Requiem for a Dream (2000)

 

SPOILERS
There are definitely SPOILERS of plot points in this review.  That said, these spoilers may actually help you get through the film if you have not yet seen it.  You decide……

Darren Aronofsky’s second feature film, Requiem for a Dream was the follow up to his bold and original debut Pi.  Both films had experimental elements of filmmaking that helped Aronofsky make a name for himself as one of the young up-and-coming Indie directors at a time where the Indie circuit was thriving with exposure.  Both of these films are dark in composition and both contain characters struggling with identity.  Pi is about one individual and Requiem… has four main players; it is this expansion of character development that gives Aronofsky’s experimental vision as a filmmaker a solid place in cinema history.  Requiem for a Dream is a masterpiece that evokes the falsehood of the American Dream, a concept that is held up only by archetypes containing no real road map as to how to be achieved.  Although the film ostensibly shows drug addiction to be the demise of our four main characters, Aronofsky is arguing that the false advertisement campaign that is the American Dream is really the root cause for the film’s characters’ dreadful demises.

Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) is a sixty-something widow living alone in her Coney Island apartment left to her life of eating sugary snacks and watching her favorite infomercial on her rundown television set.  Of course she can only do this after she routinely buys back the TV from the pawn shop her son Harry (Jared Leto) sells it to with his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) so they can get some cash to buy heroin and shoot up.  Harry’s beautiful girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), like Harry and Tyrone, is a twenty-something whose parents put her up in a nice apartment with a steady stipend so long as she sees her scuzzy psychiatrist regularly – he has ulterior motives for their visits.  Marion uses heroin as well.

Sara longs for the days when her husband Seymour was alive and when Harry was in high school.  These were times that gave her a purpose and she felt like a useful cog in society – serving her husband and making her son smile.  Now she resorts to eating food to fill the void left by Seymour’s death and Harry living elsewhere.

Harry and Tyrone are floundering and trying to find different ways to spend their summer days.  Sure they can get high and go to the boardwalk, but they want to make some money like everyone is supposed to in the United States – They hope respect will soon follow.
Marion aspires for more than just money from her parents and with some loving nudges from Harry, she decides to pursue her love for all things fashion and works towards opening a boutique selling the clothes she has designed.

Sara gets duped one day with a phone call from the parent company of the infomercial she watches religiously.  A man on the other end tells her she has “won” a chance to be on television.  This prompts Sara to start watching what she eats so she can fit into her red dress that Seymour loved her in, and she can then wear it on television.  When her initial attempts to lose the weight are not doing the trick, she visits a doctor who hastily prescribes her to diet pills.  These pills help her lose the weight steadily as she uses the zipper on the back of the red dress as a barometer for her progress.

Harry and Ty decide to turn their habit into an enterprise.  They get enough money together to buy some heroin, cut it, and begin to sell it making money hand over fist and become well on their way to their goal of buying a pound of pure, which they say over and over again.  Pound of Pure refers to heroin, but also is an alliterative phrase just like many of the commercially marketed phrases people cling to on their journey to the American Dream. 

Marion, with Harry’s support, begins to work hard on her clothing designs and eventually Harry is able to lease a small commercial space for her business.  This is good for Marion not only because she is on her way to realizing her dream, but she does not have to rely on seeing her shrink to get money from her parents.

Sara begins to lose the weight rapidly, but also her mind slowly.  There’s a scene where she goes to visit the doctor for a checkup and prescription refill.  Aronofsky keeps a tight shot of Sara’s face in clear focus, while the doctor is seen in the blurry background and not paying too much attention to Sara.  She tries to convey her concerns about the pills’ effect on her body, but the doctor pays her no mind and simply hands her a new prescription.
Sara continues the normal pill regiment until she does not feel the same speedy effects as before – she begins doubling and tripling her dose whenever she wants.

When Harry and Tyrone have saved enough money to secure their Pound of Pure, Ty has a face to face meeting with a local heroin supplier in the back of his limo.  Then the meeting goes awry and a shootout ensues forcing Ty to run away from the limo with the blood of the supplier all over him.  Ty gets arrested and Harry has to bail him out with their hard earned cash, which nearly wipes them out.

This, of course, sets Marion back too, and now all that seems to matter to any of them is scoring dope so they can shoot it and feel normal, at least for a little while.

 

Aronofsky and his crew pay special attention to the backdrop of every scene.  During the good times of the film, when the characters are all still functioning drug users, the lighting and music is very soothing and peaceful.  Aronofsky creates stock (quick) montages for when our characters are getting their fix.  Although these may seem redundant after awhile, I assure you the use of the montages is not only apropos to the exposition of the character’s drug use, but also helps cement the parallel of drug use and the American Dream archetypes – Which are made up of quippy slogans and fast shortcuts to wealth….allegedly.

Aronofsky’s unique camera direction set to a chilling score helps to encapsulate the true horrors experienced by an addict.  The best examples of this are during the last 15 minutes of the film which is a juxtaposition of all four characters final spill on their own downward spirals.

Sara ends up in a mental institution after she begins wandering the streets in her red dress.  Eventually she gets shock treatment to “cure” her ailment.

Tyrone takes Harry to a hospital to have his arm looked at due to a massive infection Harry gets from injecting heroin into the same hole in his arm nearly every time.  It is there where they get arrested and sentenced to hard work detail in prison.  Due to Harry’s infected arm, he is deemed unfit to work and is moved to the hospital ward of the prison where we see his arm amputated in a gruesome scene….
Harry using the same vein can be viewed as a metaphor to someone burning the candle at both ends to realize their dreams…eventually the candle is small and useless.

Ty remains on hard work detail under the watch of racist guards in prison.

Marion becomes a sex worker in order to continually get her dope.

This passage of the film serves to not only put on display the ultimate doom of the four characters, but with its masterful editing really gives an honestly artful representation of the tipping point that segues to the final stages of a downward spiral.  Hard to watch, but I found my eyes peeled to the screen seeing it again.  Because we care about these characters, we are able to endure this starkly depressing passage. Also the score helps to guide us through this 15 minutes with haunting strings and ambiguous tone that drives the action as we the viewer wait for the requisite happy ending that never comes for our four heroes….

All of these characters are normal enough and I believe that is the point.  Like Paul Thomas Anderson did in his terrific film Boogie Nights, Aronofsky is showing us regular people trying to do regular things in the shadows of the “normal” people trying to do “normal” things.  Strip away the minutiae, and Requiem for a Dream is delivering a story about people chasing the elusive American Dream; it is only with judgment that one can look at these people and say that what they do is not socially acceptable.

Knowing how the plot unfolds for these four characters whom we care so much about, you may ask yourself, Why would I want to watch such horror? The best answer I can give to this is Aronofsky’s filmmaking prowess; he is simply on fire in his execution of telling this dark tale.  Seemingly going for broke with nearly every scene, he paints a bleak picture with the use of quick camera movements and bright colors (two characteristics usually reserved for big budget action films).  Another movie with a major drug theme that used similar filming tactics is the wonderful film from 1987,  Less than Zero.  That film had more to do with how an addict acts as the rope in a game of tug-o-war between those closest to him on either side: One side who is trying to help him get off the drugs, and the other side who is able to easily convince him to keep using.  Both films are supported by their unique filming techniques to the drug addiction film genre, both have regrettable outcomes.

