Monday, April 29, 2013


Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
*** (three stars)

In my previous and harshly negative review of "Oblivion," I lambasted Director Joseph Kosinski for not injecting a sense of personality within the proceedings to make his latest science fiction epic represents something that houses his original creative voice. It was,without question, the crucial element that stopped what could have been a terrific film dead in its tracks. 

This week, I arrive to you after taking in a screening of "Mud," a coming of age drama from filmmaker Jeff Nichols whose last effort was the excellent and deeply disturbing psychological drama "Take Shelter" (2011). While I do not feel that his new film climbed upwards to those same artistic heights, what a difference having and utilizing one's own creative voice can make with material that is otherwise familiar. And when you combine a strong artistic vision with equally perceptive, precise writing, direction and a host of strong acting performances, you are rewarded with a film that, unlike "Oblivion," is more than worth your time.

"Mud" is set in present day Arkansas near the Mississippi river and stars the extremely natural and gifted young actors Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland as, Ellis and Neckbone, respectively. As the film opens, these two 14 year old best friends are completely caught up within their daily adventures, when they decided to voyage by a small motorized boat to an isolated island. It is on this island where they discover another boat, inexplicably lodged high above ground in a tree. Upon further investigation inside the boat, Ellis and Neck soon realize, after discovering of a small amount of food and collection of Penthouse magazines, that the boat is currently inhabited. Feeling fearful, the two race back to their own boat with an attempt to leave and return home and they then immediately find boot prints with cross-marks in the heel in the sand completely around their mode of transportation. Finally, they meet the owner of the boot prints and occupier of the tree housed boat: Mud (a strong Matthew McConaughey), a dishelved, trimly muscular, unshaven man adorned with a white linen shirt and a pistol tucked in the back of his jeans. 

The threesome form a tentative friendship and soon a full fledged pact as Mud reveals himself to be a fugitive, on the run from the law and bounty hunters and living in self-imposed exile on this island. Ellis and Neck promise to bring Mud food and soon vow to bring him tools, supplies and machinery so he can dislodge the boat from the tree, escape the island and reunite him with his lost love, the ever elusive Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who is living just outside of town in a seedy motel.

How all of the threads of the story connect and build is, of course, not for me to reveal to you here. But as with Nichols' "Take Shelter," "Mud" contains a slow, quiet, power that by its climax rises to full emotional resonance that almost feels as if the floor has given way due to its unexpectedness and explosiveness. 

Jeff Nichols' "Mud" is an atmospheric Southern tale that is as languid as an endless summer's day. Despite its present day time period, Nichols has given "Mud" a completely timeless quality that makes his story feel as if it could be taking place within any era. The hefty influence of Mark Twain is obviously evident as Ellis and Neckbone are essentially 21st century versions of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer with their travels up and down the Mississippi river, and each voyage instilling them with a greater understanding of the world that surrounds them. But unlike Joseph Kosinski, Jeff Nichols understands that he cannot simply ape Twain's classic storytelling style and call it his own. With "Mud," you are able to sense that Nichols possesses a rich, empathetic and singular creative voice that is entirely his own and after now viewing two of his films, I am truly impressed with his storytelling range as the coming of age plot of "Mud" and the nearly apocalyptic visions of "Take Shelter" are miles apart in regards to their respective genres. 

And here is where I was considerably softer on "Mud." I do have to say that I did feel that "Mud" was a bit of a comedown after being so enthralled by "Take Shelter," as that film was something I had truly never seen before and the plot of "Mud" is as old as the hills by comparison. Now most certainly, if you have been a fairly consistent reader of Savage Cinema, you have gathered that I hold a certain affinity for the coming of age story line and yes, it is a theme that speaks to my heart grandly. But, in "Mud," when that theme essentially boiled down to "the summer that changed my life," I guess I may have felt a certain weariness with the familiarity, especially from a filmmaker who surprised me so greatly his previous time at the cinematic bat. I couldn't help but to have expected something more on a creative level perhaps something akin to Writer/Director Benh Zeitlin's masterful "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" (2012), a film, like "Take Shelter," that also delivered in ways that I had not seen in quite the same way before. All of that being said, what Nichols does indeed achieve with "Mud," and something that may resonate even further with me on future viewings, is that he has found several ideas to take that ancient theme of growing up and make it his own and sing its own bittersweet songs.

First of all, I loved how Nichols spent so much time with the boys, Mud, and some of the other adult characters, either in travel on the Mississippi river or viewing their lives existing as closely to the natural world as possible. I enjoyed seeing a collective of individuals, and therefore a full community who have taken such pride, and have completely internalized their relationships with the land and nature. Their ability to navigate the waters with such ease was incredible to me. One sequence, which depicted Ellis travelling alone on the Mississippi deep in the night between his home to the island where Mud resides with only a flashlight, blew me away with its matter of fact directness! It is a journey in that black country night sky, that complete darkness, that would absolutely upend a city dweller like myself who desperately needs lights, signs and very noticeable landmarks to move around comfortably. It is that very innate sense of direction, and the attention Nichols gives to that element, that truly stood out for me, especially as that specific quality works in contrast to the film's more precarious emotional landscape.             

While the film is indeed entitled "Mud," this film is undeniably the story of Ellis, and Mud functions as the catalyst to bridge all of the characters together. At very first glance of the two boys, I was immediately and constantly struck by their physical similarities. Even further, I immediately thought that Neckbone, with his shorter, closely cropped hair, harder gaze, coarser language and also as he was the possessor of the film's the dirt-bike that provides the boys with much travel throughout the film, would be the leader of the two. But, that thought is quickly inverted as we realize the he is the sidekick to Ellis, who leads his way through the world with a fierce pureness of heart and romantic world view that he is steadfast to protect.

