Friday, April 18, 2014

BLACK WIDOW: a review of "Under The Skin"

Based upon the novel Under The Skin by Michel Faber
Screenplay Written by Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
*** 1/2 (three and a half stars)

I have a strong feeling that even for some of the most adventurous movie goers out there, this film will be especially confounding.

Once the end credits scroll completed at the conclusion of "Under The Skin," the latest film from Director Jonathan Glazer, I truly began to wonder exactly what in the hell I was going to be able to write to you. Indeed, I was tremendously affected by the film which is uncomfortable, unsettling, disturbing, and downright creepy as well as visually arresting and completely unlike anything I have seen since the inception of Savage Cinema. It is not a film that I can honestly say that I liked or even disliked, for that matter. But it is unquestionably an effective film that will certainly challenge your perceptions of what exactly a motion picture experience can actually be.

I am warning you right up front that "Under The Skin" is not for everyone, unapologetically so at that. But, if you want to see something that is indeed the definition of "original," then I would not stand in your way at all, and I even encourage you to try this film for yourselves. You may love it or you may even detest it but you will have a reaction.  

"Under The Skin" stars Scarlett Johansson as...well...a nameless extraterrestrial who has found her place on Earth in Scotland and under the watchful eye of another alien, who has taken on a human form and is dressed in motorcycle garb. After submerging herself into the very skin of a deceased woman, Johansson's alien begins to prowl the streets in a vehicle, picking up strange men and luring them to join her through her considerable feminine wiles. With the suggestion and then the promise of sex, Johansson's alien further lures the men into an undisclosed location where she tricks them into finding themselves submerged into some sort of a black liquid that keeps them in some sort of stasis before their human flesh is harvested.  And then, Johansson's alien goes back on the hunt once more...

For the most part, this is indeed the arc of "Under The Skin," a film that despite the scant nature of its plot and even lack of an actual story, proves itself to be a haunting experience that certainly sticks instead of floating off into the cinematic ether. First of all, the film is exquisitely shot by Cinematographer Daniel Landin, who, in this day of films that are wildly over-directed with all manner of everything money can buy launched at the silver screen, shows exactly how to create a sinister, unfamiliar and therefore alien landscape out of what is so seemingly recognizable and without an over-reliance upon special effects. Combined with the film's striking visual palette is the fantastic music score by Composer Mica Levi, which will definitely send chills up and down your spine repeatedly. The name of the iconic Stanley Kubrick has been invoked in regards to the tonality of this film and I suppose to some degree I could agree with the assessment as "Under The Skin" is so unrepentant in its near clinical approach to the storytelling and Frazen has indeed made a film that really functions as a visual experience, much like Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), as it just provides the imagery and we are left to piece together exactly what it all may mean.

With that in mind, I feel that in collaboration with his team, Jonathan Frazen has created an extremely frigid film. There is no warmth to be had or found and after a spell, you do realize how effectively he has placed us within the perspective of Scarlett Johansson's alien character as we are witnessing all of the experiences through her eyes--or at least the eyes of the human figure's skin she has appropriated for herself.

Contributing to fully realizing the emotion of an alien world although we are on Earth, "Under The Skin" is a film that contains essentially no actual dialogue. Yes, there is some speaking here and there as Johansson's alien picks up one man after another and engages in some small talk in order to fully capture them for her consumption. But through the thickness of the Scottish accents of the men, the English language sounds nearly indecipherable, and therefore actual human speech to existing as nothing more than another sound to add along to the sounds of passing cars, raindrops and footsteps. Yet another element that made viewing this film such an anxious experience, even though the film as a whole is so quiet.

Scarlett Johansson truly gives a performance unlike anything she has ever achieved before. While I am not certain if it was necessarily a great performance it was one that is truly unforgettable and even unprecedented as this film strips every element of warmth away, so surprising considering how warm of an actress she actually is. Even in Spike Jonze's "Her" (2013), a film where she is not even seen, we are able to gather a world of emotions solely through the effectiveness and power of her voice. But now, Johansson has to rely on a completely different set of tools as her character is entirely unknowable and operates with absolutely no known motive, making her exist as some kind of a malevolent force much like Javier Bardem achieved in The Coen Brothers' brutally grim masterpiece "No Country For Old Men" (2007).

In some ways, perhaps Johansson's portrayal is a way for Frazen to provide the film with a sharp cultural critique regarding the sexual attitudes between men and women, the means of seduction, why men are seduced, what are men truly seduced by and the consequences of succumbing to said seduction. With that, "Under The Skin" could possibly be seen as some sort of a revenge film and one in which there is no graphic violence on display at that. Or at least it may be one that rallies against the subjugation and objectification of women and thus turns the tables on men who are easily taken in by a young woman with full red lips, a tight low cut shirt and the promise of clandestine sexual fulfillment. In this film, Johansson is the merciless and emotionless predator and men are the unsuspecting prey.

With that, is "Under The Skin" even an exploration of lust itself? This is a film that does carry its fair share of nudity, from Scarlett Johansson certainly but mostly, from the men she lures into her trap. Yes, for those who are interested in this sort of thing, most of the nudity in the film is full frontal male nudity, a rarity. "Under The Skin" also often feels like the inverse of a traditional horror or slasher film, where scantily clad women are punished, murdered and dismembered for openly acknowledging their own sense of sexuality. With "Under The Skin," Frazen has created a bad dream-like landscape, but sticking with the horror film comparisons, this time the men are the ones punished for exhibiting any signs of sexuality. One sequence, which features Johansson's alien's first two victims trapped underneath in the strange stasis liquid, nakedly regard each other with a sense of existential despair knowing full well their erect penises got them into this mess from which there is no escape.

