Tuesday, October 16, 2018

MAN ON THE MOON: a review of "First Man"

"FIRST MAN"
Based upon the book First Man: The Life Of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen
Screenplay by Josh Singer
Directed by Damien Chazelle
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
RATED PG 13

Despite the still vivid memories I hold of the deep fascination I had with the stars and the cosmos when I was a young child, it was enough to completely turn me off from the idea of ever leaving the planet to voyage to outer space. In fact, it was enough to make me forever want to keep my two feet firmly planted upon the ground.

Dear readers, let me express to you that the first sequence contained within Damien Chazelle's "First Man" is a showstopper as it is violently propulsive and superbly volatile to the point of being simultaneously breath taking and anxiety inducing. The set up is as follows: the year is 1961 and astronaut Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) is a test pilot riding an X-15 upwards into the clouds and ultimately into space and back down to Earth again.

Chazelle frames every moment from a first person perspective, essentially allowing the audience absolutely  no panoramic viewpoints. Solely the extremely limited vantage point of Armstrong himself, his head obviously encased within his helmet, and all peripheral vision essentially robbed. What we are given are the pulse pounding G-Force vibrations, so raging in its turbulence that it feels the ship weighs even less than a tin can and is threatening to shatter in a moment's notice, therefore scattering Armstrong himself to the four winds. What is visible is not much more than what is in front of his eyes with portions of darkness punctuated by aggressive flashes of light. The sound is utterly terrifying in its deafening cacophony, which feels to ascend in its intensity the higher Armstrong climbs.

And before it is even realized...complete silence and the sheer majestic tranquility of outer space. That is, before beginning the hyperbolic descent and ferocious landing. To think, the man only continued to voyage upwards and beyond over and a gain over the next eight years before becoming that first man to set footsteps upon the lunar surface of the moon.

"First Man," the latest feature from Damien Chazelle, further cements his status as one of our most versatile young filmmakers working today. Following his exhausting, incendiary "Whiplash" (2014) and "La La Land" (2016), the lavish, extravagant musical that most of you loved but I was tremendously underwhelmed by, Chazalle's new film is a return to form (for me) as well as an extension of his sharp, complex artistic palate as he has created an experience that is a compelling work of rich juxtapositions, as the epic pursuit of Americans attempting to reach the moon runs concurrently with the piercing, painful intimacy of an interior, psychological drama, making for one of 2018's especially poignant films.

As previously stated, Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong as "First Man" chronicles, in an episodic docudrama fashion, the eight year journey from the film's opening X-15 sequence to the Apollo 11 mission, which did indeed find revolutionary success upon the moon in 1969. During this same period of time, the film focuses upon Armstrong's private, increasingly melancholic home life with his wife, Janet Shearon (Claire Foy) and their two sons after the illness and death of their 2 year old daughter, Karen (Lucy Stafford).

Damien Chazelle's "First Man," will undoubtedly earn comparisons to both Philip Kaufman's "The Right Stuff" (1983) and Ron Howard's "Apollo 13" (1995), and deservedly so, with its superlative filmmaking, photo realistic special effects that celebrate the realities of Science, Math, and the wellsprings of equal parts inspiration and intelligence that once mined our societal curiosity at what laid beyond our own planet and the ingenuity, plus healthy competition with the Russians in the "space race," that provided us access to travel to the stars.

While Chazelle  more than supplies his film with the characteristics that showcase the epic qualities of this story, "First Man" is, in actuality, much more of a hushed chamber piece that demands strict attention from the audience to piece together the motivations and meanings when regarding such an inscrutable figure like Neil Armstrong. Chazelle and Ryan Gosling do not go out of their collaborative ways to tell or even necessarily guide the audience into determining precisely what Armstrong may be thinking or feeling, especially as he continuously attempts to return to space over and again, after so many have failed or even perished trying the same feats.

And truthfully, it is in the nature of mortality that the soul of "First Man" exists. For it is indeed the death of Armstrong daughter that fuels this narrative, giving the film its palpable sadness as we are unquestionably experiencing a film that serves as a meditation upon grief and mourning as it parallels the nature of personal longevity and the pursuit of legacy, much as one could witness in a film like Pablo Larrain's excellent "Jackie" (2016) starring Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy as she struggles to wrestle control of her life and legacy immediately after the 1963 assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. 

As I think about both "Jackie" and "First Man," I am now discovering just how similar both films actually are in regards to their respective tones and themes, merging the historical and the psychologically individualistic, both areas equally seismic. As with "Jackie," Damien Chazelle has ensured that "First Man" thrives upon its own juxtapositions and parallels as he has unveiled a film that is often distressing--yet not to melodramatic degrees by any stretches--but one that is, even moreso, decidedly claustrophobic.

Whether inside the rocket cockpits, the Armstrong homestead or within the respective minds of both Neil Armstrong and Janet Shearon, the atmosphere is increasingly stifling and constricting as the loss of Karen Armstrong is seemingly the only element that permeates each specific area. I found it very interesting that Chazelle's film really possesses only scant dialogue. No, it is not a silent movie, so to speak. But it is one where the dialogue is purposefully not designed to advance the narrative or to supply any interior insights. In doing so, Chazelle seems to have found a truly perceptive take upon the individualistic and solitary nature of the grieving process with "First Man."

There is one scene in particular that occurs late in the film and directly before the landmark Apollo 11 mission, during which Neil is confronted by Janet to address their two sons to answer their questions, to either assuage or confirm their fears and to admit that there is indeed a strong possibility that he may never return home, as several of Armstrong's colleagues and friends have perished in previous attempts. Armstrong's answers towards his children are blankly technical and devoid of emotion and empathy, leaving everyone in the household to remain in their respective corners--poetically illustrating that the distance from one person to another, even when living inside of the same space, can feel as far away as the Earth to the moon.

To that end, throughout the course of the film, as Chazelle presents to us the honest, matter-of-fact reality that the ambition to reach the moon is fraught with as much peril and tragedy as inspiration and determination, I often questioned just why precisely would Neil Armstrong challenge and cheat death repeatedly. Yet, it is indeed with in the film's scenes upon the surface of the moon, when Neil Armstrong is able to take in the meaning of his journey--both inner and outer--the parallel tracks of his professional aspirations and the mourning over his daughter feel to converge, beautifully displaying some sense of understanding or peacefulness at the tip of infinity. Undeniably Kubrick-ian or akin to Terrence Malick's "The Tree Of Life" (2011) in its scope and profundity. 

As Neil Armstrong, Ryan Gosling has again presented another accomplished, mature, difficult, and quietly intense performance. In a career that has found Gosling often portraying taciturn men, from films like Ryan Fleck's "Half Nelson" (2006), Craig Gillespie's "Lars And The Real Girl" (2007), and Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive" (2011) for instance, his portrayal of Armstrong feels even more inscrutable than the performance he delivered in Denis Villeneuve's "Blade Runner 2049" (2017)! But, to find the soul of the performance, I suggest that you just watch Gosling's eyes throughout because they speak nearly all you need to know in order to find your way into this portrayal. Again, those juxtapositions are at work as Ryan Gosling's severe focus and minimalism.in actuality unearths a wide emotional and psychological terrain that creates an existential trauma that is fully accessible to us in the audience...even when he is not uttering a single word. 

Can the pain and stranglehold of grief and mourning serve as an engine for inspiration, drive and discovery? Damien Chazelle's "First Man," while not necessarily answering that philosophical quandary, does indeed provide an often riveting, disquieting, visceral, aching, exquisitely filmed and acted exploration that makes for one of 2018's most compelling films. 

Friday, October 12, 2018

12 HIGH NOTES: a review of "A Star Is Born"

"A STAR IS BORN"
Based upon "A Star Is Born" (1937) 
Story by William A. Wellman & Robert Carson and Screenplay Written by Alan  Campbell & Robert Carson & Dorothy Parker

Screenplay Written by Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters 
Directed by Bradley Cooper
**** (four stars)
RATED R

It is rare to ever witness a movie that announces itself so grandly, so rapturously and so confidently that it feels as if it has already swept the Academy Awards. I am now here to express to you that Bradley Cooper's "A Star Is Born" is indeed one of those rare films.

With all of the cinematic greatness that I have already experienced this year so far--a year that has already included Spike Lee's "BlaKKKlansman," Boots Rileys "Sorry To Bother You," and Wes Anderson's "Isle Of Dogs" just to name three-- and to the films not yet released that will also undoubtedly prove their greatness, what Bradley Cooper has achieved in his outstanding directorial debut is an uncontested triumph, the type of which that nearly dares any other film to come and swipe the grand prize from its cinematic hands.

It is the type of film that we tend to not see anymore as it is  an updated version of an old fashioned Hollywood star driven event, as well as existing as the fourth remake of the now iconic showbiz based love story starring its rise and fall protagonists. That being said, and for all of its inherent nostalgia, Bradley Cooper has delivered a film that honors its legacy tremendously while also crafting a film that perfectly exists within our 21st century landscape as he weaves in potent and poignant themes regarding the explorations of fame and celebrity, a piercing addiction narrative in addition to providing layers of sequences designed to explore fading male dominance and rising female empowerment.

