Saturday, December 28, 2013
Movies 2013: A View From a Tiny Corner
The first "Top 10 Movies" list I ever wrote was for my high school newspaper, with Peter Weir's Witness heading the class of 1985. Probably I was asked to write a Ten-Best because I had seen more new releases than anybody in my school -- all of eight. Three decades later and things haven't changed: I saw 17 new releases in 2013, a sizable number among my archival/library circles but a pittance compared to my film-critic and -scholar friends. (I did catch an additional 30 or so restored classics and other films at the Indiana University Cinema.) Sometimes I wonder if seeing 200 movies a year would broaden my horizons or dull my senses. Would I think less of the current David O. Russell, or more of the latest Terry Malick? Would I get down with this thing called "formalism"? Would I be a contrarian, or a counter-contrarian? Would I put on my Word Police badge every time I see "overrated" used in a sentence, while deeming "underrated" acceptable parlance? Would I feel compelled to call out chest-thumping colleagues on specious claims, like the guy who wrote the thing where he said hmm-hah about the hullabaloo? Would I be an unabashed auteurist, even a vulgar one?
Whatever, the point is that less than twenty movies isn't a broad enough sample to authoritatively draw a best-of-ten. What I will do, instead, is offer a run-down, in order, of all the movies I saw this year, from my favorites to the middling to the barrel's bottom.
1) (tie) The Wolf of Wall Street and Before Midnight. A pair of films that make an irresistible study in contrasts. Wolf is Martin Scorsese's big, sprawling, messy and messed-up American epic that tells a familiar story of corruption from a seemingly infinite number of angles. It's like a compendium of "Tall Tales of Wall Street," with one whopper after another from the vantage point of a despicable heel (a wild career-high Leonardo DiCaprio) who groomed a rogues gallery of scoundrels only to sell them out to save his own skin. Scorsese deftly weaves in and out of Belfort's perspective as he did Henry Hill in Goodfellas and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver: one of my favorite moments is a tear-jerking farewell speech where a female colleague movingly recounts the time Belfort generously offered a single mother like her a job; later, we see her handcuffed, yelling at the Feds not to wrinkle her expensive suit. A Christmas Day Molotov-cocktail from a 71-year-old director some of us feared was going soft, Wolf is the year's most galvanizing experience. At the other end of the spectrum, Richard Linklater's Before Midnight is a case of self-contained perfection, yet it's far from modest or unambitious. The third film in the series (or fourth, counting a scene from Linklater's Waking Life), Midnight opens up the hermetically-sealed relationship between Jesse and Celine, occupying them with children and offering a glimpse of their past, present, and possible future with three other couples at a dinner table. If "Time is a lie," as Jesse claimed at the start of the last film, Before Sunset, time catches up with a vengeance here: the issues now, as the characters enter their 40s, being the confines of space and unreliability of perception. The emotionally epic climactic argument is a major risk with a beautiful payoff -- a final line worthy of Billy Wilder.
3) Inside Llewyn Davis. With The Big Lebowski, O' Brother Where Art Thou? and other films, Joel and Ethan Coen have already permeated our culture in numerous unexpected ways. Now add 1961 New York City to their inexhaustibly rich tours of America at distinctive times and places. Here the Coens depart from riffs on film noir and screwball comedy and enter Hal Ashby territory with this lovely folk tale that unfolds with a memorable ballad's haunting refrains and subtle variations.
4) American Hustle. Yet another textbook case of a movie praised by mainstream reviews that gets a beat-down by the second wave (many of whom, I can't help but notice, are Film Studies students and scholars). The movie, we've been informed from some quarters, is a "con" and a "phoney" (sic), proving some critics really know how to stretch their metaphors away from a film's subject matter. For me, American Hustle is another grand entertainment in David O. Russell's growing body of work (or "oeuvre," if you prefer), filled with high spirits, terrific high-wire performances (the best being Amy Adams' quick-thinking chiseler), and the director's recurring obsessions: screwball farce, familial dysfunction, the role of women as power-brokers, the tension between peaceful objectives and violent impulses.
5) Upstream Color. Shane Carruth's latest mind-blower manages to be both narratively inscrutable yet emotionally direct. I don't know if I've ever been more deeply moved by a film I scarcely understood.
I think I initially overrated 6) 12 Years a Slave and 7) Gravity. While both are still good films, in hindsight the former is a little too locked into its own claustrophobic, contraption-like design in depicting a part of history which -- the specificity of its story notwithstanding -- demands a bit more of a broader perspective; while the latter opens up visually to so much impressive vastness it leaves its brains behind. 8) All is Lost, Robert Redford's solo lost-at-sea experiment, is his Gran Torino: an acting challenge, a summation of his career, and a benediction. The movie could have been named after his character's beloved boat: Virginia Jean. 9) Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach's blithe charmer, is the best vehicle yet for Greta Gerwig's beguiling awkwardness (far more effective than the dead air that entrapped her in Whit Stillman's "Damsels in Distress"). 10) Sundance favorite Escape from Tomorrow has received some predictable backlash as well. I found its satire about the hell of perpetual happiness a piquant mix of rough and serrated edges.
Disappointments: 14) Side Effects plays like the result of a bet from someone who claimed Steven Soderbergh could make a thriller in his sleep, and the director set out to prove him right. 15) Prince Avalanche is a two-character play set in Malickian Wood. Despite fine work from Paul Rudd as a wounded man trying to maintain his dignity, the film wends through some familiar buddy-movie paces amid thick, heavy-handed symbolism. As a fan of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, I'm afraid I found the beloved 16) The World's End to be a crushing bore. Edgar Wright's love of pop-culture would be more infectious if I got the sense he had other interests outside of it. And last and definitely least: 17) Terrence Malick's To the Wonder. One man's spiritually transcendent experience is another's load of woozy metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. I say that reluctantly, considering some of the nastiest comments I've ever received have come from the Malick Faithful, imbued with the love his films offer them. (A modern-day St. Paul was ranting on Twitter that all the director's critics could talk about was all the twirling in the movie...Dude, Malick brought it up!) It doesn't matter that I picked The Tree of Life my favorite film of 2011? Count me then a happy apostate.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
Not Leaving, Just Moving
first: Room 237), which will enable me to keep a more regular log of what I've seen. Please stop by if you're interested, and as always feel free to comment if you agree or disagree.
