Saturday, June 25, 2011


Written and Directed by Brian DePalma

By the time I was 10 years old, I had become a cinema enthusiast. I became so enamored and enthralled by the art and artistry of the movies that I just wanted to see anything and everything that I was able. Every film, whether I even understood it or not, became an essential piece or stepping stone of an on-going education that has ultimately sustained me throughout my life. By the time, I came to Writer/Director Brian DePalma’s psychological thriller “Blow Out," I thought myself to be mature enough to tackle a film created in decidedly darker thematic waters. As I think about it now, and although that film did prepare me for the films I would see in the future, I may have ultimately been wrong.

I say this because DePalma brought me into a world of such unrepentant luridness and non-empathy that it altered my perceptions of cinematic storytelling as well as the world at large. And then there was the film’s startling climax and ending to deal with. Director Milos Forman’s “Hair” (1978) was the first film I saw that gave me an “unhappy ending,” the kind of which that changes everything you had seen before and completely re-paints any ideas you had of what a film could be. The unforgiving final moments of “Blow Out” devastated and disturbed me to such a point that I actually never re-watched the film again until very recently.

For this edition of “Savage Cinema Revisits,” I would like to present and celebrate DePalma’s classic film which is arguably his finest work in a career that has seen him tackle a Stephen King adaptation (1976’s “Carrie”), various Hitchcock inspired thrillers (most notably 1980’s “Dressed To Kill”), wildly inventive gangster epics (1983’s “Scarface” and 1987’s “The Untouchables”), a Vietnam war film (1989’s “Casualties Of War”) and even one ahead of its time rock musical/horror film hybrid (1974’s “Phantom Of The Paradise”). While DePalma utilizes many of his trademark visual tricks of the trade from continuous long takes to clever usages of the split-screen that illustrates two completely different yet corresponding acts simultaneously, this time the visual razzle dazzle is not simply at the hand of pastiche or style for style's sake. For “Blow Out,” every cinematic technique is at the service of a story that, on the surface, appears to be nothing more than an adult themed, politically tinged pulse-pounder yet is actually a labyrinthine examination of movies, movie-making and the continuously blurring line between fantasy and reality.

A feverishy intense John Travolta stars in one of his finest performances as Jack Terry, a sound effects man toiling away his existence and talents for a series of nudie/slasher exploitation films. Late one night while recording sound effects for his latest movie project, Jack hears the sounds of a car barreling down the road, which is followed by what seems to be either the sound of a tire blowing out, a gunshot or perhaps even both. After the car crashes and submerges into the lake below, Jack dives in and rescues a young woman (Nancy Allen) trapped inside. Upon recuperation and police questioning at the hospital, Jack not only learns that the rescued woman is a prostitute named Sally Bedina but that there was a dead man in the car as well…Presidential Candidate George McRyan.

As Jack befriends Sally and replays the events of the night in his mind, he realizes that he just may have actually recorded no mere accident but a political assassination. Obsessively through his sound recordings and camera equipment at the film studio, Jack begins to piece together the fateful night and the closer he arrives to the truth, the greater his and Sally‘s lives continue to fall into perilous danger.

At its most basic level as an adult thriller, “Blow Out” operates at the very top of the line. Intricately plotted and executed with a complete arsenal of well-drawn characters and terrific performances (John Lithgow is especially chilling), Brian DePalma brings the paranoia to vivid and disquieting life. In many ways, “Blow Out” serves as a companion piece to Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” (1974) which also weaved a tale of paranoia, corruption and murder as filtered through audio technology combined with a potentially fractured mind.

Yet, it is that potentially fractured mind (or minds) in particular that I would like to concentrate on the most because DePalma is clearly attempting to send a message to the audience. “Blow Out” is essentially a movie about movies. Through this particular story, I think that he is exploring the character’s and our relationship with the movies and how a world of fantasy not only provides an escape from our daily lives but how those fantasies can shape and alter our daily lives, almost making one indistinguishable from the other. DePalma achieves this feat through a miraculous blending of storytelling and the cinematic tools of the trade, which achieves some stunning juxtapositions. In short, DePalma is deeply effective is having us become involved with a movie while always being aware that we are indeed watching a movie.

By making his lead character of Jack Terry a sound effects specialist and observing him reconstruct the scene of the crime through the usages of sound, we become as conscious of how sound is utilized in the movies just as intricately as he is. As Jack gathers his sound equipment to manufacture movie sound effects of wind, door creaks, and the like, we, the audience, also become acutely tuned into the fact that nearly every sound effect in “Blow Out” was most likely manufactured on some sound stage or recording studio somewhere in Hollywood. DePalma also cleverly enlists the usage of Composer Pino Donaggio’s film score to rework our cinematic senses. The music toys with our cemented notions of heroism, the “damsel in distress” and the “white knight” to the rescue only to completely pull the rug out from under us. Quite possibly, DePalma may even be toying with our perceptions and movie memories of some of the film’s actors, most notably Travolta himself. While I have no idea of knowing for certain, I could not help but to wonder if his underwater rescue of Nancy Allen’s character was a nod to a moment from “Grease” (1978)! Remember that one lyric from the song “Summer Nights”? “I saved her life/She nearly drowned…”

In “Blow Out,” we are consistently pulled out of the fantasy of the movie while we are simultaneously enveloped by that fantasy. The artifice and the truth of the filmmaking process have become completely intertwined as DePalma somehow and masterfully demystifies the movie making process while also upholding the magic of motion picture storytelling.

Yet, within the world of “Blow Out,” those same juxtapositions run even deeper. The look of the film is appropriately filthy. DePalma envisions a seedy and ugly world where political assassinations, police corruption, hookers, dirty movies, serial killers, lies and deceit rule the day. The virtuous and the crusaders never truly succeed, the innocent are murdered and the criminals almost always remain unscathed and unpunished. No wonder everyone seemingly wants to lose themselves in the fantasies and dreams of the movies.

Jack Terry is a wounded and haunted man who has retreated from the harsh realities of life into the illicit wonderland of the movies where crime and punishment is all make believe. I would hate to ruin the surprises contained in the film’s opening sequences but what I will divulge is that from the film’s outset, Jack is on the search for the perfect scream to be utilized for the climactic scream of the movie within “Blow Out.” But once the “real world” circumstances of the story require him to leave the fantasy world of the movies and re-engage with life and death reality, the two worlds actually converge instead of remaining on parallel lines. By the time we reach that aforementioned conclusion that shocked me so much and rattles me still, the lines have been irrevocably distorted. The film’s most agonizing sounds set in the real world are merged with the joyless fantasy of the movie within the movie, leaving Jack Terry broken, only being able to respond with crippling anguish.

