Monday, December 31, 2012

THERE AND BACK AGAIN: a review of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

Based upon The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Screenplay Written by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro
Directed by Peter Jackson
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

For my final review of 2012, I must say that this was a terrific present to receive upon Savage Cinema's third birthday today!!!!

Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," may have been unexpected for the film's reluctant traveler and hero Bilbo Baggins, but for audiences who treasured Jackson's superlative and definitive screen adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, a return to Middle Earth was more than was inevitable. Even with all of the pre-production setbacks as well as the departure of Guillermo del Toro as the film's director, Peter Jackson's grand return to the directorial chair felt to be destined, ensuring that the resplendent cinematic vision and reverential attention to the detail of Tolkien's source material would remain intact. What began to trouble me, frankly, was when it was initially announced that The Hobbit, which runs less than 300 pages in text, would be cleaved into two films (albeit utilizing supplemental material Tolkien wrote to flesh out the narrative). When it was further announced that Jackson would be transforming the story into a new trilogy, I actually felt underwhelmed and honestly began to worry. 

Believe me, dear readers. I am as much of a fan of Jackson's "Lord Of The Rings" films as anyone else, especially as I have the trilogy, as a whole, in the very Top Ten of my favorite films from the previous decade of 2000-2009. Even so, I experienced a certain knee-jerk reaction against the idea of creating what will potentially be a nine hour plus epic out of material which was never designed to be an epic in the first place. I mean, what was Peter Jackson going to do that felt to be so artistically necessary? Was he planning on filming every word Tolkien ever wrote about Middle Earth for the sake of cinematic artistry or for the sake of obtaining as many Hobbit dollars as possible? With the severe critical panning he received for his previous film, the haunting, disturbing and for my tastes, highly underrated "The Lovely Bones" (2009), was making a three part return trip to Middle Earth a way of just going back to the well, to safe territory, to as much of a cinematic sure thing as there currently could be? My skepticism was very high regardless of how much I have loved Peter Jackson's work thus far. 

Now that I have seen the film for myself, I am happy. Very happy. While I do not think that "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" quite scaled the heights Jackson has previously set for himself (and truth be told, I am still somewhat unsure as to the full purposefulness of creating a full epic trilogy), the film, on the whole, is confirmation that Peter Jackson is destined to bring J.R.R. Tolkien's written tales to powerfully vibrant cinematic life. The film is an absolutely splendid production, providing you with everything you would expect from Jackson's adaptations, therefore making the experience feel like a long awaited visit with a treasured old friend. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is sumptuous, luxurious, lushly mammoth filmmaking and storytelling filled with stirring performances from the entire cast which are equaled by the stunning cinematography, the beautiful vistas of New Zealand, the meticulous set design, gorgeous musical score from series Composer Howard Shore and awe inspiring special effects. While I felt some bumps along the way during this journey, by the film's final third, I simply did not want for it to end.

Set 60 years before the events of "The Lord Of The Rings" trilogy, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" finds the young Bilbo Baggins (a wonderful Martin Freeman) being persuaded by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) to leave the comfort and security of his home in The Shire and join him on an adventure. Gandalf has requested to utilize Bilbo's completely untested and unproven skills as a "burglar" and join him on a quest to assist a band of 13 dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), to reclaim their former homeland at The Lonely Moountain, as it was decimated and overtaken by the fearsome dragon Smaug.

Certainly, all of this is much easier said than done when you add in nasty, unhygienic trolls, ferocious, gluttonous goblins, mountains that angrily spring to life during fierce thunderstorms, plus the relentless vengeance of Azog the Orc War Chief (Manu Bennett), once thought to be eliminated in battle by Thorin. And then, there is the matter of the One Ring Of Power which Bilbo happens upon and takes for his own, much to the disturbed Gollum's (Andy Serkis) dismay, and the slowly building doom about to envelop and potentially destroy Middle Earth.

In testament to Peter Jackson's unquestionable command over the visual representation of Tolkien's material, the overall tone of "The Hobbit; An Unexpected Journey" is completely enchanting and whimsical and as magical as a child's dreamworld. It carries a slightly lighter tone than "The Lord Of The Rings" trilogy and I loved how the film practically pulsated from the screen with a golden sheen suggesting the purity and innocence of The Shire and the story as a whole through playful banter, antics and comedy and the shared singing of songs and merriment alongside the thrills and spills.

As wonderful as the film is, it is not a perfect one as I felt this film ultimately fell a tad short from Jackson's previously grand heights in this mythical arena. First of all, and aside from Thorin and perhaps one or two others, most of the 13 dwarves were pretty indistinguishable from each other. This was not a huge problem for the film but often times, the film was one where it just looked to be a bunch of bodies racing, yelling, and screaming hither and dither without any distinctive personalities to make the proceedings more emotionally resonant.

Another issue I had with the film is a surprising one. I do think that "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," at a hair under three hours is just too long of a film. Now, I have always echoed the sentiments from the late, great Gene Siskel and the still great Roger Ebert when they exclaimed that "No good movie is too long and no bad movie is too short." I still hold to that sentiment but in the case of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," some trimming and tightening could have assisted this film greatly. Again my feelings are stemming from the issues I am having with Jackson creating a new trilogy in the first place. To my memory, The Hobbit, as a novel, was one that was rollicking, brisk and one that was much more of a page turning adventure than the more detailed canvas of The Lord Of The Rings. The book is a self-described "prelude," and perhaps Peter Jackson through strict discipline could have carved an extraordinary three to three and a half hour film from this one book and leave well enough alone.

Anyhow, there have been complaints about the film's first hour, which is almost entirely set within Bilbo Baggins' home. For me, I had no issue with that first third of the film. It was the mid section that felt padded to me as some battles felt to be ponderous CGI workouts that were ultimately impersonal. But, most troubling was a visit to the Elven world of Rivendell and a meeting with the White Council of Saruman (Christopher Lee), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving). This sequence, while dispensing with crucial information, was much in need of some editing as it just dragged, dragged, dragged the film to a near dead halt. The amount of seat shifting I was feeling by this point made me wonder if Jackson's ambition was severely clouding his abilities as a storyteller.

I really began to feel this emotion the most in regards to Bilbo Baggins himself! This film is called "The Hobbit" and poor Bilbo was in extreme danger of becoming tragically sidelined within his own story, as there are long stretches where he is not on screen and when he is, he has to compete with all of the goings-on around him. Now that Jackson has fully committed to turning this one book into three films, I do understand that the full progression of Bilbo's evolution will be that much more drawn out. But that said, I worried that he was becoming almost inconsequential to the tale of the dwarves.

But by the time the dwarves become captured by a band of underground goblins and Bilbo confronts Gollum and the One Ring Of Power and engages in some riveting riddles in the dark, everything in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" from this point onwards snapped into place heroically. The film that I was struggling with congealed beautifully, rising to a crescendo that made me hope the film would not end. And yes, the film's final shot is a killer, already making me salivate over next winter's installment!

But returning to the "riddles in the dark" sequence, I have to say that this section was the film's masterful high point as it finally placed Bilbo front and center and welcomed the return of the series' most tragic figure, Gollum. Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis are sensational together!! In regards to Freeman, who I have adored ever since his work on the original, British version of "The Office" is a wonderful addition to Jackson/Tolkein's universe. His completely understated work, which finds him in a near constant state of bemusement and armed with an ocean's worth of subtle, facial expressions makes Bilbo a character to root for instantly and happily follow absolutely anywhere in Middle Earth. His empathy grounds the film firmly to its childlike roots and Freeman could not have been a better choice to be the audience's guide for this adventure.

Yet, I must turn my attention to the massive, masterful talents of Andy Serkis. While he was not the very first, Serkis has proven himself to be the kingpin of this process of motion capture acting performances. His pioneering merging of the technological and the emotional in increasingly groundbreaking ways is flat out unprecedented and I feel that the time is long overdue for him to be honored for his jaw dropping work. His depiction of Gollum remains as heartbreaking as it is terrifying as he claws the ground like a drug addict, his best and worst instincts in constant, painful war with each other as he tries to keep the One Ring Of Power for his own forever and ever.

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," at last, found its wings (like those majestic eagles) and began to soar higher and higher and I soon found myself (almost) forgetting my quibbles and questions about the validity of making a new trilogy or not and I just allowed myself to become enthralled.

