Tuesday, December 31, 2019

WHO DUNNIT?: a review of "Knives Out"

"KNIVES OUT"
Written and Directed by Rian Johnson
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
RATED PG 13

This is one of those movies that is going to be very difficult to write about but will definitely be one that I am more than certain that you will thoroughly enjoy.

First of all, in our current age of sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes, re-imaginings and all things franchised, I am still just unable to express to you enough what it means to me to be able to see something fresh and original again. While 2019 has possessed its small share of those sorts of films, they are in increasingly short supply, meaning that the arrival of something heretofore previously unknown is all the more welcome.

And so, Writer/Director Rian Johnson, fresh from his controversial, polarizing and for me, completely triumphant "Star Wars: Episode VIII-The Last Jedi" (2017), has now returned to Earth to inject new cinematic life into the classic all-star murder mystery genre with "Knives Out," a genre that admittedly never held much interest for me. Well, leave it to Johnson to craft an enormously vibrant experience that not only possesses an instantly engaging mystery but an intense yet playful agility with toying with the genre in which the central mystery houses additional mysteries and everything is held superbly aloft by a top to bottom terrific cast of characters and Johnson's inventive storytelling.

Just in the event that there are still some of you who have not yet seen this film, I will keep the plot description to a minimum. Wealthy and famous mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is celebrating his 85th birthday and has invited his family to his mansion for the festivities. By the morning after his birthday, Harlan will be found dead in his study, apparently by suicide.

Assigned to the investigation of Harlan's death is Detective Lt. Eliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and his partner (and Harlan Thrombey fan) Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) plus a surprise visitor, the anonymously hired Private Investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig).

After a series of interviews with Harlan's family members, Blanc concludes that Harlan Thrombey death was not a suicide but a murder, which of course, leaves quite a number of suspects who include: Harlan's daughter and real estate mogul Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis) plus her husband Richard (Don Johnson) and their spoiled, spiteful "black sheep" son Ransom (Chris Evans); Harlan's youngest son and CEO of Harlan's publishing company, Walter (Michael Shannon), Harlan's daughter-in-law and lifestyle "influencer" Joni (Toni Collette) and then, we also have the Thrombey house staff, most notably, young Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), Harlan's night nurse, trusted confidant and friend.

Rian Johnson's Knives Out" may on the surface seem to be another version of a dusty Agatha Christie mystery but trust me, Johnson has fully invigorated the material while clearly honoring the tone, style and tenor of what Christie's body of work has achieved. Meticulously written and directed by Johnson, beautifully photographed by Cinematographer Steve Yedlin, augmented by a stunning set design and again, filled end to end with first rate performances from the entire cast, "Knives Out" is a classic murder mystery that is also as up to the minute as the daily news as the film also serves as a morality play that could easily make this film a great part of a double bill with Bong Joon-ho's superlative "Parasite." 

And really, if I say any more than that, I will certainly spoil the fun and you know I would never wish to do that for you!!!

Just please allow me once again, especially as this review is going to be the last one in 2019, to extol my extreme pleasure with being witness to a film that is untethered to any previously created material, making for one of the more unique movie experiences I have had in this cinematic year. Rian Johnson's joyously fresh approach within a most familiar genre makes the entire proceedings feel completey anew. In doing so, we are now as excited about the material and story as he and his cast obviously are and I would be hard pressed to find any viewer who feels that this cast is not having a whale of a time.

As Benoit Blanc, Daniel Craig is obviously having a blast, clearly more fun than he has had in years, especially after having to descend into intense gloom as James Bond over and again. To that end, it was just wonderful to seeing the likes of the equally intense Michael Shannon and Toni Collette have the opportunity to loosen up while also fully serve their characters as fully as we know they are able. And oh the pleasure it is to witnessing a discovery! Ana de Armas is an actress I am not familiar with whatsoever and she held the screen with her wonderfully multi-layered performance with compelling ease and charm like a longtime screen veteran!!

Honestly, dear readers, there really is not much more than I can say other than the following: It is imperative for all of us who love the movies to keep lining up to support films that do not have any pre-conceived notions and perceptions. It is a dangerous time for the movies right now as the franchises are increasingly being made and as a result are filling our theaters at the expense of every other movie that we could see also. For me, one of the greatest joys in going to the movies is when I am not really sure of what to expect at all. When the anticipation mounts and the unadulterated elation that occurs when I am just so happily surprised when a cinematic story is so superbly well told.

Rian Johnson's "Knives Out" is indeed the type of film that exists when a filmmaker of Johnson's skill is allowed to create and play and invite us into his cinematic party, making for an experience that we never may have seen coming but are just thrilled we were here to receive it.

Monday, December 30, 2019

10 YEARS: THANK YOU FOR A DECADE OF SAVAGE CINEMA

It almost didn't happen at all.

