Sunday, July 28, 2013

undun: a review of "Fruitvale Station"

Written and Directed by Ryan Coogler
**** (four stars)

"I didn't raise you to be in this kind of a world."

My Father said those words to me not terribly long ago during a weekend phone call during which we had a lively conversation about the politics of the day. Those same words have continued to echo in my brain as I watch the news as well as the local political events that surround me in Madison, WI. Those same words have never echoed as loudly as they did after the United States Supreme Court's devastating decision to eliminate Section 4 of The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and even more powerfully, after the unthinkable jury decision to allow that racist child murderer George Zimmerman walk away free after ending the life of Trayvon Martin.

Dear readers, while I am a person who carries a certain utopian vision of the world, I am by no means remotely naive as to how the world actually works. That said, I do not believe that I have ever previously lived during a period in which I have felt so frightened just because of my skin color. It feels that despite the presence and reality of having Barack Obama as the President of the United States, racist attitudes have become even more overt, direct and boldly out in the open than I can even think to remember. I distinctly remember the night when President Obama won the election for his first term in office and I watched the glorious celebration in Chicago's Grant Park. Announcers and commentators remarked and pondered if by electing America's first Black President, have we now entered into a new "post-racial society." Immediately I thought to myself, "Are you kidding me?! It's only going to get worse." Little did I know how much worse...

This afternoon, I went to a screening of Writer/Director Ryan Coogler's debut feature film, "Fruitvale Station," a haunting docudrama based upon the true story about the final day in the life of 22 year old Oscar Julius Grant III, an African-American who was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer at the Fruitvale train station located in Oakland, California in the early morning hours of New Year's Day 2009. Whatever cosmic symmetry has unfolded that has allowed this particular film to be released to the world at this time is of course unknown, but its arrival could not be more timely even if it had been calculated. We have long past the point where we all need to have an open and honest dialogue about race, violence, police brutality, an indifferent justice system and the corruption of power but even as "Fruitvale Station" places all of these issues front and center, it is the topic of humanity for all people that rises to the top. While this film is not nearly the iconic slice of life powder keg that we saw almost 25 years ago in Writer/Producer/Director Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing" (1989), "Fruitvale Station" is a moodier update of the same social/political/racial landscape, illustrating how much things have actually not changed in this country. That is what makes this film such a quietly devastating work, so much so that it left me sitting solemnly in my theater seat long after the the end credits had scrolled and the ushers had cleaned the theater. I urge all of you to head out and see this film for yourselves.

"Fruitvale Station" stars Michael B. Jordan (you may remember him from HBO's "The Wire" or in last year's terrific thriller "Chronicle") in a wonderfully naturalistic performance as Oscar Julius Grant III. As previously stated, this film is not remotely plot driven but essentially an intimate drop-in into what would become the final day of his life. We see his relationship with his long time girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and the joy he carries for their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). We see him planning for his Mother, Wanda Grant's (Octavia Spencer), birthday dinner/party. We see him interact with his friends, enemies and even strangers on this fateful day, while also witnessing Oscar's brutally pre-empted journey to piecing his life back together after being released from prison, presumably for drug dealing. The film culminates with Oscar's final moments when he and his friends, celebrating on New Year's Eve, are apprehended by BART police responding to calls of a fight on the train. Oscar Grant, who was unarmed, handcuffed and laid face down upon the pavement was shot in the back by an officer and he died several hours later.  

With "Fruitvale Station," Ryan Coogler has made a confident, sure handed debut feature film that is completely sobering as it is empathetic and humane. He possesses an easy, unforced directorial hand, making the bulk of the film appropriately mundane in its natural, everyday tone and approach. Michael B. Jordan has elicited a performance of such skill and seemingly effortlessness that I think it would be very easy to actually not see how committed he truly is to bringing the story of this young man to life. While the confrontation, shooting and death of Oscar Grant is appropriately intense and carries an equally appropriate sense of moral outrage, for much of the film's running time, Coogler and Jordan focus not upon the tragedy of Oscar Grant's death but utilizes "Fruitvale Station" more as a character portrait of a young man taking stock and trying to straighten himself from his more philandering, violent past. By doing so, the loss of life that we do see is completely upending as Coogler demonstrates not only how rapidly celebration can transform into terror but he remarks painfully upon the fragility of life itself, especially for young African-American males in this country.

Just watch Jordan during an early sequence set in a market where Oscar Grant was once employed in the butcher section. As he arrives to purchase some crabs for his Mother's birthday dinner, we see him interact not only with a friend but also with a confused, pretty young customer (played by Ahna O'Reilly) seeking the proper fish to buy for a fish fry dinner but also with his former employer who will not re-hire him to his former position due to his questionable past. Michael B. Jordan is able to slide back and forth from jovial to slyly flirtatious and accommodating to flashes of brutality and violence in a blink of an eye giving us in mere moments, the fullness of Oscar Grant's life and emotional palate as a son, friend, former criminal, grandson, child and emerging adult. Jordan brilliantly elicits Oscar's continuing struggle with the very past impulses that landed him in prison in the first place and the new manhood he wishes to ascend to. Michael B. Jordan is remarkable from start to finish and I sincerely hope that this performance is the very one that will begin to attract him to more filmmakers itching to find fresh, young talent as strong as this.

