? And secondly, what in the hell has happened to Kevin Smith?!

In regards to the first question, I have no answer to give to you especially since we now live in a world where the possibility of a new entry in the revitalized and astronomically lucrative James Bond series is in serious doubt yet we will soon welcome the arrival of a “Cats And Dogs” sequel. In regards to “Cop Out,” the latest film from Writer/Director Kevin Smith, and the first film of his which he has not written himself, we have yet one more unnecessary entry in the racially tinged “buddy cop film” genre. Bruce Willis is the long-suffering straight man to Tracy Morgan’s unhinged, unstable live wire as they star as Jimmy and Paul, two Brooklyn cops, partnered for nine years, yet now suspended from the force because of their unorthodox tactics and antics. Of course, suspension will not stop them from remaining on the trail of a vicious drug lord as well as a rare, stolen baseball card. “Cop Out” is a tremendous yawn of a movie. It is lazy, uninspired, unimaginative, unoriginal and for a comedy, disastrously unfunny throughout (save for the opening scene and a couple of chuckles here and there).

Sometimes, I like to joke to friends when speaking about movies, and most notably, the terrible ones, “I see these things so you won’t have to.” Dear readers, take this review as the best advice I can give, and chiefly those of you who may be fans of Kevin Smith as much as I am. “Cop Out” is a complete waste of the talent of the principal figures involved from Bruce Willis, Tracy Morgan and Smith. Furthermore and undeniably, the film is a complete waste of your hard earned money and your even more precious time. While it stunned me to see that it took two people to write a film so blank, it stunned me even more that at no point during the filming of this movie that absolutely no one decided that this undertaking just wasn’t worth the trouble as it was not funny at all. Tracy Morgan indeed shows that he came to work and while he does work himself into a frenzy, it is to no avail. Willis, on the other hand, completely looks like he is mentally kicking himself for doing a friend (i.e. Smith) a favor. He’s bored and obviously knows the material is beneath him and he visually looks as if he does not want to be a part of it.

The bigger question for my money revolves entirely around Kevin Smith. While I can honestly understand the desire to artistically challenge himself by directing a film that did not originate from his brain, I cannot fathom what potential he could have thought he found in material so pedestrian and painfully clichéd. From his still groundbreaking and reverential debut feature “Clerks” (1994), the stunning emotionally messy romance of “Chasing Amy” (1997), the incredibly hysterical and deeply felt religious satire of “Dogma” (1999), to the superlative sequel “Clerks II” (2006), Smith has built his career around breaking down all of the well-worn conventions of film and creating works that revel in their collective unpredictability. Smith, utilizing his home base of New Jersey as his backdrop, created a “Salingeresque” universe of inter-connected characters and stories dubbed the “Viewaskewniverse." Like the best writers, Smith lovingly concocted the films and stories that he would undoubtedly pay top dollar to see himself if he had not made them and while his particular tastes may not branch outwards to mass popularity, the earned affection and the solidified fan base he created cannot be debated. Even his lesser films like “Mallrats” (1995), “Jersey Girl” (2004) and “Zack And Miri Make A Porno” (2008) all felt as if they came from an honest place. That, for better or for worse, these are the stories Smith wanted to engage himself with and share with an audience.

That’s what makes “Cop Out” such a crushing disappointment, as there seems to be such dishonesty in its intent. I cannot believe for a moment that Smith believed as whole heartedly in this film as he did in the remainder of his work. The lack of energy, the lifeless display and presentation is of marked contrast to all of his other films and I really hope that the hefty paycheck he must have received from Warner Brothers as a "Director-For-Hire" satisfied his soul for a while as none of his prodigious talent is evident anywhere in this film.

And that’s another thing. As vulgar and inane as Smith's films can riotously be, they have typically been so smart about their stupidity, so mature with their immaturity, so knowing about what the characters are not smart or mature enough to realize for themselves. By contrast the stupidity on display in “Cop Out,”which once carried the original and pathetically cringe inducing moniker “A Couple Of Dicks," is not humorous. Its desperate.

Let me please take you back to Smith’s explosively scatological, slapstick, hysterical and near cartoon-like Hollywood satire, “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” (2001). The fifth film in his “Viewaskewniverse” series, followed his mainstay drug dealer characters (played by Jason Mewes and Smith, respectively) as they travel to Hollywood to forcibly cease production on a feature film based upon a comic book which itself was based upon them. In the middle of all of the raunchy, raucous humor involving a gang of lesbian thieves, a monkey sidekick, copious amounts of stoner jokes, returning appearances from beloved "Viewaskewniverse" characters and guest appearances from Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Will Ferrell, the late, great George Carlin and even Morris Day and The Time, it was an absolutely brilliantly smart and perceptive piece of writing. It knew exactly what kind of a movie it had to be, considering the two leading characters and additionally, Smith created a film that turned out to be the ultimate inside joke. He shrewdly roasted Hollywood itself, had a huge laugh on the audience for even paying to see a Jay and Silent Bob movie in the first place, and finally, he even worked the potential bad reviews for any Jay and Silent Bob film into the script—effectively shutting down any negative words any real world critics could say as he had already done so himself. It was a fabulously labyrinthine stroke of writing and filmmaking that was simultaneously fan/audience friendly and critic proof.

“Cop Out,” in many ways is essentially a buddy cop movie about buddy cop movies and 1980s buddy cop movies in particular, right down to the electronic score by “Beverly Hils Cop” and “Fletch” composer, Harold Faltermeyer. The film throws out every possible cliché from the genre that you know. The reckless cops getting themselves suspended as they turn in their guns and badges, the high octane and volumed Police Chief that just won't take one more minute of their shenanigans, the rascally informant (this time, played by Seann Williams Scott) and so on. But, at a time when we have all seen much more than our fair share of cop movies, from sequels, parodies, remakes, thrillers with comedic elements, comedies with action elements, you would think that this would be the perfect opportunity for Smith to utilize the best of his sensibilities, plus his supreme film knowledge, to effectively skewer the genre once and for all.

Yes, I did say that I found the opening sequence very funny. I really did. I even watched it again afterwards. It is a sequence (of course, shown in the film's trailers) where Tracy Morgan interrogates a suspect solely through a manic barrage of the half remembered snatches of dialogue from classic movies (I liked "The Color Purple" line the best). It was a briskly paced scene (which somehow managed to force in one puerile--and funny--penis joke), giving you no time to breathe and it suggested that perhaps Smith just may knock this one out of the park. But, it was not to be.

Aside from a couple of intermittent quips in which Willis and Morgan debate about character motivations and who is the better actor, “Cop Out” does NOTHING with those aforementioned cop movie clichés whatsoever and we are subjected to anemic subplots about Paul’s suspicions about the possibly illicit activities of his gorgeous wife (Rashida Jones), and Jimmy’s desire to pay for his daughter’s wedding, despite living on a cop's wages and soon, the movie barely limps and crawls its way to the finish line, with barely a breath remaining in its cinematic body.

My final reaction to "Cop Out" is not a passionate one as this film wasn't even passionate about itself. It's Kevin Smith's worst film by a long shot. It's one of the worst films of 2010 very easily. All I am passionate about is the trajectory Smith's career may be taking. As a fan, I want nothing else for him but to do well and deliver what I know he has the ability to deliver. He is so much smarter than the material given to him in "Cop Out" that I cannot help but to wonder just what in the hell was he thinking? Certainly out of all of the material he could have chosen from, there just had to be something, anything better than this! If he took this job for the money, perhaps he will put it to good usage as he is now involved with two projects, I know he has been passionate about: the long gestating politically tinged horror film, "Red State" (which has finally found funding and will soon begin to shoot) and "Hit Somebody," a hockey themed comedy-drama based upon a song by the late Warren Zevon.

I have faith that Smith will return to form but for now, with his latest film, the title says it all.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

JUSTICE, OBSESSION, RETRIBUTION & POWER: a review of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo"

“THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO” Directed by Niels Arden Opley
Based upon the novel by Stieg Larsson
*** ½ (three and a half stars)

In an odd way, I almost feel that I am reviewing a film that hasn’t even been released while I am actively reviewing this current one.

