Friday, July 31, 2015

BIGGER, LOUDER, MORE TEETH, NO BRAINS: a review of "Jurassic World"

Based upon characters created by Michael Crichton
Story by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver
Screenplay Written by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Derek Connolly & Colin Trevorrow
Directed by Colin Trevorrow
* (one star)

Oh when will they ever learn?

By this time, "Jurassic World," the fourth installment in the "Jurassic Park" film series has become a box office behemoth that has exceeded all conceivable expectations as it it not only the highest grossing film in the series, it is also the highest grossing film of 2015 so far and the third highest grossing film of all time so far. So what a stupendous shame it is that the film itself is terrible.

Truth be told, dear readers, I have not ever been the biggest fan of the "Jurassic Park" series. I don't know if it has to do with my lifelong lack of interest in dinosaurs or not but the wonder of that particular cinematic world never did that much for me. Now that being said, Director Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" (1993), is unquestionably a modern classic filled with imagery and set pieces that have now become iconic and still endure, despite the so-weak-they're-barely-there characters. His sequel, "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" (1997), with its slightly better stabs at creating characters was a worthy, if goofier follow up. And for me, the magic, such as it was, ends there as Director Joe Johnston's "Jurassic Park III" (2001), was an inexcusably ridiculous waste of time as it essentially served up a collective of stupid characters doing stupid things just in order to get themselves chomped up.

Regarding "Jurassic World," I have avoided seeing the film util now because in my mind, I just could not fathom where else a "Jurassic Park" movie could even go conceptually. What would the filmmakers do or have the characters experience that had not already been performed three times over? Near the opening of "Jurassic World," as directed by Colin Trevorrow, graduating to the cinematic major leagues after the success of his independent feature "Safety Not Guaranteed" (2012), I began to wonder if he would directly tackle the very issue that made me trepidacious with potentially seeing any new installment. Unfortunately, no matter how skilled and handsome of a top flight production the film is, "Jurassic World" is also a film of such vast emptiness that no amount of sound and fury and CGI razzle dazzle can make up for a complete lack of purpose other than to rake in those "Jurassic dollars."

Set twenty three years after the events of the first film, "Jurassic World" returns to Isla Nublar, the mythical island near Costa Rica, where John Hammond's dreams of creating a theme park starring cloned prehistoric creatures has emerged from its tragic ashes into its fullest, and highly lucrative, fruition. Essentially the new Disney World, the now open and operating Jurassic World has become a phenomenon, running ten years straight, exciting and enchanting audiences far and wide.

Chris Pratt stars as Owen Grady, a Jurassic World trainer, velociraptor expert and love interest for Bryce Dallas Howard who stars as Claire Dearing, Jurassic World's chilly operations manager who is set to entertain her visiting nephews Zach and Gray Mitchell (played by Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins, respectively), yet pawns them both off onto her assistant as she is busy attempting to obtain new corporate sponsors.

Disaster strikes when a new, genetically engineered dinosaur, with DNA culled from several predatory dinosaurs and modern day animals, called the "Indominus Rex" breaks free, and Jurassic World, filled to the brim with staff and patrons, erupts into chaos. With Zach and Gray lost within the jungles of the theme park, and the power hungry Vic Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio) wishing to weaponize the velociraptors and the Indominus Rex, it is up to both Owen and Claire to save the day...that is, if they can avoid being culinary casualties!

On the surface, Colin Trevorrow's "Jurassic World" fits perfectly alongside the previous three entries of this film series. It is a glistening production, filled from end to end with seamless, lifelike special effects that shake and rumble confidently as well as a film that showcases Trevorrow's directorial confidence and ease with working within the mega-budgeted arena of filmmaking. So sleek is the film's overall presentation that it could nearly pass for one of Steven Spielberg's own directorial efforts, from the visual sheen all the way down to Composer Michael Giacchino's copycat John Williams-esque score. Yet, all of those compliments serve only as faint praise as "Jurassic World" only confirmed my worst suspicions and then spiraled downwards from there.

While at first, it seemed as if "Jurassic World" just may be strong enough to erase the bad memories of that horrible third installment from my memory, it was ultimately not to be. In one of the rare moments of cleverness, I enjoyed an early scene where Claire expressed her desire to keep adding new, fresh attractions to the theme park, consequences be damned, because "nobody is impressed with dinosaurs anymore." In that one line of dialogue, it felt as if Trevorrow (and possibly Spielberg, who returns as Executive Producer), were confronting the issue with generating a fourth film in the series head on, because, as I have previously stated, what could possibly be done that the filmmakers have not already accomplished in three films? Beyond just asking the question, it seems as if Trevorrow and his team performed absolutely none of the heavy lifting involved to ensure that "Jurassic World" would be a completely unique experience. Familiar of course. But vibrantly new as well. Essentially the film exists not solely as a direct sequel but also as somewhat of a re-boot as it has been a full 14 years since the previous installment and we do have a new generation of young, savvy movie goers to impress as they may regard the original film as old hat. Just the sight of a CGI T-Rex isn't enough anymore. But even more so, having more and larger creatures, even grander special effects and wilder cataclysm and carnage isn't enough either. Not by a long shot and Trevorrow should have known better.

"Jurassic World" is one of those films that boasts a team of four writers, two of them responsible for the excellent and poignantly grim "Planet of The Apes" remakes, and yet for some inexplicable reason, not one of them could arrive with any interesting motivations, situations, dialogue or even characters to speak of. It is a film universe that makes several nods to the original 1993 film in visual "Easter Eggs" and even within the dialogue, yet it also marches forwards as if the characters have no knowledge of what previously happened in the events over the last three films. From businesswoman Claire and the militaristic Vic to the characters of Jurassic World owner Simon Masrani (played by Irrfan Khan) and even chief geneticist Dr. Henry Wu (played by B.D. Wong), who incidentally appeared in the first film, it just made no sense to me whatsoever that aside from Owen Grady, no one felt that creating genetically engineered dinosaurs was a bad thing...until it was always too late. In doing so, Trevorrow just takes the audience on the very same ride of the hubris of man and our downfall from that hubris over and over again and then, has the audacity to have his characters exist in a ridiculous state of shock when things inevitably go destructively wrong.

Like the third film, "Jurassic World" is essentially a film of stupid people doing stupid things solely to get the audience from one set piece to another. Hmmm...we can't seem to see the Indominus Rex through the glass window? Well, let's just walk inside the enclosure completely unprotected and look for him. Hmmm...we're riding through the wildlife of the theme park in a gyroscope and we've received a warning to return immediately? Let's not follow that command and just roll right through this other path that goes straight into the deepest, darkest most dangerous part of the jungle. Having Claire racing around from end to end in those damn high heels notwithstanding, I just hated how the characters went from being cornered and nearly devoured by the creatures to ultimately escaping and instead of just running away, they would all stop, turn and regard the prehistoric carnage wondrously before again being spotted by the dinosaurs and then deciding to run, get cornered, escape and regard all over again. The sheer idiocy was rampant, which of course, diminished any and all sense of tension. But if you just keep those special effects coming...

"Jurassic World" also makes the spectacular error committed in films like these by not understanding that all of the special effects in the world mean absolutely nothing without a story or characters to hang the effects upon. Not once during this film did I ever feel any sense of visceral terror or excitement or fear because every human character was interchangeable with another, making all of them essentially no more than CGI people ready made for the CGI dinosaurs to gobble up--that is except for the leading actors and characters, who are able to evade all manner of life and death danger time and again for no other reasons than they are indeed the leading actors. Yes, I do understand that the real stars of "Jurassic World" are indeed the dinosaurs and creating vibrant human characters has never been this series' strongest suit. But would it have killed Trevorrow and his team to even try?

Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard are more than capable actors, as they each carry a warm and engaging screen presence as well as a safe PG 13 styled sense of sex appeal. They do make for an attractive screen couple. But that being said, would it have been trouble for any of the film's (again) four writers to have bothered to have given them, and everyone else, any discernible characters to play or a storyline to sink their teeth into?

The "Spielberg-ian" fractured family, which consists of Zach, Gray, their careerist Aunt Claire and their potentially divorcing parents (played by Judy Greer and Andy Buckley) and therefore must be reunited by film's end, is so prefabricated and inconsequential that it is almost presented as an afterthought. The character of Vic Hoskins is really nothing more than a paper thin mustache twirling villain as well. But going to the main relationship between Owen and Claire, I was more than a little dismayed at a certain clumsy and even regrettable regressive sexism on display.

Yes, I did feel that it was an obvious tactic on the part of Trevorrow to try and inject a sense of a classic on-screen antagonistic romantic/sexual tension into the proceedings a la Director John Huston's "The African Queen" (1951) or Director Robert Zemeckis' "Romancing The Stone" (1984). But with barely there characterizations, and armed with the most basic, perfunctory and insipid dialogue, their dynamic is just boiled down to a "Man Smart Woman Not Quite As Smart"/push me-pull me dynamic that is less old fashioned and much more insensitive and somewhat offensive. And didn't you also happen to notice that as the film progresses, Claire continuously loses her clothing piece by piece (except for those damn stiletto heels) while Owen remains as fully dressed at the end of the movie as he was at the beginning?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Claire can shoot a gun and drive a truck away from chomping dinosaurs while, of course, wearing a clinging tank top and those ever present high-heels. But Owen Grady is the sole character in the film who truly knows and understands more than any other character, especially Claire, and it is truly only up to him to save her, the children and any other relevant participants for no other reason than he is the rugged, charming, eternally can-do man of action rather through anything as archaic as character development. To just saddle these two actors with these hollow archetypes and expect anyone in the audience to give a damn about their "relationship," let alone their survival, which contains not one ounce of substance or weight, was as lame as it was lazy. Frankly, they could have been two LEGO figures being tossed around...but that would be an insult to LEGO figures.

The presentation of Owen and Claire was downright innocuous compared to one on-screen death by dinosaur that, to me felt wrong to the point of ugliness. The violence of "Jurassic World" is indeed much like its three PG 13 rated predecessors. A lot of rumble rumble through the theater speakers, screams, wide eyes and the inevitable CHOMP and CRUNCH. Quick flashes of carnage and minor gore and then the film moves right along to the next set piece without ever looking back. But in one instance, and for one character, Trevorrow ups the ante to a most distasteful degree.

The character (a minor character at best) in question is Zara (played by Katie McGrath), Claire's British personal assistant who is relegated to babysitting Zach and Gray because Claire is just too busy with her Jurassic World duties to deal with them (my, how 1990's). Anyhow, late in the film, after seemingly every single prehistoric creature has escaped, a fleet of Pterosaurs fly directly into the still human occupied theme park and one creature swoops down and whisks Zara straight up into the sky. OK, fine. That's well and good but what followed just felt to be needlessly mean spirited. While trapped in the Pterosaur's claws, the camera pans upwards into the sky to see a screaming Zara being tossed from one Pterosaur to another and finally being pulled by Pterosaur straight down into a massive water tank. The camera follows her descent and continues to hold onto her as she continues to scream wildly while being attacked by the Pterosaur in the water before again being yanked back up into the sky where she and the Pterosaur are then fully eaten by the gargantuan aquatic creature, the Mosasaurus.

What was the point of that?! To see this minor character, who really did not serve much purpose to the film as a whole go through an on-screen death as graphic as that one felt so profoundly wrong to me. It is a hard thing to really explain in words, in order to fully convey my emotions as I watched this sequence. But, just take a moment and think and when doing so, I feel that you will realize that we have all felt something like this when watching movies, especially ones that do contain varying degrees of onscreen violence. We go with whatever the story is telling us and we are all free to judge whether the violence in question was legitimate or gratuitous, and for me, to watch this woman screaming to her last breath as she was being torn apart by these dinosaurs felt completely gratuitous. Hell, even the film's primary villains do not have any scenes in the film that remotely approach Zara's final moments. And for what? Why her? And for all of the deaths that do occur throughout "Jurassic World," why was the most graphic one starring a female character? I am certain that some of you may be feeling that I am completely over-thinking this sequence and am trying to find something that just may not be there. I completely honor that sentiment. All I can say is that the images presented in the movies are specifically chosen for a reason and I just could not think of one reason why everyone who is torn apart and eaten by a dinosaur in "Jurassic World" was given a swift send-off except for this character who we witness being caught, tortured in the air and water, and then finally eaten, screaming her lungs out all the way. It felt like a slasher movie when it never needed to go down that route. What does that say about the filmmakers who crafted such a sequence and furthermore, what does that say about us in the audience who have clearly paid more than once to bear witness to this movie that has made so much money and still counting? Like Claire herself said, and I repeat, "The sight of a dinosaur isn't enough anymore."

And so, I left "Jurassic World" feeling more than a little ticked off at allowing myself to be snookered enough to not listen to my original feelings and just pass this film by altogether. I know that many to most of you loved the film and if you honestly did, then I do celebrate you as we should always be fully entertained by the movies we choose to see.

But for me, I have had more than enough trips to this repetitive cinematic universe where bigger and louder substitutes for creativity and imagination. When the fifth installment arrives, and it will as it has just been announced, you can just take the next voyage without me.

Friday, July 24, 2015

RECKLESS, RAUNCHY AND REAL: a review of "Trainwreck"

Screenplay Written by Amy Schumer
Directed by Judd Apatow
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

For all of the wealth of accolades Writer/Producer/Director Judd Apatow has rightfully received throughout his long and varied career in film and television for the riches he has brought to the world of comedy, I strongly feel that, whether he would admit to it or not, Apatow is truthfully more of a dramatist.

Now, don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting that Judd Apatow operates within the same existential stratosphere as Ingmar Bergman. But in addition to listing the likes of James L. Brooks, Hal Ashby, Cameron Crowe, Robert Altman, John Cassavetes and even John Hughes as some of his primary filmmaking influences. I just feel that regardless of how riotously funny Judd Apatow's films are, the undercurrent of pain, confusion and palpable angst always seems to provide his films with a most serious core.

Within Apatow's previous four directorial features, which include "The 40 Year Old Virgin" (2005) and "Knocked Up" (2007), as well as the sprawling and considerably darker "Funny People" (2009) and "This Is 40" (2012), Apatow has tackled sexual anxiety, impending parenthood, aging, mortality, isolation, and the ruthless competition that exists in the world of stand-up comedy, all of which are surrounded by Apatow's constant themes of arrested development and the inherent push/pull drama that fuels adult romantic and sexual relationships. This is how and why the actual comedy of those films work so successfully. Not through any prefabricated shenanigans. But with how Apatow has mined that certain sense of truth within the subject matter, always tinging the films with uncomfortable yet relatable realities as we, in some ways or another, have all been there.