Life has become increasingly turbulent for young Ellis as his quarreling parents (played by Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulsen ) are soon to divorce, with his Mother potentially uprooting him from his beloved natural surroundings and taking him deeper into the city. He harbors an intense and soon to be unrequited crush on a local girl (Bonnie Sturdivant) as well. His tentative yet committed friendship with the exiled Mud, gives Ellis a reason to retain his firm grasp upon his idealistic views on loyalty, trust, honor and love yet throughout the course of "Mud," Ellis is introduced to his first tastes of the moral grayness of life and adulthood and what it truly takes to grow from boy to man. 

Here is where "Mud" works at its absolute best and also the spot where the core themes of this film and "Take Shelter" actually intersect. What I am gathering after viewing two of Jeff Nichols' films is his ability and desire to explore the internal lives of Southern, small town, taciturn men who are trapped in some sense of arrested development. They are all either emotionally stunted, debilitated, crippled or even altogether dilapidated to varying degrees. In "Take Shelter," we could be seeing the effects of advancing schizophrenia on that film's central character. In "Mud," we are witnessing a collective of men entirely undone by the women in their lives and the love they held for them. Yes, we see Ellis' Father confronted with losing his wife and Mud himself is desperately trying to win back and return to his beloved yet duplicitous Juniper. But we also meet the equally isolated and lonely neighbor Tom Blankenship (a rock solid Sam Shepard) and even Neckbone's Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), whose personal devotion to The Beach Boys' classic "Help Me Rhonda" gives the song and film a deeper and more melancholic significance. By seeing the world through Ellis' eyes and soul, we are also perhaps being given a glimpse into how the romantic lives and worldviews of his Father, Tom Blankenship, Galen and Mud all began. With that, Jeff Nichols bridges the natural and emotional terrains to weave a tale of how romantic childhood notions lead into the deeper, darker, and more unpredictable waters of harder and harsher adult realities. And that, dear readers, was particularly compelling for me. 

All of the film's performances are top notch. Matthew McConaughey is very good in the titular role but it is not a game changer for him by any stretch. Mud does indeed exist within the same wheelhouse as past McConaughaey film scoundrels but I do think that he has been given the opportunity to dig a bit further and darker than he has typically been given the chance to do. In fact, the character of Mud made me think of what could possibly have happened to McConaughey's overly slick character from Writer/Director Richard Linklater's "Dazed And Confused" (1993) if over 20 years had passed, and all of his once self-perceived good fortune had given way to such bad luck that he has long accepted his fate and has chosen to live life completely off the grid. But again, "Mud" is completely young Tye Sheridan's show and he is more than up to the challenge with a fully committed and engaged performance that I sincerely hope is recognized when awards season arrives many moths from now as he deserves the attention and any accolades he may receive from his strong work. 

While I was not blown away, I do want to take this opportunity to send virtual thanks to Jeff Nichols for showing me that all is not lost in the world of cinematic storytelling. Although we are still very early in the movie year, it has not been a good one so far and truly quite the steep fall after 2012's consistently high quality which lasted throughout the entirety of the year. But films like "Mud" do indeed give me hope that brighter movie days are still to follow and with a talent like Jeff Nichols, movies will remain in good hands. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

COPY OF A COPY OF A COPY: a review of "Oblivion"

Based upon the graphic novel by Joseph Kosinski
Screenplay Written by Karl Gadjusek and William Monahan
Directed by Joseph Kosinki
* (one star)

"What is hell?...The same old situation. No imagination."
-Todd Rundgren ("Imagination")

When I openly wondered, if after viewing Director Danny Boyle's strong, propulsive, ferociously inventive art-house thriller "Trance" last week, that the movie year of 2013 would now begin to have an upswing in quality, I realize now that I spoke way too soon.

Director Joseph Kosinki's science fiction epic "Oblivion" is by far one of the worst films of 2013. Yup, it has already made that dubious list and I will do whatever I am able to do within the course of this review to stop you from wasting your hard earned time and money on this piece of massively budgeted yet shamelessly derivative material. Yes, Kosinski has made a shiny, pretty thing to look at but trust me, dear readers, there is absolutely nothing here for any of you to latch onto. Well...let me amend that statement...slightly. If any of you happens to be someone who has absolutely, positively never seen a science fiction film in your lives, then sure, "Oblivion" just might have something to offer for you. But for everyone else, especially those who have seen science fiction themed films from the last 45 years or so, do not waste your time. It's just not worth it whatsoever as Kosinki has not condescended to inject even one original thought into his own movie. "Oblivion" is so impersonal and so rehashed that it feels as if it was not even directed by a human being. This film feels like it was directed by Xerox!

As "Oblivion" opens in the year 2077, we learn that 60 years in the past, an alien race, pejoratively described as "Scavs" and whose own planet had been depleted of its resources forcing them to leave, arrived to Earth with the intent upon raiding our planet's resources for themselves. They destroyed our moon, causing an ecological apocalypse which was then followed by war and ending with nuclear holocaust. Although the human race had won the war, Earth had then become uninhabitable, forcing humans to depart Earth and take refuge upon the largest moon in Saturn's solar system.   

Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is one of the last humans stationed on Earth as he is employed as a technician to monitor and repair the myriad of drones as well as extract usable resources for the humans living outside of Saturn. He lives thousands of miles above the Earth with his Communications Officer and lover Victoria (the captivating Andrea Riseborough) and their only contact with civilization is through a video link with their supervisor Sally (Melissa Leo).