But then, the film takes a couple of even stranger turns. When Johanssson's alien picks up her latest victim, a man with a severely disfigured face like The Elephant Man, she shows mercy. And then, the final third of the film involves her relationships with two different men; one who exhibits kindness and another who wishes her intense harm. From this point, Johansson's alien's predatory instincts fail her or they are at least compromised, which makes me wonder if  "Under The Skin" is also examining exactly what it means to be human? That the complexity of the human experience means that some can show compassion with no expectations or destructive, hurtful tendencies with no provocation and just as easily and equally. Johansson's explorations and building curiosity of Earth and humans are also placed under the increasingly sinister eyes of her motorcycle clad watchers, thus creating an even greater danger for our leading character as well as elevating the sense of anxiety the film weaved in such an arresting manner.

But who really knows what "Under The Skin" is ultimately about anyway as it is a film that is so poetic, impressionistic and does keep the viewer at an arms length. Whatever the film is actually all about is up to each and every viewer as there is really nothing to even cling to except for the striking visuals. I can express to you that throughout the film, I was extremely unsettled and unnerved. For a film this somnambulant, "Under The Skin" would have easily been trance inducing if it was not so genuinely frightening. I was kept at rapt attention, even when absolutely nothing was occurring on the screen. Yet, Frazen ensured that the rhythms of the film kept me (and I would imagine all of you) completely off balance and at times, upended. But I do applaud Frazen for creating a cinematic universe that felt to be so complete and so foreign that the return to the real world was jarring as well as welcoming.

Jonathan Frazen's "Under The Skin" is a film that I am certain many of you will find to be impenetrable. It will require heavy lifting from the audience but I do think the effort is more than worth it as the experience was an honest one as well as being a wholly unique one, unlike anything else currently playing at your local theaters. I strongly feel that art is not always designed to make audiences feel comfortable and this film is as uncomfortable as it gets. Frankly, it even may infuriate some of you but even so, shouldn't art provoke and challenge as well as entertain?

"Are we dreaming?" asks the disfigured young man as he approaches the nearly naked and awaiting alien so memorably portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. Perhaps so, as "Under The Skin" is indeed one elegant, crystalline nightmare.


"PURPLE RAIN" (1984)
Screenplay Written by Albert Magnoli and William Blinn
Directed by Albert Magnoli

I have said it before and I am proudly saying it again, with regards to the artist forever known as Prince, when I saw his debut feature film "Purple Rain" on its opening weekend back in the summer of 1984, I entered completely as a skeptic and exited completely as a convert!!

Just last week, as I was spending a day home sick from work, I woke up from sleeping most of the day away to gathering myself together upon the love seat in my living room. I turned on the television and began flipping through some channels and I stumbled upon "Purple Rain," as it was being show on the channel VHI CLASSIC. While I typically cannot stand and have no patience watching theatrical films on regular television due to the plethora of commercials, and most importantly, all of the edited content, I somehow found myself watching most of the film regardless. Dear readers, I wish for you to know that "Purple Rain" is a film that I have not seen in perhaps over 20 years, primarily because I had seen it enough to last three lifetimes between my teen years and mid 20's (and for that matter, the actual album is possibly the one Prince album that I listen to the least because of the very same reason--believe me, I wore that album OUT).

As I sat on the love seat that afternoon watching the movie again, reciting dialogue and remembering scenes that have been so burned within my brain, I somehow found myself feeling so enormously moved, more than I have ever been with this film, especially once the film reached its towering climax as The Kid (played by Prince), fronting his band The Revolution, performs the now titanic title song to the sight of arms swaying slowly back and forth in the air in unison. In a strange way, it was almost as if I was seeing the film for the first time again even though while watching, I mentally traveled back to the day when I actually did see the film for the very first time. For me, I have always felt that "Purple Rain" is one of the greatest rock films ever made and seeing it again, only re-confirmed that opinion. But somehow, this time, the film felt to reach an even higher greatness, yet not through the golden haze of nostalgia. I think the greatness I saw and most importantly felt, illustrated that the film hit a certain peak that perhaps I can see even better now that I am older...30 years older, to be exact. So, at this time, please allow me to celebrate Director Albert Magnoli's "Purple Rain," which will reach its 30th Anniversary later this year, as it is a masterful achievement, a supremely audacious project on a variety of levels and truly one of the most electrifying films I have ever seen.

Now what may arrive as quite the surprise for you, I was not always a disciple and devotee of Prince. Quite the contrary, there was a time, so long ago, when I could not stand the sight of him. I cannot explain why my initial reaction to Prince was something so vehemently primal but even so, I just hated him. Perhaps I was just too young to even begin to comprehend a figure like him (I was) but he just flew in the face of absolutely everything that I felt to be "right" or "normal" in the world. Prince was a character who just looked strange, who sang weird songs, and was obsessed with all things sexual, making him someone I wanted to steer clear away from. I remember having read that Prince was attempting to make a motion picture somewhat based upon himself and I just found the prospect of such a feature to be the most gigantic form of self-aggrandizement that I could even conceive of. And so, I scoffed endlessly at even the mere idea of such a movie, rejecting it entirely sight unseen. But in the summer of 1984, when I was 15 years old, all of those opinions would change forever in just two short hours.

The first calling card for "Purple Rain" was the release of the accompanying album's first single, the groundbreaking "When Doves Cry," around two full months before the film opened. All summer long, that song was inescapable and try as I might, I slowly...very slowly...found myself being taken in by the song, even though I still rejected Prince altogether. By the time the film was about to be released, "Purple Rain" had already received a rave review from Rolling Stone magazine, a great sign to be sure. But for me, it would have to take the opinions of the two I treasured the most regarding matters such as these, the late, great Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. I was so convinced that both of them would easily see through what was obviously a vanity project and blow it off of the screen so completely that Prince himself would be sorry for ever having thought of an idea so ridiculous.

So, imagine my surprise when I looked at the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun Times on Friday, July 27, 1984 to discover that not only did Siskel and Ebert LOVE the film, they each awarded it four stars and named it one of the best films of 1984. That did it! Now, I just had to see the thing for myself and find out exactly what this was all about.