With the arrival of his fifth feature, "Trainwreck," Apatow continues on his laugh-out-loud yet emotionally turbulent path but this time, the writing has not emerged from his pen but from collaborator Amy Schumer who also stars. For a film that he has directed which he did not write himself, "Trainwreck" succeeds greatly as the next installment in his on-going cinematic career plus also providing Schumer with a feature that will only elevate her already considerable star power and innovative comedic influence. And again, for all of the considerable and unapologetically R rated humor that is first rate from beginning to end, I think "Trainwreck" will surprise you greatly just by how emotionally resonant, perceptive and profound its sense of pathos actually is.

"Trainwreck" stars Amy Schumer as Amy Townsend, whose pivotal childhood experience was the day her father Gordon (played by the great Colin Quinn) informed her and her sister Kim of his impending divorce from their Mother because of the impossibility of monogamy, a mantra he instructs his children to repeat to themselves...a mantra that Amy will eventually take to heart.

Flash forward 23 years where Amy, now a 30-ish writer for a New York men's lifestyle magazine entitled S'Nuff (which specializes in outrageously vulgar feature articles like "You Call Those 'Tits'?!," and "The S'Nuff Guide To Beating Off At Work") regularly indulges in drink, drugs, partying and promiscuous sex with a seemingly endless stream of male suitors, while she is also sort of dating Steven (John Cena), a bodybuilder who clearly has some internal issues of his own to work through.

Amy's reckless behavior continues much to the chagrin of her sister Kim (played by Brie Larson), now happily married to Tom (Mike Birbiglia) and pregnant, as Kim sees Amy's lifestyle as being too terribly reminiscent of their Father's, a man who now is suffering from Multiple Sclerosis and residing in an assisted living facility. But perhaps, Amy will begin to view her life through a new and more romantic lens as she soon begins to date Dr. Aaron Connors (a terrific Bill Hader), a sports physician she is profiling for an upcoming issue of S'Nuff.

As Amy's shockingly begins to fall for Aaron, who in turn reciprocates her feelings, and combined with her family conflicts, her career path and her variety of never ending indulgences, Amy is forced to confront the full trajectory of her life head on as she discovers precisely just what she needs to achieve her sense of personal happiness and fulfillment.  

Judd Apatow's "Trainwreck" is easily the funnest film that I have seen in far too long. It is an exceedingly well acted, written and directed film that fully and wisely understands that no matter how outrageous situations and characters become, if the world within the film is grounded in a tangible reality, the comedy will then be able to soar to its highest points. As with all four of Apatow's directorial features plus some of his films where he served as producer, like Director Nicholas Stoller's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (2008) and especially Director Paul Feig's "Bridesmaids" (2011) for instance, I again found myself in the company of a collective of characters that I was reluctant to let go of once the end credits began to pop on and off of the silver screen.

As previously stated, for a film that did not emerge directly from Apatow's creative mind and pen, "Trainwreck" feels very much as if it did for how well the film sits alongside his past efforts. That being said, he unquestionably hitched himself to the right talent as he could not have found a more formidable collaborator than Amy Schumer, whose specialized brand of self-deprecating humor and slashing cultural satire made for a combination that was consistently funny from start to finish and is also the most cringe worthy social comedy I've seen since HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Believe me, the character of Amy Townsend could even give Larry David a run for his money!

Aside from the comedy, please allow me to return to my opening statement about how I feel that Apatow is an even more skilled and worthy dramatist that he is given credit for, from himself as well as critics and possibly fans as well. Stemming just from the film's title, Apatow, with Schumer, has created a multi-layered character and film that straddles the worlds of comedy and drama to a most effective bittersweetness and often, a palpable, urgent sadness. As with "Funny People," where Apatow gave us an extremely unlikable leading character with Adam Sandler's embittered, ailing comedian who undergoes a life-altering experience and essentially does not evolve, I certainly applaud both Apatow and Schumer for creating a character who nearly serves the same function.

"You're not nice!" exclaims the muscle bound yet sensitive Steven to Amy Townsend at the end of their final fight, which itself concludes an awful evening at the movies, completely derailed by Amy's riotously inebriated state and the discovery of her arsenal of male suitors via texts on her phone. And with Steven, I would have to agree. The character of Amy Townsend, while hilarious, intelligent and who indeed possesses a certain sexual allure, is definitely someone, for some viewers like myself, would probably avoid. For all of her wild abandon, Amy Townsend is shamelessly narcissistic, selfish, petulant, acerbic, and often insensitive to others to the point of cruelty. Apatow and Schumer wisely understand that it is not their job to get the audience necessarily on Amy Townsned's side and like her, as with most romantic comedy ingenues. It is their job to get the audience to understand her, to see how she has been wound up to navigate the world as she sees it.

As with "Knocked Up" and "This Is 40," Apatow and Schumer utilize the narrative of "Trainwreck" to continue exploring the thematic threads of arrested development and most notably, the consequences of absolutely terrible parenting and how children are sometimes, or at least feel, doomed to just grow up into new versions of their parents, or in Amy's case, her Father. While "Trainwreck" is a romantic comedy, and regardless of her relationship with Aaron and the friction that exists between herself and her married, pregnant sister Kim, I believe that the film is about so much more than a battle between monogamy and promiscuity. Amy Townsend's crisis stems from her internal struggle of wondering if her life is essentially pre-ordained or not and whether it is even worth it to try and go against what she sees is just her nature. Amy is more than aware that she is a prickly, promiscuous drunk (maybe even an alcoholic) but as the events of her life, from her Father, her romance with Aaron and to her career all congeal and conflict, Amy is forced to ask of herself if the life she has lived thus far is the one she actually deserves or can she possibly do better.

Just think of Amy's writing career within the film. Does she honestly think that she will be able to continue to make a mark within this particular cutthroat industry if she is perpetually drunk, stoned and/or hungover daily and entering work each morning after staggering home from some sexual dalliance from the night before? Does she really feel that her professional lot in life is to write terrible articles for a raunchy men's magazine and constantly exist under the thumb of her grotesque Editor (scathingly played by an unrecognizable Tilda Sdwinton)? Then, the prospect of her age also is a factor as Amy is definitely not getting any younger. What was once a fun, free and easy lifestyle will only soon smack of desperation as she would rapidly end up existing as the pathetic party girl who remained long after everyone else returned home (an excursion with an intern played by Ezra Miller is especially cringe worthy). Furthermore, there is the issue of mortality, which also enters the scene as she is indeed confronted with her ailing Father, who even in the throes of a debilitating disease still angers and alienates everyone around him.

All of these elements combine to fuel Amy Townsend's reckless behaviors as she is clearly using alcohol, drugs and empty sex as a means of avoiding the fullness of life itself, the warts of emotional wounds and all. If she's drunk and stoned enough, then she can't feel any sense of existential pain. If she keeps running away from every man she sleeps with, then she will never become emotionally involved with anyone and therefore run the risk of experiencing any realistic emotional wounds. For all of her acerbic humor, Amy Townsend's emotional barriers are 10 ft high and just as thick, with a sizable amount of fear driven self-fulfilling prophecy to boot.

Yes, "Trainwreck" is centered around Amy's budding romance with Aaron but honestly, you already know where that story thread is headed just from the film's one-sheet. Frankly, the core of the film is not her relationship with Aaron, although it serves as the catalyst. The core of the film is Amy's relationship with herself. What matters most is the possibility of Amy realizing that she does not have to become her Father or even her sister, but that she is able to become something, anything different than what she feels she is destined to become. For that matter, she just might realize that she is a person skilled enough and worthy enough to become a writer of some acclaim, perhaps even a screenwriter of a smash hit feature film!

