Sunday, March 31, 2013

THE BEST FUNERAL EVER: a review of "Shut Up And Play The Hits"

Directed by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Dear readers, I am about to pose a hypothetical question to all of you that I would wish for you to think about seriously. Regardless of your individual station in life, especially in regards to your personal finances, would you completely walk away from your chosen occupation if you could? And beyond that, what would you do when it was all over?

That very concept forms the heart and soul of Directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace's simultaneously dazzling and intensely pensive documentary, "Shut Up And Play The Hits," a film which chronicles 48 hours in the life of musician James Murphy, creator and leader of LCD Soundsystem, as he prepares for and experiences the initial post-show afterglow and/or emotional fallout of his band's final performance at Madison Square Garden on April 2, 2011, the epic swan song before he retires the unit completely. The non-linear film showcases not only the euphoric concert sequences but also the sharp contrast of the quietness afterwards as well as interview sequences between Murphy and pop culture writer Chuck Klosterman. 

As with Dave Grohl's outstanding "Sound City," Southern and Lovelace also ensure that their film exists as much more than a document of a band's final concert performance. Through the somewhat inscrutable figure of James Murphy himself, we are given a window into the progress and pains of reaching middle age and therefore, we are given a mirror into ourselves as we all age. After a glowingly well received showing at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2012 as well as an exclusive nationwide one night only theatrical screening during the summer of 2012, "Shut Up And Play The Hits" is now available for you to see on DVD and Blu-Ray formats in a gorgeously presented 3 disc collection which contains the film, a nice amount of bonus featurettes and most wondrously, the entire three and a half hour concert itself.  Southern and Lovelace have delivered a film that is bound to make you jump out of our seats while simultaneously becoming an experience that is emotionally resonant. Seek it out and play it loudly!

Truth be told, my relationship with LCD Soundsystem is fair at best. While they are a band that I have enjoyed every time I have heard them and I do even possess two of their three albums, they don't tend to end up as frequent musical choices to listen to, and not for any particular reasons either. That said, they have intrigued me greatly and when James Murphy did announce his band's demise, shortly before the release of "This Is Happening," the band's 2010 and final album, my curiosity was piqued tremendously. I was extremely curious as to why Murphy would want to end something that had become so extremely successful within the indie rock world and was also just on the brink of breaking through into the mainstream. I mean--why stop now? The album hadn't been released yet. There was no tour at that time. And yet, Murphy seemed to be adamant that for LCD Soundsystem, this was to be a most finite existence. With "Shut Up And Play The Hits," Southern and Lovelace try to shed some light on the subject and the results proved to be provocative and multi-layered.

As a concert film, "Shut Up And Play The Hits" feels like a hybrid between Director Jonathan Demme's classic "Stop Making Sense" (1984) starring Talking Heads and certainly Director Martin Scorsese's extraordinary "The Last Waltz" (1978), the concert film which chronicled the final performance of The Band on Thanksgiving night 1976. In fact, this film could have also been titled, "The Last Rave"! Even so, Southern and Lovelace follow the template of both films by not giving the audience any sense of history of the band in question. For fans of the respective musical units, you are more than ready, for novices, you finally get to see what the fuss was all about just as everything is about to conclude permanently.  

While Grohl utilized "Sound City" to question the existence of the crucial human element in 21st century music (and society at large), "Shut Up And Play The Hits" goes a long way to show that this essential element has not been forever lost. While the LCD Soundsystem albums are largely written, produced and recorded by James Murphy on his own, and they have been classified as electronic dance rock, sonically those albums do possess a certain handmade quality as the merging of punk rock, soul, electronica and even disco music proudly displays its influences of David Bowie, the poly-rhythms of mid period Talking Heads and the nasty, raw, almost home demo funk of "Dirty Mind"/"Controversy" era Prince. Yet Murphy's artistic vision is never derivative and feels intensely singular and personal. The film's concert sequences are sharply and crisply photographed and presented and on stage, the camaraderie between Murphy and his chief co-conspirators, Nancy Whang (keyboards, synthesizers, percussion), Pat Mahoney (drums, percussion, electronic percussion) and Tyler Pope (guitars, bass guitar, keyboards, synthesizers  percussion) is palpable in its obvious affection. Furthermore, and for this climactic event, the band has swelled to include an arsenal of additional musicians including a horn section and vocal choir and Murphy, clad in a somewhat ill fitting tux, stands center stage, orchestrating the event serves as the conductor. 

From the opening selection "Dance Yrself Clean," to the soulful "45:33 (Shame On You)," to rave ups like "Yeah," "North American Scum," and "All My Friends," Southern, Lovelace and LCD Soundsystem practically dare you to stay seated as the rhythms are executed explosively therefore giving the filmmakers ample opportunities to present the deep relationship the band has with its audience, making a concert feel like a mass communion leading to a sense of rapture which is indeed captured during the film's climactic song, "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down." On that track, I heard echoes of nothing less than David Bowie's "Rock And Roll Suicide," itself the final track from Bowie's classic album "The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars" (1972), a song which details the demise of that album's titular character. More than a fitting selection and comparison to say the least.

But with the musical comparisons, the film as a whole is made of of sharp juxtapositions. The mass cacophony of joyous communion are inter-cut with scenes of solitude of striking silence. We witness the day after the performance with scenes of Murphy, and his French bulldog alone in his New York apartment with his wall of vinyl and novels. Audio segments of Murphy's conversations with Klosterman are placed over lonely imagery of Murphy riding alone in a cab.  Another audio interview snippet of Murphy and Klosterman discussing the nature of pretentiousness is laid over imagery of the most mundane act of Murphy shaving his face. LCD Soundsystem's wild performance cover of Harry Nilsson's apocalyptic sounding "Jump Into The Fire" is presented with scenes of post concert revelry. 