It must be noted that Ellen Burstyn gives one of the greatest performances of her stellar career in this film.  When I saw Requiem… for the first time in the theater I was hanging on her every word and movement.  In a role that could’ve easily been perceived as campy or too over-the-top, Burstyn never hits a false note, playing Sara as an innocent who does not know she is an addict, because how can she be if a doctor prescribed her the drugs? There is a scene in particular where Burstyn really shines:  Sitting alone in her apartment and hallucinating (due to her overuse of diet pills), her thinner self and her favorite TV show host (Christopher McDonald) morph out of the TV set and make fun of Sara’s apartment.  Watch how Burstyn as Sara is forced to succumb to the judgement of her TV-self, reminding us how we all take cues from television in determining our self worth.

The three other performances turned in by the young actors are flawless as well, and definitely deserve special mention, but it is Burstyn who steals the show.

 

We see each of the four characters curl up into the fetal position at the end of their respective downward spirals (at the end of the 15 minute montage).  I think Aronofsky is trying to show here that most human beings will regress to childlike emotion in times of great crisis.  I think his broader point here is to indicate that we retreat to the times that make us feel most comfortably in crisis, so do not lose that ideal in the first place.  There is a time to be an adult and a time to be firm, but we never have to lose our innocence in the process.  If you lose it, you will end up back at it in the end anyway, because crisis is inevitable.  Aronofsky knows that if one is addicted to drugs, crisis is not too far off.  The drug addiction in this film serves to indicate a need for innocence by our characters.  They have trouble holding on to it in search of their dreams, so they bring it on by the use of drugs.  Aronofsky is encouraging us to chase our dreams, but to do so by playing things close to the chest and without the use of the generic blueprint that is the American Dream…..

Into the Wild (2007)

Say what you want about religion (and I can say plenty), but it certainly has helped to provide allegory for the artistic world.  So familiar are the salient details of the basic premise of religion (especially Christianity in the USA), that even the most simple of artful comparisons may be noticed by the layperson.  Sean Penn’s film Into the Wild is not solely a religious metaphor, nor do I think it is Penn’s central theme to the film.  But when watching Penn’s adaptation of John Krakauer’s best selling book “Into the Wild” unfold on the big screen, I cannot help but think of the same desires and idealistic aspirations I once shared (as a younger man) with the film’s real life hero Christopher McCandless aka Alexander Supertramp (Emile Hirsch). Knowing the ultimate fate of McCandless’ adventure to be death, I cannot help (but to) personally view him as a Christ-like figure – which is to say he sacrificed himself (for all those like he), hoofing the trail to the west of his problems eventually leading him to his last adventure which will test his perseverance and threshold for lonliness out in the wilderness…alone.  I seriously doubt McCandless intended on being a martyr for those of us who sought similar solitude, but his incorrigible disposition notwithstanding, he made it to that place many of us wanted to be, and with this emotionally wonderful film of his story, we get to feel the virtue and misfortune of his journey in the most visceral way possible.

 

Because we know the fate of the film’s hero before we see it, Into the Wild has the pending doom feeling throughout its 148 minute run time.  We know the story ends tragically and this makes for an uneasy feeling at times.  I have now seen the film around four or five times and I have to say it has improved with each viewing.  The reason for this is not only due to it being (quite simply) an enjoyable film, but because the more you grow accustom to Sean Penn’s construct of the story, the more you realize this film is a defense of McCandless’ actions and ultimate death.  That isn’t to say a pretty picture is painted by Penn stating Parents bad – Rebellious child GOOD! Penn carefully displays the uniqueness of Chris’ mom and dad’s collective normalcy as his parents.  The film actually begins by bypassing all of the minutiae that drove Chris to head to Alaska.  Instead we see him being dropped off by a kind stranger named Jim Gallien** at the head of the Stampede Trail where Chris’ Alaskan journey begins.  The film jumps back and forth to various points in between Chris’ college graduation at Emory University and his death in 1992 on the ‘Magic Bus’*** in the Alaskan wilderness.

By juxtaposing all off the significant moments of McCandless’ life during this nearly two year stretch, I believe Penn is first and foremost trying to pay the best homage he can to an extraordinary young man.  He is celebrating McCandless’ bravery, and goes to great length to show Chris’ disdain he had for his parents, but I do not believe Penn is asking us to take sides nor is he taking a side himself.  He paints broad strokes in the scenes with the McCandless family allowing for the tension between Chris and his parents (William Hurt & Marcia Gay Harden) to indeed feel tense, but to disallow room for judgment.  Sure the parents are flawed, but who isn’t….?

Chris’ younger sister Carine (Jena Malone) is the central narrator of the film.  She and Chris have a lovingly close relationship – always there for one another to serve as an emotional blockade from their mom and dad’s hurtful arguments.  It is therefore especially heartbreaking to hear Carine speak (in narration) of how she wishes Chris could have made an exception to his rule of silence, if only to drop her a line and say he is doing alright.  Carine’s words and the way in which Jena Malone delivers them are a healthy support to the story; sure she is upset that she does not get to speak to her brother, but she lends an objective opinion and begrudgingly understands Christopher’s plight.  Malone’s superb delivery  of Carine’s narration is one of the film’s best attributes and is a masterstroke of direction by Penn to include and apply it to the film the way we hear and see it.  With a kind voice, Malone is sympathetically critical of Christopher and thus (subtlety) forcing objectivity (as it pertains to judging Chris) on to the viewers.

As the film’s chronology doubles back on itself, we are afforded the chance of meeting some interesting film characters, all incarnations of real life people Chris met and made privy to his intended Alaskan voyage.  There’s Jan and Rainey (Catherine Keener & Brian H. Dierker), a sweet hippie couple Chris meets out on the road who we learn are Rubber Tramps to that of Chris’ moniker of Leather Tramp (they wander by car and Chris by foot).  They briefly take in Chris and fall in love with his spirit despite his obstinate refusal to carry his past with him.

We briefly meet Sonja and Mads, a young and vibrant Danish couple on holiday in the United States where so far they’ve seen Las Vegas and Chris on the stone banks of the Colorado River.

Just before he heads directly to Alaska, Chris meets a nice and friendly old man named Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook).  We learn Ron lost his wife and young son many years ago while he was in Europe for the Army.  He takes a grandfatherly shine to Chris and instills him with a value of forgiveness and love.  This is a powerful performance by Holbrook; despite his short amount of screen time, Holbrook makes quite the impact on us, making us wish Chris takes Ron up on his kind offer….

My favorite of the people Chris meets is Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn), a grain elevator operator in South Dakota who befriends Chris and hires him to some part time work.  Vaughn once again brings some comedic gravitas to a part that could’ve been just a stop-along character, but Vaughn gives Wayne a transcendent likability that shows what a good man he was for Chris to meet on his journey (even when he gets caught doing something not so good).

These characters and others Chris meets along the way all enrich his life in some way regardless of how brief the encounter.  They arm him with knowledge he (possibly) already possessed, but to gain it from a fresh perspective from these people whom he senses have no ulterior motives may have allowed it to resonate more clearly in a way it never had before.  Through these encounters we also are able to discern Chris’ voyage as one taken in earnest.  He is not doing this to have a story to tell or even to rebel against his parents.  Sure he may state surface reasons along the way, but these seem more spoken out of convenience (at the time) than anything else.  He is recognized as a loved and loving soul who has a lot to offer anyone with whom he comes in contact.  But through their heeds of caution, they understand what he is doing and that Chris must see it through….

