Monday, December 2, 2019

THERE WAS A BOY, A LONELY LITTLE NAZI BOY: a review of "Jojo Rabbit"

Based upon the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens
Written and Directed by Taika Waititi
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

It always fascinates me to contemplate what the world looks like through the eyes, mind and spirit of a child, especially a world that exists in turmoil. If one were able to purchase a ticket to take a ride through that child's mind and perceptions, how would we find the same visual/societal information that we witness as adults to be interpreted, and therefore, experienced?

That very thought played often through my mind as I screened "Jojo Rabbit," the new film from Writer/Director Taika Waititi, his self-described "anti-hate satire," and what a satire it is. Yes, the film is audacious and fully irreverent in its conception but truth be told, Waititi, did not preset a satire of say, the Stanley Kubrick sense, that devastating cold, and even nihilistic, brick-through-the-window satire. Waititi's film is far gentler in its execution, its sense of moral outrage firmly intact yet quieter in its voicing.

That said, this does not suggest that what Waititi has achieved is anything remotely toothless considering its subject matter. On the contrary, "Jojo Rabbit" is discomforting in its surreal almost hallucinogenic quality but fittingly so as we are indeed viewing World War II, most specifically, Nazi-ism, from a child's eye level. But it is that very strange quality that allows the film to achieve its surprisingly powerful aura of humanity. Taika Waititi's "Jojo Rabbit" is unquestionably one of 2019's most unique, singular films and it is also one of the year's most poignant and poetic.

Set in Nazi Germany near the end of World War II, Taika Waititi's "Jojo Rabbit" stars a wonderful Roman Griffin Davis as Johannes "Jojo" Betzler, a jingoistic 10 year old and aspiring member of the Hitler Youth who lives with his Mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, in one of her warmest performances in years). Jojo's Father, a soldier has gone missing while his sister Inge has recently passed away due to complications from influenza.

Desperate to join Hitler's army, Jojo enrolls into a Hitler youth training camp run by the one-eyed, alcoholic Captain Klenzendorf (the always engaging Sam Rockwell) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson, in just the right small doses), yet discovers that he lacks that merciless killer instinct, as evidenced by his inability to murder a rabbit, an event with makes him the target of teasing by his peers thus earning him the nickname contained in the film's title. Furthermore, an accident with a misfired grenade leaves him with facial scars, a slight limp and a lengthy convalescence at home, leaving him lonelier and more isolated than ever.

Jojo's life is irrevocably altered on the day he is shocked by the presence of Elsa Korr (a terrific Thomasin McKenzie), a teenage Jewish girl, as well as a former classmate of Jojo's now deceased sister, hidden within their home by Rosie. The relationship that ensues between Elsa and Jojo, forces the aspiring Nazi to face down his prejudices, all of which have been taught to him by the environment in which he exists, in addition to his growing romantic feelings towards Elsa.

And even then, there is the on-going guiding presence of his imaginary friend, a ridiculous, child-like version of Adolf Hitler himself (played by Taika Waititi).

To a degree, I would not be surprised if there are some of you who are wondering just why do we even need a film like this, especially in the 21st century. That thought certainly crossed my mind here and there before seeing the film. Honestly, do we really have to explicitly state that Nazis are bad in 2019?!  I wish that we did not have to but  unfortunately, we do not happen to live in that world, and stories that extol the virtues of humanity and tolerance are essentially more urgently needed than ever.

With Taika Waititi's "Jojo Rabbit," we do indeed have yet another parable that explores the world of intolerance, racism and fascism but it is one that is unapologetically absurd. That being said, please allow me to assure you that for all of the humor, which ranges from a certain Monty Python-esque style from physical comedy to playful uses of language ("Heil me!!" the insecure, imaginary Adolf pleads to Jojo at one point), a mischievously frolicsome visual aesthetic, the usage of The Beatles' German version of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" to rapturously open the film, plus the variety of performances, including the completely endearing work by young Archie Yates as Jojo's chubby, bespectacled Hitler Youth buddy Yorki, whose shared conversations with Jojo suggest a certain "Welcome To The Third Reich, Charlie Brown!!" quality, Waititi never at any moment treats the Holocaust as a joke.

While some may fear it to be, and others may debate its intentions, I never found "Jojo Rabbit" to be  distasteful or disrespectful. It is also not presented as a one-joke movie or something akin to some misguided newfangled version of "Hogan's Heroes."  Taika Waititi utilizes the humor, again the overall gentle satire, to examine the means of prejudice through the multi-fated, multi-layered lens of  viewing the world through the eyes of an impressionable, and therefore traumatized, 10 year old boy. And while being asked to sympathize with a child who wishes to be a Nazi may be too much to ask conceptually, Waititi's sense of empathy is enormous, somehow, almost magically allowing us to view the child first and foremost as a child and not through the evils of a swastika, a technique which does indeed make "Jojo Rabbit" quite a bit of a high wire act, a feat Waititi succeeds miraculously.

Again, please allow me to assure you that Taika Waititi's "Jojo Rabbit" is not, in any way, shape or form, asking of us to see the ruthlessly irresponsible "good people on both sides" argument regarding Civil Rights protesters and 21st century Nazis as uttered by a certain orange tinted reality TV show personality now occupying The White House. But, what Waititi is doing via Jojo is to provide a series of moral quandaries for his young character to experience and wrestle with, while also asking of us to do the same as we explore the shared humanity of every character.

Once the presence of Elsa is revealed in Jojo's home, he is immediately faced with the moral question of whether to turn her over to the Gestapo, for if he does, he will then place his Mother in grave danger because she was the one to hide Elsa in the first place. If he continues to covertly hide Elsa, then his own life, plus the lives of Elsa and his Mother are in danger. Jojo is forced to confront the sheer idiocy of his prejudices against Jews as he is slowly falling in love with Elsa, which even then presents additional moral questions regarding how to treat the one you love with regards to honesty and jealousy.

As Jojo, Roman Griffin Davis is skilled beyond his years as he is required to exude a emotional, psychological and moral depth at the exact point where every perception and belief he ever held is being challenged and ultimately altered forever. Davis beautifully showcases all of the layers of Jojo with tremendous innocence and pathos. As Elsa, Thomasin McKenzie is a superb equal to Davis, as she elicits a strength and terror, which deftly slides from the brightness of romantic comedy to the inherent horror of her life and predicament as she hides in Jojo's home. Their relationship, combined with Waititi's delivery makes "Jojo Rabbit" feel like the midway point between Charlie Chaplin's iconic "The Great Dictator" (1940) and the youthful romance dreamworld of Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" (2012).

"Jojo Rabbit" is indeed a coming-of-age film and by viewing the world of Nazi Germany through the perspective of the 10 year old Jojo, Taika Waititi allows his film to posses an almost storybook pastiche, again, an approach that some may question seriously but I feel worked tremendously due to the eyes through which we are viewing the film. Certainly, Waititi is not making a figure like Adolf Hitler a joke by having him exist as Jojo's imaginary friend. On the contrary, it only makes sense that Hitler would be viewed as an imaginary Father figure in the Fatherland, especially as Jojo has no Father of his own to depend upon. And to this particular 10 year old boy, what else would an imagined Hitler be but an extension of his own 10 year old perceptions of the world? And once those perceptions are challenged, then that imaginary friend becomes threatened as Jojo's worldview begins to broaden, change and even upended. 

Granted, there are points during which I felt my own perceptions being upended as I did find myself struggling a bit with the demands of the story, which does essentially include a large cast of characters that are all working within aspects of the Nazi party, so why should I harbor any empathy towards them? Well...while you are not exactly having to find empathy for characters who represent people who committed crimes against humanity, Taika Waititi does indeed allow us to witness the empathy they possess towards each other, for even those who commit genocide love someone themselves.

This technique reminded quite a bit of Spike Lee's exemplary "BlacKKKlansman" (2018), a film that could have easily taken the obvious route and just presented the characters within the Ku Klux Klan, as well as David Duke him self as cartoonish caricatures of evil. Yet, what Spike Lee achieved was for us to view even the KKK as human beings, people who have friends, families, confidants and lovers just like you and me. Waititi's "Jojo Rabbit" accomplishes the same feat as we witness the relationships held by the film's characters and even striking acts of humanity, the final moments between Jojo and Sam Rockwell's Captain Klenzendorf are especially moving.

