Monday, July 30, 2018

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!!: a review of "Mission: Impossible-Fallout"

Based upon the television series created by Bruce Geller
Written and Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
**** (four stars)

I just cannot believe it! I saw it with my very own eyes and I still cannot believe it!!

Dear readers, for all of the Summer movies in recent years that you and I have all seen, for all of the bombast--CGI or otherwise--and for all of the sound and fury that shakes the walls of or local cineplexes, how many of those films are ones that are truly memorable, let alone ones you would salivate over to see again? The very films of the type that feel like the ones of say 30-40 years ago, where filmmakers consistently took the task of creating exciting, thrilling, and even revolutionary forms of sheer popcorn entertainment seriously. Regardless of any behind the scenes Hollywood business shenanigans, when Summer arrived, it is always a joy to be filled with a level of anxious anticipation for the latest cinematic event, and more often than not, we were all rewarded with movies that exceeded all expectations and even changed the game at times.

Now, we have more than enough "event movies" but too few that are really of any consequence as we are given the latest CGI bludgeoning that feels to exist to simply shatter box office records rather than give the audience an experience to remember. It all feels so cynical, so mercenary, so impersonal that it is clear that so many films being made are being created by those who feel the audience exists as nothing but product and not as people deserving of great entertainment.   

Thankfully, we still have Tom Cruise.

For whatever reasons, it is clear that whatever attracted him to making movies in the first place remains the hotly pumping engine that fuels his continuity, which often feels simultaneously feverish and devotional. For all of his larger than life celebrity and tabloid controversies, I d feel that it has often been lost just what a kinetic, magnetic movie star and first class actor he actually is. Even when a film in which he is involved turns out to not be terribly successful or is even a bad film, I would dare absolutely anyone to question his commitment as Tom Cruise has not ever once displayed anything that could be considered "phoned in" or lazy. Frankly, I believe that one could easily discern just how much he deeply cares for his own craft as well as doing his finest work to try and ensure a great time at the movies for all of us.

With his "Mission: Impossible" series, which he rebooted from the classic television series beginning with Brian DePalma's "Mission: Impossible" (1996), Tom Cruise has taken his signature franchise and has essentially achieved the seemingly impossible...again and again and again. While DePalma's film and John Woo's "Mission: Impossible 2" (2000) were loads of fun, it was when Cruise teamed up with J.J. Abrams for "Mission: Impossible III" (2006), when the series truly shifted into a higher gear altogether as that excellent film was topped by Brad Bird's "Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol" (2011) and topped even further in the series' fifth chapter, Christopher McQuarrie's "Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation" (2015).

And now, with McQuarrie's "Mission: Impossible-Fallout," Tom Cruise has achieved the seemingly impossible again as this sixth installment is far and away the very best of the series to date and furthermore, I feel it has raised the series bar to the heights set by the likes of Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" (2008) and Sam Mendes' "Skyfall" (2012), which for me, remains the finest  James Bond adventure I have ever seen. Speaking of 007, and for that matter, Jason Bourne, I think it just may be time for both of them to just come in from the cold as Cruise's super-spy Ethan Hunt has outpaced both of them furiously, tirelessly and relentlessly. There truly is no reason for any film series--especially in its sixth installment--to be any good at all. But "Mission: Impossible-Fallout" has completely, entirely and undeniably accomplished its mission and then some.

Essentially working as a more direct sequel than past installments, "Mission: Impossible-Fallout" picks up two years after Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his IMF team--Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames)--plus the superior additional aid of former MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca  Ferguson) apprehended anarchist/terrorist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). Since that time, the remains of Lane's organization The Syndicate have splintered and formulated a new organization of terrorist cells known as The Apostles, who have planned to sell three plutonium cores to the mysterious fundamentalist John Lark, who, of course, plans to create three nuclear devices.

Hunt and his IMF team go on the globetrotting chase--from Berlin to Paris to London and finally, Kashmir--alongside an unwanted guest, CIA operative August Walker (Henry Cavill) who has been instructed by CIA Director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) to serve as a shadow for Hunt. And then, there is the surprising return of Ilsa Faust, yet whose side is she working for?

While the race against time plot is simple enough to explain and furthermore to understand as you watch, it is in the execution where Christopher McQuarrie's "Mission: Impossible-Fallout" finds its complexities as well as its gravity. With this film, McQuarrie, the only director to helm two installments in this series, takes the opportunity to delve into Ethan Hunt's backstory and psychology, therefore giving this film a greater, more personal purpose and urgency to superior effect.

And "superior" is indeed the perfect adjective that I can use in order to describe the experience that s "Mission: Impossible-Fallout." It is indeed a superior effort as well as superlative, outstanding and formidable. As previously stated,  both James Bond and Jason Bourne are left far behind in the dust as this new Ethan Hunt adventure is the type of first rate, top tier and defiantly non special effects/CGI driven entertainment that is rarely seen anymore.

I wish for you to think of all of the times you have gone to the movies in recent years and just remember the last time you were truly awed by the spectacle upon display. The times when your eyes absolutely POPPED with wonder, amazement and that "How did they do that????" sense of awe. Yes, we do still have those films but in an age where special effects are not that special anymore as they have become so commonplace that we see them everywhere, even in the most innocuous television commercials, they have lost considerable luster. Even the nature of stunts and action sequences have lost their nature to keep our pulse rates pounding due to sloppy direction, poor choreography, through ADD editing and for quite some time, the dreaded shaky cam (a trend that has thankfully subsided).

"Mission: Impossible-Fallout" suffers not even one of those specific fates as McQuarrie, Cruise and working with their expert team have delivered a sleek, beautifully orchestrated experience that more than gets the job done with several "How did they do that?????" sequences. But it is all not simply razzle dazzle. I loved how McQuarrie figured out how to not solely make great action sequences as he accomplished brilliantly within "Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation." This time around, he has deduced how to make those on a more character and story driven level so we are still learning about the characters even as we are sitting upon the edges of our seats.

To that end, McQuarrie achieved the same feats that he performed so successfully in "Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation" as well as his other Tom Cruise starring action thriller, "Jack Reacher" (2012) as he utilizes the mayhem to allow the story to keep being told visually, unlike most action films in which the movies seem to halt for a fight/shootout/chase sequence. For McQuarrie, every element is a proponent of the crucial storytelling.

From its intense opening sequence to its often gasp inducing, furiously white knuckle climax and everything in between--from HALO jumps through lightning stricken clouds, an exhausting motorcycle chase through Paris, a punishing fist fight in a nightclub Men's Room, for instance--the strict attention to the motivations, obstacles, inner fears and demons and the severely raised stakes for all of the characters involved, thus making a film where you give a damn about the individuals involved and the various predicaments they are engaged with.

I also greatly appreciated how McQuarrie utilized this film to thread backwards to elements of the past five films, all the while allowing us some crucial bread crumbs into the character of Ethan Hunt and what precisely makes him tick, what makes him risk life and limb again and again as he consistently chooses to accept each mission when others would have long walked away. And why is it so paramount to him that saving EVERY life is greater than the "greater good" when dealing with...ahem...impossible global situations?

Truthfully, like Bond and Bourne, Ethan Hunt is essentially an enigmatic sort of character as we have never learned terribly much about him over these 20 plus years, Yet, with this series, it strongly feels like all we need to discern about him is entirely through his actions and intrepid, dogged (and some would say, damn foolish) determination rather than through a lot of superfluous expository dialogue--although late in this film, Luther has a lovely monologue that does provide some well deserved texture.

To that end, it is amazing and perhaps, intentional that the character of Ethan Hunt carries many of the same attributes as his portrayer Tom Cruise. As with Hunt, we really do not know, and frankly, have never really known terribly much about Tom Cruise aside from what has been reported and alluded to in entertainment magazines and tabloids. He is a figure for whom we really do not understand precisely what makes him tick, especially for these movies in which he has risked his life for the sake of our entertainment and the process of making potentially great movies.

Why does Tom Cruise do what he does? I mean--honestly. Why? Really...why? It's only a movie. And he's not getting any younger! In the grand scheme, it is not important whatsoever but over and again through the years, and even now as he performed a High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) jump from an airplane (a process that he performed 100 times in order to obtain the three shots needed for the film and without the aid of a green screen), for instance, I have regarded him in interviews with a blindingly gleeful expression that exudes, "I can't wait for an audience to see this!!!"

And with that, there is that peerless, unstoppable level of commitment that is Tom Cruise and how he brings that idiosyncratic quality to all of his movies, especially with what has now become his signature series. He is having an absolute blast of a time making the impossible possible and we get to have that theater seat to regard him in his glory certainly, but more generously, for the film and the audience overall.

I also liked how he even weaved potential self-reflexive elements into the film, as in commenting upon his age (his aches, pains and groans) to even within some of the high octane action sequences themselves--most notably, the climactic helicopter battle, during which Hunt coaches himself in how to fly the chopper, itself a funny commentary about Cruise's past film roles, because really...Maverick from Tony Scott's "Top  Gun" (1986) doesn't know how to fly a helicopter?

This is the inexplicable magic that surrounds Tom Cruise and the "Mission: Impossible" series, a love for the movies so pure that he is willing to undergo all manner of stunts and pain in order to give us a film to remember during a time when so many movies are not even worth remembering. And now, with Christopher McQuarrie's astounding  "Mission: Impossible-Fallout," we have been given a film that makes us believe the wholly unbelievable, even when we are seeing everything unfold right before our very eyes.


Sometimes, sequels can be fun!

At this time, I would like to unveil the first part of my second set of 30 favorite movies in 30 days special feature for you. As with the first three part batch, I am trying to only feature films that I have not already written about at length upon this blogsite to simply offer some variety and to also give you a peek into which films have shaped my life throughout my life.

And so, here we go again!

For years I have wondered if John Cusack ever felt as if he was owed some sense of creative restitution.

"Grosse Point Blank," starring John Cusack as Martin Q. Blank, a hitman undergoing an existential crisis who returns to his hometown of the wealthy Michigan suburb of Grosse Pointe to attend his 10th high school reunion and possibly earn redemption from the girl he mysteriously abandoned on prom night (a wonderful Minnie Driver) to enlist in the army, was indeed the very first time I ever experienced the concept of an assassin struggling with depression and undergoing therapy sessions.

This film pre-dates "The Sopranos" (1999-2007) as well as Harold Ramis' "Analyze This" (1999) and "Analyze That" (2002), and while I cannot be certain if Cusack and his co-horts arrived at the concept first, it was an ingenious one as it gave me a film that was entirely fresh and utilizing this unique conceit to brilliantly explore that palpable anxiety of what just may be that very first reunion since graduating from high school, as we take stock of our lives and internally struggle with who we once were in comparison to what we have become and will we be judged by the peers we grew up with.

