Thursday, August 26, 2010


Written by Zach Helm
Directed by Marc Forster

I always find it interesting when actors want to stretch their artistic wings and challenge themselves, especially when certain actors are essentially known for their work within one genre. The result of such an artistic challenge can prove to be either fruitful or treacherous for the actor as well as the viewer. For actors primarily known for their work in comedy, the effect of such an artistic challenge can be jarring for audiences, to say the least.

Presently, I am reminded of Steve Martin’s first foray into dramatic territory with the Depression era set and extremely dark musical, Director Herbert Ross’ “Pennies From Heaven” (1981). Or even Bill Murray’s valiantly risky plunge into very deep dramatic waters with Director John Byrum’s “The Razor’s Edge” (1984), an adaptation of the classic W. Somerset Maughan novel about a WW1 veteran’s global search for spiritual enlightenment. Both films were not initially well received, critically or at the box office. As for myself, while piercingly curious to witness the results of two comedic heroes stretching their hefty talents, I, like so many at the time, was endlessly confused and confounded. While time has been a tad kinder to Martin’s debut dramatic efforts than Murray’s, both films have been ultimately banished to cinema’s underseen arcane oddities. Nonetheless, Martin and especially Murray are certainly to be commended for their efforts as both films did indeed allow them to become the deeply skilled actors they are today.

For this latest installment of “Savage Cinema’s Buried Treasure,” I would like to focus our collective attention towards Director Marc Forster’s “Stranger Than Fiction,” a wonderful film starring Will Ferrell, who stepped away from his usual brand of high concept slapstick to deliver a touchingly rich performance which varied between dramatic, romantic, wistful, alienated, tragic, and comedic. While the film did receive positive critical attention, I do not remember the response being anything overwhelming and indeed, it slipped through the cracks at the box office. Over the years since the theatrical release, “Stranger Than Fiction,” seems to have become that film that general film audiences cannot seem to place but caught somewhere at some time or another, and the memories the film have conjured are fond ones. Others, like myself, who did enthusiastically enjoy the film initially, have also continued to discover a deeper magic. I recently re-watched this film, and am so happy to re-visit, re-introduce and for some, welcome you to it now.

Will Ferrell stars as Harold Crick, a single, lonely, extremely fastidious IRS agent, devoted entirely to the numbers that chart each and every task of his life (the steps from his home to the bus stop, the amount of brush strokes when cleaning his teeth, etc…), so much so that he has become completely disengaged with life itself. His closest companion is actually, yet not surprisingly, the wristwatch he wears each day. As Harold Crick’s days and nights unfold and continue onwards most predictably, he is stunned one morning by the arrival of a female voice, narrating his every motion and thought, influencing every decision of his life and audible only to himself. Attempting to comprehend this unprecedented event rationally, Harold Crick is thrown into an existential crisis when the voice announces that he will soon face his imminent death.

We are next introduced to Author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), whose embittered state of petulance and deeply sardonic wit reveals a crippling bout of “Writer’s Block,” as she deals with the frustrating task of completing her long awaited, and long overdue, novel. Dispatched from the publishing house to assist and prod Eiffel to complete the book is Penny Escher (a terrific Queen Latifah), whose "all business" stature and equal adeptness to verbally parry and joust with Eiffel’s cantankerousness, makes for a formidable pairing, forcing Eiffel to focus and remain on task. As the two women continue to work together, the source of Eiffel's creative blockage arrives and is revealed to be rooted deep within the recesses of her own existential crisis. Karen Eiffel is confronted with the task and inherent responsibility of devising exactly how to kill off her new novel’s main character…a single, lonely, extremely fastidious IRS agent named Harold Crick!

While the two story lines converge and character and creator eventually grow closer to their first meeting face-to-face, Eiffel wrestles with her sense of humanity, as seen through her literary reputation for always murdering her novel’s main characters. As for poor Harold Crick, he now stares down his seemingly inevitable demise, just at the point he discovers he wants to exist. Feeling an unprecedented thirst for life and its possibilities, Harold Crick desperately searches for the source of the narrating voice with the aid of Literature Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) and also pursues a romantic relationship with Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the angry baker he is currently auditing. Will he be able to find his sense of spiritual transcendence and survival before Eiffel completes her novel?

“Stranger Than Fiction” is an extended and exquisite grace note of a film that never quivers, falters or loses its magic tone. It is a tender piece of work, unapologetically gentle, and open-hearted without becoming overdone in its whimsy or treacly gloppiness. Its attention to kindness, manners, dignity and empathy are never forced, overwhelming or cloying. Forster and his screenwriter Zach Helm weave an inventive and nearly dreamlike fabric that is somehow always direct, tangible and never buckles under its own thematic and creative weight.

As previously described, you can see that, without any ponderous proselytizing, there is a large amount of spiritual debate spinning throughout “Stranger Than Fiction,” as all of the characters seem to be expressing their particular place in the world, their individual brand of rights to hold that place, and how the life of one effects another. This is a film completely without villains as the entire cast struggle within themselves to do right by others for no other reason than through simple human decency. Issues of free will vs. destiny are waged as well as the over-arching sense of interconnectivity between all things, including the most seemingly innocuous, inanimate objects like a bicycle, an apple and the aforementioned wristwatch. And “Stranger Than Fiction” is also a film about the glory of language and literature. The witty script is so in love with the power of words that even the luxurious listings and utterances of baked goods operate as sexual and romantic foreplay.

Yet, for this review, I want to mainly spotlight on the beauty of Will Ferrell’s performance. Yes, he shows with complete confidence that he is able to go toe to toe with no less than Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman, and emerge, not only unscathed, but as an equal. He makes for a strong and wholly convincing romantic leading man as well, as his scenes with Gyllenhaal contain the proper romantic and sexual chemistry.

Beyond that, is his complete commitment to this character, while a staple of his comedy, had not been seen in a more dramatic arena at that time. Will Ferrell delivers a yearning quality to his performance that, at times, is nothing short of heartbreaking, all the more surprisingly as this film dances more on the lighter side of comedy and drama. There is urgency underlying his reticence. There is desperation, fear, incomprehension of his fate alongside the sly, crafty humor he is known and celebrated for.

Ultimately, what Will Ferrell has done is to create a character who is essentially a stand-in for every single member of the audience as we are all in the throes of facing down our mortality in one way or another. We can instantly relate to Harold Crick because he asks the same hard questions of himself as we ask of ourselves. Are we fully living the lives we intend to lead or are we victims to our own compromises? Are we doing enough with the time we are allowed to have?

I can easily see what may have led Ferrell to this role, in addition to the high quality of this ambitious material. It would have given him a chance to show what else he is creatively made of, in a format designed to bring him to the attention of wider audiences and different filmmakers. Perhaps this could have been something like Jim Carrey’s experience with Director Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show” (1998), another impressively inventive film that effectively bridged the gap between Carrey’s comedy, dramatic desires and an artistic directorial vision. It was a gamble that indeed captured box office gold and also allowed Carrey to branch his talents outwards and position himself as one who could alternate projects between broad comedy and extraordinary artistic features like Director Michel Gondry's “Eternal Sunshine Of the Spotless Mind” (2004). Sadly, for Ferrell, it was not to be for “Stranger Than Fiction,” and what a disappointment it is as he is an actor more than ready and able to handle heavier themes and more challenging material that could exist concurrently with his comedic features.

But, dear readers, that is the blessing of DVD and the full purpose of this Savage Cinema series: to be able to breathe new life into films that deeply deserve a second chance and wider viewership. I hope that you please take this installment as an invitation to go to your local video store or place into your Netflix queue this terrific, beautiful film which features an artistic risk of a performance that is undeniably rewarding.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


"PERSEPOLIS" Written and Directed by Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud (2007)
Based upon the graphic novel written and illustrated by Marjane Satrapi

** (two stars)

My rating may be quite a surprise to most who happen to read this but after watching this film, I have to say that while "Persepolis" is not over-rated, I feel it is very problematic. I knew very little about this film before watching it so in many respects, that was good because I had no pre-conceived notions.

It is also interesting to have seen this film just one day after viewing the wondrous "Wall-E," because here are two films that utilize animation, in drastically different fashions, that both effectively create and present a world that could not have been presented as effectively in a traditional live action format. The stark, sparse, almost "cut-out" picture look of "Persepolis" turns out to be a fantastic way to realize the coming of age tale of Marjane, who struggles not only with the standard growing pains that all teenagers face but doing it while living in a time of war and of politically sanctioned arrests and assassinations that brings the political world right into Marjene's world of family and friends. That is a great start and conflict to have and it immediately engaged me. What is most problematic about this film is the lead character of Marjene.

Yes, in the early stretches of the film, I could appreciate her precociousness as a 10 year old, and the confusion of self-identity during her early teens (especially in the beginning sequences of her life in Vienna). But, after a while, her level of narcissism becomes relentless and irritating to the point where she is no one to root for or even care that much about.

She mopes about her love life as childhood friends are dying in a war. Her episodes of acting out while living in Iran seem to be unrealistic to me as her self-absorbed antics would most likely get innocent citizens and close friends arrested or shot in the streets. But we're supposed to cheer her on because she's EXPRESSING HERSELF, and that's supposed to be a great thing, in and of itself.

