Sunday, September 30, 2012

AN AUTUMNAL AFFAIR: a review of "Your Sister's Sister"

Written and Directed by Lynn Shelton
*** (three stars)

There's a song by the English band Prefab Sprout I find myself listening to when the fall season arrives. The track is entitled "Dublin" and is a part of their 1985 album "Protest Songs." Unlike many of their more lushly orchestrated tracks, "Dublin" is a hushed, acoustic track, placing singer/songwriter Paddy MacAloon's voice and acoustic guitar front and center. What really strikes me about that song is how perfectly (at least in my mind and soul) it matches with the change of the season, the descent of the leaves, the almost muted glow of the sunshine and the increased frigidness in the air with each windy breeze. My feelings have noting to do with the lyrical content of the song but with the overall sound and presentation. What gets to me most perhaps, other than the song's mournful fade out is how MacAloon's voice, on occasion, will crack or become a tad hoarse, as if he is losing some breath before the next set of lyrics to sing. Those moments for me contain the melancholy fragility of the season. The bittersweetness that is housed in the feeling of my favorite season of the year not lasting for very long before the lengthy Midwestern winter arrives again.

I thought of that song (and also Big Star guitarist Chris Bell's equally fragile solo material) often as I watched Writer/Director Lynn Shelton's film "Your Sister's Sister," as I felt it captured that exact same sense of melancholy fragility. This is yet another cinematic love story that has pleasantly surprised me this year as it is a truly tender hearted piece. "Your Sister's Sister" is indeed an unassuming, gentle film that will not do anything to change the world but it is so emotionally and romantically true and heartfelt that I believe that you would do anything to ensure that none of our featured characters find themselves more emotionally bruised than they already are. "Your Sister's Sister," while not the kind of film that will set the box office ablaze, is indeed a lovely and delicate film that is more than deserving of your attention.

Mark Duplass stars as Jack, an unemployed thirtysomething adrift in life and lost in a depressed alcoholic haze due to the very premature death of his much beloved brother one year ago. Jack's best friend and his brother's former lover Iris (Emily Blunt) tenderly yet firmly advises him to take a sabbatical from life and drink and journey to her Father's isolated, woodland cabin.

While Jack decides to take Iris upon her offer, he is surprised to find Iris' older sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) already residing in the cabin, nursing her wounds after a painful breakup with her longtime girlfriend. After an awkward greeting and initial moments, Jack and Hannah spend a long, dark, cold night together in each other's company, fueled by confessions of their respective sad stories as well as copiously imbibed glasses of tequila, all of which leads to an impromptu act of sexual intercourse.

Complications arise with the unexpected arrival of Iris the following morning, forcing the threesome to confront all of their hidden emotions, secrets, agendas and feelings towards each other as they each begin to ponder where life will take them next, whether together or apart.

In my recent reviews of "Celeste And Jesse Forever," "Sleepwalk With Me," "Ruby Sparks," "The Five-Year Engagement" and yes again, "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World," I expressed my surprised and most thankful sense of elation in regards to the newfound maturity contained in movie love stories and Lynn Shelton's "Your Sister's Sister" is a fine addition to that collection. While Shelton does certainly delve into the deep waters of romantic love, she raises the stakes by delving even deeper into the love that is shared between best friends and siblings, beautifully illustrating and celebrating the familial bonds that are created as well as the ones that we are born into. With that, Shelton has confidently taken what essentially is a screwball romantic comedy plot and circumstances and transfers any contrivance into a very real world populated with very real people and emotions, putting most romantic comedies to shame in the process due to their artificial emotions.

"Your Sister's Sister" feels as if it is designed to be an autumnal film. As you watch, you can feel that moist chill in the air combined with the isolated, hushed atmosphere of the wilderness as well as the warmth that is displayed between the characters, who, in their individualistic ways, are all in a state of brokenness and are each trying to piece themselves back together again. They are all existing at the conclusion of one season, if you will, in their lives, and we are witnessing the gradual and sometimes painful transition into the next season.

Mark Duplass, Rosemarie DeWitt and Emily Blunt each deliver unforced, completely focused and purely empathetic performances, which make all of the relationships feel authentic. I loved how Shelton just let scenes run on and on, giving us the feeling that we are watching relationships develop and change over real time. The drunken "courtship" sequence between Jack and Hannah, for instance, is especially lengthy and effective. The longer it went on, the more satisfied I became as most movies simply do not allow their characters to live and breathe within the art of conversation. Shelton wisely lets her characters speak their minds and hearts at length, allowing us to get to know them just as they are getting to know each other. This tactic almost gave the film the quality of a documentary and the overall effect compounded the emotional urgency contained within.

As with my review of "Celeste And Jesse Forever," I must return to my initial positive feelings of having more women as creative forces within the movie industry as the overall output and diversity of material would undoubtedly benefit us all as viewers. Lynn Shelton, along with Rashida Jones ("Celeste And Jesse Forever"), Zoe Kazan ("Ruby Sparks"), Lorene Scafaria ("Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World"), as well as first class filmmakers like Writer/Director Lisa Cholodenko (2010's "The Kids Are All Right"), and Writer/Director Nicole Holofcener (2001's "Lovely And Amazing" and 2010's "Please Give" for starters), have all provided us not only with their talent but with a richer emotional palate than what we are usually given within the movies. Yes, this may be an uphill battle as out of the hundreds of films that are released during a calendar year, these films only amount to a minuscule percentage. Even so, these films are being made and these voices are having the chance to be heard and seen, despite the small theatrical widow they may be receiving. Because of that, once again, we owe it to these films and filmmakers to go out and support their work, for if they are financially successful, this would ensure that even more female writers and directors could emerge.

For now, we do have Lynn Shelton's "Your Sister's Sister," a glistening teardrop of a film I enjoyed very much. No, it is not one of the great films or even one of the best I have seen in 2012. And yes, the conclusion is indeed a bit tidier than I would have preferred. Those are minor complaints overall and should not do anything to deter you from seeing this film. Lynn Shelton completely understands the precarious nature that is contained within our closest and most meaningful relationships and has found a way to present them artfully, which makes the beauty of "Your Sister's Sister" function as something very similar to the feelings we have that accompany the sights of falling leaves or a muted yet brightly setting sun.    

Sunday, September 23, 2012

LOST SOULS AND TRUE BELIEVERS: a review of "The Master"

Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
*** 1/2 (three and a half stars)

Sometimes the act of finding greatness within a film arrives some time after the initial viewing.

As far as I am concerned, Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson is unquestionably one of the greatest American filmmakers working today. In my mind, he has firmly established himself as an heir to holding a seat at the cinematic "Round Table" where the likes of both Robert Altman and Stanley Kubrick once sat (and shall forever remain). From his debut with "Hard Eight" (1996) through "Boogie Nights" (1997), "Magnolia" (1999), "Punch-Drunk Love" (2002), and "There Will Be Blood" (2007), Anderson has brilliantly carved out his own increasingly idiosyncratic creative niche in the film world, unapologetically creating a movie universe all his own and filled with upending ambiguity, sweeping emotions, extraordinary philosophical debates and so very much to chew on long after the end credits have scrolled.