And yes, Lady Gaga, in her film debut, is a powerhouse, an explosively natural acting talent capable of unveiling nuance and depth as well as being able to hit those high notes. to that end, as well as Ms. Gaga can act, Bradley Cooper has not only unleashed his finest acting work to date, his skills as a filmmaker and as a singer/musician are superlative. Multi-layered and masterful, Bradley Cooper's "A Star Is Born" is a bounty of riches that never once strikes one false note.

"A Star Is Born" stars Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine, a forty-ish music legend whose musical aesthetic falls somewhere in the alt-country/stadium rock/fragile blues realm of Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Neil Young, as his consistently sold out stadium concerts display his heartfelt and thunderous confessionals augmented by is crack band and his white lightning guitar heroics.

Despite the adoration and legacy status, Jackson is suffering from decades long tinnitus plus an increasingly fractured relationship with his older brother and manager Bobby Maine (the treasure that is Sam Elliott). Most crucially, Jackson is spiraling deeper into artistic disenchantment and personal depression which is further fueled by his rampant alcoholism and drug addictions.

And then, along comes Ally...

Lady Gaga stars as Ally, a waitress and aspiring singer/songwriter who often performs as a singer at a drag bar. Ally meets Jackson one fateful evening as he arrives at the bar to drink the night away privately yet he is fully swept away by Ally's performance of "La Vie En Rose." The twosome meet, share drinks, one long night and songs together and soon, begin a whirlwind romantic and professional relationship.

Jackson strongly encourages Ally to pursue her songwriting and most definitely, her singing, which she is reluctant due to the negative pushback she has received due to her unconventional appearance. Yet, on one night during Jackson's tour, as she watches from the wings, Jackson further encourages her to step into the spotlight and perform a song they wrote together. The crowd is enraptured and Ally quickly becomes a social media sensation and quicker still, Jackson's muse, and songwriting and performing partner.

As with the previous versions of this story, Ally's star continues its ascension while Jackson's celebrity and life descends further into his addictions, creating a devastating turbulence and tragedy that threatens the art and love they have so rapturously shared.

Bradley Cooper's "A Star Is Born" is splashy, splendidly spectacular filmmaking and storytelling filled end to end with dynamic musical performances (which, if I am correct, were all filmed LIVE on set and location-no lip syncing whatsoever), outstandingly urgent Cinematography by Matthew Libatique and swing for the fences acting work from the entire cast top to bottom. It is a film that unapologetically embraces the melodrama and magical, mythical qualities of its own cinematic legacy with its past three filmed versions, most notably, Frank Pierson's 1976 rock musical version starring Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Streisand.

For those who will undoubtedly complain that this film knows not a whit about the music industry (you know they are out there), to those people I offer the following: this movie is not a documentary! There is more than enough elements of fantasy weaved through the narrative, which is indeed self-aware enough to know that it is the latest re-telling of a showbiz soap rock opera. But, what made me appreciate the film even more than its own sense of grandness was how beautifully multi-layered the whole experience actually was, making for a much more complex film that it needed to be and frankly, we should be more than thankful that Bradley Cooper's cinematic vision possessed such a splendid reach as well as depth.

What I am primarily speaking about is the sheer authenticity that Bradley Cooper placed into "A Star Is Born," for as grandiose as the film is, he also provided an emotional and psychological weight that keeps the proceedings grounded in the most humanistic fashion even as the songs and intensity takes flight. The film opens with a veritable roar as Cooper gives us Jackson Maine and his band in full rock and roll outdoor festival glory and even though we first witness Lady Gaga's character of Ally as the hard working waitress taking out the trash as the restaurant at which she is employed, her first moments of glory are set during her show stopping performance of "La Vie En Rose."

Yet, the initial courtship between Jackson and Ally in remarkably unhurried as Cooper allows his scenes and their relationship to play out in an almost meandering quality, much like what one would see in an independent film, or more truthfully, the ways sometimes real people act and behave during those magical long nights when interpersonal connections, romantic and otherwise, find their specific moments to play out luxuriously.

Furthermore, Cooper could have easily taken Jackson Maine's addiction and played them for histrionics and yet, he also grounded this aspect of the film through his gritty, aching performance. I wish for you to really witness how Cooper drops his voice an octave or so, eliciting a throaty speaking growl, therefore sounding almost exactly (to an eerie effect) like his on-screen sibling Sam Elliott, which again, lends the film overall a specific gravity, as we are given Jackson's family history, the origins of his addictions as well as the cycle of abuse that he suffers from and which fuels his demons--all of which then, informs all of the musical performances, that are presented as if he is routinely attempting to chase away or is succumbing to the ocean of his inner torments.

Cooper also frames this quality of Jackson Maine to perhaps explore the fragility of the male ego and a supposed sense of dominance, especially as Ally's star begins to rise while his falls. Again, while not necessarily dialing down a certain melodrama, Cooper stages some of the truly disturbing battles between Jackson and Ally (including one fight set in a bathroom as Ally soaks in a tub) with the sort of raw brutality that is akin to a Martin Scorsese film. Yes, we see not only the melodramatic aspects of professional jealousy and resentment but the raucous unleashing of a man's internalized cycle of abuse towards the woman he loves and fears will eclipse him romantically and artistically as well as towards himself.

In a strange way, "A Star Is Born" also takes its multi-layered approach in to the character of Ally and Lady Gaga's performance of her in a style that could possibly make the film work as "The Origin Story Of Lady Gaga." I do think that it is telling that the screen credit is given to "Lady Gaga" instead of her given name, which is Stefani Germanotta, as this film feels to be the next (and carefully staged) sequence in the artistic odyssey and shape shifting that this larger than life performer has adopted for herself--especially as this film follows upon the heels of Lady Gaga's most and soft-rock styled recent album entitled "Joanne" (released October 21, 2016), which is incidentally her real life middle name.

For Lady Gaga in the real world and Ally within "A Star Is Born," we are witness to a "rages-to-riches" story that feels purposeful in the ways that the two mirror each other. Maybe more truthfully, what we are witnessing in the film is Lady Gaga almost speaking in character within a character directly to us about how she has tried to create her own career in our fame obsessed society and how she has persistently attempted to claim her path for herself and with the very drive and integrity that has since inspired legions of fans to embrace and believe in her. But of course, that path in maintaining one's integrity in a word that cares nothing about such things possesses a powerful struggle that I would feel certain Lady Gaga has struggled with from time to time and what we do witness Ally confronting...and possibly not always succeeding.

After one incredible concert performance together Ally is accosted by Rez (Rafi Gavron), a record producer and would be Svengali who wishes to sign Ally and mold her career--much to Jackson's chagrin and jealousy and at times, to Ally's consternation, which does place her inside of a inner quandary about achieving her wildest dreams but how much of herself would she compromise to do so and furthermore, how does this affect her reaching her own levels of female empowerment?

For Ally, changing her hair color leads to having a team of back up dancers which leads to a more processed, synthetic sound which leads to the concert tour-new album-concert tour treadmill, all of  which provides her with inner conflict, does indeed lead to appearances upon "Saturday Night Live" and winning Grammy Awards. We have seen all of this with the real Lady Gaga yet within this film, it really felt to me that she, through Ally, was giving us a "behind the scenes" peek at the machine at work and the difficulties of monkey wrenching art and honest soulfulness into the gears.

Yet Ally is nobody's fool and I loved how Lady Gaga portrayed this character with such earned street smarts and with such a strong perceptiveness into human nature that we can easily see not only what attracts her to Jackson Maine (which really has nothing to do with his celebrity, which attracts him in turn) but also how she knows at their first meeting that he is an addict, yet she is willingly gets herself into a relationship with him. Even moreso, Ally is presented as someone who is also but is more than willing to walk away if need be, consequences be damned. Ally gives as good as she gets, making her a formidable partner in love and in music.

Again, the authenticity at work grounded every single moment of this story, which does fly into fairy tale dreams of super-stardom, yet Lady Gaga's performance is a study in effortless naturalism. No artifice. No prefabricated emotions. Not one moment at any point felt remotely false and therefore, unrealistic. She delivered the goods in ways that I had not imagined that she even contained within herself. And when she sings, merging, character, lyrics, emotion and psychology together, the effect is stupendous. Her final scene in the film, which Cooper brilliantly and beautifully films in a (mostly) unbroken, unedited close up will lay you flat in its power for certain, but for all of the honestly earned emotions that Lady Gaga conjured in her stellar acting from her first moment on screen. A Best Actress nomination for her is as inevitable as it is fully deserved.

Bradley Cooper's "A Star Is Born" is a passion project in every meaning of the expression. By combining elements of reality and fantasy, music and drama, authenticity and myth-making, Cooper has marvelously delivered a film that sits within the rare cinematic universe that houses not only something like Scott Cooper's "Crazy Heart" (2009), but more perfectly, Albert Magnoli's "Purple Rain" (1984) and Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" (2000)!!

Yes, Bradley Cooper hit a cinematic grand slam on that level and ensuring that everyone within his cast--which includes both Andrew Dice Clay and Dave Chappelle, who each elicited astoundingly beautiful performances in just a few short scenes--and his crew operated at the very same peaks. There was noting that I could have wanted that Bradley Cooper did not give to me at any moment in the film and to accomplish a feat that heroically, is nothing less than movie magic to me.

