Thursday, September 30, 2010

MORAL HAZARD: a review of "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"

Screenplay Written by Allen Loeb and Steven Schiff
Based upon characters created by Stanley Weiser and Oliver Stone
Directed by Oliver Stone

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

Generally, the idea of sequels tends to bore me. I have to admit first off that I didn’t always feel this way and it is also not a hard and fast cinematic rule I tend to hold. As I was becoming more enthralled with the experience of going to the movies, the idea of witnessing a subsequent installment featuring beloved characters was an unadulterated thrill. And besides, look at the sequels that I happened to grow up with. “Rocky II” (1979). “The Empire Strikes Back (1980). “Superman II” (1981). “Return Of the Jedi” (1983). Ah, the good ol’ days! But little did I know that films like those were an anomaly as far as sequels were concerned. As I grew older, and saw more and more movies, I then began to understand what many film critics tended to hang their hangs in pained disinterest about as so many of those movies were half (or less than half) of the movie the originals were. They represented a profound lack of the very originality and creative spark that made audiences fall in love with a certain collective of characters and their stories in the first place. At their very worst, these were films that were entirely unnecessary or as the great Roger Ebert explained in his definition for a movie sequel, it is nothing more than, “A filmed deal.”

In regards to “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” the latest exploration of American life from filmmaker Oliver Stone (and sequel to his “Wall Street” from 1987), I felt that here would be a sequel that potentially could be more than merely “necessary.” If Stone played his cards right, it would have the potential to capture a benchmark moment in our country’s collective history. After having sat through a screening, I have to say that while Stone did craft a well intentioned and honest morality tale, that nearly righteous passion that fuels most of his output was sorely lacking, making for an experience that was not much more than ho-hum.

Set in 2008, shortly before the stock market crash that placed America on the precipice of complete financial ruin, Shia LaBeouf energetically stars as Jacob Moore, a well-meaning Wall Street trader for the fictional Keller Zabel Investments, and protégé to the firm’s managing director Louis Zabel (Frank Langella). Like so many before him, Jacob is not immune to the allure of money and the life that can be bought with it. He lives in a swanky apartment with his grounded and passionately left-wing girlfriend, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), a writer for an underground, political blogsite/internet magazine. One morning, as he checks the morning’s stock numbers via laptop and television, while laying in bed, Jacob looks up to his TV and spots the image of the once mighty, now disgraced visage of Gordon Gekko (again played by the inimitable Michael Douglas). Released seven years earlier from serving an eight year prison sentence for tax evasion and insider trading, Gekko is now on the lecture and book tour circuit as he promotes a new financial cautionary tome entitled Is Greed Good? Jacob is mesmerized while Winnie is understandably disgusted as she is Gordon Gekko’s long estranged daughter!

As Jacob attempts to broker and finalize a mountainous investment deal to assist an alternative energy fusion research project run by the kindly Dr. Masters (Austin Pendleton), Keller Zabel is financially gutted and destroyed by Britton James (an excellent Josh Brolin), CEO of the rival (and fictional) firm, Churchill Schwartz. In an act of utter disillusion towards the changing and destructive tides in the financial industry, a distraught Louis Zabel commits suicide by stepping in front of an oncoming subway train. Desiring revenge, Jacob plots to bring Britton down to his knees but he needs the proper guidance and assistance to pull it off.

Jacob reaches out to charm the slithery Gordon Gekko in order to obtain his advice, counsel and tutelage as well as earn Gekko’s good graces for the impending marriage to his daughter. Gekko agrees as long as Jacob is able to chart a path where Gekko is able to return to Winnie’s high favor. Then, there is the matter of a secretive $100 million dollar trust fund fortune Gekko has laid aside for Winnie in a Swiss bank account. Once this fortune that finds its way to the center stage of the plot, Jacob truly begins to face his own moral crisis as he is confronted with the greed of his own open heartedly vengeful and selfish tactics that will ultimately compromise and darken his soul.

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is the kind of handsomely mounted production that you would expect from a filmmaker of Oliver Stone’s caliber. It is a highly polished piece of work yet one with a soul and conscience as it honestly tackles our cultural decay created jointly by the ones for whom the word “enough” does not exist as well as from our very own hands for buying into a system designed to engulf us whole. It is a gorgeously looking film with fine crafted performances throughout and I must give special credit to the songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno, which wallpapers the film and provides it with a contemplative commentary as well as sonic connective tissue.

Again, Oliver Stone surprised me by not creating another fire and brimstone experience like much of his oeuvre. Perhaps, with age, he has purposefully made the decision to tone down his savagery or at least find more subtle ways to channel it into action. As with the more meditative films from his heyday (like 1993’s “Heaven And Earth” and the stunning, nearly Shakespearean epic of 1995’s “Nixon”) and recent fare (2006’s “World Trade Center” and 2008’s “W.”), Stone uses his camera more as a probe than flamethrower. Stone sublimely views the obscene, meaningless display of wealth with its massive and unappreciated collected works of art to the grotesque pulled plastic surgery abused faces of older women. It is during moments like these where “Wall Street:Money Never Sleeps” is at its strongest.

Michael Douglas is the film’s main event and he does not disappoint with a performance that is partially “lion in winter” with his luxurious slicked back grey mane while he also remains the baddest and greatest of the Great White sharks of the financial world. For this sequel, Douglas embodies a character that serves as more of an antihero than ruthless villain but he has not gone completely soft. Douglass discovers newfound layers with this character, who emerges from prison (along with the now comically enormous cell phone from the 80s) with absolutely no one to greet him on the outside. We are now able to view the irreparable human damage done within his own life and family at the expense and pursuit of money. Gordon Gekko is bruised, wounded, eclipsed by new financial Great White sharks like Britton James yet all the while, Gekko remains the sharpest and most fiendish man in the room as he patiently lays in wait for his time to strike. It is a remarkable performance and the film burst to vivid life every time he appears.

Yet, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” does possess its fair share of problems. I felt that all of the film’s bubble motifs, placed to comment upon all of the financial bubbles doomed to burst, were overdone, making the film preachier than it ever needed to be.

I was also very disappointed with the utilization of Carey Mulligan, who does what she can in an extremely underwritten role. This was truly a shame as her character of Winnie Gekko certainly contained enough of a back-story as well as current status to potentially be a crucially compelling character for this particular story. Mulligan showed she more than has the goods in her luminous and Oscar nominated performance in last year’s “An Education,” yet this seemed to be a case when the filmmakers just didn’t really know what to do with her aside from making her the bland “girlfriend” as well as the film’s “moral conscience.” It just wasn’t enough for me. And frankly, if filmmakers do have the good fortune to obtain an actress like Carey Mulligan for their film, then it is owed to her to give her something to actually do!

My largest problem with the film is not one that derailed it by any means. It just made the film more lugubrious than necessary and in some ways, describes the problem in creating a film to carry on the weighty task of being a cultural touchstone. The original “Wall Street” seemed to become a defining statement for the 1980s in a more organic fashion. The phrase “Greed is good” truly took on its own life without any particular push from Stone and his creative team. However, in the case of this new film, is felt obvious to me that Stone was actively attempting to be that defining statement for our current decade and unfortunately, the film suffers under its own aspirations. Also, the original was aggressively urgent whereas this new film is more muted and elegiac. Not a bad thing and perhaps appropriate as, again, this film is a morality tale set during a period when our cultural and corporate morality seems bankrupt. But for a film that makes great pains to bemoan the moral hazards of the 21st century, and for us who know the reality, perhaps a more aggressive stance would have greatly aided the elegy.

As it stands, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is a bit of a sleepy and slightly predictable experience that is not a bad film in any way. It is more like Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter island" from earlier this year. "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" is a film with the finest of intentions and top shelf execution in front of and behind the cameras, yet ultimately did not add up to the lasting impact of an experience it hopefully wanted to be.

Monday, September 27, 2010


Story by Albert & Allen Hughes and Michael Henry Brown

Screenplay Written by Michael Henry Brown
Produced and Directed by The Hughes Brothers
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

“February 12th, 1973
The prayers of thousands were answered
The war was over, and the first of the prisoners returned
Needless to say, it was the happiest day in up to thirteen years for most
For others, the real nightmare had just begun
The nightmare of readjustment
And for those, we will pray…”
-Funkadelic (“March To The Witch’s Castle”-1973)

It will never cease to amaze me at how much symmetry and synchronicity there exists in the world. For the purposes of the following review, I will mainly turn my attention to the arts and how one thematic form of expression somehow leads you to another similar, yet unique, thematic form of expression.