Taika Waititi has quickly announced himself as a cinematic artist to keep a sharp eye upon. To think that he could go from fully revamping the God of Thunder himself into the frisky, feisty, rainbow colored wonderland of "Thor: Ragnarok" (2017) to the rich and risk talking, fully idiosyncratic film such as "Jojo Rabbit" with such style, confidence and grace. And for all of the dynamic comedy on display, it is that very grace that anchors the film so urgently and with tremendously bittersweet sorrow.

For how else could a world of such unspeakable tragedy look to the eyes of a sad 10 year old boy who wishes to be a Nazi but is still unable to successfully navigate tying his own shoes?

Sunday, December 1, 2019


It is almost over. Kind of...

My love of the movies. Or better yet, my discovery of the movies as an art form that could transform and transport a viewer arrived to me in fullness at the age of 8 in 1977 when I saw George Lucas' "Star Wars" on its opening day, all all with endless, bottomless gratitude to my Dad, who took my family to see the movie because he was the one whose curiosity was tickled regarding the then new "space opera" set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.  And now, after 42 years, the story that first engaged, enthralled and inspired me is coming to a close.
"Star Wars: Episode IX The Rise Of Skywalker," the ninth film, the closing chapter of the sequel trilogy which finds Director J.J. Abrams returning to the saga, bring the entire tale of the Skywalker family to its conclusion and for me, if I could only see one film this month...THIS...IS...THE...ONE!!!

Now...while this film does not even arrive until just before Christmas, there are several late November releases that I haven't even seen yet and still wish to. Furthermore, I am certain that many releases, technically scheduled to arrive this month, may not see wide releases until January 2020. So, things might go a bit wobbly and yes, this again means I will not compile a "Best of 2019" list until perhaps late January, which then means my Savage Cinema Time Capsule series during which I will reveal my favorite films from the decade of 2010-2019 will only arrive afterwards as well. 

Even so, I am more than curious to see the following selections...

1. Jay Roach's "Bombshell," his new politically themed drama surrounding CEO Roger Ailes, sexual harassment at FOX News and starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie has more than intrigued me.
2. The Sadie Brothers' "Uncut Gems" has caught my attention solely due to the rave reviews I have been seeing for the leading, and rare, dramatic performance from Adam Sandler.
 3. From the war beyond the stars to the Earthly battlefields of World War I...
Sam Mendes' "1917" does not open widely until January 2020, I am certain. But that does not mean that I am not just salivating over witnessing an experience that is already garnering an enormously enthusiastic response. it has been throughout this year, the month could very easily be interrupted by all manner of life. But, that being said, please do send me your well wishes and I will again see you when the house lights go down!!!

Sunday, November 17, 2019

SHE'S A BAAAAAD SISTA!!: a review of "Harriet"

Story by Gregory Allen Howard
Screenplay Written by Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
*** (three stars)

Special thanks to my Mom, Mrs. Aretha Collins, for saying the very words that have become the title of this review 

I am reminded of a time during childhood when I would watch Chicago's channel 44, anxiously awaiting the (barely) animated but entirely enveloping adventures of the Marvel Comics superheroes, an d enduring the downright endless installments of "The 700 Club," when on occasion I would be intrigued by commercials advertising Bible stories reformatted into comic books.

While I was not necessarily interested in reading Bible stories, comic books were comic books and perhaps, the stories that completely eluded me during church would somehow become more tangible if presented within a context that I did understand. Needless to say, my Mother refused to indulge this interest, feeling that the comic book treatment would only trivialize, and therefore, undermine what she believes to be the Word Of God.

And so it is very interesting that this memory arrived to me as I watched Director Kasi Lemmons' "Harriet," her biopic of the slave turned abolitionist freedom fighter Harriet Tubman. While an undeniably effective film, it is also an oddly shallow one as well, especially considering the subject matter, from the titular figure to the time period and American history through which she existed and ultimately shaped.

One would think (or at least I did) that any film about Harriet Tubman would be the sort of Oscar worthy (or more cynical viewers might brand as "Oscar bait") experience that would play as more lavish, stately, and epic...essentially the type of film that a historical figure and hero like Harriet Tubman would deserve. Yet, what Lemmons delivered is a film experience that oddly enough speaks more to the dominant cinematic language and landscape of the day: the superhero movie, and I have to admit, this approach simultaneously confused me while it also intrigued.

Kasi Lemmons' "Harriet" stars Cynthia Erivo as our legendary heroine, but beginning her story in 1848 Buckton, Maryland while as a slave named Minty. As the film opens, Minty, alongside her emancipated husband John Tubman (Zakary Momoh) approach slave/plantation master Edward Brodess (Michael Marunde) to request permission to begin a family and that any children would be born free. Not only is that request vehemently denied, plans have been made to sell Minty to another plantation owner thus separating her from her husband plus her brothers Henry and Robert (played by Antonio J. Bell and Joseph Lee Anderson, respectively), her sister Rachel (Deborah Ayorinde) and parents Rit and Ben Ross (played by Vanessa Bell Calloway and Clarke Peters).

Fueled by an unshakable resolve and refusal to be  ripped away from her family and further enslaved and armed with an equally unshakable spiritual faith with God, which is revealed to her through hallucinations/premonitions brought on by her frequent fainting spells (created by a brutal head injury inflicted upon her as a child by a slave owner), Minty makes her escape from the plantation deep into the night.

Although she is relentlessly pursued and nearly captured by Edward Burgess' son, slave master Gideon Burgess (Joe Alwyn), Minty valiantly leaps into the rivers as a last ditch effort and soon finds herself, after washing ashore and then making a 100 ft journey, in Philadelphia, where she meets abolitionists William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), the wealthy Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae), the organizers and "conductors" of the Underground Railroad Network and fin ally re-christens herself as a self-emancipated woman with the name Harriet Tubman. 

Invigorated by her newfound freedom and emboldened by her refusal to be enslaved again combined with her determination to free her family, Harriet Tubman doggedly returns to Maryland over and over again to rescue and further emancipate the slaves, thus crippling the slave owners' businesses and further enraging Gideon, whose clutches she continuously evades, thus earning her the nickname of "Moses The Slave Stealer."

Stakes are raised further with the U.S. Congress' passing of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 which forces the Underground Railroad's re-location into Canada, making Harriet Tubman's rescue missions that much more perilous, and now with the deadly (and traitorous Black man) bounty hunter Bigger Long (Omar Dorsey) in cahoots with Gideon, feverishly on her trail. Yet, with each success, Harriet Tubman grows more intrepid, more fearless, bolder, braver and wholly uncompromising in her determination to live free or die.

Kasi Lemmons' "Harriet" is undeniably a gloriously presented production augmented by the always luscious visual palate from veteran Cinematographer John Toll as well as a rich, lustrous score from Composer Terence Blanchard. All of the film's performances are first rate and indeed beautifully anchored by Cynthia Erivo's measured, mournful fury. It is unquestionably an effective film, one that contains a certain power but for some reason throughout, I felt that there was something about the proceedings that felt to be a

Again, perhaps as I thought about the possibilities of what a biopic film centered around Harriet Tubman could be, I was imagining something that did  possess a certain emotional complexity that Lemmons film actually did not contain. There was something that felt to be more than a little simple or basic or so direct in its straightforwardness, that there was not any room for anything to delve underneath the surface of the plot...and for that matter, the film didn't seem to be remotely interested in delving into any deep waters whatsoever. And for whatever reasons, this was the point when it hit me that what I was watching felt to be more akin to an action film or more truthfully, a comic book origin story film, the type of film we have all become exceedingly educated with over these last ten years with the Marvel Comics films in particular.

Kasi Lemmons' "Harriet" is essentially the origin story of Harriet Tubman and is indeed structured as such. We see her beginnings, or at least the point at which she is beginning to make her crucial transformation into something larger than she may have ever imagined of herself.

We witness the moment of pivotal change from Minty into Harriet Tubman and how she eventually earns the descriptive moniker of "Moses The Slave Stealer" like Superman is known as the "Man Of Steel" or Batman as "The Dark Knight." Her fainting spell induced visions/premonitions from God are essentially her equivalent to Peter Parker's tingling "Spidey sense" alerting him to on-coming dangers. The members of the Underground Railroad secret society,a group which includes Frederick Douglass could be seen as a version of The Avengers of the Justice League. Watch how her wardrobe changes throughout the film from her slave clothing to the Harriet Tubman "costume" that features the smart fedora, long coat, smart satchel and accompanying loaded pistols. It is all there, turning the true, larger than life story of Harriet Tubman into "Harriet" our latest superhero film yet this time about a real life superhero that assisted greatly in saving the African -American race from the annihilation of slavery. 