I say that to you because so much literal and figurative ink has been spilled over the creation a new film version of author Stieg Larsson’s monstrously popular and internationally best selling novel, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which will be helmed by Director David Fincher. As I watched the original Swedish film version, I could not help but think that if there was any American filmmaker that could potentially take on this material and make it work effectively, it would be Fincher. The story seems to travel right up the middle of his own cinematic subjects, bridging the gap between his groundbreaking serial killer tale “Se7en” (1995) and the excellent true crime, journalistic procedural thriller “Zodiac” (2007). Then, I also wondered, as I watched, if creating an American version, which Fincher hopes to film in Sweden, would be remotely necessary as we have this solid, original foreign film that is being seen and embraced by critics and audiences. I had to consistently keep reminding myself to just focus on what was in front of me as the only film I have to review is THIS one. While I have to admit that my initial reaction was one of admiration, it wasn’t emphatic or overwhelming. Yet, as I write and ruminate over what I have seen, I am feeling that Director Neils Arden Opley’s original film version has burrowed even deeper, making for a strong, powerful film that just may be definitive enough to negate Fincher’s as yet un-filmed adaptation.

For those familiar and unfamiliar with the novel, the basic plot of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” revolves around the 40 year disappearance-and possible murder-of a 16 year old girl. Requested to investigate the case, is Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nygard), an idealistic, controversial, infamous and falsely disgraced journalist, wrongly sentenced to soon serve a six-month prison sentence for libel. Yet Blomkvist himself is also being investigated by the enigmatic titular girl with the dragon tattoo, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a reticent 24 year old, goth styled, bisexual, ace computer hacker with an explosively nasty and vengeful temper. Blomkvist and Lisbeth soon join forces on the case which ultimately leads them into a labyrinth of family secrets and even deeper into Sweden’s dark underbelly and historical links to World War II and involvement with Nazis, in particular.

For those of you who are arriving to this story completely uninformed as I was, I urge you to allow the film to lay its groundwork, for you will be rewarded with a film that possesses a powerfully emotional momentum. “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is the definition of a “slow-burner,” a deliberately paced film designed to slowly surround you in a story that is equal parts pulpy thriller and grimly serious exploration of the dichotomy between the powerful, the powerless and how that balance can easily upend itself. I have to admit to being thrown off by the film’s lugubrious rhythms at first, especially during the lengthy sequences in the film’s first third where Blomkvist and Lisbeth’s personal storylines have not yet converged. In retrospect, it was a crucially smart decision as these two seemingly disparate paths, especially Lisbeth’s, ultimately speak to the film’s larger and demonstrably more disturbing themes.

The world presented in “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is a distressingly violent one and I must take this time to warn more sensitive viewers that while the acts of violence on display in the film are not gratuitous or often seen, what is shown is unblinking, raw and extremely difficult, a decision that has led to some level of controversy. Depicting violence in film and how that depiction can quickly descend into tastelessness and even exploitation is a fine line. Completely disregarding the torture porn of the horror film genre, which seems to exist only to present disgusting acts of violence, and usually towards women, the adult dramatic thriller genre tends to contain more artistic credibility which makes the extremely violent acts of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” all the more upsetting. Some critics have questioned if this film is actually trying to have it both ways by rubbing the audience’s face in violent imagery only to be properly avenged ruthlessly by the character of Lisbeth Salander. I must concede that while those critics and viewers do have a point as the sequences of rape, torture and vengeance are grisly. However, I felt it ultimately worked with the larger issues Opley wanted to engage his audience with.

In his film, Opley is asking us to ponder the complete cycle of violence, how those seeds are planted, how it is taught, whom it affects as well as exploring our complicit relationship with violence. Opley is also asking us to think about the core values and concepts of justice itself. If you have uncovered a horrific secret, what is your responsibility to protecting your own safety, even if it comes at the expense of others, including those in danger as well as the ones who love you? Most dramatically, we are asked, through the character of Lisbeth Salander, who is indeed raped twice by a benefactor early in the film and does house a dark, unexplained childhood, how the seeds of violence grow within the original victims and furthermore, how a victim now views the world, as well as concepts of retribution and revenge. “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is a treatise on the obsessions that drive and define us, whether righteously or not, and it makes for compelling and exuberantly adult viewing, rife with a strong racial and sexual political agenda.

The performances of Michael Nygard and Noomi Rapace anchor the film beautifully as they both fully present the respective histories of their characters with skilled, understated and almost clinically nuanced work. Rapace, in particular, gives a challenging performance as Lisbeth, a woman a few words, with walls of self-protection firmly in place and yet she has to somehow show a myriad of emotional levels concerning control, dominance, protection, vulnerability, rage and possibly, love. Her methodical thinking in times of delivering ferocious punishment is almost supernatural in its completeness. Lisbeth Salander is a damaged soul, clawing onto life and Rapace delivers a fascinating and harrowing portrayal as she completely embodied this character. Rapace often reminded me fondly of Anne Parillaud of Director Luc Besson’s “La Femme Nikita” (1990) and Franka Potente of Director Tom Tykwer’s brilliant “Run Lola Run” (1998), two more cinematic anti-heroines not typically seen in American cinema.

Now, as I return to the ides of this “The Dragon With The Dragon Tattoo” being remade for American audiences just at the point American audiences are connecting with it, and Nygard and Rapace in particular, I am conflicted with any enthusiasm I may have for this project. It certainly will gives David Fincher a most difficult cinematic mountain to climb despite his considerable talent and my allegiance to him as a fan of his work. Yes, as I watched this original version, I often thought of someone like Liam Neeson in Nygard’s role, yet I could not think of any potential actress, other than a complete unknown who could even attempt to bring Lisbeth to life—especially when we have Noomi Raopace.

It made me think again about the precarious state American cinema has currently found itself with dwindling creativity and newfound and almost abusive interests in sequels, remakes and re-boots and re-imaginings. I worry that with the bigger budget and bigger celebrities at play, we will be left with a dumbed down version of a difficult story. Again, I have faith that Fincher will work at his best as his track record, which features no less than "The Game" (1997), "Fight Club" (1999), "Panic Room" (2002) and "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button" (2008), remains at a high point. But, aren't there just times when things should just be left alone? To allow the original work to find the audience it intends to find and stand on its own feet? In the case of Larsson's book series, all three Swedish films have been made and the second installment, "The Girl Who Played With Fire," is being released slowly around the country as I write, a feat that seems to make the idea of these remakes a moot one.

I must inform you that I am not against remakes of foreign films as a rule. For example, Writer/Director Cameron Crowe's polarizing "Vanilla Sky" (2001), itself a remake of Writer/Director Alejandro Amenabar's ghostly "Abre Los Ojos" (1997), was a film that honored, complimented and even improved upon the original work to me and it remains one of my favorite films from the previous decade. That said, I could not even begin to imagine anyone touching works like Director Alfonso Cuaron's "Y Tu Mama Tambien" (2001) or escpecially Director Jean-Jacques Beineix's extraordinary "Diva" (1981) and the less said about Hollywood's unwise and stupid early 1980's remake of Jean Luc Godard's iconic "Breathless" (1960) the better.

The time for American audiences to expand their collective cinematic minds is long overdue and I cannot help but to wonder if Hollywood and David Fincher just shouldn't even bother with the remake. To be fair to all parties involved, I will certainly save any official judgement until December 2011, when this new version has already been scheduled for release.

Yet when we have already have a film of such high quality, can't that just be enough?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

DREAM WEAVER: a review of "Inception"

“INCEPTION” Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
**** (four stars)

THIS is the movie that I have been waiting for all year. In a literal sense, ever since I saw the very first trailer for Writer/Director Christopher Nolan’s latest film, I wanted to see the final result the moment the preview concluded. In a slightly more figurative sense, I have been waiting for this precise film because, aside from a few exceptions, it has, overall, been a dismal year at the movies with one unimaginative, under-thought, dumbed down movie after another. In a world where sequels and “re-boots” and non-essential re-makes rule the day, it was an astounding sight to see a film of such marvelous storytelling and filmmaking skill that even the most familiar elements felt completely original. “Inception” is another cinematic high water mark for Nolan, and like his previous film, the game changing “The Dark Knight” (2008), it shows that when Hollywood bothers to get it right, it is more than up to the task. “Inception” gets everything so right, that it has soared to the very heights of being one of my favorite films of 2010.

