Thursday, October 28, 2010

THE GRASS ISN'T GREENER: a review of "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger"

"YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER"
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Five years ago, as I exited a movie theater after viewing a screening of Woody Allen’s superlative London set philosophical thriller, “Match Point,” I happened to briefly overhear a conversation snippet from an older couple behind me. “I guess I liked it,” offered the woman tentatively. “But, it just wasn’t funny.” The only reply from her male companion was a tired sounding sigh. I wanted to think that I understood that sigh because I uttered it to myself.

I don’t really know what it is that audiences want from Woody Allen, if anything at all. (No snarky remarks please as I realize I certainly left a door open widely.) He is extremely prolific as he releases a film every year or so. The level of his writing remains peerless. He has continued to elicit outstanding performances from his expertly selected casts. He has alternated between comedies and stark dramas and created hybrids of each for nearly 40 years running and for some reason, people still tend to leave his work befuddled, unimpressed, unenthusiastic and at worst, dismissive. The critical response that I have seen so far for his latest film, “You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger” has been lukewarm at best and surprisingly harsh at worst. While very little would keep me from seeing the latest Allen film, I could not help but to wonder if my reaction would possibly be more middling, especially with an artist so prolific, not every film can be a work of genius. Yet, as I watched, I became very involved and by the conclusion, I felt that Allen created yet another dark, nihilistic, yet fair-minded exploration of the human condition.

Again set in London, the film opens with the wry voice of an unseen narrator intoning Shakespeare’s wonderful quotation of life containing sound and fury but ultimately signifying nothing. Afterwards, we are immediately thrust into the jointly connected experiences of a collection of lives being played out in quiet desperation. We first meet the elderly Helena (Gemma Jones), shaken from her recent suicide attempt which was brought on by her divorce from Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), her husband of 40 years, as she is on her way to meet Cristal (Pauline Collins), a fraudulent fortune teller. Alfie, in a bout of an advanced age existential crisis, becomes obsessively involved with exercise, whitens his teeth, darkens his skin and takes up with the much younger Charmaine (Lucy Punch), a call girl who grows dangerously accustomed to Alfie’s wealth and lifestyle.

Alfie and Helena’s daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) is unhappily married to Roy (Josh Brolin), a despondent novelist, who despite having a modestly successful first book is now nowhere near completing his second. Roy quits his day job as a chauffeur to petulantly sit at home with his writer’s block and soon becomes transfixed at the sight of Dia (Freida Pinto from “Slumdog Millionaire”) through his window facing the adjoining flat. Meanwhile, Sally, a secretary and aspiring art dealer, is nursing a deep attraction to her boss, art gallery owner Greg Clemente (Antonio Banderas), a melancholy man who is also unhappily married. Throughout the course of the film, all of the characters’ deepest desires are tested, as they confront the crossroads of how the illusions they live by compare and contrast with the realities they obsessively run from.

Now, from the sound of all of these inter-related characters and their respective issues, it would not be surprising to think that people may not want to spend their hard earned money and even more precious time amongst a collective of people in various states of misery. And it’s not even presented as a slapstick comedy, the kind of film that some Allen fans are surprisingly still waiting for. “You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger” is a modest, sobering affair, a gloomy Sunday afternoon kind of movie that grows more profound over its running time especially as the fullness of the film’s title emerges. Once again, Allen is utilizing his gifts to explore the concepts of Fate Vs. Luck and questioning whether happiness is a right or a privilege alongside viewing the characters’ worst impulses play out in an understandable and non-judgmental fashion.

As with so many of his films, Woody Allen approaches the story with a matter-of-fact, almost documentary styled demeanor as he continues to contain a nearly endless fascination with how we all live our lives. In the case of this film’s characters, their problems contain a deeper urgency as they are all in the throes of early middle age to advanced age. They are all constantly questioning the trajectories of their lives and if they have ended up anywhere near where they may have envisioned so long ago.

For instance, when Sally first met Roy while rollerblading in a park, did she ever think that she would one day be childless, constantly fighting with her moody, unemployed husband and partially living off of Helena’s money? Did Alfie ever really feel that he could cheat the inevitability of his life with a much younger woman who turns out to be a gold digger? The film asks of its characters and the audience how deeply do we all delude ourselves throughout our daily lives and how far will we go to continue having those delusions. Once again, we have a film that forces its audience to think about the very things we certainly do not want to spend much time thinking about and Allen handles it all without the slightest edge of pretentiousness or self-important arrogance.

"You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" is bathed in Allen’s trademark autumnal glow, the cinematography remains clean and uncluttered, the set and costume design is realistically appropriate to each character’s locale, income and lifestyle, Allen’s writing is predictably and brilliantly literate and his direction remains unfussy and without a hint of self-congratulatory flash. Yet, there are some sly touches on hand. Note the level of alcohol consumption by many of the characters, especially Roy who is rarely seen without a beer bottle in his hand or nearby. And then, throughout it all, there is the image of Roy gazing out of his window, a sight that grows more poetic, internally tragic and representative of all of the characters as the film continues.

All of the performances in “You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger” are uniformly excellent. Naomi Watts is an actress I have loved dearly since her incredible performance in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” (2001) and she seems nearly incapable of striking a false note. Her ability to channel frustration, flirtatiousness, weakness, ferocious fury, incredulity, and crumbling heartbreak with an unrequited crush seems as effortless as walking and talking. She spins on a dime and it is a treasure to regard and behold her talent. I must make special mention of Roger Ashton-Griffiths who is quite endearing as Jonathan, a potential suitor for Helena who is also a recent widower who happens to own and operate an occult bookshop. But, for me, the film’s standout was the magnetic Josh Brolin who continues to impress me with role after role. The path of the character of Roy, with his fixation upon Dia as well as with his failing writing career, takes some surprisingly dark turns and he was so gripping that I could’ve easily taken an entire film based around him, thus making for an excellent companion piece to Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989), “Match Point” and “Cassandra’s Dream” (2007). As it stands, the character of Roy and the performance of Brolin assist to make the film a fully resonant whole, one that would have easily faltered if this crucial element were not in place.

I would not be at all surprised that some may complain about the film’s lack of resolution or that it doesn’t really break any new ground for Allen. That these are the same issues and problems we have experienced in one Woody Allen film after another. All of those concerns may be very true, but, I think that is almost the point of "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" as it is the latest installment of what could be essentially one long film for Allen--especially when looking at the purposefully clich├ęd sounding title. The issues, situations, foibles, hopes and failings of these characters mirror the same experiences of past Allen characters as well as everyone who chooses to watch them. Philosophically speaking, Allen may be stating that this particular sound and fury is the same sound and fury that has been echoing through every single human being throughout all of time itself. And as these characters (as well as the audience) all march closer to meeting that silent, tall, dark stranger with the black cloak and scythe, that very pursuit of happiness grows bracingly crucial.

But does it all signify nothing? Are our ever present aching desires ultimately meaningless? And are the delusions we set in place for ourselves worthless? If a film is going to bother to pose these questions, and in such an intelligent and entertaining fashion, shouldn't we at least give it a try and potentially celebrate it?

I hope that you do as "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" sticks to the cinematic ribs and continues to percolate and haunt long afterwards.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

FROM THE ARCHIVES 11: a review of "Whatever Works" (2009)

Originally written July 12, 2009

"WHATEVER WORKS" (2009)
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
*** (three stars)

The sublime pleasure I receive from hearing the unparalleled usage of language in a Woody Allen film is an unequivocal delight...even in one of his slighter efforts. After a four year European odyssey that produced at least two of of his finest films in many years (2005's "Match Point" and 2008's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"), Allen returns to his beloved native New York for his latest comedic rumination on life and love, "Whatever Works." Starring the inimitable Larry David from HBO's masterful "Curb Your Enthusiasm," one may have expected (or have hoped) for a comic collaboration of seismic proportions. But, what is on display happens to be one of those aforementioned slighter efforts from Allen but perhaps that slightness is deceptive as the spell the film casts continues to linger after leaving the theater earlier this afternoon.