Just a few days ago, I finished reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five for the very first time. For the uninitiated, the novel partially revolves around the events of World War II as they pertain to the time-travelling protagonist Billy Pilgrim, who served and spent time as a prisoner of war in the confines described in the title (just as Vonnegut did himself). Somehow and simultaneously I have been doing some reading about musician Roger Waters’ current live concert and theatrical re-staging of “The Wall,” the classic work he originally composed and performed with his former band, Pink Floyd. That material also partially revolves around the emotional trauma of World War II as the main character Pink (a stand-in of sorts for Waters), deals with the psychological despair of growing up without ever knowing his father, who perished during the war. With these two thematic experiences of war and the irreparable damage that emerges and remains, I was highly surprised to land upon “Dead Presidents,” the 1995 drama from The Hughes Brothers, which deals with the Vietnam war and its irreparable damage from the African-American perspective. It was a film I had meant to see during the time of its original release but for one reason or another, it passed me by only to find me now. It was as if I was meant to see it at this particular time.

Utilizing a structure seen in Oliver Stone’s “Born On The Fourth Of July” (1989) and Michael Cimino’s untouchable “The Deer Hunter” (1979), “Dead Presidents” begins in 1968 and chronicles the Bronx set tale of Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate) before, during and most crucially, after his horrific experiences in Vietnam. As the film begins, we witness Anthony, alongside his two best friends, Jose (Freddy Rodriguez) and the fast talking Skip (Chris Tucker in a rare dramatic performance) as they ponder their respective futures at the cusp of completing high school. Anthony hails from a middle class family, has a college graduate brother (Isaiah Washington in a cameo appearance), a girlfriend named Juanita (Rose Jackson) and tiptoes on the dark side with his streetwise alliances with Korean War vet and small time crook Kirby (the excellent Keith David). Strongly desiring to partake in the rites of passage that will assist him in growing into manhood, and despite protests from his friends and family, Anthony’s dreams consist of foregoing college to enlist in the Marines to fight in Vietnam.

By 1971, Anthony is plunged into the Hell of war alongside Skip, Jose and new allies including Cleon (the fearsome Bokeem Woodbine), a preacher’s son with a near biblical level of grotesque wartime vengeance. Anthony witnesses seemingly all horrors of war, committed upon and by the troops, during his two tours of duty from disembowelment, euthanasia, a particularly nasty decapitation and castration. Forcing himself to not think about the world and newborn daughter he left behind in the Bronx is Anthony’s sole means of survival in an experience no one could fully imagine or should ever endure.

The crux of the film arrives after Anthony returns from the war in 1973 to find how he and his friends have coped with their experiences as they are all in the throes of the nightmare of readjustment. Skip, who dabbled in drugs during the war, is now a heroin addict. Jose, a demolitions expert who lost is hand during the war, is now an unhinged pyromaniac. Cleon has also returned from the war and now makes his living as a fire and brimstone preacher. Anthony finds meager employment in a neighborhood butcher shop and attempts to provide for Juanita and the daughter, he soon discovers just may not even be his own. Eventually losing his job, due to the lack of business and with absolutely no government assistance to help sustain himself, Anthony grows desperate. He soon enlists Skip, Jose, Cleon, Kirby, and Juanita’s Black Nationalist sister Delilah (N’Bushe Wright) for a criminal plot to rob an armored car making a stop at the Noble Street Federal Reserve Bank of the Bronx, while all wearing skeletal white makeup.

“Dead Presidents,” for much of its running time, is a highly successful hybrid of a heist film, war movie, examination of the decline of an African-American neighborhood and community and most of all, an indictment of the U.S. government for its lack of support for those who have given their lives for this country. The first third, with its vivid, warm colors, brilliant late 1960’s period design and elegant “Scorsese-ian” cinematography, perfectly executes a time and place with the bittersweetness of a classic soul song. And it is that very bittersweetness that makes the film’s powerful last third so effective. The lushly warm colors transform to drab grays or cold blues. The vibrancy of early scenes gives way to a closed up, wintry feel as the snow constantly flies and neighborhood inhabitants physically draw into themselves for protection against the elements, meteorological and socio-economically. The raging bank heist that occurs near the conclusion of “Dead Presidents” almost feels like the collective frustrations of not only disillusioned soldiers, but of a stricken community, boiling over into unadulterated fury. The tension and violence crackles as steam rises from the bowels of the streets, like the (again) “Scorsese-ian” subterranean smoke witnessed in his dark comedy “After Hours” (1985). It is one of many visual techniques and stylistic touched that re-affirms the narrative and accentuates the character’s motivations and tribulations. And for most of “Dead Presidents,” the Hughes Brothers prove that they are born filmmakers.

Larenz Tate, an underappreciated actor I have long admired, gives a powerfully subtle performance that minutely depicts the path from youthful exuberance and hope to the psychological descent he reaches. With his boyish face, he always appears to be a bit too youthful for the experiences he is faced with and this is not just due to the war and bank heist sequences. When either confronting his first sexual tryst with Juanita, being plagued with nightmares after war, or defending himself against the hoodlum (a charismatic Terrence Howard) who once tormented him in a pool hall so long ago, Anthony is almost always overtaken with the full weight of each experience. When dealing with supporting a family with scraps or holding his own against the gun toting neighborhood gangster (a scary Clifton Powell) who may indeed be the true father of his daughter, Anthony almost always stands as a child trapped in the adult world he never made. His wishes of attaining the experiences from which he can truly become a man have been doled out to him in a rapid and unforgiving fashion. And the act of keeping his head above that proverbial water, make him appear as a child lost in a grim fantasy or bad dream not of his choosing, hoping his mother will at long last call him home for dinner or wake him up. The effect is crushing.

It was actually through Tate’s performance that my mind drifted back to the Vonnegut novel as it possesses the secondary title of “The Children’s Crusade.” Tate’s Anthony, plus the characters portrayed by Tucker and Rodriguez, are the physical embodiments of Vonnegut’s Children’s Crusade, used, unappreciated and thrown away by the country they chose and/or were drafted to defend. Even Keith David’s character of Kirby is a generational casualty of war, that same Children’s Crusade, as the lack of government support upon his return from the Korean War forced him into a minor life of crime, designed to assist him with the basic survival expenses of living in a once vibrant community that is now transforming into a ghetto. The film doesn’t begin to suggest a veritable rightness for Kirby and Anthony’s actions. It just presents everything in an unjudgemental, matter of fact way yet the anger the Hughes Brothers launch against an uncaring government is palpable.

What is least successful about “Dead Presidents,” and surprisingly so, is the film’s Vietnam war midsection which suffers to a certain artificial stature not seen in the first and final thirds of the film. Everything feels like a movie set (perhaps for budgetary reasons), and that lack of authenticity seemed to be overcompensated for by an extreme level of graphic, almost comic book level of gore and bloodshed that was oft putting. In some ways, it seemed as if the Hughes Brothers were aiming to scale the war sequence heights set by Stone in “Born On The Fourth Of July” and “Platoon” (1986), Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) and of course, the granddaddy of them all Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979). It was indeed an attempt I fully appreciate, yet it was ultimately gratuitous and all felt to be a constant strain. As I think back to “Born On The Fourth Of July,” I strongly realize that Oliver Stone achieved more with one, single, solitary gunshot than the Hughes Brothers accomplished with the copious bloodshed on display. At times, there seemed to be enough “horrors of war” to fill three movies and the effort weakened the film for a spell.

But, if you are able to stomach that midsection, I think you will be highly rewarded with a strong drama that never loses its focus by keeping the lives of these young men and the community from which they originated at the forefront. The sense of loss, pain and suffering the Hughes Brothers present in "Dead Presidents" is undeniable as we witness a cold harsh winter in America inflicted upon our nation's children.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

AN A+ POCKETFULL OF SUNSHINE: a review of "Easy A"

Written by Bert V. Royal
Directed by Will Gluck
**** (four stars)

I love Olive Penderghast!

Now dear readers, before anyone gathers the entirely wrong idea as to the full meaning of that initial statement, please allow me to spend some time explaining to you.

