Monday, September 23, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wouldn't that be something???

Sunday, September 22, 2019

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

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

Books are books and movies are movies.

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

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

So why is the end result so pedestrian?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet, it blinked.

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 21, 2019

SET THAT BAGGAGE DOWN: a review of "David Crosby: Remember My Name"

Produced by Cameron Crowe
Directed by A.J. Eaton
**** (four stars)

"What you gonna do when the last show is over?
What you gonna do when you can't touch base?
What you gonna do when the applause is all over?
And you can't turn your back on what you face
And who you gonna be when the lights are all fading?
And who you gonna be when the band comes off?
And who you gonna be when your heart is still aching?
And you can't shrug it off with just a laugh"
Music and Lyrics by Graham Nash and Shane Fontayne

"He tore the heart out of CSN and CSNY in the space of a few months...because he's not a really great person. He talks a good story."
- interview with Graham Nash

Late in the documentary "David Crosby: Remember My Name," the debut feature film from Director A.J. Eaton, Producer/Interviewer Cameron Crowe respectfully yet pointedly questions Crosby about  his now completely fractured relationships with all of his key collaborators over the course of his 50 year plus career from The Byrds' Roger McGuinn to of course, his bandmates Stephen Stills, Neil Young and Graham Nash. David Crosby quickly expresses that in the case of Neil Young, he is not mad at him but that "Neil's mad at me." Crowe pushes further and inquires that why doesn't Crosby just go to Neil Young? Why not just go to his doorstep? David Crosby's answer: "I don't know where that is."

That answer cuts to the soul and bone of A.J. Eaton's "David Crosby: Remember By Name," a cinematic portrait that is as warm, engaging and enveloping as it is unflinching and raw. It is a remarkable effort for Eaton, who in the course of slightly over 90 minutes captures the fullness of a life, the effects of the past upon the present, and the ocean of remorse and regrets that arrive when facing down one's rapidly impending mortality. It is a rock documentary that fully and richly transcends the genre by diving into and then propelling itself from the music and the artist to delve into what makes, and in the case of David Crosby, breaks a life as the artistry reaches new creative peaks.

Via A.J. Eaton's perceptive, empathetic eye and Cameron Crowe's interviewing skill, "David Crosby: Remember My Name" brings into focus the life of the iconic singer/songwriter/guitarist, the 1960's counter-culture icon. Now at the age of 77, David Crosby takes us upon a look backwards and forwards into his life as he painfully leaves the solitude of his home and the sanctuary of his wife Jan Crosby for yet another concert tour.

It is a life of tremendous bittersweetness as Crosby still clearly is enraptured by the music, the performances, the creation of new material (which has arrived with surprising alacrity as well as superior artistry), the ability to still tap into his energy as a guitarist and especially as a singer, as we witness how despite his age, his voice continues at its fullest strength as it sounds as if to not have lost any of its richness whatsoever.

And still, the business of music, has become of a greater necessity than ever before as he is required to tour in order to support himself, his family and homestead when he really wishes to remain in the security of his sanctuary. The sadness we witness upon his departure is palpable as is the elation and relief upon his return near the end of the film, falling into bed and sleeping with his guitar by his side, a stirring dichotomy to witness due to the nature of his precarious physical health.

As Crosby prepares for his latest tour, we receive a travelogue through his musical history that I am certain his generations of fans will salivate over. We we stroll through his Laurel Canyon based haunts, as we see the home (to even the specific lightbulb) where Crosby, Stills & Nash was born. We see where the iconic CSN album cover photograph was taken. Crosby weaves tales of his foes (oooh how he still hates The Doors, for instance) and most earnestly, his friends--and when you ponder that the likes of Mama Cass Elliot and Jimi Hendrix were his friends, it continues to send goosebumps through me, and possibly yourselves, that this particular time period was one when everything seemed to be musically possible, from crafting the greatest song ever written to even hopefully saving the world.

David Crosby's social/political outrage is irreverent and fiery, to say the least. Commendable in its righteous fury while also head-scratching as he does embrace certain conspiracy theories, he is a figure that felt to be counter-cultural even to his compatriots of the counter culture, going so far as to alienating his own bandmates, leading to his dismissal from The Byrds, and often causing friction with Stills and Nash. And as Crosby reminisces about his past via his captivating, loquacious style, "David Crosby: Remember My Name" displays how all of his 1960's excesses have done more than their fair share of havoc over time.