Davd stars as Boris Yellnikoff, a former Physics professor, String Theory expert, Nobel Prize hopeful and self-described "genius" who has emotionally spiralled into an endless black sea of misanthropic nihilism and quite cheerfully unleashes his rage against the world at any and every "inchworm" or "cretin" within earshot (that includes the audience whom he address by breaking the "fourth wall" early in the film). Yellnikoff is a morass of neuroses (would you expect anything else in an Allen film?) struck into this enraged state by the countless horrors of the world and more personal ones including a divorce and failed suicide attempt that has left him with a limp. At about the point where even his small circle of friends have had enough of his rants, who should drop into his life but Melody St. Ann Celestine (a joyful Evan Rachel Wood), a waifish Southern belle runaway who talks her way into Yellnikoff's apartment, promising to stay only for a few days. Melody's guilelessness and honest affection indeed begins to weaken Yellnikoff's resolve. A few days becomes nearly a year and before you know it, Melody professes her love for Yellnikoff and the two become married.

Now, before any of you begin to stone the screen feeling that this is another one of Allen's film romantic fantasies, the plot takes several twists and turns with the inclusion of more characters, most notably the separate arrivals of Melody's Southern, church going, NRA participant parents (endearingly portrayed by Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr.). What results is a film that explains simply enough that the heart wants what it wants and in a world where nothing is in our control, we must have the tolerance and acceptance of whatever gifts life may bestow at our feet--especially if it doesn't make sense initially. The relationship between Yellnikoff and Melody is a charming one but progresses in unexpected ways and the life paths of Clarkson and Begley Jr. flow into completely uncharted waters where both are surprised to realize that their lives are now happier ones.

In promotional interviews for the film, Allen explained that the screenplay for this film was originally written in the 1970's and to a degree, it shows (for the better upon further examination). Not through the humor, but through some of those character life changes. Topics of menage-a-trois and latent homosexuality are presented in a display of the almost innocent discovery that may have been a part of the 1970's journeys of self-analysis. There is no ironic distance or post-modern knowing to the proceedings and somehow, it is disarming through not being jaded and it greatly assists the film's primary theme of acceptance.

While Larry David certainly doesn't do much stretching from his HBO character (he's essentially a meaner version of his television role), he is a perfect conduit of Allen's material which could come off whiny and exhaustive from another actor's mouth. Somehow, you stick with David even at his most insufferable and perhaps our reaction gives us a window into Melody's innocent appreciation and love for this unashamedly grumpy old man. This also brings me to Evan Rachel Wood, an extremely talented young actress who I have enjoyed ever since her stint on the lovely series "Once and Again." After a collection of increasingly darker roles (which may have unintentionally made her a one-note actress), it was truly refreshing to see Wood travel to brighter pastures and show us a flirty, bouncy, light comedic style that will only work to her advantage as her career continues.

"This is NOT the feel-good movie of the year!!" bellows Yellnikoff at the start of "Whatever Works." But, somehow, through the affection for its characters, appreciation of their inner desires presented without judgement set to the marvelous tune of Allen's trademark dialogue, perhaps Allen did indeed make the feel-good movie of the year.

It didn't alter any perceptions or enthrall me like last year's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," but I was happily entertained and for someone as skilled and prolific as Allen, a weaker effort is typically better than most other movies out there.

FROM THE ARCHIVES 10: a review of "VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA" (2008)

In anticipation of Writer/Director Woody Allen's latest feature, "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger," I am now presenting the first of two older reviews of Allen's previous two features. Here is the first, which was originally written February 27, 2009.

"VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA" (2008)
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
**** (4 stars)

The modern day romantic comedy owes a tremendous debt to Woody Allen. While he certainly did not invent the genre, Allen's "Annie Hall" (1977) and "Manhattan" (1979) broke staggeringly new ground and we have been feeling the aftershocks ever since, most notably in Rob Reiner's 1989 classic "When Harry Met Sally..." Unfortunately, most romantic comedies that are released these days have not adhered to the intelligent, and deeply observed films of Allen's classics as they typically are trite confections of cinematic cotton candy filled with false emotions, completely contrived and predictable situations and shockingly, a huge lack of romance.

As for Allen himself, I treasure his talent and film legacy. Yet, there is the possibility that when someone is as prolific as he is, by making a film nearly every year, the quality may sometimes suffer and I have to say that I felt he had been treading water for a while. Then, he went to London and made three films there, including the masterful "Match Point" (2005) and the underrated "Cassandra's Dream" (2007). Now, he's moved on to Spain for his latest film and the change of scenery has been wonderfully rejuvenating and I think that he has produced a work that equals his high quality output of films during the late 1980's and throughout the 1990's: work that included "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989), "Alice" (1990), "Husbands and Wives" (1992), "Manhattan Murder Mystery" (1993) and "Bullets Over Broadway"(1994).

With Allen's' latest plot (two young American tourists--Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johanssen-- find their differing notions of life and love challenged and tested during a summer in Spain) doesn't re-invent the "romantic comedy wheel" by any means, but relocating the action to Spain has added a new layer to the work, most notably, as a cultural critique of America's "quality of life" as compared to Spain's. The cinematography, music and locale are appropriately lush and filled with warm colors that effortlessly seduce the viewer's senses into the frisky mood of the setting, characters and their situations. It may even inspire a need to travel!

Allen's casting remains impeccable with Javier Bardem and fresh Oscar winner Penelope Cruz as standouts in their roles as formerly married artists still bound passionately to each other and the disastrous history of their romance. Their chemistry was so palpable that I am wishing Allen would consider making a "prequel" to show us how these two characters met, married and fell apart.

There has been some debate about Scarlett Johanssen's actual acting talent and the possibility that she was way out of her depth in this film. I felt that she hit all of the right notes with her performance as Cristina, a woman who feels that the validity and purity of love affairs all rest within some sort of tension and drama. Yet, when faced with the smoldering Bardem and the mentally ill and manically vibrant Cruz, her perceptions are confronted as she is now has true romantic turmoil staring her in the face. Cristina is romantically out of her depth and Johanssen played the role honestly.

As with any film from Woody Allen, there exists his brillant dialogue and with "Vicky Cristine Barcelona," the dialogue is a joy to listen to! Woody Allen is nearly peerless with his ear for intelligent, eloquent, literary dialogue that never for a moment feels false, talks down to its audience or betrays the motives, desires, thoughts, hopes and fears of his characters. It is simply a pleasure to have a filmmaker who treats his audience as smart people and his refusal to pander should be applauded more than it typically is.

For someone who has claimed to have a more nihilistic view of the world and life itself, it is amazing to me that Woody Allen, for over 40 years now, has continued to make film after film mining this subject matter (and the meaning of love in particular) in a humorous and often philosophical and open-hearted way.

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is one of his finest and the world of romantic comedies is graced to have its presence.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

SAVAGE CINEMA'S BURIED TREASURE #7: "ONE HOUR PHOTO" (2002)

As a piggyback to the previous two installments, this latest Halloween edition of the Buried Treasure series spotlights the first feature from filmmaker Mark Romanek and starring the inimitable Robin Williams. Enjoy!

"ONE HOUR PHOTO" (2002)
Written and Directed by Mark Romanek

"Creativity comes from limits, not freedom."
-Jon Stewart, from a 2010 interview with Terry Gross

As I ruminate over the lengthy career of Robin Williams, I think the above statement could not be any more apt. Williams has proven himself endlessly to be one of the sharpest, funniest comedic minds on the planet and velocity of his quips could give viewers whiplash as we all attempt to stay aboard the speeding train of his creative energy. Yet, as an actor, I have long felt that he works to the finest of his enormous talents when he has parameters, boundaries and is placed under a certain level of control. The first time I found myself feeling this way was while watching Director George Roy Hill’s 1982 adaptation of Author John Irving’s The World According To Garp. Yes, I had loved him as a kid while watching “Mork and Mindy” on television and I was more than a bit bewildered throughout Director Robert Altman’s musical version of “Popeye” (1980) but this film was something different.

