Monday, December 30, 2013

BABY, YOU'VE BEEN HAD: a review of "American Hustle"

Screenplay Written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell
Directed by David O. Russell
* (one star)

Dear readers, as I have often expressed to you, I am no film expert. I am only a film enthusiast. When I write my reviews and postings, I am only offering my opinion of the films that I have seen and not truly expressing a "set-in-stone" assessment designed to be the final word. Essentially, you have your opinions and I have mine, no one is inherently right or wrong and that is exactly how it should be. Even so, there are times in which my opinion seems to fall directly against what is seemingly the mass consensus, either through audiences or critics or both. In the case of Director David O. Russell's "American Hustle," I find myself precisely in that position once again. To all of you who have seen the film and liked or loved it, to the critics who have heaped lavish amounts of praise towards it, to the industry members who will undoubtedly shower this film with awards, to all of you, I have to say, and with all due respect, you have all been had!

Without mincing words, I hated "American Hustle." I truly HATED this movie. It was a disastrous, terrible, messy, barely conceived project that, like the film's collective of characters, tries desperately to pass itself off as something it most definitely is not--and frankly, seeing it just one day after viewing Martin Scorsese's outstanding, explosive "The Wolf Of Wall Street" made the differences in quality only that much more apparent. It deeply surprised me to feel this way as "American Hustle" had been one of the movies that I have been most anxious to see this season and yet, even after an involving opening section, I found myself becoming numbed and increasingly irritated by the sheer boredom, the inexcusable sluggishness and sloppiness and the incredulous inanity of the material presented to me. I was not drawn in, I was barely entertained and for most of the film, I kept wondering just what in the hell went wrong. To date, and for me and my sensibilities, "American Hustle" represents Russell's worst film to date as well as descending rapidly to resting as one of the worst movies I have seen in 2013.

Now, as previously stated, "American Hustle," which is very loosely based upon the FBI ABSCAM operation during the late 1970's, does indeed begin well and I did like the introduction to Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a small time businessman and con-artist with an elaborate and most unfortunate comb over who meets and falls for the ravishing red headed beauty Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who unbeknownst to Irving, makes her living as a stripper. Irving and Sydney are kindred spirits, as they make their way through the world with their respective facades, but through a pure connection, as well as a shared love of the music of Duke Ellington, they begin a romance. Once Irving confesses to his "outside of the law" excursions, Sydney agrees to join Irving in his pursuits by creating the alluring alias of the British "Lady Edith Greensley," who charms investors into forking over money which Irving soon embezzles.

So far, so good. I was with "American Hustle" through these early sections as Russell did create an effective 1970's druggy haze which did seem to also tie itself to the central theme of perceived yet ultimately false realities. Bale and Adams did also seem to be beginning to create two fascinating characters who desired to escape their respective stations in life through duplicitous means and yet find themselves falling for each other while also being faced with the quandary of whether to reveal their true personalities or not, to each other, and themselves, giving the audience a fine guessing game as to their real motives.

But gradually, the film goes South as we are then introduced to Irving's unstable wife Rosalyn (a completely miscast Jennifer Lawrence), who refuses to divorce him; an over-zealous FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) whose lust for "Lady Edith Greensley" creates a most complicated love triangle between himself, Irving and Sydney and then, there's Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the beloved mayor of Camden, New Jersey who wishes to build jobs in his community through the development of casinos but who runs afoul of that aforementioned over-zealous FBI agent and his own duplicitous desires and then, there's a rouse about an Arab sheikh who wants to make some sort of investments that are either real or false, and then there's the millions of dollars being moved into and out of real or fake accounts, and then, there's the possible entrapment of several members of Congress and then there' who even cares anymore...

My intense frustration and disappointment with the film is not due to what was included or what it was about but entirely how it was about what it was about. Now everything I described within the plot description would be well and good if "American Hustle" had anything approaching a structure, three dimensional characters or even a real screenplay. Scenes ramble on and on and on and on, yet not with the sense that David O. Russell is trying to capture the rhythms of real life, but unfortunately with the reality that he just turned the cameras on and let the A-list actors flail around and riff without focus. It was akin to watching many of those awful so-called comedy films featuring our beloved cast members and comedians from "Saturday Night Live." You know exactly the ones I mean. In one awful movie after another, we are given performers that we love and we know are funny but the filmmakers in question, who don't bother to give these performers a script or story or any situations that we care ab tor play to their strengths, they repeatedly just let the cameras roll, with the hopes that our comedic heroes will just "be funny" and the filmmakers in question can call it a day.

That is precisely what "American Hustle" felt like to me. It felt as if David O. Russell thought that he could front-load his movie with A-list stars, combine them with the nostalgic allure of the 1970's, dress them up in funny wigs and the loudest, most garish clothing and leave it at that. But in doing so, the screenplay on display felt as if it was the very first draft and the cut on screen was the very first edit. It is a film that meanders, rambles and falls allover itself trying to find its identity. It had no sense of pacing and for a satire/caper movie, that is a travesty. A film like this, which is essentially a version of a heist movie, either needs to be comically or dramatically frenetic or conversely, one that elicits a slow burn of events, both qualities that would indeed build the tension as situations become increasingly and even desperately complicated and the characters' respective plans threaten to unravel at any moment.

Think of films like Director George Roy Hill's "The Sting"(1973) or Director Steven Soderburgh's "Ocean's Eleven" (2001) or any number of films written and directed by The Coen Brothers, for instance and remember how the large cast of characters interconnected, how the plot was structured, tightened and escalated, and most importantly, how your reactions towards those characters and the plot intensified over each film's duration. Not so with "American Hustle." Not one bit.

The largest problem that I can assess about this movie is that it all felt to be just made up on the spot and in doing so, "American Hustle" contained no overall purpose, perspective or even a reason of being. Did it even matter that the events were kinda, sorta, maybe or maybe not based upon the ABSCAM operation since the film seemed to have absolutely no opinion or viewpoint about them? Did it even matter that the film even took place within the 1970's as it seemed to have no opinion over the decade other than, "Wow!! Didn't we all just look ridiculous!"

The reasons that a film like "The Wolf On Wall Street" was so triumphantly successful was that Martin Scorsese ensured his film contained a real perspective and viewpoint over the subject matter and the time period in which it depicted. Perhaps an even better example would be Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson's brilliant, sprawling 1970's/1980's porn epic "Boogie Nights" (1997), in which he found a real perspective about the people and the time period that transcended the clothes, the discos and the soundtrack. "American Hustle," by contrast is completely superficial to the most innocuous degree. Having characters express ad nauseum that now they are going "to be real" (oh the irony!!) is not nearly enough to hang a movie onto. It has no perspective over anything because it is a film that just doesn't care.

Look, David O. Russell is a filmmaking necessity as far as I am concerned. In our increasingly homogeneous age, he is a director who is doggedly idiosyncratic, a trademark that can lead to severe inconsistencies with quality control. In some ways, I can hardly believe that this is the same filmmaker who made the excellent, wonderful "Silver Linings Playbook" from just last year. But in other ways, I really can believe this is the same filmmaker as movies like "I Heart Huckabees" (2004) and "The Fighter" (2010) were either wildly erratic as well as vastly over-rated.

"American Hustle" presents the ultimate con of attempting to look, sound and feel like a film with a purposeful epic sprawl, thus ensuring it obtains a prestigious pedigree, box office dollars and award season attention. But since this is a film that has not even one point of view, which would be contained in a real screenplay, then the entire proceedings are meaningless. It is a movie that does not want to understand its subject matter, so why should I care? Russell leaves all of his actors stranded, ranting, raving and working themselves into a frenzy and for what, if there are no real characters for them to play? The terrific Jennifer Lawrence, unfortunately comes off the absolute worst this time around, struggling with a wandering accent and motivations that seemed to have been shouted at her from the cameras the moment she arrived on set. They all deserved so much better than this and so did we.

Like I said, if you liked or loved this movie, I will not change your mind and I certainly did not intend to hurt any feelings. If you had a great time with "American Hustle," that is great and I am happy for you. But, for me, I felt as if I saw right through it all so please do not expect me to sit idly by as this film garners more and more attention and awards over the next few months, basically showing us how David O. Russell has effectively fooled us all. I just know what I saw...and in "American Hustle," I saw a completely plastic film, as artificial as those terrible toupees, and in which there is no "there" there whatsoever.

David O. Russell's "American  Hustle" is an unforgivable fraud.


I have crossed the finish line and I cannot even begin to fully express to all of you just how sweet it is!

Four years, dear readers. Four years. Back in the Winter of 2009, while visiting my parents and sitting in their basement, much as I had done during my adolescence and college Summer breaks, I began Savage Cinema. As I sat in the chair facing their computer filled with anticipation and a pervading sense of fear at what I was about to begin with just a few swift clicks of the mouse, never did I ever imagine that four years later, not only would this site still exist but it would amass over 400 postings and what just might be a somewhat steady readership.

All that I had wished to do was to write my feelings about the movies I saw, and my relationship with film overall, and just hope that my writings would deem to be worthy of someone else spending their precious and hard earned free time reading my words. But, if it was to be an exercise in which I wrote in a vacuum, then so be it because I love film and I love writing so, so very much. Thankfully, Savage Cinema has continued to exist not solely because of my passions and obsessions but because all of you out there who have ever offered a kind word or sense of encouragement to me to keep at it. Your words have given me more strength and purpose than you could ever possibly realize.

