Friday, February 28, 2014


November 21, 1944-February 24, 2014

All of comedy is crying right now.

Dear readers, just when I felt that I had possibly come to terms with the tragic loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman, unquestionably one of the finest actors of his generation, I clicked onto the internet yesterday afternoon and was just struck dumb by the awful, awful news that Writer/Producer/Director/Actor Harold Ramis had passed away in his hometown of Chicago after a lengthy battle with autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis. He was 69 years old. My reaction to the news was completely involuntary as tears immediately leapt from my eyes and my heart shattered into the tiniest of pieces. While I obviously I know fully well that no one lives forever, the feeling of loss never dulls, even for those one has never had the opportunity to meet in person but whose influence has been life altering. 

Harold Ramis was undeniably one of the greatest influences upon my life but in a slightly less obvious way, especially as compared to fellow Chicagoans and personal heroes Film Critic/Writer Roger Ebert, who passed away just last year and most certainly Writer/Producer/Director John Hughes, who passed away almost five years ago. Ramis carried a considerably quieter, or perhaps less evidently visible presence artistically, but it spoke with a volume that supremely announced itself to my very soul, guided and inspired me and entertained me in ways that very few have ever been able to achieve in quite the same way. 

Harold Ramis was not just a giant in the field of comedy, he was truly a Master Teacher. From his comedic beginnings with Chicago's Second City comedy troupe, The National Lampoon Radio Hour, television's "SCTV" and a jaw dropping amount of iconic comedy films, Harold Ramis taught me so invaluably about the mysterious and often elusive world of what was funny, how things can be funny and most especially, why. Throughout his lengthy and illustrious career, he entrusted his deeply personal and idiosyncratic comedic philosophies with a collection of cheerfully anarchistic and highly articulate stories, characters, attitudes and films that I have cherished so tremendously throughout my life and so crucially during my earliest stages of discovering myself, my personal tastes and a certain skewed way of looking at the world around me as I tried to determine my exact place within the world. I cannot even begin to imagine what my life would be at this point in time if I had never seen the following collection of films: 

"National Lampoon's Animal House" (1978) Co-Writer
"Meatballs" (1979) Co-Writer
"Caddyshack" (1980) Co-Writer/Director
"Stripes" (1981) Co-Writer/Actor
"National Lampoon's Vacation" (1983) Director
"Ghostbusters" (1984) Co-Writer/Actor
"Back To School" (1986) Co-Writer/Executive Producer
"Groundhog Day" (1993) Co-Writer/Producer/Director

I believe that any writer or filmmaker would have killed to have been a part of any one of those films. It is just staggering to fully realize that Harold Ramis, miraculously and through his intellect and vast comedic spirit, had a guiding hand in all of these game changing films, whose immense shadows still loom largely over nearly every film comedy created since. 

As Harold Ramis' comedic peers and contemporaries gained tremendous notoriety and visibility through their gifts and larger than life personalities, Ramis' contributions, while less overtly visible, cannot be denied in any conceivable fashion. As a writer, Harold Ramis was a simultaneously savage yet gentle satirist with a populist spirit that fueled his works. Believing that broad comedies did not have to be dumbed down or that works that possessed a mass appeal did not have to be squarely focused upon the lowest common denominator sensibilities of general public, Ramis operated from an adage he had learned  during his time at Second City to "Always work at the top of your intelligence." Carrying that philosophy, Harold Ramis injected a deeply subversive subtext to his films that championed the outcasts and the underdogs, questioned and challenged authority and often upended a variety of WASP based institutions--from fraternities, blue blood private golf course clubs, and the Army. Even "National Lampoon's Vacation," which was based upon an original story and screenplay by John Hughes, pummeled and skewered the so-called wonderful world of Disney

But his films weren't sadistic flamethrowers. They were highly congenial and even optimistic "Snobs Vs. Slobs" comedies in which Ramis exposed and joyfully laid waste to the abject cruelties, racism, and uneven natures of our entrenched social/political/economic systems through his sly, wry and at times, outlandish situations and observances and collective of shaggy dog characters. With  "National Lampoon's Animal House," "Caddyshack" and "Stripes," the meek do indeed inherit the Earth and by "Ghostbusters," they would save it entirely. 

Harold Ramis' level of subversion even changed the face of comedy altogether, from structure, presentation and the overall intended effects. National Lampoon, the "Not Ready For Prime Time Players" from the original days of "Saturday Night Live," the even more arcane "SCTV" and "Monty Python's Flying Circus" all represented a sea change in the world of comedy as it was humor from the fringes, the underground and the backstreets and (again) subversively delivered by a collection of highly educated individuals (Ramis himself once studied Pre-Med and eventually received a degree in English). It was a brazenly bold new era, when comedic risks were crucial and a time when the counterculture crashed into the mainstream without asking or apology and with the grandest smile upon its face. 

Just take one of the opening scenes from "National Lampoon's Animal House," when two new Freshmen, already rejected by the WASP fraternity, which is populated by what once character described as "Hitler youth," arrive at the dilapidated Delta Tau Chi fraternity, which is completely engulfed in a loudly audible Bacchanalia. A mannequin is launched through an upstairs window and lands upon the pavement, an act that allows The Kingsman's classic "Louie Louie" to be blared into the night skies like an air raid siren. And then, we meet John "Bluto Blutarsky (John Belushi), completely intoxicated, brandishing yet another glass of beer and wryly urinating directly upon two new hopeful Freshmen. "Excuse me sir, is this the Delta House," one of the Freshmen asks timidly. "Sure! Come on in!" says Bluto and with that, the rules of comedy had been completely broken, and fully re-written yet it invited everyone inside to experience this new brashness. The line between the old and new had been irrevocably drawn but Harold Ramis was not simply just present. He was the one holding the chalk. 

I have long expressed to you how the writing of John Hughes, Cameron Crowe, and Roger Ebert for example, influenced me tremendously through sensibilities, humor, and especially as a writer, but I need to express to you at this time that Harold Ramis' writing was equally seismic. I first saw "National Lampoon's Animal House" at the age of 9, after badgering my parents endlessly to see my first R rated film as other school friends already had experienced. All I really cared about was seeing John Belushi on the silver screen as he was already a hero to me through "Saturday Night Live." When I did finally see the film, I completely loved it even though 95% of the jokes sailed past my consciousness, only to full reveal themselves once I reached Middle School. What I loved about that film so much that very first time was its relentless energy, sense of anarchy, that playful finger in the eye of authority and entirely the collection of ramshackle characters that, despite their vulgarity, were actually the most upstanding and even kind hearted souls in the entire film. These so-called rejects were not losers but in actuality, the heroes and that image and message was not lost upon me from the very beginning thanks to what Harold Ramis achieved. As Ramis himself once explained, "My characters aren't losers. They're rebels. They win by their refusal to play by everyone else's rules."

Harold Ramis possessed a wicked wit and sometimes nasty sense of humor that remarkably remained good natured and never crossed over any lines into being mean spirited or cruel. And i also have to express how It is incredible to me to really think a bit how endlessly quotable Ramis' writing and screenplays have been, and continue to be as they have permeated the lexicon of our culture so completely, that I would not be surprised to discover people possibly quoting his dialogue and not even quite realizing from where, what and whom it originated from...and if that doesn't demonstrate the sheer volume and depth of Harold Ramis' gifts as a subversive satirist, then I do not know what else could! 

I love how Harold Ramis populated his writing with the type of dialogue where speeches can somehow grow from the absolutely ridiculous to the absolutely profound and purposeful. Take Bluto's historically inaccurate yet fully resonating rallying cry from "National Lampoon's Animal House," which begins with Bluto's vehement statements and rhetorical questions to his fellow Deltas, "What? Over? Did you say "over"? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!" And then, the speech builds, concludes and convinces as follows:

"Bluto: What the fuck happened to the Delta I used to know? Where's the spirit? Where's the guts, huh?! This could be the greatest night of our lives, but you're gonna let it be the worst! "Ooh, we're afraid to go with you Bluto, we might get in trouble." Well, JUST KISS MY ASS FROM NOW ON!!! Not me! I'm not gonna take this! Wormer, he's a dead man! Marmalard, DEAD! Niedermeyer—
Otter: Dead! Bluto's right. Psychotic, but absolutely right. [Otter stands up.] We gotta take these bastards. Now, we could fight 'em with conventional weapons. That could take years and cost millions of lives. Oh no. No, in this case, I think we have to go all out. I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part.
Bluto: And we're just the guys to do it."

