Monday, May 28, 2018

SOME PEOPLE CALL ME THE SPACE COWBOY: a review of "Solo: A Star Wars Story"

Based upon characters and situations created by George Lucas
Screenplay Written by Jonathan Kasdan & Lawrence Kasdan
Directed by Ron Howard
**** (four stars)

"Never tell me the odds!!"
-Han Solo ("Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back")

And it's a good thing they didn't because if anyone ever fully believed in Han Solo, it was always Han Solo.

Dear readers, I have long staked my claim with the hefty and skeptical opinion that ever since Disney purchased Lucasfilm, the organization would find some ways to ruin a cinematic series that has meant the world to me ever since I was eight years old when George Lucas' original 1977 film entered our consciousness and for me, changed the way I experienced the movies forever. I have been fearing that with their rapid release schedules, "Star Wars" fatigue would lessen any sense of enthusiasm, especially for a series that has classically not been so ubiquitous at the cineplexes until recently, with the arrival of J .J. Abrams' "Star Wars: Episode VII: The  Force Awakens" (2015) and Rian Johnson's "Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi" (2017) with Gareth Edwards' stand alone "Rogue One: A  Star Wars Story" (2016) tacked into the middle.

Thankfully, all three of those releases have more than proven themselves both financially and artistically (aside from the so-called "fans" who will never be satisfied with any "Star Wars" film made past 1983), with "The Last Jedi" in particular existing as the film that was the most surprising in terms of delivering creative and storytelling risks as well as its divisive reaction among viewers. While that sense of ubiquity still unnerves me regarding Disney's ownership of "Star Wars," future film trilogies from Rian Johnson as well as another from HBO's "Game Of Thrones" creators  David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, which claim to extend the "Star Wars" universe by pulling far, far away from the Skywalker saga (which Abrams says his "Episode IX" due in 2019 will firmly conclude) sounds more than promising.

But then...there are these stand-alone features to deal with, films that continue to mine the original trilogy yet for what purpose other than to fuel financially driven nostalgia? Yes, "Rogue One" found a clever, sideways angle and what resulted was a stirring war film possessed with an astounding, escalating urgency. A proposed solo Obi-Wan Kenobi film possibly bringing Ewan McGregor back to his Jedi cloak has potential. But regarding Han Solo? Really??

Look, just like you, I know than Han Solo is the coolest hot shot pilot in the galaxy, a scoundrel that cannot be topped and portrayed to iconic fashion by Harrison Ford. A...ahem...solo prequel film, to my sensibilities just sounded like overkill, especially since the story of Han Solo came to its dramatic conclusion in "The Force Awakens." Trying to find someone who could possibly fit into Ford's massive shoes notwithstanding, a Han Solo prequel film? I just could not see it and I have wondered very openly about its overall raison de'etre, mostly because, and regardless of how cool he is, there really is not much to that character all. He is the fast talking, high flying, deeply cynical space cowboy with the heart of gold--an archetype more than anyone fully fleshed out--which is perfect for the fairy tale/space opera universe that "Star Wars" is. What do we really need to know about him that we already do not? The prospect sounded pointless to me.

And even then, there was the troubled production of the film during which much ink has already been spilled concerning the firing of the film's original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who retain Executive Producer credits), and the emergence of Ron Howard as their replacement, who not only finished the film but helmed copious re-shoots (reportedly 70%) to boot. Add to that the loss of actor Michael K. Williams due to scheduling conflicts, forcing a re-conception of a character that was re-cast with Paul Bettany and rumors of leading actor Alden Ehrenreich needing an acting coach, it was truly feeling as if the Force was not going to be with this film whatsoever.

So, with utter, jaw dropping surprise, and more than a little bit of shock and amazement, Ron Howard's "Solo: A Star Wars Story" is absolutely terrific!!! It is a white knuckle thrill ride of an experience that performs the splendid double duty of delivering a certain level of nostalgia while also giving us a more askew view of this galaxy far, far away that we know so well.

And first things first, Alden Ehrenreich is the real deal!!! Certainly he will never erase Harrison Ford from our hearts and consciousness and nor should he...and furthermore, it is no mere imitation of Ford's work either. Remember, this film is not entitled "Ford: A Star Wars Story" but "Solo," and Ehrenreich works like the devil to embody this character with a freshness that makes our interstellar pilot feel new again. Trust me, if you were as skeptical as I have been, you may find yourself incredibly satisfied and downright thrilled with what Howard has delivered as "Solo: A Star Wars Story" makes for one enormously entertaining addition to the "Star Wars" cinematic canon.

Set a full 10 years before the events in George Lucas' "Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope" (1977) and opening with the sparks and flashes of a land speeder being hot-wired and stolen, Ron Howard's "Solo" blasts out of the gate with the aforementioned Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo at perhaps age 25, caught in a universe where the Empire has complete control, a variety of warring crime syndicates have sprouted and where our would-be pilot and his lover Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) plot their escape from the clutches of a vicious crime lord, a beginning which soon finds our hero thrust even deeper into the criminal underworld with the shadowy organization of the Crimson Dawn becoming increasingly oppressive.

