Sunday, September 18, 2011

I DRIVE: a review of "Drive"

Based upon the novel Drive by James Sallis
Screenplay Written by Hossein Amini
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
*** (three stars)

I always tend to get a kick out of movies in which the full intent of the cinematic experience is laid out succinctly within the film’s title like Director Jan de Bont’s “Speed” (1994) or “Twister” (1996) or more recent fare like “Fighting” (2009) or “Faster” (2010) for instance. There’s no questioning in any conceivable way of what you are going to get if you purchase a ticket and sometimes that’s all you need. Now, we arrive with “Drive,” an atmospheric and brutal film noir from Director Nicolas Winding Refn, which flies highly upon its sleek style and does indeed aim a bit higher conceptually. But, despite the solid work, it does tend to unfortunately spin its wheels here and there once you arrive at the film’s second half. Yet, if you are in the mood for a dark action thriller that is decidedly off of the beaten Hollywood path (and if you have a strong stomach) then this is definitely the film for you.

The plot of “Drive” is appropriately simple and sinister but grows deadlier as the film progresses. Ryan Gosling stars as The Driver, an unnamed and extremely reticent Hollywood stunt driver and garage mechanic for the kindly yet crusty Shannon (Bryan Cranston) who also moonlights as a getaway driver. His rules for creeps and thieves are clear and simple. He does not carry a gun. He will wait for five minutes tops. If they make it within the five minute window, he will take them wherever they want to go. Yet, if the thieves are any longer than five minutes, they are on their own.

One afternoon after some minor grocery shopping, The Driver happens upon his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos) as they have a bit of car trouble. The Driver assists the twosome and soon, he and Irene begin a chaste romance which becomes complicated as Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is due for release from prison with plans to return home to his family. Unfortunately, Standard owes protection money from his prison stint to a thug know only as Cook (James Biberi) and one evening, The Driver arrives home to find Standard beaten to a pulp.

Fearing for Irene and Benicio’s safety, The Driver reluctantly agrees to help Standard pull off one final heist that would ultimately get Standard out from under Cook’s thumb. The heist goes disastrously wrong and The Driver finds himself in the ferocious crosshairs of not only Cook but another gangster named Nino (Ron Pearlman) and finally, crime boss Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks).

“Drive” is an existential crime fantasy that, while not quite of the same neighborhood as a Quentin Tarantino film, maybe lives a few blocks away. It is a minimalist film with scant dialogue and cemented with Ryan Gosling’s unnerving performance as The Driver. Gosling again shows that he is the real deal as his performance feels as lived in and as complete as the drug addicted high school teacher in the strong “Half Nelson” (2006) and the emotionally damaged young man in love with a blow-up sex doll in the too quirky for its own good “Lars and the Real Girl” (2007).

The Driver’s relatively clean cut looks and lithe frame are brilliantly juxtaposed with his ice-cold demeanor as at first glance, he does not seem to be the sort of person to house near psychopathic tendencies, albeit with a fairly rigid moral compass for right and wrong. Everything you need to know about The Driver is depicted upon the shiny silver scorpion jacket he constantly wears. Beware of The Driver’s sting.

I was so drawn to how a man who says so very little was always able to effortlessly draw people inwards and essentially confess all of their inner secrets to him. I especially liked the romance between The Driver and Irene as it is deceptively simple. It is so simple that I would not be surprised if many filmgoers felt that there was not much acting going on between Gosling and Carey Mulligan as neither of them speak terribly much dialogue and many of their scenes together consist of lengthy, moody pauses and meaningful glances towards each other. Yet, what Gosling and Mulligan have mastered within their scenes together is the sense of two damaged people not saying anything more than they absolutely have to solely because some things are better left unsaid and everything is understood. Everything we need to know is projected through their eyes, facial ticks and movements, body language and it was a treat to witness a fullness of performance, from two wonderful actors, that are accomplished with so little.

Like last year’s well intentioned but so-so “The American” (2010) and this year’s superior and kinetic thriller “Hanna,” I admired Refn’s ability to channel a European sensibility in terms of the visual style and deliberate yet efficiently intense pacing he applied to “Drive.” Composer Cliff Martinez must be given major kudos for his brooding and chilly electronic score, like “Contagion” (which he also scored) again recalls the classic 1980s film scores of Tangerine Dream. For that matter, “Drive” often feels like a lost film from the 1980s due to its aesthetics. Even the film credit font graphics are the same as the ones utilized for “Purple Rain” (1984)!

Ultimately, “Drive” is an homage as it honors Sergio Leone’s “Spaghettis westerns” of the 1960s for who else is Gosling’s character but an updated version of Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” character? Refn also aims to honor Director Walter Hill’s urban westerns, which include “The Warriors” (1979), “Southern Comfort” (1981), the classic “48 Hrs.” (1982) and even another film entitled “The Driver” (1978), which also featured a nameless getaway driver as the films anti-hero. “Drive” also owes quite a fair share to Director William Friedkin’s ferocious thriller “To Live And Die In L.A.” (1985). But, to my eyes and ears, Refn’s film sits at the feet of Director Michael Mann and his endlessly innovative oeuvre which includes the crime noir dramas and epics “Thief” (1981), “Manhunter” (1986), “Heat” (1995), “Collateral” (2004) and his two 1980s televisions series, “Miami Vice” and “Crime Story.” Mann has built a career upon lurid cops and criminals dramas that focus squarely upon the fascination of observing reticent men, their professionalism, obsessions within their respective (and sometimes questionable) lines of work.

If you are going to bother to create a thriller that works as homage, then Refn cannot be faulted for setting his sights so dramatically high. But, when it was all said and done, it was not as supremely successful as I think he would have wished for it to have been despite his great effort and unquestionable skill.

The major issue I had with “Drive” was a bit like the one I had when I saw Director Joseph Kosinki’s ambitious sequel, “Tron: Legacy” (2010) this past winter. That film, while very striking and effective was sort of a one note experience as it not only celebrated the original film but also nearly every idea George Lucas placed into his head. It served as sequel and homage and absolutely nothing more, including a sense of Kosinski’s personality. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that approach, it does tend to leave me a little cold because after a while, I begin to wonder why I am watching a copycat experience when I could be watching the real deal?