For his own life and health, there are the devastating drug addictions to cocaine and heroin, his nine month imprisonment in 1982, a liver transplant due to hepatitis C, diabetes and two or three heart attacks that have left him with eight stints in his heart--the maximum amount. Yet, the greater emotional, and therefore, spiritual deterioration rests within his interpersonal relationships as the wreckage of lives lost around him and lives damaged because of him are many. Throughout the film, David Crosby speaks directly to this specific history and his remaining, yet dwindling, future in a means that feels brutally honest as well as one that seems to be seeking to achieve a sense of atonement because, as Crosby states, "Time is the final currency."

It is here where I think we could revisit the two quotations from Graham Nash at the top of this review as the lyrics, addressed directly to Crosby and the interview snippet do indeed provide the conflict that houses the core of the Eaton's film. On the one hand, we are given a window into David Crosby's inner world, one that has not often been witnessed over time. Crosby is decidedly forthcoming concerning his mistreatment of friends and lovers over the years, especially his relationship with none other than Joni Mitchell, for instance He never falls into self-pity or anything resembling false self-awareness. He is matter-of-fact as well as fully engaging. And yet, regrading Nash's interview quotation, there is that hint of the mischievous, that sense that maybe...just maybe...he might be putting us on despite the greatness of his storytelling.

Yer for me, as I watched and as I ruminate over the film right now, I believed him. It was all in his eyes.

Perhaps it is through his decades long association with Cameron Crowe that provided him with a sense of comfort with being interviewed for his answers do not feel to be held back by any sense of reluctance, as Crowe, while always respectful, never goes easy on Crosby. If he had to choose between having happiness and complete security in life but without the presence of music in its entirety, would he choose that life if he could?

And then, there are the questions David Crosby asks of himself, especially when he ponders why he is still alive after so many of his friends have died over the years due to the same excesses to which he subjected himself. Clearly there is much survivor's guilt at work and when Eaton keeps his camera close upon Crosby's considerably aged face, adorned with all manner of wrinkles and deep lines of time and augmented by his iconic mustache and mane of still elongated hair, the history plus the pain within becomes evident. And it is here where the film grows in power and becomes transcendent.

A.J. Eaton's "David Crosby: Remember My Name" extends far beyond the constraints of a music bio-pic to become a document of a life nearing its inevitable conclusion, therefore we are given a film that becomes universal in the subject of how life is lived and what work needs to be performed to get one's house in order and death approaches. Crosby states firmly that he is afraid to die and that he desires more time as he does not feel as if he is remotely close to being finished, again despite the nature of his health.

The film feels to cement not so much a settling of scores but the story of a man attempting to relinquish himself of the baggage he placed upon others and mostly himself over the bulk of his life. It s a film that works as a confessional, but one where the confessions become testimony with the hopes of alleviation of the soul. The power of the film is not whether Crosby will survive the next concert tour but if he will be able to find and receive forgiveness. Will his spirit be able to rest once his time arrives to pass onwards into eternity?

Obviously, the film, playing as life being lived in real time, is unable to answer that specific question and how could it? Yet, Eaton does indeed force us to place those very questions upon ourselves as we watch David Crosby's life. How have we treated our fellow brothers and sisters during our lives and furthermore, how have we treated ourselves? As we grow, age and think about our own sense of mortality, what do we wish to leave behind if anything? The finger and footprints do we wish to leave as our defining marks upon those would just might remain behind to remember us?

A.J. Eaton's "David Crosby: Remember My Name" is a quietly wrenching record of a lion deep in Winter, refusing to go silently into any good night but helplessly hoping for atonement and absolution before that final curtain.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

HOMECOMING: a review of "It: Chapter Two"

Based upon the novel by Stephen King
Screenplay Written by Gary Dauberman
Directed by Andy Muschietti
*** (three stars)

The dark side of childhood has reached adulthood...and it has only grown more treacherous.

When we last saw the members of The Losers Club, the tormented septet of adolescent misfits of Derry, Maine circa 1989, they had defeated the ravenous Pennywise the Dancing Clown deep within the cavernous bowels of the city through the unbreakable bonds of their union and friendship. Or so they thought...