Dear readers, I wish for you to take a little peek behind the curtain for just a moment so that you are more able to gather a sense of who I am and therefore, the reason for the significance of this posting. I am not, and have never been, a person who really exuded a large amount of confidence. I am cautious to a fault. I have always struggled with issues of self-esteem. I am tentative in my approach. I am one who is able to rationalize myself out of anything at all.

Certainly, I have made it through my life this far, to the age of nearly 51, with some level of engagement and how could I not? I don't live in fear but I am not one who could ever consider himself to being seen as "fearless." Where others would immediately take that dive off into the deep end, I am the one who would beg off, preferring to remain safely upon dry land. In many ways, I am just fine with that. But other times, I do kick myself internally, frustrated that I will always hold myself back when I could just take that risk and leap outwards.

I bring this to your attention at this time because I am thinking to those crucial moments on the early morning of December 30, 2009, as I sat in my parents' basement during a holiday visit. I was 40 years old and I had an idea of possibly, maybe beginning a blogsite where I could write film reviews. I knew what it would be called and I knew in my heart of hearts that I could do it. I knew that I possessed some aptitude with writing and having an outlet to write about the movies I saw and the films that I loved felt like the full manifestation of what I had essentially been doing inside of my head ever since I was a child.

I knew that the world had no use for even one more person writing about the movies. I knew that I would not garner worldwide attention. I knew that in the grandest scheme of things, no one would ever really care. But, I knew I wanted to do it anyway and in that purity...why not?

And yet, there was this lack of courage to deal with...and deal with...and deal with. This creature that lives inside of my brain who is always there to tell me that what I am thinking of is not worth the trouble, that it is not worthy of attention or even acknowledgement so just give up.

But then, somehow, someway, I would receive encouragement. First, from my childhood friend and classmate Margaret Pattison, who thought enough of the little reviews I had posted upon Facebook as being worthy of attention. Secondly, from childhood friend and classmate Stephanie Werhane, who told me exactly how to make the blogsite space in the first place. And so, just that level of initial encouragement pushed me to create the site, name it "Savage Cinema" and write the initial post...

...and then, it almost never happened.

I wish I could fully express to you how difficult it was for me to hit the "Publish" button on that very first posting, the one that would make Savage Cinema a real thing, a real project that existed in the world. I was terrified. What if people just hated it? The internet has long proven itself to being a viciously cruel place of senseless vitriol and regardless of how much I desired for Savage Cinema to exist as a safe, respectful corner of the internet, I had no control over what people may think or choose to say to me if they wished. And the thought of being virtually decimated was more than enough for me to forget the entire project.

I sat at the computer and stared at the "Publish" button for what felt like eons even though it was most likely only for a few minutes. And still so, so scared at potential failure, I pressed the button and Savage Cinema was officially born...and here I am, looking back at those moments, now a full 10 years later. 10. YEARS. LATER.

Dear readers, Savage Cinema is 10 years old today and it is a milestone I never in a million years ever thought would exist for me and anything I had ever involved myself with. I am feeling so many emotions as I write to you--pride, amazement, disbelief--but, please know that I am so humbled with this achievement because I owe every bit of it to you, all of you who have ever taken time out of your lives to devote to anything that I have written. With everything in the world competing for your attention, everything that is demanding of your attention, it is not lost upon me that not one of you need to utilize your energy upon me and my pursuits whatsoever.

And yet, you have and for that my gratitude is bottomless.

Because of you, I continue to write.
Because of you, I have built up my courage.
Because of you, I have created a second blogsite devoted to music entitled Synesthesia.
Because of you, I continue to push myself into being a better writer as I wish for you to not only feel the devotion I have for the movies but also for the devotion I have for the process of writing.
Because of you, Savage Cinema will have amassed 772 postings and counting, a number I never once conceived of as I sat there so frightened to even try and press that "Publish" button 10 years ago.

Because of you, I have reached 10 years of Savage Cinema.

As I continue to move forwards, I will keep my initial pledge to you exactly the same as when I began. To try and write as best as I am able. To keep this site a home that is safe and positive and to always know that whenever I have negative criticism to offer, that there is a way to be honest, unmerciful and artful---snark for snarks sake has no place here.

As I have always expressed to you, I am no film critic or historian. I am just a film enthusiast, a person who loves going to the movies and being spellbound by some cinematic story in a darkened roomful of strangers just like you. Savage Cinema is a home for me to share with you and I hope that you reach back and share with me in return. And believe me, I sincerely hope that all of you can feel my thankfulness for your friendship and support.

 It is not like me to take note of an accomplishment. Yet, this time, I really needed to because looking back over these last 10 years, I can see concretely see the accomplishment.

Are you ready for the next 10 years? Let's get there together...

THANK YOU!!!

