Friday, June 26, 2015

GEEKZ IN DA HOOD: a review of "Dope"

Written and Directed by Rick Famuyiwa
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Let's hear it for the originals!!!

Throughout the month of June, I have so far been able to miraculously avoid all manner of sequels, prequels, remakes, re-boot, and re-imaginings and happily so. Yes, I was more than pleased with Writer/Director Joss Whedon's "Avengers: Age Of Ultron" and Writer/Director George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road" is indeed one of the most visionary films I have seen this year. But that being said, the presence of a filmmaker's unique, personal stamp, the attempt at trying to mine new artistic territory and create something we have not quite seen before has been sadly scant.

If you are a regular visitor to this blogsite, you know that none of what I have just written is remotely unfamiliar to you but believe me, I would rather see a flawed original film like Writer/Director Cameron Crowe's "Aloha" ten times over than sit through more and more yawn inducing sequels. So, it is with great pleasure that I am now able to turn your attention to the enormously original and completely entertaining "Dope," the latest film from Writer/Director Rick Famuyiwa, who co-wrote Director Kasi Lemmons' excellent "Talk To Me" (2007) as well as wrote and directed the acclaimed hip-hop influenced romantic comedy "Brown Sugar" (2002). With Famuyiwa orchestrating a cinematic party where the hip-hop beats comes as loud and as fast as the one-liners, the social satire and even the bullets, "Dope" showcases its big brain and equally sized heart from beginning to end.

"Dope" stars Shameik Moore in his terrific feature film debut as Malcolm Adekanbi, a high school senior who lives with his single Mother, Lisa (Kimberly Elise) in the most desperate section of Inglewood, California known as "The Bottoms." Malcolm exists as an anomaly in his neighborhood as he is a straight A student with aspirations of attending Harvard University, is obsessed with '90s hip-hop music, sports an outdated high top fade a la Kid N' Play as hairstyle and fronts a punk rock band called "Awreeoh" (pronounced "Oreo") with his two best friends, Jib (played by Tony Revolori last seen in 2014's "The Grand Budapest Hotel") and Diggy (played by Kiersey Clemons), a drummer and lesbian who is defiantly adorned with an androgynous appearance.

Malcolm and his friends are self-professed "geeks" who survive their day-today lives in South Central Los Angeles as best as they are able, whether evading school bullies determined to steal their gym shoes or from surprising outbursts of gangland violence. On one such occasion, as the threesome are attempting to evade a group of dope dealers, Malcolm unexpectedly formulates a tentative friendship with drug dealer Dom (played by A$AP Rocky), as they bond over shared hip-hop knowledge. This fateful meeting soon introduces Malcolm to Nakia (a warmly alluring Zoe Kravitz), with whom he is immediately attracted towards, as well as gains him and his friends an invitation to a nightclub for Dom's birthday party.

Malcolm's life takes a turn towards the dangerously extreme as a rival gang blazes into the nightclub spraying bullets and causing overall panic. During the melee, Dom stuffs his gun and drug supply (known as "Molly") into Malcolm's back pack and completely unbeknownst to Malcolm. Once Malcolm discovers the illicit substances the following day, he and his friends are thrown into a wild adventure during which they attempt to rid themselves of the drugs, and involves aspiring rappers, murderous drug dealers, a duplicitous college admissions director, an official Awreeoh punk rock concert that goes viral, heart-to-heart teen confessionals, GED and SAT exams, internet drug deal sales via BITcoin transactions and even a potential date to the prom for Malcolm.

What Rick Famuyiwa has so smartly achieved with "Dope" is to slyly merge the coming-of-age teen film, a screwball comedy of errors, a caper comedy, a celebration of hip-hop's golden age (while being a lament for its present) as well as a provocative exploration of racial identity and perceptions into a fast paced, exceedingly well acted and razor sharply written and directed escapade that makes for perfect summertime movie-going. While I stated that "Dope" is a completely original motion picture, it does indeed house certain elements that will be familiar. The good student walking along the dark side concept is straight out of Writer/Director Paul Brickman's teen classic "Risky Business" (1983) and the inner city hijinks and the many chases our heroes embark from all manner of bullies and villains recall the likes of Director Michael Schultz's "Cooley High" (1975), Director Chris Columbus' "Adventures In Babysitting" (1987) and Writer/Director Reginald Hudlin's "House Party" (1990). 

Furthermore, I would say that even the influence and spirit of John Hughes sprinkles some cinematic stardust over the proceedings. First of all, there is the generous camaraderie exhibited between the characters of Malcolm, Jib and Diggy, much like Hughes' geek characters from both "Sixteen Candles" (1984) and "Weird Science" (1985) and even to an extent, the sincere warmth that bound our truant triumvirate from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off' (1986), More specifically, I loved one quiet scene between Malcolm and Nakia, which which felt like an obvious echo to the classic auto shop/car scene between Samantha and The Geek in "Sixteen Candles."  And then, there is the character of the androgynous drummer Diggy, which to me clearly felt like a nod to the character of Watts, the androgynous drummer in Hughes and Director Howard Deutch's "Some Kind Of Wonderful" (1987).

Instead of utilizing these elements in a copycat fashion, Famuyiwa has taken the familiar, spun everything around on their collective heads and filtered them through the lens of racial identity, therefore ensuring that "Dope" stands firmly on its own cinematic feet, while also functioning as a terrific companion piece to Writer/Director Justin Simien's stinging satire "Dear White People" (2014).

