Friday, July 19, 2019

PETER PARKER'S EUROPEAN VACATION: a review of "Spider-Man: Far From Home"

Based upon the Marvel Comics series created by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
Screenplay Written by Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers
Directed by Jon Watts
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

And what is known as "Phase 3" of the Marvel Cinematic Universe now comes to a close.

Now with my specific brand of "superhero movie fatigue," of which I have expressed to you time and again over the years, I am indeed of somewhat mixed feelings at this time. On the one hand, it is good to know that we will have at least a year before we have a new Marvel installment to experience and to that, I am already enjoying the fact that we will have a break, some time away to allow ourselves to miss this cinematic world and experience new ones before the inevitable grand return.

On the other hand, what in the world could possibly follow Anthony and Joe Russo's "Avengers: Endgame," the titanic and outstanding culmination of Marvel's 11 year, inter-connected adventures in the movies?! One woud think that the powers that be at Marvel would want to have significant time away to re-group and think about where they could possibly go next now that the battle against Thanos has concluded with a certain line-in-the-sand finality. In short, the Marvel movie world will never be quite the same again.

So, we arrive at Director Jon Watts' "Spider-Man: Far From Home," the sequel to the surprisingly terrific "Spider-Man: Homecoming" (2017), as well as serving as what is essentially an epilogue to "Avengers: Endgame." Even more surprisingly, what Watts has delivered is no mere post-script, a more low-key palate cleanser to the gargantuan epic nature of "Avengers: Endgame."

While the tonality of the latest escapade of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is decidedly lighter than the wrenching, doom laden experience of "Avengers: Endgame," it is not an exercise in frivolity. On the contrary, Jon Watts has accomplished a feat that deserves any and all of the attention it receives as "Spider-Man: Far From Home" is a richly textured, high-flying and wholly complete installment that not only closes the book on all that has arrived before but it also deftly sets the stage for what may arrive in the future, while simultaneously ensuring that this one film can stand firmly and fully upon its own cinematic feat.

Opening months after the triumphant and tragic events of "Avengers: Endgame," the world is still within its earliest stages of coming to terms with Thanos' inter-galactic genocide (heretofore known as "the Blip") and recovering from it.

Peter Parker, otherwise known as Spider-Man (again played wonderfully by Tom Holland), more than personally affected by "the Blip," returns to his Queens, New York high school wanting nothing more than to take an extended break from his super-heroics, going so far as to blatantly ignore contact from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) himself.

Peter's wishes for a getaway arrives in the form of a two-week European summer excursion with his classmates, including best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon), wealthy rival Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), Betty Brandt (Angourie Rice) and secret crush MJ (Zendaya) plus his teachers Roger Harrington (Martin Starr) and Julius Dell (JB Smoove) as chaperones.

Yet, not long after arriving in Venice, potential cataclysm arrives in the form of the Elementals, massive creatures devised of the four elements of air, water, fire and earth and all ready to wreak havoc--the very type of forces Peter desperately wishes to avoid and is indeed unable to stop all by himself. Help miraculously appears in the form of Quentin Beck a.k.a. Mysterio (a terrific Jake Gyllenhaal), a hero from an alternate Earth in the expanding Multi-verse who has been hunting down the creatures and bent on destroying them once and for all.

For Peter Parker, Beck is precisely the figure he feels that he needs at this time; someone more equipped than he to shoulder the weight of saving the world and also possibly, central ingredient to a potential new team of Fury's Avengers. But all is not as it seems, as Peter reaches a new crossroads in his life as Spider-Man...and oh yes, will he ever be able to ask MJ out for that date?? 

In a time and place when we really do not ever need to have another Spider-Man anything, Jon Watts' "Spider-Man: Far From Home" is indeed that rare sequel that improves upon its already strong first installment, through a tight screenplay, rich characters, excellent performances throughout, superlative visual effects as well as one razzle dazzle of a cliffhanger that upends the Marvel universe even further. Watts also greatly accomplishes performing the especially tricky task of building upon the Marvel Cinematic Universe by immediately following up "Avengers: Endgame" and the consequences of "the Blip" while not sacrificing the more playfully energetic tone and energy of "Spider-Man: Homecoming" and the results are absolutely splendid.

Jon Watts continues to create a dazzling aesthetic that contains a pace and style that suggests a work akin to Preston Sturges by way of John Hughes, as the dialogue and humor is as superbly fleet of foot as the action set pieces. While he continues to have the film fly at a breakneck pace, Watts attains an even greater sense of control and purpose for detailing his vision for what a Spider-Man film could be, and for "Spider-Man: Far From Home" (and without divulging any potential spoilers), he has created a film that works simultaneously as a comic book adventure, romantic comedy, coming-of-age film and even one that is more than self-reflexive regarding the nature of how we interact with not only special effects, but the art of the movies themselves--engaging ourselves within the act of believing what we know is unbelievable.

For as genuinely funny and as entertaining as "Spider-Man: Far From Home" is, I deeply appreciated the sense of pathos that Watts gently injected into the film regarding Peter Parker's inner journey and for that matter, Tom Holland is equal to every moment given to him, creating tremendous empathy and a hero we will always root for. In many ways, especially as Peter Parker looked up to Tony Stark as his mentor, the film places echoes of Stark's journey within Peter Parker's.

Up until the devastating events of Anthony and Joe Russo's "Avengers: Infinity War" (2018), the Peter Parker we knew was one of restless teenage abandon, a young man anxious to be a part of the action, to be an Avenger, to be an adult and his recklessness literally reduced him to ashes. With "Spider-Man: Far From Home," we meet a Peter Parker forever changed from the events of Blip and rightfully so, he is reluctant to pick up the hero's mantle again and more than likely, he is indeed scarred with PTSD, just like Tony Stark was afflicted after venturing through a wormhole in Joss Whedon's "The Avengers" (2012). 

Jon Watts is now delivering a more reflective Peter Parker, more troubled and shaken and unsure of himself and his reluctance to grow up and questioning his desires to even be Spider-Man anymore let alone pick up where the previous Avengers had left off. All of this is handled in a light, and even tender style, again much like a John Hughes film, where smack dab in the middle of the adventure, Watts gives us a Hughes-ian heart-to heart between Peter Parker and Tony Stark's former bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), designed to help Peter make sense of where he has been, his present state and how he will move onwards because even after tragedy, life does indeed still progress...and the world of Marvel still needs its heroes.

Dear readers, this year has truly found the Marvel movies in an especially sweet spot, as well have received three films this year that have interlocked and advanced the larger narrative intricately and with grand style and substance. Jon Watts' "Spider-Man: Far From Home" has beautifully concluded this latest wave of Marvel films not with a placeholder but one that is essential to the ever expanding conceptual canvas.   

And for as much superhero fatigue as I am harboring, this film has made me more than thirsty for the next one.

Monday, July 8, 2019

ALL THE WRONG NOTES: a review of "Yesterday"

Story by Jack Barth and Richard Curtis
Screenplay Written by Richard Curtis
Directed by Danny Boyle
*1/2 (one and a half stars)

The mystery and magic of The Beatles will never cease to amaze me.

For example, for all of us who have ever loved The Beatles, it amazes me that over these 50 plus years and regardless of generation, race and walk of life, these four men--John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr--were inexplicably able to create music that spoke to the time in which it was created while also transcending it, generating songs that were universal and yet, for every listener, the music and the experience of interacting with it was also intensely individualistic. My life with The Beatles is not the same as anyone else's. My favorite songs and albums are not the same as anyone else's as the experiences of them are indeed so deeply personal to the point of even being primal. And yet, we all can join together for the same shared feeling...the love we all have for the same music.

What an unbelievable feat to achieve and how extraordinary that even now, in the 21st century, the songs feel as fresh as the day they were written and recorded and I just find it inconceivable to imagine a world without The Beatles existing in it--and that even includes the inevitable sad day to come when all four men pass on into the universe.

This conceit is precisely what makes the concept of "Yesterday," the new musical fantasy from Director Danny Boyle and Writer Richard Curtis, so ingenious. To honestly imagine a world where The Beatles, so omnipresent and a part of our collective existence as the sun and the sky, suddenly vanished from existence and human consciousness save for only one individual is exactly the conceptual kick in the cinematic pants the movies have needed since we have been so overrun with sequels, prequels, re-boots, remakes and re-imaginings. And that is what makes it so tremendously disheartening to announce that "Yesterday" is a resounding failure.

It is not for lack of imagination for the concept is, as I have already stated, ingenious. But an idea or a concept is not a film and unfortunately, this is what both Boyle and Curtis have arrived with: an idea masquerading as a full length film, an idea that clearly was never even thought of beyond its own initial stages, making for an experience that is demonstrably beneath anything worthy of The Beatles and for anyone who has ever loved them. Yes, this is easily the worst film I have seen so far this year.

