Tuesday, June 26, 2018

30 FILMS IN 30 DAYS: 11-20

And now, part two of my three part series, which has been unveiled throughout the month of June upon social media.

DAY 11
"HEAD" (1968)
The Monkees were the very first band I was ever obsessed with and from the first moments that I watched their television series in reruns at perhaps the age of five or six, I was instantaneously hooked with the music, their distinct personalities and the wild abandon that existed and carried through each and every joyously filled episode.

And then...there was "Head."

I had heard of The Monkees' one and only feature film for many years but had no avenue of any sort to see this film that seemed to be spoken of in hushes and barely referenced anytime I happened to see any archived information about the group. All I could gather was that the film was nothing like the television show. By the time I first saw the film in the middle of Der Rathskeller in the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Memorial Union during my Senior year of college (and just before graduation at that), those perceptions were more than confirmed. This was defiantly NOT your kid sister's Monkees.

Presented in a style that can only be referred to as dream logic, "Head" is a surreal, satirical experience during which you can almost enter it at any conceivable point during its 90 minute running time and watch it for 90 minutes and the overall effect would possibly be the same. "Bizarre" doesn't even begin to fully describe the film but it was indeed one that I was completely entranced by at it was a kaleidoscopic clash of styles and genres with Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork and the late Davy Jones enthusiastically demolishing their image--or more truthfully, the prefabricated nature of the perceptions concerning their image and the futility of "The Monkees" existing in a dark world of mindless consumerism, the suffocation of television for viewers and performers and the horrors of the Vietnam War. In doing so, essentially, this film could have been titled "The Death Of The Monkees."

Now..don't get me wrong. "Head" is not (necessarily) an angry film or an embittered one. It is an experience that turns everything we know about The Monkees inside out with a vibrant, dark psychedelia that feels like looking through a telescope at the wrong end. All four Monkees remain enormously engaging performers, comedians and musicians (yes, musicians) delivering a gold standard set of songs that accentuate this dreamscape.

Swimming through a lava lamp colored ocean after a collective suicide jump to set to the outstanding, gorgeous, organ drenched farewell of "Porpoise Song." The live in concert sounds and lights frenzy of "Circle Sky." The downright BRILLIANTLY edited Davy Jones solo dance sequence, which alternated from Black to White and back again in "Daddy's Song." The hazy harem sequence of "Can You Dig It?" And even more...

For a group that was fabricated, who knew that they would ultimately devise of this surrealistic pillow of a motion picture. Trust me, you haven't seen anything quite like "Head."

DAY 12
I will never for get the Monday morning in my Senior year Math class with Ms. Hynes. We were all getting ourselves ready for another day when Ms. Hynes began and then stopped herself from beginning the class to just say to all of us, "You know...I saw this really great movie over the weekend..."

And the movie in question was Jonathan Demme's "Something Wild."

Siskel & Ebert had already raved about the film but my Math teacher?! Hmmm...By the time I finally saw the film, I couldn't believe it...and not just because I could not get over the fact that Ms. Hynes actually saw it and loved it so much.

What Demme created was a film that exceeded the expectations set out by the film's title. The film, starring Melanie Griffith in what I still feel to be her most natural and very best performance as the free spirit Lulu who hijacks "closet rebel" Jeff Daniels from his humdrum life as a New York City banker into a...ahem...wild cross country adventure that involves kinky motel sex, crashing cars, stealing from liquor stores and restaurants, travelling with all manner of passengers and even attending Lulu's (soon to be revealed as Audrey) high school reunion, all culminating in a violent confrontation with Lulu's ex-husband Ray (a dynamic and terrifying Ray Liotta).

The film is as playful as it is entirely unpredictable in terms of the performances, characters, set design, editing, costumes, the outstanding genre defying soundtrack and most importantly, the cinematic storytelling, in which Demme incorporates one surprise and tonal shift after another, making for an undeniably ORIGINAL experience that made for one of the finest films of the 1980's.

And no, I still can't believe that Ms. Hynes saw it!

DAY 13
Just because there are teenagers driving the story, does not necessarily mean that we are watching a "teen film."

Case in point is this film, which despite the high school setting, teenaged characters and all manner of teen hijinks from driving around in Dad's prized Porsche and one overly sexualized moment after another, Paul Brickman's "Risky Business" is in actuality a searing social satire that truly defined what it meant to exist in the 1980's before the whole "Greed Is Good" aesthetic fully took hold and drove the decade. In fact, perhaps this film was a bit of a warning.

This sharp comedy, beautifully filmed in Chicago and its suburbs, starred a 21 year old Tom Cruise in his breakthrough role as Joel Goodson (love the last name), a dutiful high school Senior with goals of being admitted to Princeton who is entrusted with being the "man of the house" while his parents are away on vacation for one week but ultimately transforms his home into a brothel after his encounter with the enigmatic prostitute Lana (a wonderful Rebecca De Mornay), Guido the "killer pimp" (the great Joe Pantoliano), and an escalating series of precarious events including the disappearance of his Mother's prized glass egg and the submergence of Dad's aforementioned Porsche into Lake Michigan.

What separated this film from all other films about teenagers, both good and bad, from the 1980's era, where its strict attention to themes of lost innocence, materialism, Capitalism, sexism, and the nature of how we are all prostitutes within our American society and how much of our souls do we compromise and even sell in order to get ahead and achieve a certain social/political status. In addition, Brickman shot his film as if it were a European art film and combined with a pulsating, iconic film score by Tangerine Dream, it was a film that looked and sounded like no other film of its ilk.

At the center was Tom Cruise, whose performance still marvels with its commitment and fullness, characteristics that we have seen throughout the entirety of his career ever since. But even so...let's not allow any short shrift to flow in the direction of Rebecca De Mornay, whose own electric performance STILL provides mystery and conflict of what her true intentions really are towards Joel, as well as how she views her own life.

And, I also still think the 'L trains never looked or felt the same after seeing this film.

DAY 14
For so many of you, it may feel like that there has never been a time when the catchphrases of "Show Me The Money!!!!" and "You complete me," have not existed within our pop culture lexicon but trust me, there was and to hear those pieces of dialogue and to see the entire film for the very first time, was for me, a film of spiritual deliverance. Yes...it touched me that deeply and it still does.

I saw "Jerry Maguire" on opening day at the age of 27, as I was then working within a children's bookstore which had been taken over by a larger corporation and I already saw the writing upon the wall and was pondering a life change...and struggling to determine what to do next. While I was already a fan of Cameron Crowe, I was not prepared for what he delivered to me with this film, an enormously prevalent story about the titular character, a 35 year old sports agent, who undergoes a massive crisis of conscience with the ruthlessness of his chosen industry and writes a mission statement that essentially gets him exiled from his own kingdom, forcing him to start all over again with one client, the bombastic football player Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr. in his finest and Oscar winning performance) and with one person (Renee Zellweger in her beautifully rich and luminous breakthrough performance) who truly believes in him...and through her belief, slowly, deliberately pushes him to becoming the man he wishes to be...the man he routinely runs away from despite his better nature.

Cameron Crowe's "Jerry Maguire" is exquisitely layered, a work that continues and fulfills Crowe's consistent themes of discovering and maintaining one's integrity within a world that has no use for it and the nature of true success, especially when it arrives through miserable, crushing, punishing failure.

Tom Cruise elicited what I feel to be his most soulful performance as he portrayed a character that surprisingly functioned AGAINST the nature of what audiences perceive of his screen persona. This is the film where Cruise as Jerry Maguire, loses...over and over and over and over again, emerging on the other side powerfully informed, possibly better but Crowe wisely suggests that his evolution--like all of ours--is ongoing. In fact, as I regarded Jerry Maguire hiding behind his sunglasses so often, it made me think of Cruise's Joel Goodson from "Risky Business" and what may have become of him by the time he reached the age of 35, making both characters and even both films work as a call and response to each other.

But entirely, "Jerry Maguire" moved me tremendously. I remember vividly how my own heartbeat slowed as I watched. How I spontaneously felt tears flowing and so unexpectedly. How I just wanted nothing but the best for all of these characters who were all just trying to live honest lives in an unpredictable world. And furthermore, I deeply appreciated Crowe's willingness to create African-American characters (which included the great Regina King) who were three dimensional, filled with dignity and foibles and completely integral to the narrative, for this film is easily as much about them as it is about Jerry.

"Jerry Maguire" is a Hollywood film that functioned like a small, independent with its wealthy collective of characters, extended sequences and luxurious dialogue and direction--in fact, I wonder if it could even get made today.. Even so, it did get made. We have it and for me, this was the movie where Cameron Crowe became a filmmaker.

DAY 15
This one goes out to Matt "Guitar" Murphy who passed away June 15, 2018.