What makes "Trainwreck" transcend the romantic comedy genre and emerge as something truly special is how Apatow, with Schumer, utilizes the romantic comedy genre to essentially make a drama about a woman discovering her own sense of self-worth for quite possibly the first time, a period of growth that undoubtedly contains considerable growing pains. As far as I am concerned, this aspect made for a much more provocative and enlightening feature than any standard romantic comedy could ever hope to be. In fact, I felt that some of the very best sequences within "Trainwreck" are indeed the most painful ones and Apatow with Schumer, who does indeed provide a strong, layered leading performance, are equal to them. A mid film trauma is particularly effective as are the many sequences of conflict between Amy and Aaron, which mine uncomfortable romantic truths to hilarious and squirmish effect (a sequence where an exhausted Aaron is on the receiving end of Amy's vehement tirade yet grows drowsy hit an especially tender nerve for me, I shudder to say).

The entire cast of "Trainwreck" shines brightly, especially Bill Hader, one of my favorite recent "Saturday Night Live" players, who only continues to impress on-screen. Hader made for a wonderfully effective yet awkward and earnestly romantic leading man, quite the contrast from his beautifully rich dramatic turn as the homosexual, suicidal twin sibling in Director Craig Johnson's "The Skeleton Twins" (2014). And let's hear it for LeBron James, in what I believe is his debut screen role, is fully natural and effortless and his rapport with Hader, including a terrific sequence where they play a round of one-on-one is priceless (it actually reminded me of the classic "SNL" sketch featuring Paul Simon playing basketball against the NBA's Connie Hawkins set to Simon's "Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard").  

The star of "Trainwreck" is unquestionably Amy Schumer who gives a pitch perfect performance that runs the gamut from ribald and raunchy to romantic to regretful and back again. Additionally, she has also written a terrific screenplay and I was greatly impressed by her equal opportunity offensiveness and satirical bite which does gleefully draw blood. Schumer's all encompassing screenplay features her evisceration of the entire landscape of men and women's lifestyle magazines, self-consciously quirky independent art films, as well as subtle digs with aspects of white privilege (a scene where Amy is challenged by Aaron about the amount of Black friends she has is particularly sharp). In addition, and most importantly, what Schumer has achieved is the creation of a full, three dimensional character with a life, history, hopes, career, inner demons and an insatiable sexual appetite who just happens to be female--a cinematic rarity in Hollywood and shamefully so.

Any criticisms I have of "Trainwreck" are minor at best. Judd Apatow has long been taken to task for the elongated running times of his films, a quality that I have enjoyed over and again. Yet, for "Trainwreck," I could think of perhaps two scenes, and one in particular, that could have been either shortened or excised altogether as they really did nothing to enhance the story and characters but seemed to exist to have a few celebrity cameos. And I would also say that for a film that delves into the messiness of life so fearlessly, the film's ending felt to be a tad too storybook for my tastes. Not predictable necessarily. Just storybook.

Aside from those minor quibbles, I have nothing else to say but BRAVO to Judd Apatow for again providing us with a chronicle of modern 21st century adult relationships that works as an outrageous yet honest reflection of how we live and love. And Amy Schumer...phew, what a creative force of nature she is. Together, she and Apatow have created one gem of a film that will split your sides open with laughter while making you pause as you regard the reality of the situations upon display. To that, maybe "Trainwreck" is less of a comedy with a serious undercurrent and more of a drama that just happens to be very funny.

Monday, July 20, 2015

GREAT GIFT, SMALL PACKAGE: a review of "Ant-Man"

Based upon the Marvel Comics series created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby
Story by Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish
Screenplay Written by Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish and Adam McKay & Paul Rudd
Directed by Peyton Reed
**** (four stars)

Dear readers, I do realize that I am sounding like a broken record. Trust me, I know. But I cannot help it.

Yes, my fatigue with all things sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes, re-imaginings and my Lord, a movie industry that has now relegated itself to producing all manner of those sorts of films plus anything created from a toy, video game, or featuring yet another individual adorned with a costume, a cape and blessed/cursed with superpowers, at the expense of making seemingly anything else has been copiously noted upon Savage Cinema.

And still, I make no apologies in doing so for movies are just too important to me as an art form that contains the ability and vision to encompass a universe of variety, creativity, personal statements and mass entertainments that I get frustrated due to its rapid homogenization. Look, I like big budget movies. Many of them are some of the best films that I have seen in my entire lifetime. Additionally, do trust me when I tell you that I do not profess to hold any sense of "high art/low art" inhibitions towards movies, as I feel a great film is a great film regardless of style or genre. If a filmmaker is able to tell a story in the very best way possible, I will go with that filmmaker all the way.

Even so, all of that leads to my quandary with the current state of superhero movies being released with such alacrity and now filling up film studio schedules for years to come, that I often feel like turning my back on the entire enterprise out of a sort of Quixotian protest. But yet, I continue to attend these films as I haven't seen a truly terrible one in a very long time. Yes, there have been some I haven't liked or have been somewhat disappointed by. But something on the level of Director Joel Schumacher's horrendous "Batman And Robin" (1997)? Not at all, at least since Director Christopher Nolan essentially re-invented the entire genre with his game changing "Batman Begins" (2005) and undeniably with his towering masterpiece "The Dark Knight" (2008).

With regards to the Marvel Comics cinematic universe, which began triumphantly in grand style, classic storytelling and superior wit with Director Jon Favreau's "Iron Man" (2008), I have remained faithful yet albeit with a certain weariness with the assembly line nature of the releases. Again, the Marvel powers-that-be have not made a bad film to date--although Director Alan Taylor's "Thor: The Dark World" (2013) came very close--but even so, I was not really chomping at the bit to see "Ant-Man," the final entry in the studio's self-described "Phase 2" of building-block films, especially as it arrives just two moths after Director Joss Whedon's "Avengers: Age Of Ultron."

All of that being said, and after all of the doubts and trepidation, I entered the film this afternoon as a skeptic and exited a convert as I feel that "Ant-Man" is not only one of the summer's highest surprises, it is one of the most flat-out entertaining films from the Marvel films canon. Do not allow the unfamiliarity of the character stop you for I strongly feel that you will be laughing, cheering and dazzled just as much as I was.

"Ant-Man" stars the ageless Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, a corporate whistle-blower turned well-meaning cat burglar newly released from prison. Taking up residence with his former cell mate, the loquacious Luis (an excellent Michael Pena), Scott attempts to carve out a new life on the right side of the law with the hopes of being able to build up enough cash flow to pay child support to his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer), who is now married to police officer Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), and refuses to allow Scott to see his beloved daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson).

After being unable to earn the money and keep a job due to his past criminal record, Luis soon convinces Scott to take part in a new, and possibly final, heist alongside his partners Dave (Tig "T.I." Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian), in which Scott is to sneak into a home and crack the vintage safe, stealing the valuables inside. Scott does indeed break into the safe but only finds what appears to be an old motorcycle suit and helmet, which he does indeed pilfer.

Unbeknownst to Scott, the home, safe and contents therein belong to the legendary Dr. Hank Pym (the inimitable Michael Douglas), a physicist, entomologist and former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who discovered the sub-atomic particles in order to create the original Ant-Man technology and suit, which Scott secretly possesses--or so Scott thinks.

