Tuesday, December 30, 2014

YOU ARE HERE: a review of "Wild"

Based upon the memoir Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail 
by Cheryl Strayed
Screenplay Written by Nick Hornby
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee
**** (four stars)

For what will undoubtedly be the final film I will see in 2014, I am so thankful to end the year on such a powerfully high note.

I had my skepticism firmly in check when I first saw the trailer for "Wild," the adaptation of the memoir by Cheryl Strayed as well as latest film from Director Jean-Marc Vallee, who just last year helmed the celebrated "Dallas Buyers Club" (which I unfortunately still have not seen). My trepidation was not due to the book (which I have not read) nor to Mr. Vallee's filmmaking skills. In addition to worrying the film would be more in the vein of Director Ryan Murphy's vapid "Eat Pray Love" (2010) and less like Director Sean Penn's transcendent "Into The Wild" (2007),

My unsure feelings behind whether I even wanted to see this film was all due to Reese Witherspoon, an actress, whom despite her serious talents, is just one of those figures who just rubs me entirely the wrong way. Thankfully, both Witherspoon and the film overall placed any such cinematic fears to rest as she and the film are equally outstanding as "Wild" is a richly soul stirring experience that has earned its very high spot on my list of the finest films I have seen in 2014. In addition to this film not being one to be missed, it is one that demands to be fully experienced and deeply felt,

As with the memoir, "Wild" traces the solitary and 1000 mile plus journey across the Pacific Coast Trail of Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) as she attempts to reconstruct her life after the death of her Mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), her divorce from Paul (Thomas Sadoski from HBO's "The Newsroom") and a lengthy spell of self-destructive behavior which consisted of promiscuous sex and drug addiction.

Thankfully, "Wild" is more akin to "Into The Wild" but even more thankfully, Jean-Marc Valle has constructed a film that stands firmly on its own two cinematic feet. It is a visually enthralling experience that provoked some deep emotions within me as I watched Cheryl Strayed's struggle for personal redemption and coming to terms with the damages of her past. In constructing the film, Jean-Marc Vallee has brilliantly conceived of Cheryl Strayed's odyssey through a mostly non-linear narrative, where the on-going hike, with all of its physical and emotional obstacles, would coincide and parallel with key moments and memories from her life previous to the hike.

As gorgeously filmed as "Wild" is, and Cinematographer Yves Belanger should definitely receive some awards attention, tremendous credit must be given to Editors John Mac Murphy and Martin Pensa for the stellar layering of events and memories which weaved themselves into a fabric that felt akin to time travelling. And it was here that I found "Wild" to actually quite a lot in common with the likes of Writer/Director Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," as Valle has fashioned a narrative that speaks directly not only to how life is lived but what it means to be alive.

For what is life but a form of time travel? It is not as if the memories that we have all accrued have vanished into the ether once they have been fully lived. While some memories and events may be more prevalent than others, every singe moment, person and experience have congealed to formulate the person we each happen to be at this precise point in our personal histories. Or pasts inform our presents as we travel into the future and Vallee exhibits this very feat on such a direct yet profound emotional and physical level through the entirety of "Wild" that I believe that the film can truly inspire a depth of individual soul searching as you view the film yourselves.

Just as Cheryl Strayed hikes forwards, her mind keep travelling backwards, falling in and out of one memory after another as she strains to keep pushing ahead, battling herself whether to quit this excursion or not, and hopefully discovering the spiritual deliverance that just may allow her to see that all of her life experiences and choices have held value for without them, she would not even be upon this journey in the first place. But even so, and despite any wishes we have ever harbored for retreating from the world for some sense of self-imposed isolation, I do not think that we all need to hike the PC all alone in order to attain a similar goal, and frankly, I don even think this is what Vallee is suggesting.

Using the story of Cheryl Strayed as a catalyst, I think what Vallee has performed with "Wild" is to show us that we do indeed take these interior journeys every day that we live life. For if every moment that makes the fullness of our lives possess meaning, I think that Vallee has exuberantly created a film, like Director Danny Boyle's grueling "127 Hours" (2010), that celebrates every individual's place in the world just because we are alive as well as for those who have lived and will live in the future.

While Cheryl scoffs at a map of the universe that proclaims "You Are Here" during one point in the film, I felt that "Wild" is a true celebration of the life experience, but not through any sort of Hallmark card sentiment, something that would have made me race towards the theater exits. Vallee is celebrating life for all of the grime, muck, pain, anguish and just plain shit we have all endured in our own ways, and how we, as human beings, do have the capacity to hopefully find the ways to remain intrepid, to carry onwards and survive. Life is hard fought but the potential is ours to reach and "Wild" showcases Cheryl Strayed fighting, growing, rising, falling, failing and enduring over and over again, a very cycle that should be celebrated.

Yet for all of the epic, humanistic qualities of "Wild," Vallee also delves into the experience that is completely specific to Cheryl Strayed, and that is her experience as existing as a woman on this Earth. It is very interesting to me that I have seen "Wild" just days after seeing Director Tim Burton's terrific "Big Eyes," as both films are not only about an exploration of female empowerment but also a decidedly pointed and savvy reality check about the treatment of women within our society.

For all of the necessary discussion that our society is and needs to have concerning "White privilege," ta very similar discussion needs to be had about "Male privilege," how the infrastructure of our society is organized for the benefit of those for no other reason than the gender to which they happened to have been born. With regards to "Wild," just the concept of a woman embarking upon such a perilous journey alone raises eyebrows in a way where a man performing the same feat would not provoke. Furthermore, throughout the film, as Cheryl occasionally meets up with more travelers and other people upon her journey, I found myself taking note of my emotions every single time she came in contact with men just based upon how they looked and behaved. There were some male characters I instantly felt no sense of threat from but over and again, and especially during one especially overt sequence, the very real threat of rape sent alarm bells running through me due to the precariousness of Cheryl's journey (don't worry--there are no rape scenes in the film at all).

It's not as if the unforgiving aspect of the natural world wasn't enough to deal with but Cheryl, being a young, attractive woman all alone in the world, is forced to continuously keep her guard up just due to how every man may or may not react to the sight of her. Which men would provide her favors just based upon how she looked combined with any misplaced sense of sexual expectations or who would perform favors for her just because she was just another human being? On the flip side, there is another sequence where Cheryl at a rest stop, decides to pick up a young man herself fr a night of sexual activity and then venture upon her way again with no regrets the following day. All of these scenes are deeply embedded into the complete fabric of "Wild," just as they also were in Director Jonathan Frazer's crystalline and disturbing "Under The Skin," because it is those very unwritten societal expectations, desires and prejudices concerning the sexes that all contribute to a larger world where women are not seen as human beings but objects meant to be overpowered, controlled, used and abused, this providing Cheryl Strayed with yet another life obstacle to circumvent. And with that, "Wild" also works as a feminist diatribe for the journey women are forced to endure just for being born female.

Yet, for all of the struggle, strife and trauma, Jean-Marc Vallee's"Wild" is a tremendously hopeful experience that I strongly feel that all of you will have much to discuss once you leave the theater. And isn't that something to celebrate? When art can inspire a well spring of emotions and thoughts within ourselves that we would only wish to share with other people, thus opening up new discussion into how we can all understand each other and ourselves just a little bit better? Jean-Marc Valle's "Wild" is an exquisitely beautiful film anchored by Reese Witherspoon's powerhouse performance, which just may be her most accomplished work to date and is fully deserving of all of the awards season attention it is bound to receive.

While I have several more 2014 features to view in January, I already know that it will be very difficult to find another as magnificently humane as Jean-Marc Vallee's "Wild."


It has truly been an experience of surprises.

When I began Savage Cinema while sitting in the basement of my parent's house while visiting them for the holidays, never did I imagine that five years would pass by and this experience would still be in existence. Certainly I had hoped. But never did I know or even conceive that this site would have endured for this span of time. All I knew on that day was that I loved movies, I loved writing and I wanted to really try to write about movies for real because until that time, everything was just being written inside of my head and I just never thought that anybody anywhere would give a whit about anything that I had to say.

Five years on, and while I still strongly realize that the world really has no need whatsoever for anybody else like myself writing about movies, I am feeling so very thankful to have had this outlet to perform something that is just so very important to me. And again, I thank all of you out there for taking any bits of your most valuable time to spend it reading even just one review that I have written. With everything in the world that takes up your attention, to spend any of that time on something that I has released into the world has not been lost on me at all.

Your support, encouragement and willingness to cheer me onwards is indeed the very fuel that has energized my own passions and pursuits and I sincerely hope that you know that when I do sit down to write the next review, I am indeed trying my very best, for myself as a writer and for you as readers, to create something of value, or at least, of interest.

What a grand surprise it has been to keep chugging along my way and discover that nearly 500 postings have been written. What a surprise it has been to discover that I have somehow achieved a small readership. What a surprise it has been whenever any of you have contacted me about something that I have written or have inquired if I am going to see a certain movie to then write about. Who knew that anyone would be interested in anything that I had to say and then, look forward towards any future writings? To all of those situations and experiences, I am simply not able to thank you enough.

Your encouragement has supplied me with tremendous courage in regards to my writing. I was truly so terrified when the very first time I hot the "Publish" button and now, I feel a sense of accomplishment. You gave me to courage to not only keep Savage Cinema flowing, but also to begin the sister site Synesthesia, which will hit its 2nd birthday in April 2015. And even then, and most of all, you gave me the courage to finally reveal the creative writing I have been up to over the years as I have been gradually releasing installments of my novel Tales From Memorial Union. As one event has led to the next, I remain so joyously surprised, humbled and so, so thankful.

