Sunday, July 29, 2012

BRAVE: a review of "Beasts Of The Southern Wild"

Based upon the stage play "Juicy and Delicious" by Lucy Alibar

Screenplay Written by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
Directed by Benh Zeitlin
**** (four stars)

There are four star movies and then there are FOUR STAR MOVIES.

Throughout this cinematic year, I have awarded the high rating of four stars to several films already. Typically, during a movie year, I tend to award that rating to at least one or two pictures and then, Hollywood being Hollywood, they release the truly great films beginning in late Autumn, through the remainder of the year and even into January and February of the following year due to release schedules and strategies. I have long bemoaned the fashion of releasing the great films solely during the final four months of the year, leaving eight months of some strong films but mostly films that are either forgettable, sub par, terrible to just plain unwatchable or even those that I wouldn't even consider screening at all. As an art form, I feel that it is the film community's responsibility to at least, try to create and release the highest quality of material, regardless of film style or genre, through the year as a whole. Certainly not everything can be great but just try to place the art before the commerce and all going well, the art and commerce can walk proudly hand in hand.

But for last year and this year, there seems to be a certain artistic shift in the air. A shift that is undoubtedly for the better. As I have said before, either through this site or in person, all I wish for when I go to the movies is exactly the same things that you wish for. I wish to be entertained. I wish to be affected. I wish to have a story told to me as best as possible. This year, my four star ratings have been plentiful and trust me, I am not an easy person to receive four stars from! That said, I know what I like, how I like it and the emotions I exist through when I see what I feel to be cinematic greatness. Yet, even all four star movies are not the same. Sometimes, there are the types of four star movies that truly raise the bar and even re-invent what we already know about movies so much so that it changes exactly what we think a movie can actually be. This afternoon, I exited a screening of Director Benh Zeitlin's debut feature "Beasts Of The Southern Wild," and while I initially had no idea whatsoever of what I could write about, I knew how it had affected me. I knew that I had lived through an experience unlike any other that I have had this cinematic year...and for that matter, most cinematic years. And I knew that when I began to write this review to you, I would enthusiastically implore and urge you to go and seek this film out when it happens to reach your area. "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" is a magical, harrowing, poetic, profound experience that demands to be embraced and held highly over our collective shoulders as this is a film that is unlike anything else playing in our multiplexes and movie houses right now. It is a cinematic dream world unto itself.

Set in a nearly forgotten world beyond the outskirts of the New Orleans levees, "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" tells the story of 6-year-old Hushpuppy (played with unwavering intensity by Quvenzhane Wallis) and her adventurous life inside of a community known as "The Bathtub." Despite her young age, Hushpuppy possesses a firm and fierce understanding of the universe and her place within it as she believes in the unshakable inter-connectivity of all that exists and if just one thing were out of place, the universe itself would begin to unravel.

When her Father, Wink (an equally intense Dwight Henry) contracts an illness, Hushpuppy's view of the universe explodes into fruition as ferocious storms arrive, temperatures rise, the polar ice caps begin to melt and prehistoric creatures, which seem to be a hybrid of mammoth pigs and buffaloes known as "aurochs," re-emerge into civilization and begin their awesome trek towards Hushpuppy.

As with many films released this year, this is as much as I can feel that I can share with you about the film's actual plot. Most certainly, I wish for you to experience "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" as freshly as possible but also, this is really not quite the type of movie that can necessarily be explained. The sheer greatness of this film deeply rests within the way in which this seemingly simple story is told as Zeitlin constructs a tale that can exist simultaneously as a powerful examination of poverty in 21st century America, a Father/daughter relationship film, mythology merged with the intense nature of fever dreams, an epic adventure saga, primal connections to the elements and family, the resourcefulness and love between the various members of community, survivalism, and the symbiotic nature we share with all living things. In many ways, this film felt to be a close cousin to something like Terrence Malick's "The Tree Of Life" (2011), but in this case, we are seeing the world and universe entirely through the eyes, mind and soul of a ferociously determined small child.

I have absolutely no idea of how and where the filmmakers could have ever found Quvenzhane Wallis but she is truly a natural, feral, cosmic force of nature. Complete with her stunningly wild hair, ever present white rain boots, and a penetrating hard stare that blazes through the screen, Wallis is unlike any child actor that I have seen in a very long time. She is the definition of "unique" and "original" and her dramatic abilities to convey a universe worth of emotions with such directness and simplicity are near miraculous. She makes Hushpuppy a true young heroine to follow. She makes Hushpuppy a true cinematic heroine, especially during a time when most movies give lip service to female heroines instead of actually creating them. Yes, that statement plus the title of this piece are my veiled references to Pixar's epic failure "Brave," a film that completely sacrificed the strength and power of its leading heroine Merida for market researched theatrics, run of the mill storytelling and hefty box office receipts.

"Beasts Of The Southern Wild" shows so masterfully exactly how to completely honor a character like Hushpuppy. Never, ever treat her as a novelty or as a gimmick. Just believe in her and her story with tremendous honesty, humanity and understanding and as if she were a completely real individual living through a seismically transforming existence. Hushpuppy is heroic to me through her matter of fact nature of survival and stupendously empathetic relationship with everything that surrounds her. She elicits levels of bravery that poor Merida, for instance, could never achieve because her storytellers let her down so spectacularly. Not so with Hushpuppy as Zeitlin and his filmmaking team have worked just as heroically to ensure the entire humanity of the story and characters shines brightly from beginning to end.  

Now, I would not be surprised if some of you take issue with the nature of the Father/daughter relationship between Wink and Hushpuppy as Wink's version of tough love may feel to border on the edges of child abuse. that, I would have to ask you to place all of our modern day, modern civilization notions of child rearing aside and really place yourselves into the mindset and lives of those who are living on what seems to feel like the physical edge and end of the world. A place where modern technology and conveniences do not exist. Where your lives are completely at the mercy of the elements and what you possess may literally exist upon your backs and the community and the people within that community are the sole items that tether you to the Earth.

Wink is delivering the tools that Hushpuppy will need to survive, especially as he exists in a state where he will not be a part of the material world much longer. His rage is deeply palpable as the love of his life, Hushpuppy's Mother, has long abandoned him. He is swimming in an alcohol haze either as a disease or coping mechanism or both. His frustrations with trying to parent a small child in an unforgiving world are more than understandable. And his rants at the storming night skies feel like nothing less than howls directed at the universe itself as he lives in conflict with his illness and quickly impending mortality. As cruel as Wink can be, his love for Hushpuppy is awesome as he cannot bear to leave her in the world without having imparted her with the severe knowledge of survival. And in a few of the film's later sequences, the tenderness he reveals is shattering. Dwight Henry gives a performance of sheer authenticity and a forcefulness equal to Wallis'. They may even fool you that they are an actual real world Father/daughter couple. And I sincerely hope that both of them are remembered during awards season along with the film and filmmakers as a whole.
When you go to the movies, how often is it that you can say that you have actually seen something that feels new? Something that takes the language of cinema as we know it and just re-focuses it in a way where movies look completely different than before. "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" is bravely and precisely that special breed of film. It's not that it necessarily feels five minutes ahead of everything else. It is just exactly how Zeitlin treats the language of cinema as a painting or as a poem as well as something that is transformative and transportive. It is the very type of film where you feel as if you have been on a journey unlike any you have taken before, or at least the type you have not taken in a very long time.

Benh Zeitlin accomplishes all of these traits while also unabashedly and unrepentantly as nothing less that the finest art. "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" is a beautifully humane piece of work that is jointly esoteric, accessible and completely with enormous heart and even healthy doses of relatable humor. But, it also tests our levels of understanding and compassion, especially as we sit so comfortably inside of a movie house, a place where Hushpuppy, Wink and their friends would most likely never set foot themselves.

"Beasts Of The Southern Wild" is indeed a FOUR STAR MOVIE, one I sincerely hope that you all take a chance upon. Films like this need our support more than ever and believe me, Hushpuppy's journey is sublimely unforgettable.

"Beasts Of The Southern Wild" is easily one of 2012's highest cinematic achievements.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

WINTER IN GOTHAM CITY: a review of "The Dark Knight Rises"

Based upon the DC comic series and characters created by Bob Kane
Screenplay Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
Produced and Directed by Christopher Nolan
**** (four stars)

In memory of and solidarity with the victims and families of the Aurora, Colorado tragedy.

I just do not know or understand how he does it.

The filmmaking career of Writer/Director Christopher Nolan is a true cinematic rarity as the quality of his output is of such consistently and uncommonly high artistic quality. Time and again, he has proven how to weave rich and deeply complex tales while also fusing the artistry of film storytelling and raking in beyond hefty commercial profits together seamlessly and thrillingly. There has not been even one film that has displeased me in the least and I have to say that while I have loved all of his films so far, his re-invention of the Batman legend has been my personal favorite by a long shot. I loved how he doesn't treat his subject matter as mere "comic book movies" but more as literary adaptations. Such is the heft and gravitas he has delivered, starting with "Batman Begins" (2005) and continuing with the superlative second chapter, "The Dark Knight" (2008), a film I loved so much that not only did it rank near the peak of my Top Ten Favorite Films of 2008, it has also earned a high ranking within my Top Ten Films from the previous decade of 2000-2009!