At this stage in Paul Thomas Anderson's career, the arrival of a new film from him is undeniably an event and I would never miss a new P.T. Anderson motion picture for the world. However, when I walked out of a screening of his sixth film, "The Master," I have to admit that I found it to be more than a little bit of a head scratcher. Not that the film was difficult to follow or comprehend. But that "The Master" is so conceptually and thematically packed to the gills that I found myself unable to truly take it all in with just one viewing. It immediately felt to me to be the type of film where you can see the greatness in front of you, but that greatness might not fully make its presence or impact known until the second or possibly even third viewing. I do not say that to frighten some of you away from seeing this film. Quite the contrary, "The Master" is indeed another type of film that is unlike any other currently playing right now. It is the very kind of film that easily separates itself from existing as just a movie to one where it is indeed an experience. And with that, there is some heavy lifting to be had on the part of the audience as Anderson has absolutely no intention or desire to tell you what to think or even how to feel about his stories and characters, a deterrent for those who just want to be entertained when they go to the movies. But, do believe me dear readers, "The Master" has more than its share of actual entertainment value as it is a film that is presented in such a supreme fashion through the writing, direction, set design, music score, editing and profoundly magnetic acting performances from the entire cast including a leading performance of unprecedented force by Joaquin Phoenix. "The Master" is a film that I have a strong feeling that you will be hearing about for quite some time, especially as we head into awards season...and deservedly so. But, to get in on the conversation, you have to take the chance and see this film, which I am urging you to do with high confidence.

Beginning in 1945, at the conclusion of World War II, Joaquin Phoenix stars as the psychologically damaged and alcoholic Freddie Quell, a soldier who returns home from the war and struggles to make his place back in civilized society. After losing his job as a department store photographer, Quell becomes a transient drifter and soon finds himself within the company of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who describes himself as "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher, but above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you." Dodd is also the founder and leader of a new faith based movement entitled The Cause, which is beginning to gain a foothold into the American consciousness. "The Master," as a whole and at its core is an exploration of the relationship that ensues between these two diametrically opposite men.

To begin, "The Master" makes for a characteristically strong addition into the oeuvre of Paul Thomas Anderson as the film easily shares themes with several of Anderson's previous works. The character of Freddie Quell is yet another one of Anderson's misfits from society's fringes as we have seen in most of his films. Many of the inhabitants of Lancaster Dodd's organization all serve to create similar makeshift family dynamics like those we saw in "Boogie Nights." Dodd himself shares the same dangerously charismatic traits of Burt Reynolds' patriarchal porn film director in "Boogie Nights" as well as the more malevolent qualities of another fringe movement leader, Frank "T.J." Mackey (Tom Cruise) from 'Magnolia." And most certainly, the battle of wills between two conflicting forces of nature as exhibited by Quell and Dodd is an obvious echo to the feverish duel we witnessed between ruthless oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and the ambitious religious figure Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) in "There Will Be Blood." Yet, Anderson finds compelling ways to ensure that this material transcends mere recycling of past ideas and themes as he uses them to explore the pursuit of power from a fresh angle.

Certainly people are sure to wonder if "The Master" is an expose upon the controversial Church Of Scientology and to that, I guess I really don't care that much, if at all. I think that Anderson has greater issues on his mind than to provide audiences with some sort of prurient and loosely fictionalized investigation into an organization that has long been perceived to be a cult. I also do not think that "The Master" is necessarily a dissertation upon the nature of religion itself, therefore negating the film from existing as no more than Bill Maher's wet dream. For me, "The Master" is as much about Scientology (or even religion) as it could be about...oh, I don't know...Amway. "The Master" powerfully establishes a world where a belief system is originated and controlled by the act and actions of one individual and we witness how that organization grows, thrives, and survives, thus, bringing continuous power and influence to its creator. Yes, in "The Master" we are essentially dealing with a cult but I believe that Paul Thomas Anderson is dealing primarily with the cult of personality.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of my favorite actors working today and again, in "The Master," he delivers a performance that is so complete and fully lived in that I never thought for one moment about any previous roles he has had. His diligence and sheer commitment make each and every performance he gives so singular and definitive, and his work as Lancaster Dodd is no exception. His charisma is palpable as is his sense of command and utter finality in the words and ways of The Cause. You can see so easily how he has been able to build, maintain and grow his foundation but what Hoffman does so incredibly is to give Dodd a minuscule chink in his armor, making you question if he fully believes what he is selling or if this is his duplicitous method of gathering a foothold into the American Dream. Hoffman gives Dodd that tiny layer of doubt that suggests to us that every single word he utters is nothing more than snake oil, a possibility that informs his entire relationship with Freddie Quell and the factor that makes that relationship so crucial. If Dodd is able to control and succeed with Quell's complete indoctrination into The Cause, then his words and beliefs will be proven once and for all to himself and to his flock. But if not, his organization will fall like a house of cards and all will know that he may truly be nothing more than a charlatan. This possibility of Lancaster Dodd's feet of clay is the very key to Amy Adams' unnerving performance as Lancaster's wife, Peggy Dodd. She is undoubtedly a true believer in The Cause, the one whose faith is unshakable and therefore, quite frightening as Lancaster's theories, which involve time travel based hypnotism techniques. for instance, are unorthodox to say the least.

And then, there is the question if Freddie Quell can be tamed and indoctrinated at all, which leads me to the one element of this film where I am able to give an unequivocal rave and that is the performance of Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix's performance is an act of such transformation, the likes of which I have never seen him elicit before. From his voice, which travels from mumbles to full throated rage, to his sinister and almost deranged looking Elvis Presley like sneer, to his impressive body language which suggests the pose of a vulture or buzzard merged with a primate yet with the spirit of a wounded dog, Joaquin Phoenix has created a character I can say I really have not seen before and if he is not remembered at Oscar time, that would be an unforgivable cinematic crime.

To add an additional layer to the proceedings, in some ways, I found this character to be a conduit of Anderson's possible indictment of our military recruiting process and lack of post discharge support as Freddie Quell, from the very beginning of his life, is damaged goods. He arrives from a broken home and possibly abusive childhood. His sexual urges are disturbingly rampant. He is a raging alcoholic who has a tendency to create his specialized elixirs via all manner of spirits mixed with paint thinners and house cleaning liquids. He is obviously mentally ill and after his time in World War II, he is also obviously dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disease. And with all of that, he is asked to just return to the world and assimilate with no assistance or care whatsoever and furthermore, you wonder just how he was accepted into the military in the first place. All of these elements seemingly makes Quell not only a perfect candidate for Dodd's teachings and inclusion, but the ultimate challenge as well. The many verbal and psychological shiowdowns between Quell and Dodd are some of the most electrifying sequences contained within "The Master" and I could have easily seen even more than what Anderson already presented.  To me, the battles and overall conflict between Quell and Dodd seemed to be not only a game of one-upsmanship (their final confrontation is one hell of a kiss off), but a struggle between Quell's Id and Dodd's Superego.

