Tuesday, August 26, 2014

"I-N-O-F-F-E-N-S-I-V-E": a review of "Bad Words"

Screenplay Written by Andrew Dodge
Directed by Jason Bateman
** (two stars)

As much as I love my day to day profession as a preschool teacher and value the worldview and companionship of my young charges, I do have to say that there are times in wish I have been confronted with some spirited (i.e. bratty) little things and I am internally fighting my own tongue from saying the words that I really wish that I could say. This past year has seen more than its share of those moments, truth be told.

So, in that respect, "Bad Words," the directorial debut from actor Jason Bateman, provided some vicarious thrills as we are given a story featuring a misanthropic 40 year old man extolling some unquestionably and unapologetically vicious and vulgar bon mots to children here and there. And as funny as the film occasionally is, "Bad Words" unfortunately was just yet another one of those R rated movies that talks a good game but fails in its overall execution, seemingly for fear of really alienating potential audiences. Which is a shame because there's strong material as well as a concept here that really could have struck some truly dangerous comedic gold.

Jason Bateman stars as the aforementioned 40 year old, Guy Trilby, an embittered warranty proofreader (great touch) who embarks upon a bizarre plan for personal redemption and revenge. Discovering a loophole in the rules and regulations of the National Quill Spelling Bee (think Scripps), Guy, who is indeed an 8th grade dropout, enters the competition, much to the chagrin of the competitive children, their parents and the Quill administrators, including Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney), the director of the spelling bee.

Over the course of the film, Guy is acquainted with fellow competitor Chaitanya Chopra (the charming and sweet voiced Rohan Chand), a 10 year old who doggedly attempts to befriend Guy despite his vehement protests. Guy is also accompanied on his quest by the intrepid Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), a fledgling reported for an on-line publication, who is desperately trying to discover the reasons behind Guy's unorthodox plan for a potential story.

For a directorial debut feature, Jason Bateman immediately shows that he definitely knows his way behind the camera. He proves himself to be a sly director who never treats the comedy with a sledgehammer. Like his own acting, especially as we have witnessed on television's "Arrested Development," Bateman is a master of the deadpan, the slow burn, the expert sense of timing, the quiet pause that leads to a stinging comedic slam dunk.

The opening sequences of "Bad Words" indeed displayed that very admirable skill in a film that does need to strike a certain balance if it is going to work at all. The completely inappropriate put downs he delivers to several children in the film, including young Chaitanya whom Guy occasionally refers to as "Slumdog," are all achieved with an inexplicable deftness that makes you laugh out loud when you would have otherwise stoned the theater screen. Jason Bateman makes even the most questionable material work with a strong sense of underplaying each moment with a certain stealthiness. It's almost as if Jason Bateman has channeled someone like Clint Eastwood, but he uses words and language as his deadly bullets.

With regards to the usage of language, one aspect of "Bad Words" that I also enjoyed very much was its usage of difficult vocabulary so that the film's spelling bee sequences not only pack a punch due to the words that the children are being asked to spell, especially as they at times relate to the plot and characters, the sequences also carry the same sense of weight and quiet thrills as if you were indeed watching the annual Scripps event. And then, Bateman, via Guy's shenanigans, very cleverly turns those events on their heads into the kind of television programming that you almost wish Scripps would sometimes devolve into just for the sheer sense of anarchy.

And yet, I don't think that "Bad Words" goes nearly as far as it needs to.

As I have expressed to you on this site in the past, it truly does take quite a bit to offend me, especially when it comes to actual language and profanity. That being said, I did appreciate how Bateman adn Screenwriter Andrew Dodge didn't litter the film with all manner of vulgarities just for the sake of doing so. To use profanity in the best way possible, Bateman and Ddge figured out ways to make the bad words in question stick out to make that comedic punch instead of just having them all flail around from one end of the film to the other, therefore having an affect that is numbing to listen to.

Even so, the film is called "Bad Words" and it is R rated and it does carry the plot that it has so...just go for it! Where I deeply appreciate and even love some lighter comedies when they posses a more serious core, I have the adverse affect when we have a more serious or at least darker toned film and then the core is as soft as a marshmallow. That is the problem which sinks "Bad Words" as we are just relegated with odes to friendship and loneliness that are easy sentiments and feel completely under-cooked so they really do not pack a dramatic punch at all. The story itself often falls to formula and I really believe that you will be able to spot Guy's mysterious reason for entering the spelling bee instantly and again, it is presented in the softest conceivable fashion.

And then, there is the character of  Guy Trilby himself, a character who could have been a comedic smart bomb but proves himself to be something that is actually quite innocent despite the foul language and ill tempered persona he elicits. For this aspect of the film, this was a quality in which I thought that the filmmakers were maybe more concerned with likability rather than having the audience understand the character's behavior regardless of whether we liked him or not.

Take a film like Director Jason Reitman's scathing "Young Adult" (2011) which featured Charlize Theron as a wholly unlikable creation and Reitman, in collaboration with his Screenwriter Diablo Cody, made absolutely no concession to having the audience begin to like her in the end. In fact, Theron's character becomes even more intolerable by that film's conclusion. But, we understand her completely and that made for an especially bitter and unquestionably bold comedy that left noticeable bruises.

By contrast, "Bad Words" doesn't even leave the traces of scratches let alone bruises as the film seems to just want the audience to see Guy's softer side and realize that he's not really such a bad fellow after all. And for that, the film lost me to a degree as the film's mid-section began to drag and just exist as kind of an R rated version of "Dennis The Menace" with Bateman as a particularly tart tongued Mr. Wilson. For me, that is just not enough to sustain my interest on a comedic level or even on a dramatic level, as I just felt the film needed to be just that much tougher and even nastier in order to provide the inner pathos with some real anguish, which in turn would make the comedy more brutally funny. Despite the language and a few questionable situations, "Bad Words" felt to actually be too safe for its own good

Granted I will concede that perhaps "Bad Words" may be more than vulgar enough for some of you. Perhaps, it may even be too vulgar and foul mouthed. But for my personal tastes, "Bad Words" just felt to be de-fanged. It's not a bad film or even an unmemorable one as Jason Bateman has proven himself to me that he just may be a filmmaker to keep an eye on. But as it stands, "Bad Words" is not nearly bad enough.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

READING THE SIGNS: a review of "Magic In The Moonlight"

Written and Directed by Woody Allen
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Woody Allen's "Magic In The Moonlight, which I am to believe is his 46th film, does not quite scale the heights of the cunning "Match Point" (2005), the sublime "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (2008), the gorgeous "Midnight In Paris" (2011) or the visceral and bruising "Blue Jasmine" (2013) but it is also much better, richer, and deeper than the tenor of the reviews may have been leading you to believe.

For a filmmaker like Allen who does release a new film nearly every single year without fail, there is bound to be some separation of cinematic wheat and chaff due to his prolific nature. But that being said, I feel that Allen, in recent years, has been operating on a creative high, the kind of which any filmmaker would be proud to claim as their own, as he has somehow continued to create vital, provocative, entertaining works that display his singular artistic voice and vision during a time when such cinematic voices are becoming more infrequent. With "Magic In The Moonlight," Woody Allen has delivered yet another late Summer treat that will satiate and satisfy those of you who wish to take a break from the CGI explosions and cacophony and see films that feature people and emotions with wit, skill, heart and soul.

The plot of "Magic In The Moonlight" is deceptively simple. Set in the south of France in the 1928, Colin Firth, in a marvelous performance, portrays Stanley, a world famous magician and world class belligerent misanthrope who performs under the Asian identity of Wei Ling Soo. After one evening's performance on a tour stop in Berlin, Stanley is greeted backstage by his childhood friend and fellow illusionist Howard Burkan (played by Simon McBurney), who invites Stanley to the French Riviera to visit the Catledges, a wealthy family who has been taken in by a young clairvoyant named Sophie (Emma Stone, terrific as usual). Howard, knowing of Stanley's pessimistic and frankly, nihilistic worldview, desires for him to disprove Sophie's skills and reveal her to be a fraud, especially as the Catledges' son Brice (Hamish Linklater) has grown so fond of Sophie that he wishes to marry her. Stanley agrees to the trip with relish as he seemingly loves nothing more than debunking the actions of charlatans.

But to Stanley's surprise, a variety of situations and circumstances continuously arrive in which Sophie possesses a window into a level of knowledge that she could not possibly know...unless her skills as a mystic were indeed true, thus upending Stanley's view of the universe as menacing and meaningless. And needless to say, matters are further complicated when the ice around Stanley's heart begins to thaw towards the beguiling, optimistic and possibly magical Sophie.

As you would expect with any Woody Allen feature, "Magic In The Moonlight" is a visually sumptuous production that works as a romantic comedy mystery and once again may inspire viewers to dust off their passports and make travel plans. With superior aid from Cinematographer Darius Khondji, Production Designer Anne Seibel and Costume Designer Sonia Grande, the film is a feast fr the eyes, so rich in detail that it could almost be called "Gatsby-esque." Additionally, it is as blissful to regard aurally as it is visually, as there simply is no writer on the planet who constructs dialogue as Woody Allen is so supremely able to accomplish. The film is simply a pleasure to listen to and with the cast Allen has assembled, all of whom deliver top notch performances, the words and dialogue just sing magnificently.