Olive Penderghast is an intelligent, empathetic, wonderfully witty, entirely and charmingly loquacious raven-haired, feline eyed, smoky voiced high school student unfortunately caught within the deeply tangled web of insinuation, hallway rumor and a simultaneously soaring and crushing campus reputation as a school ground sexpot. Olive Penderghast is also the central protagonist of Director Will Gluck’s “Easy A,” an equally intelligent, empathetic, wonderfully witty, entirely and charmingly loquacious film which to me, is the funniest, sharpest, most insightful film of its kind since Director Alexander Payne's “Election” (1999) and the brilliant Tina Fey scripted “Mean Girls” (2004). You know, I’m going to take a bold step and go even further. For my money, I think that “Easy A” is one of my favorite films of 2010. And you know…I am going to have to go even further than that last statement.

From the very bottom of my teen film heart of hearts, I think that “Easy A” is easily the BEST teen film I’ve seen in over 20 years. It is the best since a beloved period I have always thought of as “The Golden Age Of Teen Films,” a time which began with Director Amy Hecklering’s “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” (1982), concluded with Writer/Director Cameron Crowe’s beautiful “Say Anything…” (1989) and nestled the revolutionary work of John Hughes smack dab in the middle. Yes, this is exemplary praise from me. Yet, it is not coming from a place of hyperbole, empty hype and it is definitely no lie. “Easy A” is of that same caliber, class and pedigree. Its spirit is pure, completely open-hearted and contains a star-making performance from the raven-haired, feline eyed, smoky voiced Emma Stone as Olive. The wise, hilarious sunshine soul of “Easy A” just cannot be denied and I hope all you reading will take a chance and see this absolutely terrific film.

Set in Ojai, California, we meet Olive Penderghast, an independent, somewhat solitary and unknown student. As she explains, in her periodic addresses to the world via her computer and newly formed website, if Google Earth were to make a search of her high school, she would not be located at all. At the beginning of her tale, Olive is growing weary of her proudly voluptuous, trash talking, obnoxiously abrasive best friend Rhiannon Abernathy (Aly Michalka) and declines her invitation for a weekend with her family. Not wanting to hurt her feelings, Olive invents the initial white lie that will eventually snowball into her future catastrophe…

Olive claims that she is planning to go on a date with a Community college student when in fact, she spends her weekend alone in her home with her dog and entertains herself with a musical greeting card sent by her Grandparents. By Monday at school, Rhiannon somehow corners Olive into admitting that she had lost her virginity over the weekend, another white lie that is overheard by the school’s unctuous and gossipy Evangelical leader Marianne Bryant (played by Amanda Bynes). Like that proverbial wildfire, the untrue rumor of Olive’s sexual tryst spreads, making her suddenly noticeable to the majority of the male student population, which at first, Olive secretly enjoys.

As the stories of Olive’s mythical sexual experience and prowess travels and transforms throughout the rumor mill, Brandon (Dan Byrd), a homosexual student being persecuted by classmates, privately approaches her. He asks Olive that if they devise a way for the student body to think that he is straight, then he will be spared from further torment. Feeling empathy, Olive agrees and the twosome engage in a staged and hysterically voluminous act of pretend copulation in a bedroom at a grand weekend house party. “Be prepared to live with the consequences,” Olive warns Brandon just before he enters a brave new high school world. Yet, those words could not be any more prophetic.

New rumors of Olive’s promiscuity continue to roar throughout the school, thus transforming her reputation from a curiosity to the class slut. Olive, in an act of rebellion and inspired by her English class’ reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, she takes to wearing what her parents (the amazing Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) refer to as “high class stripper clothing” embroidered with an “A” upon her breast. She also begins a lucrative business by accepting hefty store gift cards from lusty sad sack boys wanting to increase their own high school reputations while simultaneously decreasing her own. Her actions catch the concerned attention of Mr. Griffith (Thomas Haden Church) her favorite teacher, his wife and school Guidance Counselor (Lisa Kudrow), as well as Rhiannon’s jealousy at Olive’s newfound popularity and finally, the rage and inevitable persecution by Marianne and Evangelical sect.

As the rumor spirals completely out of control, causing nearly irreparable damages to a variety of characters, Olive is confronted with the hard questions and consequences concerning her sense of self-worth and responsibility to herself and others. Hoping to clear the air and eradicate the entire disaster her life and her high school has become, Olive hatches a final plot to reclaim her life on her own terms…and if she finally catches the attention of her long-standing crush, the handsome Woodchuck Todd (Penn Badgley), then that would most certainly be a bonus.

“Easy A” is an unabashed joyride of a movie that is filled with terrific performances from the entire cast and all anchored by the beguiling and luminous work by Emma Stone. It is a grand slam home run of a performance, the kind where you can witness the moment a star is born.

Director Will Gluck keeps all of the material fresh, unpredictable, inventive, and moving along at a breezy, brisk pace. He also masters the task of finding the correct tone throughout the film, which does allow some dark clouds to appropriately sift into the sunshine from time to time. For all of the heightened comic situations, “Easy A” has a take on teenagers and sexuality that is healthier, more realistic, authentic, honest and perceptive than even one moment on ABC Family’s pious and unintentionally hilarious series, “The Secret Life Of The American Teenager.”

As I rewind back to that aforementioned “Golden Age of Teen Films” for a moment, I have to express that “Easy A” does contain several homages to the classic films of that era. Some are sly and subtle, some unashamedly blatant (Olive addressing the camera is an obvious tip of the hat to a certain Ferris Bueller, for instance) and always, always respectfully handled with celebration and reverence. It is a film unafraid of the “Hughesesque” grand romantic gestures between teenagers while it also loads the screenplay, from top to bottom, with the same kind of razor sharp, quickly delivered, crackling, verbose, literate dialogue that was a Hughes trademark. But please note that this film is not an uninspired copycat. It has a dynamic voice all its own and here is where I turn my high praise to Bert V. Royal for his excellent screenplay. I have never heard of Bert V. Royal and according to the Internet Movie Database, “Easy A” is his debut screenplay, a script that was long rumored to be a hot Hollywood commodity. Whether that tale is rumor or not, what a soaring debut this is for Royal and I sincerely hope he is able to write more and more and more! Yet for now, we have this film and as a masterstroke, his creation of the character of Olive Penderghast.

I would like for all of you to take a moment and remember the teen films of the 1980s in particular and the young women who embodied the now classic characters. I will always love Ione Skye as Diane Court in “Say Anything…” Or Elisabeth Shue as the resourceful babysitter Chris Parker in Director Chris Columbus’ “Adventures In Babysitting” (1986). Or any of John Hughes’ high school heroines portrayed by Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy and a personal favorite, Mary Stuart Masterson as Watts the Drummer Girl in “Some Kind Of Wonderful” (1987). For me, Olive Penderghast stands as tall as any of those characters through her tenacity, independence, and endless wit, certainly. But, most importantly for her kindness, the hugeness of her heart and her ability to completely own her mistakes. And in this age where sheer and utter stupidity is rewarded and celebrated, what a pleasure to find a teenage heroine so well versed, well read and just so damn smart! Olive Penderghast is a 21st century high school heroine to root for, cherish and truth be told, she more than gives that insipid, petulant, narcissistic dishrag Bella Swan a run for her money.

Deepest of all, and through the character of Olive, is a very clever subtext that richly layers every single moment of “Easy A.” It is a subtext that stands at the heart of the entire teen film genre and that, my dear readers, is the emerging sexuality of teenage girls. Historically, the teen film genre is a male driven field where females seldom drive the story and are habitually exploited and misrepresented to varying degrees. And when the female’s sexuality is brought onto the playing field, in comedies or even the horrific slasher films, it is always used as a reactionary tool for the males to pursue, conquer, screw and dismember.

It seems to me, that at its core, “Easy A” is a satire completely about a young girl’s emerging sexuality and the frenzy it places upon an entire community. While Olive’s immense quandary is ultimately a tangled web of her own initially unintentional making, her rise and fall seems to solely rest in the hands and unfair perceptions of everyone around her. Olive’s sexuality or lack thereof is something nearly all of the characters feel they have the right to claim, own, define and judge while all of the boys see their collective standings ascend without question. It is during this stage of the story where Olive is not only confronted with the dark side of celebrity, she finds that invisible line where self-promotion becomes prostitution and how her soul is compromised once that line is crossed. (Much like Tom Cruise's Wayfarer sunglasses wearing, Princeton hopeful turned pimp character of Joel Goodson in 1983's "Risky Business": another classic era movie reference "Easy A" manages to honor.)