"Yesterday" stars Himesh Patel, in a thoroughly winning performance, as Jack Malik, a former school teacher and struggling singer/songwriter. Lily Allen, co-stars as Ellie Appleton, also a school teacher and Jack's childhood friend and manager who also secretly loves him.

On one fateful night, as Jack is riding his bicycle home, a global blackout occurs and he is hit by a transit bus, knocking him to the pavement unconscious, When he awakens in the hospital, he soon discovers (aside from two teeth being gruesomely battered out of his mouth from the accident), that he is the only person in the world who possesses any knowledge of The Beatles.

Seizing this newfound opportunity, Jack soon begins to pass off the music of The Beatles as his own compositions, a decision that ultimately garners him worldwide attention and acclaim as the greatest singer/songwriter even as he grows increasingly conflicted now that is life has become a lie.

Dear readers, I am simply incredulous at the wasted opportunity Danny Boyle's "Yesterday" actually is, especially when armed with such a truly inspired concept. In some ways, it is the latest entry in the new round of, what I guess could be called "jukebox classic rock musicals," during which the overall result is to just have audiences happily sing along with the tunes we all know and love and to completely disregard the work it takes to create a good movie fueled with and anchored by great storytelling. And despite the large amount of songs on display in the film from end to end, "Yesterday" accomplishes, so to speak, a bizarre feat--to be a Beatles inspired movie that honestly has really no regard or any real opinion about The Beatles.

As I watched "Yesterday," Julie Taymor's Beatles inspired musical kaleidoscope "Across The Universe" (2007) came to mind often as that was indeed an ambitious yet unsuccessful film that was a wholly strange one as Taymor created an experience which was Beatles inspired, contained characters named after Beatles' song characters who sang one Beatles song after another and existed within a very real 1960's landscape filled with the iconographic figures and events of the era...except for The Beatles themselves!

To be fair, Boyle and Curtis do create some genuinely warm moments throughout "Yesterday," while also delivering a gentle satire about the sad state of affairs in the 21st century music business (addressing the novelty of having one songwriter as opposed to a fleet of writers and producers was sharp and additionally, Ed Sheeran, who portrays himself, is a trooper with all of the barbs flying in his direction). Again, Hamish Patel, in his debut film performance during which he sings and elicits musical performances with genuine verve and depth, is absolutely terrific as is Joel Fry as Jack's sidekick roadie, Rocky.

And finally, we have Lily Allen, who unquestionably made the most of her criminally underwritten role as the long suffering, perpetually unrequited Ellie. She certainly shared some rich chemistry with Patel but honestly, it is 2019, and our actresses deserve so much better than being forced to enliven the type of insipid role that went out of date decades ago.

But having Lily Allen essentially look pretty, wistful and sad for two hours was not this film's greatest cinematic sin. It is the fact that both Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis elicited no ideas beyond its initial one. Granted, as the film begins, all is well and involving. As Jack slowly begins to realize how the world around him has changed and he begins to plagiarize Beatles songs and then perform them for friends and family, he doesn't initially receive any rapturous responses.

At first this confused me but quickly, I realized that this was may have been the right move to make because, if we are to believe that we are witnessing a world that has no idea of who or what The Beatles even are, then, of course, it would be a world that would never miss them. In doing so, no one would know what they are missing in the first place. It would be as if say...Culture Club ceased to be in the public's collective consciousness or something like that. The world would simply go onwards without a care.

But then what?

This is where "Yesterday" goes disastrously wrong, and even during those early scenes when Jack's friends and family are not initially bowled over by his "new" songwriting compositions. For if these people are not transformed by the songs, then what is it about The Beatles' music that has made it so beloved for generations upon generations in the first place?

"Yesterday" doesn't even begin to even ponder what it is about The Beatles and their music that would even make it something to be loved and therefore to be missed to the point where the world itself would never feel the same to Jack. And in doing so, Jack's rise to stardom also does not make any sense whatsoever because the film never bothered to explore what makes these songs so brilliant and timeless.

Why do we love The Beatles? This is really a question that only people who love The Beatles can answer for each and every answer, I would imagine, would be so different yet so inter-connected. Furthermore, if the same people were asked how they would envision a world with The Beatles, just imagine what answers would be given!! In essence, a potential film like that is more interesting than any moment within "Yesterday" because neither Danny Boyle or Richard Curtis ever, at any point, bother to even approach that very question and it was just unfathomable to me, and after some time, it even began to make me angry.

I absolutely hate it when movies are wasted opportunities for no reason other than the filmmakers never tried and "Yesterday" is precisely that, a movie that doesn't even try to address the very subject it introduced. It was a film inspired by The Beatles that possessed no opinions about The Beatles so what was the point of the whole escapade? To that end, the film often abandoned the concept to just rally itself around terminal romantic comedy cliches as if we were witnessing rightfully discarded scenes from Curtis' "Love Actually" (2003). 

And even then, neither Boyle or Curtis ever seemed interested in how or why something so bizarre like the erasure of The Beatles could happen--and for that matter, why are other well known items like Coca Cola, Harry Potter and Oasis (a nice touch) removed from public knowledge, and therefore, existence? And with an omission this glaring, "Yesterday" is a film that truly contains no reason or resolution. Honestly, Thanos' SNAP was more compelling!!!

And even then, I absolutely loathed a late film sequence which was clearly designed to be a moment of perhaps tearful, hopeful whimsy but in actuality, formulated a moment and emotions that felt so unbelievably wrong and frankly, irresponsible as it was so shamelessly cheap.

Dear readers, I happened to see this film on the 79th birthday of Ringo Starr and one month, almost to the day after seeing Paul McCartney live in concert in my city and from the 15th row at that! Those two milestones hold such significance for me because The Beatles have been instrumental to my DNA ever since the year of my birth and for 50 years since my arrival. I have never known a world without The Beatles and I honestly am unable to conceive of a time when they did not exist, even though I know that time did exist.

For me, The Beatles are dreams and visions. The Beatles are hopes and heartbreak. The Beatles are plans, schemes, fun, frivolity, passion, playfulness, pain, healing, uplift, despair, individualism and independence as well as blessed union and communion. The Beatles are indeed peace and love as presented through the prism of an inexplicable alchemy that happened when those four men joined together to play and create music.

Why didn't Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis do just that? Just sit together, shoulder to shoulder and transcribe what The Beatles possibly meant to themselves and then, fashion a story and screenplay based upon the list they devised and then, fashion a cinematic experience to honor their perceptions of what The Beatles mean to them? These two men are talented filmmakers and, what in the hell happened with "Yesterday"?

 The Beatles and everyone who loves them deserved so much better.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019


Last month was a bust. Broke down and busted!

That statement was not directed at any of the perceived quality of films released during the moth of June. And that is because I just did not see any...literally.

Due to an inexplicable mishap with my glasses and being saddled with an ancient pair armed with an equally ancient prescription making it difficult to view anything at all-including this very computer screen on which I am currently writing to you--I saw not even one film in June, and one of the ones that I had hoped to see, the comedy "Late Night," has already bombed at the box office and has vanished from my local theater screens.  Such is the sad state of the current theatrical landscape where films do not eve have an honest chance anymore...but that is for a whole 'nother posting...

So, with the addition of Danny Boyle's "Yesterday," which just opened but I have yet to still see as I do not have my new glasses, I am going to keep this month's activities rather conservative...
Director Jon Watts' "Spider-Man: Far From Home," the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and post-script to "Avengers: Endgame" has arrived and of course, I'll be there.

Beyond that, the most anticipated film of the month for me is unquestionably...
Yes indeed...the penultimate film of Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino's film career is almost upon us and especially after its rapturous reception at this year's Cannes Film Festival, I am more than ready to bask in the unparalleled dialogue and storytelling gifts of this idiosyncratic artist.

All things considered, this is more than enough to realistically plan for this month. So, please, as always wish me luck and i will see you w hen the house lights go down!!!!

Saturday, June 8, 2019

THE BALLAD OF CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: a review of "Rocketman"

Screenplay Written by Lee Hall
Directed by Dexter Fletcher
*** (three stars)

First things first. It is an exceedingly better, more inventive, imaginative film than anything we saw in Bryan Singer's "Bohemian Rhapsody" (2018), his award winning, box office bonanza biopic, such as it was, of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury, a film I was enormously disappointed with. But that being said, "Rocketman," the biopic and self-described musical fantasy of the life of Elton John as directed by Dexter Fletcher, who incidentally completed "Bohemian Rhapsody" once Singer was fired from that film's troubled production, is not the high flying success I wished for it to be either.

Now this is not to say that "Rocketman" was necessarily a disappointment and it is not remotely a bad film and in turn, it is not a great one either. That said, Dexter Fletcher has indeed crafted an unusual, unorthodox, often dazzling, often treacly film that did house a certain nuance and conceptual depth that "Bohemian Rhapsody" botched over and again. But it was often also an awkward film too--one that smacked of existing as more of a jukebox musical, a primer for Elton John's Las Vegas residency performances rather than an actual movie, a tactic which did indeed dilute the emotional impact for me.