"Magic In The Moonlight," on the surface may seem to feel and sound like one of Allen's lighter, frothier films, the kind of which that doesn't exactly break new ground, yet is pleasing while watching but also does tend to evaporate after a spell. Yes, the film is light and frothy like his Italian romantic comedy "To Rome With Love" (2012), but unlike that film and others like "Scoop" (2002), is the seriously profound core of the film that propels the narrative and informs all of the actions and perceptions of the characters. Essentially, "Magic In The Moonlight" is a hefty and spirited philosophical debate between two characters on the nature of our existence. Where Stanley is vehemently the champion of the intellect, Science and all things which can be seen and proven without any shadow of a doubt, Sophie represents the possibility of more plus the powerfully additional fact that as human beings, we simply do not know if anything exists beyond the material world or not.  

Certainly, this is not new territory for Woody Allen at all as he has explored this existential theme time and again but what makes it so vital each and every time is the fact that he is asking existential questions that cannot be answered and the debate that ensues between the characters is the same ongoing debate that he is having with us in the audience and I would assume the very same debate that he is having with himself, especially as the man is not getting any younger and the finite nature of his life is more imminent despite the velocity of his productivity.

What is more, and especially as Allen himself is admittedly quite the nihilist, is how he does not simply claim his main protagonist of Stanley as the hero who is obviously the one who holds every correct opinion in the film. Quite conversely, Allen is highly critical of Stanley and his massive egotism, weary jadedness, tiresome malcontent, and insufferable sense of superiority in addition to his atheist worldview by placing him into a story that firmly challenges his every belief. What if everything that you held to be true was somehow proven to be wrong? Is it a life worth living if one sees no point or hopefulness at all? And on the opposite side of the philosophical coin, even if one did possess a hopefulness and optimism, what is the purposefulness of life itself if it just only leads to nothingness?

As previously stated, Colin Firth is outstanding in the leading role as he projects such a painfully unctuous dominance that is as believable as it is funny. Yet, he also discovers the various layers in which to play this character as to not make him a one-note joke. Firth makes Allen's creation fully three dimensional. Late in the film, there is an extraordinary sequence when Stanley, faced with some anguishing news about his beloved Aunt Vanessa (beautifully played by Eileen Atkins), finds himself performing a serious bit of soul searching. Firth is the sole presence on-screen as he delivers a brilliantly written monologue that approaches heights that I found to be Shakespearian as it confronted ideas of the possible validity and/or futility of prayer and the belief or non-belief in some entity higher than our own humanity.

With "Magic In The Moonlight," what Woody Allen has proven once again is that all light comedies do not need to be inane, shamelessly vulgar and insipidly stupid to be funny and therefore memorable. That comedy can be smart. That comedy can be the source of exploring how we do eventually look outward towards the universe and inwardly into ourselves. And because of Allen's unquestionable skills, it has surprised me to see how dismissive quite a number of critics have been towards his latest film.

As I said previously, I do understand that for a filmmaker as prolific as Woody Allen, not everything can be the stuff of genius. But this time, I am feeling that what we are witnessing with some critics is that they are reviewing the controversy of Woody Allen's personal life as well as his persona and not reviewing exactly what is on the screen. For the purposes of this posting, I find any sense of controversy in Allen's personal life irrelevant to what he places on screen as an artist.

Certainly some critics do not feel as I do about this matter but in the case of "Magic In The Moonlight," I am feeling that they are grasping at straws when they complain that here we have another film in which the romantic figures are an older male actor and a decidedly younger female actress, and how this element must figure into Allen's personal life. Those same critics have also complained that the film is essentially Woody Allen once again expressing the sentiment that "the heart wants what it wants," an observation that I not only disagree with but it is one that I think gives what is on-screen tremendously short shrift as it is not looking at the value that is actually present. And even then, and even more preposterous is the assertion through a couple of articles that I have seen questioning Woody Allen's racial politics as no prominent Black actors have ever been featured in his films.

Dear readers, I have no problem whatsoever if these critics and even some of you make these observations or hold these very same questions regarding Woody Allen's work. But in this case, it all just feels like a way to take a personal swipe at this figure over situations that we will never, ever be fully informed about in the first place. And frankly, if you are going to a Woody Allen film to find Black people, then you are indeed looking at the wrong movie!! All facetiousness aside, if you wish to discuss issues of sexism, with regards to love stories that feature older males and younger females, and racism, regarding the lack of visible Black actors in the movies, then there is indeed a conversation that desperately needs to be had. But that conversation has to include the entirety of the film industry, which includes the white filmmakers that you do not take issue with. The very issues that Allen is being criticized for are not "Woody Allen issues," they are all "movie industry issues" and should be treated as such.

All of that being said, in regards to what I saw with "Magic In The Moonlight," contained nothing that was overtly or subjectively controversial as the breadth of the material was handled with inclusiveness, intelligence and a literary and philosophical wit that is peerless in the movies today. It was a film that honestly surprised me with its depth as well as it entertained me with its warmth, humor and sharply written dialogue.

"Magic In The Moonlight," while not being one of the GREAT Woody Allen films, is definitely a damn good one and well worth your time, effort and finances to see for yourselves.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


JULY 21, 1951-AUGUST 11, 2014

I never wanted to write this one.

As with many of you, I returned home from work yesterday and logged onto the internet and met myself and my family with a gasp that was heard all around my home. Reading the news that legendary, peerless actor and comedian Robin Williams had been found dead, at the age of 63, in his San Francisco home from an apparent suicide completely felt as if someone had hurled me to the ground and stomped profusely upon my heart.

While I had been long aware and knowledgeable of Williams' battles with drugs, alcohol and debilitating depression over the years, never in a million years did I ever think that I would read news of this sort, especially about a figure who, to me, seemed so Herculean due to the voluminous brilliance, scope and range of his talent, and his blitzkrieg of stream of consciousness humor and stand-up comedy that was often so hysterical to the point of exhaustion as you clearly had to hang on for dear life when he performed as you did not ever want to miss any singular moment. Robin Williams was so formidable and therefore, in my mind, he seemed to be unstoppable, no matter of the means of his respective ailings. It just seemed so impossible that something like this, so horrendously tragic, could happen to him, one who has provided a universe of joy to generations upon generations. But, as with the cruel reality of life, anything can happen. And yesterday, anything did. 

Robin Williams has truly been a part of my life for nearly my entire life. Never will I forget my childhood years growing u in the 1970's and seeing this absolute force of nature completely blow away everyone off of the screen as Mork from Ork on television's "Happy Days" and the subsequent spin-off series "Mork And Mindy." Williams' abilities were nothing less than astonishing as, much like Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and the performers on "Saturday Night Live," "SCTV" and "Monty Python's Flying Circus"  he essentially represented a certain "BIG BANG" as far as what a comedic performance could actually be. He had a voice that sounded affected by helium merged with a cognitive ability and elastic physicality that suggested the movement seen in an accelerated movie. As Mork, Robin Williams was the personification of childhood but in an adult form and what we were given was something beyond a performance of a scripted character. What we were given, and what I was responding to, was a sense of perpetually existing within the childlike act of discovery (combined with an adult sense of anarchy) and we were invited to discover and laugh right alongside him. On this television show, plus his ferocious talk show appearances, Robin Williams was exhilarating to behold and seemingly immediately, he was beloved by me.

Beginning with the starring role in the late Director Robert Altman's bizarre live-action cartoon musical fantasy of "Popeye" (1980), which I saw on opening night at the age of eleven, Robin Williams' embarked upon a film career that was as problematic as it was extraordinary. Certainly not every movie anyone can make can be good or even great and Robin Williams did have more than his share of misfires. Some, like "Cadillac Man" (1990) or Director Barry Levinson's ambitious "Toys" (1992) were fair or noble failures while the truly awful ones need not be mentioned other than the terribly mawkish and painfully odious "Patch Adams" (1998),  which I desperately urge you to stay away from as you reminisce about Williams' mammoth capabilities. My issues with the nature of Robin Williams' film career was that simply it took a powerful creative force to be able to accept the challenge to not only harness his supreme energy but to supply him with a role and a character worthy of that energy. Too many films obviously seemed as if the filmmakers decided to not have a script, turned on the cameras and just allowed Robin to do "his thing," and as brilliant as he was, a little of that goes a long way when it is supposedly at the service of a story and characters. And truth be told, I did tend to prefer his more dramatic work in film (and occasionally on television, most notably an excellent episode of "Homicide: Life On The Street") to his comedies. But in totality, when Robin Williams found the right material and the right collaborators, there was often nobody better, and at times, there was nobody more fearless.

In tribute to Robin Williams, I would love to take this time to share with my some of the performances that spoke deepest to me and showcased why he was an actor who operated on a level that was uniquely his own.

"THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP" (1982) Directed by George Roy Hill
-This film represented the very first time that I saw Robin Williams not as a comedian but as an actor of deep skill and vulnerability. Starring in the title role in the adaptation of John Irving's legendary novel Williams portrayed the equally legendary T.S. Garp, the bastard son of nurse/feminist Jenny Fields (Glenn Close) as well as house husband to working professional Helen Holm (Mary Beth Hurt), Father to two sons, best friend to transsexual Roberta Muldoon (John Lithgow), passionate wrestler, as well as a famous and controversial author in his own right. In this film, Williams richly captured the persona of Irving's creation by not attempting to steal the show from all of the madness that surrounded him through the film from all manner of violent cults, assassination attempts, extra-marital affairs, the tragic death of one of his children, the slow existential drain of suburban ennui and his desire to become "a real writer." Williams flows through the film with a sense of bemusement, passion, wonderment and the beginnings of eliciting a certain pathos on screen that would soon surprise and astound us with its unbridled power. Robin Williams' performance was so indelible that when I finally read the novel many years after having seen the film, and each subsequent time that I have re-read the book, I always see Williams' face in my mind.

"MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON" (1984) Directed by Paul Mazursky
-What impressed me the most about this drama about a Russian circus musician (with a penchant for the music of Duke Ellington) played by Williams who defects to America while on a trip to New York city. Williams completely committed to the role, in a most adult film, by not only making a three dimensional character but by being a guide and providing me with a window into a larger world and the people that populate it.

"SEIZE THE DAY" (1986) Directed by Fiedler Cook
 -I stumbled across this film sometime during my late high school or possibly early college years on PBS and I was floored by its dramatic depth and force. In this adaptation of Saul Bellow's novel of the same name, Robin Williams stars as Tommy Wilhelm, a salesman who has lost his job and his girlfriend, is attempting to forge a relationship with his Father and slowly begins to psychologically unravel. By this point, I had absolutely never seen Robin Williams in this state of being as his sensational performance felt to be an act of being rather than acting. His pain was palpable and left bruises upon me as a viewer. "Seize The Day" was undoubtedly Williams' "Death Of A Salesman" and it was a complete knockout.

"GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM" (1987) Directed by Barry Levinson
-This was the right film at the right time with the right director, screenplay, and actors all working and playing in full collaboration with Robin Williams, who rightfully earned his first Oscar nominated performance. This was the first film that successfully merged Williams' comic persona with an actual character and story, in this case the real word figure of 1960's military disc jockey Adrian Cronauer. I distinctly remember seeing this film for the very first time as a Freshman in college and also as I was going through a particularly rough emotional patch. It was a film and a performance that made me laugh so painfully hard and yet possessed the substantive weight I enjoyed and looked forward to in Williams' more dramatic roles. And to this day, the film holds up beautifully well while also possessing the amazing put down, "You are in more desperate need of a blow job than any other White man in history!" 

"THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN" (1989) Directed by Terry Gilliam
-Robin Williams' first collaboration with Monty Python writer/animator and visionary film director was quite an auspicious one as his extended cameo performance was actually uncredited...or more honestly, credited to the fictional "Ray D. Tutto," as to not mislead the public into thinking they would be seeing a new Robin Williams film. This elaborate fantasy, which I feel is one of the very best--and most underseen--films of the 1980's, features Williams as "The King Of The Moon," and here was a situation where the madman genius of both Williams and Gilliam were magically suited for each other. It is a character and performance of unbridled lunacy tinged with malevolence as the King, a giant with a detachable, flying head and inner conflict concerning the desires of the mind and the flesh, attempts to enact revenge upon the film's hero for an old fling he once shared with the Queen Of The Moon. And if any actor could somehow make the sight of a flying detachable head out for romantic retribution enormously entertaining and breathlessly funny, it was a role tailor made for Williams.

"THE FISHER KING" (1991) Directed by Terry Gilliam
-Williams' second collaboration with Gilliam produced a performance that was just as breathlessly funny as the previous entry but also one that descended into a cauldron of psychological despair that was almost unbearable to watch but so brilliantly delivered that it was impossible to look away. Portraying a delusional homeless man named Parry who believes to be on the search for the Holy Grail would be more than enough for Robin Williams to sink his teeth into. But, when we add in the fact that this man's current state is entirely, yet inadvertently, due to the careless words of a radio shock jock DJ (Jeff Bridges) which prompted a mass murder in a Manhattan bar in which Parry's wife was a victim in front of his eyes, we are given a first class seat into a multi-layered performance that I think is one of the very best he ever delivered. In fact, the sequence where Parry, who is subjected to nightmarish hallucinations featuring the horse riding Red Knight who torments him, succumbs to a psychological breakdown starring the aforementioned Knight on the New York streets, I believe that what we witness is again not a form of acting but more of a state of being. Robin Williams is towering as he scales heights that I feel most actors are not capable of reaching in quite the same way. The anguish we see is crippling to the point of paralysis as Robin Williams dangled us and himself over the edge of madness.

"MRS. DOUBTFIRE" (1993) Directed by Chris Columbus
-Yes, I do thoroughly enjoy this big budget, high concept mainstream feature as Chris Columbus was another director who able to be the right director with the right material that allowed for Robin Williams to work his specialized magic at the full service of a character and story. While he looked as convincing as a female as Dustin Hoffman did in "Tootsie" (1982), Williams, like Hoffman, was able to locate a distinctive pathos underneath the latex and mistaken identity hijinks. For all of the slapstick, Williams' huge heart made me believe that here was a loving yet irresponsible Father, wounded by divorce, who found himself in a position where he would literally do anything just to have the chance to still see his children. I was particularly touched by the moment when he explains to a judge late in the film the following passage: "I'm addicted to my children, sir. I love them with all of my heart, and the thought of someone telling me I can't be with them, I can't see them every day...it's like someone saying I can't have air. I can't live without air and I can't live without them." In another actor's mouth, those lines would have sounded precisely like the type of material that would make me gag. But, in Robin William's mouth, those words sounded like the truth.

"GOOD WILL HUNTING" (1997) Directed by Gus Van Sant
 -Robin Williams' Oscar winning performance as a therapist to Matt Damon's troubled title character was a study in sheer, unforced, honest, soulful empathy--the type that again doesn't feel "acted" but "believed." For as wonderful as Williams' sequences with Damon are throughout the film, I found myself really loving the sections featuring Williams and Stellan Skarsgard, who portrays a professional rival and former college roommate. In those sections, Williams again plumbs the depths of envy, resentment, regret at chances and opportunities not taken as well as attempting to maintain one's true sense of self even when disappointment is staring him in the face.

"WHAT DREAMS MAY COME" (1998) Directed by Vincent Ward
-A gloriously ambitious, visually resplendent drama in which Williams starred as Chris Nielsen, a man killed in an automobile accident whose spirit embarks upon a journey through the afterlife, Heaven and ultimately Hell itself, all in order to be reunited with his true love. It is a film that would seem to be impossible to realize if not for the soulfulness of Robin Williams' performance which anchors all of the special effects into a most human and stunningly romantic reality.

"ONE HOUR PHOTO" (2002) Directed by Mark Romanek
-Released around the same period when Robin Williams delivered unsettling sinister work in Director Christopher Nolan's "Insomnia" (2002), he gave his most accomplished, and again, multi-layered work in this queasily disturbing psychological thriller as a convenience store photo technician who grows obsessed with the lives of a young family. But instead of making  this character a horror film monster, Williams again found the humanity inside the character to make this performance a deeply troubling portrait of depression, loneliness and isolation.

and now...

"DEAD POETS SOCIETY" (1989) Directed by Peter Weir
-I am not certain if Robin Williams' role as John Keatingan inspiring late 1950's all male prep school English teacher is necessarily his very best performance, as the film is indeed not about this character but about the students that populate the school. Even so, it is the Robin Williams performance and accompanying film that has always, and will forever, mean the most to me.

The speech, sequence and passage is now so familiar that it was even utilized in an I-Pad advertisement (something I felt was precisely the opposite of what the speech was about, but I digress). On the very first day of the English class and after John Keating has instructed his students to completely rip out the opening section of a manual that scribes a mathematical formula to determine a poem's quality, he addresses them with the following:

"In my class you will learn to think for yourselves again. You will learn to savor words and language. No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world. You see that look in Mr. Pitts' eye. That 19th century literature has nothing to do with going to Business school and Medical school, right? Maybe. Mr. Hopkins, you may agree with him thinking, 'Yes, we should simply study our Mr. Pritchard and and learn our rhyme and meter and go quietly about the business of achieving other ambitions. 

"Well, I have a secret for you. Huddle up. Huddle up! We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, are all noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But, poetry, beauty, romance, love...these are what we say alive for. To quote from Whitman, 'O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless...of cities filled with the foolish, what good amid these, O me, O life?' Answer: that you are here, that life exists and identity, that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?"  


I first saw this film during my college years and at that time, the film and especially Robin Williams' wise and genuinely humane performance lifted my spirits so tremendously as it served to vindicate my chosen major of English as well as Communication Arts. The film made me feel that my chosen field of study plus my passionate love of art, words, literature, music and film were indeed not as frivolous as my parents and even other students and acquaintances I knew had led me to believe. That the fruit of life itself is indeed found in all of those art forms and how their levels and forms of inspiration could in fact fuel me to go forwards and establish the kind of human being that I wished to be.