Released 38 years ago this very month, John Landis' "The Blues Brothers" was a cultural EVENT on a level similar to "Star Wars"...at least for me, and I can firmly believe, the entire city of Chicago.
With thanks to then Chicago Mayor, the late Jane Byrne, who lifted the first Mayor Richard J. Daley's decades long ban on filming ANYTHING in Chicago due to its gangster reputation, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd brought their enthusiastic Saturday Night Live creation to the silver screen in grand, bombastic, euphoric and gently anarchistic style in this extraordinary musical comedy/demolition derby hybrid.

The now iconic and surprisingly innocent story of blues musician brothers and ex-cons "Joliet" Jake Blues (Belushi) and Elwood Blues (Aykroyd) who fully embark upon their "mission from God"
by re-forming their band to save their childhood orphanage...while also being relentless pursued by the Chicago police, the Illinois Nazi party, an enraged Country & Western band, a vengeful ex-fiancee (the late, great Carrie Fisher) and the Illinois state police, National Guardsmen, SWAT teams, and military police, was dynamic to say the least with breathtaking, utterly improbable and hilarious car chases fueled by sensational musical performances by soul music GIANTS was the film that brought Chicago together without question.

I was in the 4th grade when "The Blues Brothers" began filming throughout Chicago and the idea of a real major motion picture being made where we lived provided incredible fascination for me, my friends, family and the city. News reports would pop up on television and the local papers. When the first trailer arrived, it was aired on the local news (and I also remember the trailer playing in a loop on a small television inside of a downtown department store). And when it was finally released, and to rave reviews from Siskel & Ebert to boot, it was as if the entire city came out to see what had been made.

Remember, back in 1980, there were exceedingly less theater screens and my family and I attempted, on no less than THREE occasions, to see the film at the River Oaks theater, finding it sold out every time. FINALLY, on attempt #4, we got in and when the entire film was over, it was as if I had an out of body experience. I walked out of the theater into the massive awaiting crowd and this one guy looked at me, with my mouth fully agape, and said, "Hey young brotha! How was it???" Snapped out of my reverie, I croaked out, "THAT...was GREAT!!!!"

And how could it not be? JAMES BROWN and the high flying church sequence. Ray Charles playing that electric piano as the city outside, from older to young kids, bonded in song and dance. Aretha Franklin testifying the command to THINK!" All the while as Jake and Elwood, in those dark suits, hats and sunglasses, roared through my city, from its funky neighborhoods and dilapidated shopping malls all the way down Wacker drive to the Daley Plaza in deadpanned glee...sensational and unforgettable.

With all due respect to my beloved John Hughes, John Landis' "The Blues Brothers," for me, is the greatest Chicago movie ever made. SWEET HOME CHICAGO!!!!!!

DAY 16
"THE BIG CHILL" (1983)
Now I would not be surprised if many of you are wondering just what sort of an appeal a film about a group of White baby boomers and graduates of the University of Michigan who reunite near the end of their 30's for the funeral of a friend who committed suicide would have for a teenage African-American kid in Chicago.

Well, first and foremost, that is due to the magic of the movies, especially when one begins to follow the careers of the creative forces at work. In this case, that creative force was Lawrence Kasdan, who had worked with both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas on two "Star Wars" films and "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" as a screenwriter and was then branching outwards as a director. But, to tell you the truth, when it came to my first thoughts about actual writing for myself, John Hughes was indeed that lightning in a bottle for me but Lawrence Kasdan is where that seed was truly planted.

"The Big Chill" was the film where the action was dialogue and characters--the first of its kind that I had really seen and somehow connected with. It was the first film that made me think to myself, "I want to write something like that...but about people my age and where I am from." But I didn't know how to do it. So, I watched the film over and over. In fact, it became my "Sunday movie" for nearly two months, something I would watch after returning home from church every week. The comfort of the film sustained me as I fell deeper into the lives of these people, their connection to each other, the memories of their pasts, the quandaries set in their presents and the fears of their futures as represented by the grim reality of their friend who took his own life.

And this is where Kasdan, who was truly at his best when making more personal films like "Grand Canyon" (1991) and "Mumford" (1999), made his finest existential statement--something that made "The Big Chill" about so much more than White people dancing to Motown songs in a kitchen.
It was a film that challenged its characters, and the audience watching, to reconcile the people they have all been with the people they wished to become and the realities of who they actually are. THAT is a fact of the human experience that transcends race and that quality, as fueled by Kasdan's rich, intelligent and artful writing and direction, plus the beautiful performances from the terrific ensemble cast, is what continues to make me love this film.

DAY 17
"HAIR" (1979)
Based upon the play by Gerome Ragni and James Rado
Music by Galt MacDermot
I like to think of "Hair" as being my first film for adults.
First of all, it was the film to demonstrate that not all PG rated films were the same, so to speak, as not only did PG 13 not exist in 1979, "Hair" contained a plethora of sexual, racial and drug references that flew way over my head when I was 10 years old, and furthermore, it was the film where I saw my first nude scene (much to my Mother's shock)!.Yet, most importantly, "Hair" was a rock musical unlike any I had seen and to date, it remains an extraordinary piece of stellar cinema presented beautifully by the late, great Milos Forman.

"Hair" spoke directly to my inexplicable fascination with the social/political/cultural struggles of the late 1960's and all of the elements of the counter-culture and the conflicts against the status quo of the conservative establishment. Hippies, protests, civil rights, rock and roll and fighting a way into a future that seemed ready to be extinguished by the Vietnam war and our national inability to try and communicate and understand each other. And to do so much of it in glorious song and dance just blew my mind.

Dancing horses in Central Park. The astonishing Treat Williams as the hippie tribe leader George Berger defiantly dancing atop a table top at a posh high society garden party singing "I Got Life." John Savage as Claude the farm boy headed towards Vietnam yet befriended by the hippies flying high in his first LSD trip, with visions of Shelia (Beverly D'Angelo), the girl of his dreams, literally flying while grandly pregnant during the "Hare Krishna" dreamscape. The toe tapping, doo wop singing Army officers playing footsie during "Black Boys/White Boys." The psychedelic anguish of "Walking In Space." Milos Forman unveiled one dazzling moment after another, fueled by the great songs and Choreographer Twyla Tharp's timeless, innovative artistry.

And then...there was "Easy To Be Hard" as performed by Cheryl Barnes, the jilted lover, and Mother to the small child of the Black hippie Hud (Dorsey Wright), who cruelly admonishes her upon the wintry New York City streets.. That sequence was highly significant because of two reasons:

1. It was the one song that received a deafening round of applause both times I saw the film (one of which was with a double feature with Alan Parker's "Fame").
2. I will NEVER forget my Dad saying to me afterwards with regards to the treatment she receives from Hud when he said, "Black men do not treat women like that." That statement completely confused me at the time because I had just witnessed what my Dad said never happened so how could that statement be true? But as the years passed, I realized that what my Dad was doing was giving me an instruction as to what NOT EVER DO to women as I grew up to BECOME a Black man.

Yet, what made "Hair" my first adult movie was unquestionably the shattering conclusion, where Forman taught me that all movies do not have happy endings. "Hair" ends with an emotional double whammy that combined the triumph of the anthemic "Let The Sunshine In" with a crushing story driven tragedy that left me unsure as to what or how to feel once the end credits began to appear on screen.

Milos Forman's "Hair" was, and remains, unforgettable, breath taking, wondrously artful cinema to behold again and again and again.

DAY 18
"EXCALIBUR" (1981)
Based upon "Le Morte D'Arthur" by Thomas Malory
Being 12 years old is the absolute perfect age for a boy to fall into the rich, mythological worlds of sword and sorcery and for me, the release of John Boorman's "Excalibur" could not have been more perfectly timed.

My parents and I saw this film on opening night, and thanks to them, we waited as the showing we wished to see was sold out at the River Oaks theater. The wait was more than worth the time spent in anticipation as the dreamworld of King Arthur, his lady love Guinevere, the love triangle completed by best friend/mighty swordsman Lancelot, the rise and fall of the Knights of the Round Table, the witty and sinister presence of the wizard Merlin, the Lady of the Lake, the quest for the Holy Grail and the titular sword in the stone plus so much more was a veritable epic and then some (while also giving my love of "Star Wars" a greater historical and inspirational context).

I was absolutely enraptured by Boorman's uncompromising, muscular, glorious and feverishly brutal vision, which was rightfully (yet so surprisingly to my 12 year old eyes) and copiously seasoned with a level of graphic violence and graphic sexual content (again, my Mom shuddered with what I was seeing) that a gain felt to be truthful for the period and story the film was telling. I loved the mud, the filth, the grime and the grit and how it all juxtaposed with the glistening gleam of the armor, the castle, and Excalibur itself, making for a majestic, magical fantasy world that was occurring within a cauldron of mess.