Han's adventures soon have him aligned with the mercenary Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his crew, which includes his lover Val (Thandie Newton). We discover just how Han became first acquainted with the mighty Wookie Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo officially taking over for Peter Mayhew) as well as the dapper smuggler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). We discover just how Han became owner and pilot of the Millennium Falcon and how he indeed won the ship from Calrissian, the original owner. Did Han really make that legendary Kessel Run in 12 parsecs? How did Han even become christened with his surname? Those questions and more are all answered, while new mysteries and surprises are unveiled in Han Solo's odyssey.

Ron Howard's "Solo: A Star Wars Story" is first rate entertainment which ultimately more than earns its status within the "Star Wars" universe as it is unquestionably a film of intense purposefulness instead of existing as the cynical money grab it could have easily been. Perhaps due to the intensity of the behind the scenes production, Ron Howard has been infused, and therefore has infused the film itself with a visceral urgency that has the film propelled with a pace and structure that feels like flying through hyperspace. This film truly moves like white lightning and everyone from the cast to Howard, easily helming his best film in many years, are all invigorated superbly.

With a plot that involves explosive schemes and heists, shootouts, chases, captures, narrow escapes and even a train robbery, and populated by all manner of criminals, gangsters and other ne'er do wells, the rapid movement and excitement of "Solo" feels like it owes as much to Steven Spielberg's "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" (1981) as it absolutely does to the 1930's serials that informed "Star Wars" at its purest inspiration.

Howard presents one exhilarating action set piece after another, including all sorts of cliffhangers for Han and his compatriots to get themselves in and out of and it is this specific whip crack element to the film that makes "Solo" a somewhat faster, lighter affair as it is the "Star Wars" film that has nothing to do with Jedi Knights, The Force, light sabers, mysticism and the building grandeur of the overall Skywalker saga. "Solo" is a heist film, a space Western and it makes no apologies for being anything but a rip roaring blast of an experience.

Even better, and working beautifully alongside Cinematographer Bradford Young, "Solo," much like "Rogue One" before it, is (slightly) a more adult film, or at least incorporates the characteristics of film noir, as it is sinister, scrappier, grittier, grungier and even a sexier ride in the "Star Wars" universe that what we are more accustomed to viewing. Additionally, the film provides us with another sideways and more grass roots (or sand pebble) level view of the growing Rebellion against the Empire while also utilizing both Chewbacca and Lando's fiercely militant self-made droid co-pilot L3-37 (a terrific Phoebe Waller-Bridge) as representatives of resistance and emancipation as they each attempt to free their equally enslaved species. This tactic gives the film a strong foundation that gives the light speed action some (again) purposeful weight.

And still, none of this would be worth watching at all if we did not have a central figure to latch ourselves onto and it is of tremendous credit to both Screenwriters Jonathan Kasdan and his Father, the great Lawrence Kasdan, the man who co-scripted Han Solo's adventures in Irvin Kershner's "Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), Richard Marquand's "Star Wars: Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi" (1983) and "The Force Awakens," to greatly devise of Han Solo's full backstory. Therefore, it is of nearly heroic quality that I must extend to Alden Ehrenreich a rapturous salute as, for me, he instantly stepped into the soul of this character and wore it like the baddest leather jacket in the galaxy.

Alden Ehrenreich as Solo provides the requisite arrogance, rock star swagger, scruffy attractiveness, roguish charm and has infused it with a necessary naivete, innocence and even romanticism that showcases that he is not nearly the outlaw he keeps proclaiming himself to being. In fact, the core to Han Solo in this film is really nothing more than to just make enough money to buy a starship and whisk Qi'ra away for the two of them to travel the galaxy in full freedom, much like the troubles teens of a Bruce Springsteen song or The Animals' "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" (1965).  Ehrenreich's chemistry with Emilia Clarke also provides the film (and the series as a whole) with a element of romantic and sexual heat that provides the film with an added urgency and even heartache.

In doing so, we are witness to a Han Solo that really is not too far removed from the farmboy Luke Skywalker, a child in an adult universe, and a dangerous one at that with its gangsters and mercenaries, but by hook or by crook, he is gonna be the best damn pilot in the galaxy with his girl by his side. Ehrenreich completely nails this aspect of the character while also giving what we already know about Han Solo a sensational workout as his gets himself into and miraculously out of jams by sheer force of will (as well as with that quick blaster and smart mouth) and the plain ol' dumb luck that Solo himself would scoff at. I can not tell you enough how against the idea of this film I have been for years now, especially for ANYONE taking over the role that has been so ingrained. What Alden Ehrenreich achieved was magical for it made me feel just as I did when I was a child all over again.