As I have often written upon this blogsite, the horror genre is one I tend to steer clear of as I am not a person who finds enjoyment within the sensation of being scared. This is not a firm rule as there are several films within the horror genre that I have seen and thoroughly enjoyed as the commitment to story and characters are first and foremost rather than the jump scares, blood and gore.

When I first saw and reviewed Director Andy Muschietti's "It" (2017), his superb adaptation of the classic Stephen King novel, I praised the film highly for that very reason. Muschietti's commitment to the exploration of a group of children facing their deepest, most horrific fears, both real in an explicitly harsh world and imagined via the various manifestations of Pennywise, while discovering their sense of inner strength while creating bonds with each other was as poignant as it was often terrifying, thus making for a deeply felt, tightly constructed, undeniably artful experience that transcended the horror genre.

With the arrival of the second half of the story, Muschietti's "It: Chapter Two," we unfortunately do not scale as highly as the first half. But that being said, the film does burrow its way under your skin, is perhaps more ambitious than it can possibly handle even in its hefty yet freight train paced three hour running time and it is again a highly perceptive and poignant exploration of the monumental power of fear and how it plays sharply into the sometimes unreliability of memories. Where the first film was straightforward in its narrative, "It: Chapter Two" is sprawling, unconventional, very strange, a tad messy and unquestionably filled with raw emotion--much like the nature of fear and memory themselves--making for a darkly psychedelic yet still riveting experience.

"It: Chapter Two" opens 27 years after the events of the first film with an event of blistering, horrific fury, the attack and murder of a young gay man who is beaten by a gang of homophobes and thrown into the rushing waters of the river.

The hate crime provides the catalyst for the return of Pennywise (again portrayed by Bill Skarsgard) from his slumber to not only literally feast upon the unsuspecting citizens of Derry, but enact his revenge upon The Losers Club--leader, stuttering Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Martell), the physically and sexually abused Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), overweight Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), the foul mouthed Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), the pragmatic, and Jewish, Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff) and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), soft spoken, studious and one of the few African-Americans in the town.

Pennywise's re-awakening has also altered the adult Mike Hanlon (effectively played by Isaiah Mustafa), now Derry's head librarian (and who even resides within the library), who remembers the oath taken by himself and his friends 27 years ago--that if Pennywise ever returned, they must reunite to defeat him once and for all. Yet, except for himself, none of his friends reside in Derry anymore.

The adult Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) is now married to a famous actress and is himself a successful author and screenwriter in Los Angeles, yet is often chastised for his unsatisfying ending. Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) is now a famous stand-up comic. Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan), now based in Nebraska and working as an in-demand architect, has long shed his extra weight from childhood for which he was bullied. Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransome), while still a hypochondriac and now married to a woman who eerily resembles his Mother in appearance and temperament in New York City, has also become a successful risk-assessor. The adult Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain) has  become a successful fashion designer, yet is trapped within an abusive marriage. Rounding out the former members of the Losers Club is Stanley Uris (Andy Bean), whose participation in a rematch with Pennywise is questionable at best.

Once Mike has established contact with all of his former friends, one by one, they each return to Derry, all of whom housed with hazy memories of their youth and the Summer of 1989 in particular, yet Pennywise remains relentlessly wrathful. As the members of the resuscitated Losers Club re-trace the steps of their respective pasts as they precariously march towards what could end up as a fatal future, memories slowly begin to reveal themselves as they all confront their greatest terrors, all designed to stop the from vanquishing Pennywise.

When I first sat "It," two years ago, I had not read the Stephen King novel but that film did indeed inspire me to try it out as I had never read a Stephen King novel before (remember, I don't enjoy being scared). Now two years later, I still have not finished the book, as I felt that I needed to take breaks from it due to its massive length of 1,138 pages and labyrinthine plotting and storytelling, which does unfold in a striking, propulsively written non-linear narrative and contains all manner of asides, side stories and stories within stories within stories. In fact, the novel feels as if it is a book that is about stories and storytelling combined with a morass of memories and mounting fear, possibly making Pennywise exist as a metaphor for America's dark underbelly which threatens to engulf all that is good in the world.

With that in mind, it is even more amazing that Andy Muschietti's "It: Chapter Two" turned out as well as it did, as the novel from which it is based feels to be essentially unfilmmable. But Muschietti has clearly remained intrepid and I swear he damn near pulled it off. Just as with the first film, "It: Chapter Two" is a lavishly designed and presented experience that works like the devil to establish its own independent tone while also working as a continuation of what we have already seen.