Olive’s recovery of her identity is based in her systematic rectification of something that was always and only hers to claim, own, define and judge in the first place and her final monologue expresses her sentiments simply, succinctly, eloquently and without one note of preachiness. I wanted to stand up and cheer for her (don’t worry, I didn’t) and I applaud this film for getting to the heart of an entire film genre with such skill and playfulness.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have had the pleasure of seeing three films that have more than made up for the dismal beginning of this cinematic year: the comedy-drama “Get Low,” Ben Affleck’s piercing Boston crime epic, “The Town” and now this film, which I was indeed skeptical about but have championed the highest. I truly hope you go out and see this movie and take to it as enthusiastically as I did. “Easy A” is a film that made smile, smile and smile some more as I laughed heartedly throughout and I hope that you have that same reaction.

And you know, I cannot help but to think that if there is an afterlife and if there are movie theaters within that afterlife, I sincerely hope that John Hughes is smiling.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


"THE TOWN" Co-Written and Directed by Ben Affleck
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Over the years, I have had this theory about the career trajectories of actors and best friends Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. It is not a revolutionary theory by any means but a thought I have had, which may even mirror some of your own. For quite some time, I have held this perception that Matt Damon’s desires leaned towards being and growing as an actor, learning the art of his craft, working with the top filmmakers and building a long-lasting body of work. Ben Affleck, on the other hand, was the handsome movie star who occasionally acted. Of course, this perception is unfair to both men, and especially so for Affleck, but their respective track records speak for themselves.

Damon has created a fine cinematic pedigree by having worked with no less than the very best while also carving out a large box office cache for himself. He has performed stellar work for Steven Spielberg (1998’s “Saving Private Ryan”), Clint Eastwood (2009’s “Invictus” and the upcoming “Hereafter”), Martin Scorsese (2006’s “The Departed”), Kevin Smith (1999’s “Dogma”), the late Anthony Minghella (1999’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley”) and Gus Van Sant (1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” which he co-wrote with Affleck). Beyond that, he has also been at the forefront of Steven Soderbergh’s trio of casino heist pictures (the “Ocean’s Eleven” series) as well as another little espionage series featuring the amnesiac character of Jason Bourne. Quite a feat.

As for Affleck, he started out strong as a featured player in excellent independent films like 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love” and the films of Kevin Smith, with 1997’s “Chasing Amy” a highlight. But then came a stream of forgettable action films (2000’s “Reindeer Games,” and 2002’s “The Sum Of All Fears”), romantic comedies (1999’s “Forces Of Nature” with Sandra Bullock) and two massively budgeted, overblown, repellent disasters from Director Michael Bay (1998’s “Armageddon” and 2001’s distasteful howler, “Pearl Harbor”). And then came the mighty (and again, unfair) fall as his highly publicized romance with a certain “Jenny From The Block” took its toll with the public’s tolerance, a tedium which extended itself with the equally high profile box office failures of Kevin Smith’s “Jersey Girl” (2004) and Martin Brest’s hugely maligned “Gigli” (2003). While Affleck proved he still possessed his acting chops with the excellent and underseen ”Changing Lanes” (2002), the damage had been done as critical perception about his talent had nosedived and the public simply showed no desire to watch him in anything.

As Damon continued to work steadily and gain accolades, Affleck vanished from view for a spell, presumably to lick his wounds and re-evaluate his career. The time away was indeed extremely well spent, as he began to creatively re-invent himself by taking on well-received supporting work in more independent features like “Hollywoodland” (2006). Most unexpectedly, Affleck took a bold step even further in his re-invention by carving out a new career as a Director, arriving with 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone” a superlative Boston-set thriller starring Affleck’s brother Casey Affleck, as a private detective searching for a missing four year old girl.

After that trip through the cinematic “Wayback Machine,” (thank you for your patience) we now arrive with Affleck’s second Directorial feature, the Boston-set crime drama “The Town,” a film so strong, so assured, so gripping and confident that it not only proves that Affleck’s first directing effort was no fluke but that Affleck is now a filmmaker to seriously watch closely.

“The Town” takes place in Charlestown, MA, an area of Boston historically known as a breeding ground for a variety of armed robbers, thieves, and career criminals. As the film opens, we are introduced to bank thief Doug MacRay (Affleck), leader and member of a veritable gang of four, which also includes the volatile and highly unpredictable James “Jem” Coughlin (an outstanding Jeremy Renner). The four man crew is meticulous in their capers as they not only have devised ways to quickly enter and exit the scenes of their crimes, but to also evaporate any traces of DNA evidence. Unfortunately, Jem is an unpredictable live-wire, as discovered during the film’s opening bank heist as he surprisingly takes a hostage, Claire Keesey, the bank manager (Rebecca Hall)-a dangerously unprecedented move which could potentially cost the crew their freedom.

During her brief capture, and unbeknownst to the thieves, Claire has spotted a tattoo on the back of Jem’s neck. Yet, unbeknownst to Claire, Jem has lifted her driver’s license, discovering that she lives in the same neighborhood as the thieves. After releasing Claire by a nearby beach, forcing her to walk blindfolded until she reaches the water’s edge, Jem desires to permanently extinguish any possibilities of their discovery and capture yet the more sympathetic Doug, who has immediately taken up an interest and attraction to Claire, pledges to handle it in his own way without anyone landing in mortal danger.

Doug then begins to stalk Claire, eventually orchestrating a “chance” meeting in a local Laundromat where he charms his way to a first date. As their relationship builds, Doug is confronted with a morass of conflicting emotions. As he achingly wrestles with the guilt and remorse of his vast list of crimes against his community and the woman he loves, he also struggles with the evasion of his teammate’s realization of his romance as well as attempting to escape capture from the doggedly tenacious FBI Agent Frawley (a blistering Jon Hamm), who has been covertly conferring with Claire. By this pivotal stage, the rampant consequences that stem from the film’s first bank heist are mounting and rapidly closing in on Doug. Certainly, there lies the great possibility that Claire, once realizing the truth about Doug, would not only end her relationship with him but also utilize the information of Jem’s tattoo to turn in all of the thieves to the feds. It is through the culmination of these events that Doug is forced to stare into the abyss that is the dark path of his life as he ponders the possibility of the ultimate escape and survival from Charlestown.

“The Town” is a sprawling experience weighted down firmly by Affleck’s complete commitment to the material. Obviously, he has more than enough to prove to himself, critics and audiences and it shows through the palpable yet controlled urgency on display. Due to the film’s subject matter, location and deeply complex characters with shifting allegiances and motivations, the comparisons between “The Town” and “The Departed,” while fair, are a little too facile as “The Town” has more on its mind than being a handsomely mounted (and absolutely brilliant) crime picture. The grand ambitions Ben Affleck has set for himself as a filmmaker are highly admirable as the aims of “The Town,” while providing a hefty dose of expertly executed action sequences, are decidedly more philosophical and investigative. In many ways, Affleck has positioned himself as a sort of “Chronicler of the Boston streets,” as with his previous film, “The Town” transcends its genre trappings by becoming a film about the Boston neighborhoods and its citizens.

Visually and thematically, Affleck has presented a rich canvas. In addition to those aforementioned bank heist sequences and sly nods to Scorsese’s “Mean Sreets” (1973) and “Goodfellas” (1990), “The Town” reminded me greatly of Director Michael Mann’s crime masterpiece “Heat” (1995), another film which delved deeply into the tragic inner lives and consequences of a collective of career criminals. However, Affleck sidesteps any notion of derivative retreads of familiar material to make this particular story all his own. For instance, we are shown a series of periodic overhead shots of Charlestown throughout the film, a technique which eventually suggests a horrific maze-like atmosphere, where all of the primary characters have been trapped and continue to consistently crash into one life-long dead end after another. It was fascinating to watch the characters portrayed by Affleck, Renner and Blake Lively (in a stunningly good performance as a drugged out Mom) exude a powerful self-awareness to their surroundings, pitfalls and sorrowful inevitability concerning their collective lots in life.

“The Town” also contains a brief image of a young child observing the four man crew, driving past while carrying automatic weapons and wearing grotesque nun masks is deeply chilling in and of itself. But Affleck does not stop there. That one image expertly conveys and lays the groundwork for the cycle of violence that has plagued the city and has become generational. This particular observation is physically embodied with two short yet intense portrayals by Pete Postlethwaite as the elder criminal still pulling the strings for Doug’s crew and Chris Cooper as Doug’s Father, the incarcerated elder criminal destined to die behind bars.

All of the film’s performances are first rate and now I must give credit to Affleck the director for eliciting one of the best performances I have seen to date from Affleck the actor.