With his aforementioned roles as an alien and a cartoon character, Robin Williams, while hysterical, often felt otherworldly. In “The World According To Garp,” he strikingly became all too human with the same types of quirks, foibles, failings and ambitions we all hold for ourselves. And he was remarkable. He convinced me completely that he was this imaginative and sometimes temperamental novelist, househusband and devoted Father caught in an absurd, violent world not (entirely) of his making. To utilize a musical term, Williams hit all of the proper notes to express this peculiar view of humanity and when I finally and lovingly read the novel many years later, it seemed obvious to me that Robin Williams was the only choice to play this legendary fictional character. There seemed to be no filter between the words in the screenplay and his embodiment of those words. He breathed life and energy into every moment and after this beauty of a performance, I only wanted more of this depth from him.

But back to this issue of exerting parameters and boundaries upon such an excellent, unpredictable and at times, exhaustively unhinged talent. His comedy features have sadly and undeniably produced many, many terrible motion pictures where filmmakers obviously did not have the basics of a firm screenplay to keep him grounded and essentially waited for Williams to just appear on-set and “be funny.” His dramatic features (or features that straddle the fence between comedy and drama) have also fallen into the same traps. For every film like Paul Mazursky’s “Moscow On The Hudson” (1984), Fiedler Cook’s “Seize The Day” (1986), Barry Levinson’s “Good Morning Vietnam” (1987), Peter Weir’s “Dead Poet’s Society” (1989), Terry Gilliam’s “The Fisher King” (1991), Gus Van Sant’s “Good Will Hunting” (1997), Vincent Ward’s “What Dreams May Come” (1998), and Christopher Nolan’s “Insomnia” (2001), we have been blasted with cloying, over-emotive and self-congratulatory and falsely sentimental garbage like…Tom Shadyac’s ”Patch Adams” (1998).

While Robin Williams is more than able to reach certain emotional territories that, at times, can be nothing less than crippling, he desperately needs the proper limitations to guide him there. For this latest installment of Savage Cinema’s Buried Treasure, I turn to one of his very finest performances in Writer/Director Mark Romanek’s debut feature, the queasily disturbing thriller, “One Hour Photo.”

The simple plot of “One Hour Photo” could happily exist as a standard Lifetime movie network thriller and thankfully, Romanek brilliant transcends those trappings. Williams descends and dissolves into deep, and very dark waters as Seymour “Sy” Parrish, a solitary film developer in the WalMart styled department store named “SavMart.” Over the course of the film, Sy ingratiates himself and grows dangerously obsessed with the Yorkins, a suburban Los Angeles family (portrayed by Michael Vartan, Dylan Smith and the stunning Connie Nielsen) who have developed film at the store, under Sy’s meticulous care, for many years.

What Williams achieves, through the strong guidance of Romanek’s tight, perceptive screenplay and stylishly grim direction, makes the film even more chilling as we are often finding ourselves sympathizing with this character who could be unimaginatively and solely portrayed presented as a demonic being. A short sequence where he strolls through the Yorkin’s unoccupied house, taking in the life and family he does not have for himself, provides the perfect blend of empathy and creepiness, for instance, and it is through moments like this where the film shows us its higher ambitions.

In addition to delivering a film of unquestionable intensity that does provide a few shocks, “One Hour Photo” is a film whose reach extends beyond the thriller aspect towards a cultural observation. It is an exploration of loneliness and isolation and how those emotions play out against the idea of the “perfect family” whose cracks are unseen publicly. It is also a study of our collectively increased separation in a digital world that is ironically intended to bring people together. In many ways, the film may even be suggesting that even if our psyches are not as fragile as Sy’s, we are all becoming isolated from each other.

“One Hour Photo” also explores one man’s devotion to his work and how that devotion also defines a life. Yet, as that devotion is challenged and threatened, under the guise of technological progress, we see how that stress of becoming obsolete contributes to irrevocable psychological damage. The film is smartly places firmly in the age when traditional film made the cultural transition to the digital era, thus making a developer like Sy a relic. His fears of becoming irrelevant and even more insignificant than he already feels provides the story a level of pathos that Williams plays effortlessly. Thorough and painstaking in the detail of his work and craft as a developer combined with the pride in the energy and care he places in each person’s private photos collectively gives him the self-perception of being somewhat of an artist. The very type of artist that just does not exist in an accelerated, instant gratification world.

Sadly, the film he develops distributes unending sorrow for Sy as the worlds inside all of the photos are constant reminders of the richness of life he does have for himself. Sy Parrish is cut from the same cloth as other cinematic loners such as Travis Bickle from Martin Scorsese’s extraordinary “Taxi Driver” (1976). He is the classic misfit. A man who is constantly out of step with the times and his environment. He possesses weak social skills beyond basic customer service and photography serves as a lifeline. He is organized to the point of fastidiousness, wears the same beige colored clothing each day, returns to an empty home each night to a barren apartment, save for a television and a room containing an entire wall of years worth of developed photos depicting the Yorkin family. Once technological advances and the disintegration of his self-control intervene, he threatens to lose the ability to devote his life to his craft as well as losing his only connection to the world itself. Robin Williams brilliantly, subtly, empathetically and disturbingly conveys all of the emotions of this man’s splintering psyche alongside his wounded and all-too open heart, making for the type of thriller that is consistently unnerving and will definitely burrow under your skin with uneasiness and dread. Such is his mastery when given the proper control to how it is unleashed and it is a testament to the excellent collaboration between actor and filmmaker.

“One Hour Photo” was originally released to enthusiastic critical reviews and a modest box office and while it does show up on cable TV from time to time, it doesn’t appear to me to have taken on a larger pop cultural significance. A significance this film truly deserves. For this Halloween, along with Michael Mann’s “Manhunter” (1986) I am glad to offer you two high minded yet troubling and disquieting features that will definitely urge you to keep your house lights on long after you have completed watching.

Monday, October 18, 2010

WE THREE: a review of "Never Let Me Go"

“NEVER LET ME GO”
Screenplay Written by Alex Garland
Based upon the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro
Directed by Mark Romanek
**** (four stars)


This one is going to be tricky.

I am going to attempt to compose an effective new review for you that does not, in any way, openly reveal the MAJOR PLOT TWIST that occurs nearly 25-30 into this film. Even moreso than this summer’s “Inception,” the pleasure behind watching the second film from Director Mark Romanek (the first being 2002's “One Hour Photo”—perhaps a future “Buried Treasure” installment), is through not exactly knowing how and what events will play out. I went into this film somewhat cold and I would hope that you will be able to do the same. I will be able to divulge to you that the tale harbors a simultaneously creepy and melancholic science fiction element merged with a truly aching love story. But mostly, what impressed me greatly and left me remaining seated for a few minutes after the end credit scroll, is that it is a film that is supremely humane.

I have written frequently about humanity here on Savage Cinema and I have to admit that I would find it difficult to discover a film released this year more in tune with the dynamics of the synchronicity of life and how symbiotic we all are to each other. It is a demanding work yet not pretentious. It never falls into easy sentiment or provides easy answers to the grand questions it poses. It has a hugely open heart while never succumbing to saccharine emotions. It is a quiet, philosophical chamber piece of a film that delivers a gut punch of tragedy. Mark Romanek’s “Never Let Me Go,” is a deliberately paced, crystalline film that encompasses an enormous fragility that forces anyone who watches to examine their own lives and how humanely or inhumanely we live them.