Peter Jackson is truly one of the masters of the game of making big budget spectacle features that amaze the eyes and stir the soul. With "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," I feel that somehow, someway, he just may be on the path to blowing our minds and breaking our hearts in storytelling rapture and awe all over again.

What a way to finish out my movie going year of 2012. 2013, you definitely have your work cut out for you!!!

Sunday, December 30, 2012


Three years!!

On this very date of December 30th, beginning three years ago, I sat in the basement of my parents' home during a holiday visit and gave birth to this website, a virtual home where I would write about and share my lifelong enthusiasm with the art and artistry of the movies with anyone who would choose to take some time out of their busy lives to spend some time and hopefully even join in this cinematic conversation I have initiated with you. As of this time, I am closing in on 350 postings and as I think back to the beginnings of Savage Cinema, I am humbled, I am thankful, I am surprisingly at a loss for words--especially as I have spilled mountains upon mountains of words throughout this site. Perhaps, I am having difficulty, because I am searching for a word that maybe has not been created or defined as of this time to fully express to you not only what this accomplishment means to me but what your encouragement, support and sheer presence means to me and Savage Cinema most of all.

What I hope is obvious to all of you is that I am never, at any point, trying to communicate with you through a sense of superiority and unctuous film snobbery. If so, I would lose all of you in a millisecond and frankly, I would not even be able to stand myself!! I truly hope that what you are gathering from me, through every single word upon this site, is love. I hope that you can feel my love of movies as well as my love of writing and as I wish for the absolute best from the cinema every time I fork over my hard earned wages at the box office, I am trying, trying, trying to do my best with communicating my feelings and impressions to you in an artful as well as entertaining fashion. Movies and writing are passion projects of equal weight in my mind and spirit and that love fills every word on this site. If you can see that love and feel that love, then my job has been accomplished.

I could never thank all of you enough for travelling with me on this journey. While it does often feel to me to be a fool's errand (honestly, who cares what I think?!), each time I receive a comment from you or if I run into you in town and you make mention of something I have written or if someone, at some point in time, tells me that they have habitually read my reviews or to those of you who have read only ONE posting, I am just over-awed and filled beyond the brim with emotion as I still cannot believe that anyone would take their valuable time and spend it with me in this way.

Dear readers, treasured readers and friends, I just don't know what to say...

I promise and pledge to you once again, that as I head into Savage Cinema's fourth year, to perform to the best of my abilities and share my love of movies and writing in ways where you always feel that you are on this journey with me.

I would never want to make this voyage without you.

Friday, December 28, 2012


Story by Seth MacFarlane
Screenplay Written by Seth MacFarlane & Alec Sulkin & Wellesley Wild
Directed by Seth MacFarlane
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

When "Ted," the debut feature film from animated television creator/satirist Seth MacFarlane was released in theaters during the summer months, I really sat on the fence of whether this would be something worth my time to see or not. The reviews were pretty good. The word of mouth was solid. MacFarlane's strong reputation for creating, producing and providing many voices for his specialized brand of risky and raunchy comedy gold through his series "Family Guy," "American Dad!" and "The Cleveland Show" (of which I have admittedly never seen even one episode) precedes him greatly. But still...I just could not fully make that leap to spend my precious time and my hard earned movie theater dollars on something I feared would essentially be a one joke movie. Now, that I have finally viewed "Ted" in the warmth of my own home (and for considerably less movie viewing money), I can say that my impressions of "Ted" existing as a one joke movie were fully confirmed. Thankfully, that one joke--the antics of a foul mouthed teddy bear come to vibrant life through a child's magic wish--proved to be a very funny joke with which MacFarlane did obtain considerable comedic mileage, especially through the aid of a game cast and magnificent special effects. Even so, the film overall was an uneven one due to taking one more unnecessary trip around the "bromance"/"arrested development" track and an over-reliance upon cheap, easy and unimaginative flatulent humor. For a concept as unique as the one Seth MacFarlane devised, I had wished that the film on the whole was equally unique. 

The plot of "Ted" is appropriately simple. In 1985, John Bennett, a lonely, friendless young boy who receives a plush teddy bear who says "I love you" when squeezed gently. John then begins to build a relationship with his treasured toy and one evening as he drifts off to sleep, he makes a wish upon a falling star that his bear could be a real friend for the rest of his life. The next morning, John discovers that his wish has been granted as his bear, named "Ted," has become a living, breathing, fully animated creature who indeed becomes John's very best friend.

Ted soon becomes a celebrity, even making an appearance upon "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." But children age and fame is fleeting. By the time John becomes an adult (now played by Mark Wahlberg), he is employed at a car rental agency, in the full and blissful throes of a romantic relationship with longtime girlfriend Lori Collins (Mila Kunis) and his friendship with the now unemployed and celebrity has-been Ted (voiced and acted through motion capture technology by Seth MacFarlane) remains the cornerstone of his life--albeit one that exists through copious amounts of weed, booze and all manner of irresponsible behavior and an overly adolescent outlook. As John and Lori's relationship reaches their four year anniversary and with no sight of romantic progress in sight, John is forced to make a crucial choice: to grow up and make a full commitment to Lori or remain forever in a child-like world with his best friend Ted.

As I have previously stated, Seth MacFarlane's "Ted" is indeed a one joke movie, where everything really hinges upon the outrageous acts and words that arrive from this cute teddy bear. MacFarlane does not skimp a bit on the joyous vulgarity as Ted curses up a storm, habitually get high and drunk, is completely lust driven and even scores with human females. If you have not gathered by now, "Ted" is completely not a movie for small children regardless of how cute this teddy bear happens to be. In fact, the film, with places the friendship between Ted and John front and center, feels like a smut driven version of Pixar's "Toy Story" series merged with a bit of an R rated "Calvin and Hobbes" thrown in for good measure.

Not long ago, I was having a discussion with friend about the merits, or considerable lack thereof, within the...gulp..."Twilight" film series. I expressed that good actors go a long way and when filmmakers have the good fortune to have good actors in their movies, those actors can make even the most ridiculous stories sing, allowing audiences to completely buy the fantasy (unlike my reaction to those "Twilight" movies, but I digress). With regards to "Ted," it is completely commendable that MacFarlane has cast his film, from top to bottom, with strong actors who are more than willing to fully commit and appear absolutely ridiculous, thus making the audience completely buy this fantasy of a swearing, drinking teddy bear's lifelong friendship with a human. Mark Wahlberg is just terrific as John Bennett and just like Bob Hoskins' outstanding performance in Robert Zemeckis' "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988), Wahlberg is so convincing in his scenes with Ted that it seems as if he has been speaking with talking teddy bears for his entire life. The friendship he creates on screen feels completely believable, often hysterical and even touching therefore making his character's quandary with Lori fraught with realistic comedic and romantic tension. 

Beyond that, the special effects of "Ted" are truly sensational as this film provides an opportunity to utilize CGI technology in a most convincing and photo-realistic fashion. Just the physical details of Ted are deeply impressive, from his eyes, to the way his mouth moves all the way to the look of his fur and stuffing. And MacFarlane continuously finds creative ways to merge Ted into a realistic world so seamlessly (a hysterical fight sequence between Ted and John in a motel room is particularly eye-popping), making "Ted" a visual treat.          

So, why did it have to be so predictable???? In my previous reviews of Judd Apatow's "This Is 40," Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" and Tony Gilroy's "The Bourne Legacy," I spoke about how filmmakers really need to have a point of view and artistic voice on display therefore making their films completely unique, otherwise they run the risk of being the same ol' same ol' forgettable nonsense you cannot remember once you leave the theater seats. For me, Apatow and especially Tarantino have unmistakably unique filmmaking voices whereas Gilroy's was sadly anonymous. With "Ted," Seth MacFarlane certainly displays his nasty comedic voice with unabashed glee but despite some of the wild sight gags, I had wished that MacFarlane has showed more storytelling creativity other than running through the same old tired "bromance" story we have seen ad nauseum for years and years now. Of course, he is performing his own twisted version of the "bromance" story and while large portions of it work (I especially LOVED John and Ted's lifelong obsession with the 1980 "Flash Gordon" movie), it was all so "been there, done that" and I feel that MacFarlane is someone who could really think out side of the box to make something truly one-of-a-kind.