For all of the outrageousness in the film, "Dope" houses a deeply serious core that certainly fuels the comedy, as well as the characters, thus grounding the film in a sun soaked yet harsh reality by keeping the level of inner city pain and real world violence at its nerve endings. Beyond that, Famuyiwa consistently plays with our perceptions and prejudices of who we, and the characters, believe other character should or should not be based upon race and location, surprising us over and again.

In addition to Diggy's androgyny and Jib's assertion that he is indeed "14% African" based upon his discoveries on, I loved an early sequence set during Dom's nightclub birthday party as he and his drug dealing partners engage in a brief philosophical debate about the concept of "slippery slopes." And then, there is also the character of college admission director Austin Jacoby (played by the excellent Roger Guenveur Smith, a Spike Lee joint veteran), a sharp dressed, eloquent businessman who houses a much more sinister agenda and persona.

Even sharper is a character who emerges once our heroes embark upon trying to figure out how to sell Dom's drugs and deciding that if anyone was to really know about street drugs it would be the White kids who purchase them. So, the trio reacquaint themselves with a white stoner/computer hacker they once met at band camp named Will Sherwood (played engagingly by Blake Anderson), and their debates about Black culture and who does or does not have the right to say the dreaded "N word" are as hilarious as they are enlightening.

But "Dope," first and foremost belongs to our hero Malcolm Adekanbi and the larger concepts of what it means to be an African American male in 2015. As with films like the aforementioned "Dear White People" plus Spike Lee's "School Daze" (1988) and "Passing Strange" (2008), "Dope" really touched a nerve with me regarding my own sense of identity, self-perception as well as the perceptions others have of me as a Black man who happens to live and work within a predominantly White community.

I could thoroughly relate to a character like Malcolm, especially my adolescent self, in regards to how others (both White, and in my case, especially Black) perceived me based upon my education, my likes, dislikes, skills (or lack thereof) to how I dressed and spoke. Yet, what Malcolm possesses that I did not was a powerful sense of self-awareness that was unapologetic. In fact, the songs his band Awereeoh perform in the film (and all written by Pharrell Williams), which carry titles like "Can't Bring Me Down," "Don't Get Deleted" and "It's My Turn Now," all serve as nothing less than vigorous suits of armor to an outer world that will always questions figures like Malcolm and his his friends.

Even so, waving the flag of individuality in any circumstance bears a heavy weight to burden. But for Malcolm in the Black community, it does carry a particularly large burden. In an early scene, Malcolm is admonished by his high school guidance counselor (played by Bruce Bailey) and branded as "arrogant" because he has written a deconstruction of Ice Cube's "It Was A Good Day" as his college admissions essay. Malcolm counters by exclaiming that while "I'm from a poor, crime filled neighborhood, raised by a single Mother, don't know my Dad, blah blah...," to present himself as existing within only those parameters results in being nothing more than a ghetto cliche. He wants to transcend his world by not becoming yet another "ghetto cliche." Once those drugs and that gun end up in Malcolm's back pack and his adventure begins, "Dope" chronicles a very smart, dangerous and challenging existential journey for him to travel.

Will Malcolm remain true to himself or will he fall into becoming yet another version of the same ghetto stereotypes that have permeated American culture, stereotypes that Malcolm is precisely conscious of. Rick Famuyiwa wisely has Malcolm confront his own insecurities, prejudices, and failings over the course of the film and by the time he indeed writes another college admissions essay, he is able to weave his new experiences into an even deeper and more pointed social message that would ultimately force anyone to truly re-think their perceptions of the qualities that constitute who Black and White people are and can actually be.

Rick Famuyiwa's "Dope" is a slick, summer joyride but one that sticks to the cinematic ribs vibrantly by being fueled with terrific performances, high energy and a collective of characters you do not wish to leave behind once the end credits appear. Trust me, dear readers, please do seek this film out. I know that I cannot stop you from seeing those dinosaurs wreak havoc over the multi-plexes again and again. But honestly, you and I have seen it all before and aren't you just hungry for something more unique?

If you are, then "Dope" will prove itself to be fully satiating.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

EMOTIONAL ROLLERCOASTER: a review of "Inside Out"

A Pixar Animation Studios Film
Story by Pete Doctor and Ronnie del Carmen
Screenplay Written by Pete Doctor, Meg LeFauvre and Josh Cooley
Co-Directed by Ronnie del Carmen
Directed by Pete Doctor
**** (four stars)

Now THIS is the Pixar film that I have been waiting for!!!

Dear readers, as you may already know, I have been very hard on the wizards of Pixar for several years now, and I remain unapologetic concerning their most recent output. I stand by every harsh word that I have written because I remain steadfast in my opinions that these filmmakers and artists, ones that harbored a new golden age in American animated films, had begun to creatively coast, and then disappointingly slide into levels of pointless mediocrity and the very shameless, artless commercialism that is definitely beneath them.

The poignant sense of finale that was the full core of the fine yet padded "Toy Story 3" (2010) has only been undercut with an unwillingness to just leave well enough alone as Woody, Buzz and their friends have only continued to re-surface through short films, holiday television specials and now an upcoming fourth feature film (we can't miss you if you just do not go away). Even worse, was the shinier, speedier but emptier "Cars 2" (2011), truly the sequel that nobody asked for while "Monsters University" (2013), was the lackluster prequel that nobody deserved. And the less said about "Brave" (2012), Pixar's one, undeniable disaster, the better.