All of that being said, "The Master" kind of kept me at arms length a bit and for whatever reason, it just did not pack the same emotional wallop that I have received from some of Paul Thomas Anderson's previous efforts. Where "Boogie Nights" left me exhilarated and where "Magnolia" left me devastated and emotionally spent and where "There Will Be Blood" left my head spinning as that film spiraled into a wild delirium, "The Master," by contrast did leave me kind of cold. I do realize that while I may subscribe to the cult of Paul Thomas Anderson as a film enthusiast, I have to call 'em as I see 'em and inform you that he has made better films than this in the past and he will certainly make better films than this in the future.

But, it is no small feat that Paul Thomas Anderson was able to make "The Master" at all, especially during a time when cinematic risk taking is at a minimum and personal artistic visions are frowned upon in ways they had not been in decades past. "The Master" is definitely an achievement but how great of an achievement, I am not entirely certain just yet.

Only time, and subsequent viewings will tell...

Thursday, September 20, 2012

THE PERFECT BREAKUP: a review of "Celeste And Jesse Forever"

Screenplay Written by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack
Directed by Lee Toland Krieger
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

"Let's admit we made a mistake
But can we still be friends?
Heartbreak's never easy to take
But can we still be friends?...

...Memories linger on
It's like a sweet, sad old song

-Todd Rundgren "Can We Still Be Friends?"

I am happily wondering if the tide has turned for the better in regards to movie love stories.

I have lamented on Savage Cinema about the current and depressingly uninspired state of cinematic love stories and especially brain dead and empty hearted romantic comedies so often that I promise to not rehash old wounds so as not to bore you. What I do wish to talk to you about is how surprised I have been as just this year I have already seen four love stories that felt to be beautifully representative of how real people behave when confronted with realistic romantic situations and emotions.

Early this year, Co-Writer/Director Nicholas Stoller, Co-Writer/Actor Jason Segal and Producer Judd Apatow reunited for the wry and deeply perceptive "The Five-Year Engagement," a romantic comedy that explored not only how a couple fell in love but how that same couple remains in love. This summer, we were given "Ruby Sparks," from Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris in collaboration with Writer/Actress Zoe Kazan. In that film, we were presented with a provocative romantic entanglement that contained the dangerous consequences that occur when your every romantic wish is indeed granted and the object of your affections is everything you wish for them to be. Co-Writer/Director/Actor Mike Birbiglia's "Sleepwalk With Me" even contained a sad yet freshly delivered take on modern day relationships as it features a couple who remains together out of love but mostly out of niceness and it also depicts how the anxiety of that relationship perilously affects one's subconscious. And I am still going to loudly beat the drum for Writer/Director Lorene Scafaria's outstanding "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World," which for my money was the best love story I have seen since Director Michel Gondry and Writer Charlie Kaufman's "Eternal Sunshine Of the Spotless Mind" (2004). Yes, these are just four films out of the very many that have been released so far this year. But when you think about how many love stories and romantic comedies have truly been worth your time and money, the ones that make your heart pulsate in the very hope and sorrow that permeates our real world relationships, finding four films in one year almost amounts to a minor miracle. And now, we arrive with a fifth!

Director Lee Toland Krieger's "Celeste And Jesse Forever" is a wonderfully and refreshingly perceptive romantic comedy/drama about what happens when best friends who fall in love and marry arrive at the point where they cannot remain romantic partners anymore and how they emotionally move onwards while desperately trying to retain the friendship they adore with each other. The film most effectively wipes away the stale movie memories left behind by the likes of  Director Peyton Reed's terrible Vince Vaughn/Jennifer Aniston vehicle "The Break-Up" (2006) and Director Lone Scherfig's emotionally tone deaf "One Day" (2011), the interminable film version of David Nicholls' outstanding novel. Both of those films had absolutely no realistic idea or bravery in their cinematic heads and hearts whatsoever of the precarious nature of love affairs gone south or cherished friendships damaged and enhanced by love and sex. Krieger makes no mistakes at all with "Celeste And Jesse Forever," a film that truly announces the arrival of Rashida Jones as a creative force to be reckoned with as she not only delivered a terrific performance, she has also graced us with her pitch perfect debut as a Screenwriter. Once this film finds its way to your city, it would behoove you to make the trip, purchase tickets and enjoy this particular cinematic ride.

With a beautifully photographed and edited opening credit montage, "Celeste And Jesse Forever" traces the beginnings, evolution and disintegration of the love affair between Celeste Martin (Rashida Jones) and Jesse Abrams (a surprisingly strong Andy Samberg). Now in their 30's, Celeste, a successful trend forecaster and co-owner of a media company, and Jesse, an unemployed artist, have somehow remained best friends. They still spend seemingly every moment together, seemingly perfectly in sync with each other, especially as they crack their well worn jokes using comical voices and gleefully vulgar masturbatory humor with simple props like lip balm or tiny corn cobs. As the film opens properly, Celeste and Jesse are having dinner with their mutual friends Beth (Ari Graynor) and Tucker (Eric Christian Olsen), who are also engaged and soon to be married. After enduring more of Celeste and Jesse's "comedy act," Beth explodes with a flurry of angry and confused questions of how exactly can they be acting in the way they are acting as they are separated and soon to be divorced. Celeste and Jesse explain as honestly as they are able, "We're still best friends," making this situation "the perfect breakup." If only it were truly that easy...

Life throws Celeste a wholly unexpected curve ball as Jesse discovers, and soon confesses, that a brief fling with a lovely woman named Veronica (Rebecca Dyan) during the early stages of their separation has produced a pregnancy, a situation Jesse fully intends to honor to the best of his abilities. Watching Jesse's life progress in ways she never envisioned or anticipated, forces Celeste to begin a hard examination of the course of her life, where and how her marriage with Jesse failed, and if it is even possible to retain the best friendship of her life even as their respective hearts are breaking and their lives are evolving without each other.

Several years ago, on an episode of the now defunct "At The Movies," film critic Richard Roeper practically wailed a priceless suggestion to filmmakers in response to having had to sit through one more excruciating romantic comedy: "Here's an idea: How about a romantic comedy where the characters actually like each other?!" My sentiments exactly and most enthusiastic cheers to Krieger, Jones and Co-Writer Will McCormack for never once allowing "Celeste And Jesse Forever" to devolve into lowest common denominator mass appeal stunts from all manner of wacky plots and completely unconvincing acts of so-called human behavior. As I have said before and will happily announce to you with great feeling all over again, "Celeste And Jesse Forever" is a movie about real people dealing realistically with real emotions. It is a film without villains but allows its characters to have the very complexities and shadings that are easily recognizable, understandable and most importantly, allow the inherent comedy and drama of the situations to occur as organically and as unforced as possible. Krieger encases the film with much warmth, romance, and exquisite pain through sharp cinematography and an excellent music score provided by the curiously named Sunny Levine and Zach Cowie for Biggest Crush (where is the soundtrack album???), all of which enhances the excellent performances from the entire cast.