Throughout this film, we often hear Martin Blank utter the words, "It's not me," conveying a different meaning each time it is uttered while also presenting a certain detachment he wishes to create between his actions and the truth of himself, as he is slowly re-discovering with the aid of his admittedly fearful therapist Dr. Oatman (the great Alan Arkin) in scenes that just crackle with comedy and tension. That very tension extends itself to the fullness of his return home as he realizes that he has grown more disconnected to his past, and therefore himself, than he could have imagined with his Father now dead, his mentally unstable Mother in an assisted living facility and the home he grew up in now a convenience 7-11 type store via a real estate deal brokered by childhood buddy Paul Spericki (a crackerjack Jeremy Piven).

Congeal all of this material with the violence of his post high school life, we arrive at the expertly staged high school reunion sequence during which Martin has a moment holding a classmate's new baby. As the strains of Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure" blares in the background, Martin stares quizzically at this baby who stares right back at him, and their wordless exchange, possibly signifying Martin's search for his long abandoned innocence or wondering just how one can grow from that blank slate to the homicidal tendencies afflicted young man he has become, "Grosse Point Blank" has truly ascended into a film that is explicitly one-of-a-kind.

As for the girl he left behind, the now radio DJ Debi Newberry, who specializes in the alternative music she and her classmates grew up with, has her own conflicting issues from the past and present to deal with once Martin returns and the chemistry Minnie Driver establishes with Cusack throughout is electric, making them a couple to root for.

As directed with a terrific snap and spark by George Armitage, the film is exceedingly witty, intelligent and absurd as its rapid fire dialogue, social/political satire (as evidenced by Dan Aykroyd's fast talking, psychotic performance as Martin's rival assassin), explosive violence (Cusack's high school hallway fight sequence during the reunion is especially brutal and beautifully choreographed), truly lovely romantic comedy, exquisite soundtrack and pitch perfect generational perceptiveness, made "Grosse Point Blank" not only one of the very best films of the 1990's but one that has only continued to endure strongly.

Incidentally, I saw this film on opening day when I was 28 years old and I kid you not, when I returned home from the film, what should be awaiting me in my mailbox but an invitation to my own 10th high school reunion--a prospect that, I have to admit, terrified me. Thankfully, and with my cherished friend Kristy at my side, we went...and it was surprisingly warm, with all anxiety quickly fading away.

I like to think that there was no cosmic accident that this film arrived in my life when it did. In fact, I like to think that it actually helped.

Spike Lee's fifth "Joint" was also one of his most incendiary and most misunderstood projects, even to this day.

First of all, the film, despite its brilliant title, a colloquialism describing inter-racial relationships, was NOT an indictment of ALL inter-racial relationships. It was an admonition of relationships that are solely based in racial curiosity and mythology and having nothing to do with anyone's content of character.

The film's story of Harlem architect Flipper Purify (an outstanding Wesley Snipes) who begins a doomed affair with his Bensonhurt based Italian-American temp secretary Angie Tucci (an equally wonderful Annabella Sciorra) was the hook but what Lee truly had up his sleeve was an impassioned outcry against the destruction of African-American communities due to the crack epidemic, and how these two situations are juxtaposed against each other in terms of the respective sense of outrage within both Black and White communities. Critics have long complained that Lee's films are over-stuffed with ideas. I feel that Lee's films are meticulously layered and for a film like "Jungle Fever," repeated viewing are essential to tracking all of the conceptual threads.

Just regard the characters' reactions to race as opposed to drug abuse. Throughout the film, we are witness to families being torn apart--Angie is beaten within an inch of her life and thrown out of her house by her own Father once her relationship with Flipper is revealed while Flipper's wife Drew (an explosive Lonette McKee) holds a "war council" of Black women in her living room (itself a scene unlike anything you will see in the movies) after ejecting her philandering husband from the home.
Another relationship that is shown as a counterpoint to Flipper and Angie is the one starring Angie's tender yet strong hearted ex-boyfriend Paulie (John Tuturro) and the crush he houses upon African-American businesswoman Orin Goode (Tyra Ferrel)--a relationship in which he would withstand the relentless teasing and physical violence brutally inflicted upon him by his Italian friends just to have a date with her. THAT relationship Lee implies, is pure and therefore will endure but for Flipper and Angie, there is nothing but sorrow.

And even then, the layers of intentions within Flipper and Angie are complex. Yes, Flipper may be curious about being with a White woman but for Angie, Flipper represents a way out of her dead end life in servitude to her Father and brothers...and in the end, she just may really have fallen in love with him. But by then, it is all too late, as people's reactions, obsessions and fury tear them apart.
Meanwhile, there is Flipper's brother Gator (a breakthrough Samuel L. Jackson), a crack addict and it is HIS storyline, which includes a bravura seven minute length sequence set to Stevie Wonder's "Living For The City," in which Flipper tracks him down into the voluminous crack den known as the Taj Mahal and then, his final, fatal confrontation with their parents, the Good Reverend Doctor (the late Ossie Davis) and his wife Lucinda (the late Ruby Dee), where Spike Lee proclaims is where we should REALLY direct our collective ire.

As people are riveted and distracted by color, the true destruction lies in the very thing that is given offhanded remarks and exceedingly less attention throughout. And it all culminates in the film's devastating final shot, which is Flipper's fever dream howl into the abyss. It is a film that left me shaken to the core and accented beautifully by Steve Wonder's "Feeding Off The Love Of The Land," his finest song since his 1970's winning streak.

Unforgettable and wrenching.

A superbly mesmerizing film of deeply haunting poetry, existentialism, philosophy, graceful violence and wry social commentary of the real and imagined worlds of gangsters and samurai warriors.

This wholly unique film would be completely one-of-a-kind if it had emerged from the cinematic mind of Jim Jarmusch...yet, as I still think about this film, it feels to be the very type that could have ONLY emerged from Jarmusch. Utilizing his trademark meandering and minimalist style, Jarmusch weaves a hypnotic spell with his tale of Ghost Dog (a tremendous Forest Whittaker), a New Jersey hitman who works as a retainer for a local mobster and views himself as a samurai warrior, religiously adhering to the "Hagakure," a spiritual guide book.

While the film's gangster plot finds Ghost Dog as a marked man by the Mafia. we view what could have been a cliche ridden experience through the completely innovative, unconventional and unpredictable viewpoint of Jarmusch who delivers an anti-hero who just may be mentally ill. communicates his business dealings solely through homing pigeons, is indeed a ruthless assassin and for the finest sequences in the film, the friendships he builds and holds with a French speaking ice cream man (Isaach De Bankole) and Pearline (Camille Winbush), a girl to whom he loans the book "Roshomon," relationships that signify the poignant truth of how we are sometimes able to completely understand when we have no idea of how to understand.

Fueled by a gritty and succulent score by The RZA of Wu-Tang Clan, "Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai," with its dream-like aesthetic merged with its hard nosed streetwise brutality allowed Jim Jarmusch to create a mobster/Japanese swordsman hybrid that truly insinuates itself underneath your skin with a meditative luxuriousness that remains unchallenged to this day.

"DIE HARD" (1988)
Based upon the novel "Nothing Lasts Forever" by Roderick Thorp
When this film was first released--actually 30 years ago to this very day (July 15, 1988 to be exact)--I wanted nothing to do with it and it had everything to do with Bruce Willis.

In 1988, I really could not stand Bruce Willis. I was not a fan of him on television's "Moonlighting" and please do not get me started on his...ahem..."singing" career. But mostly, those first trailers and commercial made the film look as if it was going to be yet another self-serious Right Wing fantasy film of the sort that was horrifically prevalent during the 1980's (and without the high comical self-awareness of what Arnold Schwarzenegger was releasing). Yet, the reviews were generally good...good enough to sway me to see it one evening at Chicago's McClurg Court theater, and I was skeptical all the way in. How thrilled I was t be proven dramatically wrong.

John McTiernan's "Die Hard" remains one of the best action thrillers I have ever seen due to its commitment to character, story, performances and sensational cinematography over an endless barrage of mindless violence. And to my surprise, Bruce Willis as John McClaine, the everyman cop thrust into the extraordinary situation of those nasty Eastern European terrorists attempting a grand heist as they hold hostages--including McClaine's estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia)--inside of the Los Angeles skyscraper Nakatomi Plaza was just fantastic in the role.

Bruce Willis combined a working class stiff charm, street smarts, dry wit and an impressively non-superheroic quality that made the wild situations, fights, shootouts and rooftop explosions remained grounded as John McClaine was a hero who was vulnerable, frightened, and easily wounded (him being barefoot was a masterstroke and that shot of choosing hacked up feet on broken glass or certain death was a great moment). Add to that the brilliant relationship he created with Reginald VelJohnson as police Sgt. Al Powell, the one man on the outside of the building working in solidarity via walkie talkie.

And I would be remiss if I did not pay homage to the late, great Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, one of the movies' finest screen villains, a self described "exceptional thief" and then some, whose sinister style and charm made him seem like a python in human form, meticulously waiting for the precise moment to strike yet always the deadliest man in the room.

The action was relentlessly intense, supremely well staged and choreographed and filled with jump-out-your-seat-and applaud moments that makes summer movies great art as far as I am concerned. John McTeirnan's "Die Hard" is indeed a grand slam of a film that STILL holds up to this day.


Based upon characters created by George Lucas, Gloria Katz & William Huyck
Sometimes favorite movies can be the very films that really aren't that successful.

In this case, I turn to "More American Graffiti," the sequel to George Lucas' timeless, iconic and yes, innovative "American Graffiti" (1973). I first saw the film on television as a child, possibly on the NBC Monday night movie or something like that. Now with my inexplicable fascination with the events of the later 1960's, the movie was a draw for me and I was riveted to the screen from beginning to end (and even with the commercials) and especially remaining gobsmacked as I sat through all of the end credits which featured Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone"--incidentally, the very first time I had even heard of Dylan (I had to ask my Dad once I could get words out of my mouth..."What IS this?" I asked. "That's Bob Dylan!" he answered)

Now time has proven that this sequel is a far inferior film to Lucas' original. But it was no mere nostalgia trip as it took the innovations of the original film (the wall-to-wall soundtrack and moreso, the cross-cutting of multiple storylines and characters) and extended far beyond them, weaving a tapestry unlike anything I have seen in a film either before or since.

Utilizing the original film's jarring and even tragic epilogue as a base, B.W.L. Norton's "More American Graffiti" updates the stories of nearly all of the film's characters (Richard Dreyfuss sat this film out) on four consecutive New Year's Eves from 1964-1967, crosscutting between all of the years, making the film appear as if everything is occurring simultaneously when they were actually not. Yes, the wall-to-wall soundtrack and the voice of Wolfman Jack return as well but visually is where the film standouts supremely. To avoid any such confusion about time lines and such, each New Year's Eve is given a distinctive cinematic look.