Of course, I also have to spend some time with Donald Glover, who is obviously having his own spectacular time right now with his work on television's FX series, the outstanding "Atlanta," on which he serves as Creator/Executive Producer/Writer/occasional Director and leading actor, plus his work in the music with his Childish Gambino persona, currently  riding a torrential wave with his latest powder keg single "This Is America." Stepping into the shoes of the iconic Billy Dee Williams is unbelievably daunting to say the least but in his portrayal of Lando Calrissian, Glover slides into the role (and the capes!) as easily as the finest silk sheets!!!!

Like Ehrenreich, Donald Glover nails the swagger, the butter smoothness, the implied sexuality (apparently he is pansexual!) as well as that "I'm making this up as I go along" quality that endears us to him as well as making him a figure to seriously keep your eyes upon. Glover's chemistry with Ehrenreich is sound and solid and I sincerely hope that we are able to have another adventure in the future with these two..or even a Lando Calrissian film!

By this time, I am certain that reading those specific words from me may be more than a bit startling, considering the way this posting began. But that is how it is when filmmakers deliver the goods. Sometimes, you leave wanting for nothing because the filmmakers have left no stones unturned and providing the most complete experience one could ask for. Other times, filmmakers deliver the goods by leaving you with that inexplicable feeling of wishing yo cold stay with these characters a bit longer, not wanting for the fantasy to end, ultimately that there may one day be even more.

Ron Howard's "Solo: A Star Wars Story" certainly does set itself up for more young Han Solo adventures and this time, I hope that these films actually get made because against all odds, the Force remained strong!

Monday, May 14, 2018

HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY: a review of "Tully"

Screenplay Written by Diablo Cody
Directed by Jason Reitman
*** (three stars)

It is a strange thing to say but I have to admit that despite the greatness that I have seen this year with the likes of Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" and Anthony and Joe Russo's "Avengers: Infinity War," two spectacular entries from Marvel's superheroes and Wes Anderson's latest and absolutely brilliant stop-motion fantasia, "Isle Of Dogs," I am more than anxious and ready to see a film that was about...well...people.

The return of Screenwriter Diablo Cody and Director Jason Reitman, the team who has already delivered the outstanding teen pregnancy film "Juno" (2007) and the even better, decidedly darker and teeth baring "Young Adult" (2011), is exceedingly most welcome and anticipated for me and for a good stretch, "Tully," their third collaboration to date, showcases their uniquely sharp, perceptive and probing explorations into the lives and times of 21st century girls and women.

Yet, even as good as "Tully" is, the film is not quite in the same league as their previous two films together. Not in terms of content, which remains as provocative as ever, but solely in the fullness of its execution, which left me wanting considerably when it was all said and done. That being said, "Tully" is a slice of life film that just may delve a bit closer to the bone than you may realize--especially for any of  you who happen to be Mothers. In seeking films that are about people and life as it is honestly lived, any collaboration between Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody would be more than worth your time and attention and "Tully" indeed fits the bill.

"Tully" stars Charlize Theron in an absolutely searing performance as Marlo, a not-so-young and severely overwhelmed Mother of two children, including her son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) who is clearly existing somewhere upon the Autism spectrum (yet is still undiagnosed) and prone to frequent tantrums and meltdowns, making him a strong risk for  being expelled from  his school due to the lack of resources to properly aid his needs.

Her loving yet essentially inattentive husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is barely present as he works during the day and detaches by gaming at night, therefore leaving Marlo to her own devices with the child rearing, that will soon grow to three children due to a pregnancy that may have been unplanned, and the housework, which has become a impossibility of keeping up with. 

By the arrival of the third child, and with Marlo gradually losing her grip due to sheer unending exhaustion, she and Drew are given a suggestion by her wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass), a telephone number of a "night nurse," a figure who will aid Marlo with the baby and the house between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 6 30 a.m., thus allowing Marlo to sleep.

While at first a tad reluctant, Marlo eventually makes the phone call and soon thereafter, in the night, at their doorstep arrives Tully (Mackenzie Davis), the very "night nurse" who will help re-structure Marlo's life.

That is indeed the basic plot line of Jason Reitman's "Tully" and I will refrain from revealing more so as to not produce spoilers regarding some surprises along the way as well as seriously upending revelations that occur during the film's final third. What I am able to convey to you is that the film strongly feels very much of a piece with both "Juno" and "Young Adult," again making the cinematic partnership of both Reitman and Diablo Cody notable, refreshing, compelling and artful.

Essentially, the first element about the film that impressed me greatly was the fact that I really do not think that I have seen Motherhood depicted in such an unglamorous, unsentimental fashion. In fact, Reitman and Cody's presentation suggests that "Tully" just may be the first film, this way of the independent cinema leanings towards the mainstream, that is delivering Motherhood at its most truthful, and they could not have possessed a better conduit than the terrific, downright fearless Charlize Theron.

For an actress of Charlize Theron's status and statuesque beauty, it is more than easy to possibly forget just how serious of an actress she actually happens to be. Just as she achieved so extraordinarily in Patty Jenkins' "Monster" (2003), Theron has again undergone a full physical transformation in order to embody the character of Marlo on the surface.