It is not my nature to stick myself out so publicly, even if it is through a slightly anonymous veil of a blogsite. I know very well that the world does not need yet another person trawling through the internet espousing their views about this, that and whatever else. But, I also know that every word that has found its way onto this site has existed so powerfully within me and I felt the intense need to share and just try my hand at something that would force me to emerge out of my comfort zone to a degree. I realize that these sentiments are ones that I have shared with you in the past but I really want it to be understood how the birth and continuation of Savage Cinema was no afterthought and to this very moment, remains a source of passion and commitment within my spirit to write and produce reviews and postings that are informative, entertaining and entirely personal. When you read a new review on this site, you are also learning a little more about me, where I am coming from and how I see the world. Writing in such an open manner, for me, is the only way this site can operate and with being so open, it is akin to throwing myself out into the open air just praying I will not crash land on the pavement. With all gratitude from me to you, I cannot thank you enough for catching me every single time and I sincerely hope that you keep doing so.

Once I write and publish a new review, it is truly a thing of the past and I am already onto the next project. It doesn't mean that I don't treasure any sense of accomplishment--trust me, I do--it's just that there's always a new movie to see and new words to write. It is when I log in to begin composing the next review that my heart soars. That is the point at which I happen to see the amount of "hits" a review has obtained over time and while I can never be certain if all of the numbers represent people actually and actively reading my reviews or just ones that have stumbled upon my site accidentally, I would like to think that people are indeed giving my words some regard, and if that is true, then I have achieved more than I had ever dreamed.

And now, Savage Cinema exists at the very dawn of its fifth year! I honestly cannot believe it, dear readers. I just cannot believe it!!! THANK YOU, as always and for always for being so supportive of me and my endeavor, which in the grand scheme of things is really not one of massive importance at all. They are just movies and I am just one person who loves them.

THANK YOU for visiting and sharing in that love, for Savage Cinema will forever be designed to be a home of celebration and I promise to do my very best for the art I love so much and for you, who have taken any time out of your lives to spend with it and therefore, with me.

There will never be enough words that I can share and write for you to express my thankfulness with your presence. It is endless. It is bottomless.

And now, with "Year Five," I begin my next lap around the track and I hope that you will still run with me.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

GREED IS GOOD: a review of "The Wolf Of Wall Street"

Based upon the memoir by Jordan Belfort
Screenplay Written by Terence Winter
Directed by Martin Scorsese
**** (four stars)

" the Wall Street Shuffle
Let your money hustle
Bet you'd sell your mother
You can buy another..."

-10cc "The Wall Street Shuffle"

Now THAT was a movie!!!!

After sitting through both Director Alexander Payne's "Nebraska" and Director Ben Stiller's "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty," two well intentioned and purposeful films that were each considerably undone by their own respective senses of inertia, "The Wolf Of Wall Street," Director Martin Scorsese's blistering, unrepentant, nuclear fueled satire with a sensationally bravura performance from Leonardo DiCaprio at the center of the vortex, could not have arrived at a better time.

Two years ago, I proclaimed that "Hugo," Scorsese's PG rated family film, was not only one of the very best films of that year but it was his finest film since the release of his extraordinary gangster epic "Goodfellas" (1990). And now, I strongly feel that "The Wolf Of Wall Street" is of equal quality and excellence. Where "Hugo" was a motion picture that exuberantly and gorgeously expressed why a person like Martin Scorsese would utilize the language of cinema as his chosen form of artistic expression, "The Wolf Of Wall Street" allows us to witness the MASTER at work, at the fullest peak of his artistic powers as he creates a hard R rated powder keg of a film that is, by turns, hysterical, horrifying, sobering, exhilarating, unbelievably head spinning in its velocity and power and finally, a work that exists as a testament to the glory that can occur when a filmmaker adheres not to the box office dollar but to their artistic muse in the most uncompromising fashion. Now at the age of 71, Martin Scorsese is still showing all filmmakers just how to get the job done with this absolutely dynamic film. Strap yourselves in because this one is a true razzle dazzle roller coaster!

"The Wolf On Wall Street" chronicles the beginnings, rise, even greater rise and steeper fall of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who arrives on Wall Street at the age of 22 with dreams of striking it rich as a stock broker. After being mentored by his boss Mark Hanna (a hilarious and sharper than the sharpest razor Matthew McConaughey), a man who indulges in copious amounts of cocaine, alcohol and frequent masturbation to remain focused and loose in the high pressure world of finance, Jordan has the supreme misfortune of earning his stockbroker's license and truly starting his career on October 19, 1987, a date now known as "Black Monday," the day the stock markets faced their greatest crash since 1929.

After licking his considerable wounds, Jordan takes a job with the tiny Long Island based "Investment Center," an organization that deals with "penny stocks" but soon earns Jordan massive rewards due to his aggressively ingratiating selling and pitching techniques. Jordan's quick rise and newfound fortunes catches the attention of Donnie Azoff (a terrific Jonah Hill), a neighbor in the same apartment complex as Jordan who immediately quits his own job just to attach himself to Jordan's lucrative coattails. The two soon begin their own firm together, entitled Stratton Oakmont, and employed with a collective of friends and co-workers with meager selling experience (mostly marijuana) and Jordan's parents (played by Rob Reiner and Christine Ebersole) to handle the finances.

Stratton Oakmont eventually becomes a billion dollar organization giving license to Jordan to over-indulge his every single whim from building raging addictions to drugs and prostitutes, throwing endless parties for his staff and even divorcing his first wife in order to capture the hand of the stunning Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie). With money flowing in from every conceivable direction, and not entirely legally, Jordan and his cronies capture the attention of the FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) who grows increasingly intent upon bringing Jordan to justice. But with Jordan's insurmountable greed and addictions completely circumventing any stretches of rationality or common sense regarding the noose that is rapidly tightening around his neck, Jordan continues his rampant, raging pursuit of the dollar with the concept of "enough" as non-existent.    

Dear readers, I wish to take you back a bit and ask you to remember the final third or so of “Goodfellas” when our narrator, the mobster Henry Hill (beautifully played by Ray Liotta) descended into a cocaine addicted madness and paranoia, complete with visions of helicopters in pursuit, boiling pasta sauce on the stove and Harry Nilsson's "Jump Into The Fire" relentlessly blasting on the film's soundtrack. Now, I want for you to imagine that sequence and its level of roaring intensity playing for the duration of three full hours and that is essentially the experience you will have upon paying a ticket to “The Wolf On Wall Street,” which essentially serves as a companion piece to both Scorsese's "Goodfellas" and "Casino" (1995). Do not let the film's massive length intimidate you as this is “take no prisoners” filmmaking and it moves like the fastest rocket. As I previously stated, "The Wolf On Wall Street" is a hard R rated odyssey filled from one end to the other with flowing narcotics, large amounts of nudity, and an ocean of vulgarity and profanity which never felt to be gratuitous to me but completely right on the money at depicting the alter of mega-excess and Bacchanalian debauchery at which Jordan worships. 

Utilizing Director Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” (1987) and Director Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story” (2009) as conceptual leaping off points, Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf Of Wall Street” fearlessly takes a swan dive into the maelstrom of voluminous avarice and male centered hubris, grossly disturbing opulence and equally grotesque over-consumption. While the film is viewed through the eyes of Jordan, and subsequently by nearly all of the individuals he surrounds himself with, Scorsese has also crafted a feverishly pointed and harshly critical gaze at our entire society which has grown increasingly soulless with its crippling obsession with wealth, fame and power at the expense of our collective humanity, especially as the possibility of every single one of us somehow one day becoming a pseudo "Master Of The Universe" is nothing more than a complete fabrication, an illusion or, as one character refers to it, as a “fugazi.” 

Scorsese’s ferocious lack of restraint within “The Wolf On Wall Street” is not a hindrance to the film, as far as I am concerned, as we are just not living in a time of subtlety due to the level of class warfare occurring as well as a large sector of American society continuing to subscribe to a version of the American Dream that has grown to be increasingly elusive or impossible. The film, even through its audacious and often laugh-out-loud satire, is indeed a tsunami of rage and sorrow against a culture that has supremely lost itself and spiritual core thanks to an overall system (from finances all the way to the so-called "reality" television shows that litter our channels), rigged by the wealthiest among us, to keep the masses subjugated yet hopeful for a ship that will ultimately never arrive. The film's final shot is a killer and quickly points its finger of condemnation squarely at all of us, lest we have even begun to feel terribly superior to Jordan Belfort, for in one way or another, we are all complicit. 

While then entire cast is uniformly excellent, especially Jonah Hill who proves that he can handle himself in Scorsese's world with the best of them, Leonardo DiCaprio has raised his own personal best bar once again. From the very beginning, DiCaprio has presented himself to be an actor of the utmost commitment and intensity to a role to such a degree that I do not even believe that "phoning it in" could even be a possibility for him. 

"The Wolf On Wall Street" marks DiCaprio's fifth collaboration with Martin Scorsese and throughout all of their film experiences together, DiCaprio has proven himself to be alternately implosive in "Gangs Of New York" (2002), lavishly explosive in "The Aviator" (2004), driven and tortured in "The Departed" (2006) and horrifically haunted in "Shutter Island" (2010). With "The Wolf Of Wall Street," DiCaprio delivers his greatest work with Scorsese to date and quite possibly, his most reckless, unhinged and flat out wildest performance yet. I swear, I thought the man was going to give himself an aneurysm through all of the mental and physical contortions he placed himself into throughout the film! Just regard the man's pure body language alone, which I have never seen to be this elastic before whether through his epic sexual situations, marathon motivational monologues (more of that in a bit) and in a sequence where Jordan, disastrously under the affects of a bottle of Quaaludes, attempts to navigate a small flight of stairs, DiCaprio presents an absolute masterpiece of physical comedy, the likes of which I have never seen from him before.