Penn carefully allows Hirsch as McCandless to immerse himself in to the natural elements of the Alaskan wilderness, juxtaposing scenes of Chris’ disdain for the everyday “city life” to the harsh and unforgiving realities of nature.  Chris ultimately realizes the virtues of his journey and thus feels accomplished in this path.  He sought solitude and found it; it was not always as he imagined, but it was what he endured nonetheless and seemingly made peace with the idea of sharing his life.  It would seem Chris always intended on returning to urban civilization, but nature had other things in mind.

 

This is truly a great American film; one we can be proud that circulates the annals of our country’s cinema.  But more than that, it is a great American story.  Heading west, setting out for the frontier in search and hope of a better place or better understanding of what we are all doing here.  If I had to guess, I would say that Christopher McCandless would not want a movie made about his ultimately doomed trek to Alaska.  He craved not fame, but spiritual adventure. I do think, however, that if Chris saw this film, he would be proud of it.  I think he’d feel a sense of purpose in the filmmaking in that it is a cautionary tale of the indomitable spirit of man.  I doubt Chris would agree with me and my comparison of him to Jesus insofar as a martyr.  As the film depicts it, Chris reached a psychic plateau of love and wanting to share it; a place he could only get to by firstly taking this journey.  While his death is tragically sad, it is not due to hubris; Chris had the knowledge that escape would lead to what he was looking for.  His realization of shared love may not have been his intended salvation, but it’s not always about intentions, but rather how and where you end up.  Chris’s tragedy is not a flaw, but a circumstantial occurrence of death.  He went for the truth and in his death, taught those of us who care how to search for our own.

**The Jim Gallien character was played by the real life Jim Gallien.

***The Magic Bus is an abandoned bus Chris McCandless found smack dab in the middle of the Alaskan WIlderness.  He made it his home base whilst in Alaska.

Here is a list I made on IMDB.com (Internet Movie Database) awhile ago.  I want to use this as a checklist for reviews to write on this blog.  I have already done some, but hope to get to all of them eventually.

The portion I wrote (which are all short summaries) for each film is surrounded in quotation marks and in bold faced italics.

Enjoy….

The Top 10 Best Films of the 2000-2009 Decade

Here are the 10 films I deem to be worthy of representing the 2000-2009 decade. Maybe not the best films of the era per se, but more a map of the cinema that occupied the decade. If nothing else, it’s a recommendation list; thank you for reading….
Image of No Country for Old Men
1.
No Country for Old Men (2007)

 10/10
Violence and mayhem ensue after a hunter stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong and more than two million dollars in cash near the Rio Grande. (122 mins.)
“ Saw it 15 times in the theater alone! Sometimes there is a film that comes out at the right moment(s) in your life causing it to be your favorite all-time film! Although he is an awful human being, Anton Chigurh (Best Supporting Actor winner Javier Bardem) is one of the greatest characters in cinema history! ” – bamwake-1
Image of The Hurt Locker
2.
The Hurt Locker (2008)

 10/10
During the Iraq War, a Sergeant recently assigned to an army bomb squad is put at odds with his squad mates due to his maverick way of handling his work. (131 mins.)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
“ In this near perfect masterpiece, Jeremy Renner gives us one of the greatest performances of the past 25 years! Renner plays Sgt. Will James, the best bomb disposal expert the army has to offer, but that sometimes comes at the emotional expense of James, as he resolves the lines between compulsion and duty. What a stunning film! ” – bamwake-1
Image of Almost Famous
3.
Almost Famous (2000)

 10/10
A high-school boy is given the chance to write a story for Rolling Stone Magazine about an up-and-coming rock band as he accompanies it on their concert tour. (122 mins.)
Director: Cameron Crowe
“ Quite simply one of the greatest most fun films ever made! Never a dull moment in Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about a boy posing as a man to experience life through music! Try NOT hugging yourself through this one! ”– bamwake-1
Image of In America
4.
In America (2002)

 10/10
A family of Irish immigrants adjust to life on the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen while also grieving the death of a child. (105 mins.)
Director: Jim Sheridan
“ Watching this Irish family of 4 settle in to New York City in the early 1980s is only one of the many joys in this beautiful film! Displaying the difficulties many immigrants in the USA have faced, we get to learn that the world is truly a melting pot and not one person can make it through on their own! Although the plot is important, it’s more important for you to take it in as it happens…. One of the most emotional films I have had the pleasure of viewing! ” – bamwake-1
Image of Oldboy
5.
Oldboy (2003)

 10/10
After being kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years, Oh Dae-Su is released, only to find that he must find his captor in 5 days. (120 mins.)
Director: Chan-wook Park
“ What a film-watching experience! Forget about the plot, and focus on how this mesmerizing film makes you feel! A revenge quest that brilliantly juxtaposes our hero’s mental anguish for payback with his physical determination to not be stopped! A rarity to be sure! ” – bamwake-1
Image of Michael Clayton
6.
Michael Clayton (2007)

 10/10
A law firm brings in its “fixer” to remedy the situation after a lawyer has a breakdown while representing a chemical company that he knows is guilty in a multi-billion dollar class action suit.(119 mins.)
Director: Tony Gilroy
“ Clooney plays the titular role in one his best performances! Here he gives us a top law firm’s “fixer” who endures an onslaught of problems, both personal and work related; sometimes it’s hard for him to distinguish between the two…this is truly a unique thriller! ” – bamwake-1
Image of Million Dollar Baby
7.
Million Dollar Baby (2004)

 10/10
A determined woman works with a hardened boxing trainer to become a professional. (132 mins.)
Director: Clint Eastwood
“ This Best Picture winner teaches us that even if dreams are realized, there is always the full scope of fate with which to contend….A heavy film with a stellar cast, Million Dollar Baby is a masterpiece that stretches to all fullfilled and unfulfilled corners of a life. ” – bamwake-1
Image of The Dark Knight
8.
The Dark Knight (2008)

 10/10
When the menace known as the Joker wreaks havoc and chaos on the people of Gotham, the caped crusader must come to terms with one of the greatest psychological tests of his ability to fight injustice. (152 mins.)
“ One of the few films in recent history to deliver on all the advertised hype! Great performances by all (especially the late Heath Ledger’s Joker) which help to provide a deep examination in to the dark realities of our favorite superheo! Strap in for this scary rollercoaster ride! ” – bamwake-1
Image of In the Bedroom
9.
In the Bedroom (2001)

 10/10
A New England couple’s college-aged son dates an older woman who has two small children and an unwelcome ex-husband. (130 mins.)
Director: Todd Field
“ A dark film with a tremendous cast about how a married couple deals with personal tragedy in a small Maine town. With its measured pace and a little misdirection of tone, this film allows for you to get to intimately know the characters and also genuinely care about their feelings and actions. It’s a rare thing when a film implicates you in the attitudes and behavior of its characters; this one will keep you thinking for awhile…. ” – bamwake-1
Image of Junebug
10.
Junebug (2005)

 10/10
A dealer in “outsider” art travels from Chicago to North Carolina to meet her new in-laws, challenging the equilibrium of this middle class Southern home. (106 mins.)
Director: Phil Morrison
“ If nothing else, this brilliant indy gave us our lovely Amy Adams. Although it’s not her first film, it did yield her first Oscar nomination and as Ashley she (sweetly) shows us there’s always a reason to come home….!! ” – bamwake-1

Joy (2015)

David O. Russell’s new film Joy is a biopic showing us the journey Joy Mangano took from broke (and in debt) single mother to multi millionaire queen of QVC and HSN.  Jennifer Lawrence plays the titular role making this the third time she and Russell have collaborated.  Lawrence starred in Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook for which she took home the Best Actress Oscar, and also in Russell’s followup American Hustle for which Lawrence was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and you can bet the farm we will be hearing Lawrence’s name listed as a Best Actress nominee for her wonderful turn in Joy.