For someone who seemed to be concerned with existing as a movie star, the character of Doug MacRay is makes for a darkly compelling, challenging and multi-layered anti-hero. Doug MacRay is, without apologies, a very bad man and no amount of soft-heartedness during the crimes he commits can change that fact. His pursuit of and romance with Claire is by turns, involving, romantic, creepy, sinister, passionate and earnest in its implicit desperation and Affleck hits every note with ease. Also, he delivers the confounding emotional juxtapositions of a man honestly falling in love in a relationship that is not only the definition of disingenuous but also has the dangerously close threat of violence hanging precariously all around them, especially Claire in particular. I somehow found myself in the strange position of actually rooting for Doug and Claire to succeed as I was also hoping Claire would run as far as she could from him and the life and lies he leads.

Yet, underneath all of the deception, the relationship between Doug and Claire is astonishingly filled with a sense of hope as Claire, a woman who is not a native of Charlestown, represents for Doug a world outside of the only city and life he has ever known. And perhaps, it is a world he can race towards, if only he can circumvent capture or certain death or most devastating, becoming engulfed by his wounded soul. Affleck's broad shoulders, closely cropped hair, tattoos, and chiseled, rock hard physical attributes belie his character's emotional trauma. Simply stated, Doug MacRay's soul is not meant for a place like Charlestown. His eyes always look pained, haunted, and sometimes on the verge of tears. Despite the adult life he leads, he actually appears much like the six year old boy he once was and who once spent time wandering the streets of Charlestown for his Mother who abandoned him.

It is a performance that reminded me of past characters who also desired to transcend the environments from which they originated. Mekhi Phifer and Edward Norton from Director Spike Lee's "Clockers" (1995) and "25th Hour" (2002), respectively, quickly emerge. Yet, what came to mind most frequently for me was John Travolta's riveting turn as Tony Manero in Director John Badham's iconic "Saturday Night Fever" (1977), a film that is much more serious and grim than is typically remembered to be. All of those film feature troubled young men playing their parts in violent worlds they just didn’t have the heart for while pleading for a second chance.

Perhaps, this is partially what drew Ben Affleck to this material in the first place as this film represents the crucial next stage in his re-invention, his personal second chance with his film career and the critical and public respect he hopes to achieve. Although, “Gone Baby Gone” contained even more of an emotional vice-grip for me than this film, that is a minor quibble. "The Town" is an extremely well executed, well thought and conceived thriller that contains more than enough substance to share with the action sequences. It is an adult film told in a mature, intricate and minutely observed fashion that should hopefully serve to elevate the status and respect for Ben Affleck in Hollywood and beyond.

He deserves the second chance.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


In anticipation of two new films Directed by Ben Affleck and Oliver Stone, I dug into my archives for two older reviews of their previous Directorial efforts.

Co-Written and Directed by Ben Affleck
**** (four stars)

Ben Affleck makes a masterful directorial debut with this heartbreaking tale of crime, punishment, lost innocence and the moral dilemmas and consequences of trying to do the right thing.

Treading similar territory as Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River" (2003), Affleck weaves a story that begins as a private detective's (Casey Affleck making the most of his starring role) search for the 4 year old child of a neighborhood junkie (ferociously played by Amy Ryan) but concluding as a disturbing tale of morality in a neighborhood falling under drugs and poverty.

Much like television's brilliant series "The Wire," "Gone Baby Gone" focuses it's attention upon the pains of the Boston neighborhoods, depicted with gritty realism. All of the performances, from leads to extremely authentic looking extras, are first rate but the major surprise is the arrival of Ben Affleck as a filmmaker. He never makes a wrong step and is in complete command of his gripping story, and he leaves us with a haunting tale that will resonate and stay with viewers long after the end credits roll.

I wish this was up for Best Picture in place of "Atonement"!

Originally written February 2008

"W." (2008)
Directed by Oliver Stone
**** (four stars)

I was expecting a different movie.

Oliver Stone has been one of my favorite filmmakers over the last 20 plus years and when he announced a project chronicling the life of George W. Bush, I have to say that I was expecting a trademark Stone epic, a film equivalent of a Molotov cocktail. But, true to his nature to explore and challenge, Stone has delivered an intimate epic that is unusually subdued, but no less engrossing as his best films. Once it was all over, I felt I had seen one of my favorite films of 2008 and a worthy entry into Stone's extensive and brilliant filmography.

What surprised me most was how he could simultaneously turn a figure, who may go down in history as the worst United States President ever, into one you could gain sympathy for--while also not letting him off the hook for the injustices he has unleashed upon our nation. Stone frames the film and the man through the lens of a family drama. We are shown how W., the family's black sheep, continuously tries to gain the approval of his father while also trying to step outside the shadow of the "golden child" brother. We watch his spiritual conversion and it feels real and true--not a gimmick to simply appeal to the evangelical right. As a human being, these are not issues one can really dispute and ones that anyone could possibly relate to. In this fashion, Stone has made a most vilified political figure a human being.

Yet, it is through his own character foibles that we begin to ask ourselves what is it we want in a President. Do we truly want someone "just like us," someone we would "like to have a beer with"? Someone whose reasons for political power may be solely rooted in Daddy issues? What also fails W. is his naive and narrow vision of the world and how everything can fall into black and white compartments. Stone may be arguing that for Bush, his talking points may be things he truly believes and not the political smoke and mirrors as exhibited through characters like Rove (Toby Jones), Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) and Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss).

One powerful and lengthy sequence falls in the middle of the film as Bush's cabinet goes through the reasons of leading us into the still raging war in Iraq. The scene is set in a darkened room with Rove in the shadows and Bush at the head of a table. As the scene plays, Bush slowly fades into the background while all of the actions, planning and plotting fall into the hands of Cheney, Powell and Rumsfeld. The sequence finally ends with Bush returning to the fore, again trying to assert his authority in the most simplistic means, not fully understanding the moral and political complexities that occurred right in front of him. It was fascinating and tremendously involving.

Josh Brolin fully deserves an Oscar nomination for his rich and full performance that never delved into a cartoon. Only Thandie Newton's eerie and almost grotesque performance as Condi Rice carries a "through the looking glass" element (not a criticism, by the way) in an otherwise firmly grounded film.

I didn't want to feel sympathy for this man but I have to concede that I did. But I also feel that it is because of his foibles that Bush is a man who should have NEVER become President in the first place. It seems, according to this film, if Bush had his druthers, he would be happier owning a baseball team.

And what a better world it would be if he had done just that.

Originally written October 19, 2008

Thursday, September 16, 2010

LAY MY BURDEN DOWN: a review of "Get Low"

“GET LOW” Directed by Aaron Schneider
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

What an acting treasure Robert Duvall is! Certainly, this is not revelatory news to anyone reading this review but just the same, it is a cinematic fact that can always stand to use some form of reminding.

Yes, we are more than aware of his frequent smaller roles, where he simultaneously combines strands of gravitas and folksiness, always grounding his character in a deeper reality which elevates the entire film through his sheer presence. And yes, there is also his classic “That smell! That gasoline smell! It smells like…victory!” sequence from Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic “Apocalypse Now” (1979); a moment that has firmly cemented itself into movie history.

Yet, for all of his glorious talent, skill and critical acclaim, he doesn’t seem to be spoken about in quite the same adoring fashion as other contemporary and long standing acting giants like Robert DeNiro or Meryl Streep, for instance. Just looking at Academy Awards records of accomplishment, Duvall has been nominated for six Oscars, having only won once for his leading role in Director Bruce Beresford’s “Tender Mercies” (1983)—certainly no small feat. However, Streep, on the other hand, has been nominated 16 times (!) and has won twice for “Kramer Vs. Kramer” (1979) and “Sophie’s Choice” (1982). While all three actors have continued to work very steadily and frequently, it is also quite the rarity in current cinema to witness Duvall in a complete, start-to-finish leading performance where we can all bask in a level of art that so many current actors would kill for. Dear readers, I urge you to wait no further and head to your local theater to see Director Aaron Schneider’s elegantly strong debut Directorial feature, “Get Low,” a gracefully dark rustic tale set in rural Tennessee during the 1930’s.

Duvall stars as Felix Bush, the picture of extreme dilapidation and dishevelment. Bush is a shotgun wielding, self-imposed exile leading a misanthropic hermetic existence on the outskirts of a small Tennessee town, where he has been the subject of one mysteriously grim tall tale after another for 40 years. Bush, who appears much like the horrific illustrated madman on the cover of Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” album cover, is the proverbial “scary old man” at the end of the road. The one who lives in a seemingly creepy ramshackle house, with the sort of windows that young boys are tempted to break, while simultaneously fearing and hoping to catch a glimpse of the foreboding figure who has certainly haunted their dreams. Bush prowls his homestead and nearby town like a malevolent specter, daring anyone to make contact and will indeed lash out if necessary.