Yes, Theron has gained a significant amount of body weight to give the realistic appearance of a woman's figure after her third childbirth but even further, it is a performance which contains not a stitch of vanity as she is more than willing to appear as "unattractive" as possible. At one point, her daughter Sarah (Lia Frankland) questions pointedly "What's wrong with your body?" as Marlo is seated at the family dinner table in her dirty bra, her stomach protruding, her torso sweaty and filthy, her unwashed hair and blankly cold visage suggesting something akin to catatonia.

While that line of dialogue receives a brutal laugh, it is presented at nowhere near the expense of Marlo's dilemma. Is it basically the question Marlo is asking of herself internally as she regards the person she once was in her 20s perhaps, while comparing her to the person she is at this point of her life. Deeply loving her family but questioning if she can even survive the endless responsibilities of three young children in constant states and levels of very specific needs.

What is there for her to do when Jonah unleashes an explosive letdown when presented the prospect of parking in a different lot at school? Or how is she to keep herself, including her rising fury, together when during a meeting with Jonah's school Principal (Gameela Wright), she is facing down the reality of Jonah's expulsion despite the protests pf how much their family is loved by the school community?

And then, there is the downright masterful sequence early in the film where Reitman presents a brilliant montage, which to me suggested the furiously compulsive, potentially fatal montage of Roy Scheider's punishing daily regimen as depicted in Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz" (1979).   Yet unlike that film's cocaine addled tortured artist/filmmaker/choreographer, in "Tully," we witness the constant yet debilitating normalcy of Marlo's life.

Feeding and pumping and changing the diapers and repeat and repeat and repeat ad nauseum, Marlo's body essentially becoming less human and more machine, albeit a machine that is threatening to completely malfunction at any given moment. In fact, as I regarded Theron as Marlo, and especially in the film still image that adorns this posting, I could not help but to think of Marlo as being precisely the type of woman that Theron's one-armed warrior driver character of Imperator Furiosa was attempting to rescue in George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road" (2015).

The magic of Charlize Theron's performance is not simply the physical aspect, which again does convey the physical results of not simply childbirth but the mental and physical fatigue and even anguish that Marlo is drowning inside of. Theron performs Marlo from the inside out giving us a character that at all times feels tremendously lived in. Nothing ever felt to be prefabricated, hyperbolic or remotely dishonest whatsoever and truthfully, her performance is so richly layered and compulsively watchable, I sincerely hope that she is remembered next year during awards season.

For the second major element that I deeply appreciated witnessing within "Tully" was indeed the relationship that formulates between Marlo and Tully. These are two women at completely different life stages, that are refreshingly not at odds with each other but ones that feel to be powerfully supportive, understanding and non-judgmental and also remarkably in sync despite their obvious differences, Tully in her late 20's, often filled with sage like wisdom despite her lively, carefree attitude and Marlo, possibly around 40 years old and consumed by her life and dilapidated state of mind and physicality.

As with scenes presented within both "Juno" and "Young Adult" and especially in "Up In The Air" (2009), Reitman's finest film to date, we are given lovely moments of Marlo and Tully simple talking and relating to each other in a fashion that truly showcases how real, 21st century women speak, think and feel. Sadly, still such a rarity in cinema but thankfully, we do have a writer as strong as Diablo Cody who is able to have her stories realized for mass audiences. Representation matters which makes her creative presence essential.

As it stands, Jason Reitman's "Tully" is a fairly quiet film. An especially perceptive and observant experience that unfolds leisurely and due to its overall tone, it often feels quite gentle...yet deceptively so. In fact, Reitman and Cody's story is exceedingly more harrowing than it may seem and as previously stated, I do not think that I have witnessed a film portrayal of Motherhood so grueling, so unflinching in its defiant lack of romanticism. In fact, it could be argued that the film is not explicitly a film about Motherhood per se but more truthfully, a film about sleep deprivation, postpartum depression and even debilitating mental illness, a quality this film has already received some criticism based upon its depiction.

As for me, I had no issue with how this aspect was necessarily presented but how it was handled ultimately, especially once the film reaches its final third and those aforementioned plot developments of which I will not spoil for you. What bothered me, and increasingly so now that I have had ample time to ponder the film since seeing it, is the rather rapid and downright tidy way "Tully" concludes, wrapping itself up in a bow that is distressingly too clean based upon everything that has already occurred in the story.

In fact, I think that "Tully," which runs a scant 96 minutes, could have benefited from actually being longer--perhaps a full two hours--a length that would have allowed Reitman and Cody to give as much weight to the film's back end as they did with the film's beginning and middle. Granted, there was nothing that necessarily derailed the film for me. I certainly did not feel cheated. I just left the theater with a feeling of "And that's it?" A feeling of unfulfillment. A feeling that not every storytelling stone had been effectively as possible. The very stones that can change a good film into a GREAT film and all elements considered, "Tully" is a good film. 