But again...that graphic content...good night! I had not yet seen a film that really presented issues of dismemberment (you KNOW that was more than a "flesh wound") so vividly and as for the sex, which included moments of rape and incest, made me truly question if I was really seeing what I was seeing over and again.

It was also the first film in which I saw Helen Mirren, cast as the evil sorceress Morgana Le Fey, Arthur's half-sister. I'll just leave it right there...

DAY 19
"SCHOOL DAZE" (1988)
In the Spring of 1988, I was 19 years old and a Freshman in college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

While home in Chicago for Spring Break and as my Mom sat in the Yehia hair salon in Hyde Park, I ran around my old stomping grounds for a spell and soon purchased a ticket to see Spike Lee's second "Joint." I was more than aware of Lee through his firebrand media presence as well as the excellent notices he had received for his debut feature "She's Gotta Have It" (1986), which I had still not yet seen. But, upon seeing "School Daze," it was as if a firebomb was set off in the theater.

Lee's collegiate set "School Daze," based upon his experiences at Morehouse, is an incendiary social comedy depicting the clash between the students of a historically Black University during homecoming weekend. Lee audaciously confronts the inner workings of conflicts within the African-American community where differing social-political beliefs are blistering but still do not cut as deeply and as painfully as notions of skin tone and hair texture play into perceptions of racial superiority/inferiority and Black authenticity. And oh yes...the film is also a musical.

With an ensemble cast led by the mighty Laurence Fishburne as the socially conscious Vaughan "Dap" Dunlap and fueled by raucous comedy, scathing dialogue, outstanding musical sequences and an ocean of painful truth and cathartic soul, the experience of viewing "School Daze" was unlike ANY film that I had yet seen, signaling to me that Spike Lee was not only a born filmmaker but an uncommonly uncompromising and unrepentant creative artists willing to infuriate as well as educate and entertain. And believe me, portions of the Black community were enraged at this film.

Black talk radio in Chicago had a field day as detractors were beside themselves that Spike Lee had the gall to "air our dirty laundry" in full view of the nation's movie going public (i.e. potential White audiences and critics) but that was precisely WHY I thought the film was ingenious. Spike Lee made a film about us that spoke directly to us and decidedly NOT to the imaginary White audience, controversy be damned and truth be uplifted. He spoke of what I already knew and was stunned that he possessed the ferocious will and skill to display so very much about ourselves that was as beautiful as it was damaging.

But there was that ending, a surreal climax where the storylines abruptly cease and with Dap screaming, bellowing, and howling for all of us to "WAKE UP!!!!!!!!!!" At the time, I didn't care for the sequence as it felt the film stopped for a public service announcement that was so on the nose and was a subtle as a sledgehammer to the head. But over time, the sequence has only grown in power for me as "WAKE UP!!!!" has remained not only Spike Lee's rallying cry for the entirety of his career as well as a description of his aesthetic, but a statement for a culture and a nation that is still trapped within a certain dark, deep slumber.

When so many proclaim to be "Woke," these days, "School Daze," even now upon its 30th anniversary, still has the power to truly awaken.

DAY 20
I am old enough to remember a time when "Star Wars" did not exist. Or "Ghostbusters." And especially, the famed archaeologist Indiana Jones. And when they all entered the world, it was AWESOME!!!!

Leave it to Spielberg and Lucas to blow my mind all over again with this first, and (still) best, entry in the on-going adventures of Indiana Jones, which at the time, was a character and film experience shrouded in mystery leaving the audience with no idea of what to expect.

My parents and I saw the film opening weekend at the now long defunct Evergreen Plaza movie theater and I have to say that the film put me through the wringer in the first 10-12 minutes. Never had I jumped from shock and surprise so often and so quickly as Spielberg blazed through one perilous predicament after another, from rolling boulders, deep chasms to barely leap across, booby traps, huge spiders, a giant snake and treacherous companions...and all of that was before the film's main plot--the search for the Ark of the Covenant--even kicked in!

Harrison Ford, already THE MAN as he was Han Solo, only increased his white hot screen wattage as the fedora wearing, whip cracking Indiana Jones and with the spunky moxie of Karen Allen as his lady love Marion Ravenwood, they were a team that could not be beaten as they attempted to outrace the Nazis. But, for me, the star of this experience was Steven Spielberg himself as he directed this epic with a two fisted command and breathless authority and imagination as he, (with Lucas) updated the serials of the 1930's with superior invention and sequences that are now iconic and still absolutely, rapturously exhausting in their rich ferocity.

Just think, to go from being trapped in a snakepit to being surrounded by a tomb of skeletons to a brutal punchout at a revolving airplane ready to explode from spilled gasoline to the astonishing truck chase...I held on for dear life and just like "Star Wars" and even "The Blues Brothers," the film fully transcended something to watch...it was an out of body experience.

And then...the opening of the Ark. My word, I felt that I was seeing something too horrifying to be watched as the faces melted and heads exploded from being ravaged by the wrath of God. How Spielberg had the audacity to top himself again and again within his own movie still amazes me tremendously and to date, this remains one of the greatest films I have ever seen.

If I could only see this film for the first time all over again.

Stay tuned for part three of this series!

Monday, June 25, 2018

LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED: a review of "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"

Produced and Directed by Morgan Neville
**** (four stars)

I am going to open this latest posting in a slightly unorthodox fashion.

Over the past few days upon social media, a 23 minute video has been making the viral rounds rapidly, eliciting nothing but euphoric responses from viewers. The video in question is the latest installment of "The Late, Late Show" host James Corden's highly popular "Carpool Karaoke" series, this time, featuring none other than world treasure Sir Paul McCartney as the twosome share stories and songs as they take a tour of McCartney's childhood hometown of Liverpool, England, including the home he grew up in and where he wrote songs with John Lennon. The video culminates in a surprise concert performance in a Liverpool pub to the amazement of the patrons, a sequence that concludes with a group sing-a-long of The Beatles' timeless "Hey Jude." 

It was a wonderful segment to say the least, as it was filled with such unabashed joyfulness that I truly believe would cure a bad day instantly. But what spoke to me even more than what I saw were the reactions of those in the comments sections as well as from the people who shared the video among friends. What I read over and again were statement conveying just how moved people were while watching the video. How people were actually moved to tears (a comment I read the absolute most) as they were so affected at regarding not only a living legend making people happy, but the feelings of that aforementioned unabashed joyfulness that permeated between Corden and McCartney, through the pub, and from this video through a myriad of computer screens around the world.

The response was so uniformly enthusiastic, to my perceptions, it felt as if people truly needed to see and feel something like this. People just needed to feel this level of goodness again in our 21st century that is growing more unpredictable, volatile, divided, and unstable seemingly by the hour, if not the day. And if my perceptions are correct, our cultural level of spiritual decay is more dangerously prevalent than ever for we are just aching for something good...a heavy hearted spiritual ache that shows no immediate signs of being healed anytime soon

Dear readers, this afternoon, I returned home from screening what is not only one of the very best films of 2018, it was an experience that surprised me tremendously with its power and relevance to or current state of affairs in our anxiety ridden landscape. Director Morgan Neville's "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" a documentary about the life and mission of Fred Rogers, the creator/writer/producer/star of Public Television's eternal children's classic "Mister Rogers' Neghborhood," was an experience that was nothing less than revelatory, entrancing, sobering and undeniable moving.

Trust me, there was not a dry eye in the house and not through any means of false sentimentality, sense of nostalgia or prefabricated manipulations. Every emotion was felt to seismic degrees by myself, and I woud gather many of my fellow patrons in the theater audience, as what we were witness to was the testament of a quiet revolutionary who devoted his life not only to serving the emotional upbringing of all children, but his desire to try and leave the world a bit better than way he he found it through nothing less than kindness, patience, understanding, listening and being non-judgmental towards any and everyone he encountered.

In fact, Fred Rogers' calm, sensitive demeanor, of course was prime for ridicule and yet throughout this film, I was forced to perform a serious re-evaluation of not only the television show, but crucially, the man, his life's work and how he so tenaciously brought his message to the world. And in doing so, Neville's film made me re-evaluate precisely what it means to be strong, to be brave, and to  have integrity and empathy within a world that seemingly holds no value over such things.

Through interviews with family members, including his wife Joanne Rogers, to the cast and crew members of the iconic television program and additional friends and guests, Morgan Neville's "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" details the guiding philosophy of Fred Rogers, which was the basic truth that each and every one of us deserves not only to be loved, but we are all capable of loving. As as he so explicitly states within one of the film's many archived interview segments, "Love is at the root of everything. Love or the lack of it." 