Sunday, April 28, 2013
Our Everything: Ebertfest 2013
There was no shipwreck, and the audience came willingly, to the Isle of Champaign-Urbana, IL, for a celebration with the master of ceremonies conspicuously absent. Yet I'm sure I wasn't the only one who thought of Shakespeare's Tempest, and not just because of the impact of the weather. We weren't going anywhere for a few days - the 24-plus-hour rainstorm actually kept some folks away, or delayed their arrival - but the 15th annual Ebertfest carried more than a tinge of Prospero's benediction as Roger's posthumous farewell.
I have no idea if Roger in his final months, weeks or days knew his time was short. Nevertheless, his selections for this year's festival suggest that the end of things was very much on his mind. (Even the funniest film was about a mortician.) His wife, Chaz Ebert, who once again emceed wonderfully, led off by asking us, at Roger's request, to stand and sing a version of "Those Were the Days, My Friend," with lyrics slightly altered by Ebert himself while he was in the hospital, shortly before his death. The melancholy vibe persisted through the opening films: Grace Wang's short I Remember, about a young woman who finds a note from her ex in her shirt pocket (afterward, Chaz said that she had just opened her eyeglasses case and discovered an old note from Roger); and Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, a film imbued with a sense of faded memory. The appearance of cinematographer Haskell Wexler, to whom this year's Ebertfest was dedicated (and who supplied "additional photography" to Days), livened things up somewhat. A spry 91-years-old, Wexler still moves with the gait of a gazelle and remains as pugnacious as ever. At a panel discussion the following morning about breaking into filmmaking, after hearing a young director mention that he lost 50 pounds during the making of his first movie, Wexler replied to the audience, "Don't confuse having a career with having a life."
Thursday's screenings kicked off with another short, Sophie Kohn and Feike Santbergen's To Music, which had thematic similarities before the early-afternoon main attraction: Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh. To Music included a supporting role by Paul Cox, who directed Vincent. I wish I liked the Van Gogh movie more. A documentary of sorts, Cox's film features non-stop voiceover from John Hurt, reading Vincent Van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo. I knew we were in for it when, after ten minutes of hearing Hurt's narration set to images of the artist's paintings, along with at-times unintentionally hilarious subjective camerawork (a few scenes reminded me of Sam Raimi's original Evil Dead movies), I realized, with mounting horror, that the entire movie was going to be like this, and that there was more than an hour-and-a-half to go. I didn't hate Vincent like I did My Dog Tulip, the hideous animated film (with voice-work by Christopher Plummer) from the 2011 Ebertfest. (In a tweet that got me blackballed by the @Ebertfest twitterfeed two years ago - this year I got reinstated, on apparent probation - I quoted the Tulip director's professed belief that "Dogs are nothing more than piss and shit, and I wanted to make a movie that reflected this," with my own added sentiment, "Mission accomplished.") But Cox's movie wore me out so much that I unwisely skipped the next film, Patrick Wang's three-hour domestic drama In the Family, hands-down the audience favorite of the festival. I have vowed to catch up with it the first chance I get.
The day concluded, amid a torrent of rain, with Richard Linklater's Bernie, starring Jack Black in the true-story-based black comedy about a mortician's hairpin-turning friendship with a wealthy, mean-spirited widow (played by Shirley MacLaine) in Carthage, Texas. I called Bernie a little overrated in my 2012 wrap-up, but now I think I underrated the movie. It's another terrific addition to Linklater's unpredictable body of work, one that deftly weaves farce with pathos, real documentary with the fake kind, and even becomes something of a musical, drawing an analogy between Bernie's spell over the citizens of Carthage with the con-artistry of Henry Higgins in The Music Man. The festival audience, however, had a curious reaction to Jack Black, laughing uproariously during the opening scene where Bernie instructs a group of students how to prepare a corpse, as if the actor were indulging in wacky shtick. It's a serious performance, by far Black's best.
On Friday the rain turned to sleet and a few flurries, and the tenor of the films went from grim to grimmer. Oslo, August 31st was a patently cheery Scandinavian import about the harrowing day in the life of a drug addict. The movie was well-made, especially the sound design in a scene where Anders, the main character (played by Anders Danielsen Lie)l, quietly overhears various conversations in a coffee shop, and I admired the film's refusal to set up the surrounding characters as easy bad guys (or gals) to blame for the protagonist's troubles. During a confrontation between Anders and a man who slept with his ex-girlfriend, I thought, "If they have a fistfight, then this is a bad movie." They didn't. It's a good movie. But not one I particularly enjoyed or ever want to see again. Nor am I eager to revisit The Ballad of Narayama, a 1958 Japanese film in what David Bordwell described as the "Dumping Granny" genre, based on a legend where old people, upon turning the age of 70 (Ebert's age when he passed away), are taken up to the ancient equivalent of a retirement community - a cold, lonely, skeleton-littered mountain, where they stay to die. Purposefully artificial, Narayama has the look and feel of a Kabuki play, with transitions so astounding that at one point, when a painted backdrop was suddenly pulled down like a clothesline to reveal a new setting, my friend Andy Hunsucker, who was sitting with me, and I simultaneously gasped. It's a striking film, but as John Simon would say, it bummed me out, man. I passed on Julia, starring Tilda Swinton, and called it a day.
Yet Tilda, as it turned out, didn't pass on us. On Saturday the sun came out, and the mood brightened. That morning's panel on video essays, deftly moderated by Omer Mozaffar and featuring a few familiar names and faces - David Bordwell, Steven Boone, Sheila O'Malley, Matt Zoller Seitz, and Kevin B. Lee - was the best panel I've attended in the three years I've been to Ebertfest, and not just because David Poland wasn't around to start arguments with everyone. All of the aforementioned have done great work pioneering this still new form of film criticism, and I look forward to seeing what they do next. (It was nice to finally meet Sheila, a wonderful writer and critic - nobody writes better about actors - and supporter of one of my first film pieces on Matt's former website. Another highlight occurred when the esteemed scholar Bordwell, whom I met last year, introduced me to Omer as a "film freak." There is no higher compliment.)