Focusing upon the time period from his early life through the early/mid 1980's, "Rocketman"  opens with titanic, seemingly on top of the world music superstar Elton John (Taron Egerton), fully adorned within the red devil costume from his rock concerts, storming into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, after plummeting to his rock bottom as he is consumed with alcoholism, drug, spending and sex abuse, and rage issues.

As he begins to explain and explore how he has arrived at this point in his life, the film takes us back to his unhappy childhood, under his given name of Reginald "Reggie" Dwight (played by Kit Connor and Matthew Illesley, respectively), complete with his uninvolved, often absent, taciturn Father, Stanley (Stephen Mackintosh) a Royal Air Force officer and his depressingly cold Mother, Shelia Eileen (Bryce Dallas Howard). If it were not for the warmth and grace of his Grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones), Reginald would never have known love at all. 

During the fallout of the dissolution of his parents' marriage, Reggie takes up an interest in the piano, begins studies at the Royal Academy Of Music and also discovers the power of rock and roll. All of these experiences are stepping stones that led not only to the formation of Bluesology, a combo Reggie (now portrayed by Egerton) performed at local pubs with, but also his fateful meeting with budding lyricist Bernie Taupin (a strong Jamie Bell) and Reggie's adoption of the name and new identity of "Elton John."

From here, the film is a rocket ride indeed as we are propelled through Elton John's rise to super-stardom with one high flying radio hit after another, sold out stadiums, riches, wealth, global fame and outlandish costumes galore. And yet, the yellow brick road is not always painted with gold bricks as Elton John struggles with his closeted homosexuality, a dark, secret affair with the duplicitous, abusive music manager John Reid (Richard Madden), a downward spiral into all manner of debauchery, seemingly bottomless anger and suicide attempts--all fueled by his intense desire to find love--the love, his Grandmother and Bernie Taupin notwithstanding, that has largely eluded him throughout his life, honest, true and wholly accepting.   

As I ruminate over "Rocketman," I am unable to not think about the most curious odyssey of Dexter Fletcher as he, in fact, was the original director of "Bohemian Rhapsody"...that is, until the studio in question rejected the screenplay he had, which was decidedly much darker, more explicit and R rated than the considerably safer, tamer, PG 13 version that was delivered and that Fletcher completed after the aforementioned firing of Bryan Singer.

With "Rocketman," it is easy to gleam precisely what Fletcher would have brought to the table with "Bohemian Rhapsody," and what he was finally able to achieve was a film experience that was unquestionably and refreshingly more daring, yet at the same time, it did indeed not wish to color outside of the cinematic lines too boldly for fear of alienating that mass appeal. So, Fletcher, I felt, kind of wanted to have it both ways, which I do think is achievable but also for me, one that did water things down when the whole experience could existed at a full on boil. 

While the film length confessions-at-an AA meeting format was more than a little corny for my tastes, it did, however, possess a certain classic more melodrama conceit that does work fairly well with the Elton John mythology. Furthermore, what this format did accomplish well was to be a music biopic while essentially eschewing with the music biopic format, and ultimately, Fletcher was then able to circumvent all of the obstacles that became the very worst elements that impeded the success of "Bohemian Rhapsody" so tremendously, most notably, all of the historical and factual inaccuracies throughout in favor of decisions that invented "drama" rather than just leaning upon the inherent drama in the story of Freddie Mercury and Queen.

As this is a film that does exist within the mind of Elton John taking stock of his life, Dexter Fletcher's "Rocketman" is, at its core, is a film about memory, and since memories are not always reliable, especially a man's memories now muddled with time, anger, heartache and a variety of addictions, we are dealing not with strict facts but the emotional facts of Elton John's life. Any factual liberties taken within "Rocketman" are purposeful as events may or may not have happened in the exact way as presented in the film, but what we see, and what we feel are designed to give us an impression for what it may have felt like to be in Elton John's platform shoes. That is where the drama exists and in doing so, the film remains emotionally honest where "Bohemian Rhapsody" failed consistently and inexcusably.

Was the genesis of "Your Song" really concocted, nearly in full and instantaneously, at Elton's childhood home as depicted so lovingly in the film? Maybe...maybe not. But, perhaps this is what it felt like. A wonderful sequence set during the early 1970's at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles, depicts Elton John, and the audience, being literally lifted off of the ground during his performance, something that may truly been what it felt like at the time it happened for real. A wild later sequence set during an orgy again may have been what it felt like rather than being literally real. The deeply vertigo inducing "Pinball Wizard" sequence, so dizzying it was difficult for me to fully watch it, was also quite perfect as the images made you feel what Elton John himself had to have been feeling during his 1970's heydey as he was the center of the swirling cyclone of fame, success and turmoil.

Even better is the film's true storytelling core as "Rocketman" is indeed a tale of the cycle of abuse and the lengths it took to break that cycle within John himself as he rebuilt himself psychologically and emotionally after the damage done by his parents and his manager. Fletcher often utilizes the tactic of having the adult Elton John interact with the child Reginald Dwight, again an emotional truth as presented through all manner of dream sequences and suicide attempt driven hallucinations--inducing a great one set within an ocean like swimming pool as adult Elton sings "Rocket Man" alongside the child Reginald, who sits at the bottom of the pool with an air bubble around his head. 

For all of the razzle dazzle, and furthermore, it cannot be overstated how important it was that the film did not exist as remotely as "straight-washed" as "Bohemian Rhapsody," Dexter Fletcher is no Ken Russell, so to speak, the Herculean filmmaker behind orgiastic films like his adaptation of The Who's "Tommy" (1975) and his dangerously unhinged biopic of Franz Liszt with "Lisztomania" (1975)-for whether Russell succeeded or failed artistically, he was utterly fearless and uncompromising with his cinematic visions...and he never blinked.  

To that end, "Rocketman," as unorthodox as it often is, does stay in fairly safe territory instead of  being the art film high wire act that it could have been, therefore keeping it as a film that is not in the same league as films like Bob Fosse's relentless "All That Jazz" (1979), Milos Forman's astonishing "Amadeus" (1984), Oliver Stone's operatic "The Doors" (1991), Todd Haynes' loosely veiled David Bowie/glam rock era/homosexual awakening saga "Velvet Goldmine" (1998) as well as his largely ahead of the curve Bob Dylan pastiche "I'm Not There" (2007), which featured no less than seven actors portraying pieces of the Dylan persona and finally Don Cheadle's underseen, undervalued "Miles Ahead" (2015), his searing portrait of the the artist Miles Davis during his self-imposed, drug infused sabbatical when he did not create.

Certainly, this is not to suggest that a musical biopic styled film cannot be artistically driven and work on mass appeal as Taylor Hackford's terrific, Oscar winning "Ray" (2004) about the life and times of Ray Charles, can attest. Yet what all of these aforementioned films can equally attribute to their successes, and what I felt to be lacking in "Rocketman" was a strict attention to its own inherent tonality and full attention to what sort of a film does it want itself to be.

As I have previously stated, I often felt what Flethcher presented in "Rocketman" was, overall, a tad awkward. Did this film wish to be a rock opera or a classic MGM musical or a stage musical or a hybrid or something entirely different? There are sequences where characters sing directly to each other as if in either a rock opera or classic MGM musical or a stage musical and sometimes the tactic works and other times, it just doesn't.

And mostly, everything felt, a tad too often, to be a film akin to Julie Taymor's dream vision of The  Beatles' music with "Across The Universe" (2007), a wildly inventive film that unfortunately sagged under its own ambitions, and the reality that Taymor added one Beatles song after anther and another even when it made no narrative sense whatsoever.  And therefore, it was the jukebox quality of "Rocketman" that keep it at arms length a bit for me as the addition of songs just to add them, felt like mass appeal pandering rather than actual storytelling.   

The same uneven quality could also be descriptive towards the film's performances as well. Where Jamie Bell, Richard Madden and even Stephen Graham as British music publisher and label head Dick James were all excellent for instance, Bryce Dallas Howard, try as she might, certainly struggled with her English accent, thus keeping the fullness of her performance off-kilter.

But I do have to turn my attention to Taron Egerton in the film's leading role as Elton John and wile he ran rings around what we saw with Rami Malek's work as Freddie Mercury in "Bohemian Rhapsody," I wouldn't entirely call it a home run either. is an extremely daring, swing for the fences choice to have Egerton, at his own insistence, perform all of his own singing in the film, especially as he attempts to emulate the now iconic singing voice of Elton John, and that element of his performance is a huge risk that paid off handsomely. But singing in your own voice is not a full performance either.

