Sunday, July 31, 2011
“COWBOYS & ALIENS”
Based upon the graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg
Screen Story by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Steve Odekerk
Screenplay Written by Robert Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby
Directed by Jon Favreau
** (two stars)
I knew it had to happen but I wished that it hadn’t occurred with this one.
Yes, dear readers, my Summer 2011 cinematic winning streak has reached its end. From the month of May until this afternoon, I have been so undoubtedly pleased and at times, enraptured with the art and artistry of the movies I have had the good fortune to see. Especially within genres that have run their risk of over-saturation (superheroes and comic book films) and others genres that feel creatively brain dead (the modern day romantic comedy), I have been surprised again and again with the level of creativity, thoughtfulness, strong performances and even stronger, unpredictable screenwriting that has taken place. As I walked into a screening of Director Jon Favreau’s western/science fiction mash-up “Cowboys & Aliens,” I was extremely hopeful for an experience that would grandly continue the level of surprise that I have been so thankful to receive this summer on my movie screens. Unfortunately, beyond the brilliant and genre altering title, “Cowboys & Aliens” is a by-the-numbers, MOR, pedestrian affair and in a summer of one terrific film surprise after another, this was a surprise that made for a film that was not terrible but hugely disappointing as the potential for greatness was so present.
Daniel Craig stars as outlaw Jake Lonergan, who suddenly awakens on the ground of the wide open spaces of 1873 Arizona completely disoriented, his memory hazy to the point where he cannot remembers his own name and most strangely, a metallic foreign object is latched to his wrist and impossible to remove. After murdering three strangers who threaten him, Lonergan quietly arrives in the town of Absolution and is soon befriended by the town preacher (Clancy Brown), the town medic/bar owner (Sam Rockwell) as well as the loveliest lady in town, the gun carrying Ella (Olivia Wilde), who continuously probes Lonergan to remember his past.
Lonergan quickly makes his presence in the town fully known as he publicly humiliates Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), the drunken and abusive son of the tyrannical town overlord Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). Lonergan’s actions and soon to be discovered true identity also alerts the attention of Sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine), who is ready to have this mysterious outsider arrested. Just as the paths of Lonergan, Taggart and the infamous and furious Colonel Dolarhyde converge, the shackled object on Lonergan’s wrist begins to light and strange bright lights in the skies suddenly appear and begin to lay Absolution to waste while capturing several of the townspeople in the process. After the battle with what the townsfolk soon call “demons,” it is up to Lonergan and Dolarhyde to join forces and form a posse consisting of a rag tag group including a band of outlaws and a tribe of Apache Indians, to set out and rescue their friends and families and make a climactic stand against the aliens.
Let me first announce that despite my negative reaction, “Cowboys & Aliens” does not resemble a bad movie in any way. There is much to admire and I really feel that it is a testament to how much Jon Favreau has grown as a filmmaker over the years. His ability to work with such a wide canvas and a mountain of special effects does not seem to intimidate him in the least. The film also earns major points by being exceedingly well cast and the cinematography is gorgeously presented. The fight scenes and battle sequences are handsomely staged and well choreographed. The special effects are flawless and somehow feel so conceptually in tune with the western locale. Favreau handles all of the genre standards of western and science fiction films easily, with great heft and style and not allowing anyone, at any time to ironically wink at the audience thus blowing this very unusual fantasy into the winds.
I also give Favreau kudos for the film terrific first third, which sets up the story and subsequent confrontation brilliantly. This is especially remarkable considering that we have essentially seen a truncated version of that first third within the film’s trailer and television advertisements. I was immediately hooked with the sight of Jake Lonergan awakening suddenly on the wide prairie and Favreau’s re-creation of the wild west, with all of its colorful characters and a familiar genre trappings (I will always love the way a saloon clears itself of patrons when a bar shootout looms dangerously) was lovingly presented. The initial handling of Harrison Ford’s character of Dolarhyde was especially terrific as we hear of the great menace of this man long before we see him. When he appears, it does not disappoint as Ford growls his lines with such petulant authority that he fully lives up to his character’s sinister reputation. And yes, that first alien attack is sensationally staged and executed with its swirling lights, terrified mass confusion and the horrific sight of town inhabitants being violently snatched from horseback into the night skies.
After the first alien attack and series of abductions, “Cowboys & Aliens” sadly begins to spin its wheels and as the film ventured onwards, I gradually lost interest. That spark of creativity seemed to be snuffed out as character quirks and traits telegraph third act payoffs with the subtlety of neon signs. A mid–film plot twist should come as a surprise to absolutely no one in the audience. Finally, the epic battle sequences play out exactly as you think they will, with all of the pre-requisite peaks and valleys. It reminded me a bit of the last third of James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009) with its nearly one hour war sequence that felt so interminable due to its wearying predictable-ness.
“Cowboys & Aliens” unfortunately suffers that same fate during the section that should be the most roof raising. There is just no exhilaration or terror to the sight of cowboys and aliens at war, in and of itself. Just the standard set of seamless but soulless CGI special effects and booming sound system that has become a staple of summer movies. For all of the film’s sound and fury, I just didn’t care a whit about what happened to any of these people and I am certain that was not the desired effect Jon Favreau wanted to obtain.
I think the main problem lies inside of the screenplay. The actual plot of the film is appropriately simple. Good guys form a posse to defeat the aliens who kidnapped their loved ones. That is all of the story you really need for a film like this one. But in order to really make it pop off of the screen and make it a real pulse pounder is to flesh out the characters so that they live and breathe as more than archetypal figurines ready to be blasted into kingdom come by those nasty aliens. Every single character in the film, like the actual story itself, is given a terrific set-up in the film’s first third and then, they just sit there. It was as if the screenwriters felt that the set up was more than enough and trust me, dear readers, it wasn’t. “Cowboys & Aliens” grew creatively stagnant when it should have flown into conceptual interstellar overdrive.
And how about those screenwriters anyway? The fact that “Cowboys & Aliens” held not one or two but five screenwriters is a sure sign of trouble. While they surprisingly kept a consistency to the material, what was even more surprising was what else they accomplished: they completely drained the film of anything that could have been as original and outside of the box as the film’s title. Characters are less than paper-thin and I think it is of tremendously good fortune that with Favreau’s cache, he could command a cast as luxurious as the one he received. Aside from Craig and Ford, I was absolutely thrilled to see the sights of Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano, Clancy Brown and Keith Carradine. And while they all flesh out their roles as best as they are able, there’s just not much to them at all and remember, there ‘s only so much they can do if it just ain’t on the page. I remember feeling the same with no less than Steven Spielberg’s exciting but emotionally empty “Jurassic Park” (1993), where the sights and sounds were peerless but I didn’t care as the characters themselves never held any interest.
Furthermore, the film makes the gargantuan mistake of not having Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford share more than a few scant scenes together!!!! While they certainly did not have to be joined at the hip, I had wished the two of them could have been featured together than much more they were and for some reason that I cannot place my thumb upon, I just felt the film suffered as a whole. Excitement began to rise whenever they appeared together and that palpable excitement faded when they were separated. But again, I think it all goes back to the screenplay.
If any of you have happened to see Director Michael Mann’s crime drama masterpiece “Heat” (1995), you may gather an understanding of what I am writing to you about. That film starred Robert DeNiro as a criminal and Al Pacino as the detective trying to take him down and in that entire film, I believe these two acting titans share one scene, set in the middle of the film. It is a simple scene set in a restaurant and consists of the two men simply talking to each other. No pyrotechnics other than witnessing their immense and legendary acting talents in motion. Anyhow, that scene and the film as a whole would not have worked if their characters were not written as fully realized, three-dimensional human beings. So, by the time the men sit down together, we know everything about them and that knowledge informs every line of dialogue, every moment of body language as well as setting up the film’s second half and climax.
“Heat” transcended the overly familiar crime genre clichés through its adherence to character development and it is that very character development that was sorely lacking in “Cowboys & Aliens.” It felt as if the studio heads thought that it would be really cool to get Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford in a movie together (it is) but didn’t bother to really give them something to sink their chops into. The character of Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde was especially disappointing especially as, again, the set up was so masterful and Ford was easily up to the task. Nothing in the film after that first third capitalized upon his fearsome legend and it all felt to be a tremendously missed opportunity.
In the end, that’s what “Cowboys & Aliens” felt like: a missed opportunity of huge proportions. If you are going to have a film with this title, then I think the filmmakers owed it to themselves to truly go for it and make something that could shake up both of their respective genres and emerge as the type of film that proudly stands alone in the cineplexes as a unique experience unlike anything else you could possibly see. While not for lack of trying, as well as all of the skill and talent at work and play, “Cowboys & Aliens” is ultimately the type of movie-going experience we have seen time and time again. For many viewers it may deliver exactly what they want.
But for me, I wanted more and I wanted it to be better.
Saturday, July 30, 2011
Written by Ben Ripley
Directed by Duncan Jones
*** ½ (three and a half stars)
A man awakens suddenly on a commuter train heading into downtown Chicago. The woman across from him addresses him as Sean Fentress but the name sounds completely unfamiliar to him as he proclaims that he is actually a pilot carrying out a mission in Afghanistan. Feeling increasingly disoriented, the man travels through the train and ends up inside the restroom whereupon gazing into the mirror, the reflection he sees carries a completely different face than his own. And then, the unthinkable occurs when eight minutes after he awakened, a bomb goes off, killing every passenger on the train…including him.