This past year, the surprises advanced even more as I must send a most special THANK YOU to the formidable Wendy Rose Watson, a writer/poet/artist as well as the U.S. Editor of Zani, the U.K. based independent online publication, for thinking enough of what I have been doing to have shared a few of my reviews with an even larger audience. In the past year, my reviews for "American Hustle," "The Wolf Of Wall Street," "Dawn Of The Planet Of the Apes," "Under The Skin" and "Gone Girl" have all been published via Zani and her confidence in me has just left me so happily speechless and I could never thank her enough for her belief in me.

Even further than that, possibly the biggest surprise of them all occurred in the most natural way. While home sick from work one day, I happened to catch "Purple Rain" on television, a film that I had not seen for perhaps a good 20 years or so and the experience of watching it again left me so inspired that I wrote a new posting. That particular posting has become the most read review that I have ever written with "hits" now having reached 1215 possible readers! That would have been more than well enough for me, but nothing could have prepared me for having received a very lovely message from none other than Albert Magnoli, the director of "Purple Rain"!!!! The organic nature of this surprise just speaks to the purity I wish that Savage Cinema will hold forever--one that I just abut my love of writing and movies and nothing else other than that. As I have always expressed to you, I do not make any money from this venture and I am not connected to any organizations within the movie industry on any level. This is my passion, my outlet, my vision, my heart and soul and I hope all of those elements are evident to you with each new posting.

THANK YOU all for helping me reach five full years of Savage Cinema.  Are you ready for Year Six? I hope so. I want to keep writing until my fingers fall from my body, dear readers. I hope that you will all still be here to keep taking this journey with me.

Monday, December 29, 2014


Screenplay Written by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski
Produced and Directed by Tim Burton
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Just days after I had expressed my extreme disappointment with filmmaker Peter Jackson's adherence to the spoils of empty commerce over artistic triumph with his dismal final entry in his trilogy based upon J.R.R. Tolkein's The Hobbit, I am fully refreshed as I am now ready to heap praise and celebrate another filmmaker whom I feared I had lost to the same beast.

For several years now, I have felt that filmmaker Tim Burton has existed within a painfully lengthy creative rut. The nightmarish brilliance of his adaptation of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street" (2007) notwithstanding, Burton has released one CGI drenched and sadly unenthusiastic film after another, for my tastes and sensibilities. Over the course of his career, Tim Burton has consistently presented himself as one of our most idiosyncratic cinematic artists as he has so proudly waved his freak flag but with the most open-hearted sense of humanity as his collective of societal misfits were always treated with such grace and sympathy as we saw the world reflected back to ourselves through their eyes.

For close to 30 years, I have deeply appreciated Tim Burton's commitment to serving his muse and crafting cinematic universes that are unlike any other filmmaker's. From "Batman" (1989), "Edward Scissorhands" (1990), "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993) and "Ed Wood" (1994)--all of which I loved--to "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" (1985), "Beetlejuice" (1988), "Mars Attacks!" (1996) and "Sleepy Hollow" (1999)--all of which I didn't love--the movies all felt as if you could see Tim Burton's fingerprints within each frame as they all seemed to fully represent his full artistic purpose and left-of-center personality.

Yet with films like the so-so "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride" (2005) and the middling to bad to downright awful entries of "Dark Shadows" (2012), "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (2005) and the disastrous "Alice In Wonderland" (2010), Burton's films have grown increasingly impersonal despite their lavishness. It just was not nearly enough for him to team up with Johnny Depp once again, have him dress up in some elaborate costume, spray the screen with all manner of CGI visual effects and gargantuan gothic set pieces and just call it a movie. It was as if we were receiving carbon copies of the types of films Burton had made in the past, each one either more or less soulless than the one before it. That is precisely what makes Tim Burton's latest film "Big Eyes" such a wonderment as it is easily and not only the best film he has helmed in many years, I could feel Burton's artistic soul speaking to us once again after far too long. In a strange way, the film feels to be of such a personal quality that I cannot help but to wonder if Burton has utilized his latest work as a form of cinematic atonement. For whatever the reasons, it was simply a pleasure to bask in the beauty of Tim Burton's artistic vision once again as I am realizing just how much I have missed it.  

Based upon true events, "Big Eyes" stars Amy Adams in a completely winning performance as American artist Margaret Keane, whose collection of paintings featuring odd looking waif children all augmented with large eyes, were fraudulently claimed to be the work of her then husband Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a charismatic, fast-talking charlatan who pioneered the mass production of inexpensive prints for massively lucrative financial gain. Throughout the course of the film, we are witness to Margaret Keane's journey as an artist during a period when the work of female artists were not as respected as their male counterparts and even more importantly and internally, her rise from subjugation to independence.  

"Big Eyes" is Tim Burton's most overtly mature work since his poetic and beautifully aching film "Big Fish" (2003), as it represents a return from wonderland into a more adult and realistic world while still maintaining a playful spirit. It is as lushly visualized as you would expect from a Tim Burton film, however, it is not a film drowning in a sea of special effects and increasingly cartoonish characters. On the contrary, I think the crucial element that appealed to me so greatly about "Big Eyes," is that this is the first Tim Burton film in so very long that has bothered to be centered around actual people and their respective grasps of humanity. For just a moment, please think back through Burton's filmography and remember that no matter how freakish and bizarre the characters may seemed to have been on the surface, from the likes of Pee-Wee, Batman, Jack Skellington, Edward Scissorhands to even Betelgeuse, we always responded to their humanity and their inherent traits which actually did not separate any of them from us in the audience since we all exhibit those very same qualities...even the disturbing ones.

With that in mind, Burton has crafted an ode to the power of creativity and artistic expression but also an exploration of greed and malice, as those elements relate to a person's mounting level of insecurity and feelings of personal failure and overall insignificance. Additionally, Tim Burton has also crafted a wise social commentary about sexual empowerment as he utilizes the figure of Margaret Keane and her personal story to represent the rise of women's independence in society during the late 1950's and 1960's, and how that very independence was seen by some as a threat to a male dominated landscape, in this case as represented by Walter Keane.

Now, I have seen some criticism in a few reviews towards the performances of both Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz that I whole heartedly disagree with. For Adams, it has been suggested lightly that she is perhaps a tad too vulnerable, possibly to the point of being "Pollyanna-ish."  For Waltz, the criticism has been a bit harsher as he has been criticized by some for being too mannered, and over-the-top to the point of being unhinged.

Well, to that, I felt that not only did Amy Adams create yet another pitch perfect performance that will only add to her already impressive range in her filmography, Christoph Waltz is absolutely magnetic to watch, as well as he should, considering how the real Walter Keane was indeed able to win the hand of the divorced and single parent Margaret Keane via a whirlwind romance but also how he was able to achieve such a large amount of fame and celebrity, based through absolutely no artistic talent of his own. It is within these two performances that I think that Tim Burton performed quite a clever feat. With "Big Eyes," Tim Burton has essentially created an adult fairy tale, where the aesthetics and archetypes of fantasy are re-shaped and re-examined within the context of a very real world thus unlocking both the virtues and grotesqueness of our humanity in the process.

In "Big Eyes," it is through the filter of the fairy tale princesses and oppressive monsters that we explore both the passions and motivations of Margaret and Walter Keane. As we regard Margaret Keane, slaving away in her studio, sadly creating painting after painting for Walter's financial gain and notoriety, what else is she but a version of Rapunzel or better yet, the poor miller's daughter forced to spin straw into gold for the malevolent King (i.e. Walter Keane) or face death in the classic Rumplestilskin? Additionally, who else is Walter Keane but the proverbial "wolf in sheep's clothing," the friendly, gregarious, would be cultured artist once based in Paris but in reality is nothing more than a sniveling con-man who grows increasingly monstrous the greater Margaret Keane begins to assert herself?

But this being an adult fairy tale, and one that is so explicitly about female empowerment, Tim Burton has wisely created a vista where Prince Charming essentially does not exist and will never come to the rescue. In fact, Margaret Keane, who at the start of "Big Eyes" is fleeing her first bad marriage with her tiny daughter in tow, arrives in San Francisco and is soon greeted and overwhelmingly swept off of her feet by her supposed "Prince Charming" Walter Keane, he ultimately turns on her, trapping her within yet another dangerously bad marriage. In this adult fairly tale, Burton is exclaiming, the hero of Margaret Keane's story is no one else than herself, her talents, and her own perseverance.

At the outset of this review, I remarked that I wondered if "Big Eyes" was indeed Tim Burton's way of possibly atoning for the emptiness of his most recent films. To that end, it was even more impressive that Burton utilized the canvas of "Big Eyes" to delve even deeper and explore the nature of art itself. Burton asks those large and often unanswerable questions that were often on display in films like the terrific documentaries "My Kid Could Paint That" (2007) and "Exit Through The Gift Shop" (2010) and even in the extravagantly animated and sophisticated Pixar/Brad Bird feature "Ratatouille" (2007). 

What is art? Who gets to decide what art is? Does art cease to be art once the work grows in popularity? Is the nature of art decreased or diluted if it is indeed mass produced? All of these questions flow through the entirety of "Big Eyes" as we do indeed witness how personal the paintings are to Margaret Keane, and how the work is indeed an extension of herself. Yet, the paintings are often seen as nothing more than artless kitsch to so-called serious art connoisseurs. In fact, this particular, and eternal, battle is one waged by Tim Burton himself, a filmmaker who I see as an artist but I am more than certain that so-called serious connoisseurs of film would relegate to the kitsch pile as Burton's films have been so enormously popular for nearly three decades running. But then, here I sit with Savage Cinema placing my judgments upon what makes or what does not make cinematic art, especially over Tim Burton's career, especially as I am seeing this new film serving as an antidote to his some of  his previous films, so who am I to throw stones at those so-called connoisseurs and even Tim Burton for that matter? In fact, doesn't my disdain just make me one of those so-called connoisseurs too? Tim Burton, includes all of us in the audience throughout "Big Eyes" with these very questions, inviting us to take part in the conversation that he has devised with his film, a conversation that is engaging and enthralling to hold.  

