Wednesday, May 30, 2012



Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

For this premiere installment of “Savage Cinema’s Favorite Movies,” I am so excited to present to you what I feel to be a towering cinematic achievement.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” is the epitome of greatness to me as it is indeed one of the very best films of the 1990’s. It is also a film that completely transcends its own subject matter of the late 1970s/early 1980s porn film industry and provides a wholly empathetic, non-judgmental view of the various dreams and failures of a makeshift family embodied by a collective of societal cast offs. It is a heartbreaking experience, fully wrenching and at times unbearably intense but it is always, and I mean, always masterfully presented. “Boogie Nights” never strikes one false note or makes any wrong moves. It is a film that firmly announced the arrival of not only Mark Wahlberg as an actor to watch closely and take seriously but Anderson himself as a natural born filmmaker and storyteller who would eventually go on to make “Magnolia” (1999), “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002) and the ahead of its time “There Will Be Blood” (2007). This fall, Paul Thomas Anderson will return with “The Master,” his first film in five years and whose head scratching teaser trailer has recently hit the internet. But for now, I turn you to the sprawling epic “Boogie Nights,” which if you haven’t seen before, I cannot not urge you enough to get yourselves to viewing as it is essential watching.

For a filmmaker for whom “Boogie Nights” was only his second film, Paul Thomas Anderson knew exactly how to make an entrance and announce that his movie was going to be an experience unlike anything else. Opening innocuously on a black screen and softly with the sounds of Michael Penn’s score, a sad circus carousel-sounding cue, “Boogie Nights” blasts onto the glorious widescreen with the image of a movie theater marquee adorned with the film’s title and set to the blaring, brassy fanfare of The Emotions’ “Best Of My Love.”

Then, taking his cue from no less than Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1990), Anderson, with the supreme confidence of a cinematic master, swoops his camera through a lengthy unbroken shot from the marquee across the 1977 San Fernando Valley nighttime streets and into a nightclub, owned by Maurice Rodriguez (a terrific Luiz Guzman). The camera continues to glide around the busy nightclub all the way from dark corner tables to the vibrant disco dance floor, as Anderson, as if taking on the role of a ringmaster, effortlessly introduces us to nearly the entire film’s cast. In addition to Maurice, we meet pornography film director Jack Horner (an excellent Burt Reynolds), his faithful paramour and porn film leading lady Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), as well as the otherwise nameless Rollergirl (Heather Graham), the porn film ingĂ©nue who never, ever takes off her roller skates. Next, we are introduced to fellow porn film actors Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) and Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) as well as cinematographer Little Bill (William H. Macy). The camera finally rests on a youthful, wide eyed figure lurking by the nightclub’s kitchen, the high school dropout and nightclub busboy, 17 year old Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg).

Outside of the nightclub, Eddie lives a sad life as he shares a home with his alcoholic Mother (a raging Joanna Gleason) and his cuckold of a Father. He works his days at a dead end job at a car wash. But, Eddie houses idealistically big dreams as he is determined to one day become a “big, bright shining star.” And…he also houses something else entirely…a mammoth 13 inch penis!

Always on the search for new talent, Jack Horner discovers Eddie at the nightclub, introduces him to Amber Waves and auditions him via a sexual tryst with Rollergirl. Sensing a potentially incredible new talent to assist him with helping him achieve his own dreams of creating a cinematic and artistic porn film triumph, Horner says to Eddie seductively, welcoming and encouragingly, “There’s something wonderful in those jeans just waiting to get out.”

After one final seismic blowout with his Mother, Eddie runs away from home and joins the porn film circus at Jack Horner’s compound, where he is finally indoctrinated to all of the previously introduced characters plus camera operator Kurt Longjohn (Ricky Jay), sound man and boom operator Scotty J. (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the mysterious porn film financier Colonel James (the late Robert Ridgely) among others.

Eddie, who rechristens himself "Dirk Diggler," becomes an instant sensation, elevating the status of all around him as Horner’s films, featuring Dirk Diggler’s massive…ahem…talents, begin to win awards and pack X rated movie theaters. Big money also begins to flow into Dirk’s life, as he purchases a new home filled with the latest accoutrements, oodles of fashionable clothing and even a prized Corvette.

The remainder of “Boogie Nights” becomes a wild, wretched and relentlessly harrowing tale of success floundered and lost, with the hopeful dreams within all of the characters failing, falling and even dying with only the members of their makeshift family to cling to for support and survival.

When I first saw “Boogie Nights” during its initial theatrical run, it was nothing less than one of the most electrifying spectacles I had ever witnessed. Paul Thomas Anderson commands and orchestrates his motion picture with a superlative confidence and rock star swagger that is absolutely crucial for a movie like this one. In fact, “Boogie Nights" is actually quite a self aware experience as it fully knows from first image and the previously described opening scene to the film’s swirling curtain call and the priceless final image that it is a MOVIE!!

Anderson, as if he were P.T. Barnum, is the ultimate showman as he spins his conceptual and thematic plates in the air with extraordinary panache. It is a film that unapologetically swings for the fences as "Boogie Nights" is the epitome of theatrical. It is operatic in scope and emotional content as the events are grandly presented and overwhelmingly felt (a technique was used to even more devastating effect in "Magnolia").

Anderson’s music choices are brilliantly impeccable as he wisely chose selections that not only fit the time period but also cleverly comment upon the action. As Eddie first arrives at Jack Horner’s home to begin his porn odyssey, Anderson underscores the moments with Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not To Come.” As Little Bill finds his perpetually philandering porn star wife in the throes of yet another man, and even surrounded by an audience, Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around And Fell In Love” painfully plays in the background. In addition, Andrew Gold’s late 1970's AM radio classic “Lonely Boy” has never sounded more poignant. And believe me dear readers, if you have not seen this film before, Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” and Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” will never sound the same again.

The entire cast, from the very top to even the most seemingly minor players, deliver the goods and then some. Mark Wahlberg, in this Herculean role, is cinematic dynamite as Dirk Diggler. He completely nails the innocence and idealism of the film’s earlier sections and the crushing arrogance and larger-than-life downfall in the film’s latter half with incredible skill, heft, pathos and a boat load of humor, which walks a very thin line between hysterical and pathetic. Equally, the casting of Burt Reynolds was a masterstroke as his real life existence as a 1970’s sex symbol icon completely informs and grounds his role as Jack Horner. Like his porn filmmaker character, Reynolds, it could be assumed, has seen it all and throughout the film, he lords over the proceedings like a lion in winter with a bemused expression upon his face that winks at the audience while also never breaking character.

In addition to the two main leading roles, I was especially drawn to the high quality work delivered by Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the sadly lovestruck Scotty J. who nurses a painful and unrequited crush on Dirk Diggler. In particular, I loved the masterful Don Cheadle who brings tremendous empathy to his character of Buck Swope, who is constantly searching for his perfect image and wardrobe to sell himself in a predominantly Caucasian environment and also houses big dreams of one day leaving the porn industry behind and owning and operating his own stereo store.