Pym, who was forced out of his own corporation by his former protegee, the nefarious and gradually unhinged Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), as well as estranged from his own daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), finds a kindred spirit in Scott Lang and soon convinces him to become the new Ant-Man in order to steal Cross' "Yellowjacket" weapons technology and suit, itself stolen from Pym's original scientific breakthroughs.

As Scott is mentored in his new role by Pym, and begins his life altering new adventures, he soon discovers that the greatest of his skills, abilities and honor fully arrives when he is physically at his smallest.

Peyton Reed's "Ant-Man" left me flying high and surprisingly so. For my tastes and sensibilities, it provided a potent antidote to the increasingly dark and serious tone that comic book movies have taken recently, making the film feel like the most refreshing tall glass of cinematic lemonade I've had in quite some time. With regards to the Marvel Comics cinematic universe, I have not simply enjoyed a Marvel film this much in years. Moreso than "Avengers: Age Of Ultron" and exceedingly more than Writer/Director James Gunn's over-rated "Guardians Of The Galaxy" (2014), I felt myself immediately caught up, swept away and enormously entertained from start to finish.

By now, I am certain that you are all familiar with the fact that Writer/Director Edger Wright, the filmmaker responsible for the likes of  the groundbreaking features "Shaun Of The Dead" (2004) and "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" (2010), was originally attached to and developed this project only to depart after he and Marvel experienced those ever present "creative differences." I have a strong feeling that a filmmaker as idiosyncratic as Wright and the corporate machine of Marvel just could not mesh well together as his strikingly singular vision would potentially clash with the building block nature of the Marvel cinematic universe. While we can only imagine exactly what an eye-popping, one-of-a-kind feature Wright would have helmed, Peyton Reed, like the character of Scott Lang, has seized upon his appointment as the film's director with sheer vitality and gusto.

"Ant-Man" felt as if Reed, a director of box office hits yet decidedly anonymous films like "Bring It On" (2000), and "The Break-Up" (2006), knew that this film was his one shot for the motion picture major leagues and believe me, he has swung for the fences and cleared the field. The passion, the commitment, the creativity, the ingenuity and the vision are all apparent as Reed has helmed this film with supreme confidence and, most importantly, a hearty playfulness that makes "Ant-Man" stand out proudly from its surrounding Marvel characters and accompanying films.

First of all, Reed has injected "Ant-Man" with a lightness that works as a terrific counterpoint to the palpable seriousness of the previous Marvel film entries, including Director Joe and Anthony Russo's excellent "Captain America: The Winter Solider" (2014), which functions as a 1970's style conspiracy thriller and 21st century cultural/political commentary while also delivering the costumed goods in spades. Comparatively with "Avengers: Age Of Ultron," where you could really feel Joss Whedon straining under the self-imposed weight of keeping all of the narrative threads of the Marvel universe together in addition to the overall heaviness of the story itself, Peyton Reed has utilized "Ant-Man" to truly delve into a story that is purposefully smaller scaled. Yes, the fate of the world is the ultimate endgame and linking Scott Lang up with The Avengers is paramount (and featured in one very funny sequence), but the heart of the film is a very simple and tender two tiered Father/daughter story and is propelled briskly by the fleet-of-foot nature usually seen in caper films and believe me, more often than not, Director Steven Soderburgh's "Ocean's Eleven" (2001) happily sprang to my mind.

In fact, "Ant-Man" is so unassuming that, also like the character of Scott Lang, it is a film so sneaky and deceptively slight that you may not immediately notice the effectiveness of its cinematic slight of hand. Superior credit must go to Paul Rudd (who also co-wrote the final script) whose breezy, seemingly effortless charm makes him the perfect actor to portray this unlikely hero and hands down Michael Pena is the film's M.V.P. as he nearly walks away with the whole film, practically stealing every scene that he is in

But I have to extend my congratulations to Peyton Reed and his team for creating a film that packs on the visual gags that merge beautifully with the word play and overall story telling. Whether through any perceived reverence to Edgar Wright's original vision for the film and/or Peyton Reed desiring to raise his directorial game, Reed has made the rare film in the overblown CGI era where the special effects are indeed special again.

Reed's usage of visual perspective is tremendous throughout. Take Scott Lang's first outing in the Ant-Man uniform where he is forced to survive being washed away inside of a bathtub, evade a hungry mouse and even has to dodge between the dancing footsteps of high-heeled house-partiers. That was a blast just by itself. But Reed never takes his eyes off of the prize as all of the film's fight sequences are beautifully choreographed and executed as Ant-Man shifts his size from large to minuscule over and again. And then, of course, there was the terrific climax where the shrunken Ant-Man battles an equally shrunken Yellowjacket on top of a child's model train set, a sequence which even then plunges into the inter-dimensional, an effect that at least has the audacity to try to become somewhat "Kubrick-ian." But what may have been the most impressive special effect of all was a flashback sequence where Michael Douglas is made to look essentially just as he was during his "Fatal Attraction"/"Wall Street" heyday in late 1987. Truly a "how-did-they-do-that?" moment if there ever was one.

Aside from the special effects themselves, Reed keeps all of the proceedings within "Ant-Man" light and frothy, injecting pathos when it needs to appear and never allowing it to overtake the film. Yet, when the film exists at its most charming it is when Reed just allows the interactions between the characters to surprise us through fast paced dialogue and the beautifully edited comedic sequences, most notably any time Michael Pena is allowed to just ramble onwards and Reed visualizes Pena's thoughts in a most clever and almost 1940's screwball comedy fashion,

How unexpected Peyton Reed's "Ant-Man" was, a film I really had little to no desire to see, and attended more out of obligation than want and how it delivered the goods in an unassuming approach yet was completely fulfilling and re-invigorating. Certainly, there remains this part of me that still wishes to see Edgar Wright's original vision for the character and completely independent of Marvel. That would be spectacular, I am certain (and who knows, at this rate, I'd love to see Wright create a completely original character and blow everyone away with it). But Peyton Reed has heroically grabbed the cinematic baton, bringing Marvel to its second finish line in terrific and purely entertaining style.

Not every comic book feature has to out-do the previous one in terms of bombastic overkill. A terrific script, fueled by strong performances and inventive direction are all you need and "Ant-Man" is one of the most fun comic book escapades I've seen. Like a superhero who saves the world just in the nick of time, Marvel Studios, you pulled it out once again, ensuring that I'll return to my local movie theater one more time as "Phase 3" begins its run,

Saturday, July 11, 2015


Screenplay Written by Pat Rushin
Directed by Terry Gilliam
**** (four stars)

"Nothing is real."
-The Beatles

"Nothing is Everything. Everything is Nothing."
-The Who 

In many ways, it truly amazes me that a filmmaker of Terry Gilliam's stature, creativity, and longevity is not more openly celebrated and revered than he is. But in other ways, I can completely understand it.

Terry Gilliam, forever associated with his tenure within the brilliantly iconic absurdist comedy troupe Monty Python's Flying Circus, has long existed as one of our most blatantly idiosyncratic filmmakers, crafting one deliriously demented yet often divine work of visionary art after another and another. To that end, his career has indeed been plagued with more than his fair share of disappointments, turbulence and trauma, some of which have derailed projects altogether, soiled his relationships within the Hollywood studio system time and again and earned him a reputation as either cinema's madman genius or enfant terrible, depending upon whom you would ask.

As for me, ever since the age of 12 when I saw the surrealistic fantasy film "Time Bandits" (1981), I have remained steadfast with my allegiance to his joyously askew and often darkly disturbing vision of life, the universe and everything...and that even includes remaining faithful after enduring the turgid and repugnant cinematic atom bomb known as "Tideland" (2005).