Now, this is not to say that Egerton can't act. He most certainly can and he often does tap into some true, primal emotional territory as he brings John's story and inner world to vivid life with high wattage energy, a strong physicality and yes, his strong singing voice. But also, in other aspects, Egerton's performance is a bit one-note as he has not yet developed a greater nuance to convey a wider emotional reach. In essence, there are more ways to convey anger, confusion, and spiraling out of control than just yelling and screaming your dialogue at full throttle, a technique Egerton leaned on a bit heavily as the film wore on and that too also kept the film at arms length for me. Perhaps this was how he was directed or perhaps not. Even so, he kept reaching for the stars and I deeply appreciate him for trying at his most valiant.

Better yet to try and take risks and to not try at all. When it was all said and done, Dexter Fletcher's "Rocketman" was a good film I think I appreciated more than I actually liked...but as I ponder over it now, I wonder if it was perhaps a little better than I am giving it credit for. Regardless, as a cinematic piece of the on-going Elton John mythology, the film does make for a fine addition to the canon and i this worth re-visiting.

But, I think I'll just stick primarily to the albums I have loved for almost the entirety of my life instead.

Saturday, June 1, 2019


I wish to see this film right now!!!

In our time of sequels, prequels, franchise, remakes, reboots and re-imaginings, I have decried the plethora of these films at the expense of absolutely every other kind of film that could be made for movie lovers, like myself and as I would gather, for you as well. Yes, I loved "Avengers: Endgame" and you know, I am just salivating with anticipation for "Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise Of Skywalker" this Christmas. But that being said, I have no need for those types of films each week, as the diversity of what we can all experience in the movies decreases tremendously, therefore hurting audiences and the movies as an art form overall.

Basically, there are times when I just want to see movies about human beings. And most of all, I wish to see films that are original.

So, when I first saw the trailer for "Yesterday," the latest film from Director Danny Boyle, about a young musician who awakens to find himself in a world where not one soul has ever heard of The Beatles other than himself, I nearly jumped out of my seat because, here was a film I had not seen well as one where my love affair with The Beatles could hopefully continue beautifully. I am hoping the end result proves itself to being a veritable magical mystery tour.

In addition to that film, I am hoping to check out...

As I have been writing about in recent years, especially, representation is everything! And the fact that "Late Night," starring Emma Thompson as a veteran late night comedy talk show hostess and Mindy Kaling, as her new staff writer (and who also wrote this film), having these viewpoints already makes me perks up my cinematic ears, so to speak. So, I am looking forward to this one.
The trailer for this film, from first time Director Joe Talbot, was haunting in its elegance and it deeply intrigued me. I hope it makes it to my city so I am able to check it out.

And with the screening of "Rocketman" awaiting me this weekend, I am thinking that this makes for a realistic list of potential films to see for the month. So, as always, wish me well and I'll see you when the house lights go down!!!

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

SMART GIRLS GONE WILD: a review of "Booksmart"

Screenplay Written by Emily Halpern & Sarah Haskins and Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman
Directed by Olivia Wilde 
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Just in time for graduation season!

The cinematic sub-genre of the coming-of-age film, most specifically, the end-of-high-school film during which the protagonists are all in pursuit of one final party blow out, has become almost as much of a rite of passage as just living through the experience for ourselves. Tales of teenagers all attempting to place that exclamation point on the conclusion of their high school experiences and all of the turbulent, bittersweet emotions that ensue (and so often, accompanied by whatever manner of sexual escapades that do or do not occur) are eternal hallmarks of the teen film genre, of which I am a self-professed connoisseur (especially to those of you who know me in the real world can firmly attest).

With the brazen, brash and bold arrival of "Booksmart," the film directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, we have an unrepentantly foul mouthed, hard R rated comedy that often feels like a throwback to the teen sex comedies of the early 1980's, some smash hits, nearly all of them terrible and fully populated by a squadron of horny teenage boys and unforgivably nameless teenage girls who exist solely as objects, play toys or conquests and so eagerly available to show their bare breasts on camera.

As those films so crassly treated their targeted audience as soulless products, it took fiilmmakers and storytellers like Martha Coolidge, Cameron Crowe, Amy Heckerling and unquestionably the late John Hughes to effectively change the teen film genre game by treating their target audiences as people who were worthy of having their experiences told with honesty, heart, compassion and often, with copious, ribald humor. Since the 1990's, it has been a more than refreshing pleasure to witness more entries in the genre exist with female characters at their respective cores, including Amy Hecklering's "Clueless" (1995), Mark Waters and screenwriter/actress Tina Fey's "Mean Girls" (2004), Will Gluck's "Easy A" (2010), Kelly Fremon Craig's "The Edge Of Seventeen" (2016), Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird" (2017) and Bo Burnham's "Eighth Grade" (2018), to name some highlights.

In continuing with this healthy twist, Olivia Wilde's "Booksmart" gives us two girls in the leading roles, and what firecrackers they are at that! Formidable, feminist, and (again) feverishly foul mouthed heroines that you would follow anywhere, especially during this film's one long night of misadventures. While the film did not quite sail me over the top, Olivia Wilde most certainly has announced her full arrival as a filmmaker to watch exceedingly closely as her cheerfully take no prisoners aesthetic and restless invention have given us not only the finest motion picture comedy in some time, but has also ensured that our most recent high school graduates can easily and proudly claim "Booksmart" as their own.

Opening upon the last day of school, the eve of their high school graduation, "Booksmart" stars Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein as Amy and Molly, respectively, lifelong best friends long considered to being pretentious by their peers--and even their Principal Jordan Brown (Jason Sudekis)--who are mortified to learn that the classmates they looked down upon for their excessive partying and sexual promiscuity, were also admitted into the same Ivy League colleges that they were admitted to themselves.

Feeling as though they have cheated themselves of a crucial part of their  high school experience, Amy and Molly decided to correct that supposed wrong all in one night by attending the greatest party of the school year, held at high school Vice President Nick's (Mason Gooding) aunt's house while she is away.

Of course, easier said than done, especially for two studious, completely inexperienced girls like Amy and Molly, each of whom houses powerful crushes upon the gawky, sunshine skater girl Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) and yes indeed, Nick, respectively and during a long night in which our heroines experience unfortunate Lyft car rides, unexpected drug trips, a murder mystery party, a lost cell phone, copious amounts of alcohol, a frisky popular teacher, jail time, a Dante's Inferno level cast of characters and a farewell to high school combined with the fears of growing up and possibly growing apart.

Olivia Wilde's "Booksmart" is raucous, brassy, cacophonous entertainment fueled by lightning paced dialogue peppered with an ocean's worth of profanities, a whipcrack visual style (complete with stop motion animation and even a dance sequence) and a beautifully cast ensemble led by our two titanic leads in Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein (who incidentally, just happens to be Jonah Hill's sister--and once you see her in action, the comparisons are paramount).

Already, comparisons have been made between "Booksmart" and Greg Mottola and producer Judd Apatow's "Superbad" (2007), which starred the aforementioned Jonah Hill and Michael Cera as best friends and high school senior outcasts who wish to have one last blast and lose their virginity before graduating from high school. In many ways, "Booksmart" does indeed make for a fine companion piece to "Superbad" due to certain plot similarities, the voluminous amount of vulgarities placed throughout and most importantly, the surprisingly sweet core of that film which served the friendship between these two boys and their respective fears of girls, the future and a life apart from each other during college.

For Olivia Wilde's "Booksmart," Dever and Feldstein's superb chemistry is absolutely tremendous and feels as honest and as lived in as one would expect to see from characters who have been lifelong best friends, who know each other as intimately as they do, while also beginning to show some strain with each other's faults as the ticking clock of high school beats faster and faster towards the end.

What makes "Booksmart" stand far apart from "Superbad" and other films within the teen film genre is how Olivia Wilde never makes the night before graduation odyssey revolve entirely around Amy and Molly's individual pursuits of their respective love interests--although I do applaud Wilde for making Amy's lesbianism as matter-of-fact as Molly's heterosexuality throughout the film. Even so, and despite how those love interests do indeed help to drive the film's plot, the core and full emotional ride of "Booksmart" rests firmly in the film's real love story contained in the friendship between Amy and Molly and how that very friendship begins to fracture.

Both Amy and Molly are indeed ferociously intelligent as well as ambitious--for Amy, it is a summer spent in Botswana and for Molly, well...the voluminous force of Molly's ambition to eventually make her way on to the United States Supreme Court would even make Tracy Flick of Alexander Payne's "Election" (1999) shudder! Where they differ is within their temperaments and that is what truly causes some fault lines to appear upon this transformative night as Molly's bull headed and even bullying determination, which is fueled by her sense of competitive rage threatens to push Amy away from her when the intent is to inspire her more tentative friend to try new experiences.