And what I loved within the film most are the wealth of stolen moments Southern and Lovelace have captured and have chosen to present in surprising ways. The sight of Murphy spontaneously breaking into tears on stage after singing "Someone Great" and the look of empathy shot his way by Whang was striking to me. Then, there are scenes after the show, where Murphy putters around his apartment and New York in his clothes from the night before, as he tours the band's office space and quietly breaks down in sobs while exploring a warehouse of the band's instruments, never to be played again. 

The music of LCD Soundsystem is as intimate and introspective as the film's interview segments and then the music itself plays out upon the grand scale of a marathon farewell arena concert.  The songs themselves present Murphy's anxious and self-perceived sense of futility and failure with feeling that he will never be able to achieve the artistic heights of his musical heroes. Yet, conversely, he is certainly perceptive and astute enough to realize that maybe his music has inspired his musical peers as well as the kids that make up his audience. With all of those elements, Southern and Lovelace have given to me that same sense of symbiotic symmetry that tends to capture me, dear readers. While this film is not a cultural commentary as "Sound City" became, "Shut Up And Play The Hits" is indeed more of a character study of James Murphy and therefore of all of us in the audience as well. 

James Murphy struck me as being a candid and yet confounding individual. He seems to be arrogant yet reserved. Loquacious yet sharp enough to not reveal absolutely everything. He seems to be uniquely or obsessively in tune with his sense of musical relevance and overall self-consciousness and self-perception. He can shoulder an irritatingly ironic, excessively self-aware hipster status while also existing as a heart on sleeve romantic. And with all of those qualities, I guess that you can say that James Murphy mirrors each and every one of us who chooses to watch this film because can any of us ever be described with just one adjective? In regards to his role as a musician, Murphy speaks of his inspirations and how the sense of perception strongly feeds into the love one has towards an artist. How to him, David Bowie seemed as if he was not even of this Earth or even human while also realizing that Bowie puts his pants on one leg at a time and buys milk at the store just like anyone else.  

With that, Southern and Lovelace, also pull back the curtain with their fly on the wall cameras to show Murphy as just a man and not as a musical deity that some may perceive him to be, especially from the awed faces we see in the Madison Square Garden audience, most notably the tear stained teenager, whose face marks the film's final image. Even a specific moment during the concert is telling as well. Near the end of the show, he thanks the audience for attending and then makes the point of ensuring them that his gratitude is not presented through a veil of irony but is indeed authentic. It struck me that this man is so self-conscious about his own sense of authenticity that he ends up being somewhat inauthentic yet you also understand that is not the impression he wishes to deliver to his fans whatsoever. 

The purity of James Murphy can be seen the most in the emotional landscape he travels through as he goes through the process of saying goodbye. Yes, we have the on stage displays of emotion but again, Southern and Lovelace capture those stolen moments. For instance, before the show, Murphy is scurrying around backstage with a box of commemorative bracelets he is delivering to everyone, wishing that he is not forgetting anybody. After the concert on the following day and while on the phone with a friend, he remarks that he has not as of yet gotten in touch with two band members and he wanted to get to them before they "disappeared." This comment also struck me because on stage this collective of people clearly seemed to be enjoying each other and they are often filled with embraces for one another, but Southern and Lovelace also implode the nature of what a band can actually be. I mean--are these people friends at all? I guess this notion reminded me a bit of being in college where friendships, sometimes of serious intensity, would be formed in a class or with people through a semester and then the following semester or school year, those people would never be seen again. Such is life.

And this is where "Shut Up And Play The Hits" strikes its deepest chords as it is indeed an exploration of middle age and even mortality. At the time of the filming and concert, Murphy has arrived at the age of 41, life's midpoint, a time for taking stock of your accomplishments and failures and wondering how to move forwards while constantly looking backwards. the film's non-linear structure accomplished this very feat of  
moving forwards and backwards so effectively that there was even a point during the film in which I forgot when the interview segments between Murphy and Klosterman had taken place--before or after the concert. Here is where Southern and Lovelace's film reminded me greatly of Scorsese's "George Harrison: Living In The Material World" (2011), where the past, present and future co-exist, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes with dissonance, and converging in an everlasting NOW. 

With that, "Shut Up And Play The Hits" builds, grows, deepens, sustains and envelops into a loud yet graceful explorations of beginnings and endings-the ultimate juxtaposition set to a ferociously danceable beat. During this period in the movie year of 2013 where selections are scant, I would urge you to seek this film out for you may be as surprised as I was with how profoundly you may be moved just as you are jumping, sweating and dancing in blissful elation. 

Friday, March 22, 2013


Story by Dave Grohl
Screenplay Written by Mark Monroe
Directed by Dave Grohl
**** (four stars)

"Music really isn't supposed to be perfect. It's all about people relating to each other and doing something that's really from the soul. It must come from the soul."
-Tom Petty

In my daily travels throughout my city of Madison, Wisconsin, I consistently drive immediately past the legendary Smart Studios, a recording facility where among many other musicians and bands, The Smashing Pumpkins recorded their 1991 debut album "Gish." It is the same studio where Nirvana recorded a track for their 1991 landmark "Nevermind" album. It is also the same studio that was originated and co-owned by musicians Butch Vig and Steve Marker, who are members of the band Garbage, and Smart was the location where that band recorded their first four albums. 

It is a building that you would easily drive by and not ever give it a second look if you had absolutely no idea of what it was as it holds a completely nondescript appearance as just another ordinary two story red brick building housed on a corner of East Washington Avenue, one of the city's major thoroughfares. I never had the opportunity to ever venture inside of Smart Studios but from some friends and acquaintances that did have the opportunity, I have been told that while it possessed a near forgettable visual quality on the outside, the inside contained a state of the art recording environment that for a spell carried a hefty cache within the music industry. Just a hair over one year ago, and despite its legend, Smart Studios closed its doors permanently primarily due to a sea change within the music industry where bands from major labels became less prevalent and more independent artists discovered that studio quality recordings could be achieved through I-pad technology, therefore making traditional recording studios increasingly financially unstable and eventually, irrelevant. 