Four movies were on the docket for the day, and I caught three of them. Blancanieves, a modern silent film and update of the Snow White myth, directed with deep affection by Pablo Berger, is, much more than The Artist, a true attempt to recreate the style of silent-era cinema while also gently undermining our expectations. Escape from Tomorrow, my favorite movie of the festival, is the Sundance-buzzed Disney World satire, filmed surreptitiously at the theme park and almost certainly doomed to a non-release. Directed by Randy Moore, who captured what I admired about the film at the post-Q&A ("I knew I didn't want to make another 'found-footage' movie" - amen, brother: several of your film's startling images are still lodged in my brain), Escape follows the beleaguered patriarch of a family down a jauntily sinister rabbit hole into a surrealist take on the consequences behind the American obsession of being happy all the time. The complaint from Sundance was the film's length, but the Ebertfest version - trimmed from 104 minutes down to 90 - felt just right to me. (If and when Escape from Tomorrow goes wide, the Cahiers-wannabees on Twitter will inevitably torpedo the film in response to its hype. I'm glad I got to see it before they ruined it.)
My final screening, The Spectacular Now (not the last movie of the Festival - noon Sunday's Not Yet Begun to Fight), almost made me bolt in its opening five minutes, one of those grating prologues from teen movies where a wisecracking protagonist (here played by Miles Teller) narrates an implausible college-application essay. Then I realized the movie was subverting the stock implausible college-application essay scene, as it proceeded to do so with one John Hughes-type cliche after another: the popular-kid meeting a bookish girl (Shailene Woodley from The Descendants), who's beautiful but nobody knows it; the pop-kid using the book-girl to help with his studies, then slowly falling for her; and so on. By the time we meet the hero's ne'er-do-well father (well-played, in an unexpected bit of casting, by Kyle Chandler), The Spectacular Now reveals itself to be a parable about alcoholism. Like Flight, only with a prom instead of a plane crash. I didn't love the movie - writer-director James Ponsoldt is better with actors than with staging (the party scenes show a bunch of actors standing around, rather than a bunch of characters standing around, if you understand my meaning). But the actors are enough. It's a good movie, one that tied into Ebert's customary response toward films about alcohol addiction (which dogged him early in his life), yet one that ended the festival on a note of hope.
I haven't forgotten Tilda. After the video-essay panel, Sheila told me that Tilda Swinton had been there, sitting quietly the entire time. Then, immediately following Blancanieves, I ran into her in the coffee area of the Virginia Theater, shook her hand and told her I admired her work. "Thank you, "she said brusquely, and started to bolt. Then, she seemed to realize I didn't want anything (I never ask for autographs or photographs), and she turned and said, more sincerely, "Thank you very much."
But the highlight of Ebertfest occurred right before Blancanieves, when Tilda led the audience in a spirited dance-along to Barry White's "The First, the Last, My Everything." I don't know if she or Chaz or someone else planned it this way, but the moment was so joyous, following a few days of dreary weather and the unfolding Boston Marathon insanity and Roger's recent death, it felt like a firm push-back against the darkness of the week. (I have to note how superbly directed and edited that video of the dance is. I love the pan down from the balcony to Tilda's bobbing blonde head at around the 3:50 mark.) It's hard to envision what the future of Ebertfest will be, other than Chaz gave every indication that it's planned to continue. "It's strange without Roger around," Matt said to me at one point in the lobby. I agreed but added that, in a way, his spirit felt more pervasive than ever. At the conclusion of The Tempest, Prospero's calls on the audience's applause to set him free. Ebertfest achieves the opposite task - by bringing all of us together, we bring back what Roger means to us still. A man whose charms will never be "all o'erthrown." Whose strength was always, fully his own.
Sunday, April 14, 2013
Paris, Oklahoma (To the Wonder)
For a man accused of having his head in the clouds, Terrence Malick has maintained an earthbound understanding of how human beings think and behave. I didn't hammer The Tree of Life for its creation-epic extravaganza the way some did, because I thought the sequence worked in the context of Malick's aims. But I sympathized with the sense from the film's detractors that it threatened to overshadow the vividly-realized heart of the story -- a boy's life in 1950s small-town Texas.
With considerable help from his actors, Malick penetrated deeply into adolescent Jack's growing infatuation with his mother, a love borne of conflicting platonic ideals and carnal desires. (Those who insist it's only the former need to revisit the scenes where Jack becomes acutely aware of her physicality, leading to his sexual panic upon stealing a neighbor woman's dress.) Hunter McCracken's intuitive acting (undoubtedly guided by his director) kept young Jack's emotions achingly on the surface in every scene (as the older Jack, Sean Penn floundered a bit), while Jessica Chastain managed the near-impossible by suggesting that a real person existed beneath her son's idolatry. Best of all was Brad Pitt, whose physical performance, Tom Carson observed, came through "in his duck-to-water understanding that acting in a Terrence Malick movie is all about conveying personality via demeanor, not Malick's evanescent dialogue." For all the awardage bestowed on actors who play historical figures and the physically challenged, there is nothing more difficult for a movie star than portraying an ordinary human being. I mean it as the highest compliment to Pitt that when I watched his festering resentment toward his wealthy neighbors, or his memorable explosion at the dinner table (climaxed by grabbing a corner and moving the entire table closer to him), or the way he put a meaty paw on his son's shoulder in an awkward display of affection, I thought: I know this man.
Everything in The Tree of Life - even the cryptic parts - felt lived-in and real, so it's a bummer to report that Malick's surprisingly quick follow-up, To the Wonder, is a ludicrous, aimless dud. It's the kind of folly I can't hate, though: I can respect a director trying new things (or tweaking old things), even though almost none of them work. The Tree of Life's psychological nuance has transformed into this film's opaqueness, Brad Pitt's sturdiness replaced by Ben Affleck's puzzlement. As far as I can gather from the five shots of his face and three lines of dialogue, Affleck is supposed to be playing a studly ladies-man, a character which, Lord knows, should be right down his wheelhouse. Yet not since his J-Lo heyday has Affleck looked anything less than a hostage with an eye cast furtively toward the exits. His character - whose name is "Neil," we learn from the closing credits, but let's call him "Ben," it's as good a name as any - threatens to spring to life during a resplendent middle section where he canoodles with a local rancher played by Rachel McAdams. She isn't given much to do either, but McAdams has always been an actress with a flair for interacting. She often brings out the best in her co-stars, no easy feat here amid scenes among patented Malickian distractions like buffalo herds and wheat-fields. (As always, Malick's camera functions like the dog in Up whose own attention is diverted constantly by squirrels.) Her blonde hair glistening in the sun, his broad back in handsome repose, Rachel and Ben cook up a pleasing rapport.