That very dichotomy is explored extensively through Neville's briskly paced and wholly involving documentary, which also delves into not only the history of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," but the behind the scenes conception and construction of the show, unveiling just how revolutionary, influential and completely unorthodox and profoundly disarming the program actually was. In fact, I would now say that Fred Rogers was downright radical, something I would have never imagined for this ordained minister who was indeed a life long Republican.

But radical he was as he had the audacity to not only invent a television program that featured a multi-racial cast and housed a tonality that went completely against the grain of all other television programming designed for children--and that even included his PBS compatriots. Fred Rogers had the audacity to believe, and share his belief, that children were valuable human beings deserving of respect, attention, encouragement, affection and the very best of ourselves in order to assist them in becoming the very best of themselves. And to think, he achieved this very tactic for generations of viewers, especially children, not through sermonizing or any sense of religious based dogma. But through the act of listening, asking questions, being interested in everything, working with clear, direct language to formulate an on-going dialogue with conversations, songs and celebrating the blissful space contained in deliberately slow, quiet moments.

Now, I have to confess to all of you that while I did watch "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" daily as a small child, it was not a show that I remember enjoying terribly much. In fact, I think I watched it as more of a placeholder as I waited for the more stimulating "Sesame Street," "The Electric Company" and "Zoom." While there were aspects that I enjoyed from his daily routine of entering and leaving, the sight of the toy neighborhood, "Picture, Picture," the stoplight, and the feeding of his fish what Fred Rogers created, to my sensibilities, was quiet to the point of being sedate. Not much ever really happened on the show except when that beautiful trolley arrived to take viewers to the Land Of Make Believe, the point in the show when I would always perk up to attention. Otherwise, the whole series felt like nap time.

And yet, as I think about it now, and as witnessed through Neville's film, this specific somnambulant tone was exactly what Fred Rogers wished to deliver and establish to and for children; a quiet space to relax, to be calm, to provide an environment devoid of any sense of over stimulation and was indeed celebratory of silence. In fact, one segment on the show, as depicted in the documentary, Mr. Rogers placed an egg timer on a table and set the timer for one minute, to showcase to the children at home exactly what one minute actually was...and then, the program settled in for that entire one minute without interruption. When I now think about this program where supposedly nothing happened, I realize how wrong I was, for what Fred Rogers was teaching to everyone was that the act of living, breathing, experiencing and loving was the act of "happening" and it was happening every single moment. Just as he sang every day, "It's such a good feeling to know you're alive..." 

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing how Neville's film demonstrated Fred Rogers' deliberate approach to the overall purposefulness of his program. It was purposeful that Mister Rogers never once appeared as himself in even one "Land of Make Believe" segment because he wished to always present a clear distinction between fantasy and reality. It was purposeful for him to leave mistakes in the show, like one moment when the zipper on his sweater accidentally broke, for he wanted to demonstrate to children how everyone makes mistakes and how we can try, fail and try again. But what fascinated me tremendously was precisely how, just like my beloved Charles M. Schulz accomplished with his "Peanuts" characters, was the fact that his entire personality and psychology were woven into the entire fabric of the show and its characters, especially the puppet characters. Which "Land Of Make Believe" character was the most like the real Fred Rogers, you ask? You need to see the film to find out and the answer provides the film with several of its most touching, moving, expressive and again...disarming and insightful sequences.

Even more profound to discover was how Fred Rogers directly addressed cultural events, interpersonal and national controversies and tragedies. He spent one entire week on his program talking about death, for instance. Another week dealt with divorce. In one "Land Of Make Believe" segment, which aired after the murder of Robert Kennedy, one character asks another what assassinations actually are. He covertly, yet elegantly, addressed the racial tensions of the 1960's by a now classic sequence where he shared soaking his feet in a wading pool with the character of Officer Clemons (Francois Clemmons)--an African American. And in one particularly and extremely eerie sequence also set within the "Land Of Make Believe," King Friday XIII expressed  his desire to build a wall between his castle and the remainder of the outside world because he was afraid of change and all those who wished for change. Mmmm...hmmm.  Oddly enough, I certainly do not remember any such moments such as those but there they were, and so much more, in this documentary and I was repeatedly stunned.

Delving even further, I was even more amazed with Fred Rogers' quiet yet seemingly unshakable, unbreakable tenacity regarding what was nothing less than his core belief system and his life's work. Neville provides an astounding sequence set in 1969 when Rogers faced down a Senate Subcommittee when funding for Public Broadcasting was threatened. Through his patient yet unmovable resolve, Rogers not only expressed his core values but he also delivered a recitation of his own composition about self control entitled, "What Do You Do With The Mad That You Feel?"  To watch this hearing play out was as remarkable as it was riveting to behold, and clearly showed just how much can actually be achieved when we all take a moment to truly listen, because only then can we even begin to truly understand each other, especially when our differences feel to be worlds apart. 

Most striking of all, was how Mr. Rogers valued the entire emotional landscape contained within children, and how he knew that childhood was decidedly not all about "clowns and balloons." That children do become angry and how their anger has value, and needs just as much attention as any adult in the world, if not moreso. And finally, how even when a child is angry, so-called negative feelings do not necessitate value judgement of the child in question. No feeling is a mistake and nor is any child for having any feelings, good or bad.  That said, Rogers' sense of tenacity did seem to arrive, albeit partially, from a place of frustration and anger, at the injustices of the world to even his extreme disdain for television itself, especially the television designed for children, exploitative programming that never respected their audience but simply was designed to make children consumers.

Yet,Fred Rogers, for all of his wonder and gifts was not infallible to the unrepentant brutality of the world. Even he had to step back and take pause, unsure of how to face down new horrors, like the  September 11th attacks, and even his own severe doubts of his place in a world I can only imagine that he did not recognize anymore. Frankly, as I watched "Won't You be My Neighbor?" I found myself feeling thankful that Fred Rogers, who passed away in 2003 at the age of 74 from stomach cancer, was no longer within the world to see what has transpired over these last nearly three years. Out of some sense of protection for him, I woud have hated to see him regard our current landscape, which has fallen so far in its discourse and respect for each other, the environment and the planet as a whole. 

But I guess, that may be the greatest takeaway from Morgan Neville's "Won't You be My Neighbor?," the beliefs and actions of a man who was honest and direct in presentation, so much so that even the most hard hearted cynics could find themselves taken in by his specialized brand of wonder, discovery, kindness, tolerance and acceptance. Neville showcases this particular gift over and again and the effect is marvelous. Furthermore, we are also witness to Rogers' sneaky, unpredictable and surprisingly rascally humor, another tactic that allowed all cynicism to melt away as he ingratiated himself so absolutely.

I have to admit to you that found myself in tears often while watching this film. Not necessarily because I was sad. But honestly because I was so unquestionably moved by the experience which showed how all of us are undergoing an existential struggle, Fred Rogers included. Yet, Rogers felt s strongly that if you simply met people with love, and showed how we are all not only deserving of love but how we are all unique and special simply because we are who we are, warts and all. Fred Rogers truly believed that there are no conditions to loving and being loved and perhaps, even when we are feeling our most unlovable, that precisely when we should love even harder. For we are special because there is indeed only one of each of us in the universe and that we are all deserving of love just because we are alive. 

I am going to conclude this posting by giving you another music related story. A couple of months ago, I became entranced by the music of a Texas based trio called Khruangbin. One of their music videos is for a song entitled "Friday Morning" and I do urge for you to watch it on You Tube.at your earliest convenience. The song itself is a languid six minute plus love song that feels like you are slipping into the warmest, most luxurious bath you have ever taken. Yet, the visuals for this song are deceptively simple yet undeniably powerful. What we see are individual moments of each of the three band members sitting within a room listening to messages of love from their family and friends. We are unable to hear any of these messages. All we hear is the music and all we see are the band members' reactions to what they are hearing.

It made me cry.

I cried because it was so quietly beautiful but moreso because it was sadly enlightening. For it made me realize just how little we actually do hear about how much we are loved, so very little that our spirits are acing for some sense of caring, or some validation of our existence, our place in the world in regards to those of every one we know.

Morgan Neville's "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" speaks to that societal existential crisis so explicitly as I do believe our souls are hurting terribly, especially now as the world has never felt so uncertain and completely inside out. The film speaks precisely to all that we have had and all that we have lost as a culture. But is defiantly speaks to what we could regain if we only just tried again to heed the words, wisdom and heart of Mr. Fred Rogers' messages of love, communication, patience, listening, understanding and community--both local and global.

Imagine what we could become if we just adhered to those messages rather than those of anger, fear, recrimination, retribution and revenge--or at least, find the proper balance between them all for all of those emotions have validity, which need to be respected. And  besides, now, more than ever, the children of this world are looking to us and need us, so what kind of  world do we wish to have for them as well as ourselves? 