So, Paul LeMat's drag racing John Milner and his sweet flirtation with a Swedish girl is featured in a sun drenched California tone, which is a great juxtaposition to a fact that the audience knows that he does not--this is the last day of his life. The nerdy Toad (Charles Martin Smith) and his misadventures in Vietnam (which includes the faking of his own death so he can desert) is filmed in a handheld newsreel footage style. The characters played by Ron Howard and Cindy Williams, now a miserable married couple, as Howard's boorish husband in unable to adjust to Williams' growing independence as a woman and how they each find themselves caught up in a wild campus protest is filmed in a more traditional style. And most audaciously, we have Candy Clark, now a San Francisco hippie and her adventures which is filmed in a glorious triple split screen evoking what we saw in Michael Wadleigh's brilliant "Woodstock" (1970) documentary.

As I said, I was mesmerized as a child and every time I have seen it since, even with its flaws (some underdeveloped characters and some flat moments here and there), I remain mesmerized as it is indeed a film of terrific energy augmented by high, forward thinking cinematic style from B.W.L. Norton, who was handpicked by George Lucas to create this film (although apparently Lucas was extremely hands-on as he edited the screenplay, the final film and even shot some of the Vietnam footage himself).

Kaleidoscopic, heartfelt, and again, extremely innovative, I still stand by B.W.L. Norton's "More American Graffiti" as a landmark movie experience in my life.

"JFK" (1991)
"We're through the long glass here, people. White is Black and Black is White."
-Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner)

It felt to be more than appropriate to feature this specific film at this specific time in our collective national and even world history as we have just experienced the sound and vision of the current President of the United States openly denouncing the country he has been elected to lead in favor of appeasing a national foe. It would be unthinkable but for this particular President, the unthinkable has become a new "through the looking glass" reality every single day. The longer it continues, we will only have ourselves to blame and yet, in some ways, we have already found ourselves in similar spots.

Oliver Stone's gargantuan "JFK," which follows the pursuit by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner in one of his finest performances) for the truth concerning the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. In a mammoth three hour film that is part detective story, part political thriller and part hallucinogenic fever dream, Stone, with his all star cast and cinematic wizardry that meticulously blends a variety of film stocks, B&W and color and jaw dropping editing, weaves a hypnotic, kaleidoscopic vision that places us in the maelstrom of political conspiracies within political conspiracies and the effect was exhilarating, exhausting and electrifying filmmaking and storytelling.

Yes, and despite the large box office success and industry awards, Oliver Stone took a beating with this film as historians charged him with grossly negligent historical discrepancies, charges I have long felt to be completely unfair due to the story he was telling and the message he was so passionately trying to convey.

For me, "JFK" is not designed to be a documentary or even necessarily a docudrama. This film is truly an impressionistic painting of Stone's own viewpoint of that specific period and what it meant and still means to him. And in doing so, Stone is essentially using his film to scream from a self-made pulpit, exclaiming that he does not believe the official Warren Commission report that claims that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and if there are those who feel the same, then we, as Americans, owe it to ourselves and our country to search for the truth.

Because, as I look at this piece of or nation's history and the preposterous of the Warren Commission report (really.."magic bullet," anyone?), I felt that Oliver Stone offered a provocative quandary for everyone watching the film, especially Americans. Enduring the assassination of a President is of course unthinkable. But how about enduring your own government conspiring against the very people who elected them to become public servants? When faced with the easy, identifiable monster (in this case, Oswald) against something that feels to be unfathomable and not tangible (a massive conspiracy by your nation's government), what would you believe? Or in this case, what have generations of Americans chosen to believe? Or better yet, what is EASIER to believe?

For that, combined with a Herculean filmmaking aesthetic, Oliver Stone's "JFK" is a masterful, titanic achievement.

As I like to tell my younger friends, I am old enough to remember a time in which there was no such thing as "Ghostbusters." And once it entered the world, it was AWESOME!!!

Released in the summer of 1984 when I was 15 years old, Ivan Reitman's "Ghostbusters" was the cinematic surprise I do not think that nearly anyone was ready for but was resoundingly embraced as it really is a near perfect film as well as being the full culmination of the OG "Saturday Night Live " movies, which began with John Landis' "National Lampoon's Animal House" (1978) and "The Blues Brothers" (1980) and continued with Harold Ramis' "Caddyshack" (1980) and Reitman's "Meatballs" (1979) and "Stripes" (1981).

Honestly, WHO KNEW that a big budget, special effects heavy comedy with elements of horror and starring that peerless wiseacre Bill Murray alongside his co-horts Dan Aykroyd and the late Harold Ramis would really amount to much. Even for me, who worshiped these comedic heroes, I had no clue as to what would be unleashed. The stars were in absolutely astonishing alignment as the final results were undeniably magical, so magical that even all of the main principals have really been unable to recapture what they harnessed in this original film ever again.

And really, in some ways, it really should not have worked at all. A story in which it is established that the paranormal and metaphysical are real and tangible and the scares are honest while having all manner of Tom Foolery at the core, striking that extremely tricky balance of having a laugh at the spooks and specters while also establishing the ghosts as real malevolent threats. To Murray's endless stream of brilliant and often ad-libbed one-liners flowing freely through a film where the apocalypse via a giant Marshmallow Man is imminent and with an insanely catchy theme song to boot?

"Ghostbusters" gave the world something so unique, so inventive, so out of the box and so downright joyous in its madhouse glee that all we could do was to be swept away by the cheerful audacity of the experience. And now, we are able to see this film as being fully representative of a time in which originality and creative risks were more embraced by Hollywood.

It may seem silly to those who just weren't there during its original release but "Ghostbusters" was just a beautiful time at the movies, where the level of entertainment could send you over the moon...laughing hysterically all the way.

So, what is life but a morass of bodily functions...and fish.

Unlike the universally beloved "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975) and what is considered to the very best Python effort with "Monty Python's Life Of Brian" (1979), the final film from Monty Python's Flying Circus is not nearly as adored but I do believe it was the most audacious, riskiest, innovative, inventive, nastiest, most surreal and possibly, the most faithful Python effort as it returned to the sketch format of their iconic television series to an often uproarious (and sometimes stomach churning) effect.

Accompanied by Terry Gilliam's bizarre, brilliant short feature "The Crimson Permanent Assurance," which actually invades the main feature at one point, "Monty Python's The Meaning Of Life" is a series of sequences that are loosely structured by the film's titular theme which explores existence from birth to death with episodes devotes to war, sex, extravagant musical sequences, live organ transplants, disgusting amounts of gluttony, surrealist animated sequences, death inducing dinner parties (beware the dreaded salmon mousse), Heaven as conceived as a garish Las Vegas showcase, the anarchistic breaking of the fourth wall and other oddities that defy classification ("fishy, fishy,") yet congeal into an experience that has remained unforgettable.

By straddling the hilarious, the philosophical and the extremely profane, it is a film that may even deter Python devotees, let alone novices. I remember my Dad being decidedly confused and even alarmed by the film. "These British!!! They just take everything too far. I mean---WHY is any of this even funny?" he exclaimed after walking out from the Ford City movie theater.

And I could easily understand. Remember those bodily function? The Python's truly conceived of a quite grisly, messy film indeed as their vision of the life experience was a bounty of sperm, blood and vomit, so much so, that even I shielded my eyes during the horrific Mr. Creosote restaurant scene (even as I laughed myself sick). "Well..." I began in my best 14 year old budding Siskel & Ebert film enthusiast, "I think that everything is SO extreme and SO absurd that the ONLY reaction is laughter."

My Mom, however, had a completely different and entirely surprising reaction, especially as I figured she hated the entire thing from end to end. "I thought it was quite poignant."

And yes, it was.

Despite the brutal satire of a piece like "Every Sperm Is Sacred" and the puerile charm of "The Penis Song," we are also given what just may be Eric Idle's finest musical composition, "The Galaxy Song," an absolute marvel that deftly explains the Science and mysticism of the universe and existence itself in under three minutes. Additionally, the mayhem gives pause to a lovely animated moment in which a tree in autumn loses its leaves, each one falling to the ground while wailing a final cry before reaching the ground. Somehow, someway, a film this purposefully disjointed is richly, beautifully connected, allowing us to think about the course of our lives, and despite any interpersonal, cultural, racial and sexual differences, the existential trajectories are so very much the same.

Shortly before the release of the film, I saw a profile of the six man troupe on an episode of "20/20." As I watched, there was a portion in which the educational backgrounds of the Pythons were discussed--revealing that these were distinctly serious learned individuals. My Mom, who was grading homework at the time, looked up and said, "Well, that explains it. Those people have to be GENIUSES in order to be that ridiculous!"


"Monty Python's The Meaning Of Life" in unrepentant and unapologetic in the finest fashions and remains a testament to the superior talents of these peerless satirists, writers, and actors, all of whom were crucial in shaping my sense of humor but a certain altered yet perceptive way of viewing the world...bodily functions and all.

On the afternoon of July 3, 1985, I believed that I held the greatest secret in the world. Yet shortly thereafter, the world knew.

Yes indeed, on that summer's afternoon when I was 16 years old, I ventured to the Ford City movie theater to take in a screening of "Back To The Future," the latest production from Steven Spielberg and the follow-up directorial feature from Robert Zemeckis, who had previously helmed "Romancing The Stone" (1984). It was a film I really knew nothing about going into it other than Spielberg's pedigree and the fact that my man Michael J. Fox, who I LOVED from television's "Family Ties," was starring in his first major film role. And to that end, perhaps really nobody knew anything about it because maybe that (plus the impending 4th of July holiday weekend) was why there was absolutely NOBODY in that movie theater other than myself that afternoon. It felt like a private screening made just for me and once the film concluded, I was stunned that I was alone because again, for me, this was the movie of the year and eventually it would become the #1 highest grossing film of 1985 plus being a critical darling as well. But for that afternoon, knowing that no one else knew about it alongside me just made the day more special.

"Back To The Future" stars the outstanding Michael J. Fox as 16 year old Marty McFly, whose wholly unexplained yet completely believable best friendship with the town's local eccentric scientist Dr. Emmet "Doc" Brown (the wonderful Christopher Lloyd), lands him in a life altering, time shifting adventure via the Doc's improbable time machine--a modified DeLorean powered by stolen plutonium running at a speed of 88 miles per hour--in which he ends up 30 years in the past, circa 1955 and attending the same high school as his own parents, the gorgeous Lorainne Baines (Lea Thompson) and the nerdy, Science and Science-Fiction loving bookworm George McFly (Crispin Glover).