I will only provide you with the most elemental basis of plot description so as to not only cease from producing inadvertent spoilers but to allow you the same opportunity I did with seeing this film fairly cold, and taking the ride as it is meant to be taken most effectively. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb, a corporate thief of dreams, hired by corporate mogul Saito (Ken Watanabe) to infiltrate the mind of Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), the son of corporate rival Maurice Fischer (Pete Postlethwaite), in order to obtain pertinent corporate secrets ensuring Saito’s ultimate dominance. Cobb then assembles his “dream team,” consisting of his right hand man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a dream forger (Tom Hardy), the anesthetist (Dileep Rao) and the newest member, a blazingly sharp young architect named Ariadne (a strong Ellen Page), for the task. Yet, even for an experienced dream thief like Cobb, this is an atypical job as his team is about to implant an idea rather than extract information, making for the ultimate “Mission: Impossible” as the team descends into several dream stages with the more than serious threat of never finding their way out again.

While “Inception” succeeds greatly as a crime thriller, action film, dark mystery, aching love story, as well as a morality tale of regret and redemption, it is the psychological drama at the core that holds everything together. From the unreliable memories of “Momento” (2001) to the fractured mental states of sleeplessness in “Insomnia” (2002) and the deep psychosomatic underpinnings of “The Prestige” (2006) and his Batman series, Nolan’s previous films have all orchestrated themselves around psychological themes and frameworks. Yet “Inception” travels the deepest thus far as he takes us on journey through various levels of dreamscapes, shared dreaming, memories, the dangerous subconscious and the even more sinister limbo stage, with the strongest of cinematic holds. He holds you in full attention from the start, even when you have no idea of what exactly is occurring or even posses the rules to navigate this world. But like a wizard, Nolan continuously unveils the contents behind his magic curtain and allows you to gradually discover your bearings along the way. None of the explanations and exposition throughout feels lugubrious. Nothing ever feels like a cheat or a shortcut. And by the film’s conclusion, when you have fully been immersed in Nolan’s dream language and logic, you receive an ending that is definitive while also being ambiguous…just like any dreams you and I may have.

The highest beauty of this film is how Nolan utilizes the dream language and logic of which we are all familiar and weaves them into what is essentially a grandiose science-fiction themed heist movie. I have always been fascinated with dreaming and how the world of dreams relates to the symbiotic relationship between the mind and the spirit. Seemingly innocuous objects contain grand significance to no one else but the dreamer. The sensations we all have felt while dreaming or within dreams (i.e. falling, flying, floating) all work their way in the intricately plotted storyline.

What meant most to me, beyond the mind blowing special effects and astonishingly constructed and staged action sequences, was how firmly the deeply philosophical pursuits of understanding dreams, in addition to the elasticity of time, were weaved into the story and the lives of several of the characters. How do we dream and what is their purpose? Why do we have the sensation of traveling far and away through worlds upon worlds of our pasts, presents and imaginings when we have not ever left the sanctity of our own beds? Where does the spirit go when our bodies lay relatively motionless? Where do our emotional landscapes and senses fit in? What is the truest meaning of being “awake” and knowing which world you exist in is the “real” one? And of course, most unsettlingly, if you die in your dreams, do you die in real life?

Nolan pursues every single one of those threads and more in his extremely well written script without bogging the audience down in conceptual mumbo jumbo. He always remembers that he’s got a story to tell and wisely, so wisely, everything at his disposal is utilized as a tool to serve the piece as a whole. The outstanding concepts, cinematography, set design, epic music score and special effects do not overwhelm any moment contained in “Inception.” They all serve to enhance, stimulate, excite, disorient and alter your senses in the best possible way imaginable.

All of the performances from the entire cast are first rate. Leonardo DiCaprio gives yet another tightly wound, intense performance that is always grounded in the emotional landscapes of his character. He pulls you into his world and damaged mind immediately, making a character that is simultaneously sympathetic, dangerous, reckless and haunted. And arriving in the same year as Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” where he played a character on similarly unsteady psychological ground, it is amazing to see how he was able to play Cobb and not suggest the work he performed in the previous film. His skill continues to impress and amaze.

Ellen Page, again shows that her breakthrough in “Juno” (2007) was no fluke. She is the real deal as she is the film’s moral center and conscious. She asks they very questions the audience should be asking throughout, yet she also sets herself a step ahead of the audience and the other characters as well. She is fiercely intelligent, aggressively curious, as reckless as DiCaprio’s character in some ways yet her soul has not been compromised. Page is effortlessly complex and inviting.

Again, I cannot state enough how much I needed to see this movie, as my enthusiasm was beginning to wane due to the frustrating lack of strong films being released this year. Christopher Nolan and his entire dream team of actors and collaborators succeeded in ways “Shutter Island” did not, despite Scorsese's honest attempt, as all of the story elements don’t exist to simply serve an unconvincing ending that it hadn’t earned in the first place. It bests Tim Burton’s “Alice In Wonderland” and The Hughes Brothers’ “The Book Of Eli,” by again not allowing the aesthetics overwhelm the storytelling, a mistake which made those aforementioned films draining and lifeless.

While this film often recalled other movies like Ken Russell's "Altered States" (1981), Paul Verhoeven's "Total Recall" (1990), the Wachowski Brother's "Matrix" series (1999 & 2003), Tarsem Singh's "The Cell" (2000), Cameron Crowe's "Vanilla Sky" (2001), and even Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" (2008) there is nothing derivative, lazy or ill conceived on display in "Inception." I truly believe that if you choose to buy a ticket into this experience, you will all be awarded with an intelligent, pulse pounding, thrilling and consistently imaginative motion picture of the level that is sadly not on display more frequently.

So...what are you waiting for????????

Saturday, July 10, 2010

MY DAD, THE SUPERVILLAIN: a review of "Despicable Me"

"DESPICABLE ME" Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

First things first. Pixar has nothing to worry about. For that matter, the Dreamworks Animation Studios have nothing to worry about either.

"Despicable Me," the latest entry in the computer animated movie featuring the all star voice cast sweepstakes, is a cinematic straight line down the middle. It's not bad as it is a plesant enough diversion that does contain good chuckles, a zippy energy and colorful vibrancy. But, it's not necessarily that good either as it does tend to subscribe to a fair share of the post-ironic, too snarky for its own good, pop culture driven, flatulent humor that has unfortunately saturated children's entertainment in recent years. Yet, somehow, this disparate merging of genres, as well as a smattering of plot lines and comic styles, turns out to be a fairly cute enterprise that will definitely keep the young ones hugely entertained.

The voice of Steve Carell (via a pseudo Hungarian accent) stars as Gru, a misanthropic supervillain with a comically nasty mean streak. He smashes cars when parallel parking and immobilizes customers at his favorite coffeehouse with his Freeze Gun, for the sole purpose of skipping ahead in line to retrieve his favorite muffin and morning beverage. Yet, Gru has an additional need to be grumpy as he has fallen on difficult times. It turns out that a mysterious new villain has effectively stolen Gru's evil thunder by also stealing the pyramids. As he continues to plot his revival as the World's Greatest Villain, along with his sidekick Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) and his army of chattering yellow pill shaped Minions, in the secret basement laboratory of his otherwise unassuming dark house, Gru decides upon the object of the most spectacular heist in history: the theft of the moon.

But, there are a few problems. First of all, Gru needs to steal the Shrinking Gun from Vector, his new young nemesis (Jason Segel). But his largest obstacle arrives in the form of three orphaned sisters named Margo, Edith and Agnes (voiced by Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier and Elsie Fisher, respectively), whom Gru adopts for the purpose of covertly infiltrating Vector's lair to then steal the Shrinking Gun. As the three little moppets begin to warm and burrow their charming ways into Gru's cold heart, he arrives at a personal crossroads, where he is confronted by whether his true nature is as a supervillain or even as...gulp...a hero!

Truth be told, "Despicable Me" is a bit of a schizophrenic movie. It is such a jumble that I am surprised that it actually held together at all. What begins as a slightly dark comedy segues into a tender piece starring the orphaned girls and segues again into near Looney Tunes/"Spy Vs. Spy" slapstick then back again to the darker humor rubbing up against the sweetness. It's almost as if the movie is at war with itself as it, along with Gru, tries to figure out exactly what kind of a movie it wants to be. Like a performer desperately trying to keep ten spinning plates afloat and revolving, the film is admittedly a tad sloppy while also keeping a steadily frenetic pace with a somewhat bombastic music score by Pharrell Williams (!) propelling the film along. If anything, 'Despicable Me" is a healthy reminder of not only just how wonderful the original "Shrek" (2001) was but how difficult it is to combine so many levels of humor that successfully. "Despicable Me" does try hard but the level achieved by that first "Shrek" is not reached.