Near the start of the film, local Reverend Gus Horton (Gerald McRaney) appears on Bush’s property to inform him of the passing of an old acquaintance. With yet one more reminder of his own impeding mortality gravely staring him down, he arrives at an unusual idea designed to allow himself the opportunity to alleviate his soul from the hefty, burdenous secret that has plagued him for most of his adult life. Felix Bush desires to utilize his sizable life savings to throw himself a funeral and accompanying party, while he is still alive, an event designed to allow the townspeople to speak for him by recalling all of the stories they had ever heard about him.

Enter Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), a Chicago transplant and former car salesman who currently manages and operates a failing funeral home with his young partner Buddy (Lucas Black). Upon learning about Bush’s desires, both men accost Bush with the idea of assisting him attain his eccentric (and some would say, ghoulish) goals. In the mind of Quinn, it is a win-win situation, as the highly publicized event will exist as a lucrative business deal, therefore saving the funeral home from financial ruin, while Bush obtains the funeral of his wishes.

As for Buddy, he is initially trepidatious to the venture as he feels the subject of a funeral demands a certain respect and reverence that cannot be found at an event, which may potentially play more as a carnival. Yet throughout the film, we witness the tentative building of a trusting relationship between himself and Bush. It is a relationship that carries a profound weight as we see the young man, husband and new Father at the start of his adult life discovering common ground with an embittered man at the conclusion of his life. It is an elegant meeting of the minds that sits comfortably at the core of this equally elegant film.

I will inform you right away that there is nothing that could be described as “earth-shattering” in “Get Low.” There are no hyperbolic, prefabricated dramatic moments anywhere. And the secret that has haunted Felix Bush for 40 years will not arrive as a surprise to anyone watching. But, that lack of heightened drama is not a hindrance to this film in the least as it is a remarkable character study, gentle comedy of manners and testament to the act of how we all attempt to place our own houses in order as we age. “Get Low” is a quiet, meditative film where not much actually happens yet Schneider skillfully constructs a slightly hushed environment where pathos and wit easily walk together in a direct, down-to-Earth manner. Unlike Writer/Director Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg” from this Spring, another quiet, meditative independent feature where not much actually happens, “Get Low” easily sidesteps becoming lost in its own sense of inertia. It is also surprising that this film, which is centered around a highly peculiar situation, does not lose itself in the forest of the dangerously self-conscious quirkiness that so often derails independent feature films. There is somewhat of a tightrope-balancing act on display and Schneider makes it all look effortless.

Every single performance in “Get Low,” from leading players to those with only a few lines are uniformly terrific. You will receive excellent supporting work from Sissy Spacek as Bush’s one-time flame from long ago. The great character actor Bill Cobbs slyly portrays a Pastor and one of Bush’s closest friends from his past. Lucas Black more than carries his weight in his sizable and crucial role as Buddy. And the pleasure of seeing Bill Murray is undeniable. Murray once again continues to greatly impress with a performance that is supremely relaxed, confident, rascally, wily and with a dash of the melancholy that he has perfected in his more recent film roles.

Now I return to the great Robert Duvall who gives a performance that is nothing less than a Master Class in acting and should be required viewing for all actors in training. It never calls attention to itself with unnecessary showiness. There is never a false moment on display and you will never see the acting. To my eyes, Duvall even transcends “acting” by achieving and delivering something that could be regarded as an elevated state of being. Every single word that leaves his mouth, every physical motion, every guttural utterance, however grand or subtle, feels so completely lived in. It is as if every moment is as natural as breathing and the cameras just happened to be present to capture it.

While Duvall has an excellent screenplay written by C. Gaby Mitchell and Chris Provenzano as a launching point, it is a marvel to be as consistently surprised as the film’s other characters when more seemingly contradictory elements of Bush’s personality and character are revealed. His ability to be a gracious host and cook, for instance, is a moment of unexpected disarmament for Buddy as well as the audience. We also learn of Felix Bush’s exceedingly gifted carpentry skills. Most importantly, we learn of his romanticism and feel his endless heartache. All of these, plus other qualities, deflect and challenge his fearsome legacy thereby forcing the townspeople to not only re-evaluate him but to also take stock in the dangers of the very perceptions and prejudices they may place upon others and as well as the ones other people may place upon them. Duvall always finds the fear, weakness and tenderness buried so deeply inside the gruffness, insolence and rage and vice versa, while also plumbing fine, sharply presented comedy as well.

Duvall’s masterstroke arrives at the funeral party, where he addresses the town and publicly reveals his secret. It is a lengthy sequence and it is essentially a monologue in close-up. This sequence, in lesser hands, would have been the shameless “Gimmie my Oscar!!” moment but again, Duvall evades all acting traps and pitfalls and exudes something I can only recognize as…the truth. In just several minutes, Duvall gives us the full life of Felix Bush, with all aspects of his remorse, regrets, afflictions and failings. His need to have someone speak for him at his funeral is a desperate one; a need of such extremity yet buried underneath his glowering demeanor.

Through the experience of “Get Low,” we see the slow, heavy steps Bush takes towards his epiphany and his lesson learned becomes our lesson to ponder and ultimately, to heed. The process of redemption is one that must be painfully earned, he slowly discovers. That in order to be completely freed, he must be able to speak for himself. These are weighty concepts to be sure for what is essentially a genteel comedy, yet Duvall and the film as a whole never becomes a ponderous parable. The film and Duvall glide under your skin with ease and before you have even realized it, you have been overtaken with its power. This sequence in particular, is soul stirring in the best possible way and I cannot think of another actor that could have pulled it off as well.

“Get Low” is yet another rarity in our increasingly shallow, empty headed, post-ironic obsessed times as it is a film with no villains and completely filled with a collective of characters who are all attempting to just live peacefully and do the right thing by others. The film’s deceptive simplicity and earnest life lessons may make some potential viewers fear that this film will exist as nothing more than a theatrical Hallmark movie. This film has been frequently described as a “fable” or “folk tale,” not entirely false adjectives but for me, they are traits that actually diminish the quiet power this movie possesses and has to offer for all of us. Moreso, it has also been somewhat dismissively described as a “nice” movie, also not the sort of endorsement that typically would send today’s movie going audiences racing to the theaters. To that, I have to wonder what has happened to us as a society when “nice” movies are viewed so negatively. Yes, I will admit that I do tend to have an aversion to “nice” movies as they typically contain a spirit that is falsely sentimental, saccharine, preachy and they tend to conclude with too easy answers and typically to questions that do not contain easy answers to begin with. That said, “Get Low” is indeed an unashamedly “nice” movie but a “nice” movie with substance, honest emotion, and some much needed and essential grit and pain to make the lessons tangible and realistic.

Underneath it all, “Get Low,” in addition to being a story about forgiveness, the slow process of atonement and the various forms of redemption, is a story about stories. Most specifically, the very stories that make up all of our lives and will carry with us until the day our individualized stories cease to be. What are we without our stories? The stories we share to build connections with others as well as with ourselves. The stories that haunt and trouble us. The stories we re-visit endlessly for humor, for understanding, for guidance, for solace, for hope and for faith. The myriad of short stories when combined, make up each and every one of our lives. Our stories are who we are and without them, we have no shared humanity.

“Get Low” is a graciously humane film about that very shared humanity.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


For this "Extra Credit" installment of the "Back To School Edition" of my Buried Treasure series, I am so proud to turn my attention to a film that I feel, has seemingly gone forgotten over the years. It was a critical and box office success at the time and it is also a film, I believe, paved the way for the higher quality teenage themed films to come.

Released 30 years ago this month, I now pay tribute to "My Bodyguard," a film I cannot recommend highly enough for you to seek out.

Written by Alan Ormsby

Directed by Tony Bill

In September of 1980, I entered Middle School. Although the Middle School in question was connected to the Lower School of my past and the High School of my future, which made any transitions comparatively easier than those who venture to entirely new schools, excitement, anxiousness and trepidation did play a hefty role. It seemed obvious to me at the time that the sunshine days of childhood would soon play host to some darker clouds as academic pressures and expectations undoubtedly grew more serious. Socially, things felt even more tenuous as hormones, puberty and ever shifting circles of friendships certainly would cause more than their fair share of emotional confusion, baggage and heartache. But, there were times when we all of us seemed to band together and exhibited a positive communal spirit. And at the start of 6th grade, that communal spirit arrived through something as innocuous as a movie.

