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Heaven Is for Real

Faith-based film tries reaching past its audience, but falls back on preaching to its own choir way too much.

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Monsieur Hire

Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire" is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a…

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* This filmography is not intended to be a comprehensive list of this artist’s work. Instead it reflects the films this person has been involved with that have been reviewed on this site.

Elmore Leonard, 1925-2013: An Appreciation

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The first rule in Elmore Leonard's ten rules of writing is "Never open a book with the weather." It could never be a "dark and stormy night" in Leonard's universe. Instead, he opened his novels with nonchalant statements of character-driven fact. "Rum Punch" begins "Sunday morning, Ordell took Louis to watch the white-power demonstration in downtown Palm Beach." "The Hot Kid" informs us that "Carlos Webster was fifteen the day he witnessed the robbery and killing at Deering's drugstore." And "Glitz"'s opening line kicks off two and a half of Leonard's most readable pages with "The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming." Elmore Leonard got straight to the point. His characters were sometimes in love with their verbosity, but Leonard the narrator did not share this predilection. The omnipotent voice running through Dutch Leonard's work told you who said what, who did what, and the darkly comic repercussions of both. No writer wrung more color out of simply telling you what happened than Dutch Leonard. "Melanie was holding it in both hands now, arms extended, aimed at Gerald. "He tossed the shotgun to land on the sofa, looked up at Melanie and said 'Okay, now you put that down, honey, and I won't press charges against you.' Confident about it, as though it would settle the matter."Melanie didn't say anything. She shot him." –"Rum Punch"Leonard's characters were a multi-racial motley crew of cops, criminals, outlaws, lawyers, cowboys and sociopaths. They did not always follow the crime fiction novel's gender conventions. Strong, brutal women and weak, emotional men were not verboten. Leonard's characters were beholden to their own self-defined notions of ethics and morality. They were often much less clever than they thought; their flaws of nemesis underestimation became their undoing. Those who survived sometimes found themselves in other novels. Leonard never passed judgment as his characters flamed out in pitch black comic blazes both pathetic and glorious. To do so would violate his last and most important rule of writing: "Leave out the parts readers tend to skip." Much of the pleasure of reading Elmore Leonard was in the dialogue, which is why so many of his books became movies and TV series. Leonard followed his rule of "avoiding detailed descriptions of characters" by having his people talk to each other. He had an ear for the way conversations flowed, whether they were conducted on the street, in the precinct, or on the range. For a White guy, he certainly knew how to sound convincingly like the Black dudes who populated many of his novels. He captured the cadences of their speech, and did so without stereotype. His Brothers sounded like the guys I heard on the street in my old neighborhood; his cops sounded like cops I knew. Leonard embraced and elevated what they said, letting them ramble on whenever necessary. This love of casual chatter is probably what drew Tarantino to adapt "Rum Punch" as "Jackie Brown." It's certainly what made him pull entire chunks of Leonard's dialogue verbatim into the "Jackie Brown" script.The labyrinthine plots Leonard dragged his characters through were overly complicated yet always compelling. Even in something as spare and nasty as "52 Pick-Up," the first book of his I read, Leonard toyed with the expectations of where his stories took us. Even in the most convoluted plots, there was a feeling that the reader got entangled in this mess by virtue of the characters' machinations, not the author's. Before turning to the Florida-set crime stories that became his trademark, Elmore Leonard wrote Westerns. "3:10 to Yuma" and "The Tall T" were based on his work, as was Paul Newman's 1967 film "Hombre." Starting with "The Big Bounce" (made with Ryan O'Neal in 1969), Leonard changed his genre but kept many of the characteristics of a good Western. For example, "Mr. Majestyk" features a character protecting his "homestead" in much the same way as Jimmy Stewart or Randolph Scott would have. And of course, "Justified"'s Raylan Givens is the perfect synthesis of both genre halves of Leonard's work. Is there another author besides Shakespeare and Stephen King whose prolific output inspired so many movie adaptations? And by directors as varied as Abel Ferrara, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Budd Boetticher, John Frankenheimer, Barry Sonnenfeld and Burt Reynolds (whom I'm sure Leonard wanted to shoot after seeing "Stick"). The stories vary from tales of Hollywood to big money heists to sleazy exploitation. Regardless of quality—and it varied from film to film—the spirit of Dutch Leonard's prose was felt by the viewer. Since I was 17, Elmore Leonard has been my favorite writer. I told him so the one time I met him. It was at the now defunct and long-gone Waldenbooks on Exchange Place and Broadway in Manhattan. He was there to sign copies of "Rum Punch," which was eerily prescient since it was the basis of my favorite film adaptation of Leonard's work. He was a very nice man, patiently listening to the 22-year-old aspiring writer whose excited rambling violated Leonard's fourth rule of writing ("Keep your exclamation points under control!"). When I was done, he verified the spelling of my name, signed my book and wished me luck with my writing.I hadn't thought about that meeting in a while, but when I heard that Leonard died today, it rushed back to me with the immersive force of a good Elmore Leonard set piece. There was casual chatter, a cool as a cucumber experienced character, and a matter of fact, straightforward rendering of events. Nobody got shot, which is a good thing for me, but that didn't make my run-in with Mr. Leonard any less memorable. Rest in peace, Dutch.