Some of the characters aren't as developed as others making for a certain unbalance that results in a few storytelling short cuts. This is most notable with the great Julie Andrews as Gru's mean Mom. Her vocal talents are considerably wasted as she receives scant screen time yet she serves to present the film's more treacly (i.e. "heartwarming") subject matter as we see snippets of Gru's sad childhood during which he was supremely ignored. That's all well and good to a degree but if you are a filmmaker that is blessed with the amazing vocal talents of Julie Andrews, then use her and give her loads to do!

Aside from Andrews, the majority of the voice cast perform their roles with gusto and the chemistry between Carell and the three girls do contain genuine laughs and warmth, which makes the predictable climax work better than it possibly should.

As with my recent review of the disappointing "The Last Airbender," "Despicable Me" is primarily a children's movie for children and they certainly will not be thinking about the criticisms I pointed out at all, as I would imagine they would only desire a snappy good time with great visuals and lots of laughs. (Although keeping with the film's erratic tone, it carries more than enough self-consciously adult humor and pop culture jokes to keep the grown ups in attendance from spending the entire time in the lobby!)

For all intents and purposes, "Despicable Me," is a good looking movie. While it contains a few sequences as visual standouts (an air battle between Gru and Vector and a wild amusement park roller coaster sequence, in particular), the film has a somewhat flat, day-glo colored look that does not hold the same rapturous and luxurious visual presentation that is now the standard as set by Pixar. But, again, this is my adult taste commenting on something young children don't care a whit about and not every film aimed at children can ultimately turn into a masterpiece.

"Despicable Me" is not perfect and doesn't remotely fit in the same league as this year's "How To Train Your Dragon" and "Toy Story 3," but that's OK. It is a movie that is refreshingly not mean spirited and furthermore, I don't believe that the filmmakers tried to pull one over on the audience or even disrespect them in any way. It felt like an honest try to tell a good story in the most entertaining way possible.

While it was blandly entertaining to me and nothing I ever need see again, the kids I saw it with and the ones around me, enjoyed it very much.

And sometimes, that's decent enough.

Friday, July 9, 2010

THE ONES THAT NEARLY GOT AWAY #3: a review of "Midnight Express" (1978)

Screenplay written by Oliver Stone
Based upon the memoir by William Hayes with William Hoffer
Directed by Alan Parker
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

When I take time to think of the filmmakers who have entertained and influenced me in the greatest ways over the years, Alan Parker is one who will always make his way onto such a list. While his name is not as recognizable as Scorsese, Coppola or Spielberg, Parker has created a body of work that can stand shoulder to shoulder with any films from those aforementioned filmmaking giants.

The oeuvre of Alan Parker includes, but is not at all limited to, the innovative children's musical gangster film "Bugsy Malone" (1976), the gritty, groundbreaking, R Rated high school musical, "Fame" (1980), the brutal divorce drama "Shoot The Moon" (1982), the disturbing rock film adaptation of "Pink Floyd: The Wall" (also from 1982), the intimate post Vietnam war mood piece "Birdy" (1986), the voodoo horror film "Angel Heart" (1987) and the controversial Civil Rights film"Mississippi Burning" (1989).

Even after having seen those films, I stll found myself not having had seen what is considered to be his most controversial film, 1978's iconic Turkish prison docudrama "Midnight Express." Well, as of just last night, "Midnight Express" and I met at last and it was a long time coming. I could now finally experience what I have only heard about in bits and pieces over the years as well as see quite possibly where Parker's filmmaking strengths accelerated him into being one of the great directors of modern cinema.

The film begins on October 6, 1970 with the sounds of an accelerated heartbeat. We are quickly introduced to young Billy Hayes (Brad Davis), an American tourist about to depart Istanbul with his sweet faced girlfriend Susan (Irene Miracle). Unbeknownst to her, Billy has wrapped 2 kilos of hashish around his body, hoping to smuggle it all back to the United States to sell amongst his friends. Hayes' illicit plans are rapidly snuffed as he is apprehended and arrested at the airport, just as he is about to board the plane Susan is now safely on. Billy is quickly thrown through the Turkish legal system and is eventually sentenced and transferred to a Turkish prison to serve a four year and two month imprisonment for drug possession.

As Hayes' family and attorney in America try to rescue him through court appeals, Billy runs afoul of the insidious Rifiki (Paolo Bonacelli) and the vicious head guard Hamidou (Paul L. Smith) and is befriended on the inside by the volatile Jimmy Booth (a rampaging Randy Quaid) and Max (a terrific John Hurt), a bespectacled inmate who is mad to the point of being nearly astral. Through this trio, the audience is given a front row seat into the harrowing life behind bars where prisoners are caned to the point of hospitalization, living conditions are gruesomely filthy, and bribery, insanity and the threat of rape by the guards is rampant.

Hayes' nightmare descends even deeper as the Turkish legal system overturns Hayes' original sentence and rules that he is to now serve a 30 year imprisonment, a political move which makes Hayes determined to somehow ride the "midnight express," which is prison slang for "escape."

As I watched, I saw all of the familiar imagery that would become Parker's filmmaking trademarks. The sharp, angular cinematography, murky set design and the forward thinking musical score by Giorgio Moroder all serve to create a level of paranoid claustrophobia that is unrelenting. I also began to truly see the bar this film set in place that all subsequent prison films and television shows would have to strive for. To also witness how ingratiated this film has become within the confines of pop culture was also deeply enlightening. But that said, I found myself having trouble connecting with the material although I was heavily involved. And about midway through the film, I discovered that what was holding me at arms length was the one element that should have brought me into this tale the deepest and that was the film's lead, Brad Davis.

Now, I am not even about to suggest that Davis gave anything resembling a weak performance. Quite the contrary, he is more than up to the task for this excruciating portrayal. He certainly possessed the necessary physicality, yet for most of the film, he seemed to be too passive and not terribly connected to his own surroundings and predicament. He seemed to be too clean where John Hurt, on the other hand, was dirty to the point of being untouchable while also being so mesmerising that you could not look away from him. To me, Brad Davis was surrounded by Hell but I needed him to take me to Hell and I just wasn’t finding myself going there with him, a fault which did hurt the film as a whole.

But then, through Parker and Stone’s dramatic license (more on that later), a crucial situation occurs with John Hurt’s Max that causes Davis' Hayes to unleash his pent up animalistic rage against Rifiki. It is an act of extreme brutality which then lands him into the sanitarium for the film’s deeply effective final third.

All of the trepidation I felt concerning Davis’ performance evaporated within this section of the film, as “Midnight Express” then extends itself into greatness. Parker creates a virtuoso sequence of extreme isolation that descends into complete madness and here is where Davis showed that he is fully up to the task. I said that I needed him to take me to Hell and he achieved that task with a shattering, uninhibited performance which involves a broken reunion with his girlfriend and his final attempt for escape which itself contains his concluding battle with Hamidou. He is beaten, tortured and scarred beyond recognition but somehow, the spirit has remained and it is that very resiliency of hope and triumph that sits at the core and carries this film valiantly over the finish line.

But it seems in pursuit of cinematic greatness and possibly Oscar gold, the truth of Billy Hayes' real life ordeal was somehow lost in the cracks, thus producing an enormous amount of controversy that still hangs over "Midnight Express" to this day. Dramatic license with real world events is commonplace within the confines of filmmaking and storytelling but it seems that Parker and Stone's liberal usage of the facts, especially in a story that possesses more than enough inherent drama, has been seen as inexcusable to the point of being irresponsible. Some of the film's harshest critics over the years have even termed this film as a "national hate movie" with its unforgiving depiction of Turkey, its legal system and its individual citizens, none of whom have redeeming social value in this story. Yes, Hayes was imprisoned for an unreasonable amount of time in regards to his crime but shouldn't that be enough without any of the embellishments?

I have to admit that I did have the same sentiments with Parker's "Mississippi Burning." While tremendously effective and filled with excellent performances from top to bottom, the film also seemed to suggest, inadvertently or not, that the real heroes of the Civil Rights movement were Caucasian Americans and all the poor, victimized, down trodden African Americans needed were the virtuous "White Knights" to arrive to the rescue. It left a strange cinematic taste in my mouth at the time even though I was as impressed with Parker's filmmaking skill with this film as I had been with his previous work. It didn't derail that film on the whole, but it did cloud its overall success in my mind. Upon reading the the deviations from the facts for dramatic license, I was indeed left with that same cinematic distaste and even at the exact same level with "Mississippi Burning." Nothing derailed the film entirely but there is this strange cloud that hangs over it. I also have to say that it was indeed enlightening to see that Parker, Stone and Davis, before his passing in the 90s, have all apologized, on separate occasions, for their transgressions and any offensive portrayals of the Turks.