As Richard Brody reminds us, however, this is not a film for "viewers with expectations, or rather, prejudices for what constitutes a movie," a more eloquent way of saying that for Malick a stock cinematic element like chemistry simply won't do. Rachel gets jettisoned in order to herald the return of Ben's original love, whom we meet at the beginning of To the Wonder, a Gallic Pixie Dream Girl* played by Olga Kurylenko, who becomes the most tiresome character in recent movies. She's the type of flighty free-spirit Jack Donaghy warned against on 30 Rock ("Never follow a hippie to a second location"), with a lust for life so monomaniacally insistent it's easy to understand why Ben might harbor misgivings. Yet Malick lavishes attention on her in a manner uncomfortably reminiscent of Matthew Weiner's propping up of Jessica Pare's limited charms on Mad Men. Along the margins of the onscreen abstraction in To the Wonder is the whiff of a familiar offscreen subtext: a male authority figure playing Charles Foster Kane to an ingenue's Suzan Alexander. (At least Kane offered Suzan an actual opera. Malick gives Kurylenko nothing to work with. She cavorts like a band-camp refugee who lost her baton.)
In Paris, Texas, Wim Wenders, no doubt drawing from personal experience, depicted the clash and collusion of Euro-American culture in oddly resonant ways: Aurore Clement and Bernhard Wicki looked appropriately out of place (and Nastassja Kinski, in a stunning example of counter-intuitive casting, remarkably in place) in a movie about the dislocation of Americans in their own homeland. Malick's real-world experience, undoubtedly enhanced by his shunning of Hollywood lifestyle, somehow fails to register in To the Wonder. His Gay Paree in the early passages possesses neither an insider's knowledge nor a foreigner's wonderment. While it's refreshing to see an avoidance of the usual landmarks, the dazzling architecture on display in The Tree of Life's contemporary Austin is sadly missing in Malick's Paris, with its drab concrete statues and amusement parks.
Where Malick fares surprisingly little better is in what should be his natural habitat - rural Oklahoma, where Ben takes soil samples (or something) as part of his job, Olga plays hopscotch, and Javier Bardem's despondent priest (the third main sort-of character) half-heartedly visits the poor and the imprisoned and questions his faith. (Whereas Tree of Life features a memorable scene where young Jack silently encounters black people for the first time, To the Wonder shows Malick taking a stab at creating an actual African-American character - the jarring stereotype he comes up with making you long for his previous respectful distance.) Oh, how Javier questions. Only his character isn't interesting and the questions aren't compelling. This is unfortunately true of the whole film. Besides McAdams, the only person who makes an impression is Tatiana Chiline as Kurylenko's daughter, whose dislocation in the Heartland is nicely rendered. Chiline holds the screen as naturally as Linda Manz in Days of Heaven. And then Malick shoos her out of the movie, too. All that's left in To the Wonder is a God-sized hole.
(*Because "Malick Pixie Dream Girl" was already taken.)
Friday, April 5, 2013
Roger & Remembrance
It was a nebulous joke I'd tried out before, unsuccessfully, with professional Darwinists possessing a more evolved sense of humor. For Roger, though, who decades ago cut his teeth as a sportswriter before finding his true calling, my appropriation of a famous Yogi Berra-ism hit the sweet spot. He retweeted it. Then he started rummaging through my blog, linking first to a review I wrote on a new oral biography about Robert Altman (a filmmaker he championed dating way back to M*A*S*H), then to a silly-fun March Madness-related "tournament" I put together that pitted Altman's movies against each other. Getting his attention, garnering his praise was a thrill: as a blogger, on the very rare days when your Sitemeter hits skyrocketed, you knew Ebert had everything to do with it. But as I sit here typing these sentences, reflecting on Roger's life and death, what makes me happiest is the thought that, on at least one occasion, I told a dumb joke that made him laugh.
Needless to say, over the last few years, whenever Roger "laughed" it was internalized, like all his other thoughts and feelings. Yet partly because of his well-known persona and partly because, after losing his voice, he came to express himself on the page, and in the virtual world, more vividly than ever, there was never doubt what he thought and felt about anything. While this was an essential and enviable asset for Roger during his life, it presents a conundrum, in the wake of his death, if you were to ask me if I knew the man. "I hate those 'In Memoriam' pieces in which the writers overstate their closeness to the deceased," Jim Emerson writes in his tribute. So do I. That's why yesterday, I half-regretted posting on Facebook and Twitter, "Hero, mentor, friend, inspiration," knowing that the middle two of those descriptive terms are shaky at best. With Roger, I suspect that's similar for many of us. I could say, "Yes, I knew him," or "No, I didn't," and both answers would be true.
I knew Roger the longest, of course, on the printed page and on the TV screen. Most certainly I caught him and Siskel first on the tube in the late 1970s or early 1980s, before seeking out their written criticism. They were together as they were (I would later learn) separate: clever, funny, passionate, stimulating. I quickly became obsessed, following their show as it jumped from public broadcasting to national syndication enjoying it with my parents when it usually aired on Saturday afternoons. (Once, the indignant eleven-or-twelve year old that I was at the time, outraged that an overlong sporting event had preempted my regular viewing schedule, called the local Phoenix station and shouted, "What the hell are you taking Siskel and Ebert off for?!" and slammed down the phone.) When At the Movies - or whatever it was called by then - became a Disney production, cynics predicted that the show would become a shill for the Mouse. (An editorial cartoon depicted Gene and Roger wearing Mickey ears.) Yet in what would become a recurring pattern for Ebert over the course of his life and career, his partnership with Siskel kept evolving without changing the essence of what made it special.