In my original review of "The Dark Knight," I questioned if a certainly inevitable third installment should even be made because I feared that any new chapter could not possibly ever be that good again, even with someone as supremely talented as Nolan at the helm. Now, that inevitable third installment, "The Dark Knight Rises," has arrived and with this final chapter, does it indeed scale the exact same heights or even surpass what Nolan achieved with "The Dark Knight"? Well...not quite as I did notice a few unprecedented signs of storytelling strain on Nolan's part this time around that presented to me minor flaws, which I will explain--SPOILER FREE--very shortly. But, all of that being said, "The Dark Knight Rises" is an explosively exhausting emotional experience. A boldly grim film that completely and unapologetically ignores all of the traits of the happy-go-lucky summer film going experience in favor of presenting a ferociously dark vision that resonates so powerfully that Nolan nearly re-defines what and how awesome a motion picture can actually be. "The Dark Knight Rises" is nothing less than a Herculean piece of filmmaking that stands triumphantly on its own terms while also illuminating the mighty accomplishment Nolan has achieved throughout this entire trilogy as a whole.

Set eight years after the events of "The Dark Knight," we rejoin the inhabitants of Gotham City during a lengthy spell of peace as the major crime element has all but been eradicated. Unfortunately, all is not well underneath the surface of the top two key players of Gotham's newfound resurgence. Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), whose guilt over allowing Batman to take the fall over Harvey Dent's crimes is near all consuming and of course, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) himself, whose own level of guilt has taken such a physical and psychological toll, that it has lead him to hang up his cape and cowl for good and become a recluse from Gotham society.

Further still, the arrival of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a sexy thief and the building presence of the hulking (and face obscured) domestic terrorist only known as Bane (Tom Hardy) spring forth a chain of events which spiral towards Gotham's horrific day of reckoning, compelling Bruce Wayne to re-enter society as Batman, to protect the city from complete destruction once and for all. And dear readers, that is all that i feel comfortable sharing with you as to not accidentally produce those nasty spoilers!

Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises" is a spectacular presentation filled with flawless cinematography, set design, editing as well as an innovative and nerve rattling "war drum" fueled score from Composer Hans Zimmer. All of the action sequences are expertly designed, staged and executed and the film's extended climax, spotlighting the war in Gotham City is outstanding to say the least. Additionally, and concerning the close contact battles between Batman and Bane, I cannot remember the last time I have seen fist fights conducted with such pummeling forcefulness and rage, so much so that it is truly bone crushing. But, "The Dark Knight Rises" is not mindless sound and fury by any means, certainly a style of vacuousness that we would not ever expect from Christopher Nolan in the first place anyway.

Utilizing musical terms, I once referred to "Batman Begins" as an "overture," and "The Dark Knight" as "opera." To that end, "The Dark Knight Rises" to me, functions as a requiem. Booming, brazen, brutal and bombastic, but a requiem nonetheless. With this third chapter, Christopher Nolan has beautifully crafted a most effective finale, one that is elegiac and feels definitive, mostly in regards to the story and arc of Bruce Wayne. For instance, during much of the film's first third or so, we see Wayne in a state of dilapidation, crippling regret and physical deterioration as witnessed through his usage of a walking cane to move around as well as hearing the results of an eye opening doctor's visit. I enjoyed how Nolan gave Bruce Wayne a Howard Hughes/"Citizen Kane" vibe as he skulks around his massive manor, wracked with feelings of failure and mourning. Because of this element in particular, along with many elements that he has introduced throughout the trilogy, I have to stand up and applaud Nolan greatly for presenting the legend of Batman by giving me sights and emotions in a way that I had never imagined them before. Witnessing Bruce Wayne's emotional paralysis plus his eventual economic downfall gave this installment an even more provocative level of humanity to cling to in a genre that rarely acknowledges it.  

All of the performances are pitch perfect throughout "The Dark Knight Rises." Christian Bale again shows that he is the finest Caped Crusader to ever take on the role and Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and especially Michael Caine as Bruce Wayne's trusty butler Alfred, all reach new dramatic and soulful heights which anchor and broaden their respective characters and the emotional landscape of the film tremendously. Marion Cotilliard and Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, graduates from Nolan's "Inception" (2010) and newcomers to this trilogy, both accommodate themselves handsomely through mystery, allure, strength and steadfast determination.

But, the question that I am certain is on most potential viewers' minds in regards to this final installment is how the villainous presence of Bane, and the performance of Tom Hardy in particular stacks up, especially after Heath Ledger's hypnotically unhinged performance as The Joker rightly awarded Ledger with a posthumous Oscar award. While some may quibble, I shall not as I felt that Hardy made for a formidable foe. With his muscular frame, imposing physicality, unforgiving violence combined with his elegant diction and nihilistic philosophy, Bane struck me as the nightmarish "love child" of Darth Vader and Hannibal Lector and his every appearance and vocal utterances sent chills up and down my spine. Hardy's performance wisely does not even attempt to compete with what Ledger accomplished. But Hardy has indeed created a performance that could easily stand shoulder to shoulder with Ledger's, as his presentation of the nature of unrepentant evil, anarchy and a bizarre world view of creating liberation through cataclysm shook the theater walls and my spirit exhaustively.

With a world of comic book villains in Batman's universe to choose from, it may seem odd to pick a character like Bane as opposed to say, The Penguin but it all felt to be fitting with Nolan's aesthetics for this trilogy. Through Bane, and to a slightly lesser extent with Selina Kyle, Christopher Nolan grandly ensures that all of the story threads introduced in the first film and carried through the second, reach a convincing and effective conclusion and to that, he has succeeded grandly. All of the conceptual themes of what makes a society flourish or flounder and the nature of evil contained therein climbs to a fever pitch in "The Dark Knight Rises" as Nolan continues to treat his version of Gotham City not as a Gothic wonderland but as real as any real world city with its fractured political, social and economic structure. The class divisions Nolan introduced in "Batman Begins" boil to full on class warfare that undeniably made me think of The French Revolution, The Russian Revolution and most obviously, the current Occupy Movement. To this, I don't care how much Nolan sidesteps this issue but when Selina menacingly says to Bruce Wayne that a "storm is coming" and asks angrily how could "those who live so large leave so little for the rest of us," what else am I supposed to think of?! Nolan gives us a topsy turvy, through the looking glass view of the cyclical nature of wealth that proves to be especially riveting as the wealthy are being dragged from their homes and into the streets. And yet, what a crafty move it is for Nolan to give us an "Eat The Rich" mentality while also asking us to sympathize with Bruce Wayne, the ultimate 1 per center. That emotional murkiness also assists the full resonance of  "The Dark Knight Rises" masterfully.

And yet, I did say earlier that I felt some flaws with "The Dark Knight Rises." Very, very minor but flaws nonetheless. I suppose, first of all, I felt that some story threads and revelations fit together a tad too forcefully. And in comparison to the knife's edge intensity of "The Dark Knight," this third chapter did meander a taste here and there. But, it was the character of Selina Kyle that gave me the slightest sense of trepidation. Granted, Anne Hathaway gives the role all she's got, and she nails the character's duplicitous and ultimately, conflicted nature perfectly. But, for reasons I just cannot quite put my finger on, her presence did not feel as seamless or as fluid as the collective of villains in the previous two installments. It was certainly nothing that stuck out so greatly as to knock down my four star rating obviously, but it was just a slight nagging feeling that she was a hair shoehorned into the proceedings. Given that all of Nolan's other films have had the blessings of an air tight structure and plot, I wonder if the responsibility of concluding a trilogy as massive as this one provided Nolan with some more visibly noticeable pressure.

But, any of those feelings were wiped clean from my mind as all of the elements eventually snapped into place, making "The Dark Knight Rises" deliver an overwhelming cumulative effect. This film constantly placed me in a state of relentless, mounting dread. A grave threat of annihilation of the geographic as well as the spirit, which resulted in a white knuckle tension that literally left beads of sweat in the palms of my hands and a vice grip intensity that refused to let go. Again, Nolan cranks up the mayhem until it feels as if the screen will fracture in two and he still pushes the adrenaline further and higher while magically never sacrificing character, motivation, or emotion. And I'm telling you, the film's final five minutes or so are downright perfection! "The Dark Knight Rises" is not a film designed to be watched passively. This is truly one of those rare films that leave you exhilarated, slack jawed and completely spent...and you'll want to see it all over again.

What a treasure Christopher Nolan is for all of us who enjoy going to the movies to see something that is entirely transportive. For that is what "The Dark Knight Rises," and the trilogy in its entirety, has been. A full and complete journey into the heart of fear, anger, escalating violence, oblivion, redemption, sacrifice, honor and the undying belief and hope in humanity's better instincts. What Nolan has accomplished so brilliantly is to transcend an entire film genre and create something that feels almost unprecedented. Despite the foreboding nature of this series, I feel that the public's embrace of it proves that when storytelling is at its highest form, an audience will respond positively in turn. "The Dark Knight Rises" is an example of master class filmmaking and storytelling expressed through ingenious craftsmanship, high style and most importantly, supreme emotional and intellectual content and context.

"The Dark Knight Rises" is one of my favorite films of 2012.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

BAD TRIP: a review of "Savages"

Based upon the novel by Don Winslow
Screenplay Written by Shane Salerno & Don Winslow & Oliver Stone
Directed by Oliver Stone
* 1/2 (one and a half stars)

While it just pains me to think about it, let alone say it aloud in writing to all of you, I just may have to face the very possible reality that Oliver Stone, one of my favorite cinematic heroes, may have reached his creative end.  