Below the surface, I think Dicaprio himself has provided a key into the deeper levels that make up the man that is Jordan Belfort. In an interview, Leonardo DiCaprio explained that he felt the character of Jordan Belfort essentially made up the third act of an unofficial trilogy he began with Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" (2012) and continued with Director Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby" from this summer, as all three films explore the consciousness and consequences of the young, white male consumed, and therefore undone, by wealth.  As Jordan rallies his troops, as well as himself, to keep pursuing every last potential dollar as if there will never be any dollars ever again, Leonardo DiCaprio creates a combination of snake oil salesman, over-indulgent frat boy and motivational speaker who could not only sell ice to an Eskimo but possibly the whole damn arctic! Even so, DiCaprio has unleashed a volcanic inner drive that phases in an out of an unrealistic sense of entitlement that is indeed a current plague upon our 21st century society. It is as if Jordan is exclaiming, "I want it because I want it and I should have it just because I want it, regardless of whether I earned it, deserve and consequences be damned!" And in turn, how is our 21st century society that much different, if at all? In a career filled with great performances, Leonardo DiCaprio has somehow, someway brought forth yet another, brimming with passion and subtext, and I am telling you, this will be another one of those unforgivable Hollywood crimes if he is not recognized for his stellar, astonishing work!

By the concluding moments of "The Wolf Of Wall Street," Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio seem to be asking themselves, as well as all of us watching, "What has become of us?" Even as entertained as we are with "The Wolf Of Wall Street," it is an appropriately exhausting and exhaustive experience meant to drown us in extremes and vulgarities long after we have had enough. Because if we are meant to keep up with Jordan, who often breaks the film's fourth wall to confide in us and therefore, make us his co-conspirators (much like Malcolm McDowell's classic performance as Alex in Stanley Kubrick's 1971 classic "A Clockwork Orange"), we also need to take a hard look at or own worst, lowest common denominator based impulses in order to discover if we are indeed any better or if we are unfortunately just the same. 

"The Wolf On Wall Street" is unquestionably one of my favorite films of 2013. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

SCENES FROM A DAY'S DREAM: a review of "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty"

Based upon the short story by James Thurber
Screen Story and Screenplay Written by Steve Conrad
Directed by Ben Stiller
** (two stars)

What is it that happens when a movie designed to inspire and uplift, unfortunately only elicits not much more than a shrug and a sigh and what could have been?

"The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty," Director and actor Ben Stiller's fantastical adaptation of the classic James Thurber short story is a film that is definitely not lacking in ambition or purpose. The film is Stiller's most visually dazzling directorial effort to date, filled with special effects that are truly special indeed and a lush cinematography that I believe should earn industry award attention for Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh. Stiller has also crafted an ode to the melancholia of life, and middle age in particular, when one begins to take stock of their individual winnings and losings to the degree that they solely exist as opposed to engage in the act of living. Stiller's film, while well intentioned, seems to be suffering from the same infliction as its titular hero as it is an experience that is just straining and aching to take flight but its feet are so firmly planted on the surface that it just hasn't got a chance to fly no matter how hard it tries.

Ben Stiller stars as Walter Mitty, a lonely Negatives Assets Manager for the photography division of the exquisite LIFE magazine, an institution which has been acquired and about to be transformed into a digital publication, a decision which will force many of LIFE's employees (and possibly Walter Mitty himself) into unemployment. Walter lives alone, keeps to himself and his photographs and houses a deep attraction to the lovely Cheryl Melhoff (an affectionate Kristin Wiig) but is too terrified to even speak to her, let alone send her an on-line "wink" through eHarmony. To combat his feelings of failure and isolation, Walter only finds solace within his fantasia of wild day dreams in which he always possesses the rights words to say and confidence to perform absolutely anything, from sailing in the air from train tracks through an open window to save Cheryl's dog from an apartment fire or battling his nemesis, the arrogant corporate tool Ted Hendricks (a terrifically pungent Adam Scott), in the city streets while skateboarding on slabs of high flying concrete.

As LIFE prepares for its final print issue, in which the powers-that-be desire to utilize a photo from famed adventurer Sean O'Connor (a wry and wonderful Sean Penn), a photo described as fully capturing the "Quintessence of life," the negative has gone missing, prompting Walter Mitty to escape his fears and embark upon a globe trotting journey in order to find the missing photo and the elusive Sean O'Conner...while also possibly winning the love of Cheryl in the process.

Dear readers, I cannot even begin tot ell you how much this movie had me firmly in its corner for a good stretch of its first third or so. I empathized with Walter immediately as I am a creature of habit, and have always been a naturally cautious person who really does not enjoy taking risks, most notably emotional ones. Truth be told, even working myself up to begin Savage Cinema, and subsequently Synesthesia, was extremely daunting but has ultimately proven themselves to be emotional risks that have rewarded me continuously and endlessly. But what if I hadn't taken those very emotional risks and was just left to having words upon words, and my own sense of self-expression locked inside of me forever and ever, not knowing if even trying would have been worth it? I am certain that all of you have harbored emotional risks of vast variety, and like you, some of them I have taken and others I have not. But to not try at all and the inner damage that can undertake, is terribly awful to ponder. And so, I reached out to Walter Mitty instantly as he balanced his checkbook, just wanting beyond wanting to connect with Cheryl on-line but fearing rocking the boat of normalcy so profoundly, even when that sense of normalcy is not what he wishes for himself at all.

Walter's day dreams and then real world adventures are presented as visual feasts that serve as the most sumptuous of wishes and wish fulfillments. Stiller, along with the aforementioned Stuart Dryburgh and his special effects team create short sequences that phase in and out of Walter's real life, and the film itself beautifully. "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty" is the type of film where our hero battles sharks in the open sea after jumping from a helicopter into the waters of Greenland or climbs the Himalayan mountains (and still receives excellent cell phone service signals-a nice dry running joke) and catches a glimpse of the mythical "Ghost Cat" or skateboards at the speed of light down the highways of Iceland and Stiller renders all of them with confidence, vibrant color and deep purpose.           

The film's central mystery of the missing photo and exactly what it is a picture of also provides the film with the proper sense of pathos regarding Walter's emotional stagnation, its source and beginnings and the catalyst to possibly wrestle himself from fear and embrace the unknown whether it rewards him handsomely or not. Leaving his home to face the worlds of Greenland, Iceland and even Afghanistan with a bemused grin and an open heart is certainly prime for touching and inspiring an audience to its collective feet to at least, try and face their own individual uncharted territories and Stiller, with his sardonic, satirical wit combined with his earnestness ensures "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty" doesn't become a sickeningly saccharine film experience to endure.  

So, why was this film so...frankly...boring?! Yes, dear readers, "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty" is a film that is urging all of us to reach for the moon and beyond yet the overall pace of the film, ironically once Walter begins to travel the world for real, is just stuck in neutral so severely that it undercuts its own message. It's like watching a long distance runner jog in place. Emotionally, "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty" goes absolutely nowhere.

Even Ben Stiller's performance becomes stuck in a groove, remaining torpidly one-note when he should be spreading his wings. A most surprisingly occurrence for an actor who is more skilled than he typically displays. To that end, the love story between Walter and Cheryl never catches and heat or urgency, partially because they are so obviously meant for each other and have forged the warmest of a rapport as well as a more than encouraging connection that you wonder why Walter cannot just ask her out in the first place? What began as aching longing just begins to feel increasingly manufactured. Oddly enough, Walter's phone conversations with his eHarmony representative (well played by Patton Oswalt) and is eventual meeting with Sean O'Connor carry more honest care, concern, weight and authenticity.

As with Director Alexander Payne's "Nebraska," Ben Stiller's latest directorial effort is not a bad movie by any means and I do believe it has its heart in the right place. Even so, it is a film that had so much potential to be great, the very kind of honest and most importantly, earned "feel-good" movie that is in such rare supply, extremely difficult to produce and is indeed much needed in our increasingly cynical and ironic era.

"The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty" certainly tries very hard but it just wasn't enough to really make it soar.

Thursday, December 26, 2013


Created by Vince Gilligan
January 20, 2008-September 29, 2013

Dear readers, I have to admit that at times, I like to imagine myself as being a person that is somewhat "in the know" as I typically try to see feature films as soon as possible therefore reviewing them also as quickly as possible to provide you with my personal assessment before you can even head out of the doors to the theaters yourselves. Also, I like to also sometimes think of myself playing this specific role in regards to those films that are off of the beaten path, possibly pointing you towards an experience you may not otherwise have taken without a gentle push from e. But then, there are those times when you have pushed me towards a viewing experience and at this time, not only do I have to vehemently express to you that all of you were 1000% percent correct, I thank you profusely and endlessly!!!!

With all due respect to the voluminous experience that is Director Steve McQueen's "12 Years A Slave," what I spent watching over the course of October and November would have easily sailed to being my #1 pick for the best film of 2013 if it only were indeed a film at all...and even so, I have never experienced something quite like this before. In the past on this site, I have paid tribute to two television series, "Lost" and "Freaks and Geeks," respectively, as viewing experiences that have easily eclipsed what I would typically receive when going to the movie.with regards to the writing, direction, acting and the depth and completeness of the storytelling overall. At this time, I turn my attention towards the AMC channel's "Breaking Bad," which is easily one of the highest television achievements that I have ever had the sheer pleasure of watching...and I truly mean...EVER!