In fact, as I ruminate, write about this film and even look at the still image I selected for this posting, I wonder an alternate title for this film could have been “The American Scream.” Although this film was released 30 years ago, the messages contained therein feel more than prevalent now, especially in our media obsessed, “reality” television popular culture where everyone is famous, more desensitized than ever and the lines of the real world and the fantasy world are increasingly interchangeable.

I highly recommend you seek out this movie through your movie renting sources, especially now as the spectacular Criterion Collection has just re-released “Blow Out” as a two disc set featuring new interviews with Brian DePalma, Nancy Allen plus other bells and whistles. But, the main event is the film itself, which feels like the final threads of the challenging, provocative cinema of the 1970s reaching through the screen. Films which often dealt with themes of voyeurism, conspiracies, political anxieties, tortuously intricate corruption and the fragility of the truth.

Yet, no matter the decade, with "Blow Out," Brian DePalma delivers the goods artfully, brilliantly and murderously.

VROOM VROOM: a review of "Cars 2"

“CARS 2”
A Pixar Animation Studios Film
Story by John Lasseter, Brad Lewis & Dan Fogelman
Screenplay Written by Ben Queen
Directed by John Lasseter with Brad Lewis
*** (three stars)

While nothing could keep from the release of a new film from the Pixar Animation studios, I have to admit that I was a bit less than enthused about seeing a sequel to “Cars” (2006). While that film certainly was not anything I would ever consider to be a bad movie, aside from its first third I found “Cars” to be woefully beneath the level of all of the other Pixar motion pictures. Look, dear readers, I can appreciate the messages of slowing down, smelling the roses, honoring friendships and interpersonal connection as much as anyone else but did it really have to be predictable slog through the simplest and most corn pone homilies of small town life that went out of the window with the likes of “Doc Hollywood” (1991)? Just when the film needed to find its emotional center, hone it and bring it to the surface in the same rapturous fashion that has been elicited in all of the other Pixar features, “Cars” just sat motionless. Lightning McQueen’s adventures, such as they were, in the mythical small town of Radiator Springs, felt like an interminable pit stop. The more I wanted him to leave the town, the longer he just stayed there and when he finally did leave, I just didn’t care what happened next.

Thankfully, “Cars 2” avoids such pitfalls by being consistently light on its feet and it moves at a much quicker pace than its predecessor. Additionally, as the arc of Lightning McQueen’s story has been essentially completed, Director John Lasseter wisely gave this sequel a jump start through a stylistic change by making this sequel more of a spy film as well as shifting the focus to the antics of the lovable misfit tow truck Tow Mater. While these changes have resulted with a film that I enjoyed considerably much more than the original and is a solid piece of entertainment overall, it unfortunately still falls far below Pixar’s best achievements. Even so, weaker Pixar is better than most of what is released in our theaters these days, especially films designed for and geared to children and families.

“Cars 2” opens in excellent style as we find ourselves in mid-adventure with super spy Aston Martin Finn McMissile (voiced by the inimitable Michael Caine), who is feverishly on the trail of the insidious Professor Zundapp (Thomas Kretschmann). As McMissile engages with his pursuit, we are also reunited with our heroes from the previous film as Lightning McQueen (again voiced by Owen Wilson) returns to Radiator Springs for summer vacation after winning his fourth Piston Cup race in a row.

After an afternoon of small town hijinks with Mater (Larry The Cable Guy), Lightning takes in an evening date with girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt), which the insecure Mater cannot help but to crash. While exiting to obtain beverages for his friends, Mater stumbles upon a television announcement of the new World Grand Prix, a race through Japan, Italy and England organized by former oil tycoon Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard) as a means to promote his new product of renewable energy. The televised special also features an interview with Italian racecar Francesco Bernoulli (a terrific John Tuturro) who openly taunts Lightning McQueen’s non-involvement with the race to the point where an angered Mater calls in to the live program and volunteers McQueen’s racing services. Lightning McQueen accepts the challenge and upon a suggestion from sally, he decides to allow Mater to tag along for the ride.

Upon arriving in Japan, the two storylines converge and collide as Mater is mistaken to be a super spy in deep, deep, deep, deep undercover by McMisile and his lovely assistant Holley Shiftwell (voiced warmly by the charming and raspy Emily Mortimer) and is subsequently recruited for their secret mission. Yet, most importantly to Mater, there is the issue of his treasured friendship with McQueen, which threatens to be irrevocably damaged due to all manner of Mater’s public faux pas that embarrass, irritate and anger McQueen and ultimately costs McQueen the first race of the World Grand Prix.

As with all of the other Pixar films, “Cars 2” is a dream to regard visually. It is a stunningly mounted production that again made me blink twice as I exited the movie theater, viewed all of the cars in the parking lot and jokingly wondered to myself just what they may have been talking about as their humans sat indoors. The racing sequences zoom across the screen with nearly psychedelic vibrancy and the locals of Japan, Italy, England and radiator Springs are designed and presented with immaculate and impeccable precision down to the smallest pebble of gravel. Eagle eyed viewers will also be able to spot meticulously placed visual references to past Pixar films (I saw two) as well, which does indeed add to the fun.

Conceptually, I do have to say that “Cars 2” is a very well executed spy film that is surprisingly complex and in many ways, this film was even better than many of the James Bond films that obviously inspired this project. I also really appreciated the environmental issues that were subversively inserted into the framework of the characters and storyline. And although there is much that I enjoyed about “Cars 2,” and again, I found it to be much more entertaining and satisfying than the original, it just didn’t send me to that place where Pixar transcends mere movies and becomes magic.

Frankly and overall, “Cars 2” feels like nothing more than an indulgence of John Lasseter’s gleeful gear head fantasies and more power to him as he is the head of Pixar and can do whatever he wants to do with his studio. In many respects, that sort of artistic self-indulgence is a quality that I admire greatly. But, again, it does allow for some people to potentially feel a bit left out of the proceedings…like myself. For whatever reasons and despite the glorious imagery these artists place into their films, I guess I just do not find cars, in and of themselves, to be compelling characters. At least, not as compelling as neurotic toys, showbiz insects, playful monsters, a perpetually fearful clownfish, a culinary rat, superhero families, lonely robots, and traveling octogenarians.