Viewing the steep creative descent of Oliver Stone in recent years is perhaps it is akin to watching a once great athlete sliding downwards in decline, I would imagine. Between the years of 1986-1999, the oeuvre and creative spirit of Oliver Stone was a supreme force of nature. While Stone has been criticized over and again for a lack of subtlety, I found myself supremely propelled by his social/political outrage and his virtuosic filmmaking which almost seemed to re-invent the cinematic wheel with every new project he took on and educating and exhilarating me in the process. Just take a moment and think about films like "Platoon" (1986), "Wall Street" (1987), "Talk Radio" (1988), "Born On The Fourth Of July" (1989), "The Doors" (1991), "Natural Born Killers" (1994), "Any Given Sunday" (1999) and the extraordinary "JFK" (1991), which I still feel is not only one of the very best films of the 1990s but a hallucinogenic, political powder keg that means more to me now than it ever had before. 

In recent years, however, Stone's drive has diminished considerably. "World Trade Center" (2006), was respectful to a fault. It's trailer contained more wrenching emotion than the actual film. "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" (2010), was a film that never found a sense of the moral outrage it kept hinting at. And while I did love "W." (2008), Stone's more nuanced and gently satirical examination of George W. Bush, I was surprised that he did not utilize more of his trademark fire and brimstone approach. I suppose that I have been harboring a feeling which I have been valiantly, and maybe protectively, trying to hold in vain as I kept telling myself, "Maybe the next one will be better."  With the arrival of "Savages," Oliver Stone's helter-skelter drug running thriller, at first it felt as if Stone had gotten his creative mojo back as the film is unapologetically lurid and contains some downright nasty filmmaking and storytelling that allows Stone to create the types of cinematic razzle dazzle that used to be his trademark. Also, I hoped that maybe even without a political framework or agenda, Stone would be in the position to just flex his muscles and let his creativity run as wild as the story necessitates. Those high hopes were dashed within the first 30 minutes of "Savages," as the film skidded into idle and would slowly yet spectacularly careen off of the road into mindless insignificance. This is a terrible film. The worst I have seen from Oliver Stone. I often joke after seeing a bad movie that I see these things just so you won't have to. Trust me, dear readers, "Savages," although not for lack of effort, is nowhere near worth your time and hard earned dollar.

Set in and around the beaches of Southern California, "Savages" stars Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson as Chon, an Iraq/Afghanistan war veteran and Ben, a Buddhist, respectively. The twosome are best friends as well as lavishly wealthy drug dealers and marijuana growers who have essentially created the perfect potent product due to the seeds Chon has smuggled out of Afghanistan. The partnership of Chon and Ben makes for the obligatory mixture of brawn and brains as Chon is the ruthless enforcer while the level headed and kind-hearted Ben takes his riches and performs more philanthropic acts around the globe. The two are legally protected through the covert actions of corrupt DEA Agent Dennis (John Travolta) and they also share the love and sex of a blond beach babe paramour named Ophelila Sage, otherwise known simply as "O" (Blake Lively), who vacuously narrates the film.

Chon and Ben's exquisite product eventually draws the unwanted attention of a Mexican drug cartel led by the vicious Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek) and enforced by the brutally malicious and sadistic Lado (Benicio del Toro). Elena's organization approaches Chon and Ben with a business proposal to form a partnership with the cartel. At first, Chon and Ben graciously refuse, but knowing full well of Elena and Lado's tactic for beheading adversaries, the two reluctantly agree to the deal but secretly plan to self-destruct their own organization and flee California for one year. Unfortunately, O is kidnapped by the cartel, and held for ransom as Elena warns the boys that O will be killed unless they partner with her organization. And now, it is up to Chon and Ben to take on the cartel by themselves to rescue O from certain death.      

As it stands, the basic plot line of "Savages" feels ripe and ready for a crazy, bloody slab of pulp fiction and to potentially be delivered in Oliver Stone's orgiastic, over the top style, on paper felt like it could be a perfectly sordid matching. Shockingly, for a film that gleefully wallows in endlessly profane dialogue, nudity, menage-a-trois sequences, copious drug usage, gory shootouts, one instance of rape and propulsive amounts of naughtiness, evil and badness, it was just amazing to me how within that entire maelstrom, it feels as if nothing happens. Look, it's not for lack of effort as Stone certainly pulls out all of the stops during this rancorous joyride. All of the actors are game for the proceedings and do what they can with the material (Hayek and Travolta seemed to be having the most fun to me). Also, my reaction is not necessarily due to my sensibilities being offended as it does indeed take quite a bit to actually offend me. I knew what kind of a film this would be heading into it and it would indeed be my own fault if I had the nerve to be surprised by any of the brutality on display. What bothered me so tremendously about "Savages" is that for all of the sound and fury, everything felt to be painfully gratuitous, as it Stone felt that having blood, nudity and foul language would be enough. "Savages" is yet another motion picture that has all of the right notes but cannot play the music whatsoever. And someone with the pedigree of Oliver Stone should know better as he has performed much better in the past.

Every element that makes "Savages" stand out as a HARD R RATED film just hangs in the air, connected to absolutely nothing that would give the madness any meaning, significance or gravity to make the audience feel propelled along by the experience as a whole. With "Natural Born Killers," Stone operated in a wildly overwrought Kubrickian style as he explored our relationship with extreme violence, especially through the media, as he traced the nationwide killing spree of Mickey and Mallory Know (a blistering Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis). That particular context, our simultaneous fascination and disgust with violence, gave that film a devastating context that the audience could not disassociate itself from. Even with "U-Turn" (1997), Stone's flawed but wild exercise in violent genre filmmaking, he was aided supremely by his excellent cast (which included Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Billy Bob Thornton, and Jennifer Lopez among others) and a level of filmmaking that made it feel as if you were looking at a twisted view of America through the cracked, opposite end of a kaleidoscope. With "Savages," while I could feel Stone trying to reach a bit for that past brass cinematic ring, everything about the actual story felt to be so pathetically under thought, so pitifully under-examined, that I did not care about any character or anything that happened in the film. Just being submerged in genre filth is not enough without some of those heavy duty characters to make the whole enterprise scream.      

It feels as if the long shadow of Quentin Tarantino strikes again, an ironic thought as "Natural Born Killers" originated as a Tarantino screenplay which Stone radically re-worked to fit his own aesthetics. But without a political agenda for "Savages," Stone seemed to be more than lost and here is where Tarantino just eclipses him. Quentin Tarantino is a ferociously gifted storyteller who has, time and again, created his characters and full cinematic universal so supremely, completely and thoroughly, that if any element were absent, the entire film would crumble. However, with "Savages," none of the characters really exist beyond superficiality. In fact, Chon and Ben would be completely interchangeable if it were not for the overly facile reason that Chon is a hot head and Ben is level headed. "Savages" possesses a tremendous lack of depth and soul and yet, there are seeds for areas where "Savages" could have extended itself. Frankly, I am surprised that Stone did not even bother to try and go deeper. For instance, one very easy approach would be one Stone has tackled before, taking his lamb of a hero or anti-hero (in this case, Ben), transforming him into a wolf and exploring the consequences of such a transformation. Or, he could have gone the "Natural Born Killers" route and placed us firmly inside the unsympathetic brain of Chon. Yes, both of those are "been there, done that" ideas but at least it would have been something!

Or even better, perhaps the very best thing he could have done for this film was to give O a purpose other than to look pretty, be a willing sexual dynamo and unwilling captive. For Pete's sakes, O narrates the entire film and this would have been a great chance to give Blake Lively a starring role that could skyrocket her growing film career. Unfortunately for her, there's not much for her to do but to again look pretty and/or distressed. Yet, there could have been a strong relationship between O and her captor, Elena that is really just hinted at. O has a non-existent relationship with her Mother, while Elena has an increasingly contentious and fractured relationship with her daughter. Once O and Elena meet, I was thinking that maybe, just maybe, "Savages" would begin to reveal itself through a potential powerhouse storyline of a bizarre "Mother/daughter" relationship that would then allow Lively to just chomp her teeth into this character and film. But, sadly, it was not to be. 

For Stone's detractors who have proclaimed that he has been lousy with his conceptions of his rare female characters, "Savages" will definitely give them more ammunition. This is most evident with the film's just empty headed narration from O that I would gather was conceived as a satirical jab against the bubble headed dope fueled beach babes of California but soon revealed itself to be just an exercise in unjustifiably bad writing. In an early scene when Chon and O are introduced to us, they are in the deep throes of erotic passion and O states to us, "Where I have orgasms, Chon has 'wargasms'". Yup, "Savages" is that kind of movie.

While for much of "Savages," I felt the proceedings dangerously remained in neutral but the further it careened along, the worse it became because the entire escapade proved to be entirely pointless. The film's worst error occurred during the film's gory, climactic shootout, a sequence which then upends itself into some sort of cinematic do-over that it ultimately negated a fair amount of what we had seen thus far. It was like those DVD releases that promote the bonus features of alternate endings, something that always tells me that the filmmakers had no idea of how to end their movie. But for "Savages," it wasn't just Stone having no idea of how to end this movie and shooting several endings. It was as if instead of picking one conclusion, he decided to throw all of them into the film, rendering everything meaningless and just making a bad film much worse by remaining on screen even longer. 

What has happened to Oliver Stone? It's not like he has forgotten how to make a movie. It seems as if he is stumbling on why he is making movies. Maybe during his creative peak, during which he was especially prolific, he used up his gifts. Maybe, his passion for cinematic storytelling has subsides. Certainly, those two options are valid and even reasonable. Not every creative endeavor can strike gold. but this is Oliver Stone and while I am not quite ready to give up on him, I fear that time is rapidly approaching.

Especially, if he releases more films as unrelenting awful as "Savages."