Like the program mythical blue tinged crystal meth, "Breaking Bad" was supremely compulsive and exhaustively addictive television, the kind of which I have never experienced on quite this same level before as the sensation began immediately with its audacious first episode and only increased in power and intensity all the way through to its flat out perfect finale. I cannot even begin to tell you about how many times over the course of its five seasons that I had fully intended to watch only one episode for the evening and then found myself watching two or even three and then finding myself salivating to get back to the video store to try and compete with some unknown customer for the next disc in the series. (I am not ashamed to admit that the staff of said video store, Video Station, all began to know me by name as my frequent telephone calls inquiring about availability quickly built up a certain legend.)

Every single episode of the series was stellar, filled with one jaw dropping and increasingly anxiety inducing sequence after another after another and not even one episode was wasted or remotely sub par and that feat, in and of itself, is saying something. (Hey, even my beloved "Lost" had a couple of clunkers during its six season lifespan.) And yet, as I celebrate "Breaking Bad," I am truly uncertain as to how much of this series that I can even write to you about! If you are one of the uninitiated, I wish for you to experience the program as I did--knowing absolutely NOTHING other than the primary conceit and concept of the series: Set in Albuquerque, new Mexico, veteran 50 year old high school Chemistry teacher Walter White (the formidable Bryan Cranston), arrested in a stagnated point in his life and discovering the horrifying news that he is dying from lung cancer, makes the shocking decision to utilize his knowledge of Chemistry, as well as the street smarts of petty drug dealing former student Jesse Pinkman (a sensational and devastating Aaron Paul), to create and sell the perfect crystal meth in hopes to make just enough money to have his family financially secure once he dies. The trajectory of the series, as according to the show's Creator/Executive Producer/Show Runner and occasional Writer and Director Vince Gilligan was to take this milquetoast "Mr. Chips" and transform him into the heartless, malevolent "Scarface" crystal meth kingpin and his complete success with this endeavor cannot begin to be over-stated.

On a sheer production level, "Breaking Bad" easily stands shoulder to shoulder with any major feature film that hits our theater screens. Its thematic aesthetics which merge the elements of film noir, 1970s era conspiracy films and television cop dramas, the urban western and the darkest of black comedy alongside the stunning cinematography, set design, editing, and excellent music score by Composer Dave Porter already sets the series apart from nearly everything else on television. Gilligan, leading his first rate team of writers and directors (a special shout out must be given to Michelle MacLaren who helmed many of the series' most harrowing installments), for delivering MASTER CLASS level skill, craftsmanship and artistry for each and every episode with gave us accelerated storytelling that never squelched upon quality, detail, intelligence, plausibility and copious amounts of shock and awe.

Conceptually, "Breaking Bad" spouted a wellspring of riches and then some. It exists as a Kafka-esque metamorphosis story, not only for Walter White and Jesse Pinkman but also for Walter's wife Skylar (the astounding Anna Gunn) and several additional characters within the series. "Breaking Bad' fearlessly plunges into the darkest corners of our collective humanity, from the very beginning at that, as the series asks of us over and over again, "What would we do if we were in this situation? How far would we go to protect ourselves and our own? To what lengths would you travel? To what degree would you compromise every belief that you ever held to achieve your goal and ensure your sense of survival? How far would you move your own personal moral compass" Gilligan wisely presents his entire series without one shred of judgement allowing the audience to make any connections, decisions and assessments as they wish. As Gilligan stated within many interviews contained within the DVD sets, his intent was not to make audiences necessarily empathize with Walter White but it was his impetus that we always understood his motivations. And while we will never fully agree with his methods (believe me, if you have not seen the series, you will be fully disturbed by the lengths to which Walter White will travel) and may even reject him, his goal was to keep Walter White interesting to watch and regard. Did he ever!

Knowing, and therefore understanding, the motivations that fuel Walter White, the very ones that keep him so hypnotically compelling, can also be rooted in the series' very sly yet extremely pointed cultural commentary in regards to our widening economic disparity between the classes and the dissolution of the middle class in particular. In the very first episode, we see Walter White's simple suburban lifestyle with his family and just how far his meager teaching salary plus his additional funds from his second job at a local car wash after school, is able (or not able) to carry them. Upon learning of his diagnosis, there is the question of whether to even pursue treatment simply because of the medical and insurance costs and the limits of his equally meager health plan. Walter White, fearing of leaving his family destitute, plus being an individual who has long felt sidelined and emasculated within his own life, is a man pushed to the brink of desperation...and desperate times...

Even so, I was extremely amazed to see how my sympathies continuously shifted throughout the sires in regards to both Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. Where I had initially written Jesse off as some street punk kid, he gradually becomes the series' moral center delving into flat-out wrenching Dostoyevsky-ian levels of crime, punishment and redemption where Walter White, on the other hand, goes over the brink into complete emotional emptiness.

"Breaking Bad" is indeed taking a hard look at the choices we are all faced with, at least those of us not of the top 1%, who may find our lives inexplicably tuned inside out for any manner of reasons beyond our control. We are indeed living in desperate times and if pushed to the wall, what are we made of? What are our individual survival instincts? Even as nonredeemable as Walter White becomes, there is a sense of a vicarious thrill to see just how much he can circumvent the system or does he? "Breaking Bad" then becomes a series that is not just about hubris, avarice and even megalomania, but it is also about power and powerlessness, how both of those levels can alter at any given moment and how even the most powerful can have absolutely nothing, when it is all said and done.

All of these themes, concepts and I am certain so many more that I have not picked up on due to flying through this series (and I have been told that re-watching the series is highly rewarding) would not be worth mentioning if not for the performance of Bryan Cranston, which is titanic! It is truly difficult for me to even believe that the man who played that goofy, ding-dong sitcom Dad of "Malcolm In The Middle" is even the same human being as the one we see as Walter White on "Breaking Bad." In a series about a man's metamorphosis, Cranston himself has transformed his entire being into a figure that is completely unrecognizable to anything he has portrayed in the past. The levels to which he ascends or descends to bring this character to life is precisely the kind of acting commitment that is truly of such rarity. For the entirety of the series, and even when Walter becomes a terrifying figure to behold, Bryan Cranston keeps us transfixed until the series' final shot, as he discovers every conceivable layer in which to play this character and to do so with such lived-in completeness. He keeps us guessing as to his true feelings all the way to the end as we find ourselves questions whether the true nature of Walter White existed within his sweet family man, high school teacher or was his true nature concealed all of these years until the time allowed it to fully emerge, in this case, the brutal drug kingpin.

Ensuring a character like this remains interesting is easier said than done and if I were able to ask Cranston and Vince Gilligan one question it would be to ask just how in the hell did they find that creative sweet spot to ensure audiences kept watching a figure that becomes as reprehensible as Walter White becomes, when in many cases, audiences would have tuned out? If you haven't seen it, Bryan Cranston truly delivers one of the GREATEST television performances to date. If you have seen it, you already know what I am talking about as it is delivered without vanity and often reaches Shakespearian levels. In the third season episode entitled "Fly," Cranston delivers a monologue that is nothing less than "To be or not to be," and I am telling you, I wanted to jump out of my seat and applaud him.    

Aaron Paul is Bryan Cranston's equal and I could not even begin to imagine any other actor taking on this role and building that specific powder keg of (ahem) chemistry with Cranston. It is a performance that is by turns hilarious in its coarseness and crippling in its despair. Throughout the series, we are invited to see the true heart of Jesse Pinkman, this misfit kid, this drug addicted street urchin who embarks upon his own journey of self-discovery and ultimately, self-worth yet his road to any sense of possible fulfillment is littered with dead bodies, and the conflicted mannerisms and motivations of Walter White, who simultaneously serves as mentor, Father figure, partner in crime, psychological abuser, savior and exploiter to him..and sometimes all at once. With Walter, Jesse, Skylar and even with the character of Gus Fring (played to spine tingling PERFECTION by Giancarlo Esposito, veteran of several of Spike Lee's early films including his volcanic turn in 1989's "Do The Right Thing"), "Breaking Bad" also asks of us to regard the masks we wear in society, to ourselves and to truly know who are we when we face ourselves in the mirror. And over and again, this concept and voyage into the heart of darkness made for television and storytelling that was extraordinarily riveting.

As I stated at the outset, "Breaking Bad" is a television series that could easily have been the best film of 2013 and it was easily better than many films I saw this year, or even last year or the year before. Certainly it is relatively unfair to compare 5 seasons worth of episodes to a standard two hour feature film. But even so, there are some qualities that I feel that feature filmmakers need to pay strict attention to in regards to what Vince Gilligan and his top flight team have accomplished with "Breaking Bad."

First of all, the conception and actual writing from episode to episode is just so damn smart, as it always treats the audience and characters as intelligent human begins worthy of a high quality experience. Secondly, Gilligan, his cast and crew were always unafraid to take conceptual risks with their own show by shockingly setting the "re-set button" more times than I could have counted, making "Breaking Bad" completely unpredictable and the very show to explode conventions just as you are expecting situations to play out in ways that we are much too familiar. Probably most importantly, "Breaking Bad" is also a television program that explored the nature of consequences in a fashion that I had never seen before. Unlike most series, whether in television or film, when experiences and events occur only to be forgotten and never referenced ever again, "Breaking Bad" never forgot even one moment, no matter how seemingly insignificant, and therefore created a horrifying domino effect that steamrolled through the series all the way to its conclusion. Moments from season 1 continued to play out in season 5 and I deeply appreciated how much attention and again, commitment Gilligan and his team paid to weaving this unique and uncompromising tapestry.

I could go on and on but if I did so, it would stop you from taking the plunge to experience this program for yourselves. I began watching the series after it had completed its initial run and mostly on a whim, despite the rumblings from those of you who already knew the power and the majesty contained within. Episode one grabbed me fiercely. By episode two, I was completely hooked. To those of you who have not seen the series, the following words will be meaningless. Words like: RV, The cousins, Ding!, Pink teddy bear, Heisenberg, Crawlspace, Tuco, video cameras, Los Pollos Hermanos, Lily of the Valley, Ricin...