But "Fruitvale Station" has something much greater on its mind than just bringing a new-ish actor to the forefront. What Coogler, his team and his entire cast have accomplished so powerfully is the very thing some critics have even criticized this film for. Some reviews has referred to "Fruitvale Station" as being the type of movie that needlessly succumbs to shameless audience manipulation when the inherent drama of the story is fully apparent. That Coogler perhaps overplayed his hand in presenting to us the humanity of Oscar Grant. That shouldn't we just already understand that Oscar Grant was a "decent human being," as one critic expressed in their review of this film. Well...there is a part of me that might be able to see that criticism but frankly, it is to a minuscule degree.

I never felt as if "Fruitvale Station" was toying with me or was trying to force me to feel the very things I should be feeling anyway. I never felt that Coogler had neon signs instructing me how to respond from moment to moment at all. I felt that "Fruitvale Station," once again, was one of the most natural films I have seen this year, a film that was allowed to live and breathe upon its own terms. This was especially true when the film reached the precise moment when tragedy struck Oscar Grant down. Coogler never allowed his film to flounder in melodrama or forced histrionics. I connected with this young man and this tragedy because of the grim reality that this very tragedy, at this very time in 2013, could easily happen to any other African-American male. This tragedy could easily happen to me.

To those who have criticized "Fruitvale Station" for maybe coming on too strong with showing what should be obvious, that Oscar Grant was a "decent human being" have missed the point entirely. The fact is that at this current stage in the life of America, the lives of African-Americans, especially young African-American males are not seen in the same fashion as our White counterparts. It is not "obvious" that a man like Oscar Grant could be seen as a "decent human being" especially when he is not even being seen as a HUMAN BEING.

Based upon racist attitudes and downright fear, African-American males are envisioned as nothing more than crime dwelling thugs who mean to harm White people in all manner of violence, theft, gunplay, rape and anything else that would make a White individual clutch their purses tighter to their bodies while sharing elevator space with Black people and quickly cross the street to the other side when being innocuously approached by a African-American.

Take the Trayvon Martin case for instance. As I watched the news, never once did I just hear within all areas of the media that his murder was a tragedy. Never once did I just hear in all areas of the media commentators speak of him in the same somber manner that would be utilized for the death of a White child. I had to endure listening to the painful speculations of Trayvon's character, his past, his associations and not just hearing about the tragedy and the reality that he was an innocent, unarmed child, doing nothing to anybody and was just heading back home when he was stalked, attacked and murdered. The entire court case itself was too painful for me to watch as what essentially transpired was that Trayvon Martin was tried for his own death, a trial in which he lost. Out of the many responses I read after the case was closed, I do not think that I was affected more than from an essay written by The Roots' drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson who stated so powerfully that in the minds of African-Americans in this country, and after this court decision, we are being told once again that our lives don't matter, that our lives are not important because as he poignantly yet brutally states..."You ain't shit."

With that reality stacked against young African-American males especially, Ryan Coogler more than had his work cut out for him in trying to establish the life of Oscar Grant as one of equal worth of any White person or character just through the act of displaying his humanity. Have we really reached a point in our collective humanity, even after everything we as a human race have traveled through and supposedly learned about ourselves and each other, that Black people are not an entity unto themselves? That Black people love their children just like White people? That Black people have loving families and meaningful interpersonal relationships just like White people? That individual Black people struggle with their own foibles, faults, and mistakes with hopes of attaining some sense of redemption and elevation just like White people? That Black people should not be inherently feared, especially because of skin color? Have we really returned to the stage where Black people were considered to be 3/5 of a human being? I cannot fathom that we have but reality is telling me otherwise.

Let me please recount a personal story from my past to you, one that I have never shared before this time. Many years ago, I was waiting for a bus to take me to my place of employment, a prominent children's bookstore. As I waited for the bus in my neighborhood, I immediately took notice of several police cars idling within the area, a sight that was not of any sense of normalcy to me. I wondered of course if something had happened but all seemed quiet so I didn't worry. My bus arrived, I got on and prepared myself for my ride to work. Soon after departing the bus stop, I noticed that a police car was following us and had then directed the bus driver to pull over to the side of the road. I watched the proceedings with the same curiosity as my travelling companions, just wondering what had occurred. Soon, a police officer entered the bus, pointed at me and asked me if I would exit the bus to answer some questions. Of course, I thought that perhaps with all of those idling police cars I saw earlier, an officer may have taken notice of me and was possibly wondering if I had seen anything as I had been waiting for the bus for some time. The first moment I felt that my perceptions were completely off base was when the police officer waved the bus driver away thus taking away my ride to work. And then, the police officer asked if they could search my back pack. And then he asked if he could search me. I was not being seen as a potential witness. I was being seen as a potential suspect.

The ordeal ended rather quickly as it was determined that I was not the person they were looking for and they offered to give me a ride to work. When the officer asked me where I was employed and I told him, he exclaimed, "My son LOVES that store!"
     "Good," I said. "Maybe you could tell him about the staff member you almost arrested by mistake." Clearly not a wise move but it just erupted out of me as I was so bewildered.

Once I arrived at work, the officer then asked me if I wanted him to drop me off at a distance away from the store due to any possible embarrassment to which I replied, "Why? I didn't do anything wrong." The police officer dropped me off at the front of the store, I exited and went about my day...somehow.