With already announced plans for more sequels in the pipeline including next year's "Finding Dory" plus "The Incredibles 2," "Cars 3" (!) and the aforementioned "Toy Story 4," my enthusiasm for this particular creative force had begun to wane and wilt tremendously. From being the person who would always race out to see the latest Pixar film on opening weekend, the steep decline in quality has made me truly question whether I would perform the same loyalty in the future because would it ever be worth it again if the wizards of Pixar were content with forever chasing the dollar instead of chasing the art? Thankfully, in this case, I decided to remain loyal (albeit with some trepidation) and even more thankfully, the resulting experience was so beautifully worth the wait.

Pixar's "Inside Out," as directed by Pete Doctor, who also helmed the classics "Monsters. Inc" (2001) and "Up" (2009), has emerged with their best film in years. Additionally, the film is unquestionably one of the very best films of 2015 as well as being one of the finest works of art the studio has realized to date. "Inside Out" is an impeccably conceived and produced experience that miraculously finds the sweet spot between the complex and the accessible, the arcane and the sublime. It is a film that is impossible to regard passively as we are taken upon an emotional joyride along with the film's leading pre-teen heroine and the vibrantly visualized representations of her increasingly turbulent and transforming emotional characters. In doing so, Doctor and his team are able to elicit belly laughs and sizable pathos honestly and with seemingly effortless ease while also plunging provocatively into precisely what it means to feel. With "Inside Out," the wizards of Pixar have not only chased the art with vigor and passion, they have grasped it magnificently, making a film designed for all ages that will last for the ages.

"Inside Out" opens with the introduction of Riley Anderson (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), a girl born in Minnesota to her loving, doting parents (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan). Delving inside the mind of Riley, we are also introduced to her initial and primary emotion, the blue haired, wide-eyed pixie known as Joy (superbly voiced by Amy Poehler).

Over the course of Riley's earliest years, Joy is quickly joined by four more primary emotions including the elongated figure of Fear (voiced by Bill Hader), who protects Riley, the green skinned Disgust (voiced by Mindy Kaling), who serves to keep Riley away from anything poisonous, the stout and steaming Anger (perfectly voiced by Lewis Black), who serves to mold Riley's sense of justice and fairness and finally, the blue skinned, bespectacled Sadness (beautifully voiced by Phyllis Smith), who is unsure of her purpose and is therefore ignored.

The five emotions reside within the "Headquarters" of Riley's consciousness, guiding and shaping Riley's growth and development through the building of the core memories that will come to define Riley's overall being (most notably her love of ice skating and hockey). Her life experiences formulate the construction of the Islands Of Personality (which includes Honesty, Family, Friendship, Hockey and even Goofball Island) and each night when she goes to sleep, Riley's new memories are downloaded into long-term storage.

As Riley reaches the age of 11, her life begins to make profound changes as she and her family move from her beloved Minnesota to San Francisco, thus throwing her emotions into haywire. As Joy desperately attempts to keep Riley's happiness paramount, Sadness impulsively begins to alter Riley's memories from "happy" to "sad," which in turn finds both Joy and Sadness sucked out from Headquarters through Riley's memory tube and out into the vast regions of Riley's brain.

While Fear, Disgust and Anger futilely try to operate Riley's Headquarters, Joy and Sadness, with the aid of Riley's elephantine imaginary friend Bing-Bong (voiced by Richard Kind), travel throughout Riley's mind--including the labyrinthine Long Term Memories, the abyss of the Memory Dump, the carnival-esque Imagination Land, the surreal Dream Productions studio, and the darkest regions of Riley's subconsciousness--in order to catch the "Train Of Thought" back to Headquarters.

However, with growing up and difficult new experiences, come the arrival of new emotions and the discarding of old ones, all the while helping Riley to adapt to her new surroundings plus aiding Joy and Sadness to realize the fullness of their respective purposes within Riley's life.    

Pixar and Pete Doctor's "Inside Out" is a blissfully multi-layered cinematic experience. As with every film that has been released under the Pixar banner, the film is as visually dazzling and dynamic as you would expect but unlike the most recent selections from Pixar, "Inside Out" possesses an enormous purity of heart, brains and soul that provides palpable weight and gravity to the high flying and at times, completely abstract material on display. While Doctor applies a straightforward, linear narrative structure to the story, we are indeed given a dizzying platform to leap off from as we soar through Riley's outer and inner life, her present day experiences plus her memories and dreams and somehow, we always know where we are conceptually and how each moment and sequence builds upon each other to create a sumptuous whole.

By crafting a movie that is essentially feelings about feelings, "Inside Out" stands as tall as, and also works as a perfect companion piece to, Director Spike Jonze's "Where The Wild Things Are" (2009), a film that also explored a child's inner emotional state in a vibrant and defiantly artful style with urgency and powerful sensitivity. "Inside Out" is just as innovative as it is beautiful. To be able to take something as abstract as the brain and somehow devise of ways to make the process of thoughts and emotions and how they work and influence each other fully tangible while also remaining a world of endless mystery was astounding to me.

I loved how the Islands Of Personality were conceived visually, how all of the memories looked like large, translucent pinballs scattering around the tracks of Riley's mind and how all of the film's detours ran the emotional gamut. From the hilarious (a short cut through Abstract Thought was a high point as were the quick flashes into the minds of Riley's confused, caring parents) to downright eerie (Dream Productions, where Riley's dreams and nightmares are created, and her subconsciousness, where her deepest fears are housed away) to even heartbreaking (watching "Preschool Land" being tossed into the Memory Dump, for instance), Doctor wondrously entertains us while also inviting us to take stock of the exact same locations that exist within ourselves as well as the experiences that have shaped all of us in turn.