That said, there was one unique element that I am not certain really worked all that well and that was the presence of Giovanni Ribisi as a very creepy man who stalks Ted throughout the film in order to capture him and take him to his own son for good. While MacFarlane again spins a riff off of the grim character of the toy abusing Sid from "Toy Story" (1995) and slides it into a bizarro world this side of "The Silence Of The Lambs" (1991), "Ted" then falls into an action climax, the kind of which that unimaginatively concludes most movies these days.

Even worse, was his complete fascination with all things gastrointestinal. Look, dear readers, as I have said to you time and again, I do not offend easily but I do have to say that I really, really, really cannot stand jokes dealing with flatulence and defecation. If a filmmaker is truly inspired, then he/she will be able to make me laugh at nearly anything, including those kinds of jokes. But, unfortunately in "Ted," we are given one poop joke after another after another and none...I mean, absolutely none of them are remotely funny at all. In fact, it kind of grinds the film to a dead halt each time they appear. One involving a surprising and most disgusting sight upon the floor of Lori's apartment, while Ted entertains a collective of hookers was a tremendous low point. And besides, it's just fourth grade humor and frankly, fourth graders could come up with better, more inspired jokes in this realm I am certain. Honestly, Seth MacFarlane has arrived with this strong concept of a talking, very adult oriented teddy bear and also has the filmmaking panache to figure out out to pull this off visually and yet, he could often not come up with anything more creative than a collection of tired fart jokes? Tiresome, to say the least.

But, I guess that my feelings are very much in the minority as "Ted" has become the highest grossing R rated film of all time. Frankly, and yes, it is a matter of personal taste, but I really feel that I have seen much better than this film as far as the vulgar R rated comedy is concerned. Look, I certainly do not think that "Ted' was a bad film by any means. I laughed often and loudly. But that laughter was then interrupted by long periods of silence due to some conceptual wheel spinning and jokes that felt to be too simple based upon the sheer talent behind the scenes. "Ted" is fine. No more, no less. Yet it is nothing I'd see again and when the inevitable "Ted 2" arrives in a few years, I don't think that I'll be sitting upon a fence. I know I'd skip it.

But, you go ahead and have a great time though.  

BUILDING THOSE BOURNE DOLLARS: a review of "The Bourne Legacy"

Based upon the Bourne series by Robert Ludlum
Story by Tony Gilroy
Screenplay Written by Tony Gilroy and Dan Gilroy
Directed by Tony Gilroy
** (two stars)

I really hate the current description of movie film series as "franchises."

While there is a rather brutal honesty within the description, it is the blatant cynicism that pains me. When it comes to movies that spiral off into a series, the completely impersonal term of "franchise" showcases the fact that the nature of artistry and entertainment is irrelevant and the only way they could ever be described is solely within lucrative terminology reducing the films themselves to be nothing more than product and the potential audience as commodities. While I have grown increasingly wearier of sequels, reboots and re-imaginings over the years, 2012 in particular has shown exactly how the right filmmakers can beautifully merge the worlds of art and commerce together, making some of the very best film going experiences of the year by giving audiences something to savor via a combination of inventive direction, strong screenwriting, high caliber acting performances and of course, excellent storytelling. A sequel does not have to exist as a soulless visual representation of a boardroom deal, as something like Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises" or Sam Mendes' "Skyfall" both can brilliantly attest. On the other hand, there are those films, regardless of how well they are made and presented, that simply do not function as anything else other than a filmed deal and a shameless attempt to keep those franchise dollars flowing. Director Tony Gilroy's "The Bourne Legacy," the fourth entry in the Jason Bourne saga, yet this time without the character of Jason Bourne at the helm, is precisely that type of shameless filmed deal. A handsome production but highly flawed movie that truly has no reason whatsoever to exist other than to grab as many of those Jason Bourne dollars as possible, even when the story itself grows increasingly preposterous and ultimately meaningless.

"The Bourne Legacy," an installment that essentially runs concurrently to Jason Bourne's own adventures, takes a dangerously sluggish 45 minutes or so to get itself rolling as we are introduced to Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), another isolated top secret member of a top secret government black ops program that specializes in genetically altered and enhanced creations of an elite team of super soldiers through green and blue pills known as "chems." As continued exposure of those top secretive programs through Jason Bourne's escapades threatens to bring the existence of additional top secret genetic enhancement programs to light, all of the program's "participants" are being systematically eliminated one by for Aaron Cross, who naturally escapes.

The film finally begins to pick up some speed once we realize that the super soldiers are not the only ones in danger. A private scientific research team, including Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), has also been targeted for assassination. After Aaron rescues Marta, the two join forces to venture to the Philippines to obtain a new supply of blue pills that will ensure Aaron's new physicality and intellect remains in its enhanced form or else the withdrawal will reduce him to a mental and physical blob of jelly.

To begin, I do have to say to you all that I have not been a fan of the Jason Bourne series thus far. Despite the magnetic presence of Matt Damon, the films have never left much of an impression upon me and without any intended humor, I just do not find them to be particularly...ahem...memorable. Beyond that, as I have often mentioned on this site, both "The Bourne Supremacy" (2004) and "The Bourne Ultimatum" (2007), for my tastes, were each severely undone by the overly hyperactive directorial style of Paul Greengrass, who utilizes the "dreaded shaky cam" to such a detrimental degree that the entire essence and story contained within the chases, pursuits, fights, shoot outs and the like became a headache inducing jumble that completely took me out of the film experience and I ultimately did not care a whit about what happened to anyone within the story. And besides, I guess I just find the entire series to be less than compelling and more than a little silly as I am to believe that the TOP agents of the TOP governmental organizations just have themselves forever hog-tied with trying to locate and capture this one man who is always 38 steps ahead of them to the point that Jason Bourne can phone them from across the street or is seemingly hiding just around the corner in the next office. It is all so tiresome and I honestly do not know how they have spun three films out of this material in the first place anyway. But they have and it has been a box office and critical success of a series at that, so I realize that maybe Jason Bourne is just not meant for me.

All of that being said, and that painful opening 45 minutes or so notwithstanding, "The Bourne Legacy" did possess an small element that at least grabbed my interest more than any of the other films in the series this far and that was Aaron Cross' feverish pursuit of those blue pills. This factor injected a race against time quality that I found to be a bit riveting once the film's pace picked up. Additionally, it also gave the film a less political and more pulpy quality that at times reminded me of the immortal Snake Plissken's predicament in John Carpenter's "Escape From New York" (1981), where Snake had a time limit to rescue the captured President Of The United States or risk the implanted chip in his brain exploding.

Aaron Cross's journey throughout "The Bourne Legacy" is decidedly not one of justice but a single minded pursuit of those blue pills making this movie almost exist as a film of addiction. I have to say  that it did pose a somewhat compelling question of whether the blue pills really did alter the chemistry of these poor military guinea pigs or if these blue pills were nothing more than placebos triggering a newfound sense of medicinal dependency making Aaron crave something he actually doesn't need. Now, that was a cool subtext to have and that made be grab onto this film a hair more than the other installments but when it was all said and done, everything felt to be negligible.

First of all, there are plot holes galore throughout the film as well as and nonsensical flashback sequences that amount to absolutely nothing whatsoever. Even more ridiculous is the obviously franchise driven addition of yet ANOTHER secretive black ops government genetically enhanced set of super soldiers, which places this particular unstoppable force against Aaron Cross. While the action sequences do grow more impressive as the film races onwards, it was also more than laughable as I felt that I was beginning to watch something akin to "The Terminator" (1984), thus making everything feel sillier than I believe Gilroy had any intention for it to be.

And frankly, Jeremy Renner deserves better. As he displayed in Kathryn Bigelow's strong, Oscar winning thriller "The Hurt Locker" (2008), Renner, within his rugged good looks and rock star swagger, there was an actor of fine, intimate skill. As of right now, his presence in a slew of action films is just beginning to make me worry a little for him. Granted, he has had the excellent fortune of delivering fine, solid work in excellent films like Brad Bird's "Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol" (2011) and as the archer Hawkeye in Joss Whedon's masterful "The Avengers." But, his increased visibility is reminding me of the periods where Hollywood seemed to be feverishly determined to make Colin Farrell and Matthew McConaughey massive movie stars by any means necessary... which means overexposure though increasingly weak films, thus making audiences prematurely tire of them. If Jeremy Renner keeps choosing to make inconsequential films like "The Bourne Legacy," then he will be robbed of creating a fine body of work and we will be robbed of a fine actor.