It is a film that while I have not actually seen it that many times, it is the one that my soul draws from over and over and over again as I explore my own life, relationships, writing, and even in my own teaching as yes, I have habitually had my little charges refer to me as "O Captain, My Captain." But most importantly, I wish for my students, even as young as they are, to find the process of going to school to be a richly rewarding one. And as I love sharing stories and books with them more than anything, I try to make all of the words spring to life with the hopes that they will grow to love reading, language and perhaps even writing as they grow older themselves. "Dead Poets Society" and Robin Williams role in it are a film and performance that continuously reveals itself to me and as I think about Williams right now and even re-watch elements of this performance on You Tube, I am amazed with not only his fluidity and free flowing ease between the more dramatic and comedic portions of the film. His ability to make scripted words sound as if these are the words naturally forming from his own lips and originating from his own soul, makes him one of the greatest performing treasures that we have ever had the good fortune to have had for as long as we did.

And perhaps that is a major reason, if not the primary reason, why his passing has been so painful to read and now process. Because Robin Williams truly was our Captain, using his unstoppable comedy, his intense pain, his sublime craft and his deepest, innermost pathos in such a completely unfiltered fashion to guide us through the process of living life with all of its peaks and valleys, triumphs and tragedies. And now, here we are without him to help us through this specific tragedy.

Now of course, it is beyond difficult to make sense of the senseless, and there have already been some people on television and the internet to openly express that Robin Williams was a "coward" for committing suicide or that he took an "easy way out." To that, I only offer as sternly as I am able that not one person on this Earth ever walked in the exact shoes in which he walked, and therefore, there is absolutely no one on this Earth who could have ever had inside knowledge to the quality of his depression and pain. To any criticism of his actions, I say that we are not in any position to judge and any perceived scorn will never help those who loved his the most and will definitely not bring him back to life.

I actually just read a tribute to Williams written by Barry Levinson and perhaps his words will be able to provide some illumination as to Williams' inner state.

"What makes his death so difficult to understand is the question, 'How can someone so funny be so sad?' We can reflect on it, try to understand it, analyze it, but nothing will truly answer the question. The fragility of the man, his sensitivity, his deep feelings for life...all that allowed for him to carve his comedic sensibilities, were the same feelings that took his life. He felt too much perhaps?

There was always a kindness to Robin. An inquisitive man trying to understand the madness of mankind. But when the comedy motors were off, you could sense the vulnerability of the man. There was always a sense that he could easily be hurt. Ad if he were hurt, how quickly could he heal? A bleeder in a world of sharp edges. There was an innocence to his thoughtful intelligence. It there were an endangered species list for mankind, he would have been first on that list. He was perhaps too delicate for this difficult world."

Just think of what Robin Williams has meant to you and apply that to not only those whom you hold dearest but also to those around you in your daily lives. Think about it. Robin Williams' brand of comedy was never mean spirited or at any persons' expense (unless they were really asking for it). Think of the roles he chose to play throughout his career. Think of his humanitarian causes or his political stances of which were also the most humane. All I have been hearing about over the past 24 hours has been Williams' selflessness and compassion. If we can take anything from his death is to just try and take those moments when we otherwise would have walked away or lashed out to try and just show some patience, forgiveness, understanding, empathy and of course, some much needed laughter.

The world already just feels so much darker without Robin Williams' presence in the world. So, it is up to us to fill it. And may his soul be free and at peace.

Thank you, Robin Williams. For absolutely everything.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

LIFE ITSELF: a review of "Boyhood"

Written and Directed by Richard Linklater
**** (four stars)

I sincerely hope that I am fully able to convey to you just how beautiful of a film this is.

Writer/Director Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," now famously known for being the movie that he has spent filming intermittently over the last twelve years, is the finest motion picture that he has made over his illustrious and deeply idiosyncratic 23 year career as a filmmaker. Not only that, it is the finest film that I have seen in 2014 (so far). And even further than that, when I begin to compile a listing of the best films from the decade of 2010-2019 years from now, Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" will rank very highly on that list.

Dear readers, you may feel free to add my name to the choir of critics and movie goers who have already experienced this complete work of art when I say that it is undoubtedly Linklater's masterpiece, and the shining jewel in a career that has already produced the likes of "Dazed And Confused" (1993), "Waking Life" (2001), "School Of Rock" (2003), "Bernie" (2011) and of course, the brilliant triumvirate of "Before Sunrise" (1995), "Before Sunset" (2004), and "Before Midnight" (2013).

Beyond even the scope of his own work, "Boyhood" is a film that conceptually reaches as far as something like Director Terrence Malick's "Tree Of Life" (2011) but it is not a film that is so arcane that it will lose or confound you. It is enormously accessible and identifiable and I believe it will make a seismic impression upon you as it is a film that tells the story of a life while we simultaneously ruminate over our own lives. In all of the films that I have been so fortunate to see, experience and feel over the course of my life, there have been very few that seem to almost magically capture what it means to be alive. Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" is precisely one of those films.

"Boyhood" is a film that exists without a plot, just as our own lives exist without a pre-determined storyline. What we are given is the life and times of Mason (exquisitely played by Ellar Coltrane), whom we meet at the age of six as he lives with his endlessly sarcastic and overly dramatic sister Samantha (Lorelei Linktaer, the filmmaker's daughter) and his Mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) in small town Texas, while he also begins to forge a relationship with his Father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), long estranged from the family.

Over the course of the film's nearly three hours, which are mesmerizing, we watch the introspective Mason from early childhood all the way to his beginnings as a college Freshman as he finds his way with his family, his friends, his loves, his experimentations, his future and how he begins to interact with and view the world in which he co-exists.

"Boyhood" is the definition, or even more correctly, the re-invention of a film that depicts a slice of life.Truth be told, the concept of seeing a person or collective of individuals age over time and in front of our eyes is actually more familiar that we may think. Just ponder any beloved television series, especially one that features child actors, that endures over a lengthy stretch of time. Or how about the "Harry Potter" film series, where over the course of eight films, we saw all of the child actors grow from wide eyed pups into compelling, highly talented young adults. Even Linklater himself has played with this very concept with his trio of "Before..." movies but what he has achieved with "Boyhood" is something altogether different and something that is actually downright cosmic.

Richard Linklater's films, from the very beginning with his debut feature "Slacker" (1991), have always played with conventions of time, reality and all of the singular moments that go into creating and building our perceptions of what time and reality actually mean to his characters as well as to all of us in the audience. With "Boyhood," I do not think he has ever achieved this feat so explicitly and as blissfully ever before this time. It feels as if all of his previous films provided the foundation for this film, and since he had been filming "Boyhood" over the last twelve years and has released eight other films in the interim, perhaps the process of "Boyhood" informed those works in turn. This specific and downright philosophical give and take is certainly what gives "Boyhood" its profound weight even as the film floats along its way without any stretches of hyperbole and is as languid as a Summer's breeze.

Linklater has given us a film that provides essentially no overt clues as to what year it happens to be. Aside from his music choices as well as the politics and technological advances depicted, "Boyhood" is a film that could almost exist in any time, therefore making a work that is elegantly timeless. With regards to the characters, and even though we are centered around young Mason, this film could have easily been entitled "Girlhood," "Childhood," "Adulthood, "Manhood," "Womanhood," "Motherhood" and/or "Fatherhood" as we are viewing the evolution of all of the significant fixtures of Mason's life just as explicitly. Some sequences are fully presented from Mason's perspective and others are not. But they all influence each other to provide a sprawling canvas that provocatively illustrates every character's qualities and interpersonal connections that all work together into creating the people they will all grow into being.

Richard Linklater has made an experience that asks of us to really think about how we become who we become. Are we fully formed from the start and we emerge into these beings or are we just finding our way during our entire life cycle? Are we doomed to possibly make the same mistake even as we are attempting to better ourselves?  With regards to Mason, I found it so fascinating that this boy, who is so quiet, insular, laconic and one of few words becomes a figure who is quite loquacious and expressive by the film's conclusion. It is as if Mason has had all of these concepts locked inside of him at age six but through the process of learning, growing and aging and building a greater sense of language and overall cognitive ability, he is now able to fully articulate what had possibly been swirling in his brain and spirit all of this time.

"Boyhood" is a film that I think even transcends age in regards to how I believe any viewer can watch and experience the film. This is not a film that is designed to be viewed passively. This is a film that wishes to have a dialogue with us as we also have a dialogue with ourselves in our present and of course, our pasts. For viewers who may be of Mason's generation, the pop cultural touchstones in particular may enable those audience members to place themselves immediately at that same time while seeing Mason fully as a contemporary. For those of us who are older, I believe that this film will instantly transport ourselves to each specific time in our own formative years on such an emotional level that the film becomes undeniably primal.