Like the very best films from the Pixar catalog, "Inside Out" is a film that does indeed alter your perceptions as you emerge from the movie, viewing the world, and yourself, in a different and deeper fashion. Unlike most films geared for children that are completely disposable, "Inside Out," like some of Pixar's finest, most challenging features, including "Ratatouille" (2007) and "WALL-E" (2008), is unapologetically sophisticated while tremendously playful, therefore making it a film that children, and all viewers, are able to grow with throughout their lives.

As with Writer/Director Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" (2014), Doctor has created an experience whose meaning and importance will shift and change as we all age. What the film represents to a 5 year old may mean something completely different to a 10 year old or a 35, 50 or 70 year old. For how could one look at this film and not think back to the stages that have formulated our own lives, to our core memories that have shaped the people we are still continuing to become? And for those of you that happen to be parents, I have a strong feeling that the experience of seeing "Inside Out" will be especially profound as you can explore your child, and well as yourselves.

With "Inside Out," we, along with Riley and her family, are taken on a journey where the innocence of early life begins to transform into a deeper emotional and cognitive universe, a process that can often be fraught with pain, sorrow and loss, most notably with regards to the character of Joy and the presence (or lack) of happiness within our lives. While I do not have children of my own, my life as a preschool teacher and being housed with all manner of very young emotional landscapes at any given time from one day to the next was not lost upon me as I watched "Inside Out." At points, I did have to admit to myself to some feelings of slight guilt when it comes to the nature of happiness and the pressure that I and we, as adults, just may place upon children to be happy all of the time. But going even further, "Inside Out" also illustrates the pressure we place upon ourselves with seeking, pursuing and remaining happy even when our emotions are instructing us otherwise, informing us that what we need is not necessarily happiness but some sort of understanding and compassion.

Within "Inside Out," the demands of being happy, or in this case, allowing Joy to remain as Riley's primary emotion, especially as she undergoes a life-altering transition plus the natural phenomenon of aging can be Herculean. At one especially powerful point in the film, when Joy and Bing-Bong are trapped within the Memory Dump, and repeatedly trying to escape from being eternally forgotten (i.e. depression), it truly hit me. That finding and maintaining a sense of joy is often so very difficult for myself as an adult so how could I, or parents and teachers for that matter, demand of our children or even expect them to hold a perpetual state of happiness regardless of what obstacles life throws into their direction? Childhood can be a wonderland but it is also a lengthy period when one is completely at the mercy of inner and outer environments they cannot possibly understand and definitely are not able to always control.

For Riley, she is indeed at the mercy of her family, as well as her emotions, due to her physical, cognitive and emotional development, which is compounded by being uprooted from the home and life she loved and planted into a new location. I felt that Doctor and his team were brilliant with visualizing San Francisco with a heavily drab and grey palate, clearly not how San Francisco looks in reality but entirely because of how Riley is feeling. The world that was once so bright is now a shadier, more uncertain place to reside inside of. With that, her emotions also begin the painful process of transformation where both Joy and Sadness each realize that the extent of their roles will change as Riley grows, ages and adapts to new settings.

Where Joy first exists as the leader of Riley's Headquarters, her relationship with Sadness continues to shift and emerge throughout the course of the film, bringing them, and us, to a new realization where we can see the futility of Joy and the essential nature Sadness plays in Riley's life, as well as all of our lives. In doing so, "Inside Out" is about the end of innocence and the death of childhood. Goofball Island and imaginary friends may not last forever, but what is born in their sacrifice is a new and more expansive universe and vocabulary. Where once were 5 primary emotions for Riley, the possibility of those 5 emotions combining, congealing and re-contextualizing themselves into the larger worlds of melancholy, euphoria, elation, pensiveness, anxiety and bittersweetness for example. Joy may not ever remain as the dominant emotional state of Riley's being but she just may become the base for a grander inner world. Sadness may discover that she is not useless after all, but necessary in being that signal to others that Riley is in need of connection, of assistance, of recognition and love and providing all emotions with a wider, deeper texture.

At long last Pixar has triumphantly returned to the precise qualities that have made the studio and their films so rightfully beloved. It is not enough to just be a visual treat, for a story still has to be told and told as well as possible in order to create the tightest connection possible with viewers. Pete Doctor's "Inside Out" finds Pixar operating at the very peak of their powers making a film that is enormously entertaining, fast paced, perceptively introspective, tenderly empathetic and fully representative of the life experience itself.

"Inside Out" also provides us with a clear victory for the presence of originality in films as this motion picture does not serve as any sort of sequel, prequel, remake, re-boot, re-imagining or otherwise and the feeling is tremendous. This winter, we will see our second original Pixar film of 2015 with "The Good Dinosaur," and then (sad sigh), it's back to the merchandising, those aforementioned sequels already in the pipeline and serving no interest to me whatsoever. But, even so, once that batch of films come and go, I seriously hope that the wizards of Pixar remember this film, this moment and the greatness that once seemed to serve as an artistic mission statement for themselves and the audience. I have been so harsh on Pixar in recent years because I know that they know better, and that is because they have done better!

With Pete Doctor's "Inside Out," Pixar has performed at their very best.