Bradley Cooper's "A Star Is Born" is easily one of the very best films of 2018. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

DE-EVOLUTION: a review of "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom"

"JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM"
Based upon characters and situations created by Michael Crichton
Screenplay Written by Derek Connolly & Colin Trevorrow
Directed by J.A. Bayona
* (one star)
RATED PG 13

Steven Spielberg's
original "Jurassic Park" (1993) is beginning to look more and more like Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941), with each passing new installment of this increasingly stupefying series.

Dear readers, I have to say that I have never really been that enamored with the "Jurassic Park" series. Yes, the original film was certainly a visual milestone and an event experience that only someone on the level of Steven Spielberg could deliver. But even as thrilling and as entertaining as it was (and remains), I was a tad underwhelmed due to two elements: my lifelong lack of interest in dinosaurs as they have never effectively captured my imagination and even moreso, the paper thin quality of the human characters. I do realize that the dinosaurs are the true stars of these films but even so, how much stomping and chomping does one need to see?

Obviously, I am in the minority, as now we have the arrival of Director J.A. Bayona's "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom," the fifth installment--itself the middle chapter of a proposed trilogy, which are sequels or something to the first three films, oh I just cannot follow it--in this series and good Lord, somehow, someway, they have made yet another dynamic, bombastic visual feast that is preposterously dumber than the previous installments, including the Director Colin Trevorrow's downright and numbingly awful "Jurassic World" (2015).  

Despite some well executed set pieces and action sequences and of course, the seamless special effects, "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" is an inexcusably boneheaded and sloppily conceived film so terrible that I am at the point where I will have to begin to root for the dinosaurs to ravenously devour us so as to stop any filmmakers from making another painfully stupid chapter.

Picking up three years after the events of "Jurassic World," our latest episode again stars Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard (this time, sans high heels) as Owen Grady and Claire Dearing, former Velociraptor  handler and Operations Manager for the now destroyed Jurassic World theme park.

As the island of Isla Nublar's remaining dinosaur population faces new extinction due to volcano eruptions, Claire, now a dinosaur rights activist (?!) and founder of the Dinosaur Protection Group (?!?!), is rapidly convinced by the wealthy Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), himself the former business partner of the original Jurassic Park's creator John Hammond, and his unsurprisingly duplicitous aide Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), to return to the island to rescue all of the dinosaurs and release them to live freely in a new private sanctuary. And to do so, of course, she would have to enlist the aid of Owen to retrieve the personally trained and raised Blue, the last surviving Velociraptor.

And so, about less than three seconds after you've figured out that Claire and Owen have been duped (which is incidentally about an hour before the characters have figured out the very same thing), our heroes have returned to the island thus beginning the latest feeding frenzy which stretches from the ashes of Jurassic World to Benjamin Lockwood's massive isolated compound ,all the while and once again ignoring the prophetic warnings from this entire series' smartest character Dr Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum in a cameo appearance) in order to justify one more overlong and and painfully under-thought entry in a series that truly needs to go the way of the dinosaur.

Look, even for fans of this series, I just have to believe that even this installment just had to be more than enough as  J.A. Bayona's "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" truly adds nothing new and is just drowning in an ocean of sheer stupidity and a profound lack of inspiration regardless of how terrific the special effects continue to be. Yes indeed, I did like the sequence with the erupting volcanoes and our human and dinosaur characters racing away from the lava filled fireball fallout but beyond that and overall, the suspension of disbelief I was asked to undertake was just too much for the filmmakers to ask of me, and even moreso, I ask a gain, is it just too much to have any intelligent characters to populate this series?

Oh where do I even begin? OK...first of all there is the entire premise of this thing, which again is one of the cardinal sins of the "Jurassic Park" film series: How and why is it possible that these films, which are direct sequels to each other, somehow operate as if they have no knowledge whatsoever of what has happened in previous installments...even though we in the audience are given more than enough signposts to the contrary?

Case in point: If the general public within this series is now fully aware of the events that occurred at both Jurassic Park and Jurassic World, why would anyone ever wish to return to the island, let alone any of the main characters? Of course, if they did not, there would not be a movie but aside from that, what is the motivation to go back again? To that end, WHY for the love of Mike is Claire now a dinosaur rights activist?! Why are there dinosaur rights advocacy groups?  There is not one conceivable notion, piece of information or stitch of character motivation that would even allow me to buy this part of this specific fantasy and frankly, it was downright laughable.

Even worse is the brevity at which our dispassionately underwritten heroes do indeed return to the island. It was as if the filmmakers themselves did not care a whit about how it would happen but just so that they get there so we can again see the stars of the movie do that thing they do: eat stupid people doing stupid things solely to find themselves getting eaten.

As with the previous two episodes in this series especially, "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" offers no real sense of suspense, terror, awe or anything remotely visceral regarding all of the predicaments these characters find themselves entangled with, so of course, the entire proceedings unfold as a loud, bombastic, belligerent bore.

Once again, would it really kill the filmmakers to make that valiant attempt to apply themselves and create characters, situations and dialogue that showcased even a modicum of intelligence, therefore making the fight for human survival something to give a damn about?! Nope! It's just the same prehistoric same prehistoric. Characters roam unprotected in environments where the most vicious dinosaurs are hiding. Greedy businessmen and foolhardy mercenaries continue to think that they are able to tame and control what has ravenously shown an inability of being controlled--over four previous films, no less! 

Not even a preposterous and nearly random seeming late film plot twist which itself leads to a faux "dark" yet undeniably credibility shattering climax thus setting up yet another potentially apocalyptic chapter can save this mess. People scream, they get themselves chomped and again, I yawned and shifted in my seat with an incredulity and gradually incensed temperament that I am again wasting precious time in my life watching another glistening piece of cinematic trash. Yes trash because if the filmmakers treat their own work as disposable, then why should I hold it up to any higher esteem?

With that, I feel compelled to express my utter distaste of the character of Franklin, a hacker, as portrayed by Justice Smith. Aside from being as underwritten as all of the film's characters, it more than disturbed me to see this young African-American male being served to mass audiences as the most fearful of all of the film's characters, heroes and villains alike. Yes, I get it. He is the tech geek thrust into an impossible situation and he would be scared. Sure. But a little of, "Was that a T-Rex?" goes a long way, especially when his constant screaming is literally pitched at a higher frequency than even Bryce Dallas Howard's.

Whether by accident or design on the part of the filmmakers, it was a presentation that was emasculating and even mildly racist to regard, as I felt witness to yet another stereotypical depiction of an ancient cinematic trope regarding the presentation of Black people, a shameful sight in a year in which we have already been given several rich and complex explorations of Black people and therefore, Black excellence in films like Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther," Ava DuVernay's "A Wrinkle In Time," Boots Riley's "Sorry To Bother You" and Spike Lee's "BlacKKKlansman." Yes, it is great to see a young, Black male computer genius/Scientist but it is all profoundly undercut when he is the sole character in the film who is used as comic relief while being a Screaming Mimi throughout. Just disheartening, to say the least.

Dear readers, I elicit the deepest of exhausted sighs. I wish for you to understand that I am not expecting something from the "Jurassic Park" series that it does not need to deliver, so to speak. I am not wishing for them to be things that they are not. I wish for them to be the finest of popcorn entertainment but of course, as we are still able to witness, from films like the aforementioned "Black Panther," plus Joe and Anthony Russo's "Avengers: Infinity War," Ron Howard's "Solo: A Star Wars Story" and most certainly, Christopher McQuarrie's "Mission:Impossible-Fallout," popcorn movies do not need to be artless and forgettable while they entertain. At their very finest, popcorn movies can still be examples of the reasons we all even go to the movies in the first place.

That is what makes "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom"  such a resounding failure as well as existing as a perfect example of its own title. A dumb, lumbering beast of a movie crashing and bellowing its way in and out of multi-plexes nationwide leaving absolutely nothing of value in the rubble of everything laid to waste.

J.A. Bayona's "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" is easily one of 2018's worst films.

Monday, October 1, 2018

SAVAGE CINEMA'S COMING ATTRACTIONS FOR OCTOBER 2018

How the responsibilities of life have taken over during this past month! Thankfully, the movie releases has slowed down enough where I felt that I could take a breather and deal with those aforementioned responsibilities as well as catch my breath for October is already loaded with new material that I am anxious to see due to the already high critical responses. Hopefully life will allow me to fit them all in!

In addition to one review I have in the hopper plus another feature that I still have not found the proper time to devote to it properly, here is what I am looking forward to seeing this month.

1. Yes indeed, "A Star Is Born," Bradley Cooper's directorial debut starring himself and the inimitable Lady Gaga in the fourth remake of the classic rise and fall musical drama is opening this coming weekend and I am hoping that I am able to find the time to get into the theater to see this one. I have to say that the film really was not upon my radar whatsoever until the first trailers impressed me and then, the subsequent rave reviews from the film festival circuit arrived. So, now I am ready to check it out for myself.
2. "Whiplash" (2014) utterly blew me away while "La La Land" (2016) profoundly underwhelmed me. With "First Man," I am curious to see how the latest from Writer/Director Damien Chazelle affects me.
3.   The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas' 2017 novel is, without question, worthy of all of the rave attention that it has received. Now that the film adaptation from Director George Tillman Jr. is ready to be released, itself already having received rave early reviews, again I am more than ready.