For much of their existence, Pixar has only had to compete against itself. But now, I am feeling that with films as extraordinary as last year’s “How To Train Your Dragon,” competition from other animation studios threaten to take their crown. Yet, this is the sort of competition that could spark true revolutionary works within the animation genre, with greatness arriving in surprising packages again and again. Somehow and for whatever reasons, Pixar is now spending its time with sequels…good sequels but sequels nonetheless. It is a decision that could begin to make Pixar seem as if they are beginning to tread water by revisiting familiar characters instead of unfurling tales to treasure. I guess I’m just nervous that Pixar is very slowly becoming safe and predictable when I would hope for them to keep pushing the boundaries of the genre as they have done so wondrously with films like “Ratatouille” (2007), “Wall-E” (2008) and “Up” (2009). Even the traditional short feature before “Cars 2” is another good but decidedly ho-hum return to the well as we receive another episode with Woody and Buzz.

As I said in my review of last year’s “Toy Story 3,” a film I found to be a hair overrated, the wizards and creative forces at Pixar have more than earned the right to kick back their heels a bit and just make an entertaining film for entertainment’s sake. But, for me and I would gather for many fans, the films in the Pixar catalog that have endured the greatest in our hearts have been the ones with the utmost depth and the furthest reach.

For all of its incredible sheen and technique, there was not terribly much at the core of “Cars 2” for me and it left me a little cold. There wasn’t that extra dimension that has made 10 of the features in Pixar’s oeuvre so memorable, designed to revisit again and again and for children to grow with instead of dispose of. Yes, we have Mater and McQueen’s friendship at the heart of the film but Pixar has handled this material often and much better. Yes, the messages of being yourself are more than worthwhile but the way it was presented felt to be a little trite when most of their films tend to be a tad more hard fought, challenging and sometimes wrenching and at other times, euphoric.

What else is “Finding Nemo” (2003) but an exploration of the deepest, darkest, primal fears of parenthood? Or “The Incredibles” (2004) as it explored a man’s mid-life crisis? Or “Ratatouille” as that film went so far as to explore the nature of art itself? Even last year’s “Toy Story 3,” despite some minor issues I had with it, delved artfully and even painfully into the cycle of life. “Cars 2” has nothing on its plate that is this provocative and I guess I missed that quality.

But as I have stated before, weaker Pixar features are still better than most films being released as the passion and artistry cannot be denied in any way. “Cars 2” is a good film, just not a great one. A shame for an animation studio that consistently releases great material.

I guess I’m just waiting for the creative artists of Pixar to blow me away again, something I am more than confident that they will achieve.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

THE MAJESTIC: a review of "The Tree Of Life"

Written and Directed by Terrence Malick
**** (four stars)

Although it is only the middle of June, I think I may have just witnessed the finest film of 2011.

Dear readers, I realize that statement may seem to some of you to be more than a bit premature. While we still have half of the cinematic year remaining, and I am more than certain that I will continue to see great films within all sorts, styles and genres, I highly doubt that I will see any other film that will demonstrate greater creative ambition or reach further and probe deeper than this astonishment.

Legendary Writer/Director Terrence Malick’s “The Tree Of Life,” only his 5th film in a career that spans nearly 40 years, is a work that left me in a silent and awestruck meditative state long after the end credit scroll, throughout the remainder of my day afterwards and long into late night hours as I sit here and write. I have continuously wondered to myself just how does anyone conceive of a project such as this one and how on earth would you even begin to construct it, to organize it, to make it pulsate and resonate to such a supremely emotional degree.

Every once in a lengthy while, I will see a film that feels to be a bit ahead of the curve. Something that feels to be out of time with everything else being released alongside of it, especially in our increasingly homogenized times as cinematic risks are fewer and fewer. Every once in a great while I will see the very type of film that forces you and me to alter our perceptions of what exactly a motion picture can actually be. In very recent years, I had this feeling when I saw Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There” (2007), Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” (2007) and Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” (2008). “The Tree Of Life” is a masterpiece that defies classification in much of what we already know and understand about movies. And yet, this is not a self-indulgent exercise in grand style, as Malick has created a stirring film that speaks directly and emphatically to the soul. “The Tree Of Life” is a film proudly announcing itself of its arrival at your movie theaters and whether you love it or hate it or just find yourself utterly confused by the entire proceedings, it is a film that demands to be experienced.

Attempting to provide something of a plot description to you would be more than futile as “The Tree Of Life” defiantly carries a fractured non-linear structure, not terribly much dialogue and Malick’s poetically hushed interior narrations at that. The film feels to be more like a majestic cinematic symphony in four distinct movements which follow and explores themes of mourning, creation, destruction, love, birth, death, jealousy, retribution, choices, consequences, dreams, and the unending tension between nature and grace as witnessed as internally as the most minute cells or as externally as the furthest reaches of the universe.

Sitting at the core of “The Tree Of Life” is an intensely personal family drama set in 1950s Waco, Texas starring Brad Pitt as a man known to us only as Mr. O’Brien, and who serves as the film’s archetypal and relentless force of nature. Mr. O’Brien is a failed musician and inventor, frustrated with the wealth and prosperousness of others in relation to his individual station in life, and often finds himself demanding reverence, appreciation and acknowledgments of love from his family. As Father to three sons, he is supremely loving yet intensely stern and borderline abusive (at least to our 21st century eyes). His taciturn status as a fierce disciplinarian creates the strongest friction and conflict with his first-born son Jack (brilliantly played by newcomer Hunter McCracken), a relationship that haunts Jack deep into his middle-aged life (played as an adult by Sean Penn) as a melancholic architect in San Francisco.

Jessica Chastain stars in her nearly wordless role as Mrs. O’Brien, a loving, permissive, somewhat childlike embodiment of the archetypal semblance of eternal grace. Adored by her three sons, she is a source of resentment from her husband as her enablement of childish wonderment and feels counter-productive to his wishes of raising three strong men and preparing them for the harsh realities of life in the adult world.

In between these pillars of nature and grace sits the conflicted Jack, who growth from childhood into early adolescence becomes a landscape of severe existential crisis as he begins to question his original views of his parents, how they relate to each other and how he relates to them. This struggle even extends itself into a riveting struggle with his own sense of morality and truth. Jack also finds himself at a crossroads of love and jealousy towards his middle brother R.L. (played by Laramie Eppler, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Brad Pitt), who shares a musical connection with their Father, a bond Jack desires to near futility and eventually consumes him with repressed rage.

Surrounding and filtered through the prism of this family drama are elements that encompass the science and divinity with awesome power. Nearly 25 minutes into the film, Malick takes us on a quantum leap back to what may be the beginning of the universe with footage that feels like the greatest episode of “Nova” ever produced. Merged with imagery that depicts the vastness of stars and planets, the fury of volcanoes, the microscopic imagery of cells and even a short section featuring dinosaurs (!), “The Tree Of Life” somehow performs the simultaneous act of becoming a overwhelming film that is also emotionally primal and piercingly intimate.