Friday, June 12, 2015

THE BALLAD OF BRIAN WILSON: a review of "Love And Mercy"

Screenplay Written by Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman
Directed by Bill Pohlad
**** (four stars)

"Every time I get the inspiration
To go change things around
No one wants to help me look for places
Where new things might be found
Where can I turn when my fair weather friends cop out
What's it all about...
...Sometimes I feel very sad..."
-"I Just Wasn't Made For These Times"
Lyrics by Tony Asher
Music by Brian Wilson 

Performed by The Beach Boys

Dear readers, in a cinematic year that has already proven itself to be uncomfortably barren in terms of high quality new releases, "Love And Mercy," Director Bill Pohlad's enormously moving and creatively audacious biopic of The Beach Boys' restlessly innovative musical genius Brian Wilson, is far and away the best film I have seen so far in 2015.

As with The Beach Boys' finest, most wondrous music, Pohlad has created a brilliantly multi-layered film of tremendous empathy as well as one of a creative audaciousness that not only makes for exciting, bracing, thrilling cinema but should also make it a serious contender during awards season... that is, if the powers-that-be have any discernible sense or a beating heart anywhere amongst themselves.

While the box office behemoths of sequels, re-boots and re-imaginings will indeed run rampant over the multiplexes and box offices, I cannot urge you enough to make the time to head out and see this film. Trust me on this one and especially if you have ever been a regular visitor to this site, I would not steer you in the wrong direction. Just know that one does not have to be a fan or know even one thing about Brian Wilson's life or the music of The Beach Boys in order to be affected by "Love And Mercy," as Pohlad has ensured that his artistic vision transcends the musicology and flies divinely into the heights and depths of the human spirit, thus making an experience that blissfully speaks to the soul.

Eschewing the standard "rise-fall-rise again" format of most biopic films, "Love And Mercy" examines and explores Brian Wilson during two distinct and alternately presented periods within his life. First, we have the mid to late 1960's as Wilson (played by Paul Dano) is suffering with panic attacks birthed from the rigors of concert touring. This affliction plus the psychological and physical abuse from the hands of his domineering and creatively jealous Father, Murray Wilson (Bill Camp), which has left him essentially deaf in one ear, inspires Brian Wilson to retire from the road to solely concentrate upon composing, recording and producing as the remainder of The Beach Boys continue to perform live.

Armed with a insatiable desire to create the greatest music ever recorded, a desire itself inspired by a healthy sense of artistic competition with The Beatles, we are witness to Brian Wilson beginning the process of serving only the sounds in his head as he embarks upon creating the innovative (and now iconic) music that would become The Beach Boys' masterpiece "Pet Sounds" as well as the music that would become the long abandoned follow up "SMiLE." While his constant inventiveness has wowed the crack team of studio musicians forever known as "The Wrecking Crew," Brian Wilson's studio experimentations, piercing lyrical introspectiveness and symphonic musical arrangements, worlds away from the standard commercial fare of guitars, cars and girls, meets the considerable disdain of his band mates, most notably the openly combative Mike Love (an excellent Jake Abel).

With dreams of artistic glory clashing with commercial failures and disappointment from his closest associates, combined with a descent into drugs, an increase in paranoia plus the growing cacophony inside of his mind, Brian Wilson slowly begins to lose his grip of reality.

Flash forward to the late 1980's as Brian Wilson (played by John Cusack), over-medicated, depressed, psychologically damaged and under the constantly malevolent control of therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), begins to emerge from the dark shadows of his life as he hopes to rebuild his sanity, find new love and overall life purpose with car saleswoman Melinda Leadbetter (an excellent Elizabeth Banks who grows in power over the course of the film).

Bill Pohlad's "Love And Mercy" is an undeniably sensational and emotionally overwhelming experience. It is remarkable to me that while focusing on just two periods within Brian Wilson's life story, Pohlad has somehow been able to give us a complete portrait of this iconic musical figure as well as a front row seat into the triumphs and tragedies that made and nearly destroyed him. It is a masterful piece of filmmaking, alternating effortlessly between the 1960's to the 1980's, each decade informing and playing off of each other and ultimately weaving a tapestry that builds to an emotional well spring, as Pohlad has fashioned an experience that transcends music and flows from themes of imprisonment to empowerment, selfishness to selflessness, clarity to madness, depression, anxiety, the long ranging damages of physical and psychological abuse, the healing powers of love and acceptance and all in between.

Aided by the gorgeous cinematography by Robert Yeoman, Pohlad's "Love And Mercy" works heroically as a visual feast through the meticulously re-created Beach Boys footage, from concert appearances and promotional films to the completely involving recording session sequences between Brian Wilson and the Wrecking Crew, that provide us with the sensation of being at the forefront of artistic inspiration at its most resplendent peaks.

At points, watching the 24 year old Brian Wilson, and with only one functional ear at that, creating music for the ages in one sequence after another, reminded me quite a bit of Director Milos Forman's "Amadeus" (1984), as that film also showcased the astounding gifts of a certain youthful musical prodigy who broke all manner of musical conventions to advance the medium and art form forwards, and creating music for the ages in the process. It is here where Pohlad utilizes his film to serve as a deeply heartfelt ode to inspiration and creation, and the process during which what exists inside one's brain becomes vibrantly real and is ultimately released into the world.

Special mention must also be given to Composer Atticus Ross, who has devised what is essentially a sound collage taken from a healthy selection of Beach Boys songs, sessions and ambient material and has altered them into soundscapes that function as an additional layer in fleshing out the cinematic character of Brian Wilson, by serving as the sounds within his head that voyage from the peaks of artistic glory to the bowels of psychological despair. Making the sounds function as much of a character as the dialogue and performances, Ross injects a hallucinogenic and increasingly harrowing element to the proceedings that demands awards season attention as well.