For me, “Drive” suffered the same fate. Frankly, as talented as Refn is, and he is very talented, if Sergio Leone, Walter Hill and especially Michael Mann never made any films, “Drive” would not exist. Plain and simple. From start to finish, I never really gathered a sense of Refn’s own personality and vision behind the homage, an element that would have made “Drive” truly stand on its own two feet, or wheels, for that matter. With the high critical praise being launched towards “Drive,” comparisons are already being made to Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1994). But, dear readers, I cannot even begin to extend my praise that highly for the following reason: “Pulp Fiction” presented to me a world in a way I had never seen it before. Quentin Tarantino’s entire career has consisted of the recycling of genre specific parts. But, what Tarantino possesses, other than the sheer exhilaration of movie making is his peerless skill as a writer. While always honoring the film style and genre in question, he always discovers a way to also transcend the genre, thus making each experience nothing less than “Tarantino-ian.” Seeing “Pulp Fiction” for the first time was like having a smart bomb explode inside of the movie theater as it essentially re-wrote the rules. “Drive,” on the other hand, is everything I have seen before with absolutely nothing new to offer unlike J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” or the aforementioned “Hanna” from Director Joe Wright. Both of those films, which gloriously paid tribute to early Steven Spielberg films and crime thrillers respectively, knew how to honor, transcend and personalize their experiences and I had wished that “Drive” was able to do the same.

And still, there is another issue and that was the aspect of this film’s level of violence.

Horror, slasher films and torture porn flicks aside, I am typically not terribly offended by movie violence as long as it feels true to the story the filmmakers are trying to tell. But I have to say that the violence of “Drive,” while not present from beginning to end, is extremely grisly, graphic and sadly gratuitous serving for nothing more than shock value. One sequence set inside of a motel room features an especially horrific gunshot blast to the head that I felt crossed a certain line of good taste. Yes, “Drive” is essentially a 1980’s movie with an appropriately 1980s “money shot” but still, it was so graphic that it did take me out of the film for a bit and that particular distaste lingered throughout the remainder of the film. Another sequence set inside of an elevator also goes on long past the point had been made, again taking me out of the story. And yet, some of the climactic battles play out mostly in shadow and darkness and those scenes were surprisingly more effective than all of the buckets of blood and gore we had seen so far. If you do choose to buy a ticket for “Drive,” you have been warned. It’s strong and ugly stuff.

All that being said, Nicolas Winding Refn did swing for the fences and he cannot be faulted for that. But here’s hoping that for his next effort, he discovers a way to allow his own personality into the pastiche…and if he can tone down the brutality just a hair, he just may have his own classic on his hands instead of re-making the classics we already know so well.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

CAN I KICK IT? YES YOU CAN!!!!: a review of "Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest"

Directed by Michael Rapaport
**** (four stars)

“Back in the days when I was a teenager
Before I had status and before I had a pager
You could find the Abstract listening to hip-hop
My pops used to say it reminded him of be-bop”
-A Tribe Called Quest (“Excursions”)

I was, and to an extent (and for much different reasons), remain a hip-hop skeptic.

With music, the sounds that immediately grabbed my ears, mind, heart and soul were the songs that played on the radio during the 1970s. My parents have often told me that side two of The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album would soothe me unlike anything else when I was a baby. During my nursery school years, I had profound connections to songs like The Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze” and side one of Elton John’s classic “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” album. As I grew older, my tastes naturally gravitated to the sounds and power of rock music with Chicago’s WLS-AM becoming my beloved station of choice, the station's DJ as heroes and Peter Frampton, Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, Queen, E.L.O. and KISS emerging as personal favorites. By the time I was nine years old in 1978, The Beatles became an obsession, an obsession I hold just as tightly onto today.

Around that time, as I took the bus to school with the radio blaring the R&B of the day via WJPC, a new sound blasted through the speakers and grabbed the complete attention of every child so forcefully, it could have been physical. The song was “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang. Utilizing the basic tracks from Chic’s “Good Times,” “Rapper’s Delight,” long acknowledged as possibly being the first rap song, became the song that everyone on that school bus loved and was determined to learn—even me! Also, during that period, I found myself being drawn to tracks like Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” and “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five at family reunions and barbeques but my musical heart fiercely (perhaps too fiercely) held its allegiance to rock and roll and nothing was going to tear me away from it.

By the time Run-DMC exploded onto the musical scene during my high school years, I had vehemently (and wrongly) rejected them and the whole concept of rap music as an art form altogether. Maybe it was a way to remain tight with certain friends and social circle. Definitely it was largely due to my status as a drummer as I could not see the musical validity in synthetic beats and people just…speaking in rhymes. I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand it and I just didn’t want to. It wasn’t what I had thought of as music and so, I desired nothing more that for it to be kept as far away from me as possible.

I finally saw the light and began to bob my head while in college, 1989 to be exact. While visiting a friend and fellow student radio DJ in his dorm room, he forced me to sit down and finally take a listen to a then recently released hip-hop album that he felt would be the one that I would like for certain. As I sat and waited for him to cue the CD, I had my guard up and was more than prepared to barely tolerate the entire experience at best. By the end of the album, I dramatically realized that he was absolutely correct and I was, and had been, completely and utterly wrong. Not only did I like the album, I LOVED it and soon purchased a copy for myself. The album in question was “3 Ft High and Rising” by De La Soul.

Soon thereafter, and almost by accident, I sat in my own dorm room and listened from front to back and reading the lyric sheet the entire time, to an album many of my friends and fellow student DJs had been salivating over and I had paid absolutely no attention to. That album was “Fear Of A Black Planet” by Public Enemy, an album I still feel is easily one of the best albums I have ever listened to.

For a few months before and after my college graduation in 1991, I worked in Memorial Library shelving books and the like with my headphones almost surgically strapped to my ears. I religiously switched cassettes by Julian Cope, Funkadelic, World Party, and XTC over and again but what I listened to most often, other than De La Soul’s brilliant sophomore album “De La Soul Is Dead” was the undeniably, unapologetically and justifiably incredible music experience known as “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths Of Rhythm” by A Tribe Called Quest. I was glued to that album as I walked up and down the library stacks day after every spring and summer day as songs like “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo,” “Luck Of Lucien,” “Description Of A Fool,” “After Hours,” and the masterful “Bonita Applebum” flowed through my spirit. To this day, I feel that album is one of the best debut albums I have ever heard…of any musical genre. A Tribe Called Quest had me and I was ready to travel any musical path they placed in front of me.

While this review’s preamble was more on the lengthier side than usual, I felt it to be more than fitting due to the paths and travels of my own musical life. I could not help but to re-explore my personal journey as I viewed the musical journey of the hip-hop legends A Tribe Called Quest in “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest,” the joyously first rate documentary and debut film from actor turned Director and hard core fan Michael Rapaport. In addition to exploring the requisite vicissitudes in the still influential 20-year career of the group, “Beats, Rhymes & Life” also beautifully chronicles the strong yet difficult friendship between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, the group’s focal members.