Every frame of this movie contains such richness and depth that every individual shot could essentially be an entire film in and of itself. Special mention and accolades must be delivered to Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki for his astounding collaboration with Malick, as the camera remains a rapturously restless observer and chronicler. It is as if Malick is the eternal child of vision, taking notice of all events from grand and profound to the seemingly insignificant, finding equality in the grace notes within them all. I loved all of the images of splintered sunshine which seemed to be the divine spirit enveloping the earth. Also, all of the water imagery that shifts from cleansing and baptismal to engulfing and unforgiving was nothing less than incredible.

I especially loved how Malick viewed the world from what I would gather to be more of a child’s eye level. As trees, parents and the steel canyons of the big city loom largely over all of the human characters, dwarfing them and signaling how small and seemingly insignificant we and our problems are in the larger scheme of the universe. But, this is not a nihilistic approach as I think Malick is suggesting that despite our smallness, we are a part of the universal fabric and our presence is significant regardless of how large or small. And in the end, it is relative. We may not matter a whit to a star being born but how our actions affect the people closest to us matter just as much.

In my opinion, Brad Pitt has never been better in any film until now as he possesses a towering command combined with a crippling and devastating insecurity as Mr. O’Brien. Sean Penn has been somewhat dismissed in his substantially smaller and nearly wordless role as the adult Jack. He performs so much more than the act of simply brooding. He is the embodiment of a lost and lonely soul, still wrestling with the events of his childhood and the relationship with his Father, which all leads to the film’s final and hallucinatory section that contains a spiritual presence of awesome power.

I have no idea of how or where Terrence Malick found Hunter McCracken but if this young actor is not nominated for an Oscar (along with Malick, Pitt and the film itself), it would be a cinematic crime. Again, while his actual dialogue is fairly scant and his actions are non-hyperbolic and exquisitely subtle, his performance is filled with pummeling despair and anguish. Whether capturing the pheromones from a girl tossing her hair in school, to daring his middle brother to place his wet finger into a light socket, or finding himself consumed with guilt from a petty theft and even briefly contemplating a murderous impulse, McCracken completely captures an emotional fragility that goes as far as questioning the presence or absence of God.

The film opens with the following quotation from The Book Of Job: "Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation...while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" The first three words of this quotation are asked repeatedly during the film and the fullness of its meaning changes each time it is asked, most notably during sections where Jack is testing acts of rebellion and violence. In regards to the character of Jack, the question could also be representative of how he views his parents and his relationship with them. If his Father shows more of a connection with his middle brother, then what is the purpose of “being good” if he is not allowed that same connection, especially when he has followed all of his Father’s rules? The contentious nature of the relationship between Mr. O’Brien and Jack elicits how much of mirrored souls each of them happen to be.

Oh, I could go on and on and I believe this is exactly what Terrence Malick wants for anyone who chooses to see his film to do...and passionately. “The Tree Of Life” is not a film that can be watched passively as our lives are not designed to be lived passively. This film wants to engage with us because it is about us and the meaning of our collective existence with each other and all other living creatures, the environment and the elements that bind us all together in cosmic and symbiotic interconnectivity.

Some of you may scoff at the material that does not feature the O’Brien family decrying it all as New Age mystical nonsense. I would urge those of you may have that reaction to not give this film that sort of knee jerk short shrift. “The Tree Of Life,” I believe is an exploration of how science and God not only co-exist but are forever intertwined. The film illustrates how the tangible and unexplained are connected as are the living and the extinct. What else is the saga of the O’Brien family from its birth, infancy, evolution, fragmentation, self-destruction, healing and transformation but the story of every family and furthermore, the story of the world and universe itself?

Yes, “The Tree Of Life” is not simply an art film with a capital “A” but with a capital “A,” “R” and “T” and it may feel to be more challenging and esoteric to some viewers. But, I deeply implore all of you, from those of you who like to view a challenging film to those of you who just want to be entertained by the movies they choose to see, that “The Tree Of Life” is a profoundly inclusive experience. Despite Terrence Malick’s famously reclusive public nature, from historically refusing all interviews and not even allowing himself to be photographed, it is fascinating as I think he wants not to talk down to us but to share.

“The Tree Of Life” is a film I believe is designed to be a communal experience of the highest order. Malick never tells us how to connect the pieces of his vast cinematic puzzle. He never holds our hand and guides us with how to feel. He meticulously lays out the pieces without judgment, inspiring a conversation with the audience, which we can then afterwards leave the theater and continue it with each other. How many movies could you say that about at all?

Whether you love this film, hate this film or find it to be a complete head spinner, it is a film that cannot be ignored or easily dismissed. “The Tree Of Life” is a rarity. It is a film of memory, of the here and now as well as the future and beyond. It is a film for the ages.

Until now and for no particular rhyme or reason, I had never seen a film by Terrence Malick. Now, I want to see them all!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

PARIS, JE T'AIME: a review of "Midnight In Paris"

Written and Directed by Woody Allen
**** (four stars)

From time to time throughout my life, I have held the peculiar feeling that I was perhaps born late.

As a child, especially during my pre-teen and teenage years, I possessed a large obsession with the 1960s as the attitudes of the music, counter-culture movement, peace rallies, clashes with authority, hippies, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war and near mythical locations and events like Woodstock vibrantly spiraled and danced through my consciousness, speaking loudly to my spirit. While the full gravity of those tumultuous times did not completely register during that age, there was some inexplicable force from that specific time period that revealed itself to me as something of grand personal significance. It just felt to be a time that was personally designed for my growing worldview.

As I grew a little older, my fascination with the past began to mostly veer towards areas relegated to popular culture and the arts. I remember short tales delivered to me by my parents about how they had seen the original production of “Hair” on stage or when they saw “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and were simultaneously perplexed and mesmerized. And I am sill graced with stories from my Father’s youth in Chicago, as he witnessed many jazz greats in close proximity, either in the clubs or directly outside music hall windows.

Through all of those stories, my mind raced with the curiosity in wondering what it would have been like to listen to The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” or Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” or any other landmark album that pushed the medium of music forward during the times they were originally released. I wondered what it would have been like to see a film like Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1972) for instance, at a time when films of that sort were unheard of. I would loved to have read my favorite novel, John Irving’s The World According To Garp, when it was first published and have had the opportunity to witness its cultural impact first hand. And as I sit from time to time in the café of a certain national chain bookstore with its enlarged mural of legendary writers seated together for drinks and nourishment, I am blissfully lost in literary fantasy.