On opening weekend, I ventured to the Evergreen Plaza shopping mall and their four screen movie theater, to surprisingly find myself staring at an ticket booth line that was nothing less than EPIC. I waited and waited and waited, listening to the intense buzz of the crowd around me and finally, I found myself brave enough to ask the girl in front of me exactly which movie this ticket booth line was for, because seriously it could not have been for "Purple Rain," right? And so, the girl's response?

"IT'S PRINCE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

I stood corrected.

By the time I entered the theater and found my seat, the screening I attended had completely sold out! Even having seen George Lucas' "Star Wars" (1977) and Steven Spielberg's "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" (1981) on their respective opening days, as well as other notable releases including the Chicago EVENT movie, John Landis' "The Blues Brothers" (1980), my memory is telling me that the energy in the room for "Purple Rain" was unlike anything I had experienced before. The din of the crowd only became louder when the lights went down, the theater screen curtain opened and after a few trailers, the Warner Brothers logo appeared on the screen with the following words announced over the theater speakers..."Ladies and gentlemen...The Revolution!" 

And then, there he was. The form and shape of Prince, wielding his guitar and engulfed in a cloud of dramatic lighting and stage fog extolling the now iconic opening, "Dearly beloved...we are gathered here today to get through this thing called 'life'..." Dear readers, at that very instant, the theater ERUPTED! It was as if the man himself was standing in person...just...right...THERE! By the time the film's opening song "Let's Go Crazy" hit its full thunderous stride, that theater was completely on its feet and I was swept away within the wave of adoration and excitement, the screams and shrieks, the flurry of images and the wall-to-wall sonic blast of booming rock and roll power. Once Prince hit that now iconic guitar solo that closes the song, my mind was completely blown apart.

The plot of "Purple Rain" is now most familiar. Set in Minneapolis, "Purple Rain" stars Prince as The Kid, the nameless and ferociously driven and darkly troubled musician and front-man of The Revolution. The Kid and his band hold a regular performing slot at the legendary First Avenue and & 7th Street Entry nightclub but their tenure is threatened by the increasing musical sensationalism of rival band The Time, as led by the flamboyant hipster gigolo Morris Day and his trusty sidekick and personal valet Jerome Benton. Additionally, there is tension within The Revolution as The Kid's musical vision has increasingly begun to alienate audiences, and his stranglehold over the band's musical direction has caused considerable friction between himself and budding songwriters, guitarist Wendy Melvoin and keyboardist Lisa Coleman. 

Meanwhile at his home, in which he shares with his parents, The Kid's domestic life is a nightmare. His Father, Francis L. (a disturbing Clarence Williams III), a failed musician, repeatedly inflicts verbal and physical abuse over The Kid's Mother (Olga Karlatos), resulting in similar abusive and self-destructive tendencies within The Kid and those around him.

All of the disparate areas of The Kid's life converge upon the arrival of Apollonia (played by Apollonia Kotero), a new girl in town who houses huge dreams of making it as a singer and soon finds herself falling in love with The Kid as well as becoming the object of affection, as well as the potential lead singer of Morris Day's new girl group, both of which send The Kid spiraling into grim despair and at times, uncontrollable anger.

"Purple Rain" culminates in a harrowing family tragedy and a spectacular concert performance of voluminous uplift, deliverance and possible redemption as The Kid comes to terms with his family, his band, his love for Apollonia and himself.

After all of my nay-saying, Prince and his movie had me in the palms of their respective hands within the film's first seven minutes and never let me go. After it was all over, I went immediately to the record store in the mall and bought the album.

During the remainder of 1984, I saw "Purple Rain" in the movie theater four more times, something that was nearly unheard of within my family as we just never went out to see films more than one time. By the holiday season, the film was released on the home video market, even as it was still raking in the money theatrically. From that point, I could not even begin to tell you how many times I have seen the film and all of these memories that I have shared with you came flooding back to me instantaneously as I sat at home, sick from work, watching this movie all over again.

When I was 15, I knew that "Purple Rain" was something unusually special. The film was such a visceral experience as well as one that fully broadened my horizons musically, socially, and even sexually as the film possessed a true and honest sensual allure that was not "dirty" in the least but deeply erotic, from the carnal concert sequences and to the film's one love scene (in which Prince is fully clothed and Apollonia is fairly clothed) remains one of the most smoldering sex sequences I have seen to date. Even with all of that being said, "Purple Rain" receives my highest praise for the simple fact that is was just one of those movies that transcends just being a movie. "Purple Rain" became an experience!

That said, and as affected as I was over and over again, I do not remember ever finding myself to be as overwhelmingly moved as I was just this past week. Let me assure you, dear readers, my feelings were not filtered through the haze of nostalgia. I realized that when I was 15, I took the entire film at face value. But now, with the passage of time, having lived life, built a greater knowledge and gaining an experience that I just did not have at 15, the greatness of "Purple Rain" has only continued to reveal itself as being a motion picture that almost re-defined he rock musical as well as what it means to be a truly audacious film. And furthermore, it is a considerably much darker and more provocatively adult experience than it is given credit for.

As a rock musical, "Purple Rain" is superbly first rate. The actual songs of "Purple Rain," for which Prince won an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score, are so meticulously composed with the full knowledge that they have to connect with the audience on the very first listen and Prince straddled the line between accessible mass appeal while fully retaining his idiosyncratic aesthetics brilliantly. Every single song is firmly story driven yet can completely stand independently from the film. They are instantly memorable and connect with the viewer just as rapidly and Director Albert Magnoli has rendered each selection with an urgent vibrancy that makes the beautifully staged and filmed concert sequences practically leap off of the screen.