Morgan Neville's "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" is inspirational, essential viewing and it is also one of 2018's highest cinematic achievements.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

NOT THAT INCREDIBLE: a review of "Incredibles 2"

A Pixar Animation Studios Film
Written and Directed by Brad Bird
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

First things first. I am certain that many, if not all of you will love this film. It is exceedingly well made and it is bound to make a fortune at the box office, perfectly satisfying all manner of fans who have patiently waited 14 years for this second installment of the superhero family. All of that being said, and for as much as I did like about the movie, I was ultimately underwhelmed.

Now when we first met the Parr family, otherwise known as The Incredibles, featuring Bob Parr a.k.a. the muscle bound Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), his wife Helen a.k.a. the rubber-limbed, super flexible Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), sullen yet force field conjuring, fading to invisible at will teenage daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), rambunctious super speed gifted young son Dash (Huck Milner)and infant Jack-Jack in Writer/Director Brad Bird's "The Incredibles" (2004), we really only had two of Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" trilogy and two of Bryan Singer's "X-Men" entries as part of our superhero landscape populating our national cineplexes. At that time, Christopher Nolan was still one year away from debuting the first entry in his now iconic "Dark Knight Trilogy" and the Marvel Cinematic Universe was four years away from emerging onto the scene as well. Even on television, we were still two years away from NBC's "Heroes."  I think you get the picture.

In 2004, we were also living within a period when Pixar made art films! While I do apologize for the slight and uncharacteristic snark, there is a real point to be made when looking at the artistic to commerce driven trajectory of Pixar over the years, for in 2004, Pixar was still at the forefront of American animated films, setting the GOLD STANDARD by creating works for the ages. Brad Bird's "The Incredibles" was truly one of the very best the studio had released to date at that time.

The combination of super powers, a James Bond styled plotline and the precarious realities and anxieties of a midlife crisis at the core was ingenious and fresh, making "The Incredibles" precisely the type of film experience we hadn't quite seen before. Furthermore, and for as much as I have been critical about the prevalence of Pixar's increasing slate of unnecessary sequels, Bird's film was the sole Pixar entry for me that truly felt to deserve a second chapter.

And yet...

Brad Bird's "Incredible 2" is by no means a failure, or a bad film or even a necessarily disappointing one, so to speak. But it was one that lacked a certain inexplicable spark of life, the very kind that did make the original film so wonderful and unexpected. Could it be that we are unable to throw the smallest pebble and not hit 30 superheros in the movies and television these days? Perhaps, that does steal a bit of thunder from the Parr family. Even so, "Incredibles 2" did have certain roadblocks that not even the super-powered could defeat, making for a film that was truthfully unimpressive.

When we last saw The Incredibles, they had just defeated the villain Syndrome and were preparing themselves for a battle royale with a new enemy named The Underminer (voiced by Pixar good luck charm John Ratzenberger), the mole-like super-villain bent on destruction. "Incredibles 2" picks up directly at that moment, yet unfortunately the family is unsuccessful with stopping The Underminer from robbing the Metroville bank, while amassing a hefty amount of destruction in the process. This defeat for the superhero family forces them, and all superheroes, including family friend Lucius Best a.k.a. Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), to return to seclusion and for the Parr's relocation.

Soon, the family is visited by Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), telecommunication mogul, owner of the DEVTECH corporation and enthusiastic superhero fan, who proposes a publicity stunt to regain the public's trust of superheroes. Helen Parr cautiously takes the bait, returns to her secret identity as Elastigirl, complete with a new costume from a different fashion designer than family designer Edna Mode (voiced by Brad Bird), and departs, leaving Bob to take care of the children, including little Jack-Jack, who suddenly begins to display a series of new and unpredictable powers.

Meanwhile, Helen, while working with Winston and his technological genius sister Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener), soon confronts a new villain known as the Screenslaver, a figure who hijacks and utilizes visual screens to hypnotize and brainwash victims to perform all evil biddings. Will Helen be able to stop the Screenslaver? And even grander, will Violet ever have her first date with the boy of her dreams? And finally, can Bob ever figure out that confounded "New Math"? 

Brad Bird's "Incredibles 2" is a hyper-kinetically paced, imaginatively restless, visually dazzling film that works like the devil to keep the characters, action, and the jokes in constant momentum. With Composer Michael Giacchino's brassy, bombastic score punctuating every solitary moment, the film barely takes a breath, a tactic which works in fits and starts as some sequences are made more dynamic and hysterical in their breakneck agile fluidity while others hurl by with the blur of a whirlwind, where not much sticks to the surface.

For instance, the show stopping sequence where Jack-Jack battles a pesky raccoon was presented with the comical light speed flourish of a classic Looney Tunes short. Yet, on the other hand, I do have to admit that many of the superhero battles, chases, and rescues, while brilliantly animated by those Pixar wizards under Brad Bird's direction, are indeed so propulsive and therefore, so indistinguishable from every other piece of CGI bombast that we always see and have grown accustomed to viewing, that everything hurtled and boomed to no true effect.

And that quality is more than unfortunate as what made "The Incredibles" so special and unique that the superhero angle worked solely because we had the family dynamic of the Parrs as the core, the engine and the soul of the film. For "Incredibles 2," while the family element remains crucial, it just felt that Bird leaned a bit too heavily upon the superhero angle, thus decreasing his film's ultimate impact and overall differentiation from every other superhero film and television show in our midst these days. I have long expressed my feelings of superhero fatigue upon this site and I  guess, I really wasn't terribly interested in learning about more new  heroes and their powers when there was already a more sensational story of a family right in front of us ready and waiting to be told.

Now, that criticism should not be taken that I felt "Incredibles 2" to be a film without any substance. On the contrary, what I enjoyed the very most about the film was how Brad Bird pushed essentially all of his female characters right to the forefront of the film...again slyly giving the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet another would to lick as they still have not yet released a female driven film, unlike DC Comics and Patty Jenkins' "Wonder Woman" (2017).

Actually, and speaking of "Wonder Woman," "Incredibles 2" almost serves some of the same functions as that film presented. As the first film focused upon Bob's middle aged angst, "Incredibles 2" allows Helen to take the center stage as she fully relishes her chance to indulge her own super-heroics and engage in the action and mystery involving the Screenslaver.

Watching her as she races through the city streets on her flashy motorcycle, slyly winking at her young fans and feeling nothing less than euphoria saving the passengers of a runaway train, Helen Parr as Elastigirl not only has tapped into the same emotions that resuscitated Bob in the first film, she has, on a grander level, re-connected with what makes her super-heroic as a woman in the first place. She is amazed with herself and we get the chance to be amazed with her. Even moreso, it feels as if she had submerged qualities of herself while living the life of a housewife and Mother, roles she certainly never admonished at any point in either film but even so...there was something missing in her life.

Becoming Elastigirl full time again has allowed Helen Parr to tap into her strength, her bravery, her ingenuity, cleverness and even a certain (safe for PG rated family films) allure as well as levels of risk taking she had to bury once superheroes became illegals and she had to step into her domestic role full time. Now, Helen Parr is fully empowered and through writing and direction of Brad Bird, Holly Hunter's crackerjack performance and the animators, who, at times, somehow make Helen look like Holly Hunter (especially around her mouth), here is where "Incredibles 2" soars.

To that end, beefing up Violet's role in comedy, bravery and maturity elevates the character, Sarah Vowell's terrific performance and the proceedings of the film as a whole. In actuality, with the film's other major and supporting characters, from Edna Mode, Evelyn Deavor and other super-heroic characters that pepper the film, "Incredibles 2" is, without question, a female driven tale, and the result is indeed more than refreshing.

But why couldn't all of the elements of "Incredibles 2" be this refreshing as well? Again, there's nothing bad, per se. Just portions that pulled the film downwards when it should have only continued to rise higher. Yes, Jack-Jack and the discovery of his myriad of new superpowers was funny but for me, a little of that, and the hijinks that ensued, went a long way. The identity of the Screenslayer was painfully obvious, thus diluting any of the film's central mystery and therefore, just making us wait for the inevitable. But worst of all of the treatment of Bob Parr.

I saw this film on Father's Day of all days and it just struck me sadly that Brad Bird, for whatever reason, could not think of anything else but every single, tired, sad cliche of the ding-dong Dad to trot out. Why did Bob Parr have to be yet another buffoon Dad? He can't care for the baby, he doesn't understand his teenage daughter, he can't follow the New Math, ha ha ha...yawn!!! It was all so..."Mr. Mom" (1983) and even then, it was a little worn out. The Parr family and the film deserved so much better.