On one of their many lively talk show appearances during that era, Gene paused in between trading playful barbs to confess that what he envied most about Roger was his writing ability. Gene was right: Ebert was better. And whether he was reviewing Cries and Whispers for the Sun-Times or jousting with cinephiles on CompuServe, the agility of his prose was the same. Many writers have linked Roger's loss of his voice with his use of the Internet, probably because Roger made the connection many times himself. But he had created his own virtual forum at least as early as 1995 or 1996, a pioneer in online criticism and communication. I joined CompuServe briefly around then. Sparring directly with Ebert was fun. With the proto-trolls who prowled the forum spouting venom and lunacy, not so much. After a few months I wrote Roger an email, politely telling him that I was leaving. Unexpectedly he replied: "I'll miss you!" He added that there was "a lot of silliness" online, but that he also found enough value in the virtual realm to stick around.
Stick around Roger did, putting a face to the maxim, "Life is a series of narrow escapes." In what became an intermittent 19-year correspondence, I wrote occasional questions (or assertions) to his Movie Answer Man column (one was a snarky jibe about Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic), and he would occasionally reply, either directly or in published form. (To my delight, a couple of them were compiled in the appendices of his annual Movie Handbook.) More recently, when Roger took to social media - most of our communiques the examples mentioned above - he became a regular presence I cherished. It wasn't because I always agreed with what he thought about movies. As always, he was overly generous with his four-star ratings; although, also as always, he could be surprisingly tough on a critically revered film (see Blue Velvet, The Usual Suspects, The Godfather: Part II, Raising Arizona, or last year's penetrating analysis of The Master). Nuances like these invariably escaped the notice of Ebert's own critics. I unfollowed one last year on Twitter after he made sport of Roger's review of The Tree of Life. (This very same individual sang Ebert's praises only yesterday, which suggests that either he was previously unaware of Roger's health struggles or he forgot what he initially wrote.) In the last few years of his life I came to feel that Roger, ironically, was above criticism. Which is not to say that he was faultless. It just means that criticism of the man became irrelevant.
I tried not to bother Roger during his lifetime. Part of me wishes I'd bothered him more, that I'd had the closeness with him that others had. Still, I know I'm lucky to have had the interaction I did. (I met him in person once, at the 2011 Ebertfest. I can still feel his vise-like grip as we shook hands.) I now have colleagues who knew Roger as well: Dave Frasier, a friend and biographer of Russ Meyer; and Jon Vickers, now director of the IU Cinema, whose Vickers Theatre in Michigan is mentioned admiringly in Roger's memoirs. When people ask, "What is Roger Ebert's legacy?" the answer is: We are. All the connections that he forged, in the real world and the virtual one. He was guiding us to each other all along. Leading us to what first brought him and Gene together. To shared enthusiasms. And, in turn, back to ourselves.
I'm not sure if Roger ever put together that the guy who frequented his internet forum and wrote innumerable Answer Man contributions and blogged about Altman and cracked a joke about creationism and gave him an IU Cinema hat and shook his hand were all the same person. But in a way it's fitting, since every time we connected he, while always the same person, was also in important ways (sportswriter, film critic, Russ Meyer acolyte, screenwriter, Paulette, recovering alcoholic, Pulitzer Prize winner, TV personality, husband, family man, cancer survivor, social media aficionado, internet pioneer), a very different man from who he was before.
My last exchange with Roger - maybe a year ago, maybe longer - concerned a direct message I sent him on Twitter, trying to explain that all the Craig Simpsons of the past and present were me. "You probably don't remember, but I was on your CompuServe forum," I told him.
He wrote back immediately: "Many moons ago. :)"
Sunday, March 17, 2013
For the first time ever, my blog pal Dennis Cozzalio has cooked up a movie quiz that I can answer (for the most part), meaning either my cinematic knowledge is improving or he's kindly taken something off his curveball - the latter, more likely. In either case, here are his questions followed by my responses:
1) The classic movie moment everyone loves except me is: "Show Me the Money!" from Jerry Maguire. It always makes me cringe. I usually take the opposite stance on this issue, however: I'm frequently surprised by the number of people who pooh-pooh the most memorable scenes from movies or TV shows. I always want to ask how they think the film or episode would play without them.
2) Favorite line of dialogue from a film noir: "You were born to be murdered." - Trevor Howard to Joseph Cotten in The Third Man. It's a line that perfectly encapsulates the entire genre (even though, of course, he isn't killed).
3) Second favorite Hal Ashby film: The Last Detail.
4) Describe the moment when you first realized movies were directed as opposed to simply pieced together anonymously. * Around the time I started watching Siskel & Ebert, 10-11 years old. Spielberg was likely the first director I was conscious of - so Raiders or E.T., I would guess.
5) Favorite film book. Mark Harris's phenomenal Pictures at a Revolution.
6) Diana Sands or Vonetta McGee? Who?
7) Most egregious gap in your viewing of films made in the past 10 years. I've avoided Harmony Korine like the plague so far, but Spring Breakers may finally change that.
8) Favorite line of dialogue from a comedy. "You slut." - Bill Murray, Tootsie.
9) Second favorite Lloyd Bacon film. Who?
10) Richard Burton or Roger Livesey? Burton easily over Whatshisface.
11) Is there a movie you staunchly refuse to consider seeing? If so, why? Anything by Vincent Gallo. Others will undoubtedly tell me I'm missing out. I say there's more than enough narcissistic bullshit in real life, and much more adeptly staged and focused.
12) Favorite filmmaker collaboration. Kurosawa and Mifune.
13) Most recently viewed movie on DVD/Blu-ray/theatrical? DVD: Lockout. Blu-Ray: Paris, Texas. Theatrical: Thief of Bagdad (the one with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr).
14) Favorite line of dialogue from a horror movie: "Take me!" - Father Karras's ultimate sacrifice in The Exorcist.
15) Second favorite Oliver Stone film: W., believe it or not. I think it's a brilliant black comedy.
16) Eva Mendes or Raquel Welch? The "sexy duds" category. I'll pick Raquel.
17) Favorite religious satire: Life of Brian by default. Slim pickings.
18) Best Internet movie argument? (question contributed by Tom Block) Matthias Stork's "Chaos Cinema." He went on to confuse his own ideas the more he tried to explain them (and became needlessly apologetic to his straw-man critics), but his original video essay is still a game-changer.
