Sunday, November 27, 2011


Based upon the memoir by Benjamin Mee
Screenplay Written by Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe
Directed by Cameron Crowe

**** (four stars)

I have said it many times before and I feel blissfully compelled to recount it for you one more time, dear readers. The world becomes an even more beautiful place and shines that much brighter when Cameron Crowe releases a new film.

I have just returned home from seeing a special advance sneak preview of “We Bought A Zoo,” Crowe’s first theatrical feature in six years, and not only did it not disappoint in any way, it is precisely the type of movie that just is not made very frequently anymore in regards to family films. Having seen this film just one day after Martin Scorsese’s extraordinary “Hugo,” this is an excellent time to take your families to the movies and see works that are enormously entertaining while also existing as sophisticated, emotionally complex and supremely rewarding experiences as a whole. “We Bought A Zoo” does not officially open until December 23, 2011 so I am absolutely thrilled that I have this opportunity to give you an early review and to urge you to go see this film when it arrives. As of this moment in time, I am still basking in the warm afterglow that Cameron Crowe has so richly and expertly delivered.

Based upon the memoir by Benjamin Mee, who utilized his life savings to purchase and refurbish a London zoo with his young children after the passing of his wife from cancer, Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought A Zoo” transplants the action from England to California and stars the indispensable Matt Damon as Benjamin. Six months later, and still in mourning after the death of his wife Katherine (Stephanie Szostak), writer and self-described “adventure addict” Benjamin is struggling to keep pace with the speed of life in regards to the rearing of his two children; the adorable 7 year old Rosie (a serene and completely natural Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and the sullen, withdrawn 14 year old Dylan (an equally impressive Colin Ford), who spends nearly all of his time drawing increasingly dark illustrations inside of his sketchbook.

Once Dylan is expelled from his school for theft, Benjamin decides upon a desperate move…literally…as he transplants his family from the city to a rural area “9 miles away from the nearest Target.” Benjamin and Rosie instantly fall in love with the location but are completely surprised to discover that this spot for a hopeful new beginning for their family is indeed the sight of the dilapidated Rosemoor Wildlife Park, currently owned by the state of California and run by a skeleton crew of zookeepers led by the tenacious Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johanssen). Completely against the advice of Duncan, his loving yet skeptical accountant older brother (Thomas Haden Church), Benjamin purchases the house and zoo in a leap of faith and becomes determined to restore the zoo to its once former glory, save all of the animals from destruction and heal his family and himself in the process.

“We Bought A Zoo” is a supremely warm experience that finds Cameron Crowe in command of his artistry so fully that it never feels as if it has been six years since he sat in the Director’s Chair. It is a film that hits every emotional note perfectly. Yet Crowe wisely understands that every one of those moments needs to be earned, and Crowe earns every laugh, tear and smile honestly. “We Bought A Zoo” is a complete experience designed and aimed for the masses yet does not sacrifice even one iota of Crowe’s personal aesthetics or artistic integrity. His impeccable taste in music shines throughout the film with perfect song selections that made me beam with recognition and most especially through an ethereal score composed by Jonsi of Sigur Ros. I also especially loved the sunkissed cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto which bathed the film in an enveloping warmth that was nothing less than soothing and one meant to be embraced tightly.

All of the performances (which includes a supporting appearance by Patrick Fugit from Crowe’s 2000 masterpiece “Almost Famous”) are pitch perfect, working completely in tandem with each other. Matt Damon, as usual, is the superior, rock solid center and anchor to everyone and every creature in sight. I sincerely hope that he and Crowe find ways to work together again in the future as their combination was a perfect fit.

Overall, for a film with this much mass appeal, “We Bought A Zoo” feels as much of a piece with all of Crowe’s past films. While this film is highly accessible where Crowe’s unfairly maligned “Elizabethtown” (2005) was slightly more experimental, both films are intensely personal works that share themes of love, loss, life and death. The soul of Katherine Mee exists throughout every frame of the film, supplying the entire story with gravity and purpose. I deeply appreciated how Crowe never for an instant sugar coated mourning or the grieving process as depicted in a tender bedtime scene with Rosie, several difficult scenes with Dylan and in one of the film’s very best sequences, an exquisitely painful period where Benjamin looks at photos of his deceased wife on his laptop.

In addition to the deeply effective and necessary pathos, Crowe finds ample opportunity to load his film with knowing humor, a reverential appreciation of the animal kingdom without being preachy and also a teen romance between Dylan and 12 year old zookeeper assistant Lily (the amazing Elle Fanning), that puts the insipid teen romance of “Crazy, Stupid, Love” to absolute shame.

Beyond that, “We Bought A Zoo” is that rare film about Fatherhood, a criminally misrepresented demographic in mainstream movies. I greatly appreciated that the character of Benjamin Mee was not conceived as being yet another sitcom ding-dong Dad we are so often plagued with in the movies. As with the cinematic Fathers in films like Robert Benton’s “Kramer Vs. Kramer” (1979), Ron Howard’s “Parenthood” (1989) and even Gabriele Muccino’s “The Pursuit Of Happyness” (2006), Benjamin, while beleaguered, is a fiercely devoted parent who wants nothing more than to heal his family from their tragic loss, provide them with a remarkable life and most of all, to show them that life can indeed move forward, shine brighter and yes, get even better than before. And all one needs, as he explains to Dylan, is “20 seconds of insane courage.”

Now that particular line of dialogue, currently very much on display in the film’s commercials and trailers is a pure Cameron Crowe-esque philosophical nugget, which to some may feel as if he is attempting to try and re-capture a certain “You complete me” mojo. I can understand that trepidation but I am here to tell you when that line of dialogue arrived, it felt to me as not only being a moment that was unforced nor was it prefabricated. To my ear and more importantly, to my heart, it sounded like the very thing that Crowe would say himself and in fact, I think it may even be seen as a life lesson he has lived through over and again and is willing to share with all of us

And I think that is what impressed me the very most about “We Bought A Zoo” as well as “Hugo.” It is that Crowe and Scorsese have continued to lay themselves bare for their art. To fully present themselves, their personalities and their passions within their work while also trying to make an experience that absolutely anyone, anywhere can enjoy on their own terms. Both films are supreme reminders of exactly what family films have long forgotten to be and how they can be again. “We Bought A Zoo” is a prime example of how family films need not be stupid. How they can be sentimental without being cloying or painfully saccharine. How artistry, an individualistic sense of vision can easily co-exist with broad appeal.

Within a recent interview with Crowe in The Hollywood Reporter, he mentions how he and Matt Damon both had fears about mistakenly creating “the bad version of this movie.” I could fully understand that sentiment, as there are so many ways this film could have gone wrong. But I am here to tell you. “We Bought A Zoo” is perfect PG rated family entertainment and you can feel safe that there is absolutely, positively no cutesy animal reaction shots to be found and no flatulent humor at all. Other than a couple of choice and well placed profanities, it is completely clean for the little ones.

Dear readers, I am typically not one for forced merriment or any odes to sunshine and happiness that never feels true. But that said, I firmly believe that after going through a selection of strong yet exhaustingly dark films like Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter,” Kevin Smith’s “Red State” and even Sean Durkin’s well intentioned “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” combined with looking at the troubled state of the world, we need movies like “Hugo” and “We Bought A Zoo” more than ever. I feel this way because each of those films offer a window into life’s potential and how we all can positively affect each other and make the world a better place.

With “We Bought A Zoo,” we have a film about real people in real situations figuring out how to behave within the best interests of each other and the animals within their care. There are no real villains in sight and the film shows that there is always wonder, hope, possibility, community, and healing. It is a film that proudly announces that the pervading question of life is “Why not?” instead of “Why?” And best of all, Cameron Crowe means every word and every moment of it. He never has to sell you something because he fully believes it. It is obvious. It is honest. And you can feel that belief in every frame of this film.

The highest compliment that I could award “We Bought A Zoo” is very simple. I just did not want this film to end. Thankfully, in a few short weeks, I can purchase a ticket to this “Zoo” all over again.

Friday, November 25, 2011

COME AND DREAM WITH ME: a review of "Hugo"

Based upon the novel The Invention Of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
Screenplay Written by John Logan
Directed by Martin Scorsese
**** (four stars)

The title of this new review should not simply be taken as an invitation from me, your humble, friendly neighborhood film enthusiast. This is an invitation from none other than Martin Scorsese and frankly dear readers, when Mr. Scorsese offers you an invitation, it is imperative that we take him up upon his offer.

Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” is not only one of 2011’s highest cinematic achievements, it is also one of Scorsese’s highest achievements as a cinematic storyteller. It is the best film he has made since “The Departed” (2007) certainly, but I think I am going to have to go one better. For me, “Hugo” is the best film Martin Scorsese has made since his explosively brilliant and iconic gangster epic, “Goodfellas” (1990). Based upon that film and essentially the entirety of his oeuvre, Scorsese is probably one of the most unlikely filmmakers one could think of to direct a PG rated, family friendly motion picture. But by the time “Hugo” reached its completion, it was obvious that Martin Scorsese is quite possibly the ONLY filmmaker to make this film. Yes, I could easily see someone like Steven Spielberg taking the reins of this particular story but “Hugo” feels like the film Martin Scorsese was destined to create.