As Jesse, Andy Samberg left me in a thrill of sweet surprise as I had never envisioned him to be able to elicit a performance of such gravity. He is fully convincing as a romantic lead as he fully commits to his character and never for an instant winks at the camera or falls into his trademark goofiness at the expense of his character and the very real, life altering situations and emotional confusion Jesse spirals into. As much as I will miss his presence on "Saturday Night Live," I am more than excited to see exactly what cinematic choices he will make next based upon his fine work in this film.

But the brightest shining star of "Celeste And Jesse Forever" is undoubtedly and undeniably the absolutely stunning Rashida Jones, who brings the character of Celeste to vibrant life through laughs and pathos that are equally piercing. Her double duty skills as a leading actress and Screenwriter are formidable and in complete lockstep as the story she and McCormack have conceived ensures that the film does not exist solely as a vanity project. Jones has created and performed as realistic a woman of the 21st century as the women I know and see every day of my life. And I particularly loved how Jones had no interest in fashioning a character that was "likeable," served as a long suffering ingenue or as a character built to serve the stupid "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" cliches that plague most movie love stories.

Celeste Martin is a driven, Type A personality and from that you can easily see how the threads of her marriage to Jesse have frayed over time as his wayward tendencies have left him more than a little unmotivated in moving his life, and therefore, his half of the marriage forwards. Her resentment is clear and for that you cannot blame her. But when Jesse makes the decision to leave his specialized brand of arrested development behind for Veronica and their baby, Jones is unafraid in allowing us to see Celeste's darker side, as her more condescending, cavalier, and controlling qualities race to the forefront of her behavior. And again, as Celeste's choices become more questionable and her actions make her a tad more deplorable, she is always, always understandable. How would you feel if the person you loved is able to suddenly make profound life changes for someone other than you? And what if those life changes occurred on a time table that was not of your own conception or choosing? What if you had planned to have your own life move onwards before your former lover and those plans went up in smoke? And what of this treasured friendship? What happens when the person, whom you have known for so much of your life, who is the very first in line of those who understand and accept you, warts and all, essentially vanishes  and leaves you more than a little unhinged? While all of those questions, and more, haunt Celeste terribly, we are ultimately graced with a rich, dazzling, deeply compelling character for whom we wish happiness in a most honest and uncloying presentation.

In addition to the female Screenwriters who have contributed to and created several of the films I have mentioned at the outset of this review, Rashida Jones' work in "Celeste and Jesse Forever" makes a great case for having the presence of MORE women at the helm of creating exciting, vibrant, and ultimately realistic female characters who do indeed exist in the 21st century. I think that it is fabulous that the likes of Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo (2011's "Bridesmaids"), Tina Fey (2004's "Mean Girls") and now Jones, have established themselves as extremely sharp writers, providing audiences with a fresh and unrepentant perspective that allows their female characters to be flawed, difficult and have failings that are just as important as their virtues and times of bravery and boldness, i.e. in those films and "Celeste and Jesse Forever" in particular, women are allowed to be human beings and not male wish fulfillment fantasies. And such a shame it is that in 2012, the sight of women as three dimensional human beings in the movies remains a rarity.

Which is even more reason for you to head out and see "Celeste And Jesse Forever" and give it the chance it fully deserves. And let's hope that for whatever potential success this film receives, the cinematic doors will open that much wider for more female creative forces and voices, which can only afford the art and entertainment of the movies to blossom beautifully.   

Saturday, September 8, 2012


Dedicated to Joe Goltz, as I never would have seen this series if not for him.
Two years ago, I wrote an entry entitled "WHEN TV ECLIPSES THE MOVIES," during which I gave a tribute to "Lost" after its series finale. This entry is sort of a follow-up to that piece.

"FREAKS AND GEEKS" (1999/2000)
Created by Paul Feig
Executive Producer Judd Apatow

As I look backwards in my life, I think the year 1980 was the one that truly began my life as a geek. Dear readers, I assure you that I did not mean that term as any sort of defeatist, self-lacerating insult. I mean it as a term filled with acceptance. 

In January 1980, I had turned 11 years old and was then spending an idyllic 5th grade year in the peerless Mr. John Wilson's upstairs classroom where learning was a joy, days were filled with cherished friends and everything was complimented with enthusiastic games of "knock hockey" (essentially air hockey on a wooden board), group comedy skits, and music that occasionally blared from the classroom turntable. That year also marked the time where the pursuits of childhood were beginning to divide themselves into the ones I would soon grow out of and the ones that would strengthen and become lifelong obsessions.
It was the year where I was still engaged with a collection of hand-held electronic sports games of football, basketball and baseball (courtesy of Mattel) as well as the color-coded, musical memory game of Simon. I eagerly awaited Saturday morning cartoons which led to spirited classroom debates with friends concerning the validity or stupidity of the then newly introduced "Scrappy-Doo" character and his cries of "Puppy Power!!" on "Scooby-Doo." My friends and I excitedly traded "Star Wars" trading cards as we all anxiously awaited the theatrical arrival of "The Empire Strikes Back," which I saw on Memorial Day weekend while nursing horrible seasonal allergies, which allowed me to breathe properly only through one nostril. And yet, over time, electronic games and cartoons would fall by the wayside while my devotion to the cinema would only build (obviously!) and broaden into films of more mature themes, styles and genres.

1980 was the year where I completed reading author Lloyd Alexander's five book Chronicles Of Prydain series and I had also immersed myself in J.R.R. Tolkein's world of Middle Earth. Yet for some reason, I could not bring myself to become involved with "Dungeons and Dragons." I was heavy consumed with all things regarding the costume clad heroes and heroines of the DC and Marvel comics universes but within a few short years, those interests would fade in regards to the things I would actually desire to spend time reading.

1980 was the year I became a full fledged Anglophile. Dramatically spurred forwards by my obsession with The Beatles, I began seeking out anything and everything relating to England. Certainly this meant watching loads of Public Television, albeit programs like "Doctor Who," "Dave Allen At Large" and most certainly "Monty Python's Flying Circus." (And there was also "Benny Hill" and "The Kenny Everett Video Show" on Chicago's channel 32) But, this was also the time I discovered William Shakespeare through a PBS presentation of "As You Like It." I was so captivated that on a spring time family trip to Washington D.C., I insisted on making a stop at the Folger Shakespeare Library to pick up some plays and try to decipher this new literate world. 