The choice of having "Let's Go Crazy" open the film was a masterstroke as it also serves as a purpose of intent for the audience in the movie theater (or now at home). It is as if the film is literally saying to the audience, "Let's go crazy!!!!" That the film you are about to see will blow you away and then some, so lose all of your inhibitions and have a great time. Additionally, Magnoli wisely remembers that he does indeed have a story to tell and within the film's full opening seven minutes, which is a spectacularly edited sequence (also by Magnoli), Magnoli ensures that the tone, environment, and all of the film's major characters are fully established, grounding the audience for the story while simultaneously lifting us out of our seats with the music.

And what incredible music it is from one end of the film to the other. The whirlwind romance of "Take Me With U." The slow burn and explosive finish of the pleading "The Beautiful Ones." The dark carnal funk of "Computer Blue" and the infamous "Darling Nikki." The near zoot suit swagger of The Time's "Jungle Love" and the explosive, exuberant and sublimely ridiculous "The Bird." The cry for help that is the aforementioned "When Doves Cry." The redemptive and victorious one-two punch finale of "I Would Die 4 U" and "Baby I'm A Star." And of course, "Purple Rain," the epic song itself, a song that still moves mountains to this day as it is a soaring powerhouse and provides the film with an outstanding catharsis after all of the darkness that has come before it. It feels like the rays of the brightest shining sun are blazing through the nightclub, piercing the celluloid and engulfing the audience in an all encompassing divinity. All of those songs are present and accounted for within the film, a testament to Prince's peerless songwriting powers.

Beyond the music of the film, the audacity of "Purple Rain" further stems from the fact that it was even made at all, especially during 1984, when music was decidedly segregated. To think, that Prince, Albert Magnoli and all participants involved had the audacity to think and believe that they could make a major motion picture starring a musical figure who was essentially a cult artist and a Black cult artist at that! There was no precedent for having such a figure reach out to capture middle America, despite the home base location of Minneapolis. It was a conception that was so untested and so unproven that middle America, and really, the nation at large, would even see the film at all, let alone repeatedly, that the entire conception of "Purple Rain" was a tremendous risk. This fact again makes the "Let's Go Crazy" sequence so especially crucial, because if Magnoli and Prince could not make their case as immediately as possible, they would be dead in the water to be certain. But thankfully, all parties involved, and especially Prince, were so staggeringly brazen and bold enough to disregard any and all barriers, completely re-write the rules and just blasted full speed ahead with a confidence that was supremely unwavering. Simply stated, they gave us an experience that we had never quite seen before...even for those who were already completely in tune with the "secret" of this artist.

Delving even further, "Purple Rain" is the-culmination of everything that had existed within the musical universe Prince had been building over the course of five albums, in addition to the concepts, characters and music of The Time and Vanity 6 (re-christened "Apollonia 6" for the film), all of which Prince created. Many representations of Prince's growing iconography are also present throughout the film, from the sparkling white cloud guitar that Apollonia presents to The Kid as a gift all the way to Morris Day's Stacy Adams shoes. From the multi-ethnic and multi-gender bands and musicians to, most crucially, the multi-ethnic/multi-gender/multi-generational make up of the audiences throughout the entire movie, almost feels as if "Purple Rain" is the visual representation of Prince's utopian vision in the track "Uptown" from the "Dirty Mind" (released October 8, 1980) album.

Another element that sets "Purple Rain"apart from other rock movies, as well as all three of Prince's subsequent films is how Albert Magnoli instills a gritty sense of realism within the grandeur, thus grounding the entire proceedings firmly enough so we can see these characters existing in a very real world. While we see the film's protagonists primarily in the nightclubs, Magnoli also places them in public on the Minneapolis streets, within a shopping mall, in lower end apartments and houses and of course in rural Minneapolis where Apollonia, in a lusty and funny sequence, jumps into the frigid waters as to purify herself in Lake Minnetonka.

And just as the characters are inserted into the community of Minnesota, that very community floods the inner sanctum of the nightclubs thus creating an environment that is symbiotic in nature. Like the turbulent, troubled characters that populated Director John Badham's "Saturday Night Fever" (1977), everyone in "Purple Rain," from the performers to the audience, all band together, searching for and sometimes finding a sense of communion and even salvation together.

"Purple Rain" is also a film of intense discipline. We see the rivalry and competition between the bands, the interpersonal conflicts within The Revolution and how those specific elements are compounded when confronted with an economic reality that exists within the nightclub scene. As First Avenue and 7th Street Entry's owner Billy Sparks explains to The Kid matter-of-factly, "I've got three acts. I don't need four. So, one of y'all has got to go. What would you do in my position?" That precarious position of possibly being cut from a well earned and visible musical slot in a prime nightclub location provides us a view into the extreme work ethic that exists for these characters. In addition to performing, we essentially only see these bands rehearsing, working and striving to make it. Drugs are never even mentioned in the film-a rock movie novelty-- and alcohol is rarely seen as well. Music is their lifeline, especially for The Kid...but a little more on that later.

In a strange way, many of the actual acting performances also contribute to the film's stark reality. While I will speak more to Prince's performance in a bit, most of the actors in "Purple Rain" are not professional actors in the least. Morris Day and Jerome Benton are clearly the most natural and relaxed in front of the camera, as their rapport, especially in the brilliantly realized variation of Abbott & Costello's "Who's On First?" routine, provided the film with many of its greatest highlights. As for many of the other participants, including Apollonia Kotero, Wendy Melvoin, and Jill Jones who portrays a First Avenue waitress who harbors a long crush upon The Kid, they provide the film with line readings that are...frankly..even worse than wooden. Some line readings are even flat out terrible. And yet somehow that does not deter from the film as a whole and also even kind of adds to its charm, as what you see is what you get! There is no artifice in these performances, nothing feels like a put-on and they are filled with such earnestness that the good will is infectious. One cannot deny how hard they are working at something at which they are so untrained. They are fully at the service of both Magnoli and Prince's artistic visions, and that sense of camaraderie and support translates wonderfully to the immense spirit of the entire film.