As Mason explores beginning sexuality through regarding  the half clothed women in a fashion catalog, or attends a midnight release party for the latest Harry Potter book, receives his first significant heartbreak, discovers a calling for photography, or just spends time in a bowling alley with Mason Sr. and Samantha or hearing over and again from all of the significant adults in his life about how he has to become more focused, I found myself returning to singular moments in my own life. I returned to those stages when I was exploring writing and film but not really understanding that exploring writing and film was indeed what I was doing. I also returned to very similar periods during high school when my own parents were relentlessly riding me about becoming more focused and attentive about the future that was rapidly approaching.  I thought of my own periods riding my bike aimlessly around and around my neighborhood. The days I spent dreaming away on my basement couch listening to Beatles' albums. And that sensational feeling of arrival when I first arrived in Madison for college, finally feeling as if I could have a sense of discovery on my own terms. I thought of the slowness of time when I was younger and the sheer velocity of its passage as I have grown older, a sensation that lies at the heart of "Boyhood" as we view all of these characters growing up in a flash.  

On a pure filmmaking and storytelling level, I was amazed with how Richard Linklater crafted an astoundingly seamless and consistent piece of art, made all the more remarkable due to the nature of this film's production. While actors like Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette are seasoned performers with the ability to return to the emotional states and motivations of characters year after year, the performance of Ellar Coltrane as Mason is just that much more of a marvel. Linklater is a filmmaker who prides himself upon his actual writing and has consistently bristled with the thoughts that his films are largely improvised due to how naturalistic his films unfold and how his characters speak to each other. Knowing that, I just do not know how Coltrane was able to create this character so completely, where we do feel as if we have fully captured on film a child's evolution into a young man, with all of the nooks and crannies intact. His is a presence that is quietly powerful and riveting as Ellar Coltrane gives "Boyhood" its proudly beating heart and depth of soul.

Dear readers, I vehemently wish for you to know and understand that "Boyhood" is not an esoteric, impenetrable experience that will keep you at arms length. It is a film of tremendous heart and humor, pathos and poignancy, truth, pain, and love that speaks directly to the spirit as it is a film of moments. Moments that seize us as each one is a vignette unto itself, growing into an interconnected narrative that will only conclude once our life span reaches its end. Mason's story is our story and "Boyhood" is a film that wishes to sweep us up in its grand embrace.

Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" is a film that superbly made my heart lift and I sincerely hope that you will all take the chance and experience a cinematic journey that is unquestionably unlike anything else that you are able to see right now.  

Saturday, August 9, 2014


Matthew Broderick and John Hughes
on the set of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," Chicago, IL 1985

Written and Directed by John Hughes

"...and so I got this sentence...out of the ozone. 'I am 17 years old and I know exactly where my life is going,' and then I thought, 'I am 17 years old and I have no idea of where my life is going,' and I thought, 'That's it!'"
-John Hughes, from the article "John Hughes' Rational Anthem: 'I Won't Grow Up'" written by Julia Cameron, Chicago Tribune, June 8, 1986

The first time I saw "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," Writer/Director John Hughes' superior ode to joy and love letter to my home city of Chicago, I was 17 yeas old and nearing the very end of my Junior year of high school in 1986.

Despite all of the memories that I am able to recall at a moment's notice concerning my adolescence from sights, sounds and the emotions, so much of that year in particular has kind of washed over in a bit of a haze, and frankly, a deeply melancholic one. To the best of my knowledge and memories, it was not a year that was unusually painful or stressful, although the same kinds of stresses were ever present--from grades, romance, a waning self-image, failing to live up to my parent's expectations and then, the added pressure of applying for colleges and those dreaded standardized exams. Perhaps, it was the "Groundhog Day" quality of that year, every day folding into the next, all seeming the same as the one before, restlessly waiting for something new to occur. I wasn't sad, per se, that year but I can honestly tell you that I was not particularly happy either.

By the time "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" arrived, just a mere three months after Hughes' wondrous production of "Pretty In Pink" (1986), as artfully and sensitively directed by Howard Deutch, I was more than ready to see Hughes back in the director's chair, hoping that he would again weave his singularly idiosyncratic artistic/comedic/philosophical spell that had just captured me so completely over the previous two years. With thanks to my cousin Adam, a fellow Hughes devotee (although not nearly to the same degree as I was), I attended an advance sneak preview screening at the Ford City movie theater near my home, a screening at which I received not only a promotional "Leisure Rules" poster but also a button adorned with an early symbol of Hughes' production company, Hughes Entertainment. Once the house lights went down, I was given an evening at the movies that was more than I could have ever wished for.

First, there was seeing a teaser trailer for Hughes' next film (which hadn't even begun filming yet) for "Some Kind Of Wonderful" and then after being raised so highly, the main event began. As you are now all so familiar, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" tells the day-long tale of 17 year old suburban Chicago high school senior Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick in his now iconic performance) and his pursuit to just take it easy one more time before he graduates.

Utilizing his endless charms, he again fakes out his doting parents (played by Lyman Ward and Cindy Pickett--who incidentally fell in love during the filming), much to the seething chagrin of his venomously jealous sister Jeannie (Jennifer Grey) and embarks upon his ninth sick day of the semester. Ferris soon springs his beautiful girlfriend Sloane Peterson (Mia Sara) out of school under the rouse of a death in the family and convinces his life-long best friend, the eternally depressed and perpetually frightened Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck in a beautifully layered performance) to leave the confines of his "sick bed," test the fates and secretly take his Father's precious Ferrari out for the threesome's day of truancy.

As the triumvirate enjoys a splendidly gorgeous Spring day in downtown Chicago, visiting the Mercantile exchange, a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, a tour of the Art Institute and even taking over a Michigan Avenue parade, Ferris is doggedly pursued by his arch-nemesis, the increasingly unhinged Dean Of Students, Ed Rooney (a terrific comedic performance by Jeffrey Jones), who wishes to at long last catch Ferris in the act and force him to repeat his final year of high school as punishment for his rampant defiance of authority as well as his seemingly magical "Pied Piper" affect over everyone he encounters. Through the entirety of his day which involves a variety of wondrous celebrations and surprising revelations, Ferris Bueller once again successfully lives his days via his personal motto: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and take a look around once in a while, you could miss it." 

John Hughes' "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" had me completely within the palms of its cinematic hands from WLS-AM radio jingle that greeted the film's opening credits all the way through to the post end credit surprise of having Ferris himself shoo us all from the movie theater. It was a completely exhilarating experience where, in addition to seeing my home city of Chicago so lovingly displayed on screen, its unabashed humor, enormous heart, poignant pathos and yes, the purity of its poetry spoke beautifully to my teenage soul. During those two hours, I smiled and laughed more than I had during the entirety of the school year. "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" was one of those rare movies that just made me happy to be alive.

To the best of my knowledge, I was quite possibly the first kid in school to see the film as it had not been fully released yet, and because of that, I was compelled to place a few subversive "Save Ferris" cards in various places throughout the school, cards that I would be questioned about by some friends once we all reunited months later for our Senior year together. Even so, by June 11, 1986, everyone knew abut Ferris, his family, friends, enemies and legions of fans, of which we all became. Despite some good reviews, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," not surprisingly received fair to middling reviews from major film critics and of course, quite a number that were all but dismissive. As for the public, "Ferris Bueller's Day off" transcended its teen age fan base and Hughes' target audience to become one of the top 10 highest grossing films of the year and to that end, the film has endured with a healthy and beloved legacy for nearly 30 years.

But aside from the rule breaking, slapstick comedy and reckless abandon to prancing down a primrose path, I believe that "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" is actually a much more serious, and even sadder film than it is really given credit for. Now, don't get me wrong. I am not trying to suggest that the film is not what it sets out to be and that its charms are somehow masking a darker tale. John Hughes certainly was not Ingmar Bergman. But I do believe that John Hughes created a film that contained a profound existential core that has obviously withstood the test of time and he also made a film that is more personal than it may seem--especially as Hughes himself seemed to deflect any notions to the contrary over the years, allowing the film to just speak for itself (In fact, Hughes' wonderful DVD commentary track--the only one he ever recorded--has been erased from all subsequent re-issuings of the film).

I guess that what I am trying to express to you is that as much as the film meant to me as a teenager, I would have to say that it means even more to me now as an adult, especially as Ferris' life motto carries considerably more weight, meaning and depth as the years continue to fly by. And therein lies melancholic core that does sit at the heart of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," for as joyous a movie as it is, John Hughes also crafted and concocted a hugely bittersweet, wistful film that stands on the precipice of the future of its main characters as they are also very carefully saying goodbye to a specific time, attitude, place and, even to a degree, each other. John Hughes was astute enough to recognize the pain within the joy and vice versa and how those specific elements could complement each other and ultimately enhance each other, making for a richer experience.

For my annual tribute to John Hughes, now five years after his sudden passing in New York City from a fatal heart attack on August 6, 2009, I salute one of his greatest cinematic achievements, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." And as with so many movies, even ones that have provided such happiness for generations, it always amazes me that Hughes' original conception ever made it to the screen in the first place.