Although both Jack and Victoria had their memories erased five years earlier, Jack is haunted by dreams and flashbacks to a period in pre-apocalypse New York on the Empire State Building, a time before he was even born, when he was in love with a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko). He has also kept hidden from Victoria a small, secluded woodsy cabin in which he has stocked a collection of items and artifacts (books, records, artwork, etc...)  found on his daily journeys to the Earth to gather resources as well as fight for his life against the remaining "Scavs." 

As Jack and Victoria enter the final two weeks of their work before they are ready to re-join humanity, a spaceship, brought down by the Scavs crashes onto Earth carrying a group of passengers in hibernation, including the woman from Jack's dreams. This event begins the cycle in which everything Jack had thought to had been true begins to unravel, forcing him to accept and fight for an even greater sense of humanity.

Now, with that description, I would not be surprised if any of you out there would think that "Oblivion" is already sounding like it would be an intriguing, involving haunting and even excitingly dark science fiction ride. And to that, I would agree with you. If I had read that description, I would be first in line to see this movie. But, I must remind you of something the late, great Roger Ebert intoned over and again throughout his legendary career. That a movie is not about what it is about. But how it is about what it is about. To illustrate, please allow me to rewind the Savage Cinema clock to an earlier review...

"At this time, if I could offer Joseph Kosinski any word of advice (and knowing that he would listen to little old me), I would advise him to not let his film references overtake his own artistic vision. Yes, this is his first film and again, it is an excellent form of craftsmanship, but everything in it has been recycled from something else and without a sense of any new perspective. In comparing "Tron: Legacy" to Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” we have a film that proudly wore its influences upon its dream world sleeves but everything was filtered through Nolan’s consistent themes and concepts of duality and mind games, themes which have been a part of all of his films since “Momento” (2000). “Inception” was yet another chapter in Christopher Nolan’s ongoing oeuvre and I would love the chance to see what a filmmaker of Kosinski’s obvious talents would do with an original story."

I wrote those words in my January 2011 review of Joseph Kosinki's "Tron: Legacy" (2010) and with "Oblivion," he has taken the idea of recycling past material to new heights...or depths, as the case may be. Instead of utilizing familiar elements and filtering them through his own, unique creative vice to essentially create something new, Joseph Kosinki has essentially stolen every element from past science fiction whole cloth and then has the audacity to try and consider it as something inventive. Despite anything he may attest to in interviews and promotional material, extolling how "Oblivion" is an homage, I am here to vehemently express to you that "Oblivion" is not homage. It's cinematic plagiarism.

Within the film's first five to ten minutes, there were direct steals from "Vanilla Sky" (2001) and "I Am Legend" (2007) down to the actual camera shots and even the extreme similarity of the dialogue. As "Oblivion continued, the comparisons were glaringly obvious to an extremely detrimental and flabbergasting degree. Let's see, and without any difficulty due to the blatant nature of Kosinski's "homage," there are themes  concepts, plot points, plot twists and threads "Oblivion"...ahem...shares with the following:

"2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968)  
"Planet Of The Apes" (1968)    
"The Omega Man" (1971)
"Soylent Green" (1973) and frankly, essentially every dystopian science-fiction film from the 1970s
"Star Wars" (1977)
"The Black Hole" (1979)
"Mad Max" series (1979/1982/1985)
"Total Recall" (1990)
"Twelve Monkeys" (1995) 
"The Matrix" series (1999/2003)
"Solaris" (original 1972/remake 2002)
"Wall-E" (2008)

Good Lord!! And I'm not exaggerating whatsoever. I was actually stunned to not hear those five iconic musical notes from Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind" (1977) but maybe that will end up as a deleted scene on the future DVD/Blu-Ray release.

COME ON!! Who did Kosinki think that he was fooling?! Is Kosinki really that unoriginal, unimaginative and flat out lazy or is he just that disingenuous enough to think that he could pull a fast one over the audience, claiming that this particular vision was completely his own? Honestly, since "Oblivion" has already collected a hefty box office take in its opening weekend, I feel that Joseph Kosinki should offer all of those directors (and/or their respective estates) of those aforementioned list of past films a portion of the proceeds! 

Seriously, this specific creative quandary does really bring to mind the question of whether it is even possible to have anything that is truly original anymore or even at all. To that, I would argue that yes, originality can still exist, and strongly so, although it really does feel to be in short supply these days. There is the process of homage, of course. I understand that. What else was Roland Emmerich's "Independence Day" (1996) but a large scaled homage to science-fiction itself? Yet, that was part of the blast of that experience, the joy of finding all of the references Emmerich placed front and center as a form of recognition, celebration and stellar entertainment while also telling a rip roaring "end of the world/let's unite and retaliate" saga. 

But let's go even further. Look at George Lucas and "Star Wars" itself, which, as we all know by now, is a mish-mash containing classic mythology, a dash of Tolkein, a taste of Akira Kurosawa samurai films and John Ford westerns as well as a healthy heaping dose of classic and corny Saturday afternoon "Flash Gordon" and "Buck Rogers" serials. Yet, Lucas was able to mix them and present his story, filtered through his influences, in a way that felt to be entirely personal and on the level of something that had not been seen in quite the same way before. Or let's even look beyond science-fiction at someone like Quentin Tarantino who doesn't just wear his influences upon his sleeves but as badges of honor. Yet, the way in which he filters and utilizes his influences and inspirations is so unique that some critics have even gone as far as to describe his style as "Tarantino-ian"! 