I will leave any plot description to an absolute minimum. I have not read the book from which this film is based and I suppose I wanted to enter into this experience as coldly as possible. Supposing that many of you are in the same position as myself, I will try my best to do the very same for you. Set during the early 1930’s, “Hugo” stars Asa Butterfield in the titular role, an orphaned and abandoned who lives within the walls of a Parisian train station. As he hides away from the public, Hugo secretly operates and maintains all of the train station’s clocks, steers clear of the imposing, leg-brace wearing Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and pilfers food from the station’s food shops as well as mechanical supplies for a secret project. One day, Hugo is caught by Georges (Ben Kingsley), the mercurial proprietor of the train station’s toyshop. In retribution, Georges takes Hugo’s treasured notebook, inside of which contains fantastic illustrations that cause him distress. In his pursuit to retrieve his notebook, Hugo is soon befriended by Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) and the twosome begin a life altering adventure that will also greatly impact the lives of the adults around them, including Georges himself.

“Hugo” is a completely enchanting, engaging, sumptuous experience that shows Scorsese working at the very top of his game, alongside his rock steady team of collaborators, which include Cinematographer Robert Richardson, Editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Composer Howard Shore and Production Designer Dante Ferretti. To utilize musical terminology, watching “Hugo” is akin to hearing one of the world’s greatest bands, all at advanced age, still vibrant, hungry and creating one of their very best works. “Hugo” is nothing short of a masterpiece.

While the film may not seem to share terribly much with Scorsese’s past work on the surface, I did happen to notice some very cleverly placed Scorsese-ian trademarks which always let you know who is operating behind the scenes. “Hugo” opens with a stunning long take during which the camera fluidly glides from the heights of Paris, through the entirety of the train station and deep into a clock, where Hugo resides. I could not help but to think of the classic long take in “Goodfellas,” during which Scorsese, utilizing the same fluidly gliding camera work, takes us through the New York streets and into the Copacabana nightclub where we are introduced to the collective members of the gangster underworld as Ray Liotta attempts to impress his date, Lorraine Bracco. But I want to truly impress upon you that “Hugo” is not an experience designed to be all flash and without substance. Scorsese creates a deeply emotionally satisfying work that enraptures.

Scorsese also superbly avoids all of the trappings and clichés of the family film genre by actually having the audacity to believe that families, and especially children, are intelligent and important enough to be given a work at its very best. Family films do not have to exist as hyperkinetic, day-glo, audio assaulting, distressingly flatulent, shamelessly low brow pieces of unemotional and impersonal product meant to be devoured and forgotten. Scorsese has created a work that is supremely sophisticated and emotionally complex. But, “Hugo” is also child friendly enough that it exists with an appropriately simple plot, boldly gorgeous colors and visuals, child heroes and heroines to truly root for and empathize with and (again) and emotional palate that contains an open honesty and tremendous affection for wish fulfillments and the stuff dreams are made of. “Hugo” aims for the stars and reaches them all.

Asa Butterfield is absolutely perfect as Hugo Cabret. He appears to be a Dickensian hero with shaggy dark hair, underfed physique and piercing blue eyes to reach directly into your heart without ever feeling forced. Chloe Grace Moretz is a wonderful young actress that I feel has been undone by her appearances is pseudo-edgy material like Director Matthew Vaughan’s odious “Kick-Ass” (2010) and I was thrilled to see her in a film with a filmmaker who will utilize her talents wisely. As with all of her previous roles, Moretz reminds me greatly of a young Jodie Foster through the no-nonsense strength of her screen presence. Yet, for “Hugo,” Scorsese is able to draw out Moretz’s more tender, dreamy qualities which are no less tenacious than any of her other roles. In a world where the likes of Bella Swan qualify as a heroine for younger girls to look up to, the character of Isabelle-smart, charming, steadfast and extremely literate (I always loved how she would drop in new vocabulary words she learned while living as a voracious reader in the train station)-is a blessing.

As the Station Inspector, Sacha Baron Cohen utilizes his immense talents in full service of a character that is not of his creation absolutely perfectly. I appreciated how he never tried to upstage anyone or anything else in the film for his own benefits. Cohen is a crucial piece in this puzzle and his ability as a team player should be commended. Ben Kingsley is the true soul of the film and without saying any more, for fear of producing spoilers, he injects into the character of Georges what I felt to be a kindred spirit to Scorsese himself, with profound gravity, pathos, vision and enormous compassion. He never, for even one moment, strikes a false note.

As you all know so very well about me, I am and remain anti-3D, as I feel it is nothing more than a money making gimmick that is not crucial to the art of cinematic storytelling. All of that being said, and even though I saw “Hugo” in 2D, I feel that “Hugo” would be the major exception to the norm. Martin Scorsese shot “Hugo” in 3D, unlike most releases that were filmed in 2D and then reconfigured for 3D. While I have not been a fan of James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009), I am wondering if I would have to extend a large amount of gratitude for “Avatar” as the mammoth success of that film single handedly brought the 3D resurgence into action. Perhaps, the success of “Avatar” even inspired Scorsese to make this film in the first place. But for my money, I think that “Hugo” bests “Avatar” in every possible way from conception to execution. And truth be told…I just may be persuaded to see this film again…but in 3D. I am not making any promises but if one were to see a 3D movie, it was obvious to me that “Hugo” is the one to see.

As with all of his films, Scorsese knows to the deepest levels of his cinematic soul that all of the techniques and special effects in the world will not mean a thing without a story and furthermore, that all of the filmmaking tools are there to operate at the service of that story. I loved how the visual flights of fancy depicting gears, heart shaped keys, and all manner of cogs in the wheels of clocks and machinery worked as a gorgeous allegory to the emotional states of all of the film’s characters. Hugo, Isabelle, Georges, the Station Inspector and others are all, in one way or another, in a state of repair and need fixing in order to fully realize their potential in the world. And even deeper, Scorsese illustrates how that very stagnant and ultimately realized potential speaks to the machinery of the human condition. How one person’s possibilities can affect another’s and how we all congeal together in a community and as a species. We are all keys for each other with the potential to unlock wondrous gifts, releasing them into the world and into our hearts and souls.

“Hugo” is also a film that explores our relationship to art, literature, movies, love, inspiration and dreams and their transformative and transportive abilities to create spellbinding power. “Hugo” is cut from the same cloth as varied as Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso” (1988) or even J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” as its love for the magic of the movies is near devotional. It is more than perfect that Martin Scorsese made this film. Now that he is nearly 70 years old and long acknowledged as a legend, it is beautiful to see this man not taking any creative moment for granted. “Hugo” contains the wisdom and experience of an older man working in tandem with an unquestionable and brightly lit childlike spirit of invention, inspiration and imagination and innocence. "Hugo" illustrates why we all even go to the movies and moreso, why Martin Scorsese creates them in the first place.

As I have taken a peek as the Thanksgiving holiday box office reports, I have seen that “Hugo” is not setting the box office on fire. In fact, the audience I saw it with was very scant indeed. This worries me because I would just hate for something this extraordinary to be ignored, especially as it is a film designed to be embraced and hoisted up highly over our collective shoulders. Martin Scorsese has created a fantasy epic that is indeed fun for the entire family. It is remarkably clean, pure of heart and spirit while eliciting endless creativity. I know that you want to see the big blockbuster films and believe me dear readers, I do too! But I urge you to go, as soon as you are able, and experience “Hugo” as it deserves all of the attention and affection it will hopefully receive.

“Hugo” is Martin Scorsese’s gift to all of us and all we have to do is open it.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

MOODY MESMERIZING MEANDERING MUDDLED: a review of "Martha Marcy May Marlene"

Written and Directed by Sean Durkin
** ½ (two and a half stars)

Once the house lights in the theater began to brighten, I scratched my head in confusion and found myself doing something that I typically do not do when I exit a film: I asked two fellow patrons what they thought of this experience we had all traveled through together. The two older women were visibly affected, one perhaps a bit more shaken than the other, and they each provided me with their feelings, to which I still continued to scratch my head and mentally ask them, “Why?’

Writer/Director Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is the type of psychological drama I tend to gravitate towards with its themes of a person’s shifting and deteriorating sense of reality. Yet, the world Durkin creates, while appropriately bleak, is overly and self-consciously languid and enigmatic to the point where it was almost engulfed by its own smothering mysteriousness. That is not to say that the film doesn’t have its merits. On the contrary, there is very much to admire about it. So much so that you may be curious as to why my rating is a bit less than enthusiastic. I have to admit that as I ruminate over the film, I am torn and am wrestling with my feelings over it. But I keep returning to this feeling: by the film’s abrupt conclusion, my first response was to wonder just what the point of the whole thing actually was, if there was one at all. A harsh impression but it was indeed how I felt. But then, something began to take hold and I will now go forward with my thought process for your reading pleasure.

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” stars Elizabeth Olsen in her film debut as Martha, who, at the film’s start, is seen escaping what turns out to be an abusive cult located somewhere in the Catskill Mountains. After a meal at a small diner, Martha finds a pay phone and places a call to her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who soon arrives and brings Martha back to the luxurious summer home she shares with her husband Ted (an excellent Hugh Dancy). But, re-assimilation is not easy for Martha as the physical and psychological damage she has endured threatens her relationship with the only family she remains to have as well as possibly upending any potential future she may wish to have in the world outside of the cult.

The film then unfolds over the alternating parallel tracks of illustrating Martha’s life within the cult and her life as she struggles to reconnect with the real world, converging slowly over the course of the proceedings. Now, I do not wish to say terribly much more as I feel the fullness of its possible success lies within the viewer not knowing that much about it, and I feel that even counts towards even trying to explain the meaning behind the film’s alliterative title. But I will say that at the film’s best, Durkin weaves a disturbing, haunting spell, which does go to great lengths to create empathy for Martha especially as her search for stability grows increasingly futile and tragically inevitable.