That describes the instantly compelling opening moments of “Source Code,” the second film from Director Duncan Jones, who made an auspicious directorial debut with the haunting and provocative science fiction drama “Moon” (2009). With “Source Code,” Jones strongly weaves a furiously paced and striking race against time framework that again displays how science fiction films do not always have to carry behemoth budgets in order to be effective. Through crisp storytelling, terrific performances and a creative visual presentation, Jones is proving himself to be a filmmaker to watch closely and with “Source Code,” he has delivered another surprisingly entertaining motion picture in a cinematic year filled with happy surprises.
The less said about this film’s plot, the better so as to not ruin the full experience of “Source Code” for you. Jake Gyllenhaal, in a performance of feverish intensity, stars as Colter Stevens, the man who awakens on the commuter train and is addressed as Sean. Not long after he discoverers himself strapped inside of the globe, we learn, through his conversation with Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) via computer screen, that he is indeed an Army helicopter pilot and has been covertly assigned to an extremely crucial mission. Stevens is the key ingredient in an experimental military technological project that utilizes the titular Source Code, which is essentially a time loop where Stevens is able to virtually enter the body of another human being and re-enact the final eight minutes of their life.
In a storyline that sounds as if it were a science fiction version of “Mission: Impossible,” Stevens is assigned to repeatedly return to the train and live out Sean Fentress’ final eight minutes of life in order to discover the bomb that destroyed the train plus the bomb maker who planted it. While obtaining this information will not save anyone from the train explosion, as it has already happened, it will carry the urgent potential of stopping the bomber from detonating a nuclear device in downtown Chicago.
Stevens returns to the train again and again, causing slight variations in the sequence of events due to his investigations. During each subsequent visit, he grows closer to Christina (played by the lovely Michelle Monaghan), the woman who sits across from him. As he learns more about Christina with every trip in the Source Code time loop, a voyage that always concludes with him being decimated by the bomb, Stevens grows more desperate with trying to save a woman he is destined to lose.
As with Duncan Jones’s first feature, “Source Code” is a smart science fiction film that is more about ideas than explosions, although there are many of them during the film’s briskly paced 94 minute running time. Jones creates images and sequences that reminded me and are certain to remind you of other darkly great sci-fi films like Ken Russell’s “Altered States” (1981), Terry Gilliam’s “Twelve Monkeys” (1995), The Wachowski Brothers’ “Matrix” series (1999, 2002, 2003) and Christopher Nolan’s masterful “Inception” from last year. Yet, the film “Source Code” reminded me of the most was had nothing to do with science fiction at all although it did possess a certain fantastical element. The film in question is Harold Ramis’ finest effort to date, “Groundhog Day” (1993), which starred Bill Murray as a rude and cynical weatherman forced to live the same day over and over and over again.
As with “Groundhog Day,” I was so impressed with how Jones was able to re-create these climactic eight minutes, time and again, always allowing his leading character and the audience to find new pieces of the film’s overarching puzzle. The visual creativity combined with all of the strong performances made for an experience that never grew tiresome or painfully repetitive. Each return visit to the train created greater urgency not solely due to the learned information but mostly to the increasingly wrenching philosophical undercurrents contained within the story.
In addition to some critical stances Jones takes against scientific discoveries that eschew human consequences in favor of corporate greed (a concept explored in “Moon”), there is an almost unbearably painful conceit that sits at the core of “Source Code.” Despite the efforts of Stevens, no one on the train can ever be saved, most of all Christina, whom Stevens is easily falling in love with each return visit. The tragic undercurrent of the story also lies within the fact that no matter what Stevens does and no matter how hard he tries to alter the outcome of the train, he will die after eight minutes every single time.
Much like the doomed Charlie (Dominic Monaghan) from television’s “Lost,” Colter Stevens’ mission is a dance with fate, free will and destiny itself as it is equal parts hopeful and futile. He must be forced to constantly live through his own death, as well as the death of the innocent woman he loves, in order to prevent the senseless slaughter of millions. “Source Code” is a grim wheel of karma and time that Duncan Jones elicits without ever allowing his film to grow pretentious, ponderous, or even depressing. It asks of the characters, as well as the audience exactly what we would do with our lives if we knew we only had an especially finite time to live it. Jones treats all of these heady themes and concepts with the proper reverence and gravity while also delivering a hugely involving popcorn picture.
While I was on the edge of my seat at the first frame and was captivated throughout, "Source Code" did hit a bit of a conceptual speed bump by the time it hit its admittedly head-scratching conclusion, which I am certain some viewers may feel to be a bit of a cheat. While I would not go that far, I do think that the film’s final moments are a comparatively facile finish to the otherwise challenging material that preceded it and it did rob the film, as a whole, of a bit of its power. That said, the ending, which of course I would not dream to reveal here, did nothing to…ahem…derail the experience.
With “Moon” and the even better “Source Code,” Duncan Jones has arrived. So far, he has made two films, while not setting the world on fire, have definitely provided a healthy antidote to the big budgeted and dumbed down science fiction films that usually litter our cineplexes and movie houses. Jones realizes, the very thing that I have written about endlessly on Savage Cinema. That special effects are only tools and can never serve as a substitute for good acting and a compelling story that is well told.
“Source Code” is a very good film and I have a feeling that Duncan Jones is just getting himself warmed up.
Thursday, July 28, 2011
“FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS”
Story by Keith Merryman & David Newman and Harley Peyton
Screenplay Written by Keith Merryman & David Newman and Will Gluck
Directed by Will Gluck
*** ½ (three and a half stars)
If you have been a reader of Savage Cinema, or if you happen to know me in the real world and we have discussed movies together, you are all more than aware of my complete disdain and distaste for the modern day romantic comedy film. While I do not hate romantic comedies as a rule, I hate what that genre has steadily become: a collective of poorly conceived, lazily written stories with agonizingly contrived situations where beautiful stupid people don’t do or say the most obvious things, solely to keep the wheels of the plot grinding along, no matter how illogical that plot happens to be. Yes, I know that romantic comedies are frothy film fantasies meant to be enjoyed like cotton candy. I get it. And I do like cotton candy. But, there is a certain reality when it comes to affairs of the heart that films which features the likes of Sandra Bullock, Katherine Heigle and/or Kate Hudson never, ever seem to grasp or even acknowledge. That disconnect with how real people act, behave and feel is just so painful to regard for me, that all I want to do with that type of cotton candy is throw it away and demand my money back.
So, imagine my surprise as I found myself enormously entertained with “Friends With Benefits,” the new film from Director Will Gluck who made a sensational film last summer with the wonderful teen comedy “Easy A.” In fact, it was that very tremendous sense of good will created by “Easy A” that, at least, made me curious about “Friends With Benefits,” a curiosity which was accentuated by the early positive word of mouth from film critics. On this very afternoon, with an earned free movie screening from the local Sundance theater, I decided, despite my extreme trepidation, to give this one a shot. Hey! It was a free movie and if I hated it, I lost nothing but my time. Thankfully and terrifically, “Friends With Benefits” was so rewarding that it was a movie I would have happily paid to see!
The basic plot of “Friends With Benefits” is exceedingly simple and deftly introduced. The film opens with not one but two break up sequences, briskly and hilariously setting up the emotional states of our two leading characters: the “emotionally damaged” Jamie (Mila Kunis), an Executive Recruiter for a top New York firm and the “emotionally closed” Dylan (Justin Timberlake), a Los Angeles art director for a small internet company.
While assisting GQ magazine’s search for a new art director, Jamie recruits Dylan to New York for a job interview. The twosome have instant chemistry and form a fast friendship as Jamie serves as Dylan’s tour guide of her beloved city as she attempts to sell him on this incredible job opportunity. After Jamie and Dylan spend a whirlwind evening together touring all manner of New York sights and locations, including a flash mob as well as a tranquil moment in a cherished spot of solitude for Jamie, Dylan accepts the job and makes his cross-country move.
As Jamie and Dylan’s friendship grows stronger, they begin to detail their romantic woes after viewing one of Jamie’s cherished romantic comedy films in her apartment. Tiring of all of the emotional wounds and romantic games, they each announce to each other that sex should just be an act of emotionless necessity, as innocuous as the cracking of one’s neck. Soon, the two decide to have sex with the promise that no emotional hang-ups will be a piece of their personal puzzle as their friendship cannot be damaged. One sexual tryst leads to another and another and another and before you know it…I’m certain that all of you know exactly in which direction this film is headed.
Usually, this would be the point where I would essentially check out of the movie, decrying the extreme phoniness and trite commitment to the material and the concepts and themes contained therein. As most movies of this sort just want to have the absolute thinnest of a horrifically conceived plot (that I cannot fathom that any of the filmmakers and actors ever believed in) and the hopes that the film as a whole can skate by on the audience’s collective love for the leading actors’ charms. Of course, on the surface, the storyline and set up of “Friends With Benefits” does not bode well for those of us who generally cannot stand movies like this. Like I said, I have nothing against the genre as a rule and I can concede that even the most ridiculous plot can work if it is exceedingly well written, directed and acted. “Friends With Benefits” is indeed exceedingly well written, directed and acted, with the enormous charm and comedic skills of Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis placed front and center.