Admittedly, as engaged as I was, I really was unsure as to how much I actually liked this kind of a portrayal because just as my Mom was not willing to allow me to experience stories from the Bible as comic books, I seriously questioned if the story of Harriet Tubman could, would or should be possibly, or inadvertently, trivialized from this well-intentioned but potentially slight execution,. As I watched, the film made me feel that Lemmons was trying to create some sort of hybrid of Director John Singleton's "Rosewood" (1997), Director Steve McQueen's outstanding, artfully stark "12 Years A Slave" (2013), and the brutally pulpy, morally righteous rage of Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" (2012), where her interpretation of Harriet Tubman was some kind of Civil War version of Shaft or Foxy Brown, cinematic icons of the 1970's Blaxploitation era.

And yet, as I questioned, I did remember an interview with Tarantino around the time of the release of "Django Unchained" when he remarked that he felt that sometimes the tone of the exploitation film is better suited and therefore woud reach a greater sense of truth about difficult subject matter than the classy, Hollywood epic because the exploitation film would indeed get down and dirty where the Oscar hopeful would more than likely be more tentative in getting its cinematic hands considerably messy.

I have to say there is some truth to that assessment because I would not be surprised if Kasi Lemmons originally questioned as to how to make the story of Harriet Tubman resonate powerfully in the 21st century and not make her film feel like a dusty History lesson during a time when it feels that knowing one's history is not en vogue.  Perhaps what I was watching within "Harriet" was a directorial choice, something 100% intentional...

There is no question as to Kasi Lemmons' filmmaking skill, talent and audacity, especially as evidenced in her previous films, which include her excellent debut feature "Eve's Bayou" (1997) and the sensational "Talk To Me" (2007). She more than understands the language of cinema, how it works and operates and perhaps, seeing the tenor of the current cinematic times, she made a purposeful decision to meet the audience where it exists and deliver her experience in the dominant cinematic language we understand.

"Harriet" is a visceral experience, a slave epic that works as a chase film that often recalls Director Andrew Davis' "The Fugitive" (1993), as well as a film of female empowerment in the #MeToo era (the film could also work as a companion piece to television's "The Handmaid's Tale"), and a ferocious war cry in the Black Lives Matter era, therefore making the film deceptively simplistic.

I am reminded of Producer George Lucas and Director Anthony Hemingway's underseen "Red Tails" (2012), their film about the all African-American Tuskegee Airmen, where the film's tone  harkened back to the corny, stilted style of 1940's war films but this time, we were graced with the undeniably magnetic images of young, attractive Black men in positions of power, valiantly driving the engine of the film and being the stars of the type of gorgeously realized aerial dogfights this side of Lucas' own "Star Wars" series. It was the approach that set the stage to first entertain and then, hopefully inspire audiences to discover more and delve deeper once we exited the theaters.

With Lemmons' "Harriet," I am feeling that maybe this was her intent. To first entertain, and to then inspire. And I have to say, that is precisely what I did after leaving the film, which I did happen to screen with my Mom...and what we discovered afterwards was stupendously fascinating and enlightening.

On our way home from the film, my Mom mentioned that she had been unfamiliar with the name of William Still and that perhaps we should look him up. As depicted in the film, Still was a free Black man who, in Philadelphia, chronicled the names, dates and experiences of every escaped and emancipated slave who arrived, all culminated and compiled in The Underground Railroad Records (published 1872), and which incidentally can be easily found on-line and I will happily post a link at the conclusion of this review for you.

To read the real words in a journal that inexplicably still exists in 2019 is stunning and profoundly humbling, and in some ways, lends itself to Kasi Lemmons (or any other willing filmmaker) to bring the story of William Still and the creation and survival of his journals to the big screen...and coming to this realization, I could see more greatly just how potent Lemmons' "Harriet" actually is. It INSPIRED me and my Mom to seek, to learn more and to even view our existence through an even wider lens than before. If that was Kasi Lemmons intent, then mission accomplished and then some,

Even so, "Harriet" is not a flawless experience as there are scenes that ring as inauthentic, some characters that are not terribly well drawn and I do greatly question why the film's most graphically violent moment occurs between a Black man and a Black woman.

Yet, I did appreciate how Lemmons' did showcase the business of slavery and therefore, the unforgivable inhumanity of that business that treated human beings as less than furniture. I appreciated how Lemmons did present the horrors of White supremacy in language that clearly mirrors words spoken today as well as the relentless psychological damage of slavery which created a sense of distrust within African-Americans towards each other, a distrust that also exists to this very day.

And returning to William Still's The Underground Railroad Records, I present to you some of his own written impressions about the real Harriet Tubman:

"Harriet was a woman of no pretensions, indeed, a more ordinary specimen of humanity could hardly be found among the most unfortunate-looking farm hands of the South. Yet, in point of courage, shrewdness and disinterested exertions rescue her fellow-men, by making personal visits to Maryland among the slaves, she was without her equal.

Her success was wonderful...Great fears were entertained for her safety, but she seemed wholly devoid of personal fear. The idea of being captured by slave-hunters or slave-holders seemed never to enter her mind. She was apparently proof against all adversaries. While she thus manifested such utter personal indifference, she was much more watchful with regard to those she was piloting...

...Of course Harriet was supreme, and her followers generally had full faith in her, and woud back up any word she might utter...It is obvious enough, however, that her success in going into Maryland as she did, was attributable to her adventurous spirit and utter disregard of consequences. Her like it is probable was never known before or since."

If Kasi Lemmons captured anything at all, she indeed captured that essence and impression in full, the essence and impression of a woman who eventually emerged and lived her life as a real world superhero. And in doing so, maybe this was the correct artistic approach to "Harriet" after all.

Here is the link to The Underground Railroad Records...

Friday, November 8, 2019

PANDORA'S BOX CINEMA: a review of "Parasite"

Story by Bong Joon-ho
Screenplay Written by Bong Joon-ho & Han Jin-wan
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
**** (four stars)

This is the magic of going to the movies!! The magic of entering a storytelling universe and allowing yourself to be taken in by its cinematic spell in a darkened roomful of strangers all having the exact same experience. When that very storytelling universe happens to be one that is foreign to the viewer, then all going well and if the film is executed at its most successful levels, then, the magic of going to the movies is felt tenfold.

For me, in all of my years of going to the movies, I have not ever seen any films from Director Bong Joon-ho. While I have been loosely familiar with his name and a couple of his films, including "The Host" (2006) and "Snowpiercer" (2013), I just have not taken the plunge into his cinematic world...and for no apparent reason whatsoever. With the arrival of his latest film, "Parasite," I would like to think that my whole ignorance of Bong Joon-ho certainly played into my response to the film as I honestly had not one pre-conceived notion of what I would experience, making his cinematic voice one that was completely unknown to me.

But that is not to take anything away from what "Parasite" is in its entirety, whether I had previously known of Bong Joon-ho, or not and that is to say that his new film is ingenious, it is jaw dropping, it is a Pandora's Box of malevolent surprises and it is unquestionably a revelation in our movie landscape which is indeed favoring those lavishly produced yet assembly line theme parks that audiences are growing dangerously accustomed to. Honestly, when was the last time you went to a film not having an idea of what to expect and just ended being blown away by the results? Trust me, dear readers, when I emphatically urge you to take a chance on Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite," a film so audacious in it brilliance that it is easily one of 2019's tallest achievements.

In order to ensure that there are no spoilers, I will only provide the following description detailing the plot of "Parasite." As the film opens, we meet the Kim family, which includes family patriarch Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), matriarch Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) and son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), all of whom are unemployed and live together in a dilapidated semi-basement apartment.

When Ki-woo's college bound friend Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon), suggests to Ki-woo that he pose as a college student and become an English tutor for the teenage daughter in the wealthy Park family, which includes Mr. and Mrs. Park (Lee Sun-kyun and Cho Yeo-jeung, respectively), their young son Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon) plus the aforementioned Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), Ki-woo's decision begins to intertwine the two families.

And yes indeed, that is all I am going to divulge to you. But, I will extol to following...