To those of you who have seen the series, you know EXACTLY of what I speak.

So, what are you waiting for?????????

WATCHING THE ROAD: a review of "Nebraska"

Screenplay Written by Bob Nelson
Directed by Alexander Payne
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

Bruce Dern has always kind of given me the creeps.

With his mane of wild hair, which always appears to have been the result of some severe electro-shock therapy, nostrils that always seemed to be perpetually flared and exaggerated and/or unpredictable mannerisms, Bruce Dern has felt to me to be slightly less of an actor and more of an unhinged asylum patient who wandered onto ta Hollywood set and got lucky. This is not to suggest that Dern is lacking of talent. That is not my intent in any way, shape or form. It is just the impression that I have always had of him--someone not quite right in the head or spirit, someone almost alien.

So, it was truly refreshing to regard Bruce Dern's performance in "Nebraska," the latest film from Director Alexander Payne and the follow-up film to his excellent previous work, "The Descendants" (2011). Dern is decidedly dialed down into a character that is richly and rewardingly not unhinged, insane, or around the bend. He is all too recognizably human, to a remarkable degree as he summons the frailty of aging and the sheer force of will that belies his advanced age. I had wished, however, that the film overall had been as successful as I had hoped for it to be, especially considering Payne's excellent body of work, which includes alongside "The Descendants,"  the high school political satire "Election" (1999), the elegiac road film "About Schmidt" (2002), and the midlife crisis in California wine country saga "Sideways" (2004). With "Nebraska," what we essentially have is a collection of Alexander Payne's "greatest hits" wrapped up in an intriguing new package but is actually more been there, done that, than it needed to be.

Beginning in Billings, Montana, "Nebraska" stars Bruce Dern as Woody Grant who has found himself determined to fulfill a personal quest: to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska (on foot, if need be) to claim the 1 million dollar sweepstakes winnings he thinks that he has won. Despite his trepidation, Woody's son David (played by Saturday Night Live's Will Forte), decides to accompany his Father on a road trip that will have them reunited with family, old friends and nemeses, several of whom Woody owes money and nearly all of whom are plotting how to claim their own considerable pieces of Woody's supposed pie.

Essentially, that is the plot of "Nebraska" in a nutshell and like several of Alexander Payne's films, the main concepts and conceits are not plot driven but character driven, with the landscape itself serving a pivotal role. Utilizing striking black and white cinematography, Payne allows the endless highways, slowly moving clouds, dilapidated homes and vast acres of farm land to speak to the film's themes of aging and the passage of time, a thee which is further developed by the film's large cast of elderly actors, who thankfully are not on display with wishes of being young again. They are cantankerous, Full of piss, vinegar and broken and long faded dreams but they also house a deep matter-of fact quality, plus a commitment and devotion to their respective communities and overall ways of conducting themselves within their lives and with each other.

In sequences where Woody and family members congregate, scenes play out for what feels to be an extremely lengthy period of time as there is not much dialogue and frankly, no sense of action or activity whatsoever, a quality which does indeed give "Nebraska" a purposeful yet not entirely successful meandering tone. It is as if these elderly characters simply do not want to waste what is remaining of their lives with too many words combined with the fact that these characters know each other  so intimately that not many words are even necessary. These are people that literally spend their days watching the road at the end of their front walks. One character actually sits in a lawn chair at street level watching and waiting for any signs of life to travel pass. This is the rhythm of life for these characters, as well as the film overall, and Alexander Payne approximates those rhythms to a rich yet somnambulant degree, which simultaneously helps and hurts the film's sense of momentum, which at times is non-existent.

At the core of "Nebraska" is, of course, the relationship between Woody and his son David and again, Payne and his screenwriter Bob Nelson make a very smart move by not adhering to the typical movie arc in which Father and son, existing in a fractured emotional state with each other, would spend the film building a bridge of compromise and new understanding. Payne and Nelson are extremely astute in ensuring that if anyone needs to build a bridge with anyone it is exclusively son to Father as Woody, being of such advanced age and possibly suffering from Alzheimer's disease is deeply set within his ways, wants and desires (and also quite possibly nearing the end of his life) and would certainly not be in a state to change and alter his perceptions of himself and the world around him. "Nebraska" charts the new course David has to undertake in order to understand Woody and his seemingly foolish pilgrimage. There is simply no meeting in the middle for Woody and David. David has to solely come to terms with who Woody is in order to move the joint relationship forward and that aspect of the film I found to be very compelling. And I have to take a moment to express that Will Forte's gentle, empathetic performance gave the film the heart that Dern's portrayal of Woody is not exactly designed to undertake, therefore making everything forgiven after inflicting the criminally unfunny character of "MacGruber" on the world.

Then, there is Bruce Dern himself, and while he is receiving quite the number of accolades for his work, and to a degree, I would say deservedly so, I do not think that this is quite the "slam dunk/home run" performance that may critics are exclaiming it is. That said, as Woody, Bruce Dern delivers a thoroughly lived in performance to the degree that you even wonder if he is truly acting at all or if he is simply in a state of being. He walks at barely a shuffle, with a hunched over physique and reticent sensibility that suggests that his time is not long for this world. While his hair is as wild as ever, it is not shown in a sense of mania but more in the unkempt style of a man who has long ceased caring what anyone ever thought of him. And yet, there is that glimmer or twinkle in the eye and most definitely, his sheer force of will that keeps him moving forwards in pursuit of this prize he is just certain is due to him despite the reality. Woody is essentially upon a Quixotian quest against...well, not exactly, reality...but perhaps a sense of hopelessness which does indeed stare him in the face during the entirety of "Nebraska" and his travels with his son. Through every face and location, we are presented with a travelogue of his life which he views as if he is saying goodbye to all that he has ever known, a factor which makes collecting his desired prize a deeply desired victory to attain.

And despite all of the film's attributes, "Nebraska" just felt so stale. Now, I certainly have no problems in any way when filmmakers revisit themes within their collected works. If I did, I could never hold onto my love for John Hughes, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese or any other of my most favorite filmmakers. But with "Nebraska," nothing ever felt that fresh or new or advanced since Alexander Payne's past films. Themes of mortality, male bonding road trips, and the ravenous avarice of family members are all major themes in "About Schmidt," "Sideways" and "The Descendants" respectively and they all show up within "Nebraska" with not one new observance to display about any of them. In fact, the film, at times, felt like a collection of the sequences Payne didn't use in his past films and so, a certain tedium set in because I felt that I had seen it all before and much better.

But, again, "Nebraska" is not a bad film or one that I will even include in my listing of my least favorite films of 2013. Not at all. It is one that I connected with only intermittently and also when I wasn't shifting in my seat. Perhaps, it is just one of those films that will mean more to me as I age but for now, "Nebraska" was just so-so.

Friday, December 13, 2013

FEEDING THE MONSTER: a review of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"

Based upon the novel by Suzanne Collins
Screenplay Written by Simon Beufoy and Michael deBruyn
Directed by Francis Lawrence
**** (four stars)

If there was a way to profit handsomely through the politics of peace, what a richer world we would be.

As much as I love the sheer fantasy and escapism of science fiction films and adventures, and I always will, sometimes the very best science fiction, fantasy or action adventures films are the types that fully transcend their genres and boldly hold a mirror up to our current society. The films that force all of us to think about the world in which we all co-exist, yet are presented in a fashion that is undeniably entertaining, creatively inventive, eye-popping and story driven as opposed to just functioning as a diatribe. With films like Director Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" (2008) and "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012) plus this year's propulsively brutal "Elysium" from Writer/Director Neill Blomkamp, we explored our turbulent and increasingly precarious social/economic/political structure and landscape through the respective lenses of comic book heroes and gritty sci-fi. Where all of those films worked as parables, it could be argued that all of those films also serve as a series of passionate call to arms for all of us sitting in those movie theater seats to wake up and pay strict attention to the actions of the real world powers-that-be and how those actions affect our world.

Last year, I awarded four stars to "The Hunger Games," Director Gary Ross' intensely riveting adaptation of Suzanne Collins' blockbuster young adult science fiction novel. At this time, I am excited to announce that "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," the second installment in the four part film series, and now directed by Francis Lawrence, is even better. "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is not only a superior piece of entertainment and one of the only event films of 2013 to hit the bullseye, the film is also a powerfully provocative and brazenly grim political statement that takes deadly aim at the politics of war and fear, the subjugation of a nation by the powerful few, and even the soul crushing universe of so called "reality" television and our culture's never ending and still growing obsession with any and all kinds of fame. Certainly all of those themes are prevalent in Collins' original novel, but after reading two books in her trilogy, I just feel that her awkward and sometimes wooden prose kept me at an arms length distance when I should have been enveloped and enraged. So, believe it or not, here is an instance where I think that the film versions are even better than the novels, as they not only honor Collins' original vision but also elevate it. With regards to "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," Francis Lawrence has delivered a masterfully helmed film, one that powerfully exceeded my already high expectations as it gives us a dark and dystopian future vision that is uncomfortably and disturbingly very present...if only we are paying attention.

As with the novel, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" begins shortly after the events of the first installment as Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has survived the carnage of the 74th annual Hunger Games, a government ruled and live televised event in which teenagers are forced to complete and fight each other to the death, through her quick thinking and has also saved the life of fellow  "tribute" Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) while in the battle arena. Both Katniss and Peeta have convinced the entire viewing public of their otherwise manufactured "star crossed romance," a passionate love that fueled their simultaneous shocking acts of rebellious political insubordination and television ratings euphoria.