Where the first film remained locked in place, so to speak, as we never left the Summer of 1989 storywise, this second film allows Muschietti to let his freak flag wave highly and proudly by alternating between 1989 and 2016 as well as placing the heroes of our story--both teenagers and adults--into one nightmarishly hallucinogenic cavalcade of Pennywise's sound and fury, some of which includes a hall of mirrors, a monstrous Paul Bunyan statue come to life as well as a downright rapacious nod to a sight first seen in John Carpenter's "The Thing" (1982).

In a way, this second film is more faithful to the novel than the first film, even though the ambitiousness of the entire proceedings nearly gets away from Muschietti from time to time. But again, and I am unable to stress this enough, I wonder just how he had the audacity to tackle this novel in the first place.

"It: Chapter Two," oddly enough, never quite feels like a sequel, or at least a film that you know is nothing more than something mercenary. With this installment, Muschietti uses the adult characters as a means to forge a dialogue with their younger selves. from the first film--and to their collective credit, all of the adult actors perform an excellent job of channeling the work of the younger actors while forging ahead for themselves. In addition to accomplishing this feat, the film is also shouldered with the challenge of having to address the history of Derry, including mythology with The Ritual Of Chud, and grander psychedelics as memory and fear, plus the past and present mount and collide.

Now, there has been some criticism over the new film not having the adult characters spend as much time together as their teenaged counterparts, therefore having a crucial lack of camaraderie. To that, I do disagree as the adult Losers Club's more fractured nature is indeed story driven as all of the members who have left Derry have also found themselves afflicted with hazy, shadowy and fractured memories of their entire experiences there, especially concerning Pennywise and ultimately, the depth of their relationships with each other. All they have is the crippling fear and what they need is a stronger sense of communion, friendship, loyalty and love to become victorious. And trust me, there are some scenes during the climax and especially during its lovely final moments that are all genuinely moving.

With that in mind, it only makes sense that the adult characters are not as connected as when they were children. "It: Chapter Two" is about the regaining of that bond as it is Pennywise's resurrection.
Muschietti has fashioned a film that works as a quest as each solo divergence is structured to unearth some artifact of truth that can be utilized for the final battle with Pennywise. While this tactic may prove frustrating for some viewers, I felt that it allowed Muschietti to have a wider canvas to explore what memory is and how it is often interchangeable with fear, because if something traumatic happened when one is younger, how does that trauma play itself within that person's mind. Does it is increase the trauma in size and scope rather than make it smaller, therefore becoming a fear that is potentially insurmountable?

This concept plays out conceptually as well as metaphorically. The child abuse Beverly suffered clearly has forged a path for her to end up in an abusive marriage. Eddie's overbearing Mother certainly set the stage for the woman he would eventually marry, for instance. But, even with all of Pennywise's manifestations and the hallucinations he conjures, everything is purposefully massive, all designed to overwhelm forcing his victims to succumb to his malevolence and therefore be consumed. Even as we, and the Losers Club, venture back into the depths of Pennywise's lair, the fact that it only continues to deepen, and even widen the further one descends, it is yet another metaphor for the engulfing nature of fear (and furthermore, the nature of evil and the sins of Derry).

Frankly, it would not be far fetched to assume that "It: Chapter Two" is also housing an impassioned bit of cultural commentary about how fear, both real and often, largely imagined, can be weaponized to unleash real world horrors designed to keep us afraid and unable to find the strength to confront and yet, how it is only through a shared communal belief can there be any potential uprising against...well, it. 

Andy Muschietti certainly works overtime to nearly assault our heroes and us in the audience with one surreal vision after another, barely giving us time to breathe. In many ways, this approach works very well. Oddly enough, I actually did not find myself particularly scared during "It: Chapter Two." That being said, I was more than a little worked over due to the velocity and intensity of the film which felt like being thrown into the netherworld of a grim funhouse mirror or being trapped in the most ferocious fever dream.

On the other hand, at times, the rapid pacing worked against the tension, making certain sequences feel terribly rushed, as if Muschietti was playing a breathless round of "Beat The Clock" as he tried to get his film finished by the time of the pre-determined release date. The sequences of the adult Losers Club members receiving their initial phone calls from Mike hurtle in a flash instead of weaving a sense of creeping doom and dread. The return of bully Henry Bowers (played by Teach Grant) is handled with such alacrity that I hardly knew what had happened and nearly chalked it up to being a Pennywise fueled hallucination.