Alas, she's miserable in Vienna. She's miserable in Iran. And during a sequence depicting her first heartbreak, she ends up roaming the streets of Vienna for days on end, homeless, foodless and developing bronchitis and for what? Her boyfriend cheated on her?! Gimmie a break and get a job! There seemed to be no appreciation that her parents were able to send her to Vienna in order to keep her safer and to be in an environment where her inquisitive and outspoken nature wouldn't get her killed. It's all about her all of the time and even her own beloved Grandmother scolds her after one ridiculous and dangerous moment with a much needed, "You are a selfish bitch!"

With all that is going on in the world, Marjene never seems to realize that it is NOT always about HER and that is where this film fails. Did I expect her to emerge transformed in that Hollywood way? Of course not. But, I would have hoped that something would've sunken in by the film's conclusion and not just more of her moping around lamenting her love life.

It makes a powerful story so trite no matter how gorgeously illustrated it is.

Originally written June 29, 2008

THE ONES THAT NEARLY GOT AWAY #4: a review of "A Single Man" (2009)

“A SINGLE MAN” Co-Written and Directed by Tom Ford (2009)
*1/2 (one and a half stars)

I’m afraid that this one was just more than a little lost on me.

“A Single Man,” the Directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford was enormously celebrated by critics and Oscar nominated during its theatrical run this previous winter. Yet, for me, I felt the film kept me at arms length, at such a distance that I was unable to fully connect with the albeit compelling material in front of me. After a time, I was put off by a certain pretentiousness and by the maudlin and prefabricated melodrama of the conclusion, I had rejected it altogether.

Colin Firth stars as George Falconer, a British Professor of English at a Los Angeles university during the early 1960s. The path of the film charts the course of what he is planning to be the final day of his life, as he has been overwhelmingly crippled with grief after the sudden death of his longtime partner of 16 years (Matthew Goode).

In some respects, the film reminded me a bit of the Ian McEwan novel, Saturday, a meditative and intricately detailed travelogue of a day in the life of a middle aged man. Not much actually happens during “A Single Man.” He gives a lecture. He strikes up an insightful conversation with a potentially interested student (Nicholas Hoult). He spends a melancholic and alcoholic evening with his cherished London friend, Charley (Julianne Moore). And throughout it all, he reminisces and ruminates over the love of his life, his status as a closeted homosexual and sad existence and an irrational invisible threat to society’s majority while carrying a gun within the confines of his satchel, planning to end it all that evening.

Colin Firth does give a strong performance of a stricken and stiff man consumed with grief and a complete dispassionate involvement with life. I found the sequence when he first hears of his lover’s death via car crash to be the film’s strongest moment, played as it would possibly happen in real life. There is no music score or fancy cinematography emphasizing and exaggerating the mood and inherent emotions. Just silence and the camera, close on Firth’s disintegrating face. Much of the cinematography in the film is a drab grey color, visually depicting the George Fletcher’s ghostly state of being. Yet, here and there, either through a smile or scent or a warm gaze, the film slowly seeps in lush colors, showing the life and world Fletcher has long disengaged himself from and will soon leave behind.

Those traits were just fine. My problems stemmed from the fact that this movie was more than a bit of a slog for me. Its not a long movie, but I could feel every moment ticking by slowly and the effect was numbing. Julianne Moore’s performance was surprisingly a huge disappointment as I kept finding myself becoming distracted by the English accent she could never keep a stranglehold on. Mostly, it was the preponderance of faux meaningful gazes set to mournful classical music and sequence after sequence of George Fletcher drowning in a ocean of water that eventually began to irritate me. It felt like Ford was consciously trying to make an "art film" with a capital "A," instead of allowing the story and deep emotional content work for itself. I cannot blame him for trying, and believe me, I appreciate him doing so, but it just didn't work for me.

But, like a few other movies I have seen this year, it was the ending that put me off entirely as it felt to be a forced cheat of the worst kind. I would certainly not spoil it for you dear, readers, but let me try to explain it like this. Pretend you have a story about a woman deciding whether to have or not have an abortion. She wrestles with her decision making endlessly, encounters a variety of characters designed to sway her one was or another and then in the final crucial moment of her decision-making, she falls down the stairs and has a miscarriage.

The ending of “A Single Man” is soap opera story telling at its laziest and most clichéd. It completely robs the character of making a fatal decision for himself and thus made the experience of the film as a whole a meaningless one. At least, that is how it felt to me. It felt like a waste of time. It was disheartening enough to see this man go through such a wrenching existential crisis and for the life of me, I just wasn’t engaging with it but to end up feeling like the filmmakers let themselves off of the hook left me with a movie that was nothing more than a well-intentioned and well-filmed swindle.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

STRONG START, SHAKY FINISH: a review of "The Other Guys"

"THE OTHER GUYS" Co-Written and Directed by Adam McKay
*** (three stars)

There is not one reason in the world you could possible give to me that would convince me there was anyone, anywhere that needed to have even one more buddy cop movie. After suffering through Kevin Smith’s dispassionate and criminally unfunny misfire, “Cop Out” a few weeks ago, I would almost downright challenge anyone who believes that one more buddy cop movie in the world was a necessary thing to have. Well, I am here to inform you that Director Adam McKay just nearly pulled it off with a sizable improvement to the genre, “The Other Guys,” his new comedy and collaboration with Will Ferrell.

Opening with kind of hysterically overwrought and cataclysmic action sequence that Michael Bay salivates over and takes way too seriously, we are introduced to cavalier celebrity supercops Highsmith and Danson (perfectly played by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson) at the conclusion of yet another heroic adventure that of course, costs the city $12 million dollars from the obligatory uber-damages. Highsmith and Danson are the heroes of the city and the rock star idols to their precinct brothers in arms (i.e. “the other guys”), all of which exist in their mountainous shadows. Sitting quietly at his desk in awe is Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell) a severely straight laced, comically gullible and decidedly earnest Forensics accountant with a predilection for the music of the Little River Band. Seated and seething heavily across from him is Terry Hoitz (an excellent Mark Wahlberg), a disgraced, resentful, and hair-triggered tempered cop, just itching for his chance to have the limelight Highsmith and Danson have long commanded.

After another high flying escapade, that permanently puts Highsmith and Danson out of commission, Hoitz desperately wants to seize the opportunity to take their places as citywide heroes by forcing the mild-mannered Gamble away from the sanctuary of his desk and into the streets. Eventually, the twosome combine their skills to bring down a white collar crime conspiracy involving crooked billionaire David Ershon (Steve Coogan).

For a sizable amount of its running time, perhaps the film’s first half, “The Other Guys” is a rock solid, enormously entertaining and consistently funny comedy. McKay keeps his film zooming along at a breakneck pace, ensuring the comedy and the action are moving along swimmingly. The film, during this section, is so clearly focused. The narrative is disciplined and able to interweave satirical social-political commentary involving 21-century journalism and capitalism in addition to riffing on buddy cop movies. Nothing feels out of place and all of the elements work together so effortlessly to bring about a highly enthusiastic whole.

Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg make a perfect comedy duo as the genre’s pre-requisite mismatched cops. Ferrell dials down the crazy just a bit to create a character so guileless, sincere and diligent to his desk duties that at times he reminded me of Charles Martin Smith’s accountant character from Director Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables” (1987). That character doggedly (and also at almost high levels of geekness) desired to bring Al Capone down via charges of tax evasion and Ferrell’s Allen Gamble is a man cut from the exact same cloth. As Hoitz just wants to find the glamorous find of guns, hookers and drugs, Gamble remains riveted to zoning violations committed by billionaire Ershon. And yet, as with so many cop movies that have come before, our hero Allen Gamble has a dark side…and a hilarious one at that…which consistently threatens to become unleashed.

Will Ferrell’s loyalty to his character and his history is so strong and unshakable. He never blinks or loses any moment of comic potential. Again, Ferrell reminds you of how skilled he is as an actor. Will Ferrell is surely one of our most likable screen talents and without a mean-spirited bone on display in any of his films. However immensely talented he is, I do think he has skated by for a long while with his likability as he has played a part in too many major Hollywood releases where the material is dangerously under par. “The Other Guys” allows Ferrell to use the best of his gifts with a character that is instantly entertaining and ultimately, endearing.

Mark Wahlberg is an actor whose fullness of talent arrives depending on the material he is given. When Martin Scorsese used him in “The Departed” (2006), Wahlberg gave a blistering, crackerjack of a performance. When Writer/Director David O. Russell utilized his skills in the Iraq war satire “Three Kings” (1999) and the philosophical metaphysical comedy “I Heart Huckabees”(2004), he delivered the goods. In Peter Jackson's adaptation of "The Lovely Bones" from last year, Wahlberg gave a performance of crippling sensitivity. And my praise for his work as porn star Dirk Diggler in Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” (1997) will never cease as he showed that in the right hands, he is an actor to behold. With “The Other Guys,” he proves his mettle again, this time with broad comedy, as he makes a perfect foil for Ferrell. Wahlberg’s Terry Hoitz is the nearly unhinged straight-man, a cauldron of excessive reactionary exasperation and his explosive rants are often a scream. Wahlberg also gets to show off his ample gifts with more subtle comic shadings, especially during a wonderful sequence when Hoitz arrives at Gamble’s home for dinner, to find Gamble’s “plain,” “ball n’ chain” wife is actually the dazzlingly eye-catching Dr. Sarah Gamble (Eva Mendes). Wahlberg’s endless disbelief that his dweeb of a partner could be married to this knockout and that the dweeb can easily and constantly speak so disparagingly of her never wears thin and he always seems to find new ways of presenting the same incredulous reactions.