Much of the press surrounding this film has been focused upon the high quality of Elizabeth Olsen’s performance and to that I have to agree whole heartedly. Olsen (the younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen) is indeed the real deal but not in a show stopping, firecracker, “she leaps off of the screen” fashion. Olsen carries a brooding intensity mostly seen through her piercing stare, which Durkin wisely presents often. It is a stare that not only draws you closer and dares you to not watch her, it is a stare you will often find yourself lost inside of as you attempt to piece together the sad trajectory of her troubled life. Olsen’s full performance really struck me as it is simultaneously feral and fragile. Martha exists as a perpetually abused domesticated animal and the effect is quietly devastating.

Martha is a young woman who is always under some sort of control, whether through the cult or during her stay with her extremely parental sister Lucy and yes, we do witness and are fully aware of the levels of physical, sexual and mostly, psychological abuse she endures throughout the course of her story. Olsen finds the various levels of Martha’s mental state so seemingly effortless and convincing especially as the story’s threads begin to converge and our perceptions, along with Martha’s begin to blur.

Throughout “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” Martha is shown in various states of mental repose or falling in and out of the stages of sleep, sometimes falling asleep in one story thread only to awaken in the other thread. I found this to be one of Durkin’s most successful tactics as he presents a psychological world that is ever shifting as memories phase into dreams, dreams phase into memories, and reality itself is entirely unknown. But, the way Durkin accomplishes this feat is not nearly as virtuosic as anything seen in say Darron Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” (2010). With “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” I felt able to take in every moment at face value, as I think you would as well. But, that being said, I am slowly realizing that the film may be deceptively straightforward. Perhaps some of the sequences we are watching may be how Martha perceives her world, especially as she has become so damaged. It is through these aspects where “Martha Marcy May Marlene” works best and any accolades Elizabeth Olsen is bound to receive during awards season are justifiably deserved.

Sarah Paulsen is Elizabeth Olsen’s equal with her performance as Lucy. As difficult a task it had to have been for Olsen to portray Martha, Paulsen does not have it much easier as she has to essentially fill in many plot holes Durkin has asked the audience to essentially fill in regards to Martha’s backstory and family history. Lucy is indeed demonstrative, parental and more than a little superior towards Martha but she is loving and endlessly worried about Martha’s well being. Mostly, and in addition to balancing her marriage to Ted plus trying to conceive a child, Lucy is desperately attempting to alleviate and sense of guilt she continues to carry as she departed Martha’s life of leaving perhaps during the very developmental and psychological stage when Martha may have needed Lucy the most.

For a moment, I would like to return to Roger Ebert's memoir Life Itself by recounting a tidbit from the chapter entitled “My New Job,” during which he discusses his origins as a film critic. In that chapter, Ebert delivers a quotation from the late, great Gene Siskel in regards to the purpose within a film critic’s profession. “Siskel described his job as ‘covering the national dream beat,’ because if you pay attention to the movies they will tell you what people desire and fear.” If what Siskel stated is indeed the case, our nation has been suffering some very dark fears and dreams indeed.

Dear readers, I want to ask you what you think is happening in our society where we can have films like “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” Writer/Director Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter,” Writer/Director Kevin Smith’s “Red State” and Director Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” (which I have yet to see) all arriving at this point in time. These films seem to illustrate a consciousness trapped in a state of restless anxiety due to our current political and economic landscape. We seem to be dealing with a not so buried fear that any frivolous pursuits, any wrong step will be met with rapid destruction for the wolves are always at the door, threatening any sense of security we all wish to obtain and keep. And even more frightening, sometimes that wolf at the door may live deep within the confines of our own minds, threatening to unravel.

In my mind, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” feels to be of a piece with the superlative “Take Shelter” and the brutal “Red State” as all three films share themes of elusive safety, the desperate need for family connections and increasingly fractured psyches. With “Red State” in particular, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” deals with dangerous Father figure/cult leaders. Where “Red State” depicted the fire and brimstone demise of a cult, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” goes to great lengths to depict the inner workings of a cult, its structure, how it functions and the levels to which quietly charismatic cult leader Patrick (the sinister John Hawkes) manipulates, controls and abuses his flock.

But, for me, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” falters where “Take Shelter” and “Red State” grandly succeeded mainly because of Sean Durkin’s direction, while creating a murky atmosphere, at times seemed trapped within a certain storytelling inertia, which made the film as a whole lose its momentum. It just felt to be too self-congratulatory. An exercise in stylistic ambiguity. An exercise it just fell in love with at my expense. I guess many passages of it felt to be more than a little forced and proudly unwilling to find any release to its tension. This was a quality I loved in “Take Shelter” but it worked completely because of the story that film was trying to tell. But for “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” that particular approach was not nearly as successful. There were just too many scenes for my taste that felt to be overly cryptic as if characters were purposefully not saying things solely because the imaginary audience was out there somewhere watching. I guess I was feeling a bit too aware of the conventions and not feeling that the film was something more lived in. And by the film’s end, as I previously stated, it all felt to be a slap in the face. What was the purpose? Why was I watching this story and what did this filmmaker want for me to leave with?

Obviously, after all of these words upon words, I do believe that Durkin did indeed want me to leave with some real impression of his story and film, which admittedly did take some time to take hold of me. Which is OK as not every film needs to be an immediate experience. “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a provocative film to be true and I think that some of you who choose to experience it will find yourselves enraptured by it. If you are indeed one of those people, please do check back in with me as I would love to talk to you about it.

And you know, isn’t having a film to discuss and debate over a more than worthwhile quality in a film released during our age of sequels, re-boots and re-imaginings?

Sunday, November 13, 2011


A John Hughes Production
Written and Produced by John Hughes
Directed by William Ryan

“I think I was able to get at something immutable, and I’m proud that it has lasted. I was desperately afraid of getting it wrong. It’s really about characters and what they have to say. I’ve spent 15 years looking for that again.”
-John Hughes December 1999

Originally published in the Premiere Magazine article “Teen Days That Shook The World: An Oral History Of ‘The Breakfast Club’” by Sean M. Smith

Now this is the definition of a “Buried Treasure”!

John Hughes’ “Reach The Rock,” as directed by William Ryan seemed to function as sort of a creative rebirth and cinematic atonement for Hughes. As you can see from the above referenced quotation from the man himself, I think we can infer that he may have been feeling a tad creatively wanderlust, in regards to what the studios may have wanted from him after the gargantuan success of “Home Alone” (1990). While “Reach the Rock” is not one of Hughes’ golden features, it was a welcome return to form and it does indeed show Hughes attempting to flex his creative muscles one again with something more personal, albeit much darker, more somber, sadder and not nearly as euphoric as his classic teen films. Since this film was created and (barely) released around the same period as he wrote his still unproduced screenplay of “Tickets” (1996), we can see that he was mining for that sense of truth again and clearly enjoying not being bogged down in bigger budgeted Hollywood high concepts.

Set in the more working class area of Hughes’ mythical Shermer, IL over the course of one long, hot summer night, “Reach The Rock” stars Alessandro Nivola as Robin Fleming, a 22 year old high school dropout and restless miscreant with a criminal record. As the film opens, Robin is in the middle of committing his latest escapade. His scheme is to break the front store window of the local Ace Hardware store with the hopes of getting himself arrested and sent to the Shermer police Station, where he will be placed under the watchful of his arch nemesis Sgt. Phil Quinn (William Sadler). Yet, for Quinn, being forced to jail and watch Robin carries an almost unbearable weight as he, albeit wrongfully, blames Robin for the drunken drowning death of his nephew Danny (Norman Reedus) in the recent past.

Throughout the night, Robin, after covertly pilfering a set of keys, playfully releases himself from his cell. He escapes and returns to the Shermer Police Station, steals and joyrides in police cars and destroys more public storefront properties, all the while evading Quinn and his Deputy Ernie (Bruce Norris), who is secretly attempting to have a summer night’s tryst with his comely girlfriend Donna Tillman (Karen Sillas). Yet, for Robin, this night is not about a war of wits with Quinn or even cat and mouse games with the police. It is about a possible reconnection, which may lead to a possible future, with Lise Kendall (Brooke Langton), the wealthy daughter of a Shermer, IL judge, Robin’s on and off again girlfriend since high school and now ready to leave Shermer for a new post college career in New York.

“Reach the Rock” is an earnest drama which carries the John Hughes standards of the truncated time line of the story structure, small cast of characters, rich with terrific dialogue, cat and mouse hijinks as well as a healthy helping of the youth vs. authority figure battles we have seen before in 1985’s “The Breakfast Club” (John Bender Vs. Mr. Vernon) and 1986’s “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (Ferris Vs. Edward Rooney). Where the film separates itself from the classic Hughes pictures, much like his screenplay for “Tickets,” it presents less of a fantasy, wish fulfillment world and one more rooted in painful reality. There is no happy ending. And there is nothing for Robin Fleming that is transformative. When the movie concludes, Robin Fleming is more informed, and that does leave a sense of hope before the end credits scroll. “Reach The Rock” is a film about a troubled and aimless young man’s arrested development as well as also existing as a somewhat dark night of the soul for an older man unable to forgive.