After a brief introduction where we learn a scientific breakthrough occurred during the early 1950’s that has allowed human lives to be extended well past the age of 100, the tale opens in 1978 at Hailsham, a seemingly idyllic English boarding school completely isolated from the outside world. We are quickly introduced to the outwardly confidant and attractive Ruth (Ella Purnell), the shy, sadly teased and troubled Tommy (Charlie Rowe) and quietly introverted, empathetic and intellectual Kathy H. (Isobel Meikle-Small), three Hailsham students and close friends. All three, plus the remainder of the student body attend a series of classes which are decidedly off of the beaten path from comparable educational facilities and to our eyes, seem a tad “off.” Odd classes exist where the instructors mysteriously force the students to produce works of art. Classes, that could be described as “Social Studies,” contains students who engage in role playing activities designed to mirror real world exchanges within locations such as restaurants. School sanctioned Bumper Crop sales of obviously discarded artifacts from the outside world like vintage dolls, ancient cassette tapes and all forms of bric-a-brac are causes for high excitement throughout the student body. And great attention is placed upon the maintaining of the children's excellent physical health.

But there is a darkness lingering around the school. Hailsham is surrounded by a fence which none of the students dare to cross as they have all heard and shared stories of strange, dire fates that have occurred to those who have previously made the attempt to leave. The 4th year students are presided over by a sympathetically curious “Guardian” named Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), with whom the students all find comfort, especially the perpetually ridiculed Tommy who is prone to emotional outbursts. Throughout their school days and nights, the trio of Ruth, Kathy and Tommy grow closer, eventually forming all three sides of a tenuous love triangle where Ruth and Tommy begin to date yet Kathy and Tommy are the obvious soul mates.

As their stern Headmistress Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling) proclaims during a morning gathering, “Hailsham students are special.” Very special indeed as we, the audience and characters, discover right around 25-30 minutes into the film when a troubled Miss Lucy reveals to all of the students their complete purpose in life, i.e. the MAJOR PLOT TWIST which I will not spoil for you here. From that crucial moment, the film divides into two more sections set in 1985 and 1994, long after Kathy, Ruth and Tommy (now played beautifully by Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightly and Andrew Garfield, respectively) have graduated from Hailsham, spent a period at a location known only as “The Cottages,” grown apart and eventually reunite. All the while, the threesome give themselves over to the deepest musings concerning their collective fates, the validity of their feelings in regards to their lives’ purposes as well as each other and finally, their most existential desires and hopes and facing down the inevitable.

“Never Let Me Go” is a science-fiction film without special effects, inter-galactic battles or aliens ready to devour us all. There is no graphic violence of any kind of display during even one moment in the film. It is film that utilizes elements of science-fiction to become a film about ideas with hefty concepts to explore and engage the audience with. Historically, it reminded in bits and parts of films like Director Michael Anderson's “Logan’s Run” (1976) or even Director Ridley Scott’s enormously influential “Blade Runner” (1982). More recently, Director Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” (2001) and even Director Duncan Jones’ “Moon” (2009) came to mind. For the astute, through my brief and hopefully vague plot description combined with the aforementioned film comparisons, you may have been able to guess what the MAJOR PLOT TWIST happens to be. If you have, please do not let that stop you from seeing this film as the knowledge of the reveal will not ruin the cumulative effect. In fact, it just may enhance the story’s inherent pain and ultimate tragedy.

Romanek paces his film very slowly, not to instill a certain inertia, but to house us within a time and place, fully taking in the moments just as Kathy H., Tommy and Ruth are ingesting them. It is an autumnal world, with the shroud of death lingering in the corners through the endless grey skies, the wind blowing through the bare trees and at times, the perpetually fading glow of a sunset. There are no primary colors to speak of within the framework of the film as well. Thematically, it also has much in common with Writer/Director Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” (2008) or even David Fincher’s “The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button” (2008).

Both of those films, along with “Never Let Me Go” are meditations upon death, the act and art of dying and being conscious of the lives we lead, and the life around us during every moment we are allowed to breathe air, regard the clouds drifting through the sky or receiving a kiss from a treasured soul. And yet, there is also boiling anger underneath the surface as Romanek explores the inhumanity of society through its exploitation and rape of the young for the supposed betterment of humanity as a whole. It argues at what cost would we want to cure the world’s worst diseases once and for all. There has been some criticism that Romanek keeps a certain emotional distance from the material making for a film that is decidedly chilly. Maybe so. But for me, the lack of hyperbolic displays worked in favor of the story and film’s themes. And I have to say that when certain hyperbolic moments do finally arrive, they will crush you.

Keira Knightly is an actress I have never been too terribly fond of as I have not been a fan of the Director Gore Verbinski’s “Pirates Of The Caribbean” trilogy and Director Tony Scott’s “Domino” (2005) was a misfire of criminally bombastic proportions. Yet within “Never Let Me Go,” her piercing gaze and pitch black hair affords Knightly a tempestuous dark allure that makes her an excellent source of attraction for the awkward Tommy. In the film's later portions, her shockingly skeletal frame physically embodies the aforementioned fragility of the story and landscape as a whole, bringing the tale to its proper devastation.

Andrew Garfield is quickly becoming a young actor to keep intense eyes upon as he has appeared in Director Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus” (2009) and can also be currently seen in David Fincher’s “The Social Network.” In “Never Let Me Go,” he is nearly unrecognizable in regards to those two previous roles and it was indeed very late in the film when I realized exactly who he was. With his performance as Tommy, he resembles a classic schoolyard misfit combined with a “little boy lost.” With his fractured phrasings, he sometimes seems to suggest a person whose mind is not fully plugged into his surroundings but perhaps he knows and understands more than he lets on or even realizes himself. His equally emaciated frame works as equally as Knightly’s in regards to the tenuous hold the three characters have over their world and situations. And by the film’s later passages, Garfield hits notes that cut to the bone.

Carey Mulligan fulfills the promise of her work in Director Lone Scherfig’s “An Education” (2009) by delivering a rich and heartbreaking piece of work as the story narrator, and ultimate chronicler of the human soul. She conveys utter intelligence, maturity and bottomless sensitivity through a sheer economy of words, mannerisms and emotions while entirely giving us the fullness of life within the character of Kathy H. Her transition into the adult character is absolutely seamless from the work presented by the brilliantly cast younger actress and Mulligan's skill in "Never Let Me Go" shows exactly what I was speaking of with her wasted opportunity of a role in Oliver Stone’s recent “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” Romanek figured out exactly how to utilize an actress of this level of talent and it is a gift for us in the audience to watch and become a part of this world through her soulful eyes.

“Never Let Me Go” is not an instant gratification film. It is not a film guaranteed to gather noticeable press. It is not designed to make $200 million dollars within the first ten days of its theatrical release. You will not be bombarded with television advertisements promoting it every few minutes on channel after channel. There is nothing about it that can be defined as “in your face.” In fact, if I have even persuaded some of you to seek out this movie, you may find yourself wondering, for much of its running time, just what it was that I have been going on and on about. So many times, it is that very lack of forceful notice that simultaneously gives a story its power and also makes a film of this nature fall through the cracks. Dear readers, I am passionately recommending this film to you. I really believe that it is one of the best films I have seen so far this year. Because of that, I feel obligated to encourage you as best as I am able to see this seemingly unassuming film.

I know that so many of you just want to be entertained when you take your valuable time and hard earned money out to the movie theater and I do the very same thing as well. As I look upon my favorite films of the year so far, which include titles like “How To Train Your Dragon,” “Easy A,” “Scott Pilgrim VS. The World” and my favorite remaining the aforementioned “Inception,” I would think that goes to show just how much I do love being entertained. But, sometimes, I just think we owe it to ourselves and to the artists in front of the camera and behind the scenes to support what they do, especially when it is performed to the caliber presented in “Never Let Me Go.” Sometimes movies are about so much more than just being entertaining. Sometimes it’s great to seek out something we just may need instead of something we simply want. And who knows, perhaps that need is what we wanted all along in the first place.

Most of all, when we have the chance to see films as humane as "Never Let Me Go" in our increasingly cynical, post-ironic and emotionally detached world, I think we should take it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

SAVAGE CINEMA'S BURIED TREASURE #6: "MANHUNTER" (1986)

"MANHUNTER" (1986)
Based upon the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
Written for the Screen and Directed by Michael Mann

I think that Director Jonathan Demme’s iconic psychological serial killer epic “The Silence Of The Lambs” (1991) is extremely over-rated.