Unfortunately, and on a more inter-personal front, the "love affair" has wounded both the hearts of the unrequited Peeta as well as her most trusted friend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). But on a larger scale and most crucially, an unconvinced President Coriolanus Snow (a terrifically sinister Donald Sutherland) makes a personal visit to Katniss' home to warn her that she and Peeta must properly convince the public and indeed himself of their supposed romance while on their victory tour of the country, or else risk the collective fates of her family, friends, District and all of its inhabitants.

While on tour, and reunited with their team, which includes veteran Hunger Games victor and alcoholic mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrleson), fashion designer Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and the plastically glam and grotesquely unctuous Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Katniss and Peeta become firsthand witnesses in viewing how their televised act of rebellion has planted the seeds of revolution against the government of Panem, resulting in increasing acts of violence against the people by the ironically named Peacekeeper soldiers.

To squash the building uprising and to ensure further retribution against the masses, President Snow announces that the 75th annual Hunger Games would in fact be a special version of the event entitled the Quarter Quell, which is held every 25 years and in which all contestants would be selected from the pool of surviving Hunger Games victors--thus meaning Katniss and Peeta may be forced to fight for their lives on live television all over again.

Francis Lawrence's "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is a  richer, deeper, broader experience than its predecessor. As with the previous installment, all of the actors rise to the occasion and inhabit their roles impressively and with gravitas. Woody Harrleson has only eased into his role even more comfortably, and has also begun to show the layers beneath his drunkenly sardonic personality, allowing us to see shadows of the Hunger Games horrors that rest too closely behind his eyes. As Effie Trinket, Elizabeth Banks also begins to show signs of her distaste of the very system that has lavished her but could turn on her in an instant. As Hunger Games television host Caesar Flickerman, Stanley Tucci continues to provide his savagely wicked parody of those vacuous MCs that litter our television screens ad nauseum. And what a welcome sight it was to add Jefferey Wright, Amanda Plummer, and a ferocious Jena Malone to the cast as a collective of veteran tributes forced to return to the Hunger Games as well as the great Phillip Seymour Hoffman as new game maker Plutarch Heavensbee, who harbors a deeper agenda of his own.

Again, the sensational Jennifer Lawrence (no relation to the Director) shows why she is not only the perfect actress to portray Katniss Everdeen but that she is only the real deal who truly deserves all of the critical attention she has received. Through her sheer physicality combined with her passionate performance, Jennifer Lawrence brings Katniss into full three dimensional life in a way that I really do not believe she is represented on the page in the source material. Where the film was riveted on her perspective in the first film, Jennifer Lawrence wisely allows her fellow actors to take center stage, because even though Katniss remains our main protagonist, the world in which she exists and her (as well as our) perceptions of the world of the suffering Districts, their respective populations and how the seeds of rebellion are planted have only grown. Unlike that insipid Bella Swan from Twilight, Katniss increasingly realizes that while she is the catalyst for the events that transpire in this second chapter, everything is not always about her and that newfound sense of social/political/economic inter-connectivity makes "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" more propulsive and more thought provoking than it ever needed to be...a quality I deeply appreciated.      

"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is a film that is so confident with its abilities to juggle a variety of purposeful themes and concepts in a completely clear eyed and complex manner. Lawrence always maintains the film's brilliant ability of keeping the moral core of the story front and center, ensuring the action sequences within the Quarter Quell contain the proper levels of terror, insanity, sorrow, sacrifice, survival and the desperation of trying to keep control of one's humanity in an entirely inhumane environment. With "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," you get your politics with your popcorn and then some!

First of all, it is a film that explores our relationship with violence in regards to our simultaneous attraction and repulsion towards it and most impressively, Francis Lawrence creates an atmosphere in which we in the theater audience are as complicit as the home viewers of the Hunger Games in the film itself.. Lawrence understands that in both the fictional and real worlds, the Hunger Games are precisely what we have all come to witness, even knowing the inhumane brutality of the experience. Lawrence toys with that very stage of anticipation as the events of the Quarter Quell do not arrive in the film for over an hour and when they do, they are equally impressive and terrifying to behold indeed. Lawrence stages and executes the Quarter Quell sections of the film with the proper amount of intensity and solemnity (and all WITHOUT the dreaded "shaky-cam"), allowing the power of filmmaking inventiveness and suggestion carry the day instead of drowning us in actual gore. It has been surprising to me to hear from some people that they felt the film was essentially not violent enough! Despite the fact that the filmmakers are not about to make an R rated film from a young adult novel, I do find it to be an odd criticism considering what these stories are about. But, that criticism, in and of itself, is completely indicative of the concepts Lawrence immerses us deeply inside of, forcing us to really think about what our individual relationships with violence actually happen to be.

Even beyond the actual games, our reactions towards Katniss and the variety of tributes are designed to mirror those of the audience in the fictional world. For example, when Katniss debuts her new fashion creation on live television, the very one that reveals itself to be a representative symbol of the uprising to come, both real and imaginary audiences are meant to be awed by the beauty and special effects as well as become newly and...ahem...hungrily inspired to rise for revolutionary change.

But then, and as I previously stated, Francis Lawrence cleverly makes us complicit with that very fictional audience in regards to how we continuously crave, consume and become anesthetized by the very things we all know are false and harmful yet continue to do so to keep ourselves distracted from the true horrors of the world in which we co-exist. What are Caesar Flickerman's sickeningly opulent televised spectacles but versions of almost every single sickeningly opulent spectacle that we can find on the E!, Style, Esquire, Bravo, A&E, Lifetime and major networks. Flickerman's programs would be a fun-house mirror version of what we expose ourselves to if only the soullessness was not so right on! The monster always needs to be fed and said monsters are voluminous, ever shifting and always ravenous, and sometimes as close as actually existing inside of our own skins. We are all involved as participants, whether we realize it or not.

Certainly our endlessly insatiable obsession with all things that glitter in the media, no matter how desperate and no matter how much we already know how terrible it all is, exists as a substance that serves our societal monster. We can just change the channel or turn it off completely, but we are not doing it, so we only have ourselves to blame. But "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" wants us to widen our canvas by looking outwards into our communities and nation at large and think seriously about the ways our own leaders are utilizing the monster of fear to silence us, keeping us "doped with religion and sex and TV," as John Lennon once sang.

Through the wider conceptual lens Lawrence has placed in front of us, and with Katniss as our guide, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is passionately urging us to think seriously about how the powers-that-be have rigged the system against the very people that they were elected to serve. How is it that the wheels of war continue to spin?  How do the powers-that-be prey upon our sense of increased numbness, apathy and fear in order to keep us all subjugated? How are we used as political pawns by our leaders, just like how Katniss is used by the politicians and the revolutionaries, to justify their own desires? How is the news disseminated or more truthfully, not disseminated? Why do we live in an era when the public is more invested and motivated to vote for a television "reality" game show than in the very elections that could conceivably alter the very courses of their lives? How can one fight the power when we live in a such an Orwellian period when corporations are considered to be people, money constitutes speech, war equals peace, unprecedented levels of government spying on innocent citizens that is supposedly designed to "keep us safe," the stripping of voting rights to supposedly protect the sanctity of our electoral process, and the politicians who are crying out the loudest for smaller government would create and pass ideologically based laws that go as far as mandating trans-vaginal probes, for example?

Just this past Summer, in my own home base of Madison, Wisconsin, innocent civilians were being arrested for enacting their constitutionally protected 1st Amendment rights of protesting the policies of our Governor through...wait for it...singing songs in the State Capitol! These incidents included an 88 year old woman being handcuffed, a Mother and small child being arrested, a handcuffed war veteran being dropped down a flight of stairs by his arresting officers, the Editor of The Progressive magazine being arrested for simply reporting on the controversial events and even a young Black man being tackled to the ground by several over-zealous police officers and who was then arrested and detained in jail without any charges for several days thereafter. And was any of this reported on our local news stations? Very scantly, if at all, and only when one of those over-zealous police officers, one of our very own "Peacekeepers" was slightly injured. Look around, dear readers, this film seems to be imploring. Take a look at your own communities and home states and really view what your leaders are doing and decide if those aforementioned powers-that-be are working either for or against you. What will it take for people to become angry enough to demand change, accountability and even retribution? And conversely, why is it that when the words of truth to power are spoken, they often feel so empty and meaningless?

It is happening, whether in the fictional world of Panem or in the very real world we travel through every day. And as dire and sometimes as hopeless as it all seems (and sometimes is), there is indeed room for compassion. One more element that I thoroughly enjoyed about "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" was the concept of having surviving tributes being forced to return to the battle arena. While on the page, if memory serves, there was no real mention of racial makeup of the variety of characters who will forced to fight against Katniss and Peeta to the death. But, with film being a visual medium, Francis Lawrence, I felt, was very smart to have Suzanne Collins's characters exist in a variety of ages and races, making the plight of the games serve as a symbolic societal metaphor of how intertwined these characters, and all of us in the movie theater, truly are: We are all in this together. We rise and fall together.

That is the unquestionable power of Francis Lawrence's "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," a film, in its own way I think is actually not that terribly far removed from Director Steve McQueen's incendiary and poetic "12 Years A Slave," as the brutal odyssey of Katniss Everdeen requires us not think about what freedom, justice, fairness, friends and enemies, totalitarianism, revolution, survival, sacrifice and even what the act of living really means. And when an event movie can get the viewer to think alongside being superbly entertained, then that is greatness to me.

"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is one of 2013's very best films.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

SPIKE LEE'S SNUFF FILM : a review of "Oldboy"

Based upon "Oldboy" Co-Written and Directed by Park Chan-wook
Screenplay Written by Mark Protosevich
Directed by Spike Lee
1/2* (one half of one star)

I feel like I am in desperate need of a shower to rid myself of the filth I have just unearthed myself from.