In the world of the arts, there is a profoundly deep romanticism I hold onto tightly and that specific romanticism sits at the delightfully sumptuous core of Writer/Director Woody Allen’s latest effort “Midnight In Paris.” For a filmmaker as prolific as Allen, who at the age of 75 still releases a new film nearly every year, it is more than a little easy to take his talents for granted. It is also more than a little easy for film critics to either over-praise or over-criticize new works or to even continuously (and unfairly) hold each new film in relation to the still looming shadows of Allen’s past classics instead of meeting each film as they arrive on their own terms. For me, and frankly for all of us, Woody Allen is a filmmaker to endlessly treasure and the wistful, poetic and yes, very funny “Midnight In Paris,” (his 41st film!) is a high point. Once again, Allen’s days away from his beloved New York have rejuvenated his cinematic gifts handsomely. Not only is it easily his best film since the absolutely wonderful “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008), it is yet another movie I have seen this year of such high quality that it has become another favorite of 2011.

Echoing the George Gershwin scored opening to Woody Allen’s jewel “Manhattan” (1979), “Midnight In Paris” opens with a gloriously sublime and wordless montage that depicts life in Paris from day to night, from sunshine to rain back to sunlight and finally, stunningly, starlight.

Afterwards, we are introduced to affable yet frustrated writer Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a successful yet self-described “Hollywood hack” screenwriter who is struggling with composing his first novel. Arriving in Paris with his dismissively belligerent fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her wealthy, ultra-conservative and snobbish parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) as part of a family business trip, Gil renews his love with the “City Of Lights,” a place he once visited years earlier. As Gil is anxious for languid strolls around Paris in the midst of the Parisian rain, he spends copious amounts of time contemplating the lives of his favorite writers, musicians and artists during the 1920s, as illustrated in Ernest Hemingway’s classic memoir A Movable Feast.

Unfortunately, Gil is forced to wile away his hours tagging along with Inez’s family and even worse, Inez’s close friend, the insufferable pseudo-intellectual Paul Bates (played to hysterically irritating perfection by Michael Sheen) and his wife Carol (Nina Arianda).

On one fateful evening, after declining a late night invitation of dancing with Inez, Paul and Carol, a happily tipsy Gil begins to wander the streets of Paris, soon discovering himself to be lost. Seating himself upon a set of stairs, he listens to chimes striking the hour of midnight and suddenly, an unusual vintage automobile arrives with a band of friendly strangers ecstatically inviting Gil to join them. Gil obliges, enters the car and then…

…I would not even attempt to tell you what happens next!

As with several other films that I have had the pleasure of viewing this year, it is just a treat to see films that defy being explained away in one sentence and beyond that, offer absolutely no sense of tired predictability. The opening sequences and the remainder of “Midnight In Paris” are nothing less than supremely enchanting as it finds Woody Allen in a more whimsical mode. Thankfully, Allen remains so fully in command of his gifts that any sense of whimsy never becomes cloying or sacrifices even one ounce of his peerless literary wit. This is a film of tremendous warmth and affection, qualities that richly enhance the humor, the characters and their respective relationships with each other and themselves.

Thematically and visually, “Midnight In Paris” functions as just as much of a love letter to Paris as “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” celebrated Spain. The movie is stunningly photographed with lush, invitingly warm colors (like those beautiful Central park in autumn sequences of Allen’s 1994 film “Bullets Over Broadway”) that are nothing less than seductive. Often it felt as if the world of Paris was reaching through the screen, gently beckoning you to take an even closer look and perhaps even stay past the ending credits. Perhaps travel agents should be stationed directly outside of the movie theater because if this film does not inspire travel, I have no idea what else could!

As with all of Allen’s films, the writing, direction and performances from the entire cast are priceless. Without going into any specifics of their respective characters, appearances from the likes of Kathy Bates, Adrian Brody, Alison Pill, Corey Stoll and the sultry and beguiling Marianne Cotillard shine wondrously and add tremendously to the film’s overall frisky enchantment.

Sometimes the unlikeliest pairings are able to create cinematic alchemy and Owen Wilson, an actor I love yet never thought that I would find in a Woody Allen film, is surprisingly perfect and poignant in the leading role and Allen surrogate. Wilson is so engaging as Gil and his enthusiasm for Paris, for writing, for the arts and his overall romantic spirit was one I could relate to completely, making this character a true kindred spirit. Wilson’s gentle scruffiness, playful sincerity and earnestness made him completely engaging and I loved having him as my tour guide for this Parisian odyssey so much that I would have gladly followed him anywhere.

As previously stated, “Midnight In Paris” is a poetic experience but as with Allen’s oeuvre, it is also a philosophical journey. I greatly appreciated how Allen was able to weave and re-visit some of his slightly darker themes last seen in his underrated previous film, “You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger” (2010).

“Midnight In Paris” while joyously light as a feather, is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of nostalgia and living a life of illusion. Gil Pender is a man lost within the haze of romanticism and nostalgia for a time he never existed in and he does indeed tread the line between carrying unrealistic and fantastical impressions of a very real time period while neglecting and forsaking the life and world in front of his eyes. Allen is a tad critical of Gil just as we are also meant to embrace the Paris of his dreams with him. Again, I could completely relate to Gil’s wanderlust as I have been an Anglophile for so much of my life and still dream of one day, flying to England and walking the streets and seeing the landscapes that populated the lives of so many of my artistic heroes, especially The Beatles. Over time and even through this film, I have learned that my love and bottomless fascination with all things British is indeed based in a romance of England and definitely not the reality of England. It is a romance that is steeped in the writers, musicians, comedians, filmmakers and artists that I have adored since my childhood and this sort of a romance, while containing more than its fair share of unrealistic expectations is still euphorically, a romance.

“Midnight In Paris,” regardless of any right or wrong implications or expectations, proclaims that this very romance is worth rejoicing as a love of the arts and the people and places from where it originates can only sustain and adorn one’s life and soul tremendously. And for that, I have to say emphatically, that “Midnight In Paris” is a film that can definitely be described as a “feel good movie.” Yes, that is an abhorrent cliché and term, which makes me gag profusely, but Woody Allen has written and helmed an experience that made me feel so undeniably good. “Midnight In Paris” lifted my spirit completely. It not only filled my cinematic heart and my former English major heart, it made me smile from the very first shot and its good nature held me within its grasp until the final fadeout. If I were able, I would have wrapped my arms around it for I loved this film that much.