But "Purple Rain" is not all dance, music, sex and romance. Like I said, on my latest viewing of the movie, I found myself to be emotionally affected in a way and on a level that I have not been before. For a movie that was so popular in 1984, and so beloved to this day, it strikes me now at how dark and disturbing of a film it truly is. Even visually, as you watch the movie, notice how Magnoli utilizes his set design, color palette and cinematography to literally darken as the story line grows more troubling. On a thematic level, and like The Who's "Tommy" (released May 23, 1969) and the accompanying Ken Russell film version from 1975, where the issues of post war England, child abuse and possibly autism have become clearer for me as I have grown into adulthood, "Purple Rain," at its core, is a film that compassionately explores the cycle of abuse.

"Purple Rain" is presented as a semi-autobiographical film where we are simultaneously gathering a peek inside Prince's inner world and background while he also grows his evolving persona and mystique. While Prince himself has expressed in one of his rare interviews that his own Father did not brandish a gun like the character Francis L. does in the film, Prince also released a grim song in 1994 entitled "Papa," where he says plainly, "Don't abuse children...or else they turn out like me." The psychological drama and underpinnings within "Purple Rain" are especially provocative, powerful and unsettling, which leads to probably one of the most audacious elements of the film itself: The Kid is not a traditional film hero in any conceivable way.

In many ways, The Kid is a character that would make you want to stone the movie screen. He is truly narcissistic, aloof, relentlessly demanding of everyone around him, unfair, sexist, and often cruel to those closest to him. His relationship with Apollonia is one where everything has to occur and unfold upon his terms. He always has the upper hand, whether during those aforementioned hijinks by Lake Minnetonka, or moments of sexual intimacy, and he definitely wants to keep a certain hold on Apollonia's possible singing career. It can even be inferred that he would rather she not be a part of his musical world at all. Yet, when she does step out on her own to claim her own space in the world when she decides to front Morris Day's new female singing group, The Kid feels threatened and then, lashes out in violence. What stops us from indeed stoning the movie screen is that while we hate his behavior, we completely understand his behavior and also sympathize with him because he is a victim of abuse himself. The Kid is copying a stream of learned behaviors inflicted upon himself and his Mother throughout his lifetime and it is all he knows, making his social skill set decidedly weak and unstable.

The Kid's inner turmoil at what he fears he is destined to become and feelings that he is unable to change himself provides "Purple Rain" with a deeply painful self-portrait to regard and also provides the film's songs with a greater storytelling task. For every character within the movie, we can see that music is their life and livelihood, especially so for The Kid. All of the songs The Kid performs are extensions of his psychological state as the lyrics speak the words that he is unable to just say plainly. While "Let's Go Crazy" is the rave-up songs like "The Beautiful Ones" and "Computer Blue" resonate even greater because they detail his loneliness, isolation and his desperate need to connect, which again creates a musical world in which only he exists and leaves no room for his band or even the audience, which places him in professional jeopardy with Billy Sparks. "The stage is no place for your personal shit, man!!!" admonishes Sparks after The Kid viciously attacks and abuses Apollonia from the stage with "Darling Nikki." "This is a business, and you too far gone to see that yet! I told you before, you're not packin' them in like you used to. No one digs your music but yourself, " Sparks continues. And for the final coup de grace, Sparks lays everything on the line with the statement, "Look around you. No one's diggin' you. Oh, buddy, what a fuckin' waste. But, like father, like son."

No one digs your music but yourself. Like Father, like son.

These are just two of the demons that plague The Kid throughout "Purple Rain" as the fullness of his existential crisis is struggling to find the answers to the questions which ask, "Who am I?" and "What will I become?" His inner pain is all consuming and grows even moreso as the film continues. Even music begins to fail to provide The Kid with solace as he is unable to drown out the demons that rage upstairs in his home and he cannot drown out the demons in his mind elsewhere. I think that this conflict is indeed the soul of "Purple Rain" and here is where Prince proved himself to be a most compelling and deeply empathetic actor.
True, some of Prince's line readings are not the best, here and there. But I did think that his backstage argument with Billy Sparks was a particularly good scene. Possibly his best dialogue driven scene is the one where The Kid confronts Francis L., finding him playing a mournful piano piece and then discussing the nature of his Father's music and marriage itself ("Never get married," says Francis L. with grave finality). Clarence Williams III's intimidating gravitas (just look at how his hands tremble, a subtle motion implying alcoholism) forces Prince to raise his game and the effect is sobering.

Where Prince shines the greatest as an actor is not through the dialogue but through his physicality, his body language and especially through his eyes as he is able to convey a maelstrom of emotions very simply and powerfully. I loved the moments after "Darling Nikki" where he rages from the stage and the camera is seemingly forced to keep pace with him as he races to the dressing room and ferociously prowls the room back and forth, plops into his barber shop seat and then, rapidly launches himself out of it to prowl all over again. Then there is The Kid's psychological breakdown late in the film after that aforementioned family tragedy which I will not spoil for the uninitiated--just a powerfully unhinged display.

But, it is truly in those quiet, interior moments where Prince shines at his very best. The scenes where he comforts his Mother. The scenes where other characters rage at him or warn him and he sits silently taking everything in, knowing they are correct but he's too driven and stubborn to admit it. Just seeing his eyes watering in the aftermath of his breakdown, as he slowly pulls himself together after being so demonstrably damaged. I think that Prince just nailed the pain and confusion of children affected by the cycle of abuse and being adult enough to know what that cycle is and the part they now play within that cycle. How do children ever survive experiences such as these anyway? How do these children move forwards in life? As The Kid wrestles with who he is and who he fears he is destined to become, as well as confronting the demon that suicide may provide the release that love and music apparently cannot deliver anymore, those very questions appeared to me. And before I knew it, I began to experience emotions I had never felt during "Purple Rain" before.