While the title may suggest something either grotesquely violent or something possibly regarding the supernatural, I will assure you that this film does not fit either description. That said, Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite" is masterful in its direction, meticulous in its writing, acting, and visual aesthetics most notably, its set design and finally, it is brilliantly multi-layered in its characters and overall thematic elements. Because of these qualities and attributes, it is of no surprise to me that the film was awarded the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.

Working in superbly crisp and razor sharp collaboration with Cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, Editor Yang Jin-mo, and Composer Jeong-Jae-il, Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite" sprints across and weaves together the elements of the social satire and the pulse pounding thriller in a fashion that feels as if it is indeed the first time you have ever experienced anything quite like this film while also existing as something familiar enough to evoke nothing less than the finest of Hitchcock, The Coen Brothers, some Quentin Tarantino and even Woody Allen's "Match Point" (2005). 

As the subtleties and overtures, plus micro-aggressions, stereotypes, prejudices, fears and dark wish fulfillments that exist within class warfare are all on display and crucial to the entire experience with "Parasite," we have a film that does indeed extended beyond film genre hopping/blending and exists as a passionate and uncompromising morality tale in which Bong Joon-ho never utilizes his film as a platform to sermonize but as a means to explore our collective humanity if presented with a set of seemingly impossible choices.

In doing so, Bong allows us to be tickled and terrified by what unfolds throughout the film so seamlessly as it is somehow so inexplicably identifiable and recognizable enough to picture ourselves within the film's scenarios, thus making for a film experience that is simultaneously claustrophobic and cavernous, intimate and universal, foreign and familiar, hilarious and horrifying.

Again, dear readers, and especially for those of you who are typically adverse to viewing anything with subtitles, which "Parasite" indeed is filled with from end-to-end, this is why we go to the movies!!!! This is what the movies are for!!

If you please allow me to stand upon my Savage Soapbox for a moment and address once again the controversy surrounding the comments made by Martin Scorsese against the Marvel Comics movies and their ilk, which is precisely the same gripes and grievances I have made against the entire sequel, prequel, remake, reboot, re-imagining culture that is now the engine driving the movie industry regarding which films are made to how they are all released.

As I have always presented to you throughout the history of Savage Cinema, I love films that are created and designed to exist as escapist and many of those types of movies are indeed some of my most favorite movies. Some of those movies are the very ones that made me fall in love with the movies as an art form.

I saw and loved Anthony and Joe Russo's "Avengers: Endgame" just like all of you. I am practically salivating with anticipation for J.J. Abrams' "Star Wars: Episode IX-The Rise Of Skywalker." But, that being said, I don't wish to see those kinds of movies every week. And I passionately believe that as movie goers, we should not want to have those types of movies as our steady, constant cinematic diet every week.

What I hate is how the prevalence of those types films have powerfully altered the movie going landscape and this is what Scorsese is rallying against, the theme park reconstruction of what we, the general public, are being given to see in our movie theaters via the illusion of choice. Certainly, naysayers would argue that the sheer spectacle of those escapist movies are tailor made for our movie screens. True. But honestly, how large does Batman's cowl have to be?

I believe that our movies screens are as tailor made for rich, multi-layered cinematic storytelling of all styles and genres as much as it is for the awesome sight of the destruction of the Death Star. And to find yourself lost in the superior cinematic storytelling told by an unfamiliar creative voice delivering a wholly unfamiliar perspective, it is as if you are seeing the movies anew all over again.

This is why the arrival of Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite" is so crucial as this film is cinematic storytelling at its most artful, entertaining and ferociously original. If I wished, I would describe this movie further for you. Yet, I wish for you to receive it just as I did, with little to no information. That way, perhaps you can take a chance and find yourselves in that dark movie theater prepared to enter into a cinematic vision that will feel like falling into a new world, emerging afterwards with your perceptions possibly altered. What a shame it would be to miss a film of this high level for no other reason than it was foreign, subtitled and otherwise unfamiliar.

Again, Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite" is one of the very best films of 2019.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

MILES AHEAD: a review of "Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool"

Produced and Directed by Stanley Nelson
**** (four stars)

For my Dad, Mr. Powhatan Collins, who would have absolutely loved this film...

Three years ago, I found myself enthralled by Co-Writer/Actor/Director Don Cheadle's "Miles Ahead" (2016), his defiant, unrepentant exploration of the iconic musician Miles Davis (ruthlessly portrayed by Cheadle). Like Davis himself as he ventured through his artistic odyssey and music career by breaking through every conceivable barrier in what could or could not be presented as jazz, Cheadle's film unapologetically refused to follow the cinematic rule book regarding anything resembling a biopic, which, it should be noted, "Miles Ahead" emphatically was not.

What I loved, in addition to Cheadle's searing performance, was the film's sheer audacity within its primary conceit. To create an impressionistic portrait of the artist when he is not creating, illustrating his inner world via a non-linear structure of memories, dreams, and surreal touches resulting in an experience that was not only electrifying but one that felt as if it could have been the very film Miles Davis could have made about himself.

And my Dad hated it.

Yes indeed, Miles Davis has existed within the spectrum of my life for the entirety of my life and not because I have been a fan myself, which I actually had not been. Miles Davis has existed as a towering artistic figure within my household because he existed as my Dad's #1 favorite artist of all time, the one figure above all who would inspire my Dad to seek and follow from one giant artistic shift to another, as his idiosyncratic qualities were second to none and there would never be another like him again.

For my Dad, "Miles Ahead" did not do the legend the proper justice he felt that Miles Davis deserved. While my Dad did indeed love the language and artistry of the movies, he grew irritated when films became overly esoteric and did not just get to the point. It was not that he did not appreciate nuance. But if the work, to him, felt to be designed to make you, the viewer, work just for the sake of working and not because you found yourself lost in the story, he became distrustful and frustrated. And furthermore, with "Miles Ahead," he simply did not wish to see his lifelong hero presented in the way Cheadle envisioned him. My Dad wanted something more straightforward certainly but something more all encompassing and worthy of the life story being told.

Stanley Nelson's superlative documentary, "Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool," is not only precisely the film I am certain that my Dad had always wanted to witness about his hero, it is an excellent film for absolutely anyone and everyone who wishes to gaze into the mind and musical world of one of our most feverishly adventurous artists of any conceivable genre. Much like Miles Davis himself, Nelson creates a portrait and overall film experience that is cool, sophisticated, angry, and clean and as with the finest documentaries I have seen in recent years, it is also a film that transcends its subject matter to bring into focus larger themes, all of which enhance and enlighten the man and his artistic legacy, while also expanding into our shared existence. Raw and remarkable, Stanley Nelson's film serves as a masterful tribute to one of our most formidable artistic masters.

Stanley Nelson's "Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool" takes its full linear cradle-to-grave narrative and structure and utilizes the life story of Miles Davis as both a primer to the artist as well as a rich enhancement to all we may already know about the mercurial, fearless, always forward thinking artist.

Through an enormous arsenal of photographs and visual footage, some of which has never been previously released, plus interviews with Davis' musical collaborators (including bassist Ron Carter, pianist/keyboardist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist/multi-instrumentalist Marcus Miller among others), writers, journalists, scholars, friends and family members, the film is anchored by Miles Davis's own words and voice as narrator--that is the voice of actor Carl Lumbly evoking Davis' signature throaty rasp. And of course, from end to end, we have Miles Davis' musical legacy as the untouchable soundtrack, a collection of music that remains so profound in its depth that it still continues to reveal itself to our ears.

For Miles Davis devotees and novices, Stanley Nelson's film is meticulously and lovingly researched and therefore, beautifully contextualized into a rich, luxuriously executed narrative that is briskly paced and yet never rushed and by its conclusion, feels wholly complete. I truly found it to being remarkable that Nelson was able to condense so much material into a just under two hour running time, when he clearly had several mountains of material to work with regarding Miles Davis' life.

As I regard Davis now, realizing that he passed away at a very young 65 in 1991, it feels that the man experienced and lived several lives within the one he possessed, and in turn, it feels as if Nelson could have made three two hour documentary films about Davis' odyssey. That comment is not to suggest that I felt anything to be lacking. On the contrary, I feel it demands tremendous praise for Stanley Nelson as he was diligent and focused enough in being able to sift through all of the material and determine precisely what needed to be included to create a multi-layered experience, one, I would gather, would hopefully mirror any Miles  Davis album, where we continuously discover and re-discover its gifts.

