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.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

DARK MAGIC: a review of "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald"

Screenplay Written by J.K. Rowling
Directed by David Yates
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Now this was much more like it!

Over two years ago, when we were first introduced to the adventures of Newt Scamander via the film "Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them" (2016), itself the first installment of what is going to be a five part prequel series to the "Harry Potter" saga, all written entirely by J.K. Rowling and directed by David Yates, I was surprisingly underwhelmed. To be true, I was not exactly wringing my hands in anticipation over the prospect of a prequel series in the first place, but as Rowling who had more than earned my devotion through all of her writing to that point and had not let me down yet, I was willing to go with her anywhere she wished to take me.

And yet, that first film, which possessed all of the ingredients for greatness, never achieved any sense of greatness--and not for lack of trying-- as it was all due to a leading character that was uncharacteristically bland and even unknowable, repetitive sequences of all manner of fantastic beasts escaping then being captured and then, escaping all over again and all in the service of a meandering and seemingly over-stuffed plot.

Now, we arrive at Chapter Two, so to speak, and J.K.Rowling and David Yates' "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald" has proven itself to being a dramatic improvement over the first installment. Arriving with a greater heft, zest and an emotional urgency that often surprised me in its stirring vibrancy, I am now beginning to see, and therefore, feel the purpose behind this return to Rowling's hidden world of magical beings and creatures in a story set long before the young heroes of Harry Potter had even been born. Where I was once unimpressed, I am now considerably involved, and most of all, invested, as this film has excitedly prepared me fr the three future installments while also making me anxious to view this one all over again.

Set in 1927, one year after the events of the previous film, "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald," opens with the titular dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald's (played with chilling malevolence by Johnny Depp) blistering escape from imprisonment at the Magical Congress of the United States Of America and his return to building his movement for the societal dominance of pureblood wizards over all non-magical beings. As part of his fascistic plan, Grindewald is in pursuit of the disturbed, tormented Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), thought to have been obliterated in the previous film and whose whereabouts are unknown.

Also in pursuit of Credence are American magical Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who herself is being pursued by her telepathic sister Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) and American baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger), Queenie's secretive, non-magical lover, whose previously evaporated memories of the events of the first film have been romantically restored.

And of course, we have our favorite magizoologist, the awkward, painfully shy and guarded Newt  Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), now based in London and under a travel ban ordered by the Ministry Of Magic due to the explosive events of the first film. Newt reluctantly enlists himself to aid the formidable Hogwarts Professor Albus Dumbledore (now played by Jude Law) in the pursuit of Credence, which itself will contribute to the fight against Grindelwald, with whom Dumbledore shares a difficult, complicated past.

In a story that stretches from America to London to Paris, and filled with labyrinthine family histories, deepening mysteries, mounting doom, simultaneously sobering and terrifying political allegory and a profoundly sweeping and longing sense of romance and growing destiny, David Yates' "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" is a more than worthy addition and extension of  J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World as this second installment not only informs the first film, I greatly appreciated how meticulously Rowling conceived of a history to her own invented universe--much like George Lucas' "Star Wars" prequel trilogy (1999/2002/2005)--and therefore, how handsomely David Yates visualized that history.

As with what we have all come to expect from this series of films, especially with each installment Yates has helmed, "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald" is a gloriously mounted production, filled end to end with seamless special effects, splendid production and costume design, and elegantly Gothic Cinematography by Philippe Rousselot. Whether by greater intention or through the design of Rowling's narrative or even some combination of both, all of the problematic elements of the first film have been eradicated as Yates propels this second chapter with an intense verve that was instantly captivating, and only continued to keep me enormously involved, all the way to the film's startling conclusion/cliffhanger.

All of the film's performances are first rate and filled with a commitment   Mostly, and happily, I found myself greater attached to the character of Newt Scamander himself and therefore Eddie Redmayne's full performance, which I am now gathering is not necessarily a leading performance but one that is an essential piece of a larger ensemble and growing narrative. I struggled with this character the first time around yet this time, I firmly embraced him as I could now see him in a much clearer light as well as one that served a clearer purpose for the larger narrative as a whole.

Indeed, Newt Scamander is that eternal misfit, the one who wishes nothing more than to be left alone to care for his fantastic beasts, perhaps seeing himself more as one of them and less as one of the human wizards he feels to have very little in common with. Close interpersonal relationships for him are rare as he is often so misunderstood and from his own vantage point, humans and their foibles, desires, and faults mean little to him. But he is human, living in a society of humans and what does his reluctance to engage himself within the larger world mean when that very world, and everything inside of it--including the fantastic beasts he loves so dearly--is threatened by a rising fanaticism and fascism? Are the sidelines he craves to cling to a realistic venture in a world like this? 