This friction makes for an extremely poignant dynamic as both girls are social outcasts, either ignored, misunderstood or loathed by their classmates, making for an existence where they deeply need each other to cope and survive...or does Molly need Amy to justify her anger filled incredulity with her surroundings more than Amy needs Molly's dogged influence in the long run?

And so, throughout the utter cyclone of hilarity that Olivia Wilde hurls at us from one end of the film to the other, she very wisely creates a dual portrait of two young women reaching their conjoined benchmark moments, which may illustrate that Molly (who begins each day listening to with profane laced meditations) may not be as self-assured as she perceives herself to being and that Amy is much stronger than she ever gave herself credit for.

While for my personal tastes, this cinematic friendship will do nothing to unseat the near philosophical poetry of what John Hughes presented with his deeply perceptive and observed friendship between high school seniors Ferris and Cameron in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986), Olivia Wilde unquestionably creates a relationship to cheer on, celebrate and (almost) ache for its continuation as Amy and Molly prepare to leave high school behind.   

But yes, "Booksmart" is indeed a comedy and what a high flying comedy it is as it is filled with a wonderful ensemble cast, filled front to back with performers who I have a feeling we will be seeing in films for years to come. I must make special notice of Billie Lourd (the late Carrie Fisher's daughter), who really creates a grand impression with the downright bizarre, wealthy, drug fueled Gigi, who possesses an uncanny ability to almost magically appear in one situation after another to an increasingly hysterical degree. 

Despite my high praise, I do have some issues, some minor, some not. In some ways there is something well worn about the overall conceit of "Booksmart" that makes it pale in comparison to other films within this specific genre of teen film, that ceased it from flying over the top in my estimation. Frankly, it is a tall order to create a film of this sort and somehow have it scale the same heights as we have already experienced in George Lucas' "American Graffiti" (1973), Amy Hecklering's "Fast Times At Ridgemonth High" (1982) and Richard Linklater's "Dazed And Confused" (1993) and as terrific as "Booksmart" is, it is not in the same league as those films.

But then, there is one potentially troubling element that I do feel the need to address and that is the depiction of best friends George (Noah Galvin) and especially Alan (Austin Crute), two homosexual boys.

Now, for all of the comical as well as mature strides as depicted within the character of Amy throughout "Booksmart," there was just a little something that felt off to me with George and Alan. I would gather it is really up to how members of the LGBTQ community feel about them, but for me, they veered dangerously close to stale caricatures rather than fresh characters, no matter how funny they were. In a way, it was as of Wilde gave us her gay versions of Hughes' still controversial Long Duk Dong character from his "Sixteen Candles" (1984) as they both (especially Alan) smacked of the very gay stereotypes that we haven't even seen since 1984, and for that, I wish for Wilde to just be careful in the future.

Even with those concerns and quibbles, I strongly feel that with "Booksmart," Olivia Wilde has definitely delivered her calling card as a filmmaker, one of enormous skill and drive and has created an insightful, progressive, unabashedly feminist teen comedy as it propels the glory of female friendships and camaraderie to vibrant heights. Wilde has got a GREAT film in her and while "Booksmart" doesn't quite hit that home run, it comes pretty damn close and hilariously keeps the teen film genre alive and kicking!

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

I'M WITH CHARLIZE!!: a review of "Long Shot"

Story by Dan Sterling
Screenplay Written by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah
Directed by Jonathan Levine
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

In our age of sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes, re-imaginings and the like, it has been darkly amazing to witness just how many films are not being made by mainstream Hollywood studios very much, if not at all, anymore. Case in point is the romantic comedy, one of the sturdiest genres in the history of film but one that has all but ceased to be in recent years as superheroes and all manner of multi-part epic franchises are ruling the box offices.

Dear readers, I do have to say that the romantic comedy, or better yet, what the romantic comedy became, is not one of my favorite film genres, and in fact, it is a genre that I happen to find much to be frustrated with. Instead of movies that feature actual romance and comedy and are populated with characters that do indeed behave and carry emotions as relatable as anything you or I experience in the real world, we were given gluts of movies filled with self-consciously "wacky" plots and populated by the sorts of so-called "people" who never behave, think or feel like anyone you would know anywhere in any world.

Of course, we did have good to even great films within the 1990's and 2000's, from films like Kevin Smith's "Chasing Amy" (1997), Stephen Frears' "High Fidelity" (2000) and Writer/Producer/Director Judd Apatow's output including his own "Knocked Up" (2007) or his production of Nicholas Stoller's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (2008), but in a cinematic romantic comedy world dominated by the increasingly asinine entries like Peter Chelsom's "Serendipity" (2001), Andy Tennant's "Sweet Home Alabama" (2002), Anne Fletcher's "The Proposal" (2009) or anything starring Kate Hudson, those films left me so profoundly cold and more than a little irritated because why and when did falling in love in the movies become so...well...stupid, but more importantly, so un-romantic and desperately unfunny?

Now, in more recent years, the romantic comedy has been creatively resuscitated in the independent film arena as works like Nicole Holofcener's lovely, aching "Enough Said" (2013) starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini and definitely, Michael Showalter's outstanding, multi-layered "The Big Sick" (2017), returned the genre to recognizable human beings with real, complicated, turbulent emotional worlds populating stories with legitimate romance and comedy.  That being said, the sheer amount of those films has dwindled considerably, and to the point where even I, someone who has not been awaiting a new entry, have remarked to myself a certain bewilderment that we were actually not seeing those types of films with remotely the same frequency as before.

With Jonathan Levine's "Long Shot," the romantic comedy makes a potentially big Hollywood sized splash of a return with the unlikely pairing of Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron in a film that the trailers almost made it appear to be essentially "Knocked Up 2." Thankfully, what Levine has devised is a no lazy retread but a film that not only honors the very best of the romantic comedy genre's history but it is also as wise as it supremely vulgar and quite often, longingly romantic in its own right, making for a enormously entertaining Springtime surprise.

"Long Shot" stars Seth Rogen as Fred Flarsky, a political journalist recently unemployed as the agitprop newspaper he works for has been purchased by media mogul Patrick Weatherly (Andy Serkis), a figure whose moral compass flies completely in the opposite direction of Fred's. Convinced to accompany his best friend Lance (a terrific O'Shea Jackson Jr.) to a high society charity fundraiser, Fred is shockingly reunited with Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), a childhood neighbor, babysitter and secret crush and who is now the United States Secretary Of State.

For Charlotte, her already formidable life is about to make some grand changes. As the completely vapid United States President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk), a former television actor, has decided to not run for re-election so he can pursue a career in film (a very funny touch), he pledges his support for Charlotte should she decided to run for President.

As she embarks upon an international tour, with her key staffers, Maggie (June Diane Raphael) and Tom (Ravi Patel) in tow, Charlotte impulsively decides to hire Fred as her speechwriter, much to the chagrin of her staffers.

As the tour continues and Charlotte and Fred simultaneously rekindle and grow closer together, their status as a public couple is threatened by the realities of Charlotte's Presidential ambitions, which conflict greatly not only with Fred's impassive sense of political ideology and personal integrity but the purity of the hopes and dreams she held of herself while an adolescent.

Jonathan Levine's "Long Shot," much like his strong "50/50" (2011), is a mostly successful hybrid of the low-brow vulgar R rated comedy merged with real world issues, pursuits and obstacles. Where "50/50" delved into nothing less than a young man grappling with a cancer diagnosis and treatment and peppered the proceedings with all manner of four letter words and dirty jokes, "Long Shot" takes a refreshingly direct and gently satirical take with our 21st century political landscape while also delivering a brisk, breezy and surprisingly effective romantic comedy...and yes, with those aforementioned four letter words and dirty jokes fully intact.

Levine certainly covered his bases by adhering to the romantic comedy structure of which we are all familiar. Additionally, the rapid fire dialogue of a Howard Hawks film, the earnest political fantasy of Frank Capra and Rob Reiner's "The American President" (1995), the cheerful, rampant vulgarity of a Judd Apatow feature, and the mass appeal romantic populism of Garry Marshall, as set to the slow, swaying beat of Roxette's "It Must Have Been Love" from "Pretty Woman" (1990) is all clearly in the DNA of "Long Shot." And yet, Levine has not created a checklist and called it a movie for he has a real story to tell populated with real characters filled with real emotional inner worlds, adult sexual appetites and romantic longings.

As previously stated, "Long Shot" is political fantasy, and while it is a comedy with satirical elements from the Trump-ish light version contained in the smarmy, media obsessed President Chambers, the ruthless Patrick Weatherly, clearly modeled after Rupert Murdoch and Steve Bannon, and to the misogynistic broadcasts of Weatherly's morning cable "news" show, itself a mock up of "Fox And Friends." While Levine does not nearly go for the throat as we have already seen in the rapacious, wrathful satire of HBO's recently concluded series "Veep," Levine does indeed utilize "Long Shot" as a means to address aspects of our political culture and election cycle with verve, wit and insight.