The film's finale, which of course features the song "Purple Rain" in its full glory and in a mostly unbroken close-up sequence, is purely transcendent. For The Kid, he has reached an emotional depth that had previously eluded him as he finally embraces the act of letting go, to admitting his failings, to completely shedding his skin to reveal the truth of his spirit, and then, finding the place to forgive and most importantly, to ask for forgiveness. It is a sequence of stunning release, for the characters, for the audience within the film and for all of us watching. And for the first time, tears began to well in my eyes. Wondering if this reaction was just a fluke, I recently purchased the 20th Anniversary DVD (the only copy of the film I have ever owned was the original VHS version I received as a Christmas gift in 1984) and re-watched it in its entirety and the reaction was exactly the same. Truly an amazing feat for a film 30 years old and again one I have seen countless times.

Albert Magnoli's "Purple Rain" is a film about tension and release, abuse and healing, isolation and community, subjugation and surrender, disintegration and reconciliation, crippling darkness and blinding light, as well as the transformative power of mighty love and even mightier music. Aside from Prince's extraordinary concert film "Sign O' The Times" (1987), how I wish his other two narrative driven features-the black and white/1940's inspired/Parisian set "Under The Cherry Moon" (1986) and the quasi "Purple Rain" sequel/fantasia "Graffiti Bridge" (1990)--even approached the arena "Purple Rain" originated. But, even so, we do have this film, not simply Prince's greatest cinematic achievement but truly a film for the ages.

As he sings in "I Would Die 4 U," Prince informs us that "I'm not a human/ I am a dove/ I am your conscious/I am love/All I really need is 2 know that U believe."

1n 1984, in 2014 and forever more, I believe.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

DELICIOUS!!: a review of "The Lunchbox"

Written and Directed by Ritesh Batra
**** (four stars)

Dear readers, I am on a roll!!!!!!

"The Lunchbox," the debut feature film from Writer/Director Ritesh Batra is a winner! What an absolutely lovely film this was and in the tradition of the late, great Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, I feel that it is my duty and imperative to point you in the direction of this film as it is one that will easily fall through the cinematic cracks as it is not only a smaller independent film but a foreign film at that. Do not let the prospect of subtitles deter you. Don't let the lack of CGI pyrotechnics and presence of subtitles sway you away from it. I am here to assure you that if you do choose to take in "The Lunchbox," you will indeed be handsomely rewarded with an experience that is chock full of charm, perceptive insights into human nature and inter-connectivity, enormously romantic, empathetic, deeply melancholic as well as a film that will definitely tempt your taste buds. If you miss this one, shame on you!!

Set in modern day Mumbai, "The Lunchbox" introduces us to Ila (a glorious Nimrat Kaur), a young wife and Mother, who has found herself in a lonely and unfulfilling marriage. Hoping to spice up her relationship with her distant husband (Nakul Vaid), Ila begins to prepare intricate and specialized lunch meals which will be sent to her husband at work through Mumbai's lunchbox delivery system. One day, the lunchbox intended for her husband mistakenly arrives upon the desk of Saajan Fernandez (played by the great Irrfan Khan), a lonely government accountant readying himself for an early retirement. Tempted by the succulent aromas emanating from the lunchbox, Saajan eats the entirety of the meal and sends the box back to where it originated from.

Once Ila realizes that her husband did not receive the fully eaten meals she has lovingly prepared for him, she continues to cook and send the lunches, now augmented with handwritten notes, to Saajan, thus beginning a correspondence that may awaken these two lost and adrift souls, possibly inspiring them to merge paths.

Ritesh Batra's "The Lunchbox" is a high accomplishment made even more impressive that it is Batra's first film. It is so assured in regards to its tonality, maturity, conception and presentation that it feels like the work of a seasoned veteran filmmaker. I just found it amazing that Batra took what could have existed as a romantic comedy construction and treated the concept with such intelligence, grace and soulfulness that no moments ever feel to be false, contrived or prefabricated. Most importantly, "The Lunchbox" is not a film about a plot, so to speak. To me, I felt it to be a "slice-of-life" film presented with an honest, matter-of-fact quality that made every emotion reveal itself naturally as Batra allows his movie, like the food Ila prepares, to take its time to congeal as succulency as possible and this approach works like magic.

As I watched "The Lunchbox," and despite its location of Mumbai, I was often reminded of films like Sofia Coppola's "Lost In Translation" (1998) and even Spike Jonze's "Her" (2013) as each of those films explore themes of alienation and isolation and are about lost and lonely people who somehow find a sense of connection. For Coppola,  the connection between her characters was found through being isolated in a foreign locale. For Jonze, the connection was created through advanced technology.

With "The Lunchbox," which actually could serve as a counterpoint, or even better, as a companion piece to "Her," Batra ensures that the connection between Ila, Saajan and even a third character, Shaikh (a terrific Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a new, eager young accountant that Saajan mentors, are forged through the purposefully tactile experiences that come with the preparation and sensory stimulating aspects of food as well as through the series of handwritten notes. While Shaikh exclaims to Saajan at one point that we are all living in the age of e-mail, the letters, and of course the food, are forms of that increasingly elusive human touch in the 21st century, a sense of human touch that further binds Ila and Saajan together even though they have not met face-to-face.

What I truly appreciated is that "The Lunchbox" could have easily been an lighter than air concoction but was actually an experience weighted with real and often painful gravity. While not without many episodes that provide sharp humor, especially during sequences that present a certain comedy of manners, Batra utilizes a series of visual motives that beautifully enhance the tenor of the subject matter. I loved how we see a variety of means of transportation and delivery within the film. The first image in the film happens to be commuter trains and we are often riding around Mumbai, with the characters or the lunchboxes via buses, taxis and seemingly anything else with wheels. We are witnessing the endless motion of a society that moves together but not quite. With that, I also loved how Batra displayed an aspect of modern day middle class life as well as working class life in Mumbai and how the two classes are constantly travelling together, yet in completely different circles, and ultimately, how they either intersect or do not.