Yet, his accidental presence spoils Lorainne and George's first meeting, therefore altering the course of events that would eventually have the two teens falling in love at the school's Enchantment Under The Sea dance, which woud then ultimately erase Marty from existence. And so, it is up to Marty to sway the intense crush upon him courtesy from his own Mother-to-be towards the geek who would one day become his Father. But, then, there are other, even more perilous matters including the town bully/date rapist Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) to contend with and even moreso, somehow returning to 1985 without plutonium but by being in the right place at the right time to be hit by a bolt of lightning.

Robert Zemeckis' film is absolutely ingenious and through the excellent performances from the entire cast, his relentlessly inventive direction and the air-tight screenplay by himself and writing partner Bob Gale, "Back To The Future": was an instant film for the ages as it combined whimsy, edgy comedy, social satire, cultural commentary, action, suspense, an enormous heart, downright delirious romanticism and one surprise after another after another after another that never let up until the end credits hit the screen.

And yet, aside from the superior spectacle of the entire enterprise was the brilliant core of the piece: Would you or could you be friends with your own parents if you happened to be teenagers at the same time? Beyond that, the even greater time machine aspect of the film which was the impossible perspective of a teenager seeing his parents as they once were as the exact same life period: flawed, insecure, risky, reckless, nervous, anxious, and oh so, beautifully lovestruck.

It is truly rare to find movies that are so instantaneously outstanding on a variety of levels (let alone one that can spawn a trilogy as classy as this one) but "Back To The Future" indeed was that film, the one that came seemingly out of nowhere and the one I just wanted to tell EVERYBODY about....that is after I could hold onto it just for myself even for a short while.

DAY 10
Sometimes, there are those movies that I will sit down and watch every single time I just happen to stumble upon it as it is so riveting and compulsively watchable. This is indeed one of those movies.

Billy Ray's "Shattered Glass" is a docudrama centered upon the actions of Writer Stephen Glass, once the shining star reporter for The New Republic during the 1990's, who, in actuality, fabricated 27 of the 41 stories he wrote, in part or entirely.

First things first, Hayden Christensen can act! Yes, the man took a beating for his portrayal of the doomed Anakin Skywalker in two of George Lucas' "Star Wars" prequels (as far as I am concerned, undeservedly so) but for this film, a real story set within an extremely real world, Christensen absolutely nailed the multi-layered levels of privilege, narcissism, utter cunning, unctuous neediness, undeniable magnetism and an unquestionably powerful ability for self-preservation and survival that enabled this journalistic figure to have gotten as far along as he actually did...especially given the journal's meticulous, exhaustive process for quality control and accuracy.

In turn, this was also the very first film in which I took serious notice of Peter Sarsgaard who portrays New Republic lead editor Charles "Chuck" Lane to riveting effect, making this film also function as a mystery thriller as Lane slowly pieces together Glass' journalistic and therefore, ethical fraudulence.

Billy Ray wisely never allows the film to fall into needless melodrama or hyperbole, always ensuring that the film flows with a quietly intense seriousness and an forthright agenda of just allowing the tale to be told as succinctly and as honestly as possible...much like the finest journalism. This is a cleanly direct.presentation that always finds me glued to the screen in full amazement that this situation actually happened.

Quite the contrary in our age of fake news, which now makes this excellent film serve as somewhat of a lament for what seems to be a (sort of) bygone era in writing, journalism and the reporting of the news.

Stay tuned for Part Two!!!

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

STICK TO THE SCRIPT: a review of "Sorry To Bother You"

Written and Directed by Boots Riley
**** (four stars)

Please allow me to bookend this latest posting with a personal story...

In the Summer of 1988, I was 19 years old and obtained employment working in the call center of Ticketmaster set in a large conference room itself inside of a tall downtown Chicago office building. It was a drought Summer, weeks upon end of high heat, humidity and arriving to work, after riding the CTA and the L trains to work, drenched in my own sweat only to begin drying/cooling myself off via the hand blowers in the swanky men's restrooms...much to the chagrin of the side eye gazing fat cats who entered and exited to sight of my African-American self armed with my smart aleck late teenage grin and dry commentary, "It's a bit hot out there."

My job was indeed what you might imagine it to be. Eight hours of talking on the phone to people desiring tickets to some sort of event, including that Summer's most coveted, tickets to the first Chicago Cubs night game with lights inside of Wrigley Field on August 8, 1988 (I'll never forget that date as long as I live!).  Anyhow, one day, I answered my telephone line with my standard Ticketmaster greeting and I was then met with the voice of a woman who sounded older (perhaps late middle aged to just close to elderly) who inquired about tickets to an event to which I no longer remember. But her second request was something that I will never forget, even if I tried.

"I'd like to speak to someone White," she said.

I'll leave you with that as a bit of a cliffhanger as I wish to get to the film at hand.

"Sorry To Bother You," from hip-hop musician turned Writer/Director, Boots Riley arrives with this spectacularly audacious filmmaking debut that not only inspired the anecdote I began to share with you, it unrepentantly kept my head spinning throughout and afterwards. First things first, Riley has helmed not only my favorite film of 2018 so far, it is by far one of the finest films of this movie decade of 2010-2019.

All of that being said, it is without question one of the most WTF films I have seen, leaving me ultimately shaken and slapped around with an expression that could only be read as, "What the hell did I just watch?!" Boots Riley has created an astoundingly singular vision that not only speaks to this specific moment in our cultural history in the 21st century but to all of what has happened in the past as well as what will obviously continue to play out in the future. While the film is indeed a comedy, a satire, Boots Riley's "Sorry To Bother You," despite the politeness of its title, is decidedly take-no-prisoners in its extremely dark, absurdist vision in which we are all subjects as well as entirely complicit. This is fearless filmmaking at its most ferocious.

Set within a satirically askew version of Oakland, California, Boots Riley's "Sorry To Bother You" stars Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius Green (say his name a few times and roll it around your mouth to catch its clever meaning) nicknamed "Cash," who lives in his Uncle Sergio's (Terry Crews) garage, has a stable, loving relationship with his artist provocateur girlfriend Detroit (the amazing Tessa Thompson) and is desperately looking for a job, any job, in which he can finally pay off his debts to his Uncle, move out of the garage and begin his life in earnest.

Cassius eventually lands a job with RegalView, a telemarketing office, where he and his co-workers earn money on commission, a difficult task to achieve with all of the potential customer hang-ups. But, even so, Cassius remains steadfast, "sticking to the script" as instructed but to no avail. One day, Cassius is counseled by his friend and co-worker Langston (Danny Glover) to utilize his "White voice" when conducting phone calls. Not "Will Smith 'White'" as Langston conveys, but a voice that suggests ease, pride and a worry free outlook that would assuage potential customers' to buy what Cassius is selling.

Soon, Cassius, having discovered his "White voice" (as voiced by David Cross), becomes a telemarketing sensation and is promoted to the title of "Power Caller," acquiring copious riches and a new lifestyle but one where he leaves behind his struggling best friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), Union organizer Squeeze (Steven Yeun) and his co-workers who have now begun to strike against RegalView, therefore making Cassius a "scab."

As far as the overall plot of the film is concerned, what I have described is only just the tip, not much more than what you would find in the film's trailers and  honestly, I am not certain that I could really describe anything else without producing major spoilers as well as possibly making you think that you would not wish to see such a film in the first place. But, what I can tell you is the following: Boots Riley's "Sorry To Bother You" is the absolutely perfect next phase in a series of dense, disturbing satirical works like Spike Lee's incendiary "Bamboozled" (2000), the novels of author Paul Beatty, most notably his searing and pungent The Sellout (2015), the early 1970's albums of Funkadelic, Erykah Badu's grim "New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)" (released February 26, 2008), Childish Gambino and Director Hiro Murai's brilliant, and brutally controversial "This Is America" music video from earlier this year and of course, Jordan Peele's "Get Out" (2017).

Yes, there are indeed severe twists and turns within "Sorry To Bother You" that might suggest the world of a thriller or even science fiction horror. But, I would not quite classify the film as anything like those genres, even though it does indeed house elements from all three. For me, the overall tone of the film, especially in its unmentionable conclusion is the tone of a very bad dream from which poor Cassius Green is unable to awake himself from. In fact, I nearly titled this posting "Nightmares From The Sunken Place," in order to convey a certain tonal description as well as conceptual. But that being explained to you, Boots Riley has conceived of a heavily layered film thematically and conceptually, more than worthy of exploration, discussion, and debate as well as repeated viewings.

Through the surreal odyssey of Cassius Green, "Sorry To Bother You" openly confronts themes discussing the dehumanization of cultural appropriation, reality television, the current status of hip-hop and rap music, capitalism at its most brutal regarding the subjugation and abuse of workers, and perhaps most savagely, the dehumanization of not ever taking a stand. Boots Riley's searing outlook, which contains a high rated television show entitled "I Got The S#*@ Kicked Out Of Me," a conspiracy plot that would make even the climax of "Get Out" shudder and of course, that "White voice," which grows more sinister the more often we hear it, serves as a warning to all of us that the idea of "sticking to the script," i.e. just blindly obeying the status quo is what will ultimately cause our societal downfall.

Even so, essentially all of the characters have some sort of hustle to play in this hostile world from RegalView itself and most obviously, the character of Steven Lift (Armie Hammer), the psychotic CEO of WorryFree, a company which promotes lifetime employment promises the ability to no longer worry about paying bills but is in actuality a sort of interment camp whose obedient army of workers are essentially legal slaves.

But, even Union leader Squeeze has eyes on stealing Detroit away from Cassius, and Detroit herself, who admonished Cassius for his over-reliance upon his "White voice," possesses a "White voice" of her own--the sound of an upper crust British woman, designed for the wealthy to purchase her agitprop artwork. And yet, Riley may be arguing, at least those characters, right or wrong, have all devised of ways in which they will indeed engage with the game of life instead of life eventually happening to them, unlike Cassius Green, who ends up trapped in a word he never quite made...and certainly never dreamed would ever occur to himself.

As Cassius Green, at this stage, there really is no other actor I could even think woud be more perfect for this role, and film overall, than Lakeith Stanfield as his work in both "Get Out" and as the kind-hearted, philosophical stoner Darius on FX/Donald Glover's outstanding series "Atlanta," and especially in the current season's jaw dropping "Teddy Perkins" episode, has made him tailor made for an experience as one-of-a-kind as "Sorry To Bother You."  Stanfield's earnestness and level of sympathy as Cassius Green is fully ingratiating, making his choices or even lack of choices completely understandable to us in the audience, especially as we all know that he is being exploited by the powers-that-be.