Music remained my primary obsession. I still took drum lessons and by that time my parents had purchased a full drum set for me. While my love for the candy colored sounds and harmonic haze of E.L.O. remained, my musical horizons had expanded greatly through the discovery of FM radio. I was confounded by Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" album and was initially terrified yet completely won over by Pink Floyd's "The Wall." To any and all who know me, I still cannot go even one day without listening to music, so that part of me has not changed even one bit.

In 1980, I fell in love with a girl from another classroom. I had before and would do so again but during this year, I confided my feelings to one trusted friend who assisted me with the writing of a small love note which was then mistakenly placed into a locker which I did not know that the object of my affection shared with another classmate. So, what I had desired to remain as much of a secret as possible became public knowledge for a spell. While there was the hell of embarrassment to live through during that particular experience, it had absolutely nothing on what I would face in a few short years where the affairs of the heart became more confusing, painful, aching, frightening, monumentally awkward and seemingly insurmountable.  

In the fall of 1980, I entered Middle School. While I entered 6th grade with the same classmates I had already attended school with, over the course of those three transformative years something strange occurred within myself and my classmates. In regards to my own self-image, whatever level of confidence I had within myself (which was already not terribly strong), had dramatically weakened as I became increasingly uncomfortable in my own skin. All of my attributes, whatever they may have been, felt as if they had retreated into hiding while my faults felt amplified and housed in neon framed signage for all to view. Whatever ideas I may have held from time to time about possibly obtaining an elusive sense of "cool" dissipated rapidly as I could not fully gather exactly how my classmates viewed me. I was very thankful to have friends and finding new friends was not a difficult task for me, but could I ever be "cool"? Could I ever be that type of person that others could not wait to be around? Could I be seen as desirable to girls--even to those outside of my own race? Could I ever fit the image that rested inside of my inner third eye? Or would I just have to be accepting of my role as a geek and face the fact that I was indeed how others really saw me: a bespectacled, corpulent, baseball cap wearing dork with drumsticks protruding from his pocket, who loved music and movies, was an average student (much to my parents' chagrin as they demanded excellence) and whose headphone plastered head was filled with all manner of useless facts? Believe me, dear readers, it was the latter.

In regards to the collective of my classmates, whatever camaraderie that had existed between us became gradually fragmented. Yes, people already had their particular groups of friends but we all seemed to co-exist harmoniously. But, through Middle School and onto High School, those groups of friends became cliques. We were all compartmentalized whether we wanted to be or not and frankly, whether we even knew it or not. School became an environment of closed communities, where if one did not somehow already possess the 10 exclusive qualities for admission, you were immediately branded as an outcast. At my rapturously warm 20th High School reunion, I had a brief, insightful conversation with a classmate, a person who has remained as lovely as I had remembered. She asked me plainly, "Scott, what happened to us back then?"
     "How do you mean?" I asked.
     "I mean--we were all friends," she began. "Then suddenly, overnight, we all hated each other."  

The summer of that reunion was the year 2007. I was 38 years old, well into my life as a preschool teacher and happy that so many passions of my youth had remained firmly. That summer, I had seen and adored Writer/Director Judd Apatow's "Knocked Up" as well as his production of "Superbad." One day, my friend , fellow teacher, trombonist for the Youngblood Brass Band and Apatow fan Joe Goltz approached me and asked if I had ever seen the television series "Freaks and Geeks." I replied that while I had been aware of the series, I never saw it during its initial run. Joe not only informed me of its greatness, within days he returned to school with his personal DVD copy of the entire series for me to view, with a certainty that this would be something right up my alley. Joe could not have been any more correct.  

"Freaks and Geeks," created by Paul Feig and Executive Produced by Judd Apatow, an exquise comedy/drama series that chronicled the trials and tribulations of a collective of High School students, aired on NBC during the 1999-2000 television season. While the series was critically acclaimed, it perished quickly due to time slot changes and low ratings. In fact, NBC only aired 12 of the season's 18 episodes, farming the remainder out to the Fox Family Channel. In some ways, I do not know why I did not watch this series when it first aired. As I have said, Joe was absolutely correct with his perceptions due to my eternal adoration of stories involving the teen age experience. That said, it amazes me that in an industry that is as heavily youth based as Hollywood is, just how very few times it has attained an interpretation of adolescence that felt honest, accurate and respectful of the age.
I came of age during what I would like to call "The Golden Age Of Teen Films," a period of time I feel existed between the years of 1982 and 1989, when filmmakers and writers like Cameron Crowe, Amy Heckerling, Martha Coolidge and undeniably John Hughes re-wrote the rules and raised the bar for a genre so high that it has rarely been reached again since. Even more surprising is on television, a medium which is littered with High School hallways and teenage dramas that it makes my mouth drop open when I think of how so criminally few have ever gotten the subject matter right. Yes, there was "James At 15" in the 1970s and the brilliant "My So-Called Life" in the early/mid 1990s, but both of those shows were cancelled too quickly and are typically tossed aside for the likes of Brandon, Dylan, Dawson and those singing, dancing, waaaayy toooo old and waaay tooo gorgeous high school "geeks" of "Glee" (sorry, not a fan). With "Freaks and Geeks," perhaps I was just skeptical despite the strong critical notices. Could this show ever really be as good as they said it was? And frankly, after John Hughes, anyone who attempted to creatively mine adolescence in film or television had a mighty mountain to climb, in my mind.