Despite the fact that the officer was indeed cordial, non-threatening and even apologetic towards me, I was humiliated. I was humiliated tat in my own neighborhood where I was a productive member of the community and never strayed from the path of law and order, here I was being searched and suspected anyway. When the full story hit the local newspaper and I read the description of what turned out to be a coin shop store thief, I became enraged as the thief's height, weight, clothing and overall appearance looked absolutely NOTHING like me. A Madison Metro bus was stopped by police solely to apprehend me because I was the only Black person they saw. Period.

As I watched "Fruitvale Station," I returned to that morning feeling thankful for how the situation did play out but also fearful at how it could have played out much differently. What if this situation happened to me today and the officer was not anything like the officer I dealt with? And if it did turn out tragically, my humanity would not matter at all because all that officer would have seen (and did see in the event I just recounted to you) would have been skin color. It would not have mattered that I am a husband. It would not have mattered that I am someone's son and grandson or that I am a teacher or that I love animals, have friends, and love art, music and films. I would just be another Black face, constant societal suspect of wrongdoing, the true content of my character be damned. This is where we live in America in 2013 and this is where Oscar Grant was living in those early morning hours of 2009 when police officers saw skin color without any regard to the content of his character.

At the time of Oscar Grant's death, many train passengers recorded the full event through telephone cameras, I am presuming some footage of which is shown at the start of "Fruitvale Station," a tactic I am certain some critics would admonish the film for.To that, I say that if Director Kathryn Bigelow can open her over-rated and irresponsible film "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012) with the telephone calls from airplane passengers about to die on September 11th so disingenuously and without major criticism, then what Coogler has done is not only fair game, but truly representative of the film and story he is trying to tell. That Oscar Grant was indeed a human being. What could be a more powerful statement than that?

Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station" is easily one of the most humane films I have seen this year. It is also one of the best. It is a film about life, the loss of life and the wrenching question of how do you even begin to tell a child that her Father is dead and furthermore killed by the police?

We have a tremendously long road ahead of us in terms of pushing the moral arc of the universe in the proper direction. May this film be one small way in getting us to do just that. Because dear readers, it just kills me that my Dad is here to see a world that he never intended for me grow up into.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

PIXAR'S FUTURE?: a review of "The Blue Umbrella"

A Pixar Animation Studios Film
Written and Directed by Saschka Unseld
**** (four stars)

In the spirit of this seven minute feature, I shall try my best to make this review equally brief.

Never have I written a posting for one of the short films that precede the main Pixar feature film but this time, I felt compelled as it seemed to fully illustrate the crossroads Pixar Animation Studios has found itself, as far as I am concerned. In (ahem) short, "The Blue Umbrella," is a visual/emotional storytelling dynamo that is quite possibly the finest short feature film Pixar has released to date. It is easily the most visually forward looking short feature they have made and frankly, it is even more forward looking than Pixar's last four feature full length films. And speaking of Pixar's features, short and full length, "The Blue Umbrella" is their finest release since "Up" (2009) and it is one of the best films I have seen in 2013.

The story of the dialogue free "The Blue Umbrella" is beautifully simplistic as it is just about the titular blue umbrella's lovestruck pursuit of a red umbrella during a rainstorm in an urban setting. That's it. And of course, the success of the film is not because of what it is about but how it is about what it is about. Writer/Director Saschka Unseld has created a feature that is as romantic and wistful as it is poetic and downright magical. It is precisely the very type of feature that placed Pixar on the map of American animated films as it has found that inexplicable pixie dust to makes the mundane dreamlike wonderment.

The visual palate of  "The Blue Umbrella" is unlike any Pixar feature we have seen thus far as it is a merging of what seems to be live action and animation creating a photo-realistic universe, which new techniques with colors, lighting, shadings and even movement, that is dazzling, beguiling, and euphoric in its presentation. Our emotional connection to that blue umbrella is instant and his tribulations in just making contact with that red umbrella are elegantly expressed and gorgeously augmented by Composer Jon Brion's floating score which features the vocals of Sarah Jaffe.

I have been heavily critical of Pixar in recent years due to the blandness and lack of imagination and fearless risk in their work. It seems that all of that fearless risk and unabashed imagination, heart and soul went into this small feature and I really believe that if Pixar is to have the future that it deserves to have, they truly need to tap back into this well and just...CREATE again. "The Blue Umbrella" is not the kind of film that will sell lunchboxes or is subject to create a new theme ride at Disney and why should it?

Pixar needs to make some serious decisions in what films it wants to make going forwards. Films that are guaranteed box office behemoths but creatively dispassionate or the ones where they just throw caution to the wind, open their minds and hearts and let those box office chips fall where they may?

You all know where I stand and I really believe that all members of the Pixar Senior creative team should get down on their knees to thank Saschka Unseld because with "The Blue Umbrella," he has re-discovered Pixar's soul.

And just in the nick of time.

OK: a review of "Monsters University"

A Pixar Animation Studios Film
Story by Dan Scanlon & Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson
Screenplay Written by Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird & Dan Scanlon
Directed by Dan Scanlon
** (two stars) 

Near the conclusion of "Monsters University," the latest release from Pixar Animation Studios and the prequel to their outstanding classic "Monsters, Inc." (2001), a despondent yet reflective Mike Wazowski (again voiced by Billy Crystal) announces that while the brass ring of greatness just may be forever out of his reach, he has resigned himself to the idea that "I'm OK with being OK." To that end, Abigail Hardscabble (voiced by Helen Mirren), the deliciously stern Dean of the Monsters University's Scare Program expresses that she hopes that Mike Wazowski  will still find it within himself to surprise her once again. After that exchange, I was amazed as I do not believe that the wizards of Pixar have ever been so openly and directly self-reflexive. Maybe one day they will take their own advice as voiced by Ms. Hardscrabble, and decide to not just be merely OK and surprise us all again.