Even though Smart Studios is now defunct, I cannot help but to wonder endlessly about what went on behind those doors and soundboards as musicians, producers and engineers had the blessed opportunity to chase their respective artistic muses, weave musical soundscapes in collaboration with each other and for our entertainment and hopeful inspiration. Additionally, I do have to also wonder about what has been lost as I really believe that Smart's demise is not solely about the loss of some brick and mortar building. Smart Studios began its existence in 1983 and for it to have lasted as long as it did, some sense of human alchemy just had to have been in place and can that same sense of alchemy survive or exist at all in a period that has found society to be more decidedly insulated and even withdrawn from each other? 

Those very questions, musings and so much more are firmly and beautifully placed at the heart of "Sound City," an exhilarating, supremely accomplished documentary and filmmaking debut from musician Dave Grohl, singer, songwriter, guitarist, drummer, former member of Nirvana and current leader of Foo Fighters. Like the very best music music based documentaries that I have seen over the past couple of years like Director Michael Rapaport's "Beats, Rhymes And Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest" (2010) and Director Cameron Crowe's "Pearl Jam Twenty" (2011) and "The Union" (2011), Grohl has gloriously made his film not only serve the musical muse, musician and fan but he also transcends the primary subject matter to make him film exist about something as vast as our decreasing sense of humanity in the 21st century and advancing technological age. I cannot even begin to tell you how many times "Sound City" elicited chills within me as so many cherished musicians and their works made their respective presence known so compellingly throughout the film. But that said, I urge you to also understand that "Sound City" is not a film that is solely designed for the music fanatic like myself. Grohl has achieved something much more universal therefore making his film something that I feel absolutely any viewer could relate to. In this very early stage in the cinematic year of 2013, "Sound City" announces its arrival with the confidence, integrity, craftsmanship, grit and artistry of the finest albums and films we all cherish. This is a film that SHOULD NOT be missed. 

Truth be told, I have to admit that like most of you and despite my musical fanaticism, I have actually never heard of the Sound City recording studio, a funky hole in the wall complete with beer stained carpets, walls covered with brown shag and a perpetually flooded parking lot, housed deep within the San Fernando Valley. But, as this review forges ahead, and as Grohl's film illustrates, I would not be at all surprised to discover that much of your most favorite music was once recorded there. 

Founded in 1969 by business partners Tom Skeeter (who is interviewed extensively in the film) and the late Joe Gottfried, Sound City was a once fledgling studio struggling to gain a foothold within the music industry yet somehow, musicians seemed to always find their way to this location. Neil Young (who is also interviewed within the film) recorded part of his classic "After The Gold Rush" album at Sound City for instance. But the stars began to align themselves when recording engineer and future record producer Keith Olsen made the wise and fateful decision to purchase the state of the art Neve 8078 Console, a handmade, hand wired analog mixing deck long considered to be the "Rolls Royce" of mixing consoles. From this risky move, especially from a studio that really was not that financially stable to take such risks, rewards were soon to be reaped tenfold. 

From these beginnings, Grohl essentially arranges "Sound City" into three distinct sections. The first spans the studio's heyday throughout the 1970s, starting with the very first musicians to ever record on the Neve,  Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. While their 1973 debut album "Buckingham Nicks" did not race up the charts as Skeeter and Gottfried had hoped, the beauty and purity of the recordings did attract the attention of Fleetwood Mac drummer/founder Mick Fleetwood who was, at that time, just looking for a new studio to record in. This equally fateful event not only brought Buckingham and Nicks into Fleetwood Mac, the band eventually recorded their seismically successful albums "Fleetwood Mac" (1975) and "Rumours" (1977) at Sound City, bringing much needed notoriety and new clients like Santana, The Grateful Dead, Foreigner, Cheap Trick and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers through the studio doors. 

The film's second section details the studio's fall during the 1980s as recording technology became more advanced while recording artists became more homogenized and artificial sounding, especially through the drums which Vig describes as "canon shots." The studio's rebirth in the 1990s coincides with Grohl's personal journey as the then 22 year old drummer for Nirvana spent 16 life changing days at Sound City recording "Nevermind." The massive success of that album brought a new musical gold rush to the studio as more authentic artists like Rage Against The Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, Queens Of The Stone Age and the late Johnny Cash and others found their way through Sound City's doors, furthering their respective musical legacies. Unfortunately by 2011, and unable to keep up with the changing technological tenor of the times, Sound City was forced to close its doors for good. 

The third and euphoric final section of "Sound City" ties all of the themes together wondrously in song, musical camaraderie, joyous celebration and even redemption as the film depicts a series of new recording sessions at Dave Grohl's personal studio and featuring the Neve console, which Grohl purchased after the studio's demise.  

Dear readers, with no sense of hyperbole and yet with every stitch of enthusiasm I can muster, Dave Grohl's "Sound City" is an unabashed triumph. By the time the film concluded, I wanted to somehow track down Grohl to shake his hand and if he let me, I would have hugged the man for his film moves me so. Additionally, I would have wanted to shake him by the collar and tell him to please stop presenting himself with this "aw shucks" demeanor which serves to downplay his immense talents because as far as I am concerned, any veteran filmmaker or documentarian would be absolutely proud to have made what Grohl has masterfully achieved. This film is indeed Grohl's passion project as he not only provides the viewer with a celebratory history of a legendary recording studio with a collection of intimate, personal stories but he also weaves in a cultural commentary that is equally passionate, provocative, and universal.