With the international tour and subsequent Presidential campaign of Charlotte Field, "Long Shot" explores our own cultural emphasis of personality over ideology with regarding our candidates, most especially when that candidate is a woman. While Charlotte Field has clearly ascended to her current post as Secretary Of State due to her brilliance and unquestionable political skills and moxie, she is also dismayed yet pragmatic enough to know how the political game is played due to wooing potential voters, who are more concerned with how she looks, walks, talks, waves to a crowd and ultimately, who she dates.

Her hiring of Fred Flarsky, while impulsive, is due to his rigid political and moral ethics but, quite possibly as a nod to Judd Apatow's sprawling, dark "Funny People" (2009), Fred is hired to punch up her speeches, thus making her more personable, humorous and therefore, attractive to the masses, and only then, might those same masses be receptive to her political ideas and ambitions.

With regards to the love story, the growing relationship between Charlotte and Fred is hidden from public view because the sleek Charlotte Field dating the comparatively coarse, crude, windbreaker wearing, Gonzo journalist Fred Flarsky just will not poll well. In the case of each of these scenarios, we have qualities that do indeed threaten the romance that is building between them, as Charlotte's pragmatism clashes with Fred's often self-righteous sense of idealism and ethics in both politics and romance, making for a love story that is fraught with as much turbulence as pure human connection which is sprinkled with that romantic comedy fairy dust that I rarely accept but this time, I happily bought the fantasy.

Granted, sometimes, the tonal shifts Levine attempts within "Long Shot" are a tad clunky but what keeps the film in its entirety firmly afloat is the surprisingly authentic chemistry between Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron--two individuals who I know I would never have though to pair together and now that I have seen it for myself, it was an absolutely perfect decision.

For Seth Rogen, he is a much better actor than I think any of us may have ever given him credit for. Yes, he does indeed remain in his stoner persona wheelhouse, but somehow, he keeps devising ways to broaden, to subvert, to provide different layers to that persona and for "Long Shot," he delivers a certain depth that he possesses but is easy to forget is truly part of his arsenal--trust me on that point as his work in the aforementioned "50/50" and "Funny People" plus his excellent work in Danny Boyle's "Steve Jobs" (2015) for not just anyone can tackle the strenuous dialogue of Aaron Sorkin and Rogen more than handled that task like a champion!

For all of his buffoonery, Rogen ensures that the character of Fred Flarsky is never depicted as a  buffoon for he needs to be a realistic equal to Charlotte Field and it is through the character's devotion to his social/political morals and journalistic ethics plus the reasons why he has remained in love with Charlotte since early adolescence that gives the character his core and makes him someone to root for, to understand, to follow and to challenge.

Yet for me, the brightest, shining star of the film is none other than Charlize Theron, who unquestionably dazzles in the role of Charlotte Field. While I am more than certain that there will be some who will either feel or question whether this character is yet another male wish fulfillment fantasy, I strongly proclaim to you that as I watched "Long Shot," I would have followed this character to the ends of the Earth and that was completely due to (again) the authenticity Theron brought to the character as she fully fleshed out a figure who was of course, striking in her beauty but also wholly commanding with her duties and superbly disarming with her empathy, humor, sexuality and most importantly, the existential crisis she undertakes during her international tour and growing romance with Fred.

The core of Charlotte Field is that of an adult woman wishing, hoping, and worrying if she is up to the task of being the woman her 16 year old self aspired to become. In many ways, this is the same inner quandary explicit in Cameron Crowe's seminal, soulful "Jerry Maguire" (1996) as that film's titular character was forced to live up to the image of his best self as presented in his self-composed Mission Statement.

With "Long Shot," Charlotte Field faces a similar trajectory as she is also confronted with attempting to maintain a sense of personal ethics, morality and integrity in a world unconcerned with such traits and for that matter, is practically expecting her to jettison them for the sake of grabbing that brass ring of being the first female President in the history of the United States. Even though Fred Flarsky is the continued push for Charlotte to keep her integrity intact, her greatest source of inspiration is herself and remembering just who she was that allowed her to become Secretary Of State in the first place, and furthermore, who just may be the person to get her to the White House.

Again, I am unable to express enough high praise for Charlize Theron, an actress who has impressed me with her fearless ability to take creative risks and re-invent herself through her performances to the level where I have been repeatedly astonished with her immense abilities. To think that the person who was ferociously unrecognizable in Patty Jenkins' "Monster" (2003), the one armed avenging, rampaging angel in George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road" (2015) and utterly fearless in two of her her teeth baring performances in Jason Reitman's "Young Adult" (2011) and "Tully" (2018) possessed expert comedic skills as well, lighting up the screen in a fashion that I have honestly never witnessed from her before, making her embodiment of this character pure gold.

Does my high praise signal a desire from me for the full return of the romantic comedy genre? Well...not necessarily. But that being said, if those films can be made with the same conviction, heart, affection and humor as Jonathan Levine's surprising "Long Shot," I'd be more than happy to find myself back in a movie theater seat to screen one.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

A REVELATION: a review of "Amazing Grace"

Original 1972 footage Directed by Sydney Pollack
Restoration Realized and Produced by Alan Elliot
**** (four stars)

In this very early cinematic year of 2019, I have just been a witness to the very best film of the year so far and it contains not one CGI image, the only special effect is the sound, power and dynamic reach of the human voice and its mere existence is essentially a movie miracle. "It makes me wonder what else is just sitting on a shelf somewhere," said an elderly gentleman to me as we were both leaving the screening. Yes indeed, it does make me wonder as well.

But, at this time, I am just so thankful that this particular artifact, once thought to be lost and gone forever, has been rightfully released as "Amazing Grace" has proven, on a superlative level, that it is not only a testament to the artistic legacy of Aretha Franklin, who passed away at the age of 76 in 2018. It is a priceless document that serves as one of the finest concert documentaries ever made, a slice of life portrait of Black excellence during the early 1970's Civil Rights era, and the blissful destination where music and spiritual deliverance congeal and congregate.

At this time, please allow me to deliver to you the backstory, in order to give the existence of this film the proper context.

At the height of her initial fame, and with 11 number 1 hit singles under her impressive belt, Aretha Franklin decided to return to her musical roots and create a live gospel album. Collaborating with the equally iconic and Gospel music pioneer Reverend Dr. James Cleveland, the Southern California Community Choir as led by Rev. Alexander Hamilton as well as with her own band--which included Cornell Dupree (guitar), Kenneth Luper (organ), Pancho Morales (congas, percussion), Bernard Purdie (drums) and Chuck Rainey (bass guitar)--Aretha Franklin spent two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in January 1972 performing and recording what would become the double album "Amazing Grace" (released June 1, 1972), which remains the highest selling Gospel album of all time as well as the highest selling album of Franklin's entire 50 year plus career.

In addition to the recording, it was further decided to document the proceedings on film. Sydney Pollack, who at that time had already helmed the brutal Depression era dance marathon drama "They Shoot Horses, Don't They" (1969) and the Robert Redford starring wilderness Western "Jeremiah Johnson" (1972), was hired to direct the documentary.

While Pollack shot reportedly 20 hours of footage, there was an error during filming that prevented the completion of the movie. Clapper boards, a cinematic tool used to synchronize picture and sound at the beginning of each take, were not used, therefore making post-production synchronization essentially impossible, thus forcing the footage to be shelved for decades.

Before Pollack's death in 2008, he turned over all of the footage to Producer Alan Elliot, who then took two full years with obviously more state of the art technology to fully complete the film that we are now able to finally regard today...47 years after the material was filmed.

Dear readers, to behold the film of "Amazing Grace" in undeniably a treasure, a gift, a jewel. What Pollack and now Elliot have graciously realized is a true labor of love that arrives with no frills, no gimmicks, no ulterior motives or disingenuous commercialism at its core. For a time during which Kanye West promotes and performs what he deems as his "Sunday Service" concert with all manner of obscene odes to commercialism at its most vulgar all upon wildly garish display to his own sense of magnanimous ego, the "Amazing Grace" film and performance is exactly as advertised within its own title: a film of absolute grace and trust me, you will be powerfully amazed.

With full disclosure, I am not one who listens to Gospel music and my time as a regular church goer ended in my late adolescence. Not for any reasons or displeasure with my church upbringing, an experience of which I harbor no ill feelings and even at the time, the worst I could even say about it was the fact of having to rise early on a Sunday and wear an uncomfortable suit.

That being said, when I tend to think of spiritual matters in my adult life, I do often turn to mediums that assist me to make some sort of sense of the very aspects and elements our human brains are specifically not designed to make sense of. In this case specifically, I do often turn to the nature of music as being representative of what the voice of God, a higher power or another plane of existence might or could actually be. For what is inspiration and what does it mean to be inspired and to possess the ability to receive some inexplicable message and thus, generate something that had not previously existed into something that could be openly shared with the world? And what if what had been created and shared then reverberated through time and space itself, the fullness of its impact divinely unaffected?