As previously stated, "Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool" is one more documentary that extends itself far beyond the reaches of what could have served as simply a "music biopic." Through witnessing Miles Davis' upbringing in the exceedingly rare confines of an affluent African-American family in Illinois and East St. Louis in the late 1920's and 1930's, his eventual musical studies at Julliard, the intense diligence and cultivation of his prodigious talents in New York City directly alongside the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and eventually his peerless, restless creativity and innovation that would cement him as one of the 20th century's greatest artistic minds and talents, we are also learning of the African-American experience as it relates to race and class and the similarities and differences as experienced by Davis in America and Europe, plus even larger themes of child abuse, depression, addiction, toxic masculinity, female subjugation and empowerment and finally, Black masculinity and Black excellence as it relates to artistic expression.

And then, we are able to regard how all of those themes are weaved into the full discography and legacy of Miles Davis' musical existence, which for him, clearly was another language, in fact, the most effective language for him in which to communicate to the world around him. I loved the story of how, as a child, he was already being perceived as being "weird" as he would wander in the fields by his home imitating the sounds of the natural world with his trumpet, thus the period in which he was beginning to develop his chosen language of music, leading the the dichotomy of his artistic life when compared with his personal life.

It is of no secret that Miles Davis was, in many ways, a hard man. A difficult individual, a figure one interview subject in the film refers to him as being "anti-social." Nelson thankfully does not shy away from these periods of Davis' life therefore ensuring the establishment of a full three dimensional portrait. Regarding race and racism, we are able to clearly see how being a Black man in Paris, in an environment that saw him standing on equal footing with Jean-Paul Sartre, and then returning to America, where this exact same Black man who could be beaten by police directly outside of the nightclub at which he is the headlining act (with his name on the marquee to boot) led to extreme  confusion, depression, righteous and rightful rage as well as an eventual addiction to heroin as the constant realization that his wealth and fame could not protect him from a racist American society ate away at him.

Miles Davis' relationships with women will certainly provide the greatest sense of conflict, especially when viewed through a 21st century/Me Too context. I do think that Nelson is not asking of us to condone but to understand, as we also view Davis's adult relationships through his lens of witnessing the abusive relationship of his own parents. While a romance with French singer/actress Juliette Greco (interviewed in the film) fully disarmed him, it was his subsequent relationships that provided him with tremendous sources of inspiration and turbulence, and Nelson, wisely allows ample screen time to the women with whom Miles Davis shared his life in love and torment.

Most famously is Frances Taylor (also interviewed extensively in the film), Davis' first wife, and with whom would create an sparkling, powerful image of Black excellence, high class and sophistication throughout the African-American community. Through Taylor, we receive a full and fair reminiscence of the rise and fall of their love story, through his mental and physical abuse of her--so impactful that it led to her giving up her career as a dancer--and thus, a reclaiming of herself through her endurance, survival and re-emergence, leaving Miles Davis behind entirely.

Nelson's film also touches upon Miles Davis' turbulent romances with both Cicely Tyson and Betty Wright, which also followed suit in similar fashions as each woman served as artistic muse and combustible force. Yet, what Nelson achieves greatly, especially in our unforgiving social media climate regarding any issues of justice and fairness, is to display crucial nuance into each story. We are able to criticize behavior but Nelson never acts as judge and jury. and nor does he wish us to either. He allows us to understand the experiences as a whole, to understand each relationship's level of power struggles, dynamics as well as virtues of inspiration towards each other and the Black community as a whole, for example, the images of Miles Davis and Frances Taylor in the fullest of their respective glories was the epitome of cool, style and elegance, for the Black community and beyond. 

For as much as Davis abused Frances Taylor, he also lavished upon her, most notably, placing her upon the cover of his album "Someday My Prince Will Come" (released December 11, 1961), an image that Taylor herself manipulated for even greater mystique as well as reclamation of the beauty image for Black women and society. For as turbulent as Davis and Betty Wright were together, she inspired his musical transformations in the 1970's as equally as the music of Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and James Brown.

And in the end, and above all else, "Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool" is a celebration of the pioneering artistry that has continued to go unmatched as Davis transcended the jazz genre in enormity, thus inventing his own musical language with which to break boundaries and ultimately, to communicate.

Nelson gives us the ways in which Miles Davis utilized the teaching at Julliard and the New York City nightclubs as his educational grounds that formulated the foundation in which he could aspire to be an artist on the level of Stravinsky. Placing the bell of his trumpet directly into the microphone changed the way in which we heard the instrument and the man who held it. Nelson dives into the creation of Davis' landmark "Kind Of Blue" (released August 17, 1959) as well as the game changing "Bitches Brew" (released April 1970). We witness Davis' reliance on younger musicians to assist him in developing the sounds inside of his spirit and previously unheard in the world and finally, we continue to be awed by his fearless creative restlessness that surged him forwards, always with a refusal to look backwards. We remain amazed!

Even as we watch how he accomplished the seemingly impossible, how he re-invented the wheel over and over again, we are also amazed with how he, his musicality and the trumpet became one entity, communicating in a fashion that is formidable, difficult, demanding and accessible. Again, we understand!!!

It is incredible to watch just how the sensitivity, fury, anxiety, romanticism, and purity of his inner being so difficult to voice in standard interpersonal communication techniques became blindingly visible when he played his trumpet. I especially loved the sequences in which Nelson displays Davis composing and performing the score for the French film "Ascenseur pour L'echafaud" (1958) from Director Louis Malle. It is not what we might already know of traditional film scoring, with a conductor, orchestra and fully composed sheet music at the ready. We see Miles Davis, with trumpet in hand, performing in real time against the film images he is watching, responding intuitively to the characters upon screen, therefore, fusing his musical voice with the existential voice of the character. Absolutely mesmerizing!!

And again, I know my Dad would have loved this film. He would have loved it as much as I did.

Stanley Nelson's "Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool" is an enormously entertaining and  unquestionably essential document in our continuing exploration into the legacy and mystique of Miles Davis, as well as being a brilliant addition to our finest music based documentaries as it is as informative as it is inclusive to any and all who wish to learn and know more.

It is also one of the very best films I have seen in 2019.


It is 2019 and we still have to explain why Nazis are bad. Such is life in the 21st century and in turn, it just may still make for invigorating cinema.

While I have one last review from my film-going in October still being composed, I am hoping that November will give me time and space to catch these new films that have just hit the Madison, WI theaters.
I have to say that I did have a bit of a knee jerk reaction wen I first saw the trailer for this new satire from Writer/Actor/Director Taika Waititi, and that reaction was a sharp mixture of attraction and rejection. The rejection arrived from the idea that we needed to have yet another Holocaust set film that explored the atrocities of Hitler and World War II, especially after Quentin Tarantino's brilliant "Inglourious Basterds" (2009).  The attraction was that the film looked so downright bizarre that I am extremely compelled to witness it. I am hoping that the press and curiosity surrounding the film will keep it in theaters for a few weeks so I am able to get to it.
The one thing in the way, so to peak, from me seeing "Jojo Rabbit" immediately is this film from Writer/Director Bong Joon-ho, a filmmaker whose reputation precedes him and yet, to this day, I still have not seen even one selection from his filmography. Yet, the press and curiosity surrounding t his film has made me extremely curious and I really want to dive into this one first!
Of course, I am curious to see what Writer/Director Rian Johnson has up his sleeves with his new all-star cast murder mystery after fully blowing me away with "Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi" (2017).
I know nothing about this film other than the trailer I saw earlier in the Summer, and I wish to keep it that way until Thanksgiving weekend!

Yes, that is quite a lot for the month but let's see what I can do. Wish me luck and as always, I'll see you when the house lights go down!!!

Monday, October 7, 2019

THERE IS NO PUNCHLINE: a review of "Joker"

Based upon the DC Comics characters created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane & Jerry Robinson
Screenplay Written by Todd Phillips & Scott Silver
Directed by Todd Phillips
**** (four stars)

In the past week, there has been some controversy (albeit internet controversy--could it be the Russians?) regarding some comments made by Martin Scorsese in reference to the superhero movie genre, most specifically the gargantuan Marvel Comics films.

"I don't see them," he said. "I tried, you know. But, that's not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn't the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being."

Now, we of course can debate those sentiments for ages but as far as I am concerned, and despite some disagreements, I do believe that Scorsese is indeed correct. While I am not attempting to disparage the superhero/comic book film genre in its entirety, because as you well know, quite a number of them over these past 40 years have proven themselves to be wondrous works of art, I do believe the sheer prevalence of them at the expense of essentially every other kind of movie to be made is troubling.