Or how about Camp Counselor Tripper Harrison's (Bill Murray) grand slam and philosophically nihilistic motivational speech (!) to his young charges in "Meatballs," a speech that made me just rise to my feet:

"Tripper: That's just the attitude we don't need. Sure, Mohawk has beaten us twelve years in a row. Sure, they're terrific athletes. They've got the best equipment that money can buy. Hell, every team they're sending over here has their own personal masseuse, not masseur, masseuse. But it doesn't matter. Do you know that every Mohawk competitor has an electrocardiogram, blood and urine tests every 48 hours to see if there's any change in his physical condition? Do you know that they use the most sophisticated training methods from the Soviet Union, East and West Germany, and the newest Olympic power Trinidad-Tobago? But it doesn't matter. It just doesn't matter. IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER. I tell you, IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER! IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER! IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER!
Tripper: And even, and even if we win, if we win, HAH! Even if we win! Even if we play so far over our heads that our noses bleed for a week to ten days. Even if God in Heaven above comes down and points his hand at our side of the field. Even if every man, woman and child held hands together and prayed for us to win, it just wouldn't matter, because all the really good looking girls would still go out with the guys from Mohawk 'cause they've got all the money! It just doesn't matter if we win or we lose. IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER!

Or even John Winger's (again Bill Murray), motivational speech as his rag-tag Bravo Company compatriots are falling apart in "Stripes":

"John Winger: We're all very different people. We're not Watusi. We're not Spartans. We're Americans, with a capital 'A', huh? You know what that means? Do ya? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse. We're the underdog. We're mutts! Here's proof: his nose is cold! But there's no animal that's more faithful, that's more loyal, more loveable than the mutt. Who saw Old Yeller? Who cried when Old Yeller got shot at the end? [raises his hand] Nobody cried when Old Yeller got shot? I'm sure. [hands are reluctantly raised] I cried my eyes out. [even more hands go up] So we're all dogfaces. We're all very, very different, but there is one thing that we all have in common: we were all stupid enough to enlist in the Army. We're mutants. There's something wrong with us, something very, very wrong with us. Something seriously wrong with us! We're soldiers, but we're American soldiers! We've been kickin' ass for 200 years! We're 10 and 1! Now we don't have to worry about whether or not we practiced. We don't have to worry about whether Captain Stillman wants to have us hung. All we have to do is to be the great American fighting soldier that is inside each one of us. Now do what I do, and say what I say. And make me proud. Fall in!"

And yes, how about Dr. Peter Venkman's (again, Bill Murray) flat out brilliantly cunning climax to the warnings of the oncoming apocalypse in the attempts to convince the Mayor to allow himself and his partners to combat the demons in "Ghostbusters":

"Peter Venkman: But if we're right, and we can stop this thing... Lenny, you will have saved the lives...of millions...of registered voters."

I am laughing right now just reading this dialogue, remembering these iconic movie moments and memories where even the smallest, most seemingly insignificant throw away lines, just nailed the moment, the emotion, the perception and of course, the comedy, so completely that it could not be presented in any other conceivable fashion. And that, is just how magical Harold Ramis was.

As a director however, I do not think that it would be disrespectful to his memory to say that his complete output as a filmmaker was fairly uneven as some films do tend to be sluggish or don't carry out its ideas as best as they possibly could. Harold Ramis was not a visual stylist and he was not quite the filmmaker that John Hughes or especially John Landis (who directed "National Lampoon's Animal House") or Ivan Reitman (who directed "Meatballs,""Stripes" and "Ghostbusters") happened to be. And believe me, I know that this may sound sacrilegious to some but even "Caddyshack," Ramis' directorial debut, is not quite as funny as I remember it being when I was much younger and as a filmmaker, it is a very sloppy, ramshackle film and looks as if we are watching Ramis learn how to direct in real time. Even so, the somewhat sloppy nature of the film ultimately does works in its favor as the rough edges do represent the sense of comedic anarchy of the era. But, man when he hit his marks, Harold Ramis could knock it out of the park just as well as the very best.

"National Lampoon's Vacation" was an unquestionable success! I loved it upon the first viewing at the age of 14 in the summer of 1983 and it has held up tremendously well over 30 years later. With a pitch perfect leading performance by Chevy Chase as the eternally optimistic, hysterically hapless and slowly unhinged patriarch Clark W. Griswold, "National Lampoon's Vacation" transformed the family comedy inside out as it injected themes of lusty middle age fantasies, teenage back seat torment, and a sharp cultural/economic comedy of manners with "redneck" relatives into a cauldron filled with the hearth, home and hell of family. The messiness contained this time was so pointedly smart because it was all so true and instantly recognizable to almost every viewer. Ramis even builds the journey of the road trip into becoming a philosophical and near spiritual quest to the mountaintop that is indeed the amusement park Walley World... which in best upending fashion, is closed once the family finally, FINALLY arrives after enduring one horrific hardship after another including being lost in a Philadelphia ghetto (the film's most dangerously funny sequence), and the death of the acerbic Grandmother (Imogene Coca). And for all of the escalating comic tension, the film possesses a genuinely sweet core as "National Lampoon's Vacation" is indeed the story of a man who just wants to bond with his family and give them all a wonderful summer trip that will live fondly in each of their memories. With this second directorial effort, Harold Ramis raised his game tremendously and emerged with comedy gold. 

As it has been expressed over and again in the 20 years since its original release and especially after Ramis' passing, and I completely agree with the assessment, the existential fantasy "Groundhog Day" is most certainly Harold Ramis' masterpiece. While the story did not originate from him, Harold Ramis completely re-wrote the screenplay to suit his sensibilities as well as produced and directed the film, thus making it his most overtly personal film. I believe it to be the one film where all of the various talents he had honed congealed so beautifully, richly and timelessly making it a film for the ages. It is a piece of art that continuously reveals itself to you the more you see it.making it precisely the type of film that can grow with the viewer over time. It is designed and serves to meet the viewer at whatever station in life they happen to find themselves and with whatever belief system they choose to live their lives by. It is a film that can be as shallow or as profound as every individual wishes it to be (I now see it as a story of ascension) while also being completely charming, genuinely romantic with touches of equally genuine melancholy, darkness and pathos. And yes, it is a very funny film to boot...and that is definitely no small feat to achieve.

When I first saw "Groundhog Day" upon it's original release in 1993, I knew even then that this film, about an arrogant, cynical weatherman (again, Bill Murray) mysteriously forced to exist within the endless loop of February 2nd in a small Pennsylvania town, was something even more magical than Harold Ramis had previously devised yet fully represented all of his tremendous artistic gifts. In addition to being masterfully directed (just ensuring the continuity concerning the weather related exteriors sequences is amazing to me), "Groundhog Day" made me realize elements about his gifts that maybe I had not quite noticed in the same way before.

I finally recognized how Harold Ramis never, absolutely never got in the way of the story or characters within his work. Additionally, Harold Ramis always displayed his complete generosity with his collaborators, to showcase them above himself, and allow them to fully take the lead and shine at their brightest. Throughout his career, Ramis has generated material that gave us John Belushi's iconic force of nature performance, introduced Rodney Dangerfield to the masses and consistently gave us films where Bill Murray was able to create one memorable character after another while also advancing his own comedic persona. Even "National Lampoon's Vacation" is seen more as a John Hughes film, and not just because that film was based upon Hughes' original National Lampoon magazine story "Vacation '58," but also because it fit so comfortably within his own comedic aesthetic and overall filmography. This perception remains despite the fact that Harold Ramis, with Chevy Chase, heavily re-wrote John Hughes' screenplay bringing it into the form we all know and cherish. But instead of crowing about his conceptual alterations, Ramis just let the film's overall quality speak for itself.

With "Groundhog Day," Harold Ramis showcased Bill Murray at his very best as he gave his then finest performance to date and looking back, I really think that role served as a perfect bridge to Murray's even more dramatic, melancholic, soul searching work in his films with Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch and Sofia Coppola. "Groundhog Day" made me realize Bill Murray was Ramis' greatest conduit and the long lasting success of the film, combined with Ramis' passing, is made that much more bittersweet (even tragic) as Murray and Ramis' friendship suffered a severe falling out during the making of that film, one that was apparently never mended as the two men reportedly never spoke again. Knowing that Bill Murray made any statement at all regarding Harold Ramis' death made me hope that perhaps some peace was made between them during Ramis' final years. 