For Woody Allen, notoriously nihilistic, prickly and fatalistic, he has indeed produced a film that contains an open-hearted sense of wonder. “Midnight In Paris” shows that there are still things in our precarious world that can still surprise, inspire and captivate us. It speaks to the elegant mystery of the things that can only occur under the moonlit sky and it celebrates the very kinds of conversations that only occur deep in the wee hours of the night, much like Writer/Director Richard Linklater’s astoundingly romantic and verbose “Before Sunrise” (1995).

“Midnight In Paris” is a very funny, gently rapturous film that contains delicate splendor and transcendent timelessness and I urge you to seek out this film and purchase a ticket…and just in case, you may want to have a passport at the ready.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

SUPERB: a review of "Super 8"

Written and Directed by J.J. Abrams
**** (four stars)

For many reasons, the year 1979 has remained a magical time for me.

In 1979, I was 10 years old and while I will never truly know for certain, perhaps I knew that year contained a certain significance even then. I was in the 5th grade, on the cusp of Middle School and while my life at that time moved along just as it had the year before, something inexplicable was definitely in the air. It was a time when I endlessly raced around my neighborhood with my friends on our bikes (without helmets!). It was a time when we played variations of kick ball and baseball in the back alley that separated our homes and the vacant lot at the end of the street. Electronic games were just new enough to be exciting without becoming socially alienating. And we just marveled at each other talents and skills (athletic, artistic, musical, etc) hoping that some particular brand of magic would rub off on us by osmosis. There were always unknown dark neighborhood tales designed to frighten us or the supposed threat of older kids lurking in the school hallways awaiting the fresh meat of young students but we endured without a sense of serious worry or real danger. Moreover, and throughout all of our days and nights, our parents seemed to behave as if they just knew that we would be entirely safe.

1979 was a time when my friends and I wanted to tread lightly into deeper societal waters from discovering and recounting the edgy humor of “Saturday Night Live,” Richard Pryor and Monty Python to utilizing dangerous usages of profanity with each other. We wanted to see who would be the first to witness an R rated movie or a “dirty” magazine. Emotional confusion and wounds began to feel more serious as 1979 also held the time when friendships carried a newfound sense of urgency and fragility. And of course, there were girls. During 5th grade, I did indeed hold a heavy crush on an angelic blonde girl in a downstairs classroom, a girl that I never found myself brave enough to confess my love to, and deciding to only tell one friend. All of that bubbling inner turmoil rubbed up against the trading of “Star Wars” baseball cards and knock hockey games in Mr. Wilson’s almost clubhouse feeling 5th grade classroom. The magic of that time clashed against the reality of the world, creating a period that can only be described as “transformative.”

“Super 8,” the third and best film to date from Writer/Director J.J. Abrams, is precisely in tune with that precariously transformative period as Abrams chronicles the lives and adventures of a group of Middle School students confronted with an event of sheer awesomeness. While Abrams more than delivers the special effects, tension, terror, and exhilaration, he smartly plunges firmly and unapologetically into the hearts of his protagonists, making “Super 8” a soulful and hugely rewarding experience to treasure.

Set in the small town of Lillian, Ohio in the year 1979, we met Middle School student Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), son of Jackson Lamb, the local Deputy Sheriff (Kyle Chandler), whose family has just been confronted with a personal tragedy: the death of Joe’s Mother in an unfortunate accident at the local mill. As he carries his Mother’s necklace constantly, Joe confronts his grief and healing process by enlisting his skills with make-up artistry for the on-going film projects of his best friend Charles (a terrific Riley Griffiths in his film debut), an aspiring Writer/Director engulfed with his latest masterwork, a George A. Romero inspired zombie film.

With the diminutive, braces wearing pyromaniac Cary (Ryan Lee), analytical and nervous stomached leading actor Martin (Gabriel Basso) and the meticulous Preston (Zach Mills) in tow, the group enlists the aid of the more mature, darkly evasive and initially reluctant Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) as their film’s leading lady. This choice not only begins to create confusion and conflict between the boys but also between Joe’s Father and Alice’s father Louis (Ron Eldard), an alcoholic Jackson blames for the death of his wife.

After midnight one summer evening, the kids travel just outside of town to a small train station to film a pivotal sequence when suddenly a passing train collides with a pick-up truck resulting in a spectacular crash our heroes not only narrowly escape but inadvertently capture on film via Charles’ super 8 camera.

To reveal any more about the contents of the train and the remainder of the “Super 8” would be deeply unfair to you. But, the film is a ride that is simply and jointly spectacular, terrifying and enormously moving. As with Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor” from last month, J.J. Abrams has stunningly crafted the very type and style of summer movie that I salivated over in my youth and is rarely and sadly produced these days. A film that focuses on character, story and the art of storytelling, allowing the audio/visual special effects to serve as enhancements to the base material and not as the sole reason the movie exists.

In large portions, “Super 8” is Abrams’ intentional nod to the early films of Steven Spielberg (who serves as Executive Producer here) like “Jaws” (1975),” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) and “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982) as well as his productions for Tobe Hooper’s “Poltergeist” (1982) and Richard Donner’s “The Goonies” (1985). Abrams has the visual landscape down cold! The foggy glow of lights at night, the crane shots, the slow pans upwards into people faces regarding tremendous sights are all on display. Even composer Michael Giacchino’s fully representative film score echoes the works of Spielberg’s musical counterpart John Williams.

Additionally, Abrams works in the “Spielbergian” themes of sleepy small towns and suburban landscapes populated with ordinary people suddenly confronted with extraordinary events and government conspiracies as well as the painful emotional turmoil of fractured families, lonely children and damaged parents.

The period design (including the—gulp—period music…man it pains me to say that) of the film is impeccable and on the same superior level of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” (1997), Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones” (2009) and especially Judd Apatow and Paul Feig’s “Freaks and Geeks” television series. But, best of all are the team of young actors Abrams has cast. These young actors feel so authentic, so true to the time of 1979 that they almost feel as if Abrams instilled the usage of a time machine, plucked them straight from that year and plopped them into his 2011 film. They are all appropriately gawky and appear to be like the contemporaries or younger siblings of the characters in Michael Ritchie’s “The Bad News Bears” (1976) or Peter Yates’ beautiful and seminal “Breaking Away” (1979).

The performances from all of the young actors are completely naturalistic, freshly delivered and completely at home amidst the special effects (the train crash sequence, for instance, is a jaw dropper in a film filled with excellent action set pieces) and grand set designs. Most positively, they are also able to hold their own alongside the adult actors. Elle Fanning shows that she has the exact same incredible acting chops as her older sister, a trait Abrams utilizes wonderfully in an early scene when her character of Alice, acting in the kids’ movie, surprises all of the boys with her innate talent that stretches beyond her years. Fanning creates a solid distance between herself and the boys that not only illustrates her sad home life but also her advanced sense of development in comparison to the boys.