And I think that for me and my sensibilities, this is precisely what makes a film like "Big Eyes" such an important step and achievement for Tim Burton to undertake. For I feel that art is indeed a representation of oneself, regardless of the medium the artist chooses to utilize to express themselves. Whether I like the art in question is irrelevant to a degree because if the work is a true representation of the self, then that is all that matters. When I criticize Tim Burton or more recently Peter Jackson, it is because I am feeling a certain rejection of the art in favor of commerce, which by its very nature is an artless entity. But then again, it is only the impression that I have towards the work, the intent of which I will never fully know anyway. So, again what does it all matter?  It matters, when I am able to go to the movies and have a response to what I have witnessed that inspires such questions and emotions within me. It is when what I have witnessed speaks to my soul in some mystical, magical way.

With "Big Eyes," I was so happy to have something that Tim Burton created speak to my soul in such an entertaining, provocative and yes, artful fashion once again, after far, far too long.

Friday, December 26, 2014

FOOL'S GOLD: a review of "The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies"

Based upon the novel The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Screenplay Written by Philippa Boyens & Fran Walsh & Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro
Directed by Peter Jackson
* (one star)

Peter Jackson, how could you?! Honestly, how could you?!

Dear readers, this review may come as quite a bit of a surprise to you regarding the harness of my star rating plus everything that I am about to write. I am certain that many of you will disagree with me and that is perfectly fine. I am certain that many of you will love or have already loved this final installment in "The Hobbit" trilogy and of course, that is fine as well. But for me, I felt to be so terribly cheated and frankly, now that it is finished, I am just glad the damn thing is mercifully over.

When Peter Jackson unveiled his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein's iconic trilogy The Lord Of The Rings between the years of 2001-2003, you would have heard my voice along with the massive choir that adored those films. In fact, not only did I think that "The Return Of The King" (2003) was the finest film of that year, I also felt that the entire film series consisted of three of the finest films realized in the decade of 2000-2009. It was a series that created an entire film universe with passion, grit, fire and a heart as wide open as the sky itself and believe me, I hung onto every single minute of the proceedings (including the extended editions) as the complete purity of Jackson's artistry was unquestionably evident.

As I have stated before on this site, those three films felt as if Peter Jackson would have been happy if those were the only films he would ever be able to make and he created them as if he would never make films again. Certainly a film adaptation The Hobbit was inevitable. But I was skeptical from the very beginning at the purpose and reasoning behind splitting an already slim novel into two films and then ultimately cleaved once more into three motion pictures. The mercenary aspect of this proposal just never felt right to me but I was determined not to judge until I saw the finished films.

Yes, I did give the new trilogy's first installment "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (2012) a high rating due to its more innocent, child's dream like tone of the film's leisurely first hour and the committed excitement of the film's third hour as anchored by the great "Riddles In The Dark" sequence, wonderfully performed by both Martin Freeman and the brilliant Andy Serkis, as the titular Hobbit Bilbo Baggins and the malevolent Gollum, respectively. However, it was during that film's turgid second hour that I had begun to have my problems with Jackson's approach this time around. The narrative ground itself to a complete halt and included familiar actors and characters not for any narrative necessity but obviously to provide links to the critical and audience beloved previous trilogy.

While quite a number of viewers felt that the second installment "The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug" (2013) was an improvement over the first, I found myself in sharp disagreement because for all of the CGI Sturm und Drangcharacters running every which way, and getting themselves into and out of one jam after another for nearly three hours, the narrative of the story barely moved even one inch. For Pete's sakes, Jackson never even bothered to fulfill the promise contained in that film's title, thus further proving that his approach to this new trilogy was more lucrative than artistic.

Now, we arrive with the final (please let it be true) installment entitled "The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies" and for my money, this film was a crushing disappointment. Now don't worry. I am not reacting like those so-called "Star Wars" fans who shriek that George Lucas somehow "raped their childhoods" with the arrival of the controversial prequel trilogy. No. I don't take these things that personally. But to assure you that I am not being hyperbolic in my personal assessment of this new film and perhaps feel that I am possibly being too harsh on Peter Jackson, know that I am indeed being this harsh because he knows better than this. And I know he knows better than this because he has DONE better than this time and again. For all of the lip service to the pure themes of friendship, honor, truth, loyalty and bravery contained within this new film, it is ultimately so disingenuous as it is all really and only about massive levels of greed, making "The Hobbit: The Battle Of Five Armies" nothing more than two and a half hours of soulless cinematic subterfuge.

"The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies" picks up precisely where the second installment left off as we at long last witness the true desolation of the behemoth dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) and we then begin to start the drums of war between the rising band of Orcs, the Elves, the goblins, the fishermen of Laketown, a Dwarf army and the small collective of dwarves led by increasingly ravenous and unhinged Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) now barricaded inside of the Lonely Mountain and surrounded by all manner of riches and gold.

That is essentially the plot of this third chapter and for nearly two and a half hours, Peter Jackson showcases precisely everything that is wrong about this new trilogy as explicitly as he is able. Don't get me wrong. The film is visually resplendent, as beautifully rendered as we would expect. You can see every penny of the production values upon the screen handsomely. All of the film's performances are excellent and I do have to give special credit to Richard Armitage who seemed to find the a truly lived-in blood and fire within the dwarf Thorin, that made the fullness of his arc over the three films resonate. Additionally, I also found Luke Evans as Bard The Bowman to be effective as well.

That being said, and as with the second film and an extensive portion of the first film, "The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies" is a hefty slab of excessive padding calling itself a movie as all the bluster does not add up to anything substantive. The love triangle between the Elven archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the warrior dwarf Kili (Aiden Turner) and the female Elven fighter Taureil (the needless Peter Jackson creation played by Evangeline Lilly) is negligible and in its own way, is itself somewhat sexist as this plot thread is only in the film to inject some estrogen and so called "romance" to potentially draw in more female viewers and not for anything purely story driven.

The film's titular battle sequence, with its morass of bats, monsters, falling mountains, flying arrows, clashing swords, creature beheadings and soaring eagles takes place for the duration of 45 minutes or so of the film's running time. One particular one-on-one fight between Thorin and Azog the head Orc (Manu Bennett) is as interminable as it is completely predictable and yawn inducing. And throughout all of the pyrotechnics, there is no stitch of urgency and it is as pulse pounding as watching someone else playing a video game...which in fact, we essentially are doing just that.

I'm sorry but I just find it inexcusable that for a film this lengthy and filled with this much bombastic sound and fury that the whole thing really signifies absolutely, positively nothing and isn't about much of anything other than its own cacophony. There was nothing for me to latch onto emotionally because when it all comes down to it, this contentious battle between the five armies is about nothing more than the possession of gold. Gold?! That's it?!

Within "The Lord Of The Rings" film series, we were given an adventure that created a palpable sense of mounting apocalyptic doom as the story, built from the epic good vs. evil struggle, held the entire existence of Middle Earth in the balance. There was truly something at stake, characters to root for and against and Peter Jackson, through the genre of fantasy, gave us an allegory to the nature, strategy, and sacrifice of war itself. Yet, for this new film, it's just about greed and gold and so what?! Who knows? Maybe Peter Jackson was also trying to create an allegory with this new movie too. Like let's take a look at the wars our country has been involved in over the last 10 plus years and what else are the motivations but greed, power and control? Look, I really just want to give him the benefit of the doubt as I really just do not wish to believe that he could make a film that was indeed this empty headed and hearted. But, unfortunately, I am feeling that indeed he did.

But, most of all, the greatest failing of "The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies" is an issue that has plagued this entire trilogy and that is the sad disappointment that for a film series that has called itself "The Hobbit," the titular character is just as inconsequential to the proceedings within the film as us in the audience. Martin Freeman makes for a wonderful Bilbo Baggins as his sly comedy and overall bemusement has remained a pleasure to watch, if only Jackson ever allows us to spend time with him. Again the issue emerges that this entire enterprise should have solely been ONE, tight, taut film instead of three severely bloated ones and with Bilbo Baggins clearly in the lead and we are viewing the spectacle entirely through his wide-eyed perspective. But, with what Peter Jackson has done with a whole trilogy is to completely sideline, and at points eject his hero from his own story for long stretches of screen time.

Bilbo pops up here to provide some information. He pops up there to offer some counsel. He races through his magical Ring netherworld for a spell and when Jackson clearly has no idea what to do with him next, he renders poor Bilbo unconscious for much of the war sequence. Come on, Peter Jackson, just be honest with us and just call the film what it really is: "THORIN AND THE LONELY MOUNTAIN " for these three films are truly about the life and times of Thorin, his pursuits, perils, potential downfall and redemption. For that matter, Bilbo could have just as easily stayed at home in The Shire and read about Thorin's adventures for as insignificant of a role he actually plays in the three films overall.

Furthermore, Peter Jackson also made a gargantuan error by trying so hard to make so much of this one film and the overall trilogy link up to "The Lord Of The Rings" film series and not focusing entirely on Bilbo's story in its own right. For this third time, it really felt that even Jackson himself didn't believe in the material he has taken such great pains to alert viewers just how devoted to Tolkein's creation he claims to be. This time, it felt as if even he knew that his previous trilogy was the better trilogy because over and again are clumsy signposts to the previous films through needless appearances of past actors and characters as well as an overall tonality that is favoring the darkness to come over the whimsy and wonder that exists in The Hobbit. Because of this, it just begs the question of why did Peter Jackson even make these three new films in the first place? And the answer is so painfully obvious, dear readers. It's all about those Middle Earth dollars flowing in three times over instead of once. It's just as pathetically uninspired as the war over the gold at Lonely Mountain and it makes for a film experience that becomes the same kind of over-stuffed shiny piece of crap that Michael Bay releases time and again, where commerce reigns and art is nowhere to be found. Like I said before, Peter Jackson knows better simply because he has performed better in the past and I just cannot let him off of the hook this time.  