Regardless, I do not wish to deter you from seeing a film this unique and honest, even though I felt the final sections were too pat and simplified. What Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody achieved for their third collaboration is a film experience that is most welcome, especially as films of this sort are becoming increasingly in short supply these days. As I have stated many, many times upon this site, I just do not see the point in having films about the super human exist at the expense of other films.

In fact, if "Tully" accomplished anything, it is the compassionate understanding that simply being human, especially being someone's Mother and surviving to tell the tale, is possibly the most heroic thing one can do.

Friday, May 11, 2018


following a screening of
MAY 5, 2018

I believe that the Universe just somehow knew that I needed this night.

For the better part of 35 years, I have been a tremendous fan of John Cusack. In a strange way, as we both hail from the city of Chicago and are around the same age, it is almost as if we have grown up together--although we have never met. As he was a young actor making his way through the movie industry, amassing his specialized and often subversively idiosyncratic filmography and catalog of characters, there I was, like so many of you I would imagine, watching  his progression, all the while being entertained, entranced and at times, enraptured.

While I definitely noticed him in both Lewis John Carlino's "Class" (1983), as one of Rob Lowe and Andrew McCarthy's prep school characters' sidekicks (he performs a nifty, sneaky trick with a lit cigarette) and of course, John Hughes' "Sixteen Candles" (1984) as one of Anthony Michael Hall's geeky sidekicks (the one adorned with a Chicago WLS T-shirt), it was his first starring role in Rob Reiner's outstanding college campus set, classy romantic comedy/classic road movie hybrid "The Sure Thing" (1985) that made me a Cusack devotee for life. And afterwards, I purposefully sought out any films in which he appeared, for his style, skill, and superlative charisma, was and remains, second to none, completely unique and unparalleled.

My high school years were populated with repeated viewings of the surreal slapstick of both Savage Steve Holland's "Better Off Dead" (1985) and "One Crazy Summer" (1986), while during my college years, Cusack was my guide and conduit to a wider variety films, filmmakers, and subject matter from the gonzo record industry/music video satire of Bill Fishman's "Tapeheads" (1988), the elegiac baseball drama of John Sayles' "Eight Men Out" (1988), the nuclear bomb historical drama of Roland Joffe's "Fat Man And Little  Boy" (1989), the updated film noir of Stephen Frears' "The Grifters" (1990) and without question, the glorious climax to what I refer to as "The Golden Age Of Teen Films," Cameron Crowe's sublime, exquisite directorial debut "Say Anything..." (1989). 

Those were the formative years, both for John Cusack and myself, and I would say that we each continued to seek and search as we aged, again with me watching and experiencing as Cusack alternated between projects from auteur filmmakers such as Woody Allen's "Shadows And Fog" (1991) and "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994), Clint Eastwood's "Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil" (1997) and Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" (1998), high profile big budget blockbusters, most notably Simon West's "Con Air" (1997), more (and frankly, bland) romantic comedies and exceedingly more interesting, darker, intensely challenging independent fare, with Spike Jonze's "Being John Malkovich" (1999) easily existing as one of Cusack's highest achievements.

Yet for me, and despite what may constitute as two of Cusack's career best performances, as the older, psychologically damaged Brian Wilson in Bill Pohlad's extraordinary "Love & Mercy" (2014) and as the Chicago inner city activist preacher in Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" (2015), the pinnacle of John Cusack's film career feels to rest within the films that have been the most personal as they tend to be movies he has produced and at times, co-written himself, most notably George Armitage's "Grosse Point Blank" (1997) and Joshua Seftel's "War, Inc." (2008), Cusack's blistering political satire.

And on the evening of May 5, 2018, I was extremely fortunate enough to have been able to see this beloved actor/writer/producer/political activist LIVE on stage at Madison, WI's historical theater the Orpheum, located in the heart of beautiful State Street for an extended conversation and Q&A session following what just may be my favorite film in his vast filmography, the blissfully seminal ode to male arrested development and music obsession, the masterful "High Fidelity" (2000).

Adapted from the peerless Nick Hornby novel and as directed by Stephen Frears, "High Fidelity" exists as one of the very best films I saw in the decade of 2000-2009, and nearly 20 years after its initial release, its supreme hold has not loosened even one bit. Having the opportunity to see and hear John Cusack speak about the film live and in person was an imperative. Yet, unfortunately, for quite along spell after the show was first announced, it seemed as if I would have been unable to attend as the show's cost was truthfully out of my affordability due to other and more pressing life expenses.

But as I stated at the outset of this posting, I think the Universe was looking out for me, knowing that, perhaps, I was in due of a pick-me-up as I have admittedly been in a bit of a funk due to a lengthier than desired winter and furthermore, professional dissatisfaction that have made me even seriously question the trajectory of my life--a quandary that the fictional Rob Gordon, as portrayed by John Cusack, could easily relate to himself.