Even more impressively, Rapaport utilizes his film to commemorate what many, including myself, refer to as the “Golden Age of Hip-Hop,” a time set between the late eighties and early nineties where “hip-hop artists used to teach Black people to love themselves,” as writer/cartoonist Aaron McGruder expressed so succinctly in the opening to his first “Boondocks” comic strip collection. With “Beats, Rhymes & Life,” Rapaport has compiled an enormously entertaining and emotional film designed to keep your feet moving, the theater speakers bangin’ and your mind and spirit active and alert. Simply stated, “Beats, Rhymes & Life” is a film that is as artistically rewarding as any of the five albums in A Tribe Called Quest’s catalog. When it makes its way to your town, it is a film that should not be missed!

Beginning with scenes of internal group turmoil and personal dissolution, “Beats, Rhymes & Life” works its way backwards to the childhood days of Q-Tip (nee Jonathan Davis) and Phife Dawg (nee Malik Taylor) who have been friends since the age of two and lived nearly a block away from each other in Queens, New York. We are also soon introduced to band DJ/producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad and rapper Jarobi White, another childhood friend of Phife Dawg’s. As the foursome’s friendship and artistic collaboration formed, (along with the creation of The Native Tongues posse which featured De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Monie Love among others) A Tribe Called Quest eventually grew into one of hip-hop true innovative pioneers as they created five multi-platinum selling albums and achieved global fame and recognition in just under ten years.

As these musical stories tend to go, creative and personal tensions began to rear its ugly head, thus affecting the overall positivity that was inherent within their music. With the band’s twin towers of the esoteric, velvet voiced Q-Tip combined with the streetwise, higher pitched rasp of Phife Dawg, the twosome were as compelling as Page and Plant, Jagger and Richards and apparently just as fraught with friction as so many artists who have come before and those who still remain.

Even after their abrupt and surprising disbandment in 1998, the shadow cast by A Tribe Called Quest continues to loom largely over hip-hop as artists by the likes of The Roots, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu and even Kanye West have continued in A Tribe Called Quest’s footsteps and to whom they certainly owe their careers.

It is obvious from the films’ first few moments that “Beats, Rhymes & Life” is a labor of love for Michael Rapaport and I greatly appreciated how he was obviously determined to make the a motion picture experience as best as he was able. Visually, Rapaport has a poetic eye that reminded me of images from Spike Lee’s films and he holds the vision of a true filmmaker so assured with his cinematic approach to this material, which is infused with a deeper than the ocean love for this group. “Beats, Rhymes & Life” is a film that works simultaneously a celebration and requiem, for not only A Tribe Called Quest but for the state of hip-hop itself. It saddens me that so much of current hip-hop is mournfully less about pride, integrity, knowledge, identity, and community and has seemingly not recovered from the over 30 year drug, guns and thug induced hangover and haze of Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic.”

From a musical standpoint, “Beats, Rhymes and Life” is downright masterful as we not only hear all of the classic songs from A Tribe Called Quest, the film contains a treasure trove of classic performance footage from the band’s heyday as well as from the 2008 and 2010 reunion tours. Rapaport gives us excellent and brand new interview sections with all four band members plus their respective hip-hop contemporaries including The Beastie Boys, Monie Love, Busta Rhymes and the legendary DJ Red Alert among others.

“Beats, Rhymes & Life” also provided a true musical and even social education for me. The construction of music from guitars, keyboards drums and vocals, for instance is something I conceptually understand. The construction of a hip-hop song through samples is another beast entirely and I appreciated the time Rapaport and the members of A Tribe Called Quest took to allow us a glimpse behind the curtain. One great sequence depicts Q-Tip breaking down the classic song “Can I Kick It?” down to the origins of its drum beat. As far as lyrics are concerned, and during an interview segment, Q-Tip hilariously illustrates how “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” had its origins from a now obscure “Sanford and Son” reference. Through these moments and so many more, “Beats, Rhymes & Life” shows not only the artistry of hip-hop but precisely how art surrounds us, how it can arrive from any sources at any place and time, and how we just have to have the foresight, ingenuity, talent, passion and vision to capture it and create something new. A Tribe Called Quest were nothing less than groundbreaking as they merged a myriad of styles and genres (most notably jazz), fusing them into a sound that has often been copied, never truly equaled and continues to greatly influence as new interviews with Pharrell Williams, Common, ?uestlove and Black Thought of The Roots can attest. A Tribe Called Quest utilized an idiosyncratic visual approach to their clothing and music videos and their musical subject matter defiantly avoided hip-hop clichés from redundant boasting, horrific violent fantasies and negative stereotypes. They were always left of center yet harmonious and inclusive, encouraging anyone and everyone to join their special party.

What spoke to me most in the film’s earlier sequences, was the nearly spiritual connection all four band members, plus other prominent hip-hop artists and DJs of that particular time, had with the radio. It was enlightening to see the connection they shared with the music and the array of influential DJs that led them all to the music they would eventually create and hopefully contribute to the rich musical legacy of African-Americans and the world at large. What I saw into the world of hip-hop through these scenes was the exact same soulful connection to radio, the DJs and the music itself that I have had throughout my life and has also been expressed by all of the musicians that I have loved and continue to be inspired by throughout my life. The music of hip-hop and A Tribe Called Quest in particular is music made by fans of music, how that love translates itself into art and how that art connects and binds us all together as a global community. Moments and shared stories like the ones shown in “Beats, Rhymes & Life” make this film a profoundly revelatory experience, which in turn makes it entirely communal. All of this makes the fractured friendship of Q-Tip and Phife Dawg so saddening and gripping.

“Beats, Rhymes & Life” is no puff piece or candyfloss infomercial. As mentioned in my beloved “Almost Famous” (2000) by the great Cameron Crowe, Rapaport is honest and unmerciful with his subject matter, most notably the yin-yang relationship between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. Perhaps this just may be the reason why the release of this film had been held up for so long as Q-Tip and Phife’s discomfort with how much of their inner turmoil is presented for the world to see has been well documented.