For those of you who have not seen this film and feel wary due to the subject matter, please allow me to assure you that “Boogie Nights” is not a film about pornography. In fact, for a film set within the inner workings of the porn film industry, Anderson never creates an experience designed to titillate or wallow in prurient fantasies. In a way, he demystifies sex and makes the act of sex completely technical and clinical. It was also surprising that if there is any sense of arousal at all within the film, it may exist in Dirk Diggler’s initial on-set filmed sex sequence with Amber Waves, which in turn is also deflated by the Oedipal tones contained within that sequence and characters.

In explanation of that last statement, and as previously referenced, “Boogie Nights” is essentially a film about a family of sorts. Jack Horner serves as the inspiring yet increasingly weary patriarchal figure while Amber Waves serves as the maternal force, especially as she takes Dirk and Rollergirl completely under her wings to compensate for her overwhelming sadness with being estranged from her own young son after her divorce. The inherent unhappiness contained within the interior lives of these characters gives them a sense of grace that one would not otherwise anticipate or suspect. Anderson goes to great lengths to ensure that everyone is a fully drawn, three dimensional human being. Therefore, he creates a canvas where we not only understand these people who happen to be making dirty movies together but we also sympathize with them and wish them wellness.

In addition to the big dreams that fuel the lives of Dirk Diggler, Jack Horner and Buck Swope, we learn that Reed Rothchild fashions himself as a magician, while Rollergirl may be housing dreams of becoming a photographer as she is often seen brandishing a camera. On a more wrenching scale, the aforementioned Amber Waves desperately wishes to reconnect with her child and Little Bill only wants to fully satisfy his wayward wife. With those characters and others, “Boogie Nights” details the drudgery and disappointments of the characters’ lives during the daylight hours and also their nights of glory where they all exist or (just believe themselves to be) world class stars.

To that end, “Boogie Nights” is an exploration of success and fame, and the illusions and delusions that lead to self-destruction. It is a film about spectacular failure. And like my beloved “Jerry Maguire” (1996), it is also a film about the pressures of keeping a sense of integrity and surviving within a rapidly changing industry due to the rapidly changing tenor of society. It was truly a risky move for Anderson to ask his audience to latch onto the lives of people whom, I would assume, many of us would dismiss, discredit, or even feel superior towards as we would never, ever do what they are doing. But I have to say that the emotional toll it placed upon me and other viewers was definitely palpable when I first saw it in the theater and remains so to this day.

For the film’s first half, "Boogie Nights" is a sun soaked ode to the promiscuous 1970s with free love, drugs and sex surrounding the events at lively afternoon pool parties at Jack Horner's home where all of the characters confess and share their deepest hopes and desires with each other. Anderson's visual palate is gorgeous as he and veteran Cinematographer Robert Elswit let the camera swoop, circle around and around and even dive into the swimming pool so we can nearly catch a contact high from the joyousness. Yet, amidst the sunshine, dark clouds lurk in a sinister fashion but are conveniently brushed out of the way as to not disrupt the fun. But the wolf is always at the door.

In one scene, a starlet overdoses at a party and is quickly ushered out of the party to the hospital through a back entrance. In another, Scotty J.'s romantic hopes towards Dirk leave him in a pool of painful embarrassment and Little Bill's tension with his philandering wife comes to a brutal head. Even the significance of Little Bill's nickname displays some crippling inner wounds dealing with his sense of feeling physically, emotionally and sexually insignificant towards his wife as well as to all of the porn film studs, most especially the ultra large membered Dirk Diggler to which he will never be able to compare. All of the dark energy which has been swirling under the surface throughout the first half of the film arrives with a shocker of a conclusion on New Year's Eve 1979, signifying nothing less than the party of the 1970s being officially and abruptly over.

The second half of the film, set in the early and socially regressive 1980's, packs a colossal wallop as Anderson magically creates the euphoric sensation of giving the audience a nearly orgiastic high the further down the characters descend and plunge. In addition to all of the previously mentioned themes and concepts, it is here where Anderson explores the theme and consequences that occur when what one performs as an occupation does not necessarily define that same person as human being. This fact severely haunts Rollergirl and Amber Waves for instance, and another character, previously seen as being fastidious, is eventually exposed as a purveyor of child pornography. And there is also the extremely painful sequence where another character is turned down for a loan simply because of their past association with the porn industry.

But, it is when “Boogie Nights” echoes “Goodfellas” once again as it nods to the climactic and relentless cocaine fueled paranoia of that film’s conclusion, where the Anderson keeps topping himself again and again, scaling new heights and unearthing an undeniably intense power. Anderson and his collaborators, through their expert, fluid, and restless camera work, editing, sound design and acting performances, ratchet up the tension as the film's collective characters make one wrong move after another or especially as they each confront their inner demons as the world rapidly changes around them. It is as if they are all surprised with how they ended up where they have ended up and the overall effect is as anguishing as it is exhilarating.

Witnessing Dirk Diggler’s epic fall due to a cocaine addiction combined with his out of control ego is akin to watching a superhero lose their powers as his mighty phallus lets him down time and again. One traumatic section, entitled “December 11, 1983,” is a powerhouse as Anderson crosscuts between two events that slowly percolate and boil into explosive violence and then, Anderson shifts his attention from those two storylines and veers towards a third which finds another character in a horrific twist of fate set inside of a donut shop.

But, nothing will ever prepare you for the film’s tour de force of a climax as three characters attempt to make a drug deal with a completely unhinged dealer (brilliantly portrayed by Alfred Molina) and his equally unhinged sidekick who randomly sets off firecrackers in the background. Anderson creates a sequence that constantly keeps you off kilter, entirely unnerved and on the edge of your seat no matter how many times you have seen it. It is a masterpiece of modern day “Hitchcockian” styled intensity.

And even then, at the conclusion of this two and half hour saga, Anderson delivers the “money shot” of “money shots,” ending his film on an unbelievable high with a scene so tragically pitiable.

For Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights,” it often feels as if the cinematic spirits of Martin Scorsese and the late Robert Altman (key sources of inspiration) were standing nearby guiding Anderson and his vision along. But most importantly, the film clearly established Anderson as a gifted filmmaker in his own right. His soaring talents would create works that demand to be witnessed and upheld as some of the finest American films of the previous 15 years.

“Boogie Nights” ends as it began, with the melancholy sounds of the circus leaving town, undoubtedly never to return to its boisterous glories. But, what a deliriously dazzling tapestry Paul Thomas Anderson has created and given to us to experience over and again. While I will concede that Anderson’s “Magnolia” and “There Will Be Blood” may even be better films, “Boogie Nights” remains my favorite film of his to date. It is the one that I return to the most. The one I can pop into my DVD player anytime at all and lose myself inside of. It is also the type of film, if I were in the fortunate position to make movies myself, that I would just kill to have been able to make for it is so amazing, stunning, and tremendous.

Withotu question, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” is one of my most favorite movies and if the hour were not so late, I would easily pop it into my DVD player and watch it all over again right now!!!


And now, I am so proud to present to you a brand new series on Savage Cinema.