"Freaks and Geeks"takes place during the 1980-1981 school year at the fictional William McKinley High School, in the equally fictional Detroit, Michigan suburb of Chippewa (perhaps a nod to Hughes' fictional Shermer High School in the equally fictional Shermer, Illinois) and revolves around a collective of students marginalized in the two titular social categories. Making up the core group of "burnouts," otherwise known as the "freaks," are the following upperclassmen: the darkly cool Daniel Desario (James Franco), the reticent and sardonic Ken Miller (Seth Rogen), the sensitive music fanatic and would be rock drummer Nick Andopolis (Jason Segal) and finally, Daniel's girlfriend, the explosively volatile Kim Kelly (Busy Phillips). As for the Freshmen "geeks," we are introduced to the gangly, awkward Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr) and self-appointed comedy connoisseur Neal Schweiber (Samm Levine). At the center of these characters, and the series as a whole, are siblings Lindsay and Sam Weir (beautifully portrayed by Linda Cardellini and John Francis Daley). 
Where Sam is best friends with his fellow "geeks" as they painfully attempt to navigate the new High School social hierarchy, avoid all manner of bullies, survive aching crushes and all forms of public humiliation, Lindsay has found herself in a most compelling period of transition. Lindsay is a "proper" girl, excellent student and star "Mathlete," but the death of her Grandmother has sent her into an existential depression. Shunning her conservative clothing, ideals, friendships and the Math team, Lindsay begins to constantly wear her Grandfather's army jacket and finally, embraces her curiosities and seeks out the "freaks," hoping to join their ranks. Her seemingly sudden change in attitude simultaneously worries, frustrates and confuses not only her former friends, but her Mother, Jean (Becky Ann Baker) and her hysterically gruff and stern Father, Harold (SCTV's Joe Flaherty). 
The full mission of "Freaks and Geeks" is brilliantly established in the opening moments of the pilot episode. The scene opens upon a High School football field. We are quickly introduced to an attractive football player and his equally attractive cheerleader girlfriend seated on the bleachers. After a few moments of hearing these two students work through whatever romantic drama has been ailing them, the camera quickly pans downwards, to underneath the bleachers where we find the "freaks" themselves, Daniel, Ken and Nick, as they swap prurient stories and extol their worship of the then recently deceased Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham as Van Halen's "Runnin' With The Devil" blares on the soundtrack. The camera then pans away from the "freaks" and momentarily rests upon Lindsay, who is watching the "freaks" from afar and building enough courage to approach them. Then, the music changes from Van Halen to Kenny Loggins' "I'm Alright," as the camera pans away from Lindsay to find the "geeks," Sam, Neal and Bill, cracking jokes they had just learned from yet another theatrical viewing of "Caddyshack." Through this introduction of the cast of characters, Feig and Apatow deftly present their goal to eschew with all of the cliches prevalent within the teen genre, with their cavalcade of pretty people with problems and absolutely no resemblance to any real world teenagers anywhere. The kids of "Freaks and Geeks" not only look the correct age, they all look like the very people we have each grown up with. Additionally, the series lays waste to every prefabricated "Afterschool Special" homily you have ever seen and it even gently satirizes the teen dreams of John Hughes' films as it also embraces them.  
As of about one week ago, I completed watching "Freaks and Geeks" in its entirety for the third time. Each time I finish, I am marvelled and overcome with its undeniable beauty. While it makes me sad to feel that a series this wonderful seemed to be doomed before it ever had a chance, "Freaks and Geeks," in its own way, feels like a complete statement about adolescence and the High School experience. I am absolutely amazed with how much ground the series actually covered over the course of its 18 episodes. In addition to the eternal teenage rites of passage like acceptance, tolerance, peer pressure, living up to or defying parental and societal expectations as well as the on-going battle to fit into an ever evolving social hierarchy, "Freaks and Geeks" also delved into rich and darker waters of confusing sexual identity, the almost fatal consequences of bullying, the moment when one's biggest dreams crash to the ground and the pain that occurs when one is beginning to understand the complexities of the larger, adult world. With all of those intertwining threads (and more), "Freaks and Geeks" feels more like a novel or in musical terms, a rock opera, with all of its conceptual peaks and valleys, collective of  recurring movements and themes and the sweeping emotions that exist inside teenage hearts everywhere.
Above all, "Freaks and Geeks" is a show about perceptions, how the characters all perceive each other as well as themselves. In addition to asking of themselves the extremely difficult question, "Who am I?" the characters also seem to be asking of each other, in the words of The Who, "Who Are You?"
Lindsay Weir's provocative journey throughout the series is nothing less than a young woman's search to find her unique place in the world. In one episode, she describes herself as a Democrat, much to the chagrin of her Republican Father. In another, she proclaims to be an atheist, sparking a debate with her gawky childhood friend and former Mathlete teammate, the highly religious Millie Kentner (Sarah Hagan). In even another, as Lindsay correctly tires of being manipulated by the antics of her new "freak" friends, she abandons them and returns to the life and friendships she had with Millie and her ilk only to find herself rejecting them once again to return to Daniel, Ken, Nick and Kim. Lindsay Weir has an enormous heart, strong conviction of justice and fairness, is forthright and compassionate to a fault. Her good nature and desire to not see others in pain results in sometimes complicated and almost disastrous scenarios, most notably a brief romance and long fallout with Nick with ever shifting emotions intact. By the series end, Lindsay makes even one more remarkable choice, cementing her, by even one more step, into the person she is still evolving to become.  
With regards to the "freaks," how easy it would have been to just have these characters stay perpetually stoned and provide tiresome drug humor from one episode to another. Thankfully, Feig, Apatow, the writing team and the actors all worked diligently to ensure that the "freaks" existed as real human beings. First of all, all of the "freak" characters emerge from very troubled home lives. As they have all found each other, they have essentially created their own tribe or even family with the school setting functioning as their "home," no matter how much they hate being there. They fight often but never abandon each other. They accept each other unconditionally but even then, they realize the existence of their own limitations just through their associations with each other, a quality that at times causes intense friction.
Daniel, for instance, is an 18 year old Junior, as he was held back. Nick is also a terrible student, but who was once a star basketball player (a clever foreshadowing of Lindsay's potential future if she makes similar life choices). Both Daniel and Nick have been made to feel insignificant by the most influential people in their lives (Daniel's teachers, who have long given up on him and Nick's military Father, who threatens to send him into the army). Ken Miller, who openly acknowledges that while his parents are not "bad people," has absolutely no relationship with them and was even raised by a nanny ("The best Mom money could buy," he states.). And then, there's Kim Kelly, whose home life is especially grim. With these depictions, Feig and Apatow are affording the audience the opportunity to think of these kids on the fringes and see how and why they are who they are. The "freaks" are kids who have been subject to endless and at times, abusive criticism, public humiliation and outright rejection throughout their lives by their families and teachers so why wouldn't they become lost in a drug haze or stop caring about their education? If no one believes in them, then how can they believe in themselves and why bother anyway? Throughout the series, all of the "freaks" end up spending time at the Weir residence and are subject to sporadically being part of a "normal' family. When Jean kindly offers food or when Harold, while stern also expresses that Nick is a "smart kid," you realize that these words and actions are the very sort the "freaks" are never subject to receiving from their own families. These are the kernels that will allow the "freaks" to build their waning self-esteem but those moments are so fleeting once they return to their regular lives.   
Things are not any easier for the "geeks." For Sam Weir, being small in stature, extremely shy and hopelessly romantic, makes him easy and continuous prey for Alan White, the school bully (Chauncey Leopardi) and unseen as a desirable love interest for his aching crush, the popular cheerleader Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick). Like the "freaks," Sam, Neal and Bill also engage in moments where they are afraid they are holding each other back from successfully scaling the High School social ladder as they each struggle with locker room horrors, being picked last for gym class teams, discovering the most acceptable fashion sense, playing "Spin The Bottle" with the popular kids at a house party, being terrified of older girls (Rashida Jones gives a terrific performance an an angry girl who torments Sam), and being even more terrified during a Sex Education unit and also while covertly viewing a porn film.
Returning to the theme of perceptions, Feig and Apatow challenge us again. We, like their schoolmates, may be harboring certain attitudes about Sam, Neal and Bill, solely based upon how they look. But, one never really knows what baggage someone is carrying internally. How would you handle the situation if you were a latch-key kid being raised by a single Mother and she decides to seriously date your gym teacher? How would you handle the situation if your Dad, a man you and your friends worship, was discovered to be having an affair and you ultimately find his secret "love nest"? The anxieties the boys face are just heartbreaking as they seem so fragile. But, time and again, they surprise you, and themselves, with a resilience, resolve and maturity they never knew they possessed.  
I applaud Feig and Apatow tremendously for always ensuring that every character within "Freaks and Geeks," from the main cast, to the supporting student characters to even the teaching staff and parents are treated with dignity even when they were experiencing their worst humiliations and private hurts. I greatly appreciated how many of the characters slid in and out of their respective groups and stereotypes on their respective inner journeys. And most importantly, not even one character is the butt of a joke or designed to be laughed at profusely. And I mention that observation because despite the drama and even how dark the series grows over the 18 episodes, "Freaks and Geeks" is first and foremost a comedy. While the show depicts High School as accurately as possible, Feig and Apatow, utilize their rich characters and tales of obtaining fake IDs, having that keg party while the parents are away and even a visit from then Vice President George H.W. Bush, for great blasts of humor and this show is indeed laugh out loud funny from the first episode to the finale. "Freaks and Geeks" is not a bleak dirge in any fashion whatsoever. It is supremely warm, inviting and enormously entertaining while always being truthful.  

