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 yes...watch 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...

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

SHE'S LEAVING HOME: a review of "Hearts Beat Loud"

Screenplay Written by Brett Haley & Marc Basch
Directed by Brett Haley
**** (four stars)

What an exquisite film this is. And furthermore, what a marvel it was that it was even made at all.

In our era of sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots an re-imaginings, it has increasingly become a minor miracle when a film about the lives and times of real people existing within a very real world finds itself made at all. Films like those, the so-called "small films," are simply just not the ones that break box office records or make seismic shifts within the pop cultural landscape. That being said, and as I have often proclaimed to you upon this blogsite, it is precisely those types of films that truly need our attention and embrace and right now, I am gently urging you to look past the superheroes and dinosaurs to take a gaze at a film that is truly special.

Director Brett Haley's "Hearts Beat Loud" is a jewel of a film. A film of rare tenderness and palpable bittersweetness yet fiercely honest in its overall presentation that there is not even one false moment or emotion within the entirety of this multi-layered film, which is driven and anchored by one richly developed three dimensional performance after another, and featuring the beautifully understated and often heartbreaking work of Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons at the core. "Hearts Beat Loud" is not the film that will set the box office on fire, butit is indeed one that is exceedingly worthy of your attention and I really think that if you do take the chance, you may find yourself as deeply moved as I was.

"Hearts Beat Loud" stars Nick Offerman as Frank Fisher, owner and proprietor of the Brooklyn based vinyl themed store, Red Hook Records, open for business for 17 years yet at the start of the film Frank has decided that the now dwindling store should close its doors for good. Even with the steadfast advice, support and friendship of his landlady Leslie (Toni Colette), Frank is determined that it is time for this particular chapter within his life needs to be closed.

Meanwhile at home, more seismic life changes are underfoot as Frank's teenage daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons), is preparing herself to leave for college to study and ultimately become a doctor, her life's passion. One evening, as she is studying for her summer school classes, Frank encourages her to take a break and participate in one of their "jam sessions," a time when the two can play their respective instruments and possibly write songs together. Sam  composes some lyrics that inspire Frank and as if rolling a ball back and forth, the two compose, self-produce and perform all of the instruments for a new song, which Frank soon (unbeknownst to Sam) uploads to Spotify, where it eventually becomes an internet hit single.

Where Frank is thrilled and begins to conceptualize a potential series of songs and local shows that he and Sam can write and perform together, Sam remains adamant that her life's dream is to become a doctor, and besides, as she expresses curtly, "We're not a band."

Thus, a band's name, at least in Frank's mind, is born: We're Not A Band.

As for Sam, her Summer is no less fraught with all manner of conflicting emotions and not all of them regarding her relationship with her Dad or the possibility of writing and performing songs together. There is the matter of her still blooming yet bound to conclude relationship with her girlfriend Rose (Sasha Lane), a local artist with her New York roots firmly tied down whereas Sam is more than ready to leave home and head to  California to pursue her medical dreams.

In addition to bailing his increasingly mentally ill Mother, Marianne (Blythe Danner) out of petty crimes and drowning his sorrows at the local bar, owned and operated by his pothead best friend Dave (Ted Danson), Frank arrives at a critical stage of his life as he confronts his own sense of arrested development as he juggles the responsibilities of being a son, an independent business owner, a friend, a potential lover and most importantly of all, a Father.

Brett Haley's "Hearts Beat Loud" is a slice of life film at its warmest, smartest and quite often at its most perceptive regarding interpersonal relationships, especially within families. It is a rightfully melancholic film as its autumnal tone spoke to that specific space where forced life changes  unearth a world of emotions, including feelings of regret for lost chances, past failures, possibilities not taken or achieved and the fear of the unknown future. Haley and his cast remarkably never over play any single moment within the film and absolutely nothing felt to be inauthentic, including the store as Red Hook Records felt to be precisely the type of record store that I would still love to spend time inside of.