At this time, I must also find time to give praise to Damon Wayans Jr. and Rob Riggle, who portray two more “other guys” in the precinct, also wanting their stab at glory and who find new and interesting ways to keep Gamble and Hoitz under their collective thumbs. And how great it was to see Michael Keaton again, an actor I have loved ever since his firecracker of a debut in Ron Howard’s morgue attendant/pimp comedy “Night Shift” (1982). His on-screen appearances are so scant and while he in not featured heavily in “The Other Guys,” he certainly makes the most out of his supporting role as Gene Mauch, the frustrated police Captain, Bed, Bath & Beyond manager and closet TLC fan.

So, there I was, having a great time at the movies and then, “The Other Guys:” reached its second half and hit a massive pothole. I must rewind just a tad to McKay’s debut feature with Ferrell, the highly celebrated “Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy” (2004). Lest I risk alienation from you, dear readers, I have to boldly state that I am not a fan of that film. I know it made a fortune at the box office. I know that so many millions of people love that movie and can quote it any time, anywhere…and I celebrate you. But, I just didn’t like it. I don’t think it is a bad movie. Just a shockingly inconsistent one that completely abandoned its original ideas and strong beginning for a collection of flights of fancy that never add up, pay off or lead anywhere. For me, it was a movie that just could not decide what it wanted to be. Was it going to be a 1970s set sexual politics/office comedy? Or was it going to be an undisciplined slapstick comedy? Or was it going to be a romp for McKay, Ferrell and their comedic friends? How did that movie begin in a newsroom and conclude with gladiator fights and talking zoo animals? Whatever it was when it began was decidedly and sloppily not what it was at the end and it made for a tiring, frustrating and unfunny experience.

McKay’s “Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby” (2006), suffered a similar problem as the film's first third was a knockout and then, the film just recycled jokes and lost its momentum, making for a film that ended up being more than a little boring. With "Step Brothers" (2008), it seemed that McKay had finally found his footing as a filmmaker and discovered the discipline he needed to keep his narrative from running off of the rails altogether.

However, with “The Other Guys,” McKay just cannot seem to keep himself in control. As with “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights,” he loses his narrative discipline and focus, which makes the film’s second half terribly sluggish and padded too heavily with non-sequiturs, blind alleys and comedic dead ends. It felt as if Mckay and his collaborators wrote half of a completed screenplay and just began shooting, hoping to find their way during the filming process and it shows. The tight pacing of the film’s first half evaporates and we are left with scenes that drag and drag and drag. A scene set in a dance studio, extended scenes between Gamble and his wife and sequences involving Allen Gamble’s Mother-in-Law do contain funny bits here and there, but they are all superfluous.

Most confounding is the end credit section, which details a series of white-collar crime statistics. It was an addition that felt terribly out of place and was as if we walked in to see a goofy Will Ferrell movie and exited from a Michael Moore agitprop experience, complete with Rage Against The Machine blaring through the theater speakers. Like “The Book Of Eli” and “Kick-Ass,” the film very closely became a disingenuous experience as it seemed to be expressing itself as a film that is more serious and important than it intended to be or actually is. Nonetheless, McKay somehow always found a way to reign everything back in place for fits, starts and genuinely big laughs only to lose control again and become lost in yet another overlong sequence that should have been excised to exist solely as a DVD deleted scene.

I am not certain if McKay is just onto something on a narrative and comedic level that I do not fully understand. But, to give McKay the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he is trying to capture some of that stream of consciousness, absurdest comedy that has been unequalled and untouched since the days of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. If so, I applaud him for wanting to scale to those extremely tall comedic heights. If not, and he is just inattentive and slapdash, then he needs to shape up and remain committed for the entire process and not for the first stages until he grows bored. McKay’s movie making style so far is akin to a child playing in a roomful of toys, unwilling to clean up what has been played with before moving on, leaving a disaster from one end to another.

To be fair, "The Other Guys" is far from being anything resembling a disaster. Even at its most tiring, there are still laughs to be found and that weak second half certainly does not negate the strong first half. That said, why can’t McKay just pick a movie to make and then, make that movie as best as he possibly can?! He seems to be content trying to cram ten different movies plus whatever appears in his head on the day of shooting together. That may be great for him but for me, that style or lack thereof makes for a more than ragged viewing experience I am not anxious to take over and again from him.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

TOP SCORE: a review of "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World"

Based upon the graphic novel series written and illustrated by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Screenplay Written by Michael Bacall and Edgar Wright
Directed by Edgar Wright
**** (four stars)

I have to piggyback upon the comments written by Rolling Stone magazine’s film critic Peter Travers when I say that “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World,” the latest film from Director Edgar Wright (2004's “Shaun Of The Dead” and 2007's “Hot Fuzz”), is a game changer. What a supersonic, orgiastic, phantasmagorical, stupendous blast this film is as it stands almost alone at the summer box office as one of the most original films of the year. Additionally, for my money, it is also one of the very best. I will concede right up front that this film may not suit everyone’s tastes, especially since then entire proceedings are pitched at an audiovisual hyper kinetic frequency. However, for me, somehow, someway, it enthusiastically grabbed my attention from the very first image and never let me go. Like this year’s extraordinary “Inception,” I am already extremely anxious to plunk in another proverbial quarter and experience this one of a kind film all over again.

The plot of “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” is actually quite simple but the road it takes in the presentation is the jaw dropper. 22 year old Toronto native Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a jobless, overly sensitive video game obsessive. He lives with his “Cool Gay Roomate” Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), is a bassist for the garage rock trio Sex Bob-Omb, featuring guitarist Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) and long suffering drummer Kim Pine (a terrifically petulant Alison Pill) and is also currently and chastely dating the adoring 17 year old high school student Knives Chau (a wonderful Ellen Wong). One night at a local party, Scott literally meets the girl of his dreams, the raven-haired American transplant Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Scott instantly falls in love with Ramona and desperately wants to date her but, there is a catch and a highly perilous one at that. Scott must fully defeat all of Ramona’s “seven evil exes” (which include the likes of Chris Evans, Brandon Routh and Jason Schwartzman) who are now hunting him down to kill him, in order to completely win her heart.

From the opening image of the Universal pictures logo to the final ending credit, the film is an amalgam of comic book mythology, melancholy love stories, video game pyrotechnics, quicksilver martial arts battles, and sufficient burst of indie rock music (featuring songs written especially for the film by Beck). It is a combination that should prove maniacally disastrous but in the hands of Wright, it is movie magic to the highest degree. It contains a knowing playfulness is aggressively inviting and its endless visual invention often leaves you with an effect that is nothing short of head spinning. Pink heartbeats flutter and float across the screen during the more tender moments while fight sequences are augmented with visual expressions of “POW!” and “KA-BAM!” and “K.O.!!!” just like in the 1960s “Batman” television series. Telephones visually “RING,” guitars plunk out animated “D” notes which throb seductively, rock concert sonic waves visually wash over enraptured audiences and vanquished villains disintegrate into a shower of coins. With one eye-popping effect after another, “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World” is one of the few films in our CGI saturated times where the special effects completely serve the story at hand and always set out to enthrall.

Most importantly, and unlike the irresponsibly repugnant “Kick-Ass,” that ever elusive element of tone, which is decidedly heightened to say the least, is established immediately and in complete control throughout. The combination of special effects, music, performances, fight choreography, and set design are all in masterfully creative lockstep. If one element failed, the whole movie would unravel and I marveled over and over at just how Wright was able to keep all of these seemingly disparate elements wrapped together so firmly.

Most of all, “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” is a film with supreme confidence. It is a film willing to stand up in the crowded multiplexes across the country and announce itself as something to behold. It speeds forward with the pace of lightning, hurling one image after another at us, almost daring us to keep up and yet, it is never frustratingly frenetic. It is a film unlike anything else currently playing and for me, it rests very comfortably and honorably amongst a league of films, like Tom Tykwer’s “Run Lola Run” (1998), David Fincher’s “Fight Club” (1999), Baz Luhrman’s “Moulin Rouge!” (2001), Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” (2003/2004) and also, one of my favorite films of all time, Ken Russell’s “Tommy” (1975). It is the type of film that shows up every once in a while, commands your attention and demands you exit with an equally extreme response, either positive or negative. There is no middleground with a film like “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World.” You will either go with it or you will not and man, did I go with it!

Again, I will concede that for all of the technical razzle dazzle, there are those who may find this film emotionally cold. For that, I would urge you to look a tad deeper as I think it is much more emotional than it lets on. Yes, of course, there is the love story at its core. But, beyond that, I really think it is a film about a series of love stories all centered around a collective of media saturated, emotionally guarded youths who utilize their ironic poses and media saturated jadedness as shield to protect their hearts from being hurt. Nearly all of the characters are falling in and out of love or suffering some form of heartbreak and through the experiences of their first profound hurts, the baggage that results have made them all wayward of new relationships. And for Scott Pilgrim in particular, he wants to avoid adult level emotional responsibilities all together which leads the film into even deeper conceptual territory.

The character of Scott Pilgrim is simultaneously confounding and compelling. He is wholly immature, cripplingly insecure, and self-involved to the point of solipsism as his immediate needs are the only ones he is willing to serve and protect. As the story is told entirely from his point of view and deep within the recesses of his media melted mind, he is also a completely unreliable narrator. He is a 21st century Romeo, a young man who is quite possibly in love with the idea of being in love more than he claims to desperately love Ramona. As in Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind” (2004) and even Marc Webb’s “(500) Days Of Summer” (2009), we may not even be seeing Ramona, or any other character in the film, realistically at all, and solely as what he perceives them to be.