There is not any way I could offer a tribute to this series without mentioning its brilliant usage of rock music throughout its soundtrack. Unlike the films of John Hughes, where his music selections felt like the suggestions from a beloved, more worldly older brother, the music of "Freaks and Geeks" encapsulated almost all of the music I listened to myself in 1980 as I flowed my record albums and the radio dials of WLS-AM, WMET-FM and WLUP-FM otherwise known as "The Loop."  Like the very best films, Feig and Apatow utilize the familiar music in endlessly creative ways as the songs functioned as so much more than cementing a time and place. The songs informed and defined the characters and told the stories just as much as the scripts and dialogue.

The opening credits sequence featuring the cast posing for jarring school yearbook photos is ironically scored to Joan Jett and the Blackhearts' "Bad Reputation." Joe Jackson's "Look Sharp" scores a moment where Sam is feathering his hair and trying out his new blue leisure suit, hoping to impress Cindy Sanders. One episode is (nearly) entirely scored to the music of The Who, with "I'm One" as a standout moment where Bill spends one more afternoon home alone eating a snack and laughing hysterically at Garry Shandling on "The Dinah Shore Show." Several songs from Billy Joel score an especially bittersweet episode where the "geeks" befriend and fall in love with a pretty new transfer student and fear losing her to the cool kids thus leaving them behind. Music from The Grateful Dead provides the series with its most poignant moments in the series finale. And a personal favorite occurred at the conclusion of an episode where Lindsay ping-pongs between her old and new friends, finally resting with the "freaks." She finds them, late one night sitting outside of a convenience store, and after some tentative moments, all of them whisk away to a midnight foreign film. The scene is scored to Supertramp's "Take The Long Way Home" and I could not have imagined a more appropriate song choice as all of the characters are each taking their respective long journeys towards home, wherever and whatever those homes may happen to be. But, in that moment, home is found in the bonds of friendship they share. And the lump I felt in my throat as I watched can only come from a work of art that not only entertains but speaks to the soul. For me, "Freaks and Geeks" speaks very loudly.

For reasons I have never discovered or understood, I am so in tune with the cycle of the school year. As a student and now as a teacher, I revel within the bittersweet joy and melancholy that is found within those nine months. I find an odd romance in the world and lives contained inside of the school hallways and teacher's lounges. I find an endless fascination with the time where people who would have never chosen each other are forced to spend years and years living in and out of each other's pockets as they try to co-exist and find their individualistic places in the world. "Freaks and Geeks" is a series that celebrates and represents that unique time of life at its absolute creative best. It deserves to exist as so much more than a "cult classic." It is a show that deserves to be embraced by the largest audience possible.

On first thought, maybe mass popularity would completely go against a series championing the outsiders, the kids on the fringes. But then again, I believe there is something inside of each and every one of us that feels like a freak or as a geek and instead of feeling apologetic or ashamed, perhaps those qualities are the very ones that should be held aloft for all the world to see, warts and all. As a new school year begins, I cannot recommend enough that you introduce yourselves or re-visit "Freaks and Geeks," as it is undoubtedly one of the very best television series I have had the pleasure to witness.

And if this epic tribute makes you think of me as being an even greater geek than ever before, then so be it.        

Sunday, September 2, 2012

LIFE IS BUT A DREAM: a review of "Sleepwalk With Me"

Screenplay Written by Mike Birbiglia & Ira Glass & Joe Birbiglia & Seth Barrish
Directed by Mike Birbiglia
*** (three stars)

Many years ago, as I was driving around Madison performing one Sunday errand after another, I stumbled across something extremely special on the radio as I flipped the dial from one station to the next. Contrary to what some of you may be thinking, it was not a piece of music that made me pause at all. It was simply a story. I immediately became engulfed in the tale of an endurance competition in Texas where contestants placed one hand upon a pickup truck and the one whose hand remained on the truck for the longest period of time, without leaning on the truck or squatting, was declared the winner and would receive the truck as the grand prize. It was a story simply told yet brilliantly executed as it delved into the psychological complexities of such a competition while also being enormously entertaining. So much so, that I pulled my car into a parking lot and just sat for nearly twenty minutes, unable to turn the radio off and entirely captivated through the art and artistry of fine storytelling.

By now, dear readers, I am certain many of you have deduced that I had been listening to an installment of NPR's "This American Life," the weekly radio program hosted by the engagingly wry Ira Glass. While the brilliance of that program definitely lies within the discovery, support and promotion of world class writers and essayists like Sarah Vowell, David Sedaris and the recently deceased David Rakoff, what I found especially brilliant about the program was the incredible ability of these first person narratives to pull the listener into an audio world so complete that by the story's conclusion you feel as if you have travelled within someone else's shoes, minds, hearts and souls. It is a testament to the magic contained within "mere" words and the power they create when combined together so effectively.

Within the last 15 years, Glass has decided to occasionally branch outwards into the visual medium through a short run Showtime cable series as well as "Hands On A Hardbody," a 1997 documentary based upon the radio episode I described at this review's outset. And now, we arrive with "Sleepwalk With Me," a film co-written and co-produced by Glass and featuring the semi-autobiographical tale of comedian Mike Birbiglia and his struggles with R.E.M. behavior disorder in which Birbiglia experiences vivid and sometimes frightening dreams that he dangerously acts out while in the throes of slumber. In my negative review of "Margaret" last month, I facetiously blamed NPR "Fresh Air" radio hostess Terry Gross for greatly intriguing me to view that film, much to my extreme disappointment. This time around, I am more than happy to thank Terry Gross for greatly intriguing me to view this new movie, which, like the radio program from which it was introduced, pulled me into its world with great appeal, laugh out loud comedy, and a healthy amount of storytelling grace. If this film arrives in your town, it is more than worth seeking out.