While all four band members are fascinating, individualistic, wholly intelligent subjects each deserving a film of their own Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, in particular, are instantly and completely captivating individuals, whose full expressiveness as interview subjects just made me want to sit and listen to them for hours. It was also interesting to see how the two men have changed physically over 20 years. Q-Tip, with his sleek trench coat and matching hat, has grown more attractive, physically fit, elegant and dapper while the diminutive Phife Dawg has grown more scarred, mostly due to his lifelong battle with diabetes and his crippling addiction to sugary sweets (a topic Rapaport thankfully spends much time examining). Yet, where Phife remains loquacious, open, funny and warm, Q-Tip, while no less engaging, is a bit harder to pin down. Even in those tension filled backstage moments during the 2008 tour, as he is being questioned to whether this show is the final show A Tribe Called Quest will ever perform, he bobs, weaves, ducks, dives, dodges and deflects the question eschewing any potential fullness of claim to the responsibility of dismantling the band. Meanwhile, Ali Shaheed Muhammad remains the diplomatic center while Jarobi White stays out of the squabbling entirely.

I also loved the very quick shot Rapaport captures at the film’s opening which depicts the final night of that same tour as Phife and Q-Tip prowl the stage walking opposite from each other, an on-stage moment effectively mirroring their own disintegrating friendship. But then, by the end of the film, Rapaport gives us a moment during the 2010 reunion tour, which shows Q-Tip and Phife happily rehearsing together and dancing in unison.

The greatest irony of “Beats, Rhymes & Life” comes directly from Q-Tip and Phife Dawg themselves. It was just so astonishing to me to see how these two men, these masterful wordsmiths with intensely magnetic personalities on stage and screen, utterly engaging interviews subjects are able to find an ocean’s worth of words to say to absolutely everyone except each other. With this, Rapaport shows this friendship, with all of its tensions and unbreakable bonds with such an eloquence and truth and it gives the film as a whole a greater and rock solid foundation.

As Phife Dawg rhymes with unquestionable ebullience, “Microphone check…1…2…what is this?” I will just as emphatically tell you what this is. This is a film thunderously about beats. This is a film beatifically about rhymes. This is a passionate film about the tenuous and majestic nature of life filtered through the realization of shared artistic dreams and life long friendships. For me, “Beats, Rhymes & Life” stands even taller than “Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage” (2010) and this year’s “Foo Fighters: Back And Forth,” two recent and excellent music documentaries.

While my skepticism surrounding hip-hop may still be present, as far as A Tribe Called Quest is concerned, I am a firm believer. Furthermore, I believe that “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest” is easily one of 2011’s high points.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS: a review of "Contagion"

Written by Scott Z. Burns
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
** ½ (two and a half stars)

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
T.S. Eliot “The Hollow Men” (1925)

Each and every day of my working life over the last thirteen years, I have found myself on the front lines in the battle between my immune system and germs, infections and viruses in my role as a preschool teacher. The very first year I taught was the sickest I had been in many years. Over time, I have built up a fairly resistant tolerance but every so often, I will find myself hit and laid out by a strand of something rather ferocious. In fact, anytime there is that spine-tingling moment when I fear that one of my charges is just about to launch a nasty cough or worse yet, a mucus filled sneeze directly into my face, and then does just so, the voice in my head quietly utters to me with finality, “Oh Hell, I’m dead!” (To those people who think that teachers are just shiftless layabouts who skim the real working people’s hard earned cash out from under them, I challenge them to handle one day in a preschool classroom when fingers are often launched inside noses, urine is caked upon toilet seats, floors and clothing and when one of those adorable little moppets vomits…oh, but I digress…)

If those rapidly depicted images made you squirm in your seats, then I think you would easily be able to gather the intent behind “Contagion,” a new thriller from Director Steven Soderbergh, which traces the rapid birth of a lethal airborne virus and its equally rapid devastating effects worldwide. Now, I typically avoid films of this nature as I just do not see the appeal of essentially paying my good money to passively watch the world’s destruction. Yet, the trailers, the cast that Soderbergh obtained intrigued me and Soderbergh’s pedigree was more than enough to get me to buy a ticket. Unfortunately, as with some of Soderbergh’s more recent films (like the abhorrent “The Informant!” from 2009), “Contagion,” while not a bad film, was a surprisingly underwhelming, unemotional and an overly cluttered disappointment.

The opening passages of “Contagion” strongly introduce the film’s terrifying concept. On day 2 on the pandemic, we hear the sound of Beth Emhoff’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) raspy cough while on a business trip in Hong Kong. Upon her return to Minnesota, her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and family, Beth becomes increasingly lethargic, weak, feverish and soon collapses onto the kitchen floor enveloped within a seizure. Meanwhile a young waiter in Hong Kong and a model in London begin exhibiting the exact same symptoms, all of whom are dead after only a few days on contracting the new, unknown virus which will soon be dubbed “MEV-1.”

The remainder of the film depicts the wrenching struggle to contain and defeat the virus by focusing on several characters, which include: Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the Center for Disease Control and his doomed assistant Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet); Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), who attempts to discover the potential virus origins in Hong Kong; Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), an abrasive, sensationalist freelance internet journalist; and also a variety of doctors (played by Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould and Demetri Martin) all bravely trying to stop the virus from overtaking the world.

Unlike so many other types of films of this nature, “Contagion” is sleek, taut, smartly accomplished and extremely notable due to its lack of histrionics. Soderbergh takes an almost clinical approach to this material as the film often feels like a procedural docudrama as much time is spent listening to the science of the virus and the attempts to discover where it originated from, how it continues to mutate and certainly, how to find a cure. The film’s cinematography by Peter Andrews (which is indeed Soderbergh’s pseudonym) is crisply detailed to the point of being nearly antiseptic, a nice ironic visual touch as this film is a germaphobe’s nightmare. Soderbergh is also deeply aided by the mostly electronic music score by his frequent composer Cliff Martinez, a score which often recalled the classic turbulent film scores by Tangerine Dream from the 1980's. The musical synthetics percolate to a menacing level, darkly underscoring the story’s grim outlook.

Beyond the aesthetics, what I did appreciate most about “Contagion” is that at its core, it is a film that is decidedly about the pros and cons of our humanity. Soderbergh is not one to stand upon any sort of cinematic soapbox as Oliver Stone or Spike Lee accomplish so brilliantly. He simply lays out the details for us in a matter-of-fact fashion allowing us to make any connections, determinations and realizations along the way for ourselves. This tactic is crucial for a film of this nature because, if anything, “Contagion” is a film about us. We see ourselves in noble, selfless ways and also at our most brutal, and at our most frustratingly careless. Soderbergh seems to be arguing that our collective survival or end is entirely in our hands and if we just don’t wash those hands then God help us all.

And yet, “Contagion,” as a whole did not entirely work for me.