Thursday, December 26, 2019

GENTLENESS, PATIENCE, SILENCE AND GRACE: a review of "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood"

"A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD"
Based upon the Esquire magazine article "Can You Say...Hero?" by Tom Junod
Screenplay Written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue & Noah Harpster
Directed by Marielle Heller
**** (four stars)
RATED PG

I have to say that I was very unsure about the purpose of making this film.

Before any of you dear readers begin to raise any sense of ire, please allow me to explain. You see, with regards to the life, work and teaching of Fred Rogers, I truly felt that as far as having a film was concerned, that feat was already beautifully achieved just one year ago with Director Morgan Neville's remarkable, enlightening and resoundingly emotional documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" (2018), a film I listed near the very top upon my Top Ten Favorite Films of 2018.

When I had first read that a new film, a dramatic narrative feature film starring Tom Hanks as the beloved Mr. Rogers would be made, I was admittedly unsure. For as much as the casting felt to be perfect, I wasn't sure if we necessarily needed this film since the documentary had just arrived and truly seemed to fill that specific space. Would a film about Mr. Rogers starring Tom Hanks be remotely as effective or would it just exist as trite, Oscar bait?

With the arrival of Director Marielle Heller's "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood," my questions have been answered and beautifully so. Not only is Heller's film vital and resonant, therefore making its existence necessary, it is a film that works exquisitely in tandem with the documentary while also existing as its own confident cinematic experience. Beyond that, it is a gentle, deeply empathetic and quietly wonderful film that truly feels as if Fred Rogers had written it himself as it, again, feels to be conceived in the fullness of his generous spirit.

Fashioned and structured as if we are watching an episode of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," Marielle Heller's "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" opens just as the television program, with visions of the toy buildings, streets and cars leading into the house where Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) arrives and enters, singing his treasured theme song ad changing from his street clothes into more comfortable sweater and sneakers.

From this point, we are son introduced to the character of Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), an award winning journalist for Esquire magazine, who is currently in the throes of a deep internal crisis. Married to public attorney Andrea Vogel (a warmly rich Susan Kelechi Watson) and an ambivalent new Dad to their son Gavin, Lloyd, despite his good fortune, is miserable, sardonic, has slowly begun to amass a dark reputation as an embittered writer.

Lloyd reaches his critical point while attending his sister's wedding, when he is surprised by the arrival of his long estranged Father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), whose philandering and alcoholism forever damaged the family. The reunion quickly leads to a fistfight. Further attempts from Jerry to reconcile are met with intense refusal. And rapidly, Lloyd's anger, resentment and inability to forgive begins to overtake his spirit.

By either fate, design (or maybe even some divine intervention, perhaps?), Lloyd is soon instructed by Ellen, his friend and Editor (Christine Lahti) to meet, interview ans write a profile about Fred Rogers for the magazine's special celebration of real life heroes, assignment Lloyd meets with reluctance and skepticism. 

And then, Lloyd meets Fred Rogers and their first brief interview tentatively leads to becoming a dialogue which then becomes a new foundation for Lloyd to begin the process of reconciling himself with his past, his present and his Father.

Marielle Heller's "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" is truly a lovely, deceptively "little" film that does indeed carry quite a large reach. It is an aesthetic triumph certainly as the meticulous work from Production Designer Jade Healy, which is lovingly established via all of the miniature sets to the full recreation of the entire "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" television experience--from the stage sets, television studio design and of course, all of the elements within the Land Of Make Believe--is instantly recognizable, immersive and unquestionably worthy of any awards season attention.

As previously stated, Heller stages and sequences the film as if it we are watching an extended episode of the television series, from the transitions to even occasional digressions from the film's main plotline, as just like the original series, when Mr. Rogers would presents some filmed sequence of something that is clearly of interest to himself that he wishes to share with all of us. In the case of this film, we are given a sequence with a string quartet on stage, for instance. It is a sequence that does nothing to drive the story but exists as a means of allowing us a time to pause, to intake, to engage and enjoy with the inherent beauty of regarding musicians creating and Mr. Rogers, like ourselves, happily lost in the act of listening.

For all of the acknowledgments "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" has already received from critics and viewers who have remarked that the kindness displayed throughout the film is a perfect antidote to the rampant venom and vitriol that is marking our societal and even spiritual decay in the 21st century, to which I agree, I think the film succeeds in also strongly feel that what Heller has achieved so beautifully is to display how much could be gained if we all honestly took the time to devote ourselves to the act of listening to one another.

Like our central figure of Fred Rogers, Heller's film is a patient, thoughtful, often very quiet film that is in no hurry and is so wisely understated, understanding that all of the drama is inherent and does not need to be pushed. Yet, as a stand-in for the audience, the character of Lloyd is absolutely perfect as a representation of what it feels like to grow and age in an increasingly anxious world while still feeling like who we once were as small children, people still so very much in need of support, guidance, empathy and just having our deepest feelings and fears acknowledged and understood by someone...anyone.