Monday, July 16, 2012

LIVE AND DIE ON THIS DAY: a review of "The Grey"

Based upon the short story Ghost Walker by Ian MacKenzie Jeffers
Screenplay Written by Joe Carnahan and Ian MacKenzie Jeffers
Directed by Joe Carnahan
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

By now the face you can see in the attached film still is more than familiar. Not just because it is Liam Neeson. But because this is Liam Neeson possessed within the throes of full boiled rage.

For the past couple of years, Liam Neeson not only re-invented himself as a new action hero with films like "Taken" (2008) and "Unknown" (2011), but it is through those film and the upcoming "Taken 2," that he has almost created a sub-genre tailor made for himself. In and of itself, I don't feel that I would happen to have any complaints about this new stage in the career of Liam Neeson. But as he makes career choices of this sort, along with some very questionable choices like the "Clash Of The Titans" (2010) remake and this year's sequel "Wrath Of The Titans," "The A-Team" (2010), plus the recent behemoth budget summer 2012 box office bomb "Battleship," I must say that I am beginning to worry. In my recent review of "Safe House," I explained that I was also beginning to worry about the career of Denzel Washington, one of our finest actors, as he seems to be progressively taking roles to maintain his box office cache instead of continuing to challenge and grow as an artist. This is the exact same worry that I am finding myself having about Liam Neeson. While I certainly would not begrudge his desire to make action films, I just don't' want for him to end up like say...Nicholas Cage, one of our once riskiest actors who is now existing as an increasingly unfunny cinematic joke. 

When the survival thriller "The Grey" was first released this past Spring, I felt trepidatious about seeing it as I feared that this was one more step into a certain tepid predictability with just one more entry in the "Liam Neeson Gets Mad" saga. But now having finally seen the film, I am curious if perhaps this film along with a couple of his recent choices may be slightly more provocative and perhaps even subversive than I had originally thought. I'll explain that a bit more later but as it stands, "The Grey," from Director Joe Carnahan, blindsided me happily as he and his collaborator Ian MacKenzie Jeffers smartly and creatively realized that not only could this film exist as more than a run of the mill thriller but that it should exist as much more. Powerfully, the film succeeds and if you have not seen the film as of yet, place it into your movie renting cue as this film is a white knuckle, pulse pounder that just may rattle your soul as well as your nerves. 

From a plot standpoint, "The Grey" is cleanly structured and straightforward. Liam Neeson stars as John Ottway, an intensely haunted and suicidal widower who works for an oil company hunting down and killing the wolves who threaten the members of an oil drilling team. On the way home from a completed job in Alaska, Ottway and his companions experience a horrifying plane crash, killing most of the passengers and stranding seven men, including Ottway, in the barren, brutally cold Alaskan wilderness. Even worse, the men are now being hunted and killed by a pack of hungry wolves and it is entirely up to Ottway and his extensive knowledge about the nature of wolves, to try and lead the group to its potential survival.

On the surface, "The Grey" is a highly effective thriller that is made up from familiar themes that we have seen from William Golding's Lord Of the Flies and it also reminded me very much of films like John Boorman's "Deliverance" (1972), Walter Hill's "Southern Comfort" (1981), John Carpenter's "The Thing" (1982), Lee Tamahori's The Edge" (1997) and even aspects of television's "Lost." But, rest assured, and aside from its "And Then There Were None" structure, this is no copycat presentation as Carnahan ensured through his controlled and intensely patient direction that "The Grey" would not only work as a visceral thriller but that it would also exist as a film that was not solely about a growing body count.

I have to admit that as the film began, I found myself immediately shifting a bit in my seat as we were quickly introduced to Ottway through a barrage of cliched and unintentionally laughable pseudo hard-boiled narration that we have heard one thousand times before. But "The Grey" did begin to pick up once Ottway and his traveling companions boarded the plane. After the terrifyingly staged place crash and the first moment of Ottway discovering the crash survivors, there came a moment where the tenor of the film transformed into something profoundly deeper and alerted me that perhaps "The Grey" would be a bit different than what I first thought that it would be. As Ottway makes his way to the plane to check for potential survivors, he comes across the mortally injured Lewenden (James Badge Dale), who is obviously mere moments from immanent death. Ottway joins Lewenden and tells him, calmly and gently, that he is indeed about to die and then, he begins to compassionately guide Lewenden towards his passing. "It slides over you," says Ottway tenderly. The scene continues for more moments, quietly and tensely, yet filled with a sorrowful sense of warmth. Lewenden dies and the scene lingers, allowing the characters and the audience to take in this time of a man's life ending. 

I described that sequence to you because what Carnahan delivered was something unlike the norm in a film such as this one, where people are picked off one by one, their lives are meaningless and they are never thought of again. Then, I began to wonder if those unintentionally laughable opening scenes were indeed completely intentional. Perhaps Carnahan was lulling the audience into thinking we would see one type of film and what he actually delivered transcended the genre a bit and became an experience that was decidedly more thoughtful and ultimately, more artful. 

"The Grey" does indeed plunge us deeply into our most primal emotions through its ferocious plot and battle between man, nature and beast. Most importantly, the film is surprisingly philosophical, cerebral, and even existential as the film as a whole is essentially a rumination on the inevitability of death, the possibility that we all exist in a meaningless, cold, unforgiving universe and our need for survival regardless. Essentially, this film completely embraces that very concept that I have consistently championed on Savage Cinema and that, of course, is "humanity." 

Yes, "The Grey" is extremely violent but not gratuitously so. Yes, "The Grey" is riveting and exciting but not in an exploitative way. From the plane crash to its conclusion, I loved how Carnahan and Jeffers found ways to inject some much needed humanity into the piece so that it resonated much more powerfully than it really had any need to. For instance, I enjoyed how Ottway instructs his companions to retrieve all of the wallets from their deceased travelers for the purpose of alerting the families if they are indeed rescued. That tactic, thankfully, is not one moment never to be seen or felt again. It is a recurring theme, especially as the survivors gradually meet their respective ends. Another sequence has Ottway and two other men, the bespectacled Talget (a surprisingly rock solid Dermot Mulroney, who is usually one of our most wooden actors) and the belligerent Diaz (an excellent Frank Grillo), discuss and debate the possible or impossible existence of God. Another sequence has Carnahan deflate the testosterone balloon of this specialized film genre by having Ottway declare to the other men that he is indeed "terrified." I also loved how Carnahan did not make the wolves exist as monsters but as formidable creatures which Ottway respects and understands, and who are trying to fight for their survival as equally as the humans. All of those elements, and more, made "The Grey" a feature that burrowed under my skin as it became a disturbing experience that illustrated mercilessly how death can be swift, sudden, unrepentant, uncompromising and non-discriminatory. Certainly not what you would expect from a mere "action movie."

Carnahan's sense of realism is also greatly aided by Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi's gritty lensing, which gives the "The Grey" a completely authentic feel of being lost in the bitter, brutal cold so effective that I actually found myself occasionally shivering, even as I sat in the comfortable space of my home--during a Midwestern heat wave at that!

And then, there is the performance of Liam Neeson himself, one that executed a level of such power that I began to wonder if a couple of his recent film choices should be a bit re-evaluated. In my review of "Martian Child" (2007), I referenced an interview that film's star, John Cusack, delivered to the "Inside The Actor's Studio" television program. To paraphrase, he proclaimed that there was once a time that if the public ever wanted to know anything about the personal, inner lives of their favorite actor, all that person would have to do is to simply watch that actor's films. In regards to Liam Neeson, we all know about the tragic death of his wife, actress Natasha Richardson in 2009. Now, I have to say that while I have not ever seen any interview footage of Neeson making any public statements about this loss, there were moments within "The Grey" that made me ponder if he may have been exploring those very issues through the conceits of this particular story. Ottway's atheism, as well as his relationship with and respect of the process of death notwithstanding, there was one sequence in particular that stood out. During a crucial sequence, Ottway addresses the Heavens in an Shakespearian styled fury and it is as feverish a piece of acting as I have ever seen Liam Neeson deliver. It was a moment that released a sense of excruciating inner pain that felt so true that it seemed to move beyond acting and existed more as a state of being.

It was then that I began to wonder, perhaps unrealistically but a thought nonetheless, that maybe Neeson is working through his personal struggles in some of his film choices. In "Taken," he portrays a man fighting all odds to save the life of his daughter and in "Unknown," he portrays a man desperately attempting to regain his life and wife after a coma induced accident. And now, we arrive at "The Grey," during which he seems to be waging war against the very thing we cannot ever win against-our own inevitable termination. Now, as I look over the chronology of film releases, "Taken" was released a full year before Richardson's passing so maybe my theory doesn't really work at all. But somehow, Neeson's furious, awesome anger in "The Grey," as well as the film as a whole, reached me in a deeply primal place, where my own fears and inability to reconcile myself with the nature of mortality uncomfortably reside. Dear readers, I simply do not ever want to know if death contains a warmth and feels as if it is slipping over over, as if you were just falling asleep for the evening. I do not want to know these sorts of things because I just do not ever want to fathom the time when my existence will not be. By the same token, I suppose I do want to know these things so I can possibly prepare myself. But regardless of my wants, I desire to know the unknowable and death will arrive whenever it chooses to and I will most likely never be "ready" for it.

"The Grey," with its humans versus wolves in the frozen wild touches upon those precise emotions so explicitly and I was thankful that Carnahan decided to treat the cycle of life and death very seriously and not just as mindless entertainment fodder. Having Liam Neeson in the lead, whether subversively or not, proved to make the experience of this film profoundly haunting as well as thrillingly relentless.