19) Most pointless Internet movie argument? (question contributed by Tom Block) Anything concocted by the Neo-Auteurists, such as insisting the reliably shitty Paul W.S. Anderson is a major filmmaker or, worse, a better filmmaker than Paul Thomas Anderson. (hat-tip Steven Santos)
20) Charles McGraw or Robert Ryan? I don't need to know who McGraw is to say Ryan.
21) Favorite line of dialogue from a western: "Trust you? Why should I trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? You don't even trust your own pants." - Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West (although the line was partly co-opted from Ace in the Hole).
22) Second favorite Roy Del Ruth film: Dunno.
23) Relatively unknown film or filmmaker you’d most eagerly proselytize for: I've already proselytized for The Big Year, an uncommonly gentle comedy that finds truth and beauty in conventionality.
24) Ewan McGregor or Gerard Butler? McGregor, a good actor, in a walk.
25) Is there such a thing as a perfect movie? Not often, but yes. I do grow weary of critics proclaiming every movie they see from their favorite director as a masterpiece. After a while the word starts losing its meaning.
26) Favorite movie location you’ve most recently had the occasion to actually visit * The Hotel Coronado in San Diego, the setting for the second half of Some Like It Hot.
27) Second favorite Delmer Daves film: ?
28) Name the one DVD commentary you wish you could hear that, for whatever reason, doesn't actually exist * The riotous James Ellroy and Eddie Muller (Crime Wave) should do commentaries for every classic film noir ever made.
29) Gloria Grahame or Marie Windsor? GG.
30) Name a filmmaker who never really lived up to the potential suggested by their early acclaim or success: Kevin Smith, who decided a long time ago he'd rather be a slacker poseur than build on the success of Clerks and the creative promise of Chasing Amy.
31) Is there a movie-based disagreement serious enough that it might cause you to reevaluate the basis of a romantic relationship or a friendship? * Both Jason Bellamy and I have recounted my anecdote about Last of the Mohicans.
Sunday, March 10, 2013
House Arrests (This Is Not a Film and Killer Joe)
Over the last few weeks have come two articles of note - Complex Pop Culture's "25 Best Movie Critics of All Time," followed by Cineaste Magazine's profile of a handful of the 35-and-youngers, "Film Criticism: The Next Generation." For all the usual fallacies associated with list-making (Dana Stevens on, Kent Jones off - riiiiiight), the former is a surprisingly decent overview, if typically Americentric and short-term-memoried. The latter is a commendable attempt to advance the notion that the future of movie criticism is bright, a thesis disputed by at least a couple of the "best." For our purposes here, I'm less interested in what the established Eeyores think about the whippersnappers than in what it would take for an up-and-comer to make his or her way into the canon.
To paint in broad strokes, I think that many twentysomething critics are gifted with strong voices without having a whole lot to say. Oftentimes, on sites that employ them, they blend together as the same voice, bereft of any individual distinctions; their prose isn't instantly recognizable the way Fernando Croce's is, for example. Far from tentative, their biggest flaw is supreme confidence masking insecurity: They come across like grad students straining to come up with an "original" point-of-view on topics that have been thoroughly excavated. Consequently, I find hard to take seriously any "bold" statement they make. (That every movie is regarded as either a towering masterpiece or a crime against humanity doesn't help.) You really think O.C. and Stiggs is better than Nashville? Then show your readership something beyond a string of haughty declarative sentences. Show that you are searching and grappling with the film, with yourself, with the connection between the two. These are the qualities that have made many of the greatest critics: look at the Top-25 list again.
What I love about this sequence is not merely not knowing whether it's spontaneous or staged or both, but that Panahi shows it doesn't matter. While other documentary filmmakers - from Errol Morris to Alex Gibney to Michael Moore to Werner Herzog - may at times questionably mix fact with fiction, Panahi makes the creative impulse This Is Not a Film's true subject. By finally finding a compelling "character" (other than himself), even introducing him via what is essentially a Meet-Cute, does the director become briefly yet exhilaratingly free.
A thoroughly disreputable film that made me laugh a lot (Kael may have laughed, too: What she wrote about Repo Man - "Sometimes a movie without any redeeming social value can make you feel good" - applies equally here), Killer Joe shows perverse affection toward its venal Texas lowlifes: they're alive in a way the zombies of Soderbergh's Bubble or the woebegones of Kelly Reichardt's movies are not. (How else could Emile Hirsch give his most vivid and weirdly likeable performance ever?) It's also more deeply entrenched in classic noir than other movies that make no more than feints and nods toward the genre. The title character's murderous predilections are in tandem with kinky sexual fetishes from which neither Friedkin nor Letts nor Matthew McConaughey (another of his recent career-redefining performances) shy away. Meticulous in planning the details of a homicide (in this case the mother/wife of, respectively, Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church), yet impulsive in his lust (in this case their jailbait sister/daughter, who becomes his "retainer" for the killing), Joe is a control freak who loses control of the situation only to take extreme measures to gain it back. His cool desperation culminates in a dinner-table set-piece that's like the demented mirror-image of the breakfast-table climax in Moonstruck. Killer Joe turns into a bloody comedy-of-marriage - imagine the climax of Much Ado About Nothing crossed with Julius Caesar - a revelation perhaps obscured by the appearance of a chicken drumstick. This key prop, and what it is used for, has become understandably controversial. Yet it's like Chekhov said: If you introduce a drumstick by the third act, sooner or later it's gotta go off.
Saturday, February 23, 2013
The Most Exceptionally Groovy Oscars Podcast Playlist
video playlist, so if you're dying to know what I think about, say, costume design, now's your chance to go directly to the source.
Sunday, February 17, 2013
Contenders (Life of Pi, Lincoln, Flight, Silver Linings Playbook, Skyfall, Beasts of the Southern Wild)
Also being woven into many reviews with seeming frequency are quotes from the filmmakers themselves, the underlying assumption being that arbitrary soundbites from random interviews by creative artists with vested interests (personal, political, commercial) should automatically be trusted. Jonathan Rosenbaum, for example, is correct that Kathryn Bigelow's "naive contention that (Zero Dark Thirty) 'doesn't have an agenda, and it doesn't judge' has only helped to confuse matters," but that confusion only exists by letting an external comment interfere with what's on screen in the first place.