You know, if there is a subtext at all to "The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies," it is possibly all about a war between Peter Jackson and himself. Is he really the gold lusty dwarf King Thorin or is he more truthfully the kindly Bilbo Baggins who wants nothing more than to go home, be left in peaceful solitude to plant an acorn and watch his tree grow over the years?

Peter Jackson has claimed that now that this trilogy is completed, his creative desires are to leave the big budgeted spectacles behind and now focus upon smaller films. Terrific. I hope to see those films. So were these Hobbit movies solely designed to make a fortune through its built-in audience to provide him with a financial safety net to make those smaller films? It seems more than peculiar to me that after the critical and box office failure of his adaptation of "The Lovely Bones" (2009), a film that I have found to be quite underrated and especially stirring, he jumped into directing these Hobbit movies after the original director Guillermo del Toro conveniently left the project. It just now feels more than ever that Jackson did not want to take any creative chances or risks and if he ever did feel like throwing some artistic caution to the wind in the future, he had to be financially set first. Only Jackson and those closest to him will ever know his true motivations for making this series, but for me, the war between the cynicism of the industry and the purity of his love for cinematic storytelling and Tolkein's works were decidedly at contentious play. And as far as I am concerned, cynicism won.

So, as I think about it, maybe Peter Jackson was not represented by Thorin or Bilbo at all. But more truthfully, by Alfrid (Ryan Gage), the greedy, cowardly resident of Laketown, a man ready to sell out the women and children of his home to the creatures that wish to decimate them all just to save his own hide and squander away as much gold as he is able in the process.

As I stated at the outset of this review, I hate to be so harsh but Peter Jackson knows better and "The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies" is a thunderous, pondorous cinematic disappointment.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

A SHALLOW, STUPID SITCOM SHIVA: a review of "This Is Where I Leave You"

Screenplay Written by Jonathan Tropper based upon his novel
Directed by Shawn Levy
* (one star)

Near the end of the abominable "This Is Where I Leave You," Director Shawn Levy's completely tone deaf and painfully idiotic adaptation of the Jonathan Tropper novel, one character proclaims that he is ready to face a life that is "unpredictable, irrational and complicated." What a shame that he was anchored by an albatross of a movie that was not only exceedingly irrational, it was also pathetically predictable in its force-fed, hyperbolic complications.

Dear readers, the dysfunctional family film is indeed a tricky beast to pull off successfully as this cinematic sub-genre can too often find itself drowning in a sea of contrivances and overstuffed narratives at the complete expense of just allowing the characters and situations to unfold and resonate naturally, thus allowing audiences to relate accordingly. For my tastes and sensibilities, movies like Director Robert Redford's "Ordinary People" (1980), Director Noah Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale" (2005), Director Tamara Jenkins' "The Savages" (2007) and this year's "The Skeleton Twins" from Director Craig Johnson are often so few and far between.

Typically, we are given the likes of Director Jodie Foster's "Home For The Holidays" (1995), Director Thomas Bezucha's even more odious "The Family Stone" (2005)"and even Directors Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris' irritating "Little Miss Sunshine" (2006), where the characters are too often defined by their self-consciously quirky eccentricities and not at all by any stitches of their humanity. This trait often makes films of that nature fall apart in a cacophony of screaming fests, kitchen food fights, relentless revelations and discoveries and oceans of tears all signifying absolutely nothing approaching any real family that you have ever known or are even a part of. "This Is Where I Leave You" is a prime example of every single thing that is completely wrong with a dysfunctional family film as it feels to be a movie made by a checklist rather than any perceptive insights into how a family works, lives, breathes and operates, falls apart yet miraculously remains together. And therefore, we have one of the very worst films I have seen in 2014.

The packed to the gills plot of "This Is Where I Leave You" is centered around Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), a radio producer for a shock jock DJ (played by Dax Shepard), who returns home one afternoon to find his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) having sex with said shock jock DJ.  Judd soon moves out of his home and is eventually contacted by his sister Wendy (Tina Fey) who informs him that their Father has just passed away, prompting Judd to return to his small town home for the funeral.

Arriving to his family home, Judd is re-antiquated to the mammoth lunacy of his family as presided over by the Altman matriarch, Hilary Altman (Jane Fonda), a famous (and infamously oversexed and over-sharing) psychotherapist and author who has exploited the intimacies and intricacies of her family for her legendary book. The aforementioned Wendy is left behind at the Altman home, along with her toddler who has a habit of defecating in his potty seat absolutely anywhere in the Altman home, by her workaholic husband, which leaves her to possibly rekindle the flames of her one true love Horry (Timothy Olyphant), who lives across the street from the Altmans and has remained in the town due to a brain injury.

We meet Judd's oldest brother Paul (Corey Stoll), the responsible one, who oversees the family's athletic store business but is dealing with issues of infertility with his wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn), who was also once Judd's girlfriend. The family "black sheep" is Phillip (Adam Driver), a philanderer now involved with Tracey Sullivan (Connie Britton), an older woman who was also once Phillip's therapist.  PHEW!!!!

After the funeral, Hilary informs her children that it was their Father's dying wish that the family remain in the Altman home and sit shiva for the full seven days, despite the fact that Hilary is not Jewish and their Father was an atheist. So forced together for the span of one week, the Altman family not only come to terms with the passing of their beloved Patriarch but also with each other and perhaps, even long simmering emotions can be renewed between Judd and his old high school crush, the ice skating Penny Moore (Rose Byrne).

With that amount of a plot description (and trust me, that is not even everything that comes to light in this film), "This Is Where I Leave You" stuffs so much narrative into itself that it feels like the entirety of "All My Children" crammed into 1 hour and 45 minutes! Now dear readers, to be fair, I have not read the novel from which this film is based, so I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt that perhaps this material works better on the page. Even so, I cannot help but to wonder that despite Tropper fashioning his own adaptive screenplay, this material just cannot work as a feature film at all. Or at least a feature film that was directed by the consistently and disastrously unsubtle hand of Shawn Levy, who has unleashed his specialized brand of Times Square on New Year's Eve level crowded motion picture dreck like his remake of "Cheaper By The Dozen" (2003) and its 2005 sequel, his remake of "The Pink Panther" (2006), the truly horrific "Date Night" (2010) and for the love of Pete, his "Night At The Museum" trilogy (2006/209/2014).  "This Is Where I Leave You" is especially preposterous compared to his past films as this time, he is actually trying to attempt a piece that contains a more serious core and potential sense of truth and familial solidarity but shatteringly, the film is an absolute steaming mess.

The longer I watched "This Is Where I Leave You," I was constantly reminded of other, better films that depicted that serious core and potential sense of truth that I am certain Levy was aiming for but missed by 2000 miles. I'm thinking of films like Director Ron Howard's classic "Parenthood" (1989) or even Director Jeremiah S. Chechik and Writer/Producer John Hughes' "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" (1989), which has now become a holiday staple. Even better are films like Director Jonathan Demme's extraordinary "Rachel Getting Married" (2008) or both of Writer/Director Wes Anderson's features "The Royal Tenenbaums" (2001) and "The Darjeeling Limited" (2007). 

Unlike those films, over, over, and over again, "This Is Where I Leave You" makes the cardinal sin that so many of these dysfunctional family films happen to make: It seems to know absolutely nothing about what families are and how they work and just populates itself with a bunch of actors who not only don't seem to be siblings for even one moment, they all seem to be the same age! Levy, just not knowing what to do with them, feels that if these people just keep shouting louder, talking faster and allow themselves to be shuffled from room to room and in and out of scenes with no rhyme or reason whatsoever, this can approximate the chaotic feeling of a family wrapped together after a lengthy spell apart and all ensconced within some variations of grief to boot. Issues are brought up and dropped or remain tortuously unexplained, which makes for an awful lot of wheel spinning for a film that claims to have as many stories to tell as it introduces. For instance, let's take the neighbor Horry and his brain injury. What actually is his injury and issues in the first place as he is able to speak, to function, and even hold down a steady job at the Altman's sporting goods store? What exactly happened to him to obtain his injury? The film never condescends to answer even those questions to any degree that is comedic, dramatic or remotely satisfying.

Barely any of the film's characters ever feel to exist as real human beings as they are all a collection of "types" who are solely defined by their eccentricities as dictated by the situations the plot shoe-horns them into. Since none of the characters felt to be real, the situations felt even less so which makes "This Is Where I Leave You" a film of plastic people trapped inside plastic circumstances in a plastic story that is screaming for some realism, some honesty, something, anything that any person watching the film could possibly relate to. There is nothing on display that suggests that Levy was remotely concerned with how real people behave and feels as if he just wanted situations that were self-consciously comedic or quirky enough to obtain some sort of laughter. Trust me, he failed because every moment feels to be so false.

I could not believe for even one minute any of the church service sequences and interactions between the Altman family and the young Rabbi Charles Grodner (played by Ben Schwartz), a character who is somehow still saddled by his unfortunate childhood nickname "Boner." It just made for a film that not only knew nothing about how families work and operate but even church services and mostly, how relationships are altered once childhood friends and acquaintances age and how what once was home either changes or remains steadfast. Films like Director Lawrence Kasdan's "The Big Chill" (1983)Director George Armitage's "Grosse Point Blank" (1997) and Writer/Director Cameron Crowe's criminally undervalued "Elizabethtown" (2005) handled the concepts of families, prodigal characters returning to former homesteads and even death and funerals in exceedingly more truthful fashions than any one moment contained in "This Is Where I Leave You."