Dear readers, I feel as if I am going through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance) when it has come to my relationship with the continuing oeuvre of Pixar Animaton Studios. Where this collective of artists and dreamers once set the gold standard for American animated films, raising their own bar of quality with each new release, Pixar, as voiced by Mike Wazowski, has seemingly settled for artistic mediocrity despite the massive box office rewards they still continue to reap. Ever since the strong but padded "Toy Story 3" (2010), Pixar has offered up a mildly entertaining yet completely unnecessary sequel that nobody asked for in "Cars 2" (2011), one full fledged disaster with last year's "Brave" and earlier this year, there was the wholly underwhelming announcement that "Finding Dory," another unnecessary sequel, this time to the glorious "Finding Nemo" (2003), would be released in 2015. Ugh!

I just cannot believe but may be forced to accept the fact that Pixar just may not be interested in making entertainment that is artful anymore and they will just keep on chasing the dollar. But then, that thought infuriates me because we do have their filmography at hand and we all know the magic they are able to create. There was a time when I would be filled with extremely anxious anticipation with the release of each new Pixar experience, ensuring that I would endure the ocean of small children and families just to get that great seat on opening weekend. But now, after having been let down time and again, I am not nearly as anxious and each new announcement and sequel/prequel idea is just meeting me with a completely dispassionate yawn. So, after a few weeks of release, I finally decided to give "Monsters University" a whirl and while it was a large step upwards from "Brave" with its strong performances and resplendent visual palate, the film was ultimately another blandly creative exercise that was nothing more than artistic wheel spinning and shameless money grabbing.

"Monsters University" is essentially an origin story of how our heroes Mike Wazowski and James "Sully" Sullivan (again voiced by John Goodman) met during their college days, began as rivals and tentatively found their way to best friendship. As the film begins, we meet six year old Mike, the diminutive, fast talking, one-eyed creature whose heart becomes filled with BIG dreams of one day becoming the greatest "scarer" in monster history after a school field trip to Monsters Inc.

Flash forward to his Freshman Year of college where Mike becomes roommates with future nemesis Randall (voiced by Steve Buscemi), enrolls in the Scare Program where he meets Sully, the son of a campus legend, for the first time and is determined to ace his semester finals. A semester's worth of rivalry between Mike and Sully escalates all the way to the fateful day of the exam and to the degree where they are both ejected from the Scare Program by Dean Hardscabble.

Unshakable in his determination to prove his worth as a scary monster, Mike joins the fraternity Oozma Kappa (O.K.) with a small group of misfit monsters and attempts to enlist in the campus Scare Games to compete against a collective of fraternities and sororities including the elite Roar Omega Roar (R.O.R.), the very fraternity from which Sully had just been ejected from. Yet, there's a problem. OK is just one member short of being eligible for competition so Sully reluctantly joins Mike and they are forced to work together to achieve their respective dreams.

As with every single Pixar release that has come before, "Monsters University" is a visual marvel. My eyes simply drank in the heavily layered sights of the campus which is essentially a stunning amalgam of Harvard, Princeton and even the University Of Wisconsin-Madison (apparently, a graduate of UW-Madison worked on the film and Madison viewers will easily spot the campus Carillon, the archway to Camp Randall and even our gargantuan Bascom Hill). Additionally, the return of Billy Crystal and John Goodman does indeed go a long way with this prequel as they slide easily back into their roles to strong and enormously endearing effect. Even so, Pixar should know better than any other animation studio that visual brilliance and the warmth of familiar characters is just not enough in making a story and film resonate into something unique and it just makes me crazy that "Monsters University" never pushes past any sense of its own comfort zone.

While the story itself is as appropriately simple as all of the other Pixar features, what the filmmakers have done with those simple stories in the past is precisely what has made films like "Monsters, Inc.," "Finding Nemo," and "Toy Story 2" (1999) for instance such beloved and timeless films. By the time the studio reached the fare of "Wall-E" (2008), "Up" (2009) and Director Brad Bird's towering "The Incredibles" (2004) and "Ratatouille" (2007), it felt as if Pixar was not content with just making films for children. They were obviously making the films that they would pay to see themselves and as a result, if children didn't' quite respond initially, they were films that refused to be disposable and defiantly the type of films anyone could grow up with. Not so with their most recent material and "Monsters University" is no exception. Where the story and emotions contained within were once the true stars of each Pixar feature, those elements have been replaced with a disturbing and sadly hollow heart that is seemingly only filled by how much merchandising can be created from the film itself.

It is just a shame that with a story and film that had so much opportunity to be fresh, inventive, clever and emotionally resonant, that the filmmakers just decided that Mike's journey should only exist in the "believe in yourself" universe that is the hallmark of essentially all children's films. Pixar offered absolutely nothing new on the subject and just chose to remain safe, predictable and pedestrian. Certainly not the traits that made us all fall in love with Pixar in the first place.