This quandary is precisely the one Dumbledore has presented to him and over the course of this film Newt is indeed forced to take an active role in the world he wishes to live in, or to eventually be trapped in a world he never made. It is here where both Rowling and Yates have inserted a strong cultural critique and political allegory, as Grindelwald's gradual rise to power and indoctrination of pureblood magical humans into his regime for the purposes of wrestling societal control over all non-magical people through divisive, fear mongering rhetoric showcasing the non-magical as the "other" to be subjugated and ultimately, eradicated. Sound familiar?

Grindelwald's Nuremberg styled rally, depicted late in the film, is clearly designed to evoke responses and comparisons to the fascistic demonstrations of the past and present day, as are other plot points on this wizarding world of the 1920's including the illegality of having magical and non-magical people being able to wed (thus giving the relationship of Jacob and Queenie a more turbulent urgency) and Rowling and Yates also include something that is akin to elements of a slave narrative regarding the complex, intertwined blood lines that exist within the Lestrange family, as represented by Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) and the French-Senegalese wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), who is also on the hunt for Credence and may possess a familial connection to both Credence and Leta.

For Newt, "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald" represents a moral line in the sand, and for that matter, also for Jacob, Queenie, and Leta, as they each reconcile themselves as to which side of history do they wish to align themselves; the side of fear, hatred, racism and totalitarianism or the side who fought, potentially to the death, against everything Grindelwald is and represents.

Even with the precarious state of the world within this film, I was honestly surprised and therefore, greatly pleased that Rowling and Yates were committed to making time for love--albeit an aching sense of romantic longing that allowed "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald" to possess an often painfully melancholic heart, much like what Rowling beautifully executed in the guise of her literary pseudonym Robert Galbraith in the current "Cormoran Strike" novel, Lethal White (2018). 

In addition to Jacob and Queenie, whose own relationship is severely tested during this film, we are also given Newt himself, torn by the memories of his past (and possibly lingering) love for Leta Lestrange, who is now engaged to wed Newt's older brother, the British Ministry of Magic Auror Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner). Additionally, there exist Newt's new romantic feelings for Tina Goldstein, who also quietly harbors romantic intentions for him in turn.

We have the shadowy past relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, fully explained within the Harry Potter novels but I would not dare spoil here, of course and yet will undoubtedly have to play a larger role over the next three film installments. And then, there is the story of Credence himself, a figure desperately attempting to understand his own lineage and therefore why he was abandoned in the first place. Credence's search for what is his place in the universe, the existential journey of all of the film's characters, and therefore, for all of us as well. 

Enormously entertaining and strongly substantive, J.K. Rowling and David Yates' "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald" is the installment where this series begins to find its footing, suggesting (hopefully) greatness to arrive over the following three films while also creating a complete, and first rate, cinematic experience in this singular chapter.

J.K., I knew you wouldn't let me down!

Monday, April 1, 2019


The main event is almost here!

While we can easily discuss and even debate the artistic legitimacy of having no less than 21 Marvel Comics films all  now existing as lead-ups, Directors Anthony & Joe Russo's "Avengers: Endgame" is unquestionably the one we have all been salivating to see, especially since the unpredictably devastating conclusion of "Avengers: Infinity War" (2017). 
With a reported running time of more than three hours, "Avengers: Endgame" has been promised by the filmmakers to be the proverbial "line in the sand" for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as this feature will draw to a close certain aspects and characters while setting the stage for what could follow from this point. Whatever the Russo Brothers have planned, it already feels that it will be one to remember as well as experience again and again.

Surprisingly, and since this film will not arrive until nearly the very end of the month, I really have no other films planned to screen in my personal pipeline as the ones I know about have not sparked much of an interest.

Although, there is one...
I stumbled upon a trailer for a new independent film entitled "The Public," Written and Directed by Emilio Estevez, which tackles the American homelessness crisis and the necessities of maintaining our public libraries...and after watching this trailer, I was very intrigued.

Due to the relative "small-ness" of the film compared to something like "Avengers: Endgame" as well as the lack of arthouse cinemas, I am curious if this film will even make the theatrical rounds. But, if it does, and if it indeed makes it to my city, I would love the opportunity to check it out.

With that, this is all I have planned but if something else should arrive, I'll try my best to patch it into this month's activities. So, as always, wish me luck and I'll see you when the house lights go down!