The assembly line nature, the over-abundance, the feeling that even the most established actors are to find work these days, they need to don a cape and be adorned with super powers (I am honestly waiting for the likes of Meryl Streep to her official Marvel appearance), believe me, I do feel Scorsese's fatigue, which I have often expressed upon this site.  But also, this genre exists as myth making as all of these films are indeed variations of fables and mythology, all designed for their naturally epic canvases, not really for interpersonal intimacy.

All of that being said, I do wonder what Scorsese would think of Todd Phillips' "Joker," a masterful new origin story of the figure who would become Batman's arch-nemesis. Certainly, he would clearly recognize his own cinematic influence over the proceedings--more on that later--but beyond that visual aesthetic, and despite its connection to the DC Comics universe, we have a film that is decidedly and defiantly intimate in its grim adult psychology, intimate to the point of becoming enormously disturbing in its claustrophobic and upending qualities. In fact, I can easily say with this film, there is nothing on display to suggest anything resembling a theme park. But, with "Joker," we are given one hell of a funhouse mirror.

Todd Phillips' "Joker" stars a towering Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a failed stand-up comedian struggling with mental illness and neurological disorders, who lives with his mentally and physically unstable Mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy) in a garbage, rat infested, wholly impoverished area of Gotham City, where crime, unemployment, disenfranchisement and funding cuts to social service programs are rampant.

In the day to day tribulations of his miserable life, Arthur is employed as a party clown, suffers beatings from teenage hooligans, nurses an infatuation over Sophie (Zazie Beetz), his single Mother neighbor, constantly mulls over whether billionaire/philanthropist and now Mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is actually his Father and obsesses over local late night television talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro).

Arthur's downfall (or is it an ascension) begins once he is beaten relentlessly by three young, drunken businessmen from Wayne Enterprises upon a subway...and the result of that confrontation opens the doorway to to an inner madness soon to be manifested outwardly into an increasingly chaotic society.

While elements and iconography of the Batman mythology do exist within the film, Todd Phillips' "Joker" is by no means presented as a comic book movie. There are no action set pieces or CGI special effects driven pyrotechnics. No sequences of popcorn munching excitement or escapism. And unquestionably, there is nothing remotely kid friendly upon display. What Phillips has created is a hard R rated adult psychological drama/thriller cemented by a luxuriously gritty visual aesthetic from Cinematographer Lawrence Sher, a mounting doom of a film score from Composer Hildur Guonnadottir and staggering, Oscar worthy leading performance by Joaquin Phoenix.

The spirit of Martin Scorsese looms large over "Joker," as Phillips' film has clearly been inspired by, and has learned from, Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" (1976), "The King Of Comedy" (1982), and "Bringing Out The Dead" (1999), all films where deeply emotionally and mentally disturbed men-- Travis Bickle, Rupert Pupkin and Frank Pierce, respectively-- all attempt to survive the long days and nights in the unforgiving New York City landscape. 

To that end "Joker" also sits more than comfortably within the same dark cinematic universe as the likes of David Fincher's "Fight Club" (1999) and "Zodiac" (2007), Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" (1994) and of course, the mightiest, most controversial of them all, Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" (1971). From the film's usage of the vintage Warner Brothers studio logo (I LOVED that), yet armed with a story and perspective that is as up to the minute as me writing this review (and therefore, you reading it), "Joker" firmly has its turbulent finger upon the pulse of this specific moment in time during 2019.

From the filth and funk of the Gotham City streets, complete with all manner of all night porno movie theaters and the juxtaposition of dilapidated communities compared with the opulence of high society as populated by the likes of Thomas Wayne, to the prevalent themes of mental illness and the resulting societal stigmas and indifference, and set within an indeterminate time period which looks and feels like the past and present have collided, "Joker" is brilliantly executed 1970's noir merged with real world 21st century fury, anxiety, rage, and fear all housed within a striking character study that displays how the chaos of the mind explodes into chaos in the streets.

Front and center is indeed Joaquin Phoenix whose magnetic, often, truly frightening and surprisingly empathetic performance is impossible to turn your eyes away from. While he is not going to ever make me forget what the late Heath Ledger conjured in his blistering, brilliant, posthumously Oscar winning performance as The Joker in Christopher Nolan's superlative "The Dark Knight" (2008), Phoenix's work is equally staggering, sometimes suggesting his work as a prequel to Ledger's, other times existing in its own universe entirely. 

Seemingly extending from his feral work in Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" (2012), Joaquin Phoenix heads even deeper into uncompromising territory as the dismayed and disturbed Arthur Fleck. Never have I seen Phoenix's face so rubbery. His newly emaciated frame has somehow only gained in its flexibility, a form suggesting something almost boneless, despite the shocking sight of his spine looking as if it will break free of his skin. Phoenix projects a physicality of nightmarish elasticity, mirroring the searing knot twisting occurring within his mind.

And it is here, where Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix take a film of such unrepentant ugliness and find the beauty of empathy that is settled at the film's core. For all intents and purposes Arthur Fleck is not a bad man, by any means. Indeed he is a damaged man. But, evil, hardly..that is until he finds himself psychologically trapped in a corner where whatever empathy he hoped existed within the world has ultimately found itself non-existent and through no fault of his a degree, of course.

"Joker" is a work that serves as much as a societal check-in as it does as a warning. Through Arthur Fleck, Phillips, I believe, is imploring of us to remember that no one knows how much baggage another individual is shouldering and possibly, perhaps we should assume that everyone is shouldering tremendous private pain and suffering in silence, therefore making having empathy a moral imperative. For Arthur, his mental illness is such that it fully exacerbates his high sensitivities to interpersonal and societal situations, which are further compounded by a neurological condition that forces him to fall into maniacal laughter at inappropriate times, a quality that makes him misunderstood at best and the recipient of society's brutal punishments at worst.

"Joker" questions what has happened to our collective sense of compassion and why has it been over-taken by our basest instincts. From a social/economic/political standpoint, it is easy to reason the potential outcomes that may occur when a group is pushed too far into insignificance by those in power. That reality is depicted within the Gotham City landscape but also within Arthur Fleck's mind, as he feels increasingly powerless to the careless whims and impersonal machinations of society and its citizens, therefore making his actions (for a spell) feel dangerously recognizable.

Much like the character of Alex in "A Clockwork Orange," we are riding along inside of Arthur Fleck's consciousness and growing madness, making us co-conspirators, forcing all of us in the audience to acknowledge and reconcile ourselves with our worst impulses, our darkest fears and untapped anger. It feels as if Phillips is suggesting that if we are able to point our fingers towards Arthur Fleck, then we have to point those very same fingers towards ourselves. Once Arthur approaches his full transformation into the Joker, we are more than likely able to cleave a split between this character and behaviors we have experienced and even inflicted in our own pasts. But before that, "Joker" uncomfortably yet provocatively burrows its way under your skin, until the entire film has worked you over.   

A considerable amount of media coverage has already focused itself upon the film's level of violence and I do wish to address this quality of the film for you. Yes, "Joker" contains some scenes of vicious, shockingly graphic violence and based upon the story Phillips is trying to tell, the violence is supposed to shock you. For if it didn't, Phillips seems to be arguing, then we are no better off than Arthur Fleck himself. Unlike the escapist, almost cartoon carnage of something we could see in say, Chad Stahelski's "John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum," the violence of "Joker" is appropriately, uncompromisingly horrifying, and ultimately more real, especially as this film arrives during a period of our collective history where we  .

And that, I think, is the ingenious bait and switch of Todd Phillips' "Joker," a film that utilizes the comic book movie craze to get you into the theaters and then, nearly assaults you with a prescient warning of our potential societal downfall. It is a case of seemingly giving audiences what they need when they think they are going to get more of what they want. Yes, opening weekend was a box office bonanza but I am curious if audiences will continue, possibly grow or even retreat due to the film unrelenting darkness. Sometimes, we need to have some art instead of popcorn and the art in question doesn't have to make any of us feel comfortable. Sometimes, we need to have films that are about people and humanity and to that end, sometimes it is the disturbing film that is ultimately the most humane.

Todd Phillips' "Joker" is one of 2019's very best films.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019


Well, that's more like it!