All of that being discussed, what did this film leave me with on the whole? I gave this film a high rating not because of its long lasting influence and far reaching pop cultural status but because it is almost the ultimate prison film, where the seeds of hope can still survive and flourish even against uncompromising cruelty and impossible odds. It was that core that compelled me and involved me greatly and that reaction cannot be ignored even when there are somewhat questionable tactics and motives behind the scenes and during its conception.

As I previously stated, "Midnight Express" set the stage for all subsequent prison dramas, most notably the HBO series "Oz," Director Frank Darabont's "The Shawshank Redemption" (1994)and "The Green Mile" (1999) and even lesser known works like the hardcore Chicago teen prison film "Bad Boys" (1983) starring Sean Penn and directed by Rick Rosenthal.

With "Midnight Express," Alan Parker revolutionized a complete film genre and its greatness is more than evident. And while it is unforgiving, it is an acquaintance that I am thankful to have made on my lifelong cinematic journeys.

WHEN THE MEEK INHERIT THE EARTH: a review of "Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage"

This film is a 2010 release that has been screened at film festivals but not in commercial theaters, to my knowledge. It has, however, recently aired on VH1-Classic and has just been released on DVD.

The following review contains a preamble of considerable length. Considering the subject matter, it somehow seems more than fitting. Please enjoy!

"Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage" Directed by Scot McFayden & Sam Dunn

***1/2 (three and a half stars)

1980 was the exact year in which my musical horizons expanded in ways that would forever alter my life. For much of my 11 years, my music listening had entirely consisted of the easily digestible albums filled with the classic songcraft of three minute selections as well as the endless consumption of the Chicago AM rock, pop and soul radio stations, with WLS-AM as my personal favorite. The full greatness of The Beatles was also rapidly surging through my head, heart and musical dreams. But by 1979, I was beginning to be challenged. Christmas of that year provided me with an unprecedented musical bounty, as I received a slew of record albums from bands I adored plus some profound surprises. In addition to seeing titles from E.L.O., Queen, KISS and the Eagles, there sat two monumentally groundbreaking albums that demonstrably pushed the medium of rock and roll a quantum leap forward. The first was Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk," an album so ahead of its time, that I didn't fully embrace until almost 15 years after its release. The other was Pink Floyd's harrowing double concept rock opera opus,"The Wall." It was an album so unlike anything I had ever conceived of listening to before, that it terrified me. So much so that it seemed to be "evil" and I hid it away, not to be rediscovered, and eventually adored, until many months later.

What really broke the glass ceiling, opening up the sky to new musical horizons occurred on a day when I was fiddling around with a new boom box I had received. While scrolling the tuning knob up and down the dial and switching buttons up, down, on and off, I discovered FM radio where the DJs weaved a darker almost mystical spell, spinning music was decidedly stranger, foreboding and more dangerous than anything Gene Simmons could spew from his voluminous tongue. And then, as if it were a predestined moment of introduction between music and soul, I heard it...

The first sound I heard was a preliminary blaze of guitar, which, to my ears, sounded like what could only be described as a fanfare. Afterwards, the song officially began with a force and majesty I had previously unheard. The solo guitar led into a tremendously tight riff from the full band that widely opened up into the main musical piece, which contained such a supreme melodic and powerful velocity that it gave me the sensation of what only could be described as flying. Then, ensuring that I would not be left behind in the musical jet stream, the high pitched, inviting vocals appeared and began to sing the following words, "Begin the day with a friendly voice, a companion unobtrusive. Plays that song that's so elusive and the magic music makes your morning mood..." From that moment and over the remaining time of the four minute and fifty seven second song, this music spoke directly to me!

The song was "The Spirit Of Radio." The band was Rush. The connection between artist and listener had been completely forged and solidified.

Throughout the entirety of my middle school and high school years, my fascination, admiration and allegiance to Rush, the musical collective of bassist/lead vocalist/keyboardist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alec Lifeson and drummer/lyricist Neil Peart, intensified. I poured over every album I purchased, listening repeatedly in stunned, often slack-jawed amazement at the enormous sound these three people were able to produce. The songs carried the symphonics of a full orchestra while pummeling you with rock swagger. The songs possessed the swing of jazz filtered through elongated science-fiction themed progressive rock epics. And then, there was the actual performance of the music itself! It was as if these three supremely talented musicians could bend the fabric of time and space at seemingly effortless will with a skill which often occurred with the velocity of a hurricane. (My Dad once joked when listening to the legendary jazz fusion track YYZ, “I know why they call themselves ‘Rush.” They’re always rushing to see who can get to the end of the song first!!”) In addition to the actual music were the earnest, sincere lyrics that not only spoke to the heart but were decidedly literary as they contained scholarly references and a vocabulary atypical of most pop/rock songs.

As I continued to be enthralled by their music, I discovered that Rush redefined and revolutionized the rock power trio. They were intricately complex yet highly accessible. They introduced me to a new world of hard rock and progressive rock artists like The Who, Led Zeppelin, Yes, King Crimson and Genesis (ironically, the very artists they were themselves influenced by). And drummer Neil Peart, in particular, was (and remains) a musical hero as he is one of the indisputable Jedi masters of the instrument and redefined exactly what the role of a rock drummer could be.

As I LOVED this band so completely and did find several kindred spirits that loved their music as much as I, Rush was not a popular band to behold. There was a certain geek factor that, for some reason went along with the band, and that perception did create a certain divide across the school hallways. I remember how a dear friend and I somehow (and misguidedly) convinced the DJ at one cafeteria school dance to play the Overture to Rush’s 1976 classic, Ayn Rand inspired, science fiction treatise, “2112.” That obviously did not go over well. There was another time I recall during high school as one English class was entrenched in The Lord Of The Flies. As we discussed the nature of fear as depicted by author William Golding, I was inspired to bring in the lyrics and a cassette version of three Rush selections from their then continuing “Fear” song cycle. This also did not bode well for me, as one classmate uttered scornfully, “I really didn’t think that I was going to school to hear Rush songs!”

“Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage,” a strong, insightful and award winning new documentary by filmmakers Scot McFayden & Sam Dunn affectionately wants to bridge the gap between the Rush disciple, the novice and the ones who couldn’t care less and it greatly succeeds. McFayden and Dunn take the ample time to explore the question of exactly how can a band who is entering their fortieth year as a vital musical unit, that is also currently ranked third in consecutive gold or platinum albums after The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, that is revered by generations of fans and musicians has also been marginalized and viewed as what Lee calls, "The World's Biggest Cult Band." It is a celebratory film about friendship, commitment, ferocious determination and not even one tale of rock and roll excess or drug induced mania is present at all. For me, this film proved not only to be a source of vindication for this band that I have loved for most of my life but also a source of illumination as these three men have also proven to be some of rock’s more mysterious musicians, never flailing in front cameras or magazine for attention—wisely letting their music do the talking for them.

The film details the band's beginnings as we are quickly introduced to two of Rush's founding members. Like the sympathetically recalled teenaged misfits and dreamers of their darkly elegant 1982 song “Subdivisions,” Geddy Lee, the son of Holocaust survivors, and Alex Lifeson, the son of Serbian immigrants, fatefully found each other in suburban Toronto, Canada during Junior High, both armed with dreams of becoming musicians and following in the footsteps of their musical heroes. Joined shortly thereafter by Rush's original drummer John Rutsey in 1971, the trio embarked upon tours of the local bay and high school dance circuit and eventually released their eponymously titled debut album in 1974.

Enter Neil Peart, at the dawn of Rush’s first U.S. tour, which Rutsey declined to take part in due to his health issues with diabetes, and the definitive version of the band was officially born. From this point on and with few obstacles along the way, Rush carved out their own, distinctive musical path and ultimately stormed the stadiums, airwaves and albums sales with now classic albums like “A Farewell To Kings” (1977), “Permanent Waves” (1980) as well as “Moving Pictures” (1981), one of their most celebrated releases which features the iconic “Tom Sawyer.”