While these two share undeniable chemistry and they make a great pair visually throughout the entire film, one of the treasures of “Friend With Benefits,” is how much time Gluck allows these two very intelligent, razor sharp people to just talk to each other, which allows the audience to become lost in the pleasure of listening to their endlessly witty banter and conversations! As with Bert V. Royal’s outstanding screenplay for “Easy A,” “Friends With Benefits” contains mountains of clever, vulgar, insightful and consistently hysterical dialogue that Timberlake, Kunis and the entire cast deliver with the alacrity of a classic screwball comedy. You will have to work to keep up with these characters, especially as you are laughing so hard and loudly that lines of this film’s terrific dialogue will easily be missed.
Furthermore, Gluck has something even more playful and thought provoking up his cinematic sleeves. For all of its intents and purposes, “Friends With Benefits” is a romantic comedy about romantic comedies. It is a film that is completely self-aware as it is just as knowledgeable about the conventions and clichés of the romantic comedy genre as we are. The main characters’ “meet cute,” and the playful beginnings between the two gorgeous yet romantically unlucky people. The impossibly wealthy lifestyles that are in complete contrast to their respective careers. The shared secrets that show how each character is obviously the other’s soul mate, even though they will not admit it to themselves. The obligatory misunderstanding which of course leads to the obligatory break up, the obligatory epiphanies of true love and the obligatory climactic “happy ever after” conclusion. And yes, there is also the flamboyantly gay best friend (played enthusiastically by Woody Harrelson).
Even the wonderful character actor Richard Jenkins gets in on the act as Dylan’s Alzheimer’s addled Father, who, of course, suddenly breaks from his increasing dementia to offer sage advice to his son at a crucial moment. None of these qualities should be considered as spoilers except to those who have never seen a romantic comedy before. That said, I loved how Will Gluck allowed the characters and the audience in on the joke just as we are also invested with Jamie and Dylan’s predicament. Gluck is amazingly skillful with this juggling act of constantly breaking the fourth wall while also upholding it.
While most romantic comedies depict dumb people saying and doing dumb things, “Friends With Benefits” is blessedly about smart people who make not-so-smart decisions but those decisions are grounded in a reality that makes them understandable. Exploring the adult realities of casual sex notwithstanding, Gluck’s film is very perceptive and clever as it shows, especially in our ever increasingly media driven landscape, how our ideas of romance and true love are shaped by the very music and films that entertain and sustain us. For instance, Jamie watches a cheesy romantic comedy over and again hoping for her real world Prince Charming yet also loudly bemoans Katherine Heigle and her rom-com movies when her relationships all fall apart.
Simultaneously, Gluck also presents how the relationships we see and experience as children shape who we become as adults as Jamie and Dylan’s views of commitment and romance are stemmed in both of their fractured family and parental relationships. I appreciated the time Gluck allotted to situations and characters that most films of this sort would pay short shrift too. Patricia Clarkson scores highly and receives great laughs as Jamie’s promiscuous, free spirit Mother, who constantly teases her daughter about the identity of the Father she never met.
More seriously is the lengthy section set in Los Angeles, as Dylan and Jamie visit his Father, sister (Jenna Elfman) and nephew. I appreciated how the Alzheimer's’s subplot was not treated superficially and as a source of real pain for Dylan and his family. Because of the health of Dylan’s Father and emotional state of Jamie’s mother, we understand why these two characters are the way they are more fully, which ultimately makes the romance of the film more believable than it otherwise would be. No, it’s not “The Tree Of Life” by any means and it doesn’t need to be. I just admired the extra attention and effort Gluck and his screenwriters gave to the proceedings.
“Friends With Benefits” is a big city fairytale with a beating heart and a working brain, traits that would not have to be mentioned at all if they were not such rarities within this particular genre. While Will Gluck does not quite transcend the genre as brilliantly as he performed with “Easy A,” and the film falls short slightly due to its predictability, he has created another fast paced, brightly presented and well executed comedy that contains honest laughs, a pureness of heart and a frisky, mischievous enjoyment that becomes infectious.
While the characters are romantically cynical, this film is defiantly not as it truly upholds a sense of romance in addition to having great sex and who could really argue with that? Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis are each other’s equal and Timberlake, in particular, continues to surprise and impress me, especially as I had dismissed him for so long because of his youthful pop star status (which this film slyly mocks). His comedic work on “Saturday Night Live” and his dramatic turn in David Fincher’s “The Social Network” (2010) showed he was the real deal. “Friends With Benefits” confirms it yet again.
I’m telling you, dear readers, I feel as if I have fallen into an alternate universe where summer movies have returned to presenting strongly told stories in inventive, fresh and entertaining ways and this film was a joyous surprise. Will Gluck’s “Friends With Benefits” is a smart, sophisticated and sexy film that is just perfect for a summer’s evening at the movies.
Sunday, July 24, 2011
“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER”
Based upon the Marvel Comics series created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Screenplay Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Directed by Joe Johnston
*** ½ (three and a half stars)
With all due respect to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, all of the members of the Justice League of America and the remainder of the roster at DC Comics, I have always been more emotionally tied to the heroes and heroines of the Marvel Comics line. In my review of Director Mike Mills’ terrific “Beginners,” I wrote about how, for whatever reason, I am a typically a more melancholic person. Within the Marvel universe, melancholy seems to be the descriptive emotion that runs through nearly all of their titles and that particular substantive weight spoke to me on a deeper level than their DC Comics counterparts. Bruce Banner’s repressed rage, Tony Stark’s alcoholism, Peter Parker’s teen angst and all of psychological underpinnings contained within the team members of The Avengers, The Fantastic Four and especially, The X-Men all supplied the wonderland acts of daring-do with profound gravity that somehow made these costumes characters relatable through their humanity.
With the second Marvel Comics themed film release this summer, Director Joe Johnston scores highly with “Captain America: The First Avenger,” his interpretation of the red, white and blue costumed hero. Like Kenneth Branagh’s terrific “Thor,” released just two months ago, Johnston has wondrously presented an unapologetically old-fashioned epic that eschews any and all stabs at 21st century irony and hipster cool and even wears its earnest and knowingly corny story as proudly as if it were wrapped in the American flag itself. During what has got to be the best summer I’ve had at the movies in many, many years, “Captain America: The First Avenger” is another terrific piece of entertainment fueled by strong performances, perfect casting, an excellent and fully dimensioned screenplay and a visual palate that splendidly evokes every vintage World War II poster and newsreel image you have ever seen. I had a great time and I think you will as well.
Set in 1942 during the height of World War II, Chris Evans stars as Steve Rogers, a puny, sickly young man from Brooklyn who desperately wants the opportunity to stand up and fight for his country yet due to his scrawny size and questionable health, he has been turned down by the United States Army five times in a row. But, you can never count a good man like Steve Rogers down and out for the count as his tremendous persistence fuels his unshakable willingness to try, try and try again, especially after his best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) enlists and is shipped off to England for his tour of duty against the Nazis.
While attending a Modern Marvels of Tomorrow exhibition, Steve slips quietly into yet another United States Army recruiting center and catches the eye of expatriate German Scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), confidant and colleague of a certain Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper). Erskine, in collaboration with the United States government's Strategic Scientific Reserve, is in the throes of developing a “super solider” experiment under the command of Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). After meeting Rogers and seeing his pureness of heart combined with his physical frailty, Erskine realizes that he has found his perfect test subject for his super serum which is fully realized as Rogers soon emerges taller, fuller, brawnier and in full fighting form to take on the Nazis.
Meanwhile in Norway, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), the leader of Adolf Hitler’s science division HYDRA, has discovered and stolen a tesseract (a mythical object that once belonged to Thor’s Father Odin). He, along with Nazi scientist Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), hopes to harness its power for the creation of super technological weaponry and eventual world domination. Schmidt, donning himself “The Red Skull,” has also developed his own and unperfected super serum, which has begun to consume him with the demonic side effects that fuels his maniacal hunger for ultimate power, even thirsting to eclipse Hitler himself.
Back in the states, Rogers is rejected for duty by the skeptical Colonel Phillips, despite his single-handed pursuit of a Nazi spy and rescue of a small child to boot. Rogers is then recruited by the government to serve as a spokesman for a War Bonds tour as the costumed “Captain America,” in full red, white and blue regalia and trusty shield as his weapon of choice. While on a scheduled tour stop in Italy to entertain the troops, Rogers learns of the missing status of his best friend Bucky Barnes and nearly 400 additional soldiers. Desiring to save his friend and fellow soldiers, Rogers, with the aid of Peggy Carter and Howard Stark, descends behind enemy lines in an apparent suicide rescue mission. From here, Captain America the superhero is born and his collision course with his arch nemesis the Red Skull will soon reach its zenith!