Some movie fans do not like David O. Russell as a director.  These people will tell you that he is all style and no substance.  That is certainly a valid argument, but one with which I disagree.  I happen to like his style as it pertains to his storytelling and I think it worked best in Silver Linings… and American Hustle.  Say what you want about Russell’s style, but you certainly must call it unique!  At the beginning of Joy, as the studio logo is displayed to some light sounding bells, on to the opening (out of focus) camera shot, you can tell right away you’re in a David O. Russell Production!  And I am here to tell you it is the right style for this wonderful biopic about an extraordinary woman.

To tell Mangano’s story as a straight drama would be almost too depressing to watch.  She has a mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) living in her house who is so afraid of men and the outside world that she confines herself to her bed watching her soap operas in glorious agoraphobic fashion!  Joy’s ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramierez) lives in the basement practicing his singing in to a cheap P.A. system while their two kids are being watched upstairs by Joy’s grandma (Diane Ladd)  who also narrates the story with obsequious praise of Joy, always reassuring her that one day she will do great great things.  Joy’s father, Rudy (Robert DeNiro – another multiple Russell collaborator), who was once married to Terry, owns a body shop that his daughter Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm) helps him run.  Peggy is always there to let Joy know she has done something wrong and how she would have done it better!  OH!! And when we pick up the story, Rudy moves in to the house as well after being kicked out of the house of his longtime girlfriend, and since there is no room left in the house, Joy is forced to put him in the basement with her ex Tony, who does not get along with Rudy!  It should also be noted that Joy is broke bordering on in debt, and soon to actually be in debt, but as played by Lawrence, she remains so cute cuddly and calm….

Russell does some fun things like showing us the fake soap opera that Terry is always watching and actually uses some iconic soap opera stars like Susan Lucci to play the fake characters.  Russell intercuts the soap sequences with the plot scenes of the real movie.  He does this to show how Joy’s life is just like a ridiculous soap opera and how living a life like this can lead to you inventing the world’s first self ringing mop!  Which is what she did….

Rudy meets a lady named Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) through a dating service for widows and widowers (even though he isn’t a widower himself).  They begin a romantic relationship.  It is Trudy who ends up lending Joy the money to start her business to build and sell these mops.  Part of the fun of this film is to watch all of the great struggles Joy endures to become a success, so I will not spoil it for you.

One of the things  I like most about the film is the way Russell’s screenplay strips down a lot of the business minutiae and leaves in a bunch of phrases and bureaucratic nonsense (from the real world) that keeps many big and good ideas from coming to fruition in this country.  Over and over and OVER again we hear Trudy say to Joy in some form, “That’s the cost of doing business…” when something goes wrong for her.  This becomes a turn of phrase for Joy’s bad luck and misfortune.  The screenplay does a nice job as well to take us on the roller coaster ride that is Joy’s journey to selling her Miracle Mop to the country – how apropos a name!!

My fovorite parts of the film are with  Bradleey Cooper as QVC sales executive Neil Walker.  We get so use to the craziness that is Joy’s life and the zaniness of her family and their little manic tics, that when we see Walker as Cooper plays him – calm, cool, steady and collected – we can feel how Joy herself is calmed by him as well.  There is a moment in the film (my absolute favorite) at the QVC headquarters where Joan Rivers (played by her daughter Melissa Rivers) is selling her jewelry with a pretty female QVC host.  Walker is taking Joy on a tour of the studio when they begin watching the live broadcast with Joan.  The way Russell makes it look as if Cooper is conducting a large orchestra during this scene as he is showing Joy the connection between the movement of the host’s hands to the numbers of calls coming in is nothing short of enthralling!

I want to once again talk about how stripped down a lot of the screenplay is regarding the business side of things.  Russell does a great thing here to oversimplify the business terms and strategies; he instead uses these simple terms to give an overarching theme of how ridiculous people sound when they say these things.  I believe Russell is trying to show a story of a brave woman with little to no business acumen who made it to the top because she had guts and a good idea!  By stripping down the language, Russell is rendering these traditional methods insensitive and superfluous.  This point is further emboldened when we learn Joy’s best friend Jackie and her ex Tony are her business consultants (even well after she bcomes rich).
Russell is also showing how it was this type of behavior from others that made Joy Mangano in to not only a successful business woman, but an empathetic one who is willing to take chances on other people’s ideas and also take care of her family long after they maybe didn’t deserve it.

Joy Mangano’s story is truly an American one!  A lot of people these days are losing sight what that really means.  It is an interesting and challenging choice for Russell to write and direct a film about this extraordinary woman.  I do not know what made him decide to do it, but in many of his films, non-fiction or otherwise, he likes the story of the underdog – the one everyone is counting out.  We all feel like that person at times in our lives, and Russell is showing us stories that say anything is possible – especially if we reach for our inner Joy….

This is one of the best films of the year…

Moonstruck (1987)

Here is an old review I wrote on facebook back in 2010 for the movie Moonstruck.

Kinda short, but it’s fun to revisit….

Oh what a movie! This 1987 Best Picture Nominee is so true to life, you’ll swear it is a satire. But instead of satire, what you will see is a warm film, that realizes life’s little moments, whether sad or happy (and even the self-important “tragedies”) deserve to be looked upon as humorous. Several Oscar nominations were doled out to “Moonstruck” including wins for Cher (Best Actress), Olympia Dukakis (Best Supporting Actress), and John Patrick Shanley for his screenplay.

Loretta (Cher) is set to marry Johnny (Danny Aiello), but ends up falling for Ronny (Nicolas Cage), Johnny’s brother. Rose (Dukakis) is married to Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia, Best Supporting Actor nominee), Cosmo has a gal on the side. Johnny is at his mother’s death bed in Cicily, awaiting her death so he can marry Loretta. Johnny and Rony have not spoken in five years since a bread slicer accident…
All of this, plus many other great performances and stories, provides a unique cinematic experience, which is all the more amazing since the characters are so recognizable and normal.

It should be noted that this is one of Nicolas Cage’s best performances; he plays an eccentric baker, who with sincere honesty and persistence, is able to sweep Loretta off her feet. He is also the reason we get to see Cher take the greatest “Walk of Shame” of all time which makes us all yearn that one day we can be so lucky!

I must admit this is definitely one of my favorite films of all time. I say this in hopes it will make you watch it if you have not already. I truly think it is a film everyone needs to see for themselves. It holds such a profound meaning for me every single time I watch it, that I can only hope you’ll feel the same type of thing when you witness it for yourself. And once again, we can all strive to float down the street in the clothes we wore the night before as happily and obliviously as Cher does. ENJOY!!!!