Thursday, March 28, 2019

MIRROR, MIRROR: a review of "Us"

Written, Produced and Directed by Jordan Peele
**** (four stars)

There is an expression that we all tend to utilize when confronted with another individual--usually a loved one--who is behaving in a manner unusual to how we tend to recognize, and therefore understand them. The expression in question that we use to describe the person behaving differently, strangely or even badly, is the following: "You don't seem like yourself."

Over the years, I have come to view that statement as a complete fallacy for the simple fact that no matter how we may be behaving outwardly, no matter how different, strange or badly, no matter how incomprehensible we may seem, we are always ourselves...especially when our behaviors may seem to be bubbling up from the deepest, darkest recesses of our multi-faceted personalities and psyche.

It is through this specific conceptual lens that I found myself staring through as I screened "Us,"  Writer/Producer/Director Jordan Peele's second film and follow up to his box office behemoth, critical smash hit and Oscar winning social horror film "Get Out" (2017). 

Certainly, for the purposes of this review and as a practice of Savage Cinema, I will refrain from any and all spoilers, but what I can tell you at this time is that Jordan Peele is the real deal as he has proven himself to not being a one-trick-pony and there is not one instance of the mythical "sophomore slump" whatsoever. With "Us," Peele has firmly established not only that "Get Out" was no fluke but that he is indeed one of our most inventive, imaginative and blessedly original filmmakers in a world of sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes and re-imaginings.

"Us" is original indeed, as Jordan Peele takes the conventions and aesthetics of the psychological horror thriller and filters them through a ferocious social commentary that this time around is disturbingly grim to an apocalyptic degree. So deeply under my skin this film burrowed that I found myself driving home from the theater in complete silence as I needed to have the time and space to get my thoughts together as well as calm my spirits down from what I had just experienced.

Jordan Peele's "Us" opens in the year 1986 as young Adelaide Thomas, along with her parents, visits a beachfront carnival in Santa Cruz. Adelaide soon wanders off and finds herself inside of a funhouse hall of mirrors, where she is confronted by her own doppelganger. Even though Adelaide is soon reunited with her parents, she remains severely traumatized and unable to speak about her experience.

Flash forward to present day where the adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) is now married to Gabe (Winston Duke) and Mother to their two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). With plans to travel to their Santa Cruz beach house for a summer vacation, as well as meet up with their friends, the perpetually argumentative and inebriated Josh and Kitty Tyler (Tim Heidecker and Elizabeth Moss) and their twin daughters, Cali and Noelle (Becca and Lindsey Tyler), Adelaide continues to grow more unsettled as the memories of her childhood trauma begins to resurface.

And then, on one fateful night, a group of four, red jumpsuit wearing individuals appear in the family's driveway, holding hands. Soon, the home is invaded by the foursome who call themselves "The Tethered" and Adelaide and her family struggle to survive the night as they are under attack by these scissor wielding assailants who nightmarishly look like ghoulish doppelganger versions of themselves.

With the arrival of Jordan Peele's "Us," we are graced with the realization that Peele has unquestionably become a new vibrant creative filmmaking voice filled with intelligence, invention and a fiercely committed intention to weaving purposefully multi-layered material designed to force us to confront the darkest recesses of our shared humanity while also entertaining and making us jump out of our seats in fright.

With just two films, I am amazed with how quickly Jordan Peele has already established his own cinematic universe. While he extends and expands his visual palate to often striking degrees with "Us," both this film and "Get Out" are clearly playing off of each other with his filmmaking aesthetics. From the music from Composer Michael Abels, who also scored "Get Out," to the brilliance of Peele's entire Sound Design team and most certainly, Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis for the striking, almost hallucinogenic mirror imagery that fuels the film's themes of duality, I am unable to stress enough how much "Us" is delivered in a multi-layered style that makes for an experience that demands several viewings.

As with his predecessor "Get Out," "Us" is best experienced with a modicum of information so as to not dilute the overall effect. That said, and for me, the ultimate effect of this film was profoundly unsettling. Unlike "Get Out," where Peele's social commentary about race, racism and being Black in a post-Obama America was the ingenious engine that drove that film, Peele wisely did not return explicitly to that conceptual well. Even so, the racial politics of "Us," while more subtle are no less seismic.

As often announce upon this page, representation is everything and with "Us," Jordan Peele has given us a mainstream horror film that just happens to feature an African-American family in the leading roles as well as existing as the core of the film inits entirety. To that end, and in its own matter-of-fact aesthetic, Peele has delivered a window into an area of African-American culture that is not often presented: the image of an affluent, upper middle class, college educated, two-parent Black family with the ability to take a summer vacation and even purchase a boat--all aspects that are never even blinked at with films starring White protagonists. To that end, Peele's inclusion of cultural signposts such as Gabe's Howard University sweatshirt as well as the family's love of Luniz's "I Got 5 On It" were most welcome due to the utter normalcy of their presentation (despite Adelaide's odd inability to snap her fingers on beat...) 