Even worse, this is a film where arguments and revelations come steamrolling at you in nearly EVERY scene and in a complete cavalcade as if Levy did not believe in his material enough to trust that any inherent comedy or drama would live, breathe and arrive naturally. Nope! He had to sledgehammer every single moment from beginning to end and race it along as if the audience would get bored by something approaching, oh, I don't know...any realism. The overall mechanics, as presented in this film, are only of the most contrived and shallow sitcom variety, all the way down to why the family is actually even spending a week together in the house in the first place, which makes you even question the existence of this film at all.

All of that being said, Jason Bateman is truly a King. Try at he might, it often felt as if he was acting in a completely different movie as he clearly was trying his damnedest to find the real soul within Judd Altman and anchor down the madness that swirled around him, much as he performed masterfully in the brilliant "Arrested Development" television series, which incidentally is much more knowledgeable about the mechanics of families despite the insanity of the situations. And also, I did like Adam Driver quite a bit as he did carry a certain strong screen presence that really did make an impression and nearly transcended the thanklessness and cliched aspects of his character. But again Tina Fey is wasted in yet another film role that is so clearly beneath her tremendous skills and if I could I would have to insist that she never appear in any film in which she did not write herself.

I think I have said all that really needs to be said about "This Is Where I Leave You," a film that is as hackneyed as it is flat out stupid and for all of the crying that occurs throughout the film, not even one single solitary tear was earned.

Shawn Levy's "This Is Where I Leave You" is frankly a movie that should be left in the cinematic refuge pile. You have been warned.

Monday, December 22, 2014

ROCK AND ROLL: a review of "Top Five"

Written and Directed by Chris Rock
***1/2 (three and a half stars) 

If the philosophical musings and meditations of Writer/Director Richard Linklater somehow merged with the blistering confessional comedy of Richard Pryor, I think you would have quite a fine idea of what kind of an experience "Top Five," the third directorial feature from Chris Rock, actually is.

For me, the film represented an artistic breakthrough for the veteran comedian, a figure that I have admittedly taken many, many years to warm up to. That is true, dear readers. There was a time when I could not stand the sight and sound of Chris Rock whatsoever, as his loud, shrill voice just kept me at an arms length, and his tenure on "Saturday Night Live" combined with the terrible movies he was making (quite a few of them with Adam Sandler) certainly did him no favors. But it was through his stand-up comedy specials that I slowly began to see the razor sharp creative mind at work as his cultural commentaries about race, sex, politics and relationships was as ferociously unrepentant as it was so wisely perceptive and pensive.

Lately, it feels as if Chris Rock is on a supreme roll as his press junket interviews, essays and viewpoints concerning race relations in 21st century America have contained an even greater fire and truth than he has displayed quite so explicitly before. Because of that, it feels as if Chris Rock has reached a creative crossroads and with "Top Five," Rock has delivered a sharply satirical, cheerfully vulgar, smartly astute and surprisingly romantic adult comedy that houses a distinctly serious core that speaks directly to life as it is lived right here and right now.

For all intents and purposes, "Top Five" is a film that is fueled not by plot but exists as a dual character study. Chris Rock stars as Andre Allen, a famous stand-up comic and movie superstar of the "Hammy The Bear" series, a trilogy of action comedies in which Allen plays the titular role, a cop dressed inside of a bear suit. Yet, despite his meteoric success, as well as his potential marriage to the vapid reality television star Erica Long (a strong Gabrielle Union), Allen is ensconced in an inner crisis that has left him unwilling to perform stand up again, wary to don the bear suit for a fourth installment of his lucrative franchise and possibly not return to comedy at all. His desires for more serious fare has led to the arrival of the new dramatic feature film about the Haitian revolution entitled "Uprize!," in which he stars.

On the day of the release of "Uprize!," Allen, on his promotional tour throughout New York City, is joined by New York Times journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), who accompanies him to obtain a probing interview. During the course of this long day and night, both Allen and Chelsea are forced to confront their individualized personal and professional forks in the road, as well as their possible building feelings towards each other.

Most certainly, "Top Five" is Chris Rock's version of Writer/Director Woody Allen's acerbic classic "Stardust Memories" (1980), in which Allen portrayed a famous comedian who no longer felt funny and wanted to devote his creative energies into more seriously meaningful material and projects despite the vehement objections of his fan base and the derision of his critics. With "Top Five," Chris Rock has taken what could have easily existed as a vacuous vanity project and transformed it into a film in which he clearly has something to say and prove. He has seamlessly bridged the gap between the boldness of his stand up material and his equally bold political viewpoints into a character and full film experience that is precisely as sharply intelligent and pointedly funny as Rock probably is in his real life, a tactic which makes for compelling viewing from start to finish.

Just take a moment and really think about this following concept. One item the late, and eternally great Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert often mused about when critiquing films was if the characters on screen would be as or more interesting than if we happened to overhear the real actors having lunch in a restaurant. If the characters on screen are not as interesting, then you ultimately would have a very weak film on your hands. With that in mind, plus the plethora of downright horrible films featuring members from the "Saturday Night Live"/"SCTV" community, where the scripts and characters are completely non-existent, and the laughs are even less than that, it was downright genius to see how Rock completely sidestepped this particular film comedy fate which has almost become a standard.

Chris Rock has peppered his film with appearances from his friends and colleagues in the comedy community and allowed absolutely all of them to contribute to the wider canvas of the film as a whole. From Cedric The Entertainer's wild performance as a simultaneously hilarious and horrifying guide on Andre Allen's fateful comedy tour to a sequence set within Allen's ex-girlfriend's neighborhood home, which features no less than Sherri Shepherd, Leslie Jones, Michael Che, and the inimitable Tracey Morgan, those terrific sequences and others are all designed to deepen and broaden the character and life arc of Andre Allen, while also being funny.

Rock wisely allows his cast to just talk, talk and talk even more, revealing not only traits about themselves but the rich history that exists between themselves and Allen, thus making for moments that are painfully bittersweet as emotions of pride and resentment are forever intertwined. Rock explores the difficulties that occurs when one of your own just happens to "make it," as Allen and his companions all questions whether his success was ever truly deserved over anyone else within their circle. Rock accomplishes this feat without any hyperbolic scenes of prefabricated drama. Just through a simmering tension that lurks beneath the joyous ribbing. A particularly strong sequence with the legendary Ben Vereen is especially prickly and even the otherwise comical scenes between Allen and his close friend/"security and assistant" Silk (the effortless natural JB Smoove) contain a bubbling jealousy.

The heart of the film belongs entirely to the trepidacious and often contentious relationship between Allen and Chelsea, the journalist he does not fully trust due to the years of lacerations he has received from her newspaper. Here is where I thought "Top Five" belonged in the same neighborhood as Actor/Co-Writer/Director Steve Buscemi's "The Interview" (2007), his remake of the Dutch original in which he starred alongside Sienna Miller as a political journalist and soap opera star respectively, engaged in a night long battle of wills. Granted, "Top Five" is not nearly as acidic as that film, but Rock does indeed inject a sizable amount of professional, intellectual and sexual tension between his two leading characters by giving each of them sharp banter that augments their respective worldviews and the chemistry between Rock and Rosario Dawson was much more palpable than I thought would be possible.

With regards to the relationship between Andre Allen and Chelsea Brown, again I found myself mentally returning to Richard Linklater's priceless "Before" series (1995/2004/2013) but also to films like Director Stephen Frears' "High Fidelity" (2000), Writer/Director Theodore Witcher's underseen yet celebrated romantic drama "love jones" (1997) and even moreso, Writer/Director Sofia Coppola's "Lost In Translation" (2003). With all of those films, especially Coppola's, Chris Rock has given us two characters who are essentially lost souls who somehow find each other unexpectedly and at a most opportune time. For Allen and Chelsea, they completely exist within the fishbowl maelstrom of celebrity, fame, artistic and professional expectations combined with the commercial demands of both of their respective industries of film and print media, yet they both feel as if they have reached stages of treading water to survive. No matter their successes, both of their professions have nearly eaten them alive due to all of the compromises and concessions each of them have made over the years. This element allows Rock to delve even deeper than he ever needed to do for a film of this sort, thus making for a much richer experience.

First of all, both Allen and Chelsea both posses some shared demons, which delve profoundly and rightfully into issues of race and class as each of them represent a societal rarity: highly successful African-Americans, an existence which sets them apart from their own race as well as their White counterparts. While one plot twist (no spoilers) unearths some racial and gender realities about the longevity and influence of Chelsea's journalism career, I loved how Rock forces us to take a harder look at what it really means to be "lonely at the top."

Andre Allen may be a globally famous movie star but where are the Black executives and studio heads that could possibly support his wishes to branch outwards creatively instead of forever wishing him to exist inside of a bear suit? A quick sequence with Kevin Hart as an Ivy League educated executive who is continuously left out of important studio meetings with his White colleagues is blistering in its truth, for instance. In another sequence, systematic prejudices against Blacks are further exhibited during another sequence where Allen, recording a station identification jingle for a satellite station, is asked by a White DJ/Producer to put "a little more stank" into his delivery. Chris Rock showcases and educates throughout "Top Five" that the air Andre Allen and to an extent, Chelsea Brown, are able to breathe is of a distinctly rarefied quality, making them truly the only people that can honestly understand each other.