While Tom Hanks is obviously receiving all of the attention for his performance (more on that shortly), I think the star of the film is indeed Matthew Rhys, whose journey from cynic to someone more compassionate, while more than familiar, is one that unfolds in this film with such grace, gentleness and an uncanny touch of soul that speaks directly to the existential crisis that is housed inside all of us.

All of us carry our own share of baggage. All of us, at one point or another, have felt ourselves to being broken. While Heller does utilize some surreal touches to illustrate Lloyd's inner crisis, what I loved was how she, and therefore, Rhys work with quiet and silence, allowing us the time and space to engage with or inner spirit just as the character is performing for himself...and only because Mr. Rogers has taken the time and effort to engage, to listen, to feel, and to provide comfort just by being so present.

Lloyd's pregnant pauses in his conversations with Mr. Rogers are our own pregnant pauses. When Mr. Rogers asks of Lloyd to take one full minute to go into the silence of himself and think about all of the people in his life who have each contributed into making Lloyd the man that he is, Heller and Rhys perform the remarkable feat of having all sound drop away and let the film exist in pure silence and we regard the man internally taking stock of his life in real time...just as we are performing for ourselves in the audience.

As for Tom Hanks, the excellence of his performance is extends far beyond imitation, even though his interpretation is often eerie in its perfection of the real Fred Rogers' vocal mannerisms and physicality. Hanks somehow has found a way to embody Fred Rogers from the inside out, and especially strong accomplishment due partially to the iconic status of this figure and partially due to the fact that this film is not a biographical drama or necessarily even about Fred Rogers in the first place. 

For as much as we witness Fred Rogers' relationship with Lloyd as one where Lloyd is the beneficiary of Rogers' kindness and counseling, Tom Hanks ensures that Fred Rogers is always presented as human while most people may view him as a saint. In doing so, we witness moments when Rogers is visibly thankful that he himself is a person who wishes to be as seen just as anyone else in the world.

I enjoyed a scene during the creation of an episode during which Mr. Rogers is planning to erect a tent, a task which ultimately proves unsuccessful and even frustrating. As his television crew questions whether he wishes to re-take the scene, Fred Rogers demurs and says that it is better to show his audience of children how sometimes things do not go as planned and how we figure out ways to overcome failure. On a larger scale, when Lloyd genuinely suggests to Rogers that being the person and public media figure he is must carry a significant burden, Fred Rogers' reaction at being seen, honestly seen is enlightening in its graciousness and gratefulness.

With Tom Hanks' performance, we witness that even as he aids Lloyd and his beloved audience of children, he subtlety illustrates that the act of being "Mr. Rogers" to the world while living life as Mr. Rogers must have taken its toll on some level, making him a figure who was always, and crucially, one of the rest of us. A person who never spoke down to anyone because, quite possibly, he was always speaking to himself along with us every single time, illustrated beautifully by Heller as she focuses her camera upon Mr. Rogers singing and puppetering out of view instead of his puppet creation Daniel Tiger during a Land Of Make Believe segment. 

Marielle Heller's "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" is a film that works as the gentlest and all inclusive Sunday service sermon. There is no proselytizing or any stitch of dogma. Just genuine care and concern and love for one's fellow human being, all of whom are just trying to get by day-by-day.

As evidenced in Fred Rogers' painfully, gorgeously fragile musical composition entitled "Am I A Mistake?," a sentiment that we all harbor as we try to understand our own existence, Heller's film exists not solely as a tribute to Mr. Fred Rogers, but as a work that provides us the warmest, strongest embrace and the most sympathetic set of ears in these very dark times in which we live. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

THE FORCE WILL BE WITH US...ALWAYS: a review of "Star Wars: Episode IX-The Rise Of Skywalker"

"STAR WARS: EPISODE IX-THE RISE OF SKYWALKER"
Based upon characters and situations created by George Lucas
Story by Derek Connolly & Colin Trevorrow and Chris Terrio & J.J. Abrams
Screenplay Written by Chris Terrio & J.J. Abrams
Directed by J.J. Abrams
**** (four stars)
RATED PG 13

Enthralling, extravagant, enormously entertaining, explosive, exhilarating, excessive and exhausting, we have reached the conclusion of the story, 42 years in the making, set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

I vividly remember the year 1980, the year in which I was 11 years old and was already salivating with anticipation for the release of what was then the second "Star Wars" film, "The Empire Strikes Back." It was within the corresponding TIME magazine article, written and published just before the film's release, where I (and therefore, everyone) discovered precisely what series creator George Lucas had in mind regarding the further adventures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo and their friends as they continued their battles against the Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader.