What I am trying to say is that with Lucas, Tarantino and in the previous example of Christopher Nolan, originality arrives through purity of an individual striving to find and discover their own creative voice within all of the influences that have worked to shape them. After two films now, I honestly cannot say what Joseph's Kosinski's original creative voice actually is. As "Oblivion" has no real perspective on the influences that have shaped it, the film contains absolutely no personality of its own as it has copied everything else before it. Therefore what we have ended up with is a big budget epic that is insufferably bland. And I would have been infuriated with "Oblivion" to the point of hurling objects at the screen if I hadn't spent so much of my time trying to stay awake!!

"Oblivion," unfortunately and almost unforgivably, is an interminable, turgid, slumberous experience in addition to being unimaginative. It is a film that runs a hair over two hours and it feels like five hours have elapsed. Please understand that "Oblivion" is not a film that is building with a slow burn. It's not moody. It's not atmospheric, esoteric or even European. This film is just flat-out BORING! A snail at rest is faster paced that any one moment in this film. And of course, my tedium with the film also stems back the the basic problem of its blatantly derivative nature. As "Oblivion" contains no real characters to latch onto as every one of them, plus their emotions, motivations are entirely generic. And in turn, every twist, turn and revelation in the plot is generic as well. 

The supreme failure of "Oblivion" does not fall of the shoulders of Tom Cruise by any means. Besides, he didn't write or direct this mess! Cruise is as committed as he has ever been but that being said, his character feels as if it is nothing more than a clone made from the assembled parts and pieces of past Cruise characters and performances. Morgan Freeman (who looks as if he's wearing Morpheus' clothes if he were dumped into the Thunderdome) is completely under utilized making his presence a wasted effort.

But then, of course, there is the question of whether "Oblivion" is at least a good looking film with great special effects. Well...yes and no. For me, "Oblivion" suffers the same, and huge, problem that Sam Raimi's "Oz The Great And Powerful" suffered from. For all of the special effects that are being hurled our way from the opening frames to the film's final shot, nothing is ever impressive and all of it is more than a major yawn. This does bring into question another major quandary of our current big budget, special effects driven cinema. Have we become so used to special effects that they are not even special anymore? 

Just think. When was the last time special effects really transported you? For every film like Edgar Wright's "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" (2010) or Ang Lee's "Life Of Pi" (2012), which made special effects feel so new and vibrantly alive again, most films are kind of like "Oblivion" these days, with visual magic all over the place but being rarely impressive, enticing or magical at all. Again, this problem all comes down to the director and as with every other element in "Oblivion," Joseph Kosinki offers no real perspective on anything he is showing us. It just hangs on the screen, looking as shiny and as expensive as a plastic call girl. It is all so meaningless and surprisingly contains no sense of awe, excitement, wonder, terror or anything resembling an emotion. I mean--in theory, and on the page, the idea of a space station that sits above the clouds, so highly that thunderstorms occur underneath you, is something that sounds like it would be an awesome sight to see and experience! And sadly, while those visuals are rendered with the top of the line special effects we have all come to expect when we see a big budget film like this one, to present them without any sense of real, inspiring imagination, the kind that looks as if the dreams from inside of our heads were somehow plucked and replaced upon celluloid  is just inexcusable  Having the money to buy "great" special effects are not enough. What makes them great is vision to augment the craftsmanship and artistry and Joseph Kosinki failed on all counts.

Dear readers, I obviously have nothing personal again Joseph Kosinki, especially as I do not know the man in real life at all. I wish him no ill will and I do sincerely hope that when he gets around to making his next film, that the experience will be exceedingly better. If I were able to speak to him, I would deeply urge him to really think about what the films of the past mean to him on an emotional level and for that, he has to dig deeply to gain a perspective and devise what his creative voice is actually going to be. Otherwise, his copycat movies won't be worth viewing at all as by then, most audiences would have discovered that there is just no wizard behind his directorial curtain. Just a cinematic charlatan trying to utilize big money and visual razzle dazzle to blind us from the truth. 

May the complete fiasco that is "Oblivion" serve as a cautionary tale for him and other cinematic storytellers for we all deserve so much better.

The quest for and survival of humanity in a world where it is in disastrously short supply is always a great theme to revisit within science fiction but if you would like to see a fairly recent film that handles nearly the exact same material as "Oblivion" in a demonstrably better and more intriguing, emotionally involving and entertaining fashion then please allow me to point you to Director Duncan Jones' "Moon" (2009) starring an excellent Sam Rockwell

My original review of that film can be found within the February 2010 section of this website and I urge you to rent this film instead of plunking down even one cent for "Oblivion."

Sunday, April 14, 2013


Story by Joe Ahearne
Screenplay Written by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge
Directed by Danny Boyle
***1/2 (three and a half stars) 

After a most sub-par opening to the cinematic year of 2013, I am hoping that I have now seen the beginning of better things to come.

Director Danny Boyle's "Trance" is a kaleidoscopically kinetic art-house thriller that splendidly merges the crime caper drama with a psychological head spinner and is filtered through Boyle's endlessly inventive, virtuoso filmmaking that nearly always puts most modern day filmmakers to shame. Granted, "Trance" does not scale the supremely emotional heights and jaw dropping power of his previous cinematic one-two punch of the Academy Awards Best Picture recipient "Slumdog Millionaire" (2008) and the existential survivalist drama "127 Hours" (2010). But do not allow that small dip discourage you as "Trance" more than delivers the goods almost on sheer creativity alone, which makes for a film-going experience that is just flat out fun as Boyle tosses out one curve ball after another and we try to keep up with him by catching them all.