For all of its “up to the minute” medical, technological and scientific sheen, in many ways, “Contagion” feels like a 21st century version of a classic 1970s disaster film as filtered through Steven Soderbergh’s at times self-congratulatory artistic cinematic lens. As with those earlier movies, “Contagion” essentially tells the story of the all star cast battling the pandemic through a series of interconnected storylines, some of which work well, some of them not so well, and sadly for me, none of them were present enough for me to fully engage with.

Partially, this has been a frequent problem I have had with Soderbergh’s films as of late. There is absolutely no question that he is a born filmmaker. I am just feeling that he is once again going out of his way to show us how intelligent he is and how skilled of a filmmaker he is at the expense of creating a film that is truly engaging. Yes, I did praise the film for not dolling out any standard Hollywood disaster film screaming and wailing. But, there are other ways to engage an audience.

Frankly, I was just surprised with how little I was affected or disturbed by a film with this subject matter, but actually, all of the multiple storylines called attention to themselves simply by their presence. They existed just because they existed and not because it made the overall story flow smoothly. Once I became interested and wanted to know more about a character and their relationship to the worldwide tragedy, the film zipped along to another storyline starring yet another celebrity (more on that in a bit). It all felt to be a big distraction. When it is all said and done, “Contagion” is a primal film about our survival and yet, I felt almost nothing by the film’s conclusion in part due to its creaky formula and the director’s tendency to show off.

Don’t get me wrong. There are individual scenes, sequences and moments that contained large amounts of power. I especially loved the moments, mostly contained within Matt Damon’s character and performance where he had to shoulder a host of conflicting emotions simultaneously and he was able to convey each and every one. Moments of grief, betrayal, confusion, horror and parental protectiveness, for example are written all over Damon’s face and body language as are moments where emotions of love and loss are buried due to the necessity of having to deal with more immediate dangers. With this performance, Matt Damon has proved once again that he is one of the most skilled actors of his generation. I also loved moments featuring his healthy yet quarantined teenaged daughter (well played by Anna Jacoby-Heron) and how Soderbergh made some time to depict restless teen angst and heartache, showing that even teenaged love can still exist at the apparent end of the world.

Again, I ultimately just didn’t care all that much. I needed this film to burrow under my skin and consume me with dread but it just kept me at arms length for much of its running time. In fact, I wished that perhaps the film had simply centered around Matt Damon’s character (with Fishburne and Winslet’s characters as the crucial supporting members), and we, the audience, could view the apocalypse through his eyes like Tom Cruise in Steven Spielberg’s overwhelming “War Of The Worlds” (2005) for example. I think that precise attention to character could have made “Contagion” more distressing than it was for me.

That observation actually leads me to my next criticism, something I alluded to earlier: the film’s casting. There are absolutely no bad performances within the film, and I would not expect anything less from Soderbergh. But, he again seems to be suffering from his self-congratulatory adoration of movie stars and casting them because of their fame rather than if they were, without question, the very best people for the role in question or if they were necessary at all. Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet all bring their skills and personalities into their roles and as usual, I would have followed them anywhere. Yet, Soderbergh would not allow me to become more deeply involved with them because he just had to have more celebrities to shuffle on and off the screen, especially as many of them do not share any scenes together. Unfortunately, and despite their strong work, whenever the film turned to Marion Cotillard’s character or Jude Law’s character, my mind began to wander. It felt as if there were just two or even three subplots too many and it hindered the film’s overall focus for my tastes.

Beyond that, is there any reason at all that Gwyneth Paltrow was cast? It is not a spoiler to announce to you that her character dies within the first few minutes of the film (as seen in the trailer and commercials) so why is it that she had to play this role? It seemed more important for Soderbergh to cast Gwyneth Paltrow than to make his story that much tighter. Now Soderbergh has juggled several storylines and has employed major stars many times before and to much better effect in films like “Traffic” (2000) and “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001). Perhaps if “Contagion” were longer, more of an epic like “Traffic,” maybe that would have justified and served the amount of characters and storylines that much better. As it stands, we have a film which is well under two hours and it does feel fairly overstuffed.

Dear readers, “Contagion," if I were to recommend it to you, it would be a soft one at best. It's definitely not something I feel that anyone should avoid. There is much to admire about it and I did appreciate the intelligence in front of and behind the scenes. Steven Soderbergh remains a masterful filmmaker who began over 20 years ago with the groundbreaking “sex, lies and videotape” (1989) and had an incredible streak of high quality films featuring “Out Of Sight” (1998), “The Limey” (1999), and “Erin Brockovich” (2000) and the aforementioned “Traffic” and “Ocean’s Eleven.” As he has already announced his plans for retirement, I still have high hopes that he can again knock one over the fences. But, for now and again, I needed to feel something with “Contagion” and in the end, the film itself wound up like the apocalypse on screen as everything and everyone is quietly snuffed out without any sense of cringe-inducing passion.

Or better yet, that gut wrenching fear I feel whenever a child sneezes directly into my face.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


Written and Directed by Kevin Smith

With all of the cinematic love stories that are released in our movie theaters every year, so very few of them have ever worked for me emotionally. I am typically not very moved as I watch two people fall in and out and back into love again. Perhaps I am just not sensing any true chemistry between the leading actors. Or maybe, I am just not detecting a certain sense of truth in the actual screenwriting. Or maybe, situations are just either too commercially or stupidly contrived or handled too simplistically for me to care at all. In recent years, I would say that my distaste stems from a combination of all of those elements, plus a few more at that. When it is all said and done, and after every declaration of love has been uttered and that final screen kiss occurs just before the end credit scroll, the entire proceedings just feel so false and ultimately, empty.

Dear readers, much like so many of you, I have been in love. I have experienced countless intense crushes throughout my life. Memories of unrequited experiences still carry a sting if I linger within my past a tad too long. I am in love now and have weathered the ebbs and flows of that love for almost half of my life. In the movies, when it comes to love stories, I am looking for the reality of love and it is that very reality that is sadly lacking in these films that get themselves released from week to week. Yes, movies are fantasies and dreams and I love to lose myself into those worlds just as much as anyone else. Yet, I cannot divorce myself from the realities of falling in love, navigating love and staying in love. Love, by its nature is not clean or easy. It is often very messy. And I guess when I go to see a movie love story, my hope is to experience something that acknowledges that sense of messiness and internal conflict that accompanies those times where the heart soars at the mere thought of the object of one’s affection. I need to be moved and I need to see something that is more hard fought than is typically shown.

Over and again I have written about how much the romanticism depicted in the films of John Hughes, Cameron Crowe and Woody Allen for instance have touched my soul throughout my life. What are Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” (1995) and “Before Sunset” (2004) but delirious odes to love, romance, desire and how it holds us within its powerful grasp through the years?