And then there are the Scare Games themselves, another opportunity for greatness which the filmmakers squander. Yes, these sequences essentially combine the classic "Revenge Of The Nerds" (1984) and the Tri-Wizard Tournament from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet Of Fire but everything is just played towards the same tired cliched, snobs vs. slobs collegiate hijinks we have all seen ad nauseum ever since Director John Landis' iconic "National Lampoon's Animal House" (1978). There was just nothing in the film that felt new or presented anything in an unusual, perspective altering fashion as with the bulk of Pixar's past works.

Think back to the original "Monsters, Inc." and remember how sharp and satirical the humor was and how laugh out loud funny it has remained. Think of the many sequences that offered surprise and awe (that wild roller coaster ride through the factory of bedroom doors is still a jaw dropper). And then add on the emotional wallop of the relationship between Sully and the little girl Boo, a relationship that reduces the friend I first saw that film with into a sea of flowing tears and the exclamation, "That was the BEST FILM EVER!!" "Monsters University" is nowhere in the same league as it just falls on the easy sentiments of cherished characters and hackneyed homilies that Pixar seemingly rejected in most of their films. Such a shame to see them trying to just get by on those very elements now.

And it didn't have to be that way either. There is one, and I mean, ONE scene in the film that pointed to where Pixar used to be. It occurs late in the film where Mike and Sully have a heart to heart talk about the nature of failure and how despite a familial legacy and/or hard work and relentless perseverance, success may always elude you. It was a scene that showed true emotion, as well as a hard truth of life, and yet, Pixar blinked and ran from that moment as fast as it could.

Look...I didn't hate "Monsters University." It is mildly entertaining but from a studio that has the ability to produce enormously entertaining works, why should I settle for less? I shouldn't and neither should you! Pixar is in the position to be making great works of art because money is no longer an issue and yes, it nearly angers me that they have chosen to play it so safely for a few years now. I haven't given up on them yet as the next two features before "Finding Dory" are reportedly originals and the short feature that preceded "Monsters University" was such a splendidly beautiful piece that it could potentially point to Pixar's future.

If only they want it.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

I REQUITE THEE: a review of "Much Ado About Nothing"

Based upon the play by William Shakespeare
Adapted For The Screen, Produced and Directed by Joss Whedon
**** (four stars)

If only all home movies were like this one...

After viewing a series of films that have ranged from serious (Richard Linklater's "Before Midnight," Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring"), to dark (Zack Snyder's "Man Of Steel"), to pitch black (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's apocalyptic comedy "This Is The End"), I think that I have been longing for a bit of a cinematic palate cleaner. Something lighter and frothier but also not something that I would regret either for just because something is lighter and frothier doesn't mean that it has to lose all sense of artfulness when providing the entertainment. So, how fortunate was I to step into Joss Whedon's terrific adaptation of William Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," a contemporary film version that provided me with the perfect amount of light and frothy entertainment while also existing as a supremely warm and wonderfully mounted artistic experience. For those of you out there who may feel intimidated at the prospect of taking on Shakespeare in the summer, especially during a period when you just want to have to see a film that is not mentally taxing, I urge to not allow the language to deter you. For me, the best way to experience the beauty of Shakespeare's language is to see it performed, and if you have never seen Shakespeare performed in any medium of the theater or film, I guarantee you that Whedon's production places nearly all 21st century farcical romantic comedies to shame. "Much Ado About Nothing" shows 'em all how it's done.

Utilizing the original text but updating the location to modern day Southern California, "Much Ado About Nothing" is entirely set at the compound of Leonato (Clark Gregg), the Governor of Messina who welcomes the prince Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) into his home after defeating Don John (Sean Maher), the nefarious bastard half-brother to the prince who led an ill fated uprising.

As part of Don Pedro's entourage is the misogynistic and sharp tongued soldier Benedick (Alexis Denisof), who endlessly engages himself in spirited wars of words and sexual tension with Leonato's equally feisty and quick witted niece Beatrice (Amy Acker). Also included, is Benedick's brother in arms Count Claudio (Fran Kranz), who is deeply in love with Beatrice's cousin Hero (Jillian Morgese). Don Pedro decides to play match maker for Claudio and Hero while most of the remainder of the household covertly tries to play match maker with Benedick and Beatrice, two souls who have sworn off marriage and commitment yet are obviously made for each other.

But trouble lurks in the shadows as Don John malevolently attempts to to foil all of the romantic plans and schemes, resulting in an rapidly escalating series of overhead conversations and misunderstandings that have the potential to grow into tragic results. But of course, this is a Shakespeare comedy so no worries as this whole escapade is a grand party. Yet how it all unfolds, falls apart and merges back together again is for our enraptured enjoyment.
Eat, drink and be merry, dear readers, as "Much Ado About Nothing" is an absolutely perfect movie to take in on a hot summer's day or languid summer's evening, so much so that you will wish that you had several glasses of wine alongside you as you watch (and if you see it at the Sundance theater in Madison, you can do just that). Unlike Baz Luhrmann's excellent and extravagant adaptation of "Romeo + Juliet" (1996), Joss Whedon has decidedly approached Shakespeare's material with an elegant minimalism that is also a showcase for a homemade excursion of equal elegance.