From top to bottom, “Captain America: The First Avenger” is rock solid entertainment that stands firmly on its own creative feet while also fitting in snugly with Branagh's “Thor,” Louis Leterrier's “The Incredible Hulk” (2008) and both of Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man” (2008/2010) entries as this film is the next connective puzzle piece to Writer/Director Joss Wheadon’s “The Avengers,” which arrives next year.
Director Joe Johnston is the perfect choice as he has explored our historical period between the 1930’s-1950’s twice before with the superhero film “The Rocketeer” (1991) and the period drama “October Sky” (1999). Like Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), Johnston is clearly having a blast with the revisionist war history yet he is also respectful and reverential to the time period and the realities of World War II. And I particularly appreciated his inclusion of the ethnically diverse squadron of Captain America’s helpful commandos so as not to make this fleet of World War II cinematic soldiers as lily white as they are usually depicted.
The visual look of the film is flat out gorgeous, with its 1940’s sepia tone and visual CGI effects that are remarkably seamless, especially with the depiction of Steve Rogers' 90 pound weakling physique and transformation into Captain America’s boulder shoulders and broad chest. All of the battle sequences and fight choreography are presented with clean and visceral elegance—no dreaded shaky cams allowed! And there were also several moments during the film opening sequences featuring the Red Skull that reminded me tremendously of no less than Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” (1981) with its sights of Nazis pursuing objects of religious or occult significance solely for the purpose of the subjugation of the world.
All of the performances are pitch perfect and never strike a false note. Tommy Lee Jones. Hugo Weaving and Stanley Tucci in particular are all terrific as they continuously found new notes to play in all too familiar characters. Hayley Atwell is appropriately officious and seductively curvaceous as the military love interest for Steve Rogers. I enjoyed very much how she was never presented for a moment as the "damsel in distress" as she carried crisp authority, is more than handy with a pistol and ready for action if need be.
Thankfully, “Captain America: The First Avenger” is decidedly not a jingoistic exercise in ponderously patriotic flag waving, something that would have made me run for the theater exits rapidly. What Johnston has chosen to emphasize through this particular superhero is his overall goodness. Steve Rogers is simply a good, honest man who solely wants to do right by his friends, his comrades, the woman he loves and his country. No more. No less. And that’s good enough for me. That's why for me, the biggest surprise of this film was how much I enjoyed the performance of Chris Evans, an actor that I never felt to be much of an actor but this role fits him like the proverbial glove.
On the surface and at his core, Steve Rogers is forthright, steadfast, honorable, virtuous and yes…virginal. Aside from being chemically enhanced to a tremendous degree, he is the definition of purity. Chris Evans, in a performance of great sensitivity, accomplishes the very feat that makes the best of these superhero films work so well. Evans finds the humanity behind the costume and the cardboard cut-out heroics and attributes. At all times in the film, Evans is playing Steve Rogers and so that is whom we care about. We want Steve Rogers to succeed because he wants to succeed so badly. Not for himself but for the betterment of others. Yet it is the film’s final and stellar line of dialogue that cemented the character as a uniquely Marvel Comics character as it beautifully nailed the melancholy that is the Marvel Comics trademark. It is a small moment but a sad one that concludes the film with longing, yearning, wistfulness and disappointment.
And still, there is a world to save from all manner of tyranny and rest assured that Captain America will be there carrying his mighty red, white and blue shield with the slick boomerang responsiveness. In the real world, where you and I go to the movies, I thank the cinematic heroics of Joe Johnston, his screenwriters, actors and entire crew for creating a top-notch comic book film. “Captain America: The First Avenger” is not a great film like Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" (2008) but it is a handsomely mounted and enormously entertaining one. Its quality is so strong that I think it will only assist in maintaining and strengthening a genre that typically receives very little respect and that also runs the risk of losing its luster due to over saturation.
As a final note dear readers, I must inform you to please remain seated throughout ALL of the film’s ending credits and you will see the first trailer for “The Avengers.” I am already anxious to purchase a ticket!!
Saturday, July 16, 2011
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
In late 2005, I exited the now defunct Westgate Art Cinemas elated after a screening of Woody Allen’s London set drama “Match Point,” which told the story of a former professional tennis player’s descent into dangerous lust, disingenuous social climbing and brutal murder with the larger themes of random luck within a meaningless universe as its framework. It was a brilliantly written and executed production made even livelier with Allen’s apparent artistic rejuvenation by moving his films to European locales. Anyhow, as I walked out of the theater, I happened to overhear a conversation by an older couple behind me. The gentleman expressed how much he had enjoyed the film and then his female companion answered with the following statement: “It was good…,” she began tentatively and continued with an air of disappointment, “but it wasn’t…funny.” The gentleman heaved a deep sigh, of what I felt to be incredulous disbelief, simply because I shared his sentiment.
The prolific Woody Allen, who releases a new film nearly every year and whose wonderful “Midnight In Paris” counting as his 41st film, has long desired to create a body of work that contains seriously minded motion pictures to sit alongside his comedic offerings. After hearing that woman’s statement, it just made me want to smack my forehead in disbelief that in 2005, after almost 40 years of making movies, that people’s perceptions of Allen have remained just as rigid as they were in the 1970’s when he began expanding his artistic palette by leaving the slapstick comedies of “Take The Money And Run” (1969) and “Bananas” (1971) behind for the brilliant (and Oscar winning) “Annie Hall” (1977), which was then followed by the bleak Ingmar Bergman inspired “Interiors” (1978). Hadn’t people realized by now what kind of a filmmaker Woody Allen happened to be? Didn’t they know by now that “being funny” was not paramount to him at all?
After seeing “Midnight In Paris,” I found myself to be in a “Woody Allen frame of mind” and I wanted to sift through some of his previous films, some of which I own and others I have not ever seen. I decided that it was time to take in a viewing of his controversial satire “Stardust Memories” released in 1980 immediately after his enormously celebrated “Manhattan” (1979). Not even seen as just an artistic curve ball, some audience members and critics found it to be downright insulting to the very fans whose adoration of his work had allowed him to even continue to create films in the first place.
While I certainly wouldn’t go that far, “Stardust Memories” is indeed somewhat of an oddity within the Woody Allen oeuvre. But, it is a very good oddity, filled with the type of surrealistic touches that warrant discussion, forces viewers to pause and think about what they have seen and in its sly way, demands more than one viewing. While I haven’t had the opportunity to make that second viewing myself yet, I did want to gather my first impressions for your reading pleasure as “Stardust Memories” is indeed a particularly one-of-a-kind experience from a one-of-a-kind filmmaker.
Allen stars as comic filmmaker Sandy Bates who has grown fatigued with being a comedian and is in the process of creating what he hopes to be his impressionistic dramatic masterpiece. As he battles various heartless studio executives who are attempting to re-edit his dramatic work, Bates is invited to be the Guest Of Honor at a weekend retrospective of his previous films. Throughout the weekend, Sandy is constantly interrupted by adoring fans, show business hopefuls, lawyers, accountants and whomever else that desperately wants his attention and particular brand of stardust that may hopefully elevate their own celebrity hopes and potential for fame and fortune.
Sandy romantic life is equally complicated as he mourns the failed relationship with the manic depressive and institutionalized Dorie (Charlotte Rampling), nurtures a new romance with Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault), the gorgeous French woman and Mother of two small screaming tots and flirts heavily with Daisy (Jessica Harper), the moody classical violinist Sandy meets at the film festival.
As Sandy becomes consumed with irritations and paranoia, the film slides between the present, the past, hallucinations, dark fears and dream sequences without warning. Sandy Bates’ increasingly fractured mind and dwindling spirit continues to question the meaning of life and his place within it as he wonders just what is the purpose of making silly little movies while existing within a ruthless, cold, violent and seemingly heartless world.
On the surface, “Stardust Memories” is a razor sharp Hollywood satire filtered through Woody Allen’s trademark and peerless sophisticated literary wit. Yet, this film possess a more dreamlike quality as well. Along with the film's non-linear structure, Allen, in collaboration with Cinematographer Gordon Willis, has presented this experience in sparkling black and white photography which creates an otherworldly quality.
Yes, after watching “Stardust Memories,” the parallels between Woody Allen and Sandy Bates are blindingly obvious and I would figure, they would be to you as well. Bates is easily Allen’s cinematic doppelganger in terms of artistic vision and philosophical temperament. In fact, throughout the film, many characters call out to Sandy with the formal “Mr. Bates” (say that ten times fast-get it?), a low-brow joke that glaringly exhibits a lacerating self-awareness, although if it is of the character or the creator, that is not fully known.
Since “Stardust Memories” contains the demands of fame and the sometimes contentious relationship between artist and fan as major themes, I can easily see why critics and fans did have major problems with this film at the time of its release. Sandy Bates’ fans are presented as a grotesque cavalcade of sycophants, interrupting seemingly every single moment of his day with requests for autographs, submissions of ideas for new movies and proclamations of how much they all adore his work, especially his “early funny films.” Everyone is photographed garishly, like characters in a Federico Fellini film, with unusual facial features exemplified, accentuated and exaggerated for a “through the looking glass” effect. Here is where I think that maybe character and creator separate because while the character may see his fans this way, there is truly no way to know for certain if this is the way Woody Allen sees his fans and critics and I would gather that he probably doesn’t…at least, not all of the time.