But those flaws aside, Andy Muscietti's "It: Chapter Two" is quite the achievement, as it is a story told with skill, heart, force and even a tremendous amount of empathy in its view of love, friendships and the solidarity of community when rising up against a seemingly unbeatable danger.

And in our 21st century, darkly hallucinogenic real world, perhaps we actually need a film like this more than we think.

Friday, September 6, 2019

SPRINGSTEEN AND ME: a review of "Blinded By The Light"

Inspired by the music and lyrics of Bruce Springsteen
Based upon the memoir Greetings From Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock 'N Roll by Sarfraz Manzoor 
Screenplay Written by Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurinder Chadha & Sarfraz Manzoor
Produced and Directed by Gurinder Chadha
**** (four stars)

For each and every one of us, I am certain, there has been at least one point within our lives when a piece of art, and therefore the artist him or herself, touches our lives so seismically that we are ten able to view our lives with a certain metaphorical line in the sand: the time before we were introduced to the artist and the time afterwards as our lives have been irrevocably changed.

At the conclusion of the previous month's activities on this blogsite, I paid tribute to Writer/Producer/Director John Hughes, who own body of work did indeed perform that very irrevocable feat when I was 15 in 1984. Within the world of musical artists, I am immediately thinking of Todd Rundgren, the singer, songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, music video pioneer and all around ahead-of-the-curve visionary whose bod f work I truly initiated myself within when I was 18 in 1987.

While I had been curious as to who he was at the time, I have to admit that when I first began listening to Rundgren's output, I was baffled and even unimpressed, although I did remain intrigued. While I do not remember exactly how or when but at some point during the summer of 1987, right before I left home for my Freshman year of college, something between the music and my spirit clicked and I found myself listening to Rundgren's most celebrated album, the double length "Something/Anything?" (released February 2, 1972) every single day. By the time I arrived upon campus, his then back catalog was being released on compact disc for the first time and I then took a deep dive into his full discography.

For a good full two years, the musical odyssey of Todd Rundgren became my personal soundtrack because, like the films of John Hughes, I discovered that as I was trying to understand myself, I was hearing music that sounded as if it was all brought to life precisely for my ears, heart and soul. Not everyone would understand his work or understand me but every time I listened, Rundgren understood me! The music helped me to articulate the world view and inner journey that I was struggling to articulate for myself as song after song felt as if this is exactly what I would say for myself. Todd Rundgren's music represented that line-in-the-sand for me, the time when I did not even know who he was and the time when my life was changed by his existence and ability to create and share his art with the world.

Now Todd Rundgren is not the only artistic figure to impact my life this greatly, for he is one of many and all of these authors, musicians and filmmakers who have changed me, enlivened me and of course, inspired me is all due to the symbiotic relationship that we all hold with the art we treasure. We formulate our personalities and overall existence with the iconography that shapes us and in turn, we communicate back to the art our gratitude every time we re-experience it, thus re-inspiring ourselves to engage with the world in ways we otherwise never would have.

Gurinder Chadha's absolutely wonderful coming-of-age film "Blinded By The Light" is fully about this exact phenomenon while also existing as a sharp cultural and generational comedy/drama, a tender and tense Father/son story, a turbulent re-examination of Margaret Thatcher's England circa the late 1980's, an earnest ode to the power of the written word (especially when encouraged by a good teacher) and a tribute to the music of Bruce Springsteen. And furthermore, it is every bit the movie that Danny's Boyle's "Yesterday" absolutely failed to be when it was released at the start of the Summer.

Set in the town of Luton, England during 1987, Gurinder Chada's "Blinded By The Light" stars Javed Khan (Viveik Kaira), a Pakistani-British teenager who lives with his Pakistani immigrant family, including his sisters Yasmeen (Tara Divina) and Shazia (Nikita Mehta) and their parents, Noor (Meera Ganatra) and the domineering Father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir).

While Javed thoroughly enjoys the (then) contemporary rock music blasting over the radio airwaves, writes diaries, poetry and lyrics for his lifelong best friend Matt's (Dean-Charles Chapman) synth rock band, and houses grand dreams of finally leaving Luton to become a writer, the dark economic realities of 1980's Thatcher's England, rampant racism towards the Pakistani community plus the overwhelming demands from his traditionalist Father threaten to bring Javed's dreams crashing to the ground.