In a cinematic year filled with strong surprises, "The Grey" was a high point. And also one strong and compelling enough where I don't have to be concerned for the acting career of Liam Neeson just yet.  

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

WAITING FOR A SIGN: a review of "Jeff, Who Lives At Home"

Written and Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass
*** 1/2 (three and a half stars)

Now, this was truly a charmer!

Two years ago, the fraternal writing/directing team of Jay and Mark Duplass surprised me tremendously with their most affectionate and deeply perceptive family comedy "Cyrus," which starred John C. Reilly as a lonely, middle aged man trying to court single Mother Marisa Tomei much to the chagrin of her titular adult son, played by Jonah Hill. It was the type of independent film that really could have gone off of the rails into that loathsome self-indulgent, self-congratulatory well spring of quirkiness that always keeps me at arms length. ut beautifully, the Duplass brothers kept everything under control and allowed these characters, and thier unique situation, to play as realistically as possible, allowing all of them to function as the very types of real human beings you and I may encounter in our real lives. "Cyrus" was a lovely, little film filled with honest laughs, true heartbreak and a precise understanding of human nature. It was exactly the very type of movie Hollywood doesn't seem to be that interested in making anymore. 

I just think that for anyone who just enjoys good movies, the presence of the Duplass brothers is a most welcome one. I would even argue that their presence is a necessity! Happily, you may all take part in their cinematic universe with their latest film "Jeff, Who Lives At Home," another family tale that is front loaded with sharp humor and eventually builds to a conclusion that was so surprisingly moving and is as breezy as a spring day throughout. Now available on DVD and Blu-Ray, I urge you to give this film your time and effort as I think you will be as plesantly entertained as I was.  

"Jeff, Who Lives At Home," is indeed one of those films where the less I say about it will simply add to your full enjoyment of it. Jason Segel stars as Jeff, a 30-year-old man who holds a sincere, earnest belief in the symbiotic nature of all things. While we may gather that this belief is one that he has held throughout his entire life, it is a belief that has grown unshakably after repeated viewing of M. Night Shyamalan's science fiction/spiritual thriller "Signs" (2002). Unfortunately, this very same belief system that landed Jeff into a rut of arrested development as he is unemployed, perpetually stoned and currently lives in the basement of his widowed Mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), endlessly waiting for the stars to align, informing him of his life's purpose. 

On this fateful day, as chronicled in the film, Jeff receives two very important telephone calls. One is from Sharon, instructing him to head to Home Depot to purchase a bottle of wood glue to fix the broken shutter blind. The second is an angry call, from an unknown voice, belligerently asking for the whereabouts of "Kevin." Heeding his Mother's wishes and sensing that the call for Kevin is not just a random wrong number, Jeff ventures out of the basement and away from the house for a day long, life altering adventure that involves, in addition to discovering the hidden connective signs behind the name "Kevin," an outdoor basketball game, a vending machine truck, a secret admirer, a fire drill, an upscale yuppie restaurant, a troubled marriage, a spanking new Porsche, a clandestine hotel location, a traffic jam, and even a reunion with his petulant brother Pat (Ed Helms) among other disparate elements. Or are they disparate elements at all?     

"Jeff, Who Lives At Home" is a breezy, whimsical escapade that is always supremely empathetic, warm hearted, often hilarious and still somehow packs a very well executed and resonating emotional punch that provides an honest sense of uplift. I was very impressed with how all of the story's various threads ultimately  fit together. Yes, the film does meander from time to time, but over its scant 82 minute duration, everything feels so natural, so unforced and not the least bit contrived. And kind of like M. Night Shyamalan at his best, the Duplass brothers have created a work where you don't feel the wheels of the screenplay grinding tiredly and simply in order to ensure that all of the storylines fit together. Their work on "Jeff, Who Lives At Home" is confidently seamless.

As I think about the film now, it dawned on me just how similar of a film it is to Director Jesse Peretz's "Our Idiot Brother" from last year, at least in terms of its main conceit. Essentially both films deal with the family's black sheep who proves himself to be not such a loser after all. But, "Our Idiot Brother" never even tried to extend itself beyond its own title, there fore wasting the talents and efforts of its extremely gifted and likable cast and ultimately, my time and patience. Where the Duplass brothers have succeeded wonderfully is that they have realized that creating fully developed characters is the crucial key in order for "Jeff, Who Lives At Home" to work at all. All of the characters' motivations are clear, understandable and so refreshingly real and humane that no matter how outrageous the circumstances become, the film always remains grounded within a tangible reality. There is no self-conscious, self-congratulatory quirkiness on display at all as the Duplass brothers strongly illustrate their perceptiveness with how family relationships work, grow, change and stagnate. Additionally, we are able see how sad all of the characters are as they are confronted with the ruts that their respective lives have unfortunately fallen into. This amount of detail and empathy elevated this film into being so much more than it could have been and I greatly appreciated the effort to reach a bit further and not simply be content with just being funny. With "Jeff, Who Lives At Home," while we laugh, we can feel very confident that everything feels emotionally true to life. 

The quality of all of the film's performances is particularly high and adds greatly to the experience as a whole. Jason Segel's tall and doughy frame combined with his gentle yet melancholic self-awareness and deeply felt cosmic perceptions serve him tremendously well with the character of Jeff, whom you are rooting for from the beginning. He often made me think that Jeff could be an updated, adult version of his Nick Andopolis character, the sensitive, perpetually stoned drummer from Paul Feig and Judd Apatow's beautiful cult classic series "Freaks and Geeks." On one hand, Segel never allows this character to fall into caricature or parody, always mining every scene for heart and humanity. On the other, he also never allows Jeff to become unrealistically saintly either. Jeff is just an average, everyday, not-quite-so-young-anymore man who simply wants to find a sense of meaning and purpose in his life, has grown despondent that he has not found it yet and somehow keeps pushing ahead with a sense of hopefulness. Segel's tenderness, cleverness and intelligence ensures that Jeff never, ever becomes the butt of the joke or is ever placed upon a pedestal. It's a fine line and Jason Segel walks that line with true comedic skill.  

As Jeff's brother Pat, Ed Helms delivers his most realized performance to date and further pushes himself forwards from the purgatory of "The Hangover" movies. He strikes all of the right comedic and dramatic notes as a frustrated man who is absolutely confused and confounded by the nature of women, most specifically, his long suffering wife Linda, portrayed by the always terrific Judy Greer, who has long deserved a starring role of her own. And then, there was the joy I felt seeing the long missing-in-action Rae Dawn Chong as Susan Sarandon's office chum, who injected the film with her unique brand of sassiness combined with an infectious charm and sense of longing that added to our hopes that a collective happiness will be bestowed upon all of the film's characters.

And yes...I have to admit that while I am not complaining in the least, I do have to chuckle a bit with the Duplass brothers' penchant for casting vibrant, sexy actresses who are either slightly over 40 (Marisa Tomei) or considerably over 40 (Sarandon) as examples of the lonely and lovelorn possibly discovering love once again. Whether this is fulfilling a certain fantasy the Duplass brothers may be harboring, I'll never know but I'm telling you, if they cast...say...Sela Ward in their next film as some sort of wallflower, then we'll all know the truth! All kidding aside, Susan Sarandon's performance is indeed one of the film's greatest charms. From our public perceptions of her, I would gather that we would perceive Sarandon to be the type of woman who has truly seen it all. Yet, in her role as Sharon, it was just beguiling to regard her in states of sheer bashfulness, romantic insecurity as well as a sense of newfound wonderment. She is absolute proof that regardless of the size of the role, the magic is how much an actor/actress brings to said role. In "Jeff, Who Lives At Home," Susan Sarandon shows us once again that she is one of our finest treasures.

In many ways, "Jeff, Who Lives At Home," this seemingly unassuming film is exactly the kind of treasure that makes movie going an endless joy for you never fully know where and when such treasures will be found. As your friendly neighborhood film enthusiast, it gives me immense pleasure to recommend something off of the beaten path to you. So, please, in between all of the blockbusters and summer film extravaganzas, give "Jeff, Who Lives At Home" your time as I truly believe that all of the cinematic signs point to you being happily surprised.

Monday, July 9, 2012

CINEMA GELATO: a review of "To Rome With Love"

Written and Directed by Woody Allen
*** 1/2 (three and a half stars) 

I certainly do not envy the creative life of the prolific artist.

On the one hand, I am always fascinated with those artists who are seemingly able to always have their creative faucets turned on. There are musicians I treasure, like Ryan Adams or Billy Corgan or especially Prince, for instance, who never seem to be thirsting for new ideas. Every time you turn around, they have something new to experience and while the bean counters may complain about "saturating the market," for a fan like myself, I am always anxious to hear whatever is next for all of it is part of an artistic journey that I feel so fortunate that they are willing to share with the world. But, still, it is a journey, which means that if you are a fan, and are willing to go along for the ride they have set up for us, we should be inclined to travel along any of their artistic peaks and valleys. Sometimes those artistic stops may prove to be frustrating head scratchers, some may be confounding, confusing, more difficult than we may have wished but then, as if by some act of magic or symbiotic alchemy, their vision and our reactions converge beautifully. 