In addition to the gorgeously filmed recording sessions, Grohl's deep connections within the music industry have afforded him terrific interview subjects like Young, Petty, Buckingham, Nicks, Fleetwood, Trent Reznor, Frank Black, Rick Springfield and Grohl himself. But this is actually not a film about rock stars pontificating about their legendary pasts and presents from on high. Those interviews are merged effortlessly with equally insightful and loquacious subjects from Sound City's engineers, producers, studio managers and even former receptionists. After some time while watching, I realized that this film was very reminiscent of Director Michel Gondry's outstanding "Dave Chappelle's Block Party" (2005), a film that so movingly showcased how artists, fans and neighborhood residents were all on equal footing and each performed their respective parts to create a magical whole and experience. By having this large variety of interview subjects all waxing lovingly about the rare (for the music industry) familial quality that greeted every performer who walked through the Sound City doors, Grohl is able to suggest strongly that our favorite albums did not just spring into existence from the artists' brain into the world all by themselves. Everything is due to the collaborative efforts between absolutely everyone involved at Sound City. And maybe, Grohl further suggests through the film, that the warmth and humanity that permeated Sound City can be heard throughout the groves and tapes of each and every album that was recorded behind its doors, an element that has made their longevity so crucial and perhaps, even possible at all.

"Sound City" is also a film about the necessity of determination, diligence and discipline, especially now as we all live in an increasingly instant gratification society. In regards to the creation of music, now that Auto Tune and Pro Tools can seemingly make anyone, regardless of any discernible talent an overnight mega star, all of the film's attention to the Neve console and the film's final recording sequences are deeply enlightening and should also be required viewing for any musician, established or not. As Producer Jim Scott explains in the film, the analog recording technology of the Neve console gives the artist "no frills, no effects and no place to hide." Benmont Tench, keyboardist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, describes how the studio itself was a "tough room" and how the band practiced the now classic track "Refugee" over 100 times before recording a final version. Yet, this musical obsessiveness was not at the pursuit of perfection. This serious attention to performance was due to the pursuit of discovering a musical truth. The pursuit of getting it right.

Grohl illustrates consistently throughout the film that "getting it right" and perfection are absolutely not the same thing. In fact, "getting it right" is not about perfection at all. It is completely about a collective of people all searching to discover the ever elusive "feel"--the purity and soul of the piece, the very thing that we all respond to when we hear music that touches us for life. I believe that music is an eternal and even spiritual conversation between all parties involved, from those who create to those who listen and respond. This particular back and forth dialogue is one of the greatest forms of symbiotic relationships in the world to me and this theme of inter-connectivity, a cherished one upon this site, is one that I respond to greatly. Just think about the music that you love the very most. For me, I cannot help but to wonder how and why some song that I have heard literally thousands of times can still remain fresh, new and as soul stirring as the very first time but there are songs created today, through homogeneous and overly synthetic writing and production techniques, that I cannot stand to listen through even once. While I am always on the lookout for new artists to latch onto, I have found that as I have gotten older, my tastes have continued to run backwards in time as there is just something in the songs, writings and recordings of the past that just sound more pure to my ears. And I would suppose that the answer to my questions is actually a very simple one: It's the people.

As I have stated, "Sound City" is not strictly tied to the recording studio and industry. It is about our society at large. Nearly two years ago, I wrote a two-part posting mourning the loss of a beloved video rental store called Bongo Video. Since the closing of that store's doors, there are only a tiny handful of brick and mortar video renting establishments remaining in my city as most people are now on-line with Netflix. Bookstores have also fallen rapidly as have record stores (like my cherished B-Side Records), of which only a few remain in Madison. The state of commercial radio is more than depressing. And as I venture into coffee houses these days, I am also struck with how the tenor of those establishments have changed over time. The sound of hearty chatter has elapsed into an unusual and somewhat sad silence as patrons are locked away into their laptops and headphones, not speaking openly to anyone at all. Now I have nothing at all against the various technological advances, especially as I partake in them myself to a degree. But when the advancements are forced to not co-exist with the tenors of the past and are seemingly at the expense of our collective humanity, that's when I have problems with where we are headed as a society. Dave Grohl's "Sound City" is sharply in tune with those sentiments and throughout the film, I really think that you will all be struck with how emotionally involved you may become with the sights and sounds of people working together. 

The film's reunion recording sequences are entertaining and powerful. Just see and listen to how the career of Stevie Nicks arrives at full circle as it is a culmination of her life's work while also showing her purpose with continuing to be a musician and performer. Rick Springfield's section provides a power-pop blast while also existing as a source of deeply moving atonement. And Grohl, ever the showman, saves the best for last as none other than Paul McCartney arrives to record a roaring song called "Cut Me Some Slack" with Grohl, Vig and former Nirvana bandmates bassist Krist Novoselic and guitarist Pat Smear. It was truly a sensational climax as it showed how the joy of performing and collaboration remains a privilege not lost upon someone of McCartney's status and legend. He never elicits a jaded moment for even a second. You can see the band practice, discuss, change, lead, listen and follow each other into making something that simply rocks. And the sequence also shows Grohl himself as a prominent musical force while simultaneously existing as the world's greatest rock fan. 

"Sound City" is a true labor of love. It is a film that is marvelous, elegiac, and eternally hopeful. In Dave Grohl, we can see a stirring merging of boyhood fantasies realized, with hero worship, passionate torch carrying and the valiant upholding of always striving to maintain a human touch. He, the film and all of us are analog souls in a digital world and may none of us ever lose our collective groove. 

So, where can you see "Sound City"? After having its premiere to enthusiastic critical and audience response at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the movie has had a few exclusive theatrical showings. But now, it is available on DVD and Blu-Ray formats and you may also stream or HD download the film from the movie's official website.