In the few short weeks before Middle School officially began, "My Bodyguard," the teenaged themed motion picture and Directorial debut of Tony Bill was released in theaters and by the time we reunited and convened in the school hallways, the film was the topic of conversation. Seemingly, everyone had seen it and felt compelled to talk about it. While this sensation lasted perhaps only a day or so to my recollection, the conversation was so passionate that it seemed as if the movie, with its primary theme of school bullying, had really shaken us up. Granted, our home of higher education was located inside the confines of a private school, which itself was housed upon the campus of the University of Chicago, thus making relative safety during our school days a non-issue. That said, "My Bodyguard" was so perceptive, so knowing and honest that the film, while enormously entertaining, hit all of us at nothing less than a primal level.

Chris Makepeace gives a hugely engaging and fully realized starring performance as Clifford, the new kid at a Chicago public high school. Clifford is immediately set apart from the remainder of his new classmates due to his affluent status, as he lives with his family (including rascally Grandmother Ruth Gordon) in a ritzy Chicago hotel managed by his Father (Martin Mull) and first arrives to school in a limousine. Aside from dealing with the expected pressures of assimilating within a new environment, Clifford quickly runs afoul of the menacing school bully Moody (a brilliantly fearsome Matt Dillon) and his gang. The school thugs extort money from victimized students in the Boys’ Room as “protection” from the silent and hulking Ricky Linderman (Adam Baldwin), a student long rumored to hold a violent past, including the cold-blooded murder of his younger brother.

Once Moody approaches Clifford for his lunch money payments, Clifford refuses, thus making himself the constant target for hallway, classroom and cafeteria humiliation and torment. Knowing fully well that he could not possibly defeat Moody physically, Clifford strikes upon an ingenious idea: to hire Linderman as his personal bodyguard. Yet, to accomplish this feat, he would have to engage with the immensely intimidating Linderman first.

After an initial meeting where Linderman declines Clifford’s request and proposal, Linderman eventually saves Clifford from a beating by Moody’s gang and ultimately agrees to Clifford’s original business proposition. From here, the story takes increasingly mature turns as we watch the tentative friendship between Clifford and Linderman grow, and levels of trust are gradually built between them. Their bonding solidifies over the reconstruction of a motorcycle, a source of healing for Linderman as he remains engulfed by grief over the death of his 9 year old brother from a year prior.

The friendship is placed to the test once Moody returns with his own “bodyguard,” placing Linderman in the position of having to live up to the pain of the violent rumors. And Clifford, now with a treasured friendship hanging in the balance, must find his own inner strength to cease hiding behind others and learn to fight for himself.

In addition to the visceral nature of the story and the excellent performances from the entire cast (including some great comedy from Paul Quandt as Clifford’s perpetually worried friend
and also Joan Cusack in her film debut), what makes “My Bodyguard” a film of such influence and importance is its down-to-Earth directness, honesty and unwillingness to create false drama within a story that contains so many hefty and instantly recognizable nuggets of school tension and paranoia. It never reduces its characters to cartoons or ever ceases to take their issues without the same seriousness and maturity that could be seen in any adult-themed film. Director Bill and his screenwriter Ormsby carve out realistic, every day teenage characters that, unlike so many of today’s films, don’t need to hide behind a wall of post-modern irony to inject a false sense of “cool.” Their flaws, wounds, fears, and hurts are all on open display, creating deep sympathy and making them all resonate fully as human beings.

At the film’s core, and through the relationship between Clifford and Linderman, the story allows the primary characters to ask of themselves what it means to be a good friend. “My Bodyguard” confidently and tenderly explores levels of trust and loyalty while also sifting through issues of guilt, remorse, courage, weakness, strength and redemption in a tangible, highly entertaining, crowd pleasing and decidedly non heavy handed fashion.

I wonder if a film like “My Bodyguard” could even be made today. In some ways, I am surprised that it hasn’t, with our current glut of sequels, remakes and re-boots, some of which to films that were already wonderful pieces of work that needed no improvement in the first place. But then again, have times changed so much for teenagers that a film like this and presented in the fashion Tony Bill designed can only be seen as an archaic artifact from a time when teenagers were relatively safer? It could be argued that if this film were made today, there wouldn’t be much of a movie as Clifford would probably use his affluence to obtain a gun and would then shoot Moody in the Boys Room!

Despite those thoughts, there is the non-debatable fact that we do have this buried treasure from the Fall of 1980. “My Bodyguard” is a film with a complete lack of hyperbole, prefabricated thrills and action and is ultimately a film that stresses and cherishes thought over violence, empathy over detached jadedness and pays strict attention to choices and the consequences that stem from those choices.

What a shame that this wonderful film, which has now reached its 30th anniversary this very month, has become a film that seems to have been forgotten. Sadly, for more recent generations, it is a film that is quite possibly unknown. The sight of “My Bodyguard” on cable television is an extreme rarity and the hard to find DVD has relegated the movie to the toothless and saccharine “Family Feature” status, thus ensuring that it will remain overlooked. For the uninitiated, I am here to tell you that “My Bodyguard” is no cheesy “Afterschool Special” that lacks sophistication. Quite the contrary, “My Bodyguard” is a jewel of a movie that gets every note just right and left me wanting for nothing more as well as plenty to ponder afterwards.

At the outset of this tribute, I recalled that this film possibly reached all of us new Middle School students at a primal level. As I ruminate over "My Bodyguard" and the reaction it caused throughout the school hallways as we collectively embraced it, I cannot help but to wonder what could be more primal to a child than the experience of feeling completely apart from every single one of your peers on a very awkwardly public stage? Or experiencing the fear of being singled out and victimized in front of your peers just for being no one else other than yourself?

“My Bodyguard” is in harmoniously in tune with those emotions and through its loving presentation, it was, and remains, a film to be cherished.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Now that the official school bells of the new school year have rung, I wanted to take some time to spotlight a collection of school-themed films that I have enjoyed over the years. While some of these selections are not the greatest this particular film genre may have to offer, these are films that purely speak to my sensibilities and have continued to entertain and enchant me. Because of the nature of this series, none of the beloved works of John Hughes, Cameron Crowe, Richard Linklater or even George Lucas' seminal "American Graffiti" (1973) will be featured in any way whatsoever as their films are the giants of the genre. The following films are ones who exist on the fringes and perhaps you just may want to check one out for yourselves...

1. "GREGORY'S GIRL" (1981)
Written and Directed by Bill Forsyth
I have rarely seen a film that exuded as much subtle, warm hearted charm as this celebrated Scottish movie. The story is as simple and everyday as any moment in a teenager's life. Gregory (Gordon John Sinclair) is a lanky, awkward 16 year old high school student and member of the school football (i.e. soccer) team who becomes infatuated with Dorothy (Dee Hepburn)-herself a new student and member of the football team-and is determined to win her affection. There's not much more to the film than that and wisely Forsyth does not complicate his material any more than it emotionally needs to be. It is a social comedy of manners between boys and girls while also being a deeply affectionate portrait of adolescent first love. Based upon the enthusiastic recommendation from Siskel and Ebert, I sought this film out in my early teens and was overcome with its honesty and quiet comedic grace which is as comforting as a warm summer's breeze.

2. "VALLEY GIRL" (1983)
Directed by Martha Coolidge

While I could never be absolutely certain, I think that it would be more than safe to say that rock music composer/political-scatological satirist/guitar wizard Frank Zappa would have hated this movie. At first glance, "Valley Girl" seemed to be a cynical cash-in on Zappa's surprise 1982 radio hit single which then excised Zappa's ferocious bite and mutated the song's original concept into a creaky plot device of two socio-economically divided teenagers falling in love. Perhaps it was a cynical cash-in, but under the wise, guiding directorial hands of Martha Coolidge, viewers received a small, warm hearted gem that still emotionally holds up today.

Deborah Foreman gives a completely winning performance as the sweet yet shallow Julie Richman, the titular valley girl who wants nothing more than to hang out with her gaggle of girlfriends and on the arm of her blond boyfriend Tommy (Michael Bowen). Yet, Julie has begun to grow restless with her surroundings and Tommy's disrespect towards her in particular. While at a grand high school party, sensitive Hollywood punk teenager Randy (a blazing Nicholas Cage), crashes and instantly strikes a connection with Julie. The two embark upon a tentative relationship, much to the dismay of their respective circle of friends and ensuring the heavy doses of peer pressure test their budding romance.