Well...as far as where Pixar ranks now, I am certain they will not lose any of their luster, at least at the box office. But, still...I hope they find their way back. Back to when every single film they released was an event. Where every single film they released was a treasure, one to love for now and for always. One to grow with over time and continue to cherish and share no matter what age you are. The wizards at Pixar have been cashing checks for far too long, and what makes it all so saddening is that they have long been in the position of not having to just cash checks with beautifully rendered yet inoffensive, uninspired and at times, forgettable works that aren't that designed to be revisited, let alone revered.

Brad Bird's "Incredibles 2" is a one step forward-two steps backwards kind of a film.  It won't hurt Pixar in the least in the short run (i.e. the commerce) but I would imagine for some viewers like myself, it doesn't quite re-ignite that spark that made us love their films in the first place.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

30 FILMS IN 30 DAYS: DAYS 1-10

Dear readers, this new, exclusive series for Savage Cinema began, believe it or not, through experiences shared via Facebook.

Yes indeed, the justly beleaguered social network does also possess some elements that I still find deeply enjoyable about my daily visits to the site. One of which has been this shared series where friends nominate friends to share their favorite albums, books, or movies with each other. Of course, I am unable to just leave well enough alone for this is indeed my wheelhouse and I do just love to share and share. And so, I decided to share 30 favorite movies over a 30 day period, which then inspired me to house everything here on this blogsite as well.

As with all of the content of Savage Cinema, these are solely my opinions based upon my personal tastes, so there is no need or desire for debate. Just the enjoyment of film and the memories that those films have created with me as well as for you.

Here are the first 10!

-Honestly, this is a beautiful film. One that far extends from the television specials and creates a palate that is undoubtedly cinematic. It is a musical, it is educational (I learned all about "I Before E, Except After C" from this movie), and of course, it is funny. But it is the painful pathos of the story--Charlie Brown discovers his strength as an excellent speller and travels to compete in a spelling bee, only to lose in the last moments over the most crushing word: "beagle"--that drives to the core of Schulz's trademark melancholia. It is a film about what it means and feels like to succeed, to fail and to get up once again, dust yourself off and try again.

2. "BREAKING AWAY" (1979)
-I first saw this film at the age of 10 at a friend's birthday party. Siskel & Ebert had already long raved about the film but it was indeed something that felt foreign due to its overall quiet and even fragile, melancholic tone which made me feel throughout the entire film that tragedy was just around the corner and that someone invariably would die. 

And yet, nothing like that happened...perhaps...

This coming-of age film about four newly high school graduate Bloomington, Indiana teenagers, featuring Dennis Christopher as the Italian obsessed, bicycle enthusiast and also starring the exquisitely cast Jackie Earle Haley (from "The Bad News Bears" series), the lanky Daniel Stern, and Dennis Quaid (who made me think that he was Han Solo's slightly younger brother) as his best friends was a summertime ode to the end of childhood with uncertain, rapidly approaching futures for these four young "townies" surrounded in their home city by wealthier college students and the class/existential tensions that ensue.

It was also the film where Paul Dooley portrayed the cantankerous Dad to Christopher, who was often hilarious but on a dime commanded authority. Never will I forget the moment when he puts his son in his place when he proclaims with finality. "You're not a "Cutter." I'm a "Cutter.""

And the sequence where Christopher pedals his bike to 50 miles an hour right alongside a semi with Italian operatic music on the soundtrack remains euphoric.

3."DIVA" (1981)
based upon the novel "Diva" by Delacorta

This was the very first foreign film I ever saw and again, it was entirely due to the rave reviews from Siskel & Ebert that made me want to try a movie experience unlike anything I had even attempted before.

This gorgeously stylish French thriller involves a moped driving postal worker obsessed with an opera singer and who has covertly created a bootlegged cassette of one of her live performances as she is an artist who notoriously refused to have ANY of her performances recorded. His postal bag, which contains the bootlegged tape becomes mixed with another bag, which leads our young hero into a dark underworld of cops, prostitutes, crime rings, and a particularly nasty dark glasses wearing assassin.

It is a film of high style and astounding visual sheen, filled with stunning cinematography, set design and sound and oh man...one of the most visually arresting chases (detectives on foot, the postal worker on his moped and through the Paris metro system) I have ever seen in a film. Honestly, if not for Siskel & Ebert, I woud have never even known about this film, let alone have even seen it. My cinematic education was extended greatly by them and this movie.

4. "48 HRS." (1982)

-Two words: Eddie. Murphy.

To think, not only was this film Murphy's feature film debut, he was ONLY 21 years old at the time and I am hard pressed to think of a debut performance that was so explosive, so profoundly confidant yet supremely hungry. You COULD NOT take your eyes off of him even if you wanted to and why would you anyway as Eddie Murphy indeed was that proverbial lightning in a bottle, who could handle comedy, drama and action with a superior ferocity.

I saw this film opening weekend at the age of 13, just before Christmas time and the entire experience pinned me to my seat! This violent thriller about an angry, alcoholic, "hot dog" San Francisco cop Jack Cates, (Nick Nolte) who reluctantly enlists the aid of convict Reggie Hammond (Eddie Muphy) to track down prison escapee and cop killer Albert Ganz (James Remar) in the ticking clock of 48 hrs was one of Director Walter Hill's very best films as it was an outstanding entry in his filmography of "urban Westerns."

This is an unquestionably electrifying film where the violence is appropriately brutal, the relentlessly vulgar yet compellingly REAL dialogue (complete with all manner of sexual/sexist and what would now be shockingly racist insults and diatribes) pops like firecrackers, Remar's rabid menace made for a GREAT screen villain (despite his minimal screen time) and the white hot chemistry between Nolte and Murphy practically burns the screen.

And then...as the centerpiece is Eddie Murphy's "star is born" sequence set inside of a redneck bar where he verbally annihilates the clientele. To see THAT, and in a predominantly Black movie theater to boot...absolutely UNFORGETTABLE.

To this day, "48 Hrs." remains my favorite Eddie Murphy starring film.

5. "FAME" (1980)

Long before the television show, the reality talent/contest show and even the motion picture re-make, there was this film, a decidedly adult film about a collective of young hopefuls attending High School of the Performing Arts in New York City.

I first saw this film in Chicago's gorgeous McClurg Court theater as a double feature with another film that will appear upon this list in the future. I was probably 11 years old and it remains one of my most favorite film going experiences of my life, not only as a rock musical but as one of the films that ushered me along into considerably more challenging, grittier, darker, tougher material.

"Fame" is so much more than a coming of age film for this band of the young, talented and hungry--from aspiring musicians, dancers, comedians, actors--and the relationships they formulate with their prickly, uncompromising teachers. It is a film, with its episodic narrative that covers the auditions, all four years of high school and the graduation ceremony, where what is celebrated and depicted to a grueling degree is the actual work and training one has to undergo in order to pursue and possibly capture that elusive fame...and that failure just may be more imminent for some of the film's characters

Beyond that, I sat in that theater and was exposed to issues pertaining to illiteracy, homosexuality, inter-racial dating, pornography, alcohol and drug abuse while also witnessing building friendships and character arcs that showcased a level of development that I had not experienced before.

And then, there were the songs themselves...WONDERFUL songs and the finale, with "I Sing The Body Electric" remains one of the most stirring conclusions I have been thrilled to witness.

6. "SIGN O' THE TIMES" (1987)

In honor of what would've been Prince Rogers Nelson's 60th birthday, I turn to one of the best concert films I have ever seen.

While Director Albert Magnoli's "Purple Rain" (1984) will always remain Prince's finest screen offering, "Sign O' The Times" runs an exceedingly close second as it is a scorching document of Prince as a titanic musical artists and visionary the likes of which we will never see again--a fact that still leaves me in awe as well as now makes me tear up a bit when I watch it now knowing that he has passed away.

With a shoestring narrative to connect the live material, Prince and his extraordinary band, which includes the brilliant Eric Leeds on saxophone, Atlanta Bliss on trumpet and the film's two MVPs the acrobatic dancer named Cat and of course, the inimitable Shelia E. on drums, run through the lion's share of his masterpiece double album released earlier the same year on a eye popping stage set designed precisely like the iconic album cover.

It is a film that is often visually and emotionally overwhelming to the finest degrees as it is a nearly orgiastic sea of colors, sights and sounds with Prince at the center of the cyclone showcasing exactly why he was the best as we witnessed him, in seeming effortlessness, as the finest singer, dancer, choreographer, guitarist, keyboardist, drummer, and bandleader on the planet.

I saw this film three times at the long defunct University Square 4 theaters on the UW-Madison campus and trust me, I, and the audience, COULD NOT sit still throughout.
Genuinely, rapturously exhausting!

7. "BRAZIL" (1985)

"That was probably the best film I have seen in the last five years. And I never want to see it again."