And as with the very best music films...PLAY LOUD!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

SMOKE AND MIRRORS: a review of "Oz The Great And Powerful"

Based upon the works of L. Frank Baum
Screen Story by Mitchell Kapner
Screenplay Written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed by Sam Raimi
** (two stars)

"How predictable!" snarls The Wicked Witch of the West  late in "Oz The Great And Powerful," Director Sam Raimi's lush, extravagant and sadly hollow prequel to the eternal classic "The Wizard Of Oz" (1939), and I'm sorry, but I have to say that I felt the same

Yes, dear readers, this latest excursion to the land somewhere over the rainbow was one that, for the most part, left me cold, uninvolved and more than a little bored as I felt that I had just seen it all before and better. A sad realization especially when I should have been transported and enthralled. No, "Oz The Great And Powerful" is not a bad movie and there are quite a number of elements and performances that work very well in fits and starts. But, as with the horrendous and soulless "Alice In Wonderland" (2010), the joint venture between Disney and Tim Burton in which somehow Burton's creative presence was nowhere to be found, the hugely inventive Sam Raimi nearly suffers the same fate at being rendered irrelevant within his own movie just so Disney can create a new and grandly lucrative franchise. Like this film's anti-hero's lust for the gold and treasures of Oz, Disney's quest for riches makes "Oz The Great And Powerful" an unfortunately cynical affair of a film which duplicitously tries to stress the value of purity, community and discovering the the best of oneself for the betterment of all. As I watched it and ruminate over it now, I think of how wondrous it could have been if the pursuit of the dollar just hadn't gotten itself so immovably in the way.  

After a gorgeous opening credits sequence, "Oz The Great And Powerful" begins, in black and white cinematography, at a travelling sideshow carnival in 1905 Kansas. We soon meet the selfish, friendless, charlatan magician Oscar Diggs, known to all by his nickname of "Oz" (played by James Franco), who is sweet talking his latest conquest, set to perform his latest show to dwindling financial results and audience irritation while he also houses vast dreams of one day accomplishing unquestionable, life-altering and world shifting greatness like his hero Thomas Edison. 

As a storm approaches the fairgrounds and Oscar is making a speedy getaway from a furious circus strongman, angered that our anti-hero has flirted with his wife, Oscar hops into a hot air balloon, takes off and is soon sucked completely inside the whirling terror of a tornado. And just like our cherished Dorothy Gale will discover in "The Wizard Of Oz," the film bursts into a widescreen technicolor wonderland as Oscar awakens in the land of Oz.

Oscar's arrival is immediately spotted by the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who believes him to be the prophesied wizard destined to destroy the Wicked Witch who murdered the King of Oz and ultimately take the throne as the magical kingdom's new ruler. As the highly skeptical Oscar begins his new journey, with visions of endless gold coins in his eyes, he soon gathers a small collective of traveling companions in the form of Finley, the kind flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) and the spunky porcelain China Doll (voiced by Joey King); runs afoul of Theodora's sister, the vicious witch Evanora (Rachel Weisz) as well as the aforementioned green skinned Wicked Witch of the West (no spoilers but you'll see it coming a mile away) and is guided throughout by the honorable Glinda the Good Witch (a wonderful Michelle Williams). With the fate of a kingdom and fulfillment of a prophecy dependent upon his arrival, the reluctant Oscar is forced to face down his deepest fears and worst impulses as he strives for a potential greatness that flies beyond his wildest dreams.  

While Sam Raimi's "Oz The Great And Powerful" is a visual feast, it is surprisingly an empty one and only within the film's final moments does it even approach to utilize what it had been lacking for a hair over two hours: a heart. Yes, there were moments here and there that I really enjoyed. I absolutely loved the opening black and white sections, especially Oscar's magic show and the old hand-worn tricks to create that elusive sense of illusion on stage. I enjoyed the very clever nods to Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion that subtly pop into the story without ever feeling forced. I even thought that the climactic moment which announces Oscar's full arrival with his destiny to have a real sense of awe. But other than that, "Oz The Great And Powerful" is yet one more big budget, bloated, impersonal, anonymous, CGI drenched motion picture that struggles to maintain mass appeal without really having any sense of a creative point of view—which is just how Disney wants it I guess. Because let's face it, dear readers, "Oz The Great And Powerful" is really a Disney film and not a Sam Raimi film. So of course, it begs to ask the question, why hire an artist like Sam Raimi if you are not going to allow him to be Sam Raimi? Certainly he comes off much better than Tim Burton did with the odious “Alice In Wonderland” but “Oz The Great And Powerful” does suffer some of the same problems as it is.

One major problem is the film's screenplay. While it does carve out a strong origin story line, it is actually executed in the same flat, generic tone as any other big budget, special effects driven film that is released from month to month throughout the year. The conflicts are generally the same, as are the lessons learned and the film even marches forwards to yet another CGI drenched war sequence that is mostly so tiresome to sit through and is rarely pulled of with any sense of urgency and uplift. Worst of all is the film's painfully simplistic and repetitive dialogue that just slowed the film down to a detrimental degree and therefore, made the film’s themes as subtle as a sledgehammer to the head. How many times did we have to hear Glinda express to Oscar about his inherent goodness or how he needs to believe in himself? How many times did we have to hear about how he is the savior of the prophecy to lead Oz into a new freedom? These examples plus perhaps two or three more were extolled endlessly and it all felt so tiresome. 

I do understand that the powers that be wanted this film to appeal to children and families (and of course, ensure higher box office receipt totals) but please tell me why there was there no nuance or depth or quality to the language of this script? Everything was so one note, so facile, so cliched and presented as if the screenwriter’s had an idea of what dialogue pitched to a young audience should sound like instead of just…you know...writing a story with a sense of purity. "Oz The Great And Powerful" just felt like it was another greedy grab at mass appeal, as well as a way for the film to be easily translatable and that much more lucrative in foreign markets. Look, I get it and I do not blame the folks at Disney for wanting to make a fortune with their latest product. Of course, you want your movie to make a fortune! Who wouldn't? But why was the money grab so obvious? 