As Roger Ebert has expressed many times throughout his career, when it comes to movies and the plots they pursue, the success does not always lie strictly in what the film is about. The success lies in how it goes about telling its story. In the case of "Valley Girl," the story is as old as the hills yet what makes this film endure and resonate are the terrific leading performances, the empathetic direction, some foxy supporting work from Frederic Forrest and Colleen Camp as Julie's hippie, health food restaurant owner parents, and its great New Wave soundtrack. Pre-dating John Hughes' "Sixteen Candles" by one year, Coolidge also made great strides in the representation of teenage girls in an otherwise sexually offensive film genre by placing Deborah Foreman and her character front and center. Also, in an early party sequence, Coolidge cleverly delivered the genre's requisite topless busty girl shot during a moment where we are meant to feel the girl's sexual humiliation and hurt at the hands of Tommy--therefore, eviscerating any potential puerile thrills.

In addition to all of those aforementioned elements, at its core, "Valley Girl" is simply a sweet love story. Nothing more. Nothing less. But, I have to tell you, the sequence where Julie and Randy share their first kiss in silhouette, inside of a seedy L.A. rock club with The Plimsouls on stage blaring their classic "A Million Miles Away," is a moment that completely captured the burning urgency of teenagers in love everywhere.

(ALSO RECOMMENDED-"ZEBRAHEAD" (1992) Written and Directed by Anthony Drazan: This is an interracial take on this well-worn storyline and features outstanding performances by Michael Rappaport and N'Bushe Wright as the romantic teenagers caught on either side of the racial divide. It is an obscure film well worth seeking out.)

3. "THREE O'CLOCK HIGH" (1987)
Directed by Phil Joanou
I have enjoyed this dark, very underseen high school satire ever since I first saw it during my Freshman year of college. It effectively creates a grim, atmospheric mood that simultaneously never loses its swift comedic pacing. It is a film that keeps you laughing as you are a bit on the edge of your seat. Casey Siemaszko stars as Jerry Mitchell, a mild mannered high schooler and writer for the school newspaper. Jerry is dispatched to write a puff piece on the school's terrifyingly legendary new student Buddy Revell (a menacing Richard Tyson), a violent boy known for destroying absolutely anyone who even so much as touches him. While in the Boys Room, Jerry meekly accosts Buddy for the newspaper story, inadvertently touching him on the shoulder. Buddy flies into a rage and alerts Jerry that no matter what he does, or how he tries to get away, the two will duel in the school parking lot at 3:00 p.m.

"Three O'Clock High" is essentially a teenage version of the classic Fred Zinnemann Western "High Noon" (1952) and Joanou is more than up to the task for his debut feature. His depiction of high school is a near Dante's Inferno of hallway rumors and conspiring forces waiting to swallow you whole. Casey Siemaszko is a perfect leading man. He carries an almost "young Richard Dreyfuss" quality as he is easily a hero to root for, while you laugh heartedly at his predicament. Furthermore, Jerry Mitchell is almost like a cartoon character with the proverbial cloud firmly placed over his head, which constantly relinquishes raindrops that endlessly soak him. Every minute through his doom laden day and each scheme to get himself out of the fight ratchets up the comedic and inner tensions as he is faced with filmmaking students wishing to cover the fight, an outbreak of student gambling over the fight, a break-in at the school supply store he operates, foreboding administration figures and sadistic truancy guards. All of these elements are also brought to vivid life through the brooding music score by Tangerine Dream.

"Three O'Clock High" is a wickedly stylish ode to high school bullying and the whirlwind of the teenage rumor mill that I am pleased to suggest you give a peek.

Directed by Savage Steve Holland
For his third feature, Holland (directing a film he didn’t write himself for the first time), dials down the subversive, suburban satire of his classic debut feature “Better Off Dead” (1985) and the sun-soaked cartoonishness of “One Crazy Summer” (1986) for a slightly more straightforward affair that shows a surprising earnestness and heartfelt charm in its delivery.

Like "Gregory's Girl," the plot is very simple. The average, under-achieving high school Senior Marlon Browne (Corey Parker) has only one dream as he begins his search for the perfect University to attend college: to follow the course of his dream girl, the gorgeous Class President Jessica Kailo (Lara Flynn Boyle) all the way to Pennsylvania's Ramsey College. Through this basic framework, Holland crafts a love story in which Parker and Boyle have an easy, unforced romantic chemistry that makes you hope for Marlon's happiness.

Yet, he hasn't gone completely soft, as Holland is still able to weave in some sneaky satirical barbs that poke holes at college fairs, and S.A.T. exam paranoia. Additionally, he also tells a smart side story about a group of Ramsey College's admission counselors (featuring Anthony Edwards, Charles Rocket, and Finn Carter) who are at war with each other concerning the best qualifications to regard with enrolling potential new students: a person's character or a person's numerical statistics.

Like many of the other films in this listing of Buried Treasures, "How I Got Into College" is a simple story told very well with style, humor and class. And hey...even the surly mail carrier from "Better Off Dead" makes a cameo re-appearance! When it was released originally in 1989, it died a rapid box-office death as the studio that released the film decided that it would have to go up against a little known picture entitled..."Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." With thanks to DVD or late night cable, I gently suggest that you give this sweet film a shot.

5. "ORANGE COUNTY" (2002)
Written by Mike White
Directed by Jake Kasdan
In a film that also could have been titled "How I Got Into College," we are presented with the story of Shaun Brumder (a wonderful Colin Hanks), a surfer and high school Senior who desperately wants to attend Stanford to study to become a writer under the tutelage of his hero, Professor and Author Marcus Skinner (Kevin Kline) as well as escape the stifling confines of his shallow Orange County community and comically dysfunctional family. When his nincompoop of a Guidance Counselor (Lily Tomlin) sends the wrong application to Stanford, Shaun's dreams are crushed when he receives note that he has been rejected. Determined to fulfill his wishes, he enlists the aid of his girlfriend (Schuyler Fisk) and his loser, stoner of a brother (the amazing Jack Black) to get his real application to Stanford before the official deadline.

Kasdan and White have crafted a riotously funny film that wisely moves at a brisk pace and surprisingly covers a lot of ground in its brief 82 minute running time. "Orange County" features terrific, crackling dialogue, great performances from top to bottom and convincing cameo appearances from Chevy Chase, Ben Stiller, Catherine O'Hara and John Lithgow.

Again, we have a film that works so well simply because it is committed entirely to the story it wants to tell. It effectively devises a way to spin the story in as many hysterical fashions as it is able without ever sacrificing the good will, desires and hopes of the main characters. It is a rare feat to find a film this breezy and raucous that also possesses a shining heart at its center. "Orange County" is a sun-soaked treat of a film and especially as we begin to head into the colder months, this film just may be the perfect blast of sunshine you may be looking for.

Stay tuned, dear readers, for a "Back To School-Extra Credit Edition" of "Savage Cinema's Buried Treasure"!!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


"Ring! Ring! Goes The Bell!!"
-Chuck Berry
"School Day" (1957)

The first day of September. The first day of a new school year. The first day of a new month at Savage Cinema and it seems as if the floodgates of the cineplexes will soon be open with a plethora of new material to view, an amount of which has been sadly lacking throughout the year thus far.

Last month, almost did me in, dear readers. To be more specific, the very end of the previous month as a surprise illness definitely knocked me for a loop. It brought the site to a halt for a spell as I just did not have even one solitary speck of creative energy to devote to anything more than moaning and wailing and the act of healing.

Now, I have returned, almost at full force with new postings and reviews heading your way.

1. "Savage Cinema's Buried Treasure" will get a workout after I finish writing an installment to conclude last month's postings. For this month, I will house a two-part "Back To School Edition" spotlighting some school themed films I have always enjoyed...and due to the nature of buried treasure, these selections are decidedly NOT going to spotlight any of the classic, and now legendary entries in the genre. Stay tuned...

2. I hope to get myself to see a screening of the new rustic, dark comedy "Get Low" with Robert Duvall and Bill Murray.

3. I am very curious to check out Ben Affleck's "The Town," his second feature as a Director.

4. And of course, I could not ever miss the return of Oliver Stone and Michael Douglas with "Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps."

Please allow me and the site ample room for any special and/or unexpected twists and turns and I'll see you when the house lights go down.