The film commits itself to its characters while even cleverly sneaking in some comments about Hughes own cinematic output. The aforementioned cat and mouse hijinks between Robin, Quinn and Ernie have a weariness that is unlike Hughes’ work prior to this film. It’s a bit tiresome and in regards to the character of Robin Fleming, that fatigue locks firmly into his existential plight. What may have been hysterical when he was 16, is terribly pathetic at 22, especially when there’s no audience to goad him along or to impress and his antics only land him repeatedly in jail. But for Hughes, I could not help but to wonder if this were a bit of a self-aware commentary that he was growing weary with the extended slapstick pieces himself. At that time, Hughes was relegated to the increasingly impersonal “Home Alone Business” that had been injected into “Home Alone 2” (1992), a hugely entertaining but unnecessary sequel as well as “Dennis The Menace” (1993), a lively adaptation seriously marred by the inclusion of a pointless villain and “Baby’s Day Out” (1994), an almost modern day silent movie unfortunately filled with more inept burglars.

Beyond that, “Reach The Rock” is not a complete success. Alessandro Nivola and Brooke Langton, while making a very attractive couple and containing a bit of heat, lack the weight necessary to really bring Robin and Lise to life and to really ground the film with depth. These are not bad performances by any means. Just not as strong as what we are used to in Hughes’ work. It just felt as if everything was left to Hughes’ writing to carry the fullness of the experience on its own. Much better is William Sadler, who does infuse Hughes’ script with just the right touch of sardonic wit, dark regret and pain as well as a strong sense of life’s possibilities. William Ryan’s direction is a tad flat where it needs to be as snappy and sharp as Hughes’ writing.

But what Ryan does very well is to convey the feeling of that sleepy, humid, languid long summer night, a feat to which he is wonderfully aided by John McEntire, Chicago based drummer and producer for the bands Tortoise and The Sea and Cake. McEntire’s electronic and percussive score perfectly sets the mood for “Reach The Rock” and the excellent combination of atmosphere and music reminded me very much of Francis Ford Coppola’s impressionistic black and white teen drama “Rumble Fish” (1983), which was scored by Stewart Copeland, drummer of The Police.

Returning to the meteorological, I also found it interesting, especially after having read “Tickets,” how Hughes utilized the weather to accentuate the world he is trying to illustrate for us. In “Tickets,” the bitter Chicago winter reflected the bleakness of the world itself while the hot summer night of “Reach The Rock” reflects the building tension and boiling passions ready to be released with an oncoming rain storm.

But, what affected me most throughout this melancholy film is how John Hughes’ romanticism rings loudest throughout the proceedings…and heartbreakingly at that. In some respects, “Reach The Rock” conceptually answers the question of what may have happened to the characters of criminal John Bender and prom queen rich princess Claire Standish after their Saturday detention in “The Breakfast Club” which concluded with a shared kiss and Claire’s gift of a diamond earring to Bender. In “Reach The Rock,” Robin lovingly carries around a locket in his pocket given to him by Lise with the inscription “Tomorrow Never Knows” (Hughes’ fascination with The Beatles strikes again). Moreso, this film is a story about Robin’s longing. His longing to leave Shermer for certain, but his longing for Lise to finally return to him, profess her endless love and take him to New York with her. But, it is not to be as Lise firmly explains that he was not much more than a prop to cause emotional damage to her Father, with whom her relationship had been more than difficult.

From here, we receive another deeply felt John Hughes life lesson which is fueled through a strong sense of a character’s self-awareness. Robin Fleming’s journey is one where he must learn to rely upon himself to ultimately relieve himself of his inner pain. The life he wishes to have is one that he has to make for himself and there will be no shining princess to rescue him. His life’s success or failure is due to the choices he makes, if only he would at last make the right choices.

Hard questions and hard decisions are at the core of “Reach The Rock” and I am wondering if the tiny release of that film was a piece of the reasoning that John Hughes experienced when he had to ask himself the hard questions and make the hard choices about continuing his potential involvement with Hollywood. I have the feeling that big box office success for “Reach The Rock” was the furthest from his mind. Maybe this film was what he needed to do to find that sense of truth he had been searching for all over again.

So, where can you see “Reach The Rock”? Like I said, the film’s theatrical release was pitifully tiny as it screened in very few theaters in Chicago and new York only. The film has never been released on DVD and of course, you will not find it on Blu-Ray either. I own a VHS copy of the film and you can still purchase a VHS copy the film through Amazon for the hefty price of…$1.75 plus shipping. A meager price to pay for the Hughes connoisseur and completist…and more than worth the investment.

WATCH THE SKIES: a review of "Take Shelter"

Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
**** (four stars)

For the last several weeks, I have been reading and savoring the great Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself and for the purposes of this review, I wanted to illustrate one particular sentence in which he essentially describes his movie analyzing process. The words come from the brilliant movie critic, the late Pauline Kael, who once expressed to Ebert, “I go to the movie, I watch it and I ask myself what happened to me.” That sentence precisely describes my process when I compose these entries for myself and for you, dear readers. And as I sit at home nearly two hours after walking out of Writer/Director Jeff Nichols’ psychological drama “Take Shelter,” I can say that what happened to me still has me thoroughly shaken up.

“Take Shelter,” opens and closes in the throes of a man’s intimate yet epic nightmare, the kind of which that can still plague the dreamer long, long after waking. Michael Shannon stars as Ohio construction worker Curtis LaForche and at the beginning of the film we find him watching the clouds in the sky darken and begin to from into and ominously and oncoming storm. Rain begins to fall yet what wets Curtis’ clothes and skin are not simple raindrops but something that is the consistency of oil. Obviously, this is no ordinary summer storm and before long, Curtis awakens.

As if lost in a grim fog, Curtis arrives at the breakfast table with his loving family awaiting him. His wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) serves him scrambled eggs and toast while their hearing impaired daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) plays with the family German Shepherd, yet to Curtis, everything feels disturbingly wrong.

Curtis’ nightmares continue with threats of horrific storms, birds flying and circling overhead in unnervingly odd patterns, the family dog savagely attacking him, faceless strangers breaking into his truck and home and carrying his child away into the darkness, all of which habitually make Curtis late for work, and increasingly distant from his family and friends. The inner terror increases and his dreams begin to interfere with his daily life as hallucinations, seeing storm clouds that no one else can witness and hearing lurking thunder no one else can experience, threaten to take over his life.

I have to say that it is difficult to express much more about this film without delving into spoilers (even though a MAJOR point is revealed in the film’s trailer) but I will try my best. Let’s just say that Curtis reaches a crossroads where he has to uncover whether his dreams are the symptoms of a deteriorating psyche or whether the dreams are serving as a warning for an unspeakable cataclysm.

“Take Shelter” despite its omnipresent sense of doom is a film Nichols presents at its most humane. This is not a film about histrionics and apocalyptic special effects (although the cloud and bird effects and one moment set in Curtis’ living room are special indeed). “Take Shelter” is a distressingly quiet film, deliberately paced but always keeps the audience as unbalanced as poor Curtis. As soon as we feel that we have found our bearings, our perceptions are disturbingly altered all over again. The cinematic spell Nichols weaves is entrancing to the point of almost being lulled yet it is unnervingly terrifying.

The film’s humanity arrives in the form of Curtis’s devotion to his family and his unshakable desire to keep them safe at all costs. This craving need begins to consume him as he becomes increasingly focused on the building of a tornado shelter in the backyard. For all of the scenes where Curtis is building the shelter or spending night after night inside of the bunker like space, I was reminded profoundly of no less than Richard Dreyfuss’ iconic performance in Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” (1977). I would like for you to take a moment and remember how Dreyfuss seemingly descended into a level of madness as his mind and spirit were consumed with the image and re-creation of Devil’s Tower, from mashed potatoes to larger scaled sized versions inside and outside of his suburban home. Much like how Dreyfuss’ obsessions cost him his wife and children, Curtis’ pleas for safety also possesses an adverse effect as the stability of his marriage, his job (with crucial health insurance) is jeopardized as well as the ability to pay for a Cochlear implant surgical procedure for Hannah are all dramatically on the line.

I greatly appreciated how much “Take Shelter” is a deeply perceptive and sensitive drama about a debilitating mental illness like paranoid schizophrenia. I loved how Nichols utilized every dream sequence and especially each clap of thunder and flashing streak of lightning to serve as the potentially fractured state of Curtis’ mind. Most impressive is the actual tornado shelter itself, which may serve as a metaphor to the last piece of sanity Curtis desperately holds onto as the shelter is the area where his family is completely protected against whatever horrific disaster he fears will ultimately take them all away from him forever. The film’s near climax, set completely inside of the shelter, is the film at its most bracing as we, along with Curtis, are left to painfully ponder if the danger on the other side of the door is real or not and to find out, all we have to do is open that door. Nichols’ approached this sequence with Hitchcockian heft, urgency and almost unbearable terror as our collective imaginations are left to whisk us away to sights unmentionable.

When it is time to begin honoring the finest performances of 2011, I deeply hope that many accolades are delivered to Michael Shannon. After gaining notoriety in films like Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road” (2008), Floria Sigismondi’s “The Runaways” (2010) and a recurring role upon Martin Scorsese’s HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” it is more than pleasing to see Shannon in a leading performance, which he handles with incredible presence and heartbreaking power.

If you choose to see this film, please pay strict attention to Shannon’s wonderful body language. Watch Shannon’s jaw clench tighter, his elongated, hulking body constricting to the point of almost folding in towards itself, his footsteps grow increasingly tentative as if he fears that one wrong move will upend the world. And then, there is his voice and eyes which quiver, grow softer, and more frightened like a child gripped with the worst of night terrors. When he speaks, he is so gripped with fear that he can barely utter the words lest he unravel any remaining confidence his wife rests with him. It is a sensational, completely empathetic performance.