What is “The World” to Scott Pilgrim but a place where tender hearts like his are wounded and broken every day? So, why not fight it to the death and refuse the adult responsibility that comes with building and maintaining adult relationships. Scott Pilgrim is an emotional infant and his desire to remain a child is desperate—perhaps that is why he is dating a high school girl in the first place. Ramona Flowers is only a prize to win. For Scott, it is profoundly easier to see life as an endless video game because there are no one else’s feelings to consider because the world, as he knows it, is not a real one. “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World,” ultimately, is a film about growing up and discovering a newfound, adult emotional maturity. It is the evolution from unfeeling avatar to compassionate human being.

What saves the character of Scott Pilgrim from being so monumentally insufferable that one would exit the movie theater in a disgusted huff is the engaging, empathetic and hilarious performance by Michael Cera. Through his quivering voice, underfed body, and unkempt shaggy hair, Cera’s Scott Pilgrim is a sad sack and romantically wounded puppy in a Smashing Pumpkins T-shirt who can somehow find enough gumption to terminate one enemy after another. While this character is yet another in a long line of Cera’s geeks filtered through his masterful deadpan, he always finds the beating heart and deeper layers inside of this cartoon world. And he is expertly aided by the entire cast (which includes the amazing Anna Kendrick as Pilgrim sassy younger sister), who are all up to Cera’s level.

Every screening of every movie is a cinematic roll of the dice. Even from the masters of the game, there is always the possibility that, at times, they will creatively stumble and fall. This year has seen more than its fair share of major releases that have under whelmed but Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” was a knockout! I really hope you go out and try this film and even if your response is violently negative, it would be impossible to not acknowledge that this film tries in ways that most current movies have long forgotten. It unapologetically reaches for the sky, swings for the fences and runs many extra miles in order to deliver a movie going experience that is unique and unforgettable.

And hey! It’s about time a major motion picture featured a leading character adorned with my name for a change!!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

BROKEN DATE: a review of "Date Night"

This review is written in esteemed tribute to Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, whose cinematic passions, teachings and lessons inform every single word I write on Savage Cinema.

"DATE NIGHT" Directed by Shawn Levy
* (one star)

The late, great Gene Siskel remarked many, many times that in regards to exploring the criteria for what constitutes a good movie, one question to ask would be the following: Is the movie you are watching more interesting than if you overheard a conversation between the film’s actors in real life, perhaps during a meal at a restaurant? That question has remained locked in my head for much of my life as I have watched one movie after another and I have to say that it was an extremely prevalent question to ask as I sat through Director Shawn Levy’s painfully insipid “Date Night” starring Steve Carrell and Tina Fey. As the wheels of contrivance continued to grind creakily, I knew, proof positive, that if I ever did end up at a restaurant where Steve Carrell and Tina Fey just happened to be sharing a meal at the next table, I would indeed hang onto their every word because I am certain that just even one utterance would be smarter, brighter, funnier and more captivating that anything on display in this movie.

Carrell and Fey star as tax accountant Phil and real estate agent Claire Foster, a “boring” and bored New Jersey married couple with children, who plan a luxurious date night in Manhattan in order to spice up their marriage. They arrive at Claw, a new and highly trendy seafood restaurant, without reservations but with high hopes of finding a table. Just at the point when it seems that their night will go south, Phil arrives at the idea of claiming the table meant for the Tripplehorns, a couple not answering their table seating announcement. Phil and Claire take the table and begin to embark upon their glorious evening when suddenly, they are accosted table-side by two shady looking characters (played by Common and Jimmi Simpson) looking for the Tripplehorns. From this point, the Foster’s glamorous date night becomes comically deadly as this case of mistaken identity balloons into a night long adventure which involves crooked cops, a mobster (Ray Liotta), wild car chases, a misbegotten strip tease escapade, a missing flash drive with incriminating information, a broom carrying campaigning District Attorney (William Fichtner) and a constantly shirtless security expert (Mark Wahlberg) who was once one of Claire’s clients. Will the long dormant passions of Phil and Claire re-emerge and re-ignite their love or are they doomed to a life of suburban mediocrity, if they can only survive the night?

I wearily suppose that this concept could have worked but alas, “Date Night” is just the latest entry of the scarily dumbed-down high-concept movies that have infected our movie theaters in recent years. Despite the obvious chemistry between Steve Carrell and Tina Fey, their personalities and our affection for them are too heavily leaned upon to obviously make up for the derivative, bargain basement screenplay and dangerously lazy impersonal direction by Levy. For a plot like this to work, there needs to be such great attention in the writing of characters like Phil and Claire, as well as their internal dilemma but again, with this film, the writing is not present in the least and there is no comic momentum on display. It was as if the filmmakers and studio decided that just the sight of Carrell and Fey would be enough. That they could show up on set and just be funny, ensuring a comic masterpiece. But, that is definitely not how it works, especially in comedy, a medium that has long eluded the proper respect it deserves. The same level of talent has to exist behind the camera and better yet, at the moment of the film’s conception and throughout the entire process of creating a script to deliver to two people as talented as Carrel and Fey have consistently proven themselves to be. Unfortunately, “Date Night” contains nothing but the most obvious, pseudo-edgy, toothless innuendo that may be dirty enough to maybe make the MOR audience members giggle nervously but its not nearly nasty or challenging enough to be fresh, truly funny or even memorable. The comic pacing was sluggish and scenes seemed to be staged with pauses in dialogue designed as signals for the audience to laugh, so much so that all the film was missing was a 1970s canned laugh track.

And then, there is the plot to really consider. For this, I will turn my attention to Roger Ebert, who coined the term, “The Idiot Plot,” which essentially states that if the characters were not all complete idiots, then there would be no movie. Or the film in question contains a plot during which if one character decided to do or not do just one thing, then they movie would be over. “Date Night” is a movie filled to the brim with its share of idiots and there are several sequences when Phil and Claire decide to run against the MOST LOGICAL thing to do just to keep the wheels of the creaky plot grinding along. Case in point, when they are first accosted by the two shady characters at their dinner table and they are told to get up and leave, why do Phil and Claire follow their instructions at all? Why don’t they just stay at the table? Especially as the identity of the two shady characters are revealed, you know NOTHING bad would have happened to Phil and Claire in the first place. This is “The Idiot Plot” in motion because if Phil and Claire just stayed at the table, the movie as conceived would be completed and then the filmmakers would have had to engage themselves in tougher screenwriting and direction duties and potentially be faced with making a good and memorable movie for people to watch.

I want for you, for a moment, to turn back your cinematic clock 25 years to Director Martin Scorsese’s intense comedy “After Hours” (1985), which starred Griffin Dunne as a quiet office dweller who embarks upon a surprise date with the unhinged Rosanna Arquette and ends up trapped in a surreal, almost Hellish SoHo for one long night. For all of the uncomfortable situations Dunne finds himself in, all of the characters at all times are true to whom they are, the film is rooted firmly in reality and you never once feel the plot ticking away.

Or if you are going to lean towards a more raucous setting, how about Director Chris Columbus’ “Adventures In Babysitting” (1986)? That film’s more fantastical elements were contained within that film's title yet the characters never disintegrated into cartoons. The air-tight script, Columbus’s flowing direction and the engaging performances from the entire cast kept the film speeding along with comic energy, excitement and inventiveness and for added charm, it often laughed at its own ridiculous situations to boot.

Yet, “Date Night” is a wild, screwball film stuck in neutral and for much of its stagnant running time, it felt to be idling in park. Beyond that, it seems that absolutely no one behind the scenes seemed to trust the comic gold they had in their hands from the very beginning. Sometimes, the best solutions and answers are the simplest ones and in the case of “Date Night,” it is all there in the title. Why didn’t Levy and his filmmaking crew trust in it characters and their situation enough to just make a film about a date night between these two people? That would have the most obvious thing to do and it could potentially have the most comedic unpredictability. Nevertheless, we exist in a time when studios think there just has to be some high concept to drive the film. That a modern audience just won’t be able to handle strong direction, writing and performances that sustain themselves on their own terms. Instead of making a film that is burdened with “The Idiot Plot,” why not make a smart movie about smart people and treat the audience as if they were smart people as well?

There is one horridly embarrassing sequence in particular that really stresses what I am speaking of. It is a fairly quieter section set upon a subway train, and in this scene, the character of Claire Foster is used as an audience surrogate. She expresses to Phil that she is unable to keep up with complicated plots which then gives him the opportunity to recount to her (i.e. us the audience) the entire film thus far, as if we hadn’t been watching it to this point at all. Do Levy and his crew feel that the audience is so stupid that they could not have kept up with the story or even understood what has been happening for all of this time? Trust me, dear readers, there is not one moment of “Date Night” complicated enough to necessitate re-explanation and the suggestion that this film is more than what it actually is is insulting to all of us.

Furthermore, what makes “Date Night” so disappointing, even moreso than the poor utilization of its stars’ talents is the fact there is a really good movie at its core. I have to say that this movie began very well, as during the first fifteen minutes or so, it effectively set up who Phil and Claire Foster are, where their lives have been and where they are headed, their love for each other and their fears of it evaporating. And then the two shady characters wind up at their restaurant table and whatever good will the film had begun to earn, Levy and his filmmaking crew tossed it away completely. It reminded me of Director Peyton Reed’s Vince Vaughn/Jennifer Aniston vehicle “The Break-Up” (2006) another tremendously wasted opportunity that began so strongly with truthful, very funny and equally uncomfortable humor and sacrificed it all for contrived situations that betrayed the characters and strong core.