As I sat and regarded "Amazing Grace," those feelings and questions occurred to me over and over again. For here I was in 2019, watching an event from 47 years in the past and feeling an emotional fulfillment that I would imagine was akin to the very people who sat in that church on these two  nights in January 1972 bearing witness to a performance that seem to nearly redefine what it means to be devotional and what it means to experience deliverance. 

What is utterly remarkable to me regarding Lady Soul herself, is how little she speaks in the film. In fact, as I think about the film, I don't think she says more than a few scant words! Essentially, the songs are expressing all she may have needed or wanted to say to her audience and fellow musicians. Rev. Dr. James Cleveland, however, served as a boisterous counterpoint to the comparatively reticent Aretha Franklin when they were not performing.

Where Franklin was silent, reserved, possibly shy or simply existing in some sense of meditative state in order to fully receive the messages of the songs she was readying herself to perform, Cleveland was gregarious, often very funny and warmly personable, all the while seeming as if he was speaking directly to you as if standing together upon the sidewalk. Yet, when the two performed together, they were splendidly existing upon the same plane, with an equality of give and take that was as seamless as it was masterful.

I loved the sequence where the song "Climbing Higher Mountains" is performed, for there is so much to experience in addition to the song itself, including none other than Mick Jagger on his feet with the congregation in the very back of the church, clapping along enthusiastically as we also can see Sydney Pollack himself directing his crew around the church to capture certain shots.

It is a song where Franklin is completely in command while also showcasing herself and all of the singers and musicians functioning as one complete unit, where every piece and part is essential. Watch how, with a quiet firmness, Franklin directs the performance to stop and start again as she was clearly dissatisfied initially. But the synergy that occurs immediately thereafter!! Every member was in purposeful unison and in the fullest of voice and spirit (incredibly so for the choir who happened to be seated for this song) which then inspires the congregation to spontaneously rise and clap, leading to a crescendo which flows into a glorious, slower, more intense call and response coda section, starring Franklin and Cleveland in a split screen visual, allowing us to witness their expressions in real time at the same time. Outstanding!

And I think that on a purely musical level, "Amazing Grace" announces itself as a spectacular concert movie landmark with unabashed confidence and on a level that deftly showcases the true roots of rock and roll while also displaying precisely where the sacred and secular can blissfully meet in intent, force, power and energy.

Standing cinematic shoulder to cinematic shoulder with any sequence from the likes of Matthew Wadleigh's "Woodstock" (1970), Mel Stuart's "Wattstax" (1973), Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz" (1978), Jonathan Demme's "Stop Making Sense" (1984) or Prince's "Sign O' The Times" (1987), we are given one show stopping sequence after another. From the towering "Mary, Don't You Weep," the ocean flow of the medley "Precious Lord, Take My Hand/You've Got A Friend," the sublime cover of Marvin Gaye's "Wholly Holy," soulful uplift of "How I Got Over," the hurricane force, orgiastic fury of "Old Landmark" and even more, we are so often stirred and shaken to the point of eliciting involuntary physical and emotional responses throughout--the kind the very best music can produce. The hair raising chills, the arrival of goose pimples, quick bodily tics and even the arrival of tears, anything that alerts the physical of something great (or greater) at work that consumes and surrounds us unquestionably, possibly even nudging us to consider if our sense of free will has been overtaken.

Beautifully, our own emotions work as in a call and response to the images contained within the film itself, as one performance strikes Cleveland with such strength that he ceases playing piano himself and succumbs into a flow of tears, an image which certainly is as staggering to view in our theater seats as Franklin's entire performance. And then, we continue to watch and listen to Aretha Franklin, who does indeed spend several songs singing with her eyes closed (!), allowing us to ask ourselves just what is she tapping into, and from where does her gift emerge.

It was the sheer purity of the intent and therefore, the delivery and reception throughout "Amazing Grace" that infused the fullness of its power and undeniable grace. A sequence where Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin's Father, wipes the sweat from his daughter face as she sings, was a moment of sublime tenderness between parent and child, regardless of their respective legacies within the church, in music and social activism.

And yet, it is this merging of the church, the music and social activism that also provides this film an even greater context beyond just existing as a document of a live album recording. "Amazing Grace" is a film that speaks directly to and is a product of the ties that inspired it. Remember, this film occurs only four short years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as during the heart of the late 1960's/early 1970's civil rights era. This specific tenor of the times informs the songs Aretha Franklin performs and vice versa as the music is utilized to provide not solely a soundtrack to a movement but the most importantly, the soul.

Aretha Frankin's song choices and commitment to her performances of said songs speaks directly to the divine and devotional, as the messages contained within the music are indeed the fuel to a people and a movement that promoted solidarity, perseverance, endurance, unity, empowerment, self-love and of course, R-E-S-P-E-C-T for ourselves from ourselves and the world at large.

In doing so, "Amazing Grace" is ultimately a film about Black excellence made during and for distinct times when such messages demand to be seen and felt. It truly lifted me to see a sea of all of these natural afros within the church, the positive feelings abound, the sweeping emotions and the virtuoso musical abilities on display. Although it took 47 years for this film to be fully realized and able to see the light of day, perhaps it has arrived at the RIGHT time due to the dark times we are all existing within during the 21st century.

And such is the astounding, revelatory experience that is "Amazing Grace," a film all the more remarkable that we are able to see today, especially as most of the principal participants have passed on. For those of you who may be reluctant to go to a film that harbors anything approaching the religious, trust me when I saw that this film is a non-denominational, fully open-hearted experience that will superbly rattle you, and raise you from your seats to send you flying high with arms graciously, lovingly outstretched. 

Friday, May 3, 2019


I am stunned to discover that the movie featured in the above image is here in my city.

Yes indeed, and especially now that the anticipation waiting for 'Avengers: Endgame" has passed--leaving me ready to see it again, I am excited to see something new and with that, what is new happens to be quite old.

"Amazing Grace," the long lost yet recently discovered and fully restored 1972 feature concert film of the late Aretha Franklin as directed by the late Sydney Pollack is here and I have plans to experience it this weekend.

In addition, perhaps May has the following to offer me...
1. "LONG SHOT" Yes, it really has been an exceedingly long time since I have seen a romantic comedy, especially as they really are not being made anymore. While I am not actually waiting with bated breath for a new rom-com, the early reviews for this one starring Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen were high enough to make me curious.
2. "ROCKETMAN" What hath "Bohemian Rhapsody" wrought? Regular visitors to this site already know of my disdain and distaste for the wildly over-rated Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic and so now, we have a biopic for Elton John and directed by Dexter Fletcher, the filmmaker who completed "Bohemian Rhapsody" during that film's trouble production. I don't know about this but at least this film has been given an R rating...

...we'll see.

With that, I will keep my ambitions conservative and I will see you when the house lights go down!

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

MARVEL MASTERPIECE: a review of "Avengers: Endgame"

Based upon Marvel Comics created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Screenplay Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo
**** (four stars)

One year ago, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was blasted completely apart to a cataclysmic effect with the SNAP heard and seen around the world in Directors Anthony & Joe Russo's outstanding, devastating "Avengers: Infinity War" (2018).

Never in my lifetime of going to the movies had there been a conclusion to a film such as this one where the ending and ensuing cliffhanger had proven itself so grim and even traumatic. Face it, the worst and most wrenching escapist film cliffhanger in my past was the shocking depiction of seeing Han Solo, unable to be saved by his friends, captured and frozen in carbonite to be hauled away by a vengefully silent bounty hunter and framed in the lair of a grotesquely sinister intergalactic gangster. At least, he wasn't killed off, but still...

That sequence had absolutely nothing on the climax of "Avengers: Infinity War," which saw the relentless titan Thanos (so well performed by Josh Brolin) achieve his personal endgame, to destroy 50% of all existence in order to attain a newfound balance in the universe. It was a film ending of unprecedented apocalypse, especially for something so mainstream, as we witnessed so many characters we had grown to love over the years on screen literally reduced to ashes and scattered to the four winds.

And to take it further, the Russo brothers showcased the wider annihilation which was then countered by the film's haunting final image, an exhausted Thanos, seated and regarding the horizon with an expression of sated victory. It was chilling to say the least and I will never forget how the audience I saw the film with exited the theater in complete silence, perhaps because for a film series that we all attend in order to escape the brutalities of real life for a few short hours, the brutal real life reality of bad guys winning maybe cut too close to the bone. Clearly there had to be some uplift? Could this really be the end of our heroes?

Now, one year later, we are here! The Russo's brothers' "Avengers: Endgame," a sprawling, lushly ambitious, rapturous climactic three hour epic not only provides the payoff to last year's set up, it lavishly brings the now 22 episode film series to a close..that is, before moving onwards in a Marvel Cinematic Universe forever changed.