And so, taking a cue from Kael and Ebert, I feel that I need to express what happened to me as I watched “Take Shelter” in order to make this review feel complete. I have to say that like the character of Curtis, I too was gripped with an evolving sense of crippling fear. It was the fear of losing whatever control I thought that I had possessed over my life. It was the fear of loss and losing what was most important to me, whether through my own actions, through events entirely out of my control, or a mixture of both. It was the fear of holding so tightly onto my family and discovering that no matter how tightly I grasped, it was all for nothing. I found myself becoming paralyzed, weakened and filled with a sense of despair and helplessness as I empathized with Curtis’ horrible dilemma. And by the time the film reached its final moments, there was a fateful sense of resignation and surrender that felt ultimate and inevitable. Like I said, it all felt like being caught within an especially bad dream. And while this all sounds to be so unpleasant, it is definitely cinematic excellence as Jeff Nichols assures the audience that we are in the hands of a masterful storyteller.

“Take Shelter,” featuring the performance of Michael Shannon at its core, is an experience which builds supreme, mounting intensity and tension with absolutely no release or relief in sight. Combining an intimate family drama, an exploration of mental illness and an element of the most disquieting “Twilight Zone” episode you have ever seen, “Take Shelter” is the kind of cinema that grabs you and refuses to let go.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

GOD, GAYS & GUNS: a review of "Red State"

Written and Directed by Kevin Smith
**** (four stars)

Now THIS is the Kevin Smith that I know!!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, love or hate him, I firmly believe, and it cannot be denied, that Writer/Director Kevin Smith is one of the most unique creative voices working in American independent cinema today, as well as over a nearly 20 year period. Yet, in recent years, I have to admit that I have questioned Smith’s creative judgments and have actually worried a bit for him as his typically audacious, irreverent creative spark had been dampened by sub par material. Despite its flaws, I will not join the parade of “Jersey Girl” (2004) bashers, as I believe it to be as honest of a film as anything else he has ever created. But, after creatively treading water with the shamelessly so-so “Zack And Miri Make A Porno” (2008), releasing last year’s bankrupt “Cop Out,” and then announcing this summer that he would be retiring from filmmaking, I began to think that perhaps Kevin Smith’s best days as a filmmaking talent were fully behind him. However, I still carried a sense of hope…

You see, around four years ago or so, Smith cryptically teased his fan base by stating that a dark stylistic change was brooding upon the horizon as he would be making a “horror movie.” Now, that horror movie has, at long last, arrived in the form of “Red State,” a relentlessly grueling experience that marks a creative quantum leap forward for Smith. Not only is the film worlds away from his Salinger-esque “View Askewniverse” series of six films which began with the groundbreaking “Clerks” (1994), concluded with his superlative sequel “Clerks II” (2006) with no less than “Chasing Amy” (1997) and “Dogma” (1999) smack dab in the middle, it is not even a comedy or satire in any way, shape or form. “Red State” is indeed a horror movie but it is not the horror of the supernatural. It is a horror story starring the monsters that live within our society everyday. When I wrote about “Chasing Amy” recently for an installment of “Savage Cinema Revisits,” I remarked that I adored this cinematic love story so deeply because it was a fearless piece of work. With “Red State,” Kevin Smith has returned to his audacious roots and has arrived with his best film since “Chasing Amy.” For a story that plunges us so ferociously into the deep water nightmare of fear, Kevin Smith’s “Red State” is a brazenly, boldly fearless film experience. It is not for everybody but it is bracing, exciting cinema.

“Red State” opens within somewhat familiar Kevin Smith territory as we meet Travis (Michael Angarano), Jared (Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun), three Southern small town teenage boys in the midst of planning a salacious Friday night adventure with an unknown older woman advertising group sex through the internet. The threesome borrow Travis’ parents car and travel 30 minutes out of town into the even smaller location of Cooper’s Dell where they find a small trailer housing their internet sex date, an older woman named Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo). Upon entering Sarah’s trailer, the three boys nervously drink beers as they await an evening of fornication yet as they begin to undress, all three pass out into unconsciousness as Sarah has drugged them.

Jared awakens to find himself trapped inside of a small covered cage, which is being wheeled into the tiny inner sanctum of the Five Points Church, the operation of Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), an organization with stockpiled weaponry that is so bigoted and violently racist that even the Neo Nazi movement has admonished them.

I dare to describe more of “Red State” to you so as to not produce any spoilers and also to not ruin the film’s jarringly effective story structure which takes some hard twists and turns. I will say that the great John Goodman figures into the film as ATF agent Joseph Keenan, who arrives at the Five Points Church compound after being notified of the teenagers disappearance. Soon thereafter, the situation descends into a level of violence akin to the Waco, Texas disaster.

Kevin Smith’s “Red State” is as brutal, uncompromising, unforgiving, and extremely violent as it is audacious, challenging, compelling and provocative. It is Kevin Smith’s most visually accomplished film by a long shot and his tightest directorial effort to date. It is firmly structured and executed with supreme confidence. And yes, it is as advertised. “Red State” in indeed a horror film as it is terrifying and will haunt you with feelings of dread long after the final credits have ceased to scroll. I always hoped and deep down I always knew that Smith had it inside of him to produce a work that places most films released today into shame due to their lack of creativity and risks. Time and again throughout his career, Smith has played by his own storytelling rules and has taken the level of creative risks that Hollywood has long seemed to have forgotten about and “Red State” is no exception. What begins as a bit of a romp, quickly zigs into terror and zags into an action thriller and then changes once again with moments that recalled Director Michael Tolkin’s disturbing religious drama “The Rapture” (1991), while always being consistent with itself. It never feels as if you are watching four different movies, as the complete story follows its own logical arc with precision. Smith constantly keeps you off guard and I am stunned with many of the storytelling decisions he made, which of course, I will never reveal here. Let’s just say that I jumped and gasped more times than I thought that I would and I was amazed with the increased skill Smith has now shown as a filmmaker.

Yet, one skill in particular that Smith has always adhered to is his ability of providing his cast with copious amounts of material for them to sink their acting teeth into and with “Red State,” there is plenty enough to chomp and to have seconds. This is a skill I have long appreciated from filmmakers like Smith and of course, Quentin Tarantino because as I have often lamented on this site, I grow so irritated when filmmakers hire actors and have them do absolutely nothing but lazily cash their paychecks. No such passivity lurks in any corner with “Red State” as Michael Parks as Pastor Abin Cooper gives a performance of such towering strength, horrific power and tangible, realistically luscious evil. He is flat out sensational and while I know that this will never happen due to the film’s tiny theatrical release, he deserves an Oscar nomination for his work.

Pastor Abin Cooper, who has been loosely based upon real world infamous hate speech preacher Fred Phelps, is simultaneously charismatic, chilling, and disturbingly calm, whether spouting endless amounts of hate speech to a small yet completely devoted congregation or even surrounded by a hail of bullets. His supreme sense of self-righteousness is the frightening core to this character as he is no one that can possibly ever be reasoned with because he truly believes that his actions are divinely inspired.

He burrows under your skin so effortlessly especially when he sings spirituals in the film. His voice, his gravelly Southern voice, is so cold, so barren of actual rhythm and melody to the point that it is almost atonal feels like the darkness of an empty grave. But I would say that Parks’ tour de force is actually his very first scene in “Red State” during which he delivers a staggeringly well written and nearly 15 minute monologue. His sermon and his congregation’s reaction towards it reminded me quite a bit of Directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s incredibly unnerving documentary “Jesus Camp” (2006) most notably in regards to how children are unwittingly indoctrinated into the world of hate, racism, intolerance and violence all in the name of God. It was so fascinating to see how Abin Cooper could playfully cajole his grandchild with jokes abut “Popeye” and seamlessly segue into a speech about God’s wrath, our need to forever fear God, to somehow discover the devotion and love inside of that fear and then to utilize this fear to eradicate “the homosexual element” from the Earth. And THEN, he’ll shoo the children from the congregation, explaining that “it’s about to get real grown up in here.” Michael Parks is so undeniably mesmerizing during this sequence that as he speaks, it was quite some time before I even noticed that there was a white cloaked figure standing directly behind him, a figure soon to be revealed as a sacrificial male victim tied to the cross in Saran Wrap with a ball gag stuffed into his mouth.

Conceptually, “Red State” is a film of such unrelenting bleakness that essentially none of the characters walks away easily…if at all. Every character in the film is undone by their respective allegiances to sex, religion or the government and with the way Smith constructs his story, he forces us the audience to find our allegiances slightly sliding back and forth between various parties and perceptions. I found it to be quite clever how Smith played with the horror film convention of randy teenagers being punished for their natural, emerging sexual emotions to the point that “Red State” can work as a film of sexual paranoia as much as Director Adrian Lyne’s “Fatal Attraction” (1987) was.

Furthermore, and most importantly there is the nature of evil and Hell itself to deal with. Kerry Bishe gives a frantically intense performance as Cheyenne, Sarah Cooper’s daughter, Pastor Abin Cooper’s granddaughter and caretaker of the compound’s small children. Once the Feds have been ordered mission to destroy the Cooper compound, killing everyone in sight solely in order to eliminate any potential witnesses to their own tragic errors, she makes a great case to another character (and again, the audience) for protecting the children from harm. And then, you are asked to question which organization is more monstrous: The Five Points Church, a group that promotes their anti-homosexual agenda at the funerals of dead homosexuals or the government enforcing a political agenda by any means necessary. This conceit even recalled for me noting less than Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1972) which provided a similar conundrum by forcing us to almost sympathize with the young ruthless rapist Alex (Malcolm McDowell) as he is being subjected to government-induced torture with the intent of “curing” his violent tendencies.