But then, there is the matter of addiction. Both Andre Allen and Chelsea Brown are recovering alcoholics, which also ties the two characters together. But on a larger platform Chris Rock's "Top Five" also exists in the same neighborhood as Woody Allen's dark comedy "Celebrity" (1998),  and even to a degree Director David Fincher's "The Social Network" (2010), Writer/Director Spike Jonze's "Her" (2013) and Writer/Director Kevin Smith's "Tusk" from this year, as Rock is indeed holding up a societal mirror to the audience in regards to our addictions to fame, celebrity culture and our continuous obsessions with figures who hold no discernible talent and have actually only contributed massively to our societal and spiritual decay. Wisely, Rock never utilizes a heavy hand as he is just so savvy and sly with the presentation that we may not realize just how stinging his commentary is until we ruminate over the film afterwards.

Chris Rock's "Top Five" is another welcome surprise in a cinematic year that really has been filled with surprises. Ribald, raucous, and richly resonant, Chris Rock has accomplished a motion picture feat that is as enlightened as it is jocular and decidedly raunchy. Even moreso, it was not nearly lost on me that this is the second film this year, after Writer/Director Justin Simien's audacious "Dear White People," that I have seen in which the film is driven by the motivations and actions of contemporary, articulate, verbose, intelligent individuals who happen to be African American. While it is a shame to have to point out this fact, I am more than thankful that both of these films have arrived at all, itself a minor miracle.

For fans of Chris Rock, "Top Five" will certainly fly right up your alley. For late and newcomers like myself, the film is a terrific surprise. For those who just want to see a good movie, you can easily add this one to your list of films to see.

Monday, December 1, 2014


This month, Savage Cinema will reach a very important milestone.

On December 30th, Savage Cinema will reach the age of 5 years old!!! Yes, almost five years ago, while sitting  in the basement of my parent's house during a Christmas visit, this blogsite was hatched and released into the world. The journey I had taken with Savage Cinema has been more than I could have ever hoped for it to be and your support of it and what I have been doing with my time has only continued to lift me and my creative spirit higher than ever.

While my official annual posting thanking you will arrive before the start of the new year, I have to just keep my eye on the prize right now with even more new releases on the horizon. Yes, "Foxcatcher" has yet to be released. But in addition to that film...

1. "The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies," Director Peter Jackson's final installment of his (and he means it this time) Middle Earth saga will open and while I have not been nearly as enthralled with his trilogy as I was with his "Lord Of The Rings" series, I have invested this much time into it already, so of course, I'll be there for the big finish.

2. Anytime Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson makes his return, I am READY!!!! This time, he arrives his druggy crime thriller/comedy hybrid "Inherent Vice" re-teaming him with Joaquin Phoenix. I have a feeling that this film may not open up for a wide release until January 2015 but I am hoping it does indeed find a release this moth.

3. Tim Burton has been operating on a downward side for the last few years so I am hoping that his latest drama "Big Eyes," a departure from fantasy worlds provides him with a creative upswing.

4, After the brilliantly fearless comedic bombshell of "This Is The End" last year, I am more than ready for the already controversial "The Interview" from the Writing/Directing team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.

5. Finally, there are the prestige pictures like "Selma,""Wild" and "Unbroken" on the horizon as well, and also, some of those may not see a full nationwide release until January, so stay tuned...

And as always, I'll see you when the house lights go down!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A BEAUTIFUL MIND: a review of "The Theory Of Everything"

Based upon the memoir Traveling To Infinity: My Life With Stephen by Jane Wilde Hawking
Screenplay Written by Anthony McCarten
Directed by James Marsh
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

In my recent review of "St, Vincent," which I felt was good but not great yet did contain one of the finest performances of Bill Murray's career, I remarked that sometimes all a film needs to do is to just tell its story as well as it is able, regardless of whether it pushes the boundaries of the movies any further or not. Yes, this year, my favorite films have essentially all included the very types of movies that have bravely pushed those boundaries, challenged me, upended me or made me think about what movies are able to achieve in new ways. But even so, there is indeed something to be said for the film that is more straightforward and relatively inoffensive but remains a first class production of high quality.

Director James Marsh's "The Theory Of Everything," a biographical romantic drama centered around the life of theoretical physicist/author Stephen Hawking is precisely that kind of a movie, an experience that will certainly not make you re-think the power of the cinema but one that is indeed fully and instantly absorbing, deeply emotional yet provocative in its concepts and themes and one that features two unquestionably outstanding leading performances, which equally demand awards season attention.

Beginning at the illustrious Cambridge University circa 1963, "The Theory Of Everything" opens the miraculous odyssey of Stephen Hawking (an astonishing Eddie Redmayne) at the age of 21, when he was rapidly on his way to revolutionizing our collective knowledge of the universe through the merging of the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. At this same time, Hawking met and fell in love with Spanish/French student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), a union that blossomed into a blissful romance.

All of life's elements seemed to be locked into its perfect place until Stephen Hawking's fateful diagnosis of a debilitating motor neuron disease related to Lou Gehrig's disease, an illness which initially gave him a prognosis of a mere two more years to live.

Battling the disease as well as his depression, Hawking, with Jane firmly at his side, continued to defy every single obstacle as his endlessly inquisitive mind produced new landmark scientific theories renowned the world over. But, even so, the struggle to maintain their love and marriage seemingly would prove to be even more difficult than discovering the possible beginning of time itself and the meaning of the universe.

"The Theory Of Every" is an exquisite production, lusciously filmed and lovingly executed with honest, probing and perceptive drama, as well as with a sweeping and rightfully painful romance housed at its core. In many ways, I felt this film to be precisely the kind of traditional yet first class motion picture that is bound to be recognized during awards season especially Oscar time. Much like Director Tom Hooper's Best Picture Oscar winner "The King's Speech" (2010), "The Theory Of Everything" contains such elegance to its aesthetics. The visual sheen by Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme is delicately superb, Anthony McCarten's screenplay is fiercely intelligent and all of the actors, who are excellent from top to bottom, are given much room to instill gravitas and spread their creative wings.

This feat is accomplished heroically by Eddie Redmayne who delivers a spectacular and enormously transformative performance as Stephen Hawking. Undoubtedly destined for Oscar recognition, I certainly wish to alert to you that I never felt for a moment that Redmayne's performance was self-congratulatory, histrionic or painfully melodramatic. Certainly, it is a performance of immense physicality as Redmayne, over the course of the film, begins to resemble the real world Stephen Hawking more and more (so much so that you may be performing double takes to ensure that you are witnessing the actor and not stock footage). It is so wondrous to see just how Redmayne has seemingly folded his entire body inwards to portray Hawking, an accomplishment which is more than fitting as his entire performance feels inhabited from the inside out. Redmayne's Stephen Hawking dials past the iconic status and never once do we see the "hero." Redmayne gives us a figure that is so recognizably human and knowable. Especially when his body begins to fail him.

The early sequences of "The Theory Of Everything" really struck a chord with me as Eddie Redmayne captured a certain and frightening fragility within the failures of the flesh. I think it would be hard pressed for anyone viewing this film to not place themselves into Hawking's shoes when the motions and movements our body undertakes, the very ones that we all indeed take for granted, are just not available to us anymore. In addition to just being housed inside of those thoughts in regards to our mortality, those feelings surfaced for me when I thought of what I go through whenever illnesses inevitably arrive, especially my bouts with minor vertigo, an ailment I have been struggling with for thirteen years. Dear readers, I must admit to you that I am not the best patient, as I am extremely impatient and overly anxious to return to the business of my life, from home and work responsibilities to writing on this blogsite. There is more than enough for me to do in a day, just as it is for all of you. Yet, I am not one to just take it in stride when I am forced into times of convalescence. And at times, it is very unnerving as I can never know exactly when I will be all of myself again. So, imagining a point when I would never be my complete self just terrified me as I truly have no idea of what I would do with myself if I could not be who I feel that I need to be.

Harboring those very thoughts and emotions as I watched this film made me wonder tremendously just how did the real Stephen Hawking force himself to continue onwards. Within the film, Redmayne presents no such easy answers within his performance as we see him exist through some extremely dark days and nights, signifying for himself, and for all of us, the painful but harsh reality that whether through science or metaphysics or both, we are not in as much control as we may think we are or wish to be. Nonetheless, "The Theory Of Everything" illustrates that Stephen Hawking carried onwards anyway for what else would he, or would we do in the same situation? Eddie Redmayne simply nails Stephen Hawking's relentless drive to keep probing for answers to the cosmos and existence itself while also depicting his frailties, his darkest fears, his human failings and most surprisingly, his sharply sardonic wit.

As brilliant as Eddie Redmayne is, he does not walk away with the entire movie. Felicity Jones is 100% Redmayne's equal and furthermore, she accomplishes this feat in what is arguably the more difficult role. Jones, as aided by the screenplay and James Marsh's expert direction gives us a performance, while less showy, that refuses to allow Jane Hawking to be swept into the background or reduce her to existing as the long suffering but endlessly supportive wife to the brilliant but ailing genius. Jones completely brings Jane Hawking to vivid three dimensional life because we are given a portrait of a woman who houses her own desires and educational pursuits as well as her own world and existential worldview that is just as rich and as intensely passionate as her husband's. For instance, where Stephen Hawking is an atheist who for a spell utilizes his scientific work to basically prove the non-existence of God, Jane challenges him fiercely time and again.

But it is through the love story where we truly see Stephen and Jane Hawking as flesh and blood human beings the most as their domestic hopes and struggles are again so instantly recognizable and therefore relatable. In fact, while watching "The Theory Of Everything," I was reminded of the love story contained within Director Steve James' "Life Itself," the wonderful documentary based upon the life of the late Roger Ebert as we were given front row access to the relationship between Ebert and his wife Chaz Ebert, most notably, during his own deteriorating health combined with his own unstoppable creativity and ultimately, his passing.