The article revealed that Lucas' plans were essentially delivered within that film's opening text crawl as we would all see the words, "Episode V." At that time, George Lucas announced that his vision for "Star Wars" would consist of three different trilogies, a whopping nine films overall, and that we were (then) currently viewing the middle trilogy, with Episodes I-III focusing on the times before Luke Skywalker and Episodes VII-IX focusing on our central triumvirate at their advanced ages. That news blew my mind apart, just as it did for all of my friends, and, as I would presume, everyone of my generation whose lives were forever transformed by the original, inaugural 1977 film. It also made me perform some serious mathematics at the time because if each film took three years to make and then, there were obviously seven more films to go, then I would be...32 years old when the whole thing was said and done in the year 2001?!

It just felt so impossible, so inconceivable and still so incredible to behold, I was ready to spend my life taking this ride into this cinematic universe that had so enraptured and enveloped me from that very first film on its' opening day, no matter how long it took to play out and however old I was once the finish line had been reached.

As of this writing, I am 50 years old and the "Star Wars" saga has taken its fair share of twists and turns over these past 42 years, with all manner of stops and starts and even Lucas' self-removal from the creation of the films altogether. But, here we are, Episode IX, fully graced with the title "The Rise Of Skywalker," is finally in the world and as advertised, it is indeed the epic conclusion to the full story of the Skywalker family, which, by no small feat whatsoever, has been valiantly brought to us by Director J.J. Abrams.

"The Rise Of Skywalker" is indeed a terrific film, as it is resoundingly well made, furiously presented and in complete reverence to the universe George Lucas built. But that being said, the film is not quite as smooth of a ride as Abrams' "Star Wars: Episode VII-The Force Awakens" (2015) or Writer/Director Rian Johnson's polarizing "Star Wars: Episode VIII-The Last Jedi" (2017), which, in my opinion, absolutely soared, nearly redefining what a "Star Wars" movie could actually be.

But any struggles have got to be evident when any filmmaker has taken up the intense, immense challenge of completing a nine chapter story that they never even began in the first place. Yet, once those final end credits began to pepper the galaxy of stars, my heart was profoundly full and yes...my face was flush with tears.

"Star Wars: Episode IX-The Rise Of Skywalker" opens one year after the events of "The Last Jedi" as the decimated forces of the Resistance, still under the steady guiding hand of General Leia Organa (the late, great Carrie Fisher), are preparing to make their last ditch effort against the fascistic First Order and Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

As our heroes Finn (John Boyega), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and BB-8 gear up for what will essentially be the Resistance's last stand against galactic tyranny, Rey (Daisy Ridley), more advanced than ever in the ways of the Force will also come to the fullness of terms with her identity, history and legacy, as well as her connection with Kylo Ren.

But even greater (and not a spoiler, so do not worry), is the orchestration of all of the events by the nightmarish influence of the resurrected Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, clearly relishing every moment), and his Final Order, which threatens to engulf the galaxy in 1000 generations of the Sith forever.

I have to say at the outset that I do not envy J.J. Abrams one bit because when conceiving of an ending, how does one even begin? I really began to house these feelings even more as I have re-watched "The Last Jedi" several times over these past two years, and what continues to strike me so powerfully about that film is its sense of completeness. Yes, there are the obvious plot threads that are left open at that film's conclusion, but what Rian Johnson grandly accomplished for me was to deliver a "Star Wars" movie that was so full, in and of itself, that by its final shot, we had a vision that encapsulated the entirety of the "Star Wars" experience so thoroughly that I literally wanted for nothing and if the films ended there, I would have been sated.

Rian Johnson's "The Last Jedi" was the singular "Star Wars" film that simultaneously honored, celebrated and most importantly, challenged its own legacy and existence, therefore, allowing whatever that followed the freedom to be potentially anything at all.

Now, we now that these films were not created in their respective vacuums, so to speak as both J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson were aware of what each other was doing within their respective films. Even so, I can only imagine how daunting it must have been to take up the mantle to finish the entire saga, especially after Johnson's idiosyncratic definitiveness. Yet, I can also imagine that one cannot be tentative about something like this and one just needs to get to the business of the thing and make the movie. Or as Yoda once said long ago, "Do or do not. There is no try."

With "The Rise Of Skywalker," J.J. Abrams hits light speed from the film's first moments and does not let up for a solitary second. Trust me, this is not hyperbole from me. Abrams' pacing is white lightning as he propels us from one moment to another with such whiplash inducing alacrity that it is almost counter productive to the entire proceedings.

I am actually surprised that I am making this kind of an observation but there were points where I wanted him to actually slow down. Of course, the urgency of the film's plot dictates the pacing to a degree but mostly, "The Rise Of Skywalker," as least for much of its first half, felt like an orchestra of ideas, plot points, revelations, confrontations and surprises that all arrived with the same fever dream intensity and therefore, without much nuance and the result undercut its own sense of awe from time to time.