As Charles, Riley Griffiths completely transcended any pitiful expectations of witnessing yet another “funny fat kid” as he brilliantly creates the role of a frustrated and intensely creative mind at work. I completely admired his tenacity and the seriousness with which he and his friends took to their filmmaking craft. On a personal level, their cinematic journeys brought me back to a time during my own adolescence when I made a film with friends in high school entitled “Life In One Day” (extensively detailed in another posting on this site).

What we are witness to are kids that are not screwing around with a camera. They are seriously attempting to make a film in the very best way they possibly can, much like those scrappy guerrilla neighborhood filmmakers in Michel Gondry's underrated "Be Kind Rewind" (2008). And it should be noted that I feel this depiction should place established filmmakers on notice. That those with the finances, creative ability and blessed fortune to make movies should care as much about the art of filmmaking with their millions of dollars just as a group of kids do with a simple super 8 camera and tiny budget of allowance money.

Joel Courtney is the film’s rock solid center and heart much like Henry Thomas effortlessly showed in “E.T.” For someone who essentially has to carry the film and is shown in nearly every scene, Courtney is up for the immense task and through his open-hearted delivery, I found myself wanting to follow him anywhere while also wishing for his safety and healing.

Despite all of the “Spielbergian” touches, “Super 8” is no mere exercise in style as this is clearly a J.J. Abrams film. He has a story to tell and he tells it vibrantly and personally. Knowing that Abrams is three years older than myself and experienced the same cultural (pop and otherwise) touchstones as I did, Abrams utilizes the year of 1979 as a benchmark moment in time, a point of fundamental change in the lives of the characters. The same fundamental juxtapositions and pivotal moments of transformative change serve as the structure and core of the film as a whole. On one level, what is “Super 8” but a big budget version of the exact same film our pre-teen heroes are creating? Even deeper, Abrams is equally concerned with childhood terrors and things that go bump in the night as much as he is concerned with adult themes of mortality, grief and mourning. One side never outweighs the other. They co-exist seamlessly.

The title of “Super 8” means so much more to me than a description of a particular film stock. It is representative and celebratory of a specific time, place and year when children were allowed to be children and roam their exterior and interior worlds freely. “Super 8” is an ode to childhood itself and the innocence, imagination and sense of possibility contained therein. This film does not possess one jaded or ironic bone in its cinematic body. It values the experience of pre-pubescent growth so tenderly while also eliciting many jolts, shocks and excitement along the way. “Super 8” believes in these kids fiercely and with the endless hope that they will all be able to develop, change, confront and survive their fears while maintaining their integrity and also gaining new levels of self-confidence in the process.

Wonderfully, “Super 8” represents a time when summer movies could also be works of art and stand as one of the cinematic year’s best achievements. There have always been bad movies and there always will be bad movies, but “Super 8” is representative of an era when summer films of this particular high quality were the norm, not the anomaly. While the overarching mysteries of the contained element inside the train are fully revealed and deeply satisfying, what matters the very most to Abrams, and therefore the audience, are these kids, their relationships with each other, their families and with themselves.

On television, with "Lost," "Alias" and "Fringe," in addition to creating the best installment of the "Mission: Impossible" film series with "Mission: Impossible III" (2006) as well as his astonishing re-invention of "Star Trek" (2009), J.J. Abrams has more than shown that he is a creative force to be reckoned with. Not through pummeling an audience with window dressing but with sheer and unquestionable storytelling strength.

“Super 8” is a meticulously designed pastiche, an homage to one of cinema’s greatest storytellers while also existing as a deeply personal statement of the child J.J. Abrams once was and frankly, still remains. It is a film that works in solidarity with anyone who continues to imagine, to hope and to dream.

"Super 8" is one of my favorite films of 2011.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


Based upon the short story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson
Written For The Screen and Directed by Richard Kelly
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

Well…I can easily say that I have not seen a film quite like this one before.

For a movie this bizarre, this unhinged, this disturbing, and also this conceptually disjointed for nearly half of its running time, I have to express to you, dear readers, that I have found a certain affection towards it. I can’t say that this movie was actually a good film and it is indeed too well made to be a bad film. It lies somewhere in between, within a universe of its own making, and somehow, I have the feeling that Director Richard Kelly would have not wanted it any other way.

“The Box,” released theatrically in 2009, was at first considered to be somewhat of a comeback film for Kelly, who struck independent film gold with his 2001 debut feature “Donnie Darko” (perhaps a future entry for “Savage Cinema Debuts” as I still have not seen this film). Unfortunately, Kelly fell out of favor with critics with his hugely maligned and barely screened 2007 second feature “Southland Tales.” Critical reaction to “The Box” was mixed at best and the box office receipts didn’t set the world on fire either. So, now, aside from home video release, it seems to have found a new life (or lives) as it seems to screen eternally upon cable television. I had been aware of this film’s uniquely grim premise as well as the baffled critical response towards it yet I never really found myself with the impetus to sit down and watch it for myself. That is, until my wife happened to catch it one day and could not wait to inform me of, what she considered to be, its horrid quality.

Recently, on one evening at a considerably late hour, I became intrigued enough to give the film a full viewing and while I could easily witness elements and sections of that “horrid quality,” it indeed wove a dark spell which made for almost hypnotically compelling viewing as I simply could not turn myself away.

Set in Virginia circa 1976, “The Box” stars Cameron Diaz and James Marsden as Norma and Aaron Lewis, a thirtysomething married couple and parents to the young Walter (played by Sam Oz Stone). Early one morning, the Lewis family discovers a box has been mysteriously placed upon their doorstep, adorned solely with a note which reads, “Mr. Steward will call upon you at 5:00 p.m.” As promised, at 5:00 p.m. on the dot, Norma answers the doorbell and is greeted by the unnerving sight of Arlington Steward (an excellent Frank Langella), a man who is elegantly dressed, possesses impeccable manners and diction yet also carries the gruesome image of the absence of part of his face.

Seated at the kitchen table, Steward offers Norma a proposition. Regarding the mysterious box, Steward informs Norma that if she and her husband push the button of top of the box, they would obtain a sum of 1 million dollars…tax free. Yet, of course, there is a catch. If they push the button, not only would they receive the money, a person, completely unknown to them, would die. Steward gives Norma a healthy temptation of a crisp 100 dollar bill, 24 hours to think over the proposal and assurance that they could easily refuse, allowing Steward to take his offer elsewhere.