Spotlight (2015)

The best procedural film on investigative journalism is All the President’s Men.  All procedural films made after that one garner comparisons to it as All the President’s Men is the standard bearer for the genre.  It is a risky thing to trust your ability as a filmmaker to put a movie out there that you expect moviegoers to enjoy which basically follows newspaper writers around watching them interview people and taking notes for two hours.  If the subject matter is compelling enough for the audience then they will be more likely to enjoy the finer points of the film as they pertain to the procedural aspects.  Tom McCarthy’s new film Spotlight not only keeps the audience’s attention, but is worthy of being compared to All the President’s Men as one of the best procedural films of all time.

 

Based on a true story, Spotlight begins in early July of 2001 at the Boston Globe when they brought on a new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schriber); Baron was a journeyman editor brought to the Boston Globe from his second stint at the Miami Herald.  Schreiber portrays Baron as an earnest yet quietly driven man who tasks the Spotlight section of the paper to start investigating the alleged Catholic priests child molestation scandal and the church’s alleged coverup of the events.  In order to eventually gain some tread with the likely findings of his reporters, Baron asks the Globe’s publisher Richard Gilman (Michael Countryman) if the paper may challenge a court ruling that ordered previous investigations to this matter sealed.  Gilman gives his blessing and that is only the beginning of where we realize how bold of an investigation this will be given the city and the power the Catholic church holds over it.

The Spotlight team at the Globe consists of four members: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo); Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams); Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James); and the team leader, Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), all of whom are portrayed brilliantly by the actors who make us believe they are genuine investigative reporters.  Robby (as played by Keaton) is a mellow guy who grew up in the Boston area and was educated in the Catholic school system that he has been tasked with investigating.  He explains to his team what it is they need to do, and they set out to do it.  Tom McCarthy directs the scenes between Robby and his (three) reporters with careful attention to the subtle construct of their hierarchy; Keaton holds the staff’s attention and commands respect without histrionics or waving an iron fist.  McCarthy’s handling of these scenes is the most important aspect of this film, because this construct is the thoroughfare for the rest of the movie; it makes the reporters actions throughout the film all the more believable and defines them as important cogs in the investigation and not just ancillary characters added for symmetrical depth.

When the writers all begin their respective investigating on the assignment they do so with professionalism and a steadfast sense of duty like they would any story.  McCarthy’s direction enriches Spotlight beyond (just) its procedural foundation.  What the reporters find out is stuff we as viewers already know given that this is a story most of us have read/heard about  before seeing the film. But what McCarthy does to implicate the viewers as a part of the scandal is nothing short of masterful and should net him a Best Director nomination – more on that in a moment.

It should be noted that given its subject matter, Spotlight is in no way an anti-religion film nor is it an anti-Catholic movie.  If someone feels this way after viewing the film, I think they have missed the point entirely.  Things of this nature are often (conveniently) given the out of sight out of mind brush off.  This type of scandal is not the ordinary celebrity gossip type of thing that serves as a distraction to Americans.  Sure it has the allure of a tabloid scandal, but it’s dealing with adults molesting children – bottom line!  The only thing that gives it a gossipy fervor is that it is connected to the Catholic Church.  McCarthy goes to great pains with his direction to point this out.  He understands that the priests who committed these acts did so by using their standing as priests to molest children.  As stated, McCarthy wants to make this clear; but what I believe to be the underlying theme of the film is that most Americans are guilty of standing blithely by while horrible things go on.  We are more apt to hope that someone else (whose job it is) will get rid of this bad thing and pick up the pieces left behind.  McCarthy is not blaming anyone for this necessarily, I believe he is imploring us to be more aware of our surroundings and to not be afraifd to take a stand where one is needed….

There is a scene that I feel serves as an allegorical moment to this theme:
During the investigation one day Robby and Mike (Keaton & Ruffalo) are walking down many hallways and stairs in the Boston Globe office building which eventually leads them to a dingy room in the basement where Matt (Brian d’Arcy James) is looking through many books for researching purposes.  When the two men enter the room one of them exclaims, “What is that smell?!”  Matt answers, “There’s a dead rat in the corner of the room.”
This is a small moment, yes, but it says a mouthful.  These three men (and apparently any other people who have gone in to the room while the rat was decaying) have chosen to ignore the problem of the dead rat and put up with the smell for the short while they are in this room.  Once they leave, they;ll no longer have to deal with the smell (or the decaying rodent’s body).
McCarthy is not saying these are bad men for ignoring the rat and perhaps leaving it to the janitor to clean up; he is simply giving a common example of man’s propensity to ignore with what they do not have to deal.  In doing so, McCarthy is NOT comparing dead rats to priests molesting children.  He is allowing for the audience to make the connection in a relatable way as to how someone can ignore something that is clearly a big problem and is happening in close proximity to where you work and live?

How indeed…?

McCarthy performs a masterstroke of direction to answer this question, and also in establishing the church’s intoxicating power and influence in the city of Boston.  In mostly every scene that takes place amidst the city, we see (different) beautiful church steeples towering over the background, which serves as a stark reminder of the Catholic church and its heavy influence throughout the community.  He is not absolving anyone, mind you, but rather providing an artful reason as to how this scandal could’ve been ignored.  This is done at several different locations.  I feel not only is McCarthy trying to say it was difficult for people who knew about this scandal to say anything, but also the victims themselves.

One other element of Spotlight that also serves to establish an elephant in the room motif is the horrible events of 9/11.  The beginning of the film shows subtitles indicating it is July of 2001.  I can’t speak for anyone else,  but the first thing I thought when I saw that is, how will the film handle 9/11?  I know I already sound the like I am the president of the Tom McCarthy Fan Club (you should all see his film Win Win btw), but he handles these events with a grace and ease allowing for the events (as they pertain to the Spotlight staff) to act as a transition back to the investigation of the Catholic Church.  McCarthy trusts the viewers’ collective memories of that day and its fallout to provide its own subnarrative to this section of the film.  Needless to say 9/11 became the top reporting priority at The Boston Globe and therefore brought the current Spotlight investigation of the Church scandal to a halt.  The Spotlight team stopped what they were doing to cover their portion of 9/11 as diligently as any other story.  There is a scene where Mike has been sent to Florida to investigate the flight school where some of the 9/11 terrorists took flying lessons.  What McCarthy does here to link the plot back to the Catholic Church investigation is so brilliant, yet so subtle, that if you blink you may miss it.

So we have a great (true) story, wonderful ensemble cast and all in all an entertaining film.  What I think makes Spotlight special (once again) is the careful direction by Thomas McCarthy.  He does a great job in establishing the hierarchy of the Boston Globe and also the Spotlight department.  The performances are all great and the parts so well written that when we see one of the Globe writers maybe overstep their bounds (on the hierarchy), we understand how it makes sense or it is not inappropriate.  I really enjoyed how we get to see all of the four main characters at one point or another treat this investigation with personal emotion.  Yes, it is their job to do their unbiased investigating; so it is with great joy as a viewer watching them step out of their occupation for a moment to respectively take on the full magnitude of what it is they are actually trying to report.  Spotlight reminds us to once in awhile allow for emotion to be our guide towards an earnest cause.  This is the year’s best film….!!