So...we'll see what occurs as I seriously wish to get to and write about them all. Wish me luck and as always, I'll see you when the house lights go down!!!

Saturday, September 15, 2018

THE INFINITE HORIZON: a review of "Adrift"

"ADRIFT"
Based upon the memoir Red Sky In Mourning: A True Story Of Love, Loss and Survival At Sea by Tami Oldham Ashcraft and Susea McGearhart
Screenplay Written by Aaron Kandell & Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith
Directed by Balthasar Kormakur
**1/2 (two and a half stars)
RATED PG 13

Ahh...the dreaded "surprise" plot twist.

Dear readers, there is something I feel the need to confess to you. Now, take it with a grain of salt and believe me, this is not something that I am remotely frothing at the mouth over but it is something that does need to be said. I am getting a bit tired of the so-called "surprise" plot twist.

My feelings do not reflect any sort of a hard and fast rule but it is something that feels the need to be addressed because it is something that runs the risk of becoming nothing more than a cheap trick, a lazy sort of storytelling that will allow screenwriters and directors to be let off of the hook should the story they are attempting to construct fails and they ultimately need an escape hatch rather than take the ample time to do some serious re-conceptualizing and reconstruction.

Granted, when those surprise twists work well--as evidenced of course in Writer/Director M. Night Shyamalan's ingenious work in "The Sixth Sense" (1999), "Unbreakable (2000) and "Split" (2017) and most recently, in the rapaciously brutal and literally final moments in Director Jean-Marc Vallee's HBO mini-series adaptation of author Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects (2006)--you have a narrative that has been simultaneously upended, deepened and enhanced. When those sorts of twists are unsuccessful, we end up with films that house elements that are superfluous at best and sloppy at worst, therefore creating the impression that there was MORE when there was already enough, or there was MORE to justify the lack of what was already there.

Earlier this year, Director Jason Reitman and Writer Diablo Cody's fine "Tully" succumbed to a surprise plot twist, while making logical sense, was indeed nothing the film needed and therefore lessened the film's overall impact as far as I am concerned. And now, with Director Balthasar Kormakur's "Adrift," we are treated with the same conception that, while making logical sense, did nothing to advance the narrative, ultimately lessening the film's intended effect. NO SPOILERS from me, of course, but I can say that once their film's surprise twist occurred, my heart sank, as what had preceded this moment was undeniably compelling if not anything revolutionary.

"Adrift" stars Shailene Woodley as Tami Oldham, a young wanderer originally from San Diego who has taken up an indefinite port of residence in Tahiti when she meets a slightly older man named Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) and the two soon begin a courtship which blossoms into a full romance. With their shared love of travel and sailing, the twosome agree to sail and deliver a yacht from Tahiti to San Diego with the promise of two first class tickets back to Tahiti as payment.

Soon, Tami and Richard find themselves trapped within the brutal storm of Hurricane Raymond and in the aftermath, Tami awakens after 27 hours adrift and somehow, has to rescue the missing Richard and navigate the damaged boat to Hawaii with only a meager amount of drinkable water, canned goods and supplies in order to survive.

In many ways, there is essentially nothing within Balthasar Kormakur's "Adrift" that you have not already seen in any survivalist thriller, especially one set upon the high seas including Director Steven Spielberg's"Jaws" (1975), Director Wolfgang Petersen's "The Perfect Storm" (2000), Director Chris Kentis' "Open Water" (2003) to most recently, Writer/Director J.C. Chandor's "All Is Lost" (2013) starring Robert Redford. Therefore, there is an over-familiarity to the proceedings that does indeed dull the overall sense of terror that is necessary for a film like this one to carry any significant weight. That being said, what does indeed keep this film afloat, so to speak are the performances and the non-linear narrative Kormakur applies to the story to keep things a tad off-kilter, as well as being emotionally effective.

Honestly, there was truly not one moment upon the former ABC Family channel's "The Secret Life Of The American Teenager" series (2008-2013) that would have ever suggested that program's leading figure Shailene Woodley would become an actress to watch. Now while she has not quite yet delivered that breakthrough performance, Woodley has unquestionably and consistently showcased herself as being a solid, and purely naturalistic actress, capable of conveying rich, emotional and psychological depth that has made her more than captivating to regard in films like Writer/Director Alexander Payne's "The Descendants" (2011), Director  James Ponsoldt's "The Spectacular Now" (2013), Director Josh Boone's "The Fault In Our Stars" (2014) as well as her work upon Jean-Marc Vallee's HBO series of "Big Little Lies" (2017).

With "Adrift," Woodley continues her streak with a performance that adds a vibrant, harrowing physicality alongside some dramatic work that is as times quite searing in its force, as her tale of survival is one as much of the spirit and mind as well as the body. In some ways, I could easily see  how some viewers may feel that the film could serve as a feminist drama, as I deeply appreciated how Kormakur and Woodley focused heavily upon the strength and ingenuity of Tami Oldham as she is never at any point the proverbial "damsel in distress" that needs to be saved by Richard.

On the contrary, Richard, for much of the film, is incapable of helping Tami whatsoever, leaving her to keep the ship repaired as best as able, to keep tabs upon food and drink rations, provide crucial  medical assistance and care, navigate, sail and all other tasks necessary to attempt complete survival, all the while battling increased malnourishment, extreme fatigue, crippling despair and even hallucinations. Shailene Woodley is equal to every moment that she has been given in this film and she nearly keeps the film above water single-handedly. 

At its most effective, "Adrift" does indeed work as a love story and I liked how Kormakur used the non-linear format to keep shifting time from the hurricane aftermath to the romance of Tami and Richard, ultimately weaving them together effortlessly as their survival is indeed based in the love they have found within each other. Woodley and Sam Claflin establish fine, and again, natural chemistry that makes the love story believable and grounded, thus giving the survival aspect of the story some real grit and anguish. 

But then, let us return to that "surprise"plot twist, shall we? I will say, that as this film is based upon the real life events and memoir of Tami Oldham Ashcraft, what occurs near the conclusion of the film does indeed make logical sense. My problem in entirely within the execution and presentation, which for me, was completely unnecessary as it felt as if Kormakur did not trust the inherent drama of the piece enough to just let it stand upon its own storytelling feet and he felt the need to "juice" the narrative.

This was highly unfortunate because I truly believe that the very same information could have been delivered differently to allow the film to have a stronger emotional and psychological power that would have undoubtedly set it apart from films similar to itself. What we have in the resulting film felt like a false revelation, a "shocking" moment uncomfortably shoe-horned into a film that never needed it, giving "Adrift" enough of a sheen of prefabrication in and otherwise honest yet  unremarkable film.

Look Bathasar Kormakr's "Adrift" is a good enough diversion. It is beautifully filmed, it possesses more then enough strong notions concerning the unforgiving power of our world's natural elements and with Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin, the film is (ahem) anchored by two very good, effective performances. If all of those pieces had been honed just a tad sharper, would we have ever needed the "surprise" plot twist? I think not.

And for that matter, these days, the biggest "surprise" plot twist nowadays would be the film that never felt the need to forcefully insert one.       

Sunday, September 9, 2018

STUCK IN THE GROOVES: a review of "Juliet, Naked"

"JULIET, NAKED"
Based upon the novel by Nick Hornby
Screenplay Written by Evgenia Peretz and Jim Taylor & Tamara Jenkins
Directed by Jesse Peretz
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
RATED R

What is it about the concept of a love triangle that is so compelling? Or at least, why is it so compelling to me?

As I have written times before upon this blogsite, movie romances do not typically engage me that much. Now that is not to say that I have never been swept away or remotely affected by an on-screen romance. Quite the contrary, there are several that can count themselves as being some of the finest films I have ever seen within my life time. But typically, love stories in the movies fall into cliches, melodrama or other prefabricated situations and emotions, often in movies that just are not well written or acted enough to feel properly lived in, heartfelt, recognizable or remotely earned.

Yet, within the context of a love triangle, there is something precarious built-into the proceedings that provides a certain urgency, heartache, turbulence and yes, the full knowledge that one third of this triangle will undoubtedly have their feelings unrequited, therefore providing that exquisite romantic pain that so many love stories lack.

With "Juliet, Naked," Director Jesse Peretz's pitch perfect adaptation of one of Author Nick Hornby's finest novels, we are given a love triangle that delves further and deeper beyond the romantic constraints of the three main principals as well as even further than the music and melancholia as presented within Hornby's seminal High Fidelity (1995), and Director Stephen Frears' outstanding film adaptation from 2000. What Peretz has delivered is a deeply perceptive ode to middle aged malaise, arrested development and the ruts we find surprisingly find ourselves. Again, 2018 has given us another "small" film with an enormous reach and all we have to do is reach back towards it and just embrace, for this film unquestionably deserves your attention and affection.

Set primarily within a dreary, British coastal town of Sandcliff, "Juliet, Naked" stars a positively glowing Rose Byrne as the low spirited Annie Platt, who runs the Sandcliff Seaside Museum and is currently ensconced in the preparation for a "Summer Of '64" exhibit. Yet, most dispiritedly for Annie is her longtime relationship with her live-in boyfriend Duncan Thomson (an excellent Chris O'Dowd), a teacher of film and television studies at a local community college setting. Duncan is consumed with an unhealthy obsession over the cult alternative rock artist from the 1990's named Tucker Crowe, the singer/songwriter who released one critically celebrated yet publicly ignored album entitled "Juliet" and has disappeared from public view ever since walking out midway through a club show in Minneapolis 25 years prior.