That being said, it has troubled me over the years, as the movie industry has changed, seemingly leaving idiosyncratic filmmakers like Gilliam behind for more impersonal, commercial sequels, prequels, remakes, re-boots and re-imaginings, that a filmmaker of Terry Gilliam's legacy and overall excellence is increasingly having difficulty getting films made and even released. His latest film, the grim existential odyssey entitled "The Zero Theorem," was barely released theatrically in the United States and never arrived in my city at all, making it quite possibly one of Gilliam most underseen and possibly unknown films.

As far as I am concerned, that is a complete shame as "The Zero Theorem" finds Terry Gilliam operating at the top of his game, delivering one of his finest, and most tragically haunting films to date. If you have ever found yourself swept up and away by a Terry Gilliam film, from the likes of "Brazil" (1985), "The Fisher King" (1991) or "12 Monkeys" (1995), or are just in the avenue to see a film experience unlike anything else playing in your local theaters and multi-plexes, rent the Blu-Ray or DVD or find a way to stream "The Zero Theorem" as soon as conceivably possible.

"The Zero Theorem," set within an indeterminate future society, stars Christoph Waltz as Qohen Leth, an eccentric and anti-social computer programmer and mathematician, who is convinced that he is dying and is feverishly seeking the meaning to his existence, which he believes will arrive via telephone call. Qohen, employed by the conglomerate known as Mancom and assigned to "crunch entities," desperately attempts to arrange to perform his duties from his home due to his perceived illness. Although company doctors proclaim that Qohan is physically healthy, he is instructed to receive therapy from the AI psychiatrist Dr. Shrink-ROM (Tilda Swinton) for continuous evaluation.

At a party held by his supervisor Joby (an excellent David Thewlis), at which Qohan reluctantly attends, he meets two individuals that will drastically alter the course of his life. First, Qohan is introduced to the comely, curvaceous and vivacious Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), who instantly attracts his eye and spirit against his judgement and solitary nature. Secondly, there is the figure known only as "Management" (sharply played by Matt Damon in a cameo performance), who grants Qohan's request to exclusively work at home but solely on a special project.

After being shown the super-computer known as the "Neural Net Mancive," a machine that has stored all of the "crunched" entities, Qohan is instructed to order all of the data to solve the Zero Theorem, a mathematical formula designed to determine the meaning or meaninglessness of existence.

While endlessly working upon the formula, receiving his therapy sessions, living in isolation for the better part of one year and still waiting for his hopefully life illuminating phone call, Qohan finds his sense of reality challenged, questioned and within the serious threat of being unraveled entirely. Philosophical and existential conundrums pile upon themselves, questions remain unanswered yet lead to more questions and then, there is the presence of a real or imagined swirling black hole beckoning to Qohan menacingly.

Terry Gilliam's "The Zero Theorem" is a darkly kaleidoscopic odyssey into the heart of existential angst that is as beautifully realized as any film within Gilliam's oeuvre. Working again with his longtime collaborator, Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, Gilliam weaves a lavish, lushly visual palate that remains a feast for the eyes yet his landscape is filled with all manner of canted angels, designed to once again suggest the topsy-turvy sense of alignment, or lack thereof, that precariously exists within the society, the philosophy and the internal state of the film's characters.

The first third or so of "The Zero Theorem" is quite possibly Gilliam's most visually cacophonous film, no small feat for a filmmaker who has made a career out of his visual extravaganzas. Yet this time around, the excess effectively creates the disturbing effect of a world disastrously overrun with imagery, lights, sound and also one where advertisements literally follow you walking through the streets of an over-populated, sensory overloaded city environment. The effect is as dazzling as it is exhausting.

Once Qohen ventures into his seclusion, the film grows more intimate and insular as it essentially bunkers down inside of his home, which is a bombed out, dilapidated former monastery filled with items both archaic (that ringing telephone) and futuristic (virtual reality suits and all manner of computers), and where all of the imagery clashes together to such a degree that everything feels messy and meaningless. We have seen this technique before in portions of Director Alfonso Cuaron's "Children Of Men" (2006) but never to this impressive and immersive of a degree. Perhaps in this more than any other Gilliam film have I wished to freeze frame sections just to study every little detail he and his expert team have literally crammed into every single frame.

Even so, let me assure you that the visual overkill is indeed purposeful and not meant to bludgeon and numb you into submission. The visuals fully enhance the film's internal landscape. While the actual plot description may make "The Zero Theorem" sound like self-congratulatory gobbledy-gook, please again allow me to assure you that Gilliam has crafted a deeply stirring, multi-layered experience where the considerably weighty pathos will indeed rattle your spiritual cages. Not only has Gilliam utilized this film to serve as a worthy successor to both "Brazil" and "12 Monkeys," therefore creating a conceptual sub-trilogy within his complete filmography, "The Zero Theorem" essentially feels to exist as Terry Gilliam's dystopian science fiction version of Playwright Samuel Beckett's "Waiting For Godot."

"The Zero Theorem" beautifully works as a tangible, achingly heartfelt and teeth baring cultural critique, as faceless conglomerates continue their stranglehold, the reality of existing under constant surveillance is ever mounting and how our over-reliance upon technology and social media has heavily contributed to our collective spiritual decay in regards to our mounting sense of anxiety and alienation. But mostly, I felt the film to work strongest as a spiritual allegory filtered through the disturbing lens of tragic comedy, and believe me, it is a descent into palpable anguish, disillusionment and madness.

With a mad physicality and the personal tick of always referring himself in the plural, Christoph Waltz elicits a pitch perfect performance as the misanthropic Qohen Leth confidently and completely inserting himself into Gilliam's dark cinematic universe as he creates a character that is indeed cut from the same cloths as Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) from "Brazil" and James Cole (Bruce Willis) from "12 Monkeys." Like those characters, Qohan Leth suffers from the same affliction with feeling, and being, figuratively or literally displaced in a world that he can no longer recognize...that is if he ever did.

Where Sam felt more at home within his fantasy world where he existed as a winged warrior and James Cole felt his life needed to be lived in pre-apocalyptic 1996 as opposed to the post-apocalyptic 2027, Qohen Leth retreats to his home, yet never finds any sense of comfort or tranquility. It is only in the virtual reality world (itself a dangerous distraction of isolation, Gilliam may be arguing) of a warm beach by the ocean graced by a golden sun that never sets and where Qohan live his days with Bainsley, the woman of his dreams (again like Sam Lowry and James Cole), does Qohan find some sense of peacefulness. In some ways, "The Zero Theorem" possesses the feel of an elderly man taking stock of a world that quite possibly is no longer understandable, perhaps much like Terry Gilliam himself to an extent.

Or what if, instead of an elderly man, we are dealing with the interior state of a dying man?

The Quixotian (or better yet, Sissyphean) atmosphere of "The Zero Theroem" cannot even begin to be understated, for what could be more of a seemingly unwinnable uphill siege than attempting to understand what cannot ever be understood. Just take Qohan's work assignment of decoding the Zero Theorem itself. There he sits day and night and all over again, madly staring into a computer screen and grasping wireless controls, moving digital boxes containing excerpts of mathematical formulas around and around like some sort of TETRIS game. Once one formula is completed, another formula disintegrates, making a task that will absolutely, positively never be accomplished.