By now, I am certain that many, if not all, of you have heard the legend as to how this latest film adaptation of a William Shakespeare play came into existence. Whedon, a Shakespeare enthusiast who often holds readings at his home for kicks, decided to film his adaptation of the play while on a break from post-production work on last year brilliant comic book behemoth "The Avengers." Filmed in luxurious black and white cinematography over only 12 days and at his own home, no less, "Much Ado About Nothing" is precisely the type of personal filmmaking that is of such rare occurrence these days as Whedon not only adapted the text, produced and directed the film, he also served as co-editor, set music to two of Shakespeare's sonnets contained within the original text and even composed the film's score! That very type of hands on filmmaking translated beautifully to the silver screen as the love he obviously holds for the text is palpable and his presentation is not one that felt lugubrious by any means. Throughout he entirety of the film, Whedon's tone is of relaxation, effortless ease and a summer's day breeziness and you cannot help but to be swept away by the good cheer and honest merriment that he and his extremely able cast have prepared for us.

Strong writing and dialogue especially is of such small amounts these days when you go to the movies and by placing the words front and center, Joss Whedon (who is one of those unusually gifted screenwriters himself) is playfully giving the audience and current and future filmmakers a most a valuable lesson into how ridiculous situations and romantic shenanigans can be made truly surprising, rapturously romantic and blissfully gorgeous. In all of the filmed Shakespeare productions I have seen, I think Joss Whedon has been the most successful in wisely making the language the true star of his film rather than any sense of cinematic spectacle. In doing so, he and his gifted cast somehow, someway made this poetic yet archaic langue sound as natural as the language we speak in the 21st century, while also ensuring that the film is a visual treat of clean, crisp subtlety. Not one cast member ever felt to be tongue tied, tripped up or out of their depth as Shakespeare's luxurious words floated from everyone's lips and mouths with the grace of falling leaves.

I was extremely impressed with Reed Diamond's work as I only have known of him through his riveting performance as the scrappy, hotheaded firefighter turned detective on television's outstanding "Homicide: Life On The Street." Sean Maher brought some sinister clouds into the proceedings very effectively and I was also very impressed with Clark Gregg, a veteran character actor who sailed through his role with a dancer's agility and grace. Nathan Fillion is just perfect as the "ass" Dogberry, the buffoonish constable in charge of the Messina night watch. But, the film largely rests upon the shoulders of Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker and they made for a formidable pairing as they each expressed cunning wit, wry playfulness, wondrous verbal dexterity, skillful physical comedy and dramatic heft and poignancy. Acker especially nearly walks away with the film through a few of her briskly delivered put-downs and soliloquies which gave this lighter than air storyline an unexpected sense of righteous feminist anger.

With this adaptation Joss Whedon did make a couple of changes to his otherwise faithful adherence to the original source material. Aside from the contemporary setting, Whedon altered the gender role of one character but mostly, he added the notion of a past affair between Benedick and Beatrice, something that then fuels their bickering (and Shakespeare's dialogue) with a greater purpose, turbulence and urgency. With that. Whedon was also able to make gentle commentaries about 21st century sexual attitudes and gender roles for both men and women. It is a sharply satirical stance as it is smartly compelling and Amy Acker makes the most of every moment. During one section late in the film after Hero has been mistakenly and publicly shamed, Beatrice explodes in a ferociously delivered soliloquy about what she would do to rectify the situation, even as far as revenge, if only she were a man. It is a speech of rage and powerlessness. Yet, what she does do, what she does request of Benedick, in order for him to obtain her hand and love, shows how much power she actually wields, when she is able to utilize that power and the contexts in which men and women actually do or do not have power. Great stuff but again, this film is not a dissertation about sexual politics. "Much Ado About Nothing" is exactly what the title itself suggests and we should just place out feet upright and allow the words and romance to wash over us.

Dear readers, I urge you to not let "Much Ado About Nothing" fall through the cinematic cracks as it is a piece of entertainment that is more memorable and purely entertaining than so many of the films that I have already seen this year. No, it is not a film designed to advance the medium of cinema itself and it is not one to knock you through the back wall of the theater in amazement but I am telling you, there is just not one negative thing that I can say about it. This is a film where a love of language, great writing and love itself carry the day and sometimes that is absolutely all that you need.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

FREAKS AND GEEKS AT ARMAGEDDON: a review of "This Is The End"

Based upon the short film "Jay And Seth Versus The Apocalypse" by Jason Stone
Screen Story and Screenplay Written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
**** (four stars)

"Cat calling, love balling, fussing and cussing
Top billing now is killing
For peace no-one is willing
Kind of make you get that feeling"

-Curtis Mayfield
"(Don't Worry) If There's A Hell Below, We're All Gonna Go"

Every now and again, there is a film that comes along that I just have not a whit of an interest in seeing and somehow, someway over time, my curiosity piques upwards and upwards to the point where it cannot be denied any longer and after seeing the film in question, I kick myself for not having seen it sooner. "This Is The End," the directorial debut of writing partners Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg is precisely that type of film.

While I have been a fan of Rogen's ever since the release of Writer/Director Judd Apatow's "Knocked Up" (2007) and then, travelling backwards through to the television glory of Apatow and Paul Feig's "Freaks And Geeks" as well as Apatow's own "Undeclared," there is indeed a sameness to Seth Rogen's performances that can either work to his advantage in films like Apatow's "Funny People" (2009) and Director Jonathan Levine's "50/50"(2011) or just grow to be painfully wearisome as in Director Michel Gondry's "The Green Hornet" (2011). When I first heard about "This Is The End," starring Rogen plus his friends and frequent collaborators James Franco, Danny McBride and Jonah Hill, I just figured the film was going to be yet another "hanging around" film, copious filled with all manner of profanities peppered with narcotially and scatologically fueled humor and I just wanted to take a pass, fearing that this would have existed as nothing more than a "been there, done that" exercise. Oh, how wrong I was.