"Though it does seem sadly poignant that physically, at least, John's heart really did die. It almost seems undeniably meaningful: His was a heavy heart, deeply sensitive, prone to injury-easily broken."
-Written by Molly Ringwald, Op-Ed Contributor, "The Neverland Club," published in The New York Times, August 11, 2009 

It has been said since John Hughes' passing, from friends and colleagues, that on a creative level, Hughes was happiest when he was writing and perhaps, he was never really built for making movies, or at least functioning in Hollywood in the first place. Without any sense of irony, maybe Hughes, despite his brilliance and massive creativity, just really did not have the heart for it. I, of course, have long housed my own filmmaking dreams (and to an extent, I still do) but I do know and realize that the process of making a film can too often be an arduous one filled with all manner of compromises and it can sometimes feel to be just a miracle when anything even gets made. And if the finished results are anything close to what was originally envisioned, then that is quite possibly an even greater miracle. With regards to the genesis, some aspects of filming and the post-production of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," it seemed that the full realization of this film was indeed one of those miracles.

The writing was indeed the easiest part. In advance of a then upcoming Writer's Guild Of America strike, John Hughes, already famous for writing complete screenplays at the speed of light, even more famously wrote "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" in reportedly five days, the first 50 pages of which were written while Director Howard Deutch napped in Hughes' home office while waiting for "Some Kind Of Wonderful" re-writes. The process of then having the film brought to visual, three dimensional life was another story altogether.

Just as Ferris, Sloane and Cameron are teetering on the cusp of the future and major life changes, so were John Hughes and his chief acting collaborators and muses at the time, Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall. At that time, Hughes was in his mid 30's while Ringwald and Hall were in their late teens. It would seem that as Hughes had forged such a powerful relationship with both young actors, he may either hoped or expected or some combination of both emotions to have continued working with Ringwald and Hall in some capacity in movie after movie for years to come.

John Hughes had already written outlines and screenplays specific for both young actors including "The Last Good Year" for Hall (complete with a specially created mixtape) and "The Lovecats" (also with a mixtape) and "Oil And Vinegar" for Ringwald. In fact, Hall had been offered the role of Duckie Dale for "Pretty In Pink" as well as Cameron for "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and Ringwald had also been offered the role of Amanda Jones for "Some Kind Of Wonderful." But for Hall and Ringwald, who each wanted to begin to branch outwards, and also declaring some sense of independence from Hughes, each declined all of those roles, leaving Hughes heartbroken and quite possibly feeling somewhat betrayed. He communicated possibly only once with Ringwald after those years when she had mailed him a letter of gratitude from Paris, to which he responded with a bouquet of flowers that, as Ringwald described, were "as big as my apartment." And as for Anthony Michael Hall, who had once been so close to John Hughes, and forged a relationship that surprisingly afforded Hall to be just this close to receiving the leading role in...Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" (1987)--apparently, Kubrick LOVED "Weird Science" (1985)--Hughes never spoke to him again.

Now without his prime leading actors at his disposal, Hughes needed to branch outwards himself, even though he already knew that he would need someone truly special and possessed a tremendous amount of skills to carry out the role of Ferris Bueller. Matthew Broderick, already celebrated on screen and a Tony award winning actor on Broadway, was the top choice Yet for Cameron Frye, now that Anthony Michael Hall and subsequently, Emilio Estevez had turned down the part, Hughes eventually cast Alan Ruck, who was already friends with Broderick from their stage work in Neil Simon's "Biloxi Blues." The elegant, poised yet younger and admittedly more insecure Mia Sara soon joined the cast and the roles of our truant trio were set.

"Ferris Bueller's Day Off" was filmed over a period of three months during the Autumn of 1985 in and around Chicago, the Northern Chicago suburbs as well as...Long Beach, California (?!), a major concession as dictated to Hughes by Paramount Pictures in order to control costs. In fact, Ferris' home is not in Chicago at all, an element Hughes detested, as he lamented in his DVD commentary, "It kind of disappointed me that the first shot in my movie that takes place in Chicago was in Long Beach." 

But aside from issues of filming locations, it seemed that John Hughes tried to somehow re-create the bonds he once shared with Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall with his new cast but there were growing pains. According to author Susannah Gora's excellent book, You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes And The Impact On A Generation, Hughes' initial emotional difficulties occurred during a wardrobe test, where the acting/creative processes of Broderick, Ruck and Sara were notably less animated than Hall's, who would often volley ideas and improvisations with Hughes, and therefore left Hughes worried if his film would work at all--"Maybe I am just used to something that is different," Broderick recalled Hughes expressing to him. 

By the time of filming, it indeed took time for Matthew Broderick and John Hughes to build up trust, understanding and communication with each other. Initial difficulties were raised with Broderick being unsure of how to exactly speak directly to the cameras when Ferris breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience. Also, there was the fact that Broderick and Ruck, being stage trained actors where the script is law, had trouble with Hughes' improvisational style as he would endlessly mine scenes to unearth their greatest potential. So if that meant, say trying the scene standing on one's head, then let's go for it. But for Broderick especially, that learning process was difficult which led to moments of frustration and mis-communications where Hughes would tend to shut down and even stonewall those around him as he was feeling misunderstood.

Mia Sara, who was perhaps 17 or 18 at the time and had only acted in one film, Director Ridley Scott's fantasy epic "Legend" (1985), prior to "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" personally felt inexperienced, inadequate and therefore also felt that she did not deliver as best as Hughes had wished, even though Hughes had never expressed anything negative about her or her actual performance. Today, Sara has expressed ho wished she had apologized to Hughes for any difficulties she may have caused ("I wish I hadn't been so immature," she recalled). Seemingly, out of his younger cast members, only Jennifer Grey clicked instantly with John Hughes. As she practically gushes in Gora's book, she exuberantly stated, "there was a freedom, a flow, an ease, like slipping on something that fit really well. I remember not caring what the movie was about. I just wanted to do whatever this guy wanted me to do."  

Once all of the interpersonal kinks were worked out, filming progressed on a much smoother path, most notably the classic parade sequence in which an advertisement was placed in both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun Times announcing that John Hughes needed 5000 extras dressed for a Spring Day (by this point, it was November) to join the cast for filming...and 10,000 people arrived to twist and shout along with Ferris. On a more intimate level, Matthew Broderick and John Hughes' relationship improved greatly. "By the end, we were at such ease with each other," Broderick recalled in Gora's book. "We just enjoyed each other and we had absolute ease working together. By the end of shooting, we really did." Broderick and Hughes remained friends off and on throughout the years after "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," and Broderick was even one of the few actors invited to attend Hughes' funeral in 2009.

The next hurdle for the film arrived during post-production with the very first test screening of the film and by all accounts, that particular screening was an unmitigated disaster. This time, undaunted, John Hughes knew precisely what was needed and within a two week period, he, alongside Editor Paul Hirsch, re-edited the film into the version we all know and love today. As the late Paramout Pictures studio executive Ned Tanen expressed in Gora's book, "he took the thing, and edited it and it was brilliant."

And brilliant it absolutely is and shall forever be as "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," aside from existing as one of John Hughes' finest films as well as a high watermark for the teenage comedy genre that has endured over time, it is a enthusiastic, blue sky soaked joyride that is also gently rebellious. From the antics of the title character within the story as well as breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" consistently broke a variety of rules (from filming in 35mm widescreen--unheard of for a teen film, and of course, the absence of an official soundtrack) for the greater integrity of creating a film experience for the ages that was unabashedly hilarious and seismically felt with all moments from humorous to dramatic beautifully and richly earned. It was an unquestionable success but indeed a more hard fought one than when Hughes made "Sixteen Candles" (1984) and "The Breakfast Cub" (1985), experiences he alluded to in interviews that he wished to retrieve again.

"I'm not doing this for me-I'm doing this for you."
-Ferris Bueller

As I stated at the beginning of this tribute,  mentioned that when  first saw "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" at the age of 17, I was filled and lifted with a powerful sense of elation. Now, at the age of 45, while I still  feel my heart lift, the process of aging and living life has afforded me to see some darker shadings and even more serious qualities to the story of a boy who skips school one more time. Chicago film critic Richard Roeper, who has proclaimed "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" as being his favorite film of all time has even expressed that he feels the movie to be a "suicide prevention film." Whether he designed that statement to signify the palpable joy one can potentially receive when watching the film or something deeper, I do not know for certain. But, for the purposes of this tribute, I wish to delve deeper. 

I think one major reason "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" has endured so strongly is due to the philosophical objective that exists at the heart of the film, fuels the story and supplies our hero with his personal mantra...a mantra that generations have now adopted as their own. The idea of taking the time to exit the treadmill of life in order to simply experience life is a sentiment I believe absolutely anyone can relate to, for teenagers definitely, for all ages absolutely.