Even greater are Qohan's interactions with the very small collective of individuals who enter and exit his life, from the gregarious Joby, to Bob (played by Lucas Hedges), the teen aged, fast talking computer technician who is also Management's son to especially the erotically tinged Bainsley, who fully disarms Qohan, despite his best intentions to remain emotionally closed to everyone.

In fact, out of all of the film's highly exaggerated characters, it was the character of Bainsley that left me curious as she just never felt (aside from one tender, desperate scene late in the film) quite real to me. It seemed that she was more of an idea than fully three dimensional and again, I think that was purposeful for what if Bainsley is indeed just a perception, a vision of Qohan's romantic and sexual desire? And if she is not real, then she will always be unattainable. And that is when I truly felt that perhaps none of what I was watching was even possibly conceived to be "real" at all. What if all of the characters, his home and the landscape are all just representations of Qohan's personality and memories, spiraling around his mind in those final stages of life before...oh, well, whatever comes next, if anything?

Is Management essentially God (like the crisply suited Supreme Being in "Time Bandits")? Does Bob represent Qohan as a younger man and therefore, does Joby represent him during middle age? Is his home just an extension of the corners and corridors of his mind rapidly declining? And what if that black hole is essentially eternity and with that, what if the film itself are the thoughts of a man's final moments before departing this mortal coil, kind of like Writer/Director Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" (2008)? If anything, Terry Gilliam's 'The Zero Theorem" is indeed open to interpretation (or maybe not, and Gilliam is having a laugh over all of us trying to ascribe meaning to his film) and I do think that it is quite possible that what we may be experiencing throughout is not a literal story set within a literal, realistic landscape.

But again, there lies the conundrums, because nothing is real.

With all of the relationships he formulates in the film, poor Qohen is upended time and again throughout the film as every perception he holds is broken apart and every new realization is fraught with pain and sorrow. Just regard Christoph Waltz's eyes throughout the film and if you look closely, and beyond his brusque, cantankerous nature, you may occasionally see the dabs of tears welling at the edges, for he is a more sensitive soul than he is willing to reveal.

Is it all just pointless self-preservation to hold so tightly onto what cannot be grasped forever? Qohan's eternal quest for inter-personal and societal relevance plus feverishly trying to gain the meaning of life had only created his sense of existential misery isolation and displacement. Certainly, we all question our existence just as we are increasingly becoming non-existent, for that is indeed the human condition. But to what end to we question? Do we question at the expense of the lives that we have been given? Terry Gilliam's "The Zero Theorem" explores the concepts of the meaningful and the meaningless and what does indeed constitute a meaningful life so provocatively and artfully.
Terry Gilliam's "The Zero Theorem" is a grim philosophical, psychological experience that is an impassioned meditation on the nature of existence itself. It is a film about isolation, displacement and the task of attaining a sense of meaning in an increasingly meaningless and chaotic universe ready to swallow us whole, like that nightmarish maw of a black hole that keeps tormenting Qohen Leth. It seems that somehow, someway, Terry Gilliam has escaped the pull of that black hole time and again, as he carries onwards, by hook or by crook, precisely making the films that he would indeed see himself  and inviting us to join his specialized parade in the process.

Now in his 70's, I shudder to think with how much longer we may be able to have an artist of Terry Gilliam's disposition and talents still creating. At this time, we has two new and LONG gestating projects lined up, including the eternally troubled "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," and to that, I send my very best wishes that his dreams can come to full fruition, and for our full benefit as well.

Long may he run and long may we embrace him, for when Terry Gilliam does indeed leave the material world, we, and the world of cinema itself, will have quite the large, black hole left in his wake. So, please do try and find some way to embrace him now with the excellence of "The Zero Theorem."

Friday, July 3, 2015

DOOMED FRIENDSHIP: a review of "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl"

Screenplay Written by Jesse Andrews 
based upon his original novel
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
**** (four stars)

This one nearly laid me out flat.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl," his adaptation of the Jesse Andrews novel, just may keep you at a certain arms length due to any perceptions of this being yet another "disease tearjerker" or at least, a pale imitation of Director Josh Boone's "The Fault In Our Stars" (2014), itself based upon the blockbuster and beloved Josh Greene novel. In some respects, I suppose that I held my suspicions as well, as I hate to be emotionally manipulated through unearned storytelling, combined with my own considerable affections for "The Fault In Our Stars." Most of all, I just don't have an affinity for those "sickness" movies as they do tend to fall into pathetic cliches, Hallmark sentiments, plastic caricatures and no real understanding of the very real pain involved for the diseased and those who care for them. In short, there's only one "Terms Of Endearment" (1983) for a reason!

In the case of "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl," I experienced a purely unique cinematic vision that stood so confidently upon its feet, providing me with a familiar story that was presented in a fashion that I had not quite seen before. It is a film that circumvents all of the cliches through its considerable sharp humor, deeply perceptive characters, and a certain emotional rawness that cut straight to the bone for me. For fans of  "The Fault In Our Stars" (of which I do indeed count myself), you may disagree with me, but for my sense and sensibilities, "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" delves, deeper, hurts even more and unveils an exquisitely painful ode to friendship, mortality and the different yet equally painful act of attempting to disengage with life even as life is forcing you to engage with it. For the remainder of you, I feel that "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" is one of 2015's very highest efforts and should definitely not be ignored.

"Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" stars Thomas Mann (who kind of resembles a teen-aged Beck) as Greg Gaines, an introverted, awkward, lanky high school senior prone to dangerous levels of self-deprecation who lives with his overbearing Mother (Connie Britton) and anti-social Father (Nick Offerman), a tenured Professor who endlessly pontificates, eats exotic foods, adores foreign films and never seems to teach any classes.

Greg drifts through his days in a haze of ironic distance as he dispassionately engages with all of his school's social groups (which he has mentally and meticulously compartmentalized) yet has emotionally attached himself to none. He houses a healthy crush over the pretty and curvaceous Madison (Katherine C. Hughes), yet never pursues her. He eats his lunches in the offices of Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal), his highly unorthodox yet fully respected History teacher, in order to avoid his classmates. And his best friend is Earl (RJ Cyler), who lives on the poor side of town, has been friends with Greg since kindergarten, although Greg refers to him as his "business associate."

Greg and Earl's relationship and "business" (such as it is), is filmmaking, an on-going project forged through their shared love of all forms of cinema, especially foreign and art films. As a creative outlet, the twosome create parody versions of classic movies like "Grumpy Cul-De-Sac" (instead of "Mean Streets," for instance) and they have amassed an oeuvre that even Criterion would be proud of if only the films weren't so purposefully and hysterically ridiculous.

Greg's life is forever altered when his Mother informs him that Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke), a neighbor and classmate has developed Stage 4 leukemia. His Mother demands that he venture to Rachel's home and befriend her, a direction Greg agrees to with a massive amount of reluctance. After spending days upon days in Rachel's bedroom together, she and Greg soon begin to tentatively build a friendship, which then solidifies as Earl convinces Greg to show Rachel their film collection, which she enjoys immensely. Once Rachel begins chemotherapy treatments, Madison further suggests that Greg create a special film with Earl specifically for Rachel, a request to which he reluctantly agrees.

As their bond grows stronger and Rachel grows sicker, Greg is ultimately forced to face his greatest fears about himself and the relationships with those closest to him, in order to deal with the future he is desperately trying to avoid.

Alfonso's Gomez-Rejon's "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" is a tremendous work which transcends the limitations and pitfalls of its respective genre so that it far exceeds any notion of being a mere "disease of the week" movie. Like "The Fault In Our Stars," the film also boasts a collective of intelligent and verbose teenagers armed with an acerbic and unsentimental wit, all dealing with a life threatening disease. But where that film contained a certain polish and more traditional narrative structure, Gomez-Rejon has injected "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" with an outlook that is scruffier, more askew and cinematically inventive.