Yup, I said it. And as you can now see with utmost certainty, I even published this thought as well! Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I think it is a bad movie at all. I do think that it is indeed a good one…but, defiantly, boldly, I still say that it is not a great one. I just believe that the extreme acclaim that film has received, especially during its sweep of the Academy Awards where it won Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, was staggeringly overdone. Its ensuing legacy is one that continues to confound me.

When “The Silence Of The Lambs” was released, I was in college. I ventured out to the classic Orpheum theater on State Street, along with seemingly all of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s student population, to see what had already been receiving enormous critical acclaim. Upon exiting, seeing friends over that weekend and then, reuniting with class acquaintances the next week, the response to the film appeared to be unanimously rapturous. I even had one close friend at the time who saw the film nine times as it was an experience she could not get enough of. Yes, “The Silence Of The Lambs” did hit nearly all of the correct pressure points for me as it was undeniably an extremely disturbing film. But, something just kept me at arms length overall. It was not necessarily the graphic violence or the amount of sheer terror on display that made me resist this film—although an aspect of that did come into play. I think what bothered me most about the film was probably what may be largest “elephant in the room” and that particular elephant was Anthony Hopkins.

Now while I do not think that Hopkins delivered anything resembling a bad performance, it kept striking me as overdone and even worse, it felt to be an uninspired and completely derivative performance. For something that was being so universally praised and has endured as one of the greatest screen villains of all time, I kept crying false at what I was watching. I felt that I had seen it all before and performed much more effectively. I even felt a strange sense of empathetic jealousy as Hopkins was reaping the rewards that I felt another actor deserved. The actor in question is named Brian Cox and he was the very first actor to portray the diabolical Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (note the different spelling of the surname) in Writer/Director Michael Mann’s stylishly stunning thriller, “Manhunter.”

Released during the summer of 1986, “Manhunter” received its fair share of critical acclaim but was ultimately met with indifference at the box office and now rests in a certain level of obscurity, even for a director of Mann’s stature. However, I contend that “Manhunter,” which contains a riveting performance by Brian Cox (more on that later), is twice the film that “The Silence Of The Lambs” is considered to be and this Halloween, as you begin to seek out scary movies for home viewing, I am excited to point you in the direction of this supremely haunting film.

“Manhunter” stars William Petersen from television’s “C.S.I.” and Director William Friedkin’s savagely brutal cop thriller “To Live And Die In L.A.” (1985) as former FBI forensics detective Will Graham, who has retired from duty to carve out a new, quiet existence in Florida with his wife (Kim Griest) and young son. One day, Graham is visited by his former superior Jack Crawford (the great Mann regular, Dennis Farina) in regards to a recent string of vicious serial murders of entire families that occur during the lunar cycle and bite marks are left upon victims. The crimes are being committed by a suspect the press has named “The Tooth Fairy.” Crawford, aware of Graham’s unparalleled skill as a profiler requests that Graham return to duty for this one particular case. Graham initially refuses as his previous and final case nearly rendered him incapacitated: the hunting and capture of Dr. Hannibal Lecktor.

While Graham is trepidatious to return to the field, he eventually acquiesces and begins his search for “The Tooth Fairy” by facing down the imprisoned Dr. Lecktor for advice and counsel. Lecktor, seemingly unsurprised to receive this visit is only too willing to continue the horrific mind games that almost permanently disabled Graham during an intense reunion. “How did you catch me?” asks Lecktor slyly. Deftly attempting to maintain the upper hand, Graham remarks that the task was completed to due to Lecktor’s “disadvantages.” When asked exactly of which disadvantages to which Graham is referring, Graham tensely answers, “You’re insane.”

Meanwhile, the reticent and elusive Francis Dollarhyde (an almost unearthly Tom Noonan), the man behind the killings, is caught in a psychological and emotional quandary as he develops a crush upon blind co-worker Reba McLane (the elegant Joan Allen), who continuously shows him a level of kindness of which he is extremely unaccustomed. The remainder of “Manhunter” consists of the inevitable convergence of Graham and Dollarhyde, which builds force and urgency as the lunar cycle develops and tempts to unleash Dollarhyde’s demonic impulses once again.

“Manhunter” is an atmospheric masterpiece of creeping tension and near crippling internal crisis. The film contains all of Mann’s directorial trademarks from the sophisticated dark cinematography and set design, evocative rock and electronic music score, and a hypnotically deliberate pace, which are all filtered through Mann’s notoriously meticulous attention to detail. The film contains spellbinding imagery (Lecktor's cell, the image of a sleeping tiger, for starters) that has remained firm in my cinematic brain for almost 25 years. You will also find quietly intense performances from the entire cast, which also features Stephen Lang (currently seen as the jingoistic and bulked up military Colonel in “Avatar” as well as a smaller role in Mann’s “Public Enemies”) as a pesky journalist who turns up on the wrong end of Dollarhyde’s most horrific impulses in a sequence that is the definition of a nightmare. All of the simmering tension boils to an swiftly brutal and excellent climax set to Iron Butterfly’s hallucinogenic rock classic “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.“

With the grim subject matter and action sequences, another tactic I appreciated tremendously from Mann is his use of actual restraint as there is actually not much on screen violence in this film. In fact, “Manhunter” is a film about the physical and psychological aftermath of unspeakable and graphic violence and the characters’ relationship with that violence. One of the very best scenes in the film is a quiet discussion, held between Graham and his son in a grocery store, about Graham’s career, responsibility and the nature of good and evil. It is simple, direct, honest and refreshingly unsentimental.

Also, “Manhunter” is another of Mann’s explorations of troubled men and their obsessive relationships with their work, be it crime fighting or murder. In Mann’s oeuvre, every job has a lugubrious process and sequence that the characters seem to be fated. With “Manhunter” and the characters of Graham and Dollarhyde, these men are no exceptions as the film works effectively as a portrait of two tortured men who are both battling to not be consumed by their deepest fears and failings. Dollarhyde’s intense inner struggle with his impulses as he is building an attraction to Rose works brilliantly in conjunction with Graham who is desperately trying to hold onto his sanity in a precarious career that he cannot seem to walk away from. This dance makes for a great duet of a character study to which Mann’s focus is riveted and also does not allow the film to disintegrate into a tasteless goon show.

And now, I must return to the performance of Brian Cox. As so many film-goers over the years have attested to Sean Connery being the only James Bond, for me, I have to say that Cox is the only Dr. Hannibal Lecktor. In regards to Hopkins, I felt as if I was always seeing the acting, that he was obviously dressed in costume to playing a part. Hopkins is an actor I have long admired yet for this particular role, I thought that I was always aware of the wizard behind the curtain.

Cox, on the other hand, IS Dr. Hannibal Lecktor! His connection to the character and thus, his connection to the audience is instantaneous. As he sits, comfortably imprisoned in an endlessly white colored cell and dressed in equally white prison fatigues, he is a picture of formidable insidiousness. It is as if he is a giant spider patiently waiting for his prized fly-Will Graham-to return, knowing full well that one day they will meet again. He is charming, fastidious, somewhat effete and even jadedly distracted, completely deflecting the mounting danger of the killings Graham hopes to solve. His non-chalance is deeply and brilliantly unsettling. When he coldly taunts Graham with the seemingly simple question, “Dream much, Will?” it sent a chill through me that I still felt which watching “The Silence Of The Lambs” and even now, as I recall the sequence. And frankly, it was a chill Hopkins never ever reached for me.

Cox is extremely aided by Mann’s storytelling genius as he decides to NOT reveal key information behind Graham and Lecktor’s relationship. We never learn what exactly led to Lecktor’s capture or what brutal damage Lecktor inflicted upon Graham that led him to retire. “Manhunter” never even makes mention of Lecktor being a cannibal. Cox’s performance is nothing less than an embodiment of evil, (much like Javier Bardem's ruthless and mostly silent performance in the Coen brothers' "No Country For Old Men" from 2007) which is all the more impressive as Cox’s screen time must be less than 15 minutes of a two hour film. Yes, I do believe that Dr. Hannibal Lecktor is one of cinema’s greatest villains but not in the performance delivered by Anthony Hopkins. It is amazing how much was accomplished with so little and if you do take the plunge and seek out this film, I hope you will be able to fully appreciate the excellence and influence of Brian Cox’s masterful performance.