Another major problem is James Franco. To me, he is an actor of unquestionable gifts as evidenced through his wonderful work on television's "Freaks And Geeks" as well as his agonizing and riveting one-man-show performance in Director Danny Boyle's "127 Hours" (2010). But with "Oz The Great And Powerful," he is so oddly unmotivated and uncommitted to his role of Oscar Diggs that it almost felt to be like some kind of ironic in joke between himself and perhaps...himself. I mean--here he is in the LAND OF OZ and never for an instant did he display any real sense of being enchanted, enthralled or terrified or anything other than a certain oh-so-cool sense of jaded detachment that is just not acceptable for a film like this one. Yes, I do understand that part of the cynicism is partially due to the character of Oscar Diggs because he is a con man, a charlatan, and a skeptic. He is the selfish anti-hero who is always seeming to weasel his way to the riches of Oz or else a way out of his predicament or a way away from his destiny. But, that is only part of this character because he is indeed in the...LAND OF OZ!!! If he is not gobsmacked by the sights and sounds of the Oz universe, then why should we in the audience be gobsmacked in turn? I just couldn't connect with this character because Franco seemed to be so above it all, mirroring this strange stance he has seemed to cloak himself with ever since the Academy Awards hosting debacle from two years ago. 

After quite a spell, I began to wonder if Zach Braff, who appears in the flesh during the film's beginning sequences as Oscar's long suffering assistant, would have conveyed more layers necessary to make this story and character pop. Robert Downey Jr., who was originally cast in the leading role but eventually dropped out, would have been absolutely perfect as he has a way to be humorous, shifty, romantic, engaging, sinister, subversive and heroic and sometimes all at once. he just has a way with a phrase that makes dialogue sound as if the words are his very own and he can always keep an audience guessing. But as it is, James Franco was indeed miscast because he seems to be standing outside of the material when he needs to embrace it. And regardless, the weak screenplay lets him down anyway. Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and especially Michelle Williams, on the other hand, fully commit to their roles and they are so good, they almost transcend the pat nature of the screenplay. Almost...

And I guess all of these criticisms bring me to my greatest criticism towards "Oz The Great And Powerful," and that is to the overall blandness of the film especially with the special effects. Really take a moment to think about "The Wizard Of Oz" and how image after image has been burned into our public consciousness for generations and how with each generation, we are truly whisked away to another realm of existence altogether. The feeling is nothing less than primal from the euphoric joy all the way, and even moreso, to the terror. "The Wizard Of Oz" as well as Director Sidney Lumet's "The Wiz" (1978) utilized the state of the art special effects, costume, set and production designs of their respective eras to create a world that essentially emulated a child's vivid and surreal dream world that often felt like Dali-eque fever dreams or at times plunged into gripping nightmares.

With "The Wizard Of Oz," generations have continuously expressed intense fear with the sight and memories of the flying monkeys. As for me, the moments that horrified me the most all had to do with Margaret Hamilton's iconic and untouchable performance as the green skinned Wicked Witch of the West. She was the embodiment of pure evil, a force of such unspeakable malevolence and I could not turn my eyes away. Her shrill cackle to the moment during which she was melted by water scared me to no end. And the moment in which poor Dorothy (the peerless Judy Garland), waiting to be rescued by her friends, watched her life literally slip away via sand flowing through an hourglass, left me breathless as a child. "The Wizard Of Oz" is an often deeply frightening film and you know what, it's OK! It is OK for children to be frightened by stories sometimes. They do not need to be sheltered by everything for the entire duration of their childhood. And furthermore, when Dorothy and her friends triumph, we in the audience triumph and conquer our greatest demons right alongside them, making for an experience that is seismically inspirational, most notably for children.

Yes, "The Wizard Of Oz" is indeed one of the very best films I have seen in my entire life and I do realize that it would be an impossible feat for "Oz The Great And Powerful" to exist within the same league. I understand that and I am truly trying to review this new film upon its own terms. That said, "Oz The Great And Powerful" just missed the mark. With the mass amount of visual effects on display from one end of the film to the other, it just amazed me how nearly all of it felt to be straight from the special effects assembly line as there was not much about them that felt to be really special. As for merging the technical with the story to create a profoundly emotional experience, especially one that needs to have a measure of real terror involved, "Oz The Great And Powerful" fails on this front as well. Yes, things jump out at you from time to time and there are sudden sonic shocks and scares here and there but they don't last very long and are ushered off of the screen so quickly that nothing really takes hold. The little ones just may be frightened for a moment or two but when it comes to something lasting, to something that sticks to the cinematic ribs, to something that can be truly memorable, like a lingering dream that you cannot shake even if you wanted to, "Oz The Great And Powerful" doesn't even begin to come close.  

Dear readers, I wanted to love Sam Raimi's "Oz The Great And Powerful" but I just didn't. I just couldn't. Like "Alice In Wonderland," it does not even begin to exist as art for the ages but more as shiny, glitzy product for mass consumption and frankly, we are not left the better for it.

By the time the already announced sequel hit theaters in a few years, I sincerely hope the filmmakers improve their vision or else there really won't be anything of value to pay attention to behind the theater curtain. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

SO LONG, FAREWELL, AUF WEIDERSEIN, GOODBYE...AND GOOD RIDDANCE: a review of "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 2"

Based upon the novel by Stephenie Meyer
Screenplay Written by Melissa Rosenberg
Directed by Bill Condon
* (one star)

Hallelujah!! Our long national nightmare is, at long last, finally over!!

Forgive me, dear readers, I couldn't resist. From this point onwards, I shall try my very best to remain as purposeful as possible while also being "honest and unmerciful," as so brilliantly stated in Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" (2000), in regards to this review of the fifth and final installment of the "Twilight" film series.    