Yes, J.J. Abrams flies so fast that he nearly careens off of the rails. This film has marked, for me, the very first time that I have had the odd sensation of watching Abrams struggle as a storyteller as he throws so much at us so rapidly that at best, it carried the "we-have-so-much-to-get-through-in-just-so-much-time" effect, and at its worst, it felt like the first time a "Star Wars" movie was trying to sneak something past me through the sheer...ahem...force of its own velocity.

No matter what has ever occurred within the previous eight chapters and two stand alone features, I always have felt that, for better or for worse, George Lucas believed in his own material. That other filmmakers within this expansive saga believed in their own material. With "The Rise Of Skywalker," J.J. Abrams blinks a little, (or mistakenly allowed the voices of the fan community get in his ear) as if he doesn't quite believe the revelations he is unveiling, as the film seemed unwilling to take a moment of pause to allow its story to resonate fully.

As you can see from my personal star rating, I have awarded the film with my highest posting of four stars but as I have often expressed on this site, star ratings are arbitrary and not all four star movies are the same. In the case of this latest, final trilogy in the Skywalker saga, "The Rise Of Skywalker" falls a tad short from its two predecessors, but that being said, once the film settles and allows itself to grow quiet, to meditate within itself, to bring its core themes to their fullest fruition, man does this film RISE!!!

All of the action sequences, costumes, set designs, visual effects are the pinnacle of their dazzling wonderment. Jedi Master Composer John Williams should receive a special award celebrating the unparalleled skill and beauty to which he has told the entirety of this nine chapter saga musically, where all of his signature themes are felt within every synapse and nerve ending. But it is through J.J. Abrams' entire cast, all of whom work wonders, thus ensuring our connection to these characters remains paramount amidst all of the pyrotechnics, interstellar dogfights, shoot-outs, predicaments and escapes and most certainly, the whirlwind lightsaber duel set atop the ruins of the fallen Death Star in a howling sea storm.

Daisy Ridley has taken her three film arc in the odyssey of Rey, from desert scavenger to Jedi Knight, and has performed brilliantly, making this journey of mythological self-discovery succeed as equally as it is a story of empowerment and independence. Her determination pulsates and radiates from the screen resulting in one of the richest acting performances within the entire series. To that end, Adam Driver is molten lava! He remains as outstanding as ever as his raging internal conflict, combined with his intimidating physicality and presence, has made Kylo Ren the saga's most turbulent member of the Skywalker clan as well as its most compelling and magnetic. When he is on screen, you hardly look at anything else.

Carrie Fisher...

Of course, to again witness the sight of the late Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa, who passed away in 2016 after the filming of "The Last Jedi," is fraught with a tremendous bittersweetness. In a film that already possessed considerable cinematic mountains to climb, I do give great credit to Abrams to did execute some striking movie magic through the insertion of unused footage from "The Force Awakens" in a creative, inventive and story driven fashion, allowing us to luxuriate in her gravitas and allow her a proper farewell.

And of course, I would be more than remiss if I did not express how wonderful it was to witness the  smooth as the silken cosmos Billy Dee Williams in his grand return as Lando Calrissian. It appeared that he was as thrilled to be back in the cape as well as in the seat of the Millennium Falcon as we are to see him again. And in the spirit of the film's finality, just regard the strength of his performance as he wordlessly observes all around him. He captures the poignancy and poetry of the character, the fullness of the story and most importantly, our relationship to all we have seen and experienced throughout this entire journey.
 
In his review of "Return Of The Jedi" (1983), the late, great Roger Ebert took notice of a throwaway yet profound moment that occurs after Luke Skywalker has escaped from and vanquished the  fearsome Rancor while trapped in the bowels of Jabba The Hutt's lair. It is a moment when the Rancor's keeper comes upon the creature's lifeless body and then breaks down in sobs as this was his pet. Ebert remarked that within the "Star Wars" universe, everyone loves someone.

Despite its flaws, J.J. Abrams' "The Rise Of Skywalker" is indeed a testament to the love that flows throughout the entire saga within all of the characters and it is because of that purity of heart, the notion that the act of love towards one another is the only thing that will save us from the end is a core theme and message that permeates from fantasy into our very grim realities of the 21st century.

As tyranny rises and fascism knocks louder and louder upon our doors, the film, through the Resistance and their battle against the Final Order, passionately expresses that we are only as alone as we may think. Part of what makes such evil succeed is to convince the masses that their numbers are greater than they actually are so how do we combat something that feels insurmountable?

Well...in the case of "Star Wars," all we need to do is to look at the all of the misfits, outcasts, loners and cast aways who all found each other, banded together and found the drive within themselves to become unlikely heroes, all standing upon the shoulders of each other as well as all who came before themselves. With "The Rise Of Skywalker," we have reached the culmination of this journey and it is the love that J.J. Abrams clearly holds for "Star Wars," a love that mirrors the love we hold for it ourselves and which shines as brightly and as powerfully as the most luminous lightsaber through one exquisitely presented grace note after another.