With the movies, it would be hard pressed to find a filmmaker more prolific than Woody Allen, who somehow is able to exist in a constant state of creation, releasing a film almost annually. Of course, not every release can be cinematic gold, not something that is always easy to remember as a fan or audience member. But still, this is a journey, for ourselves as well as the artist in question. For someone like Woody Allen, I have to wonder if it is ever difficult for him, even to this day, knowing that the audience may not always perceive his artistic life as a journey--over-praising and over-criticizing everything regardless of any reference points and only fueled by the individual's own desires and tastes. When Allen releases a dramatic film, people still complain that it's not funny enough. When he releases a comedy, people complain that it carries no weight. And for Pete's sakes, I would hate to be on the receiving end of the amount of expectations he happens to be up against when he releases the first film after one that has been so enormously embraced by the critics and the public, like last year's wonderful "Midnight In Paris." Well...Woody Allen, ever the unapologetically intrepid artist, has returned with his 42nd film, "To Rome With Love," a quartet of stories with The City Of Fountains as a rapturous backdrop. Of course, the very first question I am certain you would ask me is the following: Is it as good as "Midnight In Paris"? To that, I would answer that this new film is not in that league. But again, how could it be? Can every film Woody Allen releases be a masterpiece? Of course not. All of that being said, I enjoyed this film so very much as it features Woody Allen at his most playful, with a strong cast game to play with him. And on a hot summer afternoon or evening, I would be hard pressed to find a film currently screening that is more inviting, fun, luxuriously enjoyable and entertaining than this one.

After a brief introduction from an Italian traffic officer set to the strains of the classic song "Volare," "To Rome With Love" quickly introduces us into four different stories that Allen intercuts with each other. One vignette stars Alison Pill as Hayley, an American tourist in Rome who meets and falls in love with the kindly young attorney, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Their relationship soon grows serious enough to have Hayley's parents, Phyllis and Jerry (Judy Davis and Woody Allen, his first screen appearance since 2006), arrive for a visit with Michelangelo's parents. As the fussy Jerry struggles with his retirement from his career in the music industry, he witnesses a chance for continued lucrative opportunities after over-hearing Michelangelo's mortician Father, Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) singing glorious opera in the shower.

The second vignette features the misadventures of Antonio and Milly (played by Alessandro Tiberi and the adorable Alessandra Mastronardi), a nervous newlywed couple arriving in Rome for a crucial meeting with upper crust relatives with the hopes of Antonio obtaining a big city job. Through a series of misunderstandings, Antonio and Milly are separated for the entire day with Antonio attempting to pass off Anna the prostitute (Penelope Cruz) as his wife, while Milly is romanced by Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese), a beloved and legendary movie star.

The third escapade features Alec Baldwin as John, an architect vacationing in Rome, where he once lived thirty years prior. As he strolls the streets, he happens upon Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a young architect living in Rome with his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) and soon to be hosting Sally's friend Monica (Ellen Page), the neurotic, struggling actress who projects an irresistibly sexually voracious aura to which Jack finds himself uncontrollably drawn towards.

The fourth tale stars Roberto Benigni as Leopoldo Pisanello, an average, everyday middle class office worker with a wife and children who inexplicably becomes famous throughout Italy with paparazzi following his every single move, with statuesque women fawning all over him and the entire nation desiring access to his every moment and thought, no matter how innocuous. 

For those of you who typically wish to just spend a night out at the movies with nothing more to think about than simply being entertained, and furthermore, without any sort of juvenile, special effects driven antics and adventure, then, believe me, I cannot think of a film playing right now that would better suited to fit your cinematic needs than "To Rome With Love." Woody Allen has delivered a beautifully filmed, frothy, inoffensive, airy delight that is just meant for you to sit back, relax and soak yourself inside of, like a wonderful warm bath or better yet, the most succulent dessert. There is not one moment that is terribly taxing or one that forces you into any worlds of unpleasantness or thoughts you would rather not wish to have when you go to the movies. "To Rome With Love" is a fun, lovely, sexy, romantic movie that, as with Allen's other European themed films, may inspire you to travel. Nothing more. Nothing less. And sometimes, what else could you possibly want, especially when it is presented this well?

I will have to say that not everything works in "To Rome With Love." Some sequences drag a bit. Other sequences feel more obvious than perhaps they should. Some conceits may not feel as fresh as they could. But even so, if you do find your interest waning here and there, never fear, for a new beguiling pop confection will arrive momentarily. And besides, Allen is in no rush. He's in no hurry to arrive at any pre-conceived destination, if there is any destination at all. I think he just wants us to sit and stay a while and enjoy the moments in Rome along with this collective of characters. Incidentally, two of the four vignettes are conducted almsot entirely in Italian. That aspect of the film is one I found to be so pleasurable as you can just sit and lose yourself in the sound of this glorious language, allowing the words, phrases and even syllables flow from one to the next, all the while creating a sumptuous spell. Perhaps, Allen is trying to get us hurried and rushed Americans into a more European state of mind and being.

Now, of course, Woody Allen being Woody Allen, he would not intentionally present a new film, even as light as this one, to the point where it would take off and fade forgettably into the ether. In fact, the original title (one I wish he actually kept) for the film was "The Bop Decameron," a play upon Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron, a 14th century collection of tales of love and life lessons. That detail certainly does seem to frame "To Rome With Love" fairly well as all four stories deal with various matters concerning love, sex, marriage, desire, romance, affairs and commitment and all within comic twists of fate, Shakespearian styled farce and a fairly bawdy style, especially during the segments which feature the travails of Antonio and Missy. With the story of Jack, Sally, the alluring Monica and the improbably ever present John, "To Rome With Love" takes its magical air and turns it into something more poignant as we can question if the events unspooling in front of us are truly happening at all or if these are the melancholic remembrances of an older man back to his younger years and the mistakes he once made. Or are they even a bit of both? I think it is here where "To Rome With Love" stands strongest as I could easily see this story being fleshed out into a full length feature of its own and Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page never struck even one false note.

Additionally, the stories give Allen a chance to re-visit his themes of celebrity and fame. most specifically the allure, pleasures and curses of being trapped in the fishbowl of constant public surveillance and scrutiny. The story of Jerry and the mortician with the golden operatic voice take the theme to its most absurd, while simultaneously existing as the tale of two older men reaching for just one more brass ring in their twilight years. In this section, I have to say that it was a great pleasure to see Woody Allen on screen one more time, in his signature role, delivering those snappy one-liners in his own inimitable fashion. The large audience I saw this film with gave an instant chuckle of recognition at his first appearance and that good will seemed to carry throughout the remainder of the film.

As I have previously written on this site, I feel that Woody Allen's muse has been wonderfully rejuvenated since he began making films in Europe seven years ago. There must be something with the complete change in scenery that has forced him to sharpen his creative energy and for a film enthusiast and Woody Allen fan like myself, this particular period has brought out some especially fine material. And to that end, I don't think that I have enjoyed a series of Woody Allen films this much since an especially strong streak of films he released during the 1990's which included "Husbands and Wives" (1992), "Manhattan Murder Mystery" (1993) and the wonderful "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994). Over these past seven years, Allen has now made four films in London, one film in Spain, one in Paris and now Rome and for my money, the weakest film he has released during this stretch was the enjoyable but somewhat too lightweight for its own good "Whatever Works" (2009), the one film he shot in New York.

Whatever the world traveling has accomplished for him, I hope that keeps his creatve, prolific spirit fully charged, ensuring that his artistic journey continues to be fruitful for many more years to come. And I wish to be able to keep traveling along with him, especially if the work is as purely enjoyable as "To Rome With Love."

Friday, July 6, 2012

THE METAMORPHOSIS: a review of "The Amazing Spider-Man"

Based upon the comic book series created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Story by James Vanderbilt
Screenplay Written by James Vanderbilt and Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves
Directed by Marc Webb
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

I have to say that when it comes to going to the movies, I love surprises and I really love being proven wrong in the most positive fashion.

What I am referring to at this time is the release of "The Amazing Spider-Man," from Director Marc Webb, only his second feature film after his strong debut feature "(500) Days Of Summer" (2009), and furthermore, just a mere five years after the release of Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man 3" (2007). When this particular re-boot was originally announced, I was more than a little skeptical as I felt that Hollywood was simply chasing the dollar, feverishly bent upon making a new Spider-Man movie whether the world needed one or not. When I learned that not only were the Hollywood powers-that-be feverishly bent upon making a new film, but that they were truly going to hit a re-set button, taking Peter Parker all the way back to high school, giving us the classic origin story all over again, my heart sank quicker than if Spider-Man himself ran out of his trusty web shooting fluid and plummeted to the Earth.

Dear readers, I am certainly not against the idea of a new Spider-Man movie. Not at all. Look at the cinematic world of Batman. After Director Joel Schumacher stupendously destroyed the series with his truly, truly awful "Batman and Robin" (1997), a film so horrendously misguided that I even witnessed a kid wearing a Batman T-shirt walk out of the still projecting film on opening day (!), just under ten years later, we were all graced with Director Christopher Nolan's revolutionary re-telling of the Caped Crusader. With Spider-Man, and under the directorial hand of Sam Raimi, we could see first hand just how difficult creating a Spider-Man movie actually was regardless of the terrific, creative, inventive talent at the helm. Raimi had three tries at bat and for my tastes, he only struck a home run with the masterful "Spider-Man 2" (2004). For me, Raimi came up considerably short with his other two installments as the first film from 2002 was about half of a good movie before it became bogged down in the same summer movie pyrotechnics that have bombarded audiences for years and years and the third film was just an overstuffed, bloated mess. Even though making a new Spider-Man movie was inevitable, the rapidly fast track to which it was taken all seemed to be so stupid, so unimaginative, so unnecessary and frankly, so greedy that I could feel myself already beginning to hate a film that had not even been filmed yet. Was there really such a crime to waiting a while longer?