While I am certain that you are all more than familiar with Harold Ramis' hit directorial efforts, "Analyse This" (1999) and its sequel "Analyze That" (2002), both of which starred Billy Crystal and Robert DeNiro, I would strongly urge you to seek out the undervalued and underseen "Stuart Saves His Family" (1995). Working in collaboration with Actor/Writer Al Franken (long before his political career, of course), this is one of the only films based upon a "Saturday Night Live" character that is worth viewing, as far as I am concerned. Ramis ensures the enterprise extends far beyond its late night sketch origins to create a full character with a legitimate history, and the film itself carries very perceptively observed issues and qualities of a dysfunctional family, how it operates and survives despite itself. 

Another under-appreciated Harold Ramis film that I would also recommend is "The Ice Harvest" (2005). This film is a very dark, nihilistic, occasionally violent, comic noir starring John Cusack as a mob lawyer and Billy Bob Thornton as a pornographer who steal over 2 million dollars from their mob boss (played by Randy Quaid) and spend the film desperately attempting to escape Wichita, Kansas, which is encased in an ice storm on Christmas Eve. In some ways, this film is the dark underbelly to "Groundhog Day" as John Cusack is seemingly batted around by the wheel of Karma from one end of the film to another and the movie overall successfully achieves a strong sense of time, place, urgency, fatalism and cosmic futility. 

And now, Harold Ramis is gone.

Reading the news of his debilitating health issues over the final four years of his life, knowing so fully of his involvement with some of the most treasured films of my life, combined with his generous spirit and quiet and private persona, it just hurt so badly to face the fact that his artistic voice has been silenced and that there will never be another like him again. Even though I fully know to the contrary, it just seemed that since the actual work and films are so iconic, the creator would be equally invincible. If only that were so. If only it could be true. 

Harold Ramis, I thank you. For the movies, the memories, the laughter, the writing, the characters, the stories and the art itself, I thank you. I thank you from the bottom of my heart and fully knowing that there would never be enough words to fully express the gratitude I feel for what you have given to me and the sadness I feel now that you are no longer with us. In all of the tributes to Harold Ramis that hit the media since his passing, I have to say that I truly appreciated the condolences written by the President Of The United States and fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama in which he echoed the words of Carl the gopher hunting groundskeeper in "Caddyshack" when he wrote,"Our thoughts and prayers are with Harold’s wife, Erica, his children and grandchildren, and all those who loved him, who quote his work with abandon, and who hope that he received total consciousness.”

"Total consciousness" indeed. I think, perhaps, that I received moments of total consciousness, over and again, during my days and nights at the movies. Movies conceived by Harold Ramis.

Rest in peace.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


With just six days remaining, it is now time for me to reveal my Oscar predictions for this coming Sunday's Academy wards telecast. As always, I am no expert and please do also remember that I have not even seen every single film and performance nominated. For me, this is really all in good fun so I hope that you are all ale to appreciate it as such and not judge me too harshly if I end up being completely wrong!

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Sally Hawkins ("Blue Jasmine"); Jennifer Lawrence ("American Hustle"); Lupita Nyong'o ("12 Years A Slave"); Julia Roberts ("August: Osange County"); June Squibb ("Nebraska")
SHOULD WIN: Lupita Nyong'o
WILL WIN: Lupita Nyong'o
Out of this category, I have actually seen four of the five nominated performances and I have t say that Lupita Nyong'o's work in "12 Years A Slave" was the searing, almost unbearably painful moral core to the film as she portrayed the female slave who consistently picked major amounts of cotton compared to her male counterparts, befriended the newly enslaved Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), was the obsession of Michael Fassbender's brutal plantation owner and was also the object of vicious scorn by the plantation owner's enraged wife (Sarah Paulson). Not only does Nyong'o portray an object of relentless lust and abuse, she fully represents the meaning of survival, especially while enduring an experience that she (and all enslaved African-Americans) were not meant to survive. It is a ferocious and haunting performance that reaches your guts deeper than any other.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Barkhad Abdi ("Captain Phillips"); Bradley Cooper ("American Hustle"); Michael Fassbender ("12 Years A Slave"); Jonah Hill ("The Wolf Of Wall Street); Jared Leto ("Dallas Buyers Club")
SHOULD WIN: Michael Fassbender
WILL WIN: Jared Leto
Now please take my "Should Win" selection with a grain of salt as I have not seen all of the performances and I already know that this is Jared Leto's category to lose, as he has swept the industry awards thus far. I am so certain of Leto's win in this category that I would be flat out shocked and would fall to the floor if the former "Jordan Catalano" did not claim the prize.

MERYL STREEP AND FOUR OTHER WOMEN: Amy Adams ("American Hustle"); Cate Blanchett ("Blue Jasmine"); Sandra Bullock ("Gravity"); Judi Dench ("Philomena"); Meryl Streep ("August: Osage County")
SHOULD WIN: Cate Blanchett
WILL WIN: Cate Blanchett
Do not get me started on the presence of Meryl Streep once again in the Best Actress category, which I have re-named due to the fact that all Streep has to do is sign on the dotted line to even appear in a feature film and she will automatically find herself nominated. Ugh!

Regardless, and despite the adoration that has been following both Any Adams and Judi Dench's work, plus the walloping power delivered by Sandra Bullock in "Gravity," I think that this is Cate Blanchett's time to shine and receive Oscar gold. She gave a high wire performance in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" that was fearless, truly frightening, completely without vanity and ultimately, transformative as I fully believed that I was witnessing a woman who was gradually and completely losing her mind.

BEST ACTOR: Christian Bale ("American Hustle"); Bruce Dern ("Nebraska"); Leonardo DiCaprio ("The Wolf Of Wall Street"); Chiwetel Ejiofor ("12 Years A Slave"); Matthew McConaughey ("Dallas Buyers Club")
SHOULD WIN: Leonardo Dicaprio
WILL WIN: Matthew McConaughey
Now THIS category (and typically so) is one of the strongest and tightest competition as it is loaded with rich performances from top to bottom (even Bale can't be fully capsized by the iceberg that is the unbearable "American Hustle"). Even so, and as brilliant as Ejiofor is, I would be thrilled if DiCaprio won this category as he has surprisingly never won an Oscar and this performance shows him with an intensity and jump off of the cliff exuberance that he has never elicited before. That said, Hollywood loves a victory dance and I think that now just may be the time for the coronation of Matthew McConaughey as he has miraculously seemed to have fully delivered upon the hopes and promises of his on-screen arrival over 20 years ago with his recent performances in film and cable television. I have a feeling that this will be McConaughey's night.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: "Before Midnight" (Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy); "Captain Phillips" (Billy Ray); "Philomena" (Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope); "12 Years A Slave" (John Ridley); "The Wolf Of Wall Street" (Terence Winter)
SHOULD WIN: John Ridley "12 Years A Slave"
WILL WIN: John Ridley "12 Years A Slave"
Also an extremely tight category but I do think that this is one where Oscar will give "12 Years A Slave" some attention as I fear that the film hits too close to the bone for the Academy to fully recognize it for Best Picture.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: "American Hustle" (Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell); "Blue Jasmine" (Woody Allen); "Dallas Buyers Club ("Craig Borten and Mleisa Wallack); "Her" ( Spike Jonze); "Nebraska" (Bob Nelson)
SHOULD WIN: Spike Jonze "Her"
WILL WIN: Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell "American Hustle"
I think that this night will belong to "American Hustle" and I'm telling you, if this does indeed win for Best Original Screenplay, as I fear it will, it will be the ultimate cinematic joke as that film, I still contend, is barely written at best! My greatest wish for this category is that Spike Jonze pulls an upset and his screenplay for "Her" is truly the definition of Best Original Screenplay, as there is nothing else like it in the bunch and for most of he full cinematic year.