While the relationship of Annie and Duncan began with not only promise but a mutual attraction and compatibility, especially concerning their pop cultural interests and discussions, what it has shifted into over the ensuing years, has proven itself deeply disheartening for Annie. Night after night, Duncan retires to his room, which has become a hybrid of a college dorm room/Tucker Crowe shrine, logs into the on-line Tucker Crowe fansite/archive he created and chats for hours upon end with other (male) Tucker Crowe devotees about the endless virtues and hidden meanings of "Juliet" plus the even more endless conspiracy theories about his supposed whereabouts since his disappearance.

Meanwhile, Annie grows increasingly more isolated, ignored, resentful and despondent.

On one fateful day, the lives of both Annie and Duncan begins to change upon the arrival of a mysterious package for Duncan, one which contains a CD entitled "Juliet, Naked," previously unreleased demo versions of the album that became "Juliet." Annie, who retrieved the mail before Duncan's return home from work, listens to the "new" album first, angering Duncan who feel sit is  his right to hear it first as he feels he is the bigger, and therefore, more rightful fan in this particular  household who will appreciate and understand it more deeply.

Out of spite, Annie, under an internet chat room, composes a scathing review of "Juliet, Naked," thus angering Duncan further...yet surprisingly attracting one on-line visitor to her corner and in full agreement: the elusive Tucker Crowe himself!

Based in America, we meet former rock star Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), long retired, long out of money and consumed with a seemingly bottomless sea of regrets concerning the direction his life has taken since his one-time level of fame and attention. Currently living rent free in the garage of his ex, Tucker tries, as best as he is able, to attend to the raising of his young son Jackson (played Azhy Robertson) while also mentally preparing himself for becoming a Grandfather, by his daughter Lizzie (Ayoola Smart), one of several children from former lovers.

Reaching out, Tucker and Annie begin a transatlantic e-mail correspondence that will soon offer themselves and all of the major players in each of their lives much needed second chances.

As another film released this year that could easily be perceived as being "small," Jesse Peretz's "Juliet, Naked" is towering in its perceptiveness, empathy, understanding, and meticulous attention to character and behaviors within an experience that is as remarkably "slice-of-life" as anything we have already seen this year in Brett Haley's superb "Hearts Beat Loud" and Bo Burnham's outstanding "Eighth Grade." 

As a romantic comedy, a genre that essentially has all but disappeared from the mainstream multiplexes lately, the film is a strong reminder of what the very best films of this genre could be as the characters are engaging and relatable, the situations they discover themselves within are tangible and the emotions are grounded inside of a reality that is palpable and honest, making the romance something worthy to experience and even root for.

With "Juliet, Naked," you are bound to find elements that would remind you, of course, from both "High Fidelity" and Nick Hornby's beautiful novel About A Boy (1998) as well as the Chris and Paul Weitz film adaptation from 2002. But, I would also point to films as varied as Nora Ephron's "You've Got Mail" (1998) and Sofia Coppola's "Lost In Translation" (2003), as Peretz presents to us deeply lonely, increasingly isolated people who miraculously find each other at the most opportune time. But instead of simply presenting us with a quandary and wrapping everything up inside of a pretty bow, I greatly appreciated just how Peretz took his time to create a delicate, often fragile palate as the pain within the romantic comedy was rightfully given center stage, thus providing the proceedings with an anchor, albeit one that aches.

"Juliet, Naked" is less about the hoped for happy ending and more about the ruts we all find ourselves trapped inside of, sometimes longer than we have ever even realized for ourselves. With this film we are witness to the collective ruts of Annie, Duncan, Tucker, and even the town of Sandcliff itself, all just existing, never moving forwards even one step. 

With regards to the concept of the love triangle, we can see how Tucker Crowe invaded the romance of Annie and Duncan long before he and Annie met in the virtual world. In fact, since Crowe was essentially brought into the relationship by Duncan in the first place, we could even perceive that Crowe was Duncan's first love, as he had been consumed by adoration over the "Juliet" album long before Annie ever entered the picture.

With that, Peretz is able to add considerable layers to the film that explore not only our relationship with art, in this case, music, but also how the internet culture amplifies and validates our feelings, therefore isolating ourselves from those who do not share the same opinions over the art we cherish. 

Yes, we see Duncan finding his nightly solace among his internet friends instead of Annie, who retires to bed alone again and again. But the one extremely telling moment within the film occurs right after Duncan angrily discovers that Annie has listened to the demo version of "Juliet" before  him and he frantically searches for batteries to place into his portable disc player to listen, only to grow angrier at being unable to locate any...until Annie takes batteries from her vibrator and tosses them Duncan's way, making Tucker Crowe the victor.

In a sequence that could have strictly been played for laughs, Peretz (who does indeed deliver those laughs) mines the sequence for something deeper than comedy. He mines for the truth of the situation. For Annie's loneliness, which then delves into depressed resignation and for Duncan, a sense of obsession and fandom that runs towards romantic neglect and even dangerously close to addiction, as his need for self-validation outweighs the relationship he possesses with Annie.

Later in the film, as Duncan is confronted with Tucker Crowe in the flesh, Peretz delves even deeper as we explore the fan's relationship with the art in question as compared and contrasted with the artist and their relationship with their own creations. In this case, both men are correct about their opinions and feelings and neither of them are necessarily wrong about any opposing viewpoints because each men's life experiences have informed the art and what it means to each of them.

As for Tucker, the work represents an experienced pain that has only continued and reverberated through the years, and in ways Duncan could not even begin to comprehend. For Duncan, the pain within the work is one where he can apply to his own life experiences and in doing so, he finds comfort and beauty--such is the nature of art. And yet, Duncan, regardless of anyone else's opinion, including Tucker Crowe himself, has claimed a certain ownership over the art, leaving him isolated within the vacuum of his own interpretations, casting out anyone else who disagrees with him.

And what of Annie and "Juliet, Naked"? Well, having read the novel, it is clear that while Annie writes her negative review of the demo album as a means of retribution to Duncan she honestly hates the work, the very reaction that attracts Tucker to reach out to her in the first place. Yet for the film version, Peretz performs something quite subtle by injecting the possibility that Annie may secretly love the demos, regardless of what she says publicly and on-line. This possibility does indeed inject even more complex layers to her budding relationship with Tucker in regards to her intentions and desires.

For Annie and Tucker's on-line relationship, we have two emotionally lost figures who essentially have noting else left to lose, so why not divulge everything about themselves to each other with a reckless, romantic abandon--especially if they never meet in the real world anyway?  Yet, once they do eventually meet each other in the real world, emotional complexities grow more entangled as their respective pasts, mistakes, fears, foibles, and of course, the life and responsibilities concerning Tucker's son Jackson replace any sense of fantasy, and for that matter, the fantastical nature of romance itself. Annie and especially Tucker are therefore forced to ask extremely hard questions of themselves before they can honestly pursue each other and that level of honestly allows "Juliet, Naked" to ascend to levels of grace that are indeed are within the romantic comedy genre.

Rose Byrne is positively sparkling in the leading role of Annie, as she conveys an intelligence, elegance, warmth and frisky spunk that equals her inner dismay, making her a character that we only wish for her ultimate happiness--yet not necessarily with Duncan or even Tucker, but a happiness found within self-discovery and serious attention towards herself.

Ethan Hawke is unquestionably on a creative roll this year as we have already seen what has to be his career best performance in Paul Schrader's wrenching "First Reformed." While the character of Tucker Crowe feels not too far removed from Hawke's past shaggy dog figures as witnessed in Ben Stiller's "Reality Bites" (1994) and in his collaborations with Richard Linklater, most notably as the divorced Dad in "Boyhood" (2014), what Hawk has achieved in "Juliet, Naked" is nothing short of remarkable.

Throughout his career, Ethan Hawke has always showcased a certain authenticity and as Tucker Crowe, he continues this essential quality, especially as he performs all of his own singing on the soundtrack's expertly crafted songs of this fictional reclusive rock star. Beyond the music, Hawke performs this character from the inside out, unearthing a certain soulfulness that I do not think that I have experienced before from him. Yes, he has always carried a certain swagger, a self-aware intelligence. Yet, this time, with his graying beard, a paunch and the growl in his voice suggesting someone like say, Kris Kristofferson, Ethan Hawke's infuses Tucker Crowe with such earned sadness, a stirring remorse with the litany of his life's errors, especially towards his children, that sometimes feels like melancholic resignation and other times feels like existential paralysis.

Where Annie is bruised, Tucker is all but broken yet both are in need of healing and just may find it in each other. But, with Hawke's richly beautiful performance, we have a character where he, as well as all of us in the audience, wonder if he even deserves someone as lovely as Annie--again a quality that makes "Juliet, Naked" a much deeper experience that it ever needed to be and believe me, we are the better for it.

Jesse Peretz's "Juliet, Naked" gives a tender, knowing and poignant romantic comedy that wisely houses a sincere and pointed commentary about hero worship, fan culture and our relationships with the art we not only love, but the art that shapes us, especially within the internet age. And just maybe that is the true third side of this particular love triangle as presented in this film because when given the choice to exist with someone who can challenge us or within the echo chambers of our own making, what might you choose and what might make you feel more stagnated?