"Trance" stars James McAvoy in a vibrantly muscular performance as Simon, a fine arts dealer and gambling addict who becomes involved with a gang of art thieves led by Franck (an excellent Vincent Cassell), as they all attempt to steal a painting of Goya's Witches In the Air, a piece worth millions of dollars. During the heist, Simon suffers a severe blow to the head and after waking, he is completely unable to remember exactly where he hid the painting, much to the fury of Franck and his gang. When threats and physical torture fail to reveal the location of the painting, Franck hires the services of psychotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Roasrio Dawson) to delve deeply into Simon's psyche through hypnotherapy, a process that will hopefully produce the desired results. Certainly, this scheme is all easier said than done, as the lines between Simon's sense of reality and memories combined with the true motives and even the true identities of himself and those around him are increasingly blurred, making the discovery of the lost, stolen painting's location the very least of his worries.  

In regards to the film's plot, "Trance" is indeed one of those films where this is just about as far as I am willing to divulge to you so as not to produce spoilers or ruin the the chance for you to piece together this cinematic puzzle. But I will tell you to be prepared for a barrage of hypnotherapy sessions, dream sequences, copious amounts of duplicitous behavior and ever shifting alliances, repressed memories, and sudden blasts of graphic violence and nudity. How they all fit together, I would not even dream of revealing to you so you will indeed have to go out and see this one for yourselves!

Even with all of the accolades that have been deservedly thrown his way over the years, it seems to be that while Danny Boyle is one of our most exhaustively inventive directors, he still is able to just kind of sneak past us and how thankful we should all be for that achievement. Danny Boyle is indeed a showman, as clearly evidenced by not only his complete filmography but also through his Herculean work with orchestrating this past summer's Opening Ceremony production for the London Olympics. Even so, we somehow are never quite able to see him coming and when he is working at his best, we are blindsided by his brilliance, making for the very type of movie-going surprises that are in such short supply these days.

Just take a moment to think about Danny Boyle's past work. This is the man who helmed the tightly wound British crime thriller "Shallow Grave" (1994), the drug fueled, hallucinogenic steamroller masterpiece "Trainspotting" (1996) and the deeply eerie and horrifically effective zombie film "28 Days Later" (2002). Even his missteps, like "A Life Less Ordinary" (1997) or "The Beach" (2000) are never less than fascinating to view, for Boyle is a filmmaker who has essentially not made the same film twice yet every one of them feels superbly unique to his aesthetics. With that, I really do not believe that it could possibly be questioned that Danny Boyle is a filmmaker who is clearly enthralled with the gifts and opportunities with which he has been given. His guilelessness and lack of jaded cynicism after all of these years makes for films that are invigorating to view. "Trance" is no exception as he is clearly having a blast and through his boundless enthusiasm, I was often quite swept away.

For me and my sensibilities, "Trance" is the most viscerally kinetic thriller I've seen since Director Joe Wright's outstanding "Hanna" (2011) and when Boyle and his film are working at it's very best, he even even touched the brass ring as "Trance" even reminded me, from time to time, of Director Jean-Jacques Beineix's groundbreaking French thriller "Diva" (1981), my favorite foreign film to this very day. From the opening shots, "Trance" blazes onto the screen with energy to burn and for the remainder, it moves like a rocket. The film is a veritable explosion of colors, sound and beautifully staged mirror imagery that is flat out mesmerizing to view. Boyle has employed a crack team to assist him and tremendous compliments must be delivered to Editor Jon Harris, Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and most especially, Composer Rick Smith of the band Underworld, whose pulsating, throbbing electronic score gives "Trance" its rapidly palpitating heartbeat and relentless tension. "Trance" is a gorgeous film to look at as well as listen to thanks to their combined artistry. And most certainly, James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson and Vincent Cassell are all working in peak form, each of them delivering strong, convincing and nearly breathless performances that show that they are all apt to keep pace with Boyle's energy.

Yet even with all of this praise, there was something about "Trance" that did feel a little slight, I guess. Something about it just didn't make it stick to the cinematic ribs, so to speak. I guess I wished for a bit more of that emotional resonance Boyle has accomplished so heroically with his previous two films but that being said, "127 Hours" is not necessarily a film that I would eagerly sit through again as it was so grueling an experience. "Trance," however, is indeed a film that I could easily see myself viewing time and again in the future either on DVD or when it will inevitably end up playing endlessly on cable, as I do enjoy a strong suspenseful thriller that functions as a psychological jigsaw puzzle. 

But still, I return to the feeling that I had that this film just felt to be a tad lighter than air. As I watched "Trance," I couldn't help but to think of other films within the past 13 years that played with our perceptions of reality and became deeply resonant works that truly disturbed and burrowed under my skin. Christopher Nolan's "Momento" (2000) immediately sprang to mind as did Cameron Crowe's "Vanilla Sky" (2001), David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive" (2001) and definitely Darren Aronofsky's operatic nightmare "Black Swan" (2010). 

And then, there was also Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" (2004) and Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" (2008), two films that explored the unreliable nature of memory, identity, self-perception and consciousness itself as those film's characters were respectfully dealing with either crippling romantic heartbreak or travelling through the process of aging and dying. All of those films showcased the labyrinthine nature of the mind itself in ways that were nothing less than enthralling as well as deeply unsettling. To its credit, "Trance" does indeed inject an exploration of free will vs.destiny as one character in particular displays a certain sense of omnipotence and omnipresence but even so, it all felt to be nothing more than elaborate window dressing than anything truly insightful.