Here is where I felt "The Theory Of Everything" functioned at its most bittersweet and perceptive as Marsh presents us with this iconic figure who could figure out the mysteries of the universe, time and space but was still undone by the even more mysterious universes contained within the human heart. Felicity Jones shines especially in her role as we are given an explicit journey into the heart of the caretaker, a role that is often thankless and even moreso when the ailing partner in the relationship is globally famous and revered. Jones shows us through Jane Hawking how love and devotion can slowly transform into obligation, frustration, anger, resentment, loneliness, hopelessness and wanderlust (as represented by her return to the church to sing in the choir and her attraction towards church musician Jonathan Jones as played by Charlie Cox). which then continues to transform into guilt, remorse and regret and then, back to love and devotion all over again.

In some respects, this aspect of "The Theory Of Everything" also places this film somewhere in the same neighborhood as Director Terence Malick's controversial and majestic "The Tree Of Life" (2011), which also juxtaposed the birth, life, decay, death and rebirth of a family alongside the similar circle of existence as played throughout time, the cosmos and all living things down to the smallest molecule. But unlike the esoteric nature of that film, "The Theory Of Everything" is as accessible as it is artfully stately.

If I did have any flaws with the film, I wished for some key information regarding Stephen Hawking's health that the film not once touched upon. If you remember, when Hawking was first diagnosed, he was given a life expectancy of only two years. Now, Stephen Hawking has survived and thrived up to the age of 72! And yet, nowhere in the film were we given any medical and/or scientific information as to what procedures Hawking underwent to ensure his survival. I felt that just adding that crucial bit of information would have given this film a greater push over the top for me. But as it stands, and as strong as this film is, it still felt like a big black hole.

That being said, James Marsh's "The Theory of Everything" is a stylish, refined, sophisticated film front-loaded with two of the finest performances I have seen this year at the movies.  No, it didn't re-invent the wheel and nor did it have to. For when a motion picture is this exceedingly well crafted, what else could I really ask for?

Friday, November 28, 2014

THE REVOLUTION WILL BE (PARTIALLY) TELEVISED: a review of "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1"

Based upon the novel The Hunger Games: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
Screenplay Written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong
Directed by Francis Lawrence
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

Ah...what hath Harry Potter wrought upon us all...

I am remembering when I first read J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The accompanying film series was already long underway and had, by that point, proven themselves to not only be faithful adaptations of Rowling's literary vision, they were gradually building themselves into being excellent films within their own right. Yet, as I read what was the final installment and imagining the film version to come, I was truly confused as to how the filmmakers would even have been able to stuff everything into one single film, even if that film happened to be a three and a half hour epic a la Director Peter Jackson's majestic "The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King" (2003).

Every moment in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows felt to be so important, so crucial and so integral to the over arching narrative that I was dumbfounded as to what could have been edited out of the story to make everything work as a feature film. And then came the announcement that the book would be cleaved into two films, a decision I felt was brilliant on an artistic level as well as a commercial level. For the fans and the story itself, the narrative would not be compromised and for the suits, those "Harry Potter" dollars would roll in for one more film. It was win-win for everyone.

Or was it?

After that unquestionable success, movie studios have been going more than a little haywire with the multiple, serialized film series format. Somehow, a trilogy just doesn't seem to be enough anymore as we are now receiving film adaptations of books and book series that are extended needlessly and to the point of exhaustion.

Just take a look at the "Twilight" film series (or better yet, don't), especially Director Bill Condon's interminable two part finale "Breaking Dawn" (2011/2012), whose lack of actual narrative explicitly showed the last film should have only been one film as well as the overall mercenary aspect of the project as a whole. Even moreso, is Peter Jackson himself whose devotion to all things Middle Earth has given us "The Hobbit" (2012/2013/2014) as a most unnecessary trilogy that sidelines its titular character and is, potentially, a full nine hours culled from one book (plus supplemental J.R.R. Tolkien material and Jackson inventions). And just this week, I read that the upcoming theatrical adaptation of Stephen King's The Stand will become...four feature length films. To that, I say the password is "overkill."

Now, we arrive at Director Francs Lawrence's "The Hunger Games:Mockingjay-Part 1," the beginning of the end as it is itself another adaptation of one novel being split into two films, the second installment to arrive this time next year. If you have been following my exploits on Savage Cinema, you would know that I have been an extremely enthusiastic fan of this film series as both of the previous installments delivered an elegant, compelling and brutal future vision of a world where the many are subjugated by the powerful few and children are forced to fight to the death on live television in the Hunger Games to further the political subjugation, that is until the arrival of teenage Katniss Everdeen as a defiant Hunger Games contestant who inspires rebellion and revolution.

Certainly, nothing would keep me away from this third chapter, especially as I have not read the book as I am not fond of author Suzanne Collins' writing style. But, I have to admit to a sense of fatigue with this trend of the extended concluding episodes and therefore, I have to say that "Mockingjay-Part 1" does suffer a steep decline in quality due to this elongated finale. No, it is not a bad film and also, it never loses its sense of purpose and intent. What it does lose is a sense of urgency and momentum because just as this series should be building up towards a towering, and inevitably cataclysmic conclusion, it remains stuck in neutral for far too long.

"Mockingjay-Part 1" begins not long after the events of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" (2013) when Katniss Everdeen (again portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence)  destroyed the Hunger Games Quarter Quell arena and was rescued by the rebel leaders of District 13, a subterranean facility located deep below the ruins of the original District 13.

While underground, Katniss is not only reunited with fellow Hunger Games victors Beetee (Jeffery Wright), Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and the alcoholic but now detoxed Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and her former chaperone and PR rep Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) but also with her family and her closest confidant Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). She is addressed and recruited by rebellion leader President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and former Hunger Games
mastermind yet in truth an undercover rebellion leader Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) into serving as the "Mockingjay," the symbol of the political uprising now underway, a movement that has led to the full evisceration of Katniss' home of District 12.

Capitol President Snow (a silvery and demonic Donald Sutherland), in his pursuit of ultimate societal control, becomes more openly fascist with public executions of any and all who defy his leadership. To further his personal battle of wills with Katniss, he has also seemingly co-opted Katniss' Hunger Games partner and possible love interest Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) in the process.

"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1," as with the two previous installments, continues its grim path with strong cinematic style, a further broadening and deepening of the story's canvas while cementing Katniss Everdeen as a teenage heroine to cheer and root for and follow straight into the mouth of Hell itself. Jennifer Lawrence again confirms that she was the absolute perfect choice to bring this character to three dimensional life as her steadfast empathy, churning inner turmoil and undeniable passion simmers powerfully from the screen, making it impossible to tear your eyes away from her.

While this installment offers no Hunger Games events as well as considerably less action as the previous two films, Jennifer Lawrence through Katniss is forced to rely less upon her physicality and more upon her mental athletics as she presents Katniss as a young woman struggling to maintain any sense of individuality as she quickly realizes that she is as much of a political pawn for the rebellion as she was for the totalitarian government. Francis Lawrence wisely utilizes "Mockingjay-Part 1" to serve as a treatise on the properties of propaganda as the rebellion creates and utilizes a collection of short guerrilla films (referred to as "propos") to further manipulate the masses into revolution.

I really loved the sequence where Katniss stood in front of a make believe background of war torn destruction while unconvincingly shouting scripted declarations of union and uprising as directed by Plutarch in a control booth. This is juxtaposed with a sequence in the Capitol as President Snow decides upon what would the proper vocabulary be in order to keep the masses in line. On both fronts, the rebellion and the government attempt to one up each other until Katniss is convinced to go directly into the decimated District battlefields, complete with a camera crew, acting almost as a front line war correspondent ready to relay messages through pirated frequencies.

With this, I felt that Francis Lawrence has again used the source material and has extended from any genre trappings by urging those of us in our theater seats to make the connections between this very fictional world and the real world we will inevitably return to once the end credits cease to scroll. For me, I could not help but to find my mind turn towards the tragic events in Ferguson, MO as well as how the events have been played out and represented within the media on all sides of the political aisle. Just listen to what words are said and how language and imagery are used for the police and the protesters as well as the deceased Michael Brown himself, and how each side has been characterized to produce an emotional response and strict opinions within viewers. The desire to manipulate is constant, ever shape shifting but with a clear end-game in mind and Lawrence is cleverly in tune with how propaganda is created and disseminated and how we all play into being players as well as being played.

As I remarked earlier, the issues I had with "Mockingjay-Part 1" really had nothing to do with the overall purpose of the film in regards to its themes and concepts, but with the purpose of its execution. Essentially what we have is only half of a film. Yes, with that "Part 1" in the title, I know that we will have a story that is unfinished but that doesn't mean that we need to have a film that feels so unfortunately incomplete and therefore padded as we are just marking time before the next film. Yes, I do realize that the events of this film are serving as a prelude for the next film but why make two films when there could have been just one tight, taut, and accelerating three hour plus film to serve as a grand finale? As it stands, "Mockingjay-Part 1" is a film that spins its wheels for far too long, slowing down when it should be revving up.

I will admit that the longer "Mockingjay-Part 1" runs, the better it gets. With a nighttime raid that felt like parts of Director Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012), the cavernous underground escapes from the pulverizing bombings above, and a thrilling final few scenes, we get the film that we have needed "Mockingjay-Part 1" to be. However, the first hour or so of the film just drags and drags. While I am not able to think of actual full sequences that needed to be edited out, I do feel that the film could have easily been edited down a bit or at least a tad streamlined and still make the same points. Because watching a collective of characters wring their hands and furrow their brows in an underground world plotting and planning or having several other sequences where characters are staring sadly at above ground worlds of devastation can only be so visually and viscerally interesting for so long. Before you know it, you realize that we are all just being spoon fed a plot not to create suspense or dramatic tension but solely to justify the two hour plus running time and the subsequent two hours to come.