No Country for Old Men (2007)

This is less a review and more a fun explanation of why this is my favorite all time film.
This entry contains a timeline SPOILER.
If you don’t want to be spolied, please see film first….

 

For those who know me best, they can tell you without hesitation that No Country for Old Men is my favorite film of all time.  Directed by the Coen Brothers (Joel & Ethan), No Country… came out in 2007 which incidently was overall a GREAT year for cinema.  NCFOM won the Best Picture Oscar and was up against four incredibly good films in the same category (Juno, There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton and Atonement).  I mention this because I saw a lot of great films that year and it was as if NCFOM kept the ball rolling nicely.  As I mentioned, I saw a TON of films that year, but I saw No Country for Old Men an alarming 15 times in the theater!!  I guess one could say I was a bit obsessed; in fact, some of you did! But how could I not!?  Everything in this film was quietly spectacular, and is one of the most perfectly executed films from page to screen I have ever seen!

From the foreboding opening narration by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) to the menacing bounty hunter (or whatever he was) Anton Chigurh (Best Supporting Actor, Javier Bardem) to the everyman Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) trying to secure his future with drug money that was not his, this film is rich with character, scenery and story.

Let’s get back to the narration for a moment: Sheriff Bell tells us about himself and his job.  He brings up other Sheriffs who came before him including his father (“…me and him was sherrifs at the same time.”).  He talks about the importance of history and how in order to judge yourself you must first compare yourself to the “ol’timers.”  This narration sets up the entire film, parenthetically laying out the plot for us, but also showing us Ed Tom is a man who has the capacity to be consumed by guilt.

The unflinching performance delivered by Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh is one for the ages!  Patiently making his way to find Moss and the money; always prepared for anything, knowing that the path he takes will lead him to where he needs to go because that is what fate has in store (“CALL IT!”).  He also has a disdain for the weak willed.  He feels humans (and birds apparently) are born of free will and that anything is possible, so when he sees a living thing not forcing its will upon its potential, let’s just say he may want to kill it….

All of this is set to extraordinary cinematography by veteran Roger Deakins, a long time collaborator with the Coen Brothers.  His work on the film offers a bleak subnarrative to the cat and mouse arc, intimating that all the people in this world are in this mess together.

A lot of people share the opinion that No Country… is a wonderfully suspenseful film that keeps you on the edge of your seat, and they really enjoyed it…except for the ending.  Now, those people are correct about everything save for the part about the ending.  Giving them the benefit of the doubt, let’s just assume they all experienced mental paralysis during the end where Tommy Lee Jones explains the two dreams he had the night before.

I always get a chuckle out of people saying that they hated this ending!  Not to wax rhetorically about it, but if you did not like this ending, what conclusion would you have rather seen?  The opening narration sets up the entire film for the viewer, and Ed Tom’s dreams answer a lot of questions Ed Tom has about himself.  I admit: The first time I saw it, I was not ready for the ending.  I did not pay as much attention to what Ed Tom was saying as I should have, so when the credits started rolling I wanted to run my head in to a wall!  I thought to myself, “Oh no!  What have I done!?”  Now having seen the film 20 times, I can recite the ending out loud, so….

Two days later my best friend Mike (I call him Wheats – long story) was in town from Los Angeles.  Wheats is a big reason I like cinema as much as I do.  He also had already seen NCFOM a week earlier, but due to an unfortunate movie theater bathroom incident, he missed a portion of the film.  We both had unfinished business with this movie that we both had been looking forward to seeing (together) for so so long!

So on a Sunday in early November of 2007, Wheats and I headed to the Main Art Theater in Royal Oak, Michigan to finally watch this film with focused eyes, determined to soak it all in with ZERO distractions!  Well my friends, I am happy to report this was the very BEST film going experience of my life!  We both paid attention to every second of the film (especially the ending) and this time as I listened to Ed Tom discuss his dreams I realized the importance of what he was saying and it was downright enthralling!  As Wheats and I  exited through the theater doors I felt like I was floating (not walking) and as I looked straight ahead waliking side by side with Mike I said with great confidence, “Wheats, that is the best film I have ever seen in my life…..”

Then I was off and running!  Like I said, I saw the film 13 more times in the theater alone!  Some of those times were normal enough; I would go with family & friends who I thought would like it.  Other times, however, were less normal; I’d buy tickets to other movies playing at the Main Art and fully intended on seeing them, but as I was about to pass the double doors to the theater playing No Country… I found myself compelled to go in and watch it again…so I did!

I think what compelled me to see it so much and so often is that it showed characters who lifted themselves to high places without the fear of consequences.  Javier Bardem’s character certainly displayed this characterisric the most, so I do understand that I am appreciaitng the actions of cinematic murderer, please don’t think I do not.

There are plenty of themes to be discussed about this film and believe me I will do further entries about these themes.  But for now I thought it necessary to simply write about my favorite film of all time and share little anecdotes regarding my obsession for it.

I would love to discuss this with y’all, so please, if there are any questions you have about No Country for Old Men, post them in the comments section and I will address them.

More to come later…FRIENDO!

 

The Big Short (2015)

As I begin writing this review for The Big Short, I am somehow reminded of the brilliant and darkly comedic satire American Psycho (2000).  The two films share very little in common except Christian Bale is in both and both have to do with Wall Street.  The Big Short is based on a true story whereas American Psycho is pure imagination and strictly speaking a more direct satire.  The reason I am comparing these two films is because I think they can be considered sister films (or at least first cousins).  Without spoiling ‘Psycho for you, I will say that film uses fantasy and violence to display the effect greed and one’s concern with placement on the snobbery hierarchy (in the United States) can have on the psyche; The Big Short is what actually happens to the USA if American Psycho‘s fantasies take on a real life form.

But let’s talk about The Big Short…..

Adam McKay’s The Big Short is the true story of the housing market bubble bursting in 2008 and how a handful of Wall Street outsiders predicted it and were able to make a LOT of money because of it.  The way McKay handles this material is risky and bold, but the result is very entertaining and one of the best films of 2015!

I will not explain the finer details of the plot; part of the many joys of this film is the way McKay has his characters explain it to the audience.  Not only is he treating the subject matter as satire, but McKay is also having a little fun with the based on a true story theme, and dare I say satirizing the genre as well.

McKay understands that this material is difficult to understand by the average film going American, so he uses brilliant meta moments to (not) dumb-it-down, but make it easier for the viewer to understand.  Here’s an example:

McKay implies that the country uses pop culture and celebrity to distract the public from the actual evil that goes on from time to time.  He employs the same tactic, but instead utilizes it to help explain the difficult financial terms and investment strategies.  In one example he has Ryan Gosling’s character breaking the fourth wall** telling the audience, “Now to help you understand, here is Margot Robbie drinking Champagne in a bubble bath explaining it to you…”  And then, yes, the gorgeous Margot Robbie also breaks the fourth wall from a bubble bath and directly explains to us viewers whatever the film’s plot is dealing with at that moment!   This method is used a few other times in the film with popular celebrities spanning many disciplines.