Kevin Smith cleverly underlines the entire proceedings with an Old Testament styled biblical framework as the bloodbath works as modern day “fire and brimstone.” Beyond the violence, “Red State” is a film that takes us to Hell while asking us exactly what does Hell represent? For Abin Cooper, obviously Hell is the existence and prominence of anything an deveryone that does nto view the world as he and his flock. To the teenagers, it is the world that unwittingly found themselves trapped inside of. For ATF agent Keenan, Hell may represent the forced adherence to government polities and orders at the expense of human life. And for one character, Hell may be living the life of a closeted homosexual feeling, while being trapped in a heterosexual marriage.

For me, there are many forms of Hell but one in particular is a world where figures like Abin Cooper are able to run rampant, injecting their personal and righteous brand of sadistic venom into a culture that has no use for it whatsoever. The sickness of people who use the Bible as a weapon and as a shield to hide their own bigotry and intolerance is more than evil. It is abominable.

To those who feel that religious fanatics are nothing more than an easy target for satire or political horror and that Kevin Smith is really not being as provocative as he may believe himself to be, well, I offer the following. Kevin Smith’s “Red State,” from its very title to the full execution of the film as a whole, is indicative of some very nasty business occurring within our society at this time. Figures like Abin Cooper will always exist upon the fringes but, I just think that we all need to be realistic, dear readers. The fringes have moved into the mainstream with a vengeance. I do not wish to sound hyperbolic and also I do not wish to proselytize but the truth of the matter is that we have political leaders in and outside of America committing acts of war and violence, solely because those people truly believe that they are doing the work of their chosen deity. Of course, that is nothing new. But what is happening now in 2011 that is truly frightening to me is that political leaders are infusing an extremist evangelical set of beliefs into our political process. And furthermore, we currently have one woman with a husband utilizing federal funds to run and operate a clinic where homosexuality can be “prayed away” and a standing Governor, who has overseen more executions than any other Governor in our nation’s history, who possesses a hunting ground bearing the name of “Niggerhead” as viable PRESIDENTIAL candidates. Tell me, does Abin Cooper seem that far fetched now?

As far as I am concerned, “Red State” could not be more timely, more necessary and in the case of Kevin Smith’s filmmaking career, this film could not have arrived at a better time. I always knew that he could pull it off!!!!

So, if this review has whetted your cinematic appetite, how can you see “Red State” as it is currently not playing in theaters at all. Well, as audacious as the film itself happens to be, Kevin Smith’s release strategy was equally audacious. After the film’s premiere this past January at the Sundance Film Festival, Smith infamously purchased the distribution rights to the film himself for the whopping total of $20. He then circumvented the standard movie release system by taking his film upon a nationwide traveling roadshow tour. As of this point in time, “Red State” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray and you may also view the film through your cable company or satellite provider’s On Demand feature, I-Tunes, Netflix Streaming or Instant Video.

STORM THE CASTLE: a review of "Tower Heist"

Story by Adam Cooper & Bill Collage and Ted Griffin
Screenplay Written by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson
Directed by Brett Ratner
*** (three stars)

Talk about the right movie at the right time.

As the class warfare between the respective members of the 99% and the top 1% of this country wages onwards and with no apparent signs of ceasing anytime soon, Director Brett Ratner has arrived with “Tower Heist,” a hugely entertaining and most topical caper comedy that I feel will assist to alleviate some of the rancor that continues to permeate our society. Aiding Ratner in his cinematic quest for comedic gold is an excellent all star cast including the grand return of Eddie Murphy as the type of fast talking, streetwise character we have not seen him perform on screen in far too long.

I realize when most cinephiles hear the name of “Brett Ratner,” they cringe as horrifically within their cinema adoring bones just as violently as I do whenever I hear the name “Michael Bay” attached to absolutely anything that involved a movie camera. Granted, Ratner is not the first filmmaker I would think of in regards to achieving any sort of cinematic artistry, no matter the genre. There are very few films of his that I have actually liked yet I must say that any of my personal criticisms are tossed out of the window whenever I watch either of the first two of his “Rush Hour” movies. While more than a little impersonal, Brett Ratner is indeed a surprisingly strong craftsman. Although “Tower Heist” does not touch the gold standards set by films like John Landis’ social comedy classic “Trading Places” (1983), Mike Judge’s cubical satire “Office Space” (1999) or Steven Soderbergh’s outstanding “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001), Ratner, along with his screenwriters and entire cast, has delivered what may be his best effort to date.

Ben Stiller stars as Queens native Josh Kovacs, the diligent manager of an exclusive high-rise complex called “The Tower” (obviously a stand in for Trump Towers). Kovacs is respected by his clients as well as his staff, which includes Concierge and expectant Father, Charlie Gibbs (Casey Affleck), newly hired bellhop Enrique (Michael Pena), Jamaican maid Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe) and retiring doorman Lester (Stephen Henderson). The most notable resident of The Towers is wealthy businessman Arthur Shaw (a terrifically duplicitous and unctuous Alan Alda) who has befriended Kovacs on the basis of their respective working class roots.

One day, Kovacs and the tenacious FBI agent Claire Denham (Tea Leoni) catch Arthur Shaw attempting to fee New York City because it has been revealed that he has been accused of a Ponzi scheme a la Bernie Madoff. To make mattes more personal for Kovacs and the working class staff of The Towers, Kovacs had once authorized Shaw to invest the complete sum of their respective pension funds and now, it appears that Shaw has lost every single penny.

Arthur Shaw is eventually placed under house arrest in his penthouse apartment while Kovacs and his friends, which now includes the disgraced and destitute Wall Street financier Mr. Fitzhugh (a petulantly persnickety Matthew Broderick), decide to plot the ultimate caper: to steal Shaw’s safety net of $20 million dollars from his apartment.

To assist the rag tag and completely unprepared crew for their crime, which they hope to enact during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Kovacs turns to childhood acquaintance and current petty thief Slide (Eddie Murphy) for counsel and assistance.

With “Tower Heist,” Brett Ratner has made a lean, fast paced, highly efficient, clean, clear-eyed comedy filled with smart, sharp screenwriting, and well-staged, choreographed and executed action set pieces. Despite the fact that it is a comedy, I have to say that I actually did not laugh that much, perhaps due to the fact that so many of the film’s best jokes are all included in the film’s trailer. Even so, my enjoyment of the film as a whole was not dampened because Ratner, his screenwriters and his entire cast operated in complete creative and comedic lockstep. Ratner created a world that was grounded within a certain reality, the characters all seemed to function as realistic human beings with realistic problems, ambitions, and foibles, all character motivations were cleanly and clearly established as well as adhered to throughout the entire story. In regards to the actual caper itself, it all felt to be somewhat plausible for a story such as this one. And while I realize that some plot holes may arrive if I think about it too long, the story felt emotionally true as Ratner gave us a collective of characters we cannot help but to identify with and root for.

Recently, I have written some reviews where I have complained about the lack of a consistent tone which made for erratic experiences of varying quality overall. My hat is indeed taken off to Ratner for always ensuring that the story and characters of “Tower Heist” remained consistent with itself from the very first frame to the final image. His casting for this project is impeccable. I greatly appreciated how Ben Stiller eschewed his standard put upon nebbish role by taking full and convincing command not only as the hotel manager but also as the criminal mastermind. We can see his sense of responsibility for the people who worked for him and the guilt he carries for inadvertently playing a part in all of them losing every cent they rightfully and honestly earned. I especially loved the early sequence that pits him against Alan Alda and places his character’s prized Ferrari (supposedly once owned by Steve McQueen) front and center. The righteous anger felt justifiably real while also containing moments designed to have any 99% per centers in the audience raise the roof in applause. Yet, Ratner never forgets that he’s first and foremost a showman and that sequence is expertly staged, convincingly written and it hits all of the right acting beats and comic motivations.

The entire cast not only fully embody their roles, they completely work together beautifully as a well-oiled team. “Tower Heist” is not one of those shameless paycheck movies where an all star cast is placed upon the screen solely to try an ensure behemoth box office receipts, all with little to no acting effort involved. In “Tower Heist,” every participant came to work…or play, for that matter and the collective camaraderie shows, instilling tremendous warmth and again, affording the audience a group of people to root for. Eddie Murphy in particular should be noted for his efforts, as he, never for an instant, attempts to steal the movie for himself-although whenever he opens his mouth, the whole movie is his. Murphy reminds us once again how skilled of an actor and therefore, a team player he actually is and it is a tremendous pleasure to be able to witness the unquestionable and completely unique talent he is and possesses. Of course, his character of Slide is meant to have us recall his classic characters of Axel Foley from the “Beverly Hills Cop” series, Billy Ray Valentine from “Trading Places” and certainly, Reggie Hammond from Director Walter Hill’s “48 Hrs.” (1982), Murphy’s astonishing film debut and for my money, it still remains his best film and performance to date. But, this is no toothless throwback as Slide completely works as a real contemporary 21st century character within the world of “Tower Heist”

And yet, I gave this film only three stars. albeit a strong three stars as this is rock solid entertainment that never truly strikes any false notes throughout. I suppose that in some aspects, Ratner’s desires and talents as a craftsman and showman somehow undercut any certain creative risks that would have made this film a true standout. He is a crowd pleaser and certainly wants to get the most for his buck. Let’s be real, “Tower Heist” is designed to be a big budget holiday comedy. So, any humor that is raunchier, more savage or dangerous, that is the humor that would most certainly afford this PG 13 rated film an R rating, would have to be excised to not offend or alienate the masses. I can understand that but it is also a bit of a shame as I could imagine what an edgier filmmaker would or could do with similar material. What kind of comedic teeth could be viciously bared for a story such as this one, especially one that has arrived during this extremely contentious period in our nation’s history. I missed those teeth, and the qualities that have made films like “Trading Places,” “Office Space” and “Ocean’s Eleven” endure. The lack of those edgier qualities made “Tower Heist” a somewhat safer experience and I don’t think that a story like this needs to be safe.