The initial conflict for Cassius, and the beginning of his dehumanization, is the level of code switching he has to perform in order to just earn a living. As Dave Chapelle once wryly joked during his brilliant appearance upon Bravo television's "Inside The Actor's Studio,"  "Every Black person in American is bilingual. We can speak street vernacular and we can speak 'job interview'." The truth of that statement is unquestionably perceptive as well as exhausting, for that level of always being so painfully self-aware as to know when and how to alter the perceptions and prejudices, whether real or imagined, of those towards yourself depending upon situations and environments, often leads to devastating levels of identity crises, making people of color in particular endure endless questions of ethnic "authenticity."

And yet, Boots Riley is wise enough to place into the film that this specific quandary is not exclusive to people of color for White people also possess their own "White voices," thus making this aforementioned quandary entirely...human. For we all wish to become more than our own self-perceptions, to live up to a certain idealized inner vision or cultural expectation, these days expressed profusely through social media as we are all presenting the best, yet highly edited versions of ourselves to the world. Yet for some, to what end?

For Cassius Green, an individual who at the start of the film is essentially an ingenue, one who is constantly fearful of the future, of mortality, of the sun exploding and the universe ending altogether leaving him more insignificant to human existence than he already feels. He wishes to engage and feel like his life has meaning but he indeed, over the course of the film, allows himself to become swept away by all manner of circumstances and never truly awakens until it is too late. Certainly it will be that third act of the film that will make some of you wonder if Boots Riley's vision has flown off of the rails, even for a film as strange as this one. But do trust me, just go with it as Riley has a clear, razor sharp agenda at work and his visual metaphors to explore the brutality at work from corporations towards its workers who are only viewed as labor and not as human beings are as justified as they are horrific.

For all of the deadly serious commentary, the film remains playful. With early scenes that have Cassius in his call station literally dropping into the lives he is interrupting, to the political firecracker earrings Detroit adorns herself with, combined with the film's production and costume design, color schematics and Doug Emmett's brilliant Cinematography among a myriad of other sight gags and plays on words, Boots Riley's "Sorry To Bother You" often feels and even looks like something we may have previously experienced in something like Spike Jonze's "Being John Malkovich" (1999) or Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" (2004), both of which were written by Charlie Kaufman. As with those specific films, Riley's film follows its own dream/nightmare logic with an un-ironic matter of fact quality merged with a cinematic inventiveness and ingenuity that is bracing to behold.

There is no question about it, for his filmmaking debut, Boots Riley showcases a staggering confidence and an unshakable, unrepentant tenacity with his bizarre yet crucially potent film, which, should be noted, he actually originally wrote in 2012, had published in McSweeney's, yet recorded as an album with his band The Coup (essentially creating a soundtrack for the film that had yet to be made) before receiving funding to make his film as envisioned. His intense persistence has more than paid off as "Sorry To Bother You" is exceedingly unlike any other film released so far this year or within the past several years, most definitely since Yorgos Lanthimos' "The Lobster" (2015).

It is a testament to the unfiltered originality and creativity upon display that we so rarely see in 2018 with all of our sequels, prequels, franchises, remakes, re-boots, and re-imaginings. It is simply an amazing feeling to be surprised by anything in the movies anymore and "Sorry To Bother You" is over-flowing with vehement surprises in a film that blisters and bruises with utter madhouse fury.

Now, as for the conclusion of that Ticketmaster story I began with, when the customer on the other end of the telephone line requested that she speak with a White representative. To that request, I responded, "I'm ready to help you."

"You're White?" she asked.

"Yes I am," I said. And with that, we proceeded with her transaction in full. Once the tickets had been purchased, the means of retrieval were effectively set up and payment had been made, the customer thanked me profusely for my efficiency, to which I thanked her for performing her business with Ticketmaster. Just before ending the phone call, I quickly yet with calm professionalism stated,"Ma'am, I have one final t hing to share with you about our transaction this afternoon."

"Yes?" she questioned. 

"I wanted to inform you that you have been speaking with a Black person for this entire telephone call. Have a wonderful day and thank you for calling Ticketmaster."


True story. I promise you. And hey, there was no way that I was going to ever, in that context, stick to that script.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

SILENCE IS (ALMOST) GOLDEN: a review of "A Quiet Place"

Story by Bryan Woods & Scott Beck
Screenplay Written by Bryan Woods & Scott Beck and John Krasinski
Directed by John Krasinski
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

It is a concept so ingenious that I cannot believe that I haven't already seen it.

John Krasinski's surprise smash hit horror/thriller "A Quiet Place" is a film that I did indeed want to see this  Spring but truth be told, I actually avoided because I was...well...too scared to check it out in the theater. You see, and as I have previously written upon this blogsite, I am not really a fan of horror films for a variety of reasons. But mainly, I hate their preponderance of displaying relentless amount of gore as a substitute for storytelling, especially the equally relentless and reprehensible amount of violence against women.

Most of all, I just do not like the sensation of being scared. Yes, psychological thrillers and levels of intensity are one thing and neither of those elements are necessarily ones where the intent is to make you fearful of something. Of course, I have seen many horror films, both terrible and iconic, but that being said, there was something within the concept of "A Quiet Place" that made me feel that perhaps it would be better for me to watch at home.

Now that I have finally seen the film (at home), and now know what the fuss is all about, I am happy to add my voice to the chorus of those who have embraced the film as a first rate example of what the whole genre can accomplish at its finest. Almost. Now do not worry that I will be raining upon this particular parade but there were some nagging issues I had with the film that kept me from going over the top with it. That being said, what John Krasinski achieved was indeed exceedingly effective, stylish, innovative and rightfully, honestly scary.

Set in the near future after an unknown apocalypse has unleashed a race of blind, ravenous creatures who hunt by sound have seemingly wiped out most of the Earth's population, "A Quiet Place" stars John Krasinski and Emily Blunt as Lee and Evelyn Abbot, a scientist and doctor, respectively who are still attempting to survive in this horrific new world with their family, which includes young son Marcus (Noah Jupe) and their deaf teenage daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds).

Walking barefoot everywhere they travel, including around their own house, and speaking exclusively in sign language, playing board games with soft pieces, dancing to Neil Young ballads played solely in headphones, and "living" life in all manner of ways as to not utilize any sounds to attract the aliens, the Abbot family's intensely precarious existence continues  relatively peacefully...

...until Day 472.

For those of you who have still not seen the film, I will leave the plot description at that point so as not to either spoil or reveal terribly much to dull your own reactions. But that said, John Krasinski's "A Quiet Place" is indeed extremely effective, perhaps a bit more style over something completely substantive but even as an exercise in style, Krasinski shows that he is a director with skill to burn.

Again, and while I am completely unsure if a concept like this one has been executed in the past, I have to say that I am surprised that I have not seen a film quite like this before, which made the experience of seeing "A Quiet Place" quite the treat even as it made me jump out of my seat. First of all, great mention must be given to the film's stellar sound design which surprised me in various fashions. In actuality, even with the lack of very much spoken dialogue at all, the film is actually NOT a full fledged silent movie, essentially what I was wondering it would be and precisely why I stayed away from seeing it in theaters as I just didn't wish to be startled again and again by sonic jump scares. Composer Marco Beltrami's unsettling score is prevalent but never over-bearing. Aside from the music, what Krasinski has achieved is much more complex and often brilliant in keeping you off guard sonically.

I enjoyed how deftly Krasinski established the rules of this new terrifying world. About how sound is used, how it travels, how day-to-day life can exist without sound plus on a more cyclical and existential level, how natural sounds have become the world's soundtrack once again. I liked how human sounds can be masked by louder natural sounds like a rushing river or even a small waterfall, therefore keeping the Abbot family safe but also, and more poignantly, eliciting precisely what has been lost in human life when we are no longer able to truly give voice to our existence, except under supremely controlled circumstances.

Furthermore, there is the character of Regan, who is indeed performed by a real world deaf actress. Having ALL sound drop away, gives us in the audience a perfect simulation of what the world "sounds" like to her plus simultaneously raising the dramatic stakes considerably as she will never be able to hear a monster approaching her. This quality does indeed give "A Quiet Place" a specific gravity that makes it stand out more than just being a thrill ride. 

With a framework that recalls films like M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs" (2002), Francis Lawrence's "I Am Legend" (2007), John Hillcoat's "The Road" (2009), Jeff Nichols' "Take Shelter" (2011) as well as various early Steven Spielberg films in which ordinary people find themselves faced with extraordinary circumstances, "A Quiet Place" is brisk, inventive and unquestionably grueling during several sequences, mostly involving Emily Blunt's character as she attempts over and again to evade the monsters after finding herself in one horrific predicament after another. And in doing so, Krasinski conceives of one ingenious yet always conceivably narrow escape after another, especially with humans making or not making sounds are key to survival.

But again, I turn to the Abbot children in which they embody the more painfully allegorical elements of the story, for what does it mean to try and raise children in a world that is doomed? I can only imagine what the deep, psychological inner lives of parents are in our current 21st century landscape with all manner of political, environmental, cultural and societal horrors as constant elements of our everyday lives. Even with my one step-removed as being a preschool teacher, I am profoundly troubled with the world the very small will be growing up into and  how will all caring adults and especially parents be able to protect them. John Krasinski's "A Quiet Place" is a deeply perceptive allegory to the fears and sacrifices of parenthood and the frightening possibility that for all of our best efforts, we just might not be able to keep our children safe from danger and maybe even death. If anything is the true engine of the film, it is that very concept, which Krasinski never exploits but always keeps powerfully intense.

To that end, I have to give the film credit for being yet another film I have seen this year, much like Brett Haley's wonderful "Hearts Beat Loud," that has proven itself to working as a celebration of the role of Fathers as the film does indeed house an urgently aching dynamic between Krasinski's Father character and the deaf Regan, who are each undergoing a bruised dynamic that will play out over the course of the film in degrees that are deeply touching while keeping you biting your nails.

Now even with such praise from me, I did have some issues with the film, some of which I can (sort of) wave away but another, much ire burdensome quality, that I did feel undercut the entire success of the film as a whole. Without delving into spoilers, I will say that there were certain lapses in logic that kind of irked me, situations and plot points that felt to be more than contrived in order to solely keep the action and intensity rising. Like for instance, why would the family ever allow themselves to be separated for extremely extended periods of time? Why would Regan be allowed to wander around at night all alone? And then, if the family has to occasionally creep to a now abandoned pharmacy to keep stocked up on medications, why not stock up on contraceptives?