And to that, this warm, lovely, insightful, and sophisticated film just may provide some essential perspectives while also proving itself to being an enormously entertaining time at the movies.

Monday, September 3, 2018

SAVAGE CINEMA'S COMING ATTRACTIONS FOR SEPTEMBER 2018

Dear readers, life caught up with me in quite an enormous way last month and I have a feeling that September will be the month during which I will (hopefully) be able to catch up.

September can sometimes be a sleepier cinematic month and for 2018, this looks to be the case as titles are not exactly jumping out at me, imploring me to race to the theaters to see them. This is not to say that I plan to see nothing at all this month. But I do think the lack of immediately attractive options will allow me to take a breather.


Currently in the hopper is my review of Director Jesse Peretz's "Juliet, Naked," his adaptation of the brilliant, beautiful Nick Hornby novel and starring Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke and Chris O'Dowd. And after that, I will finally be able to devote ample time to crafting this year's tribute to Writer/Producer/Director John Hughes as I celebrate the 30th anniversary of what I still feel is the finest film he ever made, "She's Having A Baby."


Beyond that, I honestly do not know and just as honestly, I think I am quite fine with that as I will allow the space to make room for any surprises.

So, with that...please do wish me well and I'll see you when the house lights go down!!!!!!!

Sunday, August 19, 2018

SKIN IN THE GAME: a review of "BlacKKKlansman"

"BLACKKKLANSMAN"
Based upon Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth
Screenplay Written by David Rabinowitz & Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee
Directed by Spike Lee
**** (four stars)
RATED R

SPIKE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I do not care how many people I would have to debate or battle, but without question, Spike Lee is unquestionably one of our greatest American filmmakers working today. Over the course of 32 years and nearly 30 films, which includes traditional narrative features, blistering satires and documentaries, Lee has produced an ouvre of an uncommonly high quality as he has masterfully fused provocative subject matter with enormous entertainment value producing a fearless body of work that has more than stood the test of time and relevance.

With the arrival of "BlacKKKlansman," his docudrama/crime thriller/political-social satire, Lee has emerged with one of 2018's tallest achievements but also with one of the finest films of his entire career as I am not entirely certain that I have seen a film which is essentially a period piece speak to the precise minute of 2018 as audaciously and as brilliantly as what he has accomplished here.

And even deeper, for a filmmaker who has confronted the powder keg issues of race and racism in America as consistently and (again) as fearlessly as he has in the past, Spike Lee explores this subject matter in a fashion that skeptics and his fiercest detractors would never allow him the credit: an uncompromising fair-mindedness. Spike Lee's "BlacKKKlansman" is extraordinary, exhilarating and most importantly, downright essential filmmaking and storytelling and it demands to be fully experienced, exceedingly so at this tremendously frightening point in our cultural history.

Based upon the absolutely improbable but defiantly true story and memoir of Ron Stallworth, Spike Lee's "BlacKKKlansman" stars John David Washington (yes Denzel Washington's son) as Stallworth, who is hired as the first African-American police officer of the Colorado Springs Police Department in 1972. Initially ignored, devalued and in the case of one belligerent officer in particular, the odious Master Patrolman Andy Landers (played by Frederick Weller), openly harassed, Stallworth endures his role as the one and only Black officer on staff --albeit in the filing department--with a combined sense of resentment, repressed anger and utter boredom.

Soon, Stallworth requests to take on an undercover assignment, and is surprisingly given to him: to go and investigate the goings-on at a local rally organized by the Colorado College Black Student Union and featuring none other than Stokely Carmichael, now self-renamed Kwame Ture (an extraordinary Corey Hawkins), as guest speaker. After the rally, Stallworth is re-assigned to the intelligence division and begins the investigation that will alter the course of his life demonstrably.

Beginning with reading an advertisement in a local newspaper, Stallworth, utilizing his "White voice," phones the local chapter of the KKK and speaks with the group's president, Walter Beachway (Ryan Eggold) asking for information to join.  While the initial contact proves successful, there is one notable problem: Stallworth has used his real name.

Enter Detective Flip Zimmerman (beautifully portrayed by Adam Driver), who is Jewish, and is quickly recruited to act as Ron Stallworth for in-person meetings with the KKK members, including the fully radicalized Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Paakkonen) and his increasingly unhinged wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson). This proves to be a sticky situation to say the least as Stallworth and Zimmerman have to work in seamless tandem to keep stories straight, as well as the sound of their own voices to match the phone and in-person communications with Klan members. And then, there is the increased tension surrounding Felix's suspicions that Zimmerman, acting as Stallworth, is actually Jewish.

Once Ron Stallworth eventually begins telephone conversations with David Duke, the Grand Wizard of the KKK (Topher Grace), complications mount and a plot of domestic terrorism rises, thus endangering the lives of Stallworth, Zimmerman and Black Student Union president Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), whom Stallworth has begun covertly dating.

Spike Lee's "BlacKKKlansman" provocative, confrontational, controversial and it is also ingenious, dynamic, soulful, profoundly disturbing, electrifying, and enraging. Working beautifully with his key collaborators including Co-Screenwriter Kevin Willmott, Editor Barry Alexander Brown and Composer Terrence Blanchard, Lee delivers his film via his more classical, traditional mode as seen within films like "Malcolm X" (1992), "25th  Hour" (2002) and "Inside Man" (2006), and in doing so, and it is also one of his most accessible features to date and completely without softening the implicit and explicit messages contained throughout even one iota. "BlacKKKlansman" is a slow burn of a film but indeed one where the intensity accelerates furiously, just like an ignited flame hurtling towards the explosives at the end of the rope.

One long standing criticism held against Spike Lee is how his films tend to be over-stuffed with ideas, a criticism I have long dismissed as I believe his films to be richly multi-layered. "BlacKKKlansman" is no exception as even within his accessible style this time around, he makes ample room for social satire concerning the means in which Ron Stallworth was even able to first infiltrate the KKK at the outset--the utilization of the "White voice."

Essentially, this film could easily be viewed as a perfect double feature with Boots Riley's "Sorry To Bother You," itself a nightmarishly hallucinogenic satire about racial code switching and the irrevocable dangers of remaining complicit and refusing to get some skin in the game--and also a film that truly owes its existence to experiences like Lee's rabid cinematic fever dream satires of "Bamboozled" (2000), "She Hate Me" (2004) and "Chi-Raq" (2015).

Yet, this time around Lee tames his flights of fantastical elements and remains firmly grounded, slyly and richly illustrating that the plain, hard truth of the matter is indeed sometimes further down the rabbit hole than anything that could have been prefabricated. Because, honestly, who in their right  mind would have or could have even believed that a plan like Stallworth's could have ever proven itself to being successful, let alone ever having happened at all. But, incredulously, it did, thus allowing the characters that populated this experience, and now for us in the audience and even Lee himself to not solely confront, but to take a deep dive into the maelstrom of race and racism itself, most notably the differences and similarities between the respective movements of Civil Rights and Black Power compared and contrasted with the KKK and White nationalism.

For instance, let's take the stunning BSU Civil Rights rally sequence, featuring Kwame Ture, set early in the film. If there was a sequence created to showcase self-love for the Black community, it is indeed this one during which Ture passionately instructs Black people to not allow the dominant White society dictate to us our own inherent value as human beings plus our own skills, levels of intelligence and even beauty standards. As Ture speaks of the beauty contained within our natural hair, the thickness of our lips, the regal wideness of our noses, Lee lovingly injects close up images of the students in attendance spotlighting the very physical features of which Ture celebrates. By doing so, it is that self-love, that love we should share for ourselves as Black people--with ourselves as well as with each other--and it is a celebration that should occur entirely despite what White society dictates and bombards us with once we leave that rally and the movie theater, for that matter.

As Lee takes us deeper inside the workings of this Colorado chapter of the KKK via the lens of Flip Zimmerman, I have to make notation that the film could have easily made these figures easy, cartoonish targets for we already know where Spike Lee stands within the social-political stratosphere, but trust me, he does not. Again, we are presented a crucial quality about Lee's work that never receives enough notice (because it goes directly against the White media approved perception that  Spike Lee is that "angry Black man" who hates all White people): Lee's fair-mindedness. With "BlacKKKlansman," Spike Lee gives us a window into the world of White supremacists, from the homegrown true believers to David Duke himself and allows us to view their own sense of self-love, albeit the love housed inside the hatred and a perception of the world and their place within it that does fall into utter fantasy.

David Duke provides an impassioned speech during the film in which he describes the history of America through the White lens and in language that is remarkably reflective of everything we are hearing in 2018 through the so=-called alt-Right to even the President himself. Duke speaks of Whites discovery of America with the base of the Christian faith as its bedrock and influence, all the while also proclaiming about times that used to be that desperately need to become again. Sound familiar?

In this current 21st century age where we witness consistent push back against the Black Lives Matter movement, often being confronted with the firecracker question of "Well..what about White lives?" In this film, Spike Lee addresses this concern so explicitly as we get to know members of each side of this debate and frankly, to me, the answers are obvious. But let's read t hat a gain: "to me." What feels obvious to me and to some of you reading this posting is not obvious to others. If it was, we would not be having this debate whatsoever. So, to paraphrase what Spike Lee has been extolling throughout the entirety of his film career, and so plainly with "BlacKKKlansman" is the following: Pro-Black does not mean Anti-White!