Please take another moment and recall Director Judd Apatow's "Knocked Up" (2007). Would that wonderful, hysterical, vulgar, romantic, empathetic and highly memorable and re-watchable film been better served with car chases and explosions? Of course not!! "Date Night" is a film that just did not need the mistaken identities and "Mexican standoffs." All it had to do was trust in these characters and their dilemma and search for the comedic elements within.

That kind of a movie, if done to the very best of its abilities, would have easily been a film that could have surpassed an overheard conversation between famous people in real life.

However, we are left with this one.


Inspired by and dedicated to Susannah Gora, author of You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes and Their Impact On A Generation. Her wonderfully written and researched book was a source of validation for me, as well as Hughes fans all over, as she treated the teen films of the 1980s, and the work of John Hughes in particular, with great respect, dignity, intelligence and heart.


August 6, 2009 was a day that will be forever etched into my memory as that was the day John Hughes passed away suddenly after suffering a massive heart attack while taking a morning stroll in Manhattan while visiting family. It is so strange to think that this particular celebrity death has affected me so deeply. I still cannot believe that he is gone and although I never met him, it still makes me sad to think of it. Since that time, there has been a certain re-evaluation of his work in film, including a stirring and heartfelt tribute to him during this year's Oscar telecast.

I had been planning to write something new about him for quite some time but didn't really know exactly what I would set out to do. And then inspiration struck.

Author Susannah Gora had recently written and published a new article commemorating Hughes' passing by detailing her five favorite scenes from his films. As always, the best ideas are the simplest and I decided to embark upon my favorite scenes from Hughes' films and you know me, I could not limit myself to five. So, I stretched it to ten and I will try my best to keep it as clean and neat as possible, not allowing myself to become too carried away with the memories.

10. "Fats man, lemme tell you my story, man..." The bar sequence from "Weird Science" (1985)
Shortly after geeky and friendless high school Sophomores Gary Wallace (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt Donnely (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create their dream girl Lisa (Kelly Le Brock) via their home computer and assortment of seemingly random objects, Lisa obtains a car and drives the two boys into the city of Chicago for a night out on the town. The trio arrive at a bar filled predominantly with adult African-American clientele. Feeling terribly out of place and not wanting to offend, Gary and Wyatt accept the heavy duty liquor offered to them. After a spell and seemingly countless drinks, Gary, now blindingly drunk, recounts the story of a unrequited crush over a well developed 13 year old girl by channeling his inner Delta bluesman by way of Chicago street pimp. It is a sequence, much like the classic scene from "National Lampoon's Animal House" (1978), that teeters very dangerously to offensiveness but is rescued by Hughes’ satirically playful direction and Anthony Michael Hall’s tour de force performance, which extends upon the classic stoner split second “The chick cannot hold da smoke. That’s what it is!” moment from “The Breakfast Club.” To this day, I still laugh and laugh HARD! Further credit to the comedic collaboration between Hughes and Hall as they wisely allow the character of Gary to remain in his alcohol fueled soul man state a few scenes after the trio leaves the bar and returns to the sleepy confines of Shermer, IL.

9. "Blaine, what about prom?" from "Pretty In Pink" (1986)
To this day, I feel that Molly Ringwald was at her best and gave her most honest performances during her work with John Hughes and this scene, which occurs late in the film, is one of her finest, rawest moments. It is also a testament to the richness of the Andie Walsh character. In addition to the peer and class warfare pressures she endures on a daily basis, which has now increased and intensified through her romance with "richie" Blaine McDonough (Andrew McCarthy), the tensions of Andie's home life are finally coming to a head. She is an 18 year old, desiring to attend college but is forced into parenting her depressed and quite possibly alcoholic Father, Jack Walsh (Harry Dean Stanton) while also contributing heavily to their home finances through her afterschool record store job. By this crucial point in the film, the cracks from those combined stresses reveal themselves with uncontained fury in the school hallways as Andie confronts Blaine for his sudden cold shoulder towards her. Every ferocious shriek, shout and punch Andie delivers to Blaine is felt emotionally, making for a scene that has always left me a bit rattled. And McCarthy gives it all he's got through his reactions. He crumbles and winces with each verbal and physical attack and admonition, giving you the feeling that he is internally telling himself the exact same things Andie is accusing him of. And ultimately, he is punishing himself for his own sense of weakness.

8. "You're going the WRONG WAY!!!" The highway sequence from "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" (1987)
In a film loaded end to end with great scenes, this extended section is a comedic masterpiece. Travelling salesmen Neal Page (Steve Martin) and Del Griffith (John Candy) are now headed to Chicago via rental car. As Neal sleeps in the passenger seat, Del blares and driver's seat dances to the music of Ray Charles. Afterwards, he tosses his lit cigarette out of the window, which unbeknownst to him, has ricocheted into the back seat of the car. This leads to a section where both of his coat sleeves are trapped in the car seat and the car ultimately ends up barreling along the highway in the wrong direction and into the path of two semi-trucks. With this sequence, Hughes greatly delivers a broadly comedic and action set piece that is entirely character driven. Everything we have learned about Neal and Del figures into this section and informs the comedy, making every moment count humorously and emotionally. It is an effortless and brilliant balance of tone, timing and execution, where even the smallest details carry equal weight to the grandest moments.

7. The Art Institute sequence from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986)
This short, wordless scene provides an elegant interlude to this euphoric film. So melancholy, beautiful, graceful and even haunting, Again Hughes finds ways to make this sequence comedic, romantic, completely character driven, bittersweet and even intensely personal, as Hughes presents to us some of his personal favorite works of art from the museum he frequently visited during his own teenage years. It is a dreamy marvel of a sequence.

6. "You wanna hurt me?" The hotel room scene from "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" (1987)
This is the scene where Neal Page (Steve Martin) unleashes his long pent up rage at Del Griffith (John Candy), who stands there, takes it all, does not crumble and asserts his individuality. It is a scene that would almost be too painful to endure if Neal's viciously cruel rant was not also so savagely funny. What takes this sequence to the next level is how Hughes occasionally cuts to the face of Del Griffith, where we can have a few moments to witness his pain and hurt feelings at the other end of Neal's harshness. It deftly transforms the sequence into a social lesson and depicts how the sadistic rules of the playground exist well into middle age. This is the scene that not only raised the acting stakes and bar for Martin and especially Candy, but it also elevated this film from terrific comedy into something much deeper and memorable.

5. "You could come back next fall as a completely normal person." The auto shop scene from "Sixteen Candles (1984)
John Hughes' directorial debut was a revolutionary stamp in the teen film genre not only because it sensitively featured a girl, front and center, in the typically male driven genre where teenage girls were consistently exploited. Hughes' film, more than any other that had preceded it, featured teenage characters lost and enveloped in conversation, speaking their language and opening their hearts to their peers and often surprising themselves in the process. This sequence arrives during the first third in this laugh riot of a movie. 16 year old Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald), sadly sits in a car inside of the high school's auto shop, lamenting her unrequited crush on Senior Jake Ryan (Michael Shoeffling), as well as her entire family's forgetfulness in regards to her 16th birthday. Just when things could not get worse, she is accosted once again by Farmer Ted, The Geek (a standout Anthony Michael Hall). She allows him to sit next to her in the car and then, magic happens. Samantha and The Geek embark upon a six minute stretch of conversation that was filled with sparkling, sharp, insightful. literate and perceptive comic dialogue that would become a Hughes trademark. And that scene was the moment when the bar of the teen film genre had been dramatically raised.

(HONORABLE MENTION): A tender scene set in the middle of the film between Samantha and her confused yet loving Father (Paul Dooley). It wasn't just a quiet spot in an otherwise raucous film. And it wasn't even solely a heartwarming scene between a parent and child. It was Hughes himself consoling and speaking to every lonely, misunderstood teenager in the audience.)

4. The parade sequence from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986)
With the exception of John Landis' "The Blues Brothers" (1980), the people, sights, sounds, architecture and spectacle of my hometown of Chicago has rarely been more lovingly represented on film. This sequence, where Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) takes over a German heritage parade float and gets 10,000 dancing extras to sing along to The Beatles' "Twist And Shout," makes you want to get up on your feet in the theater aisles. It is Hughes' love letter to his cherished city yet amidst the joy, he still finds way to inject a taste of character driven melancholy bittersweetness with a brief shared walk featuring Ferris' depressed best friend Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck) and devoted and sly girlfriend Sloane Petersen (Mia Sara) as they discuss the paths of their unknown futures.

3. "When you grow up, your heart dies." The "group therapy" sequence from "The Breakfast Club" (1985)
This 20 minute section is the centerpiece and climax to this emotionally exhausting film. Only Hughes' second directorial feature, he shows a command of location, actors, performances and writing that most filmmakers would kill for. It is a lengthy sequence which features no less than the painful confessions of both athlete Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez) and class brain Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall); the sexual and classist duels between rich girl Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald) and abused working class tough delinquent John Bender (Judd Nelson); as well as the bizarre mind games and sage like interpretations from "basket case" Alison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy). From Claire's lipstick bra trick to verbal peer pressure battles to wondering exactly what will happen to them on Monday, the sequence never feels overstuffed and flows as naturally as any real world conversation. I watched and studied this sequence constantly during my own high school years and when I see it today, I am continually impressed with its blitzkrieg of honest fury, confusion, tension, release, resolution and tolerance. There hasn't been a film within the teen film genre to even approach the levels set by this masterpiece of a sequence ever since.