Maybe this is why the film has grown in stature for me over the years as well because as I continue to work and work, year in and year out, I have grown more reflective of how I wish my time away from working needs to be. I have also found myself growing more reflective of the things I actually have not done or achieved within my life or also, the places in the world that I have not seen due to existing on that treadmill. I am more conscious of how I am currently living within life's midpoint as I am forced to wonder about how much time will I be afforded to do the things I not only like to do or wish to do but perhaps, what I need to do in order to increase the quality of the life that I am leading for my family, friends, and students as well as myself. Ferris Bueller is a character who is imploring, and quite possibly challenging, us to engage with life-for what is life worth living if we do not interact with it on some level that speaks to the soul. Yes, we all need to have the opportunity to recharge. But for some, we need that push to actually be a part of the life experience and not passively, or in the case of Cameron Frye, fearfully, exist through it.

With that sentiment in mind, we can look at the relationship between Ferris Bueller and Cameron Frye, as being so much more than simply adolescent hijinks which leads to Cameron finding the courage to confront his cold, demanding Father. "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" is a story abut how Ferris, through those aforementioned adolescent hijinks, helps Cameron to begin to confront and take the reins of life itself.

The character of Cameron Frye, I feel, is one of John Hughes' most perceptive as well as most tender creations, for what plagues this particular high school senior extends far beyond the high school hallways and becomes something that I think is recognizable within all of us. As we witnessed through that beautiful sequence set at the Art Institute Of Chicago, when Cameron becomes transfixed on the image of the sad little girl in Georges Seurat's painting A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grand Jatte, he is a figure filled with feelings of failure, uncertainty and insignificance, fearing that his life is as meaningless and spiraling into a certain nothingness, just like the painting itself as it becomes nothing more than a series of dots in Cameron's eyes. His sense of self-worth and self-esteem are dangerously low and fueled by his sense of feeling unappreciated and unloved by his Father. And even at times, we can perceive that Cameron feels that he is nothing more than a catalyst to Ferris' grand schemes and we can definitely see that he is also deeply in love with Sloane Peterson (most notably, in that tenderly bittersweet walk the two share at the parade), giving him a passion that will forever be unrequited thus fueling his pain. Cameron Frye is fully aware of, and has therefore cloaked himself in, life's disappointments. And for all of us in he audience, how could we not relate to this person in some way or another? So, when Ferris informs Cameron that "I'm not doing this for me-I'm doing this for you," Ferris is again speaking, albeit indirectly, to all of us for we can also learn precisely what Cameron desperately needs to learn for himself.  

When we first meet Cameron Frye, he is home alone (no pun intended) encased in morbid repose deep inside of his "sick bed." As Ferris instructs him over the phone to get out of bed and come over to pick him up for the day off, Cameron, after declining again, moans to himself, "I'm dying." Once Cameron does finally decide to leave his home to pick up Ferris, there is that fantastic moment when he literally fights with himself to even start his own car. Or let's take the scene late in the film, set back at Cameron's house after their adventures in downtown Chicago. The trio are sitting around the swimming pool/Jacuzzi while Cameron sits deeply in a catatonic state, which occurred after seeing the amount of mileage accrued throughout the day on his Father's prized and never driven Ferrari GT, due to the joyride taken by those two Chicago parking lot attendants. Cameron, to Ferris and Sloane's shock, propels himself into the waters of his swimming pool seemingly hoping to drown. This is Cameron's natural inclination to dealing with life: To retreat. What Ferris Bueller offers to him throughout this transformative day are the tools needed to confront life, no matter what happens and by any means necessary, because Ferris Bueller can already envision a dark future for his best friend unless something seismic happens to him today. As Ferris himself expresses, from Hughes' original screenplay:

"Cameron's never been in love. At least, no one's ever been in love with him. He's gonna marry the first girl he lays, and she's gonna treat him like shit because he's gonna kiss her ass for giving him what he's built up in his mind as the end-all, be-all of human existence. She won't respect him because you can't respect someone who kisses your ass. It just doesn't work."

And neither does living a life being afraid.

"Ferris Bueller's Day Off," aside from the titular pursuits, is a tremendously sensitive portrait of a young man precariously existing on the edge of the future without any life skills and how his best friend, through a certain and almost magical joie de vivre, passionately expresses to him that because the future is unwritten, embrace it NOW before it is too late. And because of that conceit, I think what John Hughes devised is truly one of his finest love stories: the love story of Ferris and Cameron, two lifelong friends, soon to separate, (possibly forever), and one last blast they share.

Once the destruction of the Ferrari, a supreme curve-ball that life delivers, places Ferris and Cameron onto a new path, Ferris' desire to take the full responsibility to save Cameron is definitely touching but not nearly as touching what Cameron finally discovers within himself. When Cameron furiously states, "I'm not going to sit on my ass. As the events that unfold to determine the course of my life I'm going to take a stand. I'm going to defend it. Right or wrong, I'm going to defend it," we are amazed that he has at last arrived at this epiphany. When he decides to not allow Ferris to save him from his Father's wrath and forge ahead on his own, we feel Cameron's spiritual deliverance and powerfully so. And most of all, we can see how this day, this one spectacular day, was entirely designed by Ferris as a final gift to his best friend.

A gift that Cameron Frye has finally accepted.


At the time of the film's original release, John Hughes once expressed in an interview, and I am paraphrasing of course, that the character of Ferris Bueller represented the person he wished to be while Cameron Frye represented the person that he typically is. Over the years, Hughes denied any and all previous statements that seemed to connect him to the overall personalities of his characters, as if he was then attempting to disconnect himself from Hollywood and therefore, his public persona. Even for Molly Ringwald herself, in her beautifully written tribute, expressed that Hughes' own films became less personal after "The Breakfast Club" and without any disrespect to her, especially as she did know and love the man and I am just a lifelong fan, I emphatically disagree. I think that if we are to know anything about what kind of a person John Hughes may have been in his real life, all we have to do is look at the films and we will easily find the threads.

I firmly believe that "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" is a much more personal film than Hughes himself ever let on publicly and furthermore, I think it just might be one of his most personal films this side of his auto-biographical masterpiece "She's Having A Baby" (1988). As much as the film is a love story between two lifelong friends, the film is also John Hughes' love story to a beloved city as well as a love story between aspects of himself from his past and (then) present as he created a cinematic universe in which the world itself was possibly what he wished the real world to be. 

On a cosmetic level, let's regard the aesthetic cues and clues. In the Bueller household, most specifically in the kitchen for instance, you can see young children's artwork on the refrigerator created by Hughes' own two sons. Ferris' bedroom was reportedly modeled after Hughes' own teenage bedroom as well. And the vanity license plate found on Ferris Father's car reads "MMOM," an acronym of the film "Mr. Mom" (1983), for which John Hughes wrote the screenplay.

Much of the film's school scenes were all shot inside of Glenbrook North High School, Hughes' alma mater. Cameron Frye's hockey jersey bears the name and number of Gordie Howe from the Detroit Red Wings, Hughes favorite player from his childhood upbringing in Michigan. Hughes also harbored a love of parades, and he would sneak out of his advertising office at Leo Burnett to view them. Also, when Hughes was moonlighting as a writer for National Lampoon, and in true Ferris Bueller style, he would arrange his Chicago office workspace to appear as if he had just stepped out for a moment when he had actually taken flights to and from the Lampoon offices in New York city.

As for the Art Institute sequence, the very one which Hughes himself referred to as "self-indulgent" on the DVD commentary, we are gathering a trip directly into John Hughes' own teenage years as he spoke of how the museum was a place of refuge for him and this sequence allowed him to showcase the works of art that had been his personal favorites. Even deeper are the characters of Ferris, Sloane and Cameron themselves as their adventures around the city were updated versions of himself, his cheerleader girlfriend and future wife Nancy Ludwig and a third person, a friend on whom Cameron was partially based that Hughes also described in the commentary as "a lost person." 

So, Ferris Bueller is John Hughes? Well...to be clear, I think that Hughes, like any writer, placed all manner of himself into his characters but I would not be surprised if Ferris, for his good and bad points, did not cut a tad closer to the bone. To some degree, it could be perceived that John Hughes himself possessed a certain "Pied Piper"/"Peter Pan" aspects that lent themselves to his film career, most specifically the speed at which he created, the ability to turn out one high quality motion picture after another despite all of the industry obstacles and with testimony after testimony from the actors he worked with, they all seemed to adore him. But even Ferris Bueller like Peter Pan has a dark side.

In Molly Ringwald's tribute she expressed pointedly about herself and Anthony Michael Hall that, "We were like the Darling children when they made the decision to leave Neverland. And John was Peter Pan, warning us that if we left, we could never come back." Using that as a leaping off point, we can easily make some comparisons to both Ferris Bueller and therefore, Hughes himself.

On three occasions during the film, we can see that Ferris clearly hates being one-upped, forcibly challenged or when he finds that his elaborate plans and schemes are threatened to be upended. First, when Cameron is making his phony phone call to Ed Rooney and becomes a tad over-zealous, Ferris lashes out with a slap to Cameron's head and a kick to the seat of his pants. Or take the restaurant scene when Ferris attempts to pass himself off as Abe Froman the Sausage King Of Chicago and the Maitre D is relentlessly resistant, we can see that Ferris is again growing in anger. And then, there was even Cameron's pseudo suicide attempt in his swimming pool where once Ferris realizes that he was duped when Cameron offers a sarcastic "Ferris Bueller, you're my hero," Ferris is more than a bit displeased at being fooled.