But to be completely fair, perhaps I am beginning to review what the film isn't rather than what it is. Because at its core, "Trance" is a sumptuous slice of pulpy noir expertly mounted for our viewing pleasure. No more. No less. 

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, especially when you are in the gleefully excited directorial hands of Danny Boyle. 

Saturday, April 6, 2013


JUNE 18, 1942-APRIL 4, 2013

I wish beyond nearly all wishes that I did not have to write this latest piece. But sometimes, ever so sadly, even the greatest wishes do not come true.

Late in the afternoon on Thursday, April 4th, I clicked onto the internet for a moment and was immediately greeted with a news announcement on the Yahoo home page that stopped me cold. Roger Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Sun Times since 1967, 1975 Pulitzer Prize winner for film criticism, celebrated film historian and author, legendary co-host of television's "Sneak Previews" and all of its incarnations, honorary member of the Director's Guild Of America, screenwriter for Director Russ Meyer's bawdy cult classic "Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls" (1970), and the only film critic to have ever received a star upon the Hollywood Walk Of Fame passed away after a nearly 11 year battle with cancer, a disease which left him without his lower jaw as well as the ability to speak or eat during the final years of his life. While his passing was certainly inevitable given the severity of his illness, the arrival of the news felt as hard as a sucker punch in the middle of my face. Or more truthfully, my heart.

Since first reading the news, friends have sent me notes or quick messages through the internet offering condolences to me, an odd thing as I never knew the man personally and only had the extreme pleasure of meeting and briefly interacting with him once at a book signing in 1995. Yet, by the same token, I completely understand the gestures as everyone who has ever known me for so much of my life knows without question how the massive influence his life, work, writings and legacy have shaped and formulated the person I am today. 

Without question, Savage Cinema would not exist at all if not for him and the work he performed throughout his life, either on his own or in collaboration with the late Gene Siskel who passed away after his battle with brain cancer in 1999. As I have ruminated over this incredible loss, the voice of John Lennon has repeatedly echoed within my brain, taking me back to the very moment when I first read this awful, awful news. "I read the news today...oh boy...," Lennon sang. Did I ever. One thing that is so painful about growing older is having to occasionally and increasingly having to go through the process of saying goodbye to loved ones, including one's heroes. And here I am again, having to say goodbye to one more. Words are flowing around in my head at this time and I am unsure as to how to formulate them all. But, for Roger Ebert, who gifts and skills were and remain as nothing less than eternal treasures for me, I believe that I OWE this man the very best that I am able to muster for he has given more to me than I could have ever imagined and I would never have enough life to thank him for it. Mr. Ebert, this is for you. For then, for now, for always.

My connection to the art, language and power of the movies and my introduction to Roger Ebert arrived, either through coincidence or fate, in the summer of 1977 when I was eight years old. Before this time, I really hadn't seen that many movies and frankly, my overall interest in them was essentially non-existent. For me, the act of going to the movies was a fun outing and also an event to perhaps munch on a tasty snack of popcorn. Nothing more. But then, on May 25, 1977, my life changed forever, when my Dad took my family to an opening day showing of George Lucas' "Star Wars." It was as if a bolt of lightning had found me within the confines of a movie theater and opened my soul to an entirely new world...the world of motion pictures and all of the art and artistry contained therein.

A short time after seeing "Star Wars," and on one typically inauspicious evening at dinner in my household, my Dad was casually changing channels until the image of the Millennium Falcon consumed in a dogfight with TIE Fighters raced across the television screen. Begging him to please not change the channel, I was soon introduced to a sight that altered my life just as seismically...

"On the television screen sat two men. One man was thin, unmistakably grumpy and tall and the other man was corpulent, bespectacled, slightly more jovial yet no less serious. They appeared to me as sort of a real world “Bert and Ernie”as they sat across from each other in what looked to be a movie theater balcony and then, they began to speak about the images I had just watched. They spoke in a tenor that was similar to the type I had heard so, so often on the Chicago sports talk radio programs my Father obsessively listened to yet this time, that tenor zeroed in towards my personal frequencies. While I didn’t understand everything they were talking about, the language somehow felt inherently familiar and I only desired to hear more of what they had to say."

I wrote those italicized words over two and a half years ago, in my tribute to "At The Movies" (published August 2010), one of the various televised versions of the movie review program Roger Ebert began with Gene Siskel on public television in 1975. Essentially every single word within that tribute necessitates repetition at this time as those words and the emotion contained inside of them have only grown in sheer importance with the arrival of Roger Ebert's passing. As always, I invite you to read that posting in full if you wish but I will bring you some highlights as to how Roger Ebert influenced my life as a film enthusiast, the very highlights that I truly believe would mirror so many of your own feelings, especially now as we take copious time to reflect upon what Roger Ebert has given to the world.

I explained how Ebert and Siskel's television show existed for me as supremely informative, enormously entertaining and entirely riveting viewing week after week after week for nearly four decades. And over the years as I watched, I realized that what was being delivered to me was the very best film school education that I could have ever hoped to have as these two men, through their obvious passion and sheer enthusiasm, gave me the tools and the language they used themselves to watch, judge and rate films. They taught me that movies were not innocuous, disposable pieces of fluff to be consumed passively. That movies are an art form to be championed, celebrated, nurtured and loved and to do so, they taught me how to think about what I was watching, how I responded and how to engage and discuss with absolutely anyone about what I had seen and experienced. To that measure, Ebert and Siskel's consistent on-air showdowns, while incredibly visceral, most importantly introduced and educated me to the art of the debate as these men found a myriad of ways to to verbally arm themselves with intelligence, bravado, wit, and an unshakable determination to fiercely defend their opinions no matter what the opponent was hurling in their direction. 