(HONORABLE MENTION: The classic "Eat my shorts!" battle between Teacher Richard Vernon (Paul Gleeson) and John Bender. Razor sharp intensity where the threat of violence is in the air and concluding with the best "F.U.!!!" heard in the movies. This scene was a verbal brick through a glass window.)

2. The kiss from "Sixteen Candles" (1984)
The image is now iconic. The sight of Samantha Baker and Jake Ryan sitting on a tabletop with a birthday cake set in between them is a teenage dream fulfilled and the concluding kiss remains one of the most romantic scenes I have seen in any movie, before or since.

(HONORABLE MENTION: The kiss from "Some Kind Of Wonderful" (1987) runs a close second in my mind for being one of the most romantic scenes in the movies. So tender, gentle and sexually charged, Keith Nelson (Eric Stoltz) and Watts the Drummer Girl's (Mary Stuart Masterson) first kiss is another teenage dream fulfilled. And the music, Stephen Duffy's "She Loves Me," captures exactly what that first kiss would sound like as it scrambles your brains.)

1. The birth sequence from "She's Having A Baby" (1988)
For me, this powerful sequence, scored to Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work," is John Hughes' finest moment as a filmmaker. As Jefferson "Jake" Briggs (a spectacular Kevin bacon) sits in a hospital waiting room worrying about the fate of his wife Kristy Bainbridge (Elizabeth McGovern) and their as yet unborn child, he mentally takes stock of his life and all of the mistakes he has made thus far within the first five years of their marriage. He discovers within himself the hardest faults. That he has taken more than he gave, that he was loved more than he loved and the realization sets forth a shattering montage of images that contain regret, sorrow, agony, pathos, comedy, elegance and a heart as wide as the open sky. This sequence had it ALL! When I first saw it at a college campus FREE advance sneak preview, there was not a dry eye in the house and I truly dare anyone to view that scene now and not feel an honest lump in the throat.

There you have it, my Top Ten favorite scenes and sequences from the films of John Hughes (and yes, with a couple of cheats tossed in). This is my commemoration to this man, whose work inspires me to this day and will continue to for as long as I live.

As always, THANK YOU, John Hughes.

THE BALCONY IS NOW CLOSED: a tribute to "At The Movies" (1975-2010)


It was a typical night in my home, on one inauspicious evening back in 1977 as my family and I were settling ourselves down to dinner. My Mother, Father, Grandmom and myself were seated around our kitchen table, saying grace and preparing to eat. My Father then reached over to the nearby television set and began to change the channels to find something to either watch during our meal or simply to have something that consisted of some sort of visual background noise. And suddenly, as he arrived at the public television channel, I saw it.

The Millennium Falcon was engaged in an intense dogfight with four howling TIE Fighters. Mercenary Han Solo and Tattooine farmboy Luke Skywalker sat firing away in two separate gun turrets while Princess Leia and Chewbacca guided the ship in flight. The music of John Williams burst from the television speakers and I sat enraptured at the sight of “Star Wars,” a film that I had just recently seen on opening day and the film that made me fully aware of the power of the motion picture experience. I begged my Father to not change the channel, a request I believe he somewhat reluctantly agreed to and then, the sequence ended and a completely unfamiliar sight arrived next on the television screen.

On the television screen sat two men. One man was thin, unmistakably grumpy and tall and the other man was corpulent, bespectacled, slightly more jovial yet no less serious. They appeared to me as sort of a real world “Bert and Ernie”as they sat across from each other in what looked to be a movie theater balcony and then, they began to speak about the images I had just watched. They spoke in a tenor that was similar to the type I had heard so, so often on the Chicago sports talk radio programs my Father obsessively listened to yet this time, that tenor zeroed in towards my personal frequencies. While I didn’t understand everything they were talking about, the language somehow felt inherently familiar and I only desired to hear more of what they had to say. After some minor pleading, my Father allowed me to watch the entire program, which featured the two men discussing and debating one movie after another and after 30 minutes, it ended. The television program was called, “Sneak Previews.” The two men were Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel and Chicago Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert. And this inauspicious introduction on this inauspicious evening back in 1977, when I was only eight years old, impacted my life on a seismic level, altering it forever.

And now, the era has ended. On the weekend of August 14th, “At The Movies,” the nationally syndicated television movie review program that evolved from Chicago public television’s “Sneak Previews,” concluded its legendary and profoundly influential run after an incredible 35 years. A casualty of corporate business decision making, the program's final episode, which now featured co-hosts Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune film critic and A.O. Scott, New York Times film critic, was an unsurprisingly modest affair without hyperbole and histrionics. That said, it was also a surprisingly joyous affair that kept copious amounts of melancholy and bittersweetness at bay and stoically held its head high with the intelligence, grace, class and humor that has defined this revolutionary series from the very beginning.

Originated on Chicago’s WTTW public television station in 1975 as a monthly series, “At The Movies" began as “Opening Soon At A Theatre Near You,” and featured the deceptively simplistic set and format we have seen for over three decades. A balcony setting with two film critics, with obvious animosity and rivalry towards each other, engaging themselves and the audience in the discussion and debates concerning modern cinema. It was informative, educational, and often made for electrifying viewing. Each installment was like a four star film, a rollercoaster of emotions and opinions all contained within the act of debate. I was often pinned to the edge of my seat, hanging on every word of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert in suspense. Like the greatest movie star couplings, Siskel and Ebert indeed had chemistry and screen presence to burn and their unwillingness to be upstaged by the other was palpable. But, even more than their own on-air duels, and witnessing the evolution of their growing respect for each other, it is what they shared and gave to absolutely anyone who chose to watch them, episode after episode, that remains to this day. It was, and remains, a supreme gift, the likes of which will never be touched in the same way ever again.

For me, “At The Movies” gave me a window into a world that I had really just discovered through the eye-opening viewings of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” (1977) and Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” (1977). Before that, going to the movies was a rare event in my house and mostly for me, it was solely a place to get popcorn. After seeing those two movies, it was like witnessing the Big Bang in front of my eyes. “At The Movies” accomplished the exact same feat for me on, albeit, a much smaller scale, week after week after week. Its educational value was so immense, thorough, entertaining, compelling and most importantly, tangible that I would have PAID for it, if it were an option. I learned what it took to make a great movie and how difficult it is to do just that, even with the very best of talent, time and money on display. I learned about the art of visual storytelling. I learned about how all of the “invisible” techniques of movies, like editing, sound design, lighting, and cinematography worked in conjunction with the actors, special effects, set and costume design, and music scores to create cinematic alchemy. Without Siskel and Ebert, all of that artistry would have gone unnoticed by me and for anyone else who viewed their program.
“At The Movies” was film school long before I ever took any film school classes. By the time I actually did take film classes in college, I felt that I had already possessed a sizable advantage thanks to Siskel and Ebert and that advantage provided me with an unprecedented sense of academic comfort and calm with the material being presented to me by a variety of professors, instructors and film scholars. The only full bodied grade of “A” I ever received in college at the completion of a semester course was indeed a film production class and I am truly indebted to Siskel and Ebert’s weekly instructions.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert and “At The Movies” showed me there existed a universe of film that extended itself vastly from the weekly major Hollywood releases constantly being advertised in newspapers and on television. They championed the smaller films that would otherwise have gone unseen and undistributed. They introduced me to film styles and genre I otherwise would have NEVER heard of or even tried to view. I never would have seen a foreign film or documentary if it were not for them. I never would have seen experimental films if it were not for them. As I ponder appreciatively over how much they have contributed to the culture and art of movies, I am astonished. I think of how empty my film viewing life would be if I had never seen Director Jean-Jacques Beineix’s “Diva” (1981), Louis Malle’s “My Dinner With Andre” (1981), or even Steve James’ “Hoop Dreams” (1994). Consequently, I greatly appreciate how those works not only led me backwards to films by cinematic giants like Akira Kurosawa, Jean Luc Goddard and Francois Truffaut but also made current independent works by filmmakers like Richard Linklater, more approachable. Long established filmmakers, no less than Cameron Crowe, Spike Lee and Kevin Smith have often mentioned that it was Siskel and Ebert’s praise and celebration of their work that allowed their films to be seen by wider audiences than they would have otherwise. Their reach was vast and I could not help but to be caught up within their waves of cinematic influence. Conversely, Siskel and Ebert were unabashedly unafraid of taking on the giants of Hollywood when necessary and calling them out for being unimaginative, derivative, and especially when the material was of an insult to the audience’s intelligence, wallets and time. Siskel and Ebert were the ones who perfected the art of critiquing for me.

By the time Siskel and Ebert became nationally recognized celebrities in their own right, they were often criticized for dumbing down the act and art of film criticism with their now iconic “Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down!” rating system. I vehemently disagree. They never approached their criticism with the arrogant view of standing on high mountaintop delivering their critiques to the poor uneducated masses down below. They were always one of us; people who loved to go to the movies, were passionate about what they saw and eager to share their findings with everybody. “At The Movies” was an inclusive experience, a populist program that desired engagement. It was a discussion they wanted everyone to be a part of. Siskel and Ebert gave us the tools and the language they used themselves to judge and rate films and it was through that program where I began to really think about what I was watching, how I responded to what I was watching and how could I engage in my own discussions about it. They showed me that there is always a way to say something, a way express oneself intensely yet artfully.