Yes, "This Is The End" is indeed a "hanging around" movie copiously filled with profanities peppered with narcotically an scatologically fueled humor but Rogen and Goldberg have raised the stakes to their highest pitch in what may not only be the most self-referential comedy I have seen since Writer/Director Kevin Smith's "Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back" (2001) and definitely the most inventively raucous comedy I have seen since the likes of Director Steve Pink's wildly vulgar "Hot Tub Time Machine" (2009). I would actually place this film as existing in the same neighborhood as Smith's "Dogma" (1999) and even the dual brass rings of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975) and "Monty Python's Life Of Brian" (1979).  That is high praise of course, but allow me to assure you that "This Is The End" is a ruthless, no-holds barred, take no prisoners, laugh out loud and fall down on the theater floor comedy, the likes of which are in profound rarity these days. It is a film loaded with one surprise after another as Rogen and Goldberg have at long last fulfilled the promise made by their terrific screenwriting work for Apatow and Director Greg Mottola's hysterical "Superbad" (2007). Even higher praise that that? You got it. I think "This Is The End" is one of the best films of 2013. How about that?

Playing off of the expectations that I and I am certain many of you have for Seth Rogen, "This Is The End" begins with Rogen picking up best friend Jay Baruchel (playing himself) from the airport to spend a long awaited weekend together. As the twosome walk through the airport, Seth is accosted by a "fan" armed with a camera who admonishes him for his lack of acting depth and questioning when he would ever give a real performance. After a car ride where the friends argue about the dangers of gluten and a full afternoon of pot smoking and video game playing on Seth's 3D television, Seth invites Jay to attend a party at James Franco's house, an invitation that makes Jay feel wary as he just wanted to have the weekend with Seth to themselves, and also due to the fact that he cannot stand Seth's more famous friends.

Reluctantly, Jay agrees and the twosome arrive at the house party which is filled top to bottom with drinks, drugs, debauchery and many celebrities like Rhianna, Jason Segal, Michael Cera, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, Emma Watson and many, many others. After a spell, and feeling increasingly out of place, Jay decides to leave the party on the pretense of purchasing a pack of cigarettes. Seth accompanies him and while in the drug store, Jay, Seth and all around them suddenly experience what sounds to be like a sonic boom, followed by what appears to be the greatest earthquake to ever hit Los Angeles. While Seth is covered in rubble, Jay witnesses several strands of glistening blue light plunging down from the heavens, enveloping several people and raising them all through the sky. Rousing Seth and racing back to James Franco's house from the constant carnage, chaos and destruction that is raining down upon them, a massive sinkhole opens up in front of Franco's home, swallowing up nearly all of Franco's party guests, leaving only Seth, Jay, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Franco himself safely inside. Believing that they will all soon be rescued (because they are famous actors), the quintet hole up, take inventory of all of their supplies and food and decide to wait it out. Unfortunately, no rescue ever arrives...and Jay begins to fear the worst as he believes that what has occurred has not been a massive earthquake but in actuality, The Rapture itself.

In a cinematic environment where impersonal, homogeneous slabs of entertainment designed for bland mass appeal rule the day, "This Is The End" is the brilliant brick being launched through that stagnant motion picture window. It is a film that constantly defies expectations, consistently keeps you off guard through comedy, terror and even some sharp theological debates, while it cheerfully breaks all of the rules via a biting  inventiveness that is supremely refreshing to experience. With this one film, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
have proven themselves to be an R rated comedy film writing/directing force to be reckoned with, showing every other filmmaker these days (who is not Judd Apatow), exactly how to make a hedonistic film that hits essentially every single target it aims for.

"This Is The End" is cheerfully, and I would also say proudly vulgar, as much as you would expect from Rogen and Goldberg because they fully understand that just saying dirty words and doing reprehensible things in and of themselves are not inherently funny. They understand that they do have a story to tell and characters to create and within those situations and motivations the jokes and vulgarities will spring forth...and man, do they spring forth as we are subjected to riffs that go as far as who masturbated into the last porn magazine all the way to cannibalism and who just may unfortunately be giving off a "rapey vibe" to the axe wielding Emma Watson who is hiding in a nearby room. Rogen, Goldberg and the entire cast know the notes and the music for this style of comedy and they make even the most gratuitous gross out gags work triumphantly.

By making "This Is The End" essentially the ultimate meta-comedy film, we are just blessed with a cast who are outrageously game with mocking themselves and their silver screen/public media personas, plus issues of vanity, superiority and insecurity to their most extreme. Seth Rogen wisely plays to his strengths and allows the remainder of the cast the ample room to strut their stuff. Jay Baruchel's sensitivity carries the film on its sense of goodwill among the voluminous nastiness, making him and Rogen the straight men to the hedonism and annihilation that surrounds them. Jonah Hill's unctuous superiority combined with his duplicitous and nearly effeminate niceties are as unpredictable as they are hilarious (I loved his prayer late in the film..."God, it's me Jonah Hill...from 'Moneyball'"). Craig Robinson's sly deliveries are devastatingly funny and Danny McBride nearly steals the film as he plays the film's id, the person whom you would never want to crash your party let alone live out the end of days with. He is feral, ferocious, dangerous, devilish and just plain unstoppable. the already excellent film ascends to greater heights once he makes his grand entry.