For this edition of “Savage Cinema Revisits,” I turn my attention to Writer/Director Kevin Smith’s “Chasing Amy.” This is my favorite movie from a filmmaker who has created several audaciously brilliant pieces of work from his startling debut “Clerks” (1994) and its 2006 sequel, plus the epic religious satire “Dogma” (1999) and the meta-cartoon lunacy of “Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back” (2001). But “Chasing Amy,” in my mind, is a true anomaly, even moreseo as I feel that so few films have even approached what Smith beautifully accomplished within his third film. “Chasing Amy” concocts a love story that illustrates so wrenchingly how it feels to be in love and to this day, there are sequences that are still almost too difficult to sit through due to their emotional honesty and reality. I first saw “Chasing Amy” during its original 1997 release at Madison’s’ Majestic Theater (which is now a trendy nightclub) and while I had expected to laugh riotously with Smith trademark loquaciously literate, hysterical and vulgar dialogue (and I did) what I had not expected was to feel so emotionally exhausted by the film’s conclusion. Kevin Smith had put me through the wringer.

“Chasing Amy” stars Ben Affleck and Jason Lee as New Jersey residents Holden McNeil and Banky Edwards, life long best friends, current roommates and collaborators on a popular comic book series entitled “Bluntman and Chronic” (two stoned superheroes which feature the likenesses of their goofy drug dealer friends, Jay and Silent Bob played by Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith, respectively). During a New York comic book convention, the twosome meets fellow comic book writer/artist Alyssa Jones (a wonderful Joey Lauren Adams) and Holden is instantly captivated. Unfortunately, for Holden, he soon discovers at New York nightclub Meow Mix, that Alyssa Jones is not as she first seemed to be as she is actually a lesbian.

Despite this revelation, Holden and Alyssa soon begin to build a close friendship, which deeply irritates Banky, whose jealously is fueled with fears of losing his closest friend and artistic partner. Complications thicken after Holden professes his love for Alyssa, a love that she surprisingly reciprocates, thus angering Banky even more as well as alienating her lesbian friends in the process.

Where “Chasing Amy” makes its most surprising and painful stretches in the film’s second half as Holden is confronted with Alyssa’s past romantic/sexual life and how that knowledge threatens to derail the very relationship he has longed for. During this half, Smith brings out all of the stops in a film that has already broken so many barriers and has challenged so many perceptions and stereotypes held by every audience member that chooses to view the film. The arguments between Holden and Alyssa are nearly brutal in their intensity and the romantic ache their conversations leave in their wake is paralyzing. We understand how each party feels, the mistakes that have been made between them, and the respective hurts they each experience because we have all been there ourselves.

After re-watching “Chasing Amy,” I am reminded and yet still amazed with exactly how much Kevin Smith got absolutely right with this film, from the main storyline to even the surrounding aesthetics. For instance, I especially loved the attention Smith gave to the world of comic book authors and illustrators. I think this is quite notable since this film was released during the horrifically clichéd “Generation X/Slacker” era and here were a collective of characters that were defiantly not slackers. They were ambitious, hard working young people all desiring to leave an artistic and decidedly individualistic stamp upon their world. The theme of weighing one’s personal integrity vs. cynical careerism figures heavily into the subplot about Holden’s conflict with “Bluntman and Chronic” potentially being adapted into a 12 episode animated series. Additionally, and though this may seem more than a bit ridiculous, even Jay and Silent Bob also follow their own paths with diligence. They are not shiftless layabouts and for that matter the twosome remain fiercely determined to live their lives on their own terms, quite possibly the primary theme of “Chasing Amy” as a whole.

“Chasing Amy” succeeds so grandly because it exists as so much more than a love story, a love triangle and even more than some misguided male fantasy at that (although Smith slyly utilizes the character of African-American homosexual male comic book artist Hooper-played greatly by Dwight Ewell-to comment upon that very fantasy with references to “lesbian chic”). Kevin Smith tapped into something much deeper partially because he bravely opened himself up for his art. For a time, Smith dated Joey Lauren Adams and he has expressed that some aspects of their relationship did indeed make their way into the final screenplay. But Kevin Smith is astute enough as a writer and filmmaker to know that essentially creating a diary on film is not enough. Everything has to serve the characters and the story and Smith repeatedly has proven that he absolutely understands characters and the art of storytelling.

As far as love stories are concerned, there is not one contrived moment in the film although it does, to a degree, adhere to the formula of a movie love story. Yes, we have the “falling in love” montage set to a jangly alternative pop song but, Smith completely nails the rhythms of a courtship. Furthermore, he completely understands the relationship dynamics when one participant is head over heels in love with the other but always performs an eggshell dance so as to not permanently damage everything that has been built.

Holden McNeil is a character I can fully relate to as I saw, and still see, aspects of him within myself, most notably in his beautiful romantic confession to Alyssa on a fateful rainy night after yet one more “pseudo date,” as Banky would scornfully express. His monologue to Alyssa is as open-hearted as anything I have ever seen in any film where love is professed from one towards another. With Holden, loves comes tumbling from his heart, fully, completely and after much internal wrestling with himself over whether he should say one word or keep it all to himself. But, part of the painful beauty of “Chasing Amy” is to see how far his love for Alyssa fails him.

If I were to utilize one word to perhaps describe “Chasing Amy,” it just may be “autumnal.” That melancholic feeling of autumn as the chill in the air becomes more prevalent and the realization of the coming winter signifies a seasonal ending came to me as I re-watched the film. For Holden and Banky, like the teenaged protagonists in Alfonso Cuaron’s extraordinary “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001), “Chasing Amy” depicts their transformative growth into a newfound emotional adulthood as well as detailing the end of their relationship, which is essentially their marriage. Holden and Banky physically resemble each other greatly. They essentially dress the same as well. Their personalities compliment each other’s comfortably. Even Hooper expresses to Holden in one scene that Banky “loves you in a way that he is not ready to deal with.”

Despite their mid to late 20s age, Holden and Banky’s emotional growth has stagnated them somewhere in adolescence (a constant theme for Smith, who minutely explores male relationships in one film after another) and if not for Alyssa’s arrival, they would have happily remained in that developmental stage and with each other. Holden McNeil and Banky Edwards have an enormous amount of growing up to do and certainly, Alyssa Jones' presence sends them both into a tailspin. One scene I love is the one where Banky finds Holden and Alyssa wrapped in a post-coital embrace upon the couch he purchased and simply wants to watch TV upon. In a quick moment, Banky realizes that their relationship has all but ended and in a rare moment of quiet, reflective vulnerability, as the two men sit upon a stoop looking nostalgically at the Catholic schoolgirls across the street, Banky expresses to Holden that “This is all going to end badly.” That, dear readers is autumnal to me.