So, why was this film not a box office hit? No one will ever really know the reasons why some films strike box office gold over others but in this case, the studio behind “Manhunter” did nothing to assist its lucrative goals. While the film was released at the height of Michael Mann’s hit television series, “Miami Vice” and the noir-ish “Crime Story,” the film was given a non-descript and generic title that definitely made it sound as if it were nothing less than type of “B movie” that would nowadays be an unnoticed direct-to-DVD release. While Mann did shoot the film under the original title of “Red Dragon,” the studio forced him to change the title, fearing audiences would think it was a martial arts film or even more ridiculous, would confuse it with the then recent box office bomb, Director Michael Cimino’s crime thriller “Year Of The Dragon” (1985).

But what a difference a box office smash makes as film studios, eager for a piece of the “Hannibal Lector Pie,” made not one but two sequels starring Hopkins-Director Ridley Scott's 2001’s “Hannibal" and most criminally, Director Brett Ratner’s 2002 remake of “Manhunter” under the original title of “Red Dragon”-and one poorly received prequel film without Hopkins.

For now, I point you to the original and one of Michael Mann's finest films. “Manhunter” is an intoxicating bad dream of a movie at its most compelling and mesmerizing. I am thrilled to recommend a great film to you that will certainly burrow under your skin and refuse to let you go during this Halloween season.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

EVERYTHING IS KUNG FU...EXCEPT IN THIS MOVIE: a review of "The Karate Kid"

"THE KARATE KID"
Screenplay Written by Christopher Murphey
Based upon "The Karate Kid" (1984) Screenplay Written by Robert Mark Kamen
Directed by Harald Zwart
** (two stars)

Forgive me for the title of this review but I could not resist.

The entire idea of remakes is a tricky one and at times, it is an idea that is difficult to defend. On one hand, it can completely illustrate the lack of originality that Hollywood has often, and rightly, been criticized of. But then, there is this following point to be made...I don’t believe that remakes, as a rule, are invalid. I mean, for an example, should Shakespeare's plays have only been performed once? Sometimes, within remakes, art is prevalent in ways that perhaps the original did not present. Or there are eternal themes within the original source material that warrant a revisiting for current generations, audiences or even differing cultures.

That said, if one were to remake a previously produced work, there is the grand matter of what exactly to remake. With regards to movies, many critics and viewers, including myself, have typically felt that perhaps the best choices one could have for remaking a film is to take a movie that wasn’t very good in the first place or at least, mediocre at best. Why for any reason at all would anyone bother to touch the greats?

In the case of this summer’s remake of “The Karate Kid,” Directed by Harald Zwart, I initially felt myself to be resistant to a vehement degree. It was a film that seemed to be completely unnecessary as the original 1984 film starring Ralph Macchio, Elisabeth Shue and Noriyuki “Pat” Morita as the iconic Mr. Miyagi was a massive box office hit that earned significant critical acclaim, Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations, and even spawned three sequels (although the less said about those, the better). The point is that the original version is not an obscure feature and I could not see how they could actually improve upon something that was already so beloved. Also it is not as if the film has vanished from the face of the Earth so a new one just had to be made to take its place. I could not fathom that aside from the film studio’s bottom line, what reason there could have been to remake this film at all. Now having seen the new version, I have to admit that while Zwart did indeed craft a film that is better than it really has any right to be, this version is unfortunately an overlong, sluggishly paced affair that will do nothing to erase the vividly grand memories of the original film.

The basic plot elements from the 1984 original have carried themselves over to the 2010 remake. Jaden Smith stars as twelve-year-old Dre Parker, who moves to Beijing from Detroit with his Mother, Sherry Parker (Taraji P. Henson) after she has been transferred through her auto industry employment. Upon his arrival in Beijing, Dre quickly develops a crush upon Mei Ying (an absolutely adorable Wen Wen Han), a young violinist and runs afoul of her family friend, neighborhood bully and kung fu prodigy Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), who publicly beats him and continuously harasses him in school. After a moment of retaliation and a speedy foot chase through the streets, Dre is rescued from a pummeling by Cheng and his gang by Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the enigmatic and quiet maintenance man of Dre’s apartment building. Once Mr. Han and Dre unsuccessfully attempt to peacefully arrange a truce with Cheng and his sadistic kung fun instructor Master Li (Yu Rongguang), Mr. Han offers to personally teach Dre the ways of kung fu so he will be able to compete against Li’s students in an upcoming tournament. Master Li agrees to the challenge and Mr. Han and Dre begin the arduous training process where a new friendship and understanding is born between the two unlikely soulmates.

In addition to the plot similarities, the themes of the original version are effectively contained in Zwart’s version of “The Karate Kid” as well. Ample time is ensuring that messages of honor, developing one's focus, the building of outer and inner strength, maintaining resolve in the face of unrelenting adversity, patience, discipline and the utilization of the martial arts as a guiding life force instead of as a violent tool are all intact and conveyed clearly. The relationship between Dre and Mr. Han also closely mirrors the relationship of the original film’s Daniel and Mr. Miyagi as both figures become surrogate family members for each other, healing the pain caused by the deaths of Fathers, wives and children. And the final battle, where Dre faces off with various members of Master Li’s students and leading up to the inevitable face off between himself and Cheng, is note for note from the original.

Yet, there are some (minor) changes to be had, in order to try and make this new version somehow and somewhat stand on its own. The change in location from the original’s California to China, almost makes this new film version a hybrid of the original film and "The Karate Kid Part II" (1986), which was set in Okinawa. The locations and cinematography give the film a grand epic sweep and stunning visual presentation. The iconic instructional command of “Wax On/Wax Off” has been replaced with a curt “Jacket On/Jacket Off,” which is in reference to Dre’s habitual insolence regarding the hanging up of his jacket.

All of this is handled fairly well, yet it is a film that could have utilized a major amount of tightening as it runs a very long two hours and twenty minutes for no apparent reason. Another issue I had with the film is the staging of the fight sequences, which I felt were poorly handled. As with the action sequences of Director Paul Greengrass’ “The Bourne Supremacy” (2004) and “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007), Zwart's fight scenes all exhibit the heavily edited and hyperkinetic style of current combat cinematography where the camera is turbulently placed in close-ups. This is a technique of modern cinema that I just cannot stand as it robs the viewer of seeing the fullness of the meticulous martial arts choreography or even being able to follow the story of the fights. Think of the fight sequences of The Wachowski Brothers’ “Matrix” trilogy or Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) or Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” series or perhaps as a better comparison, Jackie Chan’s own filmography. All of those selections celebrate the body, the athleticism, the musicality, the grace and fury of the martial arts that nearly always makes for exhilarating viewing. Yet, with “The Karate Kid,” it was a creative misstep that often proved to be frustrating.

And then, the casting of Jaden Smith and the character of Dre Parker was, sadly, a major obstacle. Now don’t worry, dear readers, I am certainly not going to verbally insult or beat up on this child. To be fair, Jaden Smith is a very handsome child actor that the camera obviously loves. The physical nature of his casting, with his thin frame and slightly shorter stature in comparison to his child cast mates works extremely well to set up the dilemma the character of Dre Parker faces in regards to schoolyard bullying and the mounting pressure of feeling afraid and conquering those fears. The problem is that Smith is just not much of an actor yet and perhaps having him carry an entire feature, where is on screen for most of its aforementioned mammoth running time, is unfair. Of course, there is a certain appeal to his rawness. However, he just does not have the range and depth of emotions at his disposal just yet and his considerable natural charm just is not enough. He carries the same sleepy eyed expression on his face from one end of the film to another and it does nothing to embody the soulfulness of a character who, as written, is often an insufferable lazy brat.