Yes, I can kind of let those pieces go to an extent. But, what I really did not like was the film's ending, which of course, I will not reveal here but I will say is annoyingly abrupt, leaving the film open for a sequel (which is already in development with Krasinski directing again). Basically, I felt a tad cheated. Like I sat through this entire movie only for it to not only be unfinished but to exist as just a tease for a second and potentially more movies, the way Hollywood likes to run things these days. Not every movie deserves a sequel and for a film that is pretty tightly wound, and uses its 90 minutes running time to the very best of its advantages, I just wished that the film would have possibly been a tad longer so as to fully complete the story instead of setting us up for yet another franchise. It felt disingenuous and even a little cheap, which is a shame as it already had so much good going for it.

Even with those criticisms, I cannot begin to try and turn you away from John Krasinski's "A Quiet Place," an extremely taut, gripping, relentless and refreshingly original thriller from the end of the world that again proves what a gift the  movies can be these days when filmmakers are allowed to truly invent rather than remake, re-create and re-imagine.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

BIGGER YET SMALLER: a review of "Ant-Man and the Wasp"

Based upon the Marvel Comics series created by Stan Lee and Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby
Screenplay Written by Chris McKenna & Eric Sommers and Paul Rudd & Andrew Barrer & Gabriel Ferrari
Directed by Peyton Reed
** (two stars)

Well...two out of three ain't bad.

In 2018, our cineplexes have been greeted with nothing less than three new entries in the Marvel Comics Cinematic Universe, all released a few scant months apart from each other. Certainly, and of course, if you have been following my postings on this blogsite, I have long expressed my sense of superhero fatigue at the movies. Yet, with the Marvel films, I have indeed praised their overall consistency, which does indeed keep me coming back. And frankly, I think by this stage, after 10 years of films and 20 movies in total, I can now look at the films as if they are the latest actual comic book to find its way into my mailbox, like the monthly subscriptions I had when I was a pre-teen.

This year found Marvel releasing what I feel are the two best films they have made to date, Ryan Coogler's majestic "Black Panther" and Anthony & Joe Russo's game changing, cataclysmic "Avengers: Infinity War." Of course after such a set-up, essentially anything that arrives afterwards has more than enough to live up to, so it seems to be more than fitting that Marvel scaled downwards for the follow-up. Ant-Man, our especially diminutive hero, returns to save the day once more in Peyton Reed's "Ant-Man and the Wasp," the sequel to the surprisingly inventive, imaginative "Ant-Man" (2015), the one Marvel film that I was not remotely interested in but found myself enjoying it greatly as it sits near the top of my favorite Marvel entries.

And yet, like Brad Bird's "Incredibles 2," this second chapter disappointed me. Now I did not say that it was a bad film. It isn't. It is just one that felt to be a bit lackluster, as if we were watching the tired fifth installment rather than the second, which was a surprise because all of the ingredients felt to be in their proper places. As it stands, and with a lengthy eight month wait before the next Marvel feature, what we have in "Ant-Man and the Wasp" is a decent yet fairly inconsequential placeholder.

Set shortly before the devastating events in "Avengers" Infinity War," (yet with one terrific mid-end credits sequence set at the same time as those aforementioned devastating events) "Ant-Man and the Wasp" finds our hero Scott Lang (the ageless Paul Rudd) under house arrest due to his involvement in events portrayed in Anthony & Joe Russo's "Captain America: Civil War" (2016). With a mere three days remaining of  his two year sentence, all Scott wishes to do is to try and coast through to the end and finally  just focus upon being the best parent he is able to be to his cute little moppet Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson).       .

As the house is quiet, and Scott is settling himself into a long warm bath, he is shaken by what seems to be a dream but is soon discovered to be a message from the inter-dimensional Quantum Realm, a communication from Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), the original Wasp plus beloved wife of  original Ant-Man Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Mother to the new Wasp, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), the woman who has been lost inside of the Quantum Realm for 30 years.

From here, the film becomes a race against time to rescue Janet from the Quantum Realm, no easy feat as Scott, Hope and Hank attempt to evade the clutches of FBI agent/Scott's parole officer Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), the petty criminal Sonny Burch (Walter Goggins), a black market dealer aiming to steal Hank Pym's technology and finally, the increasingly unhinged Ava Starr otherwise known as "Ghost" (Hannah John-Kamen), a woman afflicted with life threatening molecular instability and who relentlessly wishes to steal Hank Pym's technology in order to save her own life--yet potentially ending Janet van Dyne's life in the process.

With all of these elements, plus the scientific rivalry between Hank Pym and his estranged partner (and Ghost's protector) Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne) and most crucially (wink wink), the status of the new X-Con Security company as owned and operated by Scott's ex-con friends Luis (the terrific Michael Pena), Dave (Tip "T.I." Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchain), Peyton Reed's "Ant-Man and the Wasp" contains more than enough story to keep the two hour running time stuffed tightly.

Reed continues to ensure that his sequel is fast moving, engagingly playful and filled with visually dazzling takes on the perspectives of large and small objects never quite appearing the way in which we know them to appear. And of course, the entire cast, as led by the easy, effortless charm of Paul Rudd, are uniformly strong, with Hannah John-Kamen making quite the impression as Ghost. Her performance, plus some truly sparkling special effects, creates an antagonist (clearly not a "villain")
that houses an urgent poignancy as she is a prisoner of events not of her consequence, therefore making her mortality an especially potent ticking clock, much like the figures of the Replicants in Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" (1982) and Denis Villenueve's "Blade Runner 2049" (2017).

And yet, for some reason, and even with a plot as complex as the one on display here, everything in "Ant-Man and the Wasp" just felt to be so slight. Now, some of this is indeed purposeful as Scott Lang is also part of this extended Marvel universe by essentially stumbling into it. He has no superhuman powers. He didn't even create the suit! And he has got to be the kindest hearted criminal ever witnessed on screen. He is a character of so-called less consequence than say Captain America, Iron Man or Thor. And with that, perhaps the Ant-Man films do not necessarily need to carry the same weight as the majesty of "Black Panther" and the apocalypse of "Avengers: Infinity War."

Even so, that very smallness of the first film possessed a much needed lightness and near frivolity that none of the other Marvel films housed, especially as some of them, most notably Joss Whedon's"Avengers: Age Of Ultron" (2015), were beginning to show some strain and ponderousness. What Peyton Reed established in the "Ant-Man" debut was a certain sparkle and actual surprise that made fr a film that was faster, funnier and often more ingenious than it possibly needed be or was even expected to be.

Remember the first time when we saw those sequences that played with perspective as when Scott Lang was tapped in a bathtub or racing across a vinyl record or narrowly escaping dancing feet or engaging in a life and death battle on top of a toy train set? Or how about when Scott explored the Quantum Realm for the first time? I had not laughed that hard or felt my eyes pop that much in a Marvel films for quite some time, making the film somewhat like Scott Lang's cat burglar thief character. The film almost snuck up on you.

Yet what worked in its favor the first time around seemed to work against it the second time as the level of freshness actually staled a bit and despite the overall complexity of the plot, relationships, back stories and motivations, not that much actually happens in "Ant-Man and the Wasp." Yes, there's load of running around and things get bigger and smaller and bigger and smaller and bigger and smaller over and over and over again and truthfully, terrific special effects aside, it does wear out its welcome when our heroes really only have to accomplish one task.

Additionally, there has been quite a bit being written about how "Ant-Man and the Wasp" is the first Marvel movie to feature the name of the female heroine in the title. That's great. But, I do wish that the filmmakers--especially the film's five writers-- really gave her and her portrayer Evangeline Lilly more to actually do. Yes, she has some cool fight scenes but she essentially serves the same purpose she served in the first film: making exasperated side eyes at Scott Lang, essentially being somewhat sour. The Wasp deserves much more than that, as far as I am concerned 

Look, don't get me wrong. Peyton Reed's "Ant-Man and the Wasp" is nowhere near being a creative failure. It was just one that found me doing quite a bit of seat shifting as I just was not as invested as I have been in the past. Maybe I am not being fair to the film but I do not know. For me, when the powers-that-be are able to create to the top tier level of "Black Panther" and "Avengers: Infinity War," you can't go backwards in quality, regardless of the scale.

"Ant-Man and the Wasp" is fine but when that mid end credits scene is better than the entire two hours that preceded it, you do have a problem.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

30 FILMS IN 30 DAYS: DAYS 21-30

And now the third and final section of this three part series which lasted throughout the month of June 2018.

DAY 21
It is overblown, preposterous, downright insane and in many ways, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever but even so, that is the raison d'etre with the films of the late Ken Russell and this movie in particular worked me over.

William Hurt, in his film debut, takes what is essentially an impossible role and hits a home run as the profoundly intense, wholly narcissistic and oddly wide-eyed abnormal psychologist Edward Jessup who embarks upon a harrowing, kaleidoscopic odyssey in his pursuit of the truth behind additional states of consciousness and their reality compared with our waking states. Utilizing sensory deprivation tanks combined with all manner of hallucinogenics, Jessup bends his brain and soul inside and out and sideways and back again as regresses his physical body to the age of primates and even all the way to the original cell and ultimately, consciousness itself before returning to his physical forms over and again, thus increasing his sense of madness.

In bravura sequences which push sound and vision to the absolute brink, Russell unleashed his maniacal imagination and invention with a collage of imagery specifically designed to disturb, illuminate, envelop, engulf, and just plain fry your senses completely. Every moment in the film is over the top and I appreciated the madman confidence Russell displayed with his aesthetic as the man just NEVER BLINKED when pouring his dark ideas onto celluloid--and for that matter, William Hurt was brilliant as he took that creative leap with Russell with the same ravenous abandon as he tears through his mountains of dialogue as if he won the acting jackpot.

Blair Brown, who portrays biological anthropologist and Jessup's beleaguered wife Emily, is William Hurt undeniable equal who performs with the same abandon and in doing so, gives the film its primal soul as "Altered States" is indeed a surprisingly effective and wrenching love story that will indeed bash you around and have you climbing the walls.

Trust me...A-Ha's classic "Take On Me" music video would not exist without this film.

DAY 22
I am unable to express to you what it feels like to regard the film work of a creative artist for t he very first time--an introduction to a new best friend that you never knew existed. For me, with the arrival of this film, Alfonso Cuaron became one of those priceless and best new cinematic friends.

For a film career that has proven itself to be as inventively surprising and audacious as Cuaron's, who has somehow leapt from "Harry Potter and the Prisoner Of Azkaban" (2004), "Children Of Men" (2006), and "Gravity" (2013), this particularly grounded, unapologetically authentic, majestically existential road movie covered a dual coming of age/end of adolescence story between two best friends (played by Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, respectively) who convince a woman in her late twenties (played by Maribel Verdu) to accompany them to an invented secluded beach called "Heaven's Mouth."

