Tuesday, May 28, 2019

SMART GIRLS GONE WILD: a review of "Booksmart"

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

Just in time for graduation season!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 9, 2019

A REVELATION: a review of "Amazing Grace"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 3, 2019


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

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

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

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

...we'll see.

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