Oh, how I wish I could express some more explicit thoughts about Peele's motifs within "Us," from the presentation of rabbits, the 1986 Hands Across America campaign, Adelaide repetitively finding herself chained, the recurring notion of events happening within 15 minute time frames (plus whatever you may have caught that I missed) but again, I do not wish to spoil.

That being said, I do think that what I am able to present to you is the film's primary theme of the duality that exists within ourselves, no matter how virtuous or venomous we may be, either separately or simultaneously. What I am speaking of is essentially the darkest corners of ourselves, the areas of ourselves that we do not wish to legitimize but we all know exist within ourselves.

In fact, at this time, I do invite you to please take a moment to do something that I am certain will be unpleasant for you. There is no need or request for you to share, but for right now, I am asking you to just ponder over your lives and experiences and take a moment to think of the very worst thing you have ever done, the ugliest thoughts you may have harbored, the very things about yourself that you would never, ever wish for anyone to know.  The pieces of ourselves that we generally strive to temper, to contain and to even bury. Now that you have taken this moment, and fully understanding that even these reprehensible aspects are as much a part of you and I as our wonderful attributes, just imagine if those dark seeds grew and took a larger shape, either in yourselves or within society.

For me, Jordan Peele's "Us" takes the concept of being's one own worst enemy to a grander, more insidious and even subterranean depths where the rapacious, shadowy souls that make up The Tethered serve nearly the same function as The Sunken Place in "Get Out"--the dark pit where we lose ourselves and are therefore consumed by some other hungry entity that has been wrestling for control.

Here is where Peele infuses the bloodletting horror with an equally brutal gut punch of cultural social commentary: that even with as much affluence and objects of materialism we may surround ourselves with, no one is immune or safe from their own worst impulses. From here, Peele expands his scope as as "Us" made me think about how our darkest selves have been manifested throughout social media and comment threads, where the lens of anonymity has emboldened so many to cast any sense of caution, decorum, respect, dignity and humanity to the four winds and spew every conceivable vomitous thought.

And certainly, what of our social political discourse in the Trump era, leading with the Commander In Chief himself, continuously emboldened by the roars of his adoring crowds as well as any perceived political victories, to continue to unapologetically fire off everything from innocuous insults to blusteringly blown dog whistle language which then emboldens supporters and true believers to do the very same in the real world, thus inciting increased fear, division, wrath, anger, and rage. With that, Jordan Peele's "Us" extends largely from a stylish, grotesquely effective horror thriller into a punishing societal warning that our apocalypse will not only arrive from our own hands but if we continue upon this path, it will be imminent. 

As his conduits, Peele struck gold with his entire cast, who all perform double duties as their primary characters plus their shadow selves of The Tethered. Yet, Lupita Nyong'o performance as Adelaide and her shadow self known as Red is remarkable to behold and I have to say that her physical and vocal mastery in both roles is gradually becoming more apparent to me as I recall the film...also a tremendous reason "Us" demands subsequent viewings.

You know, I think I may have expressed more than enough as I urge you, even those of you who are not horror film fans (like myself as I give the genre a wide berth generally), to see a ferociously original film that speaks directly to this moment in time in our shared existence in the 21st century.  Jordan Peele's "Us" is a film of even greater intensity than "Get Out" as he has indeed ratcheted up the scare factor and the violence (bloody but not gratuitous). But it is also a film of great humanity through its artistry, humor and overall humanity despite the dire and doom throughout.

And for me, it is already one of 2019's very best films.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

BLAST FROM THE PAST: a review of "Captain Marvel"

Based upon the Marvel Comics series created by Stan Lee & Gene Colan and Roy Thomas & Gene Colan
Story by Nicole Perlman & Meg LeFauve & Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Screenplay Written by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
*** (three stars)

With only a tad more steps forwards before we arrive at Anthony & Joe Russo's "Avengers: Endgame," we have to take several steps backwards.

While that statement was not necessarily designed to speak to the overall quality of Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "Captain Marvel," the latest addition to the ever expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, it would also not be mistaken to attribute a critique to that statement either. With "Captain Marvel," what we have here is a film that takes bold steps while also functioning as yet another placeholder before the real main event. Its slightly akin to doing some more homework before being allowed to go to the party.

That said, what Boden and Fleck have achieved, and quite deftly, is a more unique and subtly feminist take upon the well worn origin story and classic Marvel styled existential crisis, making for  a most formidable hero, and for quite a lengthy stretch of "Captain Marvel," I felt that the film would be equal to her. But, even the most powerful superhero in the universe is not impervious to the cliches and trappings of the comic book film genre.