To be Black and to celebrate oneself despite the values placed upon us by the dominant society, is a necessity essential to our own sense of survival: both physical and undeniably psychological. We need to love ourselves, to know about ourselves, our triumphs and tragedies in order to ensure that the history of us remains intact as we continue to push ourselves into the future.

To illustrate, Lee provides a harrowing, sobering sequence starring the iconic Harry Belafonte as an elderly activist who describes in excruciating detail a lynching he witnessed in 1916 to a group of Black students and activists.  It is a scene that presents precisely the primary difference between Black Civil Rights and White nationalism. For Black Civil Rights, it is about the preservation of a race within a dominant society. For White nationalists, it is the self-preservation of a race, within a fear based movement, at the expense of every other race not like themselves. In short, the lynching Belafonte describes to inform young Black people of the severity of the struggle is an act that would be delivered unto them by figures like David Duke and the Colorado Klansmen.

To delve even deeper, Spike Lee, a film historian as well as filmmaker, also presents how cinematic image do their part in shaping self-perceptions as well as those of others. One of the first images within "BlacKKKlansman" is a moment from Victor Fleming's "Gone With The Wind" (1939), during which we see a Confederate flag flying proudly in the wind overshadowing the legions of wounded and dead soldiers laying on the ground.

Later, we regard the Colorado KKK members adjoined, with the increasingly disgusting cackling laughter of Klansmember wife Connie Kendrickson, watching a print of D.W. Griffith's "The Birth Of A Nation" (1915)--a film I even had to study in film classes during the late 1980's--the film which is over-run with all manner of racist depictions of Black people and more disturbingly, the presentation of the KKK as  heroes, a m ove t hat helped considerably to re-ignite their presence in American society.

And even deeper than that, we even witness how images of Black people in films play within Black audiences, as Lee gives us a spirited debate between Ron Stallworth and Patrice Dumas regarding the virtues and fallacies within the Blaxploitation genre from Gordon Parks' Shaft" (1971), Gordon Parks Jr's "Super Fly" (1972) and Jack Hill's "Coffy" (1973).

And even then, Spike Lee goes deeper...

The performances of  John David Washington and Adam Driver are superlative in their chemistry and complexity. For Washington (who at times, eerily sounds like his own Father), his portrayal of Ron Stallworth is a study in a certain Black complacency that slowly finds itself pushed and challenged. For a man who wears a natural Afro so glorious that even Questlove woud be envious, and clearly understanding to how the world works regarding race, he seems to be fine with just riding the middle, not delving terribly far into any sense of activism, partially because he has always housed dreams of becoming a police officer, albeit a "Shaft" styled officer (regardless, an element about him that slides in conflict with the Black activists in the film). Furthermore, and even as he understands code switching by using his "White voice," Stallworth is also naive to the larger racial disparities and levels of racial hatred as he is called out by his own White police chief as such when he remarks his disbelief that anyone like a David Duke could ever become President of the United States. If he only knew...

To that end, by having Zimmerman, a Jewish man, venture into the KKK "lion's den" undercover, it feels as if Stallworth is equally naive in what this piece of the experience may mean to his partner. Adam Driver is sensational as he, as Zimmerman, is required to deliver a performance inside of another performance, tapping into a level of racism he abhors but may have to acknowledge possibly rests within himself due to the relative ease he is able to fall into the Klan members' racist rhetoric, language and epithets, all the way to speaking the very unspeakable about the Holocaust so as not to be discovered as being Jewish.

Spike Lee's "BlacKKKlansman" indeed forces Stallworth and Zimmerman to undergo some serious self-examination but also Lee directly forces us in the audience to perform the same feats as he wants for us to fully recognize that these 1970's era events as presented in this film did not evaporate into the ghosts of the past. For what is past is prologue and in the case of this film, what is past is as present as just looking outside of our windows or better yet, directly into our own mirrors.

The entire experience of "BlacKKlansman" is designed and executed to tell a 1970's story that runs concurrently with the events of the present leading up to the minute in 2018. Yes, there are key lines of dialogue meant to mirror the words of the Trump Administration but it is not designed to cause nervous humor. It exists to draw the clearest lines possible from past to present, demonstrating how racist attitudes reverberate through time and in actuality, do not change a bit.

And you know, I just had a thought while writing this piece and I hope this is not seen as a wild reach. I have just had a thought that perhaps "BlacKKKlansman" is Spike Lee's allegory for the entirety of the Obama Presidency, its duration and its aftermath in becoming the Trump Presidency, the complete inverse of the eight years prior to the 2016 election.

Just think about it. Just as Barack Obama became the first Black President, signaling a certain progressive optimism and celebration, Lee gives us Ron Stallworth, the first Black police officer in Colorado Springs, itself a progressive move. For both Obama and Stallworth, they each were forced to endure the weight of what happens when one is the very first non-White to break a previously all-White glass ceiling (in fact, Stallworth is referred to as being the "Jackie Robinson" of this specific police force).

With Obama's 8 years, we have seen the quiet, under the surface racism and the building tension and resentment with this one Black male figure existing in a place that was once Whites only....just as what we see with Stallworth on the police force and therefore, leading this investigation into the KKK.  And soon, that once submerged tension begins to build, to boil and to overflow and explode into fully revealed and emboldened racism that encourages fear, division and violence, from either a ring of Klansmen burning a massive cross to the sight of neo-Nazis marching in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, leading to riots and the murder of Heather Heyer, a peaceful counter-protester of the "Unite The Right" rally, who was killed by a neo-Nazi who crashed his car into a crowd, an act of domestic terrorism unfathomably not denounced by President Trump.

For some, I could imagine that Spike Lee's inclusion of that very footage from Charlottesville might feel to be a bit ghoulish but for me, it was exactly the body slam needed to hammer with finality Lee's point that the events depicted in "BlacKKlansman" cannot be shoveled into some historical closet and to sit on the sidelines during these terrifying, perilous times could prove themselves to devastating in ways we have only imagined. Spike Lee, as always, wants us all to WAKE UP and get ourselves engaged by putting our collective skin in the game for everything we have imagined as not possibly happening IS indeed happening.

Entertaining, invigorating, infuriating and galvanizing, Spike Lee's "BlacKKKlansman" is a towering accomplishment for the cinematic year of 2018.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

GROWING UP LONELY IN THE DIGITAL AGE: a review of "Eighth Grade"

"EIGHTH GRADE"
Written and Directed by Bo Burnham
**** (four stars)
RATED R

"...they're quite aware of what they're going through..."
-David Bowie ("Changes") 

I hated eighth grade.

Out of all of my years of schooling growing up, regardless of varying levels academic difficulty, there was no other year in my memory and reality that, to this day, instills such intense emotions. I remember that school year of 1982-1983 in full details, from its confounding, confusing beginnings to its miserable end absolutely vividly, completely and painfully--made even morseo, due to its arrival after the joyride that was seventh grade.

It was a year that served to fully pummel my already precarious sense of self-confidence. Aside from my strong performance in a brutal French class, my especially poor academic standing that year only felt fit to fuel a certain sense of early adolescent apathy that clashed with the increasingly enraged demands and palpable disappointment of my extremely strict and academically driven parents, who themselves were public school high school educators who rightfully had no time or money to waste upon my hefty private school tuition if I was not going to bother to either fully apply myself.

Yet, even with the relentless "under the microscope" attention from my parents to contend with, it was the social life at school that quickly became an emotional minefield, so much so, that I firmly believe that this particular year set the stage for many issues that I have lived with long into adulthood. Issues of body image, of racial identity and self-acceptance, of interpersonal fairness, of social competitiveness with peers or otherwise and always feeling undervalued and unaccepted, to even issues with self-parenting of which I am admittedly unforgiving and to my own detriment. It was also the year during which I had my heart so broken that it paved deep trenches into what I felt not only what love and relationships could or could not be, but even to questioning the value of love in the first place as there are no guarantees for love's reciprocation or endurance no matter how much or how deeply you give love to that other individual.

Frankly, that year nearly broke me as it hurt so constantly and seemingly endlessly. In fact, I have long realized that perhaps I was not alone in my feelings for when I attended my 20th high school reunion, I had a powerfully insightful conversation with a lovely classmate who, at the time of the reunion, was a professional therapist.

"What happened to us, Scott?" she asked.
"How do you mean?" I asked in return.
"Well, it felt like in 6th and 7th grade,  we were all friends and then, we got to 8th grade and we all just hated each other. I really had no idea of what happened or how or why. "

I knew exactly what she meant.

I hated eighth grade. And yet, for as much as I hated it, thank God that there was no such thing as Social Media at that time!

Dear readers, please allow me to tell you about how much I loved "Eighth Grade," the filmmaking debut from Writer/Director Bo Burnham. This is easily one of the finest films of 2018 as well as existing as one of the saddest due to its painfully perceptive approach which often feels like a "fly-on-wall" documentary rather than a fictionalized narrative.