Beyond the music, Pohlad has ensured that "Love And Mercy" extends from its primary musical subject matter to exist as a personal story that not only contains much inherent drama and power but is also as universal as it is individualistic. I was curious while watching "Love And Mercy" if the groundwork of having two actors portray the same figure, yet during different stages within one life, in this idiosyncratic fashion was possibly laid by Writer/Director Todd Haynes' "I'm Not There" (2007), a film in which six actors, including Cate Blanchett, portrayed various incarnations of Bob Dylan's musical and public persona--a film that still feels ahead of the curve, and for some viewers, to an almost impenetrable degree. While Pohlad's cinematic vision is not as esoteric as Haynes', and decidedly warmer and more accessible, "Love And Mercy" is no less daring, equally as brilliant, and fueled astonishingly by the dual leading performances by John Cusack and Paul Dano.

As the middle aged Brian Wilson in the 1980's, I firmly believe that John Cusack has delivered the finest performance of his entire career. While Cusack does not physically resemble the real Brian Wilson, what he achieved was a quietly wrenching performance that truly felt as if it was feverishly created from the inside out, from the soul itself to tangible flesh.  In fact, it feels like a performance that serves as almost the anti-thesis to much of Cusack's career and cinematic persona as he has consistently portrayed figures who possess a great verbal wit and an intellectual sharpness. But for his role as Brian Wilson, Cusack plays a figure who exists as a shell of his former self, physically sedentary, his mind and spirit dulled by drugs and internal trauma and now essentially exists as a man beaten into submission by a lifetime of abuse by various Father figures--from his actual Father to Dr. Landy and to an extent, Mike Love--and the demons in his head.

Cusack instantly creates sympathy in his very first scene as he attempts to purchase a Cadillac from Melinda Leadbetter, to whom he is smitten seemingly instantly, and awkwardly tries to forge a conversation and connection while under constant surveillance by Dr. Landy's handlers. Before being whisked away by Dr. Landy, Wilson hands Melinda a card on which he has quickly scrawled the words "Lonely. Scared. Frightened." And here is where we find Brian Wilson, the now legendary creator of classic songs, as well as one of the greatest rock albums ever made, no longer making music, filled with regrets from divorce and failed fatherhood to his two daughters, and forced to live his adult life as an eternally alone and abused child, unable to navigate the world on his own terms yet still harboring a voice buried deep inside himself, slowly tunneling itself upwards and outwards.

To date, I have never seen John Cusack deliver a performance that is so unguarded, where the pain, sorrow and desperation for release is so unnerving, tangible, vulnerable and even mesmerizing to the point where you can almost see Paul Dano's face inside of his own. Just outstanding.

As the younger Brian Wilson, Paul Dano's superlative, transformative, and shattering performance will flatten you with its powerful fragility and graceful strength. While Dano more closely resembles the real Brian Wilson during the era of the 1960's, and also performs some of his own singing, which formulates a seamless musical flow in the film, what Dano has achieved so masterfully is to somehow find the magical space where the audience can believe in his musical genius during the recording sequences while also simultaneously seeing the eternally wounded child during moments of condescension from his family and friends and the tortured artist during sequences of his impending psychological breakdown and the fears that he will never be fully understood by anyone.

Like Cusack, Paul Dano performs the role with great empathy, always showing us the three dimensional and flawed human being behind the icon, and also unearthing the finest performance of his career thus far and one I am seriously hoping receives awards season attention for he is that voluminous.

For both actors, they have beautifully crafted a character study of an individual's life long road to independence as well as the profound psychological damage that occurs through being perpetually abused, which is Brian Wilson's case, leaves him shell shocked, shut in, and bed ridden. Watching Brian Wilson fall, house the desire to re-emerge but who just cannot find the will or strength to do so, as evidenced in especially painful scenes when he cowers in fear from Dr. Landy or expresses the futility of escape to Melinda, "Love And Mercy" extends itself further from being a film about Brian Wilson into being a film about all of us.

Think of any times within your own lives when the obstacles have grown to become so seemingly insurmountable that you feel that all there is to do is surrender. How do we find the means to continue and have we ever known of anyone who just could not do so anymore? What help did we receive, if any? Who showed us tenderness in the precise moment that it was needed, if at all?

Bill Pohlad's "Love And Mercy" is a film that is so beautifully about the words contained within its own title, itself the name of a song from Brian Wilson's 1988 self-titled comeback solo album. It is amazing to me that the real Brian Wilson has survived and endured beyond the pains and past tragedies within his life but even so, how have we all performed the same exact feats?

As Brian Wilson himself sang upon the melancholic "Pet Sounds" selection "Put Your Head On My Shoulder," he implores us to "LISTEN! LISTEN!" That is also what Bill Pohlad's "Love And Mercy" implores of us as well. To LISTEN. To FEEL. To UNDERSTAND. To always remember that everyone is housing some level of internal pain and suffering to varying degrees and if we encounter someone in just the right moment, we just may be the architect of inspiration to try and engage with life again.