BEST DIRECTOR: Alfonso Cuaron ("Gravity"); Steve McQueen ("12 Years A Slave"); Alexander Payne ("Nebraska"); David O. Russell ("American  Hustle"); Martin Scorsese ("The Wolf Of Wall Street")
SHOULD WIN: Steve McQueen
WILL WIN: Alfonso Cuaron
This category has always been the most ridiculous because for whatever reason that is unbeknownst to absolutely everyone, possibly including the Academy itself, Oscar feels it unnecessary to nominate every director of every film nominated for Best Picture--as if those disregarded films directed themselves.

At any rate, as you all know, "12 Years A Slave" is my favorite film of 2013 and for that, I feel that Steve McQueen should be awarded as Best Director,. but, even so, I do think that this is Alfonso Cuaron's category to lose and I think this will also be the category in which the Academy gives "Gravity" its most deserved attention and Cuaron handled a gargantuan piece of filmmaking absolutely brilliantly.

BEST PICTURE: "American Hustle," :"Captain Phillips," "Dallas Buyers Club," "Gravity," "Her," "Nebraska," Philomena," "12 Years A Slave," and "The Wolf Of Wall Street"
SHOULD WIN: "12 Years A Slave"
WILL WIN: "American Hustle"
If I could pick the grand prize winner of the night, it would, of course, be "12 Years A Slave." But as for what I think actually will win, that is actually a bit trickier.

I have been reading that what we essentially have is a race between "12 Years A Slave" and "Gravity" but to that, I am not entirely convinced. While "Gravity" has indeed seen its share of major accolades, I do feel that the overall tenor is that Alfonso Cuaron delivered a great "special effects movie," a dismissive term considering the massive cinematic achievement he has actually made. Additionally, and in regards to "12 Years A Slave," I do not think that the Academy is quite that open to awarding a film about that is not just about slavery, but is an extremely uncomfortable and often brutal film to experience, with the grand prize either.

So, if neither of those films actually win, that really leaves "American Hustle," a film which I firmly believe has completely conned every single one of its supporters yet it is precisely the very thing that Oscar loves. A cavalcade of A list stars in a lushly presented period piece of entertainment (filled with pseudo substance) that evokes a time--in this case, the 1970's--that has long been described as Hollywood last "golden age." It feels like the perfect fit for Oscar, especially as the film has been winning one industry award after another after another during these last few weeks. If "American Hustle" does indeed win the title of Best Picture, believe me, it will be the one nominated film that fully lived up to its title!!

And that's how I am leaning with my predictions. Let's see how I actually do on Sunday night!

Sunday, February 23, 2014


With one week to go before the Academy Awards telecast, I am just getting this one in under the wire!

Yes, dear readers, we have now reached the mountaintop, or at least my personal mountain top as I am finally set to reveal my Top Ten favorite films of 2013. So, without any further hesitation...

10.5 "THE BLUE UMBRELLA" Directed by Saschka Unseld
Every so often, my personal lists do happen to contain what could be considered to be a "cheat," but as I always say, it's my list and I can do with it whatever I please. And in the case of this absolute stunner, I felt compelled to add it to the top ten list...sort of. As with all features from Pixar, there is an animated short feature that precedes the main feature and when I saw the wholly underwhelming, uninspired and money grabbing "Monsters University," one thing that also kept that film at an extreme arms length was the fact that "The Blue Umbrella" outshone it from top to bottom and in a fraction of the time. This beautifully simplistic yet visual euphoria is easily the finest Pixar short feature to date and it is also the best film Pixar has released since "Up" (2009). The gentle story of a blue umbrella pursuing his true love, which exists in the form of a red umbrella, during an urban rainstorm is the most visually forward looking feature Pixar has accomplished in far too long and fully represents why we fell in love with Pixar in the first place. This is not a film designed to sell lunchboxes and toys and nor should it be. Featuring a lovely score by Jon Brion and nearly Chaplin-esque in its presentation, Writer/Director Saschka Unseld has delivered a joyously conceived feature that shows what can happen when inspiration and imagination fuel creativity and not the bottom line at the box office. This film could actually represent a new and rapturous period in Pixar's future...should they want it.
(Originally reviewed July 2013)

10. "SOUND CITY" Directed by Dave Grohl
This was the very first film of 2013 to which I awarded four stars and throughout the year, I just knew that it would remain in the final Top Ten. Musician Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters, in his directorial feature debut, has helmed a supremely confident and highly emotional documentary that begins to be about a titular and beloved recording studio but transcends its own subject matter to speak directly towards the importance of maintaining the human touch in our increasingly impersonal technological age. Gorgeously filmed but with a passionate purpose and intent, "Sound City" is an elegiac yet hopeful experience that skillfully merges realized musical fantasies with urgent torch carrying and the communal spirit that is a necessity for our souls as well as our art.  
(Originally reviewed March 2013)

9. "FRUITVALE STATION" Directed by Ryan Coogler
It hardly gets more up to the minute than this film when thinking abut the status of the African American male in 21st century society as well as the concept of being truly free actually means. Featuring a stirringly naturalistic leading performance by Michael B. Jordan, "Fruitvale Station" chronicles the final 24 hours in the life of Oscar Julius Grant III before he was unjustly gunned down by police at the titular Boston train station. Utilizing a quiet, moody, matter-of-fact directorial hand, Director Ryan Coogler explores our current racial/social/economic landscape through the lens of the mundane and everyday only to show how instantaneously life upends itself into unspeakable and senseless tragedy. "Fruitvale Station" is a profoundly empathetic and humane character portrait of a young, Black man during an era in which young Black men are once again and overtly being seen as being less than human. A subtlety devastating piece of work.
(Originally reviewed July 2013)

8. "THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE" Directed by Francis Lawrence
The second installment in "The Hunger Games" film series not only improves upon the original and terrific first film, it broadens its canvas and deepens its own landscape, themes and concepts making for a dark and disturbing experience that transcends far beyond existing as a popcorn event movie. "The  Hunger Games: Catching Fire" explores the issues of totalitarianism, oligarchy, the politics of war and most importantly fear, plus further issues of rebellion, revolution, sacrifice, survival, our culture's relationship with violence, the soul numbing nature of "reality" television and our ever increasing and equally soul crushing obsession with fame at the expense of our collective humanity. As reluctant heroine Katniss Everdeen, Jennifer Lawrence again provides a sensational leading performance in a film that confidently straddles the precarious line of providing the requisite action thrills and set pieces while also maintaining the core morality of the story.  This is superbly compelling and exciting filmmaking on display in a film and genre that did not have to aim its sights so highly whatsoever.
(Originally reviewed December 2013)

7. "INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS" Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
The Coen Brothers have triumphed once again with this prickly and often bleak character portrait of a struggling folk singer in the early 1960's New York folk scene. This is a wintry film, frigidly atmospheric and contains a visual plate that has seemingly been informed by the album covers of the era the Coen Brothers are depicting. But furthermore, what I think they achieved so masterfully is through the construction of their story and the actions and collective of characters and emotions we view and feel, what we are witnessing is essentially the Coen Brothers' version of a folk song--a song that is grim, haunting, and like an actual record, the film forms a continuous cycle of misery from which our struggling folk singer may never escape. As always, the Coen brothers have created their own film universe with "Inside Llewyn Davis," and while there is no lack of empathy, there is not even one saccharine or cloying moment to be found. And thankfully so.
(Originally reviewed January 2014)

6. "BLUE JASMINE" Directed by Woody Allen
Woody Allen is again working at the top of his game with "Blue Jasmine" easily his most volatile film since "Husbands And Wives" (1992). In an almost frightening, high wire of performance by Cate Blanchett, we are given a front row seat to the unraveling of a woman's mind as the life she thought she knew has crumbled completely around her feet. From grim statements and explorations about economic disparity, shattered dreams, a society's over-reliance upon alcohol, and debilitating mental illness, this is a non-judgmental and brutally uncompromising film that is often riveting, rattling and definitely leaves harsh bruises.
(Originally reviewed September 2013)
5. "GRAVITY" Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
What else can I say about this movie that has not already been said? With "Gravity," Director Alfonso Cuaron has created a titanic piece of filmmaking and easily his greatest filmmaking achievement to date with a white knuckle experience that leaves us gasping for air, much like Sandra Bullock (in a wallop of a performance) as she spirals end over end through the cold darkness of space straining for survival. Through flawless special effects and a level of tension that was often approached the unbearable, "Gravity" shows us all exactly and brilliantly what a film experience should be during a time when every major motion picture claims to be an experience. This is the real deal and then some...and certainly crashed any possible dreams I had ever housed for voyaging into space. I'll happily keep my feet upon the ground.
(Originally reviewed October 2013)