Ever since the inception of this site, I have included a few series to run alongside the main film reviews with arrive through occasional features. Initially, I had "Savage Cinema's Short Takes," which essentially was nothing more than some very early reviews I had written that were profoundly shorter than what you are used to seeing on this site. That series was indeed short lived as there were not that many older reviews for me to transplant. By it's very design, "Short Takes" had a finite existence.

Around that same time, I decided to have a series entitled "Savage Cinema's Buried Treasure." That series was designed for me to spotlight certain films that I have enjoyed over the years but for some reason or another, these films may have been critically acclaimed but have been forgotten or may have lacked a certain historical longevity. Or they are films that were not widely seen or films which never really found much notoriety or an audience in the first place. This series has been a blast to write and I plan to continue it for as long as possible.

In addition to "Buried Treasure," I have also been slowly adding installments for "Savage Cinema Debuts," a series in which I write brand new reviews for films I had previously never seen. Also, I began "Savage Cinema Revisits," which I think would be more than self-explanatory.

In January of this year, I wrote two installments of "Savage Cinema Revisits" spotlighting two films from Stanley Kubrick: "The Shining" (1980) and "A Clockwork Orange" (1971). While writing the posting for "A Clockwork Orange," it hit me that I could add a new series to the fold. Inspired by Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" articles and book collections, I wanted to create a series where I would honor my most favorite films and thus was born the new venture that I am very excited to share with you.

"Savage Cinema's Favorite Movies" is the place where my praise will exist at its highest. These are the films which I will love for the rest of my days and of course, will encourage you to see, if you have not seen them already or to remember fondly, if you have seen them. As always, this site is meant to encourage a world of discussion and conversation between you and me and as always, these writings are solely my opinions.

At this time, I have the first entry ready to be published and I sincerely hope that you enjoy it and all future entries.


Sunday, May 20, 2012


Based upon a Texas Monthly article written by Skip Hollandsworth
Screenplay Written by Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth
Directed by Richard Linklater
**** (four stars)

Now this was a enormous surprise!!!!

Dear readers, the pleasure of going to the movies, especially when I know little to nothing about it is one of life’s many gifts as far as I am concerned. It is such wonderful feeling to head into something without any pre-conceived notions and just allow yourself to be swept away by a great story. Writer/Director Richard Linklater’s “Bernie” is such a great story and it is a tale greatly told.

So far this year, I have awarded several films my highest rating of four stars and here is yet one more to join the bunch. I assure all of you that I am not feeling to be in a particularly generous mood as I do not take the award of four stars lightly. Whether my recent ratings speak to the overall quality of the 2012 cinematic year, I cannot be certain. To that end, which films will ultimately end up as my ten favorite films of 2012 remains to be seen, of course. But, all I can say is that I know for my own tastes and sensibilities, I know what works, what does not and how stories affect me as I watch them. “Bernie” is a film I could not find any fault with. It grabbed me instantly and carried me along with it effortlessly. I feel it is one of Richard Linklater’s most accessible and entertaining films, quite an achievement for a filmmaker as varied and idiosyncratic as he has been over the years. With selections like his groundbreaking debut feature “Slacker” (1991), which was followed by the likes of the seminal “Dazed and Confused” (1993), the gorgeously conversational, romantic and literate “Before Sunrise” (1995) and its sequel “Before Sunset” (2004), his esoteric, psychedelically animated and philosophical features “Waking Life” (2001) and “A Scanner Darkly” (2006) and of course, his mammoth crowd pleaser “School Of Rock” (2003), Linklater has continued to be a filmmaker who has completely followed his own artistic path without apologies…as well as he should! The joy of a filmmaker of Linklater’s status and abilities is that you will never know exactly where he will take you next. Certainly seeing his name attached to any new project piques my interest and in this case, knowing that he would be re-teaming with the incredible Jack Black indeed told me to get myself to the Sundance theater. What I received, as a result, was a work of excellence fueled by what I consider to be Jack Black’s finest and most realized performance to date.

To keep “Bernie” as fresh as possible for you, I will do my very best to not really reveal terribly much. Based upon a real life crime event, “Bernie” stars Jack Black as the titular Bernie Teide, a genteel, soft spoken, effeminate mortician who quickly and supremely ingratiates himself to the entire community of Carthage, Texas. His kindness, openness, generosity, respect for all, hard work ethic and complete excellence with his craft affords him a deep admiration and nearly iron clad reputation throughout the entire town, most particularly with the “little old ladies” he tends to keep his company with.

The formidable Shirley MacLaine portrays the wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent, utterly and completely despised throughout Carthage for her bottomless vitriol and endless meanness. Matthew McConaughey rounds out the main cast as local District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson, whose reputation for relentless crime fighting merged with a flair for opportunistic theatrics with the local media has garnered him a most skeptical status within the community. How these three lives intertwine, and how a real life murder occurred, can be found out once you get yourselves out to the theater and see this thing for yourselves!

This time, that’s all I am going to give you for I do want for you to take the time and spend your movie-going money on a film this strong. To give you even more of an excited push, the film “Bernie” reminded quite a bit of Clint Eastwood’s wonderful adaptation of “Midnight In The Garden Of Good and Evil” (1997), as he housed a murder within our immersion into the culture and characters of New Orleans. Furthermore, the film “Bernie” reminded me of the most was none other than The Coen brothers’ masterpiece, “Fargo” (1996). Yes, I do believe that Linklater’s latest is a film of this high quality. That film brilliantly merged a murder mystery and crime element with the life and regional flavor of wintry Minnesota, allowing the grim comedy and beating heart of the story and performances to lay directly within our immersion in this particular locale. “Bernie” supremely accomplishes the same feat. Yes, this is a film with crime and punishment at its core, but it a film that is really about a location and its inhabitants which is very unfamiliar to the rest of the country and perhaps, the world.

While I will get to the performance of Jack Black and his cast mates very shortly, I would offer that sticking to the film’s adherence to its location, the film’s greatest asset are Linklater’s generous inclusion of the wide variety of real life residents of Carthage, Texas who lived through this particular event and actually knew the real people. Linklater populates the film with interview segments starring the Carthage locals, allowing them to talk, talk, and talk some more, dropping their own priceless nuggets of town gossip and personal perceptions. Because of that crucial element, it feels as if we are receiving an oral history of Carthage, Texas. I assure all of you that this is not dry, tepid storytelling and filmmaking. Linklater ensures that all of those sequences and people are presented in a completely conversational fashion, creating a feeling as if they are speaking directly to you and revealing their town’s greatest secrets. With “Bernie” Linklater gives us the richness of real life and injects into the dream world of the cinema and it makes for compelling and often extremely funny storytelling.

Because of all of this lively banter from one end of the film to the other, Linklater ensure that his film becomes a story that is about so much more than a murder. “Bernie” is a story about popularity and public perceptions and how those elements play out during a horrific crime and the court of public opinion. What is a monster? Who is really a victim? And in the case of McConaughey’s District Attorney character, is he a man just doing his job, a bully or even a self-absorbed media whore out for even more attention with a high profile criminal case? Linklater never at any point makes this material ponderous or plodding. He keeps the proceedings flowing along with a breezy pace and style but he leaves you with much to mentally chomp upon once the final credits begin to scroll.