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel profoundly expanded my viewing horizons by introducing me to film styles, genres and filmmakers I otherwise would never have seen. Furthermore and regardless of whether the motion picture in question arrived from Hollywood with the largest budget and imaginable or if it was the independent feature that barely had two pennies to rub together, these men championed the quality of the work and the effectiveness of the storytelling. They celebrated sheer quality and they were also completely unafraid to call out anyone, including the giants of the movie industry when they creatively fell short or even sold out. Roger Ebert never, ever suffered cinematic fools lightly and when his rancor was unleashed, he always rose to the challenge with blistering, stinging humor and flat out superb writing. With Ebert and Siskel, their work was never presented with any sense of detached hipster irony or self-congratulatory film snobbishness. Their television program was a populist work meant for everyone and no wonder why the public embraced them so tightly, because we could see that they LOVED going to the movies just as much as you and I.

As I have stated in the past, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel's work in television led me to their written work (as well as the written work of their colleagues in film criticism) and believe me, I read their respective reviews religiously and without fail. Over time, I slowly began to see how not only my own personal tastes within film were being formulated but also how I responded to the styles of their actual writing. Between those two men, Gene Siskel always struck me as being the one who was always much harder to impress and truth be told, my personal cinematic tastes have consistently aligned themselves more with Roger Ebert's, with all due respect to Siskel's brilliance. Now that is not to say that I have always agreed with Ebert. Not at all as I am actually still confounded by his harshly negative reviews of "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" (1982) as well as "Fight Club" (1999) among others to this very day!

Aside from personal opinions about individual films, what cannot ever be denied is that Roger Ebert was an astoundingly and gloriously gifted writer. In addition to the informative and entertainment value of his reviews, Roger Ebert always wrote passionately, directly, humorously, mercilessly, tenderly, intelligently, incisively, perceptively, creatively, completely, exquisitely, beautifully and most of all inclusively. As I also wrote in my tribute to his television legacy, he and Gene Siskel created a dialogue and conversation that was not designed to solely be held with each other. It was a dialogue and conversation they were beginning with anyone and absolutely everyone who chose to watch their program or read their newspaper reviews. Yet, there was a grace and lift to Ebert's writing that separated him from the rest of the film criticism pack. His work was supremely warm and welcoming and presented with the sheer conviction that his audience was intelligent  What and how he wrote was not only journalism of the highest order. What and how he wrote was nothing less than literary and like my favorite writers, from authors, journalists, musicians, screenwriters and critics, Roger Ebert's writing is precisely the type pf writing that I am aspiring to reach. He and his work represents the brass ring I am constantly stretching myself to grab. If I ever reach that goal, is actually not for me to decide. That estimation is for you, of course. But, it is through the trying, sifting, seeking and pursuit of those collection of words or that singular phrase that will illuminate a deeper truth, where I hope to possibly enter in the realm where Roger Ebert existed.  

For me, all writing, whether creatively or through Savage Cinema, is like piecing together an unbelievably complicated jigsaw puzzle where words, thoughts and emotions are the pieces hoping to align themselves harmoniously into a complete "picture" that is then understandable to everyone. I want to express to you, as purely as possible, that in countless ways, my writings and reviews are almost entirely modeled upon Roger Ebert's. I am not actively attempting to copy him or even trying to emulate him for I just could not even if I tried, and furthermore, what would even be the point of doing so? I am just trying to accomplish through my writing what he has accomplished so magically with his own writing and every review I write is a baby step towards reaching that pinnacle.

You see, Roger Ebert was never adverse to including himself within his reviews. To me, much like his trademark "Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down" judgments, this particular inclusion and stylistic choice did not make his work in film criticism any less serious in comparison to others within his specialized field. For me, it elevated the work because it made the reviews personal statements of such individuality and frankly, why not? Because our relationships with any form of art, whether it leans towards the intellectual or the emotional or in some hybrid, are always personal and serve their purpose to build, express, formulate or illuminate who we are as individual beings. With Roger Ebert, as you learned about a film, you equally learned about Roger Ebert himself and that quality is one that I keep trying to include and reach within my own writings. He wrote for himself but he also wrote for us and we learned about him, the movies as well as ourselves together all along the way.

By the time his illness robbed him of his ability to speak, Roger Ebert's voice and his command of it extended itself powerfully into cyberspace with his blogsite at In addition to film his writing began to include ruminations upon politics, Science, religion and spirituality, his world travels, food and cooking, his overall worldview and most crucially, his deteriorating health with a clear-eyed, open-hearted and unsentimental candidness that only opened the floodgates for him to receive a new legion of readers. His writing remained as graceful and skilled as ever but it was met with a newfound level of bravery, honesty, integrity and fearlessness that was uncompromising and unrepentant. If you have not ever visited his blogsite, I deeply encourage you to head there and scroll through his writings to truly gather the sheer breadth of his work and ultimately, his consciousness. And then, do read the responses and I believe that for all of you who valued this man, you will find a piece of yourself somewhere within the relationships he formed with his audience, including those he occasionally corresponded with.

There is a quotation from Roger Ebert that has already been repeated frequently in the tributes that have been pouring in and it will be presented here as I believe this completely addresses his greatest achievements, as well as explains exactly why I loved this man so very, very much. The quotation is as follows: "If you only see films about people like yourself, why even bother to go? Because you already know about yourself," he remarked in a 2005 interview. "You can only find out about yourself by learning about others." 