J.J. Abrams' "The Rise Of Skywalker" certainly shakes the theater walls with copious excitement and several stand up and cheer moments. But, the sheer emotion of the film is staggering as it fully earns any and all tears we may happen to shed as we experience and remember and know so completely that The Force will be with us...always.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

OPEN SEASON: a review of "Queen & Slim"

"QUEEN & SLIM"
Story by James Frey & Lena Waithe
Screenplay Written by Lena Waithe
Directed by Melina Matsoukas
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
RATED R

I have said it before upon this site, and here I am having the need to express these thoughts once again. I distinctly remember the night on July 13, 2013 when George Zimmerman was found not guilty for the murder of 17 year old Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012. I remember seeing the verdict on television and thinking out loud...

"It is now 'Open Season' on Black people."

Again I have to express that in the time since that horrific, seemingly impossible verdict, we have seen the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, a protest that has, in equal measures horrific and seemingly impossible, has received considerable push-back and outright derision. Police shootings, and therefore murders, of unarmed Black people, and with no sense of legal retribution have grown to levels I feel are at an epidemic, especially as these crimes against humanity have seemingly grown more bold and brazen, precisely because they are now being filmed and even still, there is no sense of justice.

And again, I have to express that gun laws have become lessened just as "Stand Your Ground" laws have only become more enforced. And just having the now routine images and news stories about White people having the police called to investigate Black people for having a barbecue, for entering their own homes, for taking a nap in a student commons area and so on, have all made me more fearful for my own safety than I have ever been in my lifetime.

My skin color and size have never been more apparent to me as I have grown more, and rightfully, paranoid with how others may perceive me without ever speaking one word to me and how they may or may not react to me upon seeing me. And again and again, I have to express that the sight of police cars as I am driving, especially at night, give me serious pause, making me wonder with fright, what would I do if I were to be pulled over. Would any moment like that be the final moments of my life? This is being Black in America, right NOW in 2019.

Yes, I felt the intense need to say those words all over again.

Tapping into this terrifying, mournful, maddening and now expected aspect of what it means to be Black in America, we arrive with Director Melina Matsoukas' "Queen & Slim," an atmospheric, meditative road movie during which our titular characters find themselves up on a date and then, the subjects of a manhunt over the course of six days in the blink of an eye. It is a sobering, somber film that is by turns crackling with energy, poetic in its pathos, and submerged in the life and pain of two African-Americans in a world they never made that has now turned its cross-hairs upon them.  Beyond that, Matsoukas and Writer Lena Waithe have perceptively and wisely created a film that explores the subjective nature of prejudices and stereotypes in a deft fashion that smartly and uncomfortably involves the audience as well, forcing us to examine ourselves as we regard this doomed affair.

In a small Cleveland, Ohio restaurant, sit Queen (played by Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (played by Daniel Kaluuya), out on what is essentially a blind date and the date is going badly. It is an evening already fraught with mixed messages, misrepresentations, and a tension that could be considered sexual or even romantic if not for the obvious fact that the two clearly are not finding a connection.

Queen is a criminal defense attorney, who at this time is despondent due to a lost case earlier in the day, while Slim is an employee of Costco. Slim prays before eating his meal. Queen does not and appears irritated to be in the presence of something so private and possibly foreign to herself. Queen, clearly disapproving of the meager quality of the restaurant, openly questions whether the establishment was all Slim could afford, to which he replies that he chose this restaurant because "It is Black owned." Touche. Trying to work a new angle, Slim asks Queen why she decided to swipe on his photo and call him to which she replies that in his profile photo he looked "sad" and that she felt sorry for him. Ouch.

They finish eating and Slim begins to drive Queen home, a jaunt that is beginning to feel interminable and is undoubtedly not going to lead to anything remotely intimate. As the car sways in the late night traffic due to a mini-tiff between the two, Queen and Slim are soon pulled over by an antagonistic--and White--police officer, leading to an altercation that leaves the police officer dead and Queen and Slim now on the run, their lives upended forever.

Melina Matsoukas' "Queen & Slim" is an evocative, nuanced experience that combines the epic nature of the road movie with the intimacy of a relationship drama as filtered through the lens of the Black Experience. Certainly, comparisons to Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) will be made by viewers as well as some of the characters in the film itself. But for me, Matsoukas created an experience that is more in line with Dennis Hopper's "Easy Rider" (1969) and definitely Ridley Scott and Writer Callie Khouri's now iconic "Thelma & Louise" (1991), films where outsiders, disenfranchised and the discriminated find themselves all on the wrong end of America's malevolence and all to a tragic effect.