In addition to new interviews with no less than The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, Metallica’s Kirk Hammet, Foo Fighters’ drummer Taylor Hawkins, Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor, and bassist Les Claypool, among other current musicians, all influenced by Rush, the film deftly charts out Rush’s history with oodles of archival concert, studio and interview footage. Best of all, it is a resounding pleasure to witness Lee, Lifeson and especially, the notoriously reticent and surprisingly loquacious Peart in brand new interviews throughout.

Now of course, as a longtime fan, I certainly would have preferred even more insight into their songwriting and recoding process, more information devoted to key albums in their discography and even information as to the origin of their band’s name. But again, this is a film meant to reach outwards to anyone who chooses to view it so I can understand certain omissions. Besides, McFayden and Dunn have something even more important on their filmmaking agenda. As all three men ruminate over their shared history, musical highs and difficulties, is it enlightening to witness their deep bonds, acceptance and understanding of each other’s personal foibles. This is especially apparent regarding their grueling touring schedules, creative differences and their relationships with their devoted fans (Lee and Lifeson tend to make time for fans while the shyer, more intense Peart typically will not).

Lee, Lifeson and Peart all present themselves as humble family men and it astounded me to see that three musicians of their caliber never took their collective eyes off of the proverbial prize or ever took their good fortune or talent for granted. We see them rehearse, practice and strive to always improve themselves. One sequence inthe film, entitled "The Yoda Of Drums," details how Peart studied with a jazz drummer, for a period long into the band's deeply established career, simply for the betterment of the relationship between himself and his instrument. Other sections detail their extreme discipline and devotion to their craft, which proved to be a source of admiration to the bands they have toured with over the years.

The emotional centerpiece of the film arrives when confronting a devastating tragedy I had previously heard only scant details about. After concluding another world tour, Neil Peart’s world was shattered completely when his daughter was killed in a car accident and his wife passed away from cancer, all in the space of less than one year, effectively placing Rush on a six year hiatus and leaving any potential future in doubt. How Lee, Lifeson and Peart all dealt with this wrenching experience and rebuilt their lives together and their openness to discuss it at all was profoundly revealing. It was remarkable to view how this band strove to place their friendships and families first when many other bands would have kept the gravy train rolling along with new musicians. And mostly, to see how their decisions concerning Peart would translate to their fan base, especially once they did indeed decide to return to recording and touring, was truly uplifting. You can easily feel the wave of adoration and respect the fans have towards the band and the appreciation Rush feels in return. The symbiotic relationship between fan and artist has not been this successfully depicted on an emotional level for me in quite some time and I believe it is this particular connection that will allow this film to transcend their own hefty fan base and reach non-listeners, potentially creating new fans and admirers.
And I think it was that very emotional connection that McFayden and Dunn tapped into the strongest for their film.

If you’ll allow me to return to my personal experience with the music of Rush for another moment, this will all become clearer. After my Freshman year of college, when I saw Rush in a spectacular concert for the only time during their triumphant 1987 “Hold Your Fire” tour, the band and I began to chart out different paths as our collective musical tastes were expanding in ways that didn’t align themselves. I began to listen to them less. I didn’t seek out their subsequent releases anymore. However, I was always thrilled to see when they did release new music or embark upon another sold out world tour. It made me happy to know that they were out there, still plugging away and charting out the musical voyage of their making and to their satisfaction. It was as if I were receiving small postcards from the void, alerting me to their whereabouts, and I pleased to know that they were still out there. “Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage,” was like a full blooded reunion with treasured friends from my past and with the best reunions, this one inspired me to remain in touch and re-ignite the flame that once burned so brightly within my musical heart. I am already charting out the “missing years” we had, hearing the peak and valleys through which they traveled over the previous 20 years or so. I am also looking to the future as the band has released a new single pointing towards a new conceptual release for 2011.

In an inexplicable way, my renewed friendship with the band that has meant so much to me only occurred through the viewing of this effective film and I graciously invite you to check it out yourselves. For the long time fans like myself, it is a treasure to see this band finally gaining a wider notice for their rich musical legacy. But for all of us, especially the uninitiated, "Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage" is the antithesis of nearly every episode of "Behind the Music" you've ever seen as it shows how persistence, prodigious talent and the healthy bonds of communal respect carried three suburban misfits to the top of the world.

May they always remain there.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


After stumbling upon a film I saw and loved long, long ago, I thought this would be a great time to create a new series for Savage Cinema. Entitled "Savage Cinema's Buried Treasure," I want to take the time to shed some light on obscure films from the past and present, that will hopefully catch your fancy.

So sit back, grab your favorite beverage and read onwards. I hope my first installment and this series leads you to new cinematic grounds that you will enjoy as much as I did.

Co-Written & Directed by Walter Hill

If you happen to be in the market for a strong action movie that is also left of center, then, I am happy to point you to look no further than “Southern Comfort,” a 1981 thriller directed by Walter Hill, a filmmaker who specializes in hard charged and violent male driven rites of passage. Hill’s oeuvre typically contains a collective of two-fisted, guns blazing, tough talking anti-heroes with deep moral codes and an “honor among thieves” framework that cinematically reaches back towards classic crime dramas, westerns and the eternally influential films from Akira Kurosawa.

The films of Walter Hill have spanned the gamut from westerns (1980’s “The Long Riders”), a collection of urban thrillers (including 1979’s “The Warriors,” 1989’s “Johnny Handsome,” and 1992’s “Trespass”), one fantasy driven delta blues musical with Ralph Macchio (1986’s “Crossroads”), an ambitiously conceived rock and roll fable—which incidentally was partially responsible for the creation of the PG-13 rating (1984’s “Streets Of Fire”), and the smash hit film debut of Eddie Murphy (1982’s brilliant “48 Hrs.”). With “Southern Comfort,” Hill takes us to the swamps of the Louisiana bayous and firmly concentrates his story upon a collective of colorful characters, a strong attention to mood and atmosphere, quiet paranoid tension that explodes into blistering violence as well as functioning as a subtle political commentary.

Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe
and Fred Ward lead the cast as members of the National Guard who band together for a weekend military exercise in the swamps. As the men cajole amongst themselves, they eventually decide to engage in carnal pursuits with hookers in a nearby town. Yet the only way to arrive is via a group of canoes left by the edge of a river bank by the local Cajuns. The soldiers steal the canoes, leaving only one behind and with the intent to return them later. But as they glide through the murky waters, the surprised and rightfully angered Cajuns arrive on the scene only to be met with a blast of impetuous gunfire—albeit blanks--from one of the soldiers. After a brief moment of confused silence, the Cajuns retaliate with real gunfire, shooting their Staff Sgt. (the great Peter Coyote) in the head. As the soldiers scatter and reach drier land, the previously mundane excursion transforms into a terrifyingly claustrophobic fight for survival as the unarmed soldiers are gradually picked off one by one by the infuriated Cajuns.

"Southern Comfort" holds appropriately stifling and oppressive cinematography as well as a methodically slow and bluesy score by frequent Hill composer Ry Cooder to set the stage of this brutal story. Every single performance is solid as granite with Carradine’s sardonic demeanor and Boothe’s steady grimness as the most effective of anchors. I loved how Walter Hill completely turned the heavy testosterone on display inside out as we watch the soldiers unravel as they are all lost in unfamiliar surroundings without effective weapons of any sort. The profane (and often quite funny) dialogue is obviously being used as a not terribly effective shield to conceal their building fear. The intense psychological suspense rises with each passage through the swamps as their search for the open highway proves to be increasingly futile and inevitably begin to turn upon each other in suspicion, distrust and madness. Each graphic killing and violent transgression (for 1981’s standards) that transpires always arrives as a horrific and cathartic surprise (one soldier's shaken howl at yet another Cajun inflicted murder is chilling). Hill definitely has you in the palm of his firm Directorial hands as you feel as disoriented as the National Guard troop, never knowing from where and when the punishing karma of the Cajuns will strike next.

As I previously stated, Hill is also able to weave in a sly political commentary as “Southern Comfort” functions strongly as an allegory to the Vietnam war. Taking on the cliché of soldiers being young, dumb and full of…well, you know, Hill plays with those conventions by having a cast of characters whose members are not that young, more than a little dumb and definitely full of something! The arrogance, sense of entitlement and stupidity of a few is the catalyst for their collective downfall as they are forced to fight and ultimately, be bested by those they perceive to be lesser. They don't know the language, customs or terrain and by battling on the unforgiving Cajuns’ home turf, the rules of engagement to which our soldiers are familiar have been changed irrevocably and the unwritten laws have been broken. For these soldiers, it is a war in which they can only lose and any perceived victory can only be achieved through the act of getting out alive.