And perhaps, what we are witnessing is something more of a non-literal trip through the mind of a frustrated artist. Woody Allen has stated in interviews that Sandy Bates is essentially going through a nervous breakdown and considering the cacophony of voices and colliding subject matter contained within the voices, that description brings a clarity to the proceedings. As Sandy Bates' “hangers on” revolve around him endlessly pitching script ideas, you will also hear pleas to save the ecology, references to all manner of urban life nightmares (references to murder, crime and rape are all mentioned), and Bates himself claims to carry a gun due to his on-going Nazi paranoia. Allen is also very prophetic with the dangerous and unhinged side of the celebrity culture as “Stardust Memories” also contains a moment (not unlike another sequence in Robert Altman’s 1975 masterpiece “Nashville”) that pre-dates the December 8, 1980 assassination of John Lennon and other violent crimes against human beings who happen to be famous.
I loved the scenes set within Sandy Bates’ apartment where one wall contains a full sized mural of some image, sometimes lovely, sometimes horrific, that may reflect his state of mind at that moment. Another example of the psychological breakdown theme for me was set during, what I thought was the film’s most effective sequence as Sandy recalls the last time he saw Dorie. What we, the audience, see is from what I think would be Sandy’s perspective...actually through his eyes. It is a series of jump-cut edited close-up shots of Charlotte Rampling’s beautiful face emotionally falling apart.
And how about those women anyway? In a really provocative fashion, I am wondering if the three women, the three loves in Sandy Bates’ life are actually not three different women at all. Perhaps they are either just variations of the same woman in Sandy’s past (or present) or if they are Sandy Bates’ idea of what an ideal mate would or could be.
While comedic, “Stardust Memories” is filled with more than its fair share of emotional despair but before the proceedings become too mired in suffering and brutally nihilistic, Allen provides us with a tremendous grace note of a moment as Sandy remembers a brief moment when there seemed to be a certain alchemy in the universe. When a meal, a soft breeze, a gaze from Dorie set to a soundtrack by Louis Armstrong congealed perfectly and at that time, life made sense.
It amazes me how much Woody Allen can pack into a movie that has a running time that is a hair shy of 90 minutes, yet never feels over-stuffed, convoluted or remotely messy. His pacing is clean and quick and he juggles themes of celebrity, fame, adoration, romance, existentialism, religion, racism, and one philosophical concept after another effortlessly. And again, the film is just gorgeous to regard visually!
“Stardust Memories” may be one of Allen most confounding and prickliest entries in his artistic canon but if you are a fan or are just a bit curious to enter the mindset of artists and their artistry, I gracious invite you to place this film into your queue. It may not go down as easily as one of Woody Allen’s “earlier, funnier movies” but that does not make it any less worthy of your attention.
“HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2”
Based upon the novel by J.K. Rowling
Screenplay Written by Steve Kloves
Directed by David Yates
**** (four stars)
It is finished.
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” is a supremely grand finale that entertained wonderfully, stirred my soul significantly and as I felt when I first completed reading the original novel, I exited the theater wanting for nothing more…other than the chance to see it all over again. Dear readers, I am honestly stunned that this 10 year film series adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s wonderful seven novels has turned out so extraordinarily well. As I have stated in previous reviews of the “Harry Potter” film series, I originally detested the idea of Hollywood turning Rowling’s terrific books into movies for fear they would just sell it out, dumb it all down and rip the heart and soul from it in the process. Was I happily proven wrong!
Despite some minor quibbles here and there, every time I thought that the filmmakers would botch the entire story, they surprised me again and again as they created films that grew as rich, dark, complex and as heartbreaking as the source material. I cannot congratulate Director Chris Columbus enough for building the film world of this series from the ground up so brilliantly and to Directors Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell for extending the series in endlessly creative and emotionally resonant fashions with the third and fourth installments. Director David Yates has hit my cinematic sweet spot with his adaptations, which have found him fearlessly tackling four films in a row with increasing confidence, strength, heft and unquestionable and powerful emotion. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” definitely packs an enormous wallop and closes the series with grace and solemnity from the first frame all the way to its tender and melancholic epilogue.
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” opens at the precise moment the previous installment concluded. A fully empowered Voldemort (Ralph Finnes) has obtained the supposedly mythical Elder Wand, one of the three titular Deathly Hallows. Along with his growing army of minions, including the sadistically unhinged Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), he is on his way to wage war with the wizards and students of Hogwarts with the hopes of killing Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) once and for all.
Meanwhile, Harry, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) remain in exile as they feverishly seek and hope to destroy the remaining Horcruxes, magical items that each contain a piece of Voldemort’s splintered soul. Our heroic trio’s quest eventually leads them back to now fascistic Hogwarts, in which Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) is the new Headmaster, for the ensuing war and final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort, a confrontation which will ultimately determine the fate of the world.
When I first read Rowling’s novel when it was published in 2007, I found myself wondering exactly how were the filmmakers going to pull this off. As I have said time and again and especially concerning the film series, books are books and movies are movies and the filmmakers have to figure out how to render these books into successful visual experiences that are able to stand on their own and not be religiously tied to every moment in Rowling’s novels. Yet, as I read, and while I felt that certain bits here and there could conceivably be truncated, I just had no idea of what they could omit as everything contained significance to the saga as a whole. “If they’re really gonna do this,” I thought. “They’re gonna have to do it ‘Lord Of The Rings’ style!! Make this thing three and a half hours and go for it!!” Essentially, Yates has done just that by making Rowling’s book a four and a half hour film cleaved into two effectively distinct sections.
Certainly, some of the skeptical have definitely made their voices heard that splitting Rowling’s finale into two films was simply and solely a lucrative decision. Of course it was a lucrative decision! But I firmly believe that it was also an artistic decision as this conclusion could not be sifted, cherry picked and stuffed into a two hour running time. The halving was a brilliant move I thought, as it could satisfy those who love the story, allowed the filmmakers to treat and realize it with the proper reverence and yes, it would ensure the Hollywood machine could remain in the “Harry Potter” business a little while longer. It was a “win-win” move for Rowling, the filmmakers, the fans and bean counters all at once.
David Yates’s adaptation of Rowling’s final episode in the story of Harry Potter is appropriately epic yet it is also a somber, funereal experience. I appreciated how he was unafraid to plunge into the deep gravity of Harry’s story and fate while also taking the time to still find moments of humor, wonder, amazement, romance and always upholding the bonds of friendship that have been a central element from the tale’s beginnings. All of the actors have brought everything in their acting powers to this finale and not one false note was struck. I loved Eduardo Serra’s cinematography, which is complete with grim, grey skies and clouds of doom signifying the potential end of the world. The special effects throughout are seamless, the war sequences are simultaneously propulsive, poetic and wrenching.
Most importantly, how satisfying it was that Yates and Screenwriter Steve Kloves (who wrote the scripts for all of the films save the fifth installment) remained true to the emotional core of Rowling’s series. It is a core that is indeed painful and filled with succulent sorrow which in this film was visually presented at its best during a late sequence set in the Forbidden Forest and magnificently in the full, revelatory back story of Severus Snape (Alan Rickman’s shining hour in this entire series).
Yates and Kloves beautifully, and with tremendous care and effort, mine the sweet sorrow contained throughout Rowling’s entire saga. It is the sorrow that is contained within the pains of great loss. The loss of childhood and youth itself. The loss of parents and children. The loss of lives and humanity in times of war and catastrophe. The loss of faith, reason and hope when the obstacles seem insurmountable. The loss of lives consumed by fear, recrimination and vengeance. The loss carried forevermore within people who have never felt or accepted love. And certainly, the loss contained within every farewell…even one as spectacular and satisfying as this one.
This loss and the sorrow of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” is always evident, even in and especially during the most Herculean of battle sequences of which there are many. Yates is a filmmaker desperately needed in our Michael Bay universe because what Bay has never cared about as a filmmaker and what he has never, ever, ever cared to learn is that story and characters are the key and even in the mightiest of big budget blockbuster movies, sometimes, silence is golden.
Yates utilizes silence and pauses to incredible effect, allowing the full weight of this series to resonate within the audience. He knows when bring the lightning and the thunder and he knows fiercely well when to have quiet, which is sometimes even more devastating than being bludgeoned by all manner of audio/visual special effects and a bombastic music score.
The silence contained within pauses in the war at Hogwarts, the moments when characters silently weigh life and death decisions and in one sequence late in the film of transcendent meditativeness speaks volumes and in that movie theater, as the film continued onwards, heartfelt sobs from viewers were easily audible. I wonder if any of my fellow movie theater patrons heard mine.
To think, all of this outpouring emotion over a story about a boy wizard. And why not? Should it matter what the story is if it allows us all to think, to feel, and to dream grandly? “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” is the wondrous culmination of a 10-year cinematic journey that has been consistently at the top of its class and has shown eight times in a row that big budget films need not be brainless, thoughtless, soulless and heartless. It is a celebration of the three young actors, plucked from obscurity, who breathed succulent life into Rowling’s literary characters and allowed us to grow up with them. Furthermore, the film is a testament to the seven book series created by and written so luxuriously by J.K. Rowling, a writer whose dreams took flight and was fortunate and lucky enough to share them with us all.