4. "BEFORE MIDNIGHT" Directed by Richard Linklater
For the third installment in the expanding love story of Jesse and Celine (beautifully portrayed by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy), Director Richard Linklater gave us not only the best film of this series but also one of his finest works to date. "Before Midnight" is that extremely rare film that explores the ebb and flow of love during middle age, when that reckless abandon of your 20's turns to emotional caution in your 40s, all the while figuring out how to stay as blissfully in love as you have ever been. As with the two previous entries, this is also a film that explores a world of themes through the art of conversation and the conversations in this installment are the most riveting, captivating, provocative and unnerving to date. I hope to catch up with these two again nine years from now. 
(Originally reviewed June 2013)

3. "THE WOLF OF WALL STREET" Directed by Martin Scorsese
At the age of 71, master filmmaker Martin Scorsese has given us one of his most incendiary films with "The Wolf Of Wall Street," a three hour Bacchanalian extravaganza starring the great Leonardo DiCaprio in what may be his most feverishly unhinged and intense performance of his entire illustrious career. This is two-fisted, take no prisoners filmmaking and while there has been much controversy over its depictions of mega excess and unlimited debauchery, there is not one moment presented without purpose as Scorsese is pointing his severely critical eye at all of us in society who have all allowed and have remained complicit with an economic system that has long lost its soul and an environment in which the pursuit of endless fame and riches has sadly eroded our collective humanity. This film is not a morality play against the life of an arrogant stock broker who has successfully gamed the system. This is a stinging cultural critique in which we are all to blame. "The Wolf Of Wall Street" is unapologetically fearless, ferocious filmmaking.  
(Originally reviewed December 2014)

2. "HER" Directed by Spike Jonze
Director Spike Jonze has delivered his finest film to date with a disturbing and painful look at interpersonal relationships and how they have transformed into the very relationships we have with technology in "Her," a film set in an unnamed future but speaks precisely to this point in time in the 21st century. Joaquin Phoenix gives a compassionately recognizable performance as a man who falls in love with the voice of his new computer operating system (tremendously performed by Scarlett Johansson) and their relationship provides the fuel for a film that explores our increased fear of taking emotional risks with other human beings, therefore leading to a growing sense of societal isolation as we retreat into our machinery. Grueling, emotionally exhausting and profoundly sad, "Her" is as impassioned a plea for our humanity as I have ever seen. This film would have easily been my number 1 favorite film of 2013 if not for the following...
(Originally reviewed January 2014)

1. "12 YEARS A SLAVE" Directed by Steve McQueen
I said it back in November and I am saying it again emphatically, Director Steve McQueen's "12 Years A Slave" is the movie of the year, hands down. Based upon the true story of Solomon Northrup (played with haunting power by the great Chiwetel Ejiofor), an educated, elegant, and born free African-American family man and accomplished musician who is tricked, captured and placed into slavery for the duration of the film's title, "12 Years A Slave" is a poetic and agonizingly harrowing experience that, alongside "Fruitvale Station" and Director Lee Daniels' "The Butler," creates a portrait of he Black man in America during a specific historical time period and compares and contrasts it with today.

"12 Years A Slave," besides focusing so powerfully upon the African-American holocaust, focuses even moreso upon the true nature of what freedom means and how quickly that very freedom can be extinguished, leaving us trapped in worlds we never created for ourselves. Although this film is set in 1841, it speaks precisely to the 21st century as constitutional and human rights are being vigorously stripped away by the powerful few, and I seriously hope that this film forces each and every single one of us to perform some serious self-examination of ourselves, our country and our collective humanity to truly discover exactly what kind of a world do we wish to live in.

"12 Years A Slave" is indeed brutally difficult viewing as well as it should be as no film about slavery and dehumanization should be a comfortable experience. Again, this film creates a portrait of a time that I wish to believe that most of us would think to be unimaginable, but this happened and we cannot be afraid to confront our past in order to not repeat it. This is essential viewing, created with completely artistic filmmaking power and no other film of 2013 spoke directly to our souls than this one as we are forced to face down our individual prejudices, and discover that all human beings are deserving of tolerance, empathy and compassion.
(Originally reviewed November 2013)

And there you have it!!!! One week from tonight, we will see which films Oscar grants the cinematic crown, which means I have to crank out my Oscar predictions post haste!!! Stay tuned!

Sunday, February 16, 2014


For Part Three of the Savage Scorecard series, it is time for the gloves to come off for just one final time against the films I loathed in 2013.

As I have stated in the past, 2013 was not the greatest year for movies and definitely took a stumble when compared to the excellence spread throughout 2012. While I am not entirely certain, I think this is the first year since the inception of Savage Cinema where I actually have ten full films, or at least this is the first time I am arranging them in this fashion, with #10 existing as the weakest offender to #1 obviously being the worst film of the year. Let's get started so I don't have to think about these movies anymore,, shall we?

10. "MAN OF STEEL" (the final third) Directed by Zack Snyder
Now, I have to explain this one as I did award this film three stars and I still stand by that assessment. As difficult it is to imagine a new film version of "Superman," especially as the first two installments that starred Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder are so iconic but I do think that the first two thirds of Producer Christopher Nolan and Director Zack Snyder's "Man Of Steel" took bold and brave risks ensuring that their film could stand on its own feet and out of the massive Christopher Reeve shadow. I did love how the film was a gritty, episodic, non-linear version of the origin story and peppered it with some equally risky and overt religious allegory as we were witnessing the journey not of Superman or even Clark Kent, but of the the alien Kal-El (played by Henry Cavill), all elements that made "Man Of Steel" darkly riveting to view.

But then, we get to what ultimately upended the film and that was the gargantuan and endless bludgeoning that was the film's entire final third, the war between Kal-El and General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his minions. This final third undid everything that would have otherwise made "Man O Steel" quite possibly one of the finest films of the year as it completely descended into a quagmire of the same old overdone CGI maelstrom in a fashion that was as dishearteningly exhausting as it was ugly to regard. Just a barrage of explosions, falling buildings, people screaming and cataclysm beyond cataclysm all leading to the moment where Snyder's heavy hand played with the core mythology of Superman so disturbingly cavalier that it defiled the exact nature of who Superman actually is and what he will and will not do (if you have seen the film, then you know exactly what I am writing about). So even though my three star rating essentially split the difference between the good and bad elements of the film, it was indeed that final third that left such an awful taste in my mouth and has also stopped me from even desiring to see this film again...ever.
(Originally reviewed June 2013)

9. "OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL" Directed by Sam Raimi
This film was another case of CGI effects gone amok and all utilized in a fashion that created no sense of awe, wonder, terror, mystification, joy or any other emotion other than a two hour extended yawn. And if you are bothering to take audiences on a journey to the land of Oz and not give us an experience that feels like our very own dreams and nightmares have been magically projected upon the silver screen, then why bother? Director Sam Raimi gave us a soulless, passionless, emotionless presentation led by a completely miscast James Franco who looked as if he were mocking the entire proceedings with hipster irony from one end to the other. Yes, following in the iconic footsteps of "The Wizard Of Oz" (1939) is a daunting and some would say impossible feat to be sure. But if you are going to take this one, did it have to be so flat, generic, and empty?
(Originally reviewed March 2013)

8. "IN A WORLD..." Directed by Lake Bell
For actress Lake Bell's Writing and Directorial debut feature, I do believe that she has the filmmaking goods to make a fine film and I am more than anxious to see what she will devise for her second time at bat. She obviously has a lot to say but if only she would just say them. "In A World..." finds Bell (who also stars) as a voice over performer in the male dominated field, especially for narrating motion picture trailers, who finds herself competing against her legendary Father (played very unctuously by Fred Melamed ) for a coveted new mega-budgeted feature. While Bell shows she has a gift for sharp Hollywood insider satire, a compelling Father/daughter dynamic as well as some seriously pointed barbs against 21st century women who speak in that high-pitched, pseudo sexual squeak that diminishes any chances of being taken seriously in any industry, Bell nearly jettisons ALL of those elements for severely extended and torpidly paced romantic comedy cliches that really have nothing to do with she claims her film to be about. This was truly a wasted opportunity, but better luck next time.
(Originally reviewed September 2013)