That's my general rule for evaluating movies: the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the film itself. Unlike Argo, whose cliches grate as loudly as a stalled clutch at Tehran International Airport, Zero Dark Thirty lets nothing incongruous inside of its own reality. (Well, almost nothing: Mark Boal's script gives Jessica Chastain a couple of grandstanding moments, but at least they're entertaining grandstands.) Similarly, while I know little about Indian culture or alcoholism or what it takes to ratify an amendment (I did, however, once spend considerable time with a bipolar person, but I don't assume that qualifies me to a higher level of experience), I was absorbed by the worlds of the following films; in varying degrees, they made me believe.
Life of Pi. Ang Lee's beautiful, harrowing fable about a pair of mismatched shipwreck survivors - an Indian boy and a Bengal tiger - is the greatest boy-meets-animal story since Carroll Ballard's The Black Stallion, featuring 3-D used for maximum creative effect and CGI that looks shockingly substantial. I think some folks are taking too literally as a mission statement the claim by the adult Pi (played by Irrfan Khan, who tells the tale to an unnamed Canadian author) that his story "will make you believe in God." With the kind of tough-minded sentimentality often mistaken for exclusively treacly sentiment, Life of Pi undercuts the stereotype of Indian mystical wisdom for a more double-edged belief-by-necessity in order to survive both our ordeals and our memories.
Lincoln. The first Spielberg movie I've liked since the last time he filmed a script by Tony Kushner, Lincoln, like Munich, provides the director with intellectual rigor that meshes beautifully with his emotional clarity. Both qualities embody the personality of the main character himself, played with effortless authenticity by Daniel Day-Lewis, who transforms the abolition of slavery from an emotional appeal into a legal argument in order to get the 13th Amendment passed. Among its other achievements, Lincoln does something exceedingly difficult by depicting internal conflict among the key players on both sides of the issue, as when an admittedly racist Representative, whose brother died in the Civil War, votes no as expected, only to hold his head in moral anguish.
Silver Linings Playbook. A romcom in disguise, David O. Russell's latest comedy-of-rage is the weakest of all of his movies that I've liked (though better than I Heart Huckabees), but as with The Fighter I still enjoyed the dexterity with which Russell tries to conceal the film's narrative trappings. I have to laugh at the accusations that Russell "sold out," since nearly all his movies - nearly all nervy, unhinged attempts to reconcile his thuggish and pacifist instincts - feature happy or hopeful endings. Russell may be a thug, but there's nothing cynical about his art. Like Bradley Cooper's mentally fractured antihero, he believes.
Oh, yeah, I almost forgot....
Beasts of the Southern Wild. The hatred for this (knee-jerk charges of racism, etc.) has been as overblown as the praise. I liked my friend James Paasche's defense on our recent podcast that the film is one of very few child-related movies that doesn't condescend to its protagonist. My problem with the movie is visually it's amateur-hour, the year's biggest eyesore this side of The Hunger Games. An admirable debut, a decent effort. I just wished, while watching it, that I could actually see it.
Saturday, January 12, 2013
The Devil Inside (Zero Dark Thirty)
Shortly before Zero Dark Thirty came out, I flippantly remarked that I'd give the movie "bonus points if it spares us a Mission Control Applause scene." As you know, Mission Control Applause is nearly obligatory in dramatic thrillers depicting real-life, high-risk scenarios pulled off successfully while Ed Harris or Bryan Cranston barks orders at a team of men staring at computer screens with their shirt-sleeves rolled up and cigarette butts dropping to the floor. It's no surprise, at the end of Kathryn Bigelow's film, that the grand plan to kill Osama bin Laden succeeds; what is surprising is the absence of celebration. Instead of a hearty round of hand-clapping, Bigelow holds instead on the pensive expression of Maya (Jessica Chastain), the young, female intelligence operative who brought the ten-year pursuit of bin Laden to its end. Actually, her face is more than pensive. She looks haunted, as if the ghosts of 9/11 can never be fully excised.
Ghosts are haunting, indeed clouding the reception of the movie as well, namely the specter of Abu Ghraib that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal - to either their credit or detriment - revive. As everybody knows by now, Zero Dark Thirty contains scenes at a CIA "black site" where an American agent named Dan (played by Jason Clarke) strips, dog-collars, hot-boxes, and waterboards a captured al-Qaeda member named Ammar (played by Reda Kateb). Maya, who is introduced during these passages as a troubled yet complicit bystander, eventually learns from Ammar the name of a courier ("Ahmed from Kuwait") whom she comes to believe is in the employ of bin Laden. Some critics - an odd, unwieldy mix of admirers of the film (Owen Gleiberman, David Edelstein), politicos with insider info (Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, John McCain), and left-wing crusaders who either have or haven't seen the movie (Glenn Greenwald, Ed Asner, Martin Sheen), it isn't always clear - have traced the steps from the black site to bin Laden as evidence that Zero Dark Thirty is saying "torture works."
While it appears that Boal and Bigelow have, in raising this topic, opened a Pandora's Box more incendiary than their methods (or interview statements) can quite get a handle on, I think that their stance is more complicated than these connect-the-dots reviews suggest. This is evinced not only in what Glenn Kenny perceptively defines as Bigelow's "film grammar," which conveys sympathy for Ammar in the early scenes (as a suffering and degraded human being, even though the movie never lets us forget he is also a terrorist with ties to 9/11), but in the narrative itself. Mark Bowden (author of The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden, which I haven't read) is one of only a few discerning viewers who have pointed out that the initial torturing of Ammar does not, in fact, accomplish Dan's objective - the prevention of an attack in Saudi Arabia - and that the discovery of the courier is obtained through Maya's subsequent kinder, gentler act of subterfuge. Others, like Jeff Reichert at Reverse Shot, have referred to a later scene, where Maya's friend and colleague Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) shakes her head dismissively during a broadcast of newly elected President Obama's condemnation of the treatment of detainees, ostensibly in response to the man's naivete. Yet this overlooks what ultimately happens to Jessica, involving a lead in Afghanistan that turns deadly, and could be inferred as payback (direct or karmic) for the detainee program.