In addition to not delving too far in to the plot, I will also not use character’s names in this review, there are too many to count.  I will say that the cast is remarkable and none of them miss a beat.  Steve Carell’s character is my favorite of the film.  He moves through the film so smoothly with a steadfast ambition to get things done the way he wants to do them.  Just when you think he is getting in his own way with his manic tics, you realize this behavior is what will also get him out of his own way.  More than that, though, his character is (I believe) supposed to be an agent of the layperson – the viewer – us…. The events depicted in this film and some of the people portrayed who are partly responsible for this colossal financial collapse are reprehensible greedy A-HOLES!  Easy for me to say, but Carell’s character is a person with a strong and thoughtful understanding of this financial crisis, so when we the viewer see his character showing disgust for these bad people, we feel it’s okay for us to feel that way too.

In addition to Carell we get an almost unrecognizable Brad Pitt who in a moment at a casino interrupts his two partners’ celebration to remind them of what their financial gain is built upon: Other American’s misfortune.  As I mentioned, Ryan Gosling plays a cocky investor who with great command breaks the fourth wall from time to time to explain to the viewer how exactly this is all working.  Marissa Tomei shows up briefly as Carell’s wife.  Although it’s a small role, I believe McKay employed her celebrity and competence to let the viewers understand she is an important support to Carell’s character.  Christian Bale plays an M.D. turned financial adviser who is the first to recognize the downward trend of the housing market. I have come to expect nothing short of greatness from Bale and he does not disappoint here. Great minor supporting performances by all help to make this a very enjoyable film

I mentioned earlier how I feel McKay is not only treating this material as satire, but also satirizing the true story genre.  There are a couple of moments where I feel this is clearly indicated, but I will share with you the biggest example:

A lot has been made in recent years about the liberties films take with subject matter that is based on a true story.  People are complaining that the events as they are laid out in these films are not exactly how they went down in real life.  I say to those people that you need to watch this medium called film a little more closely to find the finer details that imply liberties are being taken, but I digress….
McKay does something really fun and funny in The Big Short to hopefully satisfy these people who want true stories to be truer.

I don’t want to spoil the fun, so I’ll explain just enough for you to recognize when it happens:

Two of his characters are trying to move up the financial totem pole and try to get a meeting with a big bank.  The meeting takes place in the lobby of a large office building in New York (as their current status did not warrant an invitation past the lobby).  After being rejected, there is some very deliberate dialogue explaining how often they get rejected and by how many firms.  Then they find something that just happens to be on the table in the lobby that turns them on to a new project.  That’s when one of the guys breaks the fourth wall to explain how it really happened in real life!  It plays as a funny moment, but mainly calls attention to how boring this passage of the film would’ve been had they shown the real way it occurred.  It’s not cutting corners, it’s efficiency….!

I mention a lot of the different techniques McKay uses in this film to move the material along.  Most of them employ humor, which makes a lot of sense given McKay’s filmography (Anchorman, Step Brothers http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0570912/?ref_=ttfc_fc_wr2#director).  Some may argue that McKay was the wrong choice for The Big Short. These people may think he copped out and resorted to humor because that’s all he can do.  Firstly I’d respond to those people by saying, SO WHAT?  But secondly I’d politely tell those people they are wrong.  The humor serves as a buffer to this material.  We are watching a film that has to do with millions of people losing their jobs and retirement money and their homes because of the greed of other Americans.  The humor makes this subject matter a little more sugary and thus easier to swallow.  Not all of the scenes are funny; some are downright sad, but given the balance the humorous and satirical parts provide, this a film that is not only enjoyable, but also informative.

I think I have made it clear to you that I am no financial guru by any stretch of the imagination.  I like films like this that are informatively artful.  I mentioned American Psycho; I wonder if director Mary Harron knew what was on the horizon at Wall Street when she made it.  I wonder if Adam McKay revisited American Psycho before he made The Big Short.  It doesn’t really matter.  What matters is we are living in a country that stands on the credo of hard work and turns right around and devalues it.  It does so with the motivation of greed and the idea that if I have more than you, I am simply better than you.  Patrick Bateman in American Psycho knew this, but hated himself for it.  The real life people portrayed in The Big Short who are responsible for the financial mess knew it too, but they only hated poor people and immigrants.  Lofty accusations by me, maybe, but it’s not a new story.  The almighty dollar is a big motivation for Americans and gets incorrectly equated to realizing dreams.  If an underlying lesson can be taken from The Big Short, I think it is this: We mustn’t boil things down to buzzwords.  We mustn’t bastardize our dreams to a dollar sign.  Be earnest in your fight for survival and our country’s worth will rise….

This is one of the most important films of the decade….!!

 

** Breaking the fourth wall –
Speaking directly to, otherwise acknowledging or doing something to the audience through this imaginary wall – or, in film and television, through a camera – is known as “breaking the fourth wall“.

Creed (2015)

Here we go again, right!?  Another Rocky movie!  This time around (that’s the seventh time) it is a bit different.  The most obvious difference being the title, Creed.  This is the first time in the series where the word ‘Rocky’ is not in the title; this is the first time Sylvester Stallone has not written an entry to the series; and this is also the first time someone named John G. Avildsen or Sylvester Stallone did not direct an entry.  What all that really proves or means, I do not know, but what I do know is that Creed is the best film in the series since Rocky (1976) which won the Best Picture Oscar and also earned Stallone a Best Actor nomination (and Best Original Screenplay), and if the universe is fair, he will receive a Best Supporting Actor nomination for this surprising gem which is one of the year’s best films!

 

Although Creed is a continuation of the Rocky mythology, Rocky Balboa is not the focal point of the story.  The main character instead is Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, who was born after Apollo died in the ring (see Rocky IV).  Adonis is a foster child, who is adopted by Apollo’s widow out of an orphanage, who treats Adonis as if he is her son.  Adonis is raised in Los Angeles (the city where Apollo fought out of) in a beautiful home and grows up in to an intelligent upstanding man.  By night we see him travel to Mexico taking part (and dominating) in non sanctioned boxing matches, and by day we see Adonis donned in a pressed shirt and tie in a nice office, turning down a promotion by resigning so he can chase his dream of being a boxer.

Adonis’ last name Johnson is his late (biological) mother’s name which he keeps maybe out of respect, but also because he wants to make a name for himself in the boxing world without being known as Apollo Creed’s son.  So without his father’s name or his mother’s blessing, Adonis heads to Philadelphia to further distance himself from Apollo’s legacy and to seek out Rocky Balboa for training.

After he gets settled in to his new city, Adonis does indeed seek out Rocky at his tucked away restaurant on a small Philadelphia street.  This is an important scene to the film because not only does it begin to establish the relationship on which the film’s plot will forge, but it also shows the subtle brash side of Adonis that is needed to complement a great fighter’s boxing ability.  After a couple scenes where the Italian Stallion gives him the brush off, Rocky begins to slowly acclimate to the role of Adonis’ trainer.  These scenes are handled with great care by director Ryan Coogler; he is in no rush to get to the fight scenes or training montages and instead allows for Rocky and Adonis’ relationship to blossom organically so that the audience may see and understand the love they have for one another and not love based on archetypal legend, which a lesser film may’ve done.

Coogler handles every scene with originality but also ties this new story to careful homage of yesteryear Rocky films: We hear mention of Paulie, Mick and Apollo; Rocky has Adonis chase a chicken; we get to see Phildelphia (which is a sort of character in this series); of course Adrian is etched in to the fabric of Rocky’s persona.  My favorite of the homages is when Adonis is closing in on the last days of training for the film’s big fight and he is running through the streets of Philly with an alternative version of the original Rocky score.  I assure you your goosebumps will have goosebumps when you watch this scene!!