With regards to the central relationship between Ila and Saajan, characters throughout the film often speak of the concept of how the "wrong train" will sometimes reach the "right station," thus promoting a quality of fate and destiny into the proceedings that also felt completely natural and not of motion picture fantasy. Just the image of that travelling, titular lunchbox itself serves as a wonderful motif that fully describes and augments the depths to which we, and the characters, will find ourselves throughout the journey of the film. The lunchbox itself is shaped like a small silo and is divided into a series of circular containers that disconnect themselves and reveal the inner contents of the meal like a Russian Matryoshka doll. With that subtle image of Ila and Saajan opening, disconnecting, revealing and re-connecting the lunchbox over and again, we are witnessing the growth of their relationship as they are each revealing layer upon layer of themselves to each other, forging a new and stronger connection in the process.

"The Lunchbox" is indeed a love story but it is also a film that conveys a sublime richness as it delves into the themes of mortality, loss, grief, mourning, disappointment, failure, as well as the ebb and flow of marriage. With each meal and each note, Ila and Saajan are forced to come to terms with aspects of how they have each found themselves engaging with their respective lives, that is if they are engaging with them at all. And then there is that crucial third character of Shaikh as he serves as the counter point to both Ila and Saajan, as the more we discover about him and his sometimes questionable motives, they reveal precisely how he is engaging with life in a manner that both Ila and Saajan have denied themselves. The conflicts and connections that Batra has devised and illustrated within "The Lunchbox" are superbly rendered and enormously felt, especially by the film's final moments.

All of the performances within "The Lunchbox" are beautifully muted and astutely presented. While his name may be unfamiliar, you may recognize Irrfan Khan from his roles on HBO's terrific yet sadly short lived series "In Treatment," as well as his work in Wes Anderson's "The Darjeeling Limited" (2007), Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" (2008), Marc Webb's "The Amazing Spider-Man" (2012) and most impressively, as the captivating storyteller in Ang Lee's "Life Of Pi" (2012). Khan is a simply mesmerizing actor as he utilizes a sheer economy of words and movements that convey a world of emotions, including the unfathomable depths of grief, loss and loneliness. Instead of keeping us at an arms length, it is through his reticence that we find ourselves leaning in closer to the screen from our theater seats and he so effectively draws us closer to this character as we wish to know and understand him more, greater and better just as Ila does.

As Ila, Nimrat Kaur is profoundly compelling and absolutely stunning to watch, especially as her character's actions signify the exceedingly higher stakes with which she is playing by continuing to correspond with this stranger. It was certainly not lost upon me that this Ila is not an American woman and the film does not take place in America, which makes "The Lunchbox" also serve as a powerful cultural critique about the role of women in society as they relate to marriage and inter-personal relationships even when the marriage itself is a mistake. Like Irrfan Khan, Kaur also utilizes an even greater economy of words and body language and yet her minimalism is enormously recognizable as we fully understand her dilemma, nearly debilitating sadness and inner turmoil, making her budding relationship with Saajan function with tremendous urgency. Both she and Khan make for a fabulous pairing and duet that soars as often as it is heartbreaking.

Dear readers, this is the time to race out and support something new and wonderful, especially as the Summer Movie Season has not officially begun yet. As I have said over and again, I strongly urge those of you who are looking for a good movie to see, to really make the effort and see something that you otherwise may not have paid any attention. Ritesh Batra's "The Lunchbox" is precisely the perfect film to fit that specific need at this time, as it is truly one beautiful, romantic and haunting movie that seriously understands the emotions of love, loss, and the need to connect in such an entertaining and inclusive fashion. It is a film with no sense of contrivance as well as being a film with no villains. It is an adult film for adults but also one that is presented with no sense of vulgarity or gratuitousness. "The Lunchbox" is a film about life as it is lived, and about what life could possibly be, even when the circumstances seem to be sending messages suggesting impossibility.

Ritesh Batra's "The Lunchbox" has easily sailed to being one of my favorite films of 2014.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

TRAPPED IN A WORLD HE NEVER MADE: a review of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"

Based upon the Marvel comics series created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby

Screenplay Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
**** (four stars)

Last fall, when I saw the bland and bloated sequel "Thor: The Dark World" (2013),  I began to worry that perhaps the assembly line tactic of rapidly releasing new films set within the Marvel comics universe was beginning to show some slight strain--a quality that was not helping to alleviate my comic book movie fatigue. This is not to be unexpected, of course because when the bottom line dictates the frequency of the product, quality control is indeed bound to suffer tremendously. Even so, I have been holding out some hope for the Marvel films to return to their high quality and man, did my hopes pay off!

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier," the second installment of the adventures of our red, white and blue clad and mighty shield carrying hero, but now in the present day of 2014, is a triumph for the Marvel films as Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have not only made the best Marvel film since Joss Whedon"s "The Avengers" (2012), they have fashioned one of the best Marvel films to date. It is a film that not only broadens and deepens its canvas from Joe Johnston's terrific "Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the Russo brothers have created a dizzyingly paranoid cinematic vision that makes this new film transcend its popcorn movie aesthetics and becomes a much smarter and more insightful film than it has any right to be. After witnessing the greatness of Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and now this film so very early in 2014, I am hoping that these films are significant signs that we are in for a stellar year at the movies.

As with the aforementioned "Thor: The Dark World" and Shane Black's defiantly risk taking "Iron Man 3" (2013) "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" takes place after the events of "The Avengers" and finds Steve Rogers (perfectly played with a steadfast earnestness and physicality by Chris Evans) still attempting to assimilate into the 21st century after being literally thawed out from his frozen suspended animation in the 1940's.  Now living in Washington D.C., Rogers continues to work for the secret organization S.H.I.E.L.D. as run by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), although with a building skepticism as to Fury's true motives behind their operations, most especially after Fury introduces Rogers to Project Insight: a trio of Helicarriers designed to spy and preemptively eliminate potential threats to the nation.