I have to say that viewing these five films has truly been a long, hard cinematic road for me to travel and I am certain that many of you are wondering just why oh why would I put myself through this experience when I really don't have to. I could easily "blame" my wife as she has loved the Stephenie Meyer novels and is more than ready to watch the latest film adaptation, but even she has expressed her distaste for these movies and the wooden, emotionless, inarticulate Kristen Stewart performances as leading heroine Bella Swan in particular. Even so, after a spell, I had to let her off of the proverbial hook and just take my own responsibility with this excursion as absolutely nobody was forcing me to watch these films under duress, like the malevolent Alex in Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" (1971). With that, I continued, carried onwards, endured, barely tolerated and at times, loathed. I guess by the time I endured the series' lowest point in "Breaking Dawn-Part 1" (2011), I felt determined and took the viewing of this final film as a challenge that I could not back down from as I was not about to let this series beat me. Now that it is all over, I have no clear idea of who or what may have won this battle of wills but I can say that I am certainly battered, bruised, more than a little weary and supremely thankful that the damn thing has finally concluded. 

"Breaking Dawn-Part 2" begins at he precise point where the Part 1 concluded as we quickly relive the death of Bella Swan (again played by Kristen Stewart) and her resurrection as a full fledged vampire bride to her eternally undead love Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). The love triangle between herself, Edward and the perininally shirtless werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) is further complicated when it is revealed that he has imprinted himself upon Edward and Bella's daughter, the horrifically named Renesmee, making him her lifelong protector/companion/soul mate/animal guide and whatever else that will keep him forever tied and pathetically devoted to Bella Swan for the remainder of his existence.

But the rapid growth of the half human/half vampire Renesmee (played by Mackenzie Foy) sends troubling signs throughout the land unknown to humans. The Volturi, the ancient, authoritative Italy based coven who dress in predictably goth fashions combined with the kind of attire Earth, Wind & Fire quite possibly rejected, and led by the ridiculously effete and comically sinister Aro (Michael Sheen), are prepared to hunt down and destroy Bella, the Cullen family, their werewolf compatriots and Renesmee for fear that the child was indeed born to be an Immortal, a species ruled to be outlawed. 

With our heroes on the run and in pursuit of allies to attest to validity Renesmee's status as not being an Immortal Child, "Breaking Dawn-Part 2" eventually leads to a final confrontation between good and evil with the love of Bella and Edward as the centerpiece.

Dear readers, before I continue onwards I feel that I have to include a disclaimer of sorts. From the beginning of Savage Cinema's inception, I have always expressed to you that I am not a film expert but solely a film enthusiast who is just expressing his opinions. When they run to the negative, and certainly as harshly negative as I have been throughout this films series in particular, I do not intend to hurt anyone's feelings as the fans have been deeply protective. I often utilize the phrase "for me and my sensibilities," for reasons that I feel are self-explanatory and in regards to the "Twilight" movies, they are profoundly far, far away from representing anything resembling my sensibilities. 

All of that being said, "Breaking Dawn-Part 2" is about as critic proof of a film as you can possibly get these days as no matter what one says about it negatively, it only seems to make the shrieks of the film's fans that much louder as well as exist as an increasingly immovable force. For that, and in a strange way, I do feel that on a certain level, the "Twilight" film series should be commended. Because as often as I have criticized big budget films for being completely anonymous enterprises that contain no point of view, I do appreciate that these films, while not really exhibiting any true directorial signatures, do indeed have their story to tell, their way and so completely, almost defiantly and unrepentantly for their intended audience. They know what they are and they know exactly and precisely who they are for. 

From the very first image of the first film to the final image of this fifth film, the powers that be behind "The Twilight Saga" have indeed ensured that the desires of their target audience will be catered to unapologetically. For the fans, these films represent a massive club in which it's their party and if you love it, you are so very welcome to join in and if you don't, then fine, they'll have fun without you."Breaking Dawn-Part 2" is no exception as the film does indeed deliver the goods to the legion of faithful, adoring fans and after receiving the massive box office gold, it would be more than easy to realize that they were more than satisfied. Certainly there's nothing I can say to sway those who love it and frankly, I would not aim to for if these five movies give you pleasure then that is just great for you. I'm not going to rain on your parade in that fashion. Even so...even so...can't we just be a bit more honest about what is on the screen? Yes, you like them. Yes, I get it, you LOVE them. But don't have to love them. 

When I think of the elements and characteristics needed in order to make a great film, let alone a good or even a decent one, this particular series, for me and my sensibilities, has consistently proven to be decidedly terrible experiences, especially in regards to the writing and acting. These five films have, more often than not, been absolutely worse than they have any right to be and they do exist for me as cynical enterprises out to keep that "Twilight" gravy train going for as long as possible, quality be damned. The two part "Breaking Dawn" finale films have represented the series at its absolute worst as Director Bill Condon, who really should know better, obviously cleaved a book into two films when it really had no intention of being separated because each cinematic half actually has very little story to tell and therefore, they have been so excruciatingly padded. While "Breaking Dawn-Part 2" takes on the same sluggish, pretentious tone of the previous four films, Condon does bother to inject some flashes of much needed self-deprecating humor but by now, it's too little-too late. 

Now I have been supremely critical with the overall story of "Twilight" since the awful second installment "New Moon" (2009) slunk its insufferably mopey way across the movie screen. The giant holes in the love story of Edward and Bella confounded me, rendered itself to me as being so terribly false and by "Breaking Dawn-Part 1," I even found the series to be seriously detrimental for the messages it indeed sent to the young girls that have carried this series to its massive success regarding love and sex. As "Breaking Dawn-Part 2" begins, Bella, now officially a vampire, finally, finally, finally gets to have that cold blooded vampire sex with Edward. And once it all occurs, it just all became so clear to me that this series is really about nothing more than a girl trying to choose between two boys and that to get the boy of your choice, the girl has to give up absolutely, positively every single facet of herself (in Bella's case her life and literally, her humanity) while the boy doesn't have to do anything, let alone make any sacrifices at all. Bella's selfish nature rears its ugly head again when it comes to her long suffering father Charlie (Billy Boyd), who just may believe her to be dead. And does Bella care a whit about him? Of course not 'cause she finally has what she wants and they had great vampire sex. Only Jacob seems to have any sense of compassion towards Charlie--and by doing so, it gives him another reason to take off his clothes. So for Charlie and the squealing young female fans, I guess it's win win!