Well, the new film is here and I am so happy to announce that it is a very, very good film with the potential to become a terrific series in its own right. Yet, while it does not quite reach the pinnacle set by Raimi's "Spider-Man 2," I do think that Webb has Raimi beat by figuring out how to make an effective, entertaining and emotional Spider-Man experience on his first try at bat. Unlike the lush comic book style of Raimi's series, Webb's "The Amazing Spider-Man" conjures up a darker, grittier, more character driven film, and one more apt to spending time in quiet rather than colorful, explosive cataclysm. I entered this film feeling resistant and I exited looking forward to a future installment. Mr. Webb, job well done!

"The Amazing Spider-Man" stars Andrew Garfield as the shy, introverted, gawky and orphaned Peter Parker, who lives with his loving Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) and spends his friendless days at Midtown Science High School where he is endlessly bullied by Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka) and is deeply in love with the gorgeous Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). From here, Webb hits all of the Spider-Man touchstones of his origin story. Peter Parker, visiting a Science Laboratory (in this case the mysterious OsCorp facility), is bitten by a radioactive spider, thus merging both DNA strands to give Peter superhuman, arachnid fueled powers.

Peter's metamorphosis, combined with his adolescent growing pains and continued questions over the unexplained deaths of his parents, gives way to hubris and leads to the tragic death of Uncle Ben by the hands of a criminal Parker could have stopped. Discovering a newfound sense of purpose, Parker becomes a masked, wall crawling, web-slinging vigilante, enrapturing the pubic and enraging the police, most notably Captain George Stacy (Denis Leary)--Gwen's Father!

But then, there are those aforementioned questions about Peter Parker's parents, whom he has not seen since their abrupt departure when Peter was just four years old. Perhaps the answers lie within OsCorp, and most specifically, the one-armed Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), once a close colleague of Peter's father and one who will soon succumb to his own sense of hubris as he transforms into The Lizard.

As I watched Marc Webb's "The Amazing Spider-Man," and felt so surprised as to how successfully I had been drawn into this experience, I found my thoughts making a comparison to Director David Fincher's American adaptation of Stieg Larsson's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which arrived so soon after the release of the Swedish film trilogy. As you all know so very well, I was extremely skeptical of that film as I fel tthree excellent films already existed and I just could not think what an American version could add or know hwo different it could possibly be. What Fincher did so successfully was to not only imprint his own artistic stamp upon the proceedings, he very wisely did not set up his film to compete with the original films. His version was not designed to erase the originals but to stand shoulder to shoulder with them. I feel that Webb has accomplshed the same feat with his version of Spider-Man. He is not interested in trying to make you forget abut Sam Raimi's trilogy at all. He wants to tell the same story in a different way and for my money, his version resonated with me much more strongly than most of Raimi's output.

In addition to the special effects, which felt to be much more seamless than in Raimi's trilogy, from a visual standpoint, "The Amazing Spider-Man" possesses a darker, more "real world" look than Raimi's films, which always contained the glow of comic book panels leaping to vibrant life. In it's own way, "The Amazing Spider-Man" sort of approximates Nolan's "Batman" series by its visual attempts to place these larger than life heroes into a more grounded, realistic context. And I think that this is where Webb's experience with independent film has served this big budget re-boot extremely well. Unlike Raimi, who often allowed the special effects and extraneous details to overtake the human element of Spider-Man, I was so pleased that Webb kept his focus upon the characters, their interior lives and motivations from beginning to end. Webb certainly takes his time with his re-telling of Spider-Man and I believe it is nearly an hour into this two hour and fifteen minute film before we see Peter Parker in his full Spider-Man regalia. While this may cause a certain amount of seat shifting for those who just want to get into the action, I found myself feeling emotions I did not feel much at all during Raimi's first and third installments. All of the sound and fury of special effects and actions sequences mean nothing without fully developed characters and with "The Amazing Spider-Man," Webb worked tremendously well that the characters were given time to take root and grow before any razzle dazzle occurred. And a great amount of his success rested in the excellent casting choices, which also grounded the iconic figures into a certail relatable reality.

For instance, I loved Martin Sheen and Sally Field's rapport as they convinced me of their romance and history. Sheen's specialized brand of gravitas served the scenes between his Uncle Ben and Peter Parker extremely well. Ifans also did terrific work by making Curt Connors exist as a real human being with foibles, aconflicted nature and deep regrets as well as ferocious intelligence. He truly elevates what could have been yet another standard movie villain into something much more.

But, the shining star of this film is indeed Andrew Garfield. Like Webb, Garfield is not interested in trying to make audiences forget about Tobey Maguire, who was so perfectly cast in Raimi's trilogy. But, he obviously realized that he had something to prove. Remarkably, Garfield carved out his own niche with this character and superbly made this role his very own through his almost ballet-like physicality, his sharp sense of humor, and strong sense of pathos. Like Maguire, Andrew Garfield has found the soul of Peter Parker, most especially when exploring Peter's metamorphosis, which unleashes a certain dark side to hs personality, a topic handled so terribly in Raimi's "Spider-Man 3." Through Garfield, we can see Peter Parker's thirst for revenge against his tormentors and a sense of hubris that threatens to spin out of control. It is through that struggle to maintain inner balance that "The Amazing Spider-Man" functions much less as a superhero movie and as more of a coming-of-age film, where the growth and development of Peter Parker is in a constant state of evolution.

So, what we have now are two great performances of the same character that, in a way, complement each other rather than compete with each other. Returning to "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" for a moment, Garfield's performance was so strong, so thorough, so complete that his success reminded me of Rooney Mara's blistering performance as the inimitable Lisbeth Salander in the American version. Mara could not possibly erase what Noomi Rapace achieved with her untouchable performances in the Swedish trilogy but they stand confidently next to each other.

Now, this is not to say that "The Amazing Spider-Man" is without flaws. A fairly minor quibble, but a quibble nonetheless is the fact that Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone look MUCH TOO OLD to be portraying high school students, a fact made blindingly obvious when they are seen among their "classmates." For a film that is brave enough to play with the legend of Peter Parker by focusing the story and building narrative around the fate of his parents (a plot point I never grew up with when I read the comics as a child), why not at least move the school setting to college? I think that would have been a tad more convincing overall and maybe they can improve that for the next installment.

Another issue was the wonderfully talented Emma Stone, who does show her trademark spark and wit and also elicits a terrific chemistry with Garfield. Even so, there's really not much for her to do but stand around and look pretty and Stone is a young actress who has shown over and again that she is just so much more than a pretty face. Perhaps, even her role could be stronger in any follow up.

As it stands, Marc Webb's "The Amazing Spider-Man," has...ahem...amazingly shown that there is a wonderful new cinematic life for our hero, despite any questionable roads it took to arrive in our theaters at this time. I just hope that for the inevitable second installment, the power-that-be decided to keep Marc Webb at the helm, ensuring this new vision remains strong and intact. If not, my cinematic "spidey-sense" tells me that any potential longevity would be greatly endangered. Webb has shows how to remain artistic and provide the thrills and excitement as well. And don't you think that Spider-Man deserves a great film series of his own in the first place? 

"The Amazing Spider-Man" is a terrific place for a new beginning.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

THE SKY IS FALLING: a review of "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World"

Written and Directed by Lorene Scafaria
**** (four stars)

"Ashes and diamonds
Foe and friend

We were all equal in the end..."
-Pink Floyd ("Two Suns In The Sunset")

"All I need is the air that I breathe and to love you."
-The Hollies ("The Air That I Breathe")

Dear readers, I want for you to file away the name "Lorene Scafaria" in your brains.

Scafaria, who previously obtained only one screen credit for writing the ambitious but poorly delivered "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist" (2008), has fully arrived with her first directorial effort and believe me when I express to you that it is a stunner. "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World" is the boldest, bravest film I have seen this year so far and Scafaria has proven without any doubts that she is a filmmaker to watch closely in the future. With this very tricky story of two people seeking a meaningful connection just as the world is in its final days, Scafaria gracefully and confidently walks a knife's edge of concepts and styles while presenting her film with a masterful control of tonality from the very first scene all the way to its final, heartbreaking image. It is a supremely warm, humane experience that always remains emotionally unpredictable while the story itself heads full force towards a horrifically predictable conclusion. And furthermore, she has easily created the very best love story I have seen in quite some time. As of this time, the bos office for this movie has been decidedly weak and the public reaction towards the film has been surprisingly indifferent. If one were to hate this film, I could understand that but to feel indifferent?! It seems to me to be wholly impossible to feel indifferent towards a film of this kind, subject matter and tremendous quality. If you happen to live in Madison, I urge you to go out to our Sundance Cinemas theater and see it this week as I have been informed the film will not be screening next weekend. If you live elsewhere in the country, I urge you, just as emphatically, to go out quickly and give this film a chance. It, and Lorene Scafaria, more than deserve your time and hard earned dollar as this is one very special experience.

As Dodge Petersen (Steve Carell) and his wife sit in their idling car, "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World" opens with news of despair and finality courtesy of a radio broadcast. An asteroid, 70 miles wide and code named "Matilda" is heading towards the Earth and the final scientific effort to destroy it has failed leaving three weeks remaining until the Earth's destruction. As the radio announcer immediately begins to play The Beach Boys' bittersweet classic "Wouldn't It Be Nice," Dodge's wife silently races from the car and completely out of his life.