Based upon Birbiglia's original monologue, one-man off Broadway performance and best selling book, Sleepwalk With Me & Other Painfully True Tales, "Sleepwalk With Me" stars Birbiglia as Matt Pandamiglio, an aspiring comedian yet professional bartender who has spent eight years in a relationship with his girlfriend Abby (the lovely Lauren Ambrose). As Matt views the world where his friends have advanced into the new life stages of marriage and parenthood as well as professional careers, he unfortunately feels as if his life has stalled. Feeling disappointment from his cranky Father (James Rebhorn) as well as harboring the painful fears of being a potentially uncommitted boyfriend and the failure of achieving this dreams of being a working stand up comic, Matt eventually begin to spiral downwards into a stressful dreamworld where he ends up sleepwalking to sometimes comic and eventually life threatening effects.

In regards to the film's actual plot, this is all you really need to know as the magic of "Sleepwalk With Me" lies completely in how Birbiglia engages us into his life, world, dreams, and overall story. Throughout the film, Birbiglia breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience by talking directly into the camera and from his very first words, he is a fully engaging presence and such a gifted storyteller that you are more than willing to spend nearly 90 minutes with him. And frankly, I could have easily spent yet another hour listening to him and viewing this highly unusual aspect to his life.

What impressed me most about the film was that "Sleepwalk With Me" was not just a series of ironic observances and dream sequences (a visual storytelling tactic that Ira Glass reportedly cannot stand whatsoever). In some ways, the dreams are (almost) the least important element of "Sleepwalk With Me" as the film really seems to be about how anxiety, mounting stress, extreme arrested development, and near debilitating fears of failure from others as well as yourself can negatively affect one's life, where even in your dream life, there is no escape from the continuous pressure.

"Sleepwalk With Me" also serves confidently as a "coming-of-age" film, even though our hero is well into his thirties. Birbiglia and his writing team deftly give us extended glimpses into the unforgiving and lucratively meager world of comedy clubs and the grind one takes in order to climb the ladder of that particular industry's success. Matt is a not-so-young man who is essentially sleepwalking through the most important elements of his life, who finds himself at a professional crossroads and eventually decides to fully take the leap. Yet even as Matt fully engages himself in the punishing amount of travel, low rent dives and endless public humiliation as he nurtures his comedy act, we can see that his professional self-discovery as a comedian may come at the complete expense of his relationship with Abby, the most crucial element of his life he is sleepwalking through. And it is here where the film achieves its greatest strength.

"Sleepwalk With Me" functions very well, and quite sadly, as a very perceptive and poignant love story that ponders what happens when a couple remains together partially out of love but mostly out of niceness. There is no question that Matt loves Abby, especially as he describes the feeling of that love as "pizza flavored ice cream." Yet, as he views the precarious state of marriage as a whole, as well as viewing his parent's constant bickering after 40 years of marriage, Matt fears might not be someone who can spend the remainder of his life with anyone, let alone the wonderful Abby. And if he does remain with Abby, would that unique feeling of pizza flavored ice cream will begin to fade? Birbiglia and Ambrose make for a very convincing couple that you enjoy spending time with, as well as root for, especially when their future seems to be in jeopardy. These are good, relatable, recognizable people for whom you wish happiness, and watching these two navigate their relationship gave "Sleepwalk With Me" a most resonant sense of aching romantic honesty.

While I have absolutely no idea of the kind of budget "This American Life" works with, the visual presentation of "Sleepwalk With Me" made me wonder if the film's budget was made for perhaps no more than $10 above the radio show's budget. Yet, this quality does indeed work to the film's favor and makes it a more than worthy visual link to the radio program. Birbiglia, in his directorial debut, utilizes every single cent of his obviously tiny budget to great effect, ensuring that any spell the film is able to weave arrives through the story, the characters and the language they use. In fact, this is yet another film that should put the major studios on notice as "Sleepwalk With Me" proves very well that you do not need $300 million dollars just to tell an effective story. That said, I hope that Birbiglia is able to direct more films in the future and I have to admit that I am curious to see how he would work with a budget that gave him a little more money to work with.

Now that the major releases of the summer movie season have come and gone, this is a wonderful time to head out and see a strong film that would otherwise get extremely lost in the shuffle of new releases. I feel that when it comes to films like "Sleepwalk With Me," it is truly my duty to shine some light upon them and urge you to give them a try.

If you are a fan of "This American Life," I am certain that you will enjoy this film as much as I did, if not even more. For those of you who have never heard the program, you are indeed in for a special treat in "Sleepwalk With Me," as Mike Birbiglia has provided all of us with a unique, entertaining, often hilarious and subtly moving tale that above all else, celebrates the art that comes with expert storytelling. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012


Summer's over.

While the just concluded summer movie season was not as creatively diverse as the cinematic summer of 2011, I was indeed more than pleased with the efforts I saw throughout the hot and humid months. I was so happy to not only view films that surprised and entertained me in large amounts, several of those films, have already earned slots as some of my favorite films of the year at that.

And now, with the arrival of Autumn, the movie studios throughout Hollywood and the independent studios are ready to bring out the proverbial "big guns." And in my mind, the return of Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson with "The Master," his first film in five years and follow-up to the tremendously ahead of the curve "There Will Be Blood" (2007), represents the very kind of cinematic "big guns" that makes me salivate profusely with anticipation. So, after I mop up my chin, I am also very curious about the following features...

1. "Sleepwalk With Me," an independent comedy based upon Mike Birbiglia's original written work and monologues for National Public Radio's "This American Life" program.

2. I am beginning to hear a certain strong positive buzz surrounding "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower," a new teen comedy/drama written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, and based upon his original novel. As strong teen films are in such short supply, a potential new entry always...ahem...perks my cinematic radar in its direction. And I am also very curious to see Emma Watson in her first role since the conclusion of the "Harry Potter" series as well.

3. I am also very interested in screening "Celeste And Jesse Forever" co-written by and starring Rashida Jones and also starring Andy Samberg as a couple attempting to remain best friends even after their divorce.

4. I am plotting to potentially carve out a new "Back To School" themed posting featuring not a feature film but a beloved television series that concluded much too soon and yet somehow, it feels absolutely perfect as it is. I'll keep the identity of the series under wraps for the time being though as I would love to give you some surprises once in a while.

However, as I am heading back to school myself for a new school year with a band of four year olds, and the month of September being what it is in the cycle of the school year, we shall see if I can indeed compose this piece. We'll see...

Until then, please stay tuned, wish me luck and I'll see you when the house lights go down...