My Dad said those words once we left the Biograph theater in Chicago after finally seeing the controversial yet rapturously acclaimed film from Terry Gilliam, who was already riding high due to his surrealistic, satirical animation for Monty Python's Flying Circus and the success of his equally surreal fantasy film "Time Bandits" (1981). Yet, "Brazil" was a wholly different beast of a film and cinematic experience entirely as it was a deep dive into an Orwellian/Kafkaesque abyss of crippling bureaucracy, political savagery, grotesque satire, and debilitating madness.

Gilliam's film, set in a dreary, dystopian society "Somewhere In The 20th Century," depicts the nightmarish odyssey of low-level government employee Sam Lowry (beautifully played by Jonathan Pryce), a mild individual who attempts to survive or escape his life of drudgery via his vivid, reoccurring daydreams starring himself as a winged warrior flying high above the clouds and rescuing a damsel in distress. A mindless yet devastating bureaucratic error (I'll never forget the names of "Buttle" and "Tuttle" ) send Sam into a life altering experience that involves political terrorists (Robert De Niro), duplicitous colleagues (a surprisingly sinister Michael Palin) and an encounter with Jill (Kim Greist), a freedom fighter who strikingly resembles the woman in Sam's dreams.

It is a film of enormously winding suffocating ducts, horrific plastic surgery, bottomless red tape, terrorist bombings, totalitarian government retribution, orchestral dream sequences and a dynamic, horrifying, hallucinatory climax where Gilliam pulled out all of the stops, leading to a shattering conclusion that delivers the brutal truth of what happens to dreamers in a viciously realist society.

Blending elements of 1940's film noir, visionary science fiction, and his trademark absurdist satire, Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" is quite possibly his greatest cinematic achievement to date in a long career that has seen exceedingly original artistic highs AND lows. Yet to see it at the age of 16 and to have my building world view so affected, confirmed, and re-shaped, and my senses altered to the point of being blasted apart, Gilliam was yet another filmmaker who illustrated to often head spinning degrees precisely what the movies could be and how stories could be told...uncompromisingly and unrepentantly.

Two years before John Hughes arrived and change the genre forever, the very first teen film that I honestly loved was this one, a raunchy, hilarious, breezy yet deeply perceptive and brutally honest hard R rated episodic joyride through one year at the titular high school.

While I had not (and would not) experience any of the drug and sex fueled adventures in this film for myself, what impressed me so tremendously, and what made me return to this film over and over again was how real it all felt. I had watched essentially every teen film that was being released at that time--the terrible, stupid entries in the "teen sex" genre, yet THIS one was the one that felt to understand what it was REALLY like to spend day after day in those hallways and classrooms. Credit obviously goes to Cameron Crowe, who famously spent one year posing as a high school senior and wrote the original book on which this film is based.

The authenticity in every moment, even a throwaway shot of a classroom of kids happily sniffing the ink scent of the mimeograph machined paper copies, was paramount and it won me over. Yet Crowe tapped into something deeper and what really is the core of the film: these kids were part of a generation who just did not simply attend school--they had coveted jobs at mall, cars, and adult sexual relationships, all of which were utilized as extensions of social status, yet they were clearly too young to even understand the weight of what they were experiencing. THOSE were the "fast times."

Seeing the school year fall of BMOC Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold), from losing his girlfriend and job (as well as the humiliation of being caught having a masturbatory fantasy by the object of his affection), was palpable even as we laughed. The film's primary love story between shy boy Mark "The Rat" Ratner (Brian Backer) and virginal Freshman (and Brad's little sister) Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as they are respectfully being coached by their older best friends and would be sexual experts, velvet voiced ticket scalper Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) and the stunning, yet unreachable to high school boys Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates), provided high and often shocking comedy--carrot blow jobs in the lunchroom, Damone's humiliation with premature ejaculation--yet, the tension, awkwardness, embarrassment and pain, heavily witnessed in Stacy's abortion and Damone's cowardliness, was right on the money.

It was in the sensitive yet (again) honest direction by Amy Heckerling, in her filmmaking debut, who made this material soar so highly, by being uncompromising in its honesty, and most importantly, to be the rare female in a male dominated genre that was consistently cruel to girls and women, and utilizing the requisite T&A in ways to subvert and provide commentary upon sex, nudity and sexual relationships. With that, she also had the uncanny ability to allow her film to fly by as luxuriously as a seaside California breeze. She ensured that the film's constant soundtrack was perfectly on point, that every performance was golden, and that the dialogue remained endlessly quotable.

And of course, there is no way to forget Sean Penn as the mighty Jeff Spicoli, the stoner surfer always at odds with his uncompromising History teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) as he just wants to have "tasty waves and cool buds" and even some pizza in the classroom. I'm telling you every single teenaged stoner character from Bill & Ted to Wayne & Garth and Beavis & Butthead owe every single one of their moments to the character of Jeff Spicoli.

Based upon the novel by Walter Farley

It is a film I really haven't seen since childhood yet the memories and impressions of it remain large and with so many things in my life, I have to thank my Dad for seeing this one.

Even with the rave reviews from Siskel & Ebert, I really was not that swayed to see it as the subject matter did not quite interest me. But for my Dad, the name "Francis Ford Coppola" was all he needed and so, opening weekend, my family went to the Evergreen Plaza movie theater as we so often did and had a cinematic experience unlike anything I had yet seen. It was truly unforgettable.

Set in 1946, this adaptation of the classic novel stars Kelly Reno as Alec Ramsay, who is traveling with his Father by steamer and is captivated by a wild black stallion caged below deck. After a tragic shipwreck, Alec awakens upon a deserted island with only the horse as the only sign of life from the boat.

What struck me so deeply was how, over the course of what I am remembering may have been an hour of the film's running time, there was no dialogue as the film only consisted of the boy and the horse and the tentative bond the two formed during their period of shared isolation. It was magical. It was mystical. It was primal, elegant, and soul shaping cinema as I was being taught not only of the inexplicable union humans and animals can formulate but how to tell stories on a purely visual level and the effect was mesmerizing and haunting.

Even as I sat viewing the film and the story progressed back to land with Alec and the horse returning home, meeting a retired jockey and race horse trainer played by Mickey Rooney and participating in a horse race, while I was still enormously engaged, I remember sitting there just marveling at how much I loved the more esoteric sections of the film...the the point of wishing that maybe the ENTIRE film had solely been about the boy, the horse and the island.

That said, the overall experience, like all of the very best films, altered my perceptions of what movies could actually be and in the case of "The Black Stallion," it was that movies designed for children could aspire to be artful and not trite, simplistic, or disposable. That children were as deserving of the highest quality of material just as adults and I loved how the filmmakers all adhered to creating a vision that aspired to greatness at all times.

Carroll Ballard's "The Black Stallion" will forever remain the film where, for me, movies became more than just something to watch. Movies could be poetry.

Thanks Dad.


This is quite possibly my favorite film and I celebrate it today as it was released on this date back in 1982.

For me, it is a film of such blinding beauty and poetic perfection that I have only seen it three times in my life--and I even own it--for fear of perhaps, over-watching it and therefore, possibly diminishing its power. It is crystalline to me. It is a jewel.

Steven Spielberg, like George Lucas, had long become a hero to me by this point in his career and once seeing this film, he re-confirmed his status as a cinematic artist who was second to none. I do understand that for some this film may be terribly sentimental, and that's fine. But for me, it is a film of such intense loneliness, for the boy still reeling from his parent's divorce and the alien, separated and accidentally left behind by his kind. Their connection and subsequent friendship moved me in ways I really had not imagined that I could have been moved and even thinking about it at this time, I get those chills--all cynicism washes away and my nerve endings are exposed. Spielberg created an experience of beautiful fragility and resonance, while also crating a companion piece to two other films that just may make this list.

I cannot fully express to those who were not alive at that time the awesome power of this film over the culture but perhaps this will suffice. My cousin Susan saw this film at an advance sneak preview when those events were kind of the norm. She called me afterwards to tell me how much she loved the film but there was another point she felt that she had to make. After seeing "E.T.," she and her date waited to see the main film that had been screening but the response to "E.T." was so euphoric, it was shown again, to which she and her date watched it all over again.

Just piercing in its richness, elegance, compassion and tremendous empathy.

Stay tuned for part 2!

Monday, June 11, 2018

GETHSEMANE: a review of "First Reformed"

Written and Directed by Paul Schrader
**** (four stars)

It feels more than coincidental that after returning home from seeing Writer/Director Paul Schrader's quietly explosive "First Reformed," that I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and came across a headline from USA Today in reference to the recent suicides from both fashion designer Kate Spade and chef/author/television personality Anthony Bourdain. The title read as follows: "Americans Are Depressed And Suicidal Because Something Is Wrong With Our Culture." 

Amen to that.