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#171 June 12, 2013

Marie writes: Welcome to "Good Books", an online bookseller based in New Zealand. Every time you buy a book through them, 100% of the retail profit goes directly to fund projects in partnership with Oxfam; projects which provide clean water, sanitation, develop sustainable agriculture and create access to education for communities in need. To increase awareness of Good Books' efforts to raise money for Oxfam, String Theory (New Zeland based agency) teamed up with collaborative design production comany "Buck" to create the first of three videos in a digital campaign called Good Books Great Writers. Behold the award winning animated Good Books Metamorphosis.

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Trapped in Disney World: Poland's movie critic of the year and our Far-Flung Correspondent, who gets smacked HARD by Woody

Like Mary Poppins, Disney World is "practically perfect in every way." But what our jolly 'oliday with Mary didn't reveal were the slight imperfections alluded to by that phrase's quantifier: Practically perfect? I'll bet Ms. Poppins' small glitches were legendary when they occurred. Maybe her umbrella flights damaged the ozone layer, or her spoonfuls of sugar helped wreck Dick van Dyke's Cockney accent. I speculate about near-perfection because I've been to Walt's Orlando resort 19 times, and while most of these visits went off without a hitch, when things did go wrong, they went wrong in unforgettable, spectacular fashion.

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The Master: Who are you?

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I apologize for the lack of postings the last few weeks. A recent flare-up of heart problems left me with little energy to write. But as the emaciated old man in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" says: "I'm feeling much better!"

At one point well into Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" I thought that the movie was going to reveal itself as a story about the meaninglessness of human existence. But that notion was based on a single piece of aphoristic, potential-thesis-statement dialog that, like much else, wasn't developed in the rest of the movie. Which is not to say that "The Master" isn't about the meaninglessness of human life. The line, spoken by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the cult guru known to his acolytes as Master, is addressed to the younger man he considers his "protégé," a dissolute mentally ill drifter named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), and the gist of it is that the itinerant Freddie has as much to show for his life as somebody who has worked a regular 9-to-5 job for many years. The point being, I suppose, that for all Freddie's adventures, peculiarities and failures, he isn't all that much different from anybody else. Except, maybe, he's more effed-up.

(spoilers)

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Slapped by the Hand of Mother Nature

May Contain Spoilers

I've never been good with small talk. In those corporate conferences with high ceilings and manufactured friendships, I used to admire those high-speed networkers who spun small talk and smooth talk as they worked a room. I don't play golf. I don't drink booze. I'm a fair weather sports fan. If you were to stand alone in an elevator with me, you'd probably hear me breathe as I stared at the floor. Further, if you want to kill an otherwise lively conversation among a bunch of decreasingly sober corporate executives in ill-fitted khakis, sport coats, and crooked "Hi My Name is" name-tags, then make the mistake that I keep making: tell them that you're an expert on religion. The crowd in front of you will split apart faster than the Red Sea. And, perhaps that is why I was never invited by my colleagues to go on those weekend warrior trips, like the characters in John Boorman's forty year old "Deliverance" (1972). This is the story of four confident suburban businessmen looking to raft to the bottom of a river. Along the way, the experience pounds the hell out of them.

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Ebertfest 2008: Springing forward

Chaz Ebert introduces Timothy Spall (Rosencrantz) and Rufus Sewell (Fortinbras), both in town with the opening night attraction, a full-length (238-minute) 70 mm print of Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film of William Shakespeare's "Hamlet." (photos by jim emerson)

What is Ebertfest without Ebert? Fest? Kicking off the 10th Anniversary edition of Roger Ebert's (formerly Overlooked) Film Festival, Chaz Ebert passed along her husband's sentiments that, today, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time -- that is, in a bed in Chicago instead of in at the Virginia Theatrer in Urbana-Champaign. But, she reported him saying, you could also say the same thing about the day he tripped on the carpet and fractured his hip. Nobody's giving up hope, though. Chaz said they were consulting with doctors day by day and that she wouldn't be surprised if Roger wound up making it here after all before the fest is through. [UPDATE: The next day Roger and his doctors decided that making the trip wasn't worth the health risk.}

L to R (I hope): Jeff Nichols ("Shotgun Stories"), John Peterson ("The Real Dirt on Farmer John"), Eran Kolirin ("The Band's Visit"), Chaz Ebert, Timothy Spall and Rufus Sewell ("Hamlet"), Joan Cohl and Hannah Fisher ("Citizen Kohl"), William J. Erfuth and Joseph Greco and Adam Hammel ("Canvas").