That, I believe is the secret ingredient contained at the core of the wondrous legacy of Roger Ebert, the ingredient that set him miles apart from all others in his field, the ingredient that touched and inspired generations, and hopefully will continue to do so long, long, long into the future. It just even may be this very ingredient that has served as a catalyst for the massive outpouring of affection towards this man after this terrible news was announced to the world. For himself, as he embarked upon his own life's journey, he made the conscious decision as a journalist, film critic and writer to completely share that journey with all of us, inspiring a continuous dialogue between himself and his audience. Essentially, and like the title of his magnificent memoir, Roger Ebert's massive output was entirely about life itself. Roger Ebert showed me that movies are not just our dreams and fantasies presented upon celluloid for us to experienced together in a darkened theater. He showed and taught me the life lesson that above all else that movies are our window into the larger world and most importantly, our window into beginning our understanding of each other. This humane, empathetic, constantly curious and endlessly fascinated approach with life allowed him to explore the human condition in a most idiosyncratic and completely individualized fashion. There was undeniably nobody else like him and how blessed we are all for having had him as part of our collective existence for as long as we were able to.

At the time of this writing, the pain and sadness of my grief over Roger Ebert's passing has subsided...just a little. As I said earlier, this event was not unexpected considering the status of his health unlike the death of John Hughes, which was so shockingly and unforgivably sudden. But even so, Ebert seemed to remain so unstoppable, so determined, especially as his writing only increased during his final years. Beyond his output, and more on a personal level, Roger Ebert was, and will forever remain, a key figure and fixture in my life's journey and sense of self-discovery, which led me to a love of the movies, literature and all artistic pursuits plus aiding me in the self-discovery of the person I actually wish to be in this world. I honestly do not know how my life would have turned out or which directions I would have taken if I had never known of him and experienced what he shared with me and you. Roger Ebert's presence simply felt to be so...infinite...I guess, because for nearly my entire life, he has always been a major player. I cannot even imagine moving forwards in my life, going to the movies and now, not being able to to click on his website and read his latest thoughts and writings. To know that his voice will not be added to the ongoing discussion of the movies is just unfathomable to me and yet, here we are.

People have remarked that the passing of Roger Ebert represents the end of an era. To that, I am not ready to admit to that feeling. It's funny because just two days before his passing, Roger Ebert published what is now his final blog post, where he commemorated his 46 years as a film critic, revealed the return of his cancer, divulged a host of future plans (which includes a bio-documentary being created by Writer Steve Zaillian and Director Martin Scorsese) and concluded by saying, "So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies." The piece was curiously entitled, "A Leave Of Presence." A leave of presence?  In the posting, Ebert explained by stating, "It means that I am not going away."

After reading the statement released by Ebert's wife, Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert, where she explained the peacefulness of Roger Ebert's "transition," I began to wonder if the "A Leave Of Presence" blog posting was Ebert's way of saying goodbye to us ahead of time without alarming us all. Perhaps he knew he had reached his personal fade out and end credit scroll and this was his way of telling us. Of course, we will never know for certain. But I do wonder and because I wonder, and based upon his definition of "a leave of presence," I want to truly believe that Roger Ebert will never "go away."

Roger Ebert said in his memoir that "I know it is coming and I do not fear it, because I believe that there is nothing on the other side of death to fear...I was perfectly content before I was born and I think of death as the same state." With that, I ask of myself, as well as to all those whose lives Roger Ebert touched, to not be sad for too long because I just don't think that Ebert would want that for us. In fact, I think he would be a bit irritated if we mourned for far too long, whatever that time allotment would possible be. I really believe that Roger Ebert would want for all of us to keep going to the movies. To keep talking, debating, pondering and even arguing about the movies. To keep communicating with each other and learning about each other and the world that we share. If we keep doing those things, Roger Ebert will indeed, never go away.

There is a second quotation from Roger Ebert that has been briskly making the rounds within tribute and throughout the internet. It arrives from the conclusion of his memoir and I will repeat it in full at this time:

" 'Kindness' covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out."

A beautiful epiphany, beautifully stated. To honor and cherish his life, legacy, memory and to ensure that he never goes away forever let us all do the same. He gave all of us the tools. He gave all of us the language. He gave all of himself with journalistic diligence, glorious artistry and with the utmost humanity.

It's all up to us now.

Monday, April 1, 2013


I think that not having a plan for the month worked so very well for me last month that perhaps I will try the same approach for this month.

As with March, April also tends to be a slow month for new releases so this would be a good time for me to keep looking at the small pile of films I have patiently awaiting my full attention. And who knows, some of those movies just may be much better than what will be hitting the multiplexes...just like last month. But, there are a few notable films which just may arrive in my town over the next 30 days including...

1. "Trance," the latest film from Director Danny Boyle, who is following up his cinematic one-two punch of "Slumdog Millionaire" (2008) and "127 Hours" (2010), as well as that little event known as the London Olympics last summer, with this crime thriller.

2. Apparently, "To The Wonder," Writer/Director Terence Malick's follow up to the majestic "The Tree Of Life" (2011) is set for release this month as well.  If this is certain, I will definitely be there without question.

3. What will definitely see a full and wide theatrical release this month is the apocalyptic science fiction action thriller "Oblivion" starring Tom Cruise and I have to admit while the somewhat derivative looking trailers have made me pause, I do believe that I will be heading out for this one as well.

From here, I think anything goes and I do have to admit, slowing down for a spell does hold its advantages, especially as the Summer Movie Season looms.

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