It just pains me to write these words but I call them as I see them, dear readers. Spike Lee's "Oldboy," a remake of Director Park Chan-wook's South Korean cult classic from 2003, is, without question or debate, the absolute worst film I have seen in 2013. And furthermore, it is, without question or debate, the absolute worst film of Lee's otherwise glowingly illustrious film career. "Oldboy" is a ruthlessly, relentlessly repugnant exercise of pulp fiction at its grisliest and its most ultra-violent which would be just fine if the exercise were also not completely devoid of heart, soul and any sense of purpose or being.

Dear readers, I have expressed to you many times over the years that I am not one that is offended easily. The reputation of the original film's lurid nastiness and graphic violence, which I should inform you that I have not seen, precedes Spike Lee's new version quite heavily so I did have a strong sense of what I was getting myself into when I walked into the movie theater. I am also no tone who would tend to utilize art, and movie violence in particular, as a scapegoat for real world violence and brutality. That said, I do think that artists have a responsibility for what they chose to put out into the world for public consumption. Therefore, I just cannot understand why Lee would even chose to take this project at all as it seems to fly completely in the face of his entire oeuvre to date. To think, just last year, he publicly admonished Quentin Tarantino for making "Django Unchained" (2012), a film which he refused to see because he feared that it would trivialize the holocaust of slavery. Well Spike, congratulations!! You have just made a film that completely trivializes the human experience altogether as "Oldboy" is an ugly film about ugly individuals that is told without any sense of regard for any redeeming social or artistic value. It's nothing more than a snuff film with a big budget.

Beginning in the year 1993, "Oldboy" stars Josh Brolin as Joe Doucett, a raging, blustering, profane, misanthropic alcoholic and advertising executive who, after one more endless drunken binge in Chinatown, awakens the next day to find himself imprisoned in a tiny hotel room, complete with a bed, the most meager of toiletries, a television, and the servings of horrible Chinese food through a slot at the bottom of the door. Over the course of the following 20 years, Joe remains imprisoned and only aware of the events of the outside world via television news reports, one of which announces that he was accused of the rape and murder of his ex-wife and that his young daughter has been kidnapped. After Joe falls into crippling despair and even attempts to commit suicide, he then begins to plot his revenge against whomever has captured him. And then, one one fateful day, his chance for unrepentant retribution arrives as he is released from a trunk, with money and a cellphone, into an open field in the year 2013.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with the plot of "Oldboy" and in fact, durign the first sections of Joe's imprisonment, the Kafka-esque nightmare quality of the story does lend itself for a roaring tale of revenge, much like Tarantino's extraordinary "Kill Bill" films (2003/2004). I would have nothing inherently against a revenge tale of such unrelenting torment and torture but rich storytelling and characterizations are the key, the very things that have elevated all of Tarantino's films to such a high artistic bar, which did indeed cast an enormous shadow over the tremendous flaws of "Oldboy." Additionally, for a film like this one, I just think that there needs to be an almost perverse and infectious sense of fun which will only serve to ingratiate your intended audience so they will indeed travel down the very grim paths the filmmakers place in front of us. Tarantino possesses that quality in spades as his nearly orgiastic glee with filmmaking and storytelling sweeps us along so breathlessly and with unshakable commitment. You know that he full believes in what he is doing, the story he is telling and the film he is making. Or how about a film like Oliver Stone's "U-Turn" (1997)? Flawed as it was, that movie did indeed feel as if Stone and his cast were having a blast telling a story of such nastiness that it felt like they were all seeing how much they could actually get away with and that joylessness did indeed keep me attentive, entertained and involved unlike his horrific "Savages" (2012), which was a film that was so joyless and artistically under-cooked from its paper thin story and one-dimensional characters.

"Oldboy" suffers the exact same fate as "Savages" through its forcibly profane and weakly executed screenplay, which commits the sin of not even establishing the character of Joe as a rooting interest. By the time he is apprehended very early in the film, we have not seen even one positive attribute about this man. This is not to say that the character has to be superficially "likeable." We just have to have a rooting interest in him as a hero, or in this case, an anti-hero of such severity. And while Brolin performs his role with a feral feverishness, Joe is, frankly, an asshole and so reprehensible that I really didn't care about his plan for revenge let alone root for him.

In my posting for "Thor: The Dark World," a film I carried a less than lukewarm reaction towards, I remarked upon how I felt the film contained absolutely no personality and a surprising generic quality that did not serve a hero of Thor's stature at all, or even a film that could separate itself from the rest of the bombastic CGI movies that are all over the theaters these days. The lack of personality is something that Spike Lee has never exhibited in his work. In fact, his personality has been so prevalent within his art that you can practically see his fingerprints all over every single one of his films...that is, until now and that made "Oldboy" especially troubling and even depressing because it barely feels as if there is even a trace of Lee's personality in the film at all.  

Creating and maintaining one's personal stamp over thier films is difficult enough to accomplish in our increasingly homogenized 21st century cinema, but with American remakes of foreign films, I would imagine it to be an even more difficult feat to achieve. But, it can be done. I was extremely skeptical about Director David Fincher's remake of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" (2011) but was ultimately surprised an d more than satisfied with the end result which honored the original film while existing as something Fincher probably would have made if the foreign film hadn't existed. Writer/Director Cameron Crowe's "Vanilla Sky" (2001), itself a remake of Director Alejandro Amenabar's excellent "Abre Los Ojos" (1997), not only honored the original material but miraculously also found a way to completely represent Crowe's sensibilities and artistic aesthetics and he ended up making one of my most favorite films from the last decade. I certainly would have loved to have seen what Spike Lee would achieve with the South Korean based material but it hardly felt that he even showed up for work. Yes, it is a good looking film, I guess. And yes, Lee does stage a few fight sequences featuring a hammer wielding Brolin against a small army of adversaries that are very well executed. But, where were those Spike Lee fingerprints I mentioned? Absolutely nowhere. Even his trademark credit "A Spike Lee Joint" was altered to the more traditional and therefore impersonal "A Spike Lee Film." And his trademark 40 Acres And A Mule production company logo, which ends every single film was nowhere to be seen at all.

If Lee was going to make even those kinds of changes, then it begs to question why he would even take on this film project in the first place? Would it be to have the opportunity to work within the studio system and budget again, to try and prove a certain box office weight in order to procure funds for more passion projects? Did he simply love the original film and wanted to take a crack at the material himself? Both of those possibilities are noble enough, I suppose. But, "Oldboy" felt as if he just didn't care enough to fully commit himself or there was nothing in the material for him to latch onto on a more personal level, thus rendering the exercise moot.

In addition to having a film with no real characters to speak of, an empty screenplay and the complete lack of presence from Spike Lee himself, "Oldboy" continues to suffer greatly due to its level of exceedingly graphic violence which was so gratuitous that I honestly felt violated. It was as if the invisible contract between myself and the work of Spike Lee had been rudely ignored and broken. It is not as f Lee has not handled heavy violence in any of his past films. Look at the murder of the character of Radio Raheem at the hands of the police in "Do The Right Thing" (1989), or the tragic, life-altering alley way beating of trumpeter Bleek Gilliam in "Mo' Better Blues" (1990), or the Marvin Gaye inspired Father/son shooting and murder in "Jungle Fever" (1991). On a wider scale, Lee has handled drugs and crime in the inner city in the extraordinary "Clockers" (1995) and then, in "Summer Of Sam" (1999), a film that what was possibly his widest conceptual canvas, Lee gave us his blistering portrait of 1977 New York and themes of suspicion and paranoia fueled by the murders committed by serial killer known as the "Son Of Sam." In all of those instances, and as graphic as the violence was depicted, Lee always ensured that any violence was story and character driven, which then placed the humanity and therefore, the inhumanity front and center, so as not to have his art fall into works of exploitation.

The violence of "Oldboy" is not presented in a provocative fashion or even one that is compelling or cathartic. It is a film where beatings, bludgeoning, torture, rape, and excruciating splatter filled shotgun blasts that explode heads and bodies completely apart rule the day...and for what and to what ends? Sometimes when I see an American remake o a foreign film, I like to see the original material to compare the two. In the case of "Oldboy," I just do not care if it was faithful or not because if this is the core of what the original film happens to be, then there is just no reason to put myself through something so senselessly horrific all over again. It is nihilism without purpose. It is soul numbing gore at its most vile.

Dear readers, I have no need or desire to have art, and especially the movies, make me feel safe. Sometimes the movies we need the most are the ones that rattle our cages, shake us up and alter our perceptions about the world and how we see it. Spike Lee has been a provocateur, one that has been equally infuriating and fair-minded and uplifting as well as existing as an artist of the highest order for over 25 years.

But for now, I seriously wish to believe that "Oldboy" is somehow some disgusting fluke of a film that even he will want to wash away from his resume.
At this time of writing, "Oldboy," which opened on Thanksgiving weekend has bombed at the box office and is very close to already leaving movie theaters. And it seems as if my feelings about the extreme lack of Spike Lee's personal stamp upon "Oldboy" were more true than I could ever have known. Since seeing the film, I have read articles, one of which was published in Variety, that the film was not only a box office disaster (and frankly, if you don't advertise your film--which the studio in question barely did--how do you expect anyone to go and see it?), both Lee and Josh Brolin are extremely unhappy with the final cut of the film, which was not Spike Lee's at all.