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "Captain Marvel" reaches backwards in time nearly 25 years to 1995 during which Earth finds itself caught in the middle of an intergalactic war between two extraterrestrial species, the militaristic race known as the Kree and their arch-adversaries, the shape-shifters known as the Skrulls.

Kree soldier Vers (Brie Larson), who serves under the command of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), her mentor and trainer, suffers from nightmares and fractured memories of Earthling Air Force pilot Carol Danvers--a person whose life she is unable to recognize. During a skirmish with the Skrulls, Vers is subjected to a mental probe thus triggering more submerged yet fragmented memories. Vers soon escapes and in her battle with the Skrulls, she crash lands in a Los Angeles Blockbuster Video Store.

Investigating the disturbance at the video store is low level S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and recent recruit Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) who immediately become embroiled in the Skrulls' relentless pursuit of Vers, thus forcing a team-up between Vers and Fury.

Utilizing her extracted memories, and through a series of crucial reunions, devastating betrayals and indispensable new alliances, the existential mysteries of Vers' true identity and history will all formulate into the realization of her fullest potential and capabilities as Captain Marvel, a hero poised to end all wars for the good of the universe.

Now 21 films strong, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is firmly established as the top tier with regards to our comic book movie genre as they are consistently handsome productions that are exceedingly well cast and more often than not, superbly plotted and executed with skill, imagination and with Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" (2017) and Anthony & Joe Russo's "Avengers: Infinity War" (2017), a deeply surprising and enormously welcome amount of personal vision and storytelling risk taking.

Where Marvel has its considerable faults lies in the fact that there is a certain sameness to the films regarding character arcs, plotting, visual aesthetics and the fact that at times, that aforementioned feeling of doing homework creeps in, especially, when all you may be wishing for is that forward momentum instead of having to learn more rules, powers, weaknesses and dynamics to fully understand not only the film you are watching but also to see how it will lock into the expanding building block nature of the series as a whole.

At its very best, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "Captain Marvel" is both refreshingly ambitious as well as sharing a certain tedium, which honestly never settles in until the obligatory extended climax. As with all of the past Marvel features, Boden and Fleck have helmed a glistening production, augmented by strong performances (the chemistry between Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson is warmly engaging), seamless special effects (the de-aging process for Jackson and Clark Gregg is especially stellar), and armed with a quiet confidence that felt to be breezy in its sly, matter-of-fact style, which did add a welcome droll sense of humor to the proceedings overall.

With its placement within this Marvel film series, Boden and Fleck have delivered an installment that essentially serves as a sequel and a prequel as "Captain Marvel" simultaneously sets up the stage for the events to come in "Avengers: Endgame" by crafting a dual origin story of both our titular heroine and Nick Fury, who in this film is 25 years younger and has the usage of both of his eyes (although we do learn how he does come to wear his ever present eye-patch).

I definitely appreciated how Boden and Fleck did not utilize a heavy hand with any sense of '90's nostalgia as "Captain Marvel" is indeed a (gulp!) period piece. All of the details (especially the music selections) felt to be true without turning the film into a funhouse parody of 1995, a very wise decision so as to not become a distraction while also providing some clever pop cultural touchstone humor (I chuckled at the slowness of floppy discs loading information into computers compared to the instantaneous speed of 2019--ahhh memories!).

At its very best and most ambitious, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "Captain Marvel" is indeed a dazzling statement that should really put the horribly misguided misconception that films about female superheroes as the leading characters are creative and box office poison to rest once and for all. In fact, and in comparison to Patty Jenkins' outstanding "Wonder Woman" (2017), I feel that Boden and Fleck have created an even more subversively feminist cinematic experience than Jenkins (although I do feel that Jenkins made an exceedingly better film).

Essentially, with "Wonder Woman," any sense of a feminist statement was wrapped up entirely within the film's title as well as the character's name. For "Captain Marvel," we have a comic book film starring a superhero who just happens to be a woman. At no point within the film do any characters comment and reflect upon Vers' womanhood--and for that matter, any of the film's female characters from Kree to Skrulls to Earthlings, most notably Vers/Carol Danvers' best friend and Air Force pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), her daughter Monica (Akira Akbar) and definitely, the wonderful Annette Bening who appears in an extremely pivotal role regarding Vers' existential journey. No woman is objectified or sexualized and are all presented as steadfast individuals all fighting for their respective causes--just as if all of these characters had been portrayed by men.