While MacLaine is truly a force of nature as the horrible Marjorie Nugent, she always ensure that this woman is understandably human and never presented as a cartoon. She is as razor sharp as she has ever been in the movies and it was a pleasure to witness her untouchable talents once again. Matthew McConaughey’s laconic style and subversive brand of humor served him extremely well in his role.

But, I must spend some time extolling my praise for the performance given by Jack Black, which I truly hope is remembered during awards season. Yes, he is that good. Black is someone whom I have admired and enjoyed for many, many years yet whose talents have not always been served well in the movies. While the wonderful “School Of Rock” and Stephen Frears’ outstanding adaptation of “High Fidelity” (2000) showcased Black’s talents supremely as they merged character with his unhinged rock maniac persona, I also felt that Peter Jackson utilized him very successfully by toning his antics down and forcing him to solely serve a character in his epic retelling of “King Kong” (2005). For “Bernie,” I feel that I have witnessed Black’s most realized, three dimensional performance to date as Linklater has taken all of Black’s impressive skills plus our own perceptions of him and funneled everything into this man, who while likeable also comes off as quite the enigma.

Just take a moment and picture Jack Black in your mind. And now imagine him as a soft spoken, impeccably dressed, meticulously professional, conservative and evangelical yet fair minded man who carries a taste for life’s finer things, an endlessly giving spirit to others and also carries a predilection for the company of older women and finally, who may also be a closeted homosexual. Jack Black performs this character without even one self-knowing wink to the audience. He works completely from the inside out, making this individual feel entirely authentic as well as the embodiment of the townspeople’s wealth of stories and memories. He never treats this man as a joke and never, ever for one instant as a caricature. Black utilizes all of his skills for the role of Bernie Tiede, including his excellent signing voice, which is utilized often in the film for a variety of church hymns, country ballads and spirituals and a couple of local theater show tunes. So appealing is Black, that we are placed within the same position as the Carthage inhabitants as the story takes a dark turn. We feel an odd affection for this very unusual man and more than that, we truly understand him as well. For fear of revealing too much I should not say much more but when you do see this film, I challenge you to tell me that this performance is not Jack Black’s shining moment as an actor. To know that he had this inside of him, makes me anxious to see what else he’s got!

Dear readers, I know that you have all seen “The Avengers” already and for some of you, I would not be surprised if you have seen it two or three times even. Hey, I want to see that film a few more times myself before the end of the summer. But people, trust me, you don’t need to be bludgeoned by the likes of “Battleship.” And frankly, do you really care about anything that occurs in “Men In Black 3”? If you want to see filmmaking excellence, then seek Richard Linklater’s Bernie” out quickly! Films like these need the support of our hard-earned dollar so much more than the big budget pictures that will keep being made regardless.

“Bernie” is more than worth your time and I sincerely hope that you do give this film the chance it richly deserves.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


"love jones" (1997)
Written and Directed by Theodore Witcher

"Black people in love. That's a beautiful thing." -Shadow Henderson
from the film “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990)

The sight of African-Americans in love is indeed a beautiful thing. And certainly, dear readers, you do also know that the sight of anyone in love is a beautiful sight to my eyes, whether in the real world or in the celluloid dreams of the cinema. Unfortunately, the sight of African-Americans in love in the movies is a profoundly disappointing rarity indeed. Dear readers, I want you to sit and think for a few moments about all of the movies you have seen within your lives and just count how many, out of the myriad of love stories released, featured African-American characters front and center, driving the story and the romance. I would dare you to think of ten right off the bat.

The lucratively successful works of Tyler Perry (sorry, not a fan) aside, as he is essentially a one-man industry, Hollywood’s interest in the love lives and experiences of African-Americans has been inexcusable. For me, two films in particular, that explored the relationships of black people in love which resonated with me deeply occurred within the above referenced “Mo’ Better Blues” from Writer/Producer/Director Spike Lee and even more surprisingly, within Writer/Director Cameron Crowe’s seminal “Jerry Maguire” (1996). Where the former depicted a musician’s devotion to his craft at the expense of the relationships around him, the latter film’s romance between football player Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr. in his finest performance to date) and his rock solid marital partner Marcy Tidwell (the excellent Regina King), completely informed and supported the romance between the titular Maguire (Tom Cruise) and his loyal assistant Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellweger), while also existing as a beautifully truthful and honestly felt love story in its own right. Aside from those two provocative stories, what else has there been? Not terribly much.

For this new installment of “Savage Cinema’s Buried Treasure,” I am so excited to point you to a strong feature that understands exactly the tentative nature of falling in love, the games we play with each other that serve to protect our fragile hearts but sadly, undercuts our deepest desires. And yes, it is a film that also happens to display a wonderful African-American cast, including two leading actors who absolutely, positively undeniably could not be more photogenic, appealing, attractive and more in harmony with each other as their pairing is so perfect. The film is “love jones,” the first and, to date, only feature from filmmaker Theodore Witcher. Within the African-American community, “love jones” has rightfully attained a celebrated status as a modern romance classic and several publications from Essence to The Root have also recently written tributes and updates in celebration of the film’s 15th anniversary. If you have seen “love jones,” I enthusiastically suggest that it is time for a revisiting. Yet, if you have never seen this film, the time for you to become acquainted is long overdue and I guarantee it will be more than worth the wait. I have not seen this film since I first saw it perhaps 14 years ago and for whatever mystical reasons why the cinematic fates decided that it was time for me to reunite with this remarkable film. I am forever in their debt.

“love jones” opens with a sequence that suggests a grittier version of Woody Allen's classic opening montage to "Manhattan" (1979). For "love jones," the setting is urban Chicago. The imagery, like "Manhattan," is presented in startling black and white cinematography. Yet, instead of the Gershwin scored elegance of New York, we are given glorious, stark images from the ghettos and the inner cities that to my eye, recalled images from the early 1970s.

From here, "love jones" switches to color and instantly establishes a slow, smoky, romantic and even erotic mood as we are introduced to young photographer Nina Moseley (the jaw droppingly stunning Nia Long), deep in the throes of melancholy heartbreak after an engagement has sadly ended. To make matters even worse, Nina is also nursing the wounds of being recently fired from her photo assistant job. Alongside her frisky and sassy best friend Josie Nichols (Lisa Nicole Carson), Nina ventures out one evening to cool her blues at The Sanctuary, an upscale nightclub specializing in jazz music and spoken word poetry performances.

On this same fateful evening, writer/poet and budding novelist Darius Lovehall (the dashingly charismatic Larenz Tate) is in attendance with his small circle of friends. We are immediately introduced to the not quite happily married Savon Garrison (Isaiah Washington), the romantically cynical and comically “smoove like buttah” cad Hollywood (an excellent Bill Bellamy), Eddie Coles (Leonard Roberts), host at The Sanctuary and record storeowner and romantically levelheaded Shelia (Bernadette Speakes). Romantic lightning strikes at the nightclub bar, where Darius and Nina first meet. So powerfully enraptured by the sight of Nina, Darius quickly performs an impromptu and erotically charged poem for her benefit, hoping that mere words will have her completely succumb to his charms. Not entirely…but Nina is indeed intrigued.