So, imagine my elation, the night before the show, when I received notice that I had actually won a local contest in which the prize was two tickets to see the film and the man himself!!! As my wife was uninterested in attending, my partner for the event was obvious...who else could I ask but my dear friend from college and student radio as well as fellow music obsessive and John Cusack devotee, the world famous DJ Kelly Klascus, from WLHA-FM student radio, and the annual WLHA Resurrection/Reunion weekends as broadcast upon Madison's WSUM-FM.

Returning to the idea of the Universe perhaps glancing my way for a moment, please allow me to extend and expand upon that thought. On Saturday, May 5th, it felt as if the Universe was shining a bit of extra light upon the city of Madison itself as it was an absolutely glorious day, with blissfully warm temperatures, low humidity, cool breezes and nothing but smiles and good feelings wherever I ventured throughout the day from morning to evening.

By the time I arrived at the Orpheum, picked up my tickets from Will Call and awaited Kelly's arrival, I stood outside the theater and struck up an impromptu conversation with a lovely young woman named Sierra, who had driven to Madison from Rockford, IL. (birthplace of Cheap Trick!) and was carrying a copy of the "High Fidelity" soundtrack album on double vinyl! I could not help but to remark upon her album as I had never seen a vinyl version and she happily explained that she purchased it as an exclusive Record Store Day item two years ago, an anecdote which then found her practically gushing with excitement with anticipation for this evening's event, as the ticket (plus the VIP upgrade allowing her to partake in a Meet & Greet/photo op portion with Cusack) was presented to her as an early wedding present from a friend. In addition to sharing stories about how personal the film was for each of us, she then showed me a Call Sheet/Screenplay excerpt from the film, loaned to her from a friend who was an on-set extra in "High Fidelity," an item she hoped that she could possibly get Cusack to sign and then return to her friend.

Not terribly long after our conversation, the doors opened, we went inside and our separate ways and I waited for Kelly, who arrived shortly thereafter.

Now as you can see from the picture of my tickets, there were concrete restrictions in place regarding any photographs or recordings, so because of that, I do not have any images from the even itself to share with you...aside from the next photo...
...which I captured covertly, a pre-show image displaying a series of John Cusack related trivia questions to play while passing the time.

And after finding our seats on the main floor of the theater, just one section away from the section closest to the stage, and sharing stories, popcorn and beverages, the seats filled, the house lights went down and "High Fidelity" began...

Truth be told, I was admittedly unsure as to how I would feel watching "High Fidelity" again, a film I first saw on its opening weekend and countless times afterwards at home, as the film on this evening was essentially a two hour preamble to the main event itself. I didn't fear that I would necessarily be bored, so to speak. I was just...unsure.

Yet, within the film's first few moments as John Cusack as the miserable Rob Gordon delivers his first monologue to us in the audience, as The 13th Floor Elevators wail "You're Gonna Miss Me," any uncertain feelings were washed away. As the first image of Cusack emerged upon the screen, shrieks loudly blasted through the audience, effectively and immediately lifting up the energy of the event as a whole.

From scene to scene, you could feel how invested everyone happened to be with the events that unfolded in the fractured romance of Rob and Laura (Iben Hjejile), and his day-to-day misery at his floundering record store Championship Vinyl and the hysterical yet strained friendships he shares with his employees: the meek, reserved Dick (Todd Louiso) and the explosively raunchy contrarian Barry (Jack Black in his star turn).

Compounding matters even further is Rob's quest of self-discovery, primarily regarding his relationships with women from the past (as played by Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta Jones, Joelle Carter) and present (Lisa Bonet, Natasha Gregson Wagner), the humiliating possibility that Laura may have romantically moved onwards with the supremely unctuous Ian (Tim Robbins), facing the even greater fear of the future moving forwards while potentially leaving him behind and of course, the quandaries that arise when attempting to create the perfect mixtape. 

For a film that is this enormously entertaining, it is also a potently introspective one and I would like to think that quality was not lost on this night's audience.  Yes, there were many cheers and eruptions of laughter, but more often than not, the audible responses from the audience, including myself, felt to arrive from a distinctly knowing place, for, in many ways, we have all been where these characters happen to be throughout the film.

When I first saw the film in 2000 on its opening weekend, I was 31 years old, with the story and characters hitting me precisely where I lived, so to speak. Now, nearly 20 years later as I am knocking on the door of 50, the film still hits me precisely where I live on a variety of levels, most specifically, my music obsessiveness. Yet, this time around for me, and I would imagine for Kelly and for what I would further imagine for the greater part of this night's audience, and even for John Cusack himself, "High Fidelity" now serves as a film of reflection, seeing how we all were, seeing how we have changed and crucially, how we haven't, for better or for worse.

Like Rob, I have found that I am at my happiest when I am either writing or being a radio DJ, yet my professional life has merged the state of being in a occupational rut into one that is indeed existential. I wonder how many people in the audience might have been able to say the same...or not. Are you existing in the exact station in life that you wish to exist within? Are you content or stagnated? Easily inspired or profoundly discouraged? Those very questions do indeed rest at the heart of the film and those feeling were more than palpable to me.