Regardless of Holden’s sensitivity, compared to Banky’s abrasiveness and rampant homophobia, the narrow field of his emotional range and social outlook derails him in his relationship with Alyssa. Frankly, no matter how much he loves Alyssa Jones, he is too conservative, too suburban, too sheltered, too Catholic, too immature and possesses too fragile of a heterosexual male ego to truly accept Alyssa Jones for who she is and sadly, for how much she loves him. And what a shame as gaining the love from someone like Alyssa Jones is a love so profoundly earned.

I wish I could fully express to you how much the character of Alyssa Jones means to me. While I didn’t think this at the time I first saw the movie, I now feel that Alyssa Jones, as portrayed so pitch -perfectly by Joey Lauren Adams, is the most forward thinking and conceived character in all of Kevin Smith’s films. She is also one of the most forward thinking and conceived characters of the entire romantic comedy film genre during the late 20th century, and let’s fact it, even during these early stages of the 21st century. Honestly, dear readers, I am not attempting to sound hyperbolic. But has there been anyone like her in anything that stars either Kate Hudson, Sandra Bullock or Katherine Heigl?

Everything about Alyssa Jones flies in the face of every possible stereotype carried by every audience patron who views this movie. At the time of its original release, I had several female friends, including a couple of lesbian friends, who absolutely hated Alyssa Jones. They felt her to be nothing more than a caricature, a cartoon, a male fantasy creation and perhaps there may be some truth to that. But, as often as I have seen this film, I think some of those feelings may say more about those people than it does about this character. Alyssa Jones lives on her own terms. She is a complete individual who has absolutely no interest in living up to anyone else’s expectations or perceptions about what a lesbian should or shouldn’t be. Or better yet, what she, as a human being, should or shouldn’t be. And for some, that level of individuality is threatening because it forces one to confront their own levels of prejudice, judgment and acceptance. Alyssa’s sexual history, experimentation and journey is entirely her own. Not Holden’s. Not even for any of her lesbian friends. And if any of them are not able to understand or accept, then so be it. As she vehemently screams to Holden during a volcanic fight sequence outside of a hockey rink, “…good or bad-they were my choices, and I’m not making apologies for them now-not to you or anyone!”

That being said, it is very easy for me to see how and why Holden could fall in love with her so easily. Yes, she is attractive. Yes, she has that breathy purr of a voice. For Holden, they have their careers as common ground. She is quick witted, a great conversationalist, friendly, warm, generous and most of all, she is so open-hearted that I found her to be quite irresistible.

I think that I even fell for her in the sequence, which I will call “the swing set scene,” one of my favorite scenes that Kevin Smith has ever written. While it is a short scene, it is by turns humorous, provocative, playful, tender, gentle, salacious, undeniably adult and unashamedly innocent. Taking place the day after Holden has realized that the object of his affection is a lesbian, the “swing set scene” is all anchored by this passage from Alyssa, which sets the scene in motion.

“I like you. I haven’t liked a man in a long time. And I’m not a man-hater or something. It’s just been some time since I’ve been exposed to a man that didn’t immediately live into a stereotype of some sort. And I want you to feel comfortable with me because I want us to be friends. So, if there are things you’d like to know, it’s okay to ask me.”

Sigh…and yet so bittersweet, as the scene presents a love of such possibility.

That is precisely what makes “Chasing Amy” a film to root for and what also makes it so crushingly heartbreaking. Like a slow-motion car crash, we can see every single mistake that Holden McNeil is about to suffer for. We understand his confusion entirely but we understand Alyssa’s love for him even more and wish that he grows up enough to hold onto this love which will not arrive in the same way ever again should he lose this one. It is bracing, powerful, delicate, and sorrowful. And again, I ask you, dear readers, when was the last time you have seen a contemporary film love story that had characters as richly three-dimensional as Holden, Banky and Alyssa and filled with an urgency like the one presented here?

“Chasing Amy” is a fearless movie. It may have been terrifying for Kevin Smith to lay himself out so openly but it was to his, and our, artistic gain. For Kevin Smith, that very fearlessness is what has made him one of film’s most unique voices and that lack of fearlessness is what has made later films like the juvenile “Zack And Miri Make A Porno” (2008) feel like he was just treading water and “Cop Out” (2010) such an empty one.

What Kevin Smith gives us, when he gives us his best, is his sense of honesty. As he has already announced his plans for cinematic retirement, I wish for him to fully embrace that unblinking honesty and fearlessness once again for his upcoming “Red State” and his two-part hockey comedy-drama finale “Hit Somebody.” For now, we have “Chasing Amy” a film to embrace, a film that endures, one that we can feel so fully and one that can break our hearts over and over again.

Saturday, September 3, 2011


Based upon the novel The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn
Screenplay Written by Leslie Dixon
Directed by Neil Burger
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

I have to admit that I often wish that I had a pill like NZT.

Dear readers, I am certain that at times, and perhaps more than either you or I would like to admit, that our brains feel as if it is not operating at its fullest capacities during our daily lives. For myself, on those days my brain feels like it’s akin an electronic contraption that is not completely plugged into its outlet.

But, how about the conceptual opposite? What if we were fully “plugged in,” so to speak? What if we could dissipate the fogginess that regularly clouds our minds and illuminate ourselves into a previously untapped clarity? In my life, I could easily return to my long gestating novel in progress, finding the words that indeed exist deep inside the recesses of my mind but have much difficulty in arriving. I could also be able to navigate the complexities of my daily life as a preschool classroom teacher, hurling myself effortlessly around the myriad obstacles of each day, which stars my band of four year olds. Within those two areas of my life plus others I have not bothered to mention, if I could permanently release those mental cobwebs, I know that I would feel as if I could accomplish nearly anything I could conceive of. Yes friends, what if we actually could tap into the deepest and most complete connection into our brain’s capacities? This concept is the fascinating premise to “Limitless,” a new thriller from Director Neil Burger. While it is not the sort of movie that I would race to see a second time and despite its occasional flaws, it grabbed my attention from the beginning and held my interest all the way to its conclusion.