Even more than delivering us a great setting or location, "Hearts Beat Loud" lovingly illustrates the creative process at work and play. I loved how Haley allowed all of the songwriting sequences and sections of creativity to play out at deliberate paces, showcasing Frank and Sam, whether alone or together, actually thinking about what they were writing and playing. I loved how they spoke of how the music and lyrics they were creating not only made them feel but how they extended the power of their shared inspiration.

It was as if these two characters were rolling a ball back and forth, building up the songs (which Offerman and Clemons actually perform) piece by piece. Tremendous credit goes to Composer/Songwriter Keegan DeWitt, who crafted material like the film itself, never goes for the hard sell or the easy sentiment. The music never informs the audience of how to feel but so richly captures a feeling, that inexplicable fragile feeling of hearts so powerfully strong that are actually on the verge of breaking and the effect beautifully enhances an already wealthy story and characters, informing everything we are viewing.

For me, in many ways, "Hearts Beat Loud" exists in the same cinematic universe of film like Stephen Frears' "High Fidelity" (2000), most certainly (in fact, just imagine that film's leading character played by John Cusack about 15 years later). Yet, I would also include this film along the ranks of  John Carney's underseen and undervalued "Begin Again" (2013), which also explored the joys of connectivity through the creation of handmade music. And furthermore, I would also link this film with nothing less than Cameron Crowe's "Say Anything..." (1989) and Nicole Holofcener's "Enough Said" (2013) as each of those two films dealt specifically with the relationships between parents and their children who are ready to leave the nest for the larger world,, leaving each side forced to find a newfound independence. 

With "Hearts Beat Loud," the character of Frank Fisher is a figure that could have drowned in sad cliches but was instead given a wealth of predicaments, foibles, virtues, failings and a history that allowed us to gather a full picture of this specific point in this man's life and the exquisite pain he is trying to cope with. Yes, he is losing his store. Yes, he is unsure as to how to successfully care for his Mother to her wishes. Yes, he drinks too much and is more than confused by his relationship with Leslie. And of course, there is the matter of his musical past and the relationship between himself and Sam's other, which I will not even begin to reveal here. With all of those story elements, Haley never loses sight of the film's core, Frank's relationship with his daughter and his fear of possibly losing even one more thing, essentially the most important thing in his life.

It is of no randomness that the film opens with Frank, nearly alone in his store, watching a You Tube music video of the band Tweedy instead of Wilco, as Tweedy is the musical duo made up of Wilco bandleader Jeff Tweedy and his own son, Spencer.  Frank's weekly jam sessions with Sam serve the same purpose creatively, but of Frank's love definitely and his desires to remain connected to his daughter who is growing up and houses a maturity, that must certainly be an echo of her Mother's. Of course, he doesn't wish to tread on Sam's medical dreams but couldn't she just possibly, maybe, hopefully postpone college for a year and just see where their joint songwriting takes them? But then, would he be attempting to live out his as yet unfulfilled musical dreams through his daughter, who carries no true interest in those dreams? 

It is turbulent quandary that makes for an appropriately tension filled dynamic on both ends. Frank makes some crucial errors in judgement, knowingly so, and is therefore, and rightfully, admonished by Sam, who herself is straddling that precarious line between the independence of being a young adult with the fact that she will forever be Frank's little girl. Kiersey Clemons is wonderful finding that delicate balance as she does indeed command a certain authority and maturity while also presenting that insecure, uncertainty and unwillingness to deliberately hurt her Father's feelings. And it is through her terrific performances, as an actress and singer, that she makes "Hearts Beat Loud" work blissfully as a duet between Father and daughter.