And in doing so, "Love And Mercy" is a film of unquestionably great music but more importantly, it is a film of even greater humanity.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

BRUISED BUT NOT BROKEN: a review of "Aloha"

Written, Produced and Directed by Cameron Crowe
** (two stars)

To anyone who has known me or has followed my exploits upon Savage Cinema, it is no secret whatsoever about how much the writing and films of Cameron Crowe means to me. He is indeed one of my personal heroes, whose idiosyncratic artistic vision, which is fueled by an unabashed earnestness, unrepentant sentimentality and eloquent sincerity, is essentially unheard of within the cut-throat industries of music, journalism and most certainly, Hollywood. It truly amazes me that he has been able to survive within these unsympathetic, and increasingly cynical and downright mercenary, industries for so much of his life and frankly, my life has without question been the better for his unique and defiantly artistic presence.

Which, of course, makes this review a bit painful to write.

Cameron Crowe's "Aloha" is a failure, albeit a most noble one. As we live within a time when sequels, re-boots and re-imagining continue to rule the day at the expense of nearly anything other than some costumed superhero/CGI extravaganza being made, "Aloha" does represent a film of refreshing originality combined with the types of personal statements that Crowe has injected into all of his work. That being said, it is a bit of a mess. Not initially. But it is a film that seems to unravel before your eyes with characters, situations and motivations not fitting together and flowing in the way you would expect from a Cameron Crowe film. While not nearly the disaster many film critics and media outlets are attempting to lead you to believe (trust me, I can think of hundreds of films that are so much worse than anything on display here), "Aloha," despite its best intentions, is Crowe's weakest film by a mile.

"Aloha" stars Bradley Cooper as Brian Gilcrest, a disgraced military man injured in Afghanistan and now employed as a contractor for private billionaire Carson Welch (Bill Murray), who wishes to have Brian assist him with the launch a new satellite in Hawaii. Upon arriving on the Hawaiian military base, Brian is soon reunited with his former girlfriend Tracy Woodside (Rachel McAdams), who is now married to the taciturn military pilot John "Woody" Woodside (John Krasinski) and is also Mother to two children, the Hawaiian mythology buff/video camera carrying Mitchell (Jaeden Lieberher) and teenage daughter Gracie (Danielle Rose Russell).  

Entrusted to Brian as his no-nonsense, highly strung military liaison Captain Allison Ng (Emma Stone), whose consistently inquisitive demeanor and near devotional attitudes towards the traditions, customs and mythologies of Hawaii run counter point to the internally troubled Brian, despite a growing attraction for each other.

As Brian navigates his past with Tracy, a potential future with Allison and comes to terms with Carson Welch's more nefarious plans covertly hidden within the satellite launch, he reaches a personal crossroads at which he will discover if redemption is in the cards for his damaged spirit.

Cameron Crowe's "Aloha," in many ways, fits very snuggly with the remainder of his cinematic ouevre. With the character of Brian Gilcrest, Crowe again presents us with an emotionally closed male desperately in need of spiritual renewal, just like the fired sports agent in "Jerry Maguire" (1996), the suicidal athletic shoe developer in the unfairly maligned "Elizabethtown" (2005) and even the grieving journalist/Father in the warmly artful family film "We Bought A Zoo" (2011). And alongside essentially every film he has made, "Aloha" also deals profoundly with themes of maintaining integrity in a world that refuses to recognize that virtue as the most valuable currency to attain and what having integrity means in crafting one's identity.

Yet, the familiar themes are not presented as mere re-treads of past glories. This time, Crowe has focused his attention upon no less than the militarization, and therefore privatization, of outer space itself, and at the expense of the natural beauty the world offers to everyone, plus the history and cultures contained within the Earth. For if one is to own the skies, what else could possibly be left, especially within the rich landscapes of Hawaii?

With that, "Aloha" certainly has much more on its mind than just serving as a mere romantic comedy set in a tropical paradise. Even so, I felt that the love story contained within the film was actually the least interesting element, as it contained somewhat of a "been there-done that" quality that paled in comparison to the other story elements presented to us. Frankly, what interested me even more within the interpersonal love triangle of the film (such as it is), was the history contained between Brian Gilcrest and Tracy Woodside, which does play out into life altering consequences. But here, is where I felt the film ran into many of its considerable problems.

"Aloha" is actually the rare film that actually feels as if there is a greater, longer film lurking inside the film that is currently screening, as evidenced by the sequences involving Rachel McAdams, which seem severely truncated plus elements that would flesh out the military story as well as Brian and Allison's respective back stories. The film's final scene in particular, a wordless exchange between Brian and Tracy's daughter Gracie, is urgently, achingly beautiful and moving despite all of the film's flaws, and fully significant that there is a much better, more deeply satisfying film to be made from this material.

The long gestation of "Aloha" has indeed been a painful one. As far back as seven years ago, Crowe's screenplay was sought after by several studios and was at one point set to film with Ben Stiller and Reese Witherspoon in the leads before being delayed. Since that period, "Aloha" has been under fire as being the subject of some viciously negative e-mails revealed after the hack of Sony Pictures, plus vehement declarations of "whitewashing" as the film yet another one that deals with a predominantly Caucasian cast in Hawaiian society and even more controversially, the casting of Emma Stone as a character who is 1/4 Hawaiian. Add to that mix the delay of the films release from Christmas 2014, the blistering tone of the negative reviews and dismal box office, it seems that we just have one of those situations that, for whatever reasons, the stars just were not in alignment for this film.

To address the major controversies of the film, I offer these words to you. As for the "whitewashing" aspect of "Aloha," I emphatically toss those criticisms aside as I felt that Crowe was deeply reverential to Hawaii, its people, the land, its customs and mythologies as all of those elements are woven directly into the plot itself. As the bulk of the film takes places upon the military base, it felt to me more than appropriate that we would be viewing more Caucasian individuals, and furthermore, Crowe weaves in the tenuous relationship between the military and the inhabitants and local leaders of the Hawaiian islands, including Hawaiian nationalist leader Dennis "Bumpy" Kanahele, who portrays himself, thus securing a sense of authenticity and respect.