As for James Franco...all is forgiven. This is exactly what we should have seen in his overly bland and even miscast work in Sam Raimi's "Oz The Great And Powerful" earlier this year, as Franco shows off his daredevil rogue-ish persona to terrific effect from the moment he appears on screen all the way through to his shocking final moments. And to that end, I must give Rogen and Goldberg great credit for their set design work as Franco's apartment is nothing less than an extension of his (perceived) massively pretentious ego from the props and costumes from his past films, wall artwork and the giant penis statue that looks like it was stolen from the set of Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" (1971)!

Speaking of shocking, here is where "This Is The End" transcends its own comedy and becomes something truly special. I loved that no matter how ridiculous and vile the cast behaves for our comedic benefit, Rogen and Goldberg always play the apocalypse as a real event with real physical and spiritual consequences, making the movie a much, much darker affair than I anticipated the film to be. I was also deeply surprised at how well Rogen and Goldberg were able to wrench large amounts of genuine tension and scares into the proceedings, which often were screamingly hilarious. The combination of comedy and graphic violence is a very fine line to walk and one they handled awkwardly with their script for Director David Gordon Green's "Pineapple Express" (2008). With "This Is The End," they walked that line terrifically and while not nearly as professionally skilled, this film also made me feel as if I was witnessing something that could exist in the same universe as something like Writer/Director John Landis' classic "An American Werewolf In London" (1981), a film which merged comedy and horror seamlessly and never squandering a thing in either category.

From a more horror film standpoint, the frame work of having the group trapped inside James Franco's house was a masterstroke as it kept the actors doing what they do best, talking and riffing, while laying a terrifying foundation as having the nightmare of the world's oblivion outside of the house as well as something unseen for much of the film. One minute, the cast is spewing one vulgarity after another and without warning, Rogen and Goldberg keep jerking the rug out from under us, reminding us that no matter how much fun we are having, the world is indeed ending and there's no way out unless...

I also have to give it to Rogen and Goldberg for even attempting to not only play The Rapture as real but have the spiritual leanings of the story actually carry some real weight as the cast has to deal with the fact that despite the fact that they are actors who bring joy to us common-folk through their movies, they just might not be worthy of finding their way into paradise as their extreme amounts of pettiness, spitefulness, avarice, vanity, lusts, and all around horrible behavior continuously keeps them in their own way. It's sort of like Director Harold Ramis' "Groundhog Day" (1993) via the fire and brimstone of the Old Testament. Seriously, I did find those sequences more than a little stirring when the cast, once they were all fully convinced that spiritual Armageddon was occurring, discussed what it actually meant that none of those bright blue lights ever came down from the skies for them. Like the excellent novel The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta, "This Is The End" boldly inquires what does it mean to be left behind to suffer in a gradually disintegrating existence when others were able to be collected into the afterlife? What does it mean to sacrifice and to be selfless instead of selfish? Most films, especially R rated comedies, wouldn't even attempt to go into this arena but Rogen and Goldberg do and without blinking an eye in the process.  

After reading all of this, I am certain that you may have decided if this is a film for you or not. I do understand if it is not. But I cannot stress enough how thrilling it was to see a film that just broke all of the conventions and rules so gleefully as "This Is The End" accomplished. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have re-set the creative bar for themselves with a film that kind of merges Ivan Reitman's "Ghostbusters" (1984) with William Friedkin's "The Exorcist" (1973), and skewers the numbingly narcissistic media "reality" culture of "The Real World" and "Big Brother" to shattering effect, while being wholly original in the process.

Next month, Writer/Director Edgar Wright returns with his own apocalyptic comedy "The World's End," so I guess I cannot truly say that there is nothing else like "This Is The End" playing at the theaters. But even so, not being able to make that statement doe snot in anyway take away even a modicum of the greatness Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg placed on display in "This Is The End."

Tuesday, July 2, 2013


You know, you miss just one week...

Yes, dear readers, within the month of June, there was one week where, due to matters much more important than the movies, I did not venture out to the cinema to check out the new releases. And ever since, I have been playing a game of "catch up."

In fact, the lack of new releases that have sparked my attention for this month, July will actually allow for me to continue catching up on films that I just have not had the time to see as of yet.

1. Writer/Director Joss Whedon's contemporary adaptation of William Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" is very high on my personal list to see, and I have a feeling that I had better act quickly!

2. Despite my dwindling enthusiasm for all things Pixar as of late, I do intend to see their latest offering "Monsters University." 

3. My curiosity has somehow grown for Co-Writer/Co-Director Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's apocalyptic meta comedy "This Is The End" and I may have to try and squeeze that one in.

4. As for official July features, if "Blue Jasmine," the latest film from Woody Allen arrives, I have got to be first in line.

5. Buzz has been building for the following independent feature films, the drama "Fruitvale" starring Michael B. Jordan and the coming-of-age comedy "The Way, Way Back," with Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell. 

6. And then, there has been this one film that has been patiently awaiting me to view it for quite some time but I'll keep that one a bit of a secret at this time.

That is more than enough for me to chew on at this time and let's see if I am able to keep up with my own plans and schemes....

Watch this space to find out and I'll see you when the house lights go down...