7. "ADMISSION" Directed by Paul Weitz
Tina Fey knows better!!!! I just know that she knows better than to align herself with characters and films that are so obviously beneath her comedic and satiric brilliance, intelligence and imagination and yet she keeps doing it again and again with her film roles, and "Admission" is just the latest dull dud to darken her, but mostly our, doorsteps. With this film, Fey portrays a Princeton Admissions Officer who is confronted with a most painful decision from her past which then forces her to face down her present and potential future, in regards to her career and closest relationships with her long term boyfriend, feminist Mother (Lily Tomlin) and a possible new love interest (Paul Rudd). All of this would be just well and good if the film at any point decided to truly explore these characters as human beings and their situations with the spark, wit, flash and that sharply unpredictable quality that had endeared us to Tina Fey in the first place. But no. Let's just pad the film with tired, canned and contrived situations that sail right down the middle of the cinematic road making for a film that is sadly and regrettably boring, toothless, bloodless and cliched. "Admission" is the very type of film that Tina Fey would parody rather than star in and it is so forgettable that it is not worth your time at all, and barely worth the time for me to pound upon it once again.
(Originally reviewed October 2013)

6. "MONSTERS UNIVERSITY" Directed by Dan Scanlon
I have been beating up on the steeply declining quality of the animated films from Pixar for a few years now and the prequel "Monsters University" was not the film to return Pixar to my good graces in the least. Yes, it is visually sumptuous but visual splendor alone is not what made all of us respond to the films of Pixar in the first place and it is definitely not what has made those films endure. I guess witnessing our beloved monsters Mike Wazowski (still winningly voiced by Billy Crystal) and James "Sully" Sulivan (John Goodman) during their college years is a clever idea but why bog them down in a morass of cliched and totally recycled jokes from every campus comedy you have ever seen? It's just so, so sad because the filmmakers of Pixar were once true artists as far as I am concerned. These were people that somehow and always found that bridge and balance between art and commerce by consistently making films that were daring, unpredictable, risky and at times decidedly and unapologetically not geared towards children. These were films for the ages that challenged as well as entertained as they are classics to be viewed over and again. But now, and at a time when Pixar has absolutely no need whatsoever to chase the dollar, that is exactly what they have succumbed to doing by creating one unimaginative film after another that feels designed to sell lunch boxes, toys and all other promotional material rather than exist as a great piece of art. Let's face it, I am quite certain that 10 years from now, you will all still be watching the original and outstanding "Monsters, Inc." (2001). Conversely, in 10 years, I would be hard pressed to believe that any of you will be anxious to view this completely subpar, shamelessly money grabbing follow up.
(Originally reviewed July 2013)  

5. "FRANCES HA" Directed by Noah Baumbach
And now we are getting down to the nitty gritty as you truly have no idea of how much I HATED, HATED, HATED this film!! I don't care how many critical accolades it received (and there were many). I do not care how many Ten Best lists the film arrived upon (there are quite a few). But for me, Noah Baumbach's latest film was precisely the type of film that would make people resistant to independent cinema resist it all the more and for those of us that do love independent films as I do, it was just an embarrassment as if suffered from the very qualities that damage independent films and sometimes make me want to hate them as well. "Frances Ha" told the story of a wayward twenty-something trying to find herself in New York City in the most superficial, plastic, erroneous, smug and self-congratulatory fashion as it wore its French New Wave/Francois Truffaut/Woody Allen's "Manhattan" (1979) influences and hipster attitude upon its cinematic sleeves with such a supreme sense of ironic superiority that would have been flat out insulting if it weren't so painfully obvious, cloying and prefabricated. Worst of all was the insufferable, irritating and self-consciously "adorable" leading performance of Greta Gerwig, who is not nearly as charming or nearly as ingratiating as she and Baumbach possibly think she is. The whole film felt to be placed inside a set of quotation marks, thus making for a film that never felt authentic or emotionally true and could only pretend to be about its subject matter rather than fully realize it.
(Originally reviewed June 2013)

4. "A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD" Directed by John Moore
For a film series that really should have ended with the first and best installment, the original 1988 "Die Hard," I have to say that I have been surprised with the durability of the series starring Bruce Willis as the endlessly intrepid Detective John McLaine. Despite some flaws here and there, the subsequent three follow up films have just gotten the job done through well thought out predicaments to place McLaine into and sequenced with inventive, imaginative action sequences that even at their wildest, are somehow grounded with Willis' salt-of-the-Earth presence, physicality and well timed quips. But for this improbable fifth installment, the series hits rock bottom and perhaps even underneath that level with a film so stupid, nonsensical and just completely defiant in its belief that if it just keeps hurling explosions and gunfire at you, the movie will just inherently get better. Trust me, dear readers, it never even approaches "watchable." Beyond that, Bruce Willis has shown once again that he is one of our laziest and most mercenary of actors as "A Good Day To Die Hard" shows explicitly that he is just so willing to sell out his signature character for his $20 million paycheck. My God!! Willis does absolutely NOTHING in this film but utter variations of "I'm on vacation!!!" which doesn't make the least bit of sense as John McLaine is not travelling to Russia for a vacation but purely to rescue his son. And yet that is simply the tip of the iceberg of problems this film has. I am sorry, for a film that exists with the pedigree that "Die Hard" happens to have, it is just INEXCUSABLE to make a movie this powerfully inept and sloppy. A blank screen with no sound is more compelling.
(Originally reviewed February 2013)  

3. "OBLIVION" Directed by Joseph Kosinski
This film really pissed me off! Tom Cruise stars in a would-be science fiction epic in which he is essentially the last man on Earth trapped in a story that completely steals from practically every science fiction film that you have seen over the last 45 years and tries to pass itself off as new. It just made me so angry that Director Joseph Kosinski didn't even bother to try and make his obvious influences merge into something unique and like a kid who just copies his homework off of the smarter classmate, "Oblivion" is ultimately a film that is (again) inexcusably disingenuous, unimaginative, unoriginal and flat out lazy. Trust me, do not waste your time as this fiasco is nothing more than cinematic plagiarism.
(Originally reviewed April 2013)

2. "AMERICAN HUSTLE" Directed by David O. Russell
And speaking of disingenuous films, there was none more disingenuous than David O. Russell's "American Hustle," a film that I have made no secret as to how much I hated it, especially as I am strongly feeling that it is on its way to winning the Oscar for Best Picture. Look, dear readers, perhaps I can explain my loathing in this manner. Just the other day, one of my co-workers approached me and told me that she saw the film and enjoyed it very much. She expressed that she liked the costumes, the soundtrack, and the period design and she even loved how Russell used the vintage studio logo to open his film. It made her feel as if she was watching a film from the time period rather than seeing a film set within the time period. OK. But, there was something very notable and crucial about the reasons why she liked "American Hustle" so much. She never once mentioned the characters or the story. And that's why I hated this film so damn much because, like "Oblivion," I feel as if David O. Russell is trying to pull a fast one over the audience. That if he just loads his movie with stars, dresses them up in 70's clothing and provides a killer soundtrack, then that's all there is to his movie and Lord help me, his ploy has indeed worked due to the ocean of accolades and awards the film has already attained. But, I'm sorry. I was not fooled for one solitary moment as "American Hustle" is a barely conceived, barely written, barely edited, sloppy, sluggish, superficially glitzy mess of a movie that stranded nearly all of its actors (especially Jennifer Lawrence) with barely any characters to play or any motivations to play them. If this film does indeed win the Oscar for Best Picture, I feel that it will be the worst Best picture winner in a long, loooong time. Don't believe the hype!!!!!!!!!!
(Originally reviewed December 2013)