That said, there is indeed a worthy anger in this comedy along with a sense of community and togetherness that affords “Tower Heist” a substantial amount of good cheer. Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy and the entire cast, from the main players to the supporting members, instill brains, heart and especially in the case of Stephen Henderson, some much needed soul!

Like I said, “Tower Heist” is the right movie at the right time. Not the best one…but the right one, all the same.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

AT LEAST THEY GOT THE "STUPID" PART RIGHT: a review of "Crazy, Stupid, Love"

Screenplay Written by Dan Fogelman
Directed by Glenn Ficara & John Requa
*½ (one and a half stars)

Has the state of modern cinema grown so pitiful that nearly anything that does not fall into the quicksand trap of genre clichés to which we have all grown tiredly familiar receives a copious (and, at times, undeserved) amount of praise?

Take this fall’s atmospheric thriller “Drive,” for instance. Yes, I did like that movie and I did give it a positive review, which I still stand by. But, my admiration for it was soft at best and frankly, I haven’t even thought about it much since having seen it. The purpose of mentioning “Drive” was that the reviews for that film from major film critics across the country were essentially a series of raves. Four stars here. Four stars there. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine proclaimed that “Drive” is one of the best films of 2011 and that Albert Brooks deserves an Oscar nomination for ging against type by portraying a crime boss. Now, dear readers, I do understand and completely acknowledge that everyone is entitled to their opinion but sometimes, I do have to shake my head in disbelief. “Drive” was a film that stepped outside of the “been there done that” world of action thrillers just enough that it gave the impression of being a fresh experience…although it was a complete homage to thrillers of the 1980s, therefore making “Drive” not nearly as original as those reviews would like for you to believe.

So, now I turn to Directors Glenn Ficara & John Requa’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” the latest entry into the romantic comedy-drama genre. While the box office for this film was so-so when it was released this summer, the critical praise was uncommonly high for a film of this nature. The consistent level of high praise did make me very curious to see if this film could transcend the typical inane, contrived, and flat out unrealistic characters and situations that have run rampant in recent movie love stories. Now having seen the film for myself, and as you may have witnessed from my star rating, you can tell that I did not find this film to be a successful one at all. But, I can see how the film could have received such praise because it does, at least, make an attempt to be about real people and real emotions, something most movie love stories as of late have completely forgotten about. I could see that for so many of these critics, that the proceedings of “Crazy, Stupid, Love” felt so refreshingly honest when compared to the endless tripe which stars Katherine Heigl, Sandra Bullock, or Kate Hudson. Maybe so…but when the film has to stand on its own two cinematic feet, I just felt that it was not nearly as refreshingly honest as it absolutely had to be and it made for an experience that, while being a hair better than the works of Heigl, Bullock and Hudson, it’s not by much at all.

Steve Carell and Julianne Moore star as Cal and Emily Weaver, a married couple who first fell in love during high school. As the film opens, Cal and Emily are out of a dinner date when Emily gives Cal the shock of his life: she has cheated on him with her office mate David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon) and now, she wants a divorce. The wounded Cal soon moves out of his home, obtains an apartment and begins to frequent a nearby bar to drown his sorrows and to speak to anyone about his troubles. Cal soon catches the attention of the bar playboy Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling), who takes pity upon Cal and decides to give him a "male makeover," which includes shopping for an entirely new wardrobe and being schooled in the attitude necessary to bed different women night after night.

The pains of love are extended beyond Cal and Emily as the film also sets its sight upon their 13 year old son Robbie (Jonah Bobo), who nurses an unrequited crush upon 17 year old babysitter Jessica Riley (Analeigh Tipton), who herself nurses her own secret crush upon Cal!

Emma Stone figures into the story as law student Hannah, who is currently hoping for a marriage proposal from her dry boyfriend Richard (Josh Groban) and has even once rejected the aggressive advances of Jacob. Yet, as her marriage desires fall apart, she drunkenly reciprocates Jacob’s original advances and the twosome becomes a couple thus forcing Jacob to re-evaluate his sexual and romantic motivations and perceptions.

Now, all of this makes for a series of storylines that would go right up my cinematic alley as there is essentially nothing on the surface of “Crazy, Stupid, Love” that would allow for the types of inane, contrived and flat out unrealistic characters and situations that are the romantic comedy staples as of late, to arrive. For me, Steve Carell is the film’s high point by far, as he easily conveys the hurt and disillusion of a man who has been betrayed by the only woman he has ever loved. He finds the right notes to play and the exact kernels of truth from one end of this film to another by dialing down his comedic mania and bringing out a level of sensitivity that immediately places the audience into his corner. He is a good man and we really do not want to see him hurt. I especially enjoyed the scenes between him and Jonah Bobo as they created a convincing Father/son bond and the tricky situation of not damaging his son’s impressions and outlook upon the nature of love, especially as he is going through a devastating period himself.

So, what a shame it is that “Crazy, Stupid, Love” lets him down tremendously by injecting so much of that annoying amount of contrivance instead of the emotionally truthful and it made the overall experience of the film increasingly irritating, artificial and more than a little stupid. It’s one of those movies where the only characters that seem to exist in its cinematic world are the ones that only matter to the actual plot (I mean, doesn’t Robbie have any friends at school, for instance?). As the film continues, Ficara and Requa via Dan Fogelman’s screenplay, force characters to have connections with each other in a way that only occurs through a Script Writing class. The film’s final moment between eight grader Robbie and high school student Jessica is a disaster as it could have been a beautifully bittersweet moment depicting those first difficult steps into love. But as it stands, it is a scene that is ultimately nothing more than a teenage boy wish fulfillment fantasy that, not only would NEVER happen, but just doesn’t have a place in a film that proclaims that it wants to examine the messiness of love by having a story with infidelity and divorce at its core.

Marisa Tomei, who arrives in the movie as Cal’s first date since his separation from Emily, is completely wasted in the film as a character who begins as a realistic portrayal yet quickly ends up as a cartoon. For an actress who carries such presence on screen combined with an increasing mature attractiveness, her character could have added deeper layers to the story. But no, her performance is essentially what you saw in those endless advertisements for the film and she just grows more unrealistically unhinged as the film lopes along. Tomei deserves so much better!

While much praise has been heaped upon Ryan Gosling’s performance (and yes, it is a good one), I just could not buy this character at all because his desire to give Cal a makeover arrives without any realistic motivation whatsoever. I just could not understand WHY this womanizer would even give a man like Cal the time of day let alone want to take him under his wing to boot. Although Carell and Gosling do share some strong comedic chemistry and they do what they can to sell this material, it all felt to be so false.

Worst of all, “Crazy, Stupid, Love” just pays lip service to the heartache and confusion of love without seeming to understand it even one bit as it trumps any moments of real heart for sub standard comedy and ridiculous situations that just made me roll my eyes, shift in my seat uncomfortably and slap my forehead in disbelief. Of course, this story can be mined for comedy, it doesn’t have to be so crushingly serous. But none of the comedy felt honest and frankly, so very little of it was actually funny at all. Nearly everything in “Crazy, Stupid, Love” was so trite, so bland, so vanilla, so cloyingly safe and so unwilling to get its cinematic hands emotionally dirty that the whole escapade is all for nothing. It actually reminded quite a bit of Director Sam Weisman’s divorced Dad comedy “Bye, Bye Love” (1995), a supremely wasted opportunity and giant piece of cinematic Wonder Bread if there ever was one. In short, “Crazy, Stupid, Love” offers sitcom solutions to very real problems.

Which is a shame as “Crazy, Stupid, Love” does offer quite a few strong scenes, including one featuring Cal and Emily talking about the trajectories of their lives as they sit outside of the middle school principal’s office. A scene at the neighborhood bar, very late in the film, between Cal and Jacob is also strong. And I would say that the film’s very best sequence is the evening long courtship between Jacob and Hannah. Not only does Emma Stone elevate every scene in which she appears, it also allows Ryan Gosling to show greater and deeper layers to his otherwise one-note character. They have chemistry to burn and I would hope that some filmmaker out there would like to tap into their combined energy and give them real characters and a real story to be a part of.

It was during those aforementioned scenes that I began to have the feeling that the film was about to really go somewhere special. But then, the cartoon contrivances settled in once again, creating yet another bubble headed candyfloss hearted romantic comedy world where everything can be magically fixed at the most improbable moment, in this case, a painfully unrealistic eight grade graduation ceremony were certain characters are in attendance solely to allow the plot threads to forcefully connect again.