The tragedy of Melina Matsoukas' "Queen & Slim" does not arrive through any sense of conceptual unpredictability. The tragedy arrives in real-as-life inevitability. It would not prove itself to be any sort of a spoiler to suggest that the film concludes with grim inevitability, for any one of you who has been paying any attention whatsoever to the social/political/cultural/racial events of our modern times, the outcome of Queen and Slim's journey is as brutally obvious as it is honest.

In fact, what Matsoukas has accomplished is presenting yet one more impassioned film that is effectively designed for the Black Lives Matter era, a film that walks cinematic hand in hand with Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station" (2013) and George Tillman Jr.'s "The Hate U Give" (2018), as they each are the screams of the Black community to the nation at large that we are human beings deserving of living life as much as our White counterparts.

To that end, Matsoukas' film works powerfully alongside Steve McQueen's "12 Years A Slave" (2013) and even Damon Lindelof and HBO's shockingly outstanding "Watchmen" television series. She and Waithe depict precisely that for Black people in America, even in the 21st century, we are never as free as we think or as free as we wish ourselves to being as our lives can change in a split second for no other reason than for the color of our skin and the ignorance, fear, prejudices of those who project their demons onto us as well as a social/political infrastructure that is purposefully designed against us.

At its core, I feel that "Queen & Slim" is an exploration of perceptions and the subjectivity that allows us to place a certain significance upon individuals when they could possibly be the furthest from the truth...and at times, without any conceivable knowledge of the truth. Just take the film's opening sequence at the diner. Lena Waithe's screenplay writing is never more riveting and brilliant than in that first scene when every line of dialogue is a firecracker that blows up any pre-conceived perceptions both Queen and Slim have towards each other.

Certainly, as they are pulled over, the perceptions of fear and racism from the police officer's vantage point are obviously the engine driving the confrontation. As the twosome go on the run and their story via the police officer's dash camera which recorded the altercation hits the media, everyone that views the footage is then able to dream up their own individualized perceptions and misconceptions about Queen and Slim, neither of whom are outlaws by an stretch of the imagination. But only we in the audience know that to be a fact. Yet, even so, we, sitting comfortably in our movie theater seats are not let off of the hook as we do not even learn of these two characters' real name until the film's final moments, showing us how little we all knew of these two human beings relentlessly hunted down like game.

Matsoukas and Waithe continue this conceptual thread throughout the Queen and Slim's odyssey via the characters they meet along the way, from a mechanic, a teenager, the intensely complicated existence of Black police officers when played against White police officers and the African-American community to a White couple (played by Chloe Sevigny and, surprise, surprise, Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers) in Florida to whom the twosome are directed for sanctuary. 

For me, the most compelling figure was of Queen's Uncle Earl (played by a superbly magnetic Bokeem Woodbine), an Iraq war veteran suffering from PTSD, who is now living in a small New Orleans home now living out his existence as a pimp. This character was one deserving of his own feature film as richly conceived as he was in a few brief scenes. On sight, we have formulated a perception and then we are challenged as we learn more and more of his backstory, as it plays out with his conflicted relationships with the women in his life, while he also provides Queen and Slim with crucial aid on their escape.

And through everything we experience, so richly through Matsoukas' direction, Waithe's strong script, as well as Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe's stunning visuals (I swear every time the color blue appeared, I felt chills of impending doom) and the diverse and exquisitely curated collection of songs that provide's our titular characters with their musical voices, the performances of Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith hold us powerfully as through them, we see the humanity that the world refuses to acknowledge.

When will the world acknowledge our humanity? This is the plea of Melina Matsoukas' "Queen & Slim," where the only moment of freedom arrives in the rush of the breeze upon the skin through a open car window in a world where freedom should exist within every moment we take a breath.

Monday, December 2, 2019

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

"JOJO RABBIT"
Based upon the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens
Written and Directed by Taika Waititi
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
RATED PG 13


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 1, 2019

SAVAGE CINEMA'S COMING ATTRACTIONS FOR DECEMBER 2019

It is almost over. Kind of...

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

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

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

1. Jay Roach's "Bombshell," his new politically themed drama surrounding CEO Roger Ailes, sexual harassment at FOX News and starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie has more than intrigued me.
2. The Sadie Brothers' "Uncut Gems" has caught my attention solely due to the rave reviews I have been seeing for the leading, and rare, dramatic performance from Adam Sandler.
 3. From the war beyond the stars to the Earthly battlefields of World War I...
Sam Mendes' "1917" does not open widely until January 2020, I am certain. But that does not mean that I am not just salivating over witnessing an experience that is already garnering an enormously enthusiastic response.

OK...as it has been throughout this year, the month could very easily be interrupted by all manner of life. But, that being said, please do send me your well wishes and I will again see you when the house lights go down!!!