The television show also led me to the written work. I read their reviews religiously and their work also led me to the written work of their contemporaries from a variety of sources. I read reviews wherever I was able to find them from Time, Newsweek, and Rolling Stone to legendary film critic Pauline Kael’s books, and to obscure film journals and magazines. Before I knew it, I was not just learning about the process of filmmaking, I was learning about the process of writing about film. I discovered there were as many pieces to the puzzle of critiquing as they were to the creation of the art at hand.

When I wrote a letter to Gene Siskel, at the age of 16 decrying his harshly negative review of John Hughes’ “Weird Science” (1985), I knew that it could not be a petulant rant that was entirely designed to defend my hero. I wanted him to read what I had to say and know that my intent was as serious as his own. (Who knows if he ever even saw it…) When I began writing screenplays of my own, also during my teen years, the voices and teaching of these two men echoed loudly in my head as I wrote. I imagined some completed film that I had made being reviewed on their show. I wanted that four star rating. I wanted that “Two Thumbs Up!!” endorsement and every time I found myself stuck, I could recall the words they spoke every week concerning character development, cliché, and being honest within the work. Furthermore, and as I have expressed many times since the birth of “Savage Cinema,” every single word I write would otherwise not exist if it were not for the groundwork these two men set out for me.

As the visibility and success of “At The Movies” ballooned, there was a period where there were no less than three movie review programs on the air and I watched them all. But, profound changes would occur at the dawn of the 21st century. Gene Siskel sadly passed away in 1999 after an operation removed a brain tumor. Roger Ebert continued the program with a revolving cast of film critics and special guests before deciding upon Chicago Sun Times columnist Richard Roeper as his permanent aisle seat partner.

In 2008, Roger Ebert exited the program after complications from cancer surgery removed his ability to speak. Roeper carried onwards with a revolving cast of co-hosts, including future and final co-hosts, the aforementioned Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott and as before, I never missed an episode knowing full well that even in their absence, the quality they pioneered would remain intact. Or would it?

I ceased to watch “At The Movies” during the now infamous season featuring the two “Bens” (Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz) a desperate, disastrous and unfathomable effort to “modernize” a show that was already as modern as the films being released. It was the quintessential act of fixing something that was not broken, and in doing so, the powers that be broke the show. For the final season, the experience, intelligence and credibility that was a staple of the program from its inception returned with Phillips and Scott, and I returned with it and them. Now that it is over, I could not imagine two more qualified hosts to bring this ground-breaking program to rest.

As with my written tribute to John Hughes last year, these men were and remain heroes to me. They are the treasured teachers we have all had and it cannot be stated enough that major aspects of my life would not be the same without their influence. I never had the opportunity to meet Gene Siskel, but I do happen to posses an autograph from him and given to my Father, who met him one evening in Chicago. I did meet Roger Ebert very briefly during the 1990’s at a book signing in Madison, WI during the city’s annual film festival. I clumsily and quickly told him how greatly he affected my life as he signed my book. I mentioned that at that time I had not yet met Siskel, to which he jokingly replied, “You don’t need to.” Then I verbally flopped around for what seemed to be an eon, wishing I could have been more eloquent to this man who meant so much to me. Yet, I was star struck…

Before I bring this tribute to a close, I would like to recount to you something that heard on the radio on my way home from work just the other night. I was listening to NPR’s “Fresh Air” program and they played an interview conducted with Siskel and Ebert in 1996. As host Terry Gross volleyed a series of quick questions to both men, that electricity I felt when I watched them on television for so much of my life returned through waves of radio and archived history. When they were each asked about the first film they remembered seeing in a movie theater as well as the scariest film they had each seen, there were two moments that really jumped from the speakers to me and they both involved Gene Siskel. The first was his stirring recollection of Walt Disney’s “Dumbo” (1941) as the first film which made a lasting impression upon him. The second was a hilarious recollection of “Halloween” (1978), the scariest film he had seen. He described the evening he saw the film for the first time and how it had frightened him so terribly, he had taken a taxi back to his home…which was only two blocks away! Afterwards, and upon entering his home, the first thing he did was to go into his bathroom…and draw back the shower curtain, leaving the open space in full view. The audience roared with laughter and recognition and that is the reason I loved this show and these two men.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert somehow found the way to bridge the gap between the intellectual and the emotional and the result was a television experience so treasured, so special, so artistically relevant and necessary. They gave us a front row seat into the lifelong art of conversation, specifically to the continuing and everlasting discussion, appreciation and unabashed love of movies. But, their show transcended the subject of movies as they gave us a front row seat to the lifelong art of conversation concerning life itself. For in the movies, our lives and dreams are contained and represented.

May that artful conversation never, ever cease and may all of our voices become a part of it.

THANK YOU to Gene & Roger for getting all of us started...

Friday, August 6, 2010


"KICK-ASS" Co-Written and Directed by Matthew Vaughn
zero stars

Let me not waste your time with my assessment. "Kick-Ass," Director Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of the graphic novel is, so far, the very worst film I have seen this year. There is not even one element that I can recommend as what began as an unfunny and complete tonal disaster descended into a level of repugnance from which it was unable to recover. I HATED this movie. It was a mean-spirited, ugly experience masquerading as hipster edginess and post-ironic cool. And after sitting through this terrible, ill conceived movie, which did receive its fair share of positive critical reviews and enough box office dollars to ensure the inevitable sequel, all I could do was wonder just what does it have to take to entertain an audience in the 21st century.

The plot of “Kick-Ass” is based in standard comic book lore and eventually spirals off into its own self-consciously quirky directions. Unnoticed, average teenager and comic book fan Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) nurses a secret desire to become a superhero and help others despite having no powers, no valid heroic abilities, or no technological gear and gadgets. Despite his lack of…everything…he sends away for a green costume, complete with mask, determined to live out his heroic fantasies. He creates a MySpace fan page for self-promotion and after successfully warding off three gang members, he becomes a media sensation which catches the eye of crime lord Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong). Kick-Ass’ antics also alert real world vigilantes (and obvious nod to Batman and Robin) Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his daughter, the foul mouthed, hot tempered, purple wigged and black masked Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), who themselves are engaged in a revenge plot against D’Amico.

This would all be well and good if the movie weren’t so riveted in its own self-congratulatory sense of post-ironic posing. “Kick-Ass” attempts to riff on comic books and comic book themed films but fails on every level, including its weak special effects and ultimate disregard for its own visual thematics as it forgets about its comic book panel effect as the film advances. Even beginning with the title, it all feels like nothing more than a pseudo-subversive stunt that never rises above the level of a sixth grade bathroom joke. It is not a parody or a satire as it is never truly clear on what it is parodying and satirizing. It has all of the notes but it never knows how to perform the music and make it sing. I’m no prude and believe me, it does indeed take quite a bit to actually offend me but I have to say that if forcefully delivered masturbation jokes, endless streams of profanity without any finesse or purpose and painfully unfunny streaks of homosexual mistaken identity, qualify for “edginess” then consider me a square for absolutely none of it worked. Tone is absolutely, positively, entirely EVERYTHING, especially in a movie that is trying to straddle the fences of extreme action and comedy and in all possible ways, Vaughn sloppily botched them all.

For the first two sections of the film, we are just given a mess of a movie where empty headed teenage hijinks merge uncomfortably with gangsters, thugs and “Goodfellas” level and styled violence. But mostly, there is the matter of a massive elephant in the room concerning Kick-Ass and Hit Girl. The two kids in question are unquestionably insane and the film never really deals with this element at all. Kick-Ass has misplaced delusions of grandeur in the fantasy world he desperately wants to live in, even after he is nearly killed during his debut act of vigilantism. His only thought after enduring a surgery that has given him metallic plates throughout his body is that he is now “just like Wolverine.”

Even worse, Hit Girl is an unrepentant, soulless, psychopathic killer, brainwashed and used by her nuthouse father Big Daddy in order to enact his own brand of revenge against the ones who once wronged him. Although Big Daddy’s former police partner Marcus (played by Omari Hardwick) quickly acknowledges that very elephant briefly, it is never, ever mentioned again. Vaughn just cannot decide just what exactly his movie wants or needs to be at its very core. He wants us to buy these kids as superheroes but I suppose he wants us to laugh at them as well. We are meant to believe these two kids are superheroes, but without giving any of his characters any stitch of humanity an audience can relate to, all you have are characters without conscience or an understanding about the consequences of their actions. As we all learned in Director Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” (2002), with great power comes great responsibility. But the characters don’t believe this tidbit of advice for a second, so why should we believe in them?

Where the film flies off of the rails is during the film’s extended action climax which finds Kick-Ass and Big Daddy being tortured on live television and the internet by D'Amico's henchmen, a showdown between Kick-Ass and the duplicitous Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and the unbelievably brutal warpath unleashed by Hit Girl. When “Kick-Ass” was released in theaters, there was minor controversy surrounding the utilization of young actress Chloe Grace Moretz so heavily in sequences where she is required to utter the most extreme profanities of all in addition to graphically eviscerating her enemies. As I watched Moretz slice, claw, pummel, and bludgeon henchmen after henchmen as if she were Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” series, I knew that while these sequences were designed to be enormous crowd pleasers, I just sat there feeling…well…unclean. All of the proceedings just felt so profoundly, tremendously, overwhelmingly wrong to me and by film’s end, I knew that what I saw wasn’t edgy, cool, groundbreaking or innovative. It was exploitation.