As it stands, the worst thing that I can say about "The Bourne Legacy," is that it is indeed the very type of impersonal, anonymous, and forgettable big budget action film that grow more tiresome to see, especially when we do have the likes of Christopher Nolan, Sam Mendes and Joss Whedon scaling new artistic heights within similar film genres. While Gilroy has had a hand in the conception of all of the Bourne films to date, there is no real point of view or artistic stamp that would make this film stand apart from anything else directed by any anonymous director from the stable of Jerry Bruckheimer's production company.

Say what you will about Judd Apatow and Quentin Tarantino and their often criticized manner of creating lengthy films, and some would say, over-indulgent films with their supposedly self-indulgent screenplays that they have seemingly fallen too much in love with. I will gladly take their films, which represent a true artistic voice and vision over the shiny blank slates of movies like "The Bourne Legacy" any day.

And if this series continues upon this path, whatever legacy it has built will be disastrously short lived.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

EMANCIPATION!!: a review of "Django Unchained"

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
**** (four stars)

Quentin Tarantino is operating on an entirely different level!

Ever since his auspicious arrival with "Reservoir Dogs" (1992) and his cinematic firebomb of "Pulp Fiction" (1994), Quentin Tarantino has gleefully rewritten the rules for cinematic storytelling and filmmaking time and time again. While the conceptual jukebox of his creative mind spews out one wildly presented hybrid after another, every single familiar element from movies past are recycled and re-contextualized in a fashion that it can only be described as "Tarantino-ian." He is truly a film genre unto himself, a feat rarely achieved and definitely not a trait in abundance with 21st century movies. 

While I anxiously await the arrival of each new film from him as an event and have loved every film he has directed (to varying degrees) thus far, I do have to say that his particular penchant for African-American culture, and African-American pop culture in particular, has troubled me from time to time. His very liberal usage of the word "nigger" in film after film is an element I have wrestled with internally. On the one hand, I treat the usage of that word in storytelling as such: Everything depends upon the context in which the word is used, who is saying the word, why the word is being said and what environments do the characters exist inside of. While his streetwise crime characters would indeed use the word in the violent and racially charged underworld they inhabit, I did feel that Tarantino's line describing "dead nigger storage" in "Pulp Fiction" was him being too clever and to a harmful degree. And then, there was the highly memorable but emotionally repugnant scene between Christopher Walken and the late Dennis Hopper in Director Tony Scott's (R.I.P.) "True Romance" (1993), which Tarantino scripted. Yes, it is a brilliantly acted scene, one that is essentially an elaborately stated middle finger from one man to another. But why did the verbal middle finger have to consist of the idea that one character was descended from "niggers"...and utilized as a joke, the ultimate insult at that? I have to say that when I first heard that Tarantino was seriously thinking about creating a "Southern" instead of a "Western" and set his tale during the time of slavery, I was extremely nervous, to say the least, with how he would represent this era and horrific chapter in our nation's and my race's history. "Tread lightly, Quentin," I mentally messaged to him. "Tread lightly, brother." 

After experiencing how he handled Nazis and the Holocaust in his brilliantly executed "Inglourious Basterds" (2009), I felt a tad better about his potential future project. By the time I saw the first trailer for his new "Southern," I had a stronger feeling of the tone Tarantino was going to take and in addition to any anxieties being alleviated, I then became excited. Now having seen the finished film, the nearly three hour "Django Unchained," I feel that Quentin Tarantino has outdone himself as he has created a one-of-a-kind experience that I think is his finest work since his two part/two fisted epic "Kill Bill" (2003/2004). It is a titanic motion picture. A grueling, orgiastic odyssey unlike any other film I have seen this year or most years for that matter. And also, "Django Unchained" represents Quentin Tarantino's vision with a truly unprecedented moral and ethical seriousness while also not skimping a moment of his trademark cinematic glee and supreme storytelling vigor. For fans of "Inglourious Basterds," when Brad Pitt exclaims at that film's justifiably grisly final moments that "I think this just might be my masterpiece," I have to let you know for as terrific as that picture was, I feel that it serves as a mere warm up to the masterpiece of "Django Unchained." 

Beginning "somewhere in Texas" in the year 1858, two years before the Civil War, we meet Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave as part of a chain gang being transported across the country by the Speck brothers (James Remar and James Russo). On one frigid evening, the group is accosted by the oddly loquacious and presumed dentist Dr. King Schultz (the brilliant Christoph Waltz), who requests to speak with the slave known as Django in order to attain some information concerning the whereabouts of a group of slave traders known as the Brittle Brothers. A scuffle ensues during which Dr. Schultz reveals himself to really be an abolitionist/bounty hunter, disarms the Speck Brothers and frees Django, enlisting him in his quest and deputizing him as a bounty hunter. 

As their shared journey moves forwards, the two men forge a tentative partnership and a deal is struck between them. If Django can help Dr. Schultz locate and kill the Brittle Brothers, Dr. Schultz will, in turn, help Django rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of the sadistic young plantation owner Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) from his massive compound known throughout the south as "Candyland." 

As you would expect from a film by Quentin Tarantino, the genre splicing and hybrids are all in place. What he has boiled together in his cinematic stew is another slab of revisionist history a la "Inglourious Basterds." We have the wide vistas and conceptual structures of Spaghetti Westerns, the righteous anger and vengeance of 1970s Blaxploitation films, a condemnation of the Hollywood slavery opera while existing as a slavery opera and it also even possesses a brilliantly re-imagined retelling of a German fable while also creating a cinematic folktale of a newly emancipated slave reborn as a gun-slinging legend of the South. Also, and as with his past efforts, his film is fueled by a kaleidoscopic genre bending soundtrack that mixes country, folk, soul, and even 21st century hip-hop to its pre-Civil War imagery. 

"Django Unchained," which is sumptuously photographed by veteran Cinematographer Robert Richardson, unfolds as luxuriously as a 19th century novel, and is filled from one end to the other with Tarantino's peerless dialogue which all of the actors roll around their lips with relish. Turning back Tarantino's cinematic clock a bit, remember very early in "Pulp Fiction" when hitman Jules says to his partner in crime Vincent Vega, "Let's get into character"? With that, much of "Django Unchained" almost operates like Tarantino's version of George Roy Hill's "The Sting" (1973) merged with nearly unbearable Hitchcock-ian tension and suspense, where every principal character is operating under some sort of pseudonym or false pretense and speaking the opposite of their true intentions. 

Jamie Foxx's performance at the titular Django is a study of intense implosiveness that erupts into volcanic fury. Christoph Waltz again captures the stunning musicality of Tarantino's language and rhythms while Leonardo DiCaprio shows a terrifying new sense of of gleeful malice as well as self-righteous racial piety and superiority as Calvin J. Candie. His monologues are outstanding. And then, there is an almost unrecognizable Samuel L. Jackson as Calvin's head house slave, Stephen, a chilling and infuriating cauldron of self hatred who will wail in anguish over any transgressions made against his white owners but will craft all manner of unspeakable horrors to members of his own race. The "house Negro"/"field Negro" dynamics between the slave Stephen and the emancipated warrior Django contains sharply observed commentary of the divisions within the African-American community that exist even to this day.  

Now, I would imagine that some may feel that the topic of slavery is one that should be off limits to any sense of cinematic escapism and frivolity. I wholeheartedly agree and as I stated earlier, I was concerned with how Tarantino would approach something like this. While some may refuse to see this film out of respect for the period or for our ancestors, I would not argue with anyone but I would ask them to at least give this film a shot, either now or in the future, as I believe that Quentin Tarantino has not made light of the era or was disrespectful in any conceivable way. Of course, it is a matter of taste. But, I have to say that with "Django Unchained," Tarantino has moved much further and deeper from his constant theme of revenge. The emotions I traveled through while watching the film and the primal level of intense catharsis I felt as Django embarked upon his journey while bestowing a punishing brand of retribution provided me with a certain deliverance I have rarely experienced in the movies and almost never when it comes to the representation of African-Americans on screen.