Goodbye Mr. Potter…once again. Yet, this goodbye is not forever as this series, and film in particular, has vividly earned the right for many return visits. As Rowling wrote in her novel, "All was well."
Indeed it was.
Sunday, July 10, 2011
Written and Directed by Mike Mills
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
How is it that we are the people we are? How are our personalities formed? Are they learned or innate or somehow mysteriously intertwined and brought into the fullness of life due to our experiences and how we perceive and react to them?
Dear readers, I am a fairly melancholic person. I have absolutely no idea why or how I am the way I am, especially as those qualities do not seem to exist inside of my parents, but throughout the trajectory of my life, I have always felt a certain wistful sadness. That does not mean that I feel that there is a black cloud constantly over my head threatening to drench me with life’s rainfall. Quite the contrary, there is much to life that makes me deliriously happy and to those that know me, I can often be found laughing often and loudly. But still, there is this feeling I have that sits at the center of my spirit that makes me aware of things typically not turning out in the most desired ways and that feeling of disappointment is always present, even at its smallest.
“Beginners,” the new film from Writer/Director Mike Mills taps into that precise level of sadness in a film I found to be beautifully melancholic and miraculously, not depressing in the least. It is a quiet, languid, deliberately paced experience that deftly illustrates how we, as human beings, all exist symbiotically through the sameness of our life’s experiences yet we all seem to travel alone together in pursuit of connection and understanding. And if there’s a nice animal, let’s say a Jack Russell terrier to act as our faithful, unconditionally loving cohort along the way, then we are the better for it.
Ewan McGregor stars in one of his most accomplished, engaging and emotionally bare performances as Oliver, an artist, who in the year 2003, found his life at a peculiar crossroads. After enduring the passing of his Mother, Georgia (a great Mary Page Keller), Oliver’s Father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), at the age of 75 and 45 years of marriage, comes out as a gay man. Within four years of that seismic revelation, Oliver is faced with death again as Hal dies after a lengthy battle with cancer.
Oliver, consumed with grief, withdraws from his friends and co-workers, and dutifully attends to his Hal’s belongings, which includes inheriting his dog Arthur (played winningly and with occasional subtitled captions by the dog Cosmo). One evening, after being coerced by friends to accompany them to a costume party, Oliver (with the very needy Arthur in tow), meets Anna (a stunning Melanie Laurent), a French actress with whom Oliver soon begins a new love affair.
In some ways, “Beginners” could serve as a somewhat less esoteric companion piece to Terrence Malick’s astonishing “The Tree Of Life,” as Mills also weaves huge themes about our collective humanity on Earth throughout an intensely personal, non-linear designed film. As Oliver copes with Hal’s death and attempts to tentatively forge onwards into a relationship with Anna, the film flies backwards and forwards in time and memories much like how we, the audience, performs each day of our lives. We are witness to aspects of Oliver’s childhood, memories of his parents’ marriage, his relationship with his Mother, the stages of Hal’s illness and the tenderly awkward relationship that existed during the last years of Hal’s life as he embraced his life as a homosexual male, member of the homosexual community and began a relationship with the much younger Alex (Goran Visnjic from television’s “ER”).
What makes all of these episodes so crucial to the overall effectiveness of “Beginners,” is how we can see how memory is completely subjective and how our memories can never fully inform us as much as we think they should. Oliver exists with a fear of commitment that continues to manifest itself through enduring a series of failed relationships. On one hand, we can easily understand why his views of commitment are they way they are as his memories of his parent’s marriage inform him, and the audience, that although they remained a couple for 45 years, the marriage itself was decidedly chilly and seemingly not nearly as romantic as the relationship Hal eventually shared with Alex.
Even Oliver’s relationship with Georgia feels strained as his Mother strikes a somewhat inscrutable figure. She’s loving yet distant. Playful yet prickly. Permissive yet aloof and seemingly as uninterested in her son’s emotional development as Hal, who is depicted in Oliver’s memories as a tall man with his back always facing Oliver’s eyes. Oliver is a product of an environment that shows commitment as being fueled by various degrees of dissatisfaction and emotional emptiness, so no wonder why he is terrified of openening his heart so completely to another. Why spend 45 years of your life with someone when you never loved them and denied the truth of yourself in the process? But are his memories the fullness of truth?
The core of “Beginners,” is indeed Oliver’s adult relationship with Hal, which Mills presents so lovingly yet without any maudlin shading, prefabricated histrionics, or any clichéd homilies. Hal, now at his own life’s crucial stage, begins to transform himself into the man he has always known himself to be but due to the times in which he lived and grew, was unable to. Hal, witnessing his son’s shortcomings, tries to subtly imprint his greatest teachings on how life can be lived, ironically just at the point where his body begins to fail him.
As I watched “Beginners,” I felt that pall of melancholy wash over me but it never engulfed me. I ached for these characters but never fell into any sense of despair. These emotions were simply the humane feelings of just wanting people to discover and attain their own personal levels of happiness, whatever they may happen to be and I greatly appreciated how Mills matter-of-factly depicted the ways we all trip ourselves and upend our own happiness. Yes, I regarded the sadness of Hal’s life, a man knowing from the age of 13 that he was gay, and not ever feeling able to express the fullness of himself due to circumstances not of his making. Yet, this is no pity party. His life is what it is and he moves ahead as best as he is able and armed with a newfound sense of purpose that he hopes his son can gain from. How touching is was to see how near the end of his life how much he embraced. Not only his identity but whatever life he had remaining. Hal did not want to waste even one more minute or moment.
Christopher Plummer’s performance is supremely enchanting. I enjoyed how he injected a childlike sense of wonder within his new relationships within the gay community and even smaller, yet no less significant pleasures of literature, drink and even his new discovery of…house music. But, this was not presented as cutesy. Just a man determined to not allow his final years to be lived in vain, a lesson he attempts to instill within Oliver, who continues to struggle emotionally as he and Anna grow closer.
Every time Melanie Laurent appeared on screen, I could not take my eyes off of her. Her face contained oceans of expressions and moods, clearly evident in her first several sections of scenes with McGregor, as her character is suffering from laryngitis and is unable to speak. It is obvious to me why and how Oliver could fall for her so instantly. She is so nuanced, her movements, vocal inflections and character’s inner qualities are so minutely observed that she never once strikes a false note...even when she says not a word. To think that this is the same actress who commanded the screen with mountainous dialogue in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009)! I am hoping for Ms. Laurent to find herself overrun with offers from strong filmmakers for she is indeed that talented and deserves to have her skills shown often.
Granted, “Beginners,” like the films of Sofia Coppola, may try the patience of audience members as it is a slow moving film and nothing really happens. But I hope that does not discourage any of you from seeing this movie as “Beginners” is not a film about what happens. It is a film that gracefully, poignantly and with many wry slices of humor shows us how and why we all need each other and despite how our personalities are formed, there is always room to change.
“Beginners” is a film that is about that very moment of change and the painful steps sometimes taken to bring that change into complete fruition because by the nature of beginning, something, sometimes invariably has to end. With Hal, his life fully begins as it is about to close permanently. Oliver’s life, hopefully with Anna, cannot fully form without finally discarding the sad life and perceptions he has claimed for himself. Mills, through his film, show how the process of change can be very uncomfortable even when one’s present situation is not anything to write home about. Oliver may be lonely and unfulfilled but it is the only life he knows and deviation from that fuels his fear of opening up fully. Mike Mills is in tune with that confusion so empathetically and without judgment.
Sometimes, it feels pretty good to engage and lose yourself in the waters of melancholy. “Beginners” is like a long, sweet, sad, soulful sigh and it is one Mike Mills earnestly wishes to share with us.
Monday, July 4, 2011
“FOO FIGHTERS BACK AND FORTH”
Produced and Directed by James Moll
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
What happens when a dream comes true?
In the opening moments of Director James Moll’s excellent new documentary “Foo Fighters Back and Forth,” bandleader Dave Grohl vividly speaks about his childhood dreams of possibly attending a rock concert only to discover that his favorite band’s drummer is out ill. Then, an announcement is made form the stage wondering if anyone out in the audience just happens to know the parts to all of the songs. Grohl envisioned himself immediately leaping into action, saving the day and existing as a rock and roll hero for just one spectacular show. How I could easily and completely relate to that very dream as I have had that same dream myself…and still do. “Foo Fighters Back and Forth” is not simply an extended episode of “Behind The Music” or a career retrospective puff piece. It is an experience that celebrates the realization and nurturing of a shared musical dream between musicians who were all shaped by rock and roll.
Beginning with Grohl, the film officially opens with his stint as one third of the cultural alternative rock juggernaut Nirvana as Moll deftly establishes the band’s rise to fame and eventual disintegration after the tragic suicide of bandleader/songwriter/singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain in 1994. After spending some time away from all aspects of the music business, Grohl decided to book five days of studio to fully realize some songs he had written over the years. He had no plans or intentions of doing anything in particular with the music other than to work as a form of healing. By week’s end, after writing every song and performing all of the vocals and instruments by himself, Grohl had completed one cassette tape worth of music, music that would eventually become the début album credited to the Foo Fighters.