Collaborating richly with Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, Gomez-Rejon has weaved a narrative that is at times non-linear, possesses abrupt shifts in tone from riotously comedic to emotionally pummeling and is often punctuated by all manner of dazzling visual effects and presentations, from the variety of camera angels to usages of stop motion animation. Additionally, the overall sound of the film, which contains healthy helpings of Brian Eno's instrumental music and songs, provides the film with a more left of center palate that was admirable and provocatively appealing to me. Listen closely music fans and you will hear Eno's "Here Comes The Warm Jets" (released January 1974) playing constantly in Rachel's bedroom.

But, let's not turn this review or the film as a whole into a competition between it and "The Fault In Our Stars," because for all of their similarities, the differences truly set them apart from each other, therefore making for two films that are creatively and emotionally effective. In fact, "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" reminded me less of "The Fault In Our Stars" and more of a film like Director Jason Reitman's "Juno" (2007), another film starring a verbose teenager with an acerbic wit faced with a life altering event, as well as one in which I loved from the very beginning and felt only got better and better the longer the story unfolded.

Like "Juno," there has already been some minor criticisms launched against "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" for possibly being too self-consciously quirky. To that, I disregard that opinion completely, especially as you all know very well, self-conscious levels of quirk do not make it past me very easily and most certainly, not without some considerable scorn on my part. I really felt that like "Juno," any sense of quirkiness was purely story driven and contained a greater profundity and pathos than it may seem. For all of the visual window dressing and sizable humor Gomez-Rejon applies to the film, everything is created to serve Greg's outlook of the world in which he inhabits and therefore, his emotional stability, or lack thereof.

Greg's emotional distance from everyone and everything in his life is fueled by his own lack of self-confidence which has then cemented itself into stages of perpetual inertia and even depression. In Greg's defense, both of his parents (especially his Father, whom I am wondering may even be slightly agoraphobic), are fair to poor in regards to being emotional role models. To that end, both Earl and Rachel are also afflicted with the primary adults in their lives being emotionally unreliable or absent as Rachel's Mother (Molly Shannon), is a depressed, alcoholic with a disturbingly too close for comfort demeanor with Greg and Earl and Earl's Mother is a depressed shut-in whom we never see in the film. This threesome do indeed form a tender bond, like the trio in Writer/Director Rick Famuyiwa's "Dope," based upon them all facing uncertain and life changing futures. Where both Earl and especially Rachel take up the challenges that life has thrown at them, Greg continues to retreat, kicking and screaming all along the way.  

Greg's fear of being harmed by any sense of disappointment or emotional trauma is beautifully displayed through Gomez-Rejon's visual presentation. As in Director Edgar Wright's "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" (2010), where the titular hero views existence itself essentially as one continuous video game to shield himself from romantic wounds, Greg views life as if it were a feature film for the exact same reasons.

Every time the lovely Madison appears, his mind travels to the stop motion animation of a kindly woodland creature being stomped to death by a moose. Although he and Earl have created over 40 parody films together, much like the characters in Writer/Director Michel Gondry's "Be Kind Rewind" (2008) and Writer/Director J.J. Abrams' "Super 8" (2011), once it is time to create for Rachel, directing a film without artifice, Greg's creatively prolific nature stalls him. Oddly enough, Greg is really not too far removed from the leading character of Malcolm in "Dope" as they each posses a certain equality of ingenuity. But where Malcolm knows precisely of his desires and utilizes his brains to move forwards, Greg utilizes the very same set of skills to attempt to keep the inevitable at bay.

For Greg, films are an illusion but once they become real, he has lost his one means to hide away from the world that he is so afraid of. In turn, Gomez-Rejon's film grows decidedly stark and the visual razzle dazzle evaporates completely, as in one excellent and extremely painful sequence set in Rachel's bedroom, where she and Greg argue about their respective futures, from whether to apply for college or even to continue chemotherapy treatments. The camera remains static, the silence between them grows more piercing and the ache created is fully organic and filled with palpable agony.

Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler and especially Olivia Cooke, all relative unknowns, are completely magnetic in their performances. They all feel natural, unforced, and completely capable of juggling a series of conflicting and complex emotions and motivations with seemingly effortless ease.  Again, I have to make special note of how these three actors each handle the many scenes of silence throughout the film. Gomez-Rejon packs a world of meaning into the sequences between Greg and Rachel, as they silently watch the parody films together, their friendship growing stronger and more perilous. The film's final sequences, also merged brilliantly with Brian Eno's music, suggest a mortality that is as shattering as it is nearly psychedelic and an aftermath that is fraught with new discoveries and by film's end, I simply could not move.

So far this year, I have been surprisingly overrun with the emotional waves contained and beautifully delivered in both Director Bill Pohlad's "Love And Mercy" and Director Pete Doctor's latest Pixar masterpiece, "Inside Out." With Alejandro Gomez-Rejon's "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl," I now have a third film this year that has so artfully worked me over in the very best possible fashion. With an enormous soul, endless inventiveness and even serving a subtle and sly cinematic critique against the lazy and emotionally empty headed big budget motion pictures clogging our theater screens, "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" is another film to showcase the glories that exist inside of movies that do not serve as any sort of sequel, prequel, remake, re-boot or re-imagining. It is a work of personal, heartfelt vision that truly demands your attention during a movie season that would potentially swamp a film like this one.

Furthermore, "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" also possesses the still unbelievable audacity of treating teenagers as real, three dimensional human beings deserving of stories that are sensitive, honestly representative of their age and are dramatic and artful as well as entertaining. Perhaps this film will finally usher in a stage where films about teenagers are not dismissively viewed as mere "teen films," but solely as "films."

And for my money, Alejandro Gomez-Rejon's "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" is one of the very best films of 2015.    

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


Let's hear it for original films!!!

The month of June was a real breath of fresh air in regards to original, passionate creative filmmaking voices being at the forefront of my movie watching. And with July, I hope to try and maintain that streak for as much as possible.  So, if you are wondering what I just may think about the latest re-boots to the "Terminator" and "Vacation" franchises, for instance, Savage Cinema is not the place for you. (And besides, no James Cameron or John Hughes involved in either project at any stage...then I am not there!)

First of all, I am planning upon seeing "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" in a few days but in addition to that film...

1. Judd Apatow's "Trainwreck" is already high upon my radar for this month. Directing the first film that he did not have a hand in writing himself, Apatow, with Writer/Actress Amy Schumer, has already received some rave early reviews for his latest comedy, which makes me even more excited as I just have not seen a truly funny film in quite some time.

2. Director James Ponsoldt, who gave us the wonderful teen drama "The Spectacular Now" (2013), returns with "The End Of The Tour," starring Jesse Eisenberg as a Rolling Stone reporter and Jason Segel as author David Foster Wallace, another film receiving early strong buzz.

3. Ok...Ok....yes, even after all of my belly aching about the over-abundance of superhero films, I'm going to head out to "Ant-Man," the latest entry in the still vibrant and classy Marvel Comics film universe and starring Paul Rudd in the titular role.

4. And yes, I do plan on heading out to one sequel this month with "Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation," the fifth entry in the continuing Tom Cruise spy series.

Aside from those films, well, we shall see...

Until then, I will see you when the house lights go down!!!!