For that matter, I do wonder just how John Cusack himself may be feeling about his own current professional status. Maybe he is exactly where he wishes to be at this stage of his life and career. But I would not be surprised if more cynical folks out there (you know who you are) might not have thought of an event like this as existing as a way for Cusack to continue to market himself and retain some sense of celebrity cache as his profile in Hollywood has dwindled considerably since he is not as present in high profile films nearly as much as he used to...whether by design or not, I'll never know.

Furthermore, there are the societal changes to consider as well as "High  Fidelity" in the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp for some viewers could be seen as a slightly dicey affair. I do have to say that the vehement cheer that arrived after the character of Liz (Joan Cusack), mutual friend of Rob and Laura--albeit more Laura's than Rob's--blasts into Championship Vinyl after learning about four of Rob's transgressions and with the force of a sonic boom explodes, "Hi FUCKING ASSHOLE!!!!" was palpable in its righteous anger. But then, after seeing Rob's silent reaction, some sense of rising fury quickly transformed into laughter, keeping us still attached to Rob's story...such is the magic of Nick Hornby's source material certainly. But this feeling also pertains to the magic of John Cusack unquestionably, and in doing so, I found myself losing myself inside of "High Fidelity" even more completely than I have in quite some time.

You  know, I have to admit that I enjoyed watching, and was moved by "High Fidelity" so much that I almost forgot that there was more in store for the night. Almost...

As Love's "My Little Red Book" from the film's end credit scroll pounded through auditorium speakers, the movie screen lifted upwards to reveal the simple stage set of two chairs and a table bathed in a dramatic blue hue--a set up reminiscent of Bravo's "Inside The Actor's Studio." Soon, the music faded and the evening's host and moderator, Jim Healy, Director of Programming for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cinematheque walked on stage and then introduced Mr. John Cusack to the stage, to the sight and sound of rapturous applause and in some sections, a standing ovation.

For 60 minutes, Cusack, dressed with causal sharpness in a black jacket, black shirt, blue jeans and a black baseball cap puled down low, superbly held court, engaging Healy and all of us in the audience with a conversation that centered around "High Fidelity," but often found itself weaving in and out of various films from his career, with Savage Steve Holland's "Better Off Dead' (1985) clearly receiving the the most enthusiastic applause and even various audience member cat calls of the now iconic line "I want my two dollars!!!" to even another audience member who shouted "Lane Meyer for life!!!!," referencing Cusack's character from that film.

Cusack took everything in stride throughout this portion of the evening with an attitude that felt to veer between graciousness and a modicum of aloofness yet always respectful, to the audience, to  Healy and to whatever subject matter he was discussing in the moment. With regards to "Better Off Dead," a film he has long derided, he admitted that is it wonderful when anything you did over 25 years ago is not only remembered but enjoyed and acknowledging that fact, he wouldn't step on anyone's toes. Furthermore, he conceded that the film did indeed house a certain purposeful surreal quality that just was not really executed during that time period, and especially in films designed for teenagers. And for having that specific point of view, he could appreciate the effort.

John Cusack also remained respectful yet pointed when discussing his time in Hollywood, then and now, giving praise when it was due yet never delving into trash talking and negativity when approaching subject matter that could have easily fallen into the vitriolic. With "High Fidelity," he had nothing but the highest praise for Nick Hornby's source material of course, but for also Music Supervisor Kathy Nelson, who was the key figure who was able to acquire all of the songs Cusack and his writing partners Steve Pink and D.V. DeVincentis hand picked for the film, co-star Jack Black, who Cusack admitted he had to truly coerce into making the film as Black, surprisingly was not feeling confident enough with his skills (plus being a tad fearful of the very British Director Stephen Frears), and also, the music if The Kinks for always getting the film itself out of any editing and pacing quandaries.

Cusack also gave us an insight into the tricks of the Hollywood trade as he divulged that he never had one conversation with filmmaker Mike Newell, who is listed as an Executive Producer of "High Fidelity," but in actuality had nothing to do with the film whatsoever, but is credited due to some Hollywood legal-ease. To that end, he conversely had nothing but top compliments for then Touchstone Pictures studio head Joe Roth, a figure who represented a markedly different time period in Hollywood when massive tentpole films could be made directly alongside smaller, more personal passion projects, like "High Fidelity" was for Cusack, and without any industry political interference. By contrast with Hollywood in 2018, Cusack expressed matter-of-factly, " 'High Fidelity' woud never get made today."

Jim Healy and John Cusack's conversation was sometimes peppered with, and at other times guided by a series of question we in the audience had the chance to write down and place into a box before showtime. I was beyond thrilled when my friend Sachi Komai, co-owner and operator of the local small business art store Anthology, also located upon beautiful State Street, had her question asked directly--QUESTION: Would he ever consider doing a sequel or a prequel to any of his films? ANSWER: He'd love to. He'd really like to do a follow up to Mikael Hafstrom's psychological thriller "1408" (2007).