Then, the fateful day occurs when Roops (a terrific Aaron Phagura), the one other Pakistani-British student besides Javed at school, loans Javed two cassettes, Bruce Springsteen's "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" (released June 2, 1978) and "Born In The U.S.A." (released June 4, 1984) and on one fateful dark and stormy night, just after Javed has tossed all of his poems into the trash, he places his Walkman headphones over his ears, puts a cassette inside and presses PLAY.

Javed's life is then irrevocably changed.

Feeling Bruce Springsteen's music speaking directly to his own existence in Luton, Javed is re-inspired as the songs propel Javed with a newfound energy to not only pursue writing fully, as also encouraged by his Writing instructor Ms. Clay (Haylet Atwell), he finds the bravery to act upon his crush on fellow Writing student, a social activist named Eliza (Nell Williams), and pursue his independence while also attempting to navigate his increasingly tumultuous relationship with his Father.

Gurinder Chadha's "Blinded By The Light" is a joyous, life-affirming triumph. Breezy and profound, light footed while also poignant and poetic, the film is fashioned as being not too dissimilar from a 1980's teen film but sharp enough to display its socio-politcal backdrop as a mirror to our chaotic 21st century political landscape. Chadha has created an experience that is simultaneously intimate and universal, encouraging all of us not only to recall our own formative years but our own current personal crossroads and how the art we engage ourselves with guide us through our respective journeys. And yes, again and emphatically, "Blinded By The Light" grandly succeeds where Danny Boyle's "Yesterday" disastrously failed.

For me, "Yesterday" was creatively uninspired. That is, it was uninspired beyond its truly innovative premise where we were asked to imagine a world where The Beatles completely fell out of existence except within the consciousness of the one man who does indeed remember them. The idea was brilliant. The execution was unforgivable for the sole reason that the filmmakers never performed the most obvious thing: to explore, explain or even offer an opinion on what made the music of The Beatles what it was and why a world without them would be unimaginable. It never even tried!

That glaring storytelling error is actually an even more glaring symptom of the "jukebox musical" genre as filmmakers are simply creating movies where audiences are invited to sing along with the songs we all know and love and just call it a day. With "Blinded By The Light," Gurinder Chadha has already circumvented any obstacles by always remembering, and therefore ensuring, that her film, first and foremost, had a story to tell, not exist as a forum for a bunch of songs to monkey wrench a story onto whether it made sense or not. She is exceedingly less interested in having potential audiences sing along to their favorite Bruce Springsteen songs in the theater aisles and rightly desiring having us follow Javed's story above all else. Yes, Springsteen's music is indeed the catalyst that propels the story forwards but without Javed, there is no movie at all.

But back to the catalyst of Bruce Springsteen's music anyway. In order for this film to really mean anything at all, we have to understand what Springsteen's music is and what it means to Javed, thus signifying the greater truth of the transcendent nature of art and how it soars over race, gender, generations, geographical locale and time itself in order to make the intended spiritual connection.

The initial sequence where Javed hears Springsteen's music for the first time is simplistic and downright glorious not just in presentation but in the purity and validity of what its representation of the moment when art connects with us. In a way, it was a section that reminded me very music of the outstanding synesthesia sequence in Joe Wright's "The Soloist" (2009), because, I have to admit, it displayed exactly what it feels like when music hits its direct target with me.

Chadha simply allows Springsteen's music to play, for "Dancing In The Dark" and then, "Promised Land," and as we listen, we view Javed listening and then finding the bolt-of-lightning styled connection when key Springsteen lyrics literally burst from his headphones and swirl around his head and soon exhibit themselves all over the walls of the homes in his neighborhood. The voluminous power of the music is understood, it is urgently felt and in doing so, Chadha even allows us to hear the music as if for the very first time, even for those of us in the audience who know the songs intimately.

From here, we explore Springsteen's music through Javed's journey. We have moments of unadulterated joy, as in the euphoric "Born To Run" sequence where Javed, Eliza and Roops take from their school through the streets and countryside of Luton like the truant trio in John Hughes' "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986) or the rock band teens of John Carney's wondrous "Sing Street" (2016). And we also have moments of stark social/political fury as Springsteen's epic, elegiac "Jungleland" plays over a race riot between local members of the fascistic political party National Front and their protesters, including Javed's family as they try to embark on Javed's sister's wedding day. And all the while, Chadha keeps Springsteen's music as the primal, throbbing heartbeat that fuels Javed's inspiration and his ascension into a greater self-awareness as well as his pitfalls with his friends, family heritage and even his own ego.