1. "OLDBOY" Directed by Spike Lee
I truly never thought that I would see this day when I would have Spike Lee, one of my favorite and one of the finest American filmmakers working today, sitting in this spot of delivering the worst film of 2013, but unfortunately here he is. Look, I have read the industry news that the studio severely re-edited the film, cut out nearly an hour of footage and Lee and star Josh Brolin are extremely unhappy with the results, so much so that Lee removed his trademark credit "A Spike Lee Joint" and his 40 Acres And A Mule production logo from the film entirely. Even so, I have to comment upon what I saw and what I saw was the most repugnant, filthy, nastiest piece of trash I saw. Now the story line of a man imprisoned by an unknown tormentor for 20 years and who is then released and embarks upon a revenge filled journey of uncovering the mystery of his capture is indeed compelling but it is a film that is entirely devoid of any purpose or soul other than depicting ruthless acts of ultra-violence at its grisliest. Simply stated, "Oldboy" is an ugly film about ugly people that is vacant of any sense of social value on any conceivable level making this experience nothing more than a snuff film with a big budget. I am positive that Spike Lee will return to his trademark level of excellence once again but he first needs to profoundly wash the stink of this exercise off of him. I'm still trying to wash it off of myself for having viewed it.
(Originally reviewed December 2013)

Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!!!!! I already feel better. Stay tuned for my Top Ten Favorite Films of 2013!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Thursday, February 13, 2014


Screenplay Written by Steven L. Bloom & Jonathan Roberts
Directed by Rob Reiner

In the past two years, I think that we have witnessed a resurgence with true romance in the genre of romantic comedies. As you all know very well, this particular genre is not and has never been a cherished film genre for my personal tastes and sensibilities for two reasons: 1. I am typically not that swept away by movie love stories. and 2. Most of them, due to the preponderance of characters and situations that are completely unrecognizable to the ways real human beings behave and most importantly feel, just to keep the wheels of the romantic comedy formula creaking onwards.

Now I do have to say that I do not harbor any negative feelings towards movie formulas just for the sake of doing so. I honestly do not mind movies that are formulaic if they are able to engage me and tell their stories as best as they are able, ensuring that I am buying the fantasy sufficiently. When formulas work at their very best, you can almost not even see them occurring right in front of your eyes and at this time, and for a special Valentine's Day edition of my "Savage Cinema Revisits" series, I wish to turn your attention to a truly wonderful film that I think remains one of the finest romantic comedies I have seen in my lifetime and that film is Rob Reiner's "The Sure Thing."

For whatever reasons that are completely inexplicable to me, "The Sure Thing" is a film I think has fallen through the cracks so supremely that it is now largely forgotten. You will not see it playing on cable channels and it is typically not even mentioned when reading articles about Reiner's illustrious film career, which is even more surprising as "The Sure Thing" is not only Reiner's second directorial effort, it is nestled right in between his iconic rockumentary satire "This Is Spinal Tap" (1984) and equally iconic and nostalgic ode to boyhood and friendship "Stand By Me" (1986). Even Reiner himself, during the DVD commentary track for this film, acknowledges that most people have forgotten that he directed "The Sure Thing." And again, to me, it is all so inexplicable as "The Sure Thing" is as honestly funny, mature, insightful, romantic, heartfelt and as memorable as any of his films during his highly impressive streak that also includes "The Princess Bride" (1987), "Misery" (1990), "A Few Good Men" (1992) and of course, his romantic comedy classic, "When Harry Met Sally" (1989).

Now truth be told, it is possible to imagine that "The Sure Thing" could have been lost in the teen film shuffle of the 1980s as the glut of adolescent related releases combined with its potentially lascivious title could make people feel as if it was just another forgettable teen sex comedy not worth anyone's time of day. Additionally, "The Sure Thing" was originally released just a few mere weeks after Writer/Director John Hughes' "The Breakfast Club" (1985) and perhaps Hughes now iconic and definitive statement about the lives and spirits of teenagers maybe stole some of Reiner's thunder. But trust me, dear readers, I firmly believe that the characters of Rob Reiner's film are not terribly far removed from Hughes' high schoolers. In fact, the characters from "The Sure Thing" could possibly have been the older/college age siblings of those high schoolers due to their similar traits and foibles. Regardless of the hows and whys of the film's disappearance from public consciousness, I now feel it to be my duty to perform what I am able to maybe bring "The Sure Thing" back into focus as its intelligence, charm, effortless humor and urgent romance make this film perfect viewing for not only Valentine's Day but for any day of any year.

Granted, the opening credits sequence of "The Sure Thing," much like the erotic opening sequence of Writer/Director Paul Brickman's extraordinary "Risky Business" (1983), may have you wondering if Rob Reiner did actually concede to make one of those forgettable teen sex films as we are presented with the images of male driven, bikini clad, soft core fantasy cleverly set to Rod Stewart's "Infatuation." 

"The Sure Thing" properly begins with a downwards camera pan from a starry night sky onto the scene of an outdoor end-of-the-year high school Senior party, with the heartbeat sounds sounds of Huey Lewis and the News' "The Heart Of Rock And Roll" perfectly echoing the rambunctious emotions percolating through the teenage crowd. We are then and immediately introduced to Walter "Gib" Gibson (an outstanding starmaking performance by John Cusack) who is engaged in the middle of an outrageously literate and completely sophomoric soliloquy/come on towards a prospective sexual conquest which concludes with the hysterical line, "How would you like a sexual encounter so intense that it could conceivably change your political views?" Of course, Gib fails in his attempts.

Lost in rejection, Gib then takes in the counsel of his best friend, the coarse, quick witted and high partying Lance (Anthony Edwards) who is set to attend UCLA. After a playfully frank discussion of their sexual successes, failures and future hopes, Gib begins his college career in New England, where his luck in carnal matters does not improve despite the amorous activity that seems to be steadily occurring around him. Even so, Gib finds himself instantly attracted to the sharply acerbic, conservative, a bit chilly and otherwise romantically involved Alison Bradbury (a wonderful Daphne Zuniga) in his English class. Despite Gib's so-called best attempts to win her over (and possibly have sex with her), he and Alison frequently clash and his duplicitous actions ultimately and understandably infuriate and alienate her.

Gib's luck seems to be destined to change for the better after receiving a phone call from Lance, who now attends UCLA and presents Gib with the sexual opportunity of his young lifetime: to travel to California over Christmas break and be hooked up with a sexual "sure thing" (played by Nicolette Sheridan)--no strings attached, no questions asked and no guilt involved. But Gib's prurient pilgrimage is soon profoundly complicated by the surprising presence of Alison, who is unexpectedly travelling in the same ride share as Gib, also to California and to rendezvous with her long time boyfriend Jason (Boyd Gaines).

As Gib and Alison make their way to California, they are faced with a variety of obstacles from roadside abandonment (after being dumped on the side of the road by the four corners "square" and highly irritated Tim Robbins), foul weather, lack of food and money, a variety of transportation issues and conflicts, a barrage of show tunes, one creepy and sleazy trucker, dicey sleeping arrangements and most crucially, their growing attraction towards each other and the feelings of emotional conflict that confound each of them.  

For everything that I have written upon this site in celebration of John Hughes and Cameron Crowe, I have to express to you that for me, Rob Reiner's "The Sure Thing" stands as tall as anything Hughes and Crowe produced during the same period. Also like he films of Hughes and Crowe, "The Sure Thing" was a film that I watched and re-watched religiously, memorizing passages of dialogue verbatim and also allowing it to inspire me greatly once I began exploring and attempting my own creative writing. Watching it now, after not having viewed it for many, many years, I was terribly impressed to witness how, also just like the films from John Hughes and Cameron Crowe, Rob Reiner devised an experience that was simultaneously contemporary and completely in tune with mid 1980's college life, and it was also decidedly old fashioned in regards to its emphasis of romance over sex, as well as its commitment to characters over gimmicks and convoluted plots. In fact, the film "The Sure Thing" most resembles is Frank Capra's classic romantic comedy "It Happened One Night" (1934) as Reiner and his screenwriters have devised a road movie, emphasizing that actual journey--the emotional as well as the physical journey--over the final destination. And with the presence of John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga, Rob Reiner gave us the very best travelling companions we could wish to have.

I have often wondered what the trajectory of John Cusack's film career would have been if he had not taken this particular role and indeed ended up in the role he was just this close to grabbing--the role of John Bender in "The Breakfast Club," which he, of course lost to Judd Nelson! But, his loss became his, as well as our, gain as his performance as Walter "Gib" Gibson is a testament to an actor taking his leading man opportunities with ferocity, commitment, unabashed creativity and unpredictability. It is a comic tour de force performance that shows that he was not about to waste one moment of this grand opportunity.