Darius begins his pursuit of Nina, eventually convinces her to a first date at the end of which they have sex. From this point, the love story of Darius Lovehall and Nina Moseley grows more emotionally complex as they each experience the differences, changes and consequences of their romantic actions with each other and most importantly, within themselves.

For all intents and purposes in regards to the actual plot, there is not that much in “love jones” that will surprise you, especially if you happen to be particularly well versed in the genre of romantic comedies and movie love stories. All of the standard beats of the genre are present from the functions of the supporting characters to the stages of Darius and Nina’s romance. Yet, any sense of familiarity is not subjected to becoming a flaw in any conceivable fashion as “love jones” is not a film necessarily about plot but a film about people and behavior. Since this is a film featuring a predominantly African American cast, “love jones” is actually an uncompromisingly fearless film to my eyes as it was released during a period where African American themed films were stagnated in the violent world of cops, killers, and drug dealers left over from Mario Van Peebles' "New Jack City" (1991). In “love jones,” there is absolutely no violence. There are also no gangs and aside from occasional glasses of wine or bottles of beer, there is no narcotic usage whatsoever.

“love jones” is a film which gave audiences a look into part of the African American community and experience barely seen on film--or at least outside of Spike Lee's unapologetically artistic oeuvre and outlook. In some ways, “love jones” could be viewed as a sort of companion piece to Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues,” as “love jones” focuses its sights upon a slightly younger version of the people who attended a similar artistic venue. In “love jones,” Witcher presents to us, with supreme assistance from Ernest Holzman’s sophisticated cinematography and legendary jazz bassist Darryl Jones’ evocative score, an afro-centric, post-collegiate, urban professional yet almost bohemian world. It feels like the visual representation of the imagery and overall vibe presented in classic hip hop albums by A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul fused with the timeless and impressionistic jazz of Charlie Parker and "Kind Of Blue" era Miles Davis. It is a film that celebrates all that is vintage as the Chicago of “love jones” is a world of old school record stores and the warmth of vinyl, the joy of discovery inherent in used bookstores, the technique of traditional photographic film and of course, the archaic art and artistry of poetry.

While “love jones” is an unabashedly sexy film, it is most importantly a film that celebrates old school romance. In fact, one of the film’s most sexually charge sequences is when Darius and Nina share an apartment from different rooms and they desperately try to not engage in sex. This is a film that explores how attraction is built through an individual’s connections through art, literature, photography, music and most of all, words.

“Poetry is the possibility of language,” nightclub host Eddie intones during the film and “love jones” is abound with intelligent, heartfelt, luxurious dialogue that completely illuminates all of the characters, their surroundings and their respective stories. Language is a conduit binding one character to each other, all the while building an elevation of the connection between each person to their individual selves. There is one great sequence in particular where Darius and Hollywood engage in an antagonistic verbal duel regarding a sexual transgression. It is simultaneously hilarious and venomous, filled with spitefulness, hurt and a striking amount of self-awareness.

Yet, beyond individual moments within the film, the language illustrates exactly why the love story of Darius and Nina resonated so powerfully with me. Yes, Nia and Darius are indeed attracted to each other physically (and PLEASE, how could they not be?!) but we are witnessing an attraction, sexuality and building love through two like minded people who become more attracted to each other through their respective curiosity and admiration for each other’s intelligence, articulation and world-view.

As previously stated, since “love jones” adheres to the linear structure of the modern romantic film genre, we are given the standard tug of war between love and sex as well as promiscuity and commitment, this film goes several emotional steps deeper. The love story of Darius and Nina contains all of those aforementioned elements but mostly, it is a story where the tug of war exists between these two characters’ individual pasts and potential emotional and therefore adult futures. “love jones” is a film about evolution. It is a film about growing up.

Honestly, dear readers, pleas take some time and think abut all of the love stories that are released from year to year and how, throughout all of the breaking up, making up, getting together and falling apart only to find each other again in the final reel, how very little the characters ever change emotionally. And furthermore, how painfully immature the entire proceedings have been as well. I can say that I have known and still know actual small children and teenagers in the real world who are more emotionally mature than the characters that typically populate these so-called “adult” love stories. That is a tremendous reason why a film like “love jones” should be celebrated and also why the legacy of this film has rightfully endured.

As previously stated Witcher utilizes all of the conventions of the genre yet he circumvents all of those conventions through the deceptively simple act of creating rich, realistic characters living in a realistic world and behaving in a realistic way. Darius Lovehall and Nina Moseley are young adults living young adult lives but what we are witnessing is essentially their very first adult relationship (despite Nina’s past at being previously engaged) and we are completely along for the ride in its growth and development. I really love how the romance between Darius and Nina possesses a fragility from the start, as if you already know about the looming pitfalls but you want to get swept away in the bittersweetness regardless. We understand their every motivation and therefore, every crucial mistake each of them makes in regards to how they pursue each other. We see precisely the games men and women play with themselves and each other to protect themselves emotionally yet ultimately, the games only serve to hurt and confuse each other more than if they were just honest in the first place. Through Darius and Nina, we understand even more about the consequences and emotional realities of sex and what those consequences mean as they fall in love. Moreso, you can see exactly where Darius and Nina make the wrong moves with each other. It simply aches and you wish that you could somehow reach inside the film and stop them from ruining what is obviously the best thing for both of them.

At different points in the film both Darius and Nina dismissively utter the phrase "We just kickin' it," in response to their respective friends when they are each inquired as to the seriousness of their coupling. It is a laissez faire attitude, which only serves as a shield to protect themselves from the world of romantic pain. There was a terrific moment where Savon chides Darius after he has just expressed that Nina just may be “the one.” Like a flash of lightning, Darius deflects it with poetic male bravado only to the walk away and lick his wounds in solitude. Witcher gives us an emotional landscape where people fear even expressing their truest feelings to the ones who love them the most, so they all hide behind the art they love most, serving as more protective shields from crippling emotional disappointments.

Even in the conclusion of the film, which I will not reveal here of course, we not only see what each of them has learned about love and their relationship with love, but how they have each learned and how they will respectively move forward within their lives. It is a relationship that has depth and meaning that goes far beyond the film’s one sheet poster, unlike most cinematic love stories. You want them to be together but you also wish for their respective happiness as they grow for these are characters that truly deserve happiness and our affection for them is deeply earned.

Every performance in the film is pitch perfect. Larenz Tate possesses a sharp, cocky swagger combined with a refreshing intellectual sensitivity. He is much less Lothario and more cut from the boyishly romantic cloth of Romeo. As Nina, Nia Long is more grounded and jaded than the “lost in the clouds” poetic nature of Darius but this is a film where courtship arrives in the form of a long searched for Isley Brothers CD and even she cannot resist the gesture for too long.