Bradley Cooper stars as Eddie Morra, a down on his luck novelist who lives in a grungy New York apartment consumed with writer’s block and the memories of his long ago failed marriage and the current reality of his failed relationship with Liddy (Abbie Cornish). On one particularly fateful day, Eddie runs into Vernon Gant (Johnny Whitworth), his ex-brother in law and presumably former drug dealer. As Eddie confesses his troubles over afternoon drinks, Vernon slides Eddie a small translucent pill called NZT-48, a substance that allows anyone who swallows it the ability to access 100% of their brain power as opposed to the 20% we utilize normally. Reluctantly, Eddie takes the pill and before you can say, “be careful what you wish for,” all of his mental lights are turned on brightly. Eddie not only barrels through the writing of his own long gestating novel, completely cleans his grungy apartment making it quite lushly livable and he even beds his landlord’s young, angry wife!

The next morning, the cobwebs of Eddie’s mind return. Now hooked on the realities of his life enhanced by NZT, Eddie calls upon Vernon for another round of the drug only to find that he has been murdered. Terrified, Eddie dials 911 and while waiting for the arrival of the authorities, he searches Vernon’s apartment for more NZT pills, finding them and a large stash of money stored deeply inside of the oven. Eddie steals the pills and cash, thus beginning an odyssey where not only his novel is completed in four days, he resumes his relationship with Lindy, he becomes fluent in several languages almost instantaneously and he also becomes a financial wizard in barely over the course of one week. Eddie rapid ascension to massive wealth captures the attention of the enormously powerful businessman Carl Van Loon (Robert DeNiro) and yes, a gang of Russian thugs. And then, there is the matter of the periodic blackouts, lost time, headaches and heart palpitations to deal with and of course, the most important issue: what will Eddie do when his secret stash of NZT pills runs out for good?

At its best, “Limitless” works in the very ways that a film like this year's “The Adjustment Bureau” failed miserably. “Limitless” is consistent with itself as it sets up its world cleanly, clearly, vibrantly and sticks to the rules it creates firmly. At its most inspired, the film is a clever story about addiction as we can see the effects of NZT over the film’s primary characters and the lengths to which each of them will go in order to remain under the drug’s wild effects.

Neil Burger’s visual palate, especially during the film’s more hallucinogenic sections that depict the beginnings of enhanced brain power, have clearly been by Stanley Kubrick’s “vortex sequence’ from “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). But the film as a whole is so obviously influenced by David Fincher’s masterful “Fight Club” (1999). From the arrogantly ironic voiceover narration, to its visual effects and electronic music score, to it’s book ended violent high rise confrontations and even deeper, to its themes of angry white male psychological paranoia, “Limitless” owes so much of itself to “Fight Club” that I think that Fincher should collect a piece of this film’s residuals!

Unfortunately, Burger’s homage is all style without substance as he does not know exactly how to utilize his cinematic tools to Fincher’s level. The film’s narration is entirely needless as it only explains what the audience has already gathered upon its own just by watching the film. The special effects are too terribly showy and not organic to the piece as a whole (although one bit which depicts Eddie’s release from writer’s block is particularly nifty). There is so much of nothing else behind the obvious homage that “Limitless” often feels like an impersonal copycat production despite my involvement with the actual storyline and intriguing premise.

And yet there is another difficult factor at work and that is the film’s star, Bradley Cooper.

Dear readers, Bradley Cooper completely rubs me the wrong way. It has nothing to do with whatever level of talent he may possess. I just think he is one of those actors that just got lucky. He just strikes me as being not to far removed from the character he portrayed in “The Hangover” (2009), an overgrown frat-boy. Because of that perception I hold of him as a celebrity, it seems more than fitting that he is a very effective lead as Eddie Morra because “Limitless” seems to play off of audience member’s perception of him. I think that you will either root for Eddie’s rise or fall dependant upon how you feel towards Bradley Cooper as an individual, or at least the persona he creates within the media. For me, let’s just say, and without revealing any spoilers, my wishes for Eddie did not exactly come to fruition but hey…that’s Hollywood, where good looks and a fat wallet can get you out of any jam and no matter how much of a jerk you are, you will always remain on the top of the mountain.

For “Limitless” as a whole, this is Hollywood as well. For a story that is essentially about taking extreme risks, albeit drug induced extreme risks, the film too often plays it safe and goes down the very familiar roads that you would expect it to travel. Furthermore, we have this film in which the most coveted item is this NZT pill. Think of what YOU would or could do with a pill like this. It is a shame that “Limitless” never goes terribly far with its own concept. Here’s this pill that allows you to access 100% of your brain but in this film, all it really does it transform the user into an arrogantly smug bastard of gargantuan proportions (which Cooper plays to the hilt) who cannot resist the opportunity of rubbing everyone’s noses within his unearned good fortune and hefty bankroll. Is that really all there is?

I guess so, but somehow "Limitless" does sort of work…although in limited doses.

Friday, September 2, 2011


"It was summer. Now it's autumn..."
-New Order ("Crystal")

Just this week, I skimmed over an article in USA Today recapping the box office tallies for the summer of 2011 movie season. Surprisingly, the article stated that despite studios raking in even more loot than last year, actual movie theater attendance showed its second lowest performance in more than a decade. While the financial facts and figures are more than a bit confounding to me, I am also surprised to read this news because, at least for my eyes and ears, this past summer was the best summer movie season I have had at the movies in many, many years. Yes, there remained the overabundance of sequels, re-boots, remakes and such but any summer can that boast films of the level as "Bridesmaids," "Super 8," "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two," "Beginners," "Midnight In Paris" and for the love of Pete, "The Tree Of Life," is more than a little remarkable.

But now...summer is over and the Fall Movie Season is set to begin. While life responsibilities will undoubtedly occupy my time heavily I still plan of trying to get out to see a couple of flicks. This month will see the return of several of my favorite filmmakers, two of whom are currently courting retirement.

1. Steven Soderbergh re-enters the cinematic arena before his promised retirement with the virus outbreak thriller "Contagion." Typically, this is the sort of film I would avoid like the...ahem...plague but the trailer have me hooked.

2. Kevin Smith, at long last, arrives with his political horror film, "Red State," a huge stylistic change from all of his previous films.

3. At the other end of the directorial spectrum is my beloved Cameron Crowe, who not only shows no signs of slowing down but is actually speeding up his creative process with the release of his new documentary "Pearl Jam Twenty," the first of three newly or almost completed films. Words cannot fully describe how anxious I feel for a new work from this man who has enriched and inspired my life in countless ways for so much of my life.

4. Recently, at my local Sundance movie theater, I was thrilled to view a trailer for Michael Rappaport's music documentary "Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest," a film that has been slowly making its way across the country. If this lands in my city, you will not be able to stop me from getting there!!!!

Those are my plans, which are always subject to change or even grow so stay tuned...

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