But all of that being said, all of these characters are women and that in and of itself is a powerful form of representation that is not typically witnessed within mainstream motion pictures and definitely not within big budgeted franchise productions. And just as with "Wonder Woman," I can only imagine what seeing this film feels to young girls to witness and unquestionably adult women who have seen more than their fair share of blockbuster movies without any significant women represented whatsoever. Taking that in mind, Boden and Fleck's approach is indeed more subtle in its vision but no less powerful than what Patty Jenkins accomplished with "Wonder Woman."

The existential journey of Vers/Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, like all of our Marvel heroes, is a voyage of self-discovery and the realization of one fullest potential. Yet to see this journey represented by a woman was palpable, certainly as much as what we all experienced with "Black Panther" and its representation of African culture, history, political structure and technology  juxtaposed against the lives of African-Americans cut off from our own culture and history through enslavement. In short, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's"Captain Marvel" is the rare Marvel film that is actually about something other than heroes and villains.

With many terrific sequences that are as primal as they are psychedelic and presented courtesy of beautifully edited suites by Editors Elliot Graham and Debbie Berman, we are given the full odyssey of Vers at key moments in her life that reverberate, repeat, play off of each other and build like repetitive movements within a jazz or orchestral composition. In some ways, "Captain Marvel" served the same purpose as a film like Harold Ramis' "Groundhog Day" (1993) as we are given key moments that continuously repeat themselves through Vers' life until she is at last able to piece the fragments of her memories together, merge them with her life in the present to fully determine who she will become in the future.

Who am I now? Who was I? Who am I destined to be? Again, the signature existential journey/crisis of all Marvel heroes (as well as for all of us in the audience) but again, to see it in full representation by a woman felt refreshing to say the least.

And even within the story itself, there are these crucial, and again, subtle touches that I thought were speaking to the female experience in a male dominated society. What I am referring to is how the Kree, through their training of Vers, continuously instruct her to keep her emotions buried in order to exert the fullest amount of control as a soldier. During the course of the film, we discover the complete intent of those instructions from the Kree but what emerges when Vers finally taps firmly and unapologetically into her emotions and combines them with her already formidable abilities, is a woman at her most invincible.

Brie Larson, with her wry charm and adorned for much of the film in a baseball cap, leather jacket and Nine Inch Nails t-shirt, perfectly embodied this character who demonstrates that Captain Marvel is at her most indestructible when her emotions join her ingenuity, strength, fearlessness, boldness, relentlessness, agility, integrity and empathy--a discovery she arrives at through a powerful love for herself, her friends and compatriots and the universe itself. And when her hands and eyes begin to glow like the brightest light of the sun and she soars through the galaxy as the unstoppable force of nature she is, that is when "Captain Marvel" begins to soar...sort of.

As previously stated, one of Marvel's weakest points with their films has been their climax sequences, which more often than not exist as sound and light shows and do not provide the sense of awe and exhilaration necessary to send you out of the theater high above the clouds. Now, this aspect is not exclusive to Marvel as it is indeed more of a symptom of 21st century movies as these bombastic conclusions are just the norm and often, to a numbing degree.

For Marvel, it is the ending of CGI overdrive that we have seen literally 20 times over and in doing so, this did rob "Captain Marvel" of some of its power and its tremendous sense of good will it had so richly earned over 75% of the film, and most of the film's action felt akin to a now classic chase thriller like Andrew Davis' "The Fugitive" (1993). I guess what I am saying is that I needed the film to continue to ascend as Vers continued to become her greatest self and what was received felt to be more of a leveling off and the stagnated move ending cataclysm that has become the standard, for better or for worse.

And so, with Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "Captain Marvel," here we are at the precipice of "Avengers: Endgame" with the entrance of the hero who was sent a distress call at the conclusion of "Avengers: Infinity War." While her debut solo entry was not as grand of an entrance as it could've been, it was strong enough to warrant the following...

...Thanos had seriously better watch his back!

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

ONCE THERE WERE DRAGONS: a review of "How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World"

Based upon the book series by Cressida Cowell
Written and Directed by Dean DeBlois
*** (three stars)

With all due respect to my beautiful grey cat named Rigby, I wish to take some moments to speak about my sleek black cat named Jada.

Jada has been my beloved friend for almost the full 14 years of her life. She is a very mischievous cat, one who always races away from me should I attempt to capture her for an embrace. Yet once fully retrieved, she is a ball of affection, kneading and purring profusely, her wet nose pushing gently at my glasses, the top of her head making forceful connections with my chin. Typically, she is an especially quiet cat as she is nowhere near as talkative as Rigby. But by mealtimes, she more than makes her presence and demands for food known. Jada has a ravenous appetite, gobbling up her daily meals within what feels to be a blink of an eye and then races away to the basement door behind which sits Rigby who is leisurely eating his meals, the very meals that Jada would devour herself if she could somehow break through the door.