Last year Ebertfest seemed to improve his rate of recovery exponentially, so we can only hope he'll make it to town. (For a sample of good wishes see the comments at his blog, Roger Ebert's Journal.)

So, the festival is just getting started tonight, but already I've learned some things just from talking to people and reading the program. For example:

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Burt-Man Begins; Black History Mumf

View image Burt Reynolds, Superstar.

The Burt-a-Thon (formally known as the Burt Reynolds-a-Thon) starts today over at Welcome to L.A.. The awesome Larry Aydlette, whom some of you may know from his blog-lives as That Little Round-Headed Boy and/or The Shamus, has set himself a truly daunting, awesomely ambitious task: For the entire month of February, he will... well, let Larry explain it himself: Obviously, Burt Reynolds didn't get the e-mail that he was supposed to go quietly away. But that's not the Burt Reynolds way. In his autobiography, "My Life," he begins with a quote from George Bernard Shaw: "I want to be thoroughly used up when I die. For the harder I work, the more I live."

View image Cosmo centerfold Burt, 1972.

So, I've decided to honor that work ethic and use his birth month for 29 straight days of Burt Reynolds coverage. This isn't a love-a-thon. In rewatching a lot of his movies, I've come to the conclusion that he didn't necessarily deserve to win the Oscar for the films that he and many critics thought he should have won them for. And he was never nominated for what seems to me to be his one indisputable masterpiece (although I doubt many critics will agree with me). But there are quite a few of his films that are very, very good, and deserve reconsideration.

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Altman: Life beyond the frame

"Nashville" 25th reunion. (photo by Jim Emerson)

When the doctor says you're through Keep a'goin! Why, he's a human just like you -- Keep a'goin!

-- Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) in "Nashville"

View image 24 of your favorite stars.

Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld so I can sigh eternally

-- Kurt Cobain, "Pennyroyal Tea"

It's true that all the men you knew were dealers who said that they were through with dealing every time you gave them shelter

-- Leonard Cohen, opening lyrics for "McCabe & Mrs. Miller"

View image "Nashville" 25th reunion. Note gigantic Oscar at right; Altman got his own, regular-sized one six years later. (photo by Jim Emerson)

"However, the cortex, which is dwarfed in most species by other brain areas, makes up a whopping 80 percent of the human brain. Compared with other animals, our huge cortex also has many more regions specialized for particular functions, such as associating words with objects or forming relationships and reflecting on them. The cortex is what makes us human."

-- John J. Ratley, M.D., "A User's Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain"

I'm not sure what, if anything, meaningfully connects these fragments to the passing of Robert Altman -- or his films, as alive now as they ever were -- but they were all things I encountered during a day spent thinking about Altman and, to my surprise, not wanting to speak out loud about him to anyone. I talked to my mother on the phone. She asked hesitantly, "Have you heard any news today?" "Yeah," I said, and changed the subject. What can I say that isn't trivial? (Rhetorical question, please.)

In this state of grief, nothing I'm writing or thinking about Altman is adequate, or even makes much sense, in large part because a whole moviegoing lifetime of engagement with his movies (beginning at age 15) has so profoundly shaped who I am and how I experience the world. Like hundreds, thousands (millions?) of cinephiles and cinephiliacs, I found life (and, paradoxically, shelter) in Robert Altman's movies. "Nashville" is my church, to which I return again and again for joy, insight, inspiration and sustenance. (I haven't written about it for years, but I also know that I'm almost never not writing about "Nashville.")

To this day, I am in some deep but irrational sense convinced that the characters in "Nashville" (even though I know they're played by 24 of my very favorite stars!) continue to exist outside the parameters of the movie itself. I've met and interviewed, for example, Ned Beatty, but there's Ned Beatty the actor and then there's Delbert Reese, who is someone else entirely. Delbert exists, imaginatively independent of the great actor (one of my all-time favorites) who inhabited him in "Nashville." (This is most unlike the other most-influential movie in my life, Roman Polanski's "Chinatown," made just the year before "Nashville," which is as "closed" a film as "Nashville" is "open." "Chinatown" ends so definitively that, "Two Jakes" aside, any life beyond the final frame is unthinkable.)