Another audience question asked what his favorite concerts and his answer included, but was not limited to, the likes of The Clash, The Pogues, Public Enemy, Fishbone, and Nirvana. And one more question humorously asked if he remembered the first time he was recognized in public as well as the first time he was not recognized? His answer essentially expressed that he has been recognized and not recognized during times and periods when he is met with the opposite of his expectations. As for me? Well, I would like to think that my question was answered indirectly as it fell within the conversation itself, which was if he would ever with to team up with Cameron Crowe again. ANSWER: He'd love to but has not been asked yet.

One aspect of the conversation that I enjoyed listening to was when subjects turned towards politics and his activism, which has extended itself into the writing of various pieces for The Huffington Post, his work as a board member of the Freedom Of The Press Foundation,  and his engineering of a meeting between Author/human rights activist Arundhati Roy and Edward Snowden in Moscow, which ultimately resulted into a book Cusack co-authored with Roy entitled Things That Can And Cannot Be Said (2015). I deeply appreciated the depth of his convictions when he stated that he felt that it was his duty to take is level of being in the public eye and utilize his voice to speak out against injustice, especially right now as we have "a fascist...a Nazi" in power in the Oval Office, a figure whom Cusack strongly (and truthfully, in my opinion) feels would resort to violence if all of the legal battles do not fly in his favor.

Yet every moment was not drenched in seriousness as John Cusack also showcased his sardonic humor throughout. When lightly questioned by Jim Healy about his stage work with Tim Robbins and their respective theater companies, Cusack quipped, "Yes...I'm a proper actor." And when Healy asked if Cusack still studied acting techniques, he replied through a snort of laughter, "No!!!" eliciting a huge burst of laughter from the audience. 

Once the 60 minutes or so had been completed, John Cusack was thanked and he left the stage as the theater was quickly emptied and prepared for the audience patrons who were upgraded for the V.I.P. portion of the night, which included photos with Cusack plus autographs. Kelly and I exited the theater and headed out of the Orpehum and into the beautiful late Spring night to the sounds of a young jazz combo performing just across the street.

As we watched the band, I ruminated over the event and felt more than pleased with how everything had turned out, in addition to winning tickets as well. While I did not meet the man, John Cusack delivered all I could have wished for with a cherished, brilliant film combined with an overall presentation that enhanced and re-confirmed what I already loved about this actor and his public persona.

And oh yes...what of Sierra from Rockford, IL?

As Kelly and I were heading for our cars, Sierra found us as she was behind us, presumably heading back to her own car. She was over the moon as she had just not only met John Cusack herself, and had her soundtrack album plus her friend's call sheet autographed, she expressed  how very nice he was. Believe me, I was so, so happy for her knowing just what the film means to her and how she was not disappointed in meeting her idol face-to-face. But then, yet another surprise occurred, when there the three of us were, standing and talking just off of State Street by the parking ramp when a friend of Sierra's from 10 years prior, and unseen since, happened by coincidence to be standing just nearby. An emotional reunion ensued and after all shaking hands and making introductions, Kelly and I left the friends to themselves and began to venture to our respective homes and families.

It really was indeed that kind of a night. One the Universe graciously gifted as as, for me, it was just what I needed.

Cue the music of Stevie Wonder...

Tuesday, May 1, 2018


And by Memorial Day, we shall see if the Force is with Ron Howard.

To me, it felt to be more than fitting when Ron Howard took over the directing chores for The latest self-contained and self-described "Star Wars Story," as he has indirectly been involved in the life of George Lucas' creation since the early 1970's when Howard starred in Lucas'"American Graffiti" (1973) and was told stories of Lucas' cinematic plans and schemes from the man himself. 

Even so, "Solo," the adventures of the young Han Solo, with Alden Ehrenreich taking over for the iconic Harrison Ford in the titular role set ten years before the events of the original 1977 film. Ever since Disney's acquisition of Lucasfilm, this has been the film I have been the most skeptical about as I have been fearing that it exists to serve as an excuse to continue mining the original trilogy without really offering anything new, and beyond that, all in service to a character, as iconic as he is,  who is not terribly deep anyway. But you know, each trailer I have seen has gotten me more excited, so I am hoping that it will be a success.

In addition to another tale set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and after having seen Wes Anderson's latest animated fantasia and the two very best features from the Marvel Comics universe, I am more than anxious to return to Earth for more grounded stories about real world characters and events.

"Tully" marks the third collaboration between Director Jason Reitman and Writer Diablo Cody and with Charlize Theron starring in a story of 21st century Motherhood and after the greatness of both "Juno" (2007) and "Young Adult" (2011), I am ready. 

Truth be told, life is more than full these days, not leaving me with much opportunity to see terribly much right now (or to even write a full tribute to filmmaker Milos Forman, who passed away last month), so these two films just may be all I can handle right now. But maybe I'll surprise both you and myself. We'll see...

...and I'll see you when the house lights go down!!!!