Which is a shame because I feel that even within a film series, it is up to the filmmakers to ensure that audiences are receiving as complete of a film as possible. I look back to something like George Lucas and Director Irvin Kirshner's "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), a film that begins and ends in mid-action and yet feels like a full, complete statement. For more recent examples, take The Wachowski's "Matrix Trilogy" (1999/2003) and even Director Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Trilogy" (2005/2008/2012) where they also accomplished the same feats of crafting an escalating drama where each section was fulfilling individually. And of course, returning to the "Harry Potter" series, we saw how each book and film contained a central story with its own concepts, themes and mystery all of which then served the on-going and larger story.

With "Mockingjay-Part 1," once it says what it needs to say, all we can then do is just wait and wait, a tactic that does indeed make me a bit nervous for "Part 2" which will undoubtedly be a film of all out war but potentially may have its power undercut. Yes, this first half will inform the second half, but for now, it just feels like a "half," one that left me unsatisfied and underwhelmed as it really didn't have that much story to tell. "Mockingjay-Part 1" is exceedingly well acted by the entire cast, beautifully visualized and does possess a creeping sense of all encompassing doom but once it was over, I indeed stifled a yawn.

Because for a movie that is boldly going to wade through the themes of totalitarianism and propaganda, how pathetic it is to be defeated by the mechanics of commercialism and commerce.  

Sunday, November 23, 2014

GIVE THE DRUMMER SOME!!!: a review of "Whiplash"

Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
**** (four stars)

"Whiplash," the breakout feature film from Writer/Director Damien Cazelle is hands down the most electrifying film I have seen in 2014. This story of a 19 year old jazz drummer engaged in a ferocious battle of wills with his tyrannical instructor is exhilarating as it is exhausting, profound as it is pummeling, towering as it is tumultuous and even terrifying. Chazelle is, from the very first shot, a born filmmaker who somehow possesses a Scorsese-ian heft and fury to his storytelling that is blistering to behold. In a year and time period when CGI extravaganzas and costume heroes rule the day in our local theaters and cineplexes, it is truly a miracle to see a film about everyday human beings that carries such a tremendous amount of natural excitement. Trust me, dear readers, "Whiplash" is a knock out experience of agony, discipline and euphoria that showcases the power of the movies at its excellence. This one is NOT to be missed!

"Whiplash" stars Miles Teller from last year's wonderful teen drama "The Spectacular Now" in a sensational and feverishly intense performance as Andrew Neiman, the aforementioned 19 year old jazz drummer who attends the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory Of Music, who catches the eyes and ears of Terence Fletcher (a titanic J.K. Simmons), the school's infamous Studio Band conductor who is not only on the lookout for a new drum alternate, but a true musical phenom.

While Andrew eventually impresses Fletcher enough with his percussive skills and proficiency during a band rehearsal session, he quickly realizes that Fletcher's teaching style, which is based in severe emotional manipulation and all manner of abuses and injustices, is not only the order of the day for the band but also the exact technique utilized to inspire young musicians to become greater than they ever conceived themselves to become.

Essentially, that is the plot of "Whiplash," a film which serves as a two character study that richly explores the themes of success and failure, as well as the aspirations and endless hunt for personal and artistic greatness even when that very greatness arrives at the expense of maintaining and retaining one's sense of humanity. The performances by both Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons are two of the very finest of the year and they each deserve every stitch of acclaim that falls at their feet, Your teeth will be gnashing together as you witness their struggles with each other as well as within themselves.

The characters of Andrew Neiman and Terence Fletcher are essentially cut from the very same cloth. For Andrew, he exists as a lonely, introverted and friendless young man whose only relationships of value are with his Father (beautifully played by Paul Reiser), a high school teacher and failed author, as well as with his drums, most notably contained within his obsession with the iconic percussive talents of Buddy Rich, the brass ring that Andrew hopes to reach. By the time he is under the feral tutelage of Terence Fletcher, and the abusive mind games continue to mount, Andrew is repeatedly forced to question not only why he would continue to endure such a despairing, straining existence within the band but are the punishing lessons indeed as useful as Fletcher clearly intends for them to be.

Miles Teller, who actually is a drummer, performs his role with such endurance and athleticism but he nails the psychological drama contained within the obsession and most importantly, the fear of failure and overall insignificance that fuels him. Andrew is a spirit that feels that achieving the level of notoriety where he has essentially created a certain immortality for himself  based upon his musical talent is worth living a life of loneliness and succumbing to a series of potentially compulsive behaviors, anxieties, and depression. This decision also makes scenes between himself and Nicole, a possible girlfriend (nicely played by Melissa Benoist) as well as those with his Father so heartbreaking as the trade Andrew is making between musical excellence and emotional stability is anguishing to watch as he is willingly placing himself in such harm's way every single minute he continues to remain with Terence Fletcher.

Just take the early sequence in the film which I will call the "Rushing or Dragging" sequence, where Fletcher continuously questions and then berates Andrew in regards to whether he is rushing or dragging the beat of the dizzying complex jazz composition "Whiplash." The sheer intensity between these two men during this section just emanates heat from the screen as Fletcher begins somewhat patiently yet uncompromisingly and then the scenes unexpectedly explodes into violence, with thrown chairs, a barrage of insults and public humiliations and finally, repeated slaps to the face.

And from that sequence, it only gets worse as Andrew, continuing to try and attain Fletcher's approval, suffers through more rehearsal sections that play and conclude like crime scenes. Fletcher weaves an environment where he pits these young musicians against each other in the classroom as well as during jazz competition performances, where there is no mercy for visible sheet music when it must be memorized, let alone the possession of out of tune instruments and God forbid, forgotten drum sticks. Hell's flames are pitifully weak when compared with Terence Fletcher's unrepentant rage.

Damien Chazelle also utilizes "Whplash" to explore the cycle of abuse as depicted within the classroom settings. We see how Fletcher's venom when inflicted upon his students carries over from student to student with a competitive outrage and also a certain self-infliction. A sequence where Andrew, running late for a competition performance and fearing he will lose his cherished drum part is equally combustible and draining in its unstoppable force. Chazelle structures this section as tightly as the best action thriller you could hope to see as it contains not only the requisite shocks but a white knuckle power that will have you grabbing and even pounding your theater seats. But Chazelle never exploits his material for cheap effect. He wisely and strongly allows the only exploitation to occur on screen as Fletcher is obviously a figure who is exploiting the talents of these young musicians in pursuit of his own elusive success and musical immortality, desires that are housed inside his own fears of failure.

J.K. Simmons is a revelation in his performance as Terence Fletcher as he has discovered the Machiavellian layers within the character as he is simultaneously seductive and encouraging as well as nightmarishly formidable and maddeningly unforgiving. Where perhaps other actors would just portray this figure as a monster and be done with it, Simmons draws you in closer and closer and just as rapidly blows you out of your seat. You will definitely attain a certain mental whiplash yourselves just trying to keep up with him.

Yes, Fletcher is a monster, precisely the type of teacher you would never wish for your child to have. But then again...

While Chazelle is rightfully critical of this character's tactics, with his rancorous temper, nearly inhuman demands and impossible psychological tests, he also delivers a challenging and provocative argument that suggests that perhaps Terence Fletcher's relentless teaching style just may be able to produce the next Charlie Parker by weeding out those who just cannot take his level of pressure and commitment. Throughout the film, both Andrew and Fletcher are equally inspired by the story of how Charlie Parker attained greatness after having a cymbal thrown at his head by drummer Jo Jones for a sub par performance (in truth, the cymbal was thrown at Parker's feet, a gaffe I think is intentional as Fletcher would obviously know the real story but augments it to further his manipulation of Andrew). Supposedly, as Fletcher explains, this was the fork in the road where Parker could have slunk away and given up forever or he could practice even more, which he did, and then returned one year later and emerged as Bird!!

This musical anecdote completely informs the characters of both Andrew Neiman and Terence Fletcher as it carries a weight that exists on the level of  Herman Melville's Moby Dick, as everlasting greatness and fame serves as the "white whale" for both men--possibly even moreso for Fletcher, who, the film implies just might be a failed jazz musician himself, for why else would he be teaching if he had not achieved the level of greatness he so doggedly pursues? Themes of exploitation resurface as we realize that he is just using the younger musicians to help him attain the success that he was unable to achieve on his own, all the while using fear and violence as the catalysts.

In the film's final concert sequence, "Whiplash" grows into a battle of power and control as Andrew and Fletcher go mano-a-mano in a virtuoso performance of the jazz selection "Caravan." Chazelle builds the sequence to an extraordinary yet seismically ambiguous conclusion for we are left with questions of what has been either gained or lost and as both men serve as each other's antagonist, we also wonder just who is using whom.

How far would you go to achieve greatness? What are you willing to do? What lines would you continue to cross including the very ones that define your individual sense of self-respect and dignity? And even if you do compromise everything about yourself for greatness, would that even produce genus anyway? These questions and themes lie at the very heart and soul of Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash" a film of passion, sweat, grit, and heaping amounts of boiling blood, fire and brimstone. Believe me, dear readers, there has not been even one CGI explosion this year that carries as much palpable force as what is witnessed and experienced within this film, one that will undeniably leave you shaken and reeling from its magnitude.

When it comes time for me to officially compile my top ten favorite films of 2014, I will certainly be struggling with what to place at the number 1 spot for this is the year that gave us all Writer/Director Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," a film I consider to be his masterpiece, his greatest cinematic achievement.

Even so, the brutal beauty of "Whiplash" cannot be denied and refuses to be ignored. This film will hit you like a fist in the face, and trust me, you'll be eagerly waiting to take the punches again.