That weakness also damages the central relationship of the film between himself and Mr. Han. I just didn’t see much chemistry between Smith and Jackie Chan, who does pull off some nice work in a more nuanced role. Also, the past tragedy of Mr. Han while not a surprise at all, is not revealed that well, making what could have been a scene of heartbreak into a scene of shameless Oscar bait. All of these criticisms and the feeling I had while watching goes straight to the core of why I was so apprehensive about this film in the first place.

The elephant in the room as far as “The Karate Kid” is concerned, is, again, the reason why they made this film at all. I wish I knew exactly what it was that made the studio, Zwart and film producers Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith decide that something so celebrated needed a touch-up. Does Jaden Smith really desire an acting career in film or was this movie just the type of extravagant gift from parents to children that only exists in the Hollywood dream factory? Again and again, I ask: What was the purpose? Yes, it is entertaining. Yes, it is well-made and handsomely produced. Yes, every penny seems to be placed upon the screen. There are no bad performances and everyone seems to be having a good time and working to the best of their abilities in the process. But is all of that good enough to necessitate a remake?

Not much was added to make the film unique and all of the exquisite grace notes of the original film were just not anywhere to be seen. Going back to the title of this review for a moment. During one of the many training sequences in the film where Mr. Han is attempting to have Dre find his chi, he explains tenderly and with gravity that kung fu exists in all of the world, all of the time and in everything we perform. I thought about that as I watched and remembered the 1984 original.

Now, truth be told, I have not seen the original version of “The Karate Kid” in over 25 years and I will concede to the possibility that if I were to watch it today, I may see the cracks that I did not see when I was 15 years old. But, what I do remember, as clear as any moment or memory of this very day, was how that original film made me feel as I watched. The direct, accessible storytelling merged with the wonderful imagery, the pulsing emotional connection between Daniel and Mr. Miyagi and exciting fight sequences created a film experience for me that I just have not forgotten. Additionally, the exuberant emotional release I felt upon the conclusion was as rousing a moment in cinema as I have seen in any movie. Those feelings were, in essence, the kung fu of the original film.

With this particular remake, with all of its talk and energy devoted to bestowing the mysteries and importance of kung fu, it is just disheartening that the final result contained not nearly enough of it. And while I know this was a gigantic box office hit this summer, I have a feeling that the only real cheering of excitement to be heard was from the mouths of the studio bean counters and executives who orchestrated this needless filmed deal.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

iLIKE! iLIKE! iLIKE!: a review of "The Social Network"

Dedicated to MacKenzie Meitner, a beautiful real world friend who introduced me to Facebook and became my first virtual friend.

"THE SOCIAL NETWORK"
Screenplay Written by Aaron Sorkin
Based upon The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich
Directed by David Fincher

**** (four stars)

In my previous and lukewarm review of Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” I remarked upon how I felt Stone may have been trying too hard to create a piece of work that would essentially stand as the defining film depicting this moment in time in our collective history. To me, I strongly feel that to obtain that level of status, it must be arrived at in an organic way and without the neon signs announcing that this film you are watching is “IMPORTANT!!” Somehow, through the weavings of cinematic skill and magic, it sort of has to sneak up on you.

Last year, I awarded Writer/Director Jason Reitman’s “Up In the Air” as not only the finest film of the year but precisely the type of film future generations could point to as representative of a particular time and place. If you wanted to know what life was like in 2009, then that particular movie would handle the task efficiently in regards to personal motivations, cultural and sexual attitudes, and of course our technological disconnect as we are all able to connect with anyone in the world at any time. Director David Fincher’s latest work, “The Social network,” has long been touted as “The Facebook Movie,” as it revolves around the creation of the global internet sensation and the personalities involved. Yet like “Up In the Air,” and unlike “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” Fincher’s dark epic sneaks up on you. What begins and may seem to exist as a behind the scenes docudrama unfolds and reveals itself to possessing profoundly higher ambitions. By the conclusion, “The Social Network” finally arrives as not only one of 2010’s best films but as one of those rare works that indeed defines a generation.

Structured as a hybrid between a Rashomon styled series of court depositions by Zuckerberg’s detractors and Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (1941), “The Social Network” charts the creation of the massively successful internet social network Facebook by Harvard University student and technological wizard Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg). As the film opens, we witness Zuckerberg and his girlfriend Emily Albright (Roomey Mara) engaged in a whirlwind and heated verbal duel while seated at a crowded college bar with the music of The White Stripes blaring in the background. The date ends badly as the culturally, intelligently and sexually insulted Emily dumps a bewildered Zuckerberg, who then petulantly and drunkenly returns to his Harvard dorm and begins to brutally lambaste Emily on his personal blogsite. And then, he goes an extra, sadistic and illegal step. Zuckerberg quickly hacks into the Harvard University student profile websites for each particular house and creates a new site where visitors can vote on the attractiveness factor between the college women they all know. Within two hours of its creation, Zuckerberg’s site receives an unprecedented 22, 000 hits, thus crashing the University internet system.

While this act of cruelty awards Zuckerberg with a six month academic probation, he is also handed the golden goose of fame and notoriety. Twin brother Harvard students and crew team members Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both brilliantly played by Armie Hammer), upon learning of Zuckerberg’s technological feat approach him with a proposal: to join them in a potentially revolutionary social networking system, with exclusivity to Harvard students called “The Harvard Connection.” Zuckerberg agrees yet shortly after that fateful meeting, he approaches his only friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) with a new idea to create a social networking tool entitled, “The Facebook,” also exclusive only to Harvard students. Eduardo, liking the idea, agrees to put up the $1000 seed money to get Zuckerberg started and its off to the races.

As Zuckerberg feverishly creates The Facebook, he begins to dodge all calls, texts and inquiries from the Winklevoss twins and their classmate/benefactor Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) and before the threesome even realize what has hit them, The Facebook has gone live and already has gathered momentum. As Divya and the Winklevoss twins gather up resources to eventually sue Zuckerberg for intellectual property theft, Zuckerberg and Eduardo have spread The Facebook all the way to the California universities, eventually catching the attention of Sean Parker (an outstanding Justin Timberlake), self described entrepreneur and creator of Napster.

My praise for ”The Social Network” cannot be strong enough as it is an extraordinarily involving, intense internal drama that belies any notions of superficiality or frivolity. For those of you out there in cyberspace who have been either skeptical or even dismissive of what has been touted as “The Facebook Movie,” I urge you to look past your prejudices and view a demanding and rewarding work presented by the most serious guiding hand of Director David Fincher, who has helmed no less than "Se7en" (1995), "Fight Club" (1999) and "Panic Room" (2002) among others. The sumptuous production design, moody atmospherics, and meticulous eye for detail, all Fincher trademarks, are entirely on display with his latest film. Fincher is greatly aided by Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor and his collaborator Atticus Ross as their brooding and pulsating debut film score anchors the dread underneath the dealings. Further special mentions must be made to Fincher’s mind blowing and seamless usage of special effects technology, which is merged with the terrific performance of Armie Hammer as BOTH of the Winklevoss twins. You will never see the strings behind the scenes or even notice them at all.

Admittedly, one thing Fincher has not been noted for is his brisk pacing as his films actually move along at a deliberate slower rhythm. This was especially evident during his previous film, the mournfully gorgeous “The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button” (2008), a film completely about the magic contained within mere moments of a life yet did indeed move at a glacier’s pace. For “The Social Network,” Fincher has joined forces with the masterful writer Aaron Sorkin, known for his voluminous amounts of dialogue delivered at the pace of classic Howard Hawks films. The pairing of the two creative forces is perfection as Sorkin’s screenplay forces Fincher to ratchet up his rhythms making for a film where every moment is up to the minute and immediate, something Oliver Stone lacked with “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” “The Social Network” is filled top to bottom with verbal passages that move with the warp speed velocity of a hurricane and demand you pay strict attention. It is accelerated dialogue for an accelerated time.