With regards to the casting of Emma Stone as a woman who is 1/4 Hawaiian, in Crowe's own words, as he wrote so exquisitely upon his blog/fan site "The Uncool":

"As far back as 2007, Captain Allison Ng was written to be a super-proud 1/4 Hawaiian who was frustrated that, by all outward appearances, she looked nothing like one.  A half-Chinese father was meant to show the surprising mix of cultures often prevalent in Hawaii. Extremely proud of her heritage, she feels personally compelled to over-explain every chance she gets. The character was based on a real-life, red -headed local who did just that."

Having seen the finished film, that description is precisely what was on the screen (although it does feel that some crucial material may have been edited out--more on that later), so I have no issue whatsoever with the casting in this case. In fact, the controversy does indeed, to me, provide further insight into how we, as a society views race and race representations and in this case, it seems that the criticisms say more about those administering the criticism than Cameron Crowe because hey, do all people that are 1/4 Hawaiian look the same?

All of that being said, I am not here to review the controversy or even to review Cameron Crowe's intent. All I can do is to review what is on the screen, and truthfully, I did find much to admire about the film from the gorgeous cinematography from Eric Gautier, the wistful score from Composers Jonsi and Alex and unquestionably, Crowe has again compiled one of the best cinematic mix tapes you will hear within the soundtrack for "Aloha."

While I felt that there were many good scenes, a solid opening stretch and strong performances throughout, most notably from Bradley Cooper and Bill Murray, not everything really worked out that well. Emma Stone, who is typically so very right in her performances, felt awkward to me this time around. Yes, the character is awkward but her rhythms never seemed to mesh that well or even that convincingly with Cooper's making their romance the only one in a Crowe film that I just have not been terribly invested with. Additionally, a character portrayed by Danny McBride seems to exist as just an element of quirkiness that never pays off and is in fact, more than a bit annoying. And one terrific early scene where Bradley Cooper and John Krasinski's characters exchange a wordless dialogue as an ode to a "strong but silent" comedy of masculine manners, more than overplays its hand when it is repeated in another sequence near the end of the film.

But mostly, "Aloha" just felt like a film that the studio got its hands on and re-edited within an inch of its life, attempting to re-create the financial success of "Jerry Maguire" but without knowing how and why that film worked so emotionally and euphorically in the first place. Based upon Crowe's work as a journalist, he has demonstrated his thoroughness and careful attention to detail time and again within his films and documentaries, so the almost scattershot, short cut nature of "Aloha," especially as the film continues, feels completely against his character and artistic aesthetic. There have already been mentions of the DVD/Blu-Ray release containing a plethora of deleted scenes that will clarify matters but if the studio just allowed him to make the film he wished to see in the first place, there was the chance that we would be seeing a film that felt to be more complete today.

Even so, I do feel that a filmmaker of Cameron Crowe's style and disposition has now found himself in real life almost existing as one of the characters within his own films. He is a filmmaker who is indeed fighting the good fight to retain a sense of integrity and determination to helm personal stories within an industry that continues to lean heavily in the direction of the impersonal. Even the vintage studio logos that open "Aloha" (and even "Elizabethtown") make the experience to feel as if he is making a statement that is nothing less than "Quixotian." But is it all worth it if the creation is going to be this arduous? Perhaps it is time that Crowe either solicit a "Director's Cut" clause in his contracts or that he leave the major studio system behind altogether and move to a more independent realm, like Richard Linklater...because you know there is no way that a major studio in 2015 would have ever funded a project like "Boyhood" (2014)!

As I previously stated, Cameron Crowe has survived within this business for so much of his life and I am certain that he will weather this particularly harsh storm and emerge on the other side stronger than ever. I have confidence that he will one day deliver another top-flight winner. But for now, "Aloha" exists almost like that film's characters: bashed around, sad, disillusioned, and even discombobulated.

But not fully defeated.

Monday, June 1, 2015


With obligations and responsibilities taking the forefront within my life, I was not able to see as many films last month as I had wished. So, as more new films arrive, I need to play some catch up, most notably with Director Brad Bird's already under-performing fantasy film "Tomorrowland" and of course, my hero Writer/Director Cameron Crowe's already critically and financially beleaguered "Aloha."

1. At the tip top of my list for this month is Director Bill Pohlad's "Love And Mercy," his biopic of the legendary Brian Wilson and starring both Paul Dano and John Cusack as Wilson during two distinct and tumultuous periods of his life.

2. Pixar's "Inisde Out," at long last an animated feature from the once untouchable but now middling studio that is not a sequel, re-boot or re-imagining. This journey through the mind and emotional states of a 13 year old girl is the most intriguing concept Pixar has emerged with in many years and I am deeply hoping that they will go for the gold once again.

3.  Both "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" and "Dope" are two independent and teenage themed features that have garnered some strong buzz and I am hoping that both of them arrive in my fair city this month.

4. And then...there is the big screen version of the HBO series "Entourage," a series I watched from beginning to end with such glee but am now skeptical as to what can be accomplished to make a more cinematic feature. But even so, I can't help it as I do really want to see Jeremy Piven scream at people just one more time.

So, that indeed fills my month up to the brim, and as always, I simply ask you for your well wishes.

Until then, I'll see you when the house lights go down.