When Fury is attacked by a mysterious group of assailants led by the even more mysterious and silent leader known as The Winter Solider, it is up to Captain America, along with super-spy Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and new ally and war veteran Sam Wilson, soon to be known as The Falcon (a great Anthony Mackie) to uncover the mystery. Yet, what Steve Rogers begins to uncover is an unprecedented web of painfully treacherous deception and duplicity that brings the past of the 1940's crashing dangerously into the present day, potentially creating a most terrifying future...unless Captain America is able to stop it.

While that is indeed the basic plot line of "Captain America: The Winter Solider, I have to give tremendous credit to the Russo brothers and their screenwriters for skillfully conceiving of an adventure that is decidedly quite complex and labyrinthine in its structure as well as its concepts.

Like Francis Lawrence's outstanding "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" from last year, and even Steven Spielberg's brilliantly grim future vision "Minority Report" (2002), I deeply appreciated how the Russo brothers did not craft their sequel to exist as yet another bit of soulless CGI bombast but as a very perceptive Kafka-esque thriller. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is a much darker, tougher film than its predecessor as it is actually challenging audiences to truly think about our relationship and increased reliance upon technology, and how that over-reliance affects the status of our country at this point of our collective history, as the film holds a stark mirror up to our very real world relationships with the Patriot Act, the NSA, drone strikes and definitely the actions of Edward Snowden. With that in mind, the Russo brothers have helmed a film that can exist just down the street from films like Christopher Nolan's game changing "The Dark Knight" (2008) and "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012) as the real world has certainly encroached itself upon the fantasy world to truly disturbing and often exhilarating effect.

Furthermore, with the character of Steve Rogers at the center, and having him be a character that is essentially a man out of his time forced to exist in a world he doesn't fully understand and only really has his 1940's level tools to draw from, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" also exists as a morality play as it explores how our sense of morality can shift, change or even remain rock steady as the world's sense of morality has his the re-set button. With all of the political uncertainty, shifting alliances and secret allegiances contained within the film, the character of Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), former comrade of Nick Fury's high ranking leader within S.H.I.E.L.D. as well as a member of the World Security Council truly represents the concept of political treason and eventually the state of totalitarianism. This conceit then provides the patriotic Steve Rogers with a deeply frightening dilemma: How can I fight with honor for my country when my country has completely turned against me? As a battered Nick Fury instructs him early in the film, "trust no one." Words that leave Steve Rogers trapped in a world he never made but still feels compelled to save regardless.

Even with of those socio/political concepts to mentally chew upon, the Russo brothers certainly remembered that they do have a comic book movie to make and they have handled their duties with creativity, imagination, high energy and a mountain of fun. I loved how the Russo brothers and their screenwriters ensured that while delivering the comic book goods, they also gave their film a terrifically witty screenplay that allowed Chris Evans and Scarlet Johansson to engage in a healthy amount of frisky, sexually tinged banter that actually did provide some healthy sparks. And then, the Russo's injected that trademark Marvel comics melancholy as the sadly interrupted love story from the first film reaches its conclusion with tender tragedy that was indeed heartfelt and served beautifully to augment Steve Rogers' existential trauma living in the 21st century.

Additionally, I loved how Samuel L. Jackson was given decidedly more substantial material to delve into than his pre-requisite walk-on cameo appearances within the Marvel films. Anthony Mackie made for a perfect addition to the team as he brought The Falcon to life with a vibrancy and strength that spoke volumes to me, much in the same way that seeing an African-American superhero in the comic books as a child felt for me. I am already looking forward to seeing him in action again.

Speaking of action, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is not all political intrigue as it is indeed wall to wall with one truly impressive action sequence after another. Now I have to say that I love a good hand-to-hand fight sequence, something that is indeed lacking in the movies, and the Russo brothers have outdone themselves by presenting several beautifully choreographed fist fight battles that truly get your adrenaline racing. And then, there is the fantastic and story driven extended climax which is heroically staged and executed with the high flying Falcon dodging bullets and bombs, and Captain America confronting The Winter Soldier for what may be the final time as our heroes all attempt to thwart the potential apocalypse that lies at the heart of those three hovering Helicarriers. It was all so sensational but if I could toss the Russo brothers one word of advice as they are reportedly committed to helming "Captain America 3," please tone down that "dreaded shaky cam" just a little bit and your action sequences will be even that much stronger!!    

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" has got it all. Thrills, excitement, energy and escapism. But it is also a handsome production that is exceedingly well written, acted and directed that is profound, insightful, darkly perceptive and therefore, extremely purposeful and not disposable in the least, which is something films designed to be entertaining never have to be.

Marvel, you're back on track. Now, let's just keep it that way.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


It looks like it's going to be a quieter month.

In all of the years before the inception of Savage Cinema as well as every year afterwards, I have always looked forwards to reading the in depth  seasonal movie previews as presented in Entertainment Weekly. Like a scorecard, I would circle and check the films, both major releases and smaller independent films, that I would find myself interested in, eager to see whatever would arrive in my city. Once Savage Cinema began, I would use those same preview issues to assist me with composing the Coming Attractions opening features of the month, as I obviously would not be able to simply remember everything that I happened to be interested in.

Curiously, however, a Spring Movie Preview issue has not yet been released by Entertainment Weekly, so in composing this month's Coming Attractions features, I turned to the internet for assistance and discovered that, as previously stated, that this month will be more on the quieter side. That being said, there is "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," which I am very anxious to see (despite my comic book movie fatigue), based upon the impressive trailers and the tenor of the highly positive early reviews. Hopefully this coming opening weekend, I will be able to take that one in.

Beyond that...hmmm...

So, with so much cinematic uncertainty, I will actually take this "quandary" as a blessing as this period will open me up to more of the possibilities of the month, from maybe seeing something I had not originally had planned to see or more certainly, to view something at home that has been waiting for me for quite some time.

So, in the spirit of unpredictability, let me leave this opening post right here and just see where the month f April takes me..and you as well.

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