Theodore Witcher’s “love jones” is a film of allure and erotic desire but beautifully, it is a story that makes anyone who watches think about the loves of their past and present lives. The loves that could have been, the loves that almost were and above all else the powerful emotions that linger and can still overtake you.

And to think Witcher achieved such a legacy with only one film. Such a shame he has not made any more films since. In a March 2012 interview with the publication The Root, Witcher explained matter of factly, “I intended to have a long list of credits, but I couldn’t get another movie. There has to be something that you want to do that a studio wants to pay for. I was never able to sync that up. I wanted to do ambitious films with more black people. You don’t get to do that.” Sadly, Witcher now refers to his status as a filmmaker as being “semi-retired.”

This painful reality of the 21st century movie business continues to trouble me. While films great and awful will continue to be made year in and year out, the dwindling level of risk taking when it comes to banking upon filmmakers with unique personal creative visions disturbs me tremendously. When everything becomes dumbed down to create broad mass appeal solely in pursuit of the dollar and any artistic intent is an afterthought at best, the purity of the art and artistry of the cinema becomes lost. This goes for all filmmakers from all walks of life of course. But, in the case of Theodore Witcher and African American filmmakers, this reality increasingly creates a world where potentially life altering and supremely entertaining works would never be created at all. At the very least, Witcher was able to create “love jones;’ and are able to rejoice in its presence time and again. And somehow, the beauteous bittersweetness of “love jones” being Witcher’s one and only film seems to be profoundly fitting.

To each and every one of you, I cannot recommend that you celebrate this film’s 15 anniversary enthusiastically enough but I do hope that this "Buried Treasure" feature gives you an emphatic push in the right direction.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

NICE GUYS FINISH LAST: a review of "Larry Crowne"

Screenplay Written by Tom Hanks and Nia Vardalos
Directed by Tom Hanks
** (two stars)

“It’s nice to be nice to the nice.”
-Maj. Frank Burns (“M.A.S.H.”-television series)

Tom Hanks’ “Larry Crowne” is a nice movie. It’s a feel good, inoffensive, tame, tender-hearted story about a middle aged man rebuilding his life after arriving at a devastating crossroads. But, also and most unfortunately, “Larry Crowne” is also bland, torpid, humdrum, flavorless and uncreatively routine. It is a film so toothless that it barely registers any lasting impressions.

In the past on Savage Cinema, I have often praised films that elicited a more positive spin on humanity. Films where characters only existed to try and do the right thing by others as well as themselves. Films that did not wallow in cruelty, darkness or even possessed any discernable villains. Just last year, I gave extremely high praise to three films that accomplished that very feat: Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought A Zoo,” Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” and the hugely entertaining return of “The Muppets.” For me, all three of those films showed exactly how stories containing a brighter outlook could be made for wide audiences without drowning in treacle or insufferable sap and prefabricated stabs at uplift. All three of those films knew very well that any sense of uplift to the soul of the viewer had to be earned through high standards of storytelling and thankfully, all three succeeded powerfully.

Yet for “Larry Crowne,” there seemed to be an uncomfortable bit of forced merriment at hand. There is more than enough honest pathos and uplift inherently contained in the story but for me, Hanks well overplayed his hand through broadly created characters and storytelling that was dangerously simplistic. This was very surprising to me especially as this film is coming from someone who has given us complex and near Herculean performances in a variety of challenging material from Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia” (1993), Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump” (1994) and “Cast Away” (2000) and of course, Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), among others. “Larry Crowne” is not exactly a bad movie, so to speak. Like I said, it is a nice movie. It’s just one that is boldly uninspiring and for all of the talent at hand, I recommend that unless you happen to stumble upon this feature on cable and cannot find your remote in order to change the channel, just give this one a pass.

Tom Hanks stars as the titular Larry Crowne, a middle aged, divorced, Navy veteran currently employed in a large Target styled box store. As the film opens, Larry is called into a meeting with his superiors. While he thinks that he will be awarded with yet another “Employee Of The Month” certification, Larry is blindsided with the news that he is being downsized due to the fact that he has never earned a college degree and will ultimately never advance within the company.

Soon, and after taking the advice of his perpetually yard-selling neighbor Lamar (Cedric The Entertainer), Larry enrolls at the local community college with the hopes of earning a degree which will hopefully jump start the rebuilding of his life. In addition to an Economics course, taught by the intimidating Dr. Ed Matsutani (a pleasant George Takei), Larry joins a speech course taught by the angry, depressed and alcoholic Professor Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), who happens to be unhappily married to a boorish, internet porn surfing husband (Bryan Cranston).

Throughout the remainder of the film, Larry Crowne makes grand financial changes in his life, most notably trading his gas guzzling minivan for a more economical scooter. He also diligently plugs away at his courses, finds part time work as a cook in a local restaurant, makes friends with his “zany” band of speech classmates and is also befriended by the much younger and improbably lovely Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who takes Larry Crowne under her wing and enlists him in her scooter riding gang, much to the chagrin of her boyfriend (Wilmer Valderrama).

And of course, how could Mr. Crowne’s life be complete without falling in love, especially with the lonely Professor Tainot teaching the class that will change his life?

“Larry Crowne” is a contemporary story told in an unapologetically old-fashioned way. In some respects, it seems as if Hanks and his co-screenwriter Nia Vardalos have concocted something to function as sort of a modern day Frank Capra styled experience. But, what Hanks and Vardalos have forgotten entirely were realistic, relatable characters and a profound sense of gravity to shoulder any sort of uplift the story is attempting to reach. Yes, in tone and temperament, “Larry Crowne” feels to be in line with Hanks’ wonderful directorial debut “That Thing You Do!” (1996), but unlike that film, “Larry Crowne” lacks a sense of realism to go along with the feel good, populist fantasy. It was a film that seemed as if there was a neon sign present from start to finish announcing to everyone watching that this is a nice man and these are nice people so therefore, shouldn’t we all just be pleasantly swept away in a sea of niceness and call it a day. While this tactic may work for some, for me, it did not work at all.

Frankly “Larry Crowne” felt more like a pilot episode of a forgotten early 1980s sitcom than anything that could’ve been directed by a two time Oscar winner. I mean, here is likeable, affable everyman Larry Crowne who lives next door to his wacky neighbors and makes wacky friends at the community college and finds himself engaged in a will they/won’t they romance with a potentially unattainable prospect. It’s a bit of Bob Newhart merged with a heaping helping of hokum that would be firmly set in place on any old episode of “The Facts Of Life.” All, and I really mean ALL of the characters in the film are less than paper thin and contain the exact sort of “color” that only exists in the movies, therefore making everyone blandly quirky and undercuts some otherwise engaging performances. This is also a bit of an oddity as the cast of “Larry Crowne” is refreshingly racially diverse but sadly, they are all painted with the same gigantic vanilla brush.

