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.

Saturday, June 2, 2018


And the Summer Movie season continues...

For quite some time, I have not taken in the latest offerings from Pixar as I just have not been terribly interested in their output in recent years, so much so that I never even gave the critically acclaimed hit "Coco" (2017) a chance. Such as it is when you lose your trust due to a steady stream of unimaginative lunchbox movies.

Even so, there's no way that I could conceivably stay away from Brad Bird's "Incredibles 2" as the previous installment was undoubtedly one of Pixar's finest, and honestly one of the very few in their filmography that could truly lend itself to having a sequel in the first place. Here's hoping that Bird can deliver the goods.

In addition to that film, I am also hoping to screen the following selections... 

Director Martin Neville's documentary about the life and philosophy of Fred Rogers, the kind souled creator of PBS' "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" has been earning rave reviews ever since its journey on the festival circuit at the start of this year. As Rogers was a staple and essential figure of my own childhood, seeing this film is an imperative. 

I knew nothing about this film until perhaps two days ago when I stumbled upon a trailer...and after those two minutes, I was hooked and was ready to purchase a ticket. "Hearts Beat Loud," Co-Writer/Director Brett Haley's film about a Father/daughter songwriting team, already received its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and now that it is being fully released to the world, here is hoping it is as wonderful as the trailer suggests.

And then...there is Writer/Director Ari Aster's debut feature, "Hereditary," a new horror film that also received its first screenings at the Sundance Film Festival as well as rave reviews and already, some Oscar buzz. Even so...it does indeed look to be unspeakably terrifying and you know me and horror films. Hey, I haven't even see "A Quiet Place" yet as I felt I just might be too worked over in the theater. So...we'll see about this one. 

With that, my cinematic hopes and dreams for the month are all set. So, as always please do wish me the best of luck and good health and I'll see you when the house lights go down!