I have made no secret of my extreme hatred of Director Tate Taylor's box office smash and Oscar winning feature "The Help" from last year as it was yet another film that completely marginalized the noble and silently suffering African-American characters in favor of the white lead who acts as savior. Furthermore, it insultingly trivialized the issue of racism by being so afraid of its subject matter and that it was unwilling to make the imaginary white audience in the movie theater remotely uncomfortable. Friends of mine who love the film have informed me that the softness of "The Help" was not bothersome to them because it was entertaining. Fine. But why did it have to be entertaining at the expense of the truth? Racism is not comfortable and it should never be comfortably depicted no matter how entertaining the movie in question happens to be. With "Django Unchained," Quentin Tarantino never for even one moment makes that crucial mistake. Yes, we are plunged into a Tarantino cinematic universe but he pays proper respects to the voluminous, repugnant history of slavery by never blinking an eye with the brutality of the period and forcing us to not blink alongside him.

In regards to a film like "The Help," Tarantino plays with the conventions of the cinematic "white knight" saving the noble, silently suffering black victim through the relationship between Dr. King Schultz and Django. It was a seriously risky move to name his white, German character "Dr. King," but since he is the story's initial emancipator, the name seems fitting. As the story develops and Django's role evolves from slave to emancipated to punishing emancipator, Tarantino also upends the movies' conventions of that noble, silently suffering black victim's sense of moral superiority by refusing to "sink to the same level" of his tormentors. Tarantino also lays to waste the iconic Hollywood love affair with the antebellum south of films like "Gone With The Wind" (1939) and even Disney's own "Song Of The South" (1946), which features that infernal Uncle Remus and the song I have seriously hated, hated, HATED throughout my entire life, "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," via an mountainous bloodbath of an explosive climax. 

Beyond those qualities, Tarantino very powerfully takes all of his storytelling razzle-dazzle and grounds all of it with the nightmarish historical truth of what the experience of slavery actually was. He never shies away from the physical and verbal brutality of the era and nor should he. If we are given films and documentaries about the Holocaust often and again, in order to help us as a society always remember the atrocities of the recent past, then the exact same should be performed for the African-American Holocaust of slavery, a period of which the America of the 21st century is still not willing to deal with internally as a matter of understanding and healing between the races. Visually, Tarantino brings us images of rape, whippings, African-Americans locked in chains or imprisoned naked in metallic hot boxes, skin brandings, black human beings encased in full face masks of metal, to the death sport fighting for the entertainment of the plantation owners and in one graphic sequence, a black man being eviscerated by a pack of wild dogs. 

And then, there is the verbal brutality contained within the film. Yes, controversy has already erupted surrounding "Django Unchained" for its massive usage of the word "nigger." To my ears this time, Tarantino's usage of the word did not bother me at all as this was indeed the language of the time period. It is a word utilized as innocuously as "table" or "chair," which is apt as slavery, in addition to serving as the complete degradation and potential annihilation of the African-American race, was also the business of human trafficking. Calvin J. Candie fashions himself a businessman and black people, at that time, thought of as being 3/5 of a human being and treated with less respect than members of the animal kingdom are nothing more than property meant to be handled and spoken of in any way slave owners wished. Delving even deeper into the psychology of the racist's mind, Calvin J. Candie, while holding a skull and wielding a hammer, ruthlessly delivers a monologue concerning the nature of "phrenology," the so-called Science that explains the differences between black and white people...a mindset that also exists to this day for some.

While we have the fictional creation of an African-American bounty hunter, everything I have just compiled are all the realities of slavery which I have not seen depicted in such an "in your face" fashion before. As difficult as it is to view, I deeply appreciated Tarantino's willingness to depict the reality of what my ancestors experienced, and most importantly, as a race, survived!!!  

Much like George Lucas and Anthony Hemingway's "Red Tails" from the start of this year, what spoke to me so powerfully over the course of "Django Unchained" is that Quentin Tarantino understands how the image is EVERYTHING. For the African-American slaves within the movie, the mere sight of an African-American man on horseback, picking out his own clothes (which initially leads to a moment of Tarantino's wicked humor which is peppered throughout the film), walking and speaking with such authority and then having the sheer audacity to gun down murderous slave owners and traders in full view, is a sight of possibility. That there is life beyond the chains. For those of us in the audience, the cinematic arrival of Django provides every African-American with a vibrant image that the unimaginable experience of slavery is one that our race survived. As a race, I firmly believe that we are still undergoing our sense of reconstruction as we still deal with the shame of being descendants from those who were enslaved. But the saga and soul stirring love story of Django and Broomhilda Von Shaft (whose surname is designed to represent the future African-American cinematic descendant who is a certain black private dick whose a sex machine to all the chicks in the 1970s) are here to show the power that we, as a race, have because we survived an experience we were not meant to survive. That makes us a powerful, beautiful people and that there is no shame in our enslaved past. We are emancipated and we must move forwards. Our existence in the 21st century, especially with President Obama in office, is a testament to our collective victory.

Speaking of the first African-American President, we should look at the racially turbulent and divisive tenor of the country at this point in time in regards to the arrival of "Django Unchained." Whether by intention or accident, Tarantino's film has arrived at a point in our collective history where a supreme nerve at the center of our country is being pushed demonstrably. Again, the image is EVERYTHING and when I saw that trailer for the very first time, the reaction in the predominantly white audience at the sight of a black man gunning down racist whites was palpable in its frigid nervousness and frankly, it should be. When viable Presidential candidates on the right own hunting grounds with the moniker "Niggerhead" and another nearly referred to our President as a "government nigger," those venomous words signal to anonymous racists that their own brand of hatred is acceptable. With that, at some point those very racial tensions just may crack...and not in their favor. For some, "Django Unchained" could be heeded as a warning and it surprises me that there has not been a media outcry frightening potential white viewers away from this film for fear of race riots just as there were when Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing" was released all the way back in 1989. And that observation brings out yet another issue...

The existence of  "Django Unchaned" also speaks to the money driven racism and fear that exists within Hollywood as this exact film could and would NEVER, EVER be made with an African-American filmmaker at the helm and as the conceptual and artistic driving force. But somehow, a white man is able to get this film made, especially someone with the clout of Quentin Tarantino. Thankfully, Tarantino realizes this racial filmmaking quandary and level of unfairness and he does not squander the opportunity to make the most of this highly unique storytelling experience to right some cinematic wrongs.  

Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" is as much a labor of love as any film he has ever released. The sheer joy he has in creating his complete cinematic universe is infectious and for a film enthusiast like myself, I deeply appreciated how he swings for the fences with every time at bat, never taking his unique position as a filmmaker for granted. With "Django Unchained," Quentin Tarantino has crafted a motion picture out of pure fearlessness. Not recklessness. But pure, unadulterated, bold and brazen fearlessness that speaks to the majesty of his specialized brand of cinematic art. He has defiantly made the exact movie that he himself would pay to see, any potential offended audience members, regardless of race, be damned. 

"Django Unchained" is one of 2012's highest achievements.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

MIDDLE AGE CRAZY: a review of "This Is 40"

"THIS IS 40"
Based upon characters created by Judd Apatow
Written and Directed by Judd Apatow
**** (four stars)

With "This Is 40," Writer/Director Judd Apatow has completely nailed the turbulent and ever shifting physical and psychological landscape of middle age. It is a hugely funny film featuring the pitch perfect performances of Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann as the married Pete and Debbie, first introduced to audiences in Apatow's "Knocked Up" (2007). While "This Is 40" is expectantly entertaining and filled with a ribald outlook and stinging one-liners, it is also a precise and provocative film whose full emotional power sneaks up on you, hitting you with wallops of hard learned and hard earned truths before you have even realized it...much like the experience of living through middle age.

As a prelude to this review, I have to say that the experience of reaching the age of 40, and even a few years further than that, has admittedly not been the easiest time for me. After the wonders of childhood, the angst of adolescence, and the emotional waywardness and restlessness of my 20's, I really began to feel comfortable within my own skin for the first time once I reached the age of 30. Between the ages of 30-34, everything felt to be...just right. Certainly there were areas in which I knew I desired to improve but overall, my head, spirit and body all seemed to be working together in full tandem. And then, I turned 35. Then, 36, 37 and so on until I reached 40 and began to then peer hesitantly over my shoulder, wondering just how 40 years evaporated so seemingly quickly. And of course, that thought led to the inevitable connective question: If 40 years are gone, then how many more will I have left? Do I get 40 more? Or 30? Or 50? Or even...gulp...20?