It felt good, so very good to have had a productive month again on Savage Cinema as I produced more reviews than I typically have, especially in these most recent months. It felt good to write again, to get back down to business and while I do not wish to get ahead of myself or even jinx myself, I plan on keeping my movie going activities for month within reasonable means.
1. "JOKER"
You know me. You know how fatigued I am with all things comic book related regarding the movies and the fact that I feel that we do not need a "Batman" related anything for quite some time. And then, we now have this, Director Todd Philips and Martin Scorsese produced "Joker," an R rated origin story of Batman's arch-nemesis that is reportedly more akin to past Scorsese films than anything more comic book related. Admittedly, I was more than skeptical at first but those trailers were highly impressive to me and combined with its subsequent success at the Venice Film Festival, I am ready to take the plunge into this already controversial feature.
I am intrigued. Director Noah Hawley's debut feature film, the science fiction/psychological drama "Lucy In The Sky" concerning the downward spiral of an astronaut (Natalie Portman) after her return to Earth from a space mission, pulled me in with its impressive trailer. While early reviews have been more mixed, I am looking forward to this one.
Back in the Summer of 2001, I laughed myself absolutely sick with Writer/Director Kevin Smith's "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," the fifth film in his ViewAskewniverse saga. It was a film that was irreverent, relentlessly vulgar and utterly brilliant in the fact that Smith created a Hollywood satire that was ultimately critic proof as he weaved all of the bad reviews into the narrative itself. Whether he can achieve that same feat again, who knows? But, I am willing to try with his latest comedy, a satire of our television and cinematic reboot culture. As Smith is touring the film around the country, I wonder if it will receive a traditional theatrical release...

I think that is more than good for right now and so, with that, please do wish me well and I will see you when the house lights go down!!!!!!!!  

Monday, September 23, 2019

EXCOMMUNICADO: a review of "John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum"

Based upon characters created by Derek Kolstad
Story by Derek Kolstad
Screenplay Written by Dreek Kolstad and Shay Hatten and Chris Collins & Marc Abrams
Directed by Chad Stahelski
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

What is it about or cultural relationship with violence that speaks to us as a society? What are we alleviating or even exorcising within ourselves when we watch? And for how much pop culture violence is utilized as a scapegoat for horrific acts of real world violence, we continue to experience and consume.

I have always been able to draw that line between the real and the fantasy regarding violence and I am not one to use movie violence, for instance as that aforementioned scapegoat. But, as I get older, I do wonder if there is something that is touching some deep nerves when exceedingly violent films do arrive into the world. Frankly, is it a reflection of our cultural anxieties or are we numbing ourselves, providing a release or some combination of all and even more?

The continuing and increasingly successful "John Wick" film series is something that has confounded me. Essentially a collection of highly stylized grindhouse pictures with scant dialogue and a ferociously, furiously paced onslaught of killing and mayhem has captured the excitement of audiences to an escalating degree and I cannot help but to wonder precisely why. I can speculate, of course, especially as we are all engulfed in anxiety ridden times, desperately in need of some sense of absolution. Or maybe I am just over-analyzing and audiences are just enthralled and entertained by a good shoot-em-up...something I thoroughly enjoy from time to time.

Whatever the reasons, former stuntman turned Director Chad Stahelski's "John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum," is unquestionably the series' highest point to date. A spectacular opera of brilliantly, beautifully orchestrated ultraviolence that firmly owes its existence to the films of Sergio Leone, Walter Hill, John Woo, '70's Asian cinema and undeniably Quentin Tarantino's orgiastic "Kill Bill: Volume 1" (2003) while carving its own brutal, bloody path forwards in grandly outrageous style.

For something I would normally question would be desensitizing due to its excesses, Stahelski has delivered a work that is exhilarating, and even hysterical, as it is clearly not taking itself too seriously. And with Keanu Reeves, now at the age of 55 (!), more formidable and engaging than ever, I was enormously entertained, excited and filled with explosive bouts of exclamations and even laughter from one end to the other. In a way, this thing has to be seen to be believed!

Opening nearly one hour after the events of "John Wick: Chapter 2" (2017), out titular anti-hero, ex-assassin and reluctant killing machine adorned with the impeccably tailored suits (again played by Keanu Reeves) is a marked man after his unsanctioned killing of a crime lord in consecrated Continental Hotel. Now declared "ex-communicado" and with a newly placed $14 million bounty on his head, John Wick is on the run from what feels like an entire world of assassins, all wishing to kill him and collect the fortune.

Wick's relentless escape plans lead him first to The Director (Angelica Huston) and then all the way to Casablanca, where he is reunited with ex -assassin Sofia (Halle Berry) as he seeks aid to to  having his bounty waived and his life spared.

Meanwhile back in New York, we meet The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), a member of the High Table syndicate, who confronts both Continental Hotel manager Winston (Ian McShane) as well as The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) to admonish them both for aiding Wick in the previous film and to also  inform them to each settle their affairs, leave their respective posts or suffer the consequences within seven days. She also hires the services of Zero (Mark Dacasscos), a Japanese assassin ready to enforce the will of the High Table.

Now, it is funny because just today, a friend of mine asked me if "John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum" was any different than the previous two installments, to which I began laughing and exclaimed, "Well...not really!" On second thought, that answer is not quite entirely true.

Yes, what we have is a third installment of Keanu Reeves' reluctant killing machine killing absolutely everyone in his path, making a character who continues to live up to the reputation set by the first film when John Wick is referred to as not being The Boogeyman but is in actuality, the man who is able to hunt down and kill The Boogeyman. In some respects you are receiving more of the same and in other ways, not at all.

What Chad Stahelski has miraculously accomplished with each installment is to take this bare bones revenge story and somehow broaden and deepen its own mythology to where the proceedings are indeed becoming gradually more mythic in tone while also remaining gritty to the point of bone crunching.

Again, Stahelski does not load his film downwards with extraneous dialogue, thus making the films more visual, and therefore, visceral experiences. In short the excessive fight sequences are the story and in the case of "John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum," we have a film where the constant carnage is in actuality a story about existential crisis and the elusive nature of redemption, for can John Wick's soul ever find relief after all of lives he has taken and does he deserve to find peace anyway?

Perhaps John Wick is destined to claw, fight and kill his way through life even though, by this stage, his soul is constantly being eroded. By adding this conceptual layer, Stahelski has ensured his series, and this film in particular, provides more than just mindless violence, the amount of which is more than considerable.

As you can gather, have you not seen any of these films, "John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum" is excessively violent and more than earns its hard R rating. Even so, I never felt that what was presented was gratuitous and that had everything to do with Stahelski's cinematic vision which only continues to expand with each new installment.

In addition to all of the previously stated influences I felt clearly inspired this film, I also think this time around Stahelski has added nothing less than Ridley Scott's still influential and unquestionably iconic "Blade Runner" (1982) into the mix. "John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum" is a film that is flying more into the slightly surreal, or at least, it is even more artistically stylized than the previous two installments, as the constant rain soaked neon streets indicated to my sensibilities. Trust me, the film looks absolutely gorgeous from end to end. It is remarkably opulent despite the enormous blood flow.

To that end, there are all of the action and fight sequences themselves and they are all absolutely staggering to behold. Remember, Keanu Reeves is providing most of his own stunt work again and to be able to witness the sheer physicality and agility of Reeves, Halle Berry plus all of his/their opponents in one beautifully choreographed and brilliantly executed fight sequence after another after another after another is astounding.

Just the film's first 30 minutes or so alone are more than worth the price of admission as we regard Wick fight his way out of New York (a battle with all manner of knives and sharp objects of destruction is especially jaw dropping). A later sequence featuring a motorcycle riding Wick fighting a squad of assassin motorcyclists brandishing swords equally astonishing. And the entire feral vibe, when it is working at its peak, feels like the closest thing to George Miller's rampaging "Mad Max" series, ending with a stellar cliffhanger that makes me more than ready for "Chapter 4" (which is due to arrive in 2021). 

I suppose another reason why a film series this violent has earned this much affection is that the filmmakers are clearly enjoying themselves with trying to devise how precisely to wow and excite audiences as well as themselves. Every fight sequence is beautifully staged and filmed in a series of long, unedited takes, completely unlike what we usually see with our ADD editing techniques, all of which become visually bludgeoning and even deceptive as we always miss the story of the fights themselves.