Right now I just want to share another fantastic memory: In 2000, I heard there was going to be a 25th anniversary reunion screening of "Nashville" at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. I'd moved back to Seattle by this time, but I bought tickets the moment they became available (for five bucks apiece) and went to LA for the event: My favorite movie, in a pristine print, in one of the finest movie theaters in the world, with most of those 24 favorite stars in attendance. It was... transplendent (as a Shelley Duvall character once said). I'll post an update with IDs later, but for now, see if you can identify the people onstage (taken with a now-primitive, but still beloved, Canon Digital Elph)

Pauline Kael's famous, ebullient review of "Nashville" here reminds us how exciting and innovative the movie was in 1975.

Principal population of "Nashville" after the jump:

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Tracing the image #2: The rebirth of 'The Descent'

Whenever you watch a movie, you're also probably watching just about every other movie you've ever seen. The images that flash by trigger associations in your brain -- some of them deliberately planted by the filmmakers, others not. Still, you've got all these images and memories banging around in your head and they're going to connect with something no matter what.

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As I wrote in my review of "The Descent" and subsequent postings, director Neil Marshall quite deliberately conjures up memories of other movies (especially, but not exclusively, horror movies) to evoke emotions and effects that have lingered in viewers' imaginations.

Take the "rebirth" of one character, who emerges from the ground coated in blood, like a baby from the womb. This image resonates with memories from a number of terrific movies. Before I get to a more detailed discussion, the usual **SPOILER ALERT** is in order -- not only for "The Descent," but several of its antecedents, including "Deliverance," "Carrie," "Evil Dead 2" and "The Third Man." OK, let's give these movies a hand!

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Telluride gets high marks

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- It's a combination of a film festival and a ski weekend, greatly improved by the absence of snow. Moviegoers at this year's 26th Telluride Film Festival can take the ski lift to the top of the mountain, but what they find there is a little unexpected: the Chuck Jones Cinema, named for the animator who brought Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote to life.

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Movie Answer Man (12/27/1998)

Q. I just saw the Golden Globe nominations, and "Babe" is nowhere in there. Not for best script, not for best direction, not for nothing. I consider this a scandal. I'd like Congress to investigate. (Don Hinkle, Green Village, NJ)

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Bold and beautiful show their Cannes-do spirit

CANNES, France -- There are no taxis to be had in the whole of Cannes. The hotel clerk, she throws up her hands in despair. One cannot walk all the way to the Moulin de Mougins, which is in the hills above town. Viola! Here is ze taxi! But it is ordered for Catherine Verret of the French Film Office. She, however, is also going to the Moulin, although first she must stop at the Martinez Hotel to see if Jeanne Moreau, the great film star, has found a ride.

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Director's talent makes 'Boogie' fever infectious

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Paul Thomas Anderson has made perhaps the best film of 1997, and at age 27 is getting the kind of attention no young director has had since Quentin Tarantino erupted. His "Boogie Nights," which follows a cast of colorful characters through six eventful years in the adult film industry, is the year's best-reviewed film - a hit at the Toronto and New York film festivals - and is now opening around the country.

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Movie Answer Man (07/14/1996)

Q. In your review of "Independence Day," referring to the gigantic alien space craft, you write: "an object that size in near-Earth orbit might be expected to cause tidal waves." Tidal waves, or tsunamis, are caused by sudden earth movement, not extraterrestrial objects. However, a craft one-fourth the mass of the moon, if at the same distance as the moon, would result in tides (not tidal waves) approximately 25% above normal--not fun but tolerable. If the mother ship were located one-half the distance of the moon, tidal influence of the ship would be equal to that of the moon. BUT, its orbital speed would be substantially faster, resulting in wild tides. The closer the object, the worse the effect. If the object were in close earth orbit, it wouldn't need "death rays" to destroy cities; since most major cities are seaports, they would be ravaged by wild tides. I suspect this is what you meant and it is a excellent point. (Richard George, San Jacinto, Ca.)

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The vying game

Hollywood has been waiting a long time to give Clint Eastwood an Oscar, and my hunch is, the wait is over. Eastwood's "Unforgiven," an elegiac Western about a retired gunfighter who pulls himself together for one final campaign, will win the best picture award when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gathers on the night of Monday, March 29.

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Once again, a 'Player'

There is the temptation to write this article from the obvious angle, which is that Robert Altman, the perennial Hollywood maverick and outsider, has skewered the establishment with his savage new comedy named "The Player." There would be some truth there.

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Ebert's Guide to Practical Filmgoing: A Glossary of Terms for the Cinema of the '80s

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The basic movie reference books are filled with definitions of terms like closeup and auteur theory. Nobody needs to know those words. What you need is Ebert’s Glossary of Terms for the Cinema of the 1980s. What follows is an attempt to compile such a list -- a practical, everyday guide to enhance your moviegoing pleasure, and help you categorize what you find on the screen.

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