“The Social Network” is also fascinating as it is a college set movie where academia is irrelevant and the status of Harvard is the sole key into a new world. Part of the bleak joy of this intensely involving movie is to witness how all of these characters converge, deal with each other and treat each other as chess board pieces. We see how callous they are and how the ruthless rules of business and potential fame and fortune transcends levels of simply human decency, honor and friendship. It is as if we are placed into a world where such things do not exist. Every character’s move is a power play, common decency and general respect for others be damned. Again, the up to the minute corporate dealings depicted in ”The Social Network” are pitched at the exact and aggressive savagery that should have been on display during “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” (I apologize for the continuous comparisons to the “Wall Street” sequel but as both films share similar themes and the fact that I saw both films within one day of each other, the comparisons seems fair.)

Jesse Eisenberg, from Writer/Director Noah Baumbach’s divorce film “The Squid and the Whale” (2005) and Writer/Director Greg Mattola’s bittersweet post-college comedy “Adventureland” (2009), gives an internally blistering performance as Mark Zuckerberg, who is depicted as an enigmatic, misanthropic megalomaniac. He is the smartest man in the room and knows it deeply. He carries a seething cauldron of rage and envy for those he deems inferior as well as those who carry an access to a world which he has been denied. There is racial and class warfare in his dealings as he is a young Jewish man railing against the entrenched and elitist WASP community and all it stands for. His obvious contempt is evident is every scene and even his jealousy towards his only friend Eduardo, who has been invited to join Phoenix-an exclusive Harvard club that eventually functions as a gateway to a loftier world-is nasty, to say the least. Just watch his owl or hawk like eyes as they always seems to be looking through a person rather than at them. Seeing how his mind operates is deeply involving and somehow keeps you from hurling your concessions at the screen as you do want to throttle him. He is precisely the little bastard in Middle school who could fix the Rubik’s cube in under one minute, making everyone else wallow in stupidity…and now the little bastard is a billionaire.

Mark Zuckerberg is also a morass of contradictions, the largest being that he is the creator of a network that allows individuals to create and reunite with friends yet within his personal life, he coldly sells out his only friend who subsequently sues him. His only real confidant is Sean Parker who despite having a similar business outlook in comparison to Eduardo’s more traditional pathways, Parker is nothing more than a slick sycophant. The more I think about him, Mark Zuckerberg seems to be a more sinister version of the video game obsessed and EXTREME narcissist Scott Pilgrim from this summer’s “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” as both characters are cut from the similar cloth. (Which is funny as Eisenberg is sometimes mistaken for Michael Cera due to their similar appearances and acting styles.)

In many ways, “The Social Network” is not really a film about Facebook. Yet, Facebook, with its 500 million users worldwide, is the 600 pound gorilla in the room. So, the film’s depiction of Facebook’s creation is utilized as a catalyst to explore much wider territory, eventually arriving at that cultural touchstone status, I mentioned at this review’s outset. It is marking a pinpoint on this stage in our cultural evolution as the film stands as a exploration of our level and deeply rooted desire for fame, notoriety as well as a generational and unprecedented sense of entitlement. It is a world where accountability is non-existent yet everyone demands the credit and exclusive rights. Most specifically, “The Social Network” is a film about all of us as much as it is about Zuckerberg and his cronies.

Mark Zuckerberg is ruthless, to be sure but he is also the man who is most alone, even when surrounded within a crowded room. Loneliness is at his core. Zuckerberg’s only sense of vulnerability is evidenced through his seldom reunions with Emily Albright after their breakup as her rejections tend to simultaneously confound and fuel him. She is not buying anything he’s selling no matter what it is or how brilliantly conceived and produced. Roomey Mara (soon to be seen as Lisbeth Salander in Fincher’s adaptation of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”) gives a stirring performance that goes far beyond simply functioning as the film’s moral conscience and only in a scant number of scenes. Emily Albright (and even Eduardo Saverin, for that matter) strongly represent examples of the sense of humanity we are losing in our increased technological age.

Emily, in particular, is Zuckerberg’s “Achilles’ heel” or better yet, his “Rosebud” as she curtly expresses the far reaching consequences that stem from his heartless irresponsibility and continuously refuses his subsequent apologies. “You didn’t write it in pencil!” she exclaims to him in regards to his initial on-line rant that criticized everything about Emily from her family, background, education and even bra size. This aspect of “The Social Network” is something that carries even more weight with news of the recent tragedy of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide after images of a homosexual tryst with a man was secretly videotaped and streamed on-line, on our airwaves. Yet another, immediate, up to the minute aspect the filmmakers could not have planned for whatsoever but an element that immediately sprung to my mind as I watched.

The emotional push-pull of being accepted and rejected is the soul of this film and even asks of us, exactly why any of us utilize Facebook, You Tube, MySpace or any other social sharing media at all. What is this need to interpersonally share through means of electronics instead of human contact? What is behind our primal need for acceptance, approval, understanding, empathy, and validation? What lies underneath our constant need to be heard in a world where everyone carries a loud voice? What is this even deeper need of acceptance or desiring an individualized carved out place in the cyber-universe?

I have to announce that I have loved Facebook ever since I was invited to join by a lovely friend and co-worker. When I received the e-mail notification, I had a barely used MySpace account and had not even heard of Facebook. By the time I eventually signed up, I became fascinated and addicted to the possibilities, the connections and re-connections I have been able to make, the immediacy of those connections and yes, the ability to create a virtual space, that was all my own and could potentially be whatever I wanted it to become. The existence of Savage Cinema is especially an extension of myself through cyberspace as well as my desires for acceptance and validation. For those of you who happen to be part of the Facebook world, how many times during a day do you check your status, change your status and wonder if your messages to the void are being received? Has anyone “liked” what you have had to say? And how does it make you feel when some does “like” your status or when it has seemingly gone ignored?

“The Social Network” remarkably has its virtual finger on the pulse of this moment and it questions if this level of instant gratification is healthy or harmful in our current society. What is Zuckerberg, or any of us, trying to reach and what are we all motivated by? For Zuckerberg, is it really just an endless wrath at the world or it is the hope to one day and finally be accepted by the one who rejected him? What are we all reaching for, hoping to connect with and/or to whom?

David Fincher’s “The Social Network” profoundly gripped me with its highly entertaining style and tremendous subject matter and substance. I strongly urge you to head out to your local cinemas and "accept" this masterful work as it functions as nothing less than a generational state of the union address and also as a generational warning.

Let us use our social networks wisely...

Friday, October 1, 2010

SAVAGE CINEMA'S COMING ATTRACTIONS FOR OCTOBER 2010

We have entered a new season, dear readers, and I do not simply mean the autumnal one.

Typically beginning in September, movies that tend to be of a more adult nature, complete with more complex themes and characters start to make their arrival into our theaters. In most cases, this is also the point in the year where the overall quality within the output raises considerably. It is a complaint that I have held for years as I feel that great films should be spread throughout the year and not just saved for the final four months (strictly for Oscar considerations) and especially, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

But, I have to say that once I am in that darkened theater, experiencing high cinematic quality, my complaints diminish considerably.

For the month of October, I am itching, just itching, I tell you, to get myself to the movie theater to see "The Social Network,"the latest work from Director David Fincher and written by the masterful Aaron Sorkin.

On the horizon are the following new films...

1. "You Will Meet A Tall, Dark Stranger," from Writer/Director Woody Allen.

2. "Never Let Me Go," Director Mark Romanek's adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel.

3. Master filmmaker Clint Eastwood continues his prolific streak with the spiritually driven drama, "Hereafter" starring Matt Damon.

4. There's even "The Girl Who Kicked The Hornest's Nest," the final installment of the Swedish film adaptations of Stieg Larsson's "Millenium Trilogy."

5. I also plan to write a new installment of "Savage Cinema's Buried Treasure" spotlighting some chilling features just in time for Halloween.

Certainly release dates are always subject to change and the interference of life may slow me down from time to time, but that is my plan for myself and for you, dear readers.

I'll see you when the house lights go down...