In my recent review of Brad Bird's "Incredibles 2," I remarked about how I was underwhelmed and even a little saddened by the barrage of ding-dong Dad cliches regarding the patriarch of the superhero family now forced to stay home and care for the kids while his wife goes off on her heroic adventure. Fathers in the movies have sadly received such terribly short shrift if not downright disrespect, which is, in the 21st century, so pitifully old hat that such notions do need to be fully retired. With "Hearts Beat Loud," Brett Haley and Nick Offerman have given us a Father figure that is correctly not perfect by any means, but one that feels so very real. I deeply appreciated the effort given to not make Frank Fisher a would-be comical Dad cliche but a living, breathing person with dreams and hurts and made whole by the love he possesses for his child. It was more than just refreshing in its matter-of-fact quality, it a gain felt like a minor miracle that it was presented at all.

To that end, it is also a minor miracle that we even have the character of Sam Fisher, again presented without any self-congratulatory fanfare and entirely with a deliberate matter-of-fact quality as she is a girl who just happens to be biracial, as well as one who loves Science and is an out lesbian with a serious girlfriend. Essentially, we would  more likely see a  unicorn on screen than a character like this, who does indeed represent real people living in our very real world but are never fully represented in more mainstream movies. Wisely, Haley never utilizes Sam or Rose to serve as poster children for a cause. For Haley, these are simply two young women who love each other powerfully but are rapidly arriving at a crucial point where their lives will irrevocably change, again making less notice over anything resembling labels and entirely about who they are as people, how they behave and how they feel, ultimately creating one of the most affecting love stories I have seen in quite some time.

And when it is all said and done, Brett Haley's "Hearts Beat Loud" init entirety, is a love story r better yet...a love song. A love song to music, most certainly plus a love song to the communal spaces of record stores, local independent businesses and the neighborhoods in which they live and survive. It is a love song to teenagers in love. It is a love song to education. It is a love song to young women of color with fresh, excited, involved, interesting, and deeply intelligent and empathetic minds and hearts. It is a love song to a world where LGBTQ children are accepted and embraced by their families as well as each other and are allowed to live full and enriched lives just like their heterosexual counterparts. It is a love song to creativity, to inspiration and to all of those bedroom artists, writers and musicians who have their own spaces to dream and the avenues to self-release their gifts to the larger world. Most of all, "Hearts Beat Loud" is a love letter to Fatherhood itself.

And like the best love songs, it pulsates, it aches, it warms, it fills and falls apart only to be filled again the second it is re-played. But remember, no love song can be re-played if it was never heard for the first time. With Brett Haley's "Hearts Beat Loud," I wish for you to take that chance and allow yourself to experience this love song for that first time.

Sunday, July 1, 2018


I wonder if this first image in this posting is of a level of surprise to you!

Yes, dear readers, this film, "Sorry To Bother You" from Writer/Director Boots Riley, is indeed the film that I am exceedingly anxious to see, more than any other set to be released film, in the month of July. I first saw the trailers for what looks to be a searing, and bizarre social satire all the way back in the Winter and ever since, I have practically been salivating as I have awaited its full release. Now that the film is a mere few days away, all I can hope for is that it actually comes to my city! 

Aside from that film, I am also salivating for... 
1. "Mission: Impossible-Fallout" from Writer/Director Christopher McQuarrie, the first director to helm two films within this series, is the rare sequel that does have me extremely excited to witness as this is also the rare series that has improved from film to film. Consider a ticket to this one already bought!
2. And now, here we are with our third and final Marvel film of 2018, and certainly one that has quite a bit to live up to after the towering twin pillars of Marvel's very best efforts Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" and Anthony & Joe Russo's game changing "Avengers: Infinity War." Certainly, Director Peyton Reed, who helmed Ant-Man's terrifically light on its feet inaugural adventure is more than up to the task with his sequel "Ant-Man and the Wasp," and again, I am more than ready to plunk down my hard earned money and time.

As life will be particularly busy this month, I think these three films are more than enough for me to try and keep up with over these next 31 days. So, as always, please do wish me luck and good health and I'll see you when the house lights go down!!!!!!!!!!!