Stahelski avoids all of those considerable trappings as he has devised of fight sequences, chases and shoot-outs that could almost work as movie musical numbers. Yes, it is overwhelming but in a way, it all feels so fitting that is so over the top. And that is because, I have this feeling that the "John Wick" series is more self-aware than it may at first seem. In fact, it is practically gleeful, therefore giving the film an added layer of fun as well as diffusing the effect of the violence to a degree.

How can you not see Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves together and think of The Wachowski brothers' "The Matrix Trilogy" (1999/2003)? I also wonder if Fishburne's rooftop aviary dwelling Bowery King is at all a nod to Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai" (1999). "John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum" is a movie that seems to know that it is a movie or is also just in  love with certain film styles and genres and here they all are lovingly displayed and honored...even as the blood is flowing and splattering all over the screen.

Chad Stahelski's "John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum," easily the best episode yet in this series, is an action film triumph filled with an imagination, invention and inspiration that is as intense as it is also insane. And as for Keanu Reeves, I wonder how he would feel if having his John Wick take on Tom Cruise, who is also 55 and insistently performs most of his own stunts as Ethan Hunt in his "Mission: Impossible" series. 

Wouldn't that be something???

Sunday, September 22, 2019

UNDER CONSTRUCTION: a review of "Where'd You Go, Bernadette"

Based upon the novel by Maria Semple
Screenplay Written by Richard Linklater & Holly Gent & Vincent Palmo Jr.
Directed by Richard Linklater
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

Books are books and movies are movies.

This has been my ever-present mantra concerning the adaptation of novels to the silver screen although it is not the easiest transition to accomplish for a host of reasons including the nature of the source material itself and if the written work can even be translated to a visual medium plus the idea of having just the right people involved to create such a translation, therefore, a new interpretation of an author's vision.

In the case of "Where'd You Go, Bernadette," it seemed on paper that the presence of Cate Blanchett and Writer/Director Richard Linklater would be a perfect fit for Author Maria Semple's unorthodox novel which utilized e-mails, transcripts, memos and other documents to weave the tale of the elusive Bernadette Fox, a one-time genius architect who becomes an embittered agoraphobic and one day vanishes from her bewildered family, leaving her 15 year old daughter Bee to piece together the truth of her Mother's past as well as her present whereabouts. Certainly, Blanchett would be more than up to the task of playing a difficult, complex protagonist and just looking at Linklater's own idiosyncratic filmography, he would feel to be a perfect filmmaker to crack the code of the novel and therefore helm an invigorating feature.

So why is the end result so pedestrian?

Richard Linklater's "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" is well meaning and well intentioned but ultimately, bland. While there are some strong performances and an especially perceptive mid-section, for whatever reasons, the film never congeals into a sumptuous whole, making for proceedings that are lighter than a helium balloon taking flight and nowhere near as fun or compelling to view. No, it is not a bad film. I have seen much worse, trust me. But what is here to screen is simply and sadly muted when it needed to be vibrantly unpredictable in its comedy, satire, drama and slice-of-life qualities.       

As with the source material, "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" stars Cate Blanchett as Bernadette Fox, the aforementioned genius architect who is now a Seattle based, unhappy agoraphobic, married to Microsoft tech genius Elgin (Billy Crudup) and loving Mother to Bee (Emma Nelson).

Consumed with anxieties, both private and social, bitterness, anger, insomnia, depression and fits of mania, Bernadette is the bane of existence to the posh Mothers of the private school and neighborhood, most especially Audrey Griffin (Kristin Wiig) and her sidekick (and soon to be Elgin's office assistant) Soo-Lin Lee-Segal (Zoe Chao), plus also a source on increased worry and desperation in Elgin. Only the relationship between Bernadette and Bee feels unshakable as Bee has long accepted her Mother upon her own terms and appreciates her greatly for her eccentricities.

Once Bee's excellent grades at school earn her a family trip to Antarctica over the Winter break, Bernadette begins to spiral further out of control, leading to her surprising disappearance beginning a mystery that uncovers the truth of the inscrutable maze that is indeed Bernadette Fox.

Returning to that motto I presented at the outset of this review, I will say that it was indeed a daring move for Richard Linklater to take the novel's titular character, a figure who is not really seen terribly much, therefore giving the novel its large sense of mystery, and present her front and center for this film.

Yes, I do understand that if one hires Cate Blanchett for a leading role, she will be uniformly prevalent on-screen butt he fact that she is seen from one end of the film to another does dilute the element of mystery greatly. That being said, I do not think that it hindered the film because what Linklater has achieved with "Where'd You Go, Bernadette," is to give the title a double meaning, moving the emphasis markedly from Bernadette's physical whereabouts to more internally, as we investigate and explore Bernadette's mental state.

It is a pet peeve of mine in the movies when characters are presented with crystal clear mental illnesses yet not one person within the film ever, at any time, addresses those issues for what they are. This was a quality that I absolutely loathed in films like James L. Brooks' "Spanglish" (2004) and Craig Gillespie's "Lars And The Real Girl" (2007), for instance, films that felt to be afraid to tackle their own subject matter.

With "Where'd You Go, Bernadette," Richard Linklater circumvents this error by focusing the film entirely upon Bernadette Fox's dwindling mental state. Whether she is manically creating voice-to-text e-mails to her India based personal assistant Manjula, having yet one more neighborly battle with Audrey, collecting a jar filled with all manner of loose medications, desperately fretting over the trip to Antarctica and trying her mightiest to stay away from all people aside from her family, to even the wildly dilapidated visual and physical state of her home, we are placed firmly in the center of Bernadette's psychosis.

The first third of the film serves as our introduction, which is pretty decent as we see Bernadette's dark present compared with her considerably brighter past when she was at the peak of her creative powers and prowess, creating architectural works unlike anything her peers had the ability to achieve for themselves.

This juxtaposition allowed Linklater to explore the concept of what happens when a creative figure is placed into a life situation where she is no longer creating. To that end, Linklater has also created a sharp social commentary regarding the roles of professional Women in society and provides the question of whether it is up to the family matriarch to relinquish her professional dreams in order to raise a family while the patriarch continues his own professional ascent.

It is once we arrive at the film's mid-section, when certain plot elements become more dire, we see how the film's larger conceptual elements become more personal as the Fox family find themselves reaching a crossroads. Linklater stages two crucial but separate conversations, Elgin with a therapist (played by the wonderful Judy Greer) and Bernadette with a former architectural colleague (played by the great Laurence Fishburne also making the most of his scant screen time), each occurring at the same time, giving the impression that this married couple is having a dialogue with each other although they are apart.

The hard questions each character asks of themselves as well as of each other was the point when I felt that the film was beginning to gather some steam, some weight to the proceedings that had generally been fairly easy and breezy to that point. Questions of mental illness and how it can affect a family dynamic, in addition to how it upends one's sense of self worth and overall well being was deeply compelling and both Blanchett and Crudup were equal to the task in a series of well constructed and dramatically strong scenes, making me excited that this film version, while different than the novel, would be making a strong stamp of its own right.

And yet, it blinked.

Certainly, when adapting the novel to film, Richard Linklater would go so far as to completely re-write what Maria Semple has already created within her own literary work. But even so,  the film did have to return to its central mystery and a voyage to Antarctica, which, to me, felt to lessen the conceptual blow (and if memory serves, I just may have felt something similar when reading the novel years ago).

To me, this was a situation where it felt that Linklater had a chance to be especially innovative and spiral from the novel to create something entirely new as the film's first two thirds felt to be leading to a darker, more turbulent and decidedly emotional place than where it eventually ended up. Frankly, the film lost some of its steam and therefore, its purpose, making for an experience that ended up being more than a little pat, visually flat despite the locale and emotionally no deeper than an episode of "Eight Is Enough."   

Which is a shame considering the potential for a great film considering the pedigree of talent in front of and behind the camera. But you know, I wonder if these were the right people for this material. As I watched the film, and as I ruminate over it right now, I cannot help but to think what if the triumvirate of Director Jason Reitman, Writer Diablo Cody and Charlize Theron, the creative team behind the searing satire of "Young Adult" (2011) and "Tully" (2018), would have accomplished with the same material. For some reason, that combination feels better.

But, I am not able tor review what isn't. I can only review what is. And for me, Richard Linklater's "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" is a near miss. Not as funny or as dramatic as it needed to be if it was going to ultimately be as rewarding and as idiosyncratic of an experience as the architectural designs of Bernadette Fox herself.