Jada is pleasantly plump but do not let a little chubbiness fool you as she is still able to fly through the house at the speed of light.  She trails (or herds) me wherever I go. She often sits near me in an old black chair as I write these reviews. She sleeps alongside me in bed. And on the living room love seat each night, Jada has permanently claimed her space with me, whether next to me or on top of me as she drapes her body over my shoulder, stretching her front legs and paws down my chest towards my stomach. While she can exude such sweet loyalty, she can definitely be more than a little cross as her tail can deliver several slow, curling warnings to not disturb her rest, especially if one of her enormously expressive eyes opens into a furrowed slit.

I have taken this time in describing my blessed companion because when I first saw Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders' masterful, resplendent "How To Train Your Dragon" (2010), the first chapter in the film trilogy involving the young Viking Hiccup and his unexpected friendship with the sleek, black Night Fury dragon named Toothless, there was one moment in particular when Toothless curled up for a rest, eyes and tail settling around himself and I vividly remember remarking to myself, "That's Jada!!!" And in turn, as I am unable to help myself, I will often call Jada "my little Toothless" as she regards me with a quizzical expression before settling down over my shoulder once again.

And so, I have to admit that I was a little apprehensive to see Dean DeBlois' "How To Train Your Dragon; The Hidden World," as it is indeed the final chapter in the story of Hiccup and Toothless. Of course, as I had adored the original film as well as DeBlois' superb "How To Train Your Dragon 2" (2014), I was more than thrilled to see a new episode. But as I had loved the friendship of Hiccup and Toothless so very much, complete with its reminders of my own relationship with Jada, I was unsure as to how emotionally powerful such a conclusion would potentially be.

Yes, with "How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World," Hiccup and Toothless' journey does indeed reach its enormously effective and tender hearted conclusion but that being said, the film in its entirety does not quite scale the extreme heights of its predecessors. This is certainly not a quality that ultimately derails all that had arrived before, and this third installment is not a disappointment whatsoever. I feel that overall, DeBlois has unquestionably created a fine ending to an especially classy film trilogy during an era where so many films, animated or otherwise, have forsake the art in favor of commerce. With "How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World," we are given a film that  show us handsomely how the two can co-exist.

Picking up one year after the events of the second film, which concluded with Hiccup (again voiced by Jay Baruchel) becoming the Chief of his Viking village of Berk and Toothless ascending to becoming the Alpha of all dragons, the island of  Berk has now become over-populated with dragons due to Hiccup's rescue missions with his dragon rider friends and all in the service of his dream to create a full human/dragon utopia.

Meanwhile, the evil Grimmel the Grisly (voiced by F. Murray Abraham), in cahoots with warlords, holds in captivity a white Night Fury dragon, who will be used as bait to attract and capture Toothless, thus leading to the full destruction of the dragons in their entirety.

After surviving an attack on Berk by Grimmel, Hiccup decides to lead his village and the dragons to "The Hidden World," a secret, safe haven for dragons to exist peacefully, a world once described to him as a small child by his now deceased Father Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler in flashback sequences).

And as for Toothless, his life takes quite the unexpected turn once he does meet the white Night Fury (dubbed a "Light Fury"), and who soon reciprocates his affections. But as Night Furies mate for life, what does this new romance mean for the friendship between Toothless and Hiccup?

Just as with the previous two installments, Dean DeBlois' "How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World" is a meticulously detailed, lushly animated, lovingly realized escapade with a powerful attention to story, character, locale and emotion. Additionally, I continue to be engaged with the variety of dragon species presented in the film, each type given its own distinct personalities and attributes.

To that end, I appreciated how DeBlois has allowed his human characters to grow with each film, and with regards to "The Hidden World," Hiccup takes an even larger stage into his adulthood as he deeply wrestles not only with how he chooses to lead the Vikings as their young Chief, undeniably within the shadow of his deceased Father, but also his building romance with the courageous, spunky Astrid (engagingly voiced by America Ferrera), a love story that foreshadows their future marriage and eventual co-leadership of their tribe.

Of course, the enormously beating heart of this film lies within three interlinked love stories. In addition to the aforementioned union between Hiccup and Astrid, we are of course invested with Toothless and the Light Fury, which in turn fuels, informs and advances the central love story between Toothless and Hiccup to its beautifully earned tear stained finale, a conclusion that wonderfully plays into the mythology of dragons and precisely why we are unable to view them anymore.