As the trio travel and explore themselves and each other through the road, copious sexual activity and drug usage, an omnipresent narrator provides a broad juxtaposition via audible signposts concerning the social/political realities and history of Mexican history and its precarious present day, especially in its rural, more desperate areas

While the frank sexuality of the film was so bold and explicit that it nearly felt to be something that no audiences should be watching, especially together in a crowded movie theater, it was never gratuitous to me and completely served Curaon's vision, which delivered a clash of the trio's frivolity to the harsher Mexican realities so vividly and poetically that when all of the themes and emotions converged, we were as forever changed as the two teenage boys, whose romp eventually unveiled truths that neither of them were ready to engage themselves with.

Alfonso Cuaron's "Y Tu Mama Tambien" was a markedly riveting, rapturous and beautifully ruminating experience that utilized its almost documentary styled filmmaking aesthetic to explore the life and existence of a landscape and its people with supreme artistry in a fashion unlike any I had seen before or since.

DAY 23
"RUN LOLA RUN" (1998)
Electric. Kinetic. Frenetic. Fantastic.

Starring a performance of pure dynamite and superlative athleticism by Franka Potente as the titular Lola, "Run Lola Run" is a furiously paced 80 minute thriller that is propelled by its adrenaline as much as it is by its own sense of existentialism.

The story of Lola who has a mere 20 minutes to obtain 10,000 Deutsche Mark to save her boyfriend's life knocked me sideways as Tykwer fueled his film with relentless energy, stunning cinematography, a pulsating electronic soundtrack and most importantly, rich characters and a love story that was worth rooting for in a film that would have otherwise existed as nothing more than an exercise in empty style.

In its own bizarre way, the film could be viewed as a double feature with Harold Ramis' "Groundhog Day" (1993), as Tykwer almost frames his film in a video game aesthetic, where our Lola tries, fails and ultimately, possesses three attempts to save her boyfriend's life...essentially, possesses three attempts to make her life into the success that she desires.

Unpretentious yet not brainless, "Run Lola Run" is passionately exhilarating filmmaking that I firmly believe could attract those who are either skeptical, wary or challenged by the prospect of viewing a foreign film with something that is more than accessible without sacrificing any stitch of its unquestionable artistry.

DAY 24
To date, this is the most terrifying film I have ever seen and furthermore, it remains a personal touchstone for how the movies can have the power to shake you to your core and for me, "Poltergeist" was a freight train.

I saw this film just one week after seeing Steven Spielberg's "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" and as I was a Spielberg devotee by this point, there was no way that I would miss this. So, my Mom and I ventured to the Ford City movie theater complex one afternoon to view his latest effort, inexplicably sharing the theater with a school summer camp group!

There was nothing cute or cuddly about "Poltergeist" whatsoever. In fact, I have long thought of this film as being the dark side of Spielberg's "E.T." and "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind" (1977), where the other-worldly beings were not here to communicate and forge connections, These other-worldy beings were here to tear us apart and via the most seemingly innocuous portals, in this case, a television, of which this film also served as a blistering satire against our cultural devotion to "the idiot box."

First and foremost, what Spielberg (who has been long acknowledged as having..ahem...ghost directed the film himself rather than the credited Tobe Hooper) accomplished was genius as he utilized his then consistent theme of ordinary suburban people, this time portrayed by Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams, who are faced with extraordinary circumstances and merged that concept with an exploration of the classic childhood fears and terrors and made them horrifically and violently explicit. The monster in the closet was real and wanted to whisk you to a netherworld. The ancient tree in the backyard wanted to eat you alive while that toy clown in the corner really did move about the room in the dark of night laying in wait to lash out and strangle you.

The intensity of the film felt like an on-coming thunderstorm that once unleashed, moved with the punishing force of an F5 tornado as the desperation of the poor Freeling family attempting to rescue their darling 5 year old Carol Anne (the late Heather O'Rourke) from the evil spirits that have stolen her was more than palpable and the innovative special effects, powerful sound design and brutal set pieces, including the pull out the stops grand finale featuring an orchestra of screams, an army of rising skeletons and the outstanding image of the house imploding itself back into the netherworld made the resulting experience feel like a full two-hour length version of the opening of the Ark sequence in Spielberg's "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" released just the previous year.

I was WORKED OVER!!!! Even my Mom, who is not nearly as interested in film as I have been, STILL references this movie as a barometer of measuring intensity and terror. But that afternoon, when I returned home, thanking the universe that the world was the same as it was before I ventured into the theater, I wasn't taking any chances. The television remote NEVER left my side. I kept my closets open and I even investigated the pine trees in my backyard.

Even writing about this film at this moment is taking me back to that summer afternoon and trust me, the chills I am feeling running up and down my spine are as real as they ever were.

DAY 25
The film's trailers did not do this film justice whatsoever...but they did intrigue me.

During my college years at the University Of Wisconsin-madison, I often saw movies at University Square 4, a now long defunct 4 screen multiplex that was housed in the heart of the campus. The movies were cheap, thanks to a student ID, and I went constantly, seeing all manner of movies, with wildly varying degrees of quality and I loved having this place to go whenever I wished. It was truly one of my many haunts.

Anyhow, since I saw so many movies, I saw the same trailers just as constantly and the one for this film was not one that really encouraged me to race right out once it was released. Frankly, it didn't explain terribly much (which was fine) but it also just looked...oh well...stupid. Just two women frolicking around in a car, giggling and carrying on and it just looked as if there was nothing holding the proceedings together. But then, there was the intriguing piece when the trailer's omniscient narrator said gravely, "Thelma and Louise are going to catch HELL." So...what happens to them, huh?

That question lingered long and persistently enough to get me to University Square 4, a few scant weeks after I had graduated and officially began my life in Madison, and I saw the film opening day. Nothing prepared me for what I ultimately experienced.

Ridley Scott's "Thelma and Louise" starred Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in outstanding performances as the titular characters, best friends simply planning a weekend getaway at a fishing cabin who unexpectedly find themselves as fugitives after Louise, also unexpectedly, murders a man who begins to rape Thelma in the parking lot of a roadhouse bar.

Fueled by a brilliantly blistering, righteously ferocious, defiantly angry screenplay by Callie Khouri, "Thelma and Louise" served a vibrant hybrid of the road epic/action thriller/social satire and unrepentantly feminist manifesto that was uncompromising in its worldview, which took a genre conceit and presented a rightfully viscious exploration of the existence of women in a man's world.

With its female characters as the film's engine and soul and barely any redeemable male characters to speak of, the film was a vision of which I had never seen before, while delivering a story that was entirely unpredictable, completely engaging and deeply existential as we are witness to a certain awakening within both women as they fully decide upon what sort of individuals they wish to be and become in a world that would discard of them in an instant, from bad marriages to an indifferent and inconsequential justice system that would undoubtedly cast long shadows of disbelief combined with an obscene lack of compassion and empathy.

As the film continued and Thelma and Louise's predicament grew increasingly and simultaneously dire and, again, awakening, I openly wondered to myself just how the film could possibly end as there was no conceivable way, in my mind, that they could each either return home or even allow themselves to get arrested.

And when the full realization of the film's shattering conclusion became apparent, the devastation and deliverance was propulsive, making it, as far as I am concerned, one of the very best films of the 1990's.

DAY 26
"AFTER HOURS" (1985)
For all of the rightful acclaim that Martin Scorsese has received throughout his illustrious career for films such as "Taxi Driver" (1976), "Raging Bull' (1980) and "Goodfellas" (1990), for instance, the breadth and depth of his filmography is truly one of the fin est in American cinema where even the lesser know features provide the highest of quality and artistry. And for me, a "smaller" film entitled "After Hours" remains one of my personal Scorsese favorites (and for those of you from my Lab School days, in many ways this movie really inspired the ideas behind my high school film "Life In One Day").

"After Hours" stars Griffin Dunne as Paul Hackett, a word processor leading a humdrum existence in New York when one evening, he meets Marcy Franklin (Rosanna Arquette) in a cafe, they hit it off and agree to a date in SoHo, an event that leads to a series of coincidental conflicts, a cavalcade of eccentric characters and increasingly dire misadventures that keeps poor Paul stationed in SoHo unable to find his way out. And yes, it is a comedy.

Martin Scorsese's "After Hours" is a beautifully paced, constructed, and executed film where for a comedy, it amazed me with how intense and frustrating it actually was--almost like a bad dream where you are trying to get to someplace but are unable to move or make any headway. It was as if the area of SoHo served as a character, perhaps like a level of Dante's Inferno, with ominous low level camera angle that showcased the steam rising from the manhole covers suggesting the Hell underneath from which Paul is trying to escape.

Griffin Dunne elicited a masterfully light comedic performance that delivered the proper incredulity, astonishment, fear, and even existential anguish as he existed as the modern day Job enduring one obstacle after another--as if being tested--through no fault of his own. And the cast Scorsese surrounded him with, from the late John Heard as a bartender, as well as the wonderful Teri Garr, Catherine O'Hara and Linda Fiorentino as oddball sirens, to even Cheech and Chong as a pair of philosophical petty thieves all added to the film's dark lunacy.

Much like Jonathan Demme's "Something Wild" (1986), "After Hours" is unpredictable, infectious, and compulsively watchable and so rewarding of repeated viewings--which I most certainly did as a teenager.

And oh for Scorsese's sinister blink-or-you'll-miss-it cameo in a punk rock nightclub where Paul nearly gets his head shaved!

DAY 27
I am not sure if this would sound remotely odd to those of you who just were not in the world back in 1979 but the release of the Muppets' very first film was indeed a pop cultural milestone, the likes of which inspired lines wrapped around the movie theater, and delivered eye popping cinematic dreams to behold.

Those very long lines did indeed wrap themselves around the River Oaks theater when my family and I saw the film on opening weekend when I was 10 years old and much like "Star Wars," which I had seen two years prior and "The Blues Brothers," which I would see one year in the future, "The Muppet Movie" was a jaw dropping experience that truly enlivened my spirit while also giving me a surprisingly riveting tale to find myself lost in...truly a testament to the sheer wizardry of the late Jim Henson, Frank Oz and their outstanding collaborators.

Essentially an origin story, "The Muppet Movie" spins the yarn of our hero Kermit the frog, who after being witnessed playing the banjo while crooning "The Rainbow Connection" in the Okefenoke swamp, sets upon a cross country trek to Hollywood with the idea of "making people happy" with is talents. Along the way, he meets up with our beloved characters of Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Rowlf the dog, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem Band and even more.