Thoughts of mortality began to overtake my spirit in a most prevalent manner, much more than I am even remotely comfortable with. And those thoughts have opened a previously locked cabinet of longings and regrets where anxious and excited anticipation of the future once resided. My road of life, which seemed so long and winding, now looked considerably shorter as I could look back upon so many events and choices, all of which brought me to my current status as husband, preschool teacher, cat parent, adult son and adult grandson, yet I am still so unsure at what else there is to look forward to as so many life goals have already been reached. Each new bodily ache and pain makes me pause where I would have once dismissed it. Desiring a greater longevity, I am more conscious of what I place into my body while I also have extreme difficulty curbing the tastes that I have consumed for so long.

And what of my relationship with my wife, a woman I have been connected with ever since we were each 21 years old? How has our relationship grown, changed, stagnated, blossomed, nearly erupted and then healed itself over and again and how do we keep evolving individually as well as together with a well worn history of passions and resentments contained firmly within? Just this afternoon, almost immediately after seeing this film, I found myself in an alternately funny and intense phone conversation with my wife about an item she wanted me to purchase at a nearby grocery store. It was something I had sought the previous day to no avail (and with assistance from a nice store clerk) but she was just insistent that I was not looking in the right place. The conversation took an odd turn when it was discovered that she never had the correct name of the item she wished for in the first place and that the item was located at a completely different grocery store to boot, a discovery that led to a series of awkward pauses, frigid silences, assurances and increasingly frustrated re-assurances that neither of us was upset with the other when it was more than obvious that we both were. Old resentments began to peek through but remained at bay and by the time we had each hung up on each other, I rubbed my forehead, attempting to dull an on-coming headache (it's not a tumor is it?) and muttered to myself tiredly, "God, we are Pete and Debbie!"

Judd Apatow's "This Is 40" is sharply and miraculously in tune with all of those emotions and experiences plus so many, many more as he invites us to spend a week in the lives of Pete and Debbie, whose often volatile marriage continues to ebb more than flow as they each experience their 40th birthdays (or in Debbie's case, the eternal age of 38). As "This Is 40" opens, we find Pete and Debbie enthralled in a lively session of lovemaking in the shower, an amorous act that spins on a dime into anger, confusion, and hurt feelings as an incredulous Debbie cannot believe that Pete would take Viagra before having sex with her. Is she not enough for him? Does he not find her attractive enough anymore where he can become aroused without assistance? This emotional minefield continues as Pete and Debbie struggle with raising their two daughters, the emotionally explosive 13-year-old Sadie (Maude Apatow) who holes herself away in an i-pod/i-pad/i-touch world while also obsessively viewing "Lost," and the sweetly charming but sadly ignored 8-year-old Charlotte (Iris Apatow). Additionally, Pete and Debbie also struggle to forge and maintain significant relationships with their own difficult parents. For Debbie, it is with Oliver (John Lithgow), her wealthy and long estranged surgeon Father. For Pete, it is with his Father, Larry (a wonderful Albert Brooks) the mopey moocher to whom Pete has secretly supported for years and to his own family's financial detriment .

In addition to their battles on the home front, Debbie owns a small clothing boutique yet fears that either one of her two employees (played by Megan Fox and Charlyne Yi) are embezzling funds from her. Life at work is even more stressful for Pete, whom after leaving a position with Sony, has founded his own independent record label, complete with endlessly bickering employees (Lena Dunham and Chris O'Dowd), and specializes with housing new material from "retro" artists, of which Graham Parker and the Rumor (who appear throughout as themselves) are Pete's current passion project. Unfortunately, his career moves are far from lucrative, forcing Pete to face the difficult realization that he may possibly have to sell his family's home.

From here, "This Is 40" provides us with a sprawling, minutely observed, episodic journey through Pete and Debbie's lives and marriage as they each confront mounting adult responsibilities, their fading youth and oncoming mortality and the seemingly constant uphill battle to remain the people they always saw themselves to be regardless of the ticking clock of time.

Through television and film, the very best of Judd Apatow's work has arrived when he chronicles the collective growth and development (or lack thereof) of his characters in life, love and relationships. With "This Is 40," Pete and Debbie especially are kicking and screaming into middle age which provides Apatow with a mountain of material in which he mines great comedy and an amount of unexpected pathos that nearly blindsided me as the film overall is so congenial. As you all know  this film is being advertised as a "sort of sequel" to "Knocked Up," and I would not be at all surprised if there are some of you who may be wondering if the characters of Ben and Alison (portrayed by Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl) would make an appearance. Well...without any sense of spoiling, they do not return. but, that is more than OK as Apatow has fashioned both films to work together as Ben and Alison's relationship could have also worked as an approximation of Pete and Debbie's earliest years together. In turn, "This Is 40" could also exist as an approximation of Ben and Alison's future.

While Apatow clearly has great affection for his characters, he is also, and very wisely, highly critical of Pete and Debbie as he presents the baby steps of their shared journey from being self-centered and at times very selfish people to ones that are more selfless. For Apatow, the road to maturity and growing up is hard traveled and hard fought, especially as Pete and Debbie have such difficulty raising their children while also finding the delicate balance being adult children to their own parents, people who have absolutely no intention of being parents. With this collection of relationships, Apatow very cleverly shows how Pete and Debbie's severe limitations as parents came to be and how the troubles they share with Oliver and Larry completely inform their dangerously immature work with Sadie and Charlotte, no matter how much they love them. With just this theme of parents and children, Judd Apatow has already packed "This Is 40" with a truthfulness that may hit too close to home for those of you who just desire to go to the movies and laugh the night away. And as I have stated many times before, this very trait of Apatow's finest work is what I love the very most about his approach. how he realizes that just being funny, while being a great thing, is also just not enough to when it comes to making material resonate and even approach becoming something artful. As with his productions of "Bridesmaids" (2011) and this year's undervalued "The Five-Year Engagement," Apatow and his collaborators have fashioned material that for some may even have been too stressful to endure but for my tastes and sensibilities, have hit my sweet spot as they have also done their part to elevate the tepid state of romantic comedies to its once lustrous status as depicting real people with real emotions behaving in realistic ways. With "This Is 40," Apatow, using the fullness of his writing/directorial hands, has fashioned his finest work yet as the comedy is infused with a newfound poeticism and exquisite pain that should be recognizable to anyone who chooses to view this film.

Those aforementioned bodily aches and pains rear their ugly heads as Debbie and Pete feverishly try to outrun mortality through intense bouts of exercise (Debbie's work with a personal trainer and her combined fascination and jealousy with the younger Megan Fox's physique plus Pete with his ritualistic bicycling buddies). Debbie tries to quit smoking while Pete feebly attempts to curb his cupcake habit, both with the hopes of rewriting their potential dark futures. With their shared love of music, Pete and Debbie's personal tastes have divided grandly. Debbie, prefers to dance in hip-hop clubs and favors music designed for teenagers. Yet, Pete soldiers on, like a music industry Don Quixote, with the rock heroes of his youth celebrating rock as art in favor of all flashes in the pan but to his financial strain. The two each wonder about life without the other (they have a  simultaneously tender, hilarious yet viscous discussion about how they would kill the other). Another lovely sequence shows Pete and Debbie taking a romantic getaway for an evening, rekindling their passions, only to have that afterglow destroyed within mere moments of returning home. Yet another beautiful sequence showed the long lingering after effects of one blazing showdown between Pete and Debbie, even beyond a shared victory in the Principal's office at Sadie's school. The two walk out of school together, laughing cautiously, sharing a few conciliatory words and just at the moment we think they will, at least, take hands in forgiveness again, they separate, walking to their individual cars.

Judd Apatow perfectly captures the sense of private pain and quiet desperation of people who are just trying to live life upon their own terms but who keep running up against life's unforgiving obstacles, especially how the fears of losing everything that you had worked for unleashes near debilitating fears of failure at life. I loved how Apatow presents Pete retiring to the family bathroom with his i-pad to get maybe 30 minutes of peace and quiet. That was a particularly sharp running gag, especially as I am a person whose rare moments of solitude are driving in my car. Yet another moment, which finds Pete, late at night in his car in a moment of solitary anguish over his financial instability and what it would mean for his family, his life and the dreams he has housed for his entire life hit like a punch in the gut.

Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann have tremendous chemistry and completely look, feel, live and breathe as a convincing couple with a history and a baggage. You entirely understand how and why they love each other as equally as you understand how and why they often want to tear each other apart. Judd Apatow has given us a couple that can easily exist in a very real world and he obviously has no desire of creating another unrealistic fantasy couple in a candyfloss motion picture. As wonderful as Paul Rudd is throughout "This Is 40," Leslie Mann is true cinematic "lighting in a bottle." For years now, I have often wondered why she has not been plucked away and placed into other films by other filmmakers. That being said,  I almost wonder if any other filmmakers other than Judd Apatow would even know how to harness her specialized brand of unpredictable energy which runs the gamut from infuriating, understanding, sexy, hilarious, coy, emotionally brutal and self-lacerating. Mann is an absolute wonder and completely functions as a realistic 21st century woman, the very kind I know and work with daily...and the very kind I am certain most of you happen to be in your own lives.

As with many of Judd Apatow's films he has again run into the criticism that perhaps "This Is 40" has a heftier running time than necessary. At two hours and fifteen minutes, yes, "This Is 40" runs long but for me, I am thrilled that Judd Apatow is a filmmaker who uses a wider canvas to possess a true point of view and artistic vision that runs counterpoint to the anonymous, impersonal 90 minute running timed pieces of forgettable dreck that typically litters our theaters. Additionally, Apatow is so much more skilled than I think that some have given him credit for as what appears to be undisciplined and rambling, actually perfectly captures the rhythms of life as it is lived, especially in a film like this one that is almost defiantly without plot and houses an episodic structure that goes down several conceptual alleys and roads simultaneously...much like life itself.

For some who just want to laugh, "This Is 40" does indeed deliver the goods but it also may prove to be a more melancholy experience as the disappointments of life are at times more present than the successes. But, I urge you to not let this fact stop you from being re-introduced to the lives of Pete, Debbie, their family and friends and their collective hopes, failures, fears and dreams.

Judd Apatow's "This Is 40" is a rich tapestry of characters, music, comedy, tragedy and a host of emotions that are recognizable to us all and how much easier the bitterness of life, no matter what age we happen to be, is to take when we are all able to step back and laugh.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

HISTORICAL ENIGMA: a review of "Lincoln"

Based upon The Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius Of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Screenplay Written by Tony Kushner
Directed by Steven Spielberg
*** (three stars)

Star ratings are just so arbitrary. In fact, they are sometimes meaningless.

Ever since I became aware of film criticism as my love of movies developed as a child, I paid close attention to the task attributing star ratings at the top of film reviews. Certainly, not every writer utilizes the zero to four (or sometimes even five star) ratings but generally, this is what we all see when we do scope out film reviews, whether newly released or films from the past. I would gather than some people would only look at the star rating as the sole critical barometer. Now, I am not about to engage you with a dissertation about the validity or uselessness of star ratings but that being said, I do have to say that a star rating sometimes cannot even begin to tell the whole story of a viewer's experience and reaction to certain films. As you all know very well, not all four star films are equal and one star films may be one star films for a whole host of reasons. And sometimes, perhaps most importantly, the stars in between are the murkiest of all.

At the top of this review for Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," you will easily see that I have given the film three stars, which generally means that overall, the film is a solid piece of work but it is also not superlative either. To arrive at that particular rating, I performed a completely imprecise form of "Mathematics." Some parts of the film were indeed "four star worthy" while other sections maybe ranged somewhere within the "two and a half star" area and thus, I arrived at three stars by splitting the difference. Ridiculous isn't it? But this time, dear readers, I ask all of you to actually pay the least amount of attention to the star rating and even more attention to the content of this review as I really feel that the words will be more illuminating than any star rating could possibly be. 

"Lincoln" is indeed a good film. A very good film presented with the cinematic elegance that you would expect from any film directed by Steven Spielberg, one of our cinematic storytelling masters who remains at the top of his game. I would not discourage any of you from seeing the film. In fact, I implore you to indeed make the time to see this finely crafted piece of work as I feel the film owes as much to the time of Abraham Lincoln as it does to the life and times we all belong to in the 21st century. My reaction to the film overall is not one that is necessarily muted but one that is more contemplative and searching as perhaps what I may have been looking for within this work was quite possibly not designed to be there at all, which then does make for a completely different experience than I thought that I would receive initially. Since 1977, Steven Spielberg has taken me through a world of experiences, adventures, wonders, horrors and emotions through environments and locations, real and imagined, and always visualized with absolute greatness. This time, he has profoundly given me a considerable amount to ruminate over. Please allow me to take you upon my journey.

As the course of "Lincoln" is decidedly not plot driven, what I am able to describe to you is simple.  Spielberg's "Lincoln" opens at the beginning of January 1865 as President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has also begun his second term in office. With the Civil War raging onwards, Lincoln is fiercely determined to have the 13th Amendment, a law declaring the full abolishment of slavery, passed by the  United States House Of Representatives. As he fears deeply that his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation would be thrown out by the courts should the Civil war conclude as quickly as he expects and consequently, the 13th Amendment would be discarded by the slave states, Lincoln doggedly tries to ensure the Amendment passes by the end of January, this ensuring that slaves already freed would not be re-enslaved. 

In addition to his potentially history altering political dealings, Lincoln also navigates the troubled waters of his home life as he struggles with the intense depression of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) as well as the return of his son Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt), who had departed his studies at Harvard armed with the full determination to join the Union solders in the Civil War.

For the full breadth its two and half hour running time, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," featuring the breathtaking cinematography by longtime Spielberg associate Janusz Kaminski, is an impeccably presented, helmed and acted motion picture that beautifully evokes a time and place as realistically as if you were actually there. Yet for me, I truly believe that the real star of the film was the luxurious screenplay written by celebrated Playwright Tony Kushner ("Angels In America") who also collaborated with Spielberg on 2005's "Munich." I cannot express enough how thrilling it was to sit and listen to such rapturous dialogue that the actors certainly ate with a knife, fork and spoon and asked for seconds! Kushner's words completely force you to pay attention, decipher, and keep pace. That refusal to dumb itself down made "Lincoln" a refreshingly adult film-going experience, a rarity that gives audiences something to reach for rather than be catered to. As this film is obviously going to be headed to receiving a healthy share of industry attention and awards, Kushner's work should be high on the list of worthy recipients.

For those of you who may have been put off by the unabashed and unapologetic emotional quality of Spielberg's "War Horse" (2011), "Lincoln" is such a full testament to Spielberg's complete mastery of cinematic storytelling and tonality as he has wisely and defiantly eschewed nearly all of his standard filmmaking trademarks (save for his ever present image of hazy lights flowing into darkened rooms). Even the score from his longtime Composer John Williams is reduced to a bare minimum. What Spielberg has accomplished powerfully is to create an experience that is urgently cerebral. "Lincoln," while appropriately solemn and stately, is essentially a meditation upon the process of our politics. While that, in and of itself, may not sound terribly exciting to view, Spielberg creates great tension by having nearly the entire film rest upon the act of attaining votes from people who do not want to give them as the end result of of passing the 13th Amendment into the law of the land would bring the nation into an unknown new world where Black people would walk upon equal footing as Whites once and for all. It is a film that intelligently explores racism as well as politics and how the two are intertwined to an almost insurmountable degree.

For that matter, I felt it to be brilliantly shrewd of Spielberg to have his film released just after our most recent Presidential election, and especially after Barack Obama has won his second term in office. Much like how Ben Affleck's "Argo" provided a subtle re-examination of our political process (especially during an international crisis) under the leadership of President Jimmy Carter, "Lincoln" is a film designed for audiences to make connections and parallels between Lincoln's and Obama's respective turns in office. We are meant to recognize both men are at almost the same point in time in their Presidential careers (nearly two months after re-election) and they are also placed within similar political positions. Both men had/have to decide whether or not to utilize any sense of newly attained political capital to obtain a scant yet crucial amount of votes in order to bring a sense of seismic social/political change (For Lincoln, the end of the Civil War and the full emancipation of all African-Americans. For Obama, leveling the playing field of the current societal class warfare between the wealthiest 1%-2% and the remaining 98%-99%.). Furthermore, we are asked see how much the beast of politics has changed between 1865 and 2012 and how, quite frankly, it hasn't changed very much at all. 