Look, I realize that I am being quite hard upon this movie, especially one that is decidedly non-controversial. But, dear readers, I am this harsh because “Crazy, Stupid, Love” had to much potential to be more than it was. It did try but it just kept undercutting its own ambitions to be greater than what usually arrives in our theaters. And the film’s constant unwillingness to burrow deeply into romantically uncomfortable waters, for comedy, for drama and for emotional truth itself, became depressingly tiring.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

THE INTELLECTUAL SPIRITUALITY OF THE QUIET BEATLE: a review of "George Harrison: Living In The Material World"

Directed by Martin Scorsese
*** ½ (three and a half stars)

“There are many roads up the same mountain.”
-Buddhist proverb

In our increasingly divisive modern times, I have to say that as much as I detest the lack of seriousness and respect given towards scientific facts from those on the more evangelical side of the street, I detest the lack of seriousness and respect given towards spirituality from those who revere the world of science perhaps even more. Please allow me to use Bill Maher as an example. Yes, I think he is an absolutely brilliant satirist and I never miss an episode of his weekly HBO program. But, over the years, he has shown more than a few cracks in his armor for my tastes. The fact that he is an atheist concerns me not a whit. What does concern me is his attitude, not necessarily towards religion and spirituality, but his attitude towards those people that do believe in some sort of a higher power at all. I am reminded of a time when he was due to interview Bill Moyers and the excitement he had concerning this particular interview was palpable. Yes, he did say something that irritated me to no end. While he respected Moyers immensely, he could not understand how someone who was obviously so intelligent could ever believe in God.

For me, as I have aged, I have found and believe that the worlds of science and spirituality are not mutually exclusive. I believe that not only are both worlds able to easily co-exist, they constantly work in tandem. Beyond that, I just feel that no matter how much scientific evidence and facts you have on your side, not everything can be explained. And perhaps, maybe some things are not even meant to be explained. Sometimes, things just ARE. Furthermore, and religious fanatics, closet racists and fear mongers aside, what does Maher’s atheism have to do with anyone else’s spirituality in the first place? What threat is it to him? Maher’s beliefs are his own just as my beliefs are my own. While I must stress that none of this was presented to initiate a theological debate, all I wish to express is simply this: There are many roads up the same mountain.

Recently, I had the sublime pleasure of viewing Martin Scorsese’s sprawling, two part, three and a half hour new documentary “George Harrison: Living In the Material World,” which explores the lifelong inner odyssey of the man forever known as “The Quiet Beatle.” As I poured through the film, I could not help myself but to often wonder what Bill Maher would have thought of a man like George Harrison. A man who rejected his Catholic upbringing because he found it foolish to believe in a certain spirituality without ever having proof but later embraced Indian culture and spirituality because through that religion, he found, without any doubts, that he had all of the proof that he needed to believe. What we witness through this film is a man’s spirituality that was formed through supreme intellect and not the supernatural.

In the documentary, Paul McCartney explains that he likened The Beatles to the shape of a square with each corner showing massive importance to the existence of that square as a whole. If one corner vanished, the entire shape would crumble. While I am as familiar with the story of The Beatles as a complete entity as I am with a classic fairytale or bedtime story, “George Harrison: Living In The Material World” attempts to provide a more individualistic approach. Scorsese opens his film as you may expect, with Harrison’s birth after the end of World War II, his early life and his subsequent bonding with fellow Liverpool natives and budding musicians John Lennon and Paul McCartney. From here, Scorsese chooses to travel through Harrison’s life in a most fascinating way.

“George Harrison: Living In The Material World” is a more anecdotal, conversational experience which therefore bypasses the standard dry documentary narrative to which we have all grown so familiar. Harrison’s widow, Olivia Harrison graciously opened up their personal archives and vaults to Scorsese and his team and what results for the viewer is a treasure trove of George Harrison’s personal home movies, photographs, writings, letters, and audio material.

In addition to speaking with Olivia Harrison and son Dhani Harrison (whose resemblance to his late Father is eerie), Scorsese also has gained access to new interviews with no less than the aforementioned McCartney, Ringo Starr and Yoko Ono, of course. Scorsese additionally, features many passages with a beautifully relaxed and open Eric Clapton, bassist Klaus Vormann, percussionist Ray Cooper, drummer Jim Keltner and even members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, whom Harrison befriended as he ventured into film production for “Monty Python’s Life Of Brian” (1979) and Director Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits’ (1981).

Whether knowingly or not, as Scorsese has declared that the film was essentially being written during the editing stages, he has wonderfully delivered the life story of a man which allows itself to digress at will, follow side stories and narrative back alleys, moving backwards and forwards in time creating a sense of an everlasting NOW. Somehow, I have this feeling that is exactly the way George Harrison just may have wanted a film of his life to function.

Incidentally, I think that Scorsese has created a film that not only falls directly in line with the spiritual themes that are a constant of his own cinematic oeuvre, but most importantly, it is a film that just may approximate the type of spirituality George Harrison was attempting to achieve during his time here on Earth. I have to say that I have come to this observation because I watched this film very slowly, over a period of one week. In doing so, I found myself re-watching passages, re-watching sequences, trying to unearth the threads of the film and the man himself and I have to stay that this constant rumination made for a stirring experience.

During the lengthy sections detailing his life as a member of The Beatles, I found a new perspective upon how their unique experience affected them as individuals and how that experience may have formed Harrison’s spiritual quest. Once the Fab Four reached the top of the world with money, fame, and all of the Earthly goods they could possibly wish for and receive, almost at will, Lennon, McCartney, Starr and Harrison were forced to essentially ask of themselves, what more is there to life when you already have it all? Is this all there is? From here, Scorsese gives us a window into George Harrison’s determination to maintain an individualistic status while also being part of a group.

By the accounts given throughout the film, George Harrison was always an innovator, forward thinking, charming, mercurial, and sardonically funny as hell. As he aged, Harrison eschewed anything he felt to be a distraction from what was truly important in life. He eventually avoided awards ceremonies, performed music solely on his terms and enjoyed meditation, planting trees and caring for his estate at Friar Park, even in the moonlight. Certainly, George Harrison was completely giving of himself, to not only those he loved but to the world. For instance, the 1971 Concert For Bangladesh he organized with musician Ravi Shankar, an event which was the first of its kind and the blueprint for all benefit concerts which are now commonplace. As far as Harrison was concerned, if his level of celebrity could shine a deserving light upon people and places so desperately in need, then so be it.

Scorsese shows that it was an ambition of George Harrison to create beauty in the material world so blindingly wonderful that it would provide a sense of spiritual transcendence or heaven on earth. As far as I am concerned, every single note of music he recorded with The Beatles and much of his solo material accomplished that very feat. But for Harrison, the sense of transcendence occurred far beyond mere music. George Harrison was attempting to somehow make every moment he lived an extreme one, an intense one, filled with an almost over-powering emotion that one could catch a glimpse of what lies beyond what we can actually see and hear. To discover that beauty is a feat any of us could potentially attain and perhaps that constant search is what binds him to all of us for we all grow, change, experience, succeed and fail as we travel through our lives, hopefully achieving a newfound sense of meaning and purpose along the way. He was of us but not one of us, in a sense. Or as he states in his own words, he always tried to “be in the world yet not of the world.” Harrison was perceived as mystical but he was indeed populist as he simply desired all of us to find what he found, to seek what he sought in our own individualistic ways. Again and simply stated, there are many roads up the same mountain.

Furthermore, throughout George Harrison’s life, absolutely everything was designed to prepare himself for his individualistic moment of death. Yet, this was not experienced as a morbid fascination but again as one of spiritual transcendence as he just wanted to be in a state of mind and soul where he would leave the material world and potentially do so without fear but with anticipation. It’s all there in the lyrics for songs like “All Things Must Pass,” “The Art Of Dying” and especially “My Sweet Lord” when he sings, “I really want to see you. I really want to be with you. But it takes so long, my Lord.”

As I previously stated, Martin Scorsese has created a film that is more anecdotal and what great anecdotes that are shared with us! These include, but are not limited to, how Harrison coped during the infamous love triangle between Harrison, his first wife Pattie Boyd and close friend Clapton, who fell hopelessly in love with Pattie, thus inspiring the epic love song “Layla.” I also loved hearing about how Harrison became friend with the members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, became their cinematic financial benefactor while also avoiding turbulent board meetings in the process. A moment near the end of the film, during which Ringo discusses the last time he shared a moment with Harrison, including the last words Harrison spoke to him, really choked me up and I dare you to not feel the same as that moment was a testament to their legacy and brothers in musical arms and in life itself.

“George Harrison: Living In The Material World” is an experience unlike most rock music documentaries I have ever seen because of its serene languidness. It is not a rock music documentary although it is set to one of the most majestic soundtracks you could wish to hear.
This film is not designed to be an experience of immediacy or really anything visceral. This is a film to sit with. A film to immerse yourself in. Imagine yourself sliding into your most comfortable position, with your favorite warm drink, copious amounts of time with a treasured friend or friends or family, while being bathed and forever lost in the enveloping art of conversation. That is what Martin Scorsese’s documentary is like and I sincerely hope that the passionate tranquility of this experience washes over you and moves you just as much as it did for me.

“George Harrison: Living In The Material World” is currently airing on HBO with a subsequent DVD release to follow.


I cannot recommend highly enough Director David Leland’s wonderful concert film “Concert For George” (2003). Held at the Royal Albert Hall and under the musical direction of Eric Clapton on November 29, 2002, the one-year anniversary of George Harrison’s passing, the film is a bittersweet yet incredibly joyous event. Featuring the talents of Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, the late Billy Preston, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and even the members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, I guarantee you will be singing along to every song while being washed in the eternal spirit of this incredible life.