As I stated earlier, I had many of his monologues completely memorized and as I watched the film now, I surprised myself to discover how much of those monologues have retained themselves in my memory, nearly 30 years later. One particular favorite occurs during an early scene where Gib, attempting to obtain Alison as a tutor for their shared English class, devises a ridiculous scenario of what may happen to his life should she not assist him and he subsequently flunks the class. While recounting his wild tale, which involves dead end jobs, failed drug smuggling, imprisonment and a future existence as a hobo "living in a flop house with no job, no upward mobility,...very few teeth," Gib rapidly and relentlessly paces back and forth down the length of a swimming pool in which Alison is swimming laps, desperately trying to ignore him, and concludes with throwing himself into the pool...only to have Alison sternly swim past him.

Nearly its equal is a later sequence, when Gib, now hitchhiking and pretending to be an escaped psycho, rescues the hitchhiking Alison from the clutches of a older, lonely and lascivious truck driver. In this sequence, Reiner and Cusack forge comic explosiveness tinged with a slightly darker tone as we begin to see the undercurrents of Gib's true nature, as he (and we) realize that Alison is doomed to be raped if he had not used his street smarts and was also honestly concerned and caring for her well being on the road. This is the magic of John Cusack, an actor who can effortlessly elicit a savage sardonic nature while also presenting a deep romanticism, the perfect qualities for the character and journey of Gib.

While he may announce that “I’m the kind of guy who likes to live on the edge,” as a tossed off quip, we can also see that Gib is a much deeper individual and most definitely, a much more romantic and even philosophical individual than he thinks he is and throughout “The Sure Thing,” the film gives us his journey to discovering the more mature, thoughtful, sensitive version of himself, without sacrificing his more reckless, spontaneous, carefree style. The film contains several dream sequences of Gib enjoying the illicit company of his sure thing but what they truly reveal to him is the realization of exactly what romantic realities can actually be if he just only opens himself up to embodying the romantic being he actually is rather than the sexual being he perceives himself to be.

I also really enjoyed the film's astronomical motifs as they relate to the character of Gib. Certainly the stars represent the "star crossed lovers" aspect of the overall storyline but the stars also fully represent Gib at his most sincere and earnest, attributes he downplays along with his intelligence, and creativity. Even in his Engish class, where he first writes an essay about pizza, shows how creative and skilled he is but he hides those qualities completely away in a sea of sarcastic, ironic glibness, male bravado and flat-out sloppiness ("It's all wrong. There's no punctuation. It's all one sentence," complains Alison after reading his paper.)

Walter "Gib" Gibson is a romantic hero not because he gets the girl but because he truly questions whether he should or even deserves to get he girl based upon how he views himself. "The Sure Thing" shows a young man consistently subverting his own potential until he finally begins to recognize it for himself. It is a debut starring performance unlike many I have seen throughout my life. Through his blazing comedic skills, sardonic wit and a recognizable vulnerability, John Cusack's work in "The Sure Thing" was truly one of the very finest of the 1980s teen film genre and perfectly paved the way for the very roles that have been cherished and celebrated, most notably in Cameron Crowe's "Say Anything..." (1989) and Stephen Frears "High Fidelity" (2000). But Rob Reiner had Cusack first and showed us all how deeply this actor had the goods.

In a role that was reportedly written for, and was just this close to being given to Ally Sheedy, who, of course, turned the part down to take the role of another "Alison" in "The Breakfast Club," Daphne Zuniga supremely makes the role her own so successfully that it is still difficult for me to picture Sheedy or anyone else in the part. Besides the fact that her chemistry with Cusack is natural and filled with sublime perfection, Zuniga accomplished a truly titanic feat during an era in which substantive female roles in the teen film genre were depressingly few and only really began to see an evolution with the frequency of John Hughes' films. Her performance of Alison truly felt as if this was precisely the type of girl I knew in my real life in high school, as well as college and she was a character audiences were asked to accept as a full human being to be viewed by her attributes and failings and not through her looks or sexual prowess. Certainly Daphne Zuniga is a lovely looking actress but her attractiveness is not used to define the character of Alison and just by accomplishing that feat alone, made just the sight of Alison Bradbury a revelation in 1985.

Alison Bradbury is a serious, focused, intelligent, gifted and studious young woman. But like Gib, the film takes her on her respective journey as she is also one who subverts her own potential to fully experiencing and embracing the fullness of life by creating such a boxed-in life path for herself, to which she has rigidly adhered. In one of the film's later, quieter scenes, Alison expresses to Gib her desires out of life, especially as they relate to her longtime boyfriend Jason. She hopes to become a lawyer with him and maybe even open up a practice together in Vermont. She professes that her boyfriend's directness and ability as an "achiever" is everything a girl could ever want. But then, and slowly, her own sense of romanticism reveals itself when she speaks of her desire to one day own an old farm house which she would renovate and live. Where her boyfriend thinks of it as a "good investment," she begins to soften as she just wants a place that is warm, cozy and home to Basset Hounds.

For a young woman who, at the beginning of the film, feels so sure, so unshakably certain about herself, "The Sure Thing" gives her an experience designed to make her truly ask difficult questions concerning what she truly desires and also, if she is selling herself somewhat short, especially, as she is only 18 years old and there is a world she has not yet even tasted. There is a wonderful moment set in her English class when her dynamic teacher, Professer Taub (played by veteran stage actress, the late Viveca Lindfors), informs her that while she too is a gifted writer, her paper is unfortunately very dry. And then, Taub unleashes perceptive, knowing, powerfully affectionate advice to Alison and her entire class. Additionally, her words could be the film's mission statement and it is as follows:

 "Loosen up. Have some fun. Sleep when you feel like it. Not when you think you should. Eat food that is bad for you just once in a while. Have conversations with people whose clothes are not color coordinated. MAKE LOVE IN A HAMMOCK!! Life is the ultimate experience. And you have to experience it in order to write about it."

"The Sure Thing" completely places Alison well out of her element, well out of her depth and when forced to sink or swim, she discovers just how resilient, adaptable, unpredictable, and yes, spontaneous she can actually be also without sacrificing her intelligence, ethics, and overall sense of morality plus seeing shades of love and romance that she had never quite allowed herself to touch. Daphne Zuniga conveys an elegant warmth that emanates through her intimidating visage and at times brittle personality. And over the course of the film, Reiner and Zuniga shows us not only how Alison and Gib complement each other through their differences but most importantly, just how similar they actually are.

All of those qualities are exactly what makes "The Sure Thing" exist as so much more than an "opposites attract" movie as it upholds the very best qualities of the traditional romantic comedy and nearly transcends them as well. Rob Reiner utilizes "The Sure Thing" to represent his own ruminations on the similarities and differences between men and women, how they relate, come together, fall apart and reach new levels of understanding. In fact, this film is essentially the beginning of what Reiner himself deemed as an unofficial trilogy within his own filmography as "The Sure Thing" is a precursor to "When Harry Met Sally" and Reiner's later (and I'm afraid to say, truly awful, awful film) film "The Story Of Us" (1999). Dear readers, I know that you ALL know "When Harry Met Sally" backwards and forwards. I also know that "The Story Of Us" is not worth your time and effort at all. So, that leaves "The Sure Thing" as the film to revisit or introduce yourself to as I am certain you will be as charmed, entertained and as moved as I still am.

"The Sure Thing," in addition to being a romantic comedy and love story is indeed a coming of age story, a college film and road movie all rolled into one. While filled from one end to the other with witty and entirely quotable dialogue, it is a film that is firmly rooted in an emotional reality that anchors any sense of romantic fantasy. It is a film that champions the sensibilities of young, verbose, intelligent, funny, literate, studious, playful, sexually inquisitive and most importantly, romantically fueled individuals and in doing so, the film never for an instant feels formulaic. Indeed, this film is so indebted to ensuring the two leading characters exist in the real world that you essentially do not even see the romantic comedy formula occurring in front of your eyes--as well as it should not.

You want to believe in Gib and Alison. You want to root for their love to connect and endure and that is what makes "The Sure Thing" a love story that still works so very effectively to this day and should be essential viewing by new filmmakers as a lesson to how to make movies like this sing as well as to audiences raised on much lesser romantic comedy films.

Rob Reiner's "The Sure Thing" is the real thing and on this Valentine's Day, I enthusiastically urge you to seek this film out with that special someone.