I first saw this film at the age of 13 on a pay television channel and was deeply affected by the locations, the storytelling, the performances, the music, and yes…the profanity. It was a strong introduction to the world of adult thrillers for me and after viewing it again, after not having seen it for over 25 years, I was pleasantly struck to see how well this film still holds up.

If you can find it at your local video store or stumble across it on cable as I did, I gently urge you to take the time to check this one out. In many respects, it is exactly the kind of film that isn’t being made in quite the same ways these days as mainstream audiences are now more accustomed to being bludgeoned by the sounds and visions rather than being drawn in and eventually allowing yourself to be engulfed by it.

“Southern Comfort” will engulf you.


“Deliverance” (1972) Directed by John Boorman
“John Carpenter’s The Thing” (1982) Directed by John Carpenter
“The Edge” (1997) Written by David Mamet Directed by Lee Tamahori

THE ONES THAT NEARLY GOT AWAY #2: a review of "THE ROAD" (2009)

"THE ROAD" (2009)
Directed by John Hillcoat

Based upon the novel by Cormac McCarthy
**** (four stars)

Evidence of beauty and grace can sometimes be discovered in the most unlikeliest of places, especially at times, when you may least expect to find such qualities. I absolutely had no idea of what to expect with Director John Hillcoat’s adaptation of author Cormac McCarthy’s extremely desolate Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road. While the story does contain a certain momentum and unrelenting tension, it is a more meditative piece of work as the narrative of the novel is presented as a series of vignettes filtered through McCarthy’s purposely sparse and poetic writing style. I was puzzled and uncertain as to how exactly it would or even could translate to a visual medium. After viewing the resulting film, I was intensely rewarded and enlightened with Hillcoat’s vision and representation. I was decidedly unprepared for the ultimate beauty and grace I found in a work that could have simply existed as an ugly, depressing experience. Hillcoat not only faithfully and sensitively brought McCarthy’s vision to life, he enhanced what I had previously read, making for a film experience that resonated and burrowed deeply under my skin.

Due to an unknown tragedy, the world has almost seen its final hour of existence, leaving behind the most unthinkable of ruins. All animals are extinct. Dead trees and charred vegetation all contain an ashen texture, appearing as if disintegration into dust will occur after the slightest touch. The sun is no longer visible or able to warm the planet as the skies have fallen into a constant dreary gray from which a hard, cold rain falls frequently. Walking through this desolate, lawless wasteland are an unnamed Father and son (Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee) desperately clinging onto each other as they search for food and shelter as they make their way south towards the coast. Yet, haunting their every step, aside from the constant pang of hunger and the possibility that their strength will extinguish, is the crippling fear of being found and decimated by violent roadside gangs of thieves, rapists and worst of all, cannibals as the flesh of human beings are now seemingly the only source of nourishment. All of the Man and Boy's possessions are carried along via shopping cart, one of which is a gun, containing only one remaining bullet.

As with the novel, the film is essentially a series of taut segments, detailing the Man and boy’s journey and precarious survival. Along the way, they investigate abandoned houses (including the Man’s childhood home), narrowly escape certain doom, find shelter and food and occasionally wander across other traveling survivors, including one 90 year old man (Robert Duvall), a thief (Michael Kenneth Williams from HBO’s “The Wire”) and another drifter (Guy Pearce) who may ultimately be of aid to the boy. As the Man is plagued by nightmares of the world he once knew as well as memories of the love of his life (Charlize Theron) who ultimately left Father and son behind by committing suicide in the barren, cold world, the Man tries to retain a sense of hope for a potential future of solace and peacefulness with the boy he loves even more than his own life.

Despite the uncompromisingly grim nature of the material, I wouldn’t exactly say that “The Road” is an entirely depressing or self consciously dark experience. As I stated at the start of this review, beauty and grace can sometimes be found in the unlikeliest of places and what “The Road” offers most is presenting us with a chamber piece devoted to the resiliency of hope, love and humanity, even at the end of the world. Although the minimalist story contains a near absence of color, “The Road” is almost lush in its presentation and it is also amazing how the film worked tremendously well as a superlative antidote to two more recent and downright terrible entries in the apocalypse/post apocalyptic genre, last year's “2012” and this year's “The Book Of Eli.”

Utilizing a meticulously designed visual landscape that is so identical to “Eli” that I would not have been surprised if Denzel Washington himself crept through the frame, passing Mortensen and Smit-McPhee on their own journey, I could not help but to think about how this film went so right where both of those previous films went so horribly wrong.

In my review of “2012,” I expressed that the film had absolutely no redeeming social value whatsoever. With “Eli,” while I loved the visual presentation, it had an empty core which it desperately tried to rectify during the film’s final minutes to absolutely no avail. “The Road” corrects both of those mistakes handsomely by having the aforementioned location and set design, evocative music score by Nick Cave and ashen cinematography completely form a symbiotic relationship with the empathetic performances and thematic qualities of the story. Even as violent as this story sounds, nothing gratuitous is shown outright while the constant threat of violence hangs over the proceedings and anything more graphic is suggested.

The film has many philosophical concepts on its mind and watching "The Road" demands that the viewer ponder the same questions and concepts as well. What exactly constitutes humanity in a world that has quite possibly destroyed all of it? What constitutes survival and sacrifice? What does it mean to suffer and what is the cruelest fate of all, dying by your own hands and free will or at the hands of the ones who would rape and eat you in a split-second?

One extremely tense sequence occurs early in the film as the Man and Boy have a close shave inside of an apparently empty house. While scouring for food, they discover a collective of naked, emaciated people trapped in the basement and obviously being utilized as a food source for a band of marauders. As the Man and Boy hide in an upstairs room with footsteps approaching slowly, the Man has to face the choice of using his final bullet to potentially murder his own son, for the sole reason of sparing him from an even worse fate. For this story to go to this unprecedented level to depict love and humanity is terrifying, dangerous and somehow, so blindingly true and somehow non-exploitative as the sequence is not handled with any sense of sensationalism or false tension. How could one not be forced to ponder our own inhumane atrocities in world history through hypothetical musings like “The Road”? How could one not be forced to question what they would/could or wouldn't/couldn't do? Or how far you would be willing to go just to protect the ones who matter most? These questions and themes are inherent in the fabric of the story and combined with the visualization, "The Road" carries an unquestionable weight that cannot be ignored.

What made "The Road" plunge deepest into my heart were the performances of the entire cast and the chemistry between Mortensen and Smit-McPhee in particular. Duvall, Williams and Pearce each hold perhaps one scene for themselves and they are all fairly brief. Yet somehow, their lives and how they arrived at their respective points in this unthinkable phase in the world are fully felt. Also, in just a small handful of scenes, Charlize Theron creates a rich, three dimensional character. You are easily able to see why she is beloved by Mortensen as well as the lengths to which she is willing to descend after everything she has ever known has been obliterated.

The core of the film belongs to Mortensen and Smit-McPhee and their relationship is one of the most powerfully tender Father/son relationships I have seen in a long time, or at least since Director Gabriele Muccino's "The Pursuit Of Happyness" (2006) starring Will Smith and his son, Jaden. In many ways, "The Road" is a tribute to Fathers, a historically maligned group on film and in television. I have no idea if Viggo Mortensen has children in real life, but I do have to say that the chemistry between Mortensen and Smit-McPhee felt so honest and so heartbreakingly real that I, several times, questioned if Smit-McPhee was actually his real son.

Viggo Mortensen, with his somber voice, under-nourished frame and hollow, mournful eyes is brilliant as he quietly conveys the soul of a man who has lived through the impossible and just as impossibly, continues onwards determined to keep the flame of humanity alive, if for no one else than his son. Knowing full well that the path of his life is nearing its end, he struggles with how to teach his son to survive in a world that was unforeseen to him but in fact, is the only world the boy has ever known.

Kodi Smit-McPhee is Mortensen's equal in every way, depicting a level of aching trust and fragility. The Boy is the Man's conscience, his inner guide of caution and reminder to not forsake his own humanity even when the Man fully knows better. But then again, the Boy is perhaps even more perceptive than his Father realizes as he is also trying to internalize the inevitable day when his Father passes on and he is left alone to fend for himself. Smit-McPhee never, for an instant, strikes one false note. His nerve endings are laid bare and you feel them all.