The controversy over Zero Dark Thirty has become convoluted to the point where smart and stupid things are being written by the same people in the same pieces. Bowden interrupts his otherwise sound reasoning with an silly anecdote that suggests we know Kathryn Bigelow isn't pro-torture because he heard she's a nice person. Conversely, Reichert makes amid some inaccurate interpretations the most valid criticism I've read about the movie: that Zero Dark Thirty's journalistic realism is, like all "reality-based" cinema and television, just another fictional construction. "When Olivier Assayas...mounted Carlos, a similarly scaled production dealing with global terrorism, his opening card noted the necessary fictionalization of events," Reichert notes. He goes on: "Bigelow and Boal stick to their personality-free 'just the facts' approach as obsessively as their heroine sticks to her dogged pursuit of bin Laden, but what happens to a film like Zero Dark Thirty when the filmmakers' facts are hotly disputed, especially by people who are in a far better position to know?"
What happens, unfortunately, is we're left with one of those movies shanghaied by the agenda-mongerers, a film whose veracity and artistry can't be viewed entirely clearly in the present day. This will likely mean a shutout at the Oscars (oh-deary-dear!), among other irksome side-effects. Yet while I can't speak for the movie's veracity, I do believe, once the dust settles, its artistry is going to hold up well over time.
As a longtime non-fan of the "reality approach" (jittery cameras, etc.), I have to give Bigelow her due as its reigning expert. Less obtrusively than Paul Greengrass, she has, in her two collaborations with Boal, developed a style that looks "journalistic" (read: objective) yet embeds within that style a subjective perspective toward the events it's documenting. This leads us back to the issue of film grammar, and the notion that whereas a picture used to be worth a thousand words, now, it seems, a word is worth a thousand pictures. Just as some viewers cannot discern Bigelow's position on torture via her visual language, both fans and foes of Zero Dark Thirty have been praising or condemning the movie entire for "not taking a stand" and "letting you draw your own conclusions." It's true that Bigelow doesn't overtly push an agenda, nor do she crowd us, as Pauline Kael once complained about Oliver Stone. Her approach is visceral, not intellectual. And I think, in purely visceral terms, she has a pretty clear viewpoint about what she's depicting.
Zero Dark Thirty, like David Fincher's Zodiac, is a procedural about an obsessive manhunt that shows the effects of the hunt on the obsessives. Some of this is explicit: Black-Site Dan, for example, tells Maya that he's returning to Washington for less stressful work (and, not incidentally, because he tips her off that oversight committees are forming, and "you don't want to be the one caught holding the leash"); there are also a telling couple of scenes where Dan enjoys playing with monkeys in a cage (one, to his delight, steals his ice-cream cone), then gets upset that they were killed out of concern that they'd escape. Yet much of what happens is implicit, not just the look on Maya's face as she watches hours of video of tortured prisoners, but the way Bigelow's camera glides by a computer monitor for a fleeting glimpse of a digital image of Maya and Jessica on the desktop. It's in the completely unremarked-upon international gallery of light- and dark-skinned players who help Maya link the elusive Ahmed to bin Laden, among them none other than Edgar Ramirez (Carlos the Jackal himself), as well as the expressive Lebanese actor Fares Fares. (I do wish American movies, even well-intentioned ones like Zero Dark Thirty, would give foreign actors like Fares more to do besides stare suggestively.) It's in the opening prologue, similar to a scene in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 in depicting the events of September 11 via audio on a black screen, except Bigelow and Boal focus on one phone call from a victim trapped in the Towers and a 911 responder - both women, which subconsciously prepares us for the female protagonist we are about to encounter.
Most powerfully, the clarity is there at the end, a stunning thirty-minute recreation of the raid on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. I'd be lying if I didn't admit looking forward to this sequence, to obtain some kind of visual "closure" in something we've all only heard or read about (most notably in Nicholas Smidle's superb August 2011 New Yorker account). Bigelow is uncannily good at casting familiar faces in small yet crucial parts (remember the doomed Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes in The Hurt Locker?), and among the Navy SEALS who led the assault are Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, and other actors capable of simultaneously embodying courage and lack of virtue. It's precisely this multifaceted approach that makes closure anticlimactic, unreachable. The details of the raid are vivid and unfussed-over (like the Belgian Malinois - similar to a German Shepherd - brought along, Smidle informs us, to sniff out false walls or hidden doors). Yet we miss nothing: a woman is killed; children wail; an extra bullet is put in each body unceremoniously. The killing of Osama bin Laden happens in the corner of the frame and is over in the blink of an eye.
If I were the type of critic who always feels the need to "balance" a positive review by pointing out a few flaws ("That thing in the corner, I don't like that thing"), I would mention that Boal's script includes a few cliches that clang (Maya telling off her superiors, etc.), and that Bigelow's staging of a long set-piece involving Jennifer Ehle could use a tad more imagination for leading to such a predictable outcome (ditto Alexandre Desplat's ominous "Middle Eastern" music). Boal is an odd talent, fumbling between occasionally overcooked zingers with lines of terrific precision and insight. (When told that Maya is smart, James Gandolfini's CIA Director deadpans, "We're all smart.") Yet he sidesteps many of the cliches Ben Affleck wades into in Argo: Maya's singlehood is brought up briefly and dropped quickly, without any couched family-values implications of disapproval.
Moreover, Boal has brought out the best in Bigelow. Their collaboration on The Hurt Locker, however impressive, has been eclipsed by their achievement here. As Tom Carson explicates, "the movie is about the moral, psychological, and even spiritual price we paid" to bring down bin Laden. It's there in the words, and most of all the images; and it's in the latter quality that the movie ultimately departs from David Fincher's aforementioned great film about the Zodiac killer. The main characters in that film see their lives destroyed by the case. With Dan, whom we see startlingly fresh-faced later in Zero Dark Thirty, and Maya, shedding tears at her mission's end, we can only imagine the damage that has been done to their souls. Yet a lingering shadow across their eyes - as well as the victorious SEALs, on the helicopter ride home, looking silently upon the corpse of the evildoer who so feverishly occupied the American imagination - is clearly, unambiguously there. It isn't hard to see why. In Zodiac, the monster is never found. In Zero Dark Thirty, the monster is killed at last. And it's a decrepit old man in a body bag.
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