Michael B. Jordan has been showing up in a lot of different kinds of movies these recent years including director Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station (which I have yet to see).  In Creed he proves he can give a sharp dramatic turn while carrying the weight of a tremendous physical performance as well.  I mentioned Stallone’s performance as being an Oscar worthy one and I have my fingers crossed this will happen.  The Oscars are meant for discussion and fun and it would be SUPER fun to talk about Stallone earning a nomination for reprising the role that shot him to super stardom back in the mid 70s!  Sure he is the same ol’ punchy (now former) boxer we have come to know and love, but this time around we get to see a side of him that is sweeter, and when we see his Rocky character face some personal adversity, it is with heartfelt eyes we watch him have to fight something (for once) without using his fists – this is by far one of the best performances of the year!***

We get to see Adonis compete in two (sanctioned) fights.  It is strange to see Rocky in the corner for both of them, but we really enjoy watching Adonis do his thing in the squared circle this time around.  One of the reasons for this is that the fight scenes are expertly filmed!  One of the rounds I swear was shot as one continuous take and in real time.  I honestly felt like I was getting hit by some of the right hooks!  Sure some of the punches would kill someone in real life, but filmgoers are supposed to suspend disbelief which is easier to do when the film is a well made one… like this one!

All in all Creed is a modern day sports film masterpiece!  It contains all of our favorite things we have come to expect in a sports movie and done with such care by Coogler that viewers will celebrate the cliches through which they would otherwise groan!  Instead of groaning, I found myself (along with the rest of the theater) fist pumping and cheering during the fights and being moved by the actions and kind words of the characters.  Should this be the last Rocky film, It is the perfect epitaph for this legendary series….

 

***Rocky gives a toast before a casual dinner in his dining room to Adonis and his girlfriend.  The words are so simple and heartfelt and Stallone delivers them with such ease and grace, that if there is justice in the world, Stallone will earn that Oscar nomination!

 

 

Almost Famous (2000)

What a wondrously wonderful film! From the opening moments where we hear the unmistakeable sound of a needle being placed on a vinyl record set to the different film studios’ logos, to the opening credits being hand written (and also erased at times) with a pencil, we know we are in for a fun film watching experience.  And oh, how fun indeed!  Besides the fantastic soundtrack from the rock n roll era of the 70s, writer director Cameron Crowe takes us on this semi-autobiographical adventure, where a boy poses as a man to experience life through rock n roll!  Displaying an envious romp through a concert tour with and up and coming (ficticious) band, Almost Famous shows us how rewarding life can be if you grab it by the balls, but also the virtue of being shamelssly intelligent in a world that tells you that it ain’t cool to be that way!  This is one of the best films of all time….!!

We first meet our young hero William Miller when he is just 11 years old (although he thinks he is 12 – long story).  He lives with his over protective yet loving mother (Frances McDormand) and rebellious older sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel) in sunny San Diego, California.  Mom is a nonconformist who is raising her children to think for themselves, so long as they obide by her rules which include celebrating Christmas on a day in September, no rock n roll music and NO DRUGS!  When Anita can no longer handle living at home (just after she turns 18) she packs up and leaves with her boyfriend to become a flight attendant, and does so quite ceremoniously to the sounds of Simon and Garfunkel!  Before she departs, she informs William to look under his bed where he finds an emergency style tote of rock n roll records with handy notes advising WIlliam as to the proper way to listen to each record!

Cut to four years later and we meet the 15 year old WIlliam (Patrick Fugit) who looks like a typical 1970s teenager with the scruffy hair and long pants.  There is nothing typical about our hero, so discovers famous rock n roll critic for Creem Magazine, Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).  Through the persistence of sending him his articles from the high school newspaper, WIlliam gets to meet Bangs and have a sit down with him to learn the ins-and-outs of rock journalism including the virtue of being unmerciful and honest and no matter what happens, DO NOT MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE ROCKSTARS!  In this brilliant scene, William is given an assignment by Bangs to write 1,000 words on Black Sabbath after going to their concert that night.

Not having a ticket, William is forced to find a clever way in to the concert via backstage; after a couple of failed attempts, he finally makes it in, and it is in that moment the real WIlliam Miller is born!!  As he enters the bowels of the arena, a look of gracious awe falls about his face as if he knows he is exactly where he needs to be at that moment in his life – we should all feel so lucky!  It is here where he meets the world: An up and coming band called Stillwater, many rock hangers-ons and many groupies (excuse me, Band-Aids), including the world renown and beautifully exotic (Miss) Penny Lane (Kate Hudson).

Stillwater is comprised of four total members, but mostly the world is interested in lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup).  William makes fast friends with Penny and despite Lester Bangs’ advice, William is seemingly infatuated with Russell.  After the show William and Penny make plans to go see Stillwater play in Los Angeles, which makes William as excited as any teenage boy would be making plans with a beautiful young lady!

Despite learning in LA that Russell and Penny Lane are some sort of an item, the trip is very rewarding for William and it leads to Rolling Stone Magazine hiring him to travel with Stillwater on their tour across the United States.  The man who hires William is Ben Fong-Torres who mistakes William for a fully grown well adjusted adult, maybe due to his writing ability and the way he pitches his ideas to him.  Whatever the reason, William finds himself having to convince his overprotective mother to let him go on tour with the band!  Not for nothing, but God bless actors like Frances McDormand who know just the right amount of spice to add to a role that may have otherwise been a cliche.  The scene where she grants permission is short and to the point and the way in which McDormand delivers the lines is priceless – good on ya Frances!

So we find our hero travelling across the country trying to write this article for Rolling Stone (sometimes on napkins in a bathtub) about the up and coming band (from Troy Michigan) Stillwater!  He learns lesson after lesson and DEFINITELY becomes friends with the band!  He calls Lester Bangs at all hours of the night seeking advice as he has trouble writing his article.  These scenes between Bangs and WIlliam on the phone are an important piece to the film.  Most of the tour scenes are super fun to watch and are happening at a breakneck frenetic pace, and the meetings between William and Bangs help provide a calm center in the rock n roll storm and to the film!  One of the calls comes after the tour and the conversation is filled with beautiful honesty and artful sweetness where Bangs explains the integrity it takes to be a great writer – judicious and prudent…!!

Every film lover DESERVES to see this incredible film!  Not only is the plot exciting and inspiring, but the music is great complementing each scene/moment perfectly!**  Crowe at the helm is on fire directing his script giving us all interesting characters to watch do their thing!  From the Rolling Stone execs to the groupies on tour, we are constantly entertained by all of them throughout the film.  Even at the end where the film gets wrapped up in a nice little bow, it is done so with such charm and with a really cool and unique set up, that we don’t mind.  Crowe trusts the audience to trust that his characters are intelligent to realize life doesn’t always have a happy ending – just this moment of this character’s life does.  It takes some serious confidence as a filmmaker to do this, and Mr. Crowe, we are happy that you did…..

** Elton John’s song Tiny Dancer is set to a sort of crossroads moment of the film and is perceived by many as one of the best uses of a song in a movie ever.