While I will forever hold up the medium of film as a valid art form and filmmakers as artists that should not compromise their visions to suit any one person’s tastes, I do also believe that filmmakers do have a certain responsibility when they are wielding that much artistic power. It’s a simple thought really. Just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should. Going back to the extremely violent revenge fantasy, western, samurai epic hybrid of “Kill Bill” for a moment, even Tarantino knew the meaning and power of restraint—case in point, the brutal animated sequence from “Kill Bill Vol. 1” (2003) which depicts the cycle of violence and horrific origin of O-Ren Ishii (played by Lucy Liu). The section depicts gangsters, pedophilia, the murder of parents as the child hides under the bed as well as the child’s incomprehensible terror and ultimate retribution. It was a sequence so harsh that Tarantino himself expressed in an interview that there was just no way he could place a living, breathing child in that situation. And that, dear readers, is the crux. All of the violence in “Kill Bill,” for instance, is committed by adults. It is an adult movie for adults that actually delivers the dangers and psychological downfall of revenge and violence amidst its pulpy fabrics and colorful characters. The violence of “Kick-Ass,” on the other hand, is committed by and enacted towards children and no matter how much Vaughn and his filmmakers rationalize their movie, these characters are still children!

How could Vaughan, his filmmaking crew, the movie studio that financed this piece of garbage and I suppose worst of all, the parents of Chloe Grace Moretz, allow her participation in this verbal and visual carnage? The very first image of Moretz in this film is when she is glibly taking a bullet in the chest, at point blank range by her own Father! Late in the film, as I watched this child, holding two guns, racing down a hallway like Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix” (1999), blowing away every single gangster goon in her path, complete with gushing amounts of gore, I was not excited. I was disgusted. When she is subsequently beaten within an inch of her life by Frank D’Amico, I was not pinned to the edge of my seat in exhilaration, I was horrified. When D'Amico then aims a gun at her head, ready to place a bullet into her brain, all I could do was wonder just what does it have to take to be entertained these days? Here is the image of a grown man, thrashing around a child, an 11 year old girl for God’s sakes, and this is supposed to constitute a night out at the movies?!?! I don’t care if she is supposed to be a superhero with explosive combat skills. Hit Girl IS A CHILD and there’s no getting around that. Perhaps this level of battle worked in the original graphic novel but when visually represented with flesh and blood actors, the effect is supremely distasteful, disgusting and all parties involved should be ashamed of themselves.

What is happening to us, dear readers? Have we really become this desensitized? Has the sight of an 11 year old girl spewing all manner of vulgarities, killing everyone in her rampaging path and being battered around by an adult male become an acceptable form of entertainment? If Matthew Vaughn and the movie studio proclaim that they are just giving us what we, the public, want to see, then what does that say about us? I truly hope that a film like this is anomaly and not the newfound normalcy.

Chloe Grace Moretz is a talented young actress who, in addition to this movie, appeared recently in 2009's “(500) Days Of Summer.” She reminds me greatly of a young Jodie Foster or Tatum O’Neal and I do think that if she plays her cards right, she could have a strong future in the movies and I will be very glad to see her again. But, she needs to surround herself with the right people to assist with her decision making so that she may avoid be exploited in this manner again. But, when there money to be made, especially when there’s a sequel in the pipeline, it seems that credibility, morality and humanity is lost.

I have often spoken about humanity here on Savage Cinema and I believe that movies, at their very best, and no matter what the genre, can be some of the most powerful explorations of what it means to be human. At its worst, we receive films like "Kick-Ass," a film that nihilistically revels in its own inhumanity. When a mainstream film of this sort arrives, we, as consumers and movie goers have a choice to make and I just feel that when it comes down to the sight of a bloody 11 year old girl staring down the barrel of a gun, we can all make the right choice.

Our humanity depends upon it.

Monday, August 2, 2010


Co-Written and Directed by Matthew Robbins

Hey kids! Have I got an out of sight gas of a summer romp ready for you to see before you reach summer’s end!

I have to express to you that I have never been the sort of male who has ever contained a passion for cars. I can honestly tell you that I know absolutely, positively nothing about the variety of car makes, engines, horsepower, pick-up and the like and frankly, I just don’t care. When I do hear that sort of intense “car speak” from friends or on public radio, the words all become a jumble to my ears, sounding like the immortal guttural slowed down muted trumpet noises of Miss Othmar. But, I will make this admittance. When I was a kid, I did hold one car fantasy close to my chest. And, I guess in some ways, I still hold it dearly. It was a deep love for…brace yourselves…VANS!

Now, I certainly do not mean anything like the mini/mega/family vans of today and I never held a taste for trailers or RV vehicles either. What I am talking about is the classic, groovy 1970s styled, Scooby Doo “Mystery Machine” fashioned van. The ones with the massive sliding doors, the 8 Track player on the console and a bed in the back. It presented some sort of odd fantasy I held about life on the road. When Pete Townshend sang the lyrics, “I can lay in bed with only highway ahead,” on The Who’s classic 1971 selection, “Goin’ Mobile,” I related to every single word. I just wanted my parents to obtain that specific automobile so badly, fully knowing it was a wish that would never come to pass. Even now, when I hear that song by The Who or catch a rare glimpse of one of those vans, my heartbeat begins to quicken with longing nostalgia and starry-eyed childhood dreams.

I can certainly relate to a guy like Kenny W. Dantley Jr., the hero of my latest Buried Treasure selection, Director Matthew Robbins’ 1978 feature, “Corvette Summer,” a breezy, exciting, fast paced, action romantic comedy. I fell in love with this film at the age of 9 and it is a feature that I have returned to quite often over the years, still as heavily entertained as I was the very first time. Despite the relative obscurity, I hope you take the time to seek this one out.

Mark Hamill, in an absolutely winning performance sandwiched between the first two entries of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, stars as Kenny, a lonely, unmotivated, underachieving Southern California 5th year high school senior whose only love is his Auto Shop class and his teacher Mr. McGrath (Eugene Roche), his only friend. On a high school field trip to an auto junkyard, inspiration and purpose for Kenny literally falls from the sky as the metallic insignia for a Corvette lands in his lap. After madly convincing Mr. McGrath and his classmates, Kenny lovingly and obsessively devotes his life and school career to rebuilding the Corvette from scratch as the annual class project. By year’s end, the project is gorgeously completed, revealing a lushly designed Chevrolet Corvette Stingray with right hand drive and Kenny is hopelessly in love!

Fate intervenes when Kenny and his class, which includes a teenaged Danny Bonaduce, takes the Corvette out for a nighttime celebratory drive on the California streets, during which Kenny’s beloved Corvette is stolen!! Refusing to accept this horrid transgression, Kenny begins his summer long odyssey in pursuit of his car. After hitchhiking to Las Vegas and obtaining a job as a gas station attendant, Kenny’s path crosses fate once again. Enter Vanessa (Annie Potts in her DEBUT performance), a self-described and self-employed “hooker in training,” complete with wigs, a snappy attitude, and yes…a stunning, groovy 1970’s, Scooby Doo “Mystery Machine” styled VAN with massive sliding doors, an 8 Track player, a waterbed (!) and her name colorfully splashed across the exterior.

The two join forces to find Kenny’s enormously adored Corvette, an adventure that runs them through a series of romantic complications, a surprising betrayal, a gang of car thieves, led by the feather haired, slick clothed punk Wayne Lowry (Kim Milford) and of course, thrilling car chases.

“Corvette Summer” is a film that is sun drenched and sun kissed in ways not experienced since the days “Frampton Comes Alive” blared from every single car radio on the road. It seems to be the type of movie made exclusively for the summertime Drive-In experience but it works so impressively well for home viewing as you just cannot help but to feel the warmth emanating from the screen. Robbins keeps the story of Kenny and Vanessa flowing quickly and neatly, never over-playing any moments and also bringing a surprising level of melancholy underneath the proceedings.

Mark Hamill gives a sensationally manic and comically intense performance as Kenny, the school misfit who enthusiastically engages in his first rite of passage. Kenny’s journey allows him to learn about true commitment, passion, purpose, loyalty, the abuse of power and money and of course, his first real experience with a girl! His comic energy is completely infectious as he gives a completely open and whole hearted performance that exudes boyish charm. The “Star Wars” trilogy aside, when I watch “Corvette Summer,” I cannot help but to wonder what exactly kept Hamill from becoming an even bigger movie star, as he served this character and this story so completely that there is NO ONE else that could have played this role as well.

Annie Potts is the definition of a delight as she makes a perfect foil for Hamill and possesses loads of comical moxie in a highly impressive debut. The two have excellent chemistry, their rapid banter and romantic charisma happily race along, and I enjoyed every moment keeping up with their shenanigans. I felt as if Potts and Hamill were having a blast during the shoot which translated fully through the screen (If not, then they are even better actors than they have been given credit for.)

“Corvette Summer” may not have too much else on its mind than cars and girls but when it is presented with this much fun, excitement and joy, what else could you ask for? Not every movie needs profuse levels of “Sturm und Drang” to be effective. It does not need to save the world or bring out the cosmic questions of humanity. All any movie needs to-do is to tell a story and tell it in the very best way possible.

In the case of “Corvette Summer,” Director Matthew Robbins, Mark Hamill and Annie Potts delivered a piece of seemingly simple entertainment that gave me memorable characters, and an involving story presented with nothing else but the best of positive energy. And you know, I cannot think of a better type of summer movie to see.

And I’ll bet its even better to watch it in one of those groovy 1970s Scooby Doo “Mystery Machine” styled vans!

I’ll bring the 8 Track player!