It turns out that those pesky powers-that-be took the film away from Lee and cut a hair of a full hour out of Lee's original and nearly 2 1/2 hour cut and even re-edited some sequences. During the editing stages, Lee was the one who changed his trademark credit to the impersonal "A Spike Lee Film" and even removed his company logo. Aside from that, Lee has said nothing publicly. Josh Brolin on the other hand has said that Lee's version of the film was much better but who knows if we'll ever get to see that cut.

Even so, I had to review what I saw and furthermore, if Lee's original cut does see the light of day, I really don't know if it is worth going through this morass of filth all over again.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

ASSEMBLY LINE ASGARDIAN: a review of "Thor: The Dark World"

Based upon the Marvel Comics series created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby
Story by Don Payne and Robert Rodat
Screenplay Written by Christopher Yost and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Directed by Alan Taylor
** (two stars)

It was bound to happen and not even a red caped, hammer wielding Asgardian would even be able to stop something to powerful and sadly inevitable: the sorrowful beast and burden of creative stagnation.

Yes, dear readers, for me and my own sensibilities, "Thor: The Dark World," the latest film from the Marvel Comics film universe assembly line is the first significant stumble in the otherwise rock solid film series. This is a shame because this particular film series, which includes one GREAT film in Writer/Director Joss Whedon's "The Avengers" (2012), has been one that has consistently placed characters, stories, inventive filmmaking, strong writing and acting at the forefront, ensuring that these films would exist as much more than mere fodder for the latest "advances" in CGI technology and the thunderous rumbles of DTS sound. That is, until now...

My feelings are not to suggest that the latest film to feature Thor is indeed a "bad movie." As with all of the previous installments, "Thor: The Dark World" is a handsome production with good performances throughout. The problem I had with the film is that it was just so impersonal and therefore, so insignificant, that it is 100% symptomatic of the bloated, emotionless CGI  heavy movies that have become the yawn inducing non-spectacles that all of the other Marvel films have effectively side stepped to varying degrees of success. But therein lies the problem with making movies in an assembly line fashion. Sometimes, the speed of the production circumvents the overall quality and in the case of "Thor: The Dark World," this is the first time where I felt that the powers-that-be behind the scenes of the Marvel series (I'm looking at you, Disney) knowingly delivered a shiny, soulless product.

As with Director Shane Black's strong "Iron Man 3" from earlier this year, "Thor: The Dark World" picks up the adventures of our favorite Asgardian shortly after the events of "The Avengers," yet the catalyst for this story has planted its seeds in a much earlier time. In a ponderous prologue, we are introduced to the Dark Elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) who once threatened to conquer and ultimately destroy the universe through a weapon known as the Aether but was defeated by Thor's Father, Odin (again played by Anthony Hopkins). Escaping capture, Malekith vanishes, as well as hides the Aether within a stone column, vowing to one day make his return and enact the fullest of  his revenge against not Asgard but all of the Nine Realms.

Flash forward to present day when Astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), on an expedition in London, finds herself not only separated from her group, which includes her tart tongued intern Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), but teleported to another world where she is then infected by the Aether. Noticing her disappearance from Earth from the Asgardian heavens, the mighty Thor (Chris Hemsworth) embarks upon a search to find her, which leads to their long awaited reunion.

Whisking Jane to Asgard with the hopes of curing her of the Aether, Thor learns from Odin that the return of the weapon spells certain doom for all of existence. And how! Because, as promised, Malekith indeed makes his grand resurrection in which he hopes to retrieve the Aether and unleash it during the rare cosmic event known as the Convergence, a time when all of the Nine Realms will become perfectly aligned, an action that will undo all that exists and return everything to eternal darkness. Unless, Thor, with the reluctant aid of his imprisoned and increasingly malevolent half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is able to stop him.

The plot of "Thor: The Dark World" is in fact more straightforward and at times, even simpler than it may sound, which is just fine because it is indeed all you need to elicit that comic book zing. That said, the end result, as directed by Alan Taylor who has helmed episodes of "Mad Men," "Deadwood" and most notably, "Game Of Thrones," is surprisingly bland, colorless and devoid of any passion, awe, creativity or even just a sense of unabashed fun, which is precisely what Director Kenneth Branagh so wondrously brought to the table with the first film. How I wished that there was a way to bring Branagh back to the Director's Chair for this second installment because he truly injected a sense of real personality and purpose to the proceedings. He knew that while "Thor" (2011) could be epic and bombastic, it was also more than a little silly and yet, he found a way to give us a thrill ride that wasn't campy, and a dramatic arc that honored the character and source material but also did not take itself too seriously. And since I would imagine that he had not ever worked on a film with a budget as large as provided on films such as these, he treated the opportunity as excitedly and with as much gobsmacked glee as a child allowed to race free through the largest toy store. That very enthusiasm gave the CGI special effects the very kick they needed to become honestly special. And so, we ended with with a film that was filled to almost the tip-top with bravado, bluster, excitement and a terrific wit.

With "Thor: The Dark World" however, Taylor piles on the bravado and bluster to bludgeoning effect and just assumes that the cacophony would be able to handle the responsibility of telling a great story and making this film sing like an opera. Unfortunately, he was very wrong. Yes, it is a good looking film but beyond the visual sheen, Taylor seems to have no opinion or perspective over who Thor is, who he wishes to become, the world of the Nine Realms, the threat of intergalactic oblivion or even what it means to Dr. Jane Foster to essentially be in love with a Norse God and travel via a Rainbow Bridge to Asgard. That complete lack of interest is palpable to say the least and it reminded me very greatly of Director Sam Raimi's profoundly underwhelming and wholly disinterested "Oz The Great And Powerful" from earlier this year. If the filmmakers cannot find it within themselves to present some joyfulness with being able to tackle a story and character like this one, then why should I be interested in turn? "Thor: The Dark World" was just a series of one special effect driven set piece after another all adding up to not very much other than just existing as just the next Marvel comics movie.

What stunned me even further was that this film actually possessed no less than five writers! Five writers to just...ahem...hammer out a by-the-numbers screenplay that certainly took no advantage of the comic book's 51 year history and wealth of material and they certainly did not take any advantage of the team of terrific actors at their disposal. "Thor: The Dark World" is the classic example of loading a film with a great and game cast but then giving them absolutely nothing to do and no real characters to play. I do feel that Chris Hemsworth is a much more skilled actor than he is being given credit for and face it, the character of Thor, in concept, is a nearly impossible character to play without being laughed off of the screen. And yet, for three films now, Hemsworth has made this character come to vibrant life with that same sense of combined heft and humor that Kenneth Branagh brought to the first film as a whole. Somehow, Chris Hemsworth makes us believe.

In "Thor: The Dark World," Hemsworth injects a new layer to Thor, which is a sense of melancholic displacement, as he is now both Asgardian and alien immigrant to Earth, and also a nice dose of romantic yearning when he is apart from Jane for extended periods. Those emotions are Marvel comics trademarks and how I wished that Taylor and his five writers played to those emotions and gave the film some desperately needed urgency.

Just look at what both Directors Jon Favreau and Shane Black and undeniably Robert Downey Jr. accomplished with the three "Iron Man" films in regards to the evolution of the Tony Stark character. They all could have easily coasted and essentially have Tony Stark hit the same beats over and again and just call it a day. But, thankfully, they probed nicely and deeply, giving us films that play off of each other as well as build up from each other. Even with "Iron Man 3," I truly appreciated how the character of Tony Stark experienced degrees of post traumatic stress syndrome brought on by the events from "The Avengers." Yet, with "Thor: The Dark World," the events from "The Avengers" are barely mentioned and we have absolutely no idea of what that experience even meant to Thor himself. Just one of many wasted opportunities in this second film, where Thor himself is not even driving his own story and basically becomes a supporting player to all of the events that surround him and it is all because the filmmakers just have no idea of what to do with him.

I am hoping that this lackluster film is more than a one time fluke than a sign for things to come. The first trailers for next year's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" do look very impressive but with Disney holding the purse strings, my faith has significant reasons to dwindle. As I have said many times before on this site, I just believe that if one indeed has the finances and does not need to worry about where that next dollar is going to arrive from just in order to fund one's artistic creations, then the art and artistry is the only thing that matters. Disney will absolutely never, ever, EVER have to worry about where their next dollar is coming from or if they will ever run out of funding so with that knowledge and just plain 'ol reality, then they should be doing everything to ensure that the films they bankroll are of the highest quality and assembly line filmmaking is just not necessary at all.

Just look at Pixar, once the GOLD standard for American animated films and their steep decline in quality over the last few years as they have just cranked one uninspired sequel or creatively stagnated film after another. I am tremendously worried for the future of "Star Wars," which Disney now owns as well and their wishes to release new "Star Wars" films every year beginning in 2015 with the arrival of Director J.J. Abrams' "Star Wars: Episode VII"--incidentally a film he wished to be able to unveil in 2016, a desire to which Disney vehemently declined, since they already set the release date.

I just do not understand it, dear readers. I do not understand. Audiences for Pixar films, "Star Wars" and the Marvel comics universe are so built in and rock solid that Disney is in no need to worry about not making money so why are they treating these films in such a way where it seems that they think that audiences will forget these characters and films if they stay out of theaters for too long. To that, I would ask them, "Do you want these films made quickly or do you want these films made greatly?" If  my hands were at the wheels, I would want my filmmakers to take as much time as they needed in order to ensure that the stories are being told in the best way possible and that audiences will want to see them over and again out of sheer passion and not out of a sense of near brainwashed obligation.

It's OK to make us miss these characters for a while. Their absence will indeed make audiences' hearts grow that much fonder. In the case of Thor, with his third film appearance in just two years, he deserved so much better than what he was given because what a shame that an Asgardian is weighted down by something so...average.