Slowly and pondering if he could potentially create a new band, Grohl began passing his cassette around which did indeed gather the enthusiastic attention of bassist Nate Mandel and drummer William Goldsmith, both of whom were just about to complete their stint in their own disintegrating band. Seizing an opportunity, Grohl placed a call to Pat Smear, who served as Nirvana’s touring guitarist, and asked if he would be interested in joining the new band. Smear listened to Grohl’s cassette, was instantly hooked and the birth of the Foo Fighters was complete.
Over the film’s briskly paced two hour and twenty minute running time, Moll takes us through the band’s history from its gradually and continuously evolving heights, band lineup changes, interpersonal and artistic struggles and Grohl’s desire and ability to carve out a new musical identity when the world seemingly wanted him to remain firmly placed in his musical past, especially one as groundbreaking at Nirvana’s. Moll fills the movie to the brim with archived material from the band’s pre-Foo years, concert footage, clips from their celebrated music videos and they are all anchored with brand new engaging and insightful interviews with all members of the band, past and present.
Since I happen to be of the age that experienced Nirvana before and during their musical explosion as well as the birth of the Foo Fighters, it was just fascinating to me to watch all of this material speed by and consider it all to be “vintage,” even as that time still feels so fresh to me. As the Foo Fighters have endured for over 15 years, throughout all upheavals within the music business industry and technological advances with music distribution, the band has only continued to capture new fans. Knowing that, I truly wonder those younger listeners would think of the material that showcases MTV at a time when music was the entire means for that channel. (And on a side note, I wonder what that Tabitha Soren is doing these days…)
Beyond the mountains of footage from the vaults, “Foo Fighters Back and Forth,” showcases Dave Grohl’s enthusiasm and sheer joy for the pleasure and ability to perform and create music. Throughout the film’s entirety, his ebullience permeates this joyous film and I swear you can easily obtain a contact high from his boundless energy and spirit. Grohl’s endless affability makes for a film that is a gracious, honest, down to Earth and as open-hearted as he seems to be. I was also struck by his willingness to allow some cracks to show within the veneer.
While we are witness to an artist of fierce independence and head strong nature, especially as he famously turned down an invitation to officially join Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as their permanent drummer in pursuit of how own personal musical dreams, that head strong nature also has gotten Grohl into tight spots with the band mates he clearly cherishes as his friends. He is visibly uncomfortable when asked about the decisions which led to him re-recording all of the drums for the band second album “The Colour and the Shape” instead of Goldsmith. Or how guitarist Franz Stahl, who joined the band after Smear’s departure due to touring fatigue, was eventually fired from the band via a phone call—something that still obviously hurts Stahl as we can see during his interview segments. Most painfully, we learn a little more about a particularly dark period where the band nearly called it quits and most crucially, the near overdose of drummer Taylor Hawkins, who was experiencing his own troubles with the rapid onslaught of fame, fortune and adoration.
Moll displays the fragility and tentative nature that exists within all bands, as new members appear, old members desire to return, everyone questions their role and place and wonders about any potential longevity. And that is where “Foo Fighters Back and Forth” finds its extra nugget of truth, its profound grace notes.
Guitarist Chris Shiflett perhaps explains it best when he expresses a willingness to simply enjoy every single moment he has within this band just because no one really knows how long this glorious time will last. That very sentiment sits at the core of this film and the band as they continuously try to find ways to keep the bonds of their friendships strong while also keeping the music they make as pure as possible. Grohl is especially thankful for the time when the band won a Grammy Award for their third album “There Is Nothing Left To Lose.” That album was created by eschewing all fancy, big budget recording studios solely for the pleasure and tranquility of recording at Grohl’s home in Virginia (where he claims all of his vocals were recorded on his couch).
The film devotes its final third to the band’s recording of their current album “Wasting Light,” again at Grohl’s home and mostly within his garage along with legendary producer Butch Vig, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and alternative music legend Bob Mould. Those sections are fraught with family, children, swimming pools, laughter, smiles, relaxation as well as determined musical commitment. The scenes of Grohl and Mould practicing vocals and Grohl’s quick five minute lyric writing session, prove so enlightening into the band’s process and willingness to never phone it in, even after all of their rock star spoils and glory. Another sequence, featuring Novoselic working out his bass parts as Vig and Grohl sit nearby on the epic song “I Should Have Known” sends chills as we regard three fourths of the team who created Nirvana’s landmark album “Nevermind” bringing their friendship and creative process full circle.
A short sequence set at Wembley Stadium really hit home for me as to who these band members are as people. While on the top of that rock star mountain, the Foo Fighters are all still kids in their bedrooms pouring over album after album, worshiping at the feet of their musical heroes. The gratitude shown of Grohl’s speechless face as what seems to be the world’s fans cheer him and his band upwards and onwards was supremely uplifting
James Moll’s “Foo Fighters Back and Forth” is a testament to this band’s endurance, perseverance and dedication to each other and to the art of always continuing to find ways to write and perform that perfect song that will rip the roofs off and shake the clouds in the sky. Like last year’s excellent documentary “Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage,” Moll wisely gives us a film that stresses determination and musicianship during a time when people are famous for simple being famous and worldwide success is expected without effort. Foo Fighters fly in the face of that nonsense as they have kept a fierce perspective on their good fortune as none of them want to squander even one minute.
If you permit me, I must return to Dave Grohl’s opening musical fantasy where I proclaimed that I still entertain that same dream. Everyday I carry a satchel to work and inside of that satchel is a pair of drum sticks. Those sticks go with me wherever I travel and finally, I was once asked by my wife exactly why I carry those drums ticks around.
“You just never know when someone, somewhere is going to need some percussion. And I want to be ready,” I explained.
Skeptically, she looked at me and asked, “Really???”
“You never know,” I always say. “You just never know!”
For Dave Grohl and his band mates, that dream came true and they are all hanging onto it with all of their might. And with this terrific film, you may even be able to grab a piece of that dream for yourselves.
Sunday, July 3, 2011
Story by Zack Snyder
Screenplay Written by Zack Snyder and Steve Shibuya
Directed by Zack Snyder
1/2 * (one half of one star)
No matter how many bad reviews one may read about a certain film, it can never truly compare to the experience of having sat through the entire production. “Sucker Punch,” Director Zack Snyder’s third film and follow up to his incredible interpretation of Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” (2009) is an unmitigated and unquestionable disaster. The film is a nightmare CGI wasteland of such extreme soulnessness that it makes Tim Burton’s miserable “Alice In Wonderland” (2010) look like a chamber piece art film. Everything in the movie is negligible and there is not even one honest emotion conveyed through it from its characters and even through the possible intent of the film’s creator. Yes, dear readers, this film is truly that awful and if you think I am being too hard on it, just know that I am actually complimenting it by even considering it to be a movie. If you are thinking of seeing “Sucker Punch,” enter at your own risk for you have been warned.
Emily Browning stars as the orphaned and horrifically named Babydoll, who after accidentally murdering her younger sister while trying to protect her from their lascivious stepfather, is unfairly imprisoned into a bizarre insane asylum; the kind of which that only houses fashion model ready young girls who lash out and writhe around on the floor together in untamed psycho versions of caged heat. If life was not already grim enough for Babydoll, it is about to meet its end as she is scheduled to be lobotomized by the Doctor (Jon Hamm) and subsequently raped by the evil orderly Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac) within five days.
Before her fateful day, Babydoll retreats into a fantasy world where she envisions the asylum as a brothel, Blue as a gangster/pimp and Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino) the asylum’s psychiatrist as a Madame. Babydoll is soon befriended by a gaggle of “dancers” including: the tough talking Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and her gentle sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Amber (Jamie Chung) and the ironically named Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens). And before you can say, “Nobody puts Babydoll in a corner!”, Babydoll enlists the aid of her new friends as she has devised an escape plan for which they will have to retrieve five items: a map, fire, a knife, a key and one last mystical object.
In this sexualized dream world, Babydoll and her friends are forced to stage erotic dances for clients. Babydoll’s dances prove to be so sexually charged and mesmerizing, to viewers as well as herself, that she retreats into yet ANOTHER fantasy world where she and her friends become gun toting and sword carrying warriors led by a spirit guide (Scott Glenn). In these wild battle and rock music driven action sequences, they must vanquish zombie Nazi soldiers, dragons and 50 ft tall samurai demons, with each success signifying the retrieval of one of the items needed for escape. Yet, will they be able to achieve their dreams before Babydoll becomes a mindless vegetable ready to be deflowered?
OK, dear readers, I am of the mind that a filmmaker could be able to make a successful film about nearly anything and even with a story as ridiculous as this one, that feat should still be able to be accomplished. But, I’m sorry…”Sucker Punch” fails on all counts and spectacularly so. The set design and cinematography is repugnant and the daydream/nightmare slow-mo photography, so effectively stunning in “Watchman” is painfully over utilized here. The fantasy within fantasy war sequences play as nothing more than sections of the worst video game you have ever plunked a quarter into. They are loud, excruciatingly overlong, yawn inducing and devoid of any subtlety, awe, mystery, danger or wonder. Any imaginative streaks in the conceptual looks of these worlds is a meaningless mishmash of styles, genres and eras. If anything, the absolute hell of these sequences should serve as a lesson to any aspiring or even currently working filmmakers who desire to utilize special effects in their films: don’t use these cinematic toys just because you can!