Returning to the whole issue of star ratings, all of what I have described would seem to be perfectly deserving of a four star rating. But, as I previously stated, dear readers, try to place the star rating into the background this time. You see, for everything that "Lincoln" gave me to mentally chew upon, and how thankful I am that Steven Spielberg accomplished such a feat, the film did keep me a bit at arms length. I am not mentioning this as a flaw per se, but just as an observation. I have to mention that growing up, and to this day as well, the academic subject of History was never my strong suit. It was an area I struggled with as the amount of dates, names, facts and figures would all swim around in my brain in a jumble, making everything a dusty textbook chore and my less than considerable interest would tend to wane more than it already had. It was difficult for me to digest all of the information successfully, for if I had been able to perform that task, the greater, underlying themes of the times would indeed have made more sense and would have become much more meaningful to me. And then, there is my naturally inquisitive nature that questioned the validity of everything I had been exposed to in textbooks anyway. Certainly not the undisputed dates, names, facts and figures, of course. But the fact that History is the shared product of every single person who has lived through the period and because not every voice has been documented, I would typically argue as to how reliable could everything in the textbooks actually be. And thus, everything then became even more of a jumble.

I mention this academic issue of mine because there is a dusty, textbook quality to "Lincoln" that, at least for me, never really left the screen. Everything appeared to be so realistically lived in visually, but emotionally, not much burst to life and that emotional distance made "Lincoln" an experience that did not transcend its textbook qualities to become something emotionally vibrant. Now, this is not to say that "Lincoln" was boring. It is not, by any stretch. I was undeniably interested, the film most certainly resonated with me but I was still having a problem connecting. For example, I was struggling with the identities of certain people here and there. I was unsure if Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), the handmaiden  to Mary Todd Lincoln was a slave or if she happened to be a free woman. Other characters, like the ones very well played by James Spader and John Hawkes for instance, really bogged me down for a spell as I was unsure as to who they were, what they were doing and their relationships to other characters. While those details and others fell into place eventually, that trouble connecting had me spinning my mental wheels longer than I had wished, and therefore made me disconnect from what was happening on screen as I tried to piece things together. 

Dear readers, trust me, I do understand that "Lincoln" is a film about governing. People are emotional where policies, while being inanimate, are therefore unemotional but it ultimately felt as if the film was about policy at the expense of people. Steven Spielberg is, without question, one of our most humane filmmakers even when the material happens to exist at its most repugnant and horrific. But "Lincoln," more often than not, struggled to exist beyond the history lesson aspect for me as I found myself not truly gathering the full humanity of the piece. While every single performance in the film is at the high level we would expect from any Spielberg film, for my money, only Tommy Lee Jones as Republican congressional leader and fierce abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, found and injected a real sense of the blood and fire that pulses deeply inside of the politics.  

My difficulties with the film even extended themselves to the title character and Daniel Day-Lewis' performance. For a film that is called "Lincoln," I was surprised to discover that I really didn't learn very much about him. What we see is a brooding, looming, deliberately paced and meditative figure who is a loquacious raconteur filled with platitudes, homilies, speeches and stories and also, and strangely, a foresight into a social/political future that he could not possibly have. Daniel Day-Lewis, who by now you have all seen bears a eerily striking resemblance to the 16th President of the United States Of America, has delivered a performance that is a technical marvel. Not only does Day-Lewis completely bury any and all traces of any of his past performances, he does the very same to his own natural personality. Daniel Day-Lewis is never to be seen on screen, only Abraham Lincoln. And yet, there was something odd to me about his portrayal.   

Like the film overall, Daniel Day-Lewis' characterization of Abraham Lincoln was solemn and stately but he also felt to me to be ghostly. This Abraham Lincoln appeared to me as a walking wraith who possessed a near otherworldly quality that dulled any sense of the man's true humanity, whatever that may have been. This Abraham Lincoln remained such an enigma to me that he was almost unknowable. I could not help but to be reminded of past performances by the likes of Ben Kingsley in Sir Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi" (1982), Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone's "Nixon" (1995), or Denzel Washington's greatest performance in Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" (1992), as well as Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in Clint Eastwood's "Invictus" (2009) or even Willem Dafoe's searing work as Jesus Christ himself in Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation Of Christ" (1988). All of those performances delved into the humanity contained in those historical figures, making their experiences tangible, understandable and surprisingly relatable. Day-Lewis, on the other hand, felt kind of like an impersonal hologram projected into 1865 from the great beyond.

I have say that throughout my life, I have harbored a bit of an inner conflict concerning Abraham Lincoln. Without question, I am forever indebted to his political legacy for if the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment had never come to pass, how could I, your friendly neighborhood film enthusiast, possibly be sitting here at this point in time, inside of my own home, writing film reviews for all of you? The political ramifications of his actions have resulted in the continued evolution of my race, so my gratitude is endless. However, and with special thanks to a fiery Social Studies teacher from high school, what has clouded me about Abraham Lincoln was the fact that I could never really know what his full motives behind the passing of the 13th Amendment actually were. Was it a true altruistic act of moral fortitude or was the emancipation of African American slaves a political byproduct of ensuring the South would not secede from the Union and ending the Civil War. Was the overall health of the nation placed ahead of a sector of the population or was the health of the nation knowingly bound to the very health of that very same sector of the population? I broached this very subject with my Mother as she was extolling the virtues of the Ralph Ellison novel Juneteenth and her response to me was simply, "Does it matter?"
     "Does it matter?" I asked in reply.
     "Yes, does it matter whether he truly believe din the equality of the races or not because what truly matters is that he still did it. He made the Emancipation proclamation happen. He still did it regardless of what he may have truly felt."

"Does it matter?" That question stuck in my head as I viewed "Lincoln" and it made me wonder if the humanistic qualities of Abraham Lincoln were purposefully not included in the film by Spielberg as it is a film about policy, governing and most importantly, the idea of equality between the races and all human beings as a whole. How the idea will outlast the life of the man, who was indeed a product of the times in which he lived. Maybe what I had hoped to find in the film was never designed to be included at all. And furthermore, maybe what I was looking for, and what, I guess, I am still looking for is an answer to something that cannot be answered as the man himself is not here to elucidate upon his state of social/political/moral consciousness. 

And perhaps my Mother is absolutely correct because in the end, what truly matters when the passion lies within the law itself? Maybe that is what Steven Spielberg is trying to accomplish with "Lincoln," a film that daringly remains emotionally ambiguous about its titular subject but defiantly committed to depicting how words and ideas can alter the course of a nation's history.

And how do you place a significant star rating onto something like that?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

SAVAGE CINEMA'S COMING ATTRACTIONS FOR DECEMBER 2012 just goes to show you...or me, for that matter. When I make sincere plans for my month long cinematic activities, they tend to become compromised or fall through completely. Yet, when my plans are looser, less thought out, I am able to produce more than I ever imagined that I would. November was indeed a highly productive month for me and the amount of material generated based on the amount of films I viewed is thrilling to me to look back upon.

So as I head into December, I will try my best to keep any sense of plans open and free, especially as the demands of the holiday season take precedent. But, if Santa were to grant me every cinematic wish this month, this is what i hope for...

1. I am, in fact, about to head out to a screening of Steven Spielberg's' "Lincoln" this very afternoon  So, a review will be forthcoming.

2. Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" is near the very tip-top of my wish list as his superlatively unique brand of cinematic storytelling is one that has riveted my senses for nearly 20 years. I am hoping that his latest revisionist history/revenge fantasy/"Spaghetti western" hybrid matches up to his previous works.

3. Sitting in about the same place as Tarantino's latest is Judd Apatow's "This Is 40," a film that been already receiving high praise from early critics screenings. I am hoping that my man Apatow can deliver the good once again while also probing new, emotional territory.

4. And of course, I could not forget Peter Jackson's return to Middle Earth with "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," the first installment of his new prequel trilogy. Surprisingly, I am a bit trepidacious about this venture as the "unexpected journey" of this venture felt to me to be more than much so, that I have jokingly referred to this series as "The Hobbit: Return To The Well"! All jokes aside, I wish for Jackson to achieve what he had majestically accomplished with his definitive adaptation of "The Lord Of The Rings." I hope for this new trilogy to be as artful, intelligent and as emotional as I am certain the special effects will be. I want him to keep chasing the muse and not the dollar and only viewing the final results will tell.

Beyond that...I am anxious to view the new HBO documentary "The Rolling Stones: Crossfire Hurricane," as well as Director Joe Wright's adaptation of "Anna Karenina," Spike Lee's "Red Hook Summer," the LCD Soundsystem concert film "Shut Up And Play The Hits," and I have to see my man Bill Murray as FDR in "Hyde Park On The Hudson."

So many films, so little time but I will do what I am able as Savage Cinema nears its latest milestone, one that could not have happened if not for all of you!!!!

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