With an installment and accompanying expectations I would imagine most filmmakers would run away from rapidly, the Russo brothers' have embraced the challenge superbly as they have emerged with a miraculous display of dizzying, complex story-telling, special effects wizardry and palpable to even primal emotional heft and depth that assures that every single cheer and tear is unquestionably earned...and truth be told, tears flowed from my eyes several times throughout. Like the finest Marvel comics I read in my youth, the Russo brothers' "Avengers: Endgame" made me believe the wholly unbelievable as the characters I had loved from the page sprang to vivid, vibrant life with joy and awe, tragedy and triumph, making this film a veritable masterpiece.

Picking up shortly after the shattering events of "Avengers; Infinity War," the remaining members of Earth's Mightiest Heroes are all in various stages of dilapidation as they face the loss of friends and loved ones in a new decimated world and universe.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has holed himself up inside of a spacecraft to drift away and die in space. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is succumbed with depression and guilt from not only the fallout from the battle with Thanos but also the previous loss of his home of Asgard. Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Rocket the Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America himself (Chris Evans) continue to wrestle with comprehending the new reality while also attempting to determine if there is any way to reverse what Thanos has unleashed. And meanwhile, the diminutive Scott Lang a.k.a. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) remains trapped within the microscopic Quantum Realm and the retired Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), has his own demons to chase down post Thanos' SNAP.

Beginning with the arrival of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), our remaining Avengers begin their seemingly impossible quest to defeat Thanos once and for all and restore the universe to its proper state in the process.

While there is so much that I would love to discuss with all of you regarding this film, I will remain silent so as to not produce spoilers for those who have not been able to see the film yet. That said, what I will emphatically divulge is that Anthony & Joe Russo's "Avengers: Endgame" is a film of spectacular entertainment and superlative storytelling. It is an enormous testament to the birth and growth of this particular cinematic universe over these past 11 years, as it miraculously ties together all of the strands, characters, events and plot threads of the 21 previous films into a cohesive narrative and experience that is worthy of everything that has come before while also providing enormous rewards for everyone who have embraced this film series over the years.

Yes, it is as visually resplendent as you would now expect from a Marvel film but the Russo brothers wisely understand that a big, brash sound and light show is not going to satisfy audiences in the least. Taking grand cues from the high flying big budget films of the blockbuster heydey during the late 1970's through the 1980's plus their own inventive, creative work on past Marvel features "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (2014), "Captain America: Civil War" (2016) and the aforementioned "Avengers: Infinity War," the Russo brothers have placed their emphasis with characters and story first and foremost, therefore making the experience of "Avengers: Endgame" emotionally worthwhile and undeniably thrilling.

Again, I am just amazed with the Russo's ability with having so many conceptual spinning plates revolving simultaneously and having the sheer confidence to plow full speed ahead, never fearing that even one would fall and crash to the ground. To have the ability and downright chutzpah to harness this many characters, locales and...ahem...additional elements, regardless of how big or small they fit into the Marvel lexicon, somehow, someway, the Russo brothers and their ace screenwriting team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely merged everything together like the finest team of magicians as they all sent our heroes on an adventure that makes Producer Tom Cruise's "Mission: Impossible" series as well as the escapades in Christopher Nolan's "Inception" (2010) all feel like child's play resulting in a climax that does indeed feel definitive while also passing the baton for whatever arrives in the future.

I am certain there might be some level of debate over the Marvel series and whether we actually needed to have 21 films to lead into this particular grand finale. Certainly there had to have been some installments that fell a tad short. For me, over these past 11 years, and despite how consistent the Marvel films have been overall, there have been a few that I have not been terribly enamored with  (you will have to scour the Savage Cinema archives yourselves to discover which ones to which I am referring as I am thinking by even mentioning titles, that could inadvertently produce spoilers) as I have wondered if every film truly carried a necessity to the larger, over-arching Marvel narrative.

With "Avengers: Endgame," one of the film's greatest achievements was how this film's narrative was able to wind itself through all that we have seen, therefore providing greater clarity to past films while simultaneously stretching further ahead in the narrative certainly but most importantly, in the evolution of the characters.

And it is here, within that pure and brilliant Marvel fashion, where the Russo brothers understand beautifully what it is about Marvel that makes it so beloved to generations of fans and artists and that is the overall humanity that pervades the entirety of this universe. The Russo brothers understand that even though we are being subjected to the most superhuman feats, abilities and odysseys, what makes these adventures resonate fully is the prevalence of human foibles, fears and failings alongside their virtues and virtuousness all on display, qualities that give the sheer fantasy some much needed weight and gravity.

The strength of the performances  with int his series and this concluding chapter in particular is paramount to the success of the entire proceedings. Not the special effects...which are eye-popping. Not the set pieces, even as great as they are throughout this film, which is copiously loaded with one dazzling sequence after another. What makes "Avengers: Endgame" soar so spectacularly high is how the Russo brothers' strict attention to the characters and their relationships and histories with each other provides every moment, no matter how operatic or intimate, with an emotional truth that cements even the most fantastical sequences and characters with a realism that ultimately made for a film that was often enormously moving.

Yes, the filmmakers absolutely nailed that classic Marvel Comics tone which always veers between bitter-sweetness, melancholy and tragedy. "Avengers: Endgame," despite its welcome and copious amounts of humor, is indeed quite a bleak and painful film, and rightfully so, as it is essentially dealing with the end of the universe (or half of it) with a conscious sense of wrenching grief and mourning. I appreciated this tactic and grim tonality greatly because the Russo brothers unapologetically took essentially two thirds of the film's three hour running time before finally addressing the results of the Avengers' plan to right Thanos' wrongs. In doing so, the gravity of the story continued to deepen, broaden and therefore, created the larger potential for thrills, for jump out of the seats cheering to a film that undeniably became awesome.

I have often bemoaned my fatigue upon this site not with just the superhero film genre but with these big budget extravaganza films that always conclude with the now obligatory bombastic CGI drenched battle/war sequence, a trope so commonplace now that you can set your watch to it and be bored as you are being bludgeoned by the soulless sensory overload. It would not be a spoiler to say that "Avengers: Endgame" also possesses such a climax but unlike so many other films, the Russo brothers again fully earn their battle royale because they, their team and all of us in the audience have invested so much emotionally in these characters, making every special effects filled moment contain deep emotional resonance.

Character by character, and with all of the other films providing all the necessary backstory material, we are given human beings with extraordinary abilities and courage, motivated by human concerns, frailties, fears, and even hope in the face of unending darkness. Here is where the performances from the entire cast completely rise to the occasion and they are all uniformly excellent.

As Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America, Chris Evans took what could have eternally existed as a wholly bland character and injected within him a profound sense of what it means to fight and be willing to die, not only for one's belief system, but for the betterment of humanity itself. Evans not only conveyed the proper strength and steadfast qualities necessary for Captain America, he also demonstrated rich abilities with illustrating subtle levels of frustration and the pain with being a man constantly out of his time and without the one true love of his life. And through him, the film concludes on an absolutely exquisite grace note.

As Thor, Chris Hemsworth has gradually built and grown with the character who is an Asgardian God yet decidedly more human than he had ever realized. With "Avengers: Endgame," Hemsworth utilizes his charmingly light comedic skills to entertain greatly but also to shoulder an aching pathos and existential dilemma of a hero who has failed, who has lost and who is drowning in survivor's guilt and a seething sense of insignificance. It is a richly multi-layered performance that harbors both laughter and sorrow.

I also enjoyed the increased range both Jeremy Renner and Paul Rudd were given to display, also deepening the emotional range of the film as a whole. And special mention must be given to Karen Gillan as Thanos' daughter Nebula, as she is given a truly meaty amount to dig into and she graces the film with one of its most complex performances.

And then, there's Robert Downey Jr.

I am remembering the first adventure in 2008, the first film with Iron Man and feeling so perplexed that Downey Jr., an actor I had more than admired for many years and who had fallen on hard times with issues no need to recount here, had been cast in the leading role. And I remember how I felt the moment the film ended and just how proud I was for Downey Jr. as he completely rocked the part so brilliantly. Now, we are here, 11 years later, viewing this actor in what is now his signature role and still, he continued to amaze as he mined new depths, new angles, new approaches to Tony Stark that showcased him as the unshakable, irreplaceable anchor to the entire series to date. Just outstanding to regard him one more time and in a film this magnificent.
Anthony & Joe Russo's "Avengers: Endgame" is marvelous, mountainous, and monumental. And after all of this high praise, I think the best thing I can say about it is that it is the very film that took me back to my childhood as I read my Marvel comics and the images in my head looked, sounded and felt exactly like every solitary second of this magical film.

And furthermore, I wish to believe that somewhere our dearly departed Stan Lee is smiling broadly for these filmmakers have done his conceptual vision exceedingly proud.