It only gets worse when we come to the actual performances in “Sucker Punch,” which to be fair cannot be the fault of the actors as they are really just chess pieces to be moved around in Snyder’s green screen world. While Abbie Cornish and Jena Malone do seem to be trying to inject…something...anything into the proceedings and their cartoonishly sexualized heroine, Emily Browning as Babydoll is reprehensible. She doesn’t even deliver anything resembling a performance. She’s all doe eyes, bee stung lips, tiny clothes and a mouth that is either partially open or fully closed. She is no heroine. She is no trapped butterfly ready to transform into a wasp. She’s a blow up doll and I have this cringe inducing feeling that is exactly what Zack Snyder may have wanted.
On the whole, “Sucker Punch” feels as if we have purchased a ticket inside the teenaged wet dreams of Zack Snyder and it is truly an uncomfortable place to be. Feminists, Women Studies majors and frankly, anyone who loves women would have a field day with this movie as these characters are ones that Snyder really seems to believe are empowering yet they exist solely as sex kitten dream girls. There is just no way around it. There is no subtext here folks, because this movie just isn’t that smart enough to even know what a subtext actually is.
Every woman in the film is dolled up, dressed up in skintight clothing ready to be raped, beaten, or killed by some horny male authority figure. When the women are indeed allowed to become ready for battle as leather clad warrior women with giant artillery kicking ass, it is only through the prism of Babydoll’s erotic dances. For Snyder, it seems that the stripper pole is a means to be a no holds barred fighter against a sexist world and that’s a gigantically steaming load of crap if he really wants us, in the 21st century, to buy into that fantasy.
And yet…as much as I am criticizing the film’s sexual politics, there is a part of me that also faults the film for not going far enough. Here is what I mean, dear readers. If Zack Snyder is essentially giving us a front row seat into his wet dreams, then why is this film rated PG-13? If you’re going to bother to go down this road, with this subject matter and these characters who have to do these things, then at least have the cojones to go all the way! Go for the gold and be an unrepentantly nasty, sexual fantasy like that 25-minute sequence from the R rated animated film “Heavy Metal” (1981). That film’s centerpiece features a mute, warrior woman named Taarna on a revenge quest for the one who slaughtered her homeland. The entire movie and that section in particular, made no apologies for having a soft porn section in the middle of her storyline which depicted her simply bathing and getting herself dressed for war (in thigh high boots, lip gloss, bustier and sword). She is accosted on several occasions, raped (off screen) by the main villain in another section and yet she still is able to decapitate her tormentors with the cold-blooded efficiency of a classic Clint Eastwood character. Or even better, there’s Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s “Sin City” (2005), a gloriously shot and gleefully R rated production that, although it overstayed its welcome, went whole hog into its grisly violent and prurient sexual universe with all manner of deviants lurking around every dark corner.
“Sucker Punch” is a film that wants to be dirty without really being dirty and that also makes the production feel so disingenuous. Going back for a moment to those erotic dances that Babydoll performs that are just supposed to be so explosively sexual. Well…we, the audience, never see even one of those dances. All we get to see is the sight of Emily Browning just swaying side to side. Then, she closes her eyes and wakes up to battle a dragon. It is as if Snyder didn’t want the nation to come down upon him like a ton of those proverbial and puritanical American bricks for fear we would decry his right to hold whatever sexual fantasies he desires. Trust me, Zack Snyder can have whatever sexual fantasies he wants. I am no one to judge anyone else of their proclivities as long as they do not harm another living thing. If imprisoned lipstick lesbians who can fly warplanes and wield swords are his thing then more power to him. But, please don’t dress it all up in CGI comic book special effects and claim that this is really a film about empowerment! That is an insult to the intelligence of everyone who chooses to view this movie and how insulting it is to be insulted by a film this stupid.
Seeing “Sucker Punch” truly exemplifies the statement I use sometimes to friends: I see these things so you don’t have to. I saw “Sucker Punch” and trust me, you really, really, really do not have to sit through this as it is easily the worst film I have seen so far in 2011.
Saturday, July 2, 2011
Based upon the novel Out Of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert
Screenplay Written by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
** ½ (two and a half stars)
At least this was a marked improvement over “The Adjustment Bureau.”
For any of my multi-lingual readers, I do apologize for the title of this review as I am of the understanding that the German term, essentially translated as “foreigner,” just may be an offensive one. If so, being offensive was not my intent by any means. Yet, for the purposes of reviewing this particular thriller, which does contain a certain level of pulp and sordidness, the title seemed to be fitting to me.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously unleashed the grisly bad seed horror film “Orphan” (2009), returns with “Unknown,” an unseemly and grimy European crime thriller about a man’s search for his identity starring Liam Neeson whose righteous anger, so brutally on display in the equally brutal “Taken” (2008), is always a sight to behold. His fury is instantly relatable, his primal rage completely palpable. And his theatrical heft is almost enough to carry this decent but underwhelming film all by itself. If not for Neeson, there would not be much else to make this film worth watching.
Liam Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris, a botanist arriving with his wife Liz (January Jones) in Berlin to give a presentation at a biotechnology summit. Upon arriving at their hotel, Martin realizes that his briefcase containing his notes, passport and all other forms of his identification was forgotten at the airport. Leaving Liz to deal with the hotel accommodations, Martin frantically takes a taxi, driven by illegal immigrant Gina (Diane Kruger), to attempt to retrieve his briefcase. Suddenly, the taxi becomes involved in a major traffic accident, which causes the taxi to crash through a bridge and into the river below. Martin is instantly knocked unconscious and falls into a coma but is quickly saved by Gina and brought to shore to meet the emergency medical response team. Gina quietly exits the scene of the accident leaving Martin in safe medical hands.
Four days later, Martin awakens in the hospital, disoriented, confused and feverishly wondering what had happened to him as well as the whereabouts and safety of his wife in this unfamiliar city. Checking himself out of the hospital, Martin returns to the hotel hoping to check himself in and reunite with Liz, which proves more than difficult with out having any identification proving is identity. The hotel staff eventually acquiesces to allow him inside of a gathering of the biotechnology summit’s participants to speak with his wife yet upon their reunion, Liz claims she has never seen Martin in her life. To make matters worse, another man claiming to be Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn) arrives at Liz’s side professing to be her true husband and as proof, offers identification signifying this apparent stranger to be the real Martin Harris!
Enlisting the aid of a private investigator (Bruno Ganz) and former member of the German secret police as well as the reluctant assistance from Gina, Martin Harris prowls the streets of Berlin on a quest to prove and reclaim his identity.
Liam Neeson is a cinematic treasure and with his recent stint as an unlikely action star, he has proven to be an asset to a genre that typically does not receive very much respect. With “Unknown,” a film that at times seems like Doug Liman’s “The Bourne Identity” (2002) or even Paul Verhoeven’s “Total Recall” (1990), Neeson serves as an everyman even when he seethes with indignant rage, fights with ferocity and drives a car like a Superman. As with “Taken,” Neeson completely elevates what could have been another run of the mill mistaken identity thriller. He injects unquestionable soul and depth into the proceedings, again making him a hero worth following almost anywhere.
Thankfully, Neeson does not have to carry “Unknown” all alone as Collet-Serra has populated his film with strong character actors that surround Neeson handsomely, making the world within this film appropriately grounded within the realms of plausibility. In addition to seeing Aidan Quinn, an actor I never thought has ever fully received his proper due, I was also impressed with Bruno Ganz’s gravelly performance as Ernst Jurgen the private investigator as well as brief moments from Clint Dyer (as a confidant of Gina’s), Karl Markovics (as the kindly German doctor who aids Martin Harris) and even Eva Lobau (as a doomed nurse). All of these supporting actors do what they can to hold the screen and add to the complexity of the story and the locale of Berlin itself, an element that is also aided by Flavio Labiano’s luridly excellent cinematography.
But, of course, there are problems contained within “Unknown” that stopped me from fully embracing it. Nothing that derailed it by any means but problems nonetheless.
For instance, I just do not know or understand what the fascination is with January Jones but for me, in regards to this film, she felt to be rather stiff and just another bland blond that is arm candy to her much older co-stars. Diane Kruger, so effective in her early scenes when she utilizes her resourcefulness to rescue Neeson’s Martin Harris from drowning, hardly registers in her scenes afterwards. This problem is nothing that I blame her for because I believe she has given what she was able to a role that was sadly underwritten. Considering how brilliant she was in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) we all know that Kruger has the chops and the ability to go toe to toe with Liam Neeson and it was just a shame to essentially see her being relegated to the role of “the girl.” And for times here and there, the film seemed to drag when it needed to be ratcheting up its level of intensity.
But, please take these quibbles for what they are, just minor quibbles in an otherwise fairly solid thriller which remains consistent with itself and does indeed follow through to a conclusion that is appropriately two-fisted and again, plausible.
And if we haven’t truly learned by now, I believe that we can all take away one major lesson from “Unknown”: Don’t make Mr. Neeson angry. We wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.
Awww…who am I kidding? We LOVE him when he’s angry!