This is most notable in the case of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who does make quite a charming impression but she is not well-served by this character who seems to function as if there are quotation marks around her for the entire movie. Her character of Talia is such an unrealistically chirpy free spirit with passion for thrift stores, tattoos and scooters that those features would be bad enough to stomach on their own. But the fact that she takes such a liking to Larry Crowne, so much so that she is willing to give his entire life a makeover, for no other reason than the script says so made it more insufferable than I think Hanks would have wanted. And in some ways, it could be argued that Talia is nothing more than yet another male devised fantasy girl. A cute, pleasant and innocent one but a fantasy nonetheless.

As for the film’s major love story, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts have absolutely NO chemistry whatsoever. Roberts’ alcoholism and marital problems felt painfully manufactured and Bryan Cranton’s performance and character are ridiculously cartoonish. To my heart, the love story between Larry Crowne and Mercedes Tainot felt to be entirely market researched than something honestly explored, felt or let alone developed. It felt as if the studio announced that since two mega stars were in the film, they had to have a romance, whether it made narrative sense or not. And in the end, I just didn’t care.

And yet, there was one element in the film that literally drove me crazy above all of my other criticisms. The name “Larry Crowne” is uttered CONSTANTLY and ENDLESSLY throughout the film and by nearly every character, as if Hanks was afraid that audiences had too short of an attention span to remember the name of the titular character of the movie they have all paid to watch. That poor decision made this film to be a movie for the terminally confused.

Look, dear readers, I could be even harsher on this movie but it wouldn’t feel right as the criticism would be too easy and akin to hurting a defenseless animal. “Larry Crowne” is a well made film and it does indeed have its heart in the right place and I cannot fault it for that. But, as I said, the film does not earn any good fortune it wishes to attain from potential viewers. I once had a discussion with someone regarding the process of “earning” in a feature film. The person questioned my view, wondering why a film had to necessarily earn anything. To that, I explained that earning any emotion from a movie, whether it is happiness, sorrow, fear, excitement or any other response all comes down to the effectiveness of good storytelling. A film just can’t be happy because the script proclaims it to be. The story, and how it is told, has to make us care about what happens. It has to earn our good will in order for the experience to become a memorable and meaningful one.

Going back to “We Bought A Zoo,” “Hugo’ and “The Muppets,” for all of the sunshine in those films, there were also honest depictions of grief, mourning, disappointments, failures, melancholy, confusion and painful nostalgia at their respective cores, thus giving the works in their entirety some true weight and making the resulting uplift entirely honest and completely earned. Instead of just being told that things would turn out happily, we went on the journey with those characters, making their uplift work in collaboration with our own.

And really, please do take a moment and think of a film like Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946) and what a grim, dark, despairing film it actually is and how far it goes to earn the conclusion we all know so very well.

“Larry Crowne” is a film that takes absolutely no creative and emotional risks whatsoever with the storytelling or performances. Granted, it could be argued that the film’s overall earnestness in our deeply cynical, post-ironic age would be and could be the risk in and of itself. I could concede to accepting that point.

But, for me and my own sensibilities, being nice for niceness sake is just not good enough.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

EXCELSIOR!!!!!: a review of "The Avengers"


Based upon the Marvel Comics series created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Story by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon
Screenplay Written and Directed by Joss Whedon
**** (four stars)

Allow me to just get right to it…“The Avengers” is not only one of 2012’s best films period, it is indeed the very best film I have seen in 2012, so far.

While the movie year is still very young and there are countless other upcoming films that I wish to see this year, some of which may even surpass my enjoyment of this particular film, Writer/Director Joss Whedon has created an astoundingly triumphant experience that is smashingly perfect for Marvel Comics fans, novices and just for absolutely anyone who wants to have an exhilarating time at the movies. “The Avengers” not only fulfills the promises made by Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man” (2008) and “Iron Man 2” (2010), Louis Leterrier’s “The Incredible Hulk” (2008), Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor” (2011) and Joe Johnston’s “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011), I firmly believe that this is the first comic book themed film that lives up to, and equals, the extraordinarily high bar set by Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008). It is truly an outstanding piece of work that beautifully, skillfully, superbly and…ahem..marvelously illustrates exactly what happens when you have a pure and gifted storyteller at the reins of a big budget Hollywood epic.

I will admit to not having been indoctrinated into the devoted cult of Joss Whedon worshippers as I have honestly not seen a stitch of anything he has created and overseen, from his “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly” televisions series or read any comic books he has written. But, his reputation as a creative force to be reckoned with, like his contemporary J.J. Abrams, precedes him greatly and based upon just this one film, I now understated the allegiance and adoration. “The Avengers” is undeniably spectacular.

For a film of this sort, Whedon wisely and very appropriately keeps the basic plot of “The Avengers” very simple. The mischievous Asgardian Loki (Tom Hiddleston), half-brother of the mighty Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who was exiled from his celestial home at the conclusion of “Thor” has aligned himself with a blood thirsty alien race in pursuit of the Tesseract, an object of supreme energy and unknown origin, currently held in the custody of the one-eyed super spy Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his espionage organization S.H.I.E.L.D. Loki’s objective is to steal the Tesseract and open a portal, allowing the alien race an entrance to Earth with plans of world domination and enslavement of all human life.

When the Tesseract is indeed stolen by Loki, along with a few possessed heroes including the ace archer/assassin Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Fury plays his greatest card yet: assemble an unprecedented fighting force to save the planet. Sending the raven-haired assassin Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), otherwise known as The Black Widow, to intercept the team, we are reintroduced to the following heroes:

-Thor, the aforementioned Norse God of Thunder who wields the mammoth hammer to devastating boomerang effect.

-The tormented scientist Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) who carries a tendency to transform into a colossal green monster known as The Hulk, when faced with extreme anger.

-The earnest and original World War II Avenger Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), better known as Captain America, now living in the 21st century after spending 70 years in suspended and frozen animation.

-And of course the inimitable scientific genius and billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), known to all as Iron Man.

Now combined as The Avengers, the team is faced not only with the Herculean struggle of saving the world but the even more difficult task of learning how to function as a team in the first place.

The complexities of “The Avengers” rest fully in the merging together of all of these larger than life characters into a cohesive whole and what Joss Whedon has achieved and how he has achieved it, is akin to watching the most masterful magician perform their very best tricks. I just do not know how he pulled this feat so magnificently and in some respects, I also do not want to know because Whedon has created nothing short of a magical accomplishment and I would love to live within this superior illusion rather than have all of the answers revealed to me.

First of all, as a storyteller, Whedon has achieved the masterful achievement of weaving together all of the characters from previous films in a way where they have all remained consistent with their solo pieces. Additionally, the film as a whole remains consistent with everything we have previously seen. Unlike Bryan Singer’s celebrated two installments in the “X-Men” series (2000/2003), films that supremely disappointed me mostly due to their inability to handle such a large amount of characters effectively, Whedon’s screenplay gives absolutely every single character their time to shine. One character never outweighs another and Whedon shows extreme confidence at not being remotely intimidated with the task of juggling several characters and ensuring that they all have their time in the sun while also making them work collectively like the most well-oiled machine. The heroes, villains and supporting characters are all fully fleshed out and no one is forgotten also ensuring that all of the film’s elements work together strongly.