With 21 days left until the end of the world, poor Dodge attempts to negotiate through the increasing meaninglessness of his life as an insurance salesman where "Casual Friday" office wear is now offered to wear everyday and also, there is a new opening for the C.F.O. position. He futily tries to allow his kindly housekeeper (Tonita Castro) the opportunity to cease cleaning his apartment. And his circle of friends (Rob Corddry, Connie Britton, Patton Oswalt) have all reacted to the coming apocalypse by engaging in their newly released hedonistic impulses of reckless drugs intake and sexual conquests. Feeling non-compelled to participate in anything of that sort, Dodge resigns himself to living out his last days and nights completely alone as attempting to connect with anyone new would be futile. But then, he meets Penny (Keira Knightley)...       

Penny is Dodge's neighbor, although they have never spoken to each other in the three years they have shared living space in the same apartment building. Dodge invites her into his apartment after spotting her sobbing on the fire escape outside of his window after a breakup. The twosome forge a tentative friendship. Penny soon, and apologetically, presents him with a piece of mail she mistaken received months earlier from a long-lost former girlfriend of Dodge's proclaiming that he was the love of her life.

As rioting and violence begin to plague the city and now reaching their apartment complex, Dodge, Penny and an abandoned dog that Dodge acquired upon waking up in a nearby park after a botched suicide attempt, escape in Penny's car. If Penny can get Dodge back to his former girlfriend, he will gurantee that he will get her to a friend who owns a plane and can get her back to England to see her family. From this point, "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World" becomes a road trip filled with surprising revelations, developments and emotions as Dodge and Penny realize that they just may have found each other just in the nick of time, as the Earth is almost out of time.  

In descriptions for this film, I have heard some reviewers suggest that if Lars Von Trier's "Melancholia" (2011) happened to be a comedy, it would be this film. While the two films share obvious cataclysmic themes, to my perceptions, that description is nothing but lazy journalism. In my mind, "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World" is much more closely aligned with Writer/Director Charlie Kaufman's one-of-a-kind "Synecdoche, New York" (2008). While that film focused on the increasingly fractured mind and soul of an artist going through the experience of aging and dying, Scafaria's film is also one that indeed forces the audience to ponder the very things you go to the movies to actually avoid. Musing over the final days of your life, your regrets, and having hopeless hopes that life will somehow turn out for the better, even in the face of an oncoming asteroid, are most certainly the very things that I would believe that none of us would like to think about for any stretch of time. And most certainly, none of us would like to think about how our final moments in the world will play out either. But, please allow me to assure you that Lorene Scafaria has not devised a pretentious, depressing film, although the film's final moments are incredibly wrenching. "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World" is first and foremost a comedy. A very dark comedy that is filled to the brim with appropriately fatalistic, gallows humor (for instance, there's a brief early moment between Dodge and a small spider he spares from squashing comically illustrates how no good deeds go unpunished in a world heading towards extinction) but a comedy nonetheless. Scarfaria does not even try to scale the operatic heights set by Von Trier's "Melancholia" or nor should she.

"Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World" possesses an inviting tone as Scafaria wants the audience to accompany Dodge, Penny and all of the characters upon their life-altering journeys. I loved how Scafaria never for an instant made any of her characters self-consciously quirky, a tone I just cannot stand in independent feature films. This is truly one film that is firmly grounded from the get-go and as I have previously stated, she elicits a mastery of tonality from start to finish. In regards to the world's conclusion, she presents the audience with no escape hatch to cling to at any moment. The world will end and there's nothing we can hope for and nothing we can do to change the outcome. Therefore, her film is one about our collective humanity and human behavior and what happens when our social rules and societal cues break down and become meaningless. She treats every single character with empathy and understanding, and no matter how outrageous the scenario (especially during a sequence set at a Friday's styled restaurant called "Friendsy's" contains some brutally sharp social satire), we are able to completely see how and why people are conducting themselves with certain behaviors they otherwise would not. Throughout the film, we meet a lonely truck driver (William Petersen), a survivalist and former lover of Penny's (Derek Luke) among others and at any moment, you could easily how other filmmakers would turn up the quirk factor and play every single moment for laughs. But not Scafaria. She is refreshingly real.

Scafaria also uses her mastery of tone to make sudden and brazen tonal shifts so we will not become too relaxed in her congenial style. The film contains several abrupt and shocking acts of violence, that interrupt the comedy, again bringing you back to the inevitability of the end of the world. Of course, we would expect moments of violence and rioting. But Scafaria allows scenes to fully breathe, and it is in the quieter visuals and actions where the poignancy of  "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World" stands tallest. Watching someone mowing their lawn, seeing people returning to work and going about their everyday business, even with the full knowledge that it is all for naught, perfectly summed up our human condition. Seriously, what else would we do when we know not to do anything else? Her usage of music is also stellar as she mines the deep melancholy of seemingly innocuous pop songs for tremendous effect. I don't think that The Hollies' "The Air That I Breathe" or The Walker Brothers' "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" have ever held such heartbreaking power for me. And another selection by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, penned by Burt Bacharach and Hal David entitled "The Guy's In Love With You," perfectly sets the stage for the film's overwhelmingly effective conclusion. Scafaria has us laughing and then we're horrified and then, we are meditative, heartbroken and laughing all over again and all the while, we are increasingly swept up in the shared experience of Dodge and Penny.   

As much of the film consists of just the two of them and our connection to their connection is crucial to the film's success, the performances of Steve Carell and Keira Knightley are pivotal.  Thankfully, the two greatly rise to the challenge of Scafaria's beautifully written screenplay and bring out some of their finest work to date.

At first, the role of Dodge as played by Steve Carell, seems to be yet one more in his growing line of cinematic sad sacks as we have already seen in "Little Miss Sunshine" (2007), "Dan In Real Life" (2007) and last year's "Crazy, Stupid Love." In all three of those films, carell ave fine performances but for this film, he truly digs his deepest yet. Carell becomes a true "everyman" in the very best sense of the word as we can easily see ourselves firmly within his shoes and he makes all of his motivations clear and clean while also containing a world of emotions. His performance is one of such skill and empathy that he truly reminded me of some of William Hurt's best performances from the 1980s, where Hurt always found a way to embody the soul of the faceless man who daily wears a suit and tie. Carell is indeed that strong and believe it or not, he makes for a throughouly convincing romantic lead as he carries supreme levels of tenderness, patience, pain, darkness, sorrow, grace and of course, humor. Steve Carell is marvelous.

Keira Knightley, at last released from all sorts of cinematic corsets, gives a thoroughly winning performance as Penny. This is an especially terrific feat as this character is more difficult to pull off successfully and she is also the one who would be most endangered to fall into the endless abyss of self-conscious quirkiness. Penny is indeed a bit eccentric. She speaks quickly, is a bit of a free spirit, a self-described "optimist" born to parents she describes as "romantics." She is a music fanatic, adores the world of vinyl albums and even carries an armload with her upon her cross country journey with Dodge. And she also suffers from  hypersomnia as she is able to sleep through nearly anything and even jokes that she might even sleep through the apocalypse. (Frankly, if I knew the apocalypse were to occur, I would want nothing more than to be in the safety of hearth and home and more than willing to sleep through it as I just would not want to experience something like that.) Yet, Scafaria, through her excellent screenplay and gorgeous dialogue, makes Penny a full blooded, three dimensional human being. Knightley's completely engaging performance elevates Scafaria's writing grandly and makes Penny a heroine one would love to spend their final days on Earth with. And it is within that very feeling where the film finds its largest heart, as it is also a love story.

"Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World," with the characters of Dodge and Penny at its core, becomes an intimate love story that builds into a cosmically epic one due to its urgency and the aching desire for these two lonely souls to find a connection, even though it is doomed to not last long. Yet, that is what makes their story so luxuriously beautiful and even life affirming. That even at the very end, to know that your existence was not in vain, that your life truly meant something to another, that your mere presence brought light to at least one other person is to give your own life a sense of meaning and validation. This film is a story about two people finding a powerful sense of significance when the universe is rendering them completely insignificant. I know that I have made a reference to the film's final scene and while I would never fully reveal it, I will say that the words Dodge says and how Penny reacts to those words were so simple and yet completely soul stirring. This film could not have had a better ending if it tried.

For me, a love story of this scale reminded me tremendously of Director Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" (2004), also written by Charlie Kaufman, and a film that I felt contained my favorite love story of the past decade in film. And reaching back even further, this film also reminded me of Writer/Director Steve De Jarnatt's "Miracle Mile" (1988), a romantic comedy first date film that quickly shifts into a nightmarish nuclear war race against time. Both of those films plus "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World" present painful love stories set against the unfair, unforgiving and downright arbitrary nature of time itself. Yet, what we do with the time we are given is entirely up to us.     

Please do not allow this subject matter to frighten you away. Please do not fear that you will be balled up in a corner after walking out of the theater. Yes, I was very shaken once the film concluded and the first thing I wanted to do was to talk to someone about it. This is a memorable film, to say the least. An emotional experience that looks fearlessly into the core of our humanity and as far as film storytelling is concerned, it is a film that envisions the end of the world just as fearlessly and through a grim social comedy of manners to boot.

But, if we leave the theater just wondering how we can make our time, how ever long we may be blessed with having it, more bearable for others as well as ourselves, then I believe that a film like this is more than worth celebrating. A film that asks us to truly value the people we know and just tell them what they mean to us, is a film to champion. Lorene Scafaria has created an astounding debut directorial feature and while I cannot imagine what she could make next, especially after ending existence itself, I know that I am very anxious to see it.

"Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World" is one of 2012's very best films.