With the luxurious Toothless, who for me, has been one of the most captivatingly realized animated creatures I have been fortunate enough to witness, I continue to be thankful and amazed with how DeBlois has refused to make him "cartoonish," so to speak, always treating him as if he were a real, living, breathing member of the animal kingdom with his own characteristics, behaviors, attributes and qualities that are completely idiosyncratic to himself and his species...as well as with the Light Fury.

I adored their romance, their dynamic with each other, their humorous mating rituals and dance of attraction which literally takes to the skies in several of the series' breathtaking, dazzling flying sequences. And again, the animation is simply astounding as both Toothless and the Light Fury communicate without spoken words and entirely through stunning body language that does indeed communicate all we need to know to understand their courtship.

To that end, we completely understand precisely why the Light Fury does not trust Hiccup, for why would she as she has been held captive, and will soon be killed by humans? To that end, and most urgently, we understand the quandary that Toothless faces as he is forced to choose between his love and his best friend. And animals being animals, hard wired through DNA to be whom they are, the choices are inevitable even as both he and Hiccup are equally afraid of having to confront farewells.

Even with all of this wonderment, I was softer on this film than the previous two chapters essentially because for every thing that indeed happens within this film, not terribly much happens. In fact, "The Hidden World" quite often reminded me of my feelings with Pixar and Lee Unkrich's "Toy Story 3" (2010), another highly entertaining, exceedingly emotional film that also felt to be more than a little padded as the rampant hijinks that took up much of the film did feel to contain more than a little conceptual wheel spinning.

With "The Hidden World," I had the same emotions as so much of the film is essentially a series of ambush attacks and escapes and all at the service of sustaining a fairly generic good vs. evil battle with a fairly generic and frankly, uninteresting villain in Grimmel the Grisly. Because of this quality, the film dragged a bit when I felt it should have continued to soar.

In retrospect, I wonder if this film even needed to have a villain at all! What if the film simply excised Grimmel and kept every other element? That would've altered some of the frame work of the series as the Viking battles have been integral to the overall plot and dragon mythology. But even so, perhaps if the film  had been even more daring and riskier, it could have had a greater potential with being something more triumphant that what it actually was.

The beauty of this series has always been the core relationship between Hiccup and Toothless and therefore, a mirror to the bond we formulate with our animal companions every day. With Dean DeBlois' "How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World," I could not help but to think about if Jada, Rigby and I were ever to be separated for an especially extended period, and then, if we were to be reunited, would they remember me? Would all that I gave to them throughout our lives be returned back to me? Or were the feelings of love just projections I placed onto them to invent a bond that truthfully never existed?

In my heart, I feel that Jada and Rigby would remember me, for sometimes, when Rigby sees me after a time when we have been apart, I look to his eyes and his gaze honestly feels as if he hasn't seen me in a year, when it has only been a few hours in a day. And also, when, on a Friday night, after yet another achingly long week, as I ease back to rest upon the love seat, Jada will blissfully appear, climb me, settle in upon my shoulder and begin to purr emphatically, as if she is soothing me for the night in a fashion that feels to be nothing less than nurturing.

Our bond with animals is something that exists of such purity and while I will never understand it, I remain so thankful to be a part of its power and exquisite grace. With "How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World," it is unquestionably this very power and exquisite grace that is paramount and provides a level of ache, sorrow and uplift that is truly rare for any film, animated or otherwise. The film's final moments are crystalline in their utter beauty and in doing so, Dean DeBlois celebrates and upholds the bonds we create and share with animals brilliantly, for these are the bonds which are unbreakable.

Friday, March 1, 2019


Now that everything regarding the 2018 movie year has officially been completed with the Academy Awards and my own Savage Scorecard series residing in the recent past, I can now fully focus all of my energies upon the 2019 movie year, which this month already houses two extremely anticipated films.

At this point, I would be hard pressed to think of too many other movies yet to be released this year that are as anticipated as Writer/Director Jordan Peele's "Us,"  his follow-up to the astounding "Get Out" (2017). As I have always said, I tend to give horror films a wide berth as I typically do not enjoy the sensation of being scared. BUT...This is Jordan Peele we're talking about and with one film, I am ready to follow him anywhere. So, let's hope Peele does not  hit the dreaded "Sophomore slump" with his latest feature.

Of course, there is also the latest Marvel Comics entry, the 1990's set "Captain Marvel" starring Brie Larson in the titular role and what will also be the precursor to the upcoming Avengers movie in April 2019.

With those two movies plus "How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World," this is more than enough for me to sink my teeth into this month. So, as always, please do wish me good luck and god health and I will see you when the house lights go down!!!