Certainly, after a long day of work, tasks, parenting and all manner of business that occupies us during our long days and nights, "The Road" is definitely not the film to unwind with. But, I do highly recommend this film for those who are willing to take up this cinematic challenge. It will reward you in ways you may not plan for much like the magical sight of a rainbow, or a cleansing dip in a waterfall in a world that has been robbed of nearly all of its natural wonders.

"The Road" is a triumph as it places the unbreakable bonds between Father and son at the forefront, at the center and for its entire state of purpose and being. When everything, including the world itself, is gone forever, love will still remain and if that is not representative of a film with some semblance of redeeming social value, then I do not know what else could do it.

TRIAL BY FIRE PLUS EARTH, AIR AND WATER: a review of "The Last Airbender"

“THE LAST AIRBENDER” Written, Produced and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
** (two stars)

As I watched “The Last Airbender,” M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of the hit Nickelodeon animated series, I found myself pondering whether a film loses its artistic value when it is strictly presented as a children’s movie. Not a children friendly movie, a film that can carry a certain appeal to the adults in the audience while also entertaining children. I mean, by all intents and purposes, a children’s movie, something that is aimed precisely at their level, age and mindset while being completely and entirely regardless of any adults in the audience.

In the last few years, we have been witness to a variety of children friendly films that have also attracted a large adult following. The films from Pixar have grown increasingly challenging with their subject matter and entertainment and adult filmmakers like Wes Anderson (“Fantastic Mr. Fox”) and Spike Jonze (“Where The Wild Things Are”) contributed their idiosyncratic visions to the genre by giving younger audiences something to reach for while also not shifting their own artistic aesthetics and simultaneously leaving children behind in the dust.

Shyamalan’s film is a peculiarity and I am determined to give it a fair shake, even as disappointed I was with the final resulting film as a whole. I am not ready to give up on this filmmaker and I have been rooting for him for quite some time. Ever since he exploded into our consciousness with “The Sixth Sense” (1999), obtaining tremendous box office heights with “Signs” (2002) and even harnessing building respect for his extremely underrated “Unbreakable” (2000), Shyamalan has certain hit a cinematic rough patch with audiences and critics alike. I have held firm as I have long thought Shyamalan’s particular style may not meet the tastes and expectations of the mass audience or critics. I still hold vigilant over his hugely maligned “The Village” (2004) as a remarkably bold film which explores the natures and usages of fear. While I do tend to think of “Lady In the Water” (2006) and “The Happening” (2008) as his weakest efforts so far, I did enjoy them both very much as they were each highly personal, visionary and creative films that made no apologies for what they were. With “The Last Airbender,” this is the first feature from Shyamalan that I was not wholly impressed by or even liked very much at all. I didn’t hate this film so I will not add my voice to the choir of critics racing to see which one of them can take him down once and for all with their pointed barbs. But, I do call it as I see it and what I saw was not entirely successful in the least.

For the uninitiated, “The Last Airbender” follows the collective evolution of the Earth, Water, Air and Fire nations, which are kept in balance by the spiritual guidance of the Avatar, the one being who is able to control all four elements at will as well as travel between the material and spirit worlds. Long ago, the Avatar disappeared leaving the nations unbalanced and the vengeful Fire nation began to wage war over the following 100 years against the other three nations, in pursuit of the ultimate dominance as the most powerful element.

As the film opens, we are introduced to teenaged members of the water tribe, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) and his impetuous sister Katara (Nicola Peltz), the only one of her tribe with the ability to manipulate the form of liquid. One day, as the twosome search for food, they discover a strange, large substance trapped underneath the ice. After setting the object free and cracking it open, the body of a small tattooed boy tumbles outwards. After identifying himself as Aang (Noah Ringer), Sokka and Katara correctly assume that he is perhaps the vanished and newly resurrected Avatar, the last airbender, the one who will ultimately bring unity back to all four elements.

But, of course, there are obstacles to be faced and vanquished which include, the nefarious forces of the Fire Nation led by Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), and the jealous pursuits of banished Fire Nation member Prince Zuko (Dev Patel from “Slumdog Millionaire”). Most of all, is Aang’s own reluctance towards fulfilling his destiny as savior to the warring nations, not to mention facing the challenge of mastering all four elements as he is currently only able to manipulate the air.

What Shyamalan has given to us with “The Last Airbender” is a combination of classic mythology, martial arts, Eastern mysticism, and elements familiar to us all from “Star Wars” and even “The Matrix.” Additionally, Shyamalan has discovered a way to filter these disparate themes through a storyline that matches his own consistent and personal themes of faith, spirituality and discovering one’s life purpose. But, this film is pitched at the level of a seven year old, from top to bottom, and I am thinking unapologetically so.

The film is one long expository piece peppered profusely with special effects and extended martial arts battles between Aang and all of the dark forces ready to contain him. The script is loaded with overly simplistic pseudo-metaphysical speeches and earnest pleas for togetherness and victory. Aside from Curtis, the acting throughout is absolutely, positively and unjustifiably atrocious. It just felt like a long, almost lifeless mess but I found myself not being able to fully dismiss it as one of the worst films of the year for a few reasons.

Visually, this is one of Shyamalan’s finest hours as he has relinquished himself from his beloved Philadelphia for the landscapes of Greenland for much of this film’s shoot and he has proven himself equal to task of presenting us wide visual compositions of land, sky, hills and vistas giving the film an appropriately majestic look.

This film also boasts his largest usage of visual effects, not a trait he is known for and admittedly has always been a bit clumsy with. Yet for “The Last Airbender,” the effects are wondrous and seamless, bring this previously cartoon world to vivid, physical life. And, all of the martial arts sequences are presented elegantly, and with genuine clarity, giving everyone in the audience the ability to follow the storylines of each individual battle with ease. No shaky-cams allowed!

But, here is the point that is certain to cause the most controversy as well as being the reasons for the disastrous reviews so far. As I stated before, “The Last Airbender” felt as if it were a film pitched at a seven year old. Not a seven-year-old sensibility, but an actual flesh and blood seven-year-old being. It seems to me that perhaps Shyamalan intentionally made this film for children and absolutely no one else. For all of the moments in the film that struck me as awful or terrible, I could not get past the fact that the film also felt sincere, pure and without a cynical or crass bone in its body. Shyamalan has admitted in interviews that he arrived at this particular project because of his two daughters are fans of the television show and it is obvious that he has tried, in earnest, to make this film for them. There is no laziness or lack of effort on display and I didn’t feel as if my time were being wasted. The film felt as honest as any of Shyamalan’s previous works and I had to allow those feelings to not derail my entire view of the film itself.

However, I must return to the acting. I did say that it was atrocious and it truly is. This fact absolutely perplexed me as Shyamalan has been able to elicit great performances time and again from his actors, even allowing major stars like Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson to show new depth, fragility and sensitivity. Yet, this time around, the acting was so horrendous that I had to wonder if it was intentional as what may constitute bad acting for me, as an adult, may not constitute bad acting for a seven year old.

I want you to take moment and think back to children’s adventure films like Disney’s “Escape To Witch Mountain” (1975), or the bizarre “Danger Island” cliffhanger segments from the “Banana Splits” television show or best of all, the 1970’s Saturday morning adventures of “Shazam!” and “Isis,” two programs that disseminated their fair share of pop mythology. Did any of those presentations possess anything resembling good acting? I should think not. I’m certain they were all painfully dreadful but when I was seven years old, I ate them all up with a spoon and pleaded for seconds. “The Last Airbender” is a film exactly like those examples through and through (but with infinitely better production values), whether by accident or design, and I am wondering if the real critics for this film are not the professional ones or even film enthusiasts like myself. I am wondering if the real critics for this film will be the legion of children this movie is obviously geared towards and I am really looking forward to hearing what they have to say about it.

Yet, dear readers, all you have right now is my opinion and I am thinking this is a film young children might actually enjoy. It gives them a somewhat complicated storyline to chew over, a collective of youthful characters to root for and sneering adults to root against, the action is presented in high style without ever crossing the line into actual grisly violence. There are no swear words on display and no jaded pop culture driven irony or flatulent lowest common denominator based humor is present anywhere.

For me, however, “The Last Airbender” was a bit of a dud. And still I hope and wait. I will continue to defend and root for Shyamalan, as I am still waiting for that one film that will shut up all of his detractors and prove all of them wrong for ever discrediting and disparaging his talent.

Unfortunately, this film just isn’t the one and I can't defend him too strongly this time.