Thankfully, the awful love story actually takes a back seat this time around as the extended vampire/werewolf conflict featuring the laughably ridiculous Volturi and their pursuit of the Cullen family provides the main focus of "Breaking Dawn-Part 2." Yet, even so, when it comes down to it, it just felt that the main conceit of the film--finding a collective of witnesses to prove to the Volturi that Renesmee is not an Immortal Child by driving around the country on the run--could have been more simply handled and even settled with a mass e-mail. But of course, if the characters did that, the movie would have been over within 20 minutes and we wouldn't have been able to sit through endless expository sequence where the vampires display their supernatural powers as if they were they were the lost members of the X-Men.

Good grief, these vampires have the super powers of creating invisible force fields, zapping electricity and even the ability to alter the weather but what they really seem to love to do is walk very quickly. Really! These vampires spend so much of the movie zipping around the living room and the kitchen like "The Benny Hill Show," and then, for what I gather would be dramatic effect  they would walk slowly and ominously out of a mist onto a wintry field just to stand miles apart and walk slowly towards each other, thus making the movie last even longer. During the extended climax (more on that later), I was also just stunned that these being didn't just go right ahead and use those super powers against the Volturi immediately instead of engaging in lame fisticuffs. Seriously, The Wonder Twins had better battle strategies than this band of fashion model ready undead beings with asymmetrical haircuts

As we all look back to a variety of film series from "Star Wars" to "The Matrix" to "Harry Potter" to "The Lord Of The Rings," each series built up towards and concluded with a sequence of war. However, the extended climax of "Breaking Dawn-Part 2" seems to exist solely because that's just how these film series tend to conclude. The war between the Cullens, the werewolves and the Volturi occurs for such an arbitrary reason that it all felt to be so pointless, again making a film last much longer than it should. But it is hysterically outrageous as Condon just piles on the blood free carnage and gore, complete with what has to be the most amount of decapitations I have ever seen in a film rated PG-13. And just when I was about to let this movie skate by on its sheer outlandishness and lunacy, we are then given a cinematic switcheroo (i.e. a CHEAT) that felt as inauthentic as the final image from the television series finale of "St. Elsewhere." (If you have no idea of what I am referring to, all I can say is..."snow globe.")

As I am about to put this piece to bed, release it into the world and release myself from ever having to think about these movies ever again, I give you the following anecdote. A local morning newscaster and PASSIONATE "Twilight" fan asked on her Facebook page during the film's theatrical release why detractors of the series hated them so much. Well, "Breaking Dawn-Part 2" provides all of the possible answers to her question as far as I am concerned. The writing from Melissa Rosenberg and the performances from nearly the entire cast, most notably our main triumvirate of Stewart, Pattinson and Lautner, are completely negligible so there's no need to bash them all over again. Although special notice must be given to the two actors who portray, I suppose, Italian friends of the Cullen family, and speak as if they were the lost cousin's of The Count from "Sesame Street"--they were a scream!

Additionally, with this film in particular, the special effects were inexcusably terrible. From start to finish,  "Breaking Dawn-Part 2" nearly convinced me that Industrial Light and Magic didn't exist, "Star Wars" never happened and that the art and artistry of special effects had not advanced an inch since televised episodes of "Land Of The Lost," Isis" and "Shazam!" To describe them as "bargain basement" would be an insult to bargains and basements and it was just one more crucial element that showed that this film was rushed, rushed, rushed so as to not potentially lose even one "Twilight" cent. For the life of me, I cannot believe that it was not laughed off of the screen for such infernal sloppiness  I mean--there's just no way that audiences could have been so swept away with the story could they? Could they?? Was it all just Pattinson's hair and Lautner's abs? Who knows and who cares anymore. It's finished. Mercifully so.

Dear readers, I don't hate the "Twilight" movies because they are "Twilight." I hate them because they are the epitome of what bad movies are.

Friday, March 1, 2013


Now that the commemorations and coronations of the 2012 cinematic year have been completed, the cinematic year of 2013 can begin in earnest. March is typically a quiet month as the onslaught of major new releases tends to begin in May (although the trend seems to be inching earlier and earlier each year).

For this month, I have what seems to be a clean slate, so to speak, as I do not have a lengthy list of plans and schemes that I wish to write about. But I will say the following...

1. Director Sam Raimi's "Oz The Great And Powerful" arrives next week and despite my skepticism, I am ready to head back to the land that exists far, far, far from Kansas in his prequel.

2. Near the end of the month, I am curious to see "Admission," Director Paul Weitz's adaptation of the extremely well written but not very well plotted novel by Author Jean Hanff Korelitz, starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd. 

3. Lord in Heaven, as I write the DVD/Blu-Ray release of "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2" is about to hit store shelves for its midnight release and at some point this month, I will see how this whole damn thing finally, finally decides to end.

Beyond those three titles, I do happen to have a small stack of films that have been patiently waiting for me to give them the fullest of my attention so we'll see if I have time and opportunity to meet with them properly.

After all of the extensive writing and planning I have performed over the past few months, it does feel good to take a little bit of a breather and re-charge my cinematic batteries as I never want for this process to ever become stale or tiring, for myself or for you, dear readers. So, we'll see what the month of March does bring for all of us.

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