For the childhood comic book geek that still lives inside of me, Whedon also constructs terrific sections where the heroes battle each other, thus satisfying a certain wish fulfillment if any of you have ever wondered who would win a fight between Thor, Iron Man and Captain America. Beyond that, I really enjoyed the tension between the members of The Avengers as I find ore satisfaction watching a team struggle to congeal rather than existing entirely as a loving brotherhood. This is achieved through Whedon’s terrific screenplay, which is often filled with great wit and humor, allowing the humanity of all of the film’s characters to shine brighter than the costumes and technical razzle dazzle.

As terrific as Whedon’s screenplay is, it works in complete lockstep with his skills as the film’s director. In regards to Whedon’s skills as a filmmaker, he again shows supreme confidence with his actors, ensuring their performances remain consistent with the previous Marvel films which also giving each and every one of them greater notes to play. Joss Whedon adheres to the very rule that I look towards with movies that feature large, famous casts: if you are lucky enough to have Robert Downey Jr., Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson and others in your movie, them be sure to give them all something to do!! It would have been so easy for Whedon to allow Downey Jr. to walk away with the film and make all of the other actors essentially function as his supporting cast, but to Whedon and Downey Jr.’s credit, they work selflessly to serve the entire team.

Of course Robert Downey Jr., peerless with his specialized brand of razor sharp intelligence and rock star swagger shows again that he was the perfect choice for the role of Tony Stark. But, I was equally impressed with Chris Evans’ stouthearted sincerity as Steve Rogers and even more impressed with Chris Hemsworth’s ability to find the gravity and humanity inside of Thor, a character who could be and feel so extremely out of place with everyone else in the film. Samuel L. Jackson seems to be having a ball with the character of Nick Fury, as he is finally given a substantial role to play, rather than as a cameo driven thread piece to the Marvel films' tapestry. Scarlett Johanssen confidently rises to the level of action heroine as the Black Widow operates on equal footing with her male counterparts. Hiddleston shows newfound malevolence and self-righteous rage as Loki. Even Clark Gregg, who portrays Fury’s right hand man Agent Phil Coulson, plays a crucial piece to this grand adventure.

But for me, if there was a standout character, the one who filled me with the most surprise and elation, it was Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk. With absolutely no disrespect intended towards Ang Lee and Eric Bana’s unfairly maligned interoperation of this character from 2003 and Edward Norton’s work in the effective chase movie framework of the 2008 feature, Ruffalo and Whedon have created the best version of the Hulk on the big screen to date. Ruffalo nails the tormented status of the Bruce Banner character but he also portrays him as a bit of a recovering addict who unfortunately will never be able to recover from his unique affliction. And again, I thoroughly enjoyed the humor given to this character as he and Tony Stark share a bit of a scientific bro-mance but also when the green giant finally arrives, he brought the theater house down over and over and over again.

And then, there are the action sequences. Despite all of his box office success, if Michael Bay really wants to remain a cinematic force (or at least someone who may be able to make at least ONE good movie) then I urge him and budding filmmakers raised on his specialized and horrible filmmaking techniques to study “The Avengers” closely and learn how to exhilarate an audience rather than bludgeon them into submission. For that matter, I would even suggest that James Cameron, who just bored me senselessly with his one hour war sequence, less than paper thin characters and terrible screenplay in “Avatar” (2009) to remember that the special effects toys in and of themselves don’t make the experience matter a whit. In “The Avengers,” Whedon tops himself time and time again with stupendously staged and choreographed fight sequences that build, grow, and broaden while always keeping the story and characters front and center. A mid movie section where the S.H.I.E.L.D. aircraft is under siege is as brilliantly conceived, staged and edited for its action sequences as its severe attention to its story and character development.

But the protracted climax where The Avengers face off against Loki and the aliens, is a flat out jaw dropper. Throughout the film, the special effects and sound design are clean and seamless, Whedon’s visuals provide one awesome sight after another and the entire sequence is constructed so feverishly and wondrously that the joy of “The Avengers” becomes a nearly out of body experience. Without any hyperbole intended, this section, which the entire motion picture has been leading towards, felt to be in highly exalted league with the ferocious freeway sequence from the Wachowski brothers' “The Matrix Reloaded” (2003) and much of Peter Jackson’s tremendously mounted war sequences from “The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King” (2003). Yes, the war section of “The Avengers” is that good and Joss Whedon is operating on that level and has firmly placed himself within that league. I cheered, applauded, whooped and hollered along with the just about sold-out crowd just as I did when I was much younger watching the classic works of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. To me, the cross cutting of various storylines, as well as the aerial dog fighting over the New York skies carried the tension and grace of Lucas’ X-Wing fighters converging upon the Death Star or the untouchable truck chase sequence of “Raiders Of the Lost Ark” (1981). “The Avengers” took me back while also creating a film that could only have been created at this time. Joss Whedon, his actors and his entire creative team should be celebrated and carried upon the collective shoulders of viewers and critics alike as they have all worked at the top of their collective games to create a film for the ages.

“The Avengers” is outstanding, awesome entertainment delivered with precision, skill, craft and heart. I want to see this thing again immediately as well as see the inevitable second installment right now. If the power that be at Marvel Films do anything right with any future films, it would ensure that Joss Whedon is at the helm. When you have someone this incredible steering the ship, you’d be a fool to not invite him back for the second go-around.

Frankly, this movie is so terrific that I think that Christopher Nolan’s upcoming “The Dark Knight Rises” has some incredibly healthy competition!

When “The Avengers” ends, don’t rush out of the theater right away. Stay through the ENTIRE ending credits as Whedon gives us a gem of a final image that closes “The Avengers” perfectly.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


Yes, dear readers, activity at Savage Cinema has been fairly quiet over the last couple of months due to the responsibilities of life, a lack of new film features that I have been interested in seeing and also being completely consumed with re-watching the complete series of "The Wire" for the second time.  But now...I am thinking that this quiet period is about to change.

May is the beginning of the Summer Movie Season and for me, my eyes are fixated upon viewing Writer/Director Joss Whedon's adaptation of Marvel Comics' "The Avengers"! It has been a long time coming for that film and in a few scant days, our meeting will be official and hopefully, extremely positive.

In addition to that collective of costumes wonders, there are also the following potential upcoming flicks...

1. Writer/Director Wes Anderson makes his grand return to live action filmmaking with his latest release "Moonrise Kingdom," a film that has already won me over with its wonderful trailer. Hopefully, the entire film matches up nicely with the rest of Anderson's oeuvre.

2. I cannot express deeply enough how inspirational the work of filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan has been to me throughout my life. Believe it or not, he was easily my first major infuence with trying to express myself as a writer, even before my beloved Cameron Crowe and John Hughes came into the picture for me. Kasdan, after a lengthy dormant period, has also returned with a new film entitled "Darling Companion" and I am hoping that will make an arrival this month.

3. I do have an idea for a new installment of Savage Cinema's Buried Treasure series which I am hoping to make some time for as well.

It is time to flex my creative muscles again and all going well, this will be an even busier month than the previous two. We shall see...

...And I will see you when the house lights go down!