Being increasingly furious at the situations he cannot manipulate as easily as he normally is able lies at the heart of the character of Ferris just as much as his near magical attributes and massive popularity, much like John Hughes himself, whose temper was legendary and his grudges that Ringwald described as being "supernatural." This specific quality to Hughes' personality is not one that I necessarily thought of as bratty (although some of his tantrums were wholly unnecessary) but one that demonstrated how unfit for the business of Hollywood a sensitive soul like John Hughes actually was. Ferris' occasional difficulties possibly mirrored and were maybe representative of Hughes' own anger and difficulty working within an industry that has increasingly grown less interested in filmmakers creating personal statements.

And with that, I completely believe that "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" is as personal a statement as could be as the very best of John Hughes' films were all indeed deeply personal statements that were housed inside of commercial, populist entertainment. Like all of the audacious flights of fancy Ferris undertakes within the film, John Hughes, for a time, had the audacity to create movies about teenagers for teenagers that treated teenagers with respect, dignity and as people deserving of stories with humor, heart, class and integrity. And if that is not an act of audacious rebelliousness, especially within an industry that endlessly treats teenagers as nothing more than commodities, then I do not know what else could be.

John Hughes once stated in an interview during the original release of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" that "Most of my material is about life getting changed, or realizing something. Ferris says, 'Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and take a look around once in a while, you could miss it.' That's the thing I most fear-missing my life." 

And what else is life itself, but the euphoria, the sadness and all in between and here was this one movie starring this teenage prankster and sage that definitely changed my life and continuously has forced me to make realizations about what my days on this Earth can and should mean. And as with so many artistic touchstones that I have experienced, I have John Hughes to thank once again. May my life, and all of yours, be as charmed, and as full and as rich as Ferris Bueller's and of course, John Hughes'.

I still miss you, John. And I always will.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

NOT QUITE UNDER THE SKIN: a review of "Lucy"

Written and Directed by Luc Besson
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

In my most recent posting for Director James Gunn's "Guardians Of The Galaxy," I remarked that I felt that the film was decidedly and unfortunately more pedestrian and commonplace than we are all being led to believe by the studio, trailers and even the filmmakers themselves. It was a film that frankly, left me feeling more than a little bored because of how the film was executed, racing along on terribly familiar Summer movie beats and paths, too much so for my comfort.

Now, I arrive at the action/science fiction/psychedelic thriller "Lucy" from Writer/Director Luc Besson and I can easily say to you that not for even one moment was I remotely bored with this film as it is a propulsive experience filled wall-to-wall of its brisk 89 minute running time with all manner of surprises, thrills, growing intensity and more than a few "WTF?" moments that kept me at rapt attention throughout as well as being notably entertained. However, once I left the theater and then went through the remainder of my afternoon before being able to sit down to write, I realized that "Lucy" for all of its undeniable energy and creativity, didn't quite hold up very well and even moreso, it just didn't stick to the cinematic ribs.

Scarlett Johansson, who is clearly on a roll these days, stars as the titular Lucy, a 25 year old student living in Taipei, Taiwan who is unwittingly coerced by her shady boyfriend into being a drug mule for the crime lord Mr. Jung (Choi Min-sik). Lucy delivers a briefcase filled with the highly coveted, blue tinged synthetic known as CPH4, and is soon captured, held prisoner and forcibly has a pouch of the drug sewn into her abdomen for the purpose of having the drug transported to Europe.

While held captive, Lucy is beaten and kicked in the abdomen by her tormentors, a move which unexpectedly releases the drug into Lucy's bloodstream and neurological system causing a chain reaction where Lucy's brain capacity increases rapidly from the (so-called) standard 10%, thus giving her extraordinary mental and physical capabilities, including telekinesis, the instantaneous absorption of information, the inability to feel pain and even mental time travel. As Lucy's abilities continue to advance, and her hunting of Mr. Jung and his minions grows more lethal and relentless, Lucy is also faced with the reality that once her brain capacity reaches 100%, existence as she knows it will be rendered non-existent.

Dear readers, it would not be an overreach of any kind to inform you that "Lucy" grabs you from the first moments and refuses to release you for its entirety. What Luc Besson has achieved once again was to design a visually kinetic experience in which all of the images and action sequences pop from the screen in ways that are continuously inventive and often thrilling. Fight sequences, wrong way car chases through the streets of Paris, and shoot-outs featuring seemingly an army of participants are all rendered with style, panache, superior skill and craftsmanship...and with no dreaded shaky cams whatsoever thank you!

With the character of Lucy, Besson has now added one more female warrior to his arsenal alongside the ones seen in his previous films "La Femme Nikita" (1990) "Leon: The Professional" (1994), and of course, the interstellar dream pop of "The Fifth Element" (1997) and the sight is indeed a welcome one especially with Scarlett Johansson as the human conduit. Her physicality is sleek yet brutally unforgiving yet she always allows us in the audience to try and empathize with her condition and the increasingly bleak situation she has found herself in.

There were times when I often felt that "Lucy" shared elements from Director John Carpenter's "Escape From New York" (1981) as both films are essentially "ticking bomb" thrillers. With "Escape From New York," that film's anti-hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) had a finite amount of time to rescue the President Of The United States (Donald Pleasence), albeit reluctantly, or else the bomb planted inside of brain would explode. In "Lucy," Besson gives us something that leans more towards the metaphysical.

As Lucy's brain power develops, as represented by occasional title cards informing us of what brain percentage she is currently using, we realize that she is heading towards some sense of oblivion, even as she is simultaneously experiencing a sense of inter-connectivity with people, the environment, the universe and even the space-time continuum itself. Johansson magically finds the means to communicate this existential crisis, making "Lucy" a film that valiantly tries to works as something more than just a "Lucy," the character and the film seem  to be questioning of us to examine exactly what good and worth is being able to access an unprecedented level of knowledge if you will potentially not be of any physical and mental state to ever truly utilize it?

I suppose that if Besson only wanted his film to exist as a shoot-em-up, he could have easily chosen to perform that feat. So, I do appreciate the attempt to bring something heftier to the table than artillery and explosions. That being said, "Lucy" never really seemed to entirely hold water. Not through any sense of plot holes but the connective tissue just felt to be faulty and flimsy, regardless of how enthusiastically Luc Besson was driving the material.

To the criticisms of the entire conceit of "Lucy" falling apart because we do happen to utilize more than 10% of our brain power normally I will pay that no nevermind, mostly because this exact same premise was utilized in the Bradley Cooper starring vehicle "Limitless" (2011) and no one was jumping up and down in protest when that film came out. My issue with the film is that the entire structure of the film seems to be inventing itself upon the spot, making for an experience that it not really tethered to anything. Besson does tend to have a certain dream-like quality to some of his films, especially "The Fifth Element," which did feel like a dream spinning around cab driver's Korben Dallas' (played by Bruce Willis) brain.

No matter how convincing and committed Johansson and Morgan Freeman (who portrays Professor Samuel Norman, a scientist and doctor who befriends Lucy on her odyssey) are throughout the film, "Lucy" flies by on a stream of consciousness akin to a child making up an elaborate tale, adding and subtracting details on the smallest of whims. Certainly, there are aspects of "Lucy" designed to have you recall The Wachowski's "The Matrix" (1999) and I also found myself often thinking about the great, and equally propulsive, psychedelic thriller "Hanna" (2001)  from Director Joe Wright. Yet both of those films carried a certain tangible weight that kept the film firmly planted on the ground no matter how high flying the story became. "Lucy," by contrast feels as if it will float off into the ether just as Lucy herself threatens to.      
Also, and really based upon Scarlett Johansson's performance, "Lucy" gives us a leading heroine which seems to split the difference between her work as Black Widow in the Marvel Comics films, Writer/Director Spike Jonze's outstanding "Her" (2013) and undoubtedly as the nameless predatory alien in Director Jonathan Glazer's inimitable "Under The Skin" from earlier this year. In fact, "Lucy" could possibly be seen as "Under The Skin" in reverse, as that film depicted an alien slowly discovering a sense of humanity, "Lucy" gives us a character who is slowly losing her humanity.

Aside from that aspect, "Lucy" is a film that further demonstrates exactly how audacious a film like "Under The Skin" actually is and even though that film may be too impenetrable for some viewers, I would urge you to see that film instead of "Lucy" as it does contain Scarlett Johansson's most daring, unique and completely commanding performance inside of an overall film experience that is unlike anything else that you will see this year. And trust me, I guarantee that "Under The Skin" is an experience that will continue to haunt you long after you see it. It is a film that I have not remotely forgotten and it often returned to the forefront of my brain as I was watching "Lucy."  

All in all, and like "Guardians Of The Galaxy," Luc Besson's "Lucy" is OK, a near miss of a film that is admittedly riveting to view from beginning to end. But, please do not be surprised if you find that your own brain capacity is just not strong enough for the film to remain terribly memorable afterwards...or also, for it to make that much sense as you're watching it in the first place.