Although Aaron and Norma initially scoff at this proposition, they begin to seriously consider pressing the ominous button as times have grown financially tighter for their family. Aaron, a NASA scientist, is sadly rejected for a much hoped for admission into an astronaut program while Norma’s status as a private school English teacher combined with Walter’s rising school tuition costs contributes heavily to their mounting economic strain.

Eventually, after the 24 hours have passed and much deliberation between the couple, Norma and Aaron push the button and as promised, they receive a payment of 1 million dollars. And also as promised, someone they have never met dies.

With regards to any further plot description, I must end it at this point so as not to produce any spoilers and believe me, I would hate to ruin this film for you by giving away too much. But, I am able to continue in the following fashion by admitting that for its first hour, “The Box” is pretty solid stuff. Kelly establishes the film’s “Twilight Zone” set up with equal doses of dark fantasy with a difficult moral dilemma and the paranoia he creates and maintains indeed becomes a frighteningly claustrophobic experience. The mystery of the titular box, Arlington Steward, and the ensuring consequences from pushing the button develop at the pace of a progressively creeping doom that is deeply engaging. For that first hour, “The Box” is precisely the type of thriller I enjoy the most. Ones that disturb, that are decidedly more psychological and even dreamlike. Ones that utilize the gifts of strong storytelling instead of shocks and gratuitous gore.

Kelly also employs strong cinematography that evokes the mid 1970’s effectively. Everything is washed in a color scheme of gold, yellow and brown, making everything appear like that 1970s wood paneling you would find upon a Buick station wagon. I was also thoroughly surprised to learn that the film’s unnerving music score was composed by Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Regine Chassagne who, in collaboration with Owen Pallett, created a soundscape of relentless menace.

As much as I was enjoying the film thus far, there were serious obstacles, most notably Cameron Diaz. Now, Diaz is an actress I have liked ever since her auspicious debut in “The Mask” (1994). Over her career, with films as diverse as Stacy Title’s “The Last Supper” (1995), The Farrelly brothers’ “There’s Something About Mary” (1998), Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich” (1999), Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” (1999), Cameron Crowe’s “Vanilla Sky” (2001) and Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs Of New York” (2002), she has more than shown her comedic and dramatic range. Yet, somehow, Diaz is hysterically undone by nothing less than a howler of a Southern accent that seriously damages any credibility she has within the context of this story and film. When she is silent, her face and body language is compelling. But then, she speaks and it’s all over.

By contrast and faring much better is James Marsden, an actor I have I typically found to be horribly wooden, much like Dermot Mulroney. As Aaron Lewis, he shows surprising energy, weight and confidence. He found ways to keep this odd and soon to be extremely head spinning material grounded and it was his believability that assisted me in following through to the film’s conclusion.

Frank Langella is far and away the strongest element in “The Box.” As Arlington Steward, Langella, though his deliberately quiet and slow delivery, is supremely sinister. Do not let this man’s fastidiousness fool you for a moment. Steward is nothing less than proverbial the wolf at the door, the man who silently deposits nightmares upon your porches. It would have been so easy for Langella to take this role and run with it in the same over the top direction that Al Pacino performed in Taylor Hackford’s “The Devil’s Advocate” (1997). Thankfully, Langella brilliantly runs in the opposite direction with his serpentine stares and languid body movements and he is truly mesmerizing to regard.

So far in this review, I have been teasing you a bit with how much I enjoyed the first hour of “The Box,” a feeling which was indeed alerting you to the cinematic misfortunes contained within the second hour. Let’s just say that when Aaron and Norma Lewis separately arrive at a library, “The Box” flies off the rails and into an entirely different world.

While I cannot and would not even dream of going into any specifics, from this point and for its remainder, “The Box” takes a conceptual quantum leap of such significance and abruptness that I felt as if a reel of the film had been edited out! Dear readers, believe it or not, I have even watched this film in its entirety twice, as well as some bits and pieces here and there over and again, and the film’s second half remains this jumble of assorted moments that are conceptually confusing on a cinematic storytelling level. How do certain characters arrive in one place and then appear in another? Why was this character here when they really should have been there? Even the various performances suddenly become out of sync with each other as some characters are newly histrionic when they were once on an even-keel and they exist next to others that seem to remain upon as straight a path as they were during the film’s first hour.

What the seemingly disparate elements of lighting, NASA’s explorations of Mars, random nose bleeds, water coffin triptychs, themes of vanity, physical ailments and disabilities, redemption and eternal damnation have to do with each other all becomes clear by the conclusion, it is in the way it arrives at those connections that makes “The Box” feel more than a little scatter shot. Additionally, the film's special effects, designed to produced sensations of wonder and horror are sadly weak at best and laughable at worst.

“The Box” finally regains its footing with its deeply disturbing and emotionally wrought climax as Arthur and Norma are given one final selection of choices, each decision leading to irrevocable consequences. But by that point, the movie is just about finished and how much could a late-film rescue matter?

And yet, I remained captivated and at times, transfixed. There is no denying that this Kelly’s film is effective and somehow, throughout it all, it seemed as if Kelly was delivering the film he had intended to make all along. Furthermore, he was even able to indulge his inner Stanley Kubrick with sections that visually nod to images from “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), “The Shining” (1980) and even “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). At least, Kelly aimed his sights highly.

For all of its many faults, flaws, inconsistencies and confounding oddities, “The Box” was compulsively watchable and held me strongly within its grasp. As I previously stated, the film is dreamlike, most especially during that second hour when logic has flown out of the window. In fact the entire film contains the sensation of a bad dream that has long burrowed under our skin long after waking and you just cannot shake it.

And somehow, it was the rare kind of bad dream that I would not mind experiencing again...cinematic warts and all.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


May certainly began the new movie season with high style and substance and I am sincerely hoping that my good cinematic fortune will continue for this month.

1. First things first, I am virtually standing in line for "Super 8," the third film (and first original story for a motion picture) from Writer/Director J.J. Abrams.

2. I am already composing a new entry for "Savage Cinema Debuts" and I also hope to have a new entry for "Savage Cinema Revisits" as well.

3. If the cinematic fates and forces are at work in a most positive manner, I am hoping that both Woody Allen's "Midnight In Paris" and Terrence Malick's "Tree Of Life" arrive at my local cineplex.

4. And then, there's Pixar's "Cars 2," a sequel to a film that is indeed the one Pixar feature that does not stand as tall as the rest of their oeuvre. But, is Pixar and their weakest efforts are still better than most other major releases anyway.

Summer has not even officially begun and it is already looking to be an extremely busy time, personally, professionally and cinematically. As always, I pledge to do my best to keep up with life, health and film, delivering to you reviews an impressions as best as I am able. And all going well, Savage Cinema just may hit a new milestone this month.

We'll see...

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