Yes, "Blinded By The Light" follows a certain coming-of-age/teen film formula and that is just fine due to the depth Gurinder Chadha has given to the characters and the story in which they populate. She allows us to walk in the shoes of a Pakistani-British family and view the generational and societal conflicts within the family, especially how Javed and his Father, Malik each deal with the racism they encounter in their respective daily lives. And I loved how Chadha allowed her characters to ask hard questions of themselves and each other throughout while also providing no easy answers and still, she delivers nothing less than a crowd-pleaser.

What does the world, and his existence as a Father, husband and as a man, mean to Malik, deeply proud of his heritage and religion and his ability to move his family to England in pursuit of a better life, now confronted with a dark reality in which the life he has earned is now threatened due to autocratic political policies? A life in which every member of his family is employed and he demands all funds go directly to him topay the family expenses. For Javed, how do his aspirations as a writer clash with his Father's wishes for his future and can he reconcile himself to his decisions should be pursue his dreams at the expense of their relationship?

What of Javed's friendship with Matt, who is Caucasian and has existed as a selfless friend, rightfully defending Javed against racist tormentors and who now finds his loyalty possibly being tossed aside as Javed builds his own sense of resolve? What of Javed's romance with Eliza, also Caucasian? Does she love Javed for the content of his character or is she using him as a point of rebellion against her right-wing parents and what does either scenario mean for Javed's self-worth? And yes, what of Javed's love of Bruce Springsteen and what it means for his own sense of cultural identity as well as how he is perceived by others of his own race, including his family?

What a treat and treasure Gurinder Chadha's "Blinded By The Light" is. A film that is enormously entertaining while also possessing the depth necessary for us to feel something quite possibly as authentically as Javed's feels Bruce Springsteen's music. By now, this film may have already come and gone from your local theaters and if so, that is a terrible shame as this film clearly has the strength to go toe-to-cinematic-toe with the truly major releases, if only given the honest chance and opportunity to do so. Even so, what has been made is here in the world just waiting to be embraced and trust me, I think once you see it for yourselves, you certainly will do so just as I did.

Gurinder Chadha's "Blinded By The Light" is one of 2019's very best films. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2019


I'm going to just start the Fall Movie Season relatively small...yet with a film that is bound to be enormous.

Usually, the Coming Attractions feature on this site is used to just show you which films I am hoping to see and then write about throughout the month. Yet, as already written about in previous months, it has been an especially difficult Summer in the life of your friendly neighborhood film enthusiast and that did indeed make even going to the movies experience a hiatus.

On a greater level, the changes within the movie business, and dark changes at that, have also hampered my movie going as the prevalence of the massive franchises at the expense of anything that does not fit into the categorical box of sequel, prequel, remake, and the like does not seem to stand a chance. For instance, two films I wished to see were released just only one week ago and one week later, they have both bombed to the point where one of them has drastically reduced screening and the other is gone altogether.

This represents a dangerous time for the movie going experience, from what films are even able to be seen and to what films are actually being made--especially when Disney seems hell bent on owning every movie studio. Trust me. I see many of the same films that you see. I am more than ready for the next "Star Wars" film and if Marvel can keep their creative streak at the level they held it this year, then I am ready for the future. But, I have no need to see superheroes and lightsabers on a weekly basis, not would I want to. I wish for the chance to experience that inexplicable thing that I have never seen before, which means that the film studios need to go back to taking risks again.

All of this being said, the one movie that I am most anxious to screen this month is indeed precisely the type of movie I just spent paragraphs rallying against...ha ha ha ha ha!!!!
"IT: Chapter Two," Director Andy Muschietti's follow-up to his outstanding 2017 adaptation of the first half of the Stephen King novel arrives this coming weekend and I know that I will be there to witness the conclusion.

Beyond that, like I said, I am going to think a tad smaller this time around as all of my bigger planes during these last few months have been upended by life! So, with that, let's see what Pennywise is up to this time around and I'll see you when the house lights go down!!