Now all of this was well and good, especially with first class songs co-composed by Paul Williams yet what made it a cinematic experience is that we were given sights that were then previously unseen and even conceived of as we not only saw our Muppet characters in their full bodies and not always just from the waist up, they rode bicycles and they drove cars!!!! Those sights were undeniably marvelous and when combined with a cavalcade of guest star cameos (from Steve Martin, Milton Berle, Richard Pryor to even Big Bird) plus all manner of plays on words, puns, and a healthy dose of surreal, meta, and self-reflexive humor (at one point, Dr. Teeth appears at a crucial section just because he read the film's script in advance) that allowed the film to work as its own story while always being aware of itself as being a film.

Yet, there is this part of me that truly feels that this same film could not be made the same way in 2018 as "The Muppet Movie" is also a surprisingly tense and often harrowing film as Kermit and his friends are being relentlessly pursued by entrepreneur Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), who wants Kermit to be his advertising spokes-frog for his frog leg restaurants. While Kermit keeps refusing, Doc Hopper grows angrier and then decided to hunt Kermit down and kill him, at one point hiring a mad scientist (Mel Brooks) to fry his brains and later, employing a gun toting assassin!!

I remember feeling extremely upon edge as I watched and even now as I remember, I can distinctly recall being worried that Kermit would die--even knowing that no only would that not happen but also that Kermit was a puppet. But even so...Kermit the frog was (and remains) as real as you or I and how could ANYONE wish to hurt him let alone hunt him down like that?

For our sensitive 21st century audiences, something like that wouldn't fly at all (even as those same audiences would take their precious three year old to every PG 13 rated Marvel and "Star Wars" entry). Regardless, even as intense as it was, the entire film was a gem of movie magic presented on a level that even Henson and his crew rarely achieved in quite the same way again.

DAY 28
it was not uncommon for me to be late arriving to movies when my parents and I went to the theaters.
Yes, I just agonized over their e very slow movement, wondering just why we could not just get going so we wouldn't be late. (Ever since, I have been notoriously early for movies). Anyhow, what would typically happen is that we would walk into the movies already screening, watch the film and then wait for the next showing to see the beginning and then leave. This was the case for George Miller's "The Road Warrior," my introduction to the character of Mad Max, yet the film was the second installment in the series. Upon arriving, we missed, perhaps, the film's first 10 minutes. When we stayed in the theater until the next showing to see the beginning, we ended up staying through the entire film all over again. Many years later, I asked my Dad why we stayed to watch the whole film again (mostly because I was certain my parents hated every single minute of it). He answered, "I couldn't believe what I saw and I just had to sit there and to confirm that I really did see THAT!"

Amen to that!

George Miller's "The Road Warrior" remains one of the most ruthlessly intense, unbelievably inventive, brutally imaginative and downright grisly yet undeniably breathless action films that I have ever seen. With just a scant amount of dialogue and barely there plot and characterizations, Miller's post-apocalyptic future vision in which Mel Gibson starred as Mad Max, the loner, nomadic former cop trying to desperately survive in the desolate and ultimately lawless Australian desert with all manner of ultra-violent freaks, scavengers, scoundrels, helpless settlers and other ferocious walking nightmares.

The prized possession is oil and the acerbic Max attempts to help a band of aforementioned settlers protect their fuel from the psychotic gang known as The Marauders, led by the disfigured and masked Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) with his chief henchman, the horrific, viciously unhinged, leather clad, mohawk coiffed Wez (Vernon Wells)--truly one of the greatest, and most terrifying movie villains I have ever witnessed.

Miller delivered an experience that was simultaneously white knuckled and two fisted, possessed with a level of unmerciful yet never gratuitous violence that often had me shield my eyes. Yet, the real draw of the film was the epic car chase starring Max, the settles, the Marauders and even The Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) flying above the melee all of which was presented with a blistering choreography and brutality that made you hold onto the theater seats in front of you for fear you would be spun out of your own seats.

It was unlike anything I had ever seen, and as unrepentant as it was, it was also fantastic, dynamic, and often exhilarating--the greatness on screen could not be denied in any conceivable way, even as ugly as so much of it was. The sheer adrenaline and bottomless aggression ruled the day and then some with Miller's cinematic genius with action and the building of a new cinematic world.

"White line nightmare," indeed!!!

DAY 29
It was the very first R rated movie that I had seen. I was 9 years old.

Yup, I did indeed see this film at the age of 9 after tremendously wearing my parents DOWN as I just had this need to see John Belushi in a movie and that some of my friends from school had already seen R rated movies (whether that was true or not, who knows...but I had to use whatever wills I could). Anyhow, once I was in that that theater, seeing the film, which by that point had already amassed a fortune at the box office and was going through a re-release period, I absolutely loved the sheer anarchy of the film, the wild abandon, and being surrounded by the constant, enormous laughter in that audience--even if 90% of the jokes sailed over my head. Afterwards, my Dad pulled me aside and said, "OK...that was pretty funny...BUT...NO M ORE R rated movies for quite some time."

That was fine with me for this one was entirely worth it.

To this day, "National Lampoon's Animal House" remains my #1 favorite comedy. Tremendously well written, exceedingly well directed by the masterful John Landis and cast from top to bottom with absolute, pristine perfection, this film not only perfectly satirized the more innocent early 1960's tone as witnessed in George Lucas' iconic "American Graffiti" (1973), it gave birth to the cheerfully vulgar, happily politically incorrect R rated comedy whose massive cinematic shadow still looms largely as no film, as far as I am concerned, has quite matched what this film achieved in quite the same way. It was as if ALL of the stars aligned perfectly to create move magic.

The saga of the members of the slobbish Delta House and their constant war against the campus elite plus the tyrannical Dear Wormer (John Vernon) made for one brilliant set piece and sequence after another as it was populated with a collective of brilliantly memorable characters with those oddball names (Tim Matheson as the Delta playboy Otter, Peter Reigert as the sly Boon and the late Stephen Furst as the hapless Flounder are standouts in the untouchable cast), propelled by Landis' endlessly inventive and manic comedic energy and armed with the equally iconic dialogue that has cemented itself within our pop culture lexicon. My word, even the sound of breaking glass never sounded so...PERFECT in its anarchistic glory.

The toga party. Otis Day and the Knights. The horse! The destructive comedic fury of the climax plus the "Where Are They Now?" captions. I could go on and on, huge moments and small. But man...there's John Belushi as Bluto Blutarsky, unquestionably the Id of the entire film and for a role that doesn't carry that much screen time and for a character who doesn't even have that many lines (save for his epic call to arms late in the film), Belushi was a MASTER as even a twitch of one eyebrow could slay you!

It has been sad that for some things, it is never as good as the first time. And the case of this film, that sentiment holds very true to me. "National Lampoon's Animal House" was crude, nasty, filthy, and often just plain wrong and yet it was a work of complete GENIUS!!

DAY 30
"THE WIZ" (1978)
Based upon the original play Libretto by William F. Brown
Music and Lyrics by Charlie Smalls
For this final installment of this series, I turn to a childhood staple that has actually increased in its transcendent power over the years, the film adaptation of of hit Broadway play, itself an adaptation of the original 1939 classic "The Wizard Of Oz" and of course the book series created by L. Frank Baum.

Adaptations and remakes are indeed tricky prospects as the purpose beyond lucrative sometimes is difficult to realize. Yet, then again, should the Shakespeare plays have only been performed once? In the case of "The Wiz," Director Sidney Lumet's film version of the entirely African-American presentation of the iconic fantasy was, and remains, an undisputed triumph of imagination, inventiveness, as well as social commentary and racial uplift and ascension. There truly has not been a film quite of this sort before or since and its endurance as a pop cultural touchstone within the Black community is powerful, to say the least.

Transplanting the tale from the rural farms of Kansas to the urban setting of Harlem, Diana Ross stars as Dorothy, a 24 year old schoolteacher, profoundly introverted and frightened of taking the steps to fulfill her adult independence. Instead of a tornado, Dorothy and her dog Toto get caught in a snowstorm that whisks her to the Land of Oz, which is envisioned as a darkly surreal and wholly complete re-imagining of New York City.

Upon her journey to find the Wiz (Richard Pryor) so she can return home, via the Yellow Brick Road, she is accompanied by the quotation reading Scarecrow (an effective Michael Jackson in his one and only feature film performance), the Tin Man (Nipsey Russell) and the cowardly Lion (Ted Ross), as they each wish for brains, a heart and courage,respectively. But for their wishes to be granted, they must first kill the terrifying Evilene, the Wicked Witch of the West (Mabel King).

To view this film in 2018, especially within our CGI drenched era, "The Wiz" is a brilliant testament to the powers of set design, costume design, and handmade special effects as the film is a visual splendor, revealing subtle nuances (a walking microphone serves as a quick throwaway joke) and grand sights from the playful to even the nightmarish (the subway sequence where Dorothy and her friends are threatened by sinister street peddlers, walking pillars ready to crush and trash cans with sharp teeth still sends a grotesque chill up my spine) from beginning to end.

To that end, even the most familiar elements to the story have been altered to great effect from Dorothy's ruby slippers now silver to even the Flying Monkeys, now mutant creatures riding flashy, relentlessly pursuing motorcycles, to Evilene's massive throne, itself a giant toilet. If one is to perform a remake, then here is the best way to achieve that goal, by keeping the core while rigorously figuring out how and what to alter to make the proceedings stand on their own, while also honoring the source material.

As a musical, "The Wiz" is first rate, especially with new arrangements, orchestrations and production by Quincy Jones, making the songs more unforgettable than they already were. And for Diana Ross, who elicits a performance that borders on near hysteria (and rightfully so, as the film plays out like a fever dream within her mind), her delivery of "Home," the film's finale is a GRAND SLAM as she sings that song as if it is the final song she will sing in her life. It is shattering to behold.

But over the years, something dawned on me...or better yet, within me as I happened upon it one evening after not having seen the film in perhaps 20 plus years. "The Wiz" is no mere "remake." This film is an exploration of the Black experience in America and our continuous struggles with the reconstruction of our collective spirits post slavery.

For what else is "The Wiz" but a film that extols passionately to Black viewers that we are a powerful, regal, beautiful people and we ALL have brains, we ALL have hearts and we ALL have courage and we are ALL, in our own individualistic ways, attempting to find our ways back home, whatever that may mean to each one of us.
Just think of it when you watch the astonishing sequence set after Evilene's destruction and her mutated minions all unleash themselves from their grotesque bodies to reveal the forms of mighty, beautiful Black men and women all dancing to the euphoria of "Everybody Rejoice/A Brand New Day."

"The Wiz" endures because it is a film all about us, every generation, every single day and especially now as political elements in this nation still wish to dehumanize us, subjugate us and murder us without retribution. But all we have to do is to keep easing down that road with our brains, hearts and courage intact, and in doing so, we will always find our way back home.

There you have it. Might there be a sequel to this series? Wait and see...