Dear readers, it is of no secret or revelation to any of you out there that we are living in extraordinarily anxiety ridden times, and without question, the rapid increase entirely due to the reality TV performer currently occupying The White House. The dark side of history is rancorously repeating itself in horrifically dramatic fashion with our nation becoming increasingly isolationist upon the world's stage, and more fascistic and nationalist internally, despite an elevated level of resistance. With our level of discourse breaking down ferociously, we have reached the through-the-looking-glass era of not simply the inexplicable concept of "post-truth," but more tragically, a level of tribalism that really only serves to eliminate any sense of nuance, making conversations irrelevant as everything is placed into an "EITHER/OR" category, completely detonating the complexities of the human experience.

With regards to the topics of religion, morality and spirituality in the 21st century, the tribalism, as far as I am concerned, has been so terribly co-opted and bastardized, that the so-called discussion being had are shamelessly simplistic, so shameful especially when exploring topics that are, by their nature, infinite.

I have long spoken about our cultural sense of spiritual decay upon this blogsite and how the movies have addressed this specific quality of American life but I feel that what Paul Schrader has achieved with his latest film is to force audiences back into having spirited, meaningful, engaged conversations and debates about our place in existence that extends far beyond proclaiming that absolutely anyone who believes in God to being unintelligent or one that has weaponized theology to advance an intolerant agenda.  These are topics too complex to be handled so easily. These are topics to be rigorously wrestled with and Paul Schrader's "First Reformed"  is indeed a film exceedingly worthy of its subject matter as he has unleashed a work of disturbingly wrenching anguish, confusion, frustration, anger, powerful doubt and absolution.

Paul Schrader's "First Reformed" stars Ethan Hawke in one of the finest performances of his entire career as Reverend Ernst Toller, a pastor at a tiny upstate New York parish, once a stop on the Underground Railroad and is a current tourist attraction yet a barely present congregation, that is soon to reach its 250th anniversary and reconsecration ceremony.

Toller, a former military chaplain, is a solitary figure, undergoing a crisis of faith as he continuously wrestles with the demons of his past from his failed marriage, and the death of his son as a soldier in Iraq to his current pressures at maintaining his parish while being seated in the immense shadow of the parent mega-church, Abundant Life with its 5000 person congregation, state of the art facilities, charismatic Pastor Jeffers (a surprisingly excellent dramatic performance by Cedric Kyles, most famously known as Cedric The Entertainer) and shadowy financial backer/petroleum executive (Michael Gaston). In his solitude, Toller takes to alcohol and has diligently committed himself to keeping a handwritten journal over the time span of one year to chronicle all of his epiphanies, doubts, fears, and revelations, making the intense intimacy of the experience akin to a consistent source of prayer.

Amanda Seyfried portrays Mary, a pregnant member of Toller's diminishing congregation who asks the troubled pastor for assistance with counseling her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), a radical environmentalist who strongly feels against the idea of bringing a child into a world he reasons is about to collapse. This fateful meeting brings all of the elements of Toller's world crashing together, leading to a spiritual crisis that may prove to be unrepentantly cataclysmic.

Despite the turbulence of the story and material overall, Paul Schrader's "First Reformed" is a somber, measured, often meditative experience. It is a quiet film, filled with an almost Kubrick-ian stillness yet it is one where that aforementioned turbulence is always simmering under the surface and gradually begins to brood and boil over as if we were regarding a thriller.

In fact, I was often reminded of Writer/Director Darren Aronofsky's theological head spinner horror show "mother!" (2017) and notably, Writer/Director Jeff Nichols' excellent psychological thriller "Take Shelter" (2011), about a man (played by Michael Shannon) who obsessively builds a bomb shelter in his backyard to potentially survive the apocalypse he is certain is forthcoming yet in actuality, he maybe experiencing hereditary schizophrenia. Reverend Toller feels to be cut from a similar cloth as his odyssey showcases a certain descent into spiritual, physical and psychological despair and meltdown as he attempts to reconcile the full purpose of his life and of existence itself in a world where his personal tragedies have occurred and have left him a more isolated individual, ready to keep people at arms length, possibly to shield them from his own spiritual torment.

Essentially, the spiritual conceit and internal struggle of existing within a world that happens to not adhere to one's personal expectations is Paul Schrader's primary theme, most often tackled in collaboration with Martin Scorsese in "Taxi Driver" (1976)," "The Last Temptation Of Christ" (1989) and "Bringing Out The Dead" (1999), all of which Schrader wrote. With "First Reformed," the character of Reverend Toller, and the film as a whole, serves brilliantly as a companion character and piece to figures and themes contained in all three Scorsese films (possibly resembling "Bringing Out The Dead" the most), as the spiritual qualities, from the story and concepts to the religious allegories and symbolism contained throughout, are the engine in which the personal stories are divulged.

Comparisons between Reverend Toller and Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) from "Taxi Driver" have already been made in some reviews of "First Reformed," but again, I tend to think of Toller as being more similar to the insomniac, burnt out, grief stricken ambulance paramedic Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) in "Bringing Out The Dead," a taciturn man in the role of a caretaker, perhaps too sensitive for the mad dog world that surrounds him yet fitfully carries onwards hoping to help and to  heal while desperately attempting to retain his sanity. But then...for that matter, perhaps Toller is not solely similar to Frank Pierce but maybe what if Pierce was unable to keep his wits together and drifted into madness a la Bickle?

Yes...that's it! This is the mental, emotional and spiritual plane where Toller lives, one where personal and global conflicts and tragedies dare to clash against his personal belief system as Pastor, making his allegiance to his faith worth fighting for...even when his health, sanity and humanity are compromised. 

It would not be any stretch to take in the Biblical allegory contained in the characters of the young married couple that prove to be the ultimate catalyst for Reverend Toller's story and conflict. Who else is the pregnant Mary but a reference to Mother Mary herself? And therefore, who else is the eco-warrior Michael but a Earthly version of the archangel, the protector and leader of the forces of good against evil? Their allegorical roles are purposeful, lending "First Reformed" an element of the surreal (especially within one bizarre sequence late in the film as well as its ambiguous ending moments) that works powerfully alongside the tangible, ultimately making Reverend Toller's slow unraveling provocatively urgent, palpable and understandable.

Ethan Hawke's performance is masterful and unprecedented for him as I simply do not recall a time when he has dug this deeply as well as created a character so unlike what we tend to expect from him. Reverend Toller certainly carries the same level of fierce intelligence and spirited, fervent philosophical qualities as Hawke's celebrated past characters from Director Peter Weir's "Dead Poet's Society" (1989) to most certainly, several of his collaborations with Writer/Director Richard Linklater from his one sequence in the animated dream state of "Waking Life" (2001), to the extended works in "Boyhood" (2014) and the romantic trilogy of "Before Sunrise" (1995), "Before Sunset" (2004) and "Before Midnight" (2013).

In those features, Hawke portrayed characters, right or wrong, who displayed a full command of their respective levels of intellect as well as a strict connection to their worldviews. But with his work in "First Reformed," we see a Ethan Hawke character whose intellect, worldview and overall faith in himself and his established belief system is challenged to the point where everything he believes can potentially fail him and the effect is gradually crippling. In doing so, Hawke's performance is one where all of his standard mannerisms have been extinguished leaving him a compelling study of coiled tension, as he feverishly tries to keep himself together as his interior anguish overtakes him.

Where the philosophical conversation and debate between Toller and Michael early in the film invigorates him, Ethan Hawke, through a careful, steady, nearly minimalist unveiling, delivers a performance where he is rigorously wrestling with his faith and reason in an environment, both local and global, that may no longer have interest or use in someone like him. And it is that precise level of societal spiritual decay that confounds him and leads him into an existential crisis that propels him down a path he may have never conceptualized that he would ever embark upon in the first place.

Reverend Toller is a character looking out into the world and wondering aloud what has happened to us as a species. What have we become? How can we claim at all to be children of God if we treat his Kingdom with such vulgar disregard? And even then, is it possibly God's plan to destroy His own creation and if it is, then what is Toller's purpose at all in this world?  The answers he provides for himself are chilling to say the least and Ethan Hawke meets each moment with superb authenticity, authority and audacity and I seriously hope that he is remembered during awards season.

Paul Schrader's "First Reformed" not a histrionic experience whatsoever. This is decidedly NOT a "fire and brimstone" kind of film. I wish for you to think of what Schrader has achieved as being akin to a sermon--albeit an intensely solemn, disquieting sermon that if fully designed for audiences to become engaged with, to discuss and debate, to get angry with and to even be confused by. Schrader knows fully well that there are no easy answers to be had in a film like this one and how wonderful it is to have a filmmaker of his pedigree in our sequel/comic book/special effects driven cinematic era who feels that it is imperative to create a work that speaks directly to the current, turbulent pulse of modern society.

And how refreshing and oddly comforting it is to have a film such as this, struggling right along with us.