What Burnham has achieved is a film that is exceedingly lived in and emotionally wrestled with yet is also meticulously observant that it simultaneously has much to say about the conclusion of the Middle School experience, itself a period of life that rarely receives any media attention in the movies or television, as well as our ever increasing cultural dependence/addiction towards Social Media. And yet, even with its tendency to cut to the bone in full recognition on what it means to be 12 or 13 years old, "Eighth Grade" also represents that exquisite splash of adult wisdom that allows the film to have some modicum of hopefulness, that light at the end of the tunnel, that signifies that this precarious time can be survived. This is a powerfully remarkable film.

"Eighth Grade" stars the wonderful Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day, who we witness during her final week of Middle School all the way through to her graduation, with the anticipations and fears of entering high school looming largely.

While essentially plotless, Burnham creates a "slice of life" experience that allows us a front row seat into Kayla's emotionally and turbulently awkward social experiences and relationships with classmates as well as her single Dad, Mark (an equally terrific Josh Hamilton) as well as her vibrantly alive inner world, which is fretfully, anxiously, hopefully, and often distressingly attempting to make sense of her life.

While at home, Kayla creates a collection of You Tube videos which are designed to serve as messages of advice for social acceptance by one's peers to her peers (and all of which conclude with her personal sign off "Gucci!"), it is advice that she is barely able to utilize for herself when in public.

In her videos, Kayla is rather loquacious and socially astute, yet in person, she rarely speaks a word, preferring to remain silent to the point of being nearly invisible...except when she is presented the bewildering public "award" of "Quietest Student" during an all school assembly. And in later scenes as she attempts to catch the attention of the skinny, sleepy eyed popular bad boy Aiden (Luke Prael), or when she reluctantly attends a highly popular classmate's pool party, words fail her, she is unable to connect to anyone and just regard how she folds her body inwards upon itself, as if she could box herself into nothingness. And then, poor Kayla's social anxiety mounts until that blessed moment when she can return to the cocoon of her Smartphone, walling out the real world as she seeks some sense of validation in the virtual world, while taking her pain and angrily lashing out against her loving, yet equally awkward, Dad in the process.

Earlier this summer, I criticized Brad Bird's "Incredibles 2" for existing as yet another movie to trot out cliched attitudes about Fathers yet since then, I have been so very pleased to see movies that do present Fathers in more favorably realistic fashion, serving as a much needed antidote.

Specifically, I am surprised to see that "Eighth Grade" is actually the third film I have seen in these few moths that features a stirring Father/daughter dynamic, from movies as varied as John Krasinski's thriller "A Quiet Place" and Brett Haley's exquisite quasi-musical "Hearts Beat Loud." In fact, as I watched "Eighth Grade," my mind turned often to "Hearts Beat Loud" as that film could almost serve as a sequel, or  better yet, a companion piece to the events depicted in "Eighth Grade" as Fathers are so deeply in love with their children and yet are housed with an aching pain of not being able to fully connect with their respective daughters, and therefore, fearing a loss of parental access, let alone communication. And yet, within "Eighth Grade" there is that elephant in the room, the elephant so large that it possesses space so enormous that it threatens to separate us from each other entirely.

If there has ever been a film that could serve as an indictment of Social Media, Bo Burnham's "Eighth Grade" could very well be that film as I do not think that I have ever felt such dismay at the sight of those glowing Smartphone and laptop screens as I did during this film. Burnham's film feels to be of a piece with David Fincher's "The Social Network" (2010) and Spike Jonze's "Her" (2013), as both of those films serve as cultural warnings through their visions of our society at the dawn of Social Media and a darkly imagined future, respectively.

Yet, what warning could serve the greatest impact but to present the world as we know it just as it is regarding our over-reliance, and again, I feel that Burnham is arguing is actually a societal addiction to Social Media, an addiction that is indeed fueling a certain spiritual decay? Through the character of Kayla Day,  her daily journey is a mirror of our own as our nothing less than our sense of existentialism is now being found, and nurtured, such as it is, within the digital world and we are all left feeling somewhat emptier in the process. 

I think one of the most telling sequences in the film regarding this concept exists within the aforementioned birthday pool party sequence when the birthday girl Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) opens up her presents in full view of her guests as her Mother not-so-surreptitiously snaps photos, most likely to upload, thus continuing an on-line narrative about the wonderment of her and  her daughter's lives, yet in actuality, everyone seems to be miserable as the jaded Kennedy openly scoffs at Kayla's gift, thus humiliating her.

At school, Kayla attempts to try to connect with classmates but they are all lost in their phones. Another sequence late in the film and set at the local shopping mall, where Kayla has been invited by the affectionately chirpy high school student Olivia (Emily Robinson) to join her and her high school friends in the Food Court, all of the kids discuss the times during which they were first exposed and allowed to utilize Social Media, during which we learn that Kayla first used Snapchat while in the 5th grade. 

Beyond those sequences, Kayla is rarely seen without her phone and earbuds, the synthetic glow illuminating her sadness day and deeply into the night and with no sense of absolution. Her Dad, Mark is also not immune as he also retreats to  his digital world late at night, with that same synthetic glow illuminating his sadness after another evening of being unable to connect with Kayla. And so, in "Eighth Grade," Bo Burnham has expertly fashioned an examination of a culture consumed with loneliness within the very medium that was supposed to bring us all together and for those in early adolescence, the misery of not ever being able to get away from the social dynamics that are hurting us in the first place.

Even with all of this material, it could be argued that Social Media does indeed serve a certain purpose for even though Kayla is consumed with loneliness, she does utilize Social Media, her You Tube channel and videos specifically to work out her issues, her problems, her fears and possible solutions to each area...even if she is unable to bring them into fruition in the real world. Essentially, her videos become messages of self-affirmation. In many ways, Kayla is the embodiment of the David Bowie quotation that has opened this posting and has iconically, served as the opening statement to the ultimate cinematic exploration of adolescence,  John Hughes' "The Breakfast Club" (1985).

For as much as we in the audience ache with and for her, we can also see that Kayla Day is a girl who knows herself and her limitations extremely well, therefore knowing precisely what she is going through as well as the problem solving she undertakes in order to emotionally survive this painful time. On a more crucial level, and during a truly frightening extended sequence set in the back seat of a car between Kayla and a high school boy, regarding how she navigates this predicament showcases a palpable strength that she (and we in the audience) possibly never realized she possessed.

It felt so fitting to see "Eighth Grade" on the very day before the ninth anniversary of John Hughes' passing as this film could possibly owe its own existence to the game changing sextet of high school films Hughes wrote, produced and directed (twice with the aid of Director Howard Deutch) during the mid 1980's as Hughes possessed the audacity to not only create films for a teenage audience that expressed distinctly that the lives and experiences of adolescents were worth exploring. Furthermore, and within those films, Hughes created a collective of strong female characters during an age and genre in film when females (often nameless) solely existed to satisfy the prurient interests of the teenage boys in the audience as well within the films themselves.

Since that specific time, which for me concluded with Cameron Crowe's golden "Say Anything..." (1989), which itself held a terrific central heroine as played by Ione Skye, we have been given creative films with three dimensional heroines and viewpoints as varied as Mark Waters and Tina Fey's "Mean Girls" (2004), Will Gluck's "Easy A" (2010), James Ponsoldt's"The Spectacular Now" (2013), Kelly Fremon Craig's "The Edge Of Seventeen" (2016) and Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird" (2017).  And now, Bo Burnham has deftly picked up that mantle and has created one of the best young female characters I have seen in film due to the sheer purity of the conception of Kayla Day and Elsie Fisher's miraculous performance of her.

Elsie Fisher's performance is one of expert authenticity as she never once strikes a false note or delves into hyperbole or melodrama. Again, she creates a piercing realty of the type that I had to check and re-check to see that she is indeed a gifted actress and that this film is not a documentary.  Fisher ensures that you understand and sympathize with Kayla every moment of the film, even during points when she is infuriating and downright cruel to her Dad, lending to many moments when you would just wish to reach into the film to try and offer this girl some comfort. Believe me, Fisher is so powerfully effective that in the moment when Kayla is invited to the mall, meaning that finally, at long last, she may have found a real life friend, she will just shatter you with her vulnerability and you just wish for her full acceptance and overall happiness.

To that end, when she faces disappointments or is confronted with her own wishes for herself as evidenced through the school assignment of a time capsule made in 6th grade to be re-opened before the 8th grade graduation, Kayla Day's existential crisis reaches a certain pinnacle as she is forced to ask herself serious questions concerning her own sense of self-worth, whether she is deserving of love and acceptance and whether she could ever truly be the person she wishes to become, the self-described "Coolest Girl On Earth"--yet, not through any sense of prefabricated popularity but what I felt to be a certain sense of self-assuredness and accomplishment. 

Bo Burnham's "Eighth Grade" took me directly back to that wretched school year of my past, PTSD flashbacks and all. But, Burnham achieved this feat with a superior artistry and empathy that did serve to beautifully soothe the wounds of the past. Yet most importantly, and just as what Richard Linklater achieved with his masterpiece, "Boyhood" (2014), Burnham delivered an intelligent, deeply felt, richly sensitive chronicle of a young girl with a matter-of-fact quality that perfectly allowed the inherent